Recap: Spiel in Essen 2016

A recap on some of my favourite games from Essen this year:

Conan

Although I heard little more from the Modiphius team about their Conan RPG that you don’t already know if you receive their newsletter, except that it’s due to be finished in a month or two, I did get to speak to Frederik Malmsburg, owner of the Conan and wider Robert E. Howard properties, about his plans. Not only is he a really wonderful, charismatic guy (Fred, not Conan), but he clearly loves what he does and proves that Howard’s legacy is in really good hands. Fred told us how his current plans are to explore TV options for Conan that allow them to stick closer to the original canon, now that Game of Thrones has paved the way for fantasy on screen. If such a series turned out successful, he could build on that success to bring Solomon Kane and even El Borak to the screen. Another Conan movie, he said, is not a dead project. Arnie is still there and interested, but getting that kind of project greenlighted takes a lot of work.

 

Modiphius: Kung Fu Panda and Siege of the Citadel

One of the most anticipated games of Essen this year was Modiphius’s reboot of the age old classic Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, which was recently launched on Kickstarter. Although the game wasn’t ready to see at the show, fans got a chance to see the game in action at Modiphius’s Community Party, which they throw every year nearby to launch their newest products. As you can see from the photograph, the game is compatible with many of the components from the old game, which were used for the test game at the party. The rules have had a major update though, and extra scenarios have been written to make the game even more exciting than ever.

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Just as anticipated—which I found completely surprising—was the Kung Fu Panda game which Modiphius has been developing for just over a year now. When I saw the game last year, I was doubtful that the game was simple enough for kids to understand, because it was a real time dice rolling game like, for example, Escape from the Temple, but after seeing a lot more games using that mechanic and seeing the updated alpha version this year I’ve changed my mind on that. For one thing, the game has been simplified so it runs much more smoothly. Effectively, you are attempting to roll dice combinations in order to defeat the enemies on the board while the sand timer slowly trickles out, with each character needing different combinations. Each claw symbol you roll moves the enemies closer to you as them move along a track drawn on the board, and once they come into contact with you, each claw becomes a wound, locking the dice. If you end up with all your dice locked, you’re wounded, and can’t do anything until the sand timer is reset. It’s definitely a lot of fun, and with enemies now moving on tracks it’s a lot quicker and simpler to play—and the boards will look nicer for it.

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Z War One

Like a lot of people, I’m naturally drawn to the zombie genre, but I have to say I’ve usually been disappointed with games building on that theme. Z War One, though, really caught my attention. It uses much deeper, more tactical mechanics that really make it a much more immersive experience than, say, Zombicide. Each scenario is different, providing a unique experience each time, and is balanced to ensure that if you succeed, you do so really by the skin of your teeth each time, which makes for a real nail biting experience, even when your only opponent is the game itself.

What really got me excited, though, was the different play modes, just like those “video games” I used to play before high quality board games became a thing. You can play against the game cooperatively, or you can up the difficulty and have another player play “the director,” taking control of the zombies and working against you. Even better, if you buy at a con like Essen, you get extra rules for playing an old school deathmatch against another player. Awesome stuff.

If I had to recommend just one game from Essen this year, this one would be it.

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Blood Bowl

Blood Bowl is at the top of the list of many people’s all time favourite games. With dozens of teams to choose from, Blood Bowl’s asymmetric gameplay is endlessly interesting, and its light, tactical rules make each game and each team unique. The new edition has been beefed up to the 40mm standard preferred by most Blood Bowl leagues, but the rules remain the same. And of course the new models are gorgeous. The game comes with a set of dice for each player, including a d16 for random player selection, which previous editions lacked. Even better, all the components (apart from of course the boards) are made from Games Workshop’s own plastic, which not only makes everything higher quality but keeps everything in-house. All in all, this is one hell of a revival of one of the most beloved games of all time, and really shows Games Workshop is continuing its recent trend of listening to its community.

 

Lobotomy

Although we didn’t get a chance to play Lobotomy, we did see it on the gaming table, and it looks awesome, and for an awesome price. For just €80, you get loads of models, a beautiful gaming board, and tons and tons of tokens, cards and scenery. I was actually jaw-droppingly surprised at just how much you got for your money. It’s a game about escaping from an asylum which, at least in the heads of the escapees, is being taken over by demons. If you’re thinking of getting it, it’s a definite buy. Go for it.

