The Hall of RPG Oddities: Powers & Perils

pnpYou may have noticed I talk about the 80s a lot. That’s probably because I was in my twenties then, involved in SF cons and gaming, watched a lot of movies, wore a green leopard print shirt with a skinny red tie emblazoned with bombers (or a gold tiger-stripe tie, which I still have), an Ike jacket, cargo pants and zebra striped sneakers, I was married to a beautiful redhead as young, naive and immature as I was, and I listened to a lot of new wave music. In short, having been born in 1960 I was just hitting my stride in the 1980s and remember it with both fondness and no small amount of horror.

Back in those days, it may come as a huge shock to know that TSR and Dungeons and Dragons were not the biggest thing in gaming. No, back then wargames were still making a lot of money (and I’m happy to note, appear to be making a comeback in this computer-driven DIY age, decades later), and of the wargaming companies the biggest were Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI) and the Avalon Hill Gaming Company. AH was a venerable company, home to the first real commercial wargames — Tactics, Tactics II, Gettysburg, D-Day, Acquire, Jutland and others — and continued to create classic wargames into the 1990s, including the classic Advanced Squad Leader, a game that drove many a wargamer to madness.

As roleplaying grew in prominence, AH expanded its portfolio of games to include more fantastic material with games like Starship Troopers (I still have my copy) , Wizards, Dragon Pass and The Merchant of Venus. But as time went by many wondered when or if AH would ever throw its hat into the RPG ring. These questions were answered in 1983, when Avalon Hill announced that it would be publishing a brand-new fantasy roleplayer called Powers and Perils, along with a multi-genre rpg titled Lords of Creation as well as a third edition of the classic Runequest. AH scheduled the release for the 1983 Origins convention, along with numerous demos and game sessions.

Unfortunately, when Origins rolled around, P&P was nowhere to be seen, and the scheduled events never took place. Apparently the pressure of releasing not one but three roleplaying games at once had taken its toll, and the three games were not released until the following year.

PnP1

One of the better illos. Too bad they’re not all this good.


Steve Jackson’s magazine Fantasy Gamer heralded the news with a cover story with an illustration that portrayed a loud and fun-loving titan leaping into a swimming hole much to the horror of other swimmers, with the headline The Giant Jumps In: Avalon Hills New RPGs Reviewed. The issue lamented that despite AH’s size and experience, the two flagship releases, P&P and Lorde of Creation, were both disappointing, while its third release was essentially a redesign of an existing RPG.

Powers and Perils met with widespread disdain for its excess complexity, questionable art and poor production values, and in the end proved something of a disaster, lasting a couple of years before being pulled from AH’s catalog. I myself had the misfortune of attempting to play this thing, and a few years ago I scored a copy for $5, which I keep simply as a novelty. It’s also a perfect game for treatment here, given the hype and hope surrounding its release and the crushing disappointment when reality set in. So with that in mind, shall we delve into the sad anomaly that was Avalon Hill’s Powers and Perils?

EL + AB + ((SB+StB))/2 rounded down

Here's one of the... well... the LESS good ones...

Here’s one of the… well… the LESS good ones…

One of Avalon Hill’s key advantages was that they owned their own presses. This was because the original owner relinquished the company to its creditors in the late 1950s, and one of those creditors, the printer, ended up owning the entire operation. With its overhead thus lowered, AH was able to produce its own boxes, rulebooks, maps and counters. Powers and Perils benefited from the arrangement — unlike today’s perfect bound rpgs, P&P came in a sturdy box with a more than decent cover illo, and a back blurb that lies like a rug, telling us that “Powers & Perils is a Fantasy Role Playing game in the finest sense… It is the ultimate test for the tested FRP gamer, while its systems are simple enough for the total novice to understand and enjoy.” (Cue raucous laughter from the gallery.) “As sure as the Sun rises, Powers & Perils will provide you with unique, challenging and constantly dynamic adventure…”

Inside this unbelievably dishonest box were four saddle-stitched rulebooks, an adventure titled County Mordara, dice and a pad of character sheets. And so it is that the happy roleplayer, eager for a new experiences after a decade or  so of Dungeons and Dragons, enthusiastically opens Book One — The Character Book, ready to generate new and exciting characters for new, exciting adventures.

