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Longest Game Session Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 16

Wow, here’s a topic to separate the gamers into their respective age strata.  I can’t speak to the tendencies of the younger players these days (it’s a sad note to realize that it’s been a very long time since I’ve played with anyone younger than 20 years old), but I wonder if they’re nearly as willing to devote the time to the hobby as we did, back in the mists of yesteryear.  It would be a sad thing indeed to see the glorious sleep-deprived weekends of my wasted youth disappear into overscheduling and deprioritization.

Longest Game Session Played

These days, it seems that the largest enemy to long game sessions isn’t that my groups don’t have the free time, it’s that they don’t have the free time on the same days as the rest of the people in the group.  We’re all outside of a college setting these days, which changes things somewhat dramatically.  Back when we could schedule classes and work around a gaming schedule, that allowed a better allocation toward particular campaigns that were running, which in turn allowed longer sessions when needed.  Even then, I’m not sure that we managed more than the occasional 14 hour session under specific circumstances.  More often than not, sessions ranged from eight to ten hours on a regular basis, usually as part of a Friday or Saturday schedule.  The danger was that, as soon as someone’s homework burden increased by any measure, there would be player attrition on that basis.  Depending on how well prepared our group happened to be for midterms or finals, there would be a drop-off of scheduled games while people tried to brush up on specifics for their exams.  (Between an English degree and a Photo degree, most of my important work was in the form of papers or projects, so the same sort of pressure rarely applied to me.)

Even with the freedom of a collegiate life, none of these games ended up attaining mythic length.  We tried, though, especially if there was some sort of short break coming up that would allow us to recuperate from the long hours and poor nutrition choices.  The end of finals week or the first week before classes started would occasionally let us power through longer sessions, but even then we still valued our sleep too much to rise early on a game day.  If we were lucky, we’d rise at noon to meet for a game session around 2:00pm, and finally push ourselves away from the table come 4:00am.  It was probably better for our overall long term health, but it definitely didn’t set any records.  The prevailing theory was that we’d be more likely to adhere to regular games if we kept to more regular hours for these sessions.

These post-collegiate days tend to regulate to schedules with four hour slots, for better or worse.  One group that I’m in has been running more or less consistently for about 20 years, and their set-up has been to run from 7:00pm until 11:00pm on normal Thursdays (even this has had to modify to occasional Wednesdays, due to scheduling conflicts), which allows a solid regularity at the cost of session duration.  It’s not ideal, but it’s what has allowed the group, in all of its various iterations, to hold solid over the years.

And having recently moved, I’m in the process of coalescing a new circle, which is making me wonder if I’m going to be able to manage longer sessions at any point, or if the only solution is going to be to build out short regular sessions like the established Thursday group.  If this is what has to be, I suppose that it’s going to require the necessary adjustment.

Back in high school, we managed a regular group on either Friday or Saturday, depending on other conflicts.  Our usual methodology was to meet at someone’s house (usually mine) and settle in for the night.  These games would start sometime in the late afternoon or early evening, run through the night and get called when the last player’s endurance had hit the inevitable wall.  This led to scenes of players holding themselves off the table by cradling a Mountain Dew 2-liter, the occasional blurry inquiry as to what sort of monster we were fighting, and the weird sense of wonder at seeing the sun rise outside the windows, often in the form of a “Hey, it’s getting light out” declaration.  The sessions would end at the point of unconsciousness, if we were crashing for a couple of hours on our host’s floor, or at the ragged threshold before sleep so that someone could drive other people home.  These were our regular weekends through most of high school.

The longest single session was either one that I ran or one that I played in around my senior year.  The one that I ran was something that I had planned out for a couple of weeks one summer, making sure that I could garner a fair group of people on a specific point.  (Looking back, I realize that summers were anathema to our gaming schedule, for one reason or another.)  We’d set aside the time, the place and I’d worked up a massive adventure for the night in question.  An adventure that, from what I remember, we only barely managed to get any traction on.  This was the time that my mother had taken it upon herself to cater, and her weird cruelty had managed about 100 jelly donuts and a single bag of chips.  And copious amounts of soda to wash it all down with.  I have strange aversions to those donuts these days, even as I occasionally eat them.

