Author: Tood King, Joseph Giacone, Jr. and The Brune (Johnny Bruner)
Company/Publisher: Nova Eth Publishing
Page count: 255
Capsule Review by Jason Sartin on 06/07/00.
Genre tags: Fantasy Comedy
SenZar, 1st Edition
Author: Tood King, Joseph Giacone, Jr. and The Brune (Johnny Bruner)
SenZar, 1st Edition
Although it has been brought to my attention that SenZar's second edition exists, the first edition is all I have access to, so, for now, that is the one we'll be reviewing. As the first edition is still very..."remarkable" and the only one that most of you are likely to come across anyway, I refuse to lose sleep over this misfortune.
My Bias, or "Huh? Role-playing for the entire third millennium?"
Let's address one thing right now: any book that has "Role-Playing For The Next Millennium" written on the cover and the spine and in the introduction is just asking for it. In the eyes of the maniacal, inexhaustibly vicious hordes of pretentiousness-hating gamers that exist online, proclaiming something like this is like feeding Mother Teresa into a woodchipper, relieving oneself on the altar, holding up the metal rod, and then just begging the lightning to come down. I realize that it may be perfectly possible that the second edition doesn't have this third-millennium role-playing thing going on, but still.
That aside, reviewing SenZar presents an irritating conundrum.
You see, from the moment you open the book and read beyond the first paragraph of the creators' introduction, there can be no doubt that this game is a calculated exercise in hack-and-slash, power-mongering, testosterone-soaked munchkinism inspired by the worst excesses of AD&D and Rifts – excuse me, I should use the creators' own definition: "role-playing in God Mode". By that very nature, needless to say, this game has many points that a certain-but-populous type of gamer today would consider flaws.
The problem is, this is all SenZar's creators want it to be. Criticizing SenZar for any possible reason feels like criticizing a 13-year old for –
Oh, God, never mind. I don't even want to comment on the endless "sneering role-player" vs. "psychopathic munchkin" debate. No matter where you stand on things like this, you're always wrong, because the whole core of the issue is a matter of taste, not objective fact. Tell you what – I'll just try to non-boringly present the things I saw and felt while I was reading the game, and you can just...I don't know, just do whatever it is you normally do when you read reviews.
SenZar is about the closest thing there is to a dark legend among role-playing. Almost every gamer online seems to have heard of this game, and they've all heard that nothing is comparable in its badness. On usenet and many other online places, the very name of SenZar is the magic word of the "Summon Bile" spell. Its creators have been reviled again and again, particularly Todd King, who is mocked not only for his arrogance but for his poetry, which in itself is another dark legend.
Thus, the entire reason I ever obtained a copy of SenZar in the first place. See, I'm the kind of gamer who enjoys reading through bad games just to laugh at them. With its regular citations as the worst game ever, SenZar quickly found its way onto my priority list.
And yet, for all its notoriety, SenZar has seen surprisingly little attention from RPGnet's reviewers. That just seems weird. Even now, years after the release of the first edition, there must be hundreds of morbidly curious gamers who still need to see this infamous game meticulously examined and the question "Should we be weeping for our children?" answered once and for all. Admittedly, there is, in fact, a lone review in the archives that is worth reading, but one opinion is never enough. The time has come for SenZar to be analyzed in more obsessive detail.
To give a little background, much has been made of SenZar's fateful first appearance, when its creators made certain..."announcements" on usenet and, as a result, weren't just flamed, but incinerated. Forever after, the usenet community looked upon SenZar's creators as a living archetype of that hateful brand of condescending, god-you're-stupid-if-you-don't-like-our-game designer arrogance.
Then there are also many stories about how the creators used AOL accounts to post as anonymous players in praise of the game. Ugh. (Although this does put more fun into reading SenZar's disclaimer, where the creators reassure us that they don't want to perpetuate the idiocy of the real world in any way, shape, or form.)
As you can imagine, there are far more gamers who oppose SenZar out of sheer principle than have ever actually seen the book. (Of course, there are also numerous outspoken gamers who have read the book and still think it sucks, so...)
Personally, I wasn't there to see the newsgroup controversy and so, rather than try to reconstruct exactly what happened and passing judgment (I doubt we need to hear yet another witty theory about how the SenZar guys probably gripe to women in bars about the terrible burdens of their inevitable historical significance), I decided it would be more fair to simply let the creators reveal themselves in their own words: www.senzar.com/bios.html.
Just a wee bit pompous in places, isn't it?
My favorite part was the 10 punches in one second. I'm sure many of you other gamers are also equally superhuman. Myself, I hold the world record for making the closest almost-successful attempt to use an actual supernatural power (running vertically up a wall while under the simultaneous influence of caffeine, thermadrine, wellbutrin, and alcohol, to be more specific). Coming close again, I also have an ability to enjoy morbidity that is probably inhuman in nature. I also met a gamer last year who had the "Invoke Obsessive Contempt" power at levels you just wouldn't believe. (He, too, had a penchant for extravagant personal claims, in this case being all his connections to the mafia and his millions of dollars worth of land in Las Vegas he can't get to – this, despite his inanimate object-like intellect and the fact that his bathing and teeth-brushing were clearly seasonal events.)
But I digress. I'm sure there's absolutely no reason to doubt that the creators of SenZar bathe regularly, actually own all their land, and would never associate with such blatantly unwholesome groups as the mafia. And hey, if some of them want us to believe that they have absolutely bitching weightlifting and martial arts skills and are examining the cultures of possible alien civilizations, I care just little enough to accept that.
And in that spirit, it would be really half-assed of me as a reviewer to use all this absurdity as an excuse to criticize SenZar itself, even though the website does invite us to "break on through to the ultimate in fantasy role-playing!"
Okay, maybe that last one opens the door a little. The ultimate? Do I need to have the "you suck if you have to tell people how great you are" rant again?
I mean, really, isn't creating an ultimate game supposed to be...well, you know, hard? Just look out there! Better than Ars Magica? Better than Runequest and Legend of the Five Rings? Better, even, than (dare I even utter the name?) The World Of Synnibarr? Oh, wow.
SenZar. The ultimate in fantasy role-playing. Sure. And aliens have been stealing my body at night because I won't stop making fun of their websites. I guess that's just one more thing I'll have to keep in mind while I'm reviewing (the ultimate-ness, not that I'm being abducted by aliens).
The Review, or "The universe. And you're awarding us 10 points. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Those of you who insist upon "real" role-playing are hereby excused. And by "real" role-playing, I am, of course, referring to the bizarre idea that games should be more than killing, looting, and racking up the experience points. If you've somehow picked that up during your gaming, then run along – there's nothing here for you, and by looking you will only see...well, something that you really don't want to see. Stop reading this review, and return to your blissful world where plots are more than just not-even-thinly-veiled excuses to string together one incident of epic ass-kicking after another.
Okay, we should now have an audience of power-gamers, the morbidly curious, and those who have forgotten how the "back" button on their browser works. The rest of this is written mainly for them.
Anyway, once upon a time, there was a short-lived Rifts campaign I was in. What made this campaign noteworthy was the fact that we had that damned Pantheons of the Megaverse sourcebook.
I'm sure some of you can already see where this is going.
Since I was in a shameless power-gamer mood and the gamemaster wanted to go off the wall anyway, he agreed to let me play a godling, easily the most abusable character class ever conceived by anything that has ever passed for a human mind.
Eight seconds later, the gamemaster groaned in despair when I decided to name my character "Testosticles".
After very careful calculation (read: "How much ass will I be able to kick?"), I took mega-psionics, mega-wizardry, and invulnerability to energy for my god-powers, so – on top of ending up with attributes averaging in the high twenties – I was essentially three or four different character classes at once and had so many abilities that it was hard getting them all on the character sheet. Oh, and I had a bad attitude, too.
The gamemaster punished my foolishness by instating my psychopathically godly alter-ego in what I would later come to describe as the "Woody Allen" pantheon and then enslaving me to some jerk NPC who could basically destroy planets, kill gods, and buy the universe if he felt like it. Meanwhile, another player had his great horned dragon – also munchkinized beyond all belief – and was happily acting as my sociopathic pet.
SenZar was conceived and written with the collective mindset of that entire game.
There is, bar none, no other game in existence that so exquisitely captures the munchkin attitude the way SenZar does. I mean, it doesn't even pretend to be a serious role-playing game, something even AD&D and The World of Synnibarr attempt to do. Every word of the book assumes you have little else to do than hoard all the kills, experience points, treasure, and magic items in the universe. We're not even out of the introduction before the authors are encouraging us to make our characters as powerful as possible (role-playing in God Mode, remember?). If you were to read through SenZar and then immediately read through something like Call of Cthulhu or Heavy Gear, the difference would so blow your mind.
Is this a bad thing?
I mean, should I pretend that it's impossible to have a lot of fun with hack-and-slash gaming and flog SenZar's creators for being yet more aspirants to such a low level of sophistication, or should I look past all the absurdity and find it refreshing that they might be the first game designers yet to be honest about it?
