Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Let's Read Barbarian Prince - part 2 Main Menu

In part 1 of my Barbarian Prince review, I looked at the map and the overall presentation of information within the rulebooks. This time I want to look at what I'm calling the game's "main menu" - r203, the list of daily actions.

The first part of my review inspired a few people to give Barbarian Prince a try (or to speak up about how they'd enjoyed it in the past!) Throne of Salt has a really thorough (and almost successful) play through, along with his thoughts about how to improve the game. Dire Grizzly Bear has a more narrative write-up of his play through. Alex Schroeder and Rended Press also spoke up with their positive feelings about of the game.

From those four, and a few other people who comments on the OSR Discord, I learned that Save vs Total Party Kill has a copy of the Barbarian Prince hex map that's been partially keyed as a community project. The Boardgame Geek page for Barbarian Prince hosts a number of new layouts for various parts of the game rules. BGG also has a page for a game called Barbarian Vince that seems to be inspired by Barbarian Prince, and plays using a special set of cards, which are available to print and play.

(Regarding these files - as I understand Reaper Miniatures' distribution agreement for Dwarfstar Games, it's okay for anyone to post a digital copy of the games, as long as those copies are free, and a copy of the distribution agreement is displayed prominently. So that would seem to permit both sharing the original files and sharing new versions with more modern layouts, as long as all the terms of the agreement are honored.)

Barbarian Prince's "main menu", copyright Reaper Miniatures

If Barbarian Prince was a video game, this would be the main screen you'd return to at the start of each day. If someone released a reprinted, boxed-set version, this would be printed on a separate sheet of cardstock that you could set out next to the map to consult every turn. This is the player's summary of the game - everything you can do unless some special event grants you a special action.

Time in Barbarian Prince is measured in days. Every day, you can take one action of your choice, then deal with the necessities of survival, and then the day ends. Each action you take leads you to a separate "sub-menu" of different possible outcomes. Let's start by looking at the actions, and then at the rules for survival.

Traveling - Each day, you can attempt to travel one hex in any direction on the map. If you have a horse, you can travel 1-2 hexes, and if you have a winged horse, you can travel 1-3. (Note that you need enough horses for your entire party to benefit from riding, and enough winged horses to benefit from flying. Also note that even  if you attempt to travel 2 hexes in one day, events may force you to stop after only 1.)

Your goal in Barbarian Prince (which I'll talk more about next time) is to find money. In pursuit of that goal, you'll spend most turns traveling. When you travel, there are four possible outcomes. First you enter the new map hex without incident. Second, you get lost and remain in your current hex. Third, you enter the new hex and have an encounter. And finally, you could get lost and have an encounter! (Even if you have horses, you might get lost and remain in your original hex, or you might travel the first hex successfully but get lost before you make it to the second. And even if you have horses, if you have an encounter in the first hex, that will usually stop you from traveling to a second hex the same day.)

Your chance of getting lost depends on the terrain type of your starting hex. You roll 2d6, and try to roll low. You have only a 3% chance to get lost while flying, and you're still likely to find your way successfully when traveling through farmland (17%) or open countryside (28%). After that, things get tricky. You have a 42% chance of getting lost in a forest, hillside, or while crossing a river, and you're more likely to get lost than not in the mountains (58%), deserts (72%), and swamps (83%). When moving through those terrains, you'll probably spend several days lost and trying to find your way into the next hex. Traveling along a road or taking a raft on a river eliminates the chance of getting lost.

The chance for an encounter depends on the terrain of your destination hex. Even if you get lost, you still use the encounter table for the hex you tried to enter. No, this doesn't really make sense, and no, I don't know why the rules insist on it so strongly. If you're traveling on a road, crossing over or rafting down a river, or if you're flying, there are special encounter tables that override the underlying terrain. The chance of an encounter happening are more consistent across terrain types. They're most common when you move into farmland (42%), less so on the road or in forests, mountains, or open countryside (28%), and they're relatively rare when you're on a hillside, in a desert or swamp, when you're crossing or rafting a river, or when you're flying (17%).

In addition to the chance of an encounter, or what the game calls a "travel event", the terrain type also determines what type of encounter you might have. There's essentially a d66 table for each terrain type, although crossing a river and rafting on the river have different tables, and the rafting encounter table is set up as 2d6 instead. The rules for Barbarian Prince are divided into two books, one for rules and one for events, and the entire event booklet is filled with the possible outcomes of these encounters while traveling. (And the possible outcomes of outcomes - many events will send you forward to a new event that can't be encountered directly. For example, 8 of the 36 possible farmland encounters are to come across a farmstead. That event listing, e009, then asks you to roll 2d6 to determine which of seven possible farmsteads you've discovered. This is part of what I mean when I say this has the feel of the "sub-menu" system in an early 1980s era video game.)

