War is always a good backdrop to a fantasy campaign. There is so much chaos and change and opportunity that a group of adventurers could make their way from nobodies to national heroes..or villains. That is one of the basic conceits of +Kasimir Urbanski's aka RPGPundit's latest book Dark Albion: The Rose War. Published by DOM Publishing, the same that gave us Fantastic Heroes & Witchery. Overtly the book is for FH&W, but it can be played with any Retro-Clone or original D&D game you wish. In fact I am going to jump ahead and say that it would work with any version of D&D you choose, including 5th Edition. But for me the game seems like it would shine under Original Edition. But more on that later.
I am reviewing the PDF only at this point. I don't have a copy of the printed book yet. The PDF is 277 pages; 275 of content plus cover and a hyperlink page that we also saw in FH&W. It's a nice touch.
Before I get into the meat I want to about the art and layout. The art is predominantly woodcuts and public domain images from the period or about the period. I want to say that for the record I LOVE this sort of art. I really do. It captures the feel of time I think far better than most RPG art. I love the art in the D&D/OSR books, but that is art for a game world. For a historical one I want this.
Also the graphic design and layout is much improved in terms of technique from FH&W. This is obvious when in the FH&W appendix it switches back to the other style. It is the same as the previous book, but still better executed.
The book is nicely organized and I am first grabbed by a sense of nostalgia. This feels like an old-school Gazetteer. In particular the Greyhawk ones of old. We have a two page Table of Contents and a two page index. Both are hyperlinked.
The center of the campaign is the War of Roses. This war, between rival claimants to the throne of England, the House of York (the White Rose) and the House of Lancaster (the Red Rose). This lead, among other things, to the creation of the Tudor Dynasty (White on Red Rose) when the House of Lancaster defeated the House the York and Henry Tudor married Elizabeth York to become Henry VII of England. This is also the milestone between what was "Dark Ages" England and the English Renaissance. Though I personally think of the date as being later when England broke with the Church or even later still when Elizabeth I came into power. But that is my personal bias.
(Side Note: See if RPGPundit is working on "Dark Albion: The Tudors", now there is some intrigue!)
The Introduction is a brief overview of the book, the War of Roses, and what to expect in this campaign book. Most of what is here is detailed more in the book, but a couple of things draw our attention. First this a "gritty" campaign. So magic is low, character classes will be low and it is human centric. Other differences between this and other "D&D" are given, such as very, very few demi-humans and few "monsters". Also the differences between this world and our world are given. The one that stands out here is the Church of the Unconquered Sun, something that readers of my blog should already be familiar with, http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com-
/2015/02/sol-invictus-unconquered-sun.html. In fact this Church is like one where Rome (Arcadia) adopted Mithra instead of Jesus. It is an interesting idea and one I would love to see more of.
Next up, and what takes up a good chunk of the book is the Gazetteer of Albion. For his alt-history version of England, Pundit sticks with the very archaic Albion as opposed to England or even "Angle-land". I do not object. I used the name myself in Ghosts of Albion, though for different reasons. This is part socio-political overview, part maps and part campaign information. Having gone over the same territory, though 360 years later, I appreciate the attention to detail here. The bulk of this is of course on Albion and Wales (not "Cymru"?), lands up into Scots-land ("Alba"?) only go to Hadrian's Wall, which is still intact in this world. Lands into Ireland ("Erie"! thank you!) only go to the Pale, as appropriate. Beyond the Pale? Well that is where the ancient Brannans live, you don't want to go there.
Honestly, this could have been the entire book and I would have loved it. Give me old maps and names of people and I will fill it up with ideas. I already want to create characters and give them histories.
Next up is Kingdoms of the Continent. As you can imagine, an overview of Europe. Not as in-depth as the Albion chapter, nor should it be. There are a couple things though I want to point out.
- Frogland. Really? ugh. Ok, ok. I get the desire to have a non-human, chaos-based kingdom. But I really have to admit this sticks out like a sore thumb. It's really just not good. Sorry. I just don't like it, it seems to go against everything we just read about human-centric, low magic, gritty-realism. If I were to use this in a game (and I really would want to) Frogland is going away. I'll replace it with a Clark Ashton Smith-style Averoigne. It really kind of mars the entire work in a way.
- Arcadia. There is something REALLY interesting here. I would love to see RPGPundit talk about how The Unconquered Sun grew up out Mithraism to replace Christianity in his world. Plus this is the Renaissance. I would imagine that Arcadia at this time in this world looks a bit more like Mage the Sorcerers Crusade than it does D&D.
- Wallachia. Ok, including a bad ass Dracula almost (almost but not quite) makes up for Frogland. Having him live in a castle named "Crows Loft" is very cheeky ("Crow's Nest" might be closer, but hey, not my book).
