Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Faith Requires Faith

At some point in the future, mankind’s desire for resources drove society into near perpetual war, followed by collapse, and then tribalism. Mankind only reached the stars when the skies opened, an alien species known as the Corvo dropped onto the planet, established a base, and took humans back as genetically sterile mercenaries. They serve as soldiers in short, sharp deadly engagements in between being kept in cryogenic suspension. Their masters, the Corvo, are an insectoid-like species that has adapted to life in zero gravity, having shifted in their billions to a Dyson sphere constructed of spaceships that continues to grow. Adherents of the radical free market, their traditional enemies, the Iz’kal, are aquatic mammals capable of communicating with each other in a vast hive mind via a hyperlink, who embrace efficiency and state control to an equally radical degree. Other known species include the Raag, aggressive, but honourable clansmen who come from an ice world and use spaceships of ice to raid, search, and trade for goods and supplies to return to their home world. Lastly, the Ravagers consist of genetically acquisitive hives travel from world to world. The stars were reached not by Faster Than Light starships, but by accessing a network of wormholes called the Labyrinth, whose extent remains unknown. Mankind’s arrival upon this galactic stage took place three hundred years ago.

This is the set up for FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG, a Science Fiction RPG originally published in Spanish by Burning Games and then published in English following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Or at least it probably is, because FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG has a number of problems, the first of which is a lack of accessible background or future history. This is a pity because FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is an attractive package, with superb artwork, a solid set of card driven mechanics, and an attractive set of components. These components consist of character sheets in thick cardboard into which can be slotted tokens for a character’s attributes and skills, affinity and favoured God, tech, bio, and Faith upgrades; Player Decks and Equipment Decks for both the players and the GM; and an NPC Deck for the GM. All of these come in rich, fully painted colour artwork, that do much, much more than the given background to evoke a far future alien setting. Now the background is more along the lines of the following, which is taken from the Kickstarter page for FAITH, but which is not replicated in the core rules, which only serves to make the RPG if not inaccessible, then at least obtuse.
“In FAITH, Gods live side by side with technology and bio experimentation inside the Labyrinth, a gigantic web of wormholes that connects the universe. Meanwhile, a mutant menace silently devours all worlds in its path, rapidly evolving. Welcome to the Universe of FAITH.
None of the species of FAITH have fulfilled the dream of comprehending the vastness of the Universe. It is still a place of wonder, a vast, dark pool of which very little is known, with only a small fraction charted. Only two species, the Corvo and the Iz’kal, are capable of opening wormholes by using enormous amounts of energy. However, they cannot decide where these wormholes will take them and their exits appear to be totally random.
Both species found the Labyrinth, a natural web of wormholes, and explored it from different exits unaware of each other, conquering and mining dozens of systems before coming face to face. Now they fight a cold war for its control, racing to conquer as many exits as they can before the other.”
Notably the opening sentence of this description is what marks FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG—“In FAITH, Gods live side by side with technology and bio experimentation…”—that and of course the game’s title. Most Science Fiction RPGs either tend to ignore religion, certainly as being intrinsic to a player character, or opt for monotheism, or set it in the very far future after some kind of disaster. GDW’s Traveller is an example of the first, Holistic Design’s Fading Suns an example of the second, and TSR, Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, an example of the third. Not so FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG, where gods and thus faith are part of the setting and the mechanics. Five are described. Ergon favours selflessness and happiness, Kavliva values strength and ambition, Vexal favours freedom and respect for individuality, Hexia values the pursuit of knowledge for the common good, and Ledger favours individualism above and the chaos it can reap. Of the five only Ledger does not have cults organised around his worship. Anyone who embodies the commandments of one of these gods may be granted gifts or Divine Upgrades and become a Soulbender. 

Now exactly how there came be gods in the setting of FAITH and how they came to be first encountered is never explored in FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. Although they remain intangible, proof of their existence lies not just in the faith that their worshippers have in them, but also in the favours they grant. Especially to their soulbenders.

