Posted by : David Guyll June 03, 2014

NOTE: If you want to hear what I have to say about the FAE version, go here.

Being a backer and all I finally got a coupon code for Inverse World a few months ago (only six months after the original delivery date). I initially flipped through it, wondered what took so long, and forgot about it. Since then I have heard some positive buzz, including a review from a blog, so I figured I should give it a proper read through and talk about it myself.

This is going, to put it nicely, be a dissenting opinion.

First, just what is Inverse World all about? In the author's own pitch, it is an attempt to "make fantasy fantastic" again, and to "play to Dungeon World's strengths and minimize its weaknesses". The author criticizes Dungeon World for not reaching its potential, because it brings a lot of standard fantasy assumptions to the table (which makes sense given that it was deliberately written to evoke older editions of Dungeons & Dragons). He claims that in a "true fantasy setting, there should be all kinds of crazy creatures running around".

Does he succeed? Well, that depends: have you ever—for starters—heard of Hollow World, Journey to the Center of the Earth, owned any Magic: the Gathering cards/read novels from the Mirrodin expansion, read novels from authors like China Meiville, played Dungeons & Dragons or JRPGs like Final Fantasy, played WarCraft or World of WarCraft, or dealt with who knows how many fish/bird people in games like Dungeons & Dragons or Gamma World?

If you answered no to most, if not all of those things, then you very well might view this as both fresh and fantastic.

Basically the author puts a world-within-a-world, fills it with a trapped sun god (probably the most interesting thing about the setting), flying sea creatures, and floating islands, because I have never seen any of that before. I mean, he states that "true fantasy" should have all sorts of crazy creatures, and the best he can come up with is flying jellyfish and turtles? Has he even read Dungeons & Dragons? What about RiftsGamma World, or the crap you can run into when you venture off world in Mage: the Ascension?

There are also only three races: the cloud-, earth-, and rain-blessed, aka bird-people, goblins, and fish-people. None of them have any mechanical benefits because, to him, whether you are a pirate captain or merchant captain is arbitrarily more important than whether you are a goblin captain or merfolk captain. I can kind of see where he is coming from, but I do not think that your background is intrinsically more interesting or important than your race (especially if you are something like a robot or energy-based entity).

It would have been better if he included both background and race moves for you to choose from. Or, better yet, race moves for you to also choose from, and let the players determine which matters more.

A blogger over at Gamer XP claimed that the races "show little resemblance to anything one might expect to find when they sit down for a tabletop game". I suppose they would, so long as you have never encountered merfolk, sahuagin, locathah, aquatic elves, goblins from all of those WarCraft games and Magic: the Gathering, and who knows what other countless goblin/fish/bird-person variants do in fact exist in tabletop, card, and video games. They try to point out how different the goblins are because they are not green, but then I would like to point out that Dungeons & Dragons goblins have skin colors ranging from yellow to orange to red.

Otherwise, yeah, they are essentially goblins from WarCraft and Magic: the Gathering.

In addition to axing races he also swaps out alignments for drives, because adventuring To Save the Day or for Inner Peace is, again, arbitrarily more interesting than because you are Lawful. Except that, as with background being more important that race, this is not necessarily true and a bit of a narrow interpretation of alignment. For example Inner Peace gives you XP if you settle a confrontation without committing an act of violence. That sounds precisely like a viable tagline for a Lawful character (or, I dunno, a bard with the Neutral alignment).

So, he does not really minimize any of Dungeon World's weaknesses; how does he play to its strengths? By including a lot of rumors. Rumors abound in Inverse World...except that not all the rumors are rumors: some are declarations of fact, like that there is a city dedicated to spiders (and flies, and that they are not friends). Others are pretty cliche, like no one goes to this place, and no one will tell you why. Really? Nobody goes there, but nobody will tell you why.

