OUT OF THE BOX
I’m back! He exclaimed, knowing full well there were readers who didn’t know he was ever gone, and other readers who had no idea he had been there in the first place. It is for you latter, gentle souls, that I provide this introductory moment.
Box Described, Outitude Explained
For those of you new to “Out of the Box,” perhaps a bit of head-shaking is going on. Who is this guy, you ask, and what is he talking about, and why should I listen? Good questions, all — bear with me, O querulous one, and all shall be made plain. I’m Kenneth Hite, and I’m currently a freelance roleplaying game writer and designer. I’ve been a professional RPG writer and editor full time for about a dozen years (after a couple of freelancing years) and I’ve played RPGs pretty much continuously since about 1979, to the occasional dismay and continued chagrin of my nearest and dearest. Ever since February of 1997, I’ve written this roleplaying news-and-reviews column, jauntily titled “Out of the Box” in blithe disregard for the fact that the vast majority of RPGs were never in boxes to begin with. And ever since about March of 2007, I haven’t written it. Until now.
Over the last decade-and-a-bit, then, I’ve written this column for a webzine, for another webzine that bought the first webzine, for a game store, and for yet another webzine that got bought by a different not-webzine. Now, after a decorous interval, I write it for IPR, which is to say, for a game store that is also a distributor, or vice versa. Over the years, I have given a lot of good reviews to a lot of games available from IPR. I have likewise given a lot of good reviews to games that IPR does not carry. I imagine both will continue to be the case. I almost never bother to write a review of a bad or even a mediocre game; although pixels are infinite, our time is not, and I’d rather spend it talking about good games.
In both reviews and commentary, I make every effort to foreground my biases so that should you, the reader, be of a rigorously epistemological bent, you can extract the Truth from my subjective viewpoint. Speaking of my biases, then — forward. I love roleplaying games, most of all horror RPGs, and most especially Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu, which I and all right-thinking folk consider the pinnacle of RPG design and execution. I prefer worlds to systems, and straightforward, elegant systems to clever, intricate ones. That said, I’m a sucker for a neat mechanic. I am currently not only in the pay of IPR (which is to say, of Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat Games, Galileo Games, and a different game store), but also of Pelgrane Press in its own right, when I can get around to it. I’ve also written for Pinnacle, Iron Crown, Mongoose, Green Ronin, Grey Ghost, White Wolf, Pagan, Atlas, and Arc Dream, and have collected regular paychecks from Steve Jackson Games, Decipher, Last Unicorn Games, Chaosium, and Wizards of the Coast. You shall have to determine for yourself whether these fine people have purchased my good opinion, or merely my good writing — but, of course, much of the reason I write for them in the first place is my good opinion of their games. And as one final fillip, I also write PDFs for Ronin Arts and Atomic Overmind, which PDFs are not available on IPR at this writing, but are sold by many (even 23) Other Binary Sites. So I’m in competition with myself here. Mull that over on your tintype, then, as we go forth.
Broadswords & Bell Curves
The potential for irony abounds in any discussion of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, the first installment of which Steve Jackson Games released around Christmas of last year as a PDF original supplement on their e-store e23. To begin with, there’s the irony that after thirty years, we’re three-quarters of the way back around to The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson’s first multi-book simplification of Dungeons & Dragons. In fine epicyclic fashion, though, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a multi-book simplification of GURPS for the purposes of playing games very much like Dungeons & Dragons. (Dungeons & Dragons, meanwhile, is moving around that same wheel, with the new edition a beautifully elegant, souped-up version of Blue-Book-era D&D “kick in the door and go” dungeon fantasy, likewise of thirty years ago.) But rather than reinvent GURPS for graph-paper delving, in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, GURPS Line Editor Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch presents, rather, a set of comprehensive “house rules” for a GURPS game with the same goals that Tom Moldvay had in 1980. Which, it bears repeating, are the same goals possessed by overwhelming proportion of the RPG player base – including me, one Sunday a month, given that I’m playing in a 4e campaign.
Having addressed Genre, we move from the Universal to the RPSpecifics: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy comes in four books (so far). GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers (31 pages, PDF, $7.95) is the basic “Player’s Handbook,” featuring GURPS templates for 11 “classes” (barbarian to wizard, although if you play a wizard, you’ll need GURPS Magic, too), a few rules fillips, and a bunch of delving gear in GURPS terms. Even the streamlined list of dungeon-focused skills holds 100-odd entries; the suggestion of further collapsing them into single-descriptor class skills (Over the Edge- or Risus-style) is welcome. (Had it been me, I might have tried doing the book with just the skills in GURPS Lite; as it is, players will still need access to the GURPS Basic Set.) GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons (31 pages, PDF, $7.95) is the real winner, a “Dungeon Master’s Guide” to quick decision-making and sound rules calls in GURPS for most anything you want to do in a dungeon. It doesn’t quite achieve the plug-n-play utility of the original DMG, but then the current DMG doesn’t quite achieve that either. It doubles as an abbreviated “Monster Manual,” with 19 monsters from the standard (dire wolf) to the weird (ambulatory mushroom-men). No dragons, though. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 3: The Next Level (44 pages, PDF, $7.95) adds templates for 37 races optimized (like the “classes”) for dungeon-bashing, and some excellently focused rules and guidelines for character advancement and experience awards. It also adds 20 pages of lenses for “multi-class” characters, which seems a bit much of a muchness, although we get templates for Evil Clerics and Anti-Paladins (or “Unholy Warriors”), so that’s pretty good. Finally, GURPS Fantasy 4: Sages (17 pages, PDF, 4.95) adds two classes: Artificer and Sage, plus yet more multi-class lenses, plus some excellent rules for tomes and books. Again, had it been me, I would probably have released a “Dungeon Bestiary” instead, but it’s good for what it is.
What it is, or rather what all four are, is also an interesting sign-post on the road. To begin with, it’s a high-profile electronic product from a company that was among the first to embrace the Net (an argument can be made that the Daily Illuminator is the world’s oldest blog) but that has done relatively little electronic publishing (compared to other companies) until recently (e23 only started in 2005). More specifically, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is an emulator, a filter to put over GURPS to get a specific feel, one most typical of another game. Given GURPS’ origins as a gladiatorial combat game – and the overwhelming popularity of that play mode — it’s odd that such a filter has taken so long. According to the e23 “What’s Hot” page, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers has sold 830 copies in a little over eight months: not bad for an e-book (it’s the third-best selling book ever at e23), but indicative of something: the way that assumptions about play style can shape marketing (“We don’t sell to people who play dungeon games”), the power (positive and negative) of branding (“GURPS isn’t for me and my dungeon game”), and hopefully, the erosion of such artificial distinctions in the more fluid world of the Web, where decisions to cross brand lines have a lower cost both on the publisher and consumer ends.
I got a demo of carry (76-page black-and-white digest, $15) from its designer, Nathan Paoletta, at a convention last year: Origins, I think. At the time, I thought this column was coming back sooner than it did, and I promised him a review, because the demo sold me on the game. It took awhile, but here it is.
In most RPGs, the dice constrain the story; in carry, perhaps appropriately for a game about futility and the Vietnam War, they do so more overtly than normal. The size of the dice you roll depends on your character’s Profile and the Approach he takes (an “Accuser” gets a d12 for Subversive actions and a d6 for Honorable ones; the “Brawler” would get a d8 and d10 for the same choices). Your Profile changes as you burn out; an Accuser can become a Brawler (“fight back”) or a Soldier (“man up”). The GM, also, has a dice pool, which she must expend; the combination of a GM budget and the Vietnam genre points toward very adversarial play. Players pass dice around to each other, driving the story with those actions, as the GM frames conflicts and the players set the stakes. As the action scenes mount up, even “successful” actions cost fallout: wounds and death for PC Grunts and NPC Fodder alike. Your dice pool includes a “Burden,” a die that represents your “major malfunction,” in the words of F. Lee Ermey. Your Burden stays the same, or gets bigger, but it’s the only die you can always roll. Even if you resolve your issue, you just get another one the same size. Eventually, everyone’s Burden is too big, all the Fodder are dead, and there’s nothing left but the final conflict in a last-scene endgame.
This isn’t Recon, in other words. It’s a tragedy of inevitable human failure set not even in the Vietnam War but in our hazy cultural recollections of it. I could see the same engine powering stories of the Civil War or, hell, the Trojan War. But in all cases, the engine drives the story, not the other way around. But it drives it directly, interestingly, and well from a base of recognizable, genuine human concerns. If that sounds like your kind of Approach, carry won’t be a Burden you can easily put down.
A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord
At the risk of giving away the surprise ending of this review, I have a new favorite World of Darkness game. I whined like a stuck pig about Hunter: the Reckoning back in 1999:
It’s not about badass Green Beret gunslingers puttin’ down the dead and smokin’ cheroots, despite the promotional art. Which is a shame. I wanted it to be; I like humans, even Dirty-Harry-humans, Navy-SEAL-humans, Batman-humans maybe, but humans nonetheless who kick monster butt. … Personal prejudice; I am, after all, a human.
Maybe a young Chuck Wendig read those words nine years ago, and said “When I become the Hunter developer, I’m going to give Ken Hite the game he wants.” Well, along with Justin Achilli, Richard Thomas, and a dozen writers, he did. The badass Green Beret gunslingers are on pages 147-149 of Hunter: the Vigil (372-page two-color hardback, $34.99). And their awesome ghost-killing “Etheric Rounds” lead off 8 more pages of the monster-killing arsenal available to Task Force VALKYRIE, the U.S. government’s interagency monster squad. (There’s even a shout-out for Very Old-School Hunters: Hunted fans — Project TWILIGHT is a VALKYRIE sub-agency.) That monster-killing arsenal is one sort of Endowment that your high-end hunters get as a benefit of membership in a high-end hunting conspiracy. Each conspiracy gets a different sort of Endowment; my least favorite is the devil-spawn conspiracy with demon powers, but I have to say I love the weird syncretic Egyptian guys who drink poison Elixirs almost as much as I love the multinational European medical conglomerate that vivisects monsters for biotech Endowments. Plus a magical relic-hunter conspiracy, and of course the Catholic Church, which gets its Endowment mojo from Upstairs. All of which sets up a nice Nietzschean abyss-staring type vibe.
