Age of Heroes
Age of Heroes Capsule Review by Pedro Almeida on 28/03/02
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A free roleplaying game of High Fantasy, that isn't afraid to show its roots.
Product: Age of Heroes
Author: Brian Gleichman
Company/Publisher: Brian Gleichman
Page count: 180
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Pedro Almeida on 28/03/02
Genre tags: Fantasy
Age of Heroes is a free roleplaying game available for download at http://home.earthlink.net/~bgleichman/AoH/AoH.htm
This review is based on revision 4.3.5 of the rules as of 10/11/2001.
The following semi-literate amalgam of words is my attempt to write a review. Any resemblance to a real rpg review, is pure coincidence, and surely not my fault.
The game is available only in PDF format. It's a massive 180 pages document (2.848Kb). Note that you need Adobe Acrobat 5.0 to view this document correctly.
I had no problems downloading or printing the document.
The first thing you notice it's the simple presentation. There are no pictures in the text, with the exception of the logo in the beginning of the chapters. The book has a clean, organized feel to it, with the text divided in two columns. The font size used is small. Don't know the specific size, but it's about the same than D&D 3rd Edition. Text is black on a white background though, so maybe John Wick will be able to read it.
The whole document is designed as a rulebook for playing the game. This is not an rpg for beginners. The author makes that clear in the introduction. That means there is no chapter about what a roleplaying game is or what d100 means for example. Also, there are no chapters about gameworld, metaplot and no short fiction or flavour text.
Overall the writing is clear, if a bit dry. There are the usual typos but they number is small in a book this size. I have seen much worse.
There is no index but it makes up for that with a very detailed table of contents. In the end of the book, there is a section with designer notes. It's a good thing the author included those, because when I browsed the document online for the first time, it didn't looked very appealing. Lots and lots of rules and a high level of complexity and detail, for what appeared to be an offshoot of AD&D. If it wasn't for that section, I would have never given the rpg a second look.
In that section the author makes clear why he decided to make the rpg and why it's the way it is. It's 7 pages long and covers topics such as goals/style, character generation, experience and combat. I always enjoyed the backstage of rpgs, so this section was a pleasant read. After knowing what the designer set himself to do and why he did it the way he did, I was eager to know the specifics of the system.
In Age of Heroes, character creation is randomised. You roll percentile dice to determine your ten stats: Strength, Quickness, Agility, Constitution, Will Power, Intelligence, Intuition, Magic Strength, Charisma and Personal Appearance. The roll is checked on a table, giving results in the 2-12 range. The distribution is kind of a bell curve, deviated to the right. The average for the human race is 7, but most of the stats will be in the 7-10 range. It's difficult to have rolls below 6. This means the PCs will be above average for their respective race. You then assign the values any way you want to the 10 stats.
Next comes the usual selection of gender and race/culture. Depending on the selection, characters will have different bonus/penalties to certain categories (height/weight, movement, stats, languages, family size, just to name a few).
The player can choose the starting age. Every race has a different life span with corresponding pros and cons. Older characters will start with more experience but they will have reduced characteristics. On the other hand, young characters will be less experienced and are not yet in the prime of their potential, meaning they will have some penalties too.
Height and Weight are randomised, taking into account the race/sex chosen. While in most rpgs this is mostly a cosmetic problem, in here it's an important one. Being big means being stronger and healthier (effective strength, hit points, stun level,...). Character don’t gain more hit points as they advance in level so this makes it an even more important issue. You also have to determine other things like movement rate (depends on race and quickness), fatigue, etc.
There are some tables to check and some computations to be made in this part, but this is a relatively straightforward process. Some people will cringe at having to calculate derived stats, but you only have to do this once and then is out of the way.
You then roll for primary hand (right, left, ambidextrous), birth date and family heritage. This last item will determine what kind of family you are born into (farmer, guildsmen, noble,...), how is your relationship to your family, number of siblings (depending on family size for the race chosen) and his birth order. You can even have a twin or more!
There is only one more step. Every character will have a number of character points to spend (varying with the race chosen). With this points you can do several things, ranging from re-rolling some rolls you are not happy with (stats, weight, family, etc), pick a certain value (more expensive) or buy specials. The specials can be items, companions, knowledge or abilities (Well made weapon, extra languages, eagle eye vision...).
This allows you to change some things you are not happy with and give a personal finishing touch to your character. You might not want to be born in a farmer's family for example and decide to be of noble birth.
