Saturday, 9 August 2014
RPGPundit Reviews: Fantastic Heroes & Witchery
This is a review of the "Retro-RPG" Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, written by Dominique Crouzet, published by DOM. It is apparently "version 2.0", and is a huge (412 page) softcover book (it is apparently also available in hardcover). It has a color cover with a fairly old-school drawing of a dragon breathing fire on some adventurers. The interior art is black & white, of a variety of styles and generally of good quality.
Before proceeding, I should make a note in the interest of disclosure: when I received and began this review, I had no professional relationship with the author/publisher. However, since that time I have entered into a collaboration with him to publish my "Dark Albion" setting. As usual, I don't think this will affect the objectivity of my review (I liked this book a great deal before cementing any deal), but transparency is important in these situations.
So what makes Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (henceforth abbreviated as FH&W) a game worth even taking a look at? In the first place, its size certainly matters. But size would not be the only worthwhile factor here; there's also the matter of content. And I have to say that out of all the OSR games I've seen out there, FH&W is BY FAR the most "Kitchen Sink" game of them all. Some have tighter rules (LotFP), some are more innovative (like DCC), some put a stronger focus on a single feature (like ACKS), some are more of an homage to a particular concept (like Adventures Dark & Deep), and of course there are all the games that are more exotic in a particular direction (Stars Without Number, Arrows of Indra, Hulks & Horrors, Red Tide, etc.).
But FH&W is the OSR game that has just about everything you could imagine (with a couple of big exceptions, see below). The craziest collection of classes and races, sci fi and cthluhu elements, all kinds of weird stuff shoved in there to try to cover all the bases.
And I think I have to say, in a way, it is by far the most "OSR" kind of OSR game I've ever seen. What I mean by this is that I think it recognizes something that other OSR games don't: a lot of OSR games are very self-focused, they assume people will play the game by itself. But increasingly, OSR gamers are not doing that; a typical OSR gamer might run, for example, an LotFP campaign where they'll use the GM's book from A.D.D., and run a Labyrinth Lord adventure, and some weird table or other from DCC, and refer frequently to the AD&D 1e Monster Manual, and occasionally make use of Machinations of the Space Princess when they want to add some Sci-fi, and use Underworld Tables from Arrows of Indra if they go into a cave complex. The whole point of the OSR is that all this stuff is to some extent interchangeable; we don't need to have a single rule-set as long as rules are sufficiently similar in their systems that you can use material from all the different games. In spite of this, thus far most OSR games as written don't take this into consideration; but my feeling from reading FH&W is that it almost assumes you're going to be doing this. It is for the most part astoundingly complete on its own (with a few exceptions, see further below for more on that), but in a general sense it assumes you're not just going to be using this game in a vacuum and that instead you're going to be using FH&W alongside all kinds of other OSR materials.
In terms of production quality, while FH&W is not particularly bad, it doesn't have some of the pizazz we've been seeing from certain other "big ticket" productions; not quite 'deluxe', the art is decent but not DCC-levels of mind-blowing, what you get is a big fat book. It is reasonably well-organized. One thing that has to be noted is that the author is not writing in his first language, and because of that there are multiple places where he commits slight errors in the language; and others where, while technically correct, his English seems odd. In the spirit of small press publishing I guess the reader just has to be patient with these. In any case, I have not seen any truly glaring errors that can actually cause problems for comprehension.
What you get from FH&W is a game system that is fairly standard for OGL, but with a lot of new material that you wouldn't find anywhere else. For example, you get a great selection of races: there's the standards (Dwarf, elf, halfling, half-elf, gnome, halfling, half-orc and of course human), plus some slightly less usual stuff (tieflings, dark elves); but then you get to the really weird stuff. There's Tainted Humans, Exotic Humans, Earthlings (that is, people from our real world), Primates (ape-men), Reptilians, Revenants (undead as PCs!), Winged Folk, and Witchlings (human descendents mutated by sorcery). The races are split up in the presentation, into two sections for the standard fantasy races and then the weird fantasy races, conveniently separating the two in the GM's perception to imply modularity.
One of the interesting variants to the rule-set is that character races get a single hit-die by race; this is in addition to the hit points they will gain by level. It means that a 1st level character in FH&W will have slightly more hp than in a normal D&D game; this may or may not be to some gamers' liking.
