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Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Other OSR: Classic Fantasy

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is an example of a publisher taking an existing roleplaying game and mapping it back onto the roleplaying game designs of the Old School Renaissance. Published by The Design Mechanism, it is a supplement for use with Mythras, the set of rules previously published as RuneQuest 6, and now presented as a streamlined version of Basic Roleplaying, the skills based, percentile system derived from RuneQuest which would be used in a wide variety of roleplaying games. One important aspect of Mythras is that it includes Passions—loyalties, beliefs, and feelings towards someone or something, that are again measured as percentiles and which work in a similar fashion to the Personal Traits of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG. In essence, Mythras can be described as a ‘Skills & Passions’ percentile, simulation roleplaying game, designed to handle detail and grit in its gameplay, but without being overly complex.

Thus, Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is designed to take the percentile system of Mythras and map it onto the Class and Level set-up of Dungeons & Dragons and its various iterations and interpretations. Which is most odd indeed, for arguably, what the original RuneQuest and thus Basic Roleplaying was designed to do was everything that Dungeon & Dragons did not. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters are defined by their role—or Class—and are restricted to the powers and abilities of their Class; characters acquire Experience Points from adventuring—killing monsters, finding treasure, and sometimes story awards too—which when the amount exceeds a set threshold, a character gains a Level and all of the benefits of that Level; and various elements of the game are abstract in nature, including Armour Class, Hit Points, and so on. In the first iterations of the venerable roleplaying game, only the Thief Class had specific skills! RuneQuest and thus Basic Roleplaying, used neither Classes or Levels; everyone had skills and could learn any skill given time, and they improved them by learning and doing, one skill at a time; weapon skills were learned weapon by weapon, armour protected a character against damage rather than made you harder to hit, with hit locations having Hit Points and being protected by pieces of armour; and of course, everyone had access to magic too in one form or another. All of which is possible in Mythras, but in order to do classic Class and Level fantasy, not all of this is possible in Classic Fantasy. What it does mean though, if your Ork Berserker has the ‘voice of an angel’, then he can learn to sing and improve his skill and does not have to become a Bard to do it! (Which of course is not allowed in Classic Fantasy…)

To create a character in Mythras, a player rolls dice to determine his character’s base attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma. From these are derived several factors, including Damage and Experience Modifiers, Healing Rate, Height and Weight, Hit Points, and Strike Rank, plus Action Points, spent to act in combat, and Luck Points, used to give a character an edge, whether a dice roll, the mitigation of damage or unfavourable circumstances, or a vital advantage in combat. Each character also receives the same set of standard skills, the base value for each one determined by adding two attributes or doubling a single attribute. Then, the player takes his character through three steps. The first is to select the character’s Culture—Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, or Primitive; the second step his Career, the third his Bonus skill points. At each step a character receives a set number of points to assign to skills, either to a character’s standard skills or his professional skills, the latter type of skill, such as Commerce, Gambling, and Mysticism, gained after years of practice and learning. Some professional skills come from a character’s Culture; the others come from his choice of Class. A character’s choice of culture also determines the Classes available to him. Although the base values for both types of skills are determined by a character’s attributes, the granting of the same number of skill points throughout the process serves to balance character generation.

For the most part, character creation in Classic Fantasy follows these steps, but the first change is in selecting a Race. In Mythras, the default Race is Human, but like the roleplaying games of old, Classic Fantasy also offers Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Halfling as its other Races. The choice of Race will determine the number of dice to be rolled for Attributes and also the choice of Classes available. In some retroclones Race is treated as a character’s Class, but in Classic Fantasy, it is a character’s Culture. Humans have Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, or Primitive as their Culture and like the Cultures of the Demi-Humans, determines the choice of Classes to choose from. Where Humans gain an extra Luck Point and an extra Experience Roll in addition to the standard and professional skills from their Culture, Dwarves gain Magic and Poison Resistance, Infravision, and Tunnel Sense; Elves gain Infravision, Resistance to Sleep and Charm, Unaffected by Raise Dead, Stealthy, and Secret and Concealed Object Detection; Halflings gain Magic and Poison Resistance, Stealthy, and Exposure Tolerance (Feet). The other Races receive similar abilities modelling similar elements found in their design in retroclones.

