This entry follows the previous memetic post, inspired by Autocratik and noted by Ironbombs. The official title is the oddly awkward “Kickstarted Game Most Pleased You Backed,” which I would have phrased in one of a dozen different ways. I’m sure that there is a better, more succinct way of getting this idea across, as this sort of makes my head hurt.
I have to be honest about this. I really do not have a great track record, insofar as Kickstarter goes.
The very first Kickstarter I ever backed, the one that I created my account simply to pledge money for, never happened. The ones that I pledged around $100 for? Yeah, most of those have yet to be fulfilled. The ones that I pledged the most for? Haven’t really played any of them, to this point.
And yet, I keep putting money out for these damned things, like the worst sort of KS Apologist, eager to be hurt again. It would be different if I were possessed of interminable amounts of ready disposable income, but most of the time, these things push the hard edges of my careful budget. Yet none of this stops me from putting out more money when they come around, cup in hand, to ask for alms and donations.
Day 2 — Most Positive Kickstarter RPG Experience
All in all, I’d have to say that the Pathfinder version of the Advanced Bestiary from Green Ronin ranks right at the top. There are a lot of other possibilities that I could put forth as contenders for this ranking (and I’ll get into those potentialities further down), but this book is everything that it needs to be, at a solid value for what I pledged.
The problem with a lot of Kickstarter campaigns is that, for my dollar, most products end up being better housed in the “wait until it hits retail” category. Yes, I realize that the money that goes into the Kickstarter campaign helps to improve the finished product, thereby improving the overall value of the game, but so many of these companies treat Kickstarter as a glorified pre-order system. (I’m looking directly at you, Onyx Path.) As such, there’s little reason to pledge money beforehand, if you’re going to be paying as much or more than you would at retail. I’ve heard many stories of people putting $100 into a Kickstarter pledge, only to find out that buying it retail would have saved them 20% overall, and in some cases, the backers would have received their product earlier by not waiting for the fulfillment to arrive in the mail. (Again, Onyx Path.)
The Advanced Bestiary was delivered to me for the end retail value, with shipping included, which hits the first point directly.
The next point is that this is one of the most useful books that has ever been written for Pathfinder. I fell in love with the first incarnation of the book, which I believe was solidly D20 (putting it more or less in D&D 3.0, for grognard purposes) and came out in the wake of the D&D 3.5 revision. This was a book of indispensable utility. It followed the template system laid out in the D&D Monster Manual, allowing all manner of tweaks to be lain upon monstrous foes. These ranged from very minor to complete reworkings, allowing an unheard of degree of customization for your campaigns. If you were running a game concerned with weird, clockwork monstrosities, there was a template to upgrade normal monsters to fit this paradigm. If you wanted to tweak a normal creature into bipedal version for a weird race, there was a template to make sense of this. And if you wanted to create some unholy gestalt creature (there was once a discussion of a Gelatinous Beholder), that was entirely within the framework of these rules.
There was an entire line of Advanced books from Green Ronin at the time, but this book was the most useful, far and away. As such, when it came time to kick for this book, I was immediately on board. There was nothing particularly revolutionary about the book; it had all been done before, more or less, and this was just the rules upgrade that had been promised. For me, the fact that it was cleanly laid out, quickly delivered, reasonably priced, and exactly what I wanted ranks it very highly.
In terms of solid contenders for this entry, the next possibility would have to be the Lone Wolf Adventure Game from Cubicle 7. This has less to do with the game itself, and more to do with the fact that I am really looking forward to the full release of this game and where it goes. Cubicle 7 manages to put out some of the prettiest games around (Doctor Who, One Ring, and Qin, not to get into the necessary obsession of Kuro), and this is no exception. As such, the forthcoming products are going to be amazing. Moreover, I’m really happy with this game because I had a collection of the Lone Wolf Adventure Gamebooks from back in the day, and seeing this world put to paper with the approval of the author is phenomenal. (Let’s leave aside that I got to meet Joe Dever at Gen Con, which was a hell of a thing. There are pictures of this floating about, and I’m generally grinning like an idiot.)
Following up, we have the Shadows of Esteren Kickstarters. I do dearly love this game, but until I manage to actually throw dice, I can’t actually profess my true, deep adoration. A similar sentiment pervades my outlook on the original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter, since I’ve managed to use the terrain all of once. There’s a whole stack of Onyx Path Kickstarters, which run a weird path of fascination and disappointment. They always take forever to arrive, but when they finally show up, the production value tends to be top notch. (The less said about the Exalted 3rd Edition, the better.)
And finally, the one that I’m looking forward to most happens to be the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter. This isn’t because I’m particularly bound to a new edition of a classic game (though, to be honest, it will be a great revision), it’s because the fulfillment of the Kickstarter has apparently shaken up the company so badly that they needed to restructure themselves on a corporate level. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but the advent of this new system had the end result of disposing of the old guard at Chaosium in order to actually get it to the backers. Here’s hoping that this portends well for the company going forward.
So, funny thing… Out of the clear blue, I get an update through my feeds, telling me that Ironbombs has done some recent posting, all with this blogger meme from Autocratik (I swear, I love the Sovietization, but I want to put two “k’s” into his web address). And being Ironbombs, he’s a couple of days late to the party.
Naturally, this means that, if I am to engage in this as a dust-clearing exercise, I’m going to be closer to a week behind.
Oh, well. No one has ever accused me of being hot on the button on these things.
Day 1 – Forthcoming Game You’re Most Looking Forward To
Had it not already been scooped by Ironbombs, it would probably be Torg Eternity. I had the chance to talk to several of the developers at Gen Con, and the tweaks that are being made to this system and setting are enough to make me giddy already. I own several copies of the original run (including the now-rare and inexplicable Revised & Expanded hardcover from the Gibson Era of West End Games), but from the sound of it, those are going to be pleasantly obsolete within a short time. There are a number of things that I’ve been cautioned not to reveal until the involved parties have made announcements (it’s kind of nice being a known quantity to some of these guys), so I’ll hold off on the juicier aspects. Suffice to say that, of all people, Greg Gorden is fully in support of the new direction of things, so any lingering doubts have vanished with that.
