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Jeff's Gameblog
Monday, 7 June 2004
In Praise of Bad Games, Part 4
Back in the early 90's SenZar earned its rep as a bad game before it even hit the store shelves. How did it manage this tremendous feat? The authors were out on usenet promoting their game with hyperbole so outrageous, so obnoxious, so over-the-top that their behavior is the stuff of legend a decade later. Mark Hughes describes their attitude as "We are God's Own Bollocks! Lick us, we're tasty!" When these guys were properly flamed for their antics the SenZar people then went the route of the "anonymous fan" to promote their game. In case you couldn't guess, this shenangin only endeared them further to the online rpg community. Even worse, a brief perusal of the Amazon reviews seems to indicate that as late as 2002 the SenZar gang was still up to its old tricks.

To this day you'll find lots of people ready to tear SenZar a third bunghole even though they've never even seen a copy. To be sure, many people who have seen the game have also hated it. Check out David Edelstein's review for an example of a relatively informed opinion. I say relatively informed because I feel like maybe Mr. Edelstein let some personal gaming baggage get in the way of his review. More on that angle later. In the meantime, here's some other choice comments culled from teh intarweb:
If Carl wanted to run Senzar, I'd give it a try, because I'd know the people would be fun and in the worst case we could while away the hours mocking death jesters. In fact, I once joined a Lords of Creation game, fully aware of what I was getting into, because I trusted the GM. --Population: One weblog
Senzar is essentially, as far as I can tell, someone's pumped-up AD&D mods. There are a dozen or so different races, all with various abilities to "kick butt". The word "cool" is used a lot. The game seems to be geared toward the crowd that thought Beavis & Butthead was funny, without understanding that it was about *them*. --Kevin Mowery
I'm at the point now where I'd play the Lords of Creation setting under a fusion of Synnibar and SenZar rules just because it wasn't D20. --unknown
(Yikes! Do I need to do an entry on Lords of Creation too? I was under the impression that it was underappreciated, but I wasn't expecting it to be mentioned in the same breath as SenZar and Synnibarr.)

But like I was saying, a lot of SenZar's bad rep comes from the authors' hijinx and doesn't necessarily have as much to do with the game as it seems. Not that flaws can't be found in SenZar, but we shouldn't let the fact that the game is much maligned get in the way of a fair judgement of SenZar's virtues. And it does have virtues. Check out Jason Sartin's review, if you can bring yourself to read such a long review. Here's the short version of the review: Surprisingly coherent game mechanics for fairly incoherent setting, marred somewhat by a rather juvenile (if amusing) writing style.
"You know you have a bad GM when: ...he talks about converting his campaign to Senzar" --old humour list
The thing is, I can actually see myself converting an AD&D campaign to SenZar. Maybe that does make me a bad GM, but when I look back at all the yahoo fun I've had in some of my old AD&D games, suddenly SenZar, with its sense of wild fun and deadly violence, looks like a pretty decent fit. I can easily imagine taking the deadly trio of Sir Cleave the half-drow knight errant; his demi-brother Doctor Phostarius, the bard/wizard; and Munge, half-orc the assassin/cleric, uprooting them from their cushy abodes in Greyhawk's Bandit Kingdoms and dropping them into the middle of the ultraviolent godpolitics of SenZar.

The key to understanding SenZar, I think, is to judge it by its own standards. From the point of view of the "serious roleplayer", whatever that means, we can certainly poo-poo SenZar as a juvenile powertrip. But I fail to see the point of such an exercise, since SenZar never claims to be anything more than a munchkin's dream. The text of the game actively encourages making the most deadly PC you can. Heck, one of their taglines is "role-playing in God mode".

Evan Waters makes a comment at the end of Darren MacLennan's review of Creeping Death, the SenZar monster manual. Mr. Waters says
[I]t's telling that the majority of monsters in the book have no place in the natural ecosystem, but are rather "unspeakable fiends from beyond Hell."
If we were talking about a "realistic" fantasy simulation on the order of Harn or even Greyhawk, I would wholeheartedly agree with him. But I think we would do better to judge SenZar by its own lights, much in the manner that Roger Ebert critiques action flicks. A once-over of the official SenZar webpage ought to make it clear that the game is meant to be an utterly juvenile powertrip with big swords, big muscles, chicks with big boobs, and heinous acts of violence. To expect it to be something else is missing the point. Normal folk don't rip up copies of People magazine because it lacks the journalistic integrity of U.S. News & World Report.

Taken as the RPG equivalent of lowbrow action flicks, SenZar seems to have everything going for it. At least according to Mr. Sartin's interesting review. In the realm of killing things and taking their stuff, SenZar looks to be a choice worth investigating. Chargen is an interesting pointbuild system married to an oldfashioned class & level affair. Hit points are fixed amount per level, no more getting hosed by a bad hitdie roll. The spell system is described as tight. All in all, I think SenZar could be a vehicle for serious gamist powermunching in an over-the-top, death-at-any-moment setting. What's not to like? The fact that the monsters are in a separate book is about the only thing that really holds me back from getting my hands on some SenZar.

One of the standout lines from Edelstein's scathing review:
The best way to describe SenZar would be to say that this is a game I would have thought was rilly kewl when I was 14.
What happened to that 14-year-old kid, David? I play lots of different kinds of RPGs these days, but nothing has killed the joy of depopulating nonsensical dungeons full of mutant bad guys. Maybe that's why SenZar might work for me when it doesn't work for folks like David: I still got that powergaming kid inside me.

Then there's the who people try to hide that kid by moving on to Epic-level D&D or Nobilis or Amber or Exalted or superhero gaming. That way they can tell themselves how nuanced and sophisticated their play has become. I totally understand. I've been down that road before. But I think I'm starting to outgrow the need to justify my powergaming. SenZar seems more like my kind of game than Exalted ever was.

I am munchkin! Fear my wrath! Aieeeeeeee!

Bonus link: the SenZar drinking game!

Posted by jrients at 10:13 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 8 June 2004 10:55 AM CDT

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