But if you don’t want even that much inhumanity on the scale, you can just drop down a level and play a member of a “Compact,” which has nothing but human ingenuity and cussedness going for it: from the Wobblies’ Supernatural of “the Union,” to the Tory-toff John Constantines of “Ashwood Abbey,” there’s a great spread here, too. Or just play a gang of hunters with no friends but their shotguns at “cell level.” The game world is modular; any piece can come out or get slotted in sideways. Mechanically, there are superb uses of the Status Merit, a glorious tie between Willpower and Morality, a sweet “R&D” system to get new Endowments, a surprisingly comprehensive “build your own monster” section in the back, and best of all, Tactics rotes for player teams to smash up monsters big-time. It all hits the sweet spot nicely: humans are still horrifyingly fragile unless they hit hard and hit together.
More mundanely, the cyan-tone color scheme is quite effective, although none of the art really jumped out at me; the editing has a few gaffes (including, ironically, a missing Editor credit); the main text hits the high Fortean note of the core World of Darkness book better than the Antagonists chapter does, although that chapter has to carry a lot as it is. And there’s no map of Philadelphia in the provided city setting, which in the world of Google Maps is probably no great crisis. The big picture, though, builds exactly the sort of multivalent-modular setting/game that White Wolf does better than anyone when they do it right. And Hunter: the Vigil does it so very, very right.
By which I mean that the clever and humanistic game writer under discussion today isn’t Bruce (“Adventure!”) Baugh, but Benjamin (“not Bruce”) Baugh. What’s next? Jensen Achilli? Mike Forbeck? Dare I hint it, Kevin Hite? Is nothing sacred? And as if to further jangle my over-tired nerves, Benjamin Baugh’s Monsters and Other Childish Things (182-page black-and-white hardback, $29.99) from Arc Dream Publishing seems to believe that what Veronica Mars needed most was a crossover with Stanley And His Monster. Seriously. This is a game about youthful trauma (high school, middle school, or grade school) in which the youths have horrible monster companions who eat people. If you buy the premise – which I’m still not sure I do – the bit is terrific. The game runs on Greg Stolze’s One Roll Engine, as seen in Wild Talents, Reign, and NEMESIS, and when I say “runs,” I mean “runs.” There are ORE rules for making up monsters and story conflicts, along with the rules for putting dice into (and taking them out of) Relationships, dealing (and dealing with) Shocks or Scars (physical or emotional), and lots of monster abilities. If you like ORE, you’ll love this. There is simultaneously more and less GM material than I’d look for if I were running: there’s a ton of NPCs (child, monster, adult, and Other) that are either iconic or clichéd depending on your perspective, and a pretty good intro adventure, and two of the three other campaigns on offer provide strange variations on the theme. But the book doesn’t ever just come out and explain how to decide, most importantly, if your campaign setting should have secret monsters or public monsters. Calvin and Hobbes is a different story from Pokémon; Monsters seems to want to split the difference, and I still don’t know how.
Baugh goes out of his way to provide me some answers, though, in Curriculum of Conspiracy (55-page black-and-white softcover, $9.99) and Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor (160-page black-and-white softcover, $24.99). The first is a perfectly sound “evil high school” setting that all fans of Buffy will recognize and love. It could use some more NPC students (but the ones from the corebook will do to get started), and it still tries to split the difference a bit, but the rest of the setting is supernatural enough that the thematic hiccups level out. (It forbids monsters on campus, which also helps.) Where Curriculum is good, however, Candlewick is magnificent. The monsters here are internal; the PCs (“Pathetic Children”) have Creepy Skills that leave them shunned and hated. Perhaps that’s why they’re orphans. Perhaps that’s why they’re at the Candlewick Orphanarium. The players don’t know; with Echoes instead of Relationships, the orphans remember their own pasts in play. The theme, mood, and rules of this setting hit all the targets head-on. By adding the surreal Lemony Snicket sensibility and dialing down the monsters, Baugh reaches an ideal sweet spot of campaign design. And the rules – such rules! We get a jaw-dropping set of mystery rules for battling the mystery as though it were a big, amorphous monster – and better yet, for writing it collaboratively in play! Too weird for you? Well, the “normal” mystery creation system is also quite nice (reminiscent of the town creation subsystem from Dogs in the Vineyard) and involves plenty of One-Rolls to rule the story neatly. The setting material is sheerly wonderful, borne along by Baugh’s pitch-perfect tone. The writing in all three books is pretty great, verging on brilliant with only the occasional sidestep to too-clever. Robert Mansperger’s art is only a touch less good than that, and it’s nestled in Daniel Solis’ predictably great page designs in Candlewick and the Monsters corebook. Those two books are worth getting for Candlewick alone, if you have any interest in playing a game of country-house mystery, boarding-school strangeness, even small-town skullduggery.
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight
In the Afterword to his masterwork Hot War (202 digest-sized pages, black-and-white softcover, $28), designer Malcolm Craig says that the game is “centred around things that fascinate me.” I could embroider that on a sampler and put it on my wall; I would go so far as to say that any game designer had damn well better find something that fascinates her if she’s going to go through all the mishigoss of writing a game. Not just to keep her plugging away at it, but to sell it to the readers: fascination is contagious. But un-fascination is freaking viral – if you aren’t interested in your game world, or elves, or combat rules, the readers can tell, and they won’t bother to be players. Or to keep reading. Malcolm Craig, on the evidence of this game, is fascinated with monstrosity, betrayal, dystopia, underground structures, and politics. (But I repeat myself, he laughed hollowly.) And you the reader will be, too.
The British, from Wells to Wyndham, have a genius for dystopia; with Hot War, Malcolm Craig stakes his claim to that noble tradition. Presenting a semi-sequel to his previous game of monster-hunter infighting in postwar Berlin, Cold City, Craig lays out the world of Hot War in a very few bold strokes. (Paul Bourne’s illustrations — mostly propaganda posters and photos of monstrous “test subjects” – provide perfect atmospheric assistance in this project.) The Cuban Missile Crisis became World War III. All sides used “twisted technology” stolen from the Nazis: building and summoning monsters. The War has wrecked Britain, and civilization (as far as the PCs know) is pretty much restricted to London and the Home Counties, and pretty much disintegrating. You are part of a secret inter-agency task force ordered to hunt down Soviet monsters leftover from the invasion, and anything else the Government needs hunted. Your true agenda depends on which agency you really work for: The jealous Royal Navy? An experimental monster-research lab? The increasingly desperate Americans? Your true agenda will also differ from your orders, perhaps fatally. Conflicts are dice pool battles; you get more dice by pulling in those secret agendas, your relationships, and anything else you want to risk. (There’s a beautiful negative-feedback system by which you can sabotage your own secret agenda by using it in doomed battles.) The winner of the conflict narrates how he won and assigns any fallout, the characters change, and the game propels itself punchily on. It strikes me as a perfect game for shorter campaigns of six to thirteen sessions; about the length of a British TV season. It strikes me as a nigh-perfect marriage of rules engine with game feel. It strikes me as fascinating.
Pick Any Four Colors, As Long As They’re Gray
One of the hardest wires to walk in RPG writing is designing a “genre setting.” Pure genre books (GURPS Horror, Fantasy Hero) are relatively easy; pure setting books (Ptolus, Delta Green) somewhat harder. But hardest of all are setting books intended to enforce a specific genre, be it four-color comics, Gothic horror, or post-holocaust robot-fighting. Sometimes (Champions, Ravenloft, GURPS Reign of Steel), it works. Sometimes (as in Forgotten Realms, the World of Darkness), you create a setting that accidentally creates a whole sub-genre on its own. But often, you fall between the chairs; the setting is incomplete, and the genre is imperfectly modeled. We ran into this problem at Last Unicorn with the Star Trek games: Our vision was that the Original Series books would cover swashbuckling adventure, the DS9 books would cover grim espionage-military stories, and the TNG books would give us scientifictional sense-of-wonder adventures. The end result got about two-thirds of the way there.
With the original Freedom City setting in Mutants & Masterminds, Steve Kenson built a respectable four-color universe. With Paragons (255-page full-color hardback, $39.95), Kenson and 13 other writers attempt the harder task of modeling the “superheroes in a ‘realistic’ world” subgenre. Often, this subgenre becomes another genre with superheroes: Heroes is family soap opera, The Authority is agitprop, Godlike is war story. Kenson’s approach is to offer all of those as possibilities; to create a book of options, a smorgasbord rather than a fixed menu. As with any smorgasbord, you’ll love some things, and like others rather less. The trouble, of course, is that if you pick all the options on offer – from geopolitics to postmodern fairy tales to extreme sports – you wind up back in a four-color universe again, but without the nobility and mythic resonance. Thus, to use the book “correctly” requires ignoring about 85% of it, which may seem wasteful to thrifty gamers. That said, some or all of the material on offer would work pretty well in a four-color campaign, especially a “muted” four-color world like Checkmate or the Ultimates. Another possibility would be using Paragons for a series of short three- or four-session mini-campaigns, each in a different “real world with superheroes” variant. This, actually, could be a lot of fun, and the book offers ten such “series frameworks” to support you, one of which (“The Imaginauts”) could serve as the over-arching frame story for just such a serial reality exploration meta-campaign. In the final analysis, Paragons isn’t a genre setting book, or a subgenre setting book; it’s a subgenre setting cookbook, complete with ingredients. Bring your own fire.
Go Ahead, London: Dragonmeet 2008 Con Report
Perhaps the top story from Dragonmeet 2008, which blossomed like the proverbial agave Saturday, is that its charity auction raised over £2850. From a convention with around 600 attendees. Admittedly, some of them were Irish, but that’s still a jaw-dropping amount. Happily, I found out about it in time to contribute an item or two, but all honor goes to con organizer Angus Abranson and to the attendees for their uncommon generosity.
