Published by Sine Nomine Publishing, Scarlet Heroes is an OSR game intend for lone player characters rather than the usual party. Whilst the standard assumption is for the usual GM and Player setup, the book also contains oracles and systems for three types of solo adventure – the Dungeon Crawl, an Urban Investigation and finally a Wilderness Trek.
The setting of Scarlet Heroes is Asian-themed post-apocalyptic fantasy. Most of the world has been consumed by something called the Red Tide, an alien horror that takes the form of a crimson mist, able to corrupt and consume both physically and through dreams.
The remaining population of the world fled to the Sunset Isles, where, after driving the native Shou (who replace Orcs, Goblins, Bugbears and Hobgoblins) into the wilderness they settled and formed new kingdoms.
Kingdoms of the Sunset Isles
There are four majour kingdoms in the setting – the failing Mandarinate of Xian, once the ruler of the entire island, the Hellsworn Shogunate of the North, the decadent Magocracy of Tien Lung, and finally the hard-working and faithful monotheistic Hohnberg Pact, the lone European-flavoured country in the setting.
People of the Sunset isles
Humans come in six ethnicities and generalised cultures which are found across the nations, though some are more homogenous than others – e.g. the majority of the citizens of the Hohnberg pact are Eirengarders, whilst the Kueh make up the main population of the Shogunate. Mechanically all humans are the same, getting two free trait points to spend during character creation.
The non-humans have a couple of twists from their standard D&D cousins – Dwarves collect gold as an act of piety so that they can take its spirit into the afterlife; elves are literally immortal as a result of a botched immortality ritual – when one dies, they reincarnate into an elven infant. Halflings are the usual peaceful, quiet, homebodies. They’re also utterly fearless – not stupidly – they’re capable of recognising risks and danger, they’re just not afraid, nor can they be intimidated or panicked. Their other notable feature is that they have a ‘strange solidity about them’ – they’re capable of wielding large weapons – e.g. 2 handed swords, with no issues at all.
The last race are the Shou and the Shou-blooded, which fill the role of the humanoid monsters in the setting, though unlike their traditional variations, many Shou could pass for humans if they wanted to and didn’t go whole hog with tribal scarification and tattoos. The main feature of the Shou is that they’re naturally resistant to the corruption of the Red Tide.
The beats of character creation should be familiar to anyone who’s played a D&D based game. Roll you attributes, pick your race, class, buy stuff, pick spells and play.
Attributes are rolled on 4d6, drop the lowest, arrange to suit, and if you haven’t rolled at least one 16 or greater, set an attribute to 16 – every hero is good at something.
The classes are Clerics, Fighters, Magic Users and Thieves. Your class informs your hitpoints (a set amount per level rather than rolled), attack bonus, fray die (automatic damage you do each turn to enemies of equal or lesser strength), what armour you can use, what the maximum damage you can do with a weapon is – clerics 1d6, fighters unlimited, magic users 1d4, and thieves 1d8. Finally Magic users, clerics and thieves all have special abilities above and beyond straight numbers.
Clerics can cast spells and turn undead.
Magic users can cast spells, additionally their fray die is capable of affecting all enemies, not just those weaker than themselves.
Thieves can backstab, and gain a free 3-point trait in their Archetype – i.e. what sort of thief they are, which increases by one every time they level – the normal maximum for a trait is 3.
Classes are race limited – only Humans and Shou blooded can be Clerics, and Dwarves and Halflings can’t be Magic Users either.
Finally you pick some traits for your character – Mostly a combination of Background and Skill system, Traits are also where you’ll find most racial special abilities.
Equipment and spells
There aren’t really any surprises here, though the spells have flowery names rather than the standard utilitarian D&D ones.
There are 5 core mechanics to Scarlet Heroes, of which two are specifically designed to allow a lone hero to face a party’s worth of adventure.
When a character is trying some task of personal prowess or skill that might reasonably tax a hero, roll a check. The difficulty ranges from 9 to 17, and is rolled on 2d8 adding the relevant attribute modifier and their highest relevant trait.
Rolled to avoid traps, magical attacks and other attempts to harm the character, saves have a difficulty of 9 + the HD or Threat of the attacker, and are rolled exactly as Checks are, but adding the character’s level to the result too, meaning you roll 2d8 + level + attribute + highest relevant trait.
A rolled on 1d20 plus the character’s attack bonus, relevant attribute and the enemy’s armour class. A result of 20 or greater is a hit.
This is the core of what makes Scarlet Heroes work for a single player whilst otherwise leaving the maths and numbers of enemies unchanged.
Instead of reading damage dice straight, damage is read as follows.
Each die is read individually, and damage modifiers apply to a single die. Damage is done to enemy Hit Dice but to player Hit Points. For example, a Skeleton, having 1 HD would go down in one solid hit, and would do between 0-2 points of damage with each successful attack on a PC.
With the exception of a Thief’s ambush damage, overflow damage is applied to the next enemy; a character fighting a group of skeletons rolls 4 damage – four of the skeletons go down.
The Fray die that heroes get is read just like a standard damage dice, and can be applied to any qualifying enemy that the character could reach. The fray die is rolled even if the character isn’t declaring an attack that round.
The end result of all this is to allow a single character to face down threats that would normally require a full party, and to enable the use of pre-written modules without having to rejig all the encounters.
If a hero is about to die or encounters an obstacle they just can’t get around, they may attempt to defy death. This is done by rolling 1d4 for each of their levels and applying the result as damage. If they’re still standing they survive the threat or get around the obstacle. If they drop to zero, they’re reduced to 1hp and have failed.
Each time the character tries to defy death during an adventure the dice step up by one size, to a maximum size of d12.
The bestiary has a combination of old favourites – Bears, Giant Spiders, Skeletons, and new and exotic horrors such as Centipede Women, Horse-headed demons, Leaping Vampires, and Ash Basilisks.