Fantasy AGE: Why not learn another RPG system?

I mean, I love ’em. I collect ’em! The massive proliferation of new systems means that I’m nowhere near up on everything, but when a game catches my eye I always try to look into it, and if the books are cheap I’m happy to pick them up. I first ran into the Fantasy AGE system (that’s how they want it written, folks, and who am I to stand in their way?) with the stellar Tabletop Dragon Age episode. How stellar is that episode? The guy you’d think had played a ton of DnD never touched it; the guy you’d think would be too cool for school and just doing this to promote the sci-fi show he acts on is totally into it; and Chris Hardwick–the man whose off-the-cuff comment about hit points during an episode of Singled Out opened my childhood eyes to the possibility that adults could be popular, famous even, and still know about D&D…he does the entire game playing Fonzie as a wizard (so just Fonzie).

Never forget.

It also introduced a pretty cool system, but one that I never explored because I’m just not that into Dragon Age. I played the first game, but never beat it, and not for any particularly compelling reason–I think I just got a bit bored, and a bit lost, around the time I had all of the DLC available to me. I picked up Inquisition when it was brand new, meaning that the negative reviews started trickling in just as I was starting to play it; I mostly got it for the multiplayer, anyway, which I enjoyed in spite of the tremendous lag, long wait times, and tendency to crash. However, since I was playing during the day, during the week, I was mostly playing with Germans (I base this on the fact that they were usually speaking German in the voice chat) and that didn’t help the ping issues. I deleted the game a few months ago but haven’t touched it since a few weeks after it dropped.

Enter Titansgrave! I’m a big fan of Wil Wheaton’s current renaissance, particularly the fact that he never loses sight of that genuine nerd joy for new games and things. His old blogs are a fascinating look at a man growing into maturity and–not obscurity, but certainly a different level of visibility than in his youth–and it’s great to see him gaining momentum now again. Titansgrave is a great thing for folks new to rpgs to watch, because a lot of energy in the first few episodes is devoted to explaining the game system and games in general. I skipped all of that stuff, which–I’ll admit–meant I didn’t fully understand some elements of the AGE system until I bought the pdfs.

Titansgrave does look cool as hell. Yes, that is a kegbot.

The core Fantasy AGE book is sort of setting-agnostic, not unlike a core FATE, D20 Modern, or (*shudder*) GURPS. It features a slew of races, three classes (which manages to be about as comprehensive as 5e once you add in the specializations, as well as the fact that the magic system covers healing and attack spells under one umbrella), weapons, and a small bestiary. It also includes DM instructions, which touch on building more monsters, building traps, combat, adventuring, and exp. After the tremendous disappointment that the 5e DMG was, I appreciated having everything crammed into a single book.

I’ve finally extricated myself from my weekly 5e game after over a year of time in those trenches, but don’t have a new regular thing set up yet. I’ve been exploring Fantasy AGE mostly as a vehicle to do some solo gaming with my wife. Previously, we’d been looking to Malifaux for that, but she missed rolling dice.

Somehow, these weren’t enough.

Character creation in AGE is quick and rather easy. Stats can be purchased, but we went with the roll method, which is done on 3d6’s not because it’s convention, but because the entire game is a 3d6 system. That’s interesting because the Council of Thieves game I recently joined is looking at switching to a 3d6 system as well. That article addresses the reasons why a d20 game might want to run on 3d6, and I imagine that some or all of those concepts were at play with the AGE system.

What this means for character creation is that you see a lot of 10’s and 11’s for stats, but the system converts your rolls into a range between 4 and -3. That range is centered at 9-11 being a 1, and then bands up and down by 3’s (so a 13 is a 2, an 8 is a 0, etc.). This is nice, in that it means most players don’t have to look at a sheet with a ton of penalties; I did manage to generate one character with two 0’s, a -2, and a -3. Even he still has a couple of 2’s, though, so it was easy to make him the mage.

