Long before Baldur’s Gate 3 was breaking records and introducing people to the world of Dungeons & Dragons, long before Neverwinter Nights was my own introduction to the world of D&D, I was a little kid, sitting on the floor, absolutely delighted at Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, and that is how I discovered my love of Japanese RPGs (JRPGs).
Since then, I’ve played a lot of JRPGs, from Final Fantasy to Star Ocean to the Tales Of games, and they’ve informed how I both play and run TTRPGs – story tropes, set pieces, world building, all of it is influenced by JRPGs for me.
Last year, I came across Fabula Ultima, a game calling itself a tabletop JRPG (TTJRPG). Me being, well, me, I had to check it out, and immediately I could tell just how much the author loves JRPGs. Fabula Ultima is a love letter to the genre in TTRPG form, and even better, it’s so good that even people who don’t love JRPGs will enjoy playing.
First, the setting is intentionally left pretty open, with the core rulebook giving some guidance for three broad possibilities – High Fantasy, Natural Fantasy, and Techno Fantasy. Each of these settings includes some suggestions, such as locations, a bit about how magic works, and some information about what kind of antagonists are common to each setting, and these three settings are enough to cover the majority of JRPG-inspired campaigns.
A TTRPG isn’t much without good mechanics though, and the mechanics in Fabula Ultima provide a solid basis for the game. The Clocks mechanic provides a simple, intuitive way to track the progression of something happening in the world, and the Bonds mechanic makes the relationships a character has with the people and world around them more meaningful by giving those relationships mechanical value. Even magic in Fabula Ultima is lifted directly from JRPGs – instead of spell slots or similar, you have MP, and magic, along with some other types of powerful skills, pull from your MP pool, giving you a different kind of strategic depth while being easier to understand and manage.
My two favorite gameplay mechanics, though, are Inventory Points (IP) and Fabula Points. IP is a replenishable resource that players use to essentially pull an item out of thin air – a healing salve, a magic tent, an elemental shard, alchemical concoctions, whatever item you want to use, you can produce it so long as you have enough IP. Fabula Points can be spent by players to alter a scene to their advantage – altering or adding story elements, invoking a bond, or even some extra-powerful skills require Fabula Points.
Where Fabula Ultima really shines, though, is in the character creation and progression. If you’re familiar with the mix-and-match job system from some JRPGs, you’ve pretty much already got it.
The core rulebook for Fabula Ultima includes fifteen classes, such as the Fury, Tinkerer, Rogue, Elementalist, and Guardian. Each class gets a special bonus to something – a Free Benefit – such as a permanent IP or MP increase. On top of that, each class has a number of skills that you buy when you level up that class. These skills all have their uses, but one of the key aspects is that there are more skills available than you can buy before you reach the maximum level of 10 for each class, creating a lot of choices for interesting builds.
Fabula Ultima is designed in large part around finding new and interesting ways to combine classes. From the very start of the game, you’re combining two or three of the classes together to make your own character unique, and as your character grows, they’ll reach level 10 in a class and “Master” it, giving you a Heroic Skill – something that is well worth mastering a class, such as the ability to attack twice with bows or speeding up rituals – and leaving you room to pick up another class and find ways to weave those new benefits into your character, and the process repeats.
As just one final point of adoration from me, the books themselves are, plainly, gorgeous. There is character art for each class, the typesetting is beautiful, and the information is laid out in a way that makes it easy to follow along and find what you need.
I can’t recommend Fabula Ultima enough. The core rulebook came out in 2022, and I have been waiting very impatiently for the next books. I’ve been subsisting on the free supplemental materials they’ve released for Halloween, April Fools, and so on, in the meantime. The Fabula Ultima Atlas: High Fantasy book, with four new classes, new optional rules, more information about the High Fantasy setting, and new equipment, just came out, and it’s a joy in its own right.
Want to check out Fabula Ultima? Get PRESS START, the free quickstart guide!