The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I answer a hard knock on my office door, and I see your basic barbarian: Loin cloth, big axe, mighty thews. You know the drill.
Except this guy has a pixie sittin’ on his shoulder.
“I bring you greetings, reviewer of games! I am Bodor son of Todor, breaker of chains, slayer of dragons!
“And this,” he adds, nodding to the pixie, “is Brandymead Willowdew, spreader of pixie dust, gatherer of sugarplums!”
“Hi!” the pixie chimes in.
“Oooo-kay,” I says. “And I suppose the two of you have a game for me to review?”
“Indeed,” says the barbarian, and he pulls a book out of this big brown bag. “Beyond the Black Sea,” the cover says, with a picture of a couple of Bronze Age fellas fightin’ a big ape-man thing. Old school swords-and-sorcery type stuff.
Nice and pulpy, I think to myself.
“Okay,” I says, “This looks like my kinda thing, all right. But, ah, what’s with the pixie?”
“Ah!” the barbarian says, “That is because Beyond the Black Sea is part of the Faeries Wear Boots! line of games.”
“Faeries and barbarians?” I says. “How’s that work?”
The pixie shrugs. “I mostly just wing it.”
The world of BtBS is essentially Conan’s Hyborian Age: Earth 10,000 years before the rise of civilization, a forgotten Bronze Age existing prior to the advance of the glaciers and an associated global “reset” of history. It’s very much a sword-and-sorcery setting, with mighty barbarians facing off against ancient beasts, corrupting magic, Lovecraftian gods, and Faeries.
“Faeries?” you say? Yes, Faeries. BtBS is the ancient past of the 80s-set urban fantasy RPG Faeries Wear Boots!, and is, in fact, chronologically the first historical period covered in a whole series of games stretching on to civilization’s apocalyptic end. That said, the game stands admirably on its own, the Faerie element being easily ignored if you prefer.
The book opens with an extensive gazeteer of what will become Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle-East. The world is sparsely populated, with cities few and far between. Conan fans will be happy to know that the Cimmerians are here and have, indeed, solved the Riddle of Steel, oddly leapfrogging the Iron Age.
Also featured are multiple pantheons of gods — some of which are of the aforementioned Lovecraftian sort, others of which are Faeries posing as gods — and the boons and magic (if any) they offer to their worshippers. Want to remove the Faerie element? Make the Faeries into the gods they’re pretending to be. Done.
The main rulebook offers a very limited bestiary, the full bestiary being a separate book. Although the core rules do feature tips on monster creation, I strongly recommend getting the bestiary as well. In the interest of giving my readers an idea of the scope of the setting, I will say that the aforementioned bestiary contains a large number of traditional fantasy creatures as well as giant animals and Ice Age megafauna and such pulpy inclusions as ape-men and snake-men. Sadly, there are no dinosaurs, although I’m told they appear in one of the published adventures. As a result, the setting features every sort of monster I could want in a swords-and-sorcery world and then some.
Magic in BtBS comes in several forms.
The most powerful and flexible is True Magic, which involves the fast and freeform creation of effects based around the twelve Spheres of Conjuration, Transmutation, Translocation, Beguilement, Nature, Elemental, Mimicry, Shadow, Light, Entropy, Necromancy, and Divinity. This type of magic is primarily the pervue of Faeries and other magical creatures, although a truly masterful (and probably ancient) human sorcerer can learn a single Sphere. It seems slightly odd to me that the book devotes as much space as it does to something mostly NPCs can use, but that’s no big deal.
For the most part, humans are limited to rituals, thaumaturgy, and miracles.
Rituals are specific and slow. Thaumaturgy is the ability to create new rituals and is the mark of a sorcerer (as opposed to a druid, shaman, or the like). Miracles are specific and fast, more closely resembling “traditional” RPG magic but requiring sacrifice to a specific god. Regardless of the type, magicians risk losing a part of their humanity with every cast, potentially going insane or even dying and having their souls devoured by creatures of the Void.
I like the variety here, although I worry that most magic-inclined players will choose to play priests in order to access miracles to the exclusion of other types of magic.
By default, all player characters in BtBS are human… mostly. Sort of. For example, the Tainted Sea People (essentially Deep One hybrids) are human — technically — but they also have fishy features and live forever, so the game’s definition of “human” is a little loose. The book offers several such “human” races to play in addition to more conventional humans like the Cimmerians and Picts. Race choice provides a handfull of attribute and skill bonuses. The game does present the option of playing Faerie or monster characters but warns (correctly) that such characters may be overpowered for the setting.
