Category Archives: Gaming Philosophy
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.
So, welcome to 2016.
For my part, I rang in the New Year as one would expect, gathered at a table with old friends and new, dice in hand and music behind me. We had a pick-up, what-the-hell sort of session, since several of our number were absent and the remaining few of us had nowhere else we wanted to be. I’ve been running Kingmaker for a Sunday group, but given that half our numbers were absent (and the other half wanted something to do), I threw together an FFG Star Wars game for the kick of it. (I’ll get into this particular campaign overview when I have a chance, but suffice to say, I’ve been working up something original of late and wanted to try it out. This was as good an opportunity as any.)
The new Kingmaker has been amusing. I’ve run this particular campaign a couple of times in the past, to varying degrees of success. The first time, it managed two sessions before the players went their separate ways. The second time, it was a weird, revolving door of guest shot players. This amounted to a campaign that had one central player, a couple of other players that managed several months of play, and assorted people that showed up once or twice before schedules removed them. It was actually rather weird, the attrition rate.
This past year has had its strange milestones, with finally purchasing a house, moving and finishing a novel. The house is still in a sort of perceptual limbo, where we haven’t exactly settled in as I would like, nor have we finished the repairs and remodels that I feel need to be taken care of. Paramount amongst these remodels is the project to create a new Library for my RPG books. It seemed like a simple matter of installing shelves and cabinets, but the inspection pushed us to tearing the floor out, pouring a concrete slab, and laying a new floor and carpet over that. Financial concerns slowed progress from there. I’m in the midst of installing shelves as we speak (a monetary gift from the in-laws helped on that count), and I figure to have a better estimate of actually finishing the project in the near future.
Similarly, the moving process has hit a point of stasis, as most of our possessions remain in storage for the time being. Since the Library isn’t done, the books remain scattered throughout the house in a disorganized state. This slows the ability to organize to a point where we can start properly unpacking, and so the dominoes continue to scatter.
And well, the novel waits for me to have the time to do the revision I think it needs to undertake before finding an agent. I have in mind some 20,000 words of new text, with an attendant amount of text to be cut and altered. In some ways, it’s good to have some distance from the text to allow my own biases to fade, but it is frustrating to know that it needs to proceed to the next phase even as I feel like I’m letting it sit and moulder. Soon enough, I’ll be returning to it and getting it ready to put on the market.
And almost as an omen, today I received a discounted version of the software that I used to write the damned thing. I had been considering buying a copy of the software over the last year or so, but I never quite got to the point of purchase. Through my contacts in the writers’ groups, I found myself availed of a discounted copy. It was almost as though I had a need to get back onto this particular saddle.
So, with this in mind, I figure I’ll dive back into the novel in the coming weeks, putting together the new scenes I have in mind to rebuild the slow beginning of the book even as I start the process of the second book and vignettes of a different series. I’m nothing if not ambitious.
Sadly, I doubt that will translate into more regular updates on this site, as I’ve found that I can seemingly do one or the other. If I’m fastidious about updating this site, I tend to neglect my own “serious” writing. And if I’m in a groove with that, I don’t find a lot of time to update things here.
Obviously, what I need to do is diversify my writing more. Since I can’t keep two balls in the air with any proficiency, then the logic follows that adding more things to my daily to-do list will end with inevitable failure and disappointment. And yet…
I’ve had the idea for a second blog for a little while. It’s no particular secret that I read a lot. I always have, and it’s only been when I have serious time conflicts that I slow down by any reasonable measure. If I’m not running through several books a week, I’m likely making it up with news stories or some new TV series that actually manages to distract me. The media that I consume tends to fuel my ideas for games, which in turn help to fuel my ideas for stories (the two aren’t far apart on my particular spectrum; it’s well known that I am more comfortable behind the screen than in front of it) and so on. And whenever I’m in the depths of a particular novel or Netflix binge, I tend to analyze just how I would adapt the material for a game.
Which is what the new blog is going to focus on.
