Twisting Fate: Zero to Hero

This is part of a series of posts looking at some questions about Fate Core – usually questions I’ve had and seen repeated by others – and some of the underlying topics that may lead to these questions in the first place.  Take a look at the first post – Twisting Fate – for a better explanation of why I’m writing this.  Also take note of the obligatory disclaimer that I am not trying to “fix” Fate – it’s not broken.  I’m just trying to expand my own understanding and apply it towards my game.

I also want to acknowledge Rob Hanz.  I’ve encountered him a number of times on Google+, and his explanations have been invaluable to helping me understand Fate better.  Somehow I only came across the Book of Hanz and began reading it.  Not only are Rob’s posts a great resource for those of us still learning more about Fate, but they have also made me feel much better about the questions I have about the system.  There are definitely a lot of elements of the system that “click” for me now that didn’t before I read Rob’s advice, and many of the underlying “issues” I’ve had with things have at least been validated by some of his posts – as well as others.  So at least I’m not completely crazy.  (Or if I am, at least I’m in good company.)

Zero to Hero

I came across a post recently in which a player wanted to create characters that were “lower level” than the typical starting Fate character.  He was planning to run a long-term game in which the characters went from no-name average characters to eventually becoming world-saving heroes.  He had an idea of how to accomplish this and was asking for feedback.

I’ve seen questions similar to this numerous times, and I myself am also looking at different ways the character creation process could be modified to produce characters that are closer to what might be “average”.  In typical awesome fashion, the broader Fate community usually provides some insight and feedback, throws around some different possibilities, and answers follow-up questions.

That being said, in discussions like this, I have often seen two particular responses that got me thinking.  The first is an immediate reference to D&D and its style of character advancement.  (I’ll save a discussion of that cognitive leap for my post focusing on progression.)  The other discourages using Fate for this type of game.


Give a forum thread talking about “low-level” Fate characters enough time, and you are extremely likely to find a player post a quote from Fate that the game is “about competent, dramatic, proactive characters”.   The implication being that if you are seeking to run a game about more average or weaker characters, Fate might not be the best system to use.

It may very well be the case that the player in question might be better served by another system, but as Fate is often said to be designed to simulate fiction, it seems odd to suggest that Fate cannot be used to tell a story about normal, everyday characters that become something more extraordinary (a not uncommon trope in a variety of media).  I’ve asked questions about this in the past, and based on the ensuing discussions I’ve come to believe that there are a few reasons that veteran players sometimes jump to this conclusion.

In short, I think players place too much emphasis on the competent part of “competent, dramatic, proactive”.  When you start comparing what types of characters do and do not work well in Fate, being proactive is by far the most important element in this concept.  Characters that stand around and wait for things to happen don’t work well.  Being dramatic is also important to varying degrees depending on the genre – think of dramatic as being interesting or non-boring, and you’re on the right track.  Now, being competent is important in that only a very particular style of game will work if the player characters are stumbling around in a perpetual state of incompetence.  However, as long as the characters are passably good at something (or at least are likely to succeed periodically) the game can still work.  There are two important reasons why a game with less-skilled characters can still function just fine (and be lots of fun), but both require effort on the part of the GM – which isn’t to say that they require any effort beyond what is usually expected of a GM.

Lower Level Conflict

First, we have to remember that there are plenty of ways to make the characters seem normal, especially at first, and many of them require little or no mechanical difference.  Want to play more “average” characters?  Then just focus the game on a more “average” playing field.  Instead of tackling political corruption in a capital city or averting empire-wide catastrophe, just deal with the problems in your neighborhood.  Keeping the characters grounded in a smaller scale, everyday environment can go a long way to making them feel “normal” – especially in contrast to when they do eventually start taking on bigger issues.  Scale the conflict (little c, not talking Conflict mechanics here) down to an everyday level, and gradually scale the stakes and scope of the conflicts the characters face as they grow in power and influence.

Fate Core does caution players on trying to simulate every little negotiation, and rightly so, but keeping the conflict at a small scale doesn’t mean you have to deviate from that guidance.  Just make sure that the stakes of the conflict are meaningful to the characters and that the results of rolling the dice are always interesting.  Which brings me to…

Failing Forward

The other issue with assuming a high level of competence is necessary for Fate to work is largely rooted in traditional tabletop games: an aversion to failure.  If the players keep failing rolls, and the characters aren’t successful at anything, no one is going to have any fun.  To some extent, the could certainly be true.  Of course, if you scale the conflict to fit the characters, that shouldn’t happen too often.  More importantly, it ignores one of the the elements of Fate (and many narrative games) that make the system so effective at telling great stories: failure can be just as interesting as success (often even more so).

Fate Core presents this idea largely in terms of Success at a Cost.  One possibility is that the character doesn’t get what he wants, but it’s also possible he gets the result he was hoping for – it’s just that something else happens too.  Traditional games can pose problems when the characters really need to succeed at something in order to move the story forward, but that is easily remedied by the concept of failing forward.  The story moves forward no matter what, it just becomes a little more complicated.  Not only does this mean that a game about everyday characters can still be interesting, it also gives the GM all sorts of ways to propel these average people into decidedly more unusual circumstances.

I’m not going to go into a long discussion about how awesome failing forward can be or how to use it (run a quick search and you’ll find plenty of advice), but the point is that if failure is not that significant a problem in Fate, then neither is competence.

Maybe Not Zero… But One…

There are certainly approaches to using low level characters in Fate that can cause serious issues.  You can’t have a system as elegant and interconnected as Fate and not expect some ripples when you start tinkering with mechanics.  That said, given the flexibility of Fate, there are almost certainly at least a handful of ways to handle this kind of game that should work just fine.  If this kind of game interests you, there are plenty of posts out there with ideas of how to do just that.  Just don’t get discouraged if someone suggests maybe Fate isn’t the system for you.  You may have to check some preconceptions at the door and step outside of your comfort zone, but there’s a better than fair chance you can find a way to use Fate for your game if that’s what you decide you want to do.


Twisting Fate

I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG on and off for years now.  A couple of years ago I started taking a serious look at Fate Core, and I quickly realized that using it for my game would provide a lot of advantages.  Since then I’ve been working through the system I had already developed in conjunction with Fate to determine what adjustments need to be made to align Fate with the game’s setting and the styles of gameplay I’m looking for.  Needless to say, I’ve ended up spending lot of time scouring the web for how Fate players handle different situations, and I’ve learned a lot.

Fate Core is a very flexible, powerful system – the core actions underlying the mechanics combined with aspects and the fate point economy create a certain elegance.  The way the system is geared to simulate fiction, as opposed to how some systems simulate reality, opens a lot of doors.

Of course, learning Fate Core can be challenging to lots of players, new and long-time gamers alike.  Even Fate veterans often have difficulty coming to grips with certain elements of the system.  Some of this may be due to idiosyncrasies in how the system is presented.  A seemingly simple concept can have a very profound impact in how you use the system, and sometimes the deeper implications of a rule can be easily overlooked.

As I’ve learned more about the system and how to get the most out of it, I’ve seen some questions or concerns come up repeatedly by players.  Usually these questions are answered by members of the Fate community with great explanations that help players grasp how to apply the system, but some of these topics seem to point to circumstances where most players are unsure of how best to leverage Fate.

There are also a few fairly common responses from veteran Fate players that appear to have been repeated so often they have become more or less standardized.  In some of these cases, I think some closer examination of the underlying assumptions could prove useful.  Just because the Rules As Written (RAW) do not explicitly point to (or allow) a particular approach, doesn’t mean that a minor tweak cannot allow for some potentially awesome results.  Fate Core is very flexible (and hackable, if necessary).  Given its focus on simulating fiction, there really should be very few fictional situations it cannot easily handle.

This will likely be the first in a series of posts examining some of these topics, with the goal of understanding Fate a little better.  Hopefully, this will allow me to figure out how best to apply the system to my setting and get the style of play I’m looking for.  With a little luck, maybe this will generate some discussion that will help other players as well.

DISCLAIMER: To be clear, Fate Core works just fine as it is.  I’m not implying it needs “fixing” – just looking at the best way to achieve the goals for my game, which may just be altering how specific rules are presented.  Fate Core is largely system-agnostic and is often described a set of dials that can be adjusted.  Trying to dial in the right settings for my setting.

