This massive toolkit clocks in at 100 pages, 1 page of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page artist contacts (nice), 1 page writer’s contacts, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 93 pages of content, though it should be noted that the pdf comes with 3 hex-crawl-y jpgs – one with icons and labels, one with icons sans labels and one that only notes the starting position. Nice!
Before you’re asking – the ruleset this is based on would be Swords & Wizardry, so if you’re familiar with the various OSR-rulesets, you’ll know what to expect here in that regard. After a brief introduction by the author and a similarly brief background story, we take a look at the first chapter, which deals with character creation for an all-caster party; the first suggestion we have here would be rolling 2d6 + 6 for an array of characters who are less prone to having devastating Achilles heels.
After that, we talk about lifting racial class restrictions – which makes sense, considering the goal of the chapter – but, as you know, this does interfere with the balancing mechanisms of OSR-gaming – level caps and class restrictions were employed to keep the magical races from outshining humans. The proposition here is to a) cap save-bonuses granted by race/class-combos at +4 and b) grant humans two +1 ability score bonuses they can freely assign, capping at 18. Since S&W does not use the d%-differentiation of the Strength-score of 18, I do not have a problem here, though, if you do, this is something to bear in mind and I’d suggest going for 18/01 as a default.
Very helpful, btw.: Since old-school games tend to have a strong race/class protection regarding the tasks available for the classes, the pdf lists several worthwhile publishers and publications you can check out to diversify your roster of options. Okay, this basic contemplations out of the way, you will realize that, to some degree, this pdf champions an opening of options available for the PCs. Personally, I am good with that, but it is something to be aware of. While the book does suggest e.g. potentially giving illusionists some thief tricks, I do lament that the per se pretty cool suggestion is not supplemented by a class-modifying toolkit…but that may just be the crunch-loving bastard in me.
Next up would be 10 new races, ready to be inserted in your game, which are here to provide a more diversified student roster. On a plus-side, these races do come with nice full-color artworks, but the inclusion of the artwork in the file, layout-wise, leaves a bit to be desired – white boxes on a colored background make very clear where the artwork begins and ends.
Now, the races presented herein have a few things in common: They represent iconic concepts and classic tropes…and their power-level exceeds those available in a vanilla S&W-game. Beastfolk, for example, gain a 1d4 unarmed attack, +10% Hide in Shadows, +15% Move Silently, 15 base movement, ability to breathe underwater (!!!) and swim movement 12, natural armor 7 (12 if you’re playing with ascending AC) and free Climb Walls as a Thief of their level as well as a ranger’s tracking as though they were a ranger of their level. Drow get bonuses to all thief skills ( +5% to 10%) and the assassin’s poison use as well as darkvision 120 feet and +4 to saves versus spells. Gnomes, goblins, kobolds, nagas, pixies, tieflings and vampires are included here…and yep, the latter is a nerfed down version, more akin to dhampirs, really. The races generally have in common that they gain several thief skill bonuses, a couple of immunities (vampire), save-bonuses – in short, they are all pretty potent. Some, like kobold and naga, also have intriguing tricks, like setting up impromptu traps or being able to ascertain features of divine or magical areas. The races generally tend to be on a roughly even playing field among themselves, though they outshine the standard S&W-races, though a single kobold, could, provided he has enough days of preparation, generate vast trap-gauntlets and the beastfolk’s swimming speed is imho a bit too potent.
The pdf also features three new classes: The bard (requirements Dex, Int and Cha 12), the mage-knight (Str 14 and Int 12) and the Unseen (Dex and Int 15, Wis 12). Bards gain d6 HD, a spellbook, use the magic-user, assassin and thief attack tables, receive +2 to saves versus mind-influencing and sound-based effects, need music to cast and start their saves at 15, using the druid’s XP-track. They learn more languages, can fascinate folks (depending on HD) and at 9th level, they get to establish a bardic college. The class has its own spell-list (going up to 6th level), which is not presented in the usual manner: Formatting sticklers like yours truly can be a bit annoyed by this, for, while S&W does not italicize spells in spell-lists, these usually are presented differently – in the way we see it herein, italicization would have made sense…but that is purely aesthetic and will not influence the final verdict.
