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Further thoughts on Exalted 3rd, and the lies that people tell…

I’d been planning on addressing some further issues about the release of Exalted 3rd Edition, such as it is.  It would appear that Ironbombs shares many of my numerous and multifarious dislikes about the direction that Onyx Path took with the game, and this lit something of a fire underneath my currently simmering discontent.

White Wolf (and their current incarnation as Onyx Path) is an interesting case study in the contrast between seemingly solid products and utter failure in delivery.  Their Kickstarter record alone paints a fairly awful picture of their actual reliability, and this is their main method of raising a dead company from the ashes of weird corporate shuffling.

Their very first Kickstarter was the V20 Companion, a follow-up to the massive 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this ranks as one of the worst products the company has ever produced in their otherwise agreeable history.  Luckily, it wasn’t a product that I bought into (I had been unaware of it, for whatever reason, seeing as I had lain hands on the V20 book itself), as it was a wildly overpriced and largely unusable product whose only interesting aspect was apparently the appendix that talked about all the interesting stuff that they hadn’t actually put into the book.

From there, they’ve made a regular practice of putting out new books exclusively through Kickstarter, following up later with POD versions through DriveThru.

There’s an entire subordinate discussion about the reality of POD-only books that I may or may not have already chewed apart, but the gist of my disdain* is this:  Without a market that caters to the hobby and gaming stores, these books are kept out of the hands of new customers.  Only the people that are already familiar with these games are going to buy them, and there’s an entire generation of gamers that is cut off from access to these products.  Even if they are introduced by some older veteran, their ability to purchase is limited to precisely one outlet, without any ability to find deals or discounts.  In a small and struggling industry, this is allowing the companies to only produce what they specifically have already sold even as they eliminate the warehousing aspect, but it eliminates many of the avenues of growth from the companies.

Anyway, Onyx Path has gained a deserved reputation for failing to meet deadlines on their products with an alarming regularity.  Before the boondoggle that was Ex3, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf that took eighteen months to fulfill, despite being wholly written at the time of the Kickstarter (and hilariously promising delivery within a month of the Kickstarter’s end).  Similarly, the Hunters Hunted II book took fifteen months to see delivery (again, fully written at the time of the campaign and arriving a full year after the promised deadline), which was a better turnaround, but still…  They were getting better about this by the time the W20 Changing Breeds book came around, in that it only took a year to deliver (still promising delivery about nine months before they were able to), but a pattern had been set by this point.

Onyx Path, as a company, is a weird successor to the highly regarded White Wolf games company that built a solid niche in the 90’s era.  The company was sold off to CCP, the Icelandic video game company responsible for the space spreadsheet MMO, Eve Online.  The idea, at the time, had been to vaguely merge the companies for the sake of developing a new MassMOG based on the Vampire property.  This product barely got past the ‘proof-of-concept’ stage of things before being ash-canned, and the fine print of the corporate hierarchy left the RPG licenses in the hands of a company that apparently had little interest in actually continuing the table top RPG lines.  (Go figure.  It’s a small, niche industry with narrow profit margins, especially compared to the weird financial juggernaut that is Eve Online.)

The result is that Onyx Path is licensing their products from CCP, with whatever fees that might entail.  In that way, it makes a certain sense that they are operating the way they are.

The reality is that they are a ragtag group of freelancers that are loosely tied to a central structure.  There are, perhaps, a half-dozen actual staffers that make up the company, and the rest of the writers are contract monkeys who turn in a manuscript and walk away.  And in essence, this loose structure is what is masquerading as an actual game company these days.  The sheer, obvious incompetence is hilarious in its audacity.  Because they are coasting on the reputation of a larger, better company (the White Wolf of the past), they are able to pretend that they are tapping into the same sort of permanent staff and accumulated expertise.  The truth of the situation is wildly different.  And no product better illustrates the level of incompetence nearly so well as Third Edition Exalted, or Ex3.

1.) Let’s start off with the unfortunate art choices.  Exalted has always been a game of evocative art, erring on the side of anime sensibilities.  Most of Second Edition’s feel was established by artists like Melissa Uran and the UDON Studio.  Some covers (for better or worse) contracted out to well-established and highly regarded artists like Adam Warren (of Dirty Pair and Empowered fame) and Kim Hyung-Tae (who did the character designs for Magna Carta, the PS2 game).  (Odd note:  Before they outsourced to Kim Hyung-Tae, I had picked up a Magna Carta art book as my handy reference guide for new players to show them how I saw Exalted.  It was actually sort of nice to be validated, even if his particular cover illustration was in questionable taste.)  It was colorful, high action, and gave a taste of how awesome the game could be.