The game’s primary attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Size, Attractiveness, Charisma, Intelligence, Education, Empathy, and Self-Control, rated from 1-10 and determed either randomly or by point allocation. I like this list, which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying.
What follows is a simple life path system that involves 2d6 rolls on a table with five possibilities, each possibility in turn referencing its own tables (unless nothing at all takes place). Some events positively or negatively impact the character; others simply add background details. The 2d6 rolls seem a bit much to me. I’d probably set a fixed number on the low side.
Derived attributes are next. These are the numbers that (among other things) impact skills to a small degree, and some of the combinations strike me as particularly interesting. For example, the Combat Skill bonus is equal to (Dexterity + Self-Control)/2. I can see Self-Control applying to ranged combat, maybe, but melee combat? I’m not sure about that one. In any case, it only amounts to no more than a 10% bonus. Of far more impact are the starting skill points, determined by Education x 10 + Intelligence x 10 + 250.
Speaking of derived attributes, Hit Points — (Constitution + Size) x 2 — are broken down into hit locations. Personally, as a GM, I’ve never been a big fan of hit locations — not because they aren’t logical, but rather because I don’t like keeping track of them. That’s just me, obviously.
Players choose one of four archetypes: Barbarian, Civilised, Nomad and Primitive. The choice of archetype provides an array of starting skills and equipment. I’m good with the choices, as they make perfect sense for the setting.
The rules include a nice array of perks and combat techniques to help flesh out the character’s abilities. These include perks that are required for those wanting to use magic. The active combat techniques (as opposed to passive, like Hardened Body) are tiring, which I like as a balancing mechanic. Otherwise, there would be no reason not to use these techniques all the time.
BtBS uses a simple percentile system for its core mechanic, but with some interesting twists.
For one thing, if the player rolls less than or equal to the associated attribute bonus to the skill, the result is a special success. Rolls of 01 are always a special success, and rolls of 00 are mishaps. That’s nicely transparent.
For another, the system uses degrees of success based on each 10% between the roll and the target number. That works in both directions, however, as the system includes degrees of failure as well.
Fighting uses the same basic mechanic described above. Damage is rolled, with an option to add extra damage and armor penetration for success levels — an option I’d definitely use. I’m not a big fan of the fact that a special success in combat results in a knockdown rather than in extra damage, though. What happens if you’re fighting something that can’t be knocked down?
The fact that every move in combat costs Fatigue seems perfectly reasonable, although I’m not sure how heroic it is for warriors to just wear themselves out.
Armor reduces damage, which is always my preference. Speaking of armor, it rises to a level of technology far beyond the Bronze Age, all the way up to Gothic plate. That is attributed to the high technology of the Atlanteans and Lemurians, which works for me.
I covered quite a bit about magic in the description of the setting. Here, I’ll just mention that magic is skill-based and that casting drains both Essence (Intelligence + Charisma + Self-Control + Empathy) and Fatigue (10 + Strength + Constitution). I’m not a huge fan of the latter, as it rewards magicians who are incongrouously buff, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me by any means.
The writing is fairly clear and captures the feel of the setting. The full-color art, while sparse in places, is very, very good and lends the book an appropriately epic atmosphere.
The layout is decent but seems a bit cramped in places. The organization could use a bit of work, especially regarding magic — I found myself having to backtrack several times in order to grasp it.
This game is a little rough around the edges, but when combined with the bestiary, it’s all you’ll need for loads of swords-and-sorcery goodness. The Faerie aspect is a tad odd but is also vanishingly easy to ignore if you’re so inclined. The rules are just a hair on the crunchy side for my tastes, but only just a hair. (I think it’s mainly those darned hit locations.)
The great thing about this game is that it works as “pure” swords-and-sorcery or as the beginning of the saga of the Faeries onward to the end of the world.
I highly recommend this game to all fans of its subgenre, especially if they enjoy games on the medium-high level of the crunch spectrum. In particular, fans of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying or of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay should feel right at home. Furthermore, the authors are putting out adventures for the game, ensuring that even casual gamers can get some use out of it. The GMshoe says check it out.