Legends of Avallen is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game based on Celtic Britain after the Romans had moved in. Legends of Avallen is set on the island of Avallen and, although full options are available to play as one of the Roman-inspired Raxians, I think it will be more common to play as one of the Briton-inspired locals, the Vallic. Characters start out as fairly ordinary folks, with mundane professions and average abilities. But then they will be set on a quest, undertake a path of adventure, and (if they live long enough) become legends in their own rights, taking up the burdens of heroism, and shaping the future of Avallen.
Legends of Avallen has been released to Kickstarter backers (disclaimer: I was a Kickstarter backer) in PDF format, with physical books still in progress. I presume it will be available to the public soon-ish. It’s about 250 pages and full color.
Avallen has a very Welsh feel to me because Wales is (along with Cornwall), roughly speaking, the part of Great Britain that was conquered by the Romans but was not later conquered by the Saxons, who brought with them a whole different set of mythologies. But the Britons were the indigenous people of central and southern Great Britain, and their myths still had a heavy influence on the people who would one day be English. That most notably includes the tales of King Arthur/Arthur Pendragon (a.k.a., Pen Draig). Avallen, after all, is basically just a different spelling of Avalon (a.k.a. Ynys Afallon, the Isle of Apples).
Avallen was not a unified place before the coming of the Raxians, and significant regional difference remain between Vallic clans and the extent to which the Raxians have become part of the daily life of their territories. Each area, its people, their favored gods, and possible mystical entanglements are described in Avallen, although not in extensive detail (the book is 249 pages, not some 400-page beast).
Characters in a game of Avallen might search for the lost, escort village elders, protect their town, be awakened to the hidden world around them, fend off bandits, investigate unknown supernatural phenomena, defeat hostile creatures, parlay with mortals or fae, find objects with magical properties, fight spriggan or baobhan sith, run away from draig, venerate ancient gods, achieve harmony with nature, master ritual spells, or accidentally make their way into the Otherworld (Annwn).
Overall, Legends of Avallen provides a distinctive mechanical system that meshes well with its setting, and is well worth checking out.
The Core Mechanic
Avallen eschews dice in favor of a card-based resolution system. Tasks have a difficulty assigned by the GM. The player draws cards from a standard 52-card deck (there’s a custom deck with Avallen art, but mechanically it’s a standard deck, just with thematic pictures). By default it’s one card, but there may be advantages of disadvantages inherent in the situation (the environment, equipment being used, etc.). These can cancel each other out, but a character draws extra cards equal to the excess, whether that excess is advantages or disadvantages. An advantaged character draws extra cards and then chooses the best. A disadvantaged character draws extra cards and then chooses the worst. The four suits and the four character attributes line up so that two are physical and two are mental, while two are about brute force and the other two about speed/subtlety. So, for example, attempting a task that requires Vigour (physical brute force) lines up with the suit of hearts. If the chosen card matches the attribute color (red/black), the character gets +1 to the attribute for the action. If it matches the exact suit, it’s +2. These bonuses are doubled if the chosen card is a face card (Jack/Queen/King/Ace). These bonuses become penalties if it’s the wrong color/suit. The modified attribute is then compared to the difficulty.
Some results (notably including any failure) will earn a character an “edge.” A character’s edge (they can only ever have one) can be used to gain advantage on a later check.
Characters can Exert to change a failure into a success (or can exert/break an appropriate piece of equipment). Being exerted has no inherent penalty for a character, but it means that this ‘auto-success’ can only be used once until the character is able to recover from the exertion.
Character Creation and Advancement
Starting characters in Avallen are, mechanically, fairly close to ‘normal’ folk. At this stage characters may be heavily reliant on the edge and exerting themselves to achieve success, rather than starting out with high levels of skill or power.
As noted above, characters in Avallen have four attributes. These are Vigour, Agility, Spirit, and Wit. A character’s starting ability spread is +1/0/0/-1. Which attribute gets the bonus and penalty will likely be driven by the character’s profession and intended class.
Characters in Avallen have a starting profession, which at this stage grants a single ability, as well as access to the basic items needed for that profession (e.g., a bard is assumed to have an instrument). Characters also start with a few coins. They may purchase other equipment as the game goes on, or may use “supply” for items (e.g., spend one supply to have a rope in your possession when you take a prisoner you need to tie up). Supply is a generic concept that represents the unspecified ‘stuff’ a character has around; it is also used to fuel some abilities. The professions are alchemist, bard, crafter, merchant, priest, scavenger, scribe, socialite, tamer, and thief.
