Monday, March 31, 2014

Labyrinth Lord of the Rings

So in the back of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is the famous Appendix N, listing inspirational reading and influences that helped inspire the creators of D&D. Dying Earth, Conan the Barbarian, Lankhmar. These are all wonderful pieces of fiction and well worth a read, but for me it's always, always, always come back to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Now I know that a lot of gamers prefer their basic fantasy with a lot of pulp. Kick in the door, slay the monster, take the treasure, win the maiden. That's all well and good, but personally, I've always liked the epic plot, the personal drama and the sheer power of Tolkien's epic fantasy. Many would argue that Middle-earth isn't a great fit for OSR gaming. Sure, there are obvious influences, but it's not quite the vision that Dave and Gary were going for - and while that's probably true, when I run my fantasy games I'm aiming for an epic worthy of Tolkien and short of The One Ring: Adventurers Over the Edge of the Wild, the officially licensed Middle-earth role-playing game current being published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment and Sophisticated Games, Labyrinth Lord is the best fit to accomplish that. 

"No," you say? Hear me out. I'm going to compare a few basic fantasy staples with Tolkien's masterpiece and let you decide.

The World is Wild and Dangerous
Most fantasy gaming is set in a wild, vastly unexplored world that is dotted with ruins of a lost high age. That sounds a lot like the ruins of Arnor and the kingdoms of Numenorian King Elendil to me. These once grand places have fallen to ruin and their history is all but forgotten by everyone but the wisest of scholars. Sounds like an easily stocked dungeon to me. Not all the ruins were once "good" either. The Witch-King of Angmar once ruled a kingdom that fell to ruin over one thousand years ago, but evil lingers there even one thousand years after his defeat.

There are a few idyllic places in the world, the most obvious being the Four Farthings of the Shire - but the Shire is kept that way by the unknowing protection of the Rangers of the North. Just beyond the horizon are horrors that would claim their lands if not for a few brave souls and sharp swords. Even the towns are rough and tumble, few and far between. Bree is the only real town we see in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it is little more than a walled village on a hill with a few outling hamlets.Strider even says to Prancing Pony innkeeper Barliman Butterbur: "I am to one fat man who lives within a day's march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly."

This is a world on the razor's edge of collapse, and without heroes (ie player characters), it would be a terrible place indeed. 

The few cities and fortresses that exist are either crumbling into the past, like Minas Tirith or are hidden from the forces of evil - like Rivendell. Some have even already fallen to darkness. Minas Morgul was once known as Minas Ithil before it was taken over by the forces of Sauron, and Osgiliath (the former captial of Gondor) is a ruined husk.

All of this harkens to the almost constant theme in classic fantasy gaming of a dangerous and vast wilderness just beyond your sight. It's filled with wild terrain and abandoned ruins and though these places might be filled with riches and magical trinkets of old there are very few who are willing to risk their lives for such things - if they are even aware of their existence.

Protagonists Earn Their Place as Heroes
I'd put forth the argument that no member of the Fellowship of the Ring is higher than 5th level. Madness, you say? Think about it. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin set out from the Shire having never gone on an adventure before. That means, by default, that they're all 1st level - and it shows. They use their class abilities (initiative bonuses, hide in wilderness, etc) to avoid trouble on the road, but even then, it still finds them sometimes. Heck, when they first set out none of them even have weapons and armor - and why would they? 

Legolas and Gimli have no adventures to speak of before traveling to Rivendell - so it's also likely that they're 1st level, but because of their cultures (and thus classes), they're suitably armed and armored - but not necessarily experienced. 

Boromir is, in my opinion, probably a 2nd level fighter. He talks about facing many trials on his journey from Gondor to Rivendell - so its possible he recently earned a level based on those encounters when combined with the recent campaign in Gondor against the enemy. I mean, after all, if a single orc is worth around 15xp, that means he'd have killed quite a few to earn the 2000xp to reach 2nd level - and by the simple virtue of being a fighter he's already a cut above a man-at-arms or other hireling type.

Next we have Aragorn. Depending on which version of D&D you're playing he's either a fighter or ranger - either can work. He's clearly experienced and well-traveled, no fool to the dangers of the world. He's been traveling it active for quite some time and fought in battles in both Rohan and Gondor - in addition to his work in northern Eriador and Bree-land. So, I'd put him at about 4th level. Why so low if he's been kicking around for several decades doing this? Because not all of it has been "active adventuring." He spent long spans of time in Rivendell and Lothlorien, "between adventures" as it were. Still, he can handle a reasonable number of orcs single-handedly, so he's no slouch job. But, even with that, he's still not quick to engage in battle because he recognizes how deadly it can be - after all a 4th level fighter is only going to have between 20-30hp typically. A few lucky shots and a critical hit will still kill him.

