Monthly Archives: May 2014

Part Three of Burnt Offerings

So far in this review/overview, we’ve dealt with the first two parts of the module, roughly corresponding with the first half of the action.  The rest of the module is comprised of two separate dungeons and about enough plot to string it all together.  There’s a lot going on with the larger issues of the campaign direction, but from where I was sitting as a player, not a lot of it made any direct sense.  Most of this had to do with the parts of the module that the module didn’t really bother to explain.

Most of this is due to the lack of background that’s offered to the players in the first parts.  The characters are children of the town, but the module treats most of the information as revelations that are handed down after the fact.  I went over the three events that took place five years before the start of the module series in my first entry and at this point, I want to go back and talk about one of those.

As the GM is informed, there was a magical artifact of sorts that was activated before ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ took place, which the player characters may or may not ever connect.  In the process, this activated something under the streets of Sandpoint, sowing the seeds for these particular events.  In essence, everyone who had good reason to fall under the sway of Wrath (see previous note about ‘sin points’ as this is why they will become important) went nuts.  One of the people affected was the father of Ameiko, the innkeeper that serves as something of a patron for the PC’s in the module, moreso if they took the campaign feat.  He was raising a bastard son (his wife gave birth to a half-elf, when both of them were humans) as his own, and the activation under Sandpoint triggered a homicidal rage in him.  He killed his wife by pushing her off a cliff, and he’s been dealing with this since.

There’s a weird point that comes up at about this section of the module.  The half-elf son has always been treated badly by Ameiko’s father, to the point that he banished him to an academy and forbade the family to have contact with him over the years.  When the son, Tsuto, showed up for the funeral of his mother, the father beat him with a cane, to the point that he nearly broke the Tsuto’s jaw.  After this, Tsuto vanished from Sandpoint until he came back a little bit before the start of the module to set things in motion.

In the midst of all this, it’s noted that he’s forced his father’s cooperation through threats of blackmail.  Granted, I’m only skimming through these modules to refamiliarize myself with the sequence of events, so I might be missing some important notation regarding this, but there’s no immediate logic as to why the blackmail works at all.  Given the tumultuous relationship that’s been spelled out over the course of the background material, it would make a lot more sense for the father to either quietly have Tsuto killed off when he shows back up and tries to force his father’s hand or to ignore him altogether.  There was never any direct evidence that his mother was murdered, and he had made a point of loudly and constantly talking about how he believed this of his father.  (The fact that it was true was probably what earned him the beatdown that he got.)

As such, it’s not like he could have threatened to tell people that he believed his father was capable of murder.  And without that ace in his pocket, I’m not really certain what it would have been that could have been used as blackmail to coerce his father.  It certainly isn’t the open secret of the smuggler’s tunnels, as those were pretty well sealed off and disavowed a generation previous.  Honestly, I’m a bit mystified as to what leverage he had.

That aside, the third part of the module deals with the raid on the glassworks, a confrontation with Tsuto (and the related rescue of Ameiko), and the dungeon that lies beneath the town.  This is the point when the characters start to become aware of the larger plot of both the module and the campaign itself.

The raid on the glassworks is pretty straightforward, honestly.  There are eight goblins, total, in the building, and even though there hasn’t been a whole lot of combat up to this point, the goblins are mostly set dressing for this part of the adventure.  The real threat is Tsuto himself, who is a half-elf monk/rogue.  Depending on whether you’re using the original module or the updated one, he’s either 3rd or 4th level, which constitutes a vague threat, but nothing that can’t be readily dealt with.  Once he’s been killed or incapacitated, the players can learn about what’s going on with the actual masterminds behind the goblin raids, leading them eventually to part four of the module.  And some investigation in the smuggler’s tunnels will lead them to the larger dungeon that starts to explain why all of this was started in the first place.

There’s one further weird aspect to talk about before I close the page on the glassworks and start trying to make sense of the larger dungeon complex.

When the editors at Paizo sat down to put the module together, it was apparently based on an in-house game run by one of the staff.  Naturally, this was developed out into the full module series, and I have the feeling that much of it was based on the original campaign and the attendant maps.

The building that the glassworks is housed in is set along one of the cliffs on the edge of town, canted at an angle to follow the cliff itself and running from the northeast to the southwest.  So, when the map was included in the text of the module, it is similarly canted, with the compass rose for reference.  While it may not be immediately obvious from my description, this means that all of the maps are vaguely impossible to draw, as most of the walls run at a 45° angle.  A quick glance at the map shows me a total of four small rooms that align with a grid, while everything else runs off at angles.

The reason that I bring this up is that I remember watching my GM spend the better part of 20 minutes trying to draw the map out on a grid map, muttering the entire time about how much of a pain in the ass it was to deal with.  I’m sure that the reasoning was that GM’s could fork over the money for the map folio, but in an adventure that was meant to serve as a showcase of what they were capable of, it seems like an odd design choice to do something so specifically problematic and guaranteed to irritate their main customer base.

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Part Two of Burnt Offerings

The first module of Rise of the Runelords, Burnt Offerings, is divided roughly into four sections.  The first section of the adventure deals with the goblin attack, which whips back and forth between comic misadventure and a strange small town horror story.  As I’ve noted, I’m not entirely certain how I would approach the material on my own, as my experience of playing through the module had me confused at what was going on.  I have the feeling that I would try to underscore the humorous parts with creeping dread, as the domestic tranquility of the heroes’ hometown is cast down in a single, seemingly unprovoked attack.

With that in mind, I think I’d take a session to let the characters wander the town and get acquainted with the people and the locales before springing the Swallowtail Festival on them.  The Player’s Guide (both of them, actually, since Paizo put out a new one to reference the Anniversary Edition) has a full map of Sandpoint, and it would easy enough to stage some basic adventures around the town as the run-up to the festival took place.  If this were run like a sort of character prologue (the kind of which White Wolf is fond of), there would be enough time to build out some of the myths and rumours of the town for the children had grown up there.  There are simply too many little facets of daily life and local mythology to simply have the characters dropped into the adventure without it.

When I was looking back over the adventure today, I ran into further evidence of this in the third part of the module.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, as I was saying…  the first part of four is simply the goblin attack.  It isn’t terribly difficult, as the goblins tend to be easily distracted (there are a couple of sidebars that suggest having them get distracted by vaguely silly things in the process of maiming livestock and killing pets), and the characters should have little problem taking care of them in a matter of rounds for the multiple encounters.