Many role-playing games offer their own take on what media or source would be helpful in crafting stories and characters for the particular system. This stretches back to the infamous Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979 and carries through in modern products. White Wolf, in particular, has done an admirable job of keeping the tradition alive in their products (but then again, they built their empire on Anne Rice, Robert McCammon and Neil Gaiman; it would have been disingenuous of them to not mention their sources), and it is this sort of idea that I dedicate my new site to.
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.
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.
Man, I started out with all manner of fire and fury, intent on catching myself up in short order. And here I am, two days missed out of the previous five, three odd days behind my intended schedule and landing on the topic I most dreaded finding myself at.
I gotta be honest here. I don’t listen to podcasts. I know that they’re a huge part of the industry and that designers I know and otherwise respect give them heed, but they’re largely a waste of bandwidth and time for my money. I suppose, if I wanted to listen to someone blather into a microphone with semi-professional sound production while I was doing something else, that might be one thing, but ever since I came back from South Korea, I’ve let my MP3 players rust. I’d originally bought them to occupy myself on public transit, and without those long hours that needed some sort of noise to fill them, I’m not inclined to carry a music player with me anywhere. I guess I could bring them along to listen to in the car, but I don’t even listen to talk radio. Why would I go to the trouble of importing something I’m not inclined to listen to anyway?
I guess it stems from my grating dislike of most of the people that think themselves qualified to comment on an industry that I think is already overcrowded with so-called experts. Listening to some fat guy with a microphone and bandwidth as he holds forth on something that I define as personally generated isn’t anything I’m going to seek out. (It doesn’t help that I don’t agree with most people on most subjects anyway. I’m the type of person that keeps a Facebook account for the sole purpose of picking fights with people that are prone to posting ignorant, low information opinions. It’s my second hobby.)
So, now that I’ve established my bona fides on why offering commentary on podcasts is beyond my threshold, let’s range into something else.
Favorite Dead Game Line
There are a lot of games that have come and gone over the years, several of them unremarkable and obvious in their lack of publishing longevity. Others have stuck around well past their freshness date, for reasons both inexplicable and weird. Games like Ars Magica, Fading Suns, Earthdawn and Pendragon have spilled past multiple publishers, kept on the hobby’s version of life support for the sake of a handful of players that seem to exist mainly in whispered conversation and shadowy corners of mall, local gaming conventions. I have literally never met a person that has played Ars Magica in any form, but the game has persisted through five separate editions, the last of which died off about a decade back. (For those playing at home, it was published by Lion Rampant, White Wolf (which grew out of Lion Rampant), Wizards of the Coast, and finally Altas Games.) With that much history, it would have made sense to have eventually encountered a some sort of dedicated group of it in my travels, but this is not the case. I have, in contrast, met people that have played Earthdawn and Pendragon, but those were confined to a single group with each. Outside of these very limited circles, I’ve seen nothing. And I know precisely one person that has ever talked about Fading Suns, and he’s two states away. There was one other person, but he wanted me to convert it to D6 to run in Star Wars.
Of the four game lines mentioned above, I think Ars Magica is the only one that’s not currently back in production in one form or another.
My library contains a lot of weird esoterica to draw from for this line of thought. What’s interesting is how few of those lines remain dead in a playable form. There were games (Wizards, based off the Ralph Bakshi movie and published by the generally hated Whitman Games) that could be played, as it had a number of supplements, but were severely limited in their scope. Similarly, there was Children of the Sun, which only had one supplement as I recall, and Spookshow, which had a similarly short line.
Torg has been dead for over twenty years, but since it’s coming back, I can’t qualify it to talk about. And technically, Bloodshadows is still in print (sort of a gaming life support, since there isn’t anything new coming out for the game), so that’s off the table.
Which leaves me with the weirdly unlikely and largely unplayable Tribe 8 RPG. (Which, as I have found in my Googling, apparently also refers to a “dyke punk” band out of San Francisco. I do sincerely hope they didn’t take inspiration from the relatively obscure RPG, as that would be a tich too weird for me.)