You get to decide that.
Just to make the decision more fun, remember: they think they're really cool.
"Death! Death! Death!"
The first thing that struck me about SenZar (other than the gleeful power-gaming) was the style it was written in.
No kidding. This thing even reads differently than a normal, sane RPG.
Most of the text has a conversational tone, as opposed to the "technical manual" or "neutral prose" feel of typical RPG books. The creators often address the reader as though they were actually speaking, and lay on the exclamation points when they're excited or really stressing something.
A extreme example of this would be one of the character flaw descriptions:
"TOTAL STUPIDITY: Please take it! The character is totally stupid, and is even too totally stupid to know it! He'll gladly taste unknown potions when offered them. He'll gladly charge into the midst of an onrushing horde of bad guys if properly persuaded ("Dey say what about Mom? Me am smash dem!"). He'll even volunteer to test pits and traps for your party! And sometimes not even a successful Karmic Save will shed the light of reason upon his dim, feeble mind! Note: This does not reflect upon that character's INT score, mind you. Even a total genius can act totally stupid at times. So take it, O ye mighty spellcasters! Blow up friend and foe alike, just because you're so totally stupid that the proper placement of your explosive spells is beyond the grasp of your perpetually befuddled mind! Note 2: Yeah, we know. But isn't there always someone like this in your party? And isn't it about time they got some points for it?"
A more subdued, typical example might be this flaw description:
"DEPRESSIVE: Remember Eeyore? Wanna play a character who mopes around like him? Wanna have an occasional -1 to all of your Combat Values, Skill Rolls, and Saves – simply because you don't care about having any Combat Values, Skill Rolls, and Saves?"
To round things out some more, here's an example from the section on why SenZar magick rules so much:
"Multiple Action Phases! Yes! No longer will your spellcaster be forced to endure a full Combat Round of the embarrassing "one spell" syndrome. In The SenZar System, spellcasters – at least those who have more than one Action Phase to their credit – have the ability to cast more than one spell per Combat Round! At 10th Level, all spellcasters become skilled enough to fire off not one but two spells per Combat Round – and once (and if) they reach 20th Level, they gain enough to fire off up to three! And some of the Semipro Magick users who just happen to have Pro Combat, such as the Mystic Assassin, can let loose with up to five magick spells at 20th level!"
As you have probably guessed, the creators make frequent attempts at humor and even the occasional pop culture reference. Unfortunately, as you are probably also guessing, the humor doesn't exactly work – at least, not in the way it wants to. A lot of it had me laughing in derision or slapping my forehead in penultimate disbelief.
Part of the problem lays in how the creators address you – before I aborted it, what would have been my "13-year old" metaphor at the review's start wasn't entirely an accident.
I wouldn't describe the writing as condescending – unlike (*ahem*) a certain other company's games, SenZar is surprisingly respectful, and takes the risk of assuming that you are capable of making up your own mind and running your own game. Much appreciated! As I was reading through it, though, the frantically juvenile attitude of the humor made me feel like it was written for someone a bit..."younger" than myself. It's probably this, more than anything, that has inspired the criticism of those who have actually read the book.
For example, some of the puns the creators use are wretched enough to serve as arguments for the death penalty (I really think they could have found a better name for the bottomless "Frank N's Stein"). You'll also notice that "cool" makes almost every possible appearance as an adjective. "Suck" is another heavily favored term. Of course, it's not like I never use those myself, even in this very review, but the creators went way overboard here. Where other games might say "advantages" and "disadvantages", SenZar will term it "the cool stuff" and "the suck stuff". (Yeah, I know. "Suck" is a verb. As an adjective, it should be "sucky" or "sucking", or even the colloquial "suckish".)
Mercifully, the creators at least abstain from the common juvenile practice of using suckish alternate spellings for everything – nowhere was I confronted with the horror of a "kewl" or any other words where every "c" or hard "ch" has been replaced with a "k".
Grain Of Salt Zone
SenZar's writing gets a lot weirder than this, though.
How? Simple. It actually has high points to it.
Maybe that isn't entirely unexpected. After hearing all the rancorous horror stories about this game and its creators, I had opened its covers fully expecting to find the sort of quality you get from drunken pre-teens who have been up for three days. With expectations that low, it was going to be really hard for the writing to surpass them.
On the other hand, there seem to be many gamers who think it would be too merciful to lump SenZar's writing into the drunken pre-teen caliber. In fact, I think I'm the only one I've heard of who actually has anything nice to say about it (other than the unintentional humor factor).
Considering that, it would be irresponsible of me as a reviewer to fail to inform you that, statistically speaking, you are likely to find SenZar's writing worse than I have personally described (ie bad, but not "We need to have a rant now" bad). So (as with most anything I say) please take my ideas about the writing's positive aspects with a grain of salt.
High points, then. Well, for example...
Paragraph labeling. A lot of the paragraphs in SenZar are labeled, just like this one is. No shit.
What this means. Just about every paragraph having anything to do with the game's basic concepts begins with a bold-type comment or question, stating exactly what the paragraph talks about (okay, not always exactly – there are paragraphs that begin like Cool! or Aieee!). In theory, this seems rather simple-minded. In practice, it allowed me to search through the text easily, conveniently skipping over huge sections without having to re-read anything. Nice, especially considering this book's general organization is only noticeably better than a tornado destroying an open schizophrenic ward.
Lexis. Despite the humor and attitude of the game, its creators have a surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary. To read passages about "Hoard! Hoard! Hoard!" and gods disguised as foaming llamas, and then see words like "pronominal" and "concourse" and "syncopation" used correctly...well, it's almost jarring. If I knew absolutely nothing about the usenet fuck-up and the bio extravagance and the poetry and the whole overblown purpose for this game's creation, it would be tempting to believe the creators are intelligent people who are satirically pretending to be adolescently hysterical. I'm probably too receptive to this kind of thing, but the combination of attitude and vocabulary in this book went a long way towards giving me that healthy "Oh, look...I'm in a Twilight Zone episode" feeling. (As opposed to the writing in The World of Synnibarr, which made me suspect that I had died and gone to a very subtle Hell.)
If at first you don't succeed, reload. I should be honest and admit there are a couple of places where the writing's sheer morbidity and over-the-top testosterone-baiting succeeded in genuinely amusing me – at something other than its own expense.
Where was this, now? Like the beginning of the stun damage rules: "For those rare times when death is not called for...", or the description of the Dream Barrier: "This is the metaphysical barrier which separates the world of SenZar from the 'real world' of Terra (where most of you are located)." Another memorable place was in the description of one of the nastier "supreme artifact" blades, informing us of something like "As such, it is suited only for the VoidSpawn and his grim destiny of GodSlaying". Then there was an area-of-effect example in the magic rules: "You're a 20th Level Sorcerer with a Power Attribute of 100 and a Power Point Pool of 10,000. You're confronted by a 10,000 Foot Radius cloud of deadly, stinging (but otherwise normal) insects..."
Conversational writing tones don't utterly suck. It is also my opinion that the conversational tone of the writing itself also manages to avoid being entirely...suckish.
One reason why this is. The humor could profit from a serious bitch-slapping, but once we get passed all that damned "New Millennium Role-Playing!" stuff, it also means there are very few places where SenZar takes itself all that seriously (this alone prevents many atrocities of writing, as anyone who is tired of White Wolf might realize). Even when its creators are describing purely evil, genocide-mongering immortal overlords who are bent on subjugating the entire multiverse, they do it with a sniggering "Hey, look! I'm being evil!" kind of glee. Then, of course, there is also the aforementioned and rather massive unintentional humor value to weigh in.
Another reason. Even beyond the humor, the conversational tone just makes the whole thing easier to read and gives the game its own "feel" or "style" (for better or worse). While I was reading through SenZar, the urge never struck me to throw the damn thing out the window, burn it, or even put it back on my shelf to remain forever – rather, I kept wanting to see what example of silliness (intentional or not) lay just around the corner. It's been a while since I've had this much fun with an ineptly-written game. Overall, SenZar's writing may be adolescent, absurd, insane, delirious, or just plain dumb, but it's hardly boring.
Wheee! This is fun. Maybe I should write my own game with paragraph labeling. Of course, I would need a remotely interesting setting to use. Oh, wait – like many long-time gamemasters, I probably already have all kinds of quirky, half-assed settings in my notes. Okay, I've picked one. It's the one the press release could describe as "an Orwellian game of existentialist violence and desolate evolution". Woo hoo!
Third-Millennium Design Goals
As many Cthulhu Mythos points as you can gain reading it, SenZar's introduction serves the useful function of telling us exactly what its creators were trying to accomplish in designing the system.
"We created The SenZar System because we had to. If you are from the 'old school' of FRP games, just like we are, then you probably know why we had to."
So, like many of us, SenZar's creators think *D&D and its various imitators suck. Horribly. This, of course, is not an entirely indefensible claim. In another paragraph (helpfully labeled "The Underlying Theme"), we learn their specific objections.
