It’s Crunch Time for DA. We have seen its fluff is uneven and wonky at times but can it compensate for a lack of creativity with a surplus of useful mechanics? It certainly makes the attempt.
One interesting innovation is the so-called Noble House simulator. If you want to run a Noble House in Dark Albion, you basically generate it as though you would a character; by rolling 3d6 multiplied by 3 for Military, Political and Financial power. Naturally, depending on your rank, you receive a bonus on each ability (a Baron gets +5 to all stats whereas a Duke gets +20 for example). This is further modified by the region of origin and allegiance (If you ally yourself with one faction you receive a bonus on Political Power checks to influence that faction but a massive penalty on influencing houses of the other side. Neutrality makes any attempt to influence factions harder, naturally you may switch allegiances but this comes at a permanent cost to your Political power since no one likes a shifty house). All stats can be checked for on a percentage base.
Good shit so far. It would be incomplete if not for a random event table to modify those powers every year (also very interesting if you are going to strip Dark Albion for parts and desire alternate domain-management rules). Births, battles, alliances offered, deaths, miracles, plagues, marriage proposals the whole she-bang. This can be lifted from DA and transplanted into any medieval type courtly intrigue game with only the lightest of modifications. I like the fact that marriage proposals have a percentage based chance of shifting the allegiance of an allied house as a result of the bethrothal, making it a viable strategic option (there does not seem to be an explicit way of initiating these proposals, though I guess one could always roll Political power). There is a direct link between financial power and cold hard Pounds, at any time and within certain limits per year, characters can either sink cold hard cash into their holdings and thus increase FP or withdraw from their FP in case you have been waiting to get your 3rd born a brand new Sheffield Sword, Full Plate, War Horse, Pistol, Fancy Nobleman’s garb and his own company of Soldiers to make war upon the hated McEwans/Frog Men.
If I must be critical which I must since the Butcher’s Nails will send pulsing white hot needles of pain into my frontal lobes if I falter for but a millisecond the rules for using PP are somewhat vague, they could have used some indications of difficulty (e.g PP check to pass a bill that fucks over major ally of the Lancasters -20% on PP check, get someone elevated to minor nobility -10%, Convert Kingdom to Chaos Worship -50% or something along those lines). What is interesting is that PP increases with successful use of the skill, and decreases with failure. I can see this snowballing pretty quickly if not managed properly, with powerful houses having to constantly flex their muscles to pass easy bills until they get themselves some serious PP and paint the white house black so to speak. 120 PP? Tear down parliament and erect a statue in my honour! Tax the Rich. Seize all assets! All men must wear a golden facemask of my glorious visage!
As it is in Politics, so it is in War! We get a percentage based battle-system with a bunch of modifiers for special units, commanders, conditions, certain risque tactics that may or may not pay off (e.g rampaging Scottsmen are a good asset but there is a chance they will ignore orders or cause havoc thus reducing PP, bombards are great but don’t work during certain conditions etc. etc.). I lament the lack of rules for magical infantry which can be a factor because A) Frogmen and B) Vlad Tepes/Undead Outbreak. Add MP to a d20 that explodes (with a one meaning it explodes DOWN AND IS SUBTRACTED) compare to the other guy and check point differential for the type of victory.
The whole is reminiscent of Warmachine for Basic D&D but more abstract. Translating MP to the exact number of troops is done only in the broadest of terms and this is by far the weakest aspect of the rules. No one likes excessive bookkeeping but the way it is written there seems to be almost no link between FP and MP, which comes off as kind of half-assed. Rules or more accurately vague guidelines are provided for PC participation in any battle but these could have been more codified, as they are, the rules in Red and Pleasant Land should serve one better in actual play.
If one is indeed going to play Birthright: Dark Albion Edition one needs a list of important NPC’s with class levels, and Dark Albion provides…sort of.
