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How I Spent My Gen Con Vacation

Drinking with Game Designers.  Full stop.

Yeah, that’s a piss-poor entry, even my by admittedly loose standards.  Let me see…

Let’s go with a loose, overall set of impressions, shall we?  This way, I can cover some ground of what the various game publishers have been doing, and in the process, I can talk about things as they come up.  Have no expectations about the content or quality, and you shall be less disappointed than otherwise.

First off, the con was slammed.  The press release from Peter Adkison (nice guy, met him once, and he also happened to attend my friends’ wedding) that immediately followed said that it was up 10% from last year and has more than doubled over the past five years.  It was wall-to-wall people, everywhere you looked, and yet, I was still able to hook up with many old friends from years before, just happening past in the aisles.  The con personnel are getting crowd control well in hand, and even picking up my badge from the Will Call line took no time at all.

What’s more interesting is that Paizo is starting to get a handle on how popular their booth is, seeing as they always used to run out of their pins within a couple of hours of the exhibitor hall opening.  This year was literally the first time I have ever been able to pick up all four days’ worth of commemorative pins.  (Don’t ask me why this matters to me; I don’t have any real answer.)  They had to run a line outside of the hall, out in the main corridor, but when I wandered in to look at some of the years’ merch, it moved pretty fast, all things considered.  I didn’t go at exactly peak times, but there were plenty of people waiting with me, and it only took twenty minutes, all told.

And while I love Paizo dearly, they still have occasion to let a mistake past, despite otherwise having raised the bar to nigh insurmountable levels for most other publishers.  It’s oddly amusing to see this happen, precisely because they hold themselves to such standards.  This year’s new hardcover release was the the Advanced Class Guide, where they meld the basic classes into what amounts to being hybrid classes.  It’s a nifty book, well worth the time and money (this is where I could bitch about how one should only pick up a book of theirs if it’s Advanced, while carefully steering clear of the Ultimate ones; it’s a topic for another time), but the first print run is listed as being an Adventure Path on the cover.  It’s a simple logo switch that happened some time in production, but there it is.  The second print run will be rid of the offending text, so snatch up your ‘collectible’ copies while you can.

Competing with Paizo for the long lines is Fantasy Flight.  Unlike Paizo, they couldn’t route people out into the outer corridor, so they had people snaking around their booth and demo area for most of the con.  They managed to get people through that line pretty quickly, assisted by a ‘get to know the people in line with you’ card game.  In theory, there was a prize for managing to collect the right base of cards, but that was well beyond the ten or twelve people we were in line with.

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the booth at Fantasy Flight, since I had a singular mission, but they did come out with a number of new minis for the X-Wing game, a new fleet tactical game for Star Wars and the new edition of Dark Heresy.  I might have considered a YT-2400 – I’ve always had a soft spot for Dash Rendar’s Outrider and we managed to make it our main ship in Edge – but they were already sold out by the time I got to the line.  (The same holds true for AEG’s Limited Edition wooden box release of Doomtown.  I want badly to get hold of the game, but not at the original price of $120, let alone the notably multiplied eBay markups.)

The Beta for Force and Destiny is a fine thing, as it captures all of the flavor and variance of the old Knights of the Old Republic video game, between the character careers and the lightsaber modifications.  I’m sure that some new stuff will be thrown in for the final edition, being that this is merely the Beta, but what I have in front of me is enough that I’m already jonesing for a proper game to go.

I picked up my backer copy of Primeval Thule at the booth.  They made a couple of interesting design choices in the book, just from my initial perusal.  Since they managed to get the support for three different editions of the damned thing, between 13th Age, Pathfinder and 4e, they had to make some editing decisions in the process.  What this boiled down to was a choice to make an appendix that the relevant parts of the book referred back to in-text.  This way, only one part of the book needed to be changed between the editions.  I’m still debating if this was an elegant or lazy way of doing things.  And in doing so, I’m sort of leaning toward elegant, just on the basis of the novelty of it all.  We shall see if this judgment holds.

They did commit a cardinal sin with the book, however, by including in-text adventures.  Over the years, I’ve found that I would rather have such things appear as web enhancements, like D&D 3.5 did with many of their products.  (A practice that I feel started with Deadlands, back in the day.)  Rather than waste valuable pages on an adventure that may only be run once, if at all, I would much rather have the illustrative introductory adventure show up in some other form, when I’m paying for the book to have as much reference material as physically possible.

… and just like that, I find myself standing at the brink of a Wick hole.

This is a lot of the problem I’m finding I have with Wicked Fantasy, overall.  There’s a lot of wasted space in the book that might have been used for actual interesting things.  I don’t need to know what the Orkish word for blood is.  I want to know what sort of vaguely Klingon-inspired weapon they’re going to use to spill it.  What do their villages and family units look like?  What is it about this world that makes these orks darker and edgier and more dangerous than the orcs of pretty much every other D&D game?  Instead, we get … words … about words.  There are between fifty and seventy wasted pages of bad fanfic that serves no concrete purpose and does nothing to illuminate the world.  The page count on this idiot book could have been cut in half, and I would have come out better for it.

Man, I hate that book.  I would burn the damned thing, if that didn’t go farther to illustrate the wasted money.

Anyway, my point remains.  If you’re going to insist on an adventure to properly introduce a game, then it shouldn’t have to take up real estate in the book itself.  Especially not in this day and age, when a good portion of book sales seems to come in the form of digital copies anyway.  It’s almost enough to make me want to invest in a tablet PC to be able to carry even more reference material wherever I go.

