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 (3)  
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That campaign blowed up real good!

Farm Report

There’s nothing like Death Frost Doom to stir things up when your campaign is beginning to peter out a bit.  Minor spoilers follow, so if you’ve never read or played DFD, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve had DFD sitting around in the mountains since my first Telengard campaign (although I only actually got a copy of the module later; I’d heard of the basic idea and thought it would be a great fit, and would have improvised something like it if anyone had checked it out then).

I think level is not too important for this adventure, since it mostly exploration. The party was really near the upper limit — it’s supposed to be for PCs level 1-6, and most of them are level 6 now.  Still, the finale could be a TPK for almost any level of PCs, considering the confined space and overwhelming numbers of foes.  Being of highish levels made it possible for the party to fight one foe that a lower level party would have almost certainly had to bargain with, and defeat some other foes a low-level party might have been killed by, but since combat is not the focus of the module, it really didn’t matter too much.

Our party took on the module in two sessions — the first extremely carefully, as only the bard, assassin, and magic-user were present for the session, and the second a bit more recklessly, as the assassin and magic-user were joined by the paladin and dwarf, as well as four low-level meat shields.  Two meat shields died (one suicide, one energy drained) but otherwise the party was mostly unscathed.  The assassin gained a point of strength but lost a point of intelligence, and Funko the gremlin also lost one point of intelligence.

They had only opened one big crypt door by the time “hell vomits its filth” was triggered, so most of the undead were not immediately able to swarm the party. The one turn “lead time” meant they were able to find Cyrus’ tomb just before the undead actually began awakening.   Opening his tomb, they quickly found the coffin and surmised that there was a vampire about, so the dwarf immediately began destroying the coffin and scattering the earth.  This caused Cyrus to appear and attempt to parlay, but the party immediately attacked and being some serious ass-kickers, defeated him in matter of two rounds.

It took a bit of discussion before the party realized that there was no way to simply fight their way out, and they came up with a reasonably good escape plan, barricading a door and going out a ‘chimney’ to the surface.  My lax ritual casting rules let them escape with all their gear intact, but under stricter rules they would have been forced to leave a lot of stuff behind.  As it was the magic user could cast ‘fly’ enough times to give the party a safe exit from the dungeon.  I suppose if I’d been a jerkier DM I would have had ghouls come for them via the chimney while the casting was being done, but that would pretty much be a TPK by fiat, so I overrode the module’s suggestion there.  Instead, the party flew down to Zeke’s camp and rode their horses off the mountain.

t-o-d-trap

With a village (Clovis), a town (Puddington), and a small city (Skara Brae) all within a day’s forced march, the party was scrambling to give warning and figure out how to deal with the army of the dead now on the move.  Hilarity ensued, and the party even split up, but I’d already determined that they had a fair amount of time before the main body of zombies and skeletons were really on the move, and the ghoul horde was too disorganized to give immediate chase, so probably the undead will not make a ‘bee line’ for anything and instead need to fan out until they find victims.  Or a leader.  I understand the party let a mummy-priest get away a few sessions back. 🙂

DSC03537

Time to start figuring out potential troop strengths for the local settlements and how to handle large-scale battles.  One thing that might be fun could be a “cut scene” where a hopelessly outnumbered force fights the vanguard of the undead army, both to create some foreboding and to introduce mass combat rules.

I’ve heard of DFD  ‘ending’ campaigns but I think it Telengard it might be a bridge to the ‘end-game’ of fortress-building, army-raising, etc.  DFD would also be a fun campaign-starter at low levels or even first level, come to think of it.

Published in: on February 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Weird Fantasy grindhouse ed. review part three: What it isn’t, what it is

Man, there is a hell of a lot to cover for this!

I know I’m being very unsystematic and wandering around, but recently I’ve been reading the Referee book a bit and it is really, really good.  I wouldn’t say I agree with absolutely everything, but the advice on finding players, using published adventures, examining ‘weird’ ideas to decide whether to use them in your game, running a ‘sandbox’ type campaign where the players have to show initiative rather than be told what to do, and even providing an ‘end game’ type experience that gets the players using all that loot to research new spells, establish estates (and even invest!), etc. are pretty awesome.  Most of this can profitably be applied to any game.  I’m not really a rules junkie or even well-read in terms of the many RPGs out there and whatever advice they offer to DMs, so I can’t say if any of this is standard stuff or just brilliance on Raggi’s part.  But I did find the Ref material fascinating and worthwhile.

