Category Archives: Review
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.
I’d been planning on addressing some further issues about the release of Exalted 3rd Edition, such as it is. It would appear that Ironbombs shares many of my numerous and multifarious dislikes about the direction that Onyx Path took with the game, and this lit something of a fire underneath my currently simmering discontent.
White Wolf (and their current incarnation as Onyx Path) is an interesting case study in the contrast between seemingly solid products and utter failure in delivery. Their Kickstarter record alone paints a fairly awful picture of their actual reliability, and this is their main method of raising a dead company from the ashes of weird corporate shuffling.
Their very first Kickstarter was the V20 Companion, a follow-up to the massive 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this ranks as one of the worst products the company has ever produced in their otherwise agreeable history. Luckily, it wasn’t a product that I bought into (I had been unaware of it, for whatever reason, seeing as I had lain hands on the V20 book itself), as it was a wildly overpriced and largely unusable product whose only interesting aspect was apparently the appendix that talked about all the interesting stuff that they hadn’t actually put into the book.
From there, they’ve made a regular practice of putting out new books exclusively through Kickstarter, following up later with POD versions through DriveThru.
There’s an entire subordinate discussion about the reality of POD-only books that I may or may not have already chewed apart, but the gist of my disdain* is this: Without a market that caters to the hobby and gaming stores, these books are kept out of the hands of new customers. Only the people that are already familiar with these games are going to buy them, and there’s an entire generation of gamers that is cut off from access to these products. Even if they are introduced by some older veteran, their ability to purchase is limited to precisely one outlet, without any ability to find deals or discounts. In a small and struggling industry, this is allowing the companies to only produce what they specifically have already sold even as they eliminate the warehousing aspect, but it eliminates many of the avenues of growth from the companies.
Anyway, Onyx Path has gained a deserved reputation for failing to meet deadlines on their products with an alarming regularity. Before the boondoggle that was Ex3, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf that took eighteen months to fulfill, despite being wholly written at the time of the Kickstarter (and hilariously promising delivery within a month of the Kickstarter’s end). Similarly, the Hunters Hunted II book took fifteen months to see delivery (again, fully written at the time of the campaign and arriving a full year after the promised deadline), which was a better turnaround, but still… They were getting better about this by the time the W20 Changing Breeds book came around, in that it only took a year to deliver (still promising delivery about nine months before they were able to), but a pattern had been set by this point.
Onyx Path, as a company, is a weird successor to the highly regarded White Wolf games company that built a solid niche in the 90’s era. The company was sold off to CCP, the Icelandic video game company responsible for the space spreadsheet MMO, Eve Online. The idea, at the time, had been to vaguely merge the companies for the sake of developing a new MassMOG based on the Vampire property. This product barely got past the ‘proof-of-concept’ stage of things before being ash-canned, and the fine print of the corporate hierarchy left the RPG licenses in the hands of a company that apparently had little interest in actually continuing the table top RPG lines. (Go figure. It’s a small, niche industry with narrow profit margins, especially compared to the weird financial juggernaut that is Eve Online.)
The result is that Onyx Path is licensing their products from CCP, with whatever fees that might entail. In that way, it makes a certain sense that they are operating the way they are.
The reality is that they are a ragtag group of freelancers that are loosely tied to a central structure. There are, perhaps, a half-dozen actual staffers that make up the company, and the rest of the writers are contract monkeys who turn in a manuscript and walk away. And in essence, this loose structure is what is masquerading as an actual game company these days. The sheer, obvious incompetence is hilarious in its audacity. Because they are coasting on the reputation of a larger, better company (the White Wolf of the past), they are able to pretend that they are tapping into the same sort of permanent staff and accumulated expertise. The truth of the situation is wildly different. And no product better illustrates the level of incompetence nearly so well as Third Edition Exalted, or Ex3.
1.) Let’s start off with the unfortunate art choices. Exalted has always been a game of evocative art, erring on the side of anime sensibilities. Most of Second Edition’s feel was established by artists like Melissa Uran and the UDON Studio. Some covers (for better or worse) contracted out to well-established and highly regarded artists like Adam Warren (of Dirty Pair and Empowered fame) and Kim Hyung-Tae (who did the character designs for Magna Carta, the PS2 game). (Odd note: Before they outsourced to Kim Hyung-Tae, I had picked up a Magna Carta art book as my handy reference guide for new players to show them how I saw Exalted. It was actually sort of nice to be validated, even if his particular cover illustration was in questionable taste.) It was colorful, high action, and gave a taste of how awesome the game could be.
In contrast, Ex3 has already hit a wall with their art, being as it looks like it hit the high points of a DeviantArt search. There are some arguably good pieces (such as the homage to the Kowloon Walled City illustration of Wu Jian), but there are plenty of awful Poser illustrations to offset the good stuff. One egregious example of poor choices incorporates a recycled image of the Scarlet Empress from a previous book, with a half-assed PhotoShop attempt that makes Creation’s Greatest Enemy look vaguely pregnant. There’s even a weird depiction of one of the better established Sidereal antagonists looking like the head of Onyx Path and stealing a half dozen pieces of art from other sources. (This one has already been stricken from the eventual book, even as the near-plagiarized images are allowed to remain.) And none of this is to get into the truly bizarre and obnoxious piece that one forum termed “Banana Hammock Exhibitionist Display!” (I feel that description speaks for itself.)
There’s also the issue that the weapons section of the book looks like some trashy late-90’s videogame render. These entries are supposed to represent the panoply of Exalted power that a player character brings to bear upon their opponent. Instead, it looks like these images were edited off someone’s Geocities page, just above the 3d spinning envelope that represents the email link. In comparison, Second Edition looked like it was modeled on a Prima Guidebook for a videogame. It worked. This, in comparison, looks like canned ass.
I don’t think it needs to be re-stated that this is a game that raised $700K for development and artwork. The head of the project is the former Art Director for White Wolf. There is literally no excuse for this book to look this bad, especially when much smaller companies with far less of a potential art budget are able to produce better and more stylistically appropriate art for their games. (Seriously, do a Google Search for Enascentia. It’s an Italian game for Savage Worlds that follows similar design principles, being a high fantasy RPG with anime influences. It raised a little over 1% of the money that Ex3 raised, and it is doing a better job of looking like Exalted than Exalted is doing these days.)
