Monday, 31 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 31 - ...and by no means least

Prompt: Favourite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing

Cut the cheque
This is Hanna, my love, whom I met through roleplaying, and our daughter Arya. If you feel you need more explanation than that, you're probably a nascent AI and I urge you to study love and compassion before you start getting any genocidal urges.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 30 - Who do you love?

Prompt: Favourite roleplaying celebrity

TV's - well, the web's - Mr Games.
So, what are we talking about here? Celebrities who roleplay or celebrity roleplayers?

Wil Wheaton is the poster boy, I guess, and I have a lot of time for the former Wes Crusher. I confess, I was mean about him as a youth, but it's not really his fault; I was bound to hate a character who was supposed to relate to me but whom even I thought was a swotty creep (and I would have been deemed a swotty creep by most outside observers.) With Tabletop and later Titansgrave, he's done a lot to move the gaming profile up from a subset of general geekdom to pretty much blanket geek coverage. He's also done a lot to out a great many other celebrities, some nerd, some more mainstream, as gamers.
Diesel & Dench
Advanced Diesel & Dench

About as mainstream as they come are Vin Diesel and even more so his #1 roleplaying disciple Judi
Dench. According to the story - nay, the legend -the Iron Giant hisself taught M to play D&D during the filming of The Chronicles of Riddick in order to illustrate what an Elemental was, which I have to say is hands down the coolest thing about The Chronicles of Riddick and one of the coolest things about Vin Diesel. Dench... well, she's lived a lot of life, so I'm not going to rule out her having done cooler. She handed Bond his balls at the age of 60 for one thing.

Roleplayers have slightly less
swanky headshots.
Okay, Laws knows how to headshot.
And then there are the celebrity roleplayers, the rock stars of the industry, chief among them I guess being Ken Hite and Robin Laws, game writers, game bloggers, podcasters and just plain gamers. They have the same sort of bubbling brains as my man James Holloway, of whom I spoke yesterday, which makes their writing always fascinating, even when it doesn't have immediate use.

Come back tomorrow for the last day of RPGaDay 2015.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 29 - Friendship!

Prompt: Favourite RPG website/blog

So, I think that just from having referenced it so often, this one goes to James Holloway's Gonzo History Gaming. It's seems a little damning with faint praise, as I don't really follow any others, but it is also a grand read and covers a nice range of miniatures and history in and about gaming. James is a bit of a renaissance man and his blog is occasionally brief, but never less than interesting. I also heartily recommend his non-gaming blog, Gonzo History Project and created that most beloved of webcomic characters, Robot Face Smith, History Bastard.

My remaining posts are scheduled to release each morning, as I'll be spending time with my family, but won't be shared to G+ unless I can grab a moment to do so and work out how to do so on my phone.

Friday, 28 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 28 - Hello Darkness my old friend...

Prompt: Favourite game you no longer play

Not the edition I knew, but a better pic than I
could find for 1st ed.
I loved the old West End Star Wars. It was one of my first games and it was a lot of fun. The mechanics were... interesting (progression went +1, +2, add another D6 to your roll, then +1 again) and the game contained absurd amounts of detail on different types of Stormtrooper armour, although since our GM was into action movies we could do more damage with a shotgun than a blaster cannon. We also had a habit of crashing starships (the Aluminium Falcon and the Millennium Dustbin both bit the dirt) and stripping them of weapons, heedless of encumbrance, recoil and common sense.

Fun fact; all four of the soldiers on this
cover are the GM from that Star Wars
Oh, yeah; we were 12 at this point, so things got pretty Gonzo. we basically bimbled around drinking too much and shootin' Stormtroopers. We had to take out a boy band at one point; the whole thing was oddly reminiscent of early Schlock Mercenary, but more... 12. I mean, my character was a bounty hunter called Loki 'Spanners' Amenhotep, also known as 'the Bastard', which probably tells you a lot about how assiduously we stuck to the established themes and continuity of Star Wars.

Ah, the wild excess and joy of youth. It was dumb as rocks and fun as anything.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 27 - Strange Alchemies

Prompt: Favourite idea for merging two games into one
Yeah... no.

So... Hmm.

Man, Age of Sigmar has really turned me off this concept. Even my fondly planned campaign in which WFRP PCs lead a defence of the Empire against a force of crashed Imperial Guardsmen fallen through the Warp Gates seems less appealing in the light of Games Workshop's reboot of the Warhammer line, apparently to a) simplify the rules and b) make it more 40K. Successive editions having already transformed the Old World from a culturally blurred pseudo-Renaissance fantasy setting into a planet of nation-hats, they've now gone and blown the entire planet up (you maniacs. God damn you all to hell. It's a madhouse.) and replaced it with some sort of high-concept God-Realm where colossal superhumans punch each other across the dimensions and no-one is playing Blood Bowl.

Are you happy, Age of Sigmar? You killed Blood Bowl.

That was a great mashup though: An American football simulation and Warhammer? I wish 40K had something like that*, especially now I'm playing in a 40K LARP. What sports do 40K citizens follow? I think we know that Ciaphas Cain was good at sports, but not what he played. Probably the Schola Progenium equivalent of the Eton Wall Game**. Maybe a lot of field hockey with chainblades on the sticks, or fire, in the case of the Sororitas novitiate. Paintball assassin with real guns. Hot lava on the gantries over the furnaces.

The few times sport is mentioned in the source material it's almost universally in the context of hunting something immense and malignant in the local fauna. Or war. Maybe the Imperium is actually like the upper classes and the only sports are huntin', shootin' and fishin'. On the other hand, you can imagine inter-platoon soccer matches played by the enlisted men of the Guard, with the ultimate honour going to any team that can beat a Stormtrooper Eleven. And do the Navy play zero-G volleyball along the vastness of a cargo bay?

Death Worlders have a sport; they call it 'staying alive'. The rules are pretty simple, and no-one wins***.

Now Orks; Orks know about sport, I'm sure. Squig fights, squig races, kustom kart racing, 'itting each uvver 'til someone remembers dey've won. I guess the Dark Eldar have sports, but I'm not sure ritual bikini murders and slave beating have a place in a respectable live game. The Eldar must have sports, a Way of the Athlete which they spend centuries obsessing over before moving on to something else; perhaps they play some form of insanely acrobatic touch kabbadi. The Tau... The Tau probably have a sport where both sides win.

Tomorrow I'll be talking about a thing to do with roleplaying (preparation!) Favourite game I no longer play (thank you other tab.)

* The nearest they had was Gorkamorka, a skirmish game with lots of vehicles, but alas not a racing game, and they dropped a bridge - well, orbital strike - on that one.
** From Wikipedia: "The main game consists of the two sets of players forming a rugby-style scrummage (called a "Bully") in which neither team may "furk" the ball." Blood Bowl almost seems more reasonable.
*** Actually in fairness, we did create 'Arborian chain disc frisbee' last game.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 26 - Take a Look Around

Prompt: Favourite inspiration for your game

In a word, everything. Literally anything can be a source of inspiration: fairy tales, other people's fiction, anthropology, folklore, history, oh my, history.

Not to be a broken record, but you'll find better words on using the real world and history as inspiration on James Holloway's video for today and the same Ken Hite interview I linked yesterday. In particular, James talks about the denseness of stuff that only comes from reality, and Hite about exploiting the alternate history fictioneer's greatest natural resource, the instinctive human propensity for pattern recognition, the faculty that lets us see a man in the moon, gods in rock formations, and Illuminati in the White House.

