$1 Downloads: Legend

Posted: 22 February 2012 in Reviews
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This one, I got partly because it’s only a buck at the time of writing, and partly out of nostalgia for the first edition RuneQuest campaign I played in at university, which was a blast. I’ve heard bad things about what Mongoose has done to the RuneQuest rules, and I found RuneQuest II and III overly complex for my taste, but let’s take a look inside, shall we? The risk is less than the price of a cup of coffee…

Summary: Generic swords and sorcery rules using percentile dice, derived from the popular RuneQuest system, which also gave birth to Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role Playing. The focus is on the PC’s development and his interaction with his community, rather than killing things and taking their stuff.

The book is a 242 page PDF, split into 13 chapters. At the back are a double-sided character sheet, and an Open Gaming Licence – Mongoose has made the whole game OGL, of which I approve heartily. As is now usual, the PDF has layers so you can turn off the background imagery for printing – again, I approve.

WELCOME TO LEGEND (3 pages)

Here’s your introduction. It assumes you’ve played RPGs before, which is a safe enough bet; most people begin in D&D, and some then move on into other games such as this.

ADVENTURER CREATION (33 pages)

PCs in Legend are called adventurers; Alaric the Brave is used as an example character throughout the game. One begins by generating the seven basic characteristics; Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity and Charisma. The traditional way is to roll 3d6 for each one, but several other options are presented, including a point-buy system.

Attributes are now generated from the characteristics: The number of combat actions per round, derived from Dexterity and Intelligence; damage bonus, derived from Strength and Size; hit points for each location, derived from Constitution and Size; improvement roll modifier, based on Charisma; Magic Points, based on Power; Strike Rank, based on Dexterity and Intelligence. Movement is 8 metres per round for humans.

While combat actions dictates how often the adventurer acts per combat round, strike rank shows who goes first. Strike rank is modified later by the weapon used and armour worn.

Different hit points in each hit location is a reliable indicator that the game will be too complex for me, but let’s see what else it has in its pocketses first.

High Charisma making it easier to improve the character in play baffled me to start with, but the rules explain this is because Charismatic adventurers get more help from friends and relatives.

Characters enter play at 1d4 + 16 years of age.

They also have a basic skill level in 19-20 common skills, such as Unarmed Combat or First Aid. The 20th, Common Magic, may or may not be available depending on whether the GM thinks every character should be able to cast simple spells or not; my biggest beef with original RuneQuest was that there wasn’t enough niche protection for magic users, anyone could cast spells, so I’m pleased to see this as an option – if I remember rightly, it was introduced in RuneQuest II.

Note that traditionally thievish skills such as Stealth or Sleight of Hand are Common Skills, so thieves don’t have much niche protection although spellcasters might.

This defines the adventurer as he was at the age of 14-15. However, he is several years older and has some experience already when he begins adventuring; to represent this, the player now chooses a culture (barbarian, civilised, nomad or primitive) and a profession (a choice of 30, including alchemist, noble, soldier, thief and so forth), each of which provides additional skills and bonuses to existing skills; culture also defines initial wealth and, later, which spells are available to the character.

Each adventurer also has a number of Free Skill Points to tailor his skills package. By this point, the adventurer will have 30-odd skills, rated from around 20% to around 70%; note that each language, group of weapons and so on is a separate skill.

Several die rolls generate some backstory around the adventurer’s family, its reputation, and connections, as well as background events – a very simple lifepath. This process generates contacts, rivals and enemies, and as in Mongoose Traveller, can be used to explain how the PCs came to know each other.

The PC now gets its Hero Points (always 2 to start with, more can be gained in play) and magic spells (if permitted). PCs begin with basic personal equipment, one weapon relevant to their skills, and whatever they feel like buying. Sorcerors also get a grimoire of spells, while priests get divine spells appropriate to their cult.

SKILLS (28 pages)

You may have guessed already that since skills are rated as percentages ("Stealth 45%"), when you try to use one, you roll percentage dice, and succeed if the score is your skill rating or less. Really good rolls are critical successes, and really bad ones are critical failures ("fumbles"); the GM applies modifiers to the roll based on circumstances, and generally also gets to say what the effect of critical success or failure is. Note that it is entirely acceptable to have skill ratings over 100%, this gives you a better chance of success when the modifiers are heavily stacked against you.

As usual, there are rules for opposed tasks (which replace the earlier Resistance Table, now defunct) and co-operative tasks, as well as a few other wrinkles; then we’re into the skill list.

