Fantaji is the single most inspiring and innovative RPG system I did purchase the last year. And I purchased quite a lot of new systems - but for me, Fantaji hits exactly the sweet spot between solid, clever, functional rules and the vast possibilities of narrative control. In fact, I even think it's the first game where I would say that rules and narrative cannot be divided apart. Here, they are two sides of one coin, so to speak. Or rather: Telling the story is using the rules here, and vice versa. This was my impression when I first read the core rulebook, and the verdict still stands after five lengthy sessions and a one-shot evening of playing Fantaji (guess the first two sessions already erased all remaining doubts or uncertainties). For my gaming group, this is going to be the new universal workhorse of heroic roleplaying. High praise indeed, but I think it is well deserved. Warning: You might already guess that I love this set of rules, so expect some enthusiasm in the following review.
Ok, so first about the book itself: The pdf is 224 pages all in all, with a nice layout and a clear and well-organized presentation of the contents. It’s sectioned into 4 parts compromised of a total of 8 chapters for rules and another 4 chapters of settings (yeah right, you get 4 settings with the core rulebook!). The parts (and chapters) are called “I - System” (Introduction, 1. Combat Tiles, 2. How to Play, 3. Character Creation), “II - Judging” (4. How to Run a Scene, 5. Running a Campaign), “III - Worlding” (6. Game Creation, 7. Custom Niche & Powers) and “IV – Settings” (8. Neutrals Mods, and the four settings: Bloodsbane, Land of Mazaki, Waning Moon, Gamma Centauri). In addition, you have a reference glossary of a quality for which alone you have to love the designers! And while we’re on the subject of love: As another reviewer already said, you can really feel the dedication of the Anthropos Games team to their work while reading it.
So now I’ll try to make clear what I love about Fantaji (I’m no native speaker, but hope to be able to explain it clearly enough): The basic rules are very simple, but far from limiting. On the contrary, they provide you with some easy ways of doing anything (literally). In fact they are so streamlined and intuitive that after playing some sessions, we rarely come back to the rulebook at all (and when, it’s usually about looking up the specifics of a power or so).
Once the action is on, the game is played out in scenes, and every item that has an impact on the story/scene (and hence is subject to the rules and potentially to dice-rolling) belongs to one of four categories:
character: player characters and important npc/villains; characters have a name and personality, some descriptors for their niche/occupation (depending on the setting), traits (these are the equivalents of attributes in other systems, but they aren’t numerical stats but rather descriptors or qualities described in one trenchant sentence – playing to these fundamental traits of a character with your narration grants dice when having to make a roll; So while a wild catman might have Strength 12 and Dexterity 13 in some system, in Fantaji he could have the trait “Like a lion” (implicating even more qualities than just physical prowess); in another system, a female paladin might have a high number in Constitution and a suit of armour, in Fantaji she could be a “Iron Maiden” and kick ass in any way you can imagine; so traits are an important concept, like the core of the character, and they should be inspiring and both broad enough to be used in different situations and specific enough to really describe your character), powers (special abilities, magic or inherent technology that has an impact on the way your character works), gear/equipment (only the dramatically important stuff needs to be written down), health and milestones/experience (improving your characters uses a very clever system that I won’t expand on here).
obstacle: what PCs must overcome, anything from a blocked door over a puzzle or trap to monsters and enemies; these tiles have traits as well, and they can have health blocks and/or all kinds of special rules.
theme: passive tiles; hints on the mood and important aspects of a scene that can be used by both friend or foe; they too act as experience points, as the player who used a certain theme the most gets this theme tile handed out after the sence and can later exchange earned themes for character improvements.
condition: passive tiles; details and circumstances that can benefit or trouble characters and obstacles, like being shackled or surrounded by a fire or being out of sight of a particular enemy.
These are the four kinds of “tiles” used when playing, a tile being something like a reference card or data sheet that embodies the relevant item (physically, a tile can be everything from a simple index card inscribed with a pen to a full blown character sheet or a pretty, printed-out picture of a monster with stats splashed on). In addition, some tiles can be expanded by other sub-ordinate tile extensions (like gear for characters etc).
[Note: The arrangement of tiles is equivalent to the scene in terms of rules. This makes up for an interesting way of preparing adventures: once you have an idea what a scene that is likely to happen should be all about, you design a few tiles with which the conflict/problem can be pictured – and voila. So the GM (or Judge in Fantaji) can really plan an adventure/campaign by just building a deck of cool tiles and having some ideas about probable scenes and what could be arranged in which way, according to the characters’ actions. Everything the Judge has not prepared beforehand or that comes straight out of a spontaneous action of the pcs is just made a tile by using pen and paper. So a player could basically say: “I try to break open that barred door” – and while you as the GM initially didn’t think someone would want to do that, you just write this goal down as an obstacle tile. Simple as that.]
In addition to the tiles, you have Drama tokens and Status Effects, which are both kinds of tokens that can affect tiles. I won’t say too much about the nine status effects, but more or less, they are what the name implies: effects than can affect a character or obstacle (like Burn, Stun, Stressed and so on). They are a nifty way of hindering active tiles to use certain of their qualities.