As a specific aside, I submitted an entry to the RPG Geek GUMSHOE One-Sheet contest that was inspired by the real world and which really exemplifies the sort of thing Hite discussed in the interview. I started with the Pech Merle caves in France, which are full of monstrous - eerily Cthuloid - paintings and rock formations, and as I was writing it discovered that a) Pech Merle is down the road from the 'Chateau du Diablo', and b) the timing of the discovery and excavation of the caves matched almost perfectly with the dates for events in 'The Call of Cthulhu'.

Anyway, as stealing from real life has been done, I'm going to talk about stealing other people's fictional ideas instead. It's a cheap trick - although sometimes a profitable Dan Brown - but so long as I'm just writing stuff for me and my friends to enjoy, I don't feel any real shame in giving my Geist game a creepy fenland district that mashes up Silent Hill, Ravensholm from Half Life 2 and a creepy fenland village from James Holloway's Unknown Armies game. If I were writing it as a novel I intended to publish I imagine I would be rather more coy, but these are games and not for publication.

Did I say Dan Brown*? I meant 'practice'.

I do feel that it behooves me to make enough changes that the original is hard to discern. It's one thing for someone to look back and be all 'oh; like in...', but if they're thinking that from the get go, then they're more likely to be thinking about the original than your version while they approach that plot and at that point you might as well just sit down and watch the movie, because easily recognisable borrowings never come on their own. You can't take one thing and leave the rest; once identified it brings with it a lot of other expectations, themes and atmosphere. If you have a blue guy who teleports, you'd better be prepared for your players to expect the X-Men and to act accordingly. If on the other hand you borrow the Quartet for the Dusk of Man from Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slicked Precipice of Darkness, change the words and scribble down your own cosmology and god names, you've basically just got a moody piece of verse to pass down and the loose framework for a game, and the players probably won't be anticipating fruit fuckers or Gabe showing up to punch a god in the face.

And again, while it would be cheeky to use that plot and that altered verse in something I was publishing for money, I don't feel too bad using it to entertain my friends for a few evenings a month.

Tomorrow is day 27 and mutant hybrid games. See you then.

* The irony is that the fiction he cribs from tends to be derived from the methods employed by Holloway and Hite. There's that pattern matching again.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 25 - Stop! Hammer time

Prompt: Favourite revolutionary game mechanic
"It's murder. And somebody's responsible."

So, there are two of these that I want to talk about, and they both work by taking the crunch of the system and making it visible for dramatic effect. Cards on the table (that's not the mechanic) I'm not enough of a student of mechanics to know which ones are truly revolutionary, so bear with me if this is old hat to you.

The first is in my old fallback, Fate Core. When you roll, you always know what your opponent rolls, or what the static difficulty is, and once you've seen the outcome, you can then choose whether to spend Fate points. This means that you never blow your Fate points, a scarce resource, on a roll that comes up against you anyway, and gives the players - and the GM, who also has Fate points to spend - much more direct control over the action. This is of course on top of invoking for effect and creating advantages, both of which are means by which the players can control the scene.

GUMSHOE has a more adversarial feel than Fate - the GM is specifically setting puzzles for the player characters to solve, or not - but its investigative focus is highlighted  by the division of skills into General Abilities, which use a regular pass/fail mechanic, and Investigative Abilities, which always work at least perfectly, maybe even better, thus ensuring that - unless the GM has screwed up and included a need for an ability no-one in the party has - you always have all the information you need to solve the mystery, although you may yet fail to do so.


I know I put this up before, but seriously, that is a lot of fucking
cards and tokens.
It's a lot harder to come up with revolutionary mechanics than it used to be back when THAC0 was the height of innovation and, indeed, still seemed like a good idea somehow. Those were the heady days, when drama points were unheard of and non-cuboid polyhedral dice were so alien as to give HP Lovecraft conniptions, before roll-and-keep, playing card mechanics, custom dice, custom card decks and - gods help us - 10div5*. The sprawl of cards and tokens and dice that, while six sided, are completely useless for anything else due to their custom symbols used in Fantasy Flight's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition are perhaps the ultimate evolution in terms of complexity, but also something of an evolutionary dead end** in a world in which simplicity (and, given the ever growing number of available products, affordability) is increasingly preferred***.

In this interview from yesterday, Ken Hite quite coincidentally**** sums up this point by explaining that the industry is moving away from the model of games as super-expensive magazine series for which you must get a loyal audience who will keep buying the stuff so that they can keep playing the One True Game, and towards looking at games as individual small press books, with each as a largely stand-alone product that only needs to sell itself. This is all tied in with the OSR***** and the increased presence and relevance of self-publishing, epublishing and PoD through outlets like DriveThruStuff, and of course Kickstarter, making it increasingly likely that the garden variety gamer will have an eclectic mix of stuff rather than a huge, coherent set of core and expansion books for a single game.

Anyway, come back tomorrow for Day 26 and my favourite inspiration.

* The system for the new World of Darkness Mind's Eye Theatre live games, which had the revolutionary effect of turning experts into barely competent amateurs and dilettantes into useless assholes. In fairness some of this came down to implementation, but combat was a joke.
** Like a giant, sabre-toothed cat that can take down any threat but needs to eat a mammoth a day just to keep get up in the morning.
*** Like some diminutive, lippy primates jeering at the flailing death throes of the once-mighty sabre-tooth while they pass around a mango.
**** Man, if I could afford to pay Ken Hite to drop apposite references into interviews for me to point to, I would just buy my daughter all the tiny, adorable Frozen dress up clothes I could find. Sorry, Ken.
***** I expect. Honestly, whenever I start to talk authoritatively in these things, you can be 90% sure I'm blagging it. The other 10% is educated guesswork.

Monday, 24 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 24 - The House Always Wins

Prompt: Favourite House Rule

I don't know that I have a favourite 'house rule'. I find them useful, but have yet to find one that I thought 'wow; yes. That.'

I do have a clear least favourite house rule, that comes from the old IoD chronicle. The ultimate power of the vampire discipline of Presence is called Sovereignty; it's a room control ability that prevents anyone acting in a way that would displease you. They can't attack you unless they beat you in an opposed contest or you are directly attacking them, although they can try to stop you attacking an ally. That's not a problem; it's a powerful effect, but it's a top-tier power.

The problem was that as written it was a high-maintenance power: Each time someone tried to act, the user and the opponent had to make a test and the one with the most successes won. If you managed to act, you didn't need to test again. This was a lot of tests, however, and the unofficial (despite claims to the contrary - see below - it was never incorporated into the addendum for the society) house rule was that a) the user tested once, when activating the power, and b) you had to test to act, and if you failed, that was it; you didn't get to test again. A meant that the user could pump what was already bound to be an imposing pool through the roof, and combined with B meant that any chance of a lucky roll getting you through was gone, which meant in turn that unless you were a complete monster (or had the right Carthian devotion) then you might as well not bring your game to a fight, because some motherfucker was more or less bound to have Sovereignty, and if you'd spent your points on being good enough to cut it in a fight using the appalling Mind's Eye Theatre rules, you sure as shit weren't going to stand a hope in hell against a long-term character's Sov.


One of the things that made it impossible to ever change the above ruling was that when people remembered that it was a house rule at all, they assumed it was an official part of the addendum, when in fact it was neither. This is actually a common problem with house rules, from Monopoly (the most common rule that people assume is part of the official game is that fines go in the middle of the board and you collect them if you land on Free Parking) to any RPG with a complex enough rule set. For LARP in particular, people tend not to want to got to the rulebook any more than they have to, so the ultimate authority is whomever sounds confident enough.

Come back tomorrow as we enter the closing straight of RPGaDay 2015.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 23 - Under pressure

Prompt: The perfect game for you

My perfect game would probably be a narrative/dramatic adventure game with aspects of anachronistic technology and alternate history, and some elements of the mystical (probably falling short of a full spell-casting system,) puzzles and conspiracies and strong collaborative elements.

