I spent most of my time at Origins
looking around frantically for Jason Sartin; thanks to a mixup in
communications, we hadn’t gotten around to establishing where we were going to
meet or when. While I was there, however, a thought occurred to me: Since I was
a reviewer, I'd might as well see if anybody wanted a review for their product. Easy enough, right?
It’s been a while since then, and I have to apologize to the various companies
that I got products from for the tardiness of my reviews. (Well, actually,
since my reviews generally top ten thousand words, it’s not surprising. In
order to get these things out on time, I’ve decided that I’m going to cut down
on my wordage and just cover the heights.) In any case, Undiscovered was one of
the first products that I picked up, and it’s the classic example of a fantasy
heartbreaker. I mean, you could find a picture of this thing in the dictionary,
under the heading “Fantasy Heartbreaker.” (And god bless Ron Edwards for coming
up with that wonderful essay of his.)
See, the major problem with Undiscovered isn’t the rules system – which is
amazingly simple and straightforward, involving simple percentage rolls – or
the character creation rules – which, while a little math-heavy, are cleanly
organized and straightforward enough – or the layout, which ranks in my mind as
one of the best, cleanest designs for a book that I’ve ever seen.
Undiscovered’s primary problem lies in the fact
that it’s basically rewritten Dungeons and Dragons. AGAIN.
I just don’t get the impulse to do this.
Actually, I do get the impulse, but then I have
to bite into a sock in order to stifle the impulse to scream until my lungs
burst. Not only are you rewriting a game that’s already got its own market
cornered, you’re also competing with the memetic juggernaut that is d20 AND
you’re doing so with a closed system that has no room for expansion outside of
what the original authors come up with.
As a homebrew system, Undiscovered is great. As
a competitor to Dungeons and Dragons – as a game that’s actually meant to be
sold – it’s dead before it even got started. It’s like trying to compete with
the Playstation by bringing out a game console that costs the same amount of
money, only plays one game – Groond Thooft Oooto IV, with a top-down
perspective and a five-by-five block radius – and is invisible outside of
Origins and the few game stores that picked it up.
system, however, is absolutely great. Let me sum it up, and just marvel at its
simplicity: You roll percentile dice. If it’s under that percentage, you
succeed. If there’s a difficulty involved, then you take a penalty - say -20 -
to your percentile score.
That’s all that there is to it.
as simple as Call of Cthulhu - more so. No binomial equations, no probability
charts, no sliding target numbers based on skill – just roll the dice and see
if it’s under the percentage. Those of you coming up with your own system would
be WELL FUCKING ADVISED to use this as their model, instead of raiding their
calculus texts for a new way of determining probability by the use of a
mathematical model that describes a five-dimensional timecube.
Another thing that Undiscovered deserves
unqualified praise on is the cleanliness and clarity of its design principle.
The character creation system, which could have been a mass of foggy
half-instructions leading into the What-The-Fuck bog, is laid out cleanly
enough that anybody can do it – and, even more helpfully, each section of the
character creation is annotated with an example of the concept in question.
Each spell has its own format, and it’s nowhere near the twisted morass of,
say, Palladium’s formatting, which basically throws italics and bold around like
Palladium’s being sponsored by the Control-I and Control-B industries. As a
matter of fact, if you’re going to be printing your own role-playing game, then
you could do a hell of a lot worse than to hire these guys to do your layout
and editing for you. Come to think of it, I’d strongly recommend it.
races are all pretty standard stuff; besides the old stalwarts like elves,
dwarves and humans, we also get dracomenscs (whose last name sounds
uncomfortably close to menses, a phenomenon with little connection to six-foot
tall humanoid dragons), dusters (humans with faint traces of snake/draconic
ancestry), Seraphs (magic-using neuters whose new members spontaneously
appear), and muklag (yeti / Wookiee types.) All races get some kind of magical
bonus that they can perform - dwarves can cast minor rock magics, elves can
cast a fire bow spell once a day, dusters can transform into snakes and so
forth. It reminds me a little bit of online games like Dark Ages of Camelot,
where you can gain some magical skill appropriate to your class after a certain
Character creation involves either distributing four hundred
points and dice-rolling for some minor adjustments (-5 to +5, depending on a
d10 roll) or simply rolling dice and adding them to your racial minimum and
rolling the +5 to -5 adjustment afterwards. The attributes are nothing to write
home about, although we do get a page-length breakdown for each listing their
various functions and advantages of each of the attributes. I should note that
the entire thing is explained clearly and cleanly, without any extra
gasbagging, and I can praise them very highly for this – and, in fact, I do,
later on in the review.
The skill selection is a little weirder. You
have three different things that you can spend skill points on – power skills,
which are basically combat skills, percentage skills, and skill and attribute
boosters. Power skills essentially allow you to use a larger percentage of an
attribute as a combat score, bought up in stages and moving in stages from
Initiate all the way to Master – it’s a little complicated, but it’s explained
neatly enough that there’s no particular confusion.
Percentage skills are just like any
percentage-based skill, although there is a lot of skill slump – for
example, instead of, say, “Survival”, you get Foraging, Fishing,
Hunting/Tracking and Camp Building all as separate skills. It’s pointlessly
wasteful to do that, and rather sharply annoying to boot. Attribute enhancers
let you spend points in order to gain minor bonuses to various skills, or to
gain more power points or what-not. There’s also a sample character creation
runthrough including, so that you can follow along; and if that’s not enough, then there’s
a bunch of sample characters so you can get an idea of how to put characters
The combat system is where the system starts to
show some stress cracks. In an ugly, ugly throwback to the original D&D,
you have to determine your ability to hit somebody with a DR of 0 – which is a
fancy way of saying “Add up all of your bonuses, then use that as as a
percentage to hit.” As a matter of fact, that’s basically all that you have to
do – determine your attack bonus, subtract your opponent’s defense rating, and
then roll under your new number. The book explains in a rather obtuse and
elliptical style, which is unfortunate considering how simple their system
The magic system works on a point-fuelled basis,
with greater and greater effects occurring depending on your level of expertise
in the magic skill. For some odd reason, schools of magic are called “covens”,
even though that word has absolutely nothing to do with…well, anything to do
with schools of magic; it’s another example of that syndrome you see in
role-playing games where a word that’s vaguely associated with a topic is
grabbed up and then grostesquely mutated to mean something else – witness
Wraith’s dubbing of positive and negative spiritual energy “Pathos” and
“Angst”, for example, or the re-labelling of ten minutes as a “turn” in early
Dungeons and Dragons.
The setting: It’s about as generic as fantasy
can get without actually sporting the little “Made in Taiwan” letters on the
bottom of the various fantasy tropes – cooperation between men, elves and
dwarves, empires rising and falling, the gods all being spawned from some
central being, one of them goes bad, blah blah blah. There’s just a certain
point where you lose your interest in flailing through this stuff; for me, it
came after the first page.
And that’s pretty much the book in a nutshell.
It’s a simple system that’s handicapped by doing very little that’s actually
anything new – it’s Malibu Stacy with a new hat, a Model T with a new paint
job, a fantasy heartbreaker.
Overall, Undiscovered isn’t a bad game. It does a lot of
things right; the real tragedy is that it does so in service of a goal that’s
absolutely pointless. There’s a lot of good design principles at work with
Undiscovered, but the subject matter – along with a refusal to do anything
interesting with it – ultimately cripple the game.