Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Portion of Wonder

Art by Jody Lee

In 1982, Chaosium released Worlds of Wonder, a boxed set marketed as “3 Interchangeable Role-Playing Games in 1 Box!”  Included in the box were:
  • a 16-page “Introductory Guide” to the Basic Role-Playing system
  • a 16-page science fiction genre expansion – Future*World
  • a 16-page fantasy genre expansion – Magic World
  • a 16-page superhero genre expansion – Superworld
  • all dice needed to play
  • character sheets
  • a cardboard sheet of stand-up “character silhouettes”
  • a 4-page “Play-Aids” pamphlet
  • a 4-page pamphlet titled “A Portion of Wonder”
With a price of $16, Worlds of Wonder was quite a deal, even in 1982 terms.  Also, three role-playing games in 64 pages seems incredible nowadays, a time when some RPG publishers – Chaosium included – eschew simplicity for 'comprehensive' rule books having hundreds of pages.

To further lower the barrier to entry, character generation in each of the three 'world' books was tailored for players familiar with popular systems of the day.  In Magic World, player characters were assigned to “professions” very similar to classes found in D&D (and other fantasy games).  In Future*World, player characters engaged in “career paths” very similar to careers and terms used in Traveller character generation.  In Superworld, players allocated “Hero Points” to selected skills and superpowers very much like Champions.  (Superworld characters could even gain Hero Points by acquiring “Disabilities.”)

Beyond the three 'world' settings, there is a meta-setting connecting them all:
THE CITY OF WONDER exists on an island somewhere on Earth, but no one is interested in telling just where.  Only someone who needs to go there can find it, and then most folks pass through into one of the Worlds of Wonder and never return.
     Wonder is built at the confluence of Earthly probabilities, where everything that could have happened did happen in a related dimension.  The portals of Wonder each open into a universe very different than the one we know.  This box provides three such universes:  to distinguish them, we call them Magic World, Superworld, and Future*World.  But in those places the Earth is still the Earth, the Sun is still the Sun, and the Milky Way looks just the same.
     For every ten adventurers who journey into one of these worlds and settle there, one will make his home in Wonder and roam the various worlds as he or she pleases.  One of ten of these latter will finally retire from adventuring and stay in Wonder.  Most of the present businesses were started by such people, and they have intriguing stories to tell.
Each portal is at the end of an avenue dedicated to the world to which the portal leads.  Each avenue has businesses that player characters may patronize, like equipment stores and places of healing.  Characters can even acquire residences and rent office space.  The 'style' of each avenue is appropriate to its adjoining world.  For instance, Magic World Avenue has an alchemist and a heraldry expert; Future*World Avenue* has a Longevity Hall and a Travellers Aid Society.

Note 'Bronstein Hardware' in the upper left-hand corner.
Doubtless, it is an homage to Braunstein.

Next to every portal there are Purchase Agents.  Regardless of the portal, the description is the same:
Characters returning from [insert name of world here] can store goods here or sell them to these agents.  The agents change often, as do prices.  All storage is receipted; no one has ever lost items here.
Purchase Agents are necessary because...
No adventurer may purchase any artifact natural to only one world at any store other than a store on the street to that portal, and no one may bring a significant artifact out of the world past those same stores...
Although “Personal artifacts and spells are permitted,” characters may not introduce “technical or magical knowledge...[to] a world unsuited to it.”

The existence of the city of Wonder offers the premise that the player characters are not native to the settings of Magic World, Future*World, and Superworld.  Yet the character generation rules presume the player characters are natives.  One could suppose that the portals allow Wonder-dwellers to occupy the bodies of pre-existing natives of the settings except the transfer of physical objects through the portals is clearly intended.

In any event, if player characters use the city of Wonder as a base of operations from which they conduct forays into one or more worlds, suspense is compromised somewhat since – no matter how bad things get – the characters have a fallback 'reality' to which they can escape.

* Thus called in 'Short Guide to the Avenues', the map shows “Future*World Walkway.”

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Coming of Age in Wundervale

Spring festival time in Wundervale is when “young people who have recently turned 16” participate in coming-of-age ceremonies.  The main event is an obstacles course, shown above.  The course has eleven obstacles (or 'stations') that require a participant to engage in some activity – usually requiring a skill or characteristic roll.  This allows the characters to display their abilities.  It is also the means by which The Adventurer's Handbook teaches its readers how actions or tasks are resolved in terms of game mechanics.  Below are the instructions for the course.

