|Cover Art for Fabula Ultima
by Catty Trinh
©2022 Need Games
Publisher: Need Games
Engine: Fusion of the Ryuutama engine & Forged in the Dark
Fabula Ultima is a tabletop role-playing game designed to simulate what is often referred to as the Golden Age of JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games). That is, fantasy console video games such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Phantasy Star, and Earthbound.
If you are not familiar with these types of games, they primarily we're found on the Super Nintendo and Sony PlayStation and were mostly made by the Juggernaut companies Squaresoft and Enix. (Now Square Enix) They featured Dungeons & Dragons-inspired gameplay primarily driven by option menus. While the first Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games were very clearly clones of OD&D, the developers found that they needed to adjust the way the games worked mechanically to adapt to the limitations of the medium, which evolved into their own unique tropes and conventions. Some examples include such as creating jobs systems that let characters change what they could do, simplified Magic based on expanding point pools, and having most character classes add one or two menu options.
Obviously, the video games of the time couldn't offer player characters an open or even procedurally generated world. This fundamental difference from Dungeons & Dragons was a glaring flaw in the first couple of games of the genre. The developers discovered that they could compensate for the lack of the player characters' freedom by using the game as a medium for crafting elaborate, interactive fantasy novels with complex plots and large casts of characters.
The cultural back and forth between Dungeons & Dragons and JRPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, and especially for Generation X is something I've written about here. I would argue that Final Fantasy IV in particular had a massive impact on how Dungeons & Dragons was played among what we now are calling "Trad" style players.
I surmise that a lot of the impulse that led to the story game branch of our hobby evolved from love of the way JRPGs told stories and structured their narratives.
Fabula Ultima (Latin for "Final Fantasy ") is precision-engineered to capture the feel and story structure of those JRPGs in the table -top format. It draws must heavily of the Super Nintendo-era Final Fantasy titles, but echoes of other series such as Ys, Phantasy Star, and Dragon Warrior are also pretty evident. It leans heavily into video game tropes such as boss fights, multiple damage type systems, and readily available healing potions, bombs, and magical implements.
One thing that did surprise me is that they did not move into the idea of death as an easily remedied state. But more on that in a moment.
I want to note that there is a free starter document for Fabula Ultima, Fabula Ultima: Press Start that has the rules necessary for players to learn the game free for download at DrivethruRPG and the Need Games homepage.
Fabula Ultima is based on the Japanese tabletop role-playing game Ryuutama and, aside from the eponymous Dragon-spirit guide and the wellness roll, almost the entirety of that game engine has been carried over. This was an incredibly smart choice, as Ryuutama borrows many of its mechanics from early Final Fantasy games.
|Ryuutama Cover Art
by Ayako Nagamori
©2017 Kotodama Heavy Industries
My review of Ryuutama will give you a better description of the engine, but the summary is that characters have four ability scores expressed as dice from d4 to D12. Two attributes and a possible modifier are added together to roll over a target set by the GM. The maximum value of these, modified by armor sets defense and magical defense rolls that serve as the target number to hit a creature. Often effectiveness of a roll is determined by the highest die number rolled added to a modifier. For example a shot with a bow might require rolling a character's dexterity and insight roll and damage will be the higher die +8. Critical of successes occur when both die show the same face the value of 6 or more. double ones indicate critical fumble.
Namely, it imports the entirety of the FitD Task Clocks mechanics and drops them into the middle of the Ryuutama engine as a replacement for their extended rolling system. To create tension during scenes, the GM is encouraged to graph countdown table with between 4 and 12 units that will slowly fill up unless the player characters take actions too prevent it. Likewise for complicated tasks, the GM is encouraged to post a visibly drawn clock that player characters can fill in by making successful roles too somehow contribute to the effort.
|Cover for Blades in the Dark
Art by Johm Harper
©2017 Evil Hat
Also borrowing from the spirit, if not the letter of Blades in the Dark, characters are given a number of inventory points, which they can expend to produce potions, bombs, antidotes, magical energy tonics, and camping equipment as needed. Rather than worrying about keeping track of your stock of potions and tents like in a Final Fantasy video game, you simply must spend money to refill your inventory points when you visit a settlement. Some characters can also gain an ability to slowly regenerate them by scrounging or stealing.
