#RPGaDAY 31: Wildburry, Cape Suzette, and Perach

[School started, so time is short, and this is late.]

While the rules are not necessarily the game (especially since many game systems are used in more than one RPG), I’m gonna say that “best RPG” has been covered in one way or another by days 6, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 25. There’s no way I could narrow it down to just one favorite RPG—even coming up with a top 5 is hard (and last time I tried I gave up once I’d narrowed it down to 8)—and whatever it is it would be one of the games I mentioned on one of those days, and/or repeatedly on several other days. So rather than bore you with the same things over and over, I’m going to interpret this as my favorite game instance (evening/campaign/whatever)—which includes a particular RPG, of course.

There are a lot of possibilities here—I’ve been blessed with lots of great games. There was our “filler” game of Remember Tomorrow from a couple years back, which did an amazing job of giving us a coherent game that consisted of a quartet of individual stories. I had an awesome time playing Heroine at Forge Midwest this year, and my first-ever game of Primetime Adventures was this amazing con game of “a more serious take on Jem, as remade by J.J. Abrams”. And there are many others. So in my usual decisive fashion, I’m going to declare it a 3-way tie.

In general, my favorite games are ones that other people have run—I tend to be the GM, always have been, so any time I get to play is great, but it’s particularly great if the game is great. So I’ll take running a good game over playing a mediocre one, but if everything else is equal, I’d rather be in the player’s seat.

Wildburry Academy

An exclusive private school somewhere in the Romanian mountains, where exceptional teenagers are taught how to play “the great game”. Except it’s not a game any more—the Cold War is over, and the gentlemanly rivalries of the 19th and early 20th centuries are found only in history books. Not quite as dark as reality, but still a world of deception, double-dealing, and uncertainty. We used Spycraft 2.0, and our characters were 15- to 16-year-olds when they first enrolled. We played through their first year, with a fun mix of fake teaching missions, serious espionage missions—and typical high school events, as depicted in any teen romcom. (We don’t take our games overly seriously.) The GM was great, and Spycraft really supports running a game like this, with lots of crunch to differentiate our characters and make tasks genuine challenges. Plus, I got to play Vacile Moşanu, former Transnistrian teen idol with an ego that borders on solipsism, but an actual knack for organizing others and an inexplicable way with people. I got to play the member of the group that everyone loved to hate—the Barney Stinson of our game, complete with pulling off outrageous plans (when the dice favored me).

Higher for Hire

A few years ago I was playing in a group that was playing fairly traditional, long-running campaigns—things like Arcana Unearthed and Reign. I wanted to play some more story-oriented games, so I pulled a small group together of like-minded people, and one of the first games we played was Primetime Adventures (PTA). We followed the suggested setup, meaning that we first settled on a setting & premise, then created characters, then chose characters from among those to be our PCs. I’d heard multiple accounts of starting from children’s shows producing amazing games of PTA, so we started talking about actual shows that we were all familiar with. Turns out there weren’t that many (mostly due to age differences), and then we hit upon TaleSpin. Taking a tried-and-true method to adapt an existing property, we decided to play the next generation. It was almost 20 years after the events of the show, with Molly & Kit all grown up. Baloo and Rebecca had married and retired. Kit had inherited Higher for Hire, and then run it into the ground—like Baloo, he was a good pilot but no businessman. He was living on the couch of his friend Riki Tavi. Meanwhile, Molly had gone off to college and, teaming up with her friend Gosalyn Mallard, become an actual costumed vigilante, bringing her childhood idol Danger Woman to life! What she knew was that it wasn’t all Kit’s fault that Higher for Hire had gone under: the escalating conflict between the air pirates and the vigilantes had made the airways so dangerous that everyone’s insurance rates had gone through the roof. Sher Khan had made sure of this, and then stepped in as all the smaller insurance companies went bankrupt to “magnanimously” buy out Higher for Hire (and any other competitors that didn’t fold first). Don Karnage was now a doddering shell of his former self (though having gained in wisdom what he had lost in debonair), and the air pirates were only still around because it was convenient for Sher Kahn to continue to have them as an excuse for higher shipping rates. We also had fun pulling in other possible characters, beyond who actually appeared on TaleSpin, from related settings.

We decided who our main characters would be and then randomly determined who would play whom (rolled dice? I can’t remember), which left Dan as GM, me as Molly, and Caitlin as Kit. It was absolutely fascinating as the combo of the dice, the characters’ stats, and the situations drove us into all sorts of unexpected territory. I remember distinctly discovering at one point “Molly’s kinda selfish”, and being surprised by this. But, all around, it was an awesome game, and has me ready to return to Primetime Adventures any time I can find an interested group and a few weeks.