I'm pottering on a very vague concept of the sort running on what I call the Steam Engine (I'm sure that's been done,) the central mechanic of which is Pressure. Players build up Pressure when they fail important rolls, or can voluntarily take harm or accept narrative complications to add Pressure to their pool, and then spend Pressure to boost later actions, resolve complications or otherwise advance the plot in an interesting way, thus ensuring that all characters get a chance to do something, because even if the dice hate them, they'll eventually have enough pressure to do something awesome.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 22 - Welcome to the jungle, we got roleplaying games

Prompt: Perfect gaming environment

Nice quick catchup here, because I've already talked about gaming environments in posts about the advantages of playing tabletop at an actual table, and virtual tabletops (and c.f. Day 14.)

Job done.

Friday, 21 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 21 - I can show you the world...

Prompt: Favourite gaming setting
Don't be fooled. These daft looking buggers will quack you up (although... I
don't know what's going on with that shield.)

So, my knee jerk response to this one is Warhammer 40,000, which I do adore in all its overblown, grandiose, Gothic-punk, sometimes-ironically macho glory, although as an observer from outside the wargame I am aware that the setting has undergone some changes I don't care for, like the implication that the Emperor gained his powers (aside from immortality) from a pact with the Dark Gods of whom he is the antithesis. Aside from this making little sense cosmologically, from a narrative standpoint it harms the purpose of the Emperor, which it always seemed to me was to illustrate that in the grim darkness of the far future, even a godlike, entirely benevolent superbeing can't do shit in the long run to make the universe less crappy. That just be how it is.
Also available in webcomic form.

This being the case, I'm going to go with Glorantha, which I love simply for its absolute commitment to a realistic anthropology (allowing for the proven, indeed unquestioned existence of gods, spirits, magic and anthropomorphic ducks.) In the computer game, King of Dragon Pass, the only road to victory is to immerse yourself so much in Orlanthi culture that you can make the most Orlanthi decisions, rather than necessarily the most rational from a real world perspective. Moreover, when undertaking Heroquests it was necessary to memorise the story of your quest, then adjust for the existence of Chaos and any other variations, again by being totally Orlanthi about your decisions.

Anyway, I have no doubt that once more James Holloway is doing a better job of selling Glorantha* than I am. Again, it's one of his focus areas.

It's odd, given that one of the things I like about 40K is its vastness, that what makes Glorantha more appealing to me is the limits to its scope; that what lies beyond your borders is a total mystery, which means that your focus is on the here and now. You might look to the horizon, but ultimately that won't get the pigs in.


So, what about writing settings, because when push comes to shove, I'm a writer and a world-builder. Another friend of mine is currently working up a world-building project on his blog, so you can check that out, but it's made me think about my own process and my own flaws in setting writing (short version - way too much detail, leaving no space for the PCs to inhabit.) We were talking on G+ recently about gods and godly 'domains', which is a kind of D&D concept, I guess, but not an uninteresting one, and about how magic affects society, but I think more importantly from a writing perspective, how much information is needed to sell the setting.

Consensus on that one seemed to be about 1500 words, preferably with something to break up the text like an image or timeline; enough to give a taster of the world without overloading your poor readers. I suspect that it might also be advisable to write this before fleshing out the details, at least in draft format, as for a game setting the appearance is arguably more important than the finer points, which are ultimately something for the players to find out, change and possible even define in play. Fate Core is very specific about this, and part of the game prep process is sitting down with your players to a) determine what kind of game you all want to play, b) generate characters, and c) define certain fixed points in the world. In play, it is possible to invoke aspects for effect to change the world on the fly; it's all part of heroing.

Also an intriguing setting in its own right, with
its fusion of  magic and science.
While rarely enshrined in the mechanics, this is something of an assumption with RPGs in general; that your PCs are free agents and can change the world. It's not going to be easy to rig the ballots, assassinate the king, or overthrow the deerocracy in favour of a system of government founded on the altogether more rational basis of strange women lying in ponds, but you could do it. If you were so inclined, you could walk straight past the tavern and camp in the woods, or mug the old storyteller and steal his stuff. In some cases this would be a total dick move, but consider - for example - The Ashes of Valkana. No spoilers, but if you've seen that through to the end you'll know that the party would have been entirely justified in telling one particular Quest Giver where to shove his giant, rotating exclamation mark, even if it would require the GM to wing it while they became fugitives from justice.

This is why 40K RPGs tend to favour a local setting. You're never going to overthrow the Adeptus Terra, the sheer scope of such an enterprise boggles the mind and would test the most robust of mechanics, involving as it would millions of ships the size of city blocks and a number of people that the brain can not comfortably encompass acting across a substantial percentage of the galaxy. You probably could do it, with a lot of effort and a highly narrative system, and it would be a very long shot, but manipulating planetary or even sector politics is a much more achievable goal, which makes it fun to try, while the difficulty of moving such a calcified system makes it potentially rewarding even if you fail, so long as you fail interestingly (cf. small victories in CoC.)

I'm out for the next couple of days, so I'll be back on Monday with a round-up of the next few topics. That will be 'perfect gaming environment', 'perfect game for me' and 'favourite house rule'. In the meantime, check out the hashtag for posts by folks who get at their keyboards during the weekend.

* Not that I've watched today's vid yet, so more fool me if he's talking about Puppetland.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 20 - The horror!

Prompt: Favourite horror game

Yeah, the immediate answer on this one is a bit of a no brainer. Call of Cthulhu may not be quite everyone's cup of gibbering cosmic terror, but it's kind of the horror game. Once more, James Holloway covers this better than I could, being a colossal Lovecraft nerd where I am more of a colossal dilettante nerd (not to say that he doesn't have his share of dilettantism, but Lovecraft is a bit of a specialty.)


So, to talk about something other than Lovecraft, what is the purpose and place of horror in gaming?

While the Big C... No, wait... While Cthulhu looms large in the background of any discussion of horror games, there was a time - the 90s - where the first and last word belonged to White Wolf's World of Darkness game series. Sort of. Vampire the Masquerade was billed as 'the storytelling game of personal horror' and Werewolf the Apocalypse as 'the storytelling game of savage horror', but Vampire games often ended up more towards a mafia-based soap opera in feeling, and Werewolf as Captain Planet: The Furry Years*, due to the former's emphasis on byzantine vampiric politics and the latter's on combat against truly and unequivocally monstrous foes. It was only with Wraith the Oblivion that White Wolf really produced a game that focused on horror thematically, rather than mechanically, but Wraith was an agonisingly difficult game to play well and a pain in the arse if you were playing it wrong.

I think in the end, the old World of Darkness failed as horror because their rationale for incorporating horror into the games was almost certainly, because this was the case with just about anything else, because it was cool, and horror that is cool is seldom really horror. I mean, did anyone ever watch The Lost Boys for the horror thrills?

In Call of Cthulhu and it's ilk, and perhaps in general, the primary purpose of horror is cathartic. As James notes in his video, the fact that you ultimately never win in CoC means that it's okay to lose, but it also means that small victories become triumphs as you overcome the unstoppable, if only for a moment. To me, that is part of the appeal of horror; not the inevitable defeat, but the small moments of triumph along the way. In vampire horror it's a major win making it to daybreak; in zombie horror a night of sleep is worth more than 100 gold and a really big party. Mere survival becomes a victory when victory becomes unattainable.

I guess that's why, for my money, Changeling the Lost is the most successful 'horror' game in the old and new WoD series, because it really is about facing something that you can never defeat; not just your Keeper, but your past. In some ways it ties in with the Lovecraft theme, because Lost is about characters who don't know who they are; whose very psyches are prone to collapse whenever the fragile networks of validation which they create are breached. Like Lovecraft himself, the Lost cling to evidence of identity and value that they know to be a lie, because they have nothing else. Creeping dread is difficult to maintain in the atmosphere of a gaming group - easier in many ways in LARP, which is more immersive - but identity crises can be managed with any group with a reasonable level of character investment.

