A long time ago in a magazine from far, far away I saw an advert showing a rather alarmed cartoon ghost and a man holding it at gunpoint. Above the picture, the words, “Some People Hunt Ghosts, We Exterminate Them… STALKING THE NIGHT FANTASTIC.” In another magazine was the ad shown above: “After Nuclear Armageddon, it’s Tri-Tac!! The Holocaust needn’t be dull when you have Tri-Tac games and Tri-Tac game supplements!” My attention was immediately held. Stalking the Night Fantastic? Fringeworthy? Rogue 417? What were these games with the rather serious looking themes and the cartoon adverts?
Unfortunately it took me a while to really find out, other than reading product reviews which only made me more eager to get my hands on the games. In the mid-eighties I was lucky enough to live near to a pretty good hobby store, but Tri Tac (precisely how they write their name varies, but currently it seems to have lost the hyphen) had fairly spotty distribution in the UK. I saw a copy of Stalking the Night Fantastic in the window of a Games Workshop, but when I returned to buy it the book had already sold. Eventually I made it to GenCon and met Mr Tri Tac himself, Richard Tucholka, who was selling the latest versions of the games, with full-colour covers and perfect binding rather than the saddle-stitched or comb-bound versions of a few years previously. I left with a stack of books and supplements.
Tri Tac’s system looked insanely complex at first and presentation wasn’t flashy. The functional layout and wonderful Doug Blanchard illustrations appealed to me, but even around 1985 when the ads appeared the major players in the industry had moved on and reviewers grumbled about the old-fashioned style. As for the rules, they were indeed incredibly detailed, particularly in sections of the combat system, but what was often overlooked was that the core mechanics were actually quite straightforward (generally rolling d%, which is the heart of Chaosium’s popular system) and the rules included simplified options for things like combat. A couple of very easy to use charts allowed players to tackle the less important non-player characters swiftly (“extras” or “mooks” as they tend to be termed in current games) while maintaining variety and interest (Is the soldier you just shot dead, wounded, or merely “playing possum” and waiting for you to step closer?) Tri Tac’s science-fiction game FTL: 2448 went further with the option of a one page “Hyper Light” system, boiling the mechanical parts of play into something as easy to use as anything on the market, yet the perception that Tri Tac meant unplayable complexity persisted in some quarters. Time moved on, Tri Tac faded from view, then a few years later they resurfaced, selling PDF versions of the old games. Unfortunately, the only option for buying them was to order a CD-ROM and have it shipped, which made things a little expensive here in the UK.
Now things have moved forward. Tri Tac is offering the option of directly downloading their games; and there are new titles in the catalogue, as well as reworked versions of the old, sprucing up the presentation and adding more than a dash of colour. Which brings us, gentle reader, to a review:
Recently I downloaded a copy of Weirdzone, which has an unusual history in that it was released as a convention item in 1985 and disappeared until this 2010 PDF version. According to the PDF there were only ten (or a dozen… I’ll be returning to this) copies made and although the original cover shows it labelled as a Fringeworthy product, Tri Tac’s game of interdimensional exploration, it was never expanded and printed as a full-blown Fringeworthy adventure or supplement. This newish PDF, as with most of the products coming from Tri Tac at the moment, is designed to be used with whatever your favourite RPG is. The only mechanical rules included are the 1 to 100 charts covering encounters, salvage and that sort of thing, able to be used without modification regardless of the rules system you prefer: it’s largely generic.
What you get: Weirdzone is a full colour PDF running to 24 pages of gaming material, not counting the covers, credits, copyright details, record sheets and the like. Generally the layout is two columns of text in a nicely clear font, sometimes a single main column and then a sidebar. In common with many earlier Tri Tac products Weirdzone includes short examples and comments from in-game characters, in this case a farmer called Osgood Brown and his robot named Pickles. There’s plenty of humour (and indeed Weirdzone is more overtly a humorous setting than most Tri Tac games, which tend to have something of the air of a Roger Moore Bond film or even early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic about them, played straight with the occasional wink but some really crazy moments. Don’t go into one of these games expecting everything to be utterly po-faced, but on the other hand don’t plan on thigh-slapping high jinks and constant pratfalls either. Brief designer’s notes top and tail the text and there are a couple of short scenarios and adventure ideas. The bulk of the book covers the setting concept, encounter tables and a number of sample buildings with basic maps showing their layout. This is very much a book that sets up the premise, explains the “ground rules” of the setting and then gives you tons of stuff that might happen, but it doesn’t plot everything out for you. That’s a strength for some, a weakness to others.
