A Look at The Hero’s Journey 2nd Edition

The Hero’s Journey 2nd Edition

Author: James Spahn
Publisher: Gallant Knight Games
Available Formats: PDF, Print (forthcoming)
PDF (DTRPG) – $14.99

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

~ JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The Hero’s Journey is a fantasy RPG by James Spahn. Like its first edition, it is based on the Swords & Wizardry White Box rules (which in turn are based on the original version of D&D). Though in this second edition Spahn expressed his desire to refine it:

“to reflect a game born of my love of fantasy stories that draw upon the Campbellian monomyth for which the game is named and then blended with the ethos of classic fantasy adventure roleplaying that has guided me as a player and a game designer for over thirty years”.

A look at the bibliography will give you an idea as to the inspirations for the game. Tolkien is quite heavily featured, though other authors include Bullfinch, Eddings, Feist, Gaiman, Hickman & Weis. and Malory. Some of the RPGs in the bibliography include King Arthur: Pendragon and The One Ring.

I backed this game during its Kickstarter and have that initial PDF release. The PDF weighs in at 221 pages in length. It is illustrated in black and white with a consistent style of sketching throughout. It is reasonably well edited though the PDF is not bookmarked – hopefully as it progresses toward its final version it will be.  I’ll give a quick rundown of the nine chapters, with my commentary sprinkled throughout.  For the most part, the rules are modifications of Swords & Wizardry/D&D. One common concept is that of Advantage and Disadvantage. When performing a task at Advantage or Disadvantage two dice are rolled, keeping either the best (Advantage) or worse (Disadvantage) roll.

Chapter One: Attributes covers a bit more than just the game’s attributes. It also introduces the dice used in the RPG – the same set of polyhedral dice D&D has used forever. The attributes are close to what is usually found in D&D, consisting of Might (Strength), Finesse (Dexterity), Resolve (physical and mental fortitude), Insight (reasoning and awareness), Bearing (charm, leadership), and Weal (Luck). Like most D&D-type games, the attributes typically range from 3 to 18. A 3 gives a -2 penalty to rolls with that attribute, a 4-6 a -1, a 15-17 a +1 bonus, and an 18 a +2. These bonuses apply to melee attack and damage rolls (Might), missile attacks (Finesse), various saves, give extra languages and spells, etc.

Characters are expected to roll a d100 to determine their character’s pre-adventuring profession, such as armorer, scribe, noble. etc. The character is assumed to be familiar with the profession, get certain starting equipment, and, if starting with a weapon, are proficient with the use of that weapon (for example, hunters start with bows).

Chapter Two: Lineage covers the species available to you. I’m pleased to see the troublesome term race slowly leaving RPG lexicon. The possible Lineages are changeling, dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, and human. Your character’s Lineage determines a variety of factors:

  • Attributes – By default, attributes are typically determined by rolling 3d6. However, some Lineages have some attributes that roll 2d6+6 and others, 2d6+1.
  • Archetypes – As detailed below, Archetypes are this game’s version of character classes. The most a character can advance is to 10th level. Humans can do this with any class. However, other Lineages typically have only one Archetype they can do this with – being either ineligible for certain classes (like no dwarf wizards) or having their advancement capped, somewhere between 3rd and 7th level. For example, a halfling can advance to 10th level as a yeoman; 7th level as a bard, burglar, or ranger; 6th level as a swordsman; 5th level as a warrior; and lastly, 3rd level as a knight (note – halflings not being able to max out in burglar seems a little odd to me).
  • Weapons – Lineages have one or more weapons they are able to use regardless of their Archetype.
  • Special Abilities – Lineages get various special abilities. For example, halflings gain: +2 to attack with sling and thrown weapons, are silent and considered invisible when still and concealed, gain an Advantage when making saving throws vs. fear and attribute-draining effects, get a +2 Defense due to their small size and a +1 when attacking larger opponents, have keen eyesight and hearing, able to better detect secret doors, and avoid surprise.

Like in most RPGs, humans are the default characters. They can reach the 10th level in any Archetype. They can be proficient in any single weapon beyond what their Archetype allows. They get a bonus to experience points and once per day they can get an Advantage when making a saving throw. A special variant of human is the Errant – humans who have been transported from our world to a fantasy setting –  as seen in Andre Norton’s Witch World. They don’t get the standard human abilities but they can pick one Attribute to generate with 2d6+6 and they get clues/hints from being genre-savvy.

