Roleplaying

Full Light, Full Steam Isn’t the Revolution It Wants to Be

Cover art from Full Light, Full Steam

It’s always a treat to crack open a new roleplaying game and see what wonders it holds. In this case, Full Light, Full Steam* holds a lot of steam. Steampunk, that is. But that’s not all! This monocle-sporting, waistcoat-wearing game features a setting where Faraday Drives and Binary Engines have allowed humanity to reach the space age. Grand battleships slug it out above the clouds of Venus while peers of the realm sip brandy and smoke cigars in the villas of Luna.

The game is also very devoted to its status as not just another roleplaying game. The book promises to be a game that’s truly about storytelling, freeing us from the oppression of tyrannical GMs and mind-numbing combat rules. How well does the game fulfill these promises? Let’s find out!

The Setting Is Really Problematic

This was not something I expected to comment on, but so much of the book is taken up with detailed setting description that I can’t avoid it. Because steampunk is based on Victorian England, it’s a genre loaded with potential landmines. That period of time was an especially brutal phase of the British Empire, with colonial holdings stripped of their resources and any who resisted put to the sword. At home, British society happily oppressed its own people as well, grinding down the poor with terrible working conditions and debtors’ prisons. Gender inequality was some of the worst that has ever been seen in history. The list goes on.

Most steampunk writers at least seem aware of this problem today, and they either deliberately subvert their genre’s problematic roots or set stories in fantasy worlds where those roots don’t exist. Full Light, Full Steam goes the opposite direction and unironically glorifies all the awfulness of Victorian society, but this time in space!

In this setting, Mars and Venus both host sentient life, and that life is subject to all the terrible stereotypes that historical Europeans put onto colonized peoples. The Martians and Venusians are portrayed as dangerous savages who must be converted to Christianity.* The “good” natives are those who have either assimilated to Victorian ways or are perhaps allowed to play a mystical guide to a Victorian hero. And all this is treated as a good thing in the game’s fiction.

What’s more, the spacefaring human nations are overwhelmingly white. The only non-white country to play a major role in the setting is Japan, and the Japanese are portrayed as mysterious and dangerous. This game can imagine a world with ether-powered spacecraft but not a world where China is a space power.

The book does at least concede that women have a fair amount of equality in this setting, but that almost makes the rest worst, as if all this oppression is fine so long as women get to do it too. The game even talks about how it might not be fun for a female player to deal with constant sexism in the game, hence women in the setting have far more equality than is historically accurate. It’s unfortunate that the writers didn’t realize this same rule applies across more axes than gender. As if to add a little insult to injury, the “women’s equality” section still manages to be really patronizing, advising that navy women refrain from using sex appeal to climb the ranks. As if we needed that.

I have no idea what the designers’ intentions for this setting were, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the setting should be thrown out and a new one built to replace it. There is little worth salvaging here.

The Core Dice Mechanic Reinvents the Wheel

Okay, enough about that awful setting; let’s look at the game’s actual rules. The core dice mechanic is the foundation upon which everything else is built, so how does Full Light, Full Steam score in this area? Strangely.

Reading the book, I thought for sure this was a d6-based dice pool system, because it kept referencing multiple six-sided dice, along with adding skills and attributes together. Turns out it’s a lot weirder than that. All rolls are made with four d6s. After rolling, the player arranges the dice from lowest to highest. The player then selects two of those dice, corresponding to the character’s skill and attribute, and adds the numbers together for the total.

Example

After I roll my dice, I arrange the results in ascending order. Let’s say I got a two, three, four, and five, just to keep things simple. Then I look at my skill and attribute, which are rated from one to four. In this case, I have Marksmanship two and Coordination three. That means I would take the second and third dice, then add them together. In this case, three and four would equal seven.

So far as I can tell, the book doesn’t say what to do if your character’s skill and attribute are the same. I assume you take the corresponding die twice, but it could also be a situation where you’re supposed to remove that die and then slide one of the remainders up or down. It’s a strange bit of clarification to leave out.

