After two years of regular play, here’s my assessment of Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE RPG and how it performed for us at the table.
Oftentimes, I’ll read a review of an RPG and it feels either speculative (“I haven’t played it, but it reads well.”) or its been lightly used (“I ran a one shot for my group.”). This is not that kind of review. We played the game regularly, ever other week, for nearly two years.
TLDR: Fantasy AGE is a fun to play with plenty of options for both players and GMs. There is enough material for the game to be a real alternative to D&D at your tabletop, while also giving you a different play experience. My group will definitely be returning to this game system again.
A not so secret secret: I am not a fan of modern Dungeons & Dragons. Oh, there’s a perpetual 11 year old in my brain that thinks D&D should be my favorite game EVAR! But then I play, and I come to my senses. I started falling out of love with D&D with 2nd edition and, other than a fling with 3rd edition (shout out to all the Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms players who stumble across these parts!), that intense adolescent love affair has just never rekindled. I like a lot the changes and updates the designers made to the Fifth Edition of the game, but as a whole it still falls flat to me.
ASIDE: I LOVE B/X flavored D&D. That game is laser focused on exploration and plays like an entirely different game. And my hardcover copy of Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials makes my inner 11 year old very happy. But that is the subject for a different post.
Since my falling out with 2nd edition AD&D, I’ve bounced from Heartbreaker to Heartbreaker. The last two strictly fantasy RPGs I enjoyed were Dragonlance Fifth Age (SAGA System) and Gary Gygax’s Lejendary Adventure. But both of those are long out of print, far from perfect, and need far too much work for me to even think about using these days. Savage Worlds is a great system, but after a decade of play its safe to say I was in the market for a new FRPG.
My friend gifted me a copy of the Fantasy AGE (FAGE) basic rules shortly after they were released. A HUGE Acheron’s Call fan from back in the day, he really wanted to see if FAGE was solid enough to use that world setting as a backdrop.
My initial response was that the game had a lot to recommend it, but it was lacking in some key features that I just demand from rpgs these days. The spell selection was to small and thematically narrow, there were no mook/minon/brute rules to speak of, and there was precious little guidance in creating new content (specializations, talents, npcs, adversaries, you name it!). The release of the FAGE Companion solved almost all of those issues for me. After reading through that, and taking both together as a whole, I was excited to try the system out.
When we started out, the plan was to put the game through its paces as much as possible. I didn’t want to add much in the way our house rules, wanting the system to fly or fail on its own merits. In the end, we did add two rules that weren’t covered in the Basic or Companion rulebooks that added to our enjoyment of the system. More on that in a bit.
- The core mechanic for FAGE is fast and easy to grasp. It doesn’t get too bogged down in the math. Nor does it feel like a coin-toss mechanic, where everything really boils down to a 50/50 chance. In fact, the mechanic feels a bit more weighted in favor of success than failure, with stunts being the standout for special successes. Those happen a lot more often than critical successes in D&D or d100, but still give dice rolls a nice upbeat tick when they happen.
- The Stunt Tables are a nice addition to play, with enough variety to make play exciting but not enough to bog down play (too much, anyway).
- With the Companion, FAGE has a great span of character options for traditional fantasy worlds. Reskinning and redressing isn’t terribly hard. The three classes are broad enough to cover most of your character concepts, especially once you start pairing them with Specializations.
- Advancement is spread out evenly enough that there is almost always something to look forward to from a level up. Plus, the way they are staggered gives players a chance to learn the basics before they start stacking up powers that require more nuanced rules knowledge.
- On the GM end of things, the system feels blessedly light. I could manage most game sessions with just my screen and no rulebook flipping.
- Stunting when you fail a roll stinks! But the whiff factor is no where near that of Witch Hunter, which made us happy.
- While FAGE is a something of a toolkit, it lacks a lot of guidance on how to build new things. The Companion adds some scales for creating NPCs and Adversaries, but there is very little on creating new races, talents, or specializations, even when you factor in the Campaign Builder’s Guide.
- Fourth level is a long wait for your first Specialization.
- Because of Requirements for Specializations, you often have to plan your character out a few levels in advance. This is great if you are a character builder, but not very fun if you are not. I’m generally flexible about such things in my game. In the future, I’m considering dropping ALL requirements from Specializations to make character building less of a thing and advancement more spontaneous.