Here are some of the topics I plan to look at, in no particular order:

  • “Competent” aka Zero to Hero
  • Social Conflict
  • Required to use certain mechanics e.g. Conflict
  • Progression – D&D vs. Star Wars
  • Long-Term Play
  • Stakes and Physical Conflict
  • Underlying Issues – Game Creation, Failure Aversion, Implicit Stakes, Death as the Only Stakes

A Fateful Exercise in Flexibility

I’ve started adapting my setting and existing Proteus material to Fate Core while I continue to learn more about the system and how it has been utilized by the community. One thing that is very apparent with Fate is that there are almost always multiple ways to accomplish the same objective within the rules. There is no one right way to handle a given situation. At the same time, there may be a best way to handle a situation to get what you want out of that particular scene in your game. For me, this comes down to understanding what the character’s intent is and where you want your narrative focus.

I’m still working to refine my understanding of when to use different actions, both for myself and so that I can provide clear guidance as I continue to convert things over to Fate. Attack and Defend are easy, and I’ve already decided to include Discover – in addition to being conceptually helpful, I think it can add something to certain situations and styles of play. Of course, as I continue to read posts and comments from around the community, I still encounter situations when I’m not sure which action would fit. Sometimes this is just due to lacking information on the intent and context of the action, but I think there is still room for significant improvement in my understanding of where the lines are drawn between Overcome, Create an Advantage, and Discover.

A related topic is that of zooming in and out within the story – essentially deciding how you want to handle a situation based on where you want the narrative focus. Frank Hanz discusses this concept here, and Malcolm Reynolds touches on it in his comments about creating advantages to impact different layers of play. Malcolm refers to the Fate fractal in his comment, and I agree that this idea is very much a fractal – but I don’t think it’s the Fate fractal.

Typically, the fractal refers to the application of the Bronze Rule – the idea that anything in the game can functionally be treated as a character (though there are limitations). But that’s not necessarily what this is; this is a second fractal. This one holds that any action in the game can be handled with varying levels of detail by adjusting its complexity and the number of rolls required to achieve the character’s intent. This is handled primarily by varying the number of tasks which must be required to accomplish a goal, the scale of those tasks, and the use of pacing mechanisms (challenges, contests, conflicts, etc.).

In other words, any event or action in the game world can be handled by a single roll, a series of rolls, a scene or two, an entire scenario, or even a whole campaign. It all depends on where you want to focus the story, and that focus can vary from one event to the next. Fate likes to name some of its rules, which I think helps players remember, apply, and refer to them. (Technically, this concept is not limited to Fate, but Fate’s scalable mechanics make it extremely well suited to applying this concept.) So I’ve taken to calling this the Glass Rule – as in you use a magnifying glass (or telescope) to zoom in and out of the action in order to change your focus and level of detail.

The rest of this is just a few examples of how to handle the same situation with different levels of focus and different actions. It’s something of a “thought exercise by way of hypothetical gameplay scenarios” just to help me work through this and codify it in my mind.

General scenario: The PCs are agents or operators of some kind and are currently attached to a military battalion. That battalion is preparing to assault and take control of an enemy research compound, and the characters decide they want to recon the compound to give the battalion an edge in the battle to come.

Example 1: The players and the GM are more interested in the battle to take the compound, so that’s where the scene will focus.

Scouting the compounds defenses is handled with a single roll to create an advantage. Success creates a Defenses Identified and Mapped aspect on the compound with a free invocation which can be used in the battle.

Example 2: The players and GM are focused on the battle itself, but the GM wants to illustrate how valuable having operators like the PCs can be to preparing for the battle.

The GM calls for an overcome roll to first infiltrate the compound, followed by a roll to create an advantage as the characters sabotage the security system. Success creates an Automated Security System has been Compromised aspect on the compound with a free invocation for the upcoming battle.

Example 3: Similar to the second example, but one of the characters is a hacker so the GM wants to show off how he can contribute to the battalion’s victory. The GM decides to handle this with a challenge with the team working together.

The team will have to enter the compound (overcome), hack the security system (overcome), hold off any guards during the hack (overcome), and then escape (overcome). One of the characters also wants to set some traps to help deal with the guards (create advantage). The PCs roll a success at minor cost to enter the compound (boost to the GM when holding off the guards), fail to set the traps (boost to the GM on the escape attempt), succeed to hold off the guards, success with style on the hack, and success with a serious cost to escape.

The GM narrates that the team manages to infiltrate the compound through a sewer access, but a guard stumbles upon their wet footprints and lets his team know to be on the lookout for anything strange. They discover the traps and sound the alarm. The team manages to hold them off while the hacker not only analyzes the compound’s security, but also finds a way to control it remotely. Unfortunately, the guards decide to focus on locking down the compound to prevent any escape. The team manages to make it out without any serious injury, but now the compound is aware of a possible attack. A Security System Remote Access aspect is attached to the compound with two free invocations, but a second aspect, On High Alert is also created on the compound.

Example 4: The players are far more interested in infiltrating the compound than they are in the actual battle, so the GM sets up the attempt to recon the facility as a full scene.

GM: Okay, you arrive outside the compound a couple hundred yards from the entrance. You identify a few guards on patrol, a number of cameras, and a couple of automated gun systems. Some areas of the perimeter are also protected by fence, and it looks electrified.

Player 1: I don’t like the look of those guns; let’s see if we can find another way in.

GM: Like what?

Player 1: Maybe a small service or delivery entrance with less security?

GM: Okay, that sounds like a discover action; roll Scout. Assuming you’re trying to avoid being spotted while looking for a way in, this will be against the guards’ Notice (+2).

Player 1: Okay, I got +2 – does that mean they saw us?

GM: No, just a minor cost. How about this? You find an emergency exit door that’s left open with no camera coverage, but the reason it’s open is that the guards like to use it while they’re on taking a break. There are three guards on break right now, milling around outside the door and talking.

Player 1: Well, that gives us a way in without being spotted, if we can just deal with these guards.

Player 2: Let’s setup some sort of diversion to draw them away while we slip inside.

GM: Okay you’ll need to Stealth to slip passed without being seen (overcome action), but you can create an advantage to lure them away first. How do you want to do that?

Player 3: Well, we don’t want to do anything that lets them know someone is here, just something to get them to move and look away for a couple minutes.

Player 4: What about a fire?

Player 3: Wouldn’t that tip them off that we’re here?

Player 4: Not necessarily, I can use my Engineering skill on the fence to make it look like the fence just shorted out and started a grass fire.

GM: Nice. Cool plan and with your Engineering it shouldn’t be a problem, so no need to roll. There’s a Grass Fire Near the Fenceline and the guards move off to investigate. They’re still being watchful, but they’re definitely distracted. You’ve got a free invoke.

Player 2: Okay, we’ll use it and make our way inside. I’ve got the highest Stealth, so I’ll lead everyone in. With the invoke I’ve got a +4.

GM: Okay, while the guards are dealing with the fire you manage to slip into the building without being seen. You’re at the end of a corridor on the ground level. Seems to be an office area. What now?

Player 3: We need to try and find information on how their security is setup, but we’re going to need to blend in if we want to look around. This is a research facility right, so there are probably scientists and lab techs all over the place?

GM: Yeah, most of them would be in labs and such, but you’d expect to see them throughout the facility.

Player 2: Let’s snag some lab coats from a supply closet!

Player 3: My thoughts exactly.

GM: Okay, the trick will be finding a supply closet before someone sees you. Lab supplies would probably be near the labs on the lower level.

Player 3: Yeah, but wouldn’t there also be recent shipments that need to be processed? That would be in an office area like the one we’re in now. Somebody’s got to fill out the paperwork when they get new supplies in right?

Player 4: Discover to establish there are supplies in the office area – with Bureaucracy?

GM: We could, but I don’t want to get bogged down in how you guys find some lab coats. Just use Bureaucracy to create an advantage so you can start looking around. Shouldn’t be hard, so roll against Average opposition.

Player 3: All right! I succeeded with style.

GM: Okay, so you find an office marked Logistics. It’s vacant, and the storeroom has all kinds of supplies, including the lab coats. You also find some newly encoded ID badges. They won’t hold up to serious scrutiny or get you into high security areas, but they’ll help you blend in. You all look like Just Another Lab Tech and you’ve got two free invokes. Moving around outside of any restricted shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t do anything to draw suspicion to yourself.