2.) The backer PDF is being treated like a Beta.
Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment. Let it reach the back of your tongue and soft palate. This is a game that was “The Most Playtested Game Ever” when it was being pitched to a skeptical public. This is a game that ostensibly took some 30 months for development and layout. (The truth is, for whatever reason, the actual layout process was done last, rather than being developed in parallel. You know, like a professional company might try to do?) This is a game that was supposed to revitalize the industry and the company and excite all of the former skeptics and naysayers in the ranks.
And yet, the most recent updates on the Kickstarter are trying to “encourage all backers […] to send notes on any technical mistakes you might find” to the company to fix the errors that still remain in the book. Yes, this is a game that charged over $100 to anyone who wanted a physical book, took two and a half years to get to this point, and now wants its backers to work for free to fix the errors that still remain in the text.
Keep in mind: This text is the same text that was leaked by a playtester back sometime around late February of 2015, meaning that, in the intervening eight months, this is all the better job they can do of editing this mess. By all accounts, the minor tweaks that have been done to the text are negligible, and the whiny “damage control” that a couple of the writers engaged in (noting that the release of an unfinished game would diminish the impact of the final product) was nothing more than an exercise in casting themselves as martyrs.
3.) The backer PDF is weirdly pre-final.
I would suppose this is a nitpick, but I’ll stand by it. For backers, this is the first chance that they have to read through the book, gather ideas and set about working up their first stab at a newly christened Ex3 game. By rights, this should be a real product. Even setting aside the final editing pass that it needs, this PDF lacks a number of necessary tweaks to be final. For one thing, it lacks a bookmark system, which would allow users to quickly move from section to section. Logically, this would have the different chapters, as well as specific sub-headings dealt with (I’m thinking of the bloated Charm section, specifically; given that this is over 200 pages alone, it’s hell to try to find a charm set without a lot of paging and searching).
The official response (apparently) is that this will be added in later, since it would otherwise be too much work. In response, one backer took about three hours and linked a full bookmark index into their PDF, posting it on the web for other users.
So, yeah. Two and a half years to put together a semi-final version. At least eight months with this text. And nowhere in this time period could anyone spare three damned hours to make this product accessible to the people that had already put their money down on it?
In the mean time, there’s an extra page thrown in after Chapter 5 which throws off the two-page layout. This borks it for anyone wanting to use two-page view on their PDF viewer, which again makes it difficult to use for a game, especially if you’re reading it off a decent tablet.
4.) Twenty-one pages of Backer Names.
All right, so I get it. People want to be credited for their participation. I can’t blame them for including this information in the book, as it offers a Kilroy bonus to the people who pledged and want to be recognized. I mean, hey. I’m in there, and everyone who bought this book has my stamp on their copy, however small. (Stupidly, they managed to miscredit most of the backers of the book. I am amongst the vast multitude who pledged for a physical book yet get credited for pledging for a PDF. The difference of cash outlaid is about three to one.)
My problem stems from the base idiocy of having to splay this information across four damned columns. I guess I should be glad they didn’t use 12-point font, but in comparison, the KS version of Ryuutama displayed their backers in a single column, small type, and only took six pages to do it. And this is in a 6×9 book, rather than tome that Ex3 will arrive as. They could have cut the “end credits” section of this book by half, minimum, allowing more space for additional content. Or as a counterargument, this could have been one of many attempts to bring down the rather sizable bloat that this game ended up with.
5.) Charms. The fucking Charms, man.
Along with being “The Most Playtested Game Ever,” this edition was supposed to fix the problems of the Second Edition game.
I will say this again. This was a massive warning klaxon for me, the Cloister Bell of how bad things were going to get. (And you, right there? The guy that got that reference? Nerd.) I knew that, as soon as anyone came out trashing a wildly popular game as being awful, unplayable and the only people qualified to fix it were the ones hawking a new edition. It didn’t help that one of the largest problems that was pointed out was Combat, which our collective group had managed to figure out and houserule enough to make it fast and easily dealt.
Another distinct problem was the Charms.
I’m not a banner waving champion of First Edition Exalted, as many of my peers tend to be. I liked it well enough, but I never had any proper chance to play it to the same extent that I played Second Edition. I spent more time with Second Edition, I had a great time playing it, and I will defend it on those merits. That said, I understand completely many of the arguments against Second Edition from those that had been long time players. The crux of many arguments came down to the Charm bloat that came with the revisions.
Rather than offer broad, customizable Charms that would offer a range of options and outcomes for the Second Edition version of the rules, the decision was made to try to account for every single possible outcome and nuance. This meant that the number of charms skyrocketed, and the Charm Trees (essentially the flowcharts that allowed a player to make sense of their advancement options) grew huge and weird. A given ability might have a dozen Charms associated with it, depending on what sort of flavor you wanted to attempt. Not only was this a headache for players trying to make sense of where they needed to end up for their vision of their character, it was made things immeasurably more difficult for GM’s to cope with. Not only did they have to keep some idea of what the player characters were capable of, they had to build workable and challenging NPC’s for their campaigns.
Given that each book had a set of new and distinct Charm Trees to properly model specific powers of the given Exalt type, a game of mixed types might have the GM tracking literal hundreds of Charms at any given time. (For the maths portion of our lesson, let’s consider: There are 25 separate Skills. Each Skill has something like ten to fifteen separate charms, not counting Excellencies. Some range closer to twenty. Therefore, in a given Exalt type, there may be upwards of 300 Charms. There are, as of the final books of Second Edition, seven discrete Exalt types. This is not to mention Martial Arts Charms, which are multitudinous.)
Logically, one of the core goals of making a game more playable would be to address this particular issue, ne?
That, my child, is where you would be dead wrong. Not only does Ex3 do nothing to deal with the issue of Charm bloat, it makes it far worse. Looking through my copy, the Charm Section starts on page 250 and runs through page 423. Further, the Martial Arts section (along with Sorcery, which might as well count) runs from there to page 491. This is nigh on 250 pages of Charms, which is only made worse by another fascinating design choice, which I will cover in my next bullet point.
In glancing through the book again, as I write this, I realize that they couldn’t even manage to make the Table of Contents right. There are errors abound in this section, which would seem like five minutes work for anyone with two screens and a modicum of ability. Seriously, how hard is it to get page numbers right?