Then there's the controversal Gandalf. Personally, I love the article "Gandalf is Only a 5th Level Wizard" that was published in The Dragon #5, by Bill Segilman. It makes a strong argument regarding how Gandalf cultivates the perception of power and uses his spells in a subtle fashion and only when absolutely necessary - after all, he's only got so many slots per day.

Even the "powerful" characters in Lord of the Rings aren't extrordinarily high level. Personally, I'd put Saruman at 11th level (he has a tower, after all - and he's the most powerful spellcaster in the world). Denethor also comes to mind. He is, after all, able to almost win a battle of wills with Gandalf - this being reflected in high saving throw values.

Encounters Aren't Balanced
When you think of Lord of the Rings you often picture epic battles - but that's a bit of a misconception. There's not actually a whole lot of combat in the series. In fact, most often the characters run away instead of facing off against a powerful foe. The Nazgul are, at the very least, wights - if not something more powerful and its a sadistic referee who expects a party of four 1st level halflings to face off against nine of them.

Even the more powerful members of the party run from battle. Aragorn doesn't stand and fight these creatures. He delays, plans, and avoids. He knows that these monsters are terrible foes not to be messed with. Combat isn't "fun," it's life-or-death. 

When the Fellowship reaches Moria (the original megadungeon!), the referee throws approximately seventeen million orcs at them, oh and a major demon. Again, they run - or fly, you fools, as they say. 

One of the major personal battles in Lord of the Rings is Eowyn vs. the Witch-King. Let's be generous here and say that Eowyn's training as a shield-maiden of Rohan equates to being a 2nd level fighter. Also, at this point it's probably safe to say Merry is a 2nd or 3rd level halfling. The two of them vs a wight (probably with increased stats to boot) is no easy fight. It's horrible, terrible and probably going to result in their deaths - but the referee is using the framework of fantasy gaming to create an epic conflict. Maybe Eowyn's weapon is considered to be a Sword+1 while she's fighting the Witch-King, so that she can actually damage him. Merry's already wielding what is likely a magic sword, the Barrow Blade.

The Witch-King can kill with a touch. Draining one level off a man at arms is instant death. So of course armies are afraid of him. But this is an epic battle, and though its quite possible Eowyn and Merry might die, it's also not entirely unreasonable for them to achieve victory. I'd even say that Merry used his wilderness stealth ability (he is outside on the Pelennor after all) to remain unnoticed until making his strike and then giving Eowyn her moment.

Another iconic battle is Gandalf vs. the Balrog. I know it's going to sound crazy, but I put forth that Gandalf held off the Balrog with one 1st level spell. Protection From Evil prevents summoned or extra-planar creatures from touching the caster in melee. So Gandalf charged up to the Balrog and cast PoE ("You cannot pass!"), to protect the rest of the party. Simple as that. The spell is only going to last a few rounds from his level so as the Balrog beats on it, the protection wavers.As for breaking the bridge, its quite possible that Gandalf's staff (obviously magical) was a Staff of Striking. So, in the last round of combat with the Balrog he used the staff to break the bridge, but lost the initiative. His effect went off, but the Balrog got a critical hit with its whip and with the Protection from Evil over, it was able to land a hit on him with the whip (maybe even a critical hit) and drag him down as well. Gandalf's player went into this fight knowing Gandalf would die - but the party would survive.

Equipment Matters, But Isn't as Powerful as You Think
Loot is a staple of fantasy role-playing games and the Fellowship is certainly decked out. But none of these objects (except the One Ring, obviously) are massively powerful. Sting could easily be a Short Sword +1, Detect Orc 60'. Yes, Sam uses it to almost slay Shelob, but most major monsters only require a +1 weapon to damage them. Meanwhile everyone in the fellowship recieves a Cloak of Elvenkind. The elvish cordial Miruvor could easily be several doses of a Potion of Cure Light Wounds. Legolas's Bow of the Galladhrim? Eh, probably just a Long Bow +1 - enough to make a difference, but it doesn't change the dynamic of his character.

The major magical weapon in this campaign are probably Anduril (the broken blade of Elendil, reforged by the elves in Rivendell). But it's not described as being particularly magical, when compared to Sting for example. Instead Anduril probably offers a morale bonus to nearby allies, as it is a weapon of inspiration as of war.

The other major magic item is the Phial of Galadriel, I would imagine has several minor effects that can be combined to great effect. It obviously radiates Light or Continual Light. In addition, I would argue that when invoked by an elvish prayer it grants its bearer the effects of a Bless spell. Finally, it can be used to dispel magical barriers ala Dispel Magic. None of these are above 3rd level spell effects, but in the context of the story, they're still amazingly useful.

