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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Age Past: The Incian Age

Age Past: The Incian Sphere is a self-published, ambitious fantasy RPG designed by Jeff Mechlinski as Strangelet Machine Games. It comes as sturdy, full-colour hardback. lavishly illustrated in bright colourful artwork. The backcover blurb makes much of the fact that it has been designed to allow player to create the ‘archetype’ characters they want, its high number of spells and powers, cinematic combat, the number of monsters, its art and setting, and the options for adjusting the style of play. All of which are laudable goals, but whether it quite achieves them is another matter.

Age Past: The Incian Sphere is set on Terres, a world of magic, mechanisms, and heroics where the continents are separated by great water, mountains, or crevasses—of which the Incian Sphere is one. Home to eleven different races, the Incian Sphere is where magic is strongest on Terres and is also where worship in the gods is greatest and they at their strongest. Magic is commonly practised and many possess magical powers even if they do not cast spells, although in the Incian Sphere, the practice of ‘werking’, that of fusing the soul with magic—often creating undead in the process—is outlawed. Whilst magic is prevalent, gunpowder and firearms are common and great machines are often used as weapons of war.

The eleven races of the Incian Sphere are the Asuri Tal, nomadic gypsy-like trolls known for their charisma; the Guun Inci, four-eyed, odorous and unreliable if resourceful goblins; Hammer Dir or rock dwarves; the Mechari Clans, clockwork-Terres hybrids; Orkis or orcs; Silpen Kai or mana-fused elves; Straad, the four-armed wood folk that possess thick bark-like skin; Theros Breeds or half-beasts that are either dog-like (Wolva) or cat-like (Fexi); and the Terres Incian, split between the Altrins, the men of the Great Republic, the Fringe Walkers, men of the frontier, and the Noquin Caste, men of the desert. All eleven are the creation of one or more of the gods of the Incian Sphere and each of the eleven is available to play as a player character.

A character in Age Past: The Incian Sphere is defined by four Heroic Traits—Reaction, Brawn, Charisma, and Intellect—that set the base line for the character and how he is played. Grouped under the Heroic Traits is a number of Talents, which seem to be divided between purchased Attributes—Agility, Endurance, Influence, Mind, Spirit, and Strength—and other factors (though whether these other factors are ‘skills’ is unclear). In addition, a character may have spells, powers, and professions, the latter being an area of training that the character either does or not have. If he has, then he can roll for using the combination of Traits and Talents. A character also has to have a background story and a randomly designed Godmark—the latter an arcane symbol like a birthmark that indicates the character’s destiny. Creating a character is quite involved and has the player assigning points to his character’s Heroic Traits from one pool of points and to his Talents from another before using one pool of Build Points to buy Powers such as Apprentice Spellcaster, Acrobat, Danger Sense, Finesse Fighter, Professor, Taunt, and so on. The player then selects his character’s Race, Professions, Languages, and Morality and Flaw, before penultimately customising the character with one last pool of Build Points. Lastly, each character receives a pool of Gear Points and Gold to spend on equipment.

Our sample character is a knight from the Republic of Altrinaer. He currently serves the merchant house his father heads and has been assigned to guard a caravan that is taking a shipment of goods from the port of Halfar to Logher.

Name: Ronald Erisbot
Level 1 Altrins Might 2

Vitals
Wounds: 7 Luck: 1
Actions: 4 Toughness: 5
Mana: 18 Speed: 25’ (5”)

Morality
Core Morality: Heroic
Moral Drive: Gallant
Demeanour: Brash

Flaw:
Pride

Godmarks
Destiny: Leader
Personal: Adventurer
Prime: Warrior
Drive: Glutton

Racial Traits
Mercantile

Talents
Reaction: 0; AGL: 1; Initiative: 2; Stealth: 1; Subterfuge: 1
Brawn: 1; Athletics: 2; Combat: 3; END: 2; STR: 2
Charisma: 1; Entertain: 1; Etiquette: 2; Guile: 0; INF: 3
Intellect: 0; Awareness: 1; Insight: 1; MND: 1; SPR: 2