On the crunch front there are eight playbooks. I do not want to go into detail on each, but they are more or less alright. Some are better than others, but aside from the lantern I did not find anything particularly noteworthy. Well...positively noteworthy, at any rate, as some have...confusing moves and capabilities to say the least:
  • Airships are supposed to be rare and expensive, but the captain can get a new one by spending 2 trade. What the hell is trade? I do not know exactly, but you can apparently get it automatically in a populated area, and sell it for 3d6 x 10 coins each. So, I guess on average an airship is only 220 coins? You might recognize this as about the same price for a cart, donkey, and horse in Dungeon World.
  • The Road Less Traveled makes it so that when you return through a difficult route "the route remembers you". What the hell does that mean? Also, natural hazards or threats will not bother you or those who travel with you. Why?
  • One of the collector's starting moves lets you dig through your collection for something useful, but the GM can impose one to four restrictions on it, one of which "you get something close to what you want, but not quite". So...what does that mean, exactly? How does that differ much from the other restriction "it was not intended to be used for this"?
  • The golem has a move that makes it so that you will "never lose your grip on someone unless you choose to". Never. No matter what. This is only part of what the move does, so I see no reason to include a fictional absolute.
  • The mechanic's suit has a move in which you deal +1d6 damage to something that is "really pissing you off". This might sound evocative, except that the fighter has a move that allows her to deal +1d4 damage all the damned time: I see no reason to shut down bonus damage entirely until the player decides that they are mad enough. I would have found this move more interesting if it allowed you to consume ammo, or have the chance to harm your allies or cause undue destruction since you are "firing everything".
  • Dead Man Walking basically makes a survivor unkillable for a fight, and depending on if you have healing items and/or capabilities, about twice as hard as normal. Yeah, they can die after the fight is over, but otherwise they can take an infinite amount of damage. 
  • Protector lets you take all of the consequences of a move or decision you have made, you can take them all in their place. There is no range or limitation to this, which can make no sense, and it would have been nice to see some kind of benefit tacked on (even if it is just them taking +1 forward as they are inspired by your sacrifice).
  • I have no idea why you would use You're Already Dead: you attack someone, deal no damage, but later one can decided to spend hold to just deal damage to them automatically. This is really something that should have been rolled into hack and slash.
  • The walker's move Spider's Grip has another one of those fictional absolutes: you can never lose your grip on a surface you are Wall Walking on, and when you fall or are sent flying you always catch yourself on a ceiling or wall. Same thing with Talk the Talk.

Just some of the questions I wondered about while reading this book were, what if a captain/mechanic/sky dancer dies? Can anyone take her ship/suit/flying thingy? If not, why not? If yes, then how do I use it? Can I just get my own robot suit? I know I can get ships (well, I think...I could not find costs for vehicles, but strangely I could find the cost for vehicle-mounted weaponry), but I for some reason don't get to use the trade mechanic.

That is why a lot of these sound like they would have made better compendium classes: when you get your own ship, you can take captain moves; when you find your own flying contraption and get really good at it, you can become a sky dancer; when you find your own robot suit and become a highly skilled pilot, you can get moves that let you tune it up and stuff; when you survive a terrible calamity, you can take moves from survivor.

To make a long review not as long, Inverse World is only fantastical if you have only ever been exposed to Tolkien. It is not necessarily a bad supplement, but it's not amazing or even particularly original. In terms of content it barely scratches the surface from what I would expect from a setting book.

I get that part of Dungeon World is to ask questions, use answers, and play to find out what happens, but this just feels rushed and shallow: example locations lack tags and NPCs, classes could have been better refined, mechanics like trade could have been explained (and others like vehicles and mounts seem wholly unnecessary), paragraphs sometimes bleed over onto another page, it would have been nice to see prices for vehicles, more than two magic items, and monsters besides flying [aquatic animal], spiders, and...a, a devil?

Anyway, the pdf is $15. Fifteen dollars. Yeah, it weighs in at just over 350 pages, but some are completely blank, 30 are dedicated to fiction, and its pdf dimensions are only 4.5 x 6 inches (how?), which means it is as tall as Dungeon World is wide. Speaking of Dungeon World, that book is over 400 pages at the proper dimensions, and is only $10. Hell, compare it to Numenera, which is $20, also over 400 pages (letter-sized at that), in color, and actually came out on time despite having less time between the funding and release dates and being an entirely new system.

Inverse World does not "make fantasy fantastical again". It does not play to Dungeon World's strengths and minimize its weaknesses. There are not "all kinds of crazy creatures running around". What there is, is enough of a foundation to work with and flesh out (the random island generator was a nice touch), but it lacks depth and at that price I would frankly just save your money. Maybe wait for it to go on sale or snag it as part of a bundle; there are better, more complete things to be had for less.

{ 5 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Thank you for this review, I had been wondering if you had read IW. Sounds interesting with the seeds of good ideas but not worth it for me currently.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wished I had not given into the hype and waited for the review ... Thanks for the article as always :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Adam: if you are just looking for idea seeds, just cook up your own hollow world with floating islands, flying sea creatures, and airships, and you will be about halfway there. If you want something more fantastic, just check out any of the stuff I mentioned.

    @Godefroy: Yeah, me too. I was really stoked by the elevator pitch. This is why I appreciate how Jason Lutes is handlings his Kickstarter for Servants of the Cinder Queen: you get to see exactly what you are getting before it ends, so you can back out if you end up not liking it.

    I think I am going to do just that for my Kickstarter.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I liked the core concept of the setting, but after I funded it I found A Red Letter Day, which takes the general idea and makes it much better (IMO): http://apocalypse-world.com/forums/index.php?topic=6344.0

    Plus, RLD tries to incorporate FATE stuff with AW stuff, which is an intriguing idea and might make for a good mix. Still in beta, so YMMV.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I also liked the core concept (I mean, I AM working on Sundered World after all), but it was incredibly underwhelming. ARLD looks more focused, but that is not a bad thing. I like the health and stress tracks: I am working on a AW-fantasy hack that uses two tracks myself.

    ReplyDelete

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