Review: Fantasy Dice by Radical Approach

Genre: Fantasy – Traditional Fantasyfantasy-dice-300

GNS: Narrativist-Simulationist

Rules Weight: Medium to Heavy

Where To Buy: Print – PDF

I don’t quite know where to place Fantasy Dice. It’s an odd sort of game to catagorise because it blends roleplaying and gaming really damn nicely. For example, during character creation, as well as picking a number of numerical values to represent skills and attributes, you get to choose a number of values described only by words, which are designed to encourage roleplaying as well as tactical play. One of these is something called Talents, which represents something that that character can do that isn’t represented by a skill or specialisation, anything from playing nice love songs to being able to tell the time of night by the stars.

Something I also really like about this book is its constant emphasis on the social aspect of roleplaying games. Rather that offering strict rules in many places about how to deal with a situation, which would encourage rules-lawyering and constant flicking through the rule book, it encourages players and DMs to come to a consensus. This is pretty ubiquitous with the character creation, with many of the quantitative descriptors only taking effect if the other players think it reasonable. Taking the Talents example, although the DM is reserved the right to alter any Talent that becomes too broadly applied during play, it encourages the player to offer a more refined Talent and for the other players to help out.

What really caught my eye about the Fantasy Dice engine was, as the name suggests, the die mechanics. It’s a concept I’d been playing around with in my head but never fully implemented, and to see that someone else had already come up with it and put it into effect made me curious.

It’s a dice pool system which works sort of like a reverse ORE. Where ORE extracts two values from a role, Fantasy Dice puts two values into it. Namely, how many dice you roll is determined by your attribute, while what dice you roll is determined by your skill. You can also add bonus dice by having skill specialisations, such as being good with swords.

Another interesting part of the die mechanics — and I’m not going to pretend I’d come up with this one too — is the idea of scaling. Effectively, you can alter your dice pool by either discarding one die and increasing the dice type by one die step, or decreasing the die by one step to increase the number of dice by one. For example, if you had 2d6, you could choose to roll either 1d8 or 3d4 as well. You’re always allowed to scale down all the day to d4s, but you can only scale up until you end up with one die. Scaling up allows you to roll higher numbers at the cost of higher probability of failure so that you can achieve an action you normally could not, while scaling down allows you to roll in more of a bell-curve to reduce the risk of failure.

When you’ve rolled your dice, all but the highest roll are discarded. If the highest roll beats or matches the target number (between 2 and 12), you’ve succeeded. However, how well you succeed is determined by how many over the roll you are, with matching or being one over being a partial success, where the DM is instructed to tell you that “you succeed, but” and insert a minor complication. If you’re exceptionally successful, you get an “and”. Failures follow the same pattern, but in reverse. I think this rule is a really simple addition that adds a lot of flavour.

Modifiers add or subtract the number of dice you get to use, rather than changing the difficulty or adding numerical modifiers. Harking back to the social aspect, the rules explicitly state that honesty is the best policy, and that the DM should roll in front of the players at all times and offers a number of options to avoid fudging the dice. If a secret roll needs to be made — for example, to find a hidden door, where the players shouldn’t be allowed to know the difference between “you don’t find one” and “there isn’t one” — it suggests either asking the players to roll their dice under a book the DM is holding so that they can’t see the result, or to use a method called “average rolls”. These work in the same way as D&D 4e defences, as a target number the DM has to roll against.

A lot of the book is like this. It presents any rule that isn’t fundamental as an option, rather than a restriction. I do like this, because I feel all the way like I’m being encouraged to play a roleplaying game rather than a rules-heavy board game like D&D became with 4e, but I often feel like some optional rules should simply have been declared part of the core rules. The “average rolls” for example, which I plan on using. Because they’re optional, there’s nowhere for them on the character sheet, which makes recording them fiddly.

Back to character creation, one of the things that sets Fantasy Dice apart is its unique and wonderful attributes system. You can tell just from looking at them that they’re well thought-out and carefully balanced, and you can tell just from reading this that I like them.

Each attribute is paired with another. Increasing an attribute during character creation reduced the paired attribute by an equal amount. Each attribute starts as your “racial average” and is allowed to be deviated up to 2 points from it in this manner.

So, for example, Strength and Agility are paired, because a heavily-muscled character and a lithe character are at opposite ends of the Strength-Agility spectrum. The works nicely with racial averages, so that, for example, orcs are always stronger and more agile than the other races, even if their attributes are adjusted up and down in character creation.

Dexterity and Sight represent fine motor skills and senses. I want to note here that I’m glad to see Agility and Dexterity as separate attributes, as their grouping together has always been a pet peeve of mine, a holdover from the dawn of roleplaying that people are too sentimental to shake. Although Sight represents all the senses, it clarifies that a character’s or creature’s Sight is primarily whatever their dominant method of sensing is, so that a bat, though blind, might still have a high Sight because its echolocation serves the same purpose.

Although I fully agree with the the pairing, it took me a little deduction to come to that agreement, because the justification given is a little thin. We’re told, “Many who spend all their time on their handy work grow near sighted.” That’s entirely true, but because that’s all the justification given, it makes it look like a weak argument. I feel that an extra justification is needed, like “Those who spent a lot of time on intricate work tend to pay far too much attention to detail and so miss what’s going on in the world around them.” I know from experience that’s true.

