Sunday, 2 January 2022

[Review] The Heroic Legendarium

If you thought Traveller's cover
was minimalistic...
Now that 2021 is behind us the time has come to talk about my favourite OSR product of the year. There were some damn fine canditates, but in the end it was a seemingly unremarkable book that stole my heart. The Heroic Legendarium looks like a university textbook: it has no kickass cover, no interior illustrations, no super functional modern layout, not even bookmarks. What's inside though shows years of hard work and an unparalelled understanding of one of the hardest nuts of old-school gaming: post-Unearthed Arcana AD&D 1st edition.

Whether because of the disillusion with modern D&D's bloat, the lack of free time, or taking the first zen moment of old school gaming1 too seriously, the majority in the OSR community seems to gravitate towards the various B/X clones and lightweight games. On the fringes though there are still people who love a good deal of complexity, and enjoy stuff like Arduin, HackMaster, RoleMaster, RuneQuest, or AD&D. The latter is a pretty controversial case, because a lot of people are fond of its content, but few appreciate its many nuanced rules. Trent Foster Smith is one of these rare connoisseurs. He is the author of The Mystical Trash Heap blog and the legendary AD&D Companion, which was a collection of AD&D material by Gygax and original ideas inspired by his work. Including Dragon magazine articles and alike can be a legally risky endeavour though, and eventually the AD&D Companion was scrapped to be revamped as The Heroic Legendarium. 

"Rules Modifications and Expansions for use with OSRIC™ and Other Compatible Advanced Adventure Games" - says the description, with a wink. Once you open the book you will realize that this is a white lie: THL is an AD&D supplement through and through. It uses or touches upon almost every obscure bit of AD&D, including all the things most of us never dared to use or gave up even trying to understand2. Like Unearthed Arcana the book is split in two, the first half containing all the new player-side content and the second half focusing on game mastery.

The Players' Section is a grabbag of errata, revisions, and new options. New races include the cat-blooded (non-furry catfolk), dhampirs (non-edgy half-vampires), dragon-blooded (non-scaly half-dragons), and half-ogres (the classic loveable big oafs). Each has its own uniques advantages, disadvantages, restrictions, and even such details are covered as character age and racial preferences. Unlike tabaxi, dragonborn, or tieflings these new races can be easily integrated into more grounded campaigns, because they don't stick out like a sore thumb from the average sword & sorcery city crowd.

The part about classes starts with fixes for druids, cavaliers, barbarians, thief-acrobats, monks, before moving on to the new classes. And what fine classes they are! Mystics are a mix of spiritualists and diviners who always possess psychic abilities3, have a second sight, know astrology, herbalism, and alchemy. Hunters are primitive fighters with a bunch of survival skills. They feel like a mix of rangers and barbarians. Savants are magic-users with sage-like abilities. Their spells largely depend on their chosen fields of expertise - thus they are not unlike specialist wizards from later editions, but with thematic instead of school-based specializations. Mountebanks are charlatans with a strong focus on verbal flimflam and swindling over thievery. They can also cast some degree of magic and brew potions. Bards get a massive overhaul to work as a standalone class available at level 1, though its advancement scheme shows elements of the original AD&D1e bard. The bard also gets the beloved jester as a sub-class, who has a mix of thief, acrobat, mountebank abilities supplemented by pranks and a hint of illusionist magic. None of these classes are original or particularly new. We have seen them in Dragon magazine, Realms of Adventure magazine, or were promised by Gygax for AD&D 2nd edition, and also appear in Adventures Dark and Deep. Nevertheless, these are just as good and valid iterations as the others.

Character creation does not end with choosing race and class though. There are rules for Socio Economic Class (modifies starting money and reaction), Birth Order (only interesting for seventh children), Appearance (a new ability score that replaces Comeliness and alters reactions), Joss Factor (kinda like luck points), Knacks and Quirks (akin to HackMaster's Quirks & Flaws, but far more vague). There is a secondary skills table too with random results for each race. Equipment also gets expanded with more coin types, common items, and weapons - including oriental weapons, boomerang, pole axe, epee, and rapier4. Surprisingly there is no new armour, but I can live with that.

The largest chunk of the Players' Section is of course spells. Mystics, Savants, Mountebanks, and Bards all have their own unique spell lists. Sometimes even spells from the earlier rulebooks are altered slightly to fit the new class thematically better. For example Mystics have Speak With Dead like clerics, but since they are mediums they need a cat's eye agate talisman to cast it instead of a holy symbol. The highlight of the spell list are the bardic songs. While many of them overlap in functionality with older spells, they behave differently because they are songs now with fitting names. For example, bards don't cast Sleep, they sing the Drowsiness Lullaby.

