The second of the tabletop RPG reviews to come out of Gencon 2006 has Bluealien looking at another new entry into the market: Fantasy Imperium, the storytelling game of historical fantasy.
Fantasy Imperium is the flagship product of Shadowstar Games, a relatively new small press publisher based out of San Diego. I spoke with them briefly at Gencon this year and was handed a copy of their book to review. Shadowstar was best noted at the show for their fairy poster and "better storytelling" pamphlet swag that everyone who walked by picked up.
I desperately want to try and say nice things here, but if I kept to my mother's advice and only said nice things about this product this article would have little beyond this sentence. Sadly I feel compelled to tell the truth if nothing else to serve as a warning to others.
The first thing you notice about the Fantasy Imperium book is the cover. Shadowstar put a lot of work into the cover artwork. The book is a hefty 400ish page monstrosity, nicely bound and with an attractive gypsy lady on the cover. Opening the book the paper is heavy but poorly finished, matte and rough. The interior artwork varies wildly in quality never approaching the quality of the cover artwork. The interior art is also very sparse for most of the rules section of the book leaving long, unbroken blocks of two-column text. The layout is plain and uninspired but perfectly functional resembling a broadsheet. It?s functional but I have to say that most high school newspapers have better layout. The character sheet alone is a table-filled monstrosity spanning seven pages with, curiously enough for a storytelling game, only a half of a page dedicated to character background.
The next thing I noticed about the book was the fact that much of the artwork seems to be illustrations of weapons. If you?ve ever wanted to know what a glaive-guisarme looks like then Fantasy Imperium has an illustration so you don?t have to dig up your old copy of ?Unearthed Arcana?. Also included are poor quality sketches of different stages of firearms (of questionable accuracy I might add), armor, siege weapons and other implements of action.
Now that the cosmetics of the book are out of the way it's time to delve into the actual content. Unlike many experienced gamers I always read through the "what is roleplaying" section of every new product I get. It's a space where authors are explaining their purpose and outlying what this book is intended to do and gives some insight into the design philosophy. It shows a little bit about what the authors were thinking when they realized that at some point they're going to have to sell and promote this product to someone who doesn't know what it is or what it does.
Fantasy Imperium's introduction purports the game to be a storytelling game in the sense that players are taking part in a story being told by the GM as opposed to creating a collaborative narrative. Players who die lose the game according to the introduction and the object is always to fulfill a quest set forth by the GM. Characters are set up with a primary flaw and a goal, an ?inner need? ? the objective of the game, if it can be called such, is to overcome the flaw and fulfill the inner need. Fantasy Imperium refers to the game as an interactive story later in the same introduction. Maybe I?m missing out on some subtlety but I fail to see much difference between ?interactive story? and ?collaborative narrative?. The fact that death means that players lose is a relatively new one to me, I was always taught that there was no way to win or lose a roleplaying game, pardon me, storytelling game.
In all Fantasy Imperium is a lackluster package. Large chunks of the book are outright unnecessary ? nobody besides a dedicated historian of firearms is going to appreciate the differences between a snaphance, a miquelet and a flintlock no matter how many sketches you show them. Most of the setting material can be found in your high school history textbook or any competent history of the Dark Ages. The writers do consult some interesting sources (how many roleplaying, sorry, storytelling, games have a bibliography?) but the history section is more like ?Baby?s First Book of World History? than anything resembling a serious overview. Except for the mechanics of the game there is very little in the book that cannot be found better done elsewhere. Upwards of a whole third of the book feels like it was thrown in to make the buyer feel like they?re getting more for their dollar. I will say that despite it?s many flaws the book does have an excellent index.
It took me the better part of an hour to slam out a character for Fantasy Imperium. The basic outline of character creation section is four pages of the book and is very confusing, comprising at least thirteen steps and ultimately spanning about half the book. After creating basic stats and choosing your character?s ?flaw? and ?inner desire? skills are found in chapter two, spells in chapters 10-13, equipment in chapters 14-16, and so on so forth. It?s all scattered around the book and I found myself constantly referring back to the one page that cross-links all of the necessary information for character creation.
For a roleplaying, sorry, storytelling game that purports to be about roleplaying rather than rollplaying, at least that?s the impression given the reader, Fantasy Imperium has exhaustively detailed combat rules, painstakingly statting out hundreds of different weapons and instruments of destruction. I?ve already mentioned the significant portion of the book dedicated to the line drawings of weapons but the authors went a step further and statted them all out.
The procedure for resolving combat is made up of 19 steps, from a clumsy initiative system to ?after everyone is dead, unconscious or has run away, the combat is over?. The system is percentile based, characters attempt to roll under their percentile skill in the weapon they are using. A player simply needs to roll under their skill to hit, then roll damage, then subtract the protection of armor to that number, then note the damage that armor takes, then roll extra dice if the armor is penetrated, then determine the severity level of the wound, then multiply the damage scored by a ?trauma value? of a weapon to determine total hitpoint loss, then the affected character must roll under their ?stun value to avoid being stunned. If it looks clunky and confusing that?s because it is clunky and confusing. The authors aimed to make combat simple and fast paced and fail miserably. As with anything enough practice and familiarity with the system will make things go much faster but that is little comfort to someone playing it for the first time.
Advancement is by expendable experience points. Players spend an experience points on their skills. This is done by first rolling against the skill ? if you roll under that experience point is gone forever. Rolling over your current skill level gives you the opportunity to roll again, either 1d6 up to a skill of 80%, 1d3 for 80-90% and a flat 1% for any skill above 90%. That means it is entirely possible to blow an entire career?s worth of experience points and literally have nothing to show for it. Thankfully that?s not all experience points can be used for.
Experience can also be used to purchase spells. Any player can do this regardless of their profession and the use of experience points brings the effective in-game research time to zero, meaning that players learn the spell and have access to it practically instantaneously. It?s a little more complicated than that and there is still the possibility that one?s experience/time will go to waste but that?s not really worth going into. There are a number of different magical schools each with their own table for spell failure. Overall the magic system is clunkier than the combat system with unnecessary details and overcomplications that only deepen Fantasy Imperium?s overall feelings of futility and frustration.
I ran into Shadowstar Games at Gencon. I do not think I shall meet them there next year. Fantasy Imperium is a terrible product for any company and a death-blow for a startup. The authors come off as horribly arrogant in their introduction. The layout is terrible, the production values are so-so and the system is clunky. More than half the book seems extraneous.
I had a brief conversation with one of the Vice-Presidents of Mayfair Games at the same Gencon that I found Fantasy Imperium at. The gist of that conversation was that there are always a lot of vendors who never had the benefit of someone to tell them that their idea may not be as great as they think it is. Shadowstar is one of those unfortunate vendors and Fantasy Imperium is one of those not-so-great ideas.