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Thursday 8 February 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Barbarians of Lemuria

This is a review of "Barbarians of Lemuria: A Sword and Sorcery Roleplaying Game", written by Simon Washbourne, mythic edition 2.7, published by Beyond Belief Games.

This is as always a review of the print edition, an attractive-looking hardcover featuring a full-color image of a Conan-esque barbarian with a half-nude girl draped at his side, fighting some kind of tentacle creature. The interior is also full-color featuring many attractive illustrations. The book is 211 pages long.

The rulebook gets right to business. You get a brief description of what Sword & Sorcery is about, which frankly is nothing special. I mean, honestly, is anyone going to buy this book who isn't already familiar with what S&S is about?!

But after that you get right into the base mechanic and other material. The basic mechanic of the game is based on a simple 2d6 mechanic in the style of Traveler: a roll of 9+ is a success, 8- is failure. A natural 2 is always failure, a natural 12 is always success. You can also get bonus dice, which means you roll 3d6 (or 4d6) and keep the best two, or flaw dice, where you roll 3d6 and keep the worst two.
It's also explained later on that a roll of 12 which would have been a success anyways is called a "mighty success" (a critical). If you spend a hero point on top of that, it become a "legendary success" with even more effect. Likewise, if you roll a 2, and take it to be a "calamitous failure", you gain a hero point. I hate that last part, it's just bad storygamey design. All kinds of things, starting with overall difficulty level, can modify the roll.

Character creation is also simple, and not random (unfortunately, in my opinion, but at least the simplicity helps with that). Characters have four main attributes (strength, agility, mind and appeal); you get 4 points to divide among these (you can't have more than 3 in an attribute at first), you can also reduce one ability score to -1, though it's not recommended. -1 is "feeble", while 5 would be "mythic".
Next you have four combat abilities, which also get 4 points between them; these are initiative, melee, ranged, and defense. "Lifeblood" are basically hitpoints and these are a derived stat (10+/- your strength attribute). Characters also get "hero points" which can be used to 'dig deep' and get to reroll a check, increase the effects of a success, or to recover quickly from damage.

Hero points can be used, as per the game rules, to allow the player to define 'some bit of information' about the environment around them that essentially alters reality; the example given is of a character being trapped in a cell spending a hero point for there to be a loose stone in the wall. This is utter storygaming bullshit of course, which destroys immersion in the sense of a living world that doesn't cater to one's own whims.
Hero points are renewed at the start of each session.

Instead of skills, the game has 'careers'. Characters will start with a number of ranks in four different careers. Careers can be things like 'thief', 'mercenary', 'alchemist', etc.

There's also backgrounds based on origins (regional), which give a character boons (which provide bonus dice), and optionally a character could also take a flaw (or give up a hero point) to gain extra boons. Flaws cause 'penalty dice', which work as the opposite of boons (you roll 3 dice and remove the highest number).
A number of regions are described (places like the Beshar Desert, the Fire Coast, the Klaar Plains, etc). Each region has a list of possible boons, flaws, and names for characters. Professions also have their own lists of boons and flaws.

The section on gear does not include price lists. Instead, the book advises to simply let players have anything reasonable that they think their character should have based on their career. Likewise, there are no rules for encumbrance, because heroes shouldn't have to bother with that. The author tersely claims that if you want resource-management you should go play another game.

This strikes me on the one hand as somewhat emulative of the kind of S&S stories the book wants to copy (Conan is cited as a specific example, stating that he or Red Sonja or Thongor "never went shopping"). On the other hand, this creates a potential nightmare of mother-may-I shopping and potential player-manipulation, and can damage immersion if you wonder where your barbarian is carrying a dozen torches and ten thousand gold pieces wearing nothing but a loincloth.
Armor is divided into broad categories (light, medium, heavy) and each category provides a different die of protection that reduces damage. It seems that contrary to the earlier bluster about emulating S&S, no explanation is given for why Conan wouldn't be going around in heavy armor.
Weapons are divided into broad categories as well: unarmed does d3+half one's strength, light weapons do the lesser result of two d6s (plus strength), medium do 1d6, heavy weapons do the better of two d6s. Characters with strength less than 0 can't wield heavy weapons.

Combat in the game is fairly simple: you roll 2d6+(agility or strength)+(melee or ranged)+any modifiers-target's defense. There are several combat options described, like two-weapon-fighting, defensive stance, full defense, offensive stance, all-out attack, or bypassing armor.
All in all, combat is very straightfoward and easy to grasp (as are most of the rules thus far).

