20 July 2012

Heroes Against Darkness: Beginner Friendly?

I have mentioned before that I am on the look out for great free RPGs that have a knack of teaching the basics of role playing to new players. None other than Justin Halliday took a moment to humbly (or at least as humbly as one can self promote, anyway) suggest his own game, Heroes Against Darkness as an option. Seeing as how Justin took the time to read my own scribbles I felt that I should take a peek at his game.

Heroes Against Darkness

What is It

Heroes Against Darkness is a free fantasy role playing game wrapped up in an attractive package and stuffed with style. Heroes is built on top of the d20 system, but it draws inspiration from every edition of D&D to date.

The rules of the game state that it comes without a setting, but it definitely implies one through the flavour text that is dolled out liberally throughout. The world of Heroes is one of built on the crumbling ruins of ages long past. It is a world where deities roam the earth and magic runs rampant. There might not be a map or world specific lore, but there is clearly a high magic, high adventure setting assumed.

How it Works

The mechanics that power Heroes Against Darkness will be instantly familiar to anyone that has played D&D before. Most everything is handled by a single roll of a d20 with the results modified by a variety of factors. If the resulting number beats the target set by the GM then the action is successful. This is spelled out on page 3 of the book in a great section that sums up the main concepts in just a few bullet points. Every single game should have a page like this.

Modifiers, by the way, are much easier to deal with in Heroes than they are in vanilla d20. The reason for this is simple: there are no feats or skills in the game to keep track of. The only modifiers to worry about are ability modifiers (bonuses from strength, dexterity, etc.) and situational modifiers. The choice to strip feats and skills from d20 is really the first place that the game starts to move into more old school territory. Halliday's mixing and matching of D&D editions becomes even more evident when Heroes borrows a page from the D&D 4e by giving powers to classes (yes, even the melee ones). In fact, a lot of the feat functionality finds its way into those same powers.

Heroes Against Darkness doesn't just mix and match elements from different versions of D&D, though. It does make its own changes to the well worn formula. The most far reaching of these, the one most likely to turn off D&D fanatics, is that the Vancian magic system was given the boot. In its place is something called Anima, which is really just a mana system. Spells have associated anima costs that must be paid in order for the spell to be cast. Some players will love it and others will hate it. I have never really felt strongly about Vancian magic one way or the other and am indifferent about the whole thing.

I haven't really touched on Character Creation yet, so let's do that now. Players build their characters by selecting a race from classic choices such as Elves, Dwarves and Humans or more unconventional options such as Tartareans (essentially Tieflings) and Drow. From there players select from 11 different classes, including old standbys like Barbarians and Rogues as well as newer options like Necromancers and Mystics. Once those two choices are out of the way all that is left is to roll up the character's ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, Intelligence and Charisma) and work out all of the derived stats, such as hit points, anima  and defense. Oh, you will need to purchase equipment as well. The whole process is shorter than building a d20 character and longer than building a 0e/1e character.

Taken altogether the system looks solid and manages to go its own way without straying too far from the D&D DNA that pumps through its ink.

So, Is It Beginner Friendly?

Heroes Against Darkness is more beginner friendly than most. Aside from the nearly boilerplate "What is an RPG?" section there is a short Role Playing 101 section on pages 53 and 54. It isn't anything fancy, but it does give some advice on role playing and an example of play. This should be enough to get players in the right ballpark when taken in with everything else found in the book. I'm not sure that putting it 50 pages in was the greatest idea. I think I would have preferred to see it in the introduction along with the rules summary and "What is an RPG?" stuff.

About halfway through the book there is a good section on Game Mastering which shows how to put together an encounter, among other important GM tasks. It has enough information to get someone started, but could offer a bit more advice on the actual act of GMing. It is mostly concerned with preparation.

The real beginner-friendly jewel of Heroes isn't found in the rulebook at all. The Sundered Tower is a solo adventure done in a choose-your-path style that teaches the basics of the system. This is probably the most valuable tool for a newcomer because it shows how things should fit together and allows a reader to play with it.

Final Thoughts

Heroes Against Darkness is one the of the slickest free RPGs I have seen yet. Don't let the $0 price tag fool you, this is the full package. This is a game that feels like 0e/1e D&D with a more robust tactical framework and a unified system. I get a feeling that Heroes Against Darkness will appeal to fans of the E6, Fourthcore and people that subscribe to the OSR ethos, but not necessarily the games.


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