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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Fate of Arthur

In roleplaying, many genres come to be dominated by the one title. For example, zombie roleplaying games are dominated by Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must be Eaten and West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game is regarded as the perfect Space Opera RPG. So when it comes to the Arthurian RPG, there is only the one title that deserving of the crown – King Arthur Pendragon, originally from Chaosium, Inc., but since published by others. In truth, there have been few pretenders to the throne over the years. For example, I, Mordred: The Fall and Rise of Camelot from Avalanche Press and Legends of Excalibur: Arthurian Adventures from RPGObjects both offered d20 System options for Arthurian roleplaying, the latter sourcebook ultimately more interesting and better than the former. Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Camelot offered an overview of the genre, whilst Once and Future King, published by TSR for the Amazing Engine rules, transplanted the legend into the far future. With the latest version of King Arthur Pendragon from Nocturnal Media currently available only as a PDF or via Print On Demand, there is another young pretender to the throne – Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages.

Published by Wordplay Games, Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages approaches the legend of King Arthur from a historical standpoint. It is set firmly in a post-Romano-Britain Britannia, some two generations after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire towards the end of the fifth century A.D. What was once a united province that had the support of Rome and in turn stood against Rome’s enemies, is now rent by religious and political differences; assailed by barbarians to the north, the west, and the east; and touched once again by magic, much to the dismay of the Christian church. In the province’s stead have arisen old tribal kingdoms, some of which adhere to the customs of Rome, others to the old ways. Picts threaten from the north; pagan Gaels, exiled from staunchly Christian Hibernia, raid in the west; and Saxons from old Germania cross the sea to glory in the raid and the plunder and take the kingdoms that they want. The peoples of Britannia are forced to choose between the faith of Rome and following the old gods, as in Rome’s absence, the Druids and bards return bringing their magic with them, whilst barely beyond his imagination, the fae would play their alien games with man… Britain stands ready to slip away into the Dark Ages, but perhaps there are yet men and women who would unite the tribes and kingdoms, and together stave off the dark and withstand the threats that assail the land. Perhaps such a man might be Artorios Aurelianus as advised by the fae-blooded druid, Myrddin, but conceivably it might be someone else. The player characters, perhaps?

As an RPG, Age of Arthur uses the Fate system, the Fudge variant first seen in Evil Hat Productions’ award-winning Spirit of the Century. Not the latest iteration of the rules, the recently released Fate Core, but Fate 3.0 as seen in Diaspora and Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe, as well as 2012’s Agents of SWING. At its heart lie the Fate Points that push and pull the play of the game onwards. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll or to re-roll the dice, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many ‘Indie’ style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as ‘dramatic editing,’ but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to Invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to Compel another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, and to Compel the story and add to the narration. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by Skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy. The player rolls four Fudge dice or ‘4dF’ – six-sided dice marked with pluses on two sides and minuses on two sides with other two sides being left blank and applies the result, along with any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage or Stress inflicted, whether Physical or Composure, the latter representing mental and social stress. A player can roll a Manoeuvre to place a temporary Aspect on a scene that can be Invoked once for free and then again at the cost of a Fate Point.
For example, Sullio ap Hywel, a Briton who served Rome as an engineer has returned to home to find the former province in a perilous state. Visiting an ally of his uncle in Durnovaria, in the south of the province, Sullio has learned that Saxon raiders have landed in the wide bay to the east and are travelling by river to attack the wealthy market town. Unimpressed by Durnovaria’s defences, Sullio petitions the local chief to give him the men to shore up the defences. Sullio has the skill Profession [Engineer] +5 and the Aspect, ‘Engineering is an exact science’ as well as Charm +3 and the Stunt, ‘Specialism: Persuasion (+1)’. 
First, Sullio needs to convince the local chief that the town’s defences are inadequate to the task ahead. The Storyteller rules that the chief is preoccupied by the need to defend Durnovaria, and is too busy to take notice of what a Roman busybody wants and sets the Difficulty at 4 for his Charm +3 skill roll. To this roll, Sullio’s player will add in his ‘Specialism: Persuasion (+1)’. He rolls 4dF and gets +, –, and two blanks. This gives him a result of zero to add to his Charm +3, not enough normally to equal the Difficulty, but because he invoked his Specialism, he increases his roll to +4 and matches the Difficulty. The chief listens to Sullio and allows him to assemble a work force to prepare the defences properly, but because Sullio only managed to meet the value of the task’s Difficulty, there is a complication. The Storyteller decides that he is not assigned enough men and increases the Difficulty of the engineering task.
As he directs the bolstering of the defences, the Storyteller Compels Sullio’s Aspect of ‘Engineering is an exact science’ to affect the length of time it take to complete the task. Sullio accepts the Compel and its accompanying Fate Point, but decides that he wants to set up a Manoeuvre that he and his fellow defenders can Invoke during the coming battle. He rolls 4dF and adds his skill of Profession [Engineer] +5 to the roll to beat the Difficulty, which is again 4. He rolls, +, +, and two blanks, which gives him a total of +7. Sullio succeeds and creates the temporary Aspect of ‘These walls will hold’ which he applies to the defences. In addition, Sullio rolled three more than the Difficulty which is a Critical result and will thus give him a +1 on a subsequent roll. Sullio has successfully bolstered the defences, but this has taken too much time and as the last of the work party scrambles back over the walls, the vanguard of the Saxon raiders are at the walls and Sullio is caught outside them!
A character is defined by his Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as ‘Girl in every port’ or ‘Pious’, and work as the more interactive elements within the game. A player can spend a Fate Point to Invoke one of his character’s Aspects or an Aspect particular to a location, and so get a bonus to a roll, but the Storyteller could Compel either Aspect to add a problem to a character’s situation and so drive the story along. If a player accepts the Compel and the resulting problem, he is awarded a Fate Point. When choosing Aspects for a character, they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in both a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A player could just select all of them, but the intent of Age of Arthur is that the players each tell tales about their characters, creating connections between their characters in the process as they occur suitably, and selecting equally as suitable Aspects for each of their tales. The four tales cover a character’s beginnings, what he did at a major event, how he became the hero that he is, and a significant event, while an optional fifth tale details an Oath made by the character and how he came to make it. The resulting character begins play with fifteen skills of varying levels, five Aspects, and five Stunts that come of, and support, the tales told during the creation process. In addition, suggested Stunts can be found throughout Age of Arthur, such as ‘Dark Adapted Eye’ for a priest of Arawn, King of the Dead, though primarily in the sample characters and numerous NPCs.