Tribe 8 was a post-apocalyptic RPG setting based in Quebec. Since this wasn’t already weird enough, the source of the apocalypse was the stuff of nightmares. And I mean that in the most wholly literal manner I can come up with. Demons conjured from the realm of dreams poured forth to devastate the world and leave it in twisted wreckage, the entirety of society reduced to savage tribal levels. The game is meta-plot heavy, meaning that the published adventures are requisite to the overall setting, and most of the 1st edition supplements were written from the point of view of characters in the setting itself, which makes it relatively hard to decipher from a GM standpoint. The second edition cleared up some of the mysteries of the game line, but it was a fascinatingly weird setting to consider. For my part, I would have loved to have seen a campaign of this run.
So, the logical question crops up: Why is a game I’ve never played and that seems too weird to actually play come in as my Favorite Dead Game Line? Because the safe and predictable games have been done to death. This game is challenging, weird and hard as hell to make sense of. For me, that means that actually doing something with it would take time and dedication, and the end result would be that much more amazing for the effort. It doesn’t take any work to sit down and put together a Star Wars game, since everyone knows how the universe works and what is actually expected of their characters. Want to run a pirates game? Easy. Everyone knows how to play Pathfinder (and there’s plenty of material in Skull & Shackles), and everyone has seen Pirates of the Caribbean. Most of the work has already been done. The only thing left is to fill in the blanks and throw some dice.
But Tribe 8, man. There’s some work.
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.
This entry has amusing potential. The first thing that occurs to me is that most of my favorite media have been made into RPG’s already. I mean, if we rank my general obsessions in order, we’ve already got a quick couple of hits without working very hard. Star Wars has seen three separate RPG adaptations, Game of Thrones has been done in a D20 edition by Guardians of Order and the Chronicle System by Green Ronin, Star Trek was done by FASA, Task Force Games and Last Unicorn Games, Battlestar Galactica was given an adaptation at the hands of Margaret Weis Productions and Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth has seen a GURPS treatment. I guess I could tag Foster’s Spellsinger series, but any gamer worth their salt could adapt that world to any number of extant systems. Other than the titular spellsinging, there isn’t much to separate any of the milieu from any other fantasy setting, talking animals notwithstanding.
Secondly, there’s the general adaptability of properties in the hands of gamers. Even a wildly complex worldset isn’t hard to put to paper with the current crop of games in the marketplace. Hells, the number of times I’ve heard a gamer talking about bringing this or that idea to Fate is incalculable. And as we’ve seen with the Fate adaptation of Mass Effect, it can be done extremely well. (Even if the broader implications of this adaptation are in question.)
So, to properly serve this category, I suppose this would have to encompass a property that required a) broader and more granular systems to properly encompass the feel of the game as translated from its original form or b) a staff of writers to add onto the property in a way that gelled with the original ideas put forth in the property’s existing milieu.
Let’s consider each of these aspects for a moment, with a couple of examples to illustrate where I’m going with the core assumptions I’m working under.
And just to get it out of the way, let’s set aside the reality that pretty much anything can be modeled with Fate rules. That’s sort of a given in discussions like this, which I pretty much assign as State Zero. Since Fate tends to be wholly universal, you can accept the assumption and move onto other topics.
If you want to put together a properly granular system to simulate the particulars of a given property, there are specific qualities that must be considered for the translation to RPG material. Let’s put Star Wars on the block for this one. In the FFG Star Wars games, there is a fully discrete system to model equipment for the sake of blaster, armor and vehicle customization. This falls directly in line with much of the spirit of the movies and the expanded properties of the Star Wars universe. Han Solo discusses why the Falcon is better than equivalent ships, Gallandro is known for his custom pistols, Boba Fett’s armor and weaponry is unique to him, and lightsaber design prefigures a great deal of the personality of the individual Jedi Knights. Similarly, there is a careful dissection of Force Powers, allowing careful customization of Jedi characters as they develop. This falls in line with the feel of the expanded universe, where each Jedi character had their own area of specialty.
What if we were to apply this sort of system to another referenced property, Spellsinger?
