Review of The Secret Fire by George Strayton

This quote is amusing:

A skilled MC and a table of dedicated players can spend entire sessions of TSF without rolling a single die, yet explore dark, dangerous, and exotic lands, as well as underground caverns and dungeon complexes that offer both excitement and tension.

Yes, that game is called Make-Believe I think. If I'm going over a friend's house to play Make-Believe, kind takes the wind out of spending $9.99 since I already know the rules. ;)
 

Neuroglyph

First Post
Coincidence can be a strange and often ironical force in our lives.

Not long before GenCon 2011, I had a computer crash when my hard drive malfunctioned on my laptop, in essence creating a very expensive paperweight. This necessitated that I go through an annoying and tedious reinstallation of my drive right before the “best four days” of gaming, and try and recover everything from my backups so I could cover the convention for my blogsite. Lacking the time to be thorough about the restore before heading off to Indy, I’ve been “discovering” lost files and PDFs here and there over the subsequent months.

Late last month, I happened to stumble across a new Fantasy Role-Playing game system, which I was supposed to review in the fall until it was lost in my backup drive, called The Secret Fire. This game comes with a rather unique pedigree, having been penned by George Strayton, a screenwriter and D&D gamer, who has been tasked with creating a screenplay of the life and times of one E. Gary Gygax, by his wife, Gail Gygax. In addition, this FRPG has been given the blessing of Mrs. Gygax herself, which is detailed in the Foreward section of the book:
“With THE SECRET FIRE, George Strayton is following in the footsteps of the inventor and master of roleplaying games, Gary Gygax, expanding on Gary’s original vision of fantasy roleplaying by taking it back to its roots while simultaneously bringing it into the future.”
Personally, I find it to be an interesting coincidence that I should “unearth” the sourcebook for this new FRPG system from my computer’s backup drive practically on the eve that Wizards of the Coast announces its intention to create D&D Next (or as I like to call it Grand Unified D&D).

Is it possible that Mr. Strayton’s expansion on the Gygaxian Role-playing Vision is the system that WotC is hoping to create in D&D Next?

The Secret Fire

  • Lead Designer: George Strayton
  • Illustrations: Antonio José Manzanedo Luis (cover), Ryan Browning, Yvette Parsons, The Forge Studios (interior), Ryan Browning, Chris Conklin (cartography)
  • Publisher: Secret Fire Games
  • Year: 2011
  • Media: PDF (312 pages)
  • Price: $9.99 (PDF available from RPGNow.com) / also available in hardcover for $24.99 from Lulu.com

The Secret Fire is a complete Fantasy Role-Playing Game system based upon some of the visionary concepts and unpublished notes of E. Gary Gygax. The Secret Fire main book is a combination player’s guide and gamemaster’s guide, providing all the rules necessary for character generation as well as running a fantasy role-playing campaign under The Secret Fire rules system. The book contains information on four character classes (called Callings), as well as four character races, special elements (called trademarks), skills, spells, armor and weapons, equipment, and combat rules. For gamemasters ( called Master Creators or MC’s), The Secret Fire book has information on running the game, aspects of role-playing, creating scenarios, a monster manual, and treasure tables. A Character sheet and full-color maps for the game are downloadable from the official site of The Secret Fire to be used with the main book.


Production Quality

The production quality of The Secret Fire is mediocre at best, presented in a single column margin-to-margin style with black-and-white artwork. But it has a certain retro-AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide-vibe in its handling of the presentation of the material, which makes it pretty nifty if that was the goal of the publisher. The writing style is decent enough, but sometimes waxes a little extravagant in its attempt to win the reader over to the author’s viewpoint on what is, and what is not, an acceptable Fantasy Role-playing play-style.


The artwork is pretty good, and again the black-and-white sketches of skulls, swords, and other high fantasy tropes was quite evocative of first edition AD&D books – although some of the artwork was resized and re-used several times over in the 300+ page book. The adventure maps in the book are old-school graph paper style one can find in old AD&D modules, however, the world maps have a really awesome hand-drawn feel to them. The cartography in the world setting maps is almost artwork in itself, and would look pretty amazing printed on a parchment style paper for display or use at the gaming table.


The Secret Fire Game System

Not surprisingly for a game system inspired by Gygaxian Apocrypha, the system reminded me quite a bit like old school AD&D. But there are also quite a bit of occult references in the material to Elder Gods, and strange esoteric names for Orders of Spells and Prayers, which made me feel like I was reading a rule set that was birthed from the unlikely union of J.R.R. Tolkien and R.E. Howard – sort of Lord of the Rings dating Conan the Barbarian.

