Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo

Author: Chad Underkoffler
Publisher: Atomic Sock Monkey Press

The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo (hereafter ZoZ) is a relatively small book (6x9 inches, about 200 pages) with a significant punch. It contains a trimmed down version of the Prose Descriptive Qualities system (also known as PDQ, the house system of Atomic Sock Monkey Press), advice for running fairy tale themed RPGs, a description of the land of Zo, and details of the ZoZ campaign that the author ran for two of his friends.

The preface of the book explains how the book came to be. It had all started as a game that Chad Underkoffler had run for his friends. They both loved the game and wanted him to publish the setting. But there wasn’t much to the setting. Only what had been created for the needs of the campaign. Then he realized that over the history of RPGs, several books had been written about what you could do or should do in a game, but very few presented what people had actually had done.

The PDQ system is a very lite and abstract system. Characters are made up of Qualities, traits that are created by the player, rather than chosen from a list. These Qualities are then rated either Master, Expert, Good, Average or Poor. All characters must have a Quality with a Poor rating. This is their Weakness and represents a character flaw or disability. Characters also have a Special Move, which provides a bonus to one or more of their Qualities.

So if our good friend the Tin Woodman were being played in a PDQ game, he might look something like this:

Name: Nick Chopper

Qualities: Master [+6] Tin Plating, Expert [+4] Woodchopper, Good [+2] Kind Heart, Poor [-2] Rust Prone

Special Move: Badaxe!

Notes: The numbers in brackets are the numerical bonuses that Qualities of that rank provide when rolling dice. The Special Move “Badaxe!” grants a free Upshift whenever Nick uses his ax, typically with his Woodchopper Quality.

The mechanics are fairly simple: Roll 2d6, add the bonuses from any applicable Qualities and compare the result to a Difficulty number. If you roll higher than the Difficulty, you succeed.

The aspect of the system that is particularly noteworthy is how it handles damage. I have heard PDQ described as the only system where you can take a punch in the girlfriend. Rather than having a separate pool of hit points, characters take damage to their Qualities. Since Qualities are defined by the player, it is possible for one to represent a relationship their character has with another.

Which Quality you use to take damage first is also important, as the Narrator is supposed to use that to generate Story Hooks. If your character does wind up “taking a punch in the girlfriend”, that means that your girlfriend will be significant in some way later in the story.

Example: Nick Chopper is fighting a pack of wolves and has just taken 2 ranks of damage. He could apply them to his Tin Plating Quality, reducing it from Master [+6] to Good [+2]. This would generate a Story Hook related to his tin nature. If he applied those ranks to his Kind Heart Quality, it would go from Good [+2] all the way down to Poor [-2] (the lowest it can go) and he would find his kindness challenged later in the story.

The book particularly shines in presenting the Actual Play material. The main text is written by Chad, who was the Narrator of this particular campaign, and details the setting, some major characters, and finally, the story that was created over the course of play. But Chad and his players also provide “DVD commentary tracks”, a series of text-box asides that give their perspective on what’s going on in the main text. When the main characters are presented, they also feature the player describing the process of coming up with the character and even bring up a few different concepts that they almost used, but didn’t.

Is it Oz? Yes and no. The land of Zo does have a small resemblance to Oz, mostly in terms of geography (see the map on the back cover), but draws from a variety of sources. That said, the PDQ system could handle an Oz game pretty easily.

The only thing marring my recommendation is the price tag: $30. Most RPGs of its size are less expensive (My own AiO is 14.99, about half the price), and most RPGs of its price are fancier (at that price point, most major publishers are able to offer hardcover books, usually with full color illustrations).

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