Back in the seventies, Steve Jackson designed a couple of really great microgames. No… I’m not talking about Ogre and G.E.V., though those were seriously awesome. I mean Melee and Wizard. These fantasy-based tactical dueling games were supported with solitaire adventures… and were eventually expanded into a full fledged role playing game with In the Labyrinth, Advanced Melee, and Advanced Wizard. The index to the game was sold separately. (Really.) Varying subsets of this stuff were called The Fantasy Trip. But then Metagaming went out of business, and Howard Thompson refused to let Jackson have the rights to his games back for anything like a reasonable price. Steve Jackson went on to come up with a new role playing game system– GURPS— and the rest is history.
Despite the strong success of the GURPS line, a lot of people are still pretty attached to the earlier system. Some people still publish solitaire adventures for it to this day. And in a season where everyone seems to be publishing their own take on Gygax and Arneson’s OD&D booklets, it’s refreshing to see some other retro-clone ground being covered for a change. Even better, C. R. Brandon is doing it without all the hoopla that would surround a big Kickstarter campaign. No, he’s doing things the old fashioned way– completing his work and putting it up on Lulu. (Wait… is that really the old fashioned way…? Well… I guess it is at this point.)
If you’ve been playing Legends of the Ancient World, you’ll be right at home. The big change is the new Endurance stat. GURPS players may arch an eyebrow when they find out that heroes get this stat, but regular folks don’t. But considering that Dark City Games normally starts off their wizard characters with a magic staff of energy reservedness equal to their ST, this isn’t that big of a a change. The real change is that non-wizard heroes (“Adventurers”) now have a lot of extra padding that can be quickly repaired after a fight.
More subtly, characters start with very limited funds. Instead of starting the game with the best equipment your ST will allow (as in Legends), you now are looking at having to work your way up into not just armor, but reasonable weaponry as well. (This is similar to how Labyrinth Lord jacked the price up on plate mail so that fighters would have to really work for it. Heroes takes that concept and cranks it up to “11”.) Players used to having the best weapon available may not like this, but they won’t mind the extra damage they get for having more ST than required for the weapon they end up with. (Our first set of characters pretty much started with cutlasses and no armor. They were lucky to even have clothing!) Even though the player characters have humble beginnings, they do at least start with one skill more than Legends characters do.
Running Filthy Lucre #0…
The big change from Legends here is that you now roll for initiative for every combat turn. (Running Legends, I ended up rolling just once and then alternating.) The fact that the game has initiative by sides instead of by character makes the game more reminiscent of Moldvay’s Basic D&D. Also, rolling every turn gives the game less of a static Ultima III sort of feel.
The other big change here is in the defensive actions. In Legends, if you tried to defend… you gave up your next attack. In Heroes, you get one (and only one) defense action per turn as long as you have moved 1/2 your move score or less this turn. The only cost for a defensive action is that you cannot move at all on the following turn if you use it. Just on a first look at this this seems a little clumsy. (In large battles, you’ll need to mark character counters with a token if they have defensive options after the movement phase… and you’ll have to mark them as being immobile if they end up using them.) But maybe this is a happy medium between the two extremes of Legends and GURPS. There are also several other small additions, including consequences for being “engaged” (á la Melee), more attack options, chance for knockdown (á la GURPS), an encumbrance system, and a nice critical hit/fumble rule.
This is the other big, bold change: you can’t improve your stats with experience points anymore. This means that your character development is going to be entirely in the area of new and better skills and spells. This isn’t so bad when you find out that Wizard Heroes can actually learn spells that have a higher rating than their IQ– they just have to roll 4/IQ to cast those.
In this game, you score XP for passing skill and attribute tests. The net result of this is to encourage players to roll the dice often– as compared to Moldvay D&D where players are encouraged to clear out a level and then be the only survivor so that experience is concentrated in their character alone. The referee’s end-of-adventure discretionary XP award is an almost direct lift of the GURPS approach.I do find that as the number of players increases, the less likely I am to keep good track of successful skill rolls, though. In the long run, it looks like the XP-by-referee-fiat system will win out over the heavy bookkeeping varieties.
This thing is loaded. You’ve got a clever hireling generator and a tidy little monster manual. You’ve got a section on treasure and another on random dungeon generation. Altogether, this is all the stuff that you loved about your Moldvay Basic Set but which Steve Jackson abhorred for some reason. Seeing these two idioms come together is weird… but it’s even weirder that no one else has thought to do this. A solo adventure and a sample refereed adventure round out the package.
These are a hodge podge of random things that rub me the wrong way…. As referee, I can compensate for all of this. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand about the Old School Revival, it’s this occasional cavalier attitude with regards to quality. (Anybody that’s made peace with the ambiguity of OD&D is suspect as far as I’m concerned.) So even though I enjoy the game and like it at lot… I’m going to go ahead and call out some of the minor issues I see with this first edition rule set.
- The confusingly named Literacy skill includes rules for the default starting languages for the two classes. This should have been incorporated into the class descriptions on page 14. Also… having a Literacy skill implies that the player characters are illiterate by default. If Literacy skill is intended to just be an additional language, it should have been called Language instead.
- It is not completely clear, but it seems to be the intent of the game that in order to gain a new spell, you must (a) have an IQ slot available, (b) have the required XP, and (c) either purchase the spell with gold or find it in a scroll or spell book during an adventure. Clarification is needed, though.
- “5 feet of space” makes no sense. And why are hexes called spaces in these rules…? And why isn’t it clear whether the spell areas-of-effect are triangles, mega-hexes, zig-zags, lines, or what?! Argh! (I might have put up with this in the free Legends rules, but I shouldn’t have to put up with it in Heroes. Please don’t make me make a house rule or ruling on something this stupid!!)
