Sunday, 7th October, 2012, 10:37 AM #1
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Blood & Treasure Review (Retro-Clone/Game by John M. Stater 2012)
I pretty much burned out on D&D right in the middle of the transition from 3.0 to 3.5. I liked many of the ideas of the "third edition" of the game, but found it more and more cumbersome in practice the more I played, especially past tenth level. So eventually I just got fed up and quit playing.
Then when the fifth edition of D&D was announced, I was excited. But the more I learned about it, the more I realized I just wanted an old school version of third edition, all of the improvements and not the headaches. Blood & Treasure from John M. Stater is essentially that, taking almost everything from the d20 SRD and converting it into an older style of D&D.
By that I mean, it carries over most of the character classes of 3e as well as ascending armor class and attack bonus, the three save system (reflex, will, fortitude), and feats. But without the bloat - characters stop getting hit dice after 10th level, thus no hit point inflation, feats are rarer and less powerful, multi-classing is old school (thus no prestige classes).
It's difficult to say which old type of D&D B&T is closest to. Not the Basic/Expert sets of Tom Moldvay, or the BECMI sets of Metzner, as class is separate from race. Although it takes some things from AD&D, it's perhaps closer to OD&D with the supplements and some of the material from The Dragon. In terms of retroclones, it's probably the closest to either Swords & Wizardry (which is OD&D plus the supplements with some odd changes, like one saving throw) or Basic Fantasy Role Playing, but with far more 3e in it than those two.
As in pretty much all D&D based games, B&T characters have 6 attributes from 3 to 18 - Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. The author basically expresses apathy as to how they are generated, though he mentions the 3d6 method and 4d6 drop one method. It uses the original D&D style bonus scheme, where 11-15 give a +1 bonus, 16-17 give a +2, and 18 gives a +3.
B&T separates race and class. You have the standard races (human, elf, dwarf, etc), as well as many playable races listed in the monster section of the book, though nothing outlandish, at least in name. I suspect some might be 3.5e races, like perhaps the Automaton being a Warforged, but I'm not sure how close it really is. Easy to ignore those, though.
B&T features both multi and dual classing, like old school D&D. Non-human races can multi-class, that is, advance in two classes at once, while humans, half-elves, and half-orcs can dual class, which is giving up on one class and then taking up a new one. Each race has three different multi-class possibilities. For instance, Elves can be fighter/magic-users, cleric/magic-users, or magic-user/thieves, while Half-Orcs can be assassin/clerics, assassin/fighters, or assassin/magic-users. Though as I mentioned, Half-Orcs are also give to dual class like humans.
Although the normal races don't have any level limits, many of the monster races that are playable as characters do have level limits, apparently relating to their "Effective Character Level" in the d20 SRD. So the tougher the monster you are playing, the less you can level up. The Automaton race I mentioned can only reach 8th level, for example.
While there is a certain elegance on how this works in the game, in my experience with AD&D, one of the things people hated most was level limits and multi-classing restrictions. Especially here, where it's far more limited than AD&D. While the level limits only affect the more outlandish classes, generally their advantages are not equal to ten or more levels of a class.
And speaking of levels, there is no one unified experience chart for all classes, but they are not individual by class, either. There are three charts for the 13 base classes (which some taking more or less experience to level), and then characters who multi-class use a fourth chart.
While it streamlines things, it does produce some quirks. Because there is only a slight difference between the XP chart used by magic-users and for multi-classing, it makes no sense for any character to be a plain magic-user.
All the basic classes from the SRD are in B&T, with the Rogue being renamed back to thief, including the sorcerer, a class not found in pre 3.x D&D. It also features two prestige classes turned into base classes, the 3.x style assassin who uses spells, as well as the swashbuckling style fighter, the duelist.
There are no prestige classes and while there aren't any NPC classes exactly (warrior, adept, expert, aristocrat, commoner from the d20 SRD), the spellcasting aspects the adept class are tacked onto some types of hirelings. Sadly, a few interesting 3.x classes, like the Shadowdancer, were showcased on the author's blog, but didn't make the final cut for the book. (That's actually how I discovered B&T, I was looking for an old school conversion of that class)
Classes tend to use the D&D style hit dice scheme - d8 for fighters, d6 for clerics, except for thieves, who get d6 (as in AD&D and 3.x) instead of d4.
On the other hand, when it comes to their ability to hit monsters, B&T sticks closer to AD&D. For instance, in most forms of OD&D, Fighters would (more or less) improve their to hit score by 2 every 3 levels, whereas in AD&D it was increasing by two every 2 levels. In B&T, it's a smoother curve, increasing by one almost every level, topping out pretty much the same as the AD&D's fighter, +17 at 20th level.