There are nine attributes in AGE, covering the standard Str/Dex/Int/Con, but adding in Warhammer-style ranged and melee combat stats. I always find that interesting in a game system, because it strips your fighting ability out of your class and bakes it into the part of the character that dice decide. Wisdom is also split out into Willpower and Perception, and Communication stands in for Charisma. These nine stats are used throughout the game, with tests for just about anything being a 3d6 roll plus the relevant stat. After rolling, you have the option of swapping any two stats, which is nice for making sure that your fighter can hit well and hard, or your mage won’t throw useless magic because he has an ass Int.

Races in AGE are interesting, with all the ones presented in the main book (and the Titansgrave supplement) being very mechanically similar. You don’t see any “This race can breathe fire,” stuff; even things like weapon training aren’t included in the base race. Instead, players gain a +1 to one attribute, a base speed (modified by Dex), some languages, and an ability focus. Through the latter, the game allows players to further customize their characters; an ability focus supplements any relevant roll with a +2. This means that they are half of the replacement for skills in other systems, with talents bringing in the rest. Ability focuses include things like Stamina (for Constitution), Might (for Strength), and Drinking (for YES. Also Constitution) .Your race allows you a choice between two, and your randomly-rolled background (first d6 roll sets your social class, second d6 provides the actual background based on that SES) provides another pair to choose from.

Races also have a table, and players roll 2d6 twice on this table for additional bonuses. These included increases to attributes, more ability focuses, and–for some races–weapon training. This means you can absolutely get the typical hardy dwarf with a penchant for axes, but could just as easily produce one who’s a skilled engineer, or learned scholar.

Something I really love about the race system in AGE is that you can make a half-anything. If you want your character to be half-dwarf, half-orc, that is completely possible. When a player decides to make a mixed-race character, she selects one primary race and gets all of its benefits except for the table rolls. Instead, the player rolls once on that table, and once on the table of whichever race was the secondary. I enjoy how quick and dirty this is, and also that it balances out the tendency to only have half-elves and half-orcs in most games.

Once the race has been selected/generated, and the background’s rolled for, players pick a class. There are three classes, which might satisfy some of those old-school-DnD folks who don’t want a ton of class proliferation. They hit the three main concepts: warriors are your tanks and sustained dps; rogues are your skill specialists and burst/precision dps, getting a sneak attack right at the outset; and mages handle all magic. However, because of the way that the system’s been built, with no Base Attack Bonus or the like, you could absolutely make a melee-based Mage.

Each class gains a few things at the first level, including base hit points (modified by a die roll and Con), some weapon proficiencies, and a few things that help distinguish them from one another. Rogues have the aforementioned sneak attack, though in AGE it’s based on having a higher Dex than your target rather than any sort of positioning. Mages gain training in a pair of magical disciplines, and have a basic, eldritch-blast style ranged attack that’s always at their disposal. Warriors are the most flexible, just selecting training in one of a list of talents related to various weapon approaches.

The Talents are the core of the game’s customization, and are doled out by classes at various levels. Talents have three tiers, and selecting one puts you at the Novice level. As you level, you’ll hit points where you can either select a new talent or advance in a previous one. This presents a simple, but flexible system that would be easy to generate new content for. As an example, I rolled a fighter and took the pole weapon style. At Novice tier, this allows him to treat enemies up to 4 yards away as adjacent, and as he advances the talent he gains more abilities that focus on maintaining a superior position on the battlefield. My wife went with a two-handed fighter for one of her characters, and at the Novice level that allows her to reposition a target by 2 yards on any hit.

Almost anything you’d expect in a typical rpg is rolled into these talents. Contacts are a talent. Scouting is a talent. Lore, Oratory, Mounted Combat…all talents. This provides a ton of character variance, since anyone can dip into compelling oratory, but the party’s “bard” (which could be a mage, a rogue, or a warrior, depending on how you built him) could advance that to the point where he can cause riots with a few well-placed words (and a good Stunt roll, see below). Classes also provide some unique Talents as they advance, and their Specializations further refine this concept.

