Fvlminata: Armed With Lightning
Author: Thrysus Games (Jason E. Roberts and Michael S. Miller)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2003-04-04
Thyrsus Games represents Jason E. Roberts' venture into role-playing publishing, along with his co-designer Michael S. Miller. As I understand it, Jason has sought the Great Roman Role-playing Game for many years, and finally decided to go to it in his own way. In many ways, he's succeeded. The real shame is that the design and play success is being hamstrung economically in today's current, very messed-up industry situation.
Like several other games released in the last year, Fvlminata is best described as a well-realized setting with a colorful and perhaps-gimmicky resolution mechanic. I may be wrong, but lately there's been a slight trend toward taking one's very elaborate setting that probably saw a lot of GURPS, BRP, or Cyberpunk play over a long time, and slapping in a new system in there to order, all as part of a very scheduled, production-driven commercial effort. One of the side effects is that playtesting and the viewpoints of multiple groups are necessarily abbreviated due to making deadlines. It runs the risk of a distinct lack of system-baking. Other games which show some signs of the same problem include Godlike and Obsidian.
The other, more concrete, issue concerns the perils of relying on the traditional three-tier distribution system as the core of one's business success. 2002 was a tough year for publishers who promoted well, received strong pre-orders, and met their deadlines, all of which left them deep in debt. Why? Because although their games are indeed in distribution and in the stores, the money is not yet available "up the chain." Thyrsus Publishing is very successful on paper, but the actual profit is still pending. I think they and others should consider that something extra is needed to tie the end-users to the manufacturer, and to keep word of mouth coming to direct-sales in between the troughs, delays, and misunderstandings that plague the current system which moves product and money between publishers and stores.
This crisis is a real problem for a lot of companies right now. I strongly recommend that Thyrsus consider a PDF-approach to supplement sales, as that might sharpen up some immediate cash flow and keep the information flow strong between company and end-user. Fvlminata is a strong, distinctive game and I think those end-users are out there.
I think Fvlminata should get the all-time RPG award for the best presentation of a detailed, engaging, and usable setting for play. It is a great background: dense without being constraining, and usable without being contrived. Whether we're talking about values, economics, geography, religion, or customs, the text gave us exactly what we needed, raised all sorts of great in-game issues, left us interested and wanting more, and never left us hanging. A possible exception is the rather sketchy map of Rome, but a glance at a reference book not only solved the problem, but confirmed that the map in the game is, for what it shows, absolutely accurate.
I think everyone who reads the game is going to have a favorite piece or detail of Roman culture they'd like to know more about upon reading the game, not because it's treated inadequately, but because the text is so well-written and full of interest. It led us to run off and read several Roman history books to marvel at the culture. In our case, by the way, we were fascinated by the slaves in terms of marriage and wealth, as they present fascinating solutions and problems which don't correspond to our more familiar history at all. Oh, and I should definitely mention the beautiful, non-standard art in the book, most of it portraiture.
Rome as conceived and presented in the game is exceptionally well-built for intrigue, and I am convinced that that's pretty much what the game is best "about." Character creation includes a whole family and set of relationships, and since the social system, ethical codes, and possible conflicts of interest in the society are well-articulated and fascinating. By contrast, the combat rules are sufficiently bland (although functional) that "fight the barbarians" or "arena combat again" doesn't really appeal to the same degree.
In many ways, the relationship of setting to play in Fvlminata is the exact opposite of Godlike, in terms of how combat relates to the problems at hand. In the former, it's a means to an end, and in the latter, it's the end to which all else leads. Either way is good, and each game represents an excellent example for concentrating on its respective focus.
Fvlminata of course adds a McGuffin to the Roman setting, or rather, two McGuffins: magic and gunpowder. I find this puzzling, although we managed to work it out with some group discussion. The core of my problem is that I understand inserting one or the other, relative to the goals of an alternate-history setting, but not both.