I invested heavily in Fate books, finishing out my Dresden Files collection (of two books; I know…) and picking up a copy of Fate Core.  My main bill at the IPR booth was acquiring materia for other people, including a copy of Tenra Bansho Zero for one of the guys.  In doing so, I accidentally ran into Andy Kitkowski, the translator for TBZ and the upcoming Ryuutama.  He had come back from Nihon for the sake of Gen Con, dragging along Atsuhiro Okada, the actual writer and designer for Ryuutama.  It was an interesting chance meeting, and I took the opportunity to have him sign a couple of the post card GM handouts for me.  Alas, since Ryuutama has yet to hit print, there was nothing for me to have Okada sign, alas.

The final note, as I’ve largely lost the thread of where I was going when I started this post, was that I saw something truly fascinating at the greater DriveThru booth.  As has become usual for White Wolf/Onyx Path, there was no actual product of any weight to be had at the booth.  It’s Print on Demand and digital distribution, after all, why bother with trying to sell it at the convention?  They did have some product on display, but very little of it seemed available to sell.  One thing, in particular, did catch my eye, however.

And this is so much gaming esoterica, I grant.  It was a copy of the oft-lamented BESM 3rd Edition, the final product of Guardians of Order, after the weird horror that was the Game of Thrones RPG that everyone seemed to have tried to buy yet no one ever ran.  BESM 3rd was the full sized red cover version of the rules that somehow ended up in the hands of White Wolf for distribution.  It came out in January of 2007, got snatched up by the fan base and has never been seen since.  Naturally, it’s still ridiculously expensive (to the point that a copy of the original printing, even this long out of print, is only about twice as much), but it’s once again available.

All in all, there was a lot more that passed outside of my perception at the convention, since I had specific goals and aspirations.  There were events for D&D 5th that I blithely ignored, there were new products from publishers I have nothing to do with, and there were games running that I didn’t attend.  But the things I saw were worth my time, and some of them will even merit further study in future entries.

A discussion of why John Wick is not as smart as he wants you to believe…

I have returned from Gen Con.  The republic still stands.

Much consumerism was engaged in.  Many bank accounts were logically plundered.  And when you go with a crew of doctors, you begin to experience certain pangs of jealousy at their comparative wealth for such endeavors.  Alas.

I won’t bitch too much.  There wasn’t actually much that I would have liked to have purchased that I did not.  And most of what I bought was either at a steep discount or for someone else.  All in all, it was good.

Last time I posted (and no, I cannot immediately declare the hiatus over; there’s just stuff I want to talk about before it withers away to memory), I devoted the better part of 4,000 words to a tear down of John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy book.  The (tl;dr) version of this is that the book is neither dark nor dangerous, despite the cover assuring us that this was just such a revision.  The game implies that it is searching for the adult aspects of the fantasy for the grown-up gamer, when in fact, it largely fails to capture any such thing.  The “dark lens” that Wick views the world through seems to merely be smudged.

Again, I want to point out that I was a huge fan of the stuff Wick was responsible for during his tenure at Alderac.  Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea are both some of the finest games on the market.  This is one of the worst, if you judge it on the basis of what it promises versus what it actually delivers.  It is my disappointment brought on by this disparity of quality that has pushed me to rag on this product as I have.  (In fact, I still hold enough regard for L5R that I bought several books of the new edition to help round out my collection.  Thankfully, Wick no longer has anything to do with that line.)

In response to my previous post, Gregory wanted some further discussion of what Wick did wrong with the language in this book, something I railed at for a little while.  Apparently, I was wrong about my contention that no one wanted to hear me go into depth about what idiocy Wick’s ideas on linguistics are.

There are two parts to this discussion.

First, the chapter on Gnolls opens with a sidebar talking about how the mouths of Gnolls is particularly canine in nature and they cannot easily form the words required of other languages.  I see where he’s going with this, but in all honesty, this is the dumbest idea to attach to a fantasy race.  For one thing, D&D and Pathfinder knock the idea of language acquisition so far down the scale of importance that such things are mere skill adds, and every character would be able to learn a new language in the time it takes to level up the next time.  For another, it’s a magical world, not one of physics or biology, so this is one of those things that should generally be hand-waved out of existence.

Here’s why:  While it is possible to learn a language without ever being able to speak it, it’s one of the most unlikely things to happen.  In terms of realism, this is a lot harder to make sense of than the old saw of spending a month in the desert and learning French.  (i.e. Going out to adventure for a month and gaining a language when you return to town, as tends to be the way in D&D and Pathfinder.)  Language learning requires four main areas of focus – listening, reading, writing and speaking.  Reading and listening are the input methods for this, where writing and speaking are the output that’s necessary to make everything gel.  And the difference between speaking and writing is that writing is done without immediate feedback, placing it well below speaking in terms of language acquisition.  Over and over, this is something that I have encountered in my various linguistic studies and time as a teacher.  If you don’t speak, you don’t learn.  And to fully cement a language, you need to be immersed in it, where everything around you uses the language and you have to speak it to accomplish basic survival tasks.  For my own notations, I have studied a lot of French, but since I never visited a French-speaking country, I’ve managed to forget quite a bit of it.

So, there it is.  I have a huge problem with making it so Gnolls can only really speak Gnoll.  This is amazingly harmful for the species overall, since it stunts their development of linguistics to an amazing degree.  (There’s more about this, where the act of speaking moves a language from one type of memory to another and how it serves to motivate second language learners by the process of communication, but I think I’ve covered enough for my first point.)

Secondly, Wick seems to be utterly unaware of how few words a mere 250 actually is.