The suggestions about ‘how tough monsters should be’ was hidden here too, so my earlier complaint about there being no way to tell how big a deal the lack of attack bonuses for non-fighters really is, are allayed.  The Ref book suggests keeping monsters within the ‘human’ range of AC 12-18.  In that light, attack bonuses are not as critical as they would be if the ACs ran above 20.

So here I am back to the rules themselves.  At this point I think I am finally “getting it” that LotFP is, despite the foundations in B/X D&D, and despite the marketing of the game as something geared toward old-school gaming, something else entirely.  Perhaps the weirdest thing is that on the one hand James Raggi has been saying it is “not D&D” all along on his blog, but also allowing the perception that it is “an extreme D&D” too.*  In fact the bald claim (in the Ref book & elsewhere) that you can play adventures designed for D&D with the LotFP rules seems bizarre, since you’ll probably need, or at least want, to excise or rewrite much of the magic items and monsters in them (see below).  I think you’d be a lot better off using Call of Cthulhu adventures (Strange Aeons, for example) and other nontraditional fantasy games for ideas.  Lastly, consider the example of play in the Tutorial book.   It’s very funny and enjoyable to read; it is in fact a lot like any low-level D&D game, with quite a bit of combat.  The fights tend to go badly for the PCs but it’s not immediately obvious that the game designer expects combat to be a ‘last resort’ or even just avoided when possible.  That is actually a fairly huge break with ‘standard D&D.’  D&D need not be “hack & slash” but LotFP seems to be designed with the assumption that “hack & slash” will lead inevitably to a TPK.  This is neither a flaw nor an improvement but a notable difference, and while certain parts of the  books reflect this , other parts — like the tutorial — seem to contradict it.

The class-and-levels system of D&D is retained.  But, advancement is very slow,  in the senses that:

  1. the XP rewards are fairly low (the monster XP is at the B/X-AD&D level, rather than the much more generous rewards of OD&D  and later editions; the loot XP is the same but the loot is less common and more mundane)
  2. the rewards for levels gained are more modest (hit dice go up every level until 9th or so, as usual, but saves progress slowly, skills progress slowly if at all, attack bonuses go up only for fighters and stop at level 9, etc.)
  3. the DM is advised to withhold magic items as much as possible, and even mundane items like heavy armor are very expensive

So the net effect should be that ALL PCs are a bit “weaker” than “D&D characters” of the “same level”.  This is not a flaw or bug but a feature.  In last week’s B/X session I was reminded just far beyond the pale a relatively powerful mid-level PC is in a world of 0 and 1st level humans.  One PC has a magic weapon that is fairly potent for his level but among regular humans, it makes him a hero, or a superhero really.  That is D&D too.  I mean, a level 8 Fighting Man is called a Superhero, right?

But in LotFP, even a fairly high-level PC will be in danger should the local authorities decide to arrest him.  He won’t have magic arms and armor to make him a superhero.  Unless he’s a fighter or spellcaster, his only advantage will be the ability to absorb more damage than a normal human!   This makes for a more low-fantasy, low-magic, low-powered game.  That sounds like an interesting game, even if it is not the one I want to run.

I want to play a game where the PCs start out as regular Joes but can eventually fight giants and dragons and wield powerful magic.  I want their henchmen and hirelings to be things like shieldbearers and maybe heralds.  I want them to fight a wide variety of monsters for vast treasures, and travel to surreal realms, and all that.  Sure, some PCs will die horribly and ingloriuosly, but glory is attainable.  That, to me, is D&D.