This dice mechanic works, but it’s difficult to explain to new players. It also has a serious problem of maxing out too quickly. Once a character has 4s in both a skill and the corresponding stat, it’s very easy to roll a 12,* which the book labels as “impossible” difficulty.

In exchange for its shortcomings and difficulty to learn, Full Light, Full Steam’s dice mechanic doesn’t really add anything that couldn’t have been achieved by using one of the many dice mechanics that already exist. When designers decide to innovate, they should make sure their innovation actually provides added utility before they put it on the market.

The Narrative Rules Expect Too Much of Players

Remember, Full Light, Full Steam isn’t your ordinary roleplaying game, and one of the ways it seeks to demonstrate this is with rules governing the game’s narrative. These rules can be really helpful, so I wanted them to be good. I was disappointed.

The first warning sign is that the narrative rules have the stated purpose of protecting players from a tyrannical GM. This is a bad place to start, because it presupposes an adversarial relationship. If a GM really is abusing their power, no amount of rules will help, because the GM’s social authority is simply too great.

Beyond that, Full Light, Full Steam expects players to shoulder an unrealistic portion of the storytelling work. Players are supposed to spend at least as much time as the GM describing the action. While a handful of players might be capable of this, many won’t be, and expecting it of them isn’t reasonable. That’s not what they signed up for. It’s one thing to leave players the option to take over if they have specific ideas, but expecting them to do it by default is a mistake.

For many players, a big part of the enjoyment in roleplaying games* is finding out what happens next. Declaring the character’s action creates a rush as the player waits with baited breath for the results. That effect is often spoiled if the player must describe those results for themselves, which this game insists on.

The game also has strict rules for when a scene is allowed to end. These are intended to make sure each player gets a chance to act, but the rules are just as likely to make scenes drag on as players realize they don’t really have anything to contribute this time. With the rules as written, the GM doesn’t have any authority to end the scene. Instead, they must wait until the players fulfill the arbitrary conditions, which is incredibly frustrating. A scene should end when its dramatic potential is played out, and it’s the GM’s job to know when that is.

A final nail in the narrative rules’ coffin is that any player who did want to participate as the game intends would have to read the narrative rules section quite closely. Any players who don’t will be really confused. Since players are often not disposed to doing extra reading, this seems like a great recipe for confusion.

The Skill Rules Encourage Power Gaming

For all of Full Light, Full Steam’s claims that it isn’t like other roleplaying games, its rules are remarkably vulnerable to power gaming. In character creation, players are given a large number of points and no restrictions on how to spend them. Because the game offers no guidelines, players have no incentive to create well-balanced characters, so it’s likely that they’ll specialize in only a few abilities.

To make matters worse some skills are clearly more powerful than others. Players know they’re far more likely to roll Marksmanship or Diplomacy than Horticulture. Why put points into skills that aren’t likely to come up? Then it’s difficult to tell where some skills end and others begin. Does repairing a broken boiler fall under Steam or Mechanics? A strong case could be made either way, so the smart player will invest in only one and then argue for its use.

Full Light, Full Steam compounds this problem of skill vagueness by providing almost no concrete rules for when to roll which skills. Is convincing parliament to declare war a Diplomacy or Oratory roll? The game doesn’t say, but it could be either based on how the player went about describing their actions. This further incentivizes clever players to pick only a handful of skills to max out and then figure out how to use them to solve any problems that come up in the game.

Finally, the difference between a rank three skill and a rank four skill means a significant boost to rolls. Once you have both skill and attribute at four, you can hit the maximum results on more than half of all rolls, which makes you feel like a god walking among mortals. The end results are characters that hyperspecialize in a few skills until it’s nearly impossible for them to fail, at which point the dice may as well be put away.  

The Book Is Poorly Organized

This is another issue I don’t usually comment on, because book layout is a bit outside the scope of roleplaying-game design, but Full Light, Full Steam is so badly organized it makes playing the game harder.