The Class system has been substantially overhauled from Ryuutama: Fabula Ultima has numerous classes that form the backbone of the jobs system introduced in Final Fantasy V and repeated in various forms in FF Tactics, FF X-2, FFXI, FFXII, FFXII, FFXIII, and FFXIV. The classes are renamed for copyright reasons. They are:
- Arcanist (Summoner)
- Chimerist (Blue Mage/ Monster Magician)
- Darkblade (Black Knight / Holy Knight)
- Elementalist (Black Mage/ Wizard)
- Entropist (Time Mage)
- Fury (Berserker)
- Guardian (Paladin)
- Lore master (Scholar)
- Orator (Mediator)
- Rogue (Thief)
- Sharpshooter (Archer / Gunslinger)
- Spiritist (While Mage /Priest)
- Tinkerer (Chemist / Engineer)
- Wayfarer (Adventurer / Squire)
- Weaponmaster (Fighter / Warrior)
Characters can be customized by having up to three classes at once and must start with a total of five levels in at least two of them. Each level grants a single ability, or a single spell. Some abilities may be taken multiple times to become more powerful. Characters may only take 10 levels in a class. Upon gaining a 10th class level they may choose a single advanced skill, special upgrade, or potent spell.
(The default magical powers of PCs on Ryuutama are not included .)
This encourages players to mix and match abilities. Some classes, such as Wayfarer and Loremaster don't offer a lot of impressive abilities on their own, and must be combined with other classes to get the most of them. Loremaster, for example, works best if it is combined with at least one spell casting class.
Characters may use any weapon or armor in which one of their classes has proficiency, Galletto carefully balanced which weapons and armor would be granted based on which classes. In order to wear heavy armor, use martial weapons, and carry shields a character will have to combine multiple fields of martial study.
Characters can only have three classes between level 1 and 9 at a time. They also have a level cap of 50: meaning they can have five classes at maximum development or four maximized classes and three classes with small "dips."
Fabula Ultima uses an XP system that is very straightforward, and is designed to give players a level every two play sessions on average.
Fabula Ultima adds a metacurrency for PCs and major villains. PC's "Fabula" points are gained for exceptional role-playing, by electing to fail roles based on a character's background, origin, or theme. They also gain f\Fabula points for encountering villains. and critical fumbles. Villains have a finite number of Ultima points based on how major a villain they are.
Players may spend Fabula points to reroll a die if the situation matches one of several character traits chosen at the start, such as their home, and the theme of the character. It may also spend Fabula points to get a flat bonus based on the complexity of an emotional bond towards a Target or subject. These Traits and Bonds evolve with characters. Any of them can be changed during downtime.
One interesting inclusion from recent story games is the idea that 0hp only indicated death if the PCs choose for it to do so. PCs may choose upon reaching 0hp, a player may choose Surrender or Sacrifice.
If the player chooses Surrender, they are captured or knocked unconscious, and the GM may impose a status ailment, separate them from the party, or whatever other consequence seems to suit the situation. However, the character must survive and wake up with half hit points. They cannot be permanently maimed or debilitated.
If the player chooses Sacrifice, the character dies, but is permitted to do a final heroic act that can have any major world-changing consequences that the PC suggests that makes logical sense (such as destroying an artifact they were fighting for, slaying the villain that killed the PC.)
The system is not afraid to lean into its video game inspiration, including using pixel graphics and the weird inflationary way magic items are handled in JRPGs.
What I Loved
|Cover Art for Fabula Ultima:
Press Start; Art by Catty Trinh
©2022 Need Games
World Building Method
Fabula Ultima has a method of creating worlds that invites all players to participate in designing the world. It starts by discussing the common subgenres of the JRPG: High Fantasy, Natural Fantasy, and Techno-Fantasy.
It also establishes Eight Pillars that are an underlying assumption of all successful JRPG settings (and most Western Fantasy TTRPG settings for that matter.) These assumptions include:
- That the world is filled with ruins and perilous wilderness,
- That the world is in peril,
- That the communities of the world hold ancient grudges and conflicts,
- There is both magic and technology that are separate forces for the development of the world, and interact strangely.
- The Characters start off knowing only a little about the world, and need to explore and discover, and grow in the process.
Assumptions that define the game that are more typical to JPRGS ins the pillars:
- The PCs are fully-fleshed out heroes; they are already skilled and competent beyond the norm.
- The world is centered on the heroes and they will make a difference.
- The world has a flowing aura of spirit energy from which all life arises and returns.
