Category Archives: Systems Discussion
I take a certain pride in my Library.
It has grown, over the years, to include a rather comprehensive breadth of gaming standards, with enough esoterica to keep things properly interesting. I focus my priority on the games that I have played extensively or the new products that seem destined to future sessions. There has to be a reason for my purchases, but once there is a hook, I tend to accumulate everything I can lay my hands upon before it starts to climb in price. There are certain systems and products that are destined for the dustbin of the larger market (for good or for ill), which allows me to pick them up later as I see fit (the Blood of Heroes game, salvaged from the ashes of Mayfair’s DC Heroes game is one that comes to mind), while others obtain instant value, never to fall back into a reasonable territory for a collector. (I could go on at length about the Supernatural RPG from Margaret Weis Productions. On the surface, it really isn’t much more than a properly drawn Hunters Hunted campaign, replete with the Urban Legends sourcebook from Hunter: The Reckoning on the edge, but having the actual, official books would be nice. It isn’t really in too many people’s budgets, however.)
Because I tend to watch the markets and buy what interests me when I can, I end up with some really weird things that most people assume would otherwise be unavailable. Some pieces of rare provenance include the Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG I saw one year at Gen Con, and the Deadlands: Lost Colony Companion book, which enjoyed an extremely short run as a POD title before Pinnacle saw fit to pull it from production. There are others, most of which lay at the tail end of a given game’s production cycle, ensuring that copies would be limited in number and only available to the most dedicated members of the fanbase.
The problem is that it can be difficult to figure out which games are worth the purchase at a given point. I don’t have an infinite budget, nor am I possessed of illimited time or unrestrained shelf space for storage. There are numerous games in my collection that bear the weight of having never been played (though I’m sure that this year will be different) and even more that haven’t been played enough for my particular tastes. (I cast a glance in the direction of my Green Ronin ASoIaF RPG, doubting that I will get the campaign I have planned for it off the ground in the next epoch.) My usual strategy is to draw on my general likelihood of running a campaign under the ruleset or worldset and draw my determination from there.
By way of example, I have a decent cross-section of the various editions of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, despite having never run the game. I played one abbreviated campaign that one of my friends ran, but it only lasted a couple of months and we actually touched on very little of what most people would normally associate with the game itself. We had next to no combat (in a game of samurai, we played a troupe of actors), and there wasn’t a whole lot of courtly intrigue overall. So, why do I have so damned many books for this game? Well, I did live for a while in Japan, I’ve spent more time than is considered socially responsible watching samurai movies and anime, and I have a lot of campaign ideas that I would love to try out with the right group. The reality hasn’t quite lived up to my aspirations, so I have collected a sizable number of the RPG books across the 18 years it’s been in print without actually using them in any solid fashion.
The dangerous point is when I start assessing the value of a book in terms of how rare it happens to be, rather than what my future use will end up being. Most of the time, I try to keep in mind the potential for a game, but it doesn’t always fall that way. The previously referenced Blood of Heroes game is one that I had, sold and will eventually re-acquire. Most of the logic on this one derives from the fact that it’s collecting and reprinting a fairly well-regarded system, and I could see either running or playing in a vintage superhero game at some point. This is becoming less and less of a likelihood as time goes on and fewer people have the same regard for a system that came out 30 years ago. (And went out of print around 20 years ago.) With Blood of Heroes, this isn’t much of a concern, given that the book in question hasn’t really increased in price. In comparison, the 3rd Edition rules of Big Eyes, Small Mouth would fall into a similar category of comprehensive rules and revisions, but the limited time it spent on the market means that acquiring a decent copy now is somewhere north of $150 for a copy. (It’s been reprinted as a POD through DriveThru, but it’s not cheap there, either. And well, DTR has a special place on my list for its role in killing the FLGS.)
This was something that I found myself considering over Christmas, when I was browsing through one of the big used and wholesale shops a few miles away from my in-laws’ house. There was a copy of a strikingly obscure RPG (to the point that no copies exist on Amazon or eBay) on one of the shelves that I found myself perusing. It had all the hallmarks of being a Heartbreaker RPG, just from the back cover copy, which advertised it as being an “Anime / Fantasy / Steampunk” game of limitless character possibilities and cinematic action. It tossed around terms like “shared narratives” and “collaborative space” without really settling on a single theme or direction, and it promised to be everything a game should be for me. I was beginning to wonder if it could starch my shirts and walk my dog, as breathless as it ended up being.
And predictably, it wasn’t very good. The system appeared to be a dull derivative of the Storyteller System, using D10’s with some various modifiers and picky rules. The art was lackluster, although interestingly sourced from a variety of places (including one fairly well-regarded internet cartoonist), and being the softcover edition (I have to believe it was POD, given the ink quality; I found an edition of it on DTR while searching), everything was in a smudgy black and white. There were some solid illustrations, but there were also some fairly half-assed sketches that tried to evoke some interesting creature designs. (And failed.) There was an element of Furry RPG’s (think IronClaw or Shard, for decent examples of the genre), but the game didn’t even try to embrace that fandom. It was scattershot in its attempt to be universal, and the end result was just sort of … dull. I feel vaguely bad for the fact that it was trying to be a lot of different things without managing any of them at all well. It probably could have used an editor of some sort, if only to give it focus.
As it happened, I put it back and walked away. This was a game that I was virtually guaranteed to never find again, something that would sit on a shelf and offer up interesting conversations on how game design and ambition could go tragically wrong. It was a Heartbreaker, to its very core. It was actually the price tag (fairly reasonable, considering, but not enough of a bargain to entice me to go further) that was the deciding factor. I could have bought it on a lark, or I could have bought myself a second copy of the MWP Battlestar Galactica RPG for future use. (I didn’t buy that, either. I’m not enough of an optimist to think that game will get off the ground any time soon.)
The sad thing is, I’m actually sort of regretting not buying the game.
It’s not because it would ever have any place in my Library, per se. I would never play the damned game, and if someone suggested running it, I’d laugh at them and suggest something a little more interesting or better designed. (In comparison, I would love to see a game of Synnibar run. It may be a game of questionable design and merit, but there’s enough concentrated lunacy to make it worth the experience.) There isn’t even anything in the book that could be mined for other games. (I think that even the old Fantasy Wargaming RPG by Bruce Galloway has some merit in that regard.) This game literally had no value, other than the sheer obscurity of it all. I want to own this game, just so I can pull it off the shelf and pass it around as an example of what not to do. It would be the dire example of how a great idea or concept can go decidedly wrong, even with the support of a community.
