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Saturday, 16 October 2010

White Box Fever V

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby.

We began with look at Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the less than successful 2008 attempt from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before slipping back in time for an examination of the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5. These were followed with reviews of entries in the contemporary Old School Renaissance movement, in particular, Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest and perhaps the most interesting of the Retroclones. These were followed by a step forward back in time to look at a more traditional Retroclone, the Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition, almost the very game that inspired the “White Box Fever” series, and then last week, a look at an introduction to roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons that was more a Dungeons & Dragons game than a roleplaying game, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. This week we stick with the fantasy genre, but not Dungeons & Dragons.

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia that is designed to get everyone playing within ten minutes and can be played solo, or as a group with a GM. It is available as a boxed set, a complete softcover book, or as a PDF. Since this series is called “White Box Fever” and Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! does come in a white box – albeit with a full colour front and back cover stuck onto the box, it is no surprise which version Reviews from R’lyeh is looking at. Open up the box and the first thing that you will see is a familiar “What’s in this Box?” sheet. Already the box is evoking a sense of nostalgia, and that before you notice that sheet is done on parchment. It may be a familiar way to start a game, but the point is, it works. It also explains what Ancient Odysseys is about: dungeon-crawling! Further, it explains that Treasure Awaits! is just the basic version of Ancient Odysseys. The game was published last year, but a fuller, more advanced version of Ancient Odysseys is yet to appear.

Below the sheet can be found several books and booklets, some blank sheets, and two six-sided dice. Book One: Basic Play covers character creation, the game’s rules and how to play, spells, and how monsters work. Book Two: The Dungeon contains the game’s single adventure, which can be played solo or as a group. Book Three: Further Adventure is for the GM or Director, covering how to run the game and how to construct and fill the dungeon with creatures, traps, and treasure. The Reference Booklet is more of a single sheet than a booklet, and the blank sheets include character sheets, creature sheets, and a Conflict Action Map, of which more latter.

The setting for Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is any other fantasy setting, one in which Rogues, Warriors, and Wizards venture into the realms below in search of fame and fortune. There are just four civilised races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Hoblings (what Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits!calls its Halflings). Character creation is primarily random, a player rolling or choosing his race, vocation (Rogues, Warriors, or Wizards), rolling on a table to get the array of value of his three Abilities, choosing four Pursuits (or skills) and rolling their value, and then picking weapons, armour, and other gear from the short lists given. Wizards also get to choose spells. For example, a Rogue can choose two knives, a sling and a knife, or a bow and a knife as his starting weapons, whereas a Wizard has a choice between a knife, a staff, or an extra spell. Of course, a Warrior has a lot more choice. The point of keeping these choices short is not to keep player choice limited, but to ease the character creation process by making it quicker.

The three Abilities are Fitness, Awareness, and Reasoning, each being rated between one and five. Each one is also important to a particular Vocation: Fitness for Warriors, Awareness for Rogues, and Reasoning for Wizards. Pursuits are rated between one and three. Rolling a character is an incredibly quick process, each of the following being done in about two minutes each, the result being the minimum three characters necessary to play the game solo.

Name: Ardan
Race: Elf Vocation: Wizard
Fitness: 3 Awareness: 2 Reasoning: 4
Pursuits: Alchemy +1 Archery +1, Literacy +3, Melee +1, Spellcasting +3
Spells: Abate Damage, Armoured Skin, Lock & Seal, Magic Punch, Purify
Armour: None Weapons: None
Gear: Grimoire

Name: Goldfil
Race: Dwarf Vocation: Warrior
Fitness: 5 Awareness: 2 Reasoning: 1
Pursuits: Athletics +3, Axefighting +2, Battlewear +2, Melee +1
Armour: Plate Mail Weapons: Battle Axe
Gear: Rope

Name: Fallon
Race: Hobling Vocation: Rogue
Fitness: 3 Awareness: 3 Reasoning: 2
Pursuits: Foraging +2, Gearworking +2, Lockbreaking +1, Stealth +3
Armour: Brigadine Weapons: Sling & Knife
Gear: Satchel (with second breakfast)

Mechanically, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! keeps everything simple with the roll and add method. In this case, Ability plus Pursuit plus a single die roll with the average Difficulty being seven. Rolling more than the Difficulty number is called Overkill, but has no extra effect in the basic game. An optional rule for more experienced Director allows extra damage to be inflicted with a good Overkill result and there is nothing to stop the Director from using Overkill to judge the results of an action.

Combat is a little more complex. Difficulties for ranged attacks vary according to the size of the target, while melee attacks are made against the target’s Fitness plus three, plus an applicable defending Pursuit. For example, Goldfil the Dwarf with his Axefighting +2 attacks an Ogre who has Fitness 4, the Pursuits Brawling +2 and Melee +2, and is armed with a club. Goldfil’s target of 9 is against the Ogre’s Melee Pursuit, so needs to roll 2 or more to hit. Each weapon inflicts a minimum Injury amount equal to its Damage Rating, plus an extra point for each die roll greater than the target’s Armour Rating, the number of dice rolled being equal to the weapon’s Damage Rating. For example, Goldfil rolls 4 and beats the target of 9 to hit the Ogre. His battle axe has a Damage Rating of 2, so he inflicts a minimum of 2 Injury on the Ogre. He also gets to roll two dice for the battle axe to try and penetrate the Ogre’s armour. Normally Ogre have leather armour, but in this case, the Ogre has gone up in the world and found himself some chainmail, which has an Armour Rating of 2. Goldfil’s player rolls two dice with the results one and three, the latter beating the Armour Rating and inflicting an extra point of Injury.

