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Saturday, 12 December 2015

Fantasy comes of AGE

Although it has a handful of supplements, the Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying line has been very quiet since the release of Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 2: For Characters Level 6 to 10 and Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 3: For Characters Level 11 to 20—and the subsequent release of the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. Green Ronin Publishing’s RPG—based on Dragon Age: Origins, the computer game from Bioware, proved to be a light, fast, and relatively uncomplicated fantasy RPG. Notably though, its AGE System or Adventure Gaming System (AGE) System mechanics provided for elegantly cinematic play; first for combat and spellcasting, but then for roleplaying, interaction, and exploration. When Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 was published in 2009, it was the best basic fantasy RPG available.

In 2015, Green Ronin Publishing released the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook. Designed to support Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, the setting supplement based on the online video series created by Wil Wheaton, the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook is derived from material first presented Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, benefiting from its development, but shorn of its setting material and some relatively minor changes. For example, several of the abilities—or character attributes—have been renamed and redesigned and the magic system has been redesigned to be easier to use. It remains a Class and Level RPG designed to handle generic fantasy, the players taking the roles of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Orcs, and Humans as they progress from Level One to Level Twenty as Mages, Rogues, and Warriors.

At the core of each character in Fantasy AGE are eight abilities—Accuracy, Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Fighting, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. Each attribute is rated between -2 and 4, with 1 being the average. They will have ability focuses, areas of expertise such as Accuracy (Black Powder), Communication (Gambling), Intelligence (Divination Acana), Perception (Searching), and so on that add a bonus to appropriate rolls. Characters can also know Weapon Groups, Talents, and Specialisations. The first, like Bows and Heavy Blades, are types of weapons that a character is trained in; the second are areas of natural aptitude and training, such as Armour Training, Contacts, Pole Weapon Style, and Thievery; whilst the third indicate how a character develops, for example, a Mage might become an Arcane Scholar or Sword Mage, a Rogue an Assassin or Swashbuckler, and a Warrior a Berserker or Mage Hunter.

Once a player has decided upon a concept for his character, dice are rolled to determine his abilities, the benefits gained from his choice of race, and his background. The latter is a new addition to AGE that determines a character’s social background and grants an associated Focus, for example Dexterity (Calligraphy) or Intelligence (Writing) for the Scribe background. Lastly, a player’s choice of Class determines his primary role in the game, but within each Class there is some room for customisation. For example, at Level One, the Mage must choose two Magic Talents and four spells. One Mage might take the Divination Arcana Talent and the Healing Arcana Talent along with associated spells and term himself a priest in the classic Dungeons & Dragons style rather than a wizard, whereas another Mage might call himself a shadow mage after taking the Power Arcana Talent and the Shadow Arcana Talent and their associated spells. A Rogue can choose between the Contacts, Scouting, or Thievery Talents. The first means that he knows people and is probably a good communicator, the second that he is good at travelling and surveilling the wilderness, and the third that he is good at burglary. A Warrior primarily knows more Weapon Groups than either of the two other classes, his choice determining how he fights. So a Warrior who knows the Heavy Blades Weapon Group and the Two-Hander Style fights differently to one who knows the Bows Weapon Group and the Archery Style Talent. As a character progresses, his player can make further choices in terms of Focuses, Talents, and Specialisations to customise his character with each Talent and Specialisation consisting of three degrees—Novice, Journeyman, and Master.

Our sample character is the Human Rogue, Grick. He is charismatic and persuasive, but also a capable liar. Whilst he makes friends easily, Grick is prepared to defend himself with either blades or his pistol. His player sees Grick as having a strong sense of bravado and eventually will support this by taking the Duellist Specialisation.

Grick
Race: Human
Social Class: Upper
Class: Rogue Level: 1
Accuracy 3
Communication 3 (Communication, Deception)
Constitution 0
Dexterity 3 (Riding)
Fighting 3
Intelligence 1
Perception 2
Strength 2
Willpower 2
Speed 13 Health 31
Class Powers: Pinpoint Attack, Rogue’s Amour
Weapon Groups: Black Powder, Brawling, Light Blades, Staves
Talents: Contacts (Novice)
Equipment: Leather Armour, Daggers, Flintlock

Mechanically, Fantasy AGE uses the same basic mechanics as Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, known as the AGE System or Adventure Gaming System (AGE) System. This requires the use of just six-sided dice, both to handle actions as well as damage. To undertake an action, a player rolls three six-sided dice to beat a target, the average being eleven. To the roll a player also adds the appropriate Ability and if one applies, a +2 bonus for any Focus. For example, Grick has been challenged to a horse race and has to make a jump over a stone wall. The GM sets the target to twelve. Grick’s player rolls the dice and gets a result of 5, 4, and 2, for a total of 11—just not quite enough for Grick to succeed and persuade his horse to make the jump. Fortunately, with the addition of the appropriate Ability and Focus—Dexterity and Dexterity (Riding)—so +3 for Dexterity and +2 for Dexterity (Riding), the total is actually 16 and Grick makes the jump with ease.

Now of the three six-sided dice, one is a different colour to the other two. This is called the Stunt Die. Typically, it acts as an effect die, measuring how well a character does or how quickly an action takes, but in the basic rules, particularly in combat, the Stunt Die does much, much more. Whenever a player rolls doubles on two of the three six-sided dice and succeeds, he gets a number of points equal to the result of the Stunt Die to spend on Stunts, like Rapid Reload, Pierce Armour, or Dual Strike in melee or missile combat and Powerful Casting, Magic Shield, and Lethal Spell when casting spells in combat.