There are nearly 50 skills, each described in detail with its own rules. I won’t list them all, but you should find any skill you need for the pre-gunpowder world. It’s worth noting, however, that characters can learn combat styles such as "Spear and Shield", which allow them to train that combination as if it were one skill. That’s an elegant way of reducing the number of skills on the character sheet whilst encouraging adventurers to train with sensible combinations of wargear.

GAME SYSTEM (28 pages)

Here, the core mechanic of "roll % dice, score under your skill to succeed" is embellished into a full system.

There are three timescales in the game: Combat takes place in 5 second rounds; local time is used for tasks taking a few minutes or hours, such as making something simple or persuading an NPC; and strategic time is used for things taking days to years, such as long-distance travel. More on combat later.
 
Improvement rolls are different than I remember from original Runequest; I never actually played RQ II or RQ III. At the end of each session, the adventurer gets a number of improvement rolls (typically 3), each of which can be used on one known skill. You make a skill roll, and if you miss, your skill improves by 1d4+1 %; if you roll your current skill or less, it increases by 1%. You add bonuses for Intelligence and Charisma to the roll, which is how it’s possible to advance beyond 100%.

This retains the elegance I liked about RQ improvement, in particular that the better you are, the harder it is to improve; but using a fixed number of rolls which the player allocates removes the "golf caddy" syndrome I often saw in RQ combat – fight with weapon A until you’ve done enough to ensure an improvement roll, then switch to weapon B, then C, and so on.

Improvement rolls can also be used to boost characteristics; it takes as many rolls as the current value of the characteristic to increase it by one point. Characters can also get training in skills as well as using improvement rolls to boost them; training seems to be the only way to learn a new skill, but remember you already know all the skills you can use untrained.

What you’d expect: Rules for aging, damage from environmental hazards, disease, poison, falls, long term subsistence costs, encumbrance, healing, fatigue, damaging inanimate objects etc. Example diseases and poisons are provided; a high Resilience skill lets you heal damage more quickly, but on average you’ll heal between one hit point per three days and one per 12 hours. I won’t dwell on these because my style of play (see The Manifesto, tab at top of page) doesn’t use them often, and so I know I can safely skip over them and focus on characters, combat and magic.

What you might not expect: Rules for making a living between adventures – this is a necessity, because while some of the party are spending weeks training in their skills, carrying out their duties to their temples and so on, the rest of them are kicking their heels, and may as well take on some part-time work to reduce the drain on their savings.

Rewards: I’ve mentioned skill improvement; adventurers also gain 0-4 hero points per adventure. These are used to power heroic abilities (see below), and may also be used to gain another action in a combat round, reroll a skill roll you don’t like, turn a major wound into a glancing blow, or gain insight into a problem. As usual for this kind of token, it gives the player partial narrative control over the story.

EQUIPMENT (29 pages)

One of the things I noticed about RQ to start with was the paucity of equipment. I felt this was probably historically accurate; once he’d got a mount, weapons, and armour, your average mediaeval hero probably started thinking in terms of owning land, fine clothing, and an advantageous marriage. This has been eroded in Legend, which has – for example – three pages of different garments your adventurer can wear.

As usual for an RPG, the focus is on combat gear, because that’s the stuff that needs specific rules.

Armour reduces incoming damage by up to 6 points of damage per hit, thus protecting your hit points; lowers your strike rank, making your attacks slower; and slows your movement. Its encumbrance varies depending on your Size. Since hit location is an integral part of combat in Legend, you can have different armour on each hit location.

Each weapon is rated for damage dealt, required Strength and Dexterity, size, reach, encumbrance, armour and hit points (for resisting damage itself), cost, encumbrance, and which combat manoeuvres can be performed with it.

Other things listed include food, lodging, general equipment like torches and writing kits, animals, and transport. You should know by now that I don’t pay much attention to equipment chapters.

COMBAT (30 pages)

The game aims to make combat deadly, tactical, and fun, while preserving a cinematic flavour. I’d say from reading it that it probably succeeds at the first, second and fourth of these, but I can’t judge the third without actually playing it a few times.

A combat round begins each combatant rolling initiative, which is 1d10 plus modified strike rank. In each round, you may move, and make your allowed number of combat actions; you can split your movement between the actions as you wish, allowing you to engage several enemies in a tight group in one round.

Combat actions include attacking, parrying, casting a spell, evading, and so on; you can delay your actions until later in the round if you wish. Each action is a percentile roll against the relevant skill, with the usual options of critical success, success, failure, and fumble. The GM has tables for fumble effects, which are always great fun. Additionally, the effect of your action depends on how well you did compared to your opponent; if you succeeded and he fumbled, you do better than if he had just failed. This manifests itself by granting the victor one or more from a range of options, which he selects before rolling damage; these can blind the opposition temporarily, disarm him, let you choose the hit location where your blow lands, and so forth.

