Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Romance of the Perilous Land: OSR Meets British Folklore

It’s almost a roleplaying game cliché that Dungeons & Dragons and its many retro-clones from the Old School Renaissance (OSR) often focus more on hack-and-slash dungeon delves than more story-driven fare. Mechanics in these games primarily focus on characters’ abilities in overcoming combat-oriented obstacles – armor class, hit points, to-hit bonuses, saving throws, spells – with other elements like thief abilities intended to safely grab treasure. What players do with these rules remains their own business; some engage in “murder-hobo” rampages in the full hack-and-slash mode, while others seek to infuse their games with more story elements despite the combat-oriented mechanics. Yet Scott Malthouse has deftly integrated old-school mechanics with more heroic, story-based themes from British folklore in his OSR game Romance of the Perilous Land. As a pay-what-you-want game it’s worth picking up to check out the setting-influenced innovations to OSR mechanics. Having recently featured the Kickstarter revision of the classic Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, I think Perilous Land offers a similar game experience with the legendary trappings in an OSR-friendly package.

Perilous Land covers the usual old-school bases – ability scores, character classes, armor, equipment, spells – with some nice adjustments, combining some original interpretations of OSR game mechanics with some previously seen innovations. Unlike other “grinder” games the characters in Perilous Land are heroes with a solid set of rules designed to help them survive at lower levels and give them a sense that their actions matter even if they’re only first level.

The rules begin with a brief introduction that lets readers know the game has firm roots in the original roleplaying games of the 1970s yet isn’t the usual hack-and-slash fare:
Romance of the Perilous Land is firmly set it the world of British folklore, from the stories of King Arthur to the wonderful regional tales found throughout this green and pleasant land. As the name suggests, this is a world of romantic chivalry, but also of great danger posed by thieving brigands, evil knights and greedy giants. Creatures are quite rare and often hidden until they are angered by the machinations of humanity. In the Perilous Land you won’t find hundreds of dragons flocking the sky, but legends of a single Long Worm who has existed since time immemorial. Monsters are beings of wonder and terror, where just a group of mischievous boggarts can be the reason for an entire quest.
The introductory two pages continue by briefly answering some basic roleplaying game questions: “Who are the players?” “Is it compatible with other ‘OSR’ games?” “Where does the game take place?” and the obligatory “What exactly is a roleplaying game?” Does such content belongs in an OSR game where one assumes the reader knows something of D&D and its ilk? Given the game’s blend of OSR mechanics with specific legendary themes it’s well worth a read to orient one’s frame of mind for the rest of the game.

The game mechanics use the foundation of typical OSR rules – interpreting them within elements from the British folklore tradition – but diverge from them in subtle ways at first, then in some nicely innovative ways as the game develops. Characters have only five ability scores, renamed to reflect the tone: Might, Reflex, Endurance, Mind, and Charisma. The standard 3d6 roll defines each ability, though ability modifiers don’t exist (and the game works perfectly without them, as demonstrated below). The game eschews fantasy races, relying on humans with the focus on traditional British folklore and the uncommon nature of the fantastic in the setting. Players choose a character class for which their ability scores meet the “primary attribute requisite,” a 12 in the class’ core ability. The classes also reflect the setting: knight, ranger, thief, cunning folk (those who use magic), barbarian, and bard. Each class comes with a higher-than-usual hit die (the weakest, for cunning folk, at 1d6+2, the highest, for knight and barbarian, at 1d10+2), helping to ensure greater longevity for low-level characters. Along with weapon and armor proficiencies, each also comes with a few appropriate skills, which enable characters to roll “with advantage” on attribute checks (more on that later). To help orient players to the British folklore themes, each class comes with some brief inspirational resources: a few bullet points about “You might want to play this class if...”, suggested names, and a paragraph of two describing the class within the context of the setting. Each class also includes a level-advancement table (up to level 10) with a host of class features that further enhance the character’s scope of powers starting at first level. Players roll for money (3d6 times 10) and purchase equipment from a somewhat standardized list. As an option players may choose backgrounds for their characters that give them a few additional skills and starting gear.