The second part of the module deals with events in the aftermath of the attack.  This is where the fairly horrific bit with the ‘monster in the closet’ comes in, as well as some other scene setting encounters.  There’s a boar hunt that serves mainly to build up an important NPC, and a visit from another important NPC to give the PC’s  needed info on the local goblin tribes.  And for some reason, there’s a vaguely wacky encounter that has the daughter of one of the local businessmen coming on to a player character, only to be discovered by her protective father.  It serves to build up some important ‘sin points’ (something I’ll talk about shortly), but given the general timing of it, it’s another one of the uneven parts of the module as a whole.  Given that the characters also have to deal with a murderous goblin that is lurking in one of the homes, this whole encounter is decidedly less serious, even though it has potential to be just as awful.  It’s a bit weird.

The Anniversary edition adds in two extra encounters in this section, mainly to build up other NPC’s and give the town a bit more life.  There’s an investigation of a desecrated tomb, which apparently took place at the same time as the attack, as though the goblins were simply a distraction.  I thought this was an interesting inclusion, being that it serves to show that there’s a lot more conspiracy than just a simple goblin attack would indicate.  There’s a note in the background materials that also talks about an important NPC aiding the goblins unwillingly, which I think would be a good side investigation.   If nothing else, it would serve to fill in some of the blanks that are otherwise untouched.  The other one has the characters witness a confrontation between the innkeeper and her father, the owner of the glassworks, which just sets the stage for the third section.

The final encounter of the second part has the characters discover that the innkeeper has vanished, and in the midst of their investigation, they learn that she was to meet with her brother at the glassworks.  Come morning, she hasn’t returned, and it’s up to the player characters to look into it.  Naturally, there’s a much larger plot in motion, and the resultant dungeon crawl starts to shed light on what has been at the heart of the problems.  Sort of.

There’s a note at the start of the third section that goes over the history of the glassworks, with its inauspicious start as a smuggling den.  Depending on which version of the Adventure Path you’re running, this is presented as being part of the town’s general folklore.  In the original module, this was to be a carefully hidden secret, as the smuggling was only shut down about two generations back.  In the Anniversary edition, there’s some indication that most of the town is aware of it, one way or another.  (There’s also a strange and vaguely racist note to all of this, being that the family that owns the glassworks is Fantasy Asian.  Given that the adventure is taking place in what amounts to a largely Fantasy Romani community, it treads some odd ground.)  Either way, there’s likely to have been rumours that would have circulated amongst the children of the town, but once again, it never really comes across in the midst of play, as there’s nothing in the descriptive text.

Naturally, when the characters head for the glassworks, they’re walking into a trap.  What makes it strange is that the town itself has paid no attention to what’s going on, despite the dire aspects of it all.

So, here’s the thing.  The player characters are drawn in because the innkeeper went missing, right?  In the midst of this, eight of the general townsfolk have also gone missing, and goblins have taken up residence in the glassworks.  None of this merits any real notice, and if anything, the neighboring townsfolk only show up to interfere with the efforts of the PC’s as they work to investigate.  When Sandpoint is a town of only about 1,200 people, the absence of eight would be noticed.  Yet it isn’t, and the PC’s are only motivated to care because one of their patrons hasn’t been seen since the previous night.  And nevermind that the townsfolk are also a little more wary of things, given the recent murders by goblins, yet they don’t notice the high pitched giggling coming from the area.

Suffice to say that there would be a little different response, were I to sit down and run through this.

Anyway, before I close out this particular entry, I should accord a little text to the idea of the Sin Points.  Most of the Runelords Adventure Path concerns itself with the Seven Deadly Sins.  It’s subtle at first, as there’s nothing to really indicate anything different than standard character alignment and decisions, but towards the end of the path, it’s a needful part of things, as it determines how well the characters will be able to fight the final enemy.

This is why there’s an encounter where a character will be tempted by the shopkeeper’s daughter, to test them for their Lust.  There are a couple of other points in the modules where specific temptations are brought into play for the sake of testing the characters’ virtue or lack thereof, and the Anniversary edition even helpfully outlines a broader method for accounting such things.

As mechanisms go, it’s not bad.  Paizo makes a point of adding new systems into their Adventure Paths, and having the characters stay within alignment, yet fall prey to sins, was an interesting one.  Oddly, in my experience, it led to a couple of shaky leaps of logic within the game I played, as my fairly pious Desnan Priestess didn’t really fit into any easy category.  It would have been easier, had she not been as devout and generally good as she was, but this was also the experience with the first release version of the modules.  The Anniversary edition has a much better system, from the look of things, and perhaps that’s ironed out some of the flaws.

A first look back at Burnt Offerings

If I could think of a snappy title for this, I’d run with it.  Alas, we’re going to have to settle for something a little more in the ‘what you see is what you get’ territory of things.  We’ll see where things end up with the other modules in the series, if I get any more imaginative with the titling.

When we settled down to play Runelords, it was something of a consensus vote on most of our parts.  The GM had been sitting on the modules for a couple of years, and for my part, I’d been interested enough in the Adventure Path to have gotten into a couple of other GM’s abortive attempts to gin up interest.  A couple of the other players were less proactive about it, but there was enough interest overall to throw a group together.  I hadn’t been driven to run the modules myself, as there were other series that I’d wanted to try first, but it was a good chance to play and see how these early efforts conducted themselves.

As previously noted, the module doesn’t really concern itself with illuminating the characters with the background that seems necessary for having grown up in the Sandpoint environs.  Even looking over the revised edition that they published in the 5th Anniversary hardcover, there isn’t anything really bring people up to speed.  The official Player’s Guide for the new edition is extremely helpful in serving as the general gazetteer for the entire region of Varisia, but beyond a map for Sandpoint, there’s not much that’s going to fill in these needed gaps.

The module itself starts off with the Swallowtail Festival, a local celebration paying homage to the goddess of dreams, Desna.  The original module actually covers this in a little more detail than the revised version does.  Since the original was setting up the entire campaign world for players and GM’s new to Golarion, there was a bit more text devoted to explaining this new material.  The Anniversary Edition feels more like there’s an expectation that the GM is already familiar with these details.

The module goes over the timeline of the festival, offering general details that the players can follow up on as part of a small town autumn festival.  And then the goblins attack.

Even reading over the module now, I’m not sure what tone I would try to invoke with this scene.  The goblins are set up as being largely comical, even as they’re eviscerating dogs and trying to drag off small children and pets to eat.  They loudly sing what amounts to being a nursery rhyme, and the module encourages the GM to play up their general incompetence over the course of the encounters.  They’ve come in to disrupt the festival on the orders of a much more subtle villain, and being goblins, they largely pose no threat to the assembled adventurers.  And at the same time, there are notes of what sort of atrocities they’re capable of.  A later scripted encounter has one of the goblins that managed to slip away during the commotion serve as the ‘monster in the closet’ for one of the local Sandpoint children.  When the PC’s show up to investigate, they find the child’s father also attempted to deal with it, and they pull his half-eaten corpse out of the closet.

There’s a lot of mood whiplash to be found in this adventure.