Classic Fantasy offers twelve Classes—Bard, Berserker, Cavalier, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, and Thief-Acrobat. As well as standard and professional skills, each Class provides a Combat Style, a package of weapons in which members of the Class are trained—such as only honourable weapons for the Cavalier Class and daggers, darts, knives, slings, and staves for Magic-Users, and a number of Abilities and Talents. Some of the Talents are organised into Tiers and a character needs more Experience Rolls to select them. Where Classes in Dungeons & Dragons et al are organised into Levels, in Classic Fantasy they are organised into Ranks—and just the five per Class. Now Ranks are not Levels, representing progression in an organisation, such as a guild or order, rather than an abstract measure of achievement. To increase in Rank, a character needs to advance their Class’ five prerequisite skills, for example, the Ranger Class has Athletics, Channel, Combat Style (Ranger), Piety (Specific Nature Deity), and Stealth. These all need to be at 50% for a character to qualify for Rank 1, otherwise they remain Rank 0, and then at 70% for Rank 2 and so on… In some Classes, Rank is organised as a pyramid, so to progress, characters of those Classes will need to wait for a spot to open up.

In addition, all characters have Passions. During the process of generation, a character gains them from their Culture or Race, and then from their Class. One of these has to be a Moral Philosophy, either Good, Neutral, or Evil, to which a trait or two is attached. Some Classes require a strict Moral Philosophy, for example, a Druid must have Neutral (Respectful of Nature and Strives for Balance). Some Classes also require a character to take an oath and again, this is treated as a Passion. In this way, Passions model the morality of the Alignment systems to be found in various retroclones, but because they are measured as percentiles and can go up and down—depending upon how a player roleplays his character—they offer a more nuanced alternative.

Our sample character is Ned Smith, a simple blacksmith’s son from the town of Blaineford Forum. His older brother is more skilled than he is and so he has decided to search out fame and fortune elsewhere. He has decided to put to use the martial skills he learned as member of the town’s militia.

Ned Smith
Age: 18 Culture: Civilised
Fighter Rank 1

STR 18 CON 15 SIZ 14 DEX 11 INT 15 POW 12 CHA 14

Action Points: 3 Damage Modifier: +1D4 Experience Modifier: +1 Healing Rate: 3
Build: Medium Height: 182 cm Weight: 95 kg
Hit Points
Head 6 Chest 8 Abdomen 7 L. Arm 4 R. Arm 4 L. Leg 6 R. Leg 6
Luck Points: 3
Magic Points: 12
Healing Rate: 3
Movement Rate: 6
Experience Rolls: 1

Standard Skills:
Athletics 52%, Boating 33%, Brawn 52%, Combat Style (Fighter) 62%, Conceal 28%, Customs 70%, Dance 25%, Deceit 34%, Drive 28%, Endurance 50%, Evade 42%, First Aid 36%, Influence 33%, Insight 42%, Language (Common Tongue) 69%, Locale 35%, Perception 39%, Ride 28%, Sing 26%, Stealth 26%, Swim 33%, Unarmed 52%, Willpower 39%

Professional Skills:
Commerce 44%, Craft (Blacksmith) 41%, Lore (Military History) 40%, Lore (Strategy & Tactics) 50%, Streetwise 41%, Survival 47%

Armour Proficiency, Combat Proficiency, Weapon Specialisation (Axe) (+10%/+1 Action Point)

Moral Philosophy: Good (Helpful, Honest) 58%
Loyalty to Town/City (Blaineford Forum) 57%
Love (Mother) 56%
Hate (gang) 56%

Mail shirt & Coif (5 AP Head, Arms, Chest, Abdomen), Laminated Greaves (4 AP), Battleaxe (1d6+1), Dagger (1d4+1), Shortspear (1d8+1)

In the main, Classic Fantasy uses the mechanics of Mythras, but it adds to them in order to emulate its genre. This includes rules for locked and stuck doors, repairing arms and armour, searching rooms and finding secret or concealed doors, securing doors, traps—with several examples, visibility underground, and where to rest and recover. These all emphasise the dungeoneering aspects of the genre and thus Classic Fantasy. Instead of the Strike Rank system of Mythras, initiative is used in Classic Fantasy, but the primary change to the combat mechanics is to offer rules for miniatures combat. In effect, what these do is shift the mechanics of Mythras further away from the simulation of Basic Roleplaying to the wargaming roots of Dungeons & Dragons and thus the hobby.

