[RR] Atomic Robo RPG Review

Atomic Robo is a great comic, and it has become a great tabletop RPG, Atomic Robo RPG (“ARRPG”). While the book has been in digital form for a few months, the book is just coming off the dead-tree presses. Early reviews seem to point that not only is it a perfect embodiment of the Atomic Robo setting, but it also is one of the best versions of the FATE system.

Drawn to Rules

One of the highlights to owning this book is how much time was taking in using the Atomic Robo comic to explain RPG rules. I’ll let the book itself do the talking:

ARRPG rules sample

There are lots of ways to learn, and adding a slightly more visual style by using the source material was just a fantastic move. I’m a FATE veteran, and even I appreciated all the comics that crossed the line in to RPG mechanics.

The rules are also slightly different than FATE Core. It mostly changes how character setup works. FATE Core’s collaborative character creation is super rich, but it can be too much of a good thing sometimes when players just want to get in and play. AARPG is really geared towards jumping in to play the world of Atomic Robo. It does this by letting players choose “modes”, which then give the player a lump of skills. There are also “weird” modes that extend beyond the core four modes.

Tangentially, I don’t like the books use of “weird”, which kind of means not core. Plus, it’s not even not core all the time since there are core pre-made “weird” modes. What “weird” really points to is more complicated characters. Characters with “weird” modes found in the book or players that create their own modes, all dubbed “weird” are deemed acceptable but beyond the scope of the simpler core way of doing things. It really means there is an easy mode (core) and an advanced mode (“weird”) to making characters.

Atomic Aspects

An Aspect is a bonus used to almost push the game in a direction the character exemplifies. Then players use Fate Points to use Aspects to kind of change the reality of the situation. For example, in ARRPG, Nikolai Tesla is statted up and has the Aspect My Method is Different as his Science Aspect. A player could conceivably use the Aspect in a Science roll to describe how Tesla’s weird way of doing things works better. Then the player gets a bonus for basically roleplaying their character’s way of doing Science!

What I really like about the modes is how they extend to making Aspects. When we ran through FATE Core, we made a bunch of awesome mini-adventures where players created their character’s Aspects based on the happenings in that adventure. In hindsight, so many of these Aspects became absolutely worthless in game and spirit. Even though it was believably tied to something the player created, it wasn’t really what the character wanted, perhaps. In AARPG, each mode has an Aspect.

Say I take the Science mode, well now I should be thinking about Science Aspects, like the one Tesla has. While this seems narrow, I feel this really helps narrow the scope of Aspects, which is probably one of the most difficult pieces of the FATE system. If a player understands that when doing Science they should be seeking opportunities to use their Science Aspect, I feel the pieces fall in to place rather nicely.

Stunts, not Stunted

Where I kind of disagree with ARRPG’s design is in the amount of stunts. Each character gets 5 stunts. One of my friends said that this pushes FATE towards Savage Worlds system, which I am not as familiar with. He said it with some air of authority, so I believe him… a bit. I still agree that 5 stunts is a lot when there is already Aspects and skills.

Stunts are situational bonuses to skills. There are a lot of rules to making them, but they are pretty simple to use. The Stunt I’ll Take You All On gives players a +2 bonus to defense when outnumbered. My absolute favorite stunt is from our FATE Core game called Unflinching Walk where we let a character (Travis Utah, Barnstorming Pilot) defend with the skill Will. In FATE Core the usual number of Stunts is two, but players can buy more for less Fate Points each session to use on Aspects.

Not only are there many more stunts per player in ARRPG, but the balance to go beyond five is a lot different. Instead of losing Fate Point refresh (# of Fate Points / session), going above five stunts gives the GM more Fate Points to use against the players. The idea is to make it tougher for “better” characters. For example, if a player plays Special Agent Robo that player is giving the GM three more Fate Points to use against him, whereas a player using a character with only 5 stunts doesn’t give the GM bonus. On one hand it’s a nice tradeoff because then the game can have wildly different power levels, like one player playing Jenkins.

Let’s Do Science!

The brilliant portion of the game that can be yoinked from ARRPG into another game are Brainstorms and Inventions.

Brainstorms are player-driven narration devices to create a “fact” about an unknown part of the universe or story. Say there’s a hyper-intelligent velociraptor, and the players want to know how the velociraptor became intelligent. They are in the velociraptor’s lair. Each player “bets” on one of their specialties to find sub-facts. One player with high Notice could “bet” to find bits of a smashed serum bottle in a nest, and another player with high combat could “bet” to understand watching video tapes of the velociraptor that it fights just like Bruce Lee. The winning player via a roll then gets to decide the sub-fact. After a few sub-facts are made the players wrap it all up in a hypothesis to answer the question.

This mechanic can be used for almost anything where the players are trying to figure out the answer, and they – not the GM – are the ones that come up with it. It can be used to figure out a boss’s weakness or a whodunit mystery.

Inventions aren’t nearly as clever and world-breaking, but is nice to have a FATE codified way of making equipment. It’s codified in a way of making more story, and just like additional Stunts, making awesome world-ending inventions gives the GM a tad more power as well. All in all, the mechanic really drives the ARRPG feeling home.

Booting Down

While FATE Core is virtually free under a pay-what-you-want scheme, I feel for those wanting to experience FATE, ARRPG is virtually perfect. It is a great system for that over-the-top feeling, and even if you have no clue about Atomic Robo (like me, a few weeks ago), the setting and mood of the game is very clear. The rules can translate to many different similar feeling genres quite easily, and most importantly the style of the book lends itself to easily teaching the rules of the game in comparison to the drier FATE Core.