Pre-Gen Con Notation, along with a Review of sorts…

So, as an update for anyone who actually still hangs around:  The two reasons that I took time off from regular blogging (hells, when I up and vanished entirely) are still in process.  That said, with any luck, I will have plenty of things to write about in the coming weeks to justify an occasional column of dubious intent and purpose.  I’ve got the loan paperwork for the new house in hand, but the new house itself is up in the air at present.  Alas and alack.  As far as the novel goes, I have managed to put it to a final draft and start work on a new novel.  In the mean time, I’m looking for an agent that would be willing to work with me, and that looks to be a greater endeavor and time sink than writing the damned thing actually entailed.

But anyway.  This week is Gen Con, and I seem to have finalized my travel plans at the last minute, as seems to be the normal undertaking of things.  I’m still intent on traveling incognito, just another con-goer with an undifferentiated badge and no real marks of distinction.  One of these days, I may think about promoting the blog enough to score myself a proper ‘Journalist’ badge, but it’s pretty unlikely.

The big items of interest for me this year are the new Star Wars RPG Beta, Force and Destiny.  Thus far, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by the Force powers included in Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, so it’s going to be interesting to see how far Fantasy Flight is going to go to impress me with their new rules.  I’ve loved every aspect of the games up to this point, with that one exception, and I have high hopes that they’re going to be able to win me over.  There’s been talk that the Force Rules in F&D are going to be notably different and well expanded from what we have seen thus far, so either they’re paying serious lip service to the voices in my head or there’s going to be something truly wonderful to be had in those new rules.

Watch.  They’ll decide that they’ve done well enough in their previous Beta runs that they don’t need to test out the new rules.  I’ll go in with the expectation of rough hewn Jedi archetypes, and the guys at the booth will laugh me away with their derision.  (And I find it truly interesting that the Firefox dictionary includes ‘Jedi’, but it lacks ‘hewn’ as the adjectival of the verb, ‘hew.’  Weird.)

But enough of that.  I actually have something to talk about that’s game-related, rather than the boring and vaguely non-specific details of my mostly undocumented life.

Periodically, I browse some of my favorite sellers on eBay, looking for the mad deals that have allowed me to amass the gaming library that gives me legitimacy.  And I am the worst sucker for deals.  I will gladly pick up a cheap copy of a game that I’m only marginally interested in, if just for the sake of the bargain.  This is why I have copies of games like ‘Terra Primate’ and ‘Demon: the Fallen’ in my stacks.  It’s not because I”m likely to run either of these damned things in my immediate future.  (And don’t get me started on the inanely complete ‘Tribe 8’ collection that I amassed over one summer.  It’s a beautiful, flavorful, intricate game.  It’s also immensely difficult to understand or run, and I have no idea how I would sell it to a new group.  “It’s like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  But instead of nuclear war, it’s all because of an invasion.  By nightmares.”  So, yeah.)

Most recently, I found a couple of books that I was interested in for completionist sake, but would otherwise be unlikely to pick up at any reasonable price.  One was a sourcebook for the new iteration of Iron Kingdoms, and the other was the campaign guide for Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire line.  I mean, I really like Iron Kingdoms, but I know it’s going to be a long time before I get around to running that.  And the ASoIaF book is one that might be nice, but it’s not like I don’t know the world well enough to get around without needing it.

In with these two otherwise necessary books, there was a third book that I found from the same seller.  It was a $50 supplement by a well-known game designer, and since it was dinged up a little, they were letting it go for $5.  What the hell, I thought.  It’s a bargain.  I love bargains.  No harm, no foul; right?

Yeah.  I think I was better off spending that $5 on anything else.  Maybe there are five copies of Terra Primate that I could hand out to my friends.

The book in question is Wicked Fantasy, the Dark and Dangerous Fantasy by John Wick.  The back cover informs me of this, along with the condensed bio of why I should care.  It’s a ‘reinterpretation’ of ten classic fantasy races, and it’s telling me how Dark, Dangerous & Wicked it all is.

