A woman in a meadow with butterflies.

Today is a good day, for I bring news of an excellent game. Anima Prime* is a roleplaying game from way back in 2011, designed by Christian Griffen and produced by Berengad Games. Its stated goal is to emulate the high-action, wuxia-inspired style of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it delivers. This game is worth your money, but no doubt you’re a discerning customer and wish to know exactly why. I’m happy to tell you.

The Core Dice Mechanic Does Its Job

After several systems that seem intent on reinventing the wheel, it’s nice to find a designer who knows how to use what already exists. All rolls are made using a pool of d6s, with three and up considered a success. More difficult tasks will require more successes. On some rolls, sixes give a special result, but it’s always intuitive and isn’t distracting.

You might recognize that this is a basic core die mechanic. It creates a solid probability curve, without the too common extremes of a single d20. The designers don’t try to sell you any proprietary dice, or have one die set apart from the others without reason, or make you go looking for matching combinations. What’s more, the rules are clear about when the margin of success matters and when it doesn’t. This stands out because many systems waffle back and forth about whether or not the margin of success is important.

Anima Prime’s core dice mechanic doesn’t have any unnecessary flash. It uses a tried and tested method, so you can get on with playing the game. One thing does set this mechanic apart, though. While many games talk about building a pool of dice, they usually mean taking a static value on your character sheet and rolling that many dice. In Anima Prime, you actually do build a pool of dice, drawing from several reserves, depending on how much effort your character is putting into their task. This means that players are much more active participants in their characters’ dice rolling, which adds some welcome depth.   

Character Creation Is Fast and Efficient

Anima Prime isn’t quite a rules-light game, but it is definitely streamlined, especially in character creation. First, you decide on your character’s motivating passion. This is what drives them in the face of adversity. It might not be the only thing they care about, but it’s certainly the most important. In Avatar, Aang’s passion would be doubt, Toph’s would be glory, and Zuko’s would probably be anger. The passion you choose gives the GM a flag for what kind of stories you’re interested in.

Passions also have important mechanical effects, handing out bonuses in the game’s meta currency when you act on them. The list of passions is unfortunately short, but on the bright side, they’re fairly straightforward, and it isn’t difficult to make new ones. I’ve created two in my current campaign with only a few minutes of thought, and they’ve worked fine.

Skills and traits both work to flavor how your character does things. Skills are more abstract than most systems and are so broad in their use that players don’t need to spend any time agonizing over which skills will be useful in the game. In fact, players can make up their own skills if they imagine their characters with abilities that aren’t currently represented.

The real meat of character creation is in selecting powers. These are varied and specific enough that new players may encounter some analysis paralysis. Fortunately, the game provides several pre-selected packages for new players. Alternatively, you can run new players through a demo conflict using pre-made characters. This is a great way for players to learn how the powers work, so they wont have any trouble choosing their own.

For particularly advanced players, summoning presents an even deeper experience. A summoner must choose not only their own powers but also the powers of every spirit they have on call. The summoning rules present enough complexity to satisfy all but the most ardent power gamers.

The Scene Setting Rules Aren’t Obtrusive

Scene setting rules are always tricky. They can facilitate storytelling, like in Primetime Adventures, or they can bring the game to a screeching halt, like in Burning Empires. Fortunately, Anima Prime is more like the former. Its scene setting rules don’t yank control away from the GM. Instead, they empower players to create their own story, should they have the desire to do so.

Scenes are divided into character scenes and conflict scenes. Character scenes can be very dramatic, with PCs debating the issues that matter most or backflipping across a cyberpunk metropolis, but they involve no dice. Dice only come out when someone important enough to have stats steps up in opposition. At that point, it becomes a conflict scene. Outside of a conflict scene, players are allowed to describe any feats that make sense for their characters, though the GM retains veto power over anything truly outrageous.*

However, character scenes do play an important mechanical purpose. They allow PCs to recover after a conflict. This can be a literal recovery, with a character spending time in the hospital to take care of a nasty sword wound, or something metaphorical. If a PC’s dice pools are dangerously low after taking on their hated rival, a scene spent in meaningful reflection will get them back up to fighting trim in no time. This is a wonderful incentive for combat-focused players to stretch their roleplaying muscles for a change.

One quirk of Anima Prime’s scene rules is that they give explicit permission for scenes to take place in flashback form. While this is technically permissible in most games, I’ve rarely seen it used. In my current campaign, the callout has been very helpful, as it makes players more confident in establishing the setup for their actions.

Conflict Is Sublime

I have a confession: I rarely use combat anymore. Even in systems I like,* the extended conflict rules feel like a boring waste of time. I try to resolve everything with a single roll and move on.

Anima Prime changed my mind. Its conflict system is nearly everything I could have asked for. First, player choice matters. That’s perhaps the biggest pitfall other systems encounter. In many games, the most optimal choice is obvious, and players need only repeat it until the fight or argument is over. Anima Prime presents just enough valid choices to keep things interesting without subjecting the players to analysis paralysis.

Combat in Anima Prime has a natural cycle of buildup and conclusion. PCs don’t just go straight for the attack. Instead, they build up their pools of dice with maneuvers. In Avatar, this is when Toph performs an earthbending kata and covers herself in rock armor or when Aang picks up speed on his air ball. Only when players have properly marshaled their resources do they launch an actual strike. Physically moving around handfuls of dice into their proper pools is very satisfying, as is unleashing your ultimate storm-strike of doom!

If the PCs want to do something besides hit their enemies, they may do so with achievements. These are goals created by players or the GM that have a dramatically interesting effect. The effect can be mechanical, such as exposing a weakness in a giant robot’s armor, or pure story, like stopping a runaway train full of orphans. Achievements can be used for just about anything, and they are especially useful for the strange requests PCs love to make: “Sure, I guess you can turn on all the TVs at high volume to distract the enemy. We’ll call that a difficulty four achievement.”

Earning an achievement requires the same kind of dice marshaling as attacking an enemy, so it’s just as tactical and exciting. With achievements, you can even simulate conflicts without any combat at all. Just put out a number of escalating achievements, and let the players loose. At a royal ball, the PCs must first charm their way past the guards and then ingratiate themselves with an influential courtier before they’ll be allowed to see the monarch. Achievements also work for smaller conflicts. If two characters are wrestling for a McGuffin, just throw down a single achievement, and whoever gets it first is the winner.

The biggest downside of Anima Prime’s combat is that it takes more work on the GM’s part than a system like Mouse Guard or Torchbearer. You can’t just jot down a few skills for the villain; you have to think out their abilities, weaknesses, and allies. It’s a challenge, but the results are well worth it.

A Few Things Could Be Improved

Despite all my praise, Anima Prime isn’t perfect. For one thing, it would really help if more powers interacted with achievements instead of only being useful for attacking enemies. While the achievement system is great, an encounter that’s heavy on achievements will leave some players feeling their powers were a waste of points.

Something else Anima Prime lacks is a robust advancement system. With the rules as written, the only way for characters to show increased capabilities is to gain new powers every once in a while. That’s not terrible, but it isn’t super satisfying either, because a character can only have so many powers before new ones become redundant. For longer campaigns especially, a more meaningful way to benefit from experience would be appreciated.

Fortunately, Anima Prime’s flaws don’t obstruct how much fun it is to play. It strikes a beautiful balance between narrative and mechanics, so you can tell a great story while still having the satisfaction of taking down a really hard boss. The game is worth your money, and who knows, if enough of us buy it, maybe they’ll make a second edition and fix the few existing problems.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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