Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: The Secret Fire

The Secret Fire came out to much hoopla and goings on last year.

I have always meant to review it, but never sat down to do it.  Now, depending on my mood I go back and forth between this being a great homage to old-school play and even to Gygax himself to it being a fantasy heart-breaker with delusions of godhood.  It will be interesting to see where I am by the end of this review.

Like I mentioned above The Secret Fire came out to much hoopla last year before Gen Con with this whole campaign blitz on how it was going to change role-playing and how it was going to be the biggest thing since D&D.  I talked a bit about that around Gen Con back when it had changed it's name from Legends &  Labyrinths to The Secret Fire. http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/2011/08/what-is-secret-fire.html
Of course give yourself some credit if you get the reference correct.

It didn't quite set the world on fire.  Secret or otherwise.
But I can't blame the author, George R. Strayton (also the screenwriter for the Dragonlance animated movie and some episodes of Xena), for being excited.  I would, and have, done the same.
One thing I am going to give the Secret Fire right now.  It has style.  The art is not fantastic and the formatting is a bit odd, but I enjoy looking at this book.

Forward and Introduction
Ok this part is cool, if maybe a touch corny.  Learning to play D&D on Halloween 1979. Sure that sounds cool and I don't doubt it, but if that were true for me I might not say that because so many wouldn't believe.  But that is not the point here.  I know this, that kid learning to play D&D on Halloween would have loved the hell out of TSF.  Oh.  I gave the game a freebie now I need to take one away. Look I know this game is important to the author but reading THE SECRET FIRETM all the time is really annoying.
All that aside, I like this part.  Why? Cause Strayton deep down is a kid that loves to play D&D and this is his 300+ page love letter to it.  I like that he wants you play normal folk that could get killed, I like that he was "stuck with the dwarf" back then.  If this is his mission statement then I am all aboard with it.

Quotes from Gary Gygax are good.  Quotes from Gail Gygax advertising your game, not so much.  One more point given, one more taken away.
Part 1 is your typically "what is role-playing chapter but also some descriptions of what makes TSF different.  I am torn on this one.  While I like that this is not the kindergarten discussion on what is role-playing and what do you do, there also seems to be a lot back-patting here.  TSF does this better and TSF does this... great, but tell me that in the game sections.  BUT....I also often lament that we don't see enough of what makes Game X different than Game Y.   If he makes good on these promises then we should be ok.

Character creation. The classes, or callings, are pretty straightforward; cleric, warrior, thief and wizard.  The big four really.  They have some neat features.  Levels only go to 10 and you know what, I kinda like that. The races are also the common four, Dwarf, Elf, Human and Halfling.  I would have liked to see some more, but there are some neat twists to the races.  Tables of what the races do, like Many Dwarfs...(roll a 1d20) and Some Dwarfs... (roll a 1d20), that is kinda cool really. Easily added to any sort of D&D-like game.
Instead of hitpoints we have wound levels, similar to some damage track systems I have seen.  I like how damage effects movement and combat. Again, nothing revolutionary here, but still nice.
There is a random table of personality traits as well.  I am sure would like this, but I prefer to figure out my character's personality in the playing, not the the rolling. 

This is the chapter on character Trademarks.   They act like qualities/perks/drawbacks from other games.  Interesting.  Given the amount you can get I would have liked to have seen more, but this is a good list.

Your weapons and equipment chapter.

Energy Points are discussed here and are used to power "Special Effects".  In a way they work a bit like Drama, Hero or Fate points.  While like like these kinds of mechanics, they are not really "old-school" since they allow the player more control over the dice.  While a plus in some respects I think the old-school purists will dislike it.

PARTS 6 & 7
Details the Elder Gods and prayers respectively.  Prayers are of course the spells that Holy-men can use.

Details the spells in the game.  Like the Prayers, there are a lot of unique sounding names for some familiar looking spells.  I like that.  "Read Languages" sounds dull, but "Comprehend Texts (The Great Unknown)" sounds so much more...eldritch.

Details the skills characters can have.  The advice listed is that most time the character succeeding or failing should be obvious. This chapter should only aid in the cases where success is uncertain.
Skills are a roll-under mechanic compared to the necessary ability.  The listed skills modify these dice rolls (3d6 to 7d6).

PART 10 
Details adventuring. Not a bad chapter, but mostly narrative.

This chapter details Engagements or what if typically called combat.

Scenario Design.  Lots of advice and random tables to stock your dungeons.

Is monsters.  The stat blocks look pretty familiar and would not be difficult at all to add to any other game.

Treasure. What I liked most here was the creating Talismans.  I have done talismans as well and they are a little different here than mine, but still fun.  Like the spells there are a lot of unique items here.  If you need to spice up your magic items, then this is a good place to start.

Details the world.  Not a lot of detail mind you, but enough to keep you busy.

PART 16 
Deals with level advancement. How to do it, what to do about it and the like.

Is an adventure, the Dungeons of Madness.

There are also a few Appencies, including a combat chart, links to the Gygax Memorial Fund, and a bit on why the game was made AND, interestingly enough, an alternate XP point award table to things the players can do outside of the game.  I have done this with my kids to great effect.

The Appendix D, or suggested reading does come of as a bit pretentious.  But...these are all in fact good books.

Bottom line
Again, this game didn't, and probably won't, set the world on fire. BUT there is a lot of cool things here that can be easily added to a D&D, S&W, ACKS or B/X Companion game.

It is easy to see what the author is trying to do here. I get it. I think the game though comes off a little like D&D + Fate.

I will also add that TSF character sheet is one of the coolest ones I have seen.  It, like the game, as a sense of style I really like.  Another point in favor of this game, the website for the game is full of all sorts of goodies. http://www.secretfiregames.com/

I guess in the end I would give it 4 out of 5 stars and use it as a kick-ass resource. It is a good enough game by itself, but I plan on using it as an add-on.

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