The other session was one my friend doctored up as part of a larger campaign, which mysteriously only ran a couple of times.  (Not to say it wasn’t memorable, mind you, but I have the feeling it was a matter of personal frustration for him, overall.)  The set-up was a weird sort of overland wilderness campaign, with dungeon elements, and each person had something like six characters.  (It was high school, we were experimental, etc.)  The session in question was one that had accidentally run long, as our characters had been probing into the dungeon complex with little success, only to run into a random wandering monster encounter while we rested on the hillside outside the ruins.

The random encounter in question happened to be a trading caravan.  Which we then attacked mercilessly.

The ensuing melee (complete with high level caravan guards that our lower level characters mobbed) took several hours, and when we stepped out of the massacre, the GM was wholly bound and determined that we should actually get a little farther in his planned encounters.  It led to the following:

GM:  You see three giant rats, wild-eyed and snarling.  (Looks blearily at his notes.)
GM:  No, wait.  You see an illusionary wall.  (Blinks several times, replaying what he just said.)
GM:  No, wait.  (Tries to figure out if there’s any way to salvage the encounter.)
GM:  Screw this, I’m going home.

As far as I can recall, we never went back to that dungeon.  It was probably for the best, really.

Longest Campaign Played — #RPGaDay2015, Day 15

I’ve been eyeing this topic since the first, casting back in my memory for which particular game can claim this honor.  The weird thing is, I can’t put my finger on it, explicitly.  There are a couple of prime contenders for the spot, but they all fall roughly in the same zone, making it hard to pick out which campaign is going to actually hold the spot over all others.  And in one case, there’s a weird question of hours spent compared to calendar length.

Longest Campaign Played

For me, the long game seems to have managed something in the three year range.  This is assuming regular, weekly sessions with an optimistic estimate of six or eight hour normal session length.  These are far more likely to fall back to four hour sessions (which seems to be a bit more usual), but optimally, I tend to hope for longer.  There are occasioned dry spells, for holidays, cancellation and anything that would otherwise preempt a session in some way or another.  If we assume the bottom limit of four hour sessions with approximately 40 sessions within a year, that comes around to close to 500 hours in a three year campaign.

“But I was told there would be no math…”

If we figure this for a lower threshold of a baseline, it will help my contention on the shorter calendar game that I referenced.

The first game that I can think of that might fall within this range would be the WEG Star Wars game I played in high school.  This one ran, off and on for the better part of the three year mark that I seem to come back to.  It was a small game, with only a couple of dedicated players and a couple of occasional guest stars.  With a loose group of perhaps six people, we ran fairly regularly during this period, rotated GM’s here and there, and brought a couple of characters up to Jedi Master level.  (This was defined as 7D in the three Force powers.  It took a long damned time, and this was about the point when the game started to lack real challenge.)

This was followed by a couple of Star Wars games that ran on IRC in college.  We had a diverse collection of people from across the US and Canada, with a single outlier in Australia.  The main game made it into the three year range by the end, but most of the larger group had drifted off, save for the main GM and myself, with new people that I had recruited taking up needed slots within the game.  Some great memories and a lot of interesting people, but the game and the medium for it had pretty much run its course by the time we shuttered that channel.

There was something of a dry spell after this, with games that lasted a year or more, but nothing that continued for any great amount of time.  There was nothing that lasted that long when I was living abroad (in all truth, I spent most of my time reading RPG books, since the games were so few and far between), and by the time I got back to the States, I was in dire need of something to actually persist.

The next game to have any longevity was in a system that I direly hated, and the GM had modified so drastically that it only barely resembled its original form.  This was a weird time travel game that used a fairly obscure game by the name of The Everlasting, a tedious and particularly weird knock-off of the classic World of Darkness games from White Wolf.  One of the designers may have once worked for WW when they weren’t paying attention, but I can’t say for certain.  Everlasting was determined to throw as much shit at the wall as it possibly could, which might have worked, had they had any form of original thought, but the end result was even more muddled than its inspiration.  Which is saying something.  To his credit, the GM saw how tangled the game line happened to be, and this was the rationale for the time travel aspect in the first place.  If he dropped the game world back to its early genesis, there might be some way to make sense of it all.  Either that, or he was bound and determined to see his Doctor Who fanfics played out.  It’s hard to say.  By the time the game wound out, another GM and I had taken over from the original, none of the original players were even involved, and the new players only saw edges of the weird brilliance that the campaign ended up being.

