I’ve talked here and there about FFG’s Star Wars games, and I just put up a post about the new L5R game they put out. While I’m at it, I want to touch on a couple of other points. My first instinct has been to gush about the overall quality of FFG games, both in their production and rules, but I would be remiss were I to ignore the company’s questionable past. Fantasy Flight’s success with actual role-playing games has been pretty spotty, with them handling a number of solid properties and then unceremoniously dumping them when sales or general interest flagged.
Foremost among these was, of course, the venerable British property, Warhammer. FFG acquired the license to produce both Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K from Black Industries in 2007. From there, they expanded the WH40K property into a full five separate lines – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War and Black Crusade, for those playing at home; six, if we count 2nd Edition Dark Heresy on its own. Overall, this ended up with a catalogue of over 50 books, by my count, including modules.
They also developed a wholly new system for Warhammer Fantasy that involved new, color-coded dice and cards to track actions and degrees of success. While the game line managed close to two dozen products in its line, they only managed to publish it for about three years before abandoning it entirely. The only bright point in this mess was that the new system of weird dice led directly to their work with the new Star Wars and Genesys lines and their narrative dice system.
All in all, FFG held onto the copyrights for Warhammer Fantasy and 40K for about seven years. In that time, they managed to put out some well-regarded books; but somewhere along the line, the decision was made to kill the games, and there was no apparent effort to try to salvage the properties. Perhaps the decision to bring about a second edition of Dark Heresy was one such attempt, but the only products brought forth on that line were all quickly put out in 2014, the last gasp of any WH40K products from FFG.
Less well known was the Anima line, which was a translation of a European (Spain, if we’re being specific) RPG based on Japanese properties like Final Fantasy and Suikoden. Much like Warhammer, they held the license for about ten years and then discontinued the line with little fanfare. I can’t specifically blame FFG for the demise of this line, given that the original Spanish version seems to have faded away shortly after it got translated into English, but it’s not like a robust American company couldn’t have expanded upon the property and continued producing material.
And this isn’t even to talk about their early foray into RPG’s with the Midnight line, which was a 3.5 / D20 OGL world that is best summed up as “Lord of the Rings, only if Sauron had won.” This particular line had over a dozen supplements, a second edition, a boxed set, and even a movie to its name, yet it vanished completely after being published for just over five years. Less well known D20-era games like Dragonstar, Dawnforge and Fireborn feel like they’ve been dropped into the memory hole altogether.
And much as I love their direction on the three Star Wars lines, it’s not hard to question their future plans with the game, being as they’ve already slowed their news on the next supplements coming out. This spring had four hardcovers in the pipeline, and as of Gen Con, they soft-pedaled the news on the line to focus on things like L5R. (Even Genesys was dropped in priority, and they have something like five potential game worlds they can immediately roll out for it.) At present, there’s literally only one book, and it’s going to be the Prequel Trilogy / Clone Wars book. (And while I like the Clone Wars cartoon, I’m inclined to write my own history on both that and the Prequels.)
All of this is mysterious to my perception, this promotion and subsequent abandonment. West End Games only lost the Star Wars license when their company imploded. And the decision of Alderac to divest L5R seems to have been driven by their decision to move their company over to a boardgame focus. Pinnacle has dived into the business of their Savage Worlds properties (a mistake in my mind), but they still hold tightly to all of their Deadlands IP.
So, to sum up… While I really like the new system that Fantasy Flight has designed for L5R, I’m hesitant to hope much for the future of the game in their hands. Alderac put out the first edition of the L5R RPG back in 1996, and even with the weird hiccups that went along with the game briefly transitioning to Wizards of the Coast,* AEG managed to hold onto the rights for the game through four editions and twenty years.
In comparison, FFG’s best selling line (until Star Wars overtook it, I would presume) has been Warhammer 40K. They put out the first books in 2008, and the last books in the line were hurriedly dumped out in 2014. They held the license for another two years before announcing they were terminating their relationship with Black Industries, after which it ended up in the hands of Ulisses Spiele, the guys that have been putting out the new Torg Eternity. This means that the best that FFG has been able to do in supporting and continuing a line has been seven years.
And well, they’re coming up on year six with Star Wars (Edge of the Empire was put out in 2013, not counting the Beta), and it’s looking like that line has slowed to a near stop with few signs of actual life. I don’t know as I see much hope for L5R being able to make it beyond 2024, given their track record thus far.