The character generation system is sort of streamlined, as there are only four character classes, or Callings, and only four races, to choose from. There is the Holy-Man, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard to pair up with the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human racial types. There are six character stats (Strength, Intellect, Wisdom, Agility, Health, and Presence) which are generated by rolling 3d6. Non-human races have infravision, and have abilities like finding shifting walls and sloping passages underground (dwarves), or detecting secret doors 2 in 6 times (elves). There are only 10 levels in the game, and each level for each class has their own special title, such as Mercenary (Warrior) or Occultist (Wizard). All of which feels eerily like a rehash of original AD&D, but there are some subtle differences in the system which make it quite different than E. Gary Gygax’s first version of a fantasy role-playing game.

The Secret Fire employs a Trait and Ability Descriptor system which is used both to enhance role-playing and to determine alignment. Each character has three Traits, chose by the player or randomly generated by dice roll, which help to define their character and are described as Good, Neutral, and Evil Traits. For example, a character can be Self-Sacrificing (Good), Foppish (Neutral), and Egotistical (Evil), which makes for a pretty decent array of traits for a hero. Unfortunately, by random chance, one could end up with traits which make no sense in the same character, such as an Honest (Good), Talkative (Neutral), Compulsive Liar (Evil), which is certainly going to be a mess to try to role-play effectively, since they have diametrically opposed Good and Evil Traits. Committing to a Good or Evil Trait and role-playing it in-game will move a character along a path toward that end of the alignment bar. Ability scores less than 9 and more than 12 also have descriptors, such as Strapping (16-17 Stength), or Irritating (6-8 Presence), which also help to define the character. And when these traits are used in role-playing situations, the character is awarded with Energy Points which help them accomplish heroic feats in and out of combat (more on EP’s below).

So if a character takes role-playing actions which call into play their Ability Descriptors or their Traits, the Master Creator, or MC, is expected to award them on the spot with 1-3 Energy Points as a reward. For example, if our Self-Sacrificing, Foppish, Egotistical hero tries to impress the local baron by demonstrating his Strapping physique, he can earn EPs and an alignment change, depending on if he was doing so to save others (self-sacrifice) or as a method of braggadocio (egotistically). It sounds dynamite on paper, and certainly rewards players for keeping in-character, but seems like it could be a serious train-wreck to getting anything done in a gaming session, when 4-6 players are all vying for recognition of their role-playing and demanding instantaneous rewards – not to mention the constant book-keeping of alignment drift and EP fluctuations.

As far as Energy Points go, this is also a pretty interesting game concept, offering a sort of heroic special effects shop for players to enhance their attacks, feats of daring, and spells. Energy points can be used to add up to three special effects on top of a standard action, making combats more spectacular and effective. For instance, a Warrior can swing a blade at an orc and score some damage. Or he can spend energy points to feint and gain a bonus to the attack roll (2 EPs), plunge his sword deep into the orc’s chest doing extra damage dice (3 EPs), and then kicking the orc off his blade so hard it falls down (1 EP) – assuming of course the extra damage did not kill the orc outright. In many respects, EPs allow for the special effects that might be found in D&D 4E’s various class powers, but having the flexibility of being a chosen a la carte assuming the character has the EPs to pay for the effects. However, since EPs only refresh after a long rest (ie. Overnight sleep), and the only way to get more EPs is to role-play for them, which seems as though it would lead to almost silly amounts of pandering to the MC for attention to get more so that the heroes can keep adventuring.

The combat system is similar to the Champions or Hero System, with attacks landing if the roll overcomes a character’s dodge score, and armor reducing the amount of damage taken by a certain number of points. Many of the spells and prayers found in the book are renamed versions of those found in various editions of D&D, some with only slight or negligible changes to the effects other than a new moniker.

Monsters in the game tend to be fairly iconic monsters from fantasy role-playing, such as orcs and trolls, ghouls and ghosts, vampires, zombies, as well as some very AD&D monsters such as purple worms and gray oozes. There are even a few Call of Cthulhu type creatures lurking around in the gaming world, such as the Spawn of Nyogtha and the Whisperer in Darkness, which again bring in some of the Howardian horror elements inspired by his old pal Lovecraft.
The author does include an adventure called The Dungeon of Madness as an example of an adventure that new heroes to The Secret Fire might find themselves involved in.

