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Friday 25 September 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Dark Albion (Designer Notes)

Yes, it's time for me to do this.  Mind you, in one sense it's kind of too late: there have already been some truly amazing Dark Albion reviews, many of which I've posted in previous blog entries.  I certainly think that no product I wrote has gotten this many reviews, and almost all of them wonderfully attentive and overwhelmingly positive.

So instead of trying to make a kind of self-review where I talk about the game like I would any other book sent to me for review, I think what I'll do here instead is a kind of "designer notes".  Rather than bringing up the details about the astounding production values and art that everyone else has already mentioned, or the chapter-by-chapter breakdown of contents, I'll be talking about little details of what's found in the book and things people might not have noticed or known about the product.

So first, a bit of overview:  Dark Albion is a setting that is designed for any OSR rule-set, but could theoretically be used by any fantasy RPG (with some modification).  It is based on a very near historical parallel to England during the War of the Roses.  By 'near' I don't mean the way Westeros is kind of like 15th century England; I mean that you're actually playing in England itself, albeit with magic and with supernatural creatures.  The cities and counties are real, you can visit London and York and Warwick and Sandwich.  The historical detail is a big part of the point.

(from the back cover)

Those of you who know a bit of history (and/or are Shakespeare buffs) would know that 15th century England went through the bloody and brutal civil war known as the War of the Roses (also called "The Cousins' War"), where Lancaster and York fought for the throne. Speaking of "thrones", fans of George R.R. Martin's novels might know that A Song of Ice and Fire is loosely inspired by this same war, and you can definitely play a very Game-of-Thrones type of campaign with Dark Albion. The modifications to the standard OSR rules make Albion a lot grittier than most D&D settings; and details like the emphasis on Social Class (and its various social rules), noble houses, and culture make for a game with a lot more potential for roleplay and intrigue than what you might get in a standard dungeon crawl.  At the same time, there's plenty of good old-school crawling action to be found: ancient elven tombs, Cymri barrow mounds, goblin warrens, Arcadian catacombs, liches, Morgan le Fay, and even Dracula are all waiting for heroic adventurers to conquer them or die.

So first a few key details:
-the level range is low: most characters in the setting are level 1.  The most powerful characters (excluding a couple of truly epic antagonists) are levels 9-14.
-Social Status is extremely important: the setting has an authentic type of medieval culture. It isn't a ren-faire full of generally 20th century generally American ideas of social behavior. It's a setting where a peasant could be put to death for talking back to a noble (though in Albion he'd have the right to a trial, at least).
-Likewise, women are mostly second-class citizens.  But that isn't to say they can't be powerful in their own right.  Clerics are chosen by the Unconquered Sun (the monotheistic deity of the setting), and are as often women as they are men, and women Clerics are treated no differently from male clerics for the most part. Women mercenaries aren't unheard of in Albion either, nor are women thieves. While women aren't allowed to study at the great Collegiums of Magic (Oxford and Cambridge), they are just as capable in theory of being magic-users as any other human, and many have learned the arts secretly (both high-born ladies and local peasant witches).
-There's Law and there's Chaos:  The Unconquered Sun and his Church are Lawful, while Chaos is the domain of demons.  All magic except clerical miracles are connected to Chaos, though not all magisters or witches are servants of chaos; lawful magisters can bind demons to force them to serve Law.
-Magic is less flashy than in most D&D, magic items are much more rare. The most common magic weapon is the "Sword +0" (which hits magical creatures but gives no bonuses otherwise).  And those are still pretty rare.

The Unconquered Sun takes the place of the Christian god in the setting, though the Church of the Unconquered Sun is pretty much identical to the Catholic Church at that time (including massive, massive corruption that would bring about the Protestant Reformation a few decades later).  The Pontifexes of the church in the setting are all based on real historical popes of the era, and their corruption, lusts, and scheming are taken right from the papal history books.  My reasons for switching out of a Christian setting were that I like the Unconquered Sun concept, it fits better in the law/chaos axis I wanted in the setting, and maybe most importantly, Christianity tends to create a bunch of issues in a lot of gamers.  Some of them, I suspect, would have trouble playing Christianity "straight" (that is, without modern prejudices) while others would probably feel offended at the completely historical corruption demonstrated in the setting material.  In particular, the Clerical order are meant to be truly good; some can be more extreme than others, some Clerics might be more callous than others, but the one quality all Clerics should have is a real belief in serving their God and fighting evil.  I strongly suspected this kind of sincerity would be easier for a lot of gamers to play out if their Cleric was of a Sun God of Law than if I threw Jesus into the mix.

