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Batman vs. Superman - Dawn of Justice

Two and a half years ago, I concluded that Man of Steel was a thoroughly mediocre film. It was so thoroughly mediocre, in fact, that I wasn’t planning to see Batman vs. Superman in the theater. But yesterday a friend’s birthday celebration included a viewing of the film, and so I ended up seeing it after all. My conclusion?

This film is significantly less mediocre than Man of Steel.

I’m still not going to recommend that anyone see it in the movie theater, but I will say it’s probably worth checking out after it hits the rental market. (And if the purported Director’s Cut actually materializes, I’ll even go so far as to watch the movie again to see if that will correct any of the film’s flaws.)

The biggest difference is that the core storytelling elements of Batman vs. Superman (unlike its predecessor) are not fundamentally broken through a combination of incoherence and inconsistency: The first half of this movie is not about Pa Kent being portrayed as a pillar of virtue while teaching Clark to never become Superman; nor does its second half feature numerous scenes of Superman being completely indifferent to civilian casualties before breaking an “I Don’t Kill” rule that the film never bothers establishing because four people are being threatened.

But while Batman vs. Superman doesn’t share Man of Steel‘s big, macro-scale problems, it shares a similar plethora of bone-achingly stupid errors of execution. What drags the film down (and prevents me from calling it a truly good movie) are the plot holes, thematic inconsistencies, and a simple lack of care and craft. There are some truly amazing and wonderful moments in the film, but the whole enterprise has been weighted down with stupidity and shoved off the end of a pier.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I am not going to attempt to catalog every stupid thing that the movie does. This will instead just be a sampling of the nearly constant, low-level failures of basic scriptwriting and film-craft that Batman vs. Superman suffers from.

Let’s start at the beginning: Superman is framed for killing a bunch of terrorists by a mercenary team who shoots the terrorists with a bunch of bullets… Since when did Superman use a gun? If you saw Superman somewhere and then found a bunch of bullet-riddled corpses, what possible leap of logic would make you say, “Superman must have done that!” (What’s even weirder is that the mercenaries use very special bullets that can be tracked back to Lex Luthor. The bullets don’t actually have any special properties that make them better for shooting a bunch of terrorists and there is absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t just use normal bullets. But, sure, use the bullets that can be traced straight back to you. Why not?)

Adding to this oddity is the fact that all of this happens directly in front of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane. But for some reason she… never writes the story? Nobody cares what an actual eyewitness has to say?

(There’s also a bit in this sequence where Jimmy Olsen is a CIA agent who is pretending to be her camera man and gets himself shot in the head. Lois also never reports that the CIA nearly got her killed. Snyder then continues the trend of pointlessly killing supporting cast members from his source material by having Lex Luthor send Mercy Graves to die in a bomb explosion for absolutely no reason whatsoever.)

Lois’ entire arc for the rest of the film, however, is investigating what really happened at the terrorist compound. She does, in fact, figure out that Lex Luthor is behind all of it. Bizarrely, however, this has absolutely no impact on the film because she never tells Superman (or anyone else) about this despite having multiple opportunities to do so. (Amy Adam’s Lois Lane — like Cavill’s Superman, Affleck’s Batman, Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Irons’ Alfred, Fishburne’s Perry White, and… well, basically every single actor and character in the movie — deserves so much better than what Snyder is apparently capable of giving them.)

There is, in fact, a lot of, “Just freakin’ SAY IT you idiot!” problems to be found here, as if the movie had been penned by the writers room for a mediocre sitcom. Lois, for example, realizes that somebody knows that she can be used as bait for Superman and, in fact, has been doing exactly that… but then just completely fails to tell Superman that, either. Later, Superman refuses to simply say to Batman, “Hey! Lex Luthor is playing us!” opting instead to say, “Just listen to me!” over and over and over again while walking slowly towards him triggering a series of pressure plate traps. (Although why you would build pressure plates to target somebody who can fly is a little mind-boggling in its own right.)

Speaking of the fight with Batman, the entire basis of Batman’s anger with Superman is a result of Superman’s seemingly callous disregard for incidental damage and civilian casualties during the battle at the end of the Man of Steel. If that’s going to be the ethical backbone of the film, however, you can’t have Batman’s big solo action scene in the middle of the film feature… tons of incidental civilian casualties. (Or, if you do, there should be some self-reflection or at least authorial reflection upon it. This film, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem to realize what it’s done.)

On a similar note: Batman, having forged the Spear of Kryptonite Destiny to fight Superman, leaves it in Gotham after realizing that Superman is actually just a guy trying to do the right thing. (Which, I may note, is realized in a moment that is absolutely fantastic.) Seeing Doomsday, he realizes that he needs the Spear. So he decides to go back to Gotham, get the Spear real quick, and then come back to where Doomsday is. Ha, ha! Just kidding! He decides to lead Doomsday into the city to where the Spear is.

Speaking of that Spear: After Batman chooses not to kill Superman, he throws it aside. Lois Lane picks it up and decides she wants to get rid of it so that no one can use it against Superman again. So she walks over to a stairwell twenty feet away (which is flooded for some reason) and… throws it in. “Ha, ha!” she thinks to herself. “No one will ever find it in this shallow pool!”

Five minutes later, completely ignorant of Doomsday or the fact that the Spear would now be useful, Lois suddenly gets an, “Oh shit!” look on her face and goes back to retrieve the Spear. (I can only conclude that she suddenly realized that what she did with it was really stupid.)

Most of this litany is dwelling on basic logic problems in the storytelling. That’s largely because they’re easy to explicate. There’s also a lot of pretty basic problems with things like editing and pacing. One clear-cut example happens just before the confrontation between Superman and Batman: We’ve just had a big face-off between Superman and Lex Luthor. Luthor reveals that he has kidnapped Martha Kent and, unless Superman kills Batman, he’ll have her killed. Superman has acquiesced. We cut to Luthor’s henchman placing a timer next to Martha telling her when she’ll be killed. We cut to Superman telling Lois that he has to go convince Batman to help him… or kill him. Superman flies up into the sky. We cut to…

… Wonder Woman checking her e-mail? Yup. And then we get a 4 minute scene in which she literally clicks on a series of e-mail attachments, each showing a video of one of the future members of the Justice League. These videos are pretty cool, but they’re completely irrelevant. Whoever said, “We should interrupt this rising tension here to lay some pipe for our cinematic universe.” should be taken outside and shot.

(This sequence also creates a weird continuity glitch where Wonder Woman walks into her hotel, checks her e-mail, and then five minutes later is boarding a commercial airline flight.)

Finally, let me mention the really bizarre dream sequences that stud the Bruce Wayne story. As far as I can tell, these seem to exist primarily to generate footage that could be included in the trailers. (It’s possible that the most self-indulgent of them is an actual “vision from the future”, but even as such the narrative role it plays in this film is dwarfed by the amount of film time it chews up.)

With all of that being said, there are also a number of things that the film does very well. The opening of the film (showing the end of Man of Steel from a different angle) is really clever. The first Batman action sequence shows us a version of Batman that is scary, effective, and utterly unique. Heck, the first appearance of Wonder Woman in all her glory is almost worth watching the movie for all by itself. (I’m listening to Zimmer’s exceptional Wonder Woman theme as I’m writing this.) In fact, the best compliment I can pay the film is that it made me much more interested in seeing Wonder Woman. And Warner Brothers needs to greenlight a Ben Affleck directed solo Batman movie ASAP.

