Game: The Second World Sourcebook
Publisher: Second World Simulations
Review Dated: 27th, January 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
I’m in two minds about this book and that seems rather appropriate for a sourcebook designed to let you play in two worlds. I’m not sure whether I want to encourage you to rush out and buy The Second World Sourcebook or to rush out hide every copy of the book.
Why the dilemma? The Second World Sourcebook takes the mucky crunch of game mechanics mongering and turns it into a graceful science. A fair proportion of the 288-paged paperback is spent looking at tweaking d20 rules to best suit a twin world setting. Steven Palmer Peterson doesn’t limit this discussion, this game science class, to producing just one solution but allows the large book to make a number of alternative suggestions. The First World is our world – or a world very much like it – and so the obvious rule set is d20 Modern. The Second World is a fantasy reflection of the First and so d20 Core would seem to fit here. For the record, the map showing Freeport ‘s location in relation to New York should be dolled up and turned into a poster. You can play with either d20 Modern or d20 Core because the Second World Sourcebook shows you how (and tells you why). In theory you’ll only need one set of rules. In practise you’ll want both. I think it’ll be impossible to read the SWS with its constant references to the two d20 sets without feeling as if you need to have them both to refer to. This produces a games mechanics discussion of a better level than I’m used to. I use the phrase “better level” rather than “higher level” quite deliberately. It’s a better level of discussion because it’s concerned with making the game playable despite the mechanics rather than because of the mechanics. It shows that you can stop being a greasy high school kid concerned with getting the highest possible Dexterity bonus at the smallest cost, become a mature gamer and be still concerned with how the numbers on your character interact with the game world’s mechanics. Game mechanics shouldn’t be glorified like this – they should be seen only as a necessary evil.
This is a book for experienced gamers. I don’t believe Second World Simulations has enough oomph as a company to ensure that the Sourcebook is a huge hit, I do believe it’ll become a cult hit. It’s really quite easy to see The Second World Sourcebook becoming the seminal advanced d20 product.
Let’s take Technology versus Magic as an illustration of the Sourcebook’s advanced style. The First World is one of technology and the Second World is one of magic. Although the First World hugely influences the Second you might not really want machine-guns from the First upsetting the balance of power in the Second and you might not want Fireball fights making the mass media of the First World. The latter is easy to deal with; magic is magic and it can simply be capped in the First World. The Sourcebook considers many different ways to do this – and discusses the effects. Perhaps you might just want to suppress magic in the First World so spells and magic items have smaller effects. If you take this option then there are different levels of suppression to consider. You might decide that the First World’s natural magic resistance must be overcome for each spell, requiring an extra dice roll against the DC for that or you might go with an alternative suggestion from the book and allow low level spells only. There are pages spent on the discussion of these possibilities. There’s even more in the book on why powerful Second World organisations and people don’t simply import crates of rocket launchers through Portals from the First World. One suggestion – and it’s a great one – is that physics just isn’t the same. What if in the Second World everything is made up from (as medieval alchemists once believed) the elements of fire, wind, earth and air? If that were true then it would seem entirely possible to dismiss advanced chemical formula from the First World as unusable in the Second. The Second World Sourcebook gives us the impressive Technology Tree as a way to manage this and decide what technology might be possible in the Second World. The Technology Tree presents clusters of Technologies that either progress to a new and better technology or require a prerequisite technology to work properly. Anyone who’s played the Civilisation computer game will be familiar with technology trees and will know that a world is not likely to get past the use of catapults and knights if it can’t develop Chemistry. At times it’s not particularly easy to pick up and understand what the Sourcebook is suggesting at first but once you do the thought “Oh! That’s clever!” is likely to follow.
