Category Archives: Current Games

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.

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.

Longest Game Session Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 16

Wow, here’s a topic to separate the gamers into their respective age strata.  I can’t speak to the tendencies of the younger players these days (it’s a sad note to realize that it’s been a very long time since I’ve played with anyone younger than 20 years old), but I wonder if they’re nearly as willing to devote the time to the hobby as we did, back in the mists of yesteryear.  It would be a sad thing indeed to see the glorious sleep-deprived weekends of my wasted youth disappear into overscheduling and deprioritization.

Longest Game Session Played

These days, it seems that the largest enemy to long game sessions isn’t that my groups don’t have the free time, it’s that they don’t have the free time on the same days as the rest of the people in the group.  We’re all outside of a college setting these days, which changes things somewhat dramatically.  Back when we could schedule classes and work around a gaming schedule, that allowed a better allocation toward particular campaigns that were running, which in turn allowed longer sessions when needed.  Even then, I’m not sure that we managed more than the occasional 14 hour session under specific circumstances.  More often than not, sessions ranged from eight to ten hours on a regular basis, usually as part of a Friday or Saturday schedule.  The danger was that, as soon as someone’s homework burden increased by any measure, there would be player attrition on that basis.  Depending on how well prepared our group happened to be for midterms or finals, there would be a drop-off of scheduled games while people tried to brush up on specifics for their exams.  (Between an English degree and a Photo degree, most of my important work was in the form of papers or projects, so the same sort of pressure rarely applied to me.)

Even with the freedom of a collegiate life, none of these games ended up attaining mythic length.  We tried, though, especially if there was some sort of short break coming up that would allow us to recuperate from the long hours and poor nutrition choices.  The end of finals week or the first week before classes started would occasionally let us power through longer sessions, but even then we still valued our sleep too much to rise early on a game day.  If we were lucky, we’d rise at noon to meet for a game session around 2:00pm, and finally push ourselves away from the table come 4:00am.  It was probably better for our overall long term health, but it definitely didn’t set any records.  The prevailing theory was that we’d be more likely to adhere to regular games if we kept to more regular hours for these sessions.

These post-collegiate days tend to regulate to schedules with four hour slots, for better or worse.  One group that I’m in has been running more or less consistently for about 20 years, and their set-up has been to run from 7:00pm until 11:00pm on normal Thursdays (even this has had to modify to occasional Wednesdays, due to scheduling conflicts), which allows a solid regularity at the cost of session duration.  It’s not ideal, but it’s what has allowed the group, in all of its various iterations, to hold solid over the years.

And having recently moved, I’m in the process of coalescing a new circle, which is making me wonder if I’m going to be able to manage longer sessions at any point, or if the only solution is going to be to build out short regular sessions like the established Thursday group.  If this is what has to be, I suppose that it’s going to require the necessary adjustment.

Back in high school, we managed a regular group on either Friday or Saturday, depending on other conflicts.  Our usual methodology was to meet at someone’s house (usually mine) and settle in for the night.  These games would start sometime in the late afternoon or early evening, run through the night and get called when the last player’s endurance had hit the inevitable wall.  This led to scenes of players holding themselves off the table by cradling a Mountain Dew 2-liter, the occasional blurry inquiry as to what sort of monster we were fighting, and the weird sense of wonder at seeing the sun rise outside the windows, often in the form of a “Hey, it’s getting light out” declaration.  The sessions would end at the point of unconsciousness, if we were crashing for a couple of hours on our host’s floor, or at the ragged threshold before sleep so that someone could drive other people home.  These were our regular weekends through most of high school.

The longest single session was either one that I ran or one that I played in around my senior year.  The one that I ran was something that I had planned out for a couple of weeks one summer, making sure that I could garner a fair group of people on a specific point.  (Looking back, I realize that summers were anathema to our gaming schedule, for one reason or another.)  We’d set aside the time, the place and I’d worked up a massive adventure for the night in question.  An adventure that, from what I remember, we only barely managed to get any traction on.  This was the time that my mother had taken it upon herself to cater, and her weird cruelty had managed about 100 jelly donuts and a single bag of chips.  And copious amounts of soda to wash it all down with.  I have strange aversions to those donuts these days, even as I occasionally eat them.

