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Jeremy Morgan

Written by Jeremy Morgan, tabletop games editor, gamer, and software developer.
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Atomic Robo Playtest

5 September 2012

This will be the first in a series of posts about my time at Dragon*Con this year. D*C represents my first ever trip to a convention of any kind, and I was excited to be able to go.

I had the extreme privilege to play in a game of the upcoming Atomic Robo RPG from Evil Hat run by the incomparable Ryan Hilt. I’d never read the graphic novels, but they come highly recommended. I’d heard enough of the subject matter to know I wanted to play it. The game also uses the Fate engine (which I really like), so how could I refuse?

The Good

Let me start by saying that the game was fun; I mean fun in bold, capital letters. The adventure was pulpy and over-the-top, as Atomic Robo should be. The play-test characters were really more proto-characters. This allowed us to have quite a bit of fun, as Fate really shines when players start picking Aspects. Most of us decided not to fill in all of our Aspects and let them arise organically from play. I’d almost suggest that players not choose the fourth Aspect (the general one) before starting play. The best Aspects for our group (“I’m no scientist, but…” and “It’s always monkeys!” and “I shouldn’t be doing this.”) arose during play.

The Less than Good

Let me preface this by saying that the game is still a beta, and they’re actively seeking feedback on play-tests. I also realize that these may seem nit-picky, but that’s more a function of lack of major issues with the system than character flaw on my part.

  • The character sheet layout was fairly basic and a little bit confusing. I suspect it might be a personal bias (unknown prior to this) for an alphabetical list of skills.
  • I like the High Concept, as it helped me pick out Aspects, but I think only one character used it with Fate points once or twice during play.
  • Character generation desperately needs a list of example stunts. To be fair, the play-test document does say that a stunt list will exist in the final release, I’m merely stating this so players aren’t caught unaware.
  • The Fate points were fun to play with, but I’d almost want to see a sliding scale of starting Fate points that lets you go more or less gonzo depending on what kind of experience the party wants.

The Things That Could Go Either Way

  • In the case of my character, I chose two sciences that ended up not coming up during play. I’m sure over several sessions this wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s one I had.
  • I know that the source material encourages players to be scientists”, but one of our party wasn’t a scientist. He didn’t get the same Ups as the rest of us got, which we found strange. It’s something I’d have to play more sessions to pin down, but I’m wondering whether there’s a discrepancy there. I know Fate is less concerned with character power level equality than other systems, but non-scientists in the party are a niggling doubt I have.
  • Since I mentioned it above, the One-Up concept was a bit confusing when looking at the character sheet. It got less confusing after reading the blurb in the play-test packet. I’m wondering if there’s an even-less-confusing way to describe it. I’m not sure there is, but it seems like there should be.

Are you a fan of Atomic Robo? Have you had a chance to play in the playtest? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter.


Comments

Drew said:

This is Schmitty from the DragonCon game. I don’t know if you are getting the ARRPG playtest but in the latest batch of proto-characters (like the ones we used) had one whose Concept aspect was “I’m no scientist, but…”

Although my personal favorite aspect was “The proper protocol shall be followed!“.

TriskalJM said:

Schmitty! Good to hear from you, man!

I actually mentioned it to Mike Olson (@devlin1) on Twitter before writing this post, and he liked it so much he said he’d add it in. Awesome to know he did!

Mike Olson said:

Hey, thanks for the playtesting and the kind words! Because we’re talking about something I did, though, all I really see are problems you had. Let me try to address those in terrifying detail so I can sleep soundly tonight.

Character Sheet: Yeah, I’m no graphic artist. Someone else will do a better version before it goes to print.

I like the High Concept, as it helped me pick out Aspects, but I think only one character used it with Fate points once or twice during play.

But all the other aspects saw more play? It sounds like you guys were making some kind of active distinction between concept aspects and other aspects. Or is it just that the concept aspects on the sheet weren’t great? Because if it’s that, then, y’know, fair enough. But if it’s something else, I want to clear it up if I can.

Character generation desperately needs a list of example stunts.

There are a few for each type of stunt in the playtest docs, plus the stunts the sample characters have, but the final release will have more.

To be fair, the play-test document does say that a stunt list will exist in the final release,

No… it says the opposite, as I recall. There will be no big list of stunts. There will be examples, yes, but it’s not going to be like SotC or Anglerre, where you have a couple hundred stunts to sort through. Part of the issue here, I believe, is a matter of GM advice. When I run playtests, I more or less say “Stunts let you bend the rules, you get five of them, and don’t worry about them for now.” Then, during play, when an opportune moment comes up, I’ll say, “Hey, if you really want to hit that guy hard, why don’t you take a stunt that’s, like, +2 to Combat when fighting unarmed?” Players familiar with the rules won’t need that kind of help, but for players just learning them I find this works well.