I mean, sure… it’s going to be very high quality, great art and production values. But I don’t know that we’re going to see any real future for a game that has come this far over all these years. At best, I think we’re going to see about a dozen books for the line (all the Great Clans, a couple of location books, some storyline books, and a handful of modules), but sooner or later, FFG is going to abandon the line like they have done all these times before, and it’s a question of what’s going to happen from that point.
*This was a tangled mess, really. As I understood it at the time, Wizards was looking for a domestic source to print their Magic cards, being as they had been outsourcing to Carta Mundi in Belgium. They saw the opportunity to acquire Five Rings Publishing, which was the card printing company that was attached to AEG. In doing so, they ended up with L5R, printing the 2nd Edition main books with the Wizards logo alongside the AEG logo. This led to the D20 Oriental Adventures being set in Rokugan and 2nd Edition L5R being dual-statted to D20 and Roll & Keep. Somewhere in the process, things reverted back to AEG, and 3rd and 4th Edition L5R went back to the original dice.
And this underscores the weirdness of AEG and their handling of property. Back in the day, they had some sort of arrangement with Pinnacle, to the point that the two game companies briefly shared ownership of Brave New World, a dystopic supers game that used a system similar to Pinnacle’s Deadlands. The core books were put out by Pinnacle, but all subsequent books ended up being AEG properties. This was along the same time that AEG was handling Pinnacle’s Doomtown card game, so there was the sense that the way BNW was handled had to do with the distribution rights for Doomtown, but no one really talked much about it.
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.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the games that I like to play that I have a taste for the esoteric and that which is decidedly new. (It will come as a surprise, however, that I’m managing to upload a post. Suffice to say that the last couple of months have been oddly harrowing, and the less said about the search for a place to live … the better. For the moment, let no news be, well, no news.)
Lately, I’ve been putting more focus on the “Foreign Games Translated Into English” range of the spectrum. I’ve already put words to games like Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as Shadows of Esteren. Lately, I’ve been looking over games like Double Cross, Kuro, and Anima: Beyond Fantasy, reveling in the inherent strangeness that accompanies their particular design philosophies and trying to make sense of the directions that they wander into.
I’ve come to feel like there’s a well-trod canon that most American RPG’s fall back into. My friend, the Admiral, spends a fair amount of time referencing the vaunted Appendix N from the old Dungeon Master’s Guide, a hoary list of sources and inspirational material that helped craft the core of Dungeons and Dragons from its outset. It’s an interesting selection to peruse in depth, but as I’m going through these new games, I’m left to wonder if it has become a sort of limitation on the hobby. Time was, all such things were new and fascinating, and the suggested reading in a game like Vampire: the Masquerade would yield up something that could form a future obsession. These days, it becomes a recitation of the expected, pulling from a shopworn selection of works that everyone else has been using.
It’s sort of like opening an RPG manual and finding that the artwork has been inspired by Japanese Anime or that the setting owes its ideas to Tolkien. It’s all been done, it all rings the same way. Back in the day, it was pretty cool to have a game dip briefly into Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; now, a game without a Cthulhu cameo seems weird.
This is what’s captivating my interest with these new games. All of the things that have become mainstays in American RPG Design are either absent or lacking in emphasis, leaving a raft of curious and unexpected elements to come to the fore.
The easiest example is Ryuutama. Here’s a game that looks like it should either be geared toward elementary students or 8-bit video game enthusiasts. The artwork is simple and centered in Japanese cultural expectations, and the game is supposed to invite a sense of pastoral, homey good feelings. (They actually market the game with the Japanese term, “hono-bono,” even as they make reference to Ghibli films.) There isn’t any attempt to sell it as appealing to an American audience (there is a conspicuous lack of Frazetta styled barbarian warriors or supple warrior women), and the game is fine with that. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly a kid’s game. There’s a level of meta-narrative that rarely shows up in Western games, where the GM has to build and track the experience points of his own PC, which is integrated into his role in crafting the game while still managing to remain separate. (As a note, West End’s Tales From The Crypt RPG was similarly meta-narrative focused, but there aren’t many people that are familiar with or own that particular title. And even fewer that have run it.)
A game like Ryuutama is never going to compete with Pathfinder. That’s not its intent. Ryuutama is a game for a specific niche audience, and the translators are bringing it over to the States as a labor of love more than anything else. (Kotodama also brought over Tenra Bansho Zero, which occupies a completely different end of the Japanese Games spectrum.) And in doing so, it has a completely different footprint than any other game on the market. It’s doing things that Pathfinder or Edge of the Empire or any of the old White Wolf games would never be able to do, simply because they’re coming from an American point of view and sensibilities, with the intention to cater to the same qualities in their audience.
