Midnight At The Well Of Souls
Many great science fiction novels and settings have been turned into RPGs, and also some not-so-great ones. This is not one of the not-great ones; that is, it’s one of the great ones. Unlike a lot of great science fiction books, movies, or TV shows, it’s also eminently gameable. The novels, five in the original series (which I’ve read several times) and a bunch more written more recently (which I have not read, but since they were published well after this game, they’re irrelevant, and irrelevance never forgets), take place on the Well World, a kind of cosmic lab where the creators of all life in the universe experimented with different species. Think of it as a biological Google Labs. Some things got out of beta and were published, and some things, well, can we say “Google Wave”, anyone? In any event, the world was divided into hexagons — yes, hexagons — each containing a unique biome and a sapient race, ranging from humans to centaurs to talking asparagus to incomprehensible energy beings, and they all shared the same world, and in some hexes tech worked and in others it didn’t, and in some magic — yes, magic — worked and in others it didn’t, and you can see how a setting like this, with hundreds of races, mixed tech and magic, and a legendary control center (the “Well of Souls”) to quest for would be a perfect RPG setting. However, I’m going to bet you haven’t heard of the RPG, and as far as I know it vanished rather quickly, leaving behind no supplements. Why? Was it a steaming pile of suck, deserving of a painful death, or was it just in the wrong place at the wrong time? We won’t know until we crack open the book and begin!
Quick! Hit “Read More”! We have to begin!
The original novel. As it turns out, a lot better than the RPG I’m discussing below. Lizard strongly recommends.
What’s In The Box
The box contains terror. Fear. Madness. Do you dare open the box?
Sorry, I was suddenly writing ad copy for a bad horror movie. Anyway, what’s in the box is… uhm, yeah, as it turns out, this is kind of scary.
Let me explain a few things. I tend to judge things by two factors: The intent of the creators, and the time in which they created. It is grossly unfair to judge the special effects of “Forbidden Planet” by the standards of “Avatar” (though FP still holds up damn well and ripped off Shakespeare, not Kevin Costner, so double-plus good to Forbidden Planet!). Likewise, it is unfair to judge a high-action, explosion laden summer fun flick by the same standards you’d judge some grainy black and white thing about gay cowboys eating pudding. I try to judge a creative work’s success or failure based on how well it meets the goals it sets for itself, not on whether or not I agree with those goals, and, likewise, to consider the tools the creators had available to them at the time. I might poke some gentle fun at the classic art stylings of
So, why the terror?
Well, the Midnight At The Well Of Souls RPG was published in 1985, a time when production standards had been considerable raised. Other games of the same era were Chaosium’s Ringworld with a beautiful, original, cover by Ralph McQuarrie, the final Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first edition books, Pendragon, Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils… these would be considered a bit cheap looking by 2010 standards, but they set the bar for 1985. Even in the midrange publishers, you had the first editions of Fantasy Hero, GURPS, and others. Desktop publishing, on 300 DPI laser printers (or, even worse, Imagewriters) was very much in its infancy, and while it was often useful for drafts and internal memos and church bulletins, it had a distinct whiff of “amateur trying to look professional” about it, and when the first thing I see in the box is a bunch of 72 dpi character sheets, it scares me. I may have pointed out the “line printer charts” in Star Rovers, but they were at least high-resolution line printer charts.
Even before I look at the rules, I see stuff printed in Chicago font, starship deck plans done with MacDraw, a very scary wall-of-numbers “Fatigue Factor” chart (I guess so you can figure out if your walking asparagus is tired or not), and, confusingly, a big table of “planetary climate zones”, which might make sense in a Generic Space Opera game, but seems a bit silly for a game which will pretty much be confined to one planet. Outside of the Well World, the rest of the universe of the novels is mostly background fluff; it exists so that when the characters come to the Well World, they have a background. While the Ringworld roleplaying game contained a lot of data on Known Space, there was stuff to do in Known Space; Niven had set many novels and short stories there, and it’s an interesting place in its own right. No slight intended to Jack Chalker, but the non-Well parts of the Well World are pretty darn boring, and I believe that’s by authorial intent — he wasn’t going to waste a lot of creative energy on a part of the background which would occupy a small percentage of the novels. The stories in the Well World books begin when the characters get to the Well World, and many just start and end there. So this early hint of a solar system generation system fills me with dread, dark and dire and dreary.
