Monday, February 13, 2012

RPGs for Kids, Take One: Adventures in Oz

Inspired by an online article entitled, ‘RPGs for Kids’, I have sought out some of the better role-playing games for children on the market. In the upcoming weeks I will be offering various sized reviews of the games I find notable for my own children.

Whether or not I ever play all of these games with my kids is another story.

Today I will be reviewing the print version of one of those games I have played with my girls... F. Douglas Wall’s Adventures in Oz (also available in both pdf and epub formats).
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Mr. Wall self-publishes the print copy using the LuLu.com print-on-demand service, which I have found to be respectable. The book is 135 pages, Perfect-bound paperback on 6.0” x 9.0” paper. Illustrations are by Loraine Sammy, Adam Dickstein, Amanda Webb, Brad McDevitt, and Brian Fowler; all are black & white, and all handsomely fit and benefit the source material.
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The book is obviously a labor of love by Wall, Art Director K.A. Green, and Jessica McDevitt, who is responsible for the layout. The cover, alone, shows much intelligence in Mr. Wall’s approach: Ojo, riding the Hungry Tiger, is joined on the Yellow Brick Road by Scraps the Patchwork Girl and Captain Fy-ter. Similar enough to the quartet of characters familiar to fans of the 1939 MGM movie, yet different enough to conceivably pique the interest of those very same fans, the cover nails the adventurous side of Oz quite nicely.

It must be stated that Mr. Wall’s game is a faithful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz related books (14 in all). Those looking for darker, more mature slants on the Oz mythos might want to look elsewhere – though you would certainly be missing out if you did. The author provides detailed write-ups of the various countries in Oz, including geography, citizens of note, and adventure hooks. All-in-all, there is a ton of great information for any Oz setting.

That isn’t to say that a group of players could not go a darker route using Adventures in Oz as a base system. While Mr. Wall celebrates the light-hearted wit of Baum and the subsequent ‘official’ authors in the series, he does provide story ideas that can take less idealistic turns. One interesting adventure hook asks ‘what if Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, wished to enslave Princess Ozma and rule all of Oz herself?’ Another gives the option to turn the Baum era notion of radium into the cancer-causing radioactive property it really is.

Heady stuff.

After the title page and handy, dandy table of contents, Mr. Wall dives right into the old ‘What is a Role Playing Game’ essay that 99% of the role playing games ever created open their game manuals with. I’ve often wondered why this is, as you don’t find such justifications in the instructions that came with Clue or Monopoly… or Candy Land. Regardless, Mr. Wall handles this ever-asked (and answered) question nicely.

Chapter one kicks right off with a history of Oz up to Princess Ozma’s taking the throne, plus the economic and social policies of the typical Oz citizens. After that, Wall provides small descriptions of the Emerald City and Oz’s four surrounding countries; Gillikin, Munchkin, Quadling, and Winkie (information that will be greatly expanded later on).

Chapter two begins discussing ‘the rules of the game’, starting off with character creation. As with most role-playing games (RPGs), characters are rated in six Basic Skills: Athletics, Awareness, Brains, Sneaking, Presence, and Wits. Characters may then have one specialty amongst these basic skills; for example, Dorothy Gale’s specialty is her ‘Plain Spoken’ attribute, meaning when she is speaking plainly to another, she receives a bonus on her Presence rolls.

To further individualize your characters, Skill Traits, Special Traits, and Weaknesses may be ‘purchased’ during character creation. The Skill traits available to the player are Craftsman, Humbug Magic, Poet, and Musician. Special Traits include Crafted (for those such as the Scarecrow), Deadly Weapon, Flight, Mighty Blow, and No Arms. Weaknesses allow the player to further dial in the characters as they were represented in Baum’s Oz universe; think the Tin Woodman rusting in the rain, or the Wicked Witch of the West melting when coming into contact with water and you’ve got the general idea.

Two of the more important elements to the game are your character’s Friends and Oz Points. The amount of friends your character makes and the amount of times your character helps these friends (and others) adds to their Oz Points total. The player may spend Oz points during adventures in a variety of ways – boosting your dice rolls to complete a specified objective or calling in favors from important non-player characters, to name but two. This subsystem not only encourages cooperative play, it also rewards the individual player for being nice.

A game that encourages its players to be nice? What is this, a freak out?

After this, the author lists eight different character templates a player will be choosing from when creating their own characters; Child in Oz, Crafted Person, Small Animal, Large Animal, Noble, Scholar, Soldier, and Wanderer. Each template has starting skills and traits, which the player can modify during the character creation process.
Chapter three explains how to play the game. The core mechanic on action resolution involves rolling two six-sided dice in the hopes that at least one of them is equal to or less than the Skill being rolled against.
The skill may be adjusted with bonuses and penalties, depending upon the difficulty level of the action being attempted.

