Review: Advanced Labyrinth Lord by Goblinoid Games

 

Credits

Writer: Daniel Proctor
Art: Steve Zieser (interior art and limited edition cover B, below), Sean Aaberg, J. V. West, Brian "GLAD" Thomas, Joshua Stewart (cover B, below), Jason Braun (limited edition cover A, above), Jeff Ward (cover A, below)
Design: Daniel Proctor
Editor: Tim Snider, James Mishler, David Macauley, and Daniel Proctor
Publisher: Goblinoid Games
Length: Approx. 270pp
SKU: GBD1003
First Edition, First Printing 2018


This review was hung up for me by my own indecision for a little bit. I received the backer PDF on 30 November 2018 just like everyone else who was wise enough to throw money at the screen back in the warmth of June, but I was planning to wait for the hardcover to arrive before I posted a detailed review. That's largely because, back when I set about starting this blog, I had thought that I would try to review hard copies where I could because my PDF collection is a gigantic pit of DrivethruRPG order confirmations that I often feel intimidated by it gives me more factors to judge and more to write about and also it's convenient to have it on my desk beside me to page through as I write. However, when I got the email the other day that I could print my hardcover copy at last, RPGNow made this decision for me by informing me that it would be 1-3 weeks before my copy would arrive in my hands. So, PDF it is!


A little background, for those in the audience joining us for the first time. Labyrinth Lord, by Daniel Proctor, dates back to about 2007. It is based on the 1981 Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert Edition (commonly called B/X D&D), and was one of the first wave of retroclones - games derived backwards from WotC's OGL to emulate the older editions faithfully, so fans could both play original modules and write new modules. It was the first to offer its own license to authors to create content officially compatible with the Labyrinth Lord ruleset (read: compatible with B/X D&D). With a few modifications to the rules (notably Clerics get a spell at first level, and the class rules extend up to 20th level where the Expert set it is based on stopped at 14th), and a few changed numbers for various reasons of accuracy/consistency or legal requirements, it is a faithful clone of B/X D&D.

Later, Daniel wrote the Advanced Edition Companion to expand the basic Labyrinth Lord rules further, embracing popular AD&D 1E rules and classes, including the popular race-and-class separation. In this fashion, Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion (commonly abbreviated LL/AEC or LL+AEC) captured a very common experience that a lot of us had back in the day - we started with B/X and, as the rulebooks and modules suggested, "moved up" to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition - but then, contrary to what TSR was expecting to happen in an ideal world, a lot of us kept playing B/X, but stapled all the AD&D 1E stuff we liked onto our B/X games. Most of the time when we did this, we weren't being real sticklers for rule conflicts or number agreement or balance. Daniel's AEC gave modern 21st century players a taste of that same experience, by borrowing the most popular parts of AD&D 1E, but he took it a step further and made sure it was not just accessible, but adequately compatible mechanically.

For years, a huge segment of the OSR used these PDFs to play their campaigns. A metric ton of content exists with the LL stamp on it now, compatible with Daniel Proctor's approximation of B/X and AD&D 1E. Hundreds of nerds just like you and me have made whole modules and made them available for other LL players, and thanks to the beauty of the OSR, people who played with different B/X or AD&D retroclones or even the original books could play the same damn modules. Every so often, one of these legions of people would ask, "Hey man, when are we going to get a new printed version with both books together?"

And here we are. That was more words than I intended, but it was important, just in case someone actually needs any of that background info. Maybe a Martian.


Alternate cover options for Advanced Labyrinth Lord
Left to right: Jeff Ward (cover A), Joshua Stewart (cover B), and Steve Zieser (limited edition cover B)

Daniel Proctor's Kickstarter earlier this year blew away its funding requirements. The success brought with it a small list of bonus options, including the ability to pick between several covers including a pair of limited edition variants, but most importantly it means that we finally get an official unified book. Without the hardcover in my hands yet, I can't say how well it translates to the page in terms of size or handling, but I can tell you what I think about the content. First of all, let's get the very simple facts out of the way:

  • It's the same interior art; nothing new jumps out at me as I scroll through the Revised Edition and this new edition side by side.
  • It's basically the same layout, with some minor adjustments as necessary
  • The text and conventions are largely identical.
  • Daniel said he has revised some numbers for this new edition, such as XP.

This means that if you have the Revised Edition of Labyrinth Lord, and the Advanced Edition Companion, then by and large you have this content - which was the plan all along, since the big sell for most of us Kickstarter backers was finally having it all in a single hardcover volume, not some hypothetical Labyrinth Lord 2nd Edition. As he notes in his opening remarks, there is definitely utility in have the treasure and monster stats all together and properly organized as a unified list.


Let's touch on the hallmarks of a book, starting with the art. The assortment of black-and-white artwork throughout the book, including notable pieces by the late Steve Zieser, is perfectly suited to an old school RPG. It's as close as you can get to opening a TSR book without finding an orange-spine hardcover on your shelf. It's very similar to a lot of the art we had in 1980s books, and because of my own nostalgia for that style and sensibility, I feel very at home with this art. It's absolutely not going to be the same mind-bending, eye-opening stuff you could expect to come from the hands of Zak S., Jez Gordon, or Luka Rejec - but it's also not trying to be, in the slightest. It is monochrome pulp art, and it is great at being that. It makes it feel like B/X just as much as the rules themselves. That said, though, I would really have loved more art, new art. I think that would have been a nice thing to have in this new revision, more than a decade later. It's not that the extant LL art has aged poorly, it's just that there's always room for more of this classic art style, even if we have unfortunately lost one of the artists.


