Favorite RPG Illustrator — #RPGaDay2015, Day 12

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Illustrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Writer — #RPGaDay2015, Day 11

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

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

But it might be fun.

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

Favorite RPG Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Publisher — #RPGaDay2015, Day 10

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.

Favorite Media That Should Be An RPG — #RPGaDay2015, Day 9

This entry has amusing potential.  The first thing that occurs to me is that most of my favorite media have been made into RPG’s already.  I mean, if we rank my general obsessions in order, we’ve already got a quick couple of hits without working very hard.  Star Wars has seen three separate RPG adaptations, Game of Thrones has been done in a D20 edition by Guardians of Order and the Chronicle System by Green Ronin, Star Trek was done by FASA, Task Force Games and Last Unicorn Games, Battlestar Galactica was given an adaptation at the hands of Margaret Weis Productions and Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth has seen a GURPS treatment.  I guess I could tag Foster’s Spellsinger series, but any gamer worth their salt could adapt that world to any number of extant systems.  Other than the titular spellsinging, there isn’t much to separate any of the milieu from any other fantasy setting, talking animals notwithstanding.

Secondly, there’s the general adaptability of properties in the hands of gamers.  Even a wildly complex worldset isn’t hard to put to paper with the current crop of games in the marketplace.  Hells, the number of times I’ve heard a gamer talking about bringing this or that idea to Fate is incalculable.  And as we’ve seen with the Fate adaptation of Mass Effect, it can be done extremely well.  (Even if the broader implications of this adaptation are in question.)

So, to properly serve this category, I suppose this would have to encompass a property that required a) broader and more granular systems to properly encompass the feel of the game as translated from its original form or b) a staff of writers to add onto the property in a way that gelled with the original ideas put forth in the property’s existing milieu.

Let’s consider each of these aspects for a moment, with a couple of examples to illustrate where I’m going with the core assumptions I’m working under.

And just to get it out of the way, let’s set aside the reality that pretty much anything can be modeled with Fate rules.  That’s sort of a given in discussions like this, which I pretty much assign as State Zero.  Since Fate tends to be wholly universal, you can accept the assumption and move onto other topics.

If you want to put together a properly granular system to simulate the particulars of a given property, there are specific qualities that must be considered for the translation to RPG material.  Let’s put Star Wars on the block for this one.  In the FFG Star Wars games, there is a fully discrete system to model equipment for the sake of blaster,  armor and vehicle customization.  This falls directly in line with much of the spirit of the movies and the expanded properties of the Star Wars universe.  Han Solo discusses why the Falcon is better than equivalent ships, Gallandro is known for his custom pistols, Boba Fett’s armor and weaponry is unique to him, and lightsaber design prefigures a great deal of the personality of the individual Jedi Knights.  Similarly, there is a careful dissection of Force Powers, allowing careful customization of Jedi characters as they develop.  This falls in line with the feel of the expanded universe, where each Jedi character had their own area of specialty.

What if we were to apply this sort of system to another referenced property, Spellsinger?

There isn’t a lot of necessary system tweaks that are needed for the world.  The most interesting parts of the general society are the differentiation of the particular species of creatures.  Warmblooded creatures form the main society that the reader is introduced to, the insects are the ancient and feared enemies, and arachnids are a sort of neutral party that is persuaded to help in the war.  Reptiles (with the exception of dragons) are the unintelligent animals that serve as food and service creatures.  Other than this, there isn’t a lot that differentiates things from something like Pathfinder or even Warhammer Fantasy.  In fact, the latter might be a better fit, given the outwardly crappy level of civilization and magic in a low fantasy setting.

The other criterion I set forth above was the dedicated staff that exists to add depth and detail to an established setting to bring forth new insight or direction for the property.  It’s one thing to have a game where the players are re-creating the protagonists of the media for their own adventures.  (Oddly, the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG skirts the edge of violating this precept, even as they offer ways to expand the setting.  When the books exist as a faithful and loving episode guide, even as they talk of new directions, it’s a little hard to figure out how the game is meant to be played.)

To revisit the Star Wars example, the WEG D6 version of the game was so detail-oriented that Lucasfilm used the books as their own internal guides.  One of the original WEG writers, Pablo Hidalgo, went on to work for Lucasfilm on this basis, having shown his knowledge of the property to a sufficient extent.

