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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Pulp Dungeon Pillaging

As the Old School Renaissance has grown and the number of Retroclones has proliferated, one of the questions it has posed itself is, “What if Gygax and Arneson had based the first roleplaying on something else other than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Howard’s Conan?” It was first answered with the release in 2007 by Legendary Games Studio with Mazes & Minotaurs, a roleplaying game based on the film Jason and the Argonauts and Homer’s Odyssey. It has been answered more recently by new publisher Night Owl Workshop with a number of titles which draw from military science fiction, pirates, planetary romance, superheroes, and two-fisted archaeology instead of high fantasy and swords and sorcery, but which use ‘Original Edition Compatible’ mechanics. Of these, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures is the one being reviewed here.

Now Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures is inspired by two things. The first is the Pulp stories of adventure of the 1930s, but very obviously, the second is the trilogy of movies about the whip-cracking, fedora-wearing archaeologist played by Harrison Ford. The game is about researching and exploring ancient ruins, tombs, catacombs, and more in search of the great relics and artefacts. So much like the roleplaying game it draws from, there is an emphasis placed on tombs and underground complexes full of monsters, mysteries, and traps—indeed this is probably one of the few modern-set roleplaying games where Grimtooth’s Traps would be useful. Yet because of its Pulp genre and movie-derived inspiration, there is an emphasis on the research, on the getting there, and on the fighting to keep the recently unearthed and gained artefact from falling into the wrong—mostly Nazi™—hands, which is not typically present in Dungeons & Dragons-style games.

Being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ means that Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a Class and Level roleplaying game. It has three Classes—Mercenary, Scientist, and Treasure Hunter—which map roughly onto the Fighter, Magic-User, and Thief Classes of classic Dungeons & Dragons. The Mercenary is a brawler and marksman who arms himself with a favourite weapon and learns to handle demolitions and hand out both tactical and strategic advice. The Scientist can build gadgets like Aqua-Lung, IR Goggles, Miniaturised Radio, Major Electro Pistol, and Rocket Pack. These become part of the Scientist’s repertoire, but can only be used once per day between recharges, so essentially replicating the spells of the Magic-User. The Treasure Hunter has the Appraise, Climbing, Find/Disarm Traps, Hide, Open Locks, and Stealth skills as well as being able to learn languages, much like the Thief Class. 

In addition, a player character has a number of genre-enforcing stats and factors. These start with Luck. This is essentially a Saving Throw against terrible events such as poison or a puzzle, to which a player can apply an appropriate attribute modifier from his character and which improves as a character gains Levels. Whenever it is rolled against, extreme rolls can have beneficial or detrimental effects. On a roll of nineteen or twenty, a player character will not only succeed, but also gain an extra benefit of a Lucky Break, whilst on a roll of one or two, a player character will not only fail, but also suffer the effects of a Bad Break. Every player character also has a phobia like Mysophobia or Phasmophobia, as well as a Background such as Aristocrat, Military, Show Business, or Science. Some of these also need a speciality, like singing or dancing for Show Business or Archaeology or Physics for Science.

Philip D. Sheehan
First Level Scientist (Academic)
STR 12 (+0) DEX 11 (+0) CON 12 (+0) 
INT 16 (+2) WIS 11 (+0) CHA 13 (+1)

Hit Points 6 BHB +0 Luck 13
TN0 20 Armour Class 10

Phobia: Claustrophobia
Background: Scientist (Physics)
Languages: German

Gadgets: UV Goggles

Unfortunately for a modern set roleplaying game Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does not produce interesting character types. The problem is that they are too tied into the format of the ‘Original Edition Compatible’ mechanics, so the Mercenary (Fighter) fights and handles battles, the Treasure Hunter (Thief) gets into rooms, safes, and tombs and can at least appraise the value of anything he finds, but the Scientist (Magic-user) has a collection of one use gadgets and nothing else. It does not help that there is a Science option given for the Background aspect of the characters, so in order to know anything about science, the Scientist has to take that Background. Which highlights what the Scientist is not, which is a Scientist, and what the Scientist is, which is a Gadgeteer—and a Gadgeteer that cannot fix anything at that. The Backgrounds themselves are only lightly defined and only suggest that they work by giving a player character knowledge, possible contacts, and an unspecified bonus to any dice rolls related to the Backgrounds.

This also means that certain characters, staples of the genre, take more effort to do in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts, especially if their players want to do anything outside of the Fighter/Magic-User/Thief paradigm. Investigative-style characters like the Academic or Journalist are not really covered and characters who do things like driving, flying, or fixing things like a pilot, driver, or mechanic, not at all. 

Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does include some other options in terms of characters. One is the Occultist Class, which is capable of casting various spells—all of which have a slightly Lovecraftian overtones—and has Magic Sense and Esoteric Knowledge, but might suffer corruption in casting his spells. There is also a simple skill system which includes a resolution mechanic and a list of skills which the player characters can acquire, a mix of general skills and skills particular to each Class. Now the player characters do not get a lot of skill points, but they do serve to broaden the player characters and make them a little more distinctive, especially given that some of them are more like actual powers, especially for the Occultist, such as Fortune Telling, Medium, and Sixth Sense. The problem is that many of the skills conflict with the abilities of the various Classes, so the Game Master will need to adjudicate where the skills and abilities conflict. Yet although the skill system is an optional and its ramifications are not fully worked out, it is all there is in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts and it is something that Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does need.

