Review: Barebones Fantasy, etc

Posted: 12 August 2017 in Reviews
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“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

There are times when I think even Savage Worlds is too complex, usually when explaining to someone when they can use a Wild Die or when running it over VTT. I have been eyeing up BareBones Fantasy as a potential alternative for a while now, so snagged it and the setting, Keranak Kingdoms, during the RPGNow ‘Christmas in July’ sale. I notice I’ve developed a habit of not taking the savings from sales, but spending them on supplemental materials instead. But I digress.

In a Nutshell: A complete old-school fantasy RPG in 84 pages, and the setting sourcebook to go with it. Both written by Larry Moore and Bill Logan, published by DwD Studios. $10 and $5 respectively when not on sale; prices seem to have been stable since 2012, as best I can tell.

Core mechanic: Roll less than or equal to relevant score on percentile dice to succeed. Doubles are critical success if you succeed, critical failure if you don’t. (The rules are a lot like Star Frontiers overall, not surprising as DwD supports that game extensively.)

BAREBONES FANTASY

This is a lot of game for ten bucks and 84 pages. You get character creation, game rules, GM advice including magic items, NPCs, monsters, adventure generator, dungeon generator, and a capsule setting. Just this book, pencil, paper and a few d10 and you’re good to go.

The book assumes you know what a fantasy RPG is and the basic idea of how to play, which is one reason it’s relatively short.

Characters have four abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Logic, Willpower) which can either be randomly generated (5d10+30) or allocated (one each at 50, 55, 60 and 65). The usual Tolkeinian suspects are in evidence for races; human, dwarf, elf, halfling.

There are a handful of skills – actually, skill packages, or maybe character classes, really; Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar, Scout, Spellcaster, Thief and Warrior. You pick one of those as primary, one as secondary, and one which starts at level 1. If your character is trying to do something a Thief would know how to do, that’s the relevant skill for the task; your percentage change of success is half the relevant ability, plus 10 per level, plus 20 if it’s your primary skill or 10 if it’s your secondary skill. Only Scout, Thief or Warrior can be used untrained, the rest you need at least level 1 to use; skills can’t exceed level 6, but there is no upper limit on how high you can advance abilities with enough experience.

The Warrior skill is your chance of hitting in combat, using Strength for melee weapons and Dexterity for ranged. Each skill has a list of things you can do with it and/or a starting bonus; for example an Enchanter can brew potions and imbue items with powers, can inscribe runes on things which take effect when a specific event triggers them, and has a small animal which acts as a familiar. Spellcasters know one spell per Spellcaster level, twice that if that is their primary skill, while Enchanters know all of them but can’t cast them directly.

So far, so simple. Surprisingly complex for a system so mechanically simple are the personality rules; you pick two descriptors which give a positive and a negative feature of your character, perhaps “always cheerful” and “eats too much”, and a moral code comprised of five traits, each of which is selected from a pair of opposites (e.g. selfish/selfless) and whether it is somewhat, very, or totally characteristic of the PC. To act against your code may require a successful Willpower check (GM’s option).

Then we’re back to simple again for equipment – take any six things from the equipment list and 2d10 gold pieces. While I’m thinking about equipment, weapons usually do 1d10 plus a modifier in damage, and you have hit points equal to half your Strength – you heal 2 points per day, and as I’m drifting into the combat mechanics I’ll note that depending on characteristics you get 1-3 d10 for initiative; you roll all of them and use the highest score, then act in descending order of initiative.

There are 17 spells in all, and the magic system deserves some more detail. As in original EPT or D&D 4E, each has a specific casting frequency; once per turn, once per day, once per level per day and so on. What’s interesting is that as in Savage Worlds, they have many different possible trappings; for example Offensive Strike – the only directly damaging spell in the game – has unlimited casting frequency, but you can cast it as lighting, fire, ice, a swarm of malignant fairies, tendrils of black smoke, or whatever you feel like. And you can change the trapping each time you cast. However, the GM is at liberty to say things like “that critical failure on your ice blast? All the fingers on your right hand have frostbite now” or “yeah, about that fireball in the storeroom full of expensive, wonderfully scented cedarwood… that was going to be the treasure, you know…” Casting a spell is an action, and characters can take as many actions as they want in a turn, but each one after the first suffers a cumulative -20 penalty to your skill check – you can cast a dozen Offensive Strikes in a turn if you like, but the second will be at -20, the third at -40… the final one would be at -220 and you’d have to be pretty good for it to work.

