Monthly Archives: October 2015

All Hallow’s Eve, and all that entails…

It’s a rainy, dismal night outside my window, and the best I can say about it is that it encompasses everything I remember about Halloween from my childhood.  It’s cold, it’s wet, and the only real reason to be outside at the moment is to scrounge for candy on the backstreets.  Since I’m not eight years old, however, I’m not particularly interested in venturing outside.  The idea of costuming would be interesting, if I had enough other people around to encourage me, but without a dedicated group of people to dress up with, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work.  And if I wanted any amount of candy, I’d just go off and buy myself a bag.

These days, it would hearken to a proper horror game night, were there anyone within reach.  I could see pulling out Touch of Evil or Last Night on Earth, but the best I could do right now is gather perhaps one other person.  And that doesn’t really justify the trouble.

My usual fallback would be to run a Cthulhu adventure.

I’d mentioned back in August that I had cultivated a habit of running one adventure on a repeated basis.  This adventure would be “The Haunting,” a little haunted house scenario that tends to be included in the Call of Cthulhu mainbooks and has become something of a favorite over the years.  It’s a relatively simple little module, dealing with the characters being asked to investigate the strange happenings at a little house in the Boston suburbs.  Most of the action is divided between researching the history of the place and actually looking around the  house itself.  It was put together to serve as an introduction to the game, and it is singularly effective on that basis.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on this module.  I’ve played in it, I’ve run it directly from the book, and I’ve adapted it into other systems for the sake of the players I had sitting at my table.  I’ve even toured a local house that now serves as my inspiration for Walter Corbitt’s house.  (In all seriousness, it had an identical floor plan, even down to the basement that seemed to only go under half of the house.  It was a little unsettling.)  I’ve grown to love it, and whenever I find myself settling into a new gaming group, this is one of the first that I bust out.

The simplicity of the adventure (the house itself has three bedrooms upstairs, a modest living room-dining room-kitchen layout on the main floor, and a rather small basement) allows any amount of modification, depending on how the GM wants to portray things.  I’ve seen it set in rural locales, on the outskirts of a Jazz Age negro resort town, and brought up to the modern day.  Characters have gone in as guileless dilettantes, hardened mercenaries and paranoid conspiracy theorists, based on how the players want to approach it.

And none of it matters.

Part of the appeal of the adventure to a GM is that it is unapologetically deadly.  I’ve never misled players on this point.  If they are sitting down for a Cthulhu game in general, it is generally understood that their survivability hinges directly on their choices, and the game itself is an unforgiving system.  I’ve never run this game as anything other than a one-shot, and for what it may be worth, I’ve never figured out how a character could reliably survive.  I’m sure that there are ways to survive, but it hasn’t happened in any of the sessions I’ve run.  That said, I’ve seen GM’s who try to help their player characters live through the scenario.  For my money, they’re merely running the module wrong, which robs their players of the full experience.

The adventure starts with the characters being hired by a mutual acquaintance, whose rental property is gaining something of a reputation.  The most recent residents have met with a series of dire misfortunes, and if this isn’t cleared up, he may not be able to rent the house again.  The characters are given a vague sketch of some of the problems, a key to open the front door, and a promise of a modest reward for dealing with the situation.  From there, they are free to start investigating.

This is where the adventure really shines, encapsulating the particular nuances that Call of Cthulhu brings to the hobby.  Investigation is largely unknown in most RPG’s, which prefer a more visceral approach to problem solving.  Lovecraft’s writings tend to be more cerebral, and the structure of the game rewards players who try to emulate this.  In the module, there are some nine listed locations, only one of which is the house itself.  Of these, six are locations for research purposes, ranging from the local library to the Boston Globe newspaper archives.  (Of the remaining two, one is the generic “house where the investigators meet,” and the other is something of a red herring.)  It is expected that the characters would do their homework, figure out some aspects of the mystery that they are confronted with and prepare themselves accordingly.  In some Cthulhu adventures, this tends to be the phase of the adventure where the characters come across some sort of weakness that they can exploit or an insight into the kind of foe that they are facing.  In this case, however, the best that the characters come away with is a gnawing sense of dread.  There are no particular weak points that they can use against Walter, and all the research tends to do is highlight the fact that their foes is possibly immortal.

Once they’ve done their due diligence in regards to the events leading up to the recent unpleasantness, the only remaining course of action is to physically enter the house itself.  And as I have said, the layout of the place is extremely simple.  There isn’t actually much to the adventure, in terms of the house itself, with most of the rooms serving as foreshadowing to the actual points of conflict.  The main level of the house has nothing particularly interesting to be found, other than the remnants of the former residents’ daily lives.  There is a weird notation of a sealed cabinet where the lost Diaries of Walter Corbitt have apparently been sealed up for over fifty years, but this has no particular bearing on the adventure.

Upstairs, however, things start to get weird.

