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Sunday 11 May 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Wizkid: The Cheapening

This is a review of Wizkid: The Cheapening, written by Ian Warner, published by Postmortem Studios. This is the print edition, softcover, clocking in at about 156 pages.  It seems to have good paper quality, and a nice full-colour cover showing a pair of somewhat rebellious-looking wizard-school students (one boy, one girl) and a goblin of some sort. 

I have to say, Ian Warner may be far from the best RPG writer of the day, but he sure as hell is the craziest motherfucker in the hobby right now.  And that’s saying a lot!

Wizkid is part of a whole series of RPGs he’s crafted (the recently reviewed “Chav: The Knifing” being another) that is both a parody of the WW system and “world of darkness” setting (his version is called the Shadow World), and a parody of some fad, style or significant element of modern society.  Some of these are fairly provincial; Chav, for example, mocks the “chav” trailer-trash youth gangs of the United Kingdom.  But others are of more universal recognition.  Wizkid is a parody of the Harry Potter craze specifically, and more generally the whole “magick teen” idea. 

So, knowing you’re in for a Harry Potter/WoD parody, let’s begin.  For starters, Warner presents us with a damned funny introduction (“Welcome to a world of Dazzlement”), which unlike most RPG introductions is well worth the read. In it, he explains the basic concept of his setting: wizard schools had existed since quite some time ago, but were secretive and little known to the general public, until “A certain fantasy author” went and published a series of memoirs about life in the Hippogriff House magick school, which led to a craze of youngsters taking up the study of the magickal arts. The massive influx of new blood has made it an interesting time to be a wizkid (though the rival Slithering House did consider suing the certain fantasy author for slander).  Characters will usually be students (though it seems that they could easily be faculty instead) of a school of wizardry, with all the Potter-esque trappings.

I’ll make a note about artwork in general before I proceed here: the interior artwork (all B&W) is mostly drawn, some of it slightly amateurish, some of it quite awesome (particularly the drawings of the magical creatures in the “opponents” section has some good selections); and in general it is far more stylistically appropriate to the setting than Chav’s images.  However, this is mainly because both books are full of images of hip and attractive young people; which for the magical students of pseudo-Hogwarts is just fine; whereas in Chav I would have expected the illustrations to look more like Vicky Pollard or something.  Anyways, no real problem here.

Character creation is basically similar to that of Chav (and I would assume other Warner games): first you choose a couple of basic “shticks” (character quirks), then you choose a House, then buy attributes and skills, as well as your Realms of magic(k) power (the broad categories of spellcraft), and a Trademark (a spell you are best at), merits and flaws, wiz capacity points, and House Points (basically, your reputation).

The houses are four, though a GM could probably easily make his own house to add.  The four are probably recognizable to readers of the Potter series (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never read Harry Potter or seen the movies, but even I recognized two out of four immediately): Hippogriff, Slithering, Crow’s Feet, and Hubblebubble. Hippogriff has become the most popular house thanks to that “certain fantasy author” casting them as the protagonists, and tend to be the kind of everyman good guys. Slithering are the upper class snobs. Crow’s Feet are essentially emos, complaining about something at all times.  Hubblebubbles are “deliriously perky giggly types”.  Each house is given a description, along with details about their sanctuaries (dorms, basically), which realm they’re best at and which they’re worst at, a weakness all members of the house have (Hippogriff house, for example, do not reroll successes when making Control-based rolls, ie. giving orders; but in turn they are extremely resistant to being swayed or mentally controlled getting Resistance for half the regular cost). There’s also information on the background of a typical house-member and what they think of the other houses.

The Realms (broad categories) of magic are also four: “Buff” (magic(k) which enhances you or others), “Create” (makes things out of thin air), “Destroy” (“blow shit up”) and “Nerf” (magic(k) that diminishes or penalizes another character).  Each house has a superior and inferior realm, meaning one of the four realms (the superior one) is half the usual cost in points to purchase, and the inferior realm is double the usual cost to purchase, the other two being available at normal cost.

