Designer: Ben Nielson
Publisher: Bandit Camp
Year Published: Currently on Kickstarter initially published in 2020
Over the past few years, I have definitely noticed a new trend among role playing games, and more importantly, those who play them. More acutely , there has been what I have come to see as a gradual shift away from more “traditional” games such as DnD, Pathfinder, into a new sort of sub genre (if you don’t mind me calling it that) that focuses much more on narrative storytelling than it does on the micromanagement of minutiae. That is to say, rather than focusing on your massive reservoir of 400 hit points, +2 daggers, meta-magical feats and bottomless bags of wares, this new niche is breaking tradition and bringing a new breed of RPG to the table.
And Wicked Ones , being all about you taking the role of villainous monsters such as bugbears, orcs, goblins, almost any other bipedal humanoid you can think of, is also very appropriately described as such a new breed, not only for its departure from normative RPG grooves, but also for its conceptual shift to that of actually BEING the hairy, sweaty, foul-smelling, curse spewing bestial ruffians of popular gaming culture.
I should take a moment to pause in stating that I have not initially been one to embrace the changes wrought by these new stylistic deviations to the world of role playing. Call me a traditional purist if so desired, as this is at least partially true. When I noticed many of my friends flocking to new games such as Dungeon World, ICRPG, RPG Cortex, I really was not too sure what to make of it—it can be hard to embrace change.
When I had my first opportunity to try such a design, it was with Broken Compass, which I have since received since my initial preview sometime last year. And it was…an interesting deviation to say the least.
The bottom line of these new, modern designs is one that simplifies the mechanics in favor of story telling. Rather than being required to have piles, d3’s, d6’s, d8’s, d10’s, d12’s, and d20’s, you are by and by going to be resigned to just a pile of d6’s for simplicity’s sake (meaning standard, six-sided dice).
As a very broad generalization, any variety of actions you make are going to be done with a roll of 1-6 meaning the following :
1-2 : Failure with severe consequences
3 : You manage to pull off your action successfully with a medium/marginal consequence.
4-5 : You complete your action as planned , with little or no consequence
6 : You masterfully achieve your planned action , and with an extra surprise bonus of some sorts.
Now for the sake of simplicity, these new systems really enable just about anyone to come in and enjoy an RPG. Gone are the days of intensely scrutinizing a list of 50 spells you have at your disposal and parsing out its language to discern its effects—if you wanna lay a fireball spiraling down your opponent’s gullet, all you do is roll for success, and see what the GM (Game Master) says happens. Exactly how much damage occurs as a result is directly proportional to your dice roll (and perhaps other circumstantial bonuses, such as you were standing directly on your rivals’ chest as you launched the fireball, meaning they could not deflect the blow at all).
The hinderance , if you will, is the abdication of “absolutes” and book keeping for things such as hit points.
In DnD, you would have to roll a large number of dice and come up with a number to deduct from your current hit points before proceeding. In this newer breed of RPG, the GM would simply say something to the effect of “Your fireball leaves a smoldering mass on the ground, with nary a trace of life remaining.” No further elaboration or calculation needed.
The benefit (which I am still reluctant to admit) is that things stream and flow much more gracefully that the more “quantifiable” and mathy RPGs that are out there.
And I must admit, I still have great difficulty embracing these new systems. But coming across Wicked Ones and the likes has forced me to concede that all RPG’s are inherently flawed, including the ones I cherish the most.
Because the reality is that the most an RPG can do is give us a limited, flawed approximation for real life—How each game goes about giving a sense of real life is what makes it a unique gaming experience.
Because face it, as much as I have come to accept it, real people do not gain levels and hit points for working out at the gym. We don’t find ourselves going from 20 HP’s to 300 over the span of 5 years of rigorous training, and nor do we have a life meter over our heads at all time depicting our status.
There. I have gotten that off my chest. So now I can begin talking about Wicked Ones in earnest.
Once you get over that big hurdle of “big change” you can begin to appreciate what new RPGs can be all about.