Let’s consider for a moment, shall we?  250 words is roughly the range for an average three year old child (meaning that more precocious children are like to know far more), and there are noted cases of Shetland Sheep Dogs (Shelties, for the layman) that know upwards of 500 words in English.  Already, we’re seeing a bit of a problem going into this.  Here you have an entire race that has access to less words than a real world dog.  Sure, Shelties can’t speak all the words they know, but there is communication already going on.  (And with time and research, I would probably go on about how hard it would be for a creature to acquire a language that has orders of magnitude more words, but that’s well outside of my range of interest on this.)

In comparison, the created language of Klingon has over 3,000 words in its vocabulary, and it has been proven to be inadequate for actual communication.  Reference the somewhat informal study by d’Armon Speers, a linguist that tried to make his son a native speaker of Klingon.  While he was in the process of teaching his son this language, Speers made certain that he was simultaneously learning English so his cognitive development wouldn’t suffer.  The kid stopped speaking Klingon at around three years old, simply because it was too difficult to communicate basic ideas and allow him access to his world.  And this is a language with over twelve times as many words.  Not only does this not make sense, it implies that Gnolls are functionally retarded as a species, since language development is tied heavily to cognitive development.  (This goes back to my notation of how difficult it would be to learn a language other than your own.  It’s already made very difficult by not being able to speak; throw in some learning disabilities, and it becomes outright impossible.)

Then there’s the corollary that, by obviating adjectives of all kinds, Gnolls are unable to rationally recite any form of direction or history to another.  The implication is that there is no method of differentiation, rendering all trees and rocks and opponents as being a single concept for each.  In doing so, there’s no ability to return to a place that they have been, since without such nuance, all things blur together.  Hells, at this point, they rank behind honey bees in most cognitive areas, since colors are also apparently off this list as well.  Past and present cease to exist without notational modifiers, and so on.  (And Wick also makes a point to note that Gnolls don’t really keep track of time.  Ugh.)  It gets stupid real fast.

Looking through the entry on Gnolls, it seems that about a third of the non-food language has already been defined by Wick in the process of yammering on about Gnoll Linguistics.  Further, another 10% of the non-food language just goes to talking about the moons.  As such, we’re up to about forty of our one hundred words, and honestly, we’re running out of any ability to actually interact with the world.  (It also should be noted that he defines many of the words using the verboten adjectives, which I find fascinating.  Why state such a stupid rule, only to immediately break it?  Or are we going to hide behind ‘running’ and ‘slow running’ as completely separate words, like the oft-repeated saw about Inuit and their extensive vocabulary about snow?)

Then there’s the notation that Gnolls are Charismatic, to the point that they gain a +2 to the Attribute at character creation.  This is such amazing idiocy, given the rest of the text and the noisome short story.  When he says that other races term them as dirty and unclean, I must immediately take issue.  I would accept that they have a bonus of some sort amongst their own kind, as Gnolls would be better disposed to dealing with other Gnolls, but how in six hells does a scavenger race that has clear analogues to hyenas get a bonus to deal with other races that view them as filthy or accursed?  It boggles the mind.

So, there you go.  Wick’s all caught up on defining these races according to their racial linguistics, and he doesn’t grasp the basic parts of how stupid his contentions truly are.  It’s one thing to take an interesting idea like a race guide and make it dreadfully dull treatise on language in the process.  It’s quite another to fuck it up this badly.

Pre-Gen Con Notation, along with a Review of sorts…

So, as an update for anyone who actually still hangs around:  The two reasons that I took time off from regular blogging (hells, when I up and vanished entirely) are still in process.  That said, with any luck, I will have plenty of things to write about in the coming weeks to justify an occasional column of dubious intent and purpose.  I’ve got the loan paperwork for the new house in hand, but the new house itself is up in the air at present.  Alas and alack.  As far as the novel goes, I have managed to put it to a final draft and start work on a new novel.  In the mean time, I’m looking for an agent that would be willing to work with me, and that looks to be a greater endeavor and time sink than writing the damned thing actually entailed.

But anyway.  This week is Gen Con, and I seem to have finalized my travel plans at the last minute, as seems to be the normal undertaking of things.  I’m still intent on traveling incognito, just another con-goer with an undifferentiated badge and no real marks of distinction.  One of these days, I may think about promoting the blog enough to score myself a proper ‘Journalist’ badge, but it’s pretty unlikely.

The big items of interest for me this year are the new Star Wars RPG Beta, Force and Destiny.  Thus far, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by the Force powers included in Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, so it’s going to be interesting to see how far Fantasy Flight is going to go to impress me with their new rules.  I’ve loved every aspect of the games up to this point, with that one exception, and I have high hopes that they’re going to be able to win me over.  There’s been talk that the Force Rules in F&D are going to be notably different and well expanded from what we have seen thus far, so either they’re paying serious lip service to the voices in my head or there’s going to be something truly wonderful to be had in those new rules.

Watch.  They’ll decide that they’ve done well enough in their previous Beta runs that they don’t need to test out the new rules.  I’ll go in with the expectation of rough hewn Jedi archetypes, and the guys at the booth will laugh me away with their derision.  (And I find it truly interesting that the Firefox dictionary includes ‘Jedi’, but it lacks ‘hewn’ as the adjectival of the verb, ‘hew.’  Weird.)

But enough of that.  I actually have something to talk about that’s game-related, rather than the boring and vaguely non-specific details of my mostly undocumented life.

