Tabletop Review: The Age of Shadow

A few months ago, I put out a request for suggestions of games that might work well for running something set in Middle Earth.  I decided a couple years ago that the old I.C.E. game Middle Earth Role-Playing (or MERP) was not for me for two reasons.  The core mechanics were a bit too crunchy and as it’s been out of print for nearly thirty years, the collector prices for books are out of this world.  More recently, the game The One Ring has come out with a second edition and it looks gorgeous.  However, it too is a bit pricey.  Also, there’s something off-putting about the game mechanics, particularly around combat and “stances.”  I had mentioned that my first thought would be Basic Roleplaying, but that venerable game is currently out of print, and while Chaosium seems to be planning a new edition, it’s not likely to come anytime soon.  In spite of it being my go-to game for decades, I also don’t own a copy.  I’ve just got the quickstart rules, which are not as comprehensive as I’d like if I were actually running a game for real.  All that is to explain why I picked up a copy of The Age of Shadow by Kristian Richards.

The Age of Shadow is based on OpenQuest by Newt Newport.  I don’t know the background of the game, but I believe it has something to do with the fourth edition of RuneQuest, before Chaosium took it back under its umbrella.  What I do know is that this is essentially a slightly modified version of Basic Role-Playing, and this book presents a more complete and playable game than the BRP Quck-Start book.  Score.

From a rules standpoint, this is all you need to start a game.  The core mechanic, character generation, combat, skill use, magic, and some basics of adventure design.  At about seventy five pages, there’s more here than in the twenty of thirty page booklet I used as a kid, but not so much as to bog you down.  Like BRP, this is a skill based system that uses a percentile role to determine success.  If you want to ride a horse, you might have a skill of 56%.  Roll a D100 (a one hundred-sided die or percentile die, often using two ten-sided dice with one representing the 10s place and one representing the 1s place.  If you roll a 56 or less, you’re successful.  That’s the basics right there.  Combat adds a few wrinkles.  Plus there’s options for critical successes and fumbles that can cause other effects.  But honestly, that’s about it.  I always did love this system.

There are places where the rules stray away from their BRP origins.  There are “fate points” where you can burn a limited number of points to change a roll or something.  Improving your skills or statistics requires improvement points, which you can spend to roll a D4 or two to see by how much you improve.  I would probably implement a house rule where improvement points can only be spent on skills used in the previous session (with special dispensation made for improvements made during long stretches of downtime).  But overall, if you’re familiar with any of the various games that use Basic Roleplaying, games like Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Magic World, or others, then you’ll easily handle The Age of Shadows.

I have to agree that it will make an excellent alternative system to use if I run a Middle Earth-set game one of these days.  Because it’s skill-based and not class-based, it allows characters to be less rigidly defined.  The combat is fairly simple, but also exceptionally deadly, and thus to be avoided if possible.  Magic is rare and difficult.  I also like that creatures, even standard Fantasy critters like orcs, can cause great fear in your characters, unless they become desensitized.  Farmer John, wandering out into the Great Wilderness and seeing a beastman for the first time, is likely going to fill his britches and run screaming, and that’s as it should be.  Heroes aren’t unafraid.  They simply strive to overcome their fear.  Another nice thing about The Age of Shadow is that it’s available as a PDF for the low, low price of free (time of writing), or as an inexpensive POD.

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