My guess is that this enthusiasm lasted for about 20 minutes, until the full horror that is character generation for P&P made itself manifest. The process is truly punishing, and on several occasions I have awakened in a cold sweat after the nightmare of dying, descending to hell and being forced to generate Powers & Perils characters for all eternity.

P&P's handy abbreviations chart. Get used to it -- you'll be using it a LOT, unless you have a photographic memory.

P&P’s handy abbreviations chart. Get used to it — you’ll be using it a LOT, unless you have a photographic memory.

To start with, P&P’s designers were utterly obsessed with abbreviations. On page 4 there is a list of no fewer than 57 abbreviations used throughout the rules which you, the player, are expected to know. They include AHP (Average Hit Point Value), BL (Base Line), CEL (Combat Experience Level), DCV (Defensive Combat Value), DTV (Damage Tolerance Value — don’t get them confused, for god’s sake), Em (EmpathyK), FV (Fatigue Value), .LT. (Less Than), MDV (Magic Defense Value), NAV (Natural Armor Value), OCV (Offensive Combat Value), StB (Stamina Bonus), WSB (Weapon Strength Bonus) and so much, much more. Given the ubiquity of abbreviations throughout the game’s four rulebooks, the unfortunate player is going to end up returning to this page over and over again, until all 57 values are finally memorized, and neurosis has finally bloomed into full-blown madness.

A character’s 10 “Native Abilities” (Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution and Appearance) are generated by rolling 2d10 and applying modifiers for gender and race (female elves get a +2 bonus to Appearance, natch), for an average of about 11 or so. Simple enough.

Well that’s only the beginning. In addition to the “Native Ability” we need to generate the Maximum Ability. To do this we roll 2d6+14 (why 14, one wonders?), which is then distributed among the ten abilities in increments of .5, ranging from 1-4 (no, wait — for Constitution and Appearance you have to roll on a table rather than assign… why?). These are multipliers, which are now applied to the Native scores to generate the “Maximum Ability” for each stat.

So, now we know where the base numbers for stats (Native) and how high they can go (Maximum), but where do they start on a new character? Glad you asked — now you simply roll your new character’s age and social station, and using the handy-dandy formula (the first of many, many like it) (Age x 2) + Station + 2d10 to generate the character’s Initial Increase Factor — another pool that can now be divided among Characteristic Points, Experience Points, Expertise Points and Wealth. A 20 year old adventurer from a petty noble family for example, will get an average of 55 Initial Increase Factors. He can then assign these to his  Characteristic Points (generating 49 CPs), Experience Points (generating 15 and giving the character’s starting CEL of 3), Expertise Points (240) and Wealth (starting with 350 Silver Coins, aka SCs). The Characteristic Points are then applied characteristics that are below their maximum, each raising the stat by one. Expertise points are then applied to skills (and no we haven’t even gotten to skills yet), and wealth is, well — wealth.

On the left, Powers and Perils. On the right Frank Frazetta's "The Moon Maid." Plagiarism? You make the call.

On the left, Powers and Perils. On the right Frank Frazetta’s “The Moon Maid.” Plagiarism? You make the call.

In my friend Bob’s living room so many years ago, this process alone took hours. The burning desire for gaming goodness gave way to a sort of deathmarch mentality, with me slogging slowly toward the finish, rolling dice, allocating points and doing the math, hoping against hope that it would end soon before the quiet peace that only death could bring. But even then it wasn’t over. We had to roll special events, special attributes before finally determining what all those horrific Current Abilities really meant.

And in the end — hang onto your hats — these numbers, ranging from 2 to 80 or higher, yielded a single number — the Characteristic Bonus, which was used in all calculations governed by that stat. A current Strength of 50 yielded a bonus of +2. A current Dexterity of 80 yielded a +4 and so on.

