Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
Review Dated: 5th, October 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
It’s brutal, bloody and Celtic. Sláine’s “Land of the Young” is a mixture of fact and fantasy. Strangely enough it’s the factual elements of the game that make it such an appealing fantasy setting. This isn’t a fantasy game where the metallic clash of swords accompanies every melee and neither is this a game where the clerics are gifted magic by their gods. Tir Nan Og, known as the Land of the Young because so few people live to an old age, is northern Europe at the time when the Stone Age was slowly giving over to the Iron Age and before the sea levels rose to cut the British Isles and Ireland off from the continent. Most warriors fight with spears, clubs and perhaps axes rather than swords. Stone edged weapons, sharpened flint, are as likely to be used as metal weapons and any metal weapons will be of iron rather than steel. Iron weapons are prone to bending mid-melee and blunting in just one fight. There aren’t any clerics. The idea of praying to deities for power and magic is alien in Tir Nan Og, people struggle to appease the gods and sacrifice their belongings and each other to try and do so. This is a fantasy game though; there is magic, in fact everyone has a little magic, there are races other than mankind, there are demons and dinosaurs and flying ships. Sláine‘s unique.
The hardback costs $34.95 (I was charged £24.99) and when you pick it up, stop staring at the front cover, you might worry that the book’s rather thin. It is thin. 192 pages is short of the mark when compared to recent giant offerings like Oathbound (352 pages, $39.95). The price difference begins to settle down a little when you compare text density. The word “attack” in Oathbound and in most other RPG supplements that use standard text density is 9mm in length but in Sláine it measures only 7mm. That tiny 2-millimetre difference multiplies up significantly over 200 pages. In addition, Sláine’s a licensed product and this must impact on the price a little. Sláine originally appeared as a strip in the popular 2000 AD comic and has gone on to have graphic novels of his own. Mongoose Publishing seem to have made good use of their license though and a great deal of artwork from the original comic and simply breathtaking full colour, full page illustrations appear throughout the book.
Sláine gets off to a great start from the outset. The introduction must cater for those Sláine fans who are new to roleplaying (and there might be some) and so the “what you need to play” and “new to the d20 system” sections are as expected. As a bonus though there’s a brief section for veteran players that points out the main changes in Sláine from the core rules. There’s a “new to Sláine” section as well and I suspect this will apply to most of the people who’ll need to read these “new to” sections in the introduction. Sláine’s not a complex world but if you’re only used to traditional roleplaying fantasy worlds then the introduction here is a worthwhile read since it explains the setting in terms you’ll be familiar with.
“Welcome to the Land of the Young” should push aside any doubts you might have had about whether buying Sláine was the right thing to do. In just two pages the engrossing grit and dangerous make up of Tir Nan Og is clearly laid out. The four Tribes of the Earth Goddess are busy fighting among themselves while being surrounded by the forces of Midgard, the terrible Fomorians from the frozen north and the dark magic wielding Drunes from the south. From the outset you just know that Crom-Cruach means trouble and worry about the Tribe of Shadows. There’s a fairly simple but large map of Tir Nan Og here too; it’s just possible to make out the coastlines that’ll become Britain, Ireland and France but place names like Glastonbury really let you pinpoint just where on Earth the game is set.