There’s also four pages of typewritten rules corrections. While I hesitate to ding company for being proactive about errata, finding it in the box of the first edition is…. worrisome. There’s also a four page folded set of rules for starship combat, something I do not recall being a part of the novels. Lastly, we have a foldout map of a “section of the world”, consisting of hexagons with names and symbols indicating their tech level and if they’re water hexes or land hexes. This is virtually the same as the maps in the paperback novels, so I can’t fault them for it much.
Onto the rulebook!
Courier. Why’d It Have To Be Courier?
So, here we are, 1985, when most games are typeset with proportional fonts… and we have a 110 page rulebook in 12 point Courier, which also features more artwork by This Guy I Know. This Guy I Know wasn’t getting too much work by the mid-1980s, so I guess it’s good to see he was still able to earn a small income from his talents. We shall start at the very beginning, where Timothy A. Green, the game designer, thanks assorted people, and informs us that skills like “Diplomacy” and “Streetwise” are not included, as they interfere with Roleplaying. Also, there’s many things not covered by the rules, but that empowers the game master. Twenty-five years later, we’re still having this same discussion. Let’s just say I disagree with both of Mr. Green’s points, but that’s a personal quirk and not a statement on the quality of the game. A lot of people reading this are probably doing the Arsenio fist pump and going “Woo woo! You GO, Timothy A Green! Right on!”. To each their own, yadda yadda. (As a side note, the game includes the planetary generation system from Tri-Tac Game’s FTL2448 science-fiction RPG, which kind of confirms that a big chunk of the rules are going to be dedicated to something the novels never cared about. This is a major ding. If your goal is to write a game to emulate the feel of a setting, then focusing on aspects of that setting which are trivial or non-existent, especially in the core rules, is bad. It would be like setting down to design a Star Trek game, and including 20 pages of rules for playing a French grape farmer on Earth, who never leaves the planet, or even having extremely detailed rules for interplanetary trade. Sure, you have Ferengi and Harry Mudd and the like, but these activities are secondary or tertiary to the setting. Save ’em for the “Traders” supplement. Core rules should be core.)
We bleep over “What is a roleplaying game”, “dice”, “statistics”, and get to “Making a character”. We start with Strength. You roll 4d6 for Strength. (By the way, we jump right from “What is a roleplaying game?” to “What does 4d6 mean” to “Strength” — there’s no overview of character creation, no introduction to the universe or setting, nothing to tell us what the character’s do or where they come from, just that they have Strength and you roll it on 4d6. I may seem hypocritical here; I’ve pointed at other games (Everlasting, I’m looking at you!), for drowning us in setting minutae before we get anywhere near the rules, but, dammit, there’s got to be a happy medium. Give us enough background to know what kind of characters we’re creating and what kind of world we’re in, then let us make the characters, then drown us in the details. So, anyway, a character who has, at this point, no idea what kind of world he’s living in — based solely on the test of the rules so far, I could be in any game imaginable, I might even be a bunny — rolls 4d6 for Strength. I get a10, once again demonstrating why I like point-based chargen.
Constitution, 4d6: 15
Dexterity, 4d6: 10
Intelligence, 4d6: 14
Willpower, 4d6: 14
Resistance, my ability to fight off Psionics or Magic, is equal to my Willpower * 4, or 56. (I roll under this on percentile dice to resist, apparently.)
Fatigue: My Fatigue is determined by indexing my Constitution and Willpower and consulting the FATIGUE TABLE. Which is not on the current page. Or, uhm, in the rulebook. It is, in fact, printed on a piece of cardstock. By cross-indexing the two values as directed, I learn my Fatigue is 22. I am going to go out on a limb here and speculate that however Fatigue is used in the game, there would be a much simpler way of generating it.