There isn’t a lot of necessary system tweaks that are needed for the world. The most interesting parts of the general society are the differentiation of the particular species of creatures. Warmblooded creatures form the main society that the reader is introduced to, the insects are the ancient and feared enemies, and arachnids are a sort of neutral party that is persuaded to help in the war. Reptiles (with the exception of dragons) are the unintelligent animals that serve as food and service creatures. Other than this, there isn’t a lot that differentiates things from something like Pathfinder or even Warhammer Fantasy. In fact, the latter might be a better fit, given the outwardly crappy level of civilization and magic in a low fantasy setting.
The other criterion I set forth above was the dedicated staff that exists to add depth and detail to an established setting to bring forth new insight or direction for the property. It’s one thing to have a game where the players are re-creating the protagonists of the media for their own adventures. (Oddly, the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG skirts the edge of violating this precept, even as they offer ways to expand the setting. When the books exist as a faithful and loving episode guide, even as they talk of new directions, it’s a little hard to figure out how the game is meant to be played.)
To revisit the Star Wars example, the WEG D6 version of the game was so detail-oriented that Lucasfilm used the books as their own internal guides. One of the original WEG writers, Pablo Hidalgo, went on to work for Lucasfilm on this basis, having shown his knowledge of the property to a sufficient extent.
And to apply it to the Spellsinger license, anyone familiar with the novels would quickly realize that this level of detail is completely unnecessary. Foster himself added onto the setting as he went along, with each subsequent novel going in some unexplored direction and throwing together whatever detail was needed. While a new staff of writers could go ahead and add brand new nations and the like, it doesn’t represent the same sort of inherent challenge that other properties might. In Star Wars, there’s a multitude of aliens seen in the background, all with their own particular stories. Spellsinger doesn’t really have the same requirement of depth.
Whuf. That was a lengthy preamble.
Favorite Media That Should Be An RPG
When I sat down to consider this topic entry, there were two properties that came to mind immediately. Both of them are videogames that I’ve dedicated an unseemly amount of time to and that have broader and deeper worlds that they exist within. They both work on very particular worldsets, with distinct themes and ideals, and the play within these worlds would feel very distinct.
The first one is Borderlands and its attendant sequels. These games are fairly straightforward, run and gun shooters with light RPG elements and a Diablo-styled random weapon generator. The Sirens have a complex history and lore that melds nicely to pen & paper role-playing, and any game that encourages a robust combat system that involves tactics, positioning and what amounts to being animal companions would make an easy transition to the tabletop. While the game is set entirely on Pandora and its surrounding environs, there are enough references to the greater surrounding universe to ground a series of sourcebooks and supplemental material.
What’s interesting is that the crew at Gearbox are a known quantity of RPG geeks, evidenced as much by the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC as anything else. Why this game hasn’t been auctioned off to an RPG developer is actually a little beyond me.
That said, Gearbox is headquartered in Austin, TX, home of Steve Jackson Games, so I guess we’re lucky that it hasn’t ended up as a GURPS splatbook.
The other property is Dishonored, the weirdly beautiful and discordant stealth game. The rich and intricate city of Dunwall hints at the larger world around the insular Empire, even as it turns the focus inward. The complex moral aspects of the main characters, the interference of the Outsider, and the eldritch happenings that underlie the setting all make for rich detail that could be brought forth in the hands of an invested game company.
That said, this is a property owned by Bethesda, whose D&D influences are well documented, even as they have never licensed anything from Elder Scrolls for tabletop. It’s hard to say whether a Dishonored RPG is even possible.
Media appearance? Really?
This seems like it’s pandering to people who are huge fans of “Big Bang Theory” or the like, where it’s fobbed off as being quirky and fun for a Friday Night Sitcom crowd. I still find it odd that media still holds something of a hands-off approach to gaming in general, since it still holds leftover stigma from the 80’s era Satanic Panic nonsense. (As a side note, Leftover Stigma might be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.) I grant, I haven’t watched the supposedly well-loved Community episode about D&D, but that’s just because Community has only provoked marginal awareness with me.
