Treasure Awaits uses a streamlined task resolutions system that will be immediately familiar to players of D&D 3.5 and quickly grokked by novice gamers: You roll a die, add an ability score (like fitness or reasoning), a relevant "pursuit" (meaning a skill, like swordfighting), and then compare the total to a difficulty. If your total is equal to or greater than the difficulty, you succeed. Layers of chrome, such as overkill and calamities, keep the system interesting, but never become complex.
Character creation is equally simple and elegant. You choose a Race (Human, Elf, Dwarf or Hobling) and Vocation (Rogue, Warrior or Wizard), then make a random roll for your Abilities (Awareness, Fitness and Reasoning) on a table determined by your choice of Vocation and Race. Rogues tend to be high in Awareness, Warriors in Fitness, and Wizards in Reasoning, giving the game a structured symmetry that is balanced and comprehensible. After you've got your Race, Vocation, and Abilities, a few more die rolls round out your available Pursuits, Weapons, Armor and Spells.
The degree of randomness in character generation is very high; it's almost as random as the infamous "roll 3d6 and pray" character generation in classic D&D. From the point of view of experienced 3.5 or 4e players, random character generation seems perverse - why can't you have exactly the character you want? But for a starter set, randomness is ideal. It eliminates the paralysis that comes from being forced to make choices when you don't understand the rules. And it encourages you to "try again" if you don't like what you rolled up the first time, helping you learn the rules through repetition.
After introducing you to task resolution and character creation, Treasure Awaits presents rules for traps, combat, poison, spells, scrolls, potions, creatures, direction (i.e. dungeonmastering) and dungeon creation. All of these rules share the same easy elegance of the core mechanic while capturing old-school flavor. Treasure Awaits is not a retro-clone of old school D&D; but it is definitely an homage to it, or perhaps is what Dungeons & Dragons would have been like, if it were designed in 2010.
Any mention of Treasure Awaits' mechanics would be incomplete without mentioning its brilliant Conflict Action Map system. Experienced gamers are familiar with the age-old dilemma involved in using miniatures for RPG combat. If you don't use miniatures, combat can be extremely hard to visualize, and everyone has to be able to keep the fact the Thief is sneaking around the flank, the Fighters are forming a shield wall by the door and the Orc with a wound is closest to the Wizard in their working memory. Unless you're a gaming savant, that's not easy. On the other hand, if you do use miniatures, you risk transforming your fluid imaginary battles into a game of counting spaces and measuring line of sight.
The Conflict Action Map charts a middle path. It's a notecard-sized battle grid with positions for Farthest, Closest, Sneaking, Behind, and The Enemy. In play, you simply place miniatures or counters to represent specific adventurers in their corresponding positions. The Conflict Action Map abstractly handles a lot of painful issues. For instance, who can use ranged combat? Characters that are Farthest from the enemy. Where do the Rogues go, when they are hiding in shadows? Move them to Sneaking if they succeed in their stealth check. Two successful stealth checks put them Behind the enemy, and eligible to backstab. It's simple and ingenious, and I intend to introduce it into my current D&D campaign at the first opportunity.
For novices, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits is a great game with fast, fun character generation and easy-to-learn play mechanics. For experienced players, it's an elegant system that leaves you nostalgic for classic dungeon crawls while still introducing innovative new mechanics. Either way, it's one of the best starter sets available on the market. Pick it up, and plan to pick up the rest of Ancient Odysseys when it releases, too.