Fading Suns is a science fiction role playing game with a lush, gorgeous background and system that has had its share of criticisms. The first edition of the game was published by Holistic Design in 1996 as a 272 page soft-cover book. The color cover depicts a Jump Gate, an iconic symbol in the Known Universe described in the book. The second edition of the game, reviewed here, was published in 1999 as a 312 page hard cover. The cover shows a Hawkwood Fleet exiting the Jump Gate. A d20 version of the game was published in 2000. The game and its supplements can be purchased in printed and PDF formats at online retailers. Red Brick Limited holds the license and has been providing new material for the game. In March, Red Brick announced a distribution deal with Mongoose Publishing under the Flaming Cobra imprint.
Chapter One: The Universe
Fading Suns was designed with its setting firmly in mind, and that setting is one of the most fascinating created by the RPG industry. The setting is called the Known Worlds, representing the 40+ systems that are all that remain of mankind’s previous expansion through the stars. The Known Worlds are ruled by the recently crowned Emperor Alexius, and are rife with Byzantine politics and scheming by the various factions that have risen to the top of the gothic feudal civilization filled with superstition and fear. Interstellar travel is a function of the massive jump gates, created by the ancient Anunnaki, and located in the fringes of star systems. The gates are operated by keys and can lead to one or several other worlds. Much knowledge of science and technology has been lost and is beyond the understanding of most men. What remains is coveted by the Nobles, controlled by the Guilds, and proscribed by the Church. And, of course, the suns are literally fading, a phenomenon that sets the tone for the game itself.
Chapter Two: Rules
Designers Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg were already established with White Wolf, being heavily involved in that company’s initial World of Darkness offerings. Thus, it will be no surprise that the game bears a resemblance to the White Wolf games.
But there are also significant differences.
The key mechanic is the Victory Point System. To resolve an action, a player makes a Goal Roll with a d20. The goal number will generally be a characteristic plus a skill, plus modifiers for the difficulty of the skill. Rolling the goal number or less means success, over the goal number is a failure. Rolling the goal number is a critical success. The degree of a successful roll is determined by translating the number rolled into Victory Points, which is done via a small chart. A roll of one is always a success, a roll of 19 is always a failure, and a roll of 20 is a critical failure.
The effect is that characters with higher goal rolls will be more likely to succeed, and succeed with better results. But there is always a ten percent chance of a failure of some degree.
As an example, Illya is trying to determine if someone is following her. She would add her Perception characteristic of 5 to her Observe skill of 3. This gives her a goal number of 8. A roll of 7 would translate to 2 Victory Points and a result of “Pretty Good.” If she rolled an 8, she would have a critical success and her Victory Points would double, to 4 with a result of “Excellent,” which would normally be beyond her ability.
In combat, Victory Points become Victory Dice. These are d6, and results of one to four translate to a point of damage. More on combat later on.
There is also a rule called Accents, which allow a player to add or subtract from her goal roll. A player using this mechanic could increase her chance to succeed at the cost of fewer successes, or decrease the chance of success in hopes of scoring more successes.
This system is at the heart of the criticisms leveled against the game. Detractors find the ten percent chance of failure to be far too high
Chapter Three: Characters
Characters in Fading Suns have no classes or levels, but are instead primarily defined by what faction they belong to in the social structure of the Known Worlds. There are four groups of factions: The Nobility, the Church, the Guilds, and aliens.
The Nobility is divided into five factions, each representing one of the major noble houses in the Known Worlds:
- The pious, but once wicked Li-Halan, with their distinctly Asian flair.
- The fiery Hazat, Latin in flavor. Zorro with a spaceship.
- The al-Malik, with Arabic sensibilities.
- The decadent, despicable Decados, who will remind many of Dune’s House Harkonnen.
- And their mortal enemies, the Hawkwoods, who bear resemblance to Dune’s House Atriedes.
Characters that are part of the Universal Church of the Celestial Sun will belong to one of the six main sects:
- The Orthodoxy, the primary sect with the most political power.
- The Eskatonic Order, barely tolerated for their mystical teachings.
- Sanctuary Aeon, the healing order.
