Mageblade! ZERO (OSR)
This game system clocks in at 32 pages, with the wrap-around cover provided as its own .png. If you take playtest thanks and editorial together, they’ll take up about half a page, and the character sheet provided similarly clocks in at about ½ a page. As a whole, one can claim that this has about 31 pages of content, which are laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5)-size, meaning you can fit up to 4 pages on a sheet of paper when printing this.
This review was requested by my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience.
Now, Mageblade Zero is a rules-lite system that could roughly be associated with the OSR games out there, but it deviates pretty far from retro-clone territory, being its own system. The core mechanics of the system would be to roll under attributes, but there is an interesting twist here: If you roll equal or under the value of the attribute with a d20, you succeed – so far, so common. However, where things become interesting, is when there is a competition or contested action. Here, the victor is NOT, as you might have expected, who rolls further below the target value of the attribute, but who gets closer to the target value; the less you manage to roll under the target value, the better. Now, one oversight here would be how stalemates are handled: I assume just rerolling, but alcrification would have been nice.
The game knows a total of 4 classes, and hits (hit points) are governed by these classes. Every character begins with a Mana value of 0.
The game also knows a kind of proficiency bonus – here, this is the Focus modifier, which starts at +3 and improves by +1 at 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th level. As you can glean from that progression, Mageblade! Zero scales up to 12 levels of character progression. The values to which Focus is added depends on the character class chosen.
All characters start with one Perk. Here, nomenclature is inconsistent – “Focus” is always capitalized, while “Perk” is not consistently – I’ll stick with the capitalized version for the purpose of this review. A second Perk is gained at 2nd level, and then once more at 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter.
Perks can be exchanged to either gain 2 Skills, or a class-specific ability. The game knows two skills based on Strength (Climbing and Feat of Strength), 2 based on Wisdom (Surgery, Mind over Body), 2 based on Constitution (Swim and Stamina) and the remaining attributes have 3 skills each: Intelligence governs Lockpick, Engineering and Research; Dexterity encapsulates Sneak, Acrobatics and Sneak Attack, and Charisma nets Bullshit, Gather Information and Diplomacy. Foreign, Dead or Esoteric languages are skills not associated with a given attribute. Dexterity-based skills are penalized by armor: -2 for medium, -4 for heavy armor. If you don’t have a skill, common tasks can be accomplished by rolling under 1/3 of the relevant stat. The GM is the final arbiter of what can or can’t be done via a Skill. Sneak Attack is remarkable, in that attacking a target unaware of you lets you roll both attack and the Sneak Attack skill roll. Even if you miss one of these, you still hit and do damage if you make one roll. If you make both, you roll damage twice and add the results together. This is elegant and rather cool. Like it! The other skills are pretty self-explanatory, but some guidance is still provided.
Now, each character also has a Melee and Missile rating. These determine how good you are at hurting people and begin at 12. Fighters add Focus to both. Both are sometimes collectively referred to as “attack” in rules-language – spelling that out explicitly would have made sense from a didactic perspective.
Each character also has a Defence value that begins at 0. Light armor and shields net Defence 2 each, medium armor Defence 4, heavy armor Defence 6.
Now, as pretty much always, you roll attributes, which are known as Stats in Mageblade! Zero. You roll 3d6 and assign the values. If you favor a tad bit more complexity, there is an optional rule, which makes the values here matter more: Values of 7 or less impose a -1 penalty, 13 – 15 net +1, and anything higher +2. Note that this means different things for all attributes and is NOT applied to skill checks! If you’re coming from a PF or 5e background to this game, then this is something to bear in mind. Strength modifies Melee and Missile damage, Dexterity Missile, “Defense” (inconsistent here, since the version with a “c” is what the pdf usually refers to) and Initiative. Intelligence modifies perks and spells gained. Wisdom modifies the Mana point total. Constitution governs Hits. Charisma governs Luck. (More on Luck later.)
Fighters get d10 and may use all armors; they increase the damage die size of any weapon they wield by one step. Weird: Other classes explicitly specify when they can use shields (see mageblade), but the fighter RAW does not say so, which RAW means that they may not. Really odd oversight. They may spend Perks to learn a wide variety of combat stances, which may be combined, at the GM’s discretion. The class-write-up provides quite a few of interesting combat stances that allow for meaningful differentiation between fighters: Take, for example, -5 to attack for 1 extra attack. As a minor nitpick, I do think that specifying that the penalty applies to the extra attack as well might make sense – it’s clear from context, but it may be read otherwise. There are a few such instances throughout the book, where being slightly more explicit in the precise details may make sense and improve readability of the book.
