World Tree Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 21/04/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
a very impressive product with a really daunting setting
Product: World Tree
Author: Bard & Victoria Bloom
Company/Publisher: Padwolf Publishing
Line: World Tree
Page count: 318
Year published: 2000
SKU: PAD 1001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 21/04/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Other
This is a really daunting game. It's not that the rules seem complex... the rules look like Ars Magica with a lot of add-ons. It's the setting. The book is 320 pages, soft-cover, with color cover and b/w interior art. There's a lot of text... it's dense. Most pages have no illustrations, just a small bar across the top, separating the chapter description from the text below. So there's a great deal to absorb. But as I say, describing the rules would be relatively simple. The setting, though, is horrendously detailed, and quite unique. There's no way I could cover it in full detail.
Here's the basic cosmology- a long time ago 19 gods (7 creator gods and 12 lesser gods) got together in the void to create a new world for their amusement. They made a giant tree floating in space. The World Tree has a trunk about 200 miles in diameter, and its branches are more than 10,000 miles long. The surface is covered in a bark which other plants (and lesser trees) can live in. The trunk itself is theorized to go on forever... if there are roots somewhere at the bottom, no one but the gods have ever seen them. The civilized races all live in the upper branches. The source of gravity is somewhere below... the sides of the branches and the trunk itself are referred to as the "verticals" because of the dangers involved in navigating them. The sun and moons orbit above the tree, so if you go too many branches down, you won't get any sunlight anymore. If you climb high enough, you can actually see the seven creator gods, who spend most of their time sitting in the sky looking down on the Tree. Once they finished creating the Tree itself, they populated it with creatures. They put the "Primes" (PC races) in the upper branches. They populated the rest of the tree with "lesser" creatures, including monsters created solely to hamper the Primes and amuse the gods. Each god then took responsibility for one area of the magic that keeps the Tree running. The magic system is broken up into Verbs and Nouns (like Ars Magica), which the caster combines to produce certain effects (ie- the verb "Create" combines with the noun "Fire" to make a "Create Fire" spell like "Fire Dart" or "Light the Stove"). The creator gods run the seven Verbs, and the other gods run the Nouns. Magic is nigh omnipresent in the setting- it's one of the things that makes it hardest to get a good handle on. For example, no major city actually defends itself with a wall made of regular stone. Instead, they erect magical barriers, like a flock of skeletal birds that instantly shred any intruders. Cities spend enormous amounts of time and money constructing these, and then argue about maintenance costs (and the risk to locals who stumble into it) until some flying horror from the verticals makes it through the barrier... then they argue about who's going to pay to upgrade the barrier still further.
Metal is almost unknown- in fact, they use a kind of special nut with a metallic core to provide what little metal they do use. And pretty much every Prime knows how to cast a few spells. Every living creature knows the basics of the "common tongue", so if you shout "GO AWAY!" at a small bird using common, it may be more effective than shouting the same thing in a different language. Since common is a pretty crappy language other than the fact that everyone knows it, the Primes have invented their own, more useful tongues, but they still fall back on common when talking to outlanders. They also use some new pronouns... "zie" means someone whose gender is unknown, or something other than male/female. "Zir" is the possessive format, and sexless creatures are referred to as "it". The book itself uses zie a lot, since one of the player species (the Zi Ri) are all hermaphrodites.
The Prime races are also pretty varied and complex. Different gods made each one, and they were often designed with very specific ideals in mind.