The other session was one my friend doctored up as part of a larger campaign, which mysteriously only ran a couple of times.  (Not to say it wasn’t memorable, mind you, but I have the feeling it was a matter of personal frustration for him, overall.)  The set-up was a weird sort of overland wilderness campaign, with dungeon elements, and each person had something like six characters.  (It was high school, we were experimental, etc.)  The session in question was one that had accidentally run long, as our characters had been probing into the dungeon complex with little success, only to run into a random wandering monster encounter while we rested on the hillside outside the ruins.

The random encounter in question happened to be a trading caravan.  Which we then attacked mercilessly.

The ensuing melee (complete with high level caravan guards that our lower level characters mobbed) took several hours, and when we stepped out of the massacre, the GM was wholly bound and determined that we should actually get a little farther in his planned encounters.  It led to the following:

GM:  You see three giant rats, wild-eyed and snarling.  (Looks blearily at his notes.)
GM:  No, wait.  You see an illusionary wall.  (Blinks several times, replaying what he just said.)
GM:  No, wait.  (Tries to figure out if there’s any way to salvage the encounter.)
GM:  Screw this, I’m going home.

As far as I can recall, we never went back to that dungeon.  It was probably for the best, really.

Longest Campaign Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 15

I’ve been eyeing this topic since the first, casting back in my memory for which particular game can claim this honor.  The weird thing is, I can’t put my finger on it, explicitly.  There are a couple of prime contenders for the spot, but they all fall roughly in the same zone, making it hard to pick out which campaign is going to actually hold the spot over all others.  And in one case, there’s a weird question of hours spent compared to calendar length.

Longest Campaign Played

For me, the long game seems to have managed something in the three year range.  This is assuming regular, weekly sessions with an optimistic estimate of six or eight hour normal session length.  These are far more likely to fall back to four hour sessions (which seems to be a bit more usual), but optimally, I tend to hope for longer.  There are occasioned dry spells, for holidays, cancellation and anything that would otherwise preempt a session in some way or another.  If we assume the bottom limit of four hour sessions with approximately 40 sessions within a year, that comes around to close to 500 hours in a three year campaign.

“But I was told there would be no math…”

If we figure this for a lower threshold of a baseline, it will help my contention on the shorter calendar game that I referenced.

The first game that I can think of that might fall within this range would be the WEG Star Wars game I played in high school.  This one ran, off and on for the better part of the three year mark that I seem to come back to.  It was a small game, with only a couple of dedicated players and a couple of occasional guest stars.  With a loose group of perhaps six people, we ran fairly regularly during this period, rotated GM’s here and there, and brought a couple of characters up to Jedi Master level.  (This was defined as 7D in the three Force powers.  It took a long damned time, and this was about the point when the game started to lack real challenge.)

This was followed by a couple of Star Wars games that ran on IRC in college.  We had a diverse collection of people from across the US and Canada, with a single outlier in Australia.  The main game made it into the three year range by the end, but most of the larger group had drifted off, save for the main GM and myself, with new people that I had recruited taking up needed slots within the game.  Some great memories and a lot of interesting people, but the game and the medium for it had pretty much run its course by the time we shuttered that channel.

There was something of a dry spell after this, with games that lasted a year or more, but nothing that continued for any great amount of time.  There was nothing that lasted that long when I was living abroad (in all truth, I spent most of my time reading RPG books, since the games were so few and far between), and by the time I got back to the States, I was in dire need of something to actually persist.

The next game to have any longevity was in a system that I direly hated, and the GM had modified so drastically that it only barely resembled its original form.  This was a weird time travel game that used a fairly obscure game by the name of The Everlasting, a tedious and particularly weird knock-off of the classic World of Darkness games from White Wolf.  One of the designers may have once worked for WW when they weren’t paying attention, but I can’t say for certain.  Everlasting was determined to throw as much shit at the wall as it possibly could, which might have worked, had they had any form of original thought, but the end result was even more muddled than its inspiration.  Which is saying something.  To his credit, the GM saw how tangled the game line happened to be, and this was the rationale for the time travel aspect in the first place.  If he dropped the game world back to its early genesis, there might be some way to make sense of it all.  Either that, or he was bound and determined to see his Doctor Who fanfics played out.  It’s hard to say.  By the time the game wound out, another GM and I had taken over from the original, none of the original players were even involved, and the new players only saw edges of the weird brilliance that the campaign ended up being.

