29 September 2012

Anima Prime

Anima Prime, not to be confused with Anima: Beyond Fantasy, is a fantasy-ish action game that sets out to emulate the genres staked out by action anime and Japanse console RPGs (notably various incarnations of Final Fantasy). For those definitions that include explosives, guns and vehicles as a default assumption in the setting. This is an assumption that I find to be pretty awesome much of the time. It is fast paced and highly tactical in play - this does not mean miniatures - with a system that inhabits some interesting territory between narrative freedom and structure.

The primary focus of the mechanics is combat; big, flashy group-oriented conflict with lots of crazy powers happening. This isn't to say that Anima Prime is only about combat; simply that everything outside of conflict is left up to the role-play to determine. This may appeal strongly to some people, or be a turn off to others. The skill mechanic can be easily extrapolated to non-combat applications, but it is not something addressed within the text.

How the combats proceed is the main strength of Anima Prime. Each character has three skills (there is a list, but it hardly matters so long as it fits), one rated at 4, one at 3, and one at 2. These skills form the basis from which you perform Maneuvers. Maneuvers will generate Strike dice and Charge dice. Strike dice are used to accomplish goals - be it murder, saving children, or whatever is appropriate to the conflict. Charge dice are used to activate the aforementioned crazy powers. This structure seems a non-intuitive at first: you have to perform actions to generate dice so you can then accomplish something. In play, however, it works very well as a piece of genre emulation - it keeps the action moving, allowing different characters to shine in different parts of the process, and giving clear goals.

Taking a closer look at the mechanics, to perform a Maneuver choose a skill that fits however you want to go about doing things. For example, explosives would be appropriate for tossing a sack of grenades in the middle of a squad of mooks, or taunt for enraging an officer in the Emperor's personal guard. It doesn't particularly matter how appropriate your tactic may be (if you can intimidate a peon, you can intimidate a tank), but there are some limitations to what effects you can describe your target as taking based on their "size". There are three sizes of opponents, individuals, squads and swarms. You can take out several nameless things in a swarm, injure (but not cripple) some squaddies, and describe your intent with an individual. Based on the results of this roll, successes become Strike dice or Charge dice and go to their respective Pools.

There are a few complexities to this. Other players can gift you dice and if you use all three of your skills, you get free dice, two in some combination of Strike and Charge. This encourages you to use all of your skills in some way. Combined actions can also be performed where multiple characters work together to generate more dice, also a great way to mark your lowest rated skill. A number of powers are available which improve combined actions even more.

Now that you have some dice in your Strike Pool, you can start accomplishing things. Whether this is taking out enemies, or accomplishing Achievements which weaken the boss and allow you take it down, or work towards other goals for the encounter. Attacking something is straight forward and just need to get successes equal to the target's Defense to inflict a wound. What applicable Achievements are will depend on the encounter and can keep the fight exciting and ever evolving through clever usage of this mechanic. Accomplishing an Achievement requires spending Strike dice and getting successes equal to the difficulty. You can always work as a group to do this and it is generally a good idea to do so. The results of this can include reducing an opponent's defense, rescuing prisoners, grab possession of a hotly contested item, call in an orbital strike, or score favors in a kung-fu fight/debate/noodle-making contest (it made sense in the context).

Achievements are one of the best ideas that Anima Prime has to offer, and it has more than its fair share of clever ideas. They provide a structure to hang an encounter on and clearly communicate that there is more to accomplish than taking a guy out (perhaps calling in the righteous might of your deity, a mysterious weapons platform in low orbit), or goals that the group needs to work together for. It can bring a lot of depth to an encounter and ratchet up the tension by including time limits or further complexities. The text of Anima Prime goes into detail about various ways to implement this structure in your game.

Charge dice are spent on your charge powers to generate their effect. Typical effects include conditions (like blinded, empowered, or poisoned), a modification to an attack (such as a firestorm or leap attack), or some other effect (healing or opening gates). The premise behind this is to prevent an "alpha strike" by the players in combat. An alpha strike is when you unload with you biggest guns right off the bat in an attempt to end the conflict before it has truly begun since that will cost fewer resources in the long run. It tends to be anticlimactic and followed by a slog. This sidesteps that by forcing everyone involved to build up to their more powerful abilities, which makes encounters more involved and tactical in how you approach building your resources.

The other powers you can get include passive effects, soulbound weapons, and eidolon summoning. The former are self-explanatory: bonuses that are always around. My only issue with the passive powers is that it is called out specifically in the text that you will want to take Resilience (it adds to Defense) at least once, and you should have a good reason for not doing so (such as being frail). Things like this always are a little dissonant to me as it feels like an extra, unnecessary step since everyone should take it - and they should, it's really good. At the very least, it is made abundantly clear and the GM should warn players of this ahead of time.