The Cani are humanoid dog people, and are very social. They are driven by their need for social interaction, and are extremely loyal to companions. They build families by group marriage, and there's a difference between your spouse(s) and your mate(s). They even have a couple of emotions that don't have a direct human equivalent, but are triggered by the ritual of "choofing", which is used to settle disagreements about "affan" (your social status in the given situation, compared to other cani). A cute bit is how the Cani nobility place a lot of emphasis on being "purebred" (like a dog show would). They even have a spell ("Purebreed Puppy") to ensure that a mix-breed mongrel child is born with he correct appearance. The Gormoror are bear people, and obsessed with personal honor. They can actually look at each other and tell whether or not that particular Gormoror has ever broken his sacred word and whether he is still atoning for it or not. The Herethoi are insect people and associated with nature and farming. They have four genders and are almost always calm and placid. The Khtsoyis are relatively dumb (even the smart ones play stupid) floating octopus people with seven tentacles and five eyes. They have few internal organs and actually cannot heal without magical aid. Luckily they were also granted some healing magic to keep themselves going. They are generally vicious thugs, and like being that way. Orren are otter-folk, with short attention spans and a tendency to go into an adrenalin surge during combat. They have some minor shape-shifting powers, and can basically turn into a more aquatically-suited version of themselves whenever they get wet. Rassimel are racoon-people, and are known for each being obsessed with a particular subject. Their main innate ability is the fact that they learn faster than the other species. But since they are all so eccentric, they aren't really suitable for rulership. Sleeth are a non-humanoid race, like intelligent, telekinetic panthers. Their lack of hands (the TK helps make up for it) and their animalistic manner makes them distrusted by the other races. Cruelty to one's enemies is considered a virtue by Sleeth... another thing that makes them unpopular. Zi Ri are hermaphroditic miniature dragons, and have the strongest innate magic and the weakest physical stats of any of the races. They are immortal, and some of the most powerful NPCs in the setting are Zi Ri mages who were around back when the gods were still making the various Prime races.
Those the "Prime" races, which it is assumed that all of the PCs will be. There are also non-Prime intelligent races... created by the gods as enemies of the Primes, allies, or maybe just local color. The Primes are the personal favorites of the gods and most of the races (Prime and non-Prime) realize it. Some of the non-Prime races care about this... there are some that believe that they can win Prime status... or be reincarnated as Primes... and other races just don't care at all. Some of the non-Primes (particularly those created to keep the Primes on their toes) are pretty darn powerful, so Primes who assume that they are inherently superior to non-Primes probably won't live long.
There are 19 gods on the World Tree (well, sometimes other gods crash the party from other realities, but they rarely stay long). The areas of magical influence of the 7 creator gods translate to Creation, Control, Healing, Destruction, Change, Sustaining, and Understanding. The "noun" gods are Flesh, Plants, Fire, Air, Water, Metal & Stone, Images, Places, Magic, Mind, Spirits and Time. Spells draw upon combinations of the Verb and Noun deities, and characters can have a different skill rating in each. Many races get innate bonuses in certain areas, but all Primes can at least theoretically learn spells involving all 19 areas. Non-Primes are more limited.
The gods are a varied lot and very inhuman. They range from the benign nature goddess Kvarse to the irascible fire god Flokin to the lazy god of water, Merklundum Harnipsundum the Dog Who Killed a Fish. Amusingly, the only miracle ever attributed to Merklundum Harnipsundum the Dog Who Killed a Fish was when the mage Shaliun wrote the first book on magic and tried to abbreviate his name to Merklundum. The deity appeared, insisted that she write out his name completely, and has never been known to actually bestir himself to do anything since. A particularly active god is Birkozon (god of minds) whose tremendous ego was satiated by giving him absolute dominion over the mortal city of Birknazza but forbidding him to use his powers elsewhere on the tree. As the book puts it, "Birknazza is a big floating city, twenty thousand primes and twice that many nonprimes, living together in peace and harmony whether they want to or not." The locals don't have much free will, and outsiders don't like to enter the city for fear that Birkozon might rewrite their personalities "to make them better". There are no stats for the gods. They are classic deities, practically omnipotent in their area of expertise, and pretty darn powerful in any other areas, too. Mortals might impress them, or occasionally outsmart them, but they are too powerful to directly oppose. Luckily, they consider the world entertainment, and most rarely intervene directly.
Chapter 3 covers the adventuring life, and has a lot of suggestions for the kind of adventures character might have, reasons why various people go on adventures, and some discussion of common issues like picking a leader, sharing spells, and deciding whether to kill or release defeated foes. The locals use amber coins for currency... it's actually not that difficult to counterfeit them with an appropriate creation spell, but the penalties are quite harsh to discourage people from trying. For the most part, mages capable of making perfect copies of real coins can generally earn plenty of money with honest work, so counterfeiting is fairly rare. There's a long discussion about what sort of things are considered valuable... metal of almost any sort is darn rare on the World Tree, and often has to be created magically. A lot of things that wouldn't naturally appear on a tree are supplied by small plants that grow on the Tree's bark. The gods created those species deliberately to provide these things.