What about when it's all over and the story comes to a close? I'd imagine the player characters who are alive have gained two to three levels, but aren't warlords or such in their own right. The hobbits are able to organize their people in the Battle of Bywater, but by comparison a 3rd - 4th level Halfling is an excellent leader to a group of 0th level men-at-arms,

Now some of you might say "An entire campaign, and they only gained a few levels?" Well, yes. Because a campaign isn't about leveling to me - it's about telling a good story. And Lord of the Rings is my personal favorite.

Review: The Witch

Dedicating an entire sourcebook to a single class is a single class it quite a task, but that's what Timothy Brannan has done with The Witch: A New Class for Basic Era Games, published by Elf Lair Games. In 122 pages he's not only created an original class for Labyrinth Lord, but done an excellent job fleshing it out mechanically, how it fits into existing fantasy role-playing and providing a healthy does of historic context. 

The book begins with an introduction where the author goes over class concepts and what exactly it means to play a witch and how they relate to more traditional spellcasters in basic era gaming. This kind of lead in gives the supplement more depth in my opinion instead of simply throwing a class at you and saying "have at it!" 

Brannan's witch doesn't wear a pointed black hat and feed poison apples to princesses. Instead he's taken the simplicity of basic era fantasy and used it as a framework. Chapter 2 offers all the detail necessary to play a witch. It provides statistics, flavor, and options for playing them as a class that ran run up to level 36, at the referee's option. It's a solid class with a strong historic flavor to it, and Brannan could have stopped there - but the fact that he didn't is what makes this book worth reviewing.

Instead of offering a simple cookie-cutter class, Brannan takes us into chapter 3 where several different traditions are offered. I'm reminded very much of the AD&D 2nd edition "kits" system. He offers six traditions and while one could play the the witch without one of these traditions, its implied and assumed that they're going to be used. Each tradition offers not only mechanical benefits, but Brannan describes what exactly it means to be in a given tradition, what their basic tenants are, how one joins and how one leaves. Admittedly, this is a lot of depth for a basic era game, and I can see why some referees would be reluctant to allow it - but I'm all about the flavor and enjoyed the tradtion system.

The Aquarian Witch is a witch who draws upon the power of the stars and the cosmos. Not in a creepy Lovecraftian way, but in a kind of historic context. They study the stars, astrology and celestial bodies to gain power. They understand fate is written in the stars and seem to draw their power from that understanding.

The Classical Witch is exactly that. Black cats. Bubbling cauldrons. The whole nine. While this could be bland, the author has a sidebar explaining different historic traditions that encourage the reader to crack a book and learn more for themselves - not greater sourcebook than the past.

The Fairie Witch draws their power by establishing and maintaining a connection to the fair folk, or the fey. This is a classic trope, but there's a subtle sense in reading it that the fair folk are not pixies, sprites and happy little brownies. They are creatures beyond mortal understanding and perception and that those in this tradition see the fey with respect and awe.

The Family Tradition is pretty darn original, but makes total sense. A character who selects this tradition has the gift "in the blood" so to speak. It's both an art and a gift handed down from mother to daughter for generations. This could easily be used to reflect a character who has a hidden family secret or a clan of gypsies who carry on an obscure magical tradtion. Easily my favorite of the traditions.

The Maleficia Tradition. The name says it all. They made a pact with less than respectable powers and now they've got dark power drawn from an evil patron of unimaginable power. While this could easily be dismissed as a "evils only" kind of tradition, Brannan offers the idea of playing a Maleficia as someone who is using the weapon of the enemy against them - which is intruging and could make for some great role-playing.

Finally we have the redheaded stepchild of the traditions - Eclectic. No so much a tradition as a mishmash of other traditions. They have penalties when interacting with other witches, but the freedom to select abilities granted to other traditions. I really life this ala carte approach. It offers a kind of blank canvas if played from early levels where the character can select abilities based on their expereinces through out the game.

We end the traditions section with a brief, but thorough overview on familiars - which are a staple of any witch character. Brannan offers good description and excellent listing of familiars both mundane and magical - with my personal favorite being the floating skull.

Next up we have a chapter of new spells and magic rules. Brannan introduces cantrips here, and while I like the idea of cantrips, they're another option to keep track of and some referees may not want to do so. I found some inconsistency in them too. The text states that cantrips can't affect living creatures, but there's one called Daze that clearly targets living creatures. 

In addition to cantrips we also have ritual magic, another staple of the traditional image of the wtich. These spells have longer casting times, require greater components as well as multipule casters. I enjoyed this section a lot, as again it really added to the flavor and depth of the class. It's not likely that a ritual would be cast during an adventure, so they lend themselves to bluebooking between adventures and that's a nice touch.

Covencraft is a kind of expanded followers and sanctuary section that goes into great detail on establishing, maintaining and running a group of witches. In addition it offers detailed overviews of example covens. to get an enterprising player or referee started. A really nice touch is an overview of the non-magical tools used by witches in their spellcasting and coventry. Special distinction is given to a witch's personal Book of Shadows and the coven's Book of Law. Again, an excellent springboard for role-playing.

