At the moment, I only run WFRP3e, but I read scenarios and campaigns from quite a few other systems. Reading a variety of scenarios can drastically improve your GMing. In any given game, a series of tropes and norms get repeated endlessly because they’ve become associated with the feel of that particular system, but often they’re not the only or even the best way to do things. When you read prewritten material for a different game, you get the opportunity to pull the best ideas from another system into your own game to enhance your storytelling.

With that in mind, I sat down Friday morning to read Pantheon Press’s newly released campaign for their Fortune’s Fool game, Grimm Tales. I know what you’re thinking–I was thinking it, too: Oh, God, not another fairy tale adventure. Just hang on; this one’s worth it. I meant to read a few pages of it and then comb it for ideas at another time, but I ended up reading the whole campaign from cover to cover in a single sitting. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

For those of you not familiar with the Fortune’s Fool system, it is a fantasy RPG set in an alternate Renaissance Europe. The standard fantasy races (elves, orcs, halflings) are a part of normal society. Unlike many other RPGs, Fortune’s Fool doesn’t shy away from the myriad of warring historical religions, and it makes great use of lore pulled from several different religious and cultural backgrounds. More innovative than its setting, though, is Fortune’s Fool’s core mechanic of using Tarot cards to determine the outcome of conflict instead of dice.

When I first played Fortune’s Fool at a convention, I worried a bit that the Tarot mechanic might be too gimmicky. (I know. I use WFRP3e’s picture dice without complaint. But they’re still dice.) Truth be told, though, there’s something really satisfying about the feel of turning over the cards to see what they portend. You really feel as though you’re influencing the future. The innovative mechanics allow you to manipulate the whole deck as you move through the story, too, and since the choice to change the deck (and therefore the draw order) will affect your whole party, the decisions take a bit more strategy than just deciding when to use an ability that adds 4 (or a green die) to a combat roll.

I could effuse about the system some more, but I wanted to effuse about the campaign. Since I tend to read campaigns with an eye toward design, I’ll focus on the fantastic design choices that the team made instead of the narrative content. (That also means I won’t give spoilers!)

Knowledge. It’s a game based on material that your players will know, but the writers have done a superb job of toying with the players’ expectations. Your PCs will act on the knowledge of fairy tales they bring with them to the table. They can’t help it. A writer’s biggest challenge when facing players who already know the story is keeping the PCs from identifying the good and bad guys too easily. Other fairy tale campaigns I’ve seen have failed at this because they twist each fairy tale in the same way; once the players learn the formula, they can anticipate how future encounters will work. The Grimm Tales team has come up with a unique frame story that allows the writers to manipulate each tale differently while still making the set of tales a logical whole. In one tale, the PCs’ knowledge will work for them; in another, it will work against them. The cleverer the players, the more likely they are to be jumping at shadows in no time!

Failure. The game includes several (likely) failures that will feel devastating but won’t shut down the whole campaign. In many games, success is an either/or proposition: either you succeed, or you don’t go on. While players certainly can fail badly enough that they won’t finish the campaign, they are more likely to experience smaller failures along the way. Yet the designers have written these smaller failures so that they will impact the players both emotionally and mechanically; they’ll feel the pain, but the GM won’t have to spend hours backtracking if they screw up.

Tone. As you meet a host of your favorite fairy tale characters, you’ll have a few “aww” moments with some adorable, rosy-cheeked children. Don’t get comfortable; those fleeting moments will be ripped away almost immediately to make room for some of the most twisted scenes I’ve seen in a long time. As a horror film aficionado, I’m fairly hard to faze. Yet some of the scenes in this game had me cringing–in a good way. The awful stuff isn’t over-the-top; you won’t find crude violence or sexuality for its own sake, but you will find things that are horrible enough to make you shudder or laugh out loud. A keen narrative sense also allows the writers to notch up discomfort into outright horror as individual encounters progress. (Two words for GMs who buy this: Chapter Seven!)

Nonstandard Mechanics. The campaign employs just the right number of unusual mechanics. All too often, the use of nonstandard mechanics exists to spice up a string of monotonous combats with a social or puzzle encounter, and the writers then work backwards to shoehorn a design need into their narrative, leaving a jarring bit of storytelling that doesn’t make much sense. (Pathfinder writers can be terrible about this, sticking a random puzzle room into someone’s lair and saying, “Well, he was an inventor and crazy, too!” to explain it.) Here the mechanics exist to make concrete environmental changes ‘real’ to the players, allowing them to experience the changes in the world as it unravels around them.

Background. The designers have provided a background to the story that’s appropriately deep. In both Pathfinder and Warhammer scenarios, GMs often get a richly detailed history that links to richly detailed histories in other products in intricate and interesting ways. Yet often that history only shapes the game as the players experience it in the most superficial ways, and sometimes players aren’t even able to access the whole history through game play. Here, main characters have intricate and hidden family secrets that shape narrative events directly and concretely; the NPCs aren’t two-dimensional cutouts, but excessive history isn’t just included as fluff, either. (I have to admit that I do like a certain amount of fluff, or I wouldn’t play Warhammer, but it can get a wee bit overwhelming when you’ve read three pages of material and realize that it has little bearing on how your players will experience the game.)

If I have a complaint about this title, it’s about the open stats for a couple of encounters. They’ve left the difficulty of a few fights up to the GM, giving her a set of characters and telling her to pick the right number and types of NPCs for the level of the party. Stats are, of course, the part of any game that I find least interesting, and I’m not keen on that kind of freedom–I’d rather it just be done for me like in all the major encounters. On the other hand, I know that many GMs love to play around with that kind of thing, so it’s a terribly minor quibble, especially since the writers do give guidelines for lazy GMs like me.

Overall, I was immensely impressed by this campaign, and its tight writing, clever design, and innovative take on a traditional narrative taught me quite a bit about quality game design. Although I meant to read this “just to see,” it intrigued me enough that I will probably have to run it. My gaming group has a whole list of games we mean to try out in the fall, but Grimm Tales may have convinced me to move the Fortune’s Fool system to the top of that list.

Besides, how can you not love a system and a campaign that includes the instruction “[The monster] is not affected by Latin or Hebrew”? No fool would write that!

Fortune’s Fool is available from Pantheon Press ($20 hard copy; $10 PDF). Grimm Tales is available as a PDF from drivethrurpg ($8.) Or you can buy the PDF bundle of system and campaign from drivethrurpg for only $15!

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