Thursday, October 15, 2020

Let's Read Barbarian Prince - part 3, Character, Followers, Encounters, and Combat

In part 1 of my review of the game Barbarian Prince, I looked at the map and the rules layout. In part 2, I looked at the main actions that the player can take. In this current part, I plan to look at who the player character - Cal Arath, the eponymous barbarian prince - at the various NPC followers and allies you collect, and at the rules encounters and combat. This will probably be the last part of my read-through. Next I'll write a play-along as experience the game in action, and then I'll suggest ways to change - and perhaps improve! - the rules if you wanted to write your own solo adventure game that somewhat resembled this one.
After my last post about this, I happened to find Hex Junkie's sandbox setting using the Barbarian Prince map by searching on the OSR Discord server. 
I've mentioned that I kept hearing rumors about a mobile phone app version of the game. Travis Miller pointed me toward Paul's Gameblog, where there's a link to one such app for Android devices, called Road of Kings. I should note that I haven't tried downloading the app, and I can't verify if it still works.

Also, Kitchen Wolf shared a link to issue 47 of the magazine Space Gamer, where there's both a contemporaneous review of the game, and an interview with designer Arnold Hendrick about the design decisions he made while writing Barbarian Prince. For example, it seems that he was thinking about computer programming when writing the rules - and it was his intent for this format to make playing the game easier. The idea, apparently, is that you wouldn't have to memorize all the rules, because the reference codes would point you to them at the appropriate time, and because numbering the reference codes would mean you'd know exactly where to go look. Political maneuvering by seeking audiences at the temples and castles is intended to be the primary way to win the game. And something that I found baffling during my initial read (the multiple versions of surprise embedded in the combat rules) are intended to prevent the game from being overly predictable. It's a worthwhile read for anyone who's following along with this series of posts.
Barbarian Prince cover art by Frank Cirocco, copyright Reaper Miniatures
Player Character - In the game of Barbarian Prince, you play the character of Cal Arath, the crown prince and rightful ruler of the Northlands. Unfortunately, a usurper has killed your farther and taken your throne. You've been exiled to a foreign country to the south. You have 70 days to acquire 500 gold pieces to finance an army, or otherwise reassert your rule over the Northlands. Otherwise, the usurper will solidify his claim on the throne, and your quest will be lost.

Cal Arath is basically unmatched as a human physical specimen, although some monsters are stronger and more deadly. You have Combat Skill 8, Endurance 9, a named sword "Bonebiter" that doesn't count against your Carrying Capacity, and between 0 and 2 starting gold coins.

As a quick reminder, every character in this game has an initial Carrying Capacity of 10. It goes down by half each day you don't eat, falling to 5, 2, 1, then 0. One unit of Carrying Capacity can hold one meal, 100 gold coins, or an object you find as treasure.

You also have an attribute called Wits & Wiles, which is akin to the Skill rating in Troika, it's basically how good you are at all non-combat tasks. It's determined randomly at the start of the game, and so ranges from 1 to 6. (I've seen complaints that getting stuck with Skill 4 in Troika is punishingly bad - I can only imagine what Wits & Whiles 1 is like!) Notably, the non-combat tasks where your Wits & Wiles score matters include virtually all social interactions. One subset of my ideas for modifying the game are devoted to ways to make the growth of your Wits & Wiles rating either an in-game achievement or a reward for replaying, rather than simply randomizing it every time.
Barbarian Prince's treasure rules, copyright Reaper Miniatures
Followers and Allies - My biggest surprise when I started reading Barbarian Prince was the abundance of NPCs. It's a single player game, but not a single character game. You'll always control Cal Arath, but he won't always be alone. You can hire followers in town, and recruit allies as you encounter them on the road. There's a special type of follower called a Guide who can help with hunting and navigation, and I've noticed that among your potential allies, Priests and Magicians are often relevant. Depending on how you play, you might have a small adventuring party, a large company, or a veritable warband accompanying you.

