Pros: Great atmosphere; fun; quick and easy to learn
Cons: Umm… Having trouble thinking of any…
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 3/4/2004
“Terra Incognita: the NAGS Society Handbook” is a roleplaying game based on the “FUDGE” roleplaying system; it’s written by Scott Larson and produced by Grey Ghost Games. It’s a game of intrigue and mystery, in which you can sit around a table with your friends and play the part of adventure-scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, exploring the world’s ancient mysteries (and sometimes hiding them again from a world that isn’t yet ready to understand them).
The FUDGE System
This game uses the FUDGE roleplaying system, originally created by Steffan o’Sullivan. This is a simple, streamlined open license game system designed to make roleplaying quick and easy. FUDGE has such an open license that (under certain conditions) the rules can be modified and reprinted in almost any way. Because of this, “Terra Incognita” is a whole, complete game, and you do not need any other books in order to play it–just this one.
FUDGE is based on a simple system that uses words instead of numbers to describe characters’ abilities and the results of their actions. This can make things more intuitively understandable for new players who aren’t used to roleplaying and all the number crunching that many games involve. For instance, a character might have a score of “great” in driving, and after rolling dice the player gets a result of “superb”. It’s pretty easy for someone who’s new to roleplaying to figure out what it means when you “drive superbly” or your character is “a great driver.” (Fudge Dice consist of four dice for each player and the game master (GM), with sides that have either a plus, a minus, or a blank spot on them–directions are provided for creating these dice using normal six-sided dice and stickers if you don’t have Fudge Dice.)
The rest of the mechanics are similarly simple. I’d never played FUDGE before playing “Terra Incognita” and it took me less than a half-hour to create my first character. That’s a very small amount of time to learn and use a new character creation system! (And if that isn’t fast enough, templates are provided for each “area of specialty” to get you off the ground even faster.) Even the combat rules don’t get overly complex, yet they allow for decently cinematic fights.
The World of Terra Incognita
Terra Incognita is about researchers and adventurers scouring the world for new discoveries and ancient mysteries. It’s very flexible within this scope, allowing for anything from pulp adventure to dashing heroism (think Indiana Jones), from wild gadgeteering to dignified scholars traveling the globe.
Characters can be researchers, heroes, gadgeteers, hacks (journalists), heroes, preservationists, or snoops (investigators). The areas of specialty aren’t meant to put a straightjacket on character creation–they’re guidelines to help you get in the mood of the game. They’re pretty much infinitely customizable with abilities, “gifts” (special talents), and “faults” (bad attitudes, neuroses, and so on that tend to hinder your character).
A mechanic called “Fudge Points” allows you to better recreate the cinematic nature of the genre. You can spend Fudge Points to automatically accomplish actions with style, alter die rolls, reduce the seriousness of a wound (“it’s just a scratch!”), or have a favorable coincidence happen.
Sample gadgets (“Nag Tech”) add flavor and flair–everything is provided from the Pocket Babbage Engine to the Spy Camera Obscura and the Traveling Tea Tray (or TTT, which brews and dispenses perfect tea). Of course, as is also appropriate to the genre, Nag Tech has a tendency to go awry at the oddest moments. You never know when that Babbage Engine will overload and self-destruct, the Spy Camera Obscura will photograph the photographer instead of her subject, or the TTT will brew iced tea instead of hot tea (and let’s not talk about those wilted cucumber sandwiches. *shudder*).
Plenty of suggestions are provided for customizing your game. You can play it as a very serious game, or you can make it outlandishly silly. It can be a bit quirky or downright bizarre. The mysteries being explored might be natural (ancient Egyptian tombs) or extraordinary (an ancient civilization hidden away beneath the surface of the earth).
For the Game Master
The GM’s section provides plenty of material to help you create and maintain an engaging, entertaining NAGS game. (NAGS stands for the National Archaeological, Geographic, and Submarine Society.) It includes an almanac of events throughout the relevant time periods, suggestions for possible campaign atmospheres (mysterious history, ghost tales, expanded reality, tales of dash and daring, world of fantasy), different possible campaign structures and styles, crossovers with other genres (such as CartooNags, CyberNags, EspioNags, Nags in Space, SuperNags, Nags in Time, and so on).
There’s a simple example campaign to work with, an airship and crew, sample non-player characters (NPCs), and plot hooks that can lead into interesting adventures. There’s an entire section on game motifs (ancient ruins, artifacts and relics, campus politics, dastardly villains, derelict vessels, lost cultures, and more), as well as defining principles (discretion, humor, quiet heroism, weird science).
An inexperienced GM would particularly appreciate the sections on organizing, presenting, and game mastering adventures (not much here for experienced GMs, but then these sections don’t take up much space). There is a simple, fun sample adventure to start things off (we ran through it in the space of an afternoon).
The book also has an index, which is pleasantly surprising in a non-hardcover roleplaying game that isn’t particularly thick.
The artwork is simple black-and-white stuff. It didn’t amaze me, but it did set the tone nicely. My favorite piece was an image of a man and woman in period clothing with diagrams pointing out where all the spiffy equipment and gadgets were hidden on their persons.
The Ideal One-Shot Game
While this will undoubtedly make a wonderful ongoing game for people who love the genre, I think it’s the ideal one-shot pick-up game (a game that you can put together at a moment’s notice and run in the course of a single afternoon or evening). It doesn’t take long to learn the rules, and as long as the GM is familiar with the rules he can walk players through them as the game progresses because they’re so simple.
Character creation takes hardly any time at all, and you can use the templates if you’re really in a hurry. The genre lends itself to simple, episodic adventures. And thanks to the information provided (and the familiarity of the genre), it’s easy to put together a simple adventure at a moment’s notice. The GM could probably create an adventure in the time it takes his players to create their characters!