It’s not Dune, I swear!
Genre: Tabletop RPG
Developer: Ulisses Spiele
Publisher: Ulisses Spiele
Release date: 29 July, 2021
Fading Suns has been around for a while now. First released in 1996, it’s one of those tabletop RPGs that got popular enough as to not be left by the wayside, but never quite managed to become a big mainstream success. Past editions were often praised for its excellent setting, that borrowed heavily from Dune, mixed in with some Byzantine Empire analogues and with a dash of 40k, but criticized for its often clunky rules.
Ulisses Spiele has now managed to get the rights to Fading Suns. Ulisses Spiele might not be a household name in the RPG world outside of Germany, but they’re the ones responsible for The Dark Eye and the first edition of Wrath & Glory. Their take on Fading Suns is quite different from past editions and the rules have been completely overhauled. The timeline has also advanced a few years since Holistic Design made their versions of the game.
This new edition of Fading Suns is split up into three books, the Universe book, which tells you about the setting and its history, the Character book, which contains most of the rules and all the things the players need, and the Gamemaster book, which contains advice for the GM on how to run the game, as well as sample NPCs and a starter adventure.
The year is 5020 and Emperor Alexius has been in power for the last 27 years, ruling over the empire that makes up most of the known space. It’s been a time of relative peace and prosperity, with the major houses finally unifying under a single leader, though underneath the calm surface there’s tension brewing. While everyone recognize Alexius as the emperor, most of the noble houses would rather see one of theirs on the throne, and now that Alexius is married and has a heir chances of for them to be able to take the throne peacefully seem slim. There’s also outside threats clawing at the gates. Barbarians are finding their way into known space, launching raids on planets and the dangerous Symbiots, parasitic alien creatures that can take over the bodies of those they come into contact with, are threatening to get into human space, although things have been suspiciously quiet on that front as of late.
The world of Fading Suns is heavily inspired by the Western Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, or rather the caricature of the Byzantine Empire that’s popular in media, where backstabing and court intrigues are the norm, where the barbarians are constantly at the gates and the church is a monolithic organization that has a finger in every pie. Beyond that you have the merchant league, powerful guilds who control trade and space travel .
Five major noble houses controls most of the known planets. These include the noble Hawkwood (think Atreides from Dune), the deceitful and scheming Decados (Harkonen), the militaristic Hazat, the mercantile and scholarly House al-Malik and finally the deeply religious House Li Halan. While individual members of these houses might not fit their respective ideals, each house has something they’re known for, something that they tend to value and which sets them apart from the others. There are also a plethora of minor houses, some subservient to the major ones, some independent, but none of them are strong enough to hold their own planets within known space.
The nobles rule over the common people, though their view of where they fit in varies. Some are benevolent rulers who want to improve the lives of the common people, which is a particularly common trait within house Hawkwood, though they don’t have monopoly on that, others think their status puts them above everyone else and that that gives them the right to treat the commoners as little more than cattle. Among nobles sports like dueling is both a popular pastime and a way to gain clout. The nobility status is hereditary, though the first child is likely to inherent the most, and it’s not uncommon for later children to have to seek their own fortune, or join the church or one of the guilds in order to maintain any kind of status. Who’s going to care about the words of a 5th child of a minor noble within the house anyway?
Then there’s Universal Church of the Celestial Sun, the believers in the Pancreator, who projects his holy light upon the universe. The church is lead by the Patriarch (or something Matriarch), who’s the second most powerful individual in the known space, after the emperor. While the church does not hold as many planets as the nobles, it arguably holds more power, as going against the church is a dangerous game, one that few are willing to play. That’s not to say that everyone are fervent believers, but few would openly question the Pancreator. But the church is not one unified entity, it’s made up of several sects, the largest of which is simply known as “The Orthodoxy”, which is a traditional and following the teachings of the prophet, treating them as gospel. Next in line are the Avesti, who are the hardliners within the church, and who would rather bring the holy flame to sinners than forgive them, and who’s stringent following of tradition would make even the Patriarch uncomfortable. More well liked are the Sanctuary Aeon, who believe in helping those who need help, bringing food and medicine to the poor and reach out to those who lost their way. The Eskatonic Order are the mysticists of the church, and some of their studies of the occult sometimes even go so far as to be borderline heresy (or deserving of being purified with fire, if you were to ask the Avesti). Finally there’s the Brother Battle (who are also allowed to be sisters), the militant arm of the church, fanatical warriors who defend the faith through combat, and who are strictly obedient to their superiors. Much like with the houses there are also minor sects, who lack the influence of their more famous counterparts, but who still influence the world around them.
