Issue #31, June 2016
ISSN 2206-4907 (Online)
The Old School Revolution
Interview with Ken St. Andre … Reviews of Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Backswords & Bucklers… Papers and Paychecks Designer's Notes … The Green Isles for D&D … Tunnels & Trolls Bestiary … RuneQuest Skill Quality … Dreamscape for Labyrinth Lord … The Thing with Dragons … John Carter RPG Playtest … Retro Computer Games … Pride and Prejudice with Zombies … and much more!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Administrivia, Coop News, Letters, Editorial many contributors p2-5
Interview with Ken St. Andre with Ken St. Andre p6-9
O.S.R RPG Reviews by Lev Lafayette p10-16
Papers and Paychecks Designer's Notes by Lev Lafayette p17-18
Backswords and Bucklers by Andrew Daborn p19-22
The Green Isles for D&D by Karl Brown p23-28
Tunnels and Trolls Bestiary H-O by Karl Brown p29-34
RuneQuest Skill Quality Results by Ian Bordhart p35
Hackmaster Experiences by Paul Smith and friends p36-44
Dreamscape: A Plane for Labyrinth Lord by Nicolas Moll p45-48
D&D: The Thing with Dragons by Ursula Vernon p49-52
John Carter RPG Playtest by Martin Plowman p53-57
Computer RPGS OSR by Andrew Pam p58-60
Pride and Prejudice with Zombies by Andrew Moshos p61-63
Next Issue: TSR Games by many people p64
RPG Review is a quarterly online magazine which will be available in print version at some stage. All material remains copyright to the authors except for the reprinting as noted in the first sentence. Contact the author for the relevant license that they wish to apply. Cover image is Michael Cole after a Karl Brown described his character's next action. Photograph by Karl Brown, demotivational poster and text by Allan Hoffman. Various trademarks and images have been used in this magazine of review and criticism. Use of trademarks etc are for fair use and review purposes and are not a challenge to trademarks or copyrights. This includes Dungeons & Dragons by TSR, WotC, and Hasbro, Castles and Crusades by Troll Lord Games, Labyrinth Lord by Goblinoid Games, Tunnels & Trolls by Flying Buffalo, John Carter RPG Modiphius Entertainment. Pride and Prejudice with Zombies distributed by Lionsgate and Screen Gems. Thanks to Karl Brown for spotting the John Batten artwork.
Editorial and Letters
RPG Review Cooperative News
The RPG Review Cooperative has had another good several weeks since our last journal report. The newsletter, Crux Australi, and our monthly movie nights for those based where our Association is founded. We continue to operate our Github for design, operate an online store for members to sell their surplus gaming items, and advertise a dozen existing game sessions organised by members. Following donations by several members, our library is seeing some use now. With our ISSN the journal is now part of the Australian National Library archives, and with the purchase of a bulk of ISBNs we're now in the (cooperative) publishing business as well.
A social occasion (and training) with the Melbourne Swordplay Guild (the directory of the Guild is a new member of the Cooperative) was a fascinating evening out and taught us a great deal about one of the games reviewed here – Backswords and Bucklers.
big issue we want to promote between now and the next issue is our
inaugural publication (Papers and Paychecks), which will feature
cover-art from RPG artist Dan “Smif” Smith, famous for his work
with GURPS third edition and associated supplements. Dan has also his
own product coming out and we're making every effort to promote it as
Battle of the Bands is, an all ages, fun, "screw you" type card/dice game for 2-6 players. (with expansions, up to 10 players!) Start your band and destroy your opponents onstage! (And win, if you need to do that sort of
Letter; Philosophical Zombies of Eclipse Phase
I myself was unaware of Eclipse Phase RPG, the premise is outstanding, it pushes a key issue of role-playing experience to a whole brave new world (one, as that of the novel, simultaneously stimulating and horrific). It remembers me of the Theseus ship paradox. From my side I'm inclined to believe that the continuity of identity over different consciences or bodies is a issue to be determined in a case by case basis; when the new conscience remembers everything that her original knew until the moment of death, from a materialist point of view the identity or individual should be considered one and the same; on the other hand, when a backup is used and the new consciences know nothing about a lot the has happened to the original in a significant period of time, from the same point of view the identity or individual cleraly should not be considered the one and the same with the original - an undead as yourself put it, we could say. There are other ways to see/resolve the issue. For instance, up to date philosophy is unable to affirm if, even from one instants to another, for sure, an individual remains the same, given that in each passing moment he is, if not completely, at least practically or a little different...
Fábio Romeiro Gullo, Sao Paulo, Brazil
There are many ways to interpret the problem of consciousness in Eclipse Phase. As it is written it assumes a degree of relatively problem free transference of consciousness between bodies (subject to various assimilation issues). Of course, a GM can take an aspect of the title – referring to an infection of a cell prior to identification of that infection – and gradually a reduced consciousness among those who have had a bodily transfer until they act like people, talk like people, but have no intuition or sense of qualitative experience. They are “dead” inside.
Editorial; The Old School Revolution
Welcome to the thirty-first issue of RPG Review with a special emphasis on the "Old School Revolution [Reference, Revival, Renaissance, Reformation, Resurrection]". Of course there is argument about what the term means, and what should be included. Is is restricted to tabletop RPGs alone? If it is limited to tabletop RPGs what games should be included? Dungeons and Dragons is invariably included, but what others? Tunnels and Trolls? RuneQuest? Traveller? How big is this OSR movement? How long will it last? What will come after it, if anything?