From there, we had a couple of Pathfinder Adventure Paths that we saw to the end.

It’s interesting.  The AP’s come out on a monthly basis, which offers the misguided perspective that the individual modules themselves might be undertaken within a month’s time.  This bears no relation to actual reality in the slightest.  From what I can tell, a single module might last as long as six months, with careful prep and planning on the part of both the GM and players.  I’m sure that it’s possible to finish in a shorter period, but that’s pushing the limits of both credibility and scheduling.  If nothing else, there tends to be a fair chunk of player fatigue partway through.

The first AP we finished was Legacy of Fire, a path that I pushed in front of our Mideastern History buff GM.  He loved all things about it, wrote extensively about his experiences with the path and the troubles that we gave him, and it took us a properly ridiculous amount of time to shuffle our way through the end parts, mostly because by that point, he had graduated and moved to the other side of the state.  This necessitated careful planning and dedicated weekends for the final parts, which occasionally felt like we were pulling teeth, but we got through it all.

The second AP was Carrion Crown, which I myself ran and have detailed bits and pieces of on this blog.

We’ve tried and failed to finish Kingmaker (most of the way through the third module when it died; player attrition was a huge part of this, but it came down to a likely TPK situation in an upcoming encounter, so I called the game on that account), Rise of the Runelords (this one got to the penultimate module before the GM burned out, and one of the integral players bowed out) and Savage Tide.  The last one managed to hit the 50% mark, more or less, but there was a huge player burnout on this one, so the game stalled on that basis.

Finally, there was the Exalted game that happened to be the most brutally dedicated group I’ve ever seen run.  This was the reason for the maths part above.

When I started the game at the beginning of one summer, I had a broad idea of a game in mind.  We’d run Dragonbloods up to that point, with the various failed attempts at other flavors of Exalts.  On one hand, I was tired of the players being unable to grasp certain parts of the system, and on the other, I wanted to run an epic Solars game from the raw, mortal beginnings.  In my mock disgust, I gave the players mortal characters, started them out as press-ganged convicts, and dropped them in the mud.  From there, they had to earn their legend.

This game, by consensus, ran twice weekly from that point, with a usual play time of eight hours.  By the time that game ended, close to fifteen months later, the characters had ascended to rule as Solar warlords and kings, having won out against implacable odds and unlikely origins.  We had a couple of players drop out to be replaced near the end, but the core group managed to stick through to the end.  All in all, the game ran for well over 1,000 hours, likely closer to 1,300 depending.

It’s also one of the games I am most proud of.  It even had its own theme song, whose lyrics recounted pivotal moments in the early sessions.

I still hear that song on the radio, now and again.

Favorite RPG Accessory — #RPGaDay2015, Day 14

Huh.  Well, here’s a broadly defined and nebulous topic to work from.

If we define “RPG accessory” as being “that which is necessary to play a game, but is not, strictly speaking, the game itself,” that still leaves us with a horrendously huge space within which we’re left to work.  By rights, that could include my house, furniture and computer systems.  If we limit it down further, to things that are produced with the sole intention of being used for the game at hand, with no outside application, then we’re starting to get into terms that can be more readily manipulated.  So, pencils and notebooks are dropped off the consideration as well, even though they remain the dire constants over decades of play.  Logically, dice could be included, but with the exception of recent Fantasy Flight Games offerings and the weirdness that is Dungeon Crawl Classics and their decidedly non-standard dice, polyhedral random number generators are pretty much universal.  I love my dice collection, and I have a properly ludicrous amount of them, but making them my favorite part of the game is a bit weird.

