Monday, 24 August 2020

Review - The Hero's Journey 2nd edition

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

When it comes to Whitebox-based materials, James M. Spahn is definitely the first name that comes to mind. After all, he's penned White Star, White Box Compendium, White Box Omnibus, and Untold Adventures - among other things.

The Hero's Journey is a game unsurprisingly also based on Swords & Wizardry Whitebox - but note that even though the base is clearly recognisable, the end result isn't readily compatible with it (as such, it's in similar shoes to Helvéczia and Exemplars & Eidelons).

Note that this review is concerned about the 2nd edition of the game (although I have written a shorter piece about the original (released in 2016) on EN World).

System Summary
  • The classic six attributes are slightly rearranged: Might (strength), Finesse (dexterity), Resolve (constitution and willpower), Insight (intelligence and awareness), Bearing (charisma), and Weal (luck). Attribute scores range from 3 to 18, while modifiers are generally between -1 and +1 (only 3 and 18 grant -2 and +2, respectively).
  • Weal doesn't actually modify any roll directly. However, a character can declare Advantage on a number of rolls equal to their Weal modifier per session if positive - or the Narrator (GM) can declare Disadvantage a like number of times if it's negative.
  • Characers have a randomly determined Profession (such as Cartographer, Trapper, or Urchin). Each grants a few items, possibly a starting weapon (and proficiency with it), and some gold.
  • There are six Lineages to choose from: changeling, dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, and human. Lineage determines what dice you roll for which attribute (3d6, 2d6+6, or 2d6+1), standard level limits, and some starting abilities (the usual fare, really, although evocatively presented).
  • There are eight Archetypes described in the book: Bard, Burglar, Knight, Ranger, Swordsman, Warrior, Wizard, and Yeoman. Your Archetype determines your base Saving Throw (unified as in S&W), Endurance ("hit points"), XP requirements, and abilities (some of which, called prerequisite abilities, require a certain attribute score or higher to possess).
  • Exploration is handled in (tentatively 10-minute long) turns. There are 10 combat rounds in 1 turn. Distances aren't abstracted (i.e. they are given in feet).
  • Encumbrance uses the significant item rule: any item larger than a knife counts as 1 significant item. Characters can carry a number of items up to their Might score without becoming encumbered; they are lightly encumbered up 1.5 times that number, and heavily encumbered up to twice their Might (so for Might 10, the thresholds would be 10/15/20). Armor is an exception by default: it counts as many items as its Reduction Value.
  • Initiative is rolled on 1d12 per player character and adversary group, re-rolled every round. Surprise occurs on 1-3 on the first round of combat. Non-surprised combatants may swap their own initiative with an ally's.
  • Endurance is generally lower than in S&W: first level you get the maximum for your "hit die", then 2nd and 3rd level you receive another die (so far modified by Resolve as usual), but after that only 1 to 3 points are gained each level (which isn't modified by Resolve).
  • Defense ("AC") is generally 10 + Finesse modifier + shield (+2 buckler, +4 small, +8 large). Attack rolls (d20 + modifiers) that meet or exceed this value hit and deal damage. Damage values follow the variable damage pattern (d4 dagger, d6 dlub, d8 longsword, d10 two-handed sword); however, armour provides Reduction Value (between 1 and 5). Even then, a successful hit delivers at least 1 point of damage.
  • At 0 Endurance, the character falls unconscious for 1d6 minutes (and then wake up with 1 Endurance). At negative values, make a Saving Throw (penalised by current Endurance). They are merely knocked unconscious on a success; however, a failure leads to a roll on the Grievous Wounds table (1d6, penalised by current Endurance, and possibly modified by Weal): 1 or lower means instant death, 2-4 some sort of injury, and 5+ a grazing blow (unconscious for 1d6 minutes, as above).
  • After battle, a healing kit may be used to bind wounds for 1d4 Endurance; otherwise, restore 2 points per day (if properly rested).
  • Despair (fighting a powerful evil foe, seeing a comrade fall in battle, or merely crossing blighted lands) requires a Saving Throw. Failure imposes Disadvantage on all attack rolls and Saving Throws until the source of Despair is present. Every creature in the book comes with a Despair Rating (if higher than character level by 5 or more, it counts as an overwhelming foe).
  • Spells need not be memorised, but a Wizard knows only as many spells as their level (plus Insight modifier). Spells come in three "spell levels": Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. The Wizard can only cast a certain number of each "spell level" (although they can use a stronger slot for a weaker spell).
  • Only 7 spells are described per tier, but note that each individual spell can be cast in three different ways. For instance, the Apprentice spell Simple and Goodly Blessings can be cast to use either A Hearty Meal to Heal the Heart (cleanse food and drinks and gain +1 vs Despair), Blessing of a Stout Heart (very short protection from evil on one target), or Unwelcome Guest Upon the Mat (instantly know if someone enters the designated area).
  • Characters earn a Myth Point for each level gained (and another one if they acted heroically). These Myth Points can then be used to enchant magical items (technically, the items gain their power through heroism, i.e. a hero's sword is magical because it was wielded by a hero). Weapons, armour, and shields gain Aspects (such as Blessed, Renowned, or Winter-Kissed), while miscellaneous magical items are Herilooms and can only be created by members of a specific Lineage. There 14 Aspects and 36 Heirlooms in total.