I should also point out that the author does not consider combat to be a very important part of the game, or at least it is something that should be only a small part of the gaming experience:
As in life, combat should be entered in as a last resort, for battle is deadly. Flight and especially parley may pay far greater dividends than joining every fray. And woe betides the group that seeks constant battle, for this game is — intentionally — not one of balance. Some challenges simply cannot be overcome; the same is true of some creatures in the game. One never knows at the outset of a situation, so caution is a valuable watchword.
While this type of play-style might appeal to some D&D gamers out there, it certainly is not true of all Fantasy Role-players. Many D&D gamemasters – myself included – try to strike a compromise between role-playing situations and combat encounters, so as to engage and satisfy a wider range of players at the gaming table. However, the author of The Secret Fire has a fairly cavalier attitude about those gamers who do not see his (and supposedly, Gary Gygax’s) Vision for what should happen in a Fantasy Role-Playing Game:
A skilled MC and a table of dedicated players can spend entire sessions of TSF without rolling a single die, yet explore dark, dangerous, and exotic lands, as well as underground caverns and dungeon complexes that offer both excitement and tension. Let us be clear: TSF is not a war game, and players seeking such are encouraged to look elsewhere.
As pretentious as the aforementioned gaming philosophy from the The Secret Fire's Introduction sounds, in fact, the author’s pretension gets even more cloying by the end of the book, when he includes a list of non-game related activities that can earn player-characters bonus activities for engaging in between sessions. There is a list of 35 non-game related activities, and performing 5 of them in a week earns a 5% experience point bonus the next time you gather for a gaming session. The first 10 items on the list include:
1. Read a non-game-related book.
2. Perform a random act of kindness.
3. Meditate for at least 10 minutes.
4. Exercise (with the usual caveat of consulting with your doctor before starting any exercise program, etc.).
5. Ask someone out on a date.
6. Give to charity.
7. Learn a new skill.
8. Take a class (a class you want to take, not one that you are required to take for work or school).
9. Call or write a letter or e-mail to a friend or family member you have not spoken to in a long time.
10. Forgive someone.
I’m not sure what to make of the list, except that perhaps the author feels that Fantasy Role-players are so out of touch with reality that they need to be coached to interact normally with the real world using an in-game “carrot” of free experience points as a reward.

Overall Score: 2.75 out of 5

Conclusions

I really wanted to like The Secret Fire, and I found some of the individual game elements and concepts are both noteworthy and are worth consideration. But as a whole, the game is far too derivative of original AD&D, and the newer concepts added in don’t seem to guarantee a game system that is all that new or innovative, so much as just a mish-mash of gaming concepts. While it is true that almost any gaming element, from character generation to combat resolution, has been done before by someone somewhere else in the gaming industry, the elements that the author combines in The Secret Fire don’t seem to fit all that well together, and the resulting game system would only appeal to one facet of the fantasy role-playing game community. For those interested in role-playing intensive game only, The Secret Fire might work for them, but to be honest, almost any game can be role-played to the hilt, even board games if you have the right crowd - did you know that folks have made a role-playing game out of Monopoly?

For all its pedigree, The Secret Fire comes off as pretentious, full of its own self-worth, and amounts to not much more than a collage of borrowed game concepts hung on an old AD&D framework. While it tries to be innovative, it merely ends up being derivative, and is certainly not going to be replacing D&D anytime soon as the quintessential Fantasy Roleplaying game system.

So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)

  • Presentation: 2.5
  • - Design: 2 (A bit unpolished and retro, and the pretentious tone in the writing is a turn-off.)
  • - Illustrations: 3 (Decent black and white sketches, but too few for a book of this size.)
  • Content: 2.25
  • - Crunch: 1.5 (Borrowed and/or stolen game mechanics cobbled together does not a game system make.)
  • - Fluff: 3 (Interesting world setting, and enough decent material to role-play with.)
  • Value: 3.5 (The PDF is inexpensive considering the amount of material for players and GMs in one book)
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Argyle King

Legend
I think it sounds interesting. As someone who never had the chance to play AD&D, I feel like I would want to try Secret Fire.

I like the idea of every character having a good, neutral, and evil trait. I prefer shades of gray to be possible in a game rather than hard nailed alignment labels.

It also seems to me that the end list and some of the occult references might be something of a joke to poke fun at the idea of Jack Chick's comics and the idea some people had/have about a dungeon master being some sort of cult leader using the game to brainwash players into performing tasks. Even if it's not a joke, I think it's good to encourage people to read and participate in the real world a little more.
 

