Friday, December 21, 2012

[Read-Thru] BareBones Fantasy

I buy a lot of PDFs. (Seriously, you should see my iPad.) Consequently, I spend a lot of time on RPGNow. For the last several weeks, I've noticed a game I've never heard of stay in the top two or three among the site's best sellers. My curiosity piqued, I finally took the plunge on the PDF version of BareBones Fantasy (BBF, going forward).

For $9.99, DwD Studios provides you with the 80-page core book, an adventure, two alternate character sheets, a sheet to track your character's progress, a two-page character creation quick reference, and print-friendly versions of all of the above. In addition, a full-color map of the default setting is provided--two versions, actually--in both hexed and non-hexed versions. All the above is wrapped up in a neat Zip file. When it's ready, you'll be able to get a print version of the core rules with the PDF for only $4 more.

Before I get into the game itself I want to call out the production values of this product. The art is evocative of the genre and by-and-large very attractive. The cover is one of the better fantasy pieces I've seen in recent memory. It immediately made me want to play. That's sadly more rare than you may think. The PDF has an attractive layout that provokes you to turn the page and keep reading. The table of contents is hyperlinked, and the file is fully bookmarked. There is an index at the end of the book, as well, and if I had to call out a short-coming I'd probably settle on the fact that the index isn't hyperlinked. Given the detailed table of contents and the bookmarks, this would truly be nitpicking. Should you have the tools to make modifications to the PDF, DwD was kind enough to not lock the files. "Physically," this PDF product is on par with nearly anything put out by any other publisher, and it surpasses most. The production values of BBF are proof that in the hobby games industry, size doesn't have to matter.

Another aside is the editing. I know this goes along with production values, but I'm an editor. Sue me for my bias, if you wish. As an editor, it can be pretty painful to read RPGs. I am elated to say there are very few errors in this book. DwD even failed to trip up in the easiest places to do so. I'm not saying there are no typos, but this is yet another area where nearly all other publishers should take note.

As for the game, BBF is meant to be a lean system, with a deceptive amount of depth. On this count the game seems to succeed in spades. As I read through the rules, I couldn't think of any fantasy scenarios that could not be duplicated in play. It's a simple percentile system, wherein the dice provide a 00-99 result, rather than the typical 01-100 (the only other game I can think of that went this route might be Eclipse Phase). There's a one-page rules summary that should be plenty of knowledge for a new player to get started.

The magic system is as streamlined as the rest of the game. There are few spells, but they're designed to have different effects or trappings, based on the spellcaster's description. For instance you could use Offensive Strike to fire a magic missile or a lightning bolt, or you could use Charm to represent hypnotism or perhaps the mesmerizing tune of a bard's lute. There are only 17 spells in the core rules, but all the classic bases seem covered to me.

Character creation should be a pretty quick affair, with the caveat that the math-averse may initially recoil at calculating the starting values of skills. The four typical fantasy races are here: human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. There are four base attributes. There are only a few skills in the game, even fewer that every character will have. On skills, I've noted a lot of folks compare them to character classes, based on how broad they are and the way they're named (cleric, warrior, and thief are examples). I get the train of thought, but I'd compare them more to the starting professions in Barbarians of Lemuria.

You choose two skills to be primary and secondary, and you get bonuses in these skills. I can see combinations of the skills being used to create some of the fantasy character tropes. For instance, you may be able to combine Thief and either Scholar or one of the three spellcasting skills to create a bard-style character.

You round out your character by determining her moral compass though the use of a quick, word-based, multiple choice table. Then you add descriptors, which are phrases you make up about your character. These remind me of FATE's Aspects, though they're not used in-game so much as one of the bases for XP rewards at the end of each session.

The GM section provides all the tools the GM needs to run the game. It starts off with information on modifiers and all the dangerous things that can occur outside of getting hit with a weapon. There are rules for creature creation, trap creation, magic item creation, and there are samples of each. I've read one or two complaints about the monster selection in the book, but I have to disagree. All the basics seem covered to me, and the tools to make more are provided. In addition to the above, BBF provides a plot creator and a dungeon creator. These are all tools you may expect in a much bigger product and not get.

The book wraps up with an outline for BBF's default setting, which spans a mere five pages of text, plus a two-page black and white version of the separately-included map. Each region on the map is given about a paragraph of info, and there's a section on the setting's pantheon. This is meant to be the taste it is, as the full setting is available as a separate product. Still, I managed to get multiple adventure and campaign ideas in those five pages of text.

The extras included with the game don't skimp. The color map of the world is gorgeous, and the adventure has enough to it for a full session or two of play, depending on your group. There are also separate maps of the dungeon, one for the GM and one for the players. Have I mentioned DwD seems to provide product way above their "pay grade?"

There are two features of BBF that are not included in the package, but warrant some discussion regardless. First is the DwD website. The forum seems to have friendly patrons and frequent interaction with the game's designers. You may be noticing a trend here, if you think this is yet another area where nearly all other publishers could learn a thing or two from DwD. The second feature is Decahedron, a free PDF magazine designed to support BBF. The first issue is out, and it contains material written by BBF's designers, as well as fans of the game. The production values are on par with their paid product.

I think it goes without saying that I like BareBones Fantasy. At $9.99 it's practically an impulse buy, and if DwD can maintain their production values, you'll be getting in on the ground floor of something special. I'm certainly rooting for them. I intend to take the game out for a test spin, so you'll be hearing more from me on BBF.

I'd recommend this product to anyone looking for a simplified-but-deep-enough approach to fantasy. I'd also recommend it to anyone looking to learn a thing or two in preparation for their own publishing adventure. I wouldn't recommend this book if your interests lie primarily in the truly crunchy and/or complex.