It would be very remiss of RPG Review not to engage in this discussion, after all there are now several significant RPGs that unambigiously come under the "Old School" label such as Castles and Crusades, the explicitly-entitled Old School Index and Resource Compilation, Hackmaster, and Labyrinth Lord. According to an EnWorld's regular aggregator (http://www.enworld.org/forum/hotgames.php) places OSR games are the fourth-most popular system in online game-related discussions, behind D&D5thEd, Pathfinder, and WoD and ahead of D&D3/3.5, Exalted, Savage Worlds, GURPS, etc. Mind you, OSR itself is an aggregate of over 150 games so that probably has something to do with it.
So let's start with some definitions. "Old school" is a vernacular term to refer to something that is from a previous or originating era - a related term being "classic". It is a term of respect as it associates that there are elements from that period, operating without a filter of years of experience, which are held in high regard because people were trying to find their way. It is, of course, referenced extensively in contemporary popular music whether as "Old-school Hip Hop" or as the Alice Cooper collection.
That's the relatively easy part of the definition. What does the "R" stand for? Well, as the various references suggested, it varies. For some it is a "revival", recapturing the nostaligic feeling of "this is what it was like when the industry was younger", and the intellectual spirit as "renaissance". Part of that definition, and usually left-out, is "reaction", a sense of opposition to contemporary trends in design, and, as a response "revolution", seeking to overthrow the established order of things.
These things in consideration some initial suggestions can be offered. The OSR is a primarily reaction against the rules-heavy detail of Dungeons and Dragons 3.x and yet, also inspired by the flexibility that was allowed by the Open Game License to create the opportunity in the first place. There's a beautiful separation between game system and business system from the outset.
From the game system side of the equation, it wanted a return to the degree of flexibility that was often available in older games, where by necessity a referee was required to make off-the-cuff decisions to continue play. For others there was a need for continuity. They had been playing D&D/AD&D for decades and when D&D 3.x came out, backwards compatibility became a great deal of harder. To express in business terms, the OSR filled a niche that was missing in the D&D3.x/4 th edition flavour.
From the business side of the equation there was an adherence to the independent game design approach. Not to say that the bigger OSR games are not marching along in their own right as a serious (if small) business, but rather that a lot have a certain street-level punk-rock independence, and sometimes even aesthetic. Which does raise the question of their capacity as an on-going concern. Ron Edward's famous sympathetic essay of 2002, on "Fantasy Heartbreakers" describes games from the preceding decade which were variants on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Edwards made the point that he didn't think any of these were sufficiently innovative to be a lasting business proposition. Of course, as independent game designers the Forge-era would now know with added clarity, with patronage models it longer matters if a game isn't popular in a year's time - it's paid for its own publishing costs. Which is just fine if you don't intend to be running a major game company. If you do want to break big, you need be developing something that is innovative, comprehensive, and has substantial financial backing. To cite (extensively) from the essay:
is killing, just killing, to contemplate the authors' naivete about
the actual market and nature of RPGs as a business. Consider their
status from the perspective of the three-tier system of marketing. As
fantasy games, they were competing with TSR. As "lines,"
they were competing not only with TSR but also with such aggressive
line-developers as White Wolf, AEG, and FASA (at the time). As
lower-budget labors of love, they offer neither the coffee-table
degree of glitz as single objects, nor the promise of multiple
sequential objects, that the bigger companies presented.
So economics is the second reason that these games break my heart: basically, they were and are doomed. The world of the 1990s was no longer a place in which a house-rules variant of D&D can take wings in the marketplace and fly. They're dead. The older ones' websites are fading or absent, and the books are in the half-off boxes. I very much fear that the more recent ones will go the same way.
Why? Because they are not selling direct to end-users, they are selling to the tiers...
Of course, in encouraging "Heart Breakers" (and it's often overlooked that Edwards was doing that), or "Old School Revolution" games, it is important to be aware of the deficincies of both their source material and their contemporary expressions. The radical turn in D&D3.x occurred for good design reasons and indeed was a necessity revival in the industry in its own right. For example a greater consistency in design and the way various rules fitted together, a removal of arbitrary limits, and of strange edge case complexity made significant differences to the way the game has been played. There were few people who played with the weapon modifiers versus armour class in AD&D, fewer still who used weapon speed factor, and close to nobody who used the unarmed combat rules.
When people are nostalgic about AD&D, they must remember that a great deal of "house rules" and "hand waving" was carried out due to system complexity, contradictions, and confusion. The following is a famous example from Issue 133 of Dragon magazine which describes an impossible situation:
Balin, the fearless svirfneblin, moved quietly down the corridor. Somewhere ahead lurked his foe, a drow elf. Balin
carefully edged around a corner and was suddenly face-to-face with his foe. . . .
Player 1: "Okay, Balin surprises on 9 in 10. Is he surprised?"
Player 2: "Hey, wait a minute! I've got a drow elf who's only surprised on 1 in 8. How can Balin surprise my drow on 9 in 10?"
DM: "Well, uh, um. . . ."
But "Old School" in roleplaying doesn't just mean AD&D. There was various incarnations of D&D before and after that publication for starters, and OSR games often find inspiration from them (indeed, in an almost "holier-than-thou" approach, there has been at one claim that the real old-school ended with the introduction of the Thief character class and its skills). But outside these games, one may wonder why there hasn't been and old-school Tunnels & Trolls, whereas there are plenty of old-school Traveller fans ("classic Traveller"), just as there are "classic Rolemaster" (first and second) versus more modern editions, and certainly an ongoing "classic RuneQuest" (second and third editions).