Psychic talents also get some much needed revision and clarification, followed by Focused Energy Activation Teachniques5 - a grabbag of wushu and cinematic moves that must be learned through special training6 and can be used only by spending Joss Factor on them. There are multiple levels of FEATs, from minor techniques like Blind Fighting, through moderate techniques like Weapon-breaking Strike, to major techniques like Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

It's for OSRIC. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

The Players' Section ends with an essay titled Habits of Highly Effective Players, an expansion to Successful Players from the original Player's Handbook. It is broken up into six parts and covers such important topics like thinking outside the rules, the importance of taking smart action over being overly cautious, and setting your own goals. It is well worth reading even if its advice feels trivial after years of gaming.

The Game Master's Section is fucking dense. It starts with a thorough explanation of handling wilderness exploration and planar adventures. Combat gets some love too, first in form of some additional rules for certain situations (reach advantage, speed factor of natural weapons, using shields against missiles, etc.), followed by a clarified and simplified overview of the initiative system. Yes, with fucking segments and speed factors. I still prefer HackMaster's system over this one, but damn, it actually feels playable!

After all the crunchy rules THL delivers a hefty chapter of GM advice. Honestly, after all the crunch it was kind of a relief reading these. Even if they don't say anything new or ground breaking after a couple of years of running games, they are well worth reading, for they cover a wide variety of topics from world building, through rational dungeon design, to common establishments in medieval settlements. Speaking of settlements, the book does not get bogged down with your usual dungeon, hex, and city crawling, but turns things up to eleven by devoting an entire mini game to domain management! And it isn't just building shit and conquering hexes - there are guidelines for marriage, siring offsprings, diplomatic relations, handling indigineous people, and so on. It is pretty vague, leaving the fine details usually in the DM's hand, which can be seen both as an issue, or a feature. Finally, just like there was advice for successful players, DM's get some best practices too, plus a bit about handling inter-party conflicts.

The section ends with treasures and monsters, as expected. There are new treasure tables for dungeon levels, and some sweet magic items, like a magical dreamcatcher, a knife that can tear a portal between prime material planes, the puzzle box from Hellraiser, or a rather powerful clock that can mess with time. Good stuff. Monsters start with revision of AC, damage, hit points, psychic abilities, etc. before moving on to the interesting part, the new creatures. I might have been tired at this point, or it might be because I have read a metric shitton of bestiaries already, but this was the least interesting part of the book for me. It's a grabbag of all kinds of creatures, and I can't recall any that I haven't seen before in some form or another. There are oriental monsters, more demons, fantasy gypsies, semi-elementals, thouls, and so on. It's not a bad collection by all means, it just felt haphazard.

Surprisingly there is only one appendix, which is a new list of inspirational reading. I expected to see a collection of the various charts, short monster stats, and maybe some new random encounter tables.

Reading THL was joy, mostly because how closely it felt to reading my original AD&D books. The writing has a gygaxian baroque flair. It feels natural and is entertaining, though sometimes hard to grasp. It is an immensely inspiring supplement. It got me in the mood of running AD&D again, it made me want to use some of its content, and motivated me to take off my AD&D books from the shelves to read them again cover to cover. And that was enough to be forgiving about layout and design when scoring the product7. The AD&D Companion is dead, long live The Heroic Legendarium!


Rules system: AD&D1e / OSRIC,
Publisher: Storm Fetish Productions
Publication date: 2021

Format: pdf, hardcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 156

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf, print on demand)
89%
The minimalistic design hides
unadulterated first edition feel.

1 See "Rulings, Not Rules" in Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

2 Thinking of reading ADDICT again alone makes my head hurt.

3 "Note that the term “Psychic” is used in place of “Psionic” throughout this work, as the use of the latter in Original Edition games is actually a misnomer and that term is properly applied only to the combination of psychic talents or phenomena with electronic devices, such as a machine powered by psychic energy." - The Heroic Legendarium, pg. 76.

4 I'm still baffled why AD&D1e had such a short and simplified list for swords while having an abundance of polearms. If there is an article about it I missed, please drop me a link in the comment section below.

5 It is only during the writing of this blogpost I realized that the abbreviation for it is FEAT. Smooth.

6 Which is eerily similar to DCC RPG's "Quest For It!" mantra that I keep parroting in my old-school campaigns too ever since I fell in love with the game.