Now, I have a beef with all systems which include parrying rolls, and it is that they slow down combat. Fights between experienced opponents last for many rounds, since the attacker has a very good chance of hitting, and the defender has a very good chance of negating that hit, so there’s a lot of dice rolling and not much damage inflicted. This can only work at all in systems where characters don’t get more hit points as they improve.

Legend partially addresses this by having the amount of damage deflected by a parry vary from all (RQ standard) to none, depending on the relative size of the weapons, and by the combat options for better success than the enemy – both are conceptually neat, but increase complexity.

If you manage to hit your foe, you damage a random hit location. So long as a hit location (say an arm) still has hit points left, it can be used normally; at zero hit points or less, limbs stop working and hits elsewhere make you lose consciousness. When it is fully negative (say, at -5 hit points if it started with +5), limbs are permanently maimed, and other locations have a significant chance of causing instant death.

You can imagine tracking all that for a dozen or so monsters. Fortunately, there are now simplified and optional rules for mooks, which I would definitely use. That way, I would only be tracking one or two detailed characters, like the players themselves.

MAGIC (3 pages)

This is a short introductory section, explaining the different types of magic, and the use and recovery of Magic Points. To cast a spell, you pay the number of magic points it requires, and make a skill roll; if successful, you apply the effects.

COMMON MAGIC (15 pages)

This is the basic magic which may (or may not) be available to all adventurers. Although there are a variety of buffs for non-combat skills, common magic is mostly for improving your chances in a fight.

Most such spells have levels (e.g. "Bladesharp 3"); higher levels have more powerful effects, but take longer to cast and cost more points. Learning a new spell requires several improvement rolls; you have to know any lower-level versions of the same spell before learning higher-level ones.

Common magic grants bonuses on skill rolls, adjusts characteristics, inflicts or heals minor damage, or has some other effect such as confusing foes or making an area dark as night. (Note that if you adjust a characteristic, you have to recalculate all the related parts of your character sheet – related skills, strike rank, whatever.)

DIVINE MAGIC (19 pages)

Divine magic is only available to those who have made a formal commitment to a deity and a related cult – originally in RQ, these were Initiates, RuneLords and RunePriests, and the spells were known as Rune Magic. The type of spells available depends on the deity and their sphere of interest; a harvest god and a god of thunder probably grant their followers different spells.

The formal commitment manifests itself in the amount of your Power you dedicate to your god, which may be as much as a quarter of your total Power initially, and more later; the more you dedicate, the more powerful the spells granted. Your own common magic can only be powered by points you have not dedicated. You may dedicate Power to multiple different gods.

The big advantage of divine magic is that it doesn’t cost magic points to cast; the god powers it for you. To use it, you require a Pact skill and a Lore skill. The Lore skill is the one used to cast the spells, the Pact measures the strength of the relationship with your god, and improves based on how well your actions align with his or her desires. (You can also devote improvement rolls to it.) Usually, once a spell is cast, you have to visit the temple and perform a ritual before you can use it again; it’s more like Vancian one-shot magic than common magic is.

The higher the Pact skill, the more like the deity the adventurer becomes, although there are no specific rules for this – it’s left to the player’s roleplaying skill. Your god will set you quests to allow you to prove your skill and commitment, which is an obvious source of scenario ideas.

As the adventurer advances from lay member of a cult, to initiate, to acolyte, to priest, it becomes easier to recover spells once cast, and the more powerful the spells he can learn.

Divine spells alter the environment and weather, bless crops, defend against hostile magic, summon or dismiss elementals, heal wounds, create illusions, or enhance combat abilities.

SORCERY (19 pages)

Where common magic is a collection of charms, and divine magic channels the power of the gods to do their will, sorcery bends reality to the mage’s will for his own ends. Sorcerors are thus not universally liked.

Sorcerous spells are recorded in grimoires, which the mage studies. His Sorcery skills (one per grimoire) reflect this, and are the skills used to cast such spells. His Manipulation skill allows him to buff the spell’s basic effects, giving it greater range or duration, more damage, and so on, or to combine it with another spell. He never rolls against Manipulation; each 10% of its rating allows him to buff one aspect of the spell, but also increases the number of Magic Points needed to cast it.