A character is defined by six attributes and ten skills. Of the attributes, ‘Link’ represents a character’s ability to understand and interact with technology as well as limiting the number of Tech Upgrades he can have, whilst ‘Faith’ defines his ability to connect or communicate with the Gods, his conviction in those Gods, and limits the number of Divine upgrades he can have. The skills are fairly broad, so Cunning covers all deception and stealth-related actions; Hacking covers breaking into electronic devices and computers as well as protecting them against such attempts; and Profession covers everything related to a character’s job, from knowledge to pay, but not an actual skill. So a character with the Piloting and Medical skills might take Emergency Medical Technician as his Profession or Mercenary if he had the Ballistic, Close Quarters Combat, and Athletic skills.

Each character also has an Affinity. This is for one of the four suits in each Player Deck—Nature, Urban, Space, and OS (Operating System)—representing where the character grew up, was trained, and so on. Of the five races available, the Corvo start the game cortex connector Tech Upgrade and can connect it to a device via their tails. The Corvo also have an innate Affinity for Space. The Iz’kal are amphibious and via a biological Hyperlink can connect to and form hive minds, although some lose this ability through trauma. Humans are resourceful and so hold more cards from their Player Decks in their hand and are always at an advantage when taking athletic actions. The Raag are simply large and tough, whilst the Ravagers can have more Bio Upgrades, can change them, and scavenge them by eating other characters. They also possess a natural LinkWave to communicate with each other, but this can be hacked. Ravagers come in a variety of forms, from Infiltrators and Ironskins to Swarmers and Technos.

Characters can also have upgrades. These can be Tech Upgrades, Bio Upgrades, or Divine Upgrades. Bio Upgrades available number twenty and include Echolocation, Improved Build, Powered Reflexes, Tissue Regeneration, and so on. Tech Upgrades number just twelve and range from Atomic Balance and Bionic Arm to Optical Disruptor and Shielded Skull. Basically, Bio Upgrades are bioware and Tech Upgrades are cyberware, both familiar from fiction and other RPGs, but Divine Upgrades are granted by one the five gods in FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. They include Extended Awareness and Phantom from Kaliva; Gravity Shift and Planeswalker from Vexal; Altered Reality and Future Sight from Hexia; and so on. There are a total five Divine Upgrades for each of the five gods. Characters do not necessarily begin play with Divine Upgrades, but must roleplay adhering to the commandments of their chosen god in order to earn them. 

To create a character, a player selects a Species, an Affinity, a God, and sets his Skills—one at 5, one at 4, two at 3, two at 2, three at 1, and the  last three at 0; distribute ten points between his character’s Attributes and Upgrades; and lastly, purchase equipment. Once done these elements are represented by tokens that can be slotted into the character sheet. A character’s gear—smart suits, robots, armour, weapons, and more—are each represented by a card taken from the Gear Deck.

Our sample character is Ottilie Creagan, an Earth native who signed on with a mercenary company, the Leung Action Group, employed by the Corvo. She has been trained as an Emergency Medical Operative to work combat and/or high risk situations. Although the Leung Action Group has combat contracts with the Corvo, she is currently assigned to an Emergency Rescue Services contract in Tiantang, the near-Dyson Sphere that is home to the majority of the Corvo.

Ottilie Creagan (Specialist/1)
Affinity: Space
God: Ergon

Agility 02 Constitution 02 Dexterity 03
Link 02 Mind 02 Faith 02

Physical Health: 4
Neural Health: 4

Ballistic 1, Close Quarters Combat 2, Hacking 0, Piloting 2, Cunning 0, Survival 0, Initiative 1, Athletic 3, Medical 5, Technical 3, Extravehicular Activity 4, Profession 1 (Emergency Rescue Operative)

Bio Upgrades:
Tech Upgrades: Bionic Arm (Surgery Kit), Cortex Connector

To undertake an action, a character uses cards from a Player Deck. Each player, plus the GM, receives one of these, a fifty-four card deck divided into the four suits—Urban, Wilderness, Spaces, and OS—plus two Jokers. All of the Jokers go into the GM’s Player Deck. Note that each Player Deck is a similar to a standard deck of playing card and if a player does not have one to hand, he can use a standard deck instead of a Player Deck. A character will draw from his Player Deck so that he has seven cards in his hand at the start of a session and then at the start of each scene. He will play cards from this hand whenever there is Confrontation and his action is opposed. Starting with an Action Value equal to the total of the appropriate Attribute and Skills, for example Dexterity and Piloting to manoeuvre a shuttle into a field of debris, a character can play cards from his hand to increase the total of the Action Value. The maximum number of cards he can play being limited by the Attribute.