Sadly, this particular day is the easiest entry in the whole schema thus far. Most of this has to do with the fact that I’ve been languishing in something of a limbo since I moved, stranded without any semblance of a solid gaming group as I settle into the new house. Granted, the old group that I had held together for several years finally started drifting apart, so I was going to be faced with this dilemma anyway. This sort of thing seems to happen on a periodic basis, just because people tend to shift in and out based on work and school, but it doesn’t make regular groups any easier to keep solid.
As such, instead of the two to four groups I used to run with in a given week, I’m down to one. Occasionally, we’ll get a second session in, for a different game, but it’s not terribly consistent.
Most Recent RPG Played
Oddly, this happens to be for a game that I hadn’t been terribly interested in, initially. One of our crew picked up the latest iteration of Outbreak: Undead last year at Gen Con, the stand-alone book for Outbreak Deep Space. He tends to be a fan of zombie games in general, with a prodigious All Flesh Must Be Eaten collection (one of the few systems that most people own more of than I do) and a scattering of others.
I should note that the new Outbreak edition is coming out shortly, with Pandemic Organized Play system. It’s a bit like the old Infiniverse newsletters that WEG used to do for Torg, with some interesting tweaks. The new edition looks amazing, with a lot of solid refinements that will move the game forward nicely.
Anyway, Outbreak Deep Space is a fascinating system, being as I was largely unfamiliar with anything of the original system in the first place. It uses a percentile system, which is nothing unusual in its own right, but it really starts to get innovative with the Descriptor system. Descriptors run along the same lines as Tags in Fate, where certain qualities of a person’s equipment or background can come into play in different ways.
Consider a character that has spent time in the military. Along their career progression, they’ve picked up some bits of knowledge about firearms, the ability to weather harsh conditions, and a certain amount of tactical knowledge. In play, the character can draw on certain Descriptors to help them in other tasks. The firearms knowledge, for example, can be used as a static value that can add to their actual shooting skill, as well as rolls to recognize certain models of pistol or rolls to effect repairs to their weaponry. The Descriptors aren’t tied to a specific roll, instead being able to be used in relevant situations.
Being a zombie game, at its heart, there is a lot of focus on certain tactical decisions within the game, such as how well the characters equip themselves and what sort of strongholds they employ to gain some measure of safety against the undead hordes. In space, this comes in the form of the starships that come into play, which can serve as more broadly universal facilities than buildings might in a normal, contemporary Outbreak game.
There are some rough edges to this edition, to be sure, but there seems to be some movement toward a revision and update of this edition, moving toward more setting specific game lines. (These are the things you learn when you can actually track down and bend the ear of the designer themselves.)
The other games that I’ve been involved with lately (though not as recently as the Outbreak game) are Star Wars by Fantasy Flight and Pathfinder. We’ve sort of rolled a lot of the different aspects of the FFG line of games into one central whole, with my character, a Falleen Jedi, alongside an Ewok marauder and a murderbot. There’s a lot of Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion aspects being bandied about, making the game a proper gestalt. Eventually, I would love to see a comprehensive edition of this game that incorporates all three game lines into a single line, but I can understand why they split it into separate books. If nothing else, the Jedi rules needed more time to distill and tweak. They’re easily the largest headache for any designer.
Somewhere, it has been said that the ultimate purpose of all role-playing games and systems is to be able to create Jedi within the rules. I can’t argue this. As such, when it’s part of the oblique purpose, you have to be able to do it correctly in the end result.
I’ve also had occasion to play Pathfinder, but that’s less of a revelation and more of an admission that I still game with normal gamers here and there. I’m hoping there will be opportunity for a larger, more dedicated game to be run (one put together and run by someone else for a change, I would hope), but that’s hinging on greater logistics than I can wield at the moment. Too many balls in the air and all that implies.
Going forward, the games I would love to be able to play occupy a much more fanciful niche. I’d like to see a longer, more involved game with the Unisystem rules, like Conspiracy X or possibly All Flesh Must Be Eaten perhaps. The few times I’ve sat down to play Unisystem, I’ve enjoyed it, but they’ve been few and far between. There’s also the Cipher System, which includes Numenera and The Strange, neither of which I’ve been able to find in any of my gaming groups.
And finally, I’ve been looking to some future point where I might be able to either run or play something using one of Green Ronin’s non-D20 systems, either AGE System or Chronicle System, which run Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire, respectively. I’ve run a couple of sessions with ASoIaF, here and there, and I’ve liked everything about it, but all of the sessions have been distressingly short-lived. The backstory and world-building that the game implies have been spectacularly solid in the sessions I’ve run, but nothing ever lasts beyond a couple of sessions, for one reason or another.
So much for October, I guess.
Suffice to say that the last month has been one of weird obligation and unforeseen activity. As I have hinted on a couple of prior occasions, I’m in the process of looking for a new place to live, and many of those birds came home to roost in the previous several weeks. Nothing is precisely set into stone at the moment, but it bears noting that I am in the midst of packing up my library against the eventuality of having to get it shipped.
As such, there wasn’t any available time to sit down and hammer out the requisite number of words to satisfy my own loose definitions of blogging. In some ways, I’m glad that I had already cut back from my daily schedule of updates, as that would have been a rather abrupt shift. That doesn’t mean that I’m not vaguely mortified by my lack of maintenance, but at least there’s less comparative damage. In the interim, I’m hoping to be able to offer slightly more timely updates, if only for my own standards.
Right now, there are only two games that are being run in my immediate circle, and as I have come to expect, I’m running both of them. The first is the ever-present and close to finishing Carrion Crown campaign, which has been ongoing for about three years at this point. I have to assume that I’m approaching some sort of record, at this point, given that the entire campaign is structured to be finished within a six month timeframe. Yay, me.
There’s an odd tendency that I’m noting within Pathfinder (as a result of where we’re at in Carrion Crown), which I will have to pay closer attention to. Having run about half of Savage Tide, as well as played to a similar point within Rise of the Runelords, I’ve started to suspect that there is a tipping point around 12th level when modules start to ramp up the presence of casters as the primary foes in adventures. With Savage Tide, it happened with the kopru Cleric in Golismorga, which immediately followed up with a sorcerer in the early part of the next module. In Carrion Crown, the Witches of Barstoi that show up in Ashes at Dawn offer a similar threat. And Runelords had Sins of the Saviors, which offered a whole variety of casters to bedevil the player characters at that point.
