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Kickstarter Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 2

This entry follows the previous memetic post, inspired by Autocratik and noted by Ironbombs.  The official title is the oddly awkward “Kickstarted Game Most Pleased You Backed,” which I would have phrased in one of a dozen different ways.  I’m sure that there is a better, more succinct way of getting this idea across, as this sort of makes my head hurt.

I have to be honest about this.  I really do not have a great track record, insofar as Kickstarter goes.

The very first Kickstarter I ever backed, the one that I created my account simply to pledge money for, never happened.  The ones that I pledged around $100 for?  Yeah, most of those have yet to be fulfilled.  The ones that I pledged the most for?  Haven’t really played any of them, to this point.

And yet, I keep putting money out for these damned things, like the worst sort of KS Apologist, eager to be hurt again.  It would be different if I were possessed of interminable amounts of ready disposable income, but most of the time, these things push the hard edges of my careful budget.  Yet none of this stops me from putting out more money when they come around, cup in hand, to ask for alms and donations.

That aside…

Day 2 — Most Positive Kickstarter RPG Experience

All in all, I’d have to say that the Pathfinder version of the Advanced Bestiary from Green Ronin ranks right at the top.  There are a lot of other possibilities that I could put forth as contenders for this ranking (and I’ll get into those potentialities further down), but this book is everything that it needs to be, at a solid value for what I pledged.

The problem with a lot of Kickstarter campaigns is that, for my dollar, most products end up being better housed in the “wait until it hits retail” category.  Yes, I realize that the money that goes into the Kickstarter campaign helps to improve the finished product, thereby improving the overall value of the game, but so many of these companies treat Kickstarter as a glorified pre-order system.  (I’m looking directly at you, Onyx Path.)  As such, there’s little reason to pledge money beforehand, if you’re going to be paying as much or more than you would at retail.  I’ve heard many stories of people putting $100 into a Kickstarter pledge, only to find out that buying it retail would have saved them 20% overall, and in some cases, the backers would have received their product earlier by not waiting for the fulfillment to arrive in the mail.  (Again, Onyx Path.)

The Advanced Bestiary was delivered to me for the end retail value, with shipping included, which hits the first point directly.

The next point is that this is one of the most useful books that has ever been written for Pathfinder.  I fell in love with the first incarnation of the book, which I believe was solidly D20 (putting it more or less in D&D 3.0, for grognard purposes) and came out in the wake of the D&D 3.5 revision.  This was a book of indispensable utility.  It followed the template system laid out in the D&D Monster Manual, allowing all manner of tweaks to be lain upon monstrous foes.  These ranged from very minor to complete reworkings, allowing an unheard of degree of customization for your campaigns.  If you were running a game concerned with weird, clockwork monstrosities, there was a template to upgrade normal monsters to fit this paradigm.  If you wanted to tweak a normal creature into bipedal version for a weird race, there was a template to make sense of this.  And if you wanted to create some unholy gestalt creature (there was once a discussion of a Gelatinous Beholder), that was entirely within the framework of these rules.

There was an entire line of Advanced books from Green Ronin at the time, but this book was the most useful, far and away.  As such, when it came time to kick for this book, I was immediately on board.  There was nothing particularly revolutionary about the book; it had all been done before, more or less, and this was just the rules upgrade that had been promised.  For me, the fact that it was cleanly laid out, quickly delivered, reasonably priced, and exactly what I wanted ranks it very highly.

In terms of solid contenders for this entry, the next possibility would have to be the Lone Wolf Adventure Game from Cubicle 7.  This has less to do with the game itself, and more to do with the fact that I am really looking forward to the full release of this game and where it goes.  Cubicle 7 manages to put out some of the prettiest games around (Doctor Who, One Ring, and Qin, not to get into the necessary obsession of Kuro), and this is no exception.  As such, the forthcoming products are going to be amazing.  Moreover, I’m really happy with this game because I had a collection of the Lone Wolf Adventure Gamebooks from back in the day, and seeing this world put to paper with the approval of the author is phenomenal.  (Let’s leave aside that I got to meet Joe Dever at Gen Con, which was a hell of a thing.  There are pictures of this floating about, and I’m generally grinning like an idiot.)

Following up, we have the Shadows of Esteren Kickstarters.  I do dearly love this game, but until I manage to actually throw dice, I can’t actually profess my true, deep adoration.  A similar sentiment pervades my outlook on the original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter, since I’ve managed to use the terrain all of once.  There’s a whole stack of Onyx Path Kickstarters, which run a weird path of fascination and disappointment.  They always take forever to arrive, but when they finally show up, the production value tends to be top notch.  (The less said about the Exalted 3rd Edition, the better.)

And finally, the one that I’m looking forward to most happens to be the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter.  This isn’t because I’m particularly bound to a new edition of a classic game (though, to be honest, it will be a great revision), it’s because the fulfillment of the Kickstarter has apparently shaken up the company so badly that they needed to restructure themselves on a corporate level.  There’s a lot more to it, of course, but the advent of this new system had the end result of disposing of the old guard at Chaosium in order to actually get it to the backers.  Here’s hoping that this portends well for the company going forward.

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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.

