A first look at the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook

Fantasy Age has been out for about two weeks now and while I have not yet had the opportunity to get real experience at how well it runs in longer campaigns, I’ve been spending a lot of time examining the system and trying out various things with it. Trying my hands at creating some of my own custom content and seeing how the game behaves in actual combat situations and what differences different numbers make in practice. You could say I did extensive lab testing, but no field testing yet.

GRR6001The Adventure Game Engine started six years ago with the first release of the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin. The first set was followed up with a second one two years later but for some reason unknown to me the final third set kept being delayed for a very long time. Being split into several sets that were released at a snails pace and being a licensed game for a specific setting probably were major factors why the game never become a huge success, but even despite these circumstances it became quite well known and pretty highly appreciated. With the Dragon Age game wrapped up, Green Ronin decided that the basic rules system of the game is good enough to use it for other games as well. The new edition of Blue Rose will be using it, as well as the new Titansgrave setting. And finally, there’s also a generic fantasy version of the game, which has been released as the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook. For which, unless I am mistaken, there will also be a Freeport campaign setting book.

The AGE system is pretty much the RPG I always wanted. If I would have made my own roleplaying game (and I’ve given it some thought for quite a while), this is pretty much what I would have wanted to make. The game uses a simple base mechanic of 3d6 + Ability Score + Focus and other modifiers. It’s very similar to Barbarians of Lemuria and also the d20 system in this regard. But I think using 3d6 for the dice part works best. Since rolling very high or very low is very unlikely, even small modifiers of +1 or -2 make quite a signficant difference; much more so than when using a d20. The result of that is both a bit more predictability (which always works in favor of the players) and also that you’re generally dealing with much smaller numbers. In d20 games it is not uncommon to end up rolling 1d20+37 as you’re regularly heaping one another +1 here and another +1 there to make a real difference. The AGE system is much more small scale in that regard and you only need to keep track of a few major factors that change things in your favor or against it, instead of lots of tiny modifiers that are irrelevant by themselves and only really matter if you have lots of them.

Like the d20 system, or more accurately, similar to the d20 system, the game has three character classes. Warrior, rogue, and mage. This provides some useful structure during character creation and character advancement and makes things a lot easier on the players, especially new ones, than games like Runequest, Shadowrun, GURPS, or Atlantis. But the three classes are also very open and only losely defined, which is in clear contrast to Dungeons & Dragons where your class usually sets you on a pretty straight track. The base classes in Star Wars Saga Edition are a good comparison, except that AGE has no multiclassing or prestige classes. Much more important than your character class in defining your character are the nine ability scores. These are mostly the same as in the Dragon Age RPG, with Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. However, the Magic ability from Dragon Age was removed and a major change between the two games, perhaps even the biggest, is the addition of the Accuracy and Fighting abilities. One problem that became apparent with Dragon Age was that it is very easy to get your Strength or Dexterity scores pretty high. If you were using a weapon that uses Strength, you both get a high chance to hit and deal a high amount of damage. If you concentrate on Dexterity you get a very high chance to hit with your weapons and also become very hard to hit at the same time. It also meant that any monster that is really strong also keeps hitting almost all the time, which often is not what you want. Many huge monsters would best be given stats that makes them very clumsy but extremely strong in those rare cases where they do happen to hit you. Creating the Accuracy and Fighting abilities accomplishes just that. These two abilities determine the hit chance with light and heavy weapons while everything else is still covered by Strength and Dexterity. Some people have said that it would have been sufficient to just make a single Fighting ability and that having Accuracy as a second one wasn’t needed, and I can see the reasoning behind it. But I also don’t think having nine abilities instead of just eight is a bad choice either. Having tried out how the game performs in actual fights, I think this change was really an excelent idea.

The main difference to games like the d20 system is that your class does not determine your hit chances, hit points, and skills at all. Making an attack is a Fighting test or an Accuracy test. Hit points are based entirely on your Constitution (though warriors start with 5 more points than rogues and 10 more points that mages), and all “skills” are just Communication, Dexterity, or Intelligence tests and so on. A mage can jump as well as a warrior and a warrior be as sneaky as a rogue. It depends entirely on how you increase your ability scores, which you do every time you get a new level. If you want to specialize in a specific task, you can take a Focus, which gives you a +2 bonus to something like Stealth, Climbing, Tracking, Intimidation, and so on. You also gain one new focus at every level.

The other thing you get when reaching a new level is a talent. Talents are special abilities that usually have minor but interesting effect. They are very similar to feats in d20 games and each one consists of three degrees of mastery. When you first take the talent you gain the Novice benefit. The next time you gain a talent you can take a new talent at Novice level, or upgrade one of your Novice talents to the Journeyman level, and eventually the Master level. The great thing about talents, and which really makes them quite different from feats, is that generally they really are mostly icing on the cake. The benefits tend to be quite small and usually only let you do something a bit better or slightly different. But no talent is ever really necessary to do something! You never need a talent to do something you want your character to do. You can do everything and be competent at it, whether you have a talent or not. But if you have a talent, you can add a little bit extra on top. Most talents look a bit underwhelming at first, but having had lots of experience with the d20 system that really is a good thing and a strong selling point for the AGE system. Having to wait for higher levels until you finally become able to unlock certain abilities is one of the really major flaws of the d20 system and one the AGE system completely avoids.