Professions
Politician, Scribe

Languages
Relicword, Western Speak

Spells
None

Powers
Armour Expertise (1), Captain (1), Combat Master (1), Diplomat (1), Heroic Actions (1), Legacy (5), Nobility (1), Racial Weapon (Shortsword), Shield Blow (1), True Seeing (1)

Equipment
Mail Armour & Round Shield, Halberd, Shortsword, Crossbow (20 bolts)
Traveller’s Clothing, Noble Clothing, Horse

One obvious area of confusion in the character design process is the use of the word, ‘archetype’. In Age Past: The Incian Sphere describes itself as an ‘archetype based system’, which it suggests is a way to eliminate the need for a Class based system—as per Dungeons & Dragons, et al—by allowing the player to create a character of his own specific design using the rules given. The question is, are players meant to be designing characters that are archetypical of the setting or not, because an archetype in this instance would be a character that is typical for the setting, as in the Street Samurai for Shadowrun or the Ratcatcher and his dog in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Age Past: The Incian Sphere compounds this confusion by listing multiple archetypes and giving numerous sample characters, which are probably archetypes too. Further, according to the ‘Rule of the Archetype’, when a character performs a task that symbolises his archetype, his player can call for an Archetype Roll, which will turn a failed roll into a success and a success roll into a critical success. Now this probably works if a player has selected an archetype, but surely the point of the character creation process in Age Past: The Incian Sphere is not to build archetypes?

Conversely, whilst Age Past: The Incian Sphere is not a Class system, it is a Level system. Upon reaching a new Level, a character will receive more Might—this being a measure of a character’s reputation—and more Build Points. These can be spent to improve the character as per the customisation stage of the creation process. Interestingly, not every Power is available to purchase at every Level. For example, the Precise Strike Power is only available at Levels one, four, eight, and twelve, so a character can select it at First Level and then not again until he is Fourth Level. Of course if it was not selected at First Level, a character could still purchase it at Second or Third Level before doing so again at Fourth Level. What this does is prevent a player from making his character overly specialised too quickly.

Mechanically, Age Past: The Incian Sphere uses its own mechanics called the ‘Elegant10’ system. It is a dice pool, roll and keep system that uses only ten-sided dice. To attempt an action, a player selects a Heroic Trait and a Talent to form a pool of dice. When rolled, the highest result counts, but it is not quite as simple as that. For each ten rolled, a player can add +2 to the result, but he can also hold dice back to add an automatic +1 to the end result for each die held back. An easy difficulty is eight, moderate difficulty is ten, hard is twelve, and so on. A roll of under half the difficulty is a fumble, whilst rolling double the difficulty is a critical success. 
For example, the caravan that Ronald is guarding is attacked by a band of Guun Inci and one of them has got under the hooves of his horse and stabbed it in the leg! In response, the horse has reared and fallen, not only throwing Ronald to the ground, but trapping his foot. As the four-eyed and green Guun Inci advances, Ronald’s player must roll to get free. The GM sets the difficulty at Moderate and so the player takes up three dice—one for his Brawn and two for his STR—and decides that he really needs to get out, so puts one die aside to get a +1 bonus. With the other two, he rolls an 8 and a 9. Fortunately, he held a die back and uses its +1 to get a total of 10 and succeeds.
 On one level, everyone can cast spells in Age Past: The Incian Sphere—or at least they can use spell-like Powers that are fuelled by Mana, such as Arc Shot, which enables a character to shoot or throw a missile weapon around corners and obstacles. This uses two Mana. Normally though, a spellcaster needs to purchase the Apprentice Spell Caster Power, which gives a character access to one or several schools of magic, of which there are fourteen. Initially with Apprentice Spell Caster, the magic user will know all of the spells in his chosen schools up to certain. Later on, a character can increase the level of all spells known just like any other Power. Alternatively, a character could take the Psionic Power and learn how to learn a very limited number of spells through force of will alone. This allows a character to back up his Talents with magical support—for example, Heal Gash will be useful to any character, Shape Stone would allow a thief to manipulate stone walls, and Recall would allow a bureaucrat or researcher to remember that useful little detail. It is costly for a Psionic character to cast spells and he can cast fewer of them, but they are cast silently and without any gestures.