Chapter 4 is an overview of prime civilization... it discusses their history (including the order in which the races were created, since the gods weren't trying to be secretive about it). The hands of the gods are present quite regularly in the old days... when the city of Inihithre kicked most of the Khtsoyis out for inventing alcohol, Accanax (god of destruction and the principle creator of the Khtsoyis race) was furious and invented several new species of monster to bedevil the primes. Science is really kind of awkward on the World Tree. One of the first things to figure out when studying a new species is which god created it and why. This will give you a lot of insight into how it works and why. Since the gods don't answer questions lightly (or necessarily truthfully), there's a lot of academic debate about various issues. This chapter goes into a fair bit of detail about what sort of sciences and technologies exist and which ones don't. Most of physics is simply missing; lightning is a violent form of air magic, magnetism doesn't exist except in a few random cases, and chemistry is too unpredictable to be really useful. They know that souls exist, and they know how the soul, body and mind are tied together. Resurrection is theoretically possible, but practically never worth the effort since you usually have to find the body where the soul reincarnated and put it back in the old one. Their technology is almost all magically based, and very sporadic. Where they really care, they have access to fabulous magical devices of amazing power... but even then they can't really mass-produce them because mages powerful enough to make them are rare. Primes aren't terribly religious... most gods clearly don't really expect much worship from the primes, so people only get really "religious" when they want special favors.
There is lots and lots and lots of flavor text in World Tree. Many sections start off with small quotes, and others have little slice-of-life commentary on the current subject. It's all in italics, which makes it easy to pick out. Many of the little anecdotes are pretty cute, and they provide good examples of in-character speech patterns for the various races and such. When someone mentions a standard spell, it tends to be underlined so that you know that you can look it up in the spell section.
Chapter 5 is the timeline. Followed by descriptions of modern cities and cultures. They go into extensive detail about the city of Treverre, which is typical of modern cities on the branches.
Chapter 6 finally starts discussing actual rules. How to roll dice. The difference between Stress rolls and simple rolls (on a Stress roll it's open-ended- if you roll max, roll again and add it to the old roll; if you rolled minimum, you get to roll some Botch dice to see if you really mess up or just fail). The initiative system is odd and seems kind of out of place. Everyone draws a card from a standard playing card deck and the GM counts up from Ace, 2, 3, up to King. People act when their card comes up... but the screwy bit is that when you DO act, you also draw a new card to see when you act next. So if your opponent drew an 8 and you drew an Ace, you'd act on the first initiative, then draw again. If you drew a card from 2 to 7 for your new action, you'd actually act again before your opponent did. You could theoretically draw an Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 (in that order) to get 7 turns before your opponent got to go once. Yeah, the odds are tremendously against it, but I'll bet this system produces some odd situations at times. Characters can't really be inherently faster or slower than other characters except for a few spells that let you draw multiple initiative cards. Combat has a few cute rules... for example, a warrior with a Combat Stance Base of 3 could choose to modify his rolls by a value from -3 to plus3... the tricky bit is that your stance adds to your attack rolls and subtracts from your defense rolls, so you have to sacrifice either attack or defense to get bonuses on the other.