Drama is a very important part of the game. It stands for the energy, momentum or alertness a character (or other tile) has built up. It’s not a meta-currency that buys you special actions or whatever. It is the dramatic state of a tile expressed in tokens. A watchman with 0 Drama might be strolling along bored and indifferent, while the same guard with 5 Drama would be in an over-alert, battle-ready frenzy with a burning will, flexed muscles, sparking eyes and a booming voice. Every point of Drama a tile has stacked on itself grants the same tile one die when a roll is to be made – that’s a tremendously important way of empowering tiles. What’s more, you can use Drama tokens to show other dramatic stuff happening on tiles as well (eg: I used a Burning Temple as an obstacle tile which could be saved by the PCs – every other round, the temple made a check with its “The flames went higher” trait against difficulty 5, and every success added 1 Drama token. With every point of Drama, the fire grew bigger and the chances of securing the temple grew smaller).
This concept is quite clear when we look at how the dice are used in Fantaji.
When you have to roll, you “play to” the traits of your character (or the character’s gear) and the themes present in the scene. Every trait and theme you manage to incorporate into the narrative of describing your action grants you one D10. Every Drama token you’ve got at the moment adds another D10. That’s the way of building your dice pool for a roll.
[Note: Playing to traits and themes is the core mechanism of Fantaji dice-rolling. It is a way in which the system and its’ connection between telling a story and ruling out consequences does shine. To gather the necessary amount of dice for a given task, you are “forced” to present a dramatic account of what your character does why and in what way. Sure, a crashing bore could try to come up with a lazy-assed sentence in which he expresses, to which traits/themes he plays, and a powergaming bloke might have the idea to play to each and every trait/theme available in a completely moronic, unbelievable way – but with these kinds of players you will have problems in any rpg system. And what’s best, Fantaji has a way of preventing such bullshitting: all the people around the table have to agree on which traits/themes where hit with the description of an action, so single-sided nonsense is hard to pull off. It took us our first session to get used to the concept of “playing to” traits/themes in Fantaji, but after all, it is very intuitive. Remember the catman with the trait “like a lion”? Well, he could describe his action as “jumping catlike onto the roof of the building, landing on four paws” or “staring at the enemy with his predator eyes, letting out a threatening roar before the charge” – and in both cases, the player would use the catman’s trait to his benefit]
Basically, there are two ways of rolling dice: by making a check or by making a challenge:
Checks are smaller actions that require you to play to only one trait or theme to make them (in other words, you need only a single non-drama D10 to make a check). With the single die, you roll against a target number (usually 3, 5 or 8), and can score one success. With this success, you can either build up Drama (adding a Drama token to your stack), or set up or manipulate a condition (you use a check to entangle an ogre’s legs with your whip? well, now you can write down the condition “The Ogres’ legs are tied together”).
Challenges are those confrontational actions that set you up against an obstacle (or another character) and in which consequences in the way of “damage” (be it to your health or your reputation or to whatnot) are to be expected. Here you try to build up the biggest dice pool possible, while your opponent does the same. Than it is a competitive test, comparing your highest results with the highest results of the other guy. Each of your dice that beats all the dice of your opponent counts as success. With the successes, you can deal damage, deploy status effects (if you have the means to do so) or set up/manipulate conditions.
The “health” or resistance of a character is managed in blocks of different size (called wounds), the size showing how many successes are needed to mark off the whole block (you have to deal damage in complete blocks, so an opponent who was only unmarked 2-size blocks left must be dealt damage with 2 successes to get one of the 2-size blocks down). There are different ways of defensive powers and armour, and dealing wounds can set the status effects Stressed or Bloodied on another active tile.
Manipulating conditions means using conditions for your advantage or to the disadvantage of a foe, causing him to lose a Drama token (to stay with the example of the entangled Ogre, you could pull on the whip tied around his legs to stagger the brute). Moreover, the same happens if someone accidentally triggers a condition (meaning you lose a Drama Token if you decide to just run to the other side of the room when there is a condition “The floor of the room is full of razor-sharp caltrops”).
There you go, those are the basic outlines of the Fantaji core rules (I hope my summarization does them no wrong). So you have four kind of items, two kinds of special tokens, and two kinds of making a roll. All these elements fit together in a very clever and intuitive way, and make for a system that can picture heroic feats without ever needing sub-systems and all the special special rules clutter. All the while it is enforcing storytelling and a dramatic narrative. And I wouldn't even call it "rules lite" - the rules are easy, but far from limited. Instead they are very versatile, allowing you to build any kind of creature, situation or special power of any complexity you can imagine. Indeed there are pages and pages about using “mods” to expand or hack the system in a way fitting your campaign. Seriously, I consider the possibilities presented in the core rulebook as pure gold for any GM. That’s the way I want a system: Easy and elegant, with lots of options and even bigger possibilities to tweak it the way you want.
As long as your setting has capacity for some all-out action, for heroics or the fantastical, Fantaji should be well-suited to bring the setting to life! To give an example: We used it for some Star Wars roleplaying in the time of the Great Hyperspace War, and I cannot think of any other RPG which would make integrating the Force and all the jedi jazz so easy (and what’s more, the force needs not be brutalized into some kind of spell-system or a hierarchy of special abilities or whatever). For my gaming group this has gone a long way to show the system’s universality and potential.
Conclusion: Buy this! You cannot do anything wrong by spending a meagre 12 € for getting such an inspired and intelligent RPG system. Even if you discover that it’s not your cup of tea – as long as you are a interested in RPG systems in general, you should consider this a must-buy.
I am looking forward to anything Fantaji that Anthropos Games has coming for us. Such are the words of the hooked.