Thursday, January 15, 2009

REVIEW: Wayfarers

I hate the term "fantasy heartbreaker," not so much for its original purpose -- though I do have serious issues with it even in that form -- but for the way it's become shorthand in some quarters for simply dismissing a fantasy game without the need for rational discussion of its merits or flaws. Like "nerd rage," it's used as a substitute for both thought and empathy and I loathe it. That's why, when I was asked by Jimmy Swill of Ye Olde Gaming Companye (YOGC) to read its new fantasy roleplaying game, Wayfarers, I agreed to do so. Though I already have D&D in various forms for my gaming needs, that doesn't mean I can't potentially learn a thing or two from other RPGs, particularly ones that explicitly tout their "old-school feel."

Physically, Wayfarers is an impressive tome, particularly when you consider that it's not the product of a big gaming company but rather "a group of RPG enthusiasts that have been gaming in one form or another for nearly 30 years," as explained on the website of YOGC. At 436 pages in length, it's also somewhat intimidating. Of course, one must consider that the book includes everything needed to play in a single volume, including nearly 100 pages of information on the game's setting, Twylos. It's thus a truly complete game, which I appreciate, particularly in this age of interminable supplements.

Wayfarers uses a clean two-column layout. It's not beautiful but it's very serviceable, which is important since the text density is quite high. I sometimes found myself wishing YOGC had used a serifed font, because, in some places, the text is harder to read than I'd have liked, but that probably says more about my failing eyesight than it does about the book itself. For the most part, the text is easy to understand, being written in a straightforward, almost academic fashion. It's also well edited and proofread -- rarities even in professional products! Wayfarers is filled with artwork, a lot of it reminiscent of the kind of art we saw during the Golden Age of D&D, though there are some notable exceptions, including the cover art by Leo Lingas, which recalls the Silver and Bronze Ages of the game. All in all, it's a very impressive package and serves as a reminder of how much technology has advanced since 1974.

Wayfarers isn't Dungeons & Dragons, but it's clearly derived from D&D, as attested to by its use of the Open Game License. Even without that clue, its lineage is obvious. Though many things are renamed or altered and there are no character classes or levels, Wayfarers is quite obviously a descendant of D&D. Indeed, the game feels very much like an example of the time-honored genre of "D&D done right." Beginning with Arduin in 1977 and RuneQuest in 1978, there have long been games that seek to "correct" the perceived flaws of D&D. The best of them manage to transcend this origin and become solid games in their own right. In my opinion, RuneQuest achieve such an apotheosis, while Arduin never really managed it. Not having had the opportunity to play Wayfarers, it's hard to tell whether it is more like RuneQuest or Arduin in this regard.

How does Wayfarers differ from D&D mechanically? As noted, it's class-less, relying instead on two types of skills -- proficiencies and disciplines -- to handle most character abilities. Proficiencies are tied to character attributes (Agility, Endurance, Intellect, Presence, and Strength -- no Wisdom equivalent, as you can see) and are most like what gamers think of when they hear the word "skills." Disciplines, on the other hand, are very much like the feats of 3e. Indeed, many disciplines are in fact 3e feats renamed or slightly altered. Characters don't gain experience points through play but rather skill points, which are awarded by the Game Master based on how well the characters achieve their goals and also how well they are played, which shows that it's a game more in tune with later conceptions of what an RPG is. Once characters acquire enough skill points, they reach a new "skill level" that grants additional points they can then use to improve their existing proficiencies or disciplines or buy new ones. They also gain additional health points as their skill level increases. If this sounds a bit confusing, it is. I think it would have been far easier to have simply called skill points experience points and skill level experience level. This is a case where the game's penchant for renaming trips it up needlessly.

There are no halflings in Wayfarers, but its other races are all familiar, including full-blooded orcs. Racial abilities are all balanced against one another, which is consistent with the game's overall point-buy philosophy. In this respect, Wayfarers is more like Third Edition than any other edition of D&D. There's fortunately no need for prestige classes, since any ability is potentially learnable by any character if a player is willing to spend the requisite skill points necessary to do so. This includes magic, which is broken up into hermetic, hedge, faith, and ritual types, each with extensive spell lists, divided into "circles" that gauge their relative power and complexity. Both hermetic and hedge magic function similarly to D&D's "Vancian" system, while faith magic is more like 3e's sorcery and ritual magic a hybrid of the two approaches.

Combat is similar in broad outline to D&D, using a dodge score as a target number rather than armor class, since armor is ablative (although randomly so). Characters begin the game with more health points than a typical D&D character has hit points, but gain additional health points at a slower rate, so combat is likely less deadly at low levels but moreso at high ones. Interestingly, the game explicitly notes that characters can and will die and that death ought to be accepted as part of the game, even calling it "essential." I have to admit that, having read that, I was much more well-disposed toward Wayfarers than I had been previously.

