The AGE System is a Map
Nothing quite starts off a new year like a cryptic blog post title, so here we go! Seriously though, I’d like to chat about how I feel about what the Adventure Game Engine is as it now powers a wider array of games than ever: Fantasy AGE, Modern AGE, Blue Rose, The Expanse, Cthulhu Awakens, and as per our recent announcement, The Fifth Season. And of course, it all goes back to its roots in the Dragon Age roleplaying game and Chris Pramas’s design.
Unfamiliar with the Adventure Game Engine? We’ve got you covered with our handy “What Is AGE?” primer!
I’m the Modern AGE developer, and that means taking an expansive view of the system that has come to be my default. This makes AGE something of a map: The system has “bare metal” mechanical features I can play with in a number of different ways. Very few things about the system are fundamental, but what is there—the fixed points on the map—help me answer questions about how a given instance of the game is supposed to work, and what the play experience should be like.
Are classes essential? Modern AGE proved they weren’t, but that protecting unique niches still mattered. Spending points on spells and other powers? Not essential, but a sign saying power should have some kind of cost.
The core of the AGE experience is something I like to call a “punctuated curve.” The core mechanics are 3d6 + modifiers versus a target number. 3d6 outputs a curve of results, where some numbers on the dice, in the middle of the range, are more likely than others. So, a character’s abilities are fairly reliable. But this sort of thing wouldn’t be especially cool without an additional element. In AGE, this is scoring doubles and generating stunt points. Thus, in the set of successful rolls there’s just under a 50% chance of a more interesting success.
This principle doesn’t tell us what a “more interesting success” is, and of course, that’s up to what stunts the player will pick—and stunts turn out to be something we can greatly customize by a game’s genre and setting. In Fantasy AGE Trojan War, divine stunts can be acquired with the help of the gods. In Cthulhu Awakens, certain stunts represent mind-melting insights won through exposure to the Mythos. The Expanse has stunts related to spacecraft.
But that point on the map can be zoomed in on, divided by area, and customized even further. Stunts represent exceptional results, but we can split them off from doubles. This is how we get the stunt attack mechanic in newer AGE rules sets, and how we use Bonds, where we add an opportunity to do amazing things because of a relationship or belief.
This is the kind of flexibility that lets AGE work for multiple games—we strip it down, see what remains, and it shows us what we can play with to address themes and play experience. While we sometimes do aim for cross-compatibility between games, we usually don’t fret that option A in one game contradicts B in another. You can pick and choose when crossing over. The point is to generate familiarity that lets you make your own crossovers and house rules, while presenting lots of readymade options to choose from.
What do you think is essential to the AGE system? What’s flexible? What should be one, not the other? Feel free to let us know!