The other big difference to the Dragon Age game is the magic system. It mostly works the same, except that Willpower is used to determine the efficiency of spells instead of the old Magic ability score, and in the way that new spells are learned. All spells come in groups of four called Arcana. An arcana is a talent that gives you knowledge of two spells at Novice level and another spell at Journeyman and Master level. Which sets mage players before an interesting choice. Taking lots of Novice arcana to broaden your selection of spells, or instead improve the arcana you already have to get access to the most powerful spells? Having to unlock special abilities by learning other abilities you don’t really want is an annoying thing in many RPGs. But in Fantasy Age these chains are all very short, consisting of only three ranks each, which makes it much more acceptible. One of the big selling points of the AGE system is that it uses magic points to power your spells. I have many problems with Dungeons & Dragons, and the annoying spell slot system is probably the biggest. Here you don’t have that. As long as you have magic points, you can cast whatever spell you want. As a nice touch, magic points don’t only recover between days, but any time you have an hour of rest you are getting some of your spent points back as well. Walking and riding almost certainly doesn’t count as rest, but any time you’re not really doing anything while waiting for someone to arrive or keeping watch over a place, you’re regaining some of your magic. To cast a spell, you first have to make a casting roll. Which like all rolls in the game is 3d6 + Intelligence + other modifiers. The target number for novice level spells should usually be no problem, but many of the Master level spells can be quite difficult and even though they are powerful when they work, they might not be completely reliable. This is a factor mages need to keep in mind when deciding to cast chain lightning or earthquake. Do you feel confident enough to pull it off, or do you use one of your more reliable spells instead?

Finally there are the stunts. Whenever you make a test, you roll 3d6, of which one should have a distinctive color that makes it stand apart from the other two. If any of these three dice are the same number, you can make a stunt. The odds for rolling two same numbers on three dice are actually pretty high at 44%, so it’s not a rare thing to happen. What types of stunt you can make depends on the number shown on the special die. That number determines the number of stunt points you get. Each stunt costs between 1 and 6 points, and you can make any stunts you got enough points for. If you have enoug, you can even make two stunts at the same time. Stunts let you disarm your opponent, make him fall to the ground, get a free bonus attack, increase the damage of your attack, or ignore some of the enemies armor (I’ll go more into armor below). When you’re a mage and get two same numbers on your casting roll, you also get a number of stunts you can chose from. This seems a bit weird at first, but actually works out very well in practice. The best thing about it is that you only start pondering which kind of special attack you want to perform after the dice have already indicated success. That speeds up combat significantly as you usually begin your turn by moving into position and making an regular attack. Only when you actually roll for a stunt do you wait and think which special maneuver would be good right now. You don’t get player brooding over that descision only to have them fail the roll and nothing happening at all.

One of the things I like best about the game is that character may advance from 1st level to 20th, in practice this means something completely different than in games using the d20 system. 1st level characters start with a good number of health and even at 20th level they probably have only three to four times as much health as they started with. Hit chances and damage rely entirely on your ability scores and while you get another point to increase one score every level, there is a total of nine abilities to spend them on. Starting with a 3 or 4 in your good scores is quite reasonable, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be getting a 7 or anything higher even by 20th level, unless you really concentrate on a single track. And since Accuracy and Fighting have been split off from Dexterity and Strength, and mages need both high Intelligence and Willpower, that isn’t really an effective thing to do. Always hitting but doing little damage isn’t going to be much use for you. From my tests, one thing that became very clear very quickly is that a single 10th level warrior can be defeated by three 1st level warriors. His chance to win is good, but he’s in serious trouble. Overall, characters grow more to the sides than up as they gain new levels. You become competent in more things, but increase your power only gradually and not by terribly much. Also, armor really is hugely important. It does not increase your chance to not get hit, but absorbs some of the damage when you get hit. If the hit was a relatively light one, it might even negate it entirely. Heavy chain armor can about double the amounts of hits you can take before running out of health and a 10th level character with no armor against a 1st level character in heavy plate has pretty bleak odds to survive such a fight. Even if he gets a lot more hits on his opponent and he has a bigger weapon and greater strength, suffering the full force of a smaller weapon with not much strength behind it can be much more deadlier. All this combined makes the AGE system a perfect system for Sword & Sorcery campaigns. This system is made for running a Conan, Lankhmar, or The Witcher campaign. And of course Dragon Age. It’s more complex than Barbarians of Lemuria, but pretty much a lightweight system compared with Atlantis: The Second Age. I really love this system and can very well see myself using it as my system of choice for many years to come. This is exactly the kind of game I always wanted.

