First impression review: Lion & Dragon

I really like the idea of historically based RPGs. One of the best campaigns I ever played in was a GURPS historical campaign. But I probably like the idea a little more than the actual experience of playing them, because so much of my playing history has been D&D.  Anyway I’m always curious about games that claim any kind of “authenticity” or to be informed by historical research, so Lion & Dragon caught my interest with it’s subtitle: “Medieval Authentic OSR Roleplaying.”

Right off the bat I should admit I am generally turned off by main author, “RPGPundit.” He espouses hateful politics and is the sort of self-promoter who will complain constantly about being mistreated while attacking other people shamelessly. So I definitely wouldn’t want to be around him in real life. But there are lots of people I don’t like. This review will, to the extent possible, bracket my thoughts on the person and focus on the product.

The fact is, it’s a pretty neat game. The rules are relatively concise and the layout is nice. I appreciate games that don’t overdo the graphic design, and this has a mix of new and public domain black & white line art. Nice. The system itself is a mix of ideas, like a heavily house-ruled Moldvay/Cook D&D game. The classes reminded me very much of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with heavily niched areas of expertise. Instead of regular charted progress in class abilities, each time a level is gained the player rolls for a random benefit — a mechanic I’ve seen on several blogs a good 8 or 10 years ago (for example), but one I always thought was a clever way of keeping characters unique. The magic system is significantly different than standard Vancian D&D, with clerics gaining a short list of miracle-working abilities and magic-users (“magisters”) focusing on summoning, alchemy, and similar pursuits. All characters are humans, with northern barbarians and the Cymric being classes in themselves, while other nationalities may choose from the standard thief, fighter, MU, and cleric classes. This all looks good.

Unfortunately the major problems in the game are where it fails, sometimes badly, to fulfill the promised “medieval authenticity.” According to the introduction, the promised authenticity relies on five pillars:

  1. social status is extremely important
  2. monotheism
  3. magic is rare
  4. life is cheap
  5. civilization is survival

The first point had me thinking this was a promising start. Looking back on what I consider the most important attempt at “medieval authenticity,” Fantasy Wargaming, social class was given extremely detailed treatment in both the introductory essays and the mechanics. In L&D, there are just six social classes listed:

  • ex-slave/serf
  • peasant
  • villain (city-born)
  • knightly nobility
  • lordly nobility
  • aristocracy

Clerics, we are told, roll only to determine their origins, but all considered to be of the knightly class on strength of their office. (This is a pretty big departure from medieval authenticity in itself.) A short, vague discussion of how social classes interact follows, and social class will determine a character’s initial background skill and starting wealth. It does not affect how many siblings one has, or how many of them are still alive, or options for character class. It does appear again in the section on law and trials, however.

The description of the “villain” as “city-born” is flummoxing. A villein in medieval England was a rural dweller, with feudal obligations to a lord, and possibly little more than a peasant. If the intent was to have a middle-class type, perhaps “burgher” or “guild member” would be a better fit. This is something other games (like Fantasy Wargaming) handle better by bifurcating social classes and statuses according to ‘estates’ and hierarchies, so that one might compare conscripted peasant to a lay brother to an urban servant to a rich villein, all of similar status but in different spheres (landed/warrior class, religious, urban, and rural). Failing that, the social classes just need to be expanded to a much larger list. People born in a city could range from paupers to Lord Mayor, after all.

Another factor one might expect to impact characters is gender, but apart from noting that females are excluded from the magister collegiums (schools that teach magisters, or magic-users), gender has little impact on a character’s interactions and status. This is partly explained by the fact that the Church of the Unconquered Sun is egalitarian.