Once you make it through to Chapter Two you’ll feel like a right expert. This is where the book’s lack of illustrations starts to kick. There are some new fantasy races for the Second World but you don’t get to see what they look like. The first race that’s introduced are the Raptors. What? Dinosaurs? Yes – exactly like the dinosaurs but as an intelligent player character race. The next race mentioned are the Orca. What? Killer Whales? No – not really. Black and white, whale like, amphibious creatures with trunk like legs. Oh. There are snakemen, catmen, fey-like men, and a human-like race from the Forge. Women too. The Forge separates The First World from The Second. The Sourcebook does present a cosmology, explains about the Forge and other realms as well as discussing issues like “where do ghosts come from?” The lack of visuals for the new races is a problem but there are very few others. I always find it frustrating when a book introduces a new race, remembers to tell me what their strength bonus is but forgets to tell me how long they live for or how tall the women are. The Second World Sourcebook doesn’t make this mistake. Some of the new races have a racial advancement table too; the Orca, for example, receive +2 Strength at level 2 and then again at level 5. Orca isn’t a character class it has access to a special racial prestige class. The chapter also offers a quick look at some of the d20 core races, pages of new feats and some new spells.
There aren’t any new basic or core classes in the Sourcebook. There aren’t any prestige classes either. Warden’s are very similar to prestige classes, can easily be counted and can be used as prestige classes but aren’t quite prestige classes. The Wardens are linked to the primal forces in the Second World; dream, motion, lightening, flesh, etc. You’ll have the likes of Dream Wardens, Motion Wardens and Shadow Wardens therefore. Each warden is capable of binding different powers to their self, powers influenced by the type of warden they are. You’ll find this chapter peppered with dozens of shaded lozenges decorated with powers and costs. These are the advancement trees for different warden powers. The Lightening Warden, for example, has a number of such trees including one that starts with Lightening Bold, leads then to Lightening Arc or Call Lightening and then to Lightning Storm. It’s an easy way to map prerequisites and costs. Typically, each power costs some experience points and some influence points.
The Second World Sourcebook introduces d20 to an Influence Point mechanic. There are times when the book seems rather defensive about this, aware that it could well be argued that influence should be kept an entirely in the realms of roleplay and out of rollplay. This is an argument that I would be happy to make. That said, the Sourcebook sets out to present effective and powerful game mechanics and so there’s no reason to flinch here. This isn’t a throw away mechanic. Influence isn’t a page or two of make shift rules. The Influence Point system has a chapter all to itself and it’s nearly 80 pages long. The argument for codifying influence is a good one. A great way to gauge how successful characters and NPCs have been is through influence. Gold and cash are good and well if you can buy what you want but without influence you’re only able to shop from the same lists as Joe Average. Lots of money can buy you influence though. This entire discussion is thoroughly mulled over. Once Influence Points are introduced as a mechanic than they can be spent as a cost. The bulk of the 80 or so pages in the Influence Chapter are spent looking at organisations in the Second World and just might be gained (favours and the like) from exerting influence on them.
The last two chapters are a familiar two: Equipment and Opponents. Even here the Second World Sourcebook’s unique style comes across in spades. Much of the equipment is considered with the to and fro from the Worlds.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Second World Sourcebook’s main goal is to help you gamesmaster and play in two connected worlds rather than the usual one. In this respect the Sourcebook is a run away success – if you accept the caveat that it’s not for beginners.
The Second World Sourcebook is a successful book but it’s a peculiar book to. It’s not references to the likes of Isaac Newton or the textbook feel that strikes me the most; it’s the use of the first person throughout. I’m just not used to phrases like “I designed”, “I present,” or quite simply “I” in roleplaying products. Well, I’ve seen it in other Second World Simulations products and it struck me as unsettling there but in a 288-paged it is striking. The book might well have shaved down its page count if every sub-section wasn’t introduced along the lines of “In this section I…” It’s a grumble. The lack of illustrations is a grumble too. They’re both small grumbles. They are insignificant grumbles in the face of The Second World Sourcebook’s successes. It’s also worth noting that there is more than just game mechanics for playing in two worlds, there is more than the Warden classes and new races too. The Second World presented in the book is rich in culture and history; it’s a tempting location in it’s own right. If you don’t like the two world idea then the SWS is tempting just for the alternative earth-like fantasy world it presents.
In short; if you’re a successful and experience roleplayer and you want to try and improve your gaming then look to the Second World Sourcebook.