Preview: Fragged Empire | Another Dungeon

As a lifelong tabletop roleplayer and avid user of Kickstarter I’ve been keeping my eye pretty close to any new games able to rise above the pack. Let’s be honest, there are a million and one tabletop roleplaying games being launched via crowdfunding every month and for the most part they achieve pretty low funding levels. That cannot be said for gems like Fragged Empire, however.

Fragged Empire managed to finish its Kickstarter at $113,975 AUD, 759% of its funding goal, on August 2nd 2014. Needless to say, when I first saw this figure attached to an independent Australian RPG, I was thrilled. And then I got the chance to play it – but not just any chance; a private game run by the lead designer himself. Thrilled doesn’t begin to cover it.

The meetup started as you’d imagine – lots of laughs, introductions, and our Game Master shaking my hand awkwardly around the battle-map and other gaming accessories he needed. All par for the course. We were given a run-down on the setting – awesome as it is (I’ll go into that a bit more in a second) – handed pre-generated characters, and began. My character was essentially Indiana Jones, so that certainly had something to do with it.

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I’ll let you be the judge of how we did: I managed to get half my face shot off by an automated turret, our mechanic lost both of his beloved defence drones, our medic managed to destroy half the medical facility (including some very important decontamination robots), we destroyed many 100 year old archaeological relics, our soldier and medic were almost brutally killed by a twisted bio-construct, and we almost all died in a crazy fire fight… against each other! Oh, not to mention we all became infected with a super virus, fled our objective before we completed it, and managed to lose a crew member.

You know what? I’m going to call it; we did woefully. But we had an amazing time doing it.

After the dust and dice settled, I bid the architect of the rules (and our failure) farewell and set to reading the current core rule book.

Fragged Empire is a post-post apocalypse sci-fi tabletop RPG with a heavy focus on extended campaign play, interracial politics, and sandbox-style frontier exploration via conquest, and colonisation. In Fragged Empire you play as one of four races which are the genetic experiments of a (themselves) genetically modified ancient human race called the Archons. The piece is set 100 years after a genocidal war which wiped out your creators and left the universe in the hands of their children who have had to rebuild and rediscover what was once lost. Now, scattered across the stars, and surrounded by lost precursor technology, the players are left with one simple question: what next?

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Fragged Empire is primarily geared towards extended play campaigns, specifically in the vein of frontier “West Marches” style. The demo session I played was a one-shot, and therefore unable to showcase some of the important extended mechanics, but armed with an advance copy of the manuscript, I can fill in those blanks for you. The book is as of yet unfinished, so what I can tell you now may be subject to change. What I can say is that the manuscript is already in excess of 350 pages, filled with amazing evocative artwork, and crammed with amazing setting material and some pretty innovative game mechanics.

Whilst Fragged Empire is still in beta (the art isn’t all done and the layouting is incomplete) what is currently there is highly encouraging, and incredibly evocative. Most sections of the book are already backed up with clean and elegant graphical representations, with a heavy use of icons and ideographics to quickly condense information. This is a very pleasing thing to see as both a Game Master and a player, as there is an ease of reference that many other RPG products do not supply.

Character creation is done using a pretty simple Point-Buy system, wherein the player is given 18 points to assign between 6 different Attributes, with the “standard” being between 1 or 2 within each Attribute. Additionally, players choose 10 total Skills to be Trained in, giving them a bonus, over a few categories of Skill types. And of course, the Race chosen by the player massively influences all the previously decided Attributes and Skills. Fragged Empire has no classes, but it heavily encourages specialisation – almost to the point of min-maxing (the dangerous territory of putting all your statistical eggs in one gameplay basket).

There are four playable races:
● The Corporation, who are the most ‘human’, idolise capitalism, and represent the comfortable norm from which players are expected to be introduced to the stranger aspects of the setting,
● The Kaltorans, the favoured race of the long-dead Archons, who are filled with the ancestral memories of their disgraced past,
● The Legion, who are a genetically enhanced soldier race who are attempting to come to terms with a universe that isn’t at constant war,
● And the Nephilim, a catch-all term for the bio-constructs created by X’ion, enemy of the Archons, and a mismatch of creatures attempting to find their own place in a universe inhabited by the children of their sworn enemies.

