Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.
—oOo—Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is something a little different for Free RPG Day 2021. Published by Need Games!, it is a quick-start for the Fabula Ultima TTRPG—or Fabula Ultima Table Top Roleplaying Game—and is based on Japanese console roleplaying games such as the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. As a quick-start, it is of course designed to introduce and teach the game to both players and the Game Master, but it does it in an interesting way. It models the learning process upon that of a computer roleplaying game. In a computer roleplaying game, the player is taken through the process of playing the game step-by-step—so movement, looking, attacking, defending, inventory, and so on. And until the player gets to the particular step in that process, he cannot tell his character to do the new part of the play of the computer game. Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start does exactly the same, locking each part of the character until the players reach a particular scene in the adventure in the quick-stat. So in Scene #1, the Game Master introduces the game and its setting, and the attributes and status effects, whilst Traits and Bonds are explained and come into play in Scene #2, how to use Fabula Points in Scene #3, and so forth all the way up to skills, actions, inventory, and abilities.
Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start takes place the near the city of Dunova in the surrounding forests. In the forest can be found the Crater of Megido, the ruins of a once-great city renowned for its magic, but destroyed in a magical cataclysm in ages past. The ruins are rumoured to still contain many of its secrets and the forces of neighbouring Empire of Elonia have been spotted in the area. The exact reasons why the Player Characters are headed there are left up to the players to determine, but as the scenario begins, they are aboard an airship bound for the crater.
Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is designed to be played by a group of four to five players, including the Game Master. It comes with four pre-generated Player Characters. They include Blair Clarimonde, the heir to the throne of Donovan, who can support her friends in battle and unleash the power elemental light upon her enemies; Cassandra, a former camp again of the Skyriders who wields a spear and can weaken enemies and strike at flying targets with her elemental powers; Edgar, a young inventors armed with a custom-made pistol which can target multiple foes and inflict negative status effects; and Lavigne Fallbright, the princess of the Kingdom of Armorica which was conquered by the Empire of Elonia, who wields a mighty greatsword. Each of the character sheet for these four is presented on a double-page spread and is easy to read, though there is no background for any of the four given on them.
A character in Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start has four attributes—Dexterity, Insight, Might, and Willpower, Traits—an Identity, Theme, and Origin, Bonds (with the other Player Characters and NPCs), Fabula Points, Actions, and Skills. The attributes are rated by die size, from six-sided up to twelve-sided die, whilst of the Traits, the Identity is who the character sees himself as, Theme the dominating narrative force driving the character, and Origin is where he is from. Bonds are emotions towards others and are paired as Admiration or Inferiority, Loyalty or Mistrust, and Affection or Hatred. A character’s Bond to another character—Player Character or NPC, can consist of up to three emotions he feels about the character, one from each pairing.
Fabula Points are gained when a Villain enters the scene or when a player rolls a fumble, but can be spent by invoking a Trait to reroll dice or invoking a Bond to add the number of emotions tied to that Bond. Invoking either, requires a bit of roleplaying upon the part of the player. Actions include Attack and Guard, and depending upon the character, can include spells and Skills too. For example, a spell might be Flash of Insight to ask the Game Master about a single investigation and whatever answer the Game Master gives, it becomes the truth and a Skill could be a Bone Crusher, an attack which does no damage, but instead inflicts a Status Effect like Dazed or Weak, or reduces the target’s Mind Points (used to power spells).
Mechanically, in Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start, and thus Fabula Ultima TTRPG, a player always rolls two of his character’s attribute dice and adds the results together. Typical Difficulty Levels are seven for Easy, ten for Average, and thirteen for Hard. Results of six higher than the Difficulty Level are a critical success, but rolls of one on both dice are a critical fumble. Status effects, suffered due to the environment, attacks, and spells, such as Dazed, Slow, and so on, which temporarily reduce the die types for a character’s attributes.
Combat uses the same core mechanic with the sides involved acting in alternate order, one by one. Initiative is slightly different in that it requires a Group Roll. In a Group Roll, one player, designated the Leader, makes the actual roll, but everyone else makes a separate taste against the same number. Each successful roll grants a +1 bonus towards the Group Roll.
All of this is explained scene by scene over the course of Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start, as well as combat, interacting with NPCs, and descending into the Crater of Megido. There are some nicely done scenes which very much match the feel of the computer game, including a cutscene where the scenario’s villain enters stage left, but this actually comes with mechanical benefits in that the Player Characters gain more Fabula Points. Another is interacting with a merchant NPC, from whom the Player Characters can purchase Inventory Points. These are a resource which a player can use to purchase Remedies (which heal Hit Points), Elixirs (which restore Mana Points), and Tonics (which enable a character to recover from a Status effect). Although this abstracts the process somewhat, it still feels appropriate to the setting.
For the most part, Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is linear, but it offers a reasonable mix of scenes and challenges along its learning path—interaction, exploration, and of course, combat. It ends as it should with a Big Boss final battle which is intended as a big fight, but includes other options too, since unlike in a console game, the Player Characters have a wider choice when it comes to their actions. This is the most complex scene in the quick-start, and of all them, requires the most preparation upon the part of the Game Master.
Physically, Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is well presented. The writing is decent and the artwork has an anime style throughout. In addition to telling the Game Master the mechanics of each and every scene and how to run them, Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start includes advice on running each scene too, whether that is enemy tactics in the final battle, advising that the Player Characters take a moment to heal, and so on.
Initially, Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is a disconcerting read because it is doing something in a way that not normally found in roleplaying games. It is teaching both the Game Master to referee and the players to play the Fabula Ultima TTRPG. Most roleplaying games, and certainly most quick-starts, expect the Game Master to learn and understand the rules and then impart them and everything else to her players, although exceptions abound where sometimes the learning by the player is done through play—such as in Alone Against the Flames, the solo adventure for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is different because of its programmed, step-by-step learning for both the Game Master and the players. The former is still expected to learn ahead of time, but both learning and teaching is focused because of its compartmentalisation, enhanced of course by a deft piece of design and layout. The result is that Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start does have the feel of an introduction to a Japanese console roleplaying game, its anime storytelling backed up by the art used throughout. Overall, Fabula Ultima TTRPG: Press Start is an impressive introduction to the Fabula Ultima TTRPG and learning path to its play which will have players humming the Final Fantasy victory music after every battle.