And for my purposes, I’m not really sure what I would do with all of it.  This sort of uneven tone persists through the early modules, and it only shifts towards more direct horror towards the latter half of the series.  (That’s assuming that it wasn’t just a case of our GM trying to chip away at the odd whimsy for our sake.  Which is entirely possible.)  There’s a sidebar in the original printing of Burnt Offerings that suggests that the ‘monster in the closet’ scenario may be a bit depressing for players to deal with, but this is well after the lavish details about how the goblin attacked the child, burned its cat to death, and murdered the family dog.  So, a case may already be made that the damage is likely to already have been done for scarring the players.  The goblins are meant to be comic relief up to the point that they are meant to be outright traumatizing.

And this isn’t going into how an interesting NPC is developed in the module, only to serve as weirdly tragic villain in the second module in the path.  As far as one of the characters in our group was concerned, that entire scenario was a defining moment of awfulness.  Then the third module touches on cannibalism and rape.  In an oddly comic manner as well.  It’s a bit strange, all the way around.

But before I forget, I should probably detail some of the characters in our local group.  They served to define a lot of things for the module path, even if most of them vanished over the course of play.

My own character was an extremely pious young Priestess of Desna.  She was a variation of a Summoner that I’d tried to play in one of the earlier iterations of the campaign with a different GM.  I’d built her to bounce off another friend of mine, as the childhood friends that denied there was anything romantic between them, even though the rest of the town pretty well assumed they’d end up married.  It was a basic sort of set-up, and the other guy ran with it.

The weird thing was that when I rebuilt the character for a new group, the other player ( a different person) was far too self-absorbed, both in character and out, to make any sense of this idea.  He’d built a Sorcerer, and the two had a shared background as being essentially adopted by the local innkeeper.  My character served as brewmeister, and his character was the cook.  (The Priestess’ fondness for brewing was a character trait that I grimly held to, improving her skill with every level.  Not that the GM did anything to encourage this or even work it into the story, sadly.)  But the nascent tension was sort of killed off as the Sorcerer ended up blithely ignoring everything to chase after most of the other girls in the town.  And knowing the player as I did, this was a strange form of wish fulfillment on his part.  It was a little unsettling to watch, really.

The Sorcerer had a Ranger brother, whose patron came in the form of the local stablemaster.  The original intent was to have him tag along with the Sheriff, but somewhere along the way the character delved into extreme levels of pure hatred for goblins.  Like ‘exterminate all goblins’ levels of obsession.  The other players started joking about just what sort of insanity had to run in their family for the particular madnesses that we started seeing crop up.

One player made a Witch, which had the unfortunate effect of making me loathe the class as a whole.  I’d built my Priestess on the idea of the twinned Luck and Chaos effects of being a follower of Desna.  Roughly, this meant that I could imbue an ally with the ability to roll twice and pick the better of the two rolls.  And with a touch, I could do the inverse with an enemy.  It was a neat little ability that augmented the character and helped define her.

The thing was, it required that I touch the creature in question, the effect lasted for a single round, and there were a limited amount of times that they could be used in a given day.  A Witch has access to the same abilities as hexes, which meant that they were wholly at-will throughout the day, didn’t require touch, and with the application of the Cackle Hex, they could persist pretty much forever.  In comparison, the abilities that I had selected as part of my overall build were pretty weak and limited.

From there, we had an Alchemist whose player made a point of reading the module before he sat down to play (big surprise, it didn’t take long for him to get bounced from the group), a fairly flavorless Rogue that was killed off in short order, and a Druid that showed up halfway into the module.  While the Druid was one of the lasting characters in the modules’ run, he’ll be detailed later.

Auspicious Beginnings – Looking Back at Rise of the Runelords

Ah, ambitions.  I’d had all manner of grand ideas for this blog, in terms of subject matter and direction, when I started out a little over two months back.  Then came the computer crash and various day to day setbacks that have left me scrambling to keep up with my own self-appointed goals.  Thus far, I’ve managed to keep the updates for this on track, more or less, but none of it has been nearly as easy as it may have otherwise been.

Here’s hoping for better luck in the next month or so.

In the mean time, I’ve been ruminating on the idea of the different Adventure Paths I’ve played and run over the years.  One of my players has offered to run a couple of the more recent ones that he’s picked up, but there’s still the dangling bits of the original unfinished series, Rise of the Runelords, that we’d like to put paid to.  Combined with a general burnout on Pathfinder recently, it’s been hard to get motivation to get back into the swing of things, as it were.  The game has been our general fallback for about three years, so it’s not surprising that we’ve gotten a bit burned out on it of late.

The Runelords game originally started a couple of years ago, with a much heavier playing group.  We had something like eight solid players at the time, most of whom have dwindled away or fallen out of touch until we ended up with just two men left standing at the end of it all.  (This is also why we never got farther than module #3 of Kingmaker; we had seven players for that over the years, but they faded even worse.  And there were never more than three players at any one time for that game, so it was a rotating cast with one or two regular characters.)  The player attrition rate has been something to behold, in all truth.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think we were doing something wrong.

Runelords, as we all know, was the first official product under the Pathfinder imprint.  Paizo had done all manner of Gamemastery products beforehand, as well as Dragon and Dungeon Magazines, but the Pathfinder line marked their new license in light of the OGL and Wizards of the Coast revoking their right to publish the two magazines.  Paizo had chosen to develop their own campaign setting with the Pathfinder line, and this was the start of a new Adventure Path under a new name.  They’d done three solid ones in the issues of Dungeon, and this new product was to be exclusively working in this direction.

The set-up for Runelords is pretty basic.  The characters are all townsfolk in a small town on the edge of nowhere.  In proper D&D fashion, they dwell in a broken land surrounded by the ruins of a long dead civilization.  (I have to think this is a convention directly cast from Tolkien’s mold, given that it seems to show up in nearly every campaign setting that has ever come along.)  And naturally enough, the characters have little time to get acquainted with their home grounds before something awful comes to disrupt the peace.  One thing leads to another, and in the space of a couple of encounters, they’re on their way to stranger locales to unravel larger conspiracies.

I like Runelords.  It was a slick product when it first debuted, and I’d have to say that it has held up pretty well over the years, even if I questioned the pricing at the time.  (To be honest, it’s still something of a money pit, overall, as the individual modules ran $20 at the outset and have recently jumped to $23.  I’m glad Paizo has prospered over the years, but these aren’t a bargain by any stretch.  And with my collection, I’m into them for about $1,500 in modules alone, to say nothing of the other supplements and hardbacks.)

But even as I profess my sappy adoration, I can’t say that the modules aren’t prone to … shall we say … unevenness.  The tone tends to vary wildly between modules, and there are various parts that are either confusing or hilariously deadly for the party.

