#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 18: Over the Edge

I’m an RPG hacker, tinkerer, and designer. Most RPG systems have at least some appeal to me, and tons of systems have bits of them that are my favorite implementation of that bit. On top of that, even clearly flawed systems are often my right-now favorite while I’m playing them. So picking a favorite RPG system is quite possibly even harder than picking a favorite RPG. I’ll exclude anything I’ve designed, just on principle, and try to narrow it down at least.

A couple of my favorite games are such in part due to their systems. I’ve used the core of Ars Magica to build a general fantasy game, but I think most of what makes it appealing to me is specific to the setting—once you strip all that away, it’s a pretty simple system, which is mostly good, but also doesn’t make it very distinctive. Underground is a more novel core system—a human-scaled version of the system from the old DC Heroes game. It breaks DC Heroes’ lovely 3×3 stat symmetry (three each of mental, physical, and social/spiritual, each split into power, finesse, and resistance), but is otherwise an excellent refinement and expansion, turning it into a very elegant gamist/simulationist system that handles a wide range of numbers and facilitates easy conversion between units (i.e., from speed to distance or strength to mass, and the like).

Aria is another old system, quite crunchy and detailed, that I continue to love for the clevernesses in how it all comes together. A lot of people found the book “pretentious” due to its insistence on eschewing the traditional RPG jargon in favor of using standard dictionary words in accordance with their conventional definitions, but once you get past that to the underlying system, it is one of the better systems I’ve ever encountered. And it’s magic-building rules are probably the only thing to out-do both The Primal Order and Ars Magica.

Though these days, if I wanted a crunchy system, it would probably be Burning Wheel. It’s probably the only crunchy system I’ve actually enjoyed running. While it has a lot of detail, it all falls together very elegantly, all makes sense, and the numbers work out mathematically, do what they claim to do, and both make sense and are fun in play for the most part. No boring can’t-lose fights; no whiff-filled endless challenges. If I ever run it again, I’d like to try some sort of abstracted system for wises, like the Circles system, instead of tracking them individually, but that’s my only complaint. And the way all the bits interact just perfectly is amazing, and makes running and playing it fun. It’s probably the only game I’ve found that could handle a Cyrano-style simultaneous duel of wits and rapiers, and make both halves equally interesting and equally fraught with peril.

Generally, however, I go in for less-detailed systems. For a long time, Story Engine (originally used in Maelstrom Storytelling) was my favorite system. It uses an interesting structure, focused on scenes and narrative control rather than either simulation or difficulty, and pioneered a lot of the play style that was reinvented by the rise of Narrativist indie RPGs nearly a decade later. It’s also unusual in being structured such that cooperative rolls are the norm—typical difficulties are out of reach of a typical character acting by themselves.

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

Story Engine RPG (courtesy of RPGNow)

In that vein, Primetime Adventures and The Shadow of Yesterday (TSoY) might be the best examples yet of two different developments of that Narrativist structure. I prefer Primetime Adventures, which is about as far as a system can go in focusing on authorial control while still having any character-differentiating mechanics at all. It’s the game system I choose when I have an interesting setting in mind and don’t want to create my own rules—it has replaced CORPS, Fudge, and Savage Worlds for me as my default generic system.

But I have to admire the amazing balancing act TSoY pulls off, sneaking authorial directives into its Keys under the guise of character motivations, and basing rolls on character capabilities but using the results of those rolls to determine narrative control rather than success. It’s the game system we just chose when we were playing something else and loved the game but the rules were not gelling for us, and it has been used as the basis for more than a few other games, most notably Lady Blackbird.

I also need to mention two systems that are amazing, but a bit tied to their settings. Zero has a very clever system that inherently trades off specialization and breadth: by using a fixed skill list of just the right length, the d6 x d6 roll perfectly scales such that the more skills you have the less good you are at each of them, without needing to fiddle with skill points or any other bookkeeping. While other parts are specific to its setting, that core is something I’ve reused elsewhere, because there’s really nothing else that does that so smoothly.