Endurance, which is basically hit points, involves indexing my Strength and Constitution on the ENDURANCE TABLE. This would be an 8. By the way, if my Fatigue and Endurance both reach 0, I will be dead in Willpower/2 minutes. I just thought you should know.
My age is 20+2d10, which works out to 31 for me. I presume I’m human and so are all starting PCs. There’s nothing in the rules so far about picking a race. This is not inherently wrong; the nature of the Well World is that you are transformed into a being of another race when you enter it, so “You start as human, then shit happens to you” works with the setting. However, this isn’t made explicit, and there are non-human races in the “space opera” part of the Well World novels, so it’s a bit odd you seemingly can’t play one to start. There’s also quite a few “variant” humans, genetically engineered or adapted to different environments, but I guess/hope that’s covered later.
We now have a section on raising attributes, by dedicating game time to “training”. However, despite the fact your attributes go from 4-24, you cannot raise them over 18. Did you start with a Strength of 6? You can raise it to 18. Did you start with a Strength of 17? You can raise it to 18. Did you start with a Strength of 22? You can’t raise it. Wouldn’t a “You can raise your attribute by a maximum of X points from its starting value, or to 24” be more sensible? Ah well, mine is not to wonder why.
Skillz To Pay The Billz
Yeah, I probably used that line a zillion times. You want creativity, go to Greg Stolze’s blog or something. Here, you get rehashed gags, pointless and rambling digressions, and incredibly poor layout and graphic design, and it’s worth every penny you’re paying to read this.
So, skills. Skills are ranked on a rating of 1-100, using a basic percentile system. (Mr. Green commented in his intro that designing an RPG system from scratch is hard, something I will never, ever, deny, but so far the system looks a lot like Chaosium’s mid-80s iteration — base stats on a D&D-ish scale, plus percentile skills. I assume the part of the design which involved more than filing down the serial numbers on “Runequest” is coming soon. I sure hope so.)
On an unrelated note, 16 pounds of cat who missed his daddy during GenCon has just curled up in the box. Fortunately, I took the rules out earlier.
My skill points are determined by adding my Age to my Intelligence, and looking on a chart. My total of 45 gives me 320 skill points, which seems pretty respectable, though it depends on the number of skills in the game and what the base value is. (Each skill point is a 1% chance of success, so if I dump 50 points in a skill, I have a 50 percent chance of succeeding, modulus any rules I haven’t come across yet.) You acquire more skills by “Formal Instruction” or “Self Instruction”, which seems to imply there’s no XP/level/automatic skill gain system here, which is an interesting twist for the mid-1980s. Your existing skills can improve from use, as well,another mechanic stolen from inspired by Chaosium. Skills fall into General, Physical, Combat, Knowledge, and Special.
And as I look at the skill lists, and ponder what to do, I am left with a bit of a quandary. I still know nothing about the game universe or what kind of character I can play or what skills will be useful. Does it make sense to make a spy? A brawler? A pilot? A scientist? There’s a gambling skill — will there be many opportunities to use it? How about Forgery or Brawling? What I’m looking at is a very generic set of skills and no idea of the “default world” — unless I’ve read the books, which is a very dangerous assumption for a game to make.
“Just make a character” isn’t useful advice when you don’t even know the likely tech level of the game. Based solely on the words I’ve read in the rulebook until now, I know nothing about the game world or the game setting, and the only piece of art so far is the cover piece (which is not from the works of This Guy I Know, but is instead the cover to the first novel in the series), and it shows a naked man tied to the back of a centaur lady while both are fleeing angry asparagus men. Yeah, that gives me a lot to go on. Uhm… great. Well, looking at my abilities, I have a high Intelligence and Constitution, which might make me a decent explorer/ranger type, a wildlife expert or field scientist. OK, fine, we’ll go with that. Let’s just hope there’s wilderness to explore.