As quick example, let’s say my Child in Oz Billy Bopit wants to climb a tree to retrieve a nice, delicious apple. I would roll against my character’s Athletics skill in attempting the feat. In this case, my Athletics Skill is rated a 3. I roll two six-sided dice in the hopes that at least one of the die results in a 1, 2, or 3. If it does, I succeed in climbing the tree.
If it happens that both dice beat the skill roll, I not only succeeded in climbing the tree, I did so with a 'Special Success' flourish.

Now, if Billy tried to climb one of Oz’s Fighting Trees, he might suffer a -2 penalty to his Athletics skill due to the fact the trees are none-to-pleased to allow such an insult. That would mean I would have to roll a 1 on at least one of those two dice.

If Billy's Athletic Skill Specialty happened to be 'Climbing Trees', I would be allowed to re-roll one of those two dice, thereby improving my odds a bit. And if Billy really wanted that apple, he may even spend an Oz point (or two) to reduce or negate that penalty altogether.

When competing against another player when resolving actions, the mechanic switches into Skill Contest mode. While the player still rolls against whatever Skill in question, their opponent now rolls against their own Skill at the same time. The person with the highest amount of successes wins the contest.

Combat is slightly different – and quite novel for role-playing games. After initiative is established, a character may choose one of various common actions during a fight; Painful Strike, Injuring Strike, Called Shot, Knockdown, Impress, Defend, and Grapple. Considering this is Oz and no one ever dies (unless the plot demands it), blows sustained by an opponent deal Wits damage. Once an opponent loses enough of their Wits, their will to fight is vanquished; at that point they will surrender or run away.

It is a very interesting mechanic, and one that makes a lot of sense in the Oz context. The Injuring Strike may lop off an arm or a leg of your opponent, but the wound is more of a hassle than anything else; as long as their Wits hold up, they will keep on slugging it out - head or no head.

However, the only criticism I have of the combat system does revolve around that Injuring Strike move. As written, if I kick you in the shin (i.e., a Painful Strike) and succeed, you lose one Wits point. If I chop off your arm using a Deadly Weapon and Injuring Strike, you lose... one Wits point.

I like Monty Python as much as any latent hipster out there, but that seems 'off' to me.

Chapter four details the game's magic system. In the Oz books, magic is a powerful plot device typically used by major villains or the heavy hitters in the stories. Fans of the novels might even recall that magic use was banned throughout Oz, with the exception of three good guys; Glinda the Good, the non-humbug Wizard of Oz, and Princess Ozma. As Oz is a collection of isolated communities, not everyone got wind of the ban - but it does go to show how truly powerful magic is in that universe.

And it is no different in Adventures in Oz. The author even points this out in the very first paragraph, stating that the in-game use of magic by players is at the discretion of the person running the show (in this case, The Narrator). If the Narrator chooses to restrict magic to plot devices, so be it. Still, Mr. Wall does provide a new character template: the Sorcerer. Also, several new Skill Traits are included for the character type: Sorcery, Yookoohoo Magic (specializes in transformations), and Magical Toolkit.

Unlike other role-playing games that provide a listing of the many spells available to the spell-caster, Mr. Wall instead provides a blueprint in creating spells from scratch.

Spells are composed of four elements; Power, Duration, Scope, and Ritual. Once each element is decided upon, the numbers are added to provide that spell's Effect Power. The Effect Power then serves as a penalty to the caster's Brains Skill roll needed to successfully cast a spell**.

There are four schools of magic available from which to create spells, each school directly correlating to the spell's Power rating: Help/Hinder, Apportation (moving people and objects), Transmutation (turning objects into other objects), and Transformation (turning living creatures into other objects).

The chapter on magic wraps up with the creation of magic items, which closely mirrors the spell creation process. Mr. Wall then provides several sample magic items to give the player a better idea when creating their own; the Shaggy Man's Love Magnet, Dorothy's Silver Slippers, and the Golden Cap that is used to command the Winged Monkeys.

Chapter five concludes the rules explanations by offering a huge assortment of tips for the Narrator. This proves to be quite helpful, as loose ends from the previous chapters are tied up, squared away, and expanded upon to cover as many bases as possible. Running a role-playing game can be difficult. With that in mind, Mr. Wall takes every precaution in helping the first or any-time Narrator run an Adventures in Oz session. And, most importantly, to have fun while doing so.

The rest of the book (and we are talking 75 pages here) features in-depth descriptions of The Land of Oz, a very well-made adventure entitled the Jaded City of Oz (which serves as a tour through the Land), a map, two player character sheets, and a Quick Reference Tables sheet.

