For a long time, there has been an established paradigm of a player’s book, a gamemaster’s book, and a bestiary for level-based RPGs. Not every game follows this pattern, and in more recent years, there has been a trend towards the core book being the only book needed to run the game, but with a follow-up gamemaster’s guide with advice and variant rules.
Green Ronin’s AGE games (Fantasy AGE and Modern AGE) have established a pattern of core rulebook, bestiary, and companion rules. These companion books aren’t exactly GM’s guides, so much as rules variants touching on multiple aspects of the game.
Today, we’re looking at the Modern AGE Mastery Guide, an additional volume in the Modern AGE line, in addition to Modern AGE Basic Rulebook, The Modern AGE Companion, and the Modern AGE Enemies and Allies. The Modern AGE Mastery Guide isn’t just a game master’s guide but is billed as serving multiple purposes; it provides advice on running the game, making and playing characters, provides updated rules based on other AGE System product developments, and provides more alternative rules for use with those provided in The Modern AGE Companion.
This review is based on the PDF version of the Modern AGE Mastery Guide. The PDF is 130 pages long. This includes a title page, a table of contents, two pages of reference tables, three pages of recommended rules references, a two-page index, and three ads for other Green Ronin products. What’s the difference between reference tables and recommended rules references? We’ll get to that.
Most of the book is in a two-page layout, with various headers and sub-headers, as well as summarizing tables that should be familiar to anyone that has seen an AGE System book, and which does a good job of sectioning off different topics. There are several half and quarter-page full-color images that depict the established iconic characters that have appeared in other Modern AGE products.
The Modern AGE Mastery Guide is divided into the following sections:
- Playing Well
- Variant Character Creation
- Playing With the Rules
- Welcome to the Party
- A Player’s Miscellany
- Mastering Modern AGE’s Rules
- Modern Adventures
- The Art of Game Mastering
One thing that is stressed in this book is that it is meant as advice for both players and GMs. That means that the Playing Well and Welcome to the Party chapters are focused on building characters, working with other players to create rewarding scenes, and how to create frameworks that facilitate stronger adventuring parties.
These sections have solid advice on character creation, like providing motivations and goals, but even better, it discusses how to have interpersonal conflict without player conflict. I like how this section discusses having out-of-character discussions about what such conflicts will be about, before playing them out in character.
These sections also touch on journaling, fan-casting characters to create stronger mental images, and establishing triangle relationships for more potential drama. There are character roles outlined that are more story-facing rather than mechanics-facing, and there is a discussion of the cycle of growth for characters. Overall, there is a solid explanation of best practices for collaborative storytelling.
Recommended Rules Revisions
An interesting aspect of this book is that in addition to alternate rules, there is a section on rules that are recommended additions to the basic rules. These are noted as evolved from several years of feedback, as well as the development of other AGE System products.
This includes new focuses, new rules for wielding multiple weapons (making it slightly more granular, and having different rules for melee, mixed weapons, and dual firearms), more granular cover rules, and replacement rules for grenades. In addition to these rules, there is a new general boost stunt that can be used to “pay forward” a bonus when no other stunt options make a lot of sense.
Part of why this section is interesting to me is that I know the Fantasy AGE rules are being reworked into a new core rulebook, and many of these options feel like the kind of thing you would work into a new set of core rules. It’s also worth noting that almost every revision makes the rules surrounding an aspect of the game more granular, although not excessively complicated.
This book is filled with optional rules, although those optional rules are grouped into discreet packages across the book. These include rules like the following:
- Variant Character Creation
- High-Level Damage and Defense
- Attack Maneuvers
- Encounter Intensity
- Equipment Qualities
- Dramatic Explosives
- Dramatic Murder
- New Equipment
- Extraordinary Powers
- Power Sources
- Costly Successes
- Mixed Failures
- Dramatic Target Numbers
- Custom Modes
- Diceless Task Resolution
Variant Character Creation includes topics like generating 0-level characters, simplified characters, character classes, quirks, and personality traits. 0-level characters have shown up in multiple games over the years, and these rules go through what aspects of the character to leave open when creating characters that have not yet adopted a more action-oriented career. Simplified characters involve creating broader rules for aspects of the game like condensed abilities and overarching abilities. These rules can be used for the player characters while the GM still references the “standard” rules for their side of the game.
Character classes introduce three primary character classes to create a more structured means of advancing characters that ignore the profession rules in the basic rules. These character classes include the Combatant, Expert, and the Operative. I’ll be honest, I was expecting these to already exist in the basic rules, and I think this will be a great way to bridge players that might have been introduced to Fantasy AGE into Modern AGE.
Personality traits come in opposed pairs. Each trait is given a numerical bonus, and if a character has a tough time deciding what their character would do, they can roll an opposed test of their character traits to see what the character will do. This isn’t recommended for every decision the character makes, but for situations where the character is torn, and the player isn’t sure what to do. This reminds me a bit of the morality system in Force and Destiny, with the paired strengths and weaknesses.
The new combat options cover a lot of ground. This includes rules for higher-level characters to do more damage, the chance to inflict bleeding with an attack (much deadlier in gritty mode), conditions that can be inflicted in combat, and rules for lasting injuries.