Player 4: Now we can get down to business.

Player 2: Well, we already know what security is like at the front of the building. What else do we need to get?

Player 3: We need something that will help the military take the facility.

Player 4: Like access codes or something?

Player 3: Maybe, but those would probably be hard to get without going into high security areas, which we want to avoid if we can. I was thinking along the lines of how many guards they have, when they’re on duty, and what other forces might be in the area. Stuff like that. Though even those kinds of details might not be easy to find.

Player 2: Maybe there’s something going on with their research projects that would make it better for the battalion to attack at a certain time – like a big test or something. Lots of people might know about that.

Player 3: I like it. Now where should we look?

Player 4: Well, we’re in the Logistics office. Maybe there’s a directory or lists of offices around here.

GM: Okay. You find a list with a bunch of offices listed. It includes room numbers, phone numbers, and the name and title of whoever is assigned to the office.

Player 4: We don’t want anyone too high up the food chain; they might have extra security. We want an office with just one mid-level person. Important enough to know what’s going on, but not too important…

GM: How about an Assistant Government Liaison for Research?
Player 4: Sounds promising.

GM: Dr. Agnew’s office is on the laboratory level, along with a few other offices, but it’s outside any restricted areas.

Player 3: Let’s go.

GM: All right. A quick elevator ride later you find yourselves on the lab sub-level heading down the corridor to Agnew’s office. It’s at the end of the hall, next to a stairwell and across from a breakroom being used by the scientists. [Reveals Scientists on Break.] The office is unoccupied, but the door is closed and locked.

Player 2: Doesn’t anybody work around here? Everyone’s on a break!

Player 3: Okay. We need to get into that office.

Player 2: I can pick it with Tradecraft, but not with all those scientists around.

Player 4: What if we distract them?

GM: How?

Player 4: We could start talking about work – but none of us have much in the way of Science skills. Maybe I could use Engineering?

GM: Without any idea of what they’re working on, that might be tough. If you’re just trying to hold their attention long enough for him to unlock a simple office door, it doesn’t have to be about work. You just need to avoid causing suspicion. How about Mimic?

Player 3: So Mimic to create an advantage for his Tradecraft roll?

GM: The lock isn’t hard to pick, it’s just about not being caught. Just roll a straight overcome action with Mimic against their Insight. I’ll also burn a fate point to invoke Scientists on Break. That puts the opposition at Good (+3).

Player 3: Okay, I’ll head into the breakroom and strike up a conversation family or something while he picks the lock. Maybe stand in the doorway and listen to me to block their view. I rolled a +2, but I’ll use one of our free invokes on Just Another Lab Tech to push it to +4.

GM: Good enough. You hold the scientists attention while he easily unlocks the door. They’re soon tired of listening to you prattle on about your kids and decide to get back to work. [Removes Scientists on Break from play.] As soon as the coast is clear, you duck into the office and lock the door. It’s a Messy Office, with a desk, a few filing cabinets, and a computer.

Player 4: Okay, so we’re looking for any information on upcoming events or tests that might create an opportunity for our guys to come in and take this place. I’ll check out the computer, hopefully it’s not too hard to get into, because I don’t think any of us are good with computers.

GM: Just a username and password. The username is already displayed, but you don’t have the password. You could hack the system with Tech.

Player 2: I don’t think that would go well unless we can create an advantage or something first. Not sure how we’d do that.

Player 3: Maybe we can figure out the password. Look through his desk to see if he wrote it down. Maybe a date or a name.

GM: Hmm. Okay roll Insight to discover what he might have use as the password. Opposition is Average.

Player 3: Can we use teamwork?

GM: Sure.

Player 3: Okay. Not the greatest roll, but +2 is enough.

GM: Okay, you notice that all of the pictures in the office are of a young boy, a few with a woman that you assume is Agnew’s wife, but the boy is in all of them. Looking through the photos, you find two names written on the back of one of them: Samantha and Tim.

Player 4: Let’s try Tim for the password.

GM: No joy.

Player 4: How about Timothy?

GM: You’re in.

Player 4: Score! Now let’s start looking for any information on upcoming tests or events.

GM: There’s a lot of information to look through, and you don’t want to stay in the office forever.

Player 3: It’s a government computer system right? Can I use Bureaucracy to find schedules or emails?

GM: Sure. Another discover action to locate the information you’re looking for, but I’ll spend a point to invoke Messy Office. This guy is seriously disorganized, and that extends to his computer as well. So opposition is +4.

Player 4: Ok fine. [Rolls] Not going well today, I’ve only got +2. I’ll spend a point to invoke my Government Calls Me to Solve Problems aspect to make it +4 and at least avoid a serious cost.

GM: Fair enough. You finally manage to sort through his nightmare of a file system. You find a few references to an upcoming project demonstration scheduled for a couple of days from now. Agnew has been coordinating a visit by some other military and government officials to observe the test.

Player 2: That’s not going to help us at all! If anything there will be more security.

GM: Actually, you notice that the demonstration will be held at a place called the Clearmoor Test Range. A quick search reveals that the range is about four hours away. There aren’t any detailed security plans for the event on this computer, but from some of the messages it seems that most of the security and military forces in the area will be used to protect the test equipment in transit and secure the range.

Player 2: So there won’t be much security here at the time, and everyone else will be a few hours away. That should give our guys a big enough window to take this place.

Player 3: Yeah… But what’s the catch, where’s that minor cost?
GM: Just then the phone in the office rings.

Player 4: Don’t answer it!

Player 3: Right. Just let it ring while we get out of here.

GM: The call goes to voicemail, and a woman’s voice leaves a message. “Dr. Agnew? This is Janice in lab 3. I know you just left here, but I need to get your signature on another form so we can finish making the preparations for the test. You mentioned you were headed back to the office, but I guess you’re not there yet. When you get this message, could you please drop back by the lab before you leave for the day? Thanks.”

Player 2: Great. We’re about to have company. Make sure you leave everything how we found it, and let’s get out of here.

Player 4: Yeah. Let’s get moving!

GM: You put everything back in its place and head out the door. As you step into the hallway you see a small man in a lab coat and glasses come around the corner and head in your direction. His eyes go wide when he sees you – a look that quickly changes to one of suspicion as he realizes were you just came from. “Hey! What are you doing in my office?!”

Player 3: Uh… “We heard the phone ringing and saw that the door was open, so we were going to answer it.”

GM: He continues to walk towards you after pausing momentarily. “You were just going to answer someone else’s phone?! How did you get in there?”

Player 2: No. This sniveling lab geek government flunky is not going to talk to us like that. I’m walking right towards him. “Look pal! We heard a phone and thought it might be important. We’re trying to help you out! And you thank us with this kind of attitude?! Maybe if you kept your door locked in the first place you wouldn’t have this problem! Come to think of it, that’s probably a security violation.” I turn to look back at them. “Aren’t we supposed to report that sort of thing?” I’m not breaking cover, but I want to intimidate him into backing down.

GM: Okay. We’ll call that creating an advantage with Manipulate. Roll against his Resolve. You’re right about him being a flunky; his Resolve is Mediocre and he defends with… [Rolls] zero.

Player 2: Hah. I got +2. How about Quaking in His Lab Boots?

GM: Sounds about right, with an invocation, but he’s still suspicious.

Player 3: Okay so now we need to press the advantage. We follow right behind and go to move past him like any other scientist.

GM: All right. Another Mimic roll to maintain your cover as you make your way past him to get out of the facility without him notifying security. Remember he’s a government liaison, so his Insight is Great +4.

Player 3: We’ll use our remaining free invoke on Just Another Lab Tech along with the invoke on Quaking in His Lab Boots.

Player 4: As we approach, looking like the lab techs we obviously are, I tell him, “Janice called and said she needed you back in lab 2 to sign some more forms. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Like we don’t have enough paperwork to fill out already!”

Player 3: [Rolls] We’ve got +6 with those invokes.

GM: Okay. He stammers for a second, looking back and forth between the three of you. Then his shoulders slump and he turns around, heading back towards the lab section while muttering to himself.

Player 2: Right. Now can we get the hell out of here?

Player 3: We should have enough to make battalion command happy, let’s move before we press our luck any more than we already have.

