RPG Review : Romance of the Perilous Land (2019)

Category : News & Reviews
Date : May 7, 2020

Romance of the Perilous Land is a lavishly illustrated fantasy roleplaying game written by Scott Malthouse, set in a fantasy world inspired by the legend of King Arthur and a wide range of British folk tales. It is designed as an entry-level traditional RPG in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons, for a group of players that includes one Game Master who describes the world and facilitates play. Where the game shines is in its very streamlined and consistent dice-rolling mechanic, and its strong thematic focus.

This is a game that knows what it wants to do, and I’m glad! It’s clear that the players will portray heroic humans travelling a dangerous fantasy realm, protecting the land from monsters and villains. You know that our protagonists will side with King Arthur and fight against the forces of Mordred. There’s no question of “can I play a Chaotic Neutral Thief?” or “can I be a Neutral Evil Mage?”

Our review copy was kindly provided by Osprey Games. Let’s dive in.

Why “Romance?”

The old-school literary meaning of “Romance” is “a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural” (Merriam-Webster). The novel “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott is one of the most famed examples of the literary romance, written during the eponymous Romantic Era (1819 to be exact). It’s packed with myriad elements of a chivalric adventure story: good versus evil; a heroic knight on a quest to win a maiden; kings; villains; tournaments; and even Robin Hood!

With that in mind, I hereby dub Romance of the Perilous Land the “Ivanhoe” of roleplaying games.

Camelot, Stock and Barrel

The world of the Perilous Land has King Arthur, Merlin and many other elements of the Arthurian mythos. Robin Hood and his Merry Men exist in this world as righteous outlaws fighting corruption and unjust rulers (of which there are a few). In many ways, a typical adventure in the Perilous Land would resemble a medieval tale of the Romantic Era, possibly with some supernatural creatures and magic.

That said, the text and artwork suggest a milieu with better representation than the fiction of the 1800s. The text makes it clear that women do join the ranks of the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the Merry Men. Likewise, the artwork includes some non-Caucasian knights and heroes, implying a diverse human population.

Attributes of Chivalry

The characters that you play in Romance of the Perilous Land are defined by attributes much like those in D&D. Players roll four 6-sided dice and take the total of the best three to determine each character attribute: Might, Reflex, Constitution, Mind and Charisma. This means they will have starting attributes between 3 and 18. Alternately, they may assign values from an array of scores (9, 10, 12, 14 and 16). As characters gain experience, they go from level 1 up to 10, and they get +2 to all attributes at levels 3, 5, 7 and 9, reflecting their increased competence.

Virtually every game mechanic depends on an attribute check: roll a 20-sided die (reduced by a difficulty modifier) and get a result equal to or below the relevant attribute to succeed. Try to spot an ambush? Roll a Mind check. Try to lift a boulder? Roll a Might check. Each character will have certain skills, like Athletics (Might) or Perception (Mind), which let you attempt the relevant attribute check with an “edge” (roll a second 20-sided die, take the best result) if the skill applies. Edge is essentially the same as the Advantage rule in D&D 5th Edition. Similarly, the Game Master can assign a “setback” to a roll, where you toll a second 20-sided die and take the worst result, like Disadvantage in D&D 5th Edition.

Everything is Roll-Under

The same goes for saving throws to avoid harmful effects like poison or spells: make a attribute check, modified by how powerful the creature or spell is. Try to cast a spell? Attribute check. Make an attack in combat? Attribute check. It’s all very consistent. You just have to roll equal or under the attribute, with a single difficulty modifier determined by the rules, and maybe also an edge or setback.

What I like about this system is that it centres everything on the attribute scores, in a way that D&D and most of its clones have failed to do. It’s such a pain for me to explain to new D&D players that their Strength, Constitution and so forth, are only used to derive modifiers to various rolls, so they should forget about the original scores! Romance of the Perilous Land mostly abandons this sacred cow, although Might and Reflex scores (if 12 or higher) are still used to calculate modifiers to melee damage and ranged damage, respectively.

