Sunday, April 24, 2016


I owe the author of this book an apology as it was sent to me some time ago with the hope of me doing a review and I haven't had the opportunity to write one until now. I feel  bad in this case because William Butler (my business partner who passed away in 2014) was particularly interested in this game when I showed it to him and had been planning to run some sessions of it. So this review is one I should have done about two years ago. 

The game is Age of Heroes and the author is Brian Gleichman.  Brian is someone whose intelligence and consistency I've come to respect a lot over the years and this game is a clear demonstration of those two things. It is not a system for those who want rules light or who eschew realism. This is a game for people who want realism supported by legitimate crunch where it counts. That said, the game is pretty good about knowing where that crunch ought to be, so if you are worried about games that go overboard and have fiddly bits in all the wrong places, that really isn't a concern here despite the comprehensive nature of the system. This review is based on Age of Heroes version 5.0.1.

If you gamed during the 80s, Age of Heroes will feel familiar. It definitely is written in the spirit of the systems I grew up playing and loving. It reminds me of games like Hero System, Basic Role-play and Rolemaster. This isn't a game like D&D but more like the other systems that attempted more realism. These days these kinds of games might be thought of as too rules heavy, but I tend to think of them as just very precise and complete. Reading through age of heroes it is like Brian Gleichman continued with that trajectory of design evolution. So if you aren't a fan of that style, this won't be the game for you. Mechanically it is a bit baroque, but I think that is a strength here. 

One thing to keep in mind if you haven't played a game requiring real math in some time: Age of Heroes values math and uses it to achieve its objectives. Games tend to avoid that now and I was actually surprised that I had to refresh some of my math skills while reading the book to make sure I was doing the formulas correctly. It isn't difficult, it is just something a lot of gamers might be out of practice with. Just to give a quick example so people know what I mean here. The game uses Location Points, or LP, for taking damage in combat and the formula for figuring them out is:

LP=(cube root of character's weight)-.3 

There is a handy chart too. But then the Stun Levels (or SL) also use a formula:


Other aspects of the game like Cumulative Hit Points and Movement Rate use similar methods. This isn't stated here to critique or deter. And the whole book doesn't read like this. But parts of character creation do involve math, do involve the kinds of formulas you might not have seen in a game book in a while, so just be aware of that going in. To his credit, Brian Gleichman very clearly states this in the introduction. 

The aim of Age of Heroes is to simulate a world of high fantasy and to do so in a way that allows for long term campaigns that can span generations. It places strong focus on tactical skills and it very much rooted in a war-game approach to RPGs. 

The game has ten stats: Strength, Quickness, Agility, Constitution, Will Power, Aptitude, Intuition, Magic Strength, Charisma and Physical Appearance. While these range from 2-12 in value (with an average of 7) they are arrived at by rolling a percentile die and consulting a chart. This might feel a bit counter-intuitive or like an unnecessary step to some, but I rather like this. It allows the designer to set the frequency of each result in the game. So 12s come up 3% of the time because on the chart they are in the 98-100 column. Each stat value is clearly set to where the designer feels it ought to be. NPCs use a different column on the chart (with 'unusual' NPCs using the same results as PCs and standard NPCs having a higher range between 5-9). Stats impact a number of things from skill point costs to your ability to lift and your defense modifiers. Importantly they are not the last word in anything. While strength matters when determining Lift Capacity, so does your character's weight. One can quibble over choices like this but personally, as a slightly smaller than average guy who used to spend a lot of time in gyms sparring with bigger guys, I think a lot of his choices are sound here. 

After Stats, you handle things like Race and Culture. These are somewhat campaign specific but base cultures and races are provided. They are basically templates that provide restrictions, size ranges, weight modifiers, stat modifiers, character points, etc. These do include modifiers for sex, which can be a touchy subject. However it also provides an optional rule for getting around these issues. Basically male characters are baseline and female characters have stat and size modifiers (some are positive like Constitution, some are negative like Strength). 

Following this you get into secondary traits which include age, spell points, height, weight, effective strength, hit points, movement rate, etc. This is where a lot of the math I mentioned earlier comes into play. 

Past this point there are sections on family, social class, character points, character classes, and skills. Character Points are important because they help set individuals apart from others. These can take the form of re-rolls or modifiers, special items, and special abilities. They are a nice way to help flesh out a character. 

Character Classes are pretty important as well in the game. They don't limit what you can do, but they do control how well you can do any given thing. So your combat modifiers, magic combat modifiers and your access to magic and skills filter through the character class. It doesn't appear anything is restricted. If I understand the skill system and the magic system correctly, you can generally still access these things even if they are not listed on your character class, they just cost more. In some cases this can impose a heavy modifier to cost. For example a character taking non-classed skills (Skills not listed as Primary or Secondary for the class) pays 50% more for them. Classes seem to be mainly about aptitudes toward certain skill sets. Other things like weapon familiarity, XP advancement and special abilities are covered by class as well. 

But the heart of making your character appears to be in the skills. This is the last section of character creation and the most lengthy. Skills cover everything from combat to crafting and magic. Some skills have their own resolution methods but the core system is a d100 roll where you must roll under a number (called the Base Skill Chance). I personally like roll under systems. I do realize many consider them counter-intuitive but I've always found them fairly easy to work with and grasp. There are basically five ranks for skills (though these can be exceeded) that help set the base skill chance at different increments. So a rank in a skill of 3 gives you a rank base of 80. Like other aspects of the game, the skill roll section is somewhat involved but it is pretty clear and all makes a good deal of sense. For example skills have learning time (and there is a formula involved). Results can be broken up into failure, success, extraordinary success, and (in rare cases) critical success. The guidelines for these are fairly simple and straightforward, understanding that the GM really needs a lot of room to interpret what extraordinary success means based on circumstances. 