Yes, after countless hours of calculation, these statistics ended up generating a single plus or minus, much like the 3-18 stats generated for D&D 5th Edition. Only they were born of pain and sadness instead of easily and quickly generated by die rolling.

And then we graduated to the skills section, where the aforementioned stats were put through the meatgrinder to get factors, which were used in a variety of ways, usually cross-indexed on a table to determine a chance of success. These factors were generated with another plethora of fun, Fun, FUN formulas and purchased with the skill points that we just generated (remember them?)

But first we need to determine the Maximum EL (Experience Level) for each skill. If you wanted to be an armorer, for example, the Maximum Level you could achieve in this skill was either 1+ W (Will) + (StB [Strength Bonus] x5) or 80, whichever was lower. Maximum Forester Level was (S + A) + (StB x 5) or 80, and so on. With this in mind you then purchased your skills and proceeded to the section explaining them.

Every skill worked differently. If you wanted to be an armorer, you could make any item with an AV or WSB less than or equal to your EL divided by 10, rounded up, and the time needed to make items was equal to the AV or WSB plus 2 squared in days. An assassin who inflicts deadly damage from ambush determines the damage with the formula (SB+1)d10 + (EL as Assassin x 2) + all Normal Modifiers. Your Climbing Factor (used to determine the success of climbing based on the climb’s difficulty) equals EL + AB + ((SB+StB)/2 rounded down). And so on.

A rare example of trans-gendered plagiarism.

A rare example of trans-gendered plagiarism.

Simplicity itself. You had to purchase each of 21 weapons and 33 other skill separately, determine your factors and chances of success separately, and keep track of each separately. There was no unified set of rules to determine relative success on skill checks.

By this time I’d about had it. The Character Book, mercifully short for all the verbiage, concluded with a list of equipment and rules for experience, which I never got to apply as we played a grand total of one session (I believe we encountered a Terror Beast and all fled screaming, end of session). How well the system worked is anyone’s guess (though the Space Gamer review said that combat was relatively straightforward and magic had some good elements despite the game’s other flaws). All I can say is that the mere act of character generation almost killed me, and remains scarred into my memories even today, decades later.

Stealing Frazetta

Top: Odalisque and Slave by Ingres (1842). Bottom: A Lounging Noblewoman by Powers and Perils (1983). I'm struck by the similarity, aren't you?

Top: Odalisque and Slave by Ingres (1842). Bottom: A Lounging Noblewoman by Powers and Perils (1983). I’m struck by the similarity, aren’t you?

The other books were comparable, printed on AH’s fine presses with very familiar layout and typography. Book 2 was Combat and Magic, and as I’ve said I can’t really tell you how well either worked since I never actually played a magic-using character, but it appears to be another welter of charts, tables and varying formulas. Book 3, The Creature Book included a fairly lightweight cosmology system, encounter tables and the usual bog-standard fantasy monsters, each with about 20 abbreviated stats (AHP, MR, EnL, MDV, DCV, NF, etc., once more causing the harried game master to go scurrying back to Page 4 of the first book for reminders of just what those abbreviations actually mean), as well as some actually intriguing creatures with a strong mid-eastern, Sumerian/Babylonian feel to them, and others that use the familiar but still exotic Celtic mythology. Most intriguingly, the ubiquitous orc was missing from a creature book that included such standards as goblins, trolls and ogres.

Book Four includes some nifty tables for encounters with humans (or at least non-monsters) in civilized and urban areas, and a list of treasures. Book Four concludes with designer’s notes which explain absolutely nothing about why the rules are such a mess, and advises game masters to ignore rules that they find too complicated (a tall order given how integrated the rules are with each other). The final book is a setting book for County Mordara, including some decent enough stats for local NPCs and a very lightweight adventure that barely qualifies as such.

