Friday, March 25, 2016

On Magic World

Chaosium has now reclaimed the rights to RuneQuest and Glorantha, and we're given to understand that these combined will become their banner fantasy RPG product, while a new BRP Essentials becomes the root system for a loose constellation of BRP inspired games. This leaves the Basic Roleplaying book (BRP) as a sort of attic collection of rules, and Magic World, previously the core rulebook for the nascent BRP fantasy line, is left out in the cold.

We have plenty of time for RuneQuest as a rules set, but Glorantha is not our fantasy lozenge floating on an infinite sea. Its massive timeline, overlapping pantheons, entangled myths, and cultural melange are fascinating but too hard to buy in to, like a club whose rules are too obscure to encourage joining, especially when we're looking for a world of our own to create (which is probably a slipstream version of Middle-Earth and the world of Firetop Mountain, illustrated by Russ Nicholson). Consequently, it might be time to take a closer look at Magic World before it slips out of view.

In many ways, Magic World exhibits the strengths and weaknesses of the recent BRP era at Chaosium. Its rules are a compilation of some of the best of the BRP percentile, skill-based system: smooth and easy to pick up, especially if you're familiar with any other iteration. Character generation in particular is probably one of the easiest tasks in the BRP family: roll Characteristics, calculate secondary scores (HP, MP, damage bonus, skill category modifiers) and then add set percentiles (60% at most) to a specified number of skills. Combat, once you decode the wonky presentation, is also quick and intuitive (there are no location hit points to slow you down, and only one kind of special or critical). Overall, it's a highly playable system and probably an excellent place to get into your own version of Middle-Earth or Allansia.

On the other hand, the rules are clearly recycled from earlier systems: the Chaosium Stormbringer RPG in particular and RuneQuest III. This leaves us reading some eerily familiar passages, and tumbling over rules that don't apply, such as references to fatigue in the bestiary. Of course, there are errata, but the point is that the errata are too long. And the wider point is that the presentation suffers from this copy-and-paste approach. The BRP combat sequence, for example, has a fair few steps but they all flow fairly cleanly: declare intent, set initiative, roll, compare attack and parry/dodge, assign results. But the "Combat" chapter is unnecessarily long, and the effect is somewhat scattershot. Skimming headings, you see "Actions in a Round", then "Resolving Combat", then "Order of Actions", then "Actions", then "Resolution" and yet the next section resumes "Hand-to-Hand Combat" with "Game Procedures" – how many times are we told about actions and resolution? Compare this to the tight presentation in the BRP Quickstart, and you realize that the whole chapter should have been thoroughly adapted and revised, especially for new players.

The reused artwork, a mishmash of styles and settings, similarly does not always capture the intended feel of the game, and although the sorcery magic system is serviceable, since it's based on the spells from Stormbringer, which were themselves added on to a system mainly designed around summoning and binding Moorcockian demons, the spell selection is not particularly inspiring. To play a sorcerer, your choices revolve mainly around spells that enhance or diminish effects (such as damage, armor, or characteristics) or a number of nasty offensive magics, reflecting the chaos influence of Stormbringer magic. That's not especially a problem if you want a low-magic campaign (there are no fireballs or lightning bolts here) or to grab your spell ideas from other sources, but the book is called Magic World after all, but offers only a few interesting or engaging spells.

The sample setting, the Southern Reaches, is more like Roman Britain than medieval Europe, a former frontier where first supernatural powers ruled before retreating, and where an empire has now replaced the roaming tribes of humans and orcs. It's effectively a colonial province, and designed with plenty of built-in conflict, with the return of the shadowy, shape-shifting fay and tensions between the two ruling houses presenting the most potential for adventure. The Southern Reaches are therefore an excellent sample setting, but they sit only lightly on top of the main rules. The rules for Allegiance between Light, Shadow, and Balance, for instance, would work nicely in heroic fantasy but it's not clear how they apply in the Southern Reaches, or to the fay. It might have been better to explore how the Magic World rules could be used to run a variety of different fantasy settings with varying themes and tones, as per the excellent guidelines in the "Settings" chapter of the BRP rulebook.

Given time and more design and editing, Magic World could have been an excellent product, but it now sits uncomfortably between being the "Fantasy BRP" and a minor game due to be eclipsed by RuneQuest and Glorantha. Depending on the quality and design of the new BRP Essentials, it could remain a fine go-to game for fantasy adventure, but its chance to capture the high ground among fantasy RPGs has passed. Not a fumble by any means, but a hit, parried.