Realms of Peril was released on January 16, 2023, with design, writing, and layout by Zack Wolf, art by DC Stow, and maps by Dyson Logos. The game consists of two 80-page, staple-bound books: the Adventurer’s Field Guide and the Game Master’s Handbook. Realms of Peril is presented as a PbtA/OSR hybrid, designed to support open-table, West Marches play. Zack has also created a sandbox hex-crawl setting, The Dragonwilds, for this ruleset.
Please note that this review is based solely on a close reading of the Realms of Peril Adventurer’s Field Guide and Game Master’s Handbook; I have not yet had the opportunity to play Realms of Peril, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Art & Visual Asthetic
Both books have a consistent and pleasing visual aesthetic: black-and-white interiors with headings and other visual elements highlighted by a single shade of red. DC Stow’s art is excellent, and Zack’s choice to employ a single artist adds to the visual consistency. The two books sport wonderful full-color covers and feature three full-spread, full-color pieces of art between them.
Neither book is art-dense, and the Game Master’s Handbook is particularly sparse. I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of art, however, but rather that Zack uses art strategically. I agree with his choice to keep the Handbook more information-dense, instead dedicating more art to the Adventurer’s Field Guide; each of the twelve character classes is accompanied by a quarter-page illustration.
Zack makes excellent use of the “control panel” layout style adopted by many OSR texts. Most of the books’ sections are confined to a single page or a single two-page spread. Any areas that might otherwise have been blank instead boast charming spot illustrations. The clear headings, bulleted lists, bolding, and infrequent hyphenation contribute to a smooth reading experience and make both books easy to scan and reference.
Zack has wisely included reference material on the interior of both books’ covers. Because both books are staple-bound, they open naturally at their midpoints. Here, Zack has placed full-color, full-spread artwork. While I can’t fault his impulse to showcase DC Stow’s art, this strikes me as a small missed opportunity; placing frequently-referenced material at the books’ midpoints would have made that material easy to flip to. That said, the full-page artwork in the Adventurer’s Field Guide directly precedes the character class sections, so the central spread does serve as a shortcut to important pages.
In part one of his series on designing Powered by the Apocalypse games, Vincent Baker lists six core systems: Harm & Healing, Moves, Playbooks, Improvement, Gear & Crap, and Threats. These systems “work by a pretty strict principle” that “fictional causes have real-world effects” and that “real-world causes have fictional effects.”
At its core, Realms of Peril is a PbtA game; it features all of the core systems above except playbooks. (Instead, Realms of Peril has a mix-and-match class system, which I’ll discuss later). All of these core systems revolve around the conversation. The real-world mechanics only come into play due to a fictional trigger and impact both fictional and real-world elements. The GM and player principles will be recognizable to those familiar with PbtA systems. Realms of Peril also features player-facing dice rolls and has its own variation of the trinary resolution system typical of PbtA games. Although Realms of Peril adds critical hits and fumbles and uses a d20 rather than 2d6, the distribution of probabilities doesn’t change drastically.
Realms of Peril does incorporate quite a few emblematic OSR mechanics: ten-minute dungeon turns, exploration turns, random encounters, reaction rolls, morale checks, and rules for hirelings, strongholds, domains, and armies. Several more recent innovations have also found their way into the game, including slot-based encumbrance, the usage die, and the overloaded encounter die.
Realms of Peril also features lightning-fast character creation to complement its deadliness. Characters’ hit points increase very little as they advance, and characters whose hit points are reduced to zero or below have a high chance of dying outright.
However, Realms of Peril eschews XP-for-gold and variable, encumbrance-based movement rates. There also seems to be a greater emphasis on character abilities and dice rolling than is typical in OSR games. While Realms of Peril certainly does adopt many OSR elements, it’s a PbtA game at its core and wouldn’t support a quintessential old-school dungeon crawl as well as a game designed expressly for that purpose.
