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Friday 7 December 2018

New Dark Albion Review!

Hey everyone, today I've got to game in like, minutes, but let me present you with an awesome review of Dark Albion, originally posted here on theRPGsite reviews section by Headless:

Without further ado:

This is a review of Dark Albion: The Rose War, written by RPGPundit published by Dom Publishing. 

Dark Albion is a campaign setting, its tag line is "Grim fantasy England in the 15th century." It covers about 30 years of English history from 1453 to 1485. Those of you with a familiarity with English history will remember that is when the English were fighting the War of the Roses. Those of you with a passing familiarity with Game of Thrones by George Martin, will quickly realise that he was painting over the same conflict with a slightly different fantasy veneer. It's a rich period and both authors make them come alive. I'm only reviewing Dark Albion today but there may be some comparisons.

I'll start by describing the book, then its content, impressions/opinion, comments quibbles complaints. What I love what I think it's missing. Then comments on who this book is for and if I would use it. 

It's a soft cover 277 page book, color covers and generous black and white illustrations inside. It has a helpful table of contents and an index in the front, two things I always look for especially in a reference manual like this one. Then about 13 pages of introduction and overview which I found very helpful and well written both as a historical primer and to set the tone for running a game in Dark Albion. 

Pundit does an excellent job telling us what kind of a game he wrote this setting for. He tells us Dark Albion is meant to be system agnostic within the OSR (old school renaissance). OSR is a bit of a slippery term at least to me. He provides a definition, but it's mechanistic and legalistic. He says the OSR are games and systems based on earlier systems using an open gaming licence. That might help you figure out which games belong in the OSR but it doesn't help you understand the feel of it, or what kind of a game you can run with Dark Albion. I'll try to provide a bit of a description, this is my description it helps me understand how to use this book, your mileage may vary. The OSR is a reaction against two game trends. The first is the focus on story, which I am going to say has a strong example in White Wolf games. This system gives the DM (or storyteller) broad permission to fudge the system, the rolls, the rules and muck around in the back ground to get his (or her) players where he wants them to be. He has a plan and it's his job to make it happen. 

The second is and overly rule based game focused approach, which I am going to say has a strong example in D&D 3.5 and pathfinder (also D&D 4th edition I think but I didn't play that one). This approach focuses on the rules, the abilities, the powers and the cool tricks the player characters have. When that kind of a game goes badly it grinds to a halt as the players and DM dive into the rule books. 

In reaction to these twin diverging influences the OSR is an attempt to recapture the magic of older games. It focuses on simpler games, simpler rules, and freedom for the players. Magic is rare but real. Most of all I would say the game happens at the table. It's not in the DM's head just waiting for the players to say their lines, it's not in the rule books, there is little need to look things up, and often you don't even need to check your character sheet, there is nothing there that is going to help you solve your problem. 

With that understood Dark Albion is a setting for a simple, rules light, magic light, low level game. He further gives us some very specific instructions for running a game in this period. Instructions which will feel very restrictive to the fantasy genera. I will say they all have to do with essential fact that civilization is the difference between life and death. The restrictions are, social standing is ridged, determined at birth (immutable) and it is the most important characteristic about any person. The higher classes expect and demand deference from the lower classes, societies will not tolerate rudeness or disobedience, even wearing the colors or fabrics above your station is a punishable offence. Typical Player Character rudeness will get the whole party executed or exiled which amounts to the same thing (remember civilization is the difference between life and death). 

Second, Non-human even non-civilized is dangerous and threating. There will be no half-elfs in the party, not dwarves or Halflings, certainly no good half orcs. The monsters are monstrous and dangerous, pure and simple. 

Third is religion. Religion is the back bone of civilization, it's monotheistic, it's lawful and it's not really subject to alternative interpretations. If you aren't worshiping the Unconquered Sun, (or the Crescent Moon, same guy) you are worshiping a demon who will damn you and use you to destroy as much of what you love as possible before he leads you to your death. 

These 3 restriction will be quite an adjustment for most modern players. Our society is characterised by social freedom, tolerance and understanding for outsiders. We are tolerant of other religions, largely because it is impotent and completely irrelevant. That was not the case for medieval society and it will not be the case for players in Dark Albion. 

Honestly that is the core of Dark Albion, if you understand those 3 restrictions you are ready to play, the rest is details, specifics, aids and setting references. 

But the specifics are quite good so let's take a look. After the overview and introduction is about 60 pages of geography notes. Starting very detailed in London which has several entries for specific Inns and buildings and becoming less details as it gets further away. Iceland is described as an Icy wasteland which may have a volcano that is a gate way to hell. If the players stay in England the DM will have plenty of easy and useful references about what can be found, if they go further afield the DM will have progressively more work to do. The entries are well written and interesting many of which contain adventure seeds in just a couple lines. For example the Isle of Wright is inhabited by undead and Morrigaine the Witch Queen (from the story of King Arthur) lives on the Orkney Isles. The Isle of Mann is obviously the inspiration for House Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. Many of the entries in England have excellent hex maps.

After the geography reference section is a quick section on law and order. Quite helpful if your players are going to flout laws and conventions and get themselves in trouble with various authorities. Since they are player characters there's really no if. You will need this section. 

After that is a 30 year point form history of the war of the Roses with a thin layer of fantasy and horror painted over it. This section will be essential if you intend to play through the Rose war. Each year has events to help you keep track of the shifting alliances of the war, as well as events from the wider world, intrigues, rumours and some fantasy events, like attacks by werewolves or the dead rising. 

