Game: The Undying Lands: Minigame issue #4
Publisher: Valent Games
Series: The Undying Lands
Review Dated: 26th, March 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 16
Average Score: 8.00
“Most of us today know that the “fairy tales” we were told as children are watered-down, G-rated versions of the originals. Stories of fairies granting wishes, doing our housework, or replacing teeth with coins are modern sugar-coated versions. In the original stories, the witch eats Hansel and Gretl. These stories weren’t told to children to amuse them; they were told to terrify them and teach harsh lessons. Even children smart enough to leave a trail disappear if they wander into the woods.
The question is, where do they go?”
Why waste effort in writing an introduction for Valent Game’s The Undying Lands minigame when this stand alone RPG does so well for itself.
Weirdly there’s a disclaimer near the start of the PDF which says that “some things had to go” in order to meet the deadline. The deadline? As an evil consumer I don’t care about the pressures of writing the game. I care about the final product. If I’d been told that the RPG didn’t include basic foo because it is aimed at an experienced level of gamer then I wouldn’t have looked twice. The Undying Lands is aimed at experienced gamers.
In fact, rather than faeries it was the D&D cartoon which sprang to mind as I read through The Undying Lands. A group of teenagers go on the spooky ride and when they come out they’re in The Undying Lands rather than safely at the end of the ride. They might even befriend an annoying unicorn.
Befriending an annoying unicorn is one possible turn of events in The Undying Lands and it seems to be as likely as any other. There’s a distinct lack of direction in this RPG and it is somewhat frustrating. I’ve no grasp at all of the mood or flavour of the game. The introduction suggests we’re going for the dark, sinister and gritty but there’s no follow through. There’s a geographical tour of The Undying Lands which mentions Oberon’s and Titania’s Castle. There’s a City. There’s a Sapphire Ocean, Lands of the Sunset, an Ancient Forest and other strange places. It all seems empty. Right near the start The Undying Lands there’s a list of inspiration and a strong homage to The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. I suspect the theme and flavour required to fully comprehend Valent Games’ first full RPG is locked up in that 700 paged book. Other inspiration includes the like of White Wolf’s Changeling: the Dreaming and Gaimain’s Neverwhere.
I think it’s fair to say that if you have a fairy tale adventure in mind then The Undying Lands seems like as good as any. The Undying Lands has advantages over other fae RPGs – such as a $6 price tag and an original mechanical system.
The rule mechanics are different. For a start characters have a sequence of numbers for attributes and skills rather than just one. A character wouldn’t have Fitness 5 in The Undying Lands as they’re more likely to have a Fitness of 2-5 (so I suppose it’s possible to have a sequence of just one number). The player rolls 3d10 and matches the values rolled to the numbers in the sequence. The highest match on the d10 indicates the quality of the success and the number of matches suggests the margin.
Here’s The Undying Land’s own example; “Anya is attempting to deal with a particularly annoying and exasperating court. This is a Persistence & Etiquette roll. She has the Persistence attributed rated 1-5 and the Etiquette skill rated 3-6. Rolling 3d10 gives 6, 3, and 5. She has five matches for this roll and a quality of 6 (two matches for the 3, two matches for the 5, and one for the 6). This indicates that she will be successful when dealing with the court, and that it will be very difficult for others to undo her work.”
There are some other rather nice mechanical innovations in The Undying Land too. Combat, for example, works well. Combat begins in one of five stances and the actions you can take in that round depend on your stance. You can change your stance in your turn. The stances are: Aggressive, Opportunistic, Defensive, Flashy and Intimidating.
Similarly there are five different types of magic: illusion, compulsion, blessings and curses, and high ritual. Magic also has a novel feature to it – it always works. If the mage fails their spell roll then the magic simply finds fuel for itself by feeding off the caster’s Fitness.
The Undying Lands offers stats for numerous different types of fairies in a section before the bestiary but the game suits scenarios where humans are the main characters. In fact, The Undying Lands makes a point of talking about the PCs as the main characters and I think this is an important point to make. It does not matter if your character is average in strength and intelligence and that the NPCs she meets are wise, mysterious and powerful; the key point is that the characters are the central focus. GMs shouldn’t grandstand though their NPCs (if you’ll allow me to preach) and if you suspect you might sometimes fall foul of this then you should be twice as careful running The Undying Lands.
I like The Undying Lands’ system. It’s a game that feels as if it ought to be used but I just can’t quite get a grip on it. There are plot hook suggestions but these are in the form of “people to see” and “places to visit” rather than flavour enhancers or scene setters. These plot hooks don’t really seem to carry on with the sinister tones in the prelude. I like The Undying Lands and what’s frustrating is that I sense I could like it a lot more. Something’s missing and I think it’s the setting.