A very good free, class-based, single-mechanic fantasy RPG on the market, based in all D&D editions. Can it become a permanent fixture of your gaming table?
What you get: Heroes Against Darkness is a free 231-page fantasy RPG in pdf form. It is written by Justin Halliday, and is currently in v.1.0. revision 283. It is written in two columns per page and uses colour in moderation. The fonts used are smallish (probably a size 11). Artistically the book bears resemblance to old-school books with its white and black drawings. Its coloured drawings have a modern feel.
The book contains in its pages all available information, thus the system does not follow the three book format. It is comprised of four broad chapters: the Player's Guide, the Game Master's Guide, the Beasts and Bastards and the Appendices and Stuff (sic).
Extensive blurbs from the publisher: 'Imagine an ancient world torn apart by primal powers. A place where magic runs through all living things and erupts from the minds of powerful magi, where humans, elves, dwarves and orcs walk the same earth, where ancient gods fight side-by-side with mortals in an endless battle between order and chaos. Adventure is everywhere. This is the world of Heroes Against Darkness.
Heroes Against Darkness is a free, fast, flexible, and fully-featured fantasy d20 RPG system. The game is quick to learn and play, while offering progressively greater options and flexibility as players develop their characters and explore the breadth and depth of the system.
A game thats fast, fun and deep
Streamlined rules system using unified mechanics
Eleven character classes for all play-styles
Three martial classes: Warrior, barbarian, berserker
Two specialist classes: Rogue, hunter
One hybrid class that combines magic and martial: Hospiter
Five magi classes: Warlock, healer, canonate, necromancer, mystic
Extensive character background and skill options
Fast character building with plenty of depth
Martial and specialist classes get meaningful combat choices through class-specific techniques that are based on trade-offs and the unique capabilities of each class
Anima points-based magic system with five main schools focusing on each of the following; physical, healing, protection, necrotic and controlling
A system thats easy for the GM to set up and run
Intuitive and clear rules
Set up unique combat encounters in minutes
Easy on-the-fly conversion of adventures from other systems
A simple ability test system for non-combat challenges
Support for long-term campaign play
Extensive GMs Guide to help run the game
Huge bestiary with over 80 monsters
A framework for quickly making custom monsters
A comprehensive world-building guide
Appendix of key tables for GMs
It's no secret that Heroes Against Darkness is firmly rooted in the traditions and mechanics of all editions of D&D. When describing the game, I specifically refer to it as a 'd20' system because most of the mechanics in the game (attacks and ability tests) are much the same as those that were codified in D&D 3rd Edition. [
] Heroes Against Darkness has similarities with each of the different editions of D&D, but it also has differences with each edition (some fundamental), and it also extends outside of the traditional D&D feature-set. As a whole, Heroes Against Darkness is probably closest to Basic D&D. However, even though the game has the same simplicity of presentation as Basic, it really doesn't share much in the way of mechanics, with just a few common elements in Simple character creation (no customizable feats or proficiencies). The biggest similarity between Heroes Against Darkness and AD&D is [the] separation of class and race. The 3rd edition of D&D was the first to unify the mechanics of the system so that the d20 was used for attacks and ability tests [in] unified d20 mechanics for all sub-systems (combat, ability tests). [It also has] Ascending Armor Class. D&D 4th Edition introduced a number of innovations that I also employ in Heroes Against Darkness: +1 per level progression of attacks is based on inherent underlying mechanics, rather than arbitrary tables.[There are] defenses instead of saving throws.[Its] attack powers are codified (instead of disparate feats and class features) [while there is] a unified experience point progression for all classes. [
] And alongside all of this commonality with D&D, the game's entire magic system is more closely related to Magic: The Gathering, rather than D&D!
When I talk about the game, I am tempted to categorize the game as a retro-clone, because of its similarity to various earlier versions of D&D. But retro-clones are more closely based on the corresponding edition that they're cloned from, and Heroes Against Darkness (happily) cannot point to a single earlier edition that it clones. I also find it tempting to describe the game as rules-lite, because it does have comparatively few rules for such a fully-featured system. But rules-lite games, such as Dungeon World Hack, are often more abstract and have rulesets that fit in pamphlets, not in tomes. Personally, I consider Heroes Against Darkness almost as a 'reference' system, much like Google make Nexus phones to display their OS in its purest form. Heroes Against Darkness is a nexus edition that takes elements from all of the other editions (and elsewhere) and combines these into one unified game system.'