Periodically, I browse some of my favorite sellers on eBay, looking for the mad deals that have allowed me to amass the gaming library that gives me legitimacy.  And I am the worst sucker for deals.  I will gladly pick up a cheap copy of a game that I’m only marginally interested in, if just for the sake of the bargain.  This is why I have copies of games like ‘Terra Primate’ and ‘Demon: the Fallen’ in my stacks.  It’s not because I”m likely to run either of these damned things in my immediate future.  (And don’t get me started on the inanely complete ‘Tribe 8’ collection that I amassed over one summer.  It’s a beautiful, flavorful, intricate game.  It’s also immensely difficult to understand or run, and I have no idea how I would sell it to a new group.  “It’s like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  But instead of nuclear war, it’s all because of an invasion.  By nightmares.”  So, yeah.)

Most recently, I found a couple of books that I was interested in for completionist sake, but would otherwise be unlikely to pick up at any reasonable price.  One was a sourcebook for the new iteration of Iron Kingdoms, and the other was the campaign guide for Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire line.  I mean, I really like Iron Kingdoms, but I know it’s going to be a long time before I get around to running that.  And the ASoIaF book is one that might be nice, but it’s not like I don’t know the world well enough to get around without needing it.

In with these two otherwise necessary books, there was a third book that I found from the same seller.  It was a $50 supplement by a well-known game designer, and since it was dinged up a little, they were letting it go for $5.  What the hell, I thought.  It’s a bargain.  I love bargains.  No harm, no foul; right?

Yeah.  I think I was better off spending that $5 on anything else.  Maybe there are five copies of Terra Primate that I could hand out to my friends.

The book in question is Wicked Fantasy, the Dark and Dangerous Fantasy by John Wick.  The back cover informs me of this, along with the condensed bio of why I should care.  It’s a ‘reinterpretation’ of ten classic fantasy races, and it’s telling me how Dark, Dangerous & Wicked it all is.

I’ve already bitched about John Wick in prior blog entries.  For the life of me, I would love to see a copy of the modules he was going to write that would shake up Wizards of the Coast to the point that they would ashamedly admit that he was their better and Orkworld totally didn’t suck.  I might even pay a dollar or two for these abominations, just for the sake of being able to review them for what they are.

The cover design is interesting.  I think it says something dire when the largest font and most prominent placement goes to Wick’s name.  I’m not saying that he’s an egotist, but he certainly makes a point of highlighting what’s most important about the book.  And it isn’t the actual title of the damned thing, which is the smallest font and placed at the bottom of the cover.

As a sidetrack, I will note that the most disappointing thing about the book thus far – one thing that I knew going into this endeavor, mind you – is that it has nothing to do with the fascinating weirdness that was the Wicked Fantasy Factory series by Goodman games.  These were perfectly trashy third party modules for 3.5 and 4e D&D that felt like D&D through the lens of professional wrestling and 80’s cock rock.  It was what X-Crawl was generally heading in the direction of, only distilled down to a single night of cheap beer and loud music.

And as noted, this isn’t what John Wick was selling.

So, I’m going to do this as a sort of ‘first impression’ notation, as I skim through to make sense of things.  I’d looked the book over when it arrived, and that alone was enough to inspire me to fire up the blog for the night.

I’ve already talked about the cover, in terms of Wick’s ego.  It’s a generally uninspiring appearance, with a purplish black background with some sort of mauve for the front cover text and logo.  The back and spine are white on purple, but I figure that’s to actually make it stand out on the shelf.  There’s also a bizarre logo that’s haphazardly stamped near the bottom.  It wouldn’t be bad, except it’s two separate logos that are badly fused together, as though they couldn’t decide which one to go with.  The larger is three co-joined crescents overlaying a triangle.  Inside this is a sort of triskelion that someone decided to toss in at the last minute.  I realize I’m reading too much into the damned logo, but it hints at a rule of three somewhere, and thus far, I’ve found nothing to back this up.  Moving on.

The interior layout isn’t bad, but I’m finding that the use of reds and blues for section headings gives the book a weirdly cheap impression.  Part of this calls back to the latter day West End Games products, where they put out a number of supplements with blue ink throughout.  There’s a psychological effect at play somewhere in here, but I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is that’s annoying me so badly about it.  I think there’s something jarring when it shows up with the normal black text.

The book opens with a self-indulgent ‘in case you haven’t realized how awesome this book is’ text in the form of a full page introduction from Wick.  He meanders through a largely interest-free history of the product, and at the end of it all, I’m not entirely sure whether or not this was originally published somewhere else or not.  He’s too busy trying to drop names and reference people I’ve never heard of to actually make much clear.  I do know that he spent a year on the book, with the help of other people, but that’s about it.  Oh, and he ends with some bit about ‘the Enemy.’  Given his weird paranoia elsewhere, I’m not sure if this unnamed and weirdly capitalized ‘Enemy’ is Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, the Gaming Industry in general, or some personification that has yet to be realized.

From there, we move into the races themselves.  First up are Humans, which makes a certain sense.  The section opens out with an evocative painting of a seemingly Germanic fellow with a skull, a wineglass and a sword of some sort.  There isn’t much else to be seen, since the scene is Dark for various thematic purposes.  I’m already given over to some fear about where this is all going.

Immediately, Wick digresses into etymology, trying to explain the nuances of words like ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’ and ‘rule’ as a means of getting at some point about human ascendancy.  This continues for several pages and drops hints about the godless nature of this world as it delves into weird Nietzschean ideals of ‘will’ and how it relates to the local variants of Clerics and Paladins.  There’s an awful lot of half-assed world-building to be found here, and it wanders around for a while before being distracted by other, weirder notations.  There’s a lot of talk about guilds and senators in the mold of human society and how this all relates to one’s duty to the Reign of Man.

And then he talks about calendars.

