Review: FiveCore Second Edition

“The game is best enjoyed while listening to heavy metal albums.” – FiveCore Second Edition

During January my attention was drawn to Five Parsecs From Home, which turns out to be a supplement for FiveCore 2nd Edition, so let’s take a look at that first, shall we?

In a Nutshell: Simple skirmish wargaming rules. 93 page PDF by Nordic Weasel Games, $9.99.

CONTENTS

FiveCore 2 is a set of generic skirmish wargaming rules, derived from the earlier Five Men in Normandy and the core of a wide range of supplements for various settings and eras from the 20th century onwards. The rulebook is divided into 23 sections, so rather than list them and drill into detail, here are the highlights. Each section has a number of “playstyle options” which allow you to tweak the game to your liking, and individual rules subsystems are independent of each other, allowing you to mash them up with other games if you fancy it.

Like THW’s Chain Reaction, FiveCore sits in skirmish gaming land, midway between wargaming and roleplaying games, with a small table, a handful of figures on each side, and a campaign generator. It is closer to the wargaming trenches than the roleplaying tavern, however, and thus assumes that all figures are more or less the same. It also assumes that interesting things happen about one-third of the time – whenever a player wants to do something that involves an element of chance, he rolls one or more six-sided dice. Rolls of 1 or 6 have special effects, with the 6 generally being more dramatic. Such situations include movement, firing (but not brawling), throwing grenades, rolling to see if your armour saves you from an attack, the effects of leadership, artillery support, sneaking past guards, and so forth.

During a turn, the dice may drive a player to move all figures, shoot with all figures, or activate three of them who can both move and fire. Player turns alternate, but under some circumstances the inactive player may react to what the active one is doing.

Firing subsumes rolling to hit and rolling for damage into a single dice roll. Each weapon has specified numbers of Shock and Kill dice (the basic infantry rifle has one of each) which are rolled whenever it attacks; scores of 1 or 6 have special effects. Kill dice reflect physical damage, while Shock dice are essentially morale effects – if I say more than that I will basically give you the game, it’s that simple. Under some circumstances you can swap Kill for Shock, or may be forbidden to use one die type or another. This is a very clever mechanic, which I expect would be really fast in play.

Melee is fast, infrequent and deadly; you win or are incapacitated.

There are a lot of optional rules for special situations – weather, vehicles, alien races and superpowers for example – which I infer were not in the first edition of the rules. One which drew my attention was the solo gaming section; these essentially state that each enemy team should have a plan (“take and hold the building”) and give brief notes on battle drills for attack and defence, target priorities, and options for changes of orders, reactions to setbacks and so forth. These are quite different from what I’m used to, but look like they would work well enough.

There is a mission section intended for quick pickup games, and a random force generator to shake things up a bit. There is a character creation section for when “a soldier is a soldier” won’t do; characters have a class (e.g. Rifleman or Leader), a level, which is basically how many (random) advances they’ve gained, and (optionally) a backstory which has no mechanical impact on play. In campaign play, after each game one figure receives an advance.

FORMAT

Single-column black on white text, few and basic illustrations, colour covers. I’m a content guy more than a format guy so I’m fine with this. The layout is simple enough to work as an e-reader file.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I kept thinking I’d found something missing, and then finding it a few pages further on. So maybe an index.

CONCLUSIONS

This is a quirky product, the sort of thing that was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s before wargaming became big business, when it seemed every local club had its own locally-printed rules with cardboard covers and dodgy illustrations. That’s not a criticism, but it did make me nostalgic.

The actual combat rules are very simple and straightforward, with a one-page quick reference that would suffice for most games. The campaign and character rules are more complex, but look viable.

The game is more focused on the fireteam as a whole than the individuals within it, assuming that figures are much alike in capabilities and importance.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This intrigues me enough to go into the hopper of games to try out.

Review: 5150 Fringe Space

“A Captain’s goal was simple: Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying.” – Firefly

In a Nutshell: RPG Lite game for solo, co-op or head to head play, focussed on free traders, smugglers, and fringers in general; much like Firefly, Dark Matter, and similar. In fact, that Firefly quote up there pretty much summarises the game. 105 page PDF by Jospeh Beutel and Ed Teixera, published by Two Hour Wargames, $20 – hard copy also available, $25.

IF YOU’VE NEVER PLAYED A THW GAME BEFORE…

They’re skirmish wargames with roleplaying elements, designed from the ground up to be used for solo or same-side play as well as the usual head-to-head wargaming.

