Friday, July 30, 2010

Tommy's Take on Fortune's Fool

“Fortune's Fool” is a Shakespearean turn of phrase that says that men are just puppets under Fate's control.  It's also a new role-playing game by Pantheon Press that places the heroes of the game largely at the mercy of a Tarot deck, known in the game as a Fate Deck.

Fortune's Fool is set in an alternate history Earth filled with the usual fantasy races such as elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs and goblins.  So, if you don't like orcs, dwarves and elves?  Nothing to see here.  Move along.  Come back in a few days and I'll review something else.

Set in Renaissance Europe, the book attempts to disperse the fantasy races around logical areas, such as concentrating dwarves to the north, placing the elves in France, and so on.  Though orcs and goblins are frowned upon by society at large, they are not inherently evil, being a PC option.

The book itself is a softcover, digest sized black and white product retailing for $20 (with a limited, full color version for $35 and a PDF for $10), though it does require a Tarot Deck in order to play.  Other than a crazy girlfriend who had a tarot deck, I didn't know much about them and so I thought I could substitute my Ravenloft Tarokka deck...I was wrong.

The system, as mentioned, relies on a tarot deck.  Generally, you just draw a card and if it's equal to or lower than the relevant stat or skill, you succeed.  If not, you fail.  In addition, the different suits of the Minor Arcana are designated as Fortune Smiles or Fortune Frowns, and most of the Major Arcana will be noted as Fortune Shines or Fortune Weeps.  These help determine the level of success or failure.  If you have an extra chance of success, that's a Double Draw, meaning you draw two cards and take the best one.  If you have an extra chance of failure, that's a Double Black Draw, and you have to draw twice and take the worst.

Character creation is somewhat reminiscent of a lifepath system, in which you make a number of decisions that decide your character's stats, which are Agility, Body, Heart, Perception, Status and Martial Training.  The first five are ranked from 0 to 12, while Martial Training can go below 0 and up to 7.  Your race grants your starting stats, based off of a racial template, as well as indicates which suits are Fortune Smiles and which are Fortune Frowns.  In addition, race gives you skill options and your choices of Religion.  The elves are a touch different from normal in that they are immortal, and no new elves have been born in 15 centuries...they also do not sleep, and cannot be harmed by disease or poison.

Next, you select your gender.  This one will be a little controversial, as gender does alter your statistics, even if it's a minor change.  It also provides another skill from a gender specific life: So for those of you sensitive about such things, women are both less hardy and are better cooks.  Being a woman also grants you the first two possible Fortune Shines cards, Empress and Lovers.

Then you move to size, ranging from Tiny to Huge, with three steps in between.  This is all relative, however, so a Huge dwarf is still very likely shorter than small orc.  Size category alters your stats further, as well adding Fortune Shines and, if you're Tiny, another skill.

Age is ranked from Kid to Elderly, with appropriate modifiers along the way...the most noticeable being that your skills grow as your age grows.

Then we move to Birthright, which includes Eldest Child, Middle Child, Youngest Child, Seventh Child, Only Child, Orphan and Bastard.  The Middle Child, for instance, gains no modifiers or skills, but does get four Fortune Shines cards.  The Seventh Child is physically weaker, but has access to arcane powers.

Then you select your native environment, from City to Country to Nautical to Wilderness.

After that is Social Class, including Peasantry, Bourgeoise and Nobility.

The next big controversial point is going to be Religion...complete with a real world list from Catholicism to Judiasm to Moslem and Paganism.  Elves have heavily converted to Catholicism, just so you know.  Religion grants you Fate Twists, which are metagame abilities that allow you to screw with the Fate Deck.

All the MAJOR choices are finished.  Now you can increase one primary statistic that isn't Martial Training, follow the simple formulas to derive your secondary stats, determine your Skill Draws based off of the formula listed for each skill, then do a Fate Test and add the result to your Status to determine Wealth level.  Pick a number of Martial Skills equal to your Martial Training (these resemble Feats from D&D 3rd Edition), and then draw your Fate Twists as listed under Religion.  Every card you draw has some kind of special ability, such as Ill Omen which forces the Death card into the top 3 spots on top of the Fate Deck, Hunch allowing you to peek at the top card or Fat Chance, which takes any Minor Arcana cards of your choosing out of the boneyard (discard pile) and puts them back into the Fate deck.

Once this is done, use your Wealth level to pick your gear...if you try to use an item “above your class”, Fate will screw with you until you stop.

Your Fortune Smiles/Shines/Frowns/Weeps card are not set in can change them by diminishing your Fate Pool, as well as changing Fate Twists, etc.

Character creation seems pretty cool.  I like Lifepath systems.  In fact, I found a random Tarot Card generator, so I'm going to go through character generation now:

Tanjlock Sarlon is an elf, living outside of Rome.  He starts with Agility 7, Body 4, Heart 7, Perception 6, Status 7 and Martial Training 2.

His Fortune Smiles is Swords, his Fortune Frowns are Cups, Pentacles and Wands.

We are gonna give him Literacy and Arcane Sense, I think.

He's a male, so that boosts his Status up to 8.  I think he'll take Swimming as his skill.

Going dead Joe Average on size, but he does gain Temperance, Judgement and World as Fortune Shines cards.

We skip Age and Birthright, but Tanjlock is a Wilderness sort.  This raises is Heart to 8, Perception to 7 and lowers his Status back to 7.  He gains High Priestess as a Fortune Shines, and the skills Survival, Fletching and Tracking.

