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Sunday 28 January 2024

From Console To Table

This is a world of high fantasy where a princess has lost her kingdom to the antagonist’s army, a veteran soldier has pledged to protect the people with his life, and a dark knight seeks redemption for his crimes. A silver palace orbits the moon, golems, airships, and elementally infused weapons are commonplace, but knowledge of the greatest of the world’s magic has been lost and lies ready to be rediscovered in sunken ruins or guarded by centuries old monsters. The enemies of this world—many the antagonist counterparts to it heroes—wield mighty magics and lead vast armies, but often turn to divine or the demonic for ultimate power. This is a world of natural magic where the daughter of the village chief seeks to prove her worth, the young hermit has discovered an entrance to a magical ruin in the forest, and the witch knows the prophecies that have been foretold all the way back to the ancestors. Great beasts populate the forests of this world and deep within lie forbidden places holding alien and magical secrets best left forgotten. The magic of the forest brims with life and energy whilst that of the ruins runs dark and cold, ready to power machinery that has laid dormant for centuries or more. The enemies of this world are disasters waiting to happen and technology waiting to take it place in the world once again, perhaps championed by the misguided, but always something greater and more powerful lurks, biding its time. This is a world of techno-fantasy where a scarred hero has had everything taken away from him, the magic-user is the last survivor from a long line of wizards who sought harmony with the world, and a failed experiment survives despite having been abandoned by his cold-hearted creator. Gleaming palaces stand over the squalor of the slums where most of the population are forced to live in cities that stand amidst barren landscapes. Magic has been drained from the world, seen as a source of wealth and power, and means of war, whilst the art and knowledge of magic has been lost or suppressed. The enemies of this world are industrialists who threaten to drain the world of all its magic in pursuit of their power and so bring about a cataclysm or drive the world into war.

These worlds are not one world, but the possible worlds seen in Japanese console and computer roleplaying games such as Ni No Kuni and the Final Fantasy series. It is these worlds that Fabula Ultima TTJRPG—short for ‘Table Talk Japanese Roleplaying Game’—published by Need Games!, brings to the table from the computer screen. Like those console roleplaying games, the worlds which the Game Master and her players roleplay in will be ones of heroic fantasy and action, heroes and villains, heroic destiny, challenging battles, and ultimately, their world. The latter is important because there is no default world in Fabula Ultima TTJRPG. Instead, the Game Master and her players decide upon a subgenre—high fantasy, natural magic, or techno-fantasy—and then combine it with the Eight Pillars of Fabula Ultima TTJRPG that are its core elements. These are ‘Ancient Ruins and Harsh Lands’, ‘A World in Peril’, ‘Clashing Communities’, ‘Everything Has A Soul’, ‘Magic and Technology’, ‘Heroes of Many Sizes and Shapes’, ‘It’s All About The Heroes’, and ‘Mystery, Discovery, and Growth’. Both players and Game Master need to keep these in mind as they create world during Session Zero, mapping it, deciding on the role of magic and technology, creating kingdoms and nations, and adding historical events, enigmas and mysteries, and lastly, the threats that cast a shadow over the world. There are tables to roll on, but these are still only prompt. Ultimately, the process is intended to be collaborative throughout and the result be a world that everyone wants to play in.

A Player Character in the Fabula Ultima TTJRPG is defined by his Identity, Theme, Origin, Classes, and four Attributes. His Identity neatly summarises who the character sees himself as; his Theme is a strong emotion or feeling that heavily influences his actions, and his Origins is where he is from. A Player Character in Fabula Ultima TTJRPG does not have one Class, but several. Fabula Ultima TTJRPG gives fifteen Classes. These are Arcanist, Chimerist, Darkblade, Elementalist, Entropist, Fury, Guardian, Loremaster, Orator, Rogue, Sharpshooter, Spiritualist, Tinkerer, Wayfarer, and Weaponmaster. Each Class asks the player where his character’s powers come from, what his past experiences are, and how the Class and its abilities define his behaviour. Each provides a list of free benefits as well as Class Skills, some of which can be selected multiple times. This includes the various spellcasting Classes, each of which is given its own list of spells, so that each time the player selects the appropriate skill, he chooses a new spell. For example, the Orator can be an ambassador, diplomat, or entertainer, and the player is asked if his character thinks everyone can be persuaded or has a price? Who betrayed the character? How does he feel about manipulating people, even if it is for a good cause? What happened when his words landed him in trouble? The Orator gains a bonus to his Mind Points and his skills include ‘Condemn’, ‘Encourage’, ‘My Trust In You’, ‘Persuasive’, and ‘Unexpected Ally’. The four Attributes are Dexterity, Insight, Might, and Willpower. These are rated by die type, from six-sided die to twelve-sided die.

To create a character, a player decides upon his character’s Identity, Theme, and Origin. There are again, tables to choose from, roll on, or use as inspiration. He chooses not one Class, but two or three, and assigns five Levels between them. The idea is not to create a one-note character, but one more rounded and flexible in terms of abilities and skills. Again, Fabula Ultima TTJRPG suggests options and combinations to create classic character types. For example, a Gunslinger combines Sharpshooter and Tinkerer, a Pugilist combines Fury and Weaponmaster, and Red Sorcerer combines Elementalist, Spiritualist, and Weaponmaster. Lastly, the player equips his character, and once everyone has created their characters, they prepare for a prologue, the first session of play, in which the players decide how their characters come together. Again, there are tables provided as suggestions.