Battles in the Perilous Land

Combatants can take two actions in combat, such as attacks (but only one attack per round, excepting certain special abilities), movement, item use, social actions, and so on. There are combat manoeuvres that you can make, such as “total defence” (two actions, all attacks against you made with setback until your next turn), or “kill shot” (taking an action to aim before making your next ranged attack with edge). Casting spells may take one or two actions depending on the Use Time of a spell, which means that spellcasters can potentially attempt two quick spells on their turn!

In combat, characters and their opponents take turns to act, determined by the combat order roll: All the player characters that succeed in an unmodified Reflex roll get to go before the opponents (in any order they like), then the opponents go, then the characters who failed the combat order roll get to go (again, in any order they like). I like how this gives players some flexibility for teamwork. There are also rules for movement and positioning with miniatures, as well as without (using abstract ranges of “close,” “near” or “far”).

Death and Valour

Attacks are resolved as roll-equal-or-under Might (for melee) or Reflex (for ranged) checks, with a difficulty modifier deducted from your attribute, equal to the opponent’s level (or hit dice in the case of monsters). A roll of 1 is a critical hit (roll damage twice and total it), and a 20 is always a miss. Armour has no effect on difficulty to hit; it just gives ablative hit points (armour points) that get deducted until they reach 0, after which damage reduces your hit points, reflecting fatigue. 

Characters fall unconscious at 0 hit points and die at the negative of half their total hit points. All lost hit points are recovered after an 8-hour rest, and there are also rules for healing from short rests and aiding characters with negative hit points. There are also rules for special conditions such as prone, restrained, sleeping, etc. 

Tucked away at the end of the Combat section are the rules for valour points, giving players an extra reserve of fortune: Each character gets 3 valour points per session, which can be spent on one of several boons per turn, ranging from re-rolling a die (and keeping the new result) for 1 valour point, to recovering from falling unconscious and returning to 1 hit point for 3 valour points.

Of Cunning and Skill

Characters are divided into six classes: Knight, Ranger, Cunning Folk, Thief, Barbarian, Bard. The Knight is the armoured fighter, while the Cunning Folk is the sole spellcaster class. The other classes roughly correspond to their D&D equivalents. The Ranger has a bit of healing ability and is good at hunting with ranged weapons. The Thief inflicts extra sneak attack damage and gets some help with traps and disguises. The Barbarian is a lightly armoured combatant who does extra damage when using their “rage” ability, moves faster and gets some natural armour. The Bard gets various ways to inspire their allies in battle and heal them. Class abilities are parceled out gradually, at levels 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Each class also has Weapon and Armour Proficiency lists. The Knight has access to all weapons and armour, while the other classes are more limited in what they can use effectively. If you use a weapon or armour outside of your Proficiency list, you will have to roll certain checks with setback. Every class has two attributes listed as their Save Proficiencies, which are attribute checks they roll with edge when making saving throws. Finally, every class gets a list of five skills, from which the player chooses three.

All Equal at the Round Table

Players get to customise their characters further by choosing a background. This fleshes out the character’s personal history and also adds three additional skills as well as a list of starting possessions (including starting money). There are no restrictions about which background you can take – whether you’re a Farmer, a Jester or an Aristocrat, you can be a hero of the Perilous Land.

One exception: You can get some mismatches when you have to choose a background for a Barbarian character, because that class already implies a specific cultural origin that won’t fit many of the existing backgrounds. I might add that I’m not so fond of the Barbarian as a class, both in terms of “there is a stereotyped berserk savage class” and also because “it’s an outlier that has a cultural background implied and thus breaks the definition of character class.” But that’s a bigger problem than Romance of the Perilous Land — it goes back to the game’s ancestry in D&D.

I digress! Back to the review.

That Something Extra

At level 1, and at every even level, characters also get to choose a talent to further distinguish their capabilities. Talents are much like the feats that have been part of D&D since 3rd Edition. Some of them require a minimum attribute score or are class-specific, and a few require a specific prerequisite talent, such as Improved Leadership following from Leadership.

