There are some in-depth reviews of the content out there on the net, so I’m not aiming to give the game yet another of those, but I will say three things:
- I really like the interior art. It’s by Rich Longmore. It’s great! No, seriously, go check out the art: he’s posted it on his blog, and it’s worth a look. While the art is pretty minimal in this gamebook, it’s all good.
- While Dungeon World attempted to create a Powered by the Apocalypse game that could be used to run D&D-like adventures (with more authorial power in the players’ hands, like in Apocalypse World), I feel like this is the earliest example I’ve seen of someone attempting to apply lessons from the Apocalypse Engine to OSR game design. Yes, there have been later examples—Vagabonds of Dyfed being a big one—but to me, this one stands out as an interesting case. There’s two places where this is apparent. The first is in the character class design. This is an OSR game without a spell list, or, rather, where spellcasting has been PbtA-ified: spellcasters don’t have some list of spells to choose from, but rather select magical powers from a list of options, and gain more when they level up. Some of the powers are more strictly defined, while others are more open-ended, but they all feel like Apocalypse World “moves” and they all tied to a resource that needs to be managed. This is also true of other character classes: the Mercenary gets what would be “feats” in (for example) Pathfinder or 5e; the Rogue gains limited access to special rogue abilities, and they go beyond climbing walls and picking pockets, to include things like mimicking a person, poison-crafting, and playing dirty tricks on opponents. There are also cool unique classes: both the spellcasters (Mystics and Seers) are unlike most things one sees in OSR games, with no spell list and only a limited number of “spells” that they use to like PbtA moves, and The Desert Farer is a cool character class reminiscent of the “fremen” people in Frank Herbert’s Dune. There’s even a Courtesan class, which is for characters who are entertainers, negotiators, and potentially quite magically powerful: they’re sort of the “bard” of the game. All of these classes have what would, in an Apocalypse World game, be considered “moves.”The other place where I see a clear trace of PbtA influence is in the GM advice contained in the Referee’s Section at the back of the book. It’s not necessarily the advice itself, but the way it’s laid out: it takes up a full two-page spread, with each bit of advice followed by a brief paragraph summing up the GM’s task, and a recommended way of achieving it.
- Although the booklet contains tables that use all kinds of dice (d8, d12, d66) the player-facing part of the system relies pretty heavily on 2d6 rolls, which still using stats in a way that feels specifically old school. (For those who don’t know, Apocalypse Powered games often use a “2d6+modifiers” approach to action resolution.) I was surprised just how well it seems to bridge old-school and PbtA systems.
The system clearly isn’t perfect: there were elements where I found myself uncertain about how ranking in character class and caste ranking were supposed to work in-game, for example, and unless one is really with the ancient Mesopotamian setting, one could perhaps struggle to summon up the kind of post-deluge adventure setting that the authors so tantalizingly hint at in the text. (The latter problem may, perhaps, have been solved with the support materials available on the game’s website or in the numerous supplements available too (print editions at Lulu.com), but in my situation, with only a copy of the core rules, I find I’m at a loss for exactly how to stage a game that would end up being anything other than a lightly reskinned swords-and-sandals OSR thing.)
Still, this is my first close reading of any game that seems to be trying to merge OSR and PbtA systems with a skew toward OSR mechanics (as opposed to Dungeon World, which I’m also currently read, and which skews heavily toward PbtA mechanics and systems). As such, I found it really interesting, and it made me more curious to see what awaits me in the second-hand copies of the Vagabonds of Dyfed books I have coming sometime in the next month or two—that being a more filled-out and thorough OSR/PbtA hybrid.