Thursday, October 11, 2012

Retro Phaze RPG Review

A few months ago I reviewed "The Supercrew" by Tobias Radesäter. I began that review by saying: I believe that good things come in small packages. Along those same lines, the latest game to grab my attention is another example of gaming greatness packaged in only a handful of pages. Let's call this the second in a series of my "Great Games in Small Packages" reviews.

Retro Phaze by John Higgins is an old-school game with a unique flavor that I believe worthy of special mention and more than a little praise. But I very nearly gave it a miss, and that would have been a tragedy.

The cover of Retro Phaze boasts: "Eight-Bit Fantasy Role-Playing" which put me in mind of the games, "Super Console" and "8-Bit Dungeon" which certainly have their charms, but which I feel cater to a very focused and select audience and are limited in scope by the nature of their designs.

My brain immediately relegated "Retro-Phaze" to this same category and but for the fact that Lulu has the PDF version of the game available for free, things might have ended there. But, as the PDF was freely available and I had been browsing around for something to read, I went ahead and gave Retro Phaze a look.

Forget the cover and the "Eight-Bit Fantasy" tag-line for a moment. What struck me about RP as I began flipping through its pages is that it is a very complete and well reasoned OSR Game. Not a clone, but an original interpretation of the first RPG, and a good one ... a very good one.

RP's source of inspiration does not limit it, it elevates it. I liken Retro Phaze to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. LotFP makes changes to the first RPG in order to streamline clarify and re-imagine the system into the best that it can be. The changes that are made keep its setting, "weird fantasy" in mind while staying true to the playability and spirit of the original rules set.

Retro Phaze does the same: new ideas, streamlined rules, and a complete package that stays true to the "old school" while serving its setting ... in this case, not "weird fantasy" but classic JRPG's like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.

Probably the biggest departure in RP from the original rules is an adaptation of the entire system from d20 to the d6. Some may balk at this change, but I was frankly amazed at the elegance with which it is accomplished. I have seen other house-rules that "convert" d20 systems to d6 ... But none of them are as clean and as natural as what I see here. I am a huge fan of the d6, and Retro Phaze proves that you can do OSR just fine without the d20.

Another big change is that Retro Phaze uses a set of four base attributes combining the effects of Strength and Constitution, keeping only Strength. And merging Wisdom and Charisma into a new attribute: Willpower. I like this consolidation as it makes these attributes more important. This change works well in combination with the new die mechanic and it shows that RP isn't tied to legacy mechanics just for the sake of them. Everything serves the system.

There are four races and four classes, culled from the old-school but sprinkled with JRPG flavor. There's the races of Man, Elf, Dwarf and Hob and the classes of Fighter, Monk, Wizard and Rogue. These can be chosen in any combination and they should feel familiar to any old-school player.

The classes do a few new things and I should mention that the Rogue is not a thief class, but rather a ranged combat specialist. RP does have a simple but very functional skill system that would enable someone so inclined to shape their Rogue into a Thief class easily if that's what they wanted.

Also new is optional 'upgrades' at 10th level that allow a Fighter to become a Paladin or a Rogue to become a Ranger. This diversity is a nice addition; it adds a new richness but feels both very old-school and very JRPG at the same time.

The game includes spell and monster lists taken from the game's JRPG inspirations. These are simple and concise. I especially liked the explanations for 'range' and 'spread' that help to define the scope of effect for every spell. All descriptions are minimized reducing the number of pages the game needs to do this job substantially in the process. There are a healthy number of spells and creatures and the game doesn't feel "lite" or incomplete in any way.

The game reminds me a bit of Dungeonslayers (3.5 ver.) in the way it manages to create a complete RPG package as concisely as possible. But, I find Retro Phaze's rules and mechanics to be more accessible, more familiar and more friendly than Dungeonslayers.

Game play itself is pure old-school. RP doesn't try to emulate the game play of an 8-bit RPG the way that Super Console does, and this is a blessing. When playing one of the classic console JRPG's one might think, "It would be so cool to play this as a tabletop adventure ..." that's what RP does.

To me games like Super Console that try to emulate the mechanics of a console's gameplay at the tabletop won't give you that. They work more in the reverse. If you are running your OSR group through an old-school dungeon crawl and you find yourself thinking, "This would make a cool console game ..." that, is what Super Console does. If that's what you want, cool. But, if you want to incorporate all the best tropes of the classic JRPG into your OSR game, then Retro Phaze was made for you.

In the last pages there are a generous number of example magic items and some examples of campaigns and styles of play inspired by early console RPG 's. There's even mention of using RP for a campaign set among the stars, and I could see RP working for that very well.

If you just want a very good, very clean, very complete old-school experience that uses a d6 and does everything that the best that the OSR can do, and does it in only 32 pages, Retro Phaze is for you. It's certainly for me, and since you can download the PDF for free from Lulu, what's holding you up? Give Retro Phaze a look.

On the negative side, RP is not what I would call a very pretty book. The art that has been 'pixelated' to create that 8-bit feel adds nothing very useful to the game's presentation. And as I said, I almost passed over the game all together, based strictly on "first impressions." I am very happy that I didn't. This is compounded by the fact that I didn't find any reviews for Retro Phaze with a cursory Google search. It seems that Retro Phaze has been sadly overlooked.

It would be nice if Retro Phaze could get a facelift. I would lose the "8-Bit" graphics for ones that emphasize the "J" in the JRPG aspects of those same inspirations, using anime style graphics to enforce the same feel. This change in presentation could improve Retro Phaze's visibility without changing a word of its text. And improved visibility for Retro Phaze would make me very happy, because quite frankly, it's awesome!

OSR Friendly original game mechanics.
Uses D6 exclusively for greater accessibility.
Spells, Monsters, Magic Items, Races, Classes, Campaign Settings.
OSR Compatible Skill System!
Handles it's premise (JRPG Console Games) well.
Flexible enough for any OSR Fantasy style campaign.
Complete RPG in only 32 pages!!

No Character Sheet or Sample Adventure.
Presentation would benefit from a facelift.

Nothing Else ... Really!
Retro Phaze is just about perfect!

PS - I bought a print on demand copy of Retro Phaze. If you like what you see, encourage the game's author by doing the same.


Jeff Moore

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Very cool. Just gave it a brief read-through, and it does indeed look good. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. Agreed. A great complete game, very concise and very playable, but in need of a serious make over and some decent art.