Saturday, May 2, 2009

REVIEW: OSRIC Unearthed

OSRIC Unearthed is a 42-page PDF written by Charles Rice and retailing for $7.00. Obviously, it's intended for use with OSRIC, but some of its contents could be fairly easily adapted to other old school fantasy RPGs -- some but not all. I say that because a goodly portion of OSRIC Unearthed is devoted to "martial arts" (a broad term encompassing a variety of combat styles and maneuvers, not just Asian-derived unarmed combat) and uses OSRIC's weapon proficiency rules as their basis. Games like Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry both lack such rules, making it harder to introduce these martial arts into those games without also importing weapon proficiencies or something akin to them. It's not an insurmountable difficulty by any means, but I felt I should mention that, unlike many old school products, OSRIC Unearthed is fairly strongly mechanically connected to its native rules set.

The product is cleanly laid out and easy to read. I encountered no obvious editorial or layout issues, although I was a bit baffled by the extensive table of contents, when an index would probably have been more immediately useful. The layout itself is reminscent of OSRIC's own without being a direct copy of it. OSRIC Unearthed is illustrated through the use of black and white clip art that varies in quality and appropriateness, with the best pieces reminding me of artwork from the early Silver Age of D&D, which only seems fitting given how much inspiration this product draws from TSR products of that era, such as Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. The end result is sober and workmanlike rather than inspired.

The first part of OSRIC Unearthed (pages 2-22) consists of eight new character classes. They're a mixed bag in my opinion, with some being quite excellent and others fairly banal. They are:
  • Barbarian: This class is a nice marriage of the ideas behind the AD&D barbarian (fear/hatred of magic, commanding a horde, etc.) with those of more recent vintage (berserker rage), without all the infelicities of either one. It's not perfect by any means, but it's better than either of its inspirations.
  • Bard: This is an interesting take on the class, being much more closely focused on using music to achieve quasi-magical effects than was its AD&D counterpart, yet without explicit spellcasting. It also has the benefit of being a complete class unto itself rather than a proto-prestige class.
  • Brawler: An intriguing class, this one is a Western-style "martial artist," an expert in unarmed combat. My main beef with it is that it pretty much demands the use of the new martial arts rules (about which I'll talk shortly).
  • Knight: A less egregious version of the AD&D cavalier, it's nevertheless not a class that I see a great need for. That said, for referees who do, it's a well-done option.
  • Ninja: The first of several new Oriental character classes, the ninja is a thief/assassin with a dash of illusionist thrown in. This is a class I was prepared to dislike on principle, but its presentation won me over.
  • Noble: Like the bard, the noble has the ability to inspire others as its primary class abilities. I'm not at all convinced anyone would want to play such a class nor do I see much need for it.
  • Samurai: This class comes across as just a variant of the knight, which I suppose it is.
  • Thief-Acrobat: I never much cared for this class in AD&D (another proto-prestige class) and this version, which is a fairly straight translation of it, didn't change my mind about it.
  • Yamabushi: This is a modified version of the traditional monk placed within its Oriental context.
There's a short list of new weapons, almost of them Asian in origin. Then there's the new martial arts rules, which take up most of the remainder of the book (pages 23-35). These rules allow characters to use their weapon proficiency slots to purchase "styles," each of which has several combat "maneuvers" under it. No more than a single maneuver can be used per attack and each one grants some combat boon, sometimes in exchange for a drawback. Most of these maneuvers grant very small bonuses, either to hit or to damage under specific circumstances and some have special effects, such as lowering an opponent's armor class for a time, for example. The styles themselves are very broad, covering everything from Asian unarmed combat to specific weapon styles. The author definitely understands the dangers of bonus inflation and deftly avoids that in these rules, which feel very old school in their mechanics, if not their conception. Many basically amount to lightly mechanized "flavor" abilities, which some referees may or may not see as worth their while.

The remainder of the book consists of a handful of new magic items and suggestions for how to run OSRIC campaigns with either an Arthurian or Oriental flavor -- no surprise given that its author D20 campaign rules for both from RPGObjects.

