Sunday, March 30, 2014

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.


  1. After being severely burned out on 3rd / 3.5 D&D Labyrinth Lord was a breath of fresh air that got me to love fantasy RPGs again. :)

    1. Exactly. Actually it was your review on Youtube that reminded me to give LL a second look, now that I think about it.

  2. Wow, I had the same experience as you in the introduction to OSR. I dismissed it at first enchanted by the false appearance of freedom from later editions. When I realised I was overwhelmed with them and the game was being bugged down to crunching numbers, I took a look at Labyrinth Lord and fell in love with it. It's an awesome game and the Advanced Edition Companion makes it even better. All the option of 1e with the elegance and simplicity of B/X, it´s perfect!

  3. I love Labyrinth Lord. It really is one of the gems of the OSR publishing.


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