Dark Albion: The Rose War (OSR/FH&W) (Patreon Request)
This massive campaign setting clocks in at 285 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page chapter hyperlinks (for easy pdf-navigation), 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 2 pages of index, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 276 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to a patreon supporter sending me the hardcover with the request to cover it at my convenience.
Okay, so, Dark Albion, what is this? Well, first of all, this is a medieval roleplaying setting set in the age that served as an inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire.
Before we get into the main meat of the book, which is the setting, we should definitely talk about the rules situation here. The book uses two different rules systems, and I am generally never a fan of those; why? Because, regardless of which system you prefer, you’ll have the burden of the additional content you neither needed, nor wanted. Dual-format books tend to be intrinsically customer unfriendly to a degree; for OSR supplements, this is slightly mitigated due to the less pronounced focus on rules; in this book, the issue is reduced further, for the design is per se made to be able to be grafted onto most old-school systems, with the rules-relevant aspects mostly relegated to the appendices at the back of the book. In short: The book does not consist of ½ content you won’t use; the system-specific rules are complimentary, not required to run this, and are in the back.
Beyond the sub-systems introduced (to which I’ll return below), let us talk about these first. For suggested OSR-systems, Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are suggested, and since there are x-in-6-references here and there, the latter might work best. Swords & Wizardry and the like will work just as well, just fyi. The OSR-appendix is a collection of houserules, and honestly, it’s perhaps the weakest aspect of the whole book: The section is noted as “quick and dirty houserules”, and probably are best conceived of as a basic form of OSR-game if you don’t want to use a specific one for your game. If you’ve read a couple of OSR-games, you probably won’t notice much of interest here. The brief class redesigns presented here are not that interesting, and the most relevant aspects are probably the notions of adding a critical effect table, as well as a brief set of rules that makes you roll 1d20 and add the spellcasting ability score, versus DC 12 + spell level to successfully cast a spell.
Here’s the thing: The rules section for Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, the second system supported here, is vastly superior. In case you are not familiar with it: Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (FH&W) is one of the most underappreciated games out there, and one of all-time favorite RPGs. No kidding. Why? Well, some people, me included, like options and per se, more stuff that we can do with PCs. At the same time, I also enjoy gritty games, and I really like my theater of the mind angle. In a way FH&W is a super-modular game that posits the question: What if we had an increase in the option array akin to what D&D 3.0, PFRPG, etc. brought, but without the miniature tactics angle of those editions? In many ways, the game never becomes as granular, but allows for very broad selections of mechanically-diverse characters, all without becoming too complex for old-school fans. It’s seriously great, and if that sounds even remotely compelling to you, then get this game. It’s worth it.
Anywhere, where was I? Oh yes: Magic being unreliable is realized in a more interesting manner, at least as far as I’m concerned: You see, Dark Albion posits a direct opposition of Law & Chaos as the central alignment conflict (one axis model); the Law is represented by the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), and as such, magic falls in roughly two categories, with some working simply less reliably under the sun! That’s awesome! It’s a reason for magic practices, occult rituals and the like taking place at night! The 13-level FH&W-classes presented herein range from the obvious (like e.g. noble knights) to some that are frankly interesting by mechanics: The caster-class Magister, for example, comes with white and gray magic, but may learn black magic – but every such spell will cost the magister a white or grey magic spell known. That’s a cool way to represent corruption. As a German, I am also rather fond of the Demonurgist, essentially a Faust-like being with fiendish familiar, who becomes REALLY good at finding the creatures of chaos…and who can, at one point, even imprison demonic forces, making for a great anti-hero. These classes feature Albion’s subdued dark fantasy aesthetics with rare, but powerful magics. For FH&W, we also get two new spells and a super-simple and robust ritual demon summoning engine, which brings me to one aspect of the global rules I really enjoy, so let’s start talking about global rules in Dark Albion.
