In Short
The Zorcerer of Zo (hereinafter “ZoZ”) presents a fantastic world of adventure inspired by the Wizard of Oz, classic fairy tale stories, and animated cartoons. Living toys, talking animals, bumbling wizards, and other characters inhabit a world of adventure where even mundane every day things may have personality and ambitions. Using a modified version of the PDQ system, ZoZ easily allows players to build any character their imagination can spin into existence. With a fun and fantastic game world and lengthy example campaign provided, along with a host of pre-generated NPCs, ZoZ is focused on making the game easy to run and play.

The major downside to the product is that one third of it is an actual play example of the author’s ZoZ game complete with commentary from the players. Some folk will enjoy this and find useful advice on running ZoZ here, but others may find that it adds limited substance to the product. Combined with general GMing advice and similar discussion, different consumers may realize notably different values from ZoZ.

While the game shines brightest when put in the hands of a novice GM (as the advice and examples really are very good), ZoZ is a fantastic and expertly produced game that has a lot to offer anyone interested in fairy tales.

The Physical Thing
This 202 page softcover showcases above average production values for its $30.00 price tag. The editing is excellent all the way through, with few mistakes. The formatting is equally superb, with good use of text boxes and headers to break up and group text. The artwork is largely of good quality, though the pieces tend to be very small and unrelated to what is being discussed on the page. Still, pictures of Gingerbread Knights and animated toys add a lot of flavor to the product.

The Table of Contents is very comprehensive, providing functionality equivalent to a well done Index and making the product easy to navigate.

The Ideas
The land of Zo is composed of several color themed minor kingdoms connected by Zo Proper and the wondrous Jade City. All manner of fairy tale creatures live in these lands, and the sorts of problems a player might encounter range from captured princesses to armies of toy soldiers. The setting is really all that isn’t included in this product – every fantastical story you’ve ever heard could easily find a place in Zo.

The main idea here is assisting the reader in understanding fairy tales. ZoZ provides excellent genre advice and a solid overview of fairy tales generally. A detailed actual play example rounds this out, making it simple for someone not that familiar with the genre to understand it and craft an appropriate character or adventure.

Under the Cover
The product begins with an introduction that discusses the author, the formation of ZoZ, and how to use ZoZ.

Chapter 1 Fairytales 15 pages.

This chapter is focused on explaining the basics of fairy tales and their elements to the reader. It kicks off with a full page bulleted list of common fairy tale ideas such as “The youngest child in a family usually suffers the most, but is also the luckiest.” From there it begins talking about the sorts of people that inhabit a fairy tale world. Talking animals (humanoid or otherwise), visitors from other worlds (most commonly human children), evil witches, good princesses, and other such ideas are offered.

ZoZ suggests that there are three major types of fairy tale stories. Tragical fairy tales are often quite dark and, often, end with the death of the main character. These tales serve to teach lessons and serve as a warning to others. They’re the most common form of older fairy tales. Harsh But Fair fairy tales are similar to tragical tales, but the main character usually survives or evades the ultimate repercussions of their foolery. People still die regularly, however, and the tales strive to teach a valuable lesson. Toothless fairy tales are what most people are familiar with, especially in the form of Disney movies and the like. Only the villain may suffer death, and even then it’s off camera and likely due to some circumstances the villain created.

ZoZ further differentiates fairy tale stories into seelie, unseelie, and fractured fairy tales. Seelie stories would be rated G or PG if they were movies and are similar to what a viewer would expect from a Disney movie. Unseelie stories would be rated PG-13, R, or NC-17 if they were movies. These tales will resemble the darker fairy tales of the past, or may have more “realistic” sorts of characters similar to the Fables comic book series. A factured fairytale is a mad and chaotic romp that usually involves humor and often pokes fun at itself.

Suggestions on how to build a fairy tale adventure are also included. ZoZ suggests starting with a fairy tale concept (Ex: Princess trapped in tower) and then figuring out the motivation of all the characters (Ex: Why did the witch trap her? Why her?). It’s good advice, and the example in the book is well written. Chapter 1 wraps up with an excellent bibliography of all sorts of different fairy tale sources.

Chapter 2 The Zantabulous Land of Zo 9 pages.

The setting material is very vague and general, which in many games would be a weakness. In the fantastic land of Zo, however, it’s really the only way to do things. The major kingdoms have their own general feel, but most stories are going to incorporate the fairy tale ideas of the GM in such a way that firm setting material would get in the way. Azul, Giallo, Rosso, Viola, and Zo Proper each receive one page of description. Two major NPCs in the setting – the Wolf and the Zorcerer of Zo – are given more discussion, as they’re both integral parts of the setting. The Wolf is an evil immortal beast that returns to plague Zo every few years until some heroic adventurer can put it down. The Zorcerer is a mysterious and wise ruler who hides his true identity from the world.