Dresden Files – Reading Order

February 2nd, 2016

Dresden Files: Storm Front - Jim ButcherThe Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher primarily consists of fifteen novels, but Butcher has also written a dozen or so short stories and novellas (which, while generally not essential, often have events which reflect back into the novels). Butcher’s website has a list of where the various short stories fall into the Dresden Files continuity, but unfortunately every entry on the list includes a spoiler description of the story. While reading the series, my efforts to find an alternative list duplicating the chronological order failed. So now that I’ve finished the series, I’m putting together a spoiler-free version of the list in the hope that it will prove useful to others.

There are currently two short story collections: Side Jobs and Working with Bigfoot. Butcher plans to collect the rest of the stories (along with some not yet written) in a collection tentatively called Brief Cases, but since that doesn’t exist yet I’m including references below to where the stories can be found.

INTERNAL CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER

“Restoration of Faith” (Side Jobs)

1. STORM FRONT

2. FOOL MOON

“B is for Bigfoot” (Working for Bigfoot)

3. GRAVE PERIL

4. SUMMER KNIGHT

5. DEATH MASKS

“Vignette” (Side Jobs)

6. BLOOD RITES

7. DEAD BEAT

“I Was a Teenage Bigfoot” (Working for Bigfoot)

“Something Borrowed” (Side Jobs)

8. PROVEN GUILTY

“AAAA Wizardry” (Dresden Files RPG)

9. WHITE NIGHT

“It’s My Birthday Too” (Side Jobs)

“Heorot” (Side Jobs)

10. SMALL FAVOR

“Day Off” (Side Jobs)

“Backup” (Side Jobs)

“The Warrior” (Side Jobs)

“Last Call” (Side Jobs)

“Curses” (The Naked City, ed. Ellen Datlow)

11. TURN COAT

“Love Hurts” (Side Jobs)

“Even Hand” (Dark and Stormy Knights, ed. Pat Elrod / Beyond the Pale, ed. Henry Herz)

“Bigfoot on Campus” (Working for Bigfoot)

12. CHANGES

“Aftermath” (Side Jobs)

13. GHOST STORY

“Bombshells” (Dangerous Women, ed. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois)

14. COLD DAYS

“Cold Case” (Shadowed Souls, ed. Jim Butcher and Kerrie Hughes)

15. SKIN GAME

RECOMMENDED READING ORDER

My recommended reading order for the series is basically identical to the internal chronological order, except for “Restoration of Faith”. I think that story functions best as a proper prequel, and I would hold off on reading it until some point after Grave Peril.

If you’re less interested in the short stories, the novels largely stand on their own. However, there are five stories which are prominently referenced and which I recommend seeking out if you’re looking for an “Essentials” reading list:

  • “Something Borrowed”
  • “Heorot”
  • “Backup”
  • “Aftermath”
  • “Bombshells”

Also: The first three books in the series are pretty good pulp fiction. They’re entertaining, but they’re not really anything special. If you start reading them and you’re thoroughly “meh” on the whole thing, skip ahead to Summer Knight and read from there. (That’s where Butcher starts kicking the whole series into a different gear and it just keeps getting better.)

But I don’t recommend doing that, because the first three books do lay a lot of pipe that will enhance your enjoyment of the later stuff.

Tagline: A solid D20 module from an industry newcomer. A couple of crucial flaws undermine what would otherwise be a strong product. Cautiously recommended.

NeMoren's Vault - James BellWhen I first heard the plans emanating from Wizards of the Cost regarding the Open Gaming License and D20 Trademark License I was somewhat skeptical… but there was also a glimmer of excitement and a dash of hope in my emotional make-up.

And its specifically because of products like NeMoren’s Vault that I felt this way.

If NeMoren’s Vault had been produced this same time last year, it would have been preceded by a mammoth tome called something like The Fiery Dragon Fantasy Roleplaying System. And we would have been treated to mind-numbing artwork. And screeching purple prose. And vast claims about how the FDFRP was going to revolutionize gaming as we know it.

And we would have opened this book up and found exactly what we knew we were going to find all along: Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off.

In the process, a solid adventure module like NeMoren’s Vault would have been irrevocably lost under the detritus of the hulking monstrosity which would have been the FDFRP: $30 for the rulebook; the time it takes to learn the new system; the effort it takes to start a new campaign. There is far too much investment to be made before you get down to the $10 it actually costs to pick up the module. At the end of the day, something like NeMoren’s Vault is not worth a massive investment of time, energy, and money.

It’s worth $10.

Which, handily enough, is exactly what it costs.

PLOT

Warning: This review will contain spoilers for NeMoren’s Vault. Players who may end up playing in this module are encouraged to stop reading now. Proceed at your own risk.

Three hundred years ago a man by the name of Kragor NeMoren played a key role in the formation and success of the Grand Alliance between humanity and the elvish folk as they repelled the goblin hordes. In return for his service, he was granted ownership of a vast tract of rich forest land by the elvish king and, in turn, a royal title as Baron of the West Wood by the human king. Before he died, Kragor built a mansion – complete with a massive vault for protecting the riches he had accumulated, housing the family’s dead, and storing wine.

Fast forward 250 years: Baron Paytro NeMoren, the last of the NeMoren line, takes a wife. One week after the wedding, however, Amelia NeMoren is kidnapped by Paytro’s ex-love – Lisette – and her two brothers. Lisette comes to the manor and demands that the baron proclaim her the rightful baroness – otherwise she will kill his new wife. Paytro, afraid of the truth coming out, drugs Lisette and her brothers and seals them within the family’s vault.

Tortured with grief and guilt, Paytro goes into seclusion for the rest of his life – and dies apparently without heir. Lisette and her brothers would have starved to death, except for the fact that Lisette used her mystic black arts to transform all of them into undead ghouls – eagerly awaiting their chance to wreak vengeance upon the NeMoren line.

Enter the PCs, who have (by one way or another) come into possession of the silver keys (one per PC) which denote them as heirs of Baron Paytro. As you can easily guess, they are to enter the NeMoren family vault – which only their keys can access – and discover what their inheritance consists of.

Other stuff that’s been happening: A creature known as an Undrathur – a large, humanoid carnivore which burrows through the earth – has taken up residence in the area around the Vault. As a result of his burrowing, the lair of a hobgoblin tribe has been connected to the Vault. The hobgoblins were periodically raiding the Vault, but have been driven back by the ghouls and other undead Lisette has created. The hobgoblins periodically venture out to claim sacrifices in order to appease the ghouls, and their sacrificial chamber has – unbeknownst to the townspeople – befouled the local water supply and created a strange plague. The combination of mysterious disappearances (the kidnapped sacrifices) and the plague have been labeled “NeMoren’s Curse”.