Literally, he’s going on about the Law and the Army and how it relates to the City (I have my faults with weird habits of capitalization, but this book is starting to give me an allergy to such things), and then, out of nowhere, we’re talking about how the humans order their calendars.  There’s no transition or logic to it, yet here we are.  And what’s the most maddening aspect of this entire section is that he talks about how there are totally two separate calendars that are used by the humans, we only learn about one of them.  And then it switches to notes on the Economy.  Will we ever see the other calendar that is still in use elsewhere?  Who knows.

There’s also a strange sort of sidebar in this section, where he starts defining what amount to being Barbarians in his weird and vaguely fascist human society, only to range off into this world’s equivalent of Henry David Thoreau.  I’m guessing that, if I were ever to build a Barbarian in a Wicked Fantasy game, he’d be a staunch Transcendentalist that pondered the virtues of self-reliance and the corrupting influence of organized religion.  His Barbarian Rage would be powered through his utopian idealism, which would appear to outsiders as being beyond reason or sanity.

Ahem.  I’m truly and deeply sorry about that.  Where was I?

One of the racial traits allows a Human to count all of their allies as having the same Teamwork Feats they have for the purposes of using the Feat.  They can also gain the Human Tactics Feat at fifth level, which is a version of the Improved Tactics class feature from the Cavalier.  (My initial skim gave me a much worse impression, where I assumed that Wick had given them a much improved version of Improved Tactics.  This isn’t the case, but this is still fairly powerful.)

Finally, there’s the Philosopher and Palatine re-jiggering of Clerics and Paladins.  Most of the mechanics remain the same, for some reason.  Philosophers can still Channel Positive Energy to Heal, but it’s in the service of Pure Knowledge and Intellect rather than dogma.  Or something.  We gain new Domains in the form of Humanity and Philosophy, the Holy Symbol is replaced by an Item of Meaningful Import, but that’s about it.

The end of the section has a little table for Approved Classes.  Mind you, this is a world of pure reason and Randian ideals, with ‘No Gods, No Kings, Only Man.’  So naturally, there’s a ban of such classes as Alchemists, Gunslingers and Monks.  And then we have a weirdly anachronistic illustration of an Amazon Warrior straight out of some Greek sourcebook.  I’m really not sure what the default setting of this world is, if the illustrations are anything to go by.  We started it off with a guy that would have fit in nicely in Wick’s 7th Sea sourcebooks, and we end with this.

Immediately following this is seven pages of double-spaced fiction, ‘A Tale from the World of Wicked Fantasy.’  It’s not very good and seems to exist mainly to inflate page count.  Every race has about this much fiction to end out the race guide.  It’s pretty flat, rather uninspiring and offers very little in the way of description of the world itself.  The parts that I read had two characters standing around talking about politics.  Again, maybe this is all to underscore just how dull it is to play a human in this Dark and Dangerous World of Wickedness or something.  I don’t honestly know.

In the world of Wicked Fantasy, Halflings are Haffuns.  And they’re servants, for some reason.  Unless they’re weirdly revolutionary.  There’s an undercurrent of casting them as the fantasy equivalent of African Americans, where they’re essentially slaves until they rise up.  Wick even goes so far as to give them a race name that only they can use.  And in the same vein as the nonsensical Halfling to Haffun bit, they’re Hobyns.  It’s totally different than Hobbits, right?

Haffuns are given an interesting ghost-speaker archetype for Clerics, and there’s a new class, Butler.  This is essentially an extremely specialized version of Rogue.  They get the equivalent of a Familiar’s aspect with their naming convention, but sadly it’s Wick’s local equivalent, rather than Jeeves or Smithers.  The class doesn’t seem to be very good, other than as an NPC sort of thing, but if I’m in a game I don’t care enough to bother with, I might roll up a Human Butler to fuck around with.  I might have to modify a couple of things so that I can better Serve Master, of course.

Naturally, we have to have Orks, since this is Wick.  I’ve never made a point to read through Orkworld, so I don’t know how much self-plagiarization he’s gone to.  As it goes, they are the noble savages who slew the gods that caused them to be evil, or some idea like that.  There’s an awful lot of discussion about what the Ork word for ‘blood’ is and how it can range through the declensions and nuances.  This is followed by the word for ‘bard’ and the word for ‘friend’ and so on.  We go through half a dozen Ork words for the next several pages, since this seems to be the best way for Wick to describe the culture.

So, if I might digress for a moment.

He isn’t wrong, per se.  There’s a lot of culture that’s bound up in the language that people use.  My time living abroad and working as an ESL teacher gives me all sorts of insight about how difficult it is to teach someone to speak without acting as a cultural imperialist at the same time.  Linguistics is pretty interesting to me.

This isn’t.  And I fail to see how five pages of what this or that word means to this culture is taking you any closer to actually being able to do anything with it.  And for the love of crap, we’re talking about Orks here.  When I think of the god-killing savages that serve as the bogeyman for the civilized races, I’m not really wanting to spend this much time on how their perception of ‘Blood’ serves to define their culture.  These Orks are presented in way too civilized a manner to hold my interest on any of it.

I’m starting to see why everyone thinks Orkworld sucked.  Oh, and as a final notation before I move on?  Orks get a +2 Bonus to Strength.  And Charisma.  This dude has a crush on Orks.  I swear.

Elves come next, and I’m losing interest as I go.  Apparently, they’re tied to their trees in a vaguely Dryad sort of way, and Wick paints them in broad strokes that cut back to Tolkien again.  They’re ageless and bored and treacherous.  They play games of deceit, for … reasons.  I guess we’re supposed to get a Seelie Court ideal out of this somehow, but it isn’t really dealt with in any meaningful way.  Like so many other parts of this book, he lays out some vague character trait that defines the race, only to leave it to the reader to fill in the necessary bits.  Haffuns were fleeing a nameless horror that isn’t important enough to deal with.  Here’s their word for Homeless.  Orks slew the gods and gained their power.  Here’s their word for Friend.