The historical details are nice but not enough is likely to be useful during a game, particularly if one wants to be able to actually influence the course of the War. The heraldry is neat but a line of stats beyond F3/F6 at end of war would have been immensely useful and would not have taken up an inordinate amount of space. Once more, the lack of fantastical elements in a fantasy campaign is strangely unnerving, though token homage is paid to the fantasy concept by giving some historical figures cleric or mage levels. the only exception being Black William and his quest for a Dragon. Some campaign options or GM secrets are given which are essentially tips or variants one can use when running these NPCs, with the only one that strikes me as particularly noteworthy is Henry Tudor being a sort of Kwisatz Haderach of the legacy of old Cymry Kings and the Unconquered Sun, meant to bring about an alliance with the Dragons of Law (not explained any further).
The problem is that the roles of these characters are fixed as written and thus most of these modifications are largely cosmetic (again, you could have the PC’s discover this and change their actions accordingly but then it makes more sense to run a sandbox Dark Albion). Quantity does not equal quality, and this section would have benefited from a major NPC section with full historical roles and options and a minor section for the side characters. The continental NPCs suffer from a similar problem, if more pronounced, since they are unlikely to play anything but the most peripheral of roles.
We end this part with an overview of magic in Dark Albion. Anyone familiar with the take on magic in 2nd edition AD&D (the phb, not the actual published adventures or campaign settings) should find the following guidelines eerily familiar.
Basically magic is a big deal, you are more likely to sell it then to be able to buy it, the nobility, church and collegium will be super duper interested in anything you dig up, Clerics do not grant miracles for personal gain and wizards are leery of sharing their spells. Commonly available wizard spells is about 1-5 with higher level spells fetching huge prices from the Collegium. The general level is about that of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos then, with most wizards being competent and level 1. Spells have of course been adjusted, ah la the 2e Historical supplements, with most combat spells getting stripped out along with raise dead and resurrection (a useful alteration, raising the dead always seemed kind of weird to me unless it was super rare and near mythical anyway). Rules for research are given in the form of library size and cost (again, had I been Pundit I would have gone the 2e A Mighty Fortress route and simply restricted wizards to 5th level spells, abolished magical organizations above cabals of alchemists looking for a philosopher’s stone or summoning daemons and made spells so rare as to ALL require research period). This all sounds pretty goddamn boring but Pundit added something new; Demon Summoning rules, handled solely through rituals. Nice, now we are getting somewhere. It will have to compete with Red and Pleasant Land for the neatness of its randomly generated demons though, no second places in Princeland (Princeland is a wind-swept desert of dilapidated cyclopean masonry, rusted hunter killer automatons, burning piles of gender studies texts and empty bottles of Jack Daniels, not unlike Belgium).
Demonic summoning rituals are to be learned per demon. Each step of the ritual has some requirements to give either a bonus or a penalty to the ritual, and of course, the admonition to not calle uppe what ye cannot put downe is in full effect. It’s entirely possible but ill-advised to perform a rushed ritual without any of the usual trappings, and naturally, investing cash and sacrifice makes summoning easier but the subsequent battle of will a lot harder. The process of attaining mastery is appropriately risky, the caster may attempt to dominate the demon several times (with the penalty to the control roll becoming increasingly harder), and on a natural 1 the caster falls under the control of the demon.
In addition the Demon may also be bargained with, with the caster performing some Chaotic act in exchange for demonic aid (the soul is forfeit anyway and may not be bargained). In an interesting twist, pious servants of the Unconquered Sun can actually bind and summon daemons more effectively then chaos worshippers offering human sacrifice.
Amusingly, Demonic hierarchy is more or less the same as human hierarchy, with commoners, knights, lords and dukes of Chaos (seems in line with the medieval worldview). If a service is successfully leveraged one need but send out the Demon and of course the Demonic Aristocracy is often too busy to perform these tasks so it will send servants in their place. This shit is getting good. Demons are also a good source to learn new spells and other knowledge from! Great! Last but not least, Demons have a special power that they can utilize, bestow upon an amulet or even bestow permanently upon a willing ritualist (marking the user as a chaos mutant Take a Drink!). Nice. Completionist demon summoning ah la carte, straight outta Faust.
