Monday, July 11, 2011

Arcanis Fast Play

     I had made the determination to take a break from Arcanis after the conclusion of the Living Arcanis campaign.  I liked the setting -- though I thought it needed to be more concrete and less vague as more materials became available, a thought that didn't mesh well with the perspective of the books.  I knew that, for the most part, PCI printed quality products that far exceeded the mean of the third-party offerings.  I also got to know most of the PCI staff, people who (I would very much like to write without exception) I like and respect for what they do and how they comport themselves.  Though I didn't get on-board with Shattered Empires, I was very much still curious where Arcanis was going and how it was represented.
     Lucky for me – actually, lucky for everybody – PCI has made two products available free of charge to get prospective players ready for the launch of the Arcanis Roleplaying Game. The first is the Fast Play book (available as a free download from PCI: click here), which introduces the basics of the new rules system in an effective manner.  The second, as noted on the inside of the back cover of the Fast Play book, is the celebrated -- and award-winning Codex Arcanis (click here).  While the Codex Arcanis is not quite up-to-date in regards to the ongoing political evolution of Onara, it serves as one of the best primers ever written about a roleplaying world.  I would very much recommend that anyone taking on the task of recruiting players to Arcanis (or doing the world justice in the adventure included in the Fast Play book) at least have a passing familiarity with the material presented in the Codex Arcanis.

     I am happy to recommend that anyone interested in a well thought out and developed (I don't want to say fantasy) roleplaying game setting and emerging system give the Fast Play rules a shot (and definitely take a look through the Codex Arcanis).  It is a quality product with few real errors.  And it presents the rules in a manner that is – for it being an alien system to me – quite accessible.  Chances are you will like what you see and give serious consideration to picking up the core rulebook.  It certainly far exceeded all expectations I had, and had done a great deal to erode much of the resistance I have had in regards to where Arcanis is going.

     Now, I am a nit-picker; anyone expecting me to not find fault in a free product will be disappointed.  At the same time, I must now fully retract an old rant from conventions past about how some of the free product wasn't so free (because I was spending thousands of dollars a year to play LA).  Both free products are wholly worthwhile, and I trust that my review of the Fast Play book and my experience with it will do it justice.