Things I Liked
  • I'm usually not a fan of renaming terms unless their mechanical impact is also changed, but I can totally accept the vocabulary THJ2E uses instead of the standard D&D-isms (Insight vs Intelligence, Lineage vs Race, Endurance vs HP, etc.). Except for Narrator instead of GM.
  • An animal trap (described in the equipment section) has a 1-in-12 chance per hour of catching something. Simple and easy to keep track of.
  • The large shield (+8 Defense) seems really overpowered, until you realise it adds Disadvantage on your attack rolls, making it best for the defensive types. In general, making shields powerful is a good direction, anyway.
  • The frequency of wilderness random events (hazards, monsters, travellers) is 1-in-6 per hex away from civilisation (but never higher than 5-in-6).
  • Relaxing around a campfire, if role-played or described sufficiently, grants party members a chance to gain Advantage on one Saving Throw the next day (if they succeed at a Saving Throw modified by Bearing).
  • A good number of monsters (80, to be specific) are described - and grouped according to their nature (e.g. Common Folk, Equines, Wild Beasts, or Undead).
  • The Myth Point system makes sense in the heroic framework the game is based on.
  • Bookmarks in the PDF.
  • Two pages listing films, music, literature, and games that inspired the game - and might inspire the players.

Things I Disliked
  • Although Narrator doesn't rub me as much the wrong way, I'm still going to call the GM simply just GM (or maybe Referee). It's not like their job is any different to actually warrant a new term.
  • I don't really like level limit, unless it's only a soft limit (e.g. receive only 50% XP beyond the limit).
  • The prerequisite abilities are nice, but their existence puts too much emphasis on attributes.
  • "Skill rolls" (such as a Burglar's Thievery or a Ranger's Forestry) are by default rolled by the Narrator. I think I understand the intention, but I just plain don't like it.
  • Although I appreciate the tactical nature of swapping initiative, I generally dislike individual initiative if it is re-rolled each round. The same kind of "chaining actions together in the most optimal way" can be accomplished with side-based initiative without bogging the game down by collecting and ordering individual scores.
  • The text makes it clear that this is not a game of random encounters (and thus provides no random encounter tables), yet the wilderness section clearly sets a random chance for setbacks happening (hazards, monsters, or travellers).
  • No reference sheet of creatures listed in increasing Despair Rating is provided.
  • While the characters have lower amounts of HP compared to S&W or B/X D&D, the monsters have fairly high Endurance (and often 2-3 points of Reduction as well). Granted, they generally have a worse AC-equivalent, but that still means that enemy combatants are fairly hard to fell.
  • No explicit rules for morale (there is a codified option to intimidate foes, but it's to impose Disadvantage on their attacks).
  • While Warriors (especially at level 4 and onwards) feel very satisfying in combat, the other characters deal significantly lower damage against armoured foes.
  • I really like the idea of bungling similar spells together (thus increasing the adaptability of the Wizard), but the Apprentice tier spells feel a lot weaker compared to traditional D&D spells (e.g. charm person only lasts for 1 hour/level, protection from evil for 1 round/level, etc.).
  • No index (although the book is "only" about 73k words spread over roughly 220 pages).
  • No Oxford commas.

The Hero's Journey 2nd edition is a coherent game (much more so than the first edition, which felt like a bag of - interesting - ideas). Instead of pulp fantasy, it "emulates" heroic stories like the Lord of the Rings, Stardust, and The Princess Bride - notably much more successfully than B/X or AD&D. I am not entirely convinced about the changes to the combat mechanics, but violence ought to feature less frequently than in standard D&D anyways, and other facets of the system appear well-constructed, so it might not be an issue after all. The magic system specifically is very good (although I do think the individual spell effects are a little too weak). The spell and monster descriptions ooze with flavour, and of course the devil's in the details, so even equivalents may differ on important specifics. Ultimately, it's not my kind of fantasy, but it fills an interesting niche that I can respect.

The Hero's Journey was written by James M. Spahn and published by Gallant Knight Games in 2019. It is available on DriveThruRPG in PDF, softcover, and hardcover formats.

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