Reading the Dragon: Strategic Review V1N5

These are getting long enough, and deep enough into the origins of the game, that I’ll do just one per post for the rest.

  • The Strategic Review V1N5 (Dec 1975): 16-page newsletter/almost magazine.
    • Cover: Trippy piece by Greg Bell. I see a series of three magic-users, each summoning the next, rising from smoke.
    • News/”In the Cauldron” by Tim Kask:

      “We know that it’s late, but you wouldn’t believe me if I listed all the problems we had with it. Suffice it to say that I have been blooded, as an editor, by BLACKMOOR.”

      Many more woes of a small publisher, start of the DUNGEON Hobby Shop, catalog, and products which are mostly obscure now: EPT boardgame, Fight in the Skies (Dawn Patrol), Little Big Horn, Lankhmar (as I recall, a good but not great boardgame, despite my love for Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser), Classic Warfare minis rules. And then biographies of Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, Theron Kuntz, and Tim Kask. Gary’s background as an insurance salesman always seems especially relevant to his style of gaming.
    • Sturmgeshutz And Sorcery Or How Effective Is A Panzerfaust Against A Troll, Heinz?: The infamous Tractics/D&D fight of Nazis vs EHP (Evil High Priest, a classic acronym now mostly forgotten). Stats for the modern weapons are quite weak until you get to the armored car, 2 half-tracks, and squad weapons.
      • A Panzerfaust does 8-80 dmg (avg. 44), and an OD&D Troll is HD 6+3 (avg. 24 HP, 30 HP in Holmes), so one hit will bring it to -20, but it will be back in the fight in 9 turns with 7 HP. But the Nazis only have 3 single-shot Pzfsts, and there’s 4 Trolls.
      • There’s an incomprehensible “Adjustment of Hits due to Armor” table.
      • The Unarmed Combat Special table is quite interesting. How did they make something this generally useful and then never reprint it again?!
      Score Effect*
      1-5 None
      6-10 Stun opponent, attack first next round
      11-15 Disarm opponent and attack first next turn — if no weapon in opponent’s grasp do 1-6 points damage
      16-19 As above plus 1-6 points damage inflicted
      20 Opponent knocked senseless if not AC 2 or less and above 7th level (adjust upwards for higher AC’s, i.e., AC 3 and above 8th level, AC 4 and above 9th, etc.) — takes 1-8 points damage in any event

      *Roll for each soldier, regulars have 1 in 6 who can engage in this form of combat, veterans have 3 in 6, elite adds 1 in 6.

    • Dave Sutherland art of “Attack of the Stirges”. Good sketch of horrible critters.

    • Mapping the Dungeons: Hoilday specials! For $2, get D&D Books 1-2, for $4, get D&D Books 1-2 + pullouts, in a box! An interesting “promo”, since the DM would still need a full $10 box with Book 3 to run anything. Announcing DM seminar at GenCon IX.

      “This issue seems to be heavily laden with items requiring your response. But, what other company goes to such pains to find out what YOU want? Anyway, we are looking for direction concerning D&D. We have received a number of suggestions concerning supplements (not all of them Good/Lawful), so we decided to ‘poll the players’. What do you want to see in the upcoming supplements? We have been kicking around the idea of a readers/players supplement, composed of material submitted to us.”

      That’s a generous attitude TSR rapidly lost and even aggressively attacked throughout the ’80s and ’90s, though lately Wizards of the Hasbro has been trying to open up with the 5E playtests and various surveys, they’re just not institutionally capable of doing much about it.
    • Mighty Magic Miscellany: Robe of Scintillating Color, Prayer Beads: Uncredited, but ended up in the AD&D DMG, both changed significantly for the worse. The robe’s description explicitly endorses the Holmes interpretation of a 10-second combat round, and 100-second combat turn, and it’s a mind-killer against high-Int Magic-Users:

      “When it is used in a non-combat situation, where turns are longer (remember, one turn contains 10 melee rounds), there is a 20% base chance of becoming hypnotized, with an additional 5% per turn increase. Any magic user that becomes hypnotized by the robe who has an intelligence of 17 or 18 has a 10% or 20% chance, respectively, of going permanently insane.”

      Prayer Beads is a set of reasonably valuable gems that randomly helps or hinders summoning a god, not necessarily yours or a friendly one! The AD&D Necklace of Prayer Beads is all positive effects, and the necklace gets taken away if you summon your god. Lame, Gary! Let the players summon Cthulhu if they want or roll badly, it’s fun!
    • Battle of the Nile Refought, by Dave Arneson: Don’t Give Up the Ship scenario, wherein righteous French republicans give the English monarchist dogs a good thrashing, contra historical version. Sadly lacks a detailed map or initial layout, so it’d be hard to run directly. Again, Napoleonics are so very forgotten these days, when it was one of the best wargaming periods.
    • First ad of the issue: Diplomacy World magazine.
    • The Armory: Modern Weapons Data for TRACTICS, by Mike Reese: Tank stats for Sheridan, Leopard (5 variations). “SHERIDAN does not carry nuclear weapons.” — WTF joke. Does not address the infamously shitty main gun of the Sheridan which would misfire, and then the unspent ammo would explode inside, killing a number of our troops in Vietnam. OOPS. Leopard’s quality German engineering, and just gets better over time.
    • Gallery of Gunfighters: Ben Thompson. Murderous sonofabitch murderhobo of the Old West. Oddly, there’s never been a movie of him, and only a few TV show appearances.

      “He was, in this author’s opinion, one of four most dangerous gunfighters who ever lived. He had killed at least eight men and probably as many as sixteen (although some report up to thirty-two killings), only to die in an ambush.”
    • What Is The National Wargame Convention?: In which Gary beefs with AH (The Avalon Hill Game Company®) about Origins convention vs. GenCon. Just get pistols and resolve this shit man-to-man, don’t bitch at the readers.
    • Creature Features:
      • Rakshasha (f. Rakshasi):

        “Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading. They are fond of a diet of human meat, and as masters of illusion they can easily gain this end.”

        Ridiculously OP magic & physical defenses, but they’re only 7 HD so they won’t face real high-level PCs, and there’s a one-shot kill trick, rewarding any player who memorizes the monsters.