"The underlying theme of The SenZar System is that nothing is impossible when imagination is concerned. Seems like that should be the case in all alleged FRP games, huh? Well, it isn't. First, in most so-called FRP games, the PC begins as a total dweeb, unable to survive even the most basic encounters. Those fortunate few who do manage to weasel their way through encounters then are rewarded with slow, demeaning 'level-making'; 'fixed' and often immutable statistics which remain with them for the life of their character; and shoddy, effete magick items. Progression is slow, often tortuous, as they struggle to achieve the upper ranks of their chosen professions. And once – and if – they manage to reach that apex of power, they very often have little or nothing to look forward to; no pot of gold at the end of that long, black rainbow."
In other words, the creators feel that you start as too much of a wuss, get too frustrated by the character advancement, have nothing to do once you're a god, and generally suffer a lot of other bullshit (shoddy, effete magick items?).
Like most of us (again), they probably have traumatic memories of starting as a 1-hit point mage with several one-digit attributes and then noticing how badly rogues can lap them in level advancement. 20 levels (and 30 hit points!) later, they probably snapped upon discovering that they needed a full 27 hours just to re-memorize all their spells (20, if they don't want any 8th or 9th level ones).
(Which, when you think about it, does suck. Again, the creators sort of have a point, although some of you may have gotten a sinking feeling upon realizing that the creators are making munchkin complaints, not the usual realism or "role-playing" ones.)
Luckily, in the next section (helpfully labeled "Role-Playing In God Mode"), the creators reveal how they've conquered the various "black rainbow" problems.
"Well, that's not the case at all in The SenZar System, where no wimps are allowed! Players have the prerogative to determine their PC's Attributes, without the humiliating 'random die roll' to determine them for them. Fate Points can be used to 'edit' crappy die rolls, such as failed Saves or missed hits, as well as to boost the PC's Attributes. Players are encouraged to make their PCs as powerful as possible, to hoard each and every thing that they possibly can, for only then will they be able to progress as far as the ranks of The Immortals, when an entirely new 'game' will begin – that of 'The Dragon's Game,' wherein Immortals contest for ultimate Power."
And thus begins the creators' "intensive effort to change the established face of the boring ol' 'conventional' fantasy role-playing games" (as the section titled "The New Millennium In Role-Playing!" helpfully informs us).
Rules? You mean we're actually going to play this thing?
So we know that SenZar wants to be the re-write of AD&D. Of course, we also know that many of the AD&D re-writes are just about as flawed as their progenitor, so many that I can't even really think of a class/level system that was all that great.
Amazingly enough, the rules of SenZar largely manage to escape that legacy. Through some stroke of miraculous luck or lunatic insight, the creators have not only designed a system that does not suck outright, but comes within arguable range of not sucking at all.
Oh, make no mistake, it's still a class/level system and still as invasively unrealistic as any 10-minute stretch of Battlefield Earth (here, slaves, have your own ship – you're on the honor system!).
But once you get beyond that, there are actually, believe it or not, places where the system shows signs of thoughtful design. There are modifiers to things, but you can actually see where the charts end. Skills are the same as the Attribute that governs them, which makes things so much easier in play (remember, we're grading on playability or "the system's ability to not piss us off", not hyper-realism). The system rewards heavily for giving your character some semblance of personality and religious/philosophical belief (or, with too many bonus points, some semblance of severe emotional instability and unwavering fanaticism).
And, yes, for those who are wondering, this thing is very munchkin-friendly. There aren't any random attribute rolls to cheat on, but you'll hardly need to. After searching the entire book, the most horrible armor restriction I could find for even the pussiest of normal mages was "Any armor is possible, but it has to be approved by the gods", and even that was just in one case. You can have more than one profession at once, with naught but the problem of dividing your experience between them to bother you. A 10th level character with average Constitution and any profession has literally a 1 in 10 billion chance of being killed by a 100' fall – and if they're willing to spend a Fate Point to minimize the damage roll, anything short of 1000' is cool. It's possible to buy enough Status to start with enough money to go off the deep end with artificed weapons and armor and start the game practically invincible until the Creator (SenZar gamemaster) has had enough of your bullshit and pulls out the seriously nasty high-level monsters (unfortunately for players, there are no Synnibarrian rules to prevent Creators from using "insurmountable forces").
But I get ahead of myself.
Character creation in SenZar is entirely point-based (looks like someone has been paying attention during the last 20 years of game design).
After picking a race and profession, players get 100 Fate Points to spend on attributes and special powers (their skills, magick, martial arts moves, and other abilities are determined by their race and profession), all of which I will detail in no particular order. Players can get more Fate Points by defining their character's Karma (personality traits) and Codes (simple ideologies).
The Creator, of course, has the option of adjusting the starting Fate Point total, and any unspent points are kept for play. During a game, true to the creators' words, Fate Points become sorta like FUDGE's FUDGE points, allowing you to spend one to maximize any die roll, automatically cause maximum critical damage on an attack, or minimize a damage roll (or halve the damage, if it isn't rolled). All of these can be done after the die rolls they're "editing", nicely allowing you to use Fate Points when they would be the most effective, as opposed to irritating, I'm-almost-dead situations that would force you to decide if blowing a valuable point would really be better than gambling with rolling the die again.
The whole role of Fate Points is interesting, actually, because it's also where SenZar really begins to resemble something that was designed in the 90's. There are the usual experience points for ass-kicking, of course, but players can also get more Fate Points in much the same way non-class/level games award experience points (although the award criteria are more stringent in SenZar, as Fate Points are more useful than experience points in most games). Players can save awarded Fate Points for more occasions where it's necessary to screw with die rolls, or (if they have enough) they can go back and raise an attribute.
Although none of this Fate Point business would be world-shattering to anyone who's played a lot of point-based systems (particularly FUDGE), it does, to be fair, make SenZar one of the few class/level games where it's possible to raise your attributes without magic, cheating, or even leveling-up. Affecting game play with them is also an appreciated touch. A Creator who is playing by the book won't give you enough Fate Points to totally derail the game (the rules suggest only 1 point for solving a deadly problem or beating an equal foe, and saving the universe is "up to 10"), but the increased sense of control over your fate they still provide is...well, cool.
"Race?" "Elf." "Goddammit, not again!!"
Here comes the sanity check.
Like most fantasy games, SenZar includes the standard Tolkien races with the serial numbers filed off. Instead of elves, we have "starin". Dwarves are "khazaks", goblins are goblins, and halflings...okay, good, no halflings. Maybe there's hope, after all.
Thankfully, there are a bunch of other races. Names aside, we essentially have great-cat men, bull men, flying angelic men, lizard men, psionic plant men, wolf men, evil demon-like men, dragon men, Viking-ish half-giants, and amphibious mermen who communicate through music.
After that, we have the resistant-to-pigeonholing races. The "Azaar", a hunter race of four-armed men who can shift their skin color to any other color or pattern. "Khobolds", dark, magick-using dwarves. "Golgothans", which are the creatures from the Predator movies in both appearance and habit (yes, even the skull-collecting) – the race's signature weapons bear this out, but (for some odd reason) there aren't any laser cannons and wrist-mounted suicide bombs. "Nazar Ethans", pseudo-immortals whose race is trapped on an island not only surrounded by boiling seas and mazes of sheer stone cliffs, but phased out of the normal continuum. The "Mokarr", an evil, servant-assassin clone race. The "Sidhe", a nature-serving faerie race who have taken permanent humanoid forms. "Silestions", golden, indomitable humanoids who never tire while the sun shines on them.
SenZar is nothing if not a game of heterogeneity.
As mentioned before, each race has different attribute limits and comes with certain skills, languages, and abilities – gloom sight, flying, body weaponry, that sort of thing.
Most of the races also have a flavor quote, and, unfortunately, most of these quotes suck horribly. I mean, most of us have flipped through a White Wolf book or something and thought "Man, these quotes are boring the murderous rage out of me", but it's worse than that. SenZar's quotes are split right down the middle: a lot of them are just moronic, and the rest don't even make sense.
The khazak quote, for instance: "Meanwhile, back at the Whore-n-Brew..." Perhaps you would like the drakkan (dragon man) quote: "Eat a sheep." The human quote is certainly representative: "Giant Crab. Kill him. Eat him." The mokarr quote almost makes sense: "'1) Kill 2) Parley 3) Hop in The Source and Destroy Everything!' (Gimlet & Havok's Secret Playbook)". "Die, mutie, die!", "Aleryon brews nuts. Not his, of course...", and "Fantus notes that we look like something out of the Wizard of Oz" are some of the more humorous entries among the rest. Well, those, and "I smash his village to pieces!"
It's perfectly possible that the quotes are just there to fill space and perhaps represent the setting in general, not the races (which would make more sense, actually). But even at that purpose, the quotes still suck.
