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.
Simon Washbourne, who puts his material out under the Beyond Belief Games name, might be mostly known for Barbarians of Lemuria (which has an original system), but he has a fine sideline in Dungeons & Dragons reskins. I’ve previously reviewed Woodland Warriors, his Swords & Wizardry-powered take on Redwall; some time after producing that line, Washbourne seems to have found himself bitten by the Swords & Wizardry bug again, leading to the creation of a triptych of games all coming out in June of that year.
(It didn’t stop there – in August Washbourne would put out Stone & Wood, an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry to the setting of the Thomas Covenant books following in the footsteps of his D20 take on the setting, Chronicles of the Land. But whilst, like the three games reviewed here, Stone & Wood was released as a free PDF, Washbourne has wisely not tried to actually sell hard copies of his Stephen Donaldson-inspired fan works, whereas these three games have printed copies available via lulu.com).
Each of these games combined some handy innovations over baseline Swords & Wizardry with features unique to the game in question in order to adapt it to a genre distinct from standard D&D fantasy. As such, it’s worth taking a look at each to see what they have to offer.
Simon Washbourne’s one-man small press operation Beyond Belief Games seems to have a knack for putting out fun little niche RPGs which adapt Dungeons & Dragons to interesting new purposes. Take, for instance, Woodland Warriors, an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry (so effectively “0th Edition” D&D with 3E-style saving throws and ascending AC) to cater to a gentler, cuddlier style of fantasy inspired by the likes of Redwall and Duncton Wood.
The game comes with a default setting, the Alder Vale, centred on Stonewell Abbey, an institution founded by Abbess Ariella, a legendary adventurer of the past (she presumably hit domain level and retired). As you might expect from a Redwall-style game, the Abbey is inhabited by mildly anthropomorphised animals (incidentally, kudos to artist Darrel Miller for making the animal art look anthropomorphic without looking typically “furry”). Alignment is mostly arranged along species lines: you have the Kind, who like to co-operate, and whose communities are served and protected by the Abbey and from whose ranks the player characters are drawn from; you have the Wild, which includes reptiles and insects and most birds and a few of the other mammals – basically, anything which is either unintelligent in this world or which prefers to fend for itself in the wilderness. And then you have Vermin – rats, weasels, and other baddies who co-operate for the purpose of looting, pillaging, bullying and banditry!
So, right there you have a nice, clear assumed mode of play – player characters are Kind working for the Abbey to solve problems and protect their communities against the Vermin and the more aggressive members of the Wild, and when you hit a certain level you go do the domain management thing and set up your own community. (The default setting nicely signposts this, in fact, by having a second Abbey nearby founded by an adventurer from Stonewell Abbey.) The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is a nice example of the interesting stuff you can do with pre-Advanced D&D‘s three-alignment system if you come up with a rationale for it and follow through the consequences of that. But how’s the system?
Actually, not that bad! The main work Washbourne undertakes is in adapting OD&D/Swords & Wizardry so that it runs exclusively on six-sided dice. Saving throws can fairly easily be switched to D6-based target numbers, of course, but a little bit more finesse is demanded with the combat solution and Washbourne’s solution is actually quite elegant. Armour classes run in ascending order from 3 to 8, and each combat round you get to roll a number of D6 equal to your hit dice, with each die beating the AC of the opponent or opponents you are fighting causing a hit. Of course, this means you will need something extra to hit the higher ACs, so you can opt to roll less dice, and each die you forego adds 1 to the roll you get on all of the remaining dice. Naturally, fightery, tanky types get new hit dice at a faster rate when levelling compared to fragile wizardy types (a full hit die every other level, with a simple bonus at the in-between levels, which improves hit points but has no relevance to your combat rolls, is the fastest hit die progression), so right there you have an elegant way to spice up fighters, handle multiple attacks and combat against multiple opponents, and interesting choices in combat between making more attacks with an inferior chance to hit and making less attacks but hitting more reliably.
Nicely, Warriors (the fighter equivalent class) are also given odds of pulling off warrior stunts in combat – feats of physical prowess that don’t involve doing direct damage, like grappling an opponent or shoving them prone. Of course, arguably all PCs should have a chance to accomplish such stuff, but making the option explicit here and giving odds for warriors to accomplish this stuff does have the nice effect that in combat players of other classes are likely to hunker down and concentrate on playing to the strengths of their class, whilst warriors are more flexible in combat and can either go in for the kill or pull some other stunt, which I think is arguably how you want it to go if you want to have a class whose specific forte is being trained to get shit done in a combat situation. Another combat tweak is that when they hit 0 HP PCs do not die automatically – instead you have to make a Fortitude save to remain conscious, and if you go into negative hit points on the next round you have to roll on a table to see the consequences, of which death is one option and unconsciousness is very likely. This helps make the game a little friendlier than by-the-book OD&D without detoothing it.