In most such games, side A moves, shoots and conducts melee, then side B moves, shoots and conducts melee. In the THW “reaction system”, side A activates and moves some of its figures; side B reacts to that movement, which in turn may cause side A to react to that reaction, and so on. That goes back and forth until it peters out – usually one side dies, is incapacitated or flees – and then side A moves another group of figures. It plays much faster than that description would lead you to think.

The combat scenarios are stitched together by some really clever setting and campaign rules which generate background on the fly as you play. In terms of equipment, your characters have whatever you think they should have, but they can only carry a handful of items at any given time.

Each player only really has control of one figure, the rest move according to dice rolls and the rules. That’s like Marmite: You’ll either love it or hate it.

CONTENTS

This is the latest science fiction iteration of the Chain Reaction game engine; if you’ve not played one of those before, Chain Reaction is free to download at either THW or RGPNow.

THW games are now at the stage where they are highly modular. Fringe Space essentially takes the combat engine and wilderness terrain generator from Chain Reaction (reviewed here and here) and the expanded character creation, alien races, city map system, police and crimes, and job offers from 5150 Urban Renewal (reviewed here), and adds space combat, interstellar trade and some setting material. So I’ll focus on the latter elements, because they’re what makes the game unique.

Fringe Space expands on the skeletal setting information in Urban Renewal by explaining the Gaian Hegemony’s Ring system and world classifications. Conceptually the universe is divided into nine rings; each ring has six sections, and each section has an undefined number of planets. Each race or faction has its own stomping ground; for example the Hegemony dominates rings 1-3, contests ring 4 with the Hishen slavers, and travels in rings 5-6. In a one-month campaign turn you can move from one area of a settlement to another, from a planet to a sector or vice versa, from sector to sector in the same ring, or if in sector 1 of a ring, to sector 1 in a different ring. (I may as well mention that in a campaign turn you can also choose whether to have a voluntary encounter such as looking for work, and must resolve 3 random encounters.) Why would you want to move around between planets? Normally because someone has hired you to haul cargo (possibly contraband) or passengers (ditto) along that route. You get paid in dice for increasing your Rep, and expenses are represented by dice for decreasing your Rep – in effect, your Rep is also your bank balance.

Urban Renewal’s world of New Hope is detailed here, with a simplified map which can and does apply to any settlement (very like the ones in Larger Than Life), and terrain generators for both urban and wilderness terrain.

Character rules are expanded with aging and family ties; if you survive everything else 5150 throws at you, your character will eventually die of old age, and meanwhile he (or she) might have siblings, parents or a spouse for the Big Bad to kidnap. Character advancement is entirely in terms of Rep, with rewards given as dice for increasing Rep, and penalties in terms of dice for decreasing Rep.

The other new elements are space combat (which might be merged in from some other game I don’t yet have), interstellar trade, and settlements. Space combat is highly abstracted, and works by cycling round a series of tables in the rules – models or counters are used as status markers, no map or ruler required. Half-a-dozen ship types are provided, each rated for Firepower, Hull, and Thrust; lose all Thrust and you can be boarded, lose all Hull and you blow up, everyone dies.

There are the usual quick reference sheets, followed by a “toolbox” appendix with optional rules for gambling, companionship, sports and cybernetic enhancements. And – a welcome addition – we close with two sheets of paper counters for ships and characters.

FORMAT

The usual THW trade dress; colour covers, two-column minimalist black on white text with the occasional illustration. Simple, straightforward, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

If it were me, I’d add in some of the weapons from Star Army to improve the SF flavour, as was done in Urban renewal.

CONCLUSIONS

I really like this one. It’s the first in the 5150 line where I felt I could take a character anywhere and do anything without having to bolt on pieces from another game to cover gaps. I can be commissioned by a patron to do a mission on a world surface, haul cargo, passengers or contraband, be a pirate or fight them off, rescue damsels in distress, take in the wonders of the red light district, hunt bandits in the badlands, dogfight with slavers, salvage lost ships, negotiate with customs inspectors, get robbed or arrested, go on the run from the police or navies of one or more factions, recruit sidekicks, and of course answer distress calls. This has everything I was hoping for in a solo SF RPG.

The ring-sector-planet system looks clean and simple to use, a good halfway house between detailed starmaps and no map at all. The schematic d6 maps for settlements and ships are pure genius.

Recent THW games in the RPG Lite category seem to be de-emphasising actual tabletop battles, as movement is getting more abstract and less necessary; I suspect that like LTL, FS could be run for extended periods without getting any figures or terrain out.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Expect to see this in use very soon.