“The Fate points were fun to play with, but I’d almost want to see a sliding scale of starting Fate points that lets you go more or less gonzo depending on what kind of experience the party wants.”

I sort of don’t know what this means. Could you unpack that a bit? Are you saying that you should be able to start with, like, 10 fate points if you want? Because if that’s what you want, don’t wait for me to write a rule down. Just do it.

“In the case of my character, I chose two sciences that ended up not coming up during play.”

Forgive me for having an extreme reaction here, but: HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE? Wait, were you… were you upgrading skills before you even started playing? Why do that? The intent is that you figure out your skills, aspects, and stunts as you play, not beforehand. It should be literally impossible for you to end up with Science skills you don’t use, because you’d only pick Science skills you need in the moment. Right? Again, this is probably a matter of communicating things more clearly to the GM, so I’ll keep an eye on that.

“I know that the source material encourages players to be scientists, but one of our party wasn’t a scientist. He didn’t get the same Ups as the rest of us got, which we found strange.”

That’s true, he didn’t. Instead, he got every single non-Science skill at at least +1, and a number of his skills started at +4. That is not too shabby. To a degree, yes, you’re incented to take Science because you get more upgrades to spend—but I don’t really have a problem with that in a game about Action Scientists. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s especially strange; it’s just the way the math works behind the curtain.

“Since I mentioned it above, the One-Up concept was a bit confusing when looking at the character sheet. It got less confusing after reading the blurb in the play-test packet. I’m wondering if there’s an even-less-confusing way to describe it. I’m not sure there is, but it seems like there should be.”

I agree whole-heartedly. 400 quatloos to whoever can help me express that more clearly.


TriskalJM said:

Character Sheet: Yeah, I’m no graphic artist. Someone else will do a better version before it goes to print.

I’m not one either, or I’d have taken a shot at it. Who knows? Maybe I still will…

But all the other aspects saw more play? It sounds like you guys were making some kind of active distinction between concept aspects and other aspects. Or is it just that the concept aspects on the sheet weren’t great? Because if it’s that, then, y’know, fair enough. But if it’s something else, I want to clear it up if I can.

The concept aspects on the sheet were perfect; in fact, they sparked ideas for each of us as intended. I suppose we made some kind of active distinction that’s not intended nor was described.

No… it says the opposite, as I recall. There will be no big list of stunts…

Oops. I misspoke. I intended to say it would be nice to get a few more examples. Ryan (the GM) did mention we could pick stunts later (a process we were more than happy to do with Aspects, as I’ve stated). I suppose I wasn’t as comfortable doing that for stunts (although I can’t explain why).

I sort of don’t know what this means. Could you unpack that a bit? Are you saying that you should be able to start with, like, 10 fate points if you want? Because if that’s what you want, don’t wait for me to write a rule down. Just do it.

You’ve hit on the essence of it already. Remember that I didn’t read all the playtest materials since I was a player. I think it would be beneficial to at least say something like the following: “GMs, you may want to start with a smaller or larger Fate pool for each player to tweak the feel at the table. More Fate points equals more gonzo action.” I know those accustomed to hacking systems (hand raise) don’t need this advice, but some GMs need that permission. My suggestion was intended to help that category of GM out.

Forgive me for having an extreme reaction here, but: HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE? Wait, were you… were you upgrading skills before you even started playing? Why do that? The intent is that you figure out your skills, aspects, and stunts as you play, not beforehand. It should be literally impossible for you to end up with Science skills you don’t use, because you’d only pick Science skills you need in the moment. Right? Again, this is probably a matter of communicating things more clearly to the GM, so I’ll keep an eye on that.

No need to apologize for a strong reaction. :) You’ve hit the nail on the head again. I’d definitely keep an eye on it (Remember: I was a player that went in with no prior knowledge. It may be a non-issue.)

That’s true, he didn’t. Instead, he got every single non-Science skill at at least +1, and a number of his skills started at +4. That is not too shabby. To a degree, yes, you’re incented to take Science because you get more upgrades to spend–but I don’t really have a problem with that in a game about Action Scientists. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s especially strange; it’s just the way the math works behind the curtain.

I should have paid more attention. You’re correct; that’s not too shabby. Strange was probably not the right word. It felt ‘off’ to us, but I’ll credit that to our inexperience with the system. I think if we had realized exactly what was going on, all would have been okay. I should have stated that the non-scientist never felt underpowered to any of us (including the one playing him). That’s a useful data point too.

A Final Word

I think the biggest take-away from your comments is that Atomic Robo really shines when players generate Aspects, Stunts, and Skills during play instead of before. While Fate has this concept, Atomic Robo seems to lean on it more heavily to create the intended play experience. I think this is a VERY GOOD thing.

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