Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tommy's Take on Agents of SWING

Okay, on one hand, I haven't found a FATE book that I could really get into. On the other hand, I have come to expect lots of good from Postmortem Studios, whether the book is written by James "Grim" Desborough (as this one is) or his protege Ian Warner (seriously, check out the Tough Justice review I posted yesterday).

Agents of S.W.I.N.G. has been quite the success for Postmortem Studios, but can it sway a guy like me, who has been less than enchanted with the FATE system?

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: No one can write a small FATE book. This is a scientifically proven fact. Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is no exception, weighing in at a hefty 344 pages and $9.99 in PDF or available in both softcover and hardcover from Lulu. There are also two supplements already, the Agent's Casefile and the Control's Casefile, each available for free if you download, or in print for under $5.

The premise is that Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is a FATE-powered Spy-Fi game set in the 60s and 70s and drawing from sources like The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE and James Bond. SWING is the "Supreme World Intelligence Network Group", a secret espionage agency that is basically holding off all the bad stuff that the Cold War powers can't be bothered with because they are too busy suspecting each other of Very Bad Things.

Each player needs three six sided dice, apparently of different colors (any colors will do, but the author recommends red, white and blue), and I would note that Pandora can be used to set up a good 60s and 70s soundtrack for you if you like background music.

The Orientation Chapter is a well-written piece that tries to set the stage for roleplaying in 1967, noting not only the differences in philosophies, but in the flow of information as well (governments and media outlets were the end-all, be-all, you know). From there we dig into the mysterious organization one knows how long it's been around, where the money comes from, and it's structure. Section 1 is Command, 2 is Administration, 3 is Quartermaster, 4 is Finance, 5 is Crime (as in "fighting", not "committing"), 6 is Information, 7 is Deadly Force, 8 is Uncanny Affairs, 9 is Specialists, 10 is Acquisitions, 11 is Internal Affairs, 12 is Espionage and 13 is -- well, there is no 13. Stop asking. Interestingly, a prototype supercomputer named ERIC2 is "boss" of the organizations, selecting agents for missions from the pool, sometimes seemingly at random. Each section is explained in detail, what they do, both at base and in the field. This is some interesting stuff...for instance, section 7 (the assassins) also double as "Jacks of All Trades"...the Finance Department, in the field, can requisition large sums of money at a moment's notice, etc. As you may have guessed, Section 11 (Internal Affairs) works under cover...even hiding their purpose from their fellow Agents.

SWING deals with organized crime, secret societies, mad science gone amok, the supernatural and even The Cold War. In all, the Orientation chapter provides a very extensive look at how the Agency operates, but still reads well and reads quickly.

The Induction chapter is character creation. First, get a concept, and then a name. FATE characters are defined in no small part by Aspects, and you take one based off of your Section. The author provides three sample Aspects for each Section, like Deadly Force "I Never Miss, Unless It's On Purpose" or Internal Affairs "Forever Vigilant". Next, an Aspect needs to be keyed to your character's Past, and finally, their Cover (every Agent has a cover story). From there, you define five more Aspects for your character, and then there are about 30 skills (ranked +8 to -3), with 20 points to spend. Finally, you get four stunts, of which there are a crap ton from which you can choose. You get a number of FATE points equal to 10 minus your starting number of Stunts.

One thing I've never been a fan of is really abstract damage, which FATE uses. There are three "Stress" tracks, Physical Stress, Composure Stress and Social Stress. Characters can opt to take "consequences" instead of suffering Stress damage.

I do like Advancement, which awards Skill Points at the beginning of a session and encourages you to spend them in the middle of the session, presumably when a new skill would be incredibly useful.

For most actions, you roll one of your dice and subtract another from it, then add your relevant skills to it to determine your Effort. The margin of success (or failure) are called Shifts, and are sometimes just cosmetic, but other times (such as in combat) play an important role in resolution. This can range from Disaster to Significant Failure to Failure to Minimal Success, Notable Success or Amazing Success. If you get more than three Shifts, you get a Swing die, which can be rolled with your positive and negative dice, and used to replace one or the other.

You can spend FATE points to activate Aspects, gaining bonuses to actions, or activate your own negative Aspects in order to regain FATE points. This also allows for some "creative editing"...making small changes to a scene that might benefit you.