Mechanically, OSRIC Unearthed is superb. I have absolutely no qualms with its new rules, all of which feel continuous with the approach of OSRIC itself. In this respect, I'd call it "Unearthed Arcana done right," but then I generally feel that the Gygaxian original felt like a break with what had come before it rather than a logical extension. Content-wise, OSRIC Unearthed is a bit less sound, not because its ideas are bad ones -- they are not -- but because so many are focused on Oriental-style D&D that they may not be of use to referees who run straight-up Western campaigns. Of course, some of its contents, like the ninja, as I noted, are good enough that they almost demand "re-tooling" outside an Asian setting. I respect that the author made the martial arts rules useful even in non-Asian settings, but it's also clear that they work best in that campaign context.

Consequently, OSRIC Unearthed has a high quotient of "outré" material that won't be useful to everyone. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it will limit this product's appeal, which is a pity given how well done it is. I'd love to see more OSRIC material from Charles Rice in the future; here's hoping his next product might be more "traditional" in its content so that it will attract the attention it deserves.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're interested in adding new classes and martial arts to your games and aren't put off by a lot of Asian-themed content
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in Asian-themed fantasy and/or see no need for secondary and tertiary character classes, like the barbarian or the knight.

15 comments:

  1. This class is a nice marriage of the ideas behind the AD&D barbarian (fear/hatred of magic, commanding a horde, etc.) with those of more recent vintage (berserker rage), without all the infelicities of either one.Recent vintage? There were berserker rage barbarians in Alarums & Excursions and Arduin Grimoire that were printed before the Players Handbook. For some reason it's become fashionable to suggest that the two were separate in the early days of the hobby but it's just not how it was, unless you limit your field of inquiry to official TSR products. Barbarians going berserk has been around almost as long as the hobby.

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  2. For some reason it's become fashionable to suggest that the two were separate in the early days of the hobby but it's just not how it was, unless you limit your field of inquiry to official TSR products.

    Since this product is a supplement for OSRIC, the AD&D retro-clone, I limited my comparisons to its direct predecessors. The Gygaxian barbarian was not a berserker.

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  3. Hi James, thanks for the review!

    A few comments if I may, which are not intended as any sort of quibbling with the review by me but to explain why some choices were made.

    On the subject of the Barbarian, as a RE Howard fan, I used Conan as my polestar, not any incarnation of barbarian from *any* edition of the game.

    Conan was fearful of magic and prone to blood rages, so both were included.

    On the subject of including the Oriental Classes one issue I always had with the classic Oriental Adventures was that they were designed to NOT be included, and were balanced differently, which caused a host of problems.

    I also have found that if the game master allows an oriental character as a rarity, someone will step up and play a Ronin or a martial artist as a fish out of water.

    And finally of course, there's the Scarlet Brotherhood, which would definitely use many of the Oriental-themed classes in the book, at least in my opinion.

    So since I'd want the Yamabushi for a Greyhawk campaign, separating them out seemed like a bad idea.

    I realize it's not the sort of book where 100% of it will see use in every campaign.

    But I felt (hoped at least) that folks who bought the book would always want it around either for the "next campaign" or to represent a mysterious wanderer or for rules for that unexplored island their players would be stuck on for the next 4 weeks of gameplay.

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  4. European knights and Japaneses Samurai are two totally different things. Neither is a variation of the other.
    I find it funny that few RPGs that aren't specific to the Samurai genre (read Bushido) never get a samurai class right.

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  5. European knights and Japaneses Samurai are two totally different things.

    I realise this is OT, but could anyone provide a description of the European knight and the Japanese samurai that really lays out the differences? I see some commonalities between them, especially in the relationship between knight and lord on one hand and samurai and daimyo on the other, but maybe that involves an understanding of the knight that's far removed from popular ideas based loosely on Malory.
    ...also, I guess "European knight" is a pretty broad category.

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  6. There are a fair number of differences between the two.

    However, when distilled into the relatively simple mechanics of OSRIC, the two classes wound up looking rather similar.

    They're both fighter sub-types, both immune to fear and both gain sword as a weapon of choice.

    Both live by strict code of honor and are required to be lawful.

    Those are the similarities in this book.

    The differences are in the nature of their respective codes- I actually spell out the Code of Chivalry and the Code of Bushido in the book.