That is just for the Fighter and the Duelist, though. The Paladin, Ranger, and Barbarian all have an attack bonus that progresses just a little bit slower, reaching +15 at 20th level. Clerics attack basically as well as they did in AD&D, with thieves also attacking the same as clerics, improved over AD&D, eventually reaching +13, as do Monks. Then comes the Bard, with a rather slow progression that tops out at +9, only slightly better than the Magic-User and Sorcerer which reach +7 (which seems to be worse than in past games). This is evened out a little because the Bard uses the thief XP table, and so are probably a level ahead of other classes.
Perhaps the only thing I dislike about Blood & Treasure is how multiple attacks are handled. Basically, only the Fighter and Monk get them. The Fighter gets a second attack at 5th level, a third at 10th, and a fourth at 15th level. Monks get a second attack at 9th level and a third at 17th.
The Barbarian, Ranger, and Paladin, despite being fighter sub-classes in past editions, are left out. They do get some compensation, for instance, the Barbarian can rage, which will let him make two attacks for a short time. The Paladin and Ranger have a limited selection of spells and have some damage bonuses (the Paladin can smite evil a few times a day, doing double damage and the Ranger has his enemy bonus). And the duelist does double damage with his chosen weapon.
But the tradeoff doesn't seem worth it. Double damage on occasion compared to getting to attack 2, 3, or 4 times in a round and thus likely doing 2-4x the damage. And worse, in the case of the Barbarian and Paladin, the rage and smite ability is something you have to keep track of as a daily power.
Just to make a comparison, a 12th level Paladin would have an attack bonus of +9, make only one attack, and be able to cast 3 cleric spells (one each of levels 1-3), while a 11th level Cleric/Fighter (with the same experience total) would have an attack bonus of +10, make 3 attacks per round, and be able to cast 19 spells per day of level, all the way up to 1 6th level spell.
So you have the Cleric/Fighter probably doing 3x the damage in melee, plus have vastly superior spell casting. The Cleric Fighter would also have far more skills, with the Paladin only having one - Riding, while the Cleric Fighter would have Riding plus Bend Bars, Break Down Doors, and Decipher Codes. The same applies to the Ranger compared to a Fighter/MU, except the Ranger at least would still have more skills.
The Bard matches up somewhat better though when compared to a Magic-User/Thief. A 13th level Bard would be only 10th level as a Magic-User/Thief. Both would have attack bonuses of +6, but the Bard could only cast 4th level spells, while the MU/Thief would have more and be able to cast up to 5th level.
Realistically, class balance problems won't show up for a while, so it might not be a big deal, but I do think they are an issue.
In old school D&D, saving throws were used when something bad happened to the character, to see if he mitigated the results. Like getting out of the way of a dragon's breath, or avoiding the gaze of the medusa. The original version of the game had 5 different categories, with the save needed being determined by looking a chart.
3rd edition/d20 changed this by simply having three different saves, one based on willpower, one based on reflexes, and one based on fortitude. Each class would typically have one strong save and two weak saves, the strong increasing a lot as a character levels, the weak not so much. Blood & Treasure adopts this system, although instead of having a target number as in d20 and the save bonus increasing like attack bonus does, each saving throw is simply a fixed number that decreases as a character levels up.
This is perhaps the true genius of Blood & Treasure. It's one of those things that seems so obvious, yet no one seemed to have thought of it before. Rather than having a bunch of skill points as in d20, or having percentages and ability checks in old school, it simply ties skills to the saving throw system. Each class knows a handful of skills, each skill is associated with a saving throw, and to succeed, you simply make a saving throw.
Early on, chances of actually succeeding at anything are pretty low, but for the most part, this is in line with old school D&D.
If a character is unskilled, then he simply has a 15% chance (18 or higher on a d20) to perform a task, or if they have a "knack" for a skill, they have a 30% chance (15 or higher on a d2). These knacks are either inborn, like elves have a knack for spotting hidden doors, or can be taken with the optional feat system.
The skill list is pretty much restricted to adventuring related tasks. There is only one social skill, Trickery.
These are pretty much entirely optional. They work like they do in d20, essentially a feat is a small power or bonus that customizes and improves the character. The feat list is very much pared down from the d20 one in both number and power. There are +1 bonuses to everything from specific saving throws to your armor class to the to hit chances with a certain weapon. Also a number of spellcasting feats, but very much toned down from how they worked in d20, only working on a single spell a day.
Blood & Treasure uses the Attack Bonus and ascending Armor Class system. That is, you roll a d20, add the attack bonus, and compare it to the opponents armor class, which is probably from 10 to 20. Although I never found the classic method of THAC0 all that confusing (since the math is almost the same, only involving subtracting the armor class from THAC0), many people apparently do, so it's probably a plus.