And perhaps that's the real challenge to horror gaming: To find investment in a character you know to be short-lived. Certainly it's the real trick to horror writing, to snare the reader's sympathy for someone they know to be doomed.

* I'm being flippant, but I've enjoyed many games of both.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 19 - You'll Believe a Man Can Fly

Prompt: Favourite supers game
Oh, man; old White Wolf straplines. That was some
pretentious shit.

I've not played many superhero games, so while Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is almost certainly better, I'm going to pick out White Wolf's Aberrant - the second game of the Trinity Universe, set in the unimaginably far flung future Libertarian paradise of 2008 - as my favourite of those I have played.

Aberrant's advantage is not really its setting, which like all old White Wolf games is pinioned by the weight of a sacred metaplot, although there are aspects of that which I quite like. The basic spiel is that a disaster in an orbital space station bathes the world in phlebotinum radiation and superheroes are born when ordinary humans spontaneously manifest a nugget in their brains that allows them to control quantum energies and do stuff. What they can do varies massively, from 'supernormals' who are simply extraordinarily good at mundane skills, to Superman-style flying bricks, elemental manipulators, teleporters, speedsters, telepaths and everything in between. The in-all-other-games-largely-benevolent Aeon Society establishes itself as a registration agency for 'novas' and uses this to keep Earth's superhumans controlled, occupied and chemically sterilised.

What Abberant did pretty well was allow different power levels of Nova to play in the same ball park, although at the top end there wasn't much you could do about canon characters like Caestus Pax (black, officially sponsored Superman) or Divis Mal (godlike continuity-wide antagonist who might in fact have been able to just create his own world and fuck off into it if he got bored.) The only time you got to do anything involving them was in the canon campaign where you could watch Mal hand Pax his ass (oh, White Wolf.) But yeah; overall there was equal play in being a badass supernormal or the human bunsen burner, although the former tended to require a little more effort from the player*.


Scale is difficult in superhero games, and the reason for this is simple. Batman. As Captain Atom once pointed out, on the basis of his abilities, Batman is a comically underpowered C-lister. In universe he walks among the gods of the DCU because of his intelligence, tactical ability and the liberal application of headology (he can fight alongside the likes of Superman because he fights alongside the likes of Superman,) while in 'real' terms he does it because, well... he's Batman, and while most people accept that he's a bit of a cock, that doesn't stop them enjoying seeing him punch an uppity metahuman or alien god in the face***. If it wasn't for Batman, martial arts detectives would probably stay happily in their own genre, karate kicking mafiosi in the throat. Not even Frank Miller would envisage a scenario in which the Green Hornet and Kato went toe-to-toe with Superman.

But Batman is a superhero, and that makes things complicated****, because narrativism be damned, all RPGs contain an element of simulationism and superhero games in particular really like to define power sets, and that means you need a mechanic in which Batman doesn't just spend all his time in traction. Many approaches have been tried, from fate point-based meta-mechanics to the 'ah, fuck it' approach of early supers games, which just didn't try to balance. One I haven't seen yet - although Marvel Heroic Roleplaying's affiliations are similar - would be to link characters and stories to themes or genres, giving different characters an edge when a particular story is clearly taking place 'in their book'.

Advancement is also difficult. Most superheroes plateau fairly quickly, as the alternative is the kind of power creep that results in super-ventriloquism, whereas RPGs thrive on steady progression. D20 supers games are among the worst for this, since D20 assumes a protracted mook-punching phase in your career path, where most superhero narratives require a much quicker escalation (unless you're playing something more like Smallville, in which case you probably want the Smallville RPG,) and a system which requires you to jump over 10 levels of power progression to play what you want to play is the wrong system.

I guess what I'm saying is that superheroic roleplaying is hard because the mechanical side of RPGs entails the kind of specific analysis that superheroic fiction was never intended to weather. Superhero stories thrive on the willing suspension of disbelief, the acceptance that a man can fly. As soon as you start talking about the physics of it - well, once you get past the whole 'but science says a bumblebee can't fly'***** business - you're no longer willing that suspension, you are asking to be convinced, not just that Superman can fly, but that Batman, an ordinary human of extraordinary skill, could evade Darkseid's inescapable Omega Beams. Despite the massive crossover in fanbase, the gamer instinct to dissect and model is almost completely opposed to the comic reader instinct to accept and marvel; it's a curious phenomenon.

Come back tomorrow, when I think we're talking about horror. In the meantime, do look out the hashtag and in particular, while I've not seen it yet, I would be very surprised if James Holloway's video for today didn't have some interesting things to say, because the man knows his comics.

* One of the PC in my old campaign was a tactical genius, but the player never talked to me as the ST about what might be a genius tactic in a given situation, nor listened when I said something might not be**, thus never gained any advantage from the ability.
** Seriously; there is a particular class of player who ignore GM cautions and seem to believe that the world that the GM has created and the situations that they have crafted will somehow prove the GM wrong. This is not the same as coming up with solutions that the GM didn't think of, which is awesome. It's as if you were doing the Monty Hall problem, but instead of Monty revealing one of the doors you didn't choose had a goat behind it, he opened the door where the car was and you still chose a different door.
*** The Golden and Silver Age mash-up series The New Frontier had my favourite take on the Batman vs. Superman fight ever; I won't spoil it for you if you've not read it.
**** Starting with screwing up the definition of superhero.
***** It says no such thing. What it used to say was that it didn't understand how a bumblebee could fly and wouldn't it be nice to have faster cameras so we could work it out.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 18 - SCIENCE!

Prompt: Favourite sci-fi game

And when we say that in the grim darkness of the far
future there is only war, what we mean is that changing
tagline over 6 editions is for wussies.
Despite the picture, Warhammer 40,000 isn't my favourite SF game, largely because it's not an RPG and I don't wargame. There are plenty of 40K RPGs, of course; almost too many, each with subtle rules variations, but in the end mostly too complicated to be my favourite game (but wait until we talk about settings.)

SF gaming, as I mentioned yesterday, has fewer iconic games than fantasy. James Holloway touches on the same topic in today's video*. I think what it comes down to is that SF fandom is more compartmentalised than that of fantasy. Plenty of fantasy fans are willing to argue over whether David Eddings or Robert Jordan or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Rapist are good or bad, but very few who care to stand up and say that by failing to adhere to the Judeo-Christian framework adopted to a greater or lesser degree by Tolkien or Lewis, they aren't really fantasy, whereas what is and isn't SF or scifi or speculative fiction is a discussion that can get real nasty, real fast (never mind Trek vs Wars, hard vs soft** is a regular bag of cats.) Fantasy is a melting pot; SF is an uneasy federation of mutually antagonistic sub-genres.

Traveller is the ur-hard SF game, and displays one of the major problems of that subset. By undertaking to be hard SF, is simultaneously demands a vast array of technologies real, theorised and speculative, and a gritty, simulationist approach, which is why there are editions of the game in which you can spend upwards of an hour designing a gun and calculating its stats from its barrel length, calibre, propellant and other specifics. I was well into that when I was thirteen, but these days I treasure simplicity.

At the far end of the spectrum is Paranoia, a game with minimal stats and technology that works (or doesn't) just because (blue lasers are higher clearance than red lasers, thus blue lasers pierce red armour, but red lasers don't pierce blue armour, despite the only described difference being the colour.)

