Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ambition & Avarice

Warning: This "review" is not particularly well-organized, in fact it's mostly a "stream of consciousness" kind of thing that rambles along randomly. The various chapters/topics are covered highly unevenly as well, don't expect balance. But I hope you'll still find it somewhat useful?

I was torn about what to get in terms of a "modern OSR game" but I finally settled on Ambition & Avarice from Chubby Funster. In the end, feedback on a post I made in the G+ community for A&A convinced me to try it over the various competing products such as BareBones Fantasy, Beyond the Wall, and Dungeon World. You can actually tell a few things about the game from its cover:

Title image by Craig Brasco (orgo)

Heros? Well... They can be: For the right price! At least that's the setup, there's actually nothing in the rules that would make it a requirement to play a bunch of greedy "true neutral" mercenaries without a conscience. While that style of play is certainly supported (and playable races such as goblins and lizard men make it a tad more likely I guess) I don't think it's what Greg Christopher set out to give us. It's more of a side-effect of his obvious passion for sandboxes in which player agency rules and everybody around the table (including the referee) discovers the story as they play instead of having it scripted out ahead of time.

But let's not get too philosophical right away, let's look at the system first. We start with the usual six attributes rolled in mostly the familiar ways. There's a unified modifier table (in increments of two for some reason) but attributes also have other side-effects like constitution determining what kind of die you roll (from d4 to d12) to recover hit points after a day of rest. Some attributes are put to "surprising" uses, at least for people like me who come to A&A from D&D: strength is your to-hit bonus for thrown weapons, dexterity determines your movement speed, constitution determines your encumbrance level, wisdom modifies your initiative rolls, etc. There's nothing "wrong" with these choices, they just take a while to get used to.

There are two "core mechanics" if you will, rolling a d20 over a target number (saving throw, dungeon throw, attribute test) and rolling a d6 under a target number (various special abilities based on race and class). Saving throws are what you'd expect. Dungeon throws are "dungeon delving skills" that every character (regardless of race and class) has, things like force to open a door or chest, traps to find or disable a trap, sneak to move quietly and without being seen, etc. Attribute tests are everything else, including attacks in combat.

Speaking of race and class, there are a lot of those in A&A. You can play "civilized" dwarves, elves, gnomes, halflings, and humans or "barbarian" dark elves, goblins, hobgoblins, lizardfolk, and orcs. Each race gets a relatively fresh characterization (compared to the "usual" D&D tropes anyway), for example we learn that gnomes eat everything in sight whereas halflings are cosmopolitan adventurers. Race and not class determines hit dice (halflings and goblins get d4, dwarves and orcs get d10, everybody else is d6 or d8). Race also determines initial saving throws (with halflings getting the best and orcs getting the worst for some reason). Finally race confers some special abilities, for example dark elves have a 2-in-6 chance to identify poison, elves get a bonus to their notice dungeon throw, and hobgoblins don't have to count the weight of their armor against encumbrance.

It feels very "old school" to me that the exact abilities each race gets don't fit a cookie-cutter pattern of modifiers. Some people might criticize this as "unbalanced" but to me it creates a lot of fun flavor.

As for classes, we have brigand, knave, knight, ranger, and savage in terms of "mundane" ones as well as conjurer, cultist, priest, shaman, and sorcerer in terms of "magical" ones. Each of those is again nicely characterized, but I have to admit that I find it hard to remember what each class is supposed to be just from their names. To give you an impression of these classes, here's my summary for each:

  • Brigands are criminals all the way from highwaymen to cat-burglars; they can pick pockets and identify good loot quickly; they can fence off stolen goods and escape from bonds.
  • Knaves are spies and assassins usually playing for nobles in their political games; they can backstab and identify voices; they can find black market traders and blend in with the rich and powerful.
  • Knights are wannabe nobles who were born too late to inherit; they have to be honorable although that doesn't necessarily mean "good" here; they can identify heraldry and scare their enemies.
  • Rangers try to beat back the monsters surrounding the various "points of light" of civilization; they can track in the wilderness as well as identify plants and animals; they are hardy and get a larger hit die and have a chance to identify what left a certain track.
  • Savages are uncivilized barbarians; they can charge into battle with a big bonus and identify particularly weak enemies; they can also re-roll force throws and identify smells.
  • Conjurers summon and create stuff using magic; they can create binding circles to trap creatures and they recognize symbols, runes, and glyphs; they have spells such as summon elemental, burden, and shockwave.
  • Cultists receive their powers from young deities who expect sacrifices and conversions in return; they can sacrifice humanoids to heal others as well as identify individuals with weak wills; they have spells such as charm, cripple, and distraction.
  • Priests follow large established religions; they can keep someone hovering on death's door alive and they can also identify divine beings, symbols, and artifacts; they have spells such as emblazon, deathwatch, and eternal slumber.
  • Shamans draw on the spirit world to perform their magic; they can identify and cure poisons and disease; they have spells such as blink, dragon's breath, and infection.
  • Sorcerers are "scientific" magicians who study magic carefully and deeply; they can identify and counter spells being cast by others; they have spells such as detect magic, icy touch, and nap.

Class also determines initial dungeon throws (with mundane classes consistently getting away better than magical classes). Mundane classes also gain character points (three each level) to further improve their hit points, dungeon/saving throws, weapon proficiencies, or to-hit bonus. Note that these are in addition to the "leveling up" process described below. I should probably mention that the advantages mundane classes get regarding dungeon throws are somewhat compensated by the spell progressions for the magical classes: these can cast a lot more spells than you'd expect from D&D. For example a level 5 magic-user in D&D typically has 3/2/1 spells, but a level 5 shaman in A&A has 6/5/4 instead!

