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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Guest Poster - Review - Adventures in the East Mark (Pat G)


(the following is presented by a GUEST POSTER)

A great many years ago, an old Welshman, told me in lilting Celtic tones of a mysterious game unlike any other he had seen before. A game a young lad such as myself might be interested in.  There was only one place to find it in the city - a shop in a rough area frequented by purveyors of illegal substances and women, and no doubt men, of easy virtue. The shop had a turreted front entrance, with an iron grate for a door. The hairy, bearded proprietors were known to be surly but would part with goods if plied with money.

If this sounds like the beginning of a quest, it was. The trip to that store marked my introduction to D&D and role playing in general.  The "old" Welshman was probably only in his early 40's and was in the same amateur theatre group as my parents. The store was indeed as described, the legendary Fandom II in its first location on Rideau street in Ottawa. The proprietors were more slightly grumpy hippy than  surely dwarf though.  A school friend and I started with the original box set, made a quick detour through basic and Red Box and settled into AD&D for all of high school.

A lot of game free years had passed when a few years ago, we started a family game of  3.5 with my daughters and a couple of friends. This was great fun but how the system had changed, multi-class, prestige classes,  feats, races beyond count and rolls for everything.  It was great fun but as campaigns do, it died a natural death.  I am mostly a historical miniatures player but that campaign left a hankering for some rpg. Pathfinder was more of the same as 3.5 and 4th ed - frankly I never liked superhero games. Bouncing around the gaming related parts of the internet exposed me to something called OSR - Old School Rules. Since I am now old and I like rules it seemed worth looking into. OSR lead to me finding an odd chap named Tenkar on G+ who runs some sort of on line tavern and a hangout that lead to a shiny PDF of Adventures in the East Mark landing on my hard drive.

So as someone coming back into RPGs after a long absence, what can I say about Adventures in the East Mark? Adventures in the East Mark is an English translation of the original Spanish Aventuras en la Marca Del Este. Developed by Pedro Gil and others as an updated version of the Red Box, it achieved such success in Spain that a kickstarter was setup to translate it into English. Initial impressions  i.e. the cover art, were nice - Red Box all over again - but 143 pages? Red Box was never that big was it? And then I "cracked the cover" or  in reality scrolled to pages 2 and 3 and saw the map of East Mark. Definitely echoes of Tolkien but also all those other fantasy realm posters of my youth, not too technical not overdone,  just wonderful.  This required an immediate scroll through the whole thing. East Mark is filled with page after page of artwork. There is everything from marginalia to full page spreads.   It captures the classical fantasy feel without being as "old skool" as the original monster manual cover.  This is a very, very pretty book.

So while pretty is nice, what's inside?  If you are familiar with the OGL (Open Games License) project, you will find no real surprises in the mechanics. Six attributes, 3d6 each giving simple bonuses.  Nine Character classes including Elf, Halfling and Dwarf all nods to the "race as class roots" of D&D give you plenty of scope to customize your character without burying him or her in minutia.  Levels are limited to 20, lower for the race-classes, with higher to be added in later boxes - just like the original.  This is not an issue for me because, I always preferred the low level campaigns.

The equipment section hearkens back to first edition roots with the trident being the most exotic of the weapons. Non-combat related items are extensive including numerous transport options. As with all sections of the book, the illustrations are simple but of very high quality.

The battle sequence is nicely laid out 10 minute turns broken into 60 - 10 second assaults making spell durations easy to remember. Combat is IGOUGO based on a party initiative roll though individual initiative is offered as an optional rule. Attacks are carried out using a D20 roll on a level vs AC matrix chart with modifiers for strength and weapon bonuses. Damage is by weapon type again with modifiers. Monster have a slightly different chart based on hit dice. There are a few modifiers for light level and changing weapons and the much vaunted two weapon combat is dealt with in one simple sentence. Criticals are relegated to an optional rule. Miniatures and grids are mentioned but again are optional.  Missile combat is exactly the same as close combat but with a few appropriate extras like aimed shots.  Very straight forward. Oddly for such a simple system, mounted combat, aerial combat and underwater combat all get a few lines.

