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Sunday 27 July 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Advanced Fighting Fantasy

This is a review of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Advanced Fighting Fantasy: The Roleplaying Game”.  Whew.

The version I’m reviewing is the new edition of said game, written by Graham Bottley, published by Arion Games in collaboration with Cubicle 7.

Many of us can remember with fondness from our youth those great Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which were like Choose Your Own Adventure, but with balls. It had a combat system! It was just one step away from being an actual RPG.  That step was, of course, Dungeoneer: Advanced Fighting Fantasy, the RPG based on the FF gamebooks that came out sometime in the 80s to some considerable success.  For many people, Fighting Fantasy, even before D&D, was their “gateway drug”, it was the first thing even vaguely like roleplaying that they ever did. And for more than a few, AFF (or “Dungeoneer”) was their first actual RPG.  I still have, somewhere deep in the recesses of my library, my old Dungeoneer book, as well as Titan and Port Blacksand (two of the sourcebooks). 

Now, Arion Games (who had previously re-published the Maelstrom RPG and the new Maelstrom Companion) have re-published the Advanced Fighting Fantasy book, the “Out of The Pit” monster book, and the Titan fantasy setting book.  I’ll be reviewing those latter two books sometime very soon; from what I can see, those two have been kept exactly as they were back when first released (I’m not 100% sure about Out of The Pit, as I didn’t own it).  AFF, on the other hand, has been extensively remade by Graham Bottley to be more playable.  The old Dungeoneer was pretty fun, but it was, frankly, seriously limited as an RPG.  It was too easy to get too powerful. The rules were just a bit too simplistic.  The magic system was seriously messed up.

This new edition of AFF is Mr.Bottley’s attempt to resolve all that.  Does he succeed? Let’s take a look.

Starting with the outside, there’s one serious change, which is that the old Dungeoneer was an “oversize pocketbook”, the same kind of format as the old Fighting Fantasy books.  The new AFF is a full-sized RPG softcover. It has a redone cover but with the same awesome illustration that the cover of the old Dungeoneer featured, and the interior art is basically the same. The book clocks in at 175 pages.

The introduction gets right to the heart of what AFF is supposed to be about: Fighting. It presents the basic combat system mechanic before any other rule.  That’s perfect, because it makes clear the tone of the kind of games you’re going to want to play with this system, high adventure, high violence.  The combat system continues to be the tried and true one from the old FF books: you roll 2d6, add your Skill attribute (plus any bonus from special skills or other mods), your opponent does likewise, whoever rolled higher does damage.  Damage is rolled on a special table by weapon type.  If a character has armor, they roll on a special table to see how much damage was absorbed by the armor. Shields can further reduce damage.  If a character is unarmored he can used Dodge to try to reduce damage.

Next, still before anything like character creation, we get a sample adventure, “The Well”.  This is a totally new adventure, different from the ones that appeared in the old Dungeoneer book.  Those were quite good, this one is… well, its a fine totally random dungeon.  I mean for fuck’s sake, there’s a dwarven tavern right smack dab in the middle of the dungeon, surrounded on all sides by rooms filled with monster and traps!  Seriously, that must have been the worst business decision in the world.
Anyways, it too definitely sets the tone: dungeon crawl and gonzo.  But I wonder if it doesn’t go a bit too far? I recall that the original adventure in Dungeoneer was mostly hack n’ slash but with a plot of rescuing some kind of princess from an evil wizard, and I think that on the whole that had been the better adventure.

Character creation has been changed from the old game.  You used to have three stats: Skill, Stamina, and Luck.  Now you have a fourth stat, Magic, which mostly resolves the problems the old game used to have with spellcasters. It used to be that all attributes were rolled randomly; now the default game is a point-buy system where you divide points into the stats (and it does it kind of awkwardly).  I have heard Mr.Bottley say this was absolutely necessary for the sake of balance, and he may have a point, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone is going to be playing Advanced Fighting Fantasy for the “balance”.  In any case, in the appendix at the back of the game an optional system of random character generation is provided, and its better-balanced than the old random system was.

