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Friday, 1 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Other Worlds

RPGPundit Reviews: Other Worlds

This is a review of the “Other Worlds” game, written by Mark Humphreys, published by Signal 13 press.  Its a review of the print edition, which features a full-colour cover with a variety of multi-genre people and things (zombies, high tech babe with a gun, swashbuckler with a cool scar, some kind of mecha/battlesuit, a zeppelin, a superhero, spaceship, galleon, etc).  The cover art is not of bad quality, but its the classic cover that screams “this is a multi-genre game” of the sort you used to see a lot of in the 90s (obviously, it reminds me a bit of a GURPS cover), and so it feels just slightly corny, though I guess it gets the point across. The interior is sparsely illustrated with black-and-white drawings, mostly of fairly good quality, again covering a variety of genres and mostly consisting of heroic or villainous figures in a variety of heroic or villainous poses.

The game sells itself as a “roleplaying game of heroic action and adventure for any genre”.  Sadly, the part I take issue with there is “roleplaying game”, as it seems pretty clear on reading it that this book is a storygame; and an odd choice of one at that.  It isn’t about dying holocaust victims or sexually-repressed Victorian university professors, so I guess it qualifies as some kind of attempt to make a storygame that bridges the gap into a territory that isn’t trying to be edgy for its own sake.

 Unfortunately, that does nothing to stop it from still very much being a game about creating story, rather than roleplaying in an emulated world. This isn’t just speculation on my part either, the very first sentence you get from the author in his description of “how to play” the game says it explicitly: “the purpose of playing Other Worlds is to tell a story”.

The layout of the game isn’t bad. The writing isn’t bad, in the sense that it isn’t technically poor; nor is it full of excessively byzantine description or jargon. It isn’t even wrong. Its just not good, really not good. I can’t explain why, but for some reason I struggled massively with the writing in this book; my eyes just kept wanting to slide off the page. I can’t explain the “why” of it, it wasn’t any single thing; I’d never experienced anything quite like it in a reading for review.  Omnifray or Alpha/Omega were difficult because of the complexity of their rules, for example, or a game like Dread (the Jenga one) because of how unspeakably pretentious I found it; but this one was for no real discernible reason.  It was an experience I only had similar context with in reading technical manuals, microsoft “help” files, or occasionally university textbooks on subjects I really didn’t want to take. Nor would I attribute this to it being a storygame; I’ve reviewed plenty of worse, more pretentious, more ridiculous storygames without this problem.

So, the book starts by talking about how Other Worlds is an exercise in collective story-making, thus proving its misappropriated the term “roleplaying game”. It goes on right after that with an explanation about how its “really not fair” if the GM can just do what they like with the rules. Its noted from that point that in the book, for pronoun purposes, the players will be referred to in the masculine, the GM in the feminine. Make of that what you will.

The game then proceeds to provide a rule synopsis that I really had to struggle through reading, and that failed to explain the rules appropriately at all, except in the sense of “you choose the stakes, the group collectively decides if its worth bothering with, and then in some way you work out some kind of rating that is not explained in the synopsis, and roll a d100 to determine the winner”.

Let’s see if “Key Principles” are any better at explaining things: we’re told in this section that “anything can be an ability”, “anything can be a conflict” and that the “group owns the setting” (as opposed to the GM), and that these are sort of the holy trinity of the game, I guess. It sounds dangerously like a game about nothing, but I stopped caring after the rules synopsis.

The chapter on Worldbuilding makes it clear that the GM is not to choose the setting of the game either (though the author generously concedes that the GM can make “suggestions”… and just to clarify, what would happen if the rest of the group outvoted him? Does the author expect that the GM will run a campaign setting he despises?).  After a basic concept is chosen, the whole group works together, in the classic idiotic notion held dear by college academics and soviet bureaucrats alike that design-by-committee always produces the best results; working step by step as a group to create a setting where everything must be agreed upon collectively: the setting, history, geography, technology, magic, factions, conflicts, characters, character power levels, how long the game will be, what supporting characters will be used, what future adventures will look like, even the opening scene; everything is decided jointly by the Political Commisarry, presumably while a gun is fixed to the GM’s child’s or pet’s head, to make sure he or she will run whatever the players fucking well tell him or her to run.  Because of course, we all know that the best “stories” have always come from the work of steering groups with individual veto power, and never by the evil creative genius of selfish individuals with a vision.

Apparently there are some kind of mechanics for characters; one of these decisions of the Comintern are the “power level” of the PCs, which can range from 10 (for child characters) to 50 (for legends and demigods).  At this point in the reading, I still had no idea what those numbers meant. They can also have “trademarks”, or not. Trademarks are what are used for special abilities and powers, and you can have between 0 and 2 of them.

