Category Archives: Older Games
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Man, the days just fly by around here.
I’m not going to bitch about Autocratik, since I barely know the guy, but it’s a little weird to go from the strictly defined criteria of the first few entries (“Most anticipated forthcoming,” “Favorite game of the past year,” etc.) to the rather ambiguous “Most Surprising” by the fourth entry. I had gotten quite used to the rails I was riding on, only to find myself pondering which direction to go with this new category.
Should I venture into territory of games that I assumed would be good, only to be surprised at their general awfulness? Or do I toss the ring at games I picked up for a larf, only to really enjoy them? Moreover, should these be current, relevant games (as the first three entries were generally required to be) or old relics plucked from the used bin at some increasingly ephemeral local gaming store? When should this game have surprised me? Recently? Back when I first started gaming? I mean, if we’re going to dig back through the mists of yesteryear, my threshold of surprise was a lot lower and easier to overcome, in comparison to my current jaded self.
Most Surprising Game
Let’s try this: The game I’m going to talk about is the game that has, most consistently, surprised me in terms of what the normal interpretation by the fans has been, in comparison to how I, myself, have interpreted the game.
The immediate question to resolve with this is how I define my terms. For the purposes of this entry, let’s assume that you’ve picked up a game of some sort or another. Let’s say it’s some iteration of Star Wars, be it original WEG D6, Wizards’ D20, or FFG’s DWhatever. You’ve seen the movies each a dozen times (except for the prequels, because seriously…), you had licensed sheets and pillow cases, and there may be a couple of Ralph McQuarrie posters on your walls. You regularly toss around favorite quotes, and the back of your closet hides a half-dozen broken lightsaber toys, rent from mock battles in the back yard. You know this stuff, backward and forward.
Naturally, when you sit down at the table to game, you’re going to build sagas of desperate odds, implacable and technocratic foes, and weird samurai mysticism. You know, the stuff you loved from the movies. One player is going to build the world-weary smuggler, another has the sheltered aristocrat, and a third has the wide eyed idealist that may or may not be an ace pilot in his spare time. There will be droids, starships, and guns. It will be recognizable.
And after you’ve played for a time, you start investigating the internet fan community. And none of it makes sense.
They’re playing Star Wars, but it’s not anything that you properly recognize. For some reason, they’re focusing on vampires, and most of their session notes make references to Meg Ryan movies of the mid-90’s, rather than science fiction. They’ve all chosen to set their games on a single planet, involve themselves in small retail concerns, and most of the actual role-playing involves their attempts to define their relationships in the face of a changing landscape of career options. None of these careers involve shooting guns or flying starships.
I’m not saying any of these games would be bad. But if I just got through a marathon of science fiction movies, capped off by the battle of the second Death Star, I’d have a hard time trying to reconcile any of these campaign ideas with what I want to play in a Star Wars game. These ideas belong in some other game that would be better suited for that type of play. I mean, play what your group wants to play, but there are better vehicles for such things. And none of the source material supports any of these ideas.
This is how I feel when I talk about Exalted. When I first picked up the original edition, it was a strange, barren land where the society was forged from a broken empire and the heroes of all the myths and legends had been killed. The implication was that they had made deals with darker powers, and their servants had risen up to destroy them, leaving a drifting and rudderless world of regional powers poised on the brink of unnecessary war. The default assumption was that the player characters were the lost heroes reborn, saddled with a destiny they couldn’t possibly fulfill in a setting that sought to silence their ambitions. Second Edition shifted a little bit of this around, but there was always the sense that things in the First Age had descended into madness, but the plots of the Sidereals and Dragon-Blooded legions were an overcorrection that doomed the world to a different misery.
For my part, I always ran my games with a heavy dosing of Greek Tragedy, as the mythic hubris of the Solars had caused the destruction of their great empire and works, and it was the role of the newly reincarnated heroes to try to forge a new world without the mistakes of the old. All of this bases on the mythic underpinnings of the game itself, which draws from the mythic traditions of the different cultures of the world. There is a lot of Western mythic tradition within the pages of the Exalted main books, but there is as much that draws from Japanese, Chinese and Indian sources as well. This is a game about gods and heroes, where the Solar Exalts play some version between Hercules and Sun Wukong.
This is not how the internet forums tend to run this game, however.
Exalted, for better or worse, used a lot of anime influence for their artwork. This attracted an audience of gamers, but these players and GM’s never seemed to dig beneath the surface to see what the game itself was concerned with. Instead of seeing the mythic structure beneath the initial impression, most forums appear to have stuck solidly with the anime ideals and used the game to run their favorite Naruto or Sailor Moon fanfic. All too often, horror stories would emerge from the different forums to talk about how one person’s experience of the game ran into how many quotes the players could wedge in from a particular anime or what ridiculous overpower build they could get away with. There was no divine consequence for their actions (as I would have inflicted in my games), and the characters were encouraged to play at being irresponsible powermongers because it was cool.