Said attendees played a fairly dramatic swath of games — from giant Settlers of Catan toMonsters And Other Childish Things to Traveller – in the one-day event, which took place in an anonymous-looking British Moderne sort of public building in Kensington. They also swarmed the dealer’s room, keeping everyone hopping all day. I barely got to tour the hall myself, but I did note the revived edition of Oliver Johnson and Dave Morris’ much-beloved 1980s classic Dragon Warriors, published by James Wallis’ new Magnum Opus Press under Mongoose’s Flaming Cobra imprint. Which also, I should add, recently published the expanded and revised version of James’ own impossibly wonderfulExtraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen RPG. In other British gaming news inexplicably not connected with James Wallis, Cubicle 7 was there with the new edition of Tuckey, Rhymer, & Nunn’s Victoriana, and the Collective Endeavour indie flash-mob detonated with a bang at the show, featuring a who’s who of top British indie game talent, from Joe “Contenders” Prince to Gregor “3:16” Hutton. I picked up one or two nice review copies from them, the Britishest of which is probably Neil Gow’s “Sharpe’s RPG,” Duty and Honour. Watch this space, in other words.
I attended Dragonmeet as a special guest, along with my Trail of Cthulhu co-conspirator Robin Laws and other luminaries such as John Wick and James “Him Again” Wallis. Our panels were flatteringly well attended, and suitably redacted recordings of them may turn up on the Web in near future. When we weren’t pontificating panelists, Robin and I were aw-shucks autographers at the Pelgrane Press stand; our Trail of Cthulhu scenario bookShadows Over Filmland (a dozen scenarios riffing on the great horror films of the 1930s) dropped at the show in a Special Preview Edition. And with that oh-so un-British plug gratuitously inserted, I bid you farewell from Britain. For now.
And So, Having Escaped the Pit
At GenCon in 1998, James Wallis released an RPG, or perhaps a storytelling game, calledThe Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He graciously gifted me a copy, and I read it in about 20 minutes, as it was very short, and I spent the next three days bullyragging everyone I saw into buying it, as it was very good. Although it got me quite a nice dinner (the first of many, as it happened) from James Wallis at the time, it has caused me no end of inconvenience at later GenCons, because the number of games I can read in 20 minutes is pretty minimal, and the number of such games I subsequently demand that everybody buy on pain of being ejected from the company of civilized people everywhere even moreso. Despite this, thanks to the home-run I hit back in 1998, people at GenCon still insist on asking me what the must-read game of the show is.
Well, next year, at least, I can and shall say it is the new, expanded edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (128-page, black-and-white, digest-sized softcover, $19.95; PDF $10.95), from James’ Magnum Opus Press, published by Mongoose’s Flaming Cobra imprint. For those who don’t know the Baron’s game from its previous incarnation, it is a game of competitive storytelling. In response to a request (“Tell us, my dear Baron, how you came to right the Leaning Tower of Pisa”), you tell an extraordinary tale of your exploits; other players pay to interrupt, or you pay to continue uninterrupted. Lies are settled by duelling. The winner (the teller, by acclamation, of the best story) pays for the next round of drinks, and play continues until closing time. The new edition contains, in addition, two variants: “Es-Sindibad’s Game,” which alters the interruption and story-requesting methods with an intriguing waft of Arabian Nights style (story requests are now collaborative, and the once-verboten “But were you not killed?” is, in this version, the only allowable interruption) and “My Uncle the Baron,” a version of the game for the younger set.
Like the original, it is illustrated by Gustave Dore, who obviously has a bright future (or past) ahead of him as an illustrator. Also like the original, it is magnificently funny, brilliantly clever, and a mandatory purchase on pain of ejection from the company of civilized people everywhere.
Choose Your Own Tragedy
I got a copy of Kevin Allen, Jr.’s Sweet Agatha (envelope containing one 32-page full-color digest book and one 11×17 instruction sheet, $16) at GenCon, but I had to wait awhile to review it. I wanted to play it with my wife, who is as devoted to true crime and tragic drama as she is uninterested in roleplaying games. So it took awhile to convince her that this was something she wanted to do. The day after Christmas, she gave in. Now she wants to play it again.
“Play” isn’t quite the word, but neither is “read” or “build” or even “tell,” which is probably closest of the four. Many indie RPGs are not sandbox games — go anywhere, tell any story — but quest games — go there, tell that story. At their extremes — Bacchanal, Polaris, Jeepform — they depart from the RPG as she is understood and become something kindred but unlike: “co-op narratives,” or “directed storytelling,” or “scripted improv.” The designer has become the director; the play’s the thing, and the players merely strut and fret. Sweet Agatha is one of those, except the designer has no script, no narrative, and no direction. It’s a sandbox game disguised as a quest — Agatha has disappeared. Thirty pages of evocative, strange, elliptical photographs and notes and codes and pieces of her life are there for you. As you read them, you cut out “Clues,” which are no such thing. They are narrative Lego blocks, and there is no blueprint, only a color scheme. One player — “The Truth” — picks three blocks for each of nine or ten scenes. The other — “The Reader” — decides what to make of them, and where to go next, for ten scenes until the end. It’s an exquisite corpse, and indeed, Agatha may well be just that. Or she may be a ghost, or a UFO abductee, or a flake, or a drug dealer, or a time traveler, or a spy, or a murderer, or a Gnostic deity, or a nice girl who got lost. What Kevin provides is all flavor and feel; you decide the direction and the payoff. (There’s a brilliant meta-conceit planted in the booklet to give you some directions from Kevin — or Agatha, or God — if you feel the need.) While I was playing, I realized this game has amazing replay potential, getting richer as you play it more. (There’s 67 Clues provided; at most, any one game will only use 30.) As you recognize fragments of past tellings, you assign unwarranted meaning to them, as if you could re-watch Twin Peaks for the first time. This is all down to Kevin’s uncanny ability to exactly hit the notes of half-memory, half-insight, to paint the canvas without revealing the picture.
Every so often, someone wishes that gaming still had a shared universe, that all gamers could still trade stories about our own private Keep on the Borderlands. It would be no bad thing if all gamers knew where — or if — they found sweet Agatha, at last.
Dry Bones Gonna Rise Up
Consider this the most comprehensive playtest review in history. I’ve probably logged more hours playing one or another form of Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing engine — the core of Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Nephilim, Stormbringer, Superworld, and Ringworld, to mention only the games that I’ve played with it — than every other RPG system combined. Including, I should add, using it as a “generic” engine for games from wild multiversal action to steampunk to Westerns to space opera to, well, occult horror investigation. I’ve also, for what it’s worth, written plenty of rules for it professionally, mostly for Nephilim and for Mongoose’s latest iteration of RuneQuest.
So I was glad to see that Sam Johnson and Jason Durall did a pretty darn good job of creating a core book for the game I’ve been running, off and on, for the last 25 or so years.Basic RolePlaying: The Chaosium Roleplaying System (399 pages, black-and-white softcover, $39.95) takes all those Chaosium core books and filters them down into one generic RPG system. Surely everyone knows by now how BRP works: human character stats go from 3-18 (the new book offers point-builds as well as random rolls), skills go from 0% to 100% (the new book has rules for skills over 100% now), you roll percentile dice under your skill, and bang. Armor subtracts from damage, and you can get as crazy as you want with hit locations, but it’s still basically “d100 and a cloud of dust” with characters that are almost always gratifyingly fragile in combat. That, and the robust skills engine (this book’s skill list is a macedoine of Chaosium’s greatest hits), let the game explore other sorts of scenes besides fights. Magic? Depends — this book has superpowers, mutations, magic (a laRQ), sorcery (a la Stormbringer or CoC), or psionics (a la ElfQuest). Pick and choose, or mix and match. Gear, likewise; monsters, again likewise, taken from other Chaosium games and generified. Most of the specific Chaosium games have specialized mechanics and rules; most of them are somewhere in here, usually as optional rules. (The best? The passions mechanic from Pendragon. Use it.) But the core is the same game we’ve all been playing since 1978, when Steve Perrin looked in his white box and said “I’ll bet I could design better rules than this.”
In my experience, BRP remains excellently suited for any game in which combat is dangerous and something important reliably happens outside combat. It breaks down for demigods, but it breaks cleanly — there’s not enough rules to become cumbrous. BRP is also excellently suited for the modular attachment of any other, non-Chaosium game mechanics that you happen to like: at one time or another, I’ve added Ars Magica magic,GURPS advantages and disadvantages, and the old Marvel SuperHeroes superpowers (I’m not a fan of percentile superpowers) to BRP with less trouble than it took to type this sentence. (Not for the same game, I hasten to add. Although…) In short, it’s the cleanest, simplest, easiest generic system around. This is not to berate baroque (GURPS), complex (HERO), challenging (FUDGE) generic systems — but it’s nice to have a really good loaf of white bread, too.
And now it’s in one book, not 20.
San Ramon Holiday: DunDraCon Con Report 2009
Every year at this time, I flee Chicago in February for the sun and safety of the Bay Area, which responds by dumping nine inches of rain on me all weekend. Fortunately, I spend much of that weekend indoors at DunDraCon, one of the oldest continuing roleplaying game conventions in existence. And it is continuing; attendance was right at 1400, a little bit down from last year, unsurprising given the current economic degringolade.
And it is a roleplaying game convention; at DunDraCon, the RPG is king and all others must follow in its train. (That said, boardgaming boomed this weekend as it seems to be doing all over.) Anchored by the booth of Oakland’s amazing Endgame store (part-owners of IPR and thus proud sponsors of this very column), the dealer’s room still draws a few manufacturers: local boy Chaosium, former local Hero Games, plus Goodman Games, Troll Lord, and Flying Buffalo. Robin Laws’ Mutant City Blues RPG (short form: CSI: Gotham City) debuted here and sold out immediately, as it well deserved to (and since it is published by Pelgrane Press, likewise an IPR-owning company, that is all you will hear of it in these pixels despite its wonderful premise, deft rules, and gorgeous layout); the other standout debut at the show was probably Urban Fantasy Hero by the redoubtable Steve “Writes” Long.
