Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Sourcebook Review: Fabula Ultima TTJRPG Atlas High Fantasy

: Emanuele Galletto
Publisher: Need Games
System: Fabula Ultima
Marketplace: DriveThruRPG

 I have been playing a lot of Fabula Ultima: TTJRPG lately. I am about 8 adventures in to a campaign that has been nothing short of epic. I can add to my observations, having played it as long as I have that combat is terrifying in Fabula Ultima despite its twin roots in the combat-heavy Final Fantasy series and the cozy storygame structure of Ryuutama.; I have never seen so much fleeing in terror, running and screaming on the behalf of PCs as I have playing Fabula Ultima. And that is while balancing the game to be within the parameter recommended by the system. Also, that the storygame elements don't suit my play-style very well, nor are they my favourite as a GM, but my most important player, my wife, is loving them, and they have been useful for hacking a particularly complex sequence in White Star as well.

It is painfully prep-heavy, but once you get into the rhythm of designing NPCs it speeds up dramatically.

One of the most useful parts of the early game is in the section on collaborative world-building (which, as an activity, I have mostly just thrown out, tbh.) In that section it describes the most common modes of play that have appeared in Final Fantasy games, as well as other Japanese RPG video game series like Ys*, Phantasy Star, Dragon Warrior, and Earthbound. Namely High Fantasy, Natural Fantasy, and Technofantasy. It covers the tropes, plot structure, world design, and antagonist character development principles of each of those subgenres.

When it was clear that my family was hooked on this particular Fabula Ultima campaign, which I had decided to go whole hog on the High Fantasy tropes for, and I saw this come out only a couple of weeks after the campaign got rolling, I decided that I needed to grab it. I have found it a very useful and well-designed tool, and I have referred to it quite a bit over the course of the campaign so far.

Fabula Ultima TTJRPG Atlas High Fantasy offers a deeper dive into the structure and play-style of high fantasy as it is executed in JRPG games like Final Fantasy IV, V, and  IX, as well as the Phantasy Star, Bravery Sword, and Ys series, and offers game content to complement that play-style.

The initial section offers play advice not just fot the GMs but for the players in order to best fit the genre. Most of these are generally good advice if you are playing in a high-narrative, high-fantasy, and high-magic setting in any TTRPG.

Most of the points in this section are simple and straightforward, but they are are solid and amplified with multiple examples of how to put each into play.A few, like "everything has a soul" might seem a little alien to fans of modern High Fantasy out of the JRPG ontext, but as I have been reading Narnia and Lord of the Rings to my kids lately, I can see it in there, less explicitly.

Beyond the positive descriptions of the genre, it also does a great job of warning GMs of major pitfalls of the genre, and GMing stories in TTRPGs trying to emulate it. Points such as "Don't treat any one PC as the main character," "don't be rigid in your plot, let the PCs take the lead", "don't make plots too complicated", "don't make your bad guys one note", and "give gods and divine powers limits so that mortals must step up and solve their own problems."

The second section on world building offers tools and tricks for building up High Fantasy locations by giving the elemental attunement, mysterious power sources that the locals understand and draw unique knowledge or ability from, and that should be host to multiple factions or conflicts.

Once it covers the basics of designing a good High Fantasy location, it offers multiple examples that would make good key locations in any campaign setting:

  • a prosperous Kingdom under threat from internal factions
  • a haunted forest
  • an isolated desert village that is built around a mystical tower
  • an ancient world tree home to slumbering nature gods
  • a sea filled with mysterious islands ruled by giants and pirates
  • the bustling capital of an empire
  • a desolate grassland where the ruins of a lost civilization can be found far away from lands modern men are willing to travel
  • a dead city of an ancient and highly advanced society
  • a divine citadel on a floating island
  • and an infernal fortress in the heart of a river of lava,

One of the clever things about Fabula Ultima TTJRPG Atlas High Fantasy is that the content in it can be plugged into almost any High Fantasy setting with minimal effort and used individually, but put together along with the other content, especially the plots and villains in the book, and there is an entire campaign right here you could simply run with only a little extra work.

The third section covers how to create conflicts appropriate for a High Fantasy setting with advice for handling battles, mass battles, intrigue, magical threats. Specific advice on adjudicating audiences with feudal lords, battles in the air, battles with beings of colossal scale,  handling gods, interacting with the energies of life, death and rebirth (especially using the "stream of souls" trope central to Final Fantasy V and onward), magical technology, rare substances, and signature weapons are all handled in this section. It includes more advanced mechanics for summoning spirits, and rules for designing and building unique weapons and magic items.

