Fantasy Roleplaying: A Registry of Rules by Blackwing Productions (Jeremy Puckett’s publishing company) is a fantastic supplement for a woefully under-appreciated game line. It provides a full complement of add-ons and some tweaks to re-balance core materials for different play styles, effectively creating a “complete” experience in Cortex Plus Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying: you’ve got all the core tenants of D&D gaming, including large-scale warfare, domain rulership, naval combat, and a ton of new character races and classes.
Rating: Content 5/5 and Form 4/5.
- Buy the PDF or Print-On-Demand versions at DriveThruRPG
Read on for the full review!
I’ve got the PDF version, but there’s also a softcover Print-On-Demand version for purchase through DriveThruRPG as well.
The PDF is incredibly clean in layout: there were only maybe two very minor editing mistakes (a missing or swapped word, which is amazing considering there was no editor brought on!), and the artwork is used to great effect. Full-page images break up various chapters, and many great illustrations accompany various character options like races and classes, as well as other appropriate rules sections. The artwork varies in style, but the tone tends to get it right: this is a work about a fairly “generic” ruleset of Fantasy Heroic action (duh!), so it’s cool that some artwork leans towards pulp-style characters, while other pieces are comic booky and still others show a world of fantastic-yet-seemingly-ancient technology plopped into the middle of a sword & sorcery gaggle of characters. I quite like the variety.
I knocked a star off because the general use of large margins and the similarity in border styles to the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide work against the book a little bit. Not a lot. It’s just that there’s an awful lot of white space throughout the book, too much in my opinion, and the reliance on the Hacker’s Guide style of drab blue gradients on the very edge of each page doesn’t really mesh with the artwork I described above. It gives the jarring impression of a great fantasy book with a weird modern or even sci-fi-feeling border. Not sure if that was a “look and feel” thing enforced by the Cortex Plus Official License (remember, this book came out before the Cortex Plus Community Agreement that now exists on DriveThruRPG), but it’s not optimal.
Fantasy Roleplaying: A Registry of Rules includes four chapters of material.
The introduction is actually a pretty thought-provoking little preface to this book. It notes what this book is: a pile of expansions and additional options, as well as some variant rules for the existing Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying rules that appear in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide (PDF and POD versions available at that link if you don’t know what it is!). Which is obvious. But then it tackles two metagame concepts that inform the rest of the book: “The Power of Saying ‘Yes'” and defining the core conceits of “‘Heroic’ Roleplaying” each gets their own little section.
The first section talks about the author’s introduction to RPGs coming at a time — and/or in specific groups — where saying “No!” was common. This experience echoes throughout the RPG field in many ways, and while rarely codified, it’s much talked about in game theory forums. I’ll simply add that Puckett does a great job of describing why and how Cortex Plus as a whole embraces the “Say Yes” style of gaming, where players have authorial power over the story elements of gameplay (in the form of Plot Points) and how turning “No!” into “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…” speaks much better to the play style of Cortex Plus as a whole.
The second section explains that the core conceit of Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying is the “Heroic” part, and that the levels of fantasy — low fantasy sword & sandals stuff all the way up to grand, epic Final Fantasy-style flying ships and cities and summoning gods — are malleable. A default level of fantasy (D&D-ish, high-ish fantasy) is certainly established in the rules for Fantasy Heroic, but this book does offer hints and tips on playing with that portion of the game’s conceits, which is great discussion for folks that maybe don’t have a wide breadth of RPG play experiences and maybe don’t know how to dial certain things up or down. Either way, it promotes open discussion between players and GM at all points of the decision-making process, from initial prep and throughout play.
Chapter 1: Character Options
Character Options provides new Background Power Sets (which are strictly all new playable races), new Class Power Sets (covering additional D&D classes not seen in the Hacker’s Guide as well as many new ones informed by console video gaming and other fantasy RPGs), and 10 generic packages of Milestones.