From there, we had a couple of Pathfinder Adventure Paths that we saw to the end.

It’s interesting.  The AP’s come out on a monthly basis, which offers the misguided perspective that the individual modules themselves might be undertaken within a month’s time.  This bears no relation to actual reality in the slightest.  From what I can tell, a single module might last as long as six months, with careful prep and planning on the part of both the GM and players.  I’m sure that it’s possible to finish in a shorter period, but that’s pushing the limits of both credibility and scheduling.  If nothing else, there tends to be a fair chunk of player fatigue partway through.

The first AP we finished was Legacy of Fire, a path that I pushed in front of our Mideastern History buff GM.  He loved all things about it, wrote extensively about his experiences with the path and the troubles that we gave him, and it took us a properly ridiculous amount of time to shuffle our way through the end parts, mostly because by that point, he had graduated and moved to the other side of the state.  This necessitated careful planning and dedicated weekends for the final parts, which occasionally felt like we were pulling teeth, but we got through it all.

The second AP was Carrion Crown, which I myself ran and have detailed bits and pieces of on this blog.

We’ve tried and failed to finish Kingmaker (most of the way through the third module when it died; player attrition was a huge part of this, but it came down to a likely TPK situation in an upcoming encounter, so I called the game on that account), Rise of the Runelords (this one got to the penultimate module before the GM burned out, and one of the integral players bowed out) and Savage Tide.  The last one managed to hit the 50% mark, more or less, but there was a huge player burnout on this one, so the game stalled on that basis.

Finally, there was the Exalted game that happened to be the most brutally dedicated group I’ve ever seen run.  This was the reason for the maths part above.

When I started the game at the beginning of one summer, I had a broad idea of a game in mind.  We’d run Dragonbloods up to that point, with the various failed attempts at other flavors of Exalts.  On one hand, I was tired of the players being unable to grasp certain parts of the system, and on the other, I wanted to run an epic Solars game from the raw, mortal beginnings.  In my mock disgust, I gave the players mortal characters, started them out as press-ganged convicts, and dropped them in the mud.  From there, they had to earn their legend.

This game, by consensus, ran twice weekly from that point, with a usual play time of eight hours.  By the time that game ended, close to fifteen months later, the characters had ascended to rule as Solar warlords and kings, having won out against implacable odds and unlikely origins.  We had a couple of players drop out to be replaced near the end, but the core group managed to stick through to the end.  All in all, the game ran for well over 1,000 hours, likely closer to 1,300 depending.

It’s also one of the games I am most proud of.  It even had its own theme song, whose lyrics recounted pivotal moments in the early sessions.

I still hear that song on the radio, now and again.

Favorite RPG Accessory — #RPGaDay2015, Day 14

Huh.  Well, here’s a broadly defined and nebulous topic to work from.

If we define “RPG accessory” as being “that which is necessary to play a game, but is not, strictly speaking, the game itself,” that still leaves us with a horrendously huge space within which we’re left to work.  By rights, that could include my house, furniture and computer systems.  If we limit it down further, to things that are produced with the sole intention of being used for the game at hand, with no outside application, then we’re starting to get into terms that can be more readily manipulated.  So, pencils and notebooks are dropped off the consideration as well, even though they remain the dire constants over decades of play.  Logically, dice could be included, but with the exception of recent Fantasy Flight Games offerings and the weirdness that is Dungeon Crawl Classics and their decidedly non-standard dice, polyhedral random number generators are pretty much universal.  I love my dice collection, and I have a properly ludicrous amount of them, but making them my favorite part of the game is a bit weird.

