“The docking clamps screamed a little as the freighter settled in, and the overloaded compression pods vented, flooding the bay in a haze of steam as the gangplank touched down. The captain was venting too, cursing up a blue streak that would make an Urseminite blush as he charged down to inspect the aft paneling, a twisted mess after that run-in with the pirates. The rest of the crew breathed in the stale station air in welcome relief, the vivid holo-boards colored with vice and temptations – this wasn’t Imperial space, that was for sure.”
Bulldogs! is the new FATE-based RPG from Galileo Games, written by Brennon Taylor and Brian Engard, edited and put together by some of the awesome Evil Hat folks (Fred Hicks also did the layout & design of the ENnie-winning Dresden Files books, I believe). The book clocks in at a nicely streamlined 162 pages and features delightfully colorful (and evocatively cartoonish) art by Jaime Posadas and Kurt Komoda.
It’s a rough-and-tumble “soft” science-fiction setting of frontier space truckers, freebooters, pirates, and perilous escapes. It avoids the overly political and scientific ramification exploration of a lot of harder sci-fi RPGs in favor of skin-of-your-teeth action, familiar-but-fun aliens, blaster battles, frontier justice and used spaceships that only work half the time.
This kind of playful approach to sci-fi RPGing really speaks to me. I’m not looking for philosophical exploration of man’s place in the stars (at least not most of the time). I want starship chases and alien-filled hives of scum and villainy.
The book does a nice job of balancing a taste of a loose, neutral-territory-between-two-empires setting (just enough?), rules explanation, and genre-specific detailing to make me feel quite confident in playing it. It’s a little light on the GM side in terms of giving you tips and tools to work with running it, but proponents of the FATE rules often lay claim that it’s a fairly player-motivated plot-generating system, so maybe that’s okay.
Let me say that the FATE system has until now never totally sung to me – I’ve heard good things from the right people and tried a couple of one-shots run by others – but for whatever reason (I’m thinking the intimidation factor of the commonly phonebook-sized rulebook digests for one) I’ve failed to grok the potential of what can be done with it. Bulldogs! nicely lays the rules out in simplified explanation, with appropriate focus on the Aspect mechanics and how they apply and work with the notoriously-difficult-to-balance sci-fi RPG challenges of things like alien species and robots and ship combat scaling and such.
The premise of the game is straightforward – you and your friends are down-on-your-luck spacers that have just recently signed the next five years of your life away to TransGalaxy’s Class D Freight Division, an overly-insured and under-secured arm of cargo shipping that operates the most dangerous missions in the sketchiest parts of frontier space. Most of you have dangerous or treacherous histories that you’re trying to leave behind and Class D’s lax hiring practices and constant on-the-move job description was thus quite appealing.
It’s largely assumed that players will create their characters together as a gaming session – a trend in RPGing I approve of, by the way – so along with making your own desperate spacer and figuring out a few interconnections with your shipmates, you also collectively come up with rough details of the ship you’re going to be flying around in, as well as the characteristics of the captain you’re going to be working under (which can be also be played by a player if the group wants that). There’s a nice selection of ten alien species to choose from (various animalish-themed aliens as well as a human analogue and robots/androids – you could do worse than imagine the human-minority universe of, say, Don Bluth’s Titan A.E.) as well as alien creation tools for making your own race on the fly.
Ships and Gadgets get their own quite comprehensive chapters: as befits a FATE-based game, not filled with shopping lists of detail and selection, but more rich in tools and explanations for making your own. It’s assumed that players start the game with a TransGalaxy-owned ship, and the explanation of outfitting it and maintaining it is given alongside personal ship ownership. It would have been nice to have a sidebar or a spot where the TransGalaxy crewing information was condensed or consolidated for easy look-up, but that’s a fairly minor quibble.
Very nice examples are given of how each of the skills can be used. Glad to see that Psychic powers showed up, too.
The FATE system has been criticized as having an occasionally dodgy or confusedly-abstract combat system, and while I admit I haven’t put the Bulldogs! version to the test yet, this one reads pretty well. Several people are claiming that this is the first appearance of the “2.0″ version of FATE (eventually to be released, I believe, under a Strange Tales of the Century brand), so maybe this is one of the places that the system has been tightened up.
The stress track system makes sense to me and looks like it would work equally well for straight-up trading blaster shots as it would for putting characters in a closing trash computer or a fracturing airlock or just plain getting into an argument while everyone’s got their guns drawn Mexican Stand-off style. I appreciate the fact that special attention has been given for space-age peril like hazardous environments and things blowing up. The Minions system – which reminds me of mooks from Seventh Sea, but I suspect we’re seeing these in more and more pulpy “fight a crowd of goons” systems – is also a focus of combat.
Ship-to-ship conflict has always been sticky wicket in sci-fi RPGs, often forcing everybody but the pilot and maybe a gunner to twiddle their thumbs as the dogfight is played out. Bulldogs! offers some exploration of how to make this a little more party-comprehensive, but again, I feel like I would have to actually play-test this part to be able to determine how well it works.
I touched on this before but I would say that the one place the book falls a little short on for me is in providing only the very loosest of adventure generation tools. The Setting chapter near the front does a pretty good job of establishing tone and throwing out a handful of potential plot hooks, obviously with the intent of keeping things quite loose for GM customization; but the sparcity of the Galaxy Map didn’t reach out and grab me like I felt it should’ve. The GM’s section in the back is only about 8 pages of advice and while it touches on thank-God-this-is-in-here stuff like game pacing, indecision-resolving tactics, and theme awareness, it doesn’t go into much detail about what a Bulldogs! adventure actually is or offer anything in the way of examples (though it does offer a few alternative campaign ideas, in case you wanted to put Space Truckers aside and try out being Space Spies or Space Pirates or whatever).
This is completely mitigated, in my opinion, by the fact that Mr. Taylor has generously posted his sample Adventure Scenario on the game’s website (see link below), along with a fairly large compilation of pre-generated characters. Thanks, Brennan!
- Bulldogs! RPG homepage: http://galileogames.com/bulldogs-fate/
- Original Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1034531507/bulldogs-sci-fi-that-kicks-ass
You can purchase Bulldogs! in print or PDF (or both as a bundle) at IPR here: http://www.indiepressrevolution.com/xcart/product.php?productid=17807