Fading Suns (Second Edition)
Author: Bill Bridges, Brian Campbell, Andrew Greenberg, Robert Hatch, Jennifer Hartshron, Chris Howard, Sam Inabinet, Ian Lemke, Jim Moore, Rustin Quaide
Company/Publisher: Holistic Design Inc.
Line: Fading Suns
Page count: 308
SKU: FS# 202
Capsule Review by Derek Guder on 09/13/99.
Genre tags: Fantasy Science_fiction Far_Future Space Conspiracy Post-apocalypse
I saw ads for Fading Suns in gaming magazines years ago and I was intrigued by the art and the hints at a "Renaissance in Space" setting. I then got an opportunity to play in a short demo game at GenCon several years ago, run by one of the game's authors, and I was instantly hooked. I loved the universe, it's richness, it's detailed history, and the conflicts that permeated it. I ended up buying almost every supplement since then (although there are fewer than I would have preferred) and I only grew to love the game more. Sadly, it has always been shackled with a rather bad system, however. I've read the system and looked at it in abstract, and it seems to work all right, but when I ran a game on my own, I found that no one was able to accomplish anything at all. Failures and fumbles were exceedingly common, and success, no matter how minor, was something to shout about and celebrate.
When I heard that the game was going to have a second edition, besides being overjoyed at the prospect of a harcover book instead of the softcover one I had already (and one that had seen more than its share of beatings, strange for one of the least used books on my shelf), I had hoped that the system would be cleaned up. Admittedly, I was secretly hoping that it would be completely trashed and replaced with a new one, but I knew that wouldn't happen, so I was hoping for workable tweaks.
Unfortunately, the second edition did not do that. Most of the changes were focused on character creation and damage, and nothing for the rules themselves, sadly. The game is still brilliant and I still recommend the second edition to anyone who like science fiction or science fantasy, but it is still not everything that it could be.
Prologue: Alustro's Quest
The new rulebook, like all other Fading Suns products, opens with a letter from Alustro, the young Eskatonic priest who is very familiar to any fan of the game. This letter to his uncle, a high-ranking priest in the Church of the Celestial Sun, is not the best bit of fiction I've seen preface a supplement, but neither is it the worst. At times, it does seem to try to explain the setting (a bad thing for fiction), but that is balanced out by some of the great images and scenes it describes. A workhorse entry, and nothing more, not really comparing to the better Alustro fiction that Holistic Design as put to print.
Like White Wolf, Holistic Design prefaces their books with short introductions, summaries of the contents of the book and tips on how to use them. Not a really surprising similarity, as the creators of both Holistic Design and Fading Suns were the initial developers of both Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse, a fact that I found advertised on the back of the book, surprisingly enough. A fan of the World of Darkness will likely find Fading Suns to their liking, although this game has a much richer and more detailed setting and history than most White Wolf books (Trinity being an exception, the game has a setting just a rich and characters often much more human, but it also has many central setting flaws that Fading Suns lacks). This is also where the book introduces the idea of the "Passion Play," an idea that I would imagine is very close to the hearts of the creators of the game, since it is referred to frequently on the website and in advertisements. The idea that the game should deal with grand themes affecting the universe and be driven by passionate emotions, in other words, take on an epic scale, is central to the vision that created the game. While I don't share the same view of Fading Suns, preferring a much more "down to earth" game myself, it does provide for another layer to the game, and fits well with its science fantasy feel.
Chapter One: the Universe
This chapter, beginning with a beautiful mural depicting the Prophet and his eight disciples, details the history and factions of the Known Worlds. Starting with "prehistory" (pretty much anything before 2100 A.D.) to the setting of the game, 4999 A.D., six years after the coronation of the first Emperor four centuries. The history section, sadly enough, was one of the worst of its types I have seen Holistic Design put out, only the history of the Symbiots in War in the Heavens: Lifeweb put me off more, and for different reasons. Instead of the detailed and vibrant history that I had come to love from reading such books as Lords of the Known Worlds and Priests of the Celestial Sun, I found a dry and annoyingly convenient history that did not serve to stir my heart like older books had done.
The basic premise of the setting is that some ancient alien race built gigantic jumpgates in many different systems. They disappeared long before humanity reached space through those gates, but they left the key to interstellar space to humanity. Man spreads through these gates like wildfire, encountering a few alien races along the way, builds a Republic that eventually falls, build another Republic only to have that fall as well and now, after centuries of interstellar Dark Ages, an Empire is trying to rise again. Unfortunately, the suns have also begun to inexplicably fade, giving rise to cults and millenialism. That summary doesn't do the game setting, however, because Holistic Design has truly managed to create an incredibly vibrant and detailed universe through their supplements, surpassed only by Blue Planet.
