Ron Edwards, along with his work on GNS theory, at one point defined the term ‘fantasy heartbreaker’. In many ways the term was so obvious that I needed no definition to have a pretty good idea of exactly what he meant when I first encountered it.

Going back and reading his essays put a lot of my thoughts upon encountering Undiscovered: The Quest For Adventure into better perspective.

When Dungeons & Dragons first came out, it was something new. It barely touched upon many of possible things games like it could do. The next several years were spent in flurry of creativity exploring the more obvious permutations of the basic ideas. Some branched out further, but many early games were pure reactions to the underlying assumptions of D&D.

I had not realized that there were people who were still effectively stuck in this last mode twenty years later. These are the fantasy heartbreakers: later games that boil down to highly evolved versions of early D&D written by people with little to no knowledge of what happened in the rest of the industry.

Undiscovered was published in 2001, and the PDF form was part of the recent Gamers Helping Pakistan charity drive at RPGNow. I’ve gone through the book, but this is just my initial thoughts of the system.

So, what’s it like already?

The first thing that I like is that this is a done-in-one system. One book of 370 pages, has everything, including a setting. As a fairly standard fantasy system, it should not need a setting, but as some of the races are unusual, it is for the best.

This is basically a percentile system, though d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 are also used. There are eight main attributes, and scores can range from 1-150 in each, though beginning character scores will be from 5 to 90. There’s both a random and a point-spend system for determining these scores, though I’ll note that the random system will average higher than the point-spend (500 vs 400). Also, the point-spend system has you roll a d10 on each attribute for a -5 to +5 random adjustment, so you’ll never have exactly what you paid for. In fact, as there is no “+0” on the adjustment chart, you’ll never have the exact score you paid for. Since most of the effects on the attribute bonus tables shift every 5 points, this does have good chance of affecting your exact bonuses.

The legal ranges (or the base values of the random system) of each attribute is affected by which race you choose to play. Undiscovered has seven races, including the standard elves (Alfar) and dwarves, and adding Dusters (were-snakes), Seraphs (angels), Muklag (kind of minotaur-like, with ram’s horns), and Dracomensc (draconians). Each of these (including humans) are split into at least two sub-groups with slightly different abilities.

The general thrust of the rules is as a skill-based system. As such, the skill system is extensive and well-developed. Combat-related skills, in particular, have a two-tier system of ‘levels’ and… ‘ranks’ (they don’t actually seem to have a collective name in the system) ranging from Initiate to Master (it is also 5 level system). You spend skill points to get to a particular combination of level and rank. There is something of a choice, as the same number of points will allow you to take a lower level in a higher rank, which will cause a lower skill bonus, but get you other abilities, such as more attacks or more damage. Each skill has its own table and description of the exact bonuses and costs, so while the structure is always the same, there’s lots of lookup of particulars.

In addition to the more normal types of skills, psionic, clerical and spell magic follow this system. Clerical magic requires picking a patron god, who will restrict the types of spells that can be learned. Each type of ability has its own pool of points to power them (the pool is generated from the amount of skill, multiple skills inside each type add the points together).

There are no classes, but there are levels. Levels allow gains of Life (hit) Points, and skill points. Oddly, while the cost of each level goes up, so do the experience awards. For example, a character gets 10 times his level in experience for helping out in a combat. There are some nice bonuses for avoiding combat, but these too are multiplied. There is also flat XP for doing damage, or casting spells, but as levels go up, there should be tougher monsters needing more damage to kill… also boosting XP from those sources. As it takes 1000 XP to go from level 1 to 2, and 1000 more to go from 2 to 3, I would expect characters to ‘zoom’ through level 2. After that, increases in XP needed start correcting the problem, but level 1 is still about the ‘slowest’ level to go through. There is no limit on levels, and the main chart goes through level 50.

The equipment section is extremely familiar, down to banded mail. Armor makes you harder to hit, providing bonuses to Defense Rating (DR). Combat uses percentile roll-low system. Your Attack Rating (AR) is figured by a combination of skill and stat bonus, and equals your chance to hit something with no defense (Defense Rating 0), so your AR minus your roll is the best DR you hit. Despite the finer granularity of d%, there is a flat 5% chance of criticals, and 5% chance of a fumble (equivalent to the odds of a ‘1’ and ’20’ on a d20). (I generally don’t mind ‘auto hit/auto miss’ systems, but I don’t care for flat critical/fumble systems tacked onto otherwise binary success/failure systems.)

The World of Arkas section in the back suddenly drops a point size or two on the font, really cramming in the information. It is fairly typical, with creation from a small set of gods, a cataclysm caused by war amongst the gods, and then newer gods with lesser powers ruling over the current cosmos. The setting is confined to a single empire and its neighbors, though a rough map of the entire world is given. By and large, it is a lot of dense text, and while not written poorly, it is not a joy to go through either. Actual societal/role-play hooks seem sparse at best.

The monsters section after that is reasonably extensive, if typical, and is split into a ‘wildlife’ section and an actual ‘monster’ section. Most of these latter have multiple statistic boxes so that dragons (for example) grow larger and more powerful as they age. Centaurs, Goblins, Merfolk, Ogres, and Trolls are presented as optional character races. I find ‘static’ monster stats for intelligent creatures artificial when player races can grow with experience, so I really like that touch.

Final Thoughts:

I think if this had come out in 1981, instead of 2001, it would still be a recognized name today. It is very much in the ‘old school’ realm. However assertions that skill-based systems are rare, and that being able to buy the exact skill level you want is an ‘innovation’ are annoying, and display a very weak understanding of RPGs as a whole.

There are a small number of supplements that were done, including a four issue magazine, Undiscovered Q&A. The last of these carries a Summer 2004 date, while the publisher’s website carries a 2008 date. It looks to be another RPG that never stood out from the pack and has fallen by the wayside.

It does look to be a fairly solid, unified system, though it suffers from a high degree of fiddlyness in the details. In general, if you want an old-school fantasy feel, I have to recommend sticking with something simpler, or already familiar. However, much of it seems to have root in the same thoughts that shaped the Rolemaster Fantasy family (whether this is because they were familiar with RoleMaster is something I’d like to know), and if you felt that game had a good direction, but is not quite what you want, you should give Undiscovered a look.