For me (again, showing my age), media appearance of RPG’s tends to be a negative portrayal, rife with inconsistent ideas and absolute idiocy on what’s going on. There was a book I read a while back, from a series I otherwise enjoyed, where a minor character was shown as being a gamer, which meant that he had all manner of occult paraphernalia in his backpack as part of his hobby requirements. Sure, there were miniatures, but there were also tarot cards and, if memory serves, candles of some sort. Unless he was playing something like The Everlasting: The Book of the Unliving, where such lunacies are bizarrely encouraged (one of these days, when I get such things unpacked, I’ll go over just why that game line failed so dramatically), having what amounts to being ritual trappings is largely unneeded for normal sessions.
Favorite RPG Media Appearance
For my money, there was nothing more indicative of the times we were living in than the pivotal early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes & Monsters, based on a quickly dashed off novel by Rona Jaffe. (Apparently, this is Tom Hanks’ first starring role. I wonder what he thinks of that these days?) Prior to the publication of this rather sensationalist potboiler, Jaffe was a well-known writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, under the stewardship of Helen Gurley Brown. Think Carrie Bradshaw, set in the Mad Men era, and you’ve probably got a handle on where we’re coming from with her. A bit of an odd choice, when you’re looking for an author to deal with things like this.
Mazes & Monsters, naturally, was based loosely on the media’s portrayal of the James Dallas Egbert disappearance, the Michigan State University student who tried to commit suicide in the campus steam tunnels. There’s a larger story to Egbert’s particular bent, but back in 1979 the correlative link to a new and largely unknown pastime was enough to obfuscate actual details on what went on. The suicidal tendencies had nothing to do with any mythical, Tolkien-derived fantasy world, but that didn’t stop the national media from finding interesting enough to run with.
The movie (and I have to assume, the novel as well) takes the most lurid ideas from the media accounts and turns it into a huge spectacle of delusion and mental illness. Tom Hanks portrays a rather unstable college student whose brother either disappeared or killed himself before the start of the movie.
There’s an awful lot of suicide and weird mental illness in this flick, to be honest. Not only is a referenced character implied to have killed himself, another character advances the plot through intending to off himself in a cave, the same person’s M&M character kills himself, and they have to save Tom Hanks’ character from jumping off the World Trade Center at the end of the movie. And naturally, it all links back to role-playing games in the end.
What’s interesting is that, despite the moral problem of role-playing games at the center of the movie, the actual portrayal of gaming didn’t seem too far off. Granted, they were trying to LARP in the early 80’s, but that just seems weirdly anachronistic, at this point. The small spaces, bad maps and actual session of the game didn’t seem to far off from what I remember. (Although, thinking back now, it seems like Tom Hanks did have a ludicrously out of scale miniature for his character.) The point where it goes off the rails is when the movie insists that people start to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, and this shared delusion is what makes them go irrevocably mad. I have to think that similar thinking is what informed the moral panic of the 1950’s, when Frederic Wertham spoke so eloquently of comic books warping young minds.
The movie follows Tom Hanks as he wanders New York, possibly murdering a random mugger, and ends up trying to throw himself off the WTC in the early morning sunshine, all the while in a weird, hallucination of some dire fantasy world. (One review terms this as a “jazz daze,” which I can’t argue with.) The ending has him utterly unable to separate himself from his RPG character, and the other characters have to leave him in his pathetic delusion while they are implied to have grown up and left gaming behind.
Not, I guess, that I can blame them. I mean, it’s got to have left a stain on things to have seen someone go so mental over the pastime, but the movie also seems to imply that this is pretty much unavoidable in this universe. And that’s the weird part of an already weird movie. The movie deals with characters that have an established baseline of mental problems (Tom Hanks’ character may actually be schizophrenic), which would be enough to anchor things, but then it tries to establish a link to RPG’s alongside this. Without going back to watch the movie again (it’s around here in a box somewhere), I’m not sure if there’s a causative relationship that makes any sense. Does the hobby only attract people with problems differentiating fantasy from reality? Does it cause these barriers to break down over the course of play? What’s the actual danger here?
