OUT OF THE BOX
Well, 2002 was, in fact, a palindrome year; it seemed the same going out and coming in. Both ends of the year have wars on the other side, along with Tolkein and Harry Potter movies. And in gaming, we entered 2002 waiting for the D20 bubble to conclusively burst and for the Big New Thing to present itself, and we enter 2003 likewise. So forward, or backward, to 2002.
Two Towers, No Waiting
Isengard and Barad-Dur? Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul? D20 supplements and Yu-Gi-Oh expansion sets? Somewhere in all of these towers, lightning has to strike. The D20 segment lost some relative sales strength, but most of that was Wizards of the Coast slowly selling into the last niches of the market; the D20 “best of breed” — Atlas, Green Ronin, White Wolf, AEG, Mongoose — continued, on all evidence, to do well even as RPG sales themselves seemed to slump as the recession deepened and as the “3E converts” went back to wherever they had come from and stopped buying new products. This may have had something to do with the two huge rounds of layoffs that more than decimated Wizards of the Coast, although a better bet is the twin towers of internal corporate politics and Hasbro debt. Wizards tried (unsuccessfully) to sell its retail arm, managed to sell its online retail arm (in other game companies, one of the most profitable business sectors), sold GenCon to former WotC CEO Peter Adkison (who promptly set about improving GenCon into said profitability), and spun off Dungeon and Dragon magazine to other former Wizardlings as Paizo Press.
Even further from Wizards, however, the D20 virus continues to spread. The first set of “second-generation” D20 games came out, those games like Spycraft, Nyambe, and Mutants & Masterminds that tried reframing the D20 framework rather than simply bolting onto it — and the first big, successful wave of “OGL” games (using the D20 system without the D20 license and brand identity) emerged with EverQuest, Godlike, and Mutants & Masterminds, among others. In this space last year, I predicted some settling of the D20 balloon, and some innovations within it; neither happened as fast as I had thought, but both happened.
Another of my predictions was, thankfully, off base — I doubted whether even the legendary Steve “the Man” Long could resurrect the Hero system, but the rebirth of Hero Games is one of the more inspiring success stories of the last year. Sales seem to continue strong, and fans are re-energized by a new look at the Champions universe, and apparently by the resurgence of other superhero games such as Guardians of Order’s Silver Age Sentinels and Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds.
Precedence Publishing and Agents of Gaming shut their doors; more significantly, Hogshead closed up shop as well, though not before finding a new home for Nobilis. John Tynes also announced his retirement from RPG creation, although he’ll probably keep a finger or two in the Unknown Armies pie.
The last GenCon in Milwaukee happened.
Let’s see what Indianapolis and the rest of the 2003 elves bring us, shall we? I’ll stick to last year’s predictions; they should be just as good going out as coming in.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot? A New Report May Surprise You
Yes, it’s our auldest acquaintance, the delightfully familiar, bright-eyed and bold-hued, Out of the Box Awards for 2002. As always, the coveted “Outie” has been burnished to a fiery luster by cyberspatial gnomes using chamois cloths ripped from the steaming flanks of Price Waterhouse. Let’s get ready to ramble!
Best New RPG of 2002: I’m going to begin by giving the sole Honorable Mention of the category to Jake Norwood’s incredibly interesting Riddle of Steel, which combines character development with mayhem in ways seldom if ever seen by mortal gamer. This traditionally tough category is made even tougher by a trilogy of really good licensed releases. C.J. Carella’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, Steve Long and Christian Moore’s Lord of the Rings RPG, and Phil Masters and Jonathan Woodward’s Hellboy Sourcebook and RPG all take proven game engines (Unisystem, CODA, and GURPS) and smoothly adapt them to exciting worlds for stand-alone beauty and brilliance. Perhaps next year’s Outies should have a Best Licensed Thing category, since separating the goodness of the license from the goodness of the game is, rightly, impossible. (Ask any Call of Cthulhu fan.) On top of that trilogy of talent, there’s three superhero games clamoring for my respect; Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze’s Godlike, Mark McKinnon and Jeff Mackintosh’s Silver Age Sentinels, and Steve Kenson’s Mutants & Masterminds (which I haven’t even gotten a chance to review yet, but you should be able to guess the general drift by its august placement here). I have to give the license nod to the Hellboy RPG by a hair, and the supers nod to Silver Age Sentinels by an even thinner thread, and the actual Outie to Patrick Kapera’s brilliantly stripped-and-loaded Spycraft, by a micron over the other two finalists.
