Saturday, February 14, 2009

REVIEW: Epées & Sorcellerie

I started reading Epées & Sorcellerie a few days ago, shortly after its release by Brave Halfling Publishing. I spent the better part of today reading and re-reading it. It's fair to say that this 60-page roleplaying game made quite an impression on me -- and a very favorable one at that.

I'm personally of the opinion that there's no such thing as "too many" retro-clone rules sets. One of the great joys of the old school renaissance is rediscovering that forgotten truth of days gone by: no one plays D&D "by the book" and every addition, omission, and even misinterpretation of the rules is a reflection of our duty to make the game our own. Consequently, I simply love reading retro-clone and simulacra rules, each of which represents another perspective on and interpretation of the urtext of our hobby. Not all of them are to my tastes, but then I neither expect nor desire them to be. What I do want is to have my preferences and opinions challenged, for even if, in the end, my position does not change, I will have benefitted from having to think more carefully about what I prefer and why. Nicolas Dessaux's Epées & Sorcellerie does just that and I am very grateful for it.

Lest anyone think this game is either a translation of Matt Finch's Swords & Wizardry, whose title it shares, or a "straight" retro-clone of OD&D, its subtitle lays the truth bare: "A roleplaying game inspired by the rules of 1974, after the original idea of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax." In practical terms, this means that E&S is its own game, even if it borrows quite heavily from OD&D and, I suspect, Chainmail. The end result is something that's closer to Spellcraft & Swordplay than anything else currently available on the old school market, which I find to be a good thing, although I'm certain that some might be disappointed by this approach.

Let me comment briefly on the physical qualities of Epées & Sorcellerie before discussing its actual contents. The book itself is very nicely laid out in two columns. The fonts used in the body text and in the headers are easy on the eyes while still being attractive. Likewise, the book's many tables are simple to read and to understand. The text is broken up with the use 16th century woodcuts that give E&S a distinctive and indeed evocative look. The book isn't perfect, though. Even to a non-native speaker such as myself, I noticed a few misspellings and typos, including on the character sheet. These errors aren't overwhelming and certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment of the text, which is a model of clarity and concision that many English language writers would do well to imitate.

Like Chainmail, Epées & Sorcellerie uses only six-sided dice (generally 2d6) and no others. Characters have the six familiar abilities of D&D -- arranged as they were in AD&D, not OD&D or later editions -- but the range is 2-12 rather than 3-18. There are three classes: Warrior, Priest, and Sorcerer. Their advancement tables are much as they are in OD&D, although each a few small class abilities to add further flavor to them. A warrior, for example, can gain extra attacks per round against creatures of fewer hit dice than himself. The precise number of attacks is determined by comparing the warrior's hit dice to the hit dice of the creatures he's fighting. Thus, a 4th-level warrior could attack four times against one hit dice creature, twice against two hit dice creatures, but only once against a six hit dice creature, and so on. Sorcerers, meanwhile, gain the ability to make themselves unseen in shadows and to see in darkness. None of these little class abilities is overpowering but they add a great deal of pulp fantasy flavor to the classes and I approve of them highly.

Epées & Sorcellerie assumes that most characters will be human -- another nod to pulp fantasy -- but includes rules for playing elves, halflings, dwarves, and orcs. Each of the races has their own unique abilities and none is limited in their class choice, although only elves can multiclass (as warrior-sorcerers) with ease. There are likewise no level limits. Instead, all races except orcs stop receiving new hit dice after a certain point, meaning that they will have fewer hit points at high levels than will humans. It's an interesting approach to the question of demihumans and I'm divided on how I feel about it. It's certainly no less arbitrary than level limits, at any rate.

Combat proceeds by rolling 2d6 + appropriate ability score modifiers + class-based attack modifiers + miscellaneous modifiers. If the result is equal to or higher than the target's armor class (which is ascending, for those who wish to tweak me about such things), damage is dealt. All weapons deal 1d6 damage plus modifiers. There are morale rules, as well as simple treatments of different combat styles, such as two-weapon fighting. Magic is almost identical to its OD&D forebears, although it uses a universalized duration and range system that eliminates a bit of the quirkiness of the spell listings. In my opinion, I think this is a mistake, as a surfeit of "rationality" when it comes to magic bleeds away some of its flavor. Like Swords & Wizardry, E&S uses a single saving throw -- 10 or higher on 2d6 -- modified by bonuses from appropriate ability scores (Constitution for poison, Dexterity for dragon breath, etc.). I like this approach and may borrow elements from it in my Dwimmermount campaign.

More controversially, Epées & Sorcellerie includes a skill (or competence) system and universal mechanic for adjudicating certain actions. Again, a 2d6 roll is made, modified by abilities, level, and other factors. The result is compared to a table of difficulties (Easy, Medium, Difficult, Very Difficult, Heroic) that indicates what's required for each level. To Dessaux's credit, the skill system is very loose and he stresses that skill rolls ought not to be used for many actions. Furthermore, the skills themselves aren't defined and it's taken as given that players and referees alike will use common sense in deciding what skills a character possesses and how adept he is at them. While I personally don't see the need for a skill system, the presented here is simple and loose enough that it could reasonably be called "old school" without too much irony.

The monster section contains the usual collection of D&D monsters, along with a goodly number of new creatures, like the black knight, darakht, kalasiah, and sherba. Magic items, much like equipment in general, is treated quite simply: make it up yourself. There is an overview of the kinds of items that exist -- potions, scrolls, rods, staves, swords, armor, etc. -- and a couple of brief examples, but the game clearly favors individual creativity over a standard list of magic items. It's a very refreshing approach and one with which I've often toyed, so I can see much merit in it.

I hope it's clear now why I found Epées & Sorcellerie so engaging. It's a rare example of a game that is simultaneously a clear descendant of OD&D and yet very much its own game. This isn't meant as a knock against more "pure" retro-clones, whose purposes are very different. Obviously, Nicolas Dessaux wasn't interested simply in creating a French OD&D simulacrum. What he's done here is much more ambitious and, if it doesn't always succeed in its intentions, it's not for lack of imagination. Epées & Sorcellerie is exceptionally imaginative in its creation of a game that's perhaps a little more rational and a lot more polished than the Chainmail/OD&D from which it draws inspiration but is nevertheless suffused with the spirit that animated its illustrious forebears and founded this hobby. In this age of brandified, deracinated RPGs, that's something worth celebrating.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms


  1. Sounds like a system I would enjoy! Too bad us Anglophones are left out.

  2. This sounds very interesting. I started to learn french in highschool for a few years, but didn't finish it, and then forgot most of it...

    I especially liked the demihuman hit dice limit instead of level limit option, I'm toying with this idea in my own game.

  3. This sounds like an interesting take on the retroclone, and one I'd be very excited to read if I understood French. My one concern is the limited number of classes (Presumably, much like James's distaste for ascending Armor Class, this is an artifact of the games I grew up playing that I will never quite shake even if it might make more sense to).