Review: Beasts & Barbarians

"Barbarianism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarianism must ultimately triumph.” – Robert E. Howard, Beyond the Black River.

Here’s my review of Beasts and Barbarians Golden Edition.

Summary: Outstanding swords-and-sorcery setting for Savage Worlds, channelling the works of Robert E Howard.

I’ve been hearing good things about this for a while, and downloaded some of the free web supplements. More of those later, but suffice to say they persuaded me to buy the full book.

Here it is, chapter by chapter; chapters 1-5 constitute the Players’ Guide, 6-8 are the GM’s Guide, and Vengeance of the Branded Devils is the obligatory introductory scenario. Please note; this isn’t a complete game, you need the Savage Worlds core rules as well, preferably the Deluxe Edition.

1: THE BOOK OF LORE (48 pages)

Since this is a setting book, one would expect most of the page count to be given to describing the setting, and here it is. B&B is set in the Dread Dominions, an iron-age batch of successor states to the Keronian Empire, which was wiped out by an asteroid strike 2,500 years before play begins. The book provides an overview of history since then, told in terms of the rise and fall of empires.

As usual, the setting borrows from historical cultures, namely:

  • The Iron Empire is a melange of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, seasoned with a dash of Byzantine.
  • Ascaia is an offshoot of the Empire, controlled by Amazon warriors. (In passing, I’m pretty sure the artist has played Diablo II.)
  • Northlanders are your archetypical barbarians, drawing on Norse and Scots roots.
  • I can’t quite place the Tricarnians; Carthaginians maybe, descended from lost Atlantis (i.e., the Keronian Empire).
  • The Valk are steppe nomads; Huns, or possibly Mongols. Summoned demons speak Valk, which does nothing to endear this race to the rest of the Dominions.
  • The Jademen of Lhoban are essentially Tibetan, with a side order of Shaolin temples.
  • The Ivory Savannah tribes are whatever African tribal cultures take your fancy. I don’t know much African history, so I’ll leave it at that.
  • Cairnlanders live in tombs with the bodies of their ancestors. I recall that some very early civilisations in the Fertile Crescent buried their dead in the floors of their houses, but living in cairns with undead relatives is a new one, and a bit creepy. Especially as the living and the dead can interbreed.
  • There are also two cultures not suitable for use as PCs: Pygmies (what you’d expect) and Caleds (picts). These are xenophobic and reclusive, so hard to justify as part of an adventuring party.
  • Finally, there are what seem to be deliberately blank areas, either for GRAmel (the publishers) or the GM to populate later. These include the Independent Cities and the nomads of the Red Desert.

What is interesting to me is whenever I’m sure which game culture is which historical one, some unusual twist comes in which makes me rethink that. I get the feeling that the author, Umberto Pignatelli, knows history a lot better than myself.

Unlike the usual fantasy setting, which is held in the grip of Mediaeval stasis, the Dominions have varied, but advancing, technological levels. The more civilised states have glass, metal coins, and iron weapons; the more primitive regions are still using bronze or even stone tools. The Keronian Empire knew how to make steel, but today this is extremely rare.

There are sections on languages (this setting assumes the use of the Multiple Languages option) and religion; the latter is downplayed in this setting, with only a handful of deities, none of whom intervenes on a regular basis.

Next, we have a discussion of climate, and a gazetteer of important places. These include the homelands of the groups mentioned above, plus a number of border regions where neighbouring races have interbred to produce new peoples, and assorted regions suitable for the GM to spot with lost cities.

The setting itself is very well done; familiar and novel at the same time, peppered with little snippets of detail that prompt ideas for scenarios.

2: CHARACTERS (18 pages)

This chapter begins with a score of paragraphs on heroic concepts suitable for the setting and the genre – barbarian warriors, Amazons, sorcerors, thieves and so on. I would have liked to see templates for archetypes, as in SW Deluxe Edition; to be fair, one of the free web supplements is a set of pregenerated PCs.

Players are encouraged to start with Seasoned characters (I don’t agree with this, but a lot of SW settings do it). The Multiple Languages option is in force, and while it’s noted that nowhere in the Dominions has a literacy rate greater than 10%, PCs can choose for themselves whether to be literate or not. The Illiterate hindrance is not used, nor are All Thumbs or Doubting Thomas.

Skills: Piloting isn’t used, and chariots are controlled with Driving rather than Riding. Otherwise, standard SW is in play.