The Shadows of Esteren – General Overview

The fourth Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter finished a week ago.  Between that and Onyx Path’s 20th Anniversary Mage, which funded a couple of days earlier, it was a bit of a pricey month for me.  Had I the money, I would also have put in for the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter.  Sadly, it ended up being less of an outrageous deal than the first one had been, so I don’t feel as badly about it.  The reality is that I’ll likely buy the requisite sets from their eventual storefront offering of the Caverns, and I’ll be out a little bit more money than I would have been.

I got into Shadows of Esteren relatively late, in terms of their growing success.  They’d already managed to pull off two successful Kickstarter campaigns by the time they were brought to my attention, covering the Prologue and Universe books.  The Travels Kickstarter was the third campaign they put together, and their tag line was enough to sell me on the spot – ‘A medieval roleplaying game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu.’

There are few things that encapsulate my interests better than that.  A general consensus was that, if I missed out on this game, I’d be missing out on the one thing in life that was tailor-made for my predilections.  Naturally, I pledged a lot of money for this, ending up with the limited editions of every available book, as well as all of the nifty add-ons that came with the well exceeded stretch goals.  And there were a lot.

Looking over the contents of the Osta-Baille Collector set that I ended up with, there are some eleven bundles that are still in shrink wrap (artwork, pre-generated characters, a GM screen, map tiles, game aids, etc.) along with the three books and the box to put most of it in.  In addition, there’s another box and scattering of game stuff that will show up this coming GenCon, due to the logistics of printing all the stretch goals and fulfilling the added material.

Because they’d already funded two Kickstarters by the time I got into the middle of it all, they’d put together the budget to get stuff printed and ready for distribution, so immediately after the Kickstarter finished, they offered everything that was already printed for pick up at GenCon.

I’ll be honest.  This went a long way to impress me.  My very first Kickstarter RPG pledge was for a game that has yet to see the light of day (and many of the people funding it are threatening legal action), and many of my subsequent pledges went into products that took about a year to fulfill.  Otherwise, the absolute shortest turnaround was the previous Dwarven Forge campaign, which had product to me in about six months.  (Hence why I regret not giving those guys more of my money.  They’re pretty awesome.)

It also helped that the writers of the game were absolutely wonderful to talk to.  The main designer (as I understood it) talked about how much he loved Ravenloft, to the point that he learned English simply so he could read the various supplements that had never been translated into French.  Oh, and did I mention that this was a French game that ended up being translated into English?  Probably an important point to keep in mind as I move forward.

That’s one of the first things you realize about the game when you start looking through it.  This is not an American game, by any stretch of the imagination.

The first clues lie with the artwork.  The covers of my limited edition rulebooks hearken back to the ‘Green Man’ legendry and motifs from Europe, with three variant foliate masks as decoration.  The interior art gives us an old world sensibility, ancient lands overgrown and lost from an earlier age, with rough peasants as our avatars in this strange and pastoral setting.  High, desolate mountains and moss encrusted cenotaphs portray wild places that man has no real business in approaching.

The game text goes on to talk about the present realities of war and fear and starvation, things that modern American games don’t see fit to bother with.  In this game, the horrors that lurk in the shadowy, mistbourne woods are less of an issue than making sure that the crops don’t fail and the people of the village and make it through the long winter.  This is the lowest of low fantasy.

I will be completely honest.  I’m not entirely sure that I know how to run this game.  The setting is incredibly dense, to the point that the world has yet to be fully described.  Within the course of the first three books for the game (Prologue, Universe and Travels), the focus has remained on the peninsula of Tri-Kazel, with a lot of time spent on the small villages high in the mountains of Taol-Kaer.  There are details of the world beyond Tri-Kazel, which hint of more civilized lands that dabble in the local version of Magitek, but the best that a character will likely find of that are the broken and abandoned factories left to rust in the high mountain valleys.

By stating that this game is almost beyond my skill level is not a critique of the writing or the ideas behind the game.  If anything, I’m unwilling to run this game until I know I can do it justice.  If I were to try to introduce Shadows of Esteren to a new group, I would want to infuse it with the same richness of detail that the books themselves offer.  To do anything less would almost be insulting.

The thing is, I don’t believe I’m alone in my mystification of the setting.  The very first book produced for the game is the Prologue book, labeled Book 0.  This is a set of adventures which are recommended to be run as a linked trilogy.  In essence, the game designers understood that there was no easy way to hit the ground running, insofar as the broad portrayal of the setting and its inherent spookiness.  So logically, they offered up a set of canned adventures that both teach the players the system and the GM how to properly bring the world to life.  There are also suggestions as to which order these adventures should be run in, as the overall psychological effect on the players would be markedly different.

And yeah.  Psychology is a heavy element for this game.  One of the most impressive things, for my part, is that each of the different scenes in the scenarios have a suggested soundtrack.  Braveheart, Silent Hill and Full Metal Jacket are all on the playlist of recommended music, as well as tracks from the symphonic concerts that were written especially for the game.  (It says something that the most recent Kickstarter offered concert DVD’s for stretch goals.  These guys take their atmospheric resonance pretty seriously.)

All in all, Shadows of Esteren is one of those games that I’ll work toward running in the eventual future, when I have both the proper table of gamers and the time to do the product justice.  I have no regrets in my purchase of these books, but for the time being, they’re going to have to wait on my shelf for a while.