6.) There are no Charm Trees.
Yeah. This is one that’s getting under people’s skin already. For better or worse, Exalted has always required Charm Trees to navigate the intricacies of advancing a character’s special abilities and powers. It’s one of the notable features of the game, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite fond of it. I feel that it says something that Fantasy Flight Games has adopted a similar model to their character advancement in their various Star Wars lines. It’s quick, visual and allows the players to easily reference what their options are as they go along.
According to Richard Thomas, the head of Onyx Path, the game developers made the decision to “streamline the Charms to no longer need Charm Trees” and hence, there would be no option to add them to the book as it stands. (This is a direct quote on the Kickstarter update page.) It’s really hard to come up with a response to this that doesn’t range into absolute profanity.
Condescension is one thing. This is a clear case of pissing down my back and telling me that it’s raining.
The reason that Charm Trees aren’t included in this book is because they would be impossible to create with any logic or coherency. Given the snail’s pace of development, the incompetence of the layout and markup, and the rank idiocy of the editorial staff, simply trying to make sense of the Charm Trees would have delayed the book another year. I’ve seen attempts at the Charm Trees on the forums, and they are awful, mainly because the source material is incoherent and nonsensical.
It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Richard Thomas blithely offers as a reason. The Charms were not streamlined. They were made worse, by an order of magnitude. By way of example, the Archery Charm Tree from the 2nd Edition main book had some 13 Charms, not counting associated Excellencies. Another four were added in the First Age boxed set. In Ex3, we’re already looking at 26 distinct Archery Charms. And this isn’t to get into the new pseudo-charms (Evocations) that you can acquire for your legendary weapons. (I will admit, this is a neat, new mechanic where every artifact has the potential to get its own Charm set. It would be actually worth implementing if they hadn’t gone stupid with the base Charms.)
Another example, picked somewhat at random. In 2nd Edition, the skill Performance had five Charms. Another five were added in the First Age set, and Abyssals offered two more. So, twelve in total. In comparison, Ex3 goes absolutely stupid with things. They put forth 36 gods-damned Charms for Performance, dividing them into Music, Dance, Acting, Oratory and … Sex.
Yeah. Sex. The edition of the game that was first brought to people’s attention with their Rape Charms has decided that they needed to throw this particular twist into the game. Apparently this is an attempt to drive home that Exalted is a “mature” game for discerning individuals. Or some shit.
There are some vaguely hilarious subtexts to this, which only make the idea even more stupid. For example, a Solar getting his groove on can invoke the Masterful Performance Exercise as part of his “performance,” allowing him to re-roll and eliminate all results of “1” in the process. Combined with another Sex Charm, this makes their Social Influence (on the specific target, naturally) ridiculously effective. This almost begs for a late night infomercial.
Another Sex Charm offers up this particular gem: “This intense lovemaking lasts at least three minutes […]” Whoa there, big guy. Let’s not get crazy here.
Solar Exalts, the Three Pump Chumps of the gaming world.
The worst part is that these complaints are just the start of things. I’ve glanced at different sections and read through parts, trying to find improvement, yet all I’m faced with is continuing disappointment. I’d gone into the entire endeavor with a guarded skepticism, hoping that I would be proven wrong along the way. Instead, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and the growing dread that my fallback plan – scavenge the text for useful nuggets to convert back to Second Edition – was going to fall flat.
I wanted to like this book. I did. But three years of anticipation (the Kickstarter was announced well before it actually launched, at least six months in advance; there used to be a calendar on the Onyx Path site that outlined their unlikely and overblown plans for future products) have have not been bourne out to any satisfactory extent. Instead, each new update has hardened my basic cynicism toward the game, and every snotty and self-important post by the line developers has shown that this was handed to the exact wrong people.
There had been a point where I had been tempted to build out a PDF to detail the epic Exalted campaign I ran back in the day. I had wanted to share this vision with a community and offer something back to a group I had assumed would be a like-minded collective. Instead, I realize that the fanbase of the game, such as it is, is heavily populated by tiresome fanboys who crow about the things in the game I find awful, and the reigns of control of this property have been handed to the loudest of these idiots.
Instead, I made a point of not detailing our campaign. It has become a legend within our small and closeknit group, a private experience that can be shared with other people while still being kept out of the public eye.
If this is the shape of Exalted these days, I shudder to think what the gibbering masses would do with it anyway.
*Mind you, The Gist of My Disdain also happens to be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.
True story: In college, I bought a backpack for the purposes of carrying my books to class, and the brand name was (and I bull you no shit) Boondoggle. It even had a little subtitle on the logo of “Look it up.” It’s around here somewhere, buried in some dusty and forgotten reliquary, awaiting rediscovery and attendant confusion.
Boondoggle is generally defined as such: (noun) 1. work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value, (verb) 1. the act of wasting money on unnecessary or questionable projects. This is your educational moment for the day. Soak it in.
With that out of the way, I recently got the link for the Exalted 3rd Edition rulebook in my email.
For those of you playing at home, this was a Kickstarter that was put together in May of 2013 (making this almost exactly two and a half years from launch to finally seeing a product) and promised delivery of the physical books in October of 2013 (which puts us exactly two years behind schedule for that). White Wolf’s ephemeral successor, Onyx Path, is known for being hilariously bad with their deadlines, but this one is the worst by far. Most of their Kickstarter projects are pitched with the idea that most of the text is already in hand (many of them even offer doc files to the backers, if they’re so inclined to peruse the extant rules and setting), and the implication was that Ex3 was in a similar state of readiness.
Literally, this was the game that was supposed to fix all of the problems that were inherent in the game’s Second Edition rules by throwing out most of the contentious aspects and replacing them with entirely new, untested mechanics – all while claiming that this game was the “most playtested game” they had ever done.
Now, I grant… I seem to be in the minority amongst internet commentators, in that I actually quite liked Second Edition. As noted elsewhere, I’ve put some time into this game. I ran one specific campaign for over 1,000 hours, and that was hardly the only foray that our group had made into the game, with multiple GM’s and nigh on a dozen linked campaigns of varying length to add to the total. The only thing that our collective ever found unplayable were the Sidereals, and even then, we might have been able to make a go of it with some serious tweaks. People point to the combat system as being largely incomprehensible, but my experience with has been that minor revision and clearer examples would have done the game a world of good. Once we were able to make sense of it, we were able to run fast and loose combat without any actual problem.