The Background and Class Power Sets are great additions, all of them balanced to the existing ones based on a design rubric that Puckett pulled directly from the Hacker’s Guide and spells out in the next chapter. Admittedly, there are a couple areas where the rules of this get “broken” ever so slightly, but these spots are never in a manner that seems like it would unbalance play, and more importantly, they are pretty clear when they crop up. Especially persnickety GMs and Players will easily find this stuff and tweak it to their wants and needs. Each Power Set comes with the the core features (a few Powers generally rated D6-D8), an SFX or two, and a Limit or two. Every single one also gets an Advancements section with suggested Traits (usually Powers) to add as characters gain new abilities, and several more SFX (and a Limit or two when it makes sense).
The Backgrounds are:
- Apeman. Clearly inspired by Planet of the Apes and about thirty thousand pulp stories. They are strong, slightly primitive, and can become absolutely menacing as they grow in power.
- Beastkin. Humanoid versions of animals, like crocodile people or badgerfolk or something along those lines. This is a sort of generic version; several fully realized variations follow, showing how you can build all sorts of “furries” in a D&D manner, which happens to include several iconic D&D or fantasy races. These are: Lupine (wolf or dog people), Minotaur, and Ratling (basically Skaven or Wererats). So, really, this is 4 separate Backgrounds (yay value!).
- Centaur. Human-torsoed horse people.
- Dhampir. This is literally Blade, but without the daywalking ability.
- Dragonkin. D&D’s dragonborn.
- Firbolg. Half-giants whose Advancements allow them to show some minor traits related to their giantish origin, such as Fire or Frost Giants, which is a neat twist.
- Forgeborn. These are basically D&D’s Warforged, but with a few extra options that make them slightly more android-like or construct-like, which is a cool way to have them veer off a bit more in a non-traditional direction.
- Gorgon. These are like “minor” Medusa, who can’t immediately turn anyone to stone, but instead just have poisonous snakes for hair and some cool natural weapons (which includes psychic attacks as well as potentially claws or some such). The cool thing is that the Mental Blast they have gets an Advancement option that clearly pushes it towards “turn people to stone” by inflicting Mental Stress, but doesn’t outright say as much. This is a very interesting way to do it, and with the use of Persistent Complications (an optional rule in the Hacker’s Guide), this could easily become an outright “turn people to stone via Complication” ability. Very neat.
- Half-elf. Using a few Power choices in the Power Set and evocative Limits and Advancements, you can see the Half-elf really stand out as its own thing, rather than just being an Elf Lite or Human Lite.
- Infernal. Clearly based on the Tiefling from D&D, but the Advancements section suggests much greater ties to innate magical and otherworldly powers.
- Kobold. The classic 1st level antagonist, the kobold appears here with a great set of initial and Advancement SFX that really bring out their trapsmithing abilities.
- Mantodean. Don’t be fooled by the name, this is precisely how to model a Thri-Kreen from D&D’s Dark Sun setting (among others) in Cortex Plus.
- Metamorph. Probably inspired by Eberron’s Shifter, this class is definitely more along the lines of a true doppelganger, which fits with Cortex Plus’ “Let’s do this, all or nothing!” approach. Obviously, dialing it back is easy, too, and all about how you frame the shapeshifting abilities.
- Orc. No surprise that the most common badasses of Tolkien’s world show up here.
- Satyr. I’m not sure how or when such lusty beasts of sexual perversion made it into the “fun to be a playable race” column, but obviously they are the exemplars of it. Their passionate nature and extreme personalities actually translate really well for more social-focused characters through some great SFX and Limits.
The Classes are:
- Assassin. A great class that combines the classic assassin tropes (poison, murder from the shadows) with some ninja tropes (ninja vanish!).
- Brawler. A great way to model either the D&D grappler Monk or a street tough that relies on his fists over any weapons. Steven Seagal as a Class, basically.