The sections on society, however, were much more interesting. While the houses were as stereotypical as only a single page description can make them, exceptions were mentioned. After reading the noble sourcebook, however, I no longer feel confidant saying that the rich detail and history of the houses can be even alluded to with just the information in the basic book. Sadly, space consideration prevent depth or a closer examination of the minor houses in addition to the five major ones, but there were interesting tidbits like the "Inside the Noble Mind" sidebar that helps explain a noble's psychology, something that lots of players should keep in mind. In addition, there is a short discussion of a noble's entourage, etiquette, duels and the Emperor. While seemingly small, things like the entourage are often forgotten in character creation. Most people don't immediately start thinking about who their bodyguard will be when they distribute their points.
The sections on the Church sects and League Guilds were also nice enough, and the Church information was even nice enough to mention that most priests do devoutly care about their flock. That is an important note in a game where the church has an active and deadly Inquisition often focused on destroying technology. It was also nice enough to describe just how accepted the other sects are and also has a short discussion on just how much power the Inquisition has, which is again something that is often overlooked in a game. The League sections details the five major guilds but also mentions the number of minor guilds, as well as some basic business practices, the Academy Interrata and a short look at piracy. Thankfully, the Muster (one of the major guilds) comes across as more the laborer's guild it is than the rampant slavers people view it to be. While the Muster does indulge in slavery and indentured servitude, there is much more to it than that.
The alien sections are too short for my tastes, but then again alien sections are always too short for me. Aliens should be just that, alien, and sometimes Fading Suns falls a little short of that. The Ur-Obun and Ur-Ukar look like Star Trek aliens and their short sections have just about as much depth, sadly. That is largely unavoidable, however. Unfortunately, their short sections still carry the "Obun are good, Ukar are bad" overtones that I had hoped that Children of the Gods had dispelled. I can understand space considerations, but that is still a galling annoyance. Another flaw is that it is still not completely clear just how common and "free" aliens are in the Known Worlds, but it is much clearer than in first edition. I think that the murkiness is to allow different game masters to manipulate it as they want, but the book will talk about the oppression of aliens in one section and then refer to how they are autonomous and have rights in another. I think that a short side-bar or a few paragraphs could have cleared this up in a heartbeat, so I will include it as a minor flaw.
The chapter rounds out with mention of alien threats from beyond the borders of the Empire (the Vau and Symbiots) and a few myths and legends of the game setting, although those stories seems to be given a certain definite "truth" to them.
The most annoying feature of the society section of the first chapter was the repeated mention of why this group of the group would join an adventuring party. The second edition rulebook has a greater emphasis on the Questing Knights and their parties, which seems to be more catering to role-playing groups than it does enhancing the setting. I can understand the inclusion of a section talking about why members of factions that conflict with each other would associate, and mention of the fact that members of two different power bases are more likely to associate than if they were among the same was useful, but a sidebar would have been more appropriate. The continual insistence and mention of adventuring parties gets annoying really fast.
Chapter Two: Rules
This is where I think that Fading Suns falls on its face. The rules seem simple enough, add a characteristic (rated 1-10) to a skill (rated 1-10) and roll a d20. Anything equal to or less than that number counts as a success overall, although to varying degrees. Where does this break down?
In theory it works and is simple, but in building characters, I have found that it is hard to create competent characters, especially since there is no discussion of what varies ratings mean. While I often get annoyed at White Wolf for filling books with long dot-by-dot descriptions of traits, I realize why they do that when I read Fading Suns. What is the average trait rating in the game? How many points do you need before you can call yourself skilled? I would assume that 5 is average, but then a lot of games have "lopsided" scales, where average is closer to the bottom than the top. Is average the 3 where the characters start out with base stats at? This ambiguity is incredibly annoying and prevents me from creating a character comfortably, confident that I have someone who fits the image in my mind.
Beyond that flaw, which could just as easily be me missing something as a flaw in the system, is the fact that each and every roll requires a comparison to a chart to determine the degree of success. Granted, it is a simple chart put on every character sheet and you could do away with it by dividing each roll by 3 and rounding down, but it is a level of complexity that should be avoided in all possible cases. I want a "one roll, one result" system, where I can tell at first glance almost exactly the degree of success. Sure, old-hands can pick that up with familiarity with the system, but I want that as a newbie. I want to know just how well I did simply by looking at the dice when I first play the game. If not, the system is too complicated, in my opinion.