In part this is arguably due to "grognard capture", to use Greg Costikyan's phrase. Grognards, the old veteran soldiers, the Napoleonic Imperial Guard (Grenadiers à pied de la Garde Impériale), can capture a game and by being the most dedicated and experienced players - they can exclude others and their innovations. Tunnels & Trolls has managed to avoid this by engaging in incremental change with a high level of backwards compatibility. By comparison, for Rolemaster the trend was more tragic; the first edition - despite being a thing of great beauty - needed a second edition, which then took the path of several Companions of optional rules. Which was fine in itself, but it also meant that after several years it become bifurcated several times over and was increasingly unwieldy. A reboot was arguably necessary, but it also split the game's allegiences.
Traveller is an interesting and mixed case. The original game came across as setting-light and with a innovative rules system. The following implementation of the game, MegaTraveller, was an extension of the game and the setting whilst whilst providing some glorious additionl detail also provided extra complexity. Traveller The New Era was another radical twist in the game setting and an entirely different ruleset. Then there was T4, GURPS Traveller, Traveller 20, Traveller Hero, Mongoose Traveller (arguably an OSR for Traveller), and Traveller5. It is not surprising that there are those who wish to harken back to days when things were simpler.
All this said, this issue of the RPG Review journal will do its level best to to engage in a critical review and provide useful supplements for a variety of OSR-aligned games. Following our usual Cooperative update, we are deeply honoured to have Ken St Andre, author of Tunnels and Trolls, the second modern role-playing game ever published, as a our subject. This is followed by a small number of reviews (OSRIC, Castles and Crusades, Mongoose Traveller) by yours truly, plus some designer's notes for a new OSR game, Papers and Paychecks.
This is followed by a review of the Elizabethean-era OSR game Backswords and Bucklers by Andrew Daborn, a player's guide for the Green Isles D&D 5th edition game both by Karl Brown, a skill quality system for RQ2 by Ian Bordhart, a fascinating conversation of Hackmaster by Paul Smith and friends, a terrifying setting for Labyrinth Lord by Nicolas Moll, a humour piece about D&D from Ursula Vernon, playtest notes for the John Carter RPG by Martin Plowman, and finally a old-school computer games review by Andrew Pam, and a review of Pride and Prejudice with Zombies by Andrew Moshos.
As you can see, the issue is heavily orientated towards several major OSR games, but also with a couple of bordlerline cases (e.g., D&D 5th edition arguably includes a lot of OSR elements). There are exceptions (Ursula's piece is based around D&D 3.x, but you'll soon see why that is not the issue), and of course, there is a hat-tip to some entirely new game approaches, the John Carter RPG.
Lev Lafayette, email@example.com
Ken St. Andrew Interview
with Ken St. Andre
Ken St. Andre is one of the earliest RPG game designers, responsible for the second RPG to be published, after Dungeons & Dragons, with Tunnels and Trolls. That game has undergone may editions, which can be broadly categorized as 7 different versions, and Ken was responsible for ten different scenario supplements for that game as well. In addition, he is the co-author of Stormbringer with Steve Perrin, the author of Monsters! Monsters!, the Tunnels and Trolls spin-off, the second science fiction RPG (after Metamorphosis Alpha), Starfaring. Ken was also the lead author to the Shadowrun scenario pack, Harlequin, and lead designer for the computer roleplaying game Wasteland, 1988.
Hi Ken, welcome to RPG Review.
Thank you, Lev, glad to be here.
This first question has been asked many times, and it is the stuff of legend. Nevertheless it is worth repeating here. The story is that you encountered Dungeons & Dragons in 1975, found the rules less than optimal, and so you wrote, printed, your own game in April 1975, and eventually leading Flying Buffalo Inc. to release a second edition in June 1975. This must of have been pretty heady days. Can you describe your thinking when you encountered D&D and the inspiration to design your own game?
I have always been a big fantasy fan. I was reading Conan stories in Gnome Press editions as early as 1964. I had already invented my own Tarzan, John Carter, and Star Trek board games before 1970. I started hearing about D & D in December 1974. It sounded like something I would enjoy playing. I finally saw a white box copy on a Friday night in April of 1974. I sat down and examined it for a couple of hours. A lot of it made no sense to me. Why were they moving in inches? Where did they get all the weird poly-dice and why use them anyway? Why warriors, wizards, and clerics? Why did wizards forget spells after using them once? I remember saying to myself, “What a great idea! What a terrible way to do it! I will make a game that I can play.”
Tunnels & Trolls included a lot of rules modifications, simplifications, and efficiencies - it only uses d6s, it has a simple set of character classes, it uses armour absorption for damage, and spell points for magic. These latter two cases are of interest as it appears that they made their way into RuneQuest. Did you have much communication with the authors of that game prior to its publication?
At that time I had no communication with Chaosium though we were all sort of in science fiction fandom, and I had seen Greg Stafford’s White Bear and Red Moon Dragon Pass game. The first edition of Runequest was dedicated to Gary and Dave and me, and I was immensely pleased to be included. I don’t know how much influence I had on Greg’s game design, but he was quite capable of coming up with all the ideas in the game on his own. Later I met Greg Stafford, and Steve Perrin, and Charley Krank and Ray Greer and George MacDonald and Steve Henderson and Bruce Harlick and all those California guys and became good friends with them all.
Later on you would go to co-author Stormbringer with Steve Perrin. Whilst your other games have a degree of "impish humour", Stormbringer has a rather different disposition. Was it a significant change to design an RPG that was so different in style? What were you main contributions to that game? It is rumoured that you added encouragement to the rather high level of randomness.
All of the basic ideas for the Stormbringer game were mine except the structure of the Law vs. Chaos deity systems. I based my game designs on the fiction of Michael Moorcock and what Greg had already done with Runequest. I rebelled against the basic D20 structure of the game and turned it into a true D100 game—the first D100 game, I think. I wanted the game to have the same tone as Moorcock’s writings, so bringing a comical approach to the game the way I did with T & T was never an option.
