Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Old School & Cool #1, Zine Review

This is my attempt at taking a look and reviewing the Zinequest 2 projects I backed.
See some disclaimers at the end of this post.

Overall feel

Old School & Cool features 38 pages of actual content (excluding OGL, covers, and index), of varied theme and scope. There are character classes, spells, an NPC generator, and more, sprinkled with Hadrian's Rock, a 9 page long space-fantasy location/adventure. I have to admit total ignorance when it comes to the cited authors' other work, Ahimsa Kerp and Wind Lothamer. Their Kickstarter page has a ton of content and art previews, and a loose table of contents. Good previews like this one help us identify if we'll like your product. Thanks! I will be sharing some screenshots taken from the PDF, all art by Wind Lothamer or their KS page.

In a sense Old School & Cool reminds me of the best qualities of the Black Pudding zine by James V. West, with less goofy/gonzo ideas, and removing the odd out of place bikini chick jokes. But it has consistent art, varied content, and is a pool of ideas to pick and choose for your games at an affordable price.

First off, the black&white art is really good, consistent, and abundant. It helps convey a cohesiveness to the entire publication. My favorite pieces are the Augur, the Lizardling (page 10), and the Promethean (page 37). The only point of criticism I have in the visuals department is with the adventure maps on pages 32 and 34. A bit too abstract and with hard to read room/area keys. There is no scale provided, and more specificity and effort would have helped here.

The rules follow B/X compatibility, with a clean and clear layout, closest to Old School Essentials. Both descending and ascending AC are provided. Skills follow the X-in-6 popularized by LotFP.

Varied content for the plundering

The guts are varied, and start with ten character classes for B/X. There is a good mix of interesting ideas in the bag, without going into the unnecessarily bizarre. Page 26 has starting packs for them, excellent for one-shots or quick character generation. The ones that stood out the most for me were the Augur, and the Scop. And in a lesser degree, the Language Expert, the Lizardling, the Puppeteer.
  • Augurs have an exquisite concept to them. Using birds, omens, songs and poetry could easily replace the Cleric in my games, if I decided to stick to the Wizard-Thief-Fighter trio and ditch the Gygaxian religion. This is THE class from the bunch, hands down. (Why is Auspicate 12 minutes? Should be either 1 minute or a 10 minute turn). If only, because it would show how poor my referee notes are :)
  • The Scop is a nice take on the magic-less bard. Puts the capital T in Team by a handful of abilities to boost the party's efforts, even extending a bonus to the overall XP (which appears to be bonkers at high level). The lack to boost hirelings' abilities seems to be a missed opportunity (boost to ally Morale rolls, better change of lowering their fees, etc.).
  • Translating all specialized retainers into their own B/X classes could be a nice exercise. Language Expert feels like exactly that. There is debate around the use of languages in games, and how much it adds/detracts from the experience. Putting that aside, and the overlap with the Magic-User (Reading Magic, Magical Items, etc.), the concept adds some ideas to the conversation, although I would probably never add it to my games.
  • The Lizardling adds to the classical race-as-class trio, and is self explanatory, following a venom theme all throughout. Follows same hit die, to-hit, and saves as the Dwarf, but with a couple Thief (Move and Hide), and other abilities. Why the prime requisite is Charisma is lost to me. The "Command" ability would have been nicer with a 1HD lizard creature (beasts), instead of a number of lizardlings (implying humanoids).
  • Finally the Puppeteer brings in a fresh concept, a mix between Magic-User and natural charmer, mixed with puppet control. The concept is nice, but it can give an insane amount of dolls to control at higher levels. Add that to the hirelings and dogs of the party, you end up with more to keep track of (for the player). Also, their command even if verbose is left a tad unclear. How often are the commands needed? I like the concept, just not certain of its execution, and the XP progression following the Cleric seems like an odd choice.
And the Space Dwarf becomes of relevance in Hadrian's Rock, the adventure. Ideal to bring in new characters and NPCs during that segment. Exploding dice tend to be fun at the analog table, and this class brings some.

This is followed by two pages of OSR Feats. Varied in quality and originality, seems that heavy inspiration was taken from 5e (or earlier editions? I'm not too familiar with 3.X). In general I prefer odd abilities, quirks and knacks instead of a flat bonus. For me, these are nice ideas to tack to a magic item or a feat/boon, but adding a malus or situational condition could make them more interesting.

