I recently ordered a copy of the fantasy RPG that Gary Gygax designed and published after Dangerous Journeys: Mythus was killed by TSR. DJ:M was my very first RPG, which is unusual I think, and maybe it’s given me an extra dose of nostalgia when I read about what he worked on after he left TSR and Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve written a bit about DJ:M before on this blog, a few years ago now, and I might write more sometime in the future, but this post is all Lejendary Adventures.
LA was published in 1999, when I was neck-deep in Vampire: the Masquerade Revised Edition, and when 3rd Edition D&D was deep in development but not yet released. It was published through Hekaforge Productions (a call-back to the magic system in DJ:M) and, even though it came from The Man Himself, the game never caught on. Lejendary Adventures is now published through Troll Lord Games, and according to Wikipedia there are even more adventure scenarios coming for the game. It looks like there were a couple dozen books and adventures put out for LA in all, but as someone who has been gaming since 1991 or so I hadn’t even heard of the game until recently.
One of the most striking things about LA is how much effort Gygax seems to have put into coming up with new words for familiar RPG terms. Your character is your Avatar – the bard is a Jongleur. I can see what he was getting at, but the overall effect is to just make the game a bit harder to understand. For a popular game, it is possible to change some of the terminology and have an impact, but for what is ultimately a fringe game in a fringe hobby, it seems like the wrong move to demand that potential players learn an entirely new lexicon to replace PC, NPC, GM and other familiar terms.
As I think about it, this was also very much the case with DJ:M. I suppose I accept it more from DJ:M because that game is also presenting a new sort of setting – a planetary fantasy alternate history that takes into account the various major cultures we know from actual history. But that game also had things like K/S Areas, STEEP, and Heka, so there’s that. I think that should be added to the game elements we can describe as Gygaxian, actually – neologisms that aren’t necessary, at least not in my own view. And I wonder if these neologisms had an effect on the success of his games?
Dungeons & Dragons introduced many new terms into our language, of course, but it gets to do that because it was the first RPG to make an impact on the larger culture. After that point, though, do we really need to rename the terms in our niche hobby? I don’t think so. Or, at least, no reason to do so needlessly, when a commonly used term already exists for exactly the thing you’re describing.
Lejendary Adventures clearly presents itself as a simplified, pared-down RPG, and at first it seems like it might be just that. There are only three main Attributes: Health, Precision and Speed. This leads to some odd things, such as Sorcery being linked to Speed and Alchemy to Health, and I can only think that a different short list could have been developed. If every ability has to be linked to one of those three attributes, it’s going to result in some strange combinations.
Along with those attributes are a long list of Abilities – basically skills, many of which have names that are slightly different from the norm in fantasy RPGs, and which don’t really fit with each other – a pet peeve of mine. It bothers me when the names of a list of skills come from different parts of speech, and this is very common in RPGs because it is very hard to avoid. Even games like FATE Core do this – I roll to Fight! Now I roll to…Physique? And I roll to Rapport next. And so on. English is clunky this way, and it is challenging to come up with one-word names for various kinds of skills that are all similar parts of speech. But not impossible, and I think that LA misses the mark here more than necessary.
It quickly becomes clear that character creation is very complicated, and entirely driven by exceptions and special rules. You choose your Abilities, and then those abilities modify your Health, Precision and Speed. Then you also rank your Abilities, and multiply the totals by different percentages based on how you prioritize them. And on and on. These Abilities end up defining your character, giving the sense that LA is a skills-based game, but every time you choose an Ability, you have to revise your character sheet. (This seems like a game that screams for a digital character builder, or at least a very complicated Excel spreadsheet).
A character also has an Order, like Jongleur or Mage, that functions like class does in other fantasy games, and having specific levels of specific Abilities is what lets you rise in your Order’s rank. This is a bit like Elder Scrolls, for example, where leveling up is based on increasing your skills in play rather than the other way around. In D&D, you get experience points to level up which then increases your abilities. I will say this – the system where skill increase leads to level increase is more rational, and also allows for incremental improvement between levels.
Overall, I don’t know what to do with Lejendary Adventures because I’ve never actually played it. If I get the opportunity I definitely will, though I doubt that opportunity will come up – and if I ran LA myself, lacking the oral tradition element that I think is key to learning almost all RPGs, I would undoubtedly just run it like a similar game and not provide an experience that was, in a word, Lejendary.