The sad, silly saga of FATAL, Part One
One day — hell, it must have been ten years ago or more — I was surfing the Intrawebs and came across a game review on rpg.net. It was for a game called “F.A.T.A.L.” and it went on for pages and pages. Fascinated, I sat down to read the review, and as I made my way through it I found myself thinking, “This has to be a joke. It must be a fake review for a fake game, intended to amuse and possibly gross out the game-review reading community.” After all, it was written by Darren MacLennan and Jason Sartin, two well-known and well-respected reviewers for rpg.net, and they were well known for using humor in their many articles.
Alas, further investigation revealed that the game described in the review was all too real, and today, the game whose acronymous name stood for “Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery” remains a legend, still discussed, criticized and insulted from one corner of the gaming Internet to the other. And as I started this particular feature a few months ago with an exhaustive review of the classic Arduin trilogy, how can I resist including at least a cursory mention of Byron Hall’s repellent life’s work? (Actually, given how much horror the game contains, I could resist it pretty easily, but hell — I’m a Pryor and Pryors NEVER take the “easy” alternative, no matter how much sense it makes…)
As the game has been exhaustively reviewed and painfully dissected elsewhere (and I am really, really reluctant to dive into the mechanics of a game that has a “Urinating” skill and rules for determining penile dimensions), I’m not going to do a real in-depth analysis of the system, but focus instead on a general overview, along with the tale of F.A.T.A.L.’s conception, development and savage reception, followed as it was by its esteemed author’s complete disappearance from the gaming community (hopefully because he was sucked into one of the lower pits of hell). Also, the very notion of actually delving into the needlessly complex, microscopically detailed and unbelievably trivial character generation system (proudly described by its designer as “the most difficult, detailed, realistic and historically/mythically accurate role-playing game available.”) fills me with cold dread and horrified apprehension. And we’re off to the races…
I don’t know of any other rpg which uses its relative difficulty as a selling point. Were I to read this without knowing anything else about the game, I seriously doubt that my first reaction would be “The most difficult role-playing game available? Holy shit! Sign me up!” And hell, I was involved in the creation of Metascape, a long-forgotten vanity project that was once reviewed as “not for the mathematically-challenged.” So with that in mind, shall we go for a dip in the cesspit? Welcome to the world of FATAL, where the dice never lie. And if you have a weak constitution, I strongly suggest you stop reading now.
From Another Time, Another Land
This discussion (I hesitate to call it a review) of FATAL is based upon the most recent “edition” available — a PDF that is archived in several places around the ‘net. An earlier edition included offensive (not to mention outright stupid) elements such as armors of Nigrous Nincompoopery, Jewy Jewbacca and Gookems, which transform their wearers into the listed racial stereotype. (For the record, though Hall attempted to expunge the sins of previous incarnations by deleting the more egregiously racist items, the descriptions remain in the original review… Here is an example, entirely unedited. Guess which magic item it refers to — Whosoever dons this armor experiences a loss of 1d100 points from each sub-ability of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The ass of the wearer will grow by 50% and be abnormally high. If the wearer is male, then those around him are 80% likely to believe that his manhood has increased, though it has not. The skin of the wearer becomes cursed and dark as night… The eyes of the wearer are visible 3 miles away at night. The wearer will have a body odor for 1d10 feet. On the bright side, the Physical Fitness of the wearer increases by 10%. Har-dee-fuckin’-har, Byron. You truly bring the gift of laughter to the unenlightened… The only thing missing is something about how the wearer’s teeth glow in the dark when he smiles. More on the racism and Hall’s defense of it later.)
Very little else from the original version is missing, however, save the most obvious change of all. Though FATAL was originally an acronym for the charming title Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery, Byron apparently realized that this was possibly not the best name for his game and changed it to the less offensive, but equally ungrammatical From Another Time, Another Land. Along with the removal of the racist material, that represents the only real change in the book between revisions. FATAL’s other endearing elements — rape, gore, violence, sexism and a near-sociopathic attitude toward women remain, as swollen and grotesque as the day Byron Hall committed them to paper.
Hall also paid for some very professional and, in places, quite effective black and white illustrations. Though there is little or no portrayal of the rapiness that FATAL is infamous for (thank goodness), the pictures stray into the creepy and disturbing, usually in the areas of anthropohagy and violence. Nonetheless, both the illustrations and typography of FATAL range from acceptable to very good, belying the horrific nature of the game they support. FATAL weighs in at a bloated 977 pages. It is, we are told, “The largest game-book ever printed” which is actually somewhat disingenuous, as FATAL was fated never to be physically “printed” anywhere, and the back cover assures us that it is “a role-playing game like no other.” In that, Byron Hall is being entirely accurate, and given that there never has been a game like FATAL, either before or after, we can all be grateful for it.