7 If it gets a revision with art, I will definitely get back to it and update the score.

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4 comments:

  1. Thanks for the detailed review - I'm glad you found enough to like in this book to be willing to take the time to read and digest and comment on the whole thing. Almost every other response I've gotten has been short and vague, leading me to suspect they flipped through it, thought "this looks like good stuff," but not much more. I appreciate the support from those folks but it's nice to see the reactions of someone who's really studied the thing in depth.

    You're right that most of the stuff in the book has been seen before in other games or products by other authors. Part of that is intentional - one of the purposes of the book (beyond just collecting all of the house-rules that have been hanging out on my hard-drive) is to "catch up" 1E to everything that's happened in the 35 years since UA was released: archetypes and monsters and game-play modes and techniques that have come up in that time that (at least IMO) fit - or could be made to fit - within the AD&D paradigm, including my tweaks of things that other people have already implemented for 1E in not-so-good ways. Even the essays were largely intended as summaries of the "conventional wisdom" that's grown up over the past couple decades of forum and blog discourse - old hat to those of us who read and participated in these discussions as they were happening but hopefully interesting and useful to those who didn't.

    The original intent was to release this with illustrations and professional-quality graphics but after a year+ of fruitless attempts to get that done (I can't do it myself and decided against buying a bunch of off-the-shelf clip art) I was getting antsy and frustrated and decided I'd rather release it this way than potentially have it continue to sit on the shelf for another year or two. On a personal note, my mother was very ill and it felt important to me to get this out and let her see it before she passed, which I managed to do but just barely (the book was released in May, she went into hospital in June and passed in July). A "deluxe illustrated edition" is still planned - the same words but with illustrations and (hopefully) updated graphics and layout - but there's still no timeline for that - I've met with a couple artists who've said they're interested in contributing but haven't actually received any submissions.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. "Almost every other response I've gotten has been short and vague, leading me to suspect they flipped through it, thought "this looks like good stuff," but not much more."

      Most rpg reviews feel like first impressions after flipping through. I have a hunch is the result of the community being flooded with products while bloggers and reviewers are trying to remain relevant by constantly posting about their shiny new things.

      "one of the purposes of the book (beyond just collecting all of the house-rules that have been hanging out on my hard-drive) is to "catch up" 1E to everything that's happened in the 35 years since UA was released"

      And I think you totally nailed that. Am I right with saying there are even some hints of Mythus in there?

      "A "deluxe illustrated edition" is still planned"

      I'm glad to hear an update is in sight! My solution for my pet project now is using public domain art as a placeholder until I have something better. Are you planning to pay for art from your pockets, or through crowd funding?

      "On a personal note, my mother was very ill and it felt important to me to get this out and let her see it before she passed, which I managed to do but just barely (the book was released in May, she went into hospital in June and passed in July)."

      I'm sorry for your loss, Trent.

      Delete
  2. [Mythus] Yeah, there's actually a LOT of Mythus in there - joss, knaxcks & quirks, the "7th child" table, most of the new weapons, the bard spellsongs, some of the mystic and savant spells, the filmflam and prank abilities of mountebanks and jesters, and probably a couple other minor things I'm forgetting. I'm one of about 3 people in the world who actually liked Mythus - it felt to me like there was a new edition of AD&D that was better than TSR's 2E hidden inside it, buried under all the needless complexity and opaque new jargon, and I wanted to bring as much of the good stuff from it back to AD&D as I could, while leaving the bad stuff behind. There's also plenty of stuff that was adapted/derived from other sources, but almost certainly more from Mythus than any other single source.

    [Crowdfunding] We'll see. I'd like to fund the deluxe edition traditionally, paying out of pocket up front and/or giving out shares of the royalties, but if I end up with a lot of potential art submissions and the artists want more for them then I can cover on my own, I've also got a couple friends who have run successful Kickstarters whose expertise I might have to lean on. I hope I don't have to do that, though, since it seems like a lot of added stress and anxiety and I've witnessed way too many folks bungle it and shatter their dreams and reputations.

    [My mom] Thanks

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    1. [Mythus]

      Hah, I knew it! Mythus is an underappreciated gem, though I understand why... I can't read the core book without taking a few weeks long break here and there - it is too dense and the learning curve is so steep! Yet I still like a lot about it and would be happy to give it a shot sometime. Mythus Prime actually feels like a damn fine, playable, and flexible game. It's the advanced rules where things become really complicated really fast.

      [Crowdfunding]

      Sound plan. Play it safe, no need to burn out.

      Delete