The merchant league is the third major power in the known space. They are responsible for trade, manufacturing of goods and transportation. Each of the major guilds within the league has a monopoly on something, and anyone who’s trying to encroach on their monopoly is likely to regret it. Most famous of the guilds are the Charioteers, who hold a monopoly on space travel, anyone who want to go from one planet to another (legally) need to go through them. The Engineers are the only people who are capable of making high tech machinery, like starships or personal energy shields. It’s unlikely for a commoner to ever have any dealings with someone from The Engineers, but if you’re someone who has the means to buy something high tech, you’ll have to go through them. The Muster specialize not in selling goods, but providing people, if you need someone with a certain set of skills beyond what’s common, you’ll have to go through them. Some would imply that The Muster are slavers, but that’s something they deny. The Reeves hold a monopoly on banking, and are the only ones who are allowed to charge an interest on loans, though thanks to the relative stability under Emperor Alexius has meant that fewer nobles has had to take out loans to fund their military expeditions, or rebuilding their estates in recent years. Finally there’s the Scravers, who officially fund their work through scavenging operations, and recovering lost technology, though their operations often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. They’re very good at hiding their illegal activities though.
Humans are not the only ones who live among the stars, there are also several alien races out there. Humanity’s first contact with most of them were not peaceful, and many of them were subjugated and their planets colonized without consent from their previous inhabitants. A few alien races have risen to prominence within the Empire though, most important of which are the two related species, the Ur-Obun and Ur-Ukar and the Vorox. The Ur-Obun and Ur-Ukar are human-looking, though have their own distinct cultures. The Vorox on the other hand are large six-limbed wolf-like creatures. While the aliens are often not given the same rights and privileges as humans, there are noble houses who welcome them into their fold, and they’re often welcome into both the church and guilds. Not all aliens are part of the empire though, the Symbiots, parasitic creatures that takes over the bodies of anyone they come into contact with, are a constant threat and the border to the symbiot worlds are constantly guarded. Then there’s the Vau, a race who’s technology is far more advanced than that of the humans, but who tend to keep out of human affairs.
There are 45 known worlds, with all the major houses having four of their own (anyone who remembers older editions might notice that the Hazat has gained a new world). These are ruled like feudal domains, with the majority of the population being serfs, with little say over the course of their own lives, though the exact conditions varies from world to world, but life for a serf is not that different from how it was in the 13th century in Europe. The guilds also hold their own worlds, which are often more open and more advanced that those of the noble houses, and also receives more autonomy from the church than their house counterparts. The church is also allowed to hold its own land, and owns several planets, often with a specific sect having control, though the church’s land is not exclusively on their planets, they also have a presence on most other worlds. Emperor Alexius has a few worlds under his command, that often serve some special purpose, like the garrison world of Stigmata, which holds the line against the Symbiot invaders, or Byzantium Secundus, the capital of the empire. Not all known worlds are within the empire though, and there are also rumored to be jump gates that lead to worlds that are not known, within the empire, but which are held by barbarians (if you can call space-faring humans barbarians).
Technology is something that’s hotly debated within the empire. Humanity has developed terraforming technology, spaceships, energy shields and all kinds of marvels, but the church is leery about any further development, and has outright banned it. Only existing technology is allowed, and re-discovered technology is often met with skepticism. That is not to say that new technology is never developed, but it’s developed away from the prying eyes of the church. Because of the advancements in shield technology, you also often see people resort to swords and axes when fighting, because the shields are so good at blocking conventional weapons. This is something clearly borrowed from dune.
Some people also have occult powers. The nature of the occult powers varies from individual to individual and people can draw their powers from different sources. Some have innate psychic powers, others use their faith and some from a darker side. Occult powers are not common, and most regular people can go their lives believing that such things are just superstition. Certain sects of the church also frown upon the use of occult powers, and want to limit people’s access to knowledge about them.
Fading Suns has a really well developed setting, with a lot of openings for adventures and things to do, though that might also be one of its weaknesses, it might be too open for some people and it can be hard to know where to even start if you want to run an adventure. The setting is still great, and overall well written. The advancing timeline also shows a lot of promise, as new and interesting intrigues have been opened up. There’s a lot you can do with fading suns, and the 120 page settings book does an excellent job at introducing the setting, while also being an entertaining read.