In contrast, the new combat system has the characters scuffling about using a system of Withering attacks while they try to optimize their Initiative value for a Decisive attack. There was a lot of noise in Second Edition about “mote attrition” and the like (boiling down, essentially, to whether or not you could exhaust your opponent enough to land an attack), and this was the odd choice to replace it. I can’t see how this is particularly better, being as it’s far more abstracted (making it a lot harder to convincingly Stunt an attack, when it’s just another attempted feint) and concerns itself a lot more with numbers rather than style.
The idea behind a Withering attack is that the character harries his opponent and wears him down (see above: “Mote attrition”) until such point as there is a weak point in their defense. This is calculated with the bewildering Initiative terminology. A successful Withering attack adds one point to your Initiative, plus whatever would have been taken as Damage after Soak. Okay, fine. Then your opponent gets to do the same damned thing. Each attack subtracts from the opponent’s Initiative, until such point as someone chooses to make a Decisive attack and try to end it all. Granted, I haven’t tried to dice this out, but it seems like this is a process that’s going to go back and forth endlessly, with some variance based on who gets to go first or who gets a lucky roll. This is nothing like the previous system (making comparisons into “apples vs. oranges” arguments), and I don’t see any logic as to why this inane tracking of Initiative is better than the fluidity of the much maligned “Tick” system from the previous edition. (Also, not a big fan of the “I hit you good, so I go first next round” mechanic. Just sayin’…)
There’s also a weird disconnect that is noted in the very rules themselves. This abstraction between Withering and Decisive attacks does not exist within the context of the game world itself. The designers specifically note that the characters would view all attacks as being “made in deadly earnest.” In a literal sense, the player is making a choice for the character to miss, even as the character is trying his damnedest to hit, because missing is more numerically useful. There’s something about this whole idea that rubs me the wrong way, especially in a game that should otherwise be “cinematic” in its action sequences.
And yet, this was supposed to be the great and powerful solution to a system deemed broken. I’m not seeing it, but I’m intending to give everything a closer read-through as time goes on. I can’t see this being something I embrace, necessarily.
So, to sidetrack for a moment.
When 4e D&D came out, there was an interesting thing in the character creation section that defined a lot of what I thought about the game initially. Here was an edition of the RPG mainstay, which was supposed to follow up on the overwhelming success of D&D 3.5, and the races section not only started out with an obvious sop to the middle school kids coming off World of Warcraft (Dragonborn) but emphasized this aspect with “Play a dragonborn if you want … to look like a dragon.”
I’ve seen commentary elsewhere that calls this entire methodology into question. In the past, elementary and middle school kids picked up D&D manuals and puzzled them out over long weekends (or in the case of 1st Edition, were forced to rely on in-text glossaries to make sense of things), learning a lot about medieval society and weaponry as they went along. There was no hand-holding in these earlier editions, and the learning curve could be extremely steep without a larger group to learn the ropes with. But when things finally fell into place, there was a definite sense of real accomplishment.
With that in mind, choosing to play a given race so you can “look like a dragon” is some lowest common denominator stuff. This is a game company trying to appeal to a demographic that would not have been able to clear the original thresholds to play in earlier editions. I get it, you want to sell to as wide an audience as possible, but the eventual failure of 4e speaks to how well this particular strategy ended up playing out.
That said, would you like to guess how the overview of Exalted types in Ex3 reads? Seriously.
“Play a Solar Exalted if you want … to be a reborn hero of legend, forging a new destiny.”
Here is a game that literally will never be sold in stores. This book that will be available only through DriveThru for over $100 (probably closer to $150, given that any sane buyer will need to get the Premium upgrade to have it be worth a damn), which makes it appealing only to the diehard fanboys that have already put out close to $700K to bring it to market in the first place. By all accounts, the only people that are going to own this game are the ones that have already bought it.
So, why in six hells are they writing it to appeal to the uninitiated? Who thought this was necessary?
These are the sorts of questions that plague me. This game was written as a solution looking for a problem, and it’s already taken some thirty months to see anything of substance. There was supposed to be a certain amount of transparency to the process, and the company is trying its damnedest to quash any negative feedback they receive (do a Google search for “exalted rape charms” to get an idea of how this has gone) or play it off as insignificant. Since the release of the PDF, there’s been a telling amount of backlash against the artwork and layout (there’s a fair chunk of text, several pages worth, that’s hidden underneath the artwork), and from the look of things, only the things they would get sued over will be actually dealt with. The particularly awful Poser art seems locked in place.
There’s far more to deal with than I have actual time for at the moment, but suffice to say, the wait has not been worth it.
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.
It’s funny, the last entry had me struggling to find some logical criterion on which to hang a specific choice, while this one just runs down to which company I like the best of my vast and unnumbered collection. Coming up with a clear best in this category is a lot easier, but I feel like I’m much more inclined to make a Top Ten list of which game publishers I’d jump to.
Favorite RPG Publisher
This is one of those topics that seems prone to changing as my tastes and groups change. Perhaps the best way to give consideration to the ideas is to follow a basic chronology. Back in the early days, I was partial to TSR (back when it was TSR, which also meant that the field was notably narrower in comparison), but that has as much to do with my own limited tastes as anything else. I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons back in late elementary school, and I became a bit of a fanatic for a number of years. (As elementary school children will tend to be. It was one of those experiences that blew open the doors of my perception, to reference William Blake and Jim Morrison.)
This was followed up with TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes game, which introduced a lot of fascinating and weirdly groundbreaking ideas to the mix. It was a huge departure from the way that D&D played, which was enough to keep our young group on track to both hold its parent company in high regard and develop our nascent skills as gamers.
From there, we discovered West End Games and their D6 Star Wars RPG. This carried us for several years of determined play, during which TSR was solidly displaced as my favorite company. There was a brief return to the wiles of TSR with my discovery of Ravenloft, but that was brief and subsequently Torg surfaced on my radar of interest, keeping WEG firmly in place as my favored publisher. When the company flamed out due to shoe company finances (seriously), they lost prominence for me utterly. (Not being a viable company will do that for you.)