And to apply it to the Spellsinger license, anyone familiar with the novels would quickly realize that this level of detail is completely unnecessary.  Foster himself added onto the setting as he went along, with each subsequent novel going in some unexplored direction and throwing together whatever detail was needed.  While a new staff of writers could go ahead and add brand new nations and the like, it doesn’t represent the same sort of inherent challenge that other properties might.  In Star Wars, there’s a multitude of aliens seen in the background, all with their own particular stories.  Spellsinger doesn’t really have the same requirement of depth.

Whuf.  That was a lengthy preamble.

Favorite Media That Should Be An RPG

When I sat down to consider this topic entry, there were two properties that came to mind immediately.  Both of them are videogames that I’ve dedicated an unseemly amount of time to and that have broader and deeper worlds that they exist within.  They both work on very particular worldsets, with distinct themes and ideals, and the play within these worlds would feel very distinct.

The first one is Borderlands and its attendant sequels.  These games are fairly straightforward, run and gun shooters with light RPG elements and a Diablo-styled random weapon generator.  The Sirens have a complex history and lore that melds nicely to pen & paper role-playing, and any game that encourages a robust combat system that involves tactics, positioning and what amounts to being animal companions would make an easy transition to the tabletop.  While the game is set entirely on Pandora and its surrounding environs, there are enough references to the greater surrounding universe to ground a series of sourcebooks and supplemental material.

What’s interesting is that the crew at Gearbox are a known quantity of RPG geeks, evidenced as much by the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC as anything else.  Why this game hasn’t been auctioned off to an RPG developer is actually a little beyond me.

That said, Gearbox is headquartered in Austin, TX, home of Steve Jackson Games, so I guess we’re lucky that it hasn’t ended up as a GURPS splatbook.

The other property is Dishonored, the weirdly beautiful and discordant stealth game.  The rich and intricate city of Dunwall hints at the larger world around the insular Empire, even as it turns the focus inward.  The complex moral aspects of the main characters, the interference of the Outsider, and the eldritch happenings that underlie the setting all make for rich detail that could be brought forth in the hands of an invested game company.

That said, this is a property owned by Bethesda, whose D&D influences are well documented, even as they have never licensed anything from Elder Scrolls for tabletop.  It’s hard to say whether a Dishonored RPG is even possible.

Favorite RPG Media Appearance — #RPGaDay2015, Day 8

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.

Favorite Free Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 7

Well, if I had been slightly more ambitious, I might have gotten ahead of the curve on this thing by now.  Alas, my weekends are just busy enough with accumulated nonsense that I haven’t managed to do a great deal of writing.  And today doesn’t look to be any better on that count than the last couple of days.

Favorite Free Game

The original intention of this one doesn’t really flip my switches, if indeed we are talking about actual fully playable RPG’s that are completely free.  I’m not sure what actually falls into this category, other than some of the weirder Open Game License products out there on the net, and my general disinterest for the ephemeral nature of some guy’s weird PDF’s is not enough to warrant a very wide selection.

That said, I do have a nomination for such a game, which I will cover at the end of this.

If I expand the definition out to include “Free RPG Products” of some sort or another, I can come up with a clear winner outright.  This comes from the vaguely dubious “Free RPG Day” cohort of products.  I’m not generally a fan of Free RPG Day, since I come from an area where there isn’t any real selection of gaming stores in the first place, and the ones that actually participate in Free RPG Day are a slim number at best.  Where I used to live, the main store that stocked such was run by nattering dipshits who picked over the stock of good products before the public was given access, and they were about the only outlet in roughly a hundred miles in any direction.

While the idea is solid, the practical nature of the promotion leaves a lot to be desired, given the slow death of the local gaming store.  In the mythical heyday of game shops scattered through a region, this would have been the way to garner interest and attract a wide audience.  Instead, we have a mere handful of stores in a large metro area, and nothing in the sticks.  And guess where I ended up landing?

All grousing aside, my broad-based pick for this category is the We Be Goblins series of modules from Paizo.  These are their recent line of Free RPG Day wares, as of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, and they concern the exploits of a handful of Golarion Goblins and their struggles against … well, mostly their own bad tendencies.

Paizo had done previous Free RPG Day modules, most of which were unremarkable.  I remember the Kobold King modules, vaguely, but I never had any opportunity or excuse to run them.

