Saturday, February 13, 2021

REVIEW: The Basic Rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG

More than a decade ago, Rob Conley wrote and published a supplement for use with Swords & Wizardry and other OD&D-descended fantasy roleplaying games which he entitled Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands. I wrote a positive review of the book at that time and, having re-read it in preparation for doing this review, my opinion of it hasn't changed. If anything, I'd say my opinion has improved. A big reason for this is that it's very clear that it's the fruit of years of play, reflecting not just Conley's thoughts about what make good fantasy RPG rules but what has actually worked at his table over many years. As I said in my original review, I'm not wholly on board with every design decision Conley made but so what? There's scarcely a RPG product with which I have no reservations and I imagine that's the case for most people. In the end, though, The Majestic Wilderlands was a well presented rules supplement informed by years of both thought and play.

Consequently, I was pleased to hear that Conley had produced a new iteration of his supplement, this one called The Basic Rules for the Majesty Fantasy RPG (hereafter Basic Rules). Taking the form of a 204-page digest-sized book, Basic Rules contains everything needed to generate characters of levels 1–5 and referee their adventures – classes, races, spells, combat rules, monsters, treasures, and more. Though based on Swords & Wizardry, just like The Majestic Wilderlands, it's fully – and easily – adaptable to any fantasy roleplaying game derived from the original 1974 rules. 

That said, I think it important to point out the Basic Rules is not a clone as usually understood but rather a specific iteration of the 1974 rules modified, augmented, and otherwise altered to bring them in line with Conley's Majestic Fantasy Realms setting. This is reflected in two ways. First, many elements of the rules presentation explicitly connects to the setting. For example, the cleric class is not generic but instead represents a member of the militant arm of the church of Delaquain. goddess of war and justice. Second, scattered throughout the text are asides called "Rob's Notes," where Conley offers insights into why he adopted certain rules or rules modifications. I was particularly taken with these, not just because I enjoy reading about how other referees think but also because they drew my attention to deviations from the way things are generally done in OD&D-descended RPGs. For instance, Conley explains why he chose the spells included on a random table for scrolls – a small point perhaps but one I appreciated nonetheless.

Given all this, one might reasonably wonder, "What distinguishes Basic Rules for any of the literally dozens of other variations on the 1974 rules?" It's a fair question and one that Conley anticipates in his foreword, where he explains

A central feature of my campaigns is allowing the players to "trash" the setting by making their mark. Sometimes they only impact a single locale; other times they impact entire regions. Because of this, what characters do outside of adventuring is important. To support this, I created an ability system to handle some of the many things players may attempt to do outside of combat or magic. 

"Abilities" are a bit like broad-based skills, something I have, in the past, been suspicious of adding to old school D&D. Six years of refereeing Empire of the Petal Throne, which includes a rudimentary skill system, has softened my stance on the matter and I better appreciate what Conley has done here. There are only twenty abilities and members of any class can attempt them, though each class gets certain bonuses when attempting those most closely associated with their training. Though many of the abilities are what one would expect – climbing, perception, physician – others, such as haggling or herblore are not. These unexpected ones often relate to "what characters do outside of adventuring" and, I suspect, tie into systems like magic item creation that might get more fully fleshed out in a future Advanced Rules. Even without such a thing, I found them well chosen and their in-game uses well explained.

Even more interesting in my opinion are the combat options of Basic Rules. While still conforming to the overall texture of OD&D-style combat, Basic Rules introduces numerous simple but useful wrinkles. Most weapons, for example, have unique characteristics that set them apart from others, providing bonuses (e.g. the mace's effectiveness against chain armor or a crossbow's greater accuracy) that make them attractive in certain situations. There are also expanded rules for shields, combat stunts, and critical hits/misses, each of which is simple in itself but, when taken together, adds real options to play. More importantly, they've clearly been added with care and an eye toward ease of use, injecting some much needed flavor into the often-bland 1974 combat system. 

This same care and sensitivity to ease of use can be found throughout the book. Equipment, magic, NPCs, monsters, treasures, and more contain subtle differences that are flavorful and reflective of Conley's own tastes while not being so far removed from the baseline most of his readers already know from having played other OD&D descendants. Reading through Basic Rules, it quickly became clear to me what Conley's campaigns are like – open-ended, "sandboxy," and, above all, immersive in the setting itself – qualities very near and dear to my own heart. If you too have a fondness for campaigns of this sort and are looking for a supplement to inspire you, The Basic Rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG might be exactly what you're looking for.

2 comments:

  1. I appreciate you taking the time to do this review particularly the parts where you contrast the Basic Rules to the Majestic Wilderlands supplement.

    The next one up (probably in Summer) is the Lost Grimoire of Magic. How I am formatting the series is a bit of an experiment and hopefully people will find it as useful as presenting everything in a single volume.



    Thanks!

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  2. I think it's great that the DriveThru bundle includes a version of the rules in Markdown :)

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