I do have to digress on a previous point, however.  When I ran my Carrion Crown Adventure Path campaign, there was nothing quite so irreplaceable as my two laptop computers.  If I had been forced to run without them, or even winnowed down to merely one, there would have been problems.  I used one for the map (had I been afforded access to a tablet, I would have dedicated that to cartographic necessity) and basic reference, while the other one served as my library for the adventure itself, setting material, notes and the Pathfinder SRD website.  It convinced me of the need for a table dedicated solely to gaming, where I could surround myself with screens instead of piles of books.

That said, it was far quicker to flip through a Pathfinder main book for rules reference when the time came, but that’s due more to the muscle memory that allows me to immediately turn to a given page than anything else.  A little work, and I probably could have indexed it better with the SRD.

Favorite RPG Accessory

Naturally, this divides itself into two distinct sections.  On one hand, I have the products that I already have in hand to use, and on the other are the ones I intend to acquire or create.  I guess the second category would be better off with the label of “potential” tacked onto it, but I like to dream.

Of the products and things I have at immediate hand, there are particular accessories for specific games.  Plagued as the gaming industry is with D20 based fantasy, one of the immediate zones of inquiry have to do with tactical maps and miniatures.  I never did much miniatures gaming in my normal day-to-day forays into the hobby of gaming, and the early editions of D&D that I cut my teeth on recommended minis, but they didn’t require them.  Maps tended to be hand-drawn for tactical purposes, and taken to logical cartographic extremes for the larger campaign setting necessities.  When I first started playing back in 6th grade, the centerpiece of my formative years was the large and intricate map that a friend of mine rendered for his game, looking for all the world like the maps in the opening pages of the fantasy novels that served as inspiration.

These days, I have a selection of miniatures, but they’re of such low priority that I wonder why I bothered in the first place.  I suppose that I had high hopes for the potentiality of these damned things, but the reality has found me largely disinclined to actually make any relevant use of the figures that I picked up.  Similarly, I have toolboxes filled with the dungeon trappings that the first Dwarven Forge Kickstarter afforded me.  It’s more than enough to allow me to run a sizable dungeon with a little bit of prep and patience, but this is something that I’ve managed all of once, when I ran a one-night game while visiting friends.  I love the heft and quality of the tiles and walls, but I can’t honestly say that I have the patience for using these things on a regular basis.  Perhaps if I was running at local conventions and had worked out a system.  As it is, the set-up and prep required seem like more work than I’m really inclined to bother with.

Instead, my mainstay has been an ancient Chessex factory second Megamat with crooked squares, a lousy job of cutting and the occasioned stains from a marker that didn’t quite wash off.  I keep the mat rolled up when it isn’t in use, and it has come to be called the Beating Map for this purposes.  It’s served to keep players in line more often than it has been used for actual mapmaking.  It still serves nicely, and every now and again, I’m tempted to replace it with something a little less … unique.  Hasn’t happened yet, though.

One thing I’m noticing crop up more and more regularly is the re-introduction of cards to the gaming table.  I was a huge fan of the utility of poker decks for Deadlands, and I remain convinced that the Drama Deck for Torg is one of the greatest inventions ever.  The new iterations of cards include the Adversary Decks for Fantasy Flight Star Wars, which are sets of NPC stats for various encounters.  These are fantastic, but by the time they had come out, I’d already started making a set of index cards with the relevant information on them.  Buying the pre-made decks seem like my previous efforts would be wasted.  They also just came out with Critical Injury and Starship Damage decks, which are a little more tempting.

These mirror the Critical Hit and Critical Fumble Decks for Pathfinder, which have proven themselves indispensable.  I’ve used these cards all along, as a way to change up crits in the game, and they’ve worked extremely well.  There are the occasional bits of weirdness, where a wing is clipped on a creature without wings, but I’ve taken to pulling three cards and choosing the one that makes actual sense.  Technically, there are rules for pulling extra cards, but it’s a quick and easy method to move the game along.