In the midst of the Elves and their trees and their games of deceit, there’s a sidebar that talks about an Elf going to the University and becoming a Lawyer.  And a social justice activist.

Have I mentioned that there are weird tonal shifts in this book?

From there, we run into Gnolls.  And the multiple paragraphs about the word Gnoll and so on.  For some reason, Wick wants to talk about 1st Edition Gnolls in a Pathfinder book, making very certain that we all know that Gnolls have nothing to do with Gnomes and Trolls.  He then wants to talk about the Gnoll language and how it relates to Yiddish and German.  Finally, he goes into how the Gnoll language only has 250 words and no adjectives.  And nearly half of those pertain to words for food.  (This is one of those things that catches in my throat.  I could go on, at length, about the sheer nonsense this implies, but I’m pretty sure that literally no one has the interest or fortitude to sit through that.)

Again, we have a perfectly interesting savage race, and we’re subjected to linguistic analysis.  This guy must be a blast to party with, as he drunkenly holds forth on the most mind-numbingly pedantic topics handy while other people listen to loud music or hook up in dark corners.

If that wasn’t enough, once more we’ve got a savage and brutal race in a Dark and Wicked World that has a bonus to Charisma.  Yeesh.

Then there’s Gnomes.  In their language, it’s pronounced “gah-NOHM-ay.”  I’m fucking done here.  Next?

Whee.  Then we’re up to Goblins.  Only in The Wicked World, they’re ‘Gobowins.”  That’s pwecious.

For the sake of not diving for the ending of the book, let me see if there’s anything to redeem this idiocy.  There’s the usual sort of linguistic notation, which I’m slowly becoming numb to, followed by the different cons that Goblins are prone to.  It seems that they’re the grifters of the world, for some reason or another.  Okay, fine.

And then we come to this gem:  Fala No Tala.  Okay, sure.  Banana fana bo Bala?  Gods, Wick.  There are days when I hate you with the power of a thousand dying suns.  Or as I call it in my native language, ‘Fuk’kyu.’

Also, apparently Goblins manage a mail delivery system in this world.  True story.

Dwarves are sexless, immortal drones who live to work.  And drink beer.  I know this because Wick devoted a single page to four words about how they love beer.  Beer was in red text.  I can’t handle much more of this.

We’re up to Ratlings.  Of course, they’re called Roddun here, because why not?  They seem to be rodent yakuza, for some reason, working as the oddly eloquent and extremely short-lived protectors of the streets.  It’s not a bad take on the idea of Ratlings, but as usual, it spends more time on their language than I would like.  It does give some rules on making barrios within a city, how to work street level conflict against rival Ratlings, and so on.  There’s an undercurrent of a weird Hispanic culture in here, with Respect and so on, but it might be a worthwhile system to lift for use elsewhere.

Naturally, I would have liked to see them done like in L5R, but that’s me.

Let’s see…  What’s next?  Kobolds, apparently.  Although, from the look of the art piece that graces this chapter, I’m more inclined to think that he’s spinning way off course with a picture of a vaguely Asian seeming psionic monk.  (I’m not kidding.  There’s even a hint of a torii gate in the background, as some bald guy with implanted gems and a sort of toga gestures toward the reader.  This isn’t helped by the inanely Japanese demonym of ‘Kuba-chubisi,’ which suggests something much different.)  The whole chapter is filled with weird conceptual theories about how the Kobolds are manipulating thought and memory from behind the scenes, and to go with this is an entire glossary of manufactured terms like hapt-uvennen, tey-shalaf, detkiv-shava and the like.

What it doesn’t have is anything about Kobolds.  Even a little bit.

You know, it’s late, and I’ve already spent way too much time flipping through this book.  I might go back and try to make sense of how Wick tried to shoehorn some high concept idea into – oh, let’s say … – Kobolds; but for the time being, I’m going to declare that he used the name and nothing else, just so I can move on.

I really didn’t have a lot of expectations about this book when I got it.  I had heard the baying of the fanboys about the newest, edgiest ideas of the niche grandmaster, but that’s the nature of fanboys.  So be it.  What I saw was a book that normally cost $50 that I could get a mad steal on.  What the hell, I might find something interesting in it.

All my bitching aside, this is a book that could fit certain niches of the hobby that were looking for new ideas.  The big problem I have with it is that it doesn’t do anything that the cover copy would imply.  This world isn’t dark.  It isn’t dangerous in any way, other than the usual fantasy ideals.  And despite Wick capitalizing on his name, it certainly isn’t wicked in the slightest.

It’s just sort of dull.

Here you have Kobolds and Gnolls and Orks, and they’re reduced to these sad bastardizations of what they were built as originally.  When Paizo built Golarion, they made a point of making Gnolls into this twisted race of desert slavers and savages who worshiped the Mother of Monsters, Lamashtu.  Their howls in the deep desert would send chills along the spines of the hardened warriors who held the forts against the untamed wastes.  In this Dark and Dangerous World that Wick has built up, they bathe fastidiously and are known as great chefs.  Orks are noble and get bonuses to their Charisma because they’re such paragons.  And kobolds?  Fuck, they bear no resemblance to anything that shows up in established lore.

At the risk of showing my age, I remember when I first looked over the Dark Sun worldset from 2nd Edition D&D.  Here was a brutal and savage world, where life was cheap and the psychological buy-in for the players was that you could die at any time; here’s your back-up character for when things go to shit.  In this setting, Halflings were cannibals that lived on the far edges of society, as far away from civilized folk as they could get.

