Tuesday 20 January 2009

Like Mariah Carey, Wonderland by Marco Chacon is beautiful and insane

Wonderland is a beautiful Alice-In-Wonderland inspired setting for the Jags roleplaying game (reviewed in October 2008). Surreal horror sits seductively on the lap of a modern setting. It's the real world where the madness we all know lurks on the edge of vision but some normal people fall into it.

Simply put

Characters are infected with Unsanity. Too much Unsanity and you go mad or vanish. Each game session is an Episode where your Character descends through layers of Wonderland, each layer more bizarre than the last. When you descend you either pick up more Unsanity or try and Master (experience points) the madness. Unlike many other horror games, you can try to use Wonderland to your own aims. This gives the Characters more of a reason to descend.

Organising Madness

Madness is a difficult thing to organise. Like RPGs that try too hard to be funny: few manage to do it (Paranoia being a good example of one that succeeds) and if you're trying to hard to be 'mad and wacky' there is a chance that you turn into that wanker at the office who thinks he's so crazy for wearing blue shirt and a red tie. Like the office muppet, those games should be torched. Fortunately, Marco has a good head on his shoulders and gives a brilliant description. My apologies for copying directly, I just can't think of a better way of explaining what Wonderland is about:
Wonderland is an infectious, predatory, alternate reality. The universe is like a stack of eight chessboards. On the top is what we think of as “reality.” That’s Chessboard Zero. You’d recognize all the pieces. You’d understand all the moves. But some of those squares are fitted with trap doors. Some of them have ladders, chutes, and stairways going down to the lower chessboards.
One level down, most of the pieces are the same but some are different.
Characters will likely meet in the Underground, a collective term for groups where those affected by Wonderland can meet. A support group for infected people going Unsane. You go from this support group and descend into Wonderland. Think of it as the classic tavern.

Reflections and Shadows

You leave a version of yourself (called a Reflection) living your life in the real world while you gallivant about a as Shadow in Wonderland. Horribly, the Shadow from the lower level in Wonderland can swap places with the Reflection. Mastery is the other side of Unsanity. If you master the Wonderland, you can use it. Experimenting with Wonderland might allow you to control it. An Episode of Descent is a gaming session, you take your mates (the other players) from your Underworld Support group. Depending on the Episode (or evening's adventure) you could choose to descend, accidental fall in or feel the need to descend. Getting back to the real world is performed by doors, ladders and the like. The character in the real world wakes from a dream or drug trip, depending on how the Episode begun. Your aim is to get back to your Reflection back in the real world but if you don't manage it then the Reflection in the real world will try and carry on as normal.

Sometimes things from Wonderland can come looking for you. You don't get the chance to choose to descend. The more you go down the rabbit hole, the more your character in Wonderland gets Twisted until it looks nothing like the original person in the real world. There are rules for types of Infection and infecting other people.  

The complexity can pile on when thinking about the interaction between the characters in different layers. You play your character in one Chessboard (or layer) and the Character in the other layers also react in the same way. For example, if you're playing in Chessboard 1 (first level into Wonderland), your Reflection in the real world (Chessboard 0) might act rather strangely. The chess boards affect each other so smashing something up in Wonderland can change things oddly in the real world. Mastery controls how much of an affect this is.

The book

The Wonderland book is 238 pages of beautiful PDF. Layout, graphics, design, typography - everything. It's fabulously put together. Marco has raised the bar. All us Free RPG writers should be rallied by this book and learn from it. It is printed on facing pages, so print odd then even. The free book has screen-resolution (72DPI) graphics and no front cover. The purchasable one is a PDF too but at full print quality with a lovely colour cover. A nice idea. Try before you buy or perhaps a donation-for-a-better-one. There's also the Book of Knots, a GM guide.

Things to think about

Regular readers will have got to know my whinge and moan sections. I don't like doing it because these masterpieces are offered for free and kicking a philanthropist is despicable. It's rather hard this time as Wonderland is so well put together. My first anxiety is its size and organisation. I would like to see a 'get in quick' section right at the front, with descriptions of what the character will do. The floral text is great reading but makes the book difficult to get into. You really do need to read most of it before you can get an idea of what it is all about. This gives the unfortunate (and incorrect) feeling that Wonderland is complicated. If this review is a little difficult to understand is that the four hours I set myself to perform a review was not quite enough. Oh, and the typewriter font is a little too rough.

In conclusion

Wonderland is a wonderful setting rammed with flavour, depth, novel ideas and great background. A beautiful book. It is a mirror into a very different sort of roleplaying. You could run Wonderland with any generic system as it is the setting that is strong here, not necessarily the connection with JAGS. The sort of game that the orphan-butchering-game-ruining-filth I call players might actually be bothered by. Even if horror isn't really your thing, check out Wonderland, it might just change your mind. Or ruin it.

Well done Marco, it's amazing.


Gleichman said...

Marco is a class act amoung the free rpg world. Excellent production values and a far better than norm ruleset.

I'd like to see more publishers like him.

Little Shepherd said...

Oh, goodness yes! This setting is wonderful! The JAGS rule system might be exactly what its acronym stands for, but the free settings they publish are just awesome.

I read Wonderland and the Book of Knots a while back. I kept imagining all the different games I could run with it, and different pieces that I could rip off to make other games better. I'm not sure I could follow the plot all the way to the end of the Book of Knots, though. The ending seems appropriate, but anticlimactic.

Rob Lang said...

I share your sentiments (both!).

@Shepherd, I must admit that wonderland is a little daunting. That's part of the problem with truly different and superb settings, they take a bit of work to get your players into. No doubt, that effort would be rewarded at the table.

Marco said...

Thanks for the excellent review--very much appreciated. JAGS Archetypes will be out sometime soon, I hope. That will let us get back to making more world books :)


Jeffrey Straszheim said...

By the way, there is no reason you have to match one session to one descent. When we've played, we often drift back and forth between the chessboards withoug knowing it -- at least not at first. And there are all sorts of ways you can connect your actions on the various chessboards with you fate in others.

Rob Lang said...

Hey Marco, I am glad you liked it - hopefully as much as I liked Wonderland. I'll be reviewing Book of Knots in the future. Many thanks for your philanthropy. :)

@Jeff - It definitely something that needs to be played through before you truly understand how it works. I imagine it would be complex at first but as you get your brains around to the idea, it would become second nature.