Wednesday, 30 December 2015
RPGPundit Reviews: Far Away Land
This is a review of the RPG "Far Away Land", the "tome of awesome" version, print edition. It was written by Dirk Stanley, published by Simian Circle Games.
This particular edition is a lovely little hardcover, about 290 pages long (note: I have no idea if it's the "standard" hardcover or the "premium" hardcover; but if this is the standard I can't imagine what the "premium" could possibly add to it). It has an appealing cover with a black border and a centered image of a mordor-like mountain with either a carving, statue or body of some giant skeleton on it.
The cover is full colour, and made in a cartoonish style that is somewhat reminiscent of "Adventure Time". The interior art is full-color, plentiful, and also in that same style.
So here's the thing: this is a beautiful looking little game (well, at 290 pages, being a compilation edition of various products, 'little' is a bit of an understatement), which purports to be about "strange and bizarre" gaming in a "quirky and weird and strange and sportive" world. It sounds at first glance to be right up my alley. The cutesy-poo "Adventure Time"-esque imagery might have the effect of leading one to underestimate it, potentially as being more simplistic and childish than it actually is (much like the great Adventure Time show itself), but a cursory glance makes it clear that this is a product that's not made for kids, but is rather a detailed RPG for experienced gamers.
Now, will it prove to be as much to my liking as the aesthetics and overall theme promise? Well, I'm not so sure of that. The introduction makes it clear that the game operates on two levels: the "micro level" of adventuring in the standard Fantasy RPG style, but then there's also a "macro level" where "players take on the roles of gods or historians and participate in a narrative building exercise in which they create their worlds from scratch".
Guess which of those two parts I'm highly dubious about?
Now, there's not enough in that description to seal the deal as to calling this a Storygame; it will depend on the execution. We will have to see if this is more like an RPG kingdom-scale game, or more of a toxic Forge-theory wankjob.
Things start out OK, with what looks like a fairly standard RPG system. It works entirely on D6s, with each stat representing how many dice are rolled, but only the highest roll counting. So, in short, a dice pool, but the least annoying of dice pools. Bonuses and penalties represent dice added or subtracted from the pool. Rolls are made against difficulty numbers or sometimes as opposed checks. If you roll more than one 6 in your pool, every additional 6 rolled represents a +1 to the result rolled. In the case of ties, the PC wins, but in an opposed check between two PCs, the defender or non-aggressor of the conflict wins.
Character creation is quite simple, with only three core attributes: Brute, Dexterity, and Wits. Stats are assigned either 2, 2, and 2; or 3, 2, and 1. Characters have hit points, which start at 10 + Brute. Armor absorbs damage. Characters also have Action points, which start at 3 + Dex. In combat different actions cost different amounts of action points. In a round, a melee or ranged attack costs 3 action points, moving costs 2, drawing a weapon costs 1, using magic or a special power costs 4, etc.
There's also a Luck attribute; it starts off at 2. Nothing storygamey here; you can spend a luck point to add a d6 to your dice pool.
Skills in the system are called boons, and character choose them from a list (though you could also theoretically come up with a new one not on the list). Melee combat is a boon, for example; as is Ranged, or Sneaking or Arcane (the magic skill), as well as things like knowledge, riding or piloting vehicles. Each +1 in a boon gives you one extra die when rolling a check where that boon would be relevant.
There's also flaws, with a list of sample flaws to choose from. These are negative character traits. Actions where a flaw is relevant generate a penalty of -1 to -3 dice from the pool.
Characters who choose the Arcane boon start the game with 2 or 3 spells.
The experience system is a mix of level-based and point-based. You get XP, which you can then spend to get or increase boons or increase stats or flaws; or they can increase in level (which gives them a package of bonuses to luck, hit points, damage, and action points). XP is given for showing, roleplay, meeting goals, being awesome, or being funny.
