FAITH* is a space-opera roleplaying game from the folks over at Burning Games. It uses cards instead of dice, but that’s not all. It’s got interstellar adventure. It’s got outlandishly cool technology. It’s got lasers and spaceships and aliens, oh my! These days, it’s easy to feel like Star Wars is the only space opera in town, so I was excited when I stumbled onto this game during a long hike through the internet. Now that I’ve finished my review oneshot, it’s time to see if FAITH lives up to my hopes or if it crashes and burns like a poorly maintained FTL drive.
The Writing Quality Is Low
The first problem you’ll run into when you crack open FAITH’s core book isn’t with its rules or setting, but with the writing itself. It’s bad. Really bad. Sometimes it’s just a case of badly crafted sentences that are technically correct but still hard to read. Consider this little beauty:
That’s the “Medical Systems” upgrade for spaceships, and the problems are obvious. What is going on with this text? Something feels very wrong about performing Medical actions “onto” the crew. Also, do the crew have to be inside the cockpit, or do you have to be inside the cockpit to perform Medical actions onto them? This is an example of bad writing, but the book can do worse. It has plenty of sections where words are missing or extra words are added, like this passage describing the Secret Coin resistance group:
It has managed to maintain a low profile, save for some rumours and reports by disgruntled ex-members that the law still doesn’t take any seriously.
No publication is perfectly edited, and this kind of typo or poorly worded sentence would be acceptable on occasion. But they’re not occasional; they’re everywhere. It’s hard to find a single page without some serious error to interrupt your reading. FAITH is a dense book, in both setting and rules, and anything that makes it harder to get through is frustrating.
If that weren’t enough, the rules are also badly organized. It’s hard to find what you’re looking for, critical rules are stated once and then never referenced again, and the layout baffles me. The most egregious example is probably in the divine powers section, where the rules say, “Divine powers have different levels (I, II and III), you can only use the levels up to your Faith.”
After some work, you can determine that the roman numerals refer to a character’s Faith attribute, which can range from one to three. Based on this deduction, you might assume each power would have an entry for Faith One, Faith Two, etc., or something similar. You would be wrong. Instead, each power starts with a paragraph about what it does, and then has a second and third paragraph describing other things the power does. There’s no indication of this anywhere, but those second and third paragraphs only apply to characters with two or three Faith, respectively. I spent nearly an hour figuring that out, and even now I’m not 100% certain about it.
Bad writing in the rulebook doesn’t have to ruin things at the table. If you slog through the missing words, difficult sentences, and bizarre formatting, you can eventually learn this system and then teach others how to play. But the poor quality of the text will make your job a lot harder, and Gygax forbid you need one of your players to look something up.
The Setting Is Interesting, but Inconsistent
The FAITH core book is about 70% lore by page count, and full disclosure, I did not have time to read all of it. A lot of what I did read was intriguing though, no doubt about it. I especially like the Iz’kal, a race of psychic aliens evolved from aquatic mammals. They have a leaderless communist society enabled by their telepathic hyperlink, and they are fascinated by human singers because the Iz’kal evolved without vocal cords.
I also really liked the way humans are portrayed in this setting: as the low-tech warrior race. You see, humans are more physically powerful than most of the other races, and they were uplifted from an irradiated, post-apocalyptic Earth to serve as mercenaries and enforcers. That’s a refreshing, if not completely unique, take on humanity’s place in the galaxy.
Unfortunately, other parts of the setting are not so well constructed. The Corvo are a species of hypercapitalist insect aliens* that get more page space than any other group, but for all that, they feel flat. Unlike the Iz’kal, the Corvo have no abilities that humans don’t, so their society doesn’t feel unusual or alien. It’s just a human society run by megacorps instead of a government. This raises a lot of practical questions about how such a society could possibly work. These questions don’t come up with the Iz’kal because they differ from humans in more than looks.*
The Corvo aren’t the only part of the setting that leaves something to be desired. The Raag are another playable race, and their thing is being physically powerful and having less advanced tech than the other species. Too bad humans are already in that niche, which leaves the Raag feeling like a tacked-on addition. I sympathize with the difficulties of finding unique niches for each playable species, but it’s still disappointing.
By far the most bizarre element of the setting is religion. Various passages of the book describe the five gods as being all-pervasive, to the point that every sapient being worships one. They are proven to exist, and they grant magic powers to some of their worshipers. And yet, if you took them out, nothing else in the setting would change. The Corvo and the Iz’kal fight because they have different ideas about how to structure a society.* The Corvo and the humans fight because humans feel oppressed and misused. Everyone fights the Ravagers because the Ravagers want to destroy all life.