Now, about monsters:  in lands outside of Albion, monsters are somewhat more common.  The lands known as France in our history are Frogland here, and are ruled by chaotic humanoid frogs. Later on in the timeline of the setting Dracula (a Vampire, of course) sets up a kingdom of darkness in Wallachia.  There are Giants in the highlands of Scots' Land.  But in Albion itself supernatural creatures are rare; they are found only in the least populated wilderness area, conveniently the same place where unexplored tombs and barrows are often found and thus where adventurers often end up.  But the chaos of the Rose War is going to lead to more incursions of monsters into populated regions, and all the terror that brings.
Oh, and there aren't any "nice" non-humans.  Anything that isn't human is dangerous at best, and utterly hostile to humanity at worst.  Elves and Dragons ruled the world tens of thousands of years ago, and humans were their slaves (now the Elves have been pushed out of this dimension but still show up from time to time in stone circles on full moons and the like; and Dragons seem to have gone missing). The undead and demons are obviously hostile.  Frogmen are brutal oppressors of humanity.  Goblins are hideous creatures that feast on human flesh.  There are no friendly legolas-style elves or gimli-style dwarves.  Nor are there any halflings, though players are welcome to play wise-cracking alcoholic midgets if they really feel the urge.

In the Gazeteer section, you get an overview of the whole of Albion county by county.  And all of it is historical; either in the sense of actual historical detail or in the sense of legends and folktales that really come from the region being discussed. There are only some very few alterations (St.Paul's cathedral being renamed "St. Apollonius' cathedral", for example; or the punny terror of the "Isle of Wights"). In each area you get gameable details of local information (the guilds and gangs of London, for example), details of the important NPCs active in the region and their allegiances and feuds, and material about the folklore-based supernatural menaces of the area.  So you'll learn about the Royal-killing curse of the New Forest, St. Leonard's vampire in Sussex, the goblins of Dartmoor, the beast of Exmoor, the lost temple of Nodens in Hereford, the stone knights of Rollright, the vicious Merry Men of Eastern Sherwood, the mermaid's pool, the witches of Pendleton, the ghost of "Hardriding" Dick Ridley, the fae-infested Isle of Mann, the lich of Hermitage Castle, and many others.

The section on "the Continent" expands the possible play area and the sort of adventuring a campaign can feature.  If the Rose War isn't enough for your bellicose players, they can crusade against the Frogmen, or against the Turks for that matter.  I already mentioned Dracula, but aside from him the period featured some of the most fascinating historical characters:  the renaissance was in its early period, and monarchs like Casimir the Great, the Grand Duke Philip of Burgundy, Mehmet the Conqueror, and Matias Corvinus ("the crow") made their mark.  You can hang out with Richard Crookback in Albion, or at certain times of the campaign you could hang out with Rodrigo Borgia in Arcadia, or meet a young Niccolo Machiavelli or Leonardo Da Vinci.

While I took much more liberties with the Continental lands, sometimes viewing them from an English lens or making them more exotic the further away they are from the islands, most of the material here is historical too.

The sections on Law and Punishment and Currency and Equipment are both highly historical too. The laws and punishments (and the material on torture) are all drawn from medieval sources. This includes things like the sumptuary laws (where you can be penalized by dressing outside your social class), and the actually fairly strict (by D&D terms, anyways) rules on who can wear arms or armor and where. The price lists in the game are also historical; but I chose to create a currency system that would be a little easier for the modern North American to understand than the non-decimal system of pennies and shillings that would have actually existed at the time. Some of the prices might seem really wrong to our D&D-trained minds, swords seem way too cheap (though keep in mind that good swords cost a lot more), and some armor seems way too expensive, but these are reflective of what things actually could be bought for at the time (rather than chosen based on our modern sense of what we imagine might seem right).