The truly great thing about DunDraCon, even more than the intermittent sunlight and the commendable RPG focus, is its dedicated seminar track. The con reliably packs a room for discussions of such things as alignment, real-life weapon wound trauma, and city design, all for the purposes of bettering your RPG experience — it’s far more like an SF convention than a game con in that respect. Those conventions, and DDC, prove that a market for such discussions can be built; the reason that a game convention might want to turn its attendees into interested, intelligent consumers of their hobby can be left as an exercise for the reader. Or perhaps as the topic for a seminar somewhere.
Back in Blackmoor
This column occasionally takes a little heat for being head over heels in love with the hippie elves of the “indie gaming community,” to which charge this columnist pleads emphatically guilty. But a year after Gary Gygax’ final leveling up, it’s time to look back at the original indie gaming community, which is to say at modern-day players of the original indie game:Dungeons & Dragons, B.C. (Before Corporatism). Forget 4e vs. 3.5 vs. Pathfinder — in the “old school” community, AD&D is still just a little bit too slick and citified for some folks.
I’ll have more to say on the storied rivalries — and eerie similarities — between indie elves and old-school dwarves in later columns, but I figured I should start out with an introduction to the whole concept. And who better to introduce me, and through me you good people, to it than James Maliszewski? James has written a lot of gaming material, of which I might select the Gear Krieg RPG as one of my personal favorites, but is perhaps best known now for his retro imperial-SF game Thousand Suns and — the reason he’s here now — his tetchy, diamantine, opinionated, finely-researched, downright amazing blogGrognardia. From that pulpit, he’s become, if not the Pope of Old School, certainly itsWilliam Phillips, and he’s been generous enough to answer us some questions.
Kenneth Hite: Give us just a taste of your gaming history — where did you come from, and why did you ever leave the white box behind?
James Maliszewski: Truth be told, I never picked up the White Box [Colloquial term for the original three 1974 D&D rules books. — KH] until many years after I’d already started playing D&D. I started gaming in late 1979, with the D&D Basic rules edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes, which I used in conjunction with the AD&D Monster Manual I ordered from the Sears catalog with money my grandmother gave me for Christmas.
KH: I started gaming a few months before that, with exactly the same books.
JM: The Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide followed soon thereafter andAD&D, along with Traveller, were my two great loves gaming-wise until the late 80s, by which time both AD&D, then in its second edition, and Traveller, mired in an ill-conceived metaplot, lost their appeal for me.
I dabbled in a lot of games throughout the 90s, but none of them really caught fire with me. When Wizards of the Coast published 3e in 2000, I was ripe to return to my gaming home and plunged headlong into multiple years-long campaigns and even did some writing in support of the game. Fun as it all was, I nevertheless found 3e a bit too “heavy” for me after a while and was looking for something a bit more like the games I played in my wasted youth. Once it became clear that Fourth Edition was not going to be that game, I first gravitated toward Castles & Crusades and then to OD&D. [“Original” Dungeons & Dragons — Although definitions vary, essentially D&D as it existed between 1974 and 1976. –KH]I’d owned a copy of the White Box for years, but I never had a chance to delve deeply into it, let alone play it, so I set out to do both. I haven’t looked back.
KH: Give us a sense of the old-school field — what should newcomers to it know, do, and read?
JM: “Old school” is a broad and slippery term, especially when you’re dealing with a hobby whose enthusiasts come from many backgrounds and even generations. As colloquially understood, old-school games are generally those produced between 1974 to 1984 or thereabouts. [And modern games intended to emulate those games’ rules and feel, which we’ll get to below. — KH] There are some outliers and anomalies here and there, but that decade pretty well encompasses the vast majority of the games considered “old school.”
Games of this vintage are notable primarily for two things. First, their rules, even the very complex ones, are much more explicitly meant as guidelines — aids to the referee and players in adjudicating in-game situations rather than the final word on any topic. Second, old-school games place a larger burden on the player, as opposed to the character, when it comes to overcoming in-game challenges.
There’s always been a community of gamers who prefer these old games and their approach to the hobby, but it’s only been in the last few years that they’ve started to organize and get in contact with one another in a significant way. That’s why there’s suddenly all these forums and websites and blogs dedicated to them popping up all over the place nowadays.
If someone were interested in learning more about these games, I’d recommend they drop by forums like Dragonsfoot, Knights & Knaves Alehouse, or Original D&D Discussion, among many others and interact with the people there. Old-schoolers have a well-deserved reputation for being a prickly, opinionated bunch, but we’re also happy to answer sincere questions from gamers looking to learn more about our mysterious ways. I’d also recommend reading Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, which is a free PDF that talks at some length about these topics.
KH: Why old-school gaming now, for you and for others? What specifically makes this kind of fun your kind of fun?
JM: There are lots of reasons. In my own case, as I said, I was tired of the overly complex, deracinated game that D&D had become in its later editions. I wanted a game that was more “primal” and in touch with the early days of the hobby, as well as more consonant with the pulp fantasy literature that inspired it in the first place. So, naturally, I gravitated back toOD&D. My story seems to be one shared by a lot of old-school fans, so there must be something in the air. And of course there are lots of gamers who never stopped playing the older games. These are the guys and gals who were already out there, waiting for us Johnny-come-latelies to join them.
For me, the appeal of these games lies in their open-endedness. They’re very free-wheeling, almost improvisational in nature, and pretty much demand that you engage them actively in order to be able to make heads or tails of them. There’s nothing passive about playing OD&D, because the rules, as presented in those three little brown books, are unclear and indeed incomplete in places. But there’s magic in those lacunae and it’s exactly this that makes it all so enjoyable for me and others.
KH: What’s your sense of the size of the “old-school” community? Is that different in scale from the size of the old-school market?
JM: I honestly have no idea of the size of the community. The Original D&D Discussionforums, where I hang out, have about 400 members, of which maybe a quarter are very active. Dragonsfoot, on the other hand, has about four times as many members. My old-school blog, Grognardia, gets about 1100 unique visitors daily, but many of those people aren’t old-schoolers as such, but gamers who find my idiosyncratic scribblings amusing enough to stop by. So, I’d say that the community is larger than one might expect, given that most of these games are long out of print, but still pretty small compared to, say, the number of people who play the latest edition of D&D. The market for old-school products is probably smaller still, since old-school games encourage a do-it-yourself ethos that many of its players really take to heart.
KH: What’s your personal favorite of the emulator systems — and does it beat its rivals on any metric besides sincere imitation?
JM: My personal favorite is Swords & Wizardry, which is an OD&D emulator. What it does best, I think, is nicely capture the succinctness of the original game — the rulebook is only 74 pages long. It’s also more like a “tool box” than any of the other retro-clone games, since, like the game on which it’s based, each referee needs to make judgment calls about how some aspects of its rules will be interpreted in his or her own campaign.
KH: What do the others accomplish nonetheless?
Labyrinth Lord is a pitch-perfect emulation of the Moldvay/Cook/Marsh rules from 1981 — those 64-page rulebooks with the groovy Erol Otus art. [The Basic and Expert sets. — KH]Those books were many gamers’ first encounters with D&D and LL is for them. OSRIC [OldSchool Reference & Index Compilation! How Gygaxian is that?! — KH] is my beloved AD&Dreborn, so if that’s what you’re after, it’s the game for you.
KH: Is there an “old-school” designer (original or retro) whose work you’ll buy sight unseen? How about a modernist designer?
JM: I think Matt Finch comes the closest to being the guy whose work never fails to inspire me, though I could say the same of James Mishler and Rob Conley. Over the last couple of years, I’ve fallen out of touch with contemporary game design, so I don’t think there are any modern designers whose work I’d buy sight unseen. I think very highly of writers like Erik Mona, James Jacobs, and Jason Bulmahn.
KH: What can the old-school movement learn from the various modernist schools — from the D20 creativity boom, from Heinsoo and Mearls’ 4e, from the various indie movements, from Exalted — or from the supplement-driven “bronze-age” line design methods of GURPS, HERO, and the World of Darkness? What can it teach them?
JM: I think the one area where modern games beat the tar out of old-school games is presentation. Most modern games are much better organized; they’re written with an eye toward intelligibility and clarity. That’s a huge improvement over, say, OD&D, the precise interpretation of some of whose passages is still debated today. Of course, that improvement can sometimes come at a price. Modern games are often a lot more focused on rules as the final arbiter of in-game actions, which can lead to a more “mechanical” play style that I find less enjoyable. I also think modern game design is too focused on selling gamers more products to the exclusion of all else. There’s a certain sense in which the old-school movement is an implicit rejection of the very consumerist model of game design we see nowadays.
KH: James, what purpose did you think Grognardia would serve when you started out? What purpose do you think it serves now?
JM: I originally started the blog on a whim, as part of my grappling with the fact that Gary Gygax had died less than a month earlier. His death hit my unexpectedly hard; I felt like I’d lost a close relative, even though I’d never met the man in person and the extent of my connection to him was primarily through the occasional exchange of emails as I was having my Damascus moment about old-school gaming.
I had hoped that I might be able to “talk out loud” on a variety of topics and that I might get a dozen or so likeminded people with whom to share my thoughts. I ended up with a lot more than that, much to my surprise. Grognardia seems to have become a gateway for a lot of people who decide to poke around the old-school community and see what we’re all about. For good or for ill, many people see the blog as the “face” of the old-school movement, which is at once flattering and exasperating. My main virtue is that I’m very prolific and can turn a good phrase now and again, but my perspective is my own and it’s a highly idiosyncratic one in many cases. One of the joys of the old-school community is that it’s highly individualistic and no one of us, no matter how articulate we may be, speaks for us all. So, I see Grognardia as simply one voice among many, albeit a loud and opinionated one.