 

Argo

I have to admit, I wasn’t super impressed with Argo, but it’s the simple gameplay that got me to buy it. In Argo, you take control of five astronauts who have awoken from cryo only to find their ship under attack from aliens, with each astronaut having his or her own special ability. Your other players each have a set of astronauts just like yours, with your goal being to get your guys to the escape pods while scoring as much points as possible. The game starts to get very crowded very quickly, meaning that as your dudes are running around you’re pushing and shoving other player’s characters around, into rooms where aliens are waiting to eat them, into teleporters, and other hazards. In Argo, the real danger aren’t the aliens, but your other players. It’s the kind of simple, strategy-based game that I just love, and plays in about 20 minutes.

 

Ice Cool

I really wanted to like this game, because so many people have been raving about it. And to be honest, I did like it—I just didn’t love it! For those who don’t know, Ice Cool is a flicking game where three players take the role of penguins running around the school halls collecting fish, while another player takes their turn as a hall monitor, trying to catch the other penguins by bumping into them. The design off the penguins—effectively miniature Weebles—means it’s possible to flick them in ways to make them do tricks: you can curve round corners, lean to one side to catch a penguin just out of reach, or even flick them on the head to flip over walls—which is explicitly allowed in the rules. If you’ve got kids, this is a great game you can play with them where you’ll enjoy yourself just as much as they do, at least for a couple of rounds. If you haven’t got kids, but you like penguins, you’ll probably have fun with this too. And if you don’t like penguins: what kind of a heartless monster are you?

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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.

Review: Blood! by Postmortem Studios

Genre: Horror23173

GNS: Simulationist

Rules Weight: Medium to Heavy

Where To Buy: RPGNow

What drew my attention to Blood! was its emulation of the survival horror genre. Often I’ve played or ran zombie survival games only for them to fall apart due to rules that are too abstract and restrictive, games that weren’t designed around the concept of a monster that can only really be killed with a blow to the head. So I picked up Blood! along with its zombie adventure Blood Tales: The End.

Leafing through the rulebook, I find it hard to classify the rules weight. It’s a d100 system, which is a generally versatile die mechanic because it allows for easy adjustment and easy gauging of risk. The only things I don’t like about d100 are that it also allows players to do the same, reducing their chances taking certain risks, and that it doesn’t have a bell curve. Call me picky, but I also don’t like the fact that so many games use it either.

Adding to this confusion of weight is the fact that dice rolls are very simplified. There’s no counting degrees of success as in other d100 games. A roll is either a botch, fail, success or critical, and effects for each are consistent from one skill use to another. Opposed checks work the same way: your skill level represents your chances of getting each type of roll, and it’s your type, not your number, that is compared to the opponent. The system for comparing them is just as simple: either you drew, or someone did better than the other and they win the contest.

The reason I find it difficult to classify the rules weight is that although the rules look more complicated than average on paper, they play through pretty simply. Character creation requires a few sums, but nothing complicated; add 20 to one of your attributes, divide an attribute by this etc. But once you get this out the way, and it doesn’t take long, everything is set up for you and recorded on the character sheet.

Characters in Blood! are the average people who are the victims of so many horror movies. No one is special, and many skills are purposely designed to be useless, such as “Pub Games”. If you want to play yourself in a zombie survival setting, as I do, this is pretty perfect (although I personally am not very good at pub games).

Dying in Blood! is about as much fun as staying alive. In fact, being a horror game, dying and losing body parts is a key part of the game. It’s also nicely realistic. You have Hit Points, which measure your stamina, really. Losing all your Hit Points won’t kill you, but will make you much easier to harm. This is realistic. A person can take a real beating and be reduced to a winded, whimpering ball on the floor without ever being at risk of death, but once they’re in that position they become a lot more vulnerable.

It’s losing Blood Points that kills you. Blood Points are literally that — they are your body’s ability to cope with blood loss. Weapon damage is grouped into types, with sharper weapons dealing more blood loss, while blunt weapons tend to deal just HP damage at lower levels. A particularly severe blow from any weapon, though, will lead to a character bleeding out each round until they run completely out of Blood Points. First Aid is very important in this game.

There’s an optional Energy Points which measure exhaustion. I won’t be using these as I see Hit Points as fulfilling this role, so I won’t mention them any further.

