Back in the mists of time, I wandered into a meeting of the university's then wargames club and over the sound of jawbones hitting the floor at the sight of a woman, a lanky fellow asked "Would you like to play D&D?"
Opening this work takes me back to the sheer wonders and excitement that followed. The whole style, the artwork, the words, are redolent of those early books that soon found their way onto my bookshelves alongside the botany textbooks... and yet, this isn't merely another retro-clone, it is a coherent game in its own right, bringing its own freshness and elegance to the core of fantasy role-playing: the small band of adventurers battling enormous odds and terrifying monsters in search of awesome magics and heaps of treasure.
The opening pages include myriad armies of humanoids bearing the credits aloft on banners, passing a list of playtesters and even some photos of early games on their way to the introduction... or at least an admonitory page that lists what you are expected to bring to a reading of this tome, along with a large fire-breathing dragon to deal with those who come unprepared!
Then on to the Introduction, where the core mechanic of a single d20 roll is explained with sections detailing the differences and similarities depending on which rules systems you already know. That one page pretty much sets you up, the remaining hundreds supply the fine detail, the meat for the bones.
So, on to Chapter 1: Characters. Herein is the first novel concept, the 'Character Creation Funnel' where instead of labouring over a finely-honed character long before you get to adventuring, you create a handful of completely random Level 0 characters for each player, and run the whole lot through an adventure or two, unprepared as they are. Those that survive are rewarded with a proper character class and all the other stuff that most of us reckon belongs on a character sheet and, armed already with tales of the overwhelming odds that they have overcome, they'll be ready for the real adventures to begin. It's different, it sets the style of a game in which it is less important what awesome stats or cool gear you have than it matters what you do with it, an acknowledgement of the staple of fantasy fiction where some gawky unprepared farmboy or alley rat finds himself thrust into epic adventures and makes good.
These basic characters are described by their ability scores that represent their Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence and Luck; all rolled in that order with 3d6. Game balance? Character concept? Pah! Roll your bones and live with what you get. Or not, this Level 0 fellow may not have a long life... but maybe he'll be a legendary sword-swinger or spell-caster before you are done with him. This new-spawned character is supplied with a random occupation (the trade he plied before some whim sent him adventuring) complete with appropriate trade goods and a weapon that he's learned to use, at least well enough to be more of a menace to monsters than to his friends. The 'occupation' table includes demi-human races, and in this game those who survive long enough to get a character class will find that their class is Dwarf or Elf or Halfling, rather than Wizard, Warrior, Cleric or Thief... each has its own section explaining what they can do, the abilities and resources on which they can draw as their career progresses.
Next comes Chapter 2: Skills. As well as being able to fight, and maybe cast spells or thieve, characters have skills pertaining to whatever occupation they had before they started on the road to fame, fortune or an early grave as an adventurer. If a skill is appropriate to what you are trying to do, and you can argue the case for someone of your trade knowing that skill, you can roll a d20 to attempt it, else you roll a d10 to represent 'untrained' use of that particular skill. Yet these skill checks are best kept for when abstraction seems appropriate - if players can describe clearly what they are doing in the given situation, the results may well be obvious to the referee and the dice won't be needed. So this is a short chapter, and we move on to Chapter 3: Equipment.
Starting characters of Level 0 are regarded as peasants who have probably never seen, let alone possessed, a gold piece in their lives (apparently the offspring of nobility or even wealthy professionals never go adventuring!) and are gifted a basic weapon from their former occupation, so will not be buying much. However, those who survive long enough to amass some loot are likely to want to spend it on gear so weapons, armour and some basic items of equipment are to be found here with prices and other details. For those wishing to start at higher levels, there are suggested 'starting gold' figures as well.
Next is Chapter 4: Combat. This covers the basics of the combat resolution system, with the assumption that the referee already has a fair idea of what he is doing from other similar games. One refreshing point is that the use of miniatures and battlemaps is, if not actively discouraged, regarded as optional. Combat is turn-based, with group initiative at low levels (moving to character-based initiative once the surviving few are all that remain of the original mob). Most characters can undertake but one action - fight, cast a spell or the like - as well as move when it is their turn. Normal attack rolls, along with criticals and fumbles (ranging from making yourself the laughing stock of the party to stabbing yourself and falling flat on your back!) are covered in sufficient detail to empower the orderly running of a combat encounter. Whilst the main focus is on melee, ranged and mounted combat are also detailed. Characters who fancy having songs written about them have a chance at performing a Mighty Deed of Arms - provided that they say so before rolling their dice, and roll well when they do so. Characters are encouraged to devise a 'Signature Deed' that they specialise in, although this is as much for colour than it is for mechanical effect!
All this skill at arms has the inevitable result of dealing damage and even causing death, so this is the next topic to be discussed. When a Level 0 character runs out of hit points that's it, he's dead; but as characters rise in level they get a bit tougher and there's a window of opportunity to save them before they bleed out entirely... although it is likely that they will suffer permanent damage and have a fine scar to show the grandchildren! Healing and other combat-related matters are dealt with here as well, from fighting two-handed to turning undead by use of a holy symbol and even spell duels!
