The Heat Is On

OUT OF THE BOX
2001-07-26

And not just in that soul-killing inversion-layer sense washing over the nation, making even well-respected gaming columnists seem punchy and disorganized to their nearest and dearest. I also refer to the sense of heat, development, new stuff, piling onto us all as we swing into the home stretch of Summer Gaming Season 2001. I’ve just dug myself out of the Origins Review Annex, and now here comes GenCon, whistling down the tracks as if asthmatically rushing to get to an open Shadowrun slot on time. So if I pack a little more gristle, and a little less fat, into this week’s column than normal, forgive me. It’s just the heat.

Know, O Prince, That The Soul Still Burns

There are any number of ways to approach White Wolf’s new fantasy RPG Exalted (351 page hardback, $29.95), but I’ll begin with the world. Although it breaks very little new ground at White Wolf, Exalted tries very, very hard to break new ground in mass-market fantasy RPGs. At every turn, one can sense developer Geoff Grabowski tearing out fugitive Tolkienisms and un-Middling the Earth as best he could. The attempt is to create a wuxia (or anime) Xothique, and if you just went “Wha?” then Grabowski has you where he wants you, at the door to his world with a sense of curiosity, if not wonder. The world is ornate, almost Orientalist, with that quasi-decadent feeling that Clark Ashton Smith and Gene Wolfe do so well; mingled with computer-game kung fu mechanics to replicate figures out of heroic myth. It’s a tribute to Grabowski’s aesthetics that it mostly works. (Some of the prose breaks the mood rather unforgivably; if you’re trying to evoke the heliotrope lotus perfumes of Gondwanaland, you should never use the term “psychological profile,” for example.) The world has lots of chunky prefigurations of the World of Darkness (to which it is an impossibly remote ancestor) and recapitulations of the heroic age of chaos and fallen empires. Fun, in short, for everyone.

The game itself, however, is a yet more hybrid beast. It uses the basic Trinity revised version of the Storyteller engine (7 is success, bashing damage and botches are fixed, etc.), which is all to the good. It has some really swift fu-type mechanics called Charms, which sprout willy-nilly from your skills in a tree mechanic very similar to fu shticks in Robin Laws’ Feng Shui. There’s a nod to playing normals, and almost enough information to play the official “bad guys”, the corruptly decadent Dragon-Blooded, as PCs. Said Dragon-Blooded run the corrupt, decadent Realm at the center of the world (keen stuff with the geography, by the way — traveling in a compass direction eventually brings you onto an Elemental Plane) and mercilessly hunt your characters, the Solar Exalted. (The Sidereal Exalted are neatly weaselly collaborator types, and the Lunar Exalted are well on their way to becoming Garou.) In addition to the mandatory persecution complex, your epic heroes of legend have clans, I mean castes, that are almost painfully reminiscent of D&D classes — a rare, and blinding, break in design tone. Also tonally discordant, the art ranges from the traditional (and again wonderful) Guy Davis mordant linework to a whole raft of anime-looking stuff complete with kidney-shaped mouths and floppy hair. Still, if playing “Neon Genesis Hawkmoon” sounds like your cup of decadent lotus tea, then Exalted will lift you up in the Terrifying Apparition of Glory.

Children Of A Lesser Gawd

If Exalted is the work of a designer cutting everything away that looks like Dungeons & Dragons, then Jolly Blackburn, Dave Kenzer, Brian Jelke, and Steve Johansson’s HackMaster Player’s Handbook (398 page paperback, complete with twelve “HackMaster Coupons”, $29.95) is the opposite; taking everything that looks like D&D 1st Edition and ratcheting it up to eleven with two totally bogus re-rolls on the Abusive Player Sub-Table. It’s written in and out of “voice” as (I suppose) Jo Jo Zeke, the co-designer of the fictional “HackMaster” game from Kenzer & Company’s Knights of the Dinner Table comic book. The tone, intriguingly, is purposefully patronizing, condescending, and withal bizarrely upbeat; for fans of the comic, it’s like Bob and Brian collaborated on it. The line art is much more like early RPG art done well than it is like either the comic or modern RPG art. I’m still not sure if this is a Good Thing or not.

