Thursday, July 14, 2011

Full Review of the Mechanics and “Crunch” of the Arcanis RPG from Paradigm Concepts.

After a few weeks with the book in-hand, and experience with character creation and a half dozen sessions using the new mechanics, I think I'm about ready to tackle a full review of Arcanis: The RPG. I wrote about the setting and what I like about it before here, but I experienced the Shattered Empires first the way most people likely did, as a setting for Dungeons and Dragons. I can clearly say that Arcanis is no longer D&D. In terms of design, it is reminiscent in some ways of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG for character creation and advancement, the magic and martial technique system remind me of Paradigm's own Witch Hunter, and skill/task resolution is similar to West End Games' Masterbook (a spiritual descendent of TORG.) Combat has a flow unlike anything I've ever played due to the “clock” initiative system, which is both a strength and a potential weakness in the game, though I will say that combats are fun in spite of my few lingering doubts.

A very, very pretty book. Heavy, too.

Starting with the presentation of the book itself. The main rules are in a hefty tome, a full-color 448 page hardcover with uniformly polished interior art. Some pieces were re-used from cover paintings or particularly good bits from older Arcanis sourcebooks, but there is also quite a bit of brand new artwork inside. One thing I always take careful note of with roleplaying books is the binding, especially on a book with a cover price of $49.99. They did a fantastic job on that front, making a book that looks like it will endure (though I'm not tugging at pages to see if they fall out, and I'll certainly come back here with an edit if any fall out of their own accord.) There is a lot of information to absorb in this book, and most sections are properly organized and cross-referenced for ease of use. There are a few places where key information is split across two entirely different sections of the book (most notably weapon tricks, more on this later) without proper cross-references which can be confusing.

Making a character grows from building a concept one block at a time. Each part of a character's life before they start the first adventure is an integral part of their statistics and capabilities. Step by step, race, home nation/region, archetype and background profession give each character certain granted abilities and other options to pick from a short list to build their base statistics. All of these elements serve to allow the mechanics to support the character that is envisioned, rather than min-maxing and writing a justification background later. For those unfamiliar with the setting's long history, the first 90 or so pages of the book lay out the basics of the setting, as well as recent events for returning players, as 45 years (game time) have passed since the last published Arcanis product.

Gamemasters wanting to run Arcanis as a Home Play personal campaign can
expect a lot of product support.  Arcanis isn't just for convention play anymore.

Character development and advancement is one of the key elements of any system for me, and Arcanis starts off strong with the archetypes and background professions, and continue this process through character paths, which are like prestige classes in D&D or advanced careers in WHFRPG. An archetype is the general “type” of character you are playing, and there are four to choose from: Arcane (wizards, sorcerers and psions,) Divine (cleric/priest/shaman casters,) Expert (any character whose skills are their primary asset, like a thief or scholar) and Martial (warriors of all types.) Archetypes determine basic advancement options available once a character earns the experience required to gain a rank, martial characters find it easier to learn new techniques with their weapons, experts can improve skills faster, etc. Background Professions provide a basic set of skills and talents, and some character concepts make the selection of one of these nearly automatic. A healing cleric will likely select a Divine Archetype with Initiate of the Gods as a background profession, but it is possible to combine archetype and background in different ways to create a unique character.

For every ten ranks earned (typically, it should take 4-6 sessions to earn a rank,) characters go up a Tier. Tiers are the real benchmarks for characters passing from one level of power to the next, from “low level” through to “high level” play. More powerful spells and talents are limited to higher tiers, characters existing weapons can be used in different ways, and options that can only be taken once per tier are among the best advancement options available. One of these is the Path. Paths represent a refinement in what a character does, a commitment to something, whether that is a Knightly Order, a Specialization in a type of Spell Casting or an advanced profession like Assassin. Often, options selected upon gaining a rank will be taken with qualification for a Path in mind. Talents (similar to Feats, Edges, etc) will sometimes be “Tiered,” and may be selected again for an upgrade in what they do, and every weapon is capable of performing various “tricks,” provided the wielder has the requisite skill ranks in its use, is trained in wielding it, and is the appropriate Tier (or higher) for the trick.

A supplement detailing one of the many Paths a character may take, and its in-game lore.
This book is available at Drive Thru RPG as a PDF.

Whether casting a spell, swinging a sword or picking a lock, skill resolution is handled at a basic level in a similar way. Each attribute is displayed on a character sheet as a numerical value, a die type (d4 to d12) and a passive value. When actively rolling any skill, two ten-sided “action dice” are rolled along with whatever the attribute die associated with that skill is, and ranks in the skill are added to the result. Attribute dice “explode,” that is, they are rerolled and added again to the total if the highest number on that die is rolled (a six sided die that comes up six is picked up and rolled again, if it comes up four, ten is added to the total.) Passive attributes are used for when a skill needs to set a resistance value and the character is making no conscious effort to use it, such as perception for a guard not particularly searching anything. Damage rolls are like action rolls, except they do not get the action dice, and the weapon, spell or ability provides its own dice which are usually combined with an attribute die (Might for hitting someone with something, for example) to generate a total.