Characters also have a motivation, a virtue, and a flaw. In addition to being descriptive of the character, these may have a mechanical effect by being an advantage or disadvantage in social situations.
Characters advance a level after they have completed two quests (but gaining either a new ability or attribute increase after every quest). A quest can take as long as the GM chooses, although it looks like the target is 1-2 sessions per quest, depending on quest complexity. These abilities come not only from their profession, but also a class and a legendary path. A class is earned quickly, at level 2. While a profession represents who the character was as a ‘normal’ person, their class is a broad category representing their preferred method of conflict resolution – warrior, reaver, mage, and mystic. Each class has five ‘schools,’ which simply means three related abilities to choose from. For example, a character who started as a crafter and then became a warrior might choose the crafter’s Invent ability, the Great-Weapon school’s Tremendous Blow ability, or the Guardian’s school’s Counterstrike ability. For the warrior and reaver, these schools are basically fighting styles (wrestling, archery, two-weapon, etc.). For the mage and mystic they are akin to spell schools (blood, sigil, lunar, psychic, etc.).
Legendary Paths come into play relatively quickly as well, at level 5 (no waiting until double digits to begin your real legend). Each legendary path has trials to overcome, oaths to keep, three more abilities to select, and a capstone “mastery” ability at level 15 (where the scale ends). For example, a druid may swear an oath to never sleep indoors and gains shapeshifting options. Legendary Paths are restricted by class – four of the ten limit entry to one class, while the other six provide two options. The ten Legendary Paths are Druid, Fae Touched, Fili (a magic bard), Gladiator, Magister, Maleficus (dark mage), Primus (military leader), Slayer, Swyn-Pict (magic warriors),and Teulu (bodyguard).
As a character advances through levels, they also advance through tiers of play – apprentice, adventurer, veteran, hero, legend. This represents scope of play – the quests of apprentices may only affect small communities, while the quests of heroes may impact multiple regions of Avallen. But tier also tracks Character Arc – Resolve, Descent, Transformation, and Recognition. Depending on where the character is in their Arc, they will gain Burdens and Resolve in different ways, interacting with their virtue and flaw.
A review isn’t the best place to go through the details of the mechanics available in a game, but I think that the sorts of actions available in a game, and the sort of detail/complexity used in different aspects, says something about how the game will play, so I’ll go over them briefly here. After the general rules, there are short chapters for combat, spells, journeys, socializing, and wealth/equipment.
One distinctive mechanics is fate cards. Fate cards come into play when the characters tempt fate – when they’re on the clock, or when every round poses the risk of something going awry. The GM sets aside one card face down each round. If characters make things worse, the GM may add a card. If the characters do something to ease tension or reduce risk, the GM may discard a card. When the fourth fate card comes out, the GM reveals the four cards. Around half the time this will create a complication for the characters, with the suits of the cards indicating what sort of complication it is.
In addition to becoming exerted, characters can gain other conditions – overwhelmed, charmed, terrified, enraged, exhausted, sick, and withering. Or, of course, wounded and dying. Most of these conditions have checkboxes on the character sheet – they come up somewhat routinely as a consequence of social or physical actions, rather then being rarities compared to plain old wounds.
In addition to basic conflict resolution, Avallen has opposed checks, the ability to help or hinder other characters, stealth, and chases. Movement and time are broken down as needed for the scope of the scene. Overland journeys have significantly more detail than combat movement, with the characters picking journey roles (guide, scout, gatherer, lookout), choosing a pace, and tempting fate. Each of the four roles specializes in one of the four attributes, so it benefits the characters to be distinctive and able to work together to supplement each other. Social mechanics focus around the parley – trying to get an NPC to do what you want. This requires characters to address the objections the NPC may have or offer them incentives, using skill tests depending on the characters’ approach. Success must be achieved before the NPC runes out of Patience. Depending on the NPC, characters’ motivations, virtues, and flaws may be an advantage or disadvantage in these pursuits.