Unless opposed by another player character, the total that a character has to beat is set by the GM playing cards from his Player Deck. The GM is limited to an Attribute value equal to the player character he is confronting, but no skill. He also has the benefit of Jokers which can negate the value of the last card played by a character and of two Advantages which the character has to overcome by countering them with Advantages granted by equipment and Upgrades lest he be in ‘Inferiority’ and have the number of cards he can play reduced by one. If a character’s Action Value exceeds the opposing value by five, he achieves a decisive success and a critical success if the Action Value exceeds the value by ten.

Ambience and Affinity add a pair of interesting wrinkles to a player’s management of his hand. Play a card whose suit matches the environment and a player can immediately draw a new card, but if he plays a card whose suit matches both the environment and his designated Affinity, he gets to draw two cards and keep one. Proficiency, that is, playing a card equal to or less than the skill a character is using in a Confrontation, he is being proficient and the effort has not yet exhausted himself, so again, he can draw a card.
For example, Ottilie Creagan is on a rescue mission aboard a spaceship that has suffered a reactor failure. She has located one of the engineers, badly injured and in a compartment that is in danger of imminent explosive decompression. She needs to stabilise him fast if she is to get him out of danger. The GM determines that this is a Confrontation. Ottilie has a starting Action Value of 8, equal to her Dexterity and Medical, and can play a total of three cards. The GM has a starting Action Value of 3, equal to Ottilie’s Dexterity and can also play a total of three cards. This being aboard a spaceship, the environment is Space, which matches Ottilie’s Affinity.
Although Ottilie has a Bionic Arm Tech Upgrade with Surgery Kit, this is not enough to counter the GM’s Advantages, so she is in Inferiority and can only play two cards instead of three. Fortunately, she can pull out a shot of Nano Surgeons from her medical kit and deliver those. This allows her to draw more cards from her Player Deck.
The aim of these card driven mechanics is not to negate the presence of luck or chance in the game, but to favour a player in handling his character’s luck from scene to scene. A player will always start a scene with seven cards in his hand and they become the resources he has to manage for that scene. Of course, chance is involved in drawing cards when refreshing his hand from scene to scene, but under the right circumstances this can be offset by Ambience, Affinity, and Proficiency that will enable him to keep drawing cards as he plays them. Further, since a player knows what is in his Player Deck, he at least knows what he has used and is thus still available as the game progresses until the Player Deck is emptied and the discard pile reshuffled.

Physically FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is actually physically imposing, coming as it does in a large, square board game-like box. Inside can be found cards galore—the Player Decks, the Gear and NPC Decks, the thick cardboard character sheets, and the tokens to slot into the sheets. All of which are done in gorgeous full colour with fantastic artwork. The writing in general is clear, but really it could do with more examples, a fuller example of play, of character generation, and of course, a history and some objectives… let alone an adventure or two.

Ultimately what sells FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is its art and its art alone. This is not because it is the only thing that the designers got right. There are after all, plenty of things that the designers also got right—the mechanics, the background of the various races, and so on. What the designers got wrong is the lack of an elevator pitch with which to sell the game, a lack of history to the game, a lack of background to the game, a lack of purpose to the game, and lastly, a lack of coordination that ties everything together into a cohesive whole. Essentially, FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is a game without a frame to hold everything together. The individual parts do work together, so that the rules work with the characters and the races and the gods, and so on, but in doing so the game feels fragile and incomplete because there is sense of history or story to the setting.

Simple, beautiful, and not without promise, FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is far from unplayable, but it is undeveloped and leaves more work for the GM to do than it should.

—oOo—

In the meantime, Burning Games has launched a Kickstarter campaign for FAITH: A Garden in Hell - Starter Set, which aims to address the problems in the core set. By presenting an overhauled ruleset and a complete campaign set a world in danger of falling to a Ravager Hive, it will also provide a more accessible means of getting into FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. The publisher also has plans later in the year to kickstart FAITH: Gates to the Universe, a sourcebook for the game’s setting.

—oOo—


Burning Games will be at UK Games Expo.