Humour has been a very big part of your games - perhaps most famously the spell names of Tunnels and Trolls - but also evident in Starfaring and in the whimsical descriptions in Monster! Monsters!, yet this also had the
serious issue of "monster equality" in the game. What do you see as the role of humour and whimsy in RPGs? How would your approach differ to, say, Greg Costikyan?
I don’t know. I don’t have any deep philosophy on this. T & T was always meant to be a game, not a simulation. Games should be fun, and you know people are having fun when they’re laughing. The Starfaring rules as I wrote them were not all that funny, but I met Ernest Hogan at a California sf convention, loved his wacky art, and tapped him to do original illustrations for Starfaring. When you integrate his bold cartoonish illos with my text dealing with tentacle slish monsters, star crystals, and intelligent ships, you get something pretty wild and funny.
Of course, the setting of the computer game Wasteland (1988) is not exactly a work of humour. How different was designing that game to writing an RPG? What were your contributions and those of your fellow designers, Liz Danforth and Mike Stackpole?
Doing Wasteland was primarily a job of story writing and level design. For example, I designed everything in the town of Qwartz and also Las Vegas, and a lot of what was in Needles. That’s basic scenario design. Start with graph paper, draw things on it—streets, buildings, obstacles, then fill it in with characters. I sold Bryan Fargo on Wasteland when I told him the basic story that made good use of all corners of the map. The map got more complicated when Mike Stackpole, Liz Danforth, and Dan Carver each added their own special places to it, but even so they mostly filled in with obstacles and characters that made the game longer and deeper. The actual game rules were T & T combat and saving rolls along with MSPE skills. Alan Pavlish and his friends turned my tabletop mechanics into computer mechanics and Wasteland was created.
Because of its era, Wasteland was a single-player game. Likewise Tunnels & Trolls became famous for its provision of solo game adventures. In our highly-connected world, it would seem that the solo adventure game has run its race. Or do you think there is some potential for such games in this time? What format would they take?
The solo adventure is, imho, by no means at the end of its lifespan. In fact, I’ll be part of a team that is bringing it back in a big way later this year. Go take a look at http://www.metaarcade.com to get early news on the T & T phone app that will enable players to play deep interactive rpg adventures on their phones & tablets. The first prototype demonstration application will be my Naked Doom dungeon, originally written in 1976 and coming back for new life now in 2016
What is it with the edition and publication ordering of Tunnels & Trolls? I understand that there was some strain between yourself and Flying Buffalo at certain points at the game's publication, but it has become very hard to follow - there seems to be three current editions available "The Mythical Sixth edition" (Outlaw Press, 2007, 2009), the seventh
edition (Fiery Dragon, 2008), and the fifth edition (and 5.5) (Flying Buffalo, 2005). What is the current state of publication and future plans?
While Rick Loomis, CEO of Flying Buffao, and I have had differences of opinion from time to time, we always remained friends and found ways to work out our disagreements. Your estimate of what is currently available for Tunnels & Trolls is wildly inaccurate. Right now the only legitimate current version of T & T in print is Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls. Flying Buffalo printed and expanded & corrected edition of the 5th edition in 2005, the same time that Fiery Dragon brought out the 30th anniversary (ie.) 7th edition. 7th edition was changed slightly to a 7.5 edition in 2008. Both 5.5 and 7.5 went out of print in 2012.
In 2013, the Fellowship of the Troll, consisting of Rick Loomis, Liz Danforth, Steve Crompton, and me did a kickstarter to produce the ultimate best version of T & T ever. That project raised $125,000 based on our initial ask of just $25,000. It was probably the most successful rpg kickstarter up to that point, although it has been wildly eclipsed by other games that came in later. That proved harder than we thought it would be, but we finished the project at last in August of 2015. Deluxe T & T is currently available through some game stores, from Flying Buffalo, and from drivethrurpg.com in pdf format. It is a massive tome, and next year we will probably cut it in half and publish just the rules in one book, and the world sourcebook information in a second volume. If we can do that in a ring-bound edition so the new books will lie flat and never break the spine or lose pages, I think it will be very popular.
In addition to that the FOTT has entered a partnership with David Reid of MetaArcade to use the T & T rules system as the basic engine for a mobile computing app to enable players to plsy and enjoy T & T on their mobile devices as well as possibly create their own games for that platform. We will be demonstrating the prototype at GenCon in a couple of weeks and again at PAX in Seattle this Fall. Exciting things are in the future for Tunnels and Trolls and its players.
In addition to that I am doing small publishing of new T & T materials including fiction and rules supplements through my newly created publishing house, Trollhalla Press, available at drivethrurpg.com. Please take a look at some of newest work at http://drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?keywords=Trollhalla+Press
In addition I am doing some writing to support various T & T related projects for Flying Buffalo, MetaArcade, and Goodman Games. Here’s some covers for stuff in the pipeline.
Finally, this issue of RPG Review is centered around the idea of an "Old School Revolution". Whilst a lot of this is a revival in early versions of Dungeons & Dragons, what do you think the OSR approach could learn from Tunnels & Trolls. Is Tunnels & Trolls a part of the OSR or has it held the line through the decades?
I don’t know, Lev. Labels like OSR don’t really apply to T & T. Some people call it Old School because T & T has been around since the beginning, and hasn’t really changed that much. That’s an illusion. In fact the game has evolved quite a lot, and the differences between 1983’s 5th edition and 2015’s Deluxe T & T would make a major game article by itself. Every game designer is an individual. Today’s designers are so much more sophisticated than we were back in the 70s and 80s, and I don’t think they really have that much to learn from me or any other fossil from the 20th century. I think OSR is a marketing label. If it helps a game sell by calling it an OSR product, then good tor the designer and the company, but in the end I think every game, every product stands or falls on its own merits.
