Seven Voyages of Zylarthen

There is an Old School rules system that is called Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, by one Oakes Spalding. “Zylarthen” might ring a bell for many gamers, because in the original Dungeons & Dragons (0e) rules from 1974 there was a sample character, a Magic User called Xylarthen, who apparently got referenced in several later works. Xylarthen with X, in that manner, turned into some kind of insider wink for those who knew the Original DnD rules in depth. Who Zylarthen with Z is, though, remains a mystery, but it must be a fighting man, judging by the little example texts strewn about in the rules.

The Seven Voyages of Zylarthen rules are an expanded game, quite close in spirit and even to the written rules of to the Original D&D rules of the 1970ies, but with some changes and some added atmosphere that puts more stress on wonder and adventure as opposed to tactical movement, stressing more the feel of Dying Earth or the 1001 Tales of Sheherazade than gold-hungry dungeon delving. However, some tactical components are strongly present too, especially in the way of weapon choice and actions in combat. And the hunger for gold is fed by the fact that the game is silver standard, making gold even more precious.

The choice of the Art also supports the Sheherazade-vibe:

Super Size

The Seven Voyages of Zylarthen are organised in four books, “Characters & Combat”, a “Book of Monsters”, a “Book of Magic”, and a book describing “The Campaign” play. Thematically it handles the same aspects of a game, in almost the same number of books, but in quite a bit more pages.

More than three times the page count, even!

And with the same size of cover images and a relatively compatible typeset. So what is the difference? Where do the extra pages come from?

More Magic

Well, for one, it has a lot more magic spells. 150 in the original version of Dungeons & Dragons, and almost 300 spells in the consolidated and corrected, but otherwise content-wise un-changed re-print of the Seven Voyages. Magic Users even start with more than one spell: They all get “Read Magic”, which is sensible, and “Magic” as a language spoken only by magic users and Elves. And then they get as many spells as they can learn languages, based on the INT stat. In other words, INT minus 10, with a minimum of 1. And 20 of them per level, just in the basic Book of Magic… which are later expanded even further with the Magic Addendum.

What spells are these? The addition of various new or more detailed options that fit very well with any ODnD game. One example would be Dancing Lights, a very well known spell these days, which basically offers the caster one or three independently floating light sources, or rather, six of them in the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. There are also a great number of deviations from standard spells. Just one example being magic missile, which gives the caster three magic arrows, which do not hit automatically. Rather, they are slung as if shot with a +1 magical bow. They can miss, and they can accidentally hit friends.

And some spells that are not your usual fare. Like here, “Hurrah!” nested between some standard spells.

So knowing the spells of any D&D edition intimately will not tell you what magic will do in the 7 Voyages: Take your time and familiarise yourself with the special ins and outs of this rules set before playing. Like here, the last two sentences:

More Magic Users (sort of)

On first glance, the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen appear to be one more of the rules sets that kicks the cleric. I see anti-cleric arguments all the time, which makes me naturally oppose them. (I am contrarian like that.) With everyone declaring the cleric useless and outdated, it strikes me as unimaginative and bland to follow in that same mold, so I like clerics handled well.

Things are a bit different, and more complex, in Zylarthen.

The players are fighting men, Magic Users or Thieves. But with Magic Users, there are special variants: Apart from the classic Magic User, there are witches and (high) priests of various deities. These are generally NPCs, as they are not wandering adventurers but bound to a certain locale, by custom or by professional responsibility. Witches have their own spell pool, and are generally of level 11 or better. They also, apparently, are related to giants, even though they are smaller. But it explains why they are such formidable enemies! Witches in the Seven Voyages are captivating and interesting, a wasted opportunity not to employ these mysterious monstrous/interesting entities in a campaign setting.

High Priests (and Priestesses!) do not cast spells; instead, they have powers that they can call upon. There are also Magi NPCs. Details about all those are handled in the Monster Book and in the Magic Addendum.

What I am trying to say is that the enormous wealth of spells and the likewise enormous wealth of hints at gods, godlets, demons, and priestlings suggests that magic users can go after a certain theme, and one of those themes can be a priestly caster. It does not say so outright, and what the author thinks of the matter is not known to me, but Seven Voyages makes religious casters a common and important thing in the implied setting … yet, it makes them casters — not the holy warriors that D&D features (twice even, with the addition of the Paladin as an even more fighting-oriented religious warrior than the maul-wielding “cleric”.) Zylarthen sees religion as a mystic’s domain, not the domain of a crusader.