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Combat within Fragged Empire has a lot of depth, and tends to come off as very rules-heavy (or crunchy) within the rulebook. Our Game Master ran combat in a rules-light manner but since reading over the added complexity suggested in the system and trialing it myself, I can safely say that it is far from a natively rules-light gameplay flow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and lovers of Dungeons & Dragons, or other crunchy game systems will find a relatively elegant system. It certainly runs smoother than Dungeons & Dragons 3.x or 4th Edition!

As it is a futuristic game, combat does tend to focus on gun-play, and whilst this itself is done with finesse – and a lot simpler than Dark Heresy or the other Warhammer 40k Roleplaying Games – it does tend to leave melee combat feeling useless, despite it being presented in the rules as an entirely valid choice. This, however, comes down the individual. The rules seem to encourage melee combat, yet in play the mechanics make it nigh impossible to survive (and ineffective when you do happen to live through it).

One particularly noteworthy part of combat is the damage system. If you’re wounded, you remove points from your Endurance. Once your Endurance is at 0, you begin taking Critical Damage (which you can also take from Critical Hits during normal combat). At this point, you start randomly losing points off your Attributes, one at a time. If any of your Attributes reaches 0, you’re out like a light. Remember a little while ago when I said “almost to the point of min-maxing”? Why yes, the system encourages it from an attacking point of view, but makes it suicidal from a defending stance. That isn’t to say you can’t min-max, but it does mean doing so makes you a glass cannon.

General play of Fragged Empire is simple and follows a 3d6 + Modifier system, meaning there is little maths involved, and no looking up random charts or results tables. No special dice are used, and beyond a character sheet (and maybe some counters to represent Resources) players are left with their imagination.

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It is specifically of note that Fragged Empire has a focus on two relatively forgotten subjects in most roleplaying games: vehicular control/combat and item crafting. Both systems are given as much depth as the combat system, and crafting itself could be the focus of an entire session, adventure or campaign as the players delve further into space looking for just the right materials.

Fragged Empire is mechanically a lot of fun to play and the setting is evocative, and expansive enough, that you can really lose yourself. Imagine a universe with the potential and “frontier” thinking of Warhammer 40k, yet without the soul-destroying grimdark nature inherent to that setting. In all, Fragged Empire is a nice bundle that would serve for a long investigative campaign of high story, down to a Do-The-Job style game in the vein of Firefly, all the way to a more intense West Marches style game of frontier exploration, colonisation, and discovery in the unknown.

Fragged Empire has a fantastic system and setting which rises above the traditional ‘limits’ seen around independent role playing games, going for a more traditional “big book” feel. Contained within is enough fodder, story hooks, and mechanics to keep storyteller players and mechanics lawyers alike happy with the same campaign for several years. Game Masters are given a wealth of information to draw from, and enough breathing space in the setting for them to fill in whatever they want between the cracks.

In short, you can’t really go wrong with Fragged Empire, especially if you love giant forgotten monsters hidden on dark flickering spaceships on the edge of the void waiting to claw your eyes out.

Editor’s Note : If you missed out on the Kickstarter but are still interested then fear not – you can pre-order the backer kits here.

Future Editor’s Note : Please note the backer kit is now closed.

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Gaming since four, game mastering since six, and augmenting reality with fiction since the First Age of Middle Earth; Ben has a hard time separating reality from fantasy. Can you blame him? Pretty early on, he realised that whilst playing games was great, making them was greater, and has spent the better part of his life corrupting the innocent with polyhedral dice, painted war game miniatures, non-standard playing cards, and lines of C# which have inexplicable comments attached to them. Somewhere between all this, this bearded twit runs a weekly game, a sporadic blog, and works as a game Designer.

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