How to Play Tabletop Without Breaking the Bank

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I was inspired to write this by Suze, who left an interesting comment about the cost of tabletop RPGs in my Genesys first impressions post. In many ways, I agree with her. Tabletop gaming is an expensive hobby, as the many times that I’ve come away from my Friendly Local Game Store, FLGS in gaming parlance, having spent over $50.

I’m a college student, I’m not swimming in money. In the FLGS I go to I can easily identify dozens, if not hundreds, of game systems. There’s no way I can afford to buy all of them, let alone sit down with my players and run them through a new system every time I pick them up. So what do you do with that dilemma?

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A First Impression of Genesys

 

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Genesys Core Rulebook and One Set of Dice. Photo by Dylan Greene

 

When I heard the news about Fantasy Flight Games’ decision to genericize the Star Wars RPG with Genesys, I was definitely interested.

While my experience with the Star Wars RPG was poor, I also took the time to read reviews and I know that playing with a knowledgeable group is key. It seemed like if I understood the dice system that I would probably have plenty of fun. I also didn’t feel like investing in a system that was only going to work inside the Star Wars universe, as expansive as that universe is.

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Victoriana: A Game Unplayed

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When it comes to tabletop RPGs, I didn’t always have the criteria I outlined in my previous post, but I actually gained this insight by picking up a game and then…well I never got to play it.

I frequently test the waters and do world-building by playing tabletop RPGs, and when I began my journey into Cloudrunner I didn’t originally intend on using Fate Core. I went out and bought a copy of Victoriana, as that seemed like the best fit at the time for steampunk.

Ultimately, both my players and I passed on the game, and I instead ran it in Fate Core, and that was a decision I’m glad about. But why did I veto this game?

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Best Place To Start Is At the Beginning: Creating Great Openings For Your Tabletop RPG Campaigns

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When I began writing fiction, one of the things that was drilled into my head was that I absolutely needed to get the beginning right. It’s the beginning of a story that engages the audience, one that sets audience expectations and can easily derail a story if screwed up.

If one looks back at older books or movies, they’ll quickly notice that it often takes a long time for things to get going. Back before the internet when access to culture in both film and literature was a lot more constrained, people simply accepted infodumps and slow openings because they didn’t have much in terms of entertainment.

Modern audiences, by contrast, have tons of books, films, games, and other forms of entertainment at their fingertips. A storyteller has to grab their audience quickly, or they’ll be tuned out.

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A Twist of Fate

 

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Photo by Dylan Greene

 

I remember when I was looking for a setting-neutral RPG to play when I wanted to play something outside of Dungeons & Dragons. Originally, I was playing d20 Modern for a Silent Hill campaign but with the end result having so many rules thrown out for the sake of streamlined play and less searching through the rulebook that 3.5e derived systems often entail.

I was directed to a system known as Fate Core and it quickly became my go-to universal RPG system. While I still enjoy D&D, I have a particular fondness for Fate Core’s sheer flexibility and design elegance.

It took a bit of a learning curve for my d20 regulars to get used to it. I ran a single Silent Hill session which was not so well-received. Then I took it to another group and the outcome worked better. But it was when I ran two steampunk campaigns in a homebrew universe (Cloudrunner) that I was able to truly explore the system.

Much like how D&D opened up a world of possibilities within a fantasy universe, I was similarly engaged by the immense amount of possibilities that Fate Core had to offer.

A World Beyond

The system’s modularity makes it incredibly simple to tweak, it’s something of a GM’s dream RPG. The merger of mechanics and storytelling, in particular, stood out as brilliant. While a game like D&D often segregates its mechanics and narrative, Fate Core ties them together in a way that gives narrative progression mechanical weight.

The key to a character is the usage of Aspects. These are small character traits that say something about them. For example, “Plucky Airship Mechanic” can be used mechanically in relevant rolls. This allows for a more flexible implementation of characters than strictly defined class roles. Fate Core uses skills and stunts, which are like feats in D&D. Its lighter cousin, Fate Accelerated boils them down into approaches.

Fate Core overcomes the “combat first, roleplay second” nature of d20 based games by folding combat into the broader “conflict”. By making stress tracks instead of the typical hit points and by allowing those to go beyond physical, one can make mental stress attacks. Extending beyond those two is also possible, and in one campaign I portrayed a conflict between nations with political and military stress.

Character creation, normally framed as a necessary step to reaching play in other games, is instead treating as an act of play itself. It’s also collaborative and does a great job of connecting characters together to create interesting character dynamics.

The Bronze Rule, or what’s commonly referred to as the Fate Fractal, posits that anything and everything can be made into a character or have gameplay mechanics of a character applied to it. In my Cloudrunner games, airships would often be given this treatment. But you can also take mechanical pieces such as aspects, skills, stunts, stress tracks, and consequences a la carte.

Of course, players looking for large lists of tables aren’t going to find it here. It is not as crunchy as a system like GURPS, and it does take a slight shift in mindset to play. But it also benefits from modern design and is additionally easy on the wallet with the core rulebook costing about $25 and ends up being very portable.

In many ways, Fate Core has become my go-to RPG and it’s one that I’m looking forward to exploring more.