1.  Down Cliff
Character can choose to climb down or jump down. A successful 'climb' roll means the character spends three turns descending. A failed roll means the character falls and takes 1D3 damage; character spends a total of two turns (one to fall and one to recover). A successful 'jump' roll means the character spends three turns descending. A failed roll means the character falls and takes 1D6 damage; character spends one turn falling and 1D3 turns recovering.

2.  Steep Path
Character spends a number of turns running based on Dexterity (DEX 13 or more = 1 turn; DEX 9 - 12 = 2 turns; DEX 8 or less = 3 turns). A fumble result on a percentile roll (00) means the character falls, takes 1D3 damage, and spends an additional turn recovering.

3.  Creek
Character can choose to swim across or run downstream and wade across. A successful 'swim' roll means the character spends one turn crossing. A failed roll means the character is swept downstream and spends a total of three turns crossing. A running character spends a total of three turns crossing. Since no penalties are mentioned for fumbles, the swimming option seems to be preferable.

4.  Brush
Character must find a carved stick hidden among the brush. Each turn, a 'spot hidden' roll is attempted; if successful, a stick is found.

5.  Dogs
Dogs are tied upwind from the course. A successful 'move quietly' roll means the does do not detect the character and no not bark. A failed roll means the dogs bark.

6.  Listening Post
Character attempts a 'listen' roll to identify a sound made by a hidden person. If the roll is failed, the character either does not hear the sound or misidentifies it.

7.  Rock Pile
Character must throw a rock and strike a target at ten meters. Each turn, a 'throw' roll is attempted; if successful the target is hit.

8.  Mud Ditch
A successful 'jump' roll means the character jumps over the ditch. A failed roll means the character falls into the ditch and takes a turn to climb out.

9.  Logs
Character can choose to shinny or walk across a log that bridges the creek. Percentile dice are rolled. The roll for a shinnying character is successful if the result is less than or equal to 1.5 × 'climb' value. Success means the character spends three turns to reach the other side of the creek. The roll for a walking character is successful if the result is less than or equal to 3 × Dexterity. Success means the character spends one turn to reach the other side of the creek. Failure for either roll means the character falls into the creek and spends two turns returning to the log in order to try again.

10.  Uphill Run
Same situation as Steep Path above.

11.  Up Cliff
Character can choose to climb the rope or use the trail. A character using the trail spends three turns reaching the end. A successful 'climb' roll means the character spends one turn ascending. A failed roll means the character falls and takes 1D6 damage. A fallen character waits 1D3 turns before attempting to climb again (or choosing to use the trail).

Skills performed successfully during the course have a chance of being improved.  When checking for improvement, percentile dice are rolled and if the result exceeds the current skill value, that value increases by five percentiles.

Although the event is a race, “winning is not as important as simply doing it.”  However, “members of the guilds will watch the events of festival day.”  Apparently, guild representatives are present to recruit apprentices. Mentioned guilds include “the Adventurer's Guild, the Sorcerer's Guild, the Guild of Sages who seek knowledge*, even the Rogues' Guild, the guild of honorable thieves.”  One wonders about what apprenticeship in the “Adventurer's Guild” entails.  One also wonders about the Rogues' Guild recruitment pitch.

After completing the obstacle course (and checking for skill improvement), the book indicates the “characters can play in a low level Basic Role Playing, RuneQuest, or Worlds of Wonder game.”  For an instruction book that otherwise dwells almost pedantically on rudimentary aspects of role-playing games, The Adventurer's Handbook is frustratingly reticent on finalizing character generation.  For instance, later in the same chapter, the book uses “the method of Worlds of Wonder: Magic World” to enhance Barostan's abilities; said 'method' being part of Magic World character generation.  Even so, The Adventurer's Handbook has Barostan increase his characteristics as a result of training as warrior – something not part of Magic World character generation.

For the other characters, The Adventurer's Handbook adopts another Magic World notion – one month of training provides a skill value increase of five percentiles.  The book, seemingly arbitrarily, determines how many months in a five year period a character can train and determines the results of that training.  Rokana trains for thirty months; however, without establishing any sort of rule-based methodology, The Adventurer's Handbook provides Rokana with three spells and a minor magic item before her official training begins.  Bridla's “work and lifestyle” permits only two months per year for training.  As an apprentice of the Thieves' Guild (which, I guess, is the same as the Rouges' Guild), Dernfara gets the benefits of eleven months of training per year (which is a different benefit scheme from what the rouge profession provides in Magic World).