I’ve already bitched about John Wick in prior blog entries.  For the life of me, I would love to see a copy of the modules he was going to write that would shake up Wizards of the Coast to the point that they would ashamedly admit that he was their better and Orkworld totally didn’t suck.  I might even pay a dollar or two for these abominations, just for the sake of being able to review them for what they are.

The cover design is interesting.  I think it says something dire when the largest font and most prominent placement goes to Wick’s name.  I’m not saying that he’s an egotist, but he certainly makes a point of highlighting what’s most important about the book.  And it isn’t the actual title of the damned thing, which is the smallest font and placed at the bottom of the cover.

As a sidetrack, I will note that the most disappointing thing about the book thus far – one thing that I knew going into this endeavor, mind you – is that it has nothing to do with the fascinating weirdness that was the Wicked Fantasy Factory series by Goodman games.  These were perfectly trashy third party modules for 3.5 and 4e D&D that felt like D&D through the lens of professional wrestling and 80’s cock rock.  It was what X-Crawl was generally heading in the direction of, only distilled down to a single night of cheap beer and loud music.

And as noted, this isn’t what John Wick was selling.

So, I’m going to do this as a sort of ‘first impression’ notation, as I skim through to make sense of things.  I’d looked the book over when it arrived, and that alone was enough to inspire me to fire up the blog for the night.

I’ve already talked about the cover, in terms of Wick’s ego.  It’s a generally uninspiring appearance, with a purplish black background with some sort of mauve for the front cover text and logo.  The back and spine are white on purple, but I figure that’s to actually make it stand out on the shelf.  There’s also a bizarre logo that’s haphazardly stamped near the bottom.  It wouldn’t be bad, except it’s two separate logos that are badly fused together, as though they couldn’t decide which one to go with.  The larger is three co-joined crescents overlaying a triangle.  Inside this is a sort of triskelion that someone decided to toss in at the last minute.  I realize I’m reading too much into the damned logo, but it hints at a rule of three somewhere, and thus far, I’ve found nothing to back this up.  Moving on.

The interior layout isn’t bad, but I’m finding that the use of reds and blues for section headings gives the book a weirdly cheap impression.  Part of this calls back to the latter day West End Games products, where they put out a number of supplements with blue ink throughout.  There’s a psychological effect at play somewhere in here, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is that’s annoying me so badly about it.  I think there’s something jarring when it shows up with the normal black text.

The book opens with a self-indulgent ‘in case you haven’t realized how awesome this book is’ text in the form of a full page introduction from Wick.  He meanders through a largely interest-free history of the product, and at the end of it all, I’m not entirely sure whether or not this was originally published somewhere else or not.  He’s too busy trying to drop names and reference people I’ve never heard of to actually make much clear.  I do know that he spent a year on the book, with the help of other people, but that’s about it.  Oh, and he ends with some bit about ‘the Enemy.’  Given his weird paranoia elsewhere, I’m not sure if this unnamed and weirdly capitalized ‘Enemy’ is Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, the Gaming Industry in general, or some personification that has yet to be realized.

From there, we move into the races themselves.  First up are Humans, which makes a certain sense.  The section opens out with an evocative painting of a seemingly Germanic fellow with a skull, a wineglass and a sword of some sort.  There isn’t much else to be seen, since the scene is Dark for various thematic purposes.  I’m already given over to some fear about where this is all going.

Immediately, Wick digresses into etymology, trying to explain the nuances of words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’ and ‘rule’ as a means of getting at some point about human ascendancy.  This continues for several pages and drops hints about the godless nature of this world as it delves into weird Nietzschean ideals of ‘will’ and how it relates to the local variants of Clerics and Paladins.  There’s an awful lot of half-assed world-building to be found here, and it wanders around for a while before being distracted by other, weirder notations.  There’s a lot of talk about guilds and senators in the mold of human society and how this all relates to one’s duty to the Reign of Man.

And then he talks about calendars.

