Bodlar Danger Leben has launched a public beta of his Ascendant RPG. Right now you can download it for free from Ascendantrpg.com. The game has been in the works, off and on, for 8 years. The game was described to me as “genuinely modern” and “takes a lot of standard RPG mechanic ideas and turns them on their head”.
I had to check it out.
I was a bit surprised. I found an introductory story that didn’t pull any punches but also had a nearly-naked goddess chick roaming around, cosmic power-ups, plenty of twists but also some RPG stalwards like tables. So many tables.
I reached out to Bodlar with 5 direct questions as a way to try and tackle the game. Here’s how we got on.
Can you describe Ascendant RPG in just a few sentences?
Ascendant is what I call a Heavy Metal Fantasy RPG. Set in a post-fantasy-apocalypse world where the players are faced with a challenging environment. Due to the massively scalable rules system it remains challenging, intriguing, and difficult even up to the highest echelons of play.
The introductory story to Ascendant has magical rituals with guitars, dominatrix Goddess Death and sex slavery. I take it you’re going after a different market demographic than Dungeons & Dragons 5e?
Definitely, I’m writing the game with adult gamers in mind. I grew up Dungeon Mastering AD&D 2nd Edition, from the age of 11. Eventually also Game Mastering for games in the White Wolf and Palladium universes(among others). I’ve always preferred to play from behind the screen by building worlds, stories, and challenges for my players. Like the rest of the gamers from the early eras of AD&D I’ve grown up. While I’m a huge fan on Dungeons & Dragons it is a game designed to also be available to a younger audience. Don’t get me wrong, D&D is a pillar of the hobby and the reason I’m even into it at all. It has been an absolutely fantastic life altering game for me. I’ve enjoyed D&D as an adult, but still longed for something a little more grown up with better scalability. I enjoy using a little more adult flavor within my games. While, I’ve seen this attempted numerous times I feel like previous games have taken the whole “adult theme” thing too far. Focusing too heavily on sex or other adult ideas. Rather than making that a focal point I feel that some adult flavor spices things up a bit and makes the world seem a little more interesting. I think Game of Thrones is a great example of a fantasy epic that still mixes in just the right amount of adult content. I hope to keep Ascendant moving in a similar direction, at least in that regard. The game intro is just a taste of the full story. Which I am working on the first of several novels that will ultimately lead up to the point where where the game intro starts.
What does Ascendant do differently from other RPGs that helps it stand out?
The leveling system is a gated skill tree system with the “gates” being Ranks, of which most character skills have 10 levels per Rank. The game currently goes up to Rank 5, so a skill like “One Handed Weapon” has 50 total levels of progression. There’s an even bigger gate between Rank 2 and 3 when each of the starting 6 character archetypes must work up to picking, and buying into, a specialty class. All of the classes have access to a list of generic skills like “Health,” “Power,” or “Magic Defense.” Then within their class they have a set of specific skills to pick from. Most characters wind up leveling anywhere between 8 and 14 skills depending on the character and level of progression. The advantage of a leveling system like this is that the player gets full control of what they want more of every time they get experience points to spend. There’s also the ability to cross class into other skill trees as you level up, with some limitations of course.
20 Speciality classes! That’s right, Twenty. All of which have their own exciting and specific flavor. Since this is already getting long winded enough I’ll just mention Bards. They can kill things by just playing their Arcane Guitars. I feel like bards have been the “red headed step-child” of the RPG industry long enough. The one game that I feel really ever got them right was Everquest and wanted to go in a similar direction, with my own spin of course. Please don’t hate me for the video game reference! I take inspiration for Ascendant from a lot of sources, not just the pen and paper game world. Like Everquest’s Bards mine weave nasty area of effect short duration spells, but then I took it another step further. Why make them fumble around with swords then swap back to a guitar, and back to a sword? Forget that. Between slinging spells they can just hit monsters at a range with a magical attack from their Arcane Guitar – Kung Fu Hustle style! All of the classes are just as awesome and unique. You an see the other 19 speciality classes on my website www.ascendantrpg.com/classes.html.
Stat creation is not randomized. Everyone gets the same amount of points to distribute on character creation. In Ascendant, though, this is merely the beginning. Again going back to Generic Skills, any character can spend experience points to level any of the 7 stats in the game up with their experience points. Which allows for greater character scalability.