In contrast, Ex3 has already hit a wall with their art, being as it looks like it hit the high points of a DeviantArt search.  There are some arguably good pieces (such as the homage to the Kowloon Walled City illustration of Wu Jian), but there are plenty of awful Poser illustrations to offset the good stuff.  One egregious example of poor choices incorporates a recycled image of the Scarlet Empress from a previous book, with a half-assed PhotoShop attempt that makes Creation’s Greatest Enemy look vaguely pregnant.  There’s even a weird depiction of one of the better established Sidereal antagonists looking like the head of Onyx Path and stealing a half dozen pieces of art from other sources.  (This one has already been stricken from the eventual book, even as the near-plagiarized images are allowed to remain.)  And none of this is to get into the truly bizarre and obnoxious piece that one forum termed “Banana Hammock Exhibitionist Display!”  (I feel that description speaks for itself.)

There’s also the issue that the weapons section of the book looks like some trashy late-90’s videogame render.  These entries are supposed to represent the panoply of Exalted power that a player character brings to bear upon their opponent.  Instead, it looks like these images were edited off someone’s Geocities page, just above the 3d spinning envelope that represents the email link.  In comparison, Second Edition looked like it was modeled on a Prima Guidebook for a videogame.  It worked.  This, in comparison, looks like canned ass.

I don’t think it needs to be re-stated that this is a game that raised $700K for development and artwork.  The head of the project is the former Art Director for White Wolf.  There is literally no excuse for this book to look this bad, especially when much smaller companies with far less of a potential art budget are able to produce better and more stylistically appropriate art for their games.  (Seriously, do a Google Search for Enascentia.  It’s an Italian game for Savage Worlds that follows similar design principles, being a high fantasy RPG with anime influences.  It raised a little over 1% of the money that Ex3 raised, and it is doing a better job of looking like Exalted than Exalted is doing these days.)

2.) The backer PDF is being treated like a Beta.

Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.  Let it reach the back of your tongue and soft palate.  This is a game that was “The Most Playtested Game Ever” when it was being pitched to a skeptical public.  This is a game that ostensibly took some 30 months for development and layout.  (The truth is, for whatever reason, the actual layout process was done last, rather than being developed in parallel.  You know, like a professional company might try to do?)  This is a game that was supposed to revitalize the industry and the company and excite all of the former skeptics and naysayers in the ranks.

And yet, the most recent updates on the Kickstarter are trying to “encourage all backers […] to send notes on any technical mistakes you might find” to the company to fix the errors that still remain in the book.  Yes, this is a game that charged over $100 to anyone who wanted a physical book, took two and a half years to get to this point, and now wants its backers to work for free to fix the errors that still remain in the text.

Keep in mind:  This text is the same text that was leaked by a playtester back sometime around late February of 2015, meaning that, in the intervening eight months, this is all the better job they can do of editing this mess.  By all accounts, the minor tweaks that have been done to the text are negligible, and the whiny “damage control” that a couple of the writers engaged in (noting that the release of an unfinished game would diminish the impact of the final product) was nothing more than an exercise in casting themselves as martyrs.

3.) The backer PDF is weirdly pre-final.

I would suppose this is a nitpick, but I’ll stand by it.  For backers, this is the first chance that they have to read through the book, gather ideas and set about working up their first stab at a newly christened Ex3 game.  By rights, this should be a real product.  Even setting aside the final editing pass that it needs, this PDF lacks a number of necessary tweaks to be final.  For one thing, it lacks a bookmark system, which would allow users to quickly move from section to section.  Logically, this would have the different chapters, as well as specific sub-headings dealt with (I’m thinking of the bloated Charm section, specifically; given that this is over 200 pages alone, it’s hell to try to find a charm set without a lot of paging and searching).

The official response (apparently) is that this will be added in later, since it would otherwise be too much work.  In response, one backer took about three hours and linked a full bookmark index into their PDF, posting it on the web for other users.

So, yeah.  Two and a half years to put together a semi-final version.  At least eight months with this text.  And nowhere in this time period could anyone spare three damned hours to make this product accessible to the people that had already put their money down on it?

In the mean time, there’s an extra page thrown in after Chapter 5 which throws off the two-page layout.  This borks it for anyone wanting to use two-page view on their PDF viewer, which again makes it difficult to use for a game, especially if you’re reading it off a decent tablet.

4.) Twenty-one pages of Backer Names.