If I'm reading the authors' text and their on-line discussion properly, they want gunpowder to be the special thing, and for the magic to be present as the Romans believed it to be present, as a verisimilitude mind-set thing. However, the rules-sets for the two things don't match these goals. Gunpowder and guns are treated very straightforwardly, with no special rules except for a damage-category. Their intent was to treat magic like normal, but it ends up being laborious (with its own subsystem), expensive, and heavily layered. It's also meticulously laid out in paths, sects, philosophies, factions, and social roles. If you want to do magic, you'll have lots and lots more rules, options, pathways, and general system-stuff to play with than you will for the guns and gunpowder.
Our game used both McGuffins, and we chose to play in Rome proper, specifically regarding the Circus Maximus and chariot-racing. As suggested in the book, character creation spurred the creation of a stable of NPCs, which I then linked together across a web of politics and gambling centered on an upcoming race. Scenario design worked very much like I used to do for Champions, way back when: the players were to encounter a problem I posed for them and then wriggle and struggle to get out of it with some kind of net advantage. More about what happened is presented below; my present point is that the setting material in the book worked spectacularly well for getting us pumped about the characters and their place in the society.
Well, you pick the character's Social Rank, which absolutely rocks due to the great setting material. This step yields all kinds of gold during a group character creation session. Attributes come next, with some points to shove around, and then one's occupation.
The next step is to choose skills and their various scores, modified slightly by one's patron god, and here's where point-layering kicks in hard, with many levels of prerequisites for skills, and for magic especially. One's character's skill structure turns out to be an important element of PC creation and improvement, and it requires a lot of attention. I think it's fair to say that if you don't enjoy this sort of character construction and improvement at all, then Fvlminata will present some problems.
After that come the Humors, which are personality descriptors that are way too much fun even though they're just adjectives, as they are cleverly integrated with attribute values. Unfortunately the table is a bit of a bitch to read; although its setup logic is apparent, it's not very usable. It assumes that you've followed the order presented: social rank, attributes, occupation, skills, and so on. Some of my group were irked at this point, as they preferred to work from personality-out, and I think they would have liked the Humors step to be more integrated with attributes from the start.
Finally, one is supposed to come up with a family and a lot of supporting NPCs, although I think this too should have been integrated into earlier steps, as I betcha lots of players drop it as soon as the numbers stop, and they're worrying about which weapon does the most damage rather than how many sisters their characters have.
Speaking of both layering and Social Rank, NPC creation is laborious in Fvlminata, not perhaps so much as Army Ants or Obsidian, but comparable with GURPS, Godlike, or The Riddle of Steel.
As described above, we used a situation-based framework to set up character creation, which allowed for an easy flow into prepping a scenario full of scheming characters. I recommend this highly for the game, because otherwise, it might well fragment across the Roman social landscape rather than spin a web across it.
Considering how well that web worked for us, I do not at all understand the text suggesting that player-characters should come from within a narrow range of social ranks. The setting, rules, and concepts all absolutely beg for class-spanning, class-conflict stories arcing across Rome and the Empire itself, providing ample opportunities for individuals of different classes to be caught in the same webs of intrigue. Slaves in particular are embedded into each of the social ranks, representing practically the full span of money and power among themselves. Perhaps this paragraph stems from the idea that player-characters are all supposed to be of the same "who can order whom" ranks, as in the military, but again, that strikes me as assuming quite a lot about the limitations of role-players.
Actions and dice
The order of action follows Social Rank, which carries a hell of a lot of self-referential or even satirical content on the setting. However, there isn't a smidgeon of plausibility involved or even suggested. One embraces this rule in full knowledge that it's purely thematic. Therefore, I'm not surprised upon reading or hearing about howls of rage from players who were led to believe they were playing gritty-realistic Rome w/gunpowder and expected all the rules to be based strictly on in-game kinetics. We rolled with it and enjoyed the theme issue, but speaking in terms of rules-philosophy, it's definitely an off-type choice for combat mechanics, and not at all consistent with, for example, the detailed rules regarding infection and healing.