The biggest problem is that the game doesn’t clearly distinguish between giving advice and setting down a rule. The “Engineer the Situation” section, which would be called “planning the session” in any other system, is full of specialized terminology, but I don’t think it has any hard rules in it. I say “think” because I’m not certain. It tells me I need at least five story “cogs”* per session, and I’m not sure if that’s a strong suggestion or if the game is telling me that I’d be cheating if I used less than five.

The Roleplaying chapter is another problem. It has sections that contain very important rules, like how and when a scene is allowed to end, but they’re interspersed between paragraphs of what looks like general roleplaying advice. This makes it difficult to decode rules that are already fairly opaque.

Even more irritating, the game doesn’t explain its core dice mechanic until nearly the end of the book. That makes it very difficult to evaluate all the other rules, since you don’t know if the various bonuses or penalties listed earlier are significant. This is particularly bad for a game that’s decided to make up its own unique dice mechanic. That should be at the front, so that readers can know what they’re getting into.

The Meta Currency Is Cool, but Not Revolutionary

Believe it or not, I do have some positive things to say about this game. Its meta currency system is well designed and incentivizes good drama in the narrative. Each character has three of their core elements represented by thematic batteries. These batteries can have titles like “Honorable Duelist” or “Two Days From Retirement.” By naming their battery, a player signals that this is something they want to play up.

Mechanically, players charge their batteries by describing how the character trait in question causes trouble or difficulty. A player with Honorable Duelist, for example, might describe how in a fight, they refuse to take advantage of a distracted opponent. This would give the player a penalty on their roll and charge their battery. Later, the player can describe how their clear sense of honor inspires the soldiers around them, discharging the battery for a bonus on their tactics roll.

This creates a dynamic of characters failing more rolls at the start of the session and succeeding on more rolls towards the end, which mirrors classic dramatic structure. The only mechanical problem with the thematic batteries is a small one. In addition to each character’s batteries, every NPC and ship is supposed to have them as well. The idea is that players can receive bonuses for invoking other batteries, but in practice that many options are hard to keep track of, and most players will focus exclusively on their own batteries. Still, this is a small issue with an otherwise excellent system.

One thing these rules are not, though, is groundbreaking. As you’re reading the book, Full Light, Full Steam would have you believe that it’s forging ahead through unknown territory, but it isn’t. The idea of special roleplaying traits that can be used to either give bonuses or penalties has been around for a long time, in games like Mouse Guard* and Fate, just to name two. This isn’t a bad thing – games don’t always have to be revolutionary – but it’s worth noting that Full Light, Full Steam’s claims of not being like other games have little basis.

The Conflict Resolution Is Simple and Functional

Combat is often a roleplaying game’s most complex and least entertaining aspect. Designers follow D&D’s model without thinking, leading to conflicts that require hours to resolve as players roll for attack after attack. Fortunately, Full Light, Full Steam is one of a handful of systems that has realized it doesn’t actually need complicated combat rules.

Instead, fights are resolved with a single roll like any other conflict. If a character attempts something dangerous, like fighting a room full of angry pirates, then taking damage can be a consequence of failure, in addition to not getting whatever the character was after. Characters can also take damage to their mental health and social standing, both of which have a mechanical impact on the game. Characters can be incapacitated but never killed as the result of a failed roll unless the player agrees that it’s dramatically appropriate. This removes the risk that you might kill off a PC because your main boss got a lucky Marksmanship roll.

Full Light, Full Steam is also a fail-forward system. This means that when a PC fails a roll, they don’t just fail to get what they want – something else happens. If a character is trying to find secret documents in an enemy captain’s office, a failure means that the captain returns before the PC can find what they need, rather than the character simply not finding anything. This way, failure changes the situation, moving the story forward rather than simply stalling the action.

After seeing so many problems with the game, it was a pleasant surprise to find such well-designed conflict rules. If the rest of the system had been built so well, this would be a much more positive review.  

