You 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I’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.
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.
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.