GM: All right. You make your way through the facility and out the front door, still wearing your scientist outfits. No one gives you a second look. You remove your lab coats and head back to the battalion staging area. You’ve got the battalion a free invoke on Security? Just a Skeleton Crew. That should come in handy during the battle.

Player 4: Hey guys, what do you say to letting the grunts take care of the attack on their own? With security that light they should be able to handle it without us, and I’d like to see if we can find out what’s going on at this test range.

Player 3: I’m kind of curious to find out about this Clearmoor place myself.

Player 2: I guess it doesn’t do us much good to take that facility if they get away with whatever they were making and we don’t know anything about it. But this time we’re going armed.

Okay that was longer than I first intended, but I think it illustrates the point. All four examples end up with largely the same result: an advantage is created for the battalion’s attack. But there are four very different levels of detail and focus involved. Plus the actual advantage was established using different game mechanics. Only the first two examples used create an advantage. The third example used overcome actions in a challenge, and in the fourth example the aspect was created at the conclusion of the scene. The necessary information was actually uncovered with a discover action, but it didn’t become useful until the team got it back to the battalion.

I also tried to point out a few places in the last example where a roll could have been handled differently. Again, a key concept in applying the mechanics is to focus the story on the parts that are interesting. There are obviously a number of other ways that scene could have gone down. For example, the encounter with Dr. Agnew could have been handled as a full-blown conflict, starting out as mostly mental, but possibly transitioning if the PCs had to resort violence.

Or if the team had rolled success with style while looking for information, they might have learned that a captured scientist (perhaps a long-time acquaintance of one of the PCs) was being held in the compound and forced to assist with research. That one roll could take the scene in a completely different direction if they try to rescue him. Similarly, a failed roll could have resulted in guards being alerted at several junctures – which could easily have led to a contest to locate the information while the guards search the building floor by floor. That all assumes the characters try to remain covert; they could always escalate things and try to fight their way out.

That’s more than enough for now.

Fate’s Fifth Action: Discover

I’ve recently started seriously looking at Fate Core for my little game project.  I started converting my skill list over, but decided I needed to take a closer look at Fate’s basic actions first.  In addition to the four basic actions covered in the rulebook, many in the community value the utility of adding a discover action to the game.  This includes Ryan Macklin, one of the creators of Fate Core.  Feel free to check out his post, Fate: the Discover Action.

For my game, the discover action seems to be a good fit, so I’m definitely going to include it.  I’m also a firm believer that the use of Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts to zoom in on the action should never be compulsory.  You should be able to handle any attempted action with a single opposed roll if that’s what works best for your game.  Zooming in should largely be a concern of importance to the story, pacing, and how detailed you want to get with the results.  Read Robert Hanz’s post on this idea and how this can allow for zooming in and out to any level of detail.  This happens to hold great potential for my idea for a game that lets you shift between roleplaying and a more strategic tabletop game.

All this means that I’ll need to rewrite or expand on the descriptions of Fate’s basic actions to better clarify what action is used in different situations and at different levels of detail.  So I decided to start with taking a crack at a write-up of the discover action.  I also decided to create an icon for discover similar to those used for the other actions – it’s going to need one eventually.

This may need to be changed as I work through everything, but it’s a start.  Feedback is welcome.  So here it is: the discover action.


Use the discover action to reveal or establish information.

The discover action covers learning information that does not provide an immediate tangible benefit – though it may still be critical to advancing the plot of the story. It also allows a player to introduce new information into the game in a manner similar to spending a fate point to declare a story detail.

The discover action is about information; it is not about gaining anything tangible. You could use discover to look up historical events in a library, learn about building methods likely used in a structure, identify locations a criminal is known to frequent, find out the name and location of the best armorer in the city, ascertain that the creatures terrorizing the town are vulnerable to silver, recognize an opponent’s fighting style, and even detect a weak point in a stone wall – but discover will not provide anything which conveys an immediate advantage. Using the knowledge gained to your benefit requires an overcome or create an advantage action. Discover can be used to locate items, materials, and people, but it cannot remove a significant source of opposition. If acquiring the item or tracking down the thief is a source of opposition, use the overcome action.

The discover action can reveal aspects as well as more generalized facts, but success does not automatically award a free invocation on that aspect. If you want to use that aspect to your advantage, you will need to spend a fate point or use a create an advantage action. If your game includes hidden aspects, the discover action should be the primary means of revealing them.

Note that the GM is always free to provide the players with information and reveal aspects whenever it makes sense to do so. The discover action is merely intended to provide a means by which trying to gather information or learn the truth can be a source of dramatic tension. It also enables players to contribute story details without the use of fate points – much as the create an advantage action allows aspects to be invoked for free – but with the added risk that the facts they introduce into the story may turn out to be somewhat less than entirely true.

Oppose Opposing Discover

A discover action is typically rolled against passive opposition, with the GM setting opposition based on the level of detail and obscurity of the information, as well as any other factors that may make it more difficult to acquire. Certain circumstances may warrant rolling active opposition, such as trying to extract information from the subject of an interrogation. Just be sure that the character providing the opposition is only trying to avoid revealing the information, otherwise you might be dealing with an attack action.

Discover Using Discover

When you roll to discover information, you should describe what you are trying to find out (this can be fairly broad or very specific) and what you are doing to acquire the information. It’s normally assumed that you’re trying to reveal information already known to the GM, but if nothing’s established the GM can and should encourage you to introduce new details to the story. When introducing new information, you should clearly detail what you are attempting to establish prior to the roll so that the GM can determine appropriate opposition. You should also justify how or why you would have this information based on your aspects and skills. As with declaring a story detail using a fate point, the GM has the right to veto any suggestions that seem out of scope or ask the player to revise them.

Discover may be used to reveal aspects, but should not normally be used to create new aspects – that’s creating an advantage. Of course, information introduced through a discover action could later be turned into an aspect using the appropriate action or when it makes sense within the fiction. The GM can also decide to create a new aspect if it helps take things in a new direction or otherwise enhances the fiction, but you still shouldn’t get a free invocation unless you succeed with style.

If you’re using discover to reveal existing information…

  • When you fail, you either simply fail to gain any useful information or you succeed at a serious cost. What you learn is actually false, or perhaps part is true while the rest is complete poppycock; there could also be a serious complication. Maybe silver does affect the creature, but it makes them stronger somehow instead of weakening them. The armorer you were looking for turns out to actually be a long-time enemy of your family. The historical documents you reference turn out to have been written by a cult who twisted the facts. If success means revealing an aspect, then that aspect is changed to make the situation worse, or perhaps a new aspect is also created. It may also be appropriate to grant a free invocation to an opponent. Sure, you reveal Silver Gives Them Power, but the characters also gain the aspect Believes Silver is their Weakness. Perhaps you learn the magistrate’s dark secret, but now The Authorities Are After You, and the GM gets to invoke it for free. This tends to create lots of opportunities for compels.
  • When you tie, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, it may need to be decrypted to be understood, or perhaps you inadvertently revealed the information to someone else as well. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem. An aspect revealed on a tie remains true as always, but someone opposing you gets a free invocation or a boost. Maybe you tipped someone off while you were poking around.
  • When you succeed, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect.
  • When you succeed with style, you gain the information and get a boost or you reveal the aspect and get a free invocation.

If you’re using discover to establish new information…

  • When you fail, you either fail to establish the information or you succeed at a serious cost. Maybe you simply realize that you must have been thinking about a fort in a different valley, or you just do not recognize the fighting style being used by your opponent. On the other hand, you might remember the fort was abandoned due to a plague, or perhaps you mistakenly conclude that your opponent was trained by Si-Juk – when he was actually trained by Si-Juk’s arch rival. Normally, establishing new information doesn’t result in creating new aspects, but failing could mean a new aspect is created that creates serious problems. You may have been able to learn what part of town the thief calls home, but now The Thieves Guild Has Taken Out a Contract on You. Truly abysmal failures might also warrant giving a free invocation to an opponent. Again, lots of fertile ground for compels can come from a failed discover roll.
  • When you tie, you confirm what you wanted to know, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, you might remember that the only way to reach the fort is to fjord a river, or maybe you mistake the girl who used to live around here for her sister. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem.
  • When you succeed, you establish the information as true within the game world.
  • When you succeed with style, the information is established as true and you get a boost, or the information becomes an aspect and you get a free invocation.