“Characters in the Land of the Young” runs through the three races and character classes available. Unlike core d20 it’s not possible to change your core character class, you can’t multi-class, although prestige classes are available later on. This isn’t much of a restriction, it simply isn’t possible to find much in the way of in-game reasons to change core classes; your character was either trained to be a druid when he was young or he wasn’t, your character was either trained to be a Nobel Warrior and defender of the tribe from when he was young or he wasn’t – there’s no room for change. There are three races: humans, dwarves and warped ones. Warped ones are half (or nine tenths) human but are different enough due to their beast lord blood to count as a separate race. Some humans may also have beast lord blood but not enough to count as a warped one. Dwarves are not Dungeons & Dragons dwarves. Sláine’s a d20 game; it’s not a Dungeons & Dragons extension. Dwarves are smaller than D&D dwarves, have nothing to do with mining and are an extreme minority in the Land of the Young. Of the character classes the most important is the Druid. Again this druid character class is nothing like the mangled D&D cheese fantasy stereotype. The druids of the Earth Goddess’ tribes are the healers, the wizards, the clerics and spiritual leaders of the people. The druids routinely sacrifice animals and people to the earth to either appease the gods or to bolster their own reservoir of Earth Power. Earth Power translates at simple level into magic points or mana. The sacrificing of humans is commonplace in the World of the Young and especially among the druids. Sláine’s not a game for faint hearted. The druid’s physical stats put them at an extreme disadvantage in the brutal world of Tir Nan Og but even from their first level they possess such a degree of Druidic Awe that it is unlikely anyone will attack them. Checking the designer’s notes you can see that there was much debate about this among the play testers. It’s easy to rubbish the idea of a play tested review here; it depends on your players and your GM. If you know that your Sláine game is likely to end up as a combat struggle against the Time Beasts (dinosaur like creatures brought in from the past by the Drune lords) then the druid class is under-powered. On the other hand, if you suspect you’re likely to spend more time among the Earth Goddess’ tribes, perhaps trying to band alliances together and then go battle against the Drune tribes then the druid class is at an advantage. It all depends. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter. I think the author (Ian Sturrock) has done the brave thing by presenting the druid class as true to form as the druids in the Sláine comics are and then with some respectful safety catches to ensure that there’s no fatal flaws. Oh yes, there are other classes too. The Noble Warrior looks most like the fighter class and represents those who have trained since birth to fight for their tribe, they’re the professional warriors of the time but unlike the generic fighter the Noble Warrior has a tribal association and a flavour associated with that. Noble Warriors from the Tribe of Shadows are more like assassins than you might imagine, they even have nightvision whereas Noble Warriors of the Finian tribe receive generous bonuses to saving throws required in hazardous environmental situations. The Thief class is – and you’ve guessed it – unlike that of the classical D&D class. Thieves are neither wimps nor outcasts. A successful thief is a valuable asset to the tribes. They still benefit from the sneak attack special ability but are more rounded than the rouges from the core d20 rules. There’s a second warrior class but I don’t think this will confuse anyone. The Tribal Warriors are the common people of the Earth Goddess’ tribes; if you live in Tir Nan Og then you’re a dangerous fighter even if you’re not a professional warrior. The Tribal Warriors have a rage special ability similar to that of the Barbarian in core d20 rules but it develops at a slightly slower pace. This rage ability is first available at second level and a first level the Tribal Warrior receives Fast Movement and Tribal Fighting Style. I don’t intend to examine every class’ special ability in the book but given that the average tribesman will have these abilities and I think this helps get across the sheer grit, grime and blood of the Land of the Young. Finally there’s the Witch class; they don’t have to be female but often are. The Witch class has less magical ability than the druid but they’re also reasonably powerful fighters.
There are two pages on skills in the same chapter. One of the effects of the higher than normal text density is that some sections run the risk of being marginalized by appearing too small to be significant. There are some important rules in the skills section, notes on blessing, sorcery and divination. I think this section within chapter two should have had a half page illustration or some other mental marker to help it stand out. Following this the chapter continues with notes on how much money characters start with and new feats. Quite a few of the standard feats from the Player’s Handbook are applicable to Sláine but there’s a good few extra ones taken straight from the comic strip too. Sláine makes for particularly good feat adaptation since much was made of the special abilities of the various tribal fighters and especially Sláine himself in the comics. The Salmon Leap and Shield Kick are here as are Warp-Spasm feats. There are two extra categories of feats here: Earth Power feats and Special Feats. These two have special prerequisites… although I can’t quite see anything so special about them from demanding prerequisites used in countless other books. At the very least though the two extra categories serve to separate these feats out from the big list on page 34 and print them separately. Also in this chapter you’ll find rules and explanation on the important concept of Enech in the Land of the Young. Enech is the Celtic word for honour and reputation. Without Enech your character is an outcast. It’s illegal not to try and slay an outcast on sight. Enech is likely to be collected as greedily as XP by players in Sláine but at least Enech has an in-game value and therefore provides a wonderful story tool. Heroes can adventure to bolster their Enech and explain their reasons for doing so in a way that doesn’t make sense for experience points.
“Goods and Weapons” is more than a list of exotic and specialist weapons. You’ve got rules for flint weapons here. A spear with a flinthead is just as good and as deadly as a spear with a metal head. An axe with a flint blade is just as dangerous and as lethal as an axe with a metal edge – until, that is, the flint breaks. A flint doesn’t go slowly. When it goes, it goes and it unfailing shatters spectacularly. That’s not the only trouble with flint weapons; they take weeks to craft. Iron weapons aren’t so wonderful either. Iron’s a soft metal. Hit something too hard with your iron sword and the blade will bend. Hit something often enough – say, you’re in a melee – and the blade will dull. The rules for this are all nice and simple though. A dull blade simply can’t score critical hits. These bits of historic realism don’t get in the way of game play. Given the low levels of technology armour is pretty rubbish but it is there to be used if needs be. Most tribal warriors go into battle skyclad. That’s naked. I’m glad I knew the term before encountering it in the book because it’s not explained until much later on! If you’re covered in armour then you’ll not be able to use your Earth Power and almost everyone in this setting has a spell or two. I think you’ll find that players quickly forgo swords and bows in exchange for slings and spears – and that’s just how it was back then in the early iron age and just how it is in the Sláine comic strips.