The Chronology is carefully researched and provides a breakdown of major FUTURE events (there's a smaller section that tells you what happened in the past of the setting, but I never got the point of these long past timelines instead of a bunch of stuff covering what the GM could do with the setting from that point forward).  It covers the years 1453 - 1485, giving you 33 years of gameplay (presuming you are starting in 1454).  Each year details important events, what happens to important NPCs, detailed summaries of major battles in the Rose War, and weird events.

There's a whole system for managing noble houses:  to keep track of their financial, political and military power. This system is not extremely complex; I wanted something that could work in the abstract that would let players handle this sort of thing, but without going nuts with detail (there's always ACKS for those gamers who want to have a much more detailed and focused system of dominion management).  The section includes a mechanic for handling mass combat, which is also simple.  These sorts of things usually end up being rules-heavy, and I wanted something fast and easy even if it wouldn't be as detailed, so that groups that don't want to spend hours determining how their turnip crops do could still have something to resolve the bigger questions of what is happening to a noble house.
To me, the most important part of the noble house rules is the mechanic for "influence rolls", where characters in charge of noble houses, trying to make some kind of political maneuver involving obtaining favor, manipulating parliament, etc., can make a check based on the political power of their house.

The section on important characters is full of NPC nobles; which may be more useful in certain campaigns than others.  It would be great if they spread across more social classes, but I wanted to use actual historical figures and there aren't a lot of great biographies of fishmongers from that era who led fascinating lives. The heraldic shields given to each family are mostly the actual historical ones too (though the editor made just a few tweaks to serve the setting). The "GM secrets" section at the end of that chapter, which details some of the most important secrets of some of the most important nobles, were judgment calls as I made them in the campaign.  In my campaign, Queen Margaret was a magic-user; it doesn't mean she has to be in yours.

Once again, the biographies of the Pontifexes are almost exact matches to the historical records of the various popes who ruled during the period of this campaign.  Ditto with the foreign rulers, with the exception of the Frogmen kings of course.
For the magic section, I didn't worry myself too much about the spell lists (just basically picking the spells from the AD&D 1e PHB I thought were OK), and was obviously guided more than a bit by how LotFP handled spells. I wanted to make sure magisters would have to go through a lot of effort to be able to research spells or make items, since the whole setting is supposed to be fairly low-magic.
The part I'm really proud of here is the summoning rules; and as I was writing them I had my copy (well, ONE of my multiple copies) of the real-life medieval magic-book The Goetia at my side (as well as the Book of Abra-melin, another grimoire). The whole system of demon-summoning is probably the most medieval-authentic that D&D has ever gotten.  At the same time, I made a point of not just imitating the names and attributes of the goetic demons themselves, because some people would probably not care for that (so don't fear, if you're an evangelical or the like, there's no real world demon stuff in the book). And, frankly, because that just wouldn't be a good idea.

The summoning system does a great job of allowing even low-level magisters access to amazing powers, but they will have to be very careful not to bite off more than they could chew.  The need to have the right names and sigils provide great fodder for both roleplaying involvement and questing potential.
The Lance of Mithras is a major artifact of the campaign; and the sort of thing that high-level adventurers could try to go questing for (especially if there are clerics or extremely devout hero-type warriors in the group).  The locations of the pieces of the Lance are based on real-life historical locations that claimed to have pieces of the 'spear of destiny'.

The section on herbalism and alchemy are, I think, another great feature of the book.  In particular they treat poison WAY more realistically than most D&D games do (there's nothing that will kill you instantly, even the most deadly natural poison will take a minimum of 2 full rounds before you have a chance of dropping dead). This gives a great period of extreme tension for any PC who realizes they've been poisoned, where they have rounds, minutes, or hours to do something (be it desperately seek a cure, or try to go out in a blaze of glory) before they face death.  Of course, magical creatures with magical poison can still be ultra-deadly.  The herbs (somewhat inspired by the awesome Maelstrom game) and alchemical concoctions allow for non-magical characters with certain skills to really shine.