This is something that NeMoren’s Vault does very well: Any one of these elements (a dead noble house leaving behind a subterranean vault; Poe’s Cask of Amontillado by way of a fantasy dungeon; the underground lair of a hobgoblin tribe; a massive, man-eating predator leaving behind underground tunnels) would suffice to explain your average dungeon crawl. But by taking all them in concert with one another, NeMoren’s Vault gets a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

This strength is re-emphasized in the fact that the design of the Vault consistently integrates these background elements in the particulars of the dungeon’s construction – although there are several elements of the Vault which would otherwise be cliché, the fact that they have been made to arise naturally from the Vault’s history and construction gives them a sense of realism and believability

The author has also done a nice job of not only considering a plethora of possible endings to the scenario, but examining a variety of different ways in which each thread plays out. Ideas ranging from placing the PCs in the middle of a civil war arising from the true inheritor of NeMoren’s title and lands to the discovery that Amelia NeMoren is still alive and held in magical stasis to the various fall-outs of breaking the balance of power between the ghouls and the hobgoblins.

A PROBLEM WITH TREASURE

Unfortunately, despite some of its glimmering strengths, NeMoren’s Vault is possessed of one crucial flaw:

There is more than 100,000 gp worth of treasure lying around this Vault.

And that’s just the stuff that’s easily accessible. If you count the stuff they’ve made difficult to access (by collapsing all of the entrances into a treasure room, for example; or requiring one of the PCs to chop off a finger to access the magical vault) there is an additional 225,000 gp worth of treasure I’m not counting (including one of the six legendary Runeblades – mystic blades which “have the power to conquer entire nations”).

That’s 325,000 gp worth of treasure!

Assuming you use the suggested party size of four characters, that’s roughly 25,000 gp of treasure per PC (81,250 gp if they get all the treasure in the complex). To put that in perspective:

1. According to Table 5-1 in the DMG (pg. 145), that’s the amount of treasure that a 7th level character should have accumulated (12th level for the higher number).
2. Using Table 7-2 in the DMG (pg. 170) and the Encounter Level/Challenge Rating for NeMoren’s Vault, the amount of treasure which should be present in an adventure of this type is only 10,000 gp (and that’s only if they defeat the monster which the module tells the DM they probably shouldn’t have to defeat).

Did I also mention that, at the end of the adventure, they also end up with a legal writ granting them possession of one of the richest baronies in the kingdom?

Even when you realize that they neglected to give Challenge Ratings to the various traps and puzzles found throughout the Vault, you’re going to end up with seriously overpowered PCs at the end of this adventure. I seriously suggest going through NeMoren’s Vault and vigorously thinning the treasure hordes out before letting your players go through it. (Or, alternatively, buff up the challenge ratings throughout and run your PCs through at a higher level. Changing the ghouls to ghasts, the medium-size skeletons and zombies to huge skeletons and zombies, and the hobgoblins to bugbears should do the trick – although you’ll still need to cut down the treasure a little bit.)

Actually, the problem is even greater than it appears at first glance because, in fact, they have overstated the Challenge Ratings on several of the encounters (for example, listing Ghouls as having a CR of 2 when, in fact, they only have a CR 1). This is a problem quite a few of these inaugural D20 products are bound to have (because they were working from preview documents or guesswork, rather than the final versions of books like the Monster Manual). Keep an eye open for it and make the necessary adjustments.

(On a related note: I would have liked to see a summary of treasure available in this scenario. A tool like this would not only make it easier to adjust the overall treasure size for parties of different sizes, but in its construction would have immediately alerted the author to the fact that he had vastly overfilled this dungeon.)

WORKING WITH THE WEB

One interesting feature of the Fiery Dragon product line is the on-line support the company is offering. Although still in its nascent infancy (and therefore still rife with the possibility of going heinously awry), there are some interesting ideas under development:

1. Additional support material for the various Fiery Dragon products available on-line (such as complications and secret areas for published modules).
2. An on-line tavern in which players can “Roll for Rumors”. This isn’t particularly impressive at the moment, but conceptually the idea of sending your players to an on-line tavern to pick up the rumors which may (or may not) feed into next week’s adventure is interesting.
3. Perhaps the best feature, at the moment, though is the provision of “private campaign areas” – featuring a number of tools (including the hosting of up to 1.25 gigabytes of game-related files, message boards, etc.) for creating an on-line center for your on- or off-line campaigns.

CONCLUSION

NeMoren’s Vault is a solid product.

It is not an exceptional one — the treasure imbalance, mediocre-to-subpar artwork, a few unfortunate lay-out choices, and the generally traditional set-up prevents it from being one. But it is not a poor one, either.

It is worth $10. And that’s what you pay for it.

It serves its purpose. And that’s why you’ll pay for it.

What excites me about NeMoren’s Vault, though, is that – when you look beyond the weaknesses which pull it down – the strengths which remain are in all the right places. There is an underlying foundation of creative thought and gaming sensibility which, if given the chance to grow, has a chance of becoming something truly impressive.

NeMoren’s Vault is a good product. But Fiery Dragon Productions bears watching for the potential greatness which lies ahead.

This is a review of a complimentary pre-production copy, distributed by Fiery Dragon Productions for publicity purposes.

Style: 3
Substance: 3

Author: James Bell
Company/Publisher: Fiery Dragon Productions
Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 32
ISBN: 1-8946-9300-0

Originally Posted: 2000/11/02

James Bell replied to this review by noting the systemic errors that had been made (particularly in the amount of available treasure) and issued extensive errata to correct the problem. (Two huge thumbs up to him for that.) Fiery Dragon would, in fact, go on to produce a number of really nice D20 products. NeMoren’s Vault would be revised into both a 3.5 Edition and a Pathfinder Edition. I have not personally looked at the updated versions, but I’m guessing they’re still pretty nifty. You can grab the Pathfinder edition here.

Re-reading this review a decade and a half later, I’m actually strongly tempted to use the original version of the module unaltered to launch a campaign: Yup, you’re 1st level characters who have just ransacked 325,000 gp of treasure out of the ground, including a legendary blade with all kinds of prophecies attached to it. Plus, you’ve got a legal writ granting you the richest barony in the kingdom. So… now what? Instead of fetishizing balance, let’s see what happens if we deliberately invert expectations.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Ex-RPGNet Review – Orkworld

November 21st, 2015

Tagline: Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien in Orkworld. Buy this game. Buy it now.

Orkworld - Wicked Press When I bought my copy of Orkworld at its GenCon release this year, John Wick immediately recognized me via my nametag. For those of you not in the know, Wick and I have been involved in some rather raucous on-line debates – both here on RPGNet and over on Gaming Outpost, among other places – concerning the validity of the review process. A small example of this would be my infamous review of Wick’s “Official Review Policy” here on RPGNet, which became part of a larger firestorm elsewhere.

In any case, long story short, Wick recognized me and signed my copy, inscribing it:

”Hi Justin —
If you review this, I’ll break your legs.
:) John Wick

You there, in the back, huffing up your chest to jump all over Wick: Stop it right now. It was a joke. Note the smiley face. He laughed. I laughed. Personally, I get a little grin on my face every time I look at that silly inscription. He made my day.

So Wick had his joke… and now I get mine. (Feel free to insert a sinister laugh here at your discretion.)

I’ve going to write five reviews of his game.

Yes, you read that right. I’m going to write five reviews of Orkworld. Collect the whole set. The next three, if all goes the way I hope, will appear elsewhere, and then I’ll come back here (when all is said and done) to post the fifth – wrapping the whole thing up.