Another flaw in the system is that it relies on simply one die. I am a fan of systems that use "fistfulls of dice," like the Storyteller or Silhouette systems, Legend of the Five Rings, or Shadowrun over one-die games. I don't like the probability curves of such systems, they seem too linear for me, I don't like one standard chance for failure and botching. I can get beyond that sometimes (usually only with percentile systems) for games like Unknown Armies where you rarely roll anyway, but it still bothers me somewhat.
And what about that "impossible to succeed" flaw I mentioned earlier? When I ran my troupe through the sample adventure in the back of the book in first edition, I found out that they could barely tie their own shoes, even after we re-arranged points after the first session of failure. If the average characteristic is 5 and someone is reasonably skilled at a rating of 5, that only gives them a 50/50 chance of success in most situations, and that chance drops if you use the modifier chart provided, unless you are a very generous game master and give lots of bonuses. The only way the system works is if you assume that the basic roll defaults to the level of "hard" or "difficult" (not on the modifier chart, but just in general) and that most tasks would get a bonus. That seems silly to me though, since I would think that the basic roll should always be at average difficulty.
So, in summary, the rules just don't work for me, even when I tried them. I recommend using another rules set, such as Legend of the Five Rings, since the system of pair attributes and rings fits well with the pseudo-mystic and epic feel of Fading Suns.
Don't let the lacking in the rules department put you off from the game, however, the setting is great enough to far outweigh that, although because the rules take up so much space, the setting is not fully realized until the supplements (which are of much better quality than the base book, I think.
Chapter Three: Character Creation
This is where the book has changed the most from first edition. Instead of just the old method of buying all traits willy-nilly, the book has a new "lifepath" method, where you choose where you grew up, where you were trained, and where you served your "tour of duty" to determine your traits. Although this sometimes serves to merely enhance some stereotypes of the various factions, I found it interesting and very useful, both for new comers and old-hands. The system guides those unfamiliar with the setting and the game by the hand but also allows veterans to make more varied characters by stopping early or taking extra steps. Want to play the just-released-from-apprenticeship youngster? Don't take any Tour of Duty. Always wanted to play the grizzled old veteran? Take extra Tours. The Lifepath method is very, very useful it views as just that, a path that can be long or short, or can turn sideways unexpectedly.
For those who are familiar with first edition character creation, it is included here as well, although slightly modified. Equipment is bought through money now, not points, which are used to buy the money. There is also a better explanation of what kind of monetary resources different point expenditures will get you, as well as finally getting the point costs for playing the basic three alien races, the Obun, Ukar and Vorox. I was struck that the book flat-out says that Vorox cannot gain any occult powers, since there was a sample character in the first edition rule book who was both Vorox and psychic. Apparently that is meant to mean "Almost all Vorox do not develop powers" from what Bill Bridges has said on the Fading Suns email list, but that was horribly worded.
The character system in Fading Suns is another one of the games flaws, I think, in that it shares an attention for detail that GURPS is renowned for. Similar in some ways to the merit and flaw system from White Wolf games, Fadings Suns has pages after pages of Blessings and Curses (unchangeable, often physical traits) and Benefices and Afflictions (mainly societal relationships, which can change). I think that the system often goes overboard (especially with Blessings and Curses, do we really need to know the game details of what being Vain does to you?) pulling the system into areas that I think you only need role playing. It also tends to lend itself to min-maxing, as players try to juggle points around to get just the right benefits. They are not a central part of the game, but it is a loose element, giving the game a feeling of some rough edges.
Chapter Four: Traits
The next forty or so pages is taken up by a description of traits, from characteristics to skills to the aforementioned Blessings and Curses and so on. The physical and mental characteristics are pretty much standard-fare, although Tech is a mental trait reflecting understanding of technology, something which is better reflected through appropriate skills and common sense applied to a background.
There are also "Spirit characteristics," and these mental and emotional traits are the most interesting elements of the games system, I think. Second edition has Extrovert/Introvert, Passion/Calm, and Faith/Ego as the six pairs of traits. They are paired because their sum can never exceed 10, and on must always be primary over the other, in the sense that someone cannot be both passionate and calm, they are usually one before the other. First edition has Human/Alien, and I think that I miss it, I rather liked that pair as well. I've found in play, however, that these spiritual traits tend to get ignored during character creation because they are rarely used during play. I wish what I found as the most interesting part of the character got more use.
