Game: Legends of Excalibur
Series: Legends of Excalibur: d20
Review Dated: 4th, December 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
RPGObjects’ Arthurian d20 series started life as two PDFs and have made it to the prestigious incarnation as a single hardback book. Legends of Excalibur has a mottled yellow-gold front cover which really makes it stand out. The next thing you notice as you begin to flick through the book are the colourful maps in the inside covers.
I’m not one of these people who need to have a pretty book or something to hold in order to order to appreciate good gaming material. I don’t dislike PDFs simply because they’re electronic. In fact Knight’s Handbook and the Arthurian Campaign Guide are professionally done, nicely formatted and present no drawbacks for being electronic. That said… there’s something about the hardback version which seems appropriate to the setting. Perhaps it’s mental pictures of Merlin flicking through dusty tomes. Perhaps it’s the subliminal reinforcement that Legends of Excalibur is a full blown d20 RPG in its own right and not a D&D fantasy supplement.
Legends of Excalibur is as a complete a game as the d20 license allows. There are no orcs in this fantasy world, no gnolls or kobolds (but there are dungeons and dragons, goblins and fireballs). That said this is a fantasy setting as well as an historic setting. In many Arthurian stories there are dragons and giants. Merlin prophecies to Vortigern that two dragons battling in an underground chamber below his tower will cause it to come crashing down. Vortigern’s men dig where Merlin directs and the two dragons spring from the ground. As the usurper and his men flee they rang slap bang into Pendragon and Uther (and their army) returning from exile. Giants are the most common monster and before the main bestiary in Legends of Excalibur there is a “tour section” which lists and quickly discusses which common d20 monsters are suitable for the setting. There is space to flesh out giants a little more, adding some genealogy and Arthurian style to them. At the back of the book there is the actual bestiary. It covers much of the same ground again. The repeat is probably due to the original two PDF format of the product. In actual fact it’s quite handy having the bestiary at the back and for some reason I don’t feel as if I’ve been cheated out of page space, though I can think of better uses for it.
There’s a similar “tour” to spell out character classes from the core rules are suitable for the Arthurian game. Quite a few of the classes work quite well – take the Barbarian class, it’s ideal for Scotsmen (like myself) or the various Germanic tribes. Almost all of the magic classes are out; Legends of Excalibur uses a new magic system. I think I would have cut from the end of the book, moved pages to the front and started from scratch on the character classes. I think it helps atmosphere and mindset to simply say “Don’t use D&D classes – use these ones” and I think that would be true even if we renamed the Barbarian class and tinkered it slightly. There are plenty of entirely new classes here; the Fool, Hedge Mage, Hermit, Knight, Minstrel, Noble, Priest, Robber Baron, Skald and Yeoman. There are prestige classes too (and notes on which we can take from the core rules); Alchemist, Berserker, Changeling, Court Mage, Crusader, Enchantress, Lady of the Lake, Quest Knight and Saint. There are also the Spectral Knights; Black Knight, Blue Knight, Green Knight, Purple Knight, Red Knight and White Knight.
What’s with all the coloured knight prestige classes? Each one represents an order. Black Knights, as you might guess, have abandoned the Code of Chivalry. Red Knights augment their combat prowess with magic. Blue Knights serve the Ladies of the Lake. Purple Knights are Royal messengers and so forth.
Chivalry is crucial in Legends of Excalibur. You have renown scores, virtues, allegiances and oaths as a core motivation and plot driver in the game. These attributes aren’t simply mentioned a few times and left for the GM to sort out. The game mechanics uses them. I’m not keen on heavy mechanics but it’s great when the mechanics breed flavour and this is a success that Legends of Excalibur have scored.
Right at the start of the book we’ve the clever inter-weaving of crunch and flavour. Your bloodline, that is to say your lineage, is the first character trait players have to decide. If you elect to play someone with a criminal lineage then you’ll be playing someone who will be treated extremely poorly and as you might expect will favour the rogue class. They’ll suffer -2 Cha but gain +2 Dex. Bloodline affects attributes. Lesser Nobility earns a +2 Con.