Rogues get d6 for hits and have a daily allocation of Luck equal to their Focus and may spend Luck on any roll affecting them, including enemy’s rolls. Luck and Mana are, in some ways, similar. While nominally, the rogue has 0 Mana. Mana and Luck replenish at sunset and one may spend a Mana or Luck to reroll a Save you failed or force other rerolls, if the referee deems that applicable. Luck, however, cannot be used to power spells. Rogues get a free Skill and get three Skills per Perk spent. Additionally, they can use a Perk to become masters in a respective skill, spending half cost in Luck or Mana for the Skill chosen. This means that the first reroll is free, with subsequent rerolls costing 1 (2nd and 3rd reroll) or 2 mana (4th and 5th reroll), respectively. This increased cost for subsequent rerolls is only ever noted in this particular Perk, when it should be explicitly stated in the general rules for pushing your luck. Rogues may use all weapons and armor.
Casters get d6 hits, and targets of the caster’s spells take a penalty equal to the spells known by the caster of a single discipline, rewarding specialization. This penalty cannot exceed the caster’s Focus. Now, as you could glean, each spell is associated with a so-called discipline, basically the mage’s school. It takes a Perk to learn a new discipline. Casters begin play with 3 spells, and each spell may be cast exactly once per day. To cast a spell, the caster must spend 1 mana point and make strange noises and gestures. Casters get +2 spells chosen from the disciplines known or scrolls and grimoires on every level. Casters start with a mana value of 1, and when meditating on an item, they understand its magics. Casters may channel mana into a magical attack. This does not necessitate mana expenditure, and deals 1d6 damage (explodes on a 6) + Focus. Now, veterans will know what “explodes on a 6” means, but the pdf fails to explain what exploding dice are. (If you’re puzzled: If you roll the maximum on the die, you roll again and add the results together.) In any way, the notion of exploding dice should be explained here. Victims of such an attack may save on constitution or dexterity to halve the damage. The caster may also spend 1 mana if close to an ally to shield one target per level from spell effects. Okay, can this be done when it’s not the caster’s turn? How close does the ally have to be? This is pretty opaque. Casters may use all weapons, but not any armor.
We get 3 sample disciplines with short spell write-ups for each – in case you were wondering: Yep, the spellcasting engine is pretty similar to that of Adventure Fantasy Game. The level of precision of the spells, however, does oscillate and vary rather greatly. The Æther Path’s kataplasm spell, for example, greases a tightly-defined area with precise borders, while Psychomancy’s dust of the sandman spell covers “a small area” – whatever that’s supposed to mean in game terms. Before you’re asking – no, this does not concisely define what’s “nearby” etc. Regarding rules-precision, there are quite a few instances where some more stringent and tighter codifications would have made sense, even for a rules-lite game. The fourth discipline, surprisingly, does not grant spells per se; instead the Jevnacack Praxis basically provides a Vancian tweak to overcome the 1/day spell limit and the requirement to know a discipline. I like this example of how the concept can tweak the playing experience.
Finally, there would be the eponymous mageblade class, which receives d8 for hits and gains Focus on all saves. Additionally, they can spend 1 Mana to add Focus to the athame’s melee attacks. The athame would be the bound ritual blade of the class, with damage depending on size. Athames also store the mageblade’s mana, and if lost, bonding to a new one takes a month. The blademagic Perk allows the mageblade to 1/round when wielding the athame, spend one mana to activate a variety of benefits, which include adding Focus, attacking 3 enemies or make the athame take flight. This does not specify how far it can float per round. Doubling damage based on type is also available, but it’s weird: This one implies that the banes need to learned separately, when the blademagic Perk does not specify as such. So, is only one blademagic gained per taking of the Perk, or does the mageblade get all of them? Each order has a list of available banes, but since the Perk lists the option for additional ones, does this mean you could spend a Perk to gain another order’s bane? Or does this mean that these are the sole banes available for taking via Perks? No idea. Mageblades may also cast devotions, their spell equivalent. They begin play with one devotion, but additional devotions require taking a Perk. These devotions are granted by membership in an order – the class does not classify whether membership in an order locks the mageblade out of other orders or not. I assume so, based on the rules material present (or lack thereof), but the similarity of orders and caster disciplines means that this may not be intended. Mageblades may use weapons, armor and shields. 2 sample orders are presented alongside their respective devotions. These, once more, are sometimes rather lacking in precision. A coiled snake will coil around the mageblade, and attack anyone attacking the mageblade in melee. Okay. How? How much damage? Why not at-range? Can it be killed?
