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Jeff's Gameblog
Wednesday, 2 June 2004
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 2
Raven McCracken's World of Synnibarr is often listed as one of the worst RPGs of all time and Mr. Cracken is villified for authoring it. Two of the three RGP.net reviews for WoS (those written by Darren MacLennan and Bradford C. Walker, RPGnet regulars) are both pretty hard on the game. (The third is basically unsubstantiated fan praise, proving little except that at least one person not on the design team thinks the game is really kewl.) Although I don't necessarily disagree with Messrs. MacLennan and Walker in their assessment of the game's flaws, I do kinda wonder if maybe their reviews have somewhat poisoned the well when it comes to the RPGnet community's view of WoS.

Although I do not yet own a copy, I'm starting to wonder if maybe Synnibarr's reputation is a tad overblown. For one thing, some folks have characterized WoS as the ravings of a lone powergaming munchinoid nutjob. But this assertion is contradicted by the Pen & Paper entry for the game, which shows that the second edition at least is the effort of a fairly substantial team.

Furthermore, the setting is often derided as an incoherent mess, chock full of mutants, wizards, freaks, and the infamous grizzly bears with frickin' laser beams shooting out of their eyes. I don't understand how this is supposed to be different from lots of other games. D&D, for most of its history, has been so chock full of stuff that the best way to make a coherent campaign has been to cut stuff out. In the d20/OGL era this is even more true. And I've heard of a bajillion World of Darkness games in the PCs were a vampire, a werewolf, a mage, and some Highlander houserules guy. I know shit like this goes down and I don't even play Vampire. And a grizzly bear with deadly beam eyes sounds like a stock Gamma World creature to me, nothing to write home about. Heck, you can easily find more absurd monsters by flipping through the first edition Fiend Folio.

More importantly, goofy monsters and incoherent settings can be a heckuva lot of fun. Not everyone needs a tight setting to have a good time roleplaying. I think back upon some of my favorite gaming moments, like the time my half-orc assassin/cleric Munge brought down an airsquid with a single shot from his arquebus+1 or when Doc Phostarius and his crew meleed a bunch of shoggoths in the TARDIS of evil, or that time the flumph injected acid into the brainpan of Sir Cleave yet he survived, and I can't help but realize how utterly goofball others would find some of my most cherished D&D memories. Most of the best times I had in role-playing wouldn't have happened in a straightlaced pseudomedieval simulation. If gonzo low adventure is not to your cuppa, no problem. Just don't kick Synnibarr in the jimmy just cause it ain't another Nobilis. It was never meant to be.

The game mechanics are also harped upon and I really can't respond to the majority of complaints here, because I don't have access to a copy of WoS right now. There are two criticisms against the game mechanics that I would like to address. First, it is commonly reported that character creation is a mess. A quick read of The Sexy Naked Gamer Chick's Guide To Creating A Character In World of Synnibar bears this idea out. Still, I think a lot of people are ready to jump on ANY system that uses any form of random character generation. Hardcore HERO and WoD fans, I'm looking at you. Criticize WoS chargen for being oafishly clumsy and I may well agree with you. Criticize it for using dice and be ready for a fight. I still throw dice when making D&D PCs and I still think that Classic Traveller chargen is a gem.

Besides, you can have a lot of fun rolling up a ridiculous character and then trying to turn them into something playable. The character creation session for my Heroes Unlimited campaign was a lot fo fun. The party isn't exactly balanced in the traditional sense, but we are having a good time. My buddy Pat and I had a hoot last weekend whipping up 1st edition Gamma World mutants. And Traveller, with the much-maligned possibility of death by chargen, is actually a fun and interesting mini-game all by itself.

The other game mechanic that I want to address involves the interesting restrictions the text of WoS places on "Fate", the Synnibarr term for GM. At this point I think I will just quote Bradford C. Walker's review:

The rules for GMs forbid any variation. As pg. 332 clearly dictates, "Fate has absolute control during the game regarding rolls and interpretation of the rules. Fate may not, however, deviate from the rules as they are written, for if he or she does and the players find out, then the adventure can be declared null, and the characters must be restored to their original condition, as they were before the game began." Don't think you can tell the munchkin to bugger off if he cites this. McCracken successfully instituted the only Game Police in the industry by writing the following: "Players may attempt what is known as "calling Fate." This means that if a ruling is disputed by a player and he challenges Fate and is found to be absolutely correct, the player may receive double gaming points ("XP"- BCW)for the entire adventure." These passages are but a small sample of the insanity rampant throughout the game.

Mr. Walker is a smart guy and most of the analysis in his review seems right on target. Here, however, I think he misses the hidden jewel in World of Synnibarr, the one thing in the game that just might be a stroke of genius. The Fate rules may the one good idea that Ron Edwards, in his essay on Fantasy Heartbreakers, tells us to always be on the lookout for. You see, the World of Synnibarr restrictions on Fate look like they would go far toward enabling serious Gamist play.

By strictly binding the GM to the rules and making the GM accountable to the players for running the game literally "by the book", McCracken is sending out a Gamist challenge to the WoS GM. It's like he's saying "Here's my over-the-top powergame. The rules are a mess. Ad libbing the rules is strictly prohibited Are you a bad enough mofo to run this puppy and not be busted by the players?" Suddenly, the GM has as much on the line, if not more, than the players. Just making up shit on the fly is no longer an option. If things go the wrong way "Rocks fall, everyone dies" isn't a way out. Once the game begins you have to stay on script and see it through.

Bonus link: Niilo Paasivirta's hilarious Synnibarr page

Posted by jrients at 9:28 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 2 June 2004 2:32 PM CDT

Saturday, 29 January 2011 - 11:14 PM CST

Name: "Kelly"
Home Page: http://ravencsmccracken.com

Raven c.s. McCracken has a new website up at http://ravencsmccracken.com as he has a new (non-Synnibarr) book that was just released: I EAT BUTTERFLIES: Tales of Vampires, Mages & Mutants.  On the site is a great Q&A about what he's been up to since Synnibarr and a few notes about the game, too.  You should check it out. 

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