Review: Gramel – Beasts & Barbarians (Savage Worlds)


Beasts & Barbarians (Golden Edition)
Beasts & Barbarians is a sword and sorcery setting for Savage Worlds written by Umberto Pignatelli and published by Gramel.
By Aaron T. Huss

Beasts & Barbarians is a gritty, sword and sorcery setting for Savage Worlds placed in a land filled with a stark variety of people and creatures (although there are no elves or dwarves here). As with many sword and sorcery settings, Beasts & Barbarians is brimming with heroic opportunities and barbarian debauchery. It is a land heavily influenced by fantasy stories from the pulp fiction of many years ago. And most of all, it is a setting designed for cinematic action and big adventures. But it’s not all hulking barbarians and scantily clad damsels, all types of characters can be found; just don’t expect to be walking around in full-plate armor carrying magical weapons. So what can you expect? Short-story oriented adventures resulting in enough money to keep you drunk for days.

THE BOOK OF LORE

Kicking off Beasts & Barbarians is The Book of Lore, a detailed look at the Dread Sea Dominions (the core rulebook setting). You quickly find learn of the history of the land and how the people have come to be how they are; starting with the dawn of civilization and leading up to the setting’s era. The background story continues on quite well and is an interesting read. Wrapping up the background is a time-line that leads into descriptions of the different nations, important locales, and the people calling those lands home. These people are quite different from one to another, although all are human; there are no elves or dwarves in the Dread Sea Dominions. All of this information is easy to work into a character’s background along with helping a player choose which nation their ideal character will hale from.

CHARACTERS

The Characters section contains all the new and modified mechanics you need to create characters within Beasts & Barbarians. As it is a sword and sorcery setting with pulp and heroic influences, character types don’t stray too far from the adventuring type albeit with a different flavor. There is a great listing of character concepts along with changes to skills and new Edges. The edges help to further that barbarian aspect of the setting along with reaffirming some of the Dominion’s danger.

SETTING RULES

There area number of setting rules corresponding to Beasts & Barbarians in the form of magic, gear, and special rules. Magic is a bit different in that the arcane arts you may think of as common in epic fantasy are quite uncommon and dangerous within sword and sorcery. A style of alchemy, known as lotusmastery, is a little safer. This is detailed within the new Arcane Backgrounds and backed up by modified powers.

The gear section may seem standard for all settings, but sword and sorcery works slightly different. There are no magical weapons and no plate armor; instead, there are relic weapons, bonuses for adventuring with less protection, and more standard types of low-tech armor. Included in this is a full selection of weapons, armor, ammo, mundane items, animals, and vehicles. Some of the weapons and armor are akin to Roman gladiators and give the setting a nice, unique flavor.

Topping off the setting rules are some unique changes to Beasts & Barbarians. Listed in the Savage Worlds deluxe edition, Beasts & Barbarians uses Blood and Guts, Born a Hero, and Joker’s Wild. What this means is that while the setting is gritty and dangerous, characters are over-the-top heroes with advantages over equivalent characters from other settings. But possibly the greatest change for the setting is the concept of what the characters do after the adventure. According to the mechanics (which I think it hilarious), the characters must spend almost all their money on various debaucheries prior to their next adventure. There’s no saving up to buy your own castle, hit the tavern and buy a few rounds for everyone every night until your money almost runs out. There are also role-playing styled mechanics that are determined after an adventure to define the other tasks a character performs before embarking on their next adventure. With loot in the thousands, heroes will have plenty of fun before they need more money.

GAME MASTER GUIDE

The Game Master Guide starts with a look at what it means to be a sword and sorcery setting and what types of games Beasts & Barbarians aims to create. This includes plenty of information about scaling due to party size, creating a mood, understanding the setting, and a list for creating relics. This section is a must read for GMs.