Casting spells in combat works in a similar fashion, but the Difficulty is determined by the target’s Reasoning and Spellcasting Pursuit rather than Fitness and a weapon related Pursuit. Damage inflicted is usually equal to the caster’s Spellcasting Pursuit, though the rules do not make it clear if Penetration is rolled for with a successful attack. Over thirty spells are listed for Grades one through three, their descriptions being kept pleasingly short and simple.

An adventurer can only take five points of Injury before being killed, and Injury points can only be healed by magic during the game. It appears that monsters also possess the same Injury threshold – or at least, I cannot see a rule that says different, but I would suggest modifying the threshold up or down according to the size of the monster in question.

Playing Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! all revolves around dungeon-crawling! In solo play this means doing certain things in a set order when exploring the underground labyrinth. As soon as the party crosses a location’s Threshold, they have to deal with traps, creatures, and treasure, in that order. In the first phase the adventurers can attempt to discover and disarm any trap present before it goes off, in the second they face the chamber’s inhabitants, while in the last they get to look for any loot present. What is interesting about combat is that it is played on a Conflict Action Map which is used for every chamber. Rather than determining how many squares there are between the adventurers and their foes, the Conflict Action Map determines the adventurers’ position in relation to this enemy. It simplifies these positions down to Closest, Furthest, Sneaking, and Behind, and then it sets both trap effects and some monster actions or Focus according to these positions. For example, the “Barrage at the Door” trap unleashes its darts at the three Closest heroes, while Kobolds always attack the Closest heroes. There are several other Foci spread amongst the monsters besides these positional ones, such as Goblins attacking the Weakest heroes and Jelly Cubes attacking from Ambush.

Experience (points) is not so much gained automatically through play, but by rolling for it! What the heroes gain in play are points in two factors, Performance and Negligence. They gain points in the former for doing well, and the latter for doing badly. At the end of the dungeon, a number of dice equal to the Performance rating are rolled and for each result higher than the Negligence rating earns a hero Experience (points). These are spent on Abilities, Pursuits, Spells and Spell Signatures, and the Injury rating.

All this is covered in “Book One: Basic Play” and is enough to get into “Book Two: The Dungeon”. Its set up is that the Elven village of Dahwelm was recently attacked by Goblins and a young girl abducted. Although Elven hunters went out in search of her, they have not returned and now the village has put the word out that it needs help. The dungeon consists of just twenty-seven locations. Each has a description; a simple map showing its exits and the rooms or entries they lead to; plus references to the separate sections elsewhere in the booklet for Traps, Creatures, Foraging For Loot, and Foraging for (secret) Door. Full statistics are given for these Traps, Creatures, and Loot as necessary in their own sections. These are kept separate to prevent the player straight through and revealing the dungeon’s secrets. A map is also included which is more intended for the Director when he runs this dungeon for a group.

“Book Two: The Dungeon” can be used in two ways. First, it can be played through solo by one player controlling three or four heroes. This is actually a good way of learning how Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is played, but it is very mechanical and unlike other more traditional solo adventures, for example, Buffalo Castle for Tunnels & Trolls or the recently reprinted The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it lacks narrative structure. Oddly this manages to be both add to and detract from the game. Detract because for the first time player it omits an important element of the solo roleplaying experience, that of providing a story. Add because it forces the player to create that experience himself, hopefully in preparation for when he runs the adventure for others. For the experienced GM or Director, this will not be so much of a problem, though running this adventure will be different because each chamber’s elements are placed in separate sections rather than wholly with each location’s description.

“Book 3: Further Adventures” is written for the Director. It provides some optional rules, such critical successes and failures; advice for the Director on running the game; and guidance on constructing a dungeon, including stocking it with traps, monsters, and treasure. The advice is decent enough, and the rules for dungeon creation also include tables for wholly random creation, making possible dungeons to be created as they are explored. This is intended primarily for solo play and again, adds further to the mechanical feel of this process. Rounding out this book are the author’s Designer Notes which make for an interesting read.

Physically, each of the three booklets in Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is an easy read. The black and white booklets could have done with more art work and it is a pity that the same image is used as the cover of each. Another issue that despite the game’s simplicity not all of the game’s rules are obvious or easy to find, and perhaps a single sheet index would have been a good idea. As would another dungeon, this one written for the director rather than the solo player, so as to showcase the other aspect of playing the game. Perhaps we will see something like this in future releases, the first of which has yet to appear.

Opening the box and discovering the contents of Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! does evoke a sense of nostalgia, for the boxed and for that boxed game that came in three little booklets. Yet playing does not. This is not a Dungeons & Dragons Retroclone, its rules being too simple and not as obviously drawn from the miniatures wargame origins as that first RPG was. Rather it has the feel of slightly later fantasy RPGs, in particular Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip and the Fighting Fantasy System first seen in the aforementioned The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Its simplicity makes it very easy to teach and relatively easy to learn, such that this RPG is a solid little teaching tool, is very suitable for an experienced gamer parent to take and run for his children.

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! manages to combine physical charm – though to a much lesser extent with the one volume and PDF versions – with a sense of nostalgia for a style of play that harks back over thirty years. Yet its rules have none of that Old School complex abstractedness, being more modern, more straight forward, more simple in their elegance.