This is a report of a FATAL campaign I GM’d many years ago in Australia. This was back in my student days, and my group consisted largely of the student activists I ended up hanging around in those days: a young labor party activist called Danny (something of a mentor for me); a radical feminist Jewish left-wing Zionist who flirted constantly with me and nearly broke my heart and who for the purpose of this review I’ll call Miss R[1]; a no hoper stoned-out kid who could have been brilliant but had some kind of serious problem of motivation, who I’ll call Mr. Obscure; and the overly energetic arty kid (at some Sydney art school whose name I now forget) called Ted who suggested we try out “this wickedly complex game, hey man it’ll be challenging for you Mr. Rolemaster! Pass me a spliff, Mr. Obscure!”

So we ended up playing FATAL, an enormously complex, pretentious and yet simultaneously juvenile game whose name is an acronym for “From Another Time, Another Land.” The game system itself certainly is – I took it on in response to Ted’s challenge, because I’d been GMing Rolemaster (“Mr. Rolemaster”) for some years and in a drunken, stoned (well, everyone except me and Miss R, who “didn’t want to lose control” so wasn’t even drunk, but still managed to bat her eyes at me all night long) conversation my players revealed to me they were bored of watching me juggle critical hit charts like a pro and wanted to see if my “semi-autistic” (again, Miss R[2]) brain could handle a higher challenge. So, like the reckless young risk-taker I was, I took them up on the challenge, and (without even knowing the term) within a month I was running a sandbox campaign with the most complex system anyone has ever designed.

FATAL has, looking back, no good points except its juvenility, which is about the only refreshment you get from the unrelenting and exhausting task of managing the rules. Combat leaves Rolemaster in the dust for complexity, handling magic is hideously complex, and any skill check requires thumbing through hundreds of pages of tables to find the chart you need (and they are poorly laid out, too). But for all its complexity and the continual challenge of trying to see the wood when the trees are so thick and dangerous, it has many rewarding points. For about 3 months Ted played his character with significant brain damage after a left brain hemisphere injury whose results took 10 minutes to resolve in the middle of a crucial combat, but in fact this brain injury was the transformational moment in the campaign. Not only did all the players see that FATAL’s combat system is genuinely dangerous and unique, but Ted chose to play his brain damage as a kind of divine inspiration, and from that inspiration our campaign shifted from a mere series of consecutive dungeon crawls to a campaign at another level of intellectual and spiritual achievement.  His character started having visions, Miss R’s character started treating him as a prophet (as a consequence of some servile character traits she’d rolled up during the two session long character creation process) and with my help the party went from disconnected dungeon crawling in a standard fantasy world to a kind of world salvation crusade.

Ted’s characters dreams were, spontaneously I think[3], visions of bloodlust, murder and rape, and he was able to use his artistic sensibilities to really get the feeling of a character being driven to some deeper truth through tortured visions. He (the player) would even draw sketches of violent import for us and we slowly built up a portfolio. We used the various tables on rape and murder contained in the rules (which I subsequently heard, and I think in general for good reason, were heavily criticised in the role-playing world) to inform his tales, and a picture slowly emerged of a world under threat from an insidious, world-destroying power that was slowly poisoning the earth and unleashing hellions to attack the women of the world. The party would move from village to village, Miss R’s character guiding Ted’s wizard while they told their tale of despair and rapine and gathered evidence of the enemy. From Ted’s images I slowly gathered together a tale of a brooding dark lord who used evil, woman-hating magic to draw forth dark beasts, which increasingly assailed the characters during their travels.

Slowly the characters unravelled the truth of the dark lord’s behaviour, through a combination of traditional capture/torture techniques on his bad guys, and through investigating the dark lord’s activities and servants in various towns and villages. The FATAL rules, which are so hard to work in combat, were a huge help here, enabling me to generate all sorts of challenging social and interrogative interactions. Slowly, the campaign turned under Ted and Miss R’s guidance (and my response) into a kind of eco-feminist quest, to undo the slow darkening of the world and hunt down and destroy “the WR” (The World-Rapist) before he could achieve his goal of unleashing a new corruption that would turn the entire world and all its descendants to his cause. In the game this was envisaged as a kind of ultimate rape, a roll of 100+ on one of FATAL’s many enormously juvenile and offenseive sex tables. And in the end the PCs faced off with the dark lord, destroyed his servants and wrecked his plans, though Ted lost his (second – the first one’s brain damage took him before the final confrontation and he played his new, useless character very recklessly) character, and Miss R was forced to cut down Mr. Obscure’s PC after a particularly evil spell turned him on the party. In the end the campaign finished with Miss R the only one standing, and this created a lot of bad blood which means that none of us talk anymore[4].

So there you have it: a FATAL sandbox campaign that turned into an ecofeminist crusade under the inspiration of a crazed artist and his sometime radical feminist lover, under the guidance of yours truly. FATAL is a hard game to run that I would never recommend to anyone – I certainly won’t ever be doing it again, and in general I think the juvenile sex obsession of its authors lets it down, but with the right players it can be taken to great heights. So I suppose the lesson of this campaign was that system is no impediment to good gaming, and that every system has some point (even if it’s tables of sexual encounters and organ size) that can, with the right dice roll, drive a story to new heights of achievement.

But in general it’s better if you don’t have to wade through 8 or 10 tables spread over 58 pages in order to get there.

fn1: she has an important job in a government body now so I can’t really identify her as a gamer

fn2: I’m a little drunk, but I don’t want this to come across as some kind of cathartic rant; I’m well over Miss R.

fn3: Fucking artists

fn4: I never got to sleep with Miss R but Ted did[3], however he was a bit of a jealous sort[3] and his (apparently legendary) boudoir skills weren’t sufficient to stop Miss R flirting with me[5], and Ted started assuming there was a thing going on[3], which led to a lot of bad blood, so that when Miss R was the only left standing of course he assumed I’d killed him off out of spite. In truth, I’d made a promise to myself early on in this campaign never to fudge any dice rolls, which was a first for me and after this experience not something I ever was so foolish as to repeat.

fn5: What can I say? I’m just that good[6]

fn6: but not quite good enough to compete with Ted[3]