I will be honest, though. I didn’t think this day would ever come. The original incarnation of West End Games went bankrupt in 1998, languished in the hands of a weird French gaming company for a couple of years, and was eventually sold to Purgatory Publishing in 2004. Torg itself languished until the “Kansas Jim” edition was published in 2005, which had the support of a couple of lackluster PDF modules and little else. Even at the time, it felt like a quick and dirty way to sell warehouse stock. This is not to say that it wasn’t a quality book. It just needed more support than the hand-waved scraps it was given. And then, in 2010, Ulisses Spiel got hold of the license and little else was heard.
It’s interesting, really. There wasn’t much press regarding the acquisition of Torg by a German company, and once they’d finalized the sale, there wasn’t anything further on the public side. Apparently, they had contacted many of the old WEG luminaries some years back, only to be met with a collective shrug. It wasn’t until some of these same writers (on their own initiative, from what I was to gather) changed their minds and started assembling a stable of interested contributors that it got traction. And here we are.
So, what is my actual game of interest?
Ryuutama, of course.
I put in post-Kickstarter money to Kotodama when I found out about this game, based on everything I read about the game in the aftermath. It hasn’t been exactly speedy in its release, but I can hardly blame these guys, being that it is a side job for them. (I actually talked with Andy Kitkowski at Gen Con one year, along with Atsuhiro Okada. Nice guys. The pity was that it was just a chance encounter, rather than something I was more prepared for. Someday, I would love to have drinks with these guys, just hanging out and talking games. Preferably somewhere in Tokyo. But I digress.)
As I’ve said earlier, I am singularly ill-suited to run this game without a lot of prep. It’s nothing like the sort of games that I would normally find myself putting together, but the challenge that this poses offers me some interesting insights. It’s not often that I find myself in a gaming situation where I have to give this much thought to how a game should run or what sort of obstacles I should populate it with. It’s actually sort of refreshing. (All too often, I tend to tweak a game’s setting to conspiracy and eldritch horror; as one friend said, we only really run one type of game.)
The nice thing is that, apparently the print edition of Ryuutama is going to be showing up at the distributor sometime in the next month. And unless I utterly borked up my order, I’ll be getting a copy of both the limited and the general release version. You know, the shelf copy and the play copy. From that point, I can dedicate myself to learning a new system and figuring out how to run it as it was meant to be run, rather than than how my natural tendencies would have me doing.
Other contenders for this honor:
Blue Rose, the AGE edition. I put in for this Kickstarter, despite the fact that I have never a) played the original, b) played anything with the Dragon Age RPG rules that this is based on, c) paid any attention to the Titansgrave hoopla, or c) actually had a group for which this game might be appropriate. The truth is, much like Ryuutama, I want to see things that I otherwise have not been likely to put into my own home games. I’ve heard great things about the AGE system, outside of the Dragon Age setting, to the effect that it is supposed to be one of the better fantasy engines around. And trying to put paid to some different gaming tropes would be a fine thing, just to shake things up a bit. I’ve done the D&D tropes to death over the years, so breathing new life into these games is somewhat necessary.
Force and Destiny. I don’t know as this counts, precisely. For one thing, it officially released about a week ago, and I doubt very much that it differs in any substantive way from the Beta that I’ve been running games with over the last year. That said, it will be nice to finally have my hardcover going up on the wall, to join the ever-growing FFG Star Wars line. And what the hell, I’m sure that there are enough tweaks to make the new edition shine.
Apocrypha. This one is a weird one, to be honest. A card based RPG that might actually have some staying power. There have been some other attempts at card-based RPG’s in the past, such as Dragon Storm, which had fairly limited success. The backstory reads like a World of Darkness campaign, which is interesting in its own right, and the game is put together by Mike Selinker’s Lone Shark Games, who are generally responsible for Paizo’s spate of card games. (Which, to be honest, may well be card-based RPG’s, but since I don’t personally know anyone who’s actually bought and played them, I’m not going to commit 100% to that idea.)
Lone Wolf Adventure Game. I can’t exactly claim this one anyway, since I managed to pick up my Kickstarter copy at Gen Con. (Signed by Joe Dever! Whoo! Very nice man, who seems mildly nonplussed to be so universally regarded.) I haven’t perused it as yet, but I want to devote some time to it when I can. The rest of the KS rewards are coming at some future point, so I guess I could have hinged my entry on that ideal.
So, let me see… I was working on a broad analysis of how Exalted took a serious turn for the worse, which led to the awful design decisions that led to the 3rd Edition philosophy. Where did I leave off last time … ?
Oh, yeah. Rape.
You know, I get it. White Wolf is edgy. They’ve spent a lot of time working on Mature Audience books. Hells, they have an entire separate imprint just to deal with things that they think should be left out of their core products. And they spent the better part of twenty years with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the rough core of any horror based product line. Hells, they managed to base a sourcebook for Wraith around the Holocaust. Logically, they have a solid rhetorical base to work from when it comes to presenting adult oriented themes to a mature audience.
The problem is that I’m not really sure that White Wolf and I are working with the same definitions of ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ for these purposes. I define these terms along the lines of ‘having to do with serious and often horrific ideas that are inappropriate for minor’ or similar. Child abuse, prison conditions, human trafficking, and so on; these are the kinds of things that I would expect in an adult product. The Liberian Civil War? That’s an adult theme. Same with the Rwanda Genocide, the Rape of Nanking and the moral consequences of killing an innocent while a character is trying to defeat a powerful enemy. They’re mature subjects to be dealt with in an appropriate setting, and none of it really fits for a younger audience.
For White Wolf, it’s a lot of rape. And weird sex jokes. (For an older example, google: ‘tzimisce cover’. This was the kind of shit that they used to pull back in the day.)