The skills are defined a little differently from most games' versions, as a given skill covers anything to do with the subject: "Pilum," for instance, is not just shooting a gun, but knowing how to care for it, about the range and history of gun design, and anything else to do with guns in use or in theory. I like this quite a bit; it expands the skill list into a vast number of in-play applications rather than leaving it as a simple limited catalogue of fixed actions. However, it's a little hard to reconcile this kind of skill definition with the Attribute + Skill resolution system, as discussed below.
The text is a bit confusing about how dice-resolution and numbers relate to the game-world, because on the one hand, several tables and paragraphs describe exactly what each skill value means in terms of competence, yet on the other hand, other text states that dice should be used only for very uncertain situations, which is to say, handle as much of play as possible through dialogue and agreement (Drama) rather than dice. I decided to take this text as meaning, "Don't roll if nothing interesting seems to be at stake," which isn't stated as such.
When it comes down to it, Fvlminata uses "tali," dice with four values: 1, 3, 4, and 6. They're eight-sided, but there are two of each value, making them effectively four-sided. They're always rolled in fours, but they're used in two ways, one for success/failure resolution, and one for the effect-outcome.
1. For success vs. failure, you add up the values just as in many RPGs, for a range of 4-24, hoping to get equal to or under the total of the relevant attribute + skill.
2. For degree of effect, you roll again and read the results from a table based on Roman gambling, which is much like poker (matches and straights).
The basic resolution roll has some interesting features. Since 2 and 5 are missing from the 1-6 range, you get a bell curve with equal sides, i.e. not skewed. It's essentially a 4d4 roll with an expanded numerical range (4-24 rather than 4-16) but not an expanded magnitude (under the curve), and squeezed very high in the middle (very tall spike at the mode/median = 14). The target number is the character's skill + attribute, and the high spike results in an almost-binary outcome - if the total is below 14, it fails very often, and if it's above, it succeeds very often. Totals above or below 14 aren't greatly affected by modifiers unless those modifiers bump the total past the spike. Fvlminata gets a bit of flak for a high failure-rate, but I think people are bringing expectations based on continuous-range dice (4d6) values into play, especially to low-middle totals, and not considering the high end of the picture as well as the low one.
The curve has two important consequences.
1. The basic roll's target number is based on the acting character's skill + attribute sum, each of whose pips are equal in value toward this sum. However, Attributes are more important, because they also provide high Effect Modifiers to the Effect roll. This makes the "skills competency" tables in the text, which list what each skill-value is good for in a wide variety of ways, nonsensical. You have two guys with 5 in something, hence are really good according to the table, but this guy has Attribute 7 and the other guy has Attribute 14 - and the nature of the curve renders the one far inferior to the other, for both rolls (success/failure and, if successful, how much). Does the table mean that the guy with Attribute 7 and Skill 6 is more skilled, in terms of what he may attempt, than the guy with Attribute 14 and Skill 2? If so, then what's the point of Difficulty Modifiers based on the task at hand, which are also listed?
2. The possible sums of skill + attribute gradation are evenly distributed: 9, 10, 11, 12, 13... etc. However, the possible values of the basic resolution roll are not evenly distributed, even less so than usual for a bell curve system, due to the "missing" values of 2 and 5. Therefore character construction conceals some important breakpoints, such that buying either skill or attribute such that your total goes from (e.g.) 9 to 10, does not carry much weight at all. Character creation therefore tends to optimize around the "good" values for these totals; skills are either very effective or so ineffective as not to be worth their points.
Now to discuss the second roll (degree of Effect), which is practically a resolution system all by itself. As I mentioned before, this is basically a system of matches and straights. If you roll any matched values, the more matches, the better, up to four of a kind; a straight (1, 3, 4, 6) also ranks high. Interestingly, a single 6 (or "VI") negates any matches, making for a nicely-skewed curve for rarer high values.
I may be wrong, but the system reads as if the authors decided on a (skill + attribute) vs. (dice pip total) system, and then had to shoehorn the talus system on top of that somehow. I think the talus system is interesting enough, however, to merit rewriting some of the numerical aspects of character creation to suit it better, without the interference of skill-attribute summing, which at this point is the same kind of uncritical assumption that rolling attributes and buying stuff was earlier in RPG history.
