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Wicked Fantasy Review

posted Jan 15, 2014, 6:59 PM by Christopher Ellison
This is an old post I'd drafted October of 2013.  With the chaos my life became late 2013, I set it aside and only recently finished it.  My original observations were from my reading in September of 2013, but I re-read the book before re-reading my notes to get a fresh perspective before finishing this post.

I recently finally finished reading my copy of Wicked Fantasy by John Wick and Gillian Fraser.  All in all, I found it to be… well… hit or miss.  There were some promising ideas, and an experienced GM could certainly build a very interesting campaign off of these, but I really expected a little more... okay, a lot more.  This is particularly true given the cost of the book.

Perhaps I can best explain my disappointment by discussing the sourcebook chapter by chapter.  In case you’re not familiar with the book, each chapter provides a variation on what might be considered a standard Dungeons & Dragons/Pathfinder race.  Since each chapter essentially stands alone, Wicked Fantasy does at least have flexibility going for it.  In my opinion, though, the separated nature of the chapters is also a significant weakness, as the book feels at times disjointed, uncoordinated, and uneven.

The book opens with its treatment on humans, the Reign of Men. For me, this was a disappointing opening. It felt to me as though a disjointed series of ideas were thrown together and called a chapter. I didn't feel that the chapter presented a coherent society or set of societies; it was more just a random mishmash of modern mores and feudal ones with no real explanation as to how or why this society might have become this way or how it continues to operate. It also seemed to disagree with itself within pages. As one example, this quote, "While it is technically illegal for the Watch to murder someone by dunking, it does happen from time to time.... Needless to say, drowning occurs on a regular basis," (Wicked Fantasy, pg. 22) seems self-contradictory to me, particularly when it is followed a page later by a sidebar on how the Realm has no death penalty because it has decided it should not have the authority to end a life. As a final note, I couldn't help thinking while reading it how long and dry it seemed and just how much work it seems I would have to do on my own were I to want to use it - if, indeed, I could use any of it at all.

Thankfully, I found the second chapter to be far superior to the first. The second chapter addresses the "haffuns," or halflings, and how their society operates. This chapter stands in stark contrast to the first by being both targeted and coherent. This is one of only two chapters I felt held together better than the "default" D&D mythology for the race in question. Even with this, though, the described society has its shortcomings. The way the haffuns are portrayed can actually make them more difficult for players to work them into a party, depending on the campaign in question. In fact, working characters of different races into a cohesive party at the start of a campaign is kind of a recurring problem with this book.

Next we come to the chapter on orks. I felt this was another strong chapter, presenting orks as a reasonable and playable race. At times, it did stray a bit into the stereotypical "noble savage warrior" arena. Still, the overall picture it presents of orks make them eminently playable and even interesting. Unfortunately, because it was both strong and somewhat stereotypical, there isn't much else I can say about it.

From two strong chapters, we then move on to what in my mind was the weakest. The description of the elves in Wicked Fantasy is... derivative at best. It seemed as though the authors just said, "Screw it, elves are dryads." Which is fine, I guess, though it takes away a lot of the depth of a more Gaelic-inspired elven society. That decision felt unoriginal and uninspired to me, but as a whole it didn't render the elves unplayable. What did was the decision to base the entirety of elven society around superficiality and self-interest. Much like the chapter on men, I couldn't help but wonder why the entire time I was reading this chapter. How does this society actually exist? How does anyone this self-interested and shallow ever do anything other than stare into his mirror like Narcissus and his river? To be clear, I feel that making elven society fae-like (superficial, self-interested, flighty, and dickish) is a perfectly reasonable approach; however, it still needs to be functional. No matter how many times I read this chapter, I couldn't see how the society depicted here could ever be functional. Once again, I couldn't read about elves without continually thinking about just how much effort it would be to rewrite this entire chapter so that it would be usable. Was this written just because John Wick was tired of players playing elves and he wanted them to play dwarves instead?

After the deep valley that was the elven chapter, we now enter the broad, flat nothingness that was much of the middle of the book. After elves came gnolls and gnomes. Most of what I remember about these two chapters is how little they actually stuck with me. I had to specifically go back and completely reread both of these chapters just to remember the concept. Both races felt somewhat bland to me; not great, but not bad, either. I felt that the biggest problem would be incorporating characters into the party, though this would be more difficult for a gnoll character than for a gnomish one.

Speaking of problematic races, let's move on to the goblins, shall we? Instead of leaving the plateau for a peak, we've left it for a valley. Goblins overall seem to be largely a justification for creating a big group of selfish dickweeds for shit-disturber players to use. There were some parts of the culture that could be interesting, but the entire writeup strikes me more as a landmine in the making for most groups. Hopefully I'm wrong, and I'd love to think that's the case. This writeup set off a lot of alarm bells for me, though, because I could see how various players I'd played with in the past would use this race as a justification for various antisocial player behaviors.

With the next chapter we visit the last remaining high point of the book: the dwarves. This chapter stands in stark contrast to almost every other chapter in the book by describing a strong, interesting, self-consistent, and eminently playable race. The dwarves described here are more interesting and hold together better than the default D&D mythology, something I could only say about them and the haffuns.

Having hit the last high point of the book, we now begin the slow slide to the end. Wicked Fantasy finishes with a chapter about a race that doesn't exist in the basic D&D mythology and then one that does. The invented race is the roddun or rat-men. The cultural concept behind the roddun seems reasonably solid. They could be hard to work into a campaign due to the focus on familial loyalty despite the nods made toward making this "family-like bond" work with non-roddun. Still, the roddun are far from the weakest race described in the book, even if they're also far from the strongest.

With that, we come to the final chapter of the book. This chapter addresses kobolds... but does, it, really? The concept presented is certainly interesting, but it really had nothing to do with kobolds as kobolds. More importantly, the racial concept is almost entirely written in terms of how the kobolds interact with men. There is very little in the chapter specifically about kobolds as their own independent society. The chapter depends heavily on the relatively weak world-building in the rest of the book, which means that a GM wanting to use this concept would have to shoehorn it in to his or her own campaign. Thankfully, this could be done easily enough so long as your campaign has the requisite World-Crushing Evil preinstalled.

All right, those are all the chapters individually, but what does this mean for the book as a whole? Well, frankly, I found it disappointing, and I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it at the list price of $50. As of this writing, it has a two-star rating on DriveThruRPG. I'd call this a bit more pessimistic than I'd be (I'd maybe give it 3 of 5), but I can definitely sympathize with that rating. Quality of writing is uneven overall, and many of the concepts in the book will probably require significant tweaking to be usable in a given campaign. As I write this, though, the PDF version is on sale for $10; at that price point (or ~$25 for a print copy), I'd tentatively recommend picking this up if you're a gamemaster looking for some ideas on how to develop a differently-flavored D&D or Pathfinder campaign world. If that seems like a recommendation with a lot of caveats, well... it is.