Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Les Cousins Dangeroux (a review of the retro-clone Epées & Sorcellerie)

This is not about Arrested Development but about the translation of a fantastic french OD&D retro-clone I came to read the last few weeks: Epées & Sorcellerie by Nicolas Dessaux (translated by David Macauley; here is a free pdf at lulu). Yes, this is a review.

Initiative? What initiative?! (or how to begin a review ...)

I had this collecting dust at my hard drive for 2 years now, I guess. Back then I gave it a quick glance and decided that it's the perfect game if no dice but d6s are available (which is still true). The occasion never occurred, so to say, and the game returned to the "to read"-pile.

Now, with work being the life-sucking, time-consuming beast it became, I had time to read some books. Nowadays I'm very slow in processing new data up to a point where it produces any results worth sharing, but I'm still collecting. So one thing I did, to get to a point remotely related to E&S, was checking the systems I could get my hands on for their initiative rules*.

Epées & Sorcellerie presented (in my opinion) the best result so far, in that initiative in combat is a by-product of the attack roll. Check it out:
"Both combatants roll their dice simultaneously, but only the one who rolls the highest hits, provided his roll exceeds his opponent’s AC.
If both fail to roll higher than the other’s AC, neither managed to find a gap in the opponent’s defenses.
If both combatants roll the same score on the attack roll, they both roll for damage. Whoever rolls the highest breaks the weapon or shield of his opponent (loser’s choice). If the damage rolls are equal, both weapons break. Magic weapons never break." (Epées & Sorcellerie, p. 19)
What an inspiring display of creative game design! With this, combat becomes a fluid and much more personal affair. A direct confrontation instead of the usual "I hit - You hit - I hit"-routine, with only one roll for initiative and attack/defense (plus breaking weapons and/or armor, just because they could include it ...).

I mean, wow.

Honest to god, I didn't sleep well that night, the mind buzzing with the possibilities, looking for connections. Why? Because the main "problem" is that this system works best when 2d6 are used (as E&S suggests) and it doesn't translate that well to systems using a d20 for attacks (it's bell curve results (2d6) vs. linear results (d20), with bell curve results having more overlap, which I believe to be preferable ...).

So adaptability is something I tend to look for in retro-clones. If it's a good idea and easy to steal, it has a good chance of becoming part of my own D&D bastard-brew. With this, not so much. It's best played RAW and I started to wonder if the rest of E&S was as good as this one rule implied.

Indeed a dangerous cousin of D&D ...

Further reading was unavoidable and done fast. The English translation is 68 pages short, with the main rules being only 24 pages, the rest are spells, monsters, a short page about treasure and an appendix with all tables and an index.

Now for the content. All the basic trappings and terminology one would expect from a D&D clone are present. It offers 3 basic classes (warrior, sorcerer and priest) and an option to add elves, hobbits, dwarves and orcs (race-as-class with some special abilities in the mix).

You'll still have the well-known 6 ability scores, yet here's another twist: not 3d6 make a stat, but 2d6 do. That may sound a bit limiting, but it really isn't, seeing that those 2d6, as implied earlier, define the whole game and connect all relevant mechanics in an elegant and easy-to-grasp way.

Here is another example illustrating this: Dexterity is considered the base armor class unless armor is worn (3 types are available, ranging from AC 8 to AC 12), shields give +1. So being dextrous has a palpable effect on the game.

The magic system is nicely done. Every spell a character has imprinted in his memory allows the caster to perform minor and harmless cantrips related to that spell, to give but one more example. There's a light skill system, based on ability scores. Good stuff. I could go on and on ...

This might very well be my favorite take on OD&D so far.


This game deserves way more credit than it got in the community since its publication in 2011. This game begs to be played. Nicolas Dessaux not only did an excellent job capturing the vibe of OD&D, he also managed to create an elegant and, for the lack of a better word, evolved version of the game with more than one twist to make it superiour to most (if not all) the variants I've had the pleasure to read in the last few years.

If you never played D&D and want to find out what that buzz about the OSR is all about, check out this game. If you go camping and there's just not enough room for all the dice and miniatures and books, take this game instead. If you need some ideas how flexible D&D from a mechanical point of view can be, read E&S as an example of how it's done right.

The pdf of Epées & Sorcellerie being free, I'm reluctant to write anything really negative about scope, layout and presentation. It's functional and that's good enough for me. A bit more support for beginning DMs would have been a nice touch, because I believe it's the perfect system for people new to role playing games in general. As it is, it needs an experienced DM.

For those able to read it in the original, there is a second edition out with more spells, more monsters and two introducing adventures (if my google fu didn't fail me). It also lives here at lulu. I really hope they do a translation of this one, too**.

Go! Play good games!

*Why? Because the D&D initiative rules suck and I'm not very happy with what I came up with, that's why. They all work well enough, but reflect more the board game elements of the game than the narrative parts. What I'm looking for is a fluid structure, if I had to describe it. But that's for another post ...

** By the way, if anybody responsible is reading this and cares for a German translation, I'd be more than willing to fill that gap ...


  1. Thanks for the kind words about Nico's game JD. I agree, it deserves much more attention than it got in the OSR scene. I have mentioned to him the possibility of me attempting a translation of the second edition, a slow process given that I don't actually speak French but must rely on online translators to do the job, however I have a lot less free time these days and it won't happen any time soon. I hope your review triggers some renewed interest in this unsung gem.

    David Macauley

    1. My pleasure to do a review. I hope I did the game some justice and reach a few people with it.

      Interesting tidbit that you had to go the long way for the translation! I have to say, you did a magnificient job with the first edition. And I'd sure be happy to see that second edition translated!

      I would have offered more information about the two of you, alas you both stopped blogging for some time now. So where are you guys hanging around nowadays? Or did you just switch to wordpress?! That would be good news. I really liked those dungeons down under ...