The most notable distinction that Wicked One has is the narrative shift away from civilized human realms to that of the monster world. And I will say that thematically, although this is a very unorthodox setting, it is also a change that is not for the faint-hearted.
Because you are taking the role of the villains, and they do naughty, gruesome, not-so-pleasant things as a matter of daily ritual. So yes, you may end of killing innocent travelers as they pass by your hidden lair—if that sort of thing bothers you, you may wish to step aside.
But that is not to say that perpetuating acts of violence is the sole purpose of Wicked Ones. Again, the glory is in the story.
When you start your game, you are assuming the role of a Wicked One, crafty leaders within your given society.
For the sake of cohesiveness, the game recommends all players are of the same race so you don’t have a slime, a troglodyte, and a merman all vying for control of a domain—it would make for some awkward (though perhaps hysterical) story-making, though nothing is officially off-limits. It is indeed up to the players and GM.
Now as a Wicked One, you are no mere minion or subordinate. Within your blood, a certain something sets you apart—most likely just a smidgeon more intelligence than the average bear, and this allows you to have vision to shape the world to your liking. You can see clearly where others of your kind can not, and this enables you to make a plan to advance your goal of being the most powerful unifier of tribes any of your kind has ever seen. Or some such thing.
However, you are still bound by the constraints of typical monster-kind. In general, you must build up your “kingdom” in secret, as the ultimate goal in Wicked Ones is to edify the greatest dungeon the world has ever known. So yes, you will start out small, but with cunning and vision you can slowly advance your goals.
There is a catch to this world, however. As much as your intellect and prowess give you an advantage over your kind, you are still captive to your baser instincts. Once in a while, if enough happens to push you over the edge, you totally lose it and go into a sort of rage where you are (at least temporarily) dominated by what this game calls Dark Impulses.
These Dark Impulses / Rages are triggered by a gradual build of of what the game engine calls “Stress”. As you fail challenges or actions that you roll on, you will slowly build up Stress points and can (at least in the short term) , be somewhat useful. They can, for example, make you seem more intimidating as you start to lose your cool, and give you a circumstantial bonus to bullying a rival here and there. But if you accumulate too much stress, you are forced to abandon reason and give in to your primal side.
And this is part of the fun. Each type of character you create has a different personality flaw that makes their Dark Impulse manifest itself in a particular unique (though narratively profound way). And the best (worst?) thing about triggering these impulses is that they absolutely cannot be ignored! And this can strategically happen at both the best and worst of times.
For example, why sometimes it may be beneficial to be a brute going into a rage to lay waste to the human scum that stole your talisman, other times you will be at a disadvantage for giving in to your Dark Impulse. If a goblin from a rival tribe sticks out his tongue at you during an interrogation, this results in you gaining the last Stress point on your meter, you may end up smashing their head against the wall and render them unconscious, meaning you just lost your means of getting more information from them.
Or if you happen to be in the middle of important bargaining with an orc chieftain and the localized smell of a dung heap annoys you enough to trigger your Dark Impulse, you may suddenly let out a sudden, maniacal cackle at the mere thought of poop in the same room as you are, and find yourself in sudden embarrassment in the midst of the most important tribal reconciliation council in centuries, upsetting the future stake of your leadership, all because you couldn’t control your ill-reputed moments of temporary insanity.
You get the idea.
Now given that the ultimate goal and natural conclusion of Wicked Ones is achievement of building the most perfect and impenetrable dungeon fortress ever known the mankind and monster kind, you will start out small. We did not get to advance too far into our grand misadventures, but built into the Wicked One system is a means of using stolen wealth, goods, and minions to contrive any wicked architectural designs your mind can fathom. Spiked pits? No problem, put it in the grand hall. Giant spiders? Check, hang them from the ceiling of the vault to catch would-be-plunderers as they attempt to nab the gold coins that are piled up on the floor. Need poison fumes to spew from the walls once a floor tile is triggered? You can make it all according to your hideous design plans.
Because you, as a monster, were never meant to live in daylight, among men. Sure, you may need to make the occasional foray into the local villages to steal pigs, but for the most part, you need to stay in your lairs.