Fading Suns has always been a game that struggled a bit with its rules. Where the setting was great, the rules left a lot to be desired. This new edition of Fading Suns has completely overhauled the rule, so older material won’t be compatible with it, but on the other hand, it does mean that you don’t need to deal with the older ruleset. That does not mean that this new edition has nothing in common with the older ones though, and they’ve carried over some of the core ideas from it.
The Victory Point system is a “roll under” system with a twist. When you’re performing an action that requires a skill roll you add your skill and attribute values together plus/minus any modifiers and try to roll under it with a 20-sided die. Unlike most other roll-under systems that care about how well you roll it’s not the difference between the target number and the roll that matters, instead you’re supposed to try and roll as high as possible, without going over your target number. This is a pretty good system, as most of us are better at telling at a glance how well we did with this system than with one that relies on the difference between your roll and the target number.
Most actions you’re trying to do will have a resistance number, and you need to overcome this with “victory points”. You gain victory points based on how well you rolled. If you rolled a 12, you gain 12 victory points, if you succeeded with your roll, though you might not get enough victory points form a roll to succeed. This is where your pool of victory points comes in, called “the cache”. You can spend victory points from your cache to add to your roll, in order to succeed, and you can transfer any excess victory points to your cache. Your cache is your short term storage, and spare victory points here are lost at the start of a new turn, unless they’re moved to your “bank”. The bank is a long-term storage for victory points and you can, at any time, move victory points between your cache and your bank, though your bank has limited space, depending on your character’s experience level. In addition you might have “coffers” that lets you store victory points that can be used for specific tasks, based on the nature of the coffer. If you run out of victory points in your cache and bank you can also do what’s known as a surge, in order to get an emergency re-fill, though you have a limited number of surges per day (or rather rest period). Beyond regular VPs you also got Wyrd points, extra special VPs that are rewarded when you do something spectacular, and which gets added to the “troupe coffer”, which can be accessed by anyone, and which is more potent when you mix it in with occult powers.
The idea behind the victory point system, and the bank is not bad, but it feels like they’ve managed to over-complicate it a bit. Once everyone around the table are comfortable and familiar with the system it’s not too hard to use, but for newer players there’s a lot of terms to keep track of and it could just have been streamlined a bit more. Having so many different pools to juggle does make it easy to lose track of where your VPs are supposed to be or go, and that slows down the game.
Combat is something that is bound to happen sooner or later in most RPGs, and Fading Suns tries to use a similar system for both social conflicts and physical combat. With court intrigues being a common and important element of Fading Suns, it’s good that they try to give some rules for the social aspect and not just rely on a single roll. Rolls in combat work similarly to other skills rolls, the target of an action can try to actively defend themselves, by spending VP, which in turn increases their “resistance” (meaning that more VP needs to be spent on successfully attacking them). In combat, social or physical, you also have access to a wide set of different combat maneuvers, with more being available if you have the right perks.
Combat is another area where things are just a bit over-complicated. It does not become as messy as 2nd edition could be, but it feels like there should have been some cleanup and streamlining done here, just to speed up the game. The initiative system(s) were not tested for this review as all the players agreed on it just being too clunky to use and went with a simpler one.
Character creation in Fading Suns uses a life-path system, where you choose your race, background, and “calling”, which in turn gives you different skills, perks and equipment. The race includes humans, ur-ukar, ur-obun and Vorox, which all come with their own set of advantages. Your background will tell you if received your upbringing among one of the noble houses, the guilds or the church, or if you were a free person, capable of choosing their own path through life (here called a yeoman, a word that can, in real life, mean many different things).
The process is pretty straight forward. Say for an example that a fanatical Vorox inquisitor sounds appealing to you. The race is obvious, you’ll go with a Vorox, then you choose a faction, which would be one of the priestly ones. And inquisitor could come from any sect, but the Avesti might be the best fit. Then you choose a calling, and here you have a long list to choose from, a confessor, a friar, an occultist, even a spy. But among them is one that would fit the Vorox inquisitor, and that is, fittingly enough “inquisitor”. You’ll then look at what traits and abilities you get for being a Vorox, note those down, followed by the perks, skills and traits you get for being an Avesti, and also any quirks that comes with the territory (for the Avesti you’ll for an example get a bonus to coercion when dealing with sinners, but your religious “righteousness” gives you a penalty when your judgment is being questioned by others). Finally you look at what being an Inquisitor gives you, which is more skills, stats and a perk. Through the process you’ll be making choices regarding what bonuses you want, for an example as an inquisitor you get one perk, but you have 10 different ones to choose from. You’ll also have to make some either/or choices regarding skill bonuses.