The Demons themselves are about what you would expect if you are at all familiar with DnD. Nightvision, need +1 weapon to be harmed, chance to summon allies, elemental resistance and so on. C’mon Tarno you were doing fine don’t give up on me buddy. Demon princes and Kings have 12d6 breath weapons and can kill with a touch, I hope you weren’t that attached to the historical campaign GM. At least the illustrations convey the sort of medieval demon vibe Tarno is going for.
Special powers are nicer, with powers like causing a bountiful harvest or causing a court to condemn someone, shit that is actually useful in a roleplaying heavy intrigue laden game. Major powers involve the destroying of love, the inspiring of regicide and the loss of favour or fortune. Nice. More amusing useless powers include the power to repel rodents or control normal spiders.
More on magic in Dark Albion may be found in the exciting magic item creation rules, where, in a stunning innovative leap, Tarno decrees that any permanent magic item requires a permanency spell…like it does in AD&D. However, since the rules are meant to be compatible with more recent iterations of the Dungeoning and the Dragoning system this does indeed need spelling out for newer players so this is understandable. What else changes? Ah! Magic users and clerics may make scrolls. So too may a magic user create magical concoctions and elixers that hold a magic dweomer known as potions, and a skill check must be made or they will not function according to a misshap table. Truly Dark Albion is a place of wonder.
Enough snark, some ‘common’ magic items are provided, a wolf cloak that turns one into a wolf but wait! There is a small chance of being infected with lycanthropy. Magic elf swords that don’t give any bonuses but count as magic. Holy Water. Swords that disintegrate undead on a 20. IMAGINATION WITHOUT BOUNDARIES. WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS. JESUS WEPT! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Let’s try that again. Enough snark. Apparently this world has artifacts and relics alongside the more common magical items. A stupid move, all magic swords should have been relics and artifacts per definition with the exception of his elfswords +0 (first instance Gaz 5 the Kingdom of Alfheim?). Next to such common items from mythology as Excalibur (fucking finally) and Pandora’s Box there is the lance of Mitra, actually detailed, in seven parts ah la the rod of Seven parts but the resemblance is not so great as to be unforgiveable. Its powers when combined are hinted at but not described for no adequately explained reason, but each part has some spell-like power. The powers are mostly nothing special, one noteworthy one can cause death by touch but this also kills the wielder. Second detail! the location of each part is mentioned, making for plotting and adventuring (I’d do it to kill Dracula with it, but thats me). A final section on poisons and alchemical herbs is infinitely more appropriate in lieu of magic items and helps convey the medieval feel, much like the demon summoning rituals did. The magic section, with the exception of the Lance of Mitra, is gay.
The Poison section is pretty good. Unlike your father’s DnD, poison in Dark Albion is ingested, far more appropriate for a medieval campaign of plotting and betrayal. Poisons cover the real world of Arsenic, Foxglove, Cyanide etc. A shitload of herbal remedies is also provided. This naturalist approach works well for Dark Albion, and deserves minor credit, as does the alchemical section with its Arua Fulminata, Asbestos suits and Aqua Regula and whatnot. If you are unfortunate enough to participate in a game of Dark Albion I heartily recommend the Alchemy/Herablism proficiency.
Bottom Line: Albion gives a decent medieval house gunpowder, treason & plot (that should be the name of a bitchin’ campaign) system that could have used more clarity and elaboration but the bare bones are there.
The mass combat system is murky but more or less serviceable. There is a recurring element of TLDR in the NPC section, which is kind of Dark Albion’s problem as a whole. If you are a history buff you might find it sort of interesting but the style is too dry and the description is just not very exciting. The demon summoning section is very good, the alchemy/herb section is detailed enough to replace consumable magic items which should be its function, the magic item section is a dissapointment and lame, only the Lance of Mitra is anything but space-filler or a rehash of something we have seen a million times before. A resounding Ho Hum with no points given yet no points retracted. Go Tarno. Go and get to that 6! I know you can do it!
Jesus this one went on for a while. The final installment will cover such exciting topics as adventuring in Dark Albion, the wonderous innovative inhabitants of this mysterious land beyond the imagination and the Appendix with its optional rules for Fantastic Heroes and Witchery. I hope to see you all (and that includes you my Uruguayan mystery fan!) for the final installment.