Two of the three bedrooms were lived in by the former residents and have little of pressing interest.  The third bedroom, however, originally served as Walter’s room, and it manifests certain weird effects as a result.  For my money, this was where the adventure truly started.  Up to this point, the characters have been doing the scut work of the session, looking through archives and trying to piece together the information into a working theory of what’s been going on.  Only now, when they enter the sealed up second floor bedroom, do things actually start to hint at how bad things are going to get.

The room is treated as sort of poltergeist encounter, with furniture being thrown about and blood seeping from the walls.  Compared to the relative normalcy of the rest of the house, this tends to catch the players completely off-guard, setting the tone for the final act of the adventure.  (For my own purposes, I tend to expand the area of Walter’s influence to the upstairs bathroom, which is one room away.  This takes the form of filling the bathtub with blood and having Walter appear in the medicine cabinet mirror, seemingly over a character’s shoulder.  These are harmless little tricks, comparatively, but they have the effect of throwing things off well enough.  In one session, this even led to a character shooting a fellow party member in reaction.)  In the bedroom, Walter attempts to lure a character close enough to the window to batter them through the glass with the bedframe, a heavy wooden thing propelled by telekinetic force.  Depending on how the dice fall, this has the immediate potential to take at least one character out of the adventure on the spot.

From there, the only remaining part of the house is the basement, found by a door leading off the kitchen.  Hilariously, the dire encounter that awaits is foreshadowed by the plethora of locks on this door, clearly intended to keep something from coming up into the rest of the house.  It’s an understated element that isn’t pointed out to the GM of the scenario, but I’ve found that it tends to be wholly obvious to the players.

The basement is largely unremarkable to a casual observer.  The stairs are rickety, the light bulb doesn’t apparently work, and there’s a scattering of miscellaneous junk on the floor.  (The reality is that the light bulb is just fine, but Walter has telekinetically pulled the fuse.  If the player characters are resourceful enough, they can restore light to the basement with a quick trip to the fuse box; only to have Walter pull the fuse on them later when it suits him.  This is one of those elements that underscores just how bad it’s going to get.)  Getting into the basement itself can prove vaguely harrowing, depending, but it’s only when they’re assembled in the small underground room that things go completely off the rails.

There’s an interesting note that just occurred to me in the current re-reading of the text.  If the GM wanted to utterly put the screws to the players, it wouldn’t be out of character to have Walter lock them into the basement with him.  He has the power, and with the note about the fuse box, there’s really nothing stopping him.  The text of the adventure limits his power to the basement and the upstairs bedroom, but having the ability to mess with the fuse box allows him a couple other interesting tricks as well.

Once the characters have made it to the basement, they have a little time to sniff around before Walter decides to fuck with them further.  Initially, this takes the form of his ritual knife, a blood encrusted relic that is simply lying on the floor in the various debris.  Using telekinesis, he levitates the knife and has it stab whomever is readily available.  The characters invariably panic and try to deal with the knife, but by the time they have it under some sort of control, it’s usually done some serious damage to at least one of the characters.  And to this point, there’s been no indication of what the hell is going on.  Savvy characters who have done their research know that Walter was a particularly creepy figure in life and is buried somewhere under the house, but the reality is that there’s no obvious bit that reveals him as being a powerful undead sorcerer.  (Most players will outright assume it at this point, though.)

Finally, there’s the possession thing.

Up until now, Walter’s been using telekinesis of one sort or another.  (Well, and the whole “bleeding walls” thing.  I added in the ability to appear in the mirror as a sop to the accounts of the former residents.  It isn’t in his listed abilities, but it did add a nice flavor to things.)  In his write-up, he has a form of Dominate that allows him to make telepathic commands to a victim.  This is an opposed roll against a player character, but Walter is well and powerful enough to manage it.  For my purposes, this allows him to direct one of the player characters to open fire on another, which is usually enough to spell the end of the scenario.  Once a character has been attacked by another, things rapidly go downhill.  Even if they fail, the other characters are just paranoid enough to start killing each other, and any survivor can usually be dealt with using the ritual knife or the rat swarm that lurks in the walls.

Very rarely does Walter himself have to appear.  There are stats for him, and he has the ability to rise from his grave, his skin hardened against most forms of attack.  Even if any of the characters are able to survive the perils up to this point, Walter is well and capable of dealing with whomever is left to oppose him.

All in all, it’s a nifty little adventure, with enough lead-up to make the final act properly dreadful.  I’ve run it time and again, invariably ending with a total party kill, as I feel Cthulhu adventures should conclude.  There is a slim possibility of survival, but it hinges directly on trying to run Walter out of Magic Points before he can eliminate everyone in the party.  Even so, I doubt that this would be possible without at least a half-dozen characters in tow.  This is literally the only way that I can actually envision anyone coming out of the adventure intact.  (And even then, they would have a fair amount of damage to their Sanity.)

This is one of the few Halloweens that I haven’t managed to run this scenario, but all that really means is that I’ll be that much more prepared for the next time.

Further thoughts on Exalted 3rd, and the lies that people tell…

I’d been planning on addressing some further issues about the release of Exalted 3rd Edition, such as it is.  It would appear that Ironbombs shares many of my numerous and multifarious dislikes about the direction that Onyx Path took with the game, and this lit something of a fire underneath my currently simmering discontent.

