Monday, June 7, 2021

Game Review : First Fable

First Fable Cover Art by Chris Bates
CC-ND-SA 2012 Play Attention Games 

Game Review : First Fable

Author: Matthew McFarland
Publisher: Play Attention Games and One Bookshelf, Inc. 
Engine: Custom d6 Pool
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG

I have had First Fable longer than I have had kids. It was in a bundle I purchased from DTRPG in 2012. It is a free, open-source TTRPG oriented to kids aged 8-12.

Player characters have three attributes: Strong, Fast, and Smart determined by character class (Knight, Pirate, Animal Keeper, and Faerie Princess.) They also select three "Shines", one "Slow" (weakness) and a special item or ability. All things are rated 1-5.

A challenge is set by the GM with an appropriate stat as the base pool, the Player's may choose to increase or reduce the pool based on character shines (with a rating) and slows.

Players may expend charges on their ability item (max 5) to boost the pool.

The players roll the final pool in d6. Each result of 4 or higher is a "Star." One star is a success, multiple stars improve the quality of the success. If all rolled dice a Stars the character adds a new shine.

In opposed rolls, like combat, both sides roll and the character with the highest number of Stars win. Ties are rolled over.

In combat, characters have a fight value equal to total stats and shines (12 for a new character). At the start of a fight, PCs choose how many stars an enemy may deal in damage (net stars from an opposed fighting roll) before they are out of the fight, to a maximum their fight value.  If a PC takes more damage than their highest stat, they are "hurt" gaining a penalty on all challenges and getting a new weakness temporarily.

In many ways this is a quintessential Kid's role-playing game:

  • It includes classes based on what the author assumes kids would like, such as pirates and faerie princesses.
  • It uses only d6s.
  • The system is simple and relatively robust. 
  • Combat has relatively light consequences.
  • It uses a lot of unique, cutesy jargon.
  • Focuses on pets or magic objects as a source of power. 
  • Assumes the game will initially be played by kids and run by grown-ups. 

What I Loved

Included Adventure

Like most role-playing games, First Fable includes an adventure. This one, has some clever twists, such as riddles, Non-Combat encounters with villains, and improv games that affect the results of the adventure. Some of the encounters seem random and cobbled together to give a broad experience base, but as it is expected to be a Player's first ever TTRPG adventure, that is forgivable. 

Risk-Reward Combat System

I like the fact that the players set their own conditions for being knocked out of a fight at its beginning. It coaches them to avoid getting hurt and plan to run away. I might have personally limited the PCs' fight values to 5, making getting hurt a hard, fixed endpoint. 

Growth Points

Assumes an Adult GM

Unlike systems like No Thank You, Evil! and Hero Kids, First Fable assumes that the GM is going to be an adult and does not try to make itself particularly easy for a younger kid to learn well enough to GM. They even call the equivalent GM the G-U for "grown-up". 

Needless Jargon

"Shines'", "Stars", "Specials"... Kid-oriented RPG products are prone to inventing their own, opaque lingo that is often needlessly cutesy.  It will not make the game any easier to use than if more conventional language were used, Kids can call things "hits" or "successes', too. It will probably make it harder to learn other systems than if they had stuck to those more conventional terms. 

Lame GM Advice

The GM Advice section is 10 points that are in some places poorly considered, contradictory, or high-handed. 

The advice not to interrupt players while they are talking in character is not always going to work well with the advice to keep things moving, and will let some players steal the Spotlight while boring the others at the table. 

Advice on cross-cutting is also fraught with problems, as it undermines the idea of playing as a team in a team game, and teaches poor gamesmanship habits that future GMs will not thank you for. 

The "avoid violence" section is entirely a fashionable dig at Dungeons & Dragons for being a game that is about killing monsters and taking their stuff. It isn't. That is a tired chestnut repeated by people who have never played the older editions as written. A certain set in the TTRPG community sees sniping at D&D as a way of proving their intellectual chops, and so it is done for point scoring.  At the same time the section post dig takes a wishy-washy stance on actually removing violence from the game. Mostly by suggesting bad guys get knocked out or stunned instead of killed.

The "Avoid Stereotypes" section stereotypes straight white males as cultural insensitives who use others' cultures for cheap laughs or point scoring... and misses the irony in the way they present their argument. And misses the value of good stock characters entirely. After point scoring with cheap shots at D&D and its players, themselves. 

I'm kind of glad that they didn't aim this crap at potential kid gamers. Stereotypes can, as they say, be harmful. I would not want my son to be subjected to that description of himself. 

And, of course, "Just say 'Yes'" is included, which is great for improv, but awful for role-playing, especially for kids, who turn role-playing into a social laboratory. You need to set pretty firm barriers around the game. The author got this when he advised GMs to draw a line and say "good guys don't kill. "

(Actually, it isn't even good improv advice... 'yes, and...' or 'yes, but...' are good improv. Saying 'yes' is handing your ensemble a dead fish.)