One thing that always bothered me was that the backstory of the town of Sandpoint kind of got shoved into the dark with the opening of the module.  I’ve played the opening part of Burnt Offerings, the first module in the series, about three times over the years, due to different GM’s wanting to take a shot at it.  In none of these runs through the first part of the adventure were any of the weird establishing events dealt with.

See, if you read into the module to any extent, the backstory talks about something the townsfolk term as ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ in conversation.  This blanket term refers to three extremely important events that took place about five years before the start of the campaign, but there isn’t any easy way for the player characters to become aware of them over the course of play.  And for what it’s worth, all three events are crucial to understanding why half of the weird shit that’s happening in Sandpoint is centered there.

In no particular order, there’s the fire that killed the village’s main cleric, destroyed the chapel and apparently killed the beloved half-celestial that lived in the town.  There’s the apparent suicide of the wife of the richest man in town, who threw herself off a cliff onto the jagged rocks below.  And there’s the eccentric and beloved wood-carver who ended up being a raving serial killer and adherent to dark and eldritch gods.

The module handwaves some of this as being ‘something that is not talked about’ as a reason for the characters to be unaware of what sort of hellish underpinnings are driving the plot forward, but as curious children in and around the small town environs, they’d have not only heard rumors and tales in passing; they’d likely have created their own new versions of the tales as rambunctious adolescents.  I’d have loved to have seen a rumors table to flesh out some of this intricate and important background material, replete with distortions and lies, but instead the relevant parts of the plot that these events point to is left in the dark.  When it finally is revealed, there’s no sense of having this new information shed light on the weirdness of their earlier lives.  More to the point, the revelations are just confusing and weird, as the characters are told something that they’ve never heard about yet were expected to know.

Next time, I’ll look at the events of Burnt Offerings in closer detail, as well as talk about some of the characters that started the modules off for our group.  Sadly, very few of them survive through to the fifth module, where we stalled the game at, mainly because the players themselves vanished.

More with the previous…

So for a while, I’ve been thinking about how different games model different things, as I started to delve into with yesterday’s post.  Most games make combat their core mechanic, moving outward from there, as necessary.  Given the early days of the hobby, as it evolved outward from tactical miniatures gaming, this only makes sense.  Modern games in the Indie category have shifted to simpler mechanics that can eschew combat for the sake of their narrow focus on story or scene, but as yet they’re still a fringe aspect of the hobby.  (Unless you’re talking about Fate, which has its own success story that has yet to be replicated.)

Part of my thinking stems from my continual comparison of the different iterations of the Star Wars RPG franchise, as it moved from WEG’s D6 incarnation through the different aspects of D20 into Fantasy Flight’s own redemption of the brand with Edge of the Empire and the upcoming Age of Rebellion.  Each game had very different flavors, even in the shifts within D20, and while I prefer what came before and since, I can appreciate the design work that went into the game while Wizards of the Coast held the license.

More than that, however, I’ve been working over the ways different gaming companies present the superhero genre for gaming.  Much of this comes from recent reading, when I got tracked over to Superworld, the superpower game put out by Chaosium in the early 1980’s with the same system as Call of Cthulhu and Runequest.  Comparing that sort of system with the looser and more cinematic systems that I’ve grown accustomed to was a bit strange.

For me, the particulars of a system tell a lot about what the game is supposed to do.

In the case of Superworld, it’s built on the bones of BRP, Chaosium’s so-named ‘Basic Role Playing’ system, which was derived loosely from early Dungeons & Dragons, with a percentage skill system grafted onto it.  I’ve never been a fan of percentage systems in general, as they remove much of the wonder and speculation from the experience.  I find it acceptable in Call of Cthulhu, as the game’s core is esoteric and intellectual, and such systems fit that mindset.  But for action-oriented games, a clinical 35% chance is far too sterile.  It may have worked for George Martin’s purposes (his superhero anthology series, Wild Cards, is based from the Superworld games he used to run for his friends in Santa Fe), but these systems feel somewhat dry to me.  They’re not what I would use for a high action, cinematic game, but they would serve very well for something a little more gritty, I figure.  (Part of this is because it seems like the huge potential to cross over with the other BRP systems would be an interesting draw, sort of like some of the ‘What If?’ comics of the 1970’s would have suggested.)

Much like BRP, there are also GURPS versions of superhero games, which I find very interesting.  GURPS is definitely its own animal in the RPG industry, as a solid and dependable system that can be adapted for pretty much every sort of game imaginable.  It’s a little numbers-heavy for my tastes, but I know plenty of people that prefer it to most other games in the hobby, especially if they want a very closely defined and carefully built character for a very carefully built world.  This would also work well for grittiness and multi-genre role-playing.

TSR’s ground-breaking Marvel Super Heroes also used a sort of percentage system, but it was much looser and could have just as easily substituted in a D20 mechanic for the four color chart that served as its core.  MSH was simple, especially for its time, and the rules offered something of a casual, beer and pretzels sort of experience.  There was a lot of detail to the power profiles for the system, but most of the system revolved around combat, as evidenced by the Feat Table itself.  There were distinctions between things like Grappling, Edged Weapons and Blunt Weapons, but it was a game of knocking villains through walls and having fun, rather than considering the consequences of your actions beyond what was required for the Karma Pool.  I’ve always loved the game, but it doesn’t go very far when the characters are given deeper issues to contemplate.  If a problem can’t be solved by beating it into submission, it’s not going to be easily solved with this system.  There’s also not a lot of room on the lower end of the power scale, as the game could model normal humans, but that was usually for mooks and bystanders, rather than lower-powered hero characters.  Not much Iron Age potential there.

Its modern version, the Fate-inspired Icons, fares similarly, with the fast and loose aspects in full force.  Icons lends itself to convention games and short campaigns, focusing on the Kirby Era and things like the Batman Animated genre of comics, as evidenced by the art style.  Much of the game lends itself to very fast and loose games where the GM is in charge of arbitrating most of the action, but that allows it to be quickly generated and let loose on the game table.  It’s not something for the serious minded gamers that require a lot of detail, though, putting itself as far as it can from games like Superworld and GURPS.

I’ve seen people talk highly of how Savage Worlds handles super hero gaming, with Necessary Evil.  Given my outlook on Savage Worlds, I’ll let them have their opinions and move on.  I will say that Necessary Evil is an interesting idea, but if I were to ever run it, it would be with some other system entirely.

Hero System, much like GURPS, is the game for the carefully planned game with the precisely constructed worldset.  Unlike BRP and GURPS, however, it requires a lot of prep on the part of the GM, which pays off with the detail and the versatility of the available options.  This would be where an Iron Age game could shine, simply because there’s all manner of possible detail that could be lent to the game.  In the same breath, however, it’s not a casual game, and unless all of the players are intimately familiar with all of the aspects of the system, there’s no way that it could be a one-off fuck-all game like Icons or Marvel would lend itself to.

