Tuesday, March 27, 2012

REVIEW: An Echo, Resounding

I've mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of PDFs. The vast majority of the products I'm sent to review, though, are in electronic format. Speaking as a publisher myself, that only makes sense, since sending a PDF to a reviewer costs little or nothing and is instantaneous, while sending out a physical copy takes both time and money. And when dealing with Luddites like me, sending an electronic copy might just induce them to buy a hardcopy, provided, of course, that I like it. In the case of An Echo, Resounding, I most certainly did like it, so much so that I snagged a print-on-demand copy from RPGNow, which I wanted to get into my hands before I wrote up a review for it.

An Echo, Resounding is both a generic Labyrinth Lord sourcebook providing rules and advice for "lordship and war in untamed lands" and a supplement to the Red Tide campaign setting released last year. Like all Sine Nomine products, this one is penned by Kevin Crawford, which means that it's written clearly and unpretentiously. The 110-page book uses the same two-column format as all Sine Nomine releases, with the text broken up by a variety of stock art images. This doesn't make for the prettiest of books, especially when compared to many recent releases from other publishers, but the content is compelling enough that I don't think it much matters. An Echo, Resounding could have been released with no interior artwork and I doubt I would have cared.

The book consists of six chapters, plus an introduction and an index. The first chapter, "Domain Play in a Campaign," introduces the concept of domain-level play and how it interacts with "regular" Labyrinth Lord adventures. This chapter is brief compared to those that follow and isn't rules-focused. Instead, it's mostly advice about the benefits and drawbacks of including the clash of empires into one's campaign. The second chapter, "Creating Campaign Regions," gets down to the nitty-gritty, providing the foundations on which later chapters depend. What becomes immediately clear is that the rules presented in An Echo, Resounding are somewhat abstract. That is, they're built on concepts like "regions" and "locations" and "obstacles," with the meanings of these concepts being variable rather than being precisely (and narrowly) defined. That's not to say that these concepts are "fuzzy" or meaningless, only that the rules weren't written with bean-counters in mind. Once the basic concepts are laid out, the chapter goes on to provide both advice and examples on how to apply them to one's campaign setting. If you're already familiar with any of the Stars Without Number books or Red Tide, much of this will look familiar.

Chapter three covers "Domain Management" and provides rules for creating and ruling domains. The rules depend on a "domain turn" that represents approximately one month, though the actual timeframe, like most other aspects of these rules, is flexible in either direction. During a domain turn, a player whose character rules a domain may make two actions (referee-controlled domains may make only one), with actions covering things as diverse as military attacks, establishing assets (such as markets, temples, etc.), and dealing with disruptions/obstacles. The chapter also includes brief descriptions of all the available assets, along with the associated game values, and an example of domain play. Like earlier chapters, this one is both comparatively short and abstract, leaving many details to individual referees and players to flesh out.

Chapter four presents a mass combat system that uses mechanics very similar to normal Labyrinth Lord combat. Thus, units have hit dice, armor class, movement rates, and saving throws, in addition to upkeep costs and special traits. It's designed to be playable without the need for miniatures, but I think it'd work just fine with them if one were so inclined. Chapter five introduces the idea of "Champions," which are powerful PCs and NPCs, whose abilities are such that they can benefit both domain and mass combats. Characters who become champions -- the process for doing so is somewhat vague -- gain a parallel "class" in which they advance. Every time they gain a new level as a Champion, they gain a new ability from a list of nearly 50 of them. These abilities might be something like "Administrator," which gives a bonus to the Wealth and Social values of a single town over which the Champion has control or "Overwhelming Sorcery," which lowers the saving throws of enemy units against his magic on the battlefield. I rather like the idea of Champions, though I wish the rules were a bit more clear regarding how and when PCs gain levels as Champions. Even so, it's a solid concept that, I think, nicely represents the power of PCs without making them demigods.

The final chapter of the book is also its longest, providing detailed examples of the domain system for use with the Red Tide setting. There's a map of a region called the Westmark, which includes 40 locations, each of which has a page-long write-up. These write-ups provide everything needed to use the locations as adventuring locales or focuses for the domain and mass combat systems. Though it's probably most useful for referees and players using the Red Tide setting, I think it'll serve as a practical primer for newcomers to the supplement's rules systems.

I liked An Echo, Resounding quite a lot, since it suits my preferred style as a referee. I'm not the kind who cares all that much about counting gold pieces or determining exact population figures for a given location. I like things to be easy to use and abstract, since I can always make up the details on the fly as needed. For that reason, I imagine its domain rules would work very well as a separate, parallel "game within a game" where the referee and players use it to generate macro events that affect the campaign setting. That's certainly how I plan to use it. At the same time, I suspect that the book's approach might be frustrating for those whose style gives greater weight to knowing the precise details of a domain's inhabitants and resources. Consequently, An Echo, Resounding isn't a panacea for every campaign where domain-level activities is important; it largely caters to one approach and should be viewed in that light.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for abstract and easy to use domain and mass combat rules for use with Labyrinth Lord or other old school fantasy RPGs.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer domain and mass combat rules that are concrete and "bottom up" in their presentation and approach.

