The World of Synnibarr
The World of Synnibarr Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 03/08/01
Style: 1 (Unintelligible)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)
I tried to review it. I really did. But you can only hold your face to the blowtorch for so long.
Product: The World of Synnibarr
Author: Raven c.s McCracken and Bryce Thelin, who will not be spared when the revolution comes
Company/Publisher: Wonderworld Press
Page count: 476
Year published: 1993
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 03/08/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Horror Comedy Post-apocalyse Superhero Other
Contrary to my expectations, the World of Synnibarr did not suck all of the flesh off of my face, leaving behind only a screaming skull. It did not rape my other gaming products, leaving them pregnant with neomods, McCracken-speak for something as simple as a gaming module. It did not shoot twin streams of hydrochloric acid into my eyes, nor did it squat on my chest and stare at me when I was trying to sleep.
But it God-Damn well should have, because any of the above would have been better than actually trying to review this bastard.
Some kind soul described Senzar as the kind of game that youd write if you were twelve years old and getting bored of AD&D; Synnibarr is Timecube.com, an endless hideous rant that's written in a language that's indistinguishable from English but which is not English. I was going to be merciful on the game, suggest that it's not that bad, but it is as bad as you've been told. Moreso. I wrote the description of the setting material, was forced to let it go for a bit, and am coming back realizing that yes, it is a catastrophe on every level.
The first thing - and keep in mind that this is like isolating a single plague germ in a gust of millions - that works against World of Synnibarr is the sheer bulk of the thing. Its four hundred and seventy-three pages long, and reading it is like wading through thigh-deep mud. Normally, I'd be praising the amount of detail and substance within the book, but it's just so ponderously written and lacking in any real content that it makes reading the book pure torture. A lot of reading this book involves reading McCracken's intent and trying to compensate for that; stuff that should be told to us right up front isn't, or is hinted at obliquely. When he initially described Synnibarr, I had it imagined as a big asteroid with a "hollow earth" inside, surrounded by a "werestorm" to prevent invasions - but then it turns out that it's basically a standard spherical world. A map would sure be nice - but it's some two hundred pages in, and each map has little connection with the others, so you're left without a context.
Let's start with the setting. Without any introduction, we're told that a mage named Aridius was born, became a God, came to earth, imbued an avatar with the power to heal and give advice, who drew on the powers of his worshippers. We're not told if this is meant to be Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed, L. Ron Hubbard or McCracken himself, but we've already slipped neatly away from anything even vaguely resembling reality, so I'll not harp on the point. Anyways, at the same time this is happening, we're suddenly informed of the following:
"A few years passed by and the avatar's worshippers grew in number. Also at this time, Aridius himself was summoned by the Father of All and learned that the Gods had entered into war! The powers of Darkness had won the aid of the God of Time. This unholy alliance threatened to destroy the universe from the dread dimension of Shadarkeem. However, the Gods of Light were not to be undone. In a desperate attempt to survive the onslaught, they pooled their powers, trapping the God of Time, themselves, and their enemies in a temporal suspension that spanned the entire dimension of Shadarkeem."
Now keep in mind: We've never heard of any of this before. We have not heard of the Powers of Darkness, the God of Time, the Father of All, Shadarkeem - although it's explained in a paragraph-long footnote - the Gods of Evil or any of this in the first three paragraphs that we've read of this game. Since they never appear again, and don't affect anything, we're left with what basically amount to one of McCracken's brainfarts put on paper.
However, there is something clever that comes out of this whole thing: The demigods left in charge weren't able to properly handle the massive energies left behind, and it caused a stellar storm. At the same time, the people of Earth find the Avatar in the jungles of the Amazon and promptly "acknowledge" that it's a god. The odds of this happening are pretty slim, but, since the Earth is just about to perform the equivalent of plunging into the sun, I figure that a lot of odd things are happening. Said Avatar decides to turn Mars into an enormous worldship which has both an exterior and an interior surface, complete with vegetation. Since people constantly fight over territory, the Avatar figures that they wont' do that in a world without borders - which ignores the fact that conflicts aren't over borders but over control of resources that borders encompass - and creates a "werestorm" to protect the world in its initial flight. Now, assuming that this werestorm tends to kill things, I have to imagine that it's probably on the surface of the planet. Of course, that'd kill the people who lived on it, so it must be hovering in the upper atmospheres - that, or perhaps the people live on the inside. More on this later.