White Wolf (and their current incarnation as Onyx Path) is an interesting case study in the contrast between seemingly solid products and utter failure in delivery.  Their Kickstarter record alone paints a fairly awful picture of their actual reliability, and this is their main method of raising a dead company from the ashes of weird corporate shuffling.

Their very first Kickstarter was the V20 Companion, a follow-up to the massive 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this ranks as one of the worst products the company has ever produced in their otherwise agreeable history.  Luckily, it wasn’t a product that I bought into (I had been unaware of it, for whatever reason, seeing as I had lain hands on the V20 book itself), as it was a wildly overpriced and largely unusable product whose only interesting aspect was apparently the appendix that talked about all the interesting stuff that they hadn’t actually put into the book.

From there, they’ve made a regular practice of putting out new books exclusively through Kickstarter, following up later with POD versions through DriveThru.

There’s an entire subordinate discussion about the reality of POD-only books that I may or may not have already chewed apart, but the gist of my disdain* is this:  Without a market that caters to the hobby and gaming stores, these books are kept out of the hands of new customers.  Only the people that are already familiar with these games are going to buy them, and there’s an entire generation of gamers that is cut off from access to these products.  Even if they are introduced by some older veteran, their ability to purchase is limited to precisely one outlet, without any ability to find deals or discounts.  In a small and struggling industry, this is allowing the companies to only produce what they specifically have already sold even as they eliminate the warehousing aspect, but it eliminates many of the avenues of growth from the companies.

Anyway, Onyx Path has gained a deserved reputation for failing to meet deadlines on their products with an alarming regularity.  Before the boondoggle that was Ex3, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf that took eighteen months to fulfill, despite being wholly written at the time of the Kickstarter (and hilariously promising delivery within a month of the Kickstarter’s end).  Similarly, the Hunters Hunted II book took fifteen months to see delivery (again, fully written at the time of the campaign and arriving a full year after the promised deadline), which was a better turnaround, but still…  They were getting better about this by the time the W20 Changing Breeds book came around, in that it only took a year to deliver (still promising delivery about nine months before they were able to), but a pattern had been set by this point.

Onyx Path, as a company, is a weird successor to the highly regarded White Wolf games company that built a solid niche in the 90’s era.  The company was sold off to CCP, the Icelandic video game company responsible for the space spreadsheet MMO, Eve Online.  The idea, at the time, had been to vaguely merge the companies for the sake of developing a new MassMOG based on the Vampire property.  This product barely got past the ‘proof-of-concept’ stage of things before being ash-canned, and the fine print of the corporate hierarchy left the RPG licenses in the hands of a company that apparently had little interest in actually continuing the table top RPG lines.  (Go figure.  It’s a small, niche industry with narrow profit margins, especially compared to the weird financial juggernaut that is Eve Online.)

The result is that Onyx Path is licensing their products from CCP, with whatever fees that might entail.  In that way, it makes a certain sense that they are operating the way they are.

The reality is that they are a ragtag group of freelancers that are loosely tied to a central structure.  There are, perhaps, a half-dozen actual staffers that make up the company, and the rest of the writers are contract monkeys who turn in a manuscript and walk away.  And in essence, this loose structure is what is masquerading as an actual game company these days.  The sheer, obvious incompetence is hilarious in its audacity.  Because they are coasting on the reputation of a larger, better company (the White Wolf of the past), they are able to pretend that they are tapping into the same sort of permanent staff and accumulated expertise.  The truth of the situation is wildly different.  And no product better illustrates the level of incompetence nearly so well as Third Edition Exalted, or Ex3.

1.) Let’s start off with the unfortunate art choices.  Exalted has always been a game of evocative art, erring on the side of anime sensibilities.  Most of Second Edition’s feel was established by artists like Melissa Uran and the UDON Studio.  Some covers (for better or worse) contracted out to well-established and highly regarded artists like Adam Warren (of Dirty Pair and Empowered fame) and Kim Hyung-Tae (who did the character designs for Magna Carta, the PS2 game).  (Odd note:  Before they outsourced to Kim Hyung-Tae, I had picked up a Magna Carta art book as my handy reference guide for new players to show them how I saw Exalted.  It was actually sort of nice to be validated, even if his particular cover illustration was in questionable taste.)  It was colorful, high action, and gave a taste of how awesome the game could be.

In contrast, Ex3 has already hit a wall with their art, being as it looks like it hit the high points of a DeviantArt search.  There are some arguably good pieces (such as the homage to the Kowloon Walled City illustration of Wu Jian), but there are plenty of awful Poser illustrations to offset the good stuff.  One egregious example of poor choices incorporates a recycled image of the Scarlet Empress from a previous book, with a half-assed PhotoShop attempt that makes Creation’s Greatest Enemy look vaguely pregnant.  There’s even a weird depiction of one of the better established Sidereal antagonists looking like the head of Onyx Path and stealing a half dozen pieces of art from other sources.  (This one has already been stricken from the eventual book, even as the near-plagiarized images are allowed to remain.)  And none of this is to get into the truly bizarre and obnoxious piece that one forum termed “Banana Hammock Exhibitionist Display!”  (I feel that description speaks for itself.)

