Fantasy Imperium Review
By George Anderson
I’ve recently encountered a very interesting new RPG published by Shadowstar Games
called Fantasy Imperium and I’d like to share my impressions with you.
First, let me establish that I am not affiliated with Shadowstar Games, nor have I been
compensated by them in any way. The book I am reviewing is the copy that I purchased
online for my personal use. My credits in the gaming industry include consulting work on
US Militaries, World Militaries, and Battlegrounds for AEG. I assisted in the
development of version 3 of the Advanced Tobruk System and am co-developer of an
upcoming American Civil War title to be published by Critical Hit. I have been playing
RPG’s for about 30 years, give or take a few months in there somewhere, and wargames
a bit longer than that.
My first impression on receiving the book was “WOW! This thing is huge!” Indeed, what
arrived in the mail was a monster hardbound book packing in at over 430 pages! That is a
good deal for the $34.95 cover price. So, what do you get for the money? Fantasy
Imperium is a hardbound book. The binding is stitched and so far has been very sturdy. It
definitely looks like this book was meant to survive many game sessions! The book is
liberally filled with illustrations, though they are all black and white. I don’t find this to
be a problem, as the art is all suited to its placement within the book and makes the point.
My guess is that color art would have driven the price on a volume this weighty up and
pushed it out of the reach of most gamers. The rest of the layout is fairly plain, with the
text changing very little in style. This does not mean that each section isn’t clearly called
out, they are – it’s just that there is not a lot of variety in the text. The font used is very
readable – no endless sea of words to become lost in, and in my copy the print was very
What’s in the book? The book consists of 17 chapters which take up about 242 of the
pages; the rest being taken up by 7 appendixes, a comprehensive index, character sheets
and a bibliography. I’d like to note there is some heavy reading in that bibliography,
especially in the theology section – its clear the author did his homework! Lets do a quick
run through on the different sections of the book:
- Chapter 1: Characters. This is where the bones of the character are generated:
Characteristics, skill points and other derived abilities. Characterstics, and skills for that
matter, are based on a 1 – 100 scale.
- Chapter 2: Skills and Professions. Characters are expected to have a profession and this
chapter guides them on how to acquire skills in that profession. At the most basic level, a
skill check is a d100 roll, succeeding on a roll less than the skill value. There are over 90
skills here, not counting combat and “forbidden” skills.
- Chapter 3: Combat. This is where we are taught how to fight. The book suggests placing
at least one good action scene in every story. In combat one basically goes in initiative
order, taking either an attack or defense. The target is allowed to take an action
immediately using his turn for the round, usually this would be a defence, but he could
choose to attack, which would take place after his attackers, if he is still able. Round are
clocked in 2 second increments. An attack generally involves trying to land a blow, the
target trying to defend, looking up the hit location, generating damage, determining the
wound type then applying its effects. This can involve several chart lookups which is
something many of the younger RPG generation are probably not accustomed to.
Combat actions are very detailed with elaborate lists on maneuvers one could perform
depending on their fighting style. For example, the eye poke. Need I say more?
- Chapter 4: Movement and Fatigue. Yes, all that traveling and spell casting can make one
- Chapter 5: Injuries and Death. Characters track wounds and total hits lost. Characters get
shocked (resulting in a penalty to actions) and stunned from blows in addition to taking a
wound if it penetrates armor. Be aware that a nasty blow to the head will kill a character,
no matter what his hit balance may be! One interesting item of note here is the morale
check an opponent has to make if he injures you and you shrug off the stun!
- Chapter 6: Morale and Healing. Characters must pass a morale check (essentially how
brave they are) the first time they encounter something particularly terrifying. Characters
track healing by the wound and different kinds of wounds heal at different rates,
depending on the quality of medical care provided. A broken bone is not to be trifled with!
- Chapter 7: Fighting Styles and Tactics. Everyone has a fighting style. This determines
what maneuvers the character is allowed to choose from in battle. The fighting styles are
Single Handed, Two-handed weapon, Weapon and Shield, Florentine, Polearm (nasty!),
Flails, Left-handed opponents, and Ambidexterity. There are also shield combat
techniques and a variety of unarmed techniques including wrestling and streetfighting.
Firearms are also discussed in this chapter.