Review: Urban Renewal

Or to give it its full title, 5150 New Beginnings Urban Renewal. 5150 is the science fiction grouping for Two Hour Wargames, and includes Urban Renewal (RPG), Star Army (platoon level combat), No Quarter (mecha), Battalion Commander (what it says on the tin), Star Navy (fleet combat), Fighter Command (which looks like it’s basically Wing Commander as a tabletop game) and others. I am lying in wait for Fringe Space, which sounds like Elite: Dangerous – tabletop edition.

I’ve reviewed 5150 before here, so I’ll focus on the changes. Note that Urban Renewal predates Chain Reaction 2015, so it still uses Impact ratings and the Evenly Matched status in melee; I will likely drop both of those in favour of the newer rules, which I suspect will be faster in play.

WHAT’S NEW?

  • Character professions are now grouped into Circles; Movers (M), Shakers (S), Ordinary Joes (J), Exotics (E), and Criminal Element (CE). I’ve cited the abbreviations used for them in the encounter tables as it took me a while to work them out – they may be explained in the rulebook but I haven’t found that bit yet.
  • Cash. This is how much loose money you have on you and refreshes daily. It isn’t connected to the Items representing your permanent equipment, and is mostly used to buy drinks and so forth for other characters (which can give bonuses to their reactions). It’s represented by a number of d6 you roll each time you buy something, any that come up a 6 are not available until next day.
  • Areas. New Hope City is now divided into 11 Areas, including the Spaceport, the Financial District, and various residential districts. The area determines what kind of buildings and NPCs are present, how many NPCs you might encounter when, and how likely the cops are to attend a disturbance at what time of day; to find where (say) your target is, you roll 2d6. There is a map of the NHC transit system showing how the areas are connected, much like the Locale maps in Larger Than Life. It’s silly I know, but this is what sold me on the new edition.
  • Pregenerated random NPCs, as in All Things Zombie: Final Fade Out.
  • Rules for gambling and (ahem) companionship.
  • Specific guidelines for bringing your Star Army characters into New Hope City, either while on leave or when discharged. This includes laser and explosive weaponry you may have "liberated", so here’s where the stats are for those.
  • A scoring system. Your star has "ten good years" to set himself up for life; his skill levels and Rep at the end of this time dictate whether he retires to a luxury mansion in Gaea Heights or a spaceport gutter.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT?

  • Recruitment. Unlike most THW games (and the previous edition of this one) your Star starts completely alone rather than with followers; you have to recruit them all in encounters. If you’re fussy, you can go to the Area where particular types hang out in the Day Part when they are there, which improves your chances of finding a specific sort of Extra. Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad, I’ll have to try it out.
  • Terrain layout. The only real difference here is that as well as a street or intersection, you can now have an alley, which is a row of buildings divided by a narrow alley, with a street parallel to the row on either side.
  • I haven’t done a line by line check, but I think there are more types of cyber enhancements now.
  • My perception is that looking for a mission will be faster and easier in play now, but I’d have to try it to be sure.

WHAT’S GONE?

In general, if it slowed down play in the earlier edition, cool or not, it’s gone now.

  • The Science skill. I guess it duplicated the Savvy skill, and limited how easy it was to move characters between settings.
  • Hit Location. I found that to be an unnecessary step which slowed down the game anyway. With no hit location, helmets have disappeared as well, because it doesn’t matter mechanically whether you have one.
  • ECM. Also slowed things down for no real benefit, in my opinion, so no loss here.
  • Motivations for characters by professional groups.
  • Building floor plans. Each floor of a building is one large area now.
  • Vehicles. (Stop whining, you have dirt cheap public transport now.)

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, quite the improvement. This will get played sometime soon, I think.

Review: Larger Than Life

While I’ve been playing LTL on and off for a while, I never got around to reviewing the earlier version; this review is about the Director’s Cut, which is the current incarnation and brings the game up to the current level of the rules.

In a Nutshell: The Chain Reaction rules applied to the pulp genre. 102 page PDF from Two Hour Wargames.