Next comes the choice of class, and boy there are a lot of them (I counted 23!). They practically cover all the concepts one can find in fantasy literature. The class defines how good you are with weapons, weapons/armour familiarity and primary/secondary skills. Primary skills advance automatically with level, while secondary must be bought. If a skill it's not primary or secondary, than it can be bought but it's more expensive.
Characters have option points (based on intelligence) that permit to change secondary to primary skills and do other stuff like that. It makes the system more flexible than a straight class system.
The way it works, classes are only a template that can be changed by the player. It controls acquisition and costs of skills but it doesn't prevent the character from going in other directions. He will never be as good as a character whose class excel in those activities, but the possibility it's there.
The designer notes explain why the system is like that. The game is designed to run campaigns spanning decades of time. If the system was classless, character growth would make it impossible to maintain the niche roles that make the fantasy archetypes unique.
While I can see what the author was trying to avoid, on the whole I feel the system is much more complicated than it should be. In my opinion the same goal could be achieved by a simpler system.
With the experience earned characters can improve their skills. But that means less experience for level advancement.
Skill checks basically are a straight percentile roll, adjusted for difficulty and the usual modifiers. There is a pretty comprehensive skill list, with varying costs and the stat(s) they are based on. Some skills have specific systems for them. Example: Weaponsmith gives a table for the quality of weapons the character can make, the cost, bonus... Overall it's an interesting section with some nice details even if all the different resolution systems puts me off.
Character advancement is an interesting part of the book. The characters earn 200 xp for every 5 hours of play. The GM can give awards for good roleplaying or extended adventures. Really simple system. What's interesting in all this is how the game deals with high levels. Characters are free to advance to level 3. After that, advancement is tied to heroic deeds. Higher levels require increasingly heroic actions from the character. For example to qualify to 6th level one must perform great deeds in respect to an entire town. Level 10 would require a feat so heroic that would change the entire game campaign. Advancement beyond that level is practically impossible because as the book puts it, "the character would almost have to defeat evil and conquer hunger".
But this means that players will have a hard time reaching high levels. This probably will not appeal to everyone. According to the designer this allows the game to recreate the scope of the fantasy tales that have groups with a range of ability. High advancement is not the result of coming to the game. It results from risk and playing the "Hero". The characters may decide the risks are too high for the next level and retire. This way the game doesn't escalate into an "arms race".
This system seems in theory to allow the game to maintain the power level in check. I'm not sure about the end result, but I thought this was an interesting idea.
Beginning with level 4, characters gain hero abilities. There are many to choose from. It’s the kind of ability that distinguishes the hero from lesser men. Things like throwing melee weapons, undistractable, sense evil... Characters only gain 1 hero point for level, so more powerful advantages can only be bought by saving the points for a later level.
After reading the goals the author had for the game, I was looking forward to this chapter.
The game uses tactical maps with hexes, where facing is important. Every character has front, flank and rear sides. Facing will determine your zone of control, giving you free attacks when the enemy does certain things like moving carelessly.
There is no initiative roll. Characters act in descending order of quickness (modified for armour worn). Attacks are resolved with percentile dice adjusted to your opponent defense. This means you have to perform double-digit subtractions. The defense value is kept relatively low but nevertheless this will not appeal to math averse people. Then depending on the number rolled the attack/miss will have different degrees (critical, solid, pressing, normal, miss, riposte, fumble). This works similar to Runequest but since you have to adjust the probabilities based on the opponent you face, I’m sure this must be a chore in large battles.
That roll determines how good/bad the attack was. If it was a success, the character that was hit has now the opportunity to parry/dodge. This roll breaks down in different degrees of success/failure that is crosschecked in a very small table to determine the outcome. Because of this the final result will vary a lot. Great hits, broken weapons, retreating manoeuvres, fumbles, ... This is designed in a logical way and whatever the outcome it never ends up in a stream of rolls. The parry roll adds a new dimension. At least in the paper this gives combat an appealing feel to it breaks out of the static hit/miss resolution that most systems end up with.
Hits also have a very detailed hit location but this adds another roll. On the other hand this allows a lot of detail to be given to the protections the PCs will use. The game even has a system for customized armour. According to the notes the designer tried to balance the different styles. One of the goals was to allow the loincloth barbarian to contest with a knight in full plate. So depending on the armour worn one has penalties to certain rolls (quickness, movement, attack/parry/dodge...). This means armoured characters will be hit more often but they will have less chance of being seriously hurt. Unarmoured ones will be able to dodge/parry better but every hit could be a fatal one. In the weapons area the game also tries to avoid the syndrome of the better weapon for all occasions, with more damaging weapons having a smaller chance to parry and other minor details.
