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Saturday, 10 April 2021

In the Modern AGE

What has become known as the ‘AGE’ or ‘Adventure Game Engine’ was first seen 2010 in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the adaptation of Dragon Age: Origins, the computer game from Bioware. It has since been developed into the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game as well as the more generic Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and a more contemporary and futuristic setting with Modern AGE. Published by Green Ronin Publishing, it covers every era from the Industrial Revolution to the modern day and beyond, and able to do gritty action or high adventure, urban fantasy or a dystopian future. In addition to providing a ‘Classless’ iteration of the AGE System, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook provides sufficient focuses, talents, and specialisations to take the Player Characters from First to Twentieth Level, fast-paced action built around action, combat, exploration, and social stunts, both arcane magic and psychic powers to elements of the outré and so do Urban Fantasy, solid advice for the Game Master—whether new to the game or a veteran of it, and a sample introductory adventure, all ready for play. All of which comes packed into a relatively slim—by contemporary standards—hardback.

The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is divided into two sections. The first and slightly longer section is for the players, its chapters covering character creation, basic rules, character actions, equipment stunts, extraordinary powers, and so on. The second is for the Game Master and covers her role, mastering the rules, provides an array of adversaries, rewards for the Player Characters, settings, and the scenario. It does not come with its own setting, but explores a number of ideas and genres including historical, steampunk, gothic and cosmic horror, Film Noir, and more. It lists a number of inspirations in each case and together these should provide enough inspiration for the Game Master to conduct further research and come up with a setting of her own.

A character in Modern AGE is defined by Abilities, Focuses, and Talents. There are nine abilities—Accuracy, Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Fighting, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. Each attribute is rated between -2 and 4, with 1 being the average, and each can have a focus, an area of expertise such as Accuracy (Assault Rifles), Communication (Gambling), Intelligence (Astronomy), or Willpower (Courage). A focus provides a bonus to associated skill rolls and, in some cases, access to a particular area of knowledge. A Talent represents an area of natural aptitude or special training, and is rated either Novice, Expert, or Master. For example, at Novice level, the Burglary Talent provides a Player Character with extra information about a security system or set-up when studied and an Intelligence (Security) test is made; at Expert level, a Dexterity (Sabotage) test to get past a security system can be rerolled; and at Master level, a Perception (Searching) test can also be rerolled. As a Player Character goes up in Level, he can acquire Specialisations, such as Agent or Performer, which grant further bonuses and benefits. A character also has a Background, Social Class, and Profession, plus a Drive, Resources and Equipment, Health, Defence, Toughness, and Speed, and Goals, Ties, and Relationships.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided dice for each Ability—assigning them in order, but can swap two, and then rolls for Social Class and an associated Background and Profession. A Background provides an Ability bonus, a choice of a Focus, and a choice of a Talent, plus randomly determined Focus or Talent, whilst a Profession provides a pair of Focuses and a pair Talents to choose from, plus a resources score and starting Health. The player selects a Drive, such as Achiever or Networker, which grants another pair of Talents to choose from as well as an improvement to a Relationship, a Reputation, or Resources. The process itself is fairly quick and results in a reasonably detailed character.

Our sample Player Character is Dominic Grey, a journalist specialising in military affairs. He grew up a military brat and attended military college, but did not serve in the armed forces following a training exercise. Instead he currently combines a part-time junior post at a local university with freelance journalism, both roles specialising in military affairs. Although in good health, his injuries prevent from taking too active a life and he occasionally walks with a cane.

Dominic Grey
Race: Human
Social Class: Lower (Military)
Occupation: Professional
Level: 1

Accuracy 2
Communication 2 (Expression)
Constitution 3
Dexterity -1
Fighting 3 (Brawling)
Intelligence 3 (Tactics)
Perception 1
Strength -1
Willpower 2

Defence 09 Toughness 3 Speed 10 Health 18
Talents: Expertise (Tactics) (Novice), Knowledge (Novice), Self Defence (Novice)
Drive: Judge
Resources: 6, Membership (Rank 1)

Mechanically, the AGE System is simple enough. If a Player Character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls three six-sided dice and totals the result to beat the difficulty of the test, ranging from eleven or Average to twenty-one or Nigh Impossible. To this total, the player can add an appropriate Ability, and if it applies, an appropriate Focus, which adds two to the roll. For example, if a Player Character comes to the aid of a car crash victim and after pulling him from the vehicle, wants to render first aid, his player would roll three six-sided dice, apply the Player Character’s Intelligence Ability, and if the Player Character has it, the Medicine Focus.