- Brother Battle, the monastic order of Warrior Priests.
- Temple Avesti, the fanatics with flame guns who control the Inquisition
- Mendicant Monks, who eschew the politics of the church.
Merchant Guild characters are divided into:
- The Charioteers, star pilots, merchants and smugglers. Hello, Han Solo.
- The Engineers, who hold the keys to technology.
- The Scravers, who can get you anything you need for a price.
- The Muster, mercenaries and sometime slavers.
- The Reeves, who control the financial and banking systems in the Known Worlds.
- And Yeoman, freelancers who work outside the formal guild structure.
And finally, there are three alien species available:
- The Ur-Obun, spiritual beings and highly-respected diplomats.
- The Ur-Ukar, brutal mercenaries and assassins.
- And the Vorox, six armed, furry beasts valued as warriors.
The Character Creation chapter presents two ways of creating starting characters. The primary system is called Character Histories. This is a life-path system, which builds characters by making choices about the character’s upbringing, apprenticeship and early career. The result creates a very iconic base for characters from the various factions, which can then be customized further. For those who want more flexibility, there is a point buy system as well.
Chapter Four: Traits
The mechanics of character are covered by traits, which are divided into Characteristics, Natural Skills and Learned Skills.
There are nine Characteristics. Body Characteristics are Strength, Dexterity and Endurance, while Mind Characteristics are Wits, Perception and Tech. The Spiritual Characteristics are opposing pairs: Extrovert versus Introvert, Passion versus Calm, and Faith versus Ego. The scale for Characteristics ranges from 1 to 10, with 8 being the maximum allowed for new characters. For the Spiritual Characteristics, you have scores in both members of a pair, but the total cannot exceed 10. So, if you have Calm 4, your maximum Passion score would be 6. For each of the Spiritual Characteristics, you choose one trait of a pair to be primary, and it begins at 3 while its opposed trait begins at 1.
The nine Natural Skills all start at 3 in character generation and including things like Shoot, Fight, Melee, Charm and Vigor. They represent the abilities that all characters have to some degree.
Learned Skills are taken during character generation, and include things like Alchemy, Think Machine (the Known World phrase for computers), Oratory, Speak Latin and Remedy (first aid).
Players choose from Blessings and Curses and Benefices and Afflictions to help customize their characters. Blessings and Benefices are (no surprise here) beneficial and cost Extras points to purchase, while Curses and Afflictions are bad things that give you Extras points. The system is similar to White Wolf’s Merits and Flaws.
Finally, Vitality serves as the game’s equivalent of hit points. All characters begin with a base of five and add their endurance. Damage removes the endurance levels first without any penalty. Damage that affects the remaining five levels does begin incurring penalties to actions and tasks. With only one Vitality level left, a character may fall unconscious. A character dies when reduced to zero vitality.
Chapter Five: Occult
In the Known Universe, people with supernatural powers are rare and feared by most. There are two primary types of occult powers available to characters, psychic powers and theurgy.
Psychic powers are divided into seven Paths, each with their own group of related powers. These bear a resemblance to the Disciplines in White Wolf’s Vampire game, and cover similar things from telepathy to telekinesis.
Theurgic rituals are taught by the various Church sects, and resemble D&D style spells, complete with component requirements. There are general rituals and rituals that are specific to the various sects.
The use of these powers is governed by two opposed traits. The Psi trait is offset by Urge, while the Theurgy trait is offset by Hubris. A character gains Urge and Hubris by committing various sins or breaking taboos. The Wyrd trait, which is bought in character generation, governs a character’s use of his powers, which generally cost Wyrd points to activate. Every occultist bears a stigmata, a mark or sign that makes the character stand out in a civilization where such powers are feared and despised.
Urge is invoked when a character fumbles (rolls a 20) on a Psi roll or when activating a psychic power. The result is the character’s dark side awakens and, played by the game master, generally causes trouble for the character. Left unchecked, the psychic may eventually give rise to a physical manifestation of his dark side, his Dark Twin.
Theurges who fumble Theurgy or theurgic rite rolls gain Hubris, and their growing pride begins to have an effect on them and the world around them. Early on, animals may fear and run from a theurge, while at the extreme, they cause entire worlds to wither.