Discover in Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts

Discover is often used in challenges to gather information or supplies necessary to later actions in the challenge. Since the results of the challenge are determined after all rolls are made, a failure on a discover action often means that some of the information was wrong or the supplies were of poor quality, resulting in diminished or unintended results.

The discover action is rarely used to generate victories (unless the goal of the contest is to gather information in a limited amount of time), so discover sees little use in most contests. Similarly, the discover action is not used to accomplish many of the tasks commonly attempted during conflicts. However, discover can still play a key role in these situations by revealing aspects, which can then be invoked with a fate point or by creating an advantage.

Examples of Discover (In progress)

  • hw5
    From Bride of Re-Animator

    Studying a creature’s corpse to learn it is vulnerable to silver, followed by a create an advantage action to acquire silver weapons. Success with style on the discover roll could allow the character to remember the location of a nearby silver mine, or perhaps silver has declined sharply in value recently, making such weapons far less expensive.

  • Remembering that an old fort lies not far ahead while trudging through a blizzard, followed by an overcome action to successfully locate the fort. Unfortunately, the character fails the discover roll. They remember the approximate location of the fort, and manage to make their way there with an overcome roll. Little did they know that the fort has since become Home to a Pack of Wolves.
  • 7abd99f57de479f12c8c06b252607d10
    From Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London

    Searching through a library for information on a lost artifact and finding excerpts from an explorer’s journal describing where it was found, but the explorer moved the artifact and the journal itself is not located in the library. Notes in the library do mention the name of the last known owner of the journal. Succeeding with style might even reveal that the owner of the journal is currently in deep debt and in desperate need of money. In this case, acquiring the journal was intended as a source of opposition.

The Division – Review

The Division has been out for a couple of weeks now, and the first major update is expected in April. So why am I just now getting around to writing a review? Simple: I wanted to actually review the game – rather than just provide some early impressions based on beta or my first few hours after launch (like many other reviews I’ve seen). I’ve got over 70 hours logged on the game at this point, and I’ve experienced most – though not all – of what the game has to offer right now.


Overall, The Division is visually impressive. Admittedly, there is a noticeable difference between the version of the game shown at E3 2013 and the final PC version, even at maxed settings. (This was due to necessary changes to allow the game to be ported to consoles. I’m not a fan of that common practice, but that’s a topic for another time.) Despite this unfortunate fact, The Division is still gorgeous. Volumetric effects of smoke and steam, myriad light sources, etc. – all look great. This is also one of the few games where weather feels realistic. Walking down the street in a snow storm looks and feels completely different from walking down the same street during a sunny day. Snow will accumulate on your clothing during a storm (and slowly melt while you are indoors), and visibility is appropriately compromised. The day/night cycle is well done, and the game world feels different depending on the time of day and the weather.

Just a random cool buildings I happened to walk by while roaming Manhattan.

It’s also important to note that everything takes places within the game world. By that, I mean that the open-world PvE area, the Dark Zone (PvP), and the locations of the main missions all exist within the same instanced space. In other words, when you’re in the open world, you can literally hear what’s going on behind the massive wall that separates it from the Dark Zone. While inside a mission space, objects will often show up on your map that are located in the surrounding world. The day/night and weather cycles of the world also occasionally have an interesting effect on missions. Playing an outdoor mission in a snowstorm or at dusk is noticeably different due to changes in visibility. One mission in particular which I had played a few times already became more challenging when trying to deal with a sniper boss while the sun was setting directly behind him.

The game also runs very smoothly and looks great even on my aging rig. (I’m running 2x GTX 680s in SLI. High-end when they came out, but a bit dated now.) I will occasionally notice some slow-loading textures, but usually only when first exiting a safe house into the world proper, and the low-res textures that are visible in the meantime aren’t too jarring. Given the level of detail and size of the world this is understandable, and I’m glad they didn’t compromise the game just to speed up the texture-loading on some machines.


Simply put, the game is gorgeous, and the level of detail is superb. When you consider the open nature of the game world and the near absence of loading times, the level of detail in the game world is outstanding. Snow on the ground actually looks like snow – not just some white textures and a few white drift-like shapes – and you leave footprints. There’s junk everywhere – as you would expect when all hell has broken loose in Manhattan. Some of it is static (like heaps of trash bags), but plenty are represented as discrete objects (like cardboard boxes that move when you try to walk through them). Vault over a car with the hood open and the hood will close, and moving along a car while in cover will also result in you closing the car door. In fact, there’s even an achievement tied to doing just that.

The remains of a supply drop. Note the nice smoke effects – and this is not at max settings.

The effects of gunfire on cover are also highly detailed – broken glass, holes in walls (cars, barriers, etc.), burn marks, blowing out tires, and so on – though full-blown destructive environments aren’t implemented. There are myriad light sources throughout the city, and the game really maximizes the use of shadows to aid in immersion. Anti-aliasing is impressive, and jaggies are virtually non-existent. Really, Massive and Ubisoft need to license this engine – it’s called Snowdrop, by the way – as there is a great deal of potential here for a lot of different game styles. I found myself wishing The Division had some horror elements to the story, though the Dark Zone does sometimes have that sort of feel to it.


The sound effects and music are nothing mind-blowing, but they’re not bad. However, The Division does use sound to great effect in immersing the player in the game world. Your primary means of receiving information on missions is via radio, and more than a hundred phone recordings scattered about the world tell the story of the fall of Manhattan and its rapid spiral into anarchy. Pirate radio broadcasts also tell more about how some people feel about the existence of Division agents, people will occasionally yell at you from their windows, and you can overhear all sorts of interesting conversations in your base of operations. All of this serves to make the world feel alive – in some ways more so than even most MMOs, and certainly more than nearly all first-person shooters. The voice acting in particular deserves special mention.

Green Poison was unleashed on Manhattan on Black Friday.

Technical Polish and Bugs

Overall, the level of polish in The Division is quite high compared to most games at launch – especially compared to other massively multiplayer titles. There are very few bugs at all, and this marks one of the first times in recent memory that a game launched with sufficient server capacity. Queues occasionally exist during peak times, but a long wait is still on the order of 2-3 minutes and usually more like 60 seconds. I’ve encountered only four notable bugs. One was a side mission which couldn’t be completed because the enemies didn’t spawn – resolved by simply restarting the mission. One is an odd issue where some of your character’s stats don’t show up correctly in certain parts of the UI – not sure exactly what the deal is here, but simply looking on a particular tab is an easy workaround. I’ve had a couple of crashes when playing challenging missions in a group when a lot of fire and smoke effects were going on simultaneously – probably just due to aging hardware and simply logging back in puts me right back into the mission with my group. The last also relates to grouping for missions: Sometimes you will matchmake and travel to the mission start to find the mission won’t actually begin; the instance is bugged. It can sometimes take a few tries to join a working instance, but this is the most significant issue I’ve encountered thus far – and it really only impacts players at max level who are running the daily missions.


Long-time MMO players who relish fine-tuning every little aspect of their character’s appearance are going to be disappointed by The Division – it simply doesn’t have as many options as most MMORPGs. In my opinion, it doesn’t need endless options for customization and including them would only be irrelevant, not to mention taking development time away from more important pursuits. That said, there are still some good customization options.

Sporting my then-limited cosmetic options, as well as a modded assault rifle.

Character creation is simple and just allows you to essentially pick your character’s head. For some bizarre reason, this is the only time you have the opportunity to add glasses to your character. Other character cosmetics come in the form of clothing. There is a wealth of clothing to be collected in the game – at least 400+ pieces – that can be obtained via loot drops, purchased from an appearance vendor, or dropped as a thank you for helping random civilians in the game world. A few jackets are also awarded for collecting intel scattered about the world. The nice thing about all this is that your character’s appearance is largely cosmetic – none of that “everyone looks the same because they wear the same high level armor”. Your actual gear (e.g. gloves, mask, vest, pack, pads, etc.) look different depending on what you have equipped, but the stand-out elements of your character appear how you want them to. Which brings me to weapons and gear…

Some pieces of gear can be modified to provide different benefits, but the majority of gear customization is tied to weapons. Depending on the weapon, you can modify the magazine, underbarrel, muzzle, and sights – all of which have specific mechanical effects based on the mod used. In other words, this stuff isn’t cosmetic, it’s functional and significant. However, you can also apply a weapon skin to each weapon to alter its appearance. Collecting these has become something of a thing amongst many in the community.


