Categorized | RPGs

“Dark” FantasyCraft Review

Posted on September 25, 2009 by spikexan

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As my legions of fans know, I’m not fond of fantasy games. I can’t quite define why elves and arrows or clerics and castles don’t appeal to me. Even fantasy settings with a hint of horror like Ravenloft don’t capture the essence of what I look for in a campaign. Ravenloft, however, is on the right track. Today, I’m looking at Fantasy Craft through a dark tint. With little effort, the options provided in this game can make an excellent fantasy or horror setting.

That said, this review will look a little differently as I try to include some seeds to make this setting a little more frightening. Fall is afoot and those shadows will be growing longer. Who isn’t ready for campfires and Halloween?

First of all, this is a massive book. The PDF is 402 pages long. The cover is color; however, the rest of the book is black and white. The layout is rather smart. Running fight scenes decorate the headers and footers of each page. There are four distinct fights that alternate throughout the book. I hoped these four would slowly change over the course of the book so that an animated fight scene would decorate the book. That would have been an ambitious feat though and I can see why that didn’t happen. Besides, who would thumb through four hundred pages to watch a fight scene? These borders work for 99.99% of the book; however, there were two instances of the artwork being too close to the headers and creating an odd visual effect.

The fonts chosen for the book, coupled with the tidy sidebars make for a good read. Also, the charts possess good looking layouts as well. There are so many of them though that reference sheets in the back would be helpful to most gamers.

Most fantasy chooses a certain style reminiscent of Heavy Metal magazine or the first National Lampoon’s Vacation (my favorite Boris Vallejo piece). Glossy dragons breathing down fiery death on a lone barbarian is the norm and generally creates lasting impressions. The cover art for Fantasy Craft didn’t impress me. It’s basically shows a scene set a few minutes after a free-for-all. Most of the creatures in the scene are dead or dying. The majority of the characters aren’t that visually interesting. Hell, there isn’t even a dragon.

Wait. Check again. The perspective for the cover art is its chief winning move for me as the perspective of the cover comes from inside the (assumed) dragon’s mouth. Yep, this warring party has just cleaned up the mook’s only to find the sole reason why they’ve explored some nameless cavern in the first place.

The artwork inside is black and white pencils that are quite attentive to detail. Some of the playable characters in this setting also get treated to a drawing or two that helps define their strangeness. In the first fifty pages, there are some pieces of art eat up a third of the page. Some of these were my favorite in the book, especially the fight with the Rootwalker on page nineteen.

The artwork is more Werewolf: the Apocalypse than Dungeons & Dragons, but that proves a winning move in my eyes. It’s easy to try to compare yourself with the grand-pappy of fantasy games; a much more daunting challenge is being your own person. Fantasy Craft does try to exude its own personality “and personality goes a long way.”

The writing in the various fantasy books I’ve read has always been one factor to numb me towards the genre; however, there was an undercurrent of humor to the book that kept me interested. This mostly occurred in the first and second chapters, which are devoted to character creation An example of this comes from the Feat Descriptions in Chapter Two. After each Feat’s header, there is a sentence offering a mood towards it before getting to the nuts and bolts of the actual rules. Some of these are handy, others are just funny. . The book is broken down into seven chapters–hero, lore, grimoire, forge, combat, foes, and worlds–and the chapters get roughly equal treatment (combat is the only chapter with less than thirty pages). For me, the strongest chapters were hero and worlds as they were focused on the creative process. The other chapters become rules-laden quickly as you find yourself reading charts rather than actual rules.

The rules are a D20 variation that includes niceties like “Action Dice,” which allow you to mend those bad rolls in your favor. There are also some other familiar quirks like taking 10 or taking 20 (should time permit). All in all, the rule are there for those who want complication during combat; on the other hand, there are plenty of way to use these rules for a streamlining of those familiar grounds.

The writers have introduced some interesting little character classes and types for this game. I quickly found myself craving the Swashbuckler even though I’m generally not inclined to play that sort of character.

The final chapter of the book offers solid gaming advice that is both readable for an experienced player/GM and accessible for runts. It covers topics of genre and era and includes various other randomizing charts for those on-the-fly moments that always seem to crop up on us.

What about the horror side of this game? Just for fun, I’ve included some dark seeds that suggested themselves to me when I read this:

1). Rootwalkers are sentient trees dedicated towards balance. What happens when a Rootwalker’s sense of balance is so unhinged that it embarks on a twisted quest opposing the natural order? It sounds like an interesting enemy, but what if it’s one of the player characters?

2). Demon blood. You’ve got the blood of demons within you that sometimes proves a hassle. It takes little time to make this a session’s focus as the group weighs the pros and cons of working with their very own Sam Winchester.

3). Artifacts are always an excellent place to start the madness. Some artifacts like “black stone” are portals to demonic dimensions. These things are mined somewhere. How well would a party do within such a mine? I’m thinking Event Horizon could inspire an answer or two to that question.

4). Several of the player choices in this game are orcs and goblins and various other “monsters.” The fact though is that, despite the origin, the party must consist of fairly open-minded creatures. We know the worse that humanity is capable of. We are bombarded with it on the news. These other races also have their monsters, their Ted Bundys and worse. Play with this fact and get as dark as your gaming group will permit.

5). There is a “stress” indicator on the character sheet that could easily say “sanity.” You want that barbarian with the double-sided axe going insane in the narrow cave? He eats raw meat, you know. It would be easy to use this stat for Willpower Saves. When failed, interesting things happen. When you click off the four boxes, something really interesting happens.

There you have it. Some quick fixes to make your fantasy setting a little more icky. I didn’t even mention the stress tests you could apply to the mage’s magic tomes. You have to watch those cagey spellcasters. I’m not in love with the fantasy genre yet, but Fantasy Craft’s approach makes me want to play. I offer the game these scores:

Layout: Five out of Five Dice (Loving the micro fight scenes)
Artwork: Three out of Five Dice (Perspective saves the cover, but such better art is
Writing: Three out of Five Dice (Impressive, well edited. I have to believe this book
could be a hundred pages less though. Feats, though better written in this book than other fantasy settings, still get tedious after enough pages).
Overall: Three out of Five Dice (Wades into familiar territory with surprising grace)

Review by Todd Cash

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