Do we really need another OSR fantasy roleplaying game? I mean, how many stripped-back, quirky, nostalgic homages to the golden age of tabletop RPGs (i.e. the early 1980s) can the market bear?
Oh, all right then. Maybe just one more...
Greg Saunders is the author of Warlock! and his game just oozes with love for a distinctively odd, low-key and punk-rock approach to fantasy storytelling. This isn't a high fantasy game of noble heroes on epic quests; no, it's a low-fantasy game of hoodlums with bad breath taking on missions of dubious morality for payment in pennies and stale crusts. Greg has nicely matched his minimalist rules set with striking B&W art (notably by Mustafa Bekir) that takes its inspiration from the fanzines and comic styles of the '80s, especially the Fighting Fantasy book series.
This would make Warlock! worth purchasing just as a collector's piece - the new 'Traitor's Edition' is on drivethrurpg and the cover art is wonderful.
Beyond the aesthetics, Warlock! is worth picking up for another reason: it's a really good system with a distinctive design, rather than a now-typical retroclone of OD&D. Don't get me wrong: I love OD&D retroclones. I've posted before about my delight in Charlie Mason's White Box and Michael Thomas' BlueHolme games. But it's nice to see a game that doesn't start with 6 characteristics rolled on 3d6 and then offer a bunch of leveled character classes. Best Left Buried is a game that offers a novel (and rather subversive) take on old-skool dungeon-crawling by walking away from D&D and taking inspiration instead from Call Of Cthulhu's deteriorating Sanity mechanic. Warlock! does something similar, but its template seems to be Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's early-Renaissance world with its focus on skills and progression through professions, rather than monolithic character classes but a slightly less gonzo and more mystical theme, perhaps inspired by Dragon Warriors.
Enough context. Let's jump in.
The Alternative to Hit Points
You create your Warlock! character by rolling just two abilities: your Luck (d6+7) and Stamina (2d6+12). Stamina ticks down as you are injured - so it's Hit Points, right? Ah, but you get all your Stamina back after a sleep and half of it back after a short rest. This isn't like D&D, where your HP dwindles inexorably. If you survive a fight in Warlock!, you'll be right as rain half an hour later.
The complication is Critical Hits. If you get knocked below zero Stamina, you pick up lasting injuries called Critical Effects and these don't go away so quickly. So even though you keep recovering your Stamina, the accumulation of Criticals can make your character non-functional quite quickly - and the worst Criticals will kill you outright.
There's a set of entertaining Critical Hit Tables based around three weapon types (slicing, stabbing, bashing) and a fourth one for fire or magic ('blasting'). You make a simple d6 roll and add your negative Stamina to it, producing results that range from the icky ('That was my foot! Can only hobble for 1d6 days! Toes loose in boot!') to the gruesome ('Right in the kidney! Peeing blood! All tests at -5 penalty for 1d6 days') and a result of 10+ means you die (horribly).
Another implication of this is that your Stamina increases over time, but only slightly. No one is cutting about with 100 Stamina. You'll be lucky if you ever get above 30. This is ideal for low-fantasy or grimdark gaming where everyone feels vulnerable all the time and every fight is a proposition you have to think twice about.
Welcome to your Glamorous Career
No 3d6 characterstics in Warlock! No Strength or Intelligence or Charisma. Instead, you have a list of 32 skills. Ten start at 6, ten at 5 and the other twelve all start at 4. The core mechanic in the game is a d20 roll, adding your skill or your Luck: if you get a result of 20+ you succeed; with an opposed test, the opponents both roll and the highest result wins.
You adjust these skills based on your career. There are 24 basic careers and you roll four of them randomly and pick the one that appeals. Yes, I suppose you could dispense with the rolling and just pick, but this sort of larky roll-to-see-who-you-are fits the theme of Warlock!, which seems to be that you are a rabble of losers, chancers and grifters rather than epic heroes. Careers like grave robber, political agitator, beggar and rat catcher also lock players into the underbelly of a late-medieval world.
Your career gives you five particular skills you can immediately increase by 10 levels. These skills have some maximums (10 or 12) - once again, nobody gets to be too competent in Warlock!
You also have a Career Skill which matches your career and you use it to do stuff that people with your career ought to be good at. It starts at the level of the lowest of the five skills your career mandates. Experience points (usually 1-3 for an adventure) buy increases to skills in a straightforward way, but you can only improve your career skills. Improving your lowest skill will also improve your overall Career Skill and every time that goes up you add +1 to your Stamina.
It gets a bit confusing talking about your five career skills and you overall Career Skill (with Capitals). Some more distinctive terminology is needed. However, in play it won't matter. If your career is Rat Catcher, you won't talk about your Career Skill, you'll refer to your Rat Catcher skill.
