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Thursday 8 March 2018

RPGPundit Designer Review: Lion & Dragon

So, it's hard to get great reviews. Luckily, Lion & Dragon has had quite a few, including several on L&D's RPGnow page, some more on G+, and two video reviews (here and here)!

But I have a tradition of using my own reviewing skills on my books, because it would be a tragedy if the RPGPundit's reviewing skills were used on every book but his own. OBVIOUSLY, there can't be even the slightest pretense to objectivity here, I have a very clear and definite bias.  So instead of treating these like normal reviews, what they really amount to are 'designer notes'; an overview of what's in the book and to a certain extent what I were my motives behind including it.

So, this is a quasi-review of Lion & Dragon, written by yours truly, published by DOM games. The book is available in hardcover, softcover, and PDF. It's 130 pages long, and features a full-color cover, with a scene of medieval knights in battle.

Funny sidebar: the original cover was going to be a totally different image, of a gauntlet surrounded by a kind of fiery background, but when the publisher got the proofs he felt that it didn't look good in print.

(the original cover plan)

So he went with the new image instead. I think it was an improvement.

The interior art is black and white and utterly prolific, and since I had nothing to do with it I can safely say that it is awesome. There's images on practically every page, mostly old-timey art (which is particularly appropriate for the genre of the book).

So Lion & Dragon is an OSR game, derived from but not identical to any of the old-school D&D rulesets. Its rules vary in some important ways from regular D&D, but it's also immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with D&D.

Part of the difference in the game is based on the rules, but those are only in the service of the bigger difference: the thematic difference in the game. One of the publicity taglines I like to use for L&D is that "you only THOUGHT you were playing Medieval Fantasy, until now".  The main variation of Lion & Dragon is that it has an implicit setting, supported by the rules, that presents a true Medieval-Authentic roleplaying environment.

What does this mean? Well, most people would describe most of the standard D&D worlds as 'medieval fantasy', but they aren't really so much 'medieval' as they are Medieval-Funtime-World Ren-Faire settings complete with 20th century Wisconsin values (or more recently, 21st century Seattle-Portland values).

Lion & Dragon has the setting assumptions and the values of the real Medieval world; following the paradigm of what actual Medieval people believed, even about things like magic or monsters (and Religion, of course).

So the book starts out explaining these default setting assumptions, which, if you're going to play L&D straight, a GM will have to make an effort to engage with. In the book, each of these points are explained in detail:

1. Social Status is Extremely Important.
2. Monotheism
3. Life is Cheap
4. Magic is Rare
5. Civilization is Survival

As far as the mechanics, I'm not going to explain everything, because I'm just going to make a wild guess here and assume that 99% of you who read this have played D&D at some point in your lives. So what I'm going to get into here is the things that are different or unique about Lion & Dragon.

In the character creation section, the first thing that's suggested, as an option, is for the players to potentially be given two characters to use.  This way you can choose which character you're using at the start of a given adventure; and this solves several problems at once. First, some characters of certain social class might be more suited to certain situations. Second, it means that in spite of the game being more lethal than D&D, you can hopefully have a backup character so that you might still be able to do both higher and lower level sessions.

After rolling for basic ability scores, the very next thing you're told to do is roll for Social Class. In most D&D games, social class barely matters at all: peasants are just 'poor people' and nobles are just 'rich people', and in PC groups everyone gets an equal vote, and you might see a peasant offering unsolicited advice to a King.  None of that stuff flies in Lion & Dragon.

Your social class affects everything. A peasant PC will not be able to speak to a PC from a knightly family as if they were equals, much less badmouth a king to his face. A noble PC isn't likely to get a lot of friendly gossip from local peasants. Only a 'villain' (city-dweller) is likely to be able to get around comfortably in a city, which will seem like a very alien sort of place to everyone else.

Your social class will also determine your first skill, the background skill. Which is to say, what your father did for a living.
After this you roll on some random tables to get some defining detail from your past. This is technically optional, but the options on the table can certainly add some medieval style. Plus, the majority of them will give you some kind of benefit. You might have an animal companion, or have studied Theology, or have been previously conscripted to serve in an army, or have been kidnapped by elves as a child, or have been pardoned from a death sentence by some kind of miraculous event; there's many, many more options.

Players can also roll on tables to determine their character's names. These names are actually (from historical records) the most popular 15th century names for men and women in England, Scotland and Wales. The upper classes even get a last name!

Rules are also provided for randomly generating the PC's family. Families tend to be an important thing in the medieval world; and some campaigns are likely to be more focused on this than others (for example, campaigns based on noble families, "Game of Thrones" style).

