Fantastic Heroes & Witchery Retro-RPG review

A couple years ago, back when I was eagerly acquiring OSR RPGs, I saw something about FH&W. It was billed as a kitchen-sink collection of D&D editions and house-rules. I'm not sure if that description came from the author, Dominique Crouzet, or an individual who had skimmed through it. In any case, it didn't inspire me to check it out - I was already hip-deep in retro RPGs.

Stumbling upon a couple recent reviews made me give FH&W a second look. I'm glad I did. It's cool. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I whispered, "That's awesome." to myself during my quick read-through, it would have paid for the Lulu hardcover. Stuff like the Special Critical Hit Effects by Class table. If you roll a natural 20 on your to-hit roll, not only does a PC do extra damage, there's a list of secondary effects by class. Personally, I would have liked to see this expanded - a half-dozen options per class. However, it gets the ball rolling. Definitely better than the nothing a lot of D&D clones offer.

FH&W is a big book at over 400 pages, so this isn't a page by page synopsis. Rather, you'll be getting my first impression, my overall reaction. Here goes nothing...

It reminds me of Dungeon Crawl Classics, minus all the great and kooky art in every nook and cranny. FH&W has quite a bit of art, most of it really good (some extremely well-rendered pieces by Jim Holloway), but that's the major take-away from DCC, obviously. So, why the comparison? Well, these days I judge an OSR type RPG not by its adherence to what Gygax and Arneson came up with but how the core rule-set reinterprets D&D, how an RPG makes the rules its own.

FH&W takes liberties! We get all the standard fantasy races plus a demon-blooded tiefling template which can be applied to any race the player chooses. Also a separate tiefling-elf race which is how the author explains dark elves. Interesting options for human - there's exotic humans, earthlings, and tainted humans (those who've spent way too much time studying the Cthulhu Mythos!). Finally, we're offered a few races rarely seen in a D&D clone.

Character Classes - so many classes! FH&W doesn't just bring the quantity, it brings quality as well. Anyone can list a bunch of names and copy/paste a table to show progressions of HD or saving throws. No, FH&W goes deeper. It goes beyond cliche. One gets a sense of what each is really about, from a specific (but not overbearing) viewpoint. Another thing I love are the special abilities assigned to each class. Not to the level of 3e on down the line, but certainly more than original D&D or AD&D. One can easily see the AD&D 2e influence. Best of all, these special traits are informed by previous editions and house-rules, not slavishly regurgitated. The author has indeed re-worked them to fit in with his vision. As a fellow game designer, most of the mechanics in FH&W are simple, intuitive, and dripping with flavor. My hat's off to Mr. Crouzet!

The book includes a fair amount of science-fantasy elements. If that's your thing, then FH&W is an extra bonus. If not, no big deal. A GM never has to incorporating lasers, steampunk technology, or space travel to enjoy the book.

There are a lot of tables, as one would expect from such a large book. Everything from Item Saving Throws on page 84 to NPC Classes' Progression Table on page 130 to Choosing a Motivation Randomly on page 368.

Some nice flavor/fluff text on alignments - FH&W favors Law, Chaos, and neutrality. Attention is paid to backgrounds, allegiances, names for all the various races, skills, talents, combat schools, and yet more character classes! Dear god, the classes!

Usually, when I'm flipping through a new RPG, I'll mentally note which race and class option(s) I'd choose if I were playing. Well, I just couldn't decide. Not only were there a ton of choices - almost all of them had something really interesting going on. Maybe that has something to do with my love of dark, occult things, but I predict that every fantasy tabletop gamer will be hard-pressed to make a fast choice.

Back to the darkness. Even though the title, cover art, and most of the text doesn't seem overtly dark or preoccupied with the sinister, I noticed quite a bit devoted to serious discussion of alignments, sorcery, spells, the immortal soul, religion and the gods, etc.

My only criticisms (however slight) are the following: If FH&W is going to dip more than just its big toe into the waters of science-fantasy and demonology / Yog-Sothothery, then I'd prefer it dive right in - totally immersing itself in alien technology and trafficking with outsiders and Old Ones! Of course, that's an extremely subjective gripe. Most would-be FH&W fans are not like me, I'm sure.

The language is odd in some places. Nothing too noticeable, yet at times I was slightly distracted by a strange turn of phrase or unconventional way of speaking.

I'm perfectly fine not having any monsters included. Also, I feel an introductory adventure should not be required. However, any campaign information must be gleaned from the author's discussion of race, class, typical NPCs found in villages, sorcery, and so on. If a reader is just looking for a great set of rules, there's no problem. On the other hand, those seeking a distinctive world or setting in addition to a comprehensive rule-set might be a little disappointed.

Oh, one last thing I really loved! At the start of each chapter, there's a bullet-point summary of the chapter's contents. I found it to be a great help.

All in all, Fantastic Heroes & Witchery Retro-RPG deserves a place at your OSR table, if only for the races, classes, and the devil's dozen of neat things it adds to a feast.

FH&W is also available as a PDF here.

Want to read my Q&A with the author of FH&W? Check it out.

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Authored by Venger Satanis
http://vengersatanis.blogspot.com/

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Readers' Rating: 

5