People will play the game they want to play. I understand that. But I feel a bit like the character of Mugato in Zoolander, like I’m the one taking crazy pills. People in the forums talk about how their characters are wildly overpowered this way or that, and I can only shake my head. The great and epic game that I ran, back in the day, had the player characters hedging their power against the grim outcomes that they saw lurking on the horizon. I once made the object of an epic quest turn out to be an artifact of world-ending potential. (The Five Metal Shrike. Look it up, if you’re so inclined.) My players’ reaction was to lock it away in a box to make sure that it could never be used, either by them or against them. This was an item of ultimate power and potential, and they saw how it could all go so very wrong.
And this is what is so surprising about this game for me.
The precepts of the game are spelled out in great detail, and there is little question to me as to what the central themes of the game happen to be. But none of these ideals translate into the normal experience of people playing the game. And judging from the drafts I’ve seen of the 3rd Edition rules (“The Most Playtested Game Ever Written,” my ass), the designers have no idea either.
Y’know, I try. I really do. When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day. Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.
Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers. And unpublished novels, probably.
Anyway. My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong. I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions. It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.
It got a little lengthy. And then it spilled over into a second post. And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team. But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.
In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:
I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.
World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes. Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity. The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city. It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive. (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole. Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)
The same thing applies to all of their game lines. Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world. Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man. And so on.
From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster. If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse. And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.
And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff. Seriously. It’s all over the place.
I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened. There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power. All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table. And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play. If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it. It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to. Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.
But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit. There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters. Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience. Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.
It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak. I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior. They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers. Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable. She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.
In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up. I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues. It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide. (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)
What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations. In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day. It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy. And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters. Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers. Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.
So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick? I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’. It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films. It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.
Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name. That might be where it crosses the line. That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.
Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it. Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about. It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power. It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.
In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful. None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.
So, let me see… I was working on a broad analysis of how Exalted took a serious turn for the worse, which led to the awful design decisions that led to the 3rd Edition philosophy. Where did I leave off last time … ?
Oh, yeah. Rape.
You know, I get it. White Wolf is edgy. They’ve spent a lot of time working on Mature Audience books. Hells, they have an entire separate imprint just to deal with things that they think should be left out of their core products. And they spent the better part of twenty years with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the rough core of any horror based product line. Hells, they managed to base a sourcebook for Wraith around the Holocaust. Logically, they have a solid rhetorical base to work from when it comes to presenting adult oriented themes to a mature audience.
The problem is that I’m not really sure that White Wolf and I are working with the same definitions of ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ for these purposes. I define these terms along the lines of ‘having to do with serious and often horrific ideas that are inappropriate for minor’ or similar. Child abuse, prison conditions, human trafficking, and so on; these are the kinds of things that I would expect in an adult product. The Liberian Civil War? That’s an adult theme. Same with the Rwanda Genocide, the Rape of Nanking and the moral consequences of killing an innocent while a character is trying to defeat a powerful enemy. They’re mature subjects to be dealt with in an appropriate setting, and none of it really fits for a younger audience.
For White Wolf, it’s a lot of rape. And weird sex jokes. (For an older example, google: ‘tzimisce cover’. This was the kind of shit that they used to pull back in the day.)
So, I already went off on the rape bit for Infernals. The most depressing thing about this is that it made one of the more tragic aspects of the entire canon into a grotesquerie. There’s a complicated story that had been built up about the little girl, Lillun, who had been manipulated into entering the secret area that the Scarlet Empress held sway over. She vanished and was never seen again, with the central idea being that the Scarlet Empress was willing even to let her youngest daughter be sacrificed to keep her secrets.
Then they come along with this. Lillun is revealed as being the living storehouse for corrupted divine energy, and the means by which to reward the corrupted servants with this energy is through a lot of rape. So, rather than keep it as a grim parable or mystery, the books go into more detail about this aspect of the game. And I have no idea why. It literally serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to make obvious something that was already hinted at. Detailing her torture in text is gratuitous, and making a comic in the front of the book is wholly unnecessary.
