Sunday, August 18, 2013

(Yet Another) Review: Ambition & Avarice

With all my peeps up at GenCon, gaming has been a bit sparse of late. On top of that, the school year is revving up again, and I'll be returning to the classroom after a three-semester absence for administrative work. Take those things together, and I haven't had much to post on the blog, lately.

However, I recently received my copy of +Greg Christopher's Ambition and Avarice, and wanted to provide a quick review and some editorial feedback for Greg (not solicited, but hopefully recognized as a good-faith statement on my part).

Given the sheer number of D&D-like products that have been produce by the OSR community over the last few years, any new offering in the "original fantasy" genre would have to do a few things differently, and Ambition & Avarice does so.

Characters

The first difference in A&A is the available player character races, which include "barbarian" races like Orcs, Hobgoblins, and Lizardfolk, among others. This opens up the ranks of player characters to characters taht could take your campaign in a vastly different direction. Here, we have "monster" races, and the ability to figure out what makes a "monster" campaign work differently from a campaign with only the "normal" races included--Or, perhaps, exactly the same: We're all murder-hobos here, after all. It's also nice that the different races actually manifest unique traits, with real in-game mechanical effects. For example, Dark Elves are good with poisons and with lock-picking. Dwarves are good at recognizing unusual stonework and finding traps.

A&A's take on the "normal" player character classes is also pretty cool. The game dispenses with clerics entirely, making them another sort of mage. Frankly, I like that approach. Even though a play a cleric in many games, I've never really understood why clerics had to be a separate class. They're magic users, pure and simple, but their magic is in a particular vein. Hence the Priest, Shaman, and Cultist magic using/religious classes, each with its own particular twist on the magical and the religious. This is true across the selection of classes provided. Something particularly new, though, is the notion of class-specific "companions"--henchmen/followers in the player character's service. These are mechanically intrinsic to the class itself, and not something related to 9th level domain play, as in D&D. I like this a lot, as it makes explicit the ways in which one learns the trade of fighter or priest or thief, and makes the PC a bit more... heroic in tone.

Updated Game Rules & Mechanics

Greg's take on the regular ways of accomplishing combat, magic, and dice rolling mechanics, generally, is somewhat different from normal. Yes, it's still a combination of d6 and d20 mechanics, but articulated in a way that is updated and somewhat more rational than the Original Game and its closest imitators. I'm not going to enumerate every single instance of this, as A&A has revamped a lot of the mechanics for doing what we do when we loot a dungeon. Here are a couple of brief examples.

Some mechanics are aided or focused by specific items of equipment. For example, a crowbar makes it easier to force doors. A helmet makes it easier to survive "blast" effects.

There are a lot of these little things, many of which are only modest changes to how things work in other games, a focused exposition of the results of this particular author's experiences as a GM. They may work differently from "normal," but you get the sense that it's not just because Greg's trying to do it differently just to make it different. Rather, it seems to be the result of what he's learned and how he makes things work better, an expression of his particular wisdom. While not everyone would reach the same conclusions in house-ruling their own flavors of D&D-like games, this ruleset does a nice job of articulating his approach in a clear, well-organized, and explicit way. It's worth reading in full, even if you're an experienced OSR player/GM.

Equipment Lists are Cool

The equipment lists included in this game are actually a lot of fun. They are extensive, specific, and really seem to be oriented toward making players think about what they carry into a dungeon and why they carry those things. Every weapon, armor, or equipment item is not only listed, but explained in ways that make their potentials clear. Again, sometimes these potentials even include linkage to specific types of die rolls are other means of achieving in-game mechanical effects. I think that this sort of thing would be particularly useful for GMs and players who haven't really played an old-school fantasy game, and need to make the shift in their thinking about how to approach such games differently from, for example, 3.x and 4th edition D&D. It's a small detail, but one of those things that makes explicit what many old-schoolers leave implicit. It helps to articulate the difference between these approaches in a way that makes clear that thinking and resource management (and interacting with the environment in general) are important to successful gameplay.

GM Advice

"The Judge," Christopher's take on how to be a GM is one of my favorite parts of the book. He does a great job of articulating what is different about the OSR approach, including discussion of railroading (and why it sucks), maintaining objectivity, the importance of randomness and unpredictability, and articulation of some important basic principles for world-building and sandbox play, and different ways of thinking about "dungeons" as spaces for play. I also like the section in this chapter that deals with "tropes," those narrative devices we use to create a sense of narrative frames and the characters' places in them. There's a lot more to this section, and I encourage you to take a look at it.

He also provides a sense of the reasoning behind his advice, and I think this really adds a lot of value to the product, especially for those players who are less experiences with Old School styles of play. However, even experienced players and GMs will find something to consider and/or use in their own games, in most cases.

Layout and Design

Ambition & Avarice fills a brief and useful 97 pages, including spell listings (though there are no monsters included, which tends to depress the page count a bit, certainly).

The content itself is well organized and features a detailed table of contents. There is no index, though probably a book this short doesn't necessarily need one. Use of color and tables helps to present summary information in a easy-to-spot and digestible manner. You won't have to scour this manual to find out what cool things your character's race or class furnishes, for example: They leap right off the page.

The artwork is black and white, and features line drawings of thematically appropriate content. I like its simplicity. While it's not sophisticated or complicated (or completely overwrought, for that matter), it provides a sense of thematic unity with the textual content. It provides "flavor" more than literal illustration of the textual content.

Editing (My Only Beef)

The only real negative thing I take away from A&A is poor editorial execution. As I read through the text, the number of typos and malapropisms was a bit startling to me. Now, mind you, I'm sort of a stickler about this stuff, as I edit a lot of people's work, so understand that this is something that bugs me a lot more than it might other people. That said, I was pretty disappointed at how poor a job was done in proofreading the document. Prime example: "it's" is not a possessive form; it's a contraction of a pronoun/verb pair. It's important to make that distinction correctly.

Little problems like this are minor, certainly, but after you've seen them ten or so times in the span of two pages, they start to seem like much bigger problems. I've given +Erik Tenkar shit a couple times about this (and, look, he was one of the proofreaders! Hehe hehe...), so it will come as no surprise that this is what I choose to harp on. I make plenty of mistakes, myself, but there's a big difference between doing so on a blog and in published works for which you charge money.

I think it's a good ruleset, and I think the price he's charging is very, very reasonable. Certainly, I don't mean to shit on this product because of the typos. That said, I find them distracting and I think Ambition & Avarice would be a much better product without them. I hope that Greg will take the time to fix these errata for future editions of the book. Given that it's a print-on-demand product, there's no reason not to do so. Hell, I'd be happy to go through and make another editorial pass for him, if he'd like, so I'm not just complaining.

Summary


  • Neat book
  • Decent art
  • Well worth the price of admission
  • Great starter game for people new to OSR
  • Some interesting new takes on old mechanics that could be useful to experienced GMs and players
  • Please re-edit this thing, and be a bit more careful next time.