Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Week of Synnibarr: Day One!

Welcome one and all to WEEK OF SYNNIBARR, the only blog event awesome enough to merit all bold and all caps. If you're not familiar with World of Synnibarr, I think you'll enjoy finding out about it, and if you are, I hope you'll find that my approach to it is a little different from what you may be accustomed to.

The facts are simple enough: The World of Synnibarr is an "intergenre" RPG that came out in 1993, around the time that games were very intently trying to take themselves seriously. Deep settings and genre emulation were all the rage, White Wolf could do no wrong, everyone knew like a scientific fact that AD&D 2nd ed sucked out loud except for all the people happily playing it. It was a heady time. We were young, we were proud. We made mistakes.

Into this milieu plunged The World of Synnibarr, with a can-do attitude, a pair of wraparound shades, a feathered mullet and a jetbike. And it was torn to pieces. Reviews slated it, usenet (back when that was a thing) pilloried it, and it quickly became a gaming in-joke. Game designer Raven c.s. McCracken didn't do himself any favours by wading into the online discussion swinging. But in all honesty, it's hard to see what he could have done when he appears in the back of the game looking like this:

A moustache, a mullet, a suave-dude camera-point, a fantasy costume and a sword. An army of too-cool-for-school gamers were sharpening their knives from the moment they saw that. 

And the accompanying author bio, which is basically about polymath he-man Raven c.s. McCracken and his career from the early years of bitter struggle to the dizzying heights of RPG design success, didn't help. In short, McCracken was the RPG community's village fool and has remained that way for 20 years. 

This isn't about that. 

There are a million zillion places on the internet you can find people taking the piss out of Synnibarr and McCracken. You can read this Something Awful article or Darren MacLennan's punishing RPGnet review. Elsewhere, you can find bloggers and forum posters bagging on the game in moods ranging from good-natured ribbing to hysterical vituperation. 

What I'm saying is that it would be pointless for me to join in. I like a good vituperatin' as much as the next guy, I suppose, but leaving aside the fact that it sounds like Raven c.s. McCracken has had a pretty hard life and I would hate to bag on the dude further, it's all been done. So instead I'm going to spend this week talking about what The World of Synnibarr can bring to your (or at least my) game. 

Let me start with that infamous photo. It was 1993 in Seattle, WA. I'm talking the absolute height of grunge (well, maybe just sliiiightly after it; maybe the very height was late 1992. But whatever). And here's dude rocking the full-on Hey How You Doin' in a Black Knight costume. You know what that is? That's commitment. That's "doing you," as the young people appear to be saying. Raven c.s. McCracken looks like 100% of a bonehead in that photograph, but he's not a trendy bonehead. He's hopelessly uncool and he doesn't give a shit. Possibly he doesn't even know. And we're going to see the same thing repeated throughout the game -- McCracken and collaborator Bryce Thelin going in hard behind the dumbest, most worthless ideas imaginable. 

Over on my other other blog Bad Movie Marathon, founder Happyfett maintains a list of tags which we use to describe awful films. Among these are: 
  • Commercial
  • Boring
  • Pointless attempts at cool 
  • Unacceptable pretensions
I recently acquired a bunch of Dragon magazines from the early 1990s on Freecycle, and when I read them I want to track down whoever mandated this boring, snooze-inducing house style, roll up a particularly thick issue (maybe with an included Polyhedron) and hammer it down his gullet until he's sorry. And when I read a White Wolf book from the 90s ... well, actually, some of them are pretty good! But with a lot of them all I can think of is what a tiresome little shit I was as a teenager. 

But I don't feel that way about Synnibarr. It's bloated and broken and badly written and ugly and unplayable and dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb. But there's something so charmingly dopey about it that I can't hate it in the same way I hate its slicker, more accomplished cousins. Here, let me give you an example. This quotation is from the Example of Play given in the book, which is mostly a lengthy example of the game's pointlessly baroque combat system. Our characters have just left adventuring academy or some crap like that. 

NINJA: "I want to stop at a weapon shop. I need a sword and some throwing stars." 
DRAKE: "Thermal drake [in response to an earlier question], and all I want is some food and a bullwhip."
[They shop for a bit
ADVENTURERS: "Okay, now let's go get a drink." 
FATE: [The GM] Holding the map of Terra open, "Which bar will you go to?" 
ADVENTURERS: Choosing a tavern they say "There, the Blind Owl. We will walk up to the bar and order three large milks in dirty glasses." 
DRAKE: "I'll take mine with a broken straw." 
[The GM rolls some dice and whatnot
HALFHAN: [The GM, speaking as the bartender] "Well, three milks it is. Hey, you guys looking for an adventure?" Whispering, "I know of a cave where a paradrake lives. The paradrake is guarding a temple or something. I'm not sure exactly what." 
MAGE/NINJA: In unison, "Oh yeah!"
If you don't think "three large milks in dirty glasses!" "And I'll take mine with a broken straw" is legitimately funny, I don't think we have a lot in common. And I'm a big fan of that "hey, you guys looking for an adventure?" to "Oh yeah!" as well.

I imagine it as this:

So yeah. During this week it's not that I'm not going to be making fun of Synnibarr. I don't know how you can write about it without making fun of it just a little bit. But I'm also going to try to appreciate the game for its virtues. Its derpy, 90s-ified virtues, but its virtues nonetheless.

See you tomorrow, when we take a look at the book itself.

1 comment:

  1. The game existed in the mid-80s pretty much exactly as later published (with a little less art). It was a giant photocopied tome with a red cover, which I, as a gleeful 14 or 15 year old, bought without hesitation after playing a first game or two. I think it was ten bucks? I played semi-regularly for a while in '86/'87, once with Raven, who was pretty much exactly as pictured. It was a lot of fun. Goofy as all hell, and weird because it was a game where you played with whoever showed up (so I was level 1 at first, and there was a character level 40-ish at the same time) which meant that it made even less sense. Good times.