In Wicked Fantasy?  They’re fucking butlers.

A Momentary Glimpse of Frothing Madness

In my digital travels, I occasionally happen upon certain reviews or responses to criticism.  I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition reviews in the run-up to publication, hoping that any of the hype will be worth listening to.  As it happens, there’s nothing to back any of the ‘greatest game ever published’ up, and my fears are that we’re going to be subjected to another sub-standard game that managed to ignore the feedback and playtesting that it went through in order to produce a vanilla game with vaguely updated rules.  (As far as I can tell, the ‘open beta’ nature of the playtest rules served as much to put people in mind of how Pathfinder successfully did their early marketing as anything else.  There are threads on that talk about how a number of well-received game mechanics got arbitrarily cut; something that I’ve been hearing for a while now.)

An early post by i09, dating back nearly two and a half years, talks about how the design docs for D&D Next were aiming to ‘unify the D&D audience’ with the idea of a single ruleset that would take into consideration the play styles and complexity of the different editions of Dungeons & Dragons.  One discussion with Monte Cook invoked a session where players of differing levels of interest could play at the same table, even though one person had a character sheet with a half-dozen different stats and another had one that looked closer to a spreadsheet.  If it had worked, it would have done what the early indications had promised.

None of this early hype will come to pass.  The unification that had been promised was the brainchild of Monte Cook, and its day is long done.  These days, the biggest point of interest that seems to be touted is that there will be plenty of dragons in Dungeons & Dragons.

Um… yay?  Way to flex that brand, guys.

And yeah, I’ve been accused of playing with Edition Wars in my posts.  I don’t deny that I have favorite editions, but it’s not like I’m coming into this whole thing unaware or unwilling to flex.  I dislike 4e because I don’t feel that it is a product that fits my play style or the interests of my players.  But I will also note that I’ve tried my damnedest to find a hook for the system, even if I don’t agree with its design principles.  I don’t jump out of my chair to play OSR games because I’ve done my time in those trenches and see no reason to go back to that well.  I don’t begrudge people being able to enjoy the stripped down rulesets, but I don’t see them as being superior in any way.

And as a point of note, I’m not going to defend D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder as being the apex of game design.  I like them both very much, but each has their own flaws.  Pathfinder cleaned up a lot of things that I felt could have been better streamlined, so that’s good.  In the mean time, they left in a lot of things that I don’t outright agree with, and there’s a compiled set of house rules that our group keeps and abides by.  I’ll gladly listen to what people have to say about these particular iterations of the game, and more often than not, I can add my own criticisms to the fire.

But in all of these, I’ve tried to put my time in on a game, usually through play, to get my facts straight.  Yeah, I’m an opinionated jackass, but I’d like to think that my opinions are based in experience.

Which brings me to something I ran across this last week.

Earlier, I discussed John Wick in terms of his newest Kickstarter, Wield.  I waded through the video pitch for the game, and I was treated to Live Action hand gestures and dopey conversations about ‘negotiation’ being the core of the game.  Initially, this upset me, as Wick is one of those vague legends in gaming.  Personally, I own probably close to 100 books that derive from his game design (namely Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea), the value of which I dare not even contemplate.  (Granted, some of those have gone down in value, which forms part of my hesitancy, but 7th Sea books go stupid expensive.  And being that I have the entire run of that, as well as all four editions of L5R, it starts to get pricey.)

See, I only really know Wick from his early days at AEG.  I had, up to this point, managed to ignore most everything that he did independently, although I was aware of Orkworld.  (One of these days, I’ll sit down and read through that one, just for the sake of a review, but his opinion of it far outshone anyone else’s outlook on it.)  And since I hadn’t paid much attention to his games or opinions since that point, I was hit squarely in the teeth by my very own lost expectations.

Since then, I’ve been reading about Wick through the memory of the Internet.  There are reasons that I keep this blog vaguely anonymous, so that anything I say herein is that much harder to attach directly to my own actual identity and presence in the gaming industry.  I also refrain from saying anything as amazingly stupid as Wick manages to.

Back sometime in 2000, Wick posted a rambling screed about his superiority as a game designer and a writer and a person and so on, the thrust of which aimed directly at the popularity and hype about Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.  Part of it dealt with his hurt feelings about how Orkworld (including, oddly, a point where he intimated that if a reviewer was to receive a review copy, they’re obligated to give the product a glowing and verbose review), part of it went on about his opinions on the art and layout of the books, and part of it whined about how there were too many rules.  There was a point where I debated whether or not he would have liked the new edition better if he’d actually had the proper prescription for his glasses, since he talked at length about how badly his eyes hurt trying to read the text.

All of this is fine and good.  And if he’d stuck to such things, it would have been a valid opinion piece.  As it were, he rambled a lot getting to these points, but it’s an opinion, and there doesn’t need to be any support beyond ‘I don’t like it’ for it to float.  For what it’s worth, I stuck with it all the way through, waiting for him to dazzle me with some actual idea that would give me something to think about.  (In the mean time, I’m wondering if his editors at AEG were the reason anything he’d written was actually readable.  The signal to noise ratio was startlingly low.)

And then it got crazy.

When I say crazy, I’m not talking about the harmless ‘isn’t it crazy weather we’re having’ sort of crazy.  I’m talking about the sort of crazy that may or may not harm you as you look for a safe way to exit the room crazy.  Wick had already crossed a couple of lines when he was yammering on about how superior Orkworld was as a product, but I can allow for some disillusionment when you believe in a product, only to watch it fail.  The gaming industry was busily focused on something that will have serious repercussions for years to come.  It’s hardly a surprise that a fantasy RPG published the same year as 3rd Edition would get overshadowed.