Other elements that enforce the Pulp genre and the archaeological adventure subgenre, include rules for unarmed combat and grappling plus Experience Point bonuses for achieving goals and publishing stories about them, as well as killing monsters and accumulating treasure. That said, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts seems to want to race through the somewhat underdeveloped rules to get to the good stuff and that is all genre related. This includes an excellent essay on adventure design and examination of the tropes specific to this subgenre—cliffhangers and lost worlds—as well as a good mix of rival organisations. These includes Nazis as well as rival schools of archaeological thought. Want a race between the Sonderlehrgang ‘Wewelsburg’ and the Ancient Astronauts school of archaeological study and the player characters, then Raiders of the Lost Artifacts allows for that… The objects of everyone’s desire, including the player characters are Relics and these are highly detailed magical artefacts torn from our history and various mythologies, including Baba Yaga’s Hut, the Book of Thoth, Pandora’s Box, and the Necronomicon. Any one of these is reason enough to start an adventure, a race to find a great object out of history before someone else does and so claim the glory and fame of doing so. (A Game Master wanting more background and more artefacts might want to check Fortune and Glory: A Treasure Hunter’s Handbook published by Osprey Publishing.)

So for example, Crocea Mors is the gladius wielded by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain. As recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Julius Caesar fought Nennius, a British prince, in hand-to-hand combat. Julius Caesar mortally wounded Nennius, but lost his sword to him. Nennius escaped and fought on for another fifteen days wielding Julius Caesar’s sword. The sword was buried with Nennius when he died, but the location of his tomb has long been lost. In game terms, the sword is a simple +2 blade (though if this was the object of a Raiders of the Lost Artifacts game, I would also give it the ability to help the wielder to temporarily survive mortal wounds) and an obvious object of interest to Benito Mussolini.

As the basis of a scenario, Crocea Mors would involve Italian archaeologists and probably agents of Italy’s Servizio Informazioni Militare, specifically a secret wing of the cryptologic Sezione 5. Doubtless, a British ‘ancient’ order of druids—perhaps headed by Churchill because you can do that sort of thing—protects the location of Nennius’ tomb and agents of Sonderlehrgang ‘Wewelsburg’ simply want the sword to (a) make Hitler good, (b) allow Hitler to lord it over Mussolini, and (c) remove an ancient symbol of resistance from Great Britain in the event that Germany has to invade the British Isles.

Some seventeen such items are described in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts, each one not just a description of an object, but the basis of scenario as well. This collection is backed up by an appendix of descriptions real world heroes, villains, places, and things. It is not comprehensive, but it is a good starting point for the Game Master wanting to do more research and it does include descriptions of all the major archaeological figures of the period, so is an invaluable source of real world NPCs should the player characters require some expertise and the Game Master some verisimilitude. 

Of course, getting to the tombs is only half the fun and to that end Raiders of the Lost Artifacts provides a good list of foes and allies to throw into the player characters’ path. From cultists, desert nomads, and femme fatales to secret policemen, soldiers, and swordsmen (for the shooting of) are joined by monsters like ghouls, golems, mechanisms, mummies, yetis, and more. This is in addition to a good bestiary of more mundane creatures and of course, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ means that a Game Master with access to other bestiaries will have a ready source or two of foes to throw into the path of his player characters. Then once they have reached the tomb or ruins, there are traps to be avoided or set off as well as more foes to be faced. So it includes a look at pitfalls, traps, snares, and more, and how to handle them in a more modern set roleplaying game.

Further support for the Game Master’s game includes tables for rolling up traps and scenario outlines, the latter complete with its MacGuffin table. Appendices cover real world heroes, villains, places, and things; the Occultist Class and its associated spells; a sample adventure, ‘The Treasure of the Rhinemaidens’; an optional skills system and additional phobias; and of course, an Appendix N. This is a good bibliography which covers books, films, television, and games, and should keep the Game Master entertained let alone provide him with a ready source of inspirational material for his game.

Physically, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a handy digest-sized book. It is a clean and tidy and very readable. It does need an edit in places and some of the artwork is anachronistic.

By modern standards, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is let down very much by its character designs and options which not only limit player choice, but make it hard work for the players to deviate away from the Fighter/Magic-User/Thief paradigm that its character mechanics are based upon. To an extent this can be excused by Raiders of the Lost Artifacts being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ so that there is an inherent looseness in the mechanics, right down to there not being resolution mechanic bar the one for Luck and the optional skill system. At worst, this means that mechanically, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a bit awkward, at best, something for the Game Master to tinker with…

Yet get past the mechanic malarkey of Raiders of the Lost Artifacts and what you have is a really fun game supported by lots of useful information and background material. In fact, it would be useful no matter the rules you used as it could be easily adapted were you so inclined, though it would be interesting to see a post-‘Original Edition Compatible’ version of the game. Overall, the impressive background detail and the obvious love for the subgenre is what shines through in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures and makes you want to run games of Pulp action and archaeological adventure.