Spears of the Dawn is an old school style fantasy game set in a fantasy world inspired by Sub-Saharan Africa. While African inspired fantasy games aren't entirely unheard of, they are pretty rare. Off the top of my head I can only think of Nyambe, for d20, and a series of adventures in Dungeon Magazine.
This is a review of the PDF version from a recent charity bundle, presumably it's the same as the one sold at the usual places, which is 180 pages, including back and front cover.
Spears of the Dawn is set in The Three Lands (Green, Yellow, and Black, representing different terrain), a region comprised of six different kingdoms. Five of these are normal kingdoms, while the sixth is one of the undead, very much Egyptian flavored, comprised of beings called the Eternal, who are something of a combination of mummies, vampires, ghouls, and zombies. This Sixth Kingdom (as it is called) tried invading the other kingdoms, but were defeated when the Five Kingdoms united.
While the Sixth Kingdom was broken, it wasn't completely defeated (and of course, the unity of the Five Kingdoms didn't last). That's where the Spears of the Dawn come into the picture, what the game is named for. They are small groups of wandering adventurers who are dedicated to continuing the fight against the Eternal and their various tomb complexes that they have constructed, as well as rooting out cults dedicated to them.
So basically you can play it is a D&D style game or even something like Call of Cthulhu, where you investigate the doings of evil cults. Or however you want, the empahsis on many of the rules are for sandbox play.
Each of the Five Kingdoms seems roughly based on an African culture, though I must admit, I'm not sure which is which. Nyala is a country of rolling hills and noble houses, which I think is based on Ethiopia. The Kirsi are cavalry warriors, I think based on the Mali Empire, or perhaps the later Songhai. The Lokossa are a very disciplined and regimented people that seem inspired by the Zulu.
There is the nomadic Meru, which I'm not sure if they are based on the Tuareg or someone else. And finally the Sokone, who are basically in the middle of everyone, and use this to their advantage, as a nation of traders. No idea who they are based on, to be honest.
It's a fairly self-contained and isolated setting (one side ocean, three other sides mountains), so it can be fairly easily added to a game world.
Spears of the Dawn isn't D&D, but it's very close to D&D. While it's mostly old school flavor, it adds some twists such as a skill system (somewhat derived from Classic Traveller) and backgrounds, and uses some modern conventions, like attack bonus (though curiously, not ascending armor class, but old school style, descending).
SotD has 4 classes: Warrior, Marabout, Nganga, and Griot, which correspond roughly to fighter, cleric, magic-user and bard. The Warrior is fairly straight forward, but can pick "idahuns" every other level, which are somewhat like feats from 3rd edition. They are simpler though and generally more powerful and self-contained, no feat chains.
The magic system is essentially the Vancian system of D&D, but borrows aspects from differing editions. For instance, the Marabout casts spells (called miracles), but only from the spheres he knows. So somewhat like a 2e Priest, but they don't have to prepare them ahead of time. They can cast any they are allowed to, up to a certain number a day.
The Nganga is closer to the classic Magic-User, but has his spells split up between the ones he can cast quickly, like in combat, or longer rituals that take a while to perform. Many of the spells are different than the usual D&D ones, and those that are the same, are so completely rewritten and renamed you will think they are new at first glance.
As mentioned, the skill system is similar to Classic Traveller, and shared with Sine Nomine's popular game Stars Without Number, which is old school space game (sort of a mash-up of Classic Traveller and OD&D).
The basics are very simple — skills are rated from 0 to 4. To see if you succeed at a task, you roll 2d6, add your skill level, your ability modifier (-2 to +2) and compare it to a target number, ranging from 6 (fairly easy) to 15 (almost impossible).
Skills are very broad in scope(for instance, Artist, Persuasion, Security), numbering 20 in all. Each time a character levels, they get skill points, which are used to increase the skills (the higher the skill level, the more skill points they cost). The skill ranks are capped by character level and whether or not they are a class skill, though class skills are modified by a character's background.
This is a mix of both old and modern school D&D, at least when it comes to math. You add your attack bonus (and weapon skill) to your d20 roll to see if you hit, but you also add the target's armor class. If you get a 20 or higher, you have hit it, then you roll damage.
This strikes me as a pretty clever method to determine a hit. It's one more step than just attack bonus and ascending armor class, and presumably you either have to tell the player the armor class or do the math yourself, but it's a great way to keep old school descending armor class and use attack bonus at the same time.
For the most part, combat is pretty simple, not a lot of extra options, nothing like combat maneuvers found in later editions and some retro clones.
This is a very slim section of the book, with only about 30 entries, including human opponents players might face, and regular animals, like hyena, buffalo, and horses. Only a dozen of or so monsters in the more traditional sense, and some of these seem somewhat generic: Evil Dwarfs, Giants, Snakemen.
Some are more interesting. The Ilomba, a magical snake that can impersonate its owner. Ningiri, a crocodile with long head, and the Rompa, a chimeric like monster made up of different animal parts that attract prey by singing.
This is an extremely helpful section, crammed with not just advice, but loads of tables to generate anything from encounters to adventures and even cultures of any lost civilizations players might come across. Also sample stats for various types of NPCs and even sample maps.
It also has rules for simulating what is happening in the 5 Kingdoms, what they are doing, what problems they are facing, and so on, to help you make the setting feel dynamic.
Lastly, there is a very short adventure, a small dungeon (or tomb) crawl.
Spears of the Dawn held a Kickstarter to fund the product, largely to pay for professional artwork, not just for this book, but to put in the public domain so others could re-use it for their own African themed RPG products. So not only is there a lot of art, it's high quality art, including a few pieces by one of my favorite artists, Earl Geier (who illustrated many Call of Cthulhu and early Shadowrun products).
The layout is two column, plain and functional, and quite legible on my 9" Nook HD+. There are numerous bookmarks and an index
About the only real negative is the map of the Three Lands. It's perfectly functional, but is a very computer generated looking hex map, resembling more something out of Traveller than anything else.
Spears of the Dawn is an excellent product and more importantly, a very playable game. It adds more modern rules to old school D&D without bogging the system down, so should be appealing to both fans of the older style and those more accustomed to the new style, though they might still find this too rules light.
The setting is believable and easy to learn, full of possible adventure hooks. Even if you don't plan on using the rules, it's a good resource if you wish to add an African themed area to your game. All too often when you get a game with an unusual setting or premise, it can be hard to figure out just what to do. Rifts for instance, I have no idea what characters are supposed to do in it. Here, you have a basic premise - wipe out the tombs of the undead invaders. If you don't want to use it, you don't have to, but it's there to guide you.
About my only real complaint is with the bestiary. One of the big differences between fantasy RPGs and other RPGs is that the foes the PCs face are more monstrous and fantastical, not just variations of humans. To be fair, Wikipedia's list of African monsters is pretty slim, so I'm not sure what is missing, but surely there are more.
My other concern is a general lack of supplemental material for the game, something that hurt Nyambe. While there is one adventure currently for it, I'm not sure how much further material is planned. Since it is largely compatible with old school D&D material in terms of rules, there's no shortage of material to adapt, but on the flip side, the big draw of Spears of the Dawn is that it's not the typical D&D setting. In particular, I would love to see a full book of African themed monsters.
Regardless of how it shapes up as a product line, Spears of the Dawn itself is great. A