I do have to digress on a previous point, however.  When I ran my Carrion Crown Adventure Path campaign, there was nothing quite so irreplaceable as my two laptop computers.  If I had been forced to run without them, or even winnowed down to merely one, there would have been problems.  I used one for the map (had I been afforded access to a tablet, I would have dedicated that to cartographic necessity) and basic reference, while the other one served as my library for the adventure itself, setting material, notes and the Pathfinder SRD website.  It convinced me of the need for a table dedicated solely to gaming, where I could surround myself with screens instead of piles of books.

That said, it was far quicker to flip through a Pathfinder main book for rules reference when the time came, but that’s due more to the muscle memory that allows me to immediately turn to a given page than anything else.  A little work, and I probably could have indexed it better with the SRD.

Favorite RPG Accessory

Naturally, this divides itself into two distinct sections.  On one hand, I have the products that I already have in hand to use, and on the other are the ones I intend to acquire or create.  I guess the second category would be better off with the label of “potential” tacked onto it, but I like to dream.

Of the products and things I have at immediate hand, there are particular accessories for specific games.  Plagued as the gaming industry is with D20 based fantasy, one of the immediate zones of inquiry have to do with tactical maps and miniatures.  I never did much miniatures gaming in my normal day-to-day forays into the hobby of gaming, and the early editions of D&D that I cut my teeth on recommended minis, but they didn’t require them.  Maps tended to be hand-drawn for tactical purposes, and taken to logical cartographic extremes for the larger campaign setting necessities.  When I first started playing back in 6th grade, the centerpiece of my formative years was the large and intricate map that a friend of mine rendered for his game, looking for all the world like the maps in the opening pages of the fantasy novels that served as inspiration.

These days, I have a selection of miniatures, but they’re of such low priority that I wonder why I bothered in the first place.  I suppose that I had high hopes for the potentiality of these damned things, but the reality has found me largely disinclined to actually make any relevant use of the figures that I picked up.  Similarly, I have toolboxes filled with the dungeon trappings that the first Dwarven Forge Kickstarter afforded me.  It’s more than enough to allow me to run a sizable dungeon with a little bit of prep and patience, but this is something that I’ve managed all of once, when I ran a one-night game while visiting friends.  I love the heft and quality of the tiles and walls, but I can’t honestly say that I have the patience for using these things on a regular basis.  Perhaps if I was running at local conventions and had worked out a system.  As it is, the set-up and prep required seem like more work than I’m really inclined to bother with.

Instead, my mainstay has been an ancient Chessex factory second Megamat with crooked squares, a lousy job of cutting and the occasioned stains from a marker that didn’t quite wash off.  I keep the mat rolled up when it isn’t in use, and it has come to be called the Beating Map for this purposes.  It’s served to keep players in line more often than it has been used for actual mapmaking.  It still serves nicely, and every now and again, I’m tempted to replace it with something a little less … unique.  Hasn’t happened yet, though.

One thing I’m noticing crop up more and more regularly is the re-introduction of cards to the gaming table.  I was a huge fan of the utility of poker decks for Deadlands, and I remain convinced that the Drama Deck for Torg is one of the greatest inventions ever.  The new iterations of cards include the Adversary Decks for Fantasy Flight Star Wars, which are sets of NPC stats for various encounters.  These are fantastic, but by the time they had come out, I’d already started making a set of index cards with the relevant information on them.  Buying the pre-made decks seem like my previous efforts would be wasted.  They also just came out with Critical Injury and Starship Damage decks, which are a little more tempting.

These mirror the Critical Hit and Critical Fumble Decks for Pathfinder, which have proven themselves indispensable.  I’ve used these cards all along, as a way to change up crits in the game, and they’ve worked extremely well.  There are the occasional bits of weirdness, where a wing is clipped on a creature without wings, but I’ve taken to pulling three cards and choosing the one that makes actual sense.  Technically, there are rules for pulling extra cards, but it’s a quick and easy method to move the game along.

Otherwise, my favorite accessories for a game have to be the different options for chips in a game with counters.  My main exposure has been with the different forms of Deadlands, which had poker chips for the Weird West game.  This carried over to the Hell on Earth and Lost Colony games, but these didn’t make as much sense as it did with the original.  For Hell on Earth, I laid hands on a bucket of 9mm shell casings, which I used a bit of paint on to differentiate value and they did well to reinforce the post-apocalyptic nature of the game.