- Chapter 8: Spiritual Warfare. Oh yes, by the way, it’s not just the living that would like you
for lunch! This chapter discusses subjects such as possession, spiritual attacks,
blessings, the power of prayer among other lofty topics. Religion is always a delicate
subject and the author handles it well here – presenting it in its historical context for the
purpose of simulating the reality of that time.
- Chapter 9: Fate and Magic. This is where the GM makes the character’s life a little
interesting, with fate being both good and bad. Just don’t run out. This is also where the
forbidden arts, magic are discussed. In this context magic is very powerful, but very
dangerous to it wielders. Learning a new spell is not an easy task, but once learned a
spell can be cast over and over again, well until you fall over from exhaustion or you
attract the attention of something very nasty.
- Chapters 10 – 13: These chapters list spells and the differences in the various magical
arts: Ceremonial (Alchymy, Conjuration, Ritualism, Spritualism), Natural (Deceiver,
Elementalism, Enchantment, Sorcery), Extrasensory (Mysticism, Psychic, Seer,
Talismanic), and Black Magick.
- Chapter 14: Time and Money. This chapter is a discussion of historical currencies, the
cost of living, and lists of stuff. Coinage is Pounds, Shillings and Pence.
- Chapter 15: Weapons. This is a very long list of weapons statistics. The only problem I
had here was that there was no explanation provided for the abbreviations used in the
- Chapter 16: Armor and Shields. This is another very exhaustive list of stuff. This one is
very well done, listing the periods which each item was in use.
- Chapter 17: Mythical Races. Statistics for generating Centaurs, Elves, Dwarves, Half-
Elves, Halflings, and Gnomes.
- Appendix A: Spell Lists
- Appendix B: Weapons. This section contains a drawing of every single weapon in the
game, including siege weapons!
- Appendix C: Armour. This section contains a drawing of every individual (yes, individual
piece) piece and part of armor in the game.
- Appendix D: Suits of Armour. If the previous appendix wasn’t enough, this section puts
them all together for you in stats and illustration.
- Appendix E: A Witness of 1121 AD. This provides an overview of the period in history,
useful for folks wanting to run campaigns in that era.
- Appendix F: A Witness of 1348 A.D. Same as Appendix E, except for 1328.
- Appendix G: Reference Charts. All the charts, actions, techniques, and procedures in the
book neatly put together for easy finding.
All of that is followed by an Index, Bibliography and character sheets that should be easily copied
due to their simple layout.
Fantasy Imperium touts itself not as an RPG, but as an Interactive Storytelling Game (ISG). For
us old timers, I think that is mostly a matter of semantics, since I’ve been playing games where
the story is the thing for a very long time. The game harkens back to the old days of 1st Edition
AD&D and its contemporaries, where players did not make a search roll to search a room, but
actually described what their characters were doing. They involved themselves in the story. The
mechanics also a reminiscent of the “old days” in that in combat more than one chart reference is
usually necessary. The game also claims it is not about hack and slay, or kill and loot, but about
participation in a story, and the character creation process does reflect this in the types of
questions players must answer about their characters, very much like the Deliria RPG in some
ways. The problem here, is that is about where the ISG story approach ends, not because the
author isn’t supporting it, but because the book is actually a Players Handbook. The story telling
help, monsters, etc. are yet to come in a later volume. This is where I believe we will see the
distinction between the authors’s claim his game being an ISG whereas many contemporary
games are merely RPG’s. Based on my experience, other games I would put in the same
category because of their focus on story and teaching GM’s the story elements include: Torg
(WEG), Deliria (Laughing Pan Productions), early Vampire (White Wolf), and Call of the Cthulhu
(Chaosium). I am not saying there are not others, and I strongly believe storytelling in role-playing
is up to the gaming group and their particular style and interests, however, there are games that
spend considerable ink trying to teach storytelling techniques in their core (many games have
published optional supplements for this very purpose, a very good one for Star Wars comes to
mind, but I am talking about the core book/s of the game), and those are what I am listing. Yes,
Fantasy Imperium could easily be used for hack and slay, just like D&D could be used for good
epic story telling – but the point is, the games are designed around a different core principal, each
valid and appealing to their particular niche. My only problem with Fantasy Imperium in this
regard is that it is incomplete on its own, though the strong website support does help to alleviate
that somewhat. What is missing is the Storytellers Guide, and it is hard to judge Fantasy
Imperium in regards to its ISG claims without it. I do think they are off to a good start, and with the
low price point of the first book, its not unreasonable for a group to get its hands on one copy of
the Storytellers Guide once it becomes available.