I’m really proud of the combat system. Which does away with randomized damage entirely. I fully understand and appreciate the ideology behind randomized damage. However, it seems to me one of the biggest points at which combat slows down. Between adventures the damage of your attacks almost always goes up a little bit, or even a lot, when leveling your character. When duking it out with several nasty monsters you simply roll your d20 for an attack, add your bonuses, and if you meet or beat their defense you hit. If you beat their defense by 10 or more you get a critical hit(doubling the attacks damage), and if you miss by 10 or more you fumble(giving the target a free counter attack). You tell the GM how much damage your attack does, or the GM can even keep a note of each character’s attacks to apply it himself. The other advantage of removing damage rolls is scalability.
One of the big limiting factors with your standard RPG is that in order to scale damage up you add more dice. While rolling 3, 5, or even 10+ dice for an attack seems really fun the first few times it starts to take a long time. Plus any time you add more dice to a roll you wind up flattening the damage curve on that ability anyway. So why not take that the next step and just flatten damage entirely? In Ascendant most characters start out hitting in single or lower double digits. A dagger might hit for 8 damage and a nuke spell for something between 20-30. By the time a character levels up to Rank 5 you have daggers that can hit for well over 100 damage and big nuke spells hitting between 400-600 damage. Who wants to roll enough dice for a 600 damage spell every time they attack? Ok, that might be cool once or twice, but it would become no fun really fast. The hit bonuses scale similarly from +5 or so, starting out, all the way up to +50 or more. Also, if you’re fighting something much higher than your character a natural 20 does not always guarantee a hit. Conversely if you are fighting something much weaker than you a natural 1 does not guarantee a miss or fumble.
Right now Ascendant is free to download. Do you plan on keeping it free?
All Ascendant source material will always be free to download. Internet culture and marketing has changed a lot about how published materials are spread and consumed. This makes the game accessible for anyone who wants to try it out, and if they decide they really like the game they can purchase a hard copy. I wouldn’t want someone to have to invest a ton of money into Ascendant to discover they don’t really enjoy it. Having to spend 100+ dollars on a game to play it before you even know you like it is asking a lot, especially for a new game. The standard publishing model is dying a slow and painful death, in my opinion. Ascendant is a modern game with modern ideas. I’ll be able to monetize the game in ways that genuinely add value to my players. Rather than the typical publishing model of “Oh, our players all bought the most recent editions of our books. We better make new ones so we can keep making money!” I plan on adding regularly to the source material, but you will never have to buy it unless you want to. It also frees me up to do new things with the game and expand on the current system. I can just keep scaling the game up the ladder to harder and more interesting challenges.
What’s next for Ascendant RPG?
I have a lot of extremely ambitious plans for Ascendant’s future. During the beta phase I just want to get all the holes and issues with the game resolved. I’ve done a ridiculous amount of math on spreadsheets to make sure things add up proportionately. However, with as many variables as a game like Ascendant has I need to just release it into the wild for feedback. I know there are still several rough edges to the game that I plan on refining, over the next 6 months or so, before we make it to a final release.
During and beyond the beta phase I’m creating an online character building program. One of the potential ways to monetize the game I’ve considered is creating a very low cost premium subscription that will allow you to store several characters to update and recall from within the character builder database online. Which you will be able to browse other character builds and share your own with your friends or other players on the forums. Along with the subscription service I plan on including a geolocation algorithm that will allow you to easily find other players and groups nearby without actually exposing your true location. Through this platform you’ll be able to participate in multi-group adventures or encounters. Or get together to pummel each other if your groups don’t get along nicely, all in good fun of course. I plan to launch a nationwide campaign that will have different objectives that require groups to get together to overcome. Which could be done via video conference or in person. I think it would be very exciting for several groups to get together to accomplish really big goals. Just remember the subscription will never be a requirement to play the game, but will add a greater level of value to a dedicated player that wants to dig into a larger community of players. That way I, and my future team of regional GMs, get some compensation for the countless hours that will be required to run such a campaign. That’s right, I will eventually be hiring a team of professional GMs to help run gigantic campaigns for the game. Want to GM a role playing game for a living? Start playing Ascendant because that is a future opportunity.
Another future plan includes a tournament system for both Player versus Player, and Player versus Monster games. Where you would compete against other players by fighting them or comparing how quickly or efficiently your team can accomplish a goal against another’s. All of which would be held at local game stores or conventions. With prizes ranging from bonus months of subscription time up to source material hard copies, swag, or even in the form of store credit.
Ascendant is going to eventually go all the way up to Rank 10, which will put players at an absurd nearly god-like level of power. Yet it will still be a challenge! Even beyond that, there will be a sequel to Ascendant which you will be able to transfer your Ascendant character to continue the saga. Your character will reach such an extreme level of power they will ascend to another plane of existence with a whole new level of mechanics and challenges.
Big campaigns, big community, and big scalability!