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Saturday 14 March 2020

An Early Modern Retroclone

17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook is the core rulebook for 17th Century Minimalist, an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game of smalltime tricksters, conniving thieves, stalwart ex-soldiers, swashbucklers with panche and gambling debts, and minor physicians, banding together out of necessity and the need for coin (glory optional). Published by Games Omnivorous and designed by the author of The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, it is a rules-light Class and Level roleplaying game set in the seventeenth century which features firearms, no magic, a task-based experience system, and a fast, deadly combat system. Flintlocks are easy to use, but have a chance of misfire and take time to reload. Instead of magic, Illusionists use tricks and misdirection, whilst Plague Doctors apply treatments which might be interpreted as miracles or witchcraft. Cuthroats gain Experience Points for backstabbing, stealing rare items, disarming hard traps, and so on; Illusionists for entertaining crowds, doing tricks, wooing persons of note, et cetera; Plague Doctors for curing the Plague and other diseases and for discovering new flora; Soldiers for killing strong foes, doing mercenary work, and going to war; and Swashbucklers for dueling and doing bold stunts in combat. Lastly, whilst characters acquire Levels, they never increase their Hit Points, so combat is deadly. 

Characters in 17th Century Minimalist are defined by five abilities—Charisma, Dexterity, Strength, Intelligence, and Luck; Class (as above) and Level—up to Fifth Level as campaigns are intended to be short in 17th Century Minimalist; and Reputation. Character creation is quick and easy. A player rolls three four-sided dice for the five abilities and then rolls three four-sided dice and add two to replace the values of any ability with a value less than five. Then he chooses one of the roleplaying game’s five Classes, rolling a background from the table given for each Class. The process is quick and easy, and helped by the fact that each Class has its own character sheet for ease of play.

Our sample character is a Laid-off Infantryman, a Scots mercenary and Protestant fighting in the Thirty Years War. Currently there is a lull in the fighting and he is seeking his fortune elsewhere, or least the means to pay for his keep and wine, women, and song.

Name: James McTavish
Class: Soldier Level: 1
Background: Laid-off Infantryman
Charisma 08 Intelligence 06 
Dexterity 10 Luck 09 
Strength 13 Current Luck 09

Reputation: 6
Hit Points: 12
Armour: Leather Armour, steel helm
Main Weapon: Claymore, musket & ammunition (d10)

Special Abilities: Military Training (no disadvantage with large weapons, advantage with musket), Scars of War (advantage on reisting disease, drugs, alcohol), Combat Prowess (extra action if exact Strength rolled), Merciless (critical hit range equals Level, plus own Critical Hit table)

Mechanically, 17th Century Minimalist is fairly simple. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls a twenty-sided die against the appropriate ability, aiming to roll equal to or under it. Rolls of one count as criticals and of twenty as fumbles. Luck can be spent to reroll anything other than fumbles and between one and three points of Luck is regained at the end of each adventure. 17th Century Minimalist uses the Advantage and Disadvantage rules as per Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and the Useage Die mechanic as per The Black Hack.

Combat in 17th Century Minimalist is brutal—and not just because player characters have static Hit Points. To begin with, initiative is handled not by die rolls. Instead, each player puts a recognisable die into a bag, into which the Game Master adds one die for the opposition and one as a neutral die. When a player’s die is drawn from the bag, his character can act, when the opposition’s die is drawn, they can act, and when the neutral die is drawn, the round ends, all of the dice are placed back in the bag, and a new round begins. Rather than the back and forth of traditional initiative mechanics, initiative is a wild affair—the opposition might get to act, but not the player characters before the round ends, or vice versa, some or even none of the player characters might get to act before the round ends, and so on. It is wild, but it is brutal.

Fumbles mean that the attacker has hit an ally or that his weapon has broken, whilst Criticals simply add damage. When an attacker fails to land a blow in melee combat, the defendant can riposte, although with Disadvantage. Armour blocks damage a number of times equal to its Armour Value, from the one of Leather to the four of Full Plate, and be fixed, either by the player character or a craftsman. Weapon damage is determined by size—a four-sided die for small weapons, a six-sided die for medium weapons, and an eight-sided die for big weapons. Being reduced to zero Hit Points does not necessarily mean that a character is dead, though there is a chance of that along with maiming and scarring.

