OGL Ancients is the 3rd in the OGL line of books from Mongoose. OGL being Open Gaming License, which technically means little (since systems other than d20 have been released under the OGL), but generally is shorthand for d20 without certain restrictions (mostly, character creation and nudity). Like the two previous books in the line, it's $39.95, 256 color pages, and hardback. Unlike the two others, this seems derived from the original d20 System Reference Document (aka D&D), rather than d20 Modern.
Though in many aspects, it's a complete rewrite of key rules, like classes, combat and magic. (It does bear some similarities to Conan, but the rules in this are far grittier). Like its kin, it's a stand alone book, in theory, this is all you need to play it. And in practice, it seems pretty complete for a 256 page book (actually, 258, you get 2 extra pages of maps).
It's focused on the Ancient World before the rise of the Roman Empire. It specifically deals with Ancient Greece and Egypt, though there is some mention (and rules support) for other areas of the region. There is some support for "mythic" gaming (that is fictional, where magic and gods do exist), but it's essentially a very gritty, realistic game. Definitely not meant to recreate the Hercules and Xena TV shows, but the actual legends themselves.
The OGL series from Mongoose is apparently meant to be "rulebooks", basically like the PHB/DMG combination for D&D. I don't have OGL Horror yet (If you're read any review I've written this year, you'll probably be tired of me mentioning that I ordered it in January, but haven't received it yet), but I do actually have OGL Cybernet, and it has no setting at all. This actually does have a little setting material (call it 20-30 pages), but it is mostly a rulebook.
Characters are fairly complex and generally work the same as the typical d20 character - same 6 attributes and class. While there is no race, like in most other d20 games, there is background. In this, there is national background, that is, what country or region a character is from, along with social class - slave, middle class, noble, etc (actually, social class is supposed to only apply to Greek or Egyptian characters, but I don't see why you shouldn't also apply it to others - they had social classes, too).
You can also pick a Mythic background option, like divine favor, divine parentage, or divine boon. Divine parentage is a bit weaker than I imagined, usually being a +1 to 2 ability scores or a +2 to one. Divine Boon is extremely powerful, but comes with a Divine drawback. I probably wouldn't allow Divine Boons in my game, but they do match the legends. I would also probably double the divine parentage bonus.
There are twelve core classes in OGL Ancients. (And thankfully, no prestige classes).
The Aristocrat - A member of nobility. A more leisurely or political member of nobility, as opposed to a fighting one.
The Artificer - This is someone like Hero of Alexander, who made all sorts of steam powered stuff, or the fictional Daedalus, the guy who built flying wings.
The Bard - Like Orpheus, not like the D&D style bard
The Courtesan - Pretty much like what it sounds like. Sometimes called the "Haetera"
The Egyptian Priest - A priest of one of the many gods of the Egyptian Pantheon. Like the bad buy from The Mummy. Also versed in Egyptian magic, or Hekau
The Greek Priest - Slightly different than the Egyptian Priest, besides the gods worshipped. This one focuses more on learning, also a bit better at combat.
The Noble Warrior - Very similar to the D&D fighter in game mechanical terms, this is the sort of fighter that tends to come from nobility, and fights in single combat.
The Sage - A seasoning. Good in soup. Really, experts at learning.
The Seer - Someone who predicts the future. Tiresias would be a good example.
The Thief - Not very much like the standard D&D 3.0/3.5 rogue, this is more the sneaky sort of thief.
The Warrior - The common soldier, these are used to fighting in groups or formation.
The Witch - Meant to represent the Greek sort of witch, like Medea or Circe or the Gabors
Basically, only 2 classes are good at combat (not surprisingly, the Noble Warrior and the Warrior). The rest are pretty much terrible (two are "average" at combat, in D&D terms, the Bard and the Greek Priest).
The Egyptian Priest class and witch class can cast spells, but it uses a skill based system, not even remotely similar to the standard d20 system. The two priest classes can also ask the gods for miracles, which uses a similar system.
To a certain extent, the classes are not really balanced. Most of the classes are weaker than the standard D&D class, except for the Noble Warrior, which is close to the Fighter, but with 2 more skill points.
However, they are realistic. The Noble Warrior should be a better class than anyone else - nobles were better fed, better trained, better educated. Most of these classes should be lousy at combat. If this had been a d20 game/D&D supplement, I probably would have preferred the classes to be balanced. But as a stand-alone game, I prefer the more realistic take on them.
