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The Lair of the Leopard Empresses RPG
Publisher: Mindjammer Press
by Jakob S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/26/2023 18:39:49

Yay, one of my favourite authors and publishers is back on the scene - and doesn't disappoint!

Sarah Newton's Lair of the Leopard Empresses is based on the Monsters! Monsters! rules, which are based on Tunnels & Trolls, which means that they are from a family of RPGs I've only ever had the most fleeting contact with. My takeaway after reading most of the rules chapters of LotLE is that it's a system where the players have to start thinking out of the box, and quickly, if they find themselves outmatched. Your randomizers are usually 2,3 or 4d6, added to stats than can, even at the beginning, reach values like 30 or 50, so even a stellar dice-roll might often not allow you to come close to what a superior opposition has in store. I've decided to consider this a feature and not a bug, because at the very least, it is interesting and new (to me), and it really leans heavily into a "rulings, not rules" philosophy.

Combat will look strange to anyone not familiar with Tunnels&Trolls or Monsters! Monsters! (like me), It's basically both sides rolling all their attack/damage dice (which are the same thing), comparing the totals and the side with the lower total suffering the difference as damage to be freely distributed among them. There's special cases like missiles, spells, triggered effects and, most importantly, stunts to mix things up. Stunts are free-form with some guidelines and will probably often be about trying to distract the most dangerous opponents for a round so that you get a chance to chisel down on the others, weakening the opposition. The core system is as simple as it gets, but there's an extended combat example that shows how things can get pretty complex and tactical. (You should also definitely read the example to understand how missile damage worked - I feel that this is not made clear in the rules.)

Anyway, I came for the setting, not the rules (though I think I might stay for the rules), because it's by Sarah Newton, who has written Mindjammer and Chronicles of Future Earth, two settings that are practically exactly what I would have come up with and how I'd done it if I had the time, the talent and the discipline.

LotLE is your basic gonzo ancient world stuff with a decadent empire, lots of terribly dangerous places to visit and a few twists: For example, there's something along the lines of forest elves living at the bosom of nature, but they are more like jungle elves, and instead of being tree-hugging vegetarians, they love to eat other intelligend kindreds after having toyed with them a little. Okay, there's also proper forest elves, and while LotLE clearly is a Sword&Sorcery setting, it also has the Tolkien stuff - dwarves, hobbits (here they're called Hobbs) and orcs, some of them with nice little twists attached, others pretty much how you already know them. The overall vibe, though, is more Talislanta than Westeros and more Fafhrd then Frodo. It is also more Glorantha then Forgotten Realms: There's really a sense here that cultures, realms, species and languages are in flux. You won't play a fantasy viking who speaks fantasy viking, lives in the realm of fantasy vikings ruled by the fantasy viking queen and who prays to the fantasy viking god. There's a short historic overview at the beginning that makes it clear that rulers and cults have come and gone, that borders keep changing and that a realm or nation not always equals a culture. Admittedly, that also means that you'll have to dive a little deeper to make sense of the setting, but it's worth it. By the time you reached to Cults&Brotherhoods chapter (around page 100), this will already feel like a living, breathing, complex word. Luckily, the system supports mixing and matching of disparate character elements, because in the end, it's all about picking whichever 2 or 3 special abilities from your kindred, class and cults lists you like best. (Which means that you can even go classless by just picking from your kindred and cult lists.)

And while this is a big book (400 pages) with lots of setting material, Newton really excels at concise, atmospheric and flat-out funny descriptions of setting elements. Take this NPC description:

An ancient Leopard Cultist who never leaves the Empress' side. She has only two teeth: One tells the future, the other the past.

(I'll let that be the one glorious quote to represent the fun that is reading LotLE.)

I have only read about a third of LotLE yet (maybe half, if you count skipping ahead a few times), but it really makes me pump my fist - YES, that's how you do a proper fantasy RPG! Intertwine the setting with the rules, but don't lose yourself in point-buy micromanagement, trying to represent each and every character detail in the rules. (LotLE doesn't even have a skill system, and I strongly feel that it doesn't need one. It does have dozens of spell lists for different magical traditions.) Create interesting species, cultures and organizations for the characters to be part of, but don't box them in. Make the world feel like a real place by giving it a history that creates hybridity and diversity. Most of all, have FUN writing it and let it show.

Finally, LotLE feels very much like a played-in combination of setting and system. The setting clearly flows from a love of the rules system, but it's also obvious how the setting then has changed the system, and how actual play has lead to tweaks and clarifications. The result is a beautifully organic whole that really just makes me want to play it.

(This review is from my blog

[5 of 5 Stars!]
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The Lair of the Leopard Empresses RPG
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