Character equipment is also based on social class. A peasant will start with a bag of pennies, a dagger, a spear, padded jack armor (the most basic armor), and if they're very lucky, a bow and arrows.

A noble character will start with an average of 27 times more money than a peasant, a dagger, a sword, a horse, plate mail, and a shield. And of course, a family that owns sizable land and properties and influence.

Unlike most D&D games but similar to a few, characters in L&D are assumed to start at 0-level. This means they're starting the game at the end of their apprenticeship in their chosen class. The experience system is set up so that at the end of their first completed adventure, they advance to level 1 (the GM defines what counts as a 'completed adventure' of course). Obviously, if a GM doesn't want to run an easy-mode session where the PCs are raw beginners, he can just level them up to 1st level at character creation.

Character classes in the game are cleric, fighter, thief, and magister (magic-user) plus Scots Men (barbarians), and Cymri (essentially gypsies, or jacks-of-all-trade) as optional classes. The way classes work is an important variation on standard OSR rules. Instead of having a fixed set of abilities that are gained at given levels, characters start with certain fixed bonuses at level 1, and then refer to a random table for their additional benefits. Each level, they gain a small number of fixed hit points (1hp per level for most classes, 2hp per level for fighters and Scots Men); aside from that everything else is based on the advancement tables. Characters can choose (each level, including first) to either roll twice for benefits, or select one item from the list. This option allows characters to focus their characters or correct what they might feel are gaps in their abilities.

Table bonuses vary by class, but all of them include the option of more hit points, improved saving throws, and (excepting magisters) improvements in combat abilities.
Beyond that, each class has its own benefits on their table. Clerics get clerical miracles, and skill bonuses in theology or demonology. Fighters get way more combat bonuses, bonuses to initiative, and horsemanship. Magisters get lore (medieval knowledge of all kinds, because magisters are as much loremasters as wizards). Thieves get bonuses to their thief skills, backstab, and some specialist skills (like urbal lore, wilderness survival, courtly knowledge, appraisal, forgery, or artefact lore).
All this means that, even from level 1, no two characters will look alike in terms of stats or abilities, regarldess of character class. And yet, this is all done without 3e-style 'feats' or other such pseudo-superpowers, and without removing the niche-protection aspect favored by OSR play.

Skill checks in the game function on a "D20" style basis. Characters roll a D20 plus their ability score modifier versus a difficulty number.  If they have certain skills relevant to their task, they add the bonus they have in that skill.

The magic system is probably the single most significant variation in Lion & Dragon from standard OSR rules. In essence, in order to make magic Medieval-Authentic, it was necessary to completely ditch the Vancian Magic system.  In its place, Clerical magic is redesigned into a system to reflect medieval notions of miracle-working, and arcane magic is redesigned based on the ideas of medieval magic present in medieval grimoires.

Clerics have the opportunity to gain miraculous gifts on their advancement table. They automatically start with one at level 1. After that, they may or may not gain further ones by random rolls on their table, or of course they may forfeit rolling twice in exchange for selecting once. However, even in that case, which miracle they receive is random (being a gift from the divine).
There are only 8 miraculous powers in all: blessing, divine inspiration, holy light, holy weapon, laying hands, sanctuary, turning the undead, and holy visions.

However, once a cleric has all eight powers, he automatically gains the much greater power of Divine Intervention. Here, he prays directly to God, in the hope that God will make whatever miracle is necessary for him to achieve what he seeks. Of course, whatever the Cleric is asking for must be for a holy purpose. And if the divine intervention succeeds, the divine will then demand of him a (randomly determined) divine quest to fulfill (of varying degrees of difficulty) that the Cleric must undertake (with friends, if he likes).

In all clerical magic checks, the Player rolls a D20+ WIS modifier + level, vs a difficulty number (the number being variable). If he succeeds, the miracle succeeds. If he fails, he cannot attempt to pray for that miraculous gift again until the next day.

Magisters are a lot more complicated.  All magisters have the potential to learn a number of magical techniques (in the L&D rulebook, there's seven techniques in all, but in theory there could be more techniques and some of these are elaborated upon in some of the RPGPundit Presents supplements).
There's one technique that every magister starts with potential knowledge of: Summoning.  This works largely the same as the Summoning rules in the Dark Albion book. However, to summon and control a demon you need its true name and its sigil, and Magic-user PCs don't actually possess any of these at 1st level. They'd need to obtain them. Note that also, technically, anyone (not just magic-users) could perform summoning, only non-magisters would be much worse at it (and therefore under much more risk of catastrophic failure and demonic possession).

The other six techniques are Astrology, Cures, Banishing, Battle Magic, Astrological Talismans, and True Alchemy.  Each of these have a variety of different rituals under their aegis, and/or different tiers of ability, so techniques can be selected multiple times to get access to more or better rituals in the technique.