The reason that I bring this up is that it seems to offer a sharp uptick of difficulty in the module series, one that I hadn’t been particularly expecting. Most of the foes in the modules were able to be dealt with in a more or less martial way in the lead-up modules, so springing a heavily tweaked caster on the party seems like a bit of a shift. As a player, I know that I hadn’t been ready for the tactical spellcraft that had been assumed to be in place for the fifth module of Runelords, and it’s fairly evident that none of my players, in either Carrion Crown or Savage Tide were up for the task.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I should feel about these narrative shifts. I mean, on one hand, it is logical that the foes should ramp up in difficulty as the modules progress, but by and large, it’s something of a sudden change. In the first ten levels, it doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of caster presence. A case could be made that lower level casters aren’t nearly as much of a threat, given the limited scope of spells and the relative lack of hit points and saves. But the few exceptions that I can bring to mind show me that they can be used effectively (the first thing that occurs to me is the main villain of The Varnhold Vanishing in Kingmaker), but otherwise they seem to be either absent or largely ineffective.
Looking back over the early parts of Carrion Crown, I see that my perceptions were out of whack. All the way along, there has been a proper representation of spellcasters, in one form or another. In Haunting of Harrowstone, there were a couple of foes within the ranks of the ghosts, but the spells were more utilitarian or basic damage than anything else. In Trial of the Beast, the main sorcerous adversaries were Vorkstag and Grine, the masters of the chymic works, and again, most of their base repertoire was defensive in nature. In the first half of Broken Moon, the master of the lodge offered the only mystical interference, and with the exception of Black Tentacles and Stinking Cloud, none of it was terribly remarkable. In the second half, the climactic battle with the necromancer only offers a challenge if he’s been given a number of rounds to prepare. Otherwise, his spells in combat are meant to keep him away from combat.
Continuing on, we find ourselves in Wake of the Watcher, where there are a sizable number of clerics wandering around, but most of them are multi-classed, which limits their repertoire. The cultists in town can only cast 2nd level spells, which limits their utility, and even the head cleric who shows up slightly later only has a couple of truly inconvenient spells at his disposal. The fungal oracle and the deep one cleric that show up in the final section have a better range of ability, but only the fungus is able to do anything interesting.
All right, so there is a fair representation of spellcasters through the module series. Given this, I have to assume that there were a fair selection of them in Savage Tide and the others. So it isn’t a problem of absence. That drops it over onto being a problem of not being an overt threat. And as such, something changes over somewhere around 10th level, the point where 1st Edition D&D suggested that the adventurers retired.
Back when I was living overseas, one of the resident GM’s there had noted that he hated running a campaign much past 10th level. At the time, it had taken me aback, given my general outlook. I assumed that most campaigns died around that time (as was my experience) due to player apathy, time constraints or similar ideas. Whenever I had run a proper D&D game, it flamed out somewhere in the 10th~12th level range just as a matter of course. To have someone want to intentionally kill the game at that point fascinated me.
Without deeper study (it’s late, and I’m running a fairly notable headache; in the same breath, if I don’t finish this in some manner, it will languish alongside the half-dozen other entries that I’ve been working on), I have to think this is the point where the game itself kicks over into more nuanced play styles. Sure, I’ve played some form of D&D for about 75% of my actual life, but it’s a complex enough system that I haven’t tried to take it apart to study the raw numbers.
So, as it stands, there’s more to consider in this whole bit, insofar as spell utility is concerned and how much of a threat a spellcaster of a given level ends up being. Alas, it’s not a question I can immediately answer in a single entry.
I have returned from Gen Con. The republic still stands.
Much consumerism was engaged in. Many bank accounts were logically plundered. And when you go with a crew of doctors, you begin to experience certain pangs of jealousy at their comparative wealth for such endeavors. Alas.
I won’t bitch too much. There wasn’t actually much that I would have liked to have purchased that I did not. And most of what I bought was either at a steep discount or for someone else. All in all, it was good.
Last time I posted (and no, I cannot immediately declare the hiatus over; there’s just stuff I want to talk about before it withers away to memory), I devoted the better part of 4,000 words to a tear down of John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy book. The (tl;dr) version of this is that the book is neither dark nor dangerous, despite the cover assuring us that this was just such a revision. The game implies that it is searching for the adult aspects of the fantasy for the grown-up gamer, when in fact, it largely fails to capture any such thing. The “dark lens” that Wick views the world through seems to merely be smudged.
Again, I want to point out that I was a huge fan of the stuff Wick was responsible for during his tenure at Alderac. Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea are both some of the finest games on the market. This is one of the worst, if you judge it on the basis of what it promises versus what it actually delivers. It is my disappointment brought on by this disparity of quality that has pushed me to rag on this product as I have. (In fact, I still hold enough regard for L5R that I bought several books of the new edition to help round out my collection. Thankfully, Wick no longer has anything to do with that line.)
In response to my previous post, Gregory wanted some further discussion of what Wick did wrong with the language in this book, something I railed at for a little while. Apparently, I was wrong about my contention that no one wanted to hear me go into depth about what idiocy Wick’s ideas on linguistics are.
There are two parts to this discussion.
First, the chapter on Gnolls opens with a sidebar talking about how the mouths of Gnolls is particularly canine in nature and they cannot easily form the words required of other languages. I see where he’s going with this, but in all honesty, this is the dumbest idea to attach to a fantasy race. For one thing, D&D and Pathfinder knock the idea of language acquisition so far down the scale of importance that such things are mere skill adds, and every character would be able to learn a new language in the time it takes to level up the next time. For another, it’s a magical world, not one of physics or biology, so this is one of those things that should generally be hand-waved out of existence.
Here’s why: While it is possible to learn a language without ever being able to speak it, it’s one of the most unlikely things to happen. In terms of realism, this is a lot harder to make sense of than the old saw of spending a month in the desert and learning French. (i.e. Going out to adventure for a month and gaining a language when you return to town, as tends to be the way in D&D and Pathfinder.) Language learning requires four main areas of focus – listening, reading, writing and speaking. Reading and listening are the input methods for this, where writing and speaking are the output that’s necessary to make everything gel. And the difference between speaking and writing is that writing is done without immediate feedback, placing it well below speaking in terms of language acquisition. Over and over, this is something that I have encountered in my various linguistic studies and time as a teacher. If you don’t speak, you don’t learn. And to fully cement a language, you need to be immersed in it, where everything around you uses the language and you have to speak it to accomplish basic survival tasks. For my own notations, I have studied a lot of French, but since I never visited a French-speaking country, I’ve managed to forget quite a bit of it.
