Review: Elizabethan Adventures

TL/DR: Great resource, kludgy system

Elizabethan Adventures is a roleplaying game set in 16th century England. This is a great and somewhat underserved period for gaming. Adventure abounds: court intrigue, the Spanish threat, friction on the Scottish border, exploration of the New World and piracy are all possible campaign types. The game is written by Matthew Walhead and it is truly  a labor of love. There are two volumes to the game: the Player’s Book containing the basic game rules and character generation and the Gamemaster’s Book which describes the world, ships, travel and so forth. The game system appears to derive from the Basic Roleplaying System (BRP) that Chaosium developed for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu.

I have the hard cover volumes from DriveThruRPG. The covers are simple and elegant. The interiors are full color. Illustrations are mainly pictures (I’m pretty sure they are culled from movie stills), period engravings and some really nice line drawings of weapons and ships. These are print on demand books, so you’ll need to take care on the binding. I’m really glad the author chose to spilt the books into two volumes for this reason. Overall, the quality looks good.

The Player’s Book begins with a short introduction and then jumps into Character Creation. This is very much a “traditional roleplaying game”, but it does have a bit of a twist. All players must come up with a concept of a “Hidden Character”. What this really boils down to, is that every player in the game has some sort of secret – unknown to the other players – that may put them at odds with their fellow adventurers from time to time. It’s a cool idea and will engender a healthy level of paranoia amongst your players. Next, players choose gender, social class (called Social Estate) and roll or use a point-allocation system to determine attributes. There are ten attributes in the game: Agility, Appearance, Charisma, Confidence, Constitution, Instinct, Intelligence, Memory, Quickness and Strength. The sheer number of attributes was my immediate clue that the author was a “splitter” rather than a “lumper” when it came to game design. Secondary attributes such as Fate Points (a luck mechanism), Hit Points and Damage Bonus come next. After that the player can choose from a short list of Special Traits – basically advantages. Finally, the player chooses one or more Professions for his character to determine the skills he begins play with. The section wraps up with determining other character traits (age, name, etc.) and a discussion on how the experience system works.

The next chapter is Professions. There are 45 pages devoted to the professions available to characters; serious overkill. I guess somebody, somewhere may wish to write up a dairymaid or a cheesemonger… I’ll be honest. I skimmed over most of this section, only spending time reading the more adventurous or interesting careers. There are some really cool pieces of information in this section. For example, I knew that barbers and surgeons were closely related in the middle ages. I didn’t know that many barbers ran bath houses and effectively doubled as pimps.

The next chapter is devoted to skills. It begins with a discussion of the game system. Elizabethan Adventures uses 1D20 for the primary die to resolve tasks. The player attempts to roll below their skill level (there are the usual modifiers and such) to see if they succeed at a task. There are rules for critical success and failure. The game system will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played BRP; it basically replaces the percentile roll with 1D20. Next we’re onto an exhaustive list of skills. Combat skills, in particular, have a crazy number of combinations. You don’t choose weapon skills (like Rapier), but rather a fighting style. All fine and good, until you see the list: Broadsword & Broadsword, Broadsword & Cloak, Broadsword & Dagger, Broadsword & Shield. Now repeat, replacing Rapier for Broadsword in the previous sentence… There are a large number of skills for crafting, social and other areas. I’ve gotten to the point in my gaming life where detailed lists of skills just turn me off. I like like skills that have a broad application, rather than specializations.

Combat is the focus of the next chapter. I found the Combat Matrix a little tricky to read at first. It is similar to Legend from Mongoose – an implementation of BRP that I never cared for. All weapons have damage for slash, thrust or bashing attacks. There didn’t seem to be an advantage to using any mode over the other, so I am not sure why a player would ever choose a lesser damage attack. Parrying is also a little complex. Each weapon has a decimal multiplier that you apply to the character’s skill to determine his chance to parry. It’s similar to GURPS, but varies by weapon. I like the idea, but I am not a big fan of how it is implemented. Overall, I think combat would be slow.

The final chapter in the Player’s Book is on Injury & Health. The game has hit locations and a major wound system. Combat looks like it would be pretty deadly and in a world where there is no magical healing your character can expect to be laid up for some time after a skirmish – if he doesn’t die from infection that is… Other sources of damage such as falling and poison are detailed in this chapter. It is rounded out with how to recover damage from the quackery that passes for medicine in the sixteenth century.

The Player’s Book ends with a series of tables for character creation, weights and measures, weapon statistics and so forth. It’s handy to have all this in one place so the GM doesn’t need to flip around chapters to find it.

The Gamemaster’s Book begins with a chapter on – wait for it – Gamemastering. The author assumes that you are not purchasing this game as your first foray into roleplay, so it is relatively brief. It has information on how to motivate your party and keep them “on task” with good group goals during the session. One of the things that I liked was how the author encouraged the GM to consider the edges of the world as an area where more fantastical things could happen. For example, the kingdom of Prester John may lie somewhere beyond Tartary and King Solon’s Mines are surely hidden somewhere in deepest Africa.

The next chapter focuses on the Game World. The author discusses the various Social Estates and religions of the time. Next, he launches into Witchcraft. The GM is free to allow more otherworldly aspects in their game. Witchcraft and religion can be more than just mummery for those who believe. A note for the faint of heart, Witchcraft is considered the worship of Satan in this game – no nature-worship here. An overview of the world comes next. I really enjoyed this section and honestly learned a lot of history while perusing it. Transportation and travel speed, money and prices and a small bestiary round out the chapter.

Ships & Sailing is the next chapter. This is the time of the Sea Dogs. Hawkins, Raleigh, Drake and many others were commissioned as privateers and preyed on Spanish shipping mercilessly. There are rules for building and outfitting a ship, navigation and combat.

London is the focus of the next chapter. There are period maps of the entire city along with a gazetteer of many of the most famous and interesting locations. Anyone who wishes to run a game in London in this time period would be well-served to pick up this book. Quite frankly, I felt it was the best part of the whole game. The author could easily cut this out of the GM book and sell it as a systemless setting guide. And maybe he’s done it… There is a PDF of the London Map available for sale; I am not sure if it contains the gazetteer.

The final chapter is an introductory adventure. The characters spend a night at a coaching inn and where all sorts of skulldrudgery takes place. I got a strong “Rough Night at the Three Feathers” vibe from this adventure.

I’ve long noodled over running a game set in this time period. I’ve read a fair amount of history and historical fiction set in this time period. The author really knows his stuff! I’d highly recommend this game as a resource. I’m less sold on the system itself. This is really a matter of my own tastes. It is built on BRP so I know it is going to work. It’s just a lot crunchier than I like now-a-days. If I were to start a game in this period, I’d start with FGU’s Flashing Blades and tweak appropriately.

Elizabethan Adventures is available at DriveThruRPG.

One comment

  1. Icculus

    Great Review! Would love to play a game set in that era. I’ll have to brush up on my Elizabethan English.
    “Mind you, the Elizabethans had so many words for the female genitals that it is quite hard to speak a sentence of modern English without inadvertently mentioning at least three of them. “–Terry Pratchett

    Like

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