        I love the mythical Rakshasa, and the one from Kolchak the Night Stalker which inspired this monster listing, and the very powerful but not one-trick demons in Supplment IV, but these one-trick monsters are bullshit.
      • Slithering Tracker: How to assassinate your players if they sleep in a dungeon, for dick DMs.
      • Trapper: Also how to assassinate your players if they stay in a group, for dick DMs.
    • Second ad of the issue: Taurus Ltd has an unclear image of ocean and a wall of text in a tiny box apparently selling Raiders of the North, a WWII naval wargame.
    • Comic: Hideously ugly. “What do you mean, my fireball only did six points of damage?!”. This guy shoulda packed a Panzerfaust.
    • TSR Hobbies catalog. Notably:
      • Multi-sided Dice Sets — Each Set contains one 20-, 12-, 8-, 6-, and 4-sided die: $3 ($13.33 today)
      • Percentile Dice Sets — Two 20-sided dice: $2 ($8.89 today) — 10-sided dice weren’t available yet.
      • Professional FOOTBALL $11
      • Major League BASEBALL $12
      • NBA BASKETBALL $9
      • Auto RACING GAME (Indy 500 Cars & Drivers) $9
      • THOROUGHBREAD[sic] Racing (With Stats on Actual Horses) $7
      • Sports games? Is that still a thing anywhere, other than like Fantasy Football? I played some of the sports handheld electronic games back in the day, but not boardgames. Obviously now all the slack-jawed jocks would play Xbox sports games.
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Review: Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

“These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when first we explored the dungeon of John Eric Holmes.”

—Chris Holmes, 2017

History: 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons (White Box) was incoherent, poorly illustrated, and almost unusable by itself. With some Strategic Review & Dragon articles, and then Greyhawk, it slouched towards a playable game.

In 1976-8, Dr. Eric J. Holmes wrote/edited a cleaned-up Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (Blue Box), and provided a readable, directly usable set of rules, some unique mechanics, new spells, and the art was a great mix of cartoony (Tom Wham), technical (Dave Trampier), and heroic (Dave Sutherland). The sole real defect was that it was limited to Level 3, and had references to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS which turned out to be completely incompatible.

In 1978, I learned to play D&D with Holmes, the just-released Monster Manual (which uses Holmes/White Box/Greyhawk rules, despite saying it’s for AD&D), photocopies of White Box, and Supplement I: Greyhawk. And to this day, that’s what I think of as “Dungeons & Dragons that doesn’t suck”. Holmes has been out of print since the ’80s, and there was a mediocre scan on Paizo’s PDF store for a while (which I have).

Michael Thomas has gone above and beyond with Eric Holmes fandom, used Holmes’ fiction, collaborated with the son Chris Holmes, and brought in these influences, to make a real retro-clone of Holmes’ blue box as it may have been played at his table.

First, the art is excellent. The cover art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu evokes the original Sutherland dragon scene, the interior is black and white, clean line art in most cases. But there’s not much humor to it, it’s very serious business.

Blueholme Holmes
Beaulieu
Sutherland
Russ
Sutherland
Castellani
Trampier
BKM
Wham

Rules

These are low-powered, mechanically simple rules. You get bonuses for very few things, the power curve is very flat, and the tables are as weird/buggy as the original. Multi-classing is handled in a way vaguely suggested by how Elves worked in Holmes, adding all XP costs to level up evenly in all multi-classes, and is allowed to all character races. As in Holmes, there are only 5 alignments: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil. All monsters and unknown things are allowed as races, subject to Dungeon Master Referee approval.

There are places where Blueholme extrapolates rules out differently than other editions, for instance Fighters receive damage bonuses at Level 4+; Magic-Users can create scrolls at low levels (Holmes’ intentional change or misreading of White Box, which only allowed Level 11 Wizards to make scrolls); Thieves immediately receive Read Language, Read Scroll, and Use Wand abilities, instead of waiting for high levels.

Magic-Users in this version are implied to have a library of tomes containing all standard spells, they’re just not all known yet, and can’t be carried along on adventures. I wouldn’t run it like that, because it’s less fun to return to base or have to spend all money on scrolls; just give the M-U a portable spellbook. The spell list is quite complete. Magic Missile is of the White Box/Holmes interpretation that a magic arrow requires an attack roll. Sleep has a range of 240′ (or yards outdoors!) and no save, so hooray, I get to TPK any Level 1-4 party with my Goblin wizards! All the spells are the old interpretations, and balance isn’t really a thing. You’ll be house-ruling things if you want slightly less chaos.

Cleric lists include all the reversed spells with their own names and clearly defined, which may be a first for any D&D game (I just avoid them in Stone Halls & Serpent Men).

“There are generally three distinct types of locale wherein adventure may be found: the Realm, the Wilderness, and the Underworld.”

And these are handled in rather different ways, which is an interesting way of encouraging Basic-style gameplay: Downtime in the mostly peaceful Realm, quick, dangerous runs through Wilderness, and long delves into the Underworld.

Combat uses Holmes’ initiative system, counting down Dex from highest to lowest in each of 5 combat phases. It plays out very differently than other D&D editions and OSR games, you really need waves of spell-casters, archers, and melee fighters. There’s not exactly unique weapon damage like Greyhawk, but a rule to distinguish small and large weapons.

The combat tables are generally just like White Box, with AC 9 (unarmored) down to AC 2 (plate & shield), and improvements in large steps every 3, 4, or 5 Levels. Saving throws are Breath Weapon, Wand/Touch, Gaze, Ray/Poison, Spell/Staff, similar to Holmes but differently ordered (since traditionally, but not specified in these rules, you choose the left-most applicable save, this can be a little different).

One place where this is anachronistic is that Thieves in Greyhawk fought and saved as Magic-Users; Holmes’ tables didn’t go all the way up, but implied they saved as Fighters; in Blueholme Thieves fight and save as Clerics. This is a slight power creep, and while it helps single-class Thieves, I’m leery of Magic-User/Thieves getting a cheap upgrade.

The Monsters are mostly the Holmes list, which had a lot of lower-level creatures with a few higher-level (implausibly so for Level 3 chars!) threats. There’s a fair amount of Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry monsters, often renamed a bit. And new monsters, such as Angel, Carnosaur, Cyclopian, Dagonite, Deep One, Demon (Normal, Large, or Huge, with a random roll table for powers rather than “Types”), Dreenoi (a SF insectoid race), Golem, Great Race, Green Grabber, Mayhar, Mi-Go, Old One, “Sagroth” aka White Apes, Sauropod, and Thipdon. Holmes’ fiction implied an H.P. Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith cosmology, and the game actually supports that. However, there’s no stats or mechanics for the greater entities of the Mythos, or insanity, which is disappointing.

There’s no experience for monsters table. And good luck finding even the experience rules, they’re under Adventures instead of next to Characters. You might search for the Grewyhawk experience table, or look at Delta’s XP: The Big Switch posts, or even just go back to White Box’s rule of 100 XP per HD, which makes low levels go very fast but is later the same as Greyhawk’s table.

The encounter tables often refer to monsters by their stock D&D names, not the Blueholme names, so you’ll be converting and page-flipping if you want to use them.

There’s an entirely new treasure table, which has slightly less coinage at first glance, but greatly increased numbers and values of gems & jewelry (far more likely to be 1000 GP or more). Armour, weapon, and misc magic item tables are longer, giving high-level loot, but there are no intelligent weapons, which were a mainstay of White Box, or artifacts as in Eldritch Wizardry. I don’t hate these tables, but they’re not suitable for stocking a dungeon without careful picking and choosing.

