Friday, January 6, 2012

Fortune's Fool

Game Premise

Your fate is in the cards.

Finally, the European dark ages are being pushed back by the light of reason and knowledge in an age that would later become known as the Renaissance. From the canals of Venice to the British Isles to the cold plains of Muscovy to the court of the Goblin Sultan in the Middle East, a new thirst for knowledge has taken hold of the continent (or at least a thirst for knowledge how best to defeat your opponent on the battlefield). With the widespread adoption of the firearm destroying the supremacy of the knight on horseback and the new, burgeoning middle-class taking advantage of theirearned monetary power and influence, the medieval social order is falling by the wayside. Even religion isn't immune, with the halfling cleric Martin Luther nailing his famous 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wuttenburg leading to the Protestant Reformation.

However, in this day and age it is not steel, knowledge, sorcery or coin that is the most powerful force, but fortune. Its fickle whims rule all, merchant or noble, commoner or king, priest or sorceror. No matter where you begin in life, you could be destined for greatness or cast aside and forgotten.

Game Overview

Fortune's Fool is a game of Renaissance fantasy set in a Europe filled with fantasy races and just a hint of magic. Despite these changes, history has panned out pretty much the same as in our world, with the one pretty major exception being the sinking of the Greek Peninsula after the Persian Wars (Xerxes was a sore loser). However, while the setting and background are one of the game's two defining features, in this case it's not necessarily the most important one. For mechanical resolution, Fortune's Fool uses a tarot deck instead of dice.

There are several games that use non-die methods of mechanical resolution instead of dice, but as far as I know Fortune's Fool is the first one to use a tarot deck (it's not going to be the only one for long. House of Cards is slated to be coming out this year). The following explanation of the core mechanic is going to be a bit hard if you don't know the ways a tarot deck is different from an ordinary deck of cards, so follow the link for a good explanation. So, the way it works is that you'll have a numerical rating in a skill, let's say 6. You can then succeed in a couple of ways. First, you can draw a Minor Arcana with a number less than or equal to the skill. The suit of the card is very important. If it's one of your Fortune Smiles suits, then you succeed quite solidly. If, on the other hand it's a suit where Fortune Frowns, you only succeed by the skin of your teeth. Then there's the major arcana. Each of these are designated for you as either Fortune Shines or Fortune Weeps. Draw the former, succeed magnificently, draw the latter and you fail with equal magnificence. The cards Tower, Death, Fortune's Wheel and The Fool all have their own special effects.

The one issue I have with this game is that it treads a very fine line in some cases. Pretty much exactly as I expected the stereotypically savage races, the orcs and goblins, are all from the East, originally hailing from Russia and the Middle East respectively. It's also one of the few modern games with gender given a mechanical weighting, with men having slightly better social status but women being more perceptive and lucky. Maybe it's a knee-jerk reaction but I'm always a little leery of gender mechanics.

The Character

Step 1) Choose Your Character's Race

Fortune's Fool's version of Europe is heavily populated by fantasy races. Humans still dominate and the Renaissance is specifically noted as being the age marking their rise after the Empires of the elves (everything went a bit bad for them after an elven governor put this Jewish rabble-rouser to death and a few days later every elf went sterile forever), but dwarves, elves, halflings, goblins and orcs can still be found all over Europe. Race determines your base stats as well as a few starting skills and your religion choices later on.

I'm actually really inspired by the Page of Swords picture on pg 68, so the concept I have in mind is a halfling highlander, large for a person of his kind, big sword in hand. Therefore, my race is going to be Halfling.

Let's take a look at what halflings get. Their base scores are as follows, keeping in mind a 5 is human average: Agility (Reflex/Hand-eye coordination) 6, Body (Physical Strength) 4, Heart (will and discipline) 6, Perception (five senses and insight) 7, Status (Respect within society) 4, Martial (Combat Ability) 0. Don't worry about the low Martial score, it's ranked differently with the maximum possible score being 7 (other abilities can go up to 12) and all races starting out from 0-2.

My race also determines which suits of cards benefit me or ruin me. Fortune Smiles whenever I draw Cups or Swords and Fortune Frowns when I draw Pentacles or Wands.