This is followed up by a collection of several new monsters.The vast majority of new monsters presented here are taken from real-world mythology and continue to lend a kind of earthy that runs through the entire book. While I've not gotten a chance to use them in-play, they read as well written and can easily be usd as NPCs for the characters to interact with and not just a pile of hit points with XP as a reward after they're dead.

The magical items presented in chapter seven are flavorful and unique. Brannan introduces the concept of magic cords which can be knotted around a subject (whether the self or someone else) to achieve a magical effect. This is a nice addition to more traditional magical jewelry and very evocative of the image of a witch and how their magic works. The magic items seem reasonable for the most part, but I found the Dagger+1, Deep Sleep to be particularly powerful, and something that could be rather dangerous - still it was so fitting for the flavor of the book that I can't fault it too much for feeling a bit unbalanced.

Lastly we come to the Appendicies. Here Brannan offers rules for using the witch with the Advanced Edition Companion, rules for demi-human liches, and how some of the witch's new spells might be used by magic-users. The section on demi-humans is a bit of a contradiction to me. He offers a lot of flavorful detail on playing dwarf, elf, and halfling witches. They each have a kind of unique tradition, but intead of offering an original class for each, the reader is presented with a kind of universal "demi-human witch" template to fit all three. However, what is particularly cool is that the author discusses several "monster" races as witches, from fairies and hags along with a few others.

My final thoughts are that the witch is a solid, well-written supplement, but it might be a bit much if taken as a whole for a basic era game. That being said, it's so well-researched and evocative that its worth a purchase even if you only use the base class or a single tradition. It feels like a natural, easy fit to almost any fantasy campaign. It's available on RPGNow for $5.00 as a PDF, $20.00 for the softcover, or $25.00 for both products. If you don't mind a little extra crunch in your basic fantasy, then by all means its worth a physical purchase. Even if you don't want a few extra rules floating around it's still an absolute steal for the PDF. More than just another class variant, there's an entire culture presented in these pages that can easily be used to enrich any fantasy RPG, even if your players never take up the class.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Magical Theorems and Dark Pacts

Dyson Logos might be one of the coolest names I've ever heard. I don't know if it's the author's pen name or his real name - but either way, it's still pretty awesome.

Alright, on with the review. This time around the Traveling Spellbook is looking at Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts, published by Zero/Barrier Productions and written by Dyson Logos. This is a big book that clocks in at 157 pages filled to the brim with all kinds of magical goodness packed into five chapters. 

The first thing that struck me about MT&DP is the fact that there is no art. None. But its a bit deeper than that. The content of this book is so well written, well laid out, and engaging that its not until after I read it for the first time and began to go through it for a second time that I noticed the lack of art. Logos's work is so engrossing that I'll make the bold claim that it doesn't need art. In fact, given that Logos does fine art in his own right, I wonder if it was a conscious choice. The lack of art evokes the aesthetic of being a physical tome, a traveling spellbook if you will. It subconciously draws the reader into the text of the document. It's subtle and powerful and very well done. Or I could be completely off base, and Logos just didn't feel like doing art or hiring an artist - but I doubt that very much.

Chapter One: Spellcasting Classes presents ten new classes who rely in a large degree on magic or divine spells in their adventures. Logos begins by offering his own presentations on the traditional Magic-user, Elf and Cleric classes. For the most part these classes are very, very similar to what is presented in the Labyrinth Lord core rules, with the most changes being present in the Wizard (Logos's version of the Magic-user). Logos offers Wizards access to 10th level spells. Now, at first I had a knee-jerk reaction of "No! This is going to be broken!" But, I was wrong. What Logos has done with 10th level spells is place some truly campaign changing spells and put them in the catagory of 10th level. This includes iconic spells like Wish, Gate, & Time Stop along with a few others. By breaking the mold and making these 10th level spells, Logos gives the subtle nod to the fact that these spells are god-like in power and should be treated as such.

The Elf is renamed the Elven Swordmage. Other than the change in name, this class functions exactly as the Elf in the Labyrinth Lord core rules.

Then we come to the last MT&DP "reskin," the Cleric. Logos's clerics function almost exactly as those presented in the Labyrinth Lord core rules except for their turn undead ability which has been changed up a bit. While the ability itself as written by Logos isn't as powerful as it was presented in the LL core when one looks at the straight numbers, clerics have the potential to destroy an undead creature that has been turned when they reach certain levels. So it's not just a simple matter of potentially turned, always turned, or destroyed. When clerics face certain undead they might be turned, destroyed or neither depending on the compared level of power of the undead foe and the cleric. It's an extra rule and it might not suit everyone who wants to keep their old school games pretty streamlined, but I like it. If not, the rule can easily be ignored or the referee can just use the original rules for a cleric.