Literally, he’s going on about the Law and the Army and how it relates to the City (I have my faults with weird habits of capitalization, but this book is starting to give me an allergy to such things), and then, out of nowhere, we’re talking about how the humans order their calendars.  There’s no transition or logic to it, yet here we are.  And what’s the most maddening aspect of this entire section is that he talks about how there are totally two separate calendars that are used by the humans, we only learn about one of them.  And then it switches to notes on the Economy.  Will we ever see the other calendar that is still in use elsewhere?  Who knows.

There’s also a strange sort of sidebar in this section, where he starts defining what amount to being Barbarians in his weird and vaguely fascist human society, only to range off into this world’s equivalent of Henry David Thoreau.  I’m guessing that, if I were ever to build a Barbarian in a Wicked Fantasy game, he’d be a staunch Transcendentalist that pondered the virtues of self-reliance and the corrupting influence of organized religion.  His Barbarian Rage would be powered through his utopian idealism, which would appear to outsiders as being beyond reason or sanity.

Ahem.  I’m truly and deeply sorry about that.  Where was I?

One of the racial traits allows a Human to count all of their allies as having the same Teamwork Feats they have for the purposes of using the Feat.  They can also gain the Human Tactics Feat at fifth level, which is a version of the Improved Tactics class feature from the Cavalier.  (My initial skim gave me a much worse impression, where I assumed that Wick had given them a much improved version of Improved Tactics.  This isn’t the case, but this is still fairly powerful.)

Finally, there’s the Philosopher and Palatine re-jiggering of Clerics and Paladins.  Most of the mechanics remain the same, for some reason.  Philosophers can still Channel Positive Energy to Heal, but it’s in the service of Pure Knowledge and Intellect rather than dogma.  Or something.  We gain new Domains in the form of Humanity and Philosophy, the Holy Symbol is replaced by an Item of Meaningful Import, but that’s about it.

The end of the section has a little table for Approved Classes.  Mind you, this is a world of pure reason and Randian ideals, with ‘No Gods, No Kings, Only Man.’  So naturally, there’s a ban of such classes as Alchemists, Gunslingers and Monks.  And then we have a weirdly anachronistic illustration of an Amazon Warrior straight out of some Greek sourcebook.  I’m really not sure what the default setting of this world is, if the illustrations are anything to go by.  We started it off with a guy that would have fit in nicely in Wick’s 7th Sea sourcebooks, and we end with this.

Immediately following this is seven pages of double-spaced fiction, ‘A Tale from the World of Wicked Fantasy.’  It’s not very good and seems to exist mainly to inflate page count.  Every race has about this much fiction to end out the race guide.  It’s pretty flat, rather uninspiring and offers very little in the way of description of the world itself.  The parts that I read had two characters standing around talking about politics.  Again, maybe this is all to underscore just how dull it is to play a human in this Dark and Dangerous World of Wickedness or something.  I don’t honestly know.

In the world of Wicked Fantasy, Halflings are Haffuns.  And they’re servants, for some reason.  Unless they’re weirdly revolutionary.  There’s an undercurrent of casting them as the fantasy equivalent of African Americans, where they’re essentially slaves until they rise up.  Wick even goes so far as to give them a race name that only they can use.  And in the same vein as the nonsensical Halfling to Haffun bit, they’re Hobyns.  It’s totally different than Hobbits, right?

Haffuns are given an interesting ghost-speaker archetype for Clerics, and there’s a new class, Butler.  This is essentially an extremely specialized version of Rogue.  They get the equivalent of a Familiar’s aspect with their naming convention, but sadly it’s Wick’s local equivalent, rather than Jeeves or Smithers.  The class doesn’t seem to be very good, other than as an NPC sort of thing, but if I’m in a game I don’t care enough to bother with, I might roll up a Human Butler to fuck around with.  I might have to modify a couple of things so that I can better Serve Master, of course.