One thing that is missing are NPC classes. Like the Expert, Commoner, etc. While the classes in the book pretty much cover every possible PC, there are several likely NPC roles missing. Surgeon/healer, slaves, craftsmen, shepherd. To a certain extent, even if you have the D&D core books, you couldn't borrow the NPC classes from them, because they would be out of balance. Not a big deal for the most part, but in some cases, the PCs are expected to own slaves or have servants, and most players will want stats for them. And Paris (of Helen of Troy fame) spent much of his early life as a shepherd, so he would be hard to stat as is in this game.
Skills essentially work the same way as in all d20 based games (that is, roll a d20, add the skill rank, and compare the result to a Difficulty Class number to see if it suceeds), but the skill list has been revised quite a bit, and pretty much all of the text has been redone. Many of the DC tables feature examples specific to the setting, rather than generic examples. For instance, one of the entries in the Bluff table is "The Greeks have all gone home, Trojan. They left this enormous wooden horse as a present."
Feats also basically work the same way, and the selection of them is pretty much comparable to that in the PHB.
This is quite possibly the most realistic and most detailed combat system for d20. While it still uses hit points, it also has a "grievous wound" system. Each character has a grievous wound threshold, equal to the average of their strength and constitution, and if they receive a blow that does more damage than they, then they are sorely wounded.
Grievous wounds can cause the character problems, such as infection and fevers. They generally get worse if not cared for. One of the options for dealing with them is cauterizing them (ie, burning them), and this is described in agonizing detail.
Armor is also handled quite differently. While it does use a fairly standard damage reduction as opposed to just making the character harder to hit, also added is an armor coverage mechanic. Basically, when someone is hit, they have to roll to see if the armor covered the blow. The fuller the armor, the more likely it is.
Further complicating things, each armor type is rated three different ways, once for each type of damage: slashing, piercing, bludgeoning. Even further complicating things, is that armor degrades as it takes damage. There are also rules for handling shields, something very important back then (at least in Greek warfare). Also, the "Active Defense" option is used, that is, instead of armor class being based on 10 + modifiers, it's based on a d20 roll plus modifiers.
The net result is actually surprisingly realistic, but at the expense of being somewhat slow and requires a lot of record keeping. But the author demonstrates in an combat example how this system can emulate the source material (in this case, the Illiad) almost exactly. I'm actually very impressed at how realistic d20 can be, still using hit points.
I haven't actually run a whole game with the combat rules, but I did make some characters and take them out for a couple of test combats. It actually plays a lot like combat in the BRP system, which is Chaosium's rule system, based around a d100, and used in Call of Cthulhu, Elric!/Stormbringer, Runequest, and many of their other RPGs. In that, you roll to hit, then the opponent rolls to duck, parry, or dodge. Then if hit, the attack rolls for damage, while the defender rolls to see how much damage was stopped.
But there's a lot more room for error in this - in BRP games I've run, combat was too deadly, because characters tended to have around 10-15 hit points, and if they roll badly on their armor rolls, they were toast. In this, if the armor is missed, there's a similar "D'oh" moment for the player, but they generally will have more hit points to start with, and so have a higher chance of survival. I think this strikes a pretty good balance, though combat at very low levels is still quite deadly.
Still, if it's not your thing, you can go back to using the regular d20 system (assuming this isn't your only d20 book). But it's nice to see some experimentation done.
The Greeks and Egyptians get a full range of armor and weapons. There is also a selection of armor and weapons from other cultures.
There's also rules for chariots in combat, which is not something the Greeks were big on, but used extensively by the Egyptians and others.
It's a Kind of Magic
There are 3 types of magic. Witch magic, Egyptian Magic, and Miracles (i.e., asking a god to do something for you). Each sort of magic has a related skill to it, and spell casting basically consistings of making a skill check.
Miracles are basically free for the caster/asker (but have really high difficulty classes to actually cast) but Witch and Egyptian magic costs hit points to cast, and to keep going. These aren't physical wounds, but fatigue/energy.
There are 88 different spells, grouped into about 13 different categories (bewitchments, blastings, consecrations, curses, exorcisms, healings, inovocations, makings, manifestations, manipulations, seemings, transformations, and unmakings). Each spell has different difficulty classes for type of magic that can cast it (not everything can cast every spell).
As you might expect, magic tends to be somewhat subtle. It's not the flashy D&D style magic, fireballs and explosions and monkeys flying everywhere, it's pretty much the sort of thing you expect from Circe or Medea. Probably the flashiest spell is "Solar Flare", which is an Egyptian magic spell that is a blast of light. But that's about the only exception of the bunch.
There's about a 10 page timeline of the Ancient World, from 2000 BC to the death of Alexander the Great. There's also a long paragraph or two about each of the major Greek and Egyptian gods.
