Review by Dirk Vandereyken

Background

The Middle Ages. This time of turmoil would be marked by many events that appeal to our imagination and curiosity even now. Starting in 1096, the Crusades guaranteed salvation to those who would be willing to give their lives to the Church. King Henry I, ‘the Lion of Justice’, held the British Isles in an iron fist. In the Iberian Peninsula, King Alfonso ‘the Battler’ of Aragón was engaged in warfare not only with the Kingdom of Leon and Castille, but also with the Muslim taifas to the south. The Vikings ruled the kingdom of Norway, while Holy Roman Emperor Henry V clashed with the Church on numerous occasions and Saint Mary watched over Hungary. Baldwin II rules Jerusalem as regent, Berbers controlled the Hammadite Kingdom and Bedouin tribed sought to destroy the Airid Emirate and the Hammadite Kingdom in Northern Africa.

In 1340, one of the most feared diseases ever to hit the known world killed off many thousands. The Bubonic Plague annihilated two-thirds of the Italian population, but also ravaged France, the Holy Roman Empire and many other nations. In the fourteenth century, England was trying to gather an army to invade France, King Peter IV of Aragón was cursed by envoys from the Crown of Castille, the Monastic States of the Teutonic Knights were marked by torture, suffering and religious intolerance, the Golden Horde in Eastern Europe converted to the practice of Islam and Morocco was tightly ruled by Sharia law.

Throughout all of this, mythical races still walked the Earth and Heavenly Angels and the Saints tried to protect mankind from corruption by Fallen Angels and Evil Spirits.

These were the Middle Ages, and the war between good and evil was very, very real.

An Interactive Storytelling Game of Historical Fantasy

Fantasy Imperium is a role-playing game set in the Middle Ages. Although it seems to follow history, typical fantasy races (like elves and Halflings) also walk the earth and the war between heaven and hell is actually happening. The game can be started at any point of time during the Middle Ages, but two years (1121 A.D. and 1348 A.D.) are presented in some detail.

It is very important to note that Fantasy Imperium is only one half of a bigger game. The second book is called the Storyteller’s Guide. Even though its companion volume isn’t available yet, Fantasy Imperium is already selling very well. It even sold out at various conventions, although it has to be said the company didn’t exactly bring thousands of copies.

Fantasy Imperium claims to be an ‘Interactive Storytelling Game’. In fact, this seems to be one of its major selling points. However, it’s unclear how an ‘interactive storytelling game’ differs from a traditional ‘role-playing game’. In the introduction, author Mark O’Bannon claims an Interactive Storytelling Game is ‘a type of game where there is heavy emphasis on telling a story, as opposed to simply running an ongoing collaborative narrative’. We’re also told that ‘advanced storytelling techniques’ and ‘a system of scripted scenes’ will be used. This sounds suspiciously like any good RPG. Maybe O’Bannon is talking about role-playing games as power gamers and hack ‘n slash gamers like to play them, but most people who consider themselves to be ‘real role-players’ usually like the interactive aspect of the game. They like to get into the skins of their characters, trying to act and suspend their disbelief. Most good RPG’s are more like improvisational theatre and not like war games, even though miniatures or other props are often used during combat situations. Of course, not everyone will agree with this statement, but many more probably will.

The point is: before The Storyteller’s Guide is released, we’ll have to postpone judgement on the boastful claim of Fantasy Imperium not being like other RPG’s. If O’Bannon can cash in on his promises, he’ll have created a new subgenre. If not, many gamers might scoff at the ‘Interactive Storytelling Game’ moniker, but it probably won’t keep anyone from buying this book. Not just because the distinction might not be that important to most people, but also because inside of the cover there’s a very, very nice new gaming system.

Creating Characters

Characters are created by rolling 1d100 for every Characteristic. RoleMaster, SpaceMaster and the sadly half-forgotten Middle Earth Role-Playing (as well as Justifiers and other, more obscure games) use a similar system, but in Fantasy Imperium, the straight roll is considered to be the Characteristic value. This is a strange decision for a system that strives for realism, since Characteristics on either extreme are just as likely as middle values while in reality, most characteristics correspond to a Bell curve, with middle values being far more likely than extreme ones. Partially compensating for this is the fact that one re-roll is allowed. Additionally, modifiers seem to fit a more realistic curve, which solves the problem almost completely. For example, even though a character has as much change of having a Dexterity of 2% as having a Dexterity of 50%, Dex 1-5 makes for a -4% penalty to Initiative, while Dex 36-65% grants no bonus.

