It’s been a dog’s age since I last posted, but family & career deadlines hijacked my freetime this month. I’m still in the docket until Friday, but I thought I’d take a few minutes and review a Japanese D&D clone to blow off steam.
Most RPG fans know of or have seen Record of Lodoss War, a Japanese manga & anime set in a D&D style world. Lodoss was created in the mid 1980s, and the story goes that the creator, Ryo Mizuno of Japanese RPG powerhouse Group SNE, simply turned the session reports (or ‘replay’ as the Japanese call them) of his D&D game into the story of Lodoss and serialized them in a gaming magazine. I myself have seen Lodoss Replay books in used bookstores out here in Kyoto, some with the main characters statted out for Tunnels & Trolls. Regardless of the particulars, the original manga & anime bring fantasy roleplaying to life with beautiful art, so it is no wonder that Lodoss has inspired gamers for so long, and even a fan-made RPG using the Fuzion system of Cyberpunk & Mekton (available HERE).
Today, however, I will be reviewing the 1995 Lodoss Island RPG’s Basic Rulebook from Sneaker Bunko.
The Lodoss RPG book is in the typical Japanese RPG pocketbook format, making it much more portable than western RPGs. The layout is clear with a logical chapter progression – About This Book (including setting details), Characters, Skills, Combat, Items, Magic, Character Growth, Monsters, Other Rules, Gamemaster Section, a Sample Scenario, and finally copies of all the charts you’ll need to run the game thankfully reprinted from the main text. It also contains a foldout character sheet stapled into the front cover, a removable cover and highly readable text inside peppered with generous examples of manga-style art. Which brings me to my next point…
As you can see, the Lodoss RPG cover picture of elven main character Deedlit is GORGEOUS (excuse my somewhat dark cellphone camera and my computer for turning it sideways for some reason). The fantasy watercolour style fits the feel of Lodoss perfectly, although Deedlit’s features are arguably a bit too Japanese for the genre. Inside, there are three styles of art – hyperrealistic action manga style for the bestiary, a simpler line drawing style for equipment sections, and a cutesy bobble-head style for the examples of play.
The grotty action style really makes the monsters come alive, while the simple line style presents items efficiently and allows players to imagine them on their own character. The bobble-head art, though irksome at first to me, has grown on me, and I feel it fits the ‘pathetic aesthetic’ (to quote Dr Bargle) of beginning characters in old school games. There’s even a dirty pun on the similarity of the words ‘donkey’ and ‘condom’ in Japanese (‘roba’ or old horse and ‘rubber’), which I think a fine tongue-in-cheek antidote to the melodramatic seriousness of modern fantasy game introductions.
The font is easy on the eye, while the text is eminently readable and understandable. In fact, Lodoss RPG was one of the texts I forced myself to read before taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which I passed with some thanks to studying eclectic and interesting texts. If you’re a gamer and can read Japanese even a little, break out your dictionaries and use Lodoss RPG as a study text and you’ll be gaming in Japanese in no time.
The mechanics show old school roots but are cleaned up and straightforward, consisting of 7 attributes (Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Luck & Charisma), with some derived bonuses. The chassis is a d100% system much like Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying, which as a diehard fan of Stormbringer and Cthulhu, I adore. The spell system is point-based and contains an eminently useful and wide variety of spells, while monster statblocks are very manageable.
Playable races include human, elf, dwarf and half-elf, and these are expanded with grassrunner (aka hobbit) and dark elf in the Expert Book. Classes include Warrior, Knight, Priest, Thief, Elementalist Shaman, and Mage. Magic is further subdivided into Sorcerer Magic (in Japanese ‘Ancient Tongue Magic’), Common Magic, Priest Magic, Shaman Magic and Demon Scream (‘’Dark Magic’ in Japanese).
It’s been a while since I read the Lodoss RPG, but scanning the book again confirms my good impressions. Chargen is straightforward and involves no intricate calculations like Swordworld RPG, just the addition of a bonus to skills based on attributes which is very reminiscent of the old Stormbringer RPG. Players choose race but randomly roll background like Stormbringer, which gives them different skill points to allocate. The skill list is generous and logical, as is the list of spells for each discipline. Level advancement gives bonuses to hit points, but also ‘Growth Points’ that can be used to improve skills & attributes, while XP advancement for all classes are on one table. XP is gained from defeating monsters and achieving mission objectives.
All in all, Lodoss RPG seems a near perfect blend of D&D and Chaosium system-wise, with some very efficient modern changes made to the chassis of these older systems. It is not without its flaws, however, and the two most glaring problems are the Dodge skill and weapon damage vs monster hit points. The Dodge skill is SUBTRACTED from the attacker’s weapon skill, which would seem to make the ‘whiff’ factor of combat rather high and make melee somewhat tedious. Perhaps this was done to make combat ‘one-roll’ like D&D, but is unnecessary and easily remedied by using Chaosium-style back & forth attacks and defenses.
Another odd rule is that weapon damages are all rolled on a d10 or d6 with arbitrary modifiers, plus Strength bonus if any. Again, this is not a deal-breaker, but makes for some odd choices with a dagger doing d6 + 3 and greatsword or bow doing d10 + 5. Monsters have similarly wonky hit points based on d10 + mods, with an Ogre having 5d10 + 30 and a Kobold having d10 + 5. Meanwhile armor is all static values that are subtracted from damage inflicted, with a robe being AV 2 and a suit of Mail AV 9. Perhaps this works in practice, and I would play RAW before making any changes, but it admittedly feels odd to someone used to dice tube progression in weapon damage and straight rolls for hit points.
The rulebooks are split somewhat like B/X D&D, with the Expert book giving details for levels past 5, more spells & skills, monsters, races, rules for figurine & mass battles, and ‘Advanced professions’ that function very much like prestige classes of latterday D&D and thus are very ahead of their time in this respect. I also own two fullsize (i.e. western softcover gamebook size) supplements, with adventures, more gorgeous art, reprints of Basic book content for player reference, replays (i.e. session reports), and designer advice. All in all, Lodoss materials are a beauty to behold and are a great addition to my RPG collection, especially since I got them all 2nd hand for a few dollars.
I should note that the few scenarios for Lodoss I have read seem somewhat…odd to me. For example, the Basic Book scenario, “An Adventurer’s Nature,” involves the characters joining an ‘Adventurer’s Guild’ right off the bat. They are sent on a ‘test’ by the guild to some caves, where they solve some riddles they find in a trail of letters, ‘fight’ some guild members dressed as goblins, then come upon a real robbery in progress. I would imagine this scenario would not be to the taste of most north American gamers (I could be wrong), both due to its railroadey nature and the concept of joining a guild to go on a fake dungeon crawl. I’d prefer to run B2 with it myself and see how it stands up to The Caves of Chaos.
I would certainly love to run or play the Lodoss RPG, and of the 3 Japanese RPGs I have reviewed, it is the most runnable straight out of the box, while also having the smoothest rules. Lodoss RPG shows both its western old school roots, the Japanese aesthetic sense of design, and the strangeness (from the north American standpoint) of Japanese culture.