Healing is also very straight forward; 1d4 per day of full rest, no surges, no non-magical shortcuts. Saving throws for various attacks are by class and level which results in 9 separate if small tables. This is a little out of keeping with the simplicity of the rest of the rules but then the players need only consult the table for their character class. At the end of the combat rules is a section on maritime travel and combat which I suspect is due to the nature of the East Mark world.

Moving on to magic. As expected, Magic users spells have to be memorized and once they are cast they're gone until you can sit down for a bit with your grimoire. Clerics get to pick and choose, drawing on divine power as needed.  Elves get spells as magic users up to 10th level and Paladins act as mini-clerics. The spells list are extensive and are laid out by class and level for easy access. They cover the usual range of harming, healing and informational spells. There is enough variety in the lists to allow players to customize their character without the need for specific sub-classes like healer or elementalist.

The Adventures and Misadventures section gives some basic information on organizing your party and adventuring in the outdoors or under it. Strangely, how to deal with traps is found here rather than with the rest of the thief class information. There is a very useful section on hirelings, were to find them, what they come equipped with and how much their starting salary is (by race no less). A useful tidbit  for any system.

Moving onto loot, the Magical Objects and Treasures section  shows  how much loot to give out by hit die of foe defeated and duplicates the monetary exchange table found in the equipment section. Non-coin based treasure is covered in a useful level of detail. Magical items range from simple +1 and buff items through scrolls and potions and onto a few Wondrous Objects. Not a large section, it is geared toward giving the narrator the ideas and information to customize objects to a specific campaign.

Monsters - remember how I mentioned this is a very pretty book? The monsters are especially so. Most creatures in this section have an accompanying illustration with only the slimes, jellies and fungoids  left to the reader's imagination. The style varies from the cartoonish Gibbering Gobber to a Gnoll worthy of display in a gallery and that's all on one page.  What is never lacking in the art is the old school feel.  In terms of the monsters themselves, all the classics are here from Ankheg to Zombie with a few East Mark specific monsters for seasoning. There are also some guidelines for customizing and creating monsters.

With the foundations out of the way, the book moves onto describing The East Mark proper. Over a handful of pages the reader is given a little of the history and geography of the East Mark without giving so much away that the narrator is confined by it. If you will, the history is a frame to support the beautiful maps mentioned earlier rather than a box to confine the narrator.

Rounding out the book are two adventures suitable for starting characters. They can be played in order or as standalone adventures. They should give starting players a taste of what to expect and a chance to learn the rules and exercise their skills. Finally there is a list of the backers who supported the translation. They all deserve thanks for spreading East Mark to the English speaking world. Oh and more beautiful maps at the very end.

I would like to mention a comment I have seen in other reviews of East Mark, and that is concerns about the use of the metric system in this game.  Having grown up with proper British Imperial measurement and moved on to metres and litres, all I can say is a metre is close enough to a yard so get over it. Five foot step or 1 metre (3 foot)  shuffle, it really doesn't matter as long as you are consistent.

This is where I was going to write a bit about why an old timer or newcomer should pickup Adventures in the East Mark. Having gotten this far, I discovered that what is commonly called "1st ed" by some parts of the OSR community refers to first edition Advanced D&D and not the original D&D three book white box I started with. So I went off to take a look at that paragon of  "1st ed" rules reborn - Osric.  Osric is very much like the AD&D I remember and then some. It is a great set of rules in its own right.  But Adventures in the East Mark offers something else: intimacy. In East Mark, the rules cover the basics and little more. In AD&D and its descendants including Osric, there is a rule for almost everything and the GM is there to enforce the rules. If you want to do something different you have to talk to the narrator and work it out together. As a grey bearded grognard more concerned with playing than winning, this is what I like so much about East Mark. Rather than putting the GM and players on opposing sides of the table, Adventures in the East Mark lets the GM say "Hey, let's go explore this world I made".

Highly Recommended

Pat Gilliland http://irregularwarbandfast.blogspot.com/

(there is also a PWYW quickstart of The Adventures in the East Mark which you can get at the link)

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