There are 2 pages of spells, split into Spells of the Dead and Other Spells. Again, the former connect with the zine's adventure and are part of the monsters/NPCs in there. I like the connecting bits throughout the zine.
  • Breath of Death - cascading effects in a spell are sometimes hard to keep track of during the game. Otherwise a nice spell.
  • Dirge - should perhaps allow for a save from the PCs?
  • Forced Astral Travel - again, this could have a save from the target?
  • Find Familiar - a favorite to many 5e players. Kudos for making the familiar a random 2d6 table.
Now, the three cleric spells presented, Schism, Doubt, and Apotheosis are an instant favorite for me. Schism lets you change your deity. Which is something I would normally allow during a game without the codification. But reading this spell brought some ideas to my mind (what if you can't cast it on yourself, so you basically need another cleric/priest of your same deity to cast it on you?). Apotheosis, a 5th level spell, converts the caster into a deity. Why every 7th level cleric wouldn't do this, then? My gut-feel tells me it could be fixed by having requirements in order for the spell to work (riches, willing followers, or similar).

Then we get 4 pages with as many tavern menus. A lovely touch that's meant to be a handout for the players. An easy prompt to drop to the table, but far from the most interesting bit here. Somewhat disappointed that the Elven menu is not fully vegan.
A lot of OSR default play structures live in the cycle of adventuring/dungeoneering->gold->town/safe hub->cash for XP. Therefore towns inns and recurring faces get some (minor) importance in many games, by design. By giving ten alternatives to the over-used inn (including 6 names for each), you add an interesting sprinkle to the norm: steam rooms, teahouses, dead creature? Nice touch.

Next, we get 8 random tables to generate city NPCs by rolling d10s (each column has 5 columns and 10 rows). They are cleverly broken into wards (Slums, Temple District, Palace, Marketplace, etc.), and have good non-generic descriptions. A great tool to get a spark on the fly, this might be one of the most generally useful things in this booklet, for its applicability. A "Want" column or an extra table for goals on these NPCs is generally the cherry on the top, would've been a great addition.

Hadrian's Rock

Lastly, the aforementioned Hadrian's Rock. When I first read it I got confused. It disguises itself as an adventure, but that's just the excuse. Hadrian, a powerful lich, had seven shards scattered across the multiverse, and hires adventures to get the last 3 missing bits to his Crystal Staff (it allows 2 Wishes / day; got confused because the stat-block lists that). This is very high level, for when the PCs get bored saving kingdoms and plundering orc caves. Hadrian has spells as a 14th level Magic-User. More than anything, this is a detailed location for a spelljammer adventure or campaign. There are some seeds (go hunt space whales!), and a few interesting NPCs. The intro reads
For millions of years, this small asteroid has
drifted through the farthest reaches of space.
For the last 4,000 years, it has been ruled
by the dark lich, Hadrian. The Rock, as it is
known, has become a thriving space port over
the centuries—serving as a resupply center
for explorers, as a market for pirates and
smugglers, and as a jumping-off point for space
whale hunters. Lizardlings, Space Dwarves, and
Beerbarians can be found in abundance upon
the Rock. For the most part, Hadrian does not
interfere with the business of the Rock, save for
providing generous bounties for space whales,
instead allowing his governor, Gnorrme, to handle
the day-to-day operations of the Rock.

The real potential here is to place these McGuffins shards elsewhere, and let the adventure begin. There is a bit of faction play with the Prometheans (mindflayers with the serial numbers removed), who have their own agenda. Room descriptions are too verbose at places, or overuse the dreaded "small"/"main" common descriptors. But the formatting and layout is good.

If you treat these 9 pages as a bizarre high-level location for a spelljammer mini-campaign, it's fresh (but will require some fleshing out). As an adventure it's lacking in interactivity and details, but high level is hard to get right.

This concludes the review. I'm positively surprised by the amount of content, and I can see myself using some of the ideas within in my games (either "as-is", or with a tweak of my own). With a stroke of luck we will get future issues of Old School & Cool.


- In the interest of full disclosure I bought this with my own funds.
    - I was a backer on their Kickstarter campaign and paid 5 US$ for the PDF version of the product in February 2020.
- Nobody is paying for this review. All of the opinions you see are my own.
- Nobody is approving or reading this post before it goes up.
- I have no relationship with any of the authors of this product.

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