The crazy I’m talking about here is the complete disconnect with reality that Wick undergoes in his screed, when he starts to yammer about how he’s going to revolutionize the gaming industry with this one new product.  He’s going to make everyone stand up and take notice, holding his superior game design up as being the golden standard by which all D20 games should be and must be judged against.  And since it’s already been published, it should be obvious that I’m talking about …

Wicked Press, What’s That Smell?

Seriously.  That was what was going to, in his words, make gamers ‘hold that book up at the steps of Wizards Central and shout at the top of their lungs: “Why can’t you make something this good?”

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel bad.  In fact, don’t worry too much about it at all.  I’ve seen occasioned reviews of the module here and there, and people have … liked it.  Sorta.  Enough to buy it and talk about it, but not much else.  It certainly didn’t change gaming from this point forward.  And it didn’t steal away the customer base from Wizards of the Coast because people saw how poor and uninspired a product 3rd Edition was.

At one other point, he also talked about how there were more people at GenCon playing the L5R card game than Magic and Pokemon combined.  So, yeah.  Delusional, perhaps to the point of derangement.

Becoming the Weapon, in a Wholly Literal Sense

There’s a running joke in our group that some of our greatest ideas end up being co-opted by the extant games companies, thereby robbing us of needful royalties.  On more than a couple of occasions, there have been campaigns we’ve run or concepts we’ve debated writing up that mysteriously show up in print some months later.  It’s either a case of a Jungian unconscious that threads through gamer society, or we just happen upon interesting concepts at similar points as published game designers.

The most recent example of this was an idea that a friend of mine postulated about a year or so back.  The idea was that the campaign was centered not around the usual sort of heroes that strode into battle to earn their place in the halls of legend, but rather it dealt with the artifacts of power that the characters bore with them.  The game was to focus on the items of power, as they strove to fulfill their own secret motivations, with the normal stock of RPG heroes as their pawns in a larger scheme.

The problem with the game, as far as we could tell, was that it would be problematic to figure out how best to make the game retain the focus on these weapons, especially if you wanted to assemble any sort of adventuring party around the idea.  It’s all fine and good to have the narrative shift towards how something like Stormbringer views the mortal world around him, but it’s nigh impossible to have a circle of similar swords faffing about in an internally consistent manner.  Standard storycraft insists on having a singular weapon or artifact, untarnished by any competing mythic objects.

Further, it becomes an exercise in creativity to chart the progression of such an item through the myriad owners and wielders as it moves down through the streams of history.  At best, it’s a practice in trying to invert normal campaign progression, and at worst, it’s a tangled mess of would be heroes that try and fail to be the chosen one who brings the sword back to its requisite glory.

We’d mucked about with the idea, mainly as a sort of story hack for Pathfinder, but it never got much beyond the initial planning stages.  It sounded like a fun concept, but without any significant breakthroughs on what sort of system to use to handle a game from the viewpoint of the weapon or object, it remained firmly in the realm of pure speculation.

And now we have the new Kickstarter project by John Wick.  I don’t recall him sitting around the table with us when we were tossing ideas back and forth, yet here we are.

John Wick has an interesting pedigree within the gaming industry.  He’s generally considered responsible for much of AEG’s early success, as he took on a lot of responsibility for developing the early versions of both the Legend of the Five Rings RPG and Card Game and the 7th Sea RPG and Card Game.  These alone have cemented his reputation as far as I’m concerned, but his world subsequent to his departure from AEG are less than stellar.  The gaming public is sharply divided on projects like Orkworld, games like Neopets and the Vs. Card Game have small pockets of fans, and while his indie games are fairly well received, they’re hardly industry-changing on their own.

Wield: Chronicles of the Vatcha is one of Wick’s so-named ‘Little Games’, in the same vein as John Wick’s Cat and others.  The project pages notes it as being a 50-page book, and the rules are implied to be quick, simple and immediately playable.  The video is less inspiring, though, as it implies a completely different game than the general pitch would suggest.  You can pretty much guarantee that the epic game of dread powers and eldritch artifacts is off to a bad start when one of the first descriptions talks about how it’s a ‘game about negotiation’.  This is because the game concerns itself with balancing power between the artifact and the wielder, who is played by another player at the table.  Each has their own agenda about things, and in order to fulfill their collective goals, they have to try to work together.  If they don’t, Wick notes that the wielder can simply drop the artifact and go on with their life.

Most of the video pitch talks about how the players set their own difficulty on their actions, how the difficulties seem to work on a basic level and apparently how inner-party conflicts are handled with a LARP-styled system of hand gestures and rounds.

Honestly, it’s a little weird.

If I step back and try to apply a little self-reflection, a lot of the problems that I’m having with Wield are due to a failure of expectations.  When my friends and I were batting the idea back and forth, it was with the idea of some sort of generational narrative.  What would the story of a vile black sword look like from the sword’s point of view?  What sort of story would arise from following the blade as it fell into new hands, and how would history shape itself around this item?  If it were lost in a dragon’s horde for generations, what differences would the new world it found itself in have to their perceptions?  How would the world have changed in the hundred years after this weapon suffered a terrible defeat?  What effect would the passage of time have on an artifact’s agenda?

I think these are very interesting and relevant questions to answer.  I’m not really sold on Wick’s idea of having this as an indie game of negotiation, as it seems like you’re taking the deeper conflicts and narratives away from the game in favor of keeping it as a light and vaguely silly one-off RPG to play in your down time.  Which is fine and good, but not really what I’m looking for in a game that I could see as being a lot more.