2013-01-19 Spears of the Dawn

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Spears of the Dawn
African-flavored fantasy adventure gaming
The PDF for backers of Kevin Crawford’s Spears of the Dawn is done! It was on Kickstarter: “Spears of the Dawn, an African-inspired old-school RPG from the maker of Stars Without Number.”

I just leafed through it and I liked what I saw! It makes me want to add an African-inspired section to my campaign right now.

I liked the art. The pieces fit together, had a unified style, made me want to play or meet those characters.

Remember, I didn’t read those 180 pages. But some of my impressions regarding the rules: standard six attributes but smaller modifiers: 3 → -2; 4–7 → -1; 14–17 → +1; 18 → +2. There are four cultures with half a page of background followed by a large number of interesting one-paragraph character backgrounds that grant you a number of skills. Skills go from 0–4. I’m not a big friend of skill systems, but it doesn’t bother me too much.

There are four classes: warriors (fighters) and three classes with magical abilities—griots (bards), marabouts (clerics) and ngangas (magic users).

The “fighters” have access to a very simple feat system. I’m no friend of the feats in D&D 3.5 or Adventure Conqueror King, but this system here only takes a single page and doesn’t constitute a feat tree and only concerns fighters. I think this works for me.

There are three kinds of “bard” songs (minor, great, ancient) and characters get access to the more powerful variants at 4th and at 7th level. I like the simplicity of the system. The effects of these songs persists for as long as they are being sung.

The “clerics” can invoke miracles (spells) from a variety of spheres. They are spontaneous casters with a certain number of miracles/day limit. Each sphere comes with a list of spells. Thus, by gaining access to more spheres they get more choice in spells. Their favorite sphere gets them a minor magical ability.

The power of “magic users” comes in the form of rituals and spells. Known rituals can be performed as long as the characters have the necessary time and resources (many cost money). Spells are “memorized” by creating little fetishes and “cast” by triggering them.

The various classes are an excellent demonstration of how to rewrite the standard descriptions to conjure up a different atmosphere and invoke the new setting.

There is a one-page quick reference after the rules section. Excellent idea.

There is a lot of material explaining how to run a sandbox campaign without just copying what he said in Red Tide and An Echo Resounding. Excellent!

Three pages on how to play—responsibility of players, responsibility of the referee, how to start the first session, this kind of stuff, short and succinct. Another three pages on typical pitfalls: how to use combat in your game, how to handle character death, how to handle investigative games, how to handle magic items, how to handle unfamiliarity with the setting. All of these are a great introduction to people unfamiliar with sandbox play, I think. Thinking back to my recent game mastering career and remembering the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master Guide, I’d say that these pages here come with all the relevant advice that you need.

The domain game uses Might, Trouble and Treasure as the kingdom stats. In An Echo Resounding the three stats were Military, Social and Wealth. If you’re interested in a short overview of An Echo Resounding, check out my summary. The concepts are similar. These stats are used to resolve the kingdom turns. The game does not come with units, resources to build, mass combat and all the other things An Echo Resounding introduced.

As for creating adventures: the book comes with an empty map for a dungeon, a building, an estate, a shrine, a cave; it comes with tables for cults, magic user spells, non-player characters, cultures, names, adventure elements; domain game rules incl. building costs, henchmen, hirelings, magic items, treasures, monsters—all suitably themed! I think this is awesome. The book also comes with a lot of advice on how to go about creating adventures, how to think about the set (the place), the actors (denizens, non-player characters) and props (treasure, items), and how to put the three together. Skimming through this section, I found myself nodding along.

There is an index, which is something I appreciate. There’s also an annotated bibliography for fiction, history, mythology, religion and pictures. This should be useful for people like me with practically no experience with Africa.

All in all, I think this book would be an excellent book. With its 180 pages it looks much like a slightly expanded B/X D&D with an African theme. It has plenty of good advice and ideas for beginners and sandbox newbies. Personally, I think many games lack the succinct guidance a new referee needs. The D&D 3.5 DM’s guide didn’t have it. I don’t think my favorite variant of the game has it, either: Labyrinth Lord is quite bare bones. At the same time, Spears of Dawn is not simply a collection of house rules tacked onto B/X D&D. The infusion of the African setting into every paragraph and its strong focus on teaching the reader how to run a sandbox campaign sets it appart.

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I highly recommend it. Then again, remember I haven’t read it in depth (and I probably won’t unless the campaign moves into an African direction).


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