So, I already went off on the rape bit for Infernals. The most depressing thing about this is that it made one of the more tragic aspects of the entire canon into a grotesquerie. There’s a complicated story that had been built up about the little girl, Lillun, who had been manipulated into entering the secret area that the Scarlet Empress held sway over. She vanished and was never seen again, with the central idea being that the Scarlet Empress was willing even to let her youngest daughter be sacrificed to keep her secrets.
Then they come along with this. Lillun is revealed as being the living storehouse for corrupted divine energy, and the means by which to reward the corrupted servants with this energy is through a lot of rape. So, rather than keep it as a grim parable or mystery, the books go into more detail about this aspect of the game. And I have no idea why. It literally serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to make obvious something that was already hinted at. Detailing her torture in text is gratuitous, and making a comic in the front of the book is wholly unnecessary.
Even if you were to make the argument that this is to drive home the vile and inhuman nature of the Infernals, that’s going to fall flat as soon as you note that this is one of the most popular books in the line, and the diehard fans will take great pains to defend it. Most of this has to do with the fact that Infernal Exalts are ridiculously powerful, and the audience apparently takes great joy in playing evil characters. I suspect that it all goes back to the adoration of Vampire characters from World of Darkness. My experience has shown me enough of the edgy fanboys that want to talk about the power and violence of their characters. I wouldn’t say that too many of them had ever advanced much beyond a middle school mindset of such things either, but this is only my experience of such gamers.
So naturally, this is the sort of idea that gets carried over into the 3rd Edition design. Many of the same people that are working on this edition are the same ones that were involved in the crappy final projects of 2nd Edition. One of the first things that showed up in relation to 3rd Edition was a design doc that went into the new powers of Abyssal Exalts, who bear the corrupted essence of a Solar Exalt in service of the lords of the underworld. In the Exalted world, they’re the fantasy versions of Vampires, and their popularity reflects this. In 1st and 2nd Edition, they were subject to the dark versions of many of the Solar powers.
For 3rd Edition, they’re all about rape.
There was a preview PDF that was released early on in the Kickstarter as an example of where they were planning on going with the later books. For the Abyssal Exalts, there was an entire page devoted to the charms that they could access which allowed them to rape weaker characters, turn them into slaves, rape them to death and use the power they had derived from the rape to fuel their own further schemes.
Needless to say, this PDF got pulled pretty quickly and is now ridiculously hard to find on the internet.
There was a lot of blowback from this. The article on Something Awful (which I linked to last time) went over the high points of the preview, but there was even more in the way of objectionable content that was left out. The writers had offered basic (and poorly conceived) apologies about the tone of the writing, but in the end, they largely shrugged and went back to doing what they were already planning on doing. The diehard fans felt that apologies weren’t really needed, and the casual fans that thought it was actually pretty horrible mainly forgot about it or were shouted down on the forums.
And here’s the thing: For the most part, I didn’t care a lot either way about this new rape aspect of the game. There were already some questionable bits to Exalted that I thought were in poor taste. Having fairly explicitly detailed new powers that served little purpose other than rape? Yeah, that’s weird and juvenile, but it’s not like I thought the Infernals sourcebook wasn’t equally bad.
What killed it for me was the general arrogance that surrounded the project. The rapey bits were stupid, but I have already left a lot of things like that out of my games. It’s the smug outlook that the new writers persisted with that all but killed my support for the product. The gist was that they were making a new product to fix all of the bad ideas that 2nd Edition had.
Okay, I’m listening. I know that there are a lot of bad and unplayable parts of Exalted. Take, for example, the whole powerset of the Sidereals. Sure, they’re fine for NPC’s that don’t need to survive outside of the GM’s spiral bound notebook, but they’re not terribly interesting and playable. And seriously, Social Combat needs an overhaul. So do the rules for Mass Combat. We tried them, and they were neither fun nor easy to use. There’s also the rules for the political machinations between regions and nations; those could use some work, since it was a neat idea that never really managed to pull off. Some of the different charms need balancing, martial arts needs a couple of revisions, and let’s trim back the bullshit like Infernals and the sixth Alchemical type. None of these things make sense.
Nope. First off, they’re taking apart combat, which was one of the high points of the edition. Combat in Exalted 2nd was one of the slickest systems I’ve ever seen, as it worked on a timed initiative. Different actions took more or less time than others, so the actual speed of using a given weapon type actually mattered. From what I have been very sternly lectured about, this was too complicated and boring. (From what I’ve been able to tell, the boring parts come from the seriously twinked out munchkin builds battling each other. All the years I’ve been running Exalted, there’s never been an issue, but other people play seriously different games.)
And from every indication, none of the other issues that I ran into in any of my games are being touched. Instead, they seem to be focusing on inserting their own weird ideas into the setting, none of which have any bearing. One of the theories involves all sorts of new Exalt types, including a variant based on the NWoD game, Promethean. This new Exalt is your basic Frankenstein’s Monster, for some damned reason, and there’s plans to toss in as many more as they can come up with. To borrow and paraphrase from The Incredibles, once everyone’s Exalted, that means no one is Exalted.
All of this is to fix a product that they have repeatedly claimed is bad, broken and unplayable. The general mindset is that 2nd Edition Exalted, the one game line that actually outsold their World of Darkness and Aeon/Trinity lines, is just an awful game and there’s no way they could revise out all the things wrong with it. It’s better to burn it down, salt the earth and build anew.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a hard time being all that enthused about being told that something that I love is objectively bad and implying that I’m an idiot for liking it in the first place. Especially when it comes from a guy that doesn’t really understand design philosophy and is a little too interested in raping children. And writing all new systems that allow for more rape.
Blogs are sort of weird.