There is a lengthy list of possible merits and flaws, which cost or grant points respectively.  Merits include things like “aristocrat”, “Cool shaped scar”, “gnarly wand” and “horrible life” (yes, Horrible Life is a merit, not a flaw, because you are like the hero of those certain novels).  There are also some merits that I think are more meta-setting than directly parodying anything from the Potterverse (though again, I wouldn’t know), like “film buff”, “fanfic master” or “encyclopedic Comic Collection”. Flaws include “annoying sibling”, “damaged wand”, “half breed”, and “Paisley” (the name of a famous Hippogriff family known to suffer from chronic poverty and cause mischief).

Skills include mostly standard stuff like acting, brawling, driving, firearms, programming, streetwise or survival; but also some unusual skills thematic (I guess) to a school-setting like Bitching (describes as “intimidation by proxy”), “look good” (fashionable appearance) and Comedy (to be the class clown, I suppose).  There’s also the (highly questionable, in my opinion) “nookie” skill, which also appeared in Chav; which is as you may have guessed the skill at having sex (with such skill specialties as “spanking”, “oral”, “straight”, or “anal”).  I really shudder to think of the sort of application in actual play of this skill that you’d get; it more than borders on Lawncrapper territory; it made sense at least to have it in the setting of Chav (where sexual promiscuity and teen pregnancy are frequent themes of the “chav subculture”), but what the fuck is the point of having it here? Did anyone get knocked up in the Harry Potter-verse that I never heard about?  Did Rowling write torrid scenes of spanking and anal sex between young magicians? Why, fuck, why??

The basic mechanic of the game is essentially the same as in Chav, and a D6 clone of sorts to the standard White Wolf system: you stats plus skills as a dice pool, trying to get “successes” that match or exceed a target difficulty.  Any dice that succeed get a single re-roll for chances of added successes.  Pretty standard stuff, and not a system to my liking to begin with, but you couldn’t really have expected them to parody white wolf’s games and end up with a D20 system or something, could you?
Magic(k) is handled very differently from Chav; which is to be expected as it would be a much more central feature of this game.  Characters have Wiz points that fuel their magical spells; any and all spells cost a single wiz point to cast.  Characters typically begin the game with a maximum Wiz point capacity of 8; they can regain wizpoints up to that limit by such things as reading teen-wizard novels for inspiration, writing teen-wizard fanfics, sacrificing small creatures (huh?!), visiting sites of supernatural significance (like stone circles), drinking energy drinks or ginger beer (is this something that happens often in the Potter novels, or is it some kind of attempted mocking of Potter fandom itself?), having an orgasm (again, what the fuck?!), getting a “sugar high”, or a good night’s rest.
To perform magic(k) (and yes, by the way, “Magic(k)” is how its written in the game, not just an affectation I’m putting on), you choose an appropriate statistic and realm for the type of spell you’re trying to create, spend 1 Wiz point, and then roll the attempt to cast the spell.  There are sample spells listed for each realm; Buff does things like “Bless”, “healing”, “invisibility”, or “induce love”; Create can let you create objects or creatures, animate objects, create a pocket dimension, or teleport; Destroy lets you stun, kill, make magic(k) missiles, or make defensive effects like a magical wall; and Nerf lets you do things like curses, combat nerfing, reveal invisible things, prevent teleportation, or “induce hate”.

The target number for success in a spell, like in any other action, is based on your “skill” level in the appropriate realm.  The more successes you have, the more potent your spell.  If you ever roll a botch (rolling all 1s on all the dice), you induce Feedback, an unexpected (detrimental, usually) magical effect.

The feedback table is based on rolling 2d6, the effects can be outright deadly, or bizarre.  Getting snakeyes means that “Cthulhu himself rises from  his slumber” and devours your character (instant death, in other words).  A 6 summons a gelatinous cube.  A 7, statistically the most probable result, creates a “spectral fist” that punches you in the face for non-lethal damage.  My favorite is if you roll a 9, wherein a “certain time traveler” arrives and starts to stir things up (he is not named for copyright reasons, but “you know who we mean”).   If you get boxcars, the spell goes off with a (very high) potency of 10, so positive results can occur too. 

