Open Legend – First Impressions

Like many gamers, I own a lot more RPGs than I actually play. When I see an interesting new system I’ll pick it up and take a glance through the rules, but it’s rare for me to get a group together and actually kick off a campaign. Open Legend looks like it may be an exception to this trend.

This is actually doubly surprising, because it’s even rarer for me to get on with setting-agnostic games – a group that, as the name suggests, includes Open Legend. While I love homebrewing and improvising my own worlds, characters and histories, I prefer the rules themselves to be grounded in some genre conventions or I find them too wishy-washy – jacks of all trades, masters of none.

In a roundabout way, this is another aspect of the same problem I have with free-form, open-world videogames like Skyrim and Fallout. Creating a story that can accommodate a protagonist that could be everything from a divinely-inspired saint to a lycanthropic cannibal virtually requires it to be paddling-pool shallow.

It’s the same when you’re drawing up rules that have to accommodate everything from anime-style mecha to necromantic private eyes – something has to be abandoned in the quest for universal compatibility, and the first thing tossed out of the window is usually the crunchier, deeper ruleset.


An Open Door

So how does Open Legend avoid this?

On a fundamental level, it all works around the designer’s excellent approach to the cliches and tropes that crop up again and again in the kind of settings that people want to play around with.

When you get right down to it, mechanically speaking there is little to distinguish a Magic Missile from an Iron Man-esque repulsor blast, or even a bolt of compressed ki energy. Similarly, when you’re controlling someone’s mind it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it with telepathy, magic or specialised pheromones, the end result will be pretty much the same.

Open Legend works this into the rules with an expanded attribute list that combines physical, mental, social and supernatural abilities. This means that rather than determining how smart you are and then applying that to make yourself skilled at magic, you can just sink five points into Energy and start tossing round fireballs like there’s no tomorrow.

With a bit of thought a player can weave these attributes together to create almost any archetype imaginable. A traditional melee brute would go heavy into Might and Fortitude, and maybe dabble in Perception and Presence to round herself out, while a shadow-hopping assassin could sink specialise in Agility and Movement with a helping of Entropy. The actual source of these powers is – at least as far as the rules are concerned – immaterial.

This is incredibly flexible, but if this was all there was the system would be worryingly shallow, reliant more on group storytelling and handwaving (which is exactly what some groups are looking for, I might add) than actual mechanics.

Luckily, this is where the bane and boon systems come in.


Boon Town

One of the cool things about creating an RPG character is picking and refining their special abilities. Wizards get access to increasingly game-breaking spells, Ninjas start to move faster than the eye can track and Fighters get really good at hitting things with sharp bits of metal.

With no prescribed class or archetype list, Open Legend encompasses all of these into a system of Banes – broadly offensive abilities – and Boons – helpful abilities. Which ones you have access to at any one time depends on your ability scores.

For example, a character with a couple of points in either Might or Energy can invoke the ‘Knockdown’ bane as they bowl someone over, while the ‘Telekinesis’ Boon requires you to be fairly specialised in the Movement ability.

Working how exactly these apply to your particular character can be a little tricky to begin with, as many of the Banes and Boons have to phrased in fairly generic terms. Creative or experienced players will quickly realise how ‘Persistent Damage’ can apply to everything from magical fire to poison or even a deep gash that oozes blood, but those who have played in more prescriptive systems may struggle at first.

When you first open up the list of potential Banes and Boons the sheer range of options on the table can be intimidating, but once you narrow the list down to those that an early-game character can actually use it becomes much more manageable. I rolled up a traditional Wizard-esque character with access to a pretty wide array of powers, and he started off with access to around a dozen abilities in total – enough to give me options without being paralysed by choice.

Setting Sail?

So far I’ve run just one game of Open Legend, and the reaction was pretty positive.

The most enthusiastic responses came from the more experienced gamers, who were able to work out how to take advantage of their abilities in non-combat situations and how their characters might actually make use of the Banes and Boons on offer. Some of the newer players, who have only really players D&D 5E, took much longer to adjust to Open Legend’s freeform ruleset and find the confidence to try inventive things with their powers.

It also quickly became apparent that players always felt the need to try and find a way to use their highest attribute to solve problems outside of combat – seeing if they could persuade someone to talk using Entropy, for example. The open nature of the system leaves it open to grey areas like this, which may be challenging for newer DMs to navigate.


The proposed cover art for the Open Legend print titles

Still, Open Legend is a thoroughly enjoyable system that can honestly be slotted into any setting you want with a minimum of fuss. The rules are completely free, so even if you’re on the fence it’s worth taking ten minutes to check them out on the Open Legend website.

Those who like what they see and want to support the project can still get in on the game’s Kickstarter, which is running until the early hours of November 20th and includes a whole host of extra goodies including PDF and print copies of the rules and a brand new setting put together by some rather famous names, including Critical Role’s Matt Mercer and RPG legend Ed Greenwood.

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