The Introduction states that this is a book about violence but that while violence is a part of human nature, here the topic is violence within the context of a game and that is where it should stay. This is followed by a brief digression that violence directed against children is aways wrong and what to do about it: completely correct but somewhat irrelevant.
We then jump straight in, with Chapter 1: Bullwark (shouldn't that be 'bulwark'?) taking a thorough look at armour. This begins with a chart showing armour types with details such as the protection they confer against different forms of attack, what skills are needed to make it, how much of you (expressed as a percentage) it covers, vulnerabilities and so on. Then each armour type is described. This seems all to be aimed at characters who want to make their own armour, or at least games in which the actual process of making the armour, as well as wearing it in combat, is to be important. Before making anything, though, the crafter has to write out a plan of what he intends, with associated skill checks and costs. Top marks for realism, but few players will want to be bothered unless something truely unique is to be the result! Then comes a discussion of armour quality, including the quality (and price) of the tools you are using - not sure why an illustration of a woman in a skimpy basque and fishnet stockings is here, perhaps the typical 'workshop calendar' picture? Still, this is an excellent selection of rules to use, probably in the background or during downtime, if your players are interested in making their own armour or having it custom-made for them. It could also be useful when devising armour as a feature of the treasure hoard you place of them to find.
Next is a section on armour maintenance and repair - something that is often neglected in play. Wizards study their spellbooks and clerics say prayers, but how often do even your fighters check their armour for rust and beat out the dings? If you choose to add this rule, armour degrades if not properly maintained, even when you haven't been fighting - again good for realism if you don't mind extra things to keep track of. This is followed by details of the various materials that can be used in armour construction, useful when deciding what you intend to make. It includes things like dragon hide, angel skin, wood and stone as well as various metals - each with their own qualities and drawbacks.
Then there is a discussion of various modifications which can be made, variations on standard armour designs. Again good for planning that special suit, but - like the bit on materials - perhaps better placed with the section on planning and crafting armour at the beginning of the chapter - you'll want to read all the way through before you start designing your suit of armour to ensure you have considered all the options! The armour section rounds off by redesigning standard armours from the Player's Handbook using the more detailed descriptions of this ruleset, to give you a start and to enable the use of ordinary basic armours on a level footing with ones specially designed. Then shields get the same treatment, to a more cursory extent.
To demonstrate the ruleset, to inspire, and to give you something you can use straightaway, there follows a selection of example armours. There's also some other extras, like a kind of combat webbing to give you access to pockets and pouches without reaching under your armour to reach the pockets in your clothing, camouflage and even a forge apron (useful if you insist on making your own armour). Also, a more detailed set of Armour Proficiency feats than those in the Player's Handbook is provided - and also a complete variant system of Armour Usage Proficiency which allows you to improve with practise! This also avoids characters having to use feat slots on armour proficiencies for armour types they rarely wear.
The next set of variant rules looks at coverage - how well the armour actually protects you and where. This affects most aspects of taking damage and in effect renders Armour Class redundant, it is generally only used for dodging under this system, while more detailed factors of your armour's construction are used to determine if an attack gets through and how much harm you sustain if it does. This involves Damage Abatement, which compares your armour's capabilities to the type of damage inflicted, and gets quite detailed. These rules can also be applied to the natural armour that monsters have, and to any 'barding' that you have given your mount. Size and the odd shape of the wearer may also have an effect. Then comes a section applying this ruleset to 'normal' armour enchantments so that it may be used with existing armour, armour found in adventures and so on.
Chapter 2 starts in a similar manner, diving straight in with a set of tables to enable the design of a wide range of weapons. Again, the would-be weapon crafter needs to prepare a plan before settling down to make the weapon itself... or at the very least, he needs a plan made by someone else (which gives them an inherent value as well as utility). The same points are covered - quality, techniques for making more specialised weapons and so on. Again, weapons in this system must be maintained and repaired to remain serviceable. A range of ordinary and exotic materials are discussed - indeed, the whole chapter is a repeat of the proceeding one applied to weapons rather than armour. A revised system of Weapon Proficiencies and Feats is provided to accommodate the weapons available under this ruleset; and there is an alternate rule for Weapon Usage Proficiency for those who prefer to hone specific skill in the weapons they actually use in combat. Damage, too, is handled in a more realistic manner related to the weapon being used, rather than a catch-all loss of Hit Points.
An interesting option for a more cinematic, quick and deadly combat system is provided with the use of 3 feats: Adrenaline Burst, Rage Weapon and Split-Second Timing. These allow extra actions, exceptional attacks with a chosen weapon and extreme agility in combat.
Next comes Chapter 3: Ready For War. This opens with tables to convert the Player's Handbook weapon and armour proficiencies for each character class to those outlined above. There is a new skill, Restoration, which enables a general ability to repair damaged items and make them work again; as well as a lot of detail on the expansion of the Craft skill to accommodate the needs of this ruleset and the tools necessary to get the job done. There's a handy device, Bendril's Forge Barrel - a luggable if not really portable mini-forge for the travelling metalworker; and a whole raft of armour-related feats to enhance your ability to operate effectively when wearing it, weapon feats to improve your combat skills and some useful general ones as well. Next comes a prestige class, the Master Tradesman, who is truly gifted at his chosen craft; and an array of spells related to weapons and armour.
Chapter 4 takes a look at the martial arts, focussing on unarmed combat and presenting a generic feat-based system which a character can use to devise his own personal style. It's quite complex and - like real-world martial arts - requires time and training (or level gain and the expenditure of skill points) to make any kind of progress. However, for the character prepared to put in the effort, some spectacular abilities can be developed. Any character may take these feats, but there is an option to allow monks, who after all are unarmed combat specialists to begin with, to progress more quickly.
Next comes a section on economic considerations - market sizes and the availabity of items... and the ease with which you can sell the proceeds of your adventuring. Again, it's basically a set of tables to produce a basic but realistic assessment of item availability/saleability based on settlement size and item value.
Finally, there are summary guides to both armour and weapon constrution with template sheets to work on. As the authors admit at this point, it is a complex system, there aren't really any shortcuts, you just have to decide whether the increase in realism and sheer diversity of armour and weapons is worth the effort.
Overall, it depends on what you want out of your game. For some, the effort will be well worth their while to have the ability to make or have made unique and distictive weapons and armour - especially if combat is a major focus of their game. Yet even the interactive role-playing enthusiasts can appreciate the levels of realism and the interesting items that can be created. Well worth a look if you find that the core rules abstract too much and produce carbon-copy characters and items.
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Reviewed: 30 December 2007