Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Worth Fighting For?

It's been a while since I posted here, but I finally found something to blog about. Actually, I've been meaning to review this book for a long time, but I had to buy it first. I bought the softcover edition on standard paper with PDF. There are a couple of options for the print edition, but RPGs are getting more expensive and those kids need to get off my lawn, so I got the least expensive edition that came with a PDF in the package.

Battle for Oz is a setting rather than a core rulebook, requiring the Savage Worlds Deluxe Rulebook to use as written. (If you're curious about the Savage Worlds system, but aren't sure you want to make the commitment, you can get a free sample here). It also includes a Plot Point Campaign, like many other Savage Worlds settings.

The cover depicts Ozymandius the Second, evil ruler of Oz, sitting on his Emerald throne. In front of his throne is a rusted Nick Chopper, frozen into a posture of horror, unable to look away from any atrocity that Ozymandius might commit. In Ozymandius' right hand is an sword made entirely of Emerald. It's a very dramatic piece.

Which then gets undercut when we see an illustration of what Ozymandius looks like under the hood (no pun intended) on page 12. He's a heavyset bearded man with glasses. This is not a joke. As part of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, several backer levels were created to allow backers to insert themselves into the project in some way. One backer paid to have his name and face be the secret identity behind the main villain of this version of Oz and that just happened to be what he looks like.

It's a cool marketing idea for getting backers excited about a Kickstarter campaign, but it makes for an uneven final product. It's very easy to tell which illustrations are backers. Most of the submitted photos were clearly headshots, so no matter what pose the body is in, the face is looking straight ahead or just off to the side with either a smile or a neutral expression.

The main area where this is not a drawback is in the bestiary chapter, amusingly titled "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!" Many backers were allowed to submit monsters, creatures and background characters to fill up this section and many of these entries have more of the Oz magic, whimsy and wonder than the almost boring monsters and opponents cooked up by the designers.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

The first thing in the book is a brief history of Oz, which is actually Atlantis. The "sinking of Atlantis" was actually the great Witch Lurline shifting the entire island into another dimension in order to prevent the first Ozymandius (our villain is Ozymandius II, remember) from using the magic of the Emerald City to conquer Earth.

Once this is done, Oz largely settles into the shape we are familiar with. Winkies, Quadlings, Gillikins, and Munchkins rule the edges while the Pastorians live in the Emerald City. Also, those who spent the most time near the Emerald evolved into innately magical fairy-like beings called the Evain (basically elves). And they even have their own "dark elves/Drow" in the Niave.

Then the Wizard and Dorothy show up and largely have the adventures they're recorded as having. Though the Gnome invasions are a bit more serious and violent than Baum's stories and are referred to as the Gnome King Wars. By this time, Dorothy has actually grown up, gotten married and had a daughter. She loses her husband, named Prince Alain, in the last Gnome King War.

That's when the great technomancer Ozymandius II appears and takes over the Emerald City with his dastardly inventions and sets his sights on the rest of Oz. This is where our story begins.

The next chapter details creating characters to play in the setting. The actual rules for character creation are in the Savage Worlds rulebook, so this section provides tweaks and details. First up is a batch of crafting skills, which is weird. Crafting is not often a major adventuring focus. But the Plot Point Campaign starts with your characters being ordinary people getting caught up in events beyond their control, so it's logical that they support more mundane character types as well as heroic adventurers.

There are also a couple of types of magic in the setting that are more about crafting items than casting spells, though spell-slingers are also represented. Technomancers, like Ozymandius II himself, make impossible steampunk machines. Alchemists make various potions and notions. Gem setters craft enchanted jewelry from magical Gems (with the capital letter, just like Wicked and its Animals). The Emerald City is actually a giant magical Emerald, but other Gems exist as well. Due to copyright reasons, they were not able to list Ruby Slippers, but there is a space clearly intended for them.

On the spell-slingers side, there are Witches/Wizards (basically D&D-style wizards), Minstrels (basically D&D bards), Fae Magic (D&D druid magic) and Scar Magic.

The generic D&D fantasy vibe continues in the "Race & Cultures" section. I mentioned the Evain and the Niave earlier being basically elves and Drow. Evain being elves doesn't have to mean generic D&D fantasy. It's actually the Niave clearly being their counterpoint and also clearly being Drow that set that up. The modifiers for residents of the Munchkin country feel rather like halflings. Winkies perhaps get it the worst, since they've been cast as the Asians of the setting. There's nothing that says generic D&D fantasy like having the standard generic D&D fantasy "touch of the exotic" that is the land of ninjas and samurai.