Social Class?  We're going Peasantry.  This boosts his Body to 5, but lowers his Status to 5.  He gains Strength, Hanged Man and Sun as Fortune Shines, plus Running, Construction, Climbing and Vocal Control to skills.

Tanjlock never converted to Catholicism, keeping to the Pagan ways.  This gives him 1 Fate Twist, and he adds Culinary, Sixth Sense, Fey Magic and Wiccan Craft to his skills.  I think I have inadvertantly made him a spellcaster.

We're going to boost his Body up to 6.

His secondary attributes are Dodge: 7, Hand Attack 4, Ranged Attack 4, Movement 6, Initiative 7, Stealth 7, Hit Points 26.

For wealth, I get two draws (for being an elf).  I have Ace of Wands and Knight of Swords.  Since Swords is a Fortune Shines, I go with that and add +1 to my Status of 5, getting a 6.  Double checking the chart, I find I'm Middle Class.  Not bad.

For my Martial Skill, I'm taking Toughness, which lets me ignore Stun and Incapacitation on successful Heart checks...and since I have a Heart of 8, that's not shabby at all.

My one Fate Twist is Magician, which gives me Premonition.  This lets me look at the top 3 cards and discard 1, forcing the GM to shuffle those two and one other back on top of the deck.  I can pick my Middle Class gear and I'm off.

Yeah, that's kinda cool.

Chapter two lays out all the skills, Martial and otherwise, in detail...while three goes into the Fate Twists.  It's worth noting that while the game has a much larger skill list than I tend to like, I don't mind it here since your actual skill choices will be dictated by your character creation do always have a choice, it's just a limited one based off of your selections.  I think it works very well.

Chapter four is gear, listing everything with a fairly basic block, including minimum Martial Skill, number of hands required, minimum Wealth level and damage.  Also included in this chapter are armor, shields and animals, for those that like their wardogs and such.

Chapter five is spells, and breaks magic down in types: Fey, Gypsy, Kabbalah, Wiccan and Witchcraft.  Each type of magic has Basic, Advanced and Mastery spells, getting more and more powerful as you go.  As noted above, Tanjlock has access to both Fey and Wiccan magic.  This gives him some nice effects, such as Ancient Law which eliminates the damage dealing potential of metal weapons and the ability to control animals.  Some spells require incantations, some just a word, some require an additional sacrifice.  The draw required for each spell is clearly listed in it's description as well.  Resurrection Magic is possible at a cost to both caster and subject, in the Master Wiccan list, though Witchcraft has a darkly perverted version that raises undead minions.

Chapter six details four important cards that have additional effects on gameplay: Wheel of Fortune, Death, The Tower and The Fool.  Death, for instance, when played to the table makes all attacks more lethal, until it has claimed a victim.  Very nice touch.

Chapter seven is Combat, which details the intricacies of using the Tarot cards for the combat system.  NPCs always react in the middle of the PCs who had successes on initiative and those who failed on initiative.  Fortune's Fool is a “player's perspective” game, which means that everything is done through them.  NPC's don't attack, PC's dodge, for instance.  The chapter (in fact, the whole book) is written very clearly, with several clearly laid out tables to aid you.

Chapter eight talks about the world, breaking down the alternate history...such as the Persian orc Emperor Xerxes, who battled the Spartan dwarves.  The Roman Empire was an elven empire, and shortly after the Crucifixion, they were struck childless.  From there it moves to the setting's present, detailing the regions and countries and their ethnic make-ups, such as Bavaria being primarily dwarven versus Prussia's heavy orc population.

Chapter nine is advice on running the game, such as what to put into the time period and what not to, noting that orcs and goblins should be treated like foreigners and not monsters, and stressing that the game is meant to be at least somewhat lethal.  It also devotes a few paragraphs to player versus player conflict, since the game is written to assume that players will be acting in every action against an NPC, so player versus player will change the dynamic.  The bestiary covers the basics of animals and monsters, namely description, Hit Points, Movement, Attack information, Defense and any Special Abilities.  There isn't a ton of information in a monster's stat block, so it's incredibly easy to add a monster if you like.

A two page character sheet, followed by a relisting of every table in the book wrap it up, with a cheeky goblin-as-Mona Lisa picture.

 If you don't like orcs, dwarves and elves?  Stay away.  If you don't like gimmicks and fiddly bits?  Stay away.  That said, Fortune's Fool is a very clearly written, very affordable (especially if you already own a Tarot deck) fantasy RPG that does hit on a setting that you don't see overused in RPGs: Renaissance Europe.  Probably the biggest flaw I see with the game is “What do you do with it?”  I mean, there are some monsters roaming the lands, but it doesn't assume the same dungeon crawl mentality you find in most fantasy games, and there's not a lot of actual campaign advice in the rulebook, which is otherwise very excellent.  The art in the game is very cute, with some classic, renaissance era paintings rejiggered to show fantasy races in their place (such as the aforementioned Goblin-as-Mona Lisa).  If you're looking for something just a little bit different to play with, head over to and order it...if the previous disclaimers didn't run you off, then it's at least worth the $20 for the black and white version or the $10 for the PDF.  For me, I don't particularly care about the Renaissance period, but if I had a deck of Tarot cards in hand, I might be inclined to divorce the system from the setting and go for something a bit more traditional in my fantasy. In fact, these guys may have just convinced me to buy one.