Conditions are one of a few items in this book that seem to have been reverse-engineered from The Expanse RPG, although the implementation isn’t 100% the same. Bleeding is likely to come up a lot more in a gritty game, which could make an already deadly game mode even more so.
Although they aren’t strictly combat-related, I wanted to touch on Dramatic Explosions and Dramatic Murder in this section, since it involves life or death situations. The Dramatic Explosions rules make a big boom more narrative-based, with test numbers to see what happens regarding the primary goal of the explosion, versus the secondary consequences. Dramatic Murder is for resolving assassination and ambush tactics, but these situations require that the GM allows for a passive check as well as an active check, before resolving the situation.
There are a few new pieces of equipment, including new weapons, introduced in this book. In addition to weapons in the standard format, there is also a chart showing basic weapons, making the weapon rules less granular, but it also adds in equipment qualities and flaws. These traits can be added to standard weapons but can also be used to make the basic weapons into more specialized equipment.
As an example of these qualities, a tracking weapon may allow you to take the aim action as a free action, while a fragile item breaks if you fail a check and the drama die shows a 3 or lower. If you have looked at The Expanse RPG, the simple weapons + equipment qualities is the system that implementation of AGE uses.
The power rules introduced include a discussion of how common powers are in a campaign, and how that affects the narrative. In addition, it adds more details to the powers available in the game. This includes adding minor powers (first seen in the Threefold setting), as well as using conditions, sacrifice, and backlash to alternate ways of generating the ability to execute powers.
In addition to these rules, there is some discussion on how to make power styles feel unique, by mentioning what kinds of powers are logical for traditions like alchemy, infernal power, miracles, spiritual power, or techno-magical abilities.
There are a wide range of rules that are all about reframing how to resolve actions and scenes in the game. Encounter intensity involves how to show progress with either a single roll or with a progressive skill check, instead of a full combat resolution. Costly successes and mixed successes are rules that can be utilized to succeed on a failed roll or to add effect when a character rolls doubles on a failure by allowing them a special set of stunts to buy. Dramatic target numbers discusses using the importance of an action in a genre, or to the drama of a scene, to set the difficulty, instead of using a target number based on a simulated reality.
Fortune is my favorite rule to get ported over to this book. It was initially introduced in The Expanse RPG. There are two versions of fortune presented, one of which is more closely aligned to the original version in The Expanse. In one version, characters have fortune they can spend to replace die rolls. In the other version, your health is your fortune, so the more you adjust your die rolls to increase your successes, the less punishment you can take when you take hits in combat.
The most impactful of these rules involve custom game modes and diceless resolution. The custom game modes move rules beyond the standard Modern AGE structure of Gritty, Pulp, and Cinematic, and mixes and matches a few other alternate options for emulating different genres, such as action horror, western, or romantic comedy. These set up new alternate rules, such as characters in a romantic comedy taking damage from setbacks and problems, rather than literal injury. Then we have diceless resolution.
Characters get an action pool and a universal stunt pool to pay for various levels of success. Damage is averaged, and there are different triggers for recovering action points and universal stunt points. One way of doing this in combat is to accept a specific problem in exchange for a refreshed pool. The GM only has a single pool of points, called the encounter pool, which has a different number of points depending on the difficulty of the encounter.
The chapters on Modern Adventures and The Art of Gamemastering are all about giving the GM advice. This includes working character backstory into adventures, adventure structures, dynamically changing worlds, game mastery styles, prep, improvisation, and communication.
Style is Timeless and Fashion’s Only Now This book really does have some first-rate discussion of player dynamics and GM best practices
This book shines when it comes to advice. I love that it spends as much time addressing players, talking about creating characters and the best ways of interacting with the plot elements and other players, as it does talking to GMs about story structures and incorporating character goals and backstories. There is a greatest hits of various AGE System rules brought into Modern AGE, including conditions, fortune, and additional details for powers. I’m also a fan of a lot of the new rules introduced, such as the individual classes, costly successes, and mixed failures. Even the elements that I probably wouldn’t use personally make for an interesting read, especially in light of what they highlight in the narrative.
The Ways and Means are the Parts Subject to Change
On one hand, I understand how this book is structured, but there are some very similar topics that I would love to see grouped together, but they are separated by other topics. This is a weird criticism, but between the suggested basic rules changes, and the solid advice for GMs and players, it makes me wish that Modern AGE was getting the same basic rulebook rebuild and rerelease that Fantasy AGE is getting. While there is valuable player advice in here, I’m not sure how many copies a group will buy, and I’m not sure how likely the group is to pass around the book, so all the players get a chance to read the advice. There is also a little bit of weirdness in the presentation of the level-based damage that makes it sound like these options are playtest rules for people to try, rather than just presenting them as developed options.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are already a Modern AGE fan, this is an easy purchase to recommend. It’s especially a good book to pick up if you haven’t been reading some of the setting books and other AGE System rulebooks that first introduced these options. While it might be a harder sell, this book really does have some first-rate discussion of player dynamics and GM best practices.
What are some of your favorite modern roleplaying games? What are some of your favorite modern settings, whether they have their own RPGs? We want to hear from you in the comments below!