(this review done using the reviewers own purchased copy)
I have been a James Michael Spahn fan since he wrote his Swords & Wizardry Companion. His writing style reminded me of a young me dreaming about movies like Hook or reading the Lord of the Rings every winter break. I loved Brooks “Magic Kingdom for Sale” as well. Dennis L. Mckiernan fueled a lot of my M.E.R.P. campaigns for years.
I always endeavored to run D&D (or M.E.R.P.) games that mirrored these grand adventures but my players, my newness to GMing, and let’s face it, the rules themselves in D&D’s case always lent to a more Murder-Hobo slaughter everything experience. There was no “tangible” reward to good roleplay except…well the roleplay itself. Worse yet most games that did cater to that kind of experience had a lot of bookkeeping or a high lethality rate that made the 2-hour character creation period feel like a waste of time. (looking at you I.C.E.)
The Hero’s Journey 2nd Edition feels like a ruleset that might just make this happen. With some work on the part of the Narrator. Spahn captures a storybook genre not found often in gaming, affixes it to a recognizable but different core, and attaches many modern sensibilities.
The attributes of Strength, Dexterity, etc are gone replaced with Might, Finesse, Resolve, Insight, Bearing, and Weal. While these might sound similar in context, they do operate a bit differently in some cases. They follow the familiar 3-18 format with modifiers for abilities over 16 or below 7
Every character starts with a profession from their life prior to adventuring. This adds some starting equipment, a few useful abilities, and determines starting gold. While the abilities are described in a narrative sense, they have a game application without a lot of bookkeeping. You can recognize quality in stone because you were a stonemason. Simple and neat seems to be a running theme for THJ 2E.
Lineages are the choice of culture that player makes. They give many benefits similar to white box origins but explained in a way that links to a fairy tale/epic root. Certain cultures are trained in the use of certain weapons and use them regardless of class. Specific rules are always clearly stated when they change something standard which is nice. Lineages can limit levels in some archetypes but are left up to the Narrator’s discretion.
Archetypes operate like classes but each has unique abilities. Most offer additional capabilities later on if an attribute is beyond a certain range (seems to be 13-15 mostly). Some of these can be quite powerful. The line up of archetypes is different than many standard games. Gone are Paladins and Clerics, sorcerers, warlocks, etc.
That is because THJ 2E is trying to capture a very specific genre of literature and film. A lot less Conan and a little more Harry Potter and Bilbo. Bard, Burglar, Knight, Ranger, Swordsman, Warrior, Wizard, Yeoman are the Archetypes we are given in the core rulebook. They all operate very differently from each other.
Equipment is fairly standard though Spahn does give us a different way of handling equipment encumbrance using Might that is light and removes any real need for bookkeeping beyond doing a count. Assistants and Hirelings do add some new techniques for narrative crunch, explaining what assistants can do and what they won’t do. I was actually kind of pleased to see this as up till this point most hireling sections are kind of blah. This one actually gave just enough information.
James Michael Spahn introduces the concept of table roles (at least to me anyway) Without giving spoilers it has two tasks usually either informally handled or just more GM paperwork instead allocated to the players themselves. Not only do I think this speeds up gameplay but it dovetails into the next part. While the initiative is still rolled, now players have the ability to swap initiatives with each other to the benefit of the group. Encouraging cooperative decision making...hmmm sounds GREAT to me!
The 5E Mechanic of Advantage/Disadvantage is employed to get rid of the need for conditional modifiers (although I did notice in a few spots this does still happen with saving throws). Once again this speeds up gameplay considerably as you are not hunting for some chart to tell you how much to add or reduce.
The Defense stat replaces Armor Class but still represents armor plus modifiers from high finesse, spells, etc. One newly applied concept, however, is Reduction Value. Now armor will always reduce the amount of damage that is taken by mitigating it. There are some forms of damage that ignore Reduction Value but this does help to reduce some of the lethality of the game while not making characters feel immortal.
Despair is used as a Narrator tool to simulate the dread or fear certain creatures can inspire. Maybe the lands around the characters are filled with horrors and it drags on them. While this has game mechanic impacts it also maintains the theme that the choices being made and the events happening are important and need a sense of urgency.
Saving throws are used in a variety of different ways. I was a little confused at all their applications but I am sure it is nothing that another read through will not fix. Much like Swords and Wizardry, there is one saving throw number that decreases as the character levels.
Spells are probably the second biggest departure from other games. While spellcasters still use slots, spells are now given long names and are actually 3 different effects centering around a theme. So, for example, one spell at apprentice level can either make a creature feel friendly towards you with slight enchantment, make them see something that is not there or place them in an enchanted slumber. All of the effects center around enchantment but it is varying uses of the same spell to lesser or greater effects. Magic is supposed to be very rare and unique in THJ 2E. The rules certainly support that.
The final and coolest feature of THJ 2E I want to write about is the Myth and magic item system. As players adventure, their legends will grow. They will earn at least 1 myth point but no more than 2 each level that they can in turn hold on to or spend to enchant an item already in their possession. This is not to say that they might not find a really cool sword in a lost dwarven hall. But in-game mechanics wise they spend say 3 myth points to buy the cold-iron aspect and the dwarf in the group notices “Hey, that is a cold iron-forged blade! That will wreak havoc upon the Fey!!”
That idea might seem a bit weird but think about the Lord of the Rings, when Frodo takes the spear stab from the cave troll and survives, only to have Gimli notice “Woahhh mithril”. Frodo spent his myth points wisely it would seem! Players can either buy aspects and create their own magical item or they can buy heirlooms specific to their lineage with their myth points. Either way, the item becomes magical because of the time spent with a legend. Pretty dang cool!
The menagerie was kind of a neutral point for me. I loved all the descriptions and flavor but hated the grouping of monsters into subtypes similar to Dungeon World. I like them alphabetically but that is a personal preference thing for me. Certainly feel like the monster descriptions give a ton of play information for the narrator to use though.
The artwork is excellent and really supports the feel of the book. The book is in the 6x9 format that Mr. Spahn seems to favor in his productions. I am not a fan of this format only because I just do not have any books that size other than Mr. Spahn’s work. I guess he just needs to write more stuff! The editing was okay. I definitely caught some word repeats or slip of mind errors that the editor should have caught and programs like Grammarly would not catch. The binding is excellent and the layout is extremely clean and legible.
I certainly think The Hero’s Journey could be the start of something great. I would love to see it go the same path as DCC RPG. It is unique enough to be its own niche product but that would require product support and a community to build up around it. Mr. Spahn can capture the essence of a genre very very well and this product only goes further to prove that.