KH: You wrote a bunch of D20 Modern stuff back in bubble times, and your current work with Thousand Suns more reinvents Traveller than D&D; do you plan to publish any major opus in the old-school fantasy field?
JM: I do, in fact. My partner in crime at Rogue Games, Richard Iorio, and I are hard at work on a RPG called Shadow, Sword & Spell. It’s our take on the “humanistic fantasy” of the 1930s through 1960s — Howard, Leiber, Fox, Vance, Pratt, De Camp, and so on. LikeThousand Suns, it’s intended as a “tool box” game, so that each referee can use it to create his own vision of the swords-and-sorcery genre. The full game is scheduled for a Fall release, but a playable preview should be available at GenCon this August.
KH: Thanks so much for chatting (tapping?) with me, James.
JM: You’re quite welcome!
And there you have it — we’ll look at some of the more idiosyncratic and interesting of the old-school releases in future columns. But one of the more idiosyncratic and interesting features of the old-school movement is how many of the games are available as free PDF downloads, so go explore the surrounding hexes and find those treasures for yourself!
Dave Arneson, RIP
Dave Arneson invented this column.
Dave Arneson invented the reason you read this column.
Dave Arneson invented the reason the website that hosts this column exists.
Dave Arneson invented “armor class.” He invented “hit points.” He invented the “cleric.” He invented the “dungeon.” He invented “so, last week you cleaned out the dungeon, and now you’ve heard about another, even scarier dungeon, over the ridge there.” He invented “everyone plays one guy, and I play all the monsters.”
Dave Arneson co-invented Dungeons & Dragons.
Dave Arneson invented role-playing games.
On a personal note, he was a friendly, generous person who genuinely liked games and gamers; seeing him at a convention, or a store appearance, was always a delight — for me, for the fans, and (as far as I could tell) for him. I had the good fortune to talk to him a lot at various shows; he was a demigod adept at playing a mere tenth-level game designer, or first-level fan, but he also liked hanging out and talking about the Civil War, or his students, or what was going on in my life.
I first met him at GenCon 1997, right after Wizards took over TSR. He was sitting alone, near the Wizards booth, wearing a badge but otherwise inconspicuous. Certainly, there should have been throngs of worshipers bestrewing his lap with rose petals, or a shaft of light from the Fifth Heaven, or an honor guard of bugbears, or something. But I got to shake his hand and thank him for inventing my spare time, and my career.
And now he has leveled up.
Vegas Nerves: GAMA Trade Show Con Report 2009
According to the Game Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA to its friends), which surely ought to know, attendance at the GAMA Trade Show was down 20% from last year. It seemed lower than that — perhaps 150 or fewer store accounts. Admittedly, they were the Pareto-optimal stores; any publisher here was talking to the best-run (only a good store will go to GTS without a free HeroClix Galactus as bait) and best-capitalized (only a store with a deep cash reserve can afford to send buyer staff to Las Vegas for three days) of their potential customers. Even in its 20% (or 30%) lower configuration, this may have been a gathering of 80% (or 90%) of hobby-chain sales.
Sadly, they had many fewer publishers in Vegas to sell them things — publisher attendance was more drastically down than usual. Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo Publishing, AEG, and Avalanche Press were only four of the big names missing from the show floor; White Wolf appeared only in the guise of its distributor, Wizards of the Coast brought its Book Expo cottage rather than its normal imperial palace, and Games Workshop had, if recollection serves me, a single banner and a card table. Your humble correspondent was the only representative of IPR at the show, which led to any number of amusing misapprehensions from retailers.
Was it merely the effect of the Current Economic Unpleasantness (Global Edition) or a new round of the Recurrent Economic Unpleasantness (Hobby Games Edition)? Hard to say — there were some new publishers there in fine fettle, such as boardgame supernovaBucephalus Games (23 games in 11 months!) and Bastion Studio, which had the first bubblings of what may well be the New Heat, namely Exillis, a skirmish miniatures game played with neat winged monster minis, an elegant map board — and an iPhone. Yes, the iPhone becomes your ruler, your rule-book, your dice, and your minis inventory all in one. While this specific game — fantasy monsters battling it out in medieval Europe — may not be the Next Big Thing, something very much like it very much will be. And only 150 retailers, at most, got to see it.
Your humble correspondent will be reporting next from medieval Europe — specifically from the Salon du Jeu de Société, aka GenCon France — next weekend. And then, from the Dark Ages known as the State of the Gaming Industry.
Is Paris Gaming? Salon du Jeu de Société 2009 Con Report
Toward the end of April, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the Salon du Jeu de Société in Montreuil, on the eastern lip of Paris. (Only its URL indicated its connection with GenCon France.) I attended through the benevolence of the French RPG publisher 7eme Circle, who translated and published my game Trail of Cthulhu in French, as Cthulhu. (My fellow guest was Jérôme Huguenin, that game’s startlingly gifted illustrator — he also illustrated 7eme Cercle’s new hotness, Kuro Tensei, which looks all apocalyptic and J-horrific.) I speak essentially no French, save that which accretes after a year of grade-school instruction, a decade of French horror films, and a lifelong fondness for good food. So of course I did two interviews there.
So what was the convention like? It was mostly a boardgame show held in one giant dealer’s hall. (I was informed there is a more RPG-focused convention in September. My calendar is open …) Asmodee, the main sponsor, used to publish RPGs but now mostly produces boardgames — plus ca change. Gaming happened primarily at company demo booths, but there were a dozen or so RPG tables set up in one section under the benevolent gaze ofGrog. French gamers (based on my random sampling from the thousand or so attendees) are pretty much just like American gamers, although they smoke more — the only barrier was linguistic. The ‘satiably curious can see photos of the festivities at the Sci-Fi Universe site, or watch a riveting video shot at the event.
French games, from what I could tell within my Anglophone box, are primarily concerned with world and feel (consider Nephilim, In Nomine, and Qin, to name three French games with English-language versions), which may be part of the reason why they are (as a rule) far prettier than American ones. Given the relative sizes of the Anglophone and Francophone RPG markets, I haven’t the faintest idea how French publishers (very much including mine) support such gorgeous art and production quality. France also has an “indie” scene, if Johan Scipion’s Sombre is any guide — a stripped-down horror game with a number of similarly minimalist sub-games in planning or complete, among them Cthulhu DDR (“No Nazis, No Stasis” says designer Thierry Salaün).
I shan’t mention every game I saw there, but I will single out the upcoming 7eme Cercle game Devastra, which takes the long overdue step of “game-ifying” the legendary history of India, and Jean-Philippe Jaworski’s extraordinarily recondite game Te Deum pour un Massacre, a game about noble machinations surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, and the French Wars of Religion generally. (It has five supplements, I think.) Both are extraordinarily beautiful. Both assume a level of comfort with history and pseudo-history that American games mostly don’t.
Which leads me as if by predetermined column outline to the book Jouer avec l’Histoire, orPlaying Games With History, which debuted at the show. Edited by Olivier Caïra and Jérôme Larré, this anthology presents essays by game designers and critics discussing the intersection of RPGs with history. Ranging from designer’s notes to “does making Nazis into orcs trivialize the Holocaust?” the book is probably years ahead of the state of the art in English-language RPG criticism. I say “probably,” because it’s not impossible to imaginesomeone putting together a similarly thoughtful, wide-ranging anthology for American games. (An arguable exception is Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan’s “… Person” series from MITPress, but that takes a primarily narratological approach.) Caïra is a leading ludological scholar in France, having published a broad sociological study of RPGs, Jeux de Role, with the prestigious CNRS (the equivalent of the National Science Foundation in the U.S.). He is also very generous with his champagne, which has no bearing on my appreciation of his scholarship.
Which, as I may have pointed out, I can’t actually read. But the typography is very nice.
Which is French gaming in a nutshell. Next, the State of American Gaming, such as it is, and such as I can suss it out.
I Thought There Would Be News Of The Catastrophe
There is! My post-apocalyptic Savage Worlds setting, The Day After Ragnarok, is available from Atomic Overmind! Thanks so much for asking! Oh, you meant the State of the Industry report? Sadly, I had to delay assembling that so I could complete a new project. You might have heard of it: The Day After Ragnarok. In all seriousness, I plan to get to the State of the Industry between Origins and GenCon, which is to say, between the two major barometers of the State of the Hobby.
Burning Down the Mouse
Luke Crane’s Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game (full-color 8″x8″ hardback, 320 pages, $34.95) is a work of staggering genius. Actually, it’s the work of two staggering geniuses, as it’s based on (and has lots and lots and lots of lush art from) David Petersen’sMouse Guard comic. (Of course it’s gorgeous to boot: it’s by Luke, based on a gorgeous comic, and published by Archaia Studios.) Said comic pits talking, metal-working, valiant mice against the predators and dangers of … well, of everything larger than a mouse. Which is everything. Said roleplaying game pits the GM against the player characters, the titular guardmice: This is not a game of hand-holding and collaboration, any more than Nature is. Each bout of play starts with the GM’s Turn, in which active, harsh confrontation is the order of the day: the book urges the GM to “beat the crap” out of the guardmice. Test their Beliefs, prey upon their Instincts, force hard choices, and throw obstacles in their way. During the Players’ Turn, after all that stress, the players spend checks to pursue their guardmice’s goals or relationships, re-equip themselves, and get some individual spotlight time.
The game uses a focused, robust version of Crane’s excellent Burning Wheel engine, streamlined for quicker play and more brightly-colored characters. It keeps BW‘s scripted combat, which can encompass everything from a desperate fight with talking weasels to a debate about how to ration grain during a hard winter. There is a particularly nice balance between a mouse’s Nature (you know, skittering around finding grain) and his Persona (his store of experience), and another poised on your Traits (from Longtail to Open-Minded): use them favorably and get extra dice; use them to trip yourself up and get more checks during the Players’ Turn.
