Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Avalon Hill's Magic Realm: The Black Knight

Have I already mentioned my fondness for Avalon Hill's Magic Realm?

This game is among my favorites, but forget about trying to find players and organize a game: the rules (particularly the first edition) were so inscrutable, labrynthine, and technical, that most who purchased this game finally abandoned all hope of piercing the veil of understanding, and put this on the uppermost shelf of their gaming bookcase. The only way to learn this game seemed to be to have someone who already played teach you.

Those inscrutable Magic Realm rules have since been cleaned up by Magic Realm fans, but the game is now long out-of-print, and is largely unavailable as it commands high prices on eBay. And even if it were readily available, the world and gamers have moved on from chit-and-hex boardgames, with all of the former giants of wargame publishing, like Avalon Hill and SPI, long dead.

Still, despite the lack of a broad fanbase and simple rules, this game continues to attract an inordinate amount of affection from old-school gamers.

I posted a brief introduction to the Magic Realm characters earlier. My favorite character, the Black Knight, is a good place to start, when explaining the advantages that many see in this game.

Each Magic Realm character begins the game with her or his unique abilities and equipment. This game has a strong "class-based" character system. Each character is unique, and there is no way to augment the character, other than through the spells, equipment, and treasure that is to be found in the Magic Realm.

Each character begins with two special abilities. In the case of the Black Knight, his special abilities are his fearsome reputation, and his skill with bow weapons. His fearsome reputation permits him to negotiate with the inhabitants of the Realm more easily: the inhabitants offer him favorable terms, as he is universally feared. His other skill, prior experience as a mercenary crossbowman, improves his accuracy and deadliness with bows.

Each character also starts with twelve action chits. Those chits represent both the activities that the character can perform, and the number of wounds and fatigue the character can endure before being killed. As each character begins with twelve action chits, characters can theoretically take twelve wounds before dying. And there is no way to increase the number of wounds you can endure.

Finally, each character has certain starting equipment. In the case of the Black Knight, he starts with a set of Armor, a shield, and a mace.

As you can see, the characters are rather simply defined. Compare that to a modern rpg character, where you can spend as much as an hour fine-tuning your build. For old-school gamers, the simplicity of the Magic Realm characters is very attractive. But that simplicity belies a complexity that is revealed as you begin playing the character.

The other attractive aspect of Magic Ream is the deterministic elements of the game. Each character has certain action chits, abilities and equipment. The combination of those three elements permits and prevents certain actions. For example, the Black Knight cannot defeat the Giants, Demons, or Tremendous monsters with his beginning equipment. Ever.

On the other hand, the Black Knight, initially equipped, is deadly against spiders, medium trolls, medium dragons, and the guards and patrolmen who inhabit the Magic Realm. Therefore, the Black Knight's goal at the start of the game is to find the monsters and inhabitants that he can defeat, kill them and take their stuff, and thereby collect the items he needs to take on the more dangerous and valuable monsters.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each character, and what is needed to change their odds against other monsters in the game, is part of the appeal of Magic Realm.

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