GTM #217 - The Evolution of AGE
by Chris Pramas, Green Ronin Publishing

Over the past eight years, the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) has become something of a house RPG system for Green Ronin Publishing. I originally designed it for the Dragon Age RPG in 2010, and since then we’ve used it to power two more RPGs: Fantasy AGE and Blue Rose. This year Green Ronin will publish two more AGE games: Modern AGE and The Expanse. In this article I’m going to talk about the core of AGE and how the rules have evolved for various games.

The Adventure Game Engine began as the system for the Dragon Age RPG. When BioWare approached Green Ronin about doing a RPG to tie-in to their upcoming game Dragon Age: Origins, I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce video gamers to tabletop roleplaying. I wanted to design a game that was easy to learn and teach, and approachable to new players. Since Dragon Age: Origins used a class and level system and that was a structure familiar to many video gamers already, I decided to stick with that. Conveniently though, Dragon Age only had three classes (mage, rogue, and warrior) and that served to keep the complexity down. What the game really needed though was a hook. Something it could offer that other RPGs didn’t have. Enter the stunt system.

Stunts began as a dynamic critical hit system. The basic idea was this. If you made a successful attack and you rolled doubles on two of your three d6s, you generated a number of stunt points. These could be spent on a menu of various maneuvers, allowing you to inflict more damage, disarm foes, and so on. In the playtests it soon became clear that this was the game’s “killer app.” The nature of the system meant that there was tension in every attack roll. Also, because doubles come up on 3d6 rolls almost 50% of the time, stunts were something that happened regularly. The combat stunts proved so popular that we also added spell stunts in the initial release on Dragon Age. Then later we added other types, like roleplaying and exploration stunts. Some monsters also got unique stunts to reflect their capabilities.

Fantasy AGE, released in 2015, put what we’d learned from Dragon Age into a more general ruleset. We had another chance to bring in new roleplayers with Titansgrave, a show on Geek & Sundry we did with Wil Wheaton that featured the Fantasy AGE rules and a new science fantasy setting we created. Dragon Age had a magic system that was specific to that setting, so I designed a more intuitive variant for Fantasy AGE. That will be expanded even more in this year’s Fantasy AGE Companion. Indeed, the Companion will expand just about every aspect of the rules, and introduce vehicle rules (and vehicle stunts!) to the game as well.

In 2017 we used Fantasy AGE to power the new edition of our Blue Rose RPG. This game introduced a completely new system for psychic abilities, since those are more in keeping with the romantic fantasy genre that Blue Rose emulates. And you can play psychic animals as Player Characters if you want! Another major feature that Blue Rose introduced was relationship rules. Romance, rivalry, and intrigue are important to the genre and we wanted to represent them in play. PCs can have bonds to other characters and groups. Depending on the situation and the intensity of the relationship, bonds can have a mechanical effect, even unlocking special stunts like As You Wish and Prepare to Die. We will be introducing these relationship rules into Dragon Age later this year in a book called Faces of Thedas.

In April we will be releasing Modern AGE, the next major step in the evolution of the Adventure Game Engine. While the core rules are familiar, this iteration takes AGE to some new places. For starters, Modern AGE does away with character classes. We felt more freeform character creation was in keeping with the genre, so characters are built from backgrounds, professions, talents, and specializations. Another major feature is the introduction of modes of play. Since you can use Modern AGE to run games from the Industrial Revolution to the near future and in a wide variety of styles, we introduced modes so GMs can tune their campaigns. The three basic modes are gritty, for stories where violence is unforgiving, pulp, where a battered hero can, say, claw their way out of danger, and cinematic, where protagonists achieve the competence often reserves for fantasy heroes and the most outrageous action games. These modes affect character toughness and stunt access, and guide advice you’ll read throughout the book. Certain stunts are only used in specific modes. Instant Kill, a stunt that lets you take out an opponent with less than half their Health remaining, is only available in gritty mode, for example.

Concurrently with Modern AGE we are releasing the World of Lazarus. This is a licensed sourcebook that brings the setting of Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark to life. It’s a terrific comic with deep world building, and its near future dystopia makes it a great place for Modern AGE adventures. In addition to setting history and details, World of Lazarus includes new rules, character options, and equipment to reflect the comic’s unique elements. And yes, there are stats for Lazari!

Most years the release of Modern AGE and World of Lazarus would be enough of an event, but 2018 is exciting because we also get to take AGE into space! In August we’ll be publishing The Expanse RPG, licensed from the awesome series of novels by James S.A. Corey. These books are simply some of the best scifi of the last decade and we’re delighted we get to bring them to RPGs. The Expanse RPG builds on Modern AGE but modifies and adds to its predecessor to better reflect the nature of the setting. For example, the game replaces the Health score with a Fortune score, measuring more of a character’s luck in terms of staying alive in a fight or other dangerous situation. A twist on Fortune is you can spend it on things other than damage, but you run the risk of not having as much of it when you’re attacked or encounter other hazards. Likewise, the spending of Fortune affects “the Churn,” an in-game measure of how perilous and complicated things are: Eventually, the Churn can boil over and—as fans of The Expanse novels know—things can get complicated fast!

We’ll have more to say about The Expanse and all our 2018 releases and the year progresses. I hope this article has shown you a bit of how the Adventure Game Engine came to be and has developed over time. To see some of these games in action, you can watch the Titansgrave web series or the two Dragon Age episodes of Season 1 of Tabletop. Keep an eye out for Modern AGE and World of Lazarus this Spring!