This is the second half of my review of Dark Albion, the Rose War. Here’s part 1, in case you missed it. Part 3 is coming soon (this is a huge review, my apologies: they’ll all be combined into a single article shortly).
Characters in Albion
This chapter may seem deceptively short (10 pages). But, like the rest of the book, it is densely packed with useful material.
One of the core assumptions about this setting is that it tends to be humans-only, or at least, fudging it so that the rules for other races such as dwarves and elves are used for other human nations, such as the Eirish, Scots or Cymri (Welsh). That makes sense, and it is not jarring to me because I’m quite a fan of using pseudo-historical settings for Dungeons and Dragons—anyone else love those old “green books” from AD&D?
Dark Albion’s system of social classes is a very important part in the setting. The idea is that PCs are assigned a social class either randomly (just like character creation in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in which each PC gets a random starting career) or by choosing one for the entire party to better suit the campaign style (e.g.: courtly intrigue, downtrodden mercenaries, merchant sailors etc…). I like the way that this is handled, especially because the descriptions of each class provides one or more reasons that might kickstart an individual onto the path of adventure. Also, besides differences in starting wealth and prestige, none of them “feel” restrictive. At least from a first reading, I believe that a party of mixed social classes could work just fine.
This idea is reinforced by the “Prior Event Table” which randomly determines a background event for each character. All of them seem to be beneficial, in the sense that even the darker or sordid ones may provide a mechanical bonus depending on relevant circumstances, or at the very least great plot hooks. Some of these were wonderfully gritty, reminding me of a few characters in the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell (e.g.: miraculously surviving execution; those who know of this reputation firmly believe that the character is considered destined for greatness by God and is a bit more lucky than other characters).
So far my mind is swirling with campaign ideas:
- a band of heroic mercenaries, perhaps long-bowmen, finding fame and fortune despite the horrors of war
- a group of students at a Wizard’s college in London, uncovering a sinister Chaos plot by the professors
- a pack of holy Clerics solving murder mysteries throughout the land
- a travelling band of performers who get embroiled into a a sinister plot at their latest venue.
Sure these ideas of mine are a bit iconic (or, to be cynical, cliché) but I feel that Dark Albion simply fits a gritty medieval campaign like a glove. If you’re a fan of historical fiction in this style (the Name of the Rose, Azincourt or the Reckoning, to name a few), you’ll be very pleased.
Lastly we get some nice name generators. They all sound sufficiently authentic. In particular I’m a fan of the Last Names for the Upper Gentry. There are some really dapper-sounding stuff in there that I’ve never read before; they’re as fanciful sounding as any name from an Arthurian tale, Brother Cadfael mystery or Harry Potter novel (I’m not from the U.K., just a boring Canadian, so that might be why I’m so impressed).
My overall impression is positive: this chapter provides some handy and interesting add-ons for character creation no matter which game system your table chooses.
Currency and Coinage
This chapter is pretty self-explanatory. The listings of weapons and armour are without any values other than cost, based on the assumption that they would match those in whichever game system that is being used. All in all very useful to get an idea of what is available and plausible within Albion.
We get explanations of starting equipment based on social class, simple rules for maintaining armour and factors to consider when using firearms. There’s material covering wages, costs of living and taxation (great info to fuel campaigns about noble outlaws). Again, all of this chapter is interesting because of all the historical information.
Useful, concise and easy to use. A good chapter.
Noble-houses of Albion
These are optional rules for managing a household (for noble characters).
There’s a nice, simple mechanic to track a house’s “ability scores” using three values to gauge their Military, Financial and Political Power. These can be determined in the same way as character generation: by rolling dice. These score are modified by the noble’s title (the greater, the better bonus), region of origin and allegiance (to either the white or red Rose).
Included is a table of random, annual events that can increase or decrease these abilities. For example, an army crosses through the house’s land; depending on their allegiance (to either Rose) and the army’s, their Financial and Political powers can rise or fall. An awful scandal can reduce Political Power. Strangely, I couldn’t spot a yearly event that increases Military Power.
Now there are some things that characters can voluntarily do in order to increase an attribute (such as Military). Things like adventuring, political risk-taking or investing. This is all rather well thought out and structured for domain management or political campaigns.
Lastly there are rules for large-scale warfare. I’m not too good with grasping this sort of thing, but it seems solid enough. It all comes down to an opposed percentile roll adjusted with modifiers (off of the Military Power ability score). Again, it seems rather straightforward.