  • Vampire in Holmes: 10%: 2-20 x 1000 SP, 20%: 1-8 x 1000 EP, 45%: 1-12 x 1000 GP, 30%: 1-6 x 1000 PP, 20%: 2-24 Gems, 10%: 1-12 Jewelry, 30%: 3 non-weapon magic + 1 potion + 1 scroll
  • Vampire in Blueholme: 50%: 1d4 Gems/Jewelry, plus 10%: 3d6 x 500 SP, 20%: 2d8 x 500 EP, 45%: 4d6 x 500 GP, 30%: 2d6 x 500 PP, 15%: 6d6 Gems/Jewelry, 30%: 1 any item + 1 potion + 1d6 scrolls.

Campaigns explains how to design and stock maps, and some of the advice seems usable, but there is no equivalent to Holmes’ Great Stone Skull Mountain or sample dungeon (certainly the first good dungeon design I ever read), and the only examples of play in Blueholme are combat; Holmes spent pages on narration of exploration & mapping.

At the end is an optional rule for making ability rolls, 3d6 vs. ability score, with a short example. This is perhaps the only real nod to modernity, the kind of thing we did ad hoc back in the day but never had a consistent rule about.

Rating

  • Presentation: ★★★★☆ A lovely book, painstakingly correctly laid out. There are few errors I’ve found.
  • Organization: ★★★☆☆ Straightforward D&D organization, except perhaps that the optional character rules should not be on the last page. But there’s no index, and that’s a problem. With the PDF at least I can search for keywords, but in print this is hard to use.
  • Rules: ★★★★☆ For a traditional D&D-type game, this is the one you should play. If you can find an XP table.
  • Setting: ★★☆☆☆ Aside from the monsters, there’s just no setting, no adventure, no anything to suggest this isn’t in a white void combat arena. Holmes’ few pages of backstory, town, and sample dungeon at least gave it context. Super disappointing.
  • Utility: ★★★★☆ Sit down and run an old adventure. You don’t need to house rule much (at least at first), and it’s immediately playable.
  • Average: ★★★½☆ I love this book, but the flaws are also significant. I still think it’s the best straight-up retroclone; not a “new game sort of like D&D”, but “what D&D was like when I liked it”.

Review: Entartete Kunst

The RPG we all deserve.

There is a spectre haunting gaming. It is the polemic. This is one. Maybe two. Madness, impertinence, incompetence, and degeneracy.

Veering drunkenly (on absinthe and heroin, no doubt) between perceptive discourses on the premises of our very boring, consistent style of RPGs, to outright parody like the alignment chart, to random quotes and paintings from postmodernists, existentialists, and the Nazis who burned their works. It’s a shame the author didn’t include swing music or jazz noises. see Wiki

Character creation, system, sample of play, and sample adventure are cut-ups of random unrelated games, and… it doesn’t exactly work, but it’s like hearing conversations in a crowd, and for a moment something interesting surfaces, and then is drowned out again.

The monster list is perhaps the only authoritative list ever, I can see no fault in it. Appendix N: Reading List includes such essentials as Junky by William S. Burroughs, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which by themselves make it 50% more practically useful to gaming than most such lists.

Appendix P: Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment is great advice, which makes me question how it got in here.

If I have any complaint, I do feel that Appendix Q: Glossary suffers from not being included in Appendix A: General Attributes Enumeration.

I cannot give this a star rating, because that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Rarr Tunnels & Trolls Bundle of Stuff

“Rarr! I’m A Monster Publishing” Tunnels & Trolls Bundle

  • Caustic Trollworld: Post-apocalypse Gamma World-like rules for Trollworld. Touched and Tainted mutants, like Wild Cards’ Aces & Jokers. While the mutations are mostly playable, the 3d6 tables are badly organized, with weaker powers at the unlikely ends, and powerful abilities common; and sometimes modifies stats, other times gives a bonus to save rolls. Pick a common mechanic! I don’t like the division of Touched and Tainted mutants, so I’d probably reorganize them all on a d36 table or some such.

    Sometimes writes “Caustic Earth”, and clearly this started life as a different kind of apocalypse. The monster section is dull but adequate for classic wasteland crawls. No adventures or characters, just a rule hack.

    ★★☆☆☆

  • Cyber.net.ica: Cyberpunk setting material converted to T&T rules. Character types are Vanilla (skilled), Tweak (cyborg), Techmaturge (magic cyberspace shaman), Tekxorcist (cyber-cleric), Data Rogue (magic cyberspace thief, what, not Tekroughe or some such?). Weaponry skips over the 20th C. and just has rocket launchers, lasers, and Spetsdods (??? needleguns).

    Tweak mods are just neural processor programs, wired reflexes, etc., there’s no chrome body mods or giant stompy robot shells. The Cybermancy spells are weird… I can’t tell if they’re suposed to be used in the “real world” or only in Cyberspace. Some only make sense as software hacking, some parts say this is “magic or psionics”. The cyber-bestiary has a variety of program/life forms, but not well defined as to what they can do. “Web spiders – MR 24 – Malicious daemons used to collect data from unsuspecting nodes.”: Fine, but HOW?

    There are 15 “adventure seeds”, ranging from “2. Is the new MMORPG really recruiting for a cult?”: Yes, to “14. Cyberdrugs?”: Are you on them, writer? And then “Appendix M: Monkeys on Juice”, where cyber-monkeys rebel and run loose. With 15 more adventure seeds, for whatever that’s worth.

    ★★★½☆, could be a good SF setting with a little sanity editing.

  • Hobb Sized Adventures: 5 short and 1 reasonably long solo adventures, great cover art. Haven’t played all of them yet, but:

    • Tomb of the Toad: Atmospheric little swamp tunnel, chased in by “a rampaging Slorr” (who you gonna call?). Has the illusion of choice but actually all paths lead to the same 3 rooms and an interesting boss fight. ★★★☆☆
  • Monster Menagerie: 8 weird races for Monsters! Monsters! or just any T&T game, short writeups with a custom spell list for the Eeeks (Ewoks/Little Fuzzies). The Shroomkin art is cute and deranged, little mushrooms armed with tiny weapons. Immediately useful, creative, and fun. Could use some adventure hooks or backstory on each, but does what it sets out to do. ★★★★½

  • Pocket Delve 1, Deuce, 3: Maps from donjon.bin.sh, no descriptions. But there’s tables for wandering monsters, treasure, room monsters/events, and 3 detailed bosses. Not really even solos, but tools to make solos with? ★★☆☆☆

  • The Big Book of Alternate Settings For Tunnels & Trolls: Five settings adapted from other indie games into T&T rules, often awkwardly, with no connecting material. Three of these could’ve been combined into one setting and become far more interesting, but as it is this is weak sauce.