The Mage-knight gets the paladin’s XP-track, d8 HD, fighter/pala/ranger attack tables, +2 to saves versus spells and gets a runic weapon at 1st level – this weapon can absorb spells and then unleash the absorbed energy upon hitting foes, inflicting +1d6 bonus damage per spell level. That…is kinda hardcore, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, it’s just one hit, but it still will make the other melee dudes look with envy at the class. Starting at 2nd level, they can cast spells drawn from their own spell-list (capping at 4th level) as long as they’re in chain mail or less and have a free hand. There is a problem regarding the interaction of mage-knight and magic-user spellbooks: RAW, the magic-user can transcribe spells from the mage-knight’s spell-list, if the spell is on his spell-list…however, for the mage-knight, e.g. disintegrate is a 4th level spell – and RAW, magic-users could thus transcribe the spell as a 4th level spell. It’s an obvious cheese and not something a referee can’t handle, sure – but it constitutes, from a design-perspective, a minor flaw. At higher levels, mage-knights learn to redirect hostile spells towards them and even rebound them to their casters, which is pretty damn cool.
The Unseen represents a conversion to Sword & Wizardry from “Theorems & Dark Pacts”, a book that is waiting for me to cover it as well; hence, in all brevity: 1d4 HD, attack table as thief, magic-user, assassin, no armors etc., spellcasting drawn from custom list of up to 6th level, thief ability-progression at -2 levels and a custom XP-progression track, capping at 2, 120, 000 at 20th level. At 3rd level and every 3 levels thereafter, the class gets to choose a special ability that represents the magical sneak trope. (As an aside – I would have loved for the classes to feature the +x XP note for level 21+ gameplay, since that is significantly less problematic in OSR gaming than in most more math-intense games…but that may just be me.)
Okay, so this represents the basic expansion of rules for the player-side of things – next up would be the section that handles arcane school gameplay from a referee’s side, introducing arcane lore as a meta-currency: Scribblings, journals, strange items and the like are codified in various classes with values/cost assigned – these, for facility’s sake, btw. translate from gold on a 1: 1 ratio. They may be spent exclusively for the purpose of gaining levels, making magic items, scribing spells, etc. – I *LOVE* this. It’s somewhat akin to what LotFP does and what I do in my own campaigns – ascribe value to small things, champion knowledge and making magic thus feel less like a regular commodity. In fact, I’d strongly suggest making this the only way to get magic…but that may be me.
The next section is something pretty much anyone familiar with OSR-gaming has probably seen: A minimalist skill system, which boils down to rolling under the attribute. The pdf also suggests a free-form rewarding of backgrounds. Since hirelings are an integral part of gaming for many campaigns, the pdf does introduce the concept of loyal bonds – basically a story-reward for the PCs, one that is influenced by Charisma etc. as usual, but yeah.
After this, we have a massive chapter of new spells – as the pdf properly acknowledges (Kudos for that , btw. – the book always gives credit where credit is due!!), they partially represent conversions from various sources – classics like PFRPG’s blood biography or tongues can be found here, converted to S&W. Now, I am a bit torn on this chapter – the rules-language is precise and to the point, but more so than previous chapters, it changes how the game feels in some important aspects: The reliable detect poison in a pretty large radius, for example, changes how that aspect works in game and is reminiscent of systems that provide more in the range of utility. It is also interesting to note that clerics do not, RAW, gain access to it – it is a Mage-knight and Unseen spell here. Basically, this chapter represents an upgrade in versatility, with spells like tongues e.g. eliminating language-barriers. Whether you like that or not, ultimately remains a matter of taste, but it is something to be aware of.
Following the leitmotif of power lying in knowledge, we continue with treasured tomes: A character who spends at least 30 minutes a day consulting such a tome receives a substantial bonus – from medical textbooks to those containing cyphers, this section is one of my favorites in the whole book and I really wished it was a bit longer – the concept is pure gold. regarding layout, this would be as well a place as any to note that end-of-chapter text tends to result in a bit of blank space on some pages. You may not mind, but, yeah, it’s worth mentioning.
All right, this concludes pretty much the rules-section of this massive tome and we progress with a selection of various NPCs, both named and unnamed, that inhabit the school of sorcery. We get stats for all of them and brief write-ups. More importantly, their respective fields of interest and roles provide a variety of different unique abilities and tricks that make them stand out. Where applicable, loyalty bonds have been included with their respective information. Once we have covered this cast of characters, we move on to the locales within the academy, which include its own dungeon as well as a massive, primitive printing press. various spires and a magic, creepy out-of-order restroom…that provides visions for a price, but also may have some sinister purpose. A list of 20 brief random encounter set-ups and a simple generator for people and cliques as well as one for McGuffins can be found. Need to quickly generate a teacher and a potential mishap/complication for your PCs? No problem, there’s a generator for that as well. Clubs and extra-curricular activities similarly get their own tables.
