Review: Spears of the Dawn

Posted: 18 February 2013 in Reviews

Now this is sheer extravagance for me; I have no plans to run an African-themed Basic D&D-style campaign, but I was curious about what Kevin Crawford had done with that premise; and since there’s something useful in anything from Sine Nomine Publications, it’s a low-risk purchase.

A few bucks later, I have on my hard drive a 180-page PDF aimed at exactly that type of campaign. What’s inside, you ask? Well…

SUMMARY

Class-and-level fantasy game based on African myth and legend. The rules are essentially a retroclone of 1980s-era D&D with a skills system reminiscent of Classic Traveller grafted on. PCs are wandering troubleshooters resolving problems left over from a war their grandfathers fought, problems that have a penchant for lurking in old underground tombs.

CONTENTS

The book opens with two pages of grab-your-attention introduction before you even reach the contents page. These are a one-page briefing on the setting, and a second page explaining both why the book came to be written ("Let’s try African legends and myth instead of mediaeval Europe,") and what player characters do in the game (hunt down the remaining forces of the unholy Sixth Kingdom, defeated in war 40 years previously).

Creating a Character (26 pages): Roll 3d6 for each of 6 attributes, pick a class, buy some gear, and you’re off. Crawford unbends a little further than previously in allowing players to pick attributes rather than rolling for them – you can specify scores of 7, 11 or 14, so long as you have as many 7s as 14s.

Players are encouraged to pick a core character concept and culture before creating the character per se. The setting includes five kingdoms, each of which is briefly described in terms of terrain and cultural stereotypes, and each of which has ten suggested backgrounds for an adventurer. The background assigns a handful of skills.

Step three is choosing a class. There are fighters, and three different types of spellcaster (griot, malabout and nganga), but no thieves. The spellcasters get spells, the warriors get "idahuns" – which are effectively feats – and everyone gets some more skills.

Notice that everyone is human – no elves, dwarves, hobbits or half-anythings here.

The final touches are choosing languages, rolling for hit points, and buying equipment; equipment has an African flavour as you would expect, but covers the usual basics – armour, weapons, camping gear. It has taken me longer to type this up than it would to create a character, and I don’t know the system that well.

Systems and Rules (10 pages): For the most part this is a lot like D&D; to hit in combat or make a saving throw, roll 1d20, apply bonuses or penalties, and check to see if you matched or beat a target number. To use a skill, roll 2d6, add the skill level, and try to match or beat a target number. That’s the guts of the game right there.

Attacks deduct hit points; when those reach zero, you die. You recover one hit point per level per day, plus twice the healer’s Medicine skill (if you have a healer,t that is).

This chapter also covers overland movement, encumbrance, injury and healing, diseases and poisons, and character advancement. For that, you level up by gaining experience points, which translate into more hit points, points to improve skills with at your discretion, and improved attack and save bonuses. As written, the game assumes that the majority of heroes won’t progress beyond 10th level.

The chapter speaks briefly, but effectively, to converting characters to and from other retroclones, and concludes with a one-page quick reference sheet.

Magic (24 pages): I mentioned earlier there are three types of spellcaster. Griots have a pool of points which they use to fuel their magical songs; marabouts use the Vancian magic system familiar to D&D players; and nganga have complex ritual spells, some of which can be stored in a fetish and activated later – in play this is much like Vancian spell slots. Griots beguile, charm and buff; marabouts heal and channel the powers of the gods; ngangas deal in curses, spirits and amulets. In total there are about 120 spells.

The Three Lands (26 pages): Here’s the setting chapter; more information on the Five Kingdoms, and the background of their Long War with, and eventual victory over, the Sixth Kingdom, and its pact with dark powers. There are notes on social interaction, family, marriage, law and punishment, slavery, food and drink, climate, religion and so forth.

There’s a colour hex-map of the Five Kingdoms. This is followed by explanations of the appearance, clothing, typical personalities and cultures of each, noting in particular what sort of adventurers that land produces.