As I said, the game is great for zombies, as well as other viruses. It provides rules for both fast (Fury Virus) and slow (Zombie Plague) types, as well as vampires, an insanity disease, the meteor-induced blindness from Day of the Triffids, and a few others.

Only after learning all the different ways characters can be maimed and killed do we learn about how combat — the art of not being maimed and killed — actually works. This order seems rather fitting. Combat is relatively simple. Aimed attacks are dealt with nicely with four basic areas and different effects applied to successful attacks directed at those areas. Combat works like any other skill checks: both combatants roll and compare their successes, the defender declaring which type of defensive action they’re taking. One abstraction that I like is the idea that although a knife can’t be used to parry another weapon, it can be used to ward an attacker off with a thrust and a wave.

The rules for burst and automatic weapon fire are versatile, but their realism is debatable. Effectively, the more bullets you expend, the less accurate your fire but the more damage you can do. Whether that’s realistic or not is a debate to be had on a forum, not a review, and to be honest I can’t say I know of a game that does any better. Like grappling, automatic fire is something roleplaying games are yet to iron out.

Ah, grappling. It’s not simple enough to be used without reference to the book, at least if this is your first time playing, but it at least uses the same core mechanics. Opposed checks are made and a draw results in a stalemate, a success results in the attacker being given one of three options (ground and pound, drag or pin) with each applying various effects. On the defender’s turn, they can choose to break free or reverse the grapple. How difficult this is to do depends on how well the attacker did last round. It’s certainly more fun-sounding and workable that other methods I’ve seen.

I forgot to mention, each action requires you to spend a point of Action, whether you’re initiating an action or opposing it. This means, if you want to go all out, you can, but you cannot defend against attacks. You can carry Action Points over into the next round if you don’t use them all, but there’s a maximum to how many you can hold. The game recommends the GM distribute beads or coins or something similar to track this. Action Points style combat has always been my favourite, so it would be biased for me to rate the game on this, but, yeah, I like it.

Many more methods of attacking characters are also described, including running them over and crashing into their vehicle, and there’s a chase mechanic. I notice that there’s no mention of how you roll to hit in this circumstance or how dodging works, only damage, but I assume it requires a success on the drive skill and there dodging as in combat. I also distinctly notice that the section on dealing damage to a vehicle lists tires, headlights and engine blocks but makes no mention of smashing windows. In zombie survival game, or indeed any game where the enemy is trying to smash their way to you, I’d consider this vital.

The game also has an integrated fear and insanity system, where the setting wears away at the characters slowly. When you lose your Mind Points, you lose your mind in various ways. Unlike, say, Cthulhu, getting to a safe place and resting up restores your Mind Points.

That’s half the book dealt with, and about a quarter of that was about how to kill people.  Of the rest, about half is a list of creatures, then there’s a weapons table covering every conceivable improvised weapon (it’s about 200 items long), and then the book finishes up with critical hits tables for every conceivable form of damage.

Overall, I feel the game very accurately depicts the horror genre in a way no other game does. It’s a game about the victims who fought back, and I feel it puts more control in the hands of the players than Cthulhu-type games do. To counter this, the level of action is a lot more intense, providing for a much more combat-oriented experience.

As for playability, the game sets itself up in a unique way that, though very thorough, plays pretty consistently. All actions, whether opposed or unopposed, use the same mechanic. The only times you’ll need to flick through the book are in specific circumstances such as such as critical hits or insanity, and in these cases I think the suspense of the players watching you flick through the book to find out what happens to their character will work well. Grappling and automatic fire, I imagine, can be printed out for reference or memorised with enough play-through. I already have the automatic fire rules memorised, and I’ve only read them once

Integrity: **** There’s some table-referencing in specific circumstances and the process of deriving certain statistics is unique to each, but in these cases the system is laid out pretty clearly and the simple dice mechanism is always the same no matter what.

Combat: **** Combat is simulationist and requires some bookkeeping as it’s much less abstract than more gamey RPGs, but it’s also short and deadly. This leaves combat open to a number of clever tactical choices.

Speed: **** Despite its apparent complexity, the game plays fairly quickly. However, it gets slowed down in certain circumstances, such as rolling criticals, aimed shots and grappling.

Interview with Graham Bottley of Arion Games, Creator of Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Following my review of Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, in which I mentioned my desire to interview its creator Graham Bottley, the man himself contacted me and offered me just that. Here’s what we talked about.

