Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Barbarians Of Lemuria RPG: Old-School Swords & Sorcery

There was a definite old-school theme to the Christmas presents I received this year. Along with copies of Car Wars (the boxed set), Labyrinth Lord, and Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, Santa gave me a copy of the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG.

Having finally read the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG, I have to agree with the other old-school fans of BoL: this is both a well-executed Swords & Sorcery RPG, and fits very nicely within the old-school movement.

The BoL RPG itself is roughly 100 pages. BoL is loosely based on Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria series (hence BoL’s title), although the author of the BoL, Simon Washbourne, also credits Howard, Leiber, Jakes, Moorcock and C.A. Smith as strong influences.

The color cover and much of the interior B&W artwork is by John Grumph. John Grumph has a bold artistic style, which is in fitting with the swords & sorcery theme of this game.

As is to be expected, the assumed setting for BoL is derivative of the swords & sorcery genre, with references to sorcerer-kings, the release of dark gods, earth-shattering calamities, mysterious and fickle gods, trackless deserts, steamy jungles, legendary swords, black sorcery, decaying remnants of ancient civilizations, and so on. All very appropriate, for a swords & sorcery rpg. But while the game-mechanics are not fatally dependent on the assumed setting, a handful of those mechanics (boons and flaws) are tied to some specific setting-locales. Therefore, minor tweaking will be required to re-flavour those locale-based boons and flaws to your own campaign.

The character creation system is unique: instead of character classes or skill-lists, players pick four careers (from a list of 26) that their characters followed prior to the beginning of the game. Even more unusual, there are no skill-lists for any of those careers: while the rules make certain skill-suggestions, the game-master and the players will negotiate, during play, as to whether their characters can perform certain actions, based on what careers (and the related level) those characters possess. There is, of course, an action-resolution mechanic (getting a 9+ on 2d6, after the application of any bonuses), for those actions that have some uncertainty attached to them.

In addition to the career paths, characters can also obtain boons and flaws, prior to, and during play. The boons are such things as tracking, sea-legs, and immunity to disease, while the flaws include all-thumbs, country bumpkin and fear of fire. That boons and flaws system is similar to the edges and hindrances system of Savage Worlds, which may explain why the Legends of Steel RPG has been implemented for both Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria.

Combat in BoL uses the same mechanic as action-resolution: a 9+ on 2d6, after modifiers, results in a hit. Instead of Hit Points, BoL uses Life Blood. All but a few weapons do d6 damage, with minor adjustments. There are four combat skills (unarmed, melee, ranged, and defence), and those combat skills can be used to modify the combat roll.

I really like the magic system of BoL. Any character that has Sorcerer as one of their careers begins with 10 spell-points, plus their sorcerer career level. Instead of a list of spells, sorcerers can create any magical effect they want, as long as they can afford the spell-points, and possess the related casting requirements. For most cantrips and easy spells, sorcerers must spend anywhere from 1 to 5 spell-points. For more difficult spells, up to 15 spell-points are required. For example, conjuring up a simple item, like a rope, might cost one or two spell points, as might casting a spell to allow the sorcerer to walk past a guard unnoticed. Again, no spell-lists: the game-master and the player negotiate how difficult the proposed spell-effect is, and then the player would need to have enough spell-points to create the effect.

Priestly magic works a little differently. Rather than casting spells, priests can use fate points (which they earn by performing in-game religious rites and activities) to cast temporary blessings or curses, mimicking the effects of boons and flaws. Of course, priests can also be sorcerers, so they could have both fate points and spell-points.

In addition to all of the above, BoL implements a Hero Points system. Again, this is similar to the “Bennies” system in Savage Worlds. Every character starts with 5 hero points, and can use the hero points to modify a roll, re-attempt a failed action or combat roll, add an additional element to the story in their favor, or otherwise avoid some unpleasant fate. Hero points can also be used to kill multiple opponents, when the opponents are your basic mooks or rabble.

Overall, I am very impressed with Barbarians of Lemuria RPG. It feels like a solid implementation of the swords & sorcery genre in an RPG. There are certain things about the assumed-setting that I would toss if I were game-mastering BoL (flying ships, blue-skinned ceruleans, druids as demon-worshippers), and the employment of only 4 attributes (Strength, Agility, Mind and Appeal) instead of the standard six takes some getting used to, but there is otherwise so much to appreciate with this game that those complaints are minor, and those less-appealing game elements are easily jettisoned.

I am curious to hear other reactions to Barbarians of Lemuria, along with recommendations on any other good sword & sorcery RPGs that are worth taking a look at.


Timeshadows said...

I found it interesting (the free edition), but don't foresee playing it any time soon.
--I've not read the fiction its name is derived from, but found the setting campily fun.

Too bad you don't dig on flying ships.

Jay said...

I haven't played it but I've been wanting to check it out for some time. Thanks for the review--I think the magic system sounds very intriguing!

Narmer said...

Nice overview. As I've said elsewhere I'm not a huge fan of the setting either. Although I've read the rules several times I keep forgetting about the flying ships. Maybe I'm subconciously editing them out. For some reason I don't like the lack of horses either. I want horses! It doesn't seem quite as heroic to ride off into the sunset on an ostrich.

Aaron E. Steele said...

@Timeshadows: I actually dig flying ships, and loved the Spelljammer setting. Just not a fan of this particular implementation, for a swords & sorcery game. Airships are a feature in the sword & planet genre, and it makes more sense for them to appear in those kinds of games.

@Jay: this is exactly the kind of magic system I would want to employ for D&D. I would prefer a more free-wheeling magic system, with no set spell lists, and bound to a finite amount of magic before the sorcerer needs to "recharge".

@Narmer: yes, this game needs horses, horses are a staple of sword & sorcery. And snakes. Lots and lots of snakes!

Timeshadows said...

Fair enough. ;)

I, too, favour free-form spell systems, and hope to simplify previous versions of mine for inclusion in UWoM.
--I'll have to look at the BoL method again.

Best to you in 2010. :D

Matthew Slepin said...

Warning: longish post.

I recommended the free version of BoL for years, but only when Simon started charging money does this game get the recognition it derserves. :)

Re the setting: the thing is that Carter's Lemuria was explicitly a mashup of Howard's Hyborian Age and Burrough's Barsoom. Thus the flying ships and the giant, funny-coloured nomads and the lack of mammals.

But really it takes less than a thought to make it more terrestrial. And it has women-headed snakes already. :)

Re the magic: in very good ways, it reminds me of John Harper's system for Talislanta's 4th edition, in which the magician is assumed to known hundreds of spells and just builds them on the spot. But BoL's system is much, much lighter.

Re other systems:I think there are lots of good S&S systems out there, from classics like Stormbringer and Conan/ZeFRS to indy-things like Jaws of the Six Serpentsto mini-games like Broadsword. And I'd be arrogant enough to put my own game in the running if I ever could finish the damn thing. :(

evildm said...

Simon and I published a version of Legends of Steel using his BoL rules.
Mostly for folks like myself who needed horses. It's selling quite well. If you would like a review copy let me know.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I just picked up your LoS:SW edition from Lulu, and i'm loving it. I am admittedly curious how the BoL edition of LoS differs for the SW edition (although I suspect they are slight, given the similarities between SW and BoL).

I have to admit, I prefer the BoL system over SW. Must be the application of the four careers that I find so appealing.

I intend to post my review of LoS before next week.

Narmer said...

I'm looking forward to your review.

Castech India said...
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