You can change careers easily enough (it costs 5 experience points) and start advancing a new set of skills - but you keep your old Career Skill at whatever level you got it to. Once you've been in two careers and promoted three skills to 10+ you are eligible for an Advanced Career where skills can be promoted to 14 or 16.
The Advanced Careers are almost heroic in stature compared to the scum and villainy going on in the basic careers. For example, a Basic Footpad starts with 'a nasty club, stained with blood, a cloak with hood, and a sack for your gains and a few pretty trinkets which make you feel special and aren't worth pawning.' What a champion, right? But an Advanced Class like the Bravo gets 'a fine arming sword, flashy clothes and a jaunty hat.' Walking tall!
As well as your starting equipment, each career has a little table for generating background details. The tone is often funny, sometimes romantic but always downbeat. For example, our poor Grave Robber might have dug up his own mother ('A sad day!') and is haunted by the ghost of his lover ('who you buried and robbed').
Reasons Not to get into a Fight
Warlock! combat is simple, with combatants moving between abstract ranges (close, near, faraway, distant) and melee attacks being opposed skill tests, with the attacker gaining a +5 bonus to their skill.
Because it's an opposed test, this means that if your opponent rolls higher, you take damage during your own attack. Then they get their attack (with that +5 bonus) so there's a good chance you'll take damage then too. If someone rolls a score that's three times their opponent, that's a Mighty Strike for double damage.
One implication is that fighting a tough opponent is a mug's game. Any time you attack, there is a strong chance your opponent will hurt you instead; then they get to do their attack (and nasty monsters attack several times).
Ranged attacks are a safer option: they're not opposed tests, so if you fail your roll you just miss and that's that!
I notice the rules allow combatants to retreat from fights without penalty - none of that 'attack of opportunity' nonsense to punish you for running away - so this is a game that rewards players for valorous discretion and explicitly instructs NPCs to pull out of a fight before their Stamina approaches zero.
Armour reduces incoming damage, either by d3 (light), d6 (medium, e.g. mail) or 2d6 (heavy, e.g. plate). Shields increase the effectiveness of armour by one step (so adding a shield to light armour would give you d6 damage reduction instead of d3) and confer penalties on ranged attacks against you.
A nice distinction is between 'casual' and 'martial' arms and armour. The casual stuff you can wander round town wearing: light armour, a club, perhaps a short sword. Martial stuff like mail armour and two-handed swords will send peasants fleeing, cause shopkeepers to bar their doors and bring the constables running.
Magic and other Stuff you can Steal
Anyone can cast spells (a nod to Runequest, I think) but only two classes let you increase the Incantation skill you need to do this: the Priest and the Wizard's Apprentice. You pay the casting cost in Stamina whether you succeed in the test or not, so non-specialists won't enjoy mucking about with spells, especially as miscast spells can backfire, with results that can be disquieting (two small horns grow out of your head) or deadly (blasted across the room for 2d6 damage).
Another nice touch is that spells are physical things: they're written on scrolls or amulets. This means they can be copied, vandalised or stolen. Searching out new spells and finding ways to earn or swindle them from other casters is the preoccupation of magic-users. Once again, a downbeat world emerges from the rules.
Money is slightly abstracted. You have pennies, silver coins and gold coins. All characters start with 2d6 silver. Commoner items cost d6 pennies, middle-class items cost d6 silver and noble/luxury items cost d6 gold. Adding to the quality or workmanship increases the cost by 1d6 or 2d6 and metal weapons/armour always add 1d6 (for poor quality) or 2d6 (good quality) to the base cost.
This means you don't need a price list, just a notion of the class bracket an item or service belongs to. The price isn't fixed, representing the vagaries of supply and demand. Buying a cudgel costs 1d6 pennies, a beautifully carved cudgel costs 2d6 pennies; a sword is 2d6 or 3d6 silver; mail armour is 2d6 or 3d6 gold.
The World and Stuff You Can Run Away From
The bestiary includes standard fantasy critters, though the presence of Ratmen makes me suspect Warhammer's influence again. The Stat Block is pretty simple: how many actions does it get, what weapon skill, how much damage, armour type and Stamina. Ratmen with a single action, 10 Stamina, light armour and a weapon skill of 4 won't detain you for long; a dragon with 5 actions per round, heavy armour, Stamina 62 and an attack skill of 11, dealing 3d6+2 damage will be rather overwhelming but still on a human scale. There are no monsters with Stamina into triple figures, attack skills in the mid-teens or damage output more than twice what a player character could muster.