Initiative works how most people played old school D&D (even AD&D), everyone rolls a die for initiative and adds their dexterity bonus, then go in order. Then roll again for the next round. Or having one side or the other go first (which I never liked).
Although at its heart combat in B&T is old school, it does provide several combat maneuvers in addition to simply rolling for a hit and then damage. Bull rush, trip, disarm, sunder (trying to break weapons) and so forth. Each type of maneuver has a different difficulty, and there is a related saving throw for the victim to avoid the effects.
While it's nice having options, in practice, I found that gets old pretty quick. And I can't imagine players would like it if every opponent constantly tried to disarm them, or worse, try to sunder (break) their weapons.
And speaking of damage, while B&T has a wide variety of weapons, many of them have rather fiddly damage, much like AD&D. Lots of 1d4+1 and 1d6+1 and so forth. While I like variable damage, I think simply going by dice type works best in practice. d6 instead of d4+1, d8 instead of d6+1. But of course, your mileage will vary.
One innovation that seems to be taken from 5th edition, but was actually in the game before that was even announced, is the idea of tactical advantage or disadvantage. Essentially, rather than having specific rules for every situation, things that would give a combatant an advantage or disadvantage simply give a +2 bonus to hit or a +2 bonus to AC.
One of the more perplexing things I've found of late is that many gamers (or at least very vocal ones) seem to somehow think magic is unfair because it can do things that other classes can do, and is powerful. If you are one of those people, then B&T is not for you, though it definitely scales back spells to the original form. So much less powerful than 3.x, and quite a drop from AD&D and Rules Cyclopedia style D&D (which is what I'm most familiar with).
For instance, rather than Teleport allowing the caster to potentially transport a lot of stuff (including other characters), it seems to be just themselves.
On the other hand, it keeps the "Continual Flame" spell of 3.x instead of the older, more proper "Continual Light". To me, changing it from light to flame was one of the most pointless yet most irritating things about 3.x.
Another thing that many 3.x players griped about is that because Clerics got healing spells at every spell level (rather than just 1st then 4th-7th in old school D&D), they became "healbots", not allowed to use any other spell thanks to peer pressure (why didn't you heal me? Why did you waste that spell slot on hold person?) Unfortunately, that is also one area where B&T followed 3.x and not old school D&D.
High Level Play
There has always been something of the idea that once characters reached high level, they would settle down, found kingdoms or at least domains and rule them. AD&D really never went into this except vaguely, while Companion level D&D did cover it fairly well, if abstractly.
Blood & Treasure falls somewhere between the two. You have building costs, costs to pay troops, income generated by citizens, but nothing like resources. There are mass combat rules, but essentially you just treat every 10 troops as 1 squadron and run combat more or less like normal, with a squadron being like an individual, though you can combine multiple squads into higher units (like 2 squadrons makes a company and so on).
While it's probably true for its intended audience (as well as anyone reading a review), B&T pretty much assumes you know how to play D&D or a roleplaying game. Still, I would have liked to have seen an example of creating a character and while there is an example of play, I think it probably should have been in the front of the book.
Some tables are very useful, but others are too brief to be used more than once. For instance, the table of city encounters would constantly have the players awash in waste from chamber pots and running across dueling wizards, and at night, there are almost as many vampires as the fantasy section of the bookstore. The random table for NPC personality is also very simple.
But on the other hand, the wilderness section is more useful, with a d100 chart for determining what is notable about a settlement. There are a few pages on how planes work, including a sample universe based on medieval cosmology.
This is the part of the book that would be useful to just about any old school DM. It's got conversions of pretty much everything from the d20 SRD, including templates. It also has a number of original monsters, as well as many classic monsters that were not in the SRD, but released as part of the Tome of Horror. While there is a S&W conversion of that book, the PDF of that is priced more than the hardcover of this book (Frog God Games apparently deciding they are the Rolls Royce of the OSR gaming companies). It doesn't have everything from it by any means, but it has the cream.
That catch is that the monsters are often more or less as they are in the SRD, not always re-fitted to fit the older stats. For instances, things like oozes and jellies (like the Gelatinous Cube) often have armor classes that are less than 10, even though in the old system there were less than ten.
With that said, some monsters are more in line with their old school form. Giants, for instance, have very high armor classes in 3.x, while B&T uses scores more in line in basic or original D&D. Dragons, too, are very much at their original old school levels of hit dice.