There’s also the issue that the weapons section of the book looks like some trashy late-90’s videogame render.  These entries are supposed to represent the panoply of Exalted power that a player character brings to bear upon their opponent.  Instead, it looks like these images were edited off someone’s Geocities page, just above the 3d spinning envelope that represents the email link.  In comparison, Second Edition looked like it was modeled on a Prima Guidebook for a videogame.  It worked.  This, in comparison, looks like canned ass.

I don’t think it needs to be re-stated that this is a game that raised $700K for development and artwork.  The head of the project is the former Art Director for White Wolf.  There is literally no excuse for this book to look this bad, especially when much smaller companies with far less of a potential art budget are able to produce better and more stylistically appropriate art for their games.  (Seriously, do a Google Search for Enascentia.  It’s an Italian game for Savage Worlds that follows similar design principles, being a high fantasy RPG with anime influences.  It raised a little over 1% of the money that Ex3 raised, and it is doing a better job of looking like Exalted than Exalted is doing these days.)

2.) The backer PDF is being treated like a Beta.

Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.  Let it reach the back of your tongue and soft palate.  This is a game that was “The Most Playtested Game Ever” when it was being pitched to a skeptical public.  This is a game that ostensibly took some 30 months for development and layout.  (The truth is, for whatever reason, the actual layout process was done last, rather than being developed in parallel.  You know, like a professional company might try to do?)  This is a game that was supposed to revitalize the industry and the company and excite all of the former skeptics and naysayers in the ranks.

And yet, the most recent updates on the Kickstarter are trying to “encourage all backers […] to send notes on any technical mistakes you might find” to the company to fix the errors that still remain in the book.  Yes, this is a game that charged over $100 to anyone who wanted a physical book, took two and a half years to get to this point, and now wants its backers to work for free to fix the errors that still remain in the text.

Keep in mind:  This text is the same text that was leaked by a playtester back sometime around late February of 2015, meaning that, in the intervening eight months, this is all the better job they can do of editing this mess.  By all accounts, the minor tweaks that have been done to the text are negligible, and the whiny “damage control” that a couple of the writers engaged in (noting that the release of an unfinished game would diminish the impact of the final product) was nothing more than an exercise in casting themselves as martyrs.

3.) The backer PDF is weirdly pre-final.

I would suppose this is a nitpick, but I’ll stand by it.  For backers, this is the first chance that they have to read through the book, gather ideas and set about working up their first stab at a newly christened Ex3 game.  By rights, this should be a real product.  Even setting aside the final editing pass that it needs, this PDF lacks a number of necessary tweaks to be final.  For one thing, it lacks a bookmark system, which would allow users to quickly move from section to section.  Logically, this would have the different chapters, as well as specific sub-headings dealt with (I’m thinking of the bloated Charm section, specifically; given that this is over 200 pages alone, it’s hell to try to find a charm set without a lot of paging and searching).

The official response (apparently) is that this will be added in later, since it would otherwise be too much work.  In response, one backer took about three hours and linked a full bookmark index into their PDF, posting it on the web for other users.

So, yeah.  Two and a half years to put together a semi-final version.  At least eight months with this text.  And nowhere in this time period could anyone spare three damned hours to make this product accessible to the people that had already put their money down on it?

In the mean time, there’s an extra page thrown in after Chapter 5 which throws off the two-page layout.  This borks it for anyone wanting to use two-page view on their PDF viewer, which again makes it difficult to use for a game, especially if you’re reading it off a decent tablet.

4.) Twenty-one pages of Backer Names.

All right, so I get it.  People want to be credited for their participation.  I can’t blame them for including this information in the book, as it offers a Kilroy bonus to the people who pledged and want to be recognized.  I mean, hey.  I’m in there, and everyone who bought this book has my stamp on their copy, however small.  (Stupidly, they managed to miscredit most of the backers of the book.  I am amongst the vast multitude who pledged for a physical book yet get credited for pledging for a PDF.  The difference of cash outlaid is about three to one.)

My problem stems from the base idiocy of having to splay this information across four damned columns.  I guess I should be glad they didn’t use 12-point font, but in comparison, the KS version of Ryuutama displayed their backers in a single column, small type, and only took six pages to do it.  And this is in a 6×9 book, rather than tome that Ex3 will arrive as.  They could have cut the “end credits” section of this book by half, minimum, allowing more space for additional content.  Or as a counterargument, this could have been one of many attempts to bring down the rather sizable bloat that this game ended up with.

5.) Charms.  The fucking Charms, man.

Along with being “The Most Playtested Game Ever,” this edition was supposed to fix the problems of the Second Edition game.