CONTENTS

Character creation allows for Stars (i.e. PCs) and Extras (NPC mooks) as normal, but also introduces Co-Stars (not quite as good as Stars but better than Extras), Love Interests (who exist mainly to be kidnapped, but may also be Co-Stars ), the Big Bad (equivalent to an evil Co-Star) and the Femme Fatale (basically an evil Love Interest, known as a Cad if male). Many of these have packages of special abilities, while Stars and Co-Stars have "star power" which allows them to soak damage, and stars have free will, meaning they can choose their reactions in some cases rather than trusting to the dice. Your Star can begin with as many followers as his Rep, but Co-Stars or Femme Fatales count for two each – yes, you can play as the Big Bad if you like.

Characters are also grouped into five Circles (which you’ll see in Urban Renewal as well when I get to that): Movers, Shakers, Exotics, Civilians and the Criminal Element. Each character has a profession which defines both its Circle and the reaction tables it uses in combat.

As with most current generation THW games, gear is listed in terms of Items, which can be whatever you want so long as they don’t require changes to the game rules, and there are tables of pre-generated NPCs. Unlike most other current rules from this stable, there are no skills, just Rep, which is a single numerical indicator of how good the character is, notably in combat.

Combat rules are derived from Chain Reaction, with the notable exception that nobody dies in the pulps, so the worst outcome you can get is to be retired, which in terms of game mechanics is much the same thing. Other changes include the addition of magic spells, which can inflict damage on the target (and caster, if they are unlucky) or cause confusion amongst the enemy; unoccupied section movement, which speeds up movement through board sections where there is no possibility of encountering an enemy – I’m not sure how that will work in play, I’ll have to try it; oh, and PEFs don’t move in this game – as I normally forget to move them anyway that won’t cause me any problems.

However, as with most THW games, the main area in which LTL differs from the free Chain Reaction rules is in the campaign generator, and LTL is my favourite for this. You start by figuring out who the Big Bad is and what he wants, then the star gets involved somehow, and play proceeds in alternating Advancing the Story and Travel scenes. Each Advancing the Story scene gives the player the chance to solve one or more clues by finding objects or questioning NPCs, and may or may not include setting off a trap or a fight played out on the tabletop; when he has solved enough clues, the star advances to the final scene of the story, which is a confrontation with the Big Bad. In between Advancing scenes are Travel scenes, which take the star to a new locale.

Locales may be Metropolis (big city), Exotic (smaller, older city), Jungle (any sort of wilderness) or Lost World (what it says on the tin). Each has its own map composed of six Areas, numbered 1-6; you enter the Locale at area 1, and proceed to a random area for the next Advancing scene, possibly with encounters along the way. The generic locale maps show how many encounters there would be in each area depending on the time of day, and which types of buildings and Circles of NPCs you might find there.

CHANGES FROM THE PREVIOUS VERSION

I never actually reviewed the first edition (oops), but the principal changes I noticed are:

  • The complex and clunky system of skills is gone, replaced by Rep alone. This is the biggest improvement in the new edition, and also makes it easier to mash up with other games.
  • The wide range of creatures and dinosaurs has gone. I suspect they have moved into other products, but I miss the dinosaurs.
  • Magic-users can’t summon demons any more. You could always describe the remaining spells as the effects of demon summoning.
  • Big Bads are now stereotyped by type (Business Magnate, say, or Military Officer) rather than by nationality (say, French or Japanese). There seems not to be such a wide range of them either.
  • Most of the illustrations are gone, including all the artwork except the cover. I am generally a content guy rather than a format guy so I’m cool with this.
  • Each locale now has a map of six areas. I really like this and consider it a solid improvement.

FORMAT

As usual for THW, crisp, clear, two column black on white with lots of tables and next to no pictures of any kind. Really easy on your printer and your eyes.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It looks like the suggestions I would make are already covered by companion products;  bring back the dinosaurs (Adventures in the Lost Lands), give me a pregenerated setting (Colonial Lemuria, Mission St Mary).

CONCLUSIONS

I find this an extremely flexible and fast GM emulator for solo play using other games, as well as being fun in its own right.  Although it’s designed for 1930s pulp adventures – the Shadow, Indiana Jones, and so on – I find it easy to reskin on the fly for fantasy, science fiction, and so on.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5, because I was using this within two days of buying it.

Review: Two Hour Dungeon Crawl

I can’t resist random dungeon generators, which is bizarre because I almost never use them, and I know that when I buy them. Let’s call it a Quirk.

Anyway, 2HDC is a fast, simple dungeon crawler from the THW stable and using their house engine, the reaction system; in my case, a 47 page PDF. Rather than a detailed chapter by chapter review, I’m aiming for more of a summary this time. Note that 2HDC is designed exclusively for solo or co-op play, there is no head-to-head option.