Seriously, I really love how this guy writes about planning things like the length of the campaign; it really makes me believe the guy has never actually participated in anything even vaguely resembling an RPG in his life.  Maybe he’s played some story games, but aren’t their “Campaigns” usually an average of 1 session long?  I guess that would explain it.

The “Character Generation” section continues with the assertion that “you can be pretty well anything”.  Let me say, in most generic games, there are two serious problems with that kind of claim; first, any generic game worth shit is only going to be worth shit within a certain range.  Its true of GURPS, it was true of D20, its true of BRP.  Of course, games not worth shit aren’t worth shit within any range of genre or power level, which is already pretty well my conclusion of this non-roleplaying game.  Second, though, the claim itself “You can be anything!”, or the broader “what kind of campaign can you play with Other Worlds? ANY kind!” is pretty well a pointless statement.  It provides no guideline at all that translates into something feasible in terms of useful information transmitted to the reader.  Its like if I were to ask you “How could I become a millionaire?” and you said “you could do it all kinds of ways!”, possibly true, but useless as data.

Anyways, I guess one typical storygame trait I can’t accuse Other Worlds of having is that of being a “micro-game”.  I suspect that the Forgies wouldn’t approve, but I really don’t think I’m who to judge about the value of any Storygame as a Storygame.  I review RPGs; which this game, by virtue of not being one, fails pretty miserably at.

So what you do, in any case, for creating characters is to choose concept and personal details first of course, and then pick a set of “Templates”, general abilities, personality traits, relationships, goals and flaws to fit that concept.  These various abilities all begin at the “assigned power level” (10-50 as mentioned above) and then a few of them are modified up or down a bit.

Finally, you create a “supporting character” that the GM is obliged to use in the game, and prologue that the GM must use to introduce the character into the Story, and finally you start with 3 Spotlight Points.  Of course, these last points are the REAL mechanic of the Storygame, the points you spend and gain in different ways to allow you to control the Story itself.  The rest is all purely descriptive.
The back cover claims that the book has “Over 100 ready-to-use Character Templates”, these “templates” are not sample characters, or even semi-complete character packages like you see in some games; they’re just archetypes listed with a number of possible abilities, traits and relationships for the player to choose to add to his character.

“Conflict resolution” is generally handled with a broad brush, with the stakes widely determined, the final goal of the player being stated, the cost of failure being established beforehand; in other words everything an RPG is not: deciding before anything is rolled what is happening, how its going to be resolved, explicitly, and only then rolling some dice to see whether the story told is of “failure” or “success”.  We are additionally told not to even bother with dice-rolling if the group (again, we’re explicitly told its NOT the GM’s call) thinks that it would be more interesting if the player just succeeds (the one bone a GM is thrown is that they can try to call for an automatic failure if the thing the player is describing would be “objectively impossible” in the story).

Anyways, in the event dice are to be rolled, the scene is resolved by various abilities being added in different ways (50% of one score plus 10% of two other abilities, just to be stupidly complex about it), plus various possible circumstantial modifiers, plus a d100 roll, compared to the “opposition rating” which is usually either a value between 1-3 times the “base power level” of the game, or a roll calculated as above if the opposition is from another active individual. The higher result wins, with different possible margin of victory available.  Note that any player who’s character loses a conflict gains a spotlight point.

Its generally assumed that most conflicts will be resolved by a single roll to determine the whole thing (ie. the stakes being “I shoot the three guys in front of me dead” or something like that).  However, the option also exists to do a “set piece scene” where you break everything down into a series of much smaller conflict rolls (ridiculously termed “sub-conflict rolls”), like the kind of combat sequence you might find in a real RPG.  The chapter ends with the sage advice that you should never let things like “tactics or realism” be what determines the events of the story, but rather “dramatic logic”.

Aside from losing conflicts, you gain spotlight points whenever the group feels you have entertained the group with your story-making skills, or when a supporting character of yours is removed permanently from play.  You can spend Spotlight points to improve character abilities, but this is detailed only secondly to what seems to be the main raison d’etre of the mechanic: to let you control the setting (that is, the “Story”).  You can spend spotlight points to let you use way more ability scores for resolving a conflict than normal, to let you switch around the die roll result (that is, a 35 becomes a 53 or vice-versa), or to re-roll a conflict that you failed.  The player advice section which follows tell the players that they can certainly play out their characters, but that its also important to “be the active AUTHOR of your character’s story rather than merely a witness to it”, and that they should try to “construct your character’s actions from an omniscient point of view”. Players are also reminded that they have “narrative authority” and should use it to create the world they are “actively exploring”.
There’s a section on GMing as well, that explains that the GM’s job is mostly to help develop the supporting cast, set up initial plot threads and story hooks, and do all the prep work. He (or “she”, I guess) is commanded to “give the character’s leverage”; the author seriously suggests that it is best if “dangerous secrets and powerful weapons should just fall into their laps” and “they should always seem to be at the right place at the right time”, because we wouldn’t want the little divas to have face any meaningful challenges, right? That might lead to roleplaying! Heavens forfend!