Then 10 or 12 pages on creating a character in Dark Albion. Because this is a setting and not a system it focuses on social class and the roll various character classes play in Albion society instead of the abilities of various character classes. For example he tells us how careful wizards need to be to avoid being accused of daemon worship, chaos magic or witch craft instead of telling us how many spells or spell like abilities they get. This section also includes a couple of random tables, Names, random events from the characters history, and a random table for social class. As always you are free to roll or choose from any table, I would strongly urge choosing on the social class table. If social class is as important as Pundit insists it is, then it's not something I would want to leave to chance. First because you won't be able to play the kind of game you and your players want without the right roll. Even if one or two of your players get the right roll that will leave the rest of the party feeling like the Decker in shadow run, either watching the rest of the party or with the party watching them while they do their stuff. But also because randomly assigning one player to eat another's shit for a long term game just don't sound like fun to me. That's if you are very lucky and the dice assign the subservient role to the player that can handle it, if the dice assign roles the other way your game is going to flame out and you are going to be left with fewer friends. 

There is a helpful section of equipment and costs, which includes things like wages for a Knight, as well as things like beer and boats. Maybe I'm playing in the wrong games but I've never bought a sail boat even though every equipment list seems to include it. 

There is a section for a mini game involving managing the power and prestige of Noble houses. It's not very well detailed. If you want to focus on that aspect of the game I would advise finding some more substantial rules, but if you just need a bit of help to add some substance to your handwavium I think this section will be fine. Not something that will be used often, but might just tide you over if you need it.

Then the 3rd large reference section this one on notable people. Most just have a couple lines, birth death, allies, and class levels if any. More important figures have longer entries. This is a section you would want to spend serious time with if you were intending to run the war. There are probably over 100 people on these pages. If I was to run it I would mark up my book with notes on personality, voice and when they have met the party. 

There is a section on magic daemons and alchemy. Which could prove quite useful if the game goes in that direction.

Finally traveling, encounters complications and some sample adventures. Good stuff here as far as it goes. I could run the map bases adventures right out of the box. The social political intrigue adventures are nothing more than seeds. More could have been done here and I think more should have been. If you are going into the goblin warrens you don't need this book. While there is plenty of opportunity for intrigue Pundit hasn't done any of the work for us. He gives us a seed, "the local lord enters marriage negations for one of his children." Ok now flesh it out for us a bit, there are over 100 characters, and plenty of maps. Make some attachments; which lord, who is opposed, who is for? Are there dark forces arrayed for or against this union? A bandit lover? Sketch it in a bit for us. Setting scenes and making flow charts might be against the spirt of the OSR (maybe not sure) but there is a real missed opportunity here to get us started on realizing the potential of the setting. 

Finally there are some appendixes on adapting this setting to specific systems. They look helpful and functional. Other than that I won't say anything because I don't know the systems very well.

I've finally reached my thoughts quibbles and complaints. First off this is an excellent reference book. The three sections, People, Geography and History will be great for playing in the rose war. They are so good that I will make the same complaint I did in my review of Lords of Olympus. Pundit is a historian and he researches and writes with academic rigor. I want his foot notes. Like many people my knowledge of history comes from whatever I read or watch and I read more fiction than non-fiction. I am now fairly certain the rose war ended in 1485 and that Richard had a force of 10 000 men and some bombards, I'm less sure about Henry's Dragon. This can only be a quibble, Pundit set out to write a campaign setting and he succeeded. He is clear and readable, I think with just a couple comments a bibliography and some footnotes it would be an excellent primer on the actual history of the Rose war as well. 

Second quibble. Dominique Crouzet has done a great job with lay out and picked some really amazing public domain drawings. The book is full of them, they are large, appropriate and really well done. Honestly some of the best art I have seen in a book in a while. Every page has a line drawing, a map or an icon of some kind. But there are no notes on them. Not the artist, not the date, and not a comment. I would like to know what they are and where they come from. At the very least I would like to know if they are modern or a medieval interpretation of the setting. 

My only real complaint is I feel like I need something to attach the fantasy elements to the real history. Maybe a beastiary. The game is pregnant with fantasy adventure, but Pundit hasn't been a very good midwife and leaves the DM to birth his (or her) fantasy largely unassisted. For instance, who are the Cymri? He tells us they are the half elven decedents of the ancient elven kings. But tell us more about them, do they map on to anyone in real history? Give us some elves. He has a section on randomly generating demons, well stat one up for us. I don't need him to stat up werewolves for me, but a setting appropriate curse or cause of their affliction would help. This maybe an unfair complaint. He set out to put only a thin layer of fantasy over the rose war, and he has done that. I don't want campaign, I want a starter. A simple mission attached to the characters and time line he laid out for us. There will always be a distance between the setting and the table. It's the DM's job to absorb the material and make it come alive on his own. To bridge background to play. I just think Pundit could have gotten us a bit closer. 

This is a well written, well researched and very useable book. It's pleasant to read and as I said is full of really cool pictures. It's very specific and has limited use outside of low fantasy historical settings. Give it a read but you don't need to keep it in your collection unless you are going to be running a historical medieval game. There is enough here that I would use it for any historical game, not just ones in England or in the 15th century.

Buy Dark Albion here

1 comment:

  1. This sounds excellent. I love a good source book that can be adapted to a homebrew game. This seems to be the right balance between information and freedom to create your own spin on the setting.