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Thursday, September 15, 2016

RPG Review: Romance of the Perilous Land

Trollish Delver Games has published a new OSR game called Romance of the Perilous Land as a pay-what-you-want PDF.  I decided to download it, and tip Trollish Delver a buck, because of its promise to recreate the world of British folklore, as opposed to the generic fantasy setting presented by all the various editions of D&D. In this setting, magic is rare and wondrous and subtle (no Olde Magick Shoppes or fireball-slinging archmages) and monsters are unique and terrifying creatures. I immediately thought that this game could be tweaked to model a number of low-magic, high-wonder settings that have never worked well with D&D as written. The game mostly delivers on its promise, though it would take a lot of work to adapt it to Middle Earth.

Character Creation and Options

Like all the old D&D editions and the OSR games inspired by them, RotPL relies on random attribute generation. The only option given in the rulebook is 3d6 in order, but any experienced GM can substitute their own favorite methods. I would personally recommend steering clear of high-powered methods like 4d6-drop-the-lowest, because characters get increases to their attributes several times during their careers, and there's a risk that many tasks related to their best attribute could become impossible to fail. However, allowing some freedom in arranging the stats is probably a good idea if your players are experienced or have definite ideas about what they want to play.

The biggest departure from other OSR games is that there are only five attributes, not the six everyone's familiar with. They are Might, Reflex, Endurance, Mind, and Charisma. Might, Reflex, and Endurance are the equivalents of Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution respectively. Charisma is exactly what you would expect it to be, and Mind is Intelligence and Wisdom rolled into one stat.

After rolling your attributes, you choose your class. There are no races in RotPL; nor are there BD&D-style racial classes. All PCs are assumed to be human, probably because races like elves and dwarves are so rare in the default setting that they would be deemed monstrous by humans who ran into them. There are six classes: knight, ranger, thief, cunning folk, barbarian, and bard.

Of these six classes, the knight is the closest to the traditional fighter, but it has more defensive abilities than that old archetype usually does. The ranger, thief, barbarian, and bard are about what an experienced D&D player would expect them to be, but the text takes more pains to explain that thieves are not necessarily bad people. In fact, Robin Hood is the only named iconic example of a thief. Cunning folk are the only spellcasters in the game, and their spell selection looks more like a cleric's list than a wizard's because of the subtlety of magic in this game. However, the spellcasting mechanic is much more flexible than standard Vancian magic.

In addition to a hit die and armor and weapon proficiency, each class gives the character three skills, which can be used to give a bonus to any die roll that the GM decides is related to the skill.

After choosing a class, you can pick a background if you want. Each background gives the character two more skills and some free starting equipment. Five backgrounds are given: artisan, outlaw, priest, seafarer, and aristocrat. Personally, I would have liked to see more backgrounds, and I plan to add a few if I ever run this game.

Finally, you buy your character's equipment. This works like it does in most old-school or OSR games. You get 3d6 x 10 gold pieces to spend and a list of equipment and prices to part you from that gold. The encumbrance system is innovative, though. Instead of having a weight allowance, each character can carry a certain number of items, with heavy armor and weapons counting as two items each. Some equipment, like sacks and backpacks, allows you to carry extra items.

Task Resolution

One of the best things about RotPL is that every action that requires a die roll uses the same kind of roll. This isn't anything earth-shattering for people used to systems like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, or the d20 System, but it's not necessarily a given in the OSR. 

The success or failure of any action is determined by a d20 roll-under check against a target number. That is, the roll is a success if it is equal to or lower than the target number. For PCs, the target number is always one of their five attributes. If the action is opposed by another creature, the opponent's level or hit dice is subtracted from the target number. For faceless NPCs and monsters, a single target number for every action it takes is given in its monster entry. Though the formula for the target number is never explicitly spelled out, it's easy to deduce it by looking at the stat blocks. Like D&D 5e, RotPL uses advantage and disadvantage, which have the player roll an extra die and take the higher or lower of the two results, instead of bonuses and penalties to the die roll.