At the very least, the creators should have gone off the deep end and invented quotes that would have at least been weird-intriguing or weird-humorous, instead of the current weird-god-you're-a-lunatic. Quotes like maybe "Why would my future self want to kill me?" or "No! No!! I saw them kill you and take the pieces!" or "You know the people who put monsters under childrens' beds and give them nightmares? Well, these are the things that give them nightmares." or even "Ah, a vermix-alloy weapon, imbued with bifurcation, destruction, human-slaying, and vampirism, for a grand total of triple maximum vampiric normal damage, 10-100 poison damage, debilitating weakness, and instant death on every strike...and you had to forge it in the shape of a popsicle. What is wrong with you?"
Attributes, Task Resolution, Skills
So there are 9 attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Speed, Willpower, Intelligence, Presence, Perception, and Power. The mortal range is from 1-20, with 10 being the apparent average and 15 being the human maximum (except Power, which maxes out at 10 for humans).
As usual, these are self-explanatory, except Presence, which is best described as a character's "coolness", and Power, which is used as magick resistance and to determine how many points spellcasters can cast spells with. Strength, as can be expected, determines your base damage and maximum lift, Dexterity determines your to-hit and defense modifiers, and...that's it. Those are the only attributes that modify any of your abilities during character creation. Slick.
The Fate Point cost for attributes is its straight rating (rating 1 costs 1 point, 2 costs 2 points, etc), up to 11. After that, each point costs the last digit of what the new rating would be. So, buying an attribute up from 11 to 12 would cost 2 more points (for a total of 13 spent), and going to 13 would cost 3 more (for a total of 16). Mercifully, there's a chart listing the total cost to get any particular rating.
Each attribute has an "attribute save" to roll a d20 against. The saves are easily remembered – each one is 21 minus the attribute's rating, but there's a place on the character sheet to write it down if you can't be bothered to remember or recalculate it each time you roll. The goal, of course, is to roll over the save number. If the Creator is in a bad mood, you get to roll at a penalty. If you're rolling against someone else, the margin of success on the rolls (ie "how many points you made it by") will, oddly enough, determine who wins.
If (for some reason) you have an attribute of 20, then you get to have a percentile save. That is, your save becomes .05, and you roll a d100, which means you can now get a margin of up to 95 points over someone. Even better, rolling penalties are not changed for your percentile roll, which means it takes a seriously bad day to make you worry about failing a roll.
If (for some even more unlikely reason) your attribute is even higher than that (30, 40, 50, 75, and 100 are the only ratings that exist after 20), the save becomes even more absurd, dropping .01 each step. When you reach 100, the save simply becomes (and is written as) a "*", which means that you can never, under any circumstances, ever fail a roll for that attribute.
Power is the only attribute that works differently. For one, its cost is always 1 point – it doesn't get any higher as you go along. Next, it's always a percentile save: 100 minus the rating. There is a Power maximum during character creation for each race, but after that, it can go as high as players can buy it up, even beyond 20. And it gets to use all the numbers between 20 and 100, too, not just four of them.
Skills, as mentioned before, work the same way as attributes – each skill has a relevant attribute, and using the skill means rolling that attribute. Ta da! Very difficult.
Characters start with the skills listed in their race and profession packages – you can't buy new ones with Fate Points. Instead, each skill has a "time to learn", if you actually want to learn new ones once play begins. The learning times typically fall in the region of 20-28 weeks, although all of them allow you to subtract your relevant attribute rating from that, and a few skills are rated in days rather than weeks.
Taking the learning time more than once gets you a "mod" each time, which is simply a permanent +1 to the skill's attribute rating (that is, the attribute's effective rating when rolling for the skill), up to a maximum of +5. In this way, it is mortally possible to get to the percentile saves, if only for whatever skill you've spent months learning. To keep things from getting too far out of hand, the creators "suggest" rather large training fees, although careful use of the Status power and a character's connections can get around that.
Overall, I must admit that I like this way of handling attributes and skills.
In a "realism" game, of course, that would be a blatant lie ("Cool! My 'Write Bad Poetry' and 'Nuclear Engineering' skills are equally good!"), but with the *D&D-style looting and slaughter SenZar clearly wants to be used for, it's good enough. It's simple, quick, largely consistent, and unlikely to confuse first-time gamers the way AD&D often does ("Roll high for saving throws, low for attributes, high for THAC0, low for skills, high for...what?") –
(Naturally, I can already hear some of the usenet community wondering in morbid awe what kind of twisted, freakish gamer would result if their first game really was SenZar.)
– Except for to-hit and damage rolls, the system takes everything players ever roll for and unifies it under a single method of resolution. Oh, wait – forgot about Karma and Codes. Those also get rolled, but they're just another "roll over this number on a d20 to avoid getting screwed" deal, so it's not like I'm upset here.
Of course, a d20 roll is a linear probability range, and doesn't have the nice multiple-dice bell curve that all us...uh, "sophisticated" gamers enjoy, but again, it's good enough. We're going by the "dungeon hack" standard here, so I'm willing to cut some slack.
Slack? What am I saying? For the ultimate fantasy game, "good enough" isn't damn near good enough, and I'm reducing the Substance rating for that! Let this stand as a lesson to the rest of you foolish designers.
On the other hand, perhaps I should cut my losses now, while it's still possible that a pretense of dignity remains. The immutable fact of the matter is that I learned – and can use – the skill and attribute rules without groaning in absolute, god-please-kill-me despair, and I would be lying if I said I had been expecting even that much.
(Or does it just seem good purely because any remotely simple fantasy game would look good after Imagine? Ugh. Stupid reality.)
Professions And Freaks
As with races, SenZar professions (character classes) offer up a superfluity of choices.
Most everything from traditional class/level systems is present and accounted for, but we'll go through the professions by category. There are, of course, the non-spellcasters – warriors, rogues, rangers (here they don't cast spells), stalkers, assassins, martial artists, and Shy'r warriors (honor-bound martial artist commandos). Then there are a lot of "pure" spellcasters – wizards and priests (of course), on top of sorcerers, witches, necromancers, alchemists, astromancers, mystics, spellsingers (groan), enchanters, and inquisitors. Finally, we have a munchkin's variety of hybrid warrior/spellcaster professions – mystic warriors, mystic assassins, battlemages, witch hunters, sentinels (evil warrior-necromancers), harlequins (evil enchanter-jester assassins. Yeah, I know. It hurts me, too), and dragonslayers (hypocritical holy paladins). I think that's just about all of them....
(Note for really obsessive nitpickers: Yeah, I know I said in the Imagine review that the SenZar warrior/mage classes were 75% of them, but now that we're here, it turns out that they're 7 out of the 25 listed – exactly 28%. The forces that bred and control me regret this error. But trust me: once you flip through it, it feels like 75%.)
Many of these professions could almost be called professions in name only. Each starts with different skills and weapon skills, but since any profession can use any armor and learn any skill or weapon at any convenient time, many of the professions (particularly the non-spellcasters) feel more like flavorful distinctions than true character classes. In addition, any race can take multiple professions, as long as they can meet the attribute minimums for each one (you did know there were going to be attribute minimums, right?).
It's all good. Like many post-*D&D class/level games, there will be no blatant assaults on logic where Conan can't use thieving abilities or improve them without halting his fighter advancement. But there's also a sense of flexibility here that is less than evident in most class/level games. There aren't a lot of things that any profession can't learn or max out as easily as any other profession.
In fact, combat progression and (particularly) magick realms are about the only things a profession can't change, other than its general attitude (if any). Thankfully, like almost everything else so far, these are handled in a fairly simple manner.
First, each profession has either "pro" or "semipro" combat. The difference is that the pro combatants get +1 CV each level and another action per round every 5 levels (CV, or "combat value", is just the bonus on your roll to hit things, and the penalty on rolls to hit you). Semipro combatants, by comparison, get only half that: +1 CV every second level and another action every 10 levels. Pure spellcaster professions (necromancers, wizards, priests, mystics, and the like) get semipro combat, obviously being not as combat-oriented. Everyone else – warriors, rogues, even the hybrid spellcaster professions – gets pro combat.
A profession's magick progression also has pro and semipro designations, along with whatever realm of magic the profession is able to use. The difference between pro and semipro here is that pro magick awards +4 to the Power attribute each level, while semipro grants +3 (okay, pros also start with 7 spells from their realm, while semipros have 4, if any). The aforementioned pure spellcasters are the ones who get...oh, my god! Pro magick. Bet we didn't see that one coming. Everyone else gets the semipro magick progression. Yep...a profession's combat and magic progressions are invariably the opposite of each other, pro/semipro-wise. That keeps things simple. After that, the spellcasting professions each have a realm of magick (the mystic realm is the most common one, with no less than five professions using it)...there is no way to gain access to other realms, short of the rather nasty option of multiple professions.
And yes, even non-spellcasters get the semipro magick progression, despite never learning spells. The book states a variety of reasons for this, the more important ones dealing with Power as a measure of the soul (and thus, the difficulty of stealing or obliterating it), Power-leeching, and Power costs for ridiculous martial arts moves.