How long were you working on AFF and what drew you to it as a project?
Gamebooks got me into roleplaying all those years ago (specifically Forest of Doom) and AFF was a game I played a lot when young. I even did my own rewrite back then adding in the sorcery spells etc. So when my resurrection of the Maelstrom RPG was so successful, I decided that the time was ripe for AFF to make a comeback. I contacted Steve and after I got the OK, it took about 6 months to write, playtest and then rewrite.

What do you think the most significant changes are from Dungeoneer?
There are a few major changes and quite a few minor ones. We added in an armour system, as there was none before. We completely changed Holy magic so that it was distinctive. We added in talents to help further distinguish similar characters. We added in Sorcery magic

We also tweaked character creation, combat, spellcasting and some of the action rules. And we added in a dungeon generation system, and loads of optional rules. We did leave out the adventure, but that 3 part campaign should see the light of day again in the near future.

I never played the original AFF. What were the problems with the Dungeoneer system that 2nd Edition fixes?
The character creation in Dungeoneer was badly broken and lead to a large disparity in character ability. AFF2 introduces talents which helps define otherwise similar characters (always an issue with a rules light game).

We introduced sorcerer magic in AFF2 which offers more options but is finely balanced with wizardry. Many of the wizardry spells in Dungeoneer were broken, especially STAMINA. Priests in Dungeoneer were just wizards by another name (identical mechanics).

Character advancement was very wonky in Dungeoneer.

There are no armour rules in Dungeoneer. We also added some more combat options in AFF2 to give a bit of variety.

Why did you feel that rewriting The Wishing Well was the right idea? Also, why did you choose to put the adventure before the rest of the rules?
One of the great things about AFF is that it works as an introductory game for those who have read the gamebooks or even those with no knowledge of gaming. And we wanted to include an introductory adventure that anyone could pick up and GM in 10 minutes.

Now, whilst I loved those two FF dungeons (Wishing Well and Hives of Peril), they were very weird in places and quite difficult to run if you had no previous RPG experience. So the goal was to include something very straightforward and easy to pick up and play, whilst at the same time including a bit of the Titan humour and feel. We also put the adventure there (with stripped down rules) so that novices could pick up the book and be playing very quickly without feeling they had to learn the full rules first. These concepts have been quite popular with new gamers and is similar to the old red box D&D which had a “choose your own adventure” before the rules or character creation were explained.

How does grappling work and is it in the book somewhere?
There have never before been any formal rules for grappling, and we didn’t include any in the book, mainly because we couldn’t in playtests find anything that was balanced but kept the feel of the game. I am minded to put together some rules and post them on my forums for those that need them. Any suggestions welcome!

What are your plans for the future of AFF and how long does your licence run for? How will Blacksand differ from the original?
The license has got a good few years left yet, and assuming it keeps doing well should be continued beyond that. We are working on a SciFi version of the ruleset (http://farsightblogger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/dev-diary-aff-science-fiction-playing.html?spref=tw), Beyond the Pit, a Salamonis sourcebook and more.

Blacksand, the bulk of the writing should be finished tomorrow morning, will have much of the original information about the city from the original book, expanded with new setting material and with some new rules etc as well.

I’ve seen it mentioned that mass combat rules are absent from the core rulebook and that you were holding it for a later release. Is it in a currently released book?
Mass combat and wilderness creation rules were included in the recently released Heroes Companion (available from our webstore and very soon through all normal channels) along with loads of new magic types, organisation and hireling rules and more.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Crown of Kings campaign and the Heroes Companion?
The Crown of Kings campaign is a fairly faithful adaptation of the four gamebooks. I tried not to add in too much extra information outside of what was originally found there, but if you want to use it as a framework to add on other mini-quests, that is very easy. I always loved the Sorcery series because it starts off very low fantasy and atmospheric in the Shamutanti hills, goes a bit crazy in Khare, adds in some plot in the Baklands and then comes to an epic conclusion in Mampang.

The Heroes Companion is intended to provide options, and add other bits that were left out from the original books. So we have quite a few new magic systems, some rules for hirelings and organisations, mass battles and other bits and pieces. All of these additions are purely optional and can be used from the start of a campaign or added in at a later date as they are options that most heroes will grow into rather than start with.  Although we have had some issues with our main printer on this one, slowing down the release a bit, it should be out very soon (and I have a short print run available from my webstore).