The West Marches
Realms of Peril has been designed from the ground up to support open-table, West Marches play, and that’s where it really shines and distinguishes itself. Character advancement is quite horizontal: characters don’t accumulate buckets of hit points or stat bonuses as they advance. Instead, the breadth of their capability expands, meaning that low-level and high-level characters can easily adventure together.
The advancement system rewards exploration and calculated risk, and there’s a robust system for downtime activities. And a detailed quest system encourages players to proactively set character goals. Zack even addresses how to handle characters that do not successfully return to the refuge by the end of the session: they become stranded. A downtime action must be expended to rescue them, and additional consequences are likely.
The class system is another highlight of Realms of Peril. Each time a character gains a level, they may gain one talent from any class. I quite like this take on classes, and I expect it’ll greatly appeal to those wanting a rules-light fantasy adventure game with more character-building options than OSR games tend to offer.
From a game-design perspective, I do think there’s inconsistency in the quality of talents. My favorite talents offer open-ended, utilitarian abilities that require creativity from players to make the most of them. This Druid talent is a good example:
Wildvision: You can see through the eyes of a nearby animal, as well as hear, smell, and feel what they do.
I quite like this Wizard talent as well:
Animated servants: If you control a stronghold, you animate 6d6 pieces of mundane furniture, kitchenware, and household items to act as servants. They gain speech and personality while animated if desired.
Other talents provide mechanical benefits but rely on fictional triggers. These are fine, if a bit bland. Here’s an Assassin talent as an example:
Dark Stalker: While lurking in shadow or darkness, you inflict +2 damage to any damage rolls.
And another example, this time a Cavalier talent:
Strategy: If you take a few minutes to formulate a battle plan, allies get +1 to any one roll that follows that plan.
My least favorite talents bestow a mechanical benefit without requiring a fictional trigger. I particularly dislike talents that allow a character to treat rolls as skilled unconditionally. (For skilled rolls, results that would yield failure instead yield a partial success). See this Ranger talent as an example:
Survivalist: Checks to navigate, track, forage, hunt, or fish are skilled.
While this talent does not mitigate complications that can arise while tracking, hunting, etc., it does all but eliminate the possibility of becoming lost or starving.
One other aspect of Realms of Peril that I greatly appreciate is its approachability. The presentation of the rules, the extensive guidelines and principles for players and the GM alike, and the example of play in the Adventurer’s Field Guide make the game highly accessible. So much so that I expect a group brand new to tabletop role-playing games could play Realms of Peril without much difficulty.
Other aspects of the system I appreciated by won’t dedicate a full section to include:
- I love conditions: they’re a flexible GM tool that links fictional blights with mechanical maluses simply and intuitively.
- The random character backgrounds are fun and help streamline starting equipment generation.
- I appreciate the use of abstract range bands to facilitate theater-of-the-mind combat.
- The Druid’s spirit magic is quite cool and offers terrain-dependent capabilities.
- The critical hits table goes hard—critical hits will feel hugely impactful.
- I quite like the rules for factions, organizations, and armies.
- Monster stat blocks are simple and easy to generate on-the-fly.
And here are critiques not significant enough to warrant their own sections:
- The implied setting is quite vanilla. Demi-humans are presented in a particularly stock-standard manner.
- Using paces as the default unit of distance strikes me as an odd choice.
- I’m not a fan of the Train downtime move—it has a chance of granting a significant mechanical benefit without risk or much fictional engagement.
- The wilderness mishaps are too divorced from character choices and actions for my taste.
- The enchanted items are a bit bland—most simply grant a bonus to an ability or to damage. (The legendary artifacts mostly make up for this, though).
Realms of Peril offers comprehensive, streamlined rules cleverly designed to support open-table, West Marches play. Both books feature charming art and clean layout. At $5 apiece for PDFs and $10 apiece for physical copies, these books are an absolute steal. Highly recommend.
I’m eagerly anticipating GMing or playing Realms of Peril, and I may write an expansion of this review once I’ve had the opportunity. In the meantime, if you have played Realms of Peril, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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