Tobold's Blog
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Shattered Moon Review

Tim Westhaven sent me a free downloadable copy of his indie pen & paper roleplaying game Shattered Moon, and I promised to review it. Now I am aware of the difficulties of getting the word out on indie pen & paper games; nevertheless I'm afraid my review isn't going to help Tim very much, because I think there isn't much overlap between the readership of this blog and the target audience of Shattered Moon. Shattered Moon is what I would call a hardcore system, for experienced roleplayers who think that a game like D&D is too simple. Hardcore pen & paper roleplayers do exist, but they don't tend to hang out at places like mine.

Now how does one review a pen & paper roleplaying system? Basically by looking at two relatively separate things: The lore or setting on the one hand, and the rules system on the other. You could call that "world" and "game". Of course there is some overlap, for example a wizard casting a fireball will have certain implications on the nature of the world, as well as on gameplay. If you want to know how NOT to review a pen & paper roleplaying system, you only need to visit YouTube, where videos promising a review of some game system usually end up being half-hour rants on how wrong the hair-color of one sub-race of elves in that system is. :)

The world of Shattered Moon is a grim one, which could be described as post-apocalyptic fantasy.
That is it plays on our Earth, in the future, after an apocalypse; but that apocalypse wasn't the usual nuclear one, but was magical of nature. The moon shattered, thus the name of the system, the dark goddess Lilith "returns" to Earth, as does magic. And the players are nuoSidhe, "reawoken" dwarves, elves, goblins, ogres and trolls whose souls used to be trapped in human form. Like all post-apocalyptic settings, this is not a happy place. And the world (supported by some game rules) is designed to give rise to a lot of horror and unpleasant moral conflict. This is not an "a figher, a cleric, a wizard, and a rogue walk into a dungeon and come out with lots of treasure" kind of setting. And it is definitively not suitable for children, as if you hadn't guessed that.

But what is really hardcore about Shattered Moon is the gameplay, which is one of the weirdest and most challenging rules systems I've ever come across. In general roleplaying rule systems can be sorted by complexity of rules, ranging from systems which basically are improvised theater, have no rules and rely completely on the game master to make up the rules on the fly, to systems which have tons of rules and math and tables where you need a computer to figure out the result of a combat action. Shattered Moon manages to have both tons of rules and math and need for a computer PLUS being based on game master decisions instead of dice. It is a diceless system (although it does have a deck of fate cards to produce random results if needed) without the dicelessness getting rid of the math. If you believe that 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is "too game-y" with its miniatures and battlemaps and dice, you might be surprised that Shattered Moon manages to be a lot more game-y and complicated without dice.

So how does this work? It is beyond this review to explain the whole system, and I won't even pretend that I have understood all the details. But basically it is based on player-controlled activity pools [AP] and FatePoints [FP]. Any activity costs AP, and the outcome can be further influenced by spending FP. Different types of activities have different activity pools, calculated from different stats and modifiers. To determine success the AP is compared to the difficulty of the action, determined by the game master and called activity rating [AR]. That is relatively easy if the action is "passive", that is not actively opposed by another player or non-player character; rules for "duelled activities" are a lot more complicated, with even something like a debate being played out like a combat, with spending points and using abilities. In combat, AP also serve to determine initiative, thus the character or monster with the highest AP acts first, spends some AP while acting, and thus drops down in the initiative order. All this is further complicated by FP, which can be used by players to do things like "induce a catastrophe", or "call a miracle". Players not only state what they want to do, but constantly also have to expend various resources to influence results, which makes gameplay very tactical.

Reading the rules for the first time is likely to make your head spin, the example of a combat taking 3 rounds takes 11 pages of the rulebook to describe. But looking at it from a zoomed-out view, the game is a curious mix of results that are very deterministic and results that are very arbitrary and depend very much on the game master, called The Fate in Shattered Moon. For this to work you absolutely need a very experienced game master and players who trust him to be fair. Shattered Moon is definitively not a game you want to use for your first roleplaying campaign ever, nor for any casual campaign. However the advantage of pen & paper systems is that you only need one table full of people who want to play the same thing to make any system work, however complicated and arbitrary it might be. So even if Shattered Moon is not a suitable game for the mass market, I would consider it likely that there are experienced groups of players out there who would very much enjoy this game.

As final part of this review, a word on what bang you get for your bucks. The Shattered Moon rulebook currently costs $19.99 on RPGNow for a pdf with 321 pages which contains everything you need to play. It is basically Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual in one. And while in a perfect world full of honest people every player would buy his own copy, we know that in reality it is likely that a complete group of players just buys one copy of the pdf and shares it. Which makes Shattered Moon a comparatively cheap system to try. There are even free character sheets and player material available at RPGNow. On the downside there is not a lot of additional material available yet, so if you are looking for adventure modules and the like, you are currently out of luck.

