Closing Time

OUT OF THE BOX
2002-03-08

Just up at the top here, a little silence please — Precedence Publishing, current home of the Rifts CCG and Babylon 5 CCG, has apparently flopped its last. According to an announcement on the Palladium website, Precedence is getting ready to shut its doors. At the same time, Alderac Entertainment is ending its 7th Sea CCG, although they plan at the very least a d20 adaptation for the 7th Sea RPG in the summer. (Which will make it yet another of the myriad “sailing and piracy” rulesets for D20 out this year; collect them all and fight it out, say I!) Interesting times for the CCG marketplace, which has always required a much larger investment and far greater cash-flow than RPGs — with a similarly bigger payoff when it works out, of course. I’ll be keeping a weather eye on such issues at GAMA this year, and not just because CCG powerhouse Decipher is paying my mortgage at the moment.

But enough about the present. Why concern ourselves with it, when the past and future are so much bigger? When they can, with the rattle of a keyboard and the whir of an offset press, contain goblins, and magic, and ornithopters, and viable socialist economies? Yes, the endless reaches of time, roughly as we know it, splay out before us in this grab-bag of gaming supplements, and reviews thereof. However, before we start off on our little temporal jaunt, let’s go over the rules one more time.

Laws In The Supermarket

The rules are: Have Fun. Or, more precisely, Make Fun. The difference between these two imperatives makes up part of the powerful theory underpinning Robin Laws’ euphoniously titled Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (33 staple-bound b&w pages, $9.95), published by Steve Jackson Games. The other part is this: Know Your Players. By really understanding what your players want, you can apply the general good advice from a hundred other GMing sections or roleplaying guidebooks only as necessary for your specific party’s enjoyment. Simply by presenting this concept first, and by providing clear breakdowns and continua demonstrating the kinds of adventures and campaigns that appeal to specific player types, Robin has justified your sawbuck. All the advice in this book (and it’s all good advice by the way) is specifically related to specific types of players, from power gamers to storytellers to specialists to someone’s boyfriend who just shows up for the company. The book misspends some space advising GMs deciding which game system to play — a decision seldom as wide-open as Robin presents it — but this is a minor cavil. One can’t complain about the word value; there’s no art except for some structural graphics (one of which is missing), and the clean but packed text bleeds onto the inside back cover! It’s a cliché, but it’s true in this case — this book is worth reading no matter how long you’ve been GMing. It’s not just good ideas — it’s the Laws’.

It’s All Happening At The Zu

Green Ronin Press’ monster compendium Jade Dragons & Hungry Ghosts (63 page b&w softcover, $14.95) mostly follows the admirable path of adapting monsters from existing historical legends — in this case, those of China, Japan, and a smattering of southeast Asian countries — to the D20 system. Not only Rokugan-based, but any other vaguely “Asian” themed game (including the oncoming onslaught of D20 pulp-n-pirate games) can benefit from the 56 critters in here. (Admittedly, Zeb Cook’s Monkey King is not really a monster, being a deity. Call it 55.) Even the ten “new” critters here (including the Jade Dragon, of course) feel more like legend and less like sweaty ethnic pastiche. The “real” critters are, for the most part, less familiar ones — no hopping vampires or kappa, although there are kitsune and samebito. The authors include Wolfgang Baur, Chris Pramas, and others with a dab hand at adding flavor to basic fantasy mechanics; the monsters seem adequately rules-based and balanced as well as evocative and (in the case of new creatures like the Wasp Warrior) clever.

Once Upon A Time In A Vest

The standout achievement of Scott Larson’s Terra Incognita: The NAGS Society Handbook (142 page b&w softcover, $22.95) from Grey Ghost Press is not so much the campaign frame (the National Archaeological, Geographic, and Submarine Society) as it is the fully-realized presentation of Steffan O’Sullivan’s wonderful FUDGE RPG engine in a proper core game book. This, of course, required Larson to make some decisions — FUDGE is flexible beyond belief — but they seem to work in the mode of “ripping yarns” presented here. (Castle Falkenstein players will find much familiar here, too.) Much GM fudging may be necessary to adjudicate gifts and flaws, among other things, but new GMs and power-mad players are unlikely to choose FUDGE in the first place. What GM advice is offered is sound, especially adventure design, although the setting’s dearth of proper villains makes things difficult. One interesting omission is magic — fortunately, A Magical Medley is still available. It is not impossible that modern players will find the theme of Terra Incognita more congenial than a “proper” Victorian-Edwardian game (to say nothing of the Pulp Era that Terra Incognita gamely attempts to cover); the “Nags” (an unfortunate name) go about discovering things and then hushing them up for their own (or, dubiously, the world’s) protection. This has far more in common with today’s “take only pictures, leave only footprints” school of adventure ecotourism than with the Maxim-guns-and-bunting model of the fiction and history of the real era. Individual players and GMs can, of course, adjust things to suit themselves if they so wish. Just keep it to yourself — the world is no longer ready for such gaming.