Otherwise, my favorite accessories for a game have to be the different options for chips in a game with counters.  My main exposure has been with the different forms of Deadlands, which had poker chips for the Weird West game.  This carried over to the Hell on Earth and Lost Colony games, but these didn’t make as much sense as it did with the original.  For Hell on Earth, I laid hands on a bucket of 9mm shell casings, which I used a bit of paint on to differentiate value and they did well to reinforce the post-apocalyptic nature of the game.

When next I run a version of Hell on Earth, I plan to do it as a conversion to Fallout, in which I’ve already started work on the bottle caps which will serve as the main currency of the game, as well as standing in for poker chips.  Sadly, they’ll be wearing the Coca-Cola logo, rather than Nuka Cola, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t matter too much in the end.

Favorite … something — #RPGaDay2015, Day 13

Man, I started out with all manner of fire and fury, intent on catching myself up in short order.  And here I am, two days missed out of the previous five, three odd days behind my intended schedule and landing on the topic I most dreaded finding myself at.

I gotta be honest here.  I don’t listen to podcasts.  I know that they’re a huge part of the industry and that designers I know and otherwise respect give them heed, but they’re largely a waste of bandwidth and time for my money.  I suppose, if I wanted to listen to someone blather into a microphone with semi-professional sound production while I was doing something else, that might be one thing, but ever since I came back from South Korea, I’ve let my MP3 players rust.  I’d originally bought them to occupy myself on public transit, and without those long hours that needed some sort of noise to fill them, I’m not inclined to carry a music player with me anywhere.  I guess I could bring them along to listen to in the car, but I don’t even listen to talk radio.  Why would I go to the trouble of importing something I’m not inclined to listen to anyway?

I guess it stems from my grating dislike of most of the people that think themselves qualified to comment on an industry that I think is already overcrowded with so-called experts.  Listening to some fat guy with a microphone and bandwidth as he holds forth on something that I define as personally generated isn’t anything I’m going to seek out.  (It doesn’t help that I don’t agree with most people on most subjects anyway.  I’m the type of person that keeps a Facebook account for the sole purpose of picking fights with people that are prone to posting ignorant, low information opinions.  It’s my second hobby.)

So, now that I’ve established my bona fides on why offering commentary on podcasts is beyond my threshold, let’s range into something else.

Favorite Dead Game Line

There are a lot of games that have come and gone over the years, several of them unremarkable and obvious in their lack of publishing longevity.  Others have stuck around well past their freshness date, for reasons both inexplicable and weird.  Games like Ars MagicaFading Suns, Earthdawn and Pendragon have spilled past multiple publishers, kept on the hobby’s version of life support for the sake of a handful of players that seem to exist mainly in whispered conversation and shadowy corners of mall, local gaming conventions.  I have literally never met a person that has played Ars Magica in any form, but the game has persisted through five separate editions, the last of which died off about a decade back.  (For those playing at home, it was published by Lion Rampant, White Wolf (which grew out of Lion Rampant), Wizards of the Coast, and finally Altas Games.)  With that much history, it would have made sense to have eventually encountered a some sort of dedicated group of it in my travels, but this is not the case.  I have, in contrast, met people that have played Earthdawn and Pendragon, but those were confined to a single group with each.  Outside of these very limited circles, I’ve seen nothing.  And I know precisely one person that has ever talked about Fading Suns, and he’s two states away.  There was one other person, but he wanted me to convert it to D6 to run in Star Wars.

Of the four game lines mentioned above, I think Ars Magica is the only one that’s not currently back in production in one form or another.

My library contains a lot of weird esoterica to draw from for this line of thought.  What’s interesting is how few of those lines remain dead in a playable form.  There were games (Wizards, based off the Ralph Bakshi movie and published by the generally hated Whitman Games) that could be played, as it had a number of supplements, but were severely limited in their scope.  Similarly, there was Children of the Sun, which only had one supplement as I recall, and Spookshow, which had a similarly short line.

Torg has been dead for over twenty years, but since it’s coming back, I can’t qualify it to talk about.  And technically, Bloodshadows is still in print (sort of a gaming life support, since there isn’t anything new coming out for the game), so that’s off the table.