As I said before, I cannot give an unguarded recommendation to Shattered Moon. It is a niche product, and as far as I can tell it offers good value for money for a group of hardcore pen & paper players. But personally I am not planning to play this, as I have a far more casual campaign. Plus I prefer rules systems in which dice play a large role to determine outcomes, and there are fewer debates on whether a decision of the game master was fair or not. But all this are factors which depend on the people at your table, so your mileage may vary.

Very interesting. My main concern for this game, and this is based on your description, is that without dice I can see this game quickly delineating into a "battle of wits" between players and the game master with the way you described [FP] and [AP].

Also, using Lilith as the precursor Deity sounds troublesome if only by naming convention...let alone the Lore behind her existence.
without dice I can see this game quickly delineating into a "battle of wits" between players and the game master

If you play this with a bunch of rules lawyers and people likely to argue about everything, I can imagine the game turning nasty rather quickly. People tend to accept negative outcomes more easily if it was based on a bad roll of the dice.
I don't mean to threadjack, well I guess I do, but you did bring it up.

When I was playing D&D, the DM had the manual and the books. I never had a single D&D book. It did not occur to anyone that we were somehow defrauding TSR by not buying 5 copies of the Player's Handbook or whatever its called.

So here's my question---if a group had purchased 1 copy of the pdf, and placed that copy on 1 iPad, and passed that around when needed, would you consider that an infringement on this guys copyright? Let's limit the answer to that scenario: 1 copy, 1 display device, shared when needed. Do you consider that copyright infringement?
Also, the system actually sounds pretty interesting for a certain type of player. It sounds more like a collaborative improvisation than anything, which is a lot like what my crew got up to back in the day, but what we did was so rulesless it would probably drive you crazy. If you don't trust your GM to be fair and tell good stories, get a new GM. The rules system ain't helping a crap GM.
Hello folks, Tobold has kindly allowed me to address some of the points he makes in his review that I'd like to clarify a little.

Firstly Tobold is correct, the FateStorm system is not for beginners; and secondly the Shattered Moon setting is for mature audiences only.

As for the issue of dice: FateStorm was ten years in design and grew out of a frustration with dice based systems not reflecting the 'reality' of what a PC could, or should have been able to achieve. But also out of a frustration with other diceless systems which put the onus of decision making on the GM.

And this is where I would like to clarify some points made by Tobold. The onus on action resolution is not laid on the Fate (GM) within the FateStorm system, but squarely on the player. The player has an AP as Tobold described, which describes available resources which the player can bring to a situation in order to achieve success. But how and when they use that resource is left up to them. All the GM does is set a marker for success. Which is no different to say setting an NPCs Armour class, or what difficultly rating is required to disarm a trap.
So how did we achieve a diceless system that retains an element of excitement found in dice based games without putting all the pressure on the GM to fill in the blanks?
A number of ways. One is through the use of the FateSphere, which can compare influences between say a PC and an NPC to give the Fate a starting point from which to build outcomes.
Another is through the use of duelled actions. In duelled actions AP are used between opponents in an attempt to gain an advantage. There are many factors that can adjust, modify and even reverse and AP expenditure. And this is where the sense of anticipation and excitement come from. When you come up against an opponent in battle you can gain an understanding of what sort of opponent they may be by looking at the amount of pips they have arrayed on the table in their AP, but that won't show all the subtly and nuance of their fighting style, special combat techniques and other abilities or equipment which may influence the outcome. And when you are expending pips in the too-and-fro of battle things can change fast.
This system has proven swift, deadly, adaptable and strong on building visualisation of situations.

With regard to Chris's comments, surely there is a battle of wits in most confrontations between PC and NPCs (with the GM controlling the NPCs) It remains up to the GM to determine the nature and ability of any obstacle the PC may face, all the FateStorm system does is provide various methods for the GM to determine these obstacles such as the FateDeck, FateSphere and the players own individual aspects.

And, if I may, as a last remark; when the player in FateStorm fails, they know that they are to blame - that is part of the system design. If they take a chance and they don't have the resources to back it up, no one is to blame but themselves. Isn't this also how real-life plays out? Certainly there may be factors at play that the player is not aware of, such is life also.
The system underwent rigorous testing over a four year period, and then again over a two year period for the release of Shattered Moon (to incorporate firearms). And in all that time, I have neither seen, nor heard from another Fate that there were any arguments over AP outcome. So I'm pretty happy with that.

And as an unemployed RPG designer, if one of my books is bought and shared amongst a playing group - I'd say that's just common sense.

Thanks again to Tobold, both for spending his weekend looking at the game and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all.
Tim will probably want to shoot me when I say I don't do PnP roleplaying, but I would love to play the computer game!

The duelling element sound interesting, and I can see how it would not only be a tactical challenge but would make sense in terms of realism, too.
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