Game Review: Fortune’s Fool by Jay Stratton and Pantheon Press

Let’s face it, I’m an old-school gamer for the most part. I like rolling dice to resolve actions no matter which side of the GM screen I’m on and regardless of whether fate chooses to be kind or cruel. That said, I know I have cursed luck with dice for the most part (unless I’m rolling as a GM for a NPC to hit a PC and magically get a critical hit, killing the PC instantly…). So when Rob Trimarco asked if I’d review Fortune’s Fool, a game based around using a tarot deck for character creation as well as combat and action resolution, I knew I had to take a look. Maybe the cards would be kinder? (Probably not.)

I’ll start by saying that Fortune’s Fool is a gorgeous softcover book. From the full color cover from artist Chris L. Kimball to the interior art from George & John Carimando, Andrew DeFelice, and Kimball (including the “revised” Mona Lisa painting as the last page), and content from lead designer & creator Jay Stratton, this was an easy book to dive into. It’s a digest-sized book with about 250 pages and most the niggly things that drive me nuts with page layout were not an issue at all here. I would have loved to have had some quick summary tables of skills and spells as well as an index but those things can be worked around with a bit of work on the part of the GM (compiling lists to share with players and tabbing pages of important things like resolution mechanics).

But don’t let me stop there. The tarot-based-mechanic is quite interesting but I’m not sure I get it completely. I was totally unfamiliar with tarot decks beyond occasionally seeing cards or references to cards in various fictional accounts, in movies, or on television, so I’m going to assume that the random nature of tarot (or the karmic twists of fate) will produce enough of a random element. I even picked up The Original Rider Waite Tarot Set fully intending to try and at least create a character, but didn’t fully grok how the process worked or how the cards were to be used. I suspect that this is a game that would become crystal clear with a GM who has played before.

That said, I found myself engrossed in the world of Fortune’s Fool filled with elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins and set in Renaissance Europe. And I found myself fascinated by some of the mechanics such as the “Fate Twist.”

Imagine you have a tarot deck thoroughly shuffled at the beginning of the session and you’ve been playing along, but so long as you have points in your “Fate Pool” you can change the near future to be a bit more kind… or cruel. But beware – as we all should have learned by now, Fate is a cruel mistress and will balance her scales as she sees fit. For example – do you fear Death? Maybe you should use the “Harbinger of Death” twist, which has the GM find the Death card in the deck and turn it face up so that it’s easily seen for the rest of the session. Or maybe you want to glimpse into the future? Use the “Hunch” twist and peek at the top card in the Fate deck without telling your fellow players (or the GM) what it may be. If the Fate deck is as capricious as any game of Blackjack I’ve played in Vegas, I suspect that little twists like these will raise and lower the stakes accordingly.

Magic is another area where the game shines. Spells are broken into different categories – Fey, Gypsy, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Wiccan (good witches), and Witchcraft (bad witches). Just like other aspects of fate, you might imagine that the
more powerful a spell is, the more likely it is to have dire costs to your character or party. And you’d be right. For instance, “Glass Eye” is a basic witchcraft spell. Sure, you can see through it wherever it’s placed, but it requires that you either sacrifice one of your eyes or have lost it somehow and replaced it with a fake (glass or wooden model). That only affects your ranged combat a bit (-1) as you lose depth perception. Or maybe you want to ensure that you return to life after you’re killed. If you’ve seen any of the Final Destination movies, it’s not a good idea to play with death. He doesn’t like to lose… And I’m not sure I’d like to be resurrected in a coffin and die over and over again…

The world though is fascinating. The level of detail that went into how the fantasy races affected the timeline kept me wondering what happens next. For instance, if you’ve seen 300, you know that the Spartans fought back Xerxes’ army. Well, in this timeline Xerxes was so annoyed by his defeats on the Greek peninsula that he went back to Persia and sacrificed 7,000 daughters in an unholy ritual to sink those darned Greeks into the sea. That led to the whole myth of Atlantis… Or maybe you’re more interested in the Romans? Well apparently the ruling body of Rome were all elves and their downfall started when they suddenly could no longer have children. Maybe it was because they killed a carpenter on the cross, but regardless of why it happened, it led to a bunch of humans taking over and driving the Empire into the ground. Dang mortals!

Based around a history like this, I think it would be very interesting to run a character in Renaissance Italy as a smart, artistic goblin seeking to make a name ofr himself as an artist. Somehow the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica might look a bit different if it had been painted by a goblin than if Michaelangelo had had a crack at it!

Without dice, using the tarot deck as a game-wise incarnation of the fates, I think Fortune’s Fool has a lot going for it. But even if you don’t like the mechanics, the setting offers plenty of inspiration for games based on real-world history or elsewhere. Honestly, where else would you see the term “Christian” or “Jew” used to describe an orc or goblin?

By the way, a huge congratulations goes to Pantheon Press for winning a Judge’s Spotlight ENnie at Gen Con 2011 a couple of weekends ago!

Look for it at RPGnow or pick up a copy from the Pantheon Press store. And you want to learn a bit more, be sure to check out the Pantheon Press site!

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4 comments to Game Review: Fortune’s Fool by Jay Stratton and Pantheon Press

  • Spidon

    I had the pleasure of playing this at Gencon 2011. Our DM was none other than the creator, Jay Stratton. His enthusiasm is what made this game so enjoyable. I bought a copy of the book from him after the game, and while I haven’t had time to fully read it and build a character, the mechanics seen while playing were fun, original, and truly left to the Fates. Stratton himself said he has never seen a more unlucky group than us while playing.

    I still need to pick up a copy of the Tarot deck to play again, but this is definitely a game worth checking out at least once.

    • Fitz

      @Spidon – Awesome. Thanks for talking about your experience with the game! I figure I’m just being dense and need to see it in action before I grok it myself… 🙂 But it does seem very original – especially with the tarot deck mechanics.

  • Eden

    I got to play in a game run by Jay at Gencon 2012 and at a game he ran for my friends in Seattle a few months later. His enthusiasm and GMing style made both sessions incredibly fun.

    As mentioned, the setting is interesting and a totally different approach compared to typical fantasy RPG settings. I really enjoyed playing a halfling prince trying to resolve a family curse in renaissance Europe.

    The mechanics are a surprising mix of crunchy D&D style hit points, weapon systems, etc. and the impact of fortune on the characters as modeled by the deck. Since cards drawn aren’t easily replaced, there is a sense of fortune gradually shifting in one direction or the other as good or bad cards are drawn. This creates excellent dramatic tension. Spells are powerful, but diminish the fortune of the group by removing good cards from play. Powerful characters generally do worse at all actions since they are more unlucky while characters who are more simple or normal tend to have much better luck and fortune smiles on them. I really love the balance that provides. Powerful elf wizard? Great, you’ve got tons of spells, but fortune will turn on you frequently. Human villager? You might not have access to great powers, weapons, or skills, but fortune is on your side in everything you do.

    Anyway, great game and definitely worth trying.

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