The “Combat” chapter is more than just a run down of combat tactics or even fighting styles. In Sláine special things happen when you name weapons. The whole world appears magical when you’re an early iron-age man (or woman; there’s no gender bias in the Land of the Young, if you can fight, you fight) and this seems entirely appropriate when everyone’s a little bit magical. By naming a weapon your character is instilling a little magic in to it and in a quick set of rules we’re shown the game mechanic advantages in doing so and the disadvantages of such an attachment if the weapon then breaks. There are rules on taunting and even a contest of taunts. Taunting has serious game effects in Sláine. With taunts in combat you can provoke unchecked rage in your opponent (all tribal warriors have the rage ability after all) and loosing a contest of taunts can cost someone all their Enech, all their hard fought for honour. If you’ve read some Sláine and know about the infamous warp-spasms then you’ll pick up the appropriate rules here as well. I think it’s a fair and complete representation of the spasms that occur throughout the series. The common spasm is second in a series of four possible spasms, the list runs from semi-warp-spasm, warp-spasm, massive warp-spasm and to total warp-spasm. There are also appropriate rules for controlling these spasms, when they might occur and even the “black stuff” back lash that we sometimes see. I think the balance has been struck correctly again. Warp-spasms are scary mothers that’ll allow a warped one (or a human with the blood of heroes) to make mince meat out of most things but when measured up with the feats and special abilities available to other classes and races I don’t think they unbalance the game. As a bonus there’s also rules for all sorts of fun and games with chariots too; chariot movement, combat from chariots, collisions, upgrades and rules for overturning chariots.
The interestingly titled “Eyes Without Life, Sundered Heads and Piles of Carcasses” is a set of quickly and fairly easy mass combat rules. The chapter isn’t a mini-war game but does offer the GM a chance to have two (or more) tribes clash on the battle field, work out the winners fairly and keep up with the players and any consequences their character’s actions have on the skirmish. There’s enough flexibility in the system to try and keep up with magical attacks and even recovering causalities.
“Earth Power” presents the magic system that replaces the spell slot rules in core d20. Earth Power really is a nice, simple but effective magic point system. It’s particularly effective because some locations allow characters to regenerate earth power more quickly and other areas drain it. The more magically adapt classes like druids and witches are capable of storing up more earth power than warriors and thieves and interesting items like weirdstones are capable of acting as batteries as well. Weirdstones and Weird are frequent occurrences throughout the series and I’m glad that the RPG pays appropriate attention to them [all and sundry will be able to translate the meaning of GameWyrd now :)] and in fact the rules for weirdstones, cromlechs and dolmens are detailed to the extent of just how far away a sorcerer can be and still draw power from them and just how many weirdstones can be placed in the ground before the natural limit is exceeded and the land starts to die. You’ll also find the rules for Druid’s Eggs here (worth bookmarking if you’re running with a druid character) and a brief mention of Time Worm Eggs. A pet peeve of mine is the phrase “more information (blah blah blah) can be found in the forthcoming …”. It’s a peeve because the ‘forthcoming’ book is only forthcoming for, at most, a month or two and then for the rest of reality the sentence is out of date. Oh well, just a niggle. There are 23 pages of new spells. That’s 23 pages in the smaller text density but decorated with some of the best (but not full page) illustrations in the book. The spells format will look familiar; there are components (V, S, F, etc), casting times, ranges, targets, durations, saving throws, etc and I don’t think anyone will be terribly confused. There’s also the new magic attack roll attribute and earth power cost. The “Ally of the Horned Lord” costs 1EP and “A Murder of Crows” costs 10EP. You need to have this much earth power at hand to cast the spell (and if you don’t then sacrifice a bested enemy and see if that helps!). Given that its not too easy to convert standard d20 spells to this system (even though its similar) I’m glad there are 23 pages of new spells but I suspect there will be demand for more.