All right, so I get it.  People want to be credited for their participation.  I can’t blame them for including this information in the book, as it offers a Kilroy bonus to the people who pledged and want to be recognized.  I mean, hey.  I’m in there, and everyone who bought this book has my stamp on their copy, however small.  (Stupidly, they managed to miscredit most of the backers of the book.  I am amongst the vast multitude who pledged for a physical book yet get credited for pledging for a PDF.  The difference of cash outlaid is about three to one.)

My problem stems from the base idiocy of having to splay this information across four damned columns.  I guess I should be glad they didn’t use 12-point font, but in comparison, the KS version of Ryuutama displayed their backers in a single column, small type, and only took six pages to do it.  And this is in a 6×9 book, rather than tome that Ex3 will arrive as.  They could have cut the “end credits” section of this book by half, minimum, allowing more space for additional content.  Or as a counterargument, this could have been one of many attempts to bring down the rather sizable bloat that this game ended up with.

5.) Charms.  The fucking Charms, man.

Along with being “The Most Playtested Game Ever,” this edition was supposed to fix the problems of the Second Edition game.

I will say this again.  This was a massive warning klaxon for me, the Cloister Bell of how bad things were going to get.  (And you, right there?  The guy that got that reference?  Nerd.)  I knew that, as soon as anyone came out trashing a wildly popular game as being awful, unplayable and the only people qualified to fix it were the ones hawking a new edition.  It didn’t help that one of the largest problems that was pointed out was Combat, which our collective group had managed to figure out and houserule enough to make it fast and easily dealt.

Another distinct problem was the Charms.

I’m not a banner waving champion of First Edition Exalted, as many of my peers tend to be.  I liked it well enough, but I never had any proper chance to play it to the same extent that I played Second Edition.  I spent more time with Second Edition, I had a great time playing it, and I will defend it on those merits.  That said, I understand completely many of the arguments against Second Edition from those that had been long time players.  The crux of many arguments came down to the Charm bloat that came with the revisions.

Rather than offer broad, customizable Charms that would offer a range of options and outcomes for the Second Edition version of the rules, the decision was made to try to account for every single possible outcome and nuance.  This meant that the number of charms skyrocketed, and the Charm Trees (essentially the flowcharts that allowed a player to make sense of their advancement options) grew huge and weird.  A given ability might have a dozen Charms associated with it, depending on what sort of flavor you wanted to attempt.  Not only was this a headache for players trying to make sense of where they needed to end up for their vision of their character, it was made things immeasurably more difficult for GM’s to cope with.  Not only did they have to keep some idea of what the player characters were capable of, they had to build workable and challenging NPC’s for their campaigns.

Given that each book had a set of new and distinct Charm Trees to properly model specific powers of the given Exalt type, a game of mixed types might have the GM tracking literal hundreds of Charms at any given time.  (For the maths portion of our lesson, let’s consider:  There are 25 separate Skills.  Each Skill has something like ten to fifteen separate charms, not counting Excellencies.  Some range closer to twenty.  Therefore, in a given Exalt type, there may be upwards of 300 Charms.  There are, as of the final books of Second Edition, seven discrete Exalt types.  This is not to mention Martial Arts Charms, which are multitudinous.)

Logically, one of the core goals of making a game more playable would be to address this particular issue, ne?

That, my child, is where you would be dead wrong.  Not only does Ex3 do nothing to deal with the issue of Charm bloat, it makes it far worse.  Looking through my copy, the Charm Section starts on page 250 and runs through page 423.  Further, the Martial Arts section (along with Sorcery, which might as well count) runs from there to page 491.  This is nigh on 250 pages of Charms, which is only made worse by another fascinating design choice, which I will cover in my next bullet point.

In glancing through the book again, as I write this, I realize that they couldn’t even manage to make the Table of Contents right.  There are errors abound in this section, which would seem like five minutes work for anyone with two screens and a modicum of ability.  Seriously, how hard is it to get page numbers right?

6.) There are no Charm Trees.

Yeah.  This is one that’s getting under people’s skin already.  For better or worse, Exalted has always required Charm Trees to navigate the intricacies of advancing a character’s special abilities and powers.  It’s one of the notable features of the game, and over the years, I’ve gotten quite fond of it.  I feel that it says something that Fantasy Flight Games has adopted a similar model to their character advancement in their various Star Wars lines.  It’s quick, visual and allows the players to easily reference what their options are as they go along.

According to Richard Thomas, the head of Onyx Path, the game developers made the decision to “streamline the Charms to no longer need Charm Trees” and hence, there would be no option to add them to the book as it stands.  (This is a direct quote on the Kickstarter update page.)  It’s really hard to come up with a response to this that doesn’t range into absolute profanity.

Condescension is one thing.  This is a clear case of pissing down my back and telling me that it’s raining.