Chapter 3 Zorcerer of Zo Rules 36 pages.

The system used in ZoZ, known as the “Good Parts” of the PDQ (Prose Descriptive Qualities) system, is a simple 2d6 +/- Modifiers against a Difficulty Rank (DR). Characters are composed of several Qualities which have values ranging from -2 to +6 (see Characters below). If a Quality is at all relevant to the current situation then its bonus or penalty is applied to the roll, and where no Quality applies the player still rolls 2d6 with no modifier. Difficulty Ranks range from 5 (Poor) to 7 (Average) to 13 (Master). The GM typically applies +2 and -2 modifiers to many rolls based on environmental and other beneficial conditions.

Example:

Jake, a garden gnome, is trying to scale a large stone wall to get into a castle. The only Quality Jake has that helps is Strong +2, which would certainly apply to climbing. The GM decides this is a Good Difficulty (9). Since there are vines growing on the walls, however, the GM gives Jake an Upshift – a +2 modifier. Jake’s player rolls 2d6 and adds 2 (Strength) + 2 (vine growth) and tries to get a 9. If this wall was alive and trying to throw Jake off, the GM might treat the wall as an NPC opposing the action. In such a case Jake would be trying to beat the Wall’s roll instead of rolling against a set number.


In Simple, more routine situations dice aren’t even rolled. The character’s Rank in a given Quality is just checked and the results are narrated. In Complex Situations dice are rolled, even though there may not be negative circumstances if the character. Whether a situation is Simple or Complex is largely up to the GM, but Complex Situations have a special perk for the players. Whenever a character fails at a roll in a Complex Situation they gain a Learning Point (Experience Point). This results in a game where characters improve through failing and examining their mistakes.

Where two characters are opposed on something, they roll against one another. The one with the higher value succeeds. Some conflict situations, such as Combat, work the same way except Damage is dealt. A successful Attack deals a number of Damage ranks equal to the number of points by which it beats the Defense. The Defender must then decrease their Qualities by that many Ranks (Ranks are always values of 2, from 6 to -2). The first Rank to be decreased may cause a Story Hook for the next session. In my opinion, this is because players are more likely to decrease Qualities they feel are less useful first. Creating a story element focused on them calls attention to something the player may have felt was less useful which keeps everyone happy. When all of a character’s Qualities hit -2 that character Zeroes Out, which means the character is knocked out, captured, exhausted, or otherwise loses the conflict.

Example:

Jake has no real combat abilities, but Strength helps him in combat. He’s being attacked by a Clockwork Knight who has a total bonus of +4. Both roll and add relevant modifiers. The Knight gets a total of a 14 on the attack, Jake gets a 10 on his opposed roll for defending. The Knight beat Jake by 4, so 4 Damage Ranks are inflicted on Jake. Jake’s normal Qualities are Strong +2 and Musician +4. Strong is decreased from 2 to 0 and them from 0 to -2. Since ranks are in 2s this is just 2 points of Damage. Musician is also decreased from 4 to 2 and then from 2 to 0. When all of Jake’s Qualities hit -2 he will Zero Out and be knocked out or otherwise seriously hurt. Since Strong was the first Quality to suffer Damage the GM makes a note to create a Story Hook based on Jake’s Strength next session.


Note that Damage is split into Damage Ranks and Failure Ranks. Failure Ranks heal right after the altercation, and are especially common in social situations. Damage Ranks heal more slowly and represent lasting injury, whether it’s to the body or the ego.

That’s pretty much the whole system! Nice and easy all the way through. Qualities are defined by players and GMs, with different campaigns requiring more or less specific Qualities. There are just a few other things of note. One is that ZoZ uses Hero Points. Hero Points may be spent to instantly recover from damage, to do better on a roll, to gain a hint, and for other benefits. Characters gain Hero Points by acting Heroically!

Magic is just a little different. Normal abilities of magical scope, called Gifts, are handled just like other Qualities. Broad magical ability is called a Magic Star Quality and can be used for, well, broad magical effects. Magic Star Qualities cost more to buy, both at character creation and in play, and when a character fails to use such a Quality the failure tends to be significant. Magic gone awry in fairy tales is often a problem. The chapter goes on to discuss enchanting items and typical fairy tale magic (Ex: fairy tale magic is never subtle). This chapter concludes with an excellent example of play.