The Campaign-Building Rules Are Helpful, but Overbuilt

Another area that Full Light, Full Steam undoubtedly gets right is its guidelines for how to handle the campaign-creation process. Not every group will have time to do this, but I recommend it for those that do. In short, the GM and players spend a session discussing what elements they’d like to see in the game and then making characters to match.

Players can also name elements they’d like excluded, which is a great idea. Roleplaying games are a very personal experience, so players should absolutely have the right to keep certain elements out of the story. But this section has a bit of tragic irony in it as well. One of the examples of something a player might want to exclude is the injustices of imperialism, which will be really hard to do if you use the game’s built-in setting, since it’s entirely based on imperialism. Your only option at that point would be to pretend imperialism is great.

The only part of the campaign-building rules that doesn’t work very well is the communal building of the PCs’ superior officer NPC. Players each take turns spending the superior officer’s character points until there are none left, theoretically creating an NPC that everyone is invested in.

This doesn’t work for a couple reasons. First, NPCs rarely benefit from being fully statted out. Unless the NPC is an enemy the PCs will have to fight, having a consistent set of stats doesn’t provide any real benefit. In fact, it can end up being a detriment, as the GM suddenly has a fully statted character available, which creates a temptation to have the NPC solve problems that the PCs should deal with.

Second, designing an NPC by committee this way is going to create a really unbalanced NPC. Their points will likely be spread all over the place, creating a bizarre set of skills that’s hard to justify.     

The Game Will Serve, but Not Spectacularly

Full Light, Full Steam is not the worst game I’ve ever reviewed, but it’s pretty low on the list. It has poorly explained rules, isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as it thinks it is, and has a truly awful setting. That said, you can still have fun with this system. The core mechanic, while confusing, is good enough to carry a game once you learn it.

The problem is that the core mechanic and the meta currency are all the help this system will give you. You’ll have to bring everything else yourself. Unless you really love romanticizing one of the most brutal empires in human history, you’ll need to design a completely new setting. You’ll need to throw out the narrative rules and either do without them or make your own. You’ll probably want to introduce restrictions on how players spend their points at character creation. Making this game fun will not be a small amount of work.

You’ll also have to put up with the game’s many claims to be more revolutionary than it actually is. That might be the most irritating part of Full Life, Full Steam. Innovation is a noble goal, but if a game is innovative, people should be able to tell by reading its rules – they shouldn’t need to be told.

Looking for an evening of fun? Uncover your lost memories and battle the supernatural in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Neil Smith

    This is a bad review. You’ve completely misunderstood the context of the game’s publication, and you state several subjective opinions as facts.

    First and most important is the context of the game’s publication. If you look at the copyright notice, you’ll see that this isn’t a new game. New to you, maybe, but the game was published in 2006.

    Ten years ago, the conversation around racism, sexism, colonialism, and intersectionality in games, and “geek media” in general, was only just starting. It was much less developed than it is now. Very few games even considered these issues, much less called them out as problematic and took steps to address them. I remember being surprised, when I first read the book, with the advice that racism should only be an overt element in the game if a PCs’ Thematic Battery addressed it; if there was no desire to bring this into play, it just wouldn’t occur. Several examples in the book highlight racism and racist attitudes and invite the players to engage with them.

    This game played a significant role in moving forward these conversations about problematic conversations. As you say, “Most steampunk writers at least seem aware of this problem today, and they either deliberately subvert their genre’s problematic roots.” Ten years ago, they weren’t and didn’t. Stross’s influential criticism of steampunk’s tropes was written in 2010. If you look at the game author’s most recent game draft, “Renegade Jennys and Boilerplate Jacks,” itself from 2014, you’ll see another steampunk game that’s all about non-white, non-upper-class, non-colonial characters rebelling and resisting the white colonialist patriarchy.

