Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Game Like It's 1981...

Imagine if you will that your favourite game was long out of print and only available from specialist dealers or on auction websites. Not too taxing I grant you, but let us take your imagination one step further and have you realise that whilst your favourite game is out of print, a more recent edition of said game has an open content license that allows you to derive a version of that edition that is actually akin to your favourite game. This is no mere flight of fancy because there are several games writers who have done exactly that – that being to take the Open Gaming License for the d20 System of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 and derive from it a version of Dungeons & Dragons that has not been in print for some two decades, and some cases, three decades. These derived games are new “Edition Zero” versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons, each based either on the White Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons or the classic red box set of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. There are several different interpretations available, each part of what has become known as the Old School Renaissance, but the one I am going to review here is Labyrinth Lord.

Why choose Labyrinth Lord – published by Goblinoid Games – over any other? Well, because it was the game that I was recommended when asked what would be good “old school” Dungeons & Dragons type RPG to give Ed, the brother of my friend, Dave (whom you may have seen me mention in previous reviews). Now I do not know Ed that well, so I was surprised to receive from him a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and when I wanted to return the favour, I knew enough to know that he likes his Star Trek and that he likes his Dungeons & Dragons. Now I like Star Trek, but I do not know quite enough about what is available to buy Ed something interesting, whereas I know more than enough to select something interesting when it comes to gaming. So it old school it was to be, and along with a suitable scenario, Labyrinth Lord was the gift of choice. The other reason that I wanted to review Labyrinth Lord is that it was the first Old School Renaissance RPG to be available on the shelves at your local gaming shop.

The book that you can buy at your shop is the revised edition, a black and white paperback laid out in a clean fashion and illustrated with heavy, sometimes cartoonish ink art that very much apes the look of Dungeons & Dragons titles published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A hardback edition is available via lulu.com, and that is the edition that I will be giving Ed as a present. Everything about this book should set off nostalgia pangs in the reader, from the choice of fount for the text throughout right up to the regional map of the Known Lands given at the back of the book with its very familiar map symbols and the name of its regional capital being anagrammatically a nod to Tom Moldvay and the map designed for the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set and X1 The Isle of Dread.

The first question for anyone who came to gaming in the last twenty years is, “What is so different from this game and the Dungeons & Dragons Third/Fourth Edition that everyone seemed to rave about?” Well, as with other Edition Zero or Retro Clone titles, the most obvious difference is one of pared down simplicity and fewer options. It is still a game of exploring dangerous underground labyrinths, facing hideous monsters, slaying them, and taking their treasure, just as your preferred current version of Dungeons & Dragons is. The game is still one of class and level, but here the first case of fewer options occurs. As with Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the core classes remain the Cleric, the Fighter, the Magic-User, and the Thief, but all members of these classes are considered to be human, because the demi-human races are classes in their own right. Dwarves are hardy Fighters with an understanding of stonework underground; Elves are Fighter/Magic-Users, able to use all weapons and cast spells whereas the Magic-User is limited in his choice of weapons; and Halflings are also Fighters, though they are slightly quicker in combat and can sneak around a little. The main limitation on the demi-human classes are level caps, essentially how far one of these classes can progress when compared to the main four classes who are free to advance to twentieth level and beyond. Halflings can progress up to eighth level, Elves to tenth level, and Dwarves to twelfth level.

As much as I am enamoured of the Old School Renaissance, I have to be honest and say that the level caps built into early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are I feel now to be an unnecessary and artificial constraint. The benefits gained in playing a demi-human class are far outweighed – to varying degrees – by these constraints, such that while you would consider playing an Elf to be able to fight and cast magic, the Dwarf and Halfling are far from attractive options. In fact, I would go as far to say that the Halfling is so underwritten as to be well, rubbish. I am sure that if such limitations were necessary, then constraints other than level limitations could have been used instead. Now my issue here might be seen as one against early editions of Dungeons & Dragons and so also against the new titles being published under the Old School Renaissance banner, but it is not so much an attack as a query. Should an RPG published under the Old School Renaissance banner emulate both the good points and the bad points of the original Dungeons & Dragons?

The other notable features include spell casting classes that begin the game with just the one spell at First Level; a simplified Alignment system consisting of just Law, Neutrality, and Chaos; and an Armour Class system in which a lower number indicates a better Armour Class and so makes the target harder to hit. The Armour Class system runs from AC9 down to AC-6, and includes AC0, but does not include the dreaded THACO or “To Hit Armour Class Zero.” It also lacks the skills systems found in later editions of the game and that leads to another question, this time about the Thief, the only skilled class in the game. Surely his skills should be modified by his Dexterity? Equally, should the Cleric and Magic-User Classes benefit from high Wisdom and Intelligence scores too?

Differences between Labyrinth Lord and any other variant of Dungeons & Dragons are in general minor and cosmetic. For example, here characters start with more money – between 30 and 240gp (3d8x10) as opposed to the traditional 30 to 180gp (3d6x10) – and in an odd nod to modern sensibilities, the author suggests that the Labyrinth Lord (or Dungeon Master) allow his players to roll their characters’ attributes by methods other than the standard 3d6!

The rest of course, will be familiar to any who has played Dungeons & Dragons. The monsters are virtually the same as are the spells and the treasures and magical items, including rules for intelligent swords. More specifically for the Labyrinth Lord, there is advice on creating a labyrinth of his own, a little advice on running the game, and a small dungeon ready for play that can also be turned into the first level of a longer dungeon. While there is no example of character generation, there is at least an example of play, which is more than some recent modern editions of the game have provided.

In the process of writing this review I raised a question or three, all of them I admit, informed by the point at which I entered the hobby – back in 1980; by what I was playing in those first few years, which would have been Basic Dungeons & Dragons and not all that long after, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; and of course, by some three decades worth of playing RPGs (with the last ten of those spent reviewing them). So my questions are coloured by that experience, but in asking them, and more importantly in answering them, I am taking advantage of the open nature of the rules in Labyrinth Lord to adjust them to how I want my Old School RPG to be. Just as any Labyrinth Lord is free to do, and equally, is also free to interpret the rules during play as he wants, and indeed, will probably have to because Labyrinth Lord is intentionally light on specific rules.

Labyrinth Lord is perfect for anyone who wants to explore the Old School Renaissance and wants to pick up and start playing some of the excellent adventures that are being released under the Old School banner, and while they could try and track down a copy of the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons, having Labyrinth Lord available at your local friendly gaming store just makes it all so easy and accessible. Equally, Labyrinth Lord – as do other Retro Clones – grants access to any number of first and third party scenarios, campaigns, settings, and supplements available from specialist dealers or via eBay that are no longer compatible with more modern iterations of the game. Which is about twenty-five years’ worth of gaming material, with the titles appearing now under the Old School Banner just icing on the cake. Putting aside my more modern predilections with regard to gaming and the rules in early versions of the game, Labyrinth Lord is a nicely complete package with a simplicity and clarity of rules that feels incredibly refreshing after being away for a quarter of a century