Review of The Majestic Fantasy rpg (the basic rules) by Robert S
Rob Conley has been a stalwart of the fantasy role playing game scene for a long time. Always modest about his achievements his work has been published by major names in the field. However, he is probably best known for his work on the Wilderlands of High Fantasy- creating amazing maps and content for both the Judges Guild and Necromancer Games versions of that setting. His mini setting, Blackmarsh, which he created as a free product for gamers and designers alike, has been used as a campaign basis for Delving Deeper, Swords & Six-Siders, Heroes and Other Worlds and probably more.
For years now, Rob has been playing with his group in an alternate version of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy which he calls, The Majestic Wilderlands. The rules set which he and his group use has been evolving and growing over the years with the campaign. Finally, this rules set is being published and this Basic Rules edition is the first installment.
Taking a lead from earlier starter editions such the Black Box edition of D&D, which takes characters up through levels 1 to 5, The Majestic Fantasy Basic Rules, gives a full rules set to enable the players and referee to run complete and detailed campaigns whilst leaving room for higher level play later. The rules are ultimately based on Original Dungeons and Dragons and are compatible with most, if not all, clones thereof. Matt Finch's Swords and Wizardry is mentioned specifically on the cover and indeed the book describes itself as a supplement to S&W. But make no mistake, this is a complete game on it's own.
But thus is not just another clone. Here, there are refinements and differences which show how Rob has modernised his rules as time and fashions tend to do. For instance, the classic six ability scores (here called Attributes) range from 3 to 23 although the normal human range is still 3-18. First level PCs get max hit points and starting cash is modified by Charisma (nice touch). In this volume we have the classic four main classes but with hints that in the Advanced(?) rules or in campaign supplements, there are more to come. For instance, although Rogue is a class, we are only presented here with the "Burglar" variant and the Cleric here is a "Cleric of Delaquain": presumably there are more cleric sects out there, each with their own specialisms and possibly, spells? (Indeed in his notes for the Kick Starter, Robert has more than hinted at this and there is another 'sect' detailed in the NPC section of the book). We have the four classic races plus Half-Elves. Here is a nod to more modern versions of the game: players of any background (race) can play any class. However, not all professions will be the best choice for each background. Hints at extra backgrounds can be found later in the book by looking at the notes on the cultures of non-human npcs. Look out for orcs, goblins and lizardmen backgrounds in future at least! Old school roots show themselves here- the backgrounds are not balanced, and are not intended to be. Elves in particular are designed to be somethin' else: "created as the shining examples of the potential of life" they are immortal beings, immune to disease and healing twice as fast as other humanoids.
And now we come to more modern twists on the old school warhorse rules: abilities. In this game abilities are not your rolled attributes but a skill system used alongside attribute tests, using a d20 roll. This version of the skill system has but twenty two abilities (although several of these are multi-faceted) ranging from Athletics to Intimidation, Survival to Haggling. These abilities help define or sharpen your character's chosen class. The system is simple and straightforward with one target number. Advantage and disadvantage are handled much like in D&D5e, and there are simple rules on levels or degrees of success/failure. The whole abilities section is only nine pages and feels light and streamlined (so OSR stick-in-the-muds like me don't need to get the heebie-geebies!) Similarly lightweight, but nevertheless there, if you want them, are the combat stunts and tricksie moves that are common in the modern game. Rules for grappling, swapping weapons, dual wielding etc are also present and concisely written. Character's attribute scores can affect surprise, initiative, ranged fire, melee efficiency and more. This has the effect of giving the classes more options which might otherwise 'belong' to different classes. This also means for example the Fighters in this game are beefed up compared with the original game, gaining extra attacks and with more hit points. Being a human fighter in these rules is not a default if your attribute rolls didn't come out too well. Players will actively choose to play one!
The spell casting system has a few extra twists too. Although spells are divided into Arcane and Divine magic, both Magic Users and Clerics need to have spell books to revise from. Both types of spell caster can also perform Ritual magic using their spell/prayer books and the right components etc. This enables spells to be cast without memorising them first. Scrolls therefore take on an extra dimension in the Majestic Fantasy RPG as they can take the place of spell books too precious to take adventuring. Be warned... some creatures in these lands have levels of magical immunity. This extra level of defense is used alongside a standard saving throw. This ability combined with the need to know how many hit dice your enemies might have (for fighters multi targetting purposes) means that players will need to get to know their monstrous enemies in a bit more detail than in other games. Rob justifies this by pointing out that hunters or warriors get a feel for the relative strengths and skills of their opponents as they gain experience with/of them. The final twist I want to mention is one which readers/users of the Blackmarsh setting will have come across before. The mysterious substance called "Viz". This is best described as an element of pure magic. A little like The Force in Star Wars, it suffuses everything, or perhaps more accurately- might suffuse anything. In the Blackmarsh setting it is suggested that Viz came to the world via a meteor or comet strike and became spread around the land and buried deep within it. You can actually dig it up or mine it I suppose. That isn't discussed here. But it's effects are. Viz essentially boosts magic in certain ways the most obvious is that a magic user can physically use up Viz whilst casting a spell and in doing so, the spell is not wiped from his memory. Very handy. Very expensive.
Many of you will have seen the author's Bat in the Attic website and blog. A place stuffed with excellent advice on running campaigns. Rob has cherry picked some choice morsels from there and included them here in the Basic Rules. It's worth saying here something about Rob's philosophy when putting these rules together. He describes the rules as a toolbox for 'kitbashing'. Customisation to you and me. Yes, that's right, the author of the game explicitly states he wants you tear his game up and use it how you will. I can see how lots of things in the book, and especially the advice sections, can be used this way. I could easily swipe the entire Abilities section and stitch it seemlessly into Epées & Sorcellerie for example. However, I'm not sure how well you could run the rules without, say, Viz. But I'm saying that without having played it.
All of the classic monsters are here, lots of treasure (including treasure assortment tables) and magical items. There are some excellent sections on NPCs and information on demi-human and goblinoid types etc which gives you scope to put together detailed tribes of goblins for example, complete with their warrior bosses, sages, shamans and so on. There ready made guards, NPC parties, the local witch, all sorts of good stuff.
The book is rounded off with helpful collections of tables and quick reference guides, combat tables and so forth. Lots of which are also available as free downloads.
The artwork is plentiful without getting in the way. All of it good to excellent. The cover work by Richard Luschek is especially good.
There are lots more lovely little touches I could tell you about- such as rules for using your trusty staff as a vaulting pole! Rob really has done an amazing job fitting all of this into one book. I went for the hardback because that's what I like but it's available in paperback and as a pdf... so what are you waiting for?
Headlines: the Majestic Fantasy rules are a bit like ODD all growed up. But without having it's teeth and complexion ruined by too many candies!