Once the PCs have agreed on subgenre and reviewed the eight pillars, the GM produces a map and establishes some basic facts: the distance each hex represents, how fast characters can travel in a day, the level of technological development, and the role and perception of magic in technology in most places.
From there the GM sets up one nation, drawing its borders on the map, giving it a name, and writing a few sentences about their custom, beliefs, relationship with their neighbors, people, industries, and monsters.
Following the first location, each player takes turns adding new locations to the map, and offering a few sentences about them. They may not contradict established facts about the world, they may not violate the eight pillars, and they must fit with the agreed-upon subgenre.
The process repeats with recent historical events shaping the present. The GM establishes one important historical event, then each player takes a turn doing the same, without contradicting established facts. Then they do the same with enigmas / mysteries, and threats to the peace, balance, or life force of the world.
This is a straightforward way to build a world that can both fill it with surprises, but is still a primarily GM-led process, offering the best of both worlds from the Traditional RPG and Storygame traditions.
During gameplay, player characters may spend their fabulous points to add to the map. Establishing locations their characters know something about or have visited before, so long as they do not contradict the facts and tone of the setting or the eight pillars.
The author of the game has a keen understanding about what makes the JRPG a fun experience, and gives a lot of guidance on how to make it fit that genre, and have tailored the mechanics well to do so.
Some great examples include the fact that PCs in JRPGs almost never die permanently unless they do so as a noble sacrifice.
Villains have a one-time opportunity to 'Escalate' developing a new, more monstrous form, greater power, but also larger, more megalomaniacal goals
Characters don't suffer permanent or disfiguring injuries, just as those things are left out of most JRPGs (at least for the PCs.)
Inventor NPCs have clear rules for the time, energy , and effort it takes to make incredible machines
Thieves having the unusual ability to simply steal a magic item out of the ether around a villain os an almost over-the-top flourish.
The Eight Pillars set a stage where stories that will follow the structure of most JRPGs: a looming threat begins taking down disparate nations one by one, as a group of outsiders find themselves in the crossfire. They start on their back foot and eventually become unifiers and peace-makers in order to hold back the threat.
Breaking from the Genre Where Intelligent
Fabula Ultima also does a great job not just mechanically and narratively setting up a campaign to emulate the JRPG genre, it also does a good job of knowing when not to. JRPGs, the game only is over if all of your characters reach zero hit points. Otherwise, there's usually some magic item or place you can visit to bring them all back up to fighting trim in a matter of moments. The idea of character death has absolutely no teeth. While Fabula Ultima ensures that player characters only die when the player is willing to let them, there are no magical Phoenix Downs or spells that will kinds of character who's reached 0hp to simply pop up and start fighting again. 0hp hit points has teeth.
Likewise, the numbers remain relatively small and sedate comparatively speaking. The math never ascends to such high and complicated levels that it requires a computer to handle it. Unlike the most recent Final Fantasy offerings.
Nor does the game include relatively easy teleportation, giant riding chickens, or the greatest offender of all JRPG tropes that have worked their way into tabletop RPGs, the meant-to-lose-battle.
Fabula Ultima has a very straightforward system for designing encounters. The difficulty of the encounter, like in most role-playing games, is a combination of the level of the creatures relative to the level of the highest level member of the party, and the number of enemies relatively number of player characters.
Any encounters within five levels one way or the other of the highest leveled PC are considered easy. Ones that are 10 levels higher than the player characters are considered average, anything in 15 levels or higher than the PCS should be quite challenging, and anything more than 20 levels higher than the player characters should be approached with extreme caution.
Encounters with one or two fewer enemies in the player character should be considered easier, while up to two more than the player characters should be considered more difficult.
There are rules for either during prep or on the fly creating an elite monster that replaces two regular creatures in an encounter. There are additional rules for creating champion monsters that can replace three or more monsters in an encounter.
So, if you have a party of six level five player characters, 6 level 15 monsters should be an average encounter. Or three elite level 15 monsters, or a single level 15 champion-6 creature. (Or maybe two champion-3s)
Elite and champion creatures gain extra attacks, extra special abilities, and extra hit points that makes them the equivalent of the creatures they're replacing. An elite has twice as many hit points as a regular creature of the same level. A champion creature designed to replace four enemies will have four times to hit points and four times the actions.
Particularly tough monsters that are meant to be "boss fights" should either be made into minor villains, giving them Ultima points or include something like a timer, a non-combat goal that has to be accomplished to defeat them, or an environmental effect. All of which have excellently written guidelines.