Game walkthrough: Heroes Against Darkness is a class-based fantasy game whose main goal is simplicity, lack of exceptions and adherence to the fewest rules possible. The main rules of the game are presented in less than a page: 'd20 + modifier => target' is the single mechanic used for anything, with the roller aiming high. 20 is always good, 1 is always bad, advantages are pluses while disadvantages are minuses.
Character creation is pretty straightforward and takes the better part of five minutes. One chooses class, race, rolls or assigns ability scores, works out ability bonuses, health points, anima points, initiative bonus, movement speed, attacks, defences, buys starting equipment, develops his character background details and fills in the character sheet. It is by now crystal clear that the game does not have feats and skills and that pretty much everything is worked around the attributes, with situational modifiers being used if the situation calls for it.
Classes give a one-line idea of what they are about. For example, the warrior is a skilled melee fighter, the barbarian a durable melee fighter and the berserker a ferocious melee fighter. Races increase ability scores and might provide unique characteristics. It's interesting how they are divided into allies (human, elves, dwarves), outcasts (half-elves, half-orcs and tartareans [a tiefling by any other name?] and enemies (drow and orcs. They again provide some differentiation to the characters the players will chose.
One's health is counted by health points while one's spell-casting capacity relates to anima. Spell casters can overspend anima by converting health points to it, something which can have disastrous results.
Combat works with the mechanic already presented against the defender's defences. There are four types of the latter: armour, evasion, magic and resilience, all calculated in a similar (but not identical) and straightforward way. Adjustments can be introduced for enchanted items or for powers used during the game.
Weapons are divided in simple, normal and martial, while armour appears as light, medium and heavy. I particularly enjoyed a small table that lists the adjustments that different quality levels might bring to weapons and armour and that prices might go up and down. The price and modifiers of a shoddy armour are nowhere near the price and modifiers of a named one, the highest quality an object can have in the game.
The economy is silver-based, with the rules stating that characters will rarely find themselves with much of this currency. Some jewels and their prices are mentioned in a rather concise form. A small list of adventuring gear is presented as well as the cost of some magical items. Weapons state not only their price but their creations times as well; mighty useful. Simplified encumbrance rules exist. There are three categories (maximum, encumbered and burdened) and each category is based not on how heavy something is but on how many items are carried outside armour, primary and secondary hand item (meaning, most of the time, weapon and shield) and the items one is wearing.
The way movement is presented presupposes that the players use miniatures and square grids, but that can be easily overlooked. The oversimplification on the measurement units stroke me as kind of exaggerated. One mile is equated to 2 kilometres and five feet to two metres. I would have gone with 1,5 km and 1,5 meters myself, but for such a light game the creator thought that it probably wasn't worth the trouble.
Advice is given on encounters and how to resolve them, be it via combat or role playing. The powers and spells of each class take a fair portion of space, but they are again easy to sort out, with names that make absolutely clear what they are about.
On the GM section the game asks from the GM to 'always say yes' to players that want to attempt things. Overall the GM part is not ground-breaking but can be helpful to a newbie GM without confusing him. A few pages of magical items are provided, I presume as a starting point. I particularly like the single page that is devoted into making the game feel substantially more old-school than it is. It is not hard for anybody to sort out all this stuff, on the other hand however it isn't obvious how to write it so concisely. In addition to those one can also read a few pages on systems of government, feudal, tribal and band hierarchy, law, time-keeping, taxes and settlements. Some of them are totally bland and encyclopaedic knowledge with limited usability. Others are almost of immediate use. There is this 'inspiration board' at some point with 360 words that can be used to provide inspiration and ideas for future campaigns.
The aptly called Beast and Bastards chapter contains not only some animals and antagonists, but also rules on how to create them. Twenty two beasties are presented overall, even though most of them are broken down into more than one subtype, effectively quadrupling the number. The templates and summary at the end of the bestiary shine outright. As much as they appear hard on the eyes for such a light game, they definitely speed up looking at things.
The game ends with lists. Town names, character names, stronghold names, wilderness names, villain names, ward names, street names and tavern names, they are all here for the taking. Many past product s have covered the issue of fast random name generation, but the inclusion here is welcome. Some references are also provided, in the sense of electronic tools and generators as well as GM reference tables and the extremely clear and easy to read character sheet.
The strong points: This is a full game that costs nothing. This can't be stressed enough. It is not a demo, not an introductory adventure, not an abridged version designed to lure you into buying other, more complex products. It's a full system, free for us to check and use according to our needs. The system is contained in one single product. It isn't impossible to play because some rules might be included in future products. It's all there, ready for the taking.