The GM is told to “present the players with hard choices”, usually where they have to compare and conflict certain themes of their character against one another to help decide what they really value (classic Forge bullshit), but the GM is warned to “always leave some way for characters to turn things around” because “your job at this point is simply to take the player’s decision and run with it”.  The GM is ordered in big letters to RESPECT PLAYER AGENCY, even though the players are regularly told to shit all over any illusion of control the GM might have (seriously, what the fuck is the point of being a “GM” in a Forge game? I suppose its an exercise in masochism). He’s also told, I shit you not, to “LET THEIR PLANS WORK”, and that you must not let “your hang-ups about verisimilitude or challenge get in the way” as “this is a game about stories and characters, not strategies or tactics”.  There’s even a deeply ironic section about the “GM’s veto”, where its made explicit that the GM doesn’t actually have one, and must only act in accordance to what the group allows him to judge (being told “yours is a position of trust, not authority”).  Again, making it abundantly clear that THIS IS NOT A ROLEPLAYING GAME.  Sadly, that last bit in all capitals is my own, and does not appear anywhere in the book itself, the author being too much of a chickenshit to dare to try to have the game survive on its own when its so much simpler to try to parasitically leech off of a more successful hobby.

Right. At this point I’m officially sick of this game; there’s a few other sections about adapting character creation and conflict-resolution to particular genres, and some guidelines to that, but who really gives a fuck? I know I don’t. The game amounts to a bullshit system that’s meaningless in the light of the meta-rules that reduce everything to a collectivist circle-jerk where story overrules everything. Why even have a goddamn system, then?  I guess that’s the part I don’t grasp about Storygames: RPG mechanics are meant to provide a set of internal rules that govern the functioning of an emulated world and the characters in them, but what the fuck are storygame mechanics for?! If the goal is creating a story and not emulating a world, wouldn’t the best way of achieving that be to just tell stories together without any kind of a mechanic at all?  I guess that’s why Twilight Fan-fiction is immensely popular, and Forge games are immensely not.

So, to sum up.  This is not an RPG in any way, but the author insists on misrepresenting it as such.  So if he sent this to me to judge it as an RPG, I’d have to give it a rating of Absolutely Fucking Horrible.  As I already mentioned, I don’t think anyone would believe I’m qualified to judge it as a storygame, but I strongly suspect that most Storygamers would find this game insufficiently pretentious (though they’ll probably enjoy the constant appeals to design-by-committee and the ceaseless GM-bashing of the text), and I really think from what I know about Storygamers that “generic and universal” is not really their cup of tea. So I suspect Other Worlds would fail on that front too, but that’s for a gang of pretentious fuckwits to decide; over in whatever rock the last of this fortunately endangered breed of Swine are waiting it out until the next attempt to subvert our RPG hobby with pseudo-intellectual drivel should rear its ugly head.

If you’re a roleplayer, rather than a storygamer, don’t buy this game. Enough said.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario + Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake

(originally posted May 30th, 2012, on the old blog)


  1. So I once had a game idea where you'd use one skill + 10% of any related skills (somewhat inspired by herowars/heroquest) but I swear, I'm not a swine gamer! I like D&D and Runequest!

  2. Oops, hit "publish" too quick. I guess we can at least commend them for writing a game that isn't misery bingo. I am very curious if there's actually any groups out there that actually function like this though, or if it's a weird, hippie anarchist utopian gaming .....thing.

  3. I imagine the author probably played it some.

  4. If we can't have the GM imposing his or her evil will on the storygaming group, why should we let an author do so!

    Liberate the story! Say no to authors!

  5. Yeah, well that's the irony of most storygames, they replace the "tyranny" of a guy who presumably knows and cares about his group (the GM) with the "tyrranny" of a guy who neither knows no cares about them (the game designer, via stringent rules).

  6. This article is hilarious. I found it by googling "pretentious storygamer" in my search for the origin of storygaming "one true way" zealots on the Roll20 fora. I think the idea of building the gaming world as a low budget improv theater exercise bothers me, but not nearly as much as the rabid fanboyism exhibited by storygaming proselytizers. I still don't know where it comes from, but at least this piece made me laugh along the way, so it's less of a waste of time. Thanks.

  7. HeroQuest 2e fits in a similar place but is not like this game at all. I recommend HeroQuest 2e, which is firmly a GM is in charge game.