RPG Review: Advanced Fighting Fantasy by Arion Games

Genre: Fantasy – Low Fantasy – Sword and Sorceryadvanced_fighting_fantasy_m

GNS: Narrativist

Rules Weight: Light to Medium

Where To Buy: Cubicle 7

Advanced Fighting Fantasy is a simple system. So simple, in fact, that I was in half a mind not to buy it because I could probably work out the rules by reading a couple of reviews and applying a little mental acrobatics. What got me to make the dive, though, was really the weapons and armour system.

It’s a unique system that really solves the shortcomings of using a d6-only system. Instead of having fixed weapon damage and armour damage reduction, you roll your d6, where other games would specify different sized dice to roll. You then compare your result to a handy little chart unique to each weapon that you copy to your character sheet. Higher rolls correspond to more damage but not necessarily equal to your result. For example, rolling a 1-5 while unarmed scores 1 damage, while rolling 6 scores two.  Bigger weapons may have minimum damages of 2 or 3 and higher potential damage for higher rolls.

You do the same for damage reduction. I like it, because it makes the d6 more versatile and allows for randomness and minimum damage without having to mess about with multiple dice. I’ve always liked games that allow for variable armour, because it allows the possibility that a character strikes you in an unprotected place. I also like that it puts action first and memorisation second, because instead of consulting your sheet to see what dice you roll, you just roll one die every time and then consult the 6-figure chart.

Actually, I lie. It wasn’t just the damage system that drew me in. Anyone who played Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as a kid probably knows that the world of Titan in which they are set has a uniquely dark, grim and weird atmosphere. Considering that it’s written by the minds behind Warhammer, you can see the resemblance. That unique feel is something that I’ve always missed in games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which emphasise high fantasy settings filled with idealism and romance where the worst thing that ever happens is the caravans not getting through (which is economically unsound when you think about it; if the caravans aren’t getting through, traders will go elsewhere and the bandits will leave, having no more loot to feast on, and then the caravans will be able to get through again).

It’s with this in mind that I turn our attention to the included adventure. After a short introduction to the rules, we’re thrust into an adventure, before we’ve even been told how to make a character. Many have complained about this, but I think it’s a perfect illustration of just how easy the rules are to grasp, and that was probably the point of this layout. What bugs me about this adventure isn’t where it is in the book, but where it is in the game world.

Many people reviewing this 2nd edition of AFF use Dungeoneer — the core rulebook of AFF 1st edition — as a reference. But I don’t own a copy of that. What I do own is Fighting Fantasy: The Introduction Roleplaying Game, which is a halfway house between single-player FF and AFF, basically adapting Fighting Fantasy rules to multiplayer combat and nothing more. Included in this book was an enjoyable adventure called The Wishing Well. The adventure we have here in AFF 2nd edition is called The Well, and as the missing word demonstrates, it’s nothing more than The Wishing Well with all the insides torn out. Where The Wishing Well is a weird, dangerous affair that clearly demonstrates the gonzo style of Fighting Fantasy, The Well is significantly tamer, and plays more like a Dungeons and Dragons Basic Game boxed set with an 11+ rating and a light salting of Fighting Fantasy weirdness. The map is the same, but every room has been rewritten and all the nasty and unique monsters removed.

I just don’t feel it sets the right tone, and I don’t understand why Graham Bottley decided to strip a perfectly serviceable adventure down to its core and rewrite it. Why didn’t he just write one from scratch? Is he that uncreative?

Judging by the rest of the book, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Unless I interview him one day, I’ll never know his reasoning. Considering my propensity for tracking down game designers and harassing them for explanations, I’ll probably end up doing that.

Back to the book, we move into character creation. A points-buy system has been implemented, which I’m told is for balance, and I agree. There’s an optional random generation system for those who want a bit of old school. Characters have four basic stats:  Skill (or SKILL, as AFF stylises it), which governs all skills, including combat; Stamina, which is your hit points but also your constitution; Luck, which is your saving throw; and Magic, which is new to this edition and is self-explanatory, but I’ll go into it in more detail.

Magic was a necessary addition to bring balance to the game. In Dungeoneer, I’m told, magic-users used SKILL to determine their magical prowess, and this made them incredibly overpowered, because SKILL also governs not only combat prowess, but every single skill check. I’ll get back to magic later.