Appropriately, then, next comes Chapter 5: Magic. This starts with an awful warning: magic is not something to be meddled with lightly. It's dangerous, hard to control and can levy a heavy price on those who dare to wield it. Hence, there are no casual, off-the-cuff small magics, the sort to make life convenient, just the big spectacular spells. The source of magical power depends on what sort of spell-caster you are. Clerics, naturally, draw on their deities. Wizards may practise white magic (or enchantments), elemental magic or consort with demons to learn black magic. In game mechanical terms, however, they work if you make a spell check, a d20 roll with appropriate modifiers, which you have to roll every time you want to cast a spell. Wizards desperate to succeed can engage in 'spellburn' which is a process to enhance capabilities by sacrifice (i.e. gain some extra positive modifiers!). Spellcasting takes a lot out of you, which is why wizards can only cast a limited number of spells a day. Moreover, no two wizards are the same and they don't cast identical spells - each time you learn a new one you roll on a table to determine how that spell works in your hands... an interesting and novel way to ensure that magic users are not clones, but individuals with signature abilities. But beware: while low-level wizards pack quite a punch, as they rise in level and power so do they run greater risks as insiduous corruptions beset them (especially whenever a spell check is fumbled!). Clerics, on the other hand, have to beware of gaining the disapproval of their deity. In classic style, there are numerous tables on which the GM can roll to determine precise effects. In time, it may be hard to distinguish between spell-user and monster!
So, on to the spells themselves, a full 716 of them for wizards alone, plus an assortment for clerics. Wizards, apparently, are a bit like trainspotters, almost in competition to find as many of those 716 spells - first described by a list-obsessed wizard who woke a somnolent elder deity to ask! - as they can! Each is described in detail, with tables to roll upon to determine the results of casting them successfully... or what will happen when you botch your casting. GMs will have hours of fun telling the party what happens each and every time magic is performed.
After delighting my way through that lot (and I shall be hoping to get a wizard character if I get a chance to play rather than GM!), Chapter 6: Quests and Journeys looks at the sort of things our intrepid characters might get up to in the course of their adventures. It carries with it an exhortation: to lift the game away from pure mechanics and die-rolling, and to turn to a quest format whenever someone wants to gain something or achieve a goal. Quite a few examples are given, and could provide scope for epic adventures in place of mere mechanics: if you wish mastery of a certain weapon, say, seek out a master and study under him, rather than select it at your next level-up! Then comes a discussion of the conceptual differences between the real modern world and the cod-mediaeval fantasy one the characters inhabit, and how to use it to good effect to make adventure out of a mere trip to the next town to seek out a swordsmith or a new mount. Travel is an adventure in its own right - even when you remain on the surface of your game world... and then there's underground or even other planes of existence to explore!
Next, Chapter 7: Judge's Rules opens by suggesting that rules should bend to the GM's whim, not the other way around! Other suggestions follow thick and fast, including maintaining openness and real risk, no die-fudging to keep characters alive: dungeon-crawling classic style is a dangerous occupation. There's a lot more about the underpinning logic to magic, how to design new spells, where wizards will find spells to learn (and how to make them work at learning, not just scribble down spell names as they come across them or level up). Details of wizard's familiars and how to make them intersting and unique in their own right... even some patrons and the benefits and drawbacks of associating with them. Magic in this game has the potential to be far more potent and powerful and story-driving than in many games. Clerics and theurgy gets the same kind of treatment, before the discussion moves on to heroes, experience points and luck.
This is followed by Chapter 8: Magic Items. Don't expect to get them out of a catalogue, each is unique and brings its own flavour to the game... and there are tables to roll upon and advice to help you come up with your own items that will feature large in the legends of your world. Swords, scrolls, potions, wands... the usual items, but with a certain spin to them that makes them truly remarkable, as they ought to be. You are encouraged to create backgrounds, provenance, personality, for each and every magic item you place.
And where would we be without Chapter 9: Monsters? Monsters are not the catalogue of adversaries you might expect. They are mysterious, and knowledge about them can be as valuable as slaying them outright. Referees are urged to describe them as they appear, not baldly name them as an orc or ogre. And they are not alike. The orcs hereabouts may be quite different from the ones two valleys over - and as likely to fight each other as to lay in to the characters. Oh, and they do things their way, have powers or skills that characters do not. Then a real shocker for many modern gamers: no encounter balance. In this game, it is not only all right to run away, that may be the best option if you want to stay alive. Plenty more tables to roll on here to help you make this all come about. Example monsters are provided, along with notes on what treasure they might have. The worst monsters - the ones who ostensibly are 'people' just like the characters - are also included. And now, we are ready to begin. Rolls your bones and face the funnel...
This does indeed do what it says on the tin: the full heady flavour of early fantasy gaming coupled with elegant thoughtful rules that show considered understanding of a good thirty years of game development. And it comes redolent with images of the kind that take you right back to those early days.
Return to Dungeon Core Classics RPG page.
Reviewed: 19 July 2012