Review of Heroes Against Darkness by Justin Halliday
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    Review of Heroes Against Darkness by Justin Halliday

    In many respects, I think that if there are ever gaming historians looking back and penning their thoughts about trends in fantasy RPG game design, they will likely label 2010 to 2013 as the Era of the Retro-clones. In the past few years, we have seen a real proliferation of new games reaching back to the roots of Dungeons & Dragons for their inspiration, offering variations on the themes that were introduced by The Great Gygax himself, along with his cohort, Arneson of Blackmoor.

    Wizards of the Coast has been caught up in the retro-clone furor, not only styling the Core of D&D Next to include more basic parts from the first three editions of the game, but even re-publishing AD&D Core Rulebooks for nostalgia. Ironically, given the proliferation of retro-clones hitting the market, one wonders if WotC’s new D&D edition will be lost amid a crowd similar games released during the hype of the D&D Next Playtest.

    One retro-clone has been recently released by a D&D blogger named Justin Halliday, who has his own take on the evolution of the fantasy role-playing games. He set himself the task of designing a game system which could appeal to a wide range of D&D gamers, regardless of which edition they favored, and has released the rules
    free for the download! And so for gamers who like fantasy role-playing with “simple character creation”, “meaningful options and tactics in combat”, “mechanics that are grounded in reality”, and “simple rules”, then the creator of Heroes Against Darkness believes this might just be the perfect game!

    Heroes Against Darkness

    • Author: Justin Halliday
    • Illustrations: Trevor Smith (cover); Josh Sacco, Trevor Smith, Eric Quigley, Hugo Solis, Yeo Jian Long, Daniel Ramos, Mitch Foust, Danny Kuang, David Kegg, Peter Edgar, Brandon, Storn Cook, Jason Rainville, Malcolm McClinton, Bruno Balixa, Forrest Imel, Ryan Sumo (interior)
    • Publisher: Open Design LLC
    • Year: 2012
    • Media: PDF (231 pages)
    • Price: FREE (PDF available HERE)

    Heroes Against Darkness is a fantasy role-playing game, technically falling under the OGL, which offers streamlined mechanics from multiple editions of Dungeons & Dragons. For players, the game book comes complete with detailed character creation rules, combat rules, and equipment and crafting rules, for designing a FRPG hero. For Game Masters, Heroes Against Darkness offers rules for running the game, such as encounter building, ability checks, character progression and experience, and magic items. There is even a monster manual and detailed monster creation rules, as well as a broad section on world-building so that GMs can create their own settings as part of the gaming process.

    Production Quality

    The production quality of Heroes Against Darkness is overall good, but with aspects which are very good and other aspects which I would rank as only fair. The writing, both in content and style, is pretty solid, but the design of the layout did give me some issues while reviewing the material. There are quite a few pages which come off as a “wall of text”, and the use of mere line boxes to highlight important rules, while offering an old school feel, does little to break up the imposing wall. The ordering of the content was also a bit perplexing in places, and gave a slightly disjointed feeling when trying to reference rules sections which would seem to need to go together. For instance, the character classes and the character class powers are separated by nearly 50 pages of intervening rules on equipment and combat, which makes character creation less than a streamlined process. Thankfully, the PDF comes complete with both table of contents and copious bookmarks to allow easily flipping through the game book.

    The artwork in
    Heroes Against Darkness is quite good, and most of it is simple line art or concept-art style charcoal sketches, which again give that old school feel to the rule book. The monster manual section of the book contains full color illustrations, and contain some really nice original artwork from range of artists.

    The Game

    While the author does not consider his work a retro-clone, because it draws on all editions including the current 4E, it does seem to draw most heavily from OGL, with some of the simpler features of AD&D and 2nd Edition to keep information needed to play a character down to a
    two page character sheet. And there are even a few D&D Next-isms in Heroes Against Darkness, although the game came out around the time of the playtest, even a bit earlier I think. To me, it suggests that if you’re going to try and create a retro-clone which has appeal to a broad range of D&D gamers, there are certain features you’re going to want to have as part of the Core rules, whether you’re a WotC designer or an indie publisher.

    The character generation is fairly straightforward, and the current game system contains eight character races – Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, Tartarean (
    think cambion or tiefling), Drow, and Orc – each with their own special racial abilities. Ability scores are the “classic six”, which can be rolled or portioned out by a point system. And there are eleven character classes representing the basic four classic classes, but with a bit more nuances in their design than the typical Fight-Cleric-Rogue-Wizard classes. All character classes have powers, which feel like a cross between OGL’s Ex and Su specialty powers, and 4E’s AEDU powers. They offer some good variety and some stylistic choices, but are fairly limited in number – which again, is an important facet if you’re trying to keep a game simple.
    Magic using characters, whether wizard-like or cleric-like, use a spell point system called Anima. Anima fuels their class powers (ie. spells) which again are limited in number, and are designed to match up with a particular style of the class.

    For instance, the Healer and Hospitaler are both support classes, but have fairly different powers to work with. Anima is recovered during short and long rest periods, although a short rest only recovers a small amount of Anima for use, while a Long Rest recovers it all.

