Tabletop Review: Legend

Legend
Publisher: Mongoose Publishering
Pages: 242
Cost: $19.99 ($1 at DrivethruRPG.com)
Release Date: 12/2/2011
Get it Here: DriveThruRpg.Com

Legend is the latest game from Mongoose Publishing, released towards the end of 2011, and just beginning to build up a head of steam. The game touts itself as a generic fantasy role playing game (FRPG), and one that is best suited to gritty, heroic play.

The character building experience is a mix of styles that have seen their ups and downs during the years. The seven basic characteristics, for example, share five in common with every edition of D&D since the 1970’s, with the addition of a variant on Wisdom in the Power stat, and a seventh stat in Size, providing a gestalt of height, weight and bulk for your character.

The figured characteristics – attributes in Legend parlance – include such old chestnuts as hit points, but also a rudimentary hit location system that breaks the body down into seven distinct locations, each with it’s own hit point value. In addition to some common attributes like damage bonuses and magic points, something called Strike Rank is determined, which works out to be a static initiative stat to which additional dice are added to determine order of action in combat.

The skill system is the real meat and potatoes of the character building process, with a combination of common “everyman” skills that each character starts with, augmented by their cultural background, prior profession, and a pool of extra points to be distributed, within reason, amongst all possible skills.

The backgrounds and professions deserve a bit more attention. Within parameters set by the game master, players may choose to be Primitive, Nomad, Barbarian or Civilized. Your choice determines some set bonuses to certain skills, as well as access to a handful of advanced skills depending on the background you choose. In addition, you make some initial selections of combat styles that your character will be versed in, from Sword & Shield to 2H Spear to Blowgun. Again, your choices will be narrowed down by your culture of choice. Your background also determines your starting cash. No real attempt has been made at balance here, necessarily, but the differences do allow for some real distinctions to be made in future role-play.

Professions are limited by your background – for example, anyone can be an Animal Trainer, no matter where they come from, but an Alchemist requires that you be Civilized, while Herdsman requires that you not be, only an option for Primitive, Nomad or Barbarian characters. The profession further increases specific skills, opens up more potential for advanced skills and combat experience, and, for a handful of choices, provides access to magic skills.

Magic is an interesting thing in Legend. There’s a skill that your GM may include in your basic skills, or may choose not to – Common Magic. Some games may take the assumption that nearly everyone has a smattering of magic, and that’s where Common Magic comes in. Some games will not, and will insist that players invest points or professional background in learning the mystical arts.

The next steps take the game back in a more traditional direction, with random dice rolls determining real background information, from the state of your parents, how many siblings and extended family you have, and your family’s reputation and connections at the start of the game, all of which lead to potentially starting with Allies, Contacts or Enemies. Finally, a single percentile dice roll will determine a single defining background event from a long table. Bowing to more modern conventions, the game does allow for re-rolls where results make no sense. This tool gives newer players, or those who are feeling uninspired, something to grasp onto in terms of a pre-made background, and some real story hooks for the GM.

Character building is remarkably quick, and once the math involved becomes second nature, can seem almost deceptively simple. Something that you’ll see started in the character building section, and carried throughout the entire book, are inset examples of whatever is being discussed. You can read through the entire process of creating a character in the character creation section. Later, you’ll be able to read about combat examples, including one that’s a couple pages long and spans multiple combat rounds. It’s easily the best design choice in the book, and most of the examples are genuinely useful to the new player or GM.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the rules of play, including how skills work, and how they interact with one another. The percentile based skill system does allow for some really wonderful, realistic nuances. My favorite is that, as your skill improves, your ability at improving it decreases – the mechanic being that, to increase your skill, you must roll higher than your existing skill percentage or it only increases by a single percentage point at a time, instead of two to five points that would come from a successful roll. This makes the learning curve gentle at first, over time becoming steeper as mastery is achieved. Another interesting choice is determining the level of success in cases where both competing rolls succeed. There, assuming no one has rolled a critical success or failure, the higher roll is the better result, so long as it is below the skill level in question. Counterintuitive, but a novel way of determining the level of success, and a way of rewarding rolls that aren’t at the low end of the scale.

Combat is complex at first, but quickly becomes easier to use with experience. The system of levels of success, combined with various combat maneuvers that become available depending on the interaction of attack and defense skills leads to a system that is exciting, cinematic and a real breath of fresh air compared to many of the, “I hit it with my sword” style systems in place today. You needn’t invest time in coming up with flowery ways to say, “I hit you for three points of damage” with Legend, as you may well be able to say, “I feinted in with my sword, but then caught you on the wrist with the edge of my shield, sending your spear flying out of your reach.” Sure, I had to embellish a little, but the fact that disarming, trips, weapons being pinned, or being impaled in flesh, are all possible, legitimate results of a pair of combat rolls.

Once those mechanics are out of the way, several chapters describe some different magical systems. This is, initially, GM territory. The GM has to decide which, if any, of theses systems is available for use in her game. Common Magic is designed to be just that – magic available to the common man. There are spells to make you a better blacksmith or a better orator, right alongside spells to deflect other spells or make your weapon magically sharper. A step up in power, but also in responsibility, comes from Divine Magic, the magical gifts of supernatural beings in exchange for sacrifices of your own personal power. Finally, a chapter is given on Sorcery, a nod to the grimoires and long periods of study from much of fantasy fiction.

