So me and a friend are both great fans of Girl Genius by the Foglios, and last time I visited we were talking about this, and in particular enthusing about Jaegermonsters. Somehow, this ended up with me promising to write and run a game of Jaegers when I next visit.
Part of the reason I felt this was remotely feasible was that old friend-or-foe-undetermined, FATE. I remain troubled by how to actually run it, but pulpy action-adventure is what FATE is made for. I suppose I could have written a game from scratch, but let's be honest: I'm currently writing/wrote but haven't done anything with the following games:
- Monitors (awaiting feedback)
- Feckless Wastrels (awaiting playtesting)
- Into Ploughshares
- Friendly Neighbourhood Necromancers
- Alpha Dregs
- Jacobeans vs. Aliens (awaiting period research)
- Beneath Dark Skies
- In the Darkness Find Them (awaiting playtesting)
- Heartbreaker High (not previously mentioned on this blog)
- A Band of Bunglers (awaiting playtesting)
- De Jure (awaiting playtesting)
- The Call of Cthulhu thing where you're all mutants
- Almost certainly some others I've forgotten about
So I felt reskinning an existing game was an acceptable shortcut. And FATE is eminently reskinnable compared to most other games I know. And I've been wanting to try it out again.
Of course, I'm hoping to evoke something of the flavour of being a Jaeger here, rather than simply run a pulpy game where you are one. What does Jaegerhood involve?
The Jaegers are not soldiers, but warriors. They relish combat enormously; they're ferociously tough, strong, resilient and brave. Like the orks of Warhammer, they don't simply enjoy killing like some kind of death cultist, they think fighting is the most fun ever.
Following on from that, Jaegers (and Girl Genius in general) are fun. They canonically scare people, but mostly in a sort of pantomime way to be honest - they're not very sinister. They like to drink and dance and laugh and have a good time. They're quite uncomplicated, and good company for people who aren't scared of them.
Also, Jaegers really like hats. Having bigger, better hats is impressive. A hat from someone really tough you defeated is the best.
They do a variety of things, some of them a bit sneaky, but a lot of their missions involve being sent off to fight against some really bizarre inventions of mad science.
So I want this game to be fun, pulpy, full of fights against hordes of preposterous monsters for the Jaegers to plough through, in esoteric settings. Between fights, they need to rollick in silly places. They need to be tough enough to bounce back from injuries (something FATE does pretty well). And they need hats.
Devising the game
The first thing to do was to review the skill list. FATE has a default skill list of 18 skills:
There are two things about this list that I felt needed changing here. The first is that some of these skills aren't particularly appropriate to Jaegers, or indeed Girl Genius, and the second is that they don't have the right tone. For a game for generic Girl Genius play, sure. But this is a game about being Jaegermonsters. Jaegermonsters don't use words like "rapport". Yes, it's absolutely a superficial change, but as with Hellcats and Hockeysticks, the way skills are named and described affects your play experience.
Since I wasn't satisfied with the default skill list anyway, this provided an opportunity to shift some things around, merging skills and changing others, then slapping a new name on them.
I took inspiration from ideas in the FATE Toolkit, although I didn't use any of them as written. The new skill list looks like this:
The first thing to notice is that it's much shorter. There are only 12 skills, rather than 18. This is partly just because some skills felt unnecessary (or didn't make sense as standalone skills in this setting, they'd be too limited), and partly because it reduces the barrier to entry. It's going to be a one-shot game for people who've never played FATE, let alone this particular hack. Simple is good.
I haven't changed the amount of skill available. This means that a Jaeger will have some kind of bonus in almost every skill, which feels appropriate for literally superhuman characters in a very pulpy world.
You'll also notice the idiosyncratic naming scheme. This is intended to get people in the mood. The three knowledge skills (Clanks, Sparks and Tales) have relatively normal names, mostly because there's no obvious Jaegerism to apply. The rest are all designed to be the kind of complimentary epithets one Jaeger would bestow upon another.
So, what are the changes?
Annoyink is a reskinned Provoke. Dangerous is a reskinned Fight. Qvick is Athletics, while Schtrong is Physique - those FATE names always confused me anyway, because to my mind athleticism most represents fitness and endurance, while physique is a wishy-washy term that overlaps heavily with athleticism. Sottil is Deceive and any sort of cunning plan. Schmott covers your canniness and willpower, so it's used to solve puzzles, to resist provocation, and to survive mental attacks from the creations of mad science.
Contacts, Resources, Lore, Drive and Shoot are gone. The first two are basically irrelevant to this game, where manoeuvring and buying stuff aren't expected. Jaegers use swords, not guns. And driving I expect to be rare enough that it's best handled either by simple tests of strength and reaction (steer the horses, avoid the blockade) or using the Clanks skill if you're in a clank. Crafts seems unnecessary also, it's not going to be a downtime-heavy game. I'll simply allow breaking and making of stuff using physical stats or (again) the Sparks and Clanks knowledge skills. Because of the quite specific genre, it makes sense to have three different knowledge skills (see below) but also allow these to cover physical use, because Jaegers aren't renowned for their academic ability.
Schneaky incorporates Burglary and Stealth together. I don't expect burglary per se to be a major part of the game, so it made sense. Sensitiff covers both Empathy and Rapport - they're about understanding other people and getting on with them. Again, I don't think persuasion and subtlety will be much of a theme. Nozey covers Investigate and Notice, on the assumption that Jaegers don't exactly go in for forensics or research.