After generating your stats, you get to pick a race, which gives you certain bonuses. Then you get “special skills”, which in others games would just be called skills, and apply extra bonuses to special applications of a SKILL check. I have to say I actually rather like this approach. In other games, for example DnD 3.5, a skilled character is approximated by giving them lots of skill points to scatter about their various skills; in DnD 4e, the system becomes a little more abstract and applies a bonus to any class-trained skill as well as adding your level to the skill check. AFF, on the other hand, just goes out there and admits what DnD was trying to say all along: a skilled character is skilled at many things.

After the character creation section we get a section on the rules, which all revolve around some core mechanics. If you’re making a save or doing something involving an inanimate object, you have to roll under your relevant attribute on 2d6, modified by difficulty or special skills; one thing I like about this system is that as checks are failed your stats deteriorate, making  saves and other actions harder in future. Otherwise you’ll be making an opposed check, either in combat or diplomatically. Combat is more advanced that FF and I’m told it even has a leg over AFF in terms of versatility. There are a few tactical options that make combat more interesting than just comparing opposed rolls, but for the most part combat is fairly abstract. It’s a very narrativist approach in that the rules are designed to be fast-paced and without the use of a combat grid. I like this a lot. Although I prefer my modern or sci-fi games to be tactical, fantasy games tend to get bogged down when they get too deep into the idea.

Despite being simple, there are sections explaining application of the rules in most conceivable situations, including mounted combat. Although the Brawling special skill mentions that it applies to grappling, I was unable to locate any grapple rules. The core mechanics are simple enough and the game abstract enough that I can make something up, but that’s not really the point.

Moving onto the magic section, the thing that really caught my attention, apart from the fact that it fixes the balance issues of first edition, were declarations that it incorporated the magic system from Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (sic). Now, this is a half truth. It has all the spells and casting affects the character in the same way by draining Stamina, but the determiner of success is now based on the character’s MAGIC stat.  In the Sorcery! Fighting Fantasy books, you’d be given a list of three spells, one or two of them being fake, and whether you picked the real spell determined whether it was cast. Although I can imagine it being fun giving my sorcerers a list of fake spells and asking them to pick, I can see this as a much better system for a multiplayer game.

The other classes of magic are Wizardry, Cantrips and Priest, which all do as they say on the tin and are well balanced. I have to say, Mr Bottley did a great job on that front. One last note: if you botch a spell by rolling double-sixes, you have to roll on the Oops Table. I have to say, this table reminds me of a tamer version of FATAL.

These Wizardry spells draw from Magic Points, which are derived from your MAGIC stat and Wizardry special skill. I think a more integrated system would have had MAGIC deteriorate with spell use, making subsequent spells and resisting enemy spell effects harder, much like STAMINA does with Sorcery, but it’s not too big a deal, in all honesty. Wizards are already significantly nerfed compared to 1st edition and the writer probably thought this would make them less playable. It also helps make playing a Wizard a different experience from playing a Sorcerer, and that’s probably what Bottley was aiming for. As it stands, Wizards are fun to play, so I’m not sure what I’m complaining about.

Priests, on the other hand, draw powers from their gods and so don’t use Magic Points.

The last few sections include a gazetteer of the setting, a guide to monsters and some optional rules. There’s also some DMing advice and equipment lists, such as magic items and treasures.

The monsters section provides some pretty standard monsters, a guide on making your own and a conversion sheet from every Fighting Fantasy monster, which are available in Out of the Pit, a compilation of, well, every Fighting Fantasy monster. Arion gained a licence to print but not edit Out of the Pit, so this section is necessary to get around that. If you have an old copy of Out of the Pit, there’s no point buying the 2nd edition reprint because it is just that and nothing more.

Finally, the optional rules section has, in addition to what it says on the tin, a guide to creating weapons, armour and spells.

Overall, I’m happy with the system and look forward to playing it. It’s solid, fast-paced and set in a unique world with an atmosphere that you won’t get anywhere else.

Integrity: **** Very little feels tagged-on about this system. The rules are open enough that they don’t have to be exhaustive. It loses a star only because the opposed checks and unopposed checks are respectively roll over and roll under, which makes the mechanics slightly less consistent.

Combat: *** Combat is great for a narrativist style — fast and easy to use — but isn’t exhaustive or highly tactical. No grappling rules, either.

Speed: ***** Five stars. The rules are simple, combat plays quickly and the high level of integration means there’s little flicking through the book on how to resolve a situation.