OUT OF THE BOX
Apparently there will be some waiting. I once more stand before you proven a liar, at least in the delicate question of columnial update prediction. But given that this issue we review two thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven pages of roleplaying goodness, perhaps I can be let off with yet another stern warning. Said stern warning will be delivered, going forward, by the estimable James Mishler, of the almost as estimable F+W Publications, the new insect overlords of all they survey at GamingReport.com. We’ve had a good chat about the column and its potential, and I think there may be a few structural fillips underway that might lessen the need for quite so many stern warnings in my permanent file. But for now, we go forward into the thicket, via Anaheim.
Anaheim and the King: GenCon SoCal 2006 Con Report
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was out at the Anaheim Convention Center basking in the sun and in my handsome Press badge from GenCon SoCal. So I should, in proper journalistic style, tell you that the con had around 18,000 attendees, which sounds high, but then that’s one big Convention Center. Almost uniquely for me at a game con, I actually played games — specifically two GMT card-driven wargames, the fantastic Cold War board-control sim Twilight Struggle and the less-fantastic but still interesting Wellington, about the Peninsular War. I have to say, I love those games — it’s the first new paradigm in wargame design since the hex grid that has actually opened up the field creatively. I also attended a couple of panels, especially Luke Crane, John Wick, and Jared Sorensen hosting their Game Design Boot Camp, and picked up some new games. The best new thing (to me) at the show was John’s Wilderness of Mirrors game, but pseudo-history made a comeback: I also picked up a RuneQuest-like fantasy RPG set in medieval Europe called Fantasy Imperium and a couple of Victorian adventure RPGs, Full Light, Full Steam and Passages. And I drank my share of margaritas from the impossible-to-praise-too-highly beverage cart on the floor. So not at all bad. (I also saw masked Mexican wrestling, but that wasn’t a real con event, although it did occur in the same convention center.) The show had a kind of good bubble buzz about it — part of this is the inevitable consequence of dealing with Peter Adkison, but part of it is also a sense that GenCon SoCal has turned a bit of a corner. The new anime hallway was popular, Mike Selinker’s spy LARP went over with a bang, the electronic games were present without dominating, and a note of cautious optimism filled some parts of the air. Apparently, the show is staying in Anaheim for the time being (the announced move to L.A. being less than popular with the exhibitor and fan communities), which in my own judgement will further help cement it in gamers’ mental maps. For me, it’s enough to get one last blast of sunlight in before Chicago’s gray envelops me for the next four months, but even if you always have enough Vitamin D, it’s an increasingly good, confident show.
Skill ‘Em All, Let God Sort ‘Em Out
Like many Hero System books, about half of The Ultimate Skill (400-page black-and-white softcover, $34.99) is a hefty sourcebook for whatever kind of game you’re playing, Hero or no Hero. This half is extra-hefty, because it’s written by Steve “Writes” Long, who is not a man to take his research lightly. As a result, there’s a lot of very useful, very informative stuff on Bugging, Criminology, Cryptography, Forensic Medicine, Forgery, and you get the idea, disguised as expanded writeups of those specific Hero System skills. The rest of the book is all kinds of special rules, options, and such for said skills, including ways to expand them (break out Criminology into a zillion separate skills to run a CSI game) or combine them (mush Criminology up with Conversation, Deduction, Forensic Medicine, etc. into one “Detective” skill for a JLA game) or what-have-you. A lot of this is pretty intense Hero System inside baseball, to be quite frank, but I have to say that the subject deserves it. Hero is more than just super-powers, and if it’s going to claim its rightful share of the “special ops and pulp detectives” adventure power continuum, it needs to put its skills — and its Skills — front and center. This book does, and the result is pretty indispensable for Hero System players and GMs alike.
Waiter, There’s Pulp In My Fudge
For those of you who long to fight gorilla assassins on the back of a bucking zeppelin, Spirit of the Century (413-page black-and-white 6.5″x8.5″ softcover, $30) is the game you’ve been waiting for. “But I thought all the other ninety-zillion pulp RPGs were the game I was waiting for?” Ahh, well, not really. This is the first pulp with fudge, after all. Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue (with Leonard Balsera) have adapted their FATE engine to the pulp genre. If you’re just joining the party, FATE is essentially FUDGE with the traits replaced with “Aspects,” which can be anything from “Daredevil Pilot” to “Girl Next Door” to “Slippery” to “Knife-Wielding Maniac.” In Spirit of the Century, you “invoke” your Aspect to bring it into play and get a bonus on your Skill roll (Pilot, Charm, Evade, Stab) — or the GM “compels” it to make you take a penalty, say, to resist stealing a new plane or stabbing a Girl Scout. During play, anybody can spend Fate Points to “tag” something (a bad guy, the setting, a zeppelin) with an Aspect for a bonus or (in a fairly arcane section that I hear works very well in play) get a free “tag” by their own action and pass it on to another player for the bonus. The end result is a fast-paced, rapidly-changing narrative that privileges color and creativity — which is to say, pulp in a nutshell. Interestingly, this wild free-form crazitude is harnessed to a huge goulash of specific skill guidelines and stunt trees — essentially the d20 Feat system tied to skills and reimagined for FUDGE. While this is all excellent stuff, it seems to exist in a kind of parallel world to the main rules, and is probably best looked at as a kind of intensive guideline to the sorts of things that happen in pulp games. There’s a fairly disposable starter setting, and a great deal of good narrative advice to round out the book. Taken as a whole, then, it’s not really a whole, but both of its lobes drive a pretty stellar pulp game.