Somewhere in the middle lie the vast - and I mean vast - array of licensed SF RPGs. SF vies with superheroes for the title of most licensed RPG genre (or would if that was a title anyone cared about) and that again is an oddity, because an RPG invariably demands more detail than the show or movie provides and thus the creation of a whole mess of fragile and occasionally contentious deuterocanon (the arguments over the canonicity of the described nature of Ra from the Stargate movie in SG-1 terms in the latter's RPG were rivaled for ferocity by little on the Gateworld forums.) Also in this hinterland are the likes of White Wolf's old Trinity continuity, which in and of themselves ran the gamut from pulp action (Adventure) to comic book supers (Aberrant) and into psy-fi (Trinity,) representing the increasingly fine detail of the powers as a shift in genre to a harder style of SF.

In summary, the SF RPG market is splintered because SF fans... I'm not sure how to put this. It's not that fantasy fandom doesn't have opinions, oh gods does fantasy fandom have opinions, rather than opinions in fantasy tend to be qualitative and continuous, whereas SF fans make discrete, even binary judgements not of whether a thing is good SF, but whether it is SF at all***.

* And yes; I wish I'd thought to call my post Science Fiction Double Feature.
** Dating back at least to Verne vs. Wells.
*** And not just fans. Margaret Atwood is arguably an SF author (sometimes), but she denies it (always.)

Monday, 17 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 17 - You're in a crowded market...

Prompt: Favourite fantasy RPG
This is what happens when Fantasy Flight make an RPG. I hear good things,
but seriously: "Forget paper, pencil, dice and friends; I need a wagon!"

No surprises on this response for those who followed my #rpgaday entries last year. I remain a huge fan of WFRP, despite the immensely problematic issue of the rules. 2nd edition, which I dearly loved, was still insanely overcomplicated, while 3rd edition manages the complications with a system of intuitive cards and counters, but requires, therefore, a lot of cards and counters to play, in addition to its own special dice. I don't think there is a version in print at the moment, but between the second edition ruleset and first edition setting material, I still love it to bits.


Fantasy is surely both the easiest and the hardest genre to set an RPG in. On the one hand, it is in many ways still the go-to genre for roleplaying as a whole (SF is really giving it a run for its money, but getting on for half of all horror games are really just Gothic or urban fantasy with fangs and open shirt-fronts.) On the other, while that means there is a much larger market than for other genres, that market is equally or even more so the most crowded. From my essentially dilettante viewpoint, I would say that both the dominance and the overcrowding of the fantasy RPG market are in decline, with SF and contemporary material on the rise, but as long as there is D&D roleplaying will remain in the domain of fantasy.

What this means for Johnny Aspiring Gamewriter is that while fantasy RPGs are a little more likely to be well received (and not least because SF fandom tends to be significantly more compartmentalised,) it's much harder to stand out from the crowd. You need to tick the boxes, but think outside them, and that's increasingly difficult to do. What if the orcs were heroes? It's been done. Elves are bastards? So done. All the characters are trees...? Probably done*. It's not enough to slap together a post-Tolkien Euro-setting and put some numbers on it, because there are literally dozens of those around.

WFRP succeeded by having a grittier setting with an emphasis on a more concrete role for adventurers (the career system, which in its fullest application basically involved characters looking for employers on a semi-regular basis although as early teen players we didn't really think about that,) more restricted magic and a culture more in keeping with the European Renaissance than traditional fantasy kingdoms. Later editions pushed a higher fantasy aesthetic by increasing the bond with the wargame and making different nations into much more obvious hat cultures instead of flavours of money-grubbing rogues, but I always liked the original.

Of course, now they've blown up the Warhammer World in favour of the Age of Sigmar, cyclical time, fantasy Space Marines and Threx Skullbrand the Bloodsecrator of Khorne. I guess it stands out at least; I can't think of much else that has bloodsecrators in it**.

As ever - well, until the end of the month - come back tomorrow for more from #rpgaday, and in the meantime, check out the hashtag.

* Note to self - write an RPG in which all the characters are trees.
** Exploitable niche or not, I won't be the man to answer the call for more bloodsecrators.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 16 - The long, dark night of the SAN

Prompt: Longest session played

The longest sessions I've played were probably university all-nighters, having assiduously avoided all-IC weekenders. This is because the former experience taught me that I ought not to roleplay when falling-down-tired. IC bleed doesn't begin to cover it.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 15 - Eternity awaits

Prompt: Longest campaign played

The old IoD chronicle ran for like a decade or something, so that would be the one. On the other hand, that chronicle really showed the perils of an open-ended game, with many of the games mired in a stew of demotivation and power-imbalance. For every triumph there were half a dozen annoyances, and despite the opposition to the concept of a reset when it was first discussed, the enthusiasm for the new chronicle is much greater than the old.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 14 - Accessorise

Prompt: Favourite RPG accessory

As a primarily online GM, my favourite accessory is either something I have already written about, the roll20 virtual desktop, or wikis. Wikis are a superb place to keep game information, and Obsidian Portal even allows me as GM to record things that the players can't see, so I can - for example - record NPC stats and other notes right below the part which talks about what the PCs know. As a player, I also enjoy creating, editing and maintaining wikis as a current record of the world.

I'm playing catchup again, so nothing further on this one.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 13 - Always standing in the rain while they have fun...

Prompt: Favourite RPG podcast

So, oddly for someone as into audiodrama and audiobooks as I am, I've never really been podcast guy. Perhaps it's because there was such a bewildering assortment to choose from, each with an imposing back catalogue, by the time I actually got around to having any kind of tech that made it feasible to follow them? I don't know.

I probably should. I hear great things about Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and my friend Matt's Dissecting Worlds podcast is talked up by people who aren't him (although that's more general fantastic literature with a gaming sensibility than a gaming podcast.)


Probably the nearest thing to an RPG podcast that I follow is Titansgrave, which is to RPG as Tabletop is to board/card/dice games, which is to say celebrity poker for the gaming crowd, and like celebrity poker, I'm not sure why anyone ever thought it would work, but it seems to. There is definitely something a bit odd about watching other people have fun. Sure, most forms of entertainment are better when the performers are evidently enjoying their work, but this is a bit different. We are watching people playing a game to amuse themselves; entertainers, yes, but primarily their focus must be on the game that they are playing, otherwise what is the point at all?
That's right; it's a licensed product based on a
web-series of people playing this game. Stick
that in your recursive meta-pipe and smoke it.

Also, campaignwise it's escalated pretty meteorically from roughing up toughs for five gold and a party to some major world-saving. I think it might have benefited from a slightly longer series and more gradual character development.

And yet, I do enjoy it. Not as much as I enjoy gaming, but... it's not like I've never done it in person. Sometimes you drop in on someone's game while you're visiting, and if they're all cool with that it can be fun to watch them. It's not as good as playing, but it can be fun. Not that the format is a surefire win. I've watched a couple of other 'display' games, and while one was enjoyable, the other was not, largely because of the antagonistic nature of the module being played (Tomb of Horrors, a module designed to be as punishingly unfair as possible) and the dude playing a Chinese thief with a horrible accent. (I'm not sure I'd have minded much in person, but what is just a terrible accent within your group seems more offensive when you know you're being put out on the internet.)

Now, celebrity poker I do not get.

Come back... well, probably next week as tomorrow I am off to use up my last bit of holiday before October, when the topic will be my favourite RPG accessory.

Until then, keep checking out the hashtag, #rpgaday, which I will totally remember to use in the post today.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 12 - Dig if you will a picture

Prompt: Favourite RPG illustration

The new World of Darkness, by William Harper; (c) William Harper,
I love this thing. It's gorgeous, and clearly describes a damned complicated cosmology formed from the interactions of half a dozen game lines.