There's a basic sort of mechanic for resolving mass-combat, on land and sea. It involves a process of determining army qualities and events on the battlefield, while PCs get to choose between doing special "heroic actions" during a battle turn.
Stats for sample ship types are included. There's even a section on flying boats.
All in all, the mass-combat is adequate. It's decent especially because it doesn't fall into the trap so many other mass-combat systems (other than the one in Dark Albion, of course) fall into, of being too complicated. But it may seem a bit too abstract for some people.

At this point we get into a gazetteer of Lemuria. It includes a lengthy background history of the setting (which like many S&S settings is a type of fantasy post-apocalypse), a description of the 'twenty gods' of Lemuria, and the dark gods (including Dark Lord Hadron). Then we learn about the many races of the setting (each with suggested boons, flaws, and names): Blue Giants, Grooth (beast men), Kalukan (asexual one-eyed headless giants), Morgal (vampires), Slorth (woman-headed serpents), the Sorcerer Kings, and the Winged Men.

About ten pages is dedicated to different areas in Lemuria, along with some partial maps, but no complete map of the setting is found in this section; instead, you get a little map of the setting way in the back, nearly 100 pages later. This strikes me as an odd (and impractical) choice.

The section on "Beasts of Lemuria" covers about 34 pages in all, detailing a variety of weird and unusual creatures, with some great and evocative illustrations. As well as the general monsters, there's a specific section for "the Bloodless" (who are basically Undead), and for "Demons", with a few examples.
Then there's also a brief section called the "Lemurian Lexicon" which details a number of names of people and things, important characters and magical objects. These are only described by very brief, one or two sentence, summaries. No stats or anything like that, but good for ideas regardless.

The "Mysteries of Lemuria" chapter begins with a set of mechanics and explanations of Alchemy. Alchemists make alchemical objects, and to do so they use a mechanic called "craft points". You have a number of these points equal to your skill rank in Alchemy, which are granted each adventure and accumulate. You spend these to make alchemical objects (some of these also may require more than one adventure session to construct). A roll is also required, which if you fail means all the points you invested into the construction are lost. Some examples of potions and devices are presented, but it's implied that other alchemical objects besides those listed could be created.

Priests and Druids practice devotions, which grant them "fate points", these points can then be spent on themselves or others as bonus dice to represent the favor of the gods, in areas relevant to the domain of the god they have chosen as their patron.

Magicians have Arcane Power points, with which they can cast cantrips or spells of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level of magnitude. Magic in this game is quite difficult, particularly the higher-magnitude spells; the book also makes it clear that magicians are more often NPC villains rather than PCs. That said, a dedicated magician could certainly be effective. The magic section details general levels of possible spells, but there are also a few fully-detailed spells.

The chapter ends with a description of a few weird secret-societies in the setting.

Then we get a section on how to run campaigns, which are pretentiously called "sagas". Most of the advice is relatively cliched, to say nothing of when it's outright wrong (as in, saying that the game is "about telling a good story").

You also get the advice to make treasure utterly abstract. In fact, you're told to laugh at your players and call them 'accountants' if they ask just how much treasure they earned. This strikes me as beyond pretentiousness.

Advancement also depends on characters spending or wasting away all their treasure. I understand that this somewhat follows the path of some of the Sword & Sorcery genre, but it also creates a situation where you enforce one particular interpretation of the style.  A more creative game designer would have provided various options, certainly "blow all your money for advancement points" could be one of them. Advancement points can be used to improve abilities, combat abilities, career ranks, get more boons, buy off flaws, or gain followers.

NPCs in the game are divided into three broad categories: Rabble, Toughs, and Villains. Rabble are easily-dispatched typical people; they only have 1-3 lifeblood points; a rabble magician only has 1 arcane point (enough to cast a cantrip, basically). Toughs are intermediate characters, well above Rabble but seriously inferior to PCs; some templates are provided for different sorts of Toughs (gladiators, guards, assassins, sergeants, barbarians, archers, etc).

Villains are considerably more powerful; they have Villain Points instead of hero points, which they can use in the same way plus a couple of other options (to make a "timely escape" or to use rabble as their 'meat shields'). Some 5 Villains are provided, fully fleshed-out, as examples. You also get some sample adventurers.

Some adventure-seeds are provided, and several short but fleshed-out adventures. You also get a number of tables for generating random adventure ideas, this part is actually quite clever. It includes some composite titles for adventures, random tasks, random careers for an important figure in the adventure, random locations, random objects of importance, random introductions to the adventure, random villains, random gods that might be involved, random complications, random twists, and random rewards.

The back end of the book includes three pages of handy reference tables, and character sheets.