The game is admirably complete in one book. It’s structured very much as “the only book you’ll ever need,” not just to play Mouse Guard, but for any roleplaying game, leading the reader from an introduction of the RPG concept, through a summary of the comic background, through setting up a Mouse Guard mission, and only at the very end creating a character. It’s gamebook as storybook, driving game as story, while keeping the fierce adversarial edge that makes such fun from old-school D&D to Agon. This edge suits the story: bravery when the whole world is against you. (Special kudos for recognizing that “the whole world” definitely includes the weather; the natural world is foregrounded amazingly well in art, rules, and flavor throughout. I would use this game to play in Middle-Earth, it’s so good at this.) The result is an optimistic, bold, metal-working game that talks clearly and knows what it wants — just like the Mouse Guard itself.
Nibbled To Death By Mice: Origins 2009 Con Report
This weekend is Independence Day, which used to be the weekend I’d spend in Columbus, Ohio, at the Origins Game Fair. But this year, it was last weekend, if that makes anything clearer.
There are two big stories out of Origins this year: First, my game Trail of Cthulhu was beaten for the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game by Luke Crane’s Mouse Guard RPG. Second, so was Dungeons & Dragons 4e. Now, I play 4e (when my DM can manage to schedule a game for a quorum of us) and enjoy it very much, and I absolutely believe observers like Joseph “Goodman Games” Goodman who say that 4e is showing strength not only in the mass market (its new corebooks reliably make, for instance, the Wall Street Journal best-seller lists) but in the hobby channel. But for it to lose Best RPG to a (brilliant, beautiful) game about talking mice is not business as usual.
Possible explanations include, in no particular order: 1) Since every attendee at Origins could vote for any award, the card-floppers and lead-pushers and chit-flippers voted against D&D for the same reason that I (had I not lost my ballot between bars) would probably have voted against Magic: Version Whatever for Best CCG: sheer cussedness. That said, Magic won for Best CCG this year, so obviously that explanation only goes so far. 2) Same set-up as #1, but the voters were seduced by a beautiful cover full of cute li’l mice. Seems shallow, although there are (Origins-Award-winning) publishers who claim to believe it. Of their own products, even. 3) My columns are amazingly powerful, and my love forMouse Guard (strategically unveiled right before Origins) hoist me (and 4e) with my own petard. Let’s just say that the science on this question is not settled. 4) Mouse Guard had huge buzz, because it’s an awesome game with a better network of mavens and connectors in today’s wired con-attendee community. Possible, but — beating D&D? Really? 5) It was just the best game up for the award, so of course it won. This has the advantage of being true, but not of explaining very many other Origins Awards.
Really, the best possible news out of this contretemps is that there were three nominees (two were withdrawn after the nomination process as ineligible) that all could be said to deserve the Origins Award that year, and that I and Wizards of the Coast just got caught in a perfect storm of design excellence.
Don’t worry about me too much, though: I did win an Origins Award, for Best Non-Fiction Product, for Tour de Lovecraft: the Tales. Other, non Hite-related results can be seen here: Wizards wound up winning three all around, and my minis friends were generally pretty stoked about the quality of those awards, too. The “deck building as game” card gameDominion won the Spiel des Jahres and the Origins Award, so that’s hard to argue;Pandemic was an SdJ nominee, and won for Best Boardgame. In short, a really good run for the Origins Awards.
Not such a great run for the Origins convention: it was smaller and bereft of some major players in the dealer’s hall: Wizards, White Wolf, Paizo, Games Workshop, AEG, Green Ronin, and Fantasy Flight all skipped the show (though Wizards and, I believe, Paizo, ran some events), which can’t be where the organizers wanted to be even in these times of global economic brouhaha. It’s still considerably bigger than a regional con, and the game rooms were still pretty full, so there’s a foundation to build on — but there’s some load-bearing beams that could use a look-see first, methinks. That said, the new GAMA Executive Director has run a juvenile detention system and a Gulf War POW camp, which is pretty much the minimum requirement for running a game convention as I understand it.
So what was at the show that was any good? The games, of course. For my money, the single best new game at the show was Darren Watts and Jason Walters’ Lucha Libre Hero, which is even better than it sounds. Other standouts were Mike Fiegel and Jerry Grayson’s Hellas (literally a “space Odyssey”), Z-Man’s remake of Eric Goldberg’s “choose your own adventure boardgame” Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Gareth Hanrahan’sHammer’s Slammers mod for Traveller. So there was good games to be bought, and even more good gaming to be had, at Origins on Not Independence Day.
Just stay away from the mice.
How I Voted In the ENnie Awards
For reasons not unrelated to massive deadlines and/or Chicago’s uncharacteristically perfect summer weather, we never really got around to an Origins Awards breakdown in this space. But although the weather remains perfect, I’ve carved out enough deadline time to break down the ENnie Awards nominations. Voting closes at midnight on August 1, so if you’re reading this before then, go vote!
As I used to do with the Origins Awards, I’m not discussing categories I don’t know anything about, as amusing as the contrary might be. (I’ve only seen the Monster Manual,for instance, so I can’t judge the Monster or Adversary category properly. Which is a shame, because I love that category.) I’m also not going to deal with the Fan Award For Best Publisher, as it’s a silly award. (Quick, what’s your favorite movie studio?)
Best Cover Art
I’m going with Paul Bourne’s magnificent cover for 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, which almost alone among the nominees conveys a sense of action instead of “standing around portentously.” The arguable exception is the swell dragon-rider on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, but spaceships beats dragons, and 3:16 beats FR.
Best Interior Art
In a walk, for Mouse Guard. David Petersen illustrates in the great tradition of fairy tale art with a splash of Audubon. The other nominees all convey their own style and feel, to be sure — Petersen just does it better.
Don’t Lose Your Mind is not Benjamin Baugh’s best work, and while Hot War has an excellent spare harshness to it, the great thing about Malcolm Craig’s game isn’t his prose.KQ and Hunter Horror Recognition Guide are mulligatawnies; some is wonderful, some isn’t. The noble Baron Munchausen, however, is by turns florid, clear, amusing, ironic, arch, and riotous — one imagines that editor James Wallis didn’t have to touch a syllable of it. My third easy vote in a row, for The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen RPG, Suppressed 1808 Edition.
Best Production Values
Again, Mouse Guard, although HELLAS gives it a run for its money.
This is the first hard choice I’ve faced so far this ballot. As games, I probably prefer Hunterand Starblazer Adventures, but D&D 4e is the ruleset that arguably is pushing the boundaries of the form more than either of the other two. An exceptions-based RPG, tuned for astonishingly fast and fun monster-whacking, with GM prep time calved down to a bare minimum. Despite a broken (but ambitious) skill challenge system and a wonky item economy (both call-backs to old-school D&D?), the core of the game — kick open the door and kill it — is better than ever. (Neither Song of Ice & Fire nor Dark Heresy particularly blew me away, although they’re both good games.) That said, if I wasn’t going to get a chance to vote for both Hunter and Starblazer Adventures farther down the ballot, I might hesitate even longer. But this one I’m giving to Mike Mearls, Rob Heinsoo, and their party.
This is another killer. Chad Underkoffler’s Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies is a fantastic Maxfield Parrish fun-scape, carefully crafted to hold your own internal Errol Flynn. Malcolm Craig’s Hot War is pure Wyndham-Wells, with just enough Nigel Kneale to keep my antennae aquiver throughout. Benjamin Baugh’s The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor is sheer Gorey genius, with extra-lemony Snicket to bring up the flavor. At least I only have to pick from three: Slipstream is grand Flash Gordon serial fun, but S7S beats it on that metric; Pathfinder is great for what it is, but my tolerance for Big Ole Fantasy Worlds isn’t what it once was. I could easily pick any of those first three, but I’m going with Baugh on a mordant whim.
I mentioned above (and elsewhere in this space) how much I like Hunter: the Vigil. I especially like that it’s technically a supplement, so I can vote for it here with no regrets.
Best Electronic Product
This column is published and paid for by IPR, which is partially owned by Fred Hicks, head of One Bad Egg. So I can’t tell you what I voted for in this category.
Or in this one.
Stay with me here. Remember all those nice things I said upstairs about the excellent rules in Dungeons & Dragons 4e? And remember what I said about how I’d actually rather runStarblazer Adventures? And then when I deprecated Big Ole Fantasy Worlds? Can you see where I’m going with this? Starblazer Adventures, which is definitely getting a fuller review in this space, takes the FATE engine and blends it with British space-opera comics for a complete-in-one-book package of adventure with a truly engaging flavor. Or should that be “flavour”? Anyhow, I’m voting for Chris Burch and Stuart Newman’s fantastic feat;Starblazer Adventures it is.
Product of the Year
Again, the other worthy contenders (S7S, Hunter, D&D 4e, Starblazer Adventures) notwithstanding, the clear winner on all levels — story, theme, rules, world, art, production, game — is Mouse Guard. Hey, it beat my game for the Origins Award — it must be the best!
Clash City Rockets
The most important thing to know about Chris Birch and Stuart Newman’s game Starblazer Adventures (629-page black-and-white hardback, $49.95) from Cubicle 7 is that it has nothing to do with Star Blazers, the Englished version of some anime or other. No, “The Rock and Roll Space Opera Game” is based on a 1980s British comic book series calledStarblazer. This was an anthology comic book series set all across (various different futures of) the Galaxy and all across millennia, barely connected by occasional series characters or conceits — in short, exactly how an RPG setting should be: sketchy, large, and packed with familiar tropes, plentiful blank space, and contradictions. If you don’t know anything about the comic book series, don’t worry — it’s pretty much the exact same “default comic outer space” assumed by every Silver Age DC comic: there are domed cities, and space dogfights, and aliens, and post-apocalypses, and sentient computers, and robots, and space dreadnaughts, and silvery jumpsuits galore. With just a soupcon of wonders like the “Fi-Sci” (short for “Fighting Scientists”) and the Moonstealers to give it some zing, which you can ignore or replace or change, because most of the writers of the original comic did. I like to think of it as a setting based on a random six-foot section of my SF bookshelf, or rather of my SF bookshelf in 1979. Plus, there’s a lot of setting stuff given stats (or just name-checked) if you’re lost, and whole tranches of adventure generation, planet generation, and “campaign starters” in the back.
