Tuesday, May 5, 2009

REVIEW: Warriors & Warlocks

The influence of comic books as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons is a topic we've discussed here recently. The early 1970s was a boom time for swords-and-sorcery comics, with titles like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja leading the way. These comics were simultaneously a reflection of a the wider pulp fantasy revival that began in the late 60s and engines of that revival in their own rights. There's little doubt in my mind that quite a few early designers of roleplaying games were first exposed to pulp fantasy not through the original stories themselves but through comic books based on those stories. Indeed, I suspect that far more gamers know Conan from reading comic books than from reading the writings of Robert E. Howard.

It's only fitting, therefore, that someone would create a RPG product that explicitly connects fantasy gaming with swords-and-sorcery comics -- and what better someone than Green Ronin Publishing, whose superhero game, Mutants & Masterminds, is one of the most successful offspring of D&D 3e via the Open Game License? Their recently-released PDF product (with a print version coming in the summer), Warriors & Warlocks, is 142 pages of rules, advice, and examples on how to use the M&M rules to play in "the days of high adventure." W&W is a full-color product that's lavishly illustrated by excellent comic book-style art, some of it quite evocative. The writing is clear, for the most part, and the editing is solid. Writers Dale Donovan, Matthew Kaiser, John Leitheusser, and Aaron Sullivan certainly know the history of S&S comics and the text is peppered with useful references to influential titles in the genre, along with occasional quotes from writers like REH.

Chapter One presents an overview swords-and-sorcery comics, as well as a discussion of dramatic/thematic elements common to them. For those unfamiliar with the history of these comics (or of pop cultural pulp fantasy, generally), it's extremely useful. Chapter Two, meanwhile, is a rules-heavy chapter, adding new mechanics to the M&M system, in addition to showing how existing rules can be modified or otherwise altered to better suit a fantasy setting. Also included in the second chapter are a wide variety of useful templates. These include racial templates for classic fantasy races, such as elves and dwarves, as well as some sly references to more nouveau races such as infernal half-breeds and living constructs. Of particular interest to me was the chapter's collection of archetypal characters, since it's here that one can most obviously see the inspirations for this product. Among the heroic templates are the Divine Champion (a D&D-style cleric or paladin), Half-Crazed Warmage, Silver-Tongued Rake, World-Weary Sellsword, Legendary Weaponmaster, Mighty-Thewed Barbarian, Timelost Hero (a great homage to many classics of pulp fantasy), Cursed Wanderer (à la Elric), and Demigod Adventurer (Marvel's Thor or Herclues).

Chapter Three is the referee's chapter, providing all the tools needed for creating one's own sword-and-sorcery comics-style game. This includes a collection of villain archetypes and how to use them. Like the heroic archetypes, I appreciated the breadth of examples provided, which highlighted the expansiveness of the S&S genre itself. There are also stats for minions, monsters, and "supporting cast" members. There's an extensive guide for creating S&S adventures that, in my opinion, misses the mark on many levels, most specifically because of how closely it hews to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Whatever one thinks of Campbell's scholarship in general terms, its applicability as a general template for pulp fantasy is limited in my opinion. That's not to say that there's no applicability, but I'd have much rather seen adventure creation advice that drew more explicitly on the comics themselves for ideas about structure and content. Fortunately, the outlines for several campaign "frameworks" are much more in that vein and, once again, nicely show off the diversity of the genre. Rules for mass combat are here too, which is a definite plus. Also present is the now-obligatory discussion of "delicate issues" in swords-and-sorcery gaming, something that I, as a stodgy, middle-aged white guy, find tiresome. To the product's credit, this section is short and doesn't resort to the usual defamation of pulp fantasy authors, many of whose views were far more complex and nuanced than is popularly supposed.

Chapter Four offers up three different sample settings for use with W&W. The first -- and longest -- is Freeport, the City of Adventure. I suppose it was inevitable that Green Ronin would make a connection between this product and the pirates-meet-Cthulhu fantasy setting that launched the company's success in 2000, but I was disappointed nonetheless. It's not that I dislike Freeport (though I clearly don't love it as much as Green Ronin does), but that it doesn't strike me as an archetypal swords-and-sorcery setting. The amount of verbiage devoted to Freeport here overshadows the other two settings by a large margin. I'd much rather have seen some of the wordcount used for stats and NPC descriptions given over to a fourth setting. The second setting, Freedom's Reach, is a fantasy-themed superhero world, and is quite cleverly done. The third setting, The Lost World, is as you would expect, given its name. I was saddened that Chapter Four did not include a Hyborian Age knock-off, as I would have thought that was a sine qua non for a product that harkens back to The Savage Sword of Conan and its ilk.