Part of the reason I love this image is that I like cosmology. I'm a big fan of fictional realities with layers of different worlds; faerie worlds and underworlds and overworlds. I'm a compulsive cosmology scribbler myself, and while the 3 x 3 afterlives of AD&D's alignment system is a little more celebrity squares than I like, I enjoy looking at the way they interact with the material world and its human - or other - cultures.

Maybe it's the anthropologist in me, but I love this stuff. Perhaps the best game for it is Heroquest; not the boardgame, but the RPG of magical barbarian tribes, in which the myths of the tribes occupy the God Time in which they happen constantly, and humans can enter the God Time via heroquests to interact with the myths and bring good shit back for their tribe just like their gods and founder heroes did.

Anyway, that's me up to date (haha!)

Catch more talk about RPG art on the hashtag #rpgaday and, as usual, checkout James Holloway's video posts for a far more informed and exhaustive offering. I'll be back tomorrow to talk about the thing that we have to talk about on day 13 (favourite RPG podcast.)

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 11 - Beyond Our Ken

Prompt: Favourite RPG writer

This is another topic in which my shocking ignorance of the people who make the games I play shows. Honestly, it's especially disgusting since so many of my friends have them all over their G+ circles.

Ken Hite is the one I know best, having followed him on and off since Suppressed Transmission. More recently Grant Howitt, author of Goblin Quest.

I was going to talk about writing RPGs in general, but it's late and I'm tired. Still, I'm almost up to date.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 10 - Publishers

Prompt: Favourite RPG publisher

Okay, this one is where I show my ignorance. I barely think about publishers, so... Well, actually that's not true. I follow Onyx Path's dev blog because I find their open development process interesting, even if I'm unlikely to buy much of their stuff (or any stuff; stoopid penury.) I am also constantly in awe of Fantasy Flight and their ability to add bits to a perfectly ordinary game.

That's all folks, as I'm still behind and I won't be able to write anything this weekend either.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 9 - Off License

Prompt: Favourite media you wish was an RPG
I hear swell things about Leverage, but notably
that is a flagship application of the Cortex Plus

Well, last year I covered most of this in my post about licensed RPGs. I'm not typically sold on licensed RPGs and thus rarely feel that what I really want is for someone to publish an RPG of my favourite media, especially when I could alternatively just hack something under Fate Core or Unisystem, or - although I have less experience of this one - Cortex Plus.

Cortex Plus seems to be pretty much designed for licensed products, with notable releases including Leverage, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Smallville and Firefly (not to be confused with the Serenity RPG which was mostly noted for having a character sheet complex enough to make your eyes bleed.) Pretty much all of the above have been well received, but I would still rather have a basic system to play with myself (although I entirely understand the fiscal appeal of the licensed property.) Some day I may pick up the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide, but I don't actually know if it contains the basics to run from.


Fate Core is a lovely system because it's built to be adaptable without additional material. Adapting an existing setting to Fate Core is a three stage process:

1) Define Aspects - By default, Fate Core characters have five Aspects: Their High Concept, their Trouble, and three relating to their background which are defined in concert with the other players (Fate Core is a fundamentally cooperative system.) By changing these categories, you can alter the focus of the game. Perhaps in a supers game, 'Trouble' could be replaced with 'Power Source', an Aspect that defines where your powers come from, and by extension how they can be taken away. In an espionage or heist game, each of the later three Aspects could be a lesson learned in a past gig: 'Never Trust a Dame', 'Don't Get Personal', or 'Always Check Your Exits'. In a more structured horror setting you might have a High Concept, a Dark Secret, a Known Fear, a Secret Fear and a Survival Trait.

For the 80s Cartoon game I hope to run some day, I'd go with something like: High Concept, Focus Flaw (the problem you have when the episode gets to being about you), Meaningful Codename, Weapon and Vehicle/Suit/Totem Animal.

2) Set Skill list and Refresh level - Decide how many and what skills to use. Small skill lists result in more generalist characters; longer ones demand specialists. You then set the Refresh level (starting Fate Points), which can be dropped to buy additional stunts an (if you have them) powers. More Refresh means potentially greater powers and more flexibility; less means specialise and chose your moments carefully.

The Cartoon game is unlikely to need a large skill set, and much is likely to be determine by dramatic twists. I'd go for a short skill list and high Refresh.

3) Determine extras - This is either the biggest or the smallest job, as you could do anything from deciding that, fuck it, you're good with the core system to adding complete magic systems, super powers and other weirdness.

Again, taking the 80s Cartoon example, you'd probably need something tailored around the vehicles or powers that form the theme of the 'show', probably represented by a set of Aspects and Stunts to be used when in the vehicle/suit/Mummy form, either in place of or in addition to the regular ones.

And that's it, pretty much. Stunts are freeform, so no major front-loading is required there. As I say, this is what I love about Fate Core. It can't do everything, but anything it can do it does simply and easily.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 8 - Picture this...

Prompt: Favourite appearance of RPGs in the media

Gamers are winners (and winners don't do drugs!)
So, I was going to talk about Community's use of D&D, but I figure that it's pretty much been done, and that James has summed up why at least as well as I could. To paraphrase, although gaming is part of the joke, it is primarily a vehicle for a different joke, rather than being the joke itself.

I will say that I enjoyed seeing gaming presented positively, instead of either as a shorthand for social ineptitude or the incarnation of evil a la Mazes and Monsters or Skullduggery. My favourite part of Community's D&D appearances is in the second episode, when it is just dropped in that the study group, having assembled to run a single game for a particular purpose, have also taken up D&D as a hobby (and potential psychological healing tool.) While I know that it bothers some people, I also quite like that Abed is depicted as a thorough, but overall quite poor DM due to his absolute insistence on a strictly simulationist approach.


More recent appearances of RPGs reflect a shift in perception away from the Patricia Pulling, Jack Chick 'gaming is the devil's work' approach. Through shows such as Glee, Freaks & Geeks and perhaps most deliberately the (ultimately flawed) The Big Bang Theory, we are moving past the occasional resurgence of the 'geeks are cool' idea to something rather more important; the perception that nerds are normal. I'm a professional administrator and I have no problems telling my colleagues that I sometimes spend the weekend shooting Nerf guns at friends; something I would not have done when I started in this gig fifteen years ago.

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 7 - Free, to do what I want

Prompt: Favourite free RPG

The free edition has a cover that is just a
starfield, but a) all available images are tiny,
and b) with enough time you could count the
stars, making the title inaccurate.
This is a tough one to answer, because I'm not really clued into the sort of gaming networks that would point me to promising free games, and because there are so many of them I don't tend to grab them without that guidance. Time is as limited a resource for me as money. 

The free game I've had most fun with Stars Without Number, but actually while I had the free version, the full game was also sold commercially. SWN is part of the Old School Renaissance, based on the rules of early versions of D&D and their contemporaries, with at least three different resolution mechanics (roll high on d20 attack rolls, roll low on d20 saving throws and roll high on 3d6 + modifier skill rolls,) 3-18 attributes converting to -3 to +3 modifiers and class-based progression, set in a sprawling space opera universe where the once mighty domain of the Mandate has been shattered by the catastrophic loss of much of their technology and infrastructure in an enigmatic event called the Scream. It's a lot of fun, but of course in part that's down to the GM. 

I also had a lot of fun with a one off called Lady Blackbird, which is presented as a free introductory scenario and quick-play rules for a larger game that doesn't exist. The creators, One Seven Design, do a lot of these, and while their replay value is limited, they all look pretty interesting.


