One of my first game reviews was that of Warrior, Rogue & Mage, an innovative, rules-light, fantasy RPG based on the idea of using attributes to measure proficiency in traditional character classes. Today I’ll review another fantasy game using a similar approach, this time with character classes expressed as skills.
As its name implies, Barebones Fantasy has a quite simple – in theory – goal: to present a game system and all the info you need to run a traditional fantasy session in a single book that you can actually carry around without using a forklift. There are of course other games that already do that, but they usually come in the form of bulky tomes that can easily rival an ancient lich’s spellbook in size. Barebones’ designers have approached this problem by providing a no-frills game experience and not by using a “very small font” like they joke in the game’s intro. The game is very down to business, with no chatty writing, no GM advice or any roleplaying tips, just the raw essentials you really need to run a game. After all, GM and roleplaying advice is probably something you can find in many other books already in your library and if you’re like me by now you skip those sections anyway. They have become something like the photosensitive seizure warnings in video game manuals; completely redundant in most cases.
The book itself (I’m reviewing the PDF version) has a very nice presentation, using a single-column format with coloured pages and borders that are rich but not overbearing. Art is a bit sparse, but in general does a good job in breaking up the wall of text. One thing I didn’t care much about is the choice of font used for headers. It’s too comic-like (no where nearly as bad as Comic Sans) and I’d prefer something more medieval/traditional-looking.
Character creation is as easy as determine attributes, select a race and pick your skills. There are four attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Logic and Will), which you can roll for (for a more old school feeling for your game) or determine by assigning fixed scores. Your selected race will provide a few benefits typical of fantasy settings, for example dwarves are resistant to poison & magic, while elves can cast spells wearing armour.
Skills are essentially classes. There are eight of them (Scout, Thief, Warrior, Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar and Spellcaster) and each can have up to 6 ranks. Some of them can be used untrained (anybody can try to swing a sword, but a trained Warrior will do it better), while others must be first learned before you can use their abilities. Multiclassing is as easy as dividing your ranks between different skills and is something the game encourages.
Barebones uses a percentile-based system called d00Lite. In case you were wondering why d00 and not d100, it’s because 00 in this system is treated as, well, 0. Most actions attempted will fall under the province of one of the eight skill-classes, which are very broad in scope. If you want to attack, you use the Warrior skill. If you need to forage for food or herbs, you use the Scout skill. The number you need to roll under a d100 is calculated by using a formula for each skill, taking into account its rank and the relevant attributes influencing it.
There can be no fantasy game without magic, and Barebones actually provides several options for the arcane arts. Characters can learn to brew alchemical potions, enchant magical items, craft runes, as well as cast the traditional spells. Spells in specific follow the broad approach of skills. There are only 17 of them, but each if flexible enough to cover a variety of effects. So, instead of having separate spells for fireballs, lightning bolts and ice storms, you simply have an “offensive strike” spell that can create fire, lightning, cold or any other of your favourite means of dispatching monsters. This “on-the-fly” approach is somewhat different from the various old school systems that are popular nowadays, which favour spell memorisation. In Barebones a mage will not faced the problem of having memorised too many fire spells, only too find that the enemies terrorising the area are in reality fire giants. While this takes away the strategic element of carefully selecting spells to memorise for a balanced mix, it also makes things faster. Fighter and thief players no longer have to wait for the clerics and mages to finish selecting their spells; they can all go on killing, looting and doing all the other stuff heroes do right from the beginning of the session!
As far as killing and other hero stuff are concerned, the game has simple combat rules. Battles are fast-flowing, even if Initiative is rolled every round. A good example of the game’s simple but elegant mechanics is the critical success/failure system. If you score doubles and you succeed, it’s a critical success; if you fail it’s a fumble. This means that instead of having a fixed chance of succeeding big time/failing miserably, your chances improve as your expertise grows.
A possible problem that may arise in combat situations, depending on what kind of games you’re used to, is that due to the simplicity of the system martial characters don’t have a lot to do. Sword jockeys are pretty much limited to bashing enemies and protecting their comrades, while spellcasters have more options open to them. While this is something that affects pretty much all rules-light/old school games under the sun, gamers that have grown accustomed to the combat/customisation options offered by DnD 3+E and other similar games may regard Barebones battles as bland. I would definitely like to see some more combat options for fighters and thieves as optional rules for those who want them in a future supplement. Although that would add a layer of complexity,the game already has a small footprint and some more meaty stuff would be nice to keep long-term players interested.
The amount of info that the designers managed to cram in such a small book is astonishing. You get pretty much everything you need to run an adventure without having to make stuff up (you can always do so, of course). There are sample magic items along with rules for creating your own. A bestiary of staple fantasy creatures, containing all the greatest hits like dragons, medusas and vampires. Random trap, treasure and creatures tables to populate your dungeons with. Even a table for adventure ideas. Really, everything you need to get you going.
Also included is a fantasy mini-setting called Keranak Kingdoms. I call it a mini-setting because although it’s a pretty sizeable world, it only gets 6 pages of detail. That is only enough to provide a rough sketch of the world, which comprises of many lands that used to be part of a single kingdom but split up after the last king died without a heir. I understand that this is simply an appetiser for a setting that will be further detailed in future books. For those interested in running their own settings, Keranak Kingdoms is just an add-on and Barebones Fantasy is perfectly capable of running any traditional fantasy game.
Conclusion: Barebones Fantasy is a well-thought and well-executed game. Small in size, big in ideas, it’s easy to learn, easy to get into and easy to enjoy. I’m looking forward to more stuff released for it.