Posted on December 15, 2009 by Megan
Available at RPGNow.com
Honed by years of experience with the D20 ruleset, Fantasy Craft opens with the clear premise: this is YOUR game, and the rules are but the toolset to enable you to run it how you like. That said, the Introduction continues with the usual information about what role-playing is, definitions of players, characters, the game master and the like… but throughout the point is continually stressed that you will be choosing the precise nature of the world in which your game will run, from a range of time periods to the relative levels of technology and magic.
Chapter 1: Hero deals with character creation and again stresses that this is the mere mechanics of generating the numbers necessary to operate the rules, and that it is the choices that you make about what motivates your character, how he behaves and what interests him that is the true core of the charcter that you will play. Following the process is simple and clear, with the emphasis on choosing a concept and even your character’s physical description before putting numbers to the attributes. There’s a neat 2-word ‘Origin’ system which not only lets you encapsulate something of what your character brings to the game but also provides small benefits, edges that help personalise your character. Remembering that you are not creating a character in isolation, there are reminders to check with the GM and other players so that characters mould into a coherent party and fit in with the world presented by the GM. Continuing the theme of characters by design, a point-buy system is used for attributes (Strength, Dexterity, etc) before you settle down to choose Species, Class and everything else you need.
There are twelve Species to choose from, with some optional subspecies as well. Most are familiar, although there are also Drakes (dragon-kin with scales and wings), Rootwalkers (animate trees) and Saurians (reptilian humanoids) for variety; as well as the Unborn, who are constructed by either magic or technology and have somehow developed self-awareness and free will. Your Origin is a combination of your Species and a Speciality – human characters also have a Talent which confers extra benefits. Next you pick a Career Level – most games begin at the first level, but something else may be preferred – and a Class. There are three types of class – a general Base Class available at the first career level, more specialised Expert Classes which become available for 5th-level characters and a Master Class (available from 10th-level) which represents a high but narrow level of expertise. Of course, you can remain a generalist within your Base Class if preferred.
The Classes cover a range of areas of expertise, and each comes with some suggestions as to the different character concepts that they might suit and the sort of role they might fulfil within a party of adventurers. This last is much looser and less prescriptive than the equivalent in Dungeons & Dragons 4e. There are some quite distinctive classes here, so if you fancy being a Captain (seafarer, that is) or an Assassin, a Courtier or an Explorer instead of the common fantasy fare of fighter, cleric and wizard, here’s your chance. Several Expert Classes are given as well. Next, you select Interests for your character. These come in three types: Alignment, Languages and Studies. Alignment can be anything from belief in a specific deity to a moral stance or philosophical outlook. Language enables you to speak different tongues, and Studies are wide-ranging, enabling you to have knowledge about something not covered elsewhere in the rules. So you might know a lot of folk tales, or recognise the heraldic bearings of local lords… You start with your native language, one Study based on the area you come from and two additional Interests of your choice; with the chance to gain extra ones as you rise in level.
Chapter 2: Lore discusses action dice, skills and feats. Action dice are used to tip the scales of fate in your character’s favour in various mechanical ways, while skills and feats follow the pattern familiar to an experienced D20 player: enabling your character to do or know things better than those lacking the skill or feat in question. From the role-playing point of view they serve to individualise the character, defining him in terms of the areas in which he is knowlegeable or talented, and specific tricks he is able to pull off in combat or general endevour. The skills are well-presented with a wealth of examples, and there is an interesting concept of ‘downtime’ (non-adventuring time, basically what your characters are doing when you are not playing them) in which characters can learn new skills, improve the ones they already have, or earn a living by plying their skills for pay. If you fancy playing one of the sub-species mentioned earlier, you will have to use a feat to do so… but will get some benefits due to the sub-species you’ve chosen. These, naturally, have to be taken at 1st level.
Next, Chapter 3: Grimoire looks at that all-important element of a fantasy world, magic. Arcane and divine spellcasters are powerful yet fragile, able to wield great power and capable of spectacular failures as well. Spells are learned by the arcane casters as he gains appropriate levels, and are cast by the expenditure of spell points, the success (or otherwise) being determined by die roll. Divine spellcasters do not use points, but are more limited in what they can do within a single scene. True to the ultra-customisable vision of this game, you can choose to allow only arcane spellcasting, just divine casting, or both, depending on the campaign qualities you select (of which more later). To allow for the development of unique individual spell casters, arcane magic comes in Schools and Disciplines. The School represents the mage’s philosophical approach to his art, while the Disciplines within each School collect together spells of a particular nature and effect. Once you have chosen your specialty, you can either choose a number of spells appropriate to your caster level or roll randomly. You can (particularly if you use the random method) know a spell that you are not yet capable of casting. The rest of the chapter is filled with a vast array of spells to get you started. (Minor niggle: the page heading shows incorrectly as ‘Chapter 2: Lore’ throughout the pages of Chapter 3 – don’t get confused!)
Once a character is created, and – if he will use them – his spells selected, we come to Chapter 4: Forge, which contains all the information needed to equip, clothe and arm him. But there’s a whole lot more than a mere shopping list here. Characters can save their cash or live a flamboyant lifestyle, build (or lose) a reputation, and generally create the legacy that any true hero can expect to leave behind him. The core of this is Coin and Lifestyle – rules to govern what money the character has and how he makes use of it. Coin’s fairly straightforward, but Lifestyle covers both the way in which you choose to live and how good you are at looking after your wealth. If it is equipment you are after, comprehensive lists of just about everything the well-equipped adventurer might want. As well as how much it costs and any relevant game statistics, there’s information on which eras it occurs in, how easy it is to obtain… and how easily it gets damaged. Magic items and those which, like potions, mimic spell effects are also to be found here. Services – even such vital ones for the average adventurer as taking a bath! – are also listed, so whatever your needs are, they can be met. An interesting feature is that each brings some small benefit quantified within the rules, so that much needed bath not only cleans our hero (and reduces the smell) but gives him a +1 Appearance bonus for the next scene.