The effects of each talent are relatively modest, such as giving a 1-point increase to an attribute plus some other minor benefits. There are a few very specific talents, like Monster Hunter and Witchfinder, which provide useful and flavourful advantages against particular enemy types.

Arms Race

Players don’t have to keep track of the exact weight of equipment in this game. Instead, they may carry a number of items equal to double their Might score without penalty. Armour and heavy weapons count as two items, and 10 shots of ammunition count as one item. 

As mentioned earlier, armour protection is abstracted as armour points. Light armour such as cloth provides 6 armour points, while heavy armour (plate) can provide 12. Shields simply add another 2-4 points of armour. Depleting armour points doesn’t mean that the armour is literally destroyed; instead, additional damage harms the wearer through fatigue. A regroup manoeuvre (2 actions) in combat can recover a small amount of armour points, while 10 minutes of rest and maintenance after battle will restore all armour points.

Weapon selection is a bit sparse compared with some other fantasy games, but you won’t see out-of-place armaments like Renaissance polearms or rapiers here. Typically, a light weapon like a dagger inflicts 1-6 damage, while a lance or heavy crossbow inflicts 1-12 damage. Characters start level 1 with hit points equal to their Constitution score, gaining a die roll per level thereafter (1-6 for Cunning Folk, 1-8 for Bards, Thieves and Rangers, 1-10 for Knights and 1-12 for Barbarians), so most heroes are in no immediate danger of death from a single strike, especially with armour. In the Perilous Land arms race, protection has pulled ahead of weaponry!

Spellcasting Logistics in Reverse

Speaking of arms races, let’s look at spells.

In some fantasy RPGs, magic-users need to actively gather spell components before they can use a spell — sometimes by questing, sometimes by shopping. Certainly, requiring that pinch of bat guano makes the Fireball spell a bit more quirky and characterful. Then, there are those games that don’t have such requirements.

What Romance of the Perilous Land does is take a reversed-logistics process for spells that keeps the flavour of the former approach, but with the flexibility of the latter.

Cunning Folk must prepare spells before casting them. They can do this at any time, but takes anything from an instant to a few minutes to an hour of uninterrupted work. Cunning Folk get a number of spell points equal to their Mind attribute, and every spell preparation uses a few points. It takes 1 point to prepare Detect the Presence of Magic (spell level 0), while Call Upon a Golden Dragon (spell level 10) takes 12 points.

The cool thing is that every prepared spell has a spell form: a sprinkle of salt, or a rune drawn on your arm, or a healing salve. The game assumes you always have any materials you need to create a spell form — a reversal on the old spellcasting component rule.

When Reach Exceeds Grasp

When a Cunning Folk wants to cast a spell, this takes a certain amount of time depending on the spell — usually 1 or 2 actions. Also, they need to be able to speak and move their hands. To successfully cast the spell, make a Mind check, reducing your Mind by the spell level. If you fail to roll equal or under that target number, you fail to cast the spell, but keep the spell form, so you can try again later.

Now, there are two very important tricks in the spellcasting rules!

The first is that Cunning Folk may attempt to cast spells of any level. Granted, if you’re a level 10 Cunning Folk, you’ll probably have a Mind of 24, giving you good odds at casting Resurrect the Recently Deceased (spell level 10, so roll 14 or less) – but you can still attempt it if you’re just starting out at level 1! If you have Mind 16, you need to roll 6 or less for that spell. Trying to cast higher level spells can result in random backfires if you fail, causing damage or up to 4 hours of paralysis.

The second trick is that you may only prepare a maximum of 3 of the same spell per day (except for instant spells) — but you get back all your spell points after 8 hours of rest. A generous reading of the rules suggests that since unused spell forms don’t seem to go away over time, you could potentially stockpile thousands of each spell, levels 0-10, given a long enough lifespan… 

Arthurian, But Not Britain

Romance of the Perilous Land follows in the footsteps of other Arthurian RPGs, notably Greg Stafford’s Pendragon and Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game. The difference is that these other games are set in some form of Arthurian Britain. The Perilous Land, on the other hand, is most definitely not “Mythic Britain with magic” — it is its own (questing) beast.