Turning Undead

The relegation of Priests and High Priests to the realm of NPC-dom and the removal of a dedicated cleric class from the setting opens up a question: What about the undead? The answer comes in two steps: All Zylarthen-characters are supposed to be lawful. And all lawful characters can turn undead. It is not the job title, it is the faith.

More Monsters

Comparing the Original D&D monster list and the Zylarthen Monster List, Zylarthen has more – the well known staple monsters as well as some unusual additions – and goes in deep to describe them and their habits. Unusual Monsters include the Ogre Magi, highly intelligent relatives of the conventional Ogre. The booklet also goes on at length about evil wizards in their towers, jousting knights and blackguards, and Barbarians and Amazons. Amazons, by the way, get a +1 bonus to hit with missile weapons if they alter their appearance in the way the Greek said they would. Monsters usually have d6 HDs as befits a monster of the Original style, but some of them have special notes boosting their HDs up to eight- or even to ten-siders.

I had never heard of Hecantontarchs before. Now I have … but sadly, only in the Index, because the actual monster entry is not there [Found it, later: It is not a monster but instead, one of the ranks of Magic Users — like “Malefics”. For some reason, a number of these level titles have found their way into the Monster Index, without accompanying entries. Well, so be it]. Similarly, “priests” who are not “high”, are found in the monster index, but have no entrance among the P’s. [Edit: Priests are found as “Evil Priests” under E.] “Haruspices” are another such example. So there is still room to improve for the monster index.

To determine what enemies carry and wear, there are random tables that determine armor and arms and more with the throw of a d20.

More trouble for Thieves

The “Hide in Shadows” skill of the Thief is nerfed by demanding the Thief to be unencumbered(!) and motionless. Honestly, an unencumbered thief is a thief who has failed in his mission. And a motionless thief is a thief who gets no-where. Anyway…

Rogues on Booster

On the plus side, picking locks has a static chance of 4 in 6. They start high and stay high.

“Enhanced attack” is an option whenever the thief attacks “by surprise”. That is more versatile than in other strictly Old School systems. And it also has a lot more punch. The thief’s “sneak attack” bonus at level one (“Borrower”) is not +4, it is +9. At level 5 (“Courser”) it jumps to +16!

And the thieves have a skill called “Luck”, available “once per combat”, to re-roll any die result or call for a re-roll on the part of his foes.

I like static thief skills better than those percentage rises, so here is a plus for this rules set… although there is a bigger plus for Delving Deeper, which gives the thief more options (all of the thief skills, not just this one skill) at 3 in 6.

More extra rules

A point of note: The Seven Voyages of Zylarthen have their own encumbrance system that is faintly reminiscent of World of Darkness, with numbers of dots. A dagger has an empty dot, because it does not really count for encumbrance. But if you take more than one dagger, the additional daggers each make 1 dot of encumbrance. A sword also makes one, a morning star two, a battle axe three, a mail armor four dots of encumbrance. No more than three weapons can be carried without penalty. Up to 5 dots mean unencumbered, but if even one of those items is more than 1 single dot, then we automatically go up to light encumbrance. So this is a bit of expanded bookkeeping that I am not keen about… however, I am a tough case because I don’t like bookkeeping in general.

Where the game tries to keep bookkeeping in check is with money: Characters have to “buy” their levels, which means, some XP they gain through killing, but others they get through “carousing” = “spending” money. PCs get 1 XP for 1 silver spent, NPCs get 1 XP for 2 silvers spent.

Speaking even more of bookkeeping, taking a page out of Chainmail or 1e, the Seven Voyages have attack matrices, separate ones for melee or missile fire, and give different weapons different to-hit-values! In other words, no easy Thac0 here, but tables to check. At level 1, you hit AC 0 with a staff on a roll of 21, unarmed on 19, and with a dagger on 20. A morning star makes that 18. Some influence of 1e with the huge table of weapons and their different effectiveness against different armor classes? Either way, with levelling come to-hit-bonuses eventually, so at some point you will be able to hit a guy meaningfully with a stick like a new Miyamoto Musashi.

More Missile Options

Missile weapons can be let fly classic long range at -1, but they can also be shot in an arc over triple long range at -10 to hit. That is some serious thought going into the matter, and a great idea that deserves adoption.