There's actually some inconsistency here. In the Demons section, Mariliths (Type V) used to be just slightly weaker than Balor (Type VI), having 7+7 hit dice compared to 8+8 hit dice. Here the Mariliths have 8 HD which is old school, but the Balors have 20 HD, which is the 3.x value, while the 3.x HD of Mariliths was 16. Most Demons seem to follow the old school hit dice as opposed to the 3.x, with the exception being the Balor. Then again, maybe Balors should be extremely powerful, more so than they were. One did pretty much take out Gandalf, afterall.
Still, when you are trying to convert old modules to B&T, you need to be careful, though simply using the old stats works, and is probably the best option.
As to compatibility with other retro-clones, it's pretty close, but I have to think that with the multiple attacks, fighters in B&T are much, much more powerful than their counterparts in other games. Even in AD&D, the Fighter didn't get two attacks a round until 13th level, while one here would have three at 10th level.
Magic weapons also seem to be somewhat more powerful, thanks to the use of the 3.x style modifiers. For instance, the +3 Frost Brand used to simply be +6 versus fire based critters. Now it's only +3 all the time, but that frost part does an extra d6 of damage to everything.
Magic-Users seem to be somewhat weaker at higher levels, but more useful at lower levels, especially first, since they get some cantrips that can be useful in combat. Nothing major, but daze can keep an enemy from doing anything for a round, which can be very helpful at first level.
As to d20/3e compatibility, it's pretty decent. I tried running one of the old DCCs with B&T. Mostly you just need to substitute the B&T monster stats, though a lot of skills in d20 don't have an analog in B&T, so you can either make an "unskilled roll", which means they will almost certainly fail, or take a page from the old days simply make an attribute check (not mentioned in B&T).
The game it's most compatible with is the excellent Basic Fantasy RPG. There's a wealth of free material ranging from new classes and races to adventures on the BFRPG website. Adventures can pretty much be used as is (again, with the caveat that B&T characters are somewhat more powerful), classes just a little bit of tweaking.
All in all it's a nice looking, clean, orderly book. It's from Lulu, so it's print on demand, but I've never had any complaints about the quality and none here, either, except the pages can stick together.
Realistically, in a product like this, a complete index was too much to ask for. However, it would have really been nice if important tables were listed in one, or perhaps re-printed in the back of the book. The table for turning undead most notably is something that would likely need to be consulted a lot. (Someone has created a cheatsheet of key tables, and it's available for download at the B&T site)
The artwork is fairly sparse, as this was basically done on a very small budget. Lots of old public domain illustrations, but seemingly some original. This is mostly restricted to the illustrations of the character classes (almost cartoonish, nicely done but contrasting to the style of the art in the rest of the book) and a number of monsters, most of which seem to be recent, rather than old PD art.
Blood & Treasure is one of the more ambitious retro-clones in many ways. For the most part it's really well done, but its main flaw, aside from perhaps some balance issues regarding multiple attacks, is that it's inconsistent on what it seems to be trying to do. Most parts are OD&D, some parts are AD&D, and others 3.x.
This is not a problem in of itself, because I think most groups would borrow parts from different versions of D&D (and even other games) to come up with their own house rules. It just can be a little confusing when you thought something worked one way, but works another.
Still, I think some of B&T is a bit flawed. The non-Fighter fighting classes are just too weak compared to the Fighter, as they lack multiple attacks (sans the Barbarian who gets them when he rages). The Bard also fights only slightly better than a MU, but has far less spells. This really only shows up at high level play, something I really only noticed when I started converting AD&D characters.
And while the skill system is meant to encourage players not being so restricted in what they try, because they have a 90% chance of failing anything they try (if they are unskilled in it), well, in practice, it's not going to encourage it. The older attribute check, rolling under the relevant stat on a d20 was flawed, but it was generally more forgiving (though my first D&D character 30+ years ago died when I failed a dexterity check and fell off the log he was trying to walk over.)
Blood & Treasure is not the retro clone I want, which is basically 1e AD&D with some of the improvements of 3.x (like ascending armor class and attack bonus, 3 saves, non-weird bard), but it's the closest one to what I want that I've found. It should be relatively easy to house rule it into what I want.
And if you aren't interested in using the B&T rules per se, but some other old school retro clone, then the GM's Book (the Treasure Keeper's Guide) is probably worth picking up just for all the monsters. It seems to have a lot of stuff I don't see in the bestiary section of S&W or LL or OSRIC, and while would require some conversion, it needs much less than doing it from the SRD. And some just seem new to it.
All in all, B&T is a very impressive product, and more importantly, from what I've played of it, a very fun game. How it handles higher levels remains to be seen.
N.B. The other thing about B&T is that most retro-clones seem to be sent out to die, with no further product support. While B&T is still a niche product, the author seems to be one of those remarkably productive people. There are almost daily entries on his blog, and a slew of supplements are mapped out. He also publishes a periodical that is compatible with B&T.
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