The reason that Charm Trees aren’t included in this book is because they would be impossible to create with any logic or coherency.  Given the snail’s pace of development, the incompetence of the layout and markup, and the rank idiocy of the editorial staff, simply trying to make sense of the Charm Trees would have delayed the book another year.  I’ve seen attempts at the Charm Trees on the forums, and they are awful, mainly because the source material is incoherent and nonsensical.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of what Richard Thomas blithely offers as a reason.  The Charms were not streamlined.  They were made worse, by an order of magnitude.  By way of example, the Archery Charm Tree from the 2nd Edition main book had some 13 Charms, not counting associated Excellencies.  Another four were added in the First Age boxed set.  In Ex3, we’re already looking at 26 distinct Archery Charms.  And this isn’t to get into the new pseudo-charms (Evocations) that you can acquire for your legendary weapons.  (I will admit, this is a neat, new mechanic where every artifact has the potential to get its own Charm set.  It would be actually worth implementing if they hadn’t gone stupid with the base Charms.)

Another example, picked somewhat at random.  In 2nd Edition, the skill Performance had five Charms.  Another five were added in the First Age set, and Abyssals offered two more.  So, twelve in total.  In comparison, Ex3 goes absolutely stupid with things.  They put forth 36 gods-damned Charms for Performance, dividing them into Music, Dance, Acting, Oratory and … Sex.

Yeah.  Sex.  The edition of the game that was first brought to people’s attention with their Rape Charms has decided that they needed to throw this particular twist into the game.  Apparently this is an attempt to drive home that Exalted is a “mature” game for discerning individuals.  Or some shit.

There are some vaguely hilarious subtexts to this, which only make the idea even more stupid.  For example, a Solar getting his groove on can invoke the Masterful Performance Exercise as part of his “performance,” allowing him to re-roll and eliminate all results of “1” in the process.  Combined with another Sex Charm, this makes their Social Influence (on the specific target, naturally) ridiculously effective.  This almost begs for a late night infomercial.

Another Sex Charm offers up this particular gem:  “This intense lovemaking lasts at least three minutes […]”  Whoa there, big guy.  Let’s not get crazy here.

Solar Exalts, the Three Pump Chumps of the gaming world.

The worst part is that these complaints are just the start of things.  I’ve glanced at different sections and read through parts, trying to find improvement, yet all I’m faced with is continuing disappointment.  I’d gone into the entire endeavor with a guarded skepticism, hoping that I would be proven wrong along the way.  Instead, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and the growing dread that my fallback plan – scavenge the text for useful nuggets to convert back to Second Edition – was going to fall flat.

I wanted to like this book.  I did.  But three years of anticipation (the Kickstarter was announced well before it actually launched, at least six months in advance; there used to be a calendar on the Onyx Path site that outlined their unlikely and overblown plans for future products) have have not been bourne out to any satisfactory extent.  Instead, each new update has hardened my basic cynicism toward the game, and every snotty and self-important post by the line developers has shown that this was handed to the exact wrong people.

There had been a point where I had been tempted to build out a PDF to detail the epic Exalted campaign I ran back in the day.  I had wanted to share this vision with a community and offer something back to a group I had assumed would be a like-minded collective.  Instead, I realize that the fanbase of the game, such as it is, is heavily populated by tiresome fanboys who crow about the things in the game I find awful, and the reigns of control of this property have been handed to the loudest of these idiots.

Instead, I made a point of not detailing our campaign.  It has become a legend within our small and closeknit group, a private experience that can be shared with other people while still being kept out of the public eye.

If this is the shape of Exalted these days, I shudder to think what the gibbering masses would do with it anyway.

 

*Mind you, The Gist of My Disdain also happens to be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.

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Nine Weeks Later (or something to that effect)

Oh, I had the best of intentions.

I’d started into the RPG a Day thing with the unshakable belief that I would be able to catch myself up, keep abreast of the topics, and finish out with a solid month of posting.  And I had been making a pretty good show of it, overall, with multiple posts on some days and only the barest absence when visiting the in-laws.

And then I hit a weird sort of ironic reversal.

See, everything had been going well on the process of moving into the new place and getting settled in.  We’d even made a point of going off to see the relatives with the ulterior motive of visiting the local Ikea for supplies and furniture to adorn the house.  New chairs, consider a new couch, update a couple of things here and there.  Nothing big, nothing terribly intrusive.

And down that list a little ways was the shelving that I’d be putting in one of the spare rooms.  This would be the newly relocated Games Library.  I’d mapped it out, mentally, with an eye on the display aspect of the room.  See, the Library consists of literal hundreds, perhaps thousands of books.  And my intention has always been to have access to my Library, for ease of use and reference, all while displaying it for my own mental well being.