Which leaves me with the weirdly unlikely and largely unplayable Tribe 8 RPG.  (Which, as I have found in my Googling, apparently also refers to a “dyke punk” band out of San Francisco.  I do sincerely hope they didn’t take inspiration from the relatively obscure RPG, as that would be a tich too weird for me.)

Tribe 8 was a post-apocalyptic RPG setting based in Quebec.  Since this wasn’t already weird enough, the source of the apocalypse was the stuff of nightmares.  And I mean that in the most wholly literal manner I can come up with.  Demons conjured from the realm of dreams poured forth to devastate the world and leave it in twisted wreckage, the entirety of society reduced to savage tribal levels.  The game is meta-plot heavy, meaning that the published adventures are requisite to the overall setting, and most of the 1st edition supplements were written from the point of view of characters in the setting itself, which makes it relatively hard to decipher from a GM standpoint.  The second edition cleared up some of the mysteries of the game line, but it was a fascinatingly weird setting to consider.  For my part, I would have loved to have seen a campaign of this run.

So, the logical question crops up:  Why is a game I’ve never played and that seems too weird to actually play come in as my Favorite Dead Game Line?  Because the safe and predictable games have been done to death.  This game is challenging, weird and hard as hell to make sense of.  For me, that means that actually doing something with it would take time and dedication, and the end result would be that much more amazing for the effort.  It doesn’t take any work to sit down and put together a Star Wars game, since everyone knows how the universe works and what is actually expected of their characters.  Want to run a pirates game?  Easy.  Everyone knows how to play Pathfinder (and there’s plenty of material in Skull & Shackles), and everyone has seen Pirates of the Caribbean.  Most of the work has already been done.  The only thing left is to fill in the blanks and throw some dice.

But Tribe 8, man.  There’s some work.

Favorite RPG Illustrator — #RPGaDay2015, Day 12

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Illustrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Writer — #RPGaDay2015, Day 11

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

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

But it might be fun.

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

Favorite RPG Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Publisher — #RPGaDay2015, Day 10

It’s funny, the last entry had me struggling to find some logical criterion on which to hang a specific choice, while this one just runs down to which company I like the best of my vast and unnumbered collection.  Coming up with a clear best in this category is a lot easier, but I feel like I’m much more inclined to make a Top Ten list of which game publishers I’d jump to.

Favorite RPG Publisher

This is one of those topics that seems prone to changing as my tastes and groups change.  Perhaps the best way to give consideration to the ideas is to follow a basic chronology.  Back in the early days, I was partial to TSR (back when it was TSR, which also meant that the field was notably narrower in comparison), but that has as much to do with my own limited tastes as anything else.  I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons back in late elementary school, and I became a bit of a fanatic for a number of years.  (As elementary school children will tend to be.  It was one of those experiences that blew open the doors of my perception, to reference William Blake and Jim Morrison.)

This was followed up with TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes game, which introduced a lot of fascinating and weirdly groundbreaking ideas to the mix.  It was a huge departure from the way that D&D played, which was enough to keep our young group on track to both hold its parent company in high regard and develop our nascent skills as gamers.

From there, we discovered West End Games and their D6 Star Wars RPG.  This carried us for several years of determined play, during which TSR was solidly displaced as my favorite company.  There was a brief return to the wiles of TSR with my discovery of Ravenloft, but that was brief and subsequently Torg surfaced on my radar of interest, keeping WEG firmly in place as my favored publisher.  When the company flamed out due to shoe company finances (seriously), they lost prominence for me utterly.  (Not being a viable company will do that for you.)

From there, I followed the trail of WEG alumni to their various new companies, ending up with Shane Hensley’s Pinnacle Entertainment Group when they published Deadlands in its original form.  I was a particular fan of this system and worldset, despite the fact that Westerns as an RPG genre were something of a hard sell.  (If you consider that the only other one, up to this point, had been Boot Hill, you can see how little impact they’ve had.  Even now, there’s only really been Aces & Eights, and most of the limited popularity of that comes from the fact that it’s Kenzer putting it out.)

Pinnacle fell out of favor with me when they decided to make a full switch to the Savage Worlds system, which I have learned to loathe (even as I tried my damnedest to accept and run with).