ADVENTURE GENERATOR

This is possibly one of the greatest adventure generators I have ever seen. It is so simple and yet so detailed that it’s almost unbelievable. By dealing four cards onto the table and using each card’s suit and value, you can create a detailed framework for your next adventure including: setting, adversary, conflict, reward, how to begin, atmosphere, plot twist, and climax. This tool-kit is extremely detailed and flavored for Beasts & Barbarians. While it is designed for use within the setting, you can easily apply much of it elsewhere (setting or system) with only a few minor tweaks as it’s a fluff driven tool-kit. There are so many options and so many combinations that you may never run out of ideas for adventures.

ADVERSARIES

Beasts & Barbarians contains a HUGE list of adversaries including creatures using monstrous abilities and NPCs using Hindrances and Edges. There’s really no need to go into extensive detail here other than noting the section is 46 pages long with the majority of those pages being handed over to NPCs. I find the creatures to be quite interesting and a good fit for the setting, but the NPCs are what truly shine as it shows a world dominated by humans that come into conflict with each other on a regular basis.

ADVENTURE

Beasts & Barbarians includes a fully fleshed-out adventure for Novice characters. It is an excellent representation of sword and sorcery and the setting while offering a substantial reward for wise heroes. It is written in a very flexible style giving the heroes the chance to drive much of the adventure instead of forcing them to follow a predetermined path.

OVERALL

Beasts & Barbarians is not only an excellent Savage Worlds setting, but a great depiction of sword and sorcery compared to any system. With Savage Worlds’ inherent modularity, it’s easy to add in heroic mechanics alongside gritty mechanics without breaking the system. Creating characters akin to pulp and heroic fantasy is so easy that very little changes from the core rulebook. This helps to decrease the amount of prep time needed to play. Players may find themselves a little taken aback by the lack of magic, but that’s the dark side of the setting. This isn’t epic fantasy and magic is dangerous.

RATINGS

Publication Quality: 8 out of 10
Beasts & Barbarians is a beautiful book, albeit with a bit too much spacing. It’s a well-laid out and formatted book with some excellent illustrations to support the sword and sorcery aspect. Even the dark background helps to enhance the gritty nature of the setting. I would have preferred additional illustrations in the bestiary section for some of the more obscure beasts and bookmarks for the PDF are a definite must. These are very minor issues and the publication is still of a high quality.

Mechanics: 10 out of 10
Considering it is a Savage Worlds setting, Beasts & Barbarians has all the standard new mechanics such as Hindrances, Edges, Equipment, and Arcane Backgrounds. Out of these, what stands out the most is the Arcane Backgrounds and the Adventure Generator (which is designed in a mechanical way). The Arcane Backgrounds change the regular mechanics to a more dangerous version where characters should be cautious with magic, especially sorcery. This is an excellent addition to the grittiness of the sword and sorcery setting. The Adventure Generator, on the other hand, is one of the most awesome tool-kits I have ever seen for designing an adventure. By dealing out four cards, using this tool-kit, you have everything you need to create the framework for an awesome sword and sorcery adventure. However, much of this tool-kit can be applied elsewhere  for use within other settings and even systems. After seeing it, you may never create an adventure any other way… maybe.

Desire to Play: 10 out of 10
Those who enjoy pulp fantasy, heroic fantasy, and dark fantasy will definitely find this sword and sorcery setting falling into areas they enjoy. Fans of epic fantasy looking for a 180-degree change of pace will find sword and sorcery to fall into that desire. But most of all, fans of Savage Worlds will find a great use of the system and many of its capabilities within the pages of Beasts & Barbarians.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Beasts & Barbarians is not only a great sword and sorcery setting, it is a well-designed Savage Worlds setting that utilizes the flexibility of the core rules to bring out the most colorful aspects of the setting. Game Masters will also find that adventures within the Beasts & Barbarians settings are very three-dimensional and utilize rules within Savage Worlds many settings tend to avoid such as chases, social interactions, and heroic setting rules. Remember, the setting may be dark and gritty, but the characters are over-the-top heroes who boast, quite loudly, about their adventures within the tavern after saving the damsel in distress.

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