Next up, time to pick from a list of Skills. Skills give you access to areas of competency. Some will even give you bonuses to later things in the character creation system like determining your wealth. I'm going to pick Culinary Skills, because what good halfling doesn't know their stuff about food, even ones from the British Isles? It's a Heart skill, which means whenever I want to do something using the skill I draw from the deck and hope I beat my Heart score (currently 6).

Apparently halflings have -1 Movement for foot speed purposes only, so I'll note that down.

Step 2) Choose Your Character's Gender

Like I said before, in Fortune's Fool a character's gender has mechanical effects with men having higher Status but women being luckier. My highlander is going to be Male, which right off the bat gives me +1 Status. It also gives me a choice of a skill, I'm going to take Running, which has the side benefit of +1 Movement for foot speed, making me fast for a halfling.

Step 3) Choose Your Character's Size

Now we have a step where our character's Size, relative to the average height of their race, gives us mechanical advantages and disadvantages. I think the relative aspect is a nice touch. Smaller characters are comparatively faster and luckier, with larger characters being stronger. Since my halfling is supposed to be a burly warrior by the standards of his race, I think I'll make him Large, which for a halfling probably puts him somewhere close to 4.5 ft. This reduces my Agility by -1, but also increases my Body by +1. It also gives me my first Fortune Shines arcana. Whenever I make a test, drawing Emperor or Strength is now a good thing for me.

Step 4) Choose Your Character's Age

Once again, Age is a relative stat, what with some races living hundreds of years and others lucky to make it a few decades (elves skip this step, since they're ageless). This step alters our stats, gives out a few fortune shines and also gives a few freebie skills to pick from. I think I want my hafling highlander to have been around for a bit, so I'm making him Middle Aged. This reduces his Agility and Perception by -1 each, but gives him a +1 to Body and Heart and a +2 to Status. I get an additional fortune shines in the form of the Hierophant and later on I'll get 4 Skill Expertise Points to spend.

Step 5) Choose Your Character's Birthright

The Renaissance was a time where the order of your birth had a major effect on the direction you would be pushed in life. Elder siblings got pushed into taking over the family business (whether that was a trade or title), while younger siblings were pushed towards advantageous marriages and diversified jobs like the military or clergy. Being orphaned or a bastard made things incredibly difficult, making you something of a social pariah by default no matter how lordly your origins. I'm going to make my halfling the Eldest Child of five siblings. He gets a +1 to Heart and Martial as well as a +2 to Status, but a -1 to Perception for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. I also get a pick of two skills. The first will be Language (French), picked up from time as a mercenary (although he speaks with an atrocious accent) and the second will be Intimidation. He may be a short man but he's a short man with a lot of presence.

Step 6) Choose Your Character's Native Environment

People tended to stay put those many centuries ago and the kind of environment you grew up in helped determine what kind of skills you possessed. The Scottish highlands sound like the Country to me, which nets me another +1 to Body, the Hermit, Sun and Judgement as fortune shines and the pick of another skill. I'm going to make an unusual pick and go with Demolitions, because a halfling highlander who knows a bit about destroying fortifications with gratuitous amounts of gunpowder could only make the game more fun, right?

Step 7) Choose Your Character's Social Class

Physical mobility was not the only form of mobility that was restricted. If you were rich, you'd stay rich, if you were poor, you were even more certain to stay poor. However, we do see the beginnings of the middle class, skilled professionals who carve out a place in society with cold hard cash. No social glory for me, however, my country halfling hails from the Peasantry. This gives him a +1 to Body but also a -2 to Status. I get fortune shines with The Hanged Man and I'd have also gotten the sun and strength but I already have those. I now get four skill picks. From the first group I'm going to take Driver (can handle a team of horse or oxen) and Swimming and from the second group Climbing and Tracking, a good set of physical skills.

At this stage I think I'll pick a name, since there's no formal step. I dub my highlander Cade McThorngage, a nice Scottish twist on my favourite halfling name from Dungeons and Dragons. The Thorngages have been warriors ever since they raided their way onto the British mainland from Ireland centuries ago.