Firearms get their own section. The default type—muskets and pistols—is the flintlock. Inflicting damage equal to big weapons, they take time to reload and there is the chance that they might misfire or backfire. Rules for grenades are also given as is a table of rare firearms, such as the axe-pistol and Duck-feet pistol.
So for example, James Mactavish has signed as a guard for a caravan of refugees going to a region where their faith is accepted. It is attacked by mercenaries. They ride in on horseback, their sabres ready to strike. James’ player puts in a blue die into the initiative bag and the Game Master puts a red one in for the opposition and a white one as the neutral die. On the first round, she pulls the red die out first—a mercenary is going to attack James. His player rolls a twenty-sided die and gets a nine. This is under James’ Dexterity so he ducks the sword strike from the horse-mounted mercenary. Since the mercenary missed, James is allowed a riposte with a melee weapon, though it is rolled with disadvantage. He states that he is going to swing his halberd. His player rolls two twenty-sided dice, but with rolls of fifteen and nineteen, he misses. Next the Game Master draws another die out of the bag. It is the neutral die, so the round has ended. Both the red and the white dice go back in the bag and the next round begins.
On the second round, the first die out is a blue die, which means that James acts first. His player decides that James will ready his halberd and strike as soon as the mercenary, who has ridden away and wheeled around to come back for another attack, comes into reach. He rolls a nineteen, which is obviously not good enough, so he burns a point of Luck to reroll. This time, he rolls a one, which is a critical success. As a critical hit, it ignores Armour, so the Game Master cannot block the damage. In addition to the damage die of an eight-sided die, plus the standard bonus of a four-sided die rolled for more damage, because James is a Soldier, his player gets to roll on the Class’ own Critical Hit table. So rolls six on the eight-sided die and three on the four-sided die for a total of nine damage. Then on the Soldier Class Critical Hit table, he rolls a five, which means that he disarms the mercenary, smashing his sabre from his hand.
Being ‘A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR’ roleplaying game, 17th Century Minimalist  does not include magic. It does however include abilities which to the uneducated might appear to be indistinguishable from magic. In particular, two of the Classes, the Illusionist and the Plague Doctor have such abilities. Thus, the Illusionist has a ‘Bag of Tricks’ with which he can create a ‘Fake Sound’ or perform a ‘Card Swap’ which enables him to make a character friendly to him, whilst the Plague Doctor can perform Treatments, such as ‘Send Rats’ to attack a target or ‘Apply Light Leeches’ to provide minor healing.

In terms of character progress, two other factors are tracked in 17th Century Minimalist. One is Experience, as in any other retroclone, but instead of tracking hundreds and thousands of Experience Points, in 17th Century Minimalist, a character receives single points. For every ten of these, a character can go up a Level, up to a maximum of five. They are received though, one at a time, for undertaking tasks particular to their Class as described above. The other factor is Reputation. This starts at six and rises and falls depending upon whether a character commits Virtuous—such as rescuing someone of note or slaying a witch—or Vicious—killing innocent folk or desecrating tombs—actions. Should a character’s reputation drop to one, he becomes Infamous and can Infamy tokens which can be spent to contact the criminal underworld or hire a retainer for free—a vile, vicious retainer. On the other hand, should it rise to twelve and the character becomes Famous and receives Famous tokens which can be spent to gain access to the local authorities or to receive an exotic gift. A character’s Reputation must remain at either one or twelve to continue receiving the Infamous or Famous tokens and will continue to remain Famous or Infamous until his Reputation rises or drops to six respectively. What you have in this Reputation mechanic is both a means of measuring what the populace at large think of a character and the nature of the character’s actions and their ramifications, basically a simple, binary Alignment system.

