There was a time, roughly eleven years ago, when I lived only a few blocks from Waldenbooks. Every week or so, I’d walk to the bookstore and spend a chunk of my hard-earned salary on…pretty much anything that caught my attention. One thing that definitely caught my attention was a new role-playing system from TSR called SAGA, which eschewed the familiar polyhedral dice in favor of something called a “Fate Deck”. This mechanic purported to give players more direct control over whether their actions would succeed or fail by replacing the element of chance with a hand of cards from which a player could choose a suit and value appropriate to the level of effort they wished to expend in order to succeed.
To give the new system a little breathing room, TSR set Dragonlance SAGA about 30 years into the future of their existing AD&D campaign setting and called it Fifth Age (though the Age of Mortals, which the source material claims is the Fifth Age, is actually the Sixth Age; it’s all very confusing). I bought the Dragonlance SAGA setting and every supplement I could find, and when TSR released the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game under the SAGA rules, I bought that, too.
Unfortunately, I’m better at collecting roleplaying game system than I am at actually playing them. I read through all of the source materials and then, like so many other systems I’ve purchased over the years, the Dragonlance and Marvel Super Heroes SAGA sets were tucked away in a box in the crawlspace.
SAGA never really caught on with the gaming populace—it seemed that people really liked rolling those dice—and I assumed that the system was a relic of a bygone age. I never dreamed that anyone might actually be using it.
Enter Kevin Kreiner.
Kevin, as it turns out, loves the SAGA system. Just not the way TSR tried to implement it. The Fate Deck mechanic, according to Kevin, doesn’t work well with a fantasy setting. Nor does it work well in the standard Marvel Universe, where gamma-irradiated doctors and high-tech–battlesuit-wearing millionaire playboys and aliens imbued with the Power Cosmic all run (or fly, or jump) around through the same cities. But a superhero universe where all powers have a single point of origin; well that, Kevin says, is a different story altogether.
Kevin ran his version of a Marvel SAGA game Friday night at Con on the Cob, and—no offense to anyone I’ve gamed with in the past—it was the single coolest roleplaying game experience I have ever had. Ever.
Here is the description of Kevin’s game from the Con on the Cob guide:
The Quiet Room
They said you were crazy. They sent you here. But you’re not mad, no, not at all. You KNOW things. You can DO things they cannot explain. You’ve got to get out of here. But THEY have their ways of keeping you. THEY have the Quiet Room.
Kevin came to the game with three things: a legal pad (which he borrowed from someone right before he sat at the table), a pen and a Marvel SAGA Fate Deck. No notes. No pre-generated characters. No rulebooks. No maps. No miniatures. Just paper, a pen, and a Fate Deck. And from that, with the help of six people around a big square table, Kevin created a fantastic role-playing game.
After a brief explanation of what each of the four suits in the Fate Deck meant and how cards could be played, Kevin dealt each player six cards and had us assign one or more cards to our Intellect, Strength, Agility and Willpower. The only restrictions were that we couldn’t give any trait a value greater than 10 and that we had to leave at least one card unassigned. After jotting down our selections, Kevin collected the cards, shuffled the deck, dealt three cards to each player, and began the game.
I don’t know if what happened in the next four and a half hours was a story game in the strictest sense—in my experience there is no game master in most story games—but we sure did tell one hell of a cool story, and for the first time in my roleplaying experience, the game mechanic didn’t interfere with the narrative at all. Once we figured out how to use the cards and realized the potential they contained beyond merely indicating a number and a color, the game really opened up to us. We were playing super-powered characters, but at no time did I have to record the specifics of my powers on a character sheet or worry if the power “worked” in a particular way; it seemed like imagination and game mechanics simply flowed together naturally.
The story Kevin ran is a journey of discovery; an awakening for (in our case) six heroes. Kevin told us afterward that he has been running this particular scenario for several years and it is different every time. Clearly, Kevin brought something to the table beyond just a pen, a legal pad and a deck of cards; Kevin also brought experience, a quick wit, and a fertile imagination.
Listening to Kevin explain how he derived certain elements of the story was like living the last few minutes of The Usual Suspects. I felt like Agent Kujan, looking around and seeing all of the pieces fall into place. Some of it confirmed my suspicions, but much of it hit me out of left field.
I’m being purposely vague about the details of our adventure because the last thing I want to do is spoil it for someone who might have an opportunity to run through Kevin’s scenario at a future con. If you’re the type of gamer who likes to know the probability that an attack is going to hit based on the dice you’re rolling, or if you need numbers to define every aspect of your character, this isn’t the game for you. But if you’re not afraid to put the dice down, set the graph paper aside and get involved in a story, then seek out Kevin’s game. You’ll be glad you did.