About 10 or so pages are devoted to monsters. About 14 of them. Gorgon (the greek version, not like the D&D version), Hound of Hecate, Minotaur, Nymph, Werewolf, Ketos, Triton, Siren, Wicked Spirit, Death Lantern, Prowling Corpse, Akhkaru (sort of a vampire), Lilit, and Defiled One (sort of a mummy).
If the book has a weak spot, this is probably it. While it's easy to find books containing mythological beasts from Greece, Egypt, and the whole region, they don't come with stats for them.
For me, it's not that big a deal, as I have close to a dozen d20 monster books, and the D&D monster manual has fairly close to Greek myth versions of the Hydra, Harpie, and such. But for others, it's potentially a problem.
The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships
It's a very nice looking book. Not the fanciest, but clean looking and has some nice touches. Not all that much in the way of art, not completely bare, but a bit on the sparse side. Most the pieces are also pretty small. One artist really stands out, though he uses a logo to sign his work, so I don't know whose (looks like two es surrounded by a | ). He does some really nice landscapes (and very colorful). Another noteworthy piece by different artist is an Egyptian style Tomb Raider (as in Tomb Raider the franchise). Kinda funny. All of the artwork is good quality and does use color to its fullest (being bright and vivid). Many color RPG books don't actually use color to it's fullest, but this one does.
Also nice is that the graphics in the outer margin contain the name of the chapter. On the down side, there is no index, which is a big enough deal to give it a 4.5 out of 5 on style, instead of a 5. Also in some cases, it can be a bit cluttered, like when the descriptions of the Greek gods is superimposed on a picture of them. Similarly, the tables often have a gigantic eye on them, presumably of some Egyptian god or maybe Liz Taylor. I don't find it hard to read, but some could.
There are a couple of editing quirks. But pretty much what you generally find in books that were cut down from a larger manuscript, not the terrible blunders that marred OGL Conan. There are a couple items in the equipment list that might have inadvertantly been left in from the SRD, like the "Alchemy Lab" and the "Silk Rope". There is no alchemy skill in the game (though maybe that was an oversight, supposedly Alchemy started in Egypt, with the emerald tablet of Hermes Trismegistus) and while silk was available, through trade from the east, I imagine it was a bit too expensive to be used as silk.
Achilles' Last Stand
This is an excellent book. Not only does it do what it promises, it's a great resource for those running a Conan game - the vast majority of things from this would fit into Conan as is. To a certain extent, there is a lack of GM support material, ie, there are no NPC stat blocks or all that many monsters. But I'm not sure that could be helped, and there is actually little to no wasted space in the book. While there is some copy & pasting from the SRD, there seems to be very little, most of the book is original text (unlike say, OGL Cybernet). So it seems like a good value - it would have been nice if it were longer, but there is no white space, and the space in the book seems to have been used well.
I also think Mongoose has a OGL license that will let others put out affiliated books, though I'm not sure if it extends to OGL Ancients, or is just for OGL Cybernet. But the book is actually almost entirely open content.
A solid A.
I do have to say, how you like this book depends on what you expect from it. I suspect it's something of a love it or hate it book. (Though I do think you have to give the author credit for writing a lot of new material).
It's essentially a rules book, if you want to play an RPG set in the Ancient World. It's not really a setting book, while there is some setting, you'll likely need history books. It's also far grittier than you expect from d20 or even RPGs, as I said in the begining, this is not something you would use to recreate the Hercules/Xena TV shows (which did occasionally have people die, but it was fairly rare, and never all that messy). You can recreate the Illiad or Odyssey pretty well.
Personally, it was exactly what I was looking for. Frankly, I've never been much of a fan of various other historical d20 products that simply used the default D&D rules. Like most of Avalanche's stuff - you'd have clerics and wizards and sorcers and paladins traipsing about medieval Europe, China, etc, etc, etc. That made no sense to me. Similarly, there is an otherwise excellent looking PDF product about the Trojan War, from Steampower Publishing http://www.steampowerpublishing.co.uk/, but in the preview, we see that Paris is a D&D style Ranger. WTF? At least he doesn't use 2 scimitars.
While I'm hardly an expert on the region, I do have several books on the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks and I have several books on mythology. And I have Clash of the Titans on video tape. So I don't really need setting material, I really need rules material tailored to the setting, and this delivers. I would have liked to have seen a bit more rule material for the Persians, since they were pretty big back then, too, but they at least got some coverage.
If you are looking for something more D&D-ish, you might wait for the upcoming Relics & Rituals: Olympus from Sword & Sorcery/White Wolf or the upcoming Troy book from Green Ronin. If you just want a setting sourcebook for Greece, then you might check out Gurps Greece (which is mostly setting).