    • The Robot Invasion From Planet 01000101: Robots want our women. Weapons. Robot stats. Cat-Women who are superior to all Human chars. No scenario or point. ★★☆☆☆
    • Undertakers: Horror setting in a small town, kind of like Phantasm, but with hellhounds instead of flying balls? Very minor psychics, and fear rules. While weak, it is a scenario and could be played as written. ★★★½☆
    • Xenomorph 1, 2: A set of tables, like Chainsaw Warrior (using dice instead of cards) with Aliens. No real backstory, barely even a game, and Xenomorphs only have basic MR, no cool abilities. ★☆☆☆☆
    • Beauty Queens vs. The Undead: Zombies want our women. Weapons (4 inch heels!). Zombie stats. No scenario or point. Sweet zombie Jesus, make a map and stat up Bob Barker, at least. ★★☆☆☆
    • The Librarians of Doom: Evil librarians vs. ancient knight order vs. anti-librarian militia. Buncha weapons & spy gear. Monster stats for librarians and zombies, demons, shoggoths. Is this a joke about Ken St. Andre being a librarian? No scenario or point, but hey, a little bonus for being completely bugshit crazy. ★★★☆☆
  • The Goblin Gambit: A short (6-page) GM adventure. Spooky woods tables are fine, then a linear adventure to a single staged fight. Could’ve been a solo, certainly not even an evening’s game session for beginner players. ★★½☆☆

  • The Island of the Conatiki-aru, or the Lost Island of the Sea Rogue!: A very nice hex-crawl island map, descriptions written in pirate-speak (which wears thin after 1 paragraph), “Th’ beaches in this area are rough as thar are bones ground into th’ sand. ’tis where th’ great White Apes dispose o’ th’ remains o’ thar meals.”

    However, the stats are given in the back in T&T (MR only, no character stats), QADD, OSR, and USR (“Unbelievably Simple RP”) systems, but not next to descriptions of anything. Flip flip. The map scale is maybe 2 miles/hex, not clearly specified? There’s no hex-crawling rules in this, which is fine in D&D but other games rarely have such technical details.

    ★★★☆☆, could easily have been higher with less pirate-speak and a little more detail.

  • Sanctuary of the Sorcerer -T&T Edition: One-page dungeon with a few tricks & traps. The lightest but one of the least dull of the things I’ve read so far. ★★★☆☆

  • Snollygoster 1-7: T&T fanzine, typically quite short, occasional useful idea or magic item. Neither appalling or awesome. ★★★☆☆

Overall: Mediocrity, relieved only by Monster Menagerie and Hobb Sized Adventures. Price was reduced from $22.50 to $12.00, which it is barely worth.

Old-School Modules, Part I

I need to post more often. A new update of Stone Halls & Serpent Men is coming, but needs some more work and testing, since I’m making a significant change: Level 1 characters will only receive 2 Professions, they’ll get a 3rd at Level 2. There’s also a major gameplay & player control tool, and some other goodies.

In the mean time, I thought I’d go thru the collection of ancient modules, and see which ones are suitable and interesting to run with Stone Halls & Serpent Men. Since I expect most people don’t have the oldest rules (even though you can buy all but Holmes currently on DriveThruRPG), I’m just going to include their maps to show what they’re like, but I won’t do that for the standalone modules. All map rights held by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR, except Outdoor Survival by The Avalon Hill Game Company.

This first installment will just cover original D&D, Holmes, Moldvay, and B1.

Dungeons & Dragons Book III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (TSR, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974)

The underworld adventure consists of a side-view of 6 levels split into several parts with interconnections, but no key.

There is a partially-keyed map for level 1. Not really usable as an adventure by itself, and the other levels are not detailed.

The outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival boardgame, with some features changed into fantastic equivalents, but it’s unkeyed.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Barely a sketch.

D&D Book 3-pg 3
D&D Book 3-pg 4
Outdoor Survival

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Set (TSR, Eric J. Holmes, 1977)

There’s a much better side-view map of The Great Stone Skull Mountain, 7 levels including a domed city. But again there is no key.

The sample dungeon has a setting (sadly not the interior of the Great Stone Skull), a nearby town, and is fully keyed, with stats for the NPCs. I’ve only used this dungeon a couple times ever, but it’s nearly a modern adventure. Interesting points are the multiple entrances (stairs, tower, and sea cave) and multiple loops; it’s unreasonably hard for a defender to hold this dungeon, but that’s good for a starter adventure, where an overly powerful enemy can be avoided.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Acceptable, if bare-bones.

D&D Basic-pg 39
D&D Basic-pg 42

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Basic Set (TSR, Tom Moldvay, 1981)

The side-view doesn’t even have named levels.

The sample dungeon of the Haunted Keep has one tower mapped with a few small rooms but a sort of interesting maze, fully keyed with example rolls from the tables. The scenario backstory about wererats, the second tower, and the 2nd-3rd levels are not mapped. I’ve never used this, and it’s kind of a sad little stub of an adventure.

However, note the dungeon key, by this time dungeon notation’s become standardized.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ Incomplete.

Basic D&D-pg 58
Basic D&D-pg 57
Basic D&D-pg 58-key

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Expert Set (TSR, Dave Cook & Steve Marsh, 1981)

The sample wilderness is the Grand Duchy of Karameikos with a hex map and 3 barely-described towns, and an unkeyed “Gnome Lair”. But it does have a terrain notation key.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Nothing there.

Expert D&D-pg 61
Expert D&D-pg 62-gnome lair
Expert D&D-pg 62-key

B1 In Search of Adventure (TSR, Mike Carr, 1979)

Two complex maze-like levels, completely filling a page each (starting the very artificial pattern of an 8.5×11, north-facing dungeon map, easily predicted by players), with about 8 themed areas. Quasqueton is a funhouse trap dungeon built by an obviously unstable wizard and his murderous militant partner. The descriptions are often evocative of the tone of a well-run facility degraded into the den of a few scavenging monsters. This is not a “mythic underworld”, it’s not Gygaxian Naturalism with ecological notes and political interactions mapped out, but somewhere in between.

There is no side-view, and it’s not absolutely needed, but there are multiple connections between the levels. A more 3-dimensional dungeon would probably be too hard for novice players to map.

The monsters and treasures are given in separate lists at the end of the module, not assigned to specific rooms, whether to throw off players who have read the module, or because TSR was trying to teach novice “Dungeon Masters” how to distribute items, though I don’t think they succeeded at that.

There’s a good section of character lists (12 of each class), for pregens or henchmen, with randomized personality, arms, armor, level, and spells.