Running a Campaign (12 pages): We now leave behind things a PC might now, or a player could see without learning dark secrets, and move into GM territory, where the lighting is dim and the wind howls among lightning strikes. We start with an explanation of sandbox play, and how it differs from the more fashionable pre-plotted story arcs. Chiefly, this means that the players need to take a more active role in determining character and campaign goals, and that the GM needs to be alert to the direction the PCs are likely to go next, so that he has planned out the areas they visit, without burning himself out detailing the whole continent. Both are acquired skills. The GM is also briefed on how to handle loot, investigation, combat and character death and replacement, as well as how to deal with the setting likely being unfamiliar to most players. It’s all good stuff.

Then we move on to running the Five Kingdoms, a fast, simple system for addressing what’s going on at the regional level while the PCs are clearing out that tomb-house. For the GM, this could almost be a game in its own right, but its purposes are to generate adventure seeds and create the illusion of vibrant, living nations who do interesting stuff even if the PCs aren’t looking that way.

Each nation is rated for Might, Troubles and Treasure. The GM assigns one role to each nation – one is on the rise, one is in decline, one is hostile, and so on. As in other Sine Nomine products, there’s then a simple set of rules for things each kingdom might try to do each turn, and their potential impacts.

Creating Adventures (18 pages): This next section is about the art of creating sandbox adventures, a mixture of sound advice to the GM and random generators to prompt him when imagination fails. This segues into guidelines for awarding experience and a series of one-page templates – stock locations or scenarios and random tables with which to populate them. These include the Ruined Dwelling, the Social Conflict, the Tomb-House, the evil Cult, the Urban Palace, the Noble Clan, the City Streets, the Criminal Group, the Lost Shrine and the Cavern Complex; they’re intended to be used with the maps for those stock locations in the Gamemaster Resources chapter.

A Bestiary of the Three Lands (16 pages): Here there be monsters, a couple of dozen of ’em, and rules for creating new ones – the stand-out addition here is the table for generating the combat behaviour of your new beastie. The monsters detailed in the bestiary are a mix of human opponents, animals, summoned spirits and undead.

Treasures and Their Uses (17 pages): What mundane treasure and lesser magical items you find depend on what you’re looting, and there is a handy table showing what might be found anywhere from a peasant’s hut to a royal treasury to a tomb-house. This explains what sort of thing you have found, for example cheap furniture, and further sub-tables explain what it is in detail (a small statuette worth 30 silver, for example). Minor magic items tend to be potions, spirit tokens, fetishes, masks, or magic armour and weapons. Major ones are designed and placed by the GM, and likely to be the purpose of a quest rather than random treasure. “Uses” includes what you can convert into spendable form where, hiring retainers or paying magicians to cast a spell for you, constructing your palatial lair, and so on.

Gamemaster Resources (16 pages): These are the bits I look forward to in any new Sine Nomine book, and they don’t disappoint. Tables of quick adventure and conflict elements for when a one-page template just isn’t enough; random name generators for each kingdom; tables for generating minor states or remote tribes, including what they want the PCs to do for them; NPC statblocks for each of the character classes at level 1, 3, 5, 7, or 9; quick NPC generator (personality, looks and so on, to slap on top of the statblock); magic table for working out what spells a nganga has prepared (marabouts and griots can pretty much cast what they like); evil cult generator; quick reference table of creature stats; seven different stock location maps; character sheet; two-page introductory adventure.

…and as usual, the book closes with a bibliography and an index.

FORMAT

Full-colour covers, but inside it’s two-column black on white text and line drawings. Very printer-friendly, and I approve of that.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The weight of the text varies, especially in the Five Kingdoms descriptions, as if some were black, some were bold and some were grey. When I’m reduced to picking nits like that, it’s not a bad game.

CONCLUSIONS

As usual, Crawford does a good job of conveying a lot of information in a small page count. It would have been tempting to reuse content from his earlier sandbox gaming books, notably some of the GM resources, but instead he has created a whole new set, tailored for the milieu.

Like other Sine Nomine products, I put it down reluctantly, wondering how I could make use of the GM tools. This time, the ones most obviously useful are the kingdom setup, activities and random Trouble Tables from Running the Five Kingdoms; the random tables for generating items of interest such as traps, writing, artwork, McGuffins,

Suddenly, I foresee the Ivory Savannah becoming more important in Shadows of Keron.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 (I won’t use it as is, but I will repurpose bits for other campaigns).

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