Chapter Six: Combat
Initiative is variable from turn to turn, and is determined by skill relevant to the first action a character takes. Some actions can modify initiative.
Successes on the combat goal roll translate into bonus damage dice which are added to the weapon’s damage dice. A player rolls one d6 for each damage dice, and on a roll of 1 to 4, gains a point of damage. The target rolls a d6 for each level of armor protection, and a roll of 1 to 4 results in an armor point. Armor points reduce Damage points, and any remaining Damage points are applied to the target’s Vitality.
This is an aspect of the game that some criticize, as you can wind up rolling a lot of dice to get results. For example, a character that rolls a 10 while shooting a laser pistol at an enemy wearing a spacesuit would roll eight d6 to determine damage while the enemy would roll three d6 to determine the armor protection.
Regardless, the system offers a wide variety of detail. Specialized Martial Arts, Fencing and Firearm actions are available to help customize a character’s fighting style. The chapter includes charts that describe the gameplay effects of those actions, as well as weapons and armor tables.
Finally, the chapter ends with an example of combat, told from a rules perspective as well as a narrative treatment.
Chapter Seven: Technology
Technology in Fading Suns runs the gamut from stone-age to super high-tech. Higher technology is both rare and precious, and knowledge of how to build or repair it is jealously hoarded. As illustrated by the Tech Level chart, the normal tech level in the Known Universe is roughly the same as our own. A character’s ability to use technology is based on their tech characteristic. Using higher level tech incurs a penalty. Creating or repairing technology requires a Tech score two higher than the tech level of the item in question.
The bulk of this chapter contains descriptions of equipment, including weapons and armor, drugs, poisons, gear and vehicles. Special attention is paid to cybernetics, including guidelines for creating your own cybernetic devices. Thirteen pages are devoted to Starships, including combat and design. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but is more than enough to get a campaign started.
The chapter also includes information about money, prices for mundane goods and services, and average wages for a variety of jobs, and three of the more common types of alien artifacts.
Chapter Eight: Gamemastering
This chapter is a standard part of any role-playing game, with guidance for game masters on how to run campaigns in the Known Worlds. It also includes a selection of antagonists ranging from human enemies to strange and deadly aliens like the Symbiots.
Chapter Nine: Planets
This chapter provides brief descriptions of all of the planets in the Known Worlds, with flavor and hooks to engage a GM’s imagination. There is an excellent variety presented, from the urban capitol Byzantium Secondus to the jungle hell that is Severus. Also included is a section on designing your own worlds. The endpapers, front and back, have a beautiful map of the Known Worlds.
This part of the book includes a more detailed description of the planet Pandemonium and a beginning adventure.
As you know, many RPGs are designed generically, with no specific game world or experience in mind. Others are designed to support play in a specific game world. Fading Suns falls firmly in the latter camp, with game systems and concepts that arise out of the Known Universe. It is a unique setting, but one that is compelling and familiar. Comparisons to Dune are often made, and easy to draw.
The rich background of the game creates one of the challenges in running a Fading Suns campaign. To get the most out of their characters, players will need to be as familiar with the setting as the GM running the game. The generic tropes of many RPG experiences won’t really be enough in Fading Suns. A Fighter in Fading Suns could be anything from a haughty Noble fencer, to a gritty mercenary from the Muster Guild, to a member of the Brother Battle sect. Making an informed choice and playing the role to the hilt requires more work on the part of a player than many other games. Not that that should be seen as a bad thing. Indeed, role-playing in general rewards everyone at the table when a player puts some effort into character.
I have always been a big fan of Fading Suns. In 1999, I created the Fading Suns MUSH, which I based on a recently discovered lost world. I don’t have a problem with the Victory Point system, but I understand the reasons that people have criticized the game.
The game is supported by a variety of excellent supplements that expand upon the world and character options, all of which can be found at online PDF retailers. And a third edition of the Victory Point System is in the works. It remains to see if the new system will address the concerns of the game’s critics.
I highly suggest this version of Fading Suns to anyone interested in a fascinating and original science fiction role-playing game.