- Channeler. If you’re familiar with Final Fantasy’s Geomancer, this is your thing. It’s like an elemental-infused Druid that controls either the elements around them or summons an actual elemental to do crazy battlefield-control effects.
- Dancer. I never understood why this was a class that appeared in so many JRPG console games, but here it makes sense due to some great SFX that mix up the social and the physical aspects of what they can do. Part Face from the A-Team, part whirling dervish.
- Knight. Although primarily envisioned as a mounted fighter, the SFX of this class don’t explicitly depend on a horse or anything else, which turns the knight into an effective combat-focused class regardless of whether they are mounted or not. You can easily picture high fantasy games where the knight has incredible mobility due to their own innate magic, as well as a more low fantasy game where the knight is just such a skilled tactician that they don’t need a mount to still know best how to fight unmounted opponents.
- Magewright. This is a neat catch-all for an Artificer (originally from the Eberron Campaign Setting) style of class, which combines alchemy, low-level or temporary enchantments, or simply a guy that MacGyvers the hell outta stuff just lying around.
- Paladin. Taking the Cleric’s divine power and focusing it largely on combat-related abilities really does differentiate the Paladin a bit, and serves as a great example for creating other hybrid classes like a Spellsword or Blade Dancer type of thing that is always popular in D&D games.
- Psychic. Perhaps a bit flashier than the archetypal psionic of D&D lore, these characters show a great way to create a powerful spellslinger whose magic relies on telekinesis and mental domination.
- Sailor. This class meshes well with rules appearing in the next chapter covering boats, but don’t be fooled: they are an excellent, action-oriented class that also can model a captain of a military unit, an airship pirate, or something along those lines. They may be a bit too focused on SFX that say “when on a boat,” though, so keep that in mind when coming up with your campaign’s themes and what character options to encourage.
- Survivor. Kind of like a Ranger but with a tragic backstory that motivates them and powers their SFX. I imagine this is a pretty clear conceptual mirror for late-era D&Disms like the Avenger class.
The Milestones are general motivating forces, ideals, or even situations. Though these are largely written as Personal Milestones, they can easily be adapted as Quest Milestones, or simply used as additional ideas for formulating new Milestones of either kind. Each comes with a 1 XP, 3 XP, and 10 XP milestone award.
- Dangerous Liaisons
- Enemies Accumulate
- Violent Temper
Chapter 2: Advanced Options
Most of the rules in Chapter 2 are either optional tweaks to existing mechanics or laying bare the math behind the system to develop the art of creating new and properly balanced Backgrounds and Classes. The big add-on here is the section labeled Epic Heroism, which adds an Epic Die that the party as a whole can access to do truly crazy things.
Attributes, Specialties, and several Class Power Sets from the Hacker’s Guide all receive optional and variant rules here. Attributes would be a new dice category, and there are two optional systems:
- Triad Attributes: adding Physical, Mental, and Social attribute dice to each Player Character.
- Traditional Attributes: adding Agility, Strength, Vitality, Awareness, Intellect, and Willpower to each Player Character.
The Specialties option is simply an alternative, longer list of Specialties that allows for a bit more differentiation between characters, and also increases the die range from D6 to D12, with an “unskilled” character rolling at D4 as the default. This also opens up the opportunity to increase Skills a bit more slowly with Advancement, which makes longer campaigns a bit more feasible, since the characters won’t be maxing out their abilities nearly as quickly.
Jumping ahead a section, the final big tweak found here is the Revised Class Power Sets, which rewrites several of the Power Sets from the Hacker’s Guide in order to more accurately balance them, internally. It’s noted that some of these changes are minor, and that the balance isn’t way off to begin with, so this is ample opportunity for GMs to consider the playstyle they want — more gritty, more epic — and cherry-pick to get what they want. The classes that see revisions are Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Ranger, and Thief.
The New Stuff
Two sections feature brand new stuff: Creating Backgrounds and Classes is a section that opens up the internal checks and balances so you can create your own content, and Epic Heroism adds the aforementioned Epic Die.