Designing creatures is incredibly easy. Well I have been running Fabula Ultima for several sessions now, I have created no less than nine monsters to suit my setting. None of which have taken me more than 20 minutes to make past the first one. I have even been able to come up with a pretty fearsome champion monster on the fly..
Monsters essentially have a class based on their creature types such as undead, plant, construct, elemental, devil, monster, beast, or humanoid. This grandson a few default special abilities, and a number of NPC skills. These skills are special features, traits, or statistic multipliers that get applied. A combination of the creatures class and level will tell you how many to apply to make sure that it is unique, rather than being just a bundle of hit points, and make sure that it remains challenging.
Monster making is not particularly difficult, and just crunchy enough to feel satisfying.
Fabula Ultima has a set list of spells that player characters can learn. 10 per spellcasting class, beyond this however, it has a fairly loose ritual spell casting system.
The ritual system has a number of disciplines that you can learn from your various classes. For example an elementalist can perform rituals from the elementalism discipline. A spiritist can learn spiritualist rituals, etc.
These rituals must be apropos to the flavor of the discipline. An elementalist might be able to call up a storm, calm the weather, or put out a fire. A spiritist might be able to cure an illness or blindness. An entropist might be able to teleport. But, there's no justification for why an elementalist would be able to create a teleportation ritual, or why an entropist might be able to cleanse a disease.
Once the player character describes what they want their ritual to do, the GM determines how difficult a task that is, along with the cost in mind points based on the size of the desired area of effect or number of targets, and the difficulty. There are lots of suggestions to help a GM eyeball difficulty.
These rituals can theoretically accomplish almost any task that magic is permitted to do in your campaign setting. However, they are extraordinarily expensive, their cost in mind points is often so prohibitive that it requires multiple people feeding the ritual, and comes with a natural level limit. Any entropist might theoretically be able to perform a teleportation ritual, but the cost of performing the ritual might be so prohibitive that a character under 30th level probably wouldn't be able to actually to perform the ritual.
The game suggests that harder tasks might require access to specialized knowledge, and that clear characters can seek out rare ritual components that can cut the costs by half. For example, a spiritist might be able to cleanse a blight from a town, but only at an excessive cost that they can't manage at their current level. The GM might suggest that a pure Crystal from a nearby location could cut the magic cost in half. This turns the more impressive rituals into adventures unto themselves. And offers a baked in reason for NPC villains to be seeking rare and unusual objects.
Performing a ritual during a conflict such as combat or social encounter requires the use of a clock. Any player character might do something to help move the clock along as long as there is a primary spellcaster willing to pay the MP cost at the end. I like this approach because it allows the whole party to get involved in a major magical task. For example, in my campaign the party elementalist wanted to knock several off of a roof with a sudden windstorm. However, she was under fire at the time. The Rogue player character chose to act as a decoy running out in a serpentine pattern to draw fire away from her. Meanwhile a party Guardian chose to create a barricade around her using his tower shield and an overturned cart. I love these actions to fill up the clock, as they positively would help the elementalist finish her ritual more quickly.
I also love the fact that rituals themselves cannot do damage, but can cause collateral damage. The wind that swept the snipers off the roof couldn't kill them. The fall, on the other hand, certainly could.
There is a similar system to rituals for the designing and building of advanced technology for tinkerer characters. With size and complexity of an invention being the factors that determine a cost in time and treasure.
Speed of Play
Fabula Ultima plays about as fast as an OSR D&D retroclone. It is fairly simple to learn and easy to run. The only place I found it was a little gummy was in treasure building, which requires the GM to put a little thought into things if they don't want to use the piles of pregenerated special equipment.
JRPGs tend to be humanocentric. Where a character is not human, their race is not particularly significant in determining their abilities. Your class, not your race determines most of what makes your character interesting in a JRPG.
The game offers no stats or rules to imitate popular races from JRPGs such as moogles, lalafels, viera, etc. I have served as a substitute for Western fantasy races in jrpgs since Final Fantasy V.
While Fabula Ultima adds quite a few rules, it remains entirely compatible with the creatures and challenges that are used in Ryuutama. In theory, you could Port characters from one of these games to the other without any serious tweaking, and any material created for ryutama can be used for fabulous Altima with very little modification.
