Monday, 29 January 2018

Review: Five Ancient Kingdoms

This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sales without extra cost to you).

Five Ancient Kingdoms is an old-school D&D-esque game focussing on adventures in a vaguely Middle Eastern fantasy world. The terms and game mechanics closely resemble those of D&D, but there are a couple differences as outlined below.

The Main Differences:
  • Tests are resolved with 2d6 instead of 1d20 (although it is never spelled out as a universal resolution mechanic).
  • Any die that comes up 1 is read as a zero (there are no exceptions to this rule!). If all dice are zeroes, it's called "zeroing out", which means the roll is not modified in any way, resulting in an automatic failure.
  • Characters can attempt to push their luck, which allows them to roll an extra d6 and discard the lowest one; if they still fail, however, the consequences are catastrophic.
  • Characters have a motivation, phrased as "I'm willing to risk death for...". It grants a once per session boon increasing the chances of success (or, oddly, decreasing the chances of dying).
  • Upon suffering a hit of damage (from a successful attack, for instance), PCs lose 1d6 hero points (hp) (determined as per their hit dice, as usual). NPCs and monsters don't have randomised hp; they can simply take as many hits as their HD before being defeated.
  • Combat is resolved in 10 second rounds consisting of several phases (such as melee, missile, movement, etc.). Each action in a phase occurs simultaneously, except for melee attacks, for which the rolls are resolved from highest to lowest.
  • Attack rolls are 2d6+modifiers vs. target number (based on HD and armour); successful attacks deal 1 hit of damage (that is 1 "hit" to NPCs and 1d6 hp of damage to PCs), and there's a sudden death rule, too (not applicable to PCs, though, because they are heroes). Large and powerful monsters may deal 2 or 3 hits of damage, but there are no "attack routines".
  • Casting spells is also 2d6+modifiers vs. target number (twice the spell's magnitude in this case). There is no limit to which magnitude of spell a magician may learn, but it is significantly harder to acquire powerful spells.
  • Spells take several rounds to cast (equal to magnitude), but memorised spells can be fast-cast (although "memorised" here virtually means "known").
  • Divine magic works a bit differently. Saints (and shamans) have a number of miracles available per adventure (or session) they can use. There is no casting roll, the miracle manifests in the same combat round, and there is no need for memorisation either.
  • Encumbrance is handled through a checklist, each tick modifying the base movement rate by 1 or 2 points (things like armour, weapons, full sacks, etc.).
Things I Liked:
  • clean layout; keywords and the most important rules are in bold
  • the classes (the classic four, mind you) are presented with clear mechanics; the subclasses are simple but interesting (they basically give up a class feature or two in exchange for different ones)
  • hero points are rerolled at the beginning of each session (I love this rule in general, but here it also reinforces the episodic nature of adventures)
  • there is a d66 table of advantages (little background elements sometimes with clear mechanical benefits, such as Beauty, Falconer, or Political Connection)
  • randomly determined social status attribute that is relevant for social mechanics
  • giving away at least 10% of treasures for charity grants a bonus to saving throws
  • armour penalises reaction rolls; talking in the other party's native language grants a bonus
  • turn undead is treated not as an activated ability but the holy presence of a saint (which makes it clear that turn undead checks are automatic and rolled only once for each encounter)
  • there is a chance (based on level) that a saint's body parts or equipment become holy relics upon their death
  • easy rules to differentiate weapons (axes gain +1 vs. light armour, maces vs. heavy armour, etc.) and ganging up on an enemy (instead of multiple attack rolls, they roll extra dice)
  • monsters presented in categories (it's easier to attach specific mechanics to them, plus the introductory text for each category may also contain extra bits for world-building purposes)
  • simple procedures for romances (basically charisma checks during wooing, which may grant modifiers to the final roll; the mere fact that romance is mentioned explicitly makes it a more important part of the game than in other D&D-esque games)
  • special experience bonuses for first journeys and visiting capital cities
  • upon achieving a milestone the character levels up automatically (such as being granted an important title, leading an army to victory, getting married, etc.)
Things I Disliked:
  • 1 silver sequin = 20 copper pennies; I'm fine with different names for currencies as it contributes to atmosphere, but different exchange rates aren't fun at all, especially if the price list is always given in the gold piece equivalent (gold dinars in this case)
  • saving throws have level-based target numbers instead of levels granting bonuses against a constant or hazard-based target number (the lack of streamlining is my objection, basically)
  • spells are too easy to cast (even if some spells are less powerful than in traditional D&D)
  • some of the rules are hard to find without consulting the table of contents, and some rules are spread out too much (e.g. the rules for experience and advancement); having 3 booklets about 50 pages each sounds fine, but it also exacerbates this problem
  • no random encounter tables, and the "no. appearing" guidelines are scattered all over the place (standard numbers are in Book 3, whereas exceptions are in Book 2)
  • the PDF lacks bookmarks and hyperlinks

The setting is described in about 10 pages in total. Religion and social customs are detailed in the player-facing booklet (with relevant notes on the interfacing mechanics!), while the major geographical areas and history are detailed in Book 3 (plus some extra information in the monster descriptions in Book 2). The names are fictional but easily mapped to the real world to draw inspiration from (such as the fallen empire of Rhyma, the one god Hallah, and the richest city of the land, Bagdabha). There are guidelines for making the setting medieval in technology and using more traditional fantasy settings, too.

The system is simple and elegant, and it forms a great foundation for the game. Even if one doesn't use the default setting of Barica, the rules lend themselves naturally for adventures in the style of One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic tales. However, the game would have greatly benefited from a well-crafted set of tools for procedural content generation (like the ones in Sine Nomine games or Yoon-Suin).

I would recommend this game solely for its mechanics, but if you already have a system, the setting proper might be too thin (you absolutely need the bestiary to make it worth your while, then). I do recommend checking out this game for aspiring designers, though, because it is one of the better written rulebooks in the OSR, in my opinion (even if I would have moved some content between the booklets).

Five Ancient Kingdoms was designed by Jonathan Becker (who is still blogging at B/X Blackrazor) and published in 2013 through his imprint, Running Beagle Games. It is currently available at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG in PDF and through his blog in print (check out the sidebar).

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