Tuesday, March 7, 2023

AGE Catching Up With Me

With a second edition of Green Ronin's FantasyAGE RPG and the AGE-based Fifth Season RPG coming up (the latter being an adaptation of N.K. Jemisin's excellent postapocalyptic sfnal fantasy trilogy), I've been drawn back to this very nice and simple system. Year's ago, I used FantasyAGE for a lot of one-shots at the open gaming nights in our bookshop and came away from it kind of ambivalent. The pros outhweighed the cons, but I could never get my regular gaming table invested in it, and it kind of faded into the background of my gaming interests for quite some time; but right now, I feel like dusting off my (limited) expertise on all things AGE.

So what's great about AGE?

The array of core stats: There's the usual suspects (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Willpower), two that totally make sense and should be in any RPG with core stats (Communication in lieu of Charisma and Perception) and two that, initially feel weird (Accuracy for light and ranged weapons, Fighting for the more martial stuff), but totally make sense because as it turns out, the core stats are more along the lines of very broad skills in AGE. You'll usually raise one of them every level. You can narrow things down by picking focuses under them that simply give you a fixed bonus of +2 - so, a lot like what specialisations would do in other games, but the focuses are still as broad as Riding or Bows or Fast-Talk. This basically means that when levelling up, you get better in a lot of things by raising your core stat, not just in a few narrow skills. It's not very fine-grained, but extremely clean and simple and practical.

The core resolution method: It's based on a 3d6 bell curve that makes it pretty unlikely to fail if you're half-ways competent and the task is not ridiculously difficult. This makes the occassional unlikely failure at a reasonable tasks feel a little like a fumble, which is cool, because it also makes it clear that failure is a serious thing that has consequences. Normally, you'll have a pretty good idea whether you will make a roll or not. This relative security is offset by the swinginess of the Stunt system (see below).

These two factors, in combination, make for a simple and effective core. The rest, even the Stunt system which is kind of advertised as being at the heart of AGE, are bells and whistles, as far as I'm concerned. Some of that stuff I like, some I consider fiddly or not that well-designed, but the core system is pretty perfect.

What is so-so:

Stuff that I didn't like was that the classes in F-AGE felt pretty rigid and that partly, levelling seemed to be about collecting little bonuses here and there from special talents. Though that was always more of a theoretical problem for me, because I never playered any AGE system beyond 3rd level, so none of the characters had had the time to accumulate a lot of bloat.

Another thing that I am actually ambivalent about is the Stunt system, which sounds great on paper: If two of your three dice in a test show the same number, you get 1-6 stunt points that you can spend on special effects like disarming an opponent, driving her/him back, doing more damage, or (out of combat) doing stuff faster, using up less ressources or even making people laugh or making them tell you the truth (or keep quiet). It's cool, but it can also cause a lot of frustration if you're rolling stunt points and really can't find any option that fits with the situation on the list. F-AGE's sister game ModernAGE tries to solve this by introducing a LOT more stunts, which did nothing for me ... The other way to go is obviously to make the stunts more abstract, like adding a variable bonus to your next test or to your defense, and newer AGE games like The Expanse RPG or Fifth Season offer such options in their respective quickstarters. The downside is that that takes some of the flavour out of the stunts, but generally, I prefer it - flavour is easy to add on the fly while playing, but analysis paralysis is the bane of every gaming table. For my one-shots, I came up with some guidelines for a more free-form stunt system that worked pretty well for me and that was basically: "Tell me what you wan't to do and I'll tell you how many Stunt Points you need; or convert your Stunt Points directly into a bonus on your next roll."

Right now, with all the new stuff being added by Expanse, Fifth Season and the upcoming 2nd Edition of F-AGE, I feel like AGE would be my go-to system to start a new fantasy (or sf) camapign. It seems like over the years, Green Ronin came up with a lot of cool ideas to make the game more flexible without making it more complicated - switching Hit Points for Fate Points for example, which kind of work the same, but also have some other uses and make it clear that they're an abstract ressource and not meat points. Some things still feel like workarounds for idiosyncracies of the systems, but you get them with all systems but the ones with the strictest design philosophies (and these usually come with their own problems, like often being pretty bland ...).

Also, I'm pretty sure that Green Ronin and the AGE community are on record as caring about stuff as diversity in gaming and generally not being a-holes (GR publishing Blue Rose should be a hint ...), which is actually kind of important to me. I just cut ties with a system because its publisher doesn't seem to care that one of their books features pretty hurtful racist tropes. I'm not saying that Green Ronin (or me, or anyone) would never misstep, but from what I've seen of GR, I'm pretty sure that they'd own up to it and make amends. Yeah, this is not about the gaming system, but roleplaying is a community thing, and being part of a community that largely will dogpile on you for insisting that a critique of racism is to be taken seriously kind of takes the fun out of it.

F-AGE 2nd Edition should be out as pdf any day now - bring it on, Green Ronin!

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