No conflict in the setting is centered around the gods or even related to them. If religious beliefs are driving any of the major plot events, I couldn’t find evidence of it. If anything, it seems like the gods were tailored to fit what each species and faction already believes. Compare this to a setting like Star Wars. Not everything in a galaxy far, far away revolves around the Force, but if you took that mystical energy field out, the setting would be unquestionably changed. It seems wasteful to spend so much text describing a setting element with such little impact.
Character Creation and Abilities Are Passable
Character creation is many players’ first contact with a system, and FAITH does a decent job. PCs get a set of skill values to assign, and then players spend from a pool of points to customize their characters. The game has a long list of special abilities and upgrades to look through, which slows things down, but at least most of the abilities feel interesting and unique. A surprising number of systems ask players to read through page after page of nearly identical options, and it’s nice to see FAITH dodge that problem.
The main issue in assigning points is the book’s poor organization and layout. Players are told how many points they get on page 341, but it’s not until page 353, in an entirely different section, that players are told how to spend those points. Similarly, the cost for divine powers is listed once off-handedly on page 341 and then never mentioned again. The divine powers aren’t listed until page 374, and by then, it’s easy for players to forget the single mention of cost – assuming they didn’t miss it entirely. These problems can be overcome with enough rules mastery, but it’s a serious frustration when your players first sit down to make their characters.
The skills and attributes themselves have a few oddities, like how Constitution is used both for a character’s toughness and physical strength, but they’re mostly good. Each skill is distinct enough that there’s rarely confusion over which one to use in a given situation, and they do a good job of setting player expectations for what a FAITH campaign will be about. The EVA skill lets players know that they’ll be in space a lot, and the Initiative skill signals that being quick on the uptake is going to be important.
That said, FAITH does have two problematic skills. The first is Cunning, which encompasses all social interactions, along with sleight of hand and pick-pocketing. That’s a lot for one skill to cover, and it invites abuse. Cunning is useful in a far wider range of situations than any of the other skills, and increasing it gives a disproportionate advantage. Even if the designers didn’t imagine a lot of social conflict taking place in FAITH, clever players will have no problems leveraging this overly broad skill.
The second problematic skill is Profession. It’s supposed to represent a character’s day job, what they do when they’re not out adventuring. It can be almost anything, from Profession: System Admin to Profession: Bomb Squad. Unlike the other skills, its rules are vague and nebulous. Depending on how you interpret it, Profession can either be the most powerful skill in the game or completely useless. It also feels out of theme to have eleven well-defined skills and then a twelfth slot for “miscellaneous.”
By far the most annoying aspect of character creation ties back to a problem with the setting: everyone has a mystical connection to the gods. Even though the book claims in some sections that such “soulbenders” are incredibly rare, every character must start with a Faith attribute and at least one divine power. It feels like a Star Wars game where everyone must start as a Jedi, except there’s no in-setting explanation. It gives the impression that by complete coincidence, everyone in the party just happens to have incredibly rare supernatural powers. There’s no consideration given for players who might not want to play someone with divine powers, which is extra odd considering how ancillary the setting’s religion seems to be.
Gear Is Cool, but Limited and Confusing
FAITH’s gear rules are extensive and detailed, which is a good thing. It’s all well and good for Star Wars characters to get by with a blaster and a positive attitude, but outlandish technology is an important part of space opera traditions. FAITH provides lots of cool options, from plasma shielding to protect characters from assault, to shoulder-mounted guns that fire independently, to noncombat tech like portable surgery suites and remote repair drones. If your players are fans of customizing their loadouts to the best possible effect, they’ll appreciate how deep these rules are.
FAITH also has a cool dynamic between high- and low-tech gear. High-tech gear is more capable, but it is also vulnerable to remote hacking. A plasma cannon with automatic targeting might seem like the obvious choice over a chemical rifle, but the old-fashioned longarm will still shoot even when the enemy has shut down all electronics in a one-kilometer radius. This dynamic also gives the team’s hacker something to do in combat, which is a welcome change from games where the computer nerd is encouraged to take long naps between breaking passwords.
Considering the depth of FAITH’s gear rules, it’s puzzling how limited the actual items of gear are. Each weapon type has one, sometimes two options, and that’s it. Armor options are even more limited with exactly five entries. Noncombat options are similarly restrictive with a handful of hacking and medical choices. With all the different ways gear can change the game’s mechanics, FAITH’s gear list feels negligently short. I understand not wanting to waste space with page after page of near identical gear, but rules as deep as FAITH’s could have created an extensive list of options that still had plenty of variety.
The game has supplements with more gear options, but that doesn’t make up for an incomplete core list. Even with those supplements, gear choices are sparse. Perhaps GMs and players are meant to create their own gear, but if the game has rules for doing that, I couldn’t find them.