For the past three months, I’ve been throwing 1,000 words at a given subject every single night; rain or shine, broad inspiration or not. Sometimes these entries shined, and sometimes they just managed to fill the space. Either way, I post something, some of my friends read them, and I go on with things. Every now and again, I get a comment from one of my regulars, but I have the feeling that my rate of word production has left some people in the dust. I have no one to blame save myself, since I came to realize just how unlikely it is that someone would actually be able to go back through the archives if they hadn’t been keeping up in the first place. But I’ll get into that in a couple of days. There’s honestly too much for a casual reader to get into.
And then, every now and again, someone will stumble onto something I’ve posted up and read through it, looking for the subject tag for the thing that interests them. I know this because I get new likes on fairly old entries, which I find both endearing and weird. In my own mind, there’s a perception that, once an entry has faded into the archives, it’s dead and gone, never to be seen again or commented upon.
A little over a week ago, my new friend Eric started browsing through the Exalted entries. I’d always intended to go back and throw a couple thousand more words at the subject, but it never quite happened. But since I’m planning on putting the blog on hiatus for a little while, I might as well get around to this promise, even if it has been one that I’ve largely made to myself.
I’ve already discussed the baseline setting of Exalted and the kinds of characters that can be made to adventure within the bounds of this world. I’ve also touched on some of the historical and real world elements that went into the complex mythological foundations that build the world.
What I haven’t dealt with is the point in 2nd Edition Exalted when the designers finally jumped the rails and started doing really stupid and offensive things. Nor have I gone into how this abandonment of solid design philosophy is what forms the questionable basis of the 3rd Edition rules.
First, a little bit of history: One of the very first supplements for 1st Edition Exalted was the rather weird attempt at an adventure module, in the form of Time of Tumult. Ostensibly, this was the design team’s way of introducing the White Wolf fans to a whole new concept of fantasy RPG, namely the ‘epic’ style. And by ‘epic’, I’m using the classical sense of the term, where it refers to the deeds of legendary heroes. Exalted dealt with the nascent god-kings of an ancient era, determined to reclaim their fallen empires. This was a good deal different from anything that White Wolf had done before, and it was a fair departure from games like Warhammer Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, which were the go-to games for normal fantasy.
Sadly, Time of Tumult didn’t really manage to pull it off. It had some interesting ideas, but the main adventure was a strange cross between ‘haunted mansion’ and dungeon crawl, managing neither with any grace. But one of the short adventures that was included with the book dealt with the broad sketches of an alien force from outside of Creation that threatened to take over the world. In Crusaders of the Machine God, the epic fantasy world of Exalted is being overtaken by what amounts to being cybernetic and robotic invaders.
The idea was that all of humanity was based on the designs of one of the Primordials (think Titans from Greek myth) who had prototyped the first men for the other Primordials to build from. When it became evident that these new creations (in the form of Exalts) were going to cast down their Primordial creators, the one responsible for the prototypes in the first place fled creation to avoid being defeated himself. After millennia wandering the void beyond Creation, he’s been forced to return. As the titular Machine God, his children are the robots and cyborgs that have come back to do his will.
All right, so this is how it makes sense in the scope of Exalted. These particular versions of the established Exalts are weird and machine-based, but that’s because they’re based on the original prototypes. Like their master, they exist outside of Creation itself, and accordingly they are the exception to the pre-established Rule of Five that forms the basic framework of the game. The different castes of the Alchemical Exalts fall in line with the five types of Celestial and Terrestrial Exalts, formed as they are from the Five Magical Materials, but they represent a strange sort of sixth type of Exalt in their way. Even so, they are specifically built on the archetypes of the normal Exalt they correspond with. Orichalcum Caste fulfill a similar role to Solars, Moonsilver have a similar function to Lunars, and so on. It all made sense and fit within the established hierarchy.
Until the tail end of 2nd Edition Exalted, that is.
I have no proof of this, but I think 2nd Edition started going off the rails when the lead designer, John Chambers, left the company for greener pastures. Up to a certain point, the design philosophy adhered to fairly strict guidelines and managed to streamline much of the rough material from 1st Edition. It had a different, more cosmopolitan feel than the earlier edition, which had touches of pulp fantasy and eldritch horror around the edges, but it didn’t try to contradict any of the established lore.
Then came the Alchemical book for 2nd Edition. And things started getting weird.
Represented were the same five castes of Alchemical Exalt that appeared in the original publication, with the strange addition of a sixth caste formed of a non-magical material that only really showed up in Time of Tumult. But not in the module that introduced the concept of Alchemicals. The material, an extremely brittle and lethal form of glass known as Adamant, was one of the few materials available that would inflict Aggravated Damage on its own. (For those unfamiliar with White Wolf, there were three basic damage types: Non-lethal, lethal, and aggravated. These differed mainly in how long it took to heal them.) It was a weird addition to the module, and it really never showed up anywhere else. Nevermind the fact that Adamant implies unbreakability, and the glass was almost impossible to use because it would constantly break.
This new caste combines all manner of nonsensical aspects, to the point that it comes across seeming like a power gamer’s wet dream. (This perception is not helped by the fact that the iconic Adamant character is a female that is incapable of wearing pants. The only piece of clothing she actually wears in a sort of shawl-like covering that only barely covers part of her breasts. Wet dream, indeed.) Adamant caste have the innate ability to avoid having any observer remember them, along the lines of the Sidereal abilities, but unlike the Arcane Fate of the Chosen, trying to resist this power of the Adamant Caste requires an inane amount of Willpower to be spent. And compared to the battle-oriented powers of the rest of the Alchemicals, this is particularly weird. In addition, they’re the angst-ridden loners who know more about the inner workings of their machine society, seeing fit to judge even the other Exalts for their actions. They are the ‘mysterious strangers’ and the ‘tactical lynchpins’ prone to ‘flamboyant displays of strength’ in their role as the ultra secret agents of … somebody. They wait in the shadows to ‘strike a blow that will break their own hearts’.
In short, they’re better than everything else. And filled with angst.