Naturally, we have to have Orks, since this is Wick.  I’ve never made a point to read through Orkworld, so I don’t know how much self-plagiarization he’s gone to.  As it goes, they are the noble savages who slew the gods that caused them to be evil, or some idea like that.  There’s an awful lot of discussion about what the Ork word for ‘blood’ is and how it can range through the declensions and nuances.  This is followed by the word for ‘bard’ and the word for ‘friend’ and so on.  We go through half a dozen Ork words for the next several pages, since this seems to be the best way for Wick to describe the culture.

So, if I might digress for a moment.

He isn’t wrong, per se.  There’s a lot of culture that’s bound up in the language that people use.  My time living abroad and working as an ESL teacher gives me all sorts of insight about how difficult it is to teach someone to speak without acting as a cultural imperialist at the same time.  Linguistics is pretty interesting to me.

This isn’t.  And I fail to see how five pages of what this or that word means to this culture is taking you any closer to actually being able to do anything with it.  And for the love of crap, we’re talking about Orks here.  When I think of the god-killing savages that serve as the bogeyman for the civilized races, I’m not really wanting to spend this much time on how their perception of ‘Blood’ serves to define their culture.  These Orks are presented in way too civilized a manner to hold my interest on any of it.

I’m starting to see why everyone thinks Orkworld sucked.  Oh, and as a final notation before I move on?  Orks get a +2 Bonus to Strength.  And Charisma.  This dude has a crush on Orks.  I swear.

Elves come next, and I’m losing interest as I go.  Apparently, they’re tied to their trees in a vaguely Dryad sort of way, and Wick paints them in broad strokes that cut back to Tolkien again.  They’re ageless and bored and treacherous.  They play games of deceit, for … reasons.  I guess we’re supposed to get a Seelie Court ideal out of this somehow, but it isn’t really dealt with in any meaningful way.  Like so many other parts of this book, he lays out some vague character trait that defines the race, only to leave it to the reader to fill in the necessary bits.  Haffuns were fleeing a nameless horror that isn’t important enough to deal with.  Here’s their word for Homeless.  Orks slew the gods and gained their power.  Here’s their word for Friend.

In the midst of the Elves and their trees and their games of deceit, there’s a sidebar that talks about an Elf going to the University and becoming a Lawyer.  And a social justice activist.

Have I mentioned that there are weird tonal shifts in this book?

From there, we run into Gnolls.  And the multiple paragraphs about the word Gnoll and so on.  For some reason, Wick wants to talk about 1st Edition Gnolls in a Pathfinder book, making very certain that we all know that Gnolls have nothing to do with Gnomes and Trolls.  He then wants to talk about the Gnoll language and how it relates to Yiddish and German.  Finally, he goes into how the Gnoll language only has 250 words and no adjectives.  And nearly half of those pertain to words for food.  (This is one of those things that catches in my throat.  I could go on, at length, about the sheer nonsense this implies, but I’m pretty sure that literally no one has the interest or fortitude to sit through that.)

Again, we have a perfectly interesting savage race, and we’re subjected to linguistic analysis.  This guy must be a blast to party with, as he drunkenly holds forth on the most mind-numbingly pedantic topics handy while other people listen to loud music or hook up in dark corners.

If that wasn’t enough, once more we’ve got a savage and brutal race in a Dark and Wicked World that has a bonus to Charisma.  Yeesh.

Then there’s Gnomes.  In their language, it’s pronounced “gah-NOHM-ay.”  I’m fucking done here.  Next?

Whee.  Then we’re up to Goblins.  Only in The Wicked World, they’re ‘Gobowins.”  That’s pwecious.

For the sake of not diving for the ending of the book, let me see if there’s anything to redeem this idiocy.  There’s the usual sort of linguistic notation, which I’m slowly becoming numb to, followed by the different cons that Goblins are prone to.  It seems that they’re the grifters of the world, for some reason or another.  Okay, fine.

And then we come to this gem:  Fala No Tala.  Okay, sure.  Banana fana bo Bala?  Gods, Wick.  There are days when I hate you with the power of a thousand dying suns.  Or as I call it in my native language, ‘Fuk’kyu.’