However, where the AGE System gets fun and where the Player Characters have a chance to shine, is in the rolling of the Stunt die and the generation of Stunt Points. When a player rolls the three six-sided dice for an action, one of the dice is of a different colour. This is the Stunt die. Whenever doubles are rolled on any of the dice—including the Stunt die—and the result of the test is successful, the roll generates Stunt Points. The number of Stunt Points is determined by the result of the Stunt die. For example, if a player rolls five, six, and five on the Stunt die, then five Stunt Points are generated on the Stunt die. What a player gets to spend these Stunt Points on depends on the action being undertaken. In 2010, with the release of 2010 in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the only options were for combat actions and the casting of spells, but subsequent releases for Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying expanded the range of options on which Stunt Points can be spent to include movement, exploration, and social situations. This has been carried over into Modern AGE and expanded. Combat covers firearms, grappling, melee, and vehicles, as well as basic combat stunts, whilst Exploration stunts cover exploration, infiltration, and investigation, and Social stunts cover social situations, attitude (of an NPC towards another NPC or Player Character), and membership and reputation stunts.

So, what can stunts do? For example, for one Stunt Point, a player might select ‘Whatever’s Handy’ and grab the nearest improvised weapon, which though clumsy and possibly fragile, it will do; for five Stunt Points, select ‘Break Weapon’, which forces an opposed melee attack roll and if successful, disables the opponent’s weapon; or with a firearm, choose ‘Called Shot’ at cost of four Stunt Points, which turns the damage from an attack into penetrating damage. In an Investigation, ‘Flashback’ costs a single Stunt Point and reminds the Player Character of something he forgot, whilst in a social situation, ‘From the Heart’ costs four Stunt Points and enables the Player Character to express wholeheartedly a belief that it temporarily grants a Willpower Focus.
For example, walking home at night, Dominic Grey is spotted walking with his cane by two muggers, armed with baseball bats, who decide to take advantage of him. Dominic’s player makes an initiative roll for him, whilst the Game Master rolls for the muggers, a straight roll modified by their Dexterity Ability. Dominic’s player rolls eleven, modified to ten, whilst the muggers get a total of sixteen, so the order is the Muggers and then Dominic. The Muggers have Fighting 1, Fighting (Brawling), Dexterity, and Defence 10. Both the Muggers get a Major and a Minor action each round. Mugger #1 makes a Move as his Minor action, followed by a Charge as his Major action, which grants him a +1 bonus to his attack roll. The Game Master rolls three six-sided dice, adds +1 for Mugger #1’s Fighting Ability and +1 for the Charge action bonus, plus the standard +2 bonus for the Short-Hafted Weapon Focus. The Game Master rolls two, three, and five for a result of ten, plus the bonuses for a total of fourteen—enough to beat Dominic’s Defence of nine. The Game Master rolls for damage and Dominic suffers seven damage. The Game Master then rolls for Mugger #2, but rolls one, one, and two, which although it includes doubles, means that he misses.

The miss by Mugger #2 triggers Dominic’s Self Defence Talent, which allows him to use the Grapple Stunt, which normally costs a Stunt Point, for free. This requires an opposed Fighting (Grappling) test. The Game Master rolls two, four, and six for Mugger #2, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of fourteen. Dominic’s player rolls three, four, and six, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of sixteen. This is more than the Mugger and means that Dominic has a hold of him and he cannot move. It is now Dominic’s turn and his player rolls four, four, and six on the Stunt die. This beats Mugger #2’s Defence and generates six Stunt Points. Dominic’s player first spends two of these with the Hinder Stunt. Up to three Stunt Points can be spent on this, reducing damage taken from your opponent by two for each Stunt Point spent until Dominic’s next action. His player spends two Stunt Points on this. The remaining four are spent on Hostage. This requires another opposed Fighting (Grappling) test and enables Dominic manoeuvre Mugger #2 into a vulnerable position. If the Mugger #2 does anything other than a free action on his next turn, or if Mugger #2 attacks Dominic, he can make an immediate attack with a bonus. The Game Master rolls one, four, and five for Mugger #2, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of eleven. Dominic’s player rolls four, four, and five, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of sixteen. Dominic now has Mugger #2 in his grip and as Mugger #1 moves to attack, he manoeuvres Mugger #2 into the path of Mugger #1’s swing of his bat…
Another use for the Stunt die is to determine how well a Player Character does, so the higher the roll on the Stunt die in a test, the less time a task takes or the better the quality of the task achieved. The main use though, is as a means of generating Stunt Points, and whilst Stunt Points and Stunts are the heart of the action in Modern AGE, there are a lot of them to choose from. Now they are broken down into categories, and that does limit what a player can choose from. Nevertheless, there is potential here to slow play down as players make their choices and work what is best for their characters or the situation. This should lessen as players get used to the system and what Stunts work best with their characters.

