Welcome to the Monkey House: WorldCon 2000 Report

masthead-outofthebox

OUT OF THE BOX
2000-09-07

In which I report on the ghetto within a ghetto that was the gaming side of the 58th World Science Fiction Convention in beeyootiful downtown Chicago last weekend.

Well, that was interesting. WorldCon attracted maybe 7,000 people, who paid upwards of $100 a head to hear me (and, to be fair, Harry Turtledove and Ben Bova and Terry Pratchett and Joe Haldeman and many others) talk, and mostly dressed like Renaissance-Faire Klingons. GenCon attracted nearly four times that number, who mostly dressed in black T-shirts and paid a third as much to play roleplaying games. And they think we’re the weirdos. Gaming is very much the red-headed stepchild in Trufandom, apparently. Although all the writers and editors I met were perfectly nice about my unfortunate career, the con committee put gaming way off in another hotel, refused to publicize the gaming programming track, and made zero effort to branch out to a hobby that (in the grossest possible sense, which is to say, including Resident Evil) is bigger than movies. And then held panels to discuss why fandom is dying. To be fair, the gaming programmers were always on top of two or three crises ago, and the whole thing seemed like concrete proof that no matter what an infinity of monkeys can do, forty or fifty of them can’t make a gaming track happen at a WorldCon. On the brighter side, I did have a lot of fun, and talked with Chris Adams of Aetherco (who was leafletting the hell out of his very keen time-travel RPG Continuum and being the sole gaming dealer in the dealers’ room) and Erick (Amber Diceless) Wujcik, and Steve Jackson, who was in Chicago to try and monkey-wrangle, I guess. But it’s a damn good thing I wanted to hear Walter Jon Williams talk, or my $100 would have been wasted.

Goin’ Underground

In which I review Gareth-Michael Skarka’s captivating urban fantasy RPG Underworld [http://www.intotheunderworld.com] from Synister Systems.

Well, I can’t really justify saying that Gareth-Michael Skarka’s Underworld (160 pages, $19.95) came as any great surprise to me, or to anyone who’s been following his ongoing game-design column on the useful gaming omnisite RPG.net [http://www.rpg.net], where he’s been building it out in public, and even inviting people to tell him what he’s doing wrong. (You’ll never catch me doing that — er, unless my Kindly Editor here wants me to, of course.) So, for those of you who haven’t been following it, here’s the skinny: it’s an urban fantasy set in (and below) the New York City subway system (a map of which is very helpfully included); the subways, built with arcane geometry, focus the leftover magic in the world. So far, so good. (In fact, so far, quite good indeed.) The game system is designed to be equally functional as a LARP, which is good, because although it’s dirt simple, it’s still going to take too many throws (the resolution engine involves coin flips) to resolve a good tabletop combat. Fortunately, Gareth has included not only an Abstract Combat Resolution sytem, but made combat very deadly indeed, and restricted it to the Bravo guild — Underworld has splats, but they’re harsh ones. It’s also got a lot of neat ideas, including a Random Scenario Generator and that subway-magic thing (which lets him work a lot of things into the game, including archetypal Legends, much like Robert Holdstock’s mythagos). The art, while far from uniformly excellent, has some good, evocative pieces, and Christopher Shy’s cover is, as always, supremo. Layout and typography could be rethought, and I’d personally run it with Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulhu as my engine, but as a $20 urban-fantasy sourcebook on New York City, it’s worth jumping a turnstile or two for.

Orks, We Got

In which I review two complementary (and one complimentary) views of, you guessed it, orks, the wily Chris Pramas and Todd Miller’s Ork! from Green Ronin Publishing [http://www.greenronin.com] and John Wick’s Orkworld, from WICKed Press.

Okay, John Wick has been designing a game in his column on the Gaming Outpost [http://www.gamingoutpost.com] in similar fashion, and for some reason, most of the positive comments I made on Underworld can apply to Orkworld (324 pages, $25) — it’s a neat world for stories (this one being a kind of Tolkeinian re-subcreation of orks, filtered strongly through Greg Stafford, which is a good thing unless you don’t want 60-plus pages of legendifiction), it’s a good value for money (more white space, but still more words), and Thomas Denmark’s art is uniformly good-to-super. A single artist = single flavor; very useful for a game like Orkworld that’s as much an “ork book” as it is an RPG. More, in fact. Wick’s stat+skill vs. target number engine is nothing special, but he’s done some keen things with “tribal” (well, clan-based) character creation (similar to Ars Magica covenants) and the “Trouble Die” (sort of negative Hero or Force points) and the magic system that shows (again) an integrated world, or at least an integrated orkworld.

Chris Pramas and Todd Miller’s Ork! (64 pages, $12.95), on the other hoof, is like Orkworld’s evil twin. No sensitive legendry (there is some staggeringly insensitive legendry, which is actually pretty close to accurate if my reading of the Eddas is right) and touching pictures of orken motherhood, just lotsa dice (it’s like Button Ork; with varying numbers of varying-number-sided dice) and grunting and killing things. In short, this is a groot-and-halfling, or at least beer-and-pretzels, RPG; it’s a real model for “do it now, do it fast, do it right.” (And “do it silly.”) Toren Atkinson’s art is great, too; the layout and typography are well-chosen, if not super-sleek.

Walking Between the Raindrops

In which I review what may, possibly, be the best RPG of GenCon 2000, Dave Pulver and John R. Phythyon, Jr’s Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai from my arch-enemies at Guardians of Order [http://www.guardiansorder.on.ca].

It’s always a delight to do something very well, and then see someone else do it much better. Delight, spelled, “grounds for manslaughter.” Dave Pulver and John R. Phythyon’s Ghost Dog RPG (158 pages, $19.95) is simultaneously a gangster RPG for the ever-more smooth and well-tuned Big Eyes Small Mouth Tri-Stat system, a useful guide to the brilliant Jim Jarmusch black-samurai-and-the-Mob movie Ghost Dog, a noble attempt to fill the much-neglected “one GM-one player” RPG market (with very useful, if not enough, things to say about such gaming), and yet another lesson in licensed gaming design from Guardians of Order. The book is jam-packed with info on the Mafia (20 pages of solid stuff there), the samurai, film genre and criticism, the movie itself, and roleplaying. There’s even an index. My only criticism (besides “more of everything, please”) is that the screen shots are a little too dark for effectiveness. Other than that, it’s damn near perfect.

Next Week

More reviews of more games from GenCon 2000, unless I get a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide by then. In which case, well, you know.

I want more!

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