Ridiculous martial arts moves? That would be the other thing where there are some professional restrictions. Martial arts moves, like weapon skills, have a learning time but are never actually rolled, instead having their own special role in combat. Almost every profession that begins with martial arts gets the basic package for either the "Shy'R" (good) or "Black Wyrm" (evil) schools (whichever suits the moral bent of the profession and character), and can learn powerful (and Power-dependent) moves from them. Professions that don't have martial arts are limited to learning the "common" (but still useful) pool of moves.
The fun begins when the creators tell us that all the professions are "balanced", with none ultimately having a particular advantage over another.
I don't quite want to scream "bullshit!" at the top of my lungs, but it suffices to say that I have serious problems believing this. The way these professions work are just one of the many reasons SenZar's character creation alone should have had its own chapter in The Munchkin's Guide To Power Gaming.
For example, the hybrid professions just rock. More specifically, they rock over their pure spellcaster counterparts. Observe.
With pro magick and its +4 Power per level (versus +3 for semipro), a pure caster at 10th level will have 10 more Power than his hybrid counterpart, right? Enough to get the pure caster access to the next order of spells (think AD&D spell levels), but not necessarily a huge advantage.
In giving up the 10 points pro magick would have gained them, however, the hybrid gets the advantages of pro combat – that is, twice as many combat bonuses and actions (and remember, casting a spell is an action). Also, many of the hybrids (particularly the mystic ones) have martial arts, an ability that is absent from the entire roster of pure spellcaster professions. You can do the math.
Okay, so pure casters also get the artificer special power, but to artifice an item with powers and bonuses that won't land it in SenZar's ubiquitous "suck stuff" category, it takes so much magickal power that you almost have to be 20th level anyway...so I'm not sure if I should count it for this purpose.
In their explanation of "balance", the creators are quick to point out that, unlike many "plain" professions, most of the hybrid professions have unwritten codes of behavior, which is true. The battlemage, for example, is an aggressive lunatic, while the witch hunter must resolutely, unceasingly pursue and destroy the "guilty", particularly hypocrites ("witch hunters" in this game are more like Vampire Hunter D than stereotypical witch hunters). The sentinel, harlequin, and mystic assassin are all evil tools, the mystic warrior must adhere to strict, monk-like codes of honor, and dragonslayers must toe the line of corrupt hypocrisy...or take the old ideals of honor and justice seriously and risk ass-kickings from inquisitors and their brethren.
Of course, the unwritten codes don't really work to balance the classes, because they depend on a campaign's Creator to enforce them. Even beyond that...well, do I even have to point it out? Except for mystic warriors and maybe dragonslayers, there's still all kinds of room for players to run amok with the killing, hoarding, and power-mongering, especially in a game that already openly encourages just that (in case you were wondering why I've been looking at all this with such a munchkin point of view). Most of the time, they just have to do it in a more compulsive way.
In other words, there isn't much reason to choose a pure spellcasting profession if it has a hybrid counterpart.
And possibly even less reason to choose a non-spellcasting profession, except maybe out of coolness, in case you feel warriors, rogues, and assassins still have a nostalgic charm. Actually, you might also be able to take all the Fate Points you would have spent on spellcasting-related attributes (and attribute minimums) and putting them into physical ones, thus making an attempt to be the ultimate killing machine and reducing to paste all those pussy hybrids and spellcasters on the first action of combat with your boosted strength and speed. The whole strategy isn't as ridiculously unlikely as it sounds. The strongest races can buy a Strength of well over 15, getting a base damage that is already a) more than what any normal weapon could add to it, and b) easily enough to reduce starting characters (and a lot of other things) to paste. Luckily, most of these races aren't too bad on Speed, either. Putting some icing on it, it's a rare non-spellcasting profession that has no martial arts, and characters with the actual martial artist profession can learn moves from both the good and evil schools if they feel like it (not that this helps much at the start of the game). Or, alternately, you can just pick a race with a high maximum Speed, buy it, abuse the Status special power, buy an artificed weapon (such as the "popsicle of death" from my quote example, above...you thought I was making all that up, didn't you? Just the popsicle), cause an obscene extent of damage and instant death before everyone else, and again wait for the Creator to get tired of your bullshit and throw down a lightning bolt with more damage dice than you have hit points (to prevent you from surviving by using a Fate Point to minimize it).
I guess not having spells in this game isn't so horrible, if you can approach it with a bad enough attitude.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The real hole in the hybrids' ability to walk over everything is the fact that many of the magick realms (witchcraft, sorcery, wizardry, alchemy, astromancy, and spellsinging) only have pure spellcasting professions – they aren't available to any hybrid professions. Okay, so astromancy largely blows until you get to the higher levels (the 10th order Black Hole spell is fun if you've ever wanted to cause a three mile wide swath of obliteration and piss off the entire planet doing it) and spellsinging just blows, period, but the others are easily worth having.
This whole problem, however, can be solved by taking dual professions. As an example, a witch/witch hunter character is silly, but it adds up to a sufficiently nasty piece of work. Pro combat, pro magick, mysticism, martial arts (including that one "Silent Strike" ability where you can surprise someone, cause an automatic maximum critical hit with equally automatic "devastation"), stealth skills, a bad attitude...and witchcraft, which only witches get save rolls against. Battlemage is another good hybrid profession to mix with something. It doesn't have any martial arts, but battlemagick is the most destructively versatile realm... and battlemages have even worse attitudes.
Unfortunately, two professions means dividing your experience points both ways, which means you progress half as fast...which kind of defeats the whole point of having pro combat anyway.
Okay, so I guess power-mongers might have to make some small sacrifices here and there, but I still mortally refuse to call all this balanced. The creators also further the balance claim by telling us that all the professions have the potential for "greatness", which is technically true.
But, just in case I have failed to make it sound like simply choosing a profession is enough munchkinism for you, the creators thoughtfully included the option of playing "freaks" – powerful race/profession combinations with pro progression in both categories.
The creators helpfully inform us that the freaks were designed with one goal in mind. To quote it exactly: "Death! Death! Death!". The main rules include only three – shapeshifters, talismans, and voidspawn – but they're just about enough.
The shapeshifter can not only play doppelganger and duplicate the physical attributes of other humanoids, but as its Power grows, it also gains the ability to assume the forms of energy, substances, monsters (and their special abilities), and, eventually, anything smaller than planetoid size. The talisman can absorb spells cast around them and either keep the spell's power or reflect the effect back at the caster. They also regenerate their own magick power at the end of each round and can use it to reduce magickal damage – or inflict it without the limitations that come with damage spells. The voidspawn are the "godslayers"...eventually. While they're getting up to that, they have a free Willpower of 20 (which would be better if meditation wasn't the only skill that used it), all kinds of damage resistance, and (again, as their Power grows) all sorts of miscellaneous other abilities, like flight, regeneration, teleportation, and augmenting attributes.
There's probably a reason the creators stressed that the Creator has to absolutely approve of allowing these in his game.
And yes, before you make the comment, one of my players has already asked me if the people of SenZar have voidspawn guilds they can go to when they're having problems with the gods.
But, anyway...smaller than planetoid size? Yep. It takes a while to buy up the 100 Power needed to get that ability, though, and actually doing it requires so much magickal power that you would have to be at 20th level as well. The good news is that you can stay in that form as long as you feel like.
The other freaks don't take quite that long to get out of hand.
So are there any drawbacks? Just a bit. The shapeshifter is vulnerable to multiple personalities, the talisman can't wear any armor bulkier than a skintight bodysuit (this is the one exception in the entire game to the lack of armor restrictions), and the voidspawn gets to go kill gods sooner or later, which isn't exactly a lot of fun...not only that, they're subject to the will of the Dragon (the supreme collective lifeforce), with no possibility of disobedience.
All that aside, the creators gleefully admit that the freaks are completely unbalanced and are in every way superior to the normal races and professions.
And I would probably have believed them, too...if they had bothered to put more than one weapon skill between them. Even better, the freak that gets to start the game with proficiency in a weapon of his choice would be the talisman – easily the one that needs weapons the least. Oh, wait, he might need one in case someone notices he isn't wearing any armor and tries to run up and whack him. The freaks are also entirely lacking in martial arts and other useful skills (stealth, healing, languages, traps, and ambushing all spring to mind).
But this is yet another problem that can be solved through the dual profession rules. The creators, of course, begin that discussion with a nice "if you're into pain" note, but what munchkin has ever been stopped by that warning? Beyond that, priest/voidspawn has fun theological implications, if you're really trying to get on the Creator's nerves.
By the way, now that I'm about to move on to the next part of the game, it is my hope that some RPG historian will note that this is possibly the first review to inadvertently spend over four pages ranting about a game's character classes, just as I hope they will note that Dream Pod 9 was the first company to inadvertently name a game after a lesbian rock band (seriously. Go to www.tribe8.com if you don't believe me).
And with that, I would finally like to offer up "Killed assholes who tried to kill me because I killed" and "Accidentally blow up a parsec of space" and "Havok lets me kill him. I punt his head" as three examples of why the profession flavor quotes also suck.
Karma and Codes
While I was talking about attributes and Fate Points, some of you may have done a little math and discovered that buying an average 10 in all the attributes would take 90 points, leaving us an awe-inspiring 10 points to buy everything else with.