A bow hits AC 0 on 24 (in other words, a plated knight is pretty save from random bowmen), a Javelin is even worse with a hit only on 26! Sling and crossbow are best on 21 and 20: blunt trauma to crack that iron shell. The unarmored target gets hit on an 8, 7, or 6, depending. We learn that the game can hardly be run without the tables at hand. This is way more demanding than easy Thac0.

Save numbers start quite good, but get better only twice, by big bounds. A high level thief will save almost all the time.

There are also Optional Rules to make combat more life-like, about space required for different weapons, weapon class by size like in Chainmail, and rules about weapons breaking depending on quality, and extra damage rules for attacking gigantic creatures with different weapon types; off-hand weapon use and unarmed combat, etc.
That is not exactly my kind of fun: I like it better when the GM explains how much room I have and if it is just enough or if it isn’t.

More melee tactics

But there are tactical options like making mighty cleaving attacks at a malus to hit, but with with a considerable damage bonus. So decisions within a combat round matter … an improvement compared to RAW OD&D, where the dice just say how a round went down, and players cannot steer it much.

Another extra rule (optional!) is about female strength and male wisdom: Namely, to roll them with only 2d6. An option that still makes people mad after so many decades. But the Seven Voyges make up for it: If a character chooses to cut down on strength or wisdom, respectively, there is a payoff that raises EVERY other stat by 1. Worth it, I would say. Still, if the wrong people see the rule, the author is toast.

Medium Multiples

Original Dungeons & Dragons has something from Chainmail that was lost in later editions: Multiple attacks against low level opponents, for fighters and monsters. This makes monsters a true threat to small towns etc, as an Chimera may storm into a village square and slay a dozen civilians before a hero stops it.

In the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, this ability is not only for Fighting Men: It is for every attacker. On the other hand, it is capped at 4 attacks per round. Which makes sense due to the shorter rounds. In a minute, it is easy to believe that a super high level fighter kills 10 low level goons… but not in a handful of seconds. Four it is then – but wizards too may stab four n00bs.

Fewer hirelings

There is one thing that we get less of, in the Seven Voyages: hirelings and retainers. In Original D&D a standard average person can have a maximum of 4 retainers, in Zylarthen this average person can only hire two loyal helpers. I have said that I am fond of retainers and think that they enrich the game, but I see why they are stunted here: The atmosphere that the implied setting tries to support is one of wonderous exploration, and that is easier had with a handful of men than with an expedition of carts with an almost military unit supported by mercenary guards and torch carriers. So well: Fewer hired helpers – but more of almost everything else.

Bottom Line: More Inspiration

Despite the small number of negative points I have listed here, all things considered I can only recommend getting to know the Seven Voyages of Zylarthen.

If your group buys in to play the full rules of Seven Voyages, then you will have some learning to do, though. Do not underestimate them: You have to study those books in depth to understand the many small differences that set it apart from “normal” OD&D and other clones, and to GM the rules well. Ideally, a game of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen supports a noticeably different in atmosphere than a normal dungeon crawl. Think of elegant, dreamy kids with quick blades and creative ideas sailing to unknown islets versus grimy ruffians stomping down winding staircases into moldy stone corridors by the light of a hooded lantern. Meet Circe the sorceress, not Black Alice the wood hag. The same building blocks are used, but the architecture is quite different. That takes effort to handle well.

This same effort that it takes is also a stumbling block in the recruiting process. It is much harder to find players for Old School games than it is to find players for 5e games. This smaller pool of potentials adds a second filter to ask them to learn a completely new system.

“Completely new?” – Yes. The differences are small, but many, and looking at the whole package it is truly its own system. Not a retroclone any more; it is a new original game. Will players agree to learn a new system that they will very likely only ever play in this particular assembly of friends, and never again? Some curious players yes, others, who are more set in their ways or have only so much time for gaming between many other responsibilities, no.

Borrow from it!

However: If your group does not want to buy in to go completely new and unique ways to play with you, then reading and enjoying these booklets is still a win: Seven Voyages of Zylarthen offers a trove of inspiration, especially in the form of the extra spells and monsters with powerful descriptions, and also the magic items and their details, which make the setting and its inhabitants a place to wander and wonder. Many of these particulars can fit very nicely into any existing B/X or OD&D game. And they should! This rules set has been built with a lot of care and deserves to have its gems see the light of active play.

( PS: tip: the game can be bought as a PDF on Drivethru )

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