One last aspect of classes is a little scary to me: All of them get some kind of henchmen or familiar or whatnot every single level. Take the Conjurer and his imps for example: A level five conjurer could have 5 imps and could therefore be in 6 places at the same time. True, the imps are not very powerful, but being able to spy on that many locations just by concentrating (assuming the imp can hide well enough) could be very powerful. That said, I'd probably try it out before tossing it, but I'd warn my players that this particular aspect might get toned down.

Let's turn to another aspect of the game: equipment and related rules. Encumbrance is measured in pounds and there's a (rather fiddly in my opinion) system that first groups characters into encumbrance levels based on constitution and then tells you their (exploration, combat, running) speed based on dexterity. I would have preferred a simpler approach here, but I guess for those of you interested in "realism" there's something to be said for this system. What I do like is that "exploration speed" explicitly includes looking for traps, something that's not entirely clear in the D&D iterations I've played.

Armor has strength requirements, so plate mail is not for everybody who can afford it. There's a spell failure mechanic based on armor worn as well as encumbrance more generally. The coinage system is needlessly fiddly in my opinion, but not because of the valuation (it's a sane 1:10 ratio except for electrum pieces) but because of weight: Gold pieces are heavier than silver pieces for example. What a nightmare, realism be damned. There's a brief note about the campaign using a silver standard, but then most of the prices are given in gold pieces anyway. Thrown weapons have a range based on strength, which is neat. There are a bunch of herbs/poisons/drugs on the equipment list. They come with neat "stat blocks" which seems to indicate that their use is encouraged to a degree. Yes, characters can become addicted to drugs.

All of the items on the equipment list are described in some detail with many weapons getting a special effect or two and most "mundane" items receiving some suggested adventuring uses. I like the idea of making equipment choices more important, but I also see the drawback of forcing new players to read the entire equipment list if they want to make "optimal" choices for their characters.

How about experience and level progression? Experience points can be awarded for treasure recovered, monsters defeated, or quests/puzzles solved according to DM preference. There's a unified XP table straight from 3rd edition: 1000, 3000, 6000, etc. On gaining a level characters roll for additional hit points, reduce one saving throw by 1, and at levels 3, 6, 9, and 12 raise one attribute by 1; mundane characters gain 3 character points as described above, magical characters gain new spells.

How about combat? There's hit point damage and attribute damage, the latter of which is much harder to cure. Combat rounds are 6 seconds (turns are 10 minutes) and you can typically move and attack unless you're casting a spell or aiming carefully. The combat sequence: casting declarations, initiative, actions, morale check. Two-handed attacks double strength bonus and cause a critical on 19 or 20. Two weapon attacks grant a flat +2 to-hit. Touch attacks ignore armor, and grappling is based on that as well as an interesting "degrees of success" scheme that goes back-and-forth between the "wrestlers" involved (yes, several characters can combine their forces to grapple one).

There are some cool optional rules covering sustenance, sleep, fatigue, long-distance movement, vision and light, and actions under time pressure.

Magic is not too different from what you would expect coming from classic D&D except that there are memorizing as well as spontaneous casters much like in 3rd edition. The real "shocker" are the spells themselves, some of which are really quite different from what I am used to in D&D games. Just some cool 1st level spells picked at random: burden to increase someone's encumbrance level, erosion to weaken a physical object, false cure to make it seem like you healed someone, overwhelm to create emotions in a target, rumors to start an contagious false belief in a population, etc. Those things are full of potential and I am officially amazed that many of the spells in A&A have never shown up in D&D before to the best of my knowledge. That's impressive.

The entire book is full of useful advice for DMs, especially regarding sandbox play and the concept of player agency. There's advice about adventure design with a long list of commonly used tropes and how to combine them. There's advice about monsters and how to design them (indeed, A&A doesn't come with a monster chapter in the traditional sense, you're almost completely on your own). There's advice about NPCs and a cute favor/disfavor system that immediately leads to sources for new quests. And so on, and so forth.

So what's the verdict? I very much enjoyed reading A&A because it offers a fresh approach to D&D that still mostly satisfies old-school sensibilities. True, in a few places the 3rd edition stuff shines through a little much, but it's not too horrible. There are a few editing problems that annoy me a bit, but OSR writers don't have an army of professional editors to help them out so that's okay. I look at A&A as a great "change of pace" game, something I would run "on occasion" whenever we need a break from our "regular" campaign. There are also a few mechanics (rest die!) and spells (rumors!) that I might steal outright for my D&D game. After reading A&A I feel inspired to run a gritty, high-fantasy, low-magic, weird monsters everywhere, let's borrow some ChAoS from Warhammer thing that could be a lot of fun. I really hope I get to try it out. Who knows, maybe it'll even become our regular campaign eventually?


  1. Good review! I might steal the rolling searching into exploration movement thing (seriously, 60' in a 10-minute exploration turn is ridiculously slow). I also like that thief is somewhat broken up, and the favor/disfavor system sound intriguing. Might have to pick this one up in pdf.

    1. Thanks for the props! I should say that beyond some examples, there's really not much "substance" to the favor/disfavor thing. You roll reaction and if it's a good roll the NPC does something nice "for free", otherwise they want you to do something nice for them first (this is where you hand out a "quest" of sorts). Of course you need to know enough about the NPC to have a "quest" ready...