The other important thing you need to know about Starblazer Adventures is that it uses the FATE engine, as seen in Spirit of the Century, and does at least as good a job laying out the “FATE Space” ruleset as SotC did the “FATE Pulp” ruleset. It introduces some new fillips: Scale (for starships and doomsday machines and sentient moons and …) and organizational rules (for star empires and secret brotherhoods of space monks and Fighting Scientists) between them give you a mechanical (and therefore story) hold on anything from a dogfight to mass combat between twin planets’ armadas. “Plot stress” is a magnificent innovation, applying “hit points” to story elements — when your space station suffers too much drama, the reactor melts down! Last, Starblazer Adventures takes SotC‘s story-driven character creation to the next level for collaborative story-driven campaign creation! It’s only two pages, but it opens up, well, worlds!
Topped off with a super index, and lovingly blanketed with original Starblazer comics art (which is so iconic as to cause nostalgic fits even in people who never read the originalStarblazer comics), this is one monstrously usable, magnificently story-starting game book. You could easily port it to Star Wars, the Kree-Skrull War, old-school Star Trek, or any game of fightin’ robots, fightin’ spaceships … or, of course, Fightin’ Scientists!
Hoosier Daddy? GenCon 2009 Indianapolis Con Report
I got back from GenCon two weeks ago, and I still haven’t read everything I got, or digested everything I heard, or placed everything I saw, there. It’s not just that it’s too big for one columnist — I realized that some time ago — even the part of it that’s small enough for one columnist to cover is getting too big: there were more stories, more developments in RPG design and marketing, and more great games at this show than I could take in. So I’ve spent some of the last two weeks following up on GenCon news that I didn’t quite get my head around at the show.
But the most important piece of GenCon news is just this — there was a GenCon! With GenCon LLC (the company that owns and runs the show) in bankruptcy last year, a lot of folks wondered if there would be a show at all. Then a hostile buyout surfaced, and we wondered who would run the show, if show there was to be run. But GenCon LLC shot those rapids and bobbed to the surface, unsinkable and back in business in time for the show. And business was — well, not necessarily booming, but way better than anyone would have hoped to predict in these times of economic foofaraw. Attendance was almost 28,000, not very much less (2 or 3 percent down) than last year. Some of that might be the economy, and some of it might just be the difference between Big Yu-Gi-Oh Year and Normal Yu-Gi-Oh Year. The dealers almost all reported great sales and good crowds; the games I heard about were packed; the streets of Indianapolis held even more fat guys than usual. And it wasn’t business as usual for GenCon, either — they unrolled a new registration system and a GenCon app for the iPhone. Both had their bugs and flaws (the registration system kept gamers lined up for two hours in some cases), but both are symptomatic not of a desperate, play-it-safe GenCon barely out of the weeds, but of a GenCon intending to grow and evolve into the next decade and beyond. This is a good sign beyond the telling of it.
Three For Flinching
The continued existence of GenCon established, there are three perhaps bigger stories yet that broached at the show, at least as relates to the craft and future of RPG design. Firstly, Catalyst Game Labs took the bold step of releasing their new transhuman SF-horror game Eclipse Phase under the Creative Commons license (non-commercial, share-alike). This means not only can you download it for free (from, say, here), you can also chop out stuff you don’t like, put in your own house rules or weird setting variants (Eclipse Phase: 10,000 B.C. as the fall of the ancient astronauts! Eclipse Phase with biological hive-mind vampires! Eclipse Phase with the OGL Traveller engine!) and post it on your own website (for free, of course) without getting a nasty email. While The Shadow of Yesterday did Creative Commons first, and the CC non-commercial restriction is less open than the OGL, Catalyst is still the first major RPG company to allow gamers to mashup and remix their intellectual property as well as their rules. (Which I should point out are also available at DriveThruRPG for $15, if “free” is too little for you to pay.) This would seem to be one way to connect with one’s fans — from a position of trust and fun. Almost like an RPG.
And along those same lines comes another course in “How To Build An RPG, 21st Century Version,” as Paizo’s years-long gamble with Pathfinder has paid off massively well. For those who weren’t paying attention, Paizo’s developers announced their “D&D 3.5, Only Better” RPG back in March of 2008 and opened up the whole alpha version of the Pathfinderruleset for free download. 25,000 people did so. Last GenCon, the results of 25,000 pieces of persnickety feedback (sight unseen, I would estimate that 24,500 of them at one point or other mentioned attacks of opportunity) and six months of backbreaking work by Jason Bulmahn and others became the beta version of Pathfinder — which Paizo sold out of in nine hours, despite giving the whole thing away again for free, simultaneously, in PDF form. For another six to eight months, Paizo ran a ginormous Web-based playtest of the beta version on their forums, which finally resulted in the actual 576-page RPG Pathfinder — which sold out its entire print run in pre-orders. In a week. And I am reliably informed that said print run would have been very respectable even last century, which means it was epochal for this one. At the show, the Paizo booth was slammed; lines around the booth eight times like a proverbial Midgard Conga Line of gamers. Pathfinder was the unmistakable Hot Buzz Thing of the show. “If you offer to let them help build it, they will come.” The kicker? The Pathfinder PDF is $10. D&D is building a brand. Pathfinder is building a religion.
The third big thing surfacing at the show was the word of a Third Edition for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, visible under glass at the Fantasy Flight Games booth. (Booths. Boothoplex. FFG had something like five or eight booths — which is to say, almost enough room to set up a game of Arkham Horror with all the expansions.) This edition promises specialized dice (like Descent or Memoir ’44), heroic power cards (like D&D 4e inexplicably didn’t come with), a “plot stress” mechanic straight outta FATE, “character stance” mechanics straight outta the Indie Narrativist Playbook, and other attempts to build a 21st century RPG like a boardgame — which is to say, with interesting physical components and a larger sense of kinesthetic play. I can’t speak to the actual rules, although I suspect we’re in for the edition war to end all edition wars when the $100 boxed set drops (with an echoing crash, if it’s like most FFG boxes) this fall.
Also in the future (2010), Wizards of the Coast plans to revamp the Dark Sun setting for 4e. So that will be fun.
The Future Scares Me! What About Two Weeks Ago?
All that excitement aside, GenCon also saw more normal RPGs appear to more normal sorts of reactions. White Wolf introduced Geist: The Sin-Eaters, Hero Games sold loads of CDs of the Hero 6th Edition rules (the actual books being trapped behind the Bamboo Curtain), and Crafty Games debuted FantasyCraft, which does for fantasy about two-thirds of whatSpyCraft did for modern adventure, but give it time. Mongoose repped Earthdawn 3e; Margaret Weis Productions had hard copies of a Supernatural RPG almost as pretty as Dean Winchester his own self; Studio 2 had the long-awaited (and simply glorious) upgrade ofWeird War II into a Savage Worlds setting book.
There was Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor redressed for 4e, GURPS Vorkosigan (a POD of the PDF, but nice enough looking), Mysteries of the Hollow Earth (for Hollow Earth Expedition), and Rogue Trader (for the WH40K RPG). Arc Dream flooded the zone with three new Wild Talents campaign setting books: the weird-Victorian Kerberos Club by Benjamin Baugh, This Favored Land (basically GODLIKE in the Civil War), and Grim War (a taut contemporary setting featuring mutants and mages by Greg Stolze and, ahem, Kenneth Hite). Alderac dropped its delightful Compendium of GM Tables, the Ultimate Toolbox, while Green Ronin did fine with Mecha & Manga and Warriors & Warlocks and True20 Freeport: The Lost Ampersand. Rogue Games had Colonial Gothic Revised andFoundation Transmissions (a bunch of fine meta-setting stuff) for Thousand Suns. Pelgrane Press (an owner of IPR, and thus a sponsor of this column) had adventure compilations for Mutant City Blues (Hard Helix), Esoterrorists (The Esoterror Fact Book), and Trail of Cthulhu (Arkham Detective Tales), as well as a new book of magic rules forTrail of Cthulhu (Rough Magicks, by, ahem, Kenneth Hite again).
I might as well finish this section by mentioning that Atomic Overmind and Hero Games both had my new Hero 6e version of The Day After Ragnarok (the first supplement forHero 6e, I’ll note smugly here), and Atomic Overmind and Adventure Retail both had my new introductory goof Cthulhu 101, and that Adventure Retail had my new children’s book from Atlas Games, The Antarctic Express. Honest, that’s all the plugs. I think.
ENnie, Meet Indy. And Indie. And Diana.
You will all no doubt be gratified to know that I picked precisely one Gold ENnie: Best Rules for D&D 4e. In nothing else did I and the ENnie judges see eye to eye, although worthy winners emerged in the silver categories (Mouse Guard for Interior Art, Production Values, and Product of the Year; Don’t Lose Your Mind for Writing; Swashbucklers of the 7 Skiesfor Setting) and for all I know in the categories I didn’t know enough to vote in. My podcaster buddies seemed very happy to see All Games Considered win Best Podcast, for example, and the D&D 4e Monster Manual is certainly a deserving candidate for Best Monster or Adversary Book for all that I didn’t know any of its competitors. WotC was the big winner (six golds, three silvers), but Paizo (four golds, two silvers) and FFG (two golds, one silver) kept it respectable.
The Indie RPG Awards were announced by ninjas at night in a snowstorm, apparently, as nobody could find anything about them at the show. But they have appeared online, and I can gladly endorse the voters’ choices for Indie Game of the Year (Mouse Guard), Supplement of the Year (Don’t Lose Your Mind), and Most Innovative (Sweet Agatha), among others. Sweet Agatha didn’t quite get the Diana Jones Award this year, which was announced by Matt Forbeck in a loud, happy bar full of free drinks. (That alone is why this is the best award in gaming.) That signal honor went to the very worthy card game Dominion, although all the nominees were powerfully strong this year: D&D 4e, the Jeepform movement, and Mouse Guard were also also-rans.