This isn’t a particularly good movie, even judged on the basis of being a Made-For-TV spectacle. It is, however, an excellent snapshot of the era of “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” and the attendant hysteria.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the games that I like to play that I have a taste for the esoteric and that which is decidedly new. (It will come as a surprise, however, that I’m managing to upload a post. Suffice to say that the last couple of months have been oddly harrowing, and the less said about the search for a place to live … the better. For the moment, let no news be, well, no news.)
Lately, I’ve been putting more focus on the “Foreign Games Translated Into English” range of the spectrum. I’ve already put words to games like Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as Shadows of Esteren. Lately, I’ve been looking over games like Double Cross, Kuro, and Anima: Beyond Fantasy, reveling in the inherent strangeness that accompanies their particular design philosophies and trying to make sense of the directions that they wander into.
I’ve come to feel like there’s a well-trod canon that most American RPG’s fall back into. My friend, the Admiral, spends a fair amount of time referencing the vaunted Appendix N from the old Dungeon Master’s Guide, a hoary list of sources and inspirational material that helped craft the core of Dungeons and Dragons from its outset. It’s an interesting selection to peruse in depth, but as I’m going through these new games, I’m left to wonder if it has become a sort of limitation on the hobby. Time was, all such things were new and fascinating, and the suggested reading in a game like Vampire: the Masquerade would yield up something that could form a future obsession. These days, it becomes a recitation of the expected, pulling from a shopworn selection of works that everyone else has been using.
It’s sort of like opening an RPG manual and finding that the artwork has been inspired by Japanese Anime or that the setting owes its ideas to Tolkien. It’s all been done, it all rings the same way. Back in the day, it was pretty cool to have a game dip briefly into Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; now, a game without a Cthulhu cameo seems weird.
This is what’s captivating my interest with these new games. All of the things that have become mainstays in American RPG Design are either absent or lacking in emphasis, leaving a raft of curious and unexpected elements to come to the fore.
The easiest example is Ryuutama. Here’s a game that looks like it should either be geared toward elementary students or 8-bit video game enthusiasts. The artwork is simple and centered in Japanese cultural expectations, and the game is supposed to invite a sense of pastoral, homey good feelings. (They actually market the game with the Japanese term, “hono-bono,” even as they make reference to Ghibli films.) There isn’t any attempt to sell it as appealing to an American audience (there is a conspicuous lack of Frazetta styled barbarian warriors or supple warrior women), and the game is fine with that. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly a kid’s game. There’s a level of meta-narrative that rarely shows up in Western games, where the GM has to build and track the experience points of his own PC, which is integrated into his role in crafting the game while still managing to remain separate. (As a note, West End’s Tales From The Crypt RPG was similarly meta-narrative focused, but there aren’t many people that are familiar with or own that particular title. And even fewer that have run it.)
A game like Ryuutama is never going to compete with Pathfinder. That’s not its intent. Ryuutama is a game for a specific niche audience, and the translators are bringing it over to the States as a labor of love more than anything else. (Kotodama also brought over Tenra Bansho Zero, which occupies a completely different end of the Japanese Games spectrum.) And in doing so, it has a completely different footprint than any other game on the market. It’s doing things that Pathfinder or Edge of the Empire or any of the old White Wolf games would never be able to do, simply because they’re coming from an American point of view and sensibilities, with the intention to cater to the same qualities in their audience.
There’s also the inspiration that comes with these games, since they manage to step outside of the normal range of experience. In reading them, I find myself venturing into new territory with my ideas, as different realms of possibility present themselves.
I’ve been skimming through Makkura, the adventure supplement for the utterly brilliant Kuro RPG from Septieme Cercle. Kuro is one of those games that I feel was built specifically with me in mind. (This is a common sort of relevance that I am faced with from French game publishers; Shadows of Esteren kindled a similar feeling, what with its Ravenloft, Lovecraft and Game of Thrones source.)
At its base, Kuro is a cyberpunk noir horror game, set solely in a dystopic Japan. After living there for a time, I feel like I could run wild with this setting, so long as I had a group that was willing to listen to me drone on about the smell of burning rice husks and the peculiar clutter of a Japanese office. In reading through one of the modules, I found myself immersed in the alien reality of its world, adding my own details as I went along. One scene involved a cryptic message from an old acquaintance as the characters stood on the subway platform. Already, I could see myself building the scene narration, talking about the sudden overpressure as the train approached, the alarm bells ringing overhead and the unseen energy of the crowd as they tensed in anticipation.