Logos offers seven new spellcasting classes, each of them both simple and still with a unique twist. He's truly embraced the philosophy of Labyrinth Lord being a framework and it shows.

First up is the Elven Warder, who is an elf with strong ties to nature. Combining limited spellcasting with some nature-based stealth abilities. They are permited the use of all weapons and armor, but many of their abilities are hampered when wearing armor - which offers a flexibility to the class. If necessary they can suit up and move to the front lines, but the class is clearly at home when operating in the wilderness and in the capacity as a scout or ranger-type role.

Enchanters fall somewhere between a bard and an illusionist. They have a broader selection of weapons than their wizard cousins, but are still prohibited from wearing armor. In addition to a collection of spells that focuses on trickery, deception and charm, they also have the natural ability to craft an art object that can inspire powerful emotions in those who look upon it. In my opinion this is definitely a social class, which might seem at odds with the old school stereotype of constant dungeon crawling - but I think the freedom of OSR gaming can actually facilitate easier role-playing if the referee allows it and thus makes the Enchanter an asset to most adventuring companies.

Next we have Fleshcrafters, who practice a kind of unnatural form of transmutation magic that is unnatural and reviled by most civilized societies. They have a spell list that is more limited than wizards or clerics, but they do not need to memorize their spells ahead of time - as they draw upon a kind of unnatural application of magic transmited through touch. While this is an interesting and creepy class, I noticed that Logos has omitted any text in the class description regarding weapon and armor restriction for the Fleshcrafter. Given their limited spell choice and limited method of application of said spells, I presume that they are able to wield all weapons and armor - but his is a nebulous area, and something I believe was an unintentional omission on the part of the author.

If the Fleshcrafter corrupts the body, then the Healer restores it. Written as a kind of folk witch or commoner midwife, the Healer does exactly what it says: Keeps you alive. But the subtle tone of the descriptive text and abilities gives them a distinct feel and could make for a lot of good role-playing opportunities. Personally, I got a kind of "Miracle Max" vibe off of them, and that's a good thing. Also, I can't imagine any adventuring party that would turn down the company of a class the specializes in keeping you alive even more than a Cleric.

Speaking of holy magic, now we come to the Inquisitor - which was not what I expected. I was expecting a sort of paladin variant focused on demon slaying. What I got was a truely historic inquisitor. These militant evangelists have fewer spells and less weapon and armor options than their clerical counter parts, but instead they have a unique and powerful ability called Authority. It functions similar to Turn Undead, but can actually be used to command living beings through sheer force of will - or even dominate them into submission. While this ability could easily be abused by aggressive players, the other restrictions on the class and the fact that its a non-magical ability left me feeling like it was fairly balanced or even less powerful over all, when compared to the cleric.

The Merchant Prince is by far my favorite class in this supplement. A kind of swashbuckling or noble businessman who dabbles in magic, they have a small collection of spells as well as an ample selection of weapons and armor that combine with special abilities to reflect business acumen and financial savvy to create a kind of jack-of-all-trades. I love, love, love this class.

What would a book on magic be with out a Necromancer, right? Logos's version is simple, quick and it works. With a restricted spell list, a rate of progression that's almost as good as a Wizard, and the innate ability to limit nearby undead from being turned or destroyed, the author has managed to create a tightly packaged class that still brims with just enough evil.

But more evil still than the Necromancer is the Pact-Bound - Spellcasters who made a deal with a great and evil entity to gain arcane power. Though they are equal in power, diversity and proficiency of magic as any wizard, as the Pact-Bound increases in experience level they become more and more hideous and unnatural,. After long enough, they eventually appear to be completely inhuman - marked forever by the vile trade they made in a mad power grab. 

By contrast the Theurge is a kind of divine wizard if you will. reciting liturgical prayers and hymns in a manner similar to a wizard's arcane incantations. They have unique combination of utility and healing spells as well as a few more surprising spells - like lightning bolt and magic sword that make them a well-rounded class that could easily serve as a combined magic-user and cleric for a small band of heroes.

Finally, we have the Unseen. They are a thief/magic-user hybrid with a few unique special abilities. They're not as skilled at theivery as thievies and nor are they as adept with the arcane as magic-users, but creative players who combine the options presented in this class with find that they can hold their own against things offered by any dungeon. At first read this class even seemed a bit too powerful, but given that their spells are almost all utilitarian in nature and that they have a d4 hit die, they might work. I'd have to see one in play to be certain one way or another.

Chapter Two of Magicial Theorems and Dark Pacts features new spells as well as reprints of spells originally found in the Labyrinth Lord core rules. While some might regard this as filler, I think it's a matter of convience. Having everything in one place for your class and its spells is always a good thing in my opinion. Now, with so many new classes that deal wtih the arcane, it was necessary for Logos to devise new spells to help evoke the feel of each of these classes. For the most part the spells read in a balanced fashion, but a few do stick out. 

