Monday, March 12, 2012

Judge's Guild Retrospective #3 (Grab Bag Edition): Field Guide to Encounters (vol. 1 & 2) or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Fly-Man Were-Triceratops Ninja God

Another "cold" review, opening up the shrink wrap for the first time ever.  I'm pretty curious, and really, who wouldn't be with this sitting in front of them:

"I always liked the cover for that book, with the gorilla in the bed and the giant woman’s hand coming through the window. Didn’t like the coloring on that, but it was a fun cover." -- Bob Bledsaw.  Perhaps his taste in art and editorial decision-making here had something to do with the fact that mini-Kong here was drawn by Bob Bledsaw, Jr.  Just a thought.

That's right, friends.  THIS publication (written by Dragon's Byte, 1982) is the launch of a "new role playing system."  Does this staple-bound, newsprint-paper publication just get your inner gamer fire burning for a new game system?  What about the cover says "New Fantasy System" or even "Hey, there's 600 new monsters in here!"?  Nothing.  This is Confusing Aspect 1: the non-sequitur product title/artwork.

Remember, this is 1982.  To the left is a TSR product ca. 1982, Gangbusters.  Production values.  An actual design.  Artwork that sold the product and communicated what the game was about.
The second confusion?  How about the author, "Dragon's Byte"?  Turns out, thanks to this acaeum article (a real treasure trove of information, if you read between the lines), that the author is a collective of sorts, a game group from Detroit that submitted this material to Judges Guild for publication.  So JG decides to publish a two-volume product (a fan submission, essentially) ... with 600 new monsters, a new game system (more on that later) and little to no editorial control at the top.  Per Bledsaw: 

When they told me how many monsters they had I knew I could only have a small description and a single picture each. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with my art director (I think he was on vacation when it was scheduled for production) and none of the artists realized that the pictures were supposed to fit exact descriptions from Dragon’s Byte, especially the monsters from the novels. I didn’t see it before it left for printing, and when the Dragon’s Byte guys got it they were quite unhappy.

So neither Bledsaw nor the Art Director even looked at this pile of crap before it went to the printer.

Confusing element 3: the "New Roleplaying System" being published here in 1982 is ... wait for it ... NOT the Judges Guild Universal System put out in 1982.  That's right: one publisher putting out two competing game systems in one year.

So to recap: a product with poor labeling, artwork, production values, no editing, and homebrew content wildly conflicting with soon-to-be-published official product.  All in a gorilla-encased, $12.00 package.

I'm going to recover for a moment before I begin to review this turkey.  Deep breathing ensuing.


The New Roleplaying System in the Field Guide has no name.  So I will call it the Field guide ROleplayinG System, or FROGS.

FROGS uses the standard six D&D ability scores, plus Cunning (cleverness, for thieving), Psionics, Magic, Tracking, Poison Resistance, and Lycanthropy.  All of the stats are generated on 3d6 except Psionics, Magic, Poison Resistance and Lycanthropy, which are on d%.  Ability modifiers are generally similar to OD&D, though one needs a high (16+) score to get a modifier, unlike D&D of that era.

FROGS then implements a host of secondary stats, including Willpower, Psionic Strength Points, and Genetic Spell Points.

We then learn that everyone starts at level 1, except "cult-based" characters, who start at a higher level.  This is the first and last time this is ever mentioned.

Hit points are interesting; after level 1, the PC has a chance of getting a new hit die (of a kind based on race, not class) -- fighter types always get new hit die as they level, but the wimpier classes roll a d% to determine whether they get more hit die.  This is done to accomodate the other conceit of FROGS, which is that it allows PCs to play any monster as a PC -- predating the Effective Character Level concept of Third Edition by a good 18 years.  Take that, WotC!

Skipping over some oddly-placed weapon material charts, we arrive to this gem: "Power Points and Manitou Combat."

I know a few gnome tinker-types that could go for this.  Actually, Manitou here refers to soul to soul combat between psionic combatants.

