Terminology can be a tricky thing. Definitions drift and split as a term gets used or the thing its describing changes. Originally, the OSR referred to games that went back to earlier editions of D&D to focus on what made those rules so seminal. Now it seems to refer to games that have a certain vibe to them: gritty, simple, dark. They don’t have to call back to D&D anymore or even any older game; Mork Borg is a huge hit that’s created its own little spooky corner of the gaming world. The bending of this description means it can cover games like Warlock! which bills itself as an RPG that “aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure”. Does Warlock! succeed in casting that spell? Let’s play to find out.
Warlock!, designed by Greg Saunders, wears its Warhammer influences on its sleeve. It’s very clear from the art, the characters and the light setting elements included in the game that the book is meant for folks who love Games Workshop’s Old World to interact with it without getting wrapped up in their official systems. While I enjoy WHFRP, I see the appeal, as whenever I bring up the idea to my tables they sweat a little bit when I start explaining the career system or how you can roll for various disfigurements. I also think this rules set would work for any fantasy setting that’s a bit grisly, like The Witcher, Flames of Freedom or even A Game of Thrones.
Characters here are built from three main components: Stamina, Luck and skills. In a nod to the career system from WHFRP, players roll 4d6 and each one suggests one of four starting careers for the character. Careers are very basic in that they have a handful of skills that can go above starting levels and that’s it. What they also have are two questions that generate story hooks. Players can roll on small charts in each section to help them determine what situations are pressing on their characters as they begin play. Your Grave Digger might have dug up a saint looking for relics or your Bodyguard might be guarding a vile priest who doesn’t deserve to live. The entries are flavorful enough that they can either be edited for specific worlds or used as a bit of group world building to flesh out just what the Peacock Guard is and why they might want you dead.
Rolls resolve in one of two ways: a d20 + skills versus a DC of 20 or an opposed skill check. The GM can impose bonuses and penalties of +/- 2 or 5 depending on the severity. Combat is an opposed roll with the winner getting to do damage. The attacker has a bonus but the fact that the defender can outfight them gives the system that chaotic edge that these types of settings enjoy. Critical hits occur at zero stamina which offer a selection of grisly charts to roll on. Characters can fight on into negative stamina but that means the next roll adds their negative score on the roll and makes a gruesome end more likely.
Magic is also simple. Everyone has access to the incantation skill but only two careers allow for any real progression in the skill. Casting costs stamina and there’s the additional risk of a miscast table if the roll goes poorly. It wouldn’t take much for a GM to whip up a few new casting classes if they wanted magic to be more of a things in their Warlock world; classes in general seem to be a pretty easy thing to add to adjust the flavor of the setting to everyone’s liking.
The included setting, the Kingdom, seems to be built for that. It keeps the basic idea of a human kingdom surrounded by elves and dwarves. Players could choose characters from those communities, as they are called here, but the differences here exist solely in the narrative realm. Rather than sweating mechanical balances for playing an elf, the differences are mostly story based. Other books in the line dig into the Kingdom setting but I think the game works best on the narrative side as one developed by the table or adapting a stronger setting everyone playing knows.
Warlock! Offers a lighter system for grittier fantasy that keeps a lot of the chaos that darker settings enjoy.
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