Friday, 12 August 2011

Tombs & Terrors RPG

Tombs and Terrors
- Lulu soft cover-

(if link is broken go here)
My real world life has been pretty crazy over the last few weeks, so it was a welcome escapist moment of reading when my latest almost random purchases from arrived.  One of these was Tombs & Terrors - Old School Fantasy Role Playing Game by Simon Washbourne of Beyond Belief Games.

I'm not too familiar with BBG's other titles, which have had some attention in some gamer blogs, notably Woodland Warriors RPG, Supers!, Barbarians of Lemuria and Go For Yer Gun!   (BBG's products on RPGDriveThru)

When I first saw it on the web I'd hoped that Tombs and Terrors was a sneaky clone of Tunnels & Trolls (cloning T&T or creation of an OGL T&T SRD seems to be a hot topic over at the Trollbridge forums).  Naturally, I was wrong in this.  It is described as an "unashamedly familiar role playing game" which is of course, Dungeons & Dragons, the most familiar of all role playing games.  So what kind of "Old School" is Tombs & Terrors? 

Over the last year or so I've been very spoilt with retro-clone rules for reading - those near mirrors of different editions of D&D.  My copies include OSRIC (AD&D 1st), Basic Fantasy RPG (B/X+), Dark Dungeons (BECMI/Cyclopedia) - and the creative "simulacrums" S&W Whitebox (OD&D) and Epeés & Sorcellerie (Chainmail to OD&D).  I've yet to dip my toe in the popular Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry core rules.  All of these rulebooks employ the Open Game License with WotC's d20 Source Reference Document with a jaw-dropping audacity to recreate the out-of-print favourites. Players and publishers alike across the web seem have become experts in copyright and intellectual property, for free or for (tiny) profit, whilst also providing tribute to the originators of the hobby.

Forgive me if I'm covering really old ground here or have missed some major players in the Old School Renaissance!

Tombs and Terrors isn't a retro-clone.  It's definitely a purer strain of the d20 SRD than anything listed above, but it is fairly "old school" in many ways.  Tombs &Terrors feels like it's written by a DM from the early 80's flipping through the d20 SRD or DnD3 rules, rediscovering the game rules he is most familiar with.  I say this with the confidence of a gamer who often finds most of his own collection and interests in RPGs are defined by others on forums and blogs as "old school" (i.e. mostly rules published from late 70s to mid 80s).

Seeing DnD3 for the first time was a real eye-opener for me.  Many of the very basic, logical improvements on AD&D and BECMI which stood out in those glossy colour rules are also included in Tombs & Terrors. These being the d20 core mechanic, a standardisation of Skills (as opposed to non-weapon Proficiencies) and a few extra spell slots for starting characters.  I can live with these modifications, and they certainly don't slow the game down.  Apparently "old school" can sometimes mean "fast-play".  Wing the rule, roll the die and just get on with the action.

Although I now have a much greater understanding of how the original five types Saving Throws came about and how to adapt them to all situations a PC may encounter, I used to struggle with the definitions Death Rays, Wands, Dragon Breath, etc.  It never made sense that you had to abstract a very specific category to match something common in a dungeon like falling into a pit, or dodging a dart trap.  Also "Ray" was just too like "ray-gun" which wrecked my pseudo-medieval mind-set.  "Save vs. Poison", "vs. Spells" - fair enough.  But again, this is old ground, I no longer see the old save system as the restriction as I used to.  In DnD3, Fortitude / Will / Reflex (with class, race and attribute modifiers) made a lot of sense.  So, okay, I wasn't a fan of the 5 Saves, and I probably didn't use them right, so maybe they didn't feature as much in my own games... I don't remember exactly.  I do recognise now that saves were linked to class, perhaps like training or skills would be.  However, I think I relied heavily on attribute modifiers in my games.  Without a specific rule (or if the rule was forgotten) generally a confident DM could make up a range on any dice with Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom (etc.) modifier.  It's this sense of instinctive play which makes me respect Tombs and Terrors for choosing Attribute Checks as the basis for saving throws (there are also special circumstance modifiers in the class and race description).  Of course, Difficulty Levels are very d20/DnD3 in flavour, but somehow here it looks older and simpler.  The clever bit is the use of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Attributes (is this a twist from d20 Modern?) - defined by class and race so that a Fighter would benefit more in Strength Check and fail more with perhaps Wisdom Check (which a Cleric would excel in).  When broken down and analysed perhaps this is similar how the save bonuses are created for Fort/Will/Reflex (in 3/3.5 and 4e).

"But what about saving throws for monsters...?", I hear you cry, (that's you, right? not the voices...) "... for they have no attributes!"  The response is the elegantly succinct rule:
All monster saves are at a base of 18. The number of HD they have is a bonus to the save check.
p73 Tombs and Terrors
Of course, if you want to draw up a tabulated matrix, to maintain that old D&D feel, just go ahead. ;)

Maybe what I'm trying to say here is that this game feels like a bridge between old D&D and D&D 3/3.5.  You get to play a Barbarian and Troubadour (bard), as well as the four very traditional classes, Fighter, Cleric, Mage (MU), Thief.  ("Thief", not "Rogue".  See?  It has to be "old school". ;) and he has "Backstab" as an ability/skill...)  Less traditionally, there's the "Giant-kin" race, along with the staple dwarf, elf, half-elf and the human, who in terms of Attribute adjustments is closer to the Wookie in SWRPGd20 than to the half-orc of 3/3.5.