And as you accumulate more wealth, fame, and notoriety for your heinous deeds, you will not go unnoticed. The world of humans will set bounties on your head, which will consequently lead to Dungeon Raids, where heroes of all sorts will attempt to exterminate you—so you had better be ready for it!
One thing that I DO like about Wicked Ones is how it treats player (monster) death. Others within these new, narrative focused RPGs (such as the aforementioned Broken Compass ones) make it seem and feel like it is impossible for player characters to die since virtually every roll seems to offer either just plain old success, or failure with just marginal consequences. Such can be the bane of not having Hit Points , I suppose.
I do appreciate that Wicked Ones states right out of the door that it’s okay (and even encouraged) for your own , personally created Wicked Ones to die.
For one thing, it doesn’t really take a whole ton of effort to “roll a new character”.
But secondly, I find it a bit inconsequential playing a game if success is guaranteed—and that is definitely the vibe some of the newer RPGs have left me with.
I might as well just start a game, and put it away immediately with the knowledge that no matter what, some day and some how , I will end up “winning” no matter what.
So I do appreciate that this is a game where we can (narratively speaking) completely lose it all if the wrong decisions and rolls are made.
All in all, there is a ton of material (over 360 pages, full of maps, types of monsters, personality types, flaws, etc) in Wicked Ones that I cannot even begin to describe, but let me state that it is NOT all “useless” charts, spell descriptions, and endless lists of other details that for all intents and purposes are meaningless to an uncivilized monster such as yourself.
Rather, you are treated with an abundance of walkthroughs and examples of how to use the system in a way that is fun for all.
For example, a variety of useful tips are presented in the form of dialogue that describe how certain interactions might gone between the players and GM. Most impressively, the dialogue and interaction in Wicked Ones is not nearly as one-sided in arbitration as other games like DnD. Players and GMs can both mutually decided what a “failure” would look like in a certain situation. In fact, I would most appropriately describe the interactions between players and the GM as a skilled dance, with lots of nuance going on between the interplay.
Again, dialogue doesn’t feel nearly as diametrically opposed when going between the two dichotomous “sides”— sure, you may end up perishing when in a dire situation, but I don’t think it ever feels like things are especially stacked against the player, especially when the game itself calls for players themselves to think of the appropriate consequences for themselves in their blunders!
Moreover, some nice mechanical limits, such as the aforementioned stress and also elements such as shock, or being bloodied exist “to push the spotlight away from more active players”. And in the words of the author, “this is intentional.” This is a great way to keep overbearing alpha wolfs from trying to exhibit overbearing amounts of control on game night, and a very nice touch.
The manual is just as much for players as it is for GM’s as well, so no need to buy multiple books—this is all a self contained journey!
In wrapping up our sessions, I came to the conclusion that it does take a lot of mental exertion for old timers such as myself to abandon “old school” approaches to role playing. Quite a mental stretch, actually.
However, it may just be that I am simply used to over taxing myself, and as such, I fail to appreciate the simplicity offered by these “newer” schools of thought.
The biggest realization for me is that it took me a long while to realize just how little prep time is involved in Wicked Ones—No need to create a massive campaign of my own, the players get to do it all for once, and in improvised fashion that only puts the GM there to serve as a guard rail and to keep things in order. Once I can wrap my mind around the idea that there is very little prep work (read that as zero!) , I can find that I actually enjoy the breath of fresh air that can only come about from not feeling rushed into the usual DnD sessions. It does indeed make me strain myself to undergo this paradigm shift, but in doing so, I can definitely more fully appreciate why my friends all seem to be careening into this new direction with RPGs.
Is Wicked Ones for you? If you are looking for a turn to the dark side of RPGs (this game can get morbid due to the nature of being a villain, but in its defense, it also provides some great guidelines for keeping your group’s comfort levels satisfied by using “fast forward” and “flashback” mechanics), I would say it is worth exploring. It certainly offers a creative twist that does something no other book in my collection does, and does not feel nearly as much of a copy-cat as many of the newer takes on Role Playing Games do!
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.