Review: Aether

Aether: Heroic Fantasy RPG, by Eric Dziver of Eldritch Crow Gaming

Those of you familiar with our reviews this past year have found that we have spread our wings a bit as a result of way too many Kickstarters and started a study of the design philosophies of other games.  We continue that today with a new one that we picked up on another site you may or may not know about that has indy tabletop roleplaying games for sale as well, itch.io.  The game in question is Aether, by Eric Dziver of Eldritch Crow Gaming, and you can pick it up on his itch.io site.  The author has this to say about his creation:

“The Aether RPG system is a combination of love, spite and cards in the form of a Fantasy TTRPG designed to give the players as much control over the story of the game as possible. It’s a game with a cinematic narrative focus that will see the players making detailed and multi-faceted characters whose personal history directly impacts the game being played. It also balances social encounters and tactical combat in order to give players a variety of options when it comes to settling conflict, and it gives the Narrator (game-runner) all the tools they need to plan and run a fun game for their friends”

Aether Rulebook, p. 5

Manufacturing and Production

Aether is a seventy-page book, neatly written, and comes in three formats online (Black & White, Color, and Dark Mode) to make it easy to read and enjoy. I’m reporting on the full-color version. It has a lovely blue faded background that makes it easier on the eyes than standard black and white, at least in my opinion. It’s neatly laid out and easy to follow along and they used the most important aspect. BOOKMARKS! As most people know, I love having my books properly bookmarked for easy finding.  What you won’t find, however, is any artwork.  This is a small, indy publisher, so I get it, but for those that focus on presentation rather than simply content, this might be a turn-off.

Content

Diving into the book itself, we find a fairly standard introduction to which they included Safety Tools right out of the gate, with lines and veils and pre- and post-session care. Things like ‘How are you feeling before it starts?’, ‘How are you feeling after it’s over?’.  Not just ‘Did you have fun?’ but ‘Do you feel good about the game and look forward to the next one?’.  Session zero is discussed and he included bullet points on the topics to bring up.  Fun fact: they match a lot of the ones we use and talk about during our chat (Genre, tone, lethality, where everyone’s comfort level is for gore/romance, etc…). Then details on creating the game and world-building for the game, bullet point questions to answer to help create a more engaging world.  Like the Cypher System by Monte Cook Games and Arium by Adept Icarus, Aether is a system to add mechanics in order to create a game in a setting you imagine, not a system with a pre-defined setting.  The game is designed around a fantasy theme, but you could, with some work, likely extend that to other genres.  Then, it discusses setting up the player characters in this world.

The section on Core Rules goes into detail about the mechanics of the game. First, they introduce the terms that are helpful for anyone new to the game, or even new to RPGs in general. They discuss the different aspects of the game, then they go into detail as to why they use cards over something like dice. They continue with the cards and explain how to use them. There are two basic mechanics that involve the cards.  A Yes/No or 50-50 draw (guess is the card drawn red or black), and then a card draw that reminds one of Blades in the Dark style rolls with bands of cards that represent failure, success with complication, and unqualified success with possibilities of great failures of amazing successes as well.

Character creation starts as it should, with an idea. The author included a bullet list of what questions to ask yourself as you build the character, then included things like Bonds, Values, and Omens on trackers on the game aids (more on these later). The skills are interesting. You start with eight, and get three at level two with the rest are level one. The skill list is quite large at 52 skills. To make things easier, they included character templates (something like character classes in other games), with name, description, and a smaller list of skills to help make it easier to focus your imagination. Each of the character templates is presented in a table, which is an interesting choice and makes it easier to quickly skim.

The skill list is also presented in table format and includes not only the skill name but the domain and the ability it uses, such as one-handed weapon and dexterity and strength. This is followed by a brief description of the skill itself. This part is really well thought out and makes it easy to read and understand. The skills are further separated into types, combat, social, utility and then the magic skills of Arcane, Esoteric and Innate. Abilities are separated into active or passive (Passive Abilities cost no resources and have a consistent singular effect, and Active Abilities cost a resource called Potential and have one-time or short-duration effects) and there are 40 examples of each. They end the character creation section with Character progression and how to advance your character.  This talks about what gets experience awards and how these are spent.

The following section discusses equipment, both purchased and crafted as well as rules for effects and hazards.  These are given in card modifiers, but are presented clearly and are easy to follow.  After that are the main rules for getting things done in the game including the combat rules.  One of the things I really like about this book and the presentation is the use of flowcharts to give the reader a sense of how play is supposed to go in a ‘new’ system.  It would be nice if more (and bigger) publishers did the same more often.

Finally, there’s a section for the Narrator that talks in more depth about how to run Aether.  It discusses which rules are the most important and which can be bent (or broken), breaks down the structure of a session and a campaign, and talks about narrative tools like cutscenes.  It talks about encounters as well as how to create monsters for the worlds you build using the system in a more free-form fashion than player character creation.  It also includes some random tables at the end that help a GM build an opponent quickly with random card draws.

One of the really nice things about this product that I have found in a few, but not nearly enough other games, is the use of good game aid packets.  The ones included here are simple but quite functional.  The character sheet is three pages but has enough room to have the information you need.  There is an encounter sheet, a nice front-and-back character cheatsheet (with commonly used rules), a campaign tracker, and extra stat blocks for the GM to use.  As I said, they’re not flashy, but the eye toward usability and good information collection is appreciated.

Critique

While I enjoy the flowcharts a lot, one of the things I would add are “fictional” examples of play, similar to what you might find in some of the other TTRPG rulebooks on the market.  Not only does this allow for flavor text, but it also offers a potential ability for demonstrative examples of GM and player thought processes as well as the mechanics of play in the form of “table talk”.  It’s something that I know has helped Josh wrap his head around new mechanics and games in the past.

The other thing I might have done is increase the number of examples given in the Narrator section based on the results of playtesting.  In other words, give some concrete description of situations that actually happened and how they were dealt with in-game.  Particularly if this is being marketed to new gamers, more examples never hurt, especially when trying to help gamers get over that first hurdle to being a GM – feeling like they don’t know the rules well enough.

Summary

Aether is a relatively new, independently developed TTRPG by Eric Dziver of Eldritch Crow Gaming.  It is designed as a mechanic that will allow you to play Fantasy RPGs with a particular emphasis on High Fantasy.  Using a card-based mechanic driven by a standard 52-card poker deck, Aether brings a couple of interesting things to the table.  While it still feels like it needs some refinement in the presentation, the mechanics seem solid on a read-through.  The game is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) 4.0 license so that it is easy for others to use this mechanic to drive their own creations.  If you are interested in learning and/or trying out unique game systems as we are, this is a fairly inexpensive option that can help scratch that itch.  Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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