Whilst it does not have a full blown skill system, Woodland Warriors does give all PCs ratings in Notice, Lore and Persuade, which behave like saving throws in that you get a target number to roll based on your attributes, class and level. This gives a nice, elegant way of adjudicating spotting hidden stuff, knowing obscure facts and winning over strangers (though the referee is encouraged to either dispense with the roll or provide bonuses if they already think the NPC would be particularly receptive or hostile to the suggestion in question) which differentiates characters without locking anyone out of those capabilities and would make a neat addition to other editions and variants of TSR-era no-skills D&D.
The classes on offer are all cutesy woodland takes on the standard D&D stuff; notably, full blown rogues are an NPC class for Vermin, though the PC Scout class covers a lot of the territory you’d want a thief class to cover with the difference that Scouts don’t do lockpicking, disguise, or sleight of hand/pickpocketing and are slightly better at handling traps, whilst Scouts move faster than Rogues and have a tracking ability (so a Rogue could probably steal a Scout’s purse, but might have trouble getting away after the fact). Races are, naturally, swapped out for various species of snuggly animal, with the PC choices being Badgers and Moles (who both make good Warriors), Hedgehogs (reasonable Warriors and Friars), Mice (who make the best Scouts) and Squirrels (who can turn their hand to more or less anything). Levels run from 1 to 6, which is enough to make the higher grades of PC and NPC interestingly powerful without getting overwhelming.
Woodland Warriors is presented as an RPG for children and adults alike, and I think it broadly succeeds. Certainly, the rules are presented clearly enough that any child capable of handling them and motivated to try to run a game from the book, and the choice of subject matter is apt – I remember the Redwall stuff being a big deal amongst older primary school and younger secondary school kids when I was growing up, which is about the age when an interest in RPGs often develops. In addition, even though I never read the Redwall stuff myself, Woodland Warriors presents this balance of perilous adventure and inoffensive coziness which is really endearing and I could definitely see myself running or playing this. (If you are a Redwall fan, this game is more or less perfect for you unless you absolutely hate class/level systems.)
The core book is rounded off with a sample adventure and a very brief rundown of the Alder Vale setting with some adventure seeds. For those who want a somewhat meatier setting, Greyrock Isle is a short and sweet supplement providing a few new rules (Hare and Otter PCs and two new classes Talespinners, who are kind of like Bards, and Wayfarers, who are kind of like Monks), but whose main attraction is its detailing of the titular island, an offshore settlement of Kind recently overrun by a band of Vermin led by the villainous wolverine Vorstang, who has overthrown the legitimate ruler (the otter Lord Redmantle) and set himself up as self-proclaimed Lord of Greyrock. Suggestions are provided on how to get the PCs involved, whether they start out as residents of Greyrock or visit the island in the course of an ongoing campaign. The primary assumption is that the PCs are going to work towards ousting Vorstang in some fashion, with a local band of outlaws led by the hedgehog Warburton (Lord Redmantle’s constable before the invasion) being an obvious group of allies (or local PCs), but other than this it’s explicitly presented as a sandbox, with the major locations on the island and the effect the occupation has had on them detailed and adventure seeds and suggestions scattered about. It’s another bare-bones setting, but it’s a nice example of how to present a sandbox setting in a format decidedly different from the “hex crawl” format beloved of the OSR, and also an example of how a sandbox doesn’t have to be static and doesn’t even have to lack an obvious campaign premise – it just can’t dictate where the action goes once the PCs show up.
The Out West supplement is a somewhat meatier prospect, since it deals with a sharply divergent genre – namely, it adapts Woodland Warriors to cater to a Western setting where magic, whilst fading from the world, is still very much an active force. Player characters are assumed to be Drifters who wander from town to town righting wrongs before settling down should they survive to 6th level. Distinctly American varieties of PC Kind – Raccoons and Prairie Dogs – are offered, as are rules for guns (and how armour class is reduced against them), and the classes get a comprehensive rewrite to better fit the Wild West (so your cleric equivalent is now a wandering Preacher). The Kind/Wild/Vermin split is maintained for some good old fashioned white hat/black hat action, and in perhaps my favourite setting tweak the Vermin are now referred to as Varmints. There’s also a nice sample setting plus some sparse but evocative background details suggesting how the Abbeys have evolved and come to the New World since the medieval era of the default setting.
