As I wrote about late last year, I finally had a chance to run a campaign of Cubicle 7's Lone Wolf Adventure Game after picking up the boxed set in 2015. That the scheduled start of the campaign happened to coincide with Joe Dever's unfortunate passing was sadly appropriate.
As stated in the above-linked post, the Lone Wolf series was my introduction to both heroic fantasy and adventure gaming. The world of Magnamund and the Kai Lords has seen two previous RPG iterations, both from Mongoose Publishing. The original OGL/d20 version missed the mark of capturing Magnamund's unique charms, in my opinion. The second attempt, based on the game book mechanics, did a much better job, but was almost too bare-bones in its mechanical implementation and graphic design.
After acquiring the Lone Wolf license, Cubicle 7 followed in the footsteps of Mongoose's second iteration but built upon those foundations to create a solid rules-lite fantasy game presented in a gorgeous package. I ran my group through the two adventures included in the core box set as well as the three adventures presented in Adventures of the Kai. These five adventures are sufficient to provide a full spectrum of advancement from Kai Initiates to full-fledged Kai Lords using the basic scheme presented in the game. (There is an optional advancement for those looking for longer campaigns of 20 sessions or more.)
My experiences are based on running the "core campaign concept" supported by the box set: that of a group where everyone plays Kai monks. Although I own the Heroes of Magnamund supplement (which presents a variety of new character types), we didn't get a chance to dip into that.
I ran the five adventures over the course of seven sessions. My player-group consisted of two old friends: Alex, who was familiar with the Lone Wolf series, and Tim, who had no experience with the property whatsoever.
Throughout the course of the campaign, Alex repeatedly commented that the system and the adventures' structure both did a good job of evoking the experience of reading the books, and I agree for the most part. I would have liked to see the adventures stretch out a bit more, as they all take place inside Sommerlund (with one exception being a side-trek to the Wildlands) and tend to feature either bandits, undead, or both. And I would have liked to see more encounters with Giaks and other forces of the Darklords than what we're presented with.
Having said that, the adventures do a good job of presenting a variety of activities, from thoughtful investigation to large set-piece battles, covering everything from desolate wastes to trackless forests and hills to bustling cities. The experience of running the campaign made me fall in love with Magnamund all over again and sparked a desire to run lots more adventures in the world, which remains, in my opinion, the most interesting of the many high-fantasy game worlds that emerged out of the 80s.
There's also an immediate sense of what differentiates a Kai-centered campaign from your more typical D&D fare. Rather than a ragtag band of reluctant zeroes-to-heroes (or murder hobos...), even the lowest Kai Initiate is going to provoke strong reactions, either of respect and admiration or spite and fear. These are not anonymous 1st-level nobodies! Also, Kai-centered adventures are completely different from your usual dungeon bashes. Motivations include dispensing justice and maintaining order; acquisition of material wealth is actively shunned. As a result, there is far less "kick in the door and kill the monsters" action, and much more investigation and inquiry.
What of the mechanics, then? The basic game-book system, with its two (or three) attributes and resolution based on a single die roll (or pick from a Random Number Table, as the case may be) is certainly far below the usual standard of complexity found in other fantasy RPGs. Yet the game contains an "advanced" version (called Master Level) that adds a nice layer of relative complexity: the introduction of Willpower points, Traits, Skills, and a couple other small tweaks. There's also a neat system for customizing equipment that gives every GM (Narrator in this game) and player the opportunity to give their weapons a bit of personality and a mechanical difference in an otherwise dirt-simple combat system.
It's worth noting that the Narrator never rolls dice (or picks a number...); combat, just like in the game books, is determined solely by the player(s) in a fight, with the Narrator simply interpreting the outcomes from the Combat Results Table in whatever colorful language they care to come up with. Unlike in the books, where it was ever just the eponymous Lone Wolf against one or more opponents, the nature of tabletop RPG dictates that sometimes combat gets a bit complex, with various heroes and villains interacting in unexpected ways. Expect to keep a notepad at your side to jot down combat order and details of who has acted and who hasn't; use of miniatures or a virtual board would not go awry. It really isn't any more complicated that any other combat system, but because of the one-roll nature of the resolution it took a little getting used to. As long as everyone at the table knows the basics, it's not to hard to get a hang of, though.
My chief complaint, again relating to the multi-player nature of the game, is that, with every Kai Initiate starting with five Disciplines, it was no trick to have every Discipline covered right out the gate, even with only two players at the table. With a typical group of 4-6 players, you would have multiple iterations of nearly every Discipline, I should think.
It's not a huge problem, but it doesn't offer much in the way of niche protection. Furthermore, because Disciplines often function like "cheat codes" that allow characters to bypass hazards or hone in on core clues ("...if a character has Tracking, he notices this automatically"), we lose the tension of the original game books, where your choice of Disciplines could have a major impact on how you fared in the forthcoming adventure. (If you elected not to take, say, Tracking and the book ended up calling for navigating through the wild, you were really screwed!) With Disciplines represented multiple times over, that tension is no longer there. Obviously, a mixed group with only one Kai Lord would not have this issue, but the core game assumes everyone will be playing Kai!
There was a very good reason, from the perspective of game balance, to give Lone Wolf five Disciplines, but I think the RPG might have been better served by paring back the number of starting Disciplines to two or three.
One point I'll make in the game's favor in this regard: Disciplines do more as you advance, so starting with a particular Discipline right out the gate does carry an advantage. I just don't see it as a big enough advantage to offset the cons presented above.
Ultimately, I'm picking nits. We had a fun time with the game, and the LWAG line is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in running campaigns set in Magnamund. Indeed, the system is so simple, it would be quite easy to take the material here and adapt it to other systems. A few ideas I've had:
- Magnamund, as mentioned, is a classic of high-fantasy world-building, and would make a fine setting for a D&D 5e campaign. There's even a very nice Kai Lord class someone worked up. If you can get your hands on the old Mongoose d20 version, you could convert monsters out of that, or simply wing it using the material from the LWAG sources.
- As mentioned above, the LWAG adventures do a good job of reinforcing the role of the Kai as investigators and enforcers. I could see using the GUMSHOE system to run some interesting fantasy-world mysteries. Heck, Kai Disciplines in LWAG practically act like GUMSHOE's Investigative Abilities as it is!
- Finally, not so much a different system as a different campaign structure: Kai Initiates usually begin their training at an early age (7 or 8). If one wanted to a "magical academy/school story" in the vein of Hogwarts, running a Kai Monastery-focused campaign that started with the Initiates manifesting their first Disciplines around age 11 would be a fun and challenging change of pace easily accommodated by the existing system.