All the modifiers are small and because of the little different details given to each option, it’s not readily apparent which combination is the best (if there is one), making the decision one of personal preference. This is something I like.
There are also a lot of combat actions one may choose from. Weapon binds, push downs, disarms and the like. This surely isn’t a system for someone who just wants to roll a die and be done with it. This is a challenging tactical combat environment.
I will not bother describing more the many possibilities of the system. This chapter has a lot of other rules, some of them optional. They address the usual stuff, poisons, healing, surprise, weapon length, fatigue, different sized opponents, mounted combat, among others.
Of course this all looks pretty nifty on paper (ok, I confess, I’m sure a lot of people look at it and quickly avert their eyes) but does it work? I couldn’t answer that just by reading the rules. And I wanted to try the system. So even though this is a capsule review, I decided to run a mock fight.
This is the part where the reviewer can have some fun (I hope). I flipped to chapter 4, the bestiary. This only has about a score of creatures detailed. It’s a sample of what can be done with the system. The GM will have to work on it.
Looking around I settled on the Cave Troll because it brought me memories of a good battle scene. Realizing this was one of the toughest creatures on the list, I decided to not spare on the number of PCs. I wanted the troll to have some fun too. Having no experience with the system, I just opted to go with different styles. I settled on an archer, a ranger, a fighter, a chivalric (knight) and an elementalist. Five seemed a good number and besides, the four hobbits would just get in the way. :)
It must be obvious by now that I had a lot of free time on my hands. So I sat down to create the five characters (temporary insanity I tell you). The combat system enticed me to try to run a combat and that is a good sign I guess.
But while creating the first character it was obvious that this would take me a long, long time. Not because of the characters generation in itself but because of my unfamiliarity of the system. The scope of the rules is so big that a beginner feels lost in there. I realized that a GM new to the system has a lot of work ahead of him just to get at ease with the system. So I took the easy way out and while I packed my dice I decided the 5 characters (plus 4 hobbits why not) defeated the cave troll without a scratch, and moved on (yeah I know, big letdown).
The book doesn’t provide a hex grid (I hate the fact that toys come with no batteries). A page with a hex grid, so you could print and join several of them, would be a nice thing to have. I imagine a lot of people out there are hexless like me. So this gives a –1 penalty to substance. :)
After the disappointment with the mock fight, I decided to wrap things up. I realized it didn’t make much sense to continue a detailed review. That episode basically was a short review in itself.
Just a quick note to the magic system. Different classes have different spell lists, using spell points to cast spells. There’s no memorization involved. The caster needs to succeed in a spell-casting roll though. There’s the possibility of magic fumbles too.
Note that some classes don’t have the corresponding spell lists in the book. They probably are in the works, but as of this review some classes will not be able to be used in play.
In the appendices there is an example of character creation. I wish there was an example of play there too or even just a combat example. I’m sure that would be an invaluable resource to people new to the system.
By reading the designers thoughts in the end, it's clear why the game was built the way it is. The author had certain design goals in mind and tried to address specific problems.
Some goals the designer tried to achieve:
- Highly tactical style of play. - Be able to handle longer than life characters, campaigns spanning long periods of time. - Support diverse characters while protecting those same characters’ niche of expertise. - Balanced combat system (weapons, armours, styles...)
One might not be happy with the choices made, but in the end the game can only be judged by the objectives it set to achieve and the relevance of those. This is a game system born of 20 years of roleplaying and it shows. I'm sure the system is highly customized to the group that gave him birth. It has detail where they felt detail was needed and ignores things others would consider vital.
This is a game that is not afraid of its wargaming roots. It provides a challenging tactical environment to play. At its core, it's a wargame with some roleplay. The author recognizes this. It can only be recommended as such. But the scope, complexity and style of the system will keep most people away. You will need to persevere to get something out of this rpg. Given the current development of rpgs today, this isn't for many peoples taste.
The ratings have to be taken with a grain of salt, as always. My advice is to read the designer notes first. They can even be read on the site without having to download the whole document. That way you will be able to see if it’s a good fit for you or not.
Black text on a white background. No pictures, just severals tables. Simple, unattractive design.
Designed as a rulebook/reference for playing, not for learning the game.
Some concepts are referred to without being explained first. Some options in the tables are only explained in later sections (Ex: combat action). There is a certain amount of flipping, especially for people that are new to the system and to the book.
There a lot of acronyms used throughout the book. Some of them i wasn’t able to figure out what they were (Ex: 3 WB for a well made weapon. What’s WB?)
Highly detailed rules for the style of game it’s designed for. Highly complex as a result. Basically a “Wargame with roleplaying”.