While the lack of weapon options is disappointing, it’s the limited armor that’s the real problem. Without armor, characters are so fragile that a single hit will probably be lethal. And yet, even the cheapest armored suits are out of reach for most starting characters.* To make matters worse, nearly every visual depiction of characters in the book shows them wearing an armored suit of one kind or another, so it’s a rude shock for players to discover the inflated price tag.
That brings us to another big problem with FAITH’s gear: money. Most gear is both powerful and expensive, but it’s very difficult to figure out how much money PCs should have. The Profession skill tells you how much they get from their day jobs, but what about all their adventuring? Even if your PCs aren’t doing mercenary work, they’ll almost certainly acquire valuable salvage on their adventures. How valuable should that gear be? The rules give no indication, and it’s hard to hand wave because of how powerful gear can be.
A final issue with FAITH’s gear is our old friend: poor writing. This section is the most complex in the book, so it’s particularly easy to get confused. Each piece of gear has a number of icons that must be interpreted, and it can be really hard to figure out what each one means. Even the basics are a pain. I spent hours trying to figure out how to determine a weapon’s damage and attack bonuses, and I never managed it. I had to ask for help on Burning Games’s Discord server. Like most of FAITH’s writing issues, this one can be overcome with enough determination, but doing so may not be worth the effort.
The Core Mechanic Is Engaging, but Slow
By far the most interesting element of FAITH’s rules is its core mechanic. Instead of dice, this system uses playing cards, but not just as an alternative random-number generator. Each player has a hand of cards, and they choose which cards to play on a given task. The total value of a player’s cards, plus a number of bonuses, determine success or failure.
This is a completely different dynamic than most core mechanics, and it introduces a lot of fun, strategic elements. Players choose when to spend their powerful cards and when it’s okay to sacrifice tasks by using weaker cards. What makes things more interesting is that a number of character abilities let players switch cards out and draw new ones, meaning clever players can build up stronger and stronger hands as the game goes on.
FAITH’s core mechanic is both fun and refreshingly different. It’s a major plus, especially for players who are a little bored with seeing the same thing over and over again. Unfortunately, the mechanic does have its downsides. The most immediate one is speed, or lack thereof. Each task takes a significant amount of time as the participants take turns playing cards. This happens even for what other systems would categorize as “static” tasks, since everything the players do is opposed by the GM’s playing cards from their own deck.
Heavy arithmetic makes the time cost worse. Players need to add up each of their cards, which can range from 1 to 13 in value, plus a pile of bonuses and penalties. And they don’t just have to do this once at the end of the task like you might expect. It’s important for players to always know what value they and their opponents have, so the player can know what value of card they wish to play next. This means each task is interrupted by multiple accounting breaks.
If a single task is that involved, you can imagine how time consuming combat gets. We had one combat in our review oneshot, and it took nearly an hour and a half. A more complex encounter could have been even longer. Granted, more experienced groups will be faster, but it’s still a big investment of time. The game would really have benefited from a faster way to resolve tasks when the group is pressed for time.
Time isn’t the only issue with FAITH’s core mechanic. It also incentivizes players to find meaningless tasks so they can dump their low cards. The game’s only solution for this is to forbid the players from doing that. Gee, I sure wish it were that simple! There’s also a weird problem where certain tasks are classified as “passive,” meaning players can draw cards from the top of their deck instead of playing from their hand. What qualifies a task as “passive” is both arbitrary and vague. For some reason, hiding and searching qualify, but otherwise it just says the GM should decide. Not a lot to go on.
Even with these issues, the core mechanic is easily FAITH’s most promising aspect. It’s strategic and fun, and it sets the game apart from competitors.
FAITH Can Add Depth, but It Is a Lot of Work
FAITH is an unusual game – there’s no doubt about it. It breaks the mold with its core mechanic and does so to good effect. Many other systems have reinvented the wheel with mundane results, but FAITH justifies its unusual design with unique mechanics. There’s also plenty to like in the setting, at least if you think communist psychic dolphin-aliens are cool, and who doesn’t?
At the same time, this is a very difficult game. It would be challenging even if the writing quality were high, and it’s not. I don’t know if FAITH’s writing woes are due to a poor translation, or if they just needed another copyediting pass, but the results are the same. Every problem is exacerbated by bad sentences, illogical layout, and missing words. Adding insult to injury, this is the game’s second edition. Burning Games had the opportunity to correct FAITH’s problems and didn’t take it.
FAITH can be fun for groups that are okay with difficult rules and are hungry for more space opera, but that’s as far as it goes. I doubt I will play this game again, and I can’t recommend it for most players. Perhaps Burning Games’s next system, the oddly named Dragons Conquer America, will benefit from lessons learned in FAITH.
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