Tied in with gear customization is crafting, which is also relatively well done. You can acquire crafting materials around the world, and once you locate them their position is marked on the map so you can farm them later – they refresh every couple of hours. There are three tiers of materials that align with five tiers of gear, and you can deconstruct unwanted gear for materials. Early in the game it is sometimes better to sell gear for credits if you haven’t been lucky with loot drops and need to purchase gear from a vendor. Later in the game, it’s usually better to deconstruct for materials as you can exchange lower-tier materials for high-end – and you’ll need plenty of those if you’re trying to craft anything close to your ideal gear and weapons. This is because of the way crafting works.

When you craft a piece of gear – a mask for example – you can choose the blueprint to use. Prior to endgame blueprints are awarded at the end of side missions, with high-end blueprints being purchased from certain vendors later in the game. This determines the level and general type of mask you are crafting (focused on firearms versus stamina, for example), but the actual attributes are rolled randomly when you craft the item. As a result, crafting becomes a significant endgame activity as players hope for the “perfect” item. In fact, a lot of the current endgame revolves around getting specific currency or materials needed to craft the highest level gear. There are still some issues here that are continually being balanced, but the overall result is that crafting remains relevant and provides motivation to continue playing.


Okay, now for how the game plays. In short, really well. The core gameplay is essentially that of an open-world cover-based shooter, and combat is satisfying. There is the issue of some enemies being “bullet sponges” – they just take an insane amount of damage to kill. However, this isn’t really noticeable until you start dealing with the Hard and Challenging versions of the missions or elite mobs in the Dark Zone. The AI is nothing spectacular, but enemy mobs definitely react in a more realistic fashion than many other games: they act based on what they see and hear. If they take cover and lose sight of you, they continue to operate based on the assumption that you haven’t moved. This creates great opportunities for flanking and introduces a degree of realism.

There are plenty of skills to choose from – each of which can be modded to provide different effects – and they are different enough from one another to allow for distinctive builds. Admittedly, some are much more prevalent and important than others once you reach endgame, but this is to be expected.

Working to bring down an elite enemy during a Challenging mission.

The bulk of your time in the PvE area will be spent roaming around between Encounters and Side Missions. You will encounter random roving mobs of rioters, escaped prisoners, and others; these mobs are unscripted which can sometimes result in some interesting developments. For example, when dealing with a group of five or so enemies, after I killed the first 4 the last one decided to fall back and take cover. I waited for him to reapproach, but he didn’t – then I heard nearby gunfire and decided to investigate. Evidently his retreat had brought him within sight of another group of rioters and sparked a gunfight between them. I sat back to watch and then mopped up what was left.

I later stumbled across a gunfight between some mercs gone bad (Last Man Battalion) and a group of escaped prisoners (Rikers). The two groups employed the same tactics against one another that I had encountered before, and it was satisfying to watch them take each apart until I decided to wade in and clean up.

Encounters are more scripted but generally revolve around defending an area against a few waves of enemies or exploring a contaminated area. These are also one of the primary means of gathering resources needed to upgrade your base of operations, which in turn unlocks more skills. Side missions are a little more involved and require you to rescue hostages, track down a particularly troublesome individual, or look for a missing person. This leaves the game’s main missions.

Main Missions = Dungeons

For those that are more familiar with first-person shooters, the game’s main missions are more like individual scripted levels on self-contained maps. For the MMO crowd, think of them as dungeons. Either way, the important things to understand about these missions is that they are the primary ways to advance the main storyline, they give you lots of resources to upgrade your base, and they scale based on difficulty and the size of your team. You can play these solo or in a group of up to four. As you are progressing through main story you will play them on Normal, and you can return later to try them on Hard once you have leveled up a bit more and gotten better gear.

Protect what remains…

Hard versions also play a key role in endgame activities, as 3 missions are designated as Daily missions on a rotating basis. Completing these will award you endgame currency (phoenix credits) and help get you ready for the Daily Challenging mission. The Challenging mission also rotates on a daily basis (though currently only between the same 4 missions) and awards you even more phoenix credits and a guaranteed piece of high-end gear. Unlike the daily Hard missions, the Challenging mission can be run multiple times per day and is currently the peak of PvE gameplay (i.e. outside of the Dark Zone).


On that note, let’s talk about grouping in The Division. As a player who tends to play most game solo – and who has so far played the majority of this game solo as well – I’ll say that the game is markedly more fun when playing in a group. Weather roaming the map or playing missions, the gameplay is just more enjoyable with at least one teammate. That said, the storyline and overall atmosphere of the game is probably best experienced solo, so a balanced approach is needed. After playing a lot of the Dailies in a group (virtually a must for the Challenging missions), I found myself wanting to find a group to explore the Dark Zone – essentially the only thing I haven’t yet accomplished in the game so far.
Grouping itself is fairly simply, you can approach other players in common areas (the initial hub and safe houses in each zone) and attempt to group, or you can use the matchmaking feature from common areas (or via the map for missions). If you have people on your Uplay friends list, you can also see who is currently online via the Uplay app and just click the Join link next to their name. This will launch the game and automatically put you into a group. Note that the only players you will encounter in the PvE area are those in your group; you can play the entire PvE area solo if you wish.

Exploring the Russian Consulate on Challenging. Actually, these guys didn’t speak a lot of English, but we still had a blast finishing this mission!

Voice chat is built into the game and is proximity-based, so you only hear people nearby or in your group. Regional chat is also available and can be hidden outside of common areas if you wish. This is one area in which The Division has a significant advantage over Destiny – with which there have been a lot of comparisons – as communication is simply easier in The Division and not limited to emotes.

End Game

The Division’s endgame essentially begins once you reach the maximum character level of 30, at which point the Daily missions become available. The focus of endgame is essentially a quest for the perfect loot – either crafted or dropped. Sources for loot drops, crafting materials, and currency for blueprints come primarily from Daily missions or the Dark Zone.

End Game

Dark Zone

The Dark Zone is really the only aspect of the game which I have not yet fully explored. It’s essentially a combined PvP and PvE area, and I’m generally not a big PvP kind of guy. There are plenty of articles and videos out there explaining what the Dark Zone is, but here’s the short version:

The Dark Zone is a separate area of the map with higher level enemies and loot that also allows for open PvP. Loot acquired in the DZ must be extracted via helicopter is specially designated locations before it can be used. Engaging your fellow agents allows you to potentially steal their loot, but also marks you as rogue and makes you a target for everyone else. You gain DZ experience and levels (as well as dedicated DZ currency) independent of the rest of the game, both from enemies and agents killed in PvP. You can also lose experience, levels and DZ credits with each death inside the zone. This all results in a tense gameplay experience that is reinforced by the design and feel of the Dark Zone.
Many of the game’s better blueprints are only available from DZ vendors and only craftable using special DZ materials. And those vendors (and many loot chests) are only available once you’ve reached DZ level 30 or 50. While it’s technically possible to accomplish this by grinding the lower difficulty DZ zones, that could take a while, so grouping up or forming temporary alliances works to your benefit – assuming you can trust those you are with.

Exploring the Dark Zone.

Massive is still working hard to balance the benefits and risks of going rogue – which is something of a challenge given that you always have players that want more of a cooperative or solo experience and others that want a grand melee deathmatch. Some players will like it and some will hate it no matter what, but for now I can say there is definite potential here and that the developers certainly seem willing to make continual adjustments based on community feedback. One positive aspect about The Division’s design is that while certain pieces of gear are only available via certain avenues, it is possible to get the highest level gear via either the Dark Zone or Dailies.

Other Issues and Ongoing Development

There are a couple of other issues with the game. New players at launch were greeted with a virtual line of players all waiting to access the same laptop. People had complete meltdowns over this rather odd design decision, but it not emblematic of the overall game and probably would not ever be an issue outside of launch weekend.
There is also a strong desire to have more of the buildings accessible so you can actually enter them. You can actually enter quite a large number of buildings – though the way in is not always obvious at first – but there are limits to how much the developers can create and how much of that would include meaningful content. I’d still like to see more buildings opened up down the road, hopefully with some purpose but even just for exploration. Some of these buildings might be planned for future content, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other big concern in the community is the lack of use of the massive PvE areas in endgame. Once you’ve completed all the encounters and side missions and found all the intel, there is very little reason to return to explore most of the map. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to fix this, and Massive has already said there are additions to endgame coming soon, so we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, the game’s first major update is due sometime in April and will add Operations (formerly known as Incursions), which are believed to be something along the lines of a large dungeon/mission or raid-like activity. Loot trading at the end of missions is also being added around that time. There are two additional free updates with new features and three paid expansions anticipated during the game’s first year. I’m looking forward to these, but the fact that the 3 paid expansions suffer from 30 days of exclusivity on Xbox One really pisses me off. A couple of days early access for one group or another is one thing, but a month of waiting for additional content that already exists just because of some exclusivity contract is the kind of thing the gaming industry can do without. Oh well, hopefully the free updates add enough to the endgame to keep me interested while I wait.

