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.

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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.