How Was GenCon Like Columbus? You Had To Go Looking For The Indies
Rather than one big happy “Indie Alley,” the various indie designers spread all across the waist of the dealer’s hall. There was the Forge, featuring Ron Edwards’ new full-on version of Trollbabe and a beta of his new game S/Lay W/Me (which I believe may be the single finest Northwest Smith RPG imaginable), along with Tony Pace and Nathan Leeson’s Venus 2141 and Tony Dowler’s new ashcan of Renaissance cinematic philosophy-fightin’, Principia. Emily Care Boss’ first-contact SF RPG Sign In Stranger headed up the “Pirate Jenny” booth of female game designers, also featuring Julia Bond Ellingboe’s wonderful Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife, Danielle Lewon’s Kagematsu, and Kat & Michael Miller’s Serial Homicide Unit. Luke Crane had a new supplement for Burning Empires(Bloodstained Stars) and Jared Sorensen had his first Parsley “parser-emulator” game,Action Castle (“get to the point. i see no point.”), in Luke’s booth. Or that’s where he was when I saw him. In their own booth, the Design Matters krewe had Gregor Hutton’s ashcan of AD 316 (3:16 in Roman times), Epidiah Ravachol’s Time & Temp, Joe McDonald’s road-movie RPG Ribbon Drive, and Nathan Paoletta’s new-to-me vampire game Annalise. And the IPR booth boasted Jeremy Keller’s medieval RPG Chronica Feudalis, Bill White’s Inuit-ish wonderment Gangakagok, and Paul Tevis’ exercise in wild amnesiac chargen-as-narrativism, A Penny For My Thoughts.
And Those Thoughts Are …
I haven’t even mentioned the wedding I attended, but I don’t think any RPGs debuted there. I can’t swear to the White Wolf party. And just like GenCon itself, we end with a party, and we’re out of time.
If you still haven’t had enough of me on GenCon, though, you can listen to my two appearances on Ryan Macklin’s podcast This Just In … From GenCon! — the Saturday 11 a.m. episode, and the Monday 1 a.m. wrap-up. Enjoy!
Marqued For Death
For those of you who love space mercenaries, there’s more to game with, if not necessarily more to love. Genevieve Cogman’s wryly loving GURPS Vorkosigan Saga (238-page full-color hardback, $35; $30 as PDF) covers the ructions of Lois McMaster Bujold’s size-challenged and galaxy-challenging aristocrat, Miles Vorkosigan, in fine form. About 100 pages are pure source material: canon NPCs, races, planets, tech, and so forth. Another 44 pages are a retuned version of GURPS Lite — like Miles himself, short but startlingly effective — making the game complete in one book. Add 48 more pages of spaceships (with plenty of worked examples) and a dedicated space combat system, and you’re left with only about 30 pages to answer the killer question all RPGs, especially licensed RPGs, face: “What do I do with this?” If you already know the answer — if you’re a fanatical wanna-Bujoldian with stories aching to be told — this book will backstop you admirably. If not, there’s not much in the way of hand-holding to get you there. One can argue that between Bujold’s epic novel series on one hand, and GURPS‘ epic pile of sourcebooks and campaign frames on the other, you shouldn’t have any shortage of raw material. But I’d say you might still want some guidance refining it.
A similar criticism could obtain in Gareth Hanrahan’s straight-shooting Travelleradaptation of David Drake’s mercenary-fic Hammer’s Slammers (206-page full-color hardback, $40; $28 PDF) from Mongoose. It, too, devotes 150-odd pages to its source material, with Trav stats for AFVs, planets, and NPC mercenaries from Drake’s books. (And it has its own setting-specific combat sub-system, this one for tank battles.) And again, this is pretty much de rigeur, and indeed downright essential, in a licensed property, and doubly so in an F/SF property where the basic assumptions have to be literally spelled out in game-mechanical terms. Like Cogman, Hanrahan knows his material cold, but presents it piping hot. But Hanrahan is able to use Traveller‘s old-school “random encounter table” feel to get much closer to “what do I do now?” in a packed 15-page “Conflict” chapter. You get, essentially, the Not-Quite-Random War Table – which is, Drake would doubtless say, true to life. Unlike life, and like a good RPG, Hanrahan provides plenty of explanatory support with these tables: the consequences of “no orbital support” are spelled out both in rules and table modifiers, and in suitably grim prose. Add in an excellent “grunt’s eye view” diary-style treatment of a campaign (RPG or mercenary?), a sample war, and an introductory scenario, and you’re on your way to slamming with and for tools of all descriptions.
The “I already know what I want” GM will perhaps find this all too much of a muchness, but I have come around to thinking that the original Dungeon Master’s Guide knew what it was doing with all those random tables and lists. “You can tell mercenary stories of duty and honor in conflict” is all well and good, but Col. Hammer might add that to his list of pieties that’s trumped by laser-firing tanks, and by tables telling you how many of them are just over the ridge. Hanrahan doesn’t quite get that far: his admirably complete mission breakdown is a checklist, not a table (random or otherwise) — and it’s only a page long. (Followed by four pages of examples.) Something like it would have greatly stiffened the spine of GURPS Vorkosigan, while allowing the novelistic impulses of freer-form GMs plenty of room.
Not Just Another Bug Hunt
What can I say about Gregor Hutton’s space-war masterpiece 3:16 : Carnage Among the Stars (96-page black-and-white softcover, 8.5″ x 5.5″, $20) that hasn’t already been said by its adoring fan community? Robin Laws, for example, says it “out-Verhoevens Verhoeven,” which is if anything an understatement, given that 3:16 is actually fun and playable, as compared to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers clanker. What Hutton’s game does do is present a superb piece of battle-ready game design, a brilliant evocation of genre, as much satire as you want to chew on, and a fine lesson in minimalism, all at once.
Character creation is simplicity itself: you have two stats (Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability), which drive your Rank, which sets your basic loadout. Given that 3:16 is a game of interplanetary amphibious infantry warfare (there’s that Starship Troopers reference), the speed of chargen comes in handy when you have to build replacements. Because it’s brutal, tactical, and not a little bit cynical all at once (there’s that genre evocation), your characters may die through no fault of their own, through their own stupid fault, or thanks to their officers’ incompetence. You feel it when they do, though; each character has Strengths and Weaknesses revealed in flashbacks, aimed to reduce the GM’s threat pool for each planetary invasion. (Note how all of this is tying together.) That’s right; as in Agon, the GM has a “pain budget,” and if the troopers of the 3:16th can dish out more pain than they absorb, they win!
A clever, old-school style planet generation system helps the GM build worlds, vicious aliens, and missions in a hurry, varying the rules just enough to keep everything tactically interesting, but never slowing down the game or hampering the players. The characters are plenty hampered, but if they can just rack up more kills than the next squaddie, they’ll get promoted … just in time for the next mission. The rules hit a perfect sweet spot, where there are just enough tactical options to keep everyone guessing and surprised (happily or not), but not enough to drown players in options or soak up game time. (And lots and lots of play examples cut the learning curve down still farther.) Extended play can aim toward satire, as the 3:16th uses ever more comically vast weaponry on their missions of pre-emptive genocide, or simply provide a soap-operatic extension of adrenaline and exploding aliens.
This simplicity and speed make 3:16 an ideal “not everyone can show up tonight” game, while the themes and mechanics allow a surprising amount of meat and depth to come off the bone. It can be as dark, or as simple, as you’d like to make it — and if you want to play out Starship Troopers (either version), you can do it as fast and fatal as the M.I. themselves.
¿Qué Es Un Libro Género Perfecto?
Well, I’ll tell you. A perfect genre book should be comprehensive; nobody who loves that genre should feel slighted by it. (This makes loose or enormous genres, like steampunk or fantasy, nearly impossible to do perfectly. Fortunately, they can still be done very wellindeed, say by Bill Stoddard.) A perfect genre book should also be welcoming; nobody who doesn’t know that genre should feel mystified. (Ideally, even an utter genre newbie should have an idea for the game she’d like to play after reading it.) Both of these conditions argue for a certain narrowness of view: you may not be able to make any kind of usable genre book out of “road stories,” but Midnight Roads made a pretty good one out of “modern American haunted road stories.” But a useful genre book has to offer more than one story; ideally, the whole narrative cosmos should unfold out of its genre treatment like a fractal flower. And finally, the perfect genre book should be for a game system ideally suited to telling its sort of stories. A genre centered on long, dramatic, wild and wonderful fights should have rules for them.
Also, there should be awesome monsters.
All these considerations are on display in Lucha Libre HERO (263 black-and-white pages, $29.99), which is comprehensively compiled by two maniacal lucha fans, Darren Watts and Jason Walters, and seductively astonishing to an almost-complete lucha ignoramus (me). Mexico’s masked wrestling films (now you know) are part detective story, part horror, part martial arts adventure, part social commentary, part SF, and part smacking Aztec mummies around. Like a good Puebla mole, it is the blending of these disparate, even psychotronic, ingredients that makes the dish sublime. Not merely mad doctors and Aztec mummies, but Ape People, Blonde Martians, and lady vampires festoon this book, along with patented wrestling moves like “Freightliner,” “Extended Fight Scene,” and “No! Not My Laboratory!” Plus a history of Mexican wrestling, a full filmography, and a guide to Backlot Mexico City. And midgets. All lovingly (even slaveringly) detailed for HERO 5th Edition — a completely playable version of which, tuned for the squared circle, is included in the back. If ever there was a game system designed for brutal, knock-down, drag-out fights driving narrative turns and clinches, it’s HERO. (And but me no buts about HERO 6th Edition. If you’re able to play HERO, you’re able to swap the stats in this book out if you want.) In short, genre perfection, slam-bang fights, and Aztec mummies. All in One Book. Todos En Libro Uno.