Character creation is more complex than usual for a THW game, as there are 15 races and 8 professions (in effect, character classes) to choose from, each granting various bonuses and penalties. Armour also comes in multiple types rather than the usual THW "you either have armour or you don’t", and there are shields too.

The combat system is much the same as Swordplay, which is in turn a variant of Chain Reaction (both reviewed here), so I’ll gloss over that; being familiar with those, what I bought this for was the dungeon generator. 2HDC does add magic to the Swordplay engine, in the shape of three generic spells: Damage (magical shooting), Dazzle (miss a turn) and Defend (count as shielded). There are also healers, who as you might expect from their title heal injured characters.

Items of gear are more restricted in numbers and variety than in most current THW games, and largely weapons or armour. Assorted magic items are also available, although you find them in dungeons or get given them as rewards rather than buying them.

Now to the meat of the game, the dungeons. You begin by consulting tables to work out what the boss monster of the dungeon is, and why your little band is going in there (you can always choose this).  The dungeon is then generated as the group explores; they begin in a corridor, and then tables are used to generate each new area ("tile") as they move in the time-honoured fashion; corridors, rooms, T junctions, stairs and so on. Rooms or dead ends may have secret rooms in them, which generally contain undead, traps, or vermin. There’s occasional treasure, obviously. Rooms are all the same size and have exits in the same places, although there’s nothing stopping you making that more interesting – the rules suggest using any actual dungeon tiles you might have.

From time to time the group will meet something, and the action then shifts to a "battle board" off to one side, which is potentially at a larger scale and is where fights are played out using the combat and magic rules. As well as monsters (which are themed around the boss monster), you might encounter rival parties.

Campaigns are essentially a series of dungeons where you carry over your loot from one game to the next.

Overall Rating: Let’s call it 3 out of 5. I’m ambiguous about this one; unusually, just reading it doesn’t tell me whether I would enjoy playing it or not. I guess I should try it and see what happens. Maybe later.

Review: Chain Reaction 2015

I notice I have acquired a few Two Hour Wargames products I haven’t reviewed yet… let’s start with the core of the system, Chain Reaction…

My fondness for Chain Reaction and its stablemates from Two Hour Wargames is well-known, and I’ve been playing them on and off since 2009.

I was a little suspicious of this new edition at first, because the author, Ed Teixeira, said a few years ago that he was going to stop updating the rules and focus on settings and adventures, and this is (I think) the second time he has updated them since then; but I understand what he’s doing now, he is using the free Chain Reaction "test drive" as a way to disseminate the best of the tweaks that develop as the new settings are released; use them or not, up to you.

I’ve already reviewed Chain Reaction here, and this is really a minor update, so I’ll limit myself to the changes for this post.

IF YOU’VE NEVER PLAYED A THW GAME BEFORE

They’re skirmish wargames with roleplaying elements, designed from the ground up to be used for solo or same-side play as well as the usual head-to-head wargaming. Chain Reaction is the guts of the combat system, and each of the many other titles in the stable expands it with campaign rules, setting material, and so forth aimed at a particular genre or subgenre.

In most such games, side A moves, shoots and conducts melee, then side B moves, shoots and conducts melee. In the THW "reaction system", side A activates and moves some of its figures; side B reacts to that movement, which in turn may cause side A to react to that reaction, and so on. That goes back and forth until it peters out – usually one side dies, is incapacitated or flees – and then side A activates another group of figures. It plays much faster than that description would lead you to think.

Each player only really has control of one figure, the rest move according to dice rolls and the rules. That’s like Marmite: You’ll either love it or hate it.

SO WHAT’S NEW?

Just two changes really:

  • First, weapons no longer have an Impact rating; damage is now resolved by rolling 1d6 against the target’s Rep rather than the weapon’s Impact.
  • Second, melee combat is simpler and faster, as both Impact and the Evenly Matched status have been discarded.

Overall, I prefer the new rules. Faster, simpler, easier to remember. These changes, combined with tightening up the text in general, have reduced the page count since the last version.

CONCLUSIONS

Chain Reaction as a game system is even faster and simpler than it was before, and of all the tabletop games I know, this one has the best "AI" for solo gaming.

It’s free, it’s just over 30 pages long, and it works with any figures or terrain you already have, so it wouldn’t take much time or money to try it out. I recommend that you do. You can get it at RPGNow or Two Hour Wargames.

Review: Fantasy Age

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.

CONTENTS

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").

FORMAT

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.

CONCLUSIONS

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.