In combat, PCs make attack rolls against either their Might (for melee attacks) or Reflex (for ranged attacks) . Monsters make attack rolls against their target number. Since all attack rolls are opposed, they are modified by the target's level (for characters) or hit dice (for monsters). Initiative is determined much like in the Cypher System, with PCs rolling to determine whether they act before or after their opponents. However, in this game, the target number is the character's Reflex score instead of a property of the opponents. Like Castles and Crusades and D&D 5e, RotPL has saving throws for each attribute. These saving throws are rolled against the relevant attribute minus the adversary's level or hit dice if the attack comes from a creature.

Unlike in many old-school and OSR games, casting a spell requires a roll from the casting character. A cunning folk who wants to cast a spell rolls against their Mind score minus the spell's level. If the roll succeeds, the spell takes effect and the caster loses its cost in spell points. If the roll fails, the spell fizzles and the caster loses half its cost in spell points. If the spell was of a higher level than the caster (yes, casting such spells is an option in this game), there's a chance of something bad happening on a failed roll. Spells of the same level can also cost a different number of points to cast, allowing some balance between strong and weak spells of the same level.

Other Combat Rules

The rules as written for the length of rounds are confusing and imply that rounds can have different lengths based on the number of combatants. I would suggest using standard six-second rounds instead.

The rules for movement and combat ranges echo 13th Age and the Cypher System, with three ranges: close (<5 feet), near (5-25 feet), and far (>25 feet). A character can move one range step per turn (for example, far to near), though the rules don't specify whether or not the character can also attack that turn. If you are using a grid, a character can move 20 feet per turn.

Armor works differently than in other OSR games. Instead of making you harder to hit, armor absorbs a certain amount of damage. This is not the amount it absorbs per round, but the total amount of damage it can absorb. Regaining armor points takes an hour of rest, presumably spent repairing the armor and shields. And the number of armor points mundane equipment gives you is in the single digits. Thus, low-level combat looks deadlier in RotPL than in most OSR games, and magic items that grant extra armor points are incredibly valuable.

Overall Impression

Romance of the Perilous Land is an ambitious game. Its goals make it my kind of OSR product: one that tries not just to clone an old ruleset, but to redefine old rules for new kinds of settings with different default assumptions.

Overall, there is a lot of promise in this game. It offers the possibility of exploring a lower-magic world than that offered by standard D&D (particularly from 3rd Edition on). It would take quite a bit of houseruling to make it fit Middle Earth, but it could probably be done. However, the system's greatest potential lies in allowing GMs to create fantasy settings without fireball-slinging wizards while still using a relatively simple ruleset. 

There are also elements that could be mined for use in other games. With a little tweaking, many of this game's classes could be used as OSR low-magic versions of AD&D standards like the ranger and bard. The magic system could probably be adapted for other OSR games, and well-thought-out point values could correct for the fact that sleep is so much more powerful than magic missile at low levels in standard D&D-like games.

The major weaknesses of this product are the ambiguity of some rules and the relative lack of GM guidance on creating adventures.

The very first version of D&D suffered from similar rules ambiguities. These were probably caused by a combination of the novelty of the RPG genre, Gary Gygax burning a lot of midnight oil while writing the rules, and Gygax assuming that he was writing for seasoned wargamers who shared certain understandings and conventions of gaming with him. I worry that one of the flaws of the OSR is a tendency to fetishize ambiguity as a feature, not a bug, with the idea that the rules don't have to be clear because everybody's free to change them or make up their own. I'm not sure if RotPL's ambiguities come from deadline pressure or from the latter cause, but a GM has to put in some work determining what interpretation of the rules works best for his or her game.

While the book includes material about the default setting and a lot of text about what makes an RotPL campaign different from a standard fantasy RPG campaign, there's not much material about how to design adventures around these assumptions. If the PCs aren't going to find a lot of magical treasure, how do they become invested in the adventure? How rare should magic items be? Should the PCs find a magic sword once every 5-6 adventures, or only once in the whole campaign? These questions can be easily answered by GMs who are used to more narrative-based campaigns, but what about those who have eaten, slept, and breathed the traditional dungeon crawl for years (probably a substantial part of the target audience)? Those GMs may need a helping hand.

Despite these reservations, I still find Romance of the Perilous Land well worth downloading, especially at the PWYW price. For GMs willing to put extra thought into designing adventures and making the rules work for their group and game, it offers a different kind of fantasy game than what many of us are used to and perhaps bored with.