For example, Grick has spent a delightful night in the company of the wrong woman and her husband has come home and not only caught them in the act, but also drawn his sword. The husband attacks, but Grick dodges the sword swing (in rules terms, hte husband misses), giving him the leeway to scramble across the room and find and draw his sword, just in time to parry another blow from the husband. Now it is Grick’s turn! His player rolls 3, 4, and then 4 on the Stunt Die. Adding in his Fighting Ability, Grick succeeds and having rolled doubles, has four points to spend on Stunts from the Stunt Die. Now Grick has no desire to really hurt the husband and wants to get away rather than fight. So he spends two Stunt Points to take Skirmish twice—Skirmish is the only Stunt that can be bought more than once—to drive the husband back out of the room with a flurry of attacks and with the GM’s permission, the remaining two to shut the door in the husband’s face and shove a chair under the handle. This will not hold him for long, but it might be enough time for Grick to escape!

In addition to providing Stunts for combat and magic, the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook provides Stunts for roleplaying, interaction, and exploration. Originally appearing in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 2: For Characters Level 6 to 10, these Stunts enable players to do amazing things outside of combat as well as in and it means that characters whose proficiencies are not combat related have a chance to shine. They include Efficient Search, The Upper hand, and Resources At Hand as Exploration Stunts and Bon Mot, And Another Thing, and Flirt as Roleplaying Stunts. A player is free to use whatever Stunt he feels is appropriate for the action, but if he wants a specific effect, a player could come to an agreement with the GM and then spend the Stunt Points as agreed.

Magic in the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook is equally as straightforward. Arcana Talents are required to learn and cast spells from specific schools, a Mage gaining new Talents and Specialisations and degrees in each as he gains levels. At its heart, it is a relatively simple set of rules with a Mage expending Magic Points and making a standard roll to cast a spell. If there is an issue with the magic system in the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook, it is that there is just four spells per school, but then this is just the basic book. If there is an omission with the magic rules it is that the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook lacks the guidelines for selecting which Arcana Talents and thus which spells to create particular types of caster—as was suggested in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5.

The Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook accords the Game Master with advice aplenty, covering his job, adjudicating the rules, creating an adventure, running the game, styles of play—both for the Game Master and the players, and more. It is good advice—advice that nicely ends with a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that is clear, simple, and to the point. The Game Master is also given some fifteen adversaries and monsters, many of which have their favoured Stunts of those already listed, but others have their own Stunts. For example, a Giant can Slam his opponents into the ground whilst the Medusa can catch her opponents with the Poisonous Snakes Stunt and the Petrifying Gaze Stunt. From the Dragon and the Goblin to the Orc and the Walking Dead, this is a classic mix of fantasy monsters and it is a good mix of fantasy monsters. On one level though, just fifteen is not enough monsters, but this is the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and so if Green Ronin Publishing was to release the Fantasy AGE Basic Bestiary, then it would hardly be a surprise.

What the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook makes clear in its discussion on campaigns is that it is not designed to run Green Ronin Publishing’s first campaign setting, Freeport: City of Adventure, at least not without some extra effort upon the part of the Game Master. Now this is shame, since the AGE System of the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook would be perfect for the freewheeling action of the pirate city and its designer did touch upon the possibility in Kobold Quarterly #13. Fortunately, Green Ronin Publishing plans to release the Freeport AGE Companion following its successful Freeport: The City of Adventure for the Pathfinder RPG Kickstarter campaign.

In addition to the advice on campaign and world building what the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook instead gives us ‘Adventure in Highfalls Swale’, an isolated valley setting dominated geographically by its high waterfalls and central lake, but historically by the fall of the sorceress Dunmara and island tower at the hands of a crusade. It is supported by ‘Choosing Night’, a scenario for beginning characters who will celebrate their passage into adulthood by camping in the shadow of Dunmara’s Tower. Of course this year’s ‘Choosing Night’ is unlikely to go as quietly as in previous years. The scenario essentially sets up a number of threats and thus a campaign, and whilst decently done, the  ‘Adventure in Highfalls Swale’ setting feels somewhat vanilla. Much like the low number of monsters given earlier, this should not necessarily be held against the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook. After all, both adventure and setting are decent and they are designed to showcase what Fantasy AGE can do without being too daunting for either the Game Master or player coming to the AGE System for the first time.

Physically, the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook is a well written book and well presented in terms of art, although the map provided for the adventure is a little small. The fact that this is a generic fantasy RPG means that Green Ronin Publishing can plunder its back catalogue of full colour artwork covers, especially from the Mythic Vistas line of d20 System supplements.

When Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 was published in 2009, it not only presented a setting based on a popular computer game, it also presented a simple, playable set of rules that enabled a group to play straightforward fantasy with cinematic action. For the then Dragon Die and Stunt Points mechanics proved to be both elegant and easy—and above all, fun. In the form of the Stunt Die and Stunt Points, the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook retains these same elements with nary a change to the core design except to make character progression and the acquisition of Focuses, Talents, and Specialisations just that little freer and easier. This is supported with solidly useful advice for the Game Master to make the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook an accessible introduction to one the most cinematic and most fun systems on the market.