This might very well hit the sweet-spot in terms of fantasy roleplaying, offering a d100 approach to classic dungeoneering while also solving many of the problems I’ve always complained about with classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Mythras scratches my itch for a bit more detail than the original editions of Dungeons & Dragons provide… and that’s kind of the point. While I have come to appreciate that, in many ways, the less-is-more approach of the Old School offers a lot to playability, I still hanker to fix those aforementioned problems.
Here’s how Classic Fantasy addresses those issues.
The Problems with D&D
All of the problems I perceive with Dungeons & Dragons really are strengths when you want to play a fast-and-loose dungeon game. In that sense, they are only problems if you want what I generally end up wanting whenever I get a few sessions into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. What it boils down to is verisimilitude, also known as “a sense of believability”, or (more technically) “the appearance of being true or real”.
The issues with D&D boil down to a few areas that my previous attempts to write my own game have tried to address:
- The abstraction of combat to a single d20 roll, against the single Armour Class value of the opponent; this leads to roll-playing in combat, with the focus being on the die value and not the action.
- The abstraction of Armour Class, which allows heavy armour to make you harder to strike; this always feels intuitively “wrong” because armour ought to reduce injury but make you slightly easier to strike.
- The abstraction of critical strikes into, basically, more damage… and that’s only if you use the later editions of D&D; oh, and no hit locations, so no “head shots”.
- The rising Hit Point total, which eventually makes a hero as tough as a dragon in terms of what injury can be taken.
- The limitations of Class which railroad you into a particular set of abilities that are then niche-protected by the game rules.
- Some fairly weird situations arising from the classic Thief skills – such as only a Thief being able to open a locked door, but this being the main skill set that makes playing a Thief worthwhile.
Actually, I could go on… but these are the top six.
Of course, if you want a fast-and-loose dungeon game and you don’t want to get bogged down with such concerns… well, Dungeons & Dragons is your game of choice. I wouldn’t hesitate to introduce new gamers to roleplaying with D&D and it’s no surprise to me that it has long been the Gold Standard for fantasy roleplaying.
The points above are only problems if you want less abstraction and you can stomach a chunk of extra detail.
Mythras adopts and develops the original RuneQuest combat system into a very smooth beast. I wrote about it for the Iron Tavern back in 2013, so if you want the details… well, hit the link. In short, it fixes the combat problems thus:
- The defending combatant is allowed to defend themselves – they can parry, for example, throwing opposed rolls into the mix to engage both players.
- Armour encumbers but offers a reduction of damage; it is accounted for across the hit locations because, yes, you can target specific areas of the body.
- Hit points don’t scale with experience, so heroes are just as vulnerable and squishy throughout their careers; they have to use their skill and wits to stay alive against those dragons.
- Cool special effects, including critical strikes and fumbles, are also included; these allow you to do some nifty moves and out-class your opponent.
When I ran my solo game with Pyry last year, I felt that the combat system lent a lot to the story-telling aspect of the game. In other words, the way the fights play out evolves a story in a way that classic Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t. No more “I hit” or “I miss”… it becomes a lot more involved. If you don’t believe me, consider that the write-up from Pyry’s encounters were not edited post-game to spice them up.
What Classic Fantasy brings to Mythras, however, is a detailed system for using miniatures at the tabletop. If you (like me) prefer to use grids and miniatures, this system emulates the best of recent Dungeons & Dragons editions… but leaves the default “theatre of the mind” in place for those who want to keep it.
Dungeon Fantasy Classes
What Classic Fantasy adds to Mythras is an adaptation of the classic Class system to a game whose main strength is perhaps not having a Class system in the first place.
By adopting the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons range of classes, including the Unearthed Arcana choices, Classic Fantasy evokes the classic game’s feel and tone. What I love, however, is the inclusion of this paragraph too:
“In a normal game of Classic Fantasy, once a campaign is underway, there is no real restriction on how you choose to advance your character. If you want to have your magic-user learn additional weapons, start training with one. If you want your fighter to get really good at climbing walls, practise climbing some walls. It’s this freedom that makes Classic Fantasy so unique compared to other class-based games.” – Classic Fantasy, page 65.
In other words, when you create a character you do so using the archetypal Class choices from the original game; as you advance through play, however, you can take the skills of your character in any direction you fancy. Niche protection comes from the special Class Talents only available to your class, but the rest is flexible.
For example, in our current Red Box D&D game, a Magic-User can only use a dagger in a fight… at least, once he’s fired off his one Magic Missile spell. In Classic Fantasy, he’ll be able to learn any weapon skill he fancies – given time, effort, and an investment of Experience Rolls. He might, of course, choose not to do so… but at least he can make that choice which the original game bars to him.
Thus, this addition to Mythras lets us emulate the classic style of play but also removes the limitations that challenge verisimilitude. And yes, you can still multi-class to get those special Class Talents from more than one Class.
Believable Skill System
The door is locked. No, you are not a thief so you can’t pick the lock; do you have a Magic-User with the “Knock” spell? No? Oh, well you can’t open a locked door then.
“Doors are common in most dungeons. Many doors are locked, and most doors are stuck. If locked, a door cannot be opened until a thief unlocks it or until a magic-user casts a Knock spell upon it… If not locked, a stuck door can be forced open by any character.” – Dungeon Master Rulebook (BECMI), 1983, page 16.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this about Dungeons & Dragons… right up until there’s a locked door and our level 1 party doesn’t have a Thief. It’s a game more than it’s about reality – these oddities arise from the need to give Thieves a role and desire to keep away from a skill system. Remember: I’m running a BECMI game right now, and loving it!
This sort of stuff bugs me and it can undermine verisimilitude. We want cool Thieves, surely, but we also want the low-level party without one to have a chance at opening that locked door… well, because we probably want to know what’s on the other side.
Mythras comes with a simple d100 skill system that handles this nicely. Classic Fantasy also gives the Thief class some really cool Class Talents to make them stand out. Everyone’s a winner.
And, yes, I know it’s not just opening locked doors. It’s just that this is the one big bug I encountered last session with D&D.
At the beginning I said that this “might well hit the sweet-spot”. Some readers will have balked at my apparent hedging. It’s no hedge: there are some downsides to switching out from your classic Dungeons & Dragons to Mythras Classic Fantasy.
Firstly, you need to convert adventures and campaigns which will take time. Dungeon Fantasy comes with lots of monsters and spells, which helps a great deal, but you still need to consider how your neatly designed adventure will run in the new system. For me, the acid test is still to come: can I run the Red Box First Adventure using Mythras Classic Fantasy and get a suitably emulated result? Watch this space for a report.
Next, you need to consider that the more detailed rules are going to slow play. If you want a quick and dirty game, stick to Dungeons & Dragons. If verisimilitude matters, this game offers a solution.
For example, D&D works well on the generic monster stat block; Classic Fantasy provides an alternate monster stat block, but it includes hit location details and skill values (to name but two differences). My work on D&D Monster Cards would be a more challenging fit with all the extra information I need to run the same encounter in Mythras. But then that encounter will involve a detailed and much more exciting battle in which the more skilled character will come on top, in glorious style. Depends on what you want.
Finally, you’ve got to learn a new game. Persuading players comfy with Dungeons & Dragons to learn a whole new system is, well, a tough ask. On the other hand, if they’re fed up with the abstraction that comes from the d20 to hit roll… well, you have a solution.
Classic Fantasy will allow for the depth and detail of Old School gaming while also delivering the kind of solutions to old D&D problems that have bugged me for years.