Big Books From The Big Show

OUT OF THE BOX
2005-09-21

Well, I’m back from San Francisco, and back from writing a Mage assignment for White Wolf (consider that my big-time professional journalism style disclaimer), and back from visiting my parents in Oklahoma City, and what do I find but this column still blinking away on my desktop blocking my Aishwarya Rai wallpaper. Well, I can’t have that on my conscience, to say nothing of my desktop. So let’s clear it off in big style, shall we?

I Left My LARP In San Francisco: ConQuest SF 2005 Con Report

Although before we get to the big, I’ll start with the small, which is to say with my report from ConQuest SF, which I attended over the Labor Day weekend. This is the first year that Gabriel “Mondo” Vega’s Avalon Productions has run the show, and from everything I saw it ran pretty smoothly, at least on the consumer end. (I also saw the con staff recover from about three heart attacks a day.) For a first time con team, in fact, it ran amazingly smoothly. And actually, it wasn’t that small, and it looks primed to grow bigger yet — I don’t know specific attendance figures (although it was apparently up 7% from last year’s show), but I know they printed 1,000 programs, and they were out of them by Monday morning. Admittedly, I personally used three of them (I kept leaving them somewhere else), but surely most of the attendees were less scatterbrained than I was.

And I can’t have been too scatterbrained — I won five bucks playing poker with James Ernest, which never happens, and performed creditably on my “Trends in the Gaming Industry” and “World Building Tips for GMs” panels. I playtested some new Cheapass Games, watched some great minis fights, hung out in other people’s panels, and might have been tempted to sit in on an RPG session or two, but they were all six and eight hours long — which meant they overlapped my panel or whatnot each day. One activity I thought was brilliant; in addition to the dealer’s room (which brought Chaosium, Green Ronin, and wargame mavens GMT along with the retailer folks), ConQuest SF was also a “flea market” where people could sell their old junk — er, priceless books and games — to me. This was a real gamers’ show — lots of boardgames and minis games especially, but over 100 RPG events by my cursory count. And in addition to James Ernest and your humble narrator, attendees got Keith (Eberron) Baker, Green Ronin’s Chris Pramas, boardgame design maven Tom (Wiz-War) Jolly, and a fat lot of super minis games, including a vast Trojan War panoply and something very impressively realistic sounding called B-17: Target Reich, which held its 20th Anniversary Raid (on Wilhelmshaven) at the show. A lineup only a U-Boat could hate.

Plato’s Redheaded Stepchildren

It is, dare I say it, Traditional, when reviewing a new World of Darkness book, to begin by lambasting or praising to the skies its previous incarnation. So I shall do both. I thought Original Mage (yes, of course I mean Second Edition) was a liberatory, brilliant magic (or perhaps supers) ruleset tied to the most incoherent, ludicrous, and occasionally downright wrongheaded cosmology in virtually all of gaming. With Mage: the Awakening (398-page hardback, black-and-white with gold highlights, $39.99), developer Bill Bridges pulls the game well back from both ends of my hyperbole. We now have a decent, workable (and admittedly vastly better balanced) magic ruleset (essentially Ars Magica without the Latin) nestled in a relatively normal, sensible Gnostic world. Mages, see, are heirs to the wisdom of Atlantis. They Awaken and join the fight of the Good Atlantean Oracles against the wicked rulers of this world, the Exarchs, who are Not The Technocracy. What exactly mages do adventure-wise is murky at best, and the Storytelling section doesn’t help much except to emphasize the political infighting possible in the new setting.

