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Author Topic: The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Epic Age  (Read 179 times)

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Epic Age
« on: September 18, 2022, 09:07:41 PM »
Introduction

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So I’m sittin’ in my office, just about to partake of some quality hooch, when in walks a bear.

A polar bear.

Wearin’ armor, walkin’ on two legs, and carryin’ an axe in one hand and a rulebook in the other.

It was a sure ursine of trouble.

“Well met, human,” he says. “I am Gunihuk of the Ulbjorn. I have come to provide you with a review copy of the fantasy roleplaying game Epic Age.”

“Bear with me,” I says. “Fantasy RPGs are a dime a dozen. What makes this one so special?”

“Well, there are bears like myself,” he says. “Also, crocodile people. And an unusual new core mechanic. And several distinct forms of magic.”

“That does bear investigation,” I says. “Bear in mind, I’m no pushover reviewer.”

“You do realize that bear puns are the lowest form of humor, right?”

“Well, that sure gives me paws,” I says. “No offense meant, bud. That’s the polar opposite of what I wanna do. Anyway, the game sounds great. I can bearly contain my excitement.”

“Yeah, I’ll just be off now…” he says, leavin’ the game on my desk and turnin’ to walk out the door.

I hadda say, the fella wasn’t bearin’ up very well.

Substance

Setting

Epic Age takes place on the world of Aerd and the continent of Ruhl, a fantasy realm situated somewhere between the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages. Nothing new there, of course. However, Aerd boasts a rich and tragic history — in particular, a great elven civilization was brought low by a plague arriving with human settlers, leaving only the children unharmed.

At one time, the world was a place of epic conflict between gods, giants, and dragons, with unbelievably powerful magic. That all literally came crashing down when magicians attempted to create a new moon and had to drain away all the magic in the world to power a spell to prevent chunks of this new moon from destroying the planet.

That was long, long ago. More recently — mere centuries ago — a mad wizard tore open a portal to infernal regions that resulted in a devastating war with demonic hordes and the return of magic to the land.

In the present day, the game focuses on part of the continent where a rural Norse-like culture has conquered an urban Roman-like culture. Unsurprisingly, two of the three major religions are of these two cultures, but a third major religion resembles a feminine take on Christianity’s Holy Trinity. That’s a nice touch. It’s worth noting that the gods seem very remote at this point in history.

The book conveys a whole lot of Ruhl’s history and geography. It’s a bit much to take in, but it does give the world a solid sense of verisimilitude. My only real complaint in this regard is the degree to which the information is scattered around the book. I had to piece together large parts of history.

The text suggests that many intelligent species exist in the setting, although it details only a handful:

Human
Jottunkin: Huge Woed born with true giants’ blood.
Numidai: Romany-like wandering nomads.
Valini: Romanesque city-dwellers.
Woed: Hardy Norse-like folk.
Sith (Elf)
Aerid: Wild elves descended from elves who fled from the plague to the mountains.
Xansith: Urban elves descended from elf children adopted by the Valini.
Demihuman (animal people)
Sepek: Crocodile people.
Ulbjorn: Polar bear people.

I really dig the polar bear. Also, while I’m a huge fan of dwarves, I have to give the author kudos for resisting the temptation to include them simply because the game has elves. Furthermore, I appreciate the fact that the game presents game-relevant distinctions even between the four human races. For example, aside from the obvious strength advantage of the Jottunkin, the Numidai can craft protective charms, and the Valini possess some degree of resistance to magical threats targeting the soul.

On the downside, the Sepek and the Ulbjorn don’t handle cold or heat well, respectively, which somewhat limits their ability to travel freely across the full length and breadth of Ruhl.

The bestiary features 19 mundane animals and 27 monsters of various sorts — a respectable selection. My only regret is the lack of stats for the dragons mentioned in the text. I’m always curious to see a given setting’s take on them, particularly given their importance in the world’s history.

As an aside, an appendix describes the multiverse in which all the games from this company will reside and tells how to travel between dimensions. It doesn’t hurt to know and gives a feel for the scale of the setting, but because Epic Age is their only game currently, the information is of limited use for now.

I like the multiple magic systems featured in the game, as each one feels exotic and distinct from the others. Magicians familiar with Arcane magic can learn to channel mana (magical energy from themselves or others) to power runes (the Seidr tradition) or incantations (the Incantre tradition). Lightning incantations — Levinarchy — are a special case, as they can only be cast safely if the proper runes are inscribed on the caster’s body. Then there is Eldritch magic, which involves no mana at all but requires lengthy, complex rituals and odd components to invoke extradimensional entities.

System

Character Creation

Epic Age uses a class-and-level system — not a favorite design of mine, but certainly not a strike against the game overall.

Players roll for Ability scores (attributes) — Strength (STR), Agility (AGI), Stamina (STA), Speed (SPD), Soul (SOL), Empathy (EMP), Memory (MEM), Reason (RSN), and Resolve (RSL) — using a pool of d8s for each ability, the size if which is based on race. (A pool of 3d8 appears to be the norm for average humans.) Corruption (COR) is an optional disability score that defaults to zero. Again, random attributes aren’t my preference, generally speaking, but there’s nothing wrong with doing so. I just wish the game included a point-based alternative.

After selecting a race, it’s time to choose a class. Epic Age offers quite a few of these:

Anchorite: Basically a cleric type, although their powers are pretty low-key and subtle unless they learn Eldritch magic as well.
Armsman: Your standard warrior.
Brigand: A master of hit-and-run tactics.
Chival: A noble knight.
Magus: An academic magician.
Pugilist: An unarmed fighter.
Runeglaive: A cool rune-covered fighter/magician who employs lightning magic.
Sicarii: A mystical assassin.
Skellan: A bard.
Wyrd: A master of rune magic.