When next I run a version of Hell on Earth, I plan to do it as a conversion to Fallout, in which I’ve already started work on the bottle caps which will serve as the main currency of the game, as well as standing in for poker chips.  Sadly, they’ll be wearing the Coca-Cola logo, rather than Nuka Cola, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t matter too much in the end.

Favorite RPG Illustrator — #RPGaDay2015, Day 12

I hadn’t given it much consideration before now, but Days 10~12 are something of a dry spell for this exercise.  If we’re going to talk about RPG’s in any substantive manner, the favored publisher, writer and illustration are pretty weak entries to cover.  For one thing, they’re easy to cover in a matter of a couple of words, maybe a few sentences at the outside.  For another, they’re awfully meta when you’re looking at the genre in a broad sense.

A publisher might put out a half dozen disparate game lines that have little to do with each other, or in the case of White Wolf at the height of the D20 madness, simply gather together a number of unrelated studios that generate the necessary content, like Necromancer and Sword & Sorcery.  And for most, the particular writer of a given gaming supplement is less important than what new rules or mechanics are brought forth in the text.  In some cases, it’s a higher mark for a game book to not distinguish itself from an otherwise solidly built game line, as this indicates the quality of the editor that’s overseeing the products.

I’m actually quite glad that there isn’t a category for Favorite RPG Editor.

Illustrations range into a similar space for me.  The best ones are the ones that don’t particularly stand out from the rest of the game line.  If a particular artist has managed to define how a product looks, any effort that shifts that perception is distracting.  There are specific artists that sum up specific products for me, and when I see work that violates that standard, it’s jarring and off-putting to my delicate, flower-like sensibilities.

Favorite RPG Illustrator

Much like the topic of publisher, this seems to shift as time goes on.  A lot of it depends on the game I’m invested in at the particular moment, but that’s sort of a given.  Probably the best way to approach this with any measure of sanity is to list out who stood out for different games and epochs of my life, I suppose.

AD&D (1st Edition) had a weird range of artwork, which isn’t really saying much, since it was the early days of the hobby, when there wasn’t any real money, and no one really knew what sort of appearance they wanted to give things.  I have both the Jeff Easley editions of those books and the ones with the earlier, gnarlier cover illustrations.  Easley wasn’t bad, overall, but most of his covers were pretty generic.  It served the hobby at the time, but it’s small wonder he sort of faded after 2nd Edition.

For me, the weird fiction basis of the game really showed through with the variety of Dave Trampier‘s artwork.  I clearly remember marveling at his rapidograph lizardman illustration and loving the fluid simplicity of his displacer beast.

D&D (Basic) went a tad further with the weirdness, celebrating Erol Otus as a staple of the game.  He also did the Lovecraft Mythos section in the Dieties & Demigods book, which brought home the alienness of the genre.  I can’t say that I liked his artwork at the time, since it was a little hard to look at, but it’s the style that I remember best and associate most with this edition.  The later editions featured Clyde Caldwell, mainly for the Mystara setting, which changed the tenor a bit.

Dragonlance and Dragon Magazine drew heavily on Larry Elmore‘s particular art style.  I remember loving the clean, sharp colors and subjects, rendered in his specific acrylics, and thinking that this was the sort of world that my games should aspire to.  Hells, his cover was the main reason I invested early in Shadowrun, believing as I did that any game with Elmore on the cover could hardly go wrong.  (I sort of wish my optimism had carried through with that one, but that was never a great fit, gamewise.)

Dark Sun had cover art by Brom, whose tattered and skeletal figures with bone white skin immediately defined the world in a few brushstrokes.  My favorite module box, City by the Silt Sea, was one of the defining moments, depicting a looming dracolich, a ruined city and a band of adventurers fleeing their inevitable doom.  What description could fill in the inevitability of the adventure better than that?

It’s also worth noting that a Brom illustration was the inspiration for the Deadlands game as a whole, with Shane Hensley running an undead Western game after seeing what would become the cover to the original Deadlands main book.