LLT Symbol by Joe Abboreno
     The Fast Play book starts with an introduction to the rules.  Immediately.  No wasting time setting up the world.  No statement of purpose from the authors of the company.  Nope.  Just a very straightforward 'here are the rules' presentation.  Is this a problem?  No.  The purpose of the book is to familiarize potential (and returning) players with the rules system.  As such, the approach works better if the reader already is or makes an effort to become familiar with the setting (which every reader can be...because the Codex Arcanis is available for free!).  But the approach also works because there are no distractions from the rules.  Not all of the rules are included – I imagine that would have required some 100+ pages – but I did not get the feeling that those which were excluded impaired my understanding of the basic level of the rules.  At the same time, I did feel that the matter of fact pace of the presentation could have used the occasional example.
Action Dial
     One of the aspects of the new rules system I thought would be most daunting was the use of an initiative clock. I am very used to players being able to handle simple addition in a timely manner; having initiative roll over at 12 seemed like a recipe for disaster.  Trying out the clock mechanic with players used to a static initiative, problems emerged almost immediately.  This was, in part, due to trying to use d12s to keep track of individual PCs and NPCs initiatives.  While PCI sells a version of a clock (they call theirs an Action Dial, available here), I went on-line and found some clock face clip-art images and mocked up spinning centers for them.  This reduced the difficulty in keeping players on initiative, but did not eliminate the problem (there are some self-inflicted problems caused by my approach, to be addressed below).  Low and behold, when I tried using my versions of the Clock (not shown on this blog because they are kind of pathetic) with players not that familiar with initiative systems treated the Clock like, well, a clock.  They wholly got that it rolled over at twelve, that the Speed costs moved the dial ahead that many ticks to when the next action could be taken.
My sad little clock, w/ room for counters
     The problem both groups experienced – and I know that I must claim some degree of blame for this – came to trying to implement Recovery.  Because at no time were we using a counter that showed more than one pass through the Clock at a time, we used counters to represent which 'round' (the Fast Play book is clear that there are no rounds – p. 4 – but it really helped me to think of each trip around the Clock as a round) each character was on.  Unfortunately, we also used counters for Recovery.  Okay, easy mistake to make.  But even when we made sure that these counters couldn't be confused...we found a way to confuse them.  Both groups of players also commented that it would have just been easier  for Recovery to add a cost to actions (or have other effects) rather than to be tracked separately from where the character is on the Clock because of speed.  I agree with that sentiment, but I also think that Recovery probably plays better in the full rule-set.  I also imagine that it is a part of the system that would become more seamless with greater exposure.
     I did not like the amount of clocks that ended up in use.  There was the Master Clock (the time of the combat), individual clocks for each PC (3 or 4, depending on the group), a clock for each group of minions (I think I did that correctly), a clock for the adversary, and a clock for the common lieutenant.  While I think all of us got to the point of being comfortable with the clocks we needed to manage – more work for me since I was running the combats – none of us were of any use in monitoring the clocks of anyone else.  As an experienced GM, I was a little unsettled by this.  As a matter of fact, I have learned to do everything in my power to streamline initiative and involve the players in monitoring the order to keep focus on the game.  Is the multi-clock system one with which I could become familiar?  Absolutely.  Is it one with which I think I could master enough to keep an eye on all of the clocks.  Not likely, and certainly not anytime soon. I could just assume that players won't cheat, but they do.  More often than that, they make mistakes due to inattention, and I found that people just learning the system are going to encounter some difficulty in making sure they are operating their PC's clocks correctly.  (I am also going to admit that I made a consistent mistake when I started the Master Clock at 12 – effectively zero – instead of at 1 as is stated in the rules.  Nobody caught this until the end of the second session when one of the players noticed it, but I don't think it changed anything; no character could take an action before their starting initiative.)
The first combat w/ familiar 5 foot squares
     Having written that, all but one of the players enjoyed how combat flowed in the 'Clock' system.  The included pre-generated characters are well balanced, so no one character dominated combat.  There was a fair amount of question the speed values of the weapons by the more experienced players in relation to the actual ease of use of said weapons (I join them in this criticism, but am hopeful that the values were derived from a game balance perspective).
     Between the four combats run, we only experienced three instances of the exploding attribute die for weapon damage – two for the players, one for the NPCs.  I expect that would be much more frequent in regular play.  I think the game plays a little more honestly without the exploding die for damage, especially since there is also the allowance for critical strikes, but this would create an internal inconsistency with the rules since weapon and spell attacks are derived from skills.  I am not sure there is a fix that would satisfy me in regards to this, but I do applaud the consistency of the rules.  The less exceptions a system can make, the better.  None of the players had any difficulty with the Stamina/Wound differentiation for damage and its effects.  The one factor that I found myself having to take over with the less experienced players was applying their PC's Armor Rating (damage reduction) before giving them their damage totals.  This may have just been me finding a way to 'take charge', but those players were forgetting to reduce the damage they were taking. However, I'm sure that more exposure to Armor Rating would result in any player being able to handle that step without any help.
Spellcasting LLT Legionare from Annonica
     None of the players had any problem with the action dice, but there was a lot of checking to make sure the right attribute die was in hand for any particular roll.  I think this is another non-issue, one that goes away not just with familiarity with the system but of knowing one's character.  In the instances where the wrong die type was rolled, the player always noticed it before the next action had been taken.  I am grateful that the Fast Rules did not include any instances of bumping the die type up or down – the rules for it are presented, and I think clearly – because it would have added a step of difficulty not necessary to learn the structure of the system.  All of the players understood how Target Numbers (TN) worked and quickly viewed the mechanics of all tasks in relation of the TN needed to succeed.
     There were some points in the rules on which I was not clear – and this may be due to either my inability to read carefully or the judgment of what materials were necessary to get a handle on the rules. For example, Do minions qualify for Tactical Edge (a +2 bonus to an Attack Roll; kind of a big deal at the introductory level) on the grounds of greater numbers or is a batch of minions a single entity (which is how I understood it, but the product does tell me to take advantage of the Tactical Edge for the minions so I could just as likely be wrong)?  How much discretion is a Chronicler going to have in regards to variable bonuses – like for Total Concealment – in an Organized Play setting?  The baseline for Total over Standard is a +2 bonus to Stealth rolls, which is odd because it is the difference between trying to be unnoticed in a situation where one can be seen and in a situation where one cannot be seen...just think that the baseline would be a little higher than +2.  On the other hand, +2 seems to be a pretty common modifier presented in the Fast Play rules, so there is consistency.