Demon summoning is not some vancian spell simply cast, nor are demons the standard D&D outsiders; instead, we have a rather solid ritual engine; 1d20 + class level + Intelligence modifier versus a DC determined by the rank of the demon – hilarious: Powerful demons may force their subordinates to show up instead. I don’t know why, but that got a serious chuckle out of me. Both the images used and the rules here (plenty of demonic abilities included) help make these feel like demons from the medieval age, not their D&D compatriots. For more diverse forms, resources like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator or the one from No Salvation for Witches are recommended by yours truly. (Alternatively, most creatures from Raphael Chandler’s horror bestiaries…) Anyway, why summon them? They can teach you spells and the like…you know the stories.
Since I mentioned this, a brief note: the layout by Dominique Crouzet is FANTASTIC. We have pictures on every page, graphical elements, and some of the best uses of public domain art that I’ve ever seen. The book has a better, more consistent visual identity as a result than many comparable books with fancy full-color artwork. It also underlines the (faux) historicity and themes of the book. Huge kudos for that decision.
But let us get back to the global rules: I very much like how this setting treats poisons and alchemical extracts: From arsenic (and cantarella) to mandrake and wolfsbane, we get quite a few new ones, with easy and quick rules to forage the, and prepare them, and all of this is supplemented by medicinal herbs and alchemical creations like Alkhalest and Aura Fulminata – if anything, this section made me smile from ear to ear, and I genuinely wished there was a whole book on herbs, poisons, substances and the like. Poisons, fyi, usually need to be ingested. This section, while brief, also works and does so well.
I can’t say the same about the magic item section, which can be summed up with two words: Bland filler. A sword+0 that is magical, but doesn’t help you hit foes? Oh boyo! Holy water! A cloak that lets you turn into a wolf. A powerful artifact torn in 7 pieces. This section is, at best, redundant. Thankfully, it is brief.
The second big rules engine that sets Dark Albion apart, would be the noble house engine: A noble house has three stats: Military Power (MP), Financial Power (FP), and Political Power (PP). You roll 3d6 for these, and multiply the result by x3. If you have a title, you get a bonus to each ability – lords get no bonus, kings get +20 to MP and FP, +40 PP. Additionally, each region has modifiers, with the most interesting being the Isle of Mann, which gets +20 MP, but only for defensive purposes. Allegiance to York or Lancastrians also influences these; not choosing a side provides a universal penalty, while choosing a side helps with that side, but imposes a huge penalty for the other side, obviously. All existing houses are covered, so this looks like it could allow you to go Birthright! Awesome! I also liked that there are annual events, but there are only 23 such events, which is weaksauce for a longer game. This needed more to stay engaging and not devolve into becoming boring.
The book also features a battle-engine based on the MPs; these include modifications for special forces (such as spellcasters, etc.), ground, etc. and leader MP modifiers, which is per se nice – but there is no tactics involved in the battles themselves. They are decided by one die roll. If battles are just one background facet of your game, this might work for you, but for games that wish to go into more details, account for tactics and the like, zoom in and out – this won’t do. Similarly, for the rules-lite crowd, this system requires that you determine casualties and victories by determining percentile values based on differences in checks. That’s a lot of math, for no gain. This is a bad engine. It has no tactical depth, gets boring immediately, and requires a bunch of math for no payout. And I LIKE math. Heck, I once ran a whole high-end hardcore Pathfinder-campaign, where every single encounter was hardwired to be a numbers-puzzle…but this engine here? It has no depth, is too clunky for being quickly resolved, and offers no payout for the time it takes to resolve. Write your own mass combat engine, use another and graft it onto this one.
Okay, and that is pretty much the major part of the rules featured herein, so let us get to the main meat of this tome, namely the campaign setting.
