Monthly Archives: January 2016

On the idea of rarity, versus actual playability

I take a certain pride in my Library.

It has grown, over the years, to include a rather comprehensive breadth of gaming standards, with enough esoterica to keep things properly interesting.  I focus my priority on the games that I have played extensively or the new products that seem destined to future sessions.  There has to be a reason for my purchases, but once there is a hook, I tend to accumulate everything I can lay my hands upon before it starts to climb in price.  There are certain systems and products that are destined for the dustbin of the larger market (for good or for ill), which allows me to pick them up later as I see fit (the Blood of Heroes game, salvaged from the ashes of Mayfair’s DC Heroes game is one that comes to mind), while others obtain instant value, never to fall back into a reasonable territory for a collector.  (I could go on at length about the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions.  On the surface, it really isn’t much more than a properly drawn Hunters Hunted campaign, replete with the Urban Legends sourcebook from Hunter: The Reckoning on the edge, but having the actual, official books would be nice.  It isn’t really in too many people’s budgets, however.)

Because I tend to watch the markets and buy what interests me when I can, I end up with some really weird things that most people assume would otherwise be unavailable.  Some pieces of rare provenance include the Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG I saw one year at Gen Con, and the Deadlands: Lost Colony Companion book, which enjoyed an extremely short run as a POD title before Pinnacle saw fit to pull it from production.  There are others, most of which lay at the tail end of a given game’s production cycle, ensuring that copies would be limited in number and only available to the most dedicated members of the fanbase.

The problem is that it can be difficult to figure out which games are worth the purchase at a given point.  I don’t have an infinite budget, nor am I possessed of illimited time or unrestrained shelf space for storage.  There are numerous games in my collection that bear the weight of having never been played (though I’m sure that this year will be different) and even more that haven’t been played enough for my particular tastes.  (I cast a glance in the direction of my Green Ronin ASoIaF RPG, doubting that I will get the campaign I have planned for it off the ground in the next epoch.)  My usual strategy is to draw on my general likelihood of running a campaign under the ruleset or worldset and draw my determination from there.

By way of example, I have a decent cross-section of the various editions of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, despite having never run the game.  I played one abbreviated campaign that one of my friends ran, but it only lasted a couple of months and we actually touched on very little of what most people would normally associate with the game itself.  We had next to no combat (in a game of samurai, we played a troupe of actors), and there wasn’t a whole lot of courtly intrigue overall.  So, why do I have so damned many books for this game?  Well, I did live for a while in Japan, I’ve spent more time than is considered socially responsible watching samurai movies and anime, and I have a lot of campaign ideas that I would love to try out with the right group.  The reality hasn’t quite lived up to my aspirations, so I have collected a sizable number of the RPG books across the 18 years it’s been in print without actually using them in any solid fashion.

The dangerous point is when I start assessing the value of a book in terms of how rare it happens to be, rather than what my future use will end up being.  Most of the time, I try to keep in mind the potential for a game, but it doesn’t always fall that way.  The previously referenced Blood of Heroes game is one that I had, sold and will eventually re-acquire.  Most of the logic on this one derives from the fact that it’s collecting and reprinting a fairly well-regarded system, and I could see either running or playing in a vintage superhero game at some point.  This is becoming less and less of a likelihood as time goes on and fewer people have the same regard for a system that came out 30 years ago.  (And went out of print around 20 years ago.)  With Blood of Heroes, this isn’t much of a concern, given that the book in question hasn’t really increased in price.  In comparison, the 3rd Edition rules of Big Eyes, Small Mouth would fall into a similar category of comprehensive rules and revisions, but the limited time it spent on the market means that acquiring a decent copy now is somewhere north of $150 for a copy.  (It’s been reprinted as a POD through DriveThru, but it’s not cheap there, either.  And well, DTR has a special place on my list for its role in killing the FLGS.)

This was something that I found myself considering over Christmas, when I was browsing through one of the big used and wholesale shops a few miles away from my in-laws’ house.  There was a copy of a strikingly obscure RPG (to the point that no copies exist on Amazon or eBay) on one of the shelves that I found myself perusing.  It had all the hallmarks of being a Heartbreaker RPG, just from the back cover copy, which advertised it as being an “Anime / Fantasy / Steampunk” game of limitless character possibilities and cinematic action.  It tossed around terms like “shared narratives” and “collaborative space” without really settling on a single theme or direction, and it promised to be everything a game should be for me.  I was beginning to wonder if it could starch my shirts and walk my dog, as breathless as it ended up being.

And predictably, it wasn’t very good.  The system appeared to be a dull derivative of the Storyteller System, using D10’s with some various modifiers and picky rules.  The art was lackluster, although interestingly sourced from a variety of places (including one fairly well-regarded internet cartoonist), and being the softcover edition (I have to believe it was POD, given the ink quality; I found an edition of it on DTR while searching), everything was in a smudgy black and white.  There were some solid illustrations, but there were also some fairly half-assed sketches that tried to evoke some interesting creature designs.  (And failed.)  There was an element of Furry RPG’s (think IronClaw or Shard, for decent examples of the genre), but the game didn’t even try to embrace that fandom.  It was scattershot in its attempt to be universal, and the end result was just sort of … dull.  I feel vaguely bad for the fact that it was trying to be a lot of different things without managing any of them at all well.  It probably could have used an editor of some sort, if only to give it focus.