And this is perhaps the most glaring problem with L&D. The monotheism of L&D is not Christianity. There are clearly reasons for this decision (avoiding offense to players, opening up more opportunities for female characters, simplicity). But the medieval period was certainly colored by the peculiarities of Christian doctrine and lore, and it is odd that this would be hand-waved. Similarly, L&D adopts the Law vs Chaos moral-metaphysical order of D&D. While this is also described as a equivalent to good/holy vs evil/unholy, the concept of Chaos in L&D includes not just the Poul Anderson-inspired idea of the indifferent or hostile faerie otherworld, but also the Warhammer world’s idea of chaos as a force for mutation. Chaos cults and mutants, and even skaven rat-men are a part of L&D too. This is jarring and odd, but an enterprising DM could make sense of this with reference to the nightmarish art of Bosch and Bruegel and other grotesques as precedent, and to perhaps casting Chaos cults as pagan survivals. In any event the DM will have to determine what exactly mutations consist of, as the rules simply point the Cults of Chaos book for information on that. So in a way, mutations are not really part of the game at all, or at least not the core game. This is a strange decision, but presumably fits in with a marketing plan that requires purchase of at least one supplement to complete the game.

So. not doing great on the first two pillars. How about “Magic is rare?” The strongest part of the game is the magic system. For clerics, the miracle system is enviably simple. For magisters, the magic system is much more complicated but includes a lot of authentic detail. RPGPundit has often mentioned his interest in the occult and it is obvious that much of this section is inspired by occult literature. It would perhaps be quibbling to note that much of this literature is from a later period than the medieval. Having colleges that teach magic seems a little contradictory to the idea of magic being rare, but on the other hand, Toledo and Salamanca were reputed to have the best colleges for magic in medieval Spain. So the Collegium are not totally without precedent.

The aforementioned section on trials is also quite good. The rest of the rules are interesting variant rules for D&D. The combat rules take inspiration from a number of sources, and at times it looks like house-rules for a more combat-intense LotFP.

The companion volumes Cults of Chaos and Dark Albion provide more setting details. CoC is described as offering more detailed information on heresies and cults, including demon-worshipers, as well as rules for chaos mutations. It would appear that the forces of Chaos in the setting are similar to what the medieval Church and Inquisition imagined as the forces of Satan; presumably all heresies are ultimately devil-worship. DA is said to contain more detailed rules stressing the importance of social status, but as it was actually published before L&D it is unclear if these would supplement or simply repeat what is in L&D. DA contains generic OSR material that overlaps with  or contradicts the things covered in the L&D rules such as character classes and magic, based on what I could discern from reviews.

As I haven’t rolled up a character, let alone played this, I can’t offer a final judgement, but my overall impression is that this game suffers from being over-hyped by the author. It looks like a good system with some great ideas, but it tries to be too many things, in my opinion. It tries to be

  • a game for “medieval authentic” play (whatever that means; it is less clear as one reads the rules) in traditional D&D style adventures
  • a game system to use with the Dark Albion setting (which is a sort of mix of the Warhammer Old World with traditional D&D by way of the 100 Years War, with both “serious” and “dark” content mixed with jokey ideas like France being ruled by literal Frogmen) and
  • a game to perhaps challenge similar adaptations of the B/X rules but shift the focus to other modes of play in more historically-based settings, like LotFP and other OSR games that actually push the boundaries of what D&D is.

I feel like it could be used for the first two purposes readily enough: ignore the mutations and frogmen and the Church of the Unconquered Sun for the first mode. As-is it is suited for the second (though honestly I wonder if even the author uses the bizarre Dark Albion setting). But there is really nothing to support a DM hoping for the third option. The DMing sections give no advice on designing adventures, and the “wilderlands adventuring” guidelines are bare-boned tables with a few suggestions for encounters like “bandits” or “wild animals.” Worse, the explanations for the encounters often add nothing useful, such as: “GIANT. This encounter would be with a giant, of the type chosen by the GM as most appropriate for the area and terrain.” And, of course, an entry for Mutants that again points the reader to another book. More information on social interaction-based adventures (such as diplomatic missions, visiting court, travel, investigating heresy, or incorporating the excellent legal system into an adventure) would be most welcome and might actually make the game seem less like a fantasy heart-breaker. Even so, there are some good ideas that might make it worth the effort to polish this into the game it could be.

Published in: on September 4, 2020 at 8:36 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I like drawing on history for fantasy, but I’m not a big fan of “authenticity” since is just sucks the imagination out of a game when it falls into the wrong hands.
    Personally, I’ll stick with the romantic 19th C. view of medieval times, so give me Pendragon any day of the week.


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