As I said, Wayfarers is complete. It includes extensive information of monsters, magic items (and how to make them), along with plenty of advice and suggestions for the Game Master. The game's default setting of Twylos is detailed extensively -- a bit too extensively for my tastes. On the plus side, the details feel "lived in," which is to say, they're the kinds of things one might expect to find in a campaign world that's been used over the course of many years (as Twylos apparently was). There's little evidence of auctorial indulgence so much as a genuine enthusiasm for a campaign setting that was the site of many cool adventures in the past. The Twylos section of Wayfarers comes across as much more vibrant and "alive" than the rest of the book, which is a pity, because it's the section that was of least interest to me personally -- not because it was poorly written but because it represents a Silver Age approach to setting design that's rather alien to my mindset nowadays.

Indeed, Wayfarers comes across as a latter day product of the Silver Age. Its mechanics are very much concerned with "improving" upon the basic D&D template, by providing greater detail and flexibility, but the basic template is still that of the Golden Age. And Twylos, for all its detail, is utterly lacking in the grand plots and uber-NPCs I associate with the Bronze Age. Sandbox play is still possible and, while I wouldn't call the game pulp fantasy by any means, it's much more amenable to that style than were most products of the Bronze and Dark Ages of D&D.

I'd not be surprised to learn that the creators of Wayfarers entered the hobby sometime after about 1983 and played D&D a lot in the years between 1985 and 1989. Wayfarers reads like a well-written, edited, and illustrated collection of house rules for someone's awesome Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons rules variant. I think that's terrific, but it's definitely not for me. That's not a knock against the game by any stretch. I actually think there's a lot to commend in Wayfarers, particularly if the Silver Age is your personal Golden Age of gaming.

There's a gloriously "professional amateur" quality to this game that I think speaks well of it and its creators. Though well presented, it isn't a soulless installment in a trademarked corporate brand; it's an idiosyncratic product of years of play by some guys whose tastes in fantasy roleplaying are just a bit to the left of my own. Does that mean it's not old school? That only matters if you want to align your gaming 100% to my own tastes and, honestly, why would you want to do that? As I said, there are many things in Wayfarers that I wouldn't do in my own games, but that's no crime. Rather, I find the willingness to do things differently because it works for the authors to be quite refreshing. And I admire their chutzpah in putting the fruits of their labors out there for an opinionated curmudgeon like me to review. That right there is what makes this hobby such a wonderful thing and they get extra points in my book just for that.

Final Score: 3½* out of 5 polearms

*If I was a Silver Age kind of guy, I'd easily give it a 4, so take that as you will.

4 comments:

  1. The ironic part of "Come play in our richly detailed fantasy setting, fleshed out through decades of play", is that it explicitly denies you the thing that was so fun about playing in that setting in the first place: participating in the expansion and detailing of the setting.

    Wayfarers is hardly the only game to make this mistake, these days it is almost too common to be remarked upon.

    The game that is still my highwater mark for appropriate presentation of setting is Riddle of Steel. A continent full of varied countries, covering the standard fantasy tropes, each getting about a page of color with a few conflicts and hooks called out for future development. Just enough to get the juices flowing, but the meat is fully left for players to develop on their own.

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  2. The ironic part of "Come play in our richly detailed fantasy setting, fleshed out through decades of play", is that it explicitly denies you the thing that was so fun about playing in that setting in the first place: participating in the expansion and detailing of the setting.

    True, but Wayfarers presents its sample setting as a sample setting, locked away at the back of the book. The rules themselves--i.e. most of the book--are pure D&D-like DIY toolkit stuff.

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  3. Wow, this sounds very much like a game I would play. I'll have to look into getting a copy.
    You noted there are no halflings. Are there gnomes? I like having some sort of small race around.

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  4. James, thank you for a clear, concise and thoughtful review. We count ourselves fortunate to get the Grognardia treatment.

    Personally, it's very interesting to see my own creation through the perspective you've developed so clearly here. I thank you for it.

    @Rafial: Fred is right. Twylos is very much optional. It's presented more for ideas and an example of 'what might be done with the system'. In fact, to quote Twylos' creator Greg in the foreword: "...you know what to do: steal what you like, and change and throw away the rest."

    @Rach: Great to hear it! Gnomes are listed in the Optional Races of the Optional Rules section. -I like them too. One of my favorite characters was a deep gnome. :)

    Finally, let me just state: Wayfarers is not an improvement on D&D.

    No doubt, it is a derivative. But an improvement? Heck no. Some of my favorite things about D&D are often considered to be its 'problems'. -Meh. Wayfarers has problems too. I made some of those problems myself, -and I'm damn proud of them.

    -Jimmy

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