Final Thoughts on Warlock!
Warlock! is note perfect as a stripped-down low-fantasy RPG that you can pick up and play. The setting of 'the Kingdom' is reminiscent of Warhammer's Empire, without the distracting presence of Chaos: Greg Saunders clearly prefers BBEGs with more interesting (i.e. human) motives.
If you don't want Warlock!'s setting, then it's a supremely adaptable system. For example, I used to run a campaign using The One Ring RPG where the PCs were hobbits living in Bree, having low-key adventures: everyday tales of country folk. However, TOR is a heroic RPG, so characters quickly progress into being rather overpowered warriors, despite the scenario themes of source fresh eels or judging a village choral competition. Warlock! might actually be a much better system for a rustic campaign in Middle Earth, with just a few tweaks to skills and careers and a Corruption mechanic bolted on.
The Traitor Edition of Warlock! is a handsome-looking book, but a few typos and syntactical infelicities have made it through the proof-reading. If you buy on DTRPG, note that the PDF version is fully updated but the physical version has some uncorrected errors. In particular, it still has the rules for the Career Skill from the old edition - the updated rule is that Career is always matched to your lowest career-based skill.
I was a bit surprised that there are no Critical Hit tables specifically for monsters. I spoke to Greg Saunders who defended keeping tables to the minimum necessary, saying "Warlock is in the OSR style - minimal rules relying on lots of interpretation by the GM."
I'm all for freewheeling, but tables can be part of the gonzo charm of OSR, so (with respect to Mr Saunders, who would do this sort of thing much better) here are a couple more Crit Tables for the two most common monster attack types:
To help me get into Greg Saunders' headspace with Warlock!, I picked up Three's Company, a book of three ready-to-play adventures available on drivethrurpg.
The first scenario is Ghosts of Hollyford. The PCs arrive at a community in the wilderness, best with political difficulties; they are invited to track down and kill a monster that wiped out a gang of outlaws, in return for looting the outlaws' treasure. The monster puts up a challenging battle, but the pleasure here is in the conflicting agendas of the NPCs (and possibly conflicts among the PCs who could end up serving opposed causes) and the elegiac atmosphere as the adventurers explore a ruined city whose inhabitants have become the mysterious 'ghosts' of the forest.
Vice and Villainy in Verminham is a bar room brawl, raised to a level of feverish confusion. Once again there are several well-motivated factions converging on a notorious gambling hell to make off with a valued ledger. The scenario offers maps and NPC profiles and a rough timeline, but could play out in many different ways, depending on who the PCs decide to work for and how they go about their mission.
Red Night in Fair Marenesse is the most 'high fantasy' of the set. The PCs are recruited by a merchant to steal back some goods from local smugglers and get the contraband into the city. Naturally, things are not as they seem. This is another scenario that could go off in wildly different direction, perhaps as a detective-style murder investigation, perhaps as an espionage-style theft or a big gangster battle. The BBEG that shows up at the end introduces themes of overt supernatural horror.
All three scenarios have excellent NPC profiles, imaginative tables to assign motivations for PCs to take part and 'wandering monster' tables that make overland journeys into very thoughtful affairs. These tables rarely involve monsters, but deliver theme in spades. In fact, all three settings are vividly realised - especially the limestone market at Fair Marenesse, but the Bloated Boar tavern in Verminham and the ruined city of Golethas Arzul are memorable locations too.
In fact, the scenarios work as a fantastic calling-card for Greg Saunder's 'Kingdom' setting, touching upon distinctive cults and criminal gangs as well as the fallout of the civil war against the Traitor mentioned in the main rulebook. It isn't necessary to use that setting to run these scenarios, but they certainly make you more curious about this fantasy world.
If I were to criticise, it would only be for the lack of maps. Warlock! tends towards the theatre-of-the-mind end of the gaming spectrum, but lots of OSR fans love using miniatures and floorplans. The Bloated Boar gets a set of floorplans, but the smugglers' base at Seastead doesn't. The forests around Hollyford would benefit from a map to help orientate the various journeys involved in that scenario.
But never mind that. These are three very thoughtful scenarios, each with a sharply realised setting and covering a range of themes. Hollyford evokes the mysterious concept of Waldeinsamkeit (a German word with no direct translation into English which means 'the feeling of being alone in the woods') and an insight into the fragility of a pioneer settlement in lands usurped from a declining, but not yet vanished, elder race. Verminham is a high-spirited and cheerfully amoral romp, but Red Night offers a memorable conclusion that hints at a deeper supernatural menace behind the petty gangsterism and greed that characterises the world of Warlock!
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I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..