Saturday, July 1, 2017

RPG Review: Pirates & Dragons

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Pirates & Dragons
Pirates & Dragons
Written By: Peter Cakebread & Ken Walton
Review By: J.L. Duncan

Avast! And welcome to a review of the portable document format (PDF) of Pirates and Dragons, available at drivethrurpg.com. Cakebread & Walton were generous enough to provide a complimentary download as well as a digital copy of Curious Creatures of the Dragon Isles, the RPG book of beasts and animals and a full color quality resolution map of The Dragon Isles, the main setting for adventure. Pirates and Dragons was brought to life via Kickstarter to the tune of £6,544 or a bit over $7K US.

The Pirates and Dragons PDF is full color and clocks in at whopping 349 pages cover to cover. Curious Creatures of the Dragon Isles is full color as well and 147 pages. Fortunately, I’m an avid reader and I take good notes. By page count, the game is by far the largest I’ve reviewed for Indy Game Scene.

Similar to my review of LotFP, I’m breaking tradition of my regular format and focusing the review on the most interesting aspects of this RPG. Let’s jump in and read what the game has to say for itself.

“Pirates & Dragons is a role-playing game of fantasy swashbuckling in a world of magic and treasure, of fantastical islands inhabited by strange beasts and vile necromancers, of treachery and heroism. Together with a group of friends, you take on the role of pirates, out for adventure and booty – raiding the treasure galleons of Esbania, the merchant fleets of Gaule and Batavia, the dragon-hunting ships of Albion, the ruins of lost Adalantas... and the gold-filled caves of ancient and evil dragons.

Gather your crew. Load your flintlocks. And prepare to plunder!”
(Pg. 9)

I had to review this RPG in sessions (due to some real life scheduling things) and with each time I sat down, I found myself wanting to read more. Fortunately, it’s well written and despite its page count it was an easy read. The relationships between the games main ingredients or specifically how the setting, rules and game mechanics fit together really impressed me. 

From a design standpoint while the current trend of RPGs leans-more towards a focus on mechanics and rules which imply a setting and little bit of fluff to glue it all together, it was a nice contrast to read the effort of game designers who seemingly put world building first; or for a change, the setting ahead of the system. Whether this is actually the case it doesn’t matter. The fact is Pirates and Dragons is an RPG which offers a complete system and setting.  

Speaking of setting and as you read in the above quoted, Pirates and Dragons is a clash of high seas adventure and fantasy. The game isn’t a typical high fantasy setting and has toned down or omitted some of the more commonly used Tolkien inspired elements (such as demi-human races), trading these in for doubloons and black powder. There is a certain give and take with the writing of this game that when you finally wash ashore, you’ll realize all of the elements contained therein have been tweaked (that is from what we typically see in a fantasy RPG) in such a way which should allow gamers to experience a unique game world.

The main setting is the Dragon Isles, a collection of warm tropical (think Caribbean) islands and provides the main theater for adventure. Here is a brief on the main cast of cultures.

An impressive amount of detail paints the four most common (human) cultures known as the Uropans. These cultures venture to the “Isles” in search of treasure and glory. Each is inspired from historic seafaring European cultures of the 1600-1800s. Just for fun, the Uropan cultures are the Albionic Batavian, Esbanian and Gallic. Which fictional culture is inspired by which actual culture? If you think about it Uropan- European, you might hit a couple-on the nose.

Curious Creatures
Islanders are native to the Dragon Isles. Islanders who worship or are more enslaved by dragons are known as the Dragon Tribes. Islanders are also human and are the only playable race who can utilize magic. Magic and how it works is not your typical fantasy magic or spell books and broomsticks sort of stuff. Magic in Pirates and Dragons is spiritual/voodoo in origin, seemingly inspired from African culture/mythology.
Dragons are the overlords of the Isles, more often than not to each their own island and Dragon Tribe. One of the most interesting aspects of Dragons with this game is their preference for necromancy magic. Not to be excluded are the undead minions commanded by these dragon barons. With an entire tribe under one wing, necromancy at the summons of a thought and a host of undead beneath the other wing, dragons are the setting’s most powerful protagonists.

In regards to game mechanics, Pirates and Dragons utilizes the Renaissance System (RS) which is a D100 system. Required are a complete set of standard polyhedral dice, with most game rolls hinging on the use of the D100 (or two D10s) or as some know them better percentage rolls. I would put the RS in the light/medium crunch category and should be easy to master.

For those familiar and as far as I can tell, the core of character creation and some aspects of the system are comparable to Basic Role Playing (BRP). Admittedly, it’s been a very long time since I played BRP and I only played it a few times so I’m not going to be comparing the system directly with Pirates and Dragons, but system “wise,” the two, as best I recall, seem similar. To make a long story short, if you like BRP you’ll likely feel at home with RS. Thankfully, if you have no idea and if you’re feeling curious… Or if happen to be afflicted with tight-wad syndrome, you can take a look yourself as The Renaissance System is available as a free download over at Drivethrurpg.com.

In regards to adventurer development or system, one interesting aspect is how Improvement Points (Experience Points) function with the individual aspects of adventurer (character) progression. The game utilizes an ingeniously simple format for adventurer progression, which includes a point buy structure. Adventurer progression is without a level based system and creates a respectable amount of balance between adventurers. Hero are not born, they are developed.

As with any system, player adventurers accumulate Improvement Points and spend these points towards potential advancement. Key is potential advancement, not automatic advancement. Because each category that a player can increase for their adventurer is weighted; the more advanced a character is, concerning skills, magic or characteristics the more likely that attempting to increase these abilities will fail.

For instance to increase skills the player spends an improvement point and takes his chance with dice gawds rolling a D100. If the dice total is above the adventurer’s current skill percentage the skill is increased 1D4+1 (%) points. If the dice total is below the current skill percentage, the improvement point has been spent but no increase to the skill is awarded. Another facet of this is that totals above 100 are possible as skill points are automatically increased with rolls at 96 through 100. So player could conceivably increase his adventurer’s skill if say it was at 98 with a roll of 97, the only caveat of this being that once skills reach 100 they only increase in 1 point increments. Adventurer progression for other areas of potential advancement is similar with this weighted approach.

I might very well be the only person I know who gets excited about how RPG systems work as well as the ideas and design choices behind them. This might also be why I enjoy writing this column. The rules which make up a system are rarely sexy but often a few well thought and written rules can make something decent into something great. Pirates and Dragons provides a comprehensive system and a healthy dose of rules including maritime situations and well beyond. No RPG can cover every situation but if there was anything absent I missed it.

Conclusion: While I usually spend some amount of space nitpicking something I honestly didn’t find much if anything to critique. As far as I’m concerned everything you need to play Pirates and Dragons is adequately covered. Curious Creatures of the Dragon Isles, the games book of beasts and animals would make a nice companion though there is also a decent sized listing of creatures in the main book. Due to the sheer amount of detail while there might have been a section or two I could argue was a bit lite, my tendency was to think that this was more about prioritizing space for what the creators thought were more pertinent.

The organization and layout of this RPG is well put together. The art is respectable as well as consistent. While it spanned a 3 week journey to get through, when I finished I was really impressed. Introducing Pirates and Dragons as an exploratory RPG product or as something new and different to your player group you’d be hard pressed to find something better.

Walk the plank I say…

Disclosure: This review is property of Kenzer & Company and republished here with expressed permission.

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