And for most people, this is nothing to worry about overmuch.  My cousins have their libraries in a corner of their dining room.  Three shelves here, a chest high bookcase there.  Not a problem to accommodate.  One of my good friends took a wall of his basement and was able to store his rather expansive collection.

This becomes an issue when you’re staring down something like 54 banker’s boxes of RPG books, however.  The room I had set aside was well sized, and even so, I was wondering if I would be able to manage it with an estimated 72 feet of shelf space.  (By way of reference, the boxes I’m working with are actually slightly larger, measuring 16 inches or 40 centimeters, give or take.  These can handle, at a glance, sixty-six of Paizo’s Adventure Path modules, with room left over for two hardcovers.  With this in mind, my calculations circle right back around to being able to fit these 54 boxes into 72 feet of shelf space precisely.)  Assuming that the banker’s boxes are the entirety of my gaming collection (they are not) and I would stop buying RPG books upon completion of my shelving (this has never been my intention), I’ll be set perfectly.

Add to this the sheer weight of the books in question (I believe the boxes clocked in at close to 40 lbs. or 18 kilos for the heaviest) on a shelf that would be able to handle perhaps half that weight without problem, and the whole enterprise becomes something of an exercise in logistics and probabilities.  I had researched brackets and techniques for the necessity of supporting this particular load and come to a solution, more or less.  Having wanted a particular aesthetic and construction, I’d zeroed in on the way that I figured would work best.  Now, it was just a matter of getting lumber and settling down to work.

… and it was about this point that I realized that the floor was starting to rot out.

The long and short of this was that the room in question was a late addition to the house, and the construction thereof was … shall we say, questionable.  Inquiry led to investigation, which in turn led to tearing out the floor and pouring a new slab.  Very little of the existing structure of the floor was salvageable, and this led to the inevitability of delay based on simple economics.  Rather than simply buying lumber for shelves, I was now faced with several yards of concrete and the construction of a new floor over that.  These are things that add up.

It also led to some fascinating introspection.  While I am wholly capable of raking concrete and operating an auto-trowel, these are not things that I have skill in or interest in cultivating as talents in my life.  It is dirty, grueling work, and the end result that I am living with is less than perfection.  It’s not enough for me to regret or lament, but let’s just say that rolling a marble across the surface would yield some extremely interesting results.  Now that plywood and carpeting has been lain over that, it’s far less noticeable, but I’m wholly aware of the imperfections.

So, yeah.  I can swing a hammer and smooth out cement, but I’m much more practiced and comfortable behind a keyboard or with a pen in hand.

Now that the new carpet is in place, I’m back to where I was when I reluctantly abandoned my updates; as soon as money becomes applicable, I’ll set about putting up shelves and getting things arranged to be able to give my Library a home.  It’s only taken me close to two months to return to this point of having apparently accomplished nothing.

In the interim, I’ve managed to lay hands on a couple of interesting items.

My rewards for the Ryuutama Kickstarter finally arrived.  When I’d happened past the IPR booth at GenCon this year, one of the guys had assured me that the shipment of books from China was due to arrive the following week.  No idea if this was the case, but I’m not going to begrudge the time taken to get it to me, given that I assume the logistics were mainly handled by one guy.  I had put in for a green leatherette and a normal copy of the book, and both are amazing.  I barely touched the limited one, given that it’s going to go on a shelf mainly for display, choosing instead to delve into the normal copy.

Sidenote:  I actually met the original designer, Okuda, at GenCon one of the previous years.  He was being squired around by one of the translators, Andy Kitkowski, and I had wished I’d had something for Okuda to sign for me.  Alas.  I managed to get Andy to sign a reference card for Tenra Bansho Zero, which was nice.  I was actually in the IPR booth this last time picking up the hardcover limited of TBZ when I learned about the Ryuutama shipment.

Reading through Ryuutama this time, I’m struck by how wide a range of plots and games could be generated from the base that’s given.  There are obvious Lord of the Rings ideas lurking around the edges (fortunately, Cube 7’s The One Ring RPG delves into the journey aspect of the books as a primary mechanic), but nearly every fantasy story deals with the themes of a journey in some way or another.  Immediate and obvious examples are book series like A Song of Ice and Fire, Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, to add to Tolkien.  Hells, Joseph Campbell was name checked by George Lucas for this idea, tracing the Heroic Journey back into myth and legend.

