The Savage Worlds game system is perfectly suited for pulp adventuring. Just reading the rules brings to mind visions of mighty barbarians facing evil wizards with only their strength and steel to protect them, white knuckled adventurers discovering ancient temples housing timeless horrors, rakish heroes piloting shiny rockets and discovering forbidden planets, and smoky eyed, buxom princess wearing flesh baring outfits that seem somehow the same and strangely appropriate in all three types of stories. Legends of Steel pulls the Sword and Sorcery aspect of these pulp stories out of the mix and explores it more deeply by presenting a campaign world specifically designed for this kind of adventure.
The book begins with a discussion of the sword and sorcery genre, ranging from the original pulp novels of 1920’s and more recently the explosion of fantasy novels in the 60’s and 70’s to the cartoons and comic books that were so popular during the 70’s and 80’s and finally into the Saturday afternoon TV favorites of the 90’s. Though many of these stories and series were radically different from each other, they all had one thing in common, high action adventure in a fantasy setting. The discussion and setting are interesting enough, but any game that references Thundarr the Barbarian as a positive influence is assured of my vote.
After giving a feel for the setting and getting the players and game master in the right mindset, the book moves into the task of character creation. Although basic character creation is the same for any Savage Worlds game with just a few exceptions, Legends of Steel does not start with the mechanical process of building a character first. Instead, it begins by urging the players to think of their character’s concept, background and motivation and even gives a few examples of classic motivations from various Sword and Sorcery sources as inspiration.
Once the players have their character concepts in hand, the book goes into the specifics of making them fit into the world of Legends of Steel. Fitting in with the theme of the genre, all characters are assumed to be humans rather than allowing the inclusion of elves, dwarves or any of the myriad other character races that appear in fantasy stories. While other sentient races surely exist in the setting they are too primitive, depraved or just plain evil to be considered as player characters. This section also includes a discussion of an appropriate age range for characters and how to fit characters that are outside of this range into a campaign.
Several adjustments to the Savage Worlds rules for creating characters are made in Legends of Steel. First, all characters begin at the Seasoned rank. This fits into the general feel of the genre that, while not superhuman, the heroes are much better than average men and are the sort of people who are already on their way to becoming legends. In the same vein, the rank requirements for edges are removed. This means that even beginning level characters can take the highest rank edges assuming they possess any other requirements necessary. Also in keeping with the muscle and steel feel of the Sword and Sorcery genre, those characters with magical abilities are restricted to Novice rank powers, only.
In addition to these adjustments, a few skills and edges are presented to add to the flavor of the setting. All of the new skills are specific Knowledge skills that are appropriate to the setting. New Edges added to the game (the most interesting and amusing being Sexy Armor) also add to the flavor of the setting, but more interesting are the Enhanced Edges. These are some of the Edges from the core Savage Worlds game but with additional bonuses to reflect the almost superhuman abilities that most Sword and Sorcery characters possess.
The Character creation section of Legends of Steel continues with the usual calls for a physical description of the character as well as creating personality and going a bit deeper by developing physical quirks for the character. It finishes with a somewhat unique idea called References. These References are short descriptions or impressions of the character from the viewpoint of three different people. These people can be friends, family, enemies or even relative strangers who have had contact with the character. They are ways of defining your character or perhaps just your character’s reputation through the eyes of other people.
The Style of Play section of Legends of Steel discusses the sort of behavior the GM should encourage in the characters as well as how to deal with in game resources. In keeping with the feel of Swords and Sorcery adventuring, the characters in a Legends of Steel game aren’t necessarily “good” and can be cruel, hard and even heartless. For all this, they should not be common brigands and murderers but rather men and women who are above simple robbery and pointless killing.
The Style of Play also deals with the doling out and usage of resources, including magic items and money. In keeping with the feel of Swords and Sorcery stories, magic items are kept rare and filled with a sense of wonder. A character might get his hands on a single magic sword or cloak but should not be born down by a large supply of magic items. These few magic items the characters get their hands on should be fairly unique and have their own history instead of just being called a +1 longsword or cloak of invisibility. Rather, they should be the Sword of Nine Kings or the Master Thief’s Cloak. Though mechanically the items are the same, giving magic items a name, history and life in the game world makes them far more memorable and treasured than just a gadget that makes the characters more effective. Money likewise is meant to be kept rare. Although the characters are quite likely to come into a fortune or two during their quests, especially when investigating ancient ruins or rescuing a ruler’s kingdom for him, nothing is more boring than becoming a rich man or king. Sitting around on top of a giant pile of gold is not as interesting as gaining that giant pile of gold, or gaining a new giant pile of gold. To this end, though GMs are encouraged to pass out plenty of coin, gems and other treasures, they are also encouraged to find numerous ways to get those treasures out of the characters. The players should be informed of this at the beginning and allowed to enjoy their money, but that enjoyment should come in the form of wenches and wine rather than saving up to buy a castle or a better magic sword.