Also, apparently Goblins manage a mail delivery system in this world.  True story.

Dwarves are sexless, immortal drones who live to work.  And drink beer.  I know this because Wick devoted a single page to four words about how they love beer.  Beer was in red text.  I can’t handle much more of this.

We’re up to Ratlings.  Of course, they’re called Roddun here, because why not?  They seem to be rodent yakuza, for some reason, working as the oddly eloquent and extremely short-lived protectors of the streets.  It’s not a bad take on the idea of Ratlings, but as usual, it spends more time on their language than I would like.  It does give some rules on making barrios within a city, how to work street level conflict against rival Ratlings, and so on.  There’s an undercurrent of a weird Hispanic culture in here, with Respect and so on, but it might be a worthwhile system to lift for use elsewhere.

Naturally, I would have liked to see them done like in L5R, but that’s me.

Let’s see…  What’s next?  Kobolds, apparently.  Although, from the look of the art piece that graces this chapter, I’m more inclined to think that he’s spinning way off course with a picture of a vaguely Asian seeming psionic monk.  (I’m not kidding.  There’s even a hint of a torii gate in the background, as some bald guy with implanted gems and a sort of toga gestures toward the reader.  This isn’t helped by the inanely Japanese demonym of ‘Kuba-chubisi,’ which suggests something much different.)  The whole chapter is filled with weird conceptual theories about how the Kobolds are manipulating thought and memory from behind the scenes, and to go with this is an entire glossary of manufactured terms like hapt-uvennen, tey-shalaf, detkiv-shava and the like.

What it doesn’t have is anything about Kobolds.  Even a little bit.

You know, it’s late, and I’ve already spent way too much time flipping through this book.  I might go back and try to make sense of how Wick tried to shoehorn some high concept idea into – oh, let’s say … – Kobolds; but for the time being, I’m going to declare that he used the name and nothing else, just so I can move on.

I really didn’t have a lot of expectations about this book when I got it.  I had heard the baying of the fanboys about the newest, edgiest ideas of the niche grandmaster, but that’s the nature of fanboys.  So be it.  What I saw was a book that normally cost $50 that I could get a mad steal on.  What the hell, I might find something interesting in it.

All my bitching aside, this is a book that could fit certain niches of the hobby that were looking for new ideas.  The big problem I have with it is that it doesn’t do anything that the cover copy would imply.  This world isn’t dark.  It isn’t dangerous in any way, other than the usual fantasy ideals.  And despite Wick capitalizing on his name, it certainly isn’t wicked in the slightest.

It’s just sort of dull.

Here you have Kobolds and Gnolls and Orks, and they’re reduced to these sad bastardizations of what they were built as originally.  When Paizo built Golarion, they made a point of making Gnolls into this twisted race of desert slavers and savages who worshiped the Mother of Monsters, Lamashtu.  Their howls in the deep desert would send chills along the spines of the hardened warriors who held the forts against the untamed wastes.  In this Dark and Dangerous World that Wick has built up, they bathe fastidiously and are known as great chefs.  Orks are noble and get bonuses to their Charisma because they’re such paragons.  And kobolds?  Fuck, they bear no resemblance to anything that shows up in established lore.

At the risk of showing my age, I remember when I first looked over the Dark Sun worldset from 2nd Edition D&D.  Here was a brutal and savage world, where life was cheap and the psychological buy-in for the players was that you could die at any time; here’s your back-up character for when things go to shit.  In this setting, Halflings were cannibals that lived on the far edges of society, as far away from civilized folk as they could get.

In Wicked Fantasy?  They’re fucking butlers.

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Posted on August 12, 2014, in Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Here to hoping you have the best of times at Gen Con. As a language nerd poser (I dabble in languages at best and fake it well enough the rest of the time), I would be quite interested in your treatises on Wick’s gnoll language errors. I believe that language is great touchstone for culture, but effective use of language in games is hard. Did any of the “word-bits” given in this work, help you get a grip on a feel for any of the races? Thanks for a great review.

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