Even if you were to make the argument that this is to drive home the vile and inhuman nature of the Infernals, that’s going to fall flat as soon as you note that this is one of the most popular books in the line, and the diehard fans will take great pains to defend it. Most of this has to do with the fact that Infernal Exalts are ridiculously powerful, and the audience apparently takes great joy in playing evil characters. I suspect that it all goes back to the adoration of Vampire characters from World of Darkness. My experience has shown me enough of the edgy fanboys that want to talk about the power and violence of their characters. I wouldn’t say that too many of them had ever advanced much beyond a middle school mindset of such things either, but this is only my experience of such gamers.
So naturally, this is the sort of idea that gets carried over into the 3rd Edition design. Many of the same people that are working on this edition are the same ones that were involved in the crappy final projects of 2nd Edition. One of the first things that showed up in relation to 3rd Edition was a design doc that went into the new powers of Abyssal Exalts, who bear the corrupted essence of a Solar Exalt in service of the lords of the underworld. In the Exalted world, they’re the fantasy versions of Vampires, and their popularity reflects this. In 1st and 2nd Edition, they were subject to the dark versions of many of the Solar powers.
For 3rd Edition, they’re all about rape.
There was a preview PDF that was released early on in the Kickstarter as an example of where they were planning on going with the later books. For the Abyssal Exalts, there was an entire page devoted to the charms that they could access which allowed them to rape weaker characters, turn them into slaves, rape them to death and use the power they had derived from the rape to fuel their own further schemes.
Needless to say, this PDF got pulled pretty quickly and is now ridiculously hard to find on the internet.
There was a lot of blowback from this. The article on Something Awful (which I linked to last time) went over the high points of the preview, but there was even more in the way of objectionable content that was left out. The writers had offered basic (and poorly conceived) apologies about the tone of the writing, but in the end, they largely shrugged and went back to doing what they were already planning on doing. The diehard fans felt that apologies weren’t really needed, and the casual fans that thought it was actually pretty horrible mainly forgot about it or were shouted down on the forums.
And here’s the thing: For the most part, I didn’t care a lot either way about this new rape aspect of the game. There were already some questionable bits to Exalted that I thought were in poor taste. Having fairly explicitly detailed new powers that served little purpose other than rape? Yeah, that’s weird and juvenile, but it’s not like I thought the Infernals sourcebook wasn’t equally bad.
What killed it for me was the general arrogance that surrounded the project. The rapey bits were stupid, but I have already left a lot of things like that out of my games. It’s the smug outlook that the new writers persisted with that all but killed my support for the product. The gist was that they were making a new product to fix all of the bad ideas that 2nd Edition had.
Okay, I’m listening. I know that there are a lot of bad and unplayable parts of Exalted. Take, for example, the whole powerset of the Sidereals. Sure, they’re fine for NPC’s that don’t need to survive outside of the GM’s spiral bound notebook, but they’re not terribly interesting and playable. And seriously, Social Combat needs an overhaul. So do the rules for Mass Combat. We tried them, and they were neither fun nor easy to use. There’s also the rules for the political machinations between regions and nations; those could use some work, since it was a neat idea that never really managed to pull off. Some of the different charms need balancing, martial arts needs a couple of revisions, and let’s trim back the bullshit like Infernals and the sixth Alchemical type. None of these things make sense.
Nope. First off, they’re taking apart combat, which was one of the high points of the edition. Combat in Exalted 2nd was one of the slickest systems I’ve ever seen, as it worked on a timed initiative. Different actions took more or less time than others, so the actual speed of using a given weapon type actually mattered. From what I have been very sternly lectured about, this was too complicated and boring. (From what I’ve been able to tell, the boring parts come from the seriously twinked out munchkin builds battling each other. All the years I’ve been running Exalted, there’s never been an issue, but other people play seriously different games.)
And from every indication, none of the other issues that I ran into in any of my games are being touched. Instead, they seem to be focusing on inserting their own weird ideas into the setting, none of which have any bearing. One of the theories involves all sorts of new Exalt types, including a variant based on the NWoD game, Promethean. This new Exalt is your basic Frankenstein’s Monster, for some damned reason, and there’s plans to toss in as many more as they can come up with. To borrow and paraphrase from The Incredibles, once everyone’s Exalted, that means no one is Exalted.
All of this is to fix a product that they have repeatedly claimed is bad, broken and unplayable. The general mindset is that 2nd Edition Exalted, the one game line that actually outsold their World of Darkness and Aeon/Trinity lines, is just an awful game and there’s no way they could revise out all the things wrong with it. It’s better to burn it down, salt the earth and build anew.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a hard time being all that enthused about being told that something that I love is objectively bad and implying that I’m an idiot for liking it in the first place. Especially when it comes from a guy that doesn’t really understand design philosophy and is a little too interested in raping children. And writing all new systems that allow for more rape.