- While the stunt tables are great, there are plenty of times when none of the choices really applied to a situation, or needed to be adapted or mangled to fit.
- Treasure is clearly not a priority in this game.
- Exploration could use more love in this game. There isn’t much there beyond the stunts available to build from.
- A personal gripe (and aren’t they all personal gripes?): While I understand that AGE is an evolving game system, it bugs me that there are frameworks and subsystems (Incursions/Challenge Tests from Modern Age/The Expanse, Hazard Traits from Modern AGE, etc.) that are standard in other flavors of AGE that are not made available for FAGE players without throwing down $30+ for another rulebook. None of these are essential to play, but add a LOT to the GM’s toolkit. I wish Green Ronin would take a page from Pinnacle and offer these extras as PDF, even for a buck or two for GMs who aren’t really interested in investing deeply into the AGE product line.
- Adversary stat blocks feel unnecessarily long and fiddly. This is certainly more a personal gripe as they aren’t really any more cumbersome as Savage Worlds. But 7th Sea and B/X D&D play have spoiled me for short stat blocks. Creating a spreadsheet to help with adversary creation has helped immensely, but the fact that I need one for what is otherwise a rules light-ish game system irritates me.
- There really isn’t much support, out of the box, for anything more than the bog standard pseudo-European faux-Medieval fantasy setting. If you want to run a different flavor of fantasy, be prepared to reskin, repurpose, and revise. On the one hand, this offers a great opportunity for product support. On the other, it would be nice if there were more tools available for the GM to create their own content.
THE HOUSE RULED
- The first thing I added, even before we’d played our first game, were the Reaction and Morale rolls from B/X D&D. For one thing, I really like the dynamic changes they instantly create in an encounter. Also, morale rules give you a real basis to end combat early, which eases the threat posed by extensive combat scenes.
- Extensive combat scenes, you ask? One of the biggest complaints I hear about the AGE system is Health bloat. At higher levels, characters have so many health points, they are practically invulnerable. Likewise, adversaries have high health pools, which means combat drags on forever. Our game took the heroes to 7th level. During that time, I never felt like they were invulnerable, and there were certainly some situations where they too a hard hit that stung. But I never killed a character either. As for monsters, I usually reduced health by roughly 1/2 and used Morale rules based on B/X D&D. Even then, combats ran a bit long for my tastes.
- In the future, I’d probably use the “pulpy” health rules from Modern Age (the heroes add their CON bonus to Health each level, no dice roll bonus) and continue to keep normal monster health at half listed value (except when I need a strong solo!). We did use the Minion rules from the Companion for one fight and those were pitch perfect for a fun romp.
- As I mentioned before, rolling doubles when you fail your roll stinks! So I brought in the Failure Stunts from Kobold Press. These are a fantastic addition and, while I think they could use a bit more development, they really take the sting out of those lucky/unlucky rolls and makes failing forward very easy. I also considered letting stunting on a failed roll indicate a “partial success”, ala Talislanta or Apocalypse World, but the Failure Stunts feel more thematically appropriate to FAGE and more fun for the players.
- The worst kept secret in gaming is that Green Ronin is working on a revised, updated core rulebook for FAGE. They crowd sourced a beta-playtest, which included a number of new features and rules tweaks. Among these were some changes to the way spell failure worked. To sum up the change, if you cast a spell and fail your roll, the effort only costs you half the listed magic points. In addition, you can spend extra magic points, on a 1:1 basis, to goose your roll upwards across the success threshold. I LOVE this change and kept it in our game even after we finished with the playtest. I don’t know if this rule change will make it into the final version of the new core rulebook, but I’ll be keeping it anyway.
The FINAL VERDICT
I really like the way FAGE plays. The players had a great time. They were excited about character advancement and I never felt the game system got in the way of the story we were creating. The stunts were an added shot of adrenaline on the player end, but otherwise the rules got out of the way. After this experience, its safe to say that FAGE will continue to be my fantasy RPG of choice for a while. It’s easy enough to create material for (though it could be easier) and feels different enough in play (from D&D) to keep the play experience fresh and give the GM plenty of room for growth.