Finally we are encouraged to use TTRPGs to teach. The first piece of advice on keeping the game moving pointed out that kids spend all day sitting in the classroom being bored senseless, but this one encourages the GM to use the game as a classroom. I would take the first piece of advice, keep it moving, and leave the lessons to questions after the game session. 

Unique Abilities are Not Unique

Well-designed character specials, like magic wands, magic swords, pets and some shines like being good at fairy magic are literal Swiss army knife abilities. If chosen as a shine rather than a special, they can grant a bonus to almost any roll without the special's limitation for being used only five times per game session.

I would feel bad for the kid at the First Fable table who did not take some kind of magical catch-akl shine to let them get a bonus on every die roll. Because they will be at tables with characters who do. The only requirement is that you find a way to narrate your action that uses that ability.

The Math

The absolute worst odds for Success that the character can face on an unopposed role is 50%. Even being middling inability while having a well-chosen shine pushes the chances of success up to around 88%. The game is not designed to provide an actual challenge to the players. They will succeed far more often than they fail.

Weaknesses are Optional

PCs must have a weakness ("a place where they are slow") on their character sheets. The criteria for this is far better laid out than the shines. But the player decides when and if they get a penalty for applying their "Slow". The upside of the Slow is that they are rolling fewer dice, which increases their chance of getting all stars and thus being allowed to add a new Shine to their character sheet. I guarantee you, most players at 8 are not looking at that part of the math. 


 In doing my homework, I discovered that the Author, Matthew McFarland, who was also a long-term fixture it White Wolf and Onyx Path, had some rather nasty allegations levelled at him and remains persona non-grata in the online gaming community. I will not report further on the matter. As I said in my review of Frostbitten and Mutilated, I will not boost witch hunts. I don't have all of the facts and I will wait until a court of law, not public opinion, decides a man's guilt.

Suffice it to say, do your own research and be an informed consumer. 

First Fable had disappeared from DTRPG briefly and was only recently reuploaded in January 2021. 

McFarland's imprints, Play Attention and Growling Door have both been closed, and there is little to no support, not even websites for his games. There are four class-specific  Sourcebooks, but this game is essentially dead.  Expect little or no support for it. 

Kid's Eye View

I could not sell First Fable on my five year old son. He is used to traditional adventures written for BD&D, mixed with freestyle adventure stories, and surreal fusions of OSR Acid Fantasy and video games. I don't treat him as dumb, and while I shelter him as I see appropriate from real world hate, sexual content, and bad ideology, I don't coddle him. I respect his Intellect and read him so that he sets the pace and boundaries. 

And so, he took a look at First Fable and decided to pass it over as pablum. It was just not an interesting concept to him.

There is some pretty intelligent Kid's
programming out there... If you know
where to look. (Starbeam: ©2021 Netflix) 
And it's not as if he doesn't like kids' stuff. He can recite episodes of Octonauts and Pocoyo by heart. He watches Starbeam with rapt attention. But he can tell when someone wants to engage a kid versus when they just want to entertain them. There was not enough setting, promise of danger and excitement, heroism, or complexity there. He saw it as a less developed No Thank You, Evil! and that just wasn't enough. 


First Fable is almost the quintessential TTRPG written for kids.  It is simple, stuffed to the gills with jargon, too easy, and lacking any potential for real bravery, heroism, or moral struggle as it is written. Kids are likely to outgrow this one fast if they have enjoyed Heroic stories along the lines of Narnia... or pre-2012 Disney for that matter.

First Fable lacks the elegant setting of the other kid's games I reviewed, leaving it far more neutral. This can be a blessing or a curse, but certainly it makes it a harder sell, either way.

It also spends far less attention than either No Thank You, Evil! or Hero Kids on the essential problem of how to keep a little kid engaged, given their relatively short attention spans.  Both NTYE and Hero Kids offer different structural solutions to the problem; First Fable relies on GM Advice to tackle it.

Managing your pacing might be the only really good advice, other than reading your players, given in the GM section, for that matter. There is a lot of unhelpful or downright ill-advised suggestions here, where there is any valuable advice given at all. Given my enjoyment of some of the Author's works for White Wolf and Onyx Path, I am honestly stunned at the lower quality of First Fable.

This may be down to the fact that we still don't know what makes for a good kid's game in the TTRPG Milieu. I do believe that the industry chronically underestimates children, as well. And that is likely why my son has gotten more out of grown-up games like B/X Dungeons & Dragons, Tiny Dungeon 2e, or Four Against Darkness than he has out of No Thank You, Evil! Or out of our home-brewed game designed to just get out of the way of his imagination. 

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