The skills are pretty standard, and are reasonably general, in the same way that White Wolf skills are. "Fight" covers all forms of fighting, and "Melee" covers the use of melee weapons. One major difference, however, is the inclusion of combat moves, special maneuvers that can be purchased with points to reflect training. Personally, I don't really like a system that relies on learned combat maneuvers because I like combat to work exactly like the rest of the game, but I do like the moves descriptions. The authors actually created several different martial arts styles that make reading the descriptions interesting, even though I would have simply used a more free-form system myself.
Another change from first edition is that language skills no longer have levels, you just know the language. I don't like that at all, I would have preferred the keeping of the levels because I've studied a language myself, and I know that it is not a quick "yes or no" kind of consideration. While I would rarely call for a linguistics roll, giving it a rating is still useful.
The rest of the chapter is simply a catalogue of the Blessings, Curses, Benefices and Afflictions characters can take. As I said before, equipment is now purchase with money, not points, but money has been cleared up as well, since it was rather confusing in first edition.
Chapter Five: Occult
The occult is something I have always down-played in my Fading Suns game, even though the book devotes another near forty pages to it. Beyond the considerations of the system, I really like the psychic paths, but the theurgic rites (religious magic) have most often left me cold. It may have something to do with the fact that there is no secular counterpart, or it may not, but either way, I tend to shy away from theurgy in favor of psychic powers when I use the occult.
The second edition includes some new psychic paths that those with the first edition might be interested in. The formerly lone power of Bonding has its own entire path now, and the new path of Vis Craft (energy manipulation) is written up. While I liked the former, the latter was only so-so and not central or common enough to put in the basic book.
Apparently some of the theurgy rites have been changed, but I haven't looked at them closely, comparing them to their old counterparts. One the whole, they work well enough, but they seem to prevalent in the setting. I prefer a game where the priests are renowned for healing or communing with God when all they are doing is using medicine and communication devices. They are not deluding their flock, but the uneducated peasant is still amazed when a healer cures his ills with a simple bitter tasting drink. That is not really the direction it is presented it, but it is an easy enough edit.
One of the most interesting elements of the occult powers in the game is that they are similarly paired like the spiritual characteristics, but with a "dark side". Those who practice psychic powers and don't control themselves develop strong Urges while those theurgists who don't temper their abilities with humility develop Hubris. I like these ideas in theory, and Hubris works fine, but I would be forced to tinker with the details of Urge if I were to use it in a game. I like the idea of the psychic losing control of his inner urges and drives, but the effects come across more as self-destructive than anything else.
Chapter Six: Combat
As the title proclaims, this is all about combat in Fading Suns. Twenty pages of charts and weapons and combat maneuvers that would be 15 pages too long if it weren't for the interesting martial arts descriptions, but that is about the only thing of interest to someone who prefers less detailed systems like myself.
For those who want combat moves and lots of different guns and weapons, however, this chapter has what you need, explaining combat reasonably simply in a sidebar and going to great length about different moves and causes of damage.
One thing I cannot figure out, however, is why the example of play is included in this chapter and not the one on game mastering. It makes no sense to put it in the combat chapter, especially considering how little combat is in the example. It also has a "dramatic version first, then the rules" format that I found annoying, instead of the side-by-side format from first edition that was much easier to refer back and forth between.
Chapter Seven: Technology
Definitely one of the longest chapters in the book, this is another self-explanatory section, detailing all the kinds of gadgets that fill the Known Worlds. This chapter explains tech levels through the worlds, has a brief mention of economics, including pay scales (most of which seems high to me), and a big list of weapons and equipment. Many of the weapon descriptions are livened up with anecdotes or history and name brands are given here and there to give more detail to the setting. Some of the energy requirements of some equipment seemed very strange, but for the most part, the chapter was good.
The cybernetics are completely changed from first edition, especially with the abandonment of Human/Alien which was the old scale used to limit cybernetics. Now they are limited by the Ego trait, and the higher that characteristic, the more cyberware you can load your body up without having psychological or physiological complications, like becoming a cybernut. The step-by-step system for designing cybernetics is simple and easy to understand, and the limits of them are clear (except for the odd experience requirement for artificially raised traits). The only major problem was that the costs seemed much too low for such an anti-technology setting. Cybernetics are surprisingly cheap in a game where they are almost heretical to posses. For the most part, they are not incredibly compelling devices wither, but they work well.