The spell system is quite simple; it's based on a Wits + Arcane roll, but this is only necessary if the spell is opposed by a target, in which case they roll Wit(+Arcane, if they have it) to avoid the effect. Magic users can cast their LV+3 spells per day. Spells have levels, and a magic user can learn any spell equal or less than his level. Spells range from levels 1 to 10. All of them have very simple concise descriptions, and most of them are similar to D&D magic-user or cleric spells.
Combat is quite straightforward, using the aforementioned action points to rule how much a person can do in a round, and with most combat checks being opposed actions. Damage is based on the weapon used plus the margin of success from the opposed roll. Characters who reach negative hit points will die at a negative value higher than their current level. Most NPCs die at 0hp, however. There's also an optional rule where a GM may allow a character to survive beyond their hp threshold but at the cost of taking a serious permanent 'battle scar', which will usually manifest as a new flaw.
There is also an optional rule for 'combat achievements', where exceptional actions in combat (usually high rolls or slaying several opponents) will grant bonuses to die rolls or XP.
Likewise, there's 'optional' rules to govern a number of combat situations, like trying to bluff in combat, grappling rules, mounted combat, surprise attacks, etc.; as well as non-weapon combat conditions like exhaustion, poison, falling, etc.
All in all, the mechanics thus far are fairly exemplary for a rules-lite type of fantasy game.
The gear section is pretty standard, and includes rules on the generation of magic items. Some of the items are fairly standard, but a lot of the magic items are fairly gonzo; again in that Adventure Time kind of way. I thought the Boots of Stomping were amusing, personally.
There's a section on NPCs, which includes a set of tables for random NPC goals, as well as an outline of some standard types of NPCs with their boons and interests. After this, there's a listing of special powers and abilities, and how to handle them. There's a whole variety of these, mostly useful to cover the special powers of different kinds of monsters (the undead, for example).
At this point, we've covered only the first section of the book, some 70 pages or so. This is the core of the rules, but the "Tome of Awesome" edition still has another 200+ pages of material!
The next section of the book was (I fathom) the original first sourcebook of the game: "Creatures Volume 1". Just as it sounds, it's the monster manual for the game. It has four main parts: first, a selection of some 68 monsters or so. Each is given a brief and simple statblock that's quite practical. Each also has a color illustration in the same cartoony style as the rest of the book. A few of these monsters are pretty mundane: cyclops, dwarves, elves, or elementals, for example. But there's also quite a lot of truly gonzo monsters truly representative of the system; this includes evil warrior nuns, clown plants (literally animated plants with clown heads), riding cows, piranha men, giant floating robot heads, and (my personal favorites) murderous clones of Abraham Lincoln.
The second part is on dragons, and gives more extensive rules on them, along with several slightly goofy examples of gonzo dragons.
The third part gives you details as to how to generate your own creatures. This part is fairly easy to understand and to apply.
The last part adds rules for travel rates, weather rules, and treasure/rewards. It's not a bad section but it lacks any kind of meaningful treasure tables, which is a pity.
The whole section ends with a truly gruesome (albeit still cartoony) illustration of an adventurer being ripped apart by a gang of vicious carnivorous purple hares.
Next, we get to the Companion Rules. It was yet another sourcebook collected into this omnibus edition, and is described as a set of mini-games that can be incorporated as rules into Far Away Land.
The first part of it is "gods of Far Away Land". In this mini-game the players take on the role of Gods and build a working map of their world. Each player takes on a deity, and describe the personality and attitude of their god. One player acts as the 'librarian' and keeps track of the other players and their doings.
The players take turns creating parts of the world. Each player details a type of area they want to create (i.e. forest, ocean, etc.), and then throws two coins or other small objects onto the map. Where the objects land determines the rough boundary of the area (if one of the objects falls off, the god only creates a tiny area the size of the remaining object). The player god then names and describes the area. When coins land on areas already determined the overlapping area becomes some kind of combination; the example given is that if Mountains intersect with Ocean, the overlapping area becomes a series of fjords.