So, what to conclude about Barbarians of Lemuria?  Well, I'm not going to pretend it doesn't have its good points. It's a very straightforward system, easy to use, and to get a clear understanding. The setting is very definitely sword & sorcery; if you wanted to be very nitpicky you could say it's somewhat cliched, but I would argue that a setting for a game like this SHOULD be full of cliches.

But there are also some bad points. Almost all of them are because of, or related to, the storygame influences on this product.  The immersion-breaking elements where Players are able to edit out details of the world. The pretentious assumption (extending to literal instructions to mock your players) that somehow resource-management is a bad aspect of play.

If there's a redeeming faculty, it's that a clever GM could fairly easily edit out the storygaming atrocities (and the pretentious tone of the author) from their game and run this as a much more 'straight' (if rules-light) RPG.


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  1. To be fair, they are both half naked on the cover.

  2. Good review...does not sound like a game I would want to play. I don't like the idea of spending abstract points to find a loose stone to escape a prison; I would prefer the player actually use his brains and figure out something. Maybe there actually was a loose stone but why check when I can spend a point and make it so? Among other aspects you touch on in a negative sense and with which I agree.

  3. I would tone this subsystem down : something like spend a point and your character gets a lucky break (described by the DM). At least this looks somewhat less storygamey than FATE is.

  4. This sounds like a good game. I would play in the campaign but not run it. And I would expect the guy who was geeked enough to run it to be a railroady jerk, and live with it.

    It seems a lot like WEG's Star Wars D6.

    I'll stick to D&D, but that's not a knock on this product.

  5. The game is published by Filigree Forge, not Beyond Belief Games.

    Conan is nearly always in medium to heavy armour in the stories, however this isn't about Conan! :)

    1. In the credits it seemed to say Beyond Belief. I'll check it again later.

    2. Simon Washborne's company is Beyond Belief Games. Filgree Forge published it.

  6. Thank you for this review. I like it. :)

  7. Your criticism of the storygamyness of the system assumes a weak GM who will say "yes" to every player petition made via the system and that the rules are absolute and context-independent.

    This need not be the case.

    The BoL system requires a two-way collaborative attitude from the players and GM. Players will often petition the GM for particular outcomes based on their characters/situations/etc. and it's for the GM to grant it (wholesale or modified) depending on how convincing that case is and how it will impact on the story. It's completely legitimate for the GM to counter the petition, either with a counter argument or by fiat. The game therefore requires fairly mature players who can overcome their obsession with rules literalness and hapless attempts at simulation in favour of shared story development. It's certainly not a game for the autistic.

      Any time the player is jumping out of immersion in his character, and looking at the world as this totally imaginary thing that he can personally edit (with or without GM permission), he's MADE THE WORLD NOT REAL, and that destroys the immersive effect.

      And Immersion, NOT STORYTELLING is the REAL goal of RPGs.

    2. Immersion is NOT the real goal of these games. You are not to say YOUR PERSONAL goal must be everyone's goal, or that there cannot be other different goals.

      Simon Washbourne is pretty clear on what his game's goals are, what kind of adventures he is interested in, and to what purpose he made his ruleset. You don't like his approach? It's fine, nobody has to like everything. There are weak parts? Sure, as in every other game. But assuming and presuming to know without a doubt what the goal of every single game is (and that only there is one)? That's beyond, beyond pretentious!

      You want immersion? Go snorkeling! RPGs are games and games are not about immersion, mostly. Some are, but some aren't. Games are about socializing, competing, having fun, team work, telling stories, and any other thing you can think about. Immersion is not the main trait of games. But your games can be about immersion, if you like, but then, why rolling dice? Dice gets you out of the imaginary world, especially when they fall out of the table. Having pizza and soda takes immersion away all the same. You don't seem to have any problem with dice and characters sheets and stats and concepts like +1 sword or magic missile, yet you think hero points ruin your games! Man, I would not like to play your games, so fragile.

    3. It's not my "opinion". Its the very nature of the structure of RPGs; that's like saying that the statement "a wheelbarrow is an object meant for transporting heavy objects along short distances" is just an 'opinion' and that someone else's idea that wheelbarrows are mainly for sleeping on is just as good an opinion.

      Simon Washbourne may have goals for his game, just like someone might decide to sleep in a wheelbarrow every night. It can feasibly be done, but not to any great effect, and not as well or as comfortably than if one used some other tool.

      RPGs are a means of creating a virtual world, for the purpose of the players immersing in it.
      +1 swords and magic missiles are PART of that world. They don't try to let players jump out of their character and back into the meta-world so they can change reality for their character.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. It's not an 'opinion'. It's not about 'experts'.
      All you have to do is analyze how the structure of an RPG works. If you do that without projecting your wishes of how you might like it to work, you'll see that the function of an RPG is to:
      a) create a virtual world
      b) have virtual characters existing in it

      And from this the natural conclusion is that Immersion into those characters and that world is the goal of the game.