Clerics, with their powers, are largely similar in practice to D&D regarding how they use magic (even if the power themselves are a little different from Vancian Clerics). But magisters in Lion & Dragon work radically differently from D&D wizards.

For starters, apart from a couple of spells (the most basic form of banishing, a spell to become partially invisible, etc), almost all of what magisters do require complex rituals.  Most of these require materials (special objects, incense, precious metals, or a full alchemical lab) that are quite costly, meaning that a magister will either need to come from wealth, amass wealth by some means, or have a powerful patron to fund them. These rituals take time and sometimes have associated risks.

But in many cases, the rituals being completed, the result is something the magister can then use very easily in actual situations.
So for example, a magician who knows Astrological Talismans needs to go through a whole process to create a talisman, but after that, as long as he has it on him, he need only touch it for its power to work. A magister can't cast the "light" spell like in D&D, but one that gets a lab, the complicated material components, and succeeds at the ritual to create it can make an ever-burning lamp. High-Level magisters can be ridiculously powerful; but not because they could throw fireballs or lightning bolts. Instead, because they can produce Byzantine Dragonfire (or 'Greek fire' as we knew it historically) that they can fire (or more likely give to someone else to fire) out of a flamethrower-like pump or from little grenades! Master alchemists can even try their hand at creating the Philosopher's Stone (if they can get a Royal Charter permitting them to do so; or if they want to risk execution if they can't get a Charter) to make lead into gold and do many other wondrous things. Or they can try their hand at creating the most difficult and valuable magic of all: the Elixir of Life that could grant immortality.

The section on coin and equipment are largely taken from Dark Albion, another part of the roughly 20% of the book which is also found in the Albion book. This was done for two reasons: so that L&D could be a complete game not requiring Dark Albion to play, and so that even if you do have Dark Albion you won't have to be flipping around from one book to the other to look at the rules material.
But this chapter isn't completely identical! There have been a few entries added to the equipment. Also the Armor has been changed from the standard D&D types to the more accurate types of armor available in the late medieval period: 'padded jack', 'jack splint', 'brigandine', 'chain hauberk', 'plate & hauberk', and 'full plate'.
I've also added rules for cannons.
There's also a neat little rule about how, once in a PC's lifetime, he can choose a specific weapon that they like, give it a name, and have a bonus to hit with that specific 'signature' weapon.
The sections on poisons, herbalism, and (non-magical) alchemical recipes are included here.

In terms of combat rules, most of these will be immediately recognizable by any D&D fan. The game makes use of reaction rolls and morale rolls (2d6). Reaction rolls can be extended to apply to efforts to win over someone in a social situation, but it is always based on actual role-play. For obvious reasons, a column of rules on wilderness survival and orientation are provided.
Initiative is individual, on a D6 roll, modified by DEX and things like armor, and what action you're taking. Fighters (as part of leveling bonuses) can get bonuses to initiative. There's also plenty of emphasis on mounted combat (what with all those knights).

But really the two major innovations in the game are the critical table, which has the potential (however remote) of making any single hit a killing blow, and the parrying rules. The latter put shields in their proper place. Anyone can try to parry a successful hit; while fighters will again tend to be much better at it.
The parrying mechanic is based on rolling a parrying roll against the attack roll that just hit them, and then roll a die to see if they blocked the damage. The blocking die varies depending on whether you're parrying with shield or weapon, and is modified by Strength, magic shield bonus, and fighters and clerics add their level.
I made the blocking roll an all-or-nothing affair; if you roll higher than the damage rolled, you take no damage, otherwise you take all the damage. Some reviewers have suggested that I could have made it into 'damage reduction' instead, making lighter damage a possibility. GMs could certainly choose to do it that way, without having to change any of the mechanics.

Rules for injury include aging, illness, and infection (the latter can theoretically happen any time after taking a cutting wound). So yes, Lion & Dragon is so medieval-authentic that your character could die from infection! Or, you know, the plague.

The old monster-and-gold-based experience system is gone too. It just doesn't fit Medieval-Authentic adventuring, where many of the player characters should not be driven by questing for coin at all cost. I've supplanted it with a very basic system of gaining points for "adventures completed". The amount of points it takes to go up in level increases after the first few levels, topping up at 5 per level between levels 4 and 12. After that, it jumps to 10. The assumption of the rules is that the vast majority of human beings are level 0, and that only a very very few legendary people are above level 12.