Since most of the map is ordinary terrain, a very large part of the game is traveling using the travel action. Random encounters while traveling are also the only encounters you'll have while moving across the map. Most hexcrawls in D&D are written up just like dungeons, with a division between the landmarks that are keyed to specific locations and the encounters that show up at random. Even the Judge's Guild rules for procedurally generated hexcrawls draw a distinction between "features" which are physical objects that remain permanently located in the hex, and "encounters" which are meetings with monsters or other explorers.

Barbarian Prince doesn't really make this distinction. There are castles, ruins, temples, and villages located in a few of its hexes - but while you can choose to interact with those sites, simply entering the same map hex as one doesn't trigger any kind of automatic event. You still default to the local table defined by the local terrain. And the "travel events" themselves are a mix of discovering locations and encountering people, with no obvious split like we see in D&D. One kind of cool thing is that it's possible to discover hidden ruins, hidden towns, and hidden temples while traveling, adding brand new locations to the map.

Resting - Your other main option in most hexes is to spend the day resting. There are two possible benefits to resting. First, each day that you rest, every character in your party gets to heal 1 wound. Your character, the eponymous barbarian prince, starts the game with 9 Endurance, meaning you can suffer up to 9 unhealed wounds before you die. The followers and allies who might join your adventuring party are universally weaker than that. (Pushed onto a new page, where you could easily miss it, is a note that poisoned wounds never heal from resting.) You can rest as many days in a row as you want, healing 1 wound each day, but various forms of time pressure that the game piles onto you turns the slow pace of healing into another source of tension.

The second benefit to resting is that you can send your entire adventuring party out hunting. On traveling days, only you, and perhaps a single guide, can go out on an evening hunt. I'll talk more about the rules for food later in this post, and more about the rules for hunting and starvation next time, but the important thing to know for now is that more hunters likely capture more food.

Each day you choose to rest, you still have to check for random encounters, just like if you were traveling. Having an encounter doesn't necessarily eliminate the benefit of resting, but notably, you can only heal wounds on a day when your party did not participate in combat. You can still organize a large scale hunt, though, even if you were in a fight earlier in the day. I'm a little curious to see this in play, because it seems like it would be weird to encounter a stationary location when you've spent the day resting. (For example, it'd be weird to keep running into different farmsteads with different owners on the same hex of farmland over the course of several days when you're ostensibly not moving around. I'm not sure there's a good way to implement it in this game, but something like Blog of Holding's generic encounter table would be nice here - roll d6 when you're camping and d12 when you're on the move.)

Searching for Treasure - This action isn't actually possible most of the time. You can't, for example, just enter a map hex by traveling one day and then search it for treasure the next. Your goal in Barbarian Prince is to accumulate a fortune in gold, but you do that by talking to the native inhabitants of this land where you're a foreigner, not by wandering around digging up the countryside with a shovel.

There are only two occasions when you're allowed to search. The first is when you yourself left behind a cache of gold and loot, which you might do because of encumbrance, which I'll talk about later. The other time you can search for treasure is when you've previously learned a secret that tells you there's definitely a treasure in this map hex. You learn those secrets by going into the various castles, towns, and temples on the map and gathering information. If there is a cache or buried treasure, you have a 4-in-6 chance to find it on the first try. If you roll a 5 you can't find the treasure but you can search again; on a 6 you can't find the treasure because someone else already took it.

When you find a cache, you just get back whatever you left behind before. When you find a treasure though, you get to roll 2d6, about half the results will send you directly to one of the entries in the treasure "sub-menu" within the events book, and about half will send you to a "sub-menu" of various tombs. Some of the tombs are haunted by some sort of undead guardian, and also offer a reward of gold or items after the guardian is defeated. Other tombs are the site of an immovable magic item like an altar or a magic gateway.

Exploring Ruins - Aside from the various settlements that show up on the map (castles, villages, and temples), the map also has ruins. Unlike when you're searching for treasure, there's no need to check first to see if you find anything. The other difference is in the result of the 2d6 roll. The "ruins" sub-menu is different from the "tombs" sub-menu, and in general, it's much more dangerous. The tombs might have a treasure, but they might also be empty, cursed, trapped, or guarded by a monster (and unlike in the tombs, there's no extra reward for getting past the monster). There's also a chance that the ruin contains a magic altar or gateway just like some of the tombs do.