In a strangely ‘male’ move, female PC’s get to re-roll their Attractiveness if they want to. Now, this critic can easily imagine women with very low Attractiveness, but this rule may be a role-playing nerd’s dream. Additionally, players are allowed to re-roll their entire set of Characteristics if more than half of the rolls were below 50.

Characteristics are rolled up in order (Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Intuition, Self Discipline, Reasoning, Ego, Awareness, Presence and Attractiveness), but players can switch two values once. This allows for little freedom, but of course this can be a lot of fun too, as players will sometimes get stuck with a character that forces them to abandon old patterns or stereotypes. However, every PC gets three re-rolls during the entire character generation process (in addition to the ones they get while rolling up their Characteristics) and they can also use Skill Points or Experience Points to raise some of their stats.

Several other statistics (Extra Damage, Speed Bonus, Hits, Stun, Morale, Winded, Exhausted, Burnout and Magick Resistance) are based on Characteristics, while Magick-using characters also get Power and everyone has a Fate (1d6) and Luck (3d6) statistic. Social Class is pretty generic and non-nation specific like it is in Artesia (it ranges from Poor to Rich). In a bold move, an optional rule allows female characters to multiply their Dexterity and Intuition with a factor of 1.1 and Attractiveness with 1.25, while decreasing their Strength with a factor of 0.75. This isn’t as realistic as it seems, however. While females definitely have less strength, it has recently been proven that they aren’t more intuitive than men. Something can be said about the decision to raise Dexterity, but a lot of people might disagree on the Attractiveness ruling. Raising Awareness in certain cases might be more appropriate and scientifically correct. Still, it’s nice to see a game designer not being politically correct and acknowledging the gender difference (which does exist).

Players are encouraged to work out the backgrounds for their characters and also have to include character flaws. These consist of an inner conflict, inner needs and straight flaws. The author states correctly that people aren’t always aware of their own inner needs and flaws, allowing many PC’s to begin the story with a limited awareness of their own conditions. This section seems promising and interesting, but only takes up a single page. Flaws and disadvantages have become a staple in RPG’s (World of Darkness, HERO System, GURPS, Fates Worse Than Death, Tibet, In Dark Alleys and many, many others), but Fantasy Imperium doesn’t try to describe any of them in terms of statistics, penalties or bonuses. O’Bannon might be on the right track here, but we’ll have to wait until The Storyteller’s Guide is available to find out if this concept is explored well enough. Right now, the examples given aren’t sufficient, even though experienced roleplayers and good actors will have no trouble coming up with flaws.

There’s an extensive list of skills, all of them starting at a base skill equal to the corresponding Characteristic divided by five. Base skill in magick is only acquired after spending at least 10 skill points on the magick category. PC’s get 1d100 + 100 skill points, each worth 10%. Thus, raising a base skill of 5% to 35% would cost three skill points. New characters are allowed to spend a maximum of 3 skill points on any one skill. This way, no skill can begin at higher than 50%, assuming normal Characteristics. The exception are professional skills. These can be raised by up to 5 skill points, or 50%. Characters can start knowing more professions at a cost of 5 skill points for each profession after the first, making this option very interesting for PC’s with a lot of skill points to spend. Skills are raised during adventuring by spending experience points and making development rolls, and PC’s start with 1d3 special talents. These skills get an extra skill development roll if the first one isn’t successful. Combat and magick skills can only be special talents if the player rolls 90% or higher.

Skill points can also be used to raise characteristics (1d6 per skill point if the characteristic is less or equal to 80%, 1d3 for characteristics in the 81-90% range and 1 for characteristics higher than 90), but also require the player to make a roll. Only if this result is higher than the current value is the characteristic improved. If unsuccessful, the skill point is lost. This is a very good way to prevent player abuse and to add some extra excitement to the character generation process.