Is this a funny joke? I don’t know. I tend to snicker whenever I think about it, but your mileage may vary. I suppose it depends on just how much irony you can find in the situation.

Is this an elaborate joke? Absolutely. Just to dispel any confusion: Each of these reviews will have the exact same conclusion as this one (“buy this book”) – I’m not trying to be disingenuous. Nor will any of these reviews leave any information out (“And this time around I’ll be taking a look at that zany character system! Tune in next week to find out about combat resolution!”). These are going to be complete, honest reviews, each of which will function just fine all by itself.

But none of these reviews will repeat one another, either: Each will approach the task of reviewing in a very different, but hopefully equally effective, manner. In this sense the project is a little bit of a mental exercise for me – a chance to see just how flexible the idea of a “review” really is without sacrificing the quality of the review.

Do you care? Probably not. But rest easy: You’ve only had to waste 400 words of your valuable reading time on this clap-trap, and from this point on out you can pretend that this is just another RPGNet review. Relax, sit back, and enjoy.

(And lest he feel forgotten, Thomas Denmark – the highly talented illustrator who provides the pictures for Orkworld — also signed my copy, complete with a wonderful sketch of an ork. Thank you, Mr. Denmark.)

ORKS

My decision to purchase Orkworld can be boiled down to two simple facts: First, nearly 200 pages of cultural information on Orks. Second, more than fifty pages detailing the World of Ghurtha.

Orkworld is a 300 page book.

Wick opens his work with The Caius Journals — the diary of a young soldier serving in the armies of the Solarian Empire who, through a series of encounters, learns a certain level of appreciation for orkish culture. His journey of discovery is shared fully with the reader, and we learn – with him – of the beauties of this alien society living alongside mankind on the world of Ghurtha.

If you can’t make up your mind over whether or not to pick up Orkworld, then I encourage you to pick the book up off the rack of your local game store and read through this opening section: Through it you will see a pertinent and well-crafted glimpse of the careful and intricate construction of orkish life which lies at the heart of this marvelous game.

Following the Journals comes a chapter simply entitled Ork, which is broken into five sections:

Thaloo. “Thaloo” is the orkish word for “belief” – or, more precisely, philosophy. Here we learn, in short, about how orks view the world: What is Ghurtha like? Who are the Gods? How do they worship them? Why do they worship them? What are the guiding principles of their life? What do they think of birth? How do they organize their societies? And why?

It is here that you’ll being to realize the great richness of the material which has been laid out before you. There is so much offered in just this one small segment of the work, that I cannot begin to adequately summarize it – but I will offer a few highlights:

Orks believe that there are two sides to the world. One side, the Wakingside, is where we all live. The Otherside is home to the gods. Likewise the sky, which revolves around the world, is split into two halves – the Day-sky and the Night-sky. When those of us on the Wakingside of the world are beneath the Day-sky, the gods sleep beneath the Night-sky; and vice versa.

The orks believe in four gods: Keethdowmga, the Great Mother; Bashthraka the Thunderer (a god of war); Gowthduka, the Silent God (a god of knowledge); and Pugg, the Trickster (the ork’s favorite). Orks do not “pray, build shrines or make sacrifices” – after all, the gods are on the other side of the world: They can’t hear the prayers, see the shrines, or receive the sacrifices. (Orks are a practical sort of people.) Instead, if communication is desired (and if you’re a smart ork you realize that you very rarely want to have chats with a god) it is carried out through a bodalay – a shaman who can interpret the Omens of the Otherside.

An important concept in orkish life is that of Trouble. Orks believe that they each carry with them a certain amount of Trouble – or, more accurately, “fortunate misfortune”. They think of Trouble (“fortunate misfortune”) as a testing ground – a place for honing the talents of worthy orks and weeding out those orks who would be a burden to those around them. The intricate concepts of Trouble within orkish life are far more complicated than this, but I cannot do them justice in this space. Suffice it to say that I am extremely impressed with what Wick has put together for the backbone of his fictional culture.

Another important concept in orkish philosophy is that of Fana – an ork word which means, literally, “hand”, but also can be translated as “’strategy’, ‘standing’, ‘position’, ‘favor’, and ‘advantage’”. To fanu (“have hand”) in orkish life is to have advantage in a situation – basically it can be thought of as the worth of a particular ork or situation.

Finally, we’ll take a quick look at the concept of Thwak. It is the idea of outsmarting someone – to trick them, defeat them cleverly, or take something from them. This concept of testing yourself craftily against your fellows is highly honored among the orks, and is (in many ways) the guiding principle of the way they approach life and deal with their Trouble.

There’s a lot more here that I’m not even going to touch on (or I’ll be here all day): Domdha, Keerisboon, Shusha, Motherhood, the spiritual beliefs surrounding orkish cannibalism, Noodeema, Dracha, Black Magic, and Dreaming. Beginning to get the idea? Orkworld is chock full of great ideas!

One nice element to mention here is that, throughout the book, Wick leaves open the question of whether or not the myths which the orks believe in are true or false. Are the gods real? Is there a true afterlife? If there is, is it really on the other side of the planet – or is that just a conceptual fantasy? At the same time he gives a wide array of tools so that, whether you decide these myths are true or false, you’ll have plenty of support from the game. The ambiguity – and the support – are nice touches.

Chochum. “Chochum is the ork verb ‘to live’.” And in this section of the book we learn a good deal about just that: How orks live.

Orks organize themselves into Households which are, in turn, parts of larger Tribes. They are migratory – moving from one eetalday (village site) to another during the course of the year (generally going to where food can be found). One specific eetalday will be specified as the dooladay – the “winter home” where the tribe spends eight months of the year.

In this section we also learn about what orks eat (and when they eat it),

Ganala. This section of the chapter basically deals with the structure of orkish society. A great amount of detail is given to orkish law (including the specific punishments for the crimes in orkish sociey), orkish politics, the orkish calendar, and orkish power struggles.

In addition we learn of Doona and Noona (the former meaning sex; the latter referring to the orkish love – neither of which quite fits our own understanding of those concepts); orkish hygience; orkish art (there’s a bit in here where Wick discusses a startlingly beautiful image of sculptures carved out of living wood); orkish riddles; orkish games; healing techniques; as well as common orkish diseases (and their treatments).

Zhoon. Here we are treated to a discussion of orkish principles of war. Wick has clearly done a marvelous job of researching a variety of traditional tactical manuals (such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and constructed an original gestalt of them, giving orks their own personalized – and yet extremely legitimate and intelligent – philosophy regarding war.

A couple of important concepts introduced here: The Five Virtues (Zho: Strength; Bha: Courage; Thrun: Prowess; Wan: Cunning; and Shoon: Endurance) form the core of how orks judge the worth and talent of one and enother.

Mowgd – meaning, literally, “yellow” – is an interesting orkish concept. It refers to cowardice and it refers to weakness. It can have both a literal and a figurative meaning. For example, someone with “mowgd feet” might have been crippled in some way; or, more likely, they have run away from a fight.

Anatomy. Finally, Wick wraps the whole thing up with a quick look around the orkish anatomy.