Bad Luck seems a bit overpowered, even if it is restricted to the new Unseen. Forcing a target to re-roll their saving throw after a success and take the second roll if its worse thriteen times before the spell effect ends is a bit much, even if the target does get an intital save to avoid the effect entirely. That spell sticks out in my mind because it's really the only one that felt really out of joint. Several other new spells like Daggers of Nur seem balanced, flavorful and a lot of fun.

Chapter Three: Magic Items & Mystic Charms is more than just a listing of new trinkets for your game. Logos takes time to go into why magic items are important and how the referee should take the time to make them as flavorful and unique as possible. I couldn't agree with him more and am really glad to see him addressing this.

The magic items themselves are absolutely fantastic. They're flavorful and evocative and can easily be dropped into an existing game very, very easily. Logos also introduces the concept of Mystic Charms. These are trinkets with very minor magical benefits when used in specific situations - usually for protective purposes. There's even a rule about having too many and this making them difficult to retrieve. I couldn't help but think of the scene from the film The Mummy where the weasley guy is hold up a bunch of holy symbols at the mummy and it takes a few minutes for the mummy to recognize one. Mystic Charms could definitely be useful, if not overdone.

Chapter Four: Creatures and Elementals could have been used to pad the page count on this book by throwing a whole plethora of new monsters at us, but Logos keeps it clean and quick. Instead of stating whole new elementals, he gives quick one or two line modifications to existing elemntals to make them into the new subtypes offered in the book. This coupled with two half-page monster listings is really a nice way to do it in my opinion. What easily could have bloated this book into a 250 page monster was done in an honest way that keeps page count and price down.

Chapter Five: Magical Theorems & the AEC addresses how to use MT&DP with the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, but I get the impression that the author has the point of view of "it's not my first choice of how to do things, but it's your game." A quick page offering hit die upgrades for those of you who are into that kind of thing and how multi-classing works with the new classes is all you get - but to be fair it's probably all you need.

So, my final thoughts on Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts? It's $9.99 for the PDF on, and I'm really reluctant to spend more than $5 on a digital product. That being said, there's a lot of good stuff in here. So much so that I'll probably end up picking up a physical copy. Logos's Lulu page offers the hard cover for $35 and the softback for ten dollars less. 

I'd definitely recommend the PDF. If you like what you see, decide whether or not its worth plunking down $30-$40 (after shipping) for the book itself. What's nice is that with books that featrue new classes you can easily buy the PDF, print out the pages pertaining to your specific class and go from there. 

There's a lot of useful material in here, but I'd be reluctant as a referee to just throw it all in there and see how it jives in a single campaign. Instead, I'd probably allow bits and pieces as suits an individual campaign or use some of the variants for NPCs so they have a few new tricks up their sleeves when pesky adventurers come to bother them.

Review: Labyrinth Lord

My window into the OSR community was Labyrinth Lord, written by Daniel Proctor and published by Goblinoid Games. When I first encountered this game I was immediately reminded of the Rules Cyclopedia, even though that's not an entirely accurate comparison. The connection in my mind comes from the fact that the RC was my go-to game in my junior high days. To be honest when I was first exposed to it back during its inital release around 2007, I dismissed the game outright. But I was younger, more foolish, and being driven by the almighty d20-system.

"Who would want to play an old game? Why bother when D&D 3.5 is so much better and has so many more options? This is kids' stuff."

So, for the next four years, I ignored Labyrinth Lord and the OSR community in general. But as the years passed I found that I had less and less time to dedicate to designing characters with countless feats, a huge collection of special abilities and powers that were drawn from the Codex of Inifinite OGL Supplements. Somehow, unfortunately, I'd grown into a (semi) responsible adult. 

But I'll be damned if I was gonna give up gaming! I thought back to simplier games and simpler times an looked back on my Rules Cyclopedia days with a gentle fondness. But getting my hands on an RC was no inexpensive task. Then, I remembered Labyrinth Lord. I downloaded the free no-art PDF and dove in with fresh eyes.

And I fell in love. 

Labyrinth Lord is written to be a retro-clone of the Moldvay & Cook Basic/Expert version of D&D that was released in 1981. It wasn't quite the RC and before reading LL I'd never had much exposure to pre-RC D&D. I was locked in that foolish mindset that "newer" means "better," and I couldn't be more wrong.

Proctor doesn't sugarcoat what he's created. He openly says it's not something new and not original. That kind of brutal honesty in the forward is something I found endearing. In one page, Proctor expresses love and child-like wonder for long lost gaming days of yore. He's humble and honest and disarming. He's the kind of guy who is probably a lot of fun to sit down with and roll a few dice.