West End Games’ Torg and Star Wars heavily featured Allen Nunis, with his sharp contrast pen and ink drawings that defined the black and white struggles the individual game lines required of the player characters.

Vampire: The Masquerade had Tim Bradstreet, Werewolf: The Apocalypse had Ron Spencer, and Exalted had Melissa Uran and Udon.  The different styles of the different lines went a long way in molding the perception of the game line.  Bradstreet’s artwork had an almost photo-real aspect to his iconic characters, portraying the inhuman beauty and cruelty of the protagonists.  For Werewolf, Spencer offered up the grotesquery of the garou and their wyrm-tainted opposition.  And well, Exalted looked like a anime fantasy epic, which is what sold it to a lot of people, I suppose.

Pathfinder was built on the back of Wayne Reynolds‘ artwork, from the original cover of the Rise of the Runelords cover through all of the hardcovers.  Where the D&D of the Elmore era promised clean, bright possibility, Reynolds’ iconic characters seem a little more world-weary and grubby.  Where Caramon and Raistlin looked like they had just stepped out of the shower to head out to adventure, Valeros, Kyra, Merisiel and Seoni seem like they’ve spent some time in the trenches and have emerged a little worse for the wear.

I can’t say specifically that each game’s particular artwork delineated my perception of a game’s function or feel, but it is interesting to note which of these artists came to represent aspects of the individual games to me, years later.

Favorite RPG Writer — #RPGaDay2015, Day 11

There are points, only occasionally, where I think I should entertain a certain brevity with these responses, for the simple sake of snark and counter-intuitive obnoxiousness.  Y’know, answer a topic like this with just a name and walk away, self-satisfied and abruptly missing the point.

This would be an deliberate case for comically avoiding the purpose of the exercise, even as it would briefly amuse me and allow me to go on with my life without having to space out a simple reply into a thousand word rumination about why certain writings have attracted me to a specific writer over the years.  A better case might be to have to name my least favorite writer, whose games have offended me on some spiritual level with their terrible ideas and whose prose is execrable even by the standards of gaming fiction.  I have several candidates that would serve well in this capacity, but it seems sort of unfair to make this topic into a hit piece.

But it might be fun.

Bitchy speculation aside, I do have a very specific favored RPG writer that I’ve been a careful fan of for a number of years now.  I figure that the two of us would do well to share a beer and discuss gaming theory, even if I’ve never actually met the man as yet.  There are specific writers and designers that I do know and have drank with at the different conventions, but it seems a little incestuous to name my friends as my favorites.

Favorite RPG Writer

All truth be told, there are two specific writers that would fit my criterion, which I will go into momentarily.  For me, the favorite writer category requires that my patent adoration persist over the passage of years and products, to the point that nothing that the writer in question does falls outside of my interest.  This ranges toward the unlikely and / or impossible, but let’s give it a shot anyway, ne?

Depending on the era, I would have immediately picked out Shane Hensley for this spot.  Deadlands remains as one of my favorite games of all, suitable for pick-up games or long campaigns of dire accord.  The fact that he set his course towards Savage Worlds is about the only thing that pings the top spot away from Shane, to be honest.  There are some thing that just can’t be forgiven.

What’s interesting about Shane is that his pre-Pinnacle writing counts among some of my favorite gaming worlds.  He wrote the Temple of Rek Stalek module for Torg, a properly brutal module that dealt with a cult of death worshiping lizard men in the hellish jungles of the Living Land.  He was responsible for City by the Silt Sea, one of the rare boxed set adventures for Dark Sun which deals with an undead sorcerer-king turned dracolich.  He put together The Nightmare Lands for Ravenloft, as well as the Red Tide module for the Masque of the Red Death boxed set.  (Golly, a Victorian era horror module?  From the guy that created Deadlands?  Seems unlikely.)

I also read the weird little Bloodshadows novel that he did, Blood of Tarrian.  I don’t remember it being terrible, but since I was in a spate of reading gaming fiction at the time, I’m not really thinking I was the best judge of literature right then and there.  I do remember that the other books set in that world seemed better.