However, as much as I love the rules system, there is also the quality of the book in regard to how it presents the rules. And I am afraid here it doesn’t look so great. One of the really good thing about the book, is that it is trying a lot and quite succesfully to make the game easily understandable for people who don’t really have much or any experience with RPGs. You can create characters by assigning 10 ability points to your characters abilities, but the default method is to roll dice to get the numbers. You could make custom races or give your characters starting ability increases and focuses as you want, but the book takes a player through the character creation step by step. At each step the player needs to chose between two or three options instead of being told “Here are 400 options, pick 8 of them”. If you want to assign ability scores by hand, it’s explained in a sidebar. If you want to pick your race benefits yourself instead of rolling some of them randomly, there’s also a sidebar that explains it. The way the stunt mechanic works is another example of that approach.

The Basic Rulebook is a generic game and it’s really very generic. The races are dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, human, and orc. Which is okay as a starting point, but it really wouldn’t have hurt anyone to maybe also include three or four other races to give GMs ideas for what they can do with it. There are also twelve specializations, which are unique talents that represent specialized skills like those of assassins, knights, berserkers, and so on. But again, they are mostly so generic they feel quite bland. There are twelve arcana of spells, but they also are mostly very standard stuff that is very straightforward. Wind, water, lightning, healing, … What you don’t get in this book are spells that let you control the minds of others, change shape, do stuff with undead, illusions, and several other things that are pretty standard but generally much more “fun”. There is a small section of monsters, but at only 14 entries it is way too short.

The main impression I get from the Basic Rulebook is that of a system reference document. It is a system, but does not really feel like a game. And the system is really wonderful. I totally love it and it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. But I don’t see anyone picking up this book and thinking “Oh wow, I want to play this.” You have to make it your own through the creation of custom content. You need to make your own races, specializations, arcana, and monsters to run the game in an interesting setting. You have to start with “I want to play a Conan/Dark Sun/Witcher campaign” and then decide that the AGE system is the perfect system to do that. And this is the biggest offense the book makes: There is no advice at all on how to do that! It doesn’t even tell you that you should do it. Making your own races is easy enough because the ones presented in the book all clearly follow the same template. But for specializations and arcana you really need some advice, and creating monsters requires a decent guide. And there isn’t any. I’ve been creating custom content for years and I think I feel quite confident to dealing with this. But for a game that goes to such lengths to be accessible to new gamemasters this is absolutely unforgiving. This system requires a Gamemaster Guide and I am pretty sure there will be one in the future, but right now this is a huge disappointment.

The other slight misgiving I have with the book that very large portions of it are copy-pasted from the Dragon Age RPG sets. And there’s a number of sloppy errors that were made in the process or even had been wrong in the Dragon Age game for years and simply been carried over. That’s not a big problem, but it’s sloppy. And something that really got me annoyed is the equipment chapter. The part on weapons and armor is good, but the rest of it is a joke. 8 pages of listen tents, and baskets, and chisels, and nails, and loincloths, and belts, and flour, and bowl, and so on and on and on and on. Who needs these? It’s compeltely pointless. There are also price lists, but most items only cost a dew copper or silver pieces and most likely you wouldn’t even notice a dent in your purse once you’ve reached 2nd level. Money is really not an issue and it could be completely ignored. And 8 pages of that pointless stuff? Those 8 pages could have been 12 more monsters, which the book would really have needed.

Another big failure of the book are Exploration Encounters and Roleplaying Encounters and the stunts that go along with them. These are not explained anywhere. It kind of makes it sound like these are mostly matters of rolling dice. You go to an NPC, roll some dice, and get a result. The Gamemaster section of the book makes the effort on dedicating half a page to discussing how these encounters could be done by dice rolls, purely by talking between players and GM, and a combined approach in which the talking of the players determines the difficulties and bonuses for any dice roll at the end. The Roleplaying stunts are also quite self explaining. But with exploration encounters and stunts I don’t have any clue what they are meant to be or how they are supposed to work. Rogue characters even gain a special ability that lets them use the That Makes Me Wonder stunt for 2 points instead of 3. The creator clearly had some big idea there, but I don’t know when the stunt could ever be applied in any situation. And this is one of these things that just got copy pasted from the Dragon Age RPG, which also had people just as confused and clueless as I am now. You can’t just copy something that was lacking an explanation and then just dump it unchanged. That’s bad.

If you are looking for a game to run a campaign in your favorite Sword & Sorcery or heroic fantasy world and you feel confident at creating some custom content, then I completely recommend getting the Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook. This is a wonderful system in almost every way. But if you’re wondering what new game you might want to play next, I think this one doesn’t have anything to offer at all. It’s a system, not a game. Though I have to repeat it, an absolutely wonderful system.

As I said earlier, this book reads like a system reference document. This system is made to be adapted to various systems by creating a custom content. I really hope that Green Ronin is going to give some kind of official permission or limited license that allows people to make their own adaptations of it and share it on the internet. This seems perfect for my Ancient Lands setting and I aready converted most of my monsters, but since I used so much copy-pasting of special abilities in the process I can’t put them online since that would be a violation of copyright. I also couldn’t say my setting is for the AGE system because that would be a violation of Trademark. It doesn’t have to be an Open Game License. Even a limited fan license like there is for Numenera and The Strange would be great. I’d gladly pay $100 for a limited license like that.

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