About Barbarians of Lemuria

2019-01-23

The past two weekends (Jan 12 and Jan 19) I ran Barbarians of Lemuria: Mythic Edition. In an upcoming post I’ll describe lessons learned and future plans. In this post, however, I’ll give a brief overview of the system.

Barbarians of Lemuria (BoL) has been around for at least a decade. Despite three editions – the original “free” edition, Legendary, and Mythic – the basics haven’t changed. Below I’ll describe the system as briefly as I can (so not very) and conclude with why on the whole I like it.

(Note: BoL uses British spellings, as the creators are British, but I’ll use American: armor instead of “armour”, defense instead of “defence”, and so forth.)

Characters

A Player Character has the following elements:

In Mythic, NPCs fall into three categories:

  1. rabble, anonymous NPCs with 1-3 HP Lifeblood and no effective armor who do minimal damage even if armed.
  2. toughs, somewhat more challenging opponents who still can’t stand toe-to-toe with a PC for very long.
  3. villains, who are individually at least as capable as a PC, if not moreso.

Task Resolution

To resolve most actions, the player or GM must roll 2d6, and roll 9 or more. (Earlier editions used 7 as a target.) Naturally the player (or GM) applies modifiers for the character’s abilities, their opponent’s defenses, and miscellaneous circumstances. Out of combat, tests add one of the four Attributes and a career that’s relevant to the action being performed: Thief for sneaky stuff, Merchant for haggling or appraising goods, and so forth.

Especially in Mythic one can also add bonus and penalty dice. Each bonus die adds an extra die to the roll; the end result uses only the two highest dice. Likewise each penalty die adds an extra die to the roll, and uses the two lowest. A bonus die cancels a penalty die, and vice versa.

Combat

In earlier editions all characters acted in Agility order. In the Mythic Edition, at the start of combat each player rolls 2d6 + Mind + Initiative - the highest Initiative among the NPCs. As usual, a total of 9 or more is a success. Each subsequent combat round, characters act roughly in the following order:

  1. PCs who succeeded their Initiative check
  2. NPC villains
  3. NPC toughs
  4. PCs who failed their Initiative check
  5. NPC rabble

The full Initiative Ladder includes slots for PCs who succeeded extra well and/or spent a Hero Point or who failed extra badly. Animals and monsters use the villain, tough, or rabble slots based on their size.

Rolls to hit use the generic Task Resolution mechanic: 2d6 plus Agility2 and either Melee or Ranged, subtracting the target’s Defense.

If an attack succeeds, the attacker rolls for damage, the target subtracts their armor value3 from the damage, and subtracts any remaining from their Lifeblood value.

Earlier editions expressed weapon damage as d6 +/- some constant, which means smaller weapons might do 0 damage and larger weapons might always do a minimum damage. The Mythic Edition uses a bonus/penalty die approach for weapon damage: d6L means roll 2d6 and use the lower die, d6H means roll 2d6 and use the higher die. The d6L / d6H approach means that daggers can sometimes be deadly and greatswords might occasionally strike only glancing blows. As a side effect, human-scale weapons fall into three categories: small (d6L), medium (d6), and large (d6H). Large weapons are two-handed; most small and medium weapons are one-handed4. The rules don’t care whether a one-handed melee weapon is an axe, mace, gladius, or cutlass.

Observations

The Careers mechanic strikes a balance between skills and custom abilities. Skill systems like those in Traveller, Fate, various d100 systems, and D&D 3.5 group probabilities of success by type of action or knowledge. The system chooses the granularity of skill ratings, and players must choose skills befittiting their character. Unfortunately some skills get more use than others, so in a combat-heavy game investing weapon and athletic skills are better investments than knowledge or professional skills. In BoL careers encompass several disparate and overlapping “skills”, e.g. tracking (Hunters and Barbarians), living rough (Barbarians and Mercenaries), moving silently (Hunters, Barbarians, Thieves, and Assassins), bargaining (Mercenaries and Merchants). A character who was both a Hunter and a Barbarian would use whichever score were higher.

An alternative approach, used in Risus, Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ), Wushu, and HeroQuest (the Moon Design RPG, not the boardgame), ranks player-defined Clichés, Qualities, Keywords or Abilities. This maximizes flexibility at the cost of clarity. GMs and players need to agree what each ability covers and what it doesn’t. Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, a PDQ game, notably provided a vocabulary of Qualities and pre-defined slots for special types of Qualities. HeroQuest, particulary Glorantha-based rules, assume players know enough about the setting to make up appropriate Abilities. BoL provides a “vocabulary” of careers but also limits the domain to a character’s past job or training.

BoL notably separates combat abilities from non-combat abilities (Careers). Some systems lump combat abilities in with skills or their alternative. BoL acknowledges that in its setting characters will have to fight, and player characters should be able to hold their own if not triumph. On the other hand combat isn’t distinct enough to warrant separate mechanics. In D&D, for instance, a character’s level mainly determines their Base Attack Bonus, THAC0, or equivalent and their “saving throws”. Other abilities unlock or increase as the character gains levels, but most focus on combat effectiveness. In BoL characters allocate different pools of points to combat abilities and careers, and use Advancement Points to upgrade either independently.

The rules for magic fit the genre: instead of a fixed spell list, sorcerers define the effects of their spell. The GM decides how powerful it is, and player and GM choose one or more Limitations like casting time, special materials, a specific time or place required to cast the spell, and so forth. BoL sorcerers aren’t the “glass cannons” of other systems; they must choose the right place and time to use their powers. Also, each point in the Sorcerer career requires the character to take an additional Flaw; sorcerous power corrupts.

So far I’ve talked about mechanics, but BoL also offers a detailed Conan-esque setting called (naturally) Lemuria. It features exotic and dangerous beasts, fanatic cultists, evil sorcerers, corrupt city-states, and everything else one would expect in a sword and sorcery setting. It has enough detail to spark adventure ideas, but not so much to be intimidating. (I’m looking at you, Glorantha.)

After all the fiddling around with 2d6 and 3d6 systems, it’s ironic that I found something pretty close to what I was trying to cook up on my own bookshelf. BoL has enough structure for new players to grasp it immediately, and simple mechanics that allow GMs to improvise in novel situations. Filigree Forge, publishers of the Mythic Edition, expanded the BoL rules into a multi-genre RPG called Everywhen. More about it later, but with some very minor tweaks it might be my go-to system for future campaigns.


  1. Earlier editions used Brawl for unarmed combat. In Mythic unarmed combat is now part of Melee. ↩︎

  2. Unarmed brawls may use Strength instead. ↩︎

  3. The rules express armor as a random value and a constant, e.g. d6-3 / 1. ↩︎

  4. Two-handed medium weapons include bows, crossbows, and quarterstaffs. A blowgun might be a small two-handed weapon, although I think they do 1d3 damage + poison. ↩︎