In all, Powers & Perils represented a hugely wasted opportunity. From a smaller company it might have been acceptable, or at least shown a few glimmers of originality, but from a company the size and influence of Avalon Hill, this game is every bit as disappointing as it was back in 1984. Perhaps the rules did work reasonably well, but the tedious, deadly dull process of character creation and the mass of undigestible abbreviations and sub-rules for individual skills all but drained the game of any real fun and me of any real desire to play.

The piece de resistance of P&P's art theft, this one incorporates not one but two pieces by Frank Frazetta. On the left, "An Alal on the Charge," in the center a Frazetta illo from The Lord of the Rings and on the right Frazetta's black and white piece "Kublai Khan." I think we can close the book on this particular case, don't you?

The piece de resistance of P&P’s art theft, this one incorporates not one but two pieces by Frank Frazetta. On the left, “An Alal on the Charge,” in the center a Frazetta illo from The Lord of the Rings and on the right Frazetta’s black and white piece “Kublai Khan.” I think we can close the book on this particular case, don’t you?

One really unforgivable aspect of the design that can’t be ignored is the artwork. What little there is ranges from average to utterly awful, and many pictures were infamously plagiaristic, consisting of images traced directly from Frank Frazetta pictures such as The Moon Maid, Kublai Khan, Jongor Fights Back and others (even a few classical non-Frazetta paintings). Of the other illustrations, those by James Talbot are actually pretty good — had he been engaged to illustrate the entire work it might have looked better. But as it is, the non-Talbot illustrations, even those that aren’t outright theft are downright awful, and seriously unworthy of one of the largest gaming companies around.

I guess the real test of a new rpg is whether it is truly needed. What purpose does it serve? What niche does it fill that hasn’t been filled before? Runequest featured roleplaying in an exciting bronze-age world and introduced an intriguing cosmology. GURPS brought detailed granularity, realistic subsystems and a wide variety of settings to the hobby. FATE provides interactive storytelling and involves both game master and players in the adventure. Savage Worlds melds fast-playing miniature gaming to traditional rpg structure. And so on.

Unfortunately, I’m seriously unable to figure out exactly what niche Powers and Perils was supposed to fill. The only thing I can think of is the combination of random die rolling and multiplier point allocation was an attempt to marry entirely random generation with point-buy systems, but in the end it just made things more complicated, and after seemingly endless work, simply yielded a single modifier, which could have been done far, far more simply.

Avalon Hill killed P&P and Lords of Creation pretty quickly, and spent the next few years dinking with the Runequest system, with mixed success. They returned to a new roleplaying setting with Tales of the Floating Vagabond, a hilarious game married to a specific humorous universe, and found some small amount of success — if nothing else TotFV gained beloved cult status and is still remembered well.

But P&P was a sad orphan, rejected by a hobby that should have embraced it. While like many other unsuccessful rpgs it continues to have its adherents, including an actual on-line community, for the most part Avalon Hill’s great foray into roleplaying is forgotten or at best considered an ambitious failure.

However, the story isn’t really over, for a single unrecognized (and until now unappreciated) gem gleamed amid the Powers & Perils trainwreck — its official setting, predictably titled Perilous Lands. 

A Diamond in the Muck

fullmapI’m not sure exactly why I bought Perilous Lands considering how unhappy I was with the main system. I think it was my fascination with worldbuilding and fantasy settings — witness my purchase of Columbia Games’ Harn for the map and world, rather than any interest in actually playing the game, and my buying every TSR designed D&D setting and never using them. I had them all at one time. Unfortunately, a huge number of them ended up mysteriously disappearing after my second divorce (I hasten to add that I’m not bitter; I am however still royally pissed off), but fortunately this boxed setting for Powers and Perils survived the carnage.

The package consists of a way-too-large box, 68-page Culture Book, 36-page Site Book and 32-page color Map Book. It’s the Culture Book that makes this product worth the money, consisting of detailed, imaginative descriptions of no fewer than 83 separate nation-states, tribes and regions, each unique and effectively presented.

Entries open with a history of each region or culture. Dechat’s history, we are told “is one of illegal practices, immorality and vice.” Lemasa, on the other hand, invaded Tyan in 444LE and killed 13,000, triggering a massacre at the hands of the vengeful Fomorians. And so on. The histories are varied and interesting, with enough material to inspire endless gaming sessions.