This was followed up shortly thereafter by the sourcebook for the Infernal Exalts, which were equally overwrought and unnecessary. They were so edgy and extreme that they might as well have been a Mountain Dew flavored bag of Jacked Doritos. And where the Adamant Alchemical was pure fanservice on its own, the iconic characters for the Infernals were particularly egregious. In no specific order, they were a pirate, a ninja, a Scotsman, a sexy nun and a mummy with an oversized eldritch claw grafted on his right shoulder. They were one step away from appearing on a middle school boy’s homeroom notebook.
And when you actually try to delve into the lore of these Exalts it gets even squirrelier. All right, so we have the appearance of the Adamant Alchemicals, with their non-Magical Material basis. All of the other Alchemical Castes correspond directly with the Exalts that are roaming around Creation. Does this mean that the material that’s associated with the previously unknown Infernal Exalts is Adamant?
No. That would almost make sense.
Instead, they have access to a weird substance called Vitriol, which forms the basis of Infernal item crafting. It’s said to be a demonic acid of sorts, but it ends up just being Evil Lacquer that you soak all of your gear in. There’s all sorts of gnarly, wicked prose to explain the demonic and awful processes that it’s supposed to represent, but the simple truth of the matter is that it’s just Evil Lacquer. No more, no less.
There’s a relatively solid reason for the existence of Infernal Exalts, tracing back to the various plots that set the whole Age of Sorrows setting in motion. It’s not a bad idea, overall, but the implementation of it gets stupid pretty quickly. They have clear antecedents in the Abyssal Exalts, but where the Abyssals have to atone through self mutilation or the sacrifice of something they love, Infernals have to undertake acts of mustache-twirling evil, the kind of which echoes Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.
And that isn’t even to talk about the systematic rape of a young girl as the basis of the characters’ power.
I think I can safely finish the rest of my complaints out in the next post. Those images should be enough to get most of my current points across.
The final episode of Game of Thrones, Season 4 aired last night. Apparently, it’s longer than usual, weighing in at some 66 minutes. That adds some ten odd minutes to the show, apparently because they couldn’t edit the episode down any closer without sacrificing needed scenes or details. The showrunners, Benioff & Weiss have claimed that this will be one of the finest episodes of the show, ever. It’s an interesting claim, and I’m specifically avoiding the internet until such point as I can watch it for myself to judge.
Mind you, I’ve read the original books repeatedly, years before the show came to air, so there won’t be too many surprises. I know roughly what ground they will have to cover (and to be honest, I’d assumed that a couple of these would have been covered in Episode 9, which has been the traditional place for the massive plot reveals), so it will be interesting to see how it’s dealt with. And given the way this season has unfolded, I’m wondering if there will be any new details or events that weren’t covered in the books. I mean, we already got info on the Night’s King, so maybe there will be something of similar import.
Included with relevant Game of Thrones news is the recent release of yet another Gardner Dozois anthology, which has become the standard platform for Martin to release new Westerosi fiction. The first two ‘Dunk & Egg’ novellas were released in other anthologies, but The Mystery Knight, The Princess and the Queen, and The Rogue Prince have been in the three cross-genre anthologies. While the ‘Dunk & Egg’ series deals with the adventures of Aegon the Unlikely as a squire, the newest two novellas (Princess and Queen, Rogue Prince) deal with the earlier period of history when a civil war broke out within the Tagaryen dynasty, a time referred to as ‘The Dance of Dragons’ (and not to be confused with the most recent ASoIaF novel).
How does this tie back to RPG’s? Well, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and re-reading Martin’s books and short fiction as a means to try to make sense of his world and the way the characters and ruling houses fit together. The books that most people know deal with a weird period of Westeros history, in that there isn’t a Targaryen king on the Iron Throne, and the atmosphere in the Seven Kingdoms has settled into an uneasy acceptance of another king’s rule. (Of course, anyone familiar with the deeper lore of the series and House Baratheon in particular will note that they do have a Targaryen lineage, as Robert’s grandmother was the daughter of Aegon the Unlikely. But I digress.) All of the previous stories deal with periods where the Targaryen kings are unchallenged and rule, for the most part, wisely.
It’s been my firm conviction that Westeros is George Martin’s personal campaign world, as the backdrop that he uses in the novels is incredibly detailed on extremely unimportant minutiae, the kind of which would organically grow out of a long-running campaign. As such, when I sit down to build a campaign set in that world, I want to be as aware of those sorts of minor aspects as I can, same as I would study the different parts of Sandpoint and Magnimar in a game set in Varisia or the city layout of Chiba, Japan, were I to run a game based on Neuromancer.
And well, I’m almost as much of a fanboy for A Song of Ice and Fire as I used to be for Star Wars. It’s just how I’m wired, I guess.
In other news, the Kickstarter for the updated Book of the Wyrm for Werewolf 20 has gone live. Naturally, it’s met its funding already, so we’re down to figuring out which stretch goals are going to be promised, listening to the various shills for cheap POD’s and t-shirts, and wondering how much they’ll miss the shipping date by. They’ve taken to just promising a one year turnaround, instead of offering even more unreasonable lies to comfort their backers with.
Of the outstanding and undelivered product, we’re about a month away from the one year anniversary of Changing Breeds for W20, and I’m doubting that it’s going to show up before August. We just hit the one year mark for Exalted 3rd Edition, and our most recent updates still talk about sections being written and playtested. Current estimates put it as being ready to print sometime around October, at best guess. Given the way that Onyx Path has mangled their shipping in the past (there’s a fascinating update on the W20 page about how the guy that was supposed to handle getting the books sent out to the European backers managed to lose them when he moved into a new house), there’s every chance that we’ll hit a two year delivery on this damned thing.
So, generally what this means is that W20 only showed up some time in January of 2014, after having been funded in November of 2012. Between funding and delivery, they managed to kick another project, Changing Breeds, as of July of last year. That still hasn’t shown up, and now we’re looking at the plea for Book of the Wyrm, which we can be fairly certain will not show up by July of 2015.