I will say this again.  This was a massive warning klaxon for me, the Cloister Bell of how bad things were going to get.  (And you, right there?  The guy that got that reference?  Nerd.)  I knew that, as soon as anyone came out trashing a wildly popular game as being awful, unplayable and the only people qualified to fix it were the ones hawking a new edition.  It didn’t help that one of the largest problems that was pointed out was Combat, which our collective group had managed to figure out and houserule enough to make it fast and easily dealt.

Another distinct problem was the Charms.

I’m not a banner waving champion of First Edition Exalted, as many of my peers tend to be.  I liked it well enough, but I never had any proper chance to play it to the same extent that I played Second Edition.  I spent more time with Second Edition, I had a great time playing it, and I will defend it on those merits.  That said, I understand completely many of the arguments against Second Edition from those that had been long time players.  The crux of many arguments came down to the Charm bloat that came with the revisions.

Rather than offer broad, customizable Charms that would offer a range of options and outcomes for the Second Edition version of the rules, the decision was made to try to account for every single possible outcome and nuance.  This meant that the number of charms skyrocketed, and the Charm Trees (essentially the flowcharts that allowed a player to make sense of their advancement options) grew huge and weird.  A given ability might have a dozen Charms associated with it, depending on what sort of flavor you wanted to attempt.  Not only was this a headache for players trying to make sense of where they needed to end up for their vision of their character, it was made things immeasurably more difficult for GM’s to cope with.  Not only did they have to keep some idea of what the player characters were capable of, they had to build workable and challenging NPC’s for their campaigns.

Given that each book had a set of new and distinct Charm Trees to properly model specific powers of the given Exalt type, a game of mixed types might have the GM tracking literal hundreds of Charms at any given time.  (For the maths portion of our lesson, let’s consider:  There are 25 separate Skills.  Each Skill has something like ten to fifteen separate charms, not counting Excellencies.  Some range closer to twenty.  Therefore, in a given Exalt type, there may be upwards of 300 Charms.  There are, as of the final books of Second Edition, seven discrete Exalt types.  This is not to mention Martial Arts Charms, which are multitudinous.)

Logically, one of the core goals of making a game more playable would be to address this particular issue, ne?

That, my child, is where you would be dead wrong.  Not only does Ex3 do nothing to deal with the issue of Charm bloat, it makes it far worse.  Looking through my copy, the Charm Section starts on page 250 and runs through page 423.  Further, the Martial Arts section (along with Sorcery, which might as well count) runs from there to page 491.  This is nigh on 250 pages of Charms, which is only made worse by another fascinating design choice, which I will cover in my next bullet point.

In glancing through the book again, as I write this, I realize that they couldn’t even manage to make the Table of Contents right.  There are errors abound in this section, which would seem like five minutes work for anyone with two screens and a modicum of ability.  Seriously, how hard is it to get page numbers right?

6.) There are no Charm Trees.

Yeah.  This is one that’s getting under people’s skin already.  For better or worse, Exalted has always required Charm Trees to navigate the intricacies of advancing a character’s special abilities and powers.  It’s one of the notable features of the game, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite fond of it.  I feel that it says something that Fantasy Flight Games has adopted a similar model to their character advancement in their various Star Wars lines.  It’s quick, visual and allows the players to easily reference what their options are as they go along.

According to Richard Thomas, the head of Onyx Path, the game developers made the decision to “streamline the Charms to no longer need Charm Trees” and hence, there would be no option to add them to the book as it stands.  (This is a direct quote on the Kickstarter update page.)  It’s really hard to come up with a response to this that doesn’t range into absolute profanity.

Condescension is one thing.  This is a clear case of pissing down my back and telling me that it’s raining.

The reason that Charm Trees aren’t included in this book is because they would be impossible to create with any logic or coherency.  Given the snail’s pace of development, the incompetence of the layout and markup, and the rank idiocy of the editorial staff, simply trying to make sense of the Charm Trees would have delayed the book another year.  I’ve seen attempts at the Charm Trees on the forums, and they are awful, mainly because the source material is incoherent and nonsensical.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Richard Thomas blithely offers as a reason.  The Charms were not streamlined.  They were made worse, by an order of magnitude.  By way of example, the Archery Charm Tree from the 2nd Edition main book had some 13 Charms, not counting associated Excellencies.  Another four were added in the First Age boxed set.  In Ex3, we’re already looking at 26 distinct Archery Charms.  And this isn’t to get into the new pseudo-charms (Evocations) that you can acquire for your legendary weapons.  (I will admit, this is a neat, new mechanic where every artifact has the potential to get its own Charm set.  It would be actually worth implementing if they hadn’t gone stupid with the base Charms.)

Another example, picked somewhat at random.  In 2nd Edition, the skill Performance had five Charms.  Another five were added in the First Age set, and Abyssals offered two more.  So, twelve in total.  In comparison, Ex3 goes absolutely stupid with things.  They put forth 36 gods-damned Charms for Performance, dividing them into Music, Dance, Acting, Oratory and … Sex.

