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

Saturday, 12 March 2011

West is Still Best

Having an interest in the Old School Renaissance and currently being engaged in an ongoing Legends of the Five Rings campaign, I was more than interested to take a look at Ruins & Ronin, a supplement from sword+1 productions based on the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set that sets out to use the samurai movie as the basis for swords and sorcery adventure in a mythical, medieval culture that is almost like Japan. Its aim is not to create a culture game like the aforementioned Legends of the Five Rings or the classic Bushido, but one full of adventure and mystery in which Bujin, Shugenja, and Sohei explore strange ruins out in the wilderness and delve into deep dungeons below crumbling pagodas, encountering strange spirits and creepy monsters, and finding fantastic artefacts of great power. The idea behind Ruins & Ronin is that samurai should be allowed to go dungeon delving just as much as his Western fantasy counterpart. Unfortunately, Ruins & Ronin fails to live up to all of those aims.

As with Swords & Wizardry’s core rules, Ruins & Ronin presents just the three classes. In Swords & Wizardry, they are the Cleric, the Fighter, and the Magic-user. In Ruins & Ronin, their analogues are the Sohei or warrior-monk, the Bujin or samurai or ronin, and the Shugenja. The bujin can perform a “Follow Through” manoeuvre, striking at another opponent delivering a killing blow, and is unrestricted in terms of what arms and armour that he can use, though the shield is not found in this setting. The Shugenja can cast spells, and like the Magic-User cannot wear armour and is restricted to using Tanto (daggers), Uchi-ne (throwing blades), or Bo (staves) only. Sohei can cast divine spells and turn undead, and cannot wear very heavy armour, or use a katana or a bow.

The playable races to be found in Swords & Wizardry, the Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, are not present in Ruins & Ronin. Instead, it has the single playable race, Half-Ogres. As with the races to be found in Swords & Wizardry, Half-Ogres advance as Fighters or Bujin, and as you would imagine, Half-Ogres are very strong, do extra damage in combat, and resist disease and poison better. Similarly, neither Swords & Wizardry nor Ruins & Ronin have a Thief-like player class. Now while this is understandable given that Swords & Wizardry draws for its inspiration from the earliest of Dungeons & Dragons books that lacked the Thief class, surely in a game inspired by samurai movies, you would want to have the Ninja as a class? Were Ruins & Ronin to be a culture game based on Japan in which the role of the ninja is downplayed, its absence would be far from objectionable. Here, the lack of the ninja feels like a major omission. After all, the ninja is very much part of the genre.

In general, as can be seen from the example below, characters in Ruins & Ronin do not look very different those from Swords & Wizardry. Very simple and very easy, but lacking in flavour.

Megumi the Pious, Level 1 Sohei
Str: 6 (-1) Int: 14 Wis: 15 (+1)
Con: 12 Dex: 6 (-1) Chr: 4 (-1)
Hit Points: 4 Save: 14 (+2 vs. Death & Poison)
Armour Class: 5 Ascending Armour Class: 14
Masakari (1d6); Haidate, Hara-ate, Jingasa; 17gp

In terms of support, Ruins & Ronin comes with a complete spell list for both the Shugenja and the Sohei character classes; a complete set of monsters; and an array of magical items. Unfortunately, the spells on both lists appear to have been lifted wholesale from the lists for the Cleric and the Magic-User classes from Swords & Wizardry without either a single re-design or single re-naming. So another opportunity to add flavour to the game has been lost. That changes though, when it comes to the monsters and the magical artefacts. Classic monsters from Dungeons & Dragons, such as Black Puddings, Gelatinous Cubes, Hell Hounds, and Treants are joined by an Oriental bestiary that includes Bakemono-Toro, Fox Monks, Kyonshi (Hopping Vampires), Oni, and Tengu. Some classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters have been altered, such as the Lizard Samurai and the Naga, but on the whole, the number and type of monsters listed is impressive, even if it feels odd to mix them up so. The magical items are more straightforward. Basic weapons, wands, scrolls, potions, and so on, work in Ruins & Ronin just as well as they do in Swords & Wizardry, but the author adds items such as the Brush of Translation, which allows the wielder to understand any spoken language; the Dancing Fan, which gives the user a Charisma of 18 when dancing; and the Scholars’ Fan, which automatically swats flies, shields the owner from the sun, and flutters gently to provide a breeze. Thee really do add touches of detail and flavour to the game, and hint at the potential in a samurai themed Retroclone.

So far then, that is what is to be found in the pages of Ruins & Ronin. This leaves what is not to be found between its covers. The first of these is an adventure, so we have no idea how the game is meant to be played, an adventure being perhaps, the best way of showcasing this aspect of the game. The second of these is advice for the GM. Well, to be fair, Ruins & Ronin does include some advice for the GM. Yet that advice amounts to barely more than a page, and the rest that takes the advice for the GM up to a page and a half is a guide to when and how to hand out Experience Points. The actual advice though, can be best summed up as, “Make it up yourself.” Or rather, “Make everything up yourself.” Even then, it is not original, being another section reprinted from the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set.

Now that advice would have been fine in 1974 and Ruins & Ronin was my first RPG. Plus the fact that I had grown in Japan, and was well steeped in the chanbara movie genre. None of this is true, nor was it true for anyone in 2009 when this book was first published, and nor is it true for anyone reading this review right now. What is also true is that Ruins & Ronin is not trying to be a medieval Japanese culture game, a game of high honour in which tea ceremonies and the composing of haiku figure prominently, so the omission of such details are understandable. Yet the truth is that Ruins & Ronin is actually doing a genre, the chanbara movie genre, and the author omits any discussion of that genre. In doing so, he undermines his own work, because a discussion of the genre, and that would include a list of its inspirations much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Appendix N, would have explored the very point of Ruins & Ronin. That its fantasy is oriental in origin, and so is very different to the Western fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons or Swords & Wizardry. The difference between the two is why anyone would want to play Ruins & Ronin.

Physically, Ruins & Ronin is decently put together. The cover is excellent, but while the internal layout is clean and tidy, there is not another single piece of artwork in the book. None of the book’s new creatures are illustrated and neither are the new magical items. Which is a pity given how spacious the book is and how much of the book is devoted to the creatures, monsters, and spirits of the Orient, and that is before you get to the magical items.

Ultimately, Ruins & Ronin is a great title, but a wasted opportunity. It is a pity that this title has already been taken because it deserves more than what it been given here. It needs more development so that it has some kind of background beyond the mere suggestion that it is inspired by samurai movies; so that it has classes and rules that reflect that background; so it has a discussion of the genre that inspired the author which would then inspire the reader; and so that it has advice for the GM as to how to make a game of Ruins & Ronin different to that of the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set.

Right now, Ruins & Ronin is a reprint of the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set with renamed character classes and an extra set of monsters and magical items, and nothing more. Absolutely nothing more. The lesson of Ruins & Ronin is that if you want to present something different to a sector of the gaming hobby, even a sector that is inspired by stripped down Old School play, it should never be left up to the purchaser to do all of the work to explore your game’s differences.