And hilariously enough, there are plenty of White Wolf apologists that are shouting down the critics on the backer threads, as they desperately want to play the white knight for a company that repeatedly tries to soak them for more money without actually producing anything on a timely basis. Even as the company includes such stretch goals as ‘give these guys a vacation’ and ‘give these guys more money’, neither of which are apparently against Kickstarter terms of service.
I would say that I wonder about these people and the weirdly idealized world they claim to live in, but I’m not really blameless in any of this myself. I mean, most of the reason that I know as much as I do about the Exalted boondoggle is that I personally funded it.
Granted, I loathe myself for giving them money, as I’m pretty sure that the design direction that they’re intending to go in with the product is asinine and horrible. But at the same time, I’m willing to see if they can pull off any of the ideas that they sold as being this endeavor. At the end of it all, I’ll end up with a fiercely collectable book that I can later sell off without regret.
The fourth Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter finished a week ago. Between that and Onyx Path’s 20th Anniversary Mage, which funded a couple of days earlier, it was a bit of a pricey month for me. Had I the money, I would also have put in for the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter. Sadly, it ended up being less of an outrageous deal than the first one had been, so I don’t feel as badly about it. The reality is that I’ll likely buy the requisite sets from their eventual storefront offering of the Caverns, and I’ll be out a little bit more money than I would have been.
I got into Shadows of Esteren relatively late, in terms of their growing success. They’d already managed to pull off two successful Kickstarter campaigns by the time they were brought to my attention, covering the Prologue and Universe books. The Travels Kickstarter was the third campaign they put together, and their tag line was enough to sell me on the spot – ‘A medieval roleplaying game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu.’
There are few things that encapsulate my interests better than that. A general consensus was that, if I missed out on this game, I’d be missing out on the one thing in life that was tailor-made for my predilections. Naturally, I pledged a lot of money for this, ending up with the limited editions of every available book, as well as all of the nifty add-ons that came with the well exceeded stretch goals. And there were a lot.
Looking over the contents of the Osta-Baille Collector set that I ended up with, there are some eleven bundles that are still in shrink wrap (artwork, pre-generated characters, a GM screen, map tiles, game aids, etc.) along with the three books and the box to put most of it in. In addition, there’s another box and scattering of game stuff that will show up this coming GenCon, due to the logistics of printing all the stretch goals and fulfilling the added material.
Because they’d already funded two Kickstarters by the time I got into the middle of it all, they’d put together the budget to get stuff printed and ready for distribution, so immediately after the Kickstarter finished, they offered everything that was already printed for pick up at GenCon.
I’ll be honest. This went a long way to impress me. My very first Kickstarter RPG pledge was for a game that has yet to see the light of day (and many of the people funding it are threatening legal action), and many of my subsequent pledges went into products that took about a year to fulfill. Otherwise, the absolute shortest turnaround was the previous Dwarven Forge campaign, which had product to me in about six months. (Hence why I regret not giving those guys more of my money. They’re pretty awesome.)
It also helped that the writers of the game were absolutely wonderful to talk to. The main designer (as I understood it) talked about how much he loved Ravenloft, to the point that he learned English simply so he could read the various supplements that had never been translated into French. Oh, and did I mention that this was a French game that ended up being translated into English? Probably an important point to keep in mind as I move forward.
That’s one of the first things you realize about the game when you start looking through it. This is not an American game, by any stretch of the imagination.
The first clues lie with the artwork. The covers of my limited edition rulebooks hearken back to the ‘Green Man’ legendry and motifs from Europe, with three variant foliate masks as decoration. The interior art gives us an old world sensibility, ancient lands overgrown and lost from an earlier age, with rough peasants as our avatars in this strange and pastoral setting. High, desolate mountains and moss encrusted cenotaphs portray wild places that man has no real business in approaching.
The game text goes on to talk about the present realities of war and fear and starvation, things that modern American games don’t see fit to bother with. In this game, the horrors that lurk in the shadowy, mistbourne woods are less of an issue than making sure that the crops don’t fail and the people of the village and make it through the long winter. This is the lowest of low fantasy.
I will be completely honest. I’m not entirely sure that I know how to run this game. The setting is incredibly dense, to the point that the world has yet to be fully described. Within the course of the first three books for the game (Prologue, Universe and Travels), the focus has remained on the peninsula of Tri-Kazel, with a lot of time spent on the small villages high in the mountains of Taol-Kaer. There are details of the world beyond Tri-Kazel, which hint of more civilized lands that dabble in the local version of Magitek, but the best that a character will likely find of that are the broken and abandoned factories left to rust in the high mountain valleys.
By stating that this game is almost beyond my skill level is not a critique of the writing or the ideas behind the game. If anything, I’m unwilling to run this game until I know I can do it justice. If I were to try to introduce Shadows of Esteren to a new group, I would want to infuse it with the same richness of detail that the books themselves offer. To do anything less would almost be insulting.
The thing is, I don’t believe I’m alone in my mystification of the setting. The very first book produced for the game is the Prologue book, labeled Book 0. This is a set of adventures which are recommended to be run as a linked trilogy. In essence, the game designers understood that there was no easy way to hit the ground running, insofar as the broad portrayal of the setting and its inherent spookiness. So logically, they offered up a set of canned adventures that both teach the players the system and the GM how to properly bring the world to life. There are also suggestions as to which order these adventures should be run in, as the overall psychological effect on the players would be markedly different.
And yeah. Psychology is a heavy element for this game. One of the most impressive things, for my part, is that each of the different scenes in the scenarios have a suggested soundtrack. Braveheart, Silent Hill and Full Metal Jacket are all on the playlist of recommended music, as well as tracks from the symphonic concerts that were written especially for the game. (It says something that the most recent Kickstarter offered concert DVD’s for stretch goals. These guys take their atmospheric resonance pretty seriously.)
All in all, Shadows of Esteren is one of those games that I’ll work toward running in the eventual future, when I have both the proper table of gamers and the time to do the product justice. I have no regrets in my purchase of these books, but for the time being, they’re going to have to wait on my shelf for a while.