Soulbound weapons are unique pieces of equipment (not necessarily weapons) that provide additional powers that you can select from a menu. There are also powers that allow you to switch out the powers your weapon has at any given time. It is simple in implementation and always fun to build your ultimate custom gear; like Exalted, only significantly easier and with less balance issues to worry about.

Anima Prime also features a subsystem that is often a rarity within games - a summoning system that actually works. It is the most complicated aspect of the game. While it works within the same framework, some of the ways it does so is different than the rest of the game. I wouldn't call it complicated by any stretch of the imagination, just takes a little sorting through to get moving quickly. It preserves the economy of actions: you or your eidolon get one action in a turn; and still encourages both of you to interact in the conflict: there are some actions with the summoner is better suited for, while others the eidolon is better at. Eidolon are customized with some examples, and are quite a bit of fun.

While combat is the primary focus of the mechanics, it is not the only aspect of the game to receive support. All characters will have passions (like anger, love, or self-loathing) that generate Charge dice for a specific trigger. As well, each character will have three traits which can be marked during character scenes. These help develop your character and can include things like: "I will earn my father's respect", face of an angel, or the darkness always finds me. If you have a marked trait in an action scene and you can think of a way to incorporate that trait, you can remove the mark to reroll all failures for one roll. These traits can also be marked during combat by spending your turn to have a flashback scene, including another character. These scenes can reflect anything from plans just before the conflict (maybe there are mines throughout the battlefield), or a scene between the characters that wasn't previously shown. Each character gets to mark one of their traits, and this is a neat way to build character relationships during the action and allow players to include elements after the fact.

Each character will also have background items and links. The names don't really tell the story: background items are things that the GM does not involve in the plot, while links are things that the GM can use for the plot. It is an unambiguous way to tell what is free to use and what is not for developing the story. This appeals to me because it removes that potential issue when a character element is used in a way that the player is not okay with.

Finally, each character has their story seed (what is pushing you into action) and their mark. The mark is some in-human physical feature that makes the character standout from everyone else. This is in-genre and represents the character's access to supernatural powers, but this may not appeal to all players. It isn't particularly hard to build a character without any supernatural powers, instead focusing what could be considered determination, skill and teamwork.

Let's make a character. I think for the tech-magic setting a charming rogue with guns sounds about right. First are the easy ones: an appropriate name, Connor, and his mark will be silver circuitry under his skin that shine brightly the more he uses powers. Next Connor needs a passion: after looking the options over, I think that Vengeance looks interesting. It gives a Charge die at the beginning of a conflict and when I take a wound. Now onto his traits; I know he has guns, is fast, charming, and out for blood (for some reason). Building on that, I go with "Face of an angel, tongue of a devil", "Quicksilver moves", and "No more regrets". I had originally toyed with "I never had a chance to tell Heather I loved her", which I think is his path of vengeance, but I didn't know how applicable it would be.

Connor will get three skills - I pick Firearms, Quickness and Taunt, assigning 3, 4 and 2 to them respectively. With that, there are 9 powers to select and this is going to be the most involved part of the game. Luckily there are some premade power packages - select a basic package (3 powers) and a specialization package (6 powers) and you are good to go. Before everything went down, Connor was a solider and selecting that package gives me Resilience, Squad Tactics and Stamina, which is a solid set to build from. None of the specialization packages are quite what I am looking for, so I strike out on my own. Connor is going to have an awesome gun, so I pick up Soulbound Weapon and Weapon Upgrade twice, which leaves me with three picks left. I don't have any Charge powers, so I take Leap Attack, Quicken, and Whirlwind Attack to give me some good options in a combat.

Looking over the options for his gun, I like the cut of Soulcharge's jib - it will give me a Charge die every turn, but costs all of my weapon picks. I go for it because that way I will always be able to use my Charge powers. Actually, I would probably want to invest soon in some powers that use a lot of Charge dice and that increase how the maximum size of my Charge pool. With that, he's pretty much done. The number of powers isn't exhaustive, but it covers pretty much everything that you would want; this is, without a doubt, a good thing.

In the end, I enjoy this game a great deal and find it to be fast in play, while still maintaining mechanical depth. The lack of mechanics for non-combat may be off-putting to some, and I cannot blame them, but sometimes I just want to let how things play at the table determine where events go. Anima Prime operates at its best when you have some encounters outlined ahead of time with Achievements to make them exciting and not just a fight to the death. If this sounds interesting in the slightest, you can download the rules for free - check it out!