Leaving Ork we come to Stories. As if the plethora of information he has already given us was not enough, Wick proceeds to provide more than fifty pages of stories drawn straight from orkish culture: These are the stories that orks tell each other around the campfire at night. Included are the Boondahtel (the Three Brother Stories – the core of the stories dealing with Bashthraka, Gowthduka, and Pugg) and the Puggthwaku (the Pugg Trick stories, in which Pugg tricks the gods of the other races out of their part of the Afterlife). Brilliant stuff here (and I use the word advisedly), giving you invaluable insight into orkish life and belief.

Which leads to my next point. One common problem I have with many roleplaying games is that they overlook something of key importance: People need to understand the roles they are supposed to be playing.

Far too often I have run into games which include unique cultures for which I have no understanding (because they have been created specifically for the game), but for which the game neglects to give me any sort of understanding. How am I supposed to play, for example, a citizen of the Planet Galumph’alot when I’m not told how people on the Planet Galumph’alot live their lives?

Suffice it to say that Wick has done more than enough to avoid this problem. By blending the themes and cultures of a wide variety of primitive societies with the rich soil of his own imagination, Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien.

Yet, at the same time, he has described every pertinent intricacy of orkish life in a way which makes them come alive. No vagueness. No cheats. You’ve never seen John Wick’s orks before – but by the time you’re done with Orkworld, you’ll feel as if you’ve lived among them for years.

Bravo.

THE WORLD OF GHURTHA

If the description of the world of Ghurtha (in which the default Orkworld game takes place) had been as richly detailed as that given to orkish culture and life then I wouldn’t have to tell you that this is where I was most disappointed with the game.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that this is where I was most disappointed with the game.

I could feel a spot of trouble coming on when I turned to the first two pages of the Ghurtha chapter (which comes at the end of the book) and was shown three maps: One covering terrain features, one covering areas of climate, and one entitled “Caribou Migration Routs [sic]”.

I’ve got three problems:

1. None of these maps are labeled. Later on in this same chapter we are given some vivid descriptions of thirty-three locations on the face of Ghurtha (and there are other generalized locations like “the blackened plains of the elves” and the “dwarves’ rocky kingdoms” and “the Solarian Empire” which are also included throughout the text). None of them are actually placed on this map. To be fair, you can piece out the locations of some of them based on their descriptions (for example, the elves live on a “blackened plain” surrounded by “tall mountains” – hence I can sorta figure out where they must live on this map)… but I really shouldn’t have to.

2. That climate map would be a really nice touch… too bad the key for it was apparently meant to be reproduced in color. Hence Desert, Wet Equatorial, Dry Equatorial, Humid Subtropical, Mediterranean, Humid Midlatitude, Boreal Forest, Subarctic Semi-Arid, Tundra, and Ice Cap regions are all varying shades of gray of the exact same pattern (and several of those shades of gray are, for all intents and purposes, identical).

3. Caribou Migration Routes? I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure that caribou are never mentioned anywhere else in this book. On pg. 73, though, I noticed a reference to “the Migratory Map (found in the World chapter)”. So I’m pretty sure this map isn’t supposed to be of caribou migrations, but of the migrations for the orkish tribes. That being said, though, the map still has problems: It is far too simplistic in its representation to actually be useful as a game tool. And it also doesn’t seem to quite match up with the description of the ork’s migratory movements found in the Ork chapter.

The other major problem I have with this chapter is that the majority of the world simply isn’t described in the level of detail necessary to run a game on Ghurtha. I know, for example, that the major center for human culture on the planet is the Solarian Empire – located on the southern edge of the continent. What’s the capital of this Empire? Whose the Emperor? Are there any other human societies?

On the other hand, perhaps some of this is intentional: The other races are presented as “monsters”, in the same way that orcs are typically represented as “monsters” in traditional fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. (Where the D&D Monster Manual traditionally gives a single page write-up to monsters, though, Wick gives them several pages of description – including culture, philosophy, lifestyles, etc.)

Intentional or not, it means that the responsibility for big, important chunks of Ghurtha have been left sitting in the hands of the GM.

Moving away from the negative elements to be found here, let’s dwell for a moment on the positives: For example, Wick gives use a plethora of interesting information on the cultures of man, dwarf, and elf – giving each a unique outlook, lifestyle, and philosophy. You aren’t left with the feeling that elves are just men with pointy ears who live in trees – elves, dwarves, and men are fundamentally different from one another.

The other thing I like about Orkworld is that it is an affirmation of what I’ve been saying for a very long time: You can take elves, dwarves, men, and (yes) orks; and you can put them into a fantasy world; and, yet, that fantasy world doesn’t have to look anything like Tolkien.

And it can work.

In fact, it can work even more effectively because people – being familiar with elves, dwarves, orks, and men – will give you some extra rope to play around with. Make no mistake: John Wick’s elves are not the elves of Tolkien; they are not the elves of ElfQuest; they are not the elves of D&D. But they are still elves. Damn good elves. Scary elves. Elves like you’ve never seen elves before.

And the same is true for dwarves. In fact, it’s so true that I’m really hoping that someone will convince Wick to do Dwarfworld and Elfworld RPGs (or at least sourcebooks). And I’ll take a Solarian Empire game, too. Throw me on the pyre if you must, but I want to know as much about the elves of Ghurtha as I now know about the orks of Ghurtha.

Moving on: Earlier in this section of the review I mentioned that there were thirty-three really nifty places described in this section. Places like the Singing Forest (the wind in the trees creates susurations of music which lures the unwary to sleep… at which point the trees eat them); Broken Spear Pass (where three orkish heroes have had their spears break in the heat of battle); and the Forest of Black Beasts (home to the monstrous creatures who look like the other humanoids of Ghurtha… but whose eyes glow in the dark, and who don’t walk like any other creature on the planet).

Each of these places can be home a dozen different adventures, easily. John Wick helps pave the way by giving you an adventure seed with each and every one of them. Coincidentally, these small, extremely useful and creative gestures, are liberally spread throughout the entire book. John Wick describes a place, there’s an adventure seed attached. An item? There’s another seed. I’d guess that there were at least one hundred adventure seeds (in various forms) to be found in the pages of Orkworld. At least.

CHARACTER CREATION

Here’s the way it works: You don’t create a character. Your gaming group creates a Household.

The basic concept has been done before (Pendragon and Ars Magica spring to my mind), but I still consider it a paradigm shift away from the norm – and it works really well for Orkworld.

Household creation takes five steps:

Step One: Questions. In which you decide upon the answers of a number of questions for both your household and your individual characters. And Wick makes you ask some really good questions – questions which will reveal not only what type of Household you’re creating, but also what type of game you want to be playing. The questions, like the entire creation process, serve not only to construct your characters, but also as a collaboration with your GM in order to make the game fun and accessible to everyone.

Step Two: Choose a Household Totem. I’ll let Wick handle this one: “The players choose a single animal to represent their household.”

Step Three: The Point Pool. Instead of individual characters receiving points to spend, the Household as a whole receives a pool of points. Specifically, twenty-five points per player in the group.

