Well, I've finally braced myself against what I know to be on the way if this review ever gets published. You're all gonna hate me. Not that that fact makes me lose sleep, but I hate to have my non-name tarnished right off the bat by people with minds already made up about my subject material.
What subject material? The World of Synnibarr. Yeah, that game you thought you had heard the last of, just keeps coming back. Sometimes for humor value, oft times for malicious reasons. But I'd just like to write about my experiences.
I'll not truly be defending the game, but neither will I be defaming it...exactly. I suppose a sort of introduction is in order. I've been playing RPGs for a good portion of my 28 years. White Wolf games when they became popular when I was in High School, AD&D very briefly for a campaign or two, Rifts, Palladium, TMNT, TFOS, Paranoia, GURPS. I drifted all over the RPG spectrum, and still do. But the game that started it all, (and I know not a single person who reads this would ever admit to it), was Synnibarr.
I probably got into roleplaying games later than you did, and didn't much care for AD&D. I found the books almost unreadable, probably in the same way that a previous reviewer found Synnibarr unreadable. It was dry. The rules were hard to understand. There was no setting to read about, and it didn't lend itself well to 'historical' gaming either. (Again remember, I was 15 at the time, and my knowledge of systems and settings was undeveloped, mostly consisting of playing Ultima 4, and Alternate Reality on my computer.) For the record, I *still* find the 3rd Edition DMG dry, and very hard to read unless I'm looking for something specific.
Which is not to say I was clueless to the actual Role Play aspect of RPGs. I've always enjoyed roleplaying. Making a character and trying to get intside their head. Think how they'd think, see things as they would, and try to keep my real life experiences out of it. However, I've never been able to view it as some sort of religious experience, as I've been led to believe it is from reading countless 'what is roleplaying' intros in countless RPG books. It's fun. That's what attracted me to RPGs in the first place. Fun.
I have seen, however, in the years I have been gaming, a distinct schism form in the ranks of my fellow RP'ers. Those who like to have impromptu theatre sessions, and run very fast and loose with the rules, and those who love the rules almost more than actually playing the game. Many of the latter types have fled P&P RPGs entirely, seeking instead the solace of MMORPGs, and MUDs, with the occasional D&D session or two. So, over the years in my mind I have begun to categorize players of RPGs by where they fall between those two extremes, Gamers, and Role Players.
Gamers tend toward Munchkinism, Min/Maxing, and Rules Lawyering. Wishing for a consistent system, that allows them to play a game, with the almighty god of Randomness as the final adjudicator between your character, and the GM whose motives are unknown and unknowable, and potentially lethal. They enjoy having concrete goals lain out before them that they can work to achieve. While following a plot, and enjoying the setting can be somewhat secondary. Believe it or not RP-ers, these people are human, just as you are, and in fact, many of them have simply never mustered up the courage to actually Role Play. It can be embarrassing to be the first one in your troupe of friends to actually get 'into character' when no one else is.
Role Players tend to ignore rules, or fudge things to progress the story. They play in a more or less cooperative manner, each adding his or her own touches to the overarching story lain forth by the GM, who is alternately friend and foe, but most of all neither. Wishing to see their Grand Vision come to fruition, to the mutual benefit of All. This is not to say that the rules have no place or part in their gaming, but Randomness is no longer the impartial, absolute arbiter that it used to be. However, it should be noted that Role Playing can be done in any game system, in any setting, where Gaming needs a strong set of rules to guarantee impartiality. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with either way of playing. They are both fun. This game, however, is made to appeal to Gamers, PowerGamers to be specific.
Now, with that said, let me introduce the star of the review. Synnibarr is a thick book. Well over 500 pages, and nary a one wasted. It is neither an abomination, nor the 'best game ever written' (though, *I* happen to think it's the best coloring book ever written...) It is a game. Nothing more, nothing less, and like any RPG, you get out what you put in.
The setting is...Well, it's mostly a travesty. Forget standard D&D cliches, this game apparently wants no part of any of that. In a nutshell, the Earth was on a collision course with the Sun, a god happened to stop by, took pity on the Earth, and hollowed out Mars to use as a rather strange ship to get humanity to a safer place. Stuff happens on the long trip to wherever they are now, and McCracken seems to enjoy killing off millions or billions of people at a time along the way. That's about all you really need to know about the setting. The rest can be picked up, or better yet, made up as you go along. In fact, I liked the lack of actual setting details from a GM perspective. I was able to make up just about any sort of setting I felt like, much like most people do with D&D, only I didn't have to come up with a world from scratch. The outline was there, and that's all we really needed, we filled in the empty spaces with our imagination.