Experience points are used to improve or purchase skills in exactly the same way as skill points are used to improve characteristics during the character generation process. The suggested amount of experience per game session is 1 to 10, which seems like a good range to keep the game realistic while still awarding players sufficiently. 75% of all experience points need to be spent on professional skills – a good way to keep PC’s focused.

Professions don’t get any flavour text, but are pretty much self-explanatory. The profession’s social class, annual income, savings and the number of skill points if all professional skills are purchased at 5 (+50%) are included, as well as a list of professional skills. There are 89 professions, ranging from animal trainer and apothecary through jester/fool and lexigrapher to woodcrafter/carpenter and woodcutter/iceman. The military professions are thankfully appropriately specific, including knight and squire as well as cavalryman, charioteer, sapper, pikeman, halberdier, Viking, secret service and more. Magick skills (Alchymy, Conjuration, Ritualism, Spiritualism, Deceiver, Enchantment, Elementalism, Sorcery, Mysticism, Psychic, Seer, Talismans and Black Magick) are all ‘forbidden’. Fighting styles (Single Handed Weapon, Two-Handed Weapon, Weapon & Shield, Two Weapons, Polearms, Locked Shield Wall, Flails, Left-Handed Opponents, Rapiers and Firearms) and Weapon Expertise for individual arms cost 5 x.p. each.

Combat

Next up is combat and this is one area in which the game really shines. The combat rules are very realistic and allow for many different options. This does mean quite a lot of crunch is involved, but it also usually means that players will think about their actions more than they would otherwise. This actually helps roleplaying, as it’s a lot more fun describing how someone tries to pull off an affondo (a step thrust with a rapier), with his opponent side stepping and counterthrusting, than rolling dice all the time and saying ‘I hit and to x damage’. Of course, many roleplayers will describe their attacks, but consider this: if combat almost always involves exactly the same roll (with some modifiers added for a few vague combat options), and certainly if characters can be hit dozens of times without so much as flinging before losing consciousness, it’s tough to stay inspired and narrate every combat action. After a while, boredom or complacency often sets in and players will start talking numbers only. In the case of Fantasy Imperium, combat is more involved and deadly, adding a lot more flavour, even though it may take a few sessions before everything starts to move more fluidly.

Initiative is rolled for at the start of each round. We’re talking individual initiative here, which is a lot more realistic than group initiative. Players roll d10’s, but add their characters’ Initiative modifiers. PC’s get one action, moving from high Initiative to low Initiative. If a character is attacked, he or she is allowed to react immediately, regardless of Initiative. If an action has already been taken, this means (s)he will have to dodge at -25% and will also have to dodge during the next round. This is pretty realistic, representing less time to react. Logically, this movement will indeed continue on through the next round, since someone who is dodging is moving away from his or her attacker. If someone has already attacked, that would leave very little time for tactical manoeuvres, even though one might make an allowance for well-trained fighters.

To determine if an attack hits, one needs to roll less than or equal to the weapon skill of what is being used. There are a lot of situational modifiers, but these are broken down in handy tables, making them very easy to reference: target size, weapon type (for example, using a hand & half sword one-handed incurs a -20% penalty), situation (ranging from the -50% penalty if the target cannot be seen up to the +25% bonus for attacking from the rear or when the opponent is surprised) and combat actions (like feinting or trying multiple parries). Missile weapon modifiers include target size, weapon type, cover, range, aiming and atmospheric (like shooting through fog or shooting at a source of light).

To parry, the defender needs to roll less than or equal to his or her shield skill or weapon parry (which is equal to half the weapon skill plus the weapon’s parry modifier). Since the head is easier to defend, attacks aimed at that location are parried at +25%. Dodges work exactly the same way (with no bonus to dodge attacks aimed at the head).

If a hit is scored, a general location (head, body, arm or leg) is chosen, after which a specific location is rolled. Here, the rules are a little unclear, as the summary seems to indicate a general location is chosen after hitting. However, in that case, the defender would never have a +25% to parry if the head were to be attacked. If taken literally, the above +25% would only be granted if the attacker tries to hit the chin, eyes, neck, etc. (which needs to be announced before attacking). However, choosing the head as a general location always hits the head and never the chest or any other location, so it would usually be more beneficial to avoid the -25% penalty to attack a specific location and the defender’s 25% parry bonus and never announce an attack aimed at the head. Thus, the Gamemaster may want to rule that a general location needs to be chosen before attacking, which is more logical. Later rules descriptions also indicate this is the way to go.