To historians, it sounds stupid to explicitly state this, but time and again, I’ve observed that the cultural notions exhibited in almost all roleplaying games are actually more reminiscent of the early modern period with regards to their drapery, if you will; aesthetically, most fantasy worlds we play in hearken much closer to our actual modern and contemporary morals and aesthetics, which deviate significantly from the lived-in reality of medieval Europe. There are three basic notions, grand injuries to our self-importance and ego, that mankind has suffered since those days: The knowledge that we are not the center of the universe, the knowledge that we are not special in the grand scheme of the natural order, and the knowledge that we aren’t even masters of our own psyche. These three notions have radically influenced our Weltanschauung as a whole when compared to any person living during the medieval period. We have a very different conception of reality, and if you think that ren-fairs have ANYTHING in common with actual life in this period, I hate to break it to you, but nope.
This extends to the degree where plenty of people simply lack the knowledge to properly roleplay a person of this time, as they would violate social decorum left and right and/or be offended by the social mores of that time. As such, this book has a manifold challenge ahead of itself: It needs to teach and contextualize the lived-in reality of the times, make it playable for the average gamer out there and generate a compelling setting based on the by now most notorious periods in English history…so let’s see how this fares!
The first big component that sets the medieval mindset apart would obviously be informed by nothing else than Christianity, or rather, the collective of Abrahamic religions as a whole; these ideologies informed pretty much the structure of the social strata, the calendar, and the general world-view. For example, there is the notion called “Gottesgnadentum” in German, which denotes the idea that the social station of nobility is granted by the grace of the Christian god, which makes any rebellion, disrespect, etc. not only an affront to the ruling powers, but also almost a kind of heresy against god. That is an extremely frightening concept to me that is hard to wrap my head around. Take out Christianity and the effects of Rome, and the whole European structure would have gone a very different route. Now, out of a fear of offending someone’s religious sensibilities, many RPGs cop out of using Christianity, and this is no different. HOWEVER, at least it makes a smart call with the replacement: Instead, we get, as noted before, the Sol invictus as a placeholder, which lets us use all of our accumulated Dark Souls memes in game. “Do you even praise the sun, peasant?” The Unconquered Sun is also used to defuse another hot button issue: One might assume that not everyone subscribes to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess-thesis of adventurers as sociopaths, outcasts and misfits by definition, and in some ways, the church of the unconquered sun allows for a softening of borders for modern sensibilities without breaking the setting’s basic tenets.
You see, more so than even 50 years ago, the medieval age was obviously HORRIBLY sexist by modern standards. There also was a lack of social mobility. If you thought your racist/sexist grand-parents were bad, you have no idea, and should seriously do some research. In Dark Albion, the divine providence of the Unconquered Sun sees fit to call female individuals into service as well as males, allowing them to break through the social norms. Clerics, by the way, are the exception – they are essentially rare, and the special OPs force of the church. Few higher ups are clerics, and e.g. the Pope is a commoner. Which brings me to the first point where the book seriously falters. How do these people keep their power, when clerics have the direct power of the Unconquered Sun? This question is never properly explained. Same goes for witch trials, or trials in general. The book acknowledges how fun trials can be and spends quite a bit of time on them – and I agree.
And yes, the cleric and magic-user spell lists are limited and mostly purged of direct damage spells. But clerics still have detect lie. That renders the whole notion of trials that are not easily solved a matter of bad logistics. Note: Even executioners used to travel; Meister Franz Schmidt, famous executioner of Nuremberg, has chronicled his travels rather well – you can still read his journals, and there is a neat English translation as well. Establishing a similar situation for clerics and difficult trials would have been easy. It also disregards the whole angle of the logics of the punitive judiciary system in place back then, and how that interacted with how people and criminals approached their penance. Here, it is evident that per se good ideas have not been thought through properly. This oversight can also be observed for two other factors – the Turks worship the Unconquered Sun as the Moon, which is CLEVER. How and why this validates the struggles between them and the sun-worshipers, however, is exceedingly opaque. The Russian Orthodox Church is all but ignored as well – the ideas and the consequences of the changes have only been thought through in a logical manner as how they pertain to the core concepts. This is particularly jarring and evident in contrast with other components.