Sarcasm aside, this would be a serious hole in the system if it weren't for the karma/codes rules.
See, each PC has 8 karmic attributes, which are rated on a 0-20 scale: attitude, discipline, fear, sanity, harmony, confidence, greed, and luck. A 0 rating indicates being a paragon of the attribute (if it's good) or utterly immune to it (if it's bad). 20 indicates being utterly dominated by some negative form of the attribute. 10 indicates a normal, average inclination towards/against the attribute.
Also like normal attributes, karmic attributes have saves in situations where they're extremely relevant. These are handled by trying to roll a d20 over the rating to avoid "giving in", again with penalties if the Creator feels like it. Anyone with a 0 rating never has to roll for any reason.
Codes are belief systems, and work the exact same way. There are two "good" codes – "The Cause", which is basically upholding the ideals of justice, honor, and kicking the asses of evil things; and "The Good Earth", which is religious reverence and service to the will of the Dragon. Unsurprisingly, there are also two "evil" codes to serve as opposites – "The Anti-Life", which is upholding the ideal of killing and subjugating everything; and "The Dark Earth", which is the worship of Chthon, who plays a very active Satan to the will of the Dragon. Again, 10 indicates an average inclination towards a code, 0 indicates an antithetical attitude, and 20 is total devotion. Oddly enough, you can't have both a good and bad code, although you can have both codes on your "side".
The neat part is that players get to define their own karma and code ratings. The neater part is that ratings over 0 grant an equal number of Fate Points. A player who wants average attitudes gets an easy 100 Fate Points. The bad part is that any karma rating over 10 forces you to choose a "manifestation" – a mental disadvantage that characterizes your weakness in that attribute. The "depressive" and "total stupidity" passages earlier were both from this section. Codes over 10 indicate increasing fanaticism.
As with most of SenZar's purely rules-related aspects, the karma and codes are a nice touch, allowing players to give characters a bit of personality without complicating things too much. From the more important power-gaming standpoint, it also provides an opportunity to get away with murder, particularly if the Creator is among the many gamemasters who aren't all that careful about enforcing mental disadvantages (you can go back and calculate for yourself what kind of attributes an extra 150-200 points will buy).
Levels, Hit Points, Combat, Other Things
SenZar uses an abstract hit point system. No separate points totals for each part of each of your limbs and torso, no pages-long critical hit charts, no other nightmares. Just a simple "you have this many hit points, try not to lose them all at once" system, like *D&D. At 0 hit points, you fall consciousness and lose another hit point each combat round. Once your hit points equal your negative Constitution, you're dead.
Determining hit points is also a simple process – a new character's hit points equal their Constitution. Leveling up adds the Constitution rating each time. If you ever raise your Constitution, you also get the extra hit points from all the levels you've already gained. The non-randomness of all this also neatly sidesteps one of the great plagues of class/level gaming – players will no longer have to make sanity checks when they level up and roll a 1 for their hit points.
Again, this is a nice way of handling things (God, this is getting embarrassing). Although I haven't seen every class/level game ever created (just the most annoying ones), I genuinely hope it didn't really take until 1996 for someone in the industry to come up with this kind of simple, painless method for hit points.
But while we're on the subject of hit points and levels, the SenZar FAQ helpfully reveals the mythological inspiration for its creators' level system:
"Contrary to popular belief, the use of 'levels' to indicate relative power rankings did not originate in fantasy role-playing games. In fact, the earliest Terran evidence of a numerical ranking system is found in the literature of the ancient peoples of Sumer, the world's earliest literate civilization thus far discovered. The Sumerians' divine pantheon of gods – a group of 12 gods, divided equally into 6 males and 6 females millennia before women's suffrage was embraced by the so-called 'civilized' world – was ranked according to a sexagesimal system, where the divine number '60' represented the uppermost rank assigned to the chief of the gods, Anu. Anu's wife, Antu, was represented by the number '55,' while the next highest ranking male member of the pantheon, Enlil, received a ranking of '50.' Enlil's spouse, Ninlil, received a '45' ranking. The sexagesimal rankings continue down the line in the same manner, with mated pairs of deities receiving a similar 60/55, 50/45, 40/35, etc. ranking.
"Since our system includes not only deities but also other types of immortals, we thought it would be fitting to incorporate a similar ranking system in SenZar. Thus, with respect for our own current base-10 Terran numerical system, we designed a base-100 system to represent relative immortal ranks, or 'levels.' Progression during the first 20 levels (the 'mortal' realm) is in steps of one 'level' per 'rank.' This one level/one rank progression truncates once the character achieves true immortality and surpasses 20th level; from that point, the steps to 100th level are fewer, though much more difficult to achieve, just as they were in the Sumerian divine pantheon."
("Sexagesimal" probably means "of, relating to, or based on the number 60", by the way.)
So when we play SenZar, we're not only using a class/level system with a strong mythological heritage, but we can ultimately become 40 levels more powerful than the chief Sumerian god (or is SenZar's scale simply 166% more precise than that of ancient Sumer?). Exciting, huh? Maybe someday there'll even be a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode where – oh, God, never mind!
Sorry. My tongue sometimes leaps into my cheek like that.
Anyway, combat is where things get a little trickier, but not by much.
We already know that characters have X actions per round. Combat rounds begin with everyone taking an action in order of decreasing Speed. You can also delay your action for later on in the round. Thankfully (for me, at least), this doesn't get less abstract than it has to – the creators include simple movement rules, but they clearly don't mandate using them.
Anyway, after each combatant has had a turn, those with multiple actions get to repeat the process, until everyone has run out of actions. Then the next combat rounds starts, and so on until a complete ass-kicking has occurred for one side.
The rules don't explain it quite as clearly as this ("actions per round" are actually "action phases", there's some other stuff about how the combat round has 10 seconds or "phases", the real term for what I have blithely labeled as "turns"), but this is the essential process. Quite simple, overall, although a random initiative might have been good to add.
The actual process of attacking is reminiscent of AD&D, if only in that active defense isn't really a factor – most of the rolls are to hit, with actual dodging or parrying requiring the defender to sacrifice an action.
After X actions per round, we also already know that characters have CV ratings ("Combat Value", remember?). A CV rating is actually also an equal AV (attack value) and DV (guess) – in other words, if your CV is 15, then you have a 15 AV and a 15 DV, too. The designation is sometimes made because magick weapons and armor and other bonuses could imaginably increase one without the other ("AV" and "DV" are probably easier to write throughout the book than "CV+attack bonuses" and "CV+defense bonuses", anyway).
Anyway, how it works is the attacker compares their AV to the target's DV. The difference is the modifier to the to-hit roll. Or the attacker can just roll anyway, add the AV, and then subtract the DV, if they can't stand the thought of doing any math before actually rolling. Either way. (You can also skip the whole AV/DV business and just use straight CV ratings, if no bonuses are involved.) The attack roll is a d20. A final result of 10+ is a hit. A result of 20+ is a critical hit, doing double damage and forcing the defender to make a Constitution save or be "devastated", suffering a -10 to all attack, skill, and attribute rolls until the wound is fully healed. A natural roll of 20 – or a spent Fate Point – results in the maximum possible damage for the hit or critical (depending on whether the 20 is still 20+ after modifiers).
If the defender really, really doesn't want to get hit, they can use an action to dodge or parry. Parrying involves the defender trying to beat the attacker's AV roll (ie "the attack roll without the DV involved") with their own, with success stopping the attack and failure reducing the soon-to-be victim's DV to 0 for that one attack. Dodging is a bit easier – the defender simply makes a Dexterity save, with success again keeping the attack from landing. It's also much worse if you fail, reducing your DV to 0 for the phase.
Damage is also a bit tricky, but again, not by much.
Each character has a base damage from their Strength, which is a die roll of some kind. For example, Strength 10 would be 1-4, while 15 is 2-16. Weapons also provide a "damage range", determined by their Damage Class (DC). Damage Classes range from 1 to 10, with DC 1 being 1-6 and DC 5 (the limit for normal weapons) being 2-16. Above DC 5 is the realm of artificed weapons, with the damage range proceeding much more absurdly, ending with 10-100 at DC 10. The sum of both the Strength and DC rolls, oddly enough, is the total damage for a strike.
And before you ask, the rules (oddly enough) contain no discussion on the use of artificed popsicles as weapons.
While having to remember the Strength and DC charts may seem annoying, it isn't really necessary. Strength isn't something that changes very often, and most fantasy gamers already memorize every relevant detail of their weapons out of habit – something that isn't going to be very hard here, given that SenZar doesn't burden us with weapon lengths, speeds, weights, durability, or anything else that attempts to smack of realism. Also, it isn't until you get into superhuman Strength levels and artificed weapons that you have to roll more than four dice at once, which helps keep things within reason.
Armor is even better. You know all those systems where armor has, like, a rating, and you directly subtract that rating from any incoming damage? Same way here. Normal armor is limited to 10 points or less, with the artificed (again) being able to grossly exceed that. After a humorous paragraph about their fundamental contempt for shields, the creators provide rules allowing them to boost DV ratings.