If attacking with a missile weapon, the general location cannot be chosen (unless the attacker aimed at a general location, which, in the case of missile attacks, incurs a -15% penalty) and must be rolled for.

If the armour is penetrated, extra damage is done depending on the type of weapon and the location struck. This reviewer can’t remember this ever being done in RPG rules. This was a brilliant rules decision, adding a lot of flavour to the game. For example, hitting the eyes with an edged weapon doesn’t add any extra damage. However, hitting them with a pointed weapon adds 3d6 to damage and multiplies the total hits suffered by x2. Damage determination may seem a little odd at first, but is easy to deal with after getting the hang of it. First, wound severity is determined by adding the weapon damage, the strength bonus and possible extra damage together. There are 5 levels of severity/ Starting at level 3 (serious); the character is incapacitated. Shock, stun, bloodloss and recovery are all determined by severity. The total number of hits, however, is equal to the wound severity multiplied by a factor determined by location (usually either x1 or x2, in rare cases more – hitting the throat with an edged weapon is a real killing attack here, as it should be). Interestingly, individuals who are injured and who pass a stun roll may make an intimidation roll during the next round. This does take an action, but if passed, everyone engaged in combat will be too afraid to attack for one round.

With a system this involved, it’s a little strange that all armour only has a single value, independent of attack type. This may be the only major oversight here, even though armour will very often be layered and determining the exact values may need a little more bookkeeping.

This is not all, however. There are many, many options. A major bonus here is that reading the rules will probably educate even veteran roleplayers about true medieval combat. For example, you may know archers would often stick their arrows upright into the ground to fire more quickly, but did you know they also often pissed on them? This made the chance of recovery from arrow wounds even worse, as wounds were likely to get infected. The eight ways to load a crossbow (belt & claw, cord & pulley, gaffle, cranequin, etc.) are noted, illustrated and reflected in the rules, it’s stated that attacking a single opponent with multiple attackers is actually more difficult as attackers get in each other’s way (this is very, very true), rules for en garde position and looking for an opening are presented, and even horseback riding is described in more than adequate detail, including barding, manoeuvring and turning a horse, minimum movement, backing up a horse, using ambling gate, horse quality as a cap to riding skill, ruining a horse, fatigue, and more. And, yes, riding does wear out the rider as well as the horse.

The rules for fatigue, morale and healing are pretty realistic, and the fighting styles and tactics presented here are much more true to life than the cumbersome Feats used in the d20 System. Up until now, games and supplements like Fireborn, GURPS (Martial Arts), HERO System (Ultimate Hero, Ninja Hero, etc.), Fates Worse Than Death, In Dark Alleys, World of Darkness Combat and other RPG’s handled fighting styles very well, but Fantasy Imperium can certainly be added to the short list of role-playing games that do justice to real fighting styles. Fighting styles (single-handed weapon, two-handed weapon, weapon & shield, two weapons (Florentine), polearm, flails, left-handed opponent and ambidexterity), weapon expertise, manoeuvring in armour and shield expertise all cost 5 x.p. each (as already noted), but the listed tactics are truly impressive. I have been practising martial arts for 16 years now, and all of this seemed very realistic. Allowances are made for dual attacks, feints, disarms, breaking weapons and shields, severing the ends of polearms, impaling shields, pinning weapons or shields (and striking), hooking shields (and striking), polearm trips, dismounting riders, throwing weapons, combination attacks, many different defenses and miscellaneous actions (like resting, stringing a bow, changing hands, moving through a window, lighting a fuse, or applying first aid and applying a dressing), mounted combat, attacking on the move, unarmed combat vs. armed opponents, armour vs. unarmed combat, quick combat, flips & throws, and much more.

