Upping Your Game: Fallout Through Abstraction

Welcome back to Upping Your Game, a glimpse into the minds of your GMs and storytellers trying their damnedest to improve the narrative experience without you noticing.

In the previous two articles on this topic, we discussed what is great about Fallout storytelling, narrative choice through non-combat interactions, and why tabletop gaming is such a great medium for it. We also explored the licensed tabletop game Fallout Wasteland Warfare. It’s interesting, but doesn’t quite fit what we are looking for.

See the previous articles: Part 1, Part 2.

Before we move on to my game suggestions, I have an honorable mention: Gamma World.

This game has a ton of flavor!

I would love to recommend this game as it has the right balance of comedy and nihilism and has really interesting game design with the incorporation of cards (that come in the core set) which I have always felt was a good way to lower the cognitive load of tabletop RPGs. However, there are two issues that keep me from doing so. The first is that while I own the seventh edition of the game, I still haven’t been able to get anyone to play it…

The other issue is that the game is currently out of print. But, as a proud owner of the game and one expansion, I think you should check it out if you can.

Now on to my actual suggestions.

No surprise to anyone.

Yes, yes. The fishman named Marsh suggests the Call Of Cthulhu RPG. Who could have guessed? Bear with me though. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG is my favorite table top RPG, not because of the Lovecraft bits, but because of its game design. I have never used a single monster or setting from the Cthulhu mythos when running this game. I play it because the character creation and skill system are simple and easy to teach. Also, the gameplay is balanced to discourage combat. It would take little to no effort re-skinning monsters and weapons to make a grim and engaging Fallout RPG with this system. Better still, because of the re-skinning, many monsters will seem alien to Call of Cthulhu fans as well. This means you could inject new life into the game if it is already a favorite.

As we discussed, some of the best set-pieces in Fallout 4 are horror-themed. I’ll come back to this point later, but with some research into the maps, encounters, and creatures of Fallout 4 I think you could easily recreate their effect using this system. Hell, I’ve even heard of people online using the poison system for Chaosium’s game for creating radiation effects. Could be a perfect fit.

For my second suggestion I’m going to go in a very different direction.

For those unfamiliar to the system, Fate is a setting neutral RPG system. The game system itself is meant to help create the rules, archetypes, and boundaries for what ever setting you want to play in. It is also primarily interested in collaborative story telling with mechanics that allow the GM and players some push and pull in the narrative by exchanging points to develop the story on more even terms.

Using this system, you can build your gameworld through Fate’s “Games Creation”, “Character Creation”, and “Aspects” systems. These process will boil the world’s setting, mechanics, and characters into quantifiable pieces and allow the GM and players to use them to build stories.

As we have been discussing, the key here is to replicate the feel of exploring a hostile world using creative problem solving and character interactions. Fate’s strongest points are in helping players craft narratives and impact the story being told. That is exactly what we have been looking for.

fallout helmet
But where do we go from here?

In my opinion, after selecting your preferred tabletop RPG the next step should always be the same: grab a game guide for one of the fallout games. Seriously, while Fate will benefit most from this, I think this will be an invaluable resource for any GM looking to build a Fallout world in any system.

I have the Fallout 4 game guide on hand but any of them will do. We will use the book to skin character traits using perks, build out encounters based on setpieces in the game, and develop characters and locations that feel more authentic to the series.

For example, when designing our Fate character, we can use Fallout 4’s perks as a way to develop their aspects. When creating a location full of characters and quest opportunities we can take the pages devoted to an area like Diamond city and transpose what we need into our game. Finally, for memorable quests, you could pull from areas like the the Dunwich Borers quarry for the maps, enemies, and payoff of your session.

Collaborative storytelling is a process that should involve the players as much as the GM. If the GM is trying to be unique for the sake of being unique, or writing more than you need to give the story a solid start, it is just wasted energy. Your mileage on that philosophy may vary but my point is, let the books in your arsenal do the heavily lifting for you and take as much or as little as you need to create a fun and memorable experience. Tropes exist for a reason and when used properly they help people connect with a story efficiently. That’s the reason we’re trying to play Fallout in the first place.

This whole process has inspired me to pull together my group for at least a one off session using these techniques. My prep-work will go like this: take the set pieces I like from the Fallout games I have played; figure out the core elements that make them work and assign them to distinct locations; transfer those locations onto a map of the city we live in and figure out how to use local history and legends to express story elements that I already know work; then use Fate to develop the connecting tissue with my players. Using our city we can create a unique vault and explore the urban legends and mysteries already present in our backyard. From that point on the players can explore what ever they want at their own pace, just like in a Fallout game, and by leaning on the game guide I won’t need to stay one step ahead of them.

The next Fallout 76 event sets up the Brotherhood of Steel - Polygon
Now I just need to convince people to sign up for this experiment…

It might take me a while to set of a game of this weird Fallout chimera but I’ll post my results when I do. In the mean time, I hope you have enjoyed this rambling trek through the wasteland with me. Let me know if you’ve tried to do something like this yourself or if you know another game system that would be a good fit. In the next series, I’m sure I’ll spend way too much time trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole.

Maybe I’ll find a use for all those chaff Magic The Gathering cards I have laying around…

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