This is followed by the "Architects" part, where the players build cities, relics, monuments, dungeons, roads, etc. This works in a way similar to the former but apparently without the use of coins. It also adds a rule that on a round, a player may choose to destroy an existing location (turning it into a ruin) or altering it in some other way.
Then, on a similar vein, we have the "Historians" mini-game. Players here take on the roles of historians and create stories/histories of Far Away Land's past. Each historian has his areas of expertise, and ranks these. If two historians chose the same area of expertise, the one who has ranked that area higher can alter the history created in that area by a lesser-ranked historian. Certain events (like battles) can be worked out by rolling dice.
So all of these mini-games are very clearly not in and of themselves RPG play, but rather a gameified world-building system. They wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but they're not some kind of Storygaming per se. They're abstracted out of the context of actual gameplay, happening presumably to create the world before starting a campaign, or a region of the world before starting a new campaign period.
I don't think "world-design by committee" is a great way to handle things, personally, but it also doesn't ruin the game in any way. A GM can choose to completely ignore these various rules, and it doesn't affect the rest of gameplay in the least.
The section entitled "end of Far Away Land" has a number of rules and guidelines that arrange what in D&D would be called the "domain level" rules, where very advanced PCs can set up their own fiefdoms, build structures, manage resources, engage in taxation, maintain the happiness of their populations, manage battles or large-scale events. Now, none of this is at an "ACKS" level of sophistication, on the contrary, everything is managed very simply and sometimes in a very abstract way. The most sophisticated part is the Mass Combat Rules, which go on for about 7 pages and provide a good level of detail for large-scale battles.
After this, on a far less serious note, there's the Training Montage rules, where a player describes a set of scenes depicting a 'Rocky' style training montage for the purposes of acquiring new skills or abilities. The system is based on the other players voting/judging just how good the 'montage' was. Having a musical track for the montage is optional.
There's also an 'adventure builder' chapter, which starts off as fairly typical (which is to say mostly needless) advice for GMs on how to build an adventure. But there's also a list of 'adventure ideas', each of which gets detailed and includes several variations of the general idea. This is slightly more useful. The chapter ends on a 'mini-scenario builder'.
The "settlement builder" lets you decide or randomly-determine a settlement, with a series of simple six-entry tables. And lastly for the book, a list of 125 'rumors', many of which make adventure ideas.
So far so good. Now we get to the last sourcebook section: "Tales of Awesome". This is the Setting Book detailing the multiverse of Far Away Land. It is, to say the least, highly gonzo in a slightly odd cutesy-poo sort of way you'd expect from the artistic style of the book, and amusingly has some similarities to my own DCC "Last Sun" setting which I've detailed often on my blog and will someday no doubt be a published book (the similarities are probably due to a common source of inspiration in Adventure Time; no idea if this book was also influenced by the Kabbalah, which was another inspiration for me). There is a multiverse, which includes all possible worlds; this multiverse was created from the death of the former universe (a theme somewhat reminiscent to my Last Sun setting). This multiverse exists within the Void (yup, got that too), which originally had two primordial beings that united to create an entity called "Orton the Omnihare" (...ok, I don't have that one). Orton the Ominhare created a bunch of entities called the Cosmic Wanderers who filled the multiverse with places and things; most of the Cosmic Wanderers have now ceased to be, and you can now sometimes see some of their incredible husks in certain places.
There are nine dimensional spheres in the multiverse (there are 10 in Last Sun), and each have their own nature/quality. These include the Bolgosphere (ruled by Bolgo Cats), the Abyssmalsphere (where demons come from), the God Lands (where the immortals worshiped as Gods come from), and the Materiosphere (where Far Away Land and other material planes are found). There's quite a bit of creative descriptions of each sphere, a couple of paragraphs apiece.