There are also some clearly non-human characters, like the Beast-Men. If you were wondering if the Cowardly Lion in this version of Oz was going to be an actual lion or just a guy in a fursuit, he's clearly a guy in a pretty bad-ass fursuit. To be fair, these guys are actually kinda cool. But they also communicate exactly what version of Oz the setting is trying to invoke. Just like the obvious space set aside for Ruby Slippers, the Beast-Men are intended to invoke the MGM film version, but veering just enough towards the books to stay legal. I understand it, but it annoys me to no end.

The next chapter is a collection of new rules for the game, offering more detail and texture for those who enjoy it. Most of them feel like "house rules" for the designer's home game than anything really intended to create the feeling of Oz. The one tweak that I appreciated was Weapon Proficiencies. Savage Worlds characters can feel "same-y" since many of the skills are so broad. For example, all forms of close combat are covered under the Fighting skill. Weapon Proficiencies offer a little bit more detail and texture to characters that might have a hard time standing out.

Then it's off to the settings gazetteer, describing all of the various places to go and things to do in this gritty action movie version of Oz. Most of Oz's Cruel and Unusual Geography remains in this version of the setting, but there's little evidence of its Queer Denizens. For example, Rigmarole Town exists and is a defensive settlement as described in the Oz novels, but there's no suggestion of the long-windedness that its people are known for. You can also visit Bunburry, which is populated by normal Quadlings rather than animated baked goods.

The map is also marked with concentric rings denoted approximate distance from the magical Emerald that is the Emerald City. Witches/Wizards get bonus Power Points to use for spell-casting depending on how close they are to the Emerald, which is also called out in the location descriptions. Right next to every place name is the amount of Power Points a Witch gets while hanging out there.

We are then treated to a section on the various factions that are participating in the Battle for Oz of the book's title. There are multiple shades of good guys, from the Ozoners, a band of smugglers who would rather be smuggling, but tyranny keeps getting in their way, to the Free Army of Oz led by the Good Witch of the North, here given the name of Skywin Springforth. For those tracking movie references, this is where we meet the Lullaby Guild, an organization of assassins for hire.

The next chapter is another feature of this book that I like: Random encounter tables. Fairly well done random encounter tables, as well. Rather than being a simple list of monsters, there are a variety of things that can happen. Some are simply interesting, while others are helpful. There are monsters and combat encounters here, too, but it's not the only thing. There are separate lists for each of the four countries of Oz.

I also liked that the random encounters are determined by card draw. Savage Worlds uses playing cards to determine combat order, but nowhere else. Giving that card deck a bit more mileage is a nice touch.

And now we get to the Plot Point Campaign section. It's very difficult to review adventures. The closest comparison would be reviewing the instructions of how to do magic tricks. You are seeing what the magicians sees, but you have to be careful not to take away the magic from the audience.

Starting with the high points: Dorothy is not the only person who disappeared from Earth without a trace. A couple of famous missing people are revealed to have made it to Oz, though their existence is an easter egg rather than a plot point (lower case). One adventure features a Groundhog Day-style time loop that is rather cleverly done.

And now for the lows: The first two adventures are the weakest. The Prelude only exists to isolate the PC group and doesn't particularly serve the larger storyline. The first adventure that does introduce the larger storyline largely involves being rescued by others and sidelined from most of the action.

Nearly every adventure suffers from lazy "fail forward" design. Now, I have no problem with "fail forward" as a concept. Nobody likes being unable to proceed in an adventure because somebody failed a die roll. But the way the die rolling parts of the adventures are structured, it's impossible to lose.

The adventures use something they call "dramatic tasks" to represent some activities in the adventures. It basically creates a "progress bar" to some task to add flavor or interest to non-combat activities. These tasks are generally set up so that you have to get a certain amount of successful rolls in a certain period of time or you fail the task. However, these tasks are written so that there's no way to really fail them. It might take some extra rolls to succeed, but the adventures only advance once you do.

The most consistent failure cost in the tasks is extra time taken, which is fairly weak. While how long it takes you to get somewhere or find something might matter in terms of resource management (rations, wound healing, random encounters, and other things that GMs often gloss over), it doesn't matter in terms of the story. Just like in a video game, no matter how long it takes you to get to the quest location, you've always gotten there at just the right time.

Now we come to the bestiary. As someone who has read the Oz books, there was little I recognized here. The biggest omission is the kalidah. It's canon to the novels, but also a perfect monster for gamers to fight. I can't imagine why they would leave it out. As I mentioned earlier, this section is a mix of monsters created by the designers and other content contributed by Kickstarter backers. And most of the stuff the designers put in are monsters. Several varieties of giant, mass produced tin men and scarecrows, and soldiers and fighters from all four edges of Oz. The saving grace of this section really is the stuff submitted by Kickstarter backers. Mechanical dragons, shapeshifting horses, and dogs that grant luck by licking your hand are all things that they came up with.

