Friday, April 26, 2019

A forgotten book: Lore of the Crypt Book IV: New Rules, Races, and Classes

A while ago, I created a review on for a book I had from back in the days.  I wrote the review in part because the topic interested me (a chapter on alchemy) but also because as far as I could tell, there was no information on the web about this book *at all*.  I wanted to well, note it down for prosperity. 

But what if something happens to  Well, better have a second source eh?  So I'm editing this review somewhat and republishing it here :) 

This is a 72 page RPG rules booklet, part of a bigger series (the Lore of the Crypt), that was published in 1991 by Underworld Publishing. Although this is not a D&D product, it strongly influenced by D&D It was published in the days of TSR, where 3rd party publishers of D&D material had to be very careful not to get sued, and often kept a low profile.

 Because very few, if any, people are playing the actual system anymore, I'm going to be reviewing this with this main idea in mind: can the *ideas* in this book be imported into a game?

The book is small (paperback sized) and has no color. There is about half a dozen black and white illustrations in the book. The art is... okayish I suppose. The layout of the book on the other hand is very competent. There are clear headings and subheadings, the tables are easy to read etc. I didn't note any glaring typos or spelling errors. 

This is a 2 page chapter where the gaming terms used in the book are defined. Although this isn't useful as a source of inspiration, it is *very* useful to have such a segment in a supplement like this. The authors openly acknowledge that the goal of this section is to help the reader integrate the supplement in their game. The D&D roots here are quite apparent, although they have an additional ability score, beauty. 

CHAPTER 1: Cambions
The next 16 pages of the books are devoted to cambions. Some portion is devoted to discussing the background of such characters, and also describing groups of cambions that have grouped together forming orders, communities etc. Some of these groups are openly evils (ie vilains) while others seek to redeem themselves. These may be usable in your game, but I can see that some of these organisations really would *not* work for certain settings. The base assumption here is that there are a somewhat large number of cambions living in the world. Some backgrounds are noted as not being suitable for PCs because of their evil and power. 

The next section of the chapter is how to design a cambion - each cambion is assumed to be somewhat unique. Every background (raised by humans, by devils, part of the Born Again Colony etc) gives the character a number of power points, disfigurement points, and background points (starting money/equipment) to spend. There is then a list of attribues: claws, wings, reptilian skin, night vision etc. Each of these have a cost in power points and/or disfigurement points. The end result is a character with a number of useful physical attribues but also characteristics that clearly set him or her appart as having a fiendish heritage. 

Clearly this section will need some work for balance purpose, as it is possible to build a rather powerful set of abilities. However, flavor wise this is a far more interesting implementation than the somewhat bland tiefling race in various D&D systems. Even if the GM decides that this is too powerful for PCs, it still could be used for NPCs. 

CHAPTER 2: Spell point system
I suppose that for a D&D player in 1991, a spell point system would have been a very intriguing proposition. The system is a bit complicated but not too much. The rather intriguing aspect of the system is the recovery. On one hand, the amount of spell points (and thus capacity to cast spells) is quite significant, esp at high level. However, regaining spell points is *slow*. A caster can thus unleash a barrage of spells, but will then take weeks to fully recharge. Would this make for good play? I don't know, but it's an interesting idea. 

CHAPTER 3: Magical zone
A 2 page mini chapter describing zones of low or high magic (0-6) and how they interact with the spell point system noted above. 

CHAPTER 4: Piety
3 pages on a system where the actions of a cleric/priest etc grant (or lose) piety points, based on the tenets of the character's religion. A few gods are given as examples - a cleric of Thor would get piety from fighting giants. These piety points can then be "cashed in" to obtain small or large boons from the god (+1 on a roll, permanent stat increase etc). 3 pages is not enough for such a potentially influential system on your game, but the idea is neat and can easily be expanded upon. 

CHAPTER 5: The Alchemist
The book devotes 20 pages to this new class, and to me this is the *best* part of the book, but also the most infuriating. 

After a ... dubious .... introduction on the history of Alchemy (discovered by PCs who are clearly named after the authors), there is an XP progression chart (to level 11), which has some rather old school elements (you need a trainer and time time at lower levels to gain levels), elements that could easily be dispensed with. It is puzzling that the class only goes up to level 11, as other elements of the book (the spellpoint chart) clearly indicates that this is a 20 level system. As the class seems to be designed for a 10 level run, it would need to be "stretched" into 20 levels, which wouldn't be too difficult. 

There is a 2 page section on what can an alchemist do/know at each level, consisting mostly flavor text rather than rules, although it could be useful for the GM to adjudicate or flesh out the class further. It also bears mentioning that a lot of basic elements of the class - how much HP does it have, what are its saving throws like, can it use armor etc - are not detailed, and left for the GM to determine. 

Casting spells for an alchemist is more complicated than other casters. First there is a chance of failure when the spell is cast which is dependent on the alchemist's level, intelligence, and difficulty of the spell. I think that the numbers given for difficulties need adjustment, but the basic idea is sound. 