Our sample character is Sullio ap Hywel, a Briton who served Rome as an engineer has returned to home to find the former province in a perilous state. The son of Hywel ap Senorix, a nobleman of Siluria, Sullio was sent to Rome as a ward of Decius Vodinius Sapens, an ally of the tribe to whom a favour was owed. The young man grew up in the greatest city in the world and embraced its culture as much as he could, eventually following his ward into the military. He became a legionary in Rome’s great armies and trained as an engineer. More recently he has returned home after twenty years, following the death of his father. It is his uncle, Andoc ap Senorix, who is now the head of the household, a man ill-disposed towards Rome and his nephew. Andoc’s son, Ban ap Andoc is of a similar mind, though his sister, Belicia is more sympathetic.

Name: Sullio ap Hywel
Aspects: Son of Britannia, Man of Rome
                   Engineering is an exact science
                   Loyal to his friends and family
                   Distrusting of Saxons

Oaths: To serve Siluria as my father did

Skills: Level 5 Profession – Engineering
              Level 4 Leadership, Melee Combat
              Level 3 Agility, Charm, Strategy & Tactics
              Level 2 Gaming, Investigation, Languages, Willpower 
              Level 1 Awareness, Contacts, Ride, Strength, Wealth

Stunts: Specialism: Persuasion (+1)
                Tough [Extra Capacity]
                Rally [New Skill Use]
                Danger Sense [Ignore Difficulty or Restriction]
                Extra Refresh (+1 Refresh Rate)

Health:
Composure:Refresh Rate: 6
Languages: Brythonic, Latin, Latin Literacy, Ogham
Equipment: Spatha (Damage 3), Riding horse, Surveying Equipment, Small collection of history books, Dagger (Damage 1, can throw), Expensive clothes (suitable for court)

The Age of Arthur is also an age in which magic returned and Age of Arthur lets a player character be capable of using magic that in the setting comes in several forms. These are Divination, such as astrology, dream visions, and ectomancy – the character needs to define which; Druidic Magic, the worship of the old gods; Faith, the worship of the Christian god; Glamour, the magic of the Fae and those with Fae blood; Plant and Root, which covers both ordinary and magical herbalism; Rune Magic, the power that can imbue places or objects with potent magic; and Shapechanging, the ability to turn into various animal forms. Both Rune Magic and Shapechanging were brought to Britannia by the Saxons. All require the ‘Magical Calling’ Stunt, which then lets a character take the appropriate skill. In addition, Bards may know some Druidic Magic, but to a much lesser extent than a fully trained Druid, plus they have their own suggested Stunts, Bardic Knowledge, Bardic Protection, Biting Satire, Jack of All Trades, and Song of Battle.

Our second sample character is capable of using magic. Rosula has no idea of her parentage, but she grew up as a slave of the Saxons in the household of Eadgar, mistreated and often abused. In time, he took her as his mistress and for his amusement began to teach her the rudiments of magic when he discovered both her curiosity and her intelligence. She learned to read the stars and foretell the future, and already deceitful and mistrusting, began to deceive her master as to his future and his wife as to their affair. She also watched Eadgar take on the form of an animal, a bear, and other creatures, and after obtaining a wolf pelt, managed to mimic her master in secret. How she came to escape is not a subject that Rosula volunteers to talk about, but she harbours a hatred of both men and Saxons in general. Sullio ap Hywel is an exception to this hatred, his having saved her from bandits on the road.

