Friday, October 3, 2008

REVIEW: Barbarians of the Wilderlands I

Barbarians of the Wilderlands I is a 20-page PDF, retailing for $4.00, written by the prolific James Mishler and intended for use with Adventure Games Publishing's Castles & Crusades-based Wilderlands of High Adventure setting. Of those 20 pages, 17 are devoted the text of the product itself, the other three being a cover, a table of contents/OGL page, and an illustrated dedication to "the Last Celt" (Robert E. Howard, for those curious). As with all of AGP's releases, Barbarians of the Wilderlands I is illustrated by Peter Bradley, who also acted as its graphic designer. The PDF has a clean, three-column layout that's easy on the eyes. The text is likewise clear and free of any egregious typographical or grammatical errors. From a purely technical standpoint, this is a solid product (though I must admit that I'd love to see other artists and art styles used in future products, if only to introduce some of the variety I tend to associate with the old school).

The PDF dedicates six pages to a variant barbarian class intended either to replace or to supplement the standard barbarian from the C&C Players Handbook (now dubbed a "savage warrior"). The variant's basic abilities are similar to those of the standard class, with some tweaks to make it more generalized and a bit less like a berserker. I appreciate this, since one of my biggest beefs with 3e is the way it conflates the berserker archetype with the barbarian archetype. The two are related certainly, but many pulp fantasy barbarians were not berserkers, so it's nice to see an attempt being made to broaden the class a bit. Of course, the variant barbarian still possesses a "primal rage" ability, but it doesn't overshadow its other abilities.

Among the variant barbarian's other abilities are what are called "tribal abilities." A 1st-level barbarian gets three of these abilities, depending on his native culture. The run the gamut from animal handling to horsemanship to sound imitation. The wide variety of tribal abilities should enable the referee to create many distinctive barbarian tribes, each with their own unique cultures and "specialties." Mishler clearly took a cue from the barbarian class in AD&D's Unearthed Arcana, which certainly reveals his long association with the hobby. In my opinion, though, this product's barbarian is much more playable and appealing than its UA predecessor. One way it does this is through a class ability called Versatility, which allows the barbarian to pick up minor class abilities from other classes, simulating the way that barbarian wanderers sometimes become jacks-of-all-trades over the course of their travels. It's a nifty little idea and I'm curious to see how it works in play.

The remainder of the product discusses some of the barbarians of the Wilderlands of High Adventure, providing specific information on their societies, cultures, and how to present them using the new rules. Each barbarian nation is given a single page write-up, which is, in my opinion, just about perfect. This way the referee gets a good overview of what, say, the Altanians are like -- their physical appearance, tribal structure, religion -- without bogging down in unnecessary details that just tie his hands. In each case, the barbarian nations are given one or more real world historical cultures from whom they are descended. At first, I thought Mishler had intended to say that, for example, the Skandiks were similar to Earth's Vikings, but the text clearly uses the words "are descended from." I asked him what he meant by this and he explained that many of the cultures of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy are literally descended from historical Earth cultures, brought to Ghenrek IV by various means throughout the ages. Mishler added that further details about this, as well as alternative explanations/options for those who prefer their Wilderlands to be "pure" fantasy, will be found in an upcoming product.

I was initially somewhat unsure about the utility of this product. I've stated before that I think one of the virtues of the Wilderlands is how skeletal it is as a setting. My great fear is that AGP might spend too much time fleshing out its every nook and cranny and publishing products filled with minutiae of interest only to the hardest of the hardcore fans. That's clearly not the case with Barbarians of the Wilderlands I. Instead it's a terrificly usable product that gives just enough information to save the beleaguered referee time but without burying him in mounds of details that he could just as soon create himself through play. Because of this flexibility, I'd recommend it even to those who don't use the Wilderlands setting or even play C&C. It's full of good ideas and ought to inspire anyone who wants to add pulp fantasy barbarians to their campaigns.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms

14 comments:

  1. In terms of Continuity and Tradition how would you say these products compare to or adhere to the spirit of original Judges Guild Wilderlands material and the D20 versions of WilderlandsCity State?