Then comes the NPC section that really highlights the mixed bag you get when you let your Kickstarter backers dictate so much of your content. There are major NPCs like Ozymandius. Mombi and others that have faces provided by backers, as well as a horde of minor NPCs that are simply backers writing themselves (or an idealized version of themselves) into the setting.

The final section of the book is a brief bonus adventure that I would call a dungeon crawl if it wasn't so linear.

If you are a gamer, the setting is an approachable version of Oz. It fits most of the tropes that you expect from a fantasy setting, but does offer a few unique touches. The Plot Point Campaign is linear, maybe a little railroady, but the story it tells is interesting.

If you are a fan of the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz movie, but want something a little more grown up, this is something you might enjoy. If you saw that gag movie poster for Wizard of Oz 2: She's Off To Off The Wizard and thought it sounded cool, Battle for Oz is probably right up your alley.

If you are a fan of the novels, like I am, I cannot recommend this book. Like a lot of Oz content for the non-Oz market, it borrows as much imagery as it can from the film version while claiming to be based on the novels. Even then, it only borrows the stuff that support the story it's trying to tell, while avoiding the stuff that's too "kiddie", silly or not "adult" enough, leaving the setting rather bland overall.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Which Old Witch? The Wicked Witch!

(This one has been in the hopper since 2012. It was intended as a companion to another couple of blog posts from that time. I really don't know why I didn't publish it at that time. Maybe I was looking for some sort of concluding thought that never came. Even without that, I think this holds up just fine.)

I think this will be the last of the Witch blogs, at least for now. I do have some things related to the IRC chat that I want to expand upon.

Of all the Witch blogs I've done, I think this might be the one that Tim was really waiting for. I've talked about witches as player-characters and as story motivators, but now I'm going to talk about witches as antagonists and villains.

First let me reiterate: Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead! It's a cliche of Oz fiction by now, so I will not be talking about bringing back the Wicked Witch of the West in any way, shape or form. One thing I particularly liked about The Jaded City of Oz (the sample adventure in the AiO rulebook) is that the Winkie Country scene deals with the legacy of the Wicked Witch of the West without requiring her to be present.

There are other Witches to use in your adventures.

Mombi, the Wicked Witch of the North. Even after she was removed from power in the Gillikin Country by the Good Witch of the North, she still kept the captive Princess Ozma in the body of the boy Tippetarius. Once Ozma was freed and set upon the throne of Oz, Glinda removed Mombi's ability to work magic. This doesn't remove her completely from villainy, however. She may not be able to cast spells, or create magical items, but she can still use magical things that already exist in Oz.

(Mombi does return in the Famous Forty. The Lost King of Oz is her search for Princess Ozma's father, who she had hidden away so the Wizard could rule Oz. Since Ozma orders her melted (I always thought of the Wicked Witch of the West as a special case when it came to water, but Ruth Plumly Thompson apparently thought differently) at the end of that story, you might want to set your Mombi stories in between those two appearances.)

Blinkie, the (presumed) Wicked Witch of the South. Although she is not acknowledged with the full title of Wicked Witch of the South in her appearance in Oz canon, she is referred to as a Wicked Witch. Oz history tells us that Glinda had to unseat a Wicked Witch of the South in order to rule the Quadling Country, so many Oz fans presume Blinkie to be this Witch.

Again, the story ends with Blinkie having her powers removed by Glinda. Though this time, she's also been greatly reduced in size. But she was the leader of a coven, so some of her sister witches might turn up in your stories. They might even be trying to restore Blinkie to her old size and power.

Mrs. Yoop. Technically, she's a Yookoohoo, but she could make for an interesting villainess. Trapped in the form of a Green Monkey since her last appearance in the stories, she may be down, but it's still too early to count her out. I detailed a couple of possible ways she could get back to her old form in the AiO rulebook, but even as a monkey, there are lots of ways for her to get into mischief.

Interestingly enough, Red Reera, the other Yookoohoo to grace the original novels, would probably make a very effective antagonist. She's not evil, but she is powerful and irritable, which is almost the same thing. There must be something about becoming a Yookoohoo that makes a person misanthropic. For the moment, it seems that all she wants is to be left alone. I almost feel bad for anyone who might be foolish enough try to conquer her little cottage. Almost.


Friday, August 31, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #31 Share Why You Participate in RPGaDay

It's sort of habit by now.

I started out as an eager blogger looking for an opportunity to put out more content. Also, the first few rounds were focused on discussing a variety of games. They were (probably rightly) criticized for favoring the collector over the player, but I seem to fall very neatly in the collector mold.

Since I've fallen away from blogging, it's a reminder that I should be doing more with the blog than I am. Every year, I do my best to complete the month, in the hopes that it will reignite the fire and encourage the habit of blogging. And every year, it doesn't really seem to take.