See, my original intent was to finally run a game based on the Legend of Mana ideas I’ve been letting bounce around my head for the past decade, but now I feel like that would be inspiration rather than hardwired source.  Now I could see weirdness like an Akairyuu (red dragon) game of war and conflict where the characters are soldiers of a vanquished army that have to return to their homes across the desolation of a wartorn countryside.  Where Ryuutama is sold as being the vaguely pastoral and heartwarming Japanese fantasy RPG, the Dragon of Journeys is only one of the four archetypes presented in the book.  A reworking of the themes of Twilight 2000 in eastern fantasy is completely within the scope of the game.

Memetic Transference — #RPGaDay2015, Day 1

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.

Experiencing New Worlds

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the games that I like to play that I have a taste for the esoteric and that which is decidedly new.  (It will come as a surprise, however, that I’m managing to upload a post.  Suffice to say that the last couple of months have been oddly harrowing, and the less said about the search for a place to live … the better.  For the moment, let no news be, well, no news.)

Lately, I’ve been putting more focus on the “Foreign Games Translated Into English” range of the spectrum.  I’ve already put words to games like Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as Shadows of Esteren.  Lately, I’ve been looking over games like Double Cross, Kuro, and Anima: Beyond Fantasy, reveling in the inherent strangeness that accompanies their particular design philosophies and trying to make sense of the directions that they wander into.

I’ve come to feel like there’s a well-trod canon that most American RPG’s fall back into.  My friend, the Admiral, spends a fair amount of time referencing the vaunted Appendix N from the old Dungeon Master’s Guide, a hoary list of sources and inspirational material that helped craft the core of Dungeons and Dragons from its outset.  It’s an interesting selection to peruse in depth, but as I’m going through these new games, I’m left to wonder if it has become a sort of limitation on the hobby.  Time was, all such things were new and fascinating, and the suggested reading in a game like Vampire: the Masquerade would yield up something that could form a future obsession.  These days, it becomes a recitation of the expected, pulling from a shopworn selection of works that everyone else has been using.

It’s sort of like opening an RPG manual and finding that the artwork has been inspired by Japanese Anime or that the setting owes its ideas to Tolkien.  It’s all been done, it all rings the same way.  Back in the day, it was pretty cool to have a game dip briefly into Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; now, a game without a Cthulhu cameo seems weird.

This is what’s captivating my interest with these new games.  All of the things that have become mainstays in American RPG Design are either absent or lacking in emphasis, leaving a raft of curious and unexpected elements to come to the fore.

The easiest example is Ryuutama.  Here’s a game that looks like it should either be geared toward elementary students or 8-bit video game enthusiasts.  The artwork is simple and centered in Japanese cultural expectations, and the game is supposed to invite a sense of pastoral, homey good feelings.  (They actually market the game with the Japanese term, “hono-bono,” even as they make reference to Ghibli films.)  There isn’t any attempt to sell it as appealing to an American audience (there is a conspicuous lack of Frazetta styled barbarian warriors or supple warrior women), and the game is fine with that.  But at the same time, it isn’t exactly a kid’s game.  There’s a level of meta-narrative that rarely shows up in Western games, where the GM has to build and track the experience points of his own PC, which is integrated into his role in crafting the game while still managing to remain separate.  (As a note, West End’s Tales From The Crypt RPG was similarly meta-narrative focused, but there aren’t many people that are familiar with or own that particular title.  And even fewer that have run it.)

A game like Ryuutama is never going to compete with Pathfinder.  That’s not its intent.  Ryuutama is a game for a specific niche audience, and the translators are bringing it over to the States as a labor of love more than anything else.  (Kotodama also brought over Tenra Bansho Zero, which occupies a completely different end of the Japanese Games spectrum.)  And in doing so, it has a completely different footprint than any other game on the market.  It’s doing things that Pathfinder or Edge of the Empire or any of the old White Wolf games would never be able to do, simply because they’re coming from an American point of view and sensibilities, with the intention to cater to the same qualities in their audience.

There’s also the inspiration that comes with these games, since they manage to step outside of the normal range of experience.  In reading them, I find myself venturing into new territory with my ideas, as different realms of possibility present themselves.

I’ve been skimming through Makkura, the adventure supplement for the utterly brilliant Kuro RPG from Septieme Cercle.  Kuro is one of those games that I feel was built specifically with me in mind.  (This is a common sort of relevance that I am faced with from French game publishers; Shadows of Esteren kindled a similar feeling, what with its Ravenloft, Lovecraft and Game of Thrones source.)