Next comes some interesting rules to cover a character’s reputation, a mechanistic way of measuring his Renown as his adventuring career progresses. It’s not just social standing and status – or even how often bards sing about your exploits – there are titles and prizes and all manner of goodies to be acquired. Possibly the most useful things are Favours, one-time benefits which can be called upon at need by spending Reputation points when you ask for something to be done that’s to your advantage. A lot of examples and their cost in Reputation points are provided, anything from getting a rival locked up without benefit of trial to being invited to a coronation! (Oddly, it’s harder to watch the coronation…) From the role-playing angle, the character ought to know who can provide the Favour he’s after, and actually play out the going and asking. This leads naturally on to the concept of Contacts, NPCs known to one or more of the characters, who tend to be well-disposed towards them and inclined to help them out as necessary. They help you more as you devote more Reputation points to building their Trust… but you can only spend points on a given contact after an episode in which you have had contact with him. Likewise, systems are provided to cover Holdings (the property that the characters might acquire, from a shack or room at an inn to a whole palace), assorted retainers and even magic items. A bit mechanical, perhaps, but good for preserving balance particularly if you find it difficult to resist being generous with rewards or are particularly stingy in what you hand out. You can be both fair and be seen to be fair by your players if you base rewards on these systems. There is a lot of detail on magic items – not just their acquisition and use, but manufacture and more. There are also ‘artifacts’ – one-off items with specific and often plot-driving powers. By using lists of powers, a very comprehensive and robust design system is provided, along with sample items to use or suggest ideas for your own designs.
Chapter 5: Combat deals with every aspect of brawling within the game mechanics. It’s designed with an eye to the cinematic, epic combat that will be talked about long afterwards, yet streamlined to make it an enjoyable experience rather than one long die-rolling and rule-consulting exercise. Explanations are clear and logical, starting with the need to know where all participants are when a brawl begins, as well as knowing what they are holding and whether they know there’s someone looking for a fight nearby. Thereafter action is fast and furious, operating in rounds with participants taking their turn according to their initiative and with a comprehensive list of standard options plus whatever comes from skills, feats, etc., that they have to choose from for the one ‘full action’ or two ‘half actions’ that they can take per round. After a review of how damage works and the various adverse conditions that can affect a character as a result, the discussion moves on to healing.
Next comes Chapter 6: Foes, which discusses the opposition both sentient and otherwise that characters will face in the course of their adventures. Here the emphasis is on how they are created, as well as conversion rules to enable any person or creature from another D20 or OGL book can be fine-tuned to work with Fantasy Craft. Sample ones are provided in a Rogues Gallery and a Bestiary later in the book. The construction sequence is very clear, and leads to the design of balanced and robust foes of all sorts to meet the needs of the adventure. There are further notes about making your foes come to life in your alternate reality, devising an ecology for each monster and knowing what the NPCs get up to when not interacting with the characters. The chapter ends with the promised Rogues Gallery, some ‘Rogue’ templates to aid in the creation of your own NPCs, a random name generation system for them, and finally the Bestiary, monster templates and OGL conversion notes.
Chapter 7: Worlds looks at the creation of the alternate reality in which your game will be set. Experienced groups may be capable of creating a fantasy setting almost as they go along, starting with the immediate area in which the action takes place and intuiting the rest, adding detail as necessary… but for those who prefer a more disciplined approach, there’s a beautiful Socratic approach to world design based on a series of questions about what you want the place to be like. There are fascinating analyses of matters such as eras – determining the state of advancement your world is at – and beliefs to help you decide the broad strokes of the background. You also need to decide whither magic works in your world, and if so, who can have it and how common it is. Likewise, you can decide just which sentient races and monsters exist… and even if they are as presented in these pages, or subtly different. Then there are the more mundane details, fascinating in developing the richness and diversity of your world: governments, social and trade organisations, religious hierarchies, laws, festivals, common outlooks, rivalries based on species or belief… all in all this chapter is well worth reading whatever fantasy game you play if you want to understand world construction. For those who like to nail things down, you can apply ‘Campaign Qualities’ to your world to establish what is there and how it functions.
That’s not all, once the world exists (even if only in your imagination or – if you’re organised – in a notebook), there is the important matter of creating some adventures for your characters to have while exploring the alternate reality you have created for them. There is plenty of good advice about structuring adventures and making them fit the world – always helpful in reinforcing the ‘reality’ of the alternate reality, making it feel like a real place with which the characters can interact, not merely a backdrop for their exploits. The advice about adventure structure, what needs to be provided, points to consider and ways to improve are masterly and should be of benefit whatever you want to write within any game system, never mind this one.
The other part of the GM’s role is actually running the game, and the next part of the chapter goes into detail about a myriad of aspects that need to be considered – from style, presentation and pacing to ensuring that the players are enjoying the game. Again material of benefit to any games master, irrespective of the game he runs. There are also copious notes on how to apply the rules of this game, especially those unique to it and those which specifically fall into the GM’s perview. It’s all provided to empower the GM to run the game as effectively as possible, taking care of details so that he can concentrate on presenting an enjoyable experience for the players.
Overall, this is a thorough interpretation of the core D20 ruleset, clearly presented and well-balanced throughout with well considered options to enable you to customise your game so that it is precisely the way you want it. The final chapter, considering all aspects of the GM’s art from world design to the minutae of effective handling of events at the table is masterly and recommended to anyone wanting to become or improve as a GM.
Review by Megan Robertson