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  2. I'd say that, overall, I think Necromancer Wilderlands stuff is more consistently true to the original Judges Guild stuff in terms of its setting content, but that the 3e/D20 mechanics are a very poor fit for the type of setting it is (i.e. fast and loose pulp fantasy).

    The AGP stuff is more a mixed bag, with some products being (to my mind anyway) too focused on minutiae, while others hit exactly the right notes and very nicely evoke the Judges Guild feel of old. I'd also say that C&C is a much better fit for the setting than straight D20.

    That said, I've not really been unhappy with either the Necromancer stuff or the AGP stuff. I have various quibbles with both, but they're quibbles, not huge issues. Each in their own way makes good on their desire to honor the past and stay true to Bob Bledsaw's vision.

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  3. I've been thinking about the idea that it was 3e that conflated the barbarian and berserker in fantasy since it was pointed out in the discussion on my barbarian/berserker class in the OD&D forum, and on reflection it's simply not true. Looking at the Arduin Grimoire, the Barbarian class presented there has a berserker rage, and this in 1977. I'd have to check again on the barbarians discussed in Alarums & Excursions to see if this is true of them as well, but at least for Arduin barbarian=berserker goes back to the genuine old school. The Unearthed Arcana treatment of the class lacked it, but on the whole I think the UA barbarian is one of the worse things in 1e.

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  4. Wayne,

    You're certainly correct that the barbarian = berserker concept has a long pedigree, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a conflation of two very different archetypes. Conan is obviously the most well-known fantasy barbarian and I wouldn't say that he fits the berserker-style barbarian very well at all.

    So, I'll grant that the association of rage/berserking with the barbarian class is an old one. I just don't think it's a good association or the best use of the barbarian archetype.

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  5. I think the conflation is a perfectly understandable one, actually. It makes sense from a game mechanic perspective to want to differentiate the barbarian from the standard fighter, and aside from wilderness exploration and tracking skills there's not a whole lot you can do for a "barbarian" as such. So a lot of authors reach for the "berserker" as the closest thing, giving the class a combat advantage with its own drawback.

    That said, I do understand why you'd want to disentangle the two - a berserker character isn't exactly going to be like Conan. But I understand why people keep doing it, as well.

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  6. It makes sense from a game mechanic perspective to want to differentiate the barbarian from the standard fighter, and aside from wilderness exploration and tracking skills there's not a whole lot you can do for a "barbarian" as such.

    Agreed and it's one of the reasons why I don't see the need for a barbarian class in D&D at all. For the most part, you can reproduce the classical pulp fantasy barbarian with the fighting man. The drive to have classes for everything is an approach with which I don't at all degree and one that I wish had never taken hold.

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  7. The AGP stuff is more a mixed bag, with some products being (to my mind anyway) too focused on minutiae, while others hit exactly the right notes and very nicely evoke the Judges Guild feel of old. I'd also say that C&C is a much better fit for the setting than straight D20.

    Cheers. I'm using the Necro Games stuff with S&W. I like it a lot (apart from the 3e stats obviously). It compare well to the orgiginal JG stuff.

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  8. The drive to have classes for everything is an approach with which I don't at all degree and one that I wish had never taken hold.

    There's a very delicate balance, and part of the problem is that it varies from game to game. If classes are strong archetypes, limiting the options to fighting-man, magic-user and cleric means that whole swaths of character types are closed to players. But piling on the classes leads to a certain lack of focus and a glut of options. The best class diversity depends on the game that you're running, but I'd guess that the ideal is probably somewhere between 4 (Holmes basic D&D) and 11 (AD&D).

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  9. The number of classes in the Wilderlands of High Adventure is something I've been struggling with from day one. In my own game, of course, I would be open to allowing various additional classes as the players wished, depending on their whims and the system we'd play. For example, if we were using 3E D&D, I usually allowed most base classes, even some from 3PP, but rarely allowed prestige classes all willy-nilly, as I wanted those to be, well, prestigious and rare.

    So when I decided to go with C&C for WoHA, I had to make a decision about what to do with classes other than the core 13. Do I create them so that they exist "officially"? Just let players and judges create and use their own? Remain silent on the whole issue? What to do?

