07 September 2021
30 Years in the Making
Want to take a look inside Agemonia? Join Charlie on YouTube taking a very first look!
Words by Christopher John Eggett
The RPG-in-a-box feels like the natural place for our hobby to come together. A mix of roleplaying game, Euro mechanics, and a huge campaign, are things that could only be considered in a world where Kickstarter is the judge of ‘is it cool enough’? Agemonia, a mixture of the above, feels like the kind of game that’s come from someone who has learnt from everyone else’s mistakes.
The Finnish designer, Max Wikström, heads up this particular adventure. The set and lighting designer turned games creator started out like many did, playing Dungeons & Dragons, “like so many before me, and after the first mind-blowing game of D&D I knew that I wanted to create fantasy worlds and play these games for the rest of my life,” says Wikström, “the biggest thing in my gaming life has been the possibility to be a GM to the same wonderful gaming group for over 30 years now. We’re still playing the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but with rules that have gone through a total revamping process during the years.” The world that was partially created in the spark of that very first game is the world we’re about to enter now. Join us as we explore Agemonia.
WELCOME TO RUNEDALE
Wikström started Toad Kings, his game design company, seven years ago and has put out the twisted tactical combat game Space Freaks and strategy game Dokmus amongst others. Agemonia is a bigger adventure, however. It’s a cooperative game for a set of adventurers can explore together. The mechanics are streamlined and deeply linked with the narrative.
“The game is played as a long campaign in four chapters, and the choices of our heroes will have a great impact to the outcome of the story,” says Wikström, “there will be seven scenarios in each chapter, so altogether the base game will include 31 scenarios.”
The characters can all be individually played solo a well, “each player takes on the role of one of the heroes and plays the solo campaign of that hero during the main campaign.”
“The base of operations for the players will be the city of Runedale, with different locations to visit and interact with between scenarios, like markets, inns, and shops,” says Wikström “Agemonia is a cooperative game and you will need each other to solve the challenges. Heroes have shared experience, so they will always level up together, but each player has their own funds and items, so there will still be some good old-fashioned looting going on too.”
The world itself is a high fantasy universe, full to the brim – and maybe overflowing – with magic. One fantasy race is missing however, humans.
“It is something that I think I’ve been building from the first roleplaying game I participated in the early 80s,” says Wikström, “the world has loads of unique flora and fauna, and I want it to be a platform of endless exploration and discovery. It was a clear design choice that there are no humans in Agemonia, because I didn’t want there to be an angle to look at the world through ‘human’ eyes but instead from the point of view of a unique race that has its own strengths and weaknesses to
It’s an interesting choice to remove ‘vanilla’ from the menu. It makes sense though, if your goal is to hack away at some player assumptions about how the game is supposed to work. We’ve all been guilty of choosing the ‘human warrior’ race and class combination across a variety of games as it simply seems like an easier time.
“I use the phrase ‘high fantasy’ because magical energy abounds everywhere – in people, constructions and items of the world. The high level of magic makes it normal to use teleportation, air ships, diving bells, trains and rumours tell that even portals to other dimensions exist,” says Wikström “there’s exotic cultures, locations, and magical wonders in Agemonia, and the stories and lore mention many realms and kingdoms that are not on the map area. The base game will be mostly happening in the northern part of the Republic of Benem, but the world is huge and the base game covers just an eighth of it.”
ALL MAPPED OUT
Agemonia uses a much enjoyed innovation in the RPG-in-a-box genre, seen in games like Stuffed Fables and the recently released Jaws of the Lion, with the spiral-bound gameplay maps. Here the scenario maps will be in a 30 x 30cm adventure book for the most part, while some of the bigger maps will break out of
this format into full boards.
Other quality of life improvements include aspects like the companion app, which includes ambient soundtracks for the game and a few simple tools like shopping inventories, special rules for scenarios, and voice over intros and conclusions to make the game easier to play. The game is community-engaged too, which is impressive for a game that’s not even hit Kickstarter yet.
“We have a 14-episode community story going on in BGG at the moment under the title Dark Bargains” says the designer, “once a week people can read the new episode and vote for the choice of our main character in the adventure.”
The adventures themselves are very character led, and individual choices will make for ripples throughout the game. As with any system like this, the sense of whether you’re going to make the moral choice or not is baked into the design.
“It’s a game about choice of each individual making impact to the outcome in a bigger scale. During the world building part long ago when I was writing some of the first ideas of the cultures of Agemonia, I often thought about most of them representing an injustice in our world but in a more fantastic context,” says Wikström, “for example, totalitarianism, fundamentalism, inequality, slavery, racism, disregard of the balance in nature, selfishness on a grand scale, extreme versions of political systems and even of a utopia of a ‘perfect’ society.”
WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
The core systems in Agemonia are the Vitae chip system and the action dice system. The Vitae system is a stack of chips that are used as a spendable action resource in the game which also represents the health of the heroes. Naturally this means that to do anything in the scenario that’s a little beyond normal, running across the room rather than walking for example, or making a leap of faith, players have to commit some of what is essentially their health. Similar to titles like Gloomhaven, players will be looking to get things done quickly, before their chips run out, which will close down their options.
The action dice system is one of ‘no failure’. Each side of the dice has one or more success, sometimes offering reroll or an additional success through spending vitae.
“I feel very proud of the fact that the game has dice that does not have any ‘empty’ sides on them,” explains Wikström, “each roll in the game is meaningful because you never know if you need to use vitae to succeed in what you are trying to do. This also creates a system which is not just random rolling, because you can always optimize your success by using vitae and exerting more when close to exhaustion is always an option, albeit a risky one.”
Of course, we’re going to risk it, because it wouldn’t feel much like an adventure if we didn’t. The initiative deck, which functions as the game’s AI, is a 15 card stack drawn at the start of each game round. It uses a colour coded system to set initiative, with hero actions aligning with these colours. While there’s some general leaning towards certain colours going first, there are thematic breaks from this trend and the deck includes special attacks from enemies.
This is paired with the Fate deck, “this is the clock of the game. It’s a deck of 20 small cards with just a number and an arrow on each card,” says Wikström “in scenarios where we use time, we draw one fate card at the end of each game round. The drawn fate card indicates the amount of time units that has passed, and it is added to the ones drawn earlier. There are different things in scenarios which will trigger when a certain amount of time units are spent. For example, a tremor could collapse a section of a building, a timed trap could be sprung, a teleporter could power up or a demon could be summoned to a summoning circle. The arrows on the fate cards will point us to certain directions and locations in some scenarios, adding variation to the flow of the game.”
Within the mix of this cardboard AI is a storycard system, which creates mini-quests within a scenario. It’s just another mechanic designed to squeeze in a little more urgency for the players.
“They’re a great way to endlessly surprise the players and create excitement to the game. Their flipsides are also used to introduce new rules to a scenario, and they will then stay on the table as a reference to aid gameplay,” says Wikström.
A popularly explored tutorial at a number of digital shows this year showed players attempting to bail out a pub that was filling with flood water. Maps in the game are divided up into uneven areas, and this is used to designate their different difficulties of moving through or over. Not all of us are quite as comfortable jumping table to table in the pub as others might be.
This also means combat can be a really creative affair, for example blocking attacks on a fallen companion that you’re sharing – or if an area on the map is ‘full’ you can perform a melee attack from an adjacent spot. This makes combat a fluid experience of ricocheting events and chancing circumstances.
Similarly, there’s a ‘spotting distance’ mechanic on the maps, which some key areas are marked with. This allows players to see and interact with things and people that they’re not sharing a space with. Usually there’s some kind of minor test that allows the interaction to take place with success. These interactions yield more story for the players to explore and can also change the map as overlay cards.
And finally, the reaction dice allow players to react to situations. Wikström presents this as a rule that ‘we always roll the meaningful rolls for our own hero’.
“Enemies have different attacks, but each attack has a numeric outcome along with the symbol of the ability we need to use for defending against that attack. Reaction dice are also used against all types of terrain conditions or weather effects, and there is one side in a reaction die that will be connected to many special effects in armours and magic items in the game.”
“I have designed and reconstructed the game mechanics of Agemonia several times during a long period of time, and I am very proud with the ultimate results. I have an indispensable development group including Jere Kasanen (Lautapelit), Mikko Punakallio (Toadkings) and Phil Pettifer (Gaming Rules), and the collaboration with each of them has been the key to the best possible result.”
Naturally, players will be slogging through swamps, delving into dungeons, carefully picking their way through dark forests, and even enjoying a riverboat excursion. But a chunk of the game takes place in smaller and more intimate settings.
“Around a quarter of the base game scenarios will happen in domestic surroundings, with the associated possibility of coming into contact with bystanders,” says Wikström, “I like the difference also in RPG surroundings when operating inside a city when you need to take care of the world itself and maybe save some innocent souls while saving the world.”
“These surroundings also give a much better platform to the ‘moral choices’ I have promised to be included in Agemonia.”
This isn’t to detract from the fantastical nature of the world, but it’s one where people and the places they exist in do matter.
“The actual gameplay in the adventures will include a wide range of different mechanics and puzzles. Players need to connect the correct elements and items to activate huge magical devices, escape from the deeps of a cursed forest, take control of long forgotten war machines, dive deep into the secrets of two opposing criminal organizations,” says Wikström, “and play a part in the political struggle of the Republic of course.”
