Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Retrospective: Powers & Perils

As has been discussed here previously, Gary Gygax originally approached The Avalon Hill Game Company about publishing Dungeons & Dragons. Avalon Hill declined the offer and would later (at least according to legend) regret having done so, especially as RPGs came to rival and eventually surpass the popularity and sales of wargames. It's against this background that I recall Avalon Hill's late entry into the roleplaying field with games like James Bond 007, Lords of Creation, and the third edition of RuneQuest, all of which were fine RPGs that had to overcome their publisher's seemingly monumental ignorance of the new market they were entering.

There's probably no better Exhibit A of Avalon Hill's misunderstanding of the state of RPGs than their release, in 1984, of Powers & Perils. Designed by Richard Snider, who'd been a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, Powers & Perils reads very much like an expanded version of his earlier Adventures in Fantasy. Whereas Adventures in Fantasy feels (to me anyway) like an idiosyncratic house rules document to OD&D, Powers & Perils feels far more sterile, as if it were an exercise in "Ivory Tower" game design divorced from actual play. I don't know that that was the case with P&P, but, as presented, the game is complex, poorly organized, and largely lacking in charm. I can forgive the first two flaws, as they're commonplace in the hobby, but it's hard to become enthusiastic about a game when its designer's writing conveys as little enthusiasm as this one does.

P&P came in a large bookcase box, like those of many Avalon Hill games, and included five rulebooks of between 24 and 60 pages each. The first book dealt with character generation, which was largely determined by random rolls and modified by both race and gender. Characters could be humans, elves, dwarves, or "faerries." There are a large number of derived scores as well, which contribute greatly to both the complexity of the overall game system and the length of time it takes to create a character. P&P has a skill system that covers both non-combat and combat skills. Of course, calling it a "system" is a bit of a misnomer, since there are few common mechanics to these skills, most of which have individual resolution and experience systems. And when I say "individualized," I mean it: some skills, for example, have a simple rating/level, while others have a percentile score.

The second book covers combat and magic. Surprisingly, it's not as complex or convoluted as one might expect. Combatants have an offensive and a defensive combat value based on their skills, abilities, and weapon. Comparing the two results in either a positive or negative number that's then cross-referenced on a combat chart. Percentile dice are rolled to determine if the attacker hit and, if so, how hard. Armor decreases damage taken. There are a number of other wrinkles to the system that are confusingly presented in the text, but, overall, the system is strangely straightforward if "heavier" than I like. Magic is powered by mana and the system for using it seems to have been modeled on that of melee and missile combat. Spells are divided into several categories (law, chaos, sidhe, etc.) and cover most of the usual effects one expects in a fantasy RPG.

The third book presents over seventy creatures, divided according to the plane of existence from which they hail, as Powers & Perils has an interesting cosmology that divides reality into an Upper World, a Middle World, and Lower World. Many of the monsters are mundane or fantasy staples, but others are either wholly original or intriguing variations on old standbys. The third book also provides lots of random encounter tables for different terrain types. The fourth book treats human encounters, which is intended to help the referee in creating NPCs. The fourth book also presents treasure and magic items. What's interesting is that P&P places a greater emphasis on the variety of non-magical treasures than does, say, D&D, with plenty of options for works of art, furnishings, etc. Equally interesting are the large number of "natural" magic items, such as herbs and minerals that have magic effects. The fifth book presents a sample setting, the County Mordara, including a sample adventure set within it.

Looking at Powers & Perils now, I am struck by the same feeling that I had when I first read it back in the mid-80s: it's a poorly organized and unnecessarily complex design given that it contains so little that's genuinely new or imaginative. Had the game come out in 1977 or thereabouts, it might have made some sense, when it could have appealed to the growing legion of gamers disappointed with some aspects of hobby leader Dungeons & Dragons. But in 1984, that wasn't enough. Despite flashes of brilliance here and there, Powers & Perils is no RuneQuest or Chivalry & Sorcery. It has neither a compelling setting nor a complex rules system that pays dividends in terms of (pseudo-)historical realism.

I find myself wondering if the game was ever played even by its designer or whether it was purely an intellectual enterprise, because it certainly feels more like the latter than the fruit of design informed by actual play. Powers & Perils isn't a bad game so much as a needless one. There's very little to recommend it over almost any other significant fantasy RPG of its era (or before), because it brings almost nothing unique to the table. Given that it didn't get much support, I suspect I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

26 comments:

  1. This is one of those games I bought based on the box art alone, and as soon as I opened the box (immediately upon leaving the shop), I felt as if I had been the victim of a practical joke. It took mere seconds to leaf through the books and realize that the game was a ridiculous waste of paper. I attempted to return it, but I had removed the shrinkwrap, so I was stuck with it. Disgusted, I left it on the shelf for a time, but one day I decided to open it up again and share the folly of my purchase with my gaming comrades. The game, it turns out, had one value: it was not merely bad, it was hilariously bad. Your retrospective is much more forgiving than mine would be, but I must confess that reading portions of it aloud to my friends provoked sidesplitting fits of laughter. To think I could have bought Swashbuckler by Yaquinto Publications instead still gives me pangs of regret, but the laughs provided by random readings of Powers & Perils are almost worth the price.

