Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Bloody Basic] Weird Fantasy Edition review/overview

I've been aware of John M. Stater's work for some time, but never got around to actually check out anything. His main design is the OSR title Blood & Treasure, for which he created a basic version, called Bloody Basic. Bloody Basic is a whole line of shorter books, each containing the essential rules for character creation and playing with slight variations, but presenting a different setting and race/class choices. There's a book for classic fantasy, a "contemporary" edition (contemporary meaning something like steampunk? I haven't read this one, it has "automatons, drakkens" etc, but also "fighters, sorcerers, clerics and thieves", so I don't know how different it is from the classic book), a fairy tale supplement (the brilliantly titled "Mother Goose Edition") and Sinew & Steel (promising a more realistic medieval setting). And there is a last one, which I have:

Bloody Basic: Weird Fantasy Edition

What I like about this book is that it strives to capture the atmosphere of weird fiction without or even before pulp. The short two-paragraph preface is wonderfully dense, evocative, and it provides a very strong statement. Stater stresses the origins of the weirds in the Romantic Movement:
"[Weird fantasy] has in its genes both pseudo-historical romances, Orientalism and fairy tales, though not fairy tales fit for children. The fairy tales that parented weird fantasy were never stripped of their violence or their erotic overtones.
Weird fantasy is both steeped in meaning and bereft of it. It is quiet and noisy and ridiculous and sublime."
His main touchstones are Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, although I feel Dunsany is the stronger presence here. At the visual side of things we get Beardsley and Sidney Sime, who are not just "public domain illustration sources", but major influences.

Sidney Sime. Hothrun Dath.
For Lord Dunsany's "Gods of Pegāna"

So in the end, we arrive at a game of Donjons & Decadence.

Yes, Stater substitutes "donjon" for "dungeon". And there are many-many more quirky words scattered around the book. There is even a handy Thesaurus so that you can spice up your language with appropriately archaic words. "You can call a gemstone blue, but there are many other fine words to use in its place," including, but not limited to "aqua, azure, beryl, cerulean, ceil, cesious, chalybeous, cobalt, cyan, ecchymotic, gentian"... Why call a temple simply a temple, when you can instead refer to the local "chantry, chapel, church, cloister, convent, conventicle, dagoba, deanery, dewal, dogobah, fane, fold, friary, glebe, holy place, house of [god], house of prayer"... This is all quite hilarious.

The game rules are OGL-based, with the standard six attributes. There are only three types of modifiers, 0, -1 and +1, for average, below average and above average ratings. These apply to "tasks" (tests rolled with 1d20), attack rolls, etc.

I love how the description of polyhedral dice is illustrated by Bragdon's "Sinbad, in the desert, discovers the Five Platonic Solids"!

Things get more interesting with Races! Humans are humans (although their appearance in a fantastic world can differ from ours). Elves are graceful, soulless and hedonistic. Grotesques are humanoid with one or more exaggerated or bestial feature, eccentric loners who are often slaves to their passions. The fourth available player race is Satyrs from the Greek myths. The difference between a Grotesque and a Satyr probably lies in their perception of their own "deformities" - a Grotesque wants to be a human (I'd totally go White Wolf with this race), while a Satyr is just fine, pass on the wine.

The Classes are re-skinned and slightly modified versions of the classics. Clerics become Idolators. "Turn Undead" is now "Shunning" (and can be used against any enemy of the idolator). Spells are called orisons and are gained by becoming initiated into one or more of the nine mystery cults (each initiation comes with an extra taboo!). Overall, there aren't many such orisons: a total of 30 (10 per level), and each cult gives access to basically just one spell in each tier.

The Magic-User class is renamed Magus, who cast "cantraps". As usual, the magi get a significantly wider array of spells: a total of 52 cantraps. Stater's love of new names is in full swing here as well: "Ken Gibberish" for "Understand Languages", "Eldritch Bolts" for "Magic Missile", and so on.

The Fighter is called the Puissant. They get feats and the usual combat bonuses. It comes as a surprise to see the simple Thief as the last class... :) Their lowly designation is spiced up by two possible subclasses, the Demimond and the Odalisque.

The Three Witches from Orson Welles' "Macbeth" (1948)

The Game Master advice section is generic, but the Monsters return to the flamboyant style. The Weird Tales rule supreme here: there are tentacled aberrations, gibbering mouthers, but also standard fantasy and old-school RPG beasts. Stater, obviously, uses the authentic spelling of "gnole". There are also listings for scrolls and magic items (including the "Masque of the red death" and the "Silver key" for breaching dimensions).

Overall, this is a wonderful little game. The use of archaic words might not be everybody's cup of tea... But I have to point out, that when it's needed, Stater writes in a comprehensible way, rules are kept clean & clear, they are easy to learn.

Personally, I think this game would be even better if it relied less on the old-school RPG canon! I would love to see more interesting "cantraps" and "orisons" which are not just renamed D&D spells. 

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