A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: Pits & Perils

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 02, 2014

Tagged: osr odnd

James George, one of the authors of Pits & Perils, emailed me out of the blue to let me know I got a special thanks in his new book, Fear! Fire! Foes! He appreciated my enthusiasm for the game he had written along with his wife. I thought it strange that despite loving Pits & Perils like it’s no ones business, I’ve somehow managed to avoid talking about it here on my blog.

Pits & Perils is another Original Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, but one that is trying to copy the spirit of the game rather than its rules. When reading other retroclones I’m constantly trying to figure out what has been changed, often unfairly judging them on how close they can get to the game they are attempting to recreate. I find Pits & Perils quite refreshing in this regard.

Pits & Perils uses the roll of a 2d6 to resolve most situations in a game, from fighting monsters to making saving throws. The various character classes from D&D all make an appearance in this game, and are for the most part very similar to their D&D counterparts. One thing I really like in Pits & Perils is the magic system. All the magic spells in Pits and Perils have four letter names (cure, glow, pass, ruin, etc), are described with a handful of sentences, and are usable at any level. I was reminded of what Brendan at Necropraxis is doing with his spells without levels writing. The game as a whole is much simpler than Original Dungeons and Dragons, and the rules are presented in a much more straightforward fashion. I think it’d be a great game to introduce someone to RPGs with: there is just enough stuff going on, and no more.

There is something about the game I find thoroughly charming. Like Original Dungeons & Dragons there are lots of little throw away rules scattered throughout the booklet that add colour to the whole game and its implied game world. I love this entry about demons from Fear! Fire! Foes!:

“DEMONS above 10th level are individual (named) demon lords. Ambitious referees can assign names to each and have these written in books or musty old scrolls with a slight (1 in 1d6) chance of accidentally summoning them when their name is spoken aloud. A terrible fate.”

The introduction to Fear! Fire! Foes! does a great job of capturing the overall mood and goals of the game.

Many old-school games attempt to recreate a time when role-playing had already become a separate hobby (the early 1980s). Pits & Perils, on the other hand, goes back to when it was still just emerging from the historical simulations it came from. Everything we now call “old-school” owes much to the hobby’s war-gaming origins:

Historical war games emphasized movement and maneuver over special powers and abilities. In fact, most were tables of movement rates, ranges, and modifiers for achieving tactical superiority, like flanking enemies or seizing the high ground, etc. The underlying mechanics were otherwise extremely simple, often little more than “you hit on a 6.”

This was the early 1970s. Fantasy had not yet become mainstream, and inspiration was limited to the real Middle Ages, mythology, and the smattering of books, movies, and television available at the time. This lack of sophistication lent the rules an innocence missing in later, more advanced, role-playing games. It was homemade fun.

It’s interesting to compare the original three Dungeons and Dragons booklets to most everything that followed them. You can clearly see their war-game roots. So much of Original D&D isn’t even spelled out, the authors assumed you had played enough Chainmail or other war-games to know who goes first in combat or what to do about morale. With Greyhawk you see the game move in a much more modern direction: it starts to become its own things independent of the war-games that proceeded it.

Pits & Perils is such a solid piece of writing. In 74 pages you have all the rules, spells, monsters and treasure you’d need for a great campaign. It’s well worth checking out. I’m also a big fan of its first supplement, Fear! Fire! Foes!, and not just because my name is in the book! This is some good stuff, people.

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