So, there it is. I have a huge problem with making it so Gnolls can only really speak Gnoll. This is amazingly harmful for the species overall, since it stunts their development of linguistics to an amazing degree. (There’s more about this, where the act of speaking moves a language from one type of memory to another and how it serves to motivate second language learners by the process of communication, but I think I’ve covered enough for my first point.)
Secondly, Wick seems to be utterly unaware of how few words a mere 250 actually is.
Let’s consider for a moment, shall we? 250 words is roughly the range for an average three year old child (meaning that more precocious children are like to know far more), and there are noted cases of Shetland Sheep Dogs (Shelties, for the layman) that know upwards of 500 words in English. Already, we’re seeing a bit of a problem going into this. Here you have an entire race that has access to less words than a real world dog. Sure, Shelties can’t speak all the words they know, but there is communication already going on. (And with time and research, I would probably go on about how hard it would be for a creature to acquire a language that has orders of magnitude more words, but that’s well outside of my range of interest on this.)
In comparison, the created language of Klingon has over 3,000 words in its vocabulary, and it has been proven to be inadequate for actual communication. Reference the somewhat informal study by d’Armon Speers, a linguist that tried to make his son a native speaker of Klingon. While he was in the process of teaching his son this language, Speers made certain that he was simultaneously learning English so his cognitive development wouldn’t suffer. The kid stopped speaking Klingon at around three years old, simply because it was too difficult to communicate basic ideas and allow him access to his world. And this is a language with over twelve times as many words. Not only does this not make sense, it implies that Gnolls are functionally retarded as a species, since language development is tied heavily to cognitive development. (This goes back to my notation of how difficult it would be to learn a language other than your own. It’s already made very difficult by not being able to speak; throw in some learning disabilities, and it becomes outright impossible.)
Then there’s the corollary that, by obviating adjectives of all kinds, Gnolls are unable to rationally recite any form of direction or history to another. The implication is that there is no method of differentiation, rendering all trees and rocks and opponents as being a single concept for each. In doing so, there’s no ability to return to a place that they have been, since without such nuance, all things blur together. Hells, at this point, they rank behind honey bees in most cognitive areas, since colors are also apparently off this list as well. Past and present cease to exist without notational modifiers, and so on. (And Wick also makes a point to note that Gnolls don’t really keep track of time. Ugh.) It gets stupid real fast.
Looking through the entry on Gnolls, it seems that about a third of the non-food language has already been defined by Wick in the process of yammering on about Gnoll Linguistics. Further, another 10% of the non-food language just goes to talking about the moons. As such, we’re up to about forty of our one hundred words, and honestly, we’re running out of any ability to actually interact with the world. (It also should be noted that he defines many of the words using the verboten adjectives, which I find fascinating. Why state such a stupid rule, only to immediately break it? Or are we going to hide behind ‘running’ and ‘slow running’ as completely separate words, like the oft-repeated saw about Inuit and their extensive vocabulary about snow?)
Then there’s the notation that Gnolls are Charismatic, to the point that they gain a +2 to the Attribute at character creation. This is such amazing idiocy, given the rest of the text and the noisome short story. When he says that other races term them as dirty and unclean, I must immediately take issue. I would accept that they have a bonus of some sort amongst their own kind, as Gnolls would be better disposed to dealing with other Gnolls, but how in six hells does a scavenger race that has clear analogues to hyenas get a bonus to deal with other races that view them as filthy or accursed? It boggles the mind.
So, there you go. Wick’s all caught up on defining these races according to their racial linguistics, and he doesn’t grasp the basic parts of how stupid his contentions truly are. It’s one thing to take an interesting idea like a race guide and make it dreadfully dull treatise on language in the process. It’s quite another to fuck it up this badly.
Y’know, I try. I really do. When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day. Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.
Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers. And unpublished novels, probably.
Anyway. My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong. I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions. It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.
It got a little lengthy. And then it spilled over into a second post. And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team. But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.
In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:
I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.
World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes. Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity. The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city. It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive. (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole. Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)
The same thing applies to all of their game lines. Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world. Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man. And so on.
From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster. If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse. And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.
And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff. Seriously. It’s all over the place.
I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened. There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power. All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table. And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play. If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it. It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to. Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.
But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit. There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters. Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience. Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.
It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak. I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior. They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers. Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable. She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.
In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up. I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues. It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide. (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)
What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations. In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day. It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy. And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters. Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers. Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.
So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick? I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’. It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films. It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.
Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name. That might be where it crosses the line. That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.
Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it. Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about. It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power. It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.
In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful. None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.
The other night’s session of Edge of the Empire was a canned mini-module from the back of one of the sourcebooks, a four page overview of a swoop race conducted in the Crystal Swamps of Corellia. We didn’t have a lot of time allotted to game this weekend, so we tried to do something short and simple, just for the sake of having some game time. (The irony here was that our role-playing ended up making a four page encounter module last about five hours. We need to rein things in occasionally.)
As adventures go, it was well done, but I’ve come to expect that from Fantasy Flight. They managed to charm the lot of my playing group in the course of half a module from the boxed set, to the point that we gave up running Savage Tide for the time being. If nothing else, they can make solid adventures that showcase the strengths of the systems they use, and that seems to be enough for our purposes.
The basic set-up was that the characters were given the chance to run in a local swoop race, knowing full well that their opponent was going to sabotage their efforts and cheat her way through. It gave us a chance to flex the vehicle rules for Edge of the Empire and get a better idea of how to run ship or vehicle based encounters. Being that Fantasy Flight is busily making miniatures for the spin-off game, X-Wing Miniatures, they’ve got a solid enough system already in place for such undertakings. (It’s my understanding that the two games intermesh very nicely, with only the slightest amount of tweaking needed to integrate.)
In the end, it ran very well, with proper tension and surprise, and gave us a good idea of how space combat would then logically play out. But it got me to thinking about how poorly it could have gone in other games.
Some games are built for very specific simulations, and if you were to step too far outside the narrow band of what the game could properly do, everything tends to fall apart. The best that you can hope for is that the GM who’s trying to run something new and interesting has a good handle on the spirit of the rules and the effect he’s trying to pull off and can knock together some sort of useful house rules to adequately model whatever it is that’s going on with a homebrew system that’s not overly complicated or distracting. The worst will probably be a clusterfuck of desperate hackery that’s been lifted from another, better game and painfully applied to a game that has no business going in that direction in the first place.
I’ve seen some of these attempts. They ain’t pretty.
