ORE, part 2: Wild Talents

A while back I decided to stop trying homebrew rpg systems and use a commercial system – something modern.  I bought Monsters and Other Childish Things and Wild Talents, together with a few supplements in a sale.

The MAOCT campaign is still happening, using the rather good Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor. A few sessions on and my main criticism is the sheer information overload – that and the distinct lack of child NPCs in a game about 10-15 year olds. If they were to write a second edition of Candlewick I’d like to see a few family trees, and maybe some local maps.

I won’t hold my breath. Usability improvements are not the top priority for second editions at Arc Dream. If they were, the index for WT2e wouldn’t be a complete joke (referencing the table of contents?).

Not For Beginners

I ran my first and only session of WT on holiday with a bunch of players who were newcomers to the system, but not to gaming. It was a terrible mistake. I had ambitions of gun-fu combats from Hard Boiled and Wanted. The unfamiliar dice mechanics, sheer volume of rules and my lack of instantaneous knowledge totally upset the flow and the game ground to a halt.

I wanted a superhero game that could be played out of the box, and I had seriously misjudged the level of commitment needed. But even if I had been familiar with all the rules, my players weren’t. Basically I was seduced by the idea of a supremely flexible system of powers, and bought the wrong game as a result. That doesn’t make WT a bad game in itself.

Critical Acclaim

WT has some quality ingredients. Greg Stolze (the awesome Spherewalker Sourcebook), Kenneth Hite (lots of GURPS, plus others), Dennis Detwiller (Delta Green) and Shane Ivey (err… blowing his own trumpet here). It should be good.

And WT has been critically acclaimed.  Google for “Wild Talents Review” and you’re unlikely to find a review under four stars.

(Kurt Wiegel of Gamegeeks doesn’t like to do negative reviews.)

I’m going to break away from the crowd; I do not think Wild Talents deserves anything more than a 3 out of 5 stars. I think it’s a complex game with great power, but deeply flawed in its presentation – giving me the experience of an epiphany one moment, and the desire to wipe my arse with the pages the next.

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    p>Positives

    WT has some excellent writing in it – from Chapter 11 onwards. Kurt Wiegel proclaims the section on building histories as worth the price of admission alone, which is laying it on a bit thick but a good comment – it’s the best part of the book. Sadly I don’t think this is packaged in the smaller, cheaper WT essential edition, which is just the rules.

    The artwork inside is lovely, paper is thick and glossy and the text is well laid out and not too small.

    The actual history presented in the timeline is nice if you’re likely to use the Godlike timeline, and providing general inspiration.

    Quirks

    This game is highly abstract, and while I don’t think abstraction is a bad thing in itself it needs a lot of interpretation and imagination. As I’ve mentioned before combat is “interpretive” rather than “narrative”. Select the dice pool, roll the dice, interpret the result. The Cult of ORE tout this as a strength, but I have yet to be convinced – although I do like the way width = initiative.

    This abstraction goes further when designing powers. I like the principles – you choose the source of your powers, then for each power you have a Quality (does it Attack, Defend, or be Useful), a Capacity (does it affect you, something at range, speed, something massive) and then pile on Extras and Flaws to “tune” the effect. It makes a lot of sense to me. The problem comes in the time it takes to explain the concept to players. Like the family trees and maps in Candlewick I asked for, would it have killed them to provide a flow diagram for generating powers? Talsorian did this for Lifepaths in Cyberpunk 2020.

    This issue of obscuring process flow in text is something I encounter all the time at work, too; people generally don’t appreciate the value of presenting complex workflows pictorially. In the case of this game it looks like the authors have taken the player’s familiarity for granted.

    Disappointments

    WT is “unashamed” about its lack of power balance – pointing out that a low powered character could build powers that turn off the sun if they wanted to. Fair enough.

    Why then have a points system at all? A points system should help the GM to match power levels between players and antagonists. Being open to abuse is one thing, but if the points system doesn’t make the game easier to play, it has little value.

    Also, I found the authors prone to giving the vaguest advice in places where definition is badly needed. In character creation they recommend “not just giving a pool of points, but setting limits on how much can be spent on stats, etc”. Fair enough, but what limits? If you’re concerned about players exceeding normal human levels of competence, then what are those levels? You might think I’m asking too much but they took the trouble to do a statistical analysis of Supers population by decade and country in the design chapter – so they recognise that providing a sense of scale is important. (edit: there are a couple of pages of sample characters right at the back – but it’s still too little information and in the wrong place)

    Like most complex systems we learn by example; so to understand how powers were created I looked at the “Miracle Cafeteria” chapter where a list of common powers have been developed using the toolkits. And it was here I kind of lost my patience – because in about half the cases I looked at I just couldn’t get the numbers to add up when I plugged it into the fan-made spreadsheet. Why couldn’t the designers just show their working?

    Lastly, the character sheet is just rubbish. I know, hardly the end of the world but seriously it looks like it was banged out in Microsoft Word. Character sheets are the way the player interacts with the game mechanics. Games like Vampire and Everway show us what a well-laid out character sheet can do for the mood of a game.

    Final Comments

    So why does everyone else froth about this game when I have had such a mixed experience?

    You see a lot of games being forgiven for bad mechanics because of the “quality” of their game world – and by “quality” we really mean “quantity”. But I gave up on Exalted because the sheer volume of text obscuring how to actually play was more than I had patience for.

    We are gamers. We pay for and play games. And in other segments of the gaming industry – such as boardgames – critical acclaim is given to clarity of rules and quality and balance of gameplay, not just a pretty box. In the video games industry reviewers are merciless.

    So the conclusion is that WT has been reviewed well on the strength of its atmosphere, its world design and alternate histories, by gamers who are willing to forgive its difficult rules and fudge where necessary. Because that is the RPG way – we expect inconsistency, arcane rules, and having to fight the 300 page rulebook to extract value.

    I don’t think WT is a bad game, but these days I value simplicity of system. I was hoping that WT would be flexible and simple at the same time. I think it can be made simple with some work, but that wasn’t what I wanted.

    I’ve been thinking about rebooting Vampire the Masquerade using the ORE, with WT to reinterpret disciplines. Using WT to develop a framework is going to be a lot more effective than asking players to use the rulebook as it stands. WT is a meta-rpg; it’s a toolkit for building a semi-homebrew rpg under the ORE framework. As long as that’s your expectation of the game it can work, but it needs a big investment.

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