Thank you very much for your time Ken!
Thanks for asking me, Lev, and giving me a chance to sound off about my favorite rpg.
Note: There are a number of unauthorised commercial editions and supplements for Tunnels and Trolls on the market, as the following news items illustrate. Please avoid these products and stay with the recommendations of Ken St. Andre.
Old School Revival RPG Reviews
by Lev Lafayette
Castles and Crusades : 'Players Handbook' (2012) and 'Monsters and Treasure' (2009)
Introduction and Product
The product being reviewed here is an double-book, a printing of the 2012 edition of the Castle and Crusades 'Players Handbook' at 144 pages and on the flip-side, the 2009 edition of 'Monsters and Treasure' at 128 pages. The binding is tight, impressively so for the size of the publication. The full-colour cover art is very impressive in technique, although somewhat generic in content, albeit the angles of perspective provide a bit of fun. The interior black and white art is also of a good quality, and contextually appropriate, especially for the latter book (thankfully). The game is presented in both books as a dense written, two-column justified serif text, that is not particularly friendly on the eyes. Both books have a single-page table of contents and no index.
The game itself is explicitly dedicated to the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons under Gary Gygax and is named after the gaming club of the same founded by that author. It both makes use of the Open Game License and argues in the preface to be a "rules-light, adaptable" game system where "roll playing and role playing meet". This is, of course, quite a challenge as various editions of Dungeons and Dragons have been rules heavy whether by elaboration and exception.
Character Generation and Magic
After a usual introduction to "what is roleplaying", with an emphasis on storytelling, fun, and cooperation, the game delves into character generation. It starts with the traditional six attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constition, and Charisma) which are generated on 3d6 and distributed according to the player's wishes. According to one of the thirteen classes selected by the player, one attribute will be a "primary ability". 'Demi-human' characters (Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc, Half-Elf) may select one other attribute, whereas humans may select two. For various attribute checks, primary abilities have a default rating of 12, and others (secondary abilities) have a default of 18. Success on checks are based on a core d20 roll-over mechanic. Modifiers are consistent across all attributes.
The thirteen character classes are Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Assassin, Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Illusionist, Cleric, Druid, Knight, Paladin, and Bard, all of which are familiar. It's a class and level system where the different character classes have different rates of advancement, different hit die per level, various class-specific abilities and restrictions (e.g., armour), divergent gains in "to hit" bonuses and special abilities. There are no level restrictions according to race, no class restrictions according to race, and notably the various races are somewhat balanced in their benefits and restrictions. Alignment follows the traditional law-chaos and good-evil matrix. Starting wealth is determined randomly and by class and equipment has a graduated encumbrance value - several small items is a lot less cost-efficient than a few large items.
Magic is differentiated into Arcane (Wizard, Illusionist) and Divine (Cleric, Druid) and by spell level, and spells may have verbal, somatic, and material components, all of which go to the 9th spell level. Available spells are determined by rest, preparation, and daily slots based on class and level. A summary of available spells is provided with page references before offering them in a more complete description in alphabetical order. The usual classic collection of spells are available, although there is a notable difference in the ability of Illusionists to cast healing spells. Each spells is pretty much an entity within itself with a great deal of variation on the basic components required, casting time, range, duration, and so forth.
Actions and The Keepers Sections
After the spells the Castles and Crusades manual moves into a Keeper's section which has some verbose GMs advice on mood, style, pacing, scale etc. After several pages of such text, one moves back into game content, specifically an elaboration of the skill-check system referred to as the SIEGE engine. To reiterate, roll d20 add level, add attribute modifier, and compare against target number. The target number is a base 12 for the primary attribute(s) of a character or 18 for secondary attributes, plus difficulty modifier. In a sense, this represents a massive simplification from the standard d20 rules and is closer to the classic AD&D style. It certainly makes character design easier, but it lacks the a level of fine-grained development which some players would prefer. More frustrating however is the lack of sufficient detail on what exactly constitutes modifiers that would have otherwise have been expressed as skill target numbers or feats.
The combat system is a tradition initiative (d10), roll to hit (d20, plus bonuses) versus an armour class target number, roll damage, remove from hit points, zero hit points equals unconsciousness, -10 equals death. These are, of course, very familiar. It's a fairly simply system, and allows for a handful of special cases (situational modifiers, cover, charging, weapon reach etc). Undead turning is a resolved as a special ability and attribute check for clerics, and to a lesser extent paladins. Plus there are general rules for vision. A selection of optional rules allow for multiclassing (easier for humans than non-humans!), effectively a combination of two or three classes, and a "class and a half", where a character is of one class but with half the level benefits of a second.
Monsters are explicitly designed in Castles & Crusades as "background material" or "the goal of the adventure". Either way they are meant to have their own interests and objectives, although this intention arguably given very short attention in the actual descriptions. A rather traditional layout of characteristics into a stat block is provided for each creature, typically taking around a third of the description : Number Encountered, Size, Hit Dice, Move, Armor Class, Attacks, Special (abilities), Saves, Intelligence, Alignment, Type, Treasure, and Experience Points. Later in an appendix alternative experience point awards, apart from defeating monsters (such as treasure values) are included.
Around 150 monsters in total are described, pretty much a collection of favourites from the AD&D Monster Manual, first edition. Some archetypal creatures, like elementals, dragons, giants, and lycanthropes, receive their own sections with several different strains coming under the more general block with their own specific abilities. In general, the descriptions are utterly insufficient in describing the ecology of the various creatures with the overwhelming attention paid to their combat abilities and tactics - which is particularly frustrating with the creatures of more complex social organisation, such as bugbears, goblins, orcs, etc. Some of the more interesting creatures of prior publications are included such as the shambling mound and the xorn, as are some of the more risible creatures, like the gelatinous cube.