The first question is, why not use the talus/gambling metric as the basic resolution system? It's easy to learn and quite fun. This way, you'd still have two rolls (effect/degree), but each would be read using the tali system.
A different, vaguer alternative is to keep the current two-reading split, but don't roll again - just read the Effect from the first roll. At first glance, it doesn't translate quite right, but I think some possibilities might be worked out.
The metagame mechanics (or not)
The game presents several good ways or angles of "attack" to modify the basic resolution system, but when all is said and done, none of them are really metagame features so much as reflections of a highly nuanced setting.
- Humor points are a re-roll mechanic, a minor metagame fix to keep the near binary-system skewed a little towards success in the crunch. Interestingly, characters start with either three or six Humor points per session, and they do not carry over to new sessions. They actually have nothing to do with the actual character's Humors' content.
- The actual Humors, on the other hand, provide floating bonuses and penalties, depending on the situation. Again, I don't really see this as metagame mechanic so much as an in-game obsession descriptor as in Unknown Armies. They're entertaining and they make lots of sense in the ebb and flow of play, but they lack, for instance, the "final chapter" or looming presence of the Devil in Dust Devils.
- Pietas and Divine Intervention provide a one-time bonus mechanic, which, depending on how you look at it, is either an in-game feature that plays a stronger modifying role or a metagame mechanic with lots of Color; I lean toward the latter.
The kewl stuff
In general, I'm not thrilled about the McGuffins, mainly because of the system's magic in terms of its context with gunpowder or in terms of points. In regard to context, specifically its comparison with the other McGuffin, magic carries a hell of a lot more weight. In our multiple sessions, guns were brandished only twice and never fired, whereas magic was used fairly regularly throughout. In regard to points, magic is phenomenally expensive and complex, requiring at least a dozen skills through three or four layers of prerequisites, as well as points spent on spells themselves (also with prerequisites among the spells), and also utilizing a unique secondary step of the skill/difficulty system.
I do love the magic section's setting-content and its Color, and I think it's significant that the player who chose a venefica character concept stated that she wasn't interested in having the "spellcaster character" so much as enjoying the "Roman witch" social role. This led me to think that I think that the magic system as such could be jettisoned and simply handled as an especially colorful version of the Influence system.
Here's an example. A player-character conjured up the ghost of an NPC's father to get some advice. We played this with the full rules: points, skill rolls, the works, and I provided some spectre-ly, fatherly advice that set up a bunch of events of play, in terms of how it impacted the NPC's behavior. So far, so good. Then I was thinking, wait a minute, what if the whole thing had been done as the player-character influencing the NPC directly using the Influence rules? I'd still get to play the spectre and say what it "says," as far as the characters are concerned. I'd get to have fun with describing it in such a way that the characters are totally convinced that the shade of her father spoke, but the players well know that the effects are really just character-on-character psychology. Pretty neat, consistent with the stated philosophy of the role of magic in ancient Rome, and the level of self-reference is no more freaky than the initiative/order system, after all.
I can imagine playing non-kewl Fvlminata very easily, with neither literal magic nor gunpowder at all, and it includes some real attractions for me, much in the way that "a western" works for Dust Devils far better than "a western plus zombies" or "a western plus occultism" does not.
Speaking of the Influence system
This is, I think, going to be the key draw of Fvlminata aside from the initial kewl-factor of "Rome with gunpowder." Both my group and Jake Norwood's discovered Influence to be the most important and engaging feature of play.
Here's how it works. The "influencer" player actually states three possible general ways for the target to react positively to the influence involved, before rolling the basic success/failure. If that's successful, the degree-of-effect roll gives the possible range of the three that the "influenced" player gets to pick from. Clearly, the better the degree-of-effect roll, the narrower the range.
The thing to realize is that all three outcomes represent the result of a successful Influence attempt. None of them will occur if the basic Influence roll fails in the first place. So all of them represent versions of success. Say Flavius is using his Oratory skill to convince Bruttia Egnatia to stop embezzling funds from the Senatorial budget. He adds his Pietas and Oratory pips, and states three ways she could be convinced: Neutrality, Concession, and (full) Agreement.