So, anyways, everybody gets teleported to the newly christened Synnibarr. However, a mutant with a "heart as black as hell itself", who reaches physical maturity fifteen minutes after being born, runs to the fusion reactor and start screwing with it, causing a disaster. Why, I have no idea. Another mutant, named Steelheart - McCracken's talent for original names manifests itself here - with "the powers of Invulnerability and Super Speed" runs up to the fusion core and fixes it. The werestorm, however, never fades from the place where the fusion core is, and the world of Synnibarr is basically crippled as it takes off. Now, where the werestorm is - what it does, how it affects people, where it was in relation to the ground, how people were able to live with it around - isn't answered. Sloppy thinking? Of the highest variety, yes.
So: Synnibarr's taken over by drakes, the first of which - a paradrake - was discovered by "Lord Midnight and his 72-headed chameleon hydra". His hydra army kills him, rules for 26,000 years until they massacre two million humans, at which point the drakes rebel in the Great Rebellion of the Drakes and fight the hydras for another 24,000 years. Synnibarr arrives at the new homeworld, Shalom, but thanks to an intelligence-reducing plague, nobody gets off. In between the launching of Synnibarr and their arrival, there's two alien invasions, three invasions by Dark Powers, endless wars, vampire lords, Shadow Warriors, pure psionics, numerous catastrophes that destroy civilization and drop humanity's numbers by ludicrous figures, weremen, Aquarians, Biogladites, and me giggling under my breath at how silly the whole thing is. I used to think that Rifts was a mixture of kewl ideas and crappy rules thrown together in a setting that's barely coherent, but Synnibarr proved me wrong - they're both like it, but Synnibarr makes Rifts look like Dark Sun in terms of power level.
And it occurs that I've wasted time describing the setting; of course it doesn't make sense, of course it's a disordered description of a world that doesn't make sense in the first place. The entire thing is a disordered description of a game that doesn't make sense in the first place!
Okay. I'm better now. I continue:
The opening adventure provides insight into McCracken's mind, insofar as insight goes. The GM introduces the adventure by having a bartender literally say "Hey, you guys looking for an adventure? I know of a cave where a paradrake lives. The paradrake is guarding a temple or something. I'm not exactly sure what." This is the kind of thing that you come up when you're twelve and not really used to the idea of role-playing as a form of storytelling; here, it's the model that McCracken uses as a primary example. Even worse, there's a section where the characters leave a flying boat, and the book describes the GM doing this:
"Fate [the GM] then makes a percentile die roll to determine whether the empty ship will be safe or not. The first roll is a 33. This indicates there is only a 33% chance of the boat remaining safe. Fate then rolls again. The resulting roll of 40 indicates that their ship won't be there upon return. How and when the ship is lost is up to Fate."
This is the stupidest thing that I've ever seen done within a role-playing game. Besides removing a potentially useful element from the adventure, it removes control from the GM and puts it into a pair of dice rolls; and they're both entirely random. You could roll a 95% chance of being safe or a 5% chance of being safe, but it doesn't matter, because there's nobody at the switch; just a series of random encounters determined by blind idiot luck. It's like Azathoth designed a role-playing game.
A full 80% of the adventure, incidentally, is combat, and it showcases the hideously deformed combat system of Synnibarr off quite well. This is kind of like poking a week-old corpse and then shining a very intense light on whatever comes crawling out. Worse, it's about eight pages long. By contrast, the example of play in Call of Cthulhu lasts for a single page, showcases the game's mood and mechanics perfectly, and ends on the sort of everybody-gets-killed cliffhanger that makes CoC such fun. Here, it's McCracken's excuse to masturbate while he transcribes the endless fiddly mechanics of combat to paper.
McCracken is, incidentally, addicted to the percentile dice roll, and not in the good Unknown Armies / Call of Cthulhu way; he'll use them for everything. You'll see mroe of this later.
Character creation is about what you'd expect - you roll a 20-sided dice, then reroll the two lowest scores so that they're higher than the lowest score you rolled in the first place. Obviously, character attributes are going to be heavily weighted in the direction of 20, which then leads me to wonder why McCracken didn't just have the players roll 1d10 10. The answer would be, after a weighty pause, "These go to eleven." If you happen to roll five twenties in a row, you're "immortal-born", and gain a new variety of powerful bonuses, including extra protection and a boatload of extra strength. Twinky? Damn straight.
The character class selection. Oh, God, the character class selection. The first method involves rolling a d20 to select three character classes at random, and then checking to see if your character attributes measure up - except that almost all of them demand at least three attributes that are higher than seventeen. The Psielf, for example, demands scores of 18, 19, 19, and 20, which is going to demand some pretty good dice-rolling. The Bio-Syntha Cyborg demands that you roll at least three twenties, which is kind of like creating a class that only the One True King of the Munchkins can access. This is astonishingly stupid, because it basically inverts the usual power balance; rather than giving non-human or non-standard characters substantial penalties to make them on the same level as normal PCs, like the other Fera in Werewolf, or the various arcane character classes in Deadlands, McCracken demands that cyborg characters pass a high standard to simulate the high abilities of cyborgs. In other words, if you want to play somebody special, then it demands pure luck, not any particular skill in dealing with challenges.