What it’s about: The central concept of Weirdzone is that a building your character is in, along with a circle of land roughly a hundred feet or more around it, is suddenly wrenched from the Earth and dropped into “Weird Space,” a strange dimension where the physical rules you’re used to clearly do not apply. In effect, your house has just become a dimension-hopping spaceship. After a variable amount of time the house and grounds – known as the Zero Plot – appear in a new location. It could be an alien world, an Earth populated by dinosaurs, a land where machines have risen up against people, or any other cool, amusing or bonkers idea that comes to you in an afternoon reverie or from an episode of the Twilight Zone. The book has plenty of ideas, but it also fits smoothly with the Fringeworthy game and particularly its Portals supplements, which contain hundreds of world ideas from the absurd to the eerie to the desperately perilous.
What’s bad: Okay then, let’s look at a few areas where Weirdzone has problems, which I’m doing before the good points because I very much like this book and don’t want you to go away with the bad stuff fresh in your mind. It opens with a (mercifully brief) quote from Ayn Rand. Editing and proofreading is poor. Shocking in places. This includes referring to the book as “A publication of Tri Tac Games, Booka & Graphics, ” which is embarrassingly sloppy, and describing it on the back cover as having 54 pages, which is nearly twenty more than it does have; the back cover blurb also mentions the original run of the supplement being 10 copies, whereas the notes inside say that there were a dozen. Dropped letters, typos and the like are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. Most of these are quite minor, trivial indeed, but it’s impossible not to have one’s opinion of the product affected by this apparent lack of care. Tri Tac have always been very good at providing worksheets and charts for their games, but the ones in Weirdzone are not their best. In part that’s because this is a generic product and so the character sheet (for example) cannot be tailored to particular rules, but the inventory sheet is effectively a piece of lined paper with a low resolution surround to make it look like it’s on a clipboard, while the character and zero plot sheets have their otherwise blank boxes filled with swirly colours, which does nothing aside from getting in the way of printing it cleanly. Parts of the text appear to have been cut and pasted from other Tri Tac products, such as the description of encountering a flock of birds in Weird Space which looks to have been only slightly edited from its appearance in the Hardwired Hinterland setting, which features adventures involving vintage aeroplanes; either that or it’s common in Michigan to fit propellers to houses… Again, it’s relatively minor stuff and it doesn’t wreck the utility of the book, but it is infuriatingly sloppy. You might also notice reuse of some of the illustrations, both within this book and with others. Finally, Tri Tac PDFs are a little pricey compared to some similar products, with the relatively short Weirdzone currently selling for $14.95.
What’s good: Right, let us put such negative observations behind us. The concept won’t appeal to everyone, but if the idea of suddenly finding yourself travelling to other lands in your house, improvising solutions to the problems that causes (such as immediately severing the utilities) and encountering wildly varying situations every time you play, sounds at all like fun to you then pick up a copy of Weirdzone. It’s concise, clear and exceptionally simple to use. The book addresses some of the important issues the players will need to consider, while the inventive and well organised charts of encounters and the like contain enough variety to drive your adventures for years. You can shift the tone from wacky all the way to desperate survival horror without throwing out any of the material. The photo illustrations are generally very good and I’ve had no problems viewing the PDF on a PC or a Nook HD tablet with its 7″ screen, as well as the printout shown in the pictures above. The charts cover all sorts of situations and can add everything from an amusing encounter to a truly serious problem, ensuring that you’ll never be short of ideas or interest when running the game. The core concept and the rules that govern how the strangeness of Weird Space affects your “ship” are well thought out and clearly explained. The book may indeed contain “zero plot” but it’s impossible not to see how exciting and interesting situations will arise from this conceit. Because the Zero Plot travels again after a period of time you can easily keep things fresh or leave behind an adventure that wasn’t suiting the group, making Weirdzone a good way of trying out new settings. And although it’s presented without a system of its own, Weirdzone doesn’t lack structure and direction.
In the end, this is a gaming product I’m very happy to own. Brimming with ideas and full of potential for campaign play, it will also be pounced on by referees as a source of instant adventure ideas for those occasions when you want to play something right now but there’s nothing prepared. Compared to some other gaming PDFs the price is perhaps a little high (although there’s an argument that many PDFs are somewhat undervalued), but taken on its own merits Weirdzone is worth it.
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