The cover portrays a male Anakim in a leather jockstrap bashing in the heads of a bunch of blue-skinned kobolds who are busy trying to drag a long-haired, big-breasted naked woman away by means of leash and collar. Knowing what lies inside FATAL’s richly-colored covers I’m sure we’re all aware exactly what the kobolds intend to do with their busty captive. Then again, once the Anakim kills them all with his big fucking hammer, he’s probably going to do the same thing to her, so I guess it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other. FATAL’s title page is enough to warm the heart of an old typographer like me. The book, Byron breathlessly informs us, is set in Garamond and Tiepolo Book fonts. Garamond, he says, “was selected as the main font due to its historical accuracy. Claude Garamond (1480-1561) was the first independent typefounder and first used his typeface in 1530.”
Get ready — Byron’s clarion declaration of “historical accuracy” is repeated many times and used as an excuse (along with “for humorous effect”) to explain away FATAL’s more excessive aspects. Further, though Garamond is indeed a very old font, its use in the 16th century really doesn’t make it appropriate for use in this game, especially under the dubious “historical accuracy” umbrella. Times-style fonts have existed since the Roman era, and a font that came into widespread use in 1530 is well past the supposed historical period that FATAL covers.
An Introduction to Idiocy
Anyway, enough with the nit-picking. The hilarity and horror are about to begin. We start off with Byron’s introduction, and the standard “What is Role-Playing” boilerplate, but from the start he gives it his own personal spin and makes the entire endeavor seem somehow dirty. He starts off with his favorite subject — how historically accurate his game is. FATAL, he says, is intended to reflect a Europe of about 1335 AD, isolated from the rest of the world. There is no contact with Africa, Asia or the Middle-East, monsters such as zombies are excluded, and PCs are (much to Byron’s relief I’m sure) exclusively Caucasian. “The application of historical accuracy to the fantasy of this game,” Byron proclaims, “is a neverending goal. Scholarly sources are preferred above all others. For consideration, please suggest references to firstname.lastname@example.org.” (Of course if you want to send any suggestions, the email will probably bounce, as Fatal Games is currently as dead as disco. You’re welcome to try, however. I’m sure Byron will appreciate your efforts.)
Now we get to the meat and throbbing gristle of the game — Byron Hall’s view on what role-playing is. It is, he says, “a game in which the players make decisions as though they were a certain character. The decisions a player may make are diverse compared to other games. Table-top role-playing games allow more decisions to a player than any other type of game.” So far, so good. He seems to have a pretty decent grasp of the basic tenets, and as far as he goes, is pretty accurate. Just you wait.
Now, having given us a relatively sane and sensible definition of role-playing, Byron lurches right off the rails into sheer batshit insanity. “For instance,” he continues, “assume you are an adventuring knight who just fought his way to the top of a dark tower where you find a comely young maiden chained to the wall. What would you do? Some players may choose to simply free the maiden out of respect for humanity. Others may free her while hoping to win her heart. Instead of seeking affection, some may talk to her to see if they can collect a reward for her safe return. Then again, others may be more interested in negotiating freedom for fellatio. Some may think she has no room to bargain and take their fleshly pleasures by force. Others would rather kill her, dismember her young cadaver, and feast on her warm innards… No other game allows so much individual choice, and consequently, so much fun.”
Okay, I admit that I just had to go wash my hands after typing this (and will probably do so several times before I’m done), and I did selectively edit a few words out for dramatic effect. But the fact remains that Byron uses “feast on her warm innards” and “so much fun” in practically the same breath. And this is only page one, folks.
Fatal Games Considers [insert topic here] to Be a Serious Issue
The next page or two discusses terminology and pronouns (as avoiding gender bias is one of Byron Hall’s most important goals in creating this game, he chooses to use “they” in place of “he” and “she”, thus irrefutably proving his total rejection of sexism and the objectification of women), math (“Players will not need math that is more complicated than basic algebra, and even that is relatively rare”, or so he claims), character creation and roles. In this last section Byron does away with namby-pamby terms like “game master”, telling us that instead FATAL games will be administered by an Aedile (“a Roman official in charge of the games”). Once more, FATAL literally reeks of historical accuracy.
