Thursday, 16 September 2010

Fading Suns - Space Opera with Boundaries


      In a not so distant future (relatively speaking if we are comparing to other Space Opera settings such as Warhammer 40,000 and Dune) Humanity has conquered numerous worlds thanks to the gigantic space gates. However, as with all things, there is hubris and so worlds have been lost, technology forgotten and science and magic blur in a future that seems to be at the end of time.

      At the writing of this Red Brick are in charge of sorting out a 3rd edition of a game originally created by Holisitic Designs (Some may recognise the style of art and writing from White Wolf. You'd be correct as the excellent Bill Bridges of Mage: the Awakening put this baby together). This means my books are a copy of the defunct 1st edition and all my books in pdf form (and I printed these suckers out, thank the gods for university book binding). If you are lucky you can find some of the books for sale in FLGS or online. In Paris I almost got a French edition since the French are happily still printing new material for the game.

      So what is Fading Suns? For starters it is science fantasy. There are starships, giant jump gates (more recently seen in Stargate thanks to the Ori), a lack of faster than light travel save for these jump gates, demons, psionics and theurgy. You have ancient noble houses, a form of interstellar unified church, Dune like shield fighting, an Empire racked with infighting, intrigue and superstition, and a ancient guild of technology.

     What does this all mean in play and why do I like this? OK lets talk the system, the much debated Victory Point System. This looks like, feels like and works a little like the old Storytelling system pre-new World of Darkness. You have an attribute and skill stat. Add them, that's the target. Modify it and roll under on a D20. But the twist is the higher you roll, so long as it is under the target, gives you a greater degree of success. I really like this as it then has a system for raising and lowering the target number so that you can have a) more chance of success but less degree of success, or b) less chance for success but a greater degree of success. So the system favours risk. Now the only gripe is the lamentable critical failure, where a roll of 20 is a critical fail no matter what. Now one mod often seen to remove the 1/20 chance of this is to use a 2D10 roll instead, making a natural 20 less likely (1/100) and giving a smoother range of results.

     Character creation is equally more interesting with a form of career path system, where you choose to belong to one of the big three factions (church, nobles, guild) or the few alien races, and these in turn give you options on the character career progression. So for example you could be a noble, be you need to answer questions about the strata they were born into, how their school was, and what they did after that. All of these options mean you get access to some skills over others, before a final few points are given over to the player to distribute to even out the character. Now you can do this all by points and throw out the career paths, but of course having a speedy way to make characters is good.

      With the system out of the way what about the setting? Why not play Star Wars? Why not Play WH40K? Well Fading Suns does a few things right. It's not too far in the future, making it easy to grasp and getting into as a player. Plus the focus is on purely human characters, unlike Star Wars, so it has that Firefly feel, but where the Western is replaced with the Dark Ages. But the best things about the setting? THe mythology and the inherent boundaries that are present.

      Fading Suns works on the premise that the jump gates are ancient tech from a race that no longer exists. That makes that technology something to seek out. But also the gates are activated by keys, at least ones that humanity had created. And so there is this wonderful feeling of caravans in space where guild ships guide others through jump gates to the next world. The other thing about the setting is the mysticism and feeling of the end of times. Fading Suns has the jump gates, which allow transport from one star system to another, no matter how far apart they are in real space. So stargates then. Well the stars themselves, all stars, are dimming. Yes before they are meant to, and in a way that opposes the rules of relativity and how light travels in space and nuclear fusion.Mad eh? So of course the Church and other faiths have a reason for all this (sin and demons etc).

      What about the church? Well it seems all the old faiths of Earth combined when a man found the Universal Flame (God of some form) when travelling space. But, of course, the Church is split into rival factions and each has it's own twist on faith. Add into the mix other mystics, the faith of alien races, and the issue with jumping through gates and the experience you feel if not shielded, and you have the perfect situation for tales about faith, hope, demons, sin, and the very nature of the universe as miracles are uncovered and science, faith and magic clash.

      One thing that is important about Fading Suns is the limitations of the setting. The setting has a system of known jump gate routes and the linked worlds are the Empire. There are worlds beyond these that once were part of the larger known universe, but they have been forgotten, or war has led to them being shut off. So straight away the ST running the game has a setting to run and no fear of being dropped in the deep end and having to come up with world after world like in Star Wars (it was such a daunting task). You can still do it for lost worlds where you can go exploring, but the inherent limitations make this task more manageable. It also means the game lends itself well to various levels of gameplay, be it courtly on one world, or flying to others, or even going beyond the boundaries of known space. For all these reason I love the game and suggest if you are tired of those well known Sci Fi games then you should pick this up for something that feels more mature.

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