Friday, January 17, 2014

Inspirations: Powers & Perils

Powers & Perils is one of those games whose infamy for being terrible outweighs its actual ghastliness, and whose loudest detractors typically display an unfamiliarity with it. Make no mistake, though — while P&P is not the atrocity that some would hold, neither is it an unfairly maligned masterpiece. While it is a deeply flawed game in the vein of the "fantasy heartbreaker" it nevertheless contains some striking ideas and features. It's also a game that I, perhaps irrationally, have a considerable fondness for and I think it warrants more respect than it gets.

Powers & Perils is a game that really needs to be viewed in the context of 1984, when it was released. It's often criticized for being presented using the case system, a quaint and wargamey style that was commonplace at the time even in RPGs and which some prominent and beloved companies (like I.C.E.) did not wholly abandon until many, many years later. It's easy to call them goofy and unwieldy today but nothing stood out about case-numbered rules in 1984. P&P is also taken to task for the complexity its rules, which is admittedly high — and unnecessarily so. It's a textbook example of bad complexity, mechanically convoluted but without any notable gain in simulative power, in contrast to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery, which is complicated but gives you very high amount of detail for your trouble. Again, though, this wasn't at all unprecedented at the time; you'd be hard pressed to dispassionately analyze P&P alongside, say, Aftermath or Space Opera or even later versions of the Hero System and come away thinking it was that much heavier than any of those games. To single P&P out among all those fussy early 80s RPGs seems like an unfair oversimplification to me; in half-remembered anecdotes and outright fables P&P's heaviness is usually overstated today. It's undeniably clumsy and baroque but not impenetrably so, and does play a bit cleaner than it reads. No one would ever call it elegant, but it was playable.

I not only played but ran P&P back in the day. It wasn't a mainstay of ours but something we broke out on occasion because it had some interesting pieces. Although there are a handful of stalwarts still enjoying this old turkey after all these years, P&P is not a game that many people would try to play today, except perhaps as a curiosity.

Some might find that exercise to be worthwhile. As difficult as P&P is to get into and as much of a hassle as it is to play, it does have a number of features that are novel or well-developed. There is no "class" in the game, the only distinction being between characters with casting ability and those without, and anyone can learn some magic. The skills are largely professional, so it you want to be a ranger-type you buy the Forester skill, and if you want to be a ninja you buy Assassin. These skills have their own subsystems of governing rules that vary in complexity. It's an idea that was better-developed in SPI's DragonQuest, but it's not half-bad here. There are also "natural magicians," essentially a powerful third character type that you can end up with as a result of a roll on a character features table.  There are rules for sustenance; a derived stat tells you how many Food Points you need to eat in a day without being penalized, and various game systems touch on that rule, including some spells. It's a little more complicated than it needs to be but quite sensible; the privation rules in An Age Undreamed Of are inspired by this mechanic.

The game has an intriguing take on alignment, as though the author took the Gygaxian term and ran with its literal meaning. In this game alignment is not a moral label but an actual affiliation with one of a number of cosmological factions. None are "good" or "evil" in any real sense, not even the dread Kotothi. Any character can have alignment but for magicians the choice is crucial, because it's from these forces that their powers flow, and different alignments provide different abilities. A mage sworn to Law, for example, has a very different range of powers from one affiliated with the Sidh. It is perhaps the most purely Moorcockian implementation of the basic idea of alignment that I have seen.

The structure of the spell lists is also interesting. While there are individual spells as usual, there are also clusters of related spells that are learned as a group, for example, "Fire Powers" or"Astral Powers." This is one (of several) inspirations for AAUO's magical Arts. A lot of the spells are neat. There's a Sidh spell called "Foyson Theft," for example, that extracts the Food Points from a meal, rendering them as a small amount of tasteless and odorless white powder, and the food itself void of any nutritional value but otherwise unaffected.

P&P also has a pretty good old-school encounters system out of the box, and one of the best and best-developed treasure generation systems I have ever seen, with an emphasis on treasure that's not just coin and enchanted trinkets. With it you can generate all kind of things like books, carpets, maps and scrolls, paintings, metal ingots, glassware, old journals, statues, bolts of cloth and jewel-encrusted items. Built into this is an elaborate system of mildly magical materials such as herbs, various gems, unicorn horn and such that cane be made still more potent if magically enhanced. All this in addition to a system for generating magical items that's quite decent on its own.

There's an implied setting which seems very intriguing in the core set but falls flat when presented on it own in Perilous Lands, one of three add-on published for P&P. In a way this world supplement is the perfect companion to P&P, sprinkled generously with interesting nuggets and a few veins of gold but not really fully baked and with the gaps filled in somewhat halfheartedly. It another piece, though, that catches a lot of flak for being a thin veneer over historical western Europe. That's not a baseless accusation but it glosses over many subtleties in the setting (like the nation founded by survivors of a crashed spaceship!) and singles out this product from dozens (at least) of others for whom it is equally true.

While the Perilous Lands setting doesn't really sing to many, I challenge anyone to look at P&P's adventures and tell me they contain nothing to like. County Mordara, in the P&P base set, is a lovely little sandbox-with-a-plot. Tower of the Dead, the game's only adventure supplement, is a full-fledged mini-campaign in its own right, setting the players up against a unique lich and his minions and set amid a city dominated by warring gangs. (This backdrop makes a lot more sense if you've seen Gangs of New York.) It's not entirely like any other adventure I have ever seen.