Sorcery allows one to enhance or diminish weapon damage, characteristics or a being’s movement; attract, repel or control various beings or creatures; fly; shape substances as one wishes; perceive magic, emotions or intentions; sense things at a distance; heal wounds and characteristics; shapechange; or tap a target’s characteristics, permanently draining them to convert them to magic points for the sorceror’s use.

GUILDS, FACTIONS AND CULTS (9 pages)

To start with, RQ only had cults, and they were my favourite part of the game. Legend now has guilds, magical or martial orders, and factions as well. The game’s assumption is that every adventurer will be part of at least one larger organisation, which provides support to the adventurer (notably access to training) in exchange for help from him (typically, going on quests).

Cults are organisations dedicated to worship of a particular deity or ideal; guilds exist to further a particular craft or profession; magical orders promote sorcery; martial orders are groups of like-minded warriors. Each organisation has five ranks, ranging from level 0 (lay member) to rank 4 (grand master), each with its own requirements – things the adventurer must do for it – and benefits – things it will do for him. Each organisation has specific skills, and possibly spells or heroic abilities, in which it will train members.

I have fond memories of RuneQuest‘s Cult of the Crimson Bat, mostly because the chief benefit for each rank was that you would not be fed to the Bat until all lower-ranking members had already been eaten. But I digress.

Increasing one’s rank in the organisation demands having been a member in good standing for a number of years, knowing its favoured skills at appropriate levels, and possibly dedicating Power to the patron deity.

A number of example organisations are provided. The Cult of the Thunderer (smells like Orlanth to me); the Order of the Black Serpent (evil magicians); and the Guild of Assassins (’nuff said). Organisations are one of the key ways in which the GM shapes his world, by signalling what types of duties and perquisites adventurers should pursue, and what sort of adventures the campaign will focus upon.

HEROIC ABILITIES (7 pages)

These are the superhuman powers that adventurers learn from their patron organisations or other heroes, and use to great effect in adventures. They are bought with hero points earned on adventures, but also require the adventurer to demonstrate his worthiness to the patron, typically by success in a quest. They are powered by Magic Points.

I can summarise them best by saying they allow the adventurer to perform feats out of Chinese martial arts movies; parrying arrows, hitting people so hard they fly metres backwards through the air, resisting damage or disease through sheer Bad-Assery, defying gravity, running along walls, ridiculously accurate missile fire and so forth.

I really like this idea. Each adventurer could have a signature move or three, and I instinctively started to rate favourite heroes from literature or movies in terms of which heroic abilities they had.

GAMESMASTERING LEGEND (12 pages)

This starts by explaining what sort of games Legend suits best. Legend assumes that the game is about character development in terms of skills and relationships with his or her community, and that killing monsters or collecting treasure are at best means to those ends, and at worst – irrelevant. Scenarios are driven by the needs of the adventurer’s family, home village, cult or organisation, which provides the GM with an ongoing source of ready-made adventure hooks.

Another lever the GM has for adjusting the campaign is magic. By mandating which types of magic can be used, and by whom, the flavour of the game is changed. Conan’s Hyboria? Only sorcery allowed, and then only for evil NPCs. Middle-Earth? Divine magic and sorcery, but no common magic. Classic RuneQuest Prax? Divine magic and common magic, and anyone can learn common magic.

Something that was pointed out to me in the 1970s when RQ first emerged, and is still true in Legend: Everything you need to play in, or run, a game is on the character sheet. The rulebook points this out.

There’s the usual advice to the GM on how to write or adapt adventures and campaigns, including how to scale the opposition to be a challenge but not overwhelming. I tend to take that as read in RPGs, since almost all of them have it.

The chapter closes with random tables for weather and encounters, mixed in with travel times and costs.

Given the game’s background assumption that magic items are not found just lying around, I can forgive the lack of a treasure section. If I need treasure, I pick something from the Equipment chapter and stud it with gems. Job done.

What I think ought to be included, though, is some kind of bestiary, even if it only includes a handful of stock human NPCs. Sure, I can whip some up easily enough using the character creation rules and assuming average die rolls, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

CONCLUSIONS

Legend is aimed squarely at the sort of play I like; cinematic, gritty pulp in which adventurers’ skills, cunning and guts are more important than their inventory. In my present circumstances it falls into the "too complicated and time-consuming" bucket for me; Your Mileage May Vary.

I can see myself borrowing a number of the mechanics, such as the tables for generating encounters and the PC’s family, the rules for odd jobs between adventures, and of course the cults, guilds and other types of factions. Given enough time and players, I could see myself using Legend for a game based in MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel, using cults for the religions and clans as a kind of guild.

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