Step 8) Choose Your Character's Religion

The final big societal pillar of this period was religion. What you worshipped and how could greatly affect your relations with others. This was a time of great religious upheaval thanks to the Protestant reformation and Christianity and Islam are still glaring angrily at each other across the Aegean. Each race has a list of religions they get to pick from and as a halfling I can be Catholic, Jewish, Pagan or Protestant. I'm going to pick the last one because it's the dominant religion of Scotland in the era and also popular with halflings (Martin Luther was one, after all). While other religions give you stat or skill bonuses, all being Protestant gives you is a large number of Fate Twists, four specifically, which I will explain in their own step.

Since I can't get any more fortune shines, I should note at this point everything that isn't a fortune shines is now a fortune weeps for me, which counts for just over half the major arcana.

Step 9) Increase One Selected Primary Statistic

A simple step here, take one of my primary stats and increase by +1 (with the exception of Martial). I'm tempted to increase my Body here, but that's already quite high and my Agility has taken a beating throughout the process, so I'm going to add +1 to that.

Since this is the last step for modifying stats, I'm going to tally up the changes and see what I've ended up with. Agility 5; Body 8; Heart 8; Perception 5; Status 7; Martial 1. A fairly solid array, I'm quite sturdy both physically and mentally, even beyond halfling standards. It's a shame increasing Martial is so difficult.

Step 10) Determine Secondary Statistics

Now, using our primary statistics, we can determine our secondary stats. Dodge (avoiding attacks), is equal to Agility for 5. Hand Attack is equal to half Body plus Martial for 5 and similarly Ranged Attack is half Perception plus Martial (rounded down) for 3. Movement (in this game it represent an abstract number of 'strides') is average of Body and Agility for 6 . Initiative and Stealth are both average of Agility and Perception for 5. Finally, Hit Points are Body tripled plus Heart, giving me a nice, solid total of 32.

Step 11) Calculate Skill Draws and Spend Skill Expertise

This is the bit where I calculate the number I need to draw to succeed of the skills I have picked in the previous steps and then spend the Skill Expertise points I gained back in Step 4 to give bonuses to those skills. I'm not going to bore you with calculating every single skill individually here, so if you want you can just skip ahead to the end to see the values. Most skill draws are either equal to a stat or an average of two stats, so for example my Culinary skill is equal to my Heart score of 8.

Spending my Skill Expertise gives me a +1 to draws per point I sink in. You know what, I'm just going to dump all four points into Demolitions, raising it from 5 (it's based on Perception) to a massive 9. I'm really good with explosives!

Step 12) Determine Your Character Wealth Level

I get to use the Tarot deck for this one! Your Wealth Level is an abstract quality divided into tiers ranging from Destitute to Absurd. Goods and services fit into each of these tiers and if your wealth level is at least that high you can easily afford it. If you're one level lower you might still be able to get it, but not as good a quality.

The way wealth level is determined is by figuring out Cade's modified Status and comparing it to the table. First, we take my Status score of 7. I unfortunately lack any skills that give me a bonus to my wealth level like Forgery, Sailing or Merchant. I then make a Fate test. If I get a fortune smiles or shines, I'll get a bonus, a fortune frowns will stay the same and a fortune weeps will give me a penalty. I draw a 5 of Wands, which is sadly a fortune frowns, so I get no bonus, but on the upside no penalty. With a modified Status of 7, this means Cade's wealth level is Middle Class.

Step 13) Select Martial Skills

I now have to pick a number of Martial Skills equal to my Martial score, bonuses and maneuvers that can be used in combat. Since that's one I only get to pick one. I want to use a Broadsword, but it needs a minimum Martial score of 2 to use effectively. Thus, I'm going to put my skill into Basic Weapon Training (Broadsword), which lets me use it without penalty. I'm a bit sad I can't pick any of the cooler stuff, but that's what I get for picking a race that isn't martially inclined.

Step 14) Determine Your Character's Fate Twists and Starting Fate Pool

Fate Twists are ways I can alter the drawing of the deck during the game. I spend a Fate Point and can then use a number of tricks. The way I determine what twists I have is I draw a number of cards from the deck equal to the fate twists I get from my religion, 4, and if I draw a fortune shines I get to draw an extra one.