There’s also the inspiration that comes with these games, since they manage to step outside of the normal range of experience. In reading them, I find myself venturing into new territory with my ideas, as different realms of possibility present themselves.
I’ve been skimming through Makkura, the adventure supplement for the utterly brilliant Kuro RPG from Septieme Cercle. Kuro is one of those games that I feel was built specifically with me in mind. (This is a common sort of relevance that I am faced with from French game publishers; Shadows of Esteren kindled a similar feeling, what with its Ravenloft, Lovecraft and Game of Thrones source.)
At its base, Kuro is a cyberpunk noir horror game, set solely in a dystopic Japan. After living there for a time, I feel like I could run wild with this setting, so long as I had a group that was willing to listen to me drone on about the smell of burning rice husks and the peculiar clutter of a Japanese office. In reading through one of the modules, I found myself immersed in the alien reality of its world, adding my own details as I went along. One scene involved a cryptic message from an old acquaintance as the characters stood on the subway platform. Already, I could see myself building the scene narration, talking about the sudden overpressure as the train approached, the alarm bells ringing overhead and the unseen energy of the crowd as they tensed in anticipation.
That’s just speaking to my own experiential base, though. I’ve set games in locales that my players were unfamiliar with, just to offer some sort of variant perspective and make use of things I have seen. I’ve done the same thing in a number of bog-standard American games.
The idea that I’m trying to lay hold of is that there are cultural artifacts laying beneath the surface of foreign games, and these fragments of perspective offer new directions to propel your games into. Double Cross puts forth a superhero genre game, even as it suggests homicidal teenagers and secretive cabals with world-changing agendas. Ryuutama codifies a sense of innocence and pastoral wholesomeness into its very rules. This isn’t a game that you could run George Martin-esque gritty fantasy in, since the system doesn’t lend itself to such. And Kuro imparts a grimy sense of isolation that I recognize from having walked the same streets as the game designers.
Games like Pathfinder and Edge of the Empire speak to us as Americans. The designers think like we do, which leaves us to absorb the ruleset without having to grapple with anything new underlying the game itself. They are comfortable and familiar, which makes the adaptation to the gaming table a quick and painless process. Sure, there may be new rules or intricacies that need to be figured out, but that’s a minor sort of implication, overall.
Conversely, I sit and consider my properly gorgeous collection of Shadows of Esteren, which requires that I realign my thinking to that of the designers, and a more foreign group of guys I have never met. They look at our gaming and fantasy culture, distill down the important parts to their games, and offer back a concoction that doesn’t initially make sense. I love my books and all, but it’s going to take me some time and careful research to figure out how I’m going to run a game worthy of the source material. It’s that alien to me.
And naturally, I look forward to this immensely.
Two closing points that I haven’t had the time or energy to fit into the main body of this post:
1.) I would never have considered trying to run a game like Ryuutama with any seriousness, even though I love the strange fantasy that it suggests. It simply isn’t something that I could have made work on my own. (As a point of note, I was direly fascinated with Legend of Mana (Seiken Densetsu, originally) back in the day, since it was wildly colorful and imaginative. But I’m far too horror-oriented in my RPG’s to have gotten much farther than daydreaming about it and moving on.) This is a good portion of why I have become vaguely obsessed with Ryuutama since I first heard about it. There’s enough material in it to suggest all manner of fun distraction. It isn’t a terribly serious game, what with tea-cup neko-goblins and all, but that’s a good portion of the joy of it all.
2.) Right now, I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of a set of books for Anima: Beyond Fantasy. I had held off picking it up for a long time, since it looked like little more than a variant of Exalted, which dropped it down the scale a ways. It didn’t help that FFG was taking a shotgun approach to its marketing, what with a miniatures game and a card game to tie into it. (Sort of like they did with Star Wars. Much as I love the RPG, I’m not putting out any money for boardgames or TCG nonsense.) Then I happened upon a copy of the rules and gave it a proper examination. It looked deliriously complex, which fascinated me, and further research showed that it’s an English translation of a Spanish game that’s trying to emulate Japanese anime and video games.
3.) I want to take a moment to clarify why I tend to dismiss games that I think are trying to emulate Exalted. It isn’t because I hate Exalted and its imitators, but more because I love 2nd Edition Exalted. I got a peek at the 3rd Edition rules the other day. Whuf. Their stated goal of simplifying combat made it orders of magnitude worse. Good lord… I didn’t think it was possible to screw the pooch this badly.