During the game your character will level up and become more skilled. Leveling up has a big effect on how strong a character is, and gives a lot of bonuses. Your VP bank grows larger, from 5 initially to 10 at level 2, and then you gain another +5 every second level. You’ll also earn more perks, at least one perk level, but every second level gives you two, and more skill points you can spend freely. Leveling up is not as involved as in say Dungeons & Dragons, and your character does not change as much over time as in that game, but there’s still a big gap between a level 1 and a level 3 characters, particularly due to the changes in VP bank-size.
GM Material and the Included Adventure
The Gamemaster book is the final of the three core books, and is also the shortest, though not by a wide margin. It gives you most of the information needed to run a game smoothly, including advice for new GMs, and also tips on how to hand out rewards, running different types of adventures and campaigns. The advice found here are good, and for a new GM they might even be invaluable if they want to run a game as big as Fading Suns. For more experienced GMs a lot of the advice will seem familiar, but it’s still tailored for the setting, and Fading Suns can be a daunting game to run, even for someone who has a decade or more of GMing experience, so it’s still worth reading through.
A good chunk of the book is dedicated to giving you sample NPCs, as well as rules and stats for different creatures. This section is pretty handy, particularly when you don’t have a feel for what a “typical” statline should be for NPCs from different backgrounds. This is probably the most useful section in the book for most GMs as it gives you a lot of material to work with, and it’s easier to modify an existing statline to match your current needs than make one up from scratch.
There’s a pre-written adventure included in the book that works as an introduction to how to run adventures. It gives pretty good guidance for new GMs on how to set scenes and handle NPCs, without going overboard, like some other sample adventures might. The actual adventure itself isn’t anything spectacular though, but it serves its purpose, and it’s not bad either. It is pretty short, and any group that are very focused when they’re playing might be able to complete it in a single session, though for most groups it will probably take two sessions.
Art & Layout
Finding what you need in the books is not too hard, though the information can at times be spread out over a few too many pages. Many of the pages are also pretty dense with text, which can make it harder to find the specific bit of information you’re looking for than in some other RPGs, but the page layout is pretty good, with good descriptive headlines.
The art is overall pretty good as well, and there’s some inspired pieces of art in the book. Not all of the art is top of the line, but it’s overall good, and never bad. It’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from a larger budget modern RPG, and Fading Suns is up there with the likes of Pathfinder and D&D in terms of quality. There could be a bit more art in the books though, and you can sometimes go quite a few pages without seeing any illustrations.
Seems like Fading Suns is a game that’s cursed with never having a ruleset that quite manages to live up to its excellent setting. The new edition of Fading Suns does not disappoint with its setting, it’s well developed, and interesting to read about. It also offers a lot of freedom when it comes to what kind of adventures you want to run in it, from classic swashbuckling adventuring, to court intrigues to military campaigns to sandbox exploration, there are few things you can’t do in Fading Suns. That in itself can be a drawback though, as playing an RPG that’s very open can be overwhelming, and you might have to put in a bit of work for certain specific types of adventures and campaigns.
Sadly the rules seem to just overcomplicate certain things. That’s not to say that the rules are unusable, and they are an improvement over past editions, but they are still clunky at times. Having so many different pools for victory points can be confusing for new players and even when it’s no longer confusing it still slows the game down. There are other parts of the game that follows a similar pattern, the core ideas are good, but then some aspects of it end up being overcomplicated.
When I say overcomplicated, I don’t mean that this is the most complex game on the market, far from it. It has nothing on A Time of War, or even the second edition of Pathfinder, just that there are parts that could be streamlined and it would improve the game and ease the learning curve, without much, or any, depth being lost in the process.
Fading Suns is also a pretty expensive game to get. You need three books to run it. You could, in theory, get by with just the Character book, which holds most of the important rules, but if you do, you’re missing out on the best part of Fading Suns, the setting. All three books costs about 100€ or about $120 if you want physical copies, or just under half that if you want PDFs, which is about twice the price of most other RPGs (but still less than getting the three core books for D&D 5e), though you get nearly 600 pages of content for that price, so a higher than average price is justified in that regard.
Fading Suns is not a game I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone, but if you think the setting sounds good (and it really is very good), and you’re fine with a slightly janky ruleset, then it might still be worth picking up. And even if you don’t want to run Fading Suns, the setting book is worth getting on its own. If I were to review the books individually, the setting book would get a “Save”, bordering on “Autosave”, while the other books would get a “Save for later”, but I’m reviewing the whole game as a package here.