Magic is kind of complicated. I'm just going to summarize it a bit. It looks very flexible and potentially very powerful. You have 19 main skills, one for each noun or verb. Spells are rated in both Complexity (how tricky it is to get the spell to work right) and Power (how much force there is behind it). So a skilled caster might not just be better at casting a spell, his castings may be more potent, too. A spell always has to use at least one noun and one verb. If you end up having to use multiple ones, you use the worst rating of the lot. So if you cast a spell to turn a tree nut into a leather glove (which would use Transform, Plant and Flesh magic), you'd roll your Mutoc (transformation) rating and either your Herbador (Plant) or Corpador (Flesh) rating, whichever was worse. There are also a number of "styles" of magic. Pattern magic involves memorized rote spells which usually cost 1 cley per casting. Spontaneous magic involves making up a spell on the spot which doubles the effective complexity of the spell and costs d3 cley, but lets you cast just about any spell, not just the ones that you have memorized. Spontaneous spells are very unpredictable, and may go off tremendously well or be horribly botched. Bound magic involves spells that wait until they are triggered before they go off. Bound magic can do stuff like putting a "Heal the Awful Wound" spell on someone, to be triggered whenever they first get grievously injured. When you cast a spell, you'll be rolling a stat (usually Wits or Memory), plus the magic skills involved in the spell, plus extra if you burned more than one cley, plus a d20... vs the complexity of the spell you're trying to pull off. Cley is the term the locals use for magic points. At dawn every morning, everyone's Cley rating changes to Faith plus Cley Base plus 1d6, regardless of whether they had spent all of their Cley the day before or not. Yes, some days you'll have more Cley available than others. Magic is very unpredictable.
Chapter 7 goes into detail about actually creating a character (about time, eh?). Your starting stats will depend on your species, then you apply adjustments to them all in whatever order you like. The adjustments are plus3, plus2, plus1, plus1, 0, 0, 0, -1 and -1, so PCs tend to be better than typical members of their species. They also let you "gamble" and roll on a chart once per stat, and see whether it goes further up or down. The chart is usually worth it (there are more good results than bad ones), but unlucky players may mess themselves up. You can also adjust your final stats by hand a bit, by spending character points on them. The stats are Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Perception, Faith, Memory, Wits, Will and Charisma. There are also Advantages and Disadvantages available. These range from typical things like Colorblind (-2) to Strong Personal Scent (-2) to esoteric things like Major Curse (-10) or Zero Magic Resistance (-20). There are also cute things like Needs Kathia Each Morning (-1, Kathia is basically the local equivalent of coffee) or Shifter Hybrid (plus7). A Hybrid is someone whose parents were of different species and used very powerful magic to conceive a kid anyway. A Shifter Hybrid can change shapes from the form of either parent species (and gets to use all of their advantages in that form), but a lot of people consider hybrids unnatural and disgusting, including some of the gods... There are also race-specific advantages and disadvantages, too. The authors are clearly familiar with the foibles of an advantage/disadvantage system. Many disadvantages (like being unnaturally bad at a specific skill) specifically mention that you should only take that disadvantage for skills that are actually important to your character and which you will be using a lot. It shouldn't be taken for things that your character just won't do. There are also a load of magic-oriented advantages and disadvantages, like Cley Vessel (-10, other people can steal cley from you just by touching you), Daily Backfire (-2, your magic has a 1/3 chance of backfiring once per day... once you finally have the backfire, you're fine until tomorrow) or Cley Overlap (-2, you get your cley for the new day one minute before your old cley vanishes, causing you to become supercharged with cley for a brief period, which tends to not be a good thing unless you really need a superpowerful spell cast right then). A cute advantage is Invented Spells (plus1) which means that one of your spells is your personal invention and you can theoretically trade it with other mages. Spells are also purchased as advantages. For 1 point, you can get 12 complexity 5 spells (really minor utility magics), 4 complexity 10 spells, or one complexity 15 spell. Higher level spells cost more. A complexity 40 spell costs 12 points; as the description says, "This is impressive, especially if you can cast it."
There are a lot of skills, including some specificially oriented around magic. For instance, Feather Casting lets you cast spells at reduced power and Hammer Casting lets you boost the power of a spell by spending extra cley.