    Characters advance using a method similar to 4E, picking up a half-level bonus which adds into attack and ability check rolls as they get higher level. Defenses are more in line with 4E as well, with both an “Armor defense” and three other defenses which defend against attacks not unlike NADs.

    The author also made sure to include several pages of character creation examples, as well as some charts for naming characters and creating a character background. The background charts are meant to offer up ideas, or could be used to randomly create a character’s personality and back story. I’ll probably say this a lot throughout this review, but there is a lot of charts in here which remind me of old edition articles from
    Dragon Magazine (the paper version), and the appendices of the old Dungeon Master’s Guide.

    The combat system itself resembles a cross of OGL and 4E, with codified combat conditions. However, it is fairly streamlined, with math for damage types and attack rolls being computed ahead of time using the rulebook, and entered onto the character sheet. In fact, once the two page character sheet is complete, players should need almost never reference the rulebook again, which reminds me of the way we used to play D&D back in AD&D and 2nd Edition days. Changing out a massive spell list for a finite set of powers means that even casters will be able to play through a session without cracking open the rules to check on how a rare spell works. Of course, the downside to this is the frustration that some old edition players might feel when you don’t offer them 1000+ spells to play with.

    But while there seems to be considerable nods to OGL and 4E, one of the elements in
    Heroes Against Darkness which older edition gamers can identify with is the lack of feats and a very generalized skill system. Lack of a massive feat list does makes the game considerably easier to create characters and to run, but of course it does make it a little harder for heroes of a particular class to customize themselves. And while each of the classes has a list of skills appropriate to it, there is no hard and fast rules about how they work, leaving it up to each gaming group to decide how skills affect the world. It’s likely that most DMs will use a skill check based upon a stat plus the ubiquitous “half level bonus”, but really it could easily vary from gaming group to gaming group.

    Other important GM procedures are discussed at length here, including level progression and experience point distribution. There are rules for encounter building and combat design, as well as tips for creating adventures. The author does a good job to make sure that even neophyte GMs have enough rules and tips to give them a leg up on running a
    Heroes Against Darkness campaign.

    While the game system lacks a setting, the author made sure to provide some considerable foundation content for designing one’s own world setting. There are tables regarding government types, economic systems, money, time systems, languages, and all the other nuances one needs to think about when doing some world building. I was reminded quite a bit of the old AD&D DMG here, when The Great Gygax urged us DMs to become world-builders of our own back in the day.

    The monster manual included in
    Heroes Against Darkness is short but contains a fairly complete listing of iconic critters which any D&D gamer would recognize. There are only 22 general monster types, but nearly 100 monsters if you count the variants (like three different styles of kobolds; four different zombies). Base monsters have a template system to change them to other types, and again, there is a bit of 4E influence here, with Minions, Commanders, Grunts, Casters, Brutes, and Striker templates. There is also extensive rules for creating new monster types, so that GMs can work on adding to their own monster manuals as the campaign progresses.

    I should also mention that the author includes one section with variants for handling mechanics
    like anima points and hit points, as well as other rule changes to help customize your game.

    Overall Score
    : 4.1 out of 5


    Heroes Against Darkness
    turns out to be a pretty cool retro-clone, which manages to bring together facets of all four editions of D&D with a few odd houserules, but streamlined to be appealing to gamers of the oldest editions. While short on fluff, the game comes fairly complete, and the author made sure to give Player a number of tools to create backgrounds and flesh out their character, and GMs tips on encounter-building, monster-building and world building.

    Heroes Against Darkness lacks for a setting, and it’s presentation is a bit illogical at times, the game seems like something which would have a wide appeal to gamers of all editions, including Pathfinder. And given how much content is packed into this game system, it should really be priced in the ten to fifteen dollar range – but it’s actually FREE – and you can’t beat a price like that!

    So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

    Editor’s Note
    : This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

    Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)

    • Presentation: 3.5
    • - Design: 3.0 (Layout was a ok, but rules and content delivered in an odd order)
    • - Illustrations: 4.0 (Pretty cool illustrations overall)
    • Content: 3.75
    • - Crunch: 4.5 (massively crunch; a solid FRPG system)
    • - Fluff: 3.0 (decent character building and world-building details; but it’s mainly a rulebook)
    • Value: 5.0 (It’s FREE!!! Honestly, the author should be asking a couple of fivers for all this content!)
    Attached Files Attached Files  

  2. #2
    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)

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    "2010 to 2013 as the Era of the Retro-clones"

    The Retro-Clone movement must have been in high gear in 2008, since I have PBP and Yahoogroup PBEM retro-clone games dating from that time - I was just looking back over them yesterday! Castles and Crusades was not a retro-clone, but came out in 2004 Castles & Crusades - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - and got people thinking along those lines of what could be done with the OGL and d20 SRD.
    OSRIC was released in 2006, and opened the floodgates - OSRIC - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Then Labyrinth Lord came out in 2007 - - a slickly presented clone that entered general distribution - I would put 2007 as the dawn of the Golden Age of the Clones.

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