Given that, First Aid seems like a good choice. I start with a 15. Please note that my attributes apparently do not influence my skill use at all. I guess I can toss 40 points into that, for a base of 55.
“General Repair” is the “Jack of all Trades” skill, used when a character does not have a necessary skill.It covers Combat Skills except for unarmed combat, Knowledge skills, and special skills except for Medicine, Locksmith, and Pilot. I’ve read the skill description three times now and I’m still not 100% sure how it works, so, skip it. Treat Poison sounds good, but it has no base… so, let’s say 40 points in that, so, down to 240. (At skill level 5, I can recognize poisonous plants… presumably, all of them, everywhere in the galaxy. Sweet!
“Climb” starts at 10, and I’ll add 15 to bring it up to 25, which will let me attempt to climb surfaces with a 60 degree pitch and no obvious handholds. This brings me to 265 skill points.
I should mention that the Midnight At The Well Of Souls RPG buries some rules, such as combat rules, inside skill descriptions. “Rules where the skills are” is not an inherently bad form of game design — D&D 3 and 4 both put the “Climb” rules with the “climb” skill, for example — but ombat rules, in particular, often need to be pulled out into their own space.
Anyway, my Dodge skill starts at twice my Dexterity, or 20. Let’s put 10 into that to make it 30. 255 left.
Find Hidden is equal to my Intelligence, or 14; another 15 brings it to 29, so 240 left.
Hide starts at 10 (if there’s a logic to which skills begin with nothing, which begin with an attribute value, and which begin with a fixed value, it escapes me completely), and hiding seems good for an explorer type, so, bring it to 40 for 30, leaving me 210. I also want to ride both small and large animals, so I’ll toss 25 into each, for a 30 in each and 160 points left.
Unarmed combat? Nah, I use a gun. So, Hand Weapons is bought on a weapon-by-weapon basis, so I’ll put 40 into Knife, and 40 into “Magna Pistol”, which is basically a gun that uses magnetic fields to shoot. 80 points left.
Camouflage differs from Hide how, exactly? Anyway, it starts at 1/2 my intelligence, so I’ll just leave it at that. Running low on points.
Of the Knowledge skills,Map Making seems good for an explorer, and starts at nothing. Let’s put 20 into that. 60 left.
Mountain Climbing is my ability to organize mountain climbing expeditions, but apparently doesn’t overlap with Climb. Note there’s no skill to organize arctic expeditions or treks through the rain forest.
OK, if I take Medicine, it costs me 150 skill points and gives me a whole mess of other skills, including Find Hidden. (Find hidden??? “Hey, we think there’s a secret door in this room. Get Dr. House!”) Can I recapture 150 points? Let’s see, I can get 95 back just by dropping First Aid, Treat Poison, and Find Hidden, since they’ll all be raised much higher by this skill, so that takes me up to 155… sweet! This gives me First Aid 100, Treat Poison 75, Find Hidden 40, Biology 50, Chemistry 50, and Physics 35. Please note that even though some of these skills are attribute based, these numbers are fixed values, so no matter how high or low your attributes, your values with these skills are all fixed. Oh, I have 5 points left to put into Medicine itself.
And now there’s combat rules. “Chapters”, apparently, is a strange and alien concept; we just flow from one section to the next.
So, that was 26 pages for character creation. We still haven’t discussed the Well of Souls, and its sentient asparagus, at all, and we’ve consumed 1/4 of the book. We then go on to combat, money, the use of the Pythagorean theorem for determining distance from one star to another, starship weapons, star system generation, and, finally, on page 56, the fracking Well World itself!
Time For Asparagus Men
The setting information is straight from Chalker’s books. The Well World was built by the Markovians, the first sapient race to evolve in the galaxy and quite possible the only one to evolve naturally — all other races are believed to be the result of Markovian science. The Well World is a planet-sized computer which serves as both a testing base for races and a monitor on the universe. It is, quite literally, capable of “rebooting” reality. All of the universe is a complex mathematical equation, and the Well World can change the variables. You can change someone’s hair color or erase a world from existence.
