This massive pdf clocks in at 172 pages, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page foreword, 2 pages of backer-thanks, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 166 pages of content. Two of these pages are devoted to char-sheets. One page contains basically a GM cheat-sheet and the pdf comes with a massive index of 10 pages, which actually helps navigating the massive book.
This review was commissioned by my patreons as a prioritized review.
So, Synnibarr. Yeah. I know. We all have read the reviews of the previous editions, know it to be an incredibly crunch-dense and somewhat obtuse system. So how does this edition fare? Well, first of all, this is the first book, which means that there are some instances where the pdf points towards book II, which has not yet been released. This, in general, does not seriously impact the functionality of this book, though.
If you’re new to the party, let me give you the brief run-down: The eponymous Worldship Synnibar was fashioned by the avatar of Aridius and humanity from Mars, which was hollowed out to contain earth. The worldship is inhabitable inside and out and has been traveling the stars for millennia, ever trying to outrun intergalactic slavers, while only currently recuperating from an intellect-wiping plague of Spanish Flu-like proportions. The genre, if you’d want to establish one, would hence best be considered to be science-fantasy. The PCs, created as defenders by the avatar, are beings of myth, empowered to be living legends.
As the pdf states, it is crafted with new players in mind and written from a perspective of someone who has not yet played roleplaying games: As such, the pdf establishes a glossary and basics first: You need 5 constitution tokens, 2 willpower tokens and apart from that, the usual dice and, preferably, a mini. Nomenclature is established as well FDA is the Force Damage Adjustment, PF denotes Protection Factors, BPF denotes bypassing these and TN denotes a target number. Primarily, the system is based on opposing dice rolls, which means that it is pretty swingy. The primary formula introduced is Constitution times Merit equaling Cogency. This denotes the power of abilities, spells, skills, etc. – and may allow you to forego rolling dice altogether.
Every player begins with 50 Merit, which is split between 3 combat stats, up to a starting maximum of 20 Merit per stat. The three physical attributes would be Force, which denotes the damage boost added to the weapon (or FDA – force damage adjustment); Shot denotes the general attack roll. Fate describes the characters defense, dodging, blocking, etc. The latter is a mindbogglingly dumb decision from a nomenclature point of view. Why? Because the GM in Synnibarr…is also called Fate! This adds a thoroughly unnecessary level of confusion to the proceedings. It’s like replacing Strength in D&D with GM (Great Muscles). This is literally common sense and game design 101 – when establishing a terminology ANYWHERE, you do not use the same word for two wildly different concepts.
Anyways. Every round of combat is separated in 3 seconds. Actions denote how often a character can act in one second. Damage is fixed – Base value + FDA = damage inflicted. The Advantage value denotes initiative. Combat knows three dice rolls and is rolled each round, the higher, the better. The winner of this roll receives a free action on what is called “Starting segment” – what is the starting segment? Well, each second is further divided in action segments. 2 actions = 2 action segments. I can follow that reasoning. Then, the pdf notes that the starting segment in a round with 2 action segments would be 2. Which…does not say anything and leaves me confused as all hell. The further elaboration that calls the highest numbered segment starting segment does help a bit, but concise rules-presentation this is not.
The second roll would be the shot roll: Percentile die + bonuses = score; this must exceed 40 to hit, which means that defense…well, is pretty inconsequential. Instead, you roll Fate, a percentile die. If you match the Shot score or roll above it, you evade the attack. This makes combat, as you will have realized by now, extremely swingy. (On an aside: The pdf professes to be written for new players, but doesn’t deign to actually explain how to roll a d%…)
This is only the base engine, however. There are Constitution and willpower, as noted before. 5 Constitution and 2 Willpower represents the maximum of these resources, the, confusingly named Constitution Gate. Okay, here things get truly arcane (and not in an in-game meaning): “Players power up for each second of combat, replacing any burned Constitution, until the 20 Constitution points are exhausted.” 20 ??? Where does the 20 come from??? WTF. So, now it begins. Without burning Con, you only add 1/2 Force score. 1 Con allows for double Force, 3 triples Force, etc. – with each applying only to a single hit. And you thought Mythic high-level PFRPG boiled down to rocket launcher tag… Con can also net +1/2 on an advantage roll. Rounded up or down? No idea. The book later tells us to not round advantage…which does not help alleviate my question. 1 Con can also add 5 to any Shot, Fate or percentile die roll. Oh, and 5 Con can be used to add an additional action per second for the turn. Does this include the bonus action for winning advantage?? No frickin’ clue. 1 Willpower counts as 5 Con and may be spent at any time. It also allows a character to exceed the Constitution Gate (so it’s not part of it, but rather an external thing.