So, yeah.  Five different games, five different systems, and you end up with five very different flavors of what you would sit down to the gaming table with.  GURPS is detail-driven, and it could take you into uncounted alternate worlds with no effort at all.  But it wouldn’t be nearly so high action as Marvel or Icons.  And with those two, you could easily run something out of the box in minutes, where the heroes are throwing cars and sections of real estate at the villains of the scenario.  But you’d be sort of stuck if the game suddenly got serious, and the characters had to rely on something other than their super powers to get through.  And so on.  This is just a look at one genre of games, with a narrow selection therein, and already you’ve got strong and weak points within these.

At this point in my gaming life, I’ve come to the idea that I’ll use a game for the purpose intended, rather than try to adapt it into something else.  I’ve seen people try to use Dungeons & Dragons (or D20, in some cases) for all manner of different game ideas, and it’s been to varying success.  I wouldn’t use D&D or Pathfinder for much beyond heroic, level-based fantasy (with all manner of tactical combat) myself, as I think some other game would probably handle it a lot better.  There are enough games in the market place (and enough possibilities within my library) that I don’t have to force that sort of peg into some radically different hole.

What a game can and cannot properly do

The other night’s session of Edge of the Empire was a canned mini-module from the back of one of the sourcebooks, a four page overview of a swoop race conducted in the Crystal Swamps of Corellia.  We didn’t have a lot of time allotted to game this weekend, so we tried to do something short and simple, just for the sake of having some game time.  (The irony here was that our role-playing ended up making a four page encounter module last about five hours.  We need to rein things in occasionally.)

As adventures go, it was well done, but I’ve come to expect that from Fantasy Flight.  They managed to charm the lot of my playing group in the course of half a module from the boxed set, to the point that we gave up running Savage Tide for the time being.  If nothing else, they can make solid adventures that showcase the strengths of the systems they use, and that seems to be enough for our purposes.

The basic set-up was that the characters were given the chance to run in a local swoop race, knowing full well that their opponent was going to sabotage their efforts and cheat her way through.  It gave us a chance to flex the vehicle rules for Edge of the Empire and get a better idea of how to run ship or vehicle based encounters.  Being that Fantasy Flight is busily making miniatures for the spin-off game, X-Wing Miniatures, they’ve got a solid enough system already in place for such undertakings.  (It’s my understanding that the two games intermesh very nicely, with only the slightest amount of tweaking needed to integrate.)

In the end, it ran very well, with proper tension and surprise, and gave us a good idea of how space combat would then logically play out.  But it got me to thinking about how poorly it could have gone in other games.

Some games are built for very specific simulations, and if you were to step too far outside the narrow band of what the game could properly do, everything tends to fall apart.  The best that you can hope for is that the GM who’s trying to run something new and interesting has a good handle on the spirit of the rules and the effect he’s trying to pull off and can knock together some sort of useful house rules to adequately model whatever it is that’s going on with a homebrew system that’s not overly complicated or distracting.  The worst will probably be a clusterfuck of desperate hackery that’s been lifted from another, better game and painfully applied to a game that has no business going in that direction in the first place.

I’ve seen some of these attempts.  They ain’t pretty.

At their hearts, most RPG’s start with a combat system.  The origins of the hobby pretty much inform this decision, as miniatures games are all about tactical considerations and weapon damage.  Recent directions in the hobby have landed us with all manner of indie game that pushes combat to the back of the line, but there’s a reason that they’re indie games in the first place.  They’re built for a very specific and narrow purpose, which they do extremely well in a lot of cases, but they’re not terribly adaptable outside of this purpose.

So, once you have the combat system in mind, it’s a question of how the combat is meant to play out.  Dungeons & Dragons has ebbed and flowed on the idea of tactical miniatures, with some iterations of the game drifting further into abstraction while others practically sell you the minis with the main rulebooks.  (And given that several of the boxed sets include minis or cardstock stand-ups, it’s never far from anyone’s mind.)  Savage Worlds was built on the Great Rail Wars combat system, which also cleaves it pretty closely to that mindset.  On the other end of the scale are games like Exalted, where some aspects are closely focused on while others are left up to narrative resolution.  (For example, combat is very precisely timed to the second, allowing fast characters to take advantage of the timing to get in extra moves and attacks.  Oddly, this sort of precision is what turned the normal sort of White Wolf players off the system, as it seems to be too complex to the sort of people who prefer Live Action.)  While there were miniatures for 1st Edition Exalted, they were somewhat orphaned without an actual system for tactical combat.

Once Combat has been properly established (or downplayed, as the case may be), it then falls to figuring out what sort of skill resolution is necessary within the context of the game.  Early D&D (as noted by the OSR perspective on things) tended to leave much of this up to the skill of the player.  The GM would adjudicate whether or not the efforts described by the player were convincing enough to actually pull off, rather than noting if the character actually had any skill in the relevant areas.  When games like Call of Cthulhu (and its attendant BRP system) came along, they tried to codify what a character knew, if only for the sake of preserving some of the mystery and horror of the game world.  Chances were good that players either knew everything about the Lovecraft Mythos, or they knew nothing, with very little middle ground.  By putting the skills to specific numbers, the intricate knowledge of what might be going on could be shifted down to ‘in character’ or ‘out of character’ awareness.

From there, it’s a matter of what sort of sub-systems are in place.  This can be as general and expected as social combat or vehicle rules, leading all the way to cattle ranching and jury tampering.  (KenzerCo’s Aces & Eights was a bit of a strange game, but I’m honestly proud to own it, for all its inherent weirdness.)  Torg included stock market manipulation, Exalted had systems on bonecrafting, and Deadlands included things like spirit tech, where you had to make friends with the linked souls of your gadgets to craft items.  All of these had useful applications within their own games, which skewed the gameplay in that direction.

Overall, the role of such systems within the game often determine what aspects of the game are intrinsically important to the game itself, thereby pushing the players and GM’s toward such ideas in their games.  And rather than run this entry towards 2,000+ words, I’ll pick this up tomorrow…

Further thoughts on Edge of the Empire

The other night, we managed an abbreviated session of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars – Edge of the Empire.  Being a holiday weekend, we all had other obligations on the following days, so there wasn’t time for the main session we’d had in mind.  Right now, we’re running two separate campaigns of EotE, largely because I managed to convert one of my players over to the system pretty early.  He sees it as a chance to better learn the rules through running the game, and I have a rare chance to actually play the damned thing.  It’s a strange phenomenon, let me tell you.