I’ll run LotFP when I want a game where the PCs are more like competent but regular Joes from start to finish; who can maybe stop the horrors from being summoned in the first place but run like hell if a demon or dragon shows up; who will have as henchmen and hirelings mercenaries, craftsmen, muleskinners and accountants; who will fight mainly against man’s inhumanity with a few “true” monsters here and there (& which will therefore be unforgettable!), and explore weird locales in hopes of finding treasures, and travel a mostly rational world in their quest for adventure (where the magical and surreal and horrific lurks, to be sure, but not under every bed or in every hole!).  These PCs will mostly die ingloriously until the players learn to be extremely cautious and occasionally decisively brave, but like Aristotle said, courage is that middle ground between foolhardiness and cowardice  mapped out by knowledge.  No kicking in doors and laying about with sword and axe; more listening, spying, researching, and approaching a dungeon as a heist rather than a home invasion.

I am not down on either style of play, and think both can be fun.  So, I think LotFP:WFRPGe will stay on my shelf  and until I (& my gaming group) feel like a change, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.

Still, the adventures published by LotFP all look pretty interesting.  The short sample adventure in the Ref book is very nicely laid out for a new DM and has a very cool looking mechanic for handling the whole ‘doppleganger’ thing in a game.  It will take some tweaking to use in a game where the PCs have magic items though.

I commented on another blog that LotFP actually strikes me as a recursive meditation on the weird tale generally.  I said:

the “weird tale” involves setting up some situation and throwing in a twist that completely unhinges our expectations and assumptions…and the LotFP game does exactly that– it makes us think it is sort of a retro-clone D&D, but it turns out to be a low-powered, low-fantasy, low-magic game of investigation more akin to CoC than D&D.

I edited that for typos and grammar but I pretty much would stand by that conclusion.  My brother asked me why anyone would use D&D to play a horror-fantasy when there are other systems that do horror so well.  It could be Raggi just loves D&D and is familiar with it and it’s what he runs and the OGL made it easy to adapt.  Maybe on some level he chose D&D as the foundation for his game just because of all the expectations and assumptions in D&D’s baggage, which he can in turn exploit in the “metagame” (misdirecting players) of the game.  Probably not, but it would be pretty cool if that was the idea all along.

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*By “allowing the perception…” I mean commenters all other his blog keep saying this and are not contradicted.  Reviewers say it and rarely get contradicted.  I imagine this is not so much that he wants to deceive customers as that doing constant PR and image management online is impossible.  For example, if you go back to the “tell me what to ask the illustrators to do for this last full-page  illustration contest” thing, many, perhaps the majority, of the suggestions focused on typical D&D parties in what the fan base imagined as “weird” or “horrific” or “hardcore” settings … extreme violence, deathtraps, etc.  Almost none of them were concerned with a town- or city-based adventure, investigation, simple exploration, or the like.  Raggi did mention his favorite suggestions and they fall more in line with the non-D&D theme.  Still, even the contest winner did not really understand. 🙂

Published in: on June 2, 2011 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Weird Fantasy grindhouse ed. review part two: my hypocrisy

After the “prejudices” post, and seeing Raggi address some of the issues raised on his own blog, it struck me that my concerns about the niche (or lack thereof) for dwarves and halfings in the game is not really a problem.  It’s just something for me to houserule if I don’t like it.  And really, when I give my own B/X campaign a hard, honest look, it is within kissing distance of LotFP really.  I lifted the d6-based skill system from LotFP (although I have since noticed it in other places too, so maybe we both stole the idea?).   I have not adopted all of the additional rules you find in LotFP but in most cases, it is so similar to B/X that the differences are trivial.  Some of my changes were directly influenced by LotFP, and some were not.  I have not revised the spell lists as LotFP does but I have seriously contemplated at least renaming the majority of Clerical spells and changing some to fit my setting’s Norse Catholic Church.  The clincher came after my AnCon game when the guest player, AJ, commented that he enjoyed playing and it was “good mix of horror and fantasy.”  Wha-wha-what? I didn’t really set out to run a horror/fantasy game, but I guess that the inclusion of some of Telecanter’s creepier ideas really did swing it in that direction. (Confession time too: hearing my regular players “talk up” how unnatural the dungeons are to the new players spurred me to ramp up the weird a little.)

So anyway if my major complaint about the game is a few things regarding the distribution of attack bonuses and skill points, WTF am I complaining about? (more…)

Published in: on May 25, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (7)  
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