A further complication is how the alchemist prepares his or her spells. An alchemist does not have memorized spells or a pool of spellpoints or such. Spells can be cast as many times as desired... if they have been prepared in advance. The alchemist must spend time, effort and resources preparing the spell, by concocting a potion, an explosive etc using a number of components and procedures. The alchemist cannot create magic out of thin air, it must operate through an object of some kind.

The crafting procedures are elaborate, specific to each spell, and quite fun. For example, a low level spell allows an alchemist to create rations by mixing salt, silver dust and carbon with granite and "bake" it into long lasting (but not very nutritious) food. A number of spells are really "magical devices" that allow to cast spells, such as a hollow steel tube coated with mercury on the inside and melted glass on the outside that can shoot a few lighting bolt-like effect. It is unclear what kind of "set up" is needed for these procedures however - is access to a full alchemical lab needed? Can a portable kit do the trick? This is again left to the GM. 

A crucial aspect is that to power these potions/devices/etc, the alchemist must use an "activator" - the source of magic. The weakest (and cheapest) activator is mere incantations. An alchemist using nothing but incantations as his activator would be in effect a mediocre mage. However, there are also 3 plant-based activators that are increasingly rare but powerful: bloodroot, mandrake and nightshade, the later which only grows in the Abyss or areas of very high magical emanations. These plants seem to concentrate magic from the environment into their tissues, and the alchemist knows the secrets to extract said magic. Only a high level alchemist will have the know-how and access to use mandrake on any kind of regular basis, and nightshade (the most potent activator) is always hard to come by. 

If we look at that ration spell again, using incantation will create 1d10 rations. Using bloodroot will result in a more effective casting of the spell and create level x 1d6 rations. The rations created when using mandrake will be even more potent and heal a bit of HP, and the nightshade rations will allow the person eating them to forgo sleep for a few days... but also perhaps suffer hallucination (nightshade often has side effects).
The 4 activators system is a very neat idea. It allows the alchemist to prepare a weak version of the spell if she doesn't really care too much about potency; or use one of the other 3 activators for more potent versions. It bears noting that if the GM doesn't like the 3 plant-based activators, it would be easy to replace them with 3 other "special ingredients" - a baseline one, a strong one, and a potent but strange one. 

All of this makes for a very cool and flavorful casting system. Unfortunately... there is no clear balancing mechanism! An alchemist can cast spells as long he or she has preparations ready, there is no need to memorize spells or spend spell slots/points etc. This means that a wealthy alchemist with months to prepare could have hundreds of spells ready! The text recommends that the GM uses the time required to prepare spells as well as the costs and rarity of the ingredients (especially the activators) as a way to control the amount of spells an alchemist can use. Balancing spellcasting like this seems to me to be a very tall order, and quite challenging for the GM. Too much time/money/activators and the alchemist will dominate. Too little and the class will be ineffective. 

A sample of 17 spells is given to get the player started, but is not intended to be the entire repertoire. (The authors note that a fully detailed alchemist with a complete spell list would have taken more pages than they had available in the book). These spells include sleep, fog and charm spells, attack spells (a missile launcher, fireball, lighting-bolt like), poisons, explosives, acids, vitality potions and at higher levels spells to create life forms or teleporation portals. These spells are quite flavorful, but a lot of them have missing rule elements such as range. 

Overall, the alchemist section is tremendously inspiring, and this class could be spruced up and introduced in a more modern D&D game *if* the GM is able to find a way to balance the "materials limit your spellcasting" method of the alchemist with the more traditional methods of "X spells/day" of other casting classes. 

CHAPTER 6: The Lloth.
This is an 8-page section on a new PC/NPC subterranean race with 3 sub-races. This section is moderately interesting, and the authors did spend some time on the sociology of the race and how they would act in human society, which is nice. However... it's not very inspiring overall. 

CHAPTER 7 and 8: Spiked shields/booths etc and Disarming attacks.
These two short sections are not particularly innovative. They might have been in 1991, but by now these are well trodden grounds - many systems have already rules in place for these scenarios. 

CHAPTER 9: Female characters.
Thankfully this chapter is only a single page, because it's rather sexist, with suggestions that women would have much lower strength but slightly higher stamina (oh thanks!), probably not taught to read etc. This part of the book should remain in the 1990s and is best ignored. 

This book offers intriguing ideas on alternative ways to balance spells (slow regenerating spell points), reward characters for role-playing their faith well or design a character with a fair amount of fiendish influence. All of these would require extra work from the GM to balance and integrate into their game. 

This is particularly true for the Alchemist class, which is the real gem inside the book. It has a *lot* of neat ideas but lack crucial elements to properly balance vs other spellcasters. 

Despite all these flaws, I have to say I'm rather fond of this little books, and I really wish I could use some of the material one day. Unfortunately I only have book IV of the "Lore of the Crypt" series - if the other 4 books are anything like this, there are probably a few gems in there too.

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