The layout is clear, with two easy-to-read columns per page. The table of contents is extensive and even though an index does not exist, it's not really needed. HAD is rules-light after all. No typos were spotted, even though at a couple of points the writing could have been even more concise. The game can be downloaded in two versions, one with a background and one without, sparing your printer the ink.
The mechanics of the game are solid, simple and unobtrusive. Being a light game it obviously won't cover all situations and the GM will have to adjudicate or outright wing it at times. That is, however, one of HAD's very strong points. It can easily give the feel of fantasy gaming with classes while remaining super simple at the same time. I see it being used as an introduction to class-based fantasy RPGs or for audiences without prior exposure to our hobby. Learning the game is a non-issue, since there is no learning curve involved. Character creation is almost as fast as free-form RPGs. The resolution mechanism is something a 5-year-old can handle, making it great for demos to younger audiences.
The writing is concise and to the point. I am trying to imagine what Justin Halliday's background is, since the presentation of the rules is by far the cleanest I have seen in RPGs. Effectively each rule is inside a square preceded by the world 'rule'. This is strongly reminiscent of mathematics and has an extremely positive effect. HAD is a light game, thus it is an easy trick to pull. It adds however greatly to the concept of the game's minimalism and lightness, since it's quite obvious at any given point where the rules are in any given chapter. I am not sure whether this type of presentation has been used in the past, but even if it has, kudos to Justin.
Most importantly, it appears that all of his choices are based on a particular principle or idea that he had concerning game mechanics. He doesn't necessarily strive for realism, mind you, but he appears very knowledgeable of game mechanics and how systems and sub-systems interact with each other, how rules mesh and stack up and what tools one should use depending on the goal to achieve. The website of HAD is effectively a blog, and reading it from the beginning gives a clear idea of what the designer is striving for. As a bonus, one gets to see some serious discussion on D&D mechanics old and new.
The weak points: Fantasy heartbreaker is a tag that might or might not be applicable for HAD. Unfair as it is to many fantasy games which partially raised the bar yet never became ground-breaking, it demonstrates a social phenomenon: gamers want support for their games, other people to play them with, as well as high production values on either rule content or aesthetics. HAD's aesthetics are not ground breaking. Its content is good, very good even. Who will be able to acknowledge it however against the onslaught of three different D&D editions being on the market (1st, 3.5 and Next), Pathfinder, as well as other aspiring pretenders like HackMaster (whose basic edition is now also free), Dungeon Crawl Classics and a plethora of other old-school games? The fact that it is very different from these games doesn't change much in the collective subconscious. 'Not another ruleset to learn!' is a complaint that is heard a lot, even if this ruleset is comprised by just a few pages and doesn't even remotely compare to the complexity, learning curves or investment costs to enter some of the other systems.
When it comes to support, almost a dozen pre-generated characters for levels 1, 3 and 5 are provided on the website. HAD is also accompanied by the Sundered Tower adventure. It is a one-player solo adventure in the lines of the adventure game books. It's a clever way for someone to get familiarized with the system. Were I running a group with HAD, I would have asked all my players to go through it. However, is it enough to have one rulebook and one solo adventure nowdays? What is important, in the backdrop of rules' onslaught by other systems that I mentioned, is whether more product will be produced and when. The webpage does not appear to state something to that extent.
HAD is a world-free system. It caters to a specific style of play, of course, and its critters already give an indication of where it can be steered towards. This can be either a blessing or a curse. I am reluctantly registering this under the weak points, even though it's not explicitly one. It's just the perception of blandness it might evoke, since plenty of truly generic systems exist in the market and HAD does not market itself as one.
There is no doubt about HAD being a game friendly towards introducing new gamers to the hobby with its single resolution mechanic and its straight-forward rules. As much as the rules are well-written though, I am not certain that a group of absolute amateurs would be able to grasp everything; too many things are left unexplained or presume a certain level of familiarity with our hobby. It is my impression that HAD works better with the GM having some experience.
Conclusion: Heroes Against Darkness deserves to be in your library and merits to at least be tried a few times. Its mechanics are intuitive, solid and easy-going and the game has an air of friendliness to newcomers. Can it however supplant your usual system and be used in your regular campaign? Without additional and systematic support, that would be a herculean feat, with all those other fantasy RPGs vying for supremacy. Even though I will keep on playing HarnMaster (3rd ed.) and BRP, and continue considering HackMaster as the best fantasy RPG out there right now for my gaming style, HAD is now by far my game of choice for the one-off demos to the uninitiated on what our hobby is about. Something tells me I will not be disappointed.
Heroes Against Darkness can be found here: http://heroesagainstdarkness.blogspot.be/