Relationship map v2

Reclaiming Perach

After a couple false starts, I finally got to run a game using The Burning Wheel. We created our own setting, extrapolating from the life paths: a world where the elves had “uplifted” humanity (and, before them, the orcs). Eventually, the humans outgrew their “parents” and war broke out. Humans discovered/invented sorcery and won the war, destroying elven society in the process. Our characters included an elf who feared he might be the last of his people, but the rest were human, remnants of the war. The story was intended to revolve around Anthony de la Bouche attempting to reclaim the throne of Perach from his usurping uncle, but I made the mistake of letting them into the same room with a weapon in the second session. In a deadly and non-narrative system, don’t let the PCs at the main badguy early on, because they will kill him.

As it turned out, this made for a very interesting game: only a select few knew that the uncle was dead, and so it became a game of politics and propaganda while trying to avoid the king’s forces long enough to raise political support for a return. The Burning Wheel system really shone, and made for an awesome game, despite my occasional errors in gauging the effectiveness of enemies. Though my very favorite scene never happened: we were all set for a combined simultaneous duel of wits and duel of sabers between Anthony and the most powerful of his dead uncle’s supporters, Captain Robillard. We’re talking total de Bergerac territory here—and a game system that can actually make both parts equally fun and equally consequential. Then the PCs used a clever combination of facts and carefully fabricated evidence to sway Robillard to their side, thus completely short-circuiting the duel. I was so disappointed. :-( Not that I can actually complain when the PCs are clever and/or non-suicidal—the duel really would’ve been a toss-up, and thus a very risky move on Anthony’s part.

We had a very satisfactory conclusion to Anthony’s storyline, and were just starting to get into the question of whether any elves remained (and they had begun finding evidence of the returning orcs) when the game ended. Had it gone on, consequences would’ve become very interesting: in addition to the orcs no longer held in check by the elves, there were side effects of all the magic, some of it very dark, that had been used to win the war, still lurking about the land. Maybe someday…

#RPGaDAY 29: Berated by Treant

It was 1983? ’84? It was after my very first RPG session, but might’ve been before I bought my own copy of D&D. I was at a sleep-away computer camp: all the usual camp activities (canoeing, sleeping in cabins, hiking, etc.), plus a building full of computers where we spent some time every day learning programming. Anyway, one of the counselors had the camp name of Aztec, and he was a Dungeon Master. I remember how awesome we all thought he was. So, one night he agreed to run a game for us. We didn’t have any books or dice, but he helped us make characters, and then ran the adventure sitting around the campfire. As I said, no dice, so he just adjudicated everything. I vaguely recall a couple short fights—he must’ve just gone off of our descriptions and made it fun and challenging.

I was playing a druid or druid-ranger or something like that. At one point we needed to get across a gorge and I suggested that we chop down a bunch of trees and build a bridge of some sort. At which point a treant or elder druid (at this point I no longer remember which) showed up and began berating my character for going along with this plan. But here’s the thing: he played it for humor while sneaking in a lesson on roleplaying, and possible even sneaking in a lesson for the real world (he was a camp counselor, after all). My vague recollection is that he sounded very much like a cross between Miracle Max and his wife. Partly by using a silly voice, he was able to make a semi-big deal out of this, but in such a way that I didn’t feel like I was being picked on. I was laughing so hard that even responding—in-character or out—was tough. And, as this blog post attests, I’ve never forgotten it. Though, funnily enough, I don’t remember how we eventually dealt with the gorge. Or anything else about the evening roleplaying. 

But I’ve never forgotten that encounter. I’m not sure I can say the same about any other specific encounter (as opposed to whole sessions or games) in all my years of roleplaying. 

#RPGaDAY 28: Dread

The scariest games I’ve ever played have all been sessions of Dread. Let me tell you about our very first playtest of the game. We already had most of the rules there (plus a few extraneous bits that we thankfully dumped before we published), so it was pretty much what you’ve played if you’ve played Dread (though characters were pretty different). Eppy and I were playing in our kitchen with our friend Dan, with the lights low. Eppy was running the game. He had set up a playlist of mood music, looping on his computer a couple rooms away. We were dealing with some creepy cultists in a recently post-apocalyptic land. We had discovered they were engaging in human sacrifice and maybe cannibalism, and decided we needed to get away while we still could. Dan was working on a pull, his hand almost on the tower, and the music was so quiet as to be inaudible. Then, with no warning, an agonizing scream erupted from the next room. We all jumped a foot in the air, Eppy included, and had to take a break before Dan could finish his pull and we could continue the game. Sure, it was just a coincidence and a startle, but it wouldn’t’ve mattered if the game hadn’t been so scary to begin with, if we hadn’t all been so tense through the combination of the events in the game and that looming tower on the table. 

I don’t think we ever bothered with music for a Dread game again—it was almost too much. But we continued to play and run scary sessions of Dread, and I’ve even seen it work its magic in loud, brightly-lit, crowded convention rooms. 