As it happened, I put it back and walked away.  This was a game that I was virtually guaranteed to never find again, something that would sit on a shelf and offer up interesting conversations on how game design and ambition could go tragically wrong.  It was a Heartbreaker, to its very core.  It was actually the price tag (fairly reasonable, considering, but not enough of a bargain to entice me to go further) that was the deciding factor.  I could have bought it on a lark, or I could have bought myself a second copy of the MWP Battlestar Galactica RPG for future use.  (I didn’t buy that, either.  I’m not enough of an optimist to think that game will get off the ground any time soon.)

The sad thing is, I’m actually sort of regretting not buying the game.

It’s not because it would ever have any place in my Library, per se.  I would never play the damned game, and if someone suggested running it, I’d laugh at them and suggest something a little more interesting or better designed.  (In comparison, I would love to see a game of Synnibar run.  It may be a game of questionable design and merit, but there’s enough concentrated lunacy to make it worth the experience.)  There isn’t even anything in the book that could be mined for other games.  (I think that even the old Fantasy Wargaming RPG by Bruce Galloway has some merit in that regard.)  This game literally had no value, other than the sheer obscurity of it all.  I want to own this game, just so I can pull it off the shelf and pass it around as an example of what not to do.  It would be the dire example of how a great idea or concept can go decidedly wrong, even with the support of a community.

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Wherein I talk half-heartedly about resolutions and make a small announcement…

So, welcome to 2016.

For my part, I rang in the New Year as one would expect, gathered at a table with old friends and new, dice in hand and music behind me.  We had a pick-up, what-the-hell sort of session, since several of our number were absent and the remaining few of us had nowhere else we wanted to be.  I’ve been running Kingmaker for a Sunday group, but given that half our numbers were absent (and the other half wanted something to do), I threw together an FFG Star Wars game for the kick of it.  (I’ll get into this particular campaign overview when I have a chance, but suffice to say, I’ve been working up something original of late and wanted to try it out.  This was as good an opportunity as any.)

The new Kingmaker has been amusing.  I’ve run this particular campaign a couple of times in the past, to varying degrees of success.  The first time, it managed two sessions before the players went their separate ways.  The second time, it was a weird, revolving door of guest shot players.  This amounted to a campaign that had one central player, a couple of other players that managed several months of play, and assorted people that showed up once or twice before schedules removed them.  It was actually rather weird, the attrition rate.

This past year has had its strange milestones, with finally purchasing a house, moving and finishing a novel.  The house is still in a sort of perceptual limbo, where we haven’t exactly settled in as I would like, nor have we finished the repairs and remodels that I feel need to be taken care of.  Paramount amongst these remodels is the project to create a new Library for my RPG books.  It seemed like a simple matter of installing shelves and cabinets, but the inspection pushed us to tearing the floor out, pouring a concrete slab, and laying a new floor and carpet over that.  Financial concerns slowed progress from there.  I’m in the midst of installing shelves as we speak (a monetary gift from the in-laws helped on that count), and I figure to have a better estimate of actually finishing the project in the near future.

Similarly, the moving process has hit a point of stasis, as most of our possessions remain in storage for the time being.  Since the Library isn’t done, the books remain scattered throughout the house in a disorganized state.  This slows the ability to organize to a point where we can start properly unpacking, and so the dominoes continue to scatter.

And well, the novel waits for me to have the time to do the revision I think it needs to undertake before finding an agent.  I have in mind some 20,000 words of new text, with an attendant amount of text to be cut and altered.  In some ways, it’s good to have some distance from the text to allow my own biases to fade, but it is frustrating to know that it needs to proceed to the next phase even as I feel like I’m letting it sit and moulder.  Soon enough, I’ll be returning to it and getting it ready to put on the market.

And almost as an omen, today I received a discounted version of the software that I used to write the damned thing.  I had been considering buying a copy of the software over the last year or so, but I never quite got to the point of purchase.  Through my contacts in the writers’ groups, I found myself availed of a discounted copy.  It was almost as though I had a need to get back onto this particular saddle.

So, with this in mind, I figure I’ll dive back into the novel in the coming weeks, putting together the new scenes I have in mind to rebuild the slow beginning of the book even as I start the process of the second book and vignettes of a different series.  I’m nothing if not ambitious.

Sadly, I doubt that will translate into more regular updates on this site, as I’ve found that I can seemingly do one or the other.  If I’m fastidious about updating this site, I tend to neglect my own “serious” writing.  And if I’m in a groove with that, I don’t find a lot of time to update things here.

Obviously, what I need to do is diversify my writing more.  Since I can’t keep two balls in the air with any proficiency, then the logic follows that adding more things to my daily to-do list will end with inevitable failure and disappointment.  And yet…

I’ve had the idea for a second blog for a little while.  It’s no particular secret that I read a lot.  I always have, and it’s only been when I have serious time conflicts that I slow down by any reasonable measure.  If I’m not running through several books a week, I’m likely making it up with news stories or some new TV series that actually manages to distract me.  The media that I consume tends to fuel my ideas for games, which in turn help to fuel my ideas for stories (the two aren’t far apart on my particular spectrum; it’s well known that I am more comfortable behind the screen than in front of it) and so on.  And whenever I’m in the depths of a particular novel or Netflix binge, I tend to analyze just how I would adapt the material for a game.

Which is what the new blog is going to focus on.

Many role-playing games offer their own take on what media or source would be helpful in crafting stories and characters for the particular system.  This stretches back to the infamous Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979 and carries through in modern products.  White Wolf, in particular, has done an admirable job of keeping the tradition alive in their products (but then again, they built their empire on Anne Rice, Robert McCammon and Neil Gaiman; it would have been disingenuous of them to not mention their sources), and it is this sort of idea that I dedicate my new site to.