     There are some errors in the product, but I assume these are the result of having to shorten the rules for presentation in the Fast Play book.  For example, on page 11, when discussing Vanquished, it reads: 

               If the character is Vanquished due to Wound damage, that character requires the assistance of a skilled 
               healer or the character will likely drift into Beltine's Cauldron.  The character immediately makes a Routine 
               (TN: 15) Action Roll to avoid death.  The character may elect to use either Vigor or Resolve for this roll.  
               The character survives upon success, for now; the afterlife awaits those that fail.  Non-combat healing and 
               recovery is not required for this adventure.
Now, it seems that the character is likely to drift into Beltine's Cauldron – have their soul go to the afterlife...well, the humans' afterlife – if the roll is failed, and to need a skilled healer if the roll succeeds.  As presented, it reads awkwardly.  A character can also avoid the roll by spending a Fate Point (a mechanic we didn't really employ in trying out the system even though the players were aware of it; I honestly cannot say why it saw no use).  Nitpicky, I know.  Likewise, the seven steps to casting a spell – page 8 – are presented as:

               1. Choose the Spell that you wish to cast.
               2. Choose which Adaptations, if any, to apply.
               3. Calculate the CTN (Casting Target Number), Speed, and Strain.
               4. If the final CTN is greater than your Passive Arcanum Skill value (See your character sheet) you must 
                   perform an Arcanum Action skill roll against your final CTN to successfully cast the Spell.  If you fail, 
                   the Spell fizzles; advance your clock by 1 and gain Strain equal to the Spell's final Speed cost.
               5. If you successfully cast the spell, Advance your clock by the Spell's final Speed.
               6. Perform all necessary attack rolls (if any).  Apply the Spell's effects immediately (assuming you succeed).  
                   There are no interruptible spells in this example.
               Note the Strain cost of the Spell.  Casting spells while under Strain can be painful, see pg. 5

