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…

Upping Your Game: Fallout with Proprietary Dice

Fallout Wasteland Warfare

Welcome back to Upping Your Game, the series where I take a basic idea for improving a game and then wallow in the concept until I either go mad or strike gold. In the last article, I started talking about how you could bring the joys of the game Fallout to your gaming table. If you haven’t read the first part you can find it here: Fallout With Friends.

As I mentioned in the first article, a friend gave me the idea for this topic. What I didn’t mention is when he suggested it, I happened to have an idea already brewing in the back of my mind. You see, back in the before times when we traveled freely and conventions were not a half remembered dream, I had picked up this lovely text on a weekend gaming holiday:

Fallout RPG

I don’t know about you, but I tend to buy games and gaming accessories in binge sessions. I get a big pile of stuff and then slowly consume it before suddenly, months later, binge-ing all over again. I’m not proud to admit it but there is a chance that, if not for this series, this book may never have been read. Because it will be important later, I spent roughly $35 (USD) on the book.

Now, in preparation to discuss this topic, I finally had an excuse to crack the book open. However, when I began reading it, doubt crept into my mind. Had I made a mistake?

Fallout RPG Example
The hell is all this?

Strange dice, pictures with detailed painted miniatures, references to character cards, etc. This isn’t a stand alone RPG – it’s an add on to another game. So I did some research and found this:

Modiphius Entertainment B07GB5GRV6 Fallout: Wasteland Warfare ...
Add $78 to the tally.

So I bought the starter set because I’m a sucker and also because the minis looked very nice (more on that later). It arrived a couple of weeks later and I could finally test this product for what I originally intended. When I opened the box and started working it, I began having doubts again.

It has a lot of pieces, there are measuring sticks of various lengths, lots of proprietary dice (meaning they cannot be used in any other game), tons of little cardboard tokens, multiple books, and the aforementioned minis. It’s a lot to take in and my test players were very skeptical of it.

Just to explain our starting point Fallout: Wasteland Warfare is a skirmish level wargame. That means small groups of miniatures are used in turn based measured combat. Thus the dice, measuring sticks and bits. That was neither what my players signed up for or a good fit for my original goal. It is by definition designed with combat in mind, not collaborative storytelling.

As I have stated on multiple occasions, I don’t do reviews anymore. However, I feel like I should point out that Fallout Wasteland Warfare is, at the very least, a perfectly competent wargame. Our test games were fast, easier to understand, and most importantly fun. Though, it isn’t what I’m looking for when it comes to collaborative storytelling.

The rules are extremely crunchy. Even as an RPG, it is built off of a wargame’s rules. As such the tendency will always be to express the story through combat. This is an issue I have with D&D from time to time, but it is even more prominent here. It is faithful expression of the modern Fallout games, an action game with light RPG mechanics, but that isn’t what we’re looking for.

I do think that a full campaign of this could be a blast though. If you had access to the full game, the RPG book, extra minis for enemies, terrain and a group of players looking for a wargame with light RPG mechanics. But I think you can see the problem there. As a wargame, this is about average price. A small warband to play the game with could cost between $50 and $100. For Warhammer fans, that seems pretty sweet. However, as an RPG, it only works when you use the wargamming sets, each of with costs $50 to $100. Each type of enemy costs as much or more than most RPGs do to play and this price will only increase the longer you play, because you can’t play it without the extra bits. You need the character cards, the item cards, the new minis and accessories.

All of these factors really limit the accessibility of this game as an RPG: compelexity, game-play focus, and price. Worst of all, at least within the narrow focus of this series, none of these factors add to the story telling experience. The debate as to whether minis or theater of the mind makes a game more immersive wages on. I like both, but minis alone are not enough to sell me on this as an RPG I would develop a campaign for.

Fallout: Wasteland Warfare - Wasteland Creatures: Mirelurk Bundle
Probably still going to buy these Mirelurks though…

So we hit a dead end with the licensed games but are there another options? Tune in for part 3 where we’ll explore some alternate gaming systems that might be a better fit. At the very least, I guarantee they will be less expensive…

Upping Your Game: Fallout With Friends

Fallout Wasteland Warfare RPG

Welcome to Upping Your Game – a source for tips and tricks to telling better stories at the table. With this series of articles, we will be exploring different ways to experience the wastelands of Fallout with friends. This was a suggestion from a friend so I’ll start with a short explanation.

A few months ago, I was picking some brains for ideas for this series. I told my friends I was going to be writing about story-telling through gaming and asked what topics I should discuss. One of them gave me this little gem: “You should figure out how to make Fallout 76 good!”

Clipart Sad Fallout Vault Boy
Shots fired!

Now, I don’t want to go and disparage Fallout 76. A good portion of the world has already done that and I’m not really into beating dead, irradiated horses. Besides, I haven’t played it. I looked at it and recognized it wasn’t for me. However, the idea stuck in my craw. Lots of people were disappointing in Fallout 76 because they wanted to explore the wasteland with friends. There is definitely a desire to make something like this work, so why didn’t it?

Well, again, I didn’t play it. Though the general consensus, beyond technical and game-play issues, was that the storytelling was not engaging. Most players blamed the lack of NPCs, but I think the issues lies deeper than that. I think it is the same issue holding back Fallout 4. There are tons of options, customization, stats and perks, but none of them impact the story. A character with a low intelligence has all the same dialogue options as a character with high intelligence, the branching narrative is simple at best, and the character’s over all impact on the world is minor. Agency is at the heart of storytelling in Fallout and the way missions and choice has been implemented in the new games is surprisingly linear.

This is not to say these games don’t have their moments. There are some surprisingly effective horror set-pieces in Fallout 4 and I have heard that some of the log-based quests in Fallout 76 are very engaging. However, these are all examples of linear storytelling. Linearity isn’t bad, it’s just not what many people are looking for in a game like this. The excitement surrounding the announcement and release of The Outerworlds shows how rabid gamers are for narrative choice in their RPGs.

So, how do we solve this problem? Beyond getting Obsidian to make the next Fallout game, I think the answer is to change mediums. Moving to a tabletop RPG would solve both the desire to play with a group and give the players far more agency in the wasteland. But this opens up a new question; what system do we use? In my next article we will start with the most obvious option: licensed products.

Fallout Wasteland Warfare Tabletop RPG book
I hope you brought your wallet…