The Goblin series, on the other hand, came into play when I needed a quick series of one-off games for some guests one weekend.  I’d picked up all three as they came out, skimmed the basics, and put them on the shelf.  They’re very simple and straightforward, and the original served as a sort of sideways introduction to the Jade Regent path, as it details one of the important set pieces of the module from a different point of view.

In these modules, the players are given their choice of goblin characters from the Licktoad Tribe.  (This is as awful and descriptive as you would expect.)  The opening of the module has them competing for favor from the Goblin King (in a series of weirdly brutal games) before heading off to deal with a threat to the tribe.  (Actually, they’re sent off to steal some fireworks, only to accidentally deal with a threat to the tribe.  Such are goblin adventures.)

The four goblin PC’s are terrible creatures, in keeping with the longstanding portrayal of these creatures in the Pathfinder game.  They’re to be played for brutal and comedic effect, which my players readily picked up.  As the adventure unfolded, they pushed each other to more horrible feats of daring, just for the sake of “being as goblin as possible” in the game.

Each of the three modules build on the previous, even though they’re largely considered single session distractions.  By the time the third one starts, the characters are heading their own tribe, with all that implies.  Paizo even put out miniatures for the characters in one of their blind pack releases.  This has the weird effect not only of making these figures more expensive than goblins would normally rate, but their pig animal companion rates the highest price around for a farm animal miniature.

In short, these modules are great, and it’s worth the time to seek them out.

Insofar as the actual free RPG product that I referenced above, this is a bit of a grey area that I’ve heard people bitch about a little while back.

The background on this is that a professional game designer got it in his mind to work up a fan project that he had been monkeying around with in his spare time.  Being a known quantity in the industry, he laid out and built a solidly publishable product as a fan work and posted it on his website.  Since he wasn’t charging for the game, he let it sit without seeking the rights and permissions.

The problem came in with the fact that he submitted it for consideration at the Ennie Awards.  Since it wasn’t any sort of official game, unlicensed and outside of the interest of the trademark holders, the internet blew back on the writer because it was somehow a ripoff of intellectual property.  In the ensuing firestorm, the creator had to delete it from his website and essentially go into hiding.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up getting a lawsuit along the way.

Part of me can see the indignation, but the reaction was well into the shrill and nasty end of the spectrum for a piece of fan-created work.  There was no profit, and had it not pissed off people voting on industry awards (the fan awards, if we want to be honest about things; none of this nonsense was due to the Origin Awards), it would still be up for general download and perusal.

The game I’m talking about is the Mass Effect Fate RPG, which was one of the best uses of the Fate OGL that I’ve seen.  Given that the original CRPG game is a gestalt of a dozen recognizable science fiction properties (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Alien, to name a couple easy examples), screaming “ripoff” to the winds seems a tad ironic to my ears.  I have my own copy of the free PDF, and when opportunity affords, I intend to sit down and make use of this particular free product, even in the face of collective indignation.

Most Recent RPG Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 6

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.

Most Recent RPG Purchase — #RPGaDay2015, Day 5

Well, if nothing else, this spate of writing has allowed me to close the distance.  I started out nearly a week behind, and by tomorrow, I should have caught myself up to the point where I can focus on a mere 1,000 words a day.  (Whuf.  At some point soon, I should lower my standards a little.  It’s not like I’m getting paid for any of these words.)

And as far as topics go, this is a fun one, really.  Coming off the crest of the Gen Con, there’s plenty to be considered as a recent purchase.  (As one vendor at the convention asked me, “Did you come to Gen Con to save money?”)  In the same breath, I’m caught wondering how inclusive to be with this entry.  How much interest is there going to be in a cross-sectional listing of what I most recently brought home and stuck into the as-yet unorganized Library?

Then I think to myself, there are less than ten readers shuffling through this site.  Am I going to offend or bore anyone that’s left?

Most Recent RPG Purchase

Pre-Gen Con, there was the previous noted internet fire sale that netted me a bunch of Cthulhu Mythos stuff at ridiculous discounts.  This included The Laundry, along with several supplements.  As I was to learn at Gen Con, there are far more books for this game line than I had anticipated.  At least this is a good start.  There was also Actung! Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu, which only really included the main books for the line.  Still plenty of reading material when I get to it.  And finally, there was the final two issues of Worlds of Cthulhu, which ranks as my favorite gaming periodical of recent years.  I picked up the first couple issues while I was living in South Korea, so this magazine is hardly printed on a regular basis.  I’m not even sure if it is still considered to be in production, but I will gladly buy more if they make more.