Okay, I want to first note there are six steps and a note.  I assume the note is Step 7, but at the same time, the second half of Step 4 should be in Step 5 (Failure/Success results).  Nitpicky.  For the most part, it describes how to cast a spell very well, but I would have kept the steps to casting and effects of Strain together in any rules presentation for ease of reference.
     I ran the adventure in the book as written for the first group.  Did I like it?  No. But it did do exactly what it was supposed to do.  It allowed for characters of all stripes to share an experience, to make skill checks, and for experience combat.  Even though it was a group of more experienced players, they seemed a little reluctant to make use of their spellcasting abilities; I think they were not ready for the Coryani Battle Mage.  But it just shoe-horned the PCs through the adventure.  So what?  The purpose is to witness the system; writing an incredible RP experience – something the guy running it can add to (I'm looking at you, Tim!) – would shortchange that. "Something's Rotten in the State of Ostermark" provides a glimpse of the current state of Onara, has a couple of fun NPCs, and gives the players a chance to see what the Pre-Gens can do.  It works.  And the players had a good time.
Why would you put a picture of an Evil Encali dwarf in the book if not to entice me to change the adventure?
     I ran the second group a little differently.  I used all of the same stats and checks, but I changed the setting.  I'm not a fan of Almeric, nor of the Crusade story arc.  They are actually two of the story-related things about Arcanis that just don't sit well with me, but they both exist and are prominent in Arcanis. But I do have an intense hatred of the Encali Dwarves.  Actually, I'm pretty much of the opinion that dwarves should be hinted at but seldom seen.  Now, Arcanis puts a different spin on dwarves than any other setting and it does make the race more interesting.  But whatever appreciation I may have gained for the Solani, Nol Doppan, or Tir Betoqi dwarves (seriously, check of the Codex Arcanis; there are some daring choices made in regards to how to handle dwarves), I like the idea of sending PCs to go and kill some evil dwarves, and when I say evil I mean Encali.  So I moved the setting back in time and set them against some devil-worshiping dwarves.  More opportunities for roleplaying.  Skill checks on the fly.  But the same combat stats.  The general tone of the adventure still makes sense.  And I felt more comfortable running in the 1020-1030 I.C. era (a generation or so earlier than the new Arcanis setting).  Those players also had a good time, and afterwards I explained how the new book would be moving the story forward.  None of them seemed bothered by that.
     I was pleasantly surprised by how impressed I was with the Fast Play book.  I think the rules system has seen a lot of refinement from what I glimpsed with Shattered Empires.  Combat ran much more smoothly than I expected it would, even with all of us learning it as we went.  Players continue to find parts of the setting that appeal to them and run with it.
     So would Fast Play get me to buy the core rulebook?  My answer would be a 'Not Yet'.  That isn't because I don't think it is worthwhile; it looks like PCI does have the system to match their world. I do remember the difficulties I experienced with character creation and I'm betting that I would still feel a little constricted in the new system (I feel constricted in almost all systems, but there are a handful with which I have enough familiarity that I find a way to work around the rules to serve the character).  As I do not live in a world of unlimited – or even mildly restricted – resources, I can't really justify spending $50+ to see if I can figure out the system enough to apply its rules to a character concept.  This issue could easily be revisited if I knew I would be playing Arcanis more than a handful of times a year, but my general experience with the Arcaniacs is that they want to be part of the ongoing story, the organized campaign.  That isn't conducive to playing 20-30 times a year.  At least not yet.
     What Fast Play did was get me excited to keep an eye on how PCI will continue to grow Arcanis.  It made me feel that I could encourage people to check out the system and setting knowing that both are stable.  It also reminded me that there was so much of the story of the world that didn't fall into the three narrow changes that I don't like – the war between Entaris and Altheria (or at least how it was described in Shattered Empires), the state of Almeric, and the (repeating) Crusade. It got me excited to follow the ongoing story – I really wish there was Arcanis fiction to further showcase the world.  It actually got me open to the possibility of running some Arcanis, but I don't know if I could talk myself into buying the core rulebook just to judge OP mods.
     I think that when there are more Legends of Arcanis mods available, I will see a greater demand from local players to get involved with the game.  And the more likely the chance for regular play, the more likely I am to be able to justify spending the money to pick-up the book.  What I do know is that there is enough promise in the Fast Play book to draw both new players in and old players back.  I didn't think that would be the result, but I am glad to have been wrong.
     As always, comments are welcome.


  1. Thanks for the review Tim.

    The 7 steps item is a cut an paste error - or more accurately, an error related to us removing a step and not changing the number. In retrospect, I should have left all 7 steps in, and just added a note that we aren't using the step for the Fast Play.

    I am adding a quote from our rulebook in regards to tracking multiple foes, (basically, just use crap paper with running totals).

    Chronicler’s Advice: Tracking Initiative

    Unlike many other systems, our system encourages players to keep track of their own Initiative. The best way to run a combat is for the Chronicler to use a Master Clock to track the current Tick, and a sheet of paper to track the Initiative count for all foes (as well as remaining Stamina and Wounds)

    Also, don’t be afraid to group foes together
    into like groups. If you are running a combat
    where the Heroes are facing 2 groups of minions,
    2 common foes, and an elite foe, simply group the
    two common foes and follow the same initiative
    rules for minions.

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