The handout/background sheet including a Sutherland illustration and adventuring tips is interesting. And the occasional interior art, mostly by David C. Sutherland III and some “DIS & DAT” with David A. Trampier of Wormy fame, is both informative and a little wacky.

In general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means “easy.” Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution—only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!

The dungeon itself is ready to run, and I think it’s an interesting challenge even 38 years later. I’d replace the every-monster-in-the-book tables entirely with a smaller number of themed monsters, and work out patrol paths and zones where they can hear alarms and come running. Make the dungeon a living community instead of a prison where you murder inmates. The treasures are almost acceptable in value (maybe halved, with the really good ones hidden or guarded better than usual), but there’s no flavor text for any of the magic items, which I consider unacceptable, so I’d have to expand those.

Rating: ★★★½☆ The page-fitting maps and fill-in monsters & treasures hurt an otherwise respectable challenge dungeon.

B1-pg 31

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Indeed.

Next time I’ll look at Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog and B2.

Review: Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls

The most steady way to RPG for me is solo adventures; tabletop and online are great when I can do it, but they’re flaky, irregular activities depending on other people; I write my own computer RPGs in the style I like to play, but this takes a long time. In between, I do freeform self-GMing, or with boardgames like Barbarian Prince, solo modules like XS1 Lathan’s Gold, or solo gamebooks, such as Lone Wolf, Fighting Fantasy, and best of all Tunnels & Trolls.

So first, if you’ve never tried Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, go grab Tunnels & Trolls Free RPG Day: Goblin Lake. Just a few pages of simple rules, and a solo adventure where you play a Goblin to learn the rules. I promise you’ll have fun, and probably die in a pit. Later, more serious solos like City of Terrors can be run with the same minimal rules. Flying Buffalo Inc sells the books, dice (standard 6-sided), and many tchotchkes.

I’m mostly going to address what’s new or different from that minimal solo version, or the full 5th Edition of 1979, or 5.5 of 2003. While I have 7th & 7.5 Edition, I didn’t really use them.

Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls is a 368-page tome, an inch thick, like every game today. This is good for sales on a store shelf, it looks like great value for the price; but it takes away from the “tiny book in your pocket” value. It has great black & white art by Liz Danforth and others, with a signature of color pages.

Happily it’s still very rules-light, and half of the book is setting.

Characters

Prime Attributes (stats, ability scores) are the usual Strength, Constitution (used directly for hit points), Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, plus Luck, Speed, and Wizardry. Luck is your catch-all saving throw, Speed is used for reaction speed and adds to combat, and Wizardry is the energy for casting spells (replacing the use of Strength in previous editions). One quirk is that Speed now represents some traits of agility, but so does Dexterity; I would prefer if DEX had been made purely manual dexterity.

Combat adds in Deluxe are a little higher than previous editions, since you get them for Speed, and no longer take a penalty for low attributes. Missile adds are no longer separate, which is fine, that’s the kind of fussy detail T&T isn’t for.

Character types (classes) are the Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, and Specialist.

Warriors now get a weapon bonus, the old armor bonus, and of course cannot use magic. The sidebar for Warrior acknowledges that some playtesters found the +1d6 per level melee weapon bonus very high; I’m with them, and I use just +1 damage per level with any weapon. Having armor wear down for being doubled is fine (a return to early edition rules), it gives Warriors something to do with their money. Warriors used to be fairly disposable cannon fodder, but now you have some reason to keep them alive to higher levels.

Wizards are the same, they get all 1st-level spells, can reduce spell costs as they level, and can use a magic staff to reduce spell costs even more, but cannot use weapons over 2d6 base damage. Wizards have always worked fairly well, but magic now using Wizardy means you don’t inevitably have super-buff wizards who can only use a dagger, but can punch a dragon to death.

Rogues weren’t in the solo/free edition, but were in the full rules, a competent fighter and magician. As before, they do not lower their spell costs, cannot use magic staves, but in Deluxe they start with a single spell, can learn spells past 7th level, and get one or more free talents. They can choose to switch to Warrior or Wizard at 7th level, but are no longer forced to.

Specialists are just a special case for characters with a TARO (Triples Add & Roll Over) attribute, but there are more advanced rules in the Elaborations section.

Warrior-Wizards (now called Paragons) and Citizens are moved to Elaborations, and aren’t really meant for players anymore. In the old editions, Warrior-Wizards would eventually dominate everything.

The basic Kindreds (races) are the usual Humans, Dwarves[sic] (two types), Elves, “Hobbs”, and then Fairies and Leprechauns, and you can use most monster types given in 13.2 Peters-McAllister Chart. Each kindred has a multiplier for each attribute, such as from 0.25 (Fairy STR) to 2 (Dwarf STR). You can roll your attributes, and then see if a kindred would maximize your adds or magical power.

Now, by default this pushes a group of only non-Humans. There are a couple of balances. One is a new rule to give Humans a second chance at all saving rolls (or only 1d6 times per session); I find this kind of cheaty, and problematic if applied to NPCs, but it’s functional. There’s more on this in 17.5 The Other Human Advantage, with other ideas.

The best solution is tucked away after the Illkin (“evil” kindreds) in 13.1 Playing Non-Human Characters: Non-Humans don’t get to be Warriors, Wizards, Rogues, or Specialists. They’re rogues without the extra talents. You can still make culture-specific training and spell lists for non-Humans, but now a Dwarf isn’t inherently twice as good as a Human Warrior.

Character advancement is massively changed, no longer a D&D-like table of XP to level, now you use your AP (Adventure Points) to directly increase attributes, and your highest attribute determines your level. Now you get a little bit better every session, and can evenly distribute attribute gains, rather than every few sessions getting one giant DING! and spending a bunch of points on one or two attributes. One warning, however, I find that old adventures were generous with AP because it didn’t help that much. Now an award of 500 or 1000 AP is a huge deal, and you should probably halve or quarter those.

The new character sheet is nicely designed, so much better than the old typewriter-on-index-card forms. But you can’t fit 4 per page, which you may need in a killer dungeon! Darkshade’s half-page character sheet is a little more practical, perhaps.

Equipment has one of the most exhaustive, complete sets of weapons (including gunnes), armor, and general goods, alternate materials and improvements for custom gear, and poisons. The already-long lists from 5th & 7th edition have been extended, and there’s a Weapons Glossary in the end of the book describing and illustrating almost every weapon. This is where T&T often shines, instead of wasting time on rules, it has content you’ll use. One thing that hasn’t improved is the “Basic delver’s package” is still the only equipment kit, it would be helpful to have a handful of different kits for faster startup.

Rules

Saving rolls (SR, attribute checks) are explained better than in previous editions, now using a target number of 20 – attribute for level 1, 25 – attribute for level 2, etc.