The magic system is new but not entirely so. The usual spells fro D&D are preserved and this enables Legends of Excalibur to tap into a well known and large resource. It does risk, however, the old high fantasy flavour creeping back into the game. Spell slots are out. I think it would feel Arthurian if at a key time every night druids received new spells from the stars or after morning prayers that Priests replenished their spells/miracles. I don’t mind that aspect of the traditional d20 rules. The whole preparation thing is less compelling. Legends of Excalibur moves the d20 system on to a magic point system and they make it work. I’ve seen attempts before (and after) and RPGObjects are (so far) the most successful. For a start we can cope with magic effecting feats. It’s easy enough (though not entirely straight forward) to work out how many magic points it will cost to cast a specific D&D spell. There are benefits from the system immediately. Magic users can really push themselves and cast spells more powerful than usual at a great magic point and fatigue cost. Best of all the rules vary how and where certain classes regenerate magic points. Hermits, for example, fare better when they’re away from civilization. Once again we see Legend of Excalibur using mechanics to complement the theme.
The campaign world itself is covered in the hardbound 160 pages. RPGObjects opts to conjure up the Arthurian flavour by looking at the famous places and people. Our feel for the place comes by looking at the pieces. There are many Arthurian legends and I think Legends of Excalibur gets it right to look at this issue right at the start of the book. The RPG discuss the generics of the legends and then explain that they’re going to focus mainly on one interpretation and why. We’re then given a “history” of the Arthurian world (starting before Arthur’s birth and concluding after it) over quite a few pages. There are a couple of paragraphs for each significant event. You do have to have an interest in the setting to wade through all of it. Don’t expect happy endings either. Places include cities and castles as well as leylines and henges.
I find the stat blocks for so many characters a little tiring. I don’t want to have Guinevere’s stats. What am I going to do with them? I suppose the idea behind having the combat block for King Lot of Lothian or Mark, the King of Cornwall, is so that I can run a fight with them in. Perhaps the PC Black Knights move to capture Edinburgh (in Lothian, not Cornwall) and need to behead the fellow. I dunno. That’s not the style of game I’d want to play. I know what happens to King Mark and King Lot – and they’re not beheaded by my Black Knight anti-hero characters. There’s a virtual encyclopedia of famous people and places in the latter chapters of the book. I don’t think it’s something you can sit through and read. It’s something to flick through and pick things out as you need to.
I’ve got to say – I don’t like the art in the book. It’s an old fashioned style and in fact often taken straight out of old books. You’ll find a credit beside each one. On page 103 there is “Guinevere in the Golden Days, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1911)” for example. Why don’t I like it? It seems meh. It just doesn’t seem appropriate to the cinematic adventure style of the d20 rules. We do have comic book magic after all (fireballs and lightening bolts).
I don’t think Legends of Excalibur is going to turn anyone into an Arthur fan either. In fact you’ll need to appreciate the time of Camelot in order to persist with the book. If you are an Arthur fan (and so many people are) then Legends of Excalibur offers you a mature d20 gaming option.
The big picture is quite rosy. Legends of Excalibur does give you everything you need to play in an Arthurian setting. You have more than you need, in fact. It does successfully utilize a modified d20 to do so – and it’s a modification which keeps almost all the strengths of the rule set and manages to shake off some of the weaknesses. The point based magic system can be taken straight out of this campaign setting and used in your own. The book scales up from peasants struggling to survive to epic level classes which might go Grail questing. I dabbled in Pendragon (the RPG) when I was younger but was put off by the pace and how hard it was to get the rules (over here in Scotland) and never went back. I’m keen to see what’ll come of the line in 2005. In the meantime I’m entirely happy with RPGObject’s Legends of Excalibur.