Yeah.  Sex.  The edition of the game that was first brought to people’s attention with their Rape Charms has decided that they needed to throw this particular twist into the game.  Apparently this is an attempt to drive home that Exalted is a “mature” game for discerning individuals.  Or some shit.

There are some vaguely hilarious subtexts to this, which only make the idea even more stupid.  For example, a Solar getting his groove on can invoke the Masterful Performance Exercise as part of his “performance,” allowing him to re-roll and eliminate all results of “1” in the process.  Combined with another Sex Charm, this makes their Social Influence (on the specific target, naturally) ridiculously effective.  This almost begs for a late night infomercial.

Another Sex Charm offers up this particular gem:  “This intense lovemaking lasts at least three minutes […]”  Whoa there, big guy.  Let’s not get crazy here.

Solar Exalts, the Three Pump Chumps of the gaming world.

The worst part is that these complaints are just the start of things.  I’ve glanced at different sections and read through parts, trying to find improvement, yet all I’m faced with is continuing disappointment.  I’d gone into the entire endeavor with a guarded skepticism, hoping that I would be proven wrong along the way.  Instead, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and the growing dread that my fallback plan – scavenge the text for useful nuggets to convert back to Second Edition – was going to fall flat.

I wanted to like this book.  I did.  But three years of anticipation (the Kickstarter was announced well before it actually launched, at least six months in advance; there used to be a calendar on the Onyx Path site that outlined their unlikely and overblown plans for future products) have have not been bourne out to any satisfactory extent.  Instead, each new update has hardened my basic cynicism toward the game, and every snotty and self-important post by the line developers has shown that this was handed to the exact wrong people.

There had been a point where I had been tempted to build out a PDF to detail the epic Exalted campaign I ran back in the day.  I had wanted to share this vision with a community and offer something back to a group I had assumed would be a like-minded collective.  Instead, I realize that the fanbase of the game, such as it is, is heavily populated by tiresome fanboys who crow about the things in the game I find awful, and the reigns of control of this property have been handed to the loudest of these idiots.

Instead, I made a point of not detailing our campaign.  It has become a legend within our small and closeknit group, a private experience that can be shared with other people while still being kept out of the public eye.

If this is the shape of Exalted these days, I shudder to think what the gibbering masses would do with it anyway.

 

*Mind you, The Gist of My Disdain also happens to be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.

Exclusivity vs. Access

True story:  In college, I bought a backpack for the purposes of carrying my books to class, and the brand name was (and I bull you no shit) Boondoggle.  It even had a little subtitle on the logo of “Look it up.”  It’s around here somewhere, buried in some dusty and forgotten reliquary, awaiting rediscovery and attendant confusion.

Boondoggle is generally defined as such:  (noun) 1. work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value, (verb) 1. the act of wasting money on unnecessary or questionable projects.  This is your educational moment for the day.  Soak it in.

With that out of the way, I recently got the link for the Exalted 3rd Edition rulebook in my email.

For those of you playing at home, this was a Kickstarter that was put together in May of 2013 (making this almost exactly two and a half years from launch to finally seeing a product) and promised delivery of the physical books in October of 2013 (which puts us exactly two years behind schedule for that).  White Wolf’s ephemeral successor, Onyx Path, is known for being hilariously bad with their deadlines, but this one is the worst by far.  Most of their Kickstarter projects are pitched with the idea that most of the text is already in hand (many of them even offer doc files to the backers, if they’re so inclined to peruse the extant rules and setting), and the implication was that Ex3 was in a similar state of readiness.

Literally, this was the game that was supposed to fix all of the problems that were inherent in the game’s Second Edition rules by throwing out most of the contentious aspects and replacing them with entirely new, untested mechanics – all while claiming that this game was the “most playtested game” they had ever done.

Now, I grant…  I seem to be in the minority amongst internet commentators, in that I actually quite liked Second Edition.  As noted elsewhere, I’ve put some time into this game.  I ran one specific campaign for over 1,000 hours, and that was hardly the only foray that our group had made into the game, with multiple GM’s and nigh on a dozen linked campaigns of varying length to add to the total.  The only thing that our collective ever found unplayable were the Sidereals, and even then, we might have been able to make a go of it with some serious tweaks.  People point to the combat system as being largely incomprehensible, but my experience with has been that minor revision and clearer examples would have done the game a world of good.  Once we were able to make sense of it, we were able to run fast and loose combat without any actual problem.

In contrast, the new combat system has the characters scuffling about using a system of Withering attacks while they try to optimize their Initiative value for a Decisive attack.  There was a lot of noise in Second Edition about “mote attrition” and the like (boiling down, essentially, to whether or not you could exhaust your opponent enough to land an attack), and this was the odd choice to replace it.  I can’t see how this is particularly better, being as it’s far more abstracted (making it a lot harder to convincingly Stunt an attack, when it’s just another attempted feint) and concerns itself a lot more with numbers rather than style.

