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Friday, 19 March 2021

Jongleurs & Justice

The tales of Robin Hood, of a band of outlaws standing up to the tyrant King John in the Forest of Nottingham are so strongly woven into the folklore, legends, and myths ‘Merrye Olde Englande’ that they are familiar across the English-speaking world. Over the decades, the tales have been reinforced again and again by film and television, from the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and the 1950s television series The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene to more recent adaptations such as the BBC’s Robin Hood of the noughties and the 2018 film, Robin Hood. These adaptations and retellings, of course, vary in quality, tone, and humour, some even having been done as comedies. Similarly, Robin Hood has been the subject of numerous roleplaying games and supplements. Some have been quite comprehensive in their treatment of the outlaw and his band, for example, the supplements Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Robin Hood and Iron Crown Enterprises’ Robin Hood: The Role Playing Campaign are both highly regarded in this respect, whilst other supplements take a broad approach, such as Sherwood: The Legend of Robin Hood for use with Savage Worlds, or simply touch upon the subject of Robin Hood, such as Romance of the Perilous Land from Osprey Games.

It is the author of Romance of the Perilous Land, Scott Malthouse who explores the aftermath of the Robin Hood legend in Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice, a roleplaying game in fanzine format. This takes place in the thirteenth century after the death of the tyrant, King John, during the reign of his son, Henry III or Henry of Winchester. Robin Hood has been dead five years, Little John has disappeared, Friar Tuck was burnt at the stake for heresy, and Marian has become a sullen sellsword. Although a better king than his father, Henry of Winchester’s England is rife with corruption, the powers of the barons unchecked, and the poor suffer. The Player Characters are Merry Outlaws, wanting to take up the mantle of Robin Hood’s justice and rob from the rich to give to the poor. Over the course of a campaign, they will scheme and steal, spreading their newly acquired wealth in acts of largess, and for each adventure they have, they will write a Stanza. When they have ten Stanzas, perhaps they will have a ballad worthy of ensuring their place in English folklore. Much like Robin Hood.

To play Merry Outlaws, each player requires two six-sided dice and two coins—the latter the older the better (though only for aesthetic reasons). Each Outlaw is defined by an Outlaw Code, two Outlaw Abilities, Stamina, and starting equipment. Apart from Stamina, which starts at ten, everything else is randomly determined. More Outlaw Abilities will be gained as the Outlaw has more adventures and writes more Stanzas.

Ralph of Bridport is an unassuming man who only came alive on the stage, performing for others. This was his downfall, for he was not noticed when the lord his troupe was performing for got into an argument with a merchant. When the merchant was later found murdered, it was Ralph who noticed the spots of blood on the noble’s blood. Before he said anything, the noble noticed his stare and denounced him as the murderer. Ralph was forced to go into exile and now works with fellow outlaws and exiles to make restitution for damage that the nobility inflict on the peasantry.

Ralph of Bridport
Outlaw Abilities: Warden (Roll with Edge when spotting something hidden), Disguise (Roll with Edge when disguising yourself or others)
Outlaw Code: Never break bread with the wealthy
Starting Gear: Broken lute, drinking horn
Stamina: 10

Mechanically, Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice is simple. It is player-facing in that the Game Master never has to roll dice. Thus, a player rolls for his character to undertake an action, make an attack, and to avoid an attack, but the Game Master does not make any rolls to attack. An action requires the roll of a six-sided die. Rolls of three or less are a failure, a one being a botch. Rolls of four or more are a success, a six being a Triumph. If a Player Character has an Edge, then the player rolls two six-sided dice and selects the best one, but if faced with a Setback, he rolls two dice and uses the worst one.

Combat uses the same mechanics, better rolls inflicting more damage when attacking, and avoiding more damage when defending against damage. Damage reduces a character’s Stamina by between one and three points, depending upon whether the attacker was armed and the quality of the roll. A Player Character whose Stamina is reduced to zero is ‘On Death’s Door’ and has a fifty percent chance of surviving and gaining a wound. Otherwise, he dies. At the beginning of each Stanza (or adventure), each Player Character has two Fate Coins. These can be used to lose a wound, gain five Stamina, or reroll a ‘Dying Roll’.

Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice adds two mechanical wrinkles at the end of any Stanza. The first is to describe how the wealth the Outlaws acquired during their Stanza is distributed amongst the deserving poor and every player writes a stanza, a four-line verse which will contribute towards the ballad of their do gooding. An Outlaw will gain three more Abilities over the course of his helping the poor, but with the tenth Stanza, his tale is over and the ballad is complete.

Physically, Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice is cleanly and simply laid out. It explains everything quickly and everything is easy to grasp. It is illustrated throughout with public domain artwork, all appropriate to the genre.

What Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice does not do is present the world of the thirteenth century or the detail of Robin Hood and his legend. Indeed, there is almost no background in this roleplaying game. What it instead relies upon is the knowledge of the Game Master and her players of the Robin Hood legend and the period when it is set. Having seen a Robin Hood film or television series would probably be enough, the folklore around the legend being enough and common knowledge. Which is fine because what the players are doing with their Outlaws is creating their legend or ballad to be sung down the centuries. Nevertheless, the Game Master will still need to develop some setting material, a scenario or two, and so forth for the Outlaws to get involved in.

Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice is easy to play with characters who are simply, but clearly defined by their abilities, which of course will colour play because of what they can do well. For example, Ralph of Bridport is definitely going undercover rather than engaging in a lot of fights! Ultimately, Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice is a quick and dirty version of—if not the Robin Hood legend—then the means for the players and their characters to step into his shoes and compose their own legend.

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