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  2. P&P retains a soft spot in my heart for several reasons:

    The P&P spin on Law vs. Chaos is my favorite. As written it's pretty thin, but it has great possibilities for world building. Especially so if we keep in mind that Law doesn't necessarily mean good, Law probably conflates Elder/Faerie/Kotothi with Chaos, and Elder is just plain tribal in its outlook(s).

    I really like the fact that P&P encourages the GM to create unique magical (and non-magical) treasures. I despise +1 swords with no history.

    There OV vs. DV combat system is too complex, but I like the idea of opposed roles in combat.

    But otherwise, I agree. It just takes up space on my game shelf. And I say that even more as a collector than I do as a player.

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  3. I've never played (or even seen this game) but on of the players in my current campaign brought it up just the other day. Apparently back in his high school days (mid-to-late 1980s), he played Powers & Perils a lot because his mom forbade him to play D&D because that game was for "Satan worshippers." However, she had no problem letting him play Rolemaster, MERP, and Powers & Perils.

    He was telling us about his experiences with the game but I basically got the sense that he was just happy to have been able to play something versus happy that he was using the P&P rules.

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  4. PnP was actually the first RPG that I bought. I had been introduced to Red Box not long before and played one or two sessions and then found PnP in Big Lots for $5 and snagged it. Yes, it was already in Big Lots not long after being published, in KY anyway. I had forgotten all about in until this popped up: http://www.powersandperils.org/

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  5. I bought this game from a discount Big Lots in the 80’s for something around $5. Oddly enough that was also in Kentucky. They also had a bunch of the mini-game James Bond boxes, a Battlestar Galatica tactical fighter game, He-Man the RPG, and other odds and ends.

    Coming from a background in TSR box sets this game intrigued me with its surface complexity. I also liked how it tried to capture sword and sorcery genre that reminded me of Conan and Elric books I had read at that time. The many tables and ethnic backgrounds were all there as well for backgrounds, occupations, and cultures of the world.
    We labored through all the complex math formulas for creating a character and ran a few adventures. It didn’t have classes and we liked that element of it. Overall we were hungry for any role playing game and would try anything for at least a few sessions. The deadly marsh adventure we ran for the group sticks in my memory as a very fun adventure. And I remember it vividly. And for that reason the game still has a soft spot in my heart.
    A few years ago I looked up the game online and found a whole web site dedicated to it and reprinting all the rules and expansions. So a small community must still exist for it. I heard that the adventures created for it were pretty good but never have read them. I think they were all released as box sets. It was supported through Avalon Hill’s house organ The General from time to time. My uncle had a ton of those since he was wargamer but I don’t recall ever seeing any articles for it.
    Looking back on it I wouldn’t play it again. But, I seem to remember it had some great or at least interesting random charts and it has some cool concepts buried in its cryptic background text. I do have a warm spot for a couple of 80’s games that folks don’t look back on with relish. Such as 3rd Edition Gamma World, which I loved but most detest. And I freely admit this game is flawed and at times painful, but I have played a lot worst.

    I also remember it came with a pale flower purple ten-sided die and a white creamy one that were so soft in hue. But I recall them being very sharp on the corners.

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  6. I stand corrected and it only had one module and support through Heroes Magazine. The site linked above has scans of this magazine, which includes Runequest materials as well.

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  7. I played this game with a fairly large game group when I was about 14 years old. I was already an old veteran at playing D&D, but the P&P rule set was a real brain-burner. Three types of experience (combat experience, magic experience, and "expertise" points to keep track of for every skill)? The game was complex to the level of inscrutability, even when you didn't add the variant rules found on every other page.

    Fortunately, the rest of my gaming group helped me understand the system. Character generation always gave interesting results (I had a dwarf who had been raised by elves!). As stated before, there were cool ideas in the alignment system and some of the creatures.

    The game had personality, but it was tough see through the forest of mathematical formulas.

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  8. Back in the day, a buddy of mine had a great quote upon reading through a copy of the P&P rulebook: "It reads like someone wrote that at gunpoint".

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  9. Though I never had P&P, I did grab the companion setting boxed set, Perilous Lands, from a comic shop discount rack. Turned out to be yet another slightly fantasized version of ancient Earth, with almost-Romans making trouble with almost-Arabs and so on. Even the map was an only slightly moved-around version of Eurasia with a vestigial Africa slung underneath. That itself wasn't objectionable, but it went into mind-numbing detail about every mundane thing about the societies and nations, all of it derived directly (and I suspect proudly) from historical sources. Reading what amounted to Brittanica articles with the names changed didn't feel like much fantasy world-building to me. Perilous Lands is one of the few things dumped from my old game collection without even a hint of later regret.