In addition to covering action, combat, exploration, and social scenes, Modern AGE covers rules for handling resources (money), reputation, equipment, and more. In particular, the more is comprised of ‘Extraordinary Powers’, divided into Arcane and Psychic powers, for example, Gremlins and Arcane Hack are effects which are part of the Digital Arcana and Kinetic Strike and Levitation are effects part of the Telekinesis Psychic Power. Each Arcana or Psychic Power is a Talent, which can be swapped out with a starting Talent during character creation or selected when a Player Character rises in Level and is eligible to choose a Talent. Depending, of course, if they are part of the Game Master’s campaign. Each Arcana and Psychic Power has its own Focus and both are fuelled by Power Points, the cost ranging between two and ten Power Points, depending on the effect. Tests are required to use an effect and so can generate Stunts Points just as with any other test. The list of Power Stunts available will be familiar to anyone who has played a mage in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying. The use of Arcane and Psychic powers is entirely optional, but opens Modern AGE most obviously to the Urban Fantasy genre, but they could be mixed into a variety of different campaign settings.

The second half of Modern AGE is devoted to the Game Master and provides advice on how to run a game, game and scene types, play styles, frame particular tests, and so on. For example, it explores how to frame a breach attempt with various examples, like infiltrating a gang or hacking a computer. It does this for chases and combat as well, along with sample hazards. Other threats are presented in the form of adversaries, ranging from Assassin, Brainwashed Killer, and Cat Burglar to Psychic, Rich Socialite, and Smooth Operator—with lots in between, all of them human. Although most of the discussion of campaign types is in the Game Master section, the actual mechanics for campaigns are back at the beginning of the players’ section and run right through it. This is because they directly affect the roleplaying game’s mechanics. Modern AGE can be set in one of three modes—Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic. In Gritty Mode, a Player Character can be almost as easily injured as people in real life and one bullet is enough to put him out of action, and whilst he might get more skilled, a Player Character does not get tougher as he gains more experience. Stories in the Gritty Mode tend towards realism. In Pulpy Mode, the Player Characters are more obviously heroic and grow both tougher and skilled, and stories involve more action. In Cinematic Mode, the Player Characters are tough and heroic and only tougher and more heroic. Throughout the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook there are colour-coded sections which denote which rule applies to which mode, for example, Toughness works slightly differently in each mode, not all of the roleplaying game’s Stunts are available in each mode, and the adversaries have different Health, Defence, and Toughness depending upon the mode being employed. Each of the three modes makes for a different game and type of story, but no less action or success orientated with the generation and expenditure of Stunt Points.

The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook discusses a wide array of genres, from adventure and alternate history to procedurals and urban fantasy, along with various ears, running from the Age of Reason and the Victorian Age to the Cold War and the Present Day (and beyond). It devotes roughly a third to half a page to each, along with suggested further viewing. None of the discussions are overly deep, instead they do serve as a solid starting point for the Game Master, from which she can conduct further research. Rounding out Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is ‘A Speculative Venture’, designed for First Level Player Characters. The latter attend an exclusive party held by the wealthy CEO of a technology giant to remember the legacy of a cutting-edge inventor who died the year before. When a new technological break-through is revealed—the exact nature of which is left up to the Game Master to decide—it all takes a nasty turn as masked gunmen crash the party, take hostages, and it is all up to the Player Characters to come to the rescue. Involving a good mix of social and action scenes, ‘A Speculative Venture’ is a relatively short adventure, but should serve to introduce the players to the rules and what their characters are capable of.

Physically, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is cleanly presented, illustrated throughout in full colour, using the same cast of characters, which gives it a pleasingly consistent look. The book is also very easy to read and the rules easy to grasp. In terms of content, it is difficult to find actual flaws in the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook. Although it discusses a lot of settings, these are done in the broadest of terms, so perhaps its might have been useful to have included one or two more detailed and worked out settings, with one of them including the use of the roleplaying game’s Arcane and Psychic powers. Thus, giving the Game Master and her players something a bit more detailed to play in. The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is designed to cover any period from the Industrial Age to the modern day, and beyond, but what that beyond is, is never really explored. Is it Urban Fantasy, is it something else? It is not Science Fiction, as that is too beyond what the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook covers. To be fair though, these are minor issues, if they are issues at all.

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 Modern AGE Basic Rulebook retains these same elements, but expands them to encompass another genre—two including Urban Fantasy, and provide options and actions which allow them to shine in a variety of different situations. It is ably supported by solid advice for the Game Master for both running the game and setting up a campaign. Overall, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook packs a lot of punch in supporting action aplenty in its mechanics and the chance for the Player Characters to shine.

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