Talents (skills) are bonuses to specific actions or knowledge, and the basic system or even the multi-level system in Elaborations are both very simple additions to saving rolls, but they work well enough. Both are simpler than Mike Stackpole’s skill system in 5.5 or the talent system in 7th.

Combat is largely unchanged from 5th edition, but has a few additions. Spite damage occurs on every die roll of 6, inflicting a point of damage on the other side ignoring armor. In 7th edition, almost every monster had some special effect on various amounts of spite damage, and that’s gone and good riddance (with the sole exception of poison being inflicted on spite damage).

Missile weapons are more clearly advantageous, letting you inflict damage directly if you make your Dexterity SR to hit, and adding to your side’s total if not. Gunnes, unarmed combat, and berserkers are now in the main combat chapter.

Magic has the addition of schools of magic, many new spells, kindred-specific spell lists (hidden in 12.13 Wizards), and magic artifacts. The spell names are just as silly as ever, though a few have been renamed, but “Sux2BU” is eye-rollingly bad. Silliness aside, the spells are powerful and can be powered up so they never stop being useful, and it does a fantastic job of modelling pulp swords & sorcery wizards.

Elaborations has a few pages each on languages, more complex talent rules, miniatures, a slightly longer gem table (but still no other random treasure tables), wandering monsters, a calendar, locks & traps (but not explicitly what SR is needed to lockpick), and other knicknacks.

Bestiary

Basic monsters are represented, as they have been since time immemorial, as a single number: Monster Rating (MR). A Giant Spider (MR 16) or an Orc Assassin (MR 100) are mechanically very similar. Unlike previous editions, the combat dice from MR are no longer reduced by damage, so that Giant Spider does 2d6+8 in combat at full health, and 2d6+0 after taking 15 damage. Large numbers of monsters are much more dangerous in Deluxe.

Much of the Monsters! Monsters! roster and some new beasties have been included, so you can stat them all up individually, though this is slower than MR combat.

I’ve discovered and confirmed with Ken that stats for Half-Elf & Half-Orc are missing, and Dwelf are incorrect or very optimistic; instead for all half-breeds you should just average the parents’ stat multipliers.

New monster kindreds are: Dakk (dark Dwarf), Hobgoblin, Kobold, Selkie, Pixie, Redcap, Keeraptora, Lizard People, Policani (Dogtaur), Ratling, Ghargh (Gargoyle), Rhynon (rhino-men), and Forest & Jungle Trolls.

Some were renamed: Hobbit to Hobb, Black Hobbit to Rapscallion, Balrog to Kauter, Worm to Common Dragon, Wyvern to Young Dragon (in stats, but these lose the character of Worm and Wyvern), Dark Elf to Vartae, and Yeti to Man-Ape.

Missing beasties from M!M! are: Gorgon (Medusa), Shadowjack, Living Statue, Snollygoster (still appearing in the setting chapter), Mummy, Sphinx, Zombie (but see the Zombie Zonk spell), Slime Mutant of Florida, Ghost, Night-Gaunt, Giant Slug, Shoggoth, Snark, Chimera, Basilisk, Gorilla, Warg, Unicorn, Giant Spider, Hydra, Griffin, Elementals, Chinese Fox, Rock Person, and Tsathogua.

The new beasties are useful if you’re converting adventures, but others are only appropriate to some areas of Trollworld. The missing beasties are a huge loss if you run a monster-heavy game, so go get Monsters! Monsters!. 7.5 had a basic monster list in the book, and Monstrum Codex with dozens more, but these are often pretty weird, and rely on special abilities.

The classic laundry list of monsters is gone:

A dungeon without monsters would be dull stuff. What lurks and slithers in your imagination, I don’t know, but in mine there are fire-breathing dragons, crocodiles, unicorns, snarks and boojums, black hobbits, giant spiders, cave lions, pythons, centaurs, toothy nonflammable dragons, werewolves, balrogs, basilisks, ghosts, jub jub birds, slithy toves, cave bears, sphinx, enchanted warriors, reptile men, flame fiends, harpies, orcs, mushroom monsters, cockatrices, giant slugs, banshees, mummies, barrow wights, goblins, ogres, living statues, trolls, shoggoths, wraiths, demons, leopards, octopi (giant economy size), vampires, gnoles, minotaurs, slime-mutants, drooling maniacs, two-headed giants, half-orcs, hydrae, living skeletons, bandersnatchi, jabberwocks, pithecanthropi, ghouls, mad dogs, poisonous vipers, blood bats, night gaunts, lamiae, cannibals, witches, warlocks, rabid rats (ulsios), three-headed giants, chimaerae, wyvverns, hags, giant slimy worms, yeti, tigers, gorgons, zombies, bigfoots, griffins, invisible stalkers, were-creatures of all varieties, misanthropes and misogynists, mantichores, and lots more.

However, there is now 17.2 Wandering Monsters which has a few monsters and animals, with trivial, serious, and deadly MRs for each. 17.9 Steeds lists types of weird mounts and stats for barding, but not even MR or movement rates for the steeds.

Setting

The Trollworld Atlas, the remainder of the book, has a fairly extensive setting. 5.5 edition had a bit of timeline for Trollworld, but the older editions had almost no setting, except some implied setting in the adventures.

The newly expanded history paints a constant war between the Human-like races and the Illkin, and the Humans often lose, or are pushed back. The gods/omnipotent wizards seem to want to teach the mortals tolerance, shapeshifting wizards into the form of their “enemies”, but they rarely learn from it.

There’s not really anything like “pseudo-European fantasyland” in Trollworld, though you might think so if you don’t go far from Khosht. For worldbuilding and sense of wonder, as you go out and learn more, that’s great. For recasting existing fiction and adventures into Trollworld, it’s inconvenient.

There are four continents/regions, each location in each region only has a sentence or paragraph of description, but more details are given for the monstrous city of Khazan and its sewers, the mostly Human city of Khosht, and the pirate city of Knor. Gull (from City of Terrors) is given a short story tour by Mike Stackpole. I could use more detail, especially leaders, rough population, fortifications, and wealth for each town, given that players are often murderhobo Human-likes or monsters on raid.

The short solo adventure Abyss, where dead delvers have a chance to escape Hades and return to life, is in the book. An odd choice. I’ve often let players (and my own characters) have one chance through it in the little pamphlet edition, but Christian-tinged Greek myth is out of place on Trollworld, and starting the adventures off with death doesn’t work.

Three GM adventures on Zorr, the Eagle Continent, go from fairly easy exploration and adventure, to a much harder wilderness quest, to an extremely dangerous dungeon with a harsh, unforgiving time limit. I think you’d have to force-feed AP to starting characters to make them competent for the end if you ran it straight through, but it’s great to see a long GM adventure with a strong setting for T&T.