At their hearts, most RPG’s start with a combat system. The origins of the hobby pretty much inform this decision, as miniatures games are all about tactical considerations and weapon damage. Recent directions in the hobby have landed us with all manner of indie game that pushes combat to the back of the line, but there’s a reason that they’re indie games in the first place. They’re built for a very specific and narrow purpose, which they do extremely well in a lot of cases, but they’re not terribly adaptable outside of this purpose.
So, once you have the combat system in mind, it’s a question of how the combat is meant to play out. Dungeons & Dragons has ebbed and flowed on the idea of tactical miniatures, with some iterations of the game drifting further into abstraction while others practically sell you the minis with the main rulebooks. (And given that several of the boxed sets include minis or cardstock stand-ups, it’s never far from anyone’s mind.) Savage Worlds was built on the Great Rail Wars combat system, which also cleaves it pretty closely to that mindset. On the other end of the scale are games like Exalted, where some aspects are closely focused on while others are left up to narrative resolution. (For example, combat is very precisely timed to the second, allowing fast characters to take advantage of the timing to get in extra moves and attacks. Oddly, this sort of precision is what turned the normal sort of White Wolf players off the system, as it seems to be too complex to the sort of people who prefer Live Action.) While there were miniatures for 1st Edition Exalted, they were somewhat orphaned without an actual system for tactical combat.
Once Combat has been properly established (or downplayed, as the case may be), it then falls to figuring out what sort of skill resolution is necessary within the context of the game. Early D&D (as noted by the OSR perspective on things) tended to leave much of this up to the skill of the player. The GM would adjudicate whether or not the efforts described by the player were convincing enough to actually pull off, rather than noting if the character actually had any skill in the relevant areas. When games like Call of Cthulhu (and its attendant BRP system) came along, they tried to codify what a character knew, if only for the sake of preserving some of the mystery and horror of the game world. Chances were good that players either knew everything about the Lovecraft Mythos, or they knew nothing, with very little middle ground. By putting the skills to specific numbers, the intricate knowledge of what might be going on could be shifted down to ‘in character’ or ‘out of character’ awareness.
From there, it’s a matter of what sort of sub-systems are in place. This can be as general and expected as social combat or vehicle rules, leading all the way to cattle ranching and jury tampering. (KenzerCo’s Aces & Eights was a bit of a strange game, but I’m honestly proud to own it, for all its inherent weirdness.) Torg included stock market manipulation, Exalted had systems on bonecrafting, and Deadlands included things like spirit tech, where you had to make friends with the linked souls of your gadgets to craft items. All of these had useful applications within their own games, which skewed the gameplay in that direction.
Overall, the role of such systems within the game often determine what aspects of the game are intrinsically important to the game itself, thereby pushing the players and GM’s toward such ideas in their games. And rather than run this entry towards 2,000+ words, I’ll pick this up tomorrow…
In the midst of unapologetically ragging on Savage Worlds, I noted that one of the drawbacks of the system, in my mind, was the lack of Social Interaction rules in any significant form. It was only later that I realized that I was likely speaking some form of Greek to the average role-player.
It’s been my experience in most games that the first section that needs to be scrutinized in the system is the way that Combat is conducted. The flow of conflict is an important aspect of any game, as it determines how much time and effort needs to be devoted to resolving an encounter. If the system is filled with charts and derived numbers, the combat might be extremely detailed and realistic, but it’s going to take the better part of the night to deal with a single fight between reasonable sized groups. If the game is slanted towards tactics, there’s going to be a need to have map grids and miniatures to better visualize everything, else it’s all going to go awry. And if everything is pushed in a more story-driven direction, combat is likely going to focus on abstract narrative elements, leaving the damage tables and the grid maps completely out of the mix.
The amount of options a given system has for combat also factor into how the game is supposed to be run. A game like Savage Worlds tends towards fast and loose arbitration, where the player characters are generally expected to be able to win any given encounter without a great deal of worry. Exalted offers a rather detailed combat system, but it allows a fair amount of narrative freedom, which lets the godlike characters slide through harder encounters if they have a stylish reason to be able to pull off the maneuvers well enough. On the other end of the scale, you find yourself in systems like Call of Cthulhu, where the characters aren’t optimized for combat and the scale of the enemies simply dwarfs their capabilities. The emphasis in games like this shifts toward being able to think your way through a situation, rather than rush blindly into a fight. And given the source material, it only makes sense.
So how does the Social angle of things work into this?
A little bit of personal history, if you would. Much of my narrative GM’ing style comes from the games of the early to mid-90’s, when the miniatures-oriented game design of the early years started to be expanded. Whereas many of the early games were derived from miniatures combat (and therefore tended to be combat driven), the games of this era started working toward the idea that non-combat characters could have roles within the context of battle, even if they weren’t worth a damn swinging a sword or firing a gun.
For me, the eye-opener was Torg, where non-combat actions were rolled into combat through the use of the Drama Cards. If a character were to stand on the sidelines and taunt the villain, the distraction of their commentary had a concrete effect on the villain, making it easier for the other characters to be able to defeat him. This showed up in subsequent games, here and there, to the point that it started a sort of sub-system in some RPG’s, where there were additional rules for ‘Social Combat’ in other areas of the game.
The other notable aspect of Torg was that, because these rules were in place, a combat-focused character was still able to be defeated by other means. Even if they’d maxed out the requisite stats in a way that made it impossible for regular mooks to do real damage or even hit the character, they were still vulnerable to Mental and Social attacks that could incapacitate them. The best example of this ended up being the ridiculously powerful Tharkoldu Cyber Demons, who combined the unbalancing effects of cyberware with … well, being demons. They had extremely high physical stats, armor and spiritual powers. What they didn’t have was any way to cope with being taunted, to the point that a character with sufficient skill and luck could theoretically put them down for good with a well timed and deeply personal verbal assault.
Up to this point, a character was either built to be worth a damn in battle or built to be useful in the library. To have both was generally unthinkable and / or the realm of pure munchkinry. With Torg (and many of its descendants), it was possible to have a bookish character that could hold their own through their smarts or a social character that could use their persuasion in a wider venue of circumstances.
Exalted took this entire theory to its logical conclusion, putting together a system that paralleled physical combat by codifying social maneuvers in a similar manner. Where a duel between master swordsmen would entail a certain amount of circling and testing for weakness before striking at a vulnerable point, the Social Combat rules tried to put these same sorts of actions into play within the realm of conversation.