The chapter on Treasure & Valuables sets up guidelines for how to do a more Medieval-Authentic perspective to "loot", which should obviously be quite different than the piles of money one would get in a typical D&D world.
There's some instruction on what typical NPCs from specific social classes would be carrying on them. Then there's hauls of treasure from locations pertaining to specific groups, these are: poor, wealthy, criminal, religious, non-supernatural animal lair, supernatural (unintelligent), supernatural (intelligent), and Tombs/Catacombs/Barrows.
Each of these produce varying possibilities of getting a variety of different treasure types, which have their own sub-tables: "trifles", "goods", "weapons/armor", "religious items", "valuables", "jewels" (which includes cash), and "Special items".

Magic items are, in part, covered in the sections on magical techniques. However, there's a special list of several dozen magic items. None of these are your standard D&D items. All of them are based on either religious objects, items from folklore and legend, or objects of historical importance that provide certain benefits from their association. So you have things like Agincourt Bows, Crusader shields, Eluned's Ring, a Griffin's claw, the Jarl's Ring, the Liber Officiorum (an example of a demon grimoire), Runecharms, the Sword of Goreu, Warwick's Sword, etc.
Each item is given a paragraph describing its origins/history, and its powers.

The Monster section is the first appendix to the book, and it features 40 different monsters, not counting a good selection of normal animals and a selection of stat-blocks for human opponents, and also not counting the demon stats that are in the section on summoning (or golems and homunculi found in the section on alchemy). All of the monsters are based on medieval-authentic sources, some more directly than others (that is, some are very much presented in the fully medieval style, while others include some degrees of interpretation). Aside from the normal animals, none will be exactly what you're used to from a D&D monster manual, even though many have the same name as creatures you find in the monster manual. You'll see satyrs and dwarves, giants and dragons, griffins and wights, but they're all designed with the medieval sources in mind.

The next appendix covers trials. This provides a series of simple but complete mechanics, where someone being tried for a crime (and let's face it, odds are sooner or later in the campaign some PC is likely to) will make a roll, with a wide variety of modifiers, to determine if they are judged innocent or guilty. This is again all based as much as possible on medieval jurisprudence (secular and ecclesiastical); for example, the punishments for the different crimes are based on what the standard punishments at the time were for said crimes in medieval England.  The section also covers trial by combat, and 'trial by vision' (where a cleric can potentially be called in to attempt to determine by divine intervention whether the accused is guilty or not). Rules for the appeals process and how to use lawyers (and bribery) are also presented.

The final appendix covers "Wilderland Adventuring".  This provides random tables and guidelines for ruins that PCs might find in a medieval-authentic wilderland (in this case put in the context of Albion/England). It also has a table of "random encounters in the wilderlands", of the sort of things you might find in the forests or mountains, far from civilization. Then there's a generation system with tables for "Settled Wilderland Areas"; this lets you generate who the local ruler is of this isolated area, the ruler's motivations, the state of the local economy, and interesting local details.

The back end of the book includes a character sheet, which is also available online as a free PDF.

So obviously, I'm not going to try to grade my own game.  I hope this breakdown of it's contents, and some of my ideas that went into designing it, will be of use to you in figuring out if it's for you.

If you're interested in a game that will provide a gritty and very medieval experience, whether to play historical encounters like the War of the Roses, the Anarchy, the 100 Years War, the Crusades, the Norman invasion, etc.; or whether you want to play something along the lines of Shakespeare's historical dramas, or Game of Thrones, or just want some kind of a hyper-authentic medieval system to go with your own authentic medieval setting, where you don't have Ren-Faire-World, but something more true to life, you're likely to love this game.

If not? Well, if you're already happy with your own game, you might find the rituals and alchemical practices of the magic section something you can bring into your own game. Ditto many other features, like the monsters, life events, trial rules, and more.

So if any of that appeals to you, check out Lion & Dragon, and be ready to have your whole idea of "medieval fantasy" taken to a whole new level!


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  1. "Niche protection" is now part of "OSR" play? It might be part of play but it sure isn't old school.

    1. How is niche protection not part of the Old-school?! Are you sure you even understand that term?

    2. I'd go as far as to say that niche protection is one of the main draws of the class design pattern. That is, where character diversity is mechanically narrowed into discrete units which are then easier to made competent in areas with less or no overlap.

      That said, you can always think of character classes (in old school play) as subsets of the "Adventurer" class and, as such, having plenty of overlap in the general competency of being an adventurer (traversing wilderness, living off the land, skulking about in dark dangerous places, banging monsters in the head with sharp objects, and hauling mountains of money.)

  2. I have a doubt: level 0 clerics and magisters don't begin with spells, right?

    1. That's correct. They only gain abilities at level 1.

  3. I've had a fund time running this solo over the last few months. Any additional supplements on the way?