Mages slot into the now-familiar five-by-five grid of the new World of Darkness — they Awaken onto one of five Paths (based on their favored Spheres — er, Arcana — and flavor of magic), but can join one of five Orders regardless. In theory your Celestial Chorus brimstone Baptist and your Verbena hippie witch might both be in the same Path and Order; surface details count for little now. Some (but not enough) of the old flavor of the Traditions (sadly missed) comes back with the Legacies, which closely resemble Bloodlines in new Vampire. (Very closely indeed, given that one of them is the “Tremere Lich” Legacy.) All that said, the Antagonists section is truly first-rate, with plenty of weirdness and creepy openings for occult adventure. And even though I miss the woo-woo old stuff, I think the new magic system will go a long way to getting mages out the door and into the thick of things without so much confusion and bickering; there’s now 133 pages of Rotes that exist to answer the question “I have Forces 3 and Mind 2; what can I do?” The art is all by Michael William Kaluta, and there’s not a whole lot of it — this is a text-heavy book. Layout is not great, with lots of Sudden Kerning, but it’s usable, and the damn index works, as do the cross-references. I suppose I loved the wild triumphs of the old Mage the more because of the stark contrast with its crippling flaws; the new Mage has neither, which may well be good enough for Oracle work. Certainly, if you already have an idea for a game of modern sorcery in a world of darkness, this book will get you going.

Party Like It’s 1989

And speaking of new editions, my old-school Shadowrun pals couldn’t stop bitching about the newly restrained dice pools in Shadowrun Fourth Edition (352-page hardback, two-color black-and-green with 16 pages of full-color character templates, $34.99), which to my own eye work a hell of a lot smoother hands down. I especially like the change by which the “exploding dice” Rule of Six now only applies when you use Edge, a new “luck” attribute that functions like Hero Points. There’s a few other tweaks to the rules; attributes are rejiggered, magic has to be purchased, and so forth. I especially like the “Tweaking the Rules” box, which gives you ways to make the game more cinematic, lethal, or gritty, and a few other ways to resolve tests. The only change I don’t like is that gear statistics dropped Street Index, Legality, Concealability, and Weight, which works to further “fairy tale” a setting that already suffers in places from terminal goof. That world is basically the same silly Gibson-meets-Gygax mishmosh it’s always been, although the Matrix (nee Net) has changed dramatically to try and give Riggers something to do, but the setting is clearly and interestingly presented. The game’s story function is nice and clear, too. The introduction is compellingly blunt: “Shadowrunners commit crimes, usually for money.” There’s a handsome list of basic character types and basic “Shadow Activity” types that tells you in the space of a page and a half who you are and what you think you are doing. The only place I felt shortchanged was in the GM advice; Shadowrun requires a fairly adept GM or it breaks down in endless-loop plotting punctuated by revenge guard attacks. Although the five pages we get are adequate, they’re not focused enough on the known challenges to the game. This is especially irksome because everywhere else, you can see the last decade of game lore and experience being utilized, sifted, and adapted for this version. Developer Rob Boyle is to be commended on pulling together a lot of material in a tight, organic, readable whole, as are his writers, who include such names as Elissa Carey, Dan Grendel, and Michelle Lyons. Adam Jury and Jason Vargas’ layout is clean and crisp; the art is (as usual) a broad mix of adequate with a few standouts including Mark Zug’s cover and the color templates. In short, this is a fine version of a classic; FanPro have shown that they can pull their weight.

Nine Days Later

We’ll try to get to the promised Indie Games Roundup before the end of September, if only to salvage a few reeking shreds of my self-respect. But, in fairness I should warn you nice people that Chicago will probably be having pretty great weather in the next week or so, and the White Sox are doing pretty darn good to boot. Be that as it may, Indie Games Roundup next time For Sure. By then, mayhap, we’ll have gotten a review copy of Iron Heroes and/or Mutants & Masterminds 2nd to compare and contrast with Patrick Kapera’s Absolutely Amazing Spycraft 2.0 in some sort of d20 Best of Breed Review Spotlight column, which I will pad out with more GenCon Highlights. And by then, surely, it will be time for the annual Horror Games Column, being as it will be late October, and perhaps more to the point, the weather will have turned cold and wet and nasty. No promises about the White Sox. Click back in nine and see, though!

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