At its base, Kuro is a cyberpunk noir horror game, set solely in a dystopic Japan.  After living there for a time, I feel like I could run wild with this setting, so long as I had a group that was willing to listen to me drone on about the smell of burning rice husks and the peculiar clutter of a Japanese office.  In reading through one of the modules, I found myself immersed in the alien reality of its world, adding my own details as I went along.  One scene involved a cryptic message from an old acquaintance as the characters stood on the subway platform.  Already, I could see myself building the scene narration, talking about the sudden overpressure as the train approached, the alarm bells ringing overhead and the unseen energy of the crowd as they tensed in anticipation.

That’s just speaking to my own experiential base, though.  I’ve set games in locales that my players were unfamiliar with, just to offer some sort of variant perspective and make use of things I have seen.  I’ve done the same thing in a number of bog-standard American games.

The idea that I’m trying to lay hold of is that there are cultural artifacts laying beneath the surface of foreign games, and these fragments of perspective offer new directions to propel your games into. Double Cross puts forth a superhero genre game, even as it suggests homicidal teenagers and secretive cabals with world-changing agendas.  Ryuutama codifies a sense of innocence and pastoral wholesomeness into its very rules.  This isn’t a game that you could run George Martin-esque gritty fantasy in, since the system doesn’t lend itself to such.  And Kuro imparts a grimy sense of isolation that I recognize from having walked the same streets as the game designers.

Games like Pathfinder and Edge of the Empire speak to us as Americans.  The designers think like we do, which leaves us to absorb the ruleset without having to grapple with anything new underlying the game itself.  They are comfortable and familiar, which makes the adaptation to the gaming table a quick and painless process.  Sure, there may be new rules or intricacies that need to be figured out, but that’s a minor sort of implication, overall.

Conversely, I sit and consider my properly gorgeous collection of Shadows of Esteren, which requires that I realign my thinking to that of the designers, and a more foreign group of guys I have never met.  They look at our gaming and fantasy culture, distill down the important parts to their games, and offer back a concoction that doesn’t initially make sense.  I love my books and all, but it’s going to take me some time and careful research to figure out how I’m going to run a game worthy of the source material.  It’s that alien to me.

And naturally, I look forward to this immensely.

—————–

Two closing points that I haven’t had the time or energy to fit into the main body of this post:

1.) I would never have considered trying to run a game like Ryuutama with any seriousness, even though I love the strange fantasy that it suggests.  It simply isn’t something that I could have made work on my own.  (As a point of note, I was direly fascinated with Legend of Mana (Seiken Densetsu, originally) back in the day, since it was wildly colorful and imaginative.  But I’m far too horror-oriented in my RPG’s to have gotten much farther than daydreaming about it and moving on.)  This is a good portion of why I have become vaguely obsessed with Ryuutama since I first heard about it.  There’s enough material in it to suggest all manner of fun distraction.  It isn’t a terribly serious game, what with tea-cup neko-goblins and all, but that’s a good portion of the joy of it all.

2.) Right now, I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of a set of books for Anima: Beyond Fantasy.  I had held off picking it up for a long time, since it looked like little more than a variant of Exalted, which dropped it down the scale a ways.  It didn’t help that FFG was taking a shotgun approach to its marketing, what with a miniatures game and a card game to tie into it.  (Sort of like they did with Star Wars.  Much as I love the RPG, I’m not putting out any money for boardgames or TCG nonsense.)  Then I happened upon a copy of the rules and gave it a proper examination.  It looked deliriously complex, which fascinated me, and further research showed that it’s an English translation of a Spanish game that’s trying to emulate Japanese anime and video games.

Sold!

And finally…

3.) I want to take a moment to clarify why I tend to dismiss games that I think are trying to emulate Exalted.  It isn’t because I hate Exalted and its imitators, but more because I love 2nd Edition Exalted.  I got a peek at the 3rd Edition rules the other day.  Whuf.  Their stated goal of simplifying combat made it orders of magnitude worse.  Good lord…  I didn’t think it was possible to screw the pooch this badly.

Ryuutama – A Look at the ‘Natural Fantasy’ RPG

Being capable of certain levels of self-reflection, I will admit that there are some definite flaws that I carry as a game master.  I’ve spent way too much time as a literary and horror-driven GM that I’m sort of bad at light-hearted and one-off games.  I’m really, really good at epic games, I’m really good at horror… and the farther you get away from those sorts of genres and tropes, the more likely I am to to suffer.  Depending on the game, I can probably find a hook to be able to make things function, but I’m not going to lie; I stick to the hard stuff like horror because I’m good at it.  I’m not nearly so good at other genres.  While I like the idea of something like Blue Rose, the Mercedes Lackey angle of it all would leave me high and dry.

With that in mind, I want to talk about a game that I absolutely love.  It’s also a game that I am extremely poorly suited to actually try running, since it’s so bright and cheery.