Hindrances: There are a handful of new Hindrances, of which my favourite is Damsel in Distress; this allows a character to mimic the stereotypical love interest – she has combat penalties, evil NPCs want to carry her off, good or neutral ones want to protect her, and she has an extra Bennie which she can give to someone else in the party. I’m not sure any of my players would want to take it, but I can see it being fun.

Edges: There are minor modifications to half a dozen standard Edges, and some new ones; background and professional edges focus on previous career training (Hoplite, Amazon, Gladiator), although one can also take Ghoulblood, denoting one has a human mother and an undead father; the half-dozen combat edges include Loincloth Hero/Bikini Heroine, which encourage the PC not to wear armour by granting other advantages; and there is a set of power edges to go with the new Arcane Backgrounds. It’s worth noting that Priest is a professional Edge, not an Arcane Background; priests have no powers as such, but can pray for more Bennies. Another one especially suited to the setting is Temptress, which allows a character to use Boost/Lower Trait on a member of the opposite sex, making him feel like a god or a worm with her eloquent glance. NPCs are already springing into my mind, full-blown, just from the Edges section.

In general, the author has used Edges and Hindrances well to convey the spirit of the genre, without overdoing things or tweaking parts of the rules that don’t really need it, and supporting tongue-in-cheek play as well as gritty tales of savagery.

3: MAGIC (12 pages)

In this setting, none of the normal Arcane Backgrounds are permitted; only three new ones are available, Sorcery, Lotus Mastery, and Enlightenment, and each is limited to a specific list of powers. Magic is rare, feared, dark, and subtle; so it’s recommended that no more than one character per party have access to it, and the New Power edge is only available once per Rank.

Lotus Masters are alchemists, specialising in making powders and potions from the various types of lotus found in the Dominions. The Lotus Master prepares these ahead of the scenario, spending power points on each power as normal, but not recovering them until the lotus preparation is used. These can be ingested by the target, injected into them, or operate by touch. Anyone who has a potion can use it, whether or not he has the Arcane Background edge, and they last indefinitely.

Sorcerors are closer to a normal Arcane Background, but operate by invoking gods and demons to power their spells. Backlash is replaced with a WFRP-style table of things that can go horribly wrong, ranging from being Shaken and suffering Fear to developing a permanent "chaos feature".

Enlightenment is for Lhoban monks, and allows them to do things you would normally see in a Chinese martial arts movie – fly, resist environmental damage, deflect missile attacks and so on. This background only allows one to use powers on oneself, though, not on others.

There are a couple of new powers, but the main change is that Summon Ally is now graded by character Rank in the same way as Shapeshift – the more experienced the PC, the more powerful the ally he can summon to help.

4: GEAR (14 pages)

Here we find armour, weapons and vehicles suitable for an iron age setting, drawn from a number of historical and pulp sources. They tie in to the rest of the book, but there’s nothing especially interesting. (That could just be me, I don’t go in for equipment sections much; the pulp hero relies on his trademark weapon and his wits.)

There are no magic items as such. Their place in the typical fantasy setting is taken by steel, known to the Keronian Empire but now largely forgotten.

5: SETTING RULES (4 pages)

First, we learn that the following options from SW Deluxe Edition are in force: Blood and Guts, Born a Hero, and Joker’s Wild. The impact of these is to increase the flow of Bennies, increase the damage dealt, and allow PCs to start with Edges to which they wouldn’t normally have access; Blood and Guts also makes the No Mercy edge less useful, as in effect all PCs have it already.

Two new types of NPC are introduced; Henchmen, who have three Wounds but no wild dice or bennies, and Right Hands, who have wild dice, but no bennies and only one Wound.

The main setting tweak, though, is the After the Adventure rules. I love these; not sure how my players are going to feel about it, though.

After the Adventure states that however much loot the GM hands out, by the start of the next session the PCs only have $100 x Rank left, having spent the rest on fast chariots, loose women, wine and gambling. This means scenarios can hinge on genre-appropriate amounts of gold and jewels, without letting the PCs become too wealthy to go adventuring. Optionally, each player can draw a card (you know SW relies on playing cards as well as dice, right?) to see what happened to their PC while they were disposing of their ill-gotten gains – this might result in a temporary boon, or bane, such as being robbed, meeting a new contact, investing in a profitable business, and so forth.

The temptation with these sorts of tables is to expand them to the point where the player is watching you run their PC for them, so I’d recommend leaving it at its current basic level.

6: RUNNING BEASTS AND BARBARIANS

This is a gritty pulp setting, with larger-than-life heroes and treasures, colourful settings, and two-dimensional NPCs. If you don’t like that, keep on walking.