Now, this is billed as a combo toolkit/sourcebook/hex-crawl, and indeed, the last 30+ pages of content are devoted to a basic outline of the surrounding lands of Frelundia – here, a desert looms where a mighty serpent-god once feel down and a city of titans long gone awaits exploration. The mysterious collector lives in the direblack swamp and the evil nation of Tyranor borders these lands. A plain of sunflowers contains the astral rock, which may unleash…things, a village of people who disavow the divine providence of rulership and legitimacy of nobles and the PCs may explore the resonating representation of a collective subconsciousness from the plane of dreams. The hex-crawl-section, in general, is pretty evocative, managing to create an overall sense of high-magic wonder, as you may have gleaned from the examples I chose. However, much like similar offerings, it remains sketch-like – you have to develop these wondrous locales yourself.
That being said, a level 1 haunted house (which is really vanilla and not too interesting) as well as level 3 ruins can be found – and the latter actually represents a solid sidetrek adventure. Unfortunately, the solid b/w-maps do not come with player-friendly, key-less versions, which constitutes a comfort-detriment as far as I’m concerned.
The pdf also features a proper, full-length adventure for 2nd level characters – basically a potentially lethal test, as the PCs explore the dangerous dungeon below the school, seeking to find 4 tokens to join the prestigious ranks of the Golden Claw elite students. Interesting here would be not necessarily the complex itself, but the fact that this represents a competitive environment – as such, a rival group of adventurers can make foils and a sequence of their progress is included in the pdf. Once again, there is no player-friendly version of the map.
Editing and formatting are good, but not perfect: On a formal level, I noticed a couple of typo-level glitches like “pendent” and the like. The rules-language, for the most part, is similarly crisp – most referees should not run into issues, though sticklers like yours truly will encounter a few instances where a bit more precision would have been warranted. Layout adheres to a nice 1-column full-color standard with a greenish background…and represents one of the weaknesses of the pdf: The artworks embedded in the file show their borders, which can be a bit aesthetically jarring. The pdf sports a wide variety of full-color artworks, though, if you’re like me, you’ll have seen quite a lot of them before. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The full-color hex-maps as jpgs are nice and serviceable, though the lack of player-friendly versions of the adventure-location maps in the book represents a bit of a comfort detriment for me.
Ray Chapel’s school of sorcery, as presented herein, is an interesting book: As a toolkit, it succeeds at its task and allows you to play characters and campaigns based on magical schools. I am not a fan of the new races and their increased power sans limitations on levels. On the other side, the tome and arcane lore rules and ideas like that really make this shine. I am similarly ambivalent about the adventuring portion of the book: While I adore the high-concept hex-crawl locations and their inspiring ideas, the detailed modules didn’t do much for me: The haunted house is a bit lackluster and the proving ground adventure’s trope of the controlled dungeon has been done better by Rite Publishing’s Ruins Perilous-series, serialized in their Adventure Quarterly magazine.
The ruins are nice, though – also courtesy to the tendency of providing cool and unique abilities for monsters and NPCs, something I thoroughly applaud. I also, surprisingly, found myself enjoying the notes on the school more than I figured I would – but ultimately, I found myself wishing we actually got a map or more details for it. As written, the daily life, structure etc. of how it works needs to be pieced together from the information throughout the book, which can be a bit jarring for referees looking for something more than a baseline to develop their ideas.
As a whole, I’d consider this a worthwhile purchase if you’re looking for a high-fantasy toolkit for OSR-gaming with more potent races. The pdf does have some nice, hackable aspects and features more than one idea that is guaranteed to spark one’s imagination. There is a lot to love here, but at the same time, I wished it was a bit more focused – the adventures contained herein eat precious word-count and pages that would have imho been better served to depict the school, suggest structures and the like – as written, we have a pretty free-form customization tool, but one that does require a little bit more work by the referee than I expected. Why? Because unlike e.g. Carcosa and similar huge-region hexcrawls, this oscillates between the big picture and the local one and the latter is not nearly represented as well as the amazing global ideas. Combined with the hiccups and minor layout glitches, I can’t rate this higher than 4 stars – though it definitely deserves these 4 stars. If what you read even remotely intrigues you, take a look!
You can get this massive toolkit here on OBS!