The author, in a sidebar note, prides himself in having achieved the creation of an open-ended magic system in only 6 pages, whereas “a certain other gaming company” (usually when someone says that, they’re referring to WoTC, but in this case I would assume White Wolf) took 120.  That’s true, and the system isn’t bad, but it is also fairly simplistic.  I can think of a lot of “magic” related effects that would not easily fit in one of the four “realm” categories, and other effects that would probably need a lot of detail to describe in terms of mechanical effects; detail that the author basically leaves as the GM’s job.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the magic system is good for any GM that wants something fast and malleable, but I also wouldn’t say its necessarily something to be bragging about either.   In all, its quite workable, but I find Chav’s magic system far more clever and innovative (though admittedly it would be completely out of place in this game).

The background chapter introduces a mechanic that should be mentioned, which is (as far as I could see) not covered in the least until this point.  Its called Wizdom, and it reflects wizkid alignment or morality (you know, like how White Wolf always has a morality mechanic in there for some damn reason).   Wizdom operates on a 1-10 scale, with starting characters typically having 5. Gaining Wizdom seems much easier than losing Wizdom (also mirroring typical WW morality-mechanics). High Wizdom characters have benefits in social skills with other wizkids, but penalties with the mundanes in everything but intimidation (Wizkid “morality” being quite different than normal morality).  The inverse is true if you have low Wizdom.  If you ever get to 0 Wizdom, your character has become non-magical and you have to retire him.  What is interesting about this is the list of things that can potentially cause Wizdom loss (in each case requiring a roll to see if you do lose Wizdom): they operate on a scale where the higher your Wizdom, the more things there are that can cause you to lose Wizdom.  At the lower end of the scale (stuff that can make you lose Wizdom even if its already low) are things like “gravely insulting the Wizkid scene”, worshipping a higher being (apparently Wizkids are anti-religious), refusing to use magic(k) in dire circumstances or committing a crime against a senior wizkid.  When you reach higher levels of Wizdom, you can also lose it from such things as flaunting your powers in front of the mundanes, insulting senior wizkids, not using magic(k) in even mundane tasks, or (if you have Wizdom 9 or higher) using your trademark spell or even thinking “unmagical thoughts” (whatever that is, its not really elaborated upon). 

The mechanic, especially at higher level, will lead to some unusual forced behavior on the part of players, in my opinion, and combined with something like the mishap table can create a very chaotic kind of play.  Of course, this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that a character with very high Wizdom is also likely to be a very competent magic-user and unlikely to have many mishaps.  Still, you only need that one snake-eyes to end up eaten by Cthulhu.  On the other hand, the mishap table also means there’s about a 6% chance of the Doctor showing up whenever you roll it.

The background chapter concludes with a 20-questions format for character background development and a list of common equipment. 

In the “Combat” chapter you get the standard combat rules (working, as you would expect, in a way very similar to how WW games run combat); but you also get the rules for the game of Bigpitch, a popular sport among wizkids involving chasing around balls while flying on brooms.  The mechanics for handling a Bigpitch game are fully detailed, something that will no doubt be a source of great interest and entertainment to Potter-fanatics out there (not so much to people like me).
A subsequent chapter details Wizkid society, mostly focusing on the wizard-school environment, with more detail on the houses, on staff (professors, headmasters, prefects) etc., and include the mention of the popularity of the “coven” (a group of wizkids who hang out together, regardless of house; creating an instant justification for the gaming group’s existence). Here you also get full details on the “House Points” mechanic, which measures just how hip a wizkid you are.  It is a numerical total of a number of different elements of your character: his realms, his charm, modifications based on merits or flaws, modifiers based on the state of your uniform, titles (if any), and favour.  Any character interacting with another character with a lower House Points score gets a bonus to all charm-based rolls; inversely, you get a penalty interacting with anyone who has a higher House Points score than you.