While the heart of the game is combat, the GM is exhorted to surround the final climactic battle with chases, NPC interactions, and exploration, to focus on the key elements of the adventure and not sweat the little things, and to surprise the players with non-linear plot elements.

The setting as written is one of dark swords and sorcery, with low magic use, and a party of 4-6 adventurers. This section discusses how to tweak it along several axes:

Party size: Modifications to handle a single PC, or a pair of PCs, rather than a standard party. My standard approach has always been to provide red-shirted NPCs to bulk out the group, but I might try this as an alternative; one of the key features of SW which it took me a while to notice is that by adjusting the character build, you can collapse multiple party members into a single PC, making parties smaller than the standard 4-5 perfectly viable.

Humour: You can accentuate this, leading to a light-hearted game in the Discworld mould, or de-emphasise it, producing a gritty, horrific game. If you go down the humourous route, there are a couple of "Silly Edges"; Barbarian Belch, which allows you to Shake foes by burping at them, and Running In High Heels, which allows female PCs to wear high heels in combat, increasing their Pace and kicking damage, but risking tripping over when doing so. I’m tempted to mine Advanced Heroquest for more silly Edges. Maybe later; the book cautions against overdoing this.

Although true magic items are rare in BBG, those that do exist are of artifact-level powers – again, in line with the genre. The chapter includes rules for creating these relics, and 20 examples to whet your appetite; my favourite is the scale mail bikini, which allows a female PC with the Bikini Heroine edge to wear armour without losing the benefit of her Edge.

7: ADVENTURE GENERATOR (22 pages)

This part of the book particularly caught my attention. It’s a system of randomly generating adventures based on drawing four cards. The suits of the cards give you the structure of the story – its setting (urban, wilderness, whatever), the main adversary, the conflict, and the reward. The face values of the same cards then define how the PCs become involved, the atmosphere (horror, mystery, journey and so on), a plot twist, and the nature of the tale’s climax. There’s an example to illustrate the method in use.

The cards can generate a scenario where the PCs reminisce about earlier adventures, the sort of thing that would be the obligatory flashback episode in a TV series.

The sidebars (actually, italicised text inline with the rest of the section) introduce some very interesting ideas. Using the adventure generator at a different "scale" to produce the campaign story arc, for example, was a useful idea I’d never thought of.

There is also advice to the GM on how much time to allocate to each aspect of preparing a session, if time is short (as it usually is).

The bit which really caught my eye, though, was the advice for mapless gaming. (By the way, the map of the Dread Dominions deliberately has no scale, so it can be as big or as small as the GM wants.) Two options are offered; detail the encounters but don’t create a map – this works like the old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, if you remember those – or use a deck of cards to build a random labyrinth as you go. The author points out that the stories he tries to emulate don’t have dungeon or city maps, and argues that keeping the map vague adds to the air of wonder and mystery the GM strives to create.

(For a detailed example of this second approach, try the free web supplement The Carnival of Nal Sagath.)

One thing that puzzled me here is that the author recommends making a group roll for advancement in the random-deck system. This sort of roll (trait die plus wild die) doesn’t offer any advantage over the normal PC roll (trait die plus wild die). I decided he must mean a co-operative roll instead, where successes and raises from supporting characters each give +1 to the main character’s attempt.

8: BEASTS AND BARBARIANS (46 pages)

This is the bestiary; there are a score of new monsters, of which my favourite is the Daughter of Hordan – a scenario sprang to mind just from reading the description.

There are also statblocks for several dozen NPCs, most of which have customisation notes – explanations of what to change to get, for example, a tavern wench or a princess instead of the stock damsel. All of the stock archetypes of the genre seem covered here.

VENGEANCE OF THE BRANDED DEVILS (18 pages)

This starts off reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or if you prefer, The Magnificent Seven, defending a village against the Branded Devils; but having fought them off, the PCs must track them to their lair, and sort them out, and their little dog too. This is less straightforward than it sounds.

CONCLUSIONS

I have been feeling jaded about fantasy adventures and Savage Worlds lately, but this has inspired me and renewed my enthusiasm.

It pushes a number of my buttons for a setting: Pulpy stereotypes; Conanesque settings; low magic; and a soupcon of horror.

I’m less keen on moving away from the core rules to the extent this setting requires, so if I do adopt this setting I might well try out the new edges, hindrances etc with NPCs first, and may or may not accept them as permanent additions.

Rating: Five out of five.

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