For mental abilities, if the human mind were a computer, Cunning is RAM; Wisdom is ROM. I rather like the justification for pairing Cunning and Wisdom: “Those who lack cunning tend to make up for it with academics achievement.” Roleplayers tend to be of the more-intelligent breed, so I’ll ask you this: how many people do you know who make up for their lack of brainpower and deductive reasoning by memorising rote facts to spew off in an attempt to mimic intelligence, or at least what their primitive minds see as intelligence?

The only problem I have with this pairing is that the description of Wisdom more resembles knowledge, while the description of Cunning is not unlike what wisdom actually is. In fact, in my mind, I believe wisdom and cunning to be synonyms. I agree with the concept entirely, but I think it’s a poor choice of names. I have the same problem with Wisdom and Intelligence in D&D.

Demon and Spirit represent the balance of good and evil inside us all, Demon being our ego, our selfish drive to improve our own position in the world, and Spirit our passion, our desire to make a difference to it. I do feel these names are a little vague and nondescript, although I have to accept it is appropriate for a fantasy setting.If anarcho-capitalists have high Demon, then hippies have high Spirit. That’s quite fitting, actually. I withdraw my criticism.

One more thing, Demon represents your reflex and initiative. I’m not quite sure why, and I wonder if this is the only time in the entire book where I’ve seen game balance trump roleplaying.

Character creation really is about building a character with character. The amount of qualitative values comes pretty close to the quantitative ones and have about as much significance. To use qualitative characteristics, the player is given “trigger ammo” that allows them to affect the narrative by triggering an event related to their characteristics. This is a finite resource which changes hands between the players and the DM to affect the story, with spent ammo being handed out as a reward for roleplaying bad decisions that give the character penalties to rolls, or being used by the DM to keep the plot moving without fudging dice.

All that I’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much material to make your character just how you want them, and I haven’t even gotten onto magic yet.

The descriptive theme continues into combat. Wounds aren’t numerical, but qualitative, ranging from superficial to mortal, with weapons always dealing the same degree of damage on a successful attack. A number of factors can increase the damage, though, or decrease it. Special tactics, degrees of success and armour all affect damage.

The type of damage a character can sustain is based on their toughness, which is derived from their Strength. There are no hit points, and tougher characters are able to shrug off damage until damage of a high enough order is dealt in a strike.

As for making an attack, I like that this system uses opposed rolls. Characters get two actions, and if they don’t hold one action back to use in defence, they don’t get to roll for defence. I’m a big fan of this type of combat because it keeps players involved at all stages of combat.

If you haven’t declared a target area, you roll for hit location. I usually feel that hit location charts lead you down a dark path that ends in cut shape templates and spleen penetration rolls. However, I actually feel that the descriptive nature of Fantasy Dice combat largely averts this. But if you do like cut shape templates and spleen penetration rolls, you can always buy the Trauma add-on pack.

The combat section is extensive and heavily emphasises roleplaying throughout. There is a section on combat improvisation that tells you how to use non-combat skills to gain the upper hand, such as taunting or deceiving your opponent. The grappling section is particularly nice because it provides a framework in which to work and lists a few possible maneuvers, but again instructs the DM that above all they are playing a roleplaying game and players should be able to perform any reasonable action they can think of.

Once combat is over, characters have to deal with Trauma, which is latent damage from wounds taken. This can result in characters collapsing or becoming crippled once the adrenaline wears off, and puts them at a disadvantage later. Like everything, it’s a mixture of roleplaying advice and penalties to rolls.

The magic system is extensive and takes up about a third of the book. The different magical schools are herbology and alchemy, and the arcane arts of witchcraft, sorcery and black arts. I’d be here forever if I described each one in detail, so I’ll try to be brief.

The section on arcane arts is actually a guide on magic and creating magic systems rather than a system in itself. It offers much advise for the study of magic by characters and explains the differences between the three types of magic available in the game. Witchcraft acts like nature magic and tends to deal with non-offensive spells that heal, repel evil or aid the adventurers. Sorcery, on the other hand, is an offensive art, but also includes utility spells like witchcraft but of a more elemental feel. Black arts are the evil counterpart of witchcraft and although very similar, has much more sinister consequences.

All magical arts are somewhere between low and high magic, with each having consequences; sorcery being exhausting, witchcraft requiring rituals and sacrifice, and the dark arts coming with all sorts of dangers.

After reading through the book once, I still feel I’ve got a lot more I can glean from it. It’s really deep in the idea of roleplaying and I think that’s something a lot of games are missing. In many ways I feel it’s very D&D-inspired, simplifying certain rules and using the space to add in new rules that encourage roleplaying and tactics over rules-lawyering. If you’re looking for a game that has a Dungeons and Dragons feel but a better system where the rules act as tools rather than laws, I highly recommend Fantasy Dice; it’s clearly well thought-out and intelligently put together. In parts, I feel it tried to be too generic, but if you’re looking for a setting to go with the game, I hear Radical Approach’s Crimson Exodus utilises the Fantasy Dice engine. But honestly, although there are a few sticking points, mainly semantic, if I had creative control over D&D 5e, this is the kind of direction I’d push it in.

Integrity: **** The rules are consistent, but are a lot to learn. That all modifiers affect the number of dice rolled makes for very quick improvisation. The games allows a lot of room for roleplaying, but emphasises that roleplaying can’t be used to cheat the rules of the game.

Combat: ***** The combat is tactical and interesting, using a standard “rounds and turns” format, but with extra rules that allow roleplaying to pay a key part in the combat.

Speed: *** The dice mechanics make for very fast task resolution, but the extra time is used to make room for roleplaying rather than speeding up the game.

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