Combat is very tactical in nature. There are rules for facing, zones of control, etc. Combat flows in five steps which begin with deciding your action but allow for the defender to make a parry or dodge attempt. On a successful round you would roll for hit location and damage. Of note there are many combat options listed. So the first step of combat actually holds 28 officially listed possibilities. These include things like Normal Strike, Full Swing, Dive for Cover, Disarm, Trample, etc. You can only perform one combat action in a round.  It also offers up a number of optional rules to crank this up even more (things like Bleeding rates, combat formations, etc). In addition there are number of "Special Cases" rules for close combat, withdrawing from combat, taking friendly fire, and more. 

You will definitely need a GM who understands the system fully to run it. There are a number of important distinctions to keep in mind as you deal with things like wounds, combat modifiers and hit locations. It is a system designed to reward players who make sound tactical choices and it does so with an aim to simulating a feeling of reality. Players can probably get by knowing a bit less than the GM, but they will definitely benefit with more mastery of the rules. 

Magic system looks solid to me on first reading. I think given what is being emulated here, the division into subtypes would work well for a number of campaigns. Spells are divided into types and these determine how they are cast as well as special rules for them. These are the categories: Battle Spells (single target attacks), Combat Spells (area attacks), Characteristic Assault Spells, Defense Spells, Instant Spells, Non-Combat Spells, Talent Spells, and Ritual Spells. These types have mechanical weight to them. The spell descriptions are varied and flavorful. 

After this are the campaign rules which cover everything from overland movement to magic items. It covers all the key challenges like falling off cliffs and breaking objects. Healing is also found in this section of the book and it can be pretty gritty. Healing is dealt with based on the where you were wounded. So you have to track a damaged arm and head separately. Healing times are tracked and can have varying effects on you. What is more, characters can face the prospect of permanent disability from such wounds. Again, there is a bit of a detailed method to this (though it comes with a chart). 

While this is complicated at times, my experience with such things is they really do give characters a palpable history. When you have a system for dealing with bum legs that can arise naturally, unplanned, through the course of combat, that creates characters who feel real. If I understand the healing rate correctly, how wounded you are impacts how much you recover each day. Being tended regularly by a physician also affects this. I'd have to run it live though to really get a feel for it, so my impression is based on the charts and text. 

There is a bestiary which comes with a nice list of common abilities that look like they make customizing your own creatures easy. The bestiary looks fairly complete to me, especially given how much the rest of the book covers. It includes selections of horses, elementals, goblins, monsters like trolls, demons, and humanoid threads such as dwarven adventurers, human lords and wizards. There is also a section of mythic creatures. 

This is followed by the appendices. The first is a one page character creation checklist which is actually rather useful. This page clarified a lot for me, because it helps you see all the steps in a clear plan. But even better are the design notes. I'd even go so far as to say the design notes are worth buying the book for even if you have no interest in running the system. 

When I first got to this section I was anticipating they might be harsh, because I know Brian Gleichman has strong views on his gaming style. But this was a very compelling read that clearly laid out what his goals were, and did so in a way that didn't feel like an attack if you happened to disagree. He presents five clear design goals but one thing that stands out is the game was designed to reward players for making good choices. It is the kind of style where success isn't assumed simply because you are a hero. You do have to earn success and part of the fun comes from the GM presenting legitimate challenges to overcome. This means a high kill rate (which he puts at 15-40% in his own campaigns). I rather like this style of play myself, though I recognize it can be a difficult sell these days. To me, it means more to be a hero when the risks are higher and the chances of death ever-present.

Something he addressed here is the mechanics he chose not to add to the game. One of his design goals was to avoid mechanics that interfere with players running their characters, so he felt in some instances that meant knowing when not to have rules if they can be handled by GMs and Players naturally on their own (for example rules for romance). 

Gleichmann also addresses styles that are not well-suited to Age of Heroes. He acknowledges those put off by math, non-dramatic outcomes, combat and the rewarding of player skill, might not enjoy the game. Over the course of the section he explains his decisions for various mechanics. 

The appendix also includes a history of the hobby, suggestions for modifying the system and a recommended reading/viewing list. The history section is notable because you can get a clear sense of what the writer likes and doesn't like from it. The reading list is not overwhelming but offers some interesting choices. For example, for Paladins one of its recommendations is Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. When I was young my father developed a fascination with this book and I certainly can't object to it being on the list. For general reading there is a lot of what you'd expect for high fantasy but also selections like The Princess Bride (which I think is a book worth reading if you like the film). With the films, again I can't object. All movies I think are great fantasy and adventure films and I can definitely see how all the recommendations match the flavor of the book. 

This is definitely worth checking out if you want something with a little more crunch where tactics and choice matter. If math is a huge deterrent for you, this may not be a great fit, but I am not super into math myself and didn't find it difficult once I got back into the groove of it. If you gamed during the 80s, and feel maybe we've thrown out a bit of baby with the bathwater in the intervening decades, this is also worth checking out. If you want to run a high fantasy system, with a robust ruleset, that doesn't compromise on mechanics, then definitely give it a try. 

In terms of writing, I found the book very engaging and well written. I particularly liked the design notes section in this respect. The organization of the book is quite clear. While it is a complex game, you shouldn't have any trouble finding the section you need during play. I haven't had a chance to play it myself. It is certainly on my short list of games to run when I have time away from the game I am currently working on. So do take my opinion with the necessary grain of salt. 

Age of Heroes is available on lulu for those who are interested: HERE

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