Chapter 4 ZoZ Characters 29 pages.

This character creation chapter is well done, with two example characters being created alongside the player character. As with other games, the whole thing starts with a character concept.

Let’s build a character!

Example:

I want to build a young toymaker named Bertrum who loves toys so much that he can bring them to life. He was once a wood worker in Giallo, but decided he must set out and see the Isle of Forgotten Toys.


Characters have 6 Ranks of Qualities to distribute according to a few specific patterns, and must select one -2 Flaw (which grants Hero Points when invoked). For example, a character could have two +6 Qualities and a -2 Quality. A character could also have a +6, a +4, and a +2 along with a -2. Players may not buy more Flaws to get more Qualities, and they typically end up with 2 to 5 different Qualities. Players may give up a Quality rank in order to have a Magic Star Quality.

Example:

I decide to buy Toymaking +6 to reflect Bertrum’s natural gift for working with toys. I want it to be a Magic Star Quality too, so he can create magical toys, and choose to give up another Rank (+2) in order to do so. I now have Toymaking* +6 (4 Ranks, 3+1 for a Magic Star Quality). I have 2 Ranks left. I decide to buy Woodcutter +2 (1 Rank) to reflect his time as a lumberjack. This also reflects skill with an axe, which would serve me well in some dark places. I decide on +2 Good Natured (1 Rank) to reflect his cheerful disposition. As a flaw I go with -2 Naiveté. All characters begin with 5 Hero Points and 1 Learning Point, so I write those down as well.


The chapter wraps up with a discussion of how to bring PCs together, the experience point system, and a large number of example characters that both provide examples for character creation and quick NPCs for the GM.

Here’s the final character:

Bertrum Toymaker

Toymaking* +6, Woodcutter +2, Good Natured +2, Naiveté -2.

Hero Points: 5, Learning Points: 1.


Chapter 5 Gamemastering ZoZ 11 pages.

There’s a lot of good GM advice here, from trying not to say “No” to being certain to listen and provide more of whatever makes the players happy. This is a GM advice section I would love to hand to a new GM, and the whole book is so friendly I consider it to be the perfect game to introduce a person to RPGs with. The best piece of GM advice I found here was to structure early sessions around fairy tale statements or ideas. Even if it’s just opening every session with “Once Upon a Time there was…” and going from there it sets an appropriate mood for the game.

Chapter 6 The First ZoZ Campaign 55 pages.

Here the author has written down the original ZoZ campaign and it reads similar to a good Actual Play thread. The original campaign has been written out, with the mechanics and blow by blow elements removed, to create something that reads more like a story. At the start of every section the author references his GM notes for that session, which can be found in the Appendix. In addition to the author’s rendition of his campaign, the players from that campaign provide commentary in small text boxes. Usually they’re commenting on their thoughts at the time, what parts of the campaign really worked for them, and other similar information.

The NPCs used in the campaign are found in Chapter 4, so it’s easy for a reader to generally understand what’s going on. While different readers will get different amounts of use out of this, having a whole example campaign complete with NPCs to look at is a powerful tool for folk who don’t quite know what to do with ZoZ.

Chapter 7 Happily Ever After(word)… 4 pages.

This brief section provides stats for and discussion of what happened to the two Player Characters at the end of the example campaign, and it does a good job of providing a GM with ideas for a fun end point.

Appendix Bonus Material 22 pages.

The Appendix contains all of the original GM notes Chad used to run ZoZ. They’re bullet points of interesting events and ideas for the most part, and they’re similar to how many GMs prep their games. Player commentary is present here as well, and this section may provide a reader with even more ideas on how to run a ZoZ game.

The product wraps up with a Character Sheet, GM Record Sheets, and a copy of the PDQ chart that contains all of the rules used in the game.

My Take
The Zorcerer of Zo is a fantastic game and easily one of my favorites. The system is easy to work with, and so much assistance is provided that this game will be a snap to GM. I really like games that minimize my prep time to run, and ZoZ does a fantastic job of this. The writing is great, the genre discussion excellent, and the GM advice among the best I’ve ever read. ZoZ is on a short list of games that I’d dearly love to run or play.

My only complaint is how much of the product is devoted to the example campaign. I think this book could have been tightened up and shortened without losing any substantial value for most readers. However, this is really a minor objection. If you’re uninterested in all the GM support provided here, ZoZ is still a well done and complete game. If you do want GM advice and example campaigns to teach and inspire, however, then ZoZ is an excellent value for you.

I received a review copy of this product in exchange for this review.