The real oddity of Tower of the Dead that limits its utility is that it's geared to be a high-level excursion for experienced players with powerful characters, yet it's one of only a very few adventures published for the game, the others being the aforementioned Country Mordara (included in the boxed set) and a couple in Avalon Hill's Heroes magazine. It was a really weird choice for P&P's only standalone module, but then, it's not like Avalon Hill really knew what they were doing with this line.

I've always felt that Powers & Perils is the kind of game one can learn a lot from. Among its lessons are the value of good presentation, tight mechanics and aggressive development — all things that it teaches by the potency of its failures. In that context it also shows how a game can be less than the sum of its best parts, and how the games should ideally be designed holistically. But it's also got some admirable subsystems with a lot of merit on their own terms, a flavor that's quirky and memorable and some nice adventures. I'd sold mine off years ago but have recently re-acquired the game, which won't be leaving my hands again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inspirations: RuneQuest

Back in the very early days, before I had seem much besides D&D and maybe a little bit of Champions and Traveller, one of the things that widened my eyes to the broader hobby was a copy of Ian Livingstone's Dicing With Dragons, which was an interesting book in a lot of ways.

Most obviously, Livingstone is an English writer and presented RPGs from an English perspective. One of the games he described in detail was Chaosium's RuneQuest, then in its iconic 2nd edition. It was, for a few years, my only exposure to RuneQuest, because though Livingstone talked about it as if it were a major RPG, it wasn't until later that I actually got to play it. And it was decades before I personally saw a copy of that fabled 2nd edition... but by then it had lost some of its impact, because I had already discovered the third edition, still crafted by Chaosium but this time published by Avalon Hill, a storied arrangement warranting an epic series of posts in its own right.

RuneQuest 3 rubbed a lot of existing RQ fans the wrong way and bashing it in favor of RQ2 was the hip thing to do for many years. It added a few new rules that some felt cluttered up the system, but more importantly it distanced the rules from Glorantha — one of the finest settings in the history of RPGs — as the default setting. I was unaware of any such drama at the time, of course, having never seen a live RQ2 book in the wild and therefore having no appreciation, except by vague hearsay, of how good some of that early Glorantha-based RQ stuff had been.

Time and a collecting budget gives one new perspective. But to this day I still feel that RQ3 was a better implementation than RQ2. The rules changes were almost all minor, and the big one, Sorcery, was a significant and welcome addition. The separation of RuneQuest from Glorantha, though, was very important and, I would argue, a good move for the game.

I think it can now be seen much more clearly that even in the early days there was a tonal disconnect between historically-colored, gritty RuneQuest and dreamy, mythic Glorantha. RuneQuest just wasn't an ideal match for the kind of game that Glorantha was increasingly being designed for. That had to have been a factor when the time came to design a new game system for Glorantha, when it appeared that RuneQuest was lost forever in the mire of Hasbro's buyout of Avalon Hill. The resulting game, HeroWars, which developed into something pretty terrific in its own right in time, was nothing at all like RuneQuest.

Despite this, Glorantha worked well enough with RuneQuest in the 2nd Edition days that many of those products have acquired legendary status. I think the reasons are twofold. One, those early books, the Griffin Mountain, Cults of Prax, Pavis and Big Rubble and the rest, are just that damned good. Glorantha has always shined brightest when presenting itself from the ground up from the perspective of the myth-tellers. When described from the top down Glorantha is weird and off-putting and yielded some really awkward and even useless products like the Glorantha book from the 3rd edition boxed set. When you try to present a coherent description of Glorantha as a whole it collapses into a haze of contradictions and half-explained but nevertheless vital elements.

The second reason is why I personally prefer 3rd edition over 2nd; RQ is a marvellous and very powerful engine for simulating a wide variety of fantastic and historical settings. I think tying it to a single milieu obscures that. It's one of the only games to treat magic in the same way as it's handled in, say, the Icelandic sagas; not as some arcane art practised by some dusty wizard shuttered up in a tower, but as one of the facts of everyday life in a world seen as mythic by its inhabitants. Anyone might throw a hex or cant his blade to sharpness, or invoke the blessings of a harvest goddess. All while not neglecting the power and subtlety of the dedicated practitioner.

Just when it seemed that RuneQuest might be dead forever, it came back in the guise of a new edition from Mongoose. This was, I would argue, a misfire in some respects, because the Mongoose edition of the rules took a good part of their core flexibility away and shunted it into supplement bloat. The core book felt like crippleware. Although everything that was lost eventually came back, I didn't feel Mongoose did right by RuneQuest until their second edition, now called MRQ2. But it resurrected RuneQuest as a viable brand after years in limbo. And very interestingly Mongoose opened up RuneQuest via the OGL, allowing them to continue publishing the MRQ2 rules as Legend after they lost the rights to call it RuneQuest... and allowing me to pilfer from it for An Age Undreamed Of.

After Mongoose the game went to Design Mechanism, which put together a 6th edition that is absolutely terrific, playing to all of the strengths of every edition of the game. It is a weightier system than RQ2, for certain, but it also does a lot to model almost any setting inspired by history and roughly realistic in tone. More importantly, it places characters firmly in the context of their societies within those settings, one of the game's traditional virtues.

Its five magic systems add a ton of flexibility, lacking only something more strictly along the lines of Stormbringer-style summoning... but you can import stuff from other BRP iterations easily enough, or build it from the tools already in RQ6. For clarity the book is second to none. I find myself in desperate need of this volume in hardcopy.