These might be, in order ...
Again, the range of these options for Bruttia Egatia's player is only valid insofar as Flavius' player makes the Influence roll in the first place. He doesn't even state them if he fails it, in which case Bruttia Egnatia doesn't stop embezzling at all and is free to react as her player sees fit. If he makes it, then he states the three possible reactions, rolls again, and checks out the degree-of-effect table to see what options Bruttia Egnatia's player gets to choose from.
When two characters are using Influence on one another simultaneously, this can get interesting - the rules are quite clear about how only one of them will actually succeed, but if you don't get the initial success/fail concept for one roll, then trying to play and arbitrate the mutual attempts is impossible. Based on discussions so far, it's kind of hard to get people to realized that opposed Influence rolls will never be mutually successful - only one of the characters will actually succeed. Therefore there's no need to make the two proposed sets of reactions be compatible in any way.
I've skimped in discussing the degree-of-effect table's use in the Influence system, because the text in the first edition includes several halting if's-and-but's that have to be interpreted by individual groups. And unfortunately, I and the players in our group do not like the new Influence outcome table for second edition (currently available at the website) at all. We unanimously agreed on the following:
The crucial issue concerns which characters can use Influence on which other characters; the text and examples are inconsistent about this in the first edition. Our group as well as Jake's gleefully embraced such an application, being happy to discuss appropriate outcomes during the resolution process. Clearly, at least one of the Fvlminata authors is opposed to this application entirely, as the second edition apparently specifies that only NPCs are viable targets for the influence rules.
Oh yes. One might even consider adapting the Influence rules to a variety of situations including combat and making it the only resolution system for play ...
The reward system is twofold: (1) Humor Point replacement, which isn't really a "reward" so much as an ongoing, neutral metagame buffer for failed resolution, and (2) skill improvement, which are not linked in any way. As far as I can tell (and maybe I'm mis-remembering), there's no attribute improvement at all. My overall impression is that character improvement really isn't the issue so much as modelling the character's ongoing adjustment and "fit" to the society as he or she proceeds through play.
One neat piece of the reward system awards a point to each player for skill-improvement for skills that contribute to the theme of each session. In our game, after the first session, the players improved, respectively, Coin, Customs (Patrician), and Knowledge (Circus Maximus) for their theme skills; after the second, they improved (in the same order) Seduce, Trick, and Pilum. Just looking these over illustrates a lot about the flow of play and topics in our game, with the first one being about maneuvering and situating one's character in various conflicts, and the second being about getting embroiled for real.
Fvlminata is close to a pure Simulationist design, of the High Concept sort. All sequential-resolution, all prereq'd and point-structured. Fortune-at-the-End, although a bit less so for Influence. Yet it has a couple of features that need some tweaking during play, or are otherwise (at least) unusual for the pattern of most of the game. Here's a list of stuff to consider.
The majority of the games' rules and text are solid Simulationist. For example, the extensive attention given to layered prerequisites for skills and especially for magic is a hallmark of very committed Simulationist play of the GURPS tradition, such that the process of character creation becomes, itself, the Setting/System in action. The step-by-step "freeze frame" approach to complex resolution, the infection rules, and much more all work together to produce a High Concept design that holds together much better than most.
Then, in the middle, Humors' impact on play itself has a lot of potential; we found that conflict resolution gained a lot more weight when they came into play. However, their effects are confined mainly to bonuses and penalties, and it seems they could have been integrated with the Influence rules a tad more in some way. So how they affect the GNS goals is harder to ascertain, although I'd lean toward the Sim side.
Also in the middle, the Influence rules bear some special attention. What Influence really is, is shared Author Stance. Although it would certainly be a powerful Narrativist technique in combination with other features of a game, its presence here isn't in that category. Why? Because the Influence rules are so ambivalent about how they're integrated and used, especially in terms of whether player-characters are viable targets either by the GM or by other players, as well as the confusing text about the GM overriding the results at whim. Basically, as written, they're too customizable, such that what the Influence rules "are" or what they facilitate cannot be answered from the text. A given group will read and use them in a particular way, which could be analyzed in GNS terms, but since the first-edition rules as written must be so customized, they aren't "anything" all by themselves.