The Clanks skill covers everything to do with automatons, from realising who made them to repairing them or sabotaging them. Same goes for Sparks, which covers all mad science that isn't either a monster or an automaton. General knowledge, and in particular monsters, are covered by Tales, which is assumed to include all the folklore and rumours and hearsay about Dr. Urkunst's hideous dog-headed spiders or whatever.
Jaegers have the usual 3 stunts available, though I don't know whether players will use them much, because it's one of the fiddlier parts of the system. On this suspicion, I ramped up refresh to 5 to compensate. Also, I'd really like players to be throwing Fate Points around willy-nilly, and I feel like having five makes this more likely, whereas with just a few there's a temptation to hoard them.
Basically, some parts of FATE (stunts in particular, and also deciding what to do with a skill) assume a lot of system mastery on the part of the players. I don't think this is very sensible to be honest. It's not so bad for players with a lot of RPG background, but games like D&D where you simply say what you're trying to do have a lower barrier to entry, as they don't assume you understand the rules. As such, I intend to handle the rules end of things myself: I'll get players to narrate their actions, and determine the consequences (such as adding Aspects or Boosts, or inflicting damage) myself, depending on their rolls. I want them to basically focus on what they want to do, and playing with Aspects.
The Hat Track
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is hats. Hats are important, and my players made it clear that they consider hats to be fundamental to the Jaeger experience. What to do, what to do? Well, this is FATE, so obviously, you add a Hat Track.
The hat track resembles the Physical and Mental stress tracks, but works a little differently.
One of the uses for the hat track is to absorb extra stress. Like any other track, it can be stressed, and I'm allowing players to soak physical damage by messing up their hat instead. At the stress level, it represents superficial damage and dirt, easily fixed between fights. This helps with that fight-heavy pulpy thing I mentioned.
Once you start taking consequences, though, things get interesting. Where the hat track is different is that hats have specific locations with associated properties.
A Hat has three main components, the Brim, Crown and Band. Each of these can also support a number of Decorations based on their size, such as: Tassels, Studded with Gems, Enormous Peacock Feather, Marshall’s Badge, Sparkly, Glows in the Dark, Multicoloured, Ice Weasel Fur, Lots of Skulls, Big Sign Saying “One Schmott Guy!”, or Air Raid Siren. Some Decorations require multiple slots!
A Jäger begins play with a boring, undecorated hat with only one Decoration slot per location. You may choose the colour and style. Throughout their adventures, the Jäger will have opportunities to gather new decorations, steal new hats, and otherwise improve their hat-status by whatever means they can devise. These details should always be noted down. Named NPCs have hats suitable to their status, although taking hats from puny civilians is frowned upon. There's no glamour in it.
The size and decoration of your Hat determine how impressive it is. A Hat has a Size Factor, equal to the mean of its Brim, Crown and Band sizes (round up). For each point of Size Factor, the Hat can be assigned one suitable Aspect. Hat Aspects are treated as any other Aspect.
So, consequences. If you take a Mild Consequence to your hat, you lose a decoration permanently. The slot isn't affected, but the actual decoration is smashed, burned, disintegrated or simply lost. If you take a Moderate Consequence, one location is badly damaged, and although its decorations don't disappear, you don't benefit from them: you have to carry them around separately until you fix the hat or get a new one. A Severe Consequence to a Hat means your Hat is lost. Retrieving it would be a sidequest. An Extreme Consequence to a Hat means it is lost forever or destroyed.
Essentially, the idea here is twofold. First, the hat provides a roleplaying prop, giving some mild social perks to characters who collect cool hats, and rewarding the defeat of enemies in a genre-appropriate way (with silly hats). Secondly, it provides an extra layer of resilience with a tough choice - do you want to take a nasty wound, or lose one of your prized trophies? Actually losing or destroying a hat should therefore be a meaningful sacrifice that's nevertheless a fitting option for the game.
Now, I don't really have time right now to plan an actual plot or anything, so sandboxing is the way to go. My plan is basically to have the Jaegers stranded somewhere after a mission, with a vague overall objective of tracking down and defeating some spark or other. In the meantime, they'll wander around from place to place finding weird stuff and fighting monsters.
Thankfully, the setting lends itself admirably to random generation. To the tables!
What I've done here is written a series of short tables that combine into various things and can be randomly rolled.
For locations, I have Adjective, Place and Descriptor. These combine to define the location: For example, a Freezing | Marsh | Suspended From Balloons. I've also attached pseudo-Germanic word stems to each of these, so that for quick naming purposes I could combine Luft, Eis and Moor as I choose - I think Lufteismoor is my favourite here.
The location's main occupants are defined in the same way, with Prefix, Creature and Habits. We might roll up Poisonous | Pianos | With Psychokinetic Powers, and devise the Poltergiftklavier.
NPCs are of course another issue, but I'm mostly concerned about villains. These come with a mighty array of tables: Villain, Subclass, Title, Adjective, Methods, Objective and Reason. As a sample, we might get the Assassin | Chef | called One-Eyed | Comrade NAME, who uses | Flight | to Kidnap People | in the search for Immortality.
I need a few more, but I might try looting existing random tables for events rather than devising all my own from scratch.