Wednesday 22 December 2021

Review: Ballad of the Longbow

For future reference: the following review is based on the 1.01 version of the book.

I first became aware of Ivan Sorensen and his imprint Nordic Weasel Games through MeWe, where his posts I found quite entertaining and inspiring. I think I first checked out Five Leagues from the Borderlands (whose glorious third edition will soon be released through Modiphius, much like its sci-fi counterpart, Five Parsecs from Home). Upon joining his Discord server, I quickly learnt that a rules-light RPG was in the works. This review is about that game.

Ballad of the Longbow is a medieval fantasy role-playing game inspired by Robin Hood, Wilhelm Tell, Arthurian mythology, and various adventure novels. It's a game about outlaws and heroes fighting a central villain (the main cause of injustice around); it's fairly down-to-earth but never really grim or gritty.

The game first provides a basic outline of its assumptions: d20 roll under or equal skill, explicitly no fail forward or fail with consequence mechanic (as a very traditional GM, I heartily approve of this choice), medieval setting (although it's fairly easy to adapt the system for other adventurous settings), and no magic system of any kind.

Player characters each belong to a character type (Knight, Outlaw, Noble, Yeoman, Clergy, Veteran, Retainer, Scholar, Forester, Entertainer, or Beggar), and each type provides a list of starting equipment and a choice between three Abilities (although more may be gained during play).

Abilities can be used once per session each. They usually work without rolling (although a few of them turn specific failed rolls into successes). Examples include the Knight's Challenge (issue a challenge to another knight or noble; backing down is certain humiliation), the Yeoman's Common fighting (turn a failed attack/defence roll into a success with a quarterstaff), or the Clergy's Long-winded speech (hold up a person for 15 minutes by expounding theological doctrine).

Skills are rated from 2 to 18. There are fifteen of them in total (ranging from Agility and Deception to Religion and Stealth). Their starting values are determined by arranging 15 given scores in any order (keeping in mind character type and background).

Aside from success/failure, the game recognises Finesse and Perfection (rolling a success with a 10+ or 15+ die roll, respectively). Fumbles are explicitly missing.

Applying modifiers, helping each other, and opposed rolls are described succintly. A really neat idea is the handling of "weak link tests" where everyone has to succeed in order to avoid failure (like group sneak attempts) — in these cases the GM randomly determines which character has to make the test (with regular modifiers if applicable). I like it because it invisibly factors in each and every participant's score without having to compute an average skill value (whereas using only a "best" or "worst" value would disregard every other participant).

A few activities are specifically called out and described in detail (on account of being likely events in a game): picking locks, social interactions, doing physical things, building things, knowing things, searches, and languages.

Nordic Weasel Games is a miniatures wargame publisher first and foremost, so it's no surprise that the combat system is very miniature friendly.

A combat round represents 5-10 seconds of activity. A round consists of five phases: (1) Quick Action Phase, (2) Enemy Action Phase, (3) Slow Action Phase, (4) Ally Action Phase, and (5) Morale Test Phase.

Player characters must make a skill check (Agility if within 10 metres of an enemy, Alertness otherwise) — on a success they decide whether to act in the Quick or the Slow Action Phase; those who fail automatically act in the Slow Action Phase. Enemies and allied non-player characters simply act in the Enemy and Ally Action Phases, respectively.

Succeeding at the initiative roll with Finesse or a Perfect roll grants an immediate half-speed movement bonus (even if engaged in melee!) — a pretty neat reward in an otherwise simple initiative system.

Characters may move and take an action on their turn; the order can vary, but movement cannot be split (i.e. you cannot move-act-move). Characters can also attempt to defend themselves against attacks any number of times — up until they succeed once.

Attacking is a simple Fighting or Archery skill roll. Defending against an attack is either an Agility (evasion) or Fighting (parry) check — the defender must get at least an equal level of success as the attacker. A successful evasion must be represented by 1 metre of movement; a successful parry may be followed by backing down 1 metre. I like this kind of detail a lot; it creates a naturally flowing melee without relying on GM fiat.

Successful attacks are followed by a damage roll — a skill check using the regular attack skill modified by weapon and armour (although non-villain NPCs use a reduced skill value for dealing damage vs. player characters). On a success the attack inflicts a Wound. Grunts are out of action after 1 Wound; Expert characters can take 2 Wounds; player characters and villains may take up to 3.

Non-combat damage is handled very similarly, but instead of the enemy combatant's skill, a Hazard Factor is determined (e.g. 6 for falling from a horse); sometimes even more than one so multiple Wounds may be sustained (e.g. 14/10 for falling off a roof). A successful Agility or Alertness skill check is usually allowed to avoid risking damage in the first place, though.

The rules cover a lot of other action types — from interacting with the environment to giving first aid — but the one I most like is the Bravado action, which covers all sorts of swashbuckling and other dramatic activities (a neat little list of possible effects are provided).

Morale, of course, plays an important role in combat. Unless led by a villain, NPCs must roll against their Morale if they are ambushed and outnumbered, their leader falls, or a quarter of their forces are lost in a single round of combat.

Inventory management doesn't play a big role in the game, and the equipment section is mostly concerned with weaponry and simple goods and services. It's largely okay, and as the text says, suitable price lists are easy to find in other games, like GURPS Low Tech. I personally would've preferred a little more detail here.

Advancement is fairly simple. After each game session, increase a single skill by 1 point (up to 18). After 3 Good Deeds, gain a new Ability (this may be off-type if it makes sense, but only twice). Good Deeds are basically the goals of scenarios: rescuing folks from unjust imprisonment, saving the villagers from bandits, and in general foiling the villain's plans. The game assumes a medium-length campaign, suggesting that a few sessions after acquiring the third Ability is a pretty good time to wrap things up.

Stats (Attack, Defence, Skill, Morale) are provided for a number of NPCs and animals, including a few villain and ally abilities as well. Then guidelines ("The commandments") are laid out in the spirit of the game (e.g. surrenders are always accepted, villager NPCs are rarely traitorous, avoid gotchas, and never assume a fixed solution).

There's some minimal GM advice regarding impersonating NPCs (including a nifty reaction system), handling travel, adjudicating ally actions, considering loyalty, and setting up satisfying combat encounter (with regards to numbers and such). A few pages of optional rules and the obligatory design notes (the coolest recurring feature of NWG publications) end the book.

Overall, Ballad of the Longbow is a neat little game of dashing heroics. The combat system — while simple — shows just enough depth to remain interesting for the duration of a campaign, and the character Abilities help reinforce the genre in a satisfying way. At this stage the book has a bunch of typos, and it lacks a compelling starting setting/adventure. With a robust scenario generator and/or a reasonably detailed mini-setting and its bespoke villains that would facilitate quickly getting it to the table (much like how the character types accomplish the same from the players' side), it could be really good. As it stands, it's just good.