Best Sui Generis RPG of 2002: For the first time in years, Hogshead Publishing doesn’t even have a finalist in this category, as the new edition of Nobilis managed to clear up just what you were intended to do with the damn thing. So it comes down to Matt Snyder’s psychological Western Dust Devils, Patrick Sweeney and Bruce Harlick’s daikaiju minis game with character creation Monster Island, Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes’ strange but intriguing collaborative storytelling system Universalis, which all give strong competition to the winner of the 2002 Outie for Best Sui Generis RPG, Jared Sorensen’s genre-smashing narrative hootenanny, octaNe.
Best Supplement of 2002: Honorable Mentions aplenty; in the land of D20, they go to Atlas Games’ Occult Lore and Aaron Loeb’s Book of the Righteous which take magic and priestcraft to nigh-ultimate levels, and the very solid Denizens of Darkness, a monstrous guide through Ravenloft helmed by Nicky Rea and Jackie Cassada. Another Honorable Mention to Robin’s Laws of Good GMing, by (of course) Robin Laws; probably the best value for page count of any book in the category, and to Jim Cambias’ GURPS Mars, also from Steve Jackson Games. Clear and brilliant runners-up, disabled only by their estimably recondite natures, are Bruce Baugh’s Serial Experiments Lain Ultimate Fan Guide and the indefatigable Robin Laws’ Kaiin Players’ Guide. The finalists are four superb evocations of theme, mood, and setting: Aaron Allston and Steve Long’s Champions, the single best super roleplaying sourcebook ever; Ron Edwards’ uncompromising exploration of sword-and-sorcery storytelling, Sorcerer and Sword; Chris Dolunt’s brilliant reimagining of African legend for D20, Nyambe: African Adventures; and the winner of the 2002 Outie, Justin Achilli’s perfected reduction, Victorian Age Vampire.
Best Retread of 2002: An Honorable Mention to the Van Richten’s Arsenal 1 book from White Wolf, and to Wizards’ Deities & Demigods 3rd Edition, both of which did much to burnish the memory of their fine predecessors. Hans-Christian Vortisch succeeded in the unlikely task of further improving GURPS Special Ops with his Third Edition, and while on the topic of Steve Jackson Games, I’d also like to point out that a lesser columnist would almost certainly include his own GURPS Horror, Third Edition in the running for this category. Monte Cook, John Tynes, and a cast of dozens made Call of Cthulhu D20 a strong contender, although the “no more Outies for Call of Cthulhu” rule should probably come into play. Fortunately, the clearest possible daylight exists between all of these fine products and the majesty that is John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s even-better Unknown Armies 2nd Edition, the winner of the Outie for Best Retread of 2002.
Most Improved Retread of 2002: But it was tough, and I thank the Lord that the improvements made to Unknown Armies were relatively cosmetic compared to the massive, beautiful overhaul Bruce Baugh and Hogshead Publishing gave to R. Sean Borgstrom’s majestic Nobilis 2nd Edition, which puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “restoration” of Louis Sullivan’s atrium for the Rookery Building in Chicago. From a work of genius to a work of transcendence, the clear winner of the Outie for Most Improved Retread of 2002 goes to Nobilis, 2nd Edition. It seems unfair to relegate Alex Jurkat’s excellently retoned GURPS Conspiracy X to a mere runner-up slot, but against the gods, conspiracy itself contends in vain.
Biggest Fizzle of 2002: The Origins-Award-winning, and immediately canceled, Chainmail skirmish miniatures game from Wizards of the Coast, it having never occurred to the Renton brain trust, apparently, that they already had a perfectly good skirmish miniatures rules set — called Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition. Now, if it had been ChainClix …
Most Blatant Plugs of 2002: Rather thicker on the ground than last year; Hitacious goodness came in both Regular (Star Trek RPG Players’ Guide and Narrator’s Guide from Decipher) and Extra Strength (GURPS Horror, Third Edition from Steve Jackson Games). I also had pieces of Wizards of the Coast’s Call of Cthulhu D20, Atlas Games’ Unknown Armies 2nd Edition, Grey Ghost Games’ Game Mastering Secrets 2nd Edition, and the index (and co-CODA design) on Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG. All that, plus the continued delight of my “Suppressed Transmission” column in Pyramid and, of course, “Out of the Box” here for you fine people. As the Decipher schedule picks up steam, there should be even more Hite-flavored space candy in your 2003, plus the proverbial High Strangeness in the corners. Ask for it by name, and click back here regularly to find out what name to ask for it by.