There are some obvious analogues, such as Escose in the north being the Scottish part, home to fierce barbarians, kelpies and water dragons dwelling in lakes. Eastland is ruled by a villainous version of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is opposed by Robin Hood in Sherwood (in traditional tales, Robin would be fighting Eleanor’s son John).

Various elements of the Arthurian mythos get their own kingdoms, like Corbenic, realm of the Fisher King; Gore, an enemy of Camelot once ruled by King Uriens; and Benwick, home of both King Ban (Lancelot’s father) and the fabled giant Gogmagog.

Names, Familiar and Storied

Many legendary names such as Lady Guinevere (a knight here, not a queen) and Robin Hood have been written up as game characters. The author provides an overview of factions such as the Knights of the Round Table and the Merry Men, covering their goals, values, recruitment process and faction rules. This section also covers enemy and non-aligned factions, though not in as much detail.

With my admittedly incomplete understanding of British folklore, I’m not the best reviewer to judge how authentic the Perilous Land seems to be. It’s about as coherent to me as, say, Rokugan from the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. Which is to say, not very! Then again, I don’t think the point is coherency, so much as a kitchen sink of elements to have fun with.

There is, alas, no map of the Perilous Land.

Redcaps, Knuckers, Herne the Hunter and Queen Mab

The creatures and human adversaries in the Bestiary section have been designed with ease of use in mind. Each creature is rated in hit dice (HD), ranging from 1 to 10, and has a Target Number (TN) used for all attribute checks, including attacks and saving throws. The formula seems to be: TN=HD+10. 

The foes here include lowly Adders (HD 1) all the way up to the mighty Gogmagog (HD 9) and the solitary Questing Beast (HD 10). The creature statistics are remarkably uniform, which is in line with my personal D&D 4th Edition maxim, “if it works, reskin it.” Armour Points and damage per attack follows a strict progression table, from HD 1 to HD 10, so that there are only 10 different sets of stats. The creatures’ special abilities (such as shapeshifting, invisibility, or special attack effects) provide variety. Some creatures have more than a single attack per turn, and a few have spells prepared.

Although the toughest combat challenges in the book top off at 10 HD/levels, there is clearly room to expand. Players seem likely to be able to vanquish Mordred or the Questing Beast long before their characters reach level 10, which means the Game Master should consider devising their own adversaries that go to 11…and beyond.

Guiding the Quest

Considering this book is a 250+ page trade format hardcover, it manages to be complete enough for newcomers. The Game Master advice covers different campaign flavours and genres, tips for both narrative and tactical play styles, and a step-by-step guide to creating adventures as well as running them. This is all basic but solid advice for novice roleplayers.

There are other sections I won’t cover in too much detail: two and a half dozen magical treasures, many of them unique; a pantheon of 10 deities inspired by Celtic gods of old; and a timeline of the past conflicts and upheavals of a surprisingly young world (only 1000+ years old).

A few issues: Does the optional experience point system scale up well from level 1 to 10? Not at higher levels, since experience requirements go up exponentially while experience gains are linear. But the game provides level gaining by quest completion as the first option, so that’s fine. Is there any guidance on how much treasure to give as reward for quests? No.

Could there be more details on political intrigues between the kingdoms? Maybe, but I think that too much backstabbing could dilute the “heroic” nature of the game. That way lies Rokugan… let’s not go there.

Our Opinion on the Perilous Land

While the setting is in some ways familiar, the game system puts a clever — and mechanically consistent — spin on the traditional d20-based level-and-class roleplaying game. We should also mention that the design, layout and editing are excellent. The book features plenty of vivid painted artwork by John McCambridge, Alan Lathwell, and David Needham, often evoking the themes of Romantic chivalry.

A strong entry into roleplaying games for Osprey Publishing, one of its first two such books (the other being Paleomythic).

The author, Scott Malthouse, has a blog, Trollish Delver, where he writes cool things about roleplaying.