Meanwhile, Everway is simply in a world of its own. Every part of that system is awesome, from chargen based on inspirational images, through metaphorical primary traits, to the best way yet to quantify an infinite variety of special powers. [Is it frequently useful? versatile? powerful? Total the yeses up and you have your cost.] I’ve adapted it for space opera, and others have adapted it for supers, and I’m sure it could form the core of any number of other fantastical (as opposed to more realistic) settings, though with a little more work than for adapting a more traditional system.

Over the Edge 2nd edition

Over the Edge 2nd edition

But if I had to pick just one system to use from now on, I think it would be Over the Edge. For me, it’s the perfect balance of words (mostly) and numbers (just a few). It’s focused on character capability, but boils everything down to a small number of stats, with an easy default roll built in. The way that it uses dice is also genius, providing bonuses and penalties that don’t change the range of the roll and don’t require complex—or really any—math (beyond the basic addition you need for an unmodified roll). It’s much like TSoY in feel and goals, though without the excellent Keys mechanics, but simpler and more free-form, so easier to adapt.

#RPGaDAY 12: Four Colors al Fresco

Well, there’s “still play”, and then there’s “still play”. The oldest published RPG I have played recently is probably The Shadow of Yesterday (we’re playing it now). I also regularly return to Primetime Adventures, though it’s been a couple years since we last played it. And Primetime Adventures is pretty much my go-to game when I don’t have some other game specifically in mind, so I’m sure I’ll play it again some time soon. 

And then there are several older games that I would play at the drop of a hat, but it’s been many years since I last have: Ars Magica, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Underground, The Babylon Project, Everway, Fading Suns, Deadlands (the original), or Over the Edge. I still buy all the Ars Magica supplements as they come out, and try to find time to read them. 

The oldest published game I actually have played semi-recently is Rolemaster: I played for a bit about 4 years ago with a group that is still playing the original edition, 30 years later. But I don’t really think it’s fair to say that I “still” play or read it—I haven’t touched it since then, didn’t read any of the books at the time, and before that group I had last looked at a Rolemaster book in about ’85. 

The only games older than The Shadow of Yesterday that I’ve both recently played and intend to play again in the future would be my own Four Colors al Fresco, created in 1999, released as a free beta PDF around 2004, but not yet properly published. It will be this fall/winter, if I can make the time between school and work. 

#RPGaDAY 6: Underground

Ars Magica 3rd edition cover

“Favorite RPG I never get to play” is a tricky question. Is that literal, or figurative? My reflex answer to this is Ars Magica or Over the Edge, but both of those I have played on multiple occasions. So while it feels like I “never” get to play them, I actually have—in the case of Ars Magica I’ve had 2 or 3 long-running, awesome games over the years (one using Redhurst as the setting). A few other games that I’ve “always wanted to play”, I’ve actually played, if only once: SkyRealms of Jorune, Time & Temp, Earthdawn, Iron Heroes, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, Cat, Everway, Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth. I’d love to play any of them again, with Iron Heroes and Everway tops on the list. But they can no longer go on the list of games I’ve never gotten to play.

If I take the question absolutely literally—only games that I have never played at all—there’s still quite a list. Deadlands and The Babylon Project are very high on that list, as are Don’t Rest Your Head, Castle Falkenstein, and Dead Inside. Particularly notable is Deadlands: we created characters when the game was new, and then the game fell through before the first session.

But of games that I’ve never gotten to play, I guess I’d have to say that Underground is the never-played game that I most want to play. It beats out the others by virtue of its genre and mechanics. The unique blend of dystopia, cyberpunk, and supers, used to foment social commentary, is something I’ve not found even half of in any other game. The mechanics are not as novel as some games, but still provide some nice touches. I’m particularly fond of the character creation, which puts the player in an impossible situation that mimics the impossible situation their characters are in, and the rules for how characters’ actions change society, always with unintended consequences—I believe Underground was the first commercial RPG to have formal mechanics for this.

 Underground RPG book cover