In the game, Skill handles your ability at any and all skills as well as hitting in combat. Stamina is your hit points, and Luck is basically your saving throws, though you can also use luck to try to help you in combat. Luck points decrease every time you use Luck, and replenish between games.  Magic is the stat used for spellcasting, and its used in different ways in each of the three types of magic provided (more on that later).  You also choose a race during character creation, the three provided as default races are human, elf and dwarf.  Humans get a bonus to luck, elves to magic, and dwarves to stamina. Each race also gets differing special skills.

Special skills are what in any other RPG would just be called “skills”.  They are bonuses usually ranging from 1-4, and are added to one’s Skill attribute or Magic attribute when checks are made in that relevant area.  All skill checks are resolved with a 2d6 roll, where you have to get equal or less than the character’s Skill (or Magic) attribute, modified by their special skill scores if any.
There are 48 special skills in all, divided into various categories.  These include combat skills, which add bonuses to your Skill roll with specific weapons, and Magic skills which are required for the different kinds of magic available in the game.  Knowledge special skills are rolled with EITHER your Skill or your Magic score, whichever is higher, allowing for Wizards to be learned in various lores without having to have a kickass combat score at the same time. In all, the system is quite well designed.

The special skills are a (modified) mechanic from the old Dungeoneer, but the Talents, which comes next, were not from that book.  Each PC chooses a single talent, or special ability, for their character.  These include such things as ambidexterity, Armour Training (which improves the benefits of wearing armour), Dark Seeing, Knighted (which starts you out at a high social class and with extra equipment), Silver Tongue (bonus to the social skills), and Trapmaster (a bonus to dealing with traps), plus plenty more.

Frankly, to me this section in particular should have been random selection. NOTHING will slow down character creation more than having to read players a list of 32 feats, explain what they are, and wait while they try to figure out which ONE of those will actually be the most useful for them.  This step alone is likely to double character creation time, and that’s a big mistake in a game where one of the great virtues is simplicity and ease of play.

Finally, you get a social status (which you can choose, or optionally is randomly rolled), and you get magic points if you’re a spellcaster as well as choosing your initial spells. You start out the game with some pre-determined items rather than just having gold and then getting to buy what you want.  The gamebook then provides you a set of archetypal PCs as examples and for instant play.

While the game system itself is quite simple, the game book provides a good deal of information about how to resolve a variety of issues in play.  Rules are provided for movement, riding, climbing, falling, jumping, swimming (and drowning), dodging, encumbrance,  social reactions, bribery, conning, disguise, trade, doors and locks, lighting conditions, fires, poison, disease, traps, awareness/perception, hiding, sleight of hand, and handling knowledge skills.

The combat system is expanded upon from the basic mechanic provided at the start of the book.  Rules are provided for criticals and fumbles, multiple combat and attacks, missile combat, mounted combat, weapon descriptions, armour descriptions, surprise, unarmed combat, and special combat options; as well as injury, death, and healing.

So really, you get the best of both worlds with AFF; its a damned simple system, but most of the important situations that can arise in a typical adventure game are dealt with and options provided as to how to resolve them.

There are three magic systems in AFF; really four, if you count “minor magic” (which are like cantrips, and that anyone can have if they buy the skill in it, even characters who are otherwise non-spellcasters). The three major systems of magic are Wizardry, Sorcery, and Priestly power.  Wizardry is like the basic spellcasting system brought over from the old Dungeoneer game; only now you use Magic and Magic points to resolve it rather than Skill and Stamina (this fixes the major problems of the old system).

Sorcery is the system from the old “Sorcery!” gamebooks (which were set in the fighting fantasy world of Titan, but on a different continent from the main setting of Allansia); and in this current book it takes the form of spells that are rolled with magic but cost Stamina rather than Spell points to use. Sorcery spells also often require material components to cast.  While a Wizard starts with a limited number of spells, and must buy more with experience, the Sorcerer begins knowing all the Sorcery spells.
Wizards and Sorcerers are both only limited by their pool of either Magic Points or Stamina for casting spells; but they must make a successful magic check to cast a spell.  If they fail, the points are spent but the spell doesn’t go off.  If they get double-sixes, they’ve had a magical fumble and must roll on the “oops” table, which has a variety of problematic effects (mostly non-lethal).