Beyond basic starting equipment, 5 starting packages of equipment are provided, as are guidelines for mundane equipment, and the pdf provides a couple of equipment pieces regarding arms and armor – enough to extrapolate new equipment and price it. Another inconsistency here is that the equipment implies differentiation between damage types, which is something I do enjoy; however, the remainder of the pdf does not make this distinction. Similarly, the pdf is inconsistent with damage notation, sometimes just providing a damage value, sometimes referencing wounds, which implies a difference between them or individual injury tracking, which the rules RAW do not support.
Okay, so how does combat work? For initiative, roll 1d6, with rogues getting +1. Combatants act from highest to lowest value, with ties decided by level first, then, if still tied, the PC goes first. PCs may delay their action, acting at a lower initiative number. Since this RAW does not change initiative, you could act twice in a short time. Not a fan there.
During a round, a character gets one action: Move closer to the enemy (by how much?), attack, retreat (how far), cast a spell, etc. Hitting an enemy requires a roll under Melee or Missile, and this roll must also exceed the target’s Defence value. This is pretty interesting and something I enjoy. Damage ranges from d4 to d8 in base damage, with the fighter increasing damage by one step, up to d10 for two-handed weapons. The game does not specify what happens if a target gets to 0 hits, leaving that up to the referee. Saves are pretty basic and explained in a tight manner. Apart from the movement ambiguity, this section is solid.
The pdf also includes a couple of adventure locales with abbreviated stats for targets, and there is a quick table to generate NPCs etc. on the fly. 6 sample magic items are provided. A night of rest regains Focus hits, +1 if a character with Surgery is available. The pdf does note overland movement, traps and secret doors, and no, magic bonuses do not stack. The pdf concludes with some nice notes to hack the engine for your own games, which was something I very much enjoyed seeing.
Editing and formatting on a formal language are good – I did notice a couple of inconsistencies and typos, though. On a rules-language level, Mageblade! Zero has some ways to go. Its precision oscillates greatly, and rules-concepts are not always where they should be. A general rule should not require extrapolation from a class feature, and terminology should be concisely explained in a consistent manner. If you’re not a veteran or require precise rules, then be warned. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard without interior artworks. Utterly no-frills and decent, but not exactly aesthetically pleasing. Utterly annoying: The pdf does not have bookmarks, which is, particularly for a rules-booklet, a pretty big comfort detriment these days.
Paolo Greco’s “Mgeablade Zero!” is an interesting game that offers quite a few really cool ideas in how they gel together; the core mechanic is intriguing, and there are quite a few decisions in the class design and the Perk/Skill-system I very much enjoy. Mageblade Zero! manages to create a rules-lite game with meaningful differentiations between characters of one class, and even offers a degree of meaningful tactics and some player agenda during character growth. I really, really enjoy this, and there is a LOT about this game that I really love.
HOWEVER, this *is* the ZERO-edition, and more so than e.g. Macchiato Monsters , it really feels like a ZERO-version, a playable BETA-version. There are a lot of minor hiccups and gratingly byzantine decisions regarding the presentation sequence of rules, and their precision, something just as important for rules-lite games as for more rules-heavy ones, still leaves quite a lot to be desired, including some core aspects of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, though: You can use this system if you have some gaming experience and you can have fun with it. In fact, I think Mageblade’s ZERO-edition is already more rewarding and fun than either of the playstyles supported by Adventure Fantasy Game. It’s elegant and simply more fun. In fact, Mageblade! has the potential to evolve into my favorite rules-lite game; it offers simplicity and choice, and it may be taught within minutes. This game has the potential to become a 5 star + seal of approval game, but as written, in its current iteration, I can’t go higher than 3.5 stars, rounded down, for this game.
You can get this game here on OBS!