Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Notable Features in Barbarians of Lemuria

I recently acquired a print copy of Simon Washbourne’s Barbarians of Lemuria (Legendary Edition) and was pleasantly satisfied by many elements within that appealed to my particular roleplaying game tastes...and might interest readers of Hobby Games Recce with similar inclinations. The game mechanics and presentation offer an original swords and sorcery setting with a basic task resolution system and plenty of room for rich character development.

I’m a casual fan of the Conan material from Robert. E. Howard, having enjoyed the original literature, the comic book series (during a brief foray into that medium in my misspent youth), and the 1982 John Milius Conan the Barbarian film interpretation (and other similar sword and sorcery movie fare). I prefer my fantasy roleplaying with minimal magic, such as simple cantrips for characters and more powerful, sinister magic beyond their capability as part of the arch-enemy’s arsenal. The Barbarians of Lemuria setting incorporates many of these elements in a well-presented setting without binding them within the vast Conan continuity (and hence opening itself up to copyright infringement issues).

Barbarians of Lemuria contains a host of elements that appeal to me:

Page Count: The game packs everything needed to play into 104 pages, packed with plenty of illustrations evocative of the setting, game mechanics, examples, original monsters, inspirational character creation material, a gazetteer of the world, and a few short adventures. It’s not as comprehensive as some gamers might like, but it’s filled with enough functional mechanics and setting information to stimulate one’s imagination in creating and running exciting swords and sorcery adventures.

Accessible Setting: The epic background for Barbarians of Lemuria fits on two pages and outlines an epic struggle against the corrupt Sorceror-Kings and their magical technology. A series of disasters and returns imbue the land with plenty of ruins, magical mutations, and the promise of fantastic treasures, all while the Sorceror-Kings sulk on their island fortress planning their revenge. This epic provides some solid setting elements for Lemuria: a lost golden age of technology leaving behind ancient relics and ruins the heroes might explore (a theme within one of fantasy roleplaying gaming’s first settings, Empire of the Petal Throne), and distant yet powerful shadow adversaries to lurk in the background or scheme behind the scenes. Elements of character creation also tie heroes to locations in the setting or typical professions in the genre.

Innovative Character Creation: Building a character focuses on three sets of “stats” (though one isn’t really a stat at all). In each category players distribute four points among four different categories, with a value of zero representing average ability. First players distribute four points among their attributes: strength, agility, mind, and appeal (fairly standard characterization concepts). Then they distribute four points among four combat abilities: brawl, melee, ranged, and defense. Finally players choose four “heroic careers” from among 20 genre-inspired professions to define their characters’ pasts and round out their generalized skill sets.

Genre Careers: Career choices reflect the sword and sorcery genre. Each of the 20 careers includes a parenthetical alternative, an optional profession label to cover a similar spin on a career; for instance, it offers “Barbarian (or Savage),” “Serving Wench (or Courtesan),” and “Thief (or Rogue).” Brief descriptions offer ideas on relevant skills and important attributes.

Core Resolution System: Resolving actions boils down to a player rolling 2D6 to get 9 or higher for success. Depending on the situation they may add to their roll the value of relevant attributes, combat abilities, or careers; factors such as a task difficulty, range, or target’s defense value may subtract from their die roll. These aren’t huge bonuses, but can increase through experience. Boons and flaws (see below) enable players to roll an additional 1D6 in certain circumstances, adding the two highest results for boons and the two lowest results for flaws.

Boons & Flaws: Sure, lots of roleplaying games include some kind of advantage/disadvantage system in their character creation rules, but Barbarians of Lemuria presents sets of each for every location that can serve as a hero’s birthplace, giving them not only some game-specific bonus or penalty but some material on which to draw in further defining their character within the setting. Characters get one free boon and can gain additional boons by taking a flaw or permanently reducing their Hero Point total.

Hero Points: Here’s another element used in many other roleplaying games, points characters can spend during the game to alter situations in their favor. In this game characters begin with five Hero Points they can use in a variety of ways within the framework of the core resolution system: to reroll for a particular task; to alter a basic success into a more powerful “Mighty Success” or transform that into the ultimate “Legendary Success”; to shake off wounds or stabilize a dying character; or to define situational elements in one’s favor (such as finding a loose stone in a prison cell wall, discovering some useful equipment nearby, or using a coincidence to their advantage). Characters begin the game with five Hero Points and gain back those they spent at the end of an adventure.

Barbarians of Lemuria also provides the basic framework of many other roleplaying games; Lifeblood points for tracking health, weapons and armor, a freeform spell system that reflects the rare nature of magic in the genre, non-traditional monsters tied to setting locations, and one-sentence descriptions of various gods of Lemuria. It’s a complete game, but relies on experienced gamemasters and players to work together to use the rules to create a play environment that works for them.

Almost Overlooked

I must admit I passed over this game in its earlier incarnations despite the author’s excellent reputation for interesting games. Washbourne’s produced a host of small, independent, and often innovative roleplaying games. His 1940 – England Invaded! caught my eye when it first emerged as part of the 24-Hour RPG challenge and when he released a free PDF version with more substance; it satisfies my interest in WWII themes, in this case with a fantastic alternate-history twist.

I downloaded one of the earlier, free versions of Barbarians of Lemuria in PDF format when it first appeared, hoping for something a bit more satisfying than the d20 officially licensed Conan material available at the time. My ambivalence toward earlier editions probably stemmed from an uninspiring layout and mediocre artwork, though the author deserves credit for creating his own illustrations in those versions. These factors – PDF and uninspired artwork – led me to overlook it after an initial perusal; hence it languished unread in some archived folder on my laptop, as do many worthy and unworthy gaming PDFs, since I prefer to read the old-fashioned way from printed books than transient words on a screen.

In fairness the Legendary Edition of the rules has overcome these two drawbacks. The new illustrations, while remaining relatively basic line art, evokes characters and scenes characteristic of the sword and sorcery genre. Having the option of obtaining a print version means I can sit down and read it without the often mind-numbing hypnosis of passive words on my computer screen, easily flipping back and forth around pages to cross-reference game and setting concepts. I noticed a few refinements in the game mechanics and organization from previous editions; while the current edition is far from perfect in terms of organization and layout, it’s clear years of active play and development have made their positive impression.

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