What follows is a more specific and relatively detailed overview of the history of "Far Away Land" itself. The stories tell of a series of different eras in the setting, a lot of it fairly standard fantasy-world fare. There was an age of magic, and then a mage war. There was an age of iron, and then an alien invasion. This was followed by a conquest by a race of evil robots. The aftermath of these events, some 2000 years ago, left the world looking like the weird gonzo mishmash it is today. Add a resurgence of magic and eleven different undead apocalypses, and we get to the present situation of things.
The cosmology of Far Away Land involves the aforementioned Omnihare and the Cosmic Wanderers; one of whom created the Gods. He also created the Immortals of the God Lands, apparently these are two rival groups. The former were the ones who created the worlds of the materiosphere, as well as other places. As you can imagine, these Children of the Cosmic Wanderer are a weird bunch, and some descriptions and illustrations are provided. The Immortals of the God Lands and some other minor entities also get brief descriptions.
Next it's time for place descriptions, and we get two continents detailed, along with hex-maps! The bad news is that the hex-maps are continent sized and occupy a half-page each in a half-sized book, so they're basically impossible to make out. At the very end of the book there are several pages of full-page hex maps of much smaller areas, so that's something at least.
All of the places that are detailed in this section are fairly briefly described, but all have both little details of interest and a fairly clear notion of potential adventuring purposes. There's the mountains made by the Dwarf god Mort, the city of Cage where the Glorious Cube is found, the Dead Swamps of Keltor, the city of "Londol" which is apparently London that had been teleported to Far Away Land long ago, the deliciously-named Murdertime Islands, and many many more places.
Perhaps at least equally useful (or at least equally interesting), you have the section on 'heroes and villains of Far Away Land'. You have here half- or full-page bios of a variety of interesting and usually quite weird characters, including Fuegar the simian warrior, Grabble the Ogra (who's an ogre mexican wrestler), Jen Arcool the famous founder of the Londol Adventurer's Guild, The Linkon (who is Abraham Lincoln, and the unwilling source of the murderous "Noknil" lincoln-clones), Ramdous the guardian entity that appears like a hooded humanoid figure with a six-sided dice for a head, Richard Awesome, and many more.
There's also a section on religion and cults, where we get a list of similar breakdowns of faiths and sects. There's 16 different entries, most of which are half a page or more in length. There's the worshipers of the Glorious Cube ("Cubikism"), the Cult of the Last Human (which seeks out a prophesied human child who they believe will lead humanity to conquer the entire world), the cult of the Leviathog (who is a Cthulhu-imitation), The Dwarf God Mort, The Old Man cult (a human religion who believe that god is an old man who lives in the sky, and spends most of his time asleep), the Agnun cult of the Robo-Bear, and various others.
The Languages section includes a fantasy alphabet ("quintabeth"), and a list of other languages of Far Away Land, including "Earth" (the language spoken by humans), Dubstep, and Groont.
The book ends with the aforementioned really great full-page and two-page hexmaps of specific areas of Far Away Land. There's also an index and some character sheets.
So, final thoughts: I had some trepidation going into the product. While a lot of the thematics I'd seen about it appealed to me, I figured it might be one of those products storygamers are fond of making these days, meant to look like an old-school product but actually the furthest thing from one. As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded. Far Away Land is every bit chalk-full of old-school spirit. Its world-building mini-games do not interfere with this at all, because they are completely divorced from the process of actual play; you can use them as a totally separate exercise, to create parts of the setting, but when you get to actual play, the game is 100% regular as an RPG.
More than that, it's terribly imaginative, and really fun. It serves in many ways as a rules-light counter-point to Dungeon Crawl Classics: a lot of the same gonzo insanity as that game, but if anything Far Away Land is more open in embracing its gonzo potential; and at the same time its rules are much more streamlined. If I was playing a years-long campaign, I'd go with DCC (and indeed, I have!), but for a shorter campaign or one-shot, Far Away Land would be terribly fun.
Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + H&H's Beverwyck