The narrative choose your own path aspects of the game are down to Mike Pohjola, a well-known Finnish fantasy writer. With a long history as a game designer and gamer “we talk the same language,” says Wikström.
With this writing comes a little bit of humour in the game, but it’s designed to arise from the players action, “there are funny characters and situations, but there are no joke names or genre winks,” says Wikström, “Okay, we might slip the occasional pun in card titles and similar places.”
“The characters often find themselves in strange situations and are forced to improvise their strategies going forward.
This will hopefully lead to joking and laughter at the gaming table, sometimes with the characters, sometimes at their expense. As I am a long-time game master and a fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I need to mention the totally unique level of humour Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher and Greame Davis created for the amazing Enemy Within campaign a long time ago. I would be honoured if some of that legacy could be felt resonating through the world
It wouldn’t be in the spirit of roleplaying games without an aspect of getting better, and more importantly, the world trying to get in your way of getting better.
“There are myriad ways to fail in tests during the game, often with direct consequences,” says Wikström, “a precious herb can turn to dust if you are too clumsy, a flesh-eating plant can close around you or a magic trap can spring on you at the precisely wrong moment.”
“On the other hand, there are also tests that you can try again next round or after getting a right tool to help you in a test, or try again with a fellow player to aid in succeeding. The campaign will “fail forward” so the story continues if we fail a scenario, though it will always have dramatic repercussions on the developing story. There is one scenario that has four different endings. The outcome of this scenario has to do with both player choices during the scenario, and the end-condition of the scenario.”
“The game is strongly narrative, and therefore we have a long list of great characters to be encountered. Some of them might become friends while others become enemies, and if we choose differently, the situation might be the other way around. The main storyline has an impact on all of the people in Agemonia and will be linked to its destiny, but there are also lots of smaller things that needs to be experienced, and the moral choices the players take can really change the outcome of their own lives and the story that they create.”
As for getting better for characters, Agemonia uses a dual-class progression system, and it leaves characters plenty of scope for flavourful development.
“Characters have a strong background story, with names and cultures already written, so I wanted the players to have freedom in building the hero as they progress,” says Wikström, “each hero has two classes with different skills and actions to choose from. Your hero learns one skill from a set of five possible skills, chosen each level. Actions are cardboard tokens that you place in their corresponding slots on your hero board when you level up.”
“There are six ‘neutral’ actions that are free for both classes, and three special actions that are just for your chosen class for each hero to choose from. Players will be free to recreate the action setup of their heroes in between the scenarios.”
“Plus, each hero can also learn one profession during the game. This could be something like toxicology, alchemy, or pet taming… These will work similarly to the class cards, but you will pay money to a mentor to learn new skills and recipes.”
Agemonia comes to Kickstarter soon, and the first tutorial scenarios are available on Tabletop Simulator now. There are six different heroes in the base game, and the Kickstarter will offer multiple tiers of pledge for those who want all the miniatures, and those who are happy with standees. Wikström teases us some future heroes to be added to the game – “a hero with a pet, a shapeshifter, an outcast, a transgender hero and much more.”
Hall of Heroes
Wikström introduces a few of the characters of Agemonia. “Each character has their own background story, their own dilemmas and aims, as well as solo stories that players read and play between the scenarios. These can be anything from romance to mystery, from occult stuff to serious revelations. We have a wide array of people from stone creatures to disgraced knights. I wanted this part of the game to be played solo and the decisions to be made individually so it would give an interesting angle to the game and be something out from the alpha player problem.”
Knight / Paladin
Lunara is from a house of powerful magi and cosmographers, attempting to stay honourable amongst the intrigue and deceit of the Republic of Benem. When Lunara refuses to take part in the plots of rival houses, she gets herself in more trouble than she can get out of...
Guardian / Geomancer
Agurians hold much wisdom lost to the other peoples of Agemonia. They carve their memories in their stone flesh, sleep for aeons, then wake up and live again. The runes in their skin remind them of their past. But Torrax’s runes have been smoothed out, and he knows not who he is. When his mentors are killed for their crystals, he sets on a journey to find out the truth of his past.
Assassin / Witch
The bird-like quothians live in ancient Heartwood, worshipping the skulls of their Grandmothers, tasked to keep the demons of the Breach at bay. Venia is given a mission by the beaked skull of her dead ancestress and must face untold horrors to save Heartwood.
Hydromancer / Telepath
Under the sea live the Korallians. Although Zuvasai’s telepathic skills set him apart, he has a lowly job censoring foreign texts. When he finds out about the mythical Staff of Bekora, he realizes it could grant him the power to become rich himself. Or would he rather use it to set his people free from the tyranny of the Creators? But first he must find all of its pieces...
This article originally appeared in issue 50 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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