Being on the other side of the screen has afforded me a number of interesting insights into the mechanics of the game, particularly in terms of how important equipment modifications and and attribute arrays are.  The attribute part is fairly self-evident, given that it’s relatively difficult to upgrade once play has begun as you have to dedicate something like 75 Experience Points (with a base of 10 to 20 awarded per session) in each specific Career Specialization.  And a little experience with the system tells us that even though it may be generally possible to play a character with the absolute minimum for attributes, it’s a better idea to have at least two points per, else things start to get problematic.

It was the equipment modifications that caught me off-guard, in all truth.  I’d glanced over the rules in my first pass through the book, but it hadn’t seemed like it was something essential.  It was only when it showed up in play did I realize how much of a real difference these rules offered.

Baseline equipment – which includes weapons, armor and vehicles – comes with a number of hardpoints which vary based on the type and quality of the equipment in general.  These hardpoints offer a discrete number of modification slots that can be fitted with attachments and accessories.  Since weapons are the most likely to be initially modified, I’ll use them as the go-to example for the moment.

Say your character has skill in Ranged (Heavy), which covers the ability to shoot most sorts of rifles and heavier armaments of the like.  For a starting character, the best options for blasters are regular Blaster Rifles and Heavy Blaster Rifles.  The differences with these weapons are actually relatively minimal.  The Heavy Rifle does one more point of damage, but it weighs significantly more and has a special quality (Cumbersome) to make it more difficult to wield in combat.  (Encumbrance is actually a part of the game, but it’s minor and fairly easily dealt with.  For the most part, it’s in there to keep characters from rattling around the galaxy with eight different guns strapped to their belts.)  The increased difficulty of using it is balanced with it having the ability to fire fully automatic.  This is pretty significant, to be honest.

Just looking at the numbers, however, is enough to drop the Heavy Rifle from consideration.  Using a stock Heavy Rifle is actually fairly unlikely for most characters, as the normal starting Brawn for most races is under the requisite threshold.  With that in mind, it’s probably acceptable to go with the normal Blaster Rifle instead.

This is where the equipment modifications become important.  As it happens, simply adding a strap to the Heavy Blaster is enough to mitigate the difficulty of using the gun by removing a point from the Cumbersome keyword.  And as it turns out, further tweaks to this strap are enough to imbue the weapon with the Quick Draw quality, which appears elsewhere as a Talent that can only be bought in a couple of career specializations.  So, for the price of a couple of hundred credits, a gun that was originally too heavy for a normal character to easily use in combat becomes ridiculously useful, as it no longer has any real drawback in combat and is given a significant advantage in the process.

Similar modifications can net such advantages as better up-close weapons and vastly improved tactical ability, most of which just require a competent technician to modify for use.  Each upgrade requires an ever-increasing difficulty to install, but the effects make this something of a necessary thing, as they can quickly shift the balance of combat towards the characters.

Finally, I came to sort of epiphany on the Obligation system for the game.  As I have noted, this is one of my favorite elements of EotE, as it gives the GM a dynamic method for generating adventures and keeping the characters aware of the things that have brought them to this place.  Edge of the Empire is, at its heart, a game about broken characters, and the Obligation reinforces this element of the backstory.

As written, the characters are free to choose their starting Obligation based on the various sorts of backgrounds that make sense to the player.  This means that a sample group of four characters will have four wholly separate skeletons in their closet to work out over the course of play, which is fine and good, were it not for the whole ‘having a ship’ thing.  See, the final part of the whole character creation thing has the characters picking out a ship for their group, assuming that the cost of such is balanced by the previously allocated Obligation.  Mechanically, it works out pretty well, but thematically, it has a couple of holes.

Most of this comes in the form of not being able to reconcile the alien who has important familial ties and the hardened criminal that’s fleeing the bounty hunters after he murdered someone back on his home planet with whomsoever they’re owing money to for the privilege of having a home base and means of transport.

For my own part, I’ve decided to house-rule it so that the required Starting Obligation takes the form of Debt to a specific source, thereby allowing the ship to provide adventure hooks in and of itself.  While there’s plenty of room to adjust things (like the case of Lando, where ships and executive positions are gained through games of Sabacc), it gives a starting point for the game and a sense of why the ship itself binds them together.

On the Idea of Adventure Recycling

Many years ago, I went to visit some friends of mine that were having a get together.  We knew each other mainly through online forums and the like, and this was a great chance to hang out and game.  The guy that was hosting the lot of us had pulled out an old adventure module that he wanted to run, and we made up characters accordingly.

What made it interesting was that he’d pulled the module from an entirely different game system and was running it in a system that all of us knew and loved.  Had he not had the module in front of him, it would have been hard to know that there was any conflict.  It was a good adventure, with an intriguing plot, and we had a lot of fun playing through it.

Looking over the release schedule for 5th Edition D&D and noting the run-up advertising on Wizards of the Coast’s online PDF store where they intend to make all of the old material available digitally, I’m generally struck by two things.  First, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of real innovation for this new edition (but I’ve already covered that ground), and they’re grasping at the straws of All That Which Has Gone Before to keep their corner of the industry afloat.  No one really looks back on the various adventures or supplements from 4th Edition (or 3rd Edition, for that matter) that were produced by Wizards with any real nostalgia, and all the great material seems to date from the Gygax Era primarily, with some affection attached to the settings brought out in 2nd Edition.

Secondly, I’m given to think that the availability of these modules from back in the day will probably be a good thing, though not in the way that Wizards would intend.  Personally, I’d love to have good quality electronic copies of these modules, so I could convert them over to Pathfinder.  I mean, I’ve already made the effort to run a bunch of 3rd Edition adventures in Pathfinder, so it’s not any stretch to convert over earlier stuff.  Most of the monsters in the early books have made the subsequent transitions into modern age equivalents, so that’s not any real problem.  The main focus of a lot of these adventures tends to be plot or architecture rather than stat blocks anyway, so for my purposes, the conversion isn’t the crucial part so much as the narrative.

The same sort of logic can be applied to most games and modules.  I’ve spent years running old Top Secret modules as Torg based espionage adventures, and that’s proven to be wildly successful.  It means much less preparation on my part, and my players can be often counted on to have never seen Top Secret in the first place, let alone be familiar with the text of the adventures.  It works on a number of levels, and the quality of these now-ancient books is high enough that they’re still really fun.  And the previously mentioned get together had us playing a Star Frontiers module with D6 Star Wars rules and characters.

Another forum that I’ve browsed has debated working on an up-conversion  of old WEG-era Star Wars modules and boxed sets to use with Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire game.  There doesn’t seem to be much forward motion on these fan conversions, but then again, EotE is only about a year old at this point, so there’s still time.  (It doesn’t help that Fantasy Flight has been slow to put out the various supplements.  Sure, the quality is extremely high, but we’ve only seen three non-adventure books thus far, with a new one just announced.)  Of particular interest is the idea of bringing the boxed sets into the new system.  Most of the rest of the Expanded Universe material will make it eventually, like the myriad of alien races, but there’s never going to be an official update of things like DarkStryder or Lords of the Expanse.