And then, over in the "doesn't smell so Sim" side of things, the order-of-action Social Rank rules aren't well-integrated with the rest of the causal mechanics of the game. Again, it's a neat idea and very enjoyable if you buy into it, but it does break the Sim-verisimilitude of the physically-oriented side of things.
And finally, the text yields scattered bits of what I can only call timid-virgin Narrativism throughout, both in system and text. Here's where a faint whiff of difficulty shows up; when I encounter this in a game text and start getting ready for play, I have either to abandon it or nourish it. It can't be let it stand as is because play becomes problematic, leading to "how do we interpret that" discussions at the table.
For example, I can't help but note how close character creation comes to Sorcerer-style Kickers. Given the motivations, goals, personality descriptors, and relationships, the characters are damn close to being in motion when play begins. Both Jake's group and, if I understand correctly, the group run by one of the authors, simply 'ported the Sorcerer description over. However, as written, the text never quite comes out and says that the fabula is an emergent property of the characters' own situations as written by the players. If I make up a character who is "about X," what does that have to do with the fabula to be played?
The game text answers with this discussion of character motivations during play:
Using motivations wisely is vital in making your players feel that they are actively affecting the outcome of the adventure and not merely an audience watching your fabula unfold.
All right, let's break this down. What's meant by "making them feel"? Does it mean that they are "merely an audience" etc, but shouldn't feel as if they are? Or does it mean that they are indeed driving what happens through their characters' motivated decisions (as made by the players), with the GM basically providing bass-beat through NPC action and events in the setting? It really can't be "either" or "both."
The included scenario reflects the uneasy shifting among these two directions of play. On the one hand, there's a smuggling plot that threatens the very safety of Rome, and our heroes are on the spot. On the other, the characters all have fascinating family and back-story conflicts, some of which require (and reward) careful reading of their descriptions and Humors. Which is the conflict? Which has to "give" in order for the conflict to get its emotional attention? A person's answer to these questions will reveal a lot about how a lot of the rules are about to be Drifted, or at selectively interpreted.
This and similar text regarding the origin of the fabula itself and its ending are clearly locked in death-grip with The Impossible Thing, which is in my opinion an improvement over embracing it, which is what's normally observed in story-heavy gaming texts. The ongoing tug-of-war in Fvlminata reminds me of The Dying Earth, in which the authors are leery of people's ability to get it, hence a bunch of qualifiers get layered onto each point, which neither eliminate the need to get it nor make play more fun for people who do. Sooner or later, I think, the game text must choose whether it's pushed the envelope or not, and be done with it. As it stands, Fvlminata is forced into a little bit of Drift in order to play.
Fortunately, it Drifts real easy. For Narrativist play, character creation is already one small step away from Kickers. If in addition the group abandons the Illusionist text of scenario design, focuses on the text emphasizing protagonists' decisions, and disconnects the Humor Points from Skill Points during character creation (and perhaps even abandons the points altogether), the system becomes quite useful for this mode of play. You'd still have to invest in a shared Premise, but the setting just reeks of this sort of conflict.
For unequivocal Simulationist play, on the other hand, the Drift is even quicker, hardly Drift at all. One would use the family element of character creation for Melodramatic Hooks and follow the Illusionist implications in the scenario text. Play would focus on conspiracies and threats to Rome which happen to put the player-characters at risk.
Other stuff, like using the Influence freely among player-characters, sticking with the listed prerequisites, whether you like the Social Rank ordering system, can be seasoned to taste regarding the preferences of the group. None of these techniques really push a given GNS mode, but how they're agreed-upon certainly will.
There's not much more to say, except that overall, like Obsidian, Little Fears, and The Riddle of Steel, Fvlminata is a beauty of a game in terms of feel, play, and vision, especially because the setting/atmosphere inspires the imagination and provides rich conflicts, without becoming an exercise-in-itself.