Monday, July 20, 2009

Crunching the Wilderness of Mirrors

I recently picked up Wilderness of Mirrors, a mini-RPG from John Wick.

Overall, I was very impressed. The game is short and sweet and elegant, and absolutely nails it's theme. I'm considering putting my copy of Spycraft into the sell/donate box, because I'd definitely run WoM (Wilderness of Mirrors) over any sort of d20 Espionage game. A few simple reasons:
  • Characters in WoM start off as professional master spies, with no need to "level up" or run training missions.
  • The mechanics are fast and simple. Outside of character creation, there's exactly one chart. PCs have two resources to keep track of, and 5 stats. It's a definite c4 on my crunchometer.
  • The burden on the GM is really diminished. Your work between sessions is about 5 minutes of brainstorming. During the game, the GM never rolls the dice, and only has one resource to track. The toughest part of GMing WoM is keeping an eye on the time (your one resource arrives every 20 minutes of real time, so the tension of the story ratchets up the longer you play).
  • Best of all it captures the feel of the "planning" stage of any good spy or caper film, which is really hard to do right. More about that in my next post.
The game is very narrow - focusing on Bond / Bourne / Bristow type scenarios - but it's really good at what it does. With a little elbow grease, you could also expand it to cover things like Ocean's 11, Reservoir Dogs, or even The Great Escape. So, in general, I love the game, and will be hauling it out first chance I get.

I do have a few little nitpicks, though:
  1. Given the game's basis and theme, the name of the 5 skills puzzles me. You have five skills, which are basically leadership/planning, fighting/wetworks, techie/fixer, faceman/deep cover, and stealth. Instead of choosing appropriate espionage-genre names for those skills, instead they're named after Roman Gods. It's supposed to sound like codewords for the training types, but seeing as how the game has no defined setting (beyond "your favorite spy setting"), the Roman codes seem silly. If you were running an MI-6 / James Bond game, you'd talk about Q and M, not Vulcan and Jupiter. In an Alias game, you'd say this is SD-6's top Wetworks agent, not "He's a Mars". A minor quibble, since renaming is easy in such a light system, but it feels like a strange hold-over from Wick's previous game Enemy Gods (where the names of the Gods were also the names of your stats, but with a more flavorful connection).

  2. Character creation is light, but still presented as being more complicated than it really is. You have 30 points to buy the five skills, and a non-intuitive cost chart that looks simple but will have to be explained three times to some players. Yet despite that, there are only possible spend patterns that don't waste points, and two more that do waste a point or two but don't hamstring your character.

    To save others the trouble of doing the math themselves, the four efficient builds are:
    • 5, 5, 5, 1, 1
    • 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
    • 4, 4, 2, 2, 2
    • 4, 3, 3, 3, 1

    In addition, the following two builds each leave one or two points unspent, but don't leave any dice hanging, and are not strictly inferior to the other four builds.
    • 5, 5, 2, 2, 1
    • 3, 3, 3, 2, 2

    For the record, I don't think that last one is a particularly good idea, as you'd be guaranteeing that you don't get one of the five "I'm the best in this skill" powers, but for a group with 6+ PCs, or for a really long campaign with a lot of mission types and some attendance spotiness, it might be worth it to have such a generalist in the group. Maybe.

    That there's only 6 ways to split the points isn't a complaint - the complaint is that they could make this much easier for new players with a chart of your 6 (or even just the 4 best) options. The details of the point system behind those 4 or 6 arrangements really only needs to be explained if you want to make more or less powerful agents for some reason - a notion the game doesn't explore as it already starts you off with James Bond / Jason Bourne level characters.

  3. No XP system. This is actually my biggest gripe. I can rename a stat, no problem. I can crunch the math on character creation and make a list that simplifies things for new players. Both of those are easily fixed. The game lacks any form of XP or Character Advancement.

    For a lot of players, that means they will never look at it as anything more than a one-shot. I've run long campaigns of Everway and Amber, and I know first hand that some players just seriously dislike any RPG without tangible advancement.

    James Bond never levels up - he's every bit as tough in the first movie as he is in the most recent one. Such an argument just might work in WoM, at least for a little while.

    Jury-rigging such a system seems doomed to fail, too. The game's just not granular enough. Assuming the stats cap at 5, all PCs would end up carbon copies very quickly. If there was no stat cap, you'd end up rolling unwieldy handfuls of dice and in the late game the GM would have no narration rights. It'd get ugly.

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