Game Review: A Wanderer’s Romance by Christopher McDowall from Sooga Games

No matter how you look at the physical universe it breaks down into some combination of component elements. Maybe you believe what Citizen G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas) said on Babylon 5 – “The universe is run by the complex interweaving of three elements. Energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest”… Or perhaps you have a scientific background with an understanding of quantum mechanics and the power of the atom… Or perhaps you believe in the classical elements from the Greeks – earth, air, fire, water, and aether… Regardless of how you look at the world, we as human beings tend to quantify and compare the building blocks of space, time, and spirit in myriad ways.

Roleplaying games also try to quantify and compare these different bits to provide a stable basis for a fair and balanced set of rules. The Storytelling System from White Wolf breaks things down into Power, Finesse, and Resistance. The many editions of D&D break character attributes into the good old Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. Even my own Moebius Adventures system broke stats into Mind, Body, and Soul. You have to start somewhere.

So when I started looking at A Wanderer’s Romance (AWR) by Christopher McDowall of Sooga Games, I was only a little surprised at the more classical elemental approach – Air (mind/self), Earth (flesh), Fire (creativity/emotion), and Water (control/logic). As a result, the system for AWR is very rules-light, with just a few attributes and a simple task resolution setup. You roll 2d6 and add the scores for the two elements needed for the task (like “Acrobatics” uses Earth and Water) to determine success. If there’s a tie, it goes to the character with the higher Balance or further die rolls. This mechanic applies to everything – from unopposed tasks (“Tests”) to combat (always a duel), activities (calligraphy, music, etc) and magic – which means it’s always quick and easy to resolve whatever comes up.

But the amazing part of AWR to me is how much more it is than a rules system. So you have rules – big whoop. This is the first game in a long time that captures the feel of a particular genre – in this case a very philosophical one borne of wuxia influences and classic practices of honor and control. What do I mean by that?

I’ve always had a fondness for well-done martial arts movies. For me, these are films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the House of Flying Daggers. These films involve wire work, but are typically more about philosophical differences in the combatants than anything else. Sometimes it’s good vs. evil, but Eastern philosophy is less about black and white and more about the interplay of opposites – yin and yang for example. And in these films, honor is one of the most important qualities a character can have. Without honor, victory is hollow.

AWR encapsulates this idea of honor and philosophy into everything you do. These are not the huge set-piece battles like in Hero, but are instead the one-on-one battles of Crouching Tiger. The end result is to win, but not at all costs. You don’t wish to kill your opponent, but instead simply show that you are better than they are. If someone dies during a duel, that’s a bad thing and you lose face, honor, and balance. It’s not about the destination, but more about the journey.

For the duels, there are many different offensive and defensive styles to choose from, each with the same different levels – initiate, student, and master. Like the old D&D Monk class there is just one master of a particular style and you must challenge the master and defeat them to be called a master on your own. Again, the game is more about the journey than the destination, with built-in chances for roleplaying and style. Styles vary from use of strength (Elephant Fist) or movement (Harmony Wind), simplicity (Grandfather Crutch) and flexibility (Willow Branch)… there are literally more than 50 different attacking and defensive styles to choose from.

And magic is just as fluid and elemental, with a different style for each element. However, unlike the combat styles these are more subtle in their use. For example, pushing an opponent into anger using Fire Magic or shifting form with Water Magic could be useful in different ways, as could healing the sick with Earth Magic or ignoring physical pain with Air Magic… The possibilities are really endless if you and your GM can agree on a reason for a particular effect.

The world of AWR is also unique. Instead of having large empires or kingdoms, there are thousands of islands on an endless sea. This open landscape offers truly infinite options for GMs to explore. The art from Pavel Elagin is beautiful and subtle like the game, which also offered some inspiration along the way.

Ultimately if you’re a GM or player looking for something new to try that breaks the mold of other games, you can’t pass up A Wanderer’s Romance. This free game from Sooga Games (with some layout help from Michael Wolf at Stargazer Games) would be a great way to stretch a gaming group’s collective imaginations for a few sessions!

Check out the Sooga Games blog for more details about the game (and others from Sooga) or download A Wanderer’s Romance from RPGNow for free today!

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