Our sample spellcaster is Mog Banag, a vicious little Guun Inci who was the concubine of the tribal shaman. She learned to cast spells from him before murdering him and the chief of the tribe in a coup. After demonstrating her power to the tribe they were in awe of her, especially as she seemed to know when they plotting against her. This was due to Oogie, her tarantula familiar. Mog now leads attacks on passing caravans, using her magic to support the raids.

Name: Mog Banag
Level 1 Guun Inci

Vitals
Wounds: 5 Luck: 1
Actions: 3 Toughness: 6
Mana: 18 Speed: 25’ (5”)

Morality
Core Morality: Selfish
Moral Drive: Treacherous
Demeanour: Callous

Flaw:
Cowardly

Godmarks
Destiny: Defeated
Personal: Antagonist
Prime: Thief
Drive: Dishonest

Racial Traits
Elusive, Evade 1, Physical Integrity, 50% immunity versus blind

Talents
Reaction: 1; AGL: 1; Initiative: 1; Stealth: 2; Subterfuge: 3
Brawn: 0; Athletics: 1; Combat: 2; END: 1; STR: 1
Charisma: 1; Entertain: 1; Etiquette: 0; Guile: 1; INF: 1
Intellect: 1; Awareness: 1; Insight: 1; MND: 4; SPR: 3

Professions
Alchemist, Chef, Tailor, Trapper

Languages
Greenskin, Western Speak

Spells
School of Blood, School of Mind & Memory, School of Necromancy, School of Shadow

Powers
Apprentice Spell Caster Power (1), Familiar (1), Ghoul Tongue (1), Link Eyes (1), Poison Master (1), Taunt (1)

Casting spells involves rolling a pool formed from the caster’s Intellect and MND. For the most part, this roll is unnecessary except where the spell’s effect will be opposed. This will be the caster’s Intellect and MND versus the target’s Intellect and MND. Combat works in a similar fashion, with opposed rolls of the attacker’s Brawn and Combat versus the defender’s Combat and Parry bonuses from shield or weapon if parrying, or the defender’s AGL and dodge bonuses if dodging. Damage rolls are based on the attacker’s STR plus bonuses from his weapon, the resulting roll having to overcome the defender’s Toughness and armour. The number of dice rolled depends on whether the attacker is making a Swift Attack—which only takes one Action, but halves the attacker’s STR for the damage roll, or a Strong Attack—which is at full STR for the damage roll, but takes two Actions.

