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

Sunday, 23 May 2010

...and not a codpiece in sight

I have already opined that the focus for the Old School Renaissance is perhaps a little too tight, upon iterations of the Dungeons & Dragons of any when from 1974 to 1981 and on the relatively few genres that appeared in roleplaying during that period over the limitless possibilities that we have been available since. So what this means is that we have fantasy roleplaying in form of Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry from Mythmere Games, plus the many other variants of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst Science Fiction is covered by Grey Area Games’ X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! and the forthcoming revised Starships & Spacemen from Goblinoid Games, leaving Mutant Future – also from Goblinoid Games, to do does the weird post-apocalyptic setting we remember from Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World – both from TSR. All right, so this is a generalisation, but it does leave an awfully large and diverse number of genres yet to be explored in the retro fashion of the Old School Renaissance.

So Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain from the amusingly named British publisher, Tied to a Kite, is something of a curiosity as far as the Old School Renaissance is concerned. Powered by the same rules as to be found in Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox – available to download from here – and as its subtitle suggests, Backswords & Bucklers is a game set in Elizabethan England that is slightly more fantastic than our own. Not fantastic enough that it trips off into the faerie realms and back again – at least not in Book One: Basic Rules, the first book to be published, which only hints at the dangers of dark magic, with supplements to come set to cover the alchemical, the sorcerous, and the demonological arts in actual detail.

So the first question in any RPG is, “What can I play?” Backswords & Bucklers offers three classes, the Fighting Man, the Scoundrel, and the Cunning Man or Wise Woman. The first of these can be anything from hired muscle to professional soldier, whilst the second is more of a rogue, making his living any way other than what others would call honest toil. The last of the three classes is a country bred cross between an apothecary and a private eye, able to heal with his knowledge of herbs and chirurgy, but also able to find things through dowsing. The effects of both herbalism and chirurgy will vary from one Cunning Man to another, as a player is free to select from various choices as he gains levels. Of course, let us not forget the dangers of playing a Wise Woman – “And how do you know she’s a witch?”

The sample character is Edmond Treves, a ne’er do well who resides in Southwark. By night he is an actor, part of the company at the Globe theatre, but by day, he does odd jobs for Sidney Moulson, a local smuggler. This is always in the company of a strong arm called Harry Pleasance. Of the two, Harry is the brighter, but likes to keep this fact hidden. So when the two are together, Harry never speaks, except to whisper his thoughts into Edmond’s ear.

Edmond Treves
1st Level Scoundrel
Strength: 10 Dexterity: 13 Constitution: 9
Intelligence: 12 Wisdom: 14 Charisma: 15
Defence Rating: 10 Saving Throw: 14 Hit Points: 3
Class Abilities: Information Gathering, Picking Locks, Moving Silently
Equipment: Cloak, Clothing (including boots and hat), Satchel, eating knife, dagger, lock picks, broadsword; 1 Shilling

Harry Pleasance
1st Level Fighting Man
Strength: 16 Dexterity: 12 Constitution: 12
Intelligence: 16 Wisdom: 12 Charisma: 10
Defence Rating: 11 Saving Throw: 15 Hit Points: 5
Class Abilities: Cool Under Pressure, Saving Throw (+1 vs. Death & Poison), Experienced Eye
Equipment: Cloak, Clothing (including boots and hat), Backpack, whetstone, eating knife, dagger, leather jack (Armour Rating 1), falchion, buckler; 3 Shillings

Most of the time, a character can carry out such abilities without problem, but where it does matter, the referee decides on the chances of success to be rolled on a six-sided die. Combat of course, uses the standard twenty-sided die, but is slightly more complex than that of most “Edition Zero” RPGs in that it takes into account the type of damage, especially when “downright” blows are inflicted, which happens when someone runs out of Hit Points. Armour reduces damage whilst shields make an opponent more difficult to hit. As written, most weapons do just one six-sided die’s worth of damage per hit, but whether that is a straight die’s worth per hit or a number of dice equal to the success roll is unclear. It is probably the former as the latter seems like an awful lot, but even then, just rolling one die for each weapon’s damage is uninteresting, and this only looks all the more odd given that missile weapons do damage equal to a single six-sided die per level of the bowman, the pistoleer, or the musketman. So as everyone gains levels, they become deadlier shots, but not deadlier swordsmen, except for the Fighting Man who gains extra attacks per turn as he gains levels.

The reason for this is that attacks by missile weapons are one time, skill based attacks, whereas a melee presents multiple opportunities to successfully strike an opponent and inflict damage. This is a reasonable enough argument I suppose, but if every weapon inflicts just one die’s worth of damage, it not only makes them all a bit flavourless, with the only reasons for a player to choose one weapon over another is cost and the type of damage it does for “Downright Blows,” which are inflicted when an opponent is reduced to zero Hit Points.

The other odd issue is how the classes gain Experience Points. The Fighting Man gains his by fighting others. He does not have to defeat his foe, but if he wins, a Fighting Man gains double the Experience Points. In contrast, the Scoundrel gains them by expending money at a rate of five Experience Points per Penny spent, and the Cunning Man for helping others. These are a means by which the rules encourage or enforce roleplaying within the setting.

The last issue with the classes is the lack of choice within them. The Cunning Man does not suffer from this to the same extent, but the differences between one Scoundrel and another or one Fighting Man and another will entirely be down to the players rather than any mechanical element built into the rules. To be fair, this is an issue with any “Edition Zero,” but it would have been nice to have some means to differentiate between characters of the same class. One means for example, might have been to make the game’s weaponry more individual and more flavoursome, and were I to run Backswords & Bucklers this is something that I might do.

The “Edition Zero” game has any number of clichés, one of which is having a party assemble at “ye humble olde tavern” for a drink and a rumour prior to the start of their next dungeon delve. Backswords & Bucklers cuts out the delve and instead of the “Dungeon Bash,” has the “Tavern Trawl.” Actually, the rules for “Tavern Trawling” are a means by which a referee can create a base of operations for the player characters and using that generate rumours and employment for them. To that end, Basic Rules: Book One comes with a sample tavern, The Duck & Drake complete with clientele and rumours. The given sample adventure, “The Unfortunate Spaniard,” is more of a thumbnail than a full adventure.

Aside from the issues already raised, Backswords & Bucklers as seen in Basic Rules: Book One, suffers from several problems. The first of these is that the book lacks background. It needs to have more historical information than it does, necessary because not everyone is going to be familiar with the late Tudor period. Second, there is no referee or campaign advice on running the game beyond particular situations, such as combat. One combined effect of both of these is to leave the referee wondering what sort of tone the game should have. Should the tone be the tragic farce of Blackadder II? The romantic comedy of Shakespeare in Love? Or the high drama of Elizabeth? It does not help that the lack of a spellcasting class in the game also means that the magic is barely touched upon beyond listing some sample magic items that might be the subject of possible jobs to be found in the “Tavern Trawling” tables.

Physically, Book One: Basic Rules for Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain is reasonably laid out with suitable public domain artwork used well to break up the text. A slight edit is needed in places, but this a readable and easily used little book.

Ultimately and as given in Book One: Basic Rules, the real issue with Backswords & Bucklers is that it is too basic and does not really have enough information – it needs more of the Gloriana. There are issues with the rules too, mostly in terms of balance, between the classes and in the combat mechanics. Nevertheless, all of these issues can be fixed and the game is playable as is, should you so desire, especially when coupled with a knowledge of the period. It might not be perfect, but Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain is certainly playable and it shows promise aplenty. If Tied to a Kite can deliver on that promise with future supplements, it will have given the Old School Renaissance a solid little addition.