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May 01, 2005

RPG Blog Experiences Fates Worse Than Death

Fates Worse Than Death is a next-generation cyberpunk RPG that’s been making big waves recently—not only for their release of a 241 page “lite” version, but also for producing an “instructional video” for their game. Today, RPG sits down with Brian St. Claire-King, creator of Fates, and founder/creative director of Vajra Enterprises, producer of Fates Worse Than Death, the Tibet RPG, and other game titles.

Now, on to the Q&A:

-On your site, you mention you've been writing and creating for Fates Worse Than Death since 1988.  Tell us a little about the setting, and how much game has evolved from its origins.

Brian: The game takes place in New York in 2080, in a time where there has been a massive exodus from the city and what’s left is a scary ghetto. There’s hope though: the ‘good people’ left in the city have formed gangs for their own protection, and these gangs have some hope of making the city a better place.  It’s not easy going, though, as the city has every horrible thing you would find in a modern ghetto, plus every new horror that technological advances have made possible.

I’ve rethought and rewritten Fates so many times that it’s a completely different game than what it started as.  At first I was doing a modern day game, then I thought of a future-spinoff of that game world, then I thought of an “inner city” supplement, then I dropped everything but the inner city.  Then I went and changed the history of the game universe to make the city elements make more sense.  The problem with writing a game as you’re growing up is that by the time you get a draft ready to publish you look at it and think ‘wow, I could write a much better version now.’

-You had a very...unique upbringing.  Has that had much impact on your writing and gaming experiences?

Brian: I suppose it has.  My parents were Buddhist ministers and so I was raised to believe things different from what those around me believed.  Today I’m very interested in the beliefs of people from every culture and era, and from seeing the world from their points of view.

During part of my childhood I lived in an inner city.  There were a few kids who were mean to me because I was different (I was the only white kid in my class at school), but mostly they were good people who were nice to me and helped teach me how to get by.  My memories of living in Oakland were almost all positive, and today I feel great hope for cities.  I fear places where people isolate themselves from other kinds of people.  That’s why in Fates the city is a terrible place but there is hope, not coming from outside but from the people of the city itself.

I think because I grew up being conscious of being different I’m fascinated today by subcultures: people who look and act like they are part of normal society but they belong to a special group with their own goals, beliefs and culture.  I read compulsively about subcultures, from homeless people to hackers to occultists, and a lot of that has found its way in to my games.

-Fates Worse Than Death is clearly a "next generation" cyberpunk game.  How do you feel it differs from its predecessors?

Brian: In most cyberpunk gaming you’re a free agent, adrift in a constantly changing world, and your main duty is to look after your own best interests.  That typically means doing whatever you can to get enough money to buy a big gun, a fast motorcycle and cybernetic implants. In Fates Worse Than Death you’re more-or-less stuck in one city.  You have duties to people other than yourself and others have duties to you.  The things you do will effect the city and you’ll have to live with the consequences of your actions (just as you have to deal with the unresolved issues left by those who came before you).  I tried to make it such that players feel the city is a real living thing that they are a part of.

-For those unfamiliar with Fates, how does your unique brand of character creation and combat resolution add to the game itself?

Brian: Character creation in Fates is unique because each character belongs to a character class that describes what that person’s place in society is, but does not limit what the person can buy, learn or become.  It’s like the real world: what you do to get by right now effects but does not control what you are capable of doing with your life.  I think this is especially helpful to players who are still getting comfortable with the setting: it tells them what society expects of them; then encourages them to go beyond those expectations.

I think there are two unique things about combat that effect gameplay.  First, there are a lot of different actions that are based on different attributes, meaning the strong characters have a strategy they can use, but so do the agile characters, the smart characters, the fast characters and even the willful characters. Second, combat is realistically deadly and that makes players think twice before just running out and attacking the enemy.  Hopefully it encourages players to come up with more creative solutions to problems than open violence.

-What do you think is the #1 thing prospective gamers would like/love about your game?

Brian: The comment I’ve heard most from fans is that the book is full of unique new ideas that they haven’t seen in any game before.  It really isn’t just ‘generic cyberpunk’ or generic anything, it’s a cyberpunk-like collection of technologies, organizations and philosophies that haven’t appeared in any RPG before.

-A 241-page "lite" version?  WOW.  What were you guys thinking?

Brian: The basic idea was to give people something they could download and play which would give them enough to get a feel for what the game is all about, but not to give away so much that people would have no reason to buy the full version.  I decided to have the lite version focus on the street people characters mostly because I was disgusted by the TV blaring on endlessly about the lives of spoiled rich people.  I chopped out everything that wasn’t necessary for playing a campaign containing street people and when I was done there were 241 pages out of 464.

-Perhaps more than any other RPG genre, cyberpunk games have a potential vulnerability of being either heavy-handed social commentary or thinly-veiled political statements.  Do you have any problems keeping this out of your writings, or do you even want to?

