You might say there are two types of rules-light games. There are those that give you the basic essentials you need to run and play a game--the briefest of outlines, so to speak. Then there are those that manage to remain simple and easy to use, but still manage to give robust support to the Game Master, and an excellent outline for creativity and expansion.
It is precisely because BareBones Fantasy falls into the latter, more elusive category that I can happily recommend it to gamers.
BareBones Fantasy (aka BBF) is by DwD Studios, and comes to you by some of the names responsible for the continued support and revival of the old Star Frontiers RPG. Fittingly enough, the rules borrow some of the conventions of that game, albeit in a neatly presented and updated format.
Let's start with the basics. This 82-page dynamo uses a roll-under percentile system, with doubles (44, 77, etc.) being treated as critical successes or failures, depending on if the roll is under or over the target number. 00-05 is always a success on a reasonable attempt, and a 95-99 always fails.
BareBones has 4 stats, or Abilities, which can either be rolled randomly or assigned via point buy. Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Logic (LOG), and Will (WIL), should be self-explanatory for most any gamer. These Abilities are used for checks (STR check to lift things, resist poison; DEX to jump out of the way of something, etc.), and also play an important part in class/skill, as we're about to see.
There are the 4 basic fantasy races in here (though I understand a supplement with additional races is forthcoming)--Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. Each of these races gets a bonus to one Ability, and a few other add-ons as well.
A brief word on magic: there are only 17 spells in this game, which might seem like a small amount, but the spells can be customized based on desired effect. For example, the Charm spell can be used not only to magically win folks over to your side, but also to drop them into a deep sleep, intimidate them into fleeing in fear, and so on. A Spellcasting roll is required to cast--and that's the danger to the caster really, the specter of a critical failure. A lucky caster can sling spells all day long--there's no worries of Mana or Spells Per Day here.
From there, you pick out equipment from the provided list, and then derive a couple of secondary stats--your starting Body Points (yep, Hit Points), your Initiative, your Damage Reduction (adjusted by your armor choice), and your Movement (how many spaces you can move in a turn). It's all quite quick and painless.
For a rules-light game, there are some cool aspects of rounding out your character. The Alignment code reminds me of Pendragon, with players defining their character as Somewhat/Very/Totally Kind or Cruel, Focused or Unfocused, Selfless or Selfish, Honorable or Deceitful, and Brave or Cowardly. The player also specifies two Descriptors, one negative ("Drinks too much") and one positive ("Well-mannered") to further flesh out the character. I also appreciate the step-by-step examples and inclusion of sample character to help character creation along. It's all ridiculously simple, but it's still a nice, reassuring sort of feature.
Perhaps the biggest positive takeaway for me on character generation is how you can have an interesting hybrid sort of character without having a be-all and end-all sort of supreme "special snowflake". You can have a character that wears heavy armor and can still Spellcast, but he'd better have a high enough Strength to pull it off. And if you throw all your points in making that work, you're going to kick butt, yet you'll still have your weak areas. Players should have a lot of fun diversifying their characters and find the right balance between specialization, and the siren call of being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
There aren't many pages (barely two) spent explaining the basic mechanics, mainly because a) they're simple, and b) the author, one Mr. Larry Moore (along with co-designer Mr. Bill Logan), has a wonderful penchant for explaining things in a clear, succinct matter. There's a brief description of Contested Rolls between characters, Resistance checks (which are the same as doing an Ability check), and a few words on healing, and then we're ready for combat.
The combat section is short and sweet. First you roll initiative. If you have an initiative rating of 2, you roll 2d10s and pick the best d10 roll of the two. (A bit off the beaten path, but fun). Then you attack, trying to roll under either your Warrior (Melee) or Warrior (Ranged) skill. Your opponent can try to Dodge, using a DEX check. If you hit, you roll damage for your weapon, taking into account any armor worn by your foe and subtracting its rating from the total.
If you want to act more than once in a round, each additional action has a -20% penalty. So, you can try to tumble across the spiked floor, throw your dagger at the high priest, punch the guard square in the jaw, and then Dodge when he tries to headbutt you on his turn, but your chances of success grow dimmer the later in the sequence an action is. Being roll-under percentile, there's always at least a chance of success, but you're also in trouble if you get too carried away.
Leveling up is a matter of earning Development Points (DPs). There's a checklist in here for the Game Master, to reward. DPs are granted each session if the character plays to alignment and descriptors, if they are an active participant, for completing in-game goals, etc. You can spend them on bumping up Skills, learning new languages, or increasing Abilities.
Now, many rules-light RPGs might stop there. If all BareBones did was present a rules-light system, throw in a few monsters and some generic GM advice and call it quits, it would still be an attractive gaming option. But where BareBones Fantasy thrives is in making this light game feel well-supported and full of options and good material.
There's the section on magic items, and magic item creation. There are charts and tables--in abundance, I should say. For the chart-o-phile as well as the harried GM, this game has you covered. There are charts for adventure creations, charts for dungeon creation. There are treasure charts, magic item tables, and even a fun one for alternate rewards--how about a noble title or deific blessing, if your quest was epic enough?
The best part is, none of the above feels hand-wavey or an afterthought. This game is easy, true, but that does not mean it doesn't give the Game Master tons of toys to play with.
A long list of magic items, a very stripped-down, "broad brushstrokes" setting (Keranak Kingdoms, which also has a book all its own), a bestiary, a glossary, and the all-important index round this work out. It's amazing just how much is in this book. I've read 200-page RPGs that offer less and are more impenetrable in doing so. If you want to talk about top page count value, this one just might be it.
If I've heard one complaint, it's that the monster section is too short--there are about 45 creatures presented--but that is mitigated somewhat by a template system to make your own baddies. It's quick, it's smart, and it works. Really, a lot of the game supports tinkering, whether you like running games right out of the box, or tweaking them until they're juuuuust right, BBF has you covered.
Presentation of the product is logical, orderly, with clear writing and a well-considered layout. If you were going to give a clinic on how to present an RPG, you could do far worse than to start here. I have no doubt other RPGs offer much of what BareBones does, but BBF just makes it all so concise and straightforward. Mr. Moore and company should be congratulated for what is an all-too-rare feat in gaming on that account.
BareBones Fantasy is available in both pdf and softcover from RPGNow, and I would recommend gamers looking for a smart, rules-light fantasy RPG that manages to be different, clever, and surprisingly thorough start here. I've seen it mentioned in the same breath as neoclassical and Old School Renaissance rulesets, and I suppose there's something to it, given this game's lineage. Yet I think pigeonholing it as such would be a disservice to the game, as it occupies its own ground somewhere in the middle. I've used it with Keep On The Borderlands, but I daresay a group raised on Pathfinder looking for something lighter would find just as much utility here, as well.
This game should appeal to groups without the time to chew through 400-page rulebooks, those who want something light yet robust, fans of good percentile-based systems, and even novice gamers just jumping into a system. I plan on running my 8 year-old daughter through a game of BBF quite soon, and I doubt she'll have any issues with it. For parents, I'd recommend checking into this one, too.
I'm not one to always trust reviews from any site trying to sell me stuff, but BareBones has over 20+ reviews on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG, and they're almost all wildly positive. In this instance, they're right on the money. So is BareBones Fantasy when it comes to delivering a lot of smart fantasy gaming at a good price. Consider this an enthusiastic endorsement of the product, start to finish, and one of the few 10/10s I've ever handed out.