Attribute tests serve as the core mechanic for Perilous Land. When characters attempt an action – attacking a foe, making a saving throw, applying a skill – they roll 1d20 and try to get less than the appropriate attribute value. If the character has an advantage or disadvantage in the situation, the player rolls an extra d20 and takes the better/worse of the two values (a roll-and-keep convention I noticed in fifth edition D&D, though it might have seen use in the OSR before that). In combat the character reduces the attribute by the opponent’s level; higher-level foes become more difficult to hit. (Gamemaster characters have hit dice used for determining hit points as well, plus a target number representing their general attribute score; halve the hit dice for their armor value.). Successful attacks incur damage, usually 1d6 with a slight modifier. Armor reduces damage, but instead of doing so by a set point value for each attack, armor works more like hit points; attacks reduce them before reducing character hit points, though armor, like characters, can “heal” between engagements. Overall the attribute test serves as a clean unifying mechanic; armor reducing damage, even as a diminishing hit point value, works nicely, too.

Considering the uncommon occurrence of the fantastic in Perilous Land, the game employs a completely different magic system than most OSR games depending on Vancian magic. The cunning folk class remains the only one with access to spells (though other classes can use a few spell-like features on a limited basis). Cunning folk have a “spell points” value that begins as the same level as their mind attribute, occasionally increased through level advancement. Casters can use spells equal to or less than their own level, though they can attempt higher-level spells with the possibility of catastrophic consequences upon failure. Each spell has a level, a cost that reduces spell points (regenerated after eight hours rest), and one sentence briefly describing its effects. To cast a spell the character must pass a mind attribute test, reduced by the spell level. This gives cunning folk access to a host of spells and tempts them with higher-level spells out of their reach, yet possible to cast at great risk.

The rest of the game offers setting guidance covering treasure, locations, and monsters, all imbued with a sense of British folklore. Magic items remain rare in the setting, but the “Items of Wonder” section describes appropriate magical charms, enchanted items, and a few legendary weapons and armor. “The Perilous Land” offers six locations in a particular region of the setting, each with a brief description and a host of “folklore” notes (“rumors” and “adventure hooks” in more traditional OSR parlance). The bestiary offers a host of folklore creatures each with a hit die and target number rating, a brief paragraph description, and notes on special powers; it’s worth a close read since typical OSR monster names like bugbear, ghost, giant, and gnome have, different incarnations in Perilous Land.

Could Perilous Land stand some improvement in a few areas? Perhaps. The game’s a bit more polished than a diamond in the rough, but I think it could really sparkle with a few more enhancements. I’d love to see more evocative, Pre-Raphaelite public-domain artwork throughout; not all the stock roleplaying game art images work for me (or the theme), though the character class portrait quality and style are a nice fit. Having each class’ level advancement table on a single page seem excessive given the surrounding white space, but I don’t mind as much with each class otherwise taking an entire page (including the fine illustrations). I would have liked to see a few, more typical elements from OSR games here simply to guide my exploration of the legendary setting: a character sheet, a map of the lands described in the “Perilous Lands” section, and a sample one-page scenario. These could offer readers unfamiliar with the content and tone of British folklore some inspiration in running their own adventures.

Malthouse and his Trollish Delver Games imprint have released a spate of roleplaying games incorporating innovative concepts, Romance of the Perilous Lands being the most recent. His rules-light universal rolelpaying system USR caught my eye earlier this year (as featured briefly in “Basic RPG Game Engines”) and he’s released a handful of setting supplements for the game. His minimalist In Darkest Warrens distills the OSR game experience into two pages of streamlined yet elegant rules, complete with most of the trappings of fantasy roleplaying games. He’s perhaps best known from internet buzz about his innovative Quill: A Letter-Writing Roleplaying Game for a Single Player, which manages to transform the process of drafting a fictional letter into a challenging game experience. All these games – and many of his other materials – release as pay-what-you-want endeavors. At 52 pages Perilous Lands represents one of his longer offerings yet it is no less elegant or innovative than his shortest works. Malthouse is a fresh voice in the OSR and roleplaying games overall; he’s definitely a designer worth watching whether you’re looking for an entire game or inspiration in customizing your own game experience with new ideas.

Want to share your opinion? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.