Name: Rosula
Aspects: Former Saxon Slave
                  Wiser than any man
                  The truth always lies in the future
                  My looks belie my brains

Oaths: To drive the Saxons from Britannia

Skills: Level 5 Deception
              Level 4 Empathy, Divination [Astrology]
              Level 3 Agility, Charm, Healing
              Level 2 Brawling, Lore: Folklore, Performance: Storytelling, Willpower 
              Level 1 Awareness, Languages, Melee Combat, Shapechanging: Wolf, Wealth

Stunts: Diviner [Magical Calling]
                Strong-Willed [Extra Capacity]
                Skin Changer [Magical Calling] 
                Dirty Fighter [Brawling]
                Extra Refresh (+1 Refresh Rate)

Health:Composure:Refresh Rate: 6
Languages: Brythonic, Latin, Saxon
Equipment: Dagger (Damage 1, can throw), Ordinary clothes, Expensive clothes (suitable for court)

The Age of Arthur is of course one of conflict. The rules already support this on a personal level, covering physical and mental conflicts that a character can become enmeshed in. With internecine fights between the kingdoms of Britannia common and with threats on three of her borders, such conflicts can be fought out on a much larger scale. Age of Arthur handles this with a well thought out set of rules for battles and mass combat that allows plenty of personal involvement upon the part of the player characters. A detailed example supports these rules.

The setting itself is supported with background material that covers kings and warriors, religion, everyday life, as well as some information on the other peoples of Britannia – the Gaels, the Picts, and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. A timeline projects the future up to the year 556 AD while a gazetteer covers the kingdoms that have arisen in the wake of Rome’s departure and the state of the various towns and cities across the former province. Various sites of importance, either former Roman sites or pagan sites, like Stonehenge or the northerly Wall of Antonine, are also described. Each of the kingdoms, towns, and sites are accompanied by location related Aspects, such as ‘Heavy walls and fortifications’ for Cameludunum or Colchester, or ‘The gods are close’ for Stonehenge. These Aspects can of course, be Invoked or Compelled during a game.

The ‘Allies and Adversaries’ chapter includes both the ordinary and the outré. So not just animals and simple beggars and bandits, but also the Fae, giants, and more, in particular the major figures of the Age of Arthur. These include Artorios Aurelianus, Gwenhwyfar, Lancelot, Morgan Le Fay, and Myrddin. Age of Arthur presents an interesting take on the Fae, making them powerful, but flawed in that they are capable of repetition and imitation, but not originality. Their magic is Glamour, the ability to cast illusions that deceive any sense. All Fae know some Glamour and the Fae-blooded have the capacity to learn it with the selection of the right Stunt.

Rounding out Age of Arthur is a full length scenario, ‘Escorting the Princess'. King Agricola of Urbe Legionis wishes to give the hand of his daughter, Gwenhwyfar, to King Caradoc Strongarm of Siluria in return for an alliance against the Kingdom of Powys. Gwenhwyfar wishes to meet King Caradoc and see Siluria before she agrees to marry him. The player characters are to escort the potential bride to Siluria. It is written with a group of pre-generated investigators in mind, so will require some adjustment by the Storyteller to run it for other players. Although a map of the travel routes would have been useful, the scenario does a good job of showcasing of the game that should last a session or two. In addition, Age of Arthur comes with seven scenario outlines and a discussion of some of the themes that Age of Arthur scenarios typically involve. 

There is advice throughout Age of Arthur on how to run the game mechanically, how to handle Stunts and Aspects, and Fate Points in particular. Not only that, but the rules are supported by numerous examples that help make understanding the game much easier than it might have been. The given advice on running the game is clear, simple, and to the point. Rounding out the book is a quick reference for the game that sums up the rules and setting in just a few pages.

Physically, Age of Arthur is a nicely presented hardback. Notably, it is very lightly illustrated, the art consisting of chapter frontispieces, each done in evocative full colour. The lack of art is initially off-putting, but the writing style is light and layout quite open, so it is not as challenging as it could have been had it consisted of solid blocks of text. The book also includes a handy index.

It should be remembered that when it was published back in 1985, Chaosium, Inc.’s King Arthur Pendragon was a markedly radical RPG. It invoked a particular genre as never before and moreover, it encouraged, even enforced the behaviour of the player characters to conform to the accepted standards and attitudes of their respective cultures. It remains the premiere treatment of the genre in terms of RPGs, but Age of Arthur is a worthy addition to the limited selection of Arthurian RPGs. It is a broader, less focused, more contemporary treatment of the genre; a less romantic and grittier treatment of the genre, being more grounded in the grim history of the period; and a more accessible set of rules, a set that encourages player participation in the telling of tales set during the Age of Arthur. Without a doubt, King Arthur Pendragon remains on the throne of the Arthurian RPG, but the darker, grimmer, more player involving Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages is a worthy prince.