Snowstorm outside of the Base of Operations – more commonly referred to as the BoO.

What’s Still Needed

As mentioned, the PvE areas really need to be better integrated into the endgame experience. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished, but it needs to scale properly for both solo and groups to keep with the rest of the PvE elements in the game. This is arguably the one area where Massive can take a page from Destiny. Adding random events, bounties, and repeatable dynamically-generated side missions are just a few of relatively simple ways this area could be utilized, and the community has lots of great suggestions for more involved options.

Virtually the entire community would also agree there also need to be some tweaks to storage and weapon skins. Weapon skins are cosmetic, but because of how they are applied to weapons they are treated as mods in your inventory and take up valuable space. Combined with the limited inventory space in your pack and stash and the fact that you may want to keep different gear sets and mods for different builds and inventory space becomes an issue once you reach endgame. Easy to fix, but it needs to happen.

Balance issues still exist – depending on whom you ask – in the Dark Zone, but it seems the devs are willing to keep working on this. Many players also argue that there needs to be other ways of gathering the DZ-specific crafting materials (Division Tech), as their respawn rates and the fact that they exist in a PvP area makes farming them problematic. Again, lots of suggestions and lots of potential for a fix.

In One Word: Potential

Overall, the best way to sum up The Division is to say that the game has lots of potential. Plenty of players will hate it, usually because it does something differently from how it would if they made the design decisions – nothing new in the gaming industry. In the end, I’d say this game has more going for it than Destiny had at launch, and if Massive continues to devote sufficient time and resources to the game it should be around for quite a while. I’ve enjoyed it so far and cannot wait to see what’s next.

A couple of kids playing inside of a safe house. This isn’t part of any mission – it’s just detail.

Life Is Strange – Review

Short version: Life Is Strange is one of the most unusual video games I have ever played – and without a doubt one of the best written and crafted. While the play style and themes will not appeal to everyone, it is an extraordinary piece of storytelling that clearly demonstrates the power of video games as an art form.

It is a game about choices. It is a game about friendship.

If you are reading this, then you more than likely have read a few other things about the game. If you are unsure about trying it for yourself, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do you only enjoy action games or games that are challenging at a technical level?
  • Do you have trouble investing yourself in characters while playing games, watching movies, or reading books?

If the answer to both these questions is no, then you should absolutely play Life Is Strange.

How I (Finally) Played Life Is Strange

To be honest, I’m late to the party. I didn’t even pick up the game on Steam until after all 5 episodes were out, so my experience will be a little different from those that had to wait between episodes. Actually, I didn’t even play much of the game on my PC. I started it, but didn’t even finish the first episode. Looking back, it was simply too easy to be distracted by other things in the early parts of the game – largely because I was playing on my PC.

Three days ago, determined to give the game another shot, I purchased the Limited Edition of Life Is Strange for PS4. I finished it last night – and I don’t regret buying it twice for one second.


Aside – PC vs Console

I’ve seen a few reviews of Life Is Strange that compare the visual quality of the console version from that of the original PC. To put it bluntly, such comparisons are irrelevant. The visuals are about the same in either case, and this is not a game in which high resolution or graphical effects are important. That’s not to say the visuals of the game are not important – nothing could be farther from the truth – but those visuals are not related to the technical prowess of your chosen platform. Personally, I found the controls of the console version to be slightly more intuitive, but there are pros and cons either way. In the end, I think I found the game more enjoyable on the console because it was easier to immerse myself in the experience while sitting on my couch, in front of a large screen, surrounded by sound. It felt more personal this way.

First Few Minutes and Gameplay

My intention is to keep this review free of spoilers (You should absolutely AVOID SPOILERS if you haven’t played the game yet. Though I imagine it’s power will be felt even if some of the details are revealed to you ahead of time.), but I will describe what happens in the opening few minutes of the game. You play Max, an 18-year-old girl who has recently moved back to her home town to attend an art school and study photography. While she is struggling to fit in, another girl has recently gone missing. Max has an incredibly vivid dream of a tornado destroying the town, shortly before seeing her childhood friend get shot in the school bathroom. This is when Max discovers she has the power to rewind time…

The rest of the game is all about making choices and dealing with their consequences.

As you might imagine, the power to manipulate time lends itself to some interesting gameplay mechanics. Gameplay revolves around exploring the environment and speaking with characters, then making choices about what to do or say. The ability to rewind means that you can often try different options before deciding to move one. When Max rewinds time it moves around her, leaving her unchanged – along with just about anything in her possession. This enables her to take some creative approaches to problem solving. Overall, the game play is actually very simple, but it is used to great and powerful effect.


Sound and Visuals

The game’s sound is reasonably immersive and helps ground you in Max’s reality, but the music deserves special mention. The indie folk style is not really my cup of tea in the least (I tend towards rock, metal, and blues.), but it fits the game perfectly. The best way I can express just how superbly the music enhances the experience is with these two statements:

  • I’ve been listening to the soundtrack in my car for the past two days, despite not usually being a fan of the style, just to revel in the experience a little longer.
  • I suspect that anytime I hear this style of music in the future, I will be immediately reminded of Life Is Strange.

As for the visuals, the game’s art direction is beyond good – at once majestic and intensely personal. At first, the emphasis on photography in the game seemed a little superfluous. As the game went on, however, I began to appreciate just well the writers integrated the use of photographs into the themes and presentation of the story. In the second half of the game, photographs are used to great effect to illustrate how your choices have a ripple effect on the lives of those around you, and the importance of photos just increases as you progress through the story.

Feelings and Themes

At several points while playing the game, I was reminded of a couple other stories that involve a sense of mystery in a small town. Last year I watched the TV series Gracepoint (an American adaptation of the British Broadchurch), which is a sort of murder mystery set in a small coastal town. That sense of mystery, combined with the tension felt between a cast of well-rounded characters, was also strongly evoked in Life Is Strange. The game also reminded me of my time playing the first few hours of The Secret World. Small town, mysterious sense of danger, coming to grips with forces larger than yourself – all of these ideas exist in both games.

Life Is Strange also doesn’t shy away from some heavy topics and themes. Loss, murder, privacy, suicide, quality of life, love, insecurity, sexuality, and personal responsibility are just some of the themes explored in the story. One truly remarkable thing about Life Is Strange is how the writers have managed to explore these themes without really steering you in one direction or another – there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” decision, which is often true in the real world as well. Other games have tried to do this, often by making decisions and morality largely ambiguous, but Life Is Strange manages to pull this off without the same degree of ambiguity.

A lot of this is accomplished through the fine art of subtlety. For example, I don’t think anyone would reasonably say there is a lot of strong sexuality in this game – although a different developer or medium could certainly have incorporated more sexuality into this story had they wanted to. That said, many who have played the game feel strongly about some of the romantic undercurrents in parts of the game. The beauty of what the writers have accomplished is that a lot of what this game shows you is dependent on what you bring to it and how you perceive things. It can mean different things to different people. Personally, I think one of the great lessons from this game is how true friendship and love are really one and the same – it’s about something deeper than our common thoughts on sexuality and romance. It’s about caring for one another and being human.



Some aspects of the game’s final episode have been criticized as “undoing” much of what occurred in the first four episodes. While I completely understand why someone would come to this conclusion, I do not agree with it. I want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say this:

While your decisions late in the game can “erase” some of your earlier decisions, those early decisions are in no way invalidated. They remain relevant to the story, and arguably take on an even larger significance.

That one issue is really the only common criticism I have heard from those that have really played Life Is Strange, which is impressive on its own.