The game also makes an interesting compromise between the question of race+class vs. race-as-class. Race and Class are separate; and there are racial level limits for demi-humans in all the standard classes (humans have Unlimited levels in all the standard classes). However, there are also a number of special classes that are available only to non-human races; a demi-human can thus choose to gain levels in standard classes OR they can choose the more optimal approach of a racial class. All standard non-human races except for half-orcs get several special racial classes: dwarves have gothis (a kind of dwarven cleric) or clans-dwarf (the standard fighting dwarf type), elves get eldritch-archer, fae-mage, forestal, or warden; gnomes get illusionist or trickster; and halflings get folk champion or scout. Once again, this is set up in the rules to allow for easy modularity: if the GM wishes, he could just skip the racial classes altogether, or on the other hand he might wish to state that demi-humans can only play one or more of their racial classes (essentially instituting race-as-class by default).
In addition to race and class, FH&W provides a number of character backgrounds. These are not mostly mechanical but descriptive of the PC's origin; although the author suggests the GM allow a PC to add a bonus to any skill checks that can be related to their background. Example backgrounds include things like Barbarian, Ecclesiastic, Outlaw, Peasant, Tradesman, etc.
Classes are likewise divided into core-classes and unusual classes. All classes use the same experience table. There are rules provided for allowing a player to play more than one class, but no multi-class rules (in other words, you can take multiple classes as in 3e D&D but not take two classes at once as in AD&D 1e). The rules are set up for play up to 14th level but there are guidelines for playing levels beyond that.
Here are the core classes: fighter, berserker, knight, ranger, thief, acrobat, assassin, bard, friar, mystic, templar, wizard, warlock, wise-man/woman. The racial classes are: clans-dwarf, gothi, eldritch-archer and fae-mage (these two are for "high elves"), forestal and warden (for "sylvan elves"), Illusionist, trickster, folk champion, and scout.
But then there are also the "Weird tales" classes; these are: Necronimus, Occultist, Psychic, Rifleman, Savant, Sky-lord, and Wild-brute. These are classes for more gonzo campaigns, incorporating elements of sci-fantasy or weird-tales mythos-stories.
A few other notes on classes: saving throws are done with a single number, in the same way as in Arrows of Indra, rather than the traditional D&D method of having several different saving throw numbers. Most classes have special abilities that are gained with levels: fighters get to choose from a list of special combat bonuses, wizards get signature spells, etc.
Another interesting variation is that there is no "Cleric" class per se. There's the Friar, who does not get spells in the traditional sense; instead they get special "prayer" power, which can be used to perform several spell-like abilities (they must succeed a roll every time they pray, and the difficulty goes up every time they attempt to use prayer in a day). Prayer abilities include blessings, counter-prayers, dispel charming effects, encouragement (gives bonuses to allies), exorcism, guidance (second sight), a healing touch, sanctuary, and turning undead; at higher levels they can directly call on divine aid. Templars also get prayer ability (though at a lower level of ability, but they also get other special powers). The D&D spells typically associated with clerics are instead the domain of Wise-men/women and dwarf Gothi classes, and are classified instead as "White magic".
Most of the game's basic mechanics are nothing really new, they're in fact exemplar of what you could call OSR-standard, in following with the game's 'kitchen sink' style. Skill checks are based on a d20 roll plus bonus vs. difficulty. There are no "skill points" of the 3e-style character building; instead classes have certain abilities that give them bonuses to checks, and as mentioned before, character background might give a 'skill bonus' to checks relevant to the background. I'll mention that the skill bonuses seem just a little bit on the high end to me; for example, thieves have all the standard "thief skills" at their level +2.
The equipment section includes all the standard range of materials you would expect with considerable detail, some more exotic materials (like "Samurai armor" or "alchemist's fire"), and then it has "sci-fantasy equipment" ranging from dynamite, to laser pistols to medi-sprays to zeppelins to battle tanks! Some rules are also presented to regulate the condition of technological items found in ruins or the like.
The combat rules are likewise fairly standard to the OSR style. The Armor rules exemplify what I'm talking about when I say that FH&W is very "universalist OSR", they present both ascending and descending AC and leave it to the GM to figure out which they want to use.
The initiative rules make use of the adding of "segments" for weapon speed or casting times. There are some innovations, like critical hit rules; these are simple but well-crafted: a natural 20 that, when modified by bonuses, would hit an opponent will trigger a critical, and just what that critical does depends on the class that scores the critical. Fighters get an immediate free attack, acrobats can move out of melee range without triggering a free attack from their opponent, an assassin triggers an automatic assassination attempt, etc.
There's also tons of pages of guidelines for special combat maneuvers of all kinds. There's a page dedicated to Vehicle Combat, which is pretty rare in an OSR fantasy game. As there's a psionicist class, we also have rules for psychic combat. There's even a paragraph dedicated to how to handle a "duel of rhetoric", in other words, an argument.
There's also extensive rules for encumbrance, travel, movement in general, chases on land and water, threats and hazards natural and supernatural, and weather.