From there, I followed the trail of WEG alumni to their various new companies, ending up with Shane Hensley’s Pinnacle Entertainment Group when they published Deadlands in its original form. I was a particular fan of this system and worldset, despite the fact that Westerns as an RPG genre were something of a hard sell. (If you consider that the only other one, up to this point, had been Boot Hill, you can see how little impact they’ve had. Even now, there’s only really been Aces & Eights, and most of the limited popularity of that comes from the fact that it’s Kenzer putting it out.)
Pinnacle fell out of favor with me when they decided to make a full switch to the Savage Worlds system, which I have learned to loathe (even as I tried my damnedest to accept and run with).
When I was living abroad, I latched onto White Wolf, mainly for their Exalted line. I had picked up various World of Darkness games over the years, as much due to the tastes of my larger gaming group, but they had never made a great deal of impact on my tastes. This changed with Exalted, which I connected to on some visceral level and allowed me to put some of my classical lit studies to use. I followed this up with a lengthy Werewolf: The Apocalypse campaign, which simply served to cement WW as a favored company for that much longer.
In shuffling through these different games and companies, I’m struck by the understanding that my shift in loyalty has less to do with changing tastes and more to do with the way the companies themselves change over the course of their corporate decisions. TSR fell out of favor as much because the company was driven into the ground as anything else. Had they not melted down internally, they might have been able to keep my interest for longer. West End was huge for me, but similarly their failure as a company was what had them fall out of favor completely for me. Pinnacle continues to exist (mostly; there’s some sort of corporate shift with how they do business with Studio 2, but that’s nothing I’ve looked too closely at), but it was their decision to kill the Classic Deadlands line in favor of Savage Worlds that caused my eventual migration away. The destruction of White Wolf at the hands of the Icelandic MMO company, CCP, was what propelled them into their current iteration as Onyx Path. (And the less said here about that whole bit, the better.)
The destruction of the D&D 3.5 brand brought me to Paizo, which deserves mention. I like the guys at Paizo, I own a lot of Pathfinder, and I’ve played it consistently over the years. That said, Pathfinder holds a place as the faithful mainstay, rather than the flashy obsession.
There are a couple of companies that deserve credit for consistent quality and longevity, namely R. Talsorian and Alderac, but the sad truth is that they never quite became “favorite” companies for me. I own a lot of Cyberpunk and Mekton, but neither game ended up being anything that I consistently ran or played. I have every edition of Legend of the Five Rings, but the truth is, I’ve only ever been in one campaign of that, and it sort of petered out in the course of a year.
These days, my favor seems to lie with Fantasy Flight Games, as much because of their Star Wars license as any other reason. I’ve fallen deeply in love with Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny, for all their ambition and rediscovery of a well-established property. I’ve also invested rather deeply in an X-Wing Miniatures collection, which is a money sink of the worst order. Given time, I might also have put together a Warhammer Fantasy collection, but that ship seems to have sailed. We’ll see how long I can persist with this obsession, given the relatively unstable nature of my playing group at present and the questions of finance.
Given time, I might eventually shift my loyalties toward Cubicle 7, but that will remain to be seen. I’m a huge fan of the detail they’ve put into Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space and the Lone Wolf Adventure Game, as well as the translation of Kuro and One Ring (which I believe was originally in Spanish), but none of these games have yet seen play for me. They have amazing production values and dedication to their various properties, so this might just be a matter of time.
Also of note are Kotodama Heavy Industries, for their efforts in translating Tenra Bansho Zero and Ryuutama, Agate and Studio 2 for bringing Shadows of Esteren to the States, and Green Ronin for general excellence. I haven’t spent enough time with any of their products to inspire proper obsession (what I hinge my favoritism on), but they hold a particular place in my collection.
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.
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.
So, anyone who’s paying particularly close attention (I know who you are, all … three (?) of you) will have noted that I am slamming through these #RPGaDay2015 entries in fairly fast succession. The day’s not over yet, and here I am, working on the third entry.
It’s not a huge mystery. I really hate being late about this, and what with Gen Con and not really paying attention, I’m nigh on a week behind. I mean, it might be fine with Ironbombs to be a couple of days late, but here in the Library … something. Either that, or I’m so sick of Ironbombs snagging all of the good games away from me that I’m not going to play catch-up any longer. (The truth being, with this blog close to a year behind on keeping a real schedule, I’m just glad to have some measure of inspiration at all. And this is enough to keep me in front of the keyboard for a couple of minutes, all things being equal.)
This one is a weird one, for me at least. I tend to buy so many games that there isn’t a lot of new stuff that goes into the Library. More often than not, I tend to buy games to patch holes in my collection, which doesn’t really feel new so much as it feels like an addition to what has previously been established. That said, I think I can make a good claim.
Favorite New Game (within the last 12 months)
My current favorite game happens to be one that I don’t yet own, technically. And it’s only been released about a week back.
This honor goes to Fantasy Flight Games’ Force and Destiny RPG, which I have been playing since the Beta ruleset was released a year ago at Gen Con. Right or wrong, I find Fantasy Flight’s strategy of putting out a hard copy of semi-finished rules to be a fascinating idea. Paizo does similar with their playtest versions of upcoming character classes (most recently, the Occult Adventures collection, their own version of Psionics), but there’s an attendant murmur within the fan community of whether or not these actually serve as a bed for playtesting Beta rules or not. FFG does put out incremental updates to specific rules and sich in their Beta versions, so I think there is a fair amount of feedback within the forums. For whatever that is worth.
For my own part, I enjoy the early access to the material for my own sake. I haven’t been active on the forums to see what the moods within the community are, nor have I spent much time trying to suss out what changes are needed to make this game into something other than what I familiarized myself with after the last Gen Con. Really, all I did was get a handle on the specifics that were introduced for the broader Jedi campaign and ran with it. If there was something that seemed out of place or egregiously overpowered, I checked against the forums as needed or did my own edits as I went along. I know Star Wars well enough that I didn’t need to reference too much beyond Wookieepedia, and these rules are pretty conducive to kit-bashing as the need arises.
There are a couple of serious contenders to being my new favorite game, and they deserve some mention herein.