13 comments:

  1. Great review of a great product. I just used it to build out my own sandbox to great effect. I already had some good materials, and this just added to it.

    The champion levels are gained automatically as a character reaches the total amount of experience shown on the chart on page 66 -- so, at first level, they get their first "Champion" level in parallel to the rest of their character development.

    Hope that helps,
    Brennan

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  2. Very nice. I never liked the "War Machine" combat rules that TSR endorsed for D&D. Too dry andmath-ey. Considering that the D&D combat rules grew out of Chainmail and other wargames, adapting them for mass combat pretty much couldn't make more sense.

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  3. This actually made me much more more excited about the Red Tide universe than Red Tide did. I by that I mean wanting to play it now. [Which probably just goes to say that you can take the role-player out of wargaming but you can't take the wargamer out of roleplaying. Or something along those lines, anyway.]

    The nice thing about the top-down design philosophy is that it is a lot easier than the bottom-up design philosophy, of say, ACKS, although it is possible to retrofit a bpottom-up philosophy to the top-down design. [It's also a lot closer to how most tabletop wargaming campaigns generally defined locations in the campaign, so it's naturally a closer fit to what I consider a "campaign."]

    [Although I always did like the Swords & Spells system, which took the probability of hitting the Armour Class as the percentage of effective attacks, multiplied by maximum damage as the damage done by a unit in mass combat. Add an average die (like FATE dice) or something to account for a slight degree of randomness and you have a very nice basis for mass combat.]

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  4. I am strongly thinking that I'd like to get this book and use it with ACKS, to the exclusion of their own domain system, for the campaign I'm currently running. I am not a "count each penny" GM, and neither are my players, I don't think. On the other hand, I also like the notion of "playing games as they are written" before attempting massive re-fits.

    I will probably buy this book anyway, and put off the decision about whether to use it or not until later. 8)

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  5. I would love to hear a comparrison between the domain rules presented in this project vs those in ACKs.

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    1. Speaking as someone who's only read and not used them, I think the main differences can be summed up as "top down" versus "bottom up." That's an oversimplification, of course, but it gives a good general idea of the two approaches. ACKS is a lot more "fiddly" in its approach and much more seamlessly integrates with the notion of PCs conquering and ruling domains, while An Echo, Resounding is vaguer in this area but seems like it'd be a great tool for the referee in playing out the interactions of domains, large and small, within the setting.

      I don't see the two systems as being opposed so much as having different priorities. I suspect the two could be used in concert with one another with a bit of work, but, again, I should reiterate I've not yet used either one in play, so my impressions may very well not play out in reality.

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  6. Thanks for the review, James, and I'm pleased that it looks like it could be of use to you. As for ACKS and AER, it really is a question of priorities.

    ACKS controls its own context. Since it's its own game system, it can peg rewards, adjust XP values, and control the economics such that it has a pretty good idea what a gold piece is worth and how many of them are going to be flowing through a typical campaign. When you control both the vertical and the horizontal, you can afford to make a bottom-up, very specific system that relies on assumptions about available resources and context.

    If you're making a generalized work like AER, however, meant to be retrofitted to whatever old-school campaign wants to use it, you don't have that luxury. You have no idea how much money is moving through the campaign, and you have no way of controlling the cash flow without taking over your host system. You can't even make any assumptions about how the political system is organized- ACKS can just write in a feudal hierarchy, but AER has to cope well with everything from scattered clans to republican city-states to absolute rulers.

    The only really portable way is to sandbox your domain system with its own metrics and then provide clear interface points where a human DM's natural good sense can make the necessary calls. Don't make them create mechanics for mass combat/asset construction/peasant unrest- make them decide how the AER resources spent to resolve those situations map to the resources present in their campaigns.

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  7. How does this compare to the domain rules in B/X Companion?

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    1. They're quite a bit more complex in terms of rules, but they have a different focus. The B/X Companion rules are more like those in ACKS, albeit much simpler, while those in An Echo, Resounding (not surprisingly) have more in common with some of the material seen in Stars without Number.

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  8. Thanks for the replies both James and Sine Nomine. I have a bit of a love affair going on with ACKs at the moment, but reading this review led me back to the review of the original campaign setting which sounds incredible, and I love the mix of east and west.

    I will be grabbing a print copy of that as soon as I finish typing this, and I just might as well grab this one as well.

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  9. I love ACKS, but I also love AER. if only they could seamlessly integrate...sigh.

    Still, the mass combat system and the Champion rules/idea are brilliant. That, if nothing else, will probably make it over into my campaign.

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