Chapter Three: Archetypes addresses The Hero’s Journey’s equivalent of character classes. There are some interesting differences from standard D&D. Let’s take a look at what these Archetypes have:

  • Level – ranging from 1 to 10.
  • XP – Experience Points required for advancing to a given level. Like older D&D games, the number of XP varies by Archetype.
  • Atk – The characters attack modifier, maxing out at +7 at 10th level for a Swordsman, Knight, or Warrior.
  • Endurance – The game’s equivalent of hit points. Characters only have the equivalent of a hit die for their first three levels – either a d4, d6, or d8. At first level, they get maximum Endurance for that die type (with a possible bonus or penalty from their Resolve). They roll at 2nd and 3rd levels, again modified by Resolve modifiers. At higher levels, they get an extra 1, 2, or 3 hit points depending on their Archetype. Most get 2 per level, Warriors get 3, Wizards get 1, and Bards and Burglars get +2, +1, +1, +2, +1, +1, +2 at 4th through 10th levels. This tends to keep Endurance a bit on the lower side.
  • Saving Throw – Like Swords & Wizardry, there are no explicit saving throw categories, though each Archetype has certain kinds of saves they get Advantages for (for example, wizards gain Advantage on saves vs. spells).
  • At 4th and 8th level a character can advance one Attribute by one point, to a maximum of 18.
  • At 2nd level and every level after characters earn a Myth Point (which is used with Magic Items).

I’ll not dive into extreme detail for each Archetype but will give a high-level overview. The Archetypes are:

  • Bard – minstrels and storytellers. Reasonable at combat, educated in lore, able to do basic thievery with a high Finesse, and having access to “Apprentice” magic (magic is divided into Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master groupings).
  • Burglar – the “thief” character. Like most special abilities, thievery is represented by a number that indicates the die roll or lower needed on a d6, starting at 2 and maxing at 5.
  • Knight – noble horsemen in shining armor. Masters of tournament combat, getting bonuses when wielding a mace, long blade, or lance.
  • Ranger – woodsmen, hunters, and trackers. They get Advantage when fighting giant-kin and goblins as well as a number of other familiar Ranger abilities (such as two-weapon fighting, very basic magic).
  • Swordsmen – master of blades but unable to wear anything more than light armor and not proficient with bows, crossbows, slings, etc.  Very acrobatic and the only character to get a Defense bonus (since Defense is normally 10 and modified only by Finesse and shields, this is a powerful bonus).
  • Warrior – your basic fighter. Able to use any weapon or armor and gets multiple attacks against foes with 6 or less Endurance. They can increase damage with two-handed weapons and use their shields to avoid damage.
  • Wizards – the only character able to wield magic above that of Apprentice level; eventually being able to use Journeyman and Master magic. I’ll discuss magic later but it tends to be a bit less flashy than what you’ll find in most D&D variants. They are very limited in combat and cannot wear armor or use shields.
  • Yeoman – simple farmers and gardeners, steadfast companions. Each day a Yeoman picks a Charge – a character in the party whose well-being they are dedicated to protecting. At higher levels, they might pick more than one or focus on just one. When within 30 feet of a Charge they grant a Defense bonus to their Charge(s). They also gain other abilities to protect their Charges. This clearly represents Samwise Gamgee’s dedication to Frodo Baggins.

Chapter Four: Equipment details… well, equipment. It’s your typical list of D&D-like equipment, though there are a few things worth taking note of. Characters are assumed to be able to carry a number of “significant” items equal to their Might, with something like a weapon being a significant item. Weapons do variable damage (unlike the default White Box assumption of a d6) and have various traits like Agile – allowing the attacker to use Finesse instead of Might for a Melee attack modifier.

Armor has a Reduction Value but does not modify Defense. A Jerkin reduces damage by 1 and Plate by 5, though any attack must do at least 1 point of damage. Shields give bonuses to Defense. A large shield gives an 8 bonus though characters suffer Disadvantage when trying to attack with one. Small shields give a bonus of 4 and buckers 2.

The changes to the way armor works, coupled with modest endurance levels, would seem to alter combat quite a bit. Very high defenses will be uncommon and characters will not have an extraordinary number of hit points/endurance to soak up the damage. Wearing armor becomes quite valuable, though many Archetypes are limited as to what armor, if any, they can wear.

Finally, there are rules for hiring assistants and hirelings. Assistants are specialists like alchemists, assassins, blacksmiths, etc. – they do not go on adventures. Hirelings come along on adventures, range from torchbearer to soldier, though they may panic and flee during an adventure.

Chapter Five: Playing the Game has the core of the rules. For anyone familiar with D&D the rules are very familiar but there are some differences worth highlighting. I’ve already covered the concept of Advantage and Disadvantage – note that a character using a weapon they are not proficient with is at a Disadvantage.