Very interesting and simple system here. I would like to use this, even in other games, to decide the outcome of battles “off-screen”, letting the characters deal with the fallout, good or ill.
People of Interest
This rather meaty section outlines special NPCs from the past, present and future of Albion. Whether these characters are actually met in-game or just heard about second- or third-hand, they are all interesting.
Each house is accompanied by a heraldic shield. These are very nicely done, but I wish that I could’ve seen them in color, or at least had a short description of what they represent. Some are rather elaborate (for major houses) and some are strikingly and charmingly iconic in their simplicity (fans of a Song of Ice and Fire will feel a familiarity with a few of them).
My friend, an amateur student of medieval heraldry, was quite fascinated by the attention to detail. He came across a symbol or two that he wasn’t familiar with. We had fun looking them up.
I like having this sort of information on hand instead of hand waving the traits about a local lord in a campaign: even if a group’s adventuring scope is narrowed down to one little region. It goes without saying that it can add a great deal of depth to a series of adventures when there’s important stuff happening in the background. Sudden changes in rulers, political upheaval or new, controversial laws can really affect the characters’ perceptions of their world.
There’s an impressive amount of detail and research in this chapter. The only extra thing that I would have liked would have been a few charts to make up new heraldry for noble PCs. Something for a future supplement, perhaps?
Sorcery and Secrets
A chapter covering magic and miracles, demons and summoning rituals. The “feel” of it makes me think of the Ars Goetia: sorcerous lore from the Lesser Key of Solomon that describes the evocations of a list of 72 demons.
Even the most pure-hearted Lawful Clerics and Magisters can summon and make pacts with demons for good reasons. Doing things for selfish or evil reasons has repercussions, both in the “real” world and in the spiritual sense. Some of the more sinister aspects of summoning magic are handled very tastefully here, unlike some other OSR books that go into extremely disturbing detail (this ain’t no Carcosa!). Also, it is very clear that things such as human sacrifice are explicitly awful and aligned with Chaos. On that note, the only supernatural effect that requires human sacrifice is the one that produces bountiful crops: this is a familiar trope found in fiction and myth (the Wicker Man, for example). To summarize, there’s nothing in here that is distasteful or upsetting, despite the big, bold headings (eg.: “Principles of Demonology”) and medieval woodcuts of animal-faced devils. As an aside, I had fun reading this chapter on the bus the other morning, wondering what the people next to me were thinking as they took a peek…
There are great lists of demonic powers that can be used upon a successful binding. These are all fun and very thematic: stuff like “Spoil Harvest” or causing a Lord to make a sudden, terrible mistake. These are far more subtle than other standard fantasy “big magic” but have far more potential to create hugely important campaign-changing events. War campaigns or sieges can be easily won or lost, marriages can be created or shattered, important naval convoys can be wiped out or arrive early. It’s all very epic to me; the stuff of myth and legend.
The only thing I didn’t find were lists of proposed mutations for Chaos-aligned magic users. I’ve got plenty of other books to mine for ideas, of course (WFRP’s Slaves to Darkness, for example), but I think that it would’ve been a nice inclusion, especially if inspired by historical precedence as the rest of the book.
There are recommended spell lists for Clerics and Magicians. Flashy, vulgar attack spells (e.g.: Fireball, Lightning Bolt, etc.) are omitted, and the spell lists of each class do not ever overlap. Thus, Clerics and Magicians have clearly distinct roles and uses. So far so good, it makes sense.
Lastly we get a section about magic items, potions and poisons. Also, information on how to create them (a difficult, time consuming and potentially expense task). As expected from a low-magic setting, magic items are very rare, extremely valuable and unique. There are no magic shops and trading or gifting enchanted items can have a huge impact on relationships and alliances.
There are some great lists of example magic items, all very thematic adventure fodder, especially the Spear of
Longinus Mithras, which is in several pieces and scattered throughout the world: now that’s a backbone for a solid campaign if I ever saw one!
The lists of alchemical potions and poisons are all really fun and engrossing. No standard fantasy fare in here; all of them are potent and inspired from real world (occult) herbalism and alchemy. As stated earlier, I’m more of a fan of mythology and occultism from our world than made-up stuff from places from fantasy media, so I’m a huge fan already.
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this review, which covers “Adventuring in Albion” and the “Appendices”.