In the beginning was D&D, and D&D (eventually) begat D&D 3.5, and D&D 3.5 begat True20, and True20 begat Dragon Age, and Dragon Age begat Fantasy Age…
In a Nutshell: Basic, generic fantasy RPG rules aimed at new players and Game Masters; expect a range of settings (Titansgrave, Freeport, Blue Rose, etc) to follow. Requires only six-sided dice rather than the usual set of polyhedrons. 145 page PDF in my case, $16 at time of writing; lead designer Chris Pramas, published by Green Ronin.
Introduction (5 pages): Fantasy Age is very friendly to the new Game Master and new players. I won’t dwell on the contents because jaded grognards such as I (and, I suspect, most of you) already know what a roleplaying game is and how to play one. If you don’t, you could do worse than starting with this.
Character Creation (21 pages): This is familiar stuff if you have ever played anything D&D-like; choose a character concept, roll for abilities (9 of them), choose a race (there are 6, Tolkien’s usual suspects and a couple more), social class and background, and character class, pick starting equipment, calculate Defence (more on that later), choose a name, goals and character ties.
Now, I’m going to skip ahead here, because character generation makes more sense if you understand the game’s basic mechanic, which is this: When your character tries to do something, you roll three ordinary six-sided dice (one of them a different colour to the others, called the Stunt Die) and add the relevant attribute to your score; you can add +2 if you have a relevant focus – more on those later, but for now note that focuses don’t stack, you get either +2 or nothing. If the total meets or beats the target number set by the GM, you succeed. If you roll doubles, the score on the Stunt Die shows how many points you have for stunts – I’ll explain that in a minute. Back to Character Creation then…
Abilities (Strength, Intelligence etc) are determined by rolling 3d6 and looking up the result to give a value between -2 and +4. Races each give the PC a number of mandated benefits and two random ones, typically either a stat boost or a focus. Your background gives you another focus. Your class determines what armour and weapons you can use, how many hit points you have to start with, and class powers, which might be more focuses or talents; a talent unlocks a capability rather than giving a bonus on test rolls, for example an alchemist can create grenades.
As far as equipment goes, everybody gets a pack, a waterskin and some clothes, and weapons and armour determined by their character class. They get some money too, determined by dice rolls and their social class.
Goals and ties are pure roleplaying elements; what’s important to the PC, why they are adventuring, and how he or she knows the other PCs. These give no mechanical advantage or disadvantage, just story hooks.
Basic Rules (11 pages): I explained the core mechanic earlier, except for target numbers. These are set by the GM based on how hard the task is and the specific circumstances; in an opposed test, your target number is the other guy’s result. If you succeed, the Stunt Die shows how well you did – 1 means you only just made it, and 6 is flawless execution.
Combat follows the familiar pattern of roll for initiative, act in descending order of initiative, make either a major action and a minor action (including attacks) or two minor actions. Casting a spell might be major or minor, depending on the spell.
Your Defence is 10 + Dexterity + shield bonus, if you have a shield. This is the target number for anyone trying to hit you, with attacks being a normal attribute and focus roll. If they hit, they roll for damage, you deduct your armour value, and anything left over reduces your Health (hit points). At 0 Health you are dying, and have 2 + Constitution combat rounds to get healed, or else.
Combat stunts (bought with the points on the stunt die if you rolled doubles on your attack) include things like pushing the target around, disarming him, doing extra damage, bypassing armour, and moving yourself to the top of the initiative order. Like the random attribute generation, this simplifies and speeds up creating a PC, because instead of digesting pages of rules to work out how your character could (say) do extra damage and adjusting the build to do that, you just buy the effect of your choice on the fly whenever you get lucky enough. This is a very clever rule.
Character Options (13 pages): This covers talents and specialisations your PC can learn as he or she levels up. Talents are available to a character who meets the requirements for class and abilities, and as mentioned above unlock special capabilities; each talent can be taken up to three times, unlocking a different ability each time. Specialisations are more powerful and have a minimum level requirement as well.
Equipment (13 pages): Here are the usual suspects for ancient, mediaeval and renaissance armour, weapons, camping gear, clothing, and so on. Slightly unusual are the focuses and equipment for crafting in the videogame sense, building your own gear from animal parts and other things you find on your travels.
This chapter jarred a tiny bit; I know it’s aimed at beginners, but explaining to me that a skirt (for example) is "a loose garment worn around the waist and draping down to billow around the legs" is taking it further than strictly necessary.
The lists of trade goods and raw materials could be useful for unusual treasure items or actual trade. As well as the usual food and lodging prices, there are prices for things like furniture and crockery. So this is an unusually thorough equipment chapter, underlining the game’s focus on beginners.