Treasure in Castle and Crusades is the typical spoils for defeating monsters, plundering forgotten dungeons and tombs, or the rewards from employers for such engagements. It is broken up into Coinage, Extraordinary Items (e.g., artworks), Jewellery, Unworked Precious Metals and Stones, Magical Items, Land and Titles, and Services. Magical items are, of course, the most interesting items and a relevant amount of consideration is dedication to their various subtypes, being potions, scrolls, weapons, armour and shields, rings, wands, staves, wands, the ever-varied miscellaneous magical items, and great artefacts. Rules are provided for the creation of magical items, based around an experience point cost associated with the power in question. There is brief description and tables for sentient magical items, the provision of land, title, and services, before moving into the meaty consideration of the stuff that defeated monsters have according to their treasure type and the aforementioned treasure categories.
The bulk of the chapter is, as expected, descriptions of magical items. Potions, scrolls, weapons, and armor, as can be expected, something that can be described fairly quickly as they replicate spells or provide straight-forward bonuses, except for those which have special abilities. Of greater descriptive requirement are the miscellaneous magical items, staves etc, and artifacts. Some classics appear in these descriptions, such as figurines of wondrous power, horn of Valhalla, ioun stones, wand of wonder. A special section is given on cursed items, before moving onto artifacts, which is where the Deck of Many Things, Sphere of Annihilation, and Staff of the Magi, are now included.
Castles and Crusades is physically a good production and with solid writing, albeit with some issues in layout and general design. As for a rules system, it both inherits much of the questionable narrow focus from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but with an interesting option for expanding a more general resolution system for other activities which, despite a great deal of potential, were not followed through as completely as they could have been. Yes, ready recognition is provided of supplementary texts that expand on the game and its environs, but they are not what is being reviewed here. This said, much of what is the game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, is included here in a manner that is far less verbose and does quite well in the signal-to-noise ratio. The inclusion of many aspects of the greater mechanical consistency in the d20/D&D3.x is extremely advantageous, and to do so without the heavyweight rules is quite pleasing. Overall, it is certainly one of the more positive iterations from the AD&D line of game-design - certainly old school but also more consistent and streamlined.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .6 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .7 (product) = 3.6
Substance: 1 + .4 (content) + .6 (text) + .5 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .3 (system) = 2.9
Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC)
Introduction and Product
OSRIC states its purpose quite upfront; "a compilation of rules for old-school-style fantasy gameing.. intended to reproduce underlying rules used in the late 1970s to early 1980s" whilst avoiding copyright issues. It should be mentioned it is not any set of rules from that time period, but rather Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 1st edition, minus anything that actually says that it's AD&D 1st edition.
The updated second edition of OSRIC comes as a spiral-bound 400 A5-page publication with a cardstock cover by Usherwood Publishing. There are other editions, such as the hardcover by Black Blade which may be of better production qualities. Whilst the large spiral-binding does lie beautifully flat, it also comes across as a little cheap and is hardly designed to last heavy use at the game table.
With a hefty table of contents, a second list of spells, list of monsters, and list of magic items. and an index and index of tables, plus an appendix of major tables, the game scores very well in helping the reader find what they are looking for. Indeed, other professional productions could look carefully at this example. The writing style throughout is formal and clear, absent of rambling arguments on why OSRIC is better than everything else on the market, but also absent of purple prose. There isn't much in the way of artwork but what does exist is contextual, and whilst not technically brilliant, shows some creativity and occasional whimsy.
As a compilation, there is one book rather than the traditional three, broken up into six chapters: Creating A Character (34 pages), Spells (85 pages), How To Play (34 pages), Dungeons, Towns, and Wilderness (34 pages), Monsters (128 pages), and Treasure (53 pages). As can be seen, the overwhelming majority of the the compilation is data (spells, monsters, treasure) rather than game system.
Character Creation and Spells
Old-school games will be familiar with the character character process. Generate abilities (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), select a race, select a class. Abilities scores are 3d6; either in order, or distributed according to the player, or 4d6 drop one. All that was good, bad, and downright weird from AD&D1e is included; percentile STR, no effective difference in DEX from 7 to 14, or WIS from 8 to 14, various level limits for "demihumans" (except as thieves, and then except for half-orcs) but with multiclass options, but with the strange exclusions (e.g., no Elven Druids or Rangers) It's a class-level system with varying rates of advancement and class-specific abilities. Classes are Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic User, Paladin, Ranger, and Thief; note that there is no Bard. Characters must also choose one of the nine canonical alignments along the Lawful-Neutral-Chaos axis and the Good-Neutral-Evil axis.
Starting money depends on character class. The equipment list includes a range of general items, weapons, and armour. There is no huge list of diverse pole-arms, there is "halberd" and "pole arm". Missile weapons have an increment which generates a -2 to hit. There is variant damage for weapons vs S-M and large opponents, but no weapon modifiers versus armour type (which does mean that weapons like the crossbow are significantly weakened and weapons like the club are stronger than the original game). Shields, as per the notoriety, provide only a +1 improvement to AC.
The massive spell section is pretty much entirely derived from the original books, however, some specific spells subject to copyright and identification renamed (e.g., "Mage's Faithful Hound"). Spells are memorised, and effectively become slots which are determined by class and level. Spell ranges, magical resistance (saving throws), area of effect, and casting time varies according to the individual spell, which typically requires verbal, somatic, or material components. Material components are not specified in OSRIC and left to the GM to determine. If there is any changes in the actual content of the spells, it hasn't been noticed - they seem identical (e.g., even with the rough harsh cost of -1 CON for creating a +1 dagger).