Where in the roleplaying games that it is emulating have Experience Points, Mythras and thus Classic Fantasy, have Experience Rolls. As per Mythras, these are awarded by the Game Master at certain points in a campaign or at the end of a scenario and can be used by a player to improve any of his character’s skills. (In a traditional Basic Roleplaying game, they are earned skill by skill and only those skills which have earned an Experience Roll can be improved.) Although attaining a new Rank does not cost any Experience Rolls, some Classes do offer higher tier talents which cost more Experience Rolls to purchase. When a skill is improved, it will be increased by no more than five percentiles, which means that character improvement is relatively slow—although a Game Master can reward her players with more Experience Rolls for a faster game—and even slower in terms of rising in Rank. And that is if the player focuses primarily on his character’s five Class prerequisite skills necessary to raise in Rank.   

Mythras offers four types of magic—Folk Magic, Animism, Sorcery, and Thesim. Classic Fantasy offers just the two disciplines—arcane and divine, the first primarily the domain of the Magic-User, the latter primarily the domain of the Cleric. The Arcane Bard can also cast arcane spells, whilst the Druidic Bard, the Druid, the Paladin, and the Ranger can cast divine spells. Where magic and spells in most retroclones are Vancian in nature, essentially memorise, cast, and forget, Classic Fantasy offers a little more flexibility and a few more options. Arcane spellcasters still have to memorise their spells and divine spellcasters still have to pray to their deity, and spells are forgotten once cast, they require Magic Points to be expended and a skill roll to be made for a spell to be successfully cast. In addition, a spellcaster can increase the Intensity of a spell to increase its effect or its Magnitude to make it harder to disbelieve or dispel. Both cost extra Magic Points beyond the basic cost of casting. Many of the arcane and divine spells listed will be recognised as versions of those found in the Old School Renaissance and includes cantrips for the arcane spellcaster.

Similarly, the bestiary and the treasure section are full entries which will very familiar to anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons or another retroclone. From the Red Dragon and the Kobold to the Bag of Holding and Girdle of Giant Strength, Classic Fantasy covers just about every standard a Game Monster would want to populate her dungeon (world) with and reward her players and their characters with, in turn providing a reinterpretation of each for the Mythras system. There are some new magic items too, like the Broom of Hostility and the Flagon of Curses, as well as guides for the Game Master to develop her own. Rounding out the supplement is a discussion of the cosmology common to retroclones and the deities of Greymoor, the implied setting for Classic Fantasy. This is useful if the Game Master is running a game not set in a specific world. Lastly, there is a set of encounter tables in an appendix.

Physically, Classic Fantasy is a decently presented black and white hardback book which echoes the look of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks. Numerous artists illustrate the book, some of the artwork being very good, some of it being rather cartoony. Another issue is that the tables—and there are quite a few tables in the book—are not always easy to read as the text is quite small. The only thing that is perhaps missing, is a conversion guide to Classic Fantasy the Old School Rennaisence.

Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is designed as a reinterpretation of classic Class and Level fantasy roleplaying, reworking it to function using a percentile mechanic with more realistic combat and more nuanced spell casting. Yet given its core mechanics, it is a grittier and deadlier reinterpretation, and with its emphasis on skills and passions, it brings a greater sense of individuality and nuance to each and every character. Overall, Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is the percentile retroclone with which to take Mythras down a dungeon to fight dragons and steal treasure, as it successfully brings the Basic Roleplaying mechanics to old style gaming.