    Moving on, you headline that “the narrative rules expect too much of your players.” The narrative rules may expect too much of your players, but they didn’t expect too much of my players when I ran a very successful campaign of this game. The players expect and enjoy contributing to the narrative, rather than having every detail spoonfed to them by a GM who pretends to omnipotence, and were all happy to understand all the relevant rules in the game, not just what was needed to hit something with an axe.

    In other words, you’ve presented a subjective opinion (apparently unfounded in actual play experiences) as an objective fact, ignoring that other groups in other situations have different preferences and playstyles.

    (By the way, it’s “bated breath,” as in “abate.”)

    Your comments on applicability of skills is also a matter of playstyle. Not everyone requires, or likes, rigidly defined skill scopes, preferring to make explicit the required negotiation between participants over when a particular skill applies.

    “The metacurrency is not revolutionary.” Again, check your dates. You compare the 2006 game “Full Light, Full Steam” against Fate (Spirit of the Century was published 2006) and Mouse Guard (1ed in 2008). Mechanics similar to thematic batteries may be commonplace now, but were not then.

    Your comments on the campaign-building rules are, again, your subjective opinion presented as fact, without consideration that they are appropriate for other groups and playstyles. When we played, we all enjoyed making valued contributions to the setting, and had sufficient respect for each others’ contributions to have balanced NPCs. And if the GMs you know have a tendency to dominate games with GMPCs, perhaps you need better GMs. (By the way, “five cogs for a session” is as much of a rule as “roll 4d6 for conflict resolution.”)

    I’m not saying you have to like the game. But a review should acknowledge the difference between personal, subjective opinion and universal truths.

    I’m not saying that your criticisms of the steampunk milieu and this game’s take on them would be inappropriate for a game published in 2016. But this game was published at the start of a conversation critical of the politics of steampunk, not where we are now.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s interesting to me that you didn’t take issue with any of my positive opinions. Like, I when I said “Its meta currency system is well designed and incentivizes good drama in the narrative,” that’s also an opinion, but you didn’t seem to mind that I don’t have a qualifier for it.

      • Neil Smith

        You’re correct, I should have done.

        In my defence, I was commenting on the flaws in the review, and picking out elements to justify my comments. There’s also a limit to how much I wanted to write: I didn’t want the comment to be longer than the review!

        Neither of which makes your response incorrect or invalid.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        To be clear, it’s cool that you disagree with me about the game, keep that coming. Just know that unless I’m directly quoting or spelling out math, just about everything I say in these reviews is an opinion, that’s the nature of reviews. It would be really irritating to read if I qualified them every time.

  2. Graham Swanson

    This is a bad review. You’ve absolved of sin one of the worst die mechanics I’ve ever been forced to look at with my own two eyes! People are going to think it’s okay to play this game, which was clearly designed by some kind of Popeye villain in a British Navy circa the Napoleonic Wars costume!!

    …Well okay you didn’t quite absolve it of sin. But you weren’t harsh enough on it and that’s not okay!

    …The rest of the review has some really good points!! ARGH!! It’s like you’re forcing me to agree with you!

  3. GeniusLemur

    What is it with systems that think the range of 2-8 or 3-10 is wide enough for every level of skill in the world, and/or a 2-rank difference between “competent” and “best in the world” is plenty?

  4. Sheikh Jahbooty

    Oh my God, I had no idea how poorly organised this game is. Go back and reread the section on spoils scrips. You will be like, “Wait what?! Everyone at the table had the authority to end a scene at any time simply by mentioning a thematic battery of someone or something not in the scene? And I made my players sit there until everyone had contributed, when that isn’t even what spoils scrips are for. They just make sure that nobody is in a scene for no reason? We did that completely wrong.”

    That must have been really frustrating, to not use jump cuts when scenes were naturally over.

    Also I am super excited to know that this game is not revolutionary after 10 years. What other games directly reward players for “passing the mic” as it were, for making sure that your fellow players’ characters have opportunities to be involved. The fact that you earned advancement by paying attention to other players’ character sheets worked so well that I’m glad other games are doing it too now. Could you name some of them? I’d love to try them.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.