The Introduction continues with a brief paragraph about Hall’s proud creation — the Mean System, i.e. “the set of mechanics behind F.A.T.A.L. — the gaming engine, if you will.” While it’s based on math and statistics, you really don’t have to understand math at all to play. The Mean system, he tells us “is realistic, but also simple to use.” Of course, behind every simple system is a genius game designer, who is not only a talented musician but also irresistible to women. “The most common aspects of the Mean System are the normal curve, mean, and standard deviation, though parabolic curve-fitting and trigonometric functions have been incorporated as well.” Whoa! I’m starting to feel out of my league as a game designer here.
“A mean game needs a mean system,” he continues. “Enjoy the most simple and sophisticated mechanics in the industry. Enjoy F.A.T.A.L.” And with that not-at-all-egotistical-or-slightly-demented introduction we conclude with the Intro’s centerpiece, the bizarre and slightly disturbing “Warning.” “F.A.TA.L. is for adults only. This roleplaying game is not intended for children due to content that is obscene, lecherous, and violent.”
With that understatement of understatements, Byron launches into a slightly desperate defense of his indefensible game. “Fatal Games considers obscenity to be a sensitive issue, and only includes it because of its prominence in the past as a significant part of human history. Most of the rules of the game avoid obscenity. For example, it is possible to determine a character’s manhood, not cock, or vaginal depth, not cunt depth. However, the greatest concentration of obscenity is in Appendix 3: Random Magical Effects, and is intended for humorous effect.”
Well that certainly reassures me. Us? Obscene? No way! We don’t babble on about “cock length” or “cunt depth”! We use normal, sophisticated terms such as “manhood” and “vagina.” Not obscene at all. No sirree. Our rules for determining the length and girth of a man’s penis and a character’s ability to perform anal sex are utterly proper and necessary due to our emphasis on historical accuracy! And if we do happen to offend you a wee bit, well it was all in a good cause since our real goal was to make you laugh, and who could possibly fault us for that?
“This game includes sex and sexual situations,” Byron continues, digging himself in even deeper. “Fatal Games considers sex to be a sensitive issue, and only includes it because of its prominence in the past as a significant part of human history.” Observant readers will note that this paragraph is almost identical to the previous one. Almost as if he’d just cut-and-pasted it… Hmmm… Next we’re told that the game’s level of violence is pretty graphic, but hey — “Killing is a core element of most role-playing games” so that makes it okay. “Fatal Games,” Byron continues, “considers the act of killing to be a sensitive issue, and only includes it because of its prominence in the past as a significant part of…” Okay, wait a damn minute. Is the whole book going to be like this? I guess I’ll skip this paragraph since it’s identical to the previous two and get to the discussion of Byron Hall’s favoritest subject.
“Rape is not intended to be a core element of F.A.T.A.L. as killing is a core element of most role-playing games. Fatal Games considers rape to be a sensitive issue, and only includes it because of its prominence in the past.” Yeah, yeah. I get it. No one can accuse Byron Hall of not being sensitive to such matters. After all, he’s repeated it word-for-word four times now. Of all the copied-and-pasted warnings in this section, the defense of rape is easily the longest and wordiest. Methinks that the game-designer wannabe protests too much. To wit: “For example, Europe was named after Europa, who was raped by Zeus… Jacques Rossiaud’s Medieval Prostitution [I’m sure that Byron wore the fucking covers off of that particular volume while researching FATAL]… estimates that half the male youth participate in at least one gang rape, and that sexual violence is an everyday dimension of community life.”
Hot damn! Rape and sexual violence happened all the time in medieval Europe? Holy shit — then we can include all the rape we want and justify it as being historically accurate! My hat’s off to you, Jacques Rossiaud, and your book which is the only source that we cite before coming to our highly dubious conclusions! Likewise, Byron now tells us, brothels were very common in medieval and ancient Europe, and so must be included in his game, simply for the sake of (wait for it) historical accuracy! To do otherwise would be dishonest, and do a serious disservice to the roleplaying community, who have for years been clamoring for a game that accurately depicts rape, anal sex and prostitution.
Hell, he tells us, you don’t even have to include sex in your game at all! And besides, kids shouldn’t be playing FATAL in the first place. “The information in this game does not represent the world-views of Fatal Games, nor is extreme violence or extreme sex condoned by Fatal games. Instead, the information is included for comprehensiveness. F.A.T.A.L. (From Another Time, Another Land [Not, repeat NOT, “Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery”, an inaccurate title which suggests that the whole game might actually be about sex, rape and perversity, things which Fatal Games most assuredly DOES NOT ADVOCATE!] may be adapted to any gaming group.” And with that convenient warning effectively disclaiming his own game, Byron Hall closes his introduction and we move on into the travesty that is FATAL (From Another Time, Another Land. NOT Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery).