That’s just speaking to my own experiential base, though. I’ve set games in locales that my players were unfamiliar with, just to offer some sort of variant perspective and make use of things I have seen. I’ve done the same thing in a number of bog-standard American games.
The idea that I’m trying to lay hold of is that there are cultural artifacts laying beneath the surface of foreign games, and these fragments of perspective offer new directions to propel your games into. Double Cross puts forth a superhero genre game, even as it suggests homicidal teenagers and secretive cabals with world-changing agendas. Ryuutama codifies a sense of innocence and pastoral wholesomeness into its very rules. This isn’t a game that you could run George Martin-esque gritty fantasy in, since the system doesn’t lend itself to such. And Kuro imparts a grimy sense of isolation that I recognize from having walked the same streets as the game designers.
Games like Pathfinder and Edge of the Empire speak to us as Americans. The designers think like we do, which leaves us to absorb the ruleset without having to grapple with anything new underlying the game itself. They are comfortable and familiar, which makes the adaptation to the gaming table a quick and painless process. Sure, there may be new rules or intricacies that need to be figured out, but that’s a minor sort of implication, overall.
Conversely, I sit and consider my properly gorgeous collection of Shadows of Esteren, which requires that I realign my thinking to that of the designers, and a more foreign group of guys I have never met. They look at our gaming and fantasy culture, distill down the important parts to their games, and offer back a concoction that doesn’t initially make sense. I love my books and all, but it’s going to take me some time and careful research to figure out how I’m going to run a game worthy of the source material. It’s that alien to me.
And naturally, I look forward to this immensely.
Two closing points that I haven’t had the time or energy to fit into the main body of this post:
1.) I would never have considered trying to run a game like Ryuutama with any seriousness, even though I love the strange fantasy that it suggests. It simply isn’t something that I could have made work on my own. (As a point of note, I was direly fascinated with Legend of Mana (Seiken Densetsu, originally) back in the day, since it was wildly colorful and imaginative. But I’m far too horror-oriented in my RPG’s to have gotten much farther than daydreaming about it and moving on.) This is a good portion of why I have become vaguely obsessed with Ryuutama since I first heard about it. There’s enough material in it to suggest all manner of fun distraction. It isn’t a terribly serious game, what with tea-cup neko-goblins and all, but that’s a good portion of the joy of it all.
2.) Right now, I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of a set of books for Anima: Beyond Fantasy. I had held off picking it up for a long time, since it looked like little more than a variant of Exalted, which dropped it down the scale a ways. It didn’t help that FFG was taking a shotgun approach to its marketing, what with a miniatures game and a card game to tie into it. (Sort of like they did with Star Wars. Much as I love the RPG, I’m not putting out any money for boardgames or TCG nonsense.) Then I happened upon a copy of the rules and gave it a proper examination. It looked deliriously complex, which fascinated me, and further research showed that it’s an English translation of a Spanish game that’s trying to emulate Japanese anime and video games.
3.) I want to take a moment to clarify why I tend to dismiss games that I think are trying to emulate Exalted. It isn’t because I hate Exalted and its imitators, but more because I love 2nd Edition Exalted. I got a peek at the 3rd Edition rules the other day. Whuf. Their stated goal of simplifying combat made it orders of magnitude worse. Good lord… I didn’t think it was possible to screw the pooch this badly.
Lately, I’ve run into an interesting phenomenon, due to the peculiarities of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line. As noted previously, the system requires a set of specialized dice suitable only for the Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion games. (When Force and Destiny releases next summer, that will make three game lines, even though they’re all generally playable as one system.) The dice are available in packs of fourteen for about $15 per set, retail, or $5 for the phone app. By my reckoning, a player generally needs two sets to be able to assemble the requisite dice pools.
