In an effort to do something strange and new, I am going to review the entirety of the 2005 table top game Secrets of Zir’an. I am not skipping chapters or attempting to comb through the book in any sort of order that would make sense if I was attempting to run a game or make a character, but instead simply reading it from cover to cover. Updates on this project will be sporadic, to say the least, as it’s constrained by me reading the book. So, let’s jump right in.
Two weekends ago I went with some friends to an incredibly retro comic book store in the Raleigh-Durham area. When I say retro, I mean it. The place had an entire wall to VHS tapes. Lest you think that was just inventory they hadn’t chucked, which is partly right, of course, they also rent them in the once well known style of clear plastic tape holders you take to the front. Toys in packaging dangle from clotheslines overhead and comics are displayed in sleeves that adorn the walls. There was nary a sign of a collectible card game, and the staff spoke at length about the shortcomings of the store itself and even referred our business elsewhere. However, any time I have made the effort to visit a brick and mortar comic or game shop, I feel the need to support it. As you might expect from such a place, it has never attempted to clear out its inventory. Instead, it dumps everything in weird boxes and just discounts them until they are essentially one dollar purchases. One of the things that caught my eye was a book with a bizarre cover that looked very pulpy. It was entitled Secrets of Zir’an and looked very much like a World of Darkness book circa early 2000’s. It looked like the strange relative of the Mage: The Awakening book. Sure enough, it was published by Art House, published through White Wolf. For those of you not familiar with the Mage: The Awakening Book, it’s an exercise in anger management. Gold text caresses the page like Robert Redford caressing Demi Moore, inappropriately and at high cost. Magical symbols adorn the background and there is very little rhyme or reason to where anything is located. What might begin on page 82 is continued on page 217. The three indices are the only saving grace, provided you can tell which is which.
The book for Secrets of Zir’an is like someone looked at this book and said, “You know what would make this even more awesome? Silver! EVERYTHING SHOULD BE SILVER!” Blocks of reflective silver ink stand alone, emblazoned with dark grey ink. Sometimes the text is too much for this block, but editors are for people that didn’t spend their money on silver ink. The background images, a neat mixture of symbols and created language, is too opaque to clearly read the foreground text and it is enough to induce headaches in most people, and labor in easily frustrated pregnant women. So why should you even bother this with this text to the King in Silver? Easy, this book is pretty awesome, at least, it starts off pretty awesome.
Chapter one is a lot of setting information, without being the only setting chapter in the book. In short, it’s the intro chapter to get you hooked with a lot of flavor text and some really hit or miss information about the setting. The text does a fantastic job of providing the feel and basic premise of the setting, but it also makes a lot of assumptions that have no possible way to be true. There are some diary entries that get across the strong 1920-30’s pulp horror adventure vibe of the setting in a great way. There are also several different letters and text snippets that talk about the other aspect of the game…which is that it’s basically Final Fantasy. It has airships, magic, pistols, swords, chocobo, and all of those shenanigans. However, there is a big section that deals with the history of the setting in brief and catches you up to the modern day. This section throws a lot of words at you in a hurry, such as Treaty Nations and Hegemony, that have no other context to them save two sentences at the very end. One assumes at this point that the Hegemony, with no other information about the name or organization, is the villainous organization of the setting in the main. The rest of the history brief is pretty cool and it has a very Lovecraftian field to the middle section, along with a good, standard fantasy hook of “the gods disappeared”. I liked this section a lot, even if I was a little confused by the end. The intro chapter could be better organized, that’s for damned sure, but it’s intriguing enough that I don’t care. The setting brief is exceptionally interesting and I very much want to run a game in the setting. Oh, one part I left out, it comes with built in dungeon crawls. Ancient civilizations have been discovered thanks to the lands shifting, seas changing location and so on. The text implies this happens every so often, so it doesn’t seem out of place. This means that adventure and exploration is a huge part of the section, and it’s very much a land grab situation with people looking to get the best relics, artifacts and information possible. Anything with a built in mechanic for exploration is pretty exciting, to me.
Since this is getting a little long already, I’ll wait until next week to go over the skills section. That’s right, skills follows the intro chapter. Not character creation, not system information, skills. Weird, right?