My first draw is The Empress, which gives me the fate twist which gives me House of Motherhood, allowing me to spend a fate point, pick either the Empress or High Priestess and have the GM find them and shuffle them into the top five cards. Won't help me, but could be useful for an ally. Next up is the Page of Swords, giving me Ill Omen, which has a similar effect to the previous twist except with the Death card and the top three in the deck. Death is one of the four special cards and when it shows up generally someone is going to meet their maker. 9 of Pentacles is my next draw, giving me Deja Vu, forcing the GM to grab the last discarded card and shuffle it into the top five. Sadly, I also draw the 9 of Cups, netting me no extra twists.

My starting Fate Pool is equal to the number of Fate Twists I was able to draw, in my case 4.

Step 15) Pick Your Character's Gear

Now using my Middle Class wealth level I pick relevant adventuring gear for Cade. He's considered to have the standard trappings and clothing befitting his station. I'm going to grab him a Broadsword and a High Quality Lantern, but apart from that nothing in the equipment section really draws my attention. Shame they have no explosives kit.

Interesting sidenote! If you use equipment from beyond your wealth level, even if it's a gift, all your draws using it become Black Double Draws, meaning you draw two cards and pick the worse one. Fate doesn't like it when you have ideas above your station, it seems.

Step 16) Customise Fortune Structure (Optional)

This one lets me reduce me fate pool to draw new twists and various other things, but I'm happy with all that, so I'll skip this step. And with that we're done!

The Finished Product

Cade McThorngage

Large Male Halfling

Age: Middle Aged

Birthright: Firstborn

Environment: Country

Social Class: Peasantry

Religion: Protestant

Wealth Level: Middle Class

Primary Statistics: Agility 5; Body 8; Heart 8; Perception 5; Status 7; Martial 1

Secondary Statistics: Dodge 5; Hand Attack 5; Ranged Attack 3; Movement 6; Intiative 5; Stealth 5; Hit Points 32

Fortune Smiles: Cups, Swords

Fortune Frowns: Pentacles, Wands

Fortune Shines: Emperor, Hierophant, Hanged Man, Judgement, Hermit, Strength, Sun

Skills: Climbing 7, Culinary 8, Demolitions 9, Driver 6, Intimidation 7, Swimming 7, Tracking 5

Languages: English, French

Literate? No

Fate Twists: Deja Vu, House of Motherhood, Ill Omen

Fate Pool: 4

Gear: Broadsword, High Quality Lantern

How I'd Run It

The game suggests two broad ways to run Fortune's Fool. The first is cleaving to a specific point in history, examining the ramifications of fantastic elements on the Renaissance period. The second is treating it as a big anachronistic melting pot, hi-fiving Shakespeare one session and tagging along for a roadtrip to Jerusalem to beat up the heathens the next. I have to admit, despite history being a thing I know rather well I'm inclined to go with the second option, because all the strongly thematic aspects of this period tend to get represented in quite an ahistorical fashion anyway.


  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to review our game! I appreciated your remark that the game treads a very fine line (in game overview).

    We actually set out to use the game to comment on our own historical racial and religious prejudices. Sometimes the game succeeds very well in doing that. Other times, we did slip over the line and there are some things I'd rewrite if I could. We wanted to be daring without straying into the territory of offense!

    Thanks again!
    Jay Stratton
    Lead Designer, Fortune's Fool

  2. Hi Jay! Thanks so much for taking to time to check out the blog and leave feedback.

    I certainly didn't mean to imply the game reflects some sort of malicious views on race and gender on your part. If I'd further elaborated on those remarks I would have explained that as far as mechanical effects of gender go, Fortune's Fool does it in a fairly reasonable fashion. There's nothing problematic in noting that men had greatly higher standing in society during the period and I'm scratching my head to find a way in which 'women, according to a set of fictional mystic principles are luckier' can be construed as offensive.

    Like I said, it's more a knee-jerk reaction based on seeing similar concepts poorly implemented elsewhere. I probably should have been more explicit that I think Fortune's Fool *succeeds* in treading said fine line, but reviewing isn't my main purpose.