A Specialization works like the archetypes in Pathfinder or 5th Edition, but it’s also a Talent. That means its tiered as well, and the class progression controls when you advance in it; at high enough levels, characters actually advance a second Specialization. These Specializations aren’t game-breaking, but allow for more class-blending (Sword Mage makes your mage better at fighting with a sword, etc.) or refining a character’s concept further.

Magical Talents are a special case, as they comprise all of the spells in the game. When a character selects a Magical Talent, she gains the Novice level of that talent, which translates to two spells. The Magical Talents in the base book are called Arcana, and cover the expected elemental bases–fire, earth, water, etc., though surprisingly lack any cold spells. There are also some interesting additional Arcana, like Fate (dice manipulation) and Heroic (basically your bless, spiritual armor, etc. spells). Mages start out with two, meaning a first-level mage has 4 spells to play with. Each additional tier adds one more spell, with the power increasing about as you’d expect. Casting spells costs Mages Magic Points, which is a resource generated like hit points at character creation and on level, based off of Willpower. Successfully casting a spell requires a 3d6+Int check against the target numbers (which, unsurprisingly, start around 11 for most spells). Instead of attack rolls, spells allow opponents to make “saves,” by rolling 3d6+a key attribute against the Mage’s Spellpower, which is Willpower derived. This does mean that Mages are beholden to a pair of attributes, but that roughly equals other characters’ dependence on both an attack stat (Fighting or Accuracy) and Strength (which determines your ability to wield a given weapon).

There are some other fiddly bits, like the penalties armor applies (including cost increases for mages casting in them), and how non-proficiency in weapons affects their use. There are also grenades, and characters can focus on manufacturing and hurling them.

However, the other key element of the game is Stuntin’.

Don’t…don’t search “stuntin'” at work. Don’t do that.

As I mentioned before, the game runs on a 3d6 system. What’s key, though, is that one of the dice is the “Stunt Die.” Presumably you roll a die of a different color than the other two, but I don’t live your life. Whenever a player’s roll on a test succeeds and also produces doubles, that player generates “stunt points” equal to the roll on the Stunt Die. Note that the Stunt Die doesn’t need to produce the doubles, and there aren’t benefits for rolling triples. So if I roll 3, 3, s6, I get 6 stunt points, same as I’d get for 6, 3, s6. Stunt points can be spent on a table, purchasing a variety of effects that essentially replicate things like Trip and Power Attack in other systems.

This means that Stuntin’ forms the core complexity of the combat system. Where character with the two-handed weapon style can shove people around on a hit because of her talent, any character could do so with the Skirmish stunt. With rare exception, stunts are single-use in a given round, so good Stuntin’ results in big, complex rounds. You might fire an arrow that ignores half of a target’s armor (in AGE, armor reduces damage by a flat amount) using Pierce Armor, reload your weapon immediately with Rapid Reload, and then shoot someone else with Lightning Attack. Granted, you’d need six points for that, but that’s definitely within the realm of possibility. There are special stunts for magic attacks, which increase the DC of resisting spells, reduce the cost, reduce the target number, etc. As well, roleplaying and exploratoin have stunts, which I find thrilling; I love anything that helps provide more of a mechanical scaffold for roleplaying, because that helps encourage players who might be uncomfortable with or disinterested in rp to step up. RP stunts include things like silencing your target or sneaking in a second test; for the second, I might manage to Bluff my way past a guard but do so in such a way that I learn the details of the shift schedule, so I know how long I have to leave the way I came in without having to Bluff past a new guard).

Exploration stunts include bonuses for future checks, or ensuring that the party finds the target of the exploration from an advantageous position–say, stumbling upon the bandit camp from a rocky ridge or concealing stand of trees. Having stunts for these elements of the game helps turn the “Ranger scouting ahead, rolling Perception” part of the game into something genuinely engaging.