Experience is a bit more modest – characters do not necessarily get experience from killing monsters or acquiring treasure. Rather there is a chart of the types of rewards characters can get on a once per session basis, probably around a thousand experience points per session, maximum, with most being less. This would probably see characters reaching 2nd level reasonably quickly but higher levels which require experience in the hundreds of thousands may take a very long time to reach.

Movement is based on encumbrance, with a character being able to carry a number of significant items equal to their Might until they begin slowing down – with heavier armor counting as multiple items.

Combat is broken down into one minute rounds with a d12 roll for initiative (and surprise in the first round). The normal D&D sequence is used – make an attack roll on a d20, trying to match or exceed your foe’s Defense. At zero Endurance a character is unconscious and at negative levels, a character has to make a Saving Throw or suffer a Grievous Wound (penalized by the amount below zero), with effects like being lamed, marred, losing an eye, or death.

Characters are subject to Despair from events such as crossing a Blighted Land, seeing an ally die, or facing an overwhelming evil. This is a Saving Throw, failure resulting in a Disadvantage to all attack rolls and Saving Throws.

There are rules for healing and binding wounds, dealing with invisible foes (typically putting a character at Disadvantage), and attempting to negotiate – or intimidate (which tends to be handy in my games, with a player who tries really hard to up their charm skills in Call of Cthulhu but keeps using intimidate…). There are also rules as to when to use Saving Throws and how to handle poisons.

Renown checks are used to see if a character is recognized for their deeds, based on a 2d6 roll equal to or under the character’s level.

There are rules for illumination followed by an extensive section in hex crawling. I did find it a little odd that a hex is the distance adventurers can cross in a single day – between 5 and 10 miles. That actually seems a little on the slow side to me from my days of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There are some interesting rules for making camp – including the use of provisions, keeping watch, and relaxing around a campfire. When relaxing around a campfire each character makes a Saving Throw, success giving the character Advantage on a single Saving Throw the next day. I really like those kinds of modifications – I mentally picture a bunch of Hobbits at a campfire hearing the tale of Beren and Lúthien.

Chapter Six: Spells and Magic detail the magic available to player characters. Wizards are the best spellcasters in the game, though bards, some rangers, elves, and half-elves get some minor magic.

Magic is fairly different from what you find in traditional D&D. It is probably best to illustrate the breakdown of spells with a snippet from the text.

As can be seen, spells are broken down into Apprentice. Journeyman, and Master spells. A character knows a number of spells equal to their level and can cast spells of the given breakdown, with Apprentice spells being the weakest and Master being the most powerful.

Every spell has three separate, but related, effects – though when cast, only one of those effects can be used. For example, the Apprentice spell Lingering Starlight can do  one of the following:

  • Blinding Flash – making a foe briefly suffer Disadvantage on sight-based rolls
  • Flickering Illumination – light equivalent to a torch
  • Fey Lights – illuminates an area with a flickering light, giving a +1 bonus on ranged attacks against foes in the light.

Some of the spells do have a damage component – for example, one spell allows lightning to be summoned from a cloud. However, the wizard is not likely to become a combat machine.

Chapter Seven: Running the Game is focused on campaign play. It discusses the role of the characters as heroes and the themes of the setting – exploring the unknown, the fading realm (with lots of ruins), heroic characters, danger, and wonder.

Chapter Eight: Menagerie is the “monster listing”. The creatures include beings such as demons, giants, goblins, dragons, elemental spirits, giant insects and other animals, lycanthropes, undead, and fey. Additionally, there are stats for regular folk such as bandits, guards, etc.

Chapter Nine: Treasure & Magic Items isn’t quite the list of magic items you might expect. Characters gain a Myth Point every time they gain a level, possibly one additional one if the character has performed some legendary feat of heroism. Myth Points are spent between sessions to grant mundane items permanent magical abilities. To quote the text, “[t]his represents the growing legends surrounding that item and its bearer. Both are, quite literally, becoming legendary”.  Weapons can, for example, be balanced or the bane of a certain foe. Characters can make Heirlooms related to their Archetype – for example, elves can make a cloak that leaves no trace of passage across natural terrain and improves the wearer’s stealth in the wild.

Final Thoughts

I liked The Hero’s Journey quite a bit. I really like fantasy games like The One Ring though I’m not certain such a game would be quite right for my group. The Hero’s Journey is a superb way to run a game in a setting akin to Middle Earth – indeed, with a little tweaking, you could use it for a pure Middle Earth game, though I’d prefer to use it for a game inspired by such a setting.

The Hero’s Journey would be a horrible choice for a game of cosmic horror or a Conan/Lankhmar style game. But if you’re aiming for a game of high fantasy, it makes for a superb choice, using the core D&D rules and fine-tuning them as appropriate.

~ Dan Stack

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