How To Play and How The Game is Run
Time measurement is based on 10-minute turns, 1 minute rounds, and six-second segments and movement is based on 120ft/round, modified by encumbrance - a painfully slow pace (and 1/10th of that if they are moving cautiously or mapping). Combat is based one-minute rounds. Surprise determines whether there are bonus segments to act. Initiative is d6 contested between opposing sides; the winner goes first and losers operate on that segment. Spell casting time is added to the segment that a party acts. Standard attacks are a roll against armour class then a roll for damage, Unarmed combat, rather than the unbelievably complex and unplayable original rules, are simply treated the same as any other weapon. Damage is subtracted from hit points, causing unconsciousness and bleeding at 0 hit points and death at negative ten.
Rather than stand and fight to the bitter end, monsters have a moral rating and may decide that discretion is better than valour. In addition to combat, Clerics and Paladins have the option of "turning" (or destroying) undead, based on traditional charts. One of the benefit of combat is that it slaying enemies provides experience points as does recovering treasure from various hoards, which results in level gains - the game truly remains "kill the monsters and take their stuff". In addition to the more prosaic damage there is also brief rules for poisons, disease, and insanity. Poisons are of the "save or die" variety. Disease rules lack the monthly check, and insanity is provided a table of options.
Several pages is spent of hirelings and henchmen, the former in gainful employment to their provider and latter with a special sort of camp follower arrangement. Again it is pretty much out from the original rules, although it is noted that the assassin option for Spies has been taken out, and the henchmen rules are clearer and compiled. This is followed up by the general sequence of adventure activity with clear statements of activity and opportunities in an order of play for dungeon crawling, and for wilderness explorations. It is in the latter that aerial agility grades are given. There are minimal notes for town adventures, and extraplanar adventures are deliberately left open. The chapter concludes with a sample dungeon exploration and map, and whilst both are separately very good their connection with each other is less than clear.
The chapter for "Dungeons, Towns, and Wilderness" begins with various dungeon effects tables which is a waste of space for all but the most creatively challenged GMs, and the following Traps and Tricks tables aren't much better. The Random Dungeon Generator is reminiscent of the programming logic used in the era of the Zilog-80, and suitable for solitaire play. The Random Dungeon Encounters restates the gamist-narrativism of the original rules; the deeper you go, the tougher the monsters, as the plot evolves, and reflecting the medieval mindset of hell literally being deeper underground. The random urban encounters are also directly from the original rules including the somewhat distasteful descriptives of the "Red Light District" encounters. With a far more simulationist orientation, the Wilderness encounter tables are based on the relative distribution of the creature in question according to number and ecology.
Monsters and Treasure
Taking up almost half the book a review of the final two chapters is necessarily briefer than this proportion would indicate as they are largely data files. Monsters are provided a stat-block of Frequency, No. Encountered, Size, Move, Armour Class, Hit Dice, Attacks, Damage, Special Attacks, Special Defences, Magic Resistance, Lair Probability, Intelligence, Alignment, and Level/XP Value. There are brief notes on tribal spell-casters for the various humanoid (goblins, orcs, giants etc) races, before moving into the monster descriptions according to encounter groups. This begins with of various humans, demi-humans, and humanoids. From there it the various types of dragon (metallic good, chromatic bad), the chaotic evil demons and lawful evil devils, then dinosaurs, golems, lycanthropes, sylvan and faerie creatures, various types of undead, several pages of animals, and a catch-all category of "other creatures". Some of the associations are a little odd; one is not entirely sure a giant ant is "other" and a giant toad is "animal".
It's important to emphasise that certain creatures from the classic rules are not included here, as per the requirements of the OGL and SRD. There are no Mind Flayers for example. By the same time, there is a significant number of creatures that did not appear in the original monster collection. The creatures themselves are a strange collection of interesting choices from mythology and fiction, and some rather odd products of the imagination. Their presentation as a whole however is disappointingly narrow. Like the original, sheer quantity and mindless violence utterly outweighs any other assessment.
In addition to monsters to kill, there is stuff to take. The treasure chapter examines these, starting with maps, coin, gemstones, and jewellry, before moving on to magic items. The reputed magical properties of various gemstones is unfortunately not included in OSRIC, adopting a preference to a minimalist approach favoured by many gamers who adopt greedy algorithms. Magic items of course receive several tables in their own right for weapons, armour and shield, weapon special properties, rods, staves, and wands, scrolls, potions, and several types of miscellaneous magic items, the latter perhaps offering the most interesting combinations from myth and legend. A few pages of minor artifacts include classics such as the Book of Infinite Spells, the Deck of Many Things, and the Sphere of Annhilation. Major artifacts are not included in the game.
OSRIC is very much what it says on the tin. It delivers a reformatted and revised (but not in a system or data sense) of first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons without mentioning it by name. The fact that it is a thorough revision of the presentation is tribute to the editing skills of the authors who have managed to bring a great deal of three large books into approximately a third of the word count.