The Markovians left gates to the Well World scattered throughout the universe. Anyone stumbling into one is transported to the Well World, remade into a member of a local race, and teleported to that race’s hex. The Well World tends to pick “appropriate” races for people, finding the worlds they are best suited for, psychologically or spiritually. The northern hemisphere is filled with non-carbon based or non-oxygen breathing races; the southern hemisphere has the more “normal” races, at least biologically. Travel between hexes is not prohibited, but wildly differing ecosystems and tech levels tend to keep most races well settled in their homelands.
So, finally, we’re at the Well. The designer recommends that if you want to run a game on the Well of Souls (and, uhm, if you buy a game called “Midnight At The Well Of Souls”, isn’t that a pretty damn strong presumption???), you start with natives — despite the fact the entire character generation system is based on humans and the fact the books focused primarily on humans who entered the Well and were transformed. If you MUST use characters tossed through the Markov gates, then, you should try to start them all off close to each other. This is not generally bad advice, but it kind of smashes into a major flaw in the entire design of the game.
One of the most important parts of the novels is how the Well affected the human characters who entered it and were transformed into centaurs or bug people or asparagus. Some were redeemed, some were destroyed, all underwent some kind of important psychological event. From the perspective of roleplaying, which Mr. Green would not deign to diminish with “social skills”, knowing who you were when you entered the Well World is vital, as the process of growth and learning (or failure thereof) is what drives the character arc of the stories. However, there’s nothing in the game design to help you with this. No real details on background, social class, psychological strengths or weaknesses, phobias, drives, dreams… if the GM wants to take the role of the Well World computer and assign the PCs to someplace fitting, he has no mechanical hooks to grab onto, or even any kind of detailed discussion of such things and how they should be chosen. In other words, the heart of the novels, the key concept of physical transformation as a metaphor for psychological transformation is 100% absent.
What you do have is half the book, pages 58-110 or so, spent on describing races of the Well World (some of them, there’s 1560 after all!), with a paragraph or two given to each, along with a small set of attribute modifiers, all of which are “Multiply Strength by 1.2” or “Multiple Dexterity by 0.7” type things. Races have wildly differing lifespans; some a few years, some centuries, but there’s nothing to guide you on rolling age if you want to start off as, say, an Abigosth (a spherical blue water-dwelling race with telekinetic and matter transmutation powers, none of which are defined rules-wise), which lives for 300 years.
The walking asparagus, by the way, are the Czill. The Czill are bipeds with a brain in each foot, and when they sleep, they draw up water from roots. They reproduce by budding. They’re pretty cool, actually, and an important race in the books.
But here’s the problem. The book is roughly 50% non-human races, which absolutely fits the setting, but there’s nothing mechanically to support these races, other than a very simplistic set of attribute adjustments. There’s plenty of rules for poison, disease, temperature, and so on, but all assume a human norm and nothing is given for dealing with non-humans. Skills? Shouldn’t a Czill have some trouble climbing, compared to the descendant of an ape? Large, small, and non-humanoid races should differ greatly in combat, but there’s little to go on. A small number of the races have notes for particular skills or abilities, but they’re very vague and incomplete and raise more questions then they answer. Rather than space combat and star system design, this game desperately needs a solid set of rules for handling beings of greatly varying anatomy and abilities. Rather than 56 pages of races covered sketchily, cover the 10 or so most important in detail, enough detail so that you could reasonably figure out how to add in the others.
So, well, we’ve sort of answered the question earlier as to why this game was forgotten. It’s basically a list of races from the Well World stapled to a very generic, very flavorless, unoriginal, and simplistic sci-fi rules system. This is a shame, as the setting deserves much more — it’s a great setting for GURPS or Hero or any system designed to handle a range of technologies and races.
I did try to hunt down Mr. Green, as I think authors ought to have a chance to fire back at critics, but while there’s a lot of “Timothy Greens” out there, none seemed to be likely candidates. If anyone happens to know the original Mr. Green and if he wants to dredge up memories from 25 years ago, he’s welcome to reply or comment.