Spells and monster stats are mercifully compact - and are presented in a simplified style to allow the players to adapt and build on the basics.  The monster stats are very reminiscent of Basic D&D (see "Hobgoblins" insert).

I'm happy to say that I've yet to find any Attacks of Opportunities rules.  If you're used to the very clear-cut turn based play (a corner stone of "old school") then the reaction-based Attack of Opportunity can feel like a baffling alien sub-routine, requiring just a little more rules look-up.  Perhaps only thing being "provoked" here is faster game play. ;)

I'm also glad to see Fumbles and Critical Hit tables.  Again, this may seem to be an odd choice when trying to emulate older editions of D&D.  However, when I was playing AD&D in 80's, in was actually one of the only mainstream games that didn't have random tables for a an uber success or epic fail in combat.  I'm thinking of RuneQuest, MERP/RM and later Warhammer FRP (remind me, does Chaosism's CoC 2nd-3rd edition have fumble tables?).  Lovely dice based chaos and fickle fate seemed to pervade in those systems. In the absense of lists of special character based combat feats or powers, combat (excepting spell casting) was a rapid exchange of blows, but the Crit/Fumble tables brought an added level of  slam, stun and gore with visceral description. Wincing at the rolls and going "bleugh" ("Ew") when the entry was read out was a combat perk. In some systems these tables negated the need for specific body location rules (debates would rage as to the realism vs fun with the mutilated heroes of RQ literally limping or crawling on stumps back to a Cult Temple). So despite not being in early (A)D&D, I'd still say that tabulated crits and fumbles were a memorable part of my own teenage gaming.

Sample entry from the Critical Hit Table, p56. 
Roll a natural 20 plus a second successful hit for added "Ew!"

Like all good rulebooks, also included is a small adventure and a blank character sheet - hurrah! Now that's definitely "old school" -  no assumptions about PDF downloads - "a character sheet to copy or photocopy".  I know that by approving of this, I might be somehow be colluding with a post-modern joke, but the truth is I think this rulebook may outlive the hard drive crashes and server failures, and so will the character sheet.  Not to mention the fact that a character sheet in any rulebook is the perfect visual checklist for character generation for new players.  I have a bit of a bugbear about systems not including character sheets.  It's the little things. :)

Speaking of "little", my soft cover copy is slightly taller than a school exercise book and is just under1 cm thick (100pp+).  This complete game is will travel well, so it would be perfect for players on holiday.  I'm reminded of my orange A5 Tunnels & Trolls which has been stuffed in many suitcases, and more recently the sexy Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition which can be wrapped twice in a t-shirt.  The Lulu soft cover book is very cheap to boot (a mere £9).

Just a small gripe, there's some good line art mixed in with modified Victorian stock art -which it just about carries off.  It just concerns me that so many OSR themed print-on-demand rulebooks are peppered with Edwardian handle-bar moustached knights, that there will be a generation of players who will think games from the 70's and 80's actually looked like this.  There's plenty of cheap contemporary fantasy stock art out there (sometimes a whole collection can be bought for under $20).  There's also many artists on games forums and sites like Deviant Art who'd just enjoy the publicity.  Apart from this, the rules are well laid out in an easy to read, sensible but friendly, font (main text is in two columns, "Old School"?! Bookman-ish font).

There's actually a "What is role-playing?" section. *Huzzah!*  So along with the simple rules, it would make an ideal gift for a novice to RPGs, or maybe as a sampler for other d20 style products.  Imagine the money saved, if the new player decided that they actually hated fantasy role-playing ... but, of course, that would be madness!  *...Scowls a little at his row of DnD 4th edition rulebooks*

If you like DnD3/3.5, Pathfinder or other d20-style fantasy titles, and perhaps your a fan of older editions, fast play, light ruleset, want to make a one-off purchase, but you also need a rulebook that's "portable" ... then Tombs and Terrors is definitely for you.

It reminds me, in a positive way of the Simpson's definition of "brunch": 
"It's not quite what you expect ... but you get a good meal!"

Tombs and Terrors - old school fantasy role playing on Lulu (soft cover)
(if link is broken click here)

Of course, you can always just download the free PDF, but at this price the a bound book may actually be cheaper than the cost of the printer ink.  Tombs and Terrors on RPGDriveThru (free PDF)

Book of Classes for Tombs and Terrors is also available from BBG as a download of DriveThru.

Beyond Belief Games Site:

Starships and Spacemen
-Lulu soft cover-

(If link is broken go here)
One my other recent Lulu purchases is the Goblinoid Games reprint of the 1978 edition of Starships and Spacemen.  I may write some more about this one at some stage.  Suffice to say it's a delightful sci-fi rulebook that's not-Traveller, but very Star Trek (early series).  Some of the diagrams are the original hand drawn rough sketches (hmm)... but more on this another time.  An historical artefact, a gaming anachronism, lodged firmly in the nostalgia niche, portraying the 23rd century.  "Fascinating, Captain...."
*Distant frazzle of lasered red-topped security crew*

(Check out JM's observations on Grognardia)

Thanks for reading, I hope you're all having a good weekend. :)

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