Full combat rules are provided to run Age Past: The Incian Sphere using miniatures as well as critical hits and advanced combat tactics. One element that feels odd is the use of Actions in that on his initiative order a character uses his Actions, whilst everyone else—including allies and enemies—stands around. Either is still free to defend themselves by parrying or dodging, but otherwise it seems odd that they can do nothing. One option here would be to count down through initiative Action by Action rather en bloc initiative by initiative, which would give combat more of a flowing feel. 
In our sample combat, the knight, Ronald Erisbot has managed to free himself from his fallen horse, whilst its attacker, the Guun Inci, Mog Banag, has danced to the other side of the fallen mount. Combat now ensues with both Mog Banag and Ronald Banag rolling two dice (Reaction and Initiative). The result is 1 and 9 for Mog and 4 and 5 for Ronald, so with a 9 for Initiative, Mog acts first. The Guun Inci leaps over the body of the thrashing horse—the GM says that this will take two Actions from Mog’s three—and attempts a Swift Attack with his dagger. For this Mog rolls one die (Brawn, Combat, but loses a die because of his dagger) and gets a 10. Ronald does not yet have a weapon drawn, but is wearing a round shield on his arm, so attempts to parry as a reflexive act that costs him no Actions. For he rolls three dice (Brawn and Combat with no modifiers for the shield) and gets 5, 9, and 9. This would be a failure, but he uses his Combat Master Power to add add +2 to the 9 and beat attack roll with an 11. It is now Ronald’s turn. First he gets up and draws his shortsword—this takes two Actions—before delivering another Strong Attack with his newly drawn blade for another two Actions. For this he rolls four dice (Brawn, Combat, plus a die for his shortsword), but decides to hold two of them for a +2 bonus. The rolls are 9 and 10, so Ronald selects the 9 and adds the bonus for the kept dice and the 10 for a total of 14. This is not looking good for Mog, who again tries to dodge, but the best he can roll is 6 and 7. Since this is half of Ronald’s hit, this is a critical hit. For his damage roll Ronald rolls three dice (Brawn and STR) and gets a result of 4, 8, and 9, the 9 overcoming Mog’s Toughness. The shortsword inflicts 1 Wound as it slashes at the Guun Inci’s arm muscles, forcing Mog to lose 2 STR and drop his dagger. Things are not looking good for Mog… 
When the Guun Inci responds, it is with a spell. First Mog checks with the GM that the horse is dead, before casting Explode Corpse. For this she rolls five dice (Intellect and MND) against which Ronald will roll just one (Reaction and AGL) in order to save for half damage from the blast of tooth and bone. Mog would also have to save, but her Elusive Racial Power grants her a 25% chance to avoid blast attacks and she rolls 19%, so she does. So Mog rolls three dice and keeps two. The rolls are 2, 4, and 9, to which Mog adds +2 for a total of 11. Unfortunately Ronald only rolls a 2, meaning not only a failed save, but a critically fumbled save. So he suffers two extra damage on top of the three that he suffers for standing over his horse when it exploded, but then the GM allows him some protection from his ring mail, so he only suffers four Wounds—ouch! With her last Action, Mog lashes out with her Ghoul Tongue, a Power that grants her a poison strike with her tongue! Things are not looking good for Ronald... 
To support the setting, Age Past: The Inician Sphere gives lists of interesting magic items; rules for crafting—important for poisoners and alchemists, but covers also traps and Werking; monsters from angelis and demenos to clockworks and shadows; and a set of tools for the GM. The latter includes advice and reference tables, but also a short adventure. ‘Horror Crawl’ is a one-night affair that is decent enough, but really does not quite bring out what sets Age Past: The Inician Sphere apart from any other fantasy RPG

Physically, Age Past: The Inician Sphere actually looks good. The layout is clean, the artwork is vibrant and striking, though the layout is dense. Where it suffers is in the writing and the editing, particularly in the background material, where often the language and style is stilted. Fortunately, the writing settles down once it gets into the rules, but still it does need an edit.

Being self-published and ambitious, Age Past: The Incian Sphere suffers from a number of problems. One of these is the aforementioned writing and in parts, poor editing, but there are at its core two fundamental design problems with it. First, it is too ambitious, setting itself an objective that it cannot achieve—being suitable as a RPG for anyone who has never played one before. Second, it fails to inspire. There are no hooks or suggestions as to what the adventurers do or are trying to achieve and the background lacks the dynamism that might inspire the GM to write scenarios. Indeed, the game as a whole has no elevator pitch that sums up what Age Past: The Incian Sphere is. For example, the elevator pitch for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Deadlands might be ‘Confronting horror in the Weird West’ whilst that of Shadowrun could be ‘Fantasy and magic return and tries to survive in a cyberpunk future where corporations and dragons rule’. The reason why Age Past: The Inician Sphere needs such an elevator pitch is because it needs a good hook—a good hook that will set it apart from other fantasy RPGs. The overall effect of which is likely to make it difficult for the GM to impart the setting to his players.

There is no denying the ambition and love that has gone into creating Age Past: The Incian Sphere. In the hands of an experienced GM, there the tools here to run a game, but it is still too complex for a beginning GM. Unfortunately, it needs more of a professional touch and development, in particular to bring the world alive and to give the player characters a sense of purpose. Age Past: The Incian Sphere is at best something to work with, but it needs development and probably a second edition.