After that, there are a few other factors and options.
There are the martials arts moves, of course, which open the doorway to all kinds of absurdity. Zen Quickdraw, for example is an easily learnable move that allows characters to instantly quick-draw a weapon from any spot or position on their body – the mental image is quite humorous ("I quick-draw the great axe I have strapped to my back leg!").
You can also make called shots to sever/disable body parts, although this only works if you roll a critical hit and the victim fails the "devastation" save (a fun use for the Silent Strike move). There are also sweep attacks, allowing you to damage multiple foes with one blow, but this is also a difficult process. The same AV roll is used for each target, with each one after the first accruing another -10 after the last, stopping after the first miss. Then, there the usual but optional d20 fumble rules (ie "if you roll a natural 1, the Creator gets to make something nasty happen"), with the sub-optional Dexterity save to un-screw yourself. There's also rules for surprise, which is just plain nasty in this game – you not only get to miss the first action phase, but you also have a CV of 0 and a -10 on all saves.
Taken for what they are (hack-and-slash class/level gaming), the combat rules overall are reasonable, although given the 10-point ceiling on armor, how maxed-out everything in this game tends to be, and the relative ease of hitting things close to your level, it seems like it would be hard to avoid regularly taking damage, at least until you get some artificed armor (luckily, this problem is solvable through the Status special power, below). Of course, I haven't seen the rules in actual play yet, so this is an observation from the grain of salt zone. There is nothing about the combat system that triggered my carefully-engineered ranting gene (the fact that we're expected to use this for the whole millennium aside).
Special Powers And The Glorious Process of Status Hoarding
Special powers would be the other possible thing to spend Fate Points on. It says "powers", but a lot of these are just normal advantages, like you would see in any universal system: bonuses to senses, bonuses to certain uses of attributes, combat sense, empathy, disease immunity, and the like. Others are racial advantages (telepathy, regeneration, gloom sight, et cetera) that are free to characters that "naturally" have them, but might be bought by others with a contrived enough explanation. I was surprised by how many of the special powers are not actually combat-oriented.
Of course, certain powers are more worth having than others, to the point of being almost mandatory. Jack Of All Trades is only 5 points, but halves the learning time for skills and martial arts (and, equally importantly, the amount of time training fees must be paid for). Savant is similar, but works for spells, alchemy, and artificing. Toughness costs 10 points, and grants the beyond-indispensable abilities to keep fighting when you're at negative hit points and ignore the -10 "devastated" penalty.
There are others, but the really great one is Status, which (among other things) allows you to start with exponentially more money. The Status level you want costs 20 points, but it's well worth it, giving you 1000x the normal starting funds.
And since new characters normally have 1,000 stars (SenZar currency), that gives us a total of a million stars to play with – more than enough to flip over to the artificing chapter and have a look at the exotic materials, their properties...and the many fun magickal enhancements that can be put on anything made out of them.
The way this works is that each enhancement has a cost in stars (or power points, if you're doing the artificing yourself), and the exotic materials give a cost break to certain enhancement types, provided you have a full ingot with which to forge a weapon or suit of armor.
The enhancements include the expected stuff – AV, DV, and skill bonuses, DC bonuses, and multipliers to armor ratings. There are also other fun properties, such as species-slaying, sharpness/bifurcation (2x/3x damage, respectively, with 3x/4x damage on a critical), destruction (automatic maximum strike damage), vampiric damage, and imbued spells in both the "permanent" and "X charges per day" variety.
As far as the exotics go, there are only about a trillion things here that belong in every munchkin-friendly fantasy game. "V-steel", for instance, which grants DC bonuses and armor multiples at 25% cost, making it one of the munchkin's many friends. Many exotics also have special properties, such as "mystra", which makes weapons that completely ignore armor, and "solara", which is "totally immune to the ravages of Heat and Fire, up to and including the searing fusion-generated plasma conditions at the heart of a star". Cool – that could save a lot of heartbreak when I have no choice but to rule that a player character has been hit so hard that they go flying into the sun (don't ask. I'm not joking. It's actually happened).
So what can we do with a million stars? Lots.
We probably think that an armor value of 10 is for pussies, so we'll start there. A 10-point cool-superhero-looking bodysuit to actually base this on is a negligible 10,000 stars, an ingot of V-steel costs 100,000, and the highest armor multiple (10x) costs 500,000. But wait! Armor multiples cost 25% for V-steel, so that's actually 125,000 for 10x, bringing us to a total cost of 235,000.
So now we have an armor value of 100, and 765,000 stars left to blow. (Until the Creator snaps, there's going to be a lot of combats like at the end of The Matrix, where the newly-empowered Keanu Reeves was blocking the agent's furious martial arts with a bored expression on his face.)
Now we need a weapon, which is a bit more difficult. Not because it's more expensive (though it is), but because there's just so many choices here.
Of course, we could get a DC 5 greatsword for 1,000 stars (let me look under my couch), some more V-steel, artifice it up to +5 DC for 500,000 (125,000 after V-steel's 25% DC cost), and walk away with half our money left and a weapon that does a base 10-100 points of damage.
But that would be boring.
Instead, we want to pay 100,000 stars for an ingot of vermix, which has the drool-inducing property of causing 10-100 points of venom damage and automatic "devastation" every time it hits for even 1 point of damage. Vermix only has a 50% DC cost, but that's okay – we were satisfied before we even checked that. +5 DC now would cost 250,000 stars, but we'll also add sharpness (250,000 stars) and 50% vampiric damage (100,000), just because we want to have something worth bragging about. Now we have a greatsword which will cost 701,000, but does 30-300 damage on a normal hit, using half that to heal us.
And 64,000 stars left to hire someone to help me carry everything back when I'm done hoarding.
But if that weapon doesn't float your boat, maybe we need an ingot of supremium, which costs 500,000 stars, but has a 10% cost on artificing across the board. To this, we can add +5 DC (adjusted total cost 50,000), +10 AV (adjusted to another 50,000), bifurcation (adjusted to 45,000), human-slaying (adjusted to 25,000), destruction (adjusted to 50,000), wounding (adjusted to 12,500), and 100% vampirism (adjusted to 25,000). The end result is a greatsword that costs 758,500 stars and (deep breath) has a +10 attack bonus, causes an automatic 300 points of 100% vampiric damage that will not heal short of 8th order magicks, and forces any human struck by it to make a Power save or die. Hoody hoo!
Needless to say, there are things floating around in this world that wouldn't even be allowed as major artifacts anywhere else. SenZar is probably the only high fantasy game where a properly munchkinized starting character can cause enough damage to kill another fully-armored starting character at least 20 or 30 times over.
But I think I've made my point.
To be fair, there are notices in various parts of the book about how Creators are supposed to run campaigns their own way and use common sense and all (as much as you can imagine SenZar's creators encouraging anyone to use common sense), but beyond racial weapons, I couldn't find any restrictions (implied or otherwise) on what can and can't be bought. I mean, the exotic material prices are in the marketplace chapter right fricking before the mundane weapons and armor prices.
Now, for any other game (except Synnibarr), restrictions on this crap would be a given, but this is SenZar, where we're openly encouraged to hoard and make our characters as powerful as possible. It just seems...wrong to tell a player they're playing in God Mode and then tell them they can't buy their lovingly-forged supremium greatsword of absolute destruction. There's so much room to argue both ways, you would think the creators would have at least addressed the issue.
Besides, there isn't much else to spend that kind of money on. Stuff from the magick items section (whee! Random treasure tables!), maybe, but that's even worse. In fact, the magick cloak section alone is almost more badass than my attempts at weapon artificing. The Cloak of Invisibility is 350,000 stars, works at will, and won't be "deactivated" by attacking or casting spells. The Cloak of Libra is 250,000, and causes attackers to suffer the same damage they inflict on you (in case you were wondering what to do if everyone else in the party went nuts with the artificing, too). Even better, the Cloak of Refraction does that without letting the attack damage you, and there's one for magick, too. Don't worry about having to make the difficult choice between them – they're only 300,000 apiece.
So, in other words, I'm not sure if this is even a gross oversight at all. It's perfectly possible we're supposed to be able to do this.
Magic(k), circa Final Fantasy III
We already know about the realms of magick. As an aside, each one has "cool stuff" and (groan) "suck stuff" notes...once the eye-rolling has stopped, though, these actually help new players decide which realm suits them most, particularly those new players who don't really want to read the 50 pages the spells of all 11 realms total.
SenZar magick is a lot like AD&D magic. We've got ten orders of spells for each realm, and although the realms have more colorful "identities" and differences from each other than the "schools" of AD&D magic, the spells still have that AD&D-like feel to them. There's even a greatly expanded set of Power Words, for dying out loud (although Power Word: Damn! probably won't appear in a *D&D sourcebook anytime soon). Also following form, starting spellcasters are only slightly more impressive than low-level mages in AD&D, getting far more impressive at mid and high levels (taking a hybrid profession, if possible, helps the waiting some).
