Have you ever considered that Ikea might be the "holy grail" of RPG design? The phrase "Some Assembly Required" is really the watch-word of a solid RPG system. The boys (and girls?) over at Crafty Games have really nailed that in their new Fantasy Craft. Unfortunately, I happen to be a friend of one of the editors, Alex Flagg, so I'm going to have to really justify this positive review. Wouldn't want anyone to think I'm playing favorites! So I am going to break down what was done right, and hit a few points that probably could have been touched up.
First thing you are likely to notice as you crack the book (or scroll through the PDF) is the margin art. The top and bottom of each page has a small vignette drawn across it, adding a little ambiance to what can easily become a dry book of rules. I got a kick out of interpreting, and then reinterpreting the actions being presented on each small image. The artwork in general is highly reminiscient of the original Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, which will reassure us old hands at High Fantasy gaming, and intrigue the fresh faces who are just exploring the fun to be had with D&D 4th edition, Pathfinder, and now Fantasy Craft.
Crafty Games has done an excellent job of distancing themselves from their predecessors, with the Species options and Classes being sufficiently different from previous games of this type. As an owner of the old Council of the Wyrms boxed set, I was happy to see the inclusion of a draconic race, minus the anthropomorphism. The one thing I found a bit off-putting early in the rules was the high number of classes. Assassin, Burglar, and Explorer are three seperate basic classes in Fantasy Craft. Setting aside my general dislike of Assassin being a class (or prestige class! I'm talking to you, 3.5!), I feel like the flexibility of this approach could have been preserved without cluttering the system with so many classes. Perhaps using a system similar to the talent system from Star Wars Saga Edition or by giving a class different progression trees that can be chosen from. This would allow a new player to get their bearing in the character creation process a bit more quickly.
How about Action Points, you like those? Then you'll love Fantasy Craft. No, they don't give you action points, they give you Action Dice! And Action Dice explode! I like exploding dice. And the action dice in Fantasy Craft feel like more of a resource rather than a perk, which makes them more memorable to players, and more significant in their contribution to the flow of any given encounter. I also like the mutability of key abilities for skill checks. Did your Soldier use Charisma as a dump stat? You can still use Intimidate, just make sure that you are using it in a way that makes Strength a better key ability for it. That's the kind of flexibility that a game like this needs to be interesting.
Flexibility comes at a cost, though. Treasure is awarded and retained through a relatively arcane Reputation/Lifestyle system. The Gear section wouldn't have surprised me if I had seen an entry on one of the tables for the "Kitchen Sink." The adversaries in the game scale with the level of your players' characters (a nice touch, reminiscent of the method used by Bethesda Games in their Elder Scrolls computer games), making each encounter a small exercise in your math skills just to get your stat blocks in order. Fantasy Craft also does away with the discrete organization used by games like D&D 4th edition for encounters, splitting things by scenes, which are far more arbitrary and harder to ajudicate.
Final Word? The Sage gives Fantasy Craft the thumbs up. If you like your gaming simple, sit this one out. If you want to exert a little more effort, and try some new ways of engaging your players, pick this up. Just make sure you have some lead time, you're going to want to read through this rule system a couple of times.