When I was living abroad, I latched onto White Wolf, mainly for their Exalted line.  I had picked up various World of Darkness games over the years, as much due to the tastes of my larger gaming group, but they had never made a great deal of impact on my tastes.  This changed with Exalted, which I connected to on some visceral  level and allowed me to put some of my classical lit studies to use.  I followed this up with a lengthy Werewolf: The Apocalypse campaign, which simply served to cement WW as a favored company for that much longer.

In shuffling through these different games and companies, I’m struck by the understanding that my shift in loyalty has less to do with changing tastes and more to do with the way the companies themselves change over the course of their corporate decisions.  TSR fell out of favor as much because the company was driven into the ground as anything else.  Had they not melted down internally, they might have been able to keep my interest for longer.  West End was huge for me, but similarly their failure as a company was what had them fall out of favor completely for me.  Pinnacle continues to exist (mostly; there’s some sort of corporate shift with how they do business with Studio 2, but that’s nothing I’ve looked too closely at), but it was their decision to kill the Classic Deadlands line in favor of Savage Worlds that caused my eventual migration away.  The destruction of White Wolf at the hands of the Icelandic MMO company, CCP, was what propelled them into their current iteration as Onyx Path.  (And the less said here about that whole bit, the better.)

The destruction of the D&D 3.5 brand brought me to Paizo, which deserves mention.  I like the guys at Paizo, I own a lot of Pathfinder, and I’ve played it consistently over the years.  That said, Pathfinder holds a place as the faithful mainstay, rather than the flashy obsession.

There are a couple of companies that deserve credit for consistent quality and longevity, namely R. Talsorian and Alderac, but the sad truth is that they never quite became “favorite” companies for me.  I own a lot of Cyberpunk and Mekton, but neither game ended up being anything that I consistently ran or played.  I have every edition of Legend of the Five Rings, but the truth is, I’ve only ever been in one campaign of that, and it sort of petered out in the course of a year.

These days, my favor seems to lie with Fantasy Flight Games, as much because of their Star Wars license as any other reason.  I’ve fallen deeply in love with Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny, for all their ambition and rediscovery of a well-established property.  I’ve also invested rather deeply in an X-Wing Miniatures collection, which is a money sink of the worst order.  Given time, I might also have put together a Warhammer Fantasy collection, but that ship seems to have sailed.  We’ll see how long I can persist with this obsession, given the relatively unstable nature of my playing group at present and the questions of finance.

Given time, I might eventually shift my loyalties toward Cubicle 7, but that will remain to be seen.  I’m a huge fan of the detail they’ve put into Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space and the Lone Wolf Adventure Game, as well as the translation of Kuro and One Ring (which I believe was originally in Spanish), but none of these games have yet seen play for me.  They have amazing production values and dedication to their various properties, so this might just be a matter of time.

Also of note are Kotodama Heavy Industries, for their efforts in translating Tenra Bansho Zero and Ryuutama, Agate and Studio 2 for bringing Shadows of Esteren to the States, and Green Ronin for general excellence.  I haven’t spent enough time with any of their products to inspire proper obsession (what I hinge my favoritism on), but they hold a particular place in my collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whuf.  That was a lengthy preamble.

Favorite Media That Should Be An RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite RPG Media Appearance — #RPGaDay2015, Day 8

Media appearance?  Really?

This seems like it’s pandering to people who are huge fans of “Big Bang Theory” or the like, where it’s fobbed off as being quirky and fun for a Friday Night Sitcom crowd.  I still find it odd that media still holds something of a hands-off approach to gaming in general, since it still holds leftover stigma from the 80’s era Satanic Panic nonsense.  (As a side note, Leftover Stigma might be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.)  I grant, I haven’t watched the supposedly well-loved Community episode about D&D, but that’s just because Community has only provoked marginal awareness with me.