The idea behind a Withering attack is that the character harries his opponent and wears him down (see above:  “Mote attrition”) until such point as there is a weak point in their defense.  This is calculated with the bewildering Initiative terminology.  A successful Withering attack adds one point to your Initiative, plus whatever would have been taken as Damage after Soak.  Okay, fine.  Then your opponent gets to do the same damned thing.  Each attack subtracts from the opponent’s Initiative, until such point as someone chooses to make a Decisive attack and try to end it all.  Granted, I haven’t tried to dice this out, but it seems like this is a process that’s going to go back and forth endlessly, with some variance based on who gets to go first or who gets a lucky roll.  This is nothing like the previous system (making comparisons into “apples vs. oranges” arguments), and I don’t see any logic as to why this inane tracking of Initiative is better than the fluidity of the much maligned “Tick” system from the previous edition.  (Also, not a big fan of the “I hit you good, so I go first next round” mechanic.  Just sayin’…)

There’s also a weird disconnect that is noted in the very rules themselves.  This abstraction between Withering and Decisive attacks does not exist within the context of the game world itself.  The designers specifically note that the characters would view all attacks as being “made in deadly earnest.”  In a literal sense, the player is making a choice for the character to miss, even as the character is trying his damnedest to hit, because missing is more numerically useful.  There’s something about this whole idea that rubs me the wrong way, especially in a game that should otherwise be “cinematic” in its action sequences.

And yet, this was supposed to be the great and powerful solution to a system deemed broken.  I’m not seeing it, but I’m intending to give everything a closer read-through as time goes on.  I can’t see this being something I embrace, necessarily.

So, to sidetrack for a moment.

When 4e D&D came out, there was an interesting thing in the character creation section that defined a lot of what I thought about the game initially.  Here was an edition of the RPG mainstay, which was supposed to follow up on the overwhelming success of D&D 3.5, and the races section not only started out with an obvious sop to the middle school kids coming off World of Warcraft (Dragonborn) but emphasized this aspect with “Play a dragonborn if you want … to look like a dragon.”

I’ve seen commentary elsewhere that calls this entire methodology into question.  In the past, elementary and middle school kids picked up D&D manuals and puzzled them out over long weekends (or in the case of 1st Edition, were forced to rely on in-text glossaries to make sense of things), learning a lot about medieval society and weaponry as they went along.  There was no hand-holding in these earlier editions, and the learning curve could be extremely steep without a larger group to learn the ropes with.  But when things finally fell into place, there was a definite sense of real accomplishment.

With that in mind, choosing to play a given race so you can “look like a dragon” is some lowest common denominator stuff.  This is a game company trying to appeal to a demographic that would not have been able to clear the original thresholds to play in earlier editions.  I get it, you want to sell to as wide an audience as possible, but the eventual failure of 4e speaks to how well this particular strategy ended up playing out.

That said, would you like to guess how the overview of Exalted types in Ex3 reads?  Seriously.

“Play a Solar Exalted if you want … to be a reborn hero of legend, forging a new destiny.”

Here is a game that literally will never be sold in stores.  This book that will be available only through DriveThru for over $100 (probably closer to $150, given that any sane buyer will need to get the Premium upgrade to have it be worth a damn), which makes it appealing only to the diehard fanboys that have already put out close to $700K to bring it to market in the first place.  By all accounts, the only people that are going to own this game are the ones that have already bought it.

So, why in six hells are they writing it to appeal to the uninitiated?  Who thought this was necessary?

These are the sorts of questions that plague me.  This game was written as a solution looking for a problem, and it’s already taken some thirty months to see anything of substance.  There was supposed to be a certain amount of transparency to the process, and the company is trying its damnedest to quash any negative feedback they receive (do a Google search for “exalted rape charms” to get an idea of how this has gone) or play it off as insignificant.  Since the release of the PDF, there’s been a telling amount of backlash against the artwork and layout (there’s a fair chunk of text, several pages worth, that’s hidden underneath the artwork), and from the look of things, only the things they would get sued over will be actually dealt with.  The particularly awful Poser art seems locked in place.

There’s far more to deal with than I have actual time for at the moment, but suffice to say, the wait has not been worth it.

Nine Weeks Later (or something to that effect)

Oh, I had the best of intentions.

I’d started into the RPG a Day thing with the unshakable belief that I would be able to catch myself up, keep abreast of the topics, and finish out with a solid month of posting.  And I had been making a pretty good show of it, overall, with multiple posts on some days and only the barest absence when visiting the in-laws.

And then I hit a weird sort of ironic reversal.

See, everything had been going well on the process of moving into the new place and getting settled in.  We’d even made a point of going off to see the relatives with the ulterior motive of visiting the local Ikea for supplies and furniture to adorn the house.  New chairs, consider a new couch, update a couple of things here and there.  Nothing big, nothing terribly intrusive.

And down that list a little ways was the shelving that I’d be putting in one of the spare rooms.  This would be the newly relocated Games Library.  I’d mapped it out, mentally, with an eye on the display aspect of the room.  See, the Library consists of literal hundreds, perhaps thousands of books.  And my intention has always been to have access to my Library, for ease of use and reference, all while displaying it for my own mental well being.