The flow of combat is determined by the “clock,” Arcanis' initiative system. There are no combat “rounds,” and initiative is rolled only once per combat, to determine when each character may take their first action. The clock has 12 “ticks”, and every attack, spell, action and special move has a speed associated with it. A character performs an action on their turn, and the speed of whatever they do determines when they can act again. Slower weapons (tend to have larger damage dice) or complicated spells or maneuvers may be performed at the cost of not being able to act again for some time, while faster attacks don't hit as hard, but strike more often. Spells and combat maneuvers also have “cooldowns” called strain and recovery respectively. These are additional ticks AFTER your next opportunity to act that must be waited out before another ability that produces strain or recovery may be used without consequence. A gamemaster should maintain a “Master Clock” that counts from 1 to 12 and then starts over at 1 again to keep combat flowing.

Several companies have released initiative "combat dials" to aid in tracking when
your character's next action is up. I use one like this, but with a second dial for strain/recovery.

Mastering which dice to roll and managing the clock takes a little time for new players to pick up on, and the first few sessions of Arcanis seem slow-paced in comparison to other RPGs. This is especially true if someone uses a weapon with a slow speed by default. I have a few lingering doubts about the balance between slow weapons and fast ones, as it seems easier to make a fast weapon do more damage than it is to make a slower weapon fast. Familiarity with the combat system and players choosing the right weapon for the task at hand assists with this a LOT, though. Combats start to speed up and characters reserve the big heavy hammers that swing slow for attacking foes with heavy armor, instead of “one tool for every fight.” When all players are sure what they roll and when to roll dice, the gap between fast and slow weapons closes a little bit, and as characters advance, weapon tricks, combat maneuvers and spell augmentations will give characters a lot of tactical options on any given turn.

The last thing I want to talk about mechanic-wise is the damage system and Fate, which are closely linked. Every character has defenses, which are like a combination armor class and saving throw for various types of attacks. These values are derived from attributes and usually provide target numbers for them to be affected by a weapon, spell or ability. The sum of all of a character's defenses is their Stamina value, and damage (less armor rating) is applied to this number. When it is reduced to 0, a character slips unconscious, but not dead. Wounds are lethal damage, usually only removed with a critical hit from both action dice on an attack coming up “10”. Wounds are hard to heal, and apply a penalty to all rolls for a character who has one. Fate points, which are awarded regularly for good roleplaying, clever or dramatic actions, etc, can be used for many things including ignoring wounds, re-setting Recovery or Strain and re-rolling failed Action Rolls. The min-maxed character doesn't get as much out of Fate, as the maximum number of Fate that may be spent per adventure is limited by a characters lowest attribute. The relative low base lethality of the system combined with clever uses of fate make combats dynamic and dramatic, encouraging characters to attempt cinematic but difficult feats.

From the 2011 Convention Arcanis official T-Shirt:
"Stupidity Leads to Character Creation, But it Helps to be Lucky."

This review was my longest article to date by far, and I hope it was useful to those curious about the system. Personally, I really like each and every one of the systems that have gone before that have elements that I find similar to something in Arcanis, so there is an easy answer for me to a tough question. A legitimate question posed regarding this system is “Do gamers really need another set of rules to do Fantasy Roleplaying Games with everything that is on the market now?” For my tastes, the answer is “As long as the whole package is this good, then yes.” If you are intrigued, but not quite ready to drop $50 on a hardcover with an admittedly fairly steep learning curve, check out the free Fast Play PDF here.
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Timothy said...

Having not seen the new book, I cannot judge if Character Creation has been cleaned up. I do know that when I attempted making characters with the Quick Launch rules, they ended up not qualifying for any worthwhile traits or tricks (and don't get me started on Paths). It felt very restrictive to me, and I couldn't make a concept that would be fun for me to play and effective at the mechanics level.
I will wholly admit that what I have seen of the combat mechanics plays much more smoothly than I anticipated (but I haven't seen the full implementation of the rules). But I think Eric Wiener said it best: "[B]eing different for the sake of being different is not sound game design. Oh, and why would I want to relearn my entire class? I am old, I have enough relearning in the job world."

DocStout said...

@Timothy = The options available at creation, effective combinations and efficacy of ranking up are night and day from Quickstart to full rules release. Also, statistic weights have changed and how derived attributes were calculated have been tweaked to make decisions more meaningful and to not make so many of the choices automatic based on "I can be interesting, or I can be viable mechanically." You can still blunt your character's mechanical effectiveness with poor choices, but it is no longer a case of "Take this one combination, or suck in combat."

Henry Lopez said...


Thank you for your very detailed review of the Arcanis Core Rule Book. I'm sure that those players who are curious about Arcsnis, but are not very familiar with it will greatly appreciate your time and effort to put this together.


Henry Lopez

Timothy said...

That's good to know, Josh. It really does look like there was a lot of 'tweeking' involved (but maybe much of that could have been accomplished with an open playtest), and I think it may allow for some of the less restrictive moments that West End Games old D6 system (the one in the Star Wars RPG, not the D6 System relaunch) did. Maybe I'll make an effort to pick up the pdf when it becomes available (and I can justify the expenditure).

Alpha said...

Dynamic/dramatic combat, you say...

CNB said...

Love this game! Best initiative system, and it (so far) makes melee fighters just as useful as casters. Needs some work mostly on editing and release schedules, as well as more playtesting to look at certain situations, but overall great game!

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