Chapter 9 goes into detail about combat in the World Tree. Interestingly, since all of the creatures on the World Tree were magically constructed, they're harder to kill than creatures living under a less forgiving set of physical laws. An arrow through the eye may blind and hamper a warrior, but you wouldn't expect it to kill him outright. Breaking the connection between his soul and his body requires some serious hacking. Characters can learn various "combat options", like pulling a punch, varying their combat stance, or armor-breaking attacks. There are also a surprising number of special maneuvers available. I mean, they have rules for the Silence Grapple, where the attacker tries to get a hand over the defender's mouth to hold it shut and muffle their cries. The combat system really has a lot of options and special rules. There's even a section on natural aging effects... there are even 6 different "causes" of natural death, ranging from your Spirit yearning to return to its deity to mental breakdown. Only the Zi Ri are naturally immortal, but any really good sorcerer can magically extend their lifespan.
Chapter 10 is the detailed discussion of magic in the setting. It covers all of the fundamental rules. Chapter 11 has the example spells. I've discussed a lot of the stuff out of the magic section already, so I'll just offer a few quick examples. People can transfer cley from one to another. This requires an intimate kiss and hug (the gods apparently find this humorous) and takes about a minute. It costs the giver 4 cley and transfers d3 of it to the recipient. Adventurers are often reluctant to do it, especially with other adventurers of the same gender and/or different species. Breath of Sweet Flowers is an example Creoc Airador 5 spell (create air, very simple to cast). It fills the area with a mild, pleasant odor and lasts for Power/5 hours. Hurling the Lightning is Creoc Airador 30 and does Power/5plus1d6 damage to the target. But since Flokin (god of Fire) is a fairly violent fellow, there's a Creoc Pyrador spell that does pretty much the same damage but is only complexity 5. The opinions of the gods have a huge effect on what sort of spells are possible and how complex they will be to cast. There are a LOT of spells. There are examples for every combination of the 12 nouns and 7 verbs. There are some rather odd ones, like "Change the Awful Sentence" (transform time, complexity 25) which lets the caster take back the sentence he just spoke and say something else instead. A lot of magic in the setting is more utilitarian... the sort of spells that would be invented to aid day to day life, not fight monsters. There are also some example ritual magic spells, which involve very long casting times and often hideously difficult complexity ratings that can only be pulled off by an elaborate casting ritual. For example, there's the thoroughly banned "Paw of the Fire God", which blasts an entire city and everyone in it with a huge fireball. Cities that suspect they are being targetted will generally try to kill anyone who might be capable of casting it on them. The ritual costs 24 cley, takes 16 hours, costs 8000 lozens (a high value coin), and takes a week's preparation. The caster must also set up an elaborate mock city in imitation of the target, populated by rats dressed in doll's clothes... and then (of course) burn the whole thing.
Chapter 12 actually lists out the advantages and disadvantages, but since they're used in character creation I've already covered them.
Chapter 13 describes native plants and creatures. There are a bunch of intelligent non-prime species, many of whom can get along just fine with primes if allowed to. The lizard-like Akkamagga, for example, are considered almost-primes and live peacefully with everyone else in the more tolerant parts of the World Tree. In other areas, they are classified as "monsters" so that primes can freely kill and loot them without legal problems. There's also a section on monsters; the only real difference between them and the civilized non-primes is that the monsters are usually too dangerous to try and talk to. Bonstables, for example, are charismatic shapeshifters who are immediately killed by primes if they are identified as Bonstables. This is because they are capable of such incredible self-delusion and selfishness combined with incredible charm and ambition that they will quite quickly take control of any area and then lead it to destruction without ever really meaning to. Amusingly, the authors describe what sort of adventurer group it would take to fight each monster. Helletumugs (a rather powerful spell-casting plant creature) are rated at fifteen warriors including five healers. There are a wide variety of creatures here, some of which are very odd. The gods are an unpredictable lot, and the creatures that they create don't always have to make much sense. For example, one monster was apparently created shortly after primes discovered the art of spell-binding; it has the power to dispel bound spells with a glance. There are also a variety of divine servants, who are alternately referred to as angels, elementals or demons, generally based on their temperment. Locador Demons (demons of location magic) are one of the nastiest ones, since escaping from them is basically impossible; wherever the demon wants to be, it is. There are even descriptions of two "interloper gods" from other realities. They're basically party crashers. Snadza is relatively benign, and has its own cult of worshippers, but the last time the Vospoleth manifested on the World Tree, Flokin slew it four hundred and eighty times and then evicted it from their reality. It'll probably be back someday; the Vospoleth isn't likely to take the hint.