Which I guess also goes to a larger point about how this game surprised me, because for that people talk up the game's sword & sorcery credentials, this isn't really a game of individual heroism as much as it is a game of politics and leadership. You might be a barbarian, but more importantly, you're a prince, a leader of men, and you'll probably win by acting like a prince and engaging in diplomacy, finding a foreign leader to form an alliance with or bankroll your mission. Remember, that 500 gold you're seeking isn't for you, it's to pay for an army to stage a counter-coup. That countryside you're exploring isn't wilderness, it's a country, somebody else's country, and it's plenty well explored already as far as the locals are concerned.

Even Cal Arath's barbarian-ness is situational. I think the gameplays up the idea that the Northlands must be a harsh land full of rough and rugged peoples to make it seem like you're Conan wandering around the Shire. The farmed areas at least are full of elves, dwarves, halflings, and yokel sheriffs eager to organize a torches-and-pitchforks brigade to round you up for hunting livestock like they're wild game - but there's a caveat that Cal Arath is only living off the land because he's fallen on hard times. He knows how to fight and hunt because that's what princes do. In his own country, he probably isn't stealing a lot of pies off of windowsills, or poaching on other peoples' land, and you have to think that if he happened upon a tower full of orcs on his own frontier, he'd come back later with an army rather than being forced to stage a daring commando raid with whatever handful peasants happened to be on-hand at the moment. He isn't sleeping rough, wading through swamps, and fighting off crypt-guarding skeletons because he's a foreigner, he's doing it because he's homeless, penniless, in exile, and desperate to raise a king's ransom quickly enough that he won't be forced to remain that way.

The point is, I was originally expecting something akin to a boardgame version of the original Legend of Zelda, and this isn't that at all.

Anyway, the NPCs you meet also have Combat Ability and Endurance scores. They also all have "wealth codes" to determine how much treasure they own, but in my reading of the rules, you can only take possession of an NPC's treasure if they die. I think this means you get their treasure if they're killed in combat. I also think it means you can't force your followers to spend their own money on food - they'll either choose to stay with you while going hungry, or run off to go buy a meal, but apparently they'll be damned if they're going to pay out of their own pockets while you, the boss, are supposed to be covering their per diems.

Your ranks of followers can grow as you meet more people. There's also a couple ways they can shrink. First of all, you can dismiss any follower at any time for any reason (with the exception of your True Love, if you have one - there will be no divorce!) Hirelings with an agreed-upon wage will also defect if you can't or won't pay their daily wages.

Next, if you don't have enough food to feed your entire entourage, you risk them defecting from your group. I interpret that to mean that if can't feed everyone, you either have the choice to dismiss followers until you can feed everyone who's left, or you can share the available food equally, but then each follower gets to decide individually whether or not to defect. Depending on your Wits & Wiles score, you might actually lose more people by trying to keep everyone.

And finally, you might choose to leave some of your followers behind when you're making an escape. If you're running away from an enemy that's chasing you, you're much more likely to escape if everyone in your party is on horseback or, better still, flying. Which they can be, if you're willing to abandon everyone who used to be a member of your party who's not on horseback!

I suspect that the primary benefit of having a large party is the advantage they grant you in combat. I'll discuss combat more below, but what's important here is that every NPC and monster behaves the same way as Cal Arath. Each character can attack one opponent, so if your followers outnumber the enemy, you can gang up on specific targets while limiting losses on your own side.

Barbarian Prince doesn't come with any kind of character sheets, or party record sheets, or anything like that. If you start acquiring a lot of followers, or if the composition of your party keeps changing because you continue to add and dismiss people, I would imagine that it can get a little messy tracking the whole group on scratch paper. I don't know if this is actually a problem, per say, but it does seem like an area where improvement is possible. This is another area where I have a few different ideas for maybe modifying the rules, or maybe even just adding props, to make things run a little smoother.
a representative encounter from Barbarian Prince, copyright Reaper Miniatures

Encounters - When traveling each day, there's a chance of having an encounter. Many of those encounters are with intelligent NPCs where you have the option to talk, evade, or fight. (There are also monstrous encounters where the creature's behavior leaves you with no choice about how to approach them.)