All unarmed combat techniques can be used by anyone wit the appropriate unarmed combat skill (like boxing) and have their own fatigue cost: a jab incurs 1 point of fatigue, a hook 2 points, an uppercut 3 points, a cross/power punch 4, a combination 5, a body punch 2, blocking 1, bobbing & weaving 2, slipping 3, soaking and clinching 0. There are wrestling techniques (like pin (3), joint lock (1), leg riding (2), sprawling (2), counter (3) and reversal (5)), streetfighting techniques (such as roundhouse (3), body slam (4), bear hug (3), grab clothes (0), ear pull (1), eye poke (1) and throw dirt (1)), medieval close combat techniques (such as knee blow (2) and rear kick (4)), ground fighting techniques, unarmed combat techniques, unarmed restraint & manipulation techniques, Renaissance combat techniques (mainly using the rapier), and rules for using firearms, Greek fire, etc.

The section on spiritual warfare takes up only 7 pages, but it is excellent. The Bible is quoted several times, with the focus being on Lucifer’s Fall from the heavens and the war in heaven & on earth. Each country – and even each town or city – has a Fallen Angel ruling over it, creating a network of hierarchies, headed by the Lord of Darkness. These Angels corrupt mankind, creating wars, plagues, strife and suffering. The Fallen Angels also bring ‘good’ things to man, allowing them to deceive our kind. Since man is a fallen being, he is susceptible to Satan’s temptations. Lucifer uses Doubt, Despair, Hate, Pride and Temptation to destroy our souls, while the children of God use Faith, Hope, Love, Forgiveness and Truth to defend themselves. There’s also an ancient secret order called the Brotherhood that is controlled by The Prince of Darkness – the true ruler of the earth.

Things are looking very grim, but luckily, there are seven Angelic Orders, which will be described in more detail in The Storyteller’s Guide. Even though the Christian Church is the principle agent of good in the war against evil, the Inquisition has been invaded by malevolent forces and the Wanderers (Angels in human guises) encountered on earth are usually Fallen Angels. Both good and evil Angels travel through the air in invisible ships. These look like discs. This probably accounts for later sightings of aliens.

The Piety value can change almost constantly during the game. For example, studying scripture or attending Church grants a +5% Piety bonus, while taking a Vow of Chastity, Poverty or Silence grants a bonus of +25%. Each sin incurs a -10 to -25% penalty, but even worse are those who practice Witchcraft (defined as any Magick): -100%! It’s possible to ask for Divine Intervention, with major interventions being very difficult (banishing a demon incurs a -125% penalty, for example).

Prayers can be used by any Christian and need a Piety roll to succeed. For example: the Sign of the Cross only takes 3 seconds to complete and gives +5 points of spiritual armour for the entire scene, while a complete Hail Mary needs 30 minutes before it gives a +10% chance of success at Divine Intervention.

Blessings and Holy Sacraments can only be performed by a priest.

Demons attack by trying to possess or influence their victims. Piety is needed to resist possession, while Influence attacks the defender’s Spirit. Demons and Evil Spirits can also attack people in their dreams, but psychics can create dream weapons to defend themselves.

Fate & Magick

All characters start with 1d6 Fate, but when trying to use Magick, a PC gains an additional 1-2 Fate Points every time 5 or lower is rolled. The chance of a fateful event (using 1 Fate Point) occurring is 5% each year, but Fate gained through the Forbidden Skills guarantee something will happen within 1d6 days. Fate is usually bad, with the Fate table listing events such as accident, disaster, financial ruin and even death.

Anyone may practice magick. However, those using the Forbidden Skills face insanity, prosecution, death and demon possession. There are four different Categories of magick, grouping 13 disciplines (mentioned above): Ceremonial Magick, Natural Magick, Extrasensory Magick and Black Magick. Spells need to be researched and learned (using time or experience points), with more difficult spells being more difficult and time-consuming to learn. Once known, a spell may be cast as often as desired, as long as the appropriate material components are available. The level of the spell is subtracted from the skill (in the text, it says ‘skill roll’, which might be confusing), making it much more difficult to cast higher level spells. Upon a failed roll, a character loses 1d6-3 Power. Also, (s)he must roll on the appropriate Spell Failure Table. Each Category has its own table, with effects ranging from nothing (1-30% on each table) through warped spells, trait losses, Power burn, Power loss, insanity, ageing, demonic possession, nightmares and amnesia. Note that ALL Categories are considered to be Forbidden Skills, not just Black Magick! One is susceptible to possession by a demon even when practicing Natural or Extrasensory Magick.

