I am a big fan of dark fantasy genre RPG games, stories, and whatever media you can provide. I love the macabre and gothic storytelling, Vampire the Masquerade was one of my first introductions into an RPG setting that really brought out the dark fantasy allure out of me. Over the years, I have seen various incarnations of dark fantasy with diverse cultural and social tones from the traditional American noir to cyberpunk fantasy and even the dark ages (You haven’t lived until you played Vampire’s Dark Ages setting).
Back in 2015, I recalled passing by a Kickstarter featuring a new RPG system that not only was dark fantasy inspired by Slavic horror but utilized an impressive storytelling system called Awaken.
A few years later, the Awaken RPG launches a new Kickstarter featuring a new region and expands the worldbuilding with the cities and regions beyond civilization, which you can find more information here.
The Awaken RPG system utilizes a d6 dice pool system along with a narrative method that incentivizes players to take the reigns with the narrative.
A Broken World and the Return of the Gifted
In the setting of Awaken, players assume the roles of powerful beings called Vasalli, ordinary humans who are granted extraordinary gifts and through these powers, the Vasalli have been granted social prestige. The world of Awaken takes place on the Continent, a landmass under the united control of the Alliance of the Great Cities, but before that, the Continent was a place full of wars and endless strife. Five great sovereign dominions emerged from the once nomadic tribes, before the Vasalli, these five powers constantly warred with each other.
Besides the Great Cities, the rise of the Church of Azimoth is the agency or institution that rallies and culls the Vasalli to their ranks. You have a variety of religious factions and sects within this church which provides ample narrative hooks and works well with their recent expansion, The Blood of Salvora.
Beyond the tantalizing splendors of civilization, vile creatures stalk the landscape and below. You have giant Colossi, which are transformed Vasalli who endured a painful transformation ritual. These creatures were once used as weapons, created by the various Great Cities, but once they broke the shackles of control, they began destroying themselves but not their creators. Though very few remain in the world now. From the tallest and mightest, the Vargans are creatures of the dark underground that have caused considerable casualties to humanity. Vargans are sensitive to light and were discovered at the time a magical resourced called “resin” was also found.
Creating your Awakened Character & Mechanics
The overall character sheet provided for Awaken is designed to house all the relevant modifiers and stats necessary to reference and play the game. The system provides a general questionnaire to help players formulate aspects of their characters’ backstories before moving on to filling their sheets. The game utilizes three primary Attributes split between Sociality, Intellect, and Physicality by using ranks to express the degree of a character’s aptitude qualitatively.
Awaken implements a Skills-based Dice Pool system, wherein Skills are an additional factor to general a larger dice pool. Success on die rolls is determined with any die resulting in a 5 or 6. Additional degrees of success can be implemented to reflect the difficulty of a task or action. If you’re familiar with other Dice Pool systems such as World of Darkness, Shadowrun, or Lasers & Feelings; you will feel right at home with Awaken.
What separates Awaken many other RPG systems has to do with their narrative “Picture Rule,” which is designed to help players actively engage in the story. I personally love this idea, it makes the gameplay feel less reactionary and implements a more cooperative storytelling experience with the players taking narrative agency. The Picture Rule is not only some “rule of cool” implementation, but one that garners an incentive bonus for players in the form of extra die for rolls based on the degree of detail & creativity (to be determined by the Narrator).
Awaken also provides a list of possible “actions” that characters can take during the game by listing various combinations to help smoothly determine tasks for the Narrator and Players to utilize.
Players have access to special powers called Gifts, which are distinguished by four trees: Body, Mind, Illusion, and Reality. Each ability has their own ranks and during play, utilizing a gift requires a Gift roll. Unsuccessful rolls need a Corruption check, an unfortunate result may lead to Corruption coursing through the Vasalli. During the game, as an Awakened uses their gifts, there are opportunities for corruption to accumulate and weaken the character.
Combat utilizes the familiar dice pool system, BUT players must allocate and distribute their die based on whether to use their allotted amount for offense or defense. It’s encouraged that a playgroup uses two sets of colored d6 die to help distinguish each die and their respective purpose. Additionally, encounters are resolved through four phases: Declaration, Maneuver, Engagement, and Resolution. There is no semblance of an “initiative” system, it’s generally left to the playgroup how they wish to establish an order for each character’s actions but generally, all of the characters act at the same time. The Declaration phase is where players decide on their character’s intent. The Maneuver Phase is an odd part of the combat system wherein characters can use Gifts, and weapons attacks take place in the Engagement phase instead. Mainly, the Maneuver Phase is designed to allow characters to interact with an enemy that isn’t an attack or maybe even interact with the environment even. Engagement is where most attacks are resolved, players allocate some dice from their pool for offensive or defensive die rolls. Most of the Resolution Phase is where players count their success to determine damage. The phase separation helps Narrators create a flow for their combat narratives while allowing players from feeling overwhelmed with their variety of options. I believe once players and Narrators become adjusted to the combat system, it will feel less cumbersome compared to the way it’s written. It’s clearly written, but it just feels elaborate, from an aesthetic preference.
It’s NOT Dark Fantasy without Creepy Monsters & Schemes
One of the things I enjoyed from the Awaken rulebook has to be the Vargan Codex they include in Chapter 10. It’s a great piece of written lore that can be printed and handed to players at some point in the story should they deal with the Vargan threat often. It doesn’t feel like a technical manual in the way some RPG rulebooks would be expected and genuinely feels like a piece of the narrative that can be implemented whenever the Narrator needs it.
The number of foes and enemies are enough for short campaigns but thankfully the upcoming Kickstarter, Awaken: the Blood of Salvora will include more enemies to flesh out the setting more. There are ideas, and the overall impression of dark fantasy is present but in softer tones compared to settings or RPG systems you would expect writers to be heavy-handed. This should be a narrative/design choice and perhaps something to help introduce players into the setting as opposed to being frontloaded with too many options. The book is not a lightweight, sitting at around 215 pages but it begs to wonder if perhaps it the system could’ve implemented more lore specific foes. The atmosphere of the political and religious clashes and intrigues will certainly help greatly provide some entertaining games full of mystery and revelations with an occasional tone of horror tossed in with the Vargan.
Overall, Awaken RPG does a great job servicing a dice-pool mechanic system that was not overly cumbersome in its overall comprehension but still provided a considerable amount of customization (or depth) in their Skill specialization system and Gift trees. Combat resolution, as written, seems to be quick while implementing their Picture Rule to grant players narrative creativity. The Picture Rule is phenomenal, and while meta-intensive, grants and promotes storytelling agency to the players to become a collaborative effort. The lore for Awaken is vibrant, the visuals and art are stunning, full of details with unique dynamics and relationships between the various factions present. Serving a six-sided die system also improves the accessibility of the game, requiring less investment in polyhedral or specialty dice. I would have liked more enemy types and possibly a dash more of the horror element in this original portion of the game, but that’s just a personal preference.
Definitely, Awaken is worth checking out and exploring this very unique culturally inspired setting, the mechanics are overall smooth and grant plenty of room for depth but isn’t abrasive for new players.
Awaken RPG can be found here.
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