Helpfully, we also get a list of examples of Consequences here, for each category and severity. A minor Physical consequence might be heavy bruising, while an extreme one could be crippled, for instance.

The Skills and Stunts chapter starts off by breaking down all of the skills, including any special uses of the skill (like Empathy being used to uncover Social or Mental Aspects). Similarly, all of the stunts are detailed here, like All The World's A Stage, which prevents you from making a worse impression than you started with, or Made of Steel, which lets you avoid your first point of Physical Stress.

The Quartermaster chapter is the equipment chapter, although it is handled differently than some games, as working for an agency provides you with a certain amount of equipment for each mission (three sets of ID is standard issue for SWING). It's a pretty decent list, covering melee, ranged and even explosive weapons...and weapons can even gain Advances like Accurate or Poisoned. A healthy list of spy equipment is also covered, like safecrackers, parachutes and so on, with their own list of Advancements. Of course, vehicles are also listed, with Advances like Caltrops, so your sports car can burst the tires of those following them in a high speed chase!

The GM chapter hits a lot of the old standbys, but also covers "Plot Stress", which is essentially a running tally of a minimum number of tasks that must be completed before the PCs can get on with the next scene. This also runs through a bit of pacing, such as the PCs getting hit with setbacks. A catch-all of miscellaneous rules are also present here, from falling damage to being set on fire to poisons and diseases. This chapter also discusses Villains, Henchmen (their right hand men) and Goons (the mooks). Villains are statted up just like PCs, Henchmen are slightly more abstracted and Goons are basically in a group before they can amount to a threat.

The Organisations chapter is all about building organisations, beginning with Scale (from Tiny to Enormous), which also affects the number of Skills and Aspects the organisation has. Next, you set the Scope, which can range from Local go Global. Oddly, this is one of the few chapters that doesn't really provide any examples, and it is sorely missed.

SWINGers is a bunch of sample characters/NPCs, a great many of whom are very thinly veiled take-offs on famous characters who served as inspiration for the source material...including The Professor, in case you're curious as to how to stat up The Doctor (as in Who?) in Agents of SWING.

A handful of villainous organisations (including a neo-nazi group and the giggle-inducing control freaks known as CONDOM) is laid out, serving also as examples of the Organisation rules from a couple of chapters back, plus providing examples of villains, henchmen and goons.

The Years is a timeline covering the 60s and 70s.

A whole slew of handouts follows, from character sheets to how chase scenes are handled to weapon and vehicle stats. There's even a table of contents at the back of the book, right before the index.

WHAT WORKS: I think I actually "get" FATE now, in part because of the author's writing and examples, and in part because of my experience with ICONS, which really does work as an "introduction to FATE". The author does a great job, however, especially with providing examples and with laying out the functions of SWING...the part about Sections and what they do in and out of the field is just great work. I admit I'm not up on my Spy-Fi, so I know I missed some references in the SWINGers chapter, but the ones I did catch were pretty great. The art, when used, is pretty evocative of the tone and never overwhelms the book.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I'm still not sold on FATE as being something me or my normal players would be huge fans of, but that's a personal preference and not a knock on the writing. Really, my biggest complaint is that I think it could have been organized better...especially when you have things like a two page list of Stunts...and later a list of stunts with a quick description...and then a whole chapter devoted to explaining each of the stunts...and then a handout with all those stunts on it. I like quick reference, but that felt excessive. Ultimately, it is a minor complaint as the book never feels "padded" and is certainly not overpriced, in my view. That said, I would have liked a sample treatment on Supernatural and Extranormal adversaries, since a whole section of the Agency is devoted to them.

CONCLUSION: I think it says a lot that FATE is considered "rules-lite", but the author got nearly 20 pages of handouts out of the system. Personally, I'm still not sold on FATE outside of the "beginner's version" found in ICONS, BUT this is a well written incarnation that remains focused on what it is trying to do (with the Spy-Fi genre). As mentioned above, I would have liked a few examples of using supernatural type opposition, since there is a whole Section of the Agency dedicated to it, especially for GMs who have little prior FATE experience to draw from.