- On page 22 the illustration about what spells a Wizard Hero can learn seems to contradict the preceding rule that allows them to learn higher level spells than their IQ.
- On page 23, shouldn’t images be dispelled only when touched? Only the much more dangerous illusions should be “disbelievable”.
- The costs on some of those hirelings can be pretty steep. The specialists could even end up asking for 60% of all treasure found in addition to their per diem. That’s just crazy.
- The artwork: some of it is pretty good, some of it is amateurish, and too much of it scaled horribly when it was blown up for the layout. That latter is painful to my eyeballs. (Also, the fonts aren’t working right when they are put on charts that are superimposed on the scroll graphics.)
- The character sheet: why are the character portraits filled out already? And why so much black on the headings?! Not only are they not useful (unless you’re playing Fellowship of the Ring), but the copying one of these would waste expensive printer ink.
- The lack of some sort of morale rule is pretty conspicuous in a self-conscious Moldvay-Jackson mashup. This isn’t quite as noticeable when you have Wizard Heroes in the party to push the “win button” for you, but I still miss it.
On the Table
My son (age 9) has played Raid on Cygnosa, so he really had no problem learning the new rules. While looking over the skill list to pick out thief type abilities, he zeroed in on the Charm skill– I’m pretty sure he thought it was like the D&D Charm Person spell. At IQ 8, he’s still going to be hit-or-miss with that ability, but I think it really personalizes his character. He’s a rogue with just a touch of “dashing” thrown in.
My daughter (age 7) is much more of a Labyrinth Lord fan and had no doubts about wanting to continue playing a sorceress type character. What she wanted was all the classic spells from Moldvay Basic D&D— sleep, ventriloquism, etc. It took a while to explain all the options, but against most low-level foes, her invisibility spell makes her pretty well invincible. The other big thing was where to put her last two attribute points. (She put them into strength so that she could use a decent bow when she could have put those points into her Endurance stat.) We got three short sessions out of the Filthy Lucre scenario from the zeroth issue of The Cauldron after she couldn’t get past the door in “The Hollows of Helsmuth”. The real meat of these trial sessions focused on who she takes with her on adventures and how much she pays them The moral dimension to the game has developed such she has no problem killing random banditos for money, but she will not arbitrarily annihilate an otherwise peaceful tribe of neanderthals just for the easily obtained experience points. (It remains to be seen how she’ll respond the the inevitable kobald women and children dilemma.)
I finally got my son and daughter to sit down together at the same time and they went back to “The Hollows of Helsmuth.” The session was plagued by brother-sister squabbling, though. My daughter would not assist in her brother’s efforts to open the door to the dungeon. She even forbade her hireling from pitching in. My son tried a few attempts at pushing and pulling on the door and refused to ruin his weapons by trying bash it down like my daughter suggested. He did not like the fact that the game world lacked explosives and machine guns. He nearly gave up altogether, but then got the notion of setting up an elaborate pulley system. It worked!
After investigating the first room, my son proposed splitting up the party to explore each exit. My daughter wasn’t supportive of the idea and they argued for a while. Finally I had to negotiate a compromise where they split their four characters into two groups. My son’s character looked for trouble, found it, killed it, and then found some treasure. My daughter’s character went through rooms without disturbing anything. But then there was a big row over whether or not my son would have to share the treasure he’d found. This ended with my daughter heading back to town and my son resting in the dungeon for four hours in order to heal back his EN. A wandering monster showed up and did enough damage to negate everything that he’d healed back. Realizing that resting in the dungeon would be problematic without any real support, he chose to head back to town, too.
Looks like I need to lay down some sort of basic adventuring contract that they can all agree to before heading to the dungeon next time. (It wasn’t like this when they played Palace of the Silver Princess a couple of years ago….) I’m blaming the squirrelliness on excessive amounts of Valentines Day candy– they’re like totally different kids when they get ahold of all those artificial colors and flavors….
If you are the sort of person that (a) thinks old school D&D had strange and unclear rules and also that (b) GURPS is just too big and complicated anymore… then this might be the game for you.
If you enjoy Dark City Games’ solo adventures, but wished that they’d released a more complete rule-set… then this might be the game for you.
If you are looking for an old school system that is a good fit for convention play (where there are severe limits on the complexity of the rules given the strong chance of having several brand-new players)… then this might be the game for you.
If you’re looking for a role playing game to play with you’re kids, this is one that should be on the short list for your consideration.
Finally… if you’re a fan of Metagaming and the early microgame designers… and if you’ve often wished that someone would revisit that style of gaming today… well… now’s your chance to signal that you’d like to see more of this sort of thing. So buy it already!
More articles in this series:
Given the big changes in new Call of Cthulhu, I’m faintly surprised nobody has retrocloned that yet.
Thanks for the detailed review Jeffro!
Hopefully I didn’t give too much away….
Interesting that the penalty for defending is to lose your next attack. In a way, this fits better with my experience with sparring and fighting than the current GURPS model, where you may attack and defend each turn by default. I actually have a planned post on this (not written, just planned) in my future.
(That’s Legends where you lose your attack if you parry– in Heroes you give up the ability to move if you defend. But point taken– looking forward to the post!)
I highly recommend you look into the combat mechanics of RuneQuest II/Legend and the new RuneQuest 6th Edition if you have not already. They were written by a couple of guys with some experience toting ancient weapons around and beating one another up with them, and they tried to model combat from their experience. There’s a good deal to be said for their Special Effects model, as well as their use of Action Points (the name should sound good to you) for actions (attack or defense) in any five-second combat round.
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