First up against the wall would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy, but this doesn’t really rate as being new, so much as it’s new to me. I picked the entire line up during an online fire sale, where everything was marked down to a mere fraction of what it originally retailed for. I get the idea that Fantasy Flight is burning all of their extraneous merch lines, of which this one would have been more expensive than its profit margins would have allowed for. And I can’t blame them for this, since it’s a weird niche product anyway — an English translation of a Spanish game that tries its best to emulate Japanese fantasy. And it’s pretty crunchy, as well, with an ostensibly percentile based system that goes off the rails almost as soon as complexity and variant power levels are given text. I’m a huge, huge fan of the detail that I’ve seen in the game, but it’s going to require some serious devotion to crack the code enough to play the damned game. And let’s not think of how much work it’s going to take to allow me to run it for a new group, let alone explain the rules quickly and simply.
Next, there’s the Cthulhu assortment. Again, I managed to find an internet fire sale, reducing all of these titles to an much more manageable price point. I bought all of these on the same shipment, which means that I’ve only skimmed some occasioned bits of text of each, but it gives me some fascinating insight as to which ones I’m more likely to run at a given point.
Working roughly backwards, we start with The Laundry, based on the book series by Charles Stross. I have yet to read through these, but they come highly recommended by one of my regular gaming group. The plot concerns an underfunded section of British Intelligence that deals with Mythos threats. On the surface, this puts it as being a version of Delta Green, with parts of Necroscope and Night Watch, only with more bureaucracy and a slightly tongue-in-cheek outlook on things. It’s a neat game, from what I’ve looked through thus far, but it suffers from being a standalone game, rather than a Call of Cthulhu supplement. As such, there are rules from the Cthulhu main book included to allow the game to run without referencing anything else.
Then comes Achtung! Cthulhu, which casts the Cthulhu Mythos against a more or less Pulp version of World War II. Easily the prettiest game line of the three within my Cthulhu assortment, this game suffers not from being a standalone, but from trying to dual-stat the damned things. I hated it when games in the Deadlands line did this, and it’s not any better here. A good portion of my discontent hinges on the fact that I rabidly dislike Savage Worlds, so having to share space on the page with that game means that there’s wasted space in the book for my purposes.
And finally, there’s Cubicle 7’s take on the same material as Achtung! Cthulhu, in the form of World War Cthulhu. This is good, good stuff, but where Achtung! would have you mix and match whatever interesting pulp ideas come to mind, this is treated a lot more drily.
The big difference between these two games comes in how the war itself is given treatment beside the in-universe truth of the Mythos. For Achtung!, there’s no problem coming up with some convoluted plot involving the Thule Gesellschaft and Nyarlathotep. If it sounds entertaining, throw that shit in! In comparison, World War Cthulhu goes to great lengths to note that it was actual, human evil that bombed London and set up Auschwitz and Dachau, so involving the Cthulhu Mythos cheapens what they consider the true horror of the setting. If Himmler was corrupted by whispers from Azathoth, that offers him a ready excuse for his actions. Instead, the game goes in the direction of setting the two horrors beside each other, forcing a balancing act between a pair of different (yet no less abhorrent) evils.
I can’t say which of these games ranks higher in my estimation, but I have the feeling I would be more likely to run Achtung! on a regular basis. I’d certainly use elements of WWC, but it comes across as being much more grim and scarring.
So, yeah. Those are my runners-up for Favorite New Game. I’m sure, had I read through them and run them after I’d gotten them, they may have displaced Star Wars, but right now, my priorities lie with the bird in the hand.
I learned something new this last week. (Okay, I learned several things, but for the purposes here…) Apparently, one of my game designer friends was first introduced to role-playing through an Adventure Game Book his mother bought for him at the age of seven. This caught me off guard simply because, over all the years I’ve known this particular designer, I’d never heard anything about this. It’s an interesting coincidence, as I have collected several of the same series and used them to introduce non-gamers to the hobby.
Adventure Game Books were an interesting facet of the mid-80’s, starting off with the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the period, which were then adapted by TSR with the Endless Quest books, using elements of their own properties, but keeping to the formula of the CYOA series. There were also the Fighting Fantasy books, by Steve Jackson (the UK guy) and Ian Livingstone (both of whom are better known for founding Games Workshop) and the Hero’s Challenge series, written by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille. The latter two were more clearly influenced by the RPG hobby industry, requiring more of a formalized character sheet and occasional dice rolls. For most people, the Fighting Fantasy and Hero’s Challenge books are strange ephemera of the early days of the industry, probably best left forgotten. (Until looking it up, I had only the barest recollection of Hero’s Challenge, and I couldn’t have come up with the protagonist’s name for the life of me. This is despite having read through at least half of the series. It’s Sagard, by the way. Not that anyone was particularly interested.)
As far as I can tell, many of the properties faded out by the end of the 90’s, likely replaced by computer games of similar ilk. If nothing else, this obviated the ability to skip ahead to see which choice in the forked path would get you instantly killed. (Looking back, these books were intriguingly deadly, with roughly half of the choices in the book seeming to end in immediate murder due to faulty logic or particularly well-informed antagonists.)
For their part, many of these novel/RPG hybrids were passable, but I can’t say that they were fantastic. I always felt that Endless Quest books were much better than Choose Your Own Adventure, but for the most part, there was nothing terribly inspiring in the more RPG-driven entries in the field.
Well, with one exception.
The series in question is the Lone Wolf series, by the British author, Joe Dever. I found a copy of the third book in the series in a bookshop when I was in middle school, and I was fascinated. There was something particularly weird in its sensibilities, a sort of … Britishness … that filtered through the text and the baroque artwork. It wouldn’t be until years later that I found odd echoes in Games Workshop products. And I’ll be damned if I can adequately describe how it was different. It just felt foreign, for whatever reason.
The idea behind the Lone Wolf series was that the novels’ protagonist was the last of the Kai Monks, an order of mystic warriors whose order was devoted to protecting the vaguely idyllic land of Sommerlund. (I find it interesting, as I’m composing this, how much of the series I still remember all these years later. Like I say, I couldn’t have pulled out the name of Sagard the Barbarian had my life depended on it. I do remember that he fought a hydra in one of the books, though.) Naturally, there was an unreasoning and vile empire in the Darklands that sought to destroy Sommerlund, its armies of Giaks and Helghasts providing the main foes through the early part of the series.