For me (again, showing my age), media appearance of RPG’s tends to be a negative portrayal, rife with inconsistent ideas and absolute idiocy on what’s going on.  There was a book I read a while back, from a series I otherwise enjoyed, where a minor character was shown as being a gamer, which meant that he had all manner of occult paraphernalia in his backpack as part of his hobby requirements.  Sure, there were miniatures, but there were also tarot cards and, if memory serves, candles of some sort.  Unless he was playing something like The Everlasting: The Book of the Unliving, where such lunacies are bizarrely encouraged (one of these days, when I get such things unpacked, I’ll go over just why that game line failed so dramatically), having what amounts to being ritual trappings is largely unneeded for normal sessions.

Favorite RPG Media Appearance

For my money, there was nothing more indicative of the times we were living in than the pivotal early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes & Monsters, based on a quickly dashed off novel by Rona Jaffe.  (Apparently, this is Tom Hanks’ first starring role.  I wonder what he thinks of that these days?)  Prior to the publication of this rather sensationalist potboiler, Jaffe was a well-known writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, under the stewardship of Helen Gurley Brown.  Think Carrie Bradshaw, set in the Mad Men era, and you’ve probably got a handle on where we’re coming from with her.  A bit of an odd choice, when you’re looking for an author to deal with things like this.

Mazes & Monsters, naturally, was based loosely on the media’s portrayal of the James Dallas Egbert disappearance, the Michigan State University student who tried to commit suicide in the campus steam tunnels.  There’s a larger story to Egbert’s particular bent, but back in 1979 the correlative link to a new and largely unknown pastime was enough to obfuscate actual details on what went on.  The suicidal tendencies had nothing to do with any mythical, Tolkien-derived fantasy world, but that didn’t stop the national media from finding interesting enough to run with.

The movie (and I have to assume, the novel as well) takes the most lurid ideas from the media accounts and turns it into a huge spectacle of delusion and mental illness.  Tom Hanks portrays a rather unstable college student whose brother either disappeared or killed himself before the start of the movie.

There’s an awful lot of suicide and weird mental illness in this flick, to be honest.  Not only is a referenced character implied to have killed himself, another character advances the plot through intending to off himself in a cave, the same person’s M&M character kills himself, and they have to save Tom Hanks’ character from jumping off the World Trade Center at the end of the movie.  And naturally, it all links back to role-playing games in the end.

What’s interesting is that, despite the moral problem of role-playing games at the center of the movie, the actual portrayal of gaming didn’t seem too far off.  Granted, they were trying to LARP in the early 80’s, but that just seems weirdly anachronistic, at this point.  The small spaces, bad maps and actual session of the game didn’t seem to far off from what I remember.  (Although, thinking back now, it seems like Tom Hanks did have a ludicrously out of scale miniature for his character.)  The point where it goes off the rails is when the movie insists that people start to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, and this shared delusion is what makes them go irrevocably mad.  I have to think that similar thinking is what informed the moral panic of the 1950’s, when Frederic Wertham spoke so eloquently of comic books warping young minds.

The movie follows Tom Hanks as he wanders New York, possibly murdering a random mugger, and ends up trying to throw himself off the WTC in the early morning sunshine, all the while in a weird, hallucination of some dire fantasy world.  (One review terms this as a “jazz daze,” which I can’t argue with.)  The ending has him utterly unable to separate himself from his RPG character, and the other characters have to leave him in his pathetic delusion while they are implied to have grown up and left gaming behind.

Not, I guess, that I can blame them.  I mean, it’s got to have left a stain on things to have seen someone go so mental over the pastime, but the movie also seems to imply that this is pretty much unavoidable in this universe.  And that’s the weird part of an already weird movie.  The movie deals with characters that have an established baseline of mental problems (Tom Hanks’ character may actually be schizophrenic), which would be enough to anchor things, but then it tries to establish a link to RPG’s alongside this.  Without going back to watch the movie again (it’s around here in a box somewhere), I’m not sure if there’s a causative relationship that makes any sense.  Does the hobby only attract people with problems differentiating fantasy from reality?  Does it cause these barriers to break down over the course of play?  What’s the actual danger here?

This isn’t a particularly good movie, even judged on the basis of being a Made-For-TV spectacle.  It is, however, an excellent snapshot of the era of “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” and the attendant hysteria.

Favorite Free Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 7

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

Favorite Free Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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