Axes & Orcs Compendium Volume I – Non-Human & Monster Classes (OSR)
This supplement clocks in at 23 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, leaving us with 21 pages of content, laid out for 6’’ by 9’’/A5, so let’s take a look!
This supplement is intended for generic OSR, and does not subscribe to a single rules-set, which can be a bit of a detriment, considering how the power-levels of e.g. B/X and OSRIC can diverge, so that’s something to bear in mind. “Skill”-like abilities are noted as x-in-6-chances, with initiative and surprise being assumed to have ascending values; similarly, saving throw bonuses are noted with plusses, with the classes doing something relatively smart, namely referencing e.g. “As clerics” as a default, making integration simple. The classes assume an ascending attack bonus.
All right, so, we begin with what I’d consider a combination of regular classes and race classes, with the halfling druid, who requires a minimum Dexterity of 9, and a minimum Wisdom of 12. The halfling druid has saves like a cleric, and weapon proficiency as a cleric or druid; armors are allowed as long as they’re made of animal or plant matter. The class gets the standard halfling abilities and spellcasting as a cleric or druid: They get +1 to attack rolls with missile weapons, as well as 5-in-6 chance to hide outdoors, 2-in-6 indoors; the class also gets +1 to initiative and surprise rolls. The halfling druid gets +2 to saving throws versus fire and lightning. Depending on the game you use, you get either access to the cleric or druid spell progression. 3rd level allows the halfling druid to automatically discern animal and plant types, as well as safe water. Starting at 7th level, the halfling druid may change their forms up to 3/day into a natural animal, The size assumed may not be smaller than a mouse, no larger than double the druid’s normal weight; the shapeshifting also replenishes 1d6 x10 percent, but doesn’t properly codify how long it takes to shift. This is a bit of an awkward mechanic, as it requires calculating percentile HP healed on the fly – fixed values would have been more elegant. It also doesn’t specify whether to round up or down. The shapeshifted form is also immune to charms and mental enchantments cast by faerie critters.
The race-class suffers from some inconsistencies between text and class-table: The first is that the text states that the class gets d6 HD every level, until 13th; the class table, however, caps this at level 9, with each additional level only yielding a single HP. The latter is obviously the correct one, but yeah. Less obvious: The text refers to 9th level as the archdruid-title, which nets a sanctified grove and followers, but the class table situates this at 10th level. As fitting in old-school games, the halfling druid notes that there are only so many druids of higher levels, which will require besting higher level druids to take their place. It would have been nice to get some information on whether this should be a separate thing from non-halfling druids. Attack bonus starts at +1, and increases by +2 at 5th level every 4 levels thereafter, which is a bit odd. As for XP-progression, we start with 2,125 XP, and twice that amount (or slightly more) for the next level – to illustrate these negligible increases beyond doubling, 7th level requires attaining 70K XP, even though 6th level takes 34K XP.
The supplement includes two different Moon-rat race-classes, the first being the moon-rat arquebusier, who needs a minimum Dexterity and Intelligence of 9 or more. They get d6 HD, with 10th level and every level thereafter granting +2 HP, and saves as a fighter. The class starts play with a +1 attack bonus, which increases by +2 at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter, for a maximum of +9 at 13th level. Moon-rat arquebusiers get a scaling bonus to damage with successful firearm attacks, with the bonus increasing by a further +1 at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter. The arquebusier may not use human-sized two-handed weapons or longbows, but may use all armors and weapons, and are trained in dual-wielding. One of the things that left me puzzled here: What about human-sized guns? Can these guys use them, or do they need small rifles? What is the dominant rule here – forbiddance of the two-handed weapons, or the proficiency-allowance for firearms?
Moon-rats as a whole get +1 to surprise rolls against mechanical devices, creatures or other constructs, and they get the detection abilities of dwarves of the same level. They are expert bargainers, and thus decrease the cost of purchased goods by 10%, and increase the value of sold goody by +10%. 5th level nets +1 to morale scores of retainers, and 9th level yields the usual mercenary company.
The second moon-rat class is the moon-rat machinist, who has d4 HD (+1 per level at 10th level and every level thereafter), saves, weapons and armor as a thief, and also may use firearms; being moon-rats, they have the same two-handed weapon restrictions due to their size that the arquebusiers have, and gain the same bonus to surprise rolls versus mechanical devices. They also share the same bargaining affinity. These machinists are master craftsrats and can produce or repair up to 40 gp of mechanical items per month or supervise other moonrats, with the number equal to the amount of retainers they’d have if their Intelligence was their Charisma score. They can identify mechanical items on a 4-in-6, as well as +2 to rolls to construct or repair complex machines. They get the thief’s opening locks and finding/removing traps.