For those who are unfamiliar with the products, Lords of the Expanse was an interesting setting within the Star Wars galaxy that had noble houses feuding in a sector that was largely removed from the larger conflicts of the Empire Era.  Most of the action was concerned with secret societies, political machinations and working to manipulate the lurking Imperial presence within the sector.

In contrast, DarkStryder was a mammoth project, set in the early days after the Battle of Endor and the collapse of the central Imperial government.  Most of the characters were part of a New Republic strike team that was sent into an Outer Rim sector to apprehend a hold-out Imperial Moff.  When the Moff escapes, destroying most of the extant survey maps and leaving behind remnants of mysterious technology, it’s up the characters to mount a pursuit into unknown space.  They have a heavily modified capital ship in the form of the Moff’s personal strike cruiser, but they need to recruit members of the local populace in order to properly crew the damned thing.  This opens up all manner of weird secret agendas as some of the recruits are secretly part of the Moff’s own political machine.

The campaign divided itself along rankings, as each of the players were expected to play a member of the command crew, a member of the mid-echelon crew, and a character of their own creation within the crew.  The command crew characters had semi-scripted expectations for certain scenes that the players were trying to fulfill, the mid-echelon crewmen were given a fair amount of leeway, and the enlisted characters were offered free reign.  It was something of a troupe-style set-up, but most of the emphasis for the adventures was among the lower ranking characters.  And to capitalize on the novels of the time, the opening fiction was written by Timothy Zahn, who wrote the well-regarded Thrawn Trilogy.

For my own part, I’ve always wanted to run these modules.  DarkStryder opens out like an adventure novel, with the familiar space combat, mystery and archaeology aspects, conspiracies and treachery.  The Fantasy Flight ruleset is more than adequate for the job, with a little work to make sense of the weirder aspects of the setting, but the biggest hurdle that I face with it all is having the time and wherewithal to be able to run it properly.  Besides the boxed set and the adventures therein, there are also three separate books, all of which run about 100 pages or more.  This is not a minor undertaking, and it represents the best that WEG had to offer at its height.  I would not approach this lightly or without the proper group to pull it off.

What may, in fact, be hyperbole…

I always found it odd that comic books of the Fantastic Four always had the logo subtitled with “The World’s Greatest Heroes”, even though most of my friends ranked them well behind X-Men or Spiderman.  Sure, they were the flagship comic of the early days of Marvel, but the titling seemed like it was a holdover from a lost and bygone age when there were people that actually still cared about that particular comic.  The early comics helped define much of the Marvel Universe as it came to be, but after so many re-inventions and changes to the roster, it seemed to me that they were no longer relevant in any real sense.  The world had moved on, and only the people that had been fans in the early days still held on to the title as the years go by.

In unrelated news, the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons was just announced.

If it were possible, I would honestly feel bad for Wizards of the Coast.  Being that they’re a huge corporate entity that exists as a discrete subsidiary of the truly mammoth Hasbro, my sympathies are tempered accordingly, but it’s still sad to see them trying desperately to cling to a fading nostalgia that they think defines the industry.  They’ve become the greying emperor whose lackeys and sycophants continue to reassure them that they’re still loved and adored, even as they step forth without pants to address their subjects.

I caught the announcement through a number of channels, not the least of which were members of my local playing group.  I’ve been half-heartedly following the rolling news about the D&D Next playtest, watching as there were all manner of announcements heralding the ease of play and the adaptability of the rules to different play styles.  Much of the earliest hype centered on Monte Cook’s involvement, as his direction helped craft the much beloved ruleset that underscored the 3.0/3.5 iteration of things.  Monte had promised a sliding scale of complexity and granularity for different tastes, where you could have the rules as simple or nit-picky as the individual player wanted, and all of these people could play at the same table.  It sounded unlikely but wonderful.  And hells, if there was anyone who might be able to pull it off, I’d have given Monte a chance.

Then, of course, Monte dropped out of the project, leaving it in the hands of Mike Mearls.

As a quick aside, I’ll go on record saying that I don’t like much of what Mike Mearls has done.  I disliked him when he showed up at Malhavoc, with Iron Heroes, and I thoroughly loathed his direction on Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords.  The latter would have been enough to poison the waters for me, given the weird pseudo-magic that he saw fit to push onto otherwise mundane fighting classes, but then he went on to head up much of the development of D&D 4e, for which I can muster no excuse.  (On one level, 4e isn’t a bad game; it’s just not D&D.  It’s a miniatures game that somehow got branded as being Dungeons & Dragons.)

Since Monte’s departure, there’s been little in the way of encouraging news.  The playtesters who posted online about it noted the sudden and arbitrary rules changes that bore no relation to the playtest feedback, all of which seemed to reflect the slow cleansing of rules that Monte Cook and his crew had tried to put forth.  The best thing that could be said about this or that iteration of the evolving rules was that it looked like D&D.  There was nothing groundbreaking or terribly new about any of these rules, and unlike the industry-wide revolution that followed the debut of 3rd Edition rules, there’s no real excitement.  If anything, the best that has been said about this edition is that it’s trying to undo some of the damage that was suffered with 4th Edition.

It really does feel sad, though.

The covers of the books, the modules and boxed sets are all subtitled with some reference to this being “the world’s greatest role-playing game” despite having no continuity with any of the previous versions of the rules.  This may be my own personal prejudice, but in order to be considered the same game, it should at least be compatible with the versions that people knew and loved.

What makes it even more pathetic is that they’re busily exhuming the corpse of Gary Gygax in order to try bringing their wayward fans back into the fold.  Each of the books and modules attempts to reference the golden age of D&D, back when it could legitimately hold itself up as being the greatest of all RPG’s.  Mind you, depending on the time period in question, it was also the largest and most played of a very narrow field, which makes things like this a lot easier to claim.

The cover of the Player’s Handbook has a painting that depicts King Snurre Iron Belly from module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, published back in 1978.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide shows a vaguely confusing illustration of the lich Acererak from module S1, The Tomb of Horrors, originally written in 1975.  (Given that Acererak is supposed to be a demi-lich, his appearance as a relatively fresh lich with mummified flesh still clinging to his bones is a bit of an odd departure.  Then again, Wizards keeps going back to the well for Acererak, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.)  And the cover of the Monster Manual naturally has a Beholder on it, which dates back to the original 1975 Greyhawk supplement.  All of these references come from the very early days of D&D, and all of them trace directly to the creative fire of Gygax himself.  (Granted, Rob Kuntz’ brother originally created the Beholder, but the development of the monster owed to Gygax, so I’ll count it.)

