Saturday, 11 February 2012

Barbarians of Lemuria

Barbarians of Lemuria is a roleplaying game about barbarians. In Lemuria. But it is a bit more than that too. I've long been seeking a game that can reproduce for me the thrill and wonder that was conjured up when I first read Robert E. Howard's excellent Conan stories. I've long realised that generic fantasy roleplaying games like D&D would never quite provide the Hyborian-esque, gritty swords and sorcery atmosphere I was seeking. I ran a couple of adventures for the Conan RPG three years ago and felt even this, while rich in background detail for Howard's world (much of it in turn ripped out of Herodotus - but that's a different story), did not quite feel 'right'. It was more like a D&D 3rd edition game pasted onto Hyboria.

I bought Barbarians of Lemuria by Beyond Belief Games, because I was seeking a relatively rules lite swords and sorcery game that might be able to power a Hyborian campaign without the need for number crunching on the scale of a Pathfinder. I was looking for a number of characteristics:
  • A system of flaws and edges that would help players to round out a character;
  • Simple and rapid chargen that would allow players to create a PC in 30 minutes;
  • A fast and fluid combat system that could deliver cinematic battles and handle large numbers of combatants without bogging down;
  • Some rules elements that would encourage role playing.
BoL ticks many of these boxes, and goes most of the way towards delivering the system I wanted: an action-packed game with plenty of combat and all the usual trappings of classic Howardian adventures. There are some things I really like about BoL. For starters, it is rules lite: everything is stripped down to a single 2d6 task resolution mechanic, with a target number of nine. Characters are assigned four Attributes, and four fighting skills (hand to hand, brawl, ranged, and defence - the latter functions a bit like armour class, with armour itself being used to soak damage).

There are no skills: instead, characters are generated using four careers, with points assigned to each based on how long that character was in that career. Thus, tasks a character might have learned in that career will be easier: a character with Pirate (2) can get +2 to checks to mend a sail. You don't specify skills - it is assumed that the character knows the skills that profession is likely to have learned. If you have Thief (1), the likelihood is you know how to pick a lock, although specialist Thieves Tools can only be acquired via a Boon (see below).

It is open to abuse, however: a player with Gladiator might want to insist on using his bonus in every fight, but luckily my players were mature enough to see this was not the intention of the game's author. I did, however, miss having a proper skill system of some kind to hand, just as I did with Cold City. Maybe I'm just too old school for this?

Two of the pre-gen characters had levels in Gladiator.

The rules also have Boons and Flaws which can be used to round out a character. We used pre-gens for our session, but normally you would choose a region of Lemuria from which your character hails, and this would offer sample Boons and Flaws to choose from. I liked this: character advancement lets you add other generic Boons later on, but you end up playing an individual that is a typical citizen of his homeland, which does ring true for this genre of fiction.

Many of these attributes are also not combat-focused, which was refreshing, and it is obviously easy to create new ones of your own to flesh out characters further. My favourite so far is Hunted By The Witch Queen, which means the character has a 1/6 chance of running into agents of the Witch Queen looking for him every time he enters a major settlement. Brilliant plot device.

I merged two of the sample adventures in the book into a single longer scenario, which amply filled a three hour Friday night gaming slot. I felt these slightly railroaded the PCs, despite the game's author warning against just this in his GMing advice chapter. Again, I was helped by a group of mature players who recognised the milieu tropes they were meant to be hamming up and rolled with it. They quickly realised the advantages their PCs enjoyed over the opposition they faced, to the extent that four PCs were able to take down 16 cannibals in jungle ambush with just one of them being reduced to negative hit points (life blood in this game). The only serious opposition they faced was a giant subterranean slug critter that was slain out of hand by their barbarian character who rolled a crit in the first round of the battle, and a pirate lord who was conveniently knifed in his sleep!

Fearsome, but quickly carved up by our Heroes...

The combat system is very fluid, and encourages players to come up with their own feats and combat moves, like the barbarian character who used a spear to vault onto the back of a giant scorpion creature in an arena battle early in the session. Somehow it all felt more cinematic than characters being constrained by a rigid system of feats and intricately defined combat characteristics.

The players did get into the spirit of the game, and seemed to enjoy it. My reservations remain as to whether it is really crunchy enough for me. BoL works well for the sort of short one to three session scenario I like to run (I'm not an epic campaign dude any more, by any means), and covers off many of the milieu-specific themes I'm looking for. Plus it is 'lite' enough to allow players to focus on role playing without the distractions of learning a new system, which ain't bad! It is certainly easier to digest than something like Burning Wheel, much as I love its concepts.

I continue to toy with the idea of porting this over to Hyboria, and running a game of Barbarians of Hyboria, so to speak. We shall see. Meantime the PCs are relaxing with their loot in the city state of Parhool, where one of them has established a gladiator school and another is training a pair of sabre tooth tigers!

1 comment:

  1. I really like the fact that with BOL in three hours you can do what it would normally take you 10 to do in D&D. Good little game but some of my players don't like it because it isn't quite crunchy enough. I tend to agree with them except when we play it...then it seems complete enough.