But Proctor's designed Labyrinth Lord to be a game in is own right and spends the first few pages of the book describing dice, terminology, and other nuances of table-top gaming that might be unfamiliar to someone who had never played an RPG before reading his book. While many would argue that "everyone knows what a role-playing game is," I think this is a smart move on Proctor's part because while his forward pays homage to the fathers of the hobby, by taking the time to offer this seemingly obvious information in the beginning then Proctor is creating a game that will stand on its own. While it honors its ancestors, it does not expect the reader to necessarily do so.

However, once the book proper begins, it moves at a brisk pace. In its first fifteen pages Labyrinth Lord covers character creation, class selection and detailing exactly what those classes can do, as well as purchasing gear. Like Proctor says, Labyrinth Lord isn't trying to do anything new. The traditional D&D attributes are there: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. Same goes for classes: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-user and Thief. Proctor follows the conventions of its basic D&D progenitor - with the exception of the Cleric. There is a minor, but controversial change. In original B/X, clerics did not recieve their first spell until 2nd level. Labyrinth Lord allows clerics to cast a single 1st level spell right out of the gate - and frankly, most folks I gamed with often house ruled their home games to accomplish the same thing. So, this is a change that I applaude. Every little bit helps at low levels, after all.

The game provides an ample collection of spells for use by elves, magic-users and clerics. For the most part, they're direct ports of the Moldvay-era spells of the same name - though I think there may be some of Proctor's own house rules in there in a few places. For example, Proctor's Magic Missile does 1d6+1 damage, and by my recollection (and I could be wrong) that spell has always done 1d4+1 - but, like the change in the cleric's spell casting progression, I find it to be a good thing. Again, it's a little edge to help the player character's survive.

Following this, we come to 16 pages of rules covering movement, overland travel, combat, encumbrance, saving throws, non-player characters, and other general rules to help cover situations that might arise in the course of the game. Again, they're simple, direct and very no frills.

Monsters are up next, and Proctor gives quite an ample collection of foes (and a few friends) for adventurers to face as they brave the dark dungeons of the world. In 40 pages the sampling given is enough to keep any adventure campaign going for quite some time - though I have to admit there did seem to be a marked absence of "high-level" foes. 

And why do so so many brave the dungeons and monsters of these fantasy worlds? For glory and treasure, of course - but mostly treasure. Given that the rest of this book is so concise, I'm really impressed at the eleven pages given to magic items. While this doesn't sound like much, given how briskly and tightly written the rest of the Labyrinth Lord rules are, I call this quite a bit of information.

But there's no labyrinth without a referee (or Labyrinth Lord, as they are called in this game). An overview of what to expect being a referee is given - a few pages of hints and tips about stocking a dungeon and running the game. Again, there's not a lot given, and that's a good thing - but I'll get to that later.

Finally the game closes with a small example dungeon and a map of the "Known World." This simple hex map is sparse and though the author never says I feel like this is less an empty world and more a canvas for the enterprising referee to paint upon. Several small presses seem to agree with my perception of things, having released supplements detailing some of the locations on the this map.

The book closes with the legalize of the OGL and this might be the best part of the book for me. You see, what Proctor has done is he made this game and then he literally gave it to the world. Everything in this book, except for the names Labyrinth Lord, Goblinoid Games and the art are product identity. Everything else is open gaming content. This means that other authors can take the rules, ideas and concepts presented in Labyrinth Lord and base their own professional works upon it. Proctor has literally given his audience the world - and so far they've done amazing things with it.

As I've reviewed Labyrinth Lord you've probably noticed I constantly reference how tightly written the book is and how loose many of the rules are. To many modern gamers, this could be seen as a weakness. Instead, I regard it as one of the game's greatest strengths. By giving a framework, Proctor allows players and referees the freedom to truly make Labyrinth Lord their own game - a personal expereince customized to the play style each group. This makes the game different things to different groups. It's a set of rules that can be bent, broken or contorted into whatever kind flavor of old-school fantasy gaming one desires - and that certainly makes it worth more than the sum of its parts.

Labyrinth Lord is available in four different formats. It can be downloaded for free at the Goblinoid Games website as a no art PDF. No text is omitted, no rules removed. For $5.95 you can purchase the full art PDF, which I highly recommend. The art by Steve Zieser is thick black line art and very evocative of traditional old school gaming. It is also available as a softcover book for $21.95 or a hardcover for ten dollars more. The latter three formats are available at RPGNow.  At any price, this game is well worth it. I've purchased all four versions of the game and do not regret repeat buys. I pritned out the no-art PDF and put it in sheet protectors and a binder as a "table copy." That way I don't have to feel like I'm out a few dollars when battle damage from Cheeto powder or Mountain Dew inevitably occurs, while my physical copies can be used for my own reference.