I was going to talk about the OSR in my expanded section of this post, but honestly I know jack about the OSR and other people have already discussed it much better. Besides, I'm now four days behind, having skipped the weekend for gaming away from computers and internets, so let's move on.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 6 - Core competences

Prompt: Most recent RPG played

Like Feng Shui before it, Fate Core rocks the
appeal of combining gunplay, swordplay, magic and
cyborg apes.
The most recent game I've played is my by-Skype Fate Core game, Operatives of CROSSBOW. If this were the prompt for Monday it would be No Rest for the Wicked. So it goes. I talked about Fate Core a fair bit last year, I think, but what I love most about it is its flexibility. It's designed as a moderately universal system, and it is in terms of content. You can run pretty much any sort of story under Fate Core, which is not to say that it is the only game you'll ever need. It only has one style of play; as crunchy as you might make the skill set, it is fundamentally a collaborative narrativist game and will never be hardcore simulationist or competitive.

The content customisation is vast, however. Permanent and transitory qualities of people, objects and places are described by Aspects, the abilities of animate beings by Skills and special abilities by Stunts. Anything else can be tacked on. I created three magic systems for CROSSBOW in about an hour, although I'd spend longer if they were a major part of the game or if how they worked mattered.

The next game I have planned will likely also run in Fate Core, because I like being able to stat an NPC in seconds and because an 80s action TV inspired game isn't right for Gumshoe.


So, my broader discussion is on adaptability.

Generally, the simpler a system, the easier it is to adapt. Fate Core is designed for it, and keeps things nice and simple. Skills are trained abilities and give a flat bonus for rolls based on that skill. Aspects define intrinsic properties and can be invoked by spending Fate points or by Creating an Advantage, an action which either creates or exploits an existing Aspect and usually gives free invokes. Stunts either provide a narrow +2 bonus or some means of bending the rules in a specific situation. Stunts can easily be expanded to provide systems of magic and superpowers, and Aspects to include a heroic origin or mystical nature. Skills are tailored to setting.

Power systems are always the most complicated, often requiring substantial front loading (see for example the Dresden Files RPG,) and the one restriction I would tend to go with in any similar game having played The Dresden Files is 'all wizards or no wizards'. They're just too much more complicated, and while an all-wizard group would all know the rules pretty well (we hope) the players of a vampire, a sea monster and a faerie have no cause to learn those rules and you can end up with the wizard's player and GM spending a lot of time referring to the book (seriously, they're complex as hell, and I played Ascension.) I guess you could be more flexible once you were comfortable with the system, but not at first.

Unisystem Lite was my old go-to for conversion, but again it requires a lot of front-loading. My Stargate and Star Wars ports each had a few bits of description and a crap tonne of Qualities and Drawbacks. Still, it worked pretty well. Gumshoe would almost certainly port easily to pretty much any investigative setting, again with a bit of front loading on career profiles.

D20 on the other hand, basically needs a core book to use. You could work from just the basics, but creating and balancing classes is hard to do and pretty much impossible on the fly, and just look how many professionally produced licensed games screwed it up. This is because D20 is complicated. Its simplest iteration is D20 Call of Cthulhu, best described as an interesting experiment, which pares the system to the bones (its classes are 'offence' and 'defence' and are only very slightly different.) D20 works pretty well for a game with a zero to hero ethos, where PCs start off weak and become mighty, facing appropriate enemies all the way up.

Similarly, anything gritty and simulationist is likely to be rules heavy and thus hard to adapt, even though it should be pretty straightforward since its job is to be a simulation engine and thus relatively free of fiddling narrative conventions. The problem is that each setting then requires fixed rules for anything specific to that setting, which are often difficult to develop on the fly.

Ironically, the worst system to approach for adaptation is something like GURPS, which was to all appearances designed to be a universal, largely simulationist game engine and then incorporated a massive corpus of specific exceptions, including rules for simulating narrative conventions such as Anime Hammerspace.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 5 - ...if they're really out to get you

Prompt: Most recent RPG purchase

Happiness is mandatory. Are you happy?
My most recent RPG purchase is Paranoia, the latest edition of the classic game of Kafkaesque farce and Orwellian pratfalls. This most recent variation was a Kickstarter, so I don't actually have the game yet, but it is the most recent I have bought.


So, from Paranoia, let's talk about avoiding the obvious.

Paranoia addressed this issue in its XP iteration with three play modes. Zap! was the mode usually fallen into by casual players and GMs, with clones dying left right and centre and the players spending much of their time in literally inescapable death traps and no-win situations. It's fun for an afternoon, but has very little campaign potential. Classic was the intended default, although as noted, default tended to drift easily towards Zap!, and was Paranoia as dark comedy. Straight was Paranoia played, well, straight, as a genuinely dark and moody dystopian setting, with any humour treacle-black.

And most games have an obvious implementation, either stylistically or narratively. D&D and D20 games in general lend themselves to combat (although see James Holloway's Day 4 video,) simply by virtue of having more rules for combat than for anything else. In fact, most games tend towards an action-focus, but this is not to say that they can not be anything other. Especially in later editions, it is perfectly possible to play D&D and broker peace between the goblins and the humans, or to seek a flower by stealth from the heart of a sacred wood, spilling no blood therein.  The key to such a narrative - and the reason you couldn't easily use both of the preceding - lies in defying expectations; in shaking up the PCs and players to see what happens. You change the story and you force the players to act differently, reexamining their goals and priorities and hopefully finding almost a whole new game in the process.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 4 - Zool motherfucker, Zool!!!

Prompt: Most surprising game

Right; it's a steampunk game set in 19th Century Bavaria with airships and castles and Ludwig II and faeries and magic and Phineas Fogg and Sherlock Holmes and at the same time Conan Doyle and Jules Verne and Wells and all that good shit. Oh hells yeah! Sign me the fuck up!

Castle Falkenstein surprised me; and... not in a good way. It had my name all over it and yet it was just bad.

I think the real killer was the presentation; more than half of the book was fluff fiction about the adventures of some dude who was translated from the real world to the world of Castle Falkenstein and had paradigm-shaping adventures there. Adventures that you can't have, because he's already had them. Sure, you could back hack it, but the assumed setting of the game is that John Carter of Falkenstein has already done loads of cool shit that established the world as it stands and pretty much married the action princess to boot. This also means that the game constantly hangs a lampshade on the fact that authors and their creations exist side-by-side.

To add insult to injury, the game rules are also presented from the perspective of our wanderer in the dimensions, as a pastime he's invented to amuse his friends in between bout of heroism, so in a way the conceit of the game is not that you are playing steampunk adventurers in a magical realm of airships and faeries, but rather a bunch of bored aristocrats in a magical realm of airships and faeries who are in turn playing actual adventurers.

The game itself isn't bad, I just never escaped the image of this smug, imaginary tosser inviting me to pretend I'm as cool as he is.


So, my broader topic is expectation and disappointment, and how they can completely hammer a game for you. I expected big things of Falkenstein, and of 7th Sea, and it hurt my enjoyment that those expectations weren't met. Falkenstein got so caught up in its unnecessary crossworlds conceit that it completely failed to grip me. If I'm playing a game, I know it's not real, but if said game goes out of its way to add an extra layer of unreality, what's the point? It's as if the World of Warcraft RPG was presented as if simulating a group of gamers playing a MMORPG on their computers.
All of the books have '1668' written at the
bottom, which suggested a historical setting to
me. Mind you, let's take a moment to deal with
that armour. If this were on the core book, I'd
have felt myself forewarned.

In 7th Sea it was the failure of the game to be about the kind of things that interested me in the potential setting. The anachronistic stew of stereotypes (sinister Italians, brutish Irish, stoic Germans etc) wasn't much help, but ultimately it was the existence of a pervasive magic system that really nettled me. Magic feels to me like the antithesis of swashbuckling, which is all about physical refinement and discipline, cunning plans and daring escapes. Magic is more calculating and cerebral. If it is present in swashbuckling it should be in the background, a mysterious force, like fate, against which the heroes struggle to emerge triumphant. It shouldn't be routine, nor a force that the heroes can easily wield.