Spells are not forgotten when cast, but characters do accumulate fatigue and trauma. However, all Mages and Dilittantes begin with a number of spell points (Power). These are used instead of fatigue and trauma until they are depleted.

Spells directed at people can be resisted by making a Magick resistance roll, which is made at the basic skill in the appropriate category of magick (even if one does not have the appropriate skill).

There are also two kind of Ritualism spells: Pagan Ritualism and Priestly Ritualism. Priests may use the latter kind without being prosecuted.

More than 500 spells are included, each receiving a very short description. The spell names don’t exactly appeal to the imagination, but certainly most Dungeons & Dragons spells don’t either, so this shouldn’t bother anyone.

Money, equipment, arms & armour

Fantasy Imperium includes an impressive list of equipment. We don’t just get the prices for fruit and vegetables, but for each one in particular (apples, berries, beets, cherries, pears, plums, and so on). Even imported spices (allspice, cayenne pepper, cardomon, cinnmon, cloves and many more) haven’t been forgotten. We don’t just get the statistics for rapiers, we get the statistics for nine different ones, not a single one having exactly the same statistics. This really adds to the suspension of disbelief, which is only possible because all weapons have many different characteristics without everything looking to chaotic. The most important thing to note here is that the century in which a piece of armour or weapon first became available is listed, as well as the source. This way, Storytellers will be able to set their campaigns in any period during the Middle Ages… and in any location. Also, we get literally hundreds of illustrations. This has to be applauded, even though a lot of pages are devoted exclusively to weapon statistics or illustrations.

Background

Only 16 pages are devoted to the background setting. As previously mentioned, two time periods are described, including major events and information on the most important nations. However, this may not be enough to base an entire campaign on, so the Storyteller will have to do a lot of additional work, or will have to wait until The Storyteller’s Guide is available.

Roundup

Fantasy Imperium presents an involved, but exciting and very realistic system. It incorporates some of the best ideas seen in HârnMaster and many other gaming systems, but while those RPG’s are very consistent, author Mark O’Bannon does present a few strange rule design decisions (such as not including different armour values for different types of attacks).

The appendices are really good, presenting all of the important tables and a good index. To make sure combat moves fluidly, Storytellers will probably want to copy these tables and probably should hand out some of them to their players as well. There are a lot of weapon and armour illustrations here, but none of these are very good. They mostly look like they’ve been copied by hand from pictures. Still, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, as it’s far more important to have illustrations of everything than to have only a small amount of nice-looking drawings. Apart from the weapons and armour stuff, there aren’t a lot of illustrations. More breaks between the texts and tables would have been nice. The book does include two full-colour maps of Europe (one for 1121 A.D. and one for 1348 A.D.), though.

Fantasy Imperium is available in two hardcover editions. One is a blue hardcover depicting a woman holding a sword in one hand and a rose in the other. The limited collector’s edition has a red hardcover depicting a scantily-clad woman holding a sword. It retails for $69.95 and only a thousand copies of these have been printed. The title and the edges of the pages are covered in gold, which looks really good, even though the illustration may give people the wrong idea. This is not a game about romance and sex, but a very realistic RPG set in the Middle Ages, with a focus on the war between good and evil. The back cover of both editions depicts a woman in a dress, also holding a sword and a flower.

One final note. There is some awkward use of the English language in some places, but not that much. There are some typos, but not that many. More annoyingly, sometimes certain words are capitalised and sometimes they aren’t. I’ve tried to use the same capitalisation here as used in corresponding sections of the book, even though the above review is not a chapter by chapter analysis. It would probably be a good idea to decide on a single notation (for example, always use ‘Magick’ and ‘Skill Points’ instead of sometimes using the former notation and sometimes using ‘magick’ and ‘skill points’) for future editions. Still, this is not a major gripe and this RPG should appeal to anyone who loves more involved, realistic mechanics. As for the Interactive Storytelling aspect, I’ll be able to tell you more about that once The Storyteller’s Guide is released and after reading the free downloads on the homepage of this game, www.fantasyimperium.com.

Disclaimer: I’ve translated the website for this RPG into Dutch and French and I am now translating the downloads into Dutch. I did get paid for this, but as a professional journalist, I did not let this influence my opinion on the game itself.

Dirk Vandereyken

 

Comments are closed