The Fourth section on playing a protagonist in a High Fantasy setting is mostly player-facing role-playing advice on how to play most effectively within the genre.It includes ten pre-generated characters to use as examples, all of whom fit in particularly well with the settings presented in the world-building section.

This section expands on the custom weapons section to help create signature equipment for heroes within the genre.

After that it offers "quirks" an expanded character mechanic that allows players to add more uniqueness to a character by adding a few special resistances or unique abilities, as well as weaknesses. This allows PCs to play things such as undead heroes, uniquely gifted magicians with bitter rivals, cyborgs, ape men, doomed or cursed heroes, people with divine fates, flying heroes, visitors from other worlds, ship captains, scions of noble houses, and a number of other common or useful PC concepts

Then the protagonist section offers rules for "limit break" style abilities for heroes who have been pushed to a break-point and have a sudden surge of raw power beyond their normal abilities (a common trope in JRPGs)

All of these above options have a serious effect on game balance, and some advice is given on how to make sure that these moe powerful genre-appropriate characters are still being challenged. And a clear assessment of how each of these options will change the flow of the game based on their playtesting.

Finally it adds a number of character classes that have appeared primarily as archetypes in JRPGs that were very High Fantasy not covered in the core rulebook, such as magical dancers, musicians whose songs empower others, painters who can make their creations come to life, and master tacticians whose commands on the battlefield can allow PCs and NPC allies to gain special advantages.

These classes come complete with all the same additional material, like how to use these classes to imitate common character types in JRPGs, special abilities both for these PCs and other classes when they reach their highest level, and advice for the GM on how to create the best experience for players who choose to use these classes.

The fifth section, antagonists is oriented towards helping GMs create effective and memorable villains that fit the High Fantasy Mould.And a little in-depth discussion about the rebellion against the Divine that is a common trope in JRPGs that is not often seen in Western High Fantasy.

Just like the World Building and Protagonist sections, the antagonist section includes a number of villains  meant for different power levels of PCs at different stage of the campaign. They are tailored to sync up well with the different regions of the campaign in a logical progression. They include:

  • A charismatic and tactically adroit pirate queen
  • A fire-breathing dragon
  • A once-heroic cleric who has cast aside her faith to become a necromancer in an attempt to raise her dead sister.
  • A heroic prince and military leader whose lack of empathy for the common man has led him to become a pitiless monster.
  • And a living embodiment of the tragedy of heroes doomed to see themselves as a villain (who can be behind the cleric and the prince's falls from grace.)

What I Loved

 The Visual Design

Like the Fabula Ultima corebook, the Atlas High Fantasy is beautifully designed. I love how the artwork in it is intentionally designed to call back to the art and characters in the corebook, but takes them in a radically different direction.

Player-Facing Advice

I rarelt see games address the players with how they can coem to the table prepared to do their part to make a game fit the genre and experience more effectively. And when they do, it is often in the most absurdly heavy-handed (and often ideologically deranged) manner.

Fabula Ultima TTJRPG Atlas High Fantasy assumes the PCs are coming in with the shared goal of playing in a High Fantasy JRPG stryle story, and is giving them real advice on how to design and play characters that actually fit in with the genre to get the best results. I would put it up there with Fiasco for actually giving useful advice to players in a manner that does not browbeat or condescend.

Generally Good Advice

Fabula Ultima TTJRPG Atlas High Fantasy has a very astute analysis of the genre of high Fantasy both as it appears in Western Literature, and the quirks that have been added by japanese game designers in the last 40 years or so. While I find some of the advice either superfluous or laden with caveats, I would say that 85% or more of it is solid and useful ideas for running a game that emulates that High Fantasy vibe.

Fantasy Location Design and Formatting

One of the general suggestions for structuring a TTRPG campaign to fit with Japanese High Fantasy is to make sure that every location has a mysterious source of power, a couple of factions vying for it, clear themes, and elemental affinities that can guide you on how to plan for it and describe it. It also suggests that increasingly epic, strange, and otherworldly vistas should appear in the backdrops of each successive location.

If you begin in a perfumed faerie wood, your next location has to be at leas as magical if not more so to move to aa crescendo of the fantastical. They do this themselves in the way sample locations are presented. Starting with a small village kept safe by protective magics, then into an evil forest, and eventually escalating into floating islands and hellish fortifications in the caldera of a volcano.

Thinking about locations in this way does make prep very easy. What's more, the Atlas High Fantasy presents it's sample locations in a way that makes it very easy to see these ideas in practice. I love the way the locations have been laid out for the reader. I have taken to emulating it in my own prep for my current campaign, and found it really useful.