The problem was that it didn’t quite work, as written. Over the years, I’ve made a point of testing social builds in the various RPG’s that allow it, and while Exalted made a fine go of it, there were very specific problems. For one thing, it tended to abstract the flow of conversation to the point that actually using the rules while role-playing required the player and GM to pause in the midst of witty repartee and roll dice. In that way, it felt like the only real way that the Social Combat could be used would be in a completely abstracted way (“I’m going to verbally attack him, using my Investigate Skill to probe for weakness.” – “Roll your Manipulation and Investigate. If you get three or more successes, you’ve discovered his love for horse racing.”), and this idea struck directly against the more narrative aspects of Exalted, with its Stunt System. While it was an interesting idea overall, it honestly felt like there needed to be another pass of playtesting before releasing it into the wild. And considering that there’s a whole tree of Lunar Social Charms that take advantage of these rules, the unfinished nature allows the system to break entirely, handing a stupid amount of power over to competently built characters played by people who know what they’re doing.
Finally, there’s Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which tries its damnedest to replicate the intrigues of the books in its Social Combat system. While I love Exalted in unnatural ways, I have to note that this is a system that has managed to do it correctly. The intrigues in ASOIAF are both simply designed and effective, as they can cause characters to act against their own best interests because they were seduced into a course of action by a skilled master of deception. The system has layers of complexity as needed, but compared to the vaguely disruptive ways in which Exalted handled it, it makes a lot more sense.
To my perspective, this is the way modern games are structured. When combat was all that mattered, that was the only focus that skills and attributes got. Over time, however, game design came to reflect the subtler nuances of the gamer palate, where talking to ones adversaries became less of an outlier and more of a commonplace act. Yeah, combat is still the core of any system, as there needs to be a mechanic of some sort to resolve conflict, be it physical or otherwise, and this often serves as the skill resolution system as well.
As such, the throwback nature of Savage Worlds continues to mystify me, as it presents itself as a modern game for the current generation of gamers, even while it ignores the innovations that have come about since the early days of gaming. It’s only made worse by the fact that Deadlands itself had built in enough variance that a Social character could easily hold his own in combat in that system. And that aspect of the game design was completely lost when the new system took hold, meaning that it had to have been a conscious decision.
I’ve spent a lot of time, comparatively, talking about various Paizo products like the Savage Tide and Carrion Crown Adventure Paths. While talking about DungeonPunk themed games, I made a point of listing out half a dozen games that I am conspicuously not playing right this minute. While I make mention of a larger stock of games in my sizable collection, I keep circling back to variants of the same theme, namely some flavor of D&D. With the exception of Exalted, which I’ve devoted a little time to, and the new Star Wars, which I still haven’t devoted any real play time to, there aren’t many games out there that I really delve into.
Is this a particular bent on my part? Is it showing my inability to expand beyond the mainstay of the industry, one way or another? Do I focus on D&D because it’s the best?
The simple answer is no. And like most simple answers, it actually answers nothing.
The actual answer is that I would absolutely love to sit down and play other games, but the timeframe that I have to work with is one factor, and the player attention is quite another. And this is not to mention that, nine times out of ten, I’m the guy that sits down and runs the damned game in the first place.
I don’t have a huge playing group. I’m in the midst of transitioning from one place to another, and my ability to go out and recruit new players is balanced by the understanding that, some time in the next year, I’ll be moving on anyway. This has a chilling effect on some more experimental games, in that I can’t commit to a yearlong campaign without knowing exactly where I will be. And this is not to mention the state of flux that my players will be in, given the directions that a number of them will be dispersing in.
This leaves me with a strange state of things. For one thing, there’s not a huge pool to draw from in the first place, meaning that my ability to run games hinges on what games are already known, else I have to sit down and teach something new. I’ve made a point of doing this in the past, but the learning curve of a given game requires a set number of introductory sessions to establish a working knowledge of the rules. A few years back, there was no hesitation in considering a Deadlands game or Exalted or Torg, since I knew that I’d have time to sell my playing group on the idea of the game, teach the intricacies of the rules and be able to run enough sessions to make the investment of time worth everyone’s while.
It doesn’t help that I’m absolutely horrible about running short games. While I love the idea of games like Fiasco, where everything can be generated within a short window of time and played out over the course of a couple of hours, I will wait until some of my other gaming obsessions have been satisfied before I make that particular purchase. For me, a short game is one that only takes six months of dedicated gaming to reach a plot point or finish out a particular arc. This outlook tempers the way that I approach new games, especially if I have to teach a lot of new rules of aspects of setting. If the game isn’t going to run long enough to justify my efforts, I’m more likely to pick something that can be wrapped up that much quicker.
The end result is that I’m given a binary choice in what games I’m afforded to run. If I want to run something that most players are familiar with, it’s going to be some flavor of D20 Fantasy. If it isn’t, I’m going to have to sell the players on an entirely new idea or genre, shortly before sitting down to help them make sense of the new rules and systems. This will necessitate putting time into character generation, rules overview and setting details.
If I’m looking to play in a game, that’s an entirely different sort of animal to consider.
There’s some optimistic part of my scattered thinking that believes that I could happen into a group of players that wants to run some choice bit of esoterica out of my library, so I could sit down and play something like Weapons of the Gods or Fading Suns or Kuro instead of having to dive into it myself to make sense of all the rules and ideas. The grim reality is that, while I maintain such hopes and dreams, I’m a lot more likely to find myself running such a game than happening into a random session of such things in the wild.
If there was one recurring motif I’ve found myself examining, it is this one. Any game that I well and truly love is one that I know I’m unlikely to ever play. The most egregious example is Torg, where I managed to play in exactly one session of the classic system and world at a convention. Since then, it’s been a case of playing in other people’s worlds, which coincidentally use the system, but the Possibility Wars, such as they are, were a vague reference or a layered in-joke rather than an actual plot element.
Otherwise, I’ve managed to play in the occasional non-D20 game that occurs, but most often it’s the result of having made a point to teach one player or another the game well enough to hand off the GM’ing reins for their own purposes. These days, it’s something of a rare experience.
And while I may not be playing more than a couple of systems within a given year, I’m constantly reading and making notes on the next great game that I’m going to run, using disparate aspects of the different sourcebooks as a form of inspiration. Even if I don’t run one game after all, some of the ideas might translate into another game somewhere down the line. And the variety of systems at my disposal allow me to find the proper game for my purposes, when the time comes, and tweak it specifically to fit the ideas that I’m working on.
If nothing else, I may not be playing a specific game right this minute, but it’s there if I ever have an idea that no other game will be suited for.
