Monday, May 31, 2010

Arduin Eternal Review

Well, since I actually had time off from the office rather than spending 18 out of every 24 there, I figured it was time to put that time to good use and post something.

A while ago, I wrote up that Arduing Eternal would be shipping "soon." Well, soon turned out to be measured in months when it came to the playtester copies, but they did finally arrive about two weeks ago.

I was excited about getting this book. After all, I had been part of the playtest, so I was chomping at the bit to see the finished product. When I opened my copy of Arduin Eternal, I was sorely dissapointed. First, I should say that, when it's boiled down and we get past the issues, I still think that AE is an excellent system that contains rules that could cover just about everything (a real draw to some) and what I feel is a true inheritor to the original Arduin. I do like the game.

However . . .

The artwork and layout of the book is subpar in many instances. Not all the art, but frequently the illustrations in the book made everyone in our group do a doubletake, especially one particularly infamous illustration on page 98 that has an unfortunately anatomical appearance. Arduin has never been known for innovative or incredible art, but it was always evocative and interesting. This time, though, it invokes mostly a bit of headscratching and laughter. At the same time, even those illustrations that were quite good got crammed into corners and had proportions distorted to force them to fit where they didn't need to be, presumably in an effort to avoid orphaned text giving some of the art a squashed look. And in the meantime, too much of the art looks . . . well . . . the only description is "wrong" that it's distracting. This includes the cover that has what we presume to be a rune weaver but who looks more like a barbarian and whose proportions are so odd that it looks biologically impossible. You can see it there at the top of this post.

The greatest offender here, though, has to be the general editing of the book. It seems that during the assembling of the book and the final work that, in order to keep the book as a single volume, a great amount of material had to be cut. We understand this, after all, the book is already over 800 pages long and any longer would have made it practically unusable. The problem arises when it turns out that a significant portion of what was cut was neccessary to understand how things work, such as something as basic as how a thief picks a lock. You can check out a partial list here that just our group has been compiling based on a day or two of character generation. There are more than these, and a quick dip into the other topics at those fora will show a few of them.

Compounding this problem are numerous editing mistakes such as gramatical and spelling errors and references in the text to versions of other sections of text as they were in either the alpha or beta playtest versions of the game that didn't get updated to the new, finalized version. Readers are forced to hunt through the text hoping to determine where soemthing is, or go to the forums begging for enlightenment. Sometimes, the material is well and truly missing, promised in a forthcoming set of books to include a Culture book and a Bestiary (we hope they make an appearance soon) as well as reworkings of the excellent adventure White Roc's Inn. But for the time being, they're conspicuously absent. And that includes the index of the book which is available for download on the Emperor's Choice website.

In this day and age, and especially in an instance when many of the plyatesters were offering their time free of charge to assist with the editing, or merely in exchange for a copy of the book or two. It smacks of unprofessionalism. We understand, of course, that the author is not a full time RPG author and that his real life has interfered with the execution of this massive project, but there were options that could have certainly alleviated the issues that many have noticed. In the end, this book looks like a strong mid-draft rather than a finished book, and that is unfortunate.

At its core, one supposes that one of the central conceits of the Old School Rennaisance is simplicity. That a core rules set can and should be contained to a mere 100 pages or less and that the rest is entirely up to the GM and players to expand upon. I agree with this model to a certain extent, though I'll allow for more comprehensive rules when they work towards the concept effectively. The problem with Arduin Eternal is that it is so massive that it's daunting even to players who have been at the game for more than 20 years. Character generation is an extensive process that can and does take days of effort if you know what you're doing. I can only imagine what it takes the uninitiated. Here is something that the Compleat Arduin books had in spades. At every step in character generation there were text boxes set aside with examples of the process, and they helped immeasurably to comprehend an otherwise complicated system. They are sorely missing here, and I can only hope that we see something like that in the future, either as a free PDF, or as a fan released document.

This leads to another issue, at least an issue that I have and I'm told it's not universal. To create a character, one is forced into that loathsome concept of "the build." Creating a character is a careful balancing act of weighing pro's and con's of each choice, playing each benefit and drawback against your character's central theme and abilities, always with a plan in mind of where he's going. It's a process that is virtually impossible to avoid a strong current of meta-gaming if you're looking to create a mechanically effective character. Now, I'm told that not everybody feels that this is a drawback. The D20 crowd are certainly no strangers to this and even I will admit right here that it can be fun to spend your time building a character in this way and truly become attached to him from the beginning. But in this instance, it's so antithical to the old school mindset that it seems injurious to one segment of Arduin's core audience. The grognards and neckbeards still playing with the little brown books or the clones of the white box won't find the original Grimoire volumes that were a grab bag of whacky and zaney goodies for their games and if that's what they want, they'd do much better picking up copies of the re-edited and republished Grimoire from Emperor's Choice and calling it well done.

What should have been made clear from the beginning and is not is that this is absolutely not an introductory RPG. This is not a way to cut one's teeth either on gaming in general (I'd recommend sticking with S&W/LL or OSRIC on that regard) or even the idiosynchratic world of Arduin for that matter (better I think to grab up a copy of the World Book of Khaas). A great deal of the game relies on a strong and confident GM who is willing to take the material and work with it until it resembles the shape he needs for the game. Things left unsaid or entirely open (glaringly, the function and nature of lycanthropy, or the entire bestiary) have to bee worked up on a case by case basis to the satisfaction of the individual players and it requires players as well who are strong and on the game. Novices and neophytes will be frustrated and lost.

While D20 players might feel more at home - after all, the secrets and skills are a strong D20 influence I think - they will undoubtedly be daunted by the preliminary inellegence of the game. As clunky and poor as many of us find the 3.x versions of D&D (not to mention 4ed), those games run like a well tuned Ferrari in comparison to this without a strong and sure guiding hand at the wheel. There is no strong advise on how to run the game, no Game Master's guide except for a few pages at the back of the book. There's no advice on how to run a distinctly Arduinian game and we are left to either intuit that or to import what we already know from our old Arduin games and make it so.

All together, I think the game itself is strong and excellent. I look forward to getting into our upcoming campaign and may post a few after action reports. However, I find that this particular book is not quite up to market snuff and that it needs a bit of help in terms of editing and presentation, as well as at least a few planned supplements at least one for the GM exclusively comprised of advice and guidance, in order to feel entirely complete.

Pick up a copy if you are an established Arduin fan, or if you're an experienced gamer looking for a challenging but very rewarding game.

Don't pick it up if you're looking for a book in the style of the Old School Rennaisance, or if you're looking to introduce yourself or somebody else to gaming.