I will admit to being a little disappointed that the game was not longer, but that’s just because I wasn’t ready to be done with its characters and story. I should also point out that several of the plot threads could have been taken in another direction and developed into something much different – many of which could have been made into some seriously interesting and fun games. But at the end of the day, I believe the writers likely told the best and most powerful story they could – taking things in another direction or making the game longer would have taken away from the whole and compromised something truly remarkable. Honestly, I’m not sure how DONTNOD (the game’s developers) can hope to top this one, but I’m more than willing to give them the chance.

Closing Thoughts

Life Is Strange is an amazing game – an experience – that takes the player on an emotional journey few games can match. As I right this, I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with just how good this story really is and how to explain it. As is true of all great art, it means a lot of different things to different people. It is a story about time travel, loss, bullies, compassion, responsibility, courage, guilt, fear, understanding, and love.

It is a story about choices. It is a story about friendship.


The Division – Beta Impressions

Admittedly, I had lost much of my interest in The Division until recently.  What looked impressive – at least visually – at E3 a while ago seemed to have suffered from the now widely known downgrades, leading me to worry that Ubisoft was failing us yet again.  However, some of my friends from my Star Citizen org rekindled my interest.  I decided to preorder the game to get into the beta and also started poking about a bit to learn more about the game.

I’ve played the PC beta now, and it should be wrapped up soon.  I enjoyed the game, and I will be keeping my preorder – though I do have some lingering concerns.  Let us say that I am cautiously optimistic.  Here are my impressions of the game so far:

Performance, Visuals, and Controls

Overall, it appears that the graphics in the PC version are significantly better than those shown in console gameplay videos.  While at high settings the game still didn’t look quite as good as those earlier videos (your character doesn’t have a reflection in standing water/ice, for example), everything still looked good.

My rig includes 2 GTX 680 cards in SLI, and I was able to run everything on high – the game recommends a single GTX 970.  Everything was smooth and I didn’t experience any stuttering or other common issues.  When everything was running properly, I found The Division to be one of the most stable triple-A games I can remember.  However, Ubisoft does caution that nvidia users may currently suffer from some issues, and on a couple of occasions it appeared that some form of antialiasing or motion blur was acting up.  This resulted in everything appearing blurry and an odd halo effect around my character.  Simply restarting the game appeared to clear it up.

The biggest technical issue I experienced was a maddening tendency to crash because “Tom Clancy’s The Division has stopped working.”  This usually occurred after running the game for just a couple of minutes, and the lack of any explanation made it all the more frustrating.  In addition to the common “update your drivers” and “run the game in administrator mode” suggested fixes, it was also recommended to run the game in Windows 7 compatibility mode if running Windows 10.  It was also recommended to disable v-sync in-game as well as any third-party program features that involve an in-game overlay.  Both of these are things Ubisoft needs to get squared away before launch.  The issue of in-game overlays also strikes me as a little strange since it includes the overlays used by Uplay itself – and disabling the Uplay overlays actually results in a warning when trying to play The Division.

In the end, the change that appeared to have the most positive impact in letting me play the game crash-free was actually tied to how I manage my GPU.  Since my cards are slightly below the recommended spec, I was slightly overclocking them in addition to the normal fan speed boost.  Returning the cards to their default setting via Precision seemed to put an end to the crashes.  To be clear, there were no performance or heat issues prior to the crash, so this is a little odd in my experience.

Overall, everything is working well, but there are a few issues that need to be ironed out, and it’s important that Ubisoft gets this taken care of if they want a smooth launch.  I didn’t encounter any issues related to server loads, but I’m not sure they would have manifested during this beta.

Beta Limitations

On that note, this beta seemed a little limited to me.  It consisted of a single story mission, a few side missions, and several smaller encounters.  These all seemed to work well, but the fact that there were so few of them raises two concerning possibilities.  First, I hope that the limited number of missions in the beta is not indicative of a similarly small number of total missions in the final game.  If the rationale for the small offering is a reluctance to reveal a significant portion of the final game, this may suggest the game is small – too small to fair well post-launch.  Second, the small size of the beta could mean that the lion’s share of the game doesn’t receive sufficient testing.  Without that testing, there could be a lot of gameplay bugs in the final game – which would be similarly problematic.  Hopefully Ubisoft has a lot of internal testing going on to catch these issues before launch.

The beta was not only limited in terms of the number of missions available; entire systems were disabled during the beta.  Some of these appeared primarily story-based, such as the ability to view pieces of intelligence that had been collected.  This seems straightforward and probably doesn’t require much testing.  However, systems like crafting were also disabled during the beta, which is troubling.  Without testing, the crafting system could suffer problems related to bugs or imbalance.  Of course, it’s possible that the crafting system is so simple that testing is largely unnecessary, but that could be disastrous for a game that describes itself as a form of RPG.

Finally, I’m not sure how representative the beta map is of the final map.  The beta map felt large in terms of distance, but it amounted to a handful of streets with only a few functional buildings.  Unless the beta map is only a small portion of the game at launch, the game isn’t going to feel very open world unless more buildings can be entered than were available in the beta.


The gameplay felt solid, as did the combat.  Movement was smooth and didn’t suffer from stupid clipping or invisible wall issues common in open world games.  Accuracy and difficulty were good, though it’s unclear if the variety of encounters in the final game will lend itself to interesting gameplay over the long term.  I liked the customizability of the weapons and the fact that your appearance was largely separated from the gear you were wearing to boost your stats.

The abilities available in the beta were very limited – another area where I hope more testing isn’t needed – and were good for the most part.  However, I noticed that the Sticky Bomb felt largely worthless – it just didn’t seem to do much damage at all.  On the other hand, hitting the napalm tank strapped to a Cleaner’s back was most satisfying…

The encounters made sense in context and struck a good balance in terms of challenge and the time required to complete them.  The side missions were more involved and varied.  They also contributed to the story, though I’m not certain there is enough variety in the mechanics involved to keep the side mission from feeling distinctive from one another over the course of the game.

untitled-21_236847Story & Longevity

Let’s be clear – there is a lot of story potential in this game.  The cutscene following the single beta story mission and one of the side missions suggests that Ubisoft is capable of telling a good story – it remains to be seen if that ability will be applied throughout the game.

Since they are pitching this game as an RPG, Ubisoft needs to be sure to maintain a high focus on story and character development to avoid falling into a Destiny-like trap and becoming a one-dimensional shooter.  One way they can achieve this is to incorporate a gameplay element that has been used to great effect in other RPGs – meaningful player choices.  There is no indication of branching missions or storylines in the beta, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the larger game.  If Ubisoft doesn’t already have anything like this planned for launch, they would do well to incorporate story-based player choice in free DLC as soon as possible – and simply choosing what upgrades to work on first or abilities to utilize does not count.  I’m talking real character-tied choices that affect the game world and later missions.


I dabbled in the Dark Zone PvP (or PvPvE) area as well.  It has potential, but many players have expressed frustration with griefing, camping, and players generally killing one another for no reason other than “because they can”.  As a simple PvP zone, it is passable, but Ubisoft claims to want to make it something more.  A few tweaks here and there could do wonders, and the community hasn’t been shy about making suggestions.  There’s nothing that requires a massive rework, but this is another area that Ubisoft has some work to do if they want a good launch and positive reviews.

The game would benefit from some guild-like features.  Since you are limited to 4-person teams a massive guild system is unnecessary, but providing the ability to benefit from joining a guild or clan would be wise.  This could be coupled with clan-wide bonuses that could be expanded over time – similar to Guild Wars 2 perhaps.  Clan members could contribute crafting materials, DZ funds, etc. which could be used to construct clan upgrades over time.  Once complete, each upgrade could function similar to character perks that affect all members of the clan.  This would provide some long-term endgame goals and introduce a degree of sandbox gameplay.

Which brings me to my final thought:  As an online game, The Division needs to include at least some measure of sandbox gameplay to ensure long-term playability.  If the game consists of just the basic campaign, a handful of base expansions to earn, and the Dark Zone, I seriously doubt Ubisoft will be able to pump out DLC content at a quick enough rate to keep the game going and the community active.  Incorporating sandbox elements – which should usually be a no-brainer in an open world game – is often an effective way to ensure players maintain a vested interest in the game between major story additions.  An in-depth crafting system is one common example, but the beta has revealed nothing in this area.  At this point, we’ll just have to see how things go once the game has launched.

For now, I remain cautiously optimistic…