Daniel did the layout himself, and it's more or less identical to the layout in the earlier LL editions. It is straightforward, fairly effective, and fairly clean. It's verbose, at times, especially earlier on in the book, but no more so than the Moldvay/Cook editions were. If you've read B/X or Gygax's AD&D 1E, this is no more text than you'd find there, and it lacks the somewhat meandering Gygaxian prose in the latter comparative example, so it's fairly fast to get through even the big chunks of text. I am not a super fan of the font for some reason; sometimes it looks very dense and I have to slow down my eyes as I read a paragraph in those areas. But overall, the layout is simple and successful at conveying the entirety of the system. Daniel has gone ahead and labeled the bottom of each page as being a portion of the Player's Book or the Referee's Book, which helps with a book that is over 250 pages long and incorporates elements from two different system components.

However, I think this area is my most specific critical point about the Advanced Labyrinth Lord book, but I think it's one I am hesitant to bring up. There was absolutely no reason to expect a new layout that learned from and leaned on the lessons of all the great DIY/OSR RPG products we've seen in the intervening decade. Daniel Proctor never implied there would be. The original LL book didn't have a terrible layout. It got the job done. So why fix what isn't broken? But here we are, and I open the ALL PDF side by side with the LL Revised Edition PDF, and it's identical, and I found a part of my brain wondering, hell, why couldn't we have expected a new layout? Wouldn't the book benefit from incorporating the experiences gleaned from perusing the work of all these gifted DIY/OSR RPG creators? And that's the rub, I feel. Am I a dick for wanting that from this, despite the fact that Daniel in no way implied or suggested that would be the case? I don't think so, but part of me still feels like I'm sitting here disappointed I didn't get a magical fairy unicorn for Christmas despite the fact that I never asked for a magical fairy unicorn for Christmas and nobody promised me a magical fairy unicorn for Christmas. I just wish that this book had done so anyway, since we live in a world now where there are magical fairy unicorns and people are in fact giving them out at Christmas, y'know? Fair or not, it is what it is.


As for the content of Labyrinth Lord, well, without reviewing an entire system line by line (especially since B/X is a known quantity for most of us), I can safely say I am a fan of LL. I like the game, I don't particularly mind the little changes from TSR B/X (and if I were feeling particularly stingy, it takes no real effort to change the Cleric spell thing). Daniel writes clearly and fairly concisely and does not give himself to massive walls of text; he is more verbose than some of the extraordinarily terse OSR products out there, but I think he is allowed to be as he is defining a system and its trappings in their entirety, not writing a module designed to be splayed open on a kitchen table. I like his writing style; it is clearly informed by the voice of the Moldvay/Cook books as opposed to the voice of the Gygax books, which makes it more immediately available to the mind (if a little less fanciful). I really enjoyed reading through LL back in the day and I think of it as one of my favorite retroclones. Daniel was correct when he said there is value in having the monsters and treasures of LL and AEC combined into a singular section, too - that's a big boon here.


In summation? Advanced Labyrinth Lord is absolutely playable, very convenient, and a pleasantly complete package deal. Unlike the first time Labyrinth Lord was published, amongst the early vanguard of the OSR, it's not breaking new ground anywhere, but it never set out to do so this time around. It's a very safe, very useful book, and I can't wait to get the actual physical copy in my hands (I'll add an addendum post about the physical copy when I get it). I'm glad I backed this effort.

Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they'd all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.


ADVANCED LABYRINTH LORD: 9/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:


My vote here is just barely squeaking over the line to four screaming, thrashing, fuzzy trashcan demons out of five. Daniel did a great job on delivering what he promised, but if I'm totally honest, it leaves me wishing he'd promised more - a comprehensive update of layout and maybe some redone writing for brevity or flavor to suit a hypothetical new layout would have gotten a higher score. We're truly spoiled by an embarrassment of riches when I can find reason to criticize something that works fine the way it is. Good job, Mr. Proctor, and thanks for indulging all of us who wanted this book. Good luck on your future endeavors in this exciting new phase of life!


Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you feel like my criticism of the layout might be expecting too much? Let me know where you stand on this, how hype you are to get your copy of the hardcover, or anything else on your mind over on Twitter @dungeonspossums
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2 comments:

  1. I agree with everything you said. I also feel like there should be something more, as though this book feels a little outdated. I backed this mostly because I wanted a physical copy of LL, I only have the PDF (and am not really interested in the Advanced Companion).

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    1. Jorge, thanks for commenting to let me know. For some reason Blogger isn't showing my comment replies as my profile, but I appreciate you stopping by. I really felt out of line but it's good to see others were kind of hoping for a little more too.

      I am more or less in the same boat, also. I really wanted to have a single hardcopy volume to replace my dinged up old softcover versions of LL Revised Edition and LL AEC. I think it ended up actually being cheaper this way, too, as a Kickstarter backer!

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