Labyrinth Lord is very well supported as well. Numerous third party publishers have taken advantage of the OGL and a plethora of products are available on RPGNow and Lulu. Original adventures, sourcebooks, and supplements beyond count mean that you can turn this game into exactly what you want it to be.

So, you're really only left with one question: What are you watiing for? Get it now and have a helluva a lot of fun.

Introduction & the Primer for Old School Gaming

Welcome to Traveling Spellbook, a new blog focusing on OSR Gaming. What is OSR Gaming? Well, if you don't know you probably stumbled on to this blog by accident, but let's assume you're still reading.

OSR stands for Old School Renaissance or Old School Revival and generally refers to a movement among table-top role-playing game enthusiasts to return to a the style of gaming from the early days of fantasy gaming. Rules are light and fast, with lots of room for interpretation by the game master or referee. The most famous of these games is Dungeons and Dragons and the values of OSR gaming are reflected in versions of D&D that existed before the release of the game's 3rd edition.

Often drawing on the themes of pulp fantasy like that authored by Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, early fantasy game had the stereotype of being a game that was little more than “kick in the door, kill the monster, take the treasure.” But there is a whole lot more there if the gamer bothers to scratch a little bit beneath the surface of this over-simplified mentality.

Often early fantasy games told you what your character could do, not what they couldn't do. If you wanted to do something that wasn't specified on your sheet and hadn't been specifically denied to you based on the confines of the game, then the player told the referee exactly how they were attempting to accomplish the task at hand and the referee made a ruling.

Simple as that. No complex rules, no endless feats, no extensive rules. The players had faith in the referee to be fair in their ruling and the game moved forward.

Another “hallmark” of OSR gaming is a high rate of lethality. I've always found this convention to be a bit disingenuous. It implied that old school fantasy games were built around the mentality of “Player vs. Referee” or that it was the referee's job to try to kill the player characters.

To me the truth of the matter is that deciding you're going to go into the dark dungeons and deep caverns of the world where horrible monsters live is, by its very natrue, very dangerous. Players, and their characters, will need to be cautious, aware, prepared, and a bit lucky. But even then, sometimes things go poorly.

It's a high-risk/high-reward situation and sometimes people die. That's why not everyone is an adventurer and whether the characters are risking their lives for a great and noble cause or for fun and profit, what really matters is that they're choosing to embark on a very dangerous, very rarely chosen path to greatness – a path fraught with peril.

As for the player characters themselves, they are exceptional, but not necessarily extraordinary. In OSR gaming typically the roles taken up by the players are that of characters who are slightly better than the average villager or idle noble. That being said, if they manage to make their way to 2nd level or beyond, they may indeed rise to great heights of heroism. That being said, it has to be earned. In OSR, no one starts out a fireball slinging arch mage or a master swordsman. That's all part of the genre convention. Heroism and glory are often sought after and rarely achieved – again, it's a high-risk/high-reward situation.

As for Traveling Spellbook itself, his blog will discuss OSR gaming in general and review products designed for OSR gaming. To that end, the first product recommended by TS is Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. This product is available as a free PDF download from At 13 pages, it's a quick read – but no words are wasted. Finch cuts a brisk pace, describing what exactly old school gaming is and why it can be so darned fun.

Finch breaks this down for both players and referees alike. For the players he provides what he calls four “Zen Moments” that highlight how playing in an OSR game is different from its modern counterparts and why its awesome. His examples are detailed, but never long-winded. The author's energy and passion for OSR gaming is evident. For referees he presents the “Tao of the GM.” The insights here showcase the subtle (or not-so-subtle) responsibilities a referee has when running an OSR game when compared to the more modern style of running a game. Again, Finch's enthusiasm just jumps off the page and it feels almost infectious. By Orcus, OSR gaming is just too damned fun!

In closing, Matthew Finch recommends that those interested in OSR gaming pick up a copy of Swords & Wizardry – and while this feels like a plug for his own product at first, he goes out of his way to tell the reader that the recommended products are available free of charge. He's clearly in it for a love of the game.

There's a reason that A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming is the first product I'm reviewing on Traveling Spellbook: Because it opened my eyes up to the magnificent simplicity of OSR gaming. Personally, I came into fantasy gaming in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have fond memories of the 1991 Rules Cylopedia compiled by the late, great Aaron Allston. But, having quickly moved on to 2nd edition AD&D and 3rd edition soon after, I never quite “got” old-school gaming. But with Finch's Primer, I truly had moments of zen and knew the tao that could not be described.

Whether you're a grizzled old gamer whose lost interest in the hobby with the advent of ascending AC or if you're of the newer generation who enjoys 4th edition's streamlined, modular approach to table-top gaming, Matthew Finch makes understanding, and more importantly appreciating, old school gaming an easy thing.

Matthew Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming is available as a free PDF on Give it a read, roll up a character, trust your DM, and get ready to have a helluva good time.