Besides rules for commerce, equipment, pets, and retainers, as well as alcohol, drugs, disease, and poison, there is very little in the way of world information in 17th Century Minimalist. It is assumed that Game Master and players alike will at least know something of the period, given that there is no bibliography. Similarly, it is expected that the Game Master has some experience in running roleplaying games, since there is scant advice given bar handling of supernatural monsters and their damage, and converting Armour Class and monsters from the Old School Renaissance roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice. In fact, the one real issue with 17th Century Minimalist is the lack of advice when it comes to the creation and handling of NPCs.

The second half of 17th Century Minimalist is dedicated to describing its five Classes. The Cutthroat is a Hired Assassin, Former King’s Spy, or Nomadic Ninja who receives Luck Tokens to avoid death outside of combat, to reroll fumbles, and perform sneak attacks; and gain Advantage when climbing, wearing a disguise, sneaking, and so on. A Court Jester, Foreign-Fire Breather, or Apprentice of Magic, the Illusionist also has a sense of Déjà vu and so adds an extra die to the initiative bag, can earn money entertaining the crowds, and can perform various Tricks pulled literally from his Bag of Tricks’. The Plague Doctor, possibly a Aspirin Alchemist, Survivor of Leprosy, or Botanical Cataloguer, is educated and knows more Exotic and Dead languages, when wearing their beak-like masks they are immune to disease and can instil fear, know how to fight off the diseased—vermin and human alike, and can perform Treatments. The Soldier, possibly an Outlaw Traitor, Uncredited War Hero, or Disgraced General, can wield big weapons without Disadvantage and muskets with Advantage, make Strength checks with Advantage to resist the effects of alcohol, drugs, and disease, gain an extra action when their exact Strength is rolled with Strength tests in combat, and gain a wider Critical Range as well as having his own Critical Hit table. Possibly a Former King’s Musketeer, Self-Proclaimed Poet, or Duelling Artiste, the Swashbuckler gains extra Luck, can perform Swashbuckling Deeds such as shooting a firearm with double Advantage or inflict an extra die of damage, can use their Luck to test any situation, and cannot refuse a duel, and will either fight with a sense of Superiority, Egotism, Vanity, or Arrogance.

All five of these Classes are fun and flavoursome. All five also counter some of the brutality and deadliness of the setting, especially for the Soldier and the Swashbuckler Classes. Further, being reduced to zero Hit Points does not mean that the character dies. His player still has to roll on the Zero Hit Points table and that only grants a one in six chance of instant death—unlike NPCs!

Physically, 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook is a full colour, well written, charmingly presented digest-sized booklet. The artwork manages to fit the setting, despite being almost suited to a child’s storybook. As an artefact though, it has the feel of being handmade and it really does feel good in the hand.

The most obvious thing missing from 17th Century Minimalist is an adventure. There is however the 17th Century Minimalist ‘Mini Adventure Folder’ which includes five mini-adventures. There is also any number of Old School Renaissance scenarios, of which many of those published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, including the author’s own The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man as well as No Better Than Any Man, Scenic Dunnsmouth, or Forgive Us, would be suitable as they share the same setting. That said, the more fantastical the nature of the setting, the less useful a scenario may be, depending to what degree the Game Master wants her 17th Century Minimalist game to involve the fantastic or the supernatural.

Yet as good and as charming as 17th Century Minimalist is, it is not perfect. First, it does not explain its core mechanic clearly enough, if at all, so it does not state clearly if the players are doing all of the rolls or both players and the Game Master are. Second, it does not tell the Game Master how to create or handle NPCs. Third, there is no background to the game. Now all of this can be overcome by the Game Master, who needs to decide how to handle the first two problems and possibly do a little research for the third. Or the author could publish a 17th Century Minimalist Game Master’s Guide and address all three issues.

Now despite its problems—all three of which can be overcome by the Game Master—there is a great deal to like about 17th Century Minimalist. The rules are simple, the Classes are both flavoursome and fun to play, and the system is deadly enough to make players think twice about fighting, but provides the means to ameliorate that deadliness by playing to their Classes. (As an aside, these Classes and the mechanics could be used to model a fantastic, gritty 19th Century Minimalist Wild West roleplaying game too.) Although, 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook does leave the Game Master with a few decisions to make that it really should not have done—though they are relatively simple fixes—there is no denying its brutal charm and flavour.

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