As I hammer this post out, the Kickstarter campaign for the 20th Anniversary Mage tome is in its final hours. While I am looking forward to having this weighty book on my shelf, I wish I could say that I was happy about having pledged money to Onyx Path for the end product. At best, I’m in a state of perfect ambivalence.
I’ve already complained about many of the issues I have with Onyx Path. While I’m sure that their decision to partner with DriveThruRPG was bourne of their precarious status with CCP* and all the nonsense therein, none of the excuses make me any happier with the state of things. A good portion of this stated ambivalence comes with the understanding that the money that I’ve pledged is only going to come back to me at the point that I’ve already forgotten about why I wanted the book in the first place.
Onyx Path has become notorious about their inability to meet deadlines, to the point that they should be held up as a standard in why Kickstarters are not simply complicated pre-order mechanisms. So far, the worst offender has been the previous book in the 20th Anniversary World of Darkness Line, Werewolf, but that’s simply because everyone has likely given up on the vaporware that is Exalted 3rd Edition. (And when I manage to be able to write some words without frothing about this book, I will examine why it is possibly one of the biggest boondoggles available.)
Werewolf was blinding in its promises. The Kickstarter ran in October of 2012, with the presumptive delivery date scheduled for December. Yeah, it seemed unlikely at the time, but they’d been pretty prompt with the Vampire 20th that came out the year before. And they guaranteed that the book was all but finished at the time of the Kickstarter campaign, needing only to be printed and shipped. There was even a note in the Risks section that talks about how they wanted to promptly deliver the book to keep the backers from lynching them.
And … most of that was built on a foundation of either nonsensical optimism or outright lies.
The book ended up taking over a year to deliver in the first place, and there were massive problems with the delivery even then. From what I was able to glean from the Kickstarter updates, not only were packages ending up late or lost, but there were a lot of books that arrived damaged. But to be fair, shipping isn’t the main thrust of their business, so that comes off a bit like blaming the waitress for bad food. Everything that happened before that point, on the other hand… that rests squarely on the shoulders of Onyx Path.
Why exactly does a book that’s already got most of its art in place, all of the writing in place, and about half of the layout finished take fourteen months to arrive in the hands of its backers? Beats the hell out of me. It wasn’t as though the stretch goals added anything to the actual book itself. And the Hunters Hunted II Kickstarter which ran nearly four months later and offered 25,000 extra words as a Kickstarter goal was shipped in the same box as my Werewolf book.
What was particularly galling to many of the backers came in the form of cruel indifference. The Kickstarter for the Werewolf book sold it as being a ‘premium’ edition available only to those who pledged money. As it happened, the standard edition of the printed book was available through DriveThruRPG about eight months before the backers got their own copy from the Kickstarter. It didn’t have the leather cover, but that was about it. Essentially, if you wanted to have a physical book to game with, you were better off not pledging the money to the Kickstarter, since you didn’t have to wait as long and all you were out was the cover treatment. It might as well have been an X-Men comic from the mid-90’s, at this rate. You pay the extra money for the deluxe die-cut and foil treatment, but the guy who bought the normal non-collectable edition got all the same words. And it ain’t like these are likely to be worth any money in the long run, if we’re going to continue with the comics metaphor.
In the mean time, Onyx Path went ahead and started a new Kickstarter for the first supplement for W20, namely that of the Changing Breeds book. The Kickstarter ran in July of 2013, seemingly bourne aloft by the DriveThruRPG sales of the book they had yet to deliver to their backers. While the delivery estimations were a bit more modest in trying to claim a six month turnaround, they still assumed delivery before the W20 book actually delivered. To the credit of the backers, only about half the people that funded Werewolf 20th came out for the Changing Breeds book, and it netted less than a quarter of the returns that its predecessor managed.
But for whatever reason, the backers returned for the Mage 20th Anniversary Kickstarter. With ten hours remaining on the clock, they’re already edging towards twice the backers and twice the funding of Werewolf. I wish I could say that I was happy for them at being able to create a solid, wonderfully usable book for their audience, but it’s really hard to keep that kind of optimism afloat for more than a year.
Actually, the Kickstarter promises delivery in a year. Best check back with me in mid-2016, just to be safe.
* For those that are unfamiliar with White Wolf Publishing and their acquisition by CCP, here’s the basics. CCP, an Icelandic MMO developer known mainly for EVE Online, decided that they wanted to build a World of Darkness MMO to add to their stable. Rather than license it, they merged with White Wolf and shut down the RPG publishing division. Onyx Path was then formed by the guy who had served as White Wolf’s Creative Director, and they managed to get the licenses to publish RPG’s from the old properties. Confusing? Yeah. And in the meantime, the World of Darkness MMO is ‘delayed indefinitely’ due to EVE Online not making as much money as it should.
You would be right in asking why CCP had to go to such lengths to get hold of a property they’re probably never going to do anything with and destroying a perfectly viable RPG company in the process. And no answers are forthcoming.
So, here we are. Second post of the blog, and I might as well make a deep, personal confession. I mean, why not? That’s what people are here for, isn’t it? Cyberstalking strangers on the electronic ether, you might as well have something juicy to talk about in hushed whispers the next day, right?
Here it is: I’m a Kickstarter addict.
I love Kickstarters. I browse them obsessively, listening to the breathless promises of the designers as they try to justify squeezing out just a little more money to reach the next stretch goal. And almost as good are the tearful apologies when they delay the shipment another month because they hadn’t anticipated actually having to fulfill these absolutely unreasonable additions brought on by gloriously overfunding their projects to the point that they may not be able to actually get the products to their supporters without bankrupting themselves. They get caught up in the night’s sins and revels, only to wake up blearily in the harsh light of day, their underwear on backwards and the hard edges of the park bench digging into their ribs as they struggle to figure out where they are and how they managed to get there in the first place.