All of the tombs and ruins in Barbarian Prince are strictly one-room affairs. Each one is essentially just a single random encounter. It would be kind of cool if there was a possibility of exploring a larger complex, for the ruins especially. I can think of three possible reasons why it's not like that. The first is that writing enough ruin locations to make underground exploration possible would have required a lot of text, and this was a sacrifice to keep the game terse. The second potential reason is that the game wants to maintain a fairly strict equation of "one encounter = one day", and multi-room ruin complexes would violate that 1-to-1 correspondence. The final possibility is the stylistic choice to limit the "depth" of wilderness locations in order to reinforce the importance of returning to a settlement to gather more information. The best way to find treasure isn't to spend more time among the dead, it's to go someplace where people live and interact with them.

Seeking News & Rumors - Traveling and resting are the only actions you can take in absolutely every map hex, but there are several actions you can take in hexes that contain settlements. The first of these is seeking out news and rumors. There are a number of possibilities, most of them positive. You roll 2d6 and add a bonus if you spent some cash. Weirdly, although higher numbers are generally better than lower, not every result is better than the one below it, so you might regret spending money that pushes you into harms way.

You might find a discount on food an lodgings, you could happen upon a caravan or a friendly magician, you might have the chance to rob the local thieves' guild or join them on a heist, you might get along well with the locals or get in good with the nearest temple (both of which give you bonuses on actions there), or you might learn a genuine secret. The possible secrets are a way to sell drugs to the priests in the temples (another bonus!), blackmail information about the lords of the three castles of the region, or the location of a buried treasure.

The possible negative outcomes are getting robbed by those darn local thieves, and attracting the attention of the local police. The lowest outcome on the table is learning nothing. Racking up bonuses on your roll might ironically be the thing that gets you robbed or arrested. Despite that possibility, there's clearly a multi-day minigame here (and even moreso when seeking an audience) of trying to accumulate enough bonuses to get the best result before moving on.

Seeking an Audience - In an otherwise extremely economical ruleset, seeking an audience really stands out for its variety. There's one table for trying to meet the mayor of a village, one for trying to meet the head priest of a temple, and three tables for trying to meet the lord of a castle, one each for the three castles on the map. The best possible outcome on each of these tables is to succeed in actually getting your meeting.

Seeking an audience is kind of risky. The local leader might sic the cops on you. You're also pretty likely to have some bureaucratic intermediary interpose themselves between you and the leader, in which case you'll need to pay a bribe, or likely suffer the consequences. If you actually do get your audience, you'll have about a 50% chance of something good happening. The "something good" in question is probably money, and in large enough amounts to actually give you a chance at winning the game. But you're equally likely to be thrown out or have them release the metaphorical hounds against you. Having blackmail info helps, but doesn't guarantee success.

(Also, it's worth pointing out, Count Drogat is clearly just Dracula. Anyone making up their own custom encounters for a game like this could easily lean into that and make it more explicit. Maybe replace Baron Huldra with Frankenstein's Monster, maybe add the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the wandering encounters. Of course, that's only one possible way to adjust the flavor of the setting without really tinkering with the underlying rules.)

Hiring Followers - Like seeking rumors and seeking an audience, this is another 2d6 table. This one is somewhat skewed toward better results at low numbers, but unlike the other two, there aren't any really bad outcomes here. There is still one outcome where you don't get a hireling but do get a bonus (a -1 bonus, in this case) that makes your future rolls here better.

The results include hirelings with various Combat Ability and Endurance stats, available at prices that reflect their relative merit, a couple of horse dealers willing to sell you mounts, and a few chances to pick up hangers-on without needing to hire them. (The fact that you accumulate an adventuring party was definitely the biggest surprise about the game to me, and I'll talk about how it works another time.)

For whatever reason, you can hire followers in villages and at castles, but not at temples. Barbarian Prince kind of has a lot of exceptions like that, things that violate an otherwise general rule. They maybe make a little bit of narrative sense, but the cumulative effect is to make the rules more complex and harder to remember. I feel like ideally there would more general rules with fewer exceptions, and special or exceptional information would be confined to encounters and events.