The most interesting thing about all three magical systems is the lack of focus on simple, boring damage-dealing spells. You’ll not find yourself taking analogues to Magic Missile, Fireball or the like, though a few spells that do simple damage are included. The bulk of the spells are what would be better known to the kids with their MMOs as “buffs” and “debuffs” – spells to improve yourself and your own chances, or to reduce the odds of your opponent succeeding. Between that, and the assumption of ubiquity of magic, it changes the whole feel of the game. No longer are wizards the sole purveyors of powerful magic – everyone, including the sword master, knows his way around an invocation or three.

Magic, and the way that it is presented, dovetails nicely into the next section, which deals with the creation of guilds, factions and cults. These groups not only include groups of like-minded professionals with a common trade, but also include all religions in the world, as well as sorcerous orders where spells and rituals are shared. It is by way of these cults that spells are learned, and other benefits gained. The problem here is that, unlike literally the rest of the system, which can just be thrown together in a modular way, this will require a real investment of time on the part of the GM. There are some samples in the book, but they consist of a single cult, and a single sorcerous order, and an assassin’s guild. They could be used exactly as they’re written, but each one demands that others be built alongside to serve as allies and adversaries in the larger scale of play during the game.

Thankfully, the last chapter of the book is a GM’s guidebook, to help make some of the tough decisions that are inherent in any generic system. The bulk of the world-building happens here, and I think it’s full of valuable advice. That said, it doesn’t take away from the daunting task of building your world to your own satisfaction. A Legend GM is going to be very, very busy with preparatory work before the first characteristic gets rolled.

Now, I will state flat out that I am a real fan of the systems presented in Legend, but that is in no small part because they have a long and storied history that I have had to put on the back burner while I described the game. Legend, until very recently, was simply called RuneQuest II. Might ring a bell for some of you, either from that time, or as far back as 1978, when the first edition of RuneQuest came out. Many of the rules from that old hardbound red book (I owned it myself, back then) are alive and kicking in this new, generic game.

What’s the story here, you might ask? Well, when the game was RuneQuest II, it came with a default universe into which you could set your characters – a place called Glorantha, which was as fully-realized a game world as any I’ve ever encountered. For reasons of business, Mongoose was no longer allowed to use the RuneQuest name or the copyrighted materials related to Glorantha. So, because they had a great deal invested in the system, they took a knife (or perhaps an axe) to the rules they’d written, and excised every bit of Glorantha they could.

The operation was a success, but there were a few complications.

The first thing that might catch your eye is references in the examples, or in spell descriptions, or scattered through the rules, to creatures like Trolls, or Trollkin, or Broo – monstrous races that are part and parcel of the Glorantha universe that somehow managed to stay in the game. Trolls I could have excused – they’re a very nearly generic FRPG trope – but the others are distinctly RuneQuest in nature.

Also, you’ll see periodic references to spirits, again in examples, or in spell descriptions. Heck, some of the spells tell you whether they work on spirits or not, and others are designed to protect you against spirits. And yet, nowhere in the rules are there any official reference to what spirits are, what they can do, or how characters might interact with them. Again, this is the detritus of having once been so closely married to the RuneQuest II default world.

Neither of these issues is a deal-breaker, and the folks at Mongoose have released a free PDF add-on with the old RuneQuest II rules for spirits, and a fourth type of magic, Spirit Magic, along with rules on being a shaman that expand on the shaman profession listed in the main book. It’s available on their website as a free download, and I hope it’ll be integrated into the main PDF eventually.

The one really glaring hole in the game, however, came when they removed the section of the RuneQuest rules on animals and monsters. With so many of them being directly related to, or even perhaps copyrighted material from, RuneQuest, their removal made sense. But to have taken them all, and not left the statistics for the normal animals was probably a mistake. Now GMs have no point of reference to work from, and there never were rules or suggestions on how to create your own critters from scratch. This is the biggest issue with accepting at face value that the book is a complete game – without those rules, you’re left with humans fighting humans. No wilderness encounters, no gladiatorial combats with lions or bears. Not even stats for the horses the characters might be riding. Thankfully, they released a supplement, Monsters of Legend, that fills the hole, but unlike the additional rules on spirit magic, it’s a full product, and you’ll have to pay for it.

With those caveats in place, I have to say that, as a fan of RuneQuest, I love this game. I love that it’s been made deliberately generic, and expanded so significantly from the time I first played RQ back in 1980.

I’ve spoken with Matt Sprange at Mongoose, and there are a series of add-ons, either available now, or for pre-order, including world books for Elric of Melnibone, Deus Vult, where characters are secret agents in the service of the Catholic Church, fighting the supernatural, and Age of Treason, a totally new world, with a focus on political machinations. In addition, the “* of Legend” series of books will be more rules without a specific world associated with them. Monsters of Legend is out now, with Arms of Legend (weapons and armor), Vikings of Legend (pillage and plunder on the high seas around Scandinavia) and Arcania of Legend: Blood Magic (the first in a series that introduces yet more forms of magic) available for pre-order and coming soon. Anything that has a title in the form “* of Legend” will have the added benefit of being entirely open content as well.

Who ought to buy this game? Fans of fantasy role playing will probably like the open framework. Fans of allowing characters to do and become whatever they will, outside of the strictures of classes and professions will welcome the wide open skill and magic systems. Anyone looking for a game that could easily map onto historical game play, excising the magic entirely, will find a perfect tool in Legend.

One group in particular, however, ought to probably avoid it – anyone who invested in the most recent RuneQuest II books. Much of the content is word-for-word identical the core RuneQuest II manual. You might benefit from the world books I mentioned above, but you don’t need to duplicate your purchase unless you just want to see the new artwork or to support Mongoose in their other operations.

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