Therefore, you're either going to have very high attribute scores and lots of choice, or medium attribute scores and five choices. In short, the idea joins the chain gang of Idiot Synnibarr Ideas shuffling into the darkness. McCracken duplicates a mistake made in the earliest days of role-playing by confusing race with character class - you can be a gnome who's a Ninja, or a gnome who's actually been trained in the Gnome character class.
Keep in mind that this is just as difficult for me to understand as it is to explain. McCracken doesn't split this up into seperate sections, or create a useful flow-chart of exceptions, or do anything but spool out endless gray text broken up with charts and charts and CHARTS AND CHARTS AND THEY'RE EATING MY FUCKING EYES
So the layout could use some work, by which I mean "complete and total revision." For example, take this sentence:
"Once a race and guild are determined, go to 'Assigning Ability Scores'. After completing that section then go to table 1, step 4 and proceed."
The second character generation method, just for an example of the needless, stupid complexity of this system: after you've determined what race you are, determined your natural abilities and bonuses to other abilities - but not skills or abilities from the class that you enter - you check table 9 on the next page for your character bonuses and add them on, make sure that your attributes are good enough to enter the guild that you want to enter. Then you roll for random mutations and psionics, determine spells, special abilities, mutations and so forth, determine attacks per turn, attack segments, advantage and shot bonus, dodge, beam-attack dodge, block, disarm, damage adjustment weight limit payload hindrance running jumping speed ego flux life points con bonus age starting bonus name and aura surprise adjustment reaction adjustment for ego locate traps percentage adjusted by wisdom - and then you throw this piece of shit in the garbage and play something else.
The character classes are, uh, McCrackenesque, for lack of a better word. Alchemists, Psielfs, Golden, Scarlet and Mage Tigers, Flymen, Armored Mantises, Amazons, B.S.Cs, Gnomes and so forth. Every last one of them has some massively twinky hoo-hah to go with it; Alchemists, for example, get a Star Bolt and a Starfire Shield, whereas Gnomes are Pure Practicioners of the Art with earthpower - which means, I think, that they get access to earth spells.
The Amazon, by contrast, gets a healing hand - which becomes resurrection at level ten - can call and banish spirits, have telekinesis, telepath, the ability to feign death, temporarily triple their strength, add on a layer of protection, two extra attacks, and a radar jammer, EMP device, and an extra couse of study that basically gives them another twinky ability, like a breath weapon or a death touch or an energy shield. This is, of course, all at first level. To call it power gaming gives power gaming a bad name. The Bio-Syntha Cyborg are much the same, although you'll be glad to know that at the fortieth level, they get a Midnight Sunstone Bazooka. Trust McCracken to come up with power names that sound like bad seventies bands.
Amusingly enough, the Weremen and Werewomen have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of werewolves; they're artificial creations of the Alchemists who can absorb just about every kind of energy attack under the sun and discharge it later, as well as turning into solid shadow and teleporting. I can literally feel myself getting dumber and dumber as I describe this stuff. I can point out each and every flaw, but there's a point of dimnishing returns, where you realize that the whole thing is just a gigantic mistake.
You know what? I can't even continue writing this review. There are so many elemental mistakes, the kind that come from editing your own work without turning your brain on first, that to list and correct them all is just masochistic. Just about every other person in the industry knows better than to make the mistakes represented here.
Treating Synnibarr as anything else but a doorstop is an exercise in futility; the more energy you put into it, the more you realize just how profoundly poor McCracken is at just about everything involving a role-playing game. He took the worst aspects of every game ever made, especially first and second edition AD&D, and threw them into this game and then turned up the suck meter until it broke off - and then has the nerve to defend it when somebody trashes it in print. In this game, you have to get the square root of some numbers in order to detemrine how far you've been thrown back. You can do a complex series of multiplications to determine how much heavier a giant-size sword is than a normal one. You can have a million life points worth of damage reduced to ten by armor, which in turn has life points of its own.
I'm here to tell you that yes, it is that bad, and no, it's not even good as a comedy. It is the Antichrist of role-playing games, and it wasn't until I gave serious attention to the rules that it began to slowly rape my mind of any idea of what a good RPG is like. Do not buy it as a joke. Do not buy it because of its camp value. Do not buy it because it's the worst role-playing game on the planet, because then you're just reinforcing the work of a profoundly talentless man.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to purify myself with cleansing, searing fire.
May God Have Mercy on My Soul