Westerns are a tricky genre to handle because whilst many details of a medieval setting aren’t really reflected in the modern world – there isn’t exactly much Saxon-vs-Norman strife in England these days, for instance – the American West is close enough to our time that many injustices of the time seem much more immediate, especially considering how Westerns were prominently used in the first half of the twentieth century to teach and reinforce traditional values modern players may be uncomfortable with. Here I raised an eye at prairie dogs being presented as Native American analogues, because animals weren’t really mapped to real world ethnicities or social classes in the default setting (the Kind/Vermin split not really matching any specific medieval cultural divide since, of course, bandits and loyal subjects sprang from the same stock back in the day). Elsewhere in the book though it is made clear that the New World was home to a diverse range of Kind and Wild and Varmints, so the game doesn’t seem to be deliberately out to homogenise Native American cultures, though since only Prairie Dogs are consistently portrayed as mapping to those cultures whilst Raccoons aren’t it’s still a little problematic.
At the same time, it specifically says that the Kind of Old and New Worlds were allies and friends from the start, which I guess means we are going with an idealised Old West where the cute fuzzy animals are respecting each other and co-operating in a way which shames the actual human track record on these counts. On the one hand, this makes sense since the default setting is an idealised medieval idyll, but on the other hand whilst I don’t know many people who get deeply upset about the Harrowing of the North or are directly disadvantaged by it there are plenty of people today who (with all the justification in the world) regard the colonisation of the American West as genocide and there are people who are enduring hard circumstances which were directly caused by that process. That doesn’t mean I want to ban Westerns as such, but it does mean that I personally have qualms about Westerns which sugarcoat or outright ignore these issues. That goes double when those Westerns are pitched as being suitable for children, because your early exposure to and exploration of a historical period (even through the lens of fiction) will often strongly influence your subsequent ideas about it. I am reasonably sure that most adult readers who do not have some ideological commitment to the myth of the Old West can recognise that this is a much cleaner take on the period than real history suggests. For kids, the supplement could really do with a caveat to note that it deals with a contentious bit of history in a sanitised fashion, and encouraging reading around the subject if they want to learn more about it. With this in mind, though, the supplement does at least do a successful job of presenting an OD&D-ish implementation of the Western genre, and the idea of playing a Raccoon gunslinger taking on a mean gang of ratty desperadoes does have a certain appeal.
By far the meatiest supplement is At Sea, presenting a pirate-themed alternate setting, decent ship-to-ship combat rules, notes on positions on pirate ships and how you obtain and keep hold of them, and – perhaps most significantly – rules for playing Vermin. After all, banditry on the high seas isn’t very Kind, so the default assumption is that you are playing crew members on a mean, Vermin-infested pirate ship. (It is a shame that doggies have not been featured much in Woodland Warriors to this point – possibly due to their domesticated status – because this supplement cries out for crews of mangy hounds suffering from Vitamin C deficiency…)
Naturally, as well as a range of Vermin types (Foxes, Rats, Shrews, Snakes, Stoats and Weasels), there’s the usual reskinning of classes to suit the setting better. There’s a neat necromancer class that could be useful for creating adversaries in the Woodland Warriors default setting, but the real prize here is the Sawbones class – capable of rescuing fellow PCs from death through the brutal, rusty, anaesthetic-free medium of shipboard surgery. With the slightly more fatal death rules, PCs can expect to sooner or later lose a limb or two to the sawbones’ attention, particularly since you don’t need to be down at 0 HP to be at risk – if you are wounded and fail your recovery-over-time rolls three times in a row, the wound goes gangrenous, and it’s amputation or death! How can you not love that?
The Woodland Warriors Complete book (available via Lulu) gathers together the core book and all the supplements in a single handy A5 volume. There was talk of an In Space supplement coming out at some point, but this seems to have gone on the back burner. As it stands, Woodland Warriors is one of the most endearing RPGs I’ve ever seen on its own merits, as well as being a neat model for handling talking animal characters for those who want to add a dose of whimsy to their Dungeons & Dragons game worlds – certainly, I personally haven’t actually ruled against subcultures of intelligent talking animals existing in my own D&D setting…