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  10. When I first bought Powers & Perils I was less than enthused with it. But when I went back to it (to test it by running The Tower of the Dead adventure), I discovered it wasn't really as bad as it had first appeared. Needlessly complicated in some respects, and suffering from poor layout (although it actually had a very readable structure if you took each point in order), it actually worked quite well in practice (assuming you used the character sheets, where it was easy to see if you had missed something).

    But it really was too complicated, especially when it came to the creation of NPCs and monsters (although there were shortcuts for that).

    One must admit to having stolen a number of ideas from it at times, particularly from the Book of Human Encounters and Treasure.

    [The rules are available from http://www.powersandperils.org/ if you want to look for yourself.]

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  11. It was pretty bad, although parts of it, including "County Mordara" were easy to convert to better systems.

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  12. I have all the Powers and Perils releases, purchased off eBay a few years ago for less than $25 total. While I'd say the game is near incomprehensible at first glance, there are a bunch of good ideas contained within. Unfortunately, I've never been able to read enough in one sitting to actually pull out those ideas; the writing is boring and hard to follow at times. The production values are wretched, pretty much like RQ3.

    Someone already mentioned the P&P website, but honestly, I think your time would be better spent trying to figure out how to make a C&S mage.

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  13. I bought P&P (plus the 2 boxed supplements & the boxed adventure) at my main 1980s games store. At the time I thought the game looked very interesting but my group really didn't want to switch from AD&D to a more complicated fantasy game. The store staff/owners claimed it was very popular with their own gaming group, and recommended it highly - which is partly why I bought P&P rather than AH Runequest or Lords of Creation at the time.

    My local Toys'R'Us also carried the game. Years after it came out (early '90s maybe) I noticed that the Toys'R'Us still had a stack of 20+ copies sitting high up in the storage shelves. I inquired about the price, hoping they had dropped it to get rid of them (heck, they weren't even offering it on the regular shelves) but no, they still wanted $50 for the box!

    I'll have to take another look at the rules: I'm interested in checking out the alignment system that Russ mentions, and I forgot just how useful their treasure system was.

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  14. I've always wondered about this one. Now I can wonder no longer: apparently I wasn't missing much. If you'd do the same for Man, Myth and Magic I'll be able to lay pretty much all my 80s systems-that-got-away angst to rest.

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  15. @richard:

    http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2010/03/retrospective-man-myth-magic.html

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  16. Looking at the P&P link listed above, it looks like the author has been slowly working his way through completing a 2nd Edition of the system - with pdfs of some of the revised text from c. 2004 or so.

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  17. @anarchist: thanks! MM&M sounds like a blast, and oddly enough P&P is mentioned in the comments (by someone who liked neither).

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  18. Let me just add my voice to the chorus suggesting that while the system was, well, charitably I'll just say "not good," the setting actually had some interesting, even unique, bits. I actually really liked the County Mordara setting and adventure, and Tower of the Dead was a fun "killer dungeon" with a new take on the lich. Some good stuff in there.

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  19. @bibliorex: I agree with you, Tower of the Dead was pretty good, and the only P&P stuff I have that I'd consider worth the money. County Mordara, ehhh...seemed pretty cliche to me.

    I wonder if anyone ever bothered to port Tower of the Dead to D&D.

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  20. Here, let me spam the comments...an Avalon Hill game of the same timeframe that is quite wonderful: Magic Realm. Not really an rpg, but without a doubt the finest fantasy boardgame experience I've ever had. You can download the rules and RealmSpeak and play it electronically, so no need to even spend a dime.

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  21. I read through it once and just shelved it. It's still part of my collection. Not a great game.

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  22. I played this game from 1989 until 1995 in a campaign that began when my DM was stationed in Panama in 86 or 87.

    It is way too complex for me to consider playing these days, but it was fun@ the time.

    http://replay.waybackmachine.org/19991012084125/http://geocities.com/SoHo/2355/chronicles.html

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  23. P&P had a strong (if small) following on the interweb and may still be there. The fans said 'yes we know it's complex and clunky but we love it.' More power to them I say!

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  24. Powers & Perils is one of my favourite fantasy RPG of all time. It is really underestimated, i'm afraid i cannot agree with your review.

    cheers

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  25. I've played a lot of role-playing games in my life. Like many others, I teethed on AD&D. I took a gamble on Powers and Perils and was glad I did. It is'nt a game that you can merely flick through. You have to read it and then play it. The game is complex tis true, but for good reason... It has a versitile system where generating a character makes it nigh impossible to come up with identical characters, an extremely diverse and solid magic system and a game where the players can feel their character developing as they play.

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