And here is an issue: The class’s key feature is designing automatons etc., and the class doesn’t present rules, instead pointing you to use your OSR-game’s construct creation/spell research rules. That being said, many OSR-systems may have spell research rules, but how that works with automaton creation, well, that kinda thing isn’t really defined, forcing the GM to do the lion’s share of design here. To me, this renders the class inoperable; that’s the kind of thing I’d want such a book as this to handle. Instead of a whole class-design, we get a sketch that is easy enough to come up with, and when it comes to the hard put, the book shrugs and moves on. Attack bonus-wise, we begin with +1, and increase that by +2 at 5th level and every 4 levels thereafter. The class gains 2nd level at 1,700 XP, and doubles the required XP, with sometimes a few XP added on top; starting at 10th level, this formula changes and no longer requires doubling. Super odd: It takes 130.000 XP to attain 11th level; 12th level and every level thereafter only takes 13.000 XP. Not sure if something went wrong there.
The next class is the oil-surge relay, which is conceptually one of my favorites in the book: You are essentially a Transformer. You have d10 HD per level, an attack bonus and saves as a fighter, and need experience per level as an elf. You have a base AC as chainmail, and your unarmed strikes deal 1d4; you get the elf chances to detect secret doors and surprise checks. You begin with roughly human size, and your alternate form, the alt-mode, is the same size; your alt-modes can be a giant head, a giant weapon, a wheeled vehicle, a winged vehicle, a watercraft, a piece of equipment, an organic creature, or an animal. If you’re an organic creature in alt-mode, you are treated as a normal creature – this special case is known as a “Pretender.”
The engine presented here is interesting: The power of the class is offset by several limitations: Armor for the primary mode is 3-5 times as expensive as normal, and is destroyed if still worn when transforming. You need some sort of high-energy fuel instead of regular food and water; I like this. If you’re a Pretender, you instead require twice the usual food.
You can add a level of mass-displacement every 2 Hit Dice, but the pdf never defines what falls under a level of mass displacement – some sample references would have been helpful here. This is particularly evident, since you also get a new alt-mode every 3 levels, and may increase the primary mode’s size one level every 4 levels. This also affects the alt-modes unless you have mass-displacement for them, which implies having to assign mass displacement for them. Alternatively, you can build an extra headless body or load-bearer armor. The cost to pay for these improvements is based on XP, which is interesting. The class also specifies that you don’t automatically get to super-hack stuff and the like.
I genuinely loved this fellow, but I wished the book subscribed to a concrete OSR-system and properly focused on making the class work in that system; as far as generic OSR is concerned, this works better than I expected it to, though it still does require that you engage in some serious design in the details; it is only half done, regardless which system you use. One of the hard parts of the design is left up to you to execute.
The final regular race-class here is the sky-gnome, who needs a minimum Dexterity of 9, and a minimum Constitution of 6; they get d6 HD per level until 10th level, with +2 HP per level thereafter. They get armor proficiency as a thief, weapon proficiency as a halfling, and saving throws as a halfling. While airborne, they have a 3-in-6 chance while sky-borne to determine height, safety of maneuvers, speed, etc., and a +1 to rolls related to machinery. They also have some interesting flavor added – but are generally just not that interesting if divorced from the implied setting…and the class has no class table noted, nor does it state the experience progression the fellows are supposed to use.
The book also features monster classes, with the first being the pegataur, essentially a winged centaur, who needs a minimum of 9 in Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom. They get 1d8 HD per level, +2 HP at 10th level and every level thereafter; their attack progression and saving throws are the ones of the fighter. The class table notes an attack bonus that increases by +2 at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter. Armor costs twice as much for them and the encumbrance are twice as high. Pegatuars may use weapons as a fighter. They have a base AC of 5 (or 15) and two hoof attacks at 1d6. They gain the elf spell progression, base movement of 180’ (60’) and twice as much while flying; we get MF & Takeoff, and carry capacity while aloft. The second level requires 4,500 XPs; weird: 13th level has a lower XP value than 12th – pretty sure that’s an error.