    Originally I thought to do several books outlining all the various optional classes that could be available (first announced back at Gen Con 2006). After all, Bob had included 27 classes in his Universal System alone, not to mention various others that appeared in JG sourcebooks and magazines over the years. So there was definitely a tradition of additional classes for the Wilderlands, and I originally wanted to follow in that tradition.

    Like many of my decisions about WoHA and AGP in general, following tradition ended up being a bad idea. It became apparent that, in fact, only a portion of the C&C/Wilderlands core were interested in seeing new classes, sucha small portion that publishing "splatbooks" featuring such classes would likely end up being a waste of time and money.

    So then I decided to try simply listing the alternate class name, with the alternate core class to use instead, and a few special abilities, and let the judges decide themselves if they wanted to develop something further. For example, I might list an NPC as:

    Rhoda the Slayer (Lawful Neutral female Amazon human 3rd level Amazon Warrior (Barbarian) with Battle Dancer (charisma bonus to AC) and Harridan (+1 to hit and damage against males) special abilities).

    So the judge would know more particularly how to portray the character, and some special abilities that the "Amazon Warrior" class would have, but would know to simply run her as a Barbarian if he didn't want to work up a whole class.

    But... that can be confusing. I included this kind of detail in a few early books, and got a ton of questions about how to run these, or if they had to create a class, or when was the official class coming out, and so forth.

    Sigh.

    So then I thought, well, if the class books won't sell in print, maybe I can release optional classes one by one in PDF format, then do a short run book combining many of these classes, if they sell well. And so the Barbarians of the Wilderlands was born. And the sales have been, well, poor, especially compared to the number of downloads of the free classes I had on my website. But then, PDF sales have died in the last month and a half anyway, so maybe it's not just the Barbarian class. But I can't count on that. So for now, additional optional classes are on hold...

    Double sigh.

    So in the end I've decided to simply go with the core classes from the C&C PHB, giving a few individuals special abilities (described in detail in their stats) when warranted. It is the simplest way of doing things.

    I think the C&C PHB goes jsut a tad over what might be considered "optimal," at 13 classes, but they cover all the bases for the original AD&D/OD&D classes, including classic also-rans such as the Assassin, Barbarian, Illusionist, and Knight (Cavalier). You can easily get away with running C&C with just the Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric, but the Ranger, Monk, Paladin, Bard, and Druid are also quite core to the Wilderlands experience. The Wilderlands was always a weird mix of the LBB, SR/early Dragon, and Holmes, really, so anything from those early days is a strong fit.

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  10. The best class diversity depends on the game that you're running, but I'd guess that the ideal is probably somewhere between 4 (Holmes basic D&D) and 11 (AD&D).

    I think you're right. As I work on my own vision for an OD&D-inspired campaign, my thoughts regarding the number of character classes generally falls within that range.

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  11. But then, PDF sales have died in the last month and a half anyway

    Really? That's a pity, because I've really loved the stuff you've been doing lately and I think you're finally hitting your stride. I really loved Monsters & Treasures, as I did the Eldritch Compendium (I'll write a review later this week). I'd hate to see you produce fewer PDFs, because they're an excellent value, given how much useful -- flexible -- content there is in them.

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  12. Really? That's a pity, because I've really loved the stuff you've been doing lately and I think you're finally hitting your stride.

    Thanks! It's not an issue of my products in this, I think, as others I have spoken with have also seen a significant drop, not just in PDF but also in print. The whole economy is in a shambles here in the States, and with most gamers being on the edge of the economy as it is, they get hit hardest when there is a shift. That's why I put together my "Economic Stabilization Sale."

    I'll keep doing PDFs, definitely. But I also have print products I have to finish up. Hard to keep them balanced; the print products are more profitable, but the PDF products have more instant gratification, both financial and artistic. Tough balance to maintain...

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  13. So long as you keep producing more Wilderlands of High Adventure products, print or PDF, I'll be very happy. You've really got a great little line going there and I think C&C is a good fit for the style you want to evoke. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what you have in store for the future.

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  14. barbarians and hig adventure...its the best. Come and fight me at http://mmrgame.com ;-)

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