There's two big areas, I'll note, where FH&W is incomplete, and again here there's that underlying concept of "OSR Universality". One area is monsters; namely, there are none in the game. There's a section on "monsters and npcs", but while it has quite a lot of excellent material on NPCs (statblocks for typical npcs, random tables, npc levels by population, encounter reaction tables, etc.) it doesn't actually have monsters. Regarding monsters, it just says "GMs just need to have a monster book, preferably of the older editions, and no conversion is necessary". The other is magic items: again, there are none; they don't even get a section; which I guess is better than having a section with the word "monsters" in it without any actual monsters!
So here we see the culmination of the use-everything mentality; and likewise, the game holds no illusions that the person buying this product will be a raw beginner. The author knows that this is a game for OSR people to use, and that they'll in all likelihood have a big supply of monster-material and magic-item tables to rely on.
Even so, some people who aren't really in that use-everything vibe might find it annoying that there's not one monster in the monster section.
The section on Priests and Religion, on the other hand, is one that provides a lot of new material and perspectives. Not having a traditional 'cleric' class, FH&W instead provides a series of options for how to handle deities and priesthood. It allows for a number of setting variations: the most typical case of the gods all being real, powerful, and active in the world; or options where the gods are distant and disinterested, where not all gods are real, where not all gods grant power, etc.
It also provides the possibility that in theory you could allow any class to be "priests". It also offers some variant classes that function as mixes between fighters, thieves, etc. and "priests".
There's also a large selection of sample deities, based on archetypes (e.g., "blacksmith god", "death & undeath deity", "elemental earth", "fortune - luck deity", etc.), with guidelines as to the typical alignment of followers or priests, the type of classes that might be priests of this deity, additional requirements for priesthood, favored weapons, and special features granted by the deity to its priests.
There's also a section for creating Moorcock-style Agents of Law or Agents of Chaos. Also, you get a fairly detailed analysis on the mechanics of the Soul and how this affects things like 'trap the soul' spells, reincarnation, the afterlife, etc. You also get a planar cosmology that's about 10 pages long and fairly detailed.
The section on magic is in many respects standard; it does include material on performing "incantations", ritual magic that theoretically could be cast by any class that bothers to learn them. This is an optional rule, but then it seems to me that almost everything here is theoretically "optional", this section is no more or less modular than the rest.
There's also more traditional material on spell schools, a variant 'war-mage' character class, rules on magic item construction, and optional rules for "severe sorcery" (for a more sword & sorcery type of campaign).
After this, there are spell lists, by class, for Psychics, Gray Magic (wizards, eldritch-archers, fae-mages and war-mages), Black Magic (used by warlocks, occultists, and Agents of Chaos), White Magic (used by Wise-men/women, Gothar, and Agents of Law), Nature Spells (Forestals, Wardens, Guardians of Neutrality), and "Delusion Spells" (used by gnomish illusionists and tricksters).
While there is overlap in many of the spell lists, the book nevertheless uses more than 150 pages to describe a precise total of 666 spells. Certainly more than enough for any campaign, I would think. Personally, I might have shortened the list of spells by about half, and have included some 75 or so pages of monster stats and magic items.
FH&W wouldn't be a really good OSR game without a lot of appendices. There's 16 of them in this book:
-optional material for ability scores
-pledging allegiances to an alignment
-material on culture, languages, racial relationships, and name lists
-social background tables, starting money and standards of living
-optional hit point generation
-more fleshed-out skill systems with Difficulties and descriptions
-"Talents" (old-school feats)
-combat schools for modifying the fighter class
-converting classes from other systems, plus six more optional character classes (as if there weren't already enough! you get the Adventurer, Animist, Scary Monk, Sea Dog, Sea Witch, and Thick Brute)
-Epic Level play
-alternate/converted saving throws
-Domain spells for priests
-an extended Critical hit table
Very complete, as you can see. Not every appendix will be useful to everyone, but I don't think there's any appendix there that's completely useless or just takes up space for no reason.
So to conclude: on the whole, one of the best OSR rule-sets I've seen when it comes to trying to provide all kinds of crazy stuff. The quality and creativity of the work was enough to convince me to work with the author on making a book out of my beloved Albion setting.
The criticisms? The game is not without room for improvement in terms of production quality. The absence of any magic items or monsters is I think a mistake; we didn't need hundreds of these, but having just a few would have still made the crucial difference between an almost-totally-complete game and a truly totally complete game.
And of course, there are some tightly-focused OSR games that would be better at their specific thing, as a self-contained game, than FH&W would be at said things, or perhaps even as a self-contained game. But that's not really the point. FH&W is the game you want to use when you're planning to run a kick-ass game with a little bit of everything, using little bits of every Old-school product you've ever seen.
Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Series Rhodesian + C&D's Crowley's Best