[Fate][Review] Shardlands

A review of the new Shardlands setting for Fate Core.

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Shardlands: Muskets, Blades, Words of Power! by Judith and Christian Vogt Self Published Setting for Fate Core

I tend to think of myself as primarily a Basic/eXpert Dungeons and Dragons (1981) player and game master. Thinking of Elf as a class, descending armor class, and creating a rags to riches story at the table gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Like a warm blanket on a cold morning, these utterly fallacious thoughts keep me cozy in my descending years. The truth of the situation is that I’ve played more Fudge than anything since the fateful day I found a certain text file on the AOL boards. Of all Fudges children Fate is probably the most successful, and I’ve played a bit of it in the last few years. Anyway, here are my thoughts on an English translation of a German book about a setting based on Russian myths.

Christian Vogt sent me a copy of he and Judith Vogts new book to review, despite the fact that I update my blog once a year and have no audience to speak of, I may also talk about it on my YouTube channel since that’s a thing I’ve been meaning to do. Its a PDF, about 89 pages (minus a few ads at the back), and chock full of info on playing a Wolf in Czar Koloy the Thirds Two Realms. The setting is based loosely on the latter days of Czarist Russia, incorporating fantasy elements from Slavic legends. IF you ever wanted to play a snarling special forces agent perched on the roof of Baba Yagas hut sniping at shadow demons, well, that is a thing you can do now.

In this setting you play a Wolf, a sort of Czarist special forces unit bound together by dark blood magic and used by the Czar to keep the peace, like the “Taking the Black” in Game of Thrones, your Wolf is absolved of his past life, but also required to abandon it. The rules give an example of a Wolf pack, and an example of a pack based stunt tree to get you started. One thing I would have liked to see is the wolf pack stated out as an organizational extra, one of Fates strong points is that everything can be a character and treating the wolf pack as one would really help flesh the idea out.

The setting is based on Slavic legends, which is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand Slavic legends contain alot of fantasy awesomeness, you have immortal sorcerers, three headed dragons, demented witches, and strange shadows stalking the darkness. On the other hand, most people (myself included) don’t really know alot about Slavic legends. The author does try to resolve the latter issue, but this is done through only a few examples and a long reading list. The work could have done with an additional section on Slavic legendary themes, cultural norms, and a bit of religious history.

Speaking of religion, the action in the game is centered around a religious schism. In the setting the dominant religion is a form of monotheism based on a 3 faced god which was forced to include quite a bit of folk religion and lesser spirits/gods. A schism in the main faith occurs when people decide that the god might just have a fourth face. This is actually a pretty simple way to introduce alot of plot complexity, I’m on board.

You can explore themes of religious interpretation, and the distinction between politics within a church and actual belief. Do all the supporters of the Four Faced God actually care about the dogmatic implications of the schism, or is it just a banner they are standing behind for political reasons? what seemingly minor reforms might be more important to some than the actual four faced belief? what other schisms might be hiding in the wings? When you read about the protestant reformation you see these kind of complex issues, with some lords throwing themselves behind the protestant cause because of political or personal reasons having nothing to do with the actual change in religion, and people fighting for it because of their changing faith. Its kind of awesome.

The magic system is pretty simple and strait forward. The Words system of magic is kinda vague for my tastes but the personal costs of casting spells fits the darker themes of the setting really well. Basically its skill based magic based on the idea that characters are using/learning words of power which draws magic from a dark shadow realm, and may allow things through from that realm. It means only a fool would ignore the promise of magic, but only a fool would use it freely. The system also has a crafts based Alchemy system which lets you create all kinds of compounds, potions, and even explosives.

I like Shardlands, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a little gunpowder in their dark fantasy. Its got its problems, some translation induced typos, and its a bit short for the huge subject matter its tangling. Still, there is just too much awesome in Slavic/Russian legends, and too few games trying to tackle any of it to say much bad about something like this. Muskets and Witches and Demons oh my!