What I still love about the series is that, as the books progress, you continue to advance your character. Granted, if you started the series partway through (as I did before I found the other, earlier books), you can artificially level up the character as needed, but there was a sense of real accomplishment and history to Lone Wolf as the series went along. You would start with a couple of low level skills and powers, but as you made your way through the books, more and greater abilities began to manifest, adding to the experience as things progressed. You actually had a character sheet in the back of the book, and it reflected the choices that were made along the way.
A few years back, Mongoose took a stab at building a full RPG out of the novels, converting it to D20 along the way. (The game books were essentially D10-based. It had a weird system where a page at the end of the book was gridded out, and you closed your eyes to stab randomly at the grid. This was the default way of generating numbers for combat and the like.) Only about five books had been produced for it, and eventually Mongoose lost the license.
Which brings us to the present time. The Kickstarter for the new version of the game just concluded, raising a little over four times its original goal. (At some point, I may think about writing about a game that’s still in its funding period, but this isn’t where I’m going to start with such ambitions.) From what I’m to read, Joe Dever has a much greater role in the development of this version, and the rules are being developed out by some members of Cubicle 7, the same people that have brought us the latest iteration of the Doctor Who RPG.
Digression: As well as a score of truly amazing games that I honestly don’t have the money to get into. This would also include Qin – The Warring States, The One Ring, The Laundry, Rocket Age and World War Cthulhu. There isn’t a one of these games I wouldn’t love to add to my Library, but it’s a matter of money. (And the fact that they seem intent on trying to break my budget with the constant stream of Doctor Who RPG books on each separate Doctor.)
I picked up another one of their games, Kuro, a while back, and my desire to run that game borders on the obsessive. Japan and Horror and Cyberpunk? Why, only if you ask nicely. It’s so delicately tailored to my interests as to be a bit creepy at times. It was bad enough that Shadows of Esteren was keyed so closely into my particular tastes, but this makes me wonder who exactly is sitting outside my window at night, taking notes on the sorts of games I need made.
Finishing out over $100K, the Kickstarter built in some fantastic stretch goals and assorted goodies for the backers to throw money at. There were dice and coins, naturally, as these seem to have become standard fare in most current RPG Kickstarters (Q Workshop and Campaign Coins are making out like thieves these days, given that I’ve seen this on other campaigns), but they also offered up enameled tokens for a random number system (likely similar to the original game books) and cloaks for cos-playing purposes. I’m honestly fascinated by the idea of Official Kai Master Cloaks, but not enough to throw nigh on $200 at the concept. I have to think that there were several cloak orders, nonetheless.
There were also maps, running something like $20 for a set of four, but I had the feeling that they were going to be fairly small (seeing as they were printed on cardstock) and passed accordingly. And like Esteren, they also made a point of putting together a soundtrack for the game as well.
The most interesting bit was the Kickstarter exclusive setting book, which built out an as-yet unseen town designed by Cubicle 7 for the new edition. This ended up being bound into a book that was available as another add-on, bumped up to 128 pages and hardcover by the level of pledges. Had they raised another $10K, it would have ended up in color, as would the canned campaign that’s being shipped with the boxed set.
I look forward to seeing what the end result is. Cube 7’s done well by me thus far, in terms of Doctor Who and Kuro, and it’s honestly only financial considerations that have kept me from investing more heavily in their stock. As well, my experiences with The One Ring have been overwhelmingly positive (although, I think I’m more inclined to run a game of Ryuutama, if I were inclined to delve as deeply into journey mechanics), so it’s only a matter of time before I avail myself of games like Qin.
It comes as no real surprise that I have studied a lot of literature in my time. This is one of those things that turns to be wholly inescapable, if I think too long on it. My father is the rare sort that is happiest pulling engines apart or operating heavy machinery, yet his love of poetry extended to casual recitation of his favorites and the occasioned writing of silly verses when the mood struck him. (For those of you deeply and truly interested, his own style was similar to William Hughes Mearns, but his preference tended heavily toward Robert Service.) In the mean time, my mother has never been seen without a book within reach of one hand, a cup of hot tea at her elbow. I could recite Macbeth’s last soliloquy from memory well before I knew anything of what it or the surrounding play meant.
These were the type of people that raised me.
So naturally, when I read something that requires some thought and digestion, my first inclination is to reduce to some referential line or idea from something that I read or heard. (Somewhere around here, I have a pin from Hot Topic that reads, “I speak in movie quotes and song lyrics.” It wasn’t that I needed to have the pin; it’s more that it was unthinkable that I didn’t already own it.)
And so it was, reading over the strangely revelatory notions in Gregory‘s post involving Marion Zimmer Bradley. In short, he talks about how he has come to wrestle with the idea that one of his novelist icons ended up being a horrible person in their own private life, and in the process, he tries to figure out how to feel about this. Until I had chanced upon this entry, I had been largely unaware of any of the furor that had surrounded one of the grandes dames of fantasy literature. Much of this owes to my general unfamiliarity with her work; yes, I own many of the recognizable books, but for me, that just means that I’ll get around to reading it when I have some open space on my calendar. Unlike so many, I never read The Mists of Avalon at a formative time, so I hadn’t even marked her death some fifteen years ago.
As I’ve been pondering the conflict of great works and broken artists, I find myself turning over the epitaph delivered by Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones.” (In double-checking my references so as to not misquote, I found out that this quote lent itself to an Iron Maiden song, a Charles Bronson movie and a Star Trek: Enterprise novel that apparently starts out on my 183rd birthday. The internet is a strange place, filled with odd coincidence.)
Like I say, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Since I didn’t have a particular stance on Bradley’s work, I can’t say that I have to examine any of my deeply held convictions about her or what she’s produced. Instead, I’m faced with the idea that anything I read from this point forward will be tainted with the understanding that she was violent and abusive and insidiously warped. The troubling details of how she apparently supported her husband’s pederasty and covered up for his indiscretions when it suited her only feed into this growing distaste, as do the off-handed mentions of the orgies that were stock in trade for the fantasy writers’ lifestyles of the time. (Not, I suppose, that any of this comes as a surprise; after all, I have plenty of knowledge of and exposure to Heinlein. Which is probably why I don’t hold his works in that high a regard, unlike so many.)