As for Priestly magic, in the old Dungeoneer there were no priest spells, but a list of priest spells were presented in the Port Blacksand sourcebook, that worked exactly the same as wizardry did, if I recall correctly.  In the new AFF, priestly magic works very differently; you choose a deity, and each deity has a special unique power, plus three priest spells that this deity allows its priests to cast.  Priests don’t have to actually make any magic check at all to use their powers, their Magic score just becomes the measure of the level of power their spell has.  Priests can only use each power once a day, but can spend a point of luck to cast a second spell in the same day.

One interesting detail about priestly powers is that only ONCE in their lifetime, a Priest can call on “Salvation”, direct divine intervention to rescue themselves, and optionally their comrades from mortal peril.  I thought that was a nice touch.

The book then gives a bit (about 6 pages worth) of setting material for the world of Titan, the famous setting of the FF books, focusing on the continent of Allansia, where most of those adventures took place.  This is obviously very bare-bones setting info, meant to provide an extremely vague alternative to buying the Titan setting book.  You get also a standard price list, with items priced according to their costs in cities, towns or villages.

After that we get a couple of pages of “Director” (GM) advice, and then a listing of some of the monsters of FF, in a big table with no thrills, again, this is a substitute to buying Out of the Pit.  I notice that it gives some conversion notes for monsters from Out of The Pit, which seems to confirm that the latter book was reprinted straight without bothering to adapt it to the new system (for things like equivalent monster armor, monster weapon, and special abilities).  This is interesting, was there some good reason why it wasn’t done, or was it just author laziness?  I guess the answer to that can wait until I review Out of the Pit in a short while. Some brief guidelines are provided in how to design other monsters, as well as NPC non-monster enemies.

Some guidance is provided in designing your adventures, for things like adventure location; plots, and there’s an innovative though slightly gimmicky dungeon-design system provided.  It starts by dropping a number of dice on a sheet of paper, noting where they fall and linking those spots (the rooms) with corridors, to create a dungeon. A set of simple random tables lets you fill in the dungeon, and a small sample dungeon (“agbar’s retreat”) is provided.

You also get treasure tables, which (like many details of this game) are closer in spirit to WFRP than D&D, you get (at most) hundreds rather than thousands or tens-of-thousands of GP, and magic items are quite rare; so that those items provided (and there’s a decent list of magic items provided) tend toward what in D&D would be thought of as the lower end of the power spectrum.  Of course, the way the system works, getting a magic sword that adds +1 to your damage or to your Skill is a pretty freaking huge help.

The last pages of the gamebook provide optional rules, including the aforementioned random character creation rules (which I for one certainly like more than point-buy), some guidelines to creating new character races, a few optional magic rules (including how to run “fallen priests” who have ended up on the outs with their deity), and an alternate method of skill resolution.   A blank character sheet is provided, and then a reprinting of virtually all the important tables of the game right at the back for easy reference. You even get a couple of blank pages specifically noted for jotting down “house rules”.

So the big question is how useful is this game as an actual RPG, and not just nostalgia?  I played the crap out of dungeoneer when I was in my teens, and quite enjoyed it, but I know that I would not find it a really viable game to run today.  Advanced Fighting Fantasy manages to fix up enough of the game that it suddenly becomes far more viable to consider running.  Its style is very reminiscent of Warhammer, that thoroughly British sort of fantasy, and I do think that it would be kind of like WFRP’s answer to Basic D&D; a faster lighter game compared to WFRP that I could play when I wanted the same kind of feel but didn’t want to bother with the complexities of the former game.  I have no plans right now to run AFF, but I can certainly see the possibility of it happening, particularly if I should ever need a game that is good for beginners, or that I want to be able start up quickly.
On the whole, I think that anyone who ever liked a fighting fantasy book will not be disappointed by this game.

The worst thing: The designer went too far in seeking to “balance” the system; Point buy sucks, and the list of Talents is a disaster waiting to happen.  Fortunately, there’s a random option for character creation, although unfortunately, that does not include a random table for talents (I mean seriously, would it have been so hard to include a table and then say “GMs have the option to require players to roll, or allow them to choose a talent”?).

The best thing: Pretty much everything.  This book takes a classic and beloved game and remakes it into something totally playable and usable for relatively easy adventuring.

Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti half-volcano + Gawith’s Perfection

(originally reposted May 5, 2013)

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