Methodology aside, there are three major differences.
One. No memorizations. Instead, characters have a pool of power points, determined by their Power and level. Nicely, each order's spells cost the same amount of points to cast. The power point system makes SenZar feel a little like a console RPG system, as those almost invariably use point-magic systems, but (given the focus of this game), this resemblance is not necessarily a bad thing.
Two. Massive streamlining, at least as far as the damage spells go. All damage spells in a given order have the same base range, area of effect, and maximum damage, but they might still have their own descriptions and miscellaneous effects. That keeps things simple. Even more cleverly, the power costs and areas of effect for the orders use the same progression of numbers. On top of the base cost for the spell's order, though, the caster must also spend a power point for each point of damage they wish to inflict (using higher order spells allows more points to be spent). Lower-order damage spells can also be boosted to higher-order areas of effect, in return for increasing skewing of the power-to-damage ratio.
Three. Puns (for example, the traditional Knock spell is here labeled "Open, Sez Me". Oh, the humanity!). Pop-culture references (the whole spellsinging realm, in fact, uses many references to well-known songs for spell names). Massive rolling of eyes.
The third point aside, the magick system is – to damn with faint praise – largely an improvement over the *D&D rules it is clearly descended from, if only for its increased consistency and intuitiveness. These particular rules are probably the trickiest part of the entire system, but (again) they do not seem particularly unmanageable to me.
Unlike the other systems of this game, however, this one left a pedestrian impression on me (as opposed to the "this really doesn't suck" impression of the task resolution and combat, and the abusively enjoyable impression of the character creation and special powers). SenZar magick is still more interesting than, oh, Imagine magick, but again, I am reminded that I was promised the ultimate in fantasy role-playing.
SenZar's assault on the black rainbow of traditional fantasy gaming would hardly be complete without rules on becoming a god.
Immortality can begin when you have 100 Power and get to 20th level (yes, under the "40 levels more powerful" theory of SenZar godhood, that also means three of the last four gods of the Sumerian pantheon – ranked 20/15 and 10/5 – were actually mortal, but let's not dwell on that). Once there, you get your choice of three different kinds of godhood.
You could become a deific god, which is what most of us think of when we hear the word "god": worshippers, avatars, pantheons, home "spheres" (planes) of existence and the psycho-sensual experience of being bound to them, that whole act.
But that's rather boring. You want a type of godhood where you can still go around, beat on things, and hoard without having to incarnate as an easily-murdered avatar.
And that brings us to the material godhood, where you have all your power without having to wait for someone to make the idiot mistake of setting foot on your home sphere, a unique "prime power", and other material gods to waste and hoard power from. And after distantly remembering all that screwing around you did with the Status special power at 1st level, the Creator will probably force you to do a lot of wasting and hoarding in self-defense, because new material gods get to choose sides in the probably un-winnable Dragon's Game. One side would be the more-or-less "good" or "Anshadar" side, who serve the Dragon and seek to maintain the status quo against the more-or-less "evil" or "Shadar" side, who serve Chthon (who happens to be a deific god, by the way). Either way, you automatically get a free, personal nemesis among the gods on the other side. But we already had a bad attitude anyway, right?
If finding ways to perpetrate god-level serial killings without actually triggering yet another of SenZar's God Wars doesn't appeal to you, perhaps you would like some calculatedly pointless insanity, bringing us to the third kind of immortality: that of the "eternal". As an eternal, it will be the purpose of your existence to play in a vast, endless, meaningless, bizarre game where you gain power by visiting humiliation, lunacy, ruin, and tasteless humor upon your fellow eternals and the rest of the universe in general. This, of course, is vaguely reminiscent of Immortal: the Invisible War, another sadly flawed game in which immortal factions seemed to spend staggering amounts of time and effort debasing one another.
There is an upside to all this, though, other than being able to cast primal magicks and being rather difficult to kill – finally being able to buy your attributes over 20 and getting more than 5 actions per round. You also start going up levels in steps of 5 now, not a piddly 1...and you even get all the benefits of all the "skipped" levels, too.
On the other hand, the immortal rules is also the part of the book where the poetry begins. Yes, horror of mind-blasting-strange-aeons-even-death-may-die horrors, Todd King's poetry is in this very book. The man is merciful, though – there are only two poems (assuming I haven't repressed anything) and they aren't even the worst examples of his work. Really, there are at least a couple on his poetry page (www.senzar.com/ebard/sothisisamerica1.html) which are not entirely dissimilar to the "Happy Noodle Boy" rants from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac – for serious poetry, this is a Bad Thing.
A Final Aside
One thing that is conspicuously missing in SenZar are monster statistics of any sort, relegated to a future sourcebook. This is really one of the things they should have remembered when they were trying to one-up the old school games – there aren't a lot of things more murderously irritating than buying yet more monstrous compendiums. From the various hints in the descriptions and creators' off-hand comments, SenZar is clearly inhabited by a wide variety of monsters and villains, but you'll never know what all they can do from this book alone. Since the creators at least put in rules for determining experience points and "kill factors", this is probably forgivable. It's not like I haven't run so many trillions of games that I can't make up new monsters and/or statistics if I feel like it.
Something a bit harder to ignore is the general lack of world information. There's a not-extremely-detailed world map. There's also a section on cosmology, planetary bodies, deities, languages, the zodiac, and the spheres of influence as well as the general history of SenZar, all eight ages of it (nine, if you want to count pre-history).
As far as it goes, the information provided about the ages isn't exactly a horrible attempt at world-building – It's about par for the course. Not ultra-inspired, but still allowing giving us plenty of excuses to go kill things without having to roll our eyes. But it's hard to judge farther than that – I particularly think the information for each age needed to average more than about two paragraphs. The creators encourage to set your campaign in any damn age you like, but as it is, we have just enough information to know who's in charge and whose asses we would be kicking for who.
Then there is a description of the three largest magick schools (good, neutral, evil...), which are a bit more detailed, but also largely there to describe what spellcasters can hoard for enlisting.
Overall, I feel like I almost learned more relevant info about the world from reading the race, class, artifact, and other descriptions than I did from the sections that were actually about the world.
End Game, or "Oh, God, where have I been?"
For those who haven't already suspected, it is possible that I went temporarily insane during my extensive studying of SenZar – I can only vaguely remember writing the review before this point. Reading back over my work now, I see that I have somehow achieved a rambling, stream-of-consciousness tone. Beautiful...and yes, beautiful through the same intense sarcasm that would make this a great game.
It is pointless to deny that SenZar is every bit a re-write AD&D, probably built from house rules that were in the creators' personal use for years before this book ever saw print.
However, unlike most throwbacks to the hack-and-slash era of gaming, SenZar is (mechanically speaking) an eminently playable re-write, far more simple and flexible than Rolemaster, Palladium, and many other class/level systems that are still around today (and will probably keep coming out). If we could forget everything else and simply consider SenZar as a rules system, I would feel safe in saying that it does not suck anywhere near as much as we have been lead to believe.
Unfortunately, SenZar's rules are not great enough to make it the ultimate in fantasy role-playing, and its writing contains many elements that, to be blunt, must (and should) be seen to be believed – don't even try to imagine you've seen more than a glimpse from this review. In my dubious opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong with the kind of munchkin attitude SenZar champions, but it falls just short of the kind of style it needed to pull it off (particularly humor-wise). There are also, as I have pointed out, certain "issues" in the game that really should have been addressed.
To give any single rating to SenZar is probably impossible, and the set I've given it (based on how much "entertainment" I personally got out of it) are probably debatable in all kinds of ways. Almost more than any other game, SenZar's entertainment value depends crucially on what kind of gamer you are.
If you're a power-gamer straight out of Knights of the Dinner Table and simply want a game and rules that will let you slash, burn, pillage, and count the xp's without getting in your way or making you take things too seriously, SenZar leaves just about everything for dead, short of The World of Synnibarr.
If you're a fantasy gamer who is something less than a total death-monger, I would have been able to recommend SenZar if its writing and style were better-implemented.
If, like me, you're a gamer who likes to read these things MST3K-style (never mind that brave Kevin Mowery was at some point writing a wonderful MST3K-ification of The Seven Stars, the first SenZar novel), then believe me when I say that you've just gotta see this thing, although – as with all bad games – avoid buying it at the new price and don't try to read it in one sitting. (You can catch Mowery's stuff at www.io.com/~profbobo/download.html, by the way)
On the other hand, if you are a "serious" role-player who already looks down on *D&D players who hack and slash too much, then you'll be fervently trying to get Sandy Antunes to lower the rating scale down to 0/0 to properly accommodate SenZar. Still, if you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to lose sanity points, you could try the hilarious absurdity of running Powerkill with it.
And if you're just someone who forgot how your browser's back button works way back at the start of this review, I don't know what to say to you.
Or you might be someone else. One of the morbidly curious. I can't make recommendations for all of you. But maybe you have enough information now to take that up for yourself.
Style: 2 (Needs Work)