In combat, there’s no equivalent of an ‘initiative roll’ – the characters essentially pick what order they will go in. Characters get one action per round – move, attack, cast a spell, help/hinder, protect another, or interact with something in the environment. Characters can get extra movement if they succeed on an Agility check, or push an enemy while moving if they succeed at a Vigour check. For a standard attack, hitting uses Agility while damage uses Vigour, but bunches of weapon categories modify this (and spells are another ball of wax). In general, an attack either Wounds or it does not. Defense is based on Vigour and Armour – if there’s enough defense, there’s no effect from the attack. The attacker then gains an Edge to help get critical successes later on to enhance damage. Combat factors considered include grappling and ambushing. Combat isn’t particularly complicated, but strategy and the options available matter – just randomly attacking superior foes typically won’t get the job done. Instead, characters need to work together in combat, especially through use of help actions.
Spells can be flexible, but also risky, as there are penalties for failing spell rolls. Casting complex spells may require assistance, such as time-consuming rituals and magical foci, to succeed.
Economy in Avallen is fairly standard, with the typical ‘each type is coin is worth 10x what the prior kind was.’ However, Avallen explicitly disclaims tracking whatever counts as a ‘cheap’ expense for the characters. So, for example, a character with silver and gold is assumed to have pocket change to take care of any expense priced in copper. Other than weapons and armor, however, there is no detailed gear list. Prices are based instead of general categories, like minutes of a service (a tip for a bard’s song), medium objects (a profession kit), or expertise required (healing). This is partially because supply is used to represent the particular objects that the characters happen to have on hand – they then just pay a standard price to replenish supply when next in town. Weapons are delineated, but mostly straightforward, with progressively larger/more expensive weapons in the slashing, piercing, crushing, and ranged categories.
Legends of Avallen gets a thumbs-up from me. I like the setting and I like how it mixes the familiar and the distinctive. It isn’t the same old fantasy, but it isn’t asking me to learn a completely different – it’s about setting a tone and a mood, not digesting a new bestiary of playable species. I haven’t played at the higher tier levels, but I like the way that Avallen manages to start the characters out as fairly normal folks without making them seem horrible. This is partly due to the mechanical system, which places a lot of emphasis on teamwork and how the edge can make most things feel like failing forward (sure, you screwed it up this time, but next round you’ll be able to pile up advantages and get it right). I like just that it has its own mechanical system. I like Dungeons & Dragons 5E and I like Powered by the Apocalypse, but not every single game needs to be a 5E conversion or PBTA. And it’s a fun mechanical system. I was skeptical at first of the card-based system (not for any real reason; just because I’m used to dice for TTRPGs), but it works, and it works in a way that encourages a certain style of play (teamwork, applicability of personality traits, paying attention to the environment). The experience system will also allow more epic tales relatively quickly, as the game focuses on completely discrete quests instead of awarding experience for defeating particular enemies.
I only have my PDF copy at present, so I can’t speak to the physical construction of the book. The PDF is overall well-assembled. Layout, graphic design, and editing looked good – there weren’t any big goofs, which is better than I’ve seen in some major publisher releases lately.
The art is a overall good, but with some downsides that are, I suspect, driven by the realities of the budget of an indie RPG. The two-page spreads at the opening of each chapter are great, with a hazy, variable focus that gives the art a distinctive feel and otherworldly quality. The smaller illustrations in this style, such as the professions/classes/legendary paths, are great as well. However, some of the art assets are nice for what they are, but a bit quirky. Many of the illustrations are obviously serving double-duty as art for the custom playing card deck, so they have the double-headed style you see on many face cards. These feel odd as book illustrations, and they’re also in a much different style from the other illustrations (they do look good on the playing cards). The maps for the included initial quest were made with an online map generator and look like they’re made of sprites like a cRPG from decades ago (this might look great if the theme of this game was 8-bit adventures, but it feels out of place here). They’re fully functional, but some extra budget to hire a illustrator/cartographer would have been made these look a lot better (there was an illustrator brought in just to do the map of Avallen, and it looks great).
If you’re looking for a new twist on fantasy that can readily take characters from humble to legendary, I think Legends of Avallen is worth a look.
Promotional consideration would have been provided in the form of a review copy, but it didn’t have to be because I had backed Legends of Avallen on Kickstarter. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this review.