Washbourne’s Brands of Sword and Sorcery

Simon Washbourne ranks alongside Kevin Crawford as one of the best one-man-band acts in traditional RPG design these days, turning out fun little RPGs based around strong concepts with interesting mechanics tending towards the rules-light end of the spectrum. I’ve previously looked at his Woodland Warriors line and other games he has written derived from Swords & Wizardry/OD&D; this time I am going to look at two games at different ends of his CV, each of which provides a distinctive look at a particular flavour of the sword & sorcery fantasy subgenre. The first, Barbarians of Lemuria, is arguably the game that put Washbourne on the map, a free version having come out in 2004 before being expanded into various later editions, whilst Crimson Blades is a more recent effort which builds on the tweaks he made to OD&D when producing Woodland Warriors.

Barbarians of Lemuria

I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not too keen on Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories; his particular fringe racial theories, whilst occasionally easy to miss on a casual read, are really glaringly obvious once you’re aware of them and kind of spoil things. Still, there’s something distinctive and evocative about the sword and sorcery genre that Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stuff inspired, and I have much more time for the more interesting writers inspired by Howard and Burroughs like Leigh Brackett or Karl Edward Wagner. (Plus I love me some cheesy barbarian movies.)

So, I didn’t get down with the recent Kickstarter for a new Conan RPG, partly because I am not very keen on the source material and partly because I kind of think Simon Washbourne has already turned out the definitive RPG of thewful barbarians and sweaty warrior-women stepping out of the bounds of a Frank Franzetta painting to crush thrones under their sandalled feet. It’s got a nice, simple system based on splitting points between a set of four universal character attributes (usable in most situations), four combat characteristics (used in combat), and a set of four careers chosen by the player (used mainly in non-combat situations, with some exceptions). The “four careers” thing is a clever way of working in the point that class-based systems often miss, which is that sword & sorcery heroes regularly turn out to have tried their hand at a bunch of professions earlier in their career. Even having a career at 0 (as opposed to not having the career as one of your four picks at all) has an impact because it means you have the basic competences expected of someone who has taken on that profession.

Careers and national origins yield ideas for boons and flaws you can use, providing a game mechanic which resembles (but predates by some way, and may even be the origin of) something like the whole advantage/disadvantage thing in D&D: whereas usually you roll 2D6 for task resolution, if you have an applicable boon you get to roll 3D6 and drop the lowest and if one of your flaws comes into play you roll 3D6 and drop the highest. It’s simple, elegant, seems to be tonally consistent with the style of such sword and sorcery materials, and the latest version (the Mythic Edition, fruit of a successful Kickstarter) includes a bunch of basic setting material, adventure ideas, monsters, sample villains and adventurers, and even a nice random adventure generator.

In the course of the book Washbourne demonstrates a deep understanding of the genre’s conventions and presents them clearly. In some aspects this can veer close to accepting the old-timey sexism exhibited by many of the genre’s writers (lots of muscly powerful men fighting over curvy eye candy ladies), but little features like pointing out that things like the “Temptress” career can be taken by men if you want to (Washbourne suggests “Lothario” as an alternative term, which I’m not sure entirely translates to the same thing) helps highlight how you can repurpose the genre accordingly, and the art does at least show men and women in a similarly varied levels of dress and undress. (There are not many sexualised men, but there are at least some women who are presented as being active and powerful in a non-sexualised way rather than overtly sexualised.)

There’s an extent to which you can’t altogether walk away from the baggage of this particular subgenre, but in some respects I think it would be more problematic to deny the existence of said baggage altogether, and provided everyone involved in a Barbarians of Lemuria game is on the same page as to what aesthetic they are going for it’s all good fun. There’s a place in the ecosystem where everyone is wearing kind of fetishised not-really-clothing into battle and is sweaty and strong and wrestles snakes, and Barbarians has that style of sword of sorcery down nicely.

Crimson Blades

Whereas Barbarians of Lemuria is primarily inspired by Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and their closer imitators, Crimsom Blades takes its inspiration from Michael Moorcock – specifically, the dark and wild take on the genre expressed in his better Elric stories and captured by Chaosium in the Stormbringer RPG, whose summoning mechanics inspired the rules for summoning elementals, demons and the undead here. In terms of the system, this represents a substantial embellishment of the system Washbourne developed for Woodland Warriors – it’s a highly mutated take on OD&D via Swords & Wizardry, with the system substantially amended so as to only use D6s.

A particularly welcome development is the way Washbourne is able to add a bit of flexibility to the character classes without undermining their distinctive character: rather than having a class’s distinctive powers each follow their own individual progression level-by-level without variation, instead a subset of class powers are designated as having a variable level of power depending on whether you assign them a primary, secondary, or tertiary level of priority. This seems to be a nice compromise between the certainty offered by early D&D class design (where you could be fairly sure of what each character of a particular class could do at a particular level) and the customisation offered by later versions of D&D, where a PC’s capabilities can be highly build-dependent. Here, you have some degree of customisation, but your character will always have a baseline level of competence in the abilities of their class – it’s just that they will be better at some bits than others.

Between this and the range of classes involved, plus some nice rules for summoning demons, elementals and the undead, this is a nicely-realised game whose setting details show more than a little Moorcock influence (the D, in particular, seem to be Melniboneans with the serial numbers filed off), and which offers enough in the way of setting details and adventure ideas in its brief world overview to make it eminently suitable for spontaneous play. In addition, the Woodland Warriors foundation allows scope for some tasty crossover – it wouldn’t be too hard to work in some races of animal people into the Crimson Blades setting, or to incorporate some demon-summoning action into a Woodland Warriors game.

The currently available version of this is the 2nd edition, which incorporates material from Crimson Lands, the sole supplement. Washbourne originally considered putting this edition out as four booklets in a boxed set, but eventually decided that this would not be viable, and that was probably the right call – this feels more to me like a worthwhile curiosity, rather than a major release meriting some sort of massive deluxe treatment.

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