It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve funded close to twenty Kickstarter projects. Overall, that’s close to $2,000 that I’ve put out, and in the process, I’ve only gotten delivery of five and a half of these. (The half is something that I’m actually okay with, being that I already got the half of the pledge that I was looking forward to; the other half is stuff I added on to my initial pledge and knew that I would be getting later on anyway. More on this when it comes up as a blog post later.)
So, yeah. I’ve put out a sizable stack of money, and only about a third of that money has come back to me in the form of physical products. (It helps that the two most expensive products delivered.) And numbers-wise, I’ve gotten about a third of the things I went after. And yet, I’m considering another $700 within the next month. The only reasonable explanation is addiction.
A good portion of this weird disconnect lies with the fact that, of all the projects I’ve put funding in for, only one of these Kickstarters is not an RPG book.
In a lot of ways, Kickstarter may end up being the one thing that saves tabletop RPG’s from dying an ugly death. And they’re busily hammering nails into the coffin as they do it.
See, here’s the thing:
The Gaming Industry, as a money making entity, is awful. There are clear outliers, like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo, who manage to far outstrip industry standards and run profits in the multi-million dollar range, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. For everyone else, it’s a labor of love that’s supported by a rabid fanbase and little else. Gaming books are word-intensive, art-intensive, and fucking well heavy, making them expensive to create, lay out, and ship. The profits on most of them are relatively thin, even if it’s a mainstay of the industry as a whole. (One only needs look as far as Chaosium to have this driven home.)
Kickstarter helps turn this around. Instead of over-producing a line of books that’s going to get remaindered when the game line sinks, they can offer up a premium edition, judge what sort of interest there is in a given product, and pay for the cost of actually getting the book to market. And once they’ve managed to ship the Premium Kickstarter Edition, all they have to do is print out smaller lots of the Normal Edition, now that the cost of writing, art and lay out has been taken care of. And with any amount of luck, the guys that funded the Kickstarter will have talked up the book to the point that all of their friends want to lay their hands on their own copies.
There’s a catch in this whole process, though. The model that I’ve just talked about requires that the game company do one very simple thing; namely, they have to actually print up the books to sell once the Kickstarter Edition has been dealt with. If that doesn’t happen…
And this is where I start pointing fingers.
The most egregious abuser of Kickstarter is White Wolf. Or more accurately, the company that’s publishing the books based on the properties that used to belong to White Wolf, which goes by the name of Onyx Path.
There’s a long, complicated history to The Death of White Wolf As We Know It, which I figure I shall go into more depth about when I get around to talking about the Onyx Path Kickstarters. For the time being, know this: In a lot of ways, Kickstarter is the only way that they can continue to publish White Wolf products. Which would be fine, if they actually ‘published’ the damned books.
And this is where I’m drawing a line in the sand, as far as the company is concerned. See, what Onyx Path does (in addition to their many other sins) is rely on Print On Demand (POD, as it is known) books for anyone who doesn’t go in on their Kickstarter projects. This is a truly awful business practice for a number of reasons.
1.) POD books suck. There’s no nice way to put it. Drive Thru RPG pretty much holds a monopoly on the market, and their quality is shit. (And there goes my dreams of having Drive Thru sponsor me. Alas.) I have POD books from fifteen years ago that are of equivalent quality (sticky ink, mediocre binding, poor grey scale, non-bleed lay out), when this was new and exciting technology. I have the feeling that books done through Lulu are higher quality, but given that none of the books I tend to buy are through Lulu, there’s no way for me to easily compare.
2.) POD books are always at full price, unless they’re used or similarly aftermarket. Yeah, I’m sure that I could troll Drive Thru for sales, but in all honesty, it’s not worth my time. I maintain a library, and it’s not worth my while to buy every single book at MSRP. If the book I want isn’t at the price I want it when it comes up, there’s a good chance that I’m going to opt out for a different book instead. Yeah, it might be nice to pick up that new supplement, but if I can get two new main books for the same price, I’ll go with those. At best, I’m likely to go through eBay or local used book stores on the off-chance that I find that particular book.
3.) POD books kill gaming shops.
I’m going to let that one sit alone for a moment, just for the sake of emphasis.
Because POD books are direct between the printer and the consumer, there’s no route through distributors like Alliance. And without being stocked by Alliance, most gaming shops won’t stock it. (There was a brief tempest back in the early days of Magic, where Wizards tried to circumvent the distributors. The gaming shops fought back, since the lack of Magic sales through the distributor would threaten the existence of the distributor, which would then blow back upon them.) And if the gaming shops won’t stock it, it’s lost from casual gaming.
And I’ll cop to it; there aren’t a lot of gaming shops where I live right now. It happens. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important to the ecology of gaming in general. Yeah, sure… we’re in the Internet Age, and I personally do a lot of my purchasing through websites. I’m also possessed of a credit card, an independent income, and I no longer rely on the gaming shops for my social life. I am not a young gamer, just starting out in the hobby, who has gotten in through card games or board games and is looking for something a little … deeper.
Gaming shops cater to new gamers. They stock dice and minis and a scattering of the latest RPG’s to browse. They have the old neckbeard behind the counter who can offer up lengthy opinions about why this game is the best thing since air and that game doesn’t deserve shelf space. They have racks and sales and incentives, and when it’s all said and done with, the gaming shop allows you to consider your purchase before you commit.
Maybe this is the closeted grognard within me speaking, but without gaming shops in the environment, there’s every chance that the bright-eyed middle school student with summer job earnings will end up tossing their money at whatever new video game is immediately handy.
And yeah… POD killing game shops is the extreme end of the spectrum. It’s really only a problem if the entire industry went in that direction, but at the same time, it means that no casual gamer has access to books that only show up in POD format.
The long and short of it is that, insofar as White Wolf is concerned, Kickstarter is the only real way that they can manage to put out new products. But it also means that their days of expanding their audience is gone, since only the illuminated know to purchase their products. It’s sort of the Freemasonry of Gaming, as that goes.