Making Offerings - Spend money to pray at a temple, and only a temple. This is another minigame where you're hoping to build up some bonuses via several days of praying in order to achieve a good outcome. Good outcomes involve learning a secret (including the location of a treasure), having someone from the temple join your adventuring party, or having a god bestow an artifact on you that wins you the game if you can carry it to the correct part of the map. There are only a few bad outcomes, although those include being arrested for blasphemy, every day of prayer costs you more money. Again, it kind of makes sense that you can only spend money on offerings at temples, but it's still a little frustrating that no religious services are available in villages or castles.

Actually, I guess what I really think is that either all three types of locations should be more similar, or they should be more different. Making them more similar would be having the same basic actions available at each kind of site - though perhaps with different tables of possible outcomes depending on where you perform your task. Making them more different would mean that each kind of location had unique actions that can be performed only there. Right now, Barbarian Prince has an awkward mix of these two options, and I think it would be better if it committed one way or the other.

In the Firefly boardgame, some planets have markets, and some have patrons. Each market and each patron has a unique deck of cards associated with it, but they all work basically the same way. You go to the planet, look through the cards that have been dealt, and then take what you want. At a market, that means buying equipment or hiring a crew member. With a patron, that means accepting a job offer. But the variety comes from the contents of the cards in each deck; the actions "go shopping" or "look for work" are essentially universal. In Shadows of Brimstone, each day in town, you pick a particular location to visit. Each location has its own unique goods and services. You can buy weapons one place, receive medical care at another, get blessed at a third. There's little to no overlap, so the choice to go to the market versus the shrine is a meaningful one.

A final point of frustration about settlements comes from what happens when you rest there. When you travel, rest, or search for treasure in the wilderness, you have a chance of a random "travel event" each day. When you search ruins, seek information, seek an audience, hire followers, or make offerings, the "events" are whatever happens as the result of you rolling on the relevant tables. When you rest in a castle, temple, or village though, you'll have a chance of a "travel event", but it'll be determined by the terrain type the settlement is built on, not by the type of settlement, or even by the face that you're in a settlement instead of the wilderness. In a game where there are different encounter tables depending on whether you're rafting a river or just crossing it, this feels like a major omission. Having either a single "settlement" encounter table, or different ones for each of the three major types, would also help increase the unique feel of these places.

illustration by Cynthia Sims Millan, copyright Reaper Miniatures

So, every day, you take one action of your choice, then you deal with the necessities of survival. Survival in Barbarian Prince means food to eat and shelter to sleep in. If you don't have already have food by the end of your action, you are (fortunately) allowed to gather food before the end of the day. You could imagine an even more hardcore survival game where gathering food was an action unto itself, and took up entire days. Although I suppose if your hunting needs are severe enough that you need to rest in order to allow your entire adventuring party to join in the hunt, then Barbarian Prince already is that hard.

Gathering and Eating Food - Food in Barbarian Prince is awkwardly denominated into "units" instead of, you know, "rations" or "meals". Every character needs to eat one meal per day, or two in the desert. Horses need to eat two meals per day, or four in the desert, but they only need to eat meals at all if they're unable to forage. In farmland, open countryside, in forests, and on hillsides horses are self-feeding. Your animals also can't forage in a settlement, so you'll have to either provide food or pay for their feed.

If you're not already carrying enough food to eat your evening meal, you can go hunting. The hunting rules are terrible, and they're written confusingly. It's difficult to emphasize just how bad they are. You add your Combat Ability and half your Endurance (minus wounds, rounded down). Unhelpfully, this number is never given a name, but we can think of it as your Hunting Ability. Roll a couple dice so that you can subtract Hunting Ability minus 2d6, and that's how many meals you get. The way this is written in the original rules really makes it sound like subtract the other way, which would mean stronger characters hunt worse.

With a starting Combat Ability of 8 and starting Endurance 9, your character's starting Hunting Ability is 12, although obviously this will get reduced as you get wounded. If you have a guide, you can take them with you for a bonus, and if you rested, you can bring the entire adventuring party along, with extra bonuses if you have additional guides. Also if your 2d6 roll was a 12, you get injured on the hunt, take 1d6 wounds, and you might die.

If you go hunting in on farmland, there's a 2-in-6 chance that someone comes after you with torches and pitchforks, presumably because they're sick of foreigners showing up and bragging about the time they slew a Holstein Deer. Hunting in the same map hex as a settlement is impossible, so you'll either have to buy food (1 gold = 1 meal) or go hungry. Oh, and for some reason you can't buy food the first night you arrive in the settlement, only after you've started the day there. Just another charming exception hidden in the rules.