I missed the Kickstarter for Ryuutama.  Had I known about it at the time, I would have given them copious amounts of money, just on principle.  The baseline is that it’s a Japanese RPG that has been translated into English by the guys at Kotodama Heavy Industries, who were responsible for putting together the English translation of Tenra Bansho Zero.  TBZ is currently on my list of ‘beloved games that I have not read all the way through, but I badly want to run it regardless’.  It’s a shorter list than you might imagine, and it’s probably telling that Ryuutama is right next to TBZ on that list as well.

They term Ryuutama as a ‘natural fantasy’ RPG, given that it focuses itself on the more pastoral aspects of a standard Japanese fantasy world.  The characters are the mundane inhabitants of this world, and their inclusion in the broad aspects of the game derives from their defining interest in exploring and traveling.  The artwork is bright and cheery, and the translators throw around the Japanese word, ‘honobono,’ which relates to the heartwarming and more family friendly aspects of the game.  There are inevitable references to Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator responsible for movies like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, amongst others.  The game is supposed to invoke this same sense of community and bright-eyed wonder in the way it unfolds.

Like I say, I’m probably pretty ill-suited to run this game.  But I really want to.

Different write-ups of the game and its various elements go into more interesting details, recalling elements of all manner of Japanese computer games.  The combat system is player out using a separate sheet of paper to map out the action, harkening back to the combats in different Final Fantasy games.  The artwork itself immediately brings to mind some of the watercolors that games like Legend of Mana evoked.  Items within the RPG are keyworded with specific qualities, so you might end up with a ‘gross’ tent or an ‘icky’ shield, since you’re starting out with poor quality equipment.  As the game progresses, better equipment will have better keywords, just like the computer games have conditioned us to recognize.

One rundown talks about how the players and the GM work together collaboratively to design the world from the ground up, taking into account input from all corners so that there are plot hooks for each character in every sort of locale.  Having seen how this sort of system can work in other games, I can see how it would seriously benefit a game like Ryuutama, allowing a closer connection to the play group.

The one thing that I’m struck by with this game is that the systems of the game go back to reinforce the basic precepts of the game itself.  I look at different games in my library, and I’m always amazed at how wildly different such games can be due to the way the game shifts its focus.  One Ring and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings are nothing alike, even though they work to illuminate the very same world.  Decipher’s Lord of the Rings takes a much more traditional approach to the material, where One Ring chooses to make the story concern itself with the travel, much like the original novels.

For example, several of the mechanical write-ups talk about how the travel system in Ryuutama talk about how it has some basic resource management aspects.  If a group of characters set out on a journey without proper preparation, they will run into trouble.  Likewise, if they run into trouble on the way, usually through mischance or poor rolls of the dice, things can quickly go bad for the group.

In the same breath, however, these hardships can cause them to pull together as a group to get through.  To bring this idea home, there’s a rule that, when one character throws a ‘fumble’ on the dice, every character gets a ‘fumble point’ that they can use later on.  This point can be used to enhance another roll in the future, thereby insuring some sort of future success.  Because the character screwed up badly, he and his friends will now have the chance later on to succeed where they might not have.  They’ve learned from their mistake, and as a group, they’ve found new resolve to persevere.  It’s a really neat idea, and so very Japanese at its heart.

The GM himself has a separate character sheet that represents the Dragon guardian spirit that watches over the group of characters as they travel through the world, and as the characters grow in power and experience, so does their resident Dragon.  The Dragon can aid the characters in small ways throughout the game, opting to stay hidden in the background to allow the story to unfold around the small heroes that are the accepted stars of this particular story.  On a mechanical level, it’s a fascinating way of codifying GM Grace to keep characters alive and moving forward, and on a narrative level, it gives each game its narrative focus, as the character of the Dragon determines much about the world itself by its presence.  The color and character of the Dragon shapes the story and the very world itself.  (The name itself, Ryuutama, translates as ‘Dragon Egg’ from Japanese, reinforcing the inherent importance of such a character.)

The game itself isn’t due to be released until fall of this year, and even though the Kickstarter is already completed, there’s still apparently enough time to get in on the pre-order through the Kotohi website.

This is probably not a game that will appeal to a great, wide audience.  I accept that.  And to be honest, even I am not the most likely candidate for buying it, given my lack of experience with games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing or the like.  But there’s something that appeals to me, probably due to my time in Asia, and I’m fascinated by trying to wrap my head around such deeply Japanese concepts that this game seems to embody.  And what the hell…  the guys at Kotodama are doing a wonderful job of bringing games like this to American audiences.  I’ll make a point of buying their stuff as long as they keep producing it.