Nine Hands

Explorer
I've had a chance to play it and the system was pretty good. I liked the retro feel and even thought the XP for real life thing was kind of cute.

I don't see performing random acts of kindness, giving to charity or forgiving someone to be a way to coach gamers to interact "normally". It's similar to the Baldur's Gate II computer game which reminds you that while the characters in the game don't need food, you do and its OK to take a break once in a while and go outside. A little nod to the reality around us.
 

tenkar

Old School Blogger
Isn't every OSR style game built upon the bones of it's predecessors (and, of course, the SRD and OGL)? Holding that against the game you can remove all of the following from being worthy games:

Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Adventurer Conqueror King System, Crypt & Things, Lamentations of the Flame Princess' Weird Fantasy - need I go on?

The preachy stuff I also was annoyed by, especially as it is accompanied by some fairly satanic-ish artwork. The underlying system isn't bad, but it is a tweaked version of an older version of D&D. I don't think George tried to hide that fact.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

darjr

I crit!
The riddle, what is it? Isn't the game a big puzzle? Isn't it, the whole book, a giant easter egg to be slowly unwound and figured out? I thought that was one of it's 'secrets'.
 

Squire James

First Post
Still, any game that is clearly a derivative of another game needs to be judged on its own merits, because different derivations pick different things from the original game to emphasize and they do so with varying degrees of quality. Note I'm NOT saying anyone is failing to do this, mind you!

I'm not sure I'd like a game that actually rewards players for acting irritating or obnoxious...
 

tenkar

Old School Blogger
Still, any game that is clearly a derivative of another game needs to be judged on its own merits, because different derivations pick different things from the original game to emphasize and they do so with varying degrees of quality. Note I'm NOT saying anyone is failing to do this, mind you!

I'm not sure I'd like a game that actually rewards players for acting irritating or obnoxious...

I agree. It should be judged on its own.

That being said, The Secret Fire diverges more than most of the OSR style games from it's source.

Actually, The Secret Fire is probably more towards heavy "house rules" than derivative. Almost like Palladium Fantasy RPG and AD&D are related.

If I ran The Secret Fire there's a bunch of stuff I'd leave out. With most of the other OSR games there is a bunch of stuff I'd add if I were to run them. Go figure ;)
 

jydog1

Explorer
Played this at a con about a month and a half ago with George. I neither loved it or hated it. Our pre-gens all had at least one abysmally low stat, which did encourage those with low WIS to do foolhardy things, those with low CON to take breaks for consumptive-type coughing fits, and so on. We spent a little too long learning the rules - over an hour of a 4 hour slot - and that might be coloring my viewpoint a bit.

Still, I enjoy new systems and didn't feel the urge to grab a copy.
 

Anselyn

Explorer
This quote is amusing:

A skilled MC and a table of dedicated players can spend entire sessions of TSF without rolling a single die, yet explore dark, dangerous, and exotic lands, as well as underground caverns and dungeon complexes that offer both excitement and tension.

Yes, that game is called Make-Believe I think. If I'm going over a friend's house to play Make-Believe, kind takes the wind out of spending $9.99 since I already know the rules.

As I'm sure you know many groups can spend an evening roleplaying w/o rolling a dice. We've certainly done that playing ToC and I presume that was also likely if you played Amber Diceless RPG.

The rules give an environment for you operate in and show how to interact with the game world. It doesn't necessarily need dice and lack of dice doesn't make it rule-less Make-believe.

[Of course, you knew this and were being obtuse and or ironic ... but it seemed worth saying]
 

Toll Carom

First Post
Point of Order

The reviewer says that Gary was the creator and master of the RPG. As a point of order, that's inaccurate. If any one person could be said to be the creator or father of the roleplaying game, that'd be Dave Arneson (by Gary's own admission).

As you were.
 

Squire James

First Post
The reviewer says that Gary was the creator and master of the RPG. As a point of order, that's inaccurate. If any one person could be said to be the creator or father of the roleplaying game, that'd be Dave Arneson (by Gary's own admission).

As you were.

I tend to think of Gary and Dave as "Grandfathers of the Game", since most people actually have two grandfathers. They certainly brought out different aspects of their character into the game, and among other things it's that "chocolate and peanut butter" effect that made the game great.

Perhaps "The Secret Fire" is the kind of game Gary favored later in life... I'd be pretty interested in knowing what kind of game Dave would have designed under similar circumstances!
 

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top