For, and that is an important note, one CAN see that the author is a historian. The level of fidelity and knowledge on display regarding the subject matter is impressive; while there are changes made to historical facts, these tend to be due to the requirements of being more gameable and subtle influences of the fantastic. Hadrian’s wall, for example, is still standing and fortified, for the wild places are where the dark things and inhuman creatures lurk.
In many ways, the gazetteer is absolutely amazing regarding its attention to detail, hex maps, all the details and politicking. If you enjoyed the more complex tapestry of allegiances of A Song of Ice and Fire in comparison to Game of Thrones’ dumbing down of everything, this will make you grin indeed. If you’re into the era in a non-fantastic context, doubly so. At one point, I genuinely stopped looking for settings like this, because I knew I’d hate their anachronisms and lack of ambition and b/w-morality, and Dark Albion generally manages to avoid these pitfalls. If you’re looking for a historical reference for a fantasy game, then this delivers in HUGE spades.
I also love, and I mean LOVE, that the book does not simply handwave the importance of social class. If you’re a peasant, you’re not wearing a sword, not unless you want to go to jail. Indeed, walking round in armor, with weapons, like murder hobos are wont to do, is a capital letters BAD IDEA in most regions of Albion. This whole aspect is awesome, and personally, I’d have appreciated e.g. further discussions on privilege by class – colors, for example, were restricted by class, and used to e.g. denote prostitutes etc. More on the class system would have been helpful not only for the setting, but beyond its confines. I really love that the book provides an overview of the things to come, as another example of plentiful adventure seeds.
There are two aspects where this otherwise frankly phenomenal component of the book struggles. The first would be organization. The book imposes a huge cognitive load upon the reader, particularly if you’re not familiar with the Rose War. I did not notice this myself, but I’m a bad reference; however, when I handed this book to other people, they complained about the sheer number of names. With fluid allegiances and intrigue left and right, getting some family trees, allegiance trackers by year, etc. would have made this much more user-friendly for the non-academic/non-history-buff gamers. That being said, the history component is fantastic. I love that part of the book.
The second problematic aspect would be fantasy.
Oh boy does Dark Albion’s fantasy SUCK.
The book has a serious identity crisis and no vision whatsoever as to how it wants its fantasy to be. Non-human races are non-player races; elves were decadent and evil proto-cultures, got it. Albion is a rare magic setting, and magic is feared, got it. But you can study magic in frickin’ Oxford. I am not kidding you. It’s an overt, magic academy, totally inimical to how Christianity would deal with that, and to the concept of magic being dangerous, aligned with chaos and demons, etc. The book can’t really decide how rare its magic is supposed to be, nor how powerful. Beyond aforementioned cleric issues, we have genuinely cool angles for Dracula that make him essentially the Castlevania villain, and a few nods to myths – there are these gems, directly contrasted with pretty bland-festy encounter-locations (no player-friendly maps) that are boring. Still apart from the church/Oxford-logic guffaws, when looking at just the island, Dark Albion could claim to be a dark fantasy setting. It doesn’t make much use of Anglish or Celtic myths, which is a huge lost chance, but oh well.
And then there is the continent, particularly France. You know, this does try to be the Anglish Warhammer Fantasy RPG, with the notions of magic as dangerous and chaotic, etc., just minus Chaos and a stronger emphasis on medieval conceptions of what demons do.
Sounds good, right? I mean, okay, the setting has unfortunately eliminated any good reason for the primary conflicts of the continent without replacing them with a valid substitution, but that doesn’t influence Albion, so you can ignore that.
You can’t ignore Burgundy and France. That section was so bad, it gave me fucking whiplash. Know who conquered the majority of France, excluding Burgundy, erecting a decadent empire where humans are enslaved to decadent masters.
I am not kidding. Frogmen. You know, because…France. Haha. Ha. -.-
This is neither funny, nor badass. It’s STUPID.