The choices are interesting and thematic, albeit somewhat limiting — there’s nothing resembling a “traditional” thief or ranger, for example, and the selection definitely assumes that the PCs are all going to be adventuring sorts from the get-go. If neither of those issues bother you, then you’re in good shape.

The game handles skills in a rather unorthodox fashion. Every skill has a list of sub-skills that form “skill trees” — for example, the skill Aim has Arbalest, Archery, and Throwing. Each skill tree is comprised of abilities that must be purchased in order, and that’s where things get a bit odd. For example, you don’t just buy an Archery skill of +3; instead, you first get Archery +1, then Great Pull (applying Strength to bow damage, then Archery +2, then an extra action per round, then, finally, Archery +3. This applies to both general and class-specific skill trees. The abilities other than bonuses to the skill are called Talents, and the game also offers General Talents like Ambidextrous that may be purchased independently of any skill.

To be quite honest, I’m not at all sure how I feel about this skill setup. It certainly leads to characters growing thematically as they master their chosen skills, and it also serves to keep dice pools relatively small, but it also requires a whole new level of record-keeping. On the character sheet, there’s a place to record a skill’s current bonus, but not a place to record the last level purchased. The actual Talents acquired are recorded elsewhere. Going back to the Archery example, the only way you’d know that Archery +2 is the next step for your character would be if you consult the Archery skill tree (or simply remember it) and see whether you already have the Great Pull Talent.

Task Resolution

The game uses an interesting combination of task resolution systems. For every task, you roll 1d20 plus a variable number of d10 “Bonus Dice” based on factors such as skill bonuses and the bonus (if any) provided by your Ability score. Add the dice together and see if the total matches the “Victory Sum” (target number). For perspective, an ordinary task has a Victory Sum of 15.

Now, confusingly, difficulty levels are handled in two separate ways: By increasing or decreasing the Victory Sum, or changing the die type of the Bonus Dice. While this isn’t spelled out in the book as far as I can tell, the author explained to me that the Victory Sum changes due to external factors, while the Bonus Dice change due to factors directly affecting the character. Being lousy at mental math, I’m a bit leery of the double digit addition involved, but I appreciate the fact that the number of dice involved is kept low. If I were playing online with a decent dice roller, that would be a non-issue.

Combat

Laudably, combat follows the same format as general task resolution, based on Agility for attacks and Speed for defense.

All combat actions use up Vigor, the amount of which a character possesses determined by species and class. At the end of each round, characters recover 1 Vigor per 5 Stamina. This is a nice touch, as it makes physical endurance as important as strength and nimbleness in combat.

Damage is rolled randomly. The number of dice rolled for damage depends upon the type of weapon, while the die type rolled depends upon the quality of the weapon. For example, a longsword of ordinary quality would do 2d8 damage, while a longsword of heroic quality would do 2d10. Armor absorbs damage ablatively and also varies by quality, and higher-quality armor simply ignores attacks from lower-quality weapons. This is a nice system insofar as it makes exceptional weapons and armor meaningful without requiring them to be magical in nature.

Interestingly, Strength Bonus Dice apply to melee and bow damage, while Skill Bonus Dice apply to crossbow and magical projectile damage. That makes a lot of sense.

Degree of success doesn’t affect damage, which runs counter to the setup I usually like to see; however, attackers can choose to increase the VS of an attack in increments +10, with each increment increasing the die type of the damage die. In a way, I like that even more than degree of success affecting damage, insofar as this method of factoring in accuracy doesn’t involve any extra math.

Damage first comes off of Durability, representing relatively minor injuries and based on species, class, and skills. When Durability is used up, the victim starts to lose Health, which represents serious wounds and is based on species and level. It seems a bit counterintuitive to me that Health grows with character levels and Durability does not — I would have thought that the amount of Health damage a creature can take wouldn’t increase over time.

Style

This attractive 301-page full-color rulebook features nicely legible black text on a background resembling aged parchment. Art is frequent and high-quality, in the form of both watercolor and pen-and-ink images.

The layout is generally easy on the eyes but could use a bit of touch-up work. In particular, the setting fiction introducing chapters frequently can’t be distinguished from the body text.

The text is well-written but sometimes a bit verbose, especially in the equipment chapter. (I also found the equipment list to be a little too detailed — I don’t see the point of including the cost for a bag of sand, for example.) Typos and grammatical errors are frequent enough to be annoying. The editing decisions are questionable, insofar as the definitions for the frequently-used mystical terms “Arcane,” “Eldritch,” and “Oddic” didn’t make the cut. And if there’s any logic behind the organization of the bestiary, I couldn’t figure it out. It’s definitely not alphabetical.

The book features a detailed table of contents but lacks an index, which it sorely needs.

Conclusion

This isn’t really the game for me, personally. I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at it if a good GM offered to run it for me, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. The setting intrigues me, but the class-and-level aspect just isn’t my thing.

That having been said, as D&D book sales can attest, not everyone is against classes and levels. So, it this a game for them? Perhaps. I see this as a game for fans of old-school fantasy roleplaying games who are after a refreshing change in system and setting without completely leaving the class-and-level reservation. For such people, I can see this game working very well. The proofing issues will still be an obstacle, but certainly not an insurmountable one.

I’ll give this one seven out of ten fedoras, bordering on a six for poor editing and proofing. It’s a game with a lot of potential that just needs a bit of spit and polish.
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