When you encounter an NPC like this, you first choose your approach, then roll the dice. The best way to succeed is to roll well. (Although what counts as "well" can vary. Notice that for the Swordsman, rolling a 1 means you surprise your opponent if fighting ... or that you can only escape if you have horses. Rolling a 6 means they'll let you pass unbothered if you choose to evade ... or that they get the drop on you in a fight.)

Each type of intelligent NPC has their own combination of results, so each poses their own kind of risk. It's worth noting that many of the options to talk or evade can turn into combat if things don't go your way - such as if you don't have horses, or can't pay the 10 gold coin bribe the swordsman sometimes demands. In that case, you default to a generic table of random combat results; against some adversaries the generic table is probably more favorable than their specific fight options, against others I'm sure it's worse. The "converse" result from R341 is itself kind of a generic table of talking results, ranging from them trying to kill you instantly to them offering to join up with your party for free.

The unique combination of outcomes for each NPC means a couple of things. First, it means that some NPCs might be straight up "easier" or "harder" than others. Some people you encounter might be, across the board, easier both talk to, evade, and fight than others. It also means that for some NPCs, you'll do better by talking to them, others by fighting, others by trying to sneak or run away. 

I haven't cross-referenced all the NPC tables to be sure, but my initial impression is that if a given NPC would likely be an ally in Lord of the Rings, you're probably wise to talk to them, and if they seem "scary" or dangerous, you're probably wise to evade. This seems like a nice design touch, because it means that knowledge of common genre tropes can substitute for system mastery. That is, when playing the game, ideally you won't be forced to either memorize the probabilities of all the outcomes of all the NPCs or just guess blindly about the best course of action. You'll be able to make informed choices by drawing on what you know about fantasy literature. 

It's also worth noting that most fight options create a possibility of a particular combat situation, rather than a guarantee. A result that says "surprise" for example, probably means you have the possibility of surprising your enemy, but only one of the four possible "surprise" results actually guarantees it - the others all ask you to roll the dice to find out. One of the two "attack" results offers the chance that your enemy will win the initiative, just as one of the two "attacked" results gives you the chance to strike first. In general, you'll do better on these rolls if you have a higher Wits & Wiles score. (Which means, I guess, that it's both Skill and Initiative.)

When I was first looking through rules, I was kind of shocked that a game that takes so many pains to save space and avoid repeating text had FOUR different versions of Cal Arath surprising his enemies. (I'm still surprised, honestly, that the reminder text about evading your enemies by flying away is reprinted on EVERY enemy entry, although it sure does make me want to find a flying horse when I play.) One version guarantees surprise, on grants you surprise if you roll under your Wits & Wiles score, one grants you surprise if you roll equal to or under your Wits & Wiles score, and one grants you surprise if you roll the dice and currently have fewer party members than that. Reading the interview with the designer kind of changed my mind, as did remembering that the game uses a d6, not a d20. In a d20 game, the 5% probability difference wouldn't be worth the extra text - and the risk of confusion from not having a consistent way of reading the dice might make the extra rule worse than worthless - but in Barbarian Prince, those two rules have a 17% difference in the chance of granting you surprise. I think you could still argue that that's still not a big enough difference to justify the additional rule, but it's not as bad as I originally thought.
illustration by Cynthia Sims Millan, copyright Reaper Miniatures
Barbarian Prince combat table, copyright Reaper Miniatures
Combat - Combat here is somewhat similar to D&D. Each round, all the characters on one side attack, then all the surviving characters on the other side hit back. If one side has surprise, they get one round without reprisal, and they get to go first in the subsequent rounds. Otherwise, who goes first is determined by the specific "fight" rule governing the combat. In general, you must match Cal Arath and his allies up one-on-one with the enemy, although if either side outnumbers the other, you get to decide how to distribute the extra characters, and each character only gets attack one opponent per round.

To attack, roll 2d6, add the attacker's Combat Skill, subtract the defender's Combat Skill, apply any situational modifiers, and then consult the Combat Table. Rolling higher is better here. This is seriously one of the worst written and most needlessly confusing rules in the entire game. First there's the issue of how it's actually written. Compare what I just said about the attacker and defender, and compare it to this from R220c: "To resolve a strike, take the combat skill of the striker, and subtract from it the combat skill of the target character." Mind you, that's subtract from it, not subtract it from, which has the opposite meaning.

