Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Review: Warlock!

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).

Warlock! is a rules-light traditional fantasy game, conceptually sitting firmly within the British old-school tradition (the revival of which is sometimes charmingly called the B-OSR). The terms Stamina and Luck and the way combat works conjure images of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, but the sort of freeform career system with Agitators, Footpads, and Rat Catchers make it look like a WFRP-light game played with a d20.

System Summary
  • Each character comes from a Community (human, elf, dwarf, halfling), which has no direct mechanical impact on the character, only in-world relevance (although elves and dwarves can see perfectly in moonlight).
  • There are 32 skills in total (from Appraise and Incantation to Small blade and Streetwise), ten of which start at 6, further ten at 5, and the rest at 4 (before choosing a career).
  • Stamina (i.e. hit points) starts at 2d6+12, while Luck starts at 1d6+7.
  • There are 24 basic careers; the starter choice is semi-random.
  • Each basic career provides starting equipment and defines five skills that can be improved by adventuring while within the career (and also sets a maximum score for each). Starting characters can allocate 10 points between these career-skills. For example, Agitator has Small blade (max 10), Intimidate (max 10), Dodge (max 12), Persuasion (max 12), and Streetwise (max 12).
  • Furthermore, the average of these five skills (rounded up) provides a skill matching the career's name to represent any other area of knowledge and expertise that a member of said career would have and isn't already covered by the existing skill list.
  • If success and failure are both possible and interesting, a skill test is made, and success is achieved if 20 or more is scored on 1d20 + skill level. In an opposed test, all participants make the roll and the highest result wins. Difficulty may be represented by a penalty of −2 or −4 at the GM's discretion.
  • Whenever a roll is made to avoid something bad, the player may choose to use their current Luck in lieu of a skill. Whether they succeed or fail, their Luck goes down by 1 for the remainder of the adventure.
  • Combat is handled in tentatively 30-second-long rounds.
  • Initiative is determiend by GM fiat or rolling 1d6 per side. Then, individuals on the opposing sides take turns alternately (i.e. one combatant on side A, then one from side B, then another one from side A, etc.), in such a manner that actors can pick which opponent succeeds them in their activation, until everyone has acted.
  • Movement of roughly 10 feet (or crossing a room) can be freely performed either before or after taking an action. Alternatively, movement can be taken as an action, in which case the character moves from one abstract band of distance to another (close, nearby, faraway, distant).
  • Attacking is an opposed skill roll (with +5 bonus given to the initiatior), the winner of which gets to deal damage to the other. Ranged attacks are also opposed rolls (ranged weapon skill vs. dodge + shield bonus), but only the attacker may deal damage.
  • Damage dice are all six-siders and depend on the weapon (e.g. dagger is 1d6+2, arming sword is 2d6, crossbow is 2d6+2). If the attack roll was three times the result of the defender's roll, the attack deals double damage. Armour reduces incoming damage by a random amount (light armour 1d3, modest armour 1d6, heavy armour 2d6), but never below 1 point. Whatever remains is deducted from the target's Stamina.
  • When one's Stamina goes below 0, they suffer a critical hit, rolled on a random table corresponding to the weapon's damage type (slashing, piercing, crushing, or blast).
  • Half of lost Stamina returns after 30 minutes of idleness. The remainder returns after a night's rest.
  • Spellcasting requries the expenditure of Stamina and a successful Incantation skill roll. On a natural 1, a second Incantation roll is made. On a success, the spellcasting was a regular failure. On a failure, however, the a roll is made on the miscast table (with results such as the caster's hair falling out, their skin becoming translucent for 2d6 days, or their body being frozen in place for 1d3 days).
  • 1 gold = 10 silvers = 100 pennies. The item list doesn't have set prices; instead, available goods are declared to be commoners' items, middle class items, or upper class items, costing 1d6 pennies, 1d6 silvers, or 1d6 golds, respectively. Quality and rarity may add another 1d6 or 2d6 to the cost or change the category.
  • Characters earn 1 to 3 advances after each adventure. These advances can be spent to increase skills 1 for 1 (only those associated with the current career and only up to the maximum it prescribes). The career skill (average of associated skills) also increases as a result of that, and for each such increase the character gains 1 point of max Stamina. Changing careers costs 5 advances.
  • Spells themselves are stored on scrolls and in books, and anyone capable of reading them can attempt to cast them. A total of 36 spells are described in the book, shared by divine and arcane practitioners.
  • Monsters are described using a simplified stat block compared to PCs. They have their signature weapon's skill and damage values, an armour value if any, a generic Skill value, a Stamina score, and some special abilities. 24 classic creatures are described in the book.
Things I Liked
  • The careers are concisely described and come with two d6 tables to spur the imagination of the player (e.g. the Agitator has a table answering who they've worked for and who's hunting them now). Even if one disregards the tables, the questions themselves may lead to ample amount of characterisation.
  • There's a large list of adjectives to describe characters, whether PCs or NPCs. It's not as comprehensive as the one in On the Non-player Character, but it's still decent.
  • Leaving melee engagement is not penalised at all. Although I like having some form of check or condition to it, too many systems lock down combatants from the moment they engage until one of them falls, which doesn't really represent the chaotic, swirling nature of melee combat.
  • Unlike WFRP, which has separate critical hit tables for each hit location, Warlock! separates the result by damage type instead. Ideally, it would be a combination of both, but I believe it's a step in the right direction.
Things I Disliked
  • Although I like the idea of semi-randomly determining the starter career, the way it works really bugs me. Basically, 4d6 are rolled and each die corresponds to one career (so that you cannot roll the same career twice). However, the groupings are merely alphabetical. I would've been much happier with different categories (like the career classes of WFRP) or just a plain d24 rolled four times.
  • On the one hand, the random prices may well capture the fluctuation of prices, but I am increasingly in favour of fairly detailed item lists with set prices that allow a lot of granularity.
  • I generally dislike abstract distances.
  • Although the game mentions that most intelligent opponents would consider surrendering or fleeing when their Stamina gets close to 0, I would have liked a proper morale subsystem implemented.
  • No guidelines for recovering from critical injuries (it is explicitly the GM's job to come up with something).
  • The critical hit tables are usable but completely devoid of flavour (compared to WFRP at least).
  • No Oxford commas.

It's a decent rules-light game that will most likely appeal to folks looking for their Fighting Fantasy and/or Warhammer Fantasy fix (provided they won't just keep playing those instead). The game explains the basics of how to GM but falls short on providing actionable advice, which is IMHO a missed opportunity (it kind of reminds me of the GM sections in the "new" World of Darkness line). I would have liked it very much if Warlock! came with its own procedures and detailed techniques (similar to Ghastly Affair, for instance). Perhaps the supplements released so far remedy the situation somewhat; I have yet to check them.

Warlock! was designed by Greg Saunders (Esoterica, Golgotha, Summerland) and published by Fire Ruby Designs in 2020. It is currently available in PDF and/or hardcover version through DriveThruRPG, along with quite a few supplements as well as a science fantasy variant, called Warpstar!.

2 comments:

  1. That's a pretty informative review. It's a game I have a soft spot for despite doing a lot of things in ways I dislike. Fingers crossed we'll give it a shot once our GM ends his WFRP4e campaign.

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