Step Four: Household Advantages. Here in Step Four you can spend those points to gain various advantages for your Household – reindeer, blacksmithing, additional thraka, a better Winter Home, etc. The more points you spend on the Household, the better the Household will be. However, the more points you spend on the Household, the fewer points you have to spend on your own characters. It’s an interesting balance act.

Step Five: Creating Thraka. Finally, you create your individual thraka. There’s still no need to split the points evenly – you can freely decide to power up one set of PCs, while leaving another set of PCs comparatively weak. You’ve got all sorts of options available to you.

Your character is quantified in five ways:

Zhoosha. This refers, basically, to your overall standing and ability. You might think of it as somewhat similar to “level” in D&D, but that’s not exactly the right analogy. A better label might be something like “heroic greatness”. Other games might call it “Luck” or “Fate”.

Virtues. Remember when I talked about the five virtues by which orks judge one another? They’re back. Courage, Cunning, Endurance, Prowess, and Strength. You get one at rank 3; three at rank 2; one a rank 1. You can increase them one rank for four character points, but you can’t increase any of them above rank 3 during character creation.

Skills. Skills are assigned to specific virtues, but Orkworld has no predefined skill list (except for five special skills – one for each virtue – which each ork starts with). Instead, you come up with the names and purviews for each skill you want. For example, if you want your ork to be skilled at riding a reindeer one-handed you would simply create and give them the “Ride Reindeer One-Handed” skill.

Trouble. Like the Five Virtues, the ork’s concept of Trouble is also represented mechanically. Everyone starts with one point of Trouble, although they can elect to take a second (and thus get some extra points to spend elsewhere) if they so choose.

Wounds. Finally, your Wound Rating is equal to your Endurance + Zhoosha. This will obviously become important during combat.

Wick wraps up the character creation section in an extremely clever manner: When orks come of age they go through a rite of initiation, known as the gooleeala. Like most rites of initiation, this is a frightening and semi-mystical experience. At the end of the gooleeala, the young orks lose their childhood names, and are given new names by the other orks which went through the gooleeala with them. Wick gives a sample of how GMs can describe the experience of the gooleeala to their players at the end of the character creation process… at which point everyone takes their character sheets, hands them to the person on their left, and lets them name their character.

You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it’s a nice finishing touch on the entire character creation experience that Wick has built into Orkworld.

CHARACTER ADVANCEMENT

Character advancement in Orkworld is handled through the use of Fana Points. Earlier in this review I discussed the concept of “fana” in orkish culture. For the purposes of Fana Points you can think of “fana” as meaning “fame”.

Basically it works like this: Fana Points are awarded to the PCs by the Household’s tala (bard). During the course of the game the bard (who may be either a PC or an NPC) keeps track of Fana rewards – instances where a PC does something particularly noteworthy (whether that’s something “courageous, cunning, stalwart, or even downright stupid” doesn’t matter – just so long as its noteworthy).

At the end of the game, the tala performs a Fana Check for each of these memorable feats by rolling number of dice equal to his Zhoosha. The highest roll (from all the checks for that game) becomes the character’s Fana Points.

The bard himself earns a number of Fana Points equal to his lowest Fana Check for the game (in other words, the bard is gaining Fana for the effectiveness of his stories – just as the thraka gain Fana for the effectiveness of their accomplishments).

From this point on out it becomes pretty standard: You can think of Fana Points as an exact analog for Experience Points (3 Fana per current rank of Virtue to increase a Virtue; 1 Fana per current rank of Skill; 7 Fana per current rank of Zhoosha).

I found this entire concept to be incredibly clever: You are playing a character out of legend, and the abilities of your character within the legends you are telling is dependent on how effectively the bard has passed down the story of the legend. It’s a little self-referential, but as abstractions go (and pretty much every advancement mechanic on the market is an abstraction) this one’s pretty neat. Plus I think the fact that the system is designed so that the party’s experience points can actually be handed out by one of the PCs is – mechanically – a really interesting and original idea.

BASIC RESOLUTION

John Wick writes that, “when it comes down to it, every game system resolves two things: 1) picking locks, and 2) hitting things.” I think that’s probably one of the best descriptions of what an RPG’s rules are for that I’ve ever heard.

The basic resolution mechanic for Orkworld works like this: Take a number of six-sided dice equal to your Virtue + Skill and roll vs. a Target Number set by the GM. Choose one of the dice you rolled – that’s your Success Total. If your Success Total is higher than the Target Number then, congratulations, you just succeeded at whatever it was you were trying to do.

The Obligatory Twist: When you roll doubles, for each additional die of the same type you rolled, add one to your total. (This creates an interesting dynamic whose effects I haven’t fully mapped out yet. If you roll 1,2,3,3,3,4 – for example – you’d actually want to keep the 3’s – because 3+1+1 is 5 (whereas 4 is just 4). It would be interesting to combine this idea with something like the Silhouette system, because it greatly increases the usefulness of a larger dice pool over the more traditional method of only counting double sixes as plus-ones. But I digress.)

Finishing it up: If you’re directly competing against someone else, then you both roll — the higher Success Total wins. If you tied, then you both check the next highest result to break the tie – repeat as needed. And you don’t necessarily need to count doubles while resolving ties. (Or, if you find this too confusing, you can just let the character with the lowest Trouble succeed.)

COMBAT

I found some of the explanations in the combat section of the rules to be somewhat confusing, but after I muddled my way through the text I found that the system works well in practice.

Step One: Determine Initiative. Roll your Courage score – result goes first. Thraka characters should roll a number of extra dice equal to their Zhoosha score. (Thraka get several combat-related bonuses due to their Zhoosha score. I would have liked to seen similar rules for non-Thraka characters, such as tala, to get Zhoosha bonuses for their areas of expertise.)

Step Two: Take Action. Roll your Prowess + Skill (whichever combat skill is most appropriate). Your opponent rolls his Prowess + Skill (whichever combat skill is most appropriate for blocking or dodging the blow). Highest roll succeeds, as usual.

Step Three: Resolve Action. Here’s where it gets a little complicated, and the explanation in the books gets a little muddy. If the attack was successful you take the difference between the attacker’s roll and the defender’s roll and add the Weapon Value to get the Wound Total.

Then you make a Wounding Roll (Strength + Weapon Value) and the defender makes a Resistance Roll (his Wound Dice – Zhoosha + Endurance). But the defender can’t count any of his dice that come up with a number which you rolled on your Weapon Value dice (so for the Wounding Roll you need to keep the dice rolled for Strength and the dice rolled for Weapon Value separate).

If the attacker succeeds, then it was a Lethal Blow and he does damage equal to the Wound Total. If the defender succeeds, then it was just a Glancing Blow and does only one point of damage.

Because of the way the whole thing is organized I had to read through this section a couple of times to have it make sense (hopefully this summary is fairly easy to understand). It’s also a little unclear whether or not the Resistance Roll is supposed to be your current wound rating, or your permanent maximum (although I’d say there’s a fairly good chance its the latter).

You die if you take damage equal to your wounds. While you’re in an injured condition you lose one die from all rolls for every two Wounds you’ve taken (Weapon Dice, Wounding Rolls, and dwarves are excepted from this for various reasons.)