Then there's the issue of the combat table itself. It's ... I mean just look at it. The basic logic is this - if you roll low, you will probably miss and deal no Wounds; if you roll high, you will probably hit and deal two or more Wounds. But beyond that general tendency, there's no logic to it, it's just a mess. 10 and 12 both deal two Wounds, but 11 only deals one? 16 and 18 deal five, but 17 only deals two? Why does -1 hit anything? Why does 15 miss entirely? Why does 14, and only 14, deal three Wounds? (With Cal Arath having Combat Ability 8, and with the most common roll of 2d6 being 7, this would almost be cool if there was a common enemy with Combat Ability 1 and Endurance 3 ... but there is no such enemy.)

I genuinely don't know why it's written like this. My only guess is that it must have been to ensure that you could never know the outcome of combat just by looking at the dice, you'd always have to do the math and then check the table. A low roll is probably a miss, a high roll probably a hit, but you can't know for sure without looking. A friend of mine has a theory that there are fewer car crashes in England than in the US because the roads there are so winding, narrow, and filled with roundabouts that you have to pay complete attention every second or you'll get in a wreck right away ... so you do. Maybe these rules are like that? They're so situational and specific that you know you have to check the table every time? As you might imagine, I also have some thoughts about how to modify the rules for combat.

There are a couple situational modifiers. If the attacker has any Wounds, they get -1. If the attacker has Wounds equal to half their Endurance, they get an additional -1 (so a total modifier of -2, although it's not written out like that.) There's no bonus for the defender having Wounds, but if the defender has Wounds equal to half their Endurance, the attacker gets +2. This would be easier, I think, if it were truly symmetric, and if you only kept the penalties and bonuses for when a fighter is "bloodied."

You can try to run away from combat. Unlike using the "evade" option before a fight starts, you have to take your entire party with you. To make an escape attempt, your entire party gives up their attacks, and you roll 1d6, hoping to get a 4 or higher. If the attempt fails, I believe you've still lost your attack for that round.

You can also try to make your enemies run away. Each time you kill an enemy NPC in combat, you have the option to roll 1d6, and on a 6, the surviving enemies will all run away. This is totally optional, so I guess if you think you can win the fight, you might not want to scare them off, since they'll take all their money with them. On the other hand, if you're outnumbered and might lose, frightening the rest with a bit of yelling and woad could really save the day. Enemies with Combat Ability 9 or Endurance 9 will never run away.

In Barbarian Prince, your Endurance score never changes, but you do gain wounds from combat, and heal them by spending time resting. If a character has one less Wound than their Endurance (what we'd call hp 1 in D&D), then they fall unconscious and become helpless. If an NPC falls unconscious, you get to decide what to do. If Cal Arath gets knocked out, roll 1d6. On a roll of 1-3, your followers all desert you and steal all of stuff as they go. On roll of 4-6, they'll stay with you, either making camp while you heal, or carrying you somewhere else if you want (although it takes up 20 Carrying Capacity just to haul you, to say nothing of your possessions, so moving won't always be feasible.) 

Presumably this means you can choose to just knock out your enemies instead of killing them, although the rules are not explicit on this point. I think if I were making changes, I'd make unconsciousness something that only happens to the prince.

If a character has Wounds equal to their Endurance (what we'd call hp 0 in D&D), then they're dead. If an NPC dies, whether they're your enemy or ally, you get to desecrate their grave inherit their belongings. (Despite being an outlander, you're everybody's next of kin!) If Cal Arath dies, the game's over and you lose. 
The daily actions provide a framework for exploring the south lands. The most common kind of random event that happens while you're exploring is an encounter with an intelligent south-lander, and the most complex outcome of an encounter is combat. If you understand those three sets of rules, then you understand enough to start playing. Next time, I'll play through a couple times, once trying to act like a barbarian, and again, trying to act like a prince. Then I think I'll be ready to offer some ideas for modifying the rules to make your own game of solo exploration.


  1. Looking forward to those hack rules!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Dan! It's been fun seeing other people try the game out too.