Name: Shaw
Identity: Tomb robbing archaeologist
Theme: Ambition
Origin: Kuthage Empire
Classes: Rogue (Two Levels): Dodge, See You Later
Loremaster (Two Levels): Flash of Insight, Trained Memory
Orator (One Level): Persuasive
Dexterity d8 Insight d10 Might d6 Willpower d8
Hit Points: 35 (Crisis 17) Mind Points: 55
Defence: d8 Magic Defence: d10 Initiative Modifier: 0
Inventory (Maximum 8): Chain Whip, Travel Garb, Tome

Each time a Player Character acquires a new Level, he selects a Level in one of the Classes that he already has or a new one, up to a maximum of ten Levels in a Class. When this is reached, the Class is mastered and the character gains a Heroic skill, for example ‘Ambidextrous’ or ‘Extra Spells’. Other Heroic Skills are particular to a Class, like ‘Unbreakable’ for the Guardian which allows the character to survive a fatal hit once per scene or ‘Predictable!’ for the Loremaster which forces an enemy to spend Mind Points to undertake specific actions. In addition, when a Player Character reaches twentieth and fortieth Level, he can increase the die type of one of his Attributes.

Mechanically, in Fabula Ultima TTJRPG, a player always rolls two of his character’s attribute dice and adds the results together. For example, a pistol attack requires the player to roll his character’s Dexterity and Insight, Insight and Willpower to cast a spell, and Insight and Insight to recall information. Typical Difficulty Levels are seven for Easy, ten for Average, thirteen for Hard, and sixteen for Very Hard. A roll of one on both dice is a fumble, whilst rolls of doubles—of sixes and above—is a critical and automatic success. It also creates an Opportunity, for example, ‘Bonding’ with an NPC, ‘Unmask’ a creature or villain, or make ‘Progress’ on a Clock, the timing mechanism in Fabula Ultima TTJRPG. A player can also reroll the dice, but this requires the player to expend a Fabula Point and invoke either Identity, Theme, or Origin, or even invoke a Bond with another character to add the value of that Bond to the result.

Conflict—which includes combat—is described in Fabula Ultima TTJRPG as “back and forth exchanges at a rapid pace”. This can be a chase, an attempt to break into a castle before the guards notice, or an attempt to persuade a tribal chief to let you gain access to his lands, as well as fights. Initiative is handled as a group roll, with everyone else rolling to gain a bonus to the roll made by the player whose character is taking the lead. Then the Player Characters and the NPCs act in alternate order, one by one, but the order in which the Player Characters act is decided by the players. This models the play of Japanese console roleplaying games where the player can decide which of his characters is going to act rather than it be decided randomly. Should a Player Character’s Hit Points be reduced to zero, typically through combat, his player has two choices. The Player Character can surrender and suffer the consequences, but not actually die, or sacrifice himself to achieve a seemingly impossible deed. This has to be in front of a villain, benefit a Bond with an NPC, or improve the world.

The Fabula Ultima TTJRPG has two pools of points with which Player Characters and Villains can further their aims—Fabula Points and Ultima Points. Fabula Points are gained at the start of a session, when a Fumble is rolled, when a Villain makes a grand entrance, the Player Character surrenders after being reduced to zero Hit Points, and by invoking a Bond or Trait to fail a check. They are used to alter the story, invoke a Bond or Trait, or use certain skills. Spending Fabula Points also increases the amount of Experience Points the Player Characters receive at the end of a session, so the players are encouraged to use them rather than keep them. Obviously, Ultima Points are the province of Villains, but have fewer options in terms of what they can be spent on. The most notable is to ‘Escape’, safely leave a scene in true “I shall return!” style, to invoke a Trait, or to recover from a current status. Every Villain has another major ability and that is ‘Escalation’, the Villain transforming into a new, greater, and more villainous version of themselves, from minor Villain to major Villain, major Villain to supreme Villain. This means the Villain is effectively a new Villain and restores him to full powers again. The design and play of Villains is given its own section for the Game Master, covering goals, putting pressure on the Player Characters via the Clock mechanic, giving them hidden depth rather than making them one-dimensional, and even making the Villains mirror the Player Characters.

The rules of Fabula Ultima TTJRPG also covers the use of Inventory Points to abstractly represent useful items of equipment and consumable items like potions to recover Hit Points and Mind Points, travel, dungeons, equipment, projects, and more. Dungeons, which can be complex location that needs to be explored, can be handled as a series of scenes rather than a room-by-room crawl or a simple interlude, but a room-by-room crawl is also included as an option. Equipment can be basic or rare and each item is represented by a pixelated image, which feels very proper. There is good advice for the Game Master—specifically aimed at the neophyte Game Master—which also discusses how each of the Classes work and their roles in play, and how to design battles and Villains. This is backed up with some decent examples and the book is rounded out with a good bestiary.

Physically, the Fabula Ultima TTJRPG is cleanly and tidily laid out, the artwork is excellent, ranging from fully painted pieces to little scenes and encounters done in the Chibi style. The book well written and easy to read and engage with.

The Fabula Ultima TTJRPG combines elements of traditional roleplaying in its core mechanics and storytelling mechanics—or at least methods—in its set-up guidelines for the scenarios and campaigns. As written, it is aimed at newer players and Game Masters, and successfully supports both in getting them to play. This does not mean that it holds their collective hands, but rather recommends them as to what to do and warns them that mistakes will be made and that they can be learned from. More experienced players and Game Masters will pick up how to play and run Fabula Ultima TTJRPG with ease and be off and running with a campaign very quickly. Ultimately, the Fabula Ultima TTJRPG brings the drama, conflict, and action seen on the screen of the Japanese console roleplaying game to the table and not only makes all three exciting and accessible, but lets the players and the Game Master make the world their own.

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