And it really, really is D&D, albeit with the KenzerCo trademark silliness (Gnome Titan and Pixy Fairy character races; Skipping Betty Fireball spells) throughout. Although a lot of it is goofy, it’s not an over-the-top parody like Hol or even Paranoia — you would just have to be completely irony-deficient to play it straight. It’s so reminiscent of the old D&D Player’s Handbook, in fact, that you can’t actually play HackMaster with it — there’s no “to hit” table. (I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that the one from your old 1st edition DMG will work until the HackMaster Game Master’s Guide comes out.) There’s a bunch of kewl stuff from early D&D already in it, too: Cavaliers, Anti-Paladins (er, Dark Knights), and a “revamped non-wuss Bard.” So, with that pedigree, if you like hack-and-slash gaming, how can it fail to please? It’s way over on the “gamist” side, and offers much less on the arty world-and-story side where I’ve been living since 1981 — but it’s got meat under its smelly black T-shirt. Fairy meat.

Raise Your Hand If You’re Shuriken

Them ninjas is sneaky. They have a whole sourcebook about them for Gold Rush Games’ Sengoku out, Darren-Jon Ashmore and Mark Arsenault’s Shinobi: Shadows of Nihon (127 pages, $19.95), and the word “ninja” appears nowhere on either cover. (“Shinobi” is the same word, just transliterated differently.) It’s that kind of exasperating attention to detail at the price of gaijin expectations that makes Sengoku perhaps the finest historical RPG in print. That tradition continues in Shinobi, which breaks down all you ever wanted to know about ninjutsu but were afraid someone would pop you with a mamukigama for asking. For example, there’s seven pages of glossary and two of notes here; the only hole I could spot is the lack of a ninja filmography. Shinobi covers ninja clans, weapons, tactics (including magical Ki Powers), training, family life, and equipment. For any game involving ninja from the most historical Japanese simulation to L5R to modern-day action-movie or martial-arts RPGs, it’s now the indispensable source. Oh, and a mamukigama is a little whip with a poisonous snake attached to the business end. Like I said, them ninjas is sneaky.

Have You Checked The Children?

Jason L. Blair’s Little Fears (137 8″x10″ page softcover, $20) from Key 20 Publishing, is the game I wish I’d read at Origins. Because then, when people came up to me and asked “What’s the cool game at the show, Ken?” I could have said, “Little Fears” and looked like a cool, cutting-edge kind of guy. As it is, I have to confess that I slipped up and left “the role-playing game of childhood horror” for the trip home. Now, before I go off at full cry here, I should note that the game doesn’t sustain its theme through every word; some of the terms seem forced (no child ever refers to something in gerund form), not all the art works, and the system is a trifle crude and grainy. But I forgive all of that for the wonderful High Concept that is this game. Basically, the forces of Evil, the monstrous servants of the seven kings of Closetland, seek to drain the innocence of children. Once kids hit puberty, they close their eyes to the monsters; grownups, therefore, are at best sympathetic but ineffectual. The kids have to do it themselves; it’s like Stephen King’s It in RPG form.

It’s almost all wonderful; there’s urban legendry, some amazingly cool Belief Magic (if you believe that Baby Jesus, or your teddy bear, or Gramma Up In Heaven can help you stop the boogeyman, well, they can), a beautifully pure character generation system, and an even better monster-combat system that leaves the evils mysterious, horribly dangerous, and vulnerable to a child. The skill engine (roll over the opponent’s stat on a d6 in a Test, roll under your own in an unopposed Quiz, with an occasional die pool driven by your Qualities (ads and disads)) isn’t quite as elegant, but it should work — and this is a game that’s all about roleplaying and flavor to work, anyway. A good chunk of the art sets the mood well (especially the photographic stuff and the pieces by Kieran Yanner and Hive), and the book’s design (by Hive) works even better. (The typography could have been tweaked, but it’s readable at least.) In short, if games about children in mortal (and moral) danger disturb you excessively, don’t pick up Little Fears. It’s that good.

Oh, If Only A Game Convention Would Come Along

And indeed one does, the granddaddy of them all, GenCon, which is (in case you’ve clicked on this page by hitting the “random” button on Yahoo!) next weekend in Milwaukee. So when you click back again in two weeks for our next installment (or by an astonishing concatenation of circumstances involving the “random” button on Yahoo!), said column will contain the Big GenCon Con Report, with more snarky insider gossip than you can shake a stick at, including first glances at the newest RPG fun. If you plan on seeing me there, in between glances, look for me at the booth of my beloved corporate masters at Decipher, where I shall be running Star Trek demos and answering questions in my trademark languid style. See you there, and then see you here, in fourteen!

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