Maybe this year. If not, I'll see you next year for another round of RPGaDay.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #30 Share Something You've Learned About Playing Your Character

Normally, I try to beg off of this sort of question since I spend most of my time as GM. But I've noticed that something that's been tripping me up in my recent opportunities as player is also something that's dogged me throughout my GMing career as well.

My characters (PC or NPC) tend to be pretty flat. In the case of my NPCs as GM, I've made a number of attempts to remedy this, as I've mentioned earlier in the month, trying to make them evocative through image choices or performance. But I've realized that's not the flaw.

Because it's come up in my play opportunities as well. It's been really obvious as I've been playing in my friend Jordan's games, since the rest of the playgroup tends toward very "loud" characters. Among a horde of scene-stealers, milquetoast guy really fades into the background.

The majority of it, I think, boils down to having an agenda as a character. It doesn't even have to be a big agenda. Just so long as the character has something to do in every scene, or even most scenes. One of the stronger characters in Jordan's recent D&D games was Zeta, a warforged (robot/golem) fighter who was actually a revived Japanese weapon from World War II. While he was a very effective fighter and got to show off in that way during fights, he also had robot things and Japanese things to do when the heat was off.

It's something I need to keep in mind as I move forward as a player and as a GM.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #29 Share A Friendship You Have Because Of RPGs

As I've said earlier this month, gaming has forced me to be social to a degree that I wouldn't otherwise be. So it's actually fair to say that gaming is the reason I have friends at all.

There's Boots, a former co-worker (she's working someplace much better now), who had an interest in fantasy fiction, but had never played an RPG. She was one of the founding members of my megadungeon campaign and the nickname Boots is actually inspired by her first character in that campaign. That character unfortunately died in my career-first party wipe. I'm very glad she chose to stick around and make a cadre of new characters that kept having adventures in that megadungeon.

Erik is another player from the megadungeon game. He's actually an unreformed first edition player. While I was experimenting with OSR gaming, he was an old hand with the original material. He was also kind enough to invite me to play in his own campaign which is still going on.

Jordan is a story on his own. I first met him probably about 15 years ago when he was a gawky teenager. This was when I was running games at the nearby University's gaming club, even though I wasn't a student. He wasn't either. Nobody minded. The club president was in one of my games for a time.

Like many people I've gamed with, I was Jordan's first GM and introduced him to a variety of RPG systems, including GURPS. After running games for several years, I eventually drifted away from the club, at least partly because it was in another city and I don't drive. It was usually possible to catch a ride with someone else from my city, or make the offer of gas money.

But it also meant that I lost touch with Jordan for a time. I only reconnected with him about a year ago to discover a very different person. He's had quite a life in the years between. One thing that has stayed the same with him however, is that he is still a gamer, running his own GURPS campaigns. It was a fun twist to have the person I introduced to gaming all those years ago now be my GM.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #28 Share Who's Inspiring Gaming Excellence You're Grateful For

While I have known many gamers over the course of my gaming career, and many of them have been good people and great fun to play with. But excellence is not something I've seen often.

There have been a couple of GMs at DunDraCon who have been great at one shots. I regret that I can't remember his name, but the GM of the Star Wars Fate game that I played in one year put a lot of effort into that game. There was music and visuals from the movies. And there was even a twist for my character that surprised and effected me as a player.

Whitney Preston, the GM of the annual Mythos Trek game at DDC is also a joy to play with. He's got props and toys, as well as a strong knowledge of both Mythos and Star Trek lore. The scenarios aren't terribly effective horror, but they are very entertaining.

And where would I be if I didn't mention Kris Newton. I should probably assign him a tag on this blog because of how many stories I've told about my various adventures gaming with him. And even though he no longer lives near me, I still get to hear his wisdom regularly on the Gameable Podcast. I should also mention, since it happened while I wasn't updating as regularly as I should, that I actually got to be a guest on Gameable, talking about Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Monday, August 27, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #27 Share a Great Stream/Actual Play

I've been a fan of the One Shot Podcast for some time now, because I love the opportunity to see new games in action. But they've got a Patreon and are otherwise big-shots of podcasting. And I always love to mention the Gameable Podcast, but it's not an Actual Play podcast.

But someone who could really use a few new ears would be Doc Wilson, GM of the Shift Quest podcast. He's just getting started, but I am very interested in seeing where he goes. It feels a bit more authentic than something like One Shot, but not too authentic. I've tried listening to actual play podcasts that are the raw audio of someone's campaign and they are generally terrible. The mikes don't always pick up everyone evenly and the sessions are full of digressions and random in-jokes.

In Shift Quest, they sound like real gamers, but you can actually hear everyone equally. It may be that these are very focused gamers, or if Doc is a workhorse of editing, but it was very easy to follow the story and I didn't have to hear about how Dave bought a freakin' speedboat in the middle of a D&D combat.
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