The second monster class is the skeleton, who gets d8 HD, saves as a fighter, and may use all armors and weapons; they have a base AC of 7 (1) – and their attack bonus increases by +1 every level. They get new HD until 12th level; second level requires 3,000 XP, and we have a roughly a doubled XP costs for a new level until 10th level, where that decreases. The skeletons get claw attacks that deal d6 damage, and they have a -2 penalty to reactions, loyalty, morale, etc.; this turns into a bonus when dealing with the undead. They have infravision 60 ft., but are treated as evil, regardless of alignment, for the purpose of spells like protection from evil etc. After the skeleton’s reduced to 0 HP, it will reconstitute itself after 10 minutes, though at the cost of a permanent loss of 1 point from a random ability score. If any reaches 0, the skeleton’s permanently destroyed. Skeletons may not be healed by lawful clerics, but can be healed by chaotic clerics. If spending 1 week or more in a safe place with materials, a skeleton can regain lost hit points, but the pdf never specifies how many hit points the skeleton may regain thus per week.
The final monster-class is the sphinx, who needs a minimum Strength and Wisdom of 9, and a minimum Intelligence of 13; the sphinx gets 1d8 HD per level, with 13th level netting just +1 HP. Their base AC begins at 5 (15) and improves up to 0 (20), which is attained at 11th level.
They use saves as fighters, and barding costs 10 times the normal costs and encumbrance; they may only use natural weapons; base movement is 180’ (60’), or twice as much while flying; MF &takeoff and carry capacity are noted for flight. Sphinxes has a claw/claw/bite-routine and start at 1d4/1d4/1d6; these improve up to 3d6/3d6/2d8 at 13th level. Attack bonus increases from +1 at 1st level by +2 at 4th level, and every 3 levels thereafter. The sphinx gets their choice of either cleric or magic-user spellcasting at first level.
The sphinx also get a roar ability, and the roar has three zones (Z1-3): Those in the farthest zone (Z3) are “feared”[sic!] on save vs. spell (begins at d4 rounds, scales up to d8 turns); Z2 also requires a save vs. paralysis to avoid being stunned (1 round scales up to d8 rounds), and Z1 also requires a save vs. spell to avoid being temporarily deafened; in Z1, we have sonic damage that scales from 2d6, +1d6 at 4th level and every 3 levels thereafter – there is no save to mitigate this damage caused. The sphinx RAW has NO LIMIT on this potent roar – neither does it have notes on daily uses, nor does it specify the range of the roar. Granted the sphinx needs 5,000 XP to attain 2nd level, and roughly twice as much per level after that until 9th level, but still – this is a pretty damn potent class. In fact, the sphinx looks like it’s at home in a wholly different design paradigm; the monster classes vastly eclipse in power the other classes, and the sphinx? Well, it eclipses even the other monster classes. In lower-powered systems and games, these’ll be considered o be at the very least VERY strong; for most B/X-groups, for example, the words used to describe them would include “ridiculous”, “over”, and “powered”.
Editing and formatting are not very good – I noticed a couple of typo-level glitches on a formal level, affect/effect, etc., and a couple of these also affected my ability to quickly parse the information within. On a rules-language level, the book does suffer significantly from not subscribing to a specific system. I also noticed quite a few ambiguities of the rules. The classes featured herein are not balanced against the core classes of pretty much any OSR-game I know, and worse, leave the hard design-components up to the GM. Layout adheres to a no-frills one-column b/w-standard, and there is a lot of blank space – one page, for example, contains a single line from the previous page’s class table, but that’s it. I liked the mix of hand-drawn and stock b/w-artworks for the classes and the DIY-aesthetics of the book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and, much to my pleasant surprise, in two versions: One intended for 6’’ by 9’’ paper, one for A5 – thank you!
Ian Woolley delivers a per se promising little booklet here regarding ideas, but also one that I can’t really recommend to anyone due to its flawed execution; the ideas are here, and some are charming indeed…however, in the case of the transformer-angle, they e.g. suffer from being just a frame that requires you to do the lion’s share of design for the hard part of the race-class progression. Similarly, I loved the sphinx’s zone-based roar; it is cool, but has no range noted, and the roar’s lack of limit makes its damage outclass pretty much any OSR-class I know of.
I just don’t think this is a properly functional OSR-book; granted, this seems to have been the author’s freshman offering, which traditionally grants this some leeway, but considering how many supplements out there do so much better, my final verdict can’t exceed 1.5 stars, rounded up, considering the freshman bonus. On a plus side, the author has learned and improved since then. His more recent work is much better.
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