The Sub-Textual Campaign

As I mentioned above, the villains, settings, and pregens all fit together in a very intelligent way: you could use them all together and build a campaign that feels very cohesive. The low-level pirate queen would fit well raiding the rivers around the first village presented, and make a great come-back later in the ocean setting. The fallen cleric thematically fits really well with the haunted woodlands and again with the temple-filled floating islands. The mad prince would be a great villain to run into in the desert village, and again in the Imperial capital, etc.

They flow naturally into one another as well, the pirate arises in an environment with no heroes; the dragon forces the PCs to step up and be those heroes; the fallen cleric s a hero who lost her faith and will to help others when her equally heroic sister was betrayed by the army she once served; the prince is the head of the same army and jealously removes and sabotages rivals like the dead sister; the Angel of Tragedy could easily have written the ill fate of the fallen cleric and the corrupt prince,.

This book is not a complete campaign, but it has the shadow of one carefully nestled in its pages. If you were at a loss as to how to proceed, this is a great starting point.

Plug-and-Play Conetnt

I often am more interested in the nitty-gritty of a book - what it has to enhance the play experience through mechanics and ideas. I am less interested in content, because I rarely use pre-generated content like locations and villains, preferring to craft my own. The content here stands out as being really well thought-out and smarlty designed. I would feel no remorse in grabbing and using it in a pinch. 

Growth Points

Needlessly Complex Class Mechanics

The Dancer, Commander, and Symbolist classes offered in the Atlas High Fantasy are, in a word, complicated. They require a lot of puzzling and tinkering to use. As Fabula Ultima is a game already built around creative multi-classing, it is dizzying to think about how many options and combos the players will have to contend with while developing characters in these classes. 

In that respect, it is probably ideal for a more modern gamer who is fond of games like Pathfinder 2e, where you are heavily rewarded for mastering complex rules and coming up with unique ways to combine the building blocks of a PC.

For me it takes a game that is already challenging enough to build and design for and adding even more needless steps into PC design. And it does not fit with the simple structure of the character classes in the core book or the free downloadable resources.

Sometimes Stereotypes and One-Dimensional Villains are Fine

The obsession with trying to make everything complex, morally ambivalent, and deep in fantasy gaming is a double-edged sword. The desire to ensure no one is offended by anything represents the death of Truth and Art. And the exhortation not to be an asshole at the table by using hurtful and bigoted imagery doesn’t need to be said in a sane and civil society.  It is, at best performative, and at worst shows incredible contempt for the reader.

In a game that already requires more prep than most, demanding layers of nuance be carefully added in every adventure is an ask. Occasionally,  a one-note villain is just fine. And can be fun and harmless in the context of trusted people with reasonably thick skins.

One day, I am going to have to write an extended essay on stock characters, Del'Arte, Kabuki, Medieval literature,  Atric values, and Jugian archetypes.  And another on the imperative to have a thick skin. Today is not that day. Suffice it to say, this sort of lazy "advice" has occasionally rankled me.

The Player Advice Is Best In a Modern / Storygame Conext

Fabula Ultima is definitely intended to be played in a modern narrative style with a crafted plot. While it doesn't necessarily push the GM to railroad PCs, it definitely is intended to push them in a particular direction. If you are looking to add High Fantasy elements into a sandbox game, or one that is more player-driven, you will find that this source-book, like Fabula Ultima itself isn't quite the game you are looking for, although I might still recommend its sections on site design.

Random Tables Would Really Help this Book

Fabula Ultima is very focused on a crafted Narrative experience, and shies away from tools like random tables.  With useful formalized ways of structuring fantasy locations, many suggested ways of designing villains, and a detailed anatomy of High Fantasy conflicts given, the Atlas High Fantasy gives you tools for doing the work to prep a good high fantasy game, but what about helping you generate one? Why not offer random tools to select elemental affinities, power sources, wonders, and factions at locations, for example?


 This is a great book for planning and creating a narrative-centred High Fantasy setting, with solid advice for designing - and playing in - a world that feels like the big fantasy settings of the JRPG genre like Final Fantasy IX or Ys. It is beautifully laid-out and generally well thought-out. 

So long as you are planning to be very focused on a "plot" wherein the PCs are heroes, it would be hard to go too wrong with this books as a guide. Even if you are not playing Fabula Ultima there are some very useful tools and pointers that can be applied to almost any system. 

If you want a freer, more sandbox-like and player-driven style of game, on the other hand, the book is going to be somewhat less useful. There will still be some helpful thoughts in there, of course, especially on adventure location design. But it assumes you are aiming on a fairly linear narrative where the PCs are more reactive than proactive.

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