As opposed to the Guild of Sages that flavor cuisine?

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Along with a set of rules, The Adventurer's Handbook offers a setting called Wundervale.  The map provided in the book is rather unsightly, so I was compelled to create a less unsightly map that I present above.  (The map in the book shows “Elf Wood's.”)

The first human settlers arrived in Wundervale “less than a century ago” and began the process of deforestation.  According to the book:
          About 50,000 people live in the populated regions.
          Myboro is the largest settlement, numbering about 2,500 souls inside its walls.  It is the county capital as well, and handsome staunch towers gird the wall to protect it.  Its docks house a fleet of small, swift fishing boats.  Is markets are the meeting places for the foreign merchants from beyond the valley and the local farmers and artisans.  It is famous for its seven green-dyed cloths which cannot be duplicated outside this valley, and for the tiny carved wooden charms that bring luck in games of chance.
          Three large towns serve as seasonal marketplaces for the smaller towns that surround Myboro.  They are also centers of tax collection, grain storage, and so on.  Wares not locally made in the towns can generally be found here, including imported cloth and specialized goods such as alchemist's equipment and astrologer's instruments.
          Towns are the places where weekly peddlers' markets are held.  A town will generally have a parish priest, a smith, a carpenter, a thatcher, and a leather worker.  Noblemen of knight status will generally live in a town, or the town will have grown up around his manor.  The average size is 600 residents.
          Towns are surrounded by villages that are arranged to be about an hour's walk apart, dotting the countryside.  These are small settlements of a few families, clustered about their barns and agricultural tools.  Most people live in these settlements, about three-fifths of the total population.  Town dwellers should also be counted as rural dwellers, which raises the total to about 85% rural population.  Furthermore, most of the people within the larger settlements are also farmers in the fields about their their cities, so that almost 90% of the population is engaged in agricultural practices, or performs labor to support the farmers.
          About 2% of the population is engaged in full-time religious work, so there are about 1,000 clerics or their equivalent in the valley.  About 5% of the region is generally supported as a standing army, so this region provides about 2,500 soldiers and knights.  Finally, the rest (3%) are aristocrats of varying ranks, totaling about 1,500 men, women, and children of noble birth.
Nonhuman races also inhabit the valley, including elves, trolls, dwarves, and goblins.  The book allows player characters of the races although some sections of the book suggest that human - nonhuman relations are strained or even violent.

In Myboro, there is the Taverna Athena, “a large, warm, comfortable, and entertaining place, populated by city folk, adventurers, scholars, magicians, and even members of the nonhuman races of Wundervale:  dwarves, elves, and trolls.”  At this tavern, “these ancient enemies of each other put aside their animosity and treat each other with respect and civility, if not friendship.”  Evidently, goblins aren't welcome, perhaps because – for armor – goblins “favor Cuirboilli, especially that made from laminated layers of human skin.”  If dwarves, trolls, and elves are tolerated in the Taverna Athena, then they must be tolerated in Myboro and, if they are tolerated in Myboro, they must be tolerated as they travel from their enclaves through human inhabited areas while en route to Myboro.  Of course, there has to be a reason for them to travel to Myboro and associate with humans.

Dwarf Town is found on the western side of the valley.  I suppose Dwarf Town is a colony of dwarves and not a human town with miniature buildings.  Since the human habitation zone borders upon Dwarf Town, one supposes there is an understanding between the dwarves and humans in that area.

On the eastern side of the valley, there is a town outside of the human habitation zone.  Is this a population center for nonhumans?  Perhaps the original map erroneously excluded it from the human zone.

Since the valley is entirely surrounded by impassible mountains “save through the southern gap,” the 'foreign merchants' must travel through that gap.  How they manage to traverse the waterfall or cliffs is not detailed.