“A Guide to Sláine’s World” isn’t just a geographical exploration of the Land of the Young although it certainly visits key places on the map. You’ll also get given information on the tribal culture and laws of the land – fines you have to pay if you murder someone, what sort of legal defence you might have if someone accuses you of such and even a brief note on lawyers and debt-collectors! The sections on marriage and the way children are given over to foster parents at a young age to try and help keep the tribes of the Earth Goddess closely knit really do help with the overall flavour of the world and will provide much help for new players looking to create character backgrounds. I wish the look at the tribes of the Drune Lords was more significant than it is though.
“Adventures in the Land of the Young” is an absolute must for any GM. The rules cover basic things such as travelling times through Tir Nan Og to the more fantastic elements of Sláine such as the flying sky chariots. There’s quite a bit on different extreme weather conditions (and at this time the ice sheets where down as far as Scotland). You’ll pick up the Prestige Classes here too. Bard is a prestige class and one that’s only practically available to those with the druid class as their core. There’s also the Battle-Smiter, Charioteer, the Fool, the Red Branch Warrior and the War-Witch. Regular Sláine readers will recognise the more obscure references in there as further examples of significant excerpts from the graphic novels. I think it’s slightly unfair that only the Sessair tribe has their elite warrior prestige class available to them in the main rulebook. Sláine’s of the Sessair tribe and the Red Branch appears very much more often in the graphic novels and so I’m sure that’s why its there. The other three tribes will need to hold out for specific books from the tribes series to get their appropriate class. Regular d20 goers will be pleased to note that all of the prestige classes are detailed through ten full levels.
“Gods and Goddess of Tir Nan Og” is an important chapter that’s a little too short for my tastes but what it does manage to squeeze in is great. There’s a run down of important festivals; there’s more to the Celtic calendar than Beltaine and Samhain. The list of Gods and Goddesses includes the Earth Goddess and all her possible forms. I think this makes most sense; it keeps things simple and leaves the GM to worry about the mythology if he wants to get into that detail. On mythology there’s also a short section on the El worlds, those realms inside earth where you’ll find the angels, devils, elementals, the dead and the elder gods! I say this section is too short because the gods play a hugely important role in tribal culture, play just as important role in inspiring quests and wars and even turn up from time to time. Gods in the Land of the Young get involved in the nitty-gritty too but without a supplement I’ll be a little hesitant to go there in my games.
The “Beastiary” manages to stay with the unique Sláine feel and yet give the readers something more familiar in the way of typical d20 world settings. As you would expect there’s a list of creatures, critters and monsters along with their stats and description. Much of it is made up with wild animals like snakes and elks, other creatures are too small to be likely combat encounter but you’ll find stats for Fomorians and dragons too. Yes there are dragons in Sláine but no there’s not like D&D dragons. Did you see that coming? There are stats for a few more supernatural creatures and even a couple of templates in the end.
“Campaigns in Tir Nan Og” is a fairly quick tour through some ideas. There’s no resurrection spell in this brutal world and that might worry some GMs (and no doubt some players too) and so there’s a brief run down of other ways you might think about bringing back that favourite character. There are a few suggestions as to campaigning in different times of the year and on different types of campaigns.
The “Timeline” is just over a page in length and starts 20,000 years ago and leaps forward to the present day (the dawn of the Iron Age) in just a few stages. You’ll pick up a glossary and pronunciations guide too. There’s a sample of suitable character names which is fairly helpful but there’s only two suggestions for male dwarf names and one of them, Ukko, is the name of Sláine’s sidekick and should therefore be banned in the same way no GM will let a player name his character Sláine. The designer’s notes are always worth a read in any product from Mongoose and this is certainly true here.
Sláine’s just short of perfect. That said I’m writing this as someone with a degree of Sláine knowledge and so I’m neither a newbie nor a die-hard Sláine fan; there’s nothing amiss in the continuity or world rules to annoy me (but I did notice much of the black and white art work comes from Sláine the King) and there’s nothing too alien here for me either. Sláine’s greatest strength as a roleplaying game is that it’s a fantasy game but different enough to be refreshing and it uses the widely known d20 system and yet the rule tweaks are different enough to be refreshing. Despite the cost analysis at the start of the review I think the book does slide up on the more deer end of the scale and the concern is it’ll put people off buying the book but it’s not so expensive as to incur any markdown in the review rating of the game. The RPG manages to capture the essence of Tir Nan Og very well and even with the awkward druid character class manages to present a wide range of playable options. If Sláine wanted to close those final steps between being this incredible good game and being as good as you could reasonably expect then there’d be more gods and goddesses and more on the plans of the Drunes and berserkers. There’s just the chance that your Celtic warrior will be all dressed up and with nowhere to go.