Interview: “Atomic Robo The Roleplaying Game”

Maybe you’re a fan of the many award-winning Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, powered by the FATE game engine. Maybe you’re a fan of robots punching Nazis. Maybe you are a fan of both, in which case, there’s going to be a new roleplaying game for you!

Announced two weeks ago, Evil Hat Productions is going to be producing the Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game, based on the hit comic series written by Brian Clevinger and illustrated by Scott Wegener. The game will be designed primarily by Mike Olson, and managed by Evil Hat Co-President Fred Hicks. We sent them a few questions about the announcement and the game.

CRITICAL HITS: How would you explain the world and adventures of Atomic Robo to the uninitiated?

BRIAN CLEVINGER: Take The Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai, and The Rocketeer; cram them into a robot; give that robot some pants; bam, you’ve got Atomic Robo. He was invented by Nicola Tesla in 1923 and our comic book follows Robo’s adventure ever since. He fought a pyramid, the planet Mars, Stephen Hawking (metaphorically), Nazis, a super-intelligent time traveling dinosaur who may be none of those things, and run of the mill mad scientists.

But not at the same time.

CH: What kind of campaign models are you envisioning?

MIKE OLSON: First off, one that gets started quickly. You could say character creation is going to be more action and less science: It’ll be a true pick-up-and-play game without a lot of character creation on the front end. That’s been an important design goal from my earliest conversations with Fred about ARRPG. The actual stories Brian and Scott tell in Atomic Robo are definitely informing how we’re thinking the game will play — not just in the sense of what happens in a story, but how they’re structured. The default campaign expectation will be one that takes place in multiple eras during Robo’s long life, even if Robo himself isn’t present, with each of those eras having its own treatment and distinct feel. But if you want to play a story that involves Jack Tarot in the ‘30s or Sparrow in WWII, you can do that too. Regardless, you’ll have the tools to run the kick-ass Atomic Robo game you want.

FRED HICKS: I’m particularly excited about the multi-era play. Moreso than Spirit of the Century, I think the Atomic Robo RPG will be exactly the right kind of game to handle a play-group with variable attendance. “Oh, only two folks are showing up tonight? Well, let’s jump back to 1971 and play out a smaller piece of this story there. Who wants to play Carl Sagan?”

CH: For those that aren’t familiar with FATE, what makes it a good fit for an Atomic Robo-based game?

CLEVINGER: FATE gives a great deal of freedom to model every weird idea you can imagine. And to do it on the fly. And then to destroy it in a spectacular explosion that may or may not have been accidental. If that’s not every single Atomic Robo story, then I don’t know what is.

OLSON: This may be a tough one for me to answer objectively — FATE’s my go-to system, and I love hacking it for various genres. But what makes it so strong for a character-driven book like Atomic Robo is how easily it lets players define their character through mere words, via aspects. The particular iteration of FATE we’re planning is going to be tailored to what’s important to a Robo story, including a special emphasis on Science (and “Science!”) that gives all that witty techno-banter mechanical heft. Look at that invasion from the Vampire Dimension. Does Robo save the day by punching them? Does Jenkins, by visiting horrific off-screen ultra-violence upon them? Nope. It’s quick-thinking new-hire Bernard. Using Science. FATE’s great at that — that’s what FATE does.

CH: For those that are familiar with FATE, what kind of changes are going to be made to fit it, especially since it has a Spirit of the Century vibe already?

OLSON: Spirit of the Century has been a hugely influential game for me and for a lot of other people, but I think it’s safe to say that FATE technology has come a long way since its publication.

HICKS: YES! Spirit was published in 2006. Six years! The whole landscape of FATE is just different these days.

OLSON: Right. And if the recent proliferation of FATE games has shown us anything, it’s that people love to tinker with it — and because it’s such a malleable system, tinkering’s both fun and easy. So even though we’re very early in the process here, I can say for sure that we’re going to take full advantage of everything the system has to offer.

For one thing, you won’t see any big lists of stunts. Like I said, character creation will be more action, less science. That’s not to say there won’t be stunt-like options for customizing your character, but just as in Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, the emphasis will be on coming up with your own based on some broad guidelines.

Likewise, the concept of Phases is great for Spirit of the Century and its meta-conceit that all of the characters are protagonists in pulp books who are Centurions in the Century Club. The default assumptions of ARRPG are much different, though. Sure, the PCs are likely to be Tesladyne Action Scientists, but their stories could take place anytime over a more than 80-year period. Instead of writing down past events in their characters’ lives, we want people to actually play them out, or discover them through play. The era-hopping thing is definitely part of that.

HICKS: Yep. And part of that whole multi-era thing, really, is that groups that embrace it will probably have people playing different characters in different timeframes — they can’t all be ageless heroes like Robo. So the whole phased character creation thing from Spirit and Dresden won’t really apply here — though there’s nothing stopping folks from importing the idea from other FATE games.

OLSON: One of the big things we have in store, as I alluded to before, is giving Science its due — making sure it matters more than mere “color.” But it’s hard to say much more at this point, simply because the real work has yet to begin — FATE Core is our starting point, and that’s still in development. But we’ll be previewing more throughout the coming months.

CH: Will there be any campaign tools in it that can be borrowed for other games, like City Creation was for Dresden Files?

OLSON: We’re talking about some random idea generators for missions, villains, and science-related catastrophes — I love that sort of thing — that would certainly be applicable for other games. The skill system we have in mind will be both unique to ARRPG and compatible with “mainline” FATE, and will in fact accentuate customization, so I’m sure that will find its way around. Most FATE gamers I know really dig hacking the system, so I’m sure that even stuff we don’t think of as being broadly applicable will get that hacker treatment.

HICKS: Yeah. I have a feeling that the gearheads out there like me are going to find Robo’s ideas highly portable. Really, if anyone looked at Mike’s work on “Strange Fate” for The Kerberos Club and wanted to see an iteration of it that was highly compatible with main-line, core FATE, they’re going to get that here.

CH: With villains like Edison’s Ghost or a brain in a jar with a robot body, will there be other examples of how to make your own villains in the Atomic Robo style?

CLEVINGER: I’m hoping for a whole array of play styles. There’s a century or so of history, so the game is a tremendous opportunity to play around with the parts of Robo’s world we don’t see in the comics. Want to play pulp adventurers from before Robo was created or from back when he was terrible at adventuring? How about a generational campaign with a character per player per era? Want to play as “bad guy” factions like Majestic 12? A team up of Robo’s worst arch-enemies? An alternate history where Robo was taken out mid-century? One where he and Tesladyne never came to be?

So, to finally answer your question, yes. We’ll have some guidelines on how to best cater villains and (their?) antagonistic organizations to best fit your needs!

OLSON: In general, my answer to any question that takes the form of “Will there be guidelines for doing X the Atomic Robo way?” is “Yes.” One of our most important design goals is making sure the mechanics support the kinds of stories we expect people to tell when they play ARRPG. That definitely includes Robo-propriate adversaries, from brain-in-jar science villains to time-travelling Dromaeosaurs and everything in between.

HICKS: Crystals!

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. I can’t help thinking about Doctor Who when reading about Atomic Robo The Roleplaying Game. So, I think I’ll enjoy this game rather well.

    Ok, off to the comic series, then!


  1. […] Dave “The Game” Chalker at Critical Hits had an opportunity to review Brian Clevinger, M…. Group interviews are even more fun than individuals! This interview bounces all over the place, but as you might expect there’s a lot of discussion about FATE… […]