Having gamed as extensively as I have, I’ve amassed a sizable collection of dice over the years. This includes the old gem dice that I ordered through the mail for TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes game, the decidedly sharp-edged D20 that came un-inked as was the fashion, and the various dice sets that I pick up at the different conventions. I think nothing of acquiring a new set of dice when the whim strikes, and putting out some scratch for several sets of Fantasy Flight dice was just a side step in my normal habits.
It’s a safe bet to declare that I have over a thousand dice. And most people I know acquire dice similarly. Some have very specific requirements for new dice, making them match the products they’re using or specific ideas they have about a game in question. This was much of the reasoning for picking up Q Workshop dice. If you’re running Rise of the Runelords, get the officially licensed and properly thematic Runelords dice. (I haven’t lapsed into this mode, personally, as it could get rather expensive to lay hands on the dice for each individual Adventure Path. I did buy the Carrion Crown dice, however, but that path has stretched out over the course of three years.) Similarly, I’ve seen brightly colored dice for superhero games, dark and moody D10’s for White Wolf games, weird green and black dice for Cthulhu and so on.
So, in some ways, it’s kind of funny to hear people whine about having to buy different dice for EotE. And yet, it’s the common refrain for people who want an excuse to avoid the game anyway. They can’t be bothered to pick up a set of dice for a game, even though the rule books themselves are factors higher in price. If you’re willing to put out $250+ for the rule books, what’s $30 for a set of dice? (This works on standard retail pricing and my contention that two sets are necessary for play.)
Part of it falls back to the specialized nature of the dice. Outside of the core product, there isn’t much utility for the D6’s, D8’s and D12’s that make up the dice packs. (And if you’re integrating the X-Wing Miniatures Game, the new D8’s that come with that.) Logically, you could simply use the charts in the main book and convert your extant dice to the purpose of the new game. And while this is possible, it’s not a wholly ideal solution, as the chart consultation is a headache and slows down the otherwise fast and loose aspects of using the new dice in the first place.
This argument doesn’t get very far with me, however, given my years of White Wolf and WEG’s D6 Star Wars. The Storyteller System often required dice pools of a dozen D10’s (or more, if you were playing Exalted), and it wasn’t unheard of to need 20 D6’s for some games of Star Wars. (There’s also the bizarre footnote of R. Tal’s Dragonball Z game, which technically required several thousand D6’s for a proper Saiyan battle, but there were a number of ways to get around rolling and tallying literal buckets-full of dice.) And while it was technically true that you could re-purpose your Storyteller dice into an average D&D session, it was pretty unlikely. If you were playing a game that wasn’t using a standard loadout for dice, you needed to buy dice specifically for the game, no matter what. I have known people that keep specific dice for specific campaigns, to take it one step farther.
Over the years, my dice have ended up carefully segregated. My Storyteller dice congregate in one specific bag, where I have another that is devoted to the plethora of D6’s I have amassed over the years. There’s a bag devoted to D&D/Pathfinder dice of different sorts (mainly according to the specific colored sets), and so on. My EotE dice have their own dedicated dice canister, as just another set of dice for a specific game.
What I found most interesting in the most recent whinge about having to buy new dice for a new game was that the person that was making the noise was one that didn’t have a lot of room to complain about spending too much on the hobby. He is well known in the local area for his gaming excesses, between premium hotel rooms at the larger cons and booze to the level that it would cover a car payment. He’s fully able to drop $4,000 on something like Gen Con, as it’s what he saves up for over the course of the year. Another $15 for dice is hardly going to break the bank entirely.
And sure… we all remember being 15 years old, when something like a core rulebook was something that was worked toward and greatly anticipated. Back in those days, dice were something rare and particular, but that was just part of the overall value and novelty of the hobby at that age. After a while, a groove is worn in, and there’s no longer any question as to the expense of the hobby. It’s an expected truth, and for a lot of people, that means that they will concentrate on one game or aspect of the hobby to the careful exclusion of everything else. Most people have a solid D&D or Pathfinder collection, where others pick up the necessary White Wolf offerings that they need to play.
For me, it means that I’m not going to spend a lot of money on cards or miniatures, since that would cripple my ability to maintain my library. But then, I’m weird that way.