The rules for going hungry are also a little bit terrible, but mostly they're just punishingly hard. If you go without a meal, your Carrying Capacity drops by half and your Combat ability drops by 1. As the rules note, you can't actually die of starvation, because it doesn't affect your Endurance, you just become useless due to hunger. Your Carrying Capacity starts at 10, so after four days without food, you can't carry anything at all. If you have any followers or allies, they're likely to desert your party if they go even a single day without food. Horses won't desert, but they actually will die if you let their Carrying Capacity drop to 0. (Horses start with a Carrying Capacity of 30, and a human character carrying nothing weighs 20. This means that after a single night without food, the horses are too weak for anyone to ride them. If a horse goes five days without food, it'll die. There are no rules for eating your horses.)

After going hungry, eating a meal the next day removes one day's worth of hunger effects. If your fortunes have changed dramatically enough, you can eat double rations to remove two day's worth of hunger effects at a time, though no more than that. If you have any food at all, you can't selectively withhold food from some party members and not others, yourself included. You can choose to have everyone go without, or you can use up all your remaining food to "share" - which means that no one goes hungry, but they do still have to check morale or run away. Personally, I find that rule really non-intuitive, and I would either reverse it (so that "sharing" food protects morale even though everyone goes hungry) or drop it entirely (so that if you have fewer rations than party members, either everyone goes without for a night and checks morale, or you can feed some at the cost of those who went without deserting automatically).

Camping or Lodging - Compared to the rules for food, the rules for having a place to sleep at night are blessedly simple. If you're in the wilderness, you and your adventuring party will make a camp and sleep there. This costs you nothing, and requires no special effort.

Staying in a castle, temple, or village will cost you. You pay by the "room" not by the character, so it's 1 gold per night for yourself and any priests, wizards, other fancy types, and 1 gold per night for rooms that up to 2 non-magical followers can share. (Plus 1 gold for each of your horses, in addition to the 2 gold per day per animal it costs to feed them.)

You aren't actually required to pay for lodging, and there are no ill-effects to sleeping outside, but if you do, you'll have to check the morale for each follower to see if they desert, and each animal to see if it's stolen. After the rather complex rules for what to do if there's some food but not enough for everyone, I'm surprised to see that the text is silent about what to do if there's some money for lodging, but not enough for everyone. I'm tempted to extrapolate from the rules for hunger to say that you can't choose to shelter some of your party but not others. (Since there's no other penalty for not sleeping indoors, there's no reason to imagine that you spend the last of your money packing everyone into whatever hotel rooms you can afford, knowing that some might still desert despite your efforts.) Again, if I were making my own rule, my inclination would be to say either everyone sleeps outside and everyone checks morale, or only some characters sleep outside, and the ones who are left out desert automatically. (In a sense, you could choose to gamble with everyone's happiness, or voluntarily release some members from your party in order to ensure the others stay.)

In the next part, I'll talk about who your character is, what you're doing when you're wandering around looking for money, how the game manages all the followers it wants you to accumulate, and the terrible, terrible combat system. That will probably conclude my read-through, but I'll also write-up at least one play-through as well. At the end, I'll share my thoughts on modifying the rules and/or content of Barbarian Prince to make your own solo adventure.


  1. The verbage on those hunting rules is truly terrible.

    Really looking forward to those end thoughts!

    1. If you're going to subtract A minus B, it really helps if both A and B have actual names, rather than just descriptions.

      It also helps if you avoid the phrase "subtract B from A". It's technically accurate, but because it reverses the order that most of us hold the two numbers in our heads, it can easily cause confusion.

      I'm glad to hear you had the same experience I did while reading that!

  2. Damn nice essay here. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    Also, it's Rended Press, not Rendered. But that's cool.

  3. Paul of Paul's Game blog made a mobile version a while back. I think he took it down but you can ask him about it. https://www.paulsgameblog.com/

    1. Interesting! I've heard a few rumors about no-longer-available mobile apps. It would be cool if any of them turned out to be available after all!

  4. The game is still there - it's called Road of Kings. It's in a old post, but you could ask Paul if it's still okay to download.


    1. Very cool! I can mention its existence in my next post. (I'll also mention that its status is a bit unknown.)

  5. I stumbled across the designer's notes and errata for Barbararian Prince while perusing an old copy of "The Space Gamer" on Internet Archive:

    1. This is a really cool find! Thanks for tracking down the link!