And for most people, this is nothing to worry about overmuch.  My cousins have their libraries in a corner of their dining room.  Three shelves here, a chest high bookcase there.  Not a problem to accommodate.  One of my good friends took a wall of his basement and was able to store his rather expansive collection.

This becomes an issue when you’re staring down something like 54 banker’s boxes of RPG books, however.  The room I had set aside was well sized, and even so, I was wondering if I would be able to manage it with an estimated 72 feet of shelf space.  (By way of reference, the boxes I’m working with are actually slightly larger, measuring 16 inches or 40 centimeters, give or take.  These can handle, at a glance, sixty-six of Paizo’s Adventure Path modules, with room left over for two hardcovers.  With this in mind, my calculations circle right back around to being able to fit these 54 boxes into 72 feet of shelf space precisely.)  Assuming that the banker’s boxes are the entirety of my gaming collection (they are not) and I would stop buying RPG books upon completion of my shelving (this has never been my intention), I’ll be set perfectly.

Add to this the sheer weight of the books in question (I believe the boxes clocked in at close to 40 lbs. or 18 kilos for the heaviest) on a shelf that would be able to handle perhaps half that weight without problem, and the whole enterprise becomes something of an exercise in logistics and probabilities.  I had researched brackets and techniques for the necessity of supporting this particular load and come to a solution, more or less.  Having wanted a particular aesthetic and construction, I’d zeroed in on the way that I figured would work best.  Now, it was just a matter of getting lumber and settling down to work.

… and it was about this point that I realized that the floor was starting to rot out.

The long and short of this was that the room in question was a late addition to the house, and the construction thereof was … shall we say, questionable.  Inquiry led to investigation, which in turn led to tearing out the floor and pouring a new slab.  Very little of the existing structure of the floor was salvageable, and this led to the inevitability of delay based on simple economics.  Rather than simply buying lumber for shelves, I was now faced with several yards of concrete and the construction of a new floor over that.  These are things that add up.

It also led to some fascinating introspection.  While I am wholly capable of raking concrete and operating an auto-trowel, these are not things that I have skill in or interest in cultivating as talents in my life.  It is dirty, grueling work, and the end result that I am living with is less than perfection.  It’s not enough for me to regret or lament, but let’s just say that rolling a marble across the surface would yield some extremely interesting results.  Now that plywood and carpeting has been lain over that, it’s far less noticeable, but I’m wholly aware of the imperfections.

So, yeah.  I can swing a hammer and smooth out cement, but I’m much more practiced and comfortable behind a keyboard or with a pen in hand.

Now that the new carpet is in place, I’m back to where I was when I reluctantly abandoned my updates; as soon as money becomes applicable, I’ll set about putting up shelves and getting things arranged to be able to give my Library a home.  It’s only taken me close to two months to return to this point of having apparently accomplished nothing.

In the interim, I’ve managed to lay hands on a couple of interesting items.

My rewards for the Ryuutama Kickstarter finally arrived.  When I’d happened past the IPR booth at GenCon this year, one of the guys had assured me that the shipment of books from China was due to arrive the following week.  No idea if this was the case, but I’m not going to begrudge the time taken to get it to me, given that I assume the logistics were mainly handled by one guy.  I had put in for a green leatherette and a normal copy of the book, and both are amazing.  I barely touched the limited one, given that it’s going to go on a shelf mainly for display, choosing instead to delve into the normal copy.

Sidenote:  I actually met the original designer, Okuda, at GenCon one of the previous years.  He was being squired around by one of the translators, Andy Kitkowski, and I had wished I’d had something for Okuda to sign for me.  Alas.  I managed to get Andy to sign a reference card for Tenra Bansho Zero, which was nice.  I was actually in the IPR booth this last time picking up the hardcover limited of TBZ when I learned about the Ryuutama shipment.

Reading through Ryuutama this time, I’m struck by how wide a range of plots and games could be generated from the base that’s given.  There are obvious Lord of the Rings ideas lurking around the edges (fortunately, Cube 7’s The One Ring RPG delves into the journey aspect of the books as a primary mechanic), but nearly every fantasy story deals with the themes of a journey in some way or another.  Immediate and obvious examples are book series like A Song of Ice and Fire, Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, to add to Tolkien.  Hells, Joseph Campbell was name checked by George Lucas for this idea, tracing the Heroic Journey back into myth and legend.

See, my original intent was to finally run a game based on the Legend of Mana ideas I’ve been letting bounce around my head for the past decade, but now I feel like that would be inspiration rather than hardwired source.  Now I could see weirdness like an Akairyuu (red dragon) game of war and conflict where the characters are soldiers of a vanquished army that have to return to their homes across the desolation of a wartorn countryside.  Where Ryuutama is sold as being the vaguely pastoral and heartwarming Japanese fantasy RPG, the Dragon of Journeys is only one of the four archetypes presented in the book.  A reworking of the themes of Twilight 2000 in eastern fantasy is completely within the scope of the game.