Sunday, November 6, 2011

Love Child of Metamorphosis Alpha

Have you ever encountered a moose with quills? Or a teleporting woodpecker with a double brain and a poison beak? How about a nearly invincible jaguar, complete with the ability to change its body density and emit a sonic shriek, but which fears birds?

No, it's not The World of Synnibarr, it's the back cover of Metamorphosis Alpha! Still, in essence, Synnibarr is Metamorphosis Alpha on a planetary scale and steeped in concentrated gonzo. So, thinking about this similarity, I went to Raven c.s. McCracken's official site. It seems that in October, McCracken posted an article about Synnibarr and it's quite interesting.

Yes, this post is about Synnibarr more than Metamorphosis Alpha.

No, Synnibarr technically isn't “old school,” but I feel justified in discussing Synnibarr because of the influence of “old school” upon it. (Also, I notice that the first copyright date for the first edition of Synnibarr is 1980.)

It turns out that McCracken's very first exposure to a role-playing game was Metamorphosis Alpha. Viola! McCracken eventually played D&D and (after a couple of incidents you can read about for yourself) was psychologically scarred. Through this crucible of destiny, Synnibarr was formed.

What sort of game would McCracken have devised if D&D had been his first RPG? Or Tunnels & Trolls? Or Traveller? Would he have created any game at all? Would we have ever heard of him? Some may think we would be better off without Synnibarr; a philistine attitude.

Synnibarr has a dubious reputation; so dubious as to be included among the worst role-playing games ever. This is a harsh assessment. In the twenty years since Synnibarr was first released, RPGs that are truly abominable have crawled out from under the rocks. The trouble is that Synnibarr is three things: it is a rules system, it is a setting, and it is the presentation of the system and setting. The rules leave much to be desired and the presentation is less than ideal. On the other hand, the setting is beautiful, glorious, and majestic...from a gonzo perspective.

McCracken concedes that at least some of the dubious reputation is deserved. Nobody's perfect. The man had some ideas – not all of them bad – and he published his game. This was before print-on-demand; before the Internet. Cut the dude some slack.

Another reason Synnibarr is looked upon with disfavor is because it enables power gaming. (McCracken readily admits to being a power gamer.) Power gamers can be tiresome when they interact with players who want to cast spells and kill dragons on more moderate terms; however, there is nothing wrong with power gaming when all players are on board for that kind of experience. Sometimes it's fun to play a mutant cyborg Panther Man ninja.

Anyway, McCracken says he's been working on updating The World of Synnibarr. I am impressed by his perseverance. A lesser man, bowed by ridicule, would have slouched into obscurity; instead, McCracken refines his original vision. It does not seem as if this new edition will be available anytime soon, but this is definitely a goal McCracken is working toward. From the article:

The first publication will be the new combat and game engine and just the bare bones required to fully make a few characters,  and include races (six at this point), basic equipment, abilities, skills, and of course, details about the setting of the Worldship itself.

I assume that talking raccoons are among the six included races.

McCracken writes that he wants simple rules and has a “goal of unrestricted imagination.” So far, so good. However, he also wants “to maintain as much realism as possible...” Maintain realism? We're talking about ninja tesseracts, midnight sunstone bazookas, and flying elk. You can't maintain realism if you don't have any to start with. People who want to play Synnibarr are looking for an outlandish, over-the-top experience; they're looking for fun, not “a hard mathematical basis.”

McCracken says the whole point of gaming is to have fun. I wholeheartedly agree. Alas, beyond this common ground, McCracken's viewpoints start to diverge from my own. McCracken is excited about something he calls the PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF MATERIALS TABLE (all caps). To me, this sounds almost as thrilling as the periodic table (no caps). “Without this table,” McCracken comments, “things such as damage are simply fictionalized approximations.” Unlike McCracken, I happen to think that fictionalized approximations are fine for fictional environments.

The attraction of Synnibarr is the setting. It doesn't need a game engine that tries to emulate reality. You can't facilitate unrestricted imagination by employing a formula that equates “things like the calories required to change the temperature of a gram of water plus or minus one degree centigrade and the energy’s relationship to Joules.” Sweet Aridius!

In my unsolicited opinion, Synnibarr needs something like the 4C System; it's available, simple, proven, versatile, and scalable. Regardless, I wish McCracken well on his endeavor.

If there is a just and loving God in the Centiverse, then one day I shall play a talking raccoon who wears a sombrero...with tassels.


  1. Wow!

    Yes, you shall be a loter in a sombrero! And yes, the Physical Properties of Materials Table is as important as the periodic table—actually both are intertwined.

    However, don't doubt ... I'm MORE THAN GONZO. I'm hoping to create a system that dwarfs my old game. We start with a firm foundation in science and math and then GET IMAGINATIVE.

    And if you thought Synnibarr was fun before...

    Aside from a complete redesign, think Wright Bros. plane to starship—the setting has only been embellished and enriched. The details that make Synnibarr EPIC have been extrapolated and clarified. Yes, the Alchemist's still build and release, wacky creatures like the Winged Elk, food for Winged Grizzlies, which are food for Drakes are still there, and they still hold science as religion.

    This new distillation of the system after decades and nearly ten thousand games encompasses my desire, as fate, of less ambiguity, more flexibility and most important: player satisfaction. Players are able to fully explore their dreams through virtually any type of character with any skill/power known. And if the race/skill/power is not covered, with the Engineering System, it can be.

    The foundation for all of this—my platinum mean: (Calories x Merit /100) = Cogency. 1 Cogency point = 1 kilogram of force = 1 life point of damage.

    Cyborg ninja panthermen wielding Venderant Nalaberong Ta'Set's Dark thunderbolts, from the bridge of a starship, against an armada of enchanted stargallions, manned by mummy ninja Haliathean religious zealots ... with a talking raccoon in a sombrero with tassels thrown in ... no problem!

    From beginning to Eldergodhood, and maybe a bit beyond, The World of Synnibarr will be back with a vengeance. Smoother, more efficient, expansive, and powerful than thought possible.

    Synners: crushing the boundaries of imagination!

  2. Thanks for the glimpse into the redesign!

    Man, I have so many questions...