This objective review requires some background for the unilluminated. No more then a year ago I wrote my first review on Your Dungeon Is Suck, a vile vitriolic blog filled with narcissists, sexual deviants and the criminally insane. After an intense negotiation, during which several promises were made to destroy certain compromising photographs, the host was generous enough to display my meanderings on his front page, gaining me unlimited fame and vast riches beyond imagining. The rest, as they say, is history. And though I have since lost half of my sight and I still awaken screaming in the middle of the night, sweat-drenched with hands frantically clutching my nightgown, I take great pleasure in this, for the world had to see the unimaginable horror that is Arrows of Indra, a crime of inconceivable cruelty and maliciousness wrought upon a largely innocent hobby by the monster John Tarnowski.
Ah las, I am forced once more to descend deep into the phosphorescent spider-haunted cave-labyrinth of the mind of the creature known to the world as RPGPundit. I incant his True Name, John Tarnowski, to ward off his Rune-magickal retribution. Before we can delve into the sanity-blasting miasma of Dark Albion we must first examine the creature that spawned it.
What foul liason took place between man and nameless thing from the darkness between the stars to begat such a horror remains best not dwelt upon. All we know is that the monster known to the world as John Tarnowski descended upon the OSR several years ago, though it claims it has always been there, watching, waiting and stitching together grotesque chimerae from the corpses of role-playing games ancient and forgotten.
Aye verily, t’is known it doth flie through the night upon a giant ostrich, besmirching mailboxes and molesting family pets and leaving a thick cloying miasma of pipe-smoke in its fetid wake. It is known it lairs in ancient, sunken, cyclopean Uruguay. It is known it has learned the human speech from sailors on its flight from its canuck homestead and is beset by myriad enemies that are so ephemeral as to, for all intents and purposes, not exist at all. It is known it seeks to visit upon the world a retribution for the blasphemy of its heinous existence.
Unfortunately for us, this retribution takes the form of terrible roleplaying games; a vicious desire, driven by an alien hate, to twist beloved games into shapes as distorted and hideous as they are entirely familiar.
When Tarnowski penned the accursed Arrows of Indra manuscript, its star-spawned mind had not yet fully grasped the human concept of creativity, thus Arrows of Indra was simply a freakish gestalt of D&D and EoPT (Empire of the Petal Throne for muggles) with a thin veneer of Indian Myth smeared over it (and some pretty decent house rules and streamlining, credit where it is due). Now, with Dark Albion, we see in its every page a gradual but inexorable progression. Soon, it murmurs to itself in a thousand shrieking voices of green smoke and the light of dying stars, soon I will Reinvent D&D.
Dark Albion: The Rose War is an old school campaign setting that takes place in a fantasy version of medieval England during the War of the Roses. It set out to “do for England what Warhammer Fantasy did for Germany.” It was written by RPGPundit, therefore we can make two predictions.
1. It will have a strong historical or mythological base.
2. It probably won’t do very creative things with that base.
Accusations of plagiarism will be withheld until the entire manuscript has been thoroughly examined. For this review I am using the pdf version, which was generously donated to me by a close and personal friend. Unlike Arrows of Indra and much like Lords of Olympus, Tarnowski’s Olympian-themed Amber-clone, the book looks gorgeous and the illustrations are suitably evocative and medieval in appearance. Credit goes to public domain and the brave men at Dover Electronic Clipart. The PDF is a staggering 276 pages long, therefore this review shall take place in many parts. Some credit goes to Dominique Crouzet, the author of Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (yet another retroclone), and amusingly Dark Albion takes great pains to point out exactly what small contributions were made by Crouzet.
So what the fuck do you actually do with Dark Albion? The campaign setting provides 3 options: run it as you would any standard D&D game, run a game where your players are servants, family members or agents of important historical figures (Dark Albion has a shitload of these) as a sort of cloak and dagger game with assassinations, negotiations, spying & intrigue or run it as a band of mercenaries, only instead of dungeons you participate in actual battles. I’m going to guess a mixture will yield maximum lulz, and Pundit proposes a variant where each player had two characters, one for wilderness/dungeon adventure and one for war/intrigue. I’d think mercenaries and adventuring go together fairly well but otherwise this suggestion seems reasonable.
Some factors to differentiate Dark Albion from your grandfather’s D&D include the following and I do not recommend a drinking game for similarities with Warhammer Fantasy since the emulation is deliberate; a low level range, the importance of social status (makes sense if you are going to emulate medieval or indeed, any historical period), gender inequality (again, see any historical or halfway plausible fantasy setting, Pundit actually goes out of his way to make it possible for women to become clerics [in Dark Albion most priests do not get spells, and clerics are warrior-priests born with a special sign and the ability to perform miracles so female clerics are okay]), all magic is born of chaos (I hope you went for scotch and not absinthe like I did), magic items are rare and direct damage dealing spells are almost entirely absent from the game (an innovation that can be traced back to historical supplements for AD&D 2e such as Age of Heroes or Charlemagne’s Paladins.), all clerics are lawful (fits in nice with a monotheistic religion, some rumours of neutral pagan-clerics in the High North), a Crystal Dragon Jesus & Crystal Dragon Christianity (the Church of the Unconquered Sun, combining elements of christianity, the epoch of Gilgamesh and Mitra, and a Church of the Crescent Moon in the middle East which worships the same deity), the church is not led by a cleric of high level but by a 0-th level pontifex (excellent), human civilization is threatened from within by Chaos (take a drink), humanity and goblins were created and ruled over by chaos-worshipping Fae until they degenerated and fought amongst themselves and men broke free, humanoids are never friendly and usually dangerous, monsters and humanoids are really only found in the dark and unexplored corners of the world and that concludes this summary. Also the world resembles Medieval Europe to an uncanny degree going so far as to include famous historical figures with the one exception of France, which is dominated by vicious chaotic humanoid frogmen. Also no halflings or gnomes and the Dwarves are black skinned and are rumoured to live below the earth.
So far, this is alright. Nothing spectacular but nothing offensively stupid or bad either. We shall see if Dark Albion manages to fulfill its promise to reinvent D&D in the next part: Gazetteer of Dark Albion.