While I would love to tie the subject of this particular entry to a broad base and discuss how to integrate it to a wide variety of games, the sad truth is that it is system specific, tied to a game that no modern game collection is likely to have available. If there were a way to make this system agnostic, I would be the first one to buy it, but unless I’m like to do it myself, it’s probably not going to happen.
The game in question is Torg. I’ve talked briefly about the game before, in this entry, and as noted, it’s one of my favorite games of all time. I know that there are plenty of industry people that like the game, and there are strange isolated pockets of gamers that played it and enjoyed it at the time. There’s not a lot of love for it in this day and age. I would lament this truth, but life moves on.
In Torg, one of the unique mechanics lies in the use of cards for various purposes. Most of the time, they’re used as bonuses and re-rolls, supplementing the Possibilities as character points. The rest of the time, they’re the basis of the game’s initiative system. (For what it’s worth, the use of cards for initiative in Deadlands enticed me to that game, even though the systems were wildly different.)
The best use for the Drama Deck in Torg (and the Master Deck in Masterbook, for that matter) was the use of Subplot Cards. There were a scattering of these cards in the Drama Decks, and they served to change the flow of the story as the game unfolded, allowing a minor manipulation of the plot on the part of the players. Because of the randomness of the card draw and the intent of the player, these cards were something completely beyond the control of the GM, even within the context of a module. If the GM was on his toes, these were a welcome addition to the overall plot of the adventure. If the GM was unprepared, these were a complete monkeywrench.
At the low end of things were the situational subplot cards, which dealt with immediate results in the situation at hand. The most immediately relevant cards were Alertness and Idea, which allowed a character to notice some previously unnoticed element of the scene or have some profound insight into the situation, respectively. These cards bordered on ‘GM Hint’ cards, but they allowed an easier way through odd situations and were used sparingly because of their general utility.
There was the Connection card, which allowed the player that used it to know someone in the area that could help them. It’s a simple thing, and it gave the feeling that the characters were an active part of a living world. They might be somewhere in India, but they had the chance of running into a friend of theirs from back home. It helped develop the complex backstories of the characters on the fly.
From there were the Mistaken Identity, True Identity and Suspicion cards. The Mistaken Identity allowed the GM to throw a confused NPC in the path of the character in question, and depending on the situation, this could either allow the character to past a difficult situation (“Isn’t that the Commandant? Let him through!”) or land them in something a whole lot worse. (“What’s the notorious war criminal doing in Tangier? After him!”) True Identity was a little more problematic to pull off, but when it happened, it was that much more precious. Essentially, it would allow the player to throw it in whenever their connection to the plot was more significant than previously assumed. This could either take the form of a previously unknown revelation about the character’s past that they had never revealed, or one that even they were unaware of. And Suspicion was a hot potato of drawing unwanted attention to oneself, either from the NPC’s around them or from their own team mates.
These subplots were able to be played either for an immediate Possibility (essentially discarding them without any other effect) or as a multi-scene effect, where the character would be enmeshed in this plot for as long as it took, and they would receive an extra possibility for each scene the subplot was active for. Because of the longer burn and the higher reward, my experience was that players would go for the active subplot rather than the immediate reward.
Another multi-scene subplot card was the Nemesis card, which turned an adventure’s villain into a direct thorn in a specific character’s side. While the Nemesis card was in play, the villain spun his plots against the group, but he was intent on destroying the character in question personally. Coupled with the Campaign card, which could be played to make a specific subplot permanent from game to game, this allowed longer term returning villains to plague the characters.
The most popular of these subplots, however, was the Romance card. There were a number of points when I saw this card played on behalf of other players, just to screw with each other. One game in particular had an FBI Agent that was investigating a number of occult murders, where one of his informants was a teenaged girl that knew some of the details of the situation. A Romance card got thrown to give the girl a crush on the older agent. This was followed by a Campaign card to make the teen crush a permanent and recurring character in the plot.
It should go without saying that this was not looked upon in kindly terms by the FBI Agent’s superiors. Or his fiancee, for that matter.
As an example of how these cards can affect a game, I’ll run over the high points of one short campaign that I ran a couple of years back. I’d dusted off some old Top Secret modules that I’d played in (and therefore knew the plots backward and forward), and the players built CIA Agents to run through the plot. It was a low pressure, blow stuff up sort of game, which allowed much of what took place from there.
The characters were assigned to help set up what amounted to being a CIA listening post in a banana republic in the Caribbean. (For those diehards that are reading this, it was the Web of Deceit module.) The characters show up in the airport on the island, and the first thing that happens is a Suspicion card gets dropped. Since they’ve been playing for all of five minutes, I decide this applies to the lead agent, who’s already a little sketchy about things. He becomes suspicious of the limousine driver, thereby missing his ride into the city and setting up further paranoia.
The characters are tasked with searching for a missing nuclear scientist that was looking to defect. They decide to ask around and eventually start checking the morgues. In the process, a Mistaken Identity is played upon the lead agent (again), who seems to bear a striking resemblance to a known international weapons smuggler. One of the local drug cartels gets fidgety and decides to kidnap him, tazing him and throwing him in the trunk of a car. (Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the subplot is made permanent. He is now known to be Kowalski, the gun runner.) The other members of his team set out to look for him, but a True Identity is played by one of them. In the interest of brevity, I declare that this allows the cartels to identify the other character as being an associate of Kowalski, essentially by having them be seen together. The other characters get ambushed and kidnapped as well.
In the mean time, the character now assumed to be Kowalski wakes up in a dog cage and convinces me allow him to use pocket change to unbend the hooks holding the cage together. He escapes the cage, beats his captor to death with it, and manages to rescue his team mates when they show up in custody.
By this point, the Kowalski subplot has taken on a life of its own, and the team decides to call in support to help them out – in the form of new players that have joined the game for that session. None of the original team is able to do any amount of investigation in the city they were in, being that they were now marked as being associates of a well known international criminal. Later on, another player character was recruited by one of the cartels (all of whom were on guard with the presence of Kowalski), because (being Cuban) he ran into a friend of his from Miami through the play of a Personal Stake card while standing around a coffee shop.
Sadly, the game never proceeded much farther, but given the way that the subplots rolled out in the sessions that were played, it had utterly changed the landscape of the plot in extremely interesting ways. A fairly simple plot sequence had been derailed by the players, and the result was that they’d made the game that much deeper than it had originally been written to be.