…Yes, I knew this. Please apologize this little feat of deception. What the above represents is very much an experience of how it feels to read this book. You have these big question marks and then, suddenly, bam, another rules that seemingly contradicts what you read before. On the plus-side, the excessive combat examples.
Okay, so combat is obtuse, but frankly could be worse. Speaking of which: Merit. Merit is WEIRD. It kinda sorta seems to behave like skill ranks of XP spent, denoting a kind of pool point, but at the same time, it is a play statistic. So merit is basically a point-buy resource that can be applied to increase skills, abilities, etc. However, this seems (as far as I’ve guessed – and yes, I had to guess, with the character sheet layout (!!!) being my main source here…) to not decrease merit itself, only allocate it…which is somewhat confusing. Why not simply establish distinct terms: Total Merit Earned, Free Merit and Merit Allocated? There, solved the terminology issue in the approximately 2 seconds it took to type this. Oh, and 10% of the total Merit of the character is called Cogency Mass. This acts as a kind of threshold for non-damaging effects – think of it as a saving throw sans throw; on a success, the score is reduced by 1; once there is no cogency mass left, the non-damaging effect affects the character. Know what? I actually like this. You’ll certainly stone me for this, but, if you get past the somewhat obtuse verbiage, this is actually a pretty elegant mechanic.
Cogency is defined significantly clearer: You take Merit allocated, multiply it with Constitution burned and receive the cogency of the respective skill use. Simple. Combat/brief actions apply the Con Gate, longer cogency tests do not….which could be misread. Oh, and for the roleplaying aspect, a player can narrate a flashback story about a skill to make a narrow hit miss or vice versa. Personally, I don’t like this. Smells of the competitive bullshitting that is FATE. (Yep, I hate FATE. With a fiery passion. I don’t judge, but it’s the one system I will not touch ever again, not even with a ten-foot-pole.)
The pdf then goes on to a step-by-step character generation section, which includes race, cybernetics, etc. Merit cost for race selection ranges from 0 (human) to 100 (beravan) and there are a ton of them available: From flymen to giants and everything in between…like sentient dreams of the worldship, the selection is pretty interesting, though the internal balance of the race choices and their bonuses is not perfect. Guild and organization membership of characters can similarly be purchased. Astrological signs, religion – all of these influence the skills and abilities of the character, which means lots of tables and lots of choices. Some organizations are obviously racially exclusive.
Higher cogency scores in competing abilities or skills always wins out, though certain pieces of equipment and environmental effects can block out cogency. This sounds simple, but the explanation is confusing: “1 point of Cogency removes 1of a subject’s life points.” 1 point of Cogency removes 1 point of the target’s Cogency mass.” Sentences like that in a section of “How to determine Cogency” create confusing which requires extrapolation of what the author actually tries to understand. Cogency also determines the amount/mass that can be influenced. What happens on a tie? No idea. Which brings me to the main issue of this book: The didactics of this system are horrible. I will say something controversial first: I *think* I have managed to play this as written. No, really. It’s very much possible. It requires close reading of a metric TON of dry rules-text, but it is very much possible! The prime issue of this book boils down not to rules-language either, but to didactics. I’ll return to that in the conclusion.
You see, we have only scratched the tip of the ice-berg. So far, we have taken a look at the very basic, vanilla skeleton of the system. With the “protomantic dominions”, which represent basically skills, magic, equipment and…general options, the rabbit hole becomes really, really deep. Defense augmentations alter the “effects of a defensive event.” Guess what has not been codified or explained so far? Bingo. What the heck is a defensive event? No idea! It never comes up in the whole book! Several dominions influence intelligent agents, but without actually bothering to define them in the first place. Which is systematic of a crucial and perhaps the crucial, central flaw of this book.
You see, the book contains a ton of creatures, adventuring ideas and locales, etc. – this is a very crunchy and detailed book, whose setting remains very unobtrusive and anything-goes in its potential – if you can conceive of a story, you’ll probably be capable of making it work with this rules-frame…if you manage to actually understand it.