And there we have it.

My own conclusion is that Adventures in Oz is one of those near perfect introductory role-playing games for children (or children at heart). If the child in question actually reads and enjoys the Oz books, the game is a perfect introduction; the rules are light, the atmosphere charming, and the interaction between Narrator and player can result in wonderfully interwoven storytelling.

And best of all, the game falls over itself rewarding Baum-like niceness to those playing it. Like the stories the game is based on, it is never quite about the trips we take, but about the people we take them with. Compassionate interactions with those around us cost us nothing, yet pay us back tenfold in ways that are often times unmeasurable.

L. Frank Baum invented a rich tapestry of imaginative, friendly and thoroughly American fairy tales. Douglas Wall embraces that tapestry and transplants it into a genre of table-top gaming typically reserved for power-tripping alter egos.

If success is a formula relating to overall market sales, perhaps a game such as Adventures in Oz can never be considered a true success. Not in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and Candy Land. But if your concept of success is defined by the ability to share one's passion with others - and to influence them to look at things just a little bit differently than they did previously, Adventures in Oz is the grandest of successes.

Bravo, F. Douglas Wall.

Bravo!

** = Unfortunately, Mr. Wall had to provide this particular bit of information on his game blog. Something ran amiss between the writing and printing, leaving this very important aspect to the magic rules missing from the copy I own.

Links of Interest:

*
Lulu.com - Self-publishing for the desperate.
* Regalia
- Collection of discussions relating to the Oz series of books.

7 comments:

  1. That post succeeded in two things:
    (1) I want to play this game.
    (2) I want to read the Oz books. I have only the movie for reference.

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  2. While I seem to play one on t.v., I really am not much of a critic.

    I ramble for my own amusement and tend to feel 'critique' is just another word for 'thwart'. Good or bad, rating someone's life passion is a fool's game.

    However, I do like to ramble for my own amusement.

    I've no intention of Followers or even readers, to be honest with you; I'm a fairly boring guy. But if I can help to point one person in the direction of Mr. Wall's game, I've succeeded.

    And the double whammy of your interest in the Baum books makes it that much more worth the effort, Mr. Warren.

    Much appreciated.

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  3. I hear you, man. That's pretty much my outlook and approach to my blog also. I write because I enjoy it and I have to get it out of my head or the clarity and relevance will most assuredly suffer. If people find it interesting then that is icing on the old cake.

    I have seen The Wizard of Oz and about 5 minutes of Return to Oz; Return is an abomination best avoided. I have had an on again, off again curiosity about the books but have never taken the plunge. I really should because it is almost a universal truth that the book is always better. I must say that your post increased my interest in reading the books and I believe I will hunt some down soon. Any idea about the books that were NOT written by Baum?

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  4. To be honest with you, I've only read about six of the Baum books - and four of them were research for a term paper I did in college. I keep intending to finish the series, but you know how it is.

    My daughter is a fan of the Ruth Thompson books she has read (Thompson took over from Baum), but I can't say.

    I can say that I feel the Wonderful Wizard of Oz book is superior to the Judy Garland flick. If you happen to get a copy with the original illustrations, all the better. My dad used to read that book to me when I was very young and I still remember those Denslow illustrations.

    And, ouch! I liked Return to Oz. Heh.

    It's a great shock if you are only familiar with the MGM musical, but it is pretty faithful to the books. Unlike the technicolor wonderland that many people perceive Oz to be, there's some pretty disturbing stuff going on in those Baum books.

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  5. That tears it - I will track these down and read a minimum of the first 3 or 4. Now, to be quite clear, I am assuming it was Return to Oz. I believe the characters were puppets instead of live actors. One of my past neighbors got it for his daughter. I admit I did not give it a full viewing. If it is closer to the books and the books are darker in spots then I will make an effort to check it out also.

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  6. I'm not entirely sure. Return to Oz was live action, though there were puppets involved. Nicol Williamson (Merlin in Excalibur) played the Nome King and Fairuza Balk was Dorothy.

    The movie starts off so dark, it really irked fans of the 1939 production. And the Wheelers have terrified just about every kid that has seen it, I'd bet.

    Much like the Wicked Witch in the Judy Garland flick.

    So keep that in mind, if watching with your own.

    ----

    And good deal on wanting to read those books. The first four are a great place to start.

    All of his books are in the public domain - so if you've a Kindle, Amazon has them all for free. If not, Project Guttenberg has them in electronic form.

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  7. Thanks for the heads up on how to get a hold of the books. I will watch both movies after reading some of the books just to see how things compare.

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