Chapter 14 gives advice to gamemasters, in particular on how to run the World Tree's eclectic setting. This has the common advice (dealing with grief players, allowing skill substitutions when reasonable, making starting PCs better or worse, handling poorly chosen disadvantages) and some system-specific advice, like watching for people who abuse the bound-spell system. For example, it's important to remember that bound healing spells are not as good as spontaneously cast ones. The benefit from most healing spells depends on the caster's Medicine skill, and a bound spell's Medicine skill is always zero. So a mage who can see exactly where you are hurt and cast his spell on that particular wound will get better results than a bound spell that just heals you automatically whenever you suffer a potentially fatal wound. The authors are pretty good about cross-referencing stuff, so when the GM's section discusses ways to get extra actions during combat or the unreliability of Kennoc (knowledge) spells, it lists the page number to refer to for more detailed information. I like that, and I haven't found any that point to the wrong page. Very nice. The advice seems well thought ought, and makes references to events in the author's own campaign(s). This section also lists 10 possible locations to set campaigns around, ranging from a repressive city to an area where trees whose nuts contain copper have just been discovered, leading to a huge "copper rush" (metal is very hard to find on the World Tree, giving it immense value). I also like the "Order of the Tholos", a secretive magical academy founded by mages who were interested in developing spells that most primes considered obscene or unnatural. They'd been kicked out of all the regular magical academies, so they founded their own, but they have to keep it secret.
After that we have the appendices, which include a character creation worksheet, the actual character sheet, a list of common enchanted items. As you would expect, some of these are very odd and creative, like the Whisper Veil, which mutes any sound that travels through it. Thieves use it to cover their hands while they are doing noisy things, or to prevent the sound of their footsteps from being heard in a particular direction. Another appendix lists some of the more popular spells for adventurers, and describes what sort of spells work well bound, and which ones don't. It also lists prices for purchasing typical bound spells. There's also a reference sheet which summarizes a lot of the basic rules, like penalties for being badly injured and the basic rules for combat and spellcasting. Almost every skill test in World Tree is Stat plus Skill plus d20 vs difficulty. After that, there's a general Index, an Index for Advantages and Disadvantages, and a separate index for all of the Spells. This actually works pretty well, since if you are looking for the game effects of a particular spell or advantage, you don't have to flip through the general index. It also keeps the general index from becoming unreadably huge... the general index is only 2 pages long, but the spell index is 4 pages long and includes the nouns, verbs, and complexity of each spell listed, as well as the page number to find it on. Definite kudos from me for that.
Overall, World Tree is a very impressive product. The art is very nice and while not on the level of WotC it's very good at depicting the World Tree setting. I particularly like the full-page sketch of a Cani family trying to have a nice, urbane family picnic at the same lake as a family of rambunctious Orrens. I haven't discussed half of the setting details. Some of the races actually have emotions that don't have a strict human equivalent, like the Cani tendency to loyally obey whoever seems like the most expert person on the current subject matter, regardless of their actual rank or station. There are little oddities like the things that live in the sky over the tree which occasionally move stars around for no obvious purpose. There are all sorts of plants with magical effects, or whose seeds or nuts provide materials not normally found on the World Tree (like metal). There's a disease that only affects non-primes and makes their bones grow long and soft and flexible. There's a discussion on how magic works on other worlds, and ways in which extraplanar mages might be more powerful or less than World Tree mages in various situations. Every time I skim through it, I find something else interesting that I'd missed. This is both impressive and daunting. The setting is fascinating and very detailed... but learning it well enough to play a character in it would probably take quite a while and several re-readings of the book. But if you're willing to invest the effort, this could be a really impressive campaign setting with an enormous amount of potential. I'd be tempted to give it Substance 6 and Style 4, but since the scale only goes to 5 I'm gonna call it 5/5. It's taken me months to finally finish this overview (I kept getting distracted by other projects) but it was something I was determined to do because I think this game deserves the attention.
The company's website is www.world-tree-rpg.com.