At Gen Con, there was the Lone Wolf Adventure Game, which I had purchased with the Kickstarter and picked up at the convention.  This game is a beautiful, wonderful thing.  The only downside also ranks as one of its selling points, oddly.  Cubicle 7 is working to bring back the idea of the boxed set game, which means that they’re trying to recapture the helpful inclusiveness of the old Red Box D&D (both the original and the 4e version).  Both One Ring and Lone Wolf are working under this philosophy, which is a fine thing, but boxed sets are something of a headache for me, both in how to include them in my Library and how to keep from beating them to shreds in the course of play.  I far prefer hardcovers these days, simply because I know they’ll stand up.

I also picked up a copy of the Heaven and Earth edition of Tenra Bansho Zero, which means I have hardcover editions of this game as well.  Sadly, my world book was damaged in transit back, and I’m currently considering tracking down another copy, just to be safe.  It’s a hefty price to pay for a game I have yet to play, but I have high hopes for this game, once I have time and space to work up a campaign for it.

From the used game bin, I harvested some properly odd offerings.

First up was a fairly cheap copy of Torg Revised & Expanded, which originally priced at $50 and seems to go for thrice that these days.  Suffice to say, I found a steal on that one.  (They also had a copy of Continuum, which I was tempted by, but they actually knew the value of that one.)  The Torg R&E gives me a spare copy of that game, should I need it.  I may trade it off, depending, but that remains to be seen.

In the same booth as the Torg book, I found a decent copy of Blood of Heroes, the old Mayfair DC Heroes RPG with all of the trademarks and serial numbers carefully scraped off.  I’d parted with my original copy some years back, as a friend of mine was heavily into the simplified Batman RPG rules and wanted to play bigger and gnarlier games.  The copy I found needs to be pressed flat, as it had been stored badly and the spine needs to be straightened.

And finally, I found a copy of Age of Ruin in a different stall, at 50% of original retail.  This one is interesting in that it comes from an otherwise unknown RPG company (their other product line, Into the Badlands, doesn’t even exist at Noble Knight), published in 1990 as a one-off, and I game with one of the developers of the game.  I can’t say that it’s a good game, but it is an interesting artifact of the time.  It’s a weird, post-apocalyptic RPG with terrible artwork, questionable concepts, and a percentile core system.  But it’s worth what I paid for it, in terms of conversation piece, and that makes it worthy of sitting on the shelf.  The strange thing is that Noble Knight normally wants $60 for this artifact, which is weird in itself.  And apparently, there was an Age of Ruin adventure that made it into White Wolf Magazine, back in the day.

There was also a copy of Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer #5 in the same booth, which was pretty strange.  This was a short-lived incarnation of an earlier, influential gaming magazine of the first years of gaming.  I had picked up copies of the magazine when it was originally published (gads, that’s telling my age), but my copies are lost somewhere in the ethers of various moves.  The idea behind the magazine was to offer ideas for the popular games of the time, as well as including one complete and wholly playable RPG in each issue.  Issue #5 had powersuit cops as its basis, which was pretty solidly presented and looked like it might have been a Cyberpunk 2020 scenario otherwise.

That covers my recent purchases, but it’s worth noting that these were specific purchases under specific circumstances.

By comparison, my upcoming purchases will be a little more mainstream.  This will include a copy of the Force and Destiny main book (now that it’s out), a new copy of Edge of the Empire (as I gave away my original copy), a new Pathfinder core book (to counter the wear and tear), copies of Occult Adventures, Advanced Race Guide, Advanced Class Guide, and a couple of Pathfinder Bestiaries.  I might splurge on the Giantslayer Adventure Path, but that will depend on what sales I manage.  Otherwise, I’m debating an entry into the Krosmaster minis game, simply because I’ve been pressured by one of my friends in that direction (and there are some deals I have found), and I need to get some of the new X-Wing pieces when I get a chance.

Most Surprising Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 4

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.

Favorite New Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 3

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.