    Also the knight gains bonuses while fighting mounted, while the samurai gains additional weapons of choice in the spear (yari) and bow (daikyu) for the three traditional weapons every samurai was supposed to master.

    And yes, I realize that not every knight was the same, nor was every samurai.

    But when distilling the Arthurian Knight and the "classical" Samurai into OSRIC classes, they ended up with some similarities and some differences.

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  7. I think Chuck's doing a splendid job of justifying his ideas.

    Either way, I am all about this book, and would love to get a copy if I can ever afford it (I'll have to get my hands on OSRIC first, though).

    And I would totally play the Noble class, for novelty's sake if nothing else.

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  8. For myself, I must say I bought this book (hard-copy) when it came out, and while I don't use it in my own campaign, I'm happy to have it, for nothing if not inspiration.

    It's the modern equivalent of an issue of Dungeoneer, Judges Guild Journal, Alarums and Excursions, or The Dragon. I don't need to use it as written to be able to appreciate its value.

    The mere fact that it exists speaks to the fact that there is a vibrant community of people poking about in all sorts of different directions in the bowels of the earliest incarnations of our favorite game, and I want to see where said poking goes. I might use it. I might not. But I would like to see one of these every month, and would gladly pay the price for a hard-copy through Lulu. Gods know I spent enough on Judge's Guild stuff I never ran as-written...

    My word verification: ingful. "Ing" from the Norse god of fertility and prosperity and the generative energy (as in Ingve FreyR), and "ful" from the OE word meaning "full of". Strangely apropos...

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  9. "On the subject of the Barbarian, as a RE Howard fan, I used Conan as my polestar, not any incarnation of barbarian from *any* edition of the game."

    Eh... look in some old Dragon issues. In one, EGG gave stats for Conan, along with several unique abilities. A few issues later, a he presents the "barbarian" class -- with the exact same list of enumerated abilities.

    EGG's barbarian class was very specifically his reading for Conan in AD&D terms.

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  10. If the AD&D Barbarian is meant to be EGG's take on Conan, then I must humbly disagree with his take.

    In Pheonix on the Sword, the first Conan story published, King Conan meets Epemitreus the Sage in a dream, even though he's been dead for millennia.

    The Sage warns him of an impending coup, then gives him a magic sword (the Phoenix Sword) which he will NEED (according to Epemitreus) to defeat a mystical demon.

    Basically, Conan needs this magic weapon to hit the demon.

    The AD&D Barbarian would not.

    Also, Conan seems perfectly and pragmatically willing to use the magic blade to confront the demon.

    Again, this doesn't seem to hold with the class as presented in Unearthed Arcana.

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  11. It looks like something to mark for future reference - if you gave it 10 for creativity - even if it is not put in use, it would most certainly come in handy as a reference book

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  12. "Also, Conan seems perfectly and pragmatically willing to use the magic blade to confront the demon... Again, this doesn't seem to hold with the class as presented in Unearthed Arcana."

    You forget that the magic-prohibition is only for low-level AD&D barbarians. UA-style AD&D barbarians can use any magic weapons at 4th level and higher.

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  13. You forget that the magic-prohibition is only for low-level AD&D barbarians. UA-style AD&D barbarians can use any magic weapons at 4th level and higher.
    That's all right, then. Do they finally man up and get over their superstition, or sell out? Or is it just that a blanket prohibition on magic powerups would break the class at higher levels?

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  14. I always interpreted the barbarian's loss of restrictions as him "getting over" the superstitions of his native culture. Thrond of the Northlands sees that his civilized buddy Dirk von Pembrek fights with a magical sword and it does not, in fact, steal his soul... or perhaps after many nasty wounds, the strange healing ways of the foreign cleric no longer seem so objectionable to him. Not so much selling out, but embracing belief systems out side of his magic-hating culture.

    That being said, I personally find the UA Barbarian and the OA Barbarian to be damn near unplayable as written. Maybe OSRIC Unearthed will give me some good ideas for editing the class to suit my tastes.

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  15. Ryan, I tried really, really hard to make the new classes balanced with those in OSRIC core, which is why I think James paid me the singular compliment of calling the book "Arcana Unearthed done right".

    Hopefully you'll agree!

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