Narrative manipulation and cooperation shows up in a number of modern games, but the systems for it are a little less random and unpredictable. For me, the Drama Deck managed the subplot mechanic wonderfully, but the fact that it’s been limited down to one particular subset of out of print games is something I continue to find depressing.
I had intended to cover the ‘chip’ system from Deadlands in my post on Character Points, but lingering cold that I’ve been annoyed by over the past week fogged up my connections enough that I was lucky to be able to get through the basics of Torg and Star Wars without lapsing into word salad. So rather than try to stretch a quick discussion of one aspect of one game into 1,000 words, I might as well talk about the entire game of Deadlands for bit.
Deadlands was first published in 1996 by Pinnacle Entertainment, the brainchild of Shane Hensley – a former West End Games and TSR writer. According to the lore surrounding the game, the cover art by Brom of the undead cowboy managed to both precede the game line and serve as the inspiration for the game itself.
And I’ll be honest, based on the industry at the time, it was a really weird decision to publish this game in the first place. Westerns have never been popular as role-playing games, and steampunk horror western seemed even less likely to succeed. For my own experience, it’s always been a hard sell initially, since there isn’t much in the way of movie or book source material to compare the game to. (And the movies that do exist are universally considered to be awful. No one outside of a dedicated Deadlands fanbase went to see Wild Wild West or Gallowwalkers.) But for whatever reason, it caught on. It didn’t hurt that the game had an extremely solid internet presence at the time, which had a stock of one-night adventures easily available on the web. For my own part, that was enough to keep me playing and running the game as I learned the rules.
The dice system is extremely solid, using mechanics that recognizably derive from other dice pool-based games with exploding dice. Attributes are rated from D4 to D12, with skills that note how many of the dice you throw. (There is a weird, counter-intuitive bit where the attribute has its own rating of number of dice thrown, which has no bearing on the skills it governs.) Any dice that roll their maximum ‘ace’ or explode, allowing that die to be rolled again and added to the previous. The highest result of the given dice is then compared to the total.
Being a western game, Deadlands hews close to its genre, putting as many of the mechanics that it can into poker themes. Character generation is handled by drawing twelve cards from a deck. Initiative is rolled, but the player draws a number of cards from a deck based on the roll, with actions passing in order of card value and suit. Magic is handled with dice to determine how many cards are drawn, and the player has to assemble as high a hand as they can from the cards they are dealt. And finally, experience points and luck are handled using poker chips.
Whatever faults you can find with Deadlands or Pinnacle, you can’t say they didn’t stick to their themes.
Characters started each session with a draw from the pot, randomly selecting which chips they’d have to influence their rolls. They could also carry over any unspent chips they had from the previous session and any amount of experience they had earned, as well, up to a maximum of ten chips. Anything above that was automatically turned into ‘bounty,’ which was the untouchable well of experience points. If a player chose, they could convert all of their extra chips into bounty, but it tended to be a poor idea.
Naturally, chips came in three essential colors – white, red, and blue. They all did similar things, but white chips were mostly worthless. Red chips were a lot better, but they allowed the Marshal to draw chips of his own to help the adversaries of the scenario. Blue chips were the best, functioning like red chips, but without the drawback of letting the Marshal make things worse.
Chips could be used to boost rolls, avoid wounds, and activate powers. Depending on which sort of personal mojo a Deadlands character was using, it often hinged on their ability to activate it with chips. This allowed the powerful stuff to be limited accordingly, as it was eating into potential experience, but it also offered a different economy than games like Star Wars or Torg, where the points had to be rationed out between skill rolls and powers. And for the most part, it worked really well.
There were exceptions, however.
As far as games went, Deadlands was not terribly well balanced. The two most egregious abuses of power that I found in the course of play were Harrowed and Blessed, oddly enough. The damned and the sainted were able to fuck over the experience system in ways that probably should have been accounted for.
Harrowed were the setting’s resident undead. Generally pretty zombie-like in appearance – although that was just the flavor most people were familiar with, as there were other options – Harrowed were the unquiet dead that had been brought back from beyond for some reason or another. There was a mechanic in the game (card based, of course) that allowed a character slain in the course of a session to randomly determine whether or not they were able to rise from the dead and return to play with a host of new powers.
The problem was that, by becoming Harrowed, they no longer worried about being killed the same way the rest of the party might have to. And on the surface, this seems wildly obvious. The problem is that, for a lot of people, chips in Deadlands were used mainly to reduce wounds. If wounds are no longer an issue the same way, the player that’s got a Harrowed character suddenly has a vast surplus of experience coming their way. It doesn’t take long for a posse of characters to be quickly overshadowed by the guy with the undead cowboy.
There were some vague ways to try to remedy this imbalance of points, but none of them did much beyond taking the character away or forcing the player to try compensating through role played angst. The dead guy may end up with long scenes lamenting his cursed state, but he’s also the best and fastest gunslinger in the group.
The other end of the scale has the Blessed breaking the game. Most of this came from the specific splatbook on the characters, but they were pretty good even in the main game. Blessed, logically, are the preachers of the setting, who are dedicated to smiting evil in a world gone wrong. They have a good stock of powers to back them up, and unlike the wizards of the setting, the Hucksters, they don’t have any real mechanical drawback to their powers. Where the Hucksters risk physical or mental damage in casting spells, the Blessed don’t have to deal with much more than a code of conduct that guides them.
Where it becomes game breaking, however, is when the less obvious setting rules come into play along side the new rules presented in the book for the Blessed characters. In the context of the setting, Blessed are usually preachers in the Old West. As such, they’re based mostly on their Spiritual abilities to power their supernatural effects, but they also have to be able to command an audience. (This falls into my usual contention that Social Combat in most role playing games is either poorly implemented or ignored, leaving it open to abuse by players that understand the system.) And buried in the rules are the effects of trying to fight back against the main villains of the setting with stories. Specifically, every time a story about triumphing over evil (y’know, what the characters did last week?) is told to an audience of specific size, the party is rewarded with a special kind of chip being added to the pot. And this chip can be used to invoke Old Testament styled Acts of God.
This is the high end of abusive power for Blessed. The more readily available perks allow them to substitute their Faith score (usually their highest stat) for most combat defenses, become empowered by their god to resist damage naturally, and gain spare experience points simply for converting people to their cause. A properly tweaked out preacher can have scores of experience points just for walking around money. When they add in the Acts of God nonsense, they become vaguely intolerable.
I say this from a position of experience, as I have played enough Blessed characters to give Marshals a lasting sense of dread. Yeah, I liked my characters well enough, but they weren’t especially fair to the other players.