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.