Oh, that scream? It’s part of the opening of a Samhain song, which actually has some very soft other sound effects, but those were inaudible on computer speakers a room away. Unfortunately, neither Eppy nor I can remember the exact song, and some quick googling didn’t provide the answer. 

#RPGaDAY 27: Amaranthine

Why publish a new edition of an RPG? Cynically, I might say “to milk the fans of more money”, but let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So why else do new editions of games get made? Sometimes having several thousand people play your game turns up problems that even diligent playtesting had missed. Sometimes you run out of copies and want to print more, and you figure this is a good opportunity to fix some problems, minor or major. Sometimes your game world has a storyline that has advanced and the old edition is no longer current. Sometimes the original was rushed or you can now afford better editing or art.

These are, to me, loosely what I would consider “bad”, or at least weak, reasons. Some are better than others, but they’re generally things that I wish would be fixed before the game was released in the first place, or they’re things that I don’t think merit a new edition. The problem with a new edition is that it fractures the player base if there are significant changes. If it’s just cosmetic, that’s fine, but if there are significant changes to setting or rules, then you run into the problem of people with different editions having trouble playing together. 

Then there is what I suspect is one of the reasons that people frequently want a “new edition”: because the old one is out of print. But in that case, why not just a reprint? There are a number of games no longer in print that I’d love to see once again easily available in hardcopy, but I don’t think there is/was anything wrong with the original. Castle Falkenstein, Underground, Primetime Adventures (which is currently in the process of being revised and reprinted), Aria, The Last Exodus, Advanced Marvel Super Heroes—the only thing wrong with any of these games is that they’re out of print. 

But the more interesting situation is when a game has real promise and fails to live up to it. Maybe the rules are horribly broken. Maybe it really needs an editor. Maybe there’s the sketch of a really interesting setting married to 200pp of rules, and what it really needs is to focus on that setting and strip the rules down so that it can shine. Or maybe they were so focused on the setting that the rules are junk. 

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#RPGaDAY 26: Eoris

Character sheets are mostly all the same—some are prettier than others, but they pretty much do the same job. A small number manage to make it harder to play the game, by being poorly organized or focusing on the wrong information, but most are just fine. But a small number of character sheets go beyond being just an organized list of character stats. The original Deadlands character sheet has the wound track up one side, marked by bullets, so that you can slide a paperclip along it to track how injured your character was. Fireborn has large boxes for your main stats, which are dice pools, so that you can set the dice on the character sheet and move them around as they are allocated. Dungeon World’s “playbook” combines character sheet, character generation rules, and all the rules you’ll need to advance your character throughout the game. The character sheet for the original edition of Immortal: The Invisible War helps you track the many ever-changing “halos” of your character. There are many others that I’m not immediately thinking of. But probably the best character sheet—both well designed and with excellent functionality—is the one for Eoris: Essence

#RPGaDAY 25: Aria

There are several games on my “to play” list that I’ve not gotten to play, and some of these are because the other players weren’t interested. But I’ve usually not pushed the matter, either. And then there are the games that I don’t even propose because I know they won’t fly. I’m not even sure I’m interested in playing HōL or Burning Empires, so it doesn’t matter that my friends aren’t. (Not because they’re bad games, but because they’re just not my cuppa.)

But there is one game that I’ve repeatedly proposed and almost always had shot down: Aria. Once, I got people to play it for a bit, and Ogalepihcra was the result. But most people take one look at the rules and have no interest. In particular, the fact that you basically have to create not only your setting but the equivalent of races and classes* and even perhaps the skills they’re built out of is too daunting to many. Aria is a system designed to create worlds and tailor the rules to fit them. Instead of trying to fit the world you envision to a predetermined set of classes—or even skills—Aria believes that the rules should be tailored to the setting. And it does an excellent job of them.

Then there is the next obstacle: the dice rolling system. It’s well explained, but nonetheless one of the more complex I’ve run into, open-ended in a slightly odd way that gives a large range and a lot of possible results on every roll, while still only using a single d10. I think it’s a welcome trade-off of extra complexity for extra detail in the results, but I completely understand why others don’t. 

And if you want magic in your setting, you’ll have to build it yourself—even moreso than the rest of the setting. The non-magical parts of the rules could be used on the fly, much like using just the core book of Hero System for your game, by just building each thing you need as you go. Not the magic. 

I love the system—I think that, for what it gives you, the necessary effort is perfectly reasonable, even modest. And this is coming from someone who normally eschews any system that’s crunchier than Savage Worlds, so it’s not just that I like my games complex. But it is a lot more effort than most other games. And much of it is unavoidable effort—you can build a simple game with Fudge, but Aria is always detailed and at least somewhat complex. 

*n.b.: Aria doesn’t use classes in the RPG sense. Characters are built up out of skills and access to skills, similar to a lifepath system like Traveller or Cyberpunk or Burning Wheel