One of these days, I’m going to have to write something on the phenomena of gaming fiction.  I’m not really sure why it continues to be cranked out, but some subset of fools is buying these things.  (And don’t get me started on the wasted space in the Paizo Adventure Paths that is devoted to gamer fiction.  Give me ten more pages of world or monsters or dungeon, you bastards.)

So, my actual favorite RPG writer would have to be Bruce Cordell.

The reasoning for this is somewhat odd, in that Cordell is literally the first RPG writer that I ever properly noticed in the course of gaming.  I mean, sure…  you find Gygax everywhere, and Frank Mentzer and Rob Kuntz show up on a regular basis in the early days of D&D, but they did such a wide and varied amount of writing for the hobby that they just ended up being part of the scenery.  And Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were their own subset, crossing between gamer fiction and established world / module series.  Since I only read the Dragonlance novels, without ever adventuring in Ansalon, I didn’t have the same connection.  (And is this where I admit to having read the entirety of the Darksword, Rose of the Prophet and Death Gate novel series, despite my earlier bitching?  There are times when I question my tastes.  Or at least the tastes of my younger self.)

For whatever reason, there’s a difference with Cordell.  There was a point when I was going through the Monstrous Arcana series, marveling at the ideas and debating whether I would ever be able to run these modules for whatever extant game was going on at the time, and I realized that the ones I liked the best were the ones Cordell had written.  I mean, he made an epic campaign out of sahaugin, for gods’ sake.

When 3rd Edition came around, I started seeing his name on the Malhavoc psionic books, which eventually led to the Expanded Psionics Handbook, which still ranks as one of my favorite supplements for 3.5, for good or ill.  There was the Diablo II sourcebook, which had the mother of all magic item tables (I can’t say for certain that he built that, since there was another edition of the Diablo stuff at that same time, and without them in front of me, I couldn’t say for certain whose work came first.  But like many things, Cordell’s name was attached, which caught my attention.)

Lately, he’s been working up an entire game line with Monte Cook with The Strange.  I have the main book and every intention of playing it at some point, but as yet, it’s not something that’s happened.  I’ve heard it compared favorably to Torg, which happens to be enough of a selling point for me, so an epic campaign with this game is just something that will happen sooner or later.

But at the end of it all, the one reason that I would cleave to Bruce Cordell’s line is what he did with the greatest module ever written.  The Sunless Citadel.

Sunless Citadel ranks right alongside The Haunting from Call of Cthulhu as the module that I have run the most times for the most groups.  It’s a first level module written as part of what amounts to being the first real Adventure Path for 3rd Edition D&D.  The characters happen upon an innocuous adventure hook of investigating a disappearance, and they happen into an ancient and forgotten cult of a dragon.  There’s an evil druid, a tree of mysterious and legendary evil, and the (largely unseen) hooks for the larger campaign.

But none of this is what makes the module great.  No, what sets this adventure apart is the sheer potential for brutal mischief on the part of the dungeon master.  This is a low level game, where the characters are largely incompetent and their every equipment choice is vitally important.  If the characters haven’t packed in enough rope, they’re going to be stranded at critical points.  If they fail their saving throws, the abundant rats are going to inflict them with a raging case of filth fever, and there’s going to be close to a week of down time as they weather the sickness and try to recover.  And there are environmental hazards that can wipe most of the party out if things go sideways.

The beauty of this module is that it’s one of the best introductions to 3rd Edition that exists.  3.0 and 3.5 are mostly remembered for their DungeonPunk motifs, where adventurers can become canny avatars of 21st century ideals, backed up with judicious magic use and applied tactics.  (The John Tynes module, Three Days to Kill, sums this up perfectly, with a James Bond-esque espionage caper using D&D as the base, with magic items standing in for Q’s arsenal.)  But with Sunless Citadel, the characters are brought back to their roots, forced to consider how best to use the available equipment or surroundings in order to succeed.  It’s a 1st Edition module, using 3rd Edition rules, and the results are glorious.

The fact that this adventure is followed up with truly fascinating campaign arcs with the following adventures is merely icing, to be honest.