Off to the Races
Like all great rpgs, FATAL kicks off with character generation. The player’s (and I’m surprised that Byron didn’t come up with a special Latin word that meant gamer to go along with Aedile) first choice is race, and we’re now treated to a long list of the races available in the game. For the most part there’s nothing especially noteworthy here, save for the occasional grammatical howler (Anakim, we are told may “worship any religion” by which I’m sure Byron meant “practice any religion” or “worship any god” but who am I to judge?) and delightful facts about the various races such as the fact that bugbears usually rape human women before devouring their children and that “50% of human women who are ravished by a bugbear die due to a ripped uteral lining.”
Most of FATAL’s races are bog-standard fantasy tropes — dwarves, elves, bugbears, kobolds, various varieties of ogres (including kinder-fressers, who enjoy devouring “prepubescent, virginal” human children, a feature which should normally make for a shitty PC-race, but of course this is FATAL, so bring on the child murder!) and trolls. Most of the racial descriptions skimp on cultural details but treat the way that these races kill others with loving care — hill trolls, for example, love to eat brains and “savor the taste of the limbic system, most specifically the amygdala, basal ganglia, and hippocampus. Oddly, they always reject the thalamus, but devour the hypothalamus. While tasting the limbic system, hill trolls will become erect or wet with sexual excitement as well.”
That’s our Byron… Always keeping it classy. The most interesting — if that’s the right word for it — race are the winged half-demons called Anakim. When generating an Anakim, the player must roll on a table (the first of many, many, many such tables) to generate a random feature. These range from rather normal effects such as the reduction or increase of various statistics, to the pointless (“The anakim has 2 horns, 1d8 inches in length, protruding from their head. Any headgear worn by the anakim must be custom-made to fit the horns” or “the anakim is able to cry at will, with tears”) to, of course the graphically violent, scatalogical and repellently sexual. “The anakim is addicted to vaginal or penile carrion. Once per week the anakim has the urge to kill the first member of the opposite sex in sight and feed on the previously stated remains.” “The anakim has blood for sexual fluid… If male, the anakim ejaculates blood. If female, then blood is the lubricating vaginal fluid all month long.” “The anakim is accompanied by the odor of sex, which extends 1d6 feet.” And so on. I’ll give Byron credit here — he certainly has the ability to fill up a random table with the most random shit imaginable. More on that later.
The Racial Hatred table follows. Not “racial attitudes” mind you — Racial Hatred. Each race is cross-indexed with all the others, with a rating of 1 (prefers the race) to 5 (utter and absolute hate). Of all the ratings on the table, almost all of them are “5” — there are some “4’s”, a handful of “3’s” and almost no “2’s”. “1’s” are reserved for one’s own race. The world of FATAL is full to the brim with hate, kind of like the way most gamers feel about Byron Hall.
Next comes gender, and along with it some more delectable tastes of Byron’s attitude toward women. We are told that “According to a prominent philosopher, males tend to be more spirited, savage, simple and less cunning. Females… tend to be more compassionate… more easily moved to tears, at the same time are more jealous, more querulous, and are more apt to scold and to strike… more prone to despondency and less hopeful… more void of shame and self-respect, more false of speech… more deceptive… also more wakeful, shrinking, and difficult to rouse to action… males are more courageous, sympathetic, and stand by to help… Even in the case of mollusks, when the cuttle-fish is struck with a trident, the male stands by to help the female; but when the male is struck, the female runs away.”
Well, I’m glad we got that particular issue straightened out, aren’t you? Byron’s “prominent philsopher” is Aristotle, and Byron justifies this particular load of horse-shit by saying “His comments are deemed relevant to the setting of F.A.T.A.L. due to the prevalence of his opinion throughtout the Middle Ages.” Yes, Byron’s heroic dedication to historical accuracy above all other things has struck again.
Now we get a quick history lesson. “Most cultures are patriarchal and the prevalent belief regarding gender is that females are inferior to males physically, intellectually, morally, and emotionally… [women] are deemed better suited to stay at home, cook, clean, and care for their husband and children. Prior to marriage, maidens are expected to be chaste, though few fulfill this expectation.”
You tell ’em, Bro! They’re all just a bunch of sluts and whores, anyway… Why even waste our time letting anyone play female characters. I mean, any guy who would actually want to play a chick is probably a fag anyway…
Oops, sorry. I was channeling Byron for a second. It’s okay, I’m better now, but I think it’s probably time to wrap this up before something terrible happens. We’ll delve deeper into the slime next installment, kids. In the meantime, stay cool and do not ever, ever play FATAL.