Graham Jackson’s roleplaying game Altars & Archetypes (mentioned here on Cirsova) first came to my attention on a list of other rules-light free RPG downloads. Its rules file, six to eight pages at best, was encouragingly short, and I eventually got my local game group to try it in 2012-3. As I’ve recently run the game a second time, and as there is very little online about playing it, this essay seemed like a good idea. The game itself is available here:
The game’s simplicity shows in character creation. Characters are a series of ‘archetypes’: Highwayman, Beastmaster, Alchemist, Hunter, etc. Each is a broadly read set of skills: a Thief can pick locks and fence gems but isn’t able to fight or cast spells; a Soldier can fight or fortify a spot, but doesn’t know how to make potions, etc. Each archetype a character has is one die: d6, d8, d10, d12. Anything not represented by an archetype defaults to d4. One die for each character is initiative, so fighters need a high initiative die. In other words, this is the same idea that’s behind Savage Worlds or Throwing Stones.
The rest of the rules are easy to follow. Roll for combat. Higher number wins and the difference is the damage inflicted. The GM sets the difficulty for any task, and players roll an appropriate die: use your Acrobat archetype to leap from stone to stone in the river, but your Diplomat to negotiate safe passage. Experience points allow you to add new dice archetypes, or improve the ones you do have.
How did this work out in practice when I ran two multi-session games of A&A on my sword-and-planet setting, called Pendleton’s World? Some things were obvious. The armor system of the game (double damage unless you wear armor!) was easy to replace by stating that armor absorbs damage. The Action Point system (add a d4 by spending an action point) wasn’t useful and players ignored it. Combat is deadly, since players start with 10 health points and can lose 4-5 in one blow. The assumption of the game is that healing is easy to find, and that it works fast. I had to allow this, even though ‘real’ medicine doesn’t heal wounds so quickly. Other rules (half damage from improvised weapons) seemed to work well. When allowing characters to buy up from d12 to d20, however, the GM needs to impose intermediate steps. Two characters with d20 archetypes nearly broke the game. For the curious, d14, d16, and d18 can be found at Gamescience:
Adding crunch is pretty easy: if you want a psi stat, or magic points, just add them. Encumbrance? Lists of monsters? Chances of encounters? This is the Mr/s Potato Head of RPGs, and the price is right. For a beer-and-pretzels game, the system is hard to beat.
The game itself was also simple enough, though the setting took some getting used to. Two players were so creeped out by the horse-analog species being a huge human-like primate that their characters ended up walking almost the whole game. The four player characters (three humans: a wizard, a hunter, a shaman, and a warrior-princess of the mole-folk) were sent on a quest to find an ancient ‘knowstone’, a relic engraved with scientific knowledge by a long-gone civilization.
I had made changes to the adventure, following the advice of a friend. There was more semi-magic (remote seeing, added strength, etc) for the Rhuthuok shaman PC. I slipped in a Burrower (mole-rat hominid) male as a potential mate for the Burrower princess player character. And I made the bandits who were scheduled to attack the party a hit squad, headed by a monk jealous of the PCs, who wanted the secrets of the knowstone for himself. While this did not produce ‘character-driven’ adventures, as Powered By The Apocalypse tends to do, it did make the adventure much less of a ‘tour of Jim’s made-up world’ and more of a story whose characters had motives beyond ‘kill the ugly people and take their stuff’.
The story began with the departure from Vokherkhe, the huge monastery university where so much happens in my vision of Pendleton’s. The PCs were attacked by predators, then entertained by a drunken, lecherous nobleman. The princess’ air of command enabled her to prevent a massacre when the noble’s subjects revolted. The players then climbed into a mountain range with the help of a map stolen from the noble’s library, and found another party of adventurers dying from a ‘cursed’ tomb (which had deadly mold growing all over everything). After a long argument about how to dispose of the bodies, the party climbed to the tomb, decided not to go in, and climbed down (This group had problems, but decisiveness wasn’t one!). They found the cave of the knowstone as a Neanderthal food-gathering party approached over a glacier. By making offerings to the wolf-spirit, the players appeased the Neanderthals, and then fled. They were attacked by bandits, whom they defeated (those d20s again!) and returned to the monastery with drawings of the ancient stone.
What would I do differently next time? One problem was players stretching the archetypes. Enforcing them too strictly results in lots of d4 rolls, so compromise. The idea of a fumble or critical success resulting from one player rolling the highest number and the other the lowest is an appealing one, and I think I’ll keep it. And, as I said above, no more d20 superheroes!
I asked the players about how things had gone, after the game was done. Two of them said that they had enjoyed the setting. One said that Altars & Archetypes’ system was too simple. He found that narrating an action so as to cause the GM to roll a lower difficulty die was more important than other strategies. (This narrativist approach pleases me.) He also complained that characters progressed too slowly. I found this odd, as shifting from a d8 to a d10 is a much larger power shift than progressing from being, for example, a 32-pt TFT character to being a 34-pt, or adding a level as a Ranger in AD&D. Nevertheless, a short game such as the one I ran might choose to include more character progression.
Recommended for lovers of simple, rules-light fun.
Another A&A game is detailed here.