#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

#RPGaDAY 24: Living Steel

The most complicated RPG I own is probably Living Steel. It believes in positively excessive detail. Apparently GURPS 4th ed can get even more complex, but I don’t own that. However, I’ve only ever skimmed Living Steel, never tried to play it, and that was many years ago, so I’m not sure it really counts. I wouldn’t even own it if it weren’t legendarily over-complex and something like $4 in a discount bin. 

The most complex game I actually have played—and would play again (though never run)—is Spycraft 2.0. It gets kudos for an amazing amount of detail, giving you all sorts of interesting options and sensible mechanical interactions, while still being well structured, well explained, well organized, and with an amazing level of internal consistency. It feels less complicated than many games with half the volume of rules. Heck, despite the significant number of feats, it even feels less complicated than some games that are significantly simpler in theory, but whose rules are basically all exception-based.

#RPGaDAY 23: Eoris: Essence

Sadly, most RPGs are either workmanlike in design or take “looks cool” too far and end up impairing readability (many World of Darkness games) and maybe even clarity (Kult 2nd ed’s avant grade design). The good news is RPGs have gotten much better—many fewer are just plain hard to read, and most have learned the value of whitespace. But the few that are truly stunning designs still stand out among the rest. 

If you haven’t seen them, you should check out Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok, Burning Empires, Nobilis, the original color printing of Feng Shui, Underground, The Last Exodus, Outbreak: Deep Space, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. All of them go beyond just using good art and a clean layout, using innovative design techniques to make the game better than it would’ve been without them.

But the game that stands out among all of these as the most beautiful RPG I’ve seen is Eoris: Essence. Gorgeous art—as good as any I’ve seen in an RPG, or even a coffee-table art book. An excellent layout that is almost as gorgeous as the art pieces. All in two stunning oversize landscape-format books in a nice slipcase. And they brought the combo of beautiful and functional to everything—just check out the character sheets!

#RPGaDAY 22: Alma Mater and Bunnies & Burrows

There are three kinds of “best purchase”, particularly when it comes to 2nd-hand RPGs. 

There are the books that I got for a steal, relative to their value to me. For me, the tops of that list would probably be most of the Providence supplements, some of them acquired at 75% off. 

Then there are the books that I’m glad I got at the price I did, because I would’ve overpaid if I’d paid any more. Usually these are real stinkers that I have just for curiosity’s sake—the Actor’s Book of Characters for World Action and Adventure is laughably bad. I’m genuinely curious to some day get a look at the core rulebook, but I can’t imagine paying more than a buck or two for the privilege. To quote the summary linked above, “The amount of detail included is astonishing, but unfortunately little of it is relevant to play.” I think that’s a fair assessment—much effort, poor results. 

But also in that category are games that I feel I should know about, even if they’re not my style. So I wait to find them on the cheap. I bought a boxed set of the D&D4E core books so that I could refer to them, even though I already knew I would never play it—but not until I could them at ~50% off. Similarly, I’m eternally proud of getting a slightly-battered copy of GURPS 3rd ed for $6, back when it was still the current edition and nobody was talking about a 4th ed. I had already suspected that GURPS wasn’t for me, and reading that confirmed it. As a game for me, personally, to play, $6 was paying too much. But after D&D and WoD, it was probably the most-referenced game at the time, so as a game designer it was a steal. 

And then there are the game books that I’ve actively stalked and finally found. Rare books that are hard to find, regardless of the price. For me, the two at the top of the list are Alma Mater and the original Bunnies & Burrows. (Well, it’s the 3rd printing, so there are some significant revisions, but it’s not the GURPS version, which I have yet to actually see.) I don’t remember the circumstances of the B&B purchase, other than that it was a very reasonable price. Acquiring Alma Mater is an interesting, if short, tale: 

I was working my way through a booth at Gen Con with a lot of old books, some a little old, some a lot old; some common, some rarer. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Someone else pulled out a copy of Alma Mater, a game I’d only ever heard of. I must’ve oooed pretty loudly, because he turned to me and said “you clearly need this more than I do” and handed it to me. And on top of that, it was in almost-new condition and under cover price! Yay for geek solidarity! 

#RPGaDAY 21: The Babylon Project

I keep wanting to like licensed RPGs, but I’ve discovered that there’s a problem with them: they rarely work for me. I either find myself retreading the same ground as the source in an un-fun way, or I find myself deviating so far from the source that it’s no longer the same thing. It’s very hard to find that sweet spot, particularly in the case of source materials that I love for the characters more than the setting.

But there’s one significant exception to this for me: Babylon 5. It’s my favorite science fiction show (or movie) ever, and part of the beauty of it is that it’s a relatively well-developed world, but big enough that there’s plenty to do without being, or even encountering, the main characters from the TV series. It also happened to spawn an RPG that captured that middle ground, and was a good RPG in its own right: The Babylon Project. Sadly, it only made it to one supplement and is now long out of print. Happily, there’s a whole pile of Babylon 5 D20 books to draw upon, full of good RPG content (once you dump the rules parts), to give you just about anything you want that isn’t in the Lurker’s Guide or the TV show itself. 

What The Babylon Project got so right was in focusing on character backgrounds and stories (while also having a pretty standard stat/skill system), rather than trying to focus too closely on the specific events of the TV show. If you’re a big fan of the series, you already know all that. If you’re not, it’s just unnecessary detail. What you need is enough about the setting to tell your own stories, about your own characters, not just make pastiches of the main characters in similar stories.