Law & Justice in Albion is a fairly important chapter. Characters will not be able to act like the "murder-hobos" of other games. Albion, at this point, has been around as country of laws for some time. The Magna Carta has been around for 200+ years at this point so this is not a lawless land, far from it in fact. Frankly more campaign guides should have this as much as they do maps and people of interest.
History of Albion is just as fascinating as the Gazetteer. While I personally believe that games are about the characters, having a detailed backdrop is always nice. Plus if your game is going to more about court intrigue and combats of words and lies rather than adventuring, then this is a must read.
Characters in Albion discuss what has been mentioned briefly already. What characters you are likely to use in this game. It is human centric and low magic. Now there is an interesting twist here in that the Church of the Unconquered Sun has Priests, which are like real-world priests in the Catholic church, and Clerics which are more like D&D clerics. In fact you can have a female cleric. This is a handy way to have your cake and eat it too. The reading of this chapter makes me think that Lamentation of the Flame Princes might be a good rule fit for this, but as I read more I think that Original D&D is the best choice. Though given the changes to the world in general I would also add druids and witches to my games.
Currency & Equipment is actually quite an important chapter. Money didn't just seperate the wealthy from everyone else, it also separates the classes, as in the upper and lower class. In many D&D games characters tend to throw around gold like it was water. You see that even in some of the pulp influences of D&D. Historically though and even until past the Victorian age you would not find people throwing around a gold coin. Copper pence/pennies were the coinage of the common man. Maybe a silver shilling. Ok, technically the silver shilling wasn't minted until the 1500s and it was worth 12 pence (not the 10p listed). BUT this is just a change to make things easier for the game and that is fine with me. I would still introduce a gold guinea at 21s/0p though it's introduction is still not for another 200 years or so. I just like the idea.
The next two chapters, Noble Houses of Albion and People of Interest, deal with the people that populate this world. I would say that if you are playing a court intrigue game then these are your important chapters. Knowing who is controlling what and what their moves might be is a great aid for the right-minded GM. I would say that if you are or were a fan of Pendragon or even Birthright then study these two chapters. Heck given how Pendragon works this could be part of the same set of PCs, only their dynasties 35-40+ generations later.
Ok, so I am not taking any stars away from the overall product for this, but I will state my disappointment in the whole "Frogmen" one more time here. Craaak VII? Lraaap XI? Come on Pundit, you can do better than this.
Sorcery and Secrets is the chapter I have been waiting for. I will point out one discrepancy between what is said here and what is assumed. Magic-user spells are listed to 9th level, ok that will take a pretty high level magic-user, beyond the "7th level will be really high" mentioned. Plus 9th level spells are pretty big magics. Personally I would limit all spell casters to 6th level spells. There are some rules in FH&W to help get around this restriction.
There are some really good demon summoning rules. I would combine these with the magic circle rules given in FH&W as well as the Ley Line rules. In fact in might be interesting to take this chapter and Chapter 9 from FH&W and look at them as a unified whole.
Adventuring in Albion. Ok this is more like it! Give me reasons for my characters to do things! For me I am content with "there is a war of succession to English throne going on. You all are peasants. Figure out how make the most of it." Thankfully there is more here than just that. Several sample adventure locations are given, including one at court. Travel across Albion is discussed though characters are more likely to run into tolls rather than trolls, but both are still possible.
While monsters are rare in this setting a guideline for what might be possible would be good.
Three Appendices follow.
Appendix 1 detail the Knights of the Star and Secrets of the Clerical Order. Knight of the Star are an order of Knights loyal to the crown and king of Albion. These Knights could be seen as the Paladins of Albion and are given similar in-game status.
Appendix 2 is a set of house rules for rules-lite OSR clones like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, and Basic Fantasy RPG.
Appendix 3 is a set of rules when playing Fantastic Heroes & Witchery. Like I mentioned before this appendix drops the Dark Albion style for the FH&W one. Various new classes for FH&W are added including the Cleric of the Unconquered Sun, the Magister, Hedge-Witch and Cymric Bard among others. Also classes from FH&W are discussed including which ones NOT to use in Dark Albion. Some details about how Dark Albion's cosmology fits into the FH&W assumed cosmology.
The book ends with the OGL statement.
There is a lot crammed into 275 or so pages. While the guide is complete and there is plenty to do with it, it also opens up a lot of possibility for the world as a whole. Dom and RPGPundit could make a career out filling up the other countries. The time period is an interesting choice too. Having played a ton of historical games I tend to draw a fuzzy line right around the time of the Tudors. Prior to this time I can emulate with D&D-like games, after that I use other games. Dark Albion adheres to my own internal logic in this respect. Though I do admit I can see myself pushing that line a bit when it comes to Elizabethan times. I have done that time period both as a D&D-like game and as a setting for Ghosts of Albion.
I would say pick this up if you have any enjoyment for English history or if you are looking to play something different than the same old dungeon crawls.
[5 of 5 Stars!]