And everyone on the continent’s just watching. They have tons of magic, so there goes your cool low magic premise. They seem to exist in a quasi-vacuum, and none of the other human free cities, baronies, etc. seem to unite to exterminate them. The church doesn’t ally with the Turks to exterminate them. We have a whole land, that, like a festering pustule, breaks any notion of cohesion, plausibility that the setting worked so hard to establish. They are LITERALLY agents of pure evil, of the thing directly opposed to ALL of organized religions. Can you picture what would have happened if a republic of Satan had sprung up in medieval Europe? They’d have been crusaded to back to hell faster than you can say “That escalated quickly.”
I can live with a bland dungeon, a minor logic bug, a subpar subsystem. But this book spends hundred+ pages to establish a great, gritty theme and then makes a trollface and laughs at: “Here are magic frogmen!” That’s not smart, clever, or funny. It’s also not scary. Anything would be scarier. Cannibal halflings. Skaven. Undead. Heck, what about Russian Orthodox holy hussars? Anything.
All the small inconsistencies accumulate…but the frogmen take the script and throw it out the window. They are the culmination and escalation of the small issues, and represent a huge, festering blemish that wrecks the setting as written for me. Totally.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules language level; the rules are precise where presented, and make sense. Layout deserves special applause: It’s one of the best uses of layout elements, public domain art and aesthetics to convey authenticity that I’ve ever seen. This shows how good-looking you can make an indie-production. The b/w-cartography is nice, but no player-friendly versions are provided for the encounter areas later in the book. A huge kudos, and good reason to get the electronic iteration: We get a TON of maps in that version: There are three versions of the Albion map – one in full color (on the back of the hardcover, fyi), one in b/w, and one in parchment. There are 6 regional hexmaps in b/w, and in a version that is parchment-style. The continent comes in a colored and b/w hexmap, and there is a an additional b/w rose war hexmap for the GM. Seriously, kudos for this.
The hardcover I have, unless I’m seriously wrong, is the Lulu PoD-iteration, and it is quality-wise solid, with the proper name on the spine, etc. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience.
Dark Albion is a frustrating book for me; RPG Pundit and Dominique Crouzet, for a long time while I first read this, crafted a setting that seriously captured my interest. The small inconsistencies kept accumulating, but for a long time, I thought I’d end up loving or liking this…and then, the inconsistencies got worse. (And before you ask: the book makes it VERY clear what Dominique Crouzet contributed – they are not responsible for those issues!) The more I thought about missed chances here and there, the more I wished that this had embraced its grit more…and then, BAM:
Lololol, tHeRe ArE lOtS oF mAgIcAl EvUuUhHl FrOgMeN iN fRaNcE!
SuRpRiSe StUpId GoNzO iN yOuR gRiTtY rEaLiSm!
I seriously think this book had been better off, if it had not tried its hand at fantasy AT ALL.
The grounded, history angle is genuinely great, inspiring, fun – presented in a manner that, while not exactly easy to digest, is easier to digest than history books, with a stronger emphasis on the game. For a reference book? Awesome. That aspects are top tier, and if the book had managed to execute these last few steps in internal consistence, they’d be benchmarks.
Everything pertaining to magic, fantasy, etc.? Not that great, to put it lightly. With some additional effort, the Sol Invictus conceit could have genuinely worked PERFECTLY, but it feels like the authors ran out of steam there. The fantasy is lackluster, boring, been there, done that – or frankly insultingly dumb.
This could have been a milestone, and, as far as I’m concerned, it throws it all away, tarnishing even the brightest of its parts. I reread the book after a few months had passed, knowing what was to come, and I arrived at the same conclusions. The near-historical parts are great, but tarnished and tainted by thematic whiplash and small inconsistencies. As a result, I can’t recommend this as a campaign setting.
If you’re looking for a gritty low-magic dark fantasy reference tome for the era? Then this will deliver in spades….provided you can tune out aforementioned issues. I have to rate this book in its entirety, and when all is said and done, I can only recommend this in a very limited manner, in spite of the obvious passion that went into this. My final verdict can’t exceed 3 stars.
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