Anyway, the book continues to describe Taverna Athena:
Taverna Athena is a special place, the center of information and activity in Myboro.  It is part of a large complex that includes an inn, stables, and assorted shops...In a future book, or possibly in a magazine such as Different Worlds, we will tell the story of Taverna Athena, and the the mysterious noble, Kulmar, who...[description ends]
The character Joleen spends time at Taverna Athena and describes it as “a place of philosophers and entertainers, and those who are neither but like to be with both.”  Another feature of Myboro is a weapon shop “owned by and attended to be Rehsu, who gives good quality, fair prices, and loves to talk about past glories.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Saga of Barostan Skullbasher

In its efforts to instruct the reader on how to play role-playing games, The Adventurer's Handbook demonstrates the process of generating and improving six characters in a fantasy setting.  Those characters are young residents of a town called Triford.  After the characters engage in a coming-of-age ceremony, five of them depart the town for a life of adventure.  The remaining character, Aloysious (who has no characteristic higher than twelve), “goes back to the farm.”  Specifically...
His player has decided he has no future as an adventurer.  Yet he might be played on odd occasions.  For example, he would be useful to take along as a horse handler, out of play while more competent PCs (player characters) are doing the real adventuring.  A game master might use Aloysious as a background character, an NPC (non-player character).  Any position that can be filled by an anonymous NPC can be personified as Aloysious if useful to the campaign task.
The characters resolve to return to Triford after five years for a reunion.  At the reunion, the characters decide to reunite again after another five years.  Between the first and second reunions, different characters are said to have participated in different types of campaign.  The book uses this opportunity to discuss three types of games:  Story Telling, Role Playing, and Power Gaming.

Rokana is something of a magical adept.  She “enters into the service of Zazen the Scholar, an NPC of great wisdom with a following of students who are glad to work as his servants and helpers in exchange for knowledge.”  Her experiences are meant to demonstrate a story telling campaign.  Zazen and a group of his students – including Rokana – try to make friends with a population of dwarves.  However, Rokana eats a sacred pear or something and the dwarves imprison them.  Zazen and party are released only after they agree to leave one human behind with the dwarves.  The emphasis on a story telling campaign, according to the Handbook, “is on participating in some sort of important action which creates a challenge to the characters.”

Dernfara and Joleen went to the city of Myboro to pursue their vocations; Dernfara as a “rat hunter” (i.e., thief) and Joleen as an “entertainer.”  Their adventures represent a “campaign ...where role playing is a primary objective.”  Joleen is imprisoned in a creepy temple and Dernfara rescues her.  The temple accuses Dernfara of murder and the authorities apprehend him.  Joleen testified before the court and it turns out the temple was guilty the murder they tried to pin on Dernfara.  “Scenarios in role playing games tend to test strength of character or inner will and ability to remain in the role.”

Barostan became a mercenary and participated in a power gaming campaign.
The major interest in these games is the accumulation of power and loot through successful combat.  In these games, fighting is of utmost importance.  Power gaming rests upon the hack and slash school of play.  There is one easy answer to every problem: kill it.
Barostan's story is the most amusing of the three.
          “I'll tell you what life is like out there.  On the first year after I left here I was riding overland with some friends.  Suddenly, lions attacked us and killed half the horses.  That night a bunch of trolls kept us awake until we charged them and killed them.  The next day we found the ruins, and we went into the underground tunnels.  Down there I fought skeletons, zombies, ghouls, liches, and vampires in one room, and in the next one there was one of every kind of animal I could think of.  That was a hard fight because I didn't know who to parry.  The next room was full of water so the wizards froze it and we walked into the treasure room.  That's where I earned my name, Skullbasher.
          “...Another time we heard about some treasure in a wizard's abandoned tower, so we went to look for it.  It was like a maze, but everything was booby trapped until we came to a magic room that seemed endless, and we were attacked by one hundred tiny men about a foot high.  Then a green dragon attacked and it killed almost everyone before we overcame it.  It was wearing a diamond bracelet which we took.  After that, we crawled out a window and went home.”
          “In the old days,” says an elderly man from the background, “I went into a dungeon and, in every room for seventy-two rooms, there were monsters of a different type which we fought, killed, and looted.”
          “Ah, the good old days,” says Barostan.  “But now the monsters are smarter, it seems.”
          “Or you are less smart,” says someone from a dark corner of the tavern.
          Barostan bristles, but calms down at Bridla's touch, then continues.  “One time, when we were fighting dwarves, they were damn smart.  They led us into their dungeon, ans we walked past their secret doors before we knew it, and they came out and attacked us from the rear and front both.  But they never dared to close up with us completely, and so they wore us out a little at a time, and made us use up our magical strength.  Then they sent a couple of monstrous worms at us which were all but immune to our attacks, and they killed half of us before we surrendered.”
          “Surrender to a dwarf?” asked Aloysious, “Isn't that dangerous?”
          “Sure is,” says Barostan, “but not as dangerous as fighting a giant purple worm!”