Overall, the authors have done a good job. The game system itself is faithfully replicated with all its incredulous warts and arbitrariness, but it is also a familiar set of rules. One cannot say that the production qualities are up to scratch, least of all in this edition, but at least it is a clearer presentation. A ringing endorsement as a new game obviously cannot be provided; but as a retrospective compilation of another game, it performs admirably.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .6 (art) + .2 (coolness) + .8 (readability) + .1 (product) = 3.3
Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .5 (text) + .3 (fun) + .2 (workmanship) + .1 (system) = 2.4
Basic Fantasy RPG
Introduction and Product
Basic Fantasy, deriving from the Open Game License, describes itself as an old school game where the rules and size of the game are much lighter – it also recommends that you don't buy the book until you've read the free version on the publisher's website. This second edition of Basic Fantasy, like other editions, comes in a spiral bound A4 book with a fairly light cardstock cover. Whilst there are some advantages to this format (it lies really flat), the 154 page book is not really designed for heavy use. The text is presented in two-column justified throughout with a serif font and a good use of white-space. Page numbers and chapter titles are clearly marked, and there is a single-page table of contents and another single page alphabetical index. The writing style throughout is formal. Erik Wilson's evocative cover art of a red dragon is quite a lovely piece, whereas the cover art is of a fair standard in terms of technique and creativity, and is usually contextual. There are eight chapters (“parts”) to the book; a two page introduction, a player character information chapters, spells, an adventure chapter, encounters, monsters, treasure, and finally game master information. The introduction is as simple as one can get – this is a roleplaying game, and this is how the dice are used.
Character Generation and Magic
Character generation is 3d6 in order (albeit with GM options) for the abilities Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma. Bonuses for high or low abilities is as per the d20 model. Available character races are Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Humans. The non-human races have various restrictions, well-versed in traditional RPGs – humans have the benefit of a 10% bonus to experience points as they learn quickly. Character classes, with race restrictions, are Cleric, Fighter, Magic User, and Thief, with the latter receiving the traditional slot of percentile skills. Rates of advancement (along with hit dice, obviously) varies by class. An equipment list covers the basics of general adventuring activities, including armour and shields, weapons, beasts of burden, and larger vehicles and siege engines for wilderness adventures.
There are six levels of Cleric and Magic User spells with eight spells available for each level for Clerics and twelve for Magic Users from levels one to four and ten for levels five to six. Magic is a daily-slot based method, with Clerics praying for their spells, and Magic Users studying their spellbooks. The spells themselves are presented in alphabetical order with the varying characteristics of range, duration, etc. All spells universally have verbal and somatic requirements, but material components are not considered. The spells are derived directly from Basic and Expert D&D with minimal changes and each requiring a couple of paragraphs of explanation.
Adventures and Encounters
The timescale of the game is ten second combat round and ten minute turns. Distances are measured in feet in dungeon adventures and in yards in wilderness environs for movement and missile weapon ranges, however spell ranges remain the same. Carrying capacity and movement rate depends on the race of the character and their Strength, with a single-level breakpoint between zero and the maximum. Dungeon-adventure spot rules are provided for lighting, darkvision, doors, traps, secret doors, and food and water. For the wilderness, movement rates are provided for miles per day and modified by terrain. Waterborne travel has a random table for wind direction (a terrible idea) and wind strength. A spot rule for becoming lost is provided. A fairly hefty (by this game's standards) degree of detail is spent on retainers, their loyalty, and their hiring of specialists and mercenaries. Experience points are provided for defeating monsters, and with other challenges “as the GM sees fit”.
The Encounter chapter is concerned with the order of tactical time, form surprise, to monster reactions, to initiative, movement and combat. Spot rules exist for three-dimensional actions, evasion, charging, defensive movement, missile misses, subdual damage, unarmed combat (brawling and wrestling), oil, holy water, and morale. Combat is d20, roll high, defeat armour class TN, with an attack bonus determined by class and level. Damage is based on the weapon, subtracts from hit points, and if a character reaches zero, they are dead (and all-or-nothing result). With the ever-popular undead, there are rules for turning, energy drain, along with Constitution losses, and healing rates, and in a rather odd order, falling, deafness and blindness, vehicular combat, and then saving throws against the traditional values (i.e., Death Ray, Wands, Paralysis, Dragon Breath, Spells).
Monsters and Treasure
Taking up almost 80 pages of the 154 page book, the Monsters and Treaures chapters are exactly what one would expect. The former is primarily a stat-block of the monster's name, armor class, hit dice, attacks, damage, number appearing, save as, morale, treasure type, and experience point value. Most are described in a few paragraphs, mainly in terms of their combative abilities, and with scant attention to their ecology or biology (the dragons at least get a age category modifier); it's kill things and take their stuff, although this said the monsters are a combination of classic D&D and with a range of mythological sources included.
Monsters also typically come with a letter-based treasure type (individual and lair) which generates a random collection of coin, gems, jewelry, and magic items. The most interesting are, of course, the magic items, which are subject to several random rolls to determine, the type (weapon, armour, potion, scroll etc), and precisely what sort of subtable should then be followed to determine exactly what sort of potion, what spells are on the scroll, what sort of magic power is with the ring etc. The miscellaneous magic items are, as usual, the most interesting, although the list provided here is quite slim.
Game Master Information
The final chapter of the book starts with tables for dungeon encounters according to level (the deeper you go, the tougher it gets), wilderness encounters (according to terrain type), and urban encounters (according to time of day). Suggestions are provided for creating NPC parties according to activity (adventurers, bandits, merchants etc) along with some optional rules. These provide some welcome flexibility and realism (e.g., negative hit points, slower acting poisons, ability checks) at the cost of a minor amount of complexity and should be considered. A rather hefty amount of space is spent on spell research, before concluding on dungeon design, wilderness design, and strongholds.
Conclusion and Evaluation
Like most OSR games, this game is highly derivative. As should be evident from the review for those familiar with the games this is a lot more derived from Basic and Expert D&D (but not beyond that), rather than AD&D, or from d20. It comes with all the problems and benefits associated with those products, which primarily means a simpler version of D&D conducted in a lesser word count.
Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .5 (art) + .4 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .2 (product) = 3.1
Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .6 (text) + .4 (fun) + .3 (workmanship) + .3 (system) = 2.9
Papers and Paychecks Designer's Notes
by Lev Lafayette