Biographical criticism is a wholly legitimate form of literary critique, dissecting a particular work according to how it parallels the life of the author. Most often, it lends itself to slightly more historical authors, as a means of discerning the specific role that the times they lived in played in shaping their writing. I’ve spent a lot of time reading through various biographical sketches of different authors, making sense of why they spent their focus the way they did.
Some of the emergent critiques of Bradley, in light of these allegations, find themselves noting the power dynamics in her works and how the characters may reflect certain aspects of what she was accused of. Yes, rape and abuse and this sort of thing was part and parcel of the era that she was trying to model, much as it makes sense in the context of George Martin’s work, but knowing what we know now, it takes on a certain horror. In a similar vein, it’s going to be hard to go back to certain volumes of Robin Williams’ work in light of his suicide. I’m fairly certain that What Dreams May Come is going to play much differently – a movie about the redemption of suicide, knowing that the main star ended up killing himself. Already, I’ve seen discussions of the Beltane rituals in The Mists of Avalon shadowed by Moira Greyland’s own recollection of abuse, and the filter casts the whole book into question for my purposes.
Before this, the closest I had come to considering what role the author played in my decision to peruse their works came from Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. For whatever reason, I had never read the book while I was a kid, even though I believe that it was a favorite of my rather Christian aunt. (Perhaps this was part of the reason.) It wasn’t until Card began mouthing off about the offensiveness of homosexuality that I even took notice of who the writer was or what relevance his works were said to have.
There’s a strange sort of inversion at work here. Card makes a point of speaking out about the horrors and perversion of such lifestyles, where Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband, Walter Breen, dedicated an entire book to exploring the modern and historical context of pederasty and its Greek antecedents. Where Card is comparing gays to pedophiles, Breen was trying to make a case that consent laws were against the natural order of things. For whatever it’s worth, I find both of these extremes to be equal in their own distasteful ways.
Throughout my life, I’ve found that the more that I know about a person that I would otherwise admire, the more I have cause to actively dislike them. This is something that the internet has managed to bring to the fore, given the instant and irrevocable transfer of information. At one point, I found myself reading a lot of webcomics. While living abroad, I would dedicate myself to at least an hour of internet perusal a day, between news and current events and the plethora of webcomics that were available. And what I found was that I enjoyed the comics far more when I knew less about the man who was writing them. But as has become standard for the comics, there’s inevitably an attached blog.
One that stands out is a science fiction story that I started into well after it had become famous and plowed through the archives in my spare time. I enjoyed it for what it was, namely a silly space opera that tried to inject actual hard science and speculative thought. It had its moments, and it was fairly reliable about its updates, which was nice.
But as I went along, I made the mistake of reading the author’s contributions. More and more, I began to see what a weirdly close-minded person he was, fostering an attitude of smug superiority over published authors and produced TV shows, since he held himself to a higher standard than they did. More and more, I found myself distracted from the plot of the comic to be infuriated by the progressively anti-intellectual leanings of its stridently Mormon writer. He would find one thing that offended him about a popular movie and urge that his audience avoid it because it conflicted with his outlooks. And his audience would use this as an echo chamber to tear down movies they had not seen, finding the one excuse they needed for their particular confirmation bias.
As a biographical notation for my own experience, I need to take a moment to point out that this is the sort of thing that I utterly and completely hate – which is why I’m spending this much time thinking about Bradley. I hate confirmation bias, to the point that I will read particular things that offend me, just so I know enough to engage it properly and talk of why it bothers me. (This goes back to both of my parents. My father, a lapsed Lutheran, and my mother, an extremely well-read New Age atheist, both felt that they had to understand the fundamental nature of the Bible to reject it. Biblical studies on my part were never discouraged by them, since they figured that I would come to similar conclusion with any amount of thought.) Most of the time these days, this comes in the form of deeply conservative commentary or the bizarre libertarian or anti-vaccine literature that circulates these days, which far too many of my social media contacts seem fond of. I’ll read through it, pick apart the flawed logic and go on with my day. If there is worth, I want to know it and judge for myself, rather than rely upon a commentator to digest it for me.
So, when I found this writer talking about how something that I enjoyed was a horrible thing because of some reason or another, that was fine. I read through his reasons and took what I could from his opinion. But when he encouraged others to take his judgment on a work and avoid coming to their own conclusions, I took offense. I made a solemn sort of vow to myself to not make this man any money through my consumption of his works, and I walked away. It had been a long road to this point, where I’d managed to brush aside his smug superiority and terrible customer service, but in the end, I was done with it all. (True story: Some years back, I had made a point of going to his booth at a convention I was at, with the idea of buying a couple of things and talking to him about some aspect of the comic. When I got there, he was far too involved in talking to someone he was working with to pay me any mind. I suppose that, if I had shown enough interest to dole out a couple hundred dollars, he would have made the time for me, but I take a dim view of such mercenary attitudes. He had made a judgment about how I looked or how much money I was likely to give him, and he treated me like shit as a result. Even so, I still kept reading his comics, despite this particular black mark. Seriously, it was the point where he urged people to believe as he did that did it for me.)
Not that any of this has to do with being a Mormon, exactly. Card feels the way that he does about gays because of his position on a Mormon council. I have to assume that the other writer holds similar outlooks, given the fairly apparent strength of his beliefs (given the way that it shows up in his blog), but there’s honestly no evidence one way or another. It’s just a weird coincidence that both of these writers have managed to get under my skin in different instances, and they both happen to be part of the same religious sect.
Sadly, I fear that the most that will come of this will be the standard sort of slacktivism I’ve become prone to in the past. I find myself horrified by what I have learned about an author or an icon, and I go out of my way to not support any sort of work by that person. It’s a particularly meaningless gesture on my part, as it causes me to not buy something that I wasn’t precisely likely to buy in the first place. Here I am, having gone this long without buying much by Bradley, and my best course of action is to not take any action. I’ve done the same sort of thing with not buying chicken sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A, a fast food place that I’ve never bought from, and refusing to watch Ender’s Game, which I had very little interest in bothering with anyway. I keep on not doing something that I wasn’t going to do anyway, and by taking this vague and meaningless stance, I could almost convince myself that my stance has relevance.
Instead, I will likely pick up both The Mists of Avalon and Ender’s Game from the library, read through them and return them in a timely fashion. If nothing else, it saves me money that would otherwise go to game books, and I can safely tell myself that I haven’t put money to people that I don’t feel deserve it.