I rather miss the 5.5 edition’s tiny intro GM adventure of Trollstone Caverns, and the more extensive solo of Buffalo Castle. But you can also get a ton of solo and GM adventures from Flying Buffalo or 3rd parties on DriveThruRPG (I have 50-odd in my Adventures folder, plus another score in print), so it’s not mandatory.

The book ends with a weapon glossary, a rules index, and a setting index.

There are newly updated Deluxe solo books of Agent of Death, Buffalo Castle, City of Terrors, Deathtrap Equalizer, and Dungeon of the Bear, and new spell books for each of the kindred.

Rating

  • Presentation: ★★★★☆ Mostly just 2-column black & white layout with only a few callout boxes, one signature of color pages, no “hyperlink” page references as in some current books, but it’s easy to read and attractive.
  • Organization: ★★★★☆ Several elements are hidden away in awkward places. If you’re not diligent about reading every section, you can miss something useful. But the core rules are very easy to find in the usual case-point manual numbering.
  • Rules: ★★★★★ Wizardry, Spite, and Talents fix almost everything I ever had to work around in older editions. Balance for kindreds & types is a little higher-powered, but that’s subjective and fixed by choosing different optional rules.
  • Setting: ★★★½☆ Trollworld’s fine, and has interesting conflicts, and Khazan and Khosht are excellent, but it still needs another pass of detailing everywhere else to be a first-class world. The GM adventures fill in a previously-unknown continent, but Abyss is out of place.
  • Utility: ★★★★☆ Full of little mechanics, tables, and setting bits that can be directly applied in a game. You could easily pick up this book, read it, and run great fantasy games forever.
  • Average: ★★★★½ If you liked that Free RPG Day booklet at all, if you’ve ever liked solo gamebooks, if you have a sense of humor about your gaming, get Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.

D&D Next Playtest Rules

Time Warp. Level 7 Magic-User Spell. Material components:

  • 1 bag of Cheetos™.
  • 6 bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola™ for that real sugar taste.
  • One set of soapy TSR dice. Alternately, razor-sharp GameScience™ dice (still my specialized weapon).
  • Pencils, lined paper, graph paper, hex paper.
  • Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual”.
  • One copy of D&D Next Playtest

    “Notwithstanding the foregoing, you may publicly discuss your thoughts regarding the D&D Next Playtest Materials and your playtesting experience.”

Mechanically, this looks a lot like a D20 retro-clone; a stripped-down D20 system. It’s not the miniatures wargame crossed with Magic the Gathering® card superpowers of pseudo-D&D 4E, at least. It’s a long way from being a completed game.

Skills There is no skill list! You use your ability scores for checks and saving throws, and some class/other features will give bonuses, but it’s not another damned shopping list. I guess they finally got over their GURPS envy. Exploration and the DM Guidelines have rules blocks with lists of DC targets, and classes that provide bonuses to these. But everyone can do almost any of the “thieves’ skills”, with the exception that only thieves can use actual lockpicks. Thieves are pretty close to totally irrelevant in this game, which makes me happier.

Advantages and disadvantages (anything a class/race is good/bad at) use a second die roll, and you keep the best or worst result; I’d have to see that in play or simulation to know how catastrophic a disadvantage is. It’s a unique solution to the problem, but I think a modifier of +4 or -4 (more? less?) would have been saner.

Hit Points are inflated: They start equal to your Con score plus one hit die. I think that’s too much for a game where a spear still does 1d6 damage. Hold still while I stab you with a spear, Mr Dwarf Fighter (20 HP), stab 5 stab 3 stab 2 stab 2 stab 1 stab 5 stab 3, so it took SEVEN successful stabs to get you unconscious. In the old days, it would take just two, maybe 3. Oh, quit bleeding on my carpet, you damned Dwarf.

Level is vastly deflated and deprecated. There’s no experience table beyond the 3 levels on the character sheets, and the XP awards listed in the Bestiary, so who knows what maximum level looks like. But tasks don’t use level, the game looks far more mortal than it’s been since OD&D where 9th level was a good retirement point.

Combat is vastly simplified. Surprise costs you -20 Initiative (they don’t say “for the first round”, so basically being surprised is a total clusterfuck). Initiative is rolled once at the start of a battle, but other than a single-serving ready action, you can’t change your order. On your turn, you get a move and one action and shut up, that’s it.

Critical hits are a natural 20 doing maximum damage, no second rolls and then faffing about with weapon type.

There’s no rules for wrestling or other unarmed combat. In the weapons chart, there’s damage for an unarmed strike (1d4), but no bolas, whips, nets. Is this an oversight or deliberate avoidance of a complex subject? The Strength Saving Throws section mentions grapples and bindings.

Equipment. Man, those ridiculous copper pieces are still there, but Electrum is back! Party like it’s 1974! Values of each coin in CP by edition:

Edition         CP      SP      EP      GP      PP
----------------------------------------------------
OD&D            1       5       25/100* 50      250
Holmes          1       5       25      50      250
Cyclopedia      1       10      50      100     500
AD&D 1st Ed     1       10      100     200     1000
D20             1       10      -       100     1000
D&D Next        1       10      50      100     1000
UK 1660-1971    1       12      -       240**   -
Harry Potter*** 1       17      -       493     -

* “If Electrum is added it is optionally worth either twice or half the value of Gold.”

** 1 Pound Sterling was worth 20 shillings, but actual gold coins varied radically as gold/silver exchange rates changed.

*** CP = Knut, SP = Sickle, GP = Galleon. Makes no less sense than anything else.

For a similar tale of inflationary confusion, see Roman currency.

Armor has better variety. Light armor adds Dex mod, medium armor adds half Dex mod, heavy armor adds no Dex mod. There’s 4 armors for each weight, plus light and heavy shields (+1 and +2 AC). There’s non-magical fantasy armor at the top of the price charts, so you still have something to spend loot on.

Weapons are most of the usual list divided into Basic, Finesse (can use Dex instead of Str), Martial, Heavy, Missile, and Complex Missile. But some classes still have arbitrary lists of allowed/proscribed weapons, such as the Wizard has “Daggers, slings, and quarterstaffs”, even though the Cleric has basic weapons including hammers, maces, handaxes, spears, etc. So no blunt weapon restriction? Still quite awkward and unlike any real (non-D&D-fanfic) fantasy literature.

Adventuring gear list is insanely long (4 pages in a 31-page booklet!), still has a 10′ pole, but no chalk for marking your way. Do you think anyone looks at these items anymore? Or is it cut-and-paste?

Encumbrance is still in pounds. Are we not past that yet? Hey, at least it’s not coin-weights anymore. I’m used to modern games which use “X items” capacity and common sense.

Magic The Wizard example can cast 3 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited cantrips (Detect Magic, Light, Magic Missile, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp — no little non-combat cantrips? I miss Color, Fart, and Stinkeye (may not be actual cantrips)). The Cleric examples can cast 2 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited orisons (Detect Magic, Radiant Lance, Death Ward shown). I think this may be an overcorrection, but at least nobody will call a Wizard “fire and forget”. You still have to prepare specific spells, so your least popular spells will never be cast even if they’d be useful.