There are the standard bells and whistles around the edges, and they work the way they’re supposed to. A couple notable things, though:

First, the counter-attack mechanic has a bit of a hole in it: You can counter-attack on any turn where you have an action left and the person attacking you has just missed you with one of their own attacks. If this is the case you automatically score a successful hit as if you hit with a difference of 0. The problem I have with this is that a successful hit always means that they’re going to take at least one point of damage. A beginning level character only has four Wounds – so, in other words, if your character misses someone else four times (while they still have an action left), then your character is dead.

The working together mechanics work really well – involving adding or subtracting dice from characters dice pools in a very intuitive fashion.

The mechanics for handling the reach of various weapons are also handled in a easy-to-manage fashion that lets you take into account the difference between a spear and a sword (which is important to the Orkworld setting because of the importance orks put on the advantages of spears over swords during combat), without losing the simple flow of combat.

There’s one last hole in the combat rules that needs to be addressed: As your characters advance they can obtain Legendary Virtues – Virtues above rank 6. A Virtue of 7 is a Legendary Virtue of 1; a Virtue of 8 a Legendary Virtue of 2; and so forth. The rule for handling these reads like this: “An ork who has a Legendary Virtue can no longer fail any roll involving that Virtue. Also, when he makes a roll involving that Virtue, any dice that roll equal to or lower than his Legend Rank count as Doubles.”

That translates to always getting successful hits – which means you’re always doing a minimum of one point of damage. Actually, “hole” may be too strong a term here – perhaps that’s exactly what’s intended. But it just doesn’t seem to work quite right within the confines of the system.

MAGIC

There are, supposedly, three magic systems in Orkworld: The Simple System, the Mythic System, and Elven Sorcery.

Neither the Simple or Mythic systems (which handle orkish magic) involve the casting of spells: Orkish magic is based not on arcane rituals, but upon the empowerment an item receives through its use. As an analogy, the orkish equivalent of Excalibur would not be magic because the Lady of the Lake enchanted it using her magical powers, but because it was the sword Arthur used in fighting back the barbarian hordes.

Elven sorcery, on the other hand, is about casting spells. I won’t go into much detail here, but I will say that John Wick has delightfully neglected to bother balancing the system. I say delightfully because the elves are meant to be vicious SOBs who put the fear of god into the bones of the players. As John Wick writes:

“Um, isn’t this a little too powerful?”
No. It’s a whole heapin’ helpin’ of “too powerful”. Elves are not something orks should ever be messing with. They are monsters.

A few notes on magic before I move on:

1. The simple magic system is really good – and very different from almost any other magic system on the market. The only weak point here is that it cheats on the Eating Stomach. Orks, you see, can gain mystical powers from eating the body parts of a deceased comrade. Specific powers are granted from the eating of spleen, brain, lungs, hands, and heart. But when you eat an ork’s stomach things suddenly become more than merely hazy, they become downright impenetrable. Allow me to quote the entire section, verbatim, from the rulebook:

Eating an ork’s stomach is a dangerous affair (you eat everything he ever ate). Game Masters should reward (heh, heh) orks with the courage to undertake such an epic task.

I have no problem with “exactly what happens is left to the GM’s discretion” – but I would have liked at least some indication of what, exactly, is being left to the GM’s discretion.

2. On a similar note, in the section on Elven Sorcery we are told that “sorcerors can also store [life force] in a special container (called a “aeldrondoo”) for use at a later time”. Unfortunately, that is all the information we are giving regarding the aeldrondoo – the mechanics of how an aeldrondoo works, how one is made or obtained, and other pertinent pieces of information are left entirely up in the air.

3. Finally, I have some issues with referring to the Mythic System as a system — it’s really just a listing of sample magic items (based off various myths of the orkish people). The section is very well done – giving even more insight into orkish culture, providing adventure seeds with every object, and more – but it’s not a system.

GRIPES AND NITPICKS

There’s so much more that I could discuss here (the wonderful give-and-take of the Trouble System and the great roleplaying ideas it generates; the Winter Season mini-system which is reminiscent of Pendragon and Ars Magica, accenting the game beautifully; the solid, useful, and insightful GMing advice; and on, and on, and on) – but since I just topped 5000 words I think I’ll cut the praises off for the moment, and move onto the various gripes and nitpicks I have regarding Orkworld:

The biggest nitpick I have is the printing error on pg. 49 which causes a largish chunk of text to be repeated. This error has a cascade effect throughout the product: Not only is the Table of Contents in error from that point forward, but the page headers (which otherwise do a really great job of summarizing the precise contents of each page) are misplaced throughout the rest of that chapter. I also suspect that several pictures have become misplaced throughout the book as a result of this error.

Moving beyond the big screw-up, we encounter a host of minor editorial concerns: The footnotes/endnotes get misnumbered in the Culture chapter; there is some atrocious proofreeding in the Game chapter; some organizational problems crop up from time to time (for example, why are the discussions of Wa and Magic subsections of Trouble?); there are lay-outs in the theme/plot (the various themes and plots, instead of being subsections of “theme” and “plot” are made of equal importance); the discussion of story GMs and diced GMs are reversed on pg. 247; etc.

Finally, with material of such depth and richness, Orkworld is in desperate need of an index. (Although its just as well it didn’t have one, since the printing error on pg. 49 would have almost certainly rendered it nonsensical.)

A particularly pervasive problem is the usage of two similar orkish words: tala and talda. According to the appendix summarizing the high points of orkish language,tala means “foolish heroism” and talda means “bard; one who remembers”. In the text, though, orkish bards are are routinely referred to as “tala”.

CONCLUSION

At some point in the past I have said that Wick had the potential for genius, and it was unfortunate that it had not yet been allowed to shine as brightly as it might. Welcome to the breakout.

Does Orkworld have problems? Yes. I would have liked to see a finer polish on the final product. I would have liked more details on the other races and the world in general. Some of the holes and oversights in the rules system are also unfortunate. And the editorial errors have a certain egregious quality to them.

But when Orkworld is one target – and its on target in all the right places – it leaves no doubt in your mind: Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien in Orkworld.

Buy this game. Buy it now.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: John Wick
Company/Publisher: Wicked Press
Cost: $25.00
Page Count: 304
ISBN: 0-9703013-0-8

Originally Posted: 2000/11/02

I did not end up writing five reviews of Orkworld. The project stalled out, largely because it became so controversial that many of the venues I had intended to publish the reviews through demurred. (Ultimately, the only other review that was published was the review for Games Unplugged.) What I found interesting about the project was the opportunity to explore the different ways that a reviewer can present their opinions and recommendations concerning a particular piece of media: Many thought I was going to write different opinions or conclusions in each of my reviews, that was never the point. My grade for the book (and my heartfelt recommendation for its merits) never shifted. The point was to explore how reviews fundamentally work. And despite the overall failure of the project, I still consider it a success because it taught me a lot about reviewing.

For those interested, my original notes for the approach of each review were:

RPGNet Biggie
Games Unplugged Glitzy (L5R, 7th Sea, and now this)
Orkworld as Sourcebook
Orkworld as Alternative Tolkienesque Fantasy
RPGNet Wrap-Up (Best Game of the Year?)