Now, to get to the part everyone loves to hate, the Rules. I did not find them as obtuse as a prior reviewer seemed to, and I liked the fact that there was a rule for virtually any situation. As a GM (which I am more than I'm not), I like to be able to point to a rule rather than simply use the somewhat fascist 'GM fiat'. Rules are consistent, and impartial, just like dice.
This sheer volume of rules makes it ideal for one thing, powergaming. Forget trying to remember every rule. You won't do it, at least not before your first session. Figure out movement, and combat, neither of which is very hard, and you should find that the rest you absorb as you play.
Character creation is unique, anyone would have to admit. In the first edition there was only the Guild Trained Classes, and they were actually very well balanced against each other, with no one being significantly more powerful than another. When the second edition came out (the book most people are familiar with), it added a toiletfull of alternate ways to create the abomination that you desired. You detect a hint of distaste in my tone, you say? Believe me, it's more than a hint.
Between taking races that used to be just monsters in the first book and making them PC-able (if not 'playable'). Letting you take Giants, Gnomes, Elves, and Aquarians, which are all Classes normally, (yes, like 1st Edition D&D where Dwarf and Elf were classes), and add alternate classes to them, (giving you a giant with spellcasting abilities for instance), and the ultimate monstrosity that can come out of an artfully min/maxed Nonclassed Character. Well, the results were unbalancing to say the very least. In fact, once when we truly put our collective min/max minds to it, we came up with a way for a mid-level character to do more damage with a kick than a Bi'Reel Planet Smasher bomb!
Now, after that paragraph you are probably asking yourself why in the seven hells I continued to play this game, and for the record, that revelation pretty much ground my interest in the game to a halt for a good long time. However, the Classes were still fun to play, and I have no qualms about restricting my players to just those.
I have not the space, nor the inclination to go on about every rule, but the fact that the game includes an equation for determining exhalation force should tell you about all you need to know. I will simply point out the ones we simply threw out after a session or two.
The first to go was the rule that stipulates that Fate (that's Synnibarrese for GM) MUST write all adventure notes down, and then show them to the troupe at the end of the session. If he deviated from the notes, the players get more Gaming Points (Synnibarrese for experience points). Since this was my first RPG ever, and I was to be the one Fating it, I was in for a rude awakening when my pages of notes were suddenly made useless by a player doing the exact last thing I had anticipated, in the first 10 minutes of play. I quickly realized that the rule had to go, unless I was willing to lead my PCs around by the nose a-la CRPGs all the time.
Amplifying powers has been broken since the first book, and the second is no better. Pooling power, while it looks good on paper, can lead to abuses at high levels that are truly mind-boggling. And as for Immortal Born characters... Well, I've had to deal with two in my Synnibarr playing career, and I remain clueless to this day as to the twisted thought process that made McCracken think that they were a good idea. All I'll say is that they are indeed immortal, killing them just stops them for a week or two, and they get to dual-class at first level, rather than at 50th level. Yeah. Great idea. Make an already heavily munchkined character into a DOUBLEY munchkined character... Well, you win some, you lose the rest.
So, why do I like this game? Because it's easy to get people who have never played a P&P RPG into it. It has a rule for nearly everything, and the setting has never gotten in my way. The classes are hardly typical Fantasy fare, and unlike D&D and its ilk, a GM doesn't have to walk on eggshells for the first 3 levels hoping your PCs don't all die before they actually get to have fun, such as a random kobold encounter gone awry that shall remain nameless.
As I said before, Role Playing is something that can be done at any time, in any game system. The trick is showing the timid ones that it can be fun to ham it up sometimes, and not just sit around waiting to roll dice, or grunt out a monosyllable in response to an NPC. Those of you who are dyed-in-the-wool RP-ers, go out and join a Synnibarr game! Inspire some newbs to play like you do. Heck, inspire some dyed-in-the-wool powergamers to play like you do! Get over your lofty Thespian stylings, and get down and dirty again like you did when you were twelve, and have some fun!