Brian: I don’t think it’s possible to write near-future scifi that isn’t a political statement.  Stating what you think is possible (or even just ‘believable’) is a major declaration of your beliefs.  I’ve tried to avoid using my writing as a means of political propaganda, but I haven’t made any attempt to keep my political beliefs out of my visions of the future.  Yet I’m not afraid of alienating many readers because most of my political beliefs come from scifi.  For me, scifi is a great way of exploring the best and worst possible outcomes of modern trends and new technologies.  I think people who don’t read or watch scifi tend to be politically disabled: they have trouble imagining a future different from the present.  They’re afraid of adopting new ways of doing things that could make the world better and they’re not afraid enough of trends that could make the world a truly terrible place.

-You've done the first-ever instructional video I've seen for an RPG.  Where did you come up with the idea, and have you seen any dividends from it?

Brian: I was watching the PBS documentary series on the history of New York, and the whole thing cuts between showing historians being interviewed and showing old pictures of New York with historians talking over them, and there’s some nice music in the background.  And I was thinking how cheap it must have been to put together such a nice product, and then I thought ‘hey, we have the resources to do that.’  It came down to the fact that it was something we could do, that our players might enjoy, that wouldn’t cost a lot of money or take an insane amount of time.  As far as dividends, it’s hard to say: we put the video and the lite version out at the same time.  There’s been a definite increase of interest in the game, but it’s hard to say how much of it is from the video.

-You're also Creative Director for the Tibet RPG.  What should people look for from this title?

Brian:  Tibet came out about a half a year after Fates.  The game takes place in Tibet in 1959, a time when the People’s Republic of China had invaded but had not yet dissolved the Tibetan government.  The game assumes that all Tibetan magical and religious beliefs are true.  It’s a ‘historical fantasy’ game, but I think the Tibetan cosmology is so integrated in it that it has a very different feel to it than other historical fantasy.  The game is still supported in that we’re still creating new material for the website, and still running demos at conventions, but we don’t have any immediate plans to publish a supplement.

-So do you still find time to play any other RPGs that are out there?

Brian: I try to buy and read other RPGs out there, so I can keep up to date on what other companies are doing, but I only get to play other games when I go to conventions.  There are games I would like to play, but times when my play group can get together are rare and I feel that I should be using those times for playtesting my games.

-What's your biggest pet peeve regarding gaming today?

Companies that put out products they don’t really believe in because they think it will sell.  This happens at the system level (a lot of the people publishing d20 books don’t really like d20) and at the setting level (“hmm, anime seems popular, I guess that means I should write an anime setting.”)  All that does is flood the market with mediocre products.

-What can we expect down the road from Vajra Enterprises?

Brian: Our next RPG will be “In Dark Alleys,” a modern-day horror game.  Like Fates it will have a very detailed and very unique setting, but unlike Fates the characters won’t start knowing about the setting – they’ll have to discover the horrible secrets of the universe through exploration and experimentation.  We’re also working on a horror themed card game called “Cruel World” and a negotiation game that takes place in the Fates setting, it’s sort of like a cross between a LARP and the game Diplomacy.  We’ve also got a contract with an artist to do a Fates Worse Than Death comic.

-Finally, can you give the readers out there perhaps thinking of writing/publishing their own RPGs a good one-liner of advice?

Brian: My advice is: Don’t try to make a ‘better’ version of what gamers already have on their shelves – try to make something completely new.

For more information on Fates Worse Than Death and other Vajra titles, visit http://www.vajraenterprises.com/. To view the Fates “lite” version, view the Fates instructional video, or purchase the full game, visit http://www.fatesworsethandeath.com/!FWTD/index.htm.


Great interview. It's nice to hear cyberpunk get a halfway cerebral treatment.

Great stuff! I just d/l'd the "Spare Change" version--I think it's got a lot of potential. To be honest, I'm even more interested in the Tibet RPG--sound s like something original to play.

I'd just like to add I emailed Brian and his company to ask a question the other day, and he was nice enough to email me back right away. I love that kind of fan attention. Oh, nice interview while I'm at it lol....

I went ahead and downloaded the free game--you should mention there's also like an entire CD avail for d/l on the site, too-and I have to say I was impressed, very impressed, especially for a first release. There are soem rough patched in the game, but overall, I really found myself liking it. I appreciate the fact Mr. St. Claire-King has created an objective-based cyberpunk game. Keep it up!

this game is awesome--then again I like anything that's cyberpunk

Im a bit of an evangelist when it comes to FWTD and I've been playing and gming fates since it came out. It's the best cyberpunk game I've ever played and even after almost a year, I still find stuff in the book thats new.
I'd also like to say the online support for fates is in a league of it's own.
Not just downloadable character sheets, but message boards, games, sample sheets, face generator, a city block generator.
and the bloody brilliant fan rewards scheme that gives you free stuf just for playing fates.


I thought the video was a nice touch. I went ahead and dowloaded the game, and I lik what I see!


I have yet to review Fates Worse Than Death, but the Tibet RPG is a very different and nicely done RPG.

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