The tiny, tiny people of the Perilous Lands.

The tiny, tiny people of the Perilous Lands.

History is followed by a breakdown of the nation’s population, information on its military, economy, religion and typical national personality and character, legal system (a must for any truly sadistic GM), geopolitical status and languages. These are often followed by notes about unusual traditions and stories, such as the Imperial Succession section on Lemasa: “When an emperor dies his son are walled into the Sacred Caves… Twenty-four hours later the exit is opened. The first one to find this exit is the new emperor. Immediately after his exit the cave is re-sealed. Any other son who is seen after this is killed.”

With the right presentation and promotion, the Perilous Lands might have developed into something as detailed as the Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder’s Golarion, but it was of course not to be since Perilous Lands was tied too closely to the failed Powers and Perils, and its physical quality was downright drab, with standard AH layout and typography and very few, very poor illustrations. The last two pages of the Culture Book for example, include small illustrations of the inhabitants of various lands in typical dress, but each image is less than an inch tall and fairly crude. If you look really close you might be able to figure out what an inhabitant of Caldo, L’p’nth or Teos looks like, but larger pictures would have been appreciated, possibly in actual association with the land they refer to.

There are a few other problems. The various cultures of the Perilous Lands use a total of 28 different calendars. That’s not really unsurprising given the size of the continent and the diversity of cultures there, but unfortunately the designers didn’t settle on one of these as the “standard” calendar, but instead use all of them — each culture or nation’s history uses that region’s calendar, so without a calculator and (yes) the calendar table, it’s impossible to put the histories of the various lands in context.

One of PL's mini-maps. It's not especially fancy or graphically impressive but it does the job. It's too bad AH didn't include a full map with these all stitched together.

One of PL’s mini-maps. It’s not especially fancy or graphically impressive but it does the job. It’s too bad AH didn’t include a full map with these all stitched together.

Also, despite Avalon Hill’s extensive publication assets, they didn’t bother to give us a single fold-up map, choosing instead to split the map up into 700 mile square hex-gridded sections spread out over 36 pages, making it difficult to envision the totality of the continent and understand where the map sections belong in relation to each other. There’s a map of the entire continent on the cover, but it’s without any cities, borders or notations, so it’s not terribly useful.

Those prove to be minor distractions — the book is still something of a gem, with lots of useful material that can easily be lifted and placed into other settings. That there are very few actual statistics or rules from Powers & Perils is to me something of a bonus. I’ve considered adapting this product to an actual campaign one day, utilizing a less cumbersome and frustrating system.

It’s a shame that a game company with Avalon Hill’s history, talent and resources chose to use them in such a miscalculated manner. Powers & Perils could have become a major player in the rpg world, along with other non-D&D games as GURPS, Call of Cthulhu and Rolemaster, but its painful character generation system married to cumbersome skill rules and less-than-impressive production values pretty much killed it. Avalon Hill continued for many years after this fiasco, but eventually went the way of all flesh, becoming another nameplate in the vast Hasbro empire, emblazoned on current versions of games like Axis & Allies, Betrayal at House on the Hill and new versions of classics like Diplomacy, Risk and the last real survivor of the Avalon Hill era, Acquire. A handful of AH’s old games such as Jutland and Rise and Fall of the Third Reich have been republished by other companies such as Avalanche Press, but regrettably most have not returned.

Sigh.

14 thoughts on “The Hall of RPG Oddities: Powers & Perils

  1. Jimmy

    Hello.

    I was wondering if it’d ever be possible to buy a version of the Wulf Archives for my Kindle?
    Regards

    Jimmy

    Reply
    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      Hi Jimmy! Sorry I didn’t reply sooner (see my lame excuse below)… My attention to the old Wulf Archives has been lax I’m afraid, but I do have ebook versions of Wulf available. Can you message me on Facebook (I’m just plain old Anthony Pryor) with your email address and I’ll see to it that you get copies?