I would personally visit Orkworld with Fanal the Swordbearer.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Weird Discoveries is a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera. The concept behind these instant adventures is basically what I talked about in Opening Your Gaming Table. I’ll let Monte Cook explain:Numenera: Weird Discoveries - Monte Cook

It’s Friday night. Your friends have gathered at your house. Someone asks, “What should we do tonight?” One person suggests watching a movie, but everyone else is in the mood for a game. You’ve got lots of board games, and that seems like the obvious solution, because they don’t take any more time to prepare than it takes to set up the board and the pieces.

Those of us who love roleplaying games have encountered this situation a thousand times. We’d love to suggest an RPG for the evening, but everyone knows you can’t just spontaneously play a roleplaying game, right? The game master has to prepare a scenario, the players need to create characters, and all this takes a lot of time and thought.

Cook’s solution to this problem is to create one-shot scenarios in a custom format that makes it possible for the GM to run a four hour session after quickly skimming 4-6 pages of information.

This basically boils down into three parts:

First, a two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.

Second, a two page spread that generally looks something like this

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

and which contains the entire scenario. (This two page spread is the only thing you’ll need to look at while running the adventure.)

Third, an additional two pages of additional details that you can use to flesh out the scenario. (These pages are optional. If you don’t have time to read them, the evocative details they provide can easily be replaced by material improvised by the GM.)

The basic idea is that these scenarios give Numenera the same commitment profile as a board game: You pull out the rulebooks and dice. You quickly explain the rules. You hand out pregen characters to the players. And while they’re looking over their character sheets, you spend two or three minutes quickly reviewing a scenario.

Then you play for three or four hours and… that’s it. No prior prep commitment. No long-term commitment from the players. Just pick it up and play it.

WHERE THIS GOES A LITTLE WONKY

First, there’s the weird decision to kick off this book of stand-alone one-shots with two linked scenarios where one is clearly the sequel of the other. (The first scenario is “gaining access to the pyramid” and the second is “exploring the pyramid”.) This isn’t the end of the world and if those had been given at the end of the book as a sort of variant on the form, it probably would have been fine. But one of these scenarios is actually used as the free promo for the book, and I actually held off buying it for awhile because it appeared that the book wasn’t actually delivering on its promise.

Another bit of wonkiness comes from the way that Cook tries to streamline the presentation of the scenarios through the use of Keys. Each Key is some essential element of the scenario which could potentially be found in several different locations within the scenario. Each key is given a symbol, which is then used to indicate the locations where that key can be found.

For example, in a mystery scenario a Key might be:

Evidence that Supect A is innocent.

And that Key might be indicated by a little blue triangle. Then you look at the two page spread and you might see an NPC marked with a blue triangle, and their description will include:

If Bob is the KEY, then if the PCs really grill him, he’ll eventually admit that he saw Suspect A on the opposite side of town at the time of the murder.

In general, you’ll see two or three different places in the scenario where that little blue triangle shows up. That basically mirrors the redundancy suggested by the Three Clue Rule and it makes a lot of sense. And highlighting those essential bits with a visual cue in the form of the Key symbol also makes sense, because it flags the importance of including that bit for the GM.

A couple things mess this up, however: First, the table that tells you what each symbol means ISN’T located on the two page spread. So the simple elegance of the two-page spread is marred because you keep flipping back to that essential information.

Second, the “if” nature of the Keys tends to make it much more difficult to run the scenarios cleanly. The intention seems to be that the GM should control the pacing of when these keys are triggered, but in practice trying to keep track of the locations where a particular key is available (and whether or not this might be the last opportunity for it) requires a totality of understanding for the scenario which stands in sharp contrast with the goal of being able to run it off-the-cuff. (For off-the-cuff stuff, I generally want to be able to focus on the content directly in front of my nose without having to think about distant portions of the scenario.)

In general, you can probably just ignore the “if” portion of the text and run most of the scenarios with the Keys present in all of their potential locations. There are a handful of scenarios, however, where you can’t do this. (For example, a “missing piece” of a machine which can be in several different locations and actually be completely different things.)

In any case, these scenarios would be better if the keys were simply hardcoded. And I’d recommend altering them in whatever manner necessary to make that true before running them.

BAFFLING CARTOGRAPHY

The other thing that doesn’t quite work are, unfortunately, the two-page spreads themselves. These take two forms.

First, there are flowcharts which show how the PCs can move from one scene to another. (Go to the home of the murder suspect and find a clue that points to where the murder suspect is.) These mostly work fine, although there are a few scenarios with mysterious extra arrows that don’t actually represent any tangible information. (The intention with some of these seems to be “the PCs are done here and can now go follow a lead from another location”, but that’s ideographically confusing because the arrow implies that there is a lead here that should take you there.)

Second, and unfortunately more prevalent, are the spreads based around maps surrounded by blobs of text that have arrows pointing to various sections of the map.

The best of these are the dungeons, because they at least make sense. But they’re not very good dungeons. One keeps talking about how you can explore beyond the rooms shown on the map… except there are no exits from the rooms on the map. The other is composed of mostly empty rooms. And in both cases, most of the room descriptions don’t match the visual representation of the room that they’re pointing at.

This is because, as far as I can tell, the maps were drawn largely at random and then the various bits of content were “associated” with the maps by drawing arrows that just kind of point at whatever’s convenient. And this is even more apparent when you look at some of the other two-page spreads. For example, consider the spread we looked at before:

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

That’s supposed to be the map of a city. Except it obviously is not. And one of the content bubbles is “three dead bodies lie here”… except the associated arrow points into the middle of a wall. Another content bubble is “monster that’s explicitly moving around in the ruins”, but it has an arrow pointing to a very specific (and obviously completely meaningless) location

Another common technique here is “rough sketch of a wilderness area that’s radically out of scale with random arrows pointing at it”.

WHY IT DOESN’T MATTER

Because the scenarios are really good.

They cover a wide variety of nifty ideas backed up with fantastic art that’s designed to be shown to your players as evocative handouts (instead of featuring imaginary PCs doing things).

And despite my quibbles with some of the shortcomings of the presentation, the basic concept of the two-page spread fundamentally works: The maps and arrows don’t make any sense, but the essential content is nonetheless packaged in a format that makes it easy to simply pick up the adventure and run it with no prep time at all.

For my personal use, I’ll be basically ignoring all of the maps and using the content bubbles as either random encounters or logical progressions of an investigation (depending on the exigencies of the scenario). And I’ll take the time to lock down the Keys in a more concrete fashion, but I’m not anticipating that taking any more than 5-10 minutes per scenario, which is not an undue burden.

Ultimately, with ten full adventures, this book is incredibly valuable and I’m going to be getting dozens of hours of play out of it.

The final reason why the book’s shortcomings ultimately don’t matter, however, is because the roleplaying industry desperately needs more books like this: The board game renaissance is palpably demonstrating the power of memetically viral games that can be picked up and played as part of an evening’s entertainment. Games like Mice & Mystics and Mansions of Madness clearly demonstrate that the only reason traditional roleplaying games can’t hop on that bandwagon is because we’ve systematically ghettoized ourselves as an industry and as a hobby by embracing long-term, dedicated play as the only form of play.

With Numenera as its flagship, Monte Cook Games is fighting to change that. And I’m more than happy to help them out. (Particularly since their game is so much damn fun.)

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979339

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