Putting The “Pyre” Into “Empire”
Luke Crane’s camera keeps pulling back, from single combat in Burning Wheel to species creation with the Monster Burner and whole social circles in Burning Wheel Revised. Now, it goes positively Cinemascope, super-sized and wide-angled with Burning Empires (655-page full-color 6.5″x8.5″ hardback, $45), the game of alien invasion. Literally; that’s the game — the players and GM collaboratively build (er, “burn”) a world under the threat of Vaylen invasion, and then build the important world leaders or other Big-Time Heroes who will (hopefully) resist it. Then they do, following a fairly strict budget of scenes for each stage of the war: initial infiltration (the Vaylen are mind parasites, essentially), conspiratorial take-over, and all-out war. The players (and the GM) play through all three, and play to win. This sounds kind of rote and mechanical, but so does a description of an F-16. The real important thing, in both cases, is the amazing firepower and concomitant awesome whoosh. The world and character generation systems are guaranteed to create a world in crisis and characters with urgent needs, and the scene budget just reduces everything in game-time down to the absolute vitals. “Color” is abstracted — “fine, you have it” — until it has a game impact, at which time it becomes Resources (usually). This means no sessions wasted upgrading the computer system or shopping for lasers. It’s all about the war. The system is the by-now familiar Burning Wheel engine we’ve discussed before, optimized for planetary-scale combats. For an SF game, there’s relatively little space-armada stuff, but that’s the breaks. The book is glorious looking, a truly 21st-century piece of physical design, lavishly illustrated (mostly) with scenes and art taken from the game’s inspiration, Christopher Moeller’s Iron Empires graphic novels. Like most of Luke’s designs, I love it almost as much for the games it implies — games of global influence and power from conspiracies to Authority-Planetary style superheroes — as the game it actually is. And the game it actually is is amazing enough. Feel the burn, baby.
Putting The “A Lot” Into “Camelot”
Greg Stafford’s original Pendragon is one of the greatest achievements in roleplaying history — it pioneered the intelligent use of personality and belief as game-worthy mechanics, it brilliantly evoked a world one part Dark Age warlord to three parts medieval romance, and its Manor and Glory systems were — and are — almost unparalleled in tying the character into a wider world. Now, with King Arthur Pendragon 5th Edition (230-page black-and-white hardback with color endpapers, $34.99), and most especially The Great Pendragon Campaign (429-page black-and-white hardback with color endpapers, $49.99), the promise of that bright debut is fully realized. With the fifth edition, Stafford has gone back to the pure roots of his game — once more, PCs are British knights in the kingdom of Logres, period. No enchanters, no ladies, just knights. The Passions mechanics are essentially unchanged, and along with Glory are the core of the character. How famous is your knight, and who is he? A number of appendices set out mass combat rules, tournament rules, and other vital details, but the heart of the game is now the Winter Phase — when you find out how your family prospered (or starved) while you were out slaying ogres. Here’s where your character is woven back into society, possibly siring his own successor PC, interacting with court and land. And in The Great Pendragon Campaign there are eighty years — four generations — of Winter Phases, two years or more of Arthurian gaming from the rise of Uther to the destruction of Camelot. (For the old-school, this book is the apotheosis The Boy King.) Every year has tournament seeds, adventures, and the unfolding pageant of Arthur, allowing gaming on an epic, generational — yet withal intensely personal, thanks to the Passions and Glory and family — scale that is unique in roleplaying. With this book, you also get a lot more of the magic and wonder that the core book de-emphasizes, with the Fey and their doings taking center stage at times. Finally, Greg’s vision for the product is completed, and in a very attractive White Wolf package courtesy of Aileen Miles. Even the maps, almost uniquely among White Wolf books, actually inform and interest. There are some editing glitches — perhaps inevitable in 650 pages of product featuring Sir Gawaine, Sir Agravaine, and Sir Gaheris — so read carefully before you run. But it’s well worth the careful read anyhow — if you have any interest in Arthurian gaming, or in what epic roleplaying can truly be, you need both of these books.
Later This Month
We’ll pile up another installment of the Great Indie Game Pileup, including Agon, Contenders, Wilderness of Mirrors, Cold Space, and the latest from Chad Underkoffler’s magic bean, The Zorcerer of Zo, plus the proverbial many, many more. That should hold us until the new year, which will feature another installment of the Coveted Outie Awards, a look back at 2006, and an assortment of gratuitous plugs. Then, who knows? Perhaps newness and wonder will sweep down upon us, in what will be the tenth anniversary year of this column. In the meantime, give games, and make Santa happy.