Starting with the Backgrounds/Classes section, we get the “rubric” around which all Backgrounds and Classes are created, showing how many dice in Powers, how many starting SFX, guidelines on Limits and Advancement rules, and how to split up the dice if we want to create some variations among the abilities without mucking up the math. An example Class — the Fog Knight — is provided.
And now that Epic Die I keep mentioning. It’s a short section that introduces the die, but it explains how this is fertile ground for really reinforcing the tone of the campaign and the upper limits of character abilities based on the tone set by the GM. Since it’s a party die — all characters have it at the same level — it maintains balance, and the fact that it’s an extra die sets it apart from monsters and NPCs with their Level Die. There’s some discussion around SFX based on the Epic Die, and an example. Simple, innovative, and not entirely unlike the Time Die in the Hacker’s Guide, but repurposed to make the Player Characters look and feel awesome.
Chapter 3: The Big Picture
This chapter focuses on the typical aspects of high-level D&D play: naval travel and combat, mass combat between armies, and aspects of how kingdoms and nations might play into a campaign, whether ruled by Player Characters or simply detailed in such a way that politics and warfare play a much bigger determining factor in the state of any given location in the campaign world.
Ships and naval combat — which can easily be repurposed for large land vehicles and airships, as discussed in the book — are treated very much like they are in the Firefly RPG, where they have their own stats that get used in place of and in addition to the Player Character abilities relevant to a given action, maneuver, or attack. Several custom traits and SFX are presented, along with two sample ships and discussion of Player Character ownership of a boat.
Mass Combat breaks units into simplified NPC statblocks that are basically the same as Mobs, but with the addition of a Command die that helps them out…if they have a commander in the form of a PC or NPC that leads them. Outside of commanding units, the only other big change is that units cannot normally be targeted by attacks from an individual. There are of course exceptions along the lines of area of effect spells or inflicting large-scale Complications that demoralize units. Several unit statblocks round out this section.
Finally, we get to Kingdoms and Nations, which covers these regional powers as their own statblock — with obligatory example! — and introduces the Kingdom Phase that occurs between Quests, during downtime for the Player Characters. How the characters can influence this phase is of course mentioned, and overall this brings into a focus a lot of Specialties and Resource-building that wouldn’t otherwise come up during individual Quests, so it’s sort of like Transition Scenes in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, but even larger scale. And yes, there are Advancement rules for kingdoms!
Chapter 4: Treasure and Artifacts
The final chapter is all about introducing 33 new magic items — ranging from staples like the Healer’s Staff and the Shield Brooch to more wacky items like Divine Soldier’s Chassis (basically power armor) to a Rocket Pocket — and presents a great series of tables and some discussion to go along with new SFX for building random magic items.
Let’s focus yet another cool sidebar, though: Life Without Looting, which opens the chapter. This sidebar talks about all those fantasy settings that aren’t big on D&D-style looting and treasure acquisition, and is yet another great grab-bag of material for GMs that want to tweak the playstyle of their campaign. Though the advice is simple — remove looting rolls and spending XP to create permanent magic items — the permutations are pretty big. Add in the fact that systems introduced earlier, like adding Attributes, can increase the number of dice PCs have to roll, it’s very easy to keep the balance of a Fantasy Heroic game preserved even by tearing out what’s normally a huge part of the D&D fantasy experience.
- Want a ton of monsters and NPCs for your Fantasy Heroic games? Check out Blackwing’s Fantasy Roleplaying: An Omnibus of Opponents, and if you need a science-fantasy setting, they also have Worlds of Fantasy: Chronicles of the Solar Empire.
- Connect with writer/designer Jeremy Puckett on Google+.
- Need Cheat Sheets and/or Gamemaster screen inserts for your Fantasy Heroic games? We made the Cortex Plus Cheat Sheets for just that purpose, and they come in several editable formats for you to remix as you see fit!
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