Although all of this adds to the flavor of the game, it could apply to any Swords and Sorcery campaign. What makes Legends of Steel unique is the Campaign section of the book and the description of Erisa, the world in which the game takes place. It starts with a section called, appropriately enough, the World of Erisa. Descriptions of several dozen cities, countries and locations follow. The description of each of these locations includes sections fleshing out their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities for the characters and threats to that location both internal and external. These descriptions are fairly bare bones and are only approximately a page long, leaving plenty of room for GMs to flesh the locations out for themselves. However, there is plenty of information given for the GM to hang this flesh on. Additionally there is a complex web of relationships and politics between the assorted locations and nations. This should give the GM and players plenty of interesting plot hooks to explore.
After the locations, a similarly sparse but interesting discussion of the gods of the world of Erisa is provided. These listings are even shorter than the listings for the locations, with each deity given only paragraph description of their areas of interest and a few of the duties and personalities of their followers. In both these sections there is just enough information to give players and GM’s an idea of the flavor of the world without flooding them with facts and details that could get in the way of their campaign.
An adventure follows the World of Erisa section of the book. It is, appropriately enough, a rousing tale of river pirates, slave girls and even a strange but alluring witch woman. The heroes are expected to behave not so much as good guys but as not-quite-as-bad guys. The adventure is quite loose and essentially only gives the GM the opening few scenes with a hint at ways the characters can solve the conflict presented. It does, however, have a rather detailed cast of NPCs with their own (often conflicting) motivations. Essentially, the GM is given all the moving parts necessary to design an adventure to taste.
The book ends with a handful of sample characters and this is where I will mention my first criticism of the book. Although the characters have fairly detailed back stories and interesting motivations and are about as diverse as characters can be in such a setting, they are seem to just be the characters that the GM’s friends played in his home campaign. While this would be acceptable if presented properly, there is no consistent formatting between the characters and it is clear that one of the character drawings was created on the Heromachine website. While this is not a major issue, it is annoying to see that the author did not even bother to reformat the characters in a consistent manner but essentially just printed them how the players gave them to him. This, along with several typos and a few formatting and typesetting foibles reduced the professionalism of the book in my eyes. Each time one of these issues came up, I was taken out of my enjoyment of the book and reminded that it was created by a small press rather than one of the big names in the industry. What makes these sorts of problems most frustrating is how easy they seem to fix. Another hour or two’s worth of work and perhaps having someone else read through the book would have eliminated these issues and made the book truly professional.
My only other complaint quite possibly stems from the fact that I have, likely been spoiled by Savage Worlds’ business model. Looking at the ridiculous amount of content provided in books like the Savage Worlds Explorer’s edition rule book for only $10, the Fantasy Companion for just $20, and Necessary Evil for $30, a $12 price tag is a little hard to swallow for a 70 page pdf, especially given the fact that getting a physical copy of the book costs $10 more. This is especially evident when considering that at least two obvious sections could have easily been added to the book for more content. First, though strange creatures are mentioned in the book, they never described or given stats. While this is not a major issue in a Savage Worlds setting where it is easy to stat out a monster quickly, it is a minor annoyance and even a half dozen setting appropriate monsters would have added to the flavor of the game. Likewise, though pains are made to point out that magic items are not common, it is also mentioned that they do exist. Brief descriptions of a few of these, even without game stats would have been useful and interesting, especially if they were tied into the wonderful location descriptions.
Legends of Steel makes a useful addition to the arsenal of any GM running a fantasy campaign of any stripe in Savage Worlds. It is packed with new rules that can be useful to any GM running not only a sword and sorcery campaign but any fantasy campaign and the campaign world of Erisa is full of compelling places that can be lifted out and used in either a sword and sorcery or fantasy campaign even without the rest of the setting. Erisa itself is compelling enough that readers of the book are likely to dream up characters and stories to play in the world even if they had no thought of playing in a sword and sorcery campaign before picking the book up.