      Reply
  2. Catacomb librarian

    Thanks for the long review. I am personally sad to read another negative review of this game that i have been playing for a couple of years with my player and that gave us so much enjoyment.
    I wrote many posts on my blog in defense of P&P but you are right,there ARE sections which are unnecessary complicated and that i myself never used,for instance the rules for determining height and weight.
    I have a project in my mind of re-writing P&P as a clone in a streamlined and more comprehensible version,i hope to be able to accomplish this task someday.There is a beautiful fantasy system dormant behind the apparent complexity..when you grasp it you realize that it is so logical in its beauty and that the math was developed with this aim in mind,namely to try to achieve a sort of “fantasy reslism” much in the vein of Rolemaster and the like.

    Reply
    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      Thanks for the response! I’m sorry I didn’t approve it sooner as I’ve spent the last week overdoing things at Gencon. I agree that the game has some good ideas that might benefit from a new edition, and these days the more rpg systems we’ve got out there the better. I’ve got a new post on the old SPI War of the Ring game coming up soon, so stay tuned.

      Reply
    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      I will check that out most assuredly, especially as one of my best friends is fluent and has helped me with French translations in the past.

      Reply
  3. Joe the OK

    Your comments about Powers and Perils are about the conclusion I came to after playing it a time or two, it had lots of potential but was badly in need of at least a good edit. I like the Perilous Lands material, though, and have used (and expect to use) the Donarans (whose home is shown in your map illustration) for role playing campaigns using other systems–Runequest, Chivalry and Sorcery, and the like. But it is very much a building exercise out of whole cloth when I do so.

    Reply
    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      It was easily the most grueling and joyless character generation session I have ever experienced. A few revisits to the system over the years have convinced me that there might be a good game hiding in there, but it certainly wasn’t in the AH version. It’s a pity, given the resources that AH could have provided to the rpg community.

      Reply
  4. Scott Adams

    Yet another bad review. It boils down to one thing. You played for 1 HOUR. Unless I missed something. I played when it came out in 1983 when I saw it at Skirmishes Con here in town. I have always liked the little games the one box games. Games you do not need to take a loan out to buy all the supplements and rule books like certain games (D&D, etc). So 2 boxes suited me fine. (actually 3 the gm screens and such was one box).

    Games like Fringeworthy, Gamma World, etc small systems.

    So you play this for 1 hour and review it? Do you read all but the last 10 pages of a novel and give a review? Do you kick a new car’s tired and review it without a test drive?
    If you even said you gave it a year I’d say you have full right to review it. Even a month. But a hour??!? One Session?

    1) Poor Design – Frankly what game in the 80s wasn’t this way? It would take another decade for rpgs to even get some credit. With the news reports on D&Ders being devil worshipers and dance naked on graves drinking blood made it a underground industry till at least the 90s. Sure by 80s D&D was around since 70s. But the industry was still new. Small companies had small budgets. Games like Tin Star OWl hoot was so small it was like 20 pages of rules? Is that from bad design or the rules laid out by money and culture. I’ve played some really bad games but enjoyed them more because they were bad. Cyborg Commander was one game I played at a Con and loved it cause it was like the terminator. The final battle with cyborgs around a swimming pool sticks to me 20 years later. Ghostbusters had FOUR stats. That’s it. but folks complained it was too complicated on some mechanics. How can simple 4 dice rolls be complex? It is the pot heads the kids who need a calculator at mcdonalds to add simple math up. You tell them you should get X back and they stare like deer in headlights until their register gives them the total.

    P&P does take some intelligence. It is not complex at all more than some games. (Chart Master – aka Role Master which takes 45-90 min for 1 freaking round of combat).

    Abbreviations – Seriously? A simple set like that confuses folks? I’m sorry. Guess these same folks do bad in science class like chemistry or Financial Management (gawd that college course had far more formulae by far).
    Chart Master where there is charts for chart 2 and refer to page 8 to look up chart 19 which takes you to sub chart 87 -C. A game is only as complex as one wishes. My infamous Chart Master demo at a con where it took 90 in for 4 players to do ONE round of combat was very bad. But years later I played another game and the GM did the same 6 players in 20 min. Experience and intelligence of players/gms does matter.