There is also a section on starships, on how to build them and how to use them in the game. The system is nice and simple enough to completely understand on one read-through, but has a few flaws, like what happens when you mix and match part sizes (putting an shield generator for a dreadnought on a scout ship, for example) and the ships generally fly damned fast.
The chapter ends with a quick and vague look at alien artifacts, from the mysterious Philosopher's Stones and Soul Shards to the enigmatic Gargoyles that the gatebuilders scattered about the worlds.
Chapter Eight: Gamemastering
This is the standard chapter on how to run games, but it is made much more interesting by the scattered comments throughout it. "Andrew's Maxims", they always make for important points to remember, especially for new game masters. The chapter goes through a discussion of plot and setting and when to use the rules and when not to as well as general advice when running a game. Several sample characters are also provided, as well as some of the more secretive groups. Unfortunately, some of these groups (namely the two psychic covens were referred to previously in the book, with no page reference given to send the read here). There is also a very tiny section on the genetically engineered ("Changed") population amid the worlds and a short bestiary for some of the more well-known animals across the jumpweb. There are also stats for zombies and demons, reinforcing Fading Suns science fantasy nature.
The most interesting section of this chapter, however, was the section on how to run the "Passion Play" mentioned in the beginning of the book. A little more than two pages is devoted to this, and it was nice to finally see something come of this continual mentioning of the passion play. While I am not personally partial to larger-than-life games and epic campaigns, I do think that running a passion play would be quite interesting. The idea of running a game where the plot will be later taken and blown into mythic proportions is a very interesting one, especially if you make an attempt to help craft that myth either in the game or afterward. It was a nice and refreshing addition in the second edition.
Chapter Nine: Planets
This much-too-short chapter is a whirlwind tour of the Known Worlds, giving one-paragraph descriptions for the few dozen planets in the Empire. For the most part, the planets are nicely down, if vague and detail-less, but there were a few really annoying scientific errors (De Moley has an atmosphere as thick as that of Mars, but the peasants don't live in domes). The chapter also includes a rather long discussion of what to consider when building a plant, although it leans much more toward society and history than science.
The Appendix, like in the first edition, details what must be the favorite world of Holistic Design, the dying planet of Pandemonium. A complete history is given, as well as a short discussion of the world and the present conflicts raging back and forth across it.
There is also a nice and short initial adventure, "Diplomatic Immunity." The story is shorter and smarter than the one in the first edition, and it is much less epic, I think. I like it more because the villains are much more realistic (read: intelligent) and reasonable. It is nice introduction, as far as getting familiar with characters, rules and some of the setting goes.
I still love Fading Suns, although I still hate the system. I'll give the second edition this much: with the new character creation system and cybernetics rules, I was willing to give it another try, even if I expected nothing to come of it.
The book is also a much more polished whole than the first edition, as is to be expected. It is better laid out, although not a dream, it is navigated easily enough. There are still some minor points of confusion, but only ones that would plague those new to role playing in general. It mainly suffers from its lack of space, which limits the showcasing of the setting, the jewel of the game.
The art is, on the whole, nice. John Bridges still remains the quintessential Fading Suns artist, his visions seems to define the setting at times and he does all of the full-page plates. Darryl Elliot, Mark Jackson, Larry MacDougall, and Alex Sheikman all do their usual nice quality work, although I would have liked to see more of them. Mitch Byrd is a newcomer to Fading Suns however, and I see him here just as he appears doing Werewolf: the Apocalypse art (in the newly released Ratkin Breedbook) and I have to say that I hope he continues his work, it is nice and solidly well done. Aside from the interior artwork, the cover is a nicely done image of ships leaving a jumpgate, and there is a brilliantly designed and beautifully executed (if sometimes hard to read) map of the jumpweb and the Known Worlds on the inside covers. Brian LeBlanc, however, supplied his usual horrid art, and I still wonder why he gets so much business. This book contains some of his best work, and it still is not amazing, most of his art is terrible and ugly. Whoever illustrated the theurgy section did some poor art as well, but that was merely bland, not atrocious.
I can do nothing other than recommend Fading Suns to people, because it is such a good setting. Unfortunately, very little of that gets to be shown in the basic rule book due to space concerns, with the need to cram the rules in as well. Because of the poor rule-set and the startling price, I recommend that people who are not that interested in the system look at the supplements first, instead of the basic book. That is where the meat of the game is, where the best quality of ideas and writing lies. Flip through those first and then decide if you like the game or not.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)