(I have been running Savage Worlds powers like this for some years now, allowing players to pick their trappings at the point of casting and using GM fiat for specific trapping effects rather than the Rules As Written; it works like a charm, no pun intended, and players very quickly home in on one signature trapping for each spell without any of us having to learn the detailed trapping rules.)

At the end of each session the GM consults a checklist; each item you ticked off gets you one Development Point, which you can use to buy increases in skills or attributes. You can only get one DP per session for combat, however much of it you did, and you get that for still being alive afterwards. The checklist is focused more on what D&D calls ‘story awards’ – did you find out something useful, did you succeed in your quest, that kind of thing.

There are four sample characters, an example of play, assorted other rules for things like making and buying magic items, dehydration and whatnot, a couple of dozen magic items, some very simple and elegant guidelines on NPC creation, about 50 monster statblocks and instructions on how to build your own monsters, random dungeon and adventure generators, a table of non-monetary rewards, a setting map and gazetteer, and a character sheet.

But wait, there’s more. In the downloaded zip file you get another character sheet, a very well thought out player and GM cheat sheet, colour maps of the setting with and without hexes, an introductory adventure (‘Maidens of Moordoth’, involving a village with a dark secret and a small dungeon), a development journal (sort of a session log for your character), and print friendly versions of all the PDFs.

KERANAK KINGDOMS

The setting sourcebook, Keranak Kingdoms, includes the same setting maps and an expanded gazetteer of the setting, plus another adventure (a romp through an abandoned dwarven mine now occupied by villainous non-human squatters). Neither book has much background information; this is a deliberate choice, so that the GM has a free hand to develop the world to his own taste – by and large the maps show the name of each kingdom and the location of forests and mountain ranges, and that’s about it. The sourcebook does unbend far enough to include a more detailed map of one kingdom showing cities and large towns, but no more. You do get more details on things like the pantheon of gods, though.

The premise of the setting is that the Keranak Kingdoms are the successor states of a recently-fallen empire; the knightly Order of the Rose has hidden a magical artefact used by the former emperor to help him rule, and is rumoured to be looking for his illegitimate son to place him on the throne. The gods were banished by the enigmatic dragon highlords some time ago, except for one goddess who was overlooked and one who is so strongly tied to the land that she sneaks back in anyway.

Oh, and you also have giants, previously exiled to the northern wastes, but beginning to encroach on the Kingdoms now there isn’t anyone to shoo them away.

FORMAT

Colour covers wrapped around single-column black text on grey. As usual I got the PDFs, but the properties tell me hard copies would be 6″ x 9″, what Savage Worlds would call Explorers’ Edition size, a bit bigger than European A5.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Just one: It seems counter-intuitive to me that a roll of 0 counts as 10, but a roll of 00 counts as zero. I would have expected 00 to be 100, but that would shift the relative frequency of outcomes slightly, giving fewer critical successes and more critical failures.

CONCLUSIONS

As I said earlier, you get an awful lot of game for your money with BareBones Fantasy, and it’s very simple and elegant (in the mathematical sense). I could see myself using this as a travel game, a VTT game, an introductory set of rules for my grandchildren in a few years’ time, a solitaire game (with a bit of help from something like Mythic), and an adventure or dungeon generator for another campaign. I have games ten times this size and cost that don’t give me as much usable content. Highly recommended.

The Keranak Kingdoms sourcebook and the adventures get the job done, and have some intriguing ideas, but to be honest they don’t really stand out as something special, unlike their parent game. One might expect that as they are a springboard intended as a stimulant for the GM’s imagination, not a replacement for it.

Overall Rating: BBF itself, 5 out of 5 – I’m not quite ready to dump Savage Worlds and run off with BareBones Fantasy, but it was a close-run thing. Keranak Kingdoms gets 3 out of 5. Let’s call that 4 out of 5 for the set.

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Comments
  1. SJB says:

    Another purchase based on the Halfway Station Seal of Approval. It joins Savage Worlds, Beasts & Barbarians, Four Against Darkness, Fringe Space, Stars Without Number, Scarlet Heroes and WarhammerQuest. Please do keep up the excellent review section.

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