    Orc Missing – So you came in thinking this was a D&D clone right ? Same here. But after 10 min I learned it was a unique world. Much BETTER world. Why have orcs and just be another clone? I’m glad for this. Anyone can create a clone and rename it. It is special when you find a game that is not a clone of another. Why I run tons of systems that are unique.

    How much research did you really do? . It is one thing to bash a game when Richard Snider is dead. He can’t defend himself now. You speak of no new version. Well you speak of a online community but did you do research there? Version 2 has been out for a decade or so (my files show at least 2006). We even had help from the author himself Richard Snider. Who talked about the issues AH gave him. I even helped to redo the monster and magic system in depth. Many others who have been around since early ’90s helped as well. You give one sentence to this group but didn’t even give a URL? So folks can decide on TWO different point of views?

    http://powersandperils.org/

    I myself have run a pbem of the game since 1999 constantly. With a few dozen players over the years. But our community is much larger on many countries.

    So if you are reading this and actually wan to learn more and play for maybe two hours come see us. Join the mailing list and see real experts on the game.

    Reply
    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      I’m very glad that folks are still enjoying this game and are maintaining a healthy community, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who’s interested in learning more, go check out the link above. As for me, I’m having to cut back on my actual roleplaying — ironically enough because I’m getting swamped by freelance rpg work right now (I’ll post some updates soon about some of the stuff I’m working on for Frog God aka Necromancer and for Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds), so returning to a game that pretty much wore out its welcome three decades ago is unlikely. But once more — if you’re into the game and are devoted to continuing its development, more power to you.

      On the other hand I can’t say that I agree with some of your arguments there. Saying that I’d played the game for 1 hour is kind of a mischaracterization of what I said, dontcha think? I said that character generation took countless hours and was a pretty miserable experience for me, which pretty much wrecked any enjoyment I felt for the game. Yes, we played one session (that time anyway) and all decided that it wasn’t worth it. While your analogy of reviewing a book after reading 10 pages isn’t entirely without merit, I’ll respond with this — if my first bite of an apple proves that it’s rotten, why bother eating the whole thing?

      For the record, I’ve gone back to P&P a few times over the decades to see if the passing years (and there have been many, I fear) have mellowed me or the game, and to my regret I have learned that neither is the case. In addition to the alphabet soup of abbreviations there was also that plethora of various formulae and calculations required which for me drained the game of any real fun. Once more, if this is your thing, go for it. It just doesn’t do it for me.

      I’m also not sure why the fact that there were many other badly designed games in the 1980s somehow excuses bad design in the case of P&P. As noted, AH was a huge force in the gaming industry back then — surely they had the resources to produce a better-developed product? Surely they could have afforded a real artist, rather than someone who simply traced Frank Frazetta paintings? What they produced was a huge disappointment to those of us who were looking forward to a new system that wasn’t D&D, and the result left a very bad taste in our mouths. I’d also add that I wasn’t alone in this — the game was both a critical and a financial failure despite AH’s heavy investment in promotion. That you’ve stuck with it all these years is a testament both to your own persistence.

      It’s a shame, and I’m the first to admit that P&P contained some very good ideas. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an under-baked cake, released far too soon and in far too shoddy a package. More development might have turned it into something — as you and your friends have doubtless proved. A community of people who are experts in P&P and continue to improve the system has my respect, though I’m personally not 100% convinced that the game is worth the effort.

      My comments were based upon my own experiences playing (or at least attempting to play) the game’s original edition, not that of an on-line community that has had 30 years to correct its more egregious errors. If I gave your efforts short shrift, hopefully I’ve corrected that admittedly regrettable error, but my reaction to AH’s original half-finished game remains. Sorry, dude. Happy gaming.