The encounters on the roads are also filled with flavor, a lot of it based on authentic historical detail. Only a minority of them are meant to be really life-threatening. They're more set up for picaresque flavor.  I'll note that the "obstacles" table, which I think is really clever, was written entirely by Dominique Crouzet.  The random events table in the populated areas are mainly meant to create a sense of a living environment; when the PCs come back after while to a town they've already been to, it's easy to just gloss over things and make everything feel like those old video games where nothing changes unless the player is around. The table of events is meant to avoid that problem.  The mechanics for drawing unwanted attention are set up so that if you don't have "respectable" people in your party, your group will really feel the inherent cultural distrust of weirdo strangers that look potentially violent (to say nothing of what happens if one of your players decides their character is going to try to go around armed or armored in town!).

Like many of the parts in this chapter, the majority of the adventure locations were partially (and initially) designed by Dominique Crouzet. Obviously, all the dungeon type maps (elven tomb, goblin warren, etc.) were drawn by him, and in some cases generally presented an idea of the scenario, which I then filled in. All the dungeon-type locations are really great for one-shots (I've run them multiple times).   The section for social-type locations (at court, and at the fair) are great for intrigue-type play at very different social-class levels.  The section on "The Wall" provides great source material (almost entirely done by Dominique Crouzet, again).

The Knights of the Star are this setting's version of the Order of the Garter; and they have some of the same historical rules and most of the same historical membership as that latter order did.

Appendix P is one of the coolest parts of the book which have not really gotten too much attention yet. They are my own 'house rule' modifications (add a spell list and you're pretty much good to go) for a gritty version of D&D.  The experience point rules are a variation of the experience rules from my old FtA! game.  The idea of classes potentially rolling randomly for its bonuses each level-up is based on early conceptual ideas for Arrows of Indra (which I ultimately didn't use there, because it would have been too gritty for AoI, a game that is supposed to have a very epic feel).  Some of the other stuff was inspired by a variety of sources, ranging from Swords & Wizardry to 5e D&D. The Alternate Spellcasting rules were an attempt at introducing a simplified mechanic similar to the DCC magic rules (I had also considered doing some kind of simplified 'corruption' rules on a spell failure, but that actually wouldn't fit very well with the setting; if wizards were getting random corruption just for being wizards -as opposed to mutation for serving chaos- then there's no way any magic would be allowed in this culture).  The sage is suggested as an NPC class, but in fact in the original Dark Albion game, one of the most successful characters by far was in essence a Sage (and the only guy who played the whole campaign, thus far, with that one character).
The critical rules were the last thing added to the Appendix P rules, largely as a response to a question posed by Dominique regarding how the (low level) Duke of Somerset could possibly slay the (high level) Sir John Wenlock (the "prince of traitors") with a single ax-blow to the head.  The crit rules mean that a very lucky roll can let a low level character kill a high-level character.

There's a lot of cool random tables in the book.  Among these you get:
-"Random Prior Event" tables for character creation
-random tables for Anglish, Scots or Cymric names (male and female) that are based on the actual most popular names in England, Scotland and Wales at that time.
-annual events for noble houses
-random events in battles
-the spell lists have been remade to fit the setting and are all random-roll capable.
-the demonic powers lists are set up so they could be rolled on d30s.
-potion design flaw table
-random encounter tables on roads
-random madman table
-obstacle table
-village, town and city random events.
-urban random encounter
-random urban mob target table
-random benefit tables for class in the Appendix P Rules

So yeah, more than enough has been said about Albion in so many reviews, I don't think I need to add more to give you the gist of things.  That said, if you have any questions about the content of the book, or about the design process, please feel free to ask in the comments.

You can buy Dark Albion in hardcover from Lulu (with an alternate cover that I think is awesome), in softcover from Amazon, or in PDF from RPGnow.


Currently Smoking:  Mastro de Paja Rhodesian & Image Perique


  1. I'm a sucker for fantasy versions of medieval Europe in the vein of Darklands, and of random tables and hexmaps to add to that. Sold.

  2. The book is very good. I have bought PDF
    It would be desirable to see maps of other regions still

    1. Any regions in particular that you had in mind?

    2. Only six beautiful regional maps are in the Book. I would like to see maps of Kent, Cumberland ,Lancashire, Westmoreland, Pembrokeshire and so)

    3. Fair enough. You'd have to try to convince Dominique Crouzet to make some.