Magic (11 pages): Magic is divided into 12 talents, which would be called schools of magic or subclasses in most games. A mage begins with the lowest level (Novice) in two magic talents, two spells for each talent (four in all), and 10 + Willpower + 1d6 magic points, which are expended to cast spells – casting is a normal ability test using Intelligence and any appropriate magic focus. Spellcasting has its own stunts as well, such as increasing spell duration or doing more damage.
Each arcane talent has four spells, for a total of 48 in the basic rules. Again, we see the game’s focus on supporting beginners by reducing the amount of stuff they need to know before making a decision; if you have the Fire arcane focus and advance it from level 1 (Novice) to level 2 (Journeyman), you unlock the Burning Shield spell, case closed.
Stunts (5 pages): The Basic Rules chapter explains combat stunts, and the Magic chapter explains spellcasting stunts, but there are more, and this is where you find them; specifically, exploration stunts and roleplaying stunts. Exploration stunts are useful when searching for things or getting into an advantageous position, while roleplaying stunts are about talking to NPCs and allow you to sway crowds, make a witty remark or insult, flirt and so on. These types of stunts give benefits which are less mechanical in nature, and more things that can be woven into the narrative or provide story hooks – enraging NPCs so that they storm out of the room, seducing an NPC, and so on will all have ongoing repercussions for good or ill.
The Game Master (14 pages): So far everything we have seen could be shared with the players, but now we move into the covert realm of the game master. Again, this is aimed at a novice, with a series of short paragraphs explaining what the GM does and advice on how to do it; running a session, creating an adventure or a campaign, play styles, handling problem players, things to do or to avoid. There’s nothing new for veteran GMs, but if you are just starting out this is solid stuff.
Mastering the Rules (7 pages): While the previous chapter was about how to be a GM in general, this one gives advice specific to Fantasy Age; how to decide which abilities and focuses are relevant, what target numbers to set, major and minor NPCs, considerations in combat, handling hazards like fires and traps, that kind of thing. Again, nothing a grognard wouldn’t be able to figure out for themselves, but things that a novice GM might want help with.
Adversaries (12 pages): Here we have some 16 NPCs and monsters, with advice on how many to throw at the PCs, how to make them tougher if you need to, and what special abilities they might have. You’ve got everything you need to do Lord of the Rings or Conan, and probably Dragon Age as well (though I never finished that, so I’m guessing here).
Rewards (7 pages): The GM is offered a choice between rewarding the PCs by advancing them a whole level when they do something worthy of that, or awarding experience points and levelling up when they accumulate enough. New levels bring the PCs more hit points, focuses, talents, specialisations and in the case of spellcasters more magic points as well. Additionally, the PCs can be rewarded with treasure, there being six levels of treasure hoard to be found. Finally, PCs can acquire magic items, ranging from the common (might be for sale, fairly easily acquired, typically give a temporary effect – potions or similar) to the legendary (unique items worth a king’s ransom, consider yourself lucky if you find even one in a character’s career). A magic item might give you a bonus on some ability, weapon damage or armour rating; let you perform a specific stunt for fewer points, grant you immunity to a specific effect, and so forth; example items are given.
The Campaign Setting (6 pages): This being a generic rules set, there is no default setting specified. Instead, this chapter speaks to whether you might want to use a published setting, something based on real world history or a fictional world, or one of your own devising, then follows up with best practice on building a world from scratch. So again, nothing revolutionary here, just a solid explanation of the basics for someone new to the hobby.
Adventures in Highfalls Swale (12 pages): Here is a small, portable setting – a single valley with lakes, rivers, woods and villages – and an initial adventure, in which the PCs take part in a coming-of-age ritual involving camping out overnight on an island formerly occupied by a sorceress. What could possibly go wrong?
…and we close with a glossary, an index, and the obligatory character sheet. Which has a typo on it ("Interlligence").
Two-column black serif type on a white background, restrained use of colour, full-colour illustrations every couple of pages. Simple, straightforward, gets the job done.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
There are a few things that would be nice extras. Layers in the PDF, making it more printer-friendly; some pre-generated characters for various classes maybe (although the rules are so simple one could argue they are not necessary); a few more monsters.
This is a good introduction to roleplaying for the neophyte, and a perfectly viable fantasy RPG for the experienced player. If my grandchildren were old enough to start playing, I might well this use to entice them in.
I was hoping it might be simpler and faster in play even than Savage Worlds; but I don’t think it is, as near as I can tell without playing it for a while. It has hit points, which in my opinion do slow things down. It isn’t simpler than SW, but it feels more mechanically consistent – some of my players have problems with the Wild Die in SW even after five years’ play which I don’t think they would have with the FA Stunt Die.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is tempting enough for me to try it at some point, but not tempting enough for me to drop my current campaign(s) in its favour.