Warriors & Warlocks is a good, if schizophrenic, product. I get the sense that part of its mandate was to find a way to create a generic fantasy supplement for Mutants & Masterminds under the cover of a supplement about swords-and-sorcery comics. I say this because sometimes there are places where I think W&W is too expansive, trying to shoehorn everything from D&D-style fantasy to Conan to Arthurian legend to Saturday morning cartoons into a single book. The result is a product that has a lot of breadth but often not as much depth as I would have liked. For those not well-versed in pulp fantasy, this probably isn't a huge issue and, as a supplement to Mutants & Masterminds, it's one of the very best, but it's still more scattershot than it needed to have been. My feeling is that if it had expended fewer words on Freeport and Joseph Campbell, for example, it could have used the extra pages to create a more unified and insightful product. Instead, we're left with something that feels three-quarters done. It's a superb three-quarters but one wonders why the last quarter couldn't have had more attention lavished on it.

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

Buy This If: You're you're looking to add some swords-and-sorcery action to your Mutants & Masterminds game and/or aren't intimately familiar with the nature of pulp fantasy
Don't Buy This If: You don't play M&M and/or already understand the pulp fantasy genre's history and conventions

10 comments:

  1. I didn't realise that this was specifically aimed at emulating sword and sorcery comics; I thought it was more of a generic (and potentially pointless) fantasy roleplay supplement. I find it a much more interesting project now I know the truth, although the presence of elves and dwarves is still a touch suspicious.

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  2. I get the sense that part of its mandate was to find a way to create a generic fantasy supplement for Mutants & Masterminds under the cover of a supplement about swords-and-sorcery comics.My understanding is that the decision to focus on sword-and-sorcery came very late in the creative process.

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  3. Is this a complete game, or just a supplement for M&M?

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  4. There's also something a bit odd about using a supplement for a game derived from a version of D&D in order to play, er, D&D.

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  5. I NEED MY CONAN PURE- NO DWARF OR ELF, JUST LOTS OF BAD GUYS TO STAB IN THE FACE AND SOME SNAKES, AND THEN I WOULD LIKE TO WIN TRESURE. A CITY NAME FREEPORT" IN CIMMERIA, I DONT THINK SO??

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  6. There's also something a bit odd about using a supplement for a game derived from a version of D&D in order to play, er, D&D.To be fair, Mutants & Masterminds has a system different from D&D in a couple of key areas (of which the Toughness save replacing hit points is perhaps the most major) so it's not like it's completely stupid. And the point-buy system over classes might be a major draw for some people as well.

    Though I will agree that it still sounds a bit funny when you stop and think about it. :-)

    Is this a complete game, or just a supplement for M&M?Just a supplement, so you'd need the M&M core rules to play this. (Though ther'es a black & white Pocket Player's Handbook available at an impulse-buy price for those who want to try it out on the cheap.)

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  7. I understand that it's a streamlined version of d20 with much to recommend it, and I think it would likely be the version of d20 I'd use if I were so inclined. I just found the roundabout way it got back to D&D somewhat amusing. No criticism intended.

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  8. Sez James Maliszewski, "...the editing is solid."Best part of the review, as far as I'm concerned! :-)

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  9. I felt the same way and in fact it is a comon problem with some on GR latest M&M books. I loved their recent Magic book and was looking forward to this one. But the magic book suffers from the same problems as this book. Great comic history, great ideas, all strangely put together.

    I am looking forward to the Anime book they are doing, but I am expecting similar results.

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  10. I love M&M as a system. I felt that d20 was rules heavy and I hate the D&D magic system which is extremely unbalanced and out of control. However, I felt frustrated with W&W. The comment above that it tries to emulate D&D is spot on. However, this is a criticism. The videogame like nature of D&D is a limitiation I sought to avoid not emulate. What is the point.


    I also felt like it had way too much freeport. It also failed to follow any kind of consistency when creating freeport w/ the M&M system and then has all kinds of sample heroes that don't follow the rules set out in M&M. An exmaple is that they buy no magic items as devices. Very strange.

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