      RPGs are horrible at "telling stories". If you don't try to somehow 'force' RPGs to tell stories, then the only stories you end up making out of them are COINCIDENTAL. They are for 'telling stories' only in the same sense that golf or fishing is for 'telling stories', that's not really the goal, and golfing stories or fishing stories are just something that happens but no one goes golfing or goes fishing to try to 'make a story' from those activities; and 9 times out of 10, the 'story' of any random Golfing, Fishing, or RPG session are going to be pretty rambling and pointless, if not outright boring.

      The guys at the Forge (which clearly influenced parts of this game) KNEW THIS, which is why they insisted that RPGs had to be CHANGED into some kind of "storytelling games" by altering how they worked.

    6. Wooooh, my compliments. You are turning your personal way to intend RpGs into "the only right way to play". And it's so old, outdated, and imho sad, way.
      Men, we should all play railroaded D&D again and again, after 30+ years of hobby.
      Well, this isn't my way. I changed. The hobby changed.
      I play with Fate and PbtA engine, with Cortex+ and Shinobigami, and dozen of other RolePlay Games that are elegant, cool, fresh: they absolutely opened a whole new world to embrace and play with.
      However, you can keep playing in your '80 systems.

    7. This is perhaps the least media literacy and critical thinking I have ever seen in a person writing about games.

      You just go "it's not an opinion" and then go on to state an obvious opinion, and like a really ill-informed one at that.

      To use your own analogy, you're sitting here telling us wheelbarrows are meant for transporting firewood exclusively, and when someone goes "oh hey I can fill this with bricks and move them around too" you are just absolutely losing your mind over the idea that they might have a use different from the one you've been using it for.

  8. "Maybe there actually was a loose stone but why check when I can spend a point and make it so?"

    Because it's funner that way.

    Fate\Stunt\Hero points or whatever don't keep you from roleplaying, they just give you options. The GM also has the option in what wacky ideas to allow and at what cost.

    And for those that for whatever reason just don't particular feel like coming up with an escape plan (my friend's mother for example) then it allows you to just hand-wave it and get on with the game. As many S&S stories do!

    That said, yeah, I'd add real money, encumbrance, price lists and treasures myself! ;)

  9. As someone with an old-school D&D background who has run a LOT of BoL over the past 5 years, I can confidently say that BoL is my favorite RPG rules engine. It's incredibly flexible and tinkerable, at least as much so as old-school D&D (gasp!)

    Want rules for encumbrance, resource management, and D&D-style dungeon crawling? The BoL fan community isn't as widespread or productive as the OSR, but there's a handful of variants for that style of play -- grab one of those or make your own.

    Want equipment lists? Choose one from your favorite OSR game and go! It's ridiculously easy to map weapons and armor to the appropriate BoL type, even on the fly.

    Don't like all the Hero Point options? Change them! Dropping the "edit a scene detail" option won't break the game.

    Want to power your Wilderlands of High Fantasy sandbox hexcrawl with BoL (instead of individual sagas?) No problem, you don't have to be a "railroady jerk" to run this game!

    1. Agree. I didn't think I would like BoL but I actually have grown to love it. I come from an old school background and was initially turned off by FATE-like story telling games but the more I play them giving the characters a slight amount of narration changing ability draws them into the game from my experience not the opposite. I love BoL's magic system as well, where you can sit down and make a dark tomb of evil spells for characters to find fairly easily. You can be imaginative and magic is less of a "magical science" then something alien that the GM can tweak how he or she wants to suit the game. What I love about BoL is you can take the base concept of the game and drop it into just about any gendra and run it. Last Halloween I ran an alien zombie invasion scenario using BoL with only about a half hour of prep and it went pretty well. You do have to be very careful with scale though, one point of something means a lot in BoL as your numbers are smaller to play with and there are less dials to fidget with.

  10. The original version of the game was straight up based up on Thongor of Lemuria by Lin Carter. World guide, map, and all.

  11. Its a neat game but I'm not a fan of the art. The French edition, however, has phenomenal art (and comes with 2 more adventures). There is even an expansion in French that goes into the setting's version of Mongolia/China which is pretty cool (and also comes with 5 more adventures, a setting calendar and more beasties).

    Also, for those that play online, BoL is available for purchase on Fantasy Grounds and its very well implemented.

    As a parting note, BoL has a great system under the hood. If you want some more old school play, you can easily tone down the relatively few narrative elements. Honestly, though, I wouldn't. They aren't that obnoxious and they fit the genre the game is for perfectly.