Although Terra Incognita offers many properly mad devices, GURPS Steam-Tech (128 page b&w softcover, $22.95) will also prove useful and inspirational. A gear book to accompany last year’s justly Origins Award-winning GURPS Steampunk, Steam-Tech is compiled by that book’s author, “Wild” Bill Stoddard. As sad and pathetic as I may seem to those reading this, this gear book actually hooked me more as a continuing narrative than Terra Incognita, partially because this book’s flavor (amply portrayed in the vignettes accompanying each of the 200-odd devices) maintains a giddy Victorian unity of feel and tone. This despite items ranging from the perfectly historical Bakelite to genetically-engineered cavalry Triceratops to an Electrolytic Gun. The art in Steam-Tech is also generally good, with Zach Howard and especially Peter (“Not Mignola — Yet”) Bergting standing out.

No Sleep Till Belt Passed

David Pulver’s Transhuman Space (208 page b&w paperback, $29.95) is a bold attempt at “realistic” SF prognostication of the year 2100. There are no aliens, no FTL drives, no psionics, no World War Three. There are biological, neurological, and social dislocations, however, that call the nature of humanity into question; and nanotechnology and black hole mining that press the boundaries of physics similarly. Hence, the theme is something like “what does humanity — and by extension politics and commerce — mean when our capabilities so completely exceed our original design?” The game takes place in our solar system, with the book’s attention roughly divided between the other planets and Earth. (Yes, I have nitpicks with the future presented; rather a lot of them. So will everyone who reads it, and most likely different ones than mine. The point is, however, that it’s not the SF future of Heinlein or even Steele; it’s more a Ken MacLeod, Bruce Sterling kind of thing, albeit without the political sensitivity and playfulness of either.) Pulver’s writing, as always, is clear as glass and twice as versatile — the rules systems for such recondite subjects as biotech implants, nanotech weapons, and space combat between moving asteroids are well-thought and clean. Transhuman Space is “Powered By GURPS” but doesn’t include even GURPS Lite, which makes it functionally another GURPS sourcebook, albeit one with some serious upcoming support (six books in production or planning). However, as a core setting book it accomplishes everything it needs to, with some sweet SF Chris Shy art to boot. One does wish that Steve Jackson Games had bit the bullet and released it as a stand-alone game, ideally in hardback and full color. (I believe a hardback full-color edition is in the works, albeit still not as a stand-alone game.) But then, that’s the kind of unrealistic, utopian thinking that Transhuman Space exists to pour cold ammonia-water on.

Cugel Be The One?

Cugel’s Compendium of Indispensable Advantages (72 page softbound b&w book, $15.95), by Aaron Allston, Robin Laws, and Phil Masters, is the newest sourcebook for Pelgrane Press’ supremely flavorful Dying Earth RPG. That sentence should be enough to convince even the most pinch-fisted among you to purchase it. However, for those who require further expostulation of virtues already made manifest, attend. The book’s first four chapters consist solely of clever and unkind means to gain a leg up on your fellow-players, by granting you additional abilities (“tweaks” to skills, most of which interestingly alter the complexion of your character’s abilities), cantraps, devices, and magical items. Throughout the book, kindly mentors endeavor to explain the finer points of confidence-games, no doubt to inform you of the kinds of vile schemes your fellow players will mount against you should they buy copies of the book while you hug your sixteen pathetic dollars to your sour, wizened bosom. The final chapter helps elucidate various strategies for negotiation, which so often convinces the mighty but stupid to aid, or at least refrain from ventilating, your character. Finally, a useful Random Costume Design system for those whose fashion sense requires randomization, an index, and a Cugel-level character sheet round out the volume. Ralph Horsley’s arch interior art, and Allen Varney’s trademark “rococo whisper” layout, jostle the plentiful Vancian quotations for the plum of transporting the reader into that wondrous future age where a dying sun only gives an enterprising adventurer more shadows to lurk in, awaiting the main chance. Step right up, and hold on to your over-fancy hat.

But, Prior To The Doom Of The Sun

In our immediate (well, two weeks hence) future lies a live convention report from SimCon XXIV in historic Rochester, New York, final resting place of Jack the Ripper. Into that report I shall also spiritedly (not to say spiritously) paint a picture of the GAMA Trade Show, the most important convention of the year for all serious game retailers, which therefore makes it the most important convention of the year for all serious game publishers. At some point after that, we shall have the hardy perennial State of the Gaming Industry column, and I have a line on a review copy of Mechanical Dream, the new buzz-laden industrial-fantasy RPG from SteamLogic Editions to slake our “new and different” jones. Hopefully, we’ll also have some more goodies from GAMA, and thus I shan’t have to fill the remaining word-count with clumsy plugs for my new third edition of GURPS Horror. I know how everyone involved would hate that. Master your relief, then, and click back in fourteen!

I want more!

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