The spell list makes no real distinction between arcane and divine magic. Spells once again have verbal, somatic, and in some cases material components. It’s not clear if you have to gather sand for Sleep, but it is clear in cases like Continual Light’s 50 GP of ruby dust(!).

I’ll look at the Bestiary and Caves of Chaos tomorrow, then try an actual playtest when I can kidnap some players.

Review: Chivalry & Sorcery Essence

The new Chivalry & Sorcery Essence PDF from Brittannia Game Designs is out. This is the first new set of C&S rules in years, and is the start of a line of products. BGD has been making C&S settings for some time, but I haven’t actually read any of those.

The book is cheap (currently $6 PDF, $10 print) and short, which I like. Of the 44 page book, the first 22 contain the main rules, the rest is setting and an adventure. There is an index, which is appreciated even in a short text. The art is mostly stock, neither authentic medieval art nor original, except a few pieces in the adventure and the mediocre cover art. The classic FGU version had much better art, but here you get $6 worth of design.

The rules use a single d20 instead of, as in the original, percentile and every polyhedral die. There’s a single task system, with only slight complications for critical hits and fumbles.

Character creation is fast and simple. The nine stats are rolled 1d20/2 + 5, a flat distribution, not a more realistic bell curve, and there’s no point buy system. You choose or are assigned a social class (no random chance?), and choose a vocation, which give you a number of skills with +1 to +2 bonuses, so not very significant compared to stats, though they will be easier to improve.

The vocations are Warrior, Forester, Bandit, Thief, Friar/Priest/Shaman, Mage, Physician, Mountebank. These are just a few free skill bonuses, there’s no hard classes, e.g. if you wanted a mystic Assassin, take a Thief and add Magic.

Very little explanation or use of stats is given, so except for STR, CON, and AGL, they’re useless except for specific skills.


Test Character:

Sir Cide von Karnaj
Gender: Male, Social Class: Noble, Vocation: Warrior
Strength (STR): 13               Body Points (BP): 30
Constitution (CON): 13         Fatigue (FAT): 26
Agility (AGL): 11 12
Intelligence (INT): 10
Wisdom (WIS): 10
Discipline (DIS): 12
Appearance (APP): 10
Bardic Voice (BV): 9
Piety (PTY): 6

Skills:
Language: German (Spoken) (INT) +1
Willpower (DIS) +1
Sword (STR) +3
Ride Animal (Horse) (DIS)+1
Language: English (Spoken) (INT) +1
Spear (AGL) +2
Dodge (AGL) +1
Brawl (STR) +1
Archery (AGL) +1
Shield (AGL) +1
Tactics (INT) +1

Equipment:
Money: 20 shillings
Maille Armor  (8 DP)
Knight's Sword (WC H, Damage 6 + 7 = 13)
Spear, 1H (WC M, Damage 4 + 7 = 11)
Shield, Wooden, Small (6 DP)
Riding Horse

Combat is fast and abstract. You get a number of “blows” per 1-minute round depending on your AGL and weapon class; Sir Cide would get (12 / 5 =) 2 blows with sword or (12 / 4 =) 3 with spear.

The one serious editorial problem in the book is that actually doing damage is not explained in the combat section; instead there’s bits under weapons and armor in equipment, and also the explanation of Fatigue & Body Points in characters. There are examples, but they’re not complete, e.g. when the bandit hits Sir Andrew for 12 damage, it is stated to be “Body Points”, when the earlier rules say it should come first from his Fatigue.

Prayers and Shamanism are very simple, a die roll to succeed, with a -1 penalty per prayer previously made that day, and some Fatigue cost. Some of these prayers seem grossly overpowered, like the basic Mass which blesses every listener to add half the Friar’s Prayer skill level to all tasks done that day! I’d probably nerf that to just one task, lest Mass from a high priest make everyone unstoppable death machines. There’s only 10 common prayers and 8 shamanic prayers, but they cover more than enough spiritual magic for Arthurian games.

Magic is also a task roll to succeed, and each spell costs Fatigue. There are several options for powering up spells, at an increased Fatigue cost. The spell list has 27 spells, mostly the kind of glamours appropriate to Arthurian stories. Following that is an enchantment system where permanent sacrifice of Magic skill levels lets you embed a spell in an item; given the difficulty and cost, magic items are not common.

Experience points are gained for play and story, not killing things and looting the bodies. EP can be spent on skill points, learning new spells, or (at great cost) increasing stats oher than STR, CON, AGL. I don’t understand why combat stats are excepted, since in reality those are the easiest stats to improve with exercise, and I would just house rule that exception away.

The bestiary is minimal, 10 animals, 7 monsters, 8 humanoids, and 8 humans, with three “level up” packages for them. “The Bestiary for C&S Essence is only a fraction of the creatures and intelligent peoples available with the full rules, some of which, Elves, Orcs and Trolls to name but three are available to play as characters.”

The listed monsters are tough, a Ghoul has 49 Body, 32 Fatigue, while a Mountain Troll has 114 Body, 56 Fatigue, 15 DP armor, and magic. Stick to human foes or fight them in a group!

The included setting of Darken is very weird and cheesy, an evil kingdom ruled by a dragon goddess, populated with Orcs, Goblins, and Dark Elves. It’s as far from a traditional Chivalry & Sorcery setting as you can get, far more appropriate to high fantasy.

The adventure “The Serpent of Paun-I-Tawe”, is a bit of a mystery in an occupied border town. Not a good starting adventure, not particularly clear, but at least it’s not completely high fantasy.

Finally there is a couple pages of skirmish wargame rules for larger battles; this could be quite handy in a campaign.

There is a character sheet, but as it is an awkward landcape, 2 pages, I expect better fan-made portrait sheets to come out.

Ed Simbalist’s tone in the original FGU C&S was Arthurian/realistic 12th century France but with Elves, monsters, and rules and magick you couldn’t figure out how to use. He backed up that setting, and made up for the awful rules, with essays about verisimilitude and well-chosen art. (But also tacked in Hobbits from the Shire, so WTF, Ed?)

BGD’s version is nearly the same power level (heroic but lethal), but actually playable. But it lacks any of that setting material, and high fantasy junk like Darken is discouraging. Maybe BGD’s other setting books are less lame? I’m ill-inclined to find out. Rather, read Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”, T.H. White’s “Once and Future King”, and Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”, and you’ll have no need of their sourcebooks.

Rules: 4/5. Presentation: 2/5. Setting: 2/5.

For comparison, “Mr. Lizard” did a character creation walkthrough of the classic FGU C&S:
Part I,
Part II,
Part III.