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.

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