The Pagan Lands

PhaleratusA month ago, I posted a quasi-rant about the edition wars between various versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Nothing in that rant has really changed, but I did get to play a second session of the game which prompted that post: Justin’s Pagan Lands game.

Pagan Lands uses Swords & Wizardry Complete produced by Frog God Games, with a fair number of off-the-cuff rulings and house rules. Thus far, we’ve used “roll 3d6 and assign scores as desired” for character creation, allowing 1st level characters to take maximum hit points, allowing Clerics to bump up their spell acquisitions by one level (so they can actually have one at first level), and now we’re using a death save rule – once you hit 0 points, you’ll die next turn until you get healing or make a saving throw. All of these are geared to making the lower levels more survivable, with increasingly successful results.

It’s been interesting to compare and contrast Justin’s techniques in this game with not only the time we played Labyrinth Lord, but also my own experiences running Mutant Future, a sci-fi take using a similar system and game aesthetic. But Pagan Lands has been a much more satisfying experience for me than those previous games. I wasn’t sure why, until I chatted a bit with everyone during one of our breaks. I was playing with Ethan and Rich, so everyone at the table except me1 has played or run every edition of D&D.

The best way I can articulate the difference in experience is that the randomness is there to help inject world flavor, not as a substitute world builder. Just walking through a dungeon and randomly throwing things at the players is only entertaining for a short period of time; when you’re relying on such a simple system to provide context and flavor, it fails you because everything will start to feel the same. However, when the players and Game Master are working with the dice to toss out as many emergent and dynamic details as possible, then the game system feels right. This contrasts well with D&D4e, in which the game can fall back on just entertaining systems play, but is still designed to move back to that feeling of everything being about the same for an entirely different reason. The middle editions all attempt some level of firming up world detail and providing increasingly complex options, which take away from that.

There are more profound thoughts, but I’m having trouble getting to them, as I’m fighting a nasty cold or allergies or something. Something about equality in systems allowing for world and player dynamism more than simplicity or complexity of system. Something. Anyhow, Justin’s written up some great actual play breakdowns of both sessions, if you’re interested.

Pagan Lands: Session 1

Pagan Lands: Session 2

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  1. I started on the 1981 Red Box of D&D, so I missed the versions prior to that.