Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Review: The Wilderness Alphabet

The Wilderness Alphabet
By James Pacek
64 pages (6" x 9")

The Wilderness Alphabet, written by the author/blogger James Pacek. It's thematically a twin to Michael Curtis's The Dungeon Alphabet (reviewed by me here - it's an alphabetical list of entries, A-Z, all outdoor themes, each at least one table of random entries. Flip to the letter ("G is for Graveyard," for example or "M is for Mountain") and roll on the table for details about this particular graveyard or mountain.

Some of the letter choices are non-obvious, to ensure a 26-entry, one-entry-per-letter theme. Random rivers? Under "Y is for Yangtze." Random trees? Under "K is for Krokus." Others are more obvious ("O is for Obelisk" and "R is for Ruins and Residences.") Most of them are very cool, even if the names are a stretch.

The entries each get at least one table, and some get introductory text. Most do not. Some of the text is pretty campaign specific for the author's own game, while others are pretty generic. Otherwise the tables provide the meat of the information. I found the lack of text a bit unhelpful - I want at least a short discussion of why Hills are inherently interesting, or selling me on why I'd roll on the waterfall table. Sure, I can look at the tables themselves, but intro text really does help me decide if I want to or not.

Some of the table entries are a bit mixed. For example, for lakes, you might get "The lake is a swirly mass of dark water." Okay, so what? That's kind of weak, especially when it's on the same table with an entry that has the lake frozen over year round, regardless of weather, or a filled with magical fish. That I can work with. Dark water? Sure, we purify it magically or just ignore it and move on. If I'm rolling on a table for something, I'm not asking "Is it interesting or not?" but rather "How interesting is this thing?" I've already decided I want it to be unusual, so the more bland entries seem like filler to me. If the entry makes me want to say "This, plus roll again" or just "roll again" it's a bit of a turn-off.

My question with this book is - when do I use these tables? Some of them are really immediate (quick graveyard layouts, coming up on a festival and the activities therein, things flying by) while others require a vast amount of prep (a gate to another world, a flying castle flies by) or would have real impacts on the surrounding area (a river that turns to beer or wine part of the year, that frozen lake). Some of them are "thank goodness I have a table for that" (like the graveyard one) and others are more like idea factories for adventures. While I respect that mix, it's hard to tell which table is which, so by default that means I'll only dig them out when I have plenty of time to prepare, to generate some ideas. I'd contrast it with The Dungeon Alphabet, which has a lot more of "I have this lever, what should it do?" and "I need a book title now!" and "Fill this room, quick!" kind of tables. It seems more useful for filling hexes in a wilderness hexcrawl long before the players get close enough to hear about the contents. I get the impression that it's mainly meant for this kind of stocking of hexes, which makes it a very different tool than The Dungeon Alphabet. Not a bad tool, but because so many entries seem to demand more detail or more thought ahead of time you'll probably want to use it earlier in the process. But then if you do, the mix of fairly mundane and quite exotic stuff means you've really got to be open to a given hex being pretty mundane or a gateway to something exotic. That's going to be fine for some users but not all of them.

I like the book, but I wanted to like it more. It's great idea-factory but I'm not sure how often I'll pull it off my shelf.

How is it for GURPS?

It's system-neutral, so as long as you're running an outdoor fantasy game in a "standard" fantasy world, you're fine. Nothing in here is level specific, although a few things specify classes - you could use Dungeon Fantasy templates, here, or just ignore that. Change the very occasional "Clerics only" to "Only people with Clerical Investment" or "Fighters only" to "Only obvious warriors" and it'll work fine.


3 out of 5. The charts are well written, the pieces are interesting, but the lack of general discussions of the topic and the mix of mundane and very exotic entries makes it a difficult tool to just pick up and use on the fly
Presentation: 3 out of 5. The book is well written, and the art and backgrounds are attractive. But I found the typeface hard to read quickly, especially the italicized Question campaign notes, and the backgrounds and page shading often made reading much harder. This is partly made up for by the quality of the writing but it makes the book harder to use.

Overall: Wilderness Alphabet is pretty good. It's a nice idea factory for a fantasy game, although it's both a bit more gonzo and a bit more campaign specific than The Dungeon Alphabet. It's also a bit more spare in its descriptions. It really feels like it's meant to be coupled with a hex-map of a world full of strangeness, and it's very clearly the result of a long and interesting campaign. That's both good and bad - you'll need to either re-roll, modify, or ignore a lot of results if you've got a different game flavor.
Bits of it - like the graveyard generator sub-tables and most of the bonus tables - are really great - but the title stuff is more idea generator than "I need it now." Still a good tool, but it feels more specialized and yet more generalized than its dungeon equivalent.

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