There’s a very short chapter detailing how wizkid society differs in various other parts of the world (whether there’s lots or little wizkid presence, if any given house is more prominent, etc).  After that, you get a fairly good-sized chapter dedicated to “the opposition”, possible monsters and other enemies one might face.  This includes creatures like dragons or the aforementioned gelatinous cube, pegasi, dwarves,  elves, trolls, wraiths, etc.  Its mostly good, though I have to say the entry on Gnomes is grossly misleading as to the true nature of these horrific creatures, to the point that while the Gnome is presented in no way as a positive type of creature, the information provided could be accused of being intentional total mis-direction on the nature of their menace. 

You also get statblocks for Witches, which we are told are in fact a totally different kind of supernatural creature from Wizkids.  These are divided into “Light Witches” who are all full of hippy crap (basically a joke on Wiccans) and “Dark Witches” which are more your stereotypical fantasy “evil witch”.

Then you get info on other opponents, like Bible Bashers, Constructs, Bacon (the cops), members of Operation Cadabra (a government plot to study and combat wizkids).  You also get info on Bloodsuckers, Chavs, Dead Kids, Dogboys and Pixies, all of which are the thematic characters of Ian Warner’s other games or soon to be released games; annoyingly the first two, having already been released as RPGs, are not actually statted out here.  Neither are pixies, said to be too varied, but instead you get referred to another Postmortem game (Urban Faerie, which I reviewed years and years ago). Aside from that, the section is basically good.

The final chapter is on campaigning, where we hope we’ll get an idea of what to do with the characters.  Though really, if you’re playing a Potter-parody and don’t know what you should be doing, you’re probably in the wrong damn game; this kind of chapter was far more important in a game like Chav than here.  At the very start of this chapter, we get told a few unwritten rules, like that the game is for having fun, the GM is god, and “this game isn’t about being powerful. Its about comedy, failing, and how fucking pathetic some people are”.  The first two are fine but that last one comes as something of a surprise; I can understand the idea of telling people “hey, you’re playing students of wizardry, don’t expect to be conquering universes or something”, but frankly, if Warner’s goal was to make Failure into a major comedy theme in the game, I’m pretty sure he’s failed.  He hasn’t really made any significant mechanical thrust in the game to back that up; characters, as far as I can see, would easily be competent enough junior wizards.  There’s no sign of “Worst Witch”-style antics going on here.

In the rest of the chapter, Warner goes on to suggest that “your wizkid school will likely work best as a way to satirize your local situation”, which is actually fairly good advice, though given that I suspect most of the players of this game will be well out of their teens, its more likely to be a satirizing of their long-outdated high school experience. We’re also given some potential adventure seeds, like a group of fantasy creatures breaking out of a dimensional pocket and needing to be herded back; a group of Chavs breaking into the school grounds through a dimensional portal and needing to be herded out, or a construct wandering around the school that needs to be found and herded out.  To be fair, there’s a few seeds that don’t involve following this formula, but really, everyone playing this game is going to be fighting Lord Voldemort, so really this section is pretty fucking pointless.
The game closes up with an appendix of vehicle rules.

My conclusion? This is a pretty good game with which to play a simulation of the Harry Potter setting.  The “comedy” here seems way more subtle than in Chav, which was a combination of constant mocking and generally offensive material.  In Wizkid, there’s certainly an undertone of making fun of potter-fanatics, but its so smooth that you could run this game straight without it being more than a regular game with a few funny bits, rather than a full-on comedy game (you’d be hard-pressed to do the same with Chav).

The Good: Well, the game is basically well-written, and touches on a lot of the bases that even I can see marks fidelity to potter-fandom.

The Bad: I don’t know if it really succeeds as comedy, though that may actually not be a bad thing.

The ugly: the sexual references in the game, which made sense to have in Chav but here just lead me to think that there’s something off with the author (more than I used to think!).  In Chav at least he had an excuse because it was thematic; whereas I don’t think hardcore sex was a significant theme of Harry Potter. I suppose it might be a significant theme in harry potter fan-fiction.  In any case, this just makes no sense to me here.  Fortunately, these are few enough that they can probably be ignored without a significant detriment to either system or setting.


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown + Dunhill 965

( reposted March 31, 2013; on the old blog)

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