FROGS uses a spell point, rather than Vancian, magic system.  Presaging 3e's metamagic feats, FROGS refers to spell augmentations to change effects in exchange for a greater spell point expenditure.

We then have a wall-o-text for a few pages describing Lycanthropy and its various types, including:
  • Were-Barracuda
  • Were-Pteradactyl
  • Were-Shark (ok, that's somewhat interesting)
  • and my personal favorite, the Were-Triceratops.
How the herbivorous dino in question manages to impart its curse upon its victims is a question for another time.

Occupations (FROGS' version of classes) follow, including such heroic archetypes as the Acupuncturist.  I shudder to think of the impact of a thousand tiny needles jammed into a Beholder's central eye, for instance.

The class system does have a few interesting tidbits, though, presenting base classes that are effectively multilclassed.  Hence, we have the White Wanderer (a magic/psion), a Shifter (a lycanthrope/fighter), Crimson Seeker (psion/fighter), and Shadow Walker (psion/thief). I find this to be the most interesting bit of FROGS, considering that in standard AD&D of 1982, Psionics were an optional feature layered on top of the class system.  Here, psionics is embraced and whole new classes presaging 3e's Psionic Warrior et al are presented as interesting options.

After that glimmer of hope, the Field Guide retreats to its comedic muddle.  Nowhere are spells or psionic powers, a combat system, a movement system, or any other game mechanics described.  Thus, FROGS must be viewed as an Unearthed Arcana style overlay for D&D, C&S, or other FRP of the time, rather than a "new roleplaying system" unto itself.  But why derail this retrospective with serious commentary?

The middle 40% of volume 1 is dedicated to the Intelligent Monster Supplement, essentially adding a template to character creation to modify statistics and impart special racial abilities.  Wanna play a dolphin?  How about a fly-man (yes, it's what you are imagining)?  Why not a lycanthropic flyman ninja that's secretly a were-triceratops?  Oh yes.

The last parts of volume 1 describe how to become a god in FROGS -- kneel before me, my fly-folk were-triceratops minions!!  Further beyond we also learn what happens to characters with a 100 PSI score (they get Gamma World-esque mutations, that's what!), and finally, the cross-breeding allowed between the various intelligent monsters.  You will be happy to know that a troll and a bison have a 7% chance of successfully procreating.  That is all.

Volume 2, all 96 pages of it, is all monsters.  On page 78, I was elated to discover not only an entry for Toast, but one for Burnt Toast as well.  "Class: Construct: Burnt Toast with face/feet/hands."  Illustration: dark piece of toast, upright, with angry face and threatening gestures.


I think this (along with the cover) says it all:

On the plus side, there is a lot of content (there are a few diamonds to be found among the steaming piles of were-triceratops dung), but the art quality is consistent with JG's typical offerings of period, which is to say generally horrid.  A Kevin Siembieda piece on the back of volume 1 is a actually a quite nice gnoll drawing that was unfortunately butchered by a horrific inking job, rendering our hyena-headed humanoid a sickening shade of troll-green.
A bit of color type printing in parts of Volume 1 were a nice touch, given JG's low-budget production, but really just lipstick on this hog. 

Editorially, the Field Guide is a disaster, with a lack of proofreading for both typos and internal consistency.  Again, this was never JG's strong suit -- stronger on game tools than on game content.  Again, it makes one wonder whether this was what led TSR to pass on granting Bledsaw a renewal of the D&D license.

CONCLUSION:  There's little wonder that JG had 1,600 Field Guides left over (to end up shrink-wrapped and sold to grab-bag EBay suckers like me, two decades later).  The few interesting morsels of gaming goodness in these 192 pages of birdcage liner could have been summarized in a Pegasus article back in the day. 

I need a drink.

Jeff Reints review from '07 here.

1 comment:

  1. Missed this when you wrote, but glad to have just caught up. Thanks.