I also like the stunt system in general because it makes “critical” hits more accessible to the general populace, including roll-challenged folks such as myself. Monsters typically have access to the same basic stunts as the players, but DMs are encouraged to create custom stunts to differentiate them. For instance, zombies have a stunt (costing 3 points) that allows adjacent zombies to make a free attack against the target, representing them piling on in a rotting mass. Also, many classes/talents reduce the cost of certain stunts, to allow characters to focus down on a particular style of play or attack.

Obviously, I’ve yet to actually play the AGE system, but that’s on deck for this week. Building an adventure has been easy so far, and the system has a fairly generous healing system (something that, as I’ve made clear in my moaning about 5e, I find tremendously important). In addition to magical healing, any character can attempt a heal check to restore health to a target; players can also grab a short rest to restore a chunk of health. One key element of healing in the system, though, is that once you receive either of those non-magical effects, you can’t do it again until you get hurt again. That’s an interesting caveat, because it suggests that non-magical healing is mostly what you can do with this particular set of injuries at this time–binding a bleeding wound, splinting a broken finger, etc. It’ll still allow a party to push on from room to room in a dungeon crawl, without reducing reliance on the actual magical healer. One of my wife’s mages has the chirurgy talent, which allows her to make a heal check as what’s effectively a minor action (so she’ll still her main action to attack with or even double up the healing with a spell). That’s something that could be even more useful on a barbarian-type fighter, particularly as Charge is a Major action (leaving a minor free); you could conceivably heal yourself every round of the damage you’d take being the frontliner, a sort of player-driven regeneration.

I love little combos like that, and I’m excited to run with a system that’s flexible and ready for expansion. I did also purchase the Titansgrave book itself, which I think is a bit harder sell for most people. Partially, that’s because I don’t like using campaigns that I didn’t write, regardless of their quality. I admit, too, that I expected a greater amount of crunch. The game does pack a fairly significant quantity of rules into just a few pages, presenting a new race (Draconians, basically), as well as integrating guns and other technology into the extant classes. There’s plenty of campaign info if you did want to run around in Valkana, which is a great setting if you were a fan of Rifts, Dragonstar, or–with some tweaking–Spelljammer. The main meat of the book, though, is the series of adventures that Wil ran through with his party in the Ashes of Valkana video series I’d linked above. That’s cool, in that you have pregen characters and quite a few adventures–many of which include unique monsters. It’s tricky, though, in that there’s a high chance that anyone coming to Titansgrave has already seen those adventures, with that specific group of characters. I know some folks love playing through famous adventures, or the plots of books that they’ve read, but it’s strange to me to see that be so much of the book. If I wanted to talk someone into playing the game, I’d probably say “Go watch these episodes of people playing the game,” at which point I don’t think I’d say “Now let’s play that exact game ourselves!”

Still, it’s probably great if you’re an aspiring GM trying to get a new group going, and want a ready-made adventure to drop them into. It also has some stuff I don’t remember from the show, including one particular riddle that…simply, man, no. I can’t really imagine ever being able to solve it myself, but it’d be a cool prop-heavy scene to play out on the table, so for groups who’re into that sort of thing it’s great!

2 thoughts on “Fantasy AGE: Why not learn another RPG system?

  1. Really old post, but nice summary of FAGE. I will be GM’ing for the first time using this system. I enjoyed reading your summary and how you used it for a GM and 1 player game with your wife. I’d be curious to hear more about those play-throughs.

    One thing that confused me in the post, though, was the reference to the Rogues sneak attack. I am not aware of one granted to the Rogue at the start, only pinpoint attack. Would love to know if maybe this changed from the first printing.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, and hope it helps! The mists of time have largely closed around the playthrough I did with my wife, but I might at least find the notes I had for modifying that starting adventure.

      As to the rogue, I was shorthanding pinpoint attack as a Sneak Attack; they’re both damage-increasing conditional abilities, so that was an easy frame of reference. You’re more reliant on your base stats than positioning, of course, but I imagine that plays out roughly the same with a lot of situations rogues find themselves in–especially since Pinpoint Attack likely lets you get more bonus damage while scouting, since you can get your boosted damage after the surprise round even if there’s no one to flank with.

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