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Reviews - Arrowflight
 
by Demian Katz


Arrowflight cover Publishers just can't seem to help themselves. Even though Dungeons & Dragons has had a firm hold on the fantasy role-playing game market more or less since the beginning of time, a year doesn't go by without several new fantasy RPGs coming out, each claiming to be the next big thing. Most of the time, they're dreary rip-offs utterly lacking in creativity or purpose. Every once in a while, something good appears, like the sadly ill-fated Enchanted Worlds game of 1999. Whether good or bad, though, the question on everyone's mind is "Why another fantasy role-playing game?"

In the case of Arrowflight, Deep7 Publishing's recent entry into the fray, this question is actually addressed by an author's note. If you dig through the peculiar mixture of bravado and modesty that characterizes this introduction (and much of the rest of the book, for that matter), you'll find that the answer is partially "because we've been working on it for decades" and partially "because it's different, yet not too different." Though I'm not sure I'd go along with the authors and call this game "The Edge of Fantasy," I certainly can't dispute that the game is somewhat different.

The game's setting, which is introduced in advance of any rules, certainly serves to support the claims of the author's note. Although the background material provided in the rulebook is far from comprehensive, its interesting details on holidays, local customs, religious beliefs and history do suggest fairly lengthy development time – it's not just a list of random names and places; some thought obviously went into making it consistent, believable and interesting. The setting also manages to be comfortably familiar without being entirely tedious and derivative. The game world is populated by the usual elves, dwarves and orcs, and no goofy names are made up to disguise this fact; still, enough flavorful details (like the revelation that humans may be the unpredictable offspring of elves and demons) are added to the expected genre conventions to keep things interesting. No awards are going to be won here for originality, but this is a respectably solid implementation of a proven formula.

After twenty-some pages of setting and the obligatory (and rather apologetic-sounding) introduction to role-playing, the rulebook introduces the game system by discussing character creation. It was at this point that I began to lose faith in the game's quality. I had already noticed a number of typos and the fact that the book's artwork is an uneven mix of beautiful original works, not-so-beautiful original works and what appears to be clip art, but these things are to be expected from a small press publication. What really began to raise concerns, though, was another common small press problem: the book's organization is not all that it should be. For the most part, it's not hard to find the general rules that you need (despite the book's sinful lack of an index), but there are a number of small-yet-significant details, particularly regarding prerequisites for skills, spells and combat abilities, which are scattered throughout the book and never summarized satisfactorily. It could therefore be fairly common to unwittingly create an illegal character by neglecting to notice that you can't take points in Literary Skills without first spending points on Education, or that you can't wear chain mail or heavier armor without the Armed Combat Skill: Soldier skill (a fact which is mentioned in a couple of different places, but not necessarily the most obvious ones). Picky details like this are the exception in the game, but this makes the ones that do exist all the more irritating.

Organizational problems aside, though, character creation is the place where the game shines the brightest. Characters consist of eight attributes and numerous skills; nothing too new here, though I love the Mana and Spirit attributes, which measure a character's connection to the physical and spiritual planes – run out of Mana and you're a ghost, run out of Spirit and you're a soulless undead beast. A player's race determines limits on the attributes and offers some special abilities, but beyond this, the main limit on character creation is the player's imagination. Players aren't restrained by character classes (there aren't any) or threatened by bad luck (there's no dice-rolling involved in character generation), so it's not hard to create a balanced representation of almost any character concept simply by spending points in the right places. Even individual spells can be completely customized – a wide variety of templates are available, and they can be modified using a point based system. A complex casting procedure can be used to balance out the difficulty of achieving spectacular results. As a GM whose players often try to create characters that are hard to define in the restrictive game terms of most systems, I was grateful for Arrowflight's flexibility.

Unfortunately, the game mechanics at the heart of Arrowflight's system please me considerably less than the character creation rules. The basic mechanic is fairly simple in principle, but is more complicated than it needs to be, especially for players with a math phobia. It goes something like this: you roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the value of the attribute related to the skill being tested, and if any one of these dice comes up less than or equal to the actual value of the tested skill, the player is successful. Modifiers can be made to the number of dice rolled and/or to the skill value being tested. There are also rules for critical successes and failures, and for testing skills which have no points in them. Opposed rolls are dealt with by comparing the number of successful dice rolled by each participant. The magic and combat systems both make use of this mechanic, but they add additional mathematics, timing concerns and other complications to the mix. As with character creation, there are just enough annoying and scattered little details to make things more irritating than they should be. The system seems to work, but I wouldn't describe it as elegant.

Once all of the mechanics have been covered, the final portion of the book provides information of use to the Game Master. First there's a bestiary containing some ordinary animals, the usual fantasy beasts (with some clever twists) and a few original creations. This is followed by some brief advice for the novice GM and some miscellaneous rules for things like poison, aging and magic items. Finally, there's one fully developed adventure plus a couple of seeds. The full adventure, Darkmoon Rising, struck me as a bit of an odd choice for inclusion in the rulebook. Though a solid adventure which I happily used for my playtest session, its tone is quite gruesome and horrific, and I would have expected something more prototypically fantasy-oriented to have been used as an introduction to the game. Also problematic is the fact that, about halfway through the adventure, it stops listing statistics and requires the GM to really think on his feet. Again, there's nothing wrong with this in general, but a little more hand-holding might have been wise to help role-playing novices get the idea.

My strategy in dealing with both the looseness of the provided adventure and my dislike of the complex game system was to play Arrowflight in the style of Deep7's earlier claims to fame, the 1PG mini-RPGs. The combination of this fast-paced, rules-loose style with the balanced, well-developed characters Arrowflight's wonderful character generation rules provides led to very satisfying game sessions.

Because it's so easy to use Arrowflight's strengths and ignore its weaknesses, it's certainly worth looking into as a new fantasy game system. It's also worth noting that the game is well-supported on the publisher's web page (there's a spell creation worksheet there that's particularly valuable). The game doesn't strike me as an entirely effective whole, but it has a number of good parts, and encourages the GM to use them creatively. This attitude in gaming products is commendable, and I look forward to Deep7's continuing contribution to the world of gaming.


 

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