Between the subtitle and the choices for the covers, this tells me that Wizards really has nothing to catch anyone’s attention with.  When D&D was held by TSR, they used to be the heart of the industry, driving the hobby forward and creating all manner of ancillary companies in their wake.  For every boxed set or module they produced, there would be profit for the dice manufacturers or the guys that cast miniatures.  GenCon and Origins came into existence as a result of the money and brand recognition that D&D was able to generate.

Then when it all fell apart and TSR ended up being sold to Wizards of the Coast, there was new excitement to be had.  The innovation that followed 3rd Edition had serious implications for the industry as a whole, bringing some of the up and coming publishers to the brink of dissolution and making fortunes for others.  D20 changed much of the hobby with the OGL and the ubiquity of the rules, and even when they chose to abandon those rules, it still cast a number of far reaching ripples.  Granted, 4e didn’t do much to shake things up, but the choice to create 4th Edition and change the licensing options was what set in motion the shift to Pathfinder and the ascendancy of Paizo.

In comparison, this whole announcement does nothing.

I would have been interested to see Monte Cook’s vision brought to light, but in that absence, I’m left without any measure of enthusiasm.  This is just another game in the marketplace, and it has nothing to make it worth my money.  If I wanted Acererak or King Snurre, I’d just go back to my old modules and dust them off.  I’m certainly not going to throw $150 at a game that’s failed to excite any of its playtesters.  It’s just not worth the gamble.

And if you could actually see my library, you’d know how damning that really is for me.

Ryuutama – A Look at the ‘Natural Fantasy’ RPG

Being capable of certain levels of self-reflection, I will admit that there are some definite flaws that I carry as a game master.  I’ve spent way too much time as a literary and horror-driven GM that I’m sort of bad at light-hearted and one-off games.  I’m really, really good at epic games, I’m really good at horror… and the farther you get away from those sorts of genres and tropes, the more likely I am to to suffer.  Depending on the game, I can probably find a hook to be able to make things function, but I’m not going to lie; I stick to the hard stuff like horror because I’m good at it.  I’m not nearly so good at other genres.  While I like the idea of something like Blue Rose, the Mercedes Lackey angle of it all would leave me high and dry.

With that in mind, I want to talk about a game that I absolutely love.  It’s also a game that I am extremely poorly suited to actually try running, since it’s so bright and cheery.

I missed the Kickstarter for Ryuutama.  Had I known about it at the time, I would have given them copious amounts of money, just on principle.  The baseline is that it’s a Japanese RPG that has been translated into English by the guys at Kotodama Heavy Industries, who were responsible for putting together the English translation of Tenra Bansho Zero.  TBZ is currently on my list of ‘beloved games that I have not read all the way through, but I badly want to run it regardless’.  It’s a shorter list than you might imagine, and it’s probably telling that Ryuutama is right next to TBZ on that list as well.

They term Ryuutama as a ‘natural fantasy’ RPG, given that it focuses itself on the more pastoral aspects of a standard Japanese fantasy world.  The characters are the mundane inhabitants of this world, and their inclusion in the broad aspects of the game derives from their defining interest in exploring and traveling.  The artwork is bright and cheery, and the translators throw around the Japanese word, ‘honobono,’ which relates to the heartwarming and more family friendly aspects of the game.  There are inevitable references to Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator responsible for movies like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, amongst others.  The game is supposed to invoke this same sense of community and bright-eyed wonder in the way it unfolds.

Like I say, I’m probably pretty ill-suited to run this game.  But I really want to.

Different write-ups of the game and its various elements go into more interesting details, recalling elements of all manner of Japanese computer games.  The combat system is player out using a separate sheet of paper to map out the action, harkening back to the combats in different Final Fantasy games.  The artwork itself immediately brings to mind some of the watercolors that games like Legend of Mana evoked.  Items within the RPG are keyworded with specific qualities, so you might end up with a ‘gross’ tent or an ‘icky’ shield, since you’re starting out with poor quality equipment.  As the game progresses, better equipment will have better keywords, just like the computer games have conditioned us to recognize.

One rundown talks about how the players and the GM work together collaboratively to design the world from the ground up, taking into account input from all corners so that there are plot hooks for each character in every sort of locale.  Having seen how this sort of system can work in other games, I can see how it would seriously benefit a game like Ryuutama, allowing a closer connection to the play group.

The one thing that I’m struck by with this game is that the systems of the game go back to reinforce the basic precepts of the game itself.  I look at different games in my library, and I’m always amazed at how wildly different such games can be due to the way the game shifts its focus.  One Ring and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings are nothing alike, even though they work to illuminate the very same world.  Decipher’s Lord of the Rings takes a much more traditional approach to the material, where One Ring chooses to make the story concern itself with the travel, much like the original novels.

For example, several of the mechanical write-ups talk about how the travel system in Ryuutama talk about how it has some basic resource management aspects.  If a group of characters set out on a journey without proper preparation, they will run into trouble.  Likewise, if they run into trouble on the way, usually through mischance or poor rolls of the dice, things can quickly go bad for the group.

In the same breath, however, these hardships can cause them to pull together as a group to get through.  To bring this idea home, there’s a rule that, when one character throws a ‘fumble’ on the dice, every character gets a ‘fumble point’ that they can use later on.  This point can be used to enhance another roll in the future, thereby insuring some sort of future success.  Because the character screwed up badly, he and his friends will now have the chance later on to succeed where they might not have.  They’ve learned from their mistake, and as a group, they’ve found new resolve to persevere.  It’s a really neat idea, and so very Japanese at its heart.

The GM himself has a separate character sheet that represents the Dragon guardian spirit that watches over the group of characters as they travel through the world, and as the characters grow in power and experience, so does their resident Dragon.  The Dragon can aid the characters in small ways throughout the game, opting to stay hidden in the background to allow the story to unfold around the small heroes that are the accepted stars of this particular story.  On a mechanical level, it’s a fascinating way of codifying GM Grace to keep characters alive and moving forward, and on a narrative level, it gives each game its narrative focus, as the character of the Dragon determines much about the world itself by its presence.  The color and character of the Dragon shapes the story and the very world itself.  (The name itself, Ryuutama, translates as ‘Dragon Egg’ from Japanese, reinforcing the inherent importance of such a character.)

The game itself isn’t due to be released until fall of this year, and even though the Kickstarter is already completed, there’s still apparently enough time to get in on the pre-order through the Kotohi website.

This is probably not a game that will appeal to a great, wide audience.  I accept that.  And to be honest, even I am not the most likely candidate for buying it, given my lack of experience with games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing or the like.  But there’s something that appeals to me, probably due to my time in Asia, and I’m fascinated by trying to wrap my head around such deeply Japanese concepts that this game seems to embody.  And what the hell…  the guys at Kotodama are doing a wonderful job of bringing games like this to American audiences.  I’ll make a point of buying their stuff as long as they keep producing it.