Catty Trinh's character illustrations are stunning. There is a clear echo ofthe style of Yoshitaka Amato, who set the visual style for JRPGs, but definitely adds her own warm, cheerful notes.
Requires Extra Work to Give Tension
This is where I show my distaste for Story game mechanics. With players needing to effectively give permission to the GM before their PCS can die, action sequences lacks tension.
In order to make dangerous scenarios meaningful, it helps with the GM to figure out how to set stakes beyond the player characters getting themselves killed.
Time limits on the dungeon overall, clocks that combat causes to fill in, innocent NPCs to protect, resources that can be depleted, etc need to be added into most scenarios to make sure that the players feel some level of tension.
This isn't hard to do, but it requires a little more cognitive load on the GM.
As a fan of the JRPG genre, I have been thrilled by how well this game imitates a beloved genre, and does so better than some of the other games that imitate JRPGs on the market such as BESM and Thrash.
I was disappointed to see some of the more unusual character classes such as the Dancer, Bard, and Samurai (a swordsman who summons magical powers from their sword) were left out. I find myself already hoping for a sourcebook.
Fabula Ultima encourages scenes with conflict the interspersed with interlude scenes where the player characters are simply encouraged to play act with one another, and "GM Scenes" that generally feature the villains and what they are up to as in a JRPG's "cutscene".
I personally dislike the idea of either throwing the PCs in a scene for no other reason than playacting; it isn't what most of my players like and can drag the story to a crawl. Every scene should move the game forward.
I dislike GM Scenes even more; they sacrifice immersion and expose the PCs to knowledge their PCs should not have - with attendant temptation to metagame - without offering them any agency.
It encourages the GM to think of the campaign as a novel that they're writing , which breeds a certain disrespect for player agency.
Needs More Content
Fabula Ultima hasn't got enough monsters: given the complexity of how can encounters are built and designed in the game, I would have expected more than 58 monsters. May try to offer at least one creature of fifth, 10th, 15th and 20th level for each type, plus a few bonus creatures.
However, given the idea of elite and champion monsters, the fact that monsters go up to level 60, and the range of themes that they encourage you to have for encounters, I could have used a much larger selection of examples to work with and reskin.
As far as encounter design goes, Fabula Ultima drops you in the deep end. They expect you to make your own monsters for most of your game needs.
I have been enjoying Fabula Ultima and have been using it for a home campaign for several weeks. It does a great job of capturing a style of game that my entire family enjoys, it is easy to teach, and easy to learn. And, in spite of the relative complexity of NPCs and monsters, the monster building system is fairly intuitive, and takes only a few attempts before you get into a groove.
If I were a Dungeons & Dragons 5e player looking for a new game to migrate to, and I came in from the Critical Role fandom, Fabula Ultima might be my first choice. The characters are eminently customizable, and can be pretty unique. The world doesn't come packed with the assumptions about Tolkiennian races that Dungeons & Dragons does. The game offers a lot of opportunities for storytelling, player interaction, and makes relationships a mechanically important item. It also abstracts things like inventory management and survival to get them out of the way of a game that is primarily interested in Story.
As a grognard who is thoroughly entrenched in an older style of play, there are things about Fabula Ultima that do bother me. I find players don't have the access to the metacurrency they should, simply because I can't bring myself to run GM scenes, and can't force it an interlude scene, even though I'm certainly open to players conducting them. Likewise, I play with players who prefer to have the world built for them, and aren't likely to use their Fabula points to expand the setting.
But that said, even with my groggy crowd the game is good fun, especially for my friends who share my taste in JRPGs, I will continue to play and enjoy it for the duration of the campaign that I converted.
This is a game that is there for telling epic stories of fantasy heroism. It is not well suited to gritty low fantasy swords and sorcery you will not be able to emulate Dungeons and dragons. In fact, it encourages GMS to often extract dungeons into key scenes from the exploration, rather than have a map of a dungeon mapped out.
I think that where it uses Story game mechanics it uses them quite brilliantly. Abstracting inventory works well with the genre. The clocks create a great way of building tension and encouraging players to work as a team. They just won't be the cup of tea for everyone. But then, neither is low fancy dungeon crawling.
Fabula Ultima sets out to do one thing well and clearly succeeds at it. I certainly will be continuing my fabula all to my campaign for the foreseeable future. And it's definitely something I would consider playing with my sons, especially as my oldest has already inherited my love of the Final Fantasy series.