Okay, so how does this boil down? I’ll try and categorize some of my thoughts and impressions in
a quick bullet list. The categories are: WOW (should be obvious what this means), Positives,
Negatives, and HUH? (meaning, what the heck was the author thinking! YUK!).
- The book is big, hardbound, sturdy, and not that expensive!
- The whole war between Heaven and Hell is cleverly handled here, and made very much
a part of the game, as it was in pre-modern life. I’ve yet to see a game NOT about angels
and demons handle it this well (I like In Nomine). You really can fight the devil and his
warlock minions here all the while being thwarted by Mother Church!
- The rules are fairly solid.
- The text seems well edited, not a lot of the Q&A issues I’ve seen with other publishers
- Exhaustive list of options. Come on, “eye poke”? You just gotta love it, right along with
“sand in the face”!
- The author was not concerned about being politically correct, and just told it like it is (or
was). He did not insult my intelligence, and has let me decide for myself. He was not
afraid to take a stand in his text, but at the same time, did not tell me what is right or
wrong, except as far as what it means in the context of the game.
- I know this isn’t part of the book – but the web support is outstanding. The game is
strongly supported and if the company follows through on the announced adventure
books, the game will have a very strong support base that other more established
companies should find embarrassing.
- There is an option to generate female characters slightly different than males. They
actually come out with more bonuses! Not PC, but men and women are different
physically – I mean, isn’t it obvious?
- Weapons and armor illustrations. This is just exhaustive!
- Lots of flexibility in the magick system. We don’t have levels and memorization. We learn
the spell, and now, are we capable of handling the energies that the casting entails?
- Experience advancement. In this system, a player spends an experience point to make a
roll against the skill he wants to raise. If he fails, he gets to add to his skill. In other words,
the worse you are at something, the more you have to learn from experience while the
better you are at it, the longer it takes to get anywhere further, and the less you learn
from each experience. In other words, if I play chess against someone better than me, I
am likely to learn more from the experience than he is. He will learn something, but I will
probably get more out of it. This is a lot like Chaosium’s BRP system, but with points
instead of checkmarks (though I think the BRP system could easily work).
- No advice on how to use this to create your own fantasy world.
- This is only half the product and the book doesn’t really tell us that.
- It would have been nice to see a sample character created. This is fairly standard now,
and it is very helpful to have an example character creation walkthrough.
- I don’t like the mechanic of typing a character to his profession after the game starts. I
think it’s an okay option, but what about when the first story is the life changing event that
brings the characters together? They’re no longer practicing a profession yet are required
to expend 75% of experience points on their chosen profession’s skills.
- Use of magick is evil, therefore might attract demons. That’s okay for historic earth
settings, but what about my own setting. Perhaps I want to recreate the Denyri setting,
where Psychic power was considered Heresy and was illegal, and while it could be
dangerous to weild, it certainly was not inherently evil and definitely did not attract
demons. The game could use an alternate table to use for spell mishaps when the GM is
running a setting in which magick might not be such a bad thing. This mechanic actually
is a thorn in the side of good storytelling because it sets a very harsh setting limit on the
- Multiple chart lookups could be annoying to some groups. For my regular gaming group it
will be a problem. For the solo games that I play with my wife, this is not an issue at all.
- There is more to learn before playing your first game. While I think combat will flow a bit
faster than GURPS 4th Ed., I also think its is a little bit more complex in the routines you
have to follow.
HUH? What the heck was he thinking???
- The abbreviations on the weapons tables are not explained. What is that about?
Overall, I think this book is a worthwhile addition to my library and I look forward to starting a solo
game for my wife with it. I think this game is uniquely suited to solo play, and while I think it will
work well with a group, I do think more effort is required. I believe the crown of the Fantasy
Imperium game will be with the Storytellers Guide, and if its anything like what the author has
announced, then that book alone will be a must have for any storytelling style-GM’s library. I think
this is a good game, and I hope to get in on a session or two on my next trip to ORIGINS.
RPGnet Review #12537 [Fantasy Imperium]