      Reply
  5. Alex Koponen

    I love playing Powers & Perils. I’ve been playing RPGs since the 1st edition of D&D came out and realize that there are different strokes for different folks. I’d been playing complex boardgames by Avalon Hill, SPI and 3M long before D&D came out. What to the reviewer looks strange and arcane with abbreviations, formula and paragraph numbering was fairly standard in the more complex wargames of the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s. It may not read easily but is logical and makes referencing rules much quicker.
    P&P does have a steep learning curve. Even as an experienced gamer it took me three weeks of study and playing around with how the system worked to fully understand it. It would have been MUCH faster had someone who already understood the system taught me. Once I understood the system I was impressed by its elegance. Yes it requires some math, most of it only at character creation or when increasing skills. Yes it, like many games takes a fair bit of time to create a character. But creating characters IS part of the fun. Yes,, the art of designing RPGs has advanced a lot since the early ’80s. But it is still a fun game for those who are willing to put in the effort to learn the system and who like the style of play it provides.

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    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      Just as an aside, I would never for a moment suggest that anyone else who enjoys playing a game is wrong for liking it, or that what I discuss is anything more than my extremely humble opinion — I personally don’t even really see these posts as true “reviews” so much as reminiscences and personal anecdotes. As I said above if someone is garnering pleasure from playing a game like P&P I’m totally with you.

      I guess part of it is a question of gaming style. I find the three-letter acronym syndrome absolutely infuriating. In many cases it simply feels like a designer who wants to impress everyone with his elaborate technical-sounding language and an overly complex approach to design that makes sense to him and no one else. A flood of acronyms is also a bad sign in that it indicates that there is a corresponding flood of stats to remember and keep straight in your head — I fear my feeble mind can’t usually contain more than a couple per game. And when those stats are the result of a series of fairly sophisticated formulae which vary from skill to skill, a game becomes for me more of an exercise in mathematics than a source of pleasure. Keep in mind I was a pretty wretched math student.

      What really yanked my chain about the long, long process that we went through to create a character was that most of this calculation resulted in a single simple +/- modifier. Why not cut to the chase and generate that modifier directly, through die rolling, point allocation or a combination of both? In the end that’s what you ended up doing, but given the tortuously long pathway we took to get to a simple +1 or +2 bonus, I felt like those unfortunate Magratheans in “Hitchiker’s Guide” who waited millennia for the ultimate answer only to learn that it was actually “42.”

      Again if, as you say, you really enjoy this kind of thing, then I definitely salute you. And I’m not against complexity or convoluted character creation — most of my friends find GURPS waaaay too granular and hate the painstaking allocation of points involved. Others really, really hated the d20 skill point system, which I found fairly painless (though it has since been improved upon, I have to admit). I was even (regrettably) involved in the creation of a disastrously complex rpg back in the early 90s that one reviewer described as “not for the mathematically challenged.” In the end, I think that’s a criticism that could equally well be applied to P&P, its legions of supporters and fans notwithstanding.

      The trend in rpgs appears to be toward fast playability, minimal complex terminology and as little math as possible. Personally I see this as a positive trend, as I’m really more interested in playing than I am in spending an entire evening generating characters with my phone’s calculator app close at hand. There are those that think that this constitutes a “dumbing down” of roleplaying, but I’d say it’s more a case of emphasizing play over mechanics — I don’t consider myself especially dumb, and I’m more of a “less math, more play” type hobbyist. I realize of course that a nice evening of getting lost in a diverting session of character generation is perfectly find and relaxing for some and again that’s awesome — even so I found P&P’s character generation system needlessly convoluted for too little payoff. BUT, don’t let me discourage you… It’s really a question of personal taste, and if P&P scratches your rpg itch it’s great for you.

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    1. Anthony Pryor Post author

      I love Jeff’s blog, btw — I wish I had the time to make as many entries as he does. LOC was released at the same time as P&P and I never scored a copy; the Space Gamer seemed to feel that it was like P&P — a promising idea marred by rushed production and poor execution. If I can find it I might write about it.

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