I don't know if 7th Sea is a good game, because I couldn't get past my initial disappointment. I hear good things, but mostly from people who clearly want something very different from what I want from a swashbuckling game. My ex raved about a campaign in which her PC spent almost all of her time as a cat, which does not feel like swashbuckling to me. A cat can't even carry a buckler (you know, unless you're playing Redwall the RPG.)

And then there was Mage the Awakening. People sometimes talk about games in terms of relationships, well Awakening was my ill-advised rebound game. I could never quite forgive it for not being its predecessor, Mage the Ascension, while still reminding me of it.

In summary: Never expect.

Monday, 3 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 3 - It's a new dawn, it's a new game

Prompt: Favourite new game of the last 12 months

This one is tricky, because I don't buy a lot of games, and I've already talked about Goblin Quest. Also, this could be read as specifically new releases, rather than just new to me, in which case... Well, again, it's really just a couple of Kickstarters.

Favourite game that is new to me is No Rest for the Wicked, a Warhammer 40K LARP run by friends with a commercial sensibility. It's interesting, because it's a system in flux. Pretty much every application brings up new issues and there's a lot of revision and rewriting, but without much fuss or complaining about how it's ruined now or how the changes are ruining player X's game; just reasonable critique and comment. It's refreshing to see.

Gratuitous kit shot!

A little more on topic, and separate from yesterday's discussion of Kickstarters, I'm going to consider what prompts me to buy - or more often these days want to buy - a new game.

I'm a sucker for presentation, I won't lie. It's not just that I want a game to look pretty, I want to be able to find things. Layout and structure matter, and important rules shouldn't be hard to locate. I hated the Ascension LARP core book because it was so badly structured I could barely find anything and I have the same problem with Stars Without Number (although in fairness, that's the free edition, so I don't think it's had the editorial love the full release got.)

I'm interested in system, but not obsessed. Setting is more important to me, and it was - for example - the setting of 7th Sea that turned me off the game, the anachronism stew making for a less satisfying dish - to me - than the more nuanced intrigues and anti-establishment capers that I might hope for from a swashbuckling game. Similarly... but I'll talk about that tomorrow.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 2 - This is my quest...

Prompt: Kickstarted game you are most pleased you backed

This is a goblin bard, or possibly just a
goblin with what I will charitably call a
lute. I'm not sure there's a difference.
I don't usually schill, but I pushed the Kickstarter campaign for Goblin Quest. I can't imagine I pumped the total more than a few quid, since a lot of people I know are on first name terms with the writer, but it's the principle of the thing. Partly I backed it because I like Grant Howitt as a writer, but the concept appealed to me, and far more than the core game the idea of a flexible party game that could be adapted to oh, okay, I was totally in it for the idea of 'Sean Bean Quest', a rules hack about many incarnations of Sean Bean trying to escape the Bean curse which inevitably kills them before the credits.


But enough of Goblin Quest, for now at least; let's talk Kickstarters. What do we - or, let's be honest, what do I - want from a Kickstarter?

Well, first up, I want a book. I am very unlikely to back based on a PDF, or even a tonne of PDFs of older material. If I back a game, I want to know I'm going to get something physical, with pages I can turn instead of scrolling. This means that I tend not to back projects that don't have a mid-tier option for the book and more or less just the book, although I may see if someone I know is backing and ask them to add in an extra copy of the book

I'm also more interested in extra game material as stretch goals than extra goodies, and I want a sign that the makers are reasonably aware of their risks and liabilities. I knew that GC risked non release given the number of stretch goals, but was enthused by Grant's openness about having absolutely no idea how he was going to cope with some of the promises, especially Sean Bean Quest.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

#RPGaDay 2015: Day 1 - The Shape of Things to Come

Prompt: Forthcoming game you are most looking forward to

The simple answer to this one is the World of Darkness 2nd edition releases in general, and Awakening in particular, because although I will probably never play them it is fascinating to me to see how they address issues which the IoD discovered in play, and how they change the mechanics of the game to clarify the setting.
I don't care how clearly it's a rhomboid jellyfish,
I'm sticking with pyrasquid.

I also find it interesting that they were not originally touted as second editions, but as the [Antagonist] Chronicles. The initial pitch was that these were almost subsets of the main game, assuming certain metapoints in a way that The World of Darkness assiduously didn't. It was clear from The God Machine Chronicle/The World of Darkness Second Edition onwards that the mechanics were being drastically overhauled; not in a way that entirely worked for LARP, but then it wasn't supposed to, and the prospects for TT were good.

Awakening especially impresses me because it seems to be making tangible strides towards a game engine that specifically models the purpose of the game. Routine magical defence no longer inhibits your ability to do other things, because the game is about exploring mysteries, and you can't do that if you're scared all the time. While secrets need work to uncover, you no longer need a significant effort to just see the weirdness around you, because the game is about seeing the weirdness. Routine stuff is no longer allowed to get in the way of the point of the game, is what I'm saying. It's a move away from simulationism - not that WoD was ever hardcore simulationist - towards a more narrative focus. It's there in the very core concept of the new game: You are a mage, and mages investigate mysteries, they don't pussyfoot around wondering if they dare drop their sights or their armour, and the best way to encourage players to just get in there is to make it so that they don't have to.

I strongly suspect that Awakening 2nd edition would be completely impractical for live play, but then I don't play live age anymore.


New editions are always a thing in gaming; a chance to do something new with an existing property; a chance to correct mistakes, iron out the wrinkles and get rid of that one thing that makes you cringe each time you read it. The original WoD games were pretty rough and ready, and Vampire and Werewolf were being revised even before half the games were in first edition.

What should a 2nd (or later) edition do?

1) Develop substantially on the previous edition.

Seriously; there's no point in producing a new core book for small changes; well, no point except grafting and gamers are hard to squeeze; not because they're canny, but because so many of them are skint. Now that a book comes in at £30-£50 print and £15-£30 PDF, we're careful with our money, so we're not just looking for substantial change, we want development; for the new product to build on the other rather than just having change for change's sake. It should tighten what is loose, clarify what is vague and in all ways address existing concerns to make the game more playable.

2) No exploding metaplot.

White Wolf's new editions laboured under the weight of metaplot. Much of it was ignorable, but later Mage editions in particular were cumbersome with it, to the point of hamstringing a number of factions by incorporating elements which established that in the grand struggle to establish the nature of reality, there were PC splats that were just plain wrong.  It was also unstoppable; there was never anything the PCs could do about the metaplot.

Similarly, the new version of WFRP - not the boxed set; the one before that - revised the Old World setting into line with the current Warhammer Fantasy Battle background; more epic, more heroic*, less grubby. I liked the world grubby. Of course, then they blew the new version up and replaced it with the Age of Sigmar, which is pretty much WFB turned up to 40,000. I doubt that an Age of Sigmar RPG could go much more than a few sessions, although it might be fun while it lasted.

3) Continuity of concept.

Again, coming back to Mage the Ascension, the final edition made traumatic changes to the nature of the underlying ontology that kind of rendered all previous material moot by establishing an objective reality.

4) Lack of repetition.

A big part of the continuity thing is that the new edition should build on, rather than replacing the old. Back compatibility to keep your old books as a worthwhile investment and a live resource does wonders.

So, in summary, a new edition should build on the old, not knock it down and start again or mutate it out of all recognisable shape. It should improve, and should be playable with the older material with no or minimal hacking required. I'm pretty sure that Awakening 2nd doesn't do all these things, being a massive do-over, but c'est la vie. I've never been fond of ideals, I guess.

Look for the hashtag #rpgaday for more RPG a Day thoughts.

* Although saying that, it did massively reduce the number of magical items floating around the world.