Posted on July 18, 2008 by Flames
“The Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo,” by Chad Underkoffler and Atomic Sock Monkey Press, is a game of adventure and wonder set in a world of fairy tales. But the land of Zo is more than just pixies and knights. The game includes classic story elements from almost every childhood fantasy, from “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” to “Peter Pan” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The game uses Underkoffler’s Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) system, which is also used in the super-hero RPG “Truth & Justice” and the manic “Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot: the Roleplaying Game.” In PDQ, characters use Qualities to represent their abilities. Qualities can be anything from skills to beliefs to personality quirks. All rolls are done with two six-sided dice, and the highest roll, after all applicable Qualities and modifiers are added in, wins. That person then narrates the outcome.
In “Zo” characters also can have special items, abilities and even sidekicks which give them bonuses in specific situations. Characters earn “Learning Points” whenever they fail, and those points can later be cashed in to improve Qualities or purchase new extras. That way, the more difficult an adventure, the more likely it is your character will grow.
Underkoffler also modified the PDQ system in “Zorceror of Zo” to capture many of the elements found in classic and modern fairy tales, namely magic.
In “Zo” magic comes in several forms, from magic items to spells to “Magic-Star Qualities,” which allow an existing Quality to perform broader, more magical feats. For example, if Jack had a Magic-Star Quality of Nimble, he would be able to leap giant flaming candles or other stunts of dexterity beyond normal human ability.
One extra I really enjoyed in the game was the idea of magic having a cost or a catch. I particularly liked this mechanic because it better follows the fairy-tale style of the game. Spells are usually powerful and wondrous, but carry with them a great price in most stories. Most times it comes down to how much you are willing to risk to get what you want, and whether the price is worth the benefit. Often there are ways around a problem that, though non-magical and much harder, are simply the better choice.
This also keeps magic a little more special. When someone finally does decide to cast the spell to turn all swords into flowers, it becomes an event rather than just another roll of the dice.
Underkoffler also does a great job explaining how to capture the flavor of fairy tale-style magic and players can actually get in-game rewards (bonuses) for colorful descriptions.
A good deal of the book is taken up by Underkoffler’s design notes and descriptions of the games he ran while creating and playtesting “Zo.” The setting began as only a few descriptive paragraphs, but has since blossomed into the 180-page “Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo” book.
Though there is probably more behind-the-scenes material than needed, it is interesting to see how the game evolved and the reasons certain key decisions were made. Since the game uses PDQ, the side notes help those already familiar with the system to understand how it is different in “Zo.” It also gives players and game masters a good guide for how to develop their own characters, places and adventures within the game, something that is especially important when dealing with a setting as massive as this.
Speaking of which, one of the only possible downsides to the game is the sheer amount of freedom you have when deciding what to do first. The hardest decision may be simply where to begin. While reading the book I had dozens of ideas for possible game sessions, all of which were equally appealing. Several of my players couldn’t stop with creating just one character because they constantly were remembering different kinds of classic fairy tale figures that would inspire them to make something new and different. It is a nice problem to have, but can prove intimidating for players new to roleplaying games.
But don’t let that scare you away. The game ultimately is as simple or complex as you want it to be. The PDQ system is fast and fun to learn and rewards good storytelling. The setting of “Zo” is amusing, enchanting and makes a wonderful sandbox for building your own castles.
If who grew up watching Bass-Rankin holiday specials and thought there was nothing odd about a French-speaking caterpillar piloting a hot air balloon through time, this is the game for you.
Review by Michael Erb
Staff Writer – The Parkersburg News and Sentinel – www.newsandsentinel.com
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