Editing and formatting, on a formal perspective, are decent. There are a couple of formal glitches. On a rules-language level, the book manages the exceedingly rare feat of being at the same time very precise and horribly obtuse – more on that later. The pdf adheres to a 2-column b/w-layout with decent b/w-artwork. It’s nothing to look at, though – don’t expect to be wowed by the artwork. The pdf has no bookmarks, which is an unforgivable comfort detriment for a book of this size – much less for a crunch-book of this size.
Raven c.s. McCracken’s Synnibarr is pretty notorious…but frankly, it’s nowhere near as horrible in this version as you’d probably expect. If you can manage to slog through this dry hyper-detailed book of rules, you can actually play a game, which, while more math intense than Pathfinder or 3.X, can actually be played. The engine allows for the playing of pretty much everything…which brings me to the somewhat schizoid nature of the book: You see, this bills itself as a book for novice roleplayers, but such groups will just drop the book in frustration at one point, for its complexity is certainly aimed at veterans. Sounds like a dream come true for min-maxers and crunch-masters? Well, there is an issue here as well, for the flashback mechanic and some components herein instead seem to cater to ROLEplayers – as does the wide open world that allows for pretty much any narrative. That being said, these guys will…well, be annoyed by the complexity of the crunch.
The main issue of this system can be boiled down to two aspects: The lack of a rules-savvy editor/developer who can whip these mechanics into proper shape and eliminate the inconsistencies that haunt this pdf. More importantly, the book’s central shortcoming is that it, more so than any other game I have reviewed, is perhaps one of the didactically worst presented books I have ever read. You know the old saying about requiring a PhD to understand some games? Well, here it certainly helps. I’m pretty positive that, without my time in academia, years of close reading of obscure texts, ill-conceived papers etc., etc., I would have thrown in the towel at one point and just added my voice to the condemning reviews of earlier editions. The book half explains a rule, then later adds stuff on that that seemingly contradicts of what you thought you had figured out – the structure and actual teaching of the game is catastrophic as far as I’m concerned.
And here’s the big surprise: To a certain degree, that’s a pity. You see, while I blatantly dislike a ton of stuff about this pdf; while the lack of bookmarks is unforgivable, there is actually an interesting game buried here. The racial diversity is vast; the setting has promise galore and in the jumbled mess that is the rules-presentation, there is actually some serious potential. There are several aspects that are interesting from a mathematics point of view; there are some neat ideas. Okay, combat takes A LOT of time and with the number of actions per second, you’ll have a hard time explaining the proceedings and integrating them in a context or timeline beyond combat, but there are some interesting aspects to be found here. This game, in short, is superior to the 2nd edition in every way, except for getting angry. This system is far from unsalvageable and frankly, if I’d really set my mind to it, I’m positive I could streamline this into a well-presented RPG I can hand out to players and make them play.
That being said, Synnibarr sits at this odd spot between old and new school, between emphasis on math and storytelling. It almost artfully manages to miss crucial aspects for all playstyles. This is not, I repeat: NOT funny bad, unless you consider structural issues and obtuse nomenclature funny. That being said, this is almost a game I’d consider playing, which is more than you could say about any of the previous editions. In fact, 4th edition, if it ever comes, could actually be an interesting game.
Should you get this? NO. Unless you want an intellectual exercise in trying to grasp bad rules-presentation. Hey, scratch that: You know, designers can actually benefit from trying to understand the rules herein. This is an excellent example for how important the proper didactic structure, rules-syntax etc. is; how important it is to stick to a concisely defined and meticulously defined terminology. Is this as bad as you expected? No, no it’s not. It is the most obtuse and deliberately arcane and nigh-incomprehensible system I have ever analyzed, though. It has some innovative and fun ideas from a designer’s perspective and the sheer diversity of character options is great, though they’re stuck in…well, these rules. Now, I’d actually like to rate this 2 stars, because it is not that tremendously bad that you couldn’t, with A LOT OF WORK AND A KEEN MIND play with these rules. At the same time, I have established a pretty rigorous quality standard for what I expect from books and a rating like this would be a disservice to the flawed 2-star-books I have covered. Hence, in spite of liking some aspects of this book, I can’t rate this higher than 1.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this book here on OBS.