Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Monte Cook returns to the fold

The big bear has come out of hibernation, it seems. In this case, the bear is WotC and it's hungry. Seeing the upstart Paizo eating its lunch for the last year or so, WotC has decided to bring some gaming royalty onboard to reinvigorate the brand. Monte Cook is joining the D&D R&D department. It's on!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What am I reading?

I check the blog daily to see if anything is going on and since its been a while since we've posted anything, it is time.

Two weeks ago we started a new campaign. Everyone is playing their new characters to the hilt and is eager to get back into the swing of things after taking most of August off. We'll be enjoying a small interlude as I attempt a TPK using a rather over-powered boss from an adventure path we have yet to play (we're missing people this weekend).

I continue to zip through novels. In the last couple months I've read about half of Michael Moorcock's Elric books, and the first Chronicles of Amber. I quite enjoyed the first one but I put the second Chronicles down about half way through book 2 (or book 7) and never picked it back up. Not sure why I didn't like the second as much. It just had a very different feel from the first series and I didn't get into it as much.

My grand plan is to read the entire Wheel of time series start to finish. The last time I did it was about 10 years ago which involved reading parts 1-10. With the final book being released in April, I figure it will take about 6-7 months to read the first 13 volumes again. I have yet to read part 13. What to read until I start my Odyssey in October? Poking through my digital book collection, I discovered that I had Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. It seemed logical that since he was finishing the Wheel of Time I should check it out.

I am pleasantly surprised. The first book was very enjoyable and I'm constantly trying to find time to work on book 2. The world is logical but mysterious, the "magic" systems make sense, and he writes interesting and realistic characters. The plots are well laid out and make sense, the point of views are easy to follow and he has good pacing. I'm always a bit apprehensive starting a new series because I tend to try to stick it out even when they are almost unreadable (I'm looking at you Steven Erikson). But at the mid point of book 2, I'm still quite happy with my decision to read them and I can honestly say I'm not really sure where he's going to take the series. I highly recommend it.

Friday, September 09, 2011 that how it works?

I have never given much thought to the GNS Theory or the Threefold Model or any other theory related to rpg design, for two reasons. One, I don't care. My sole criteria for buying a game is how much fun I think it will be. Typically, I go for games with well-developed rules for combat (as I likes me some hackin' an' slashin') and lots of options for character building. A cool game setting helps too. The other reason is that I've never had a clear understanding of the different components of the models. I have a pretty good idea what Gamism is, largely because the classic example of Gamism is D&D in all its iterations. Typically, we talk about rpgs being non-competitive. There are no winners or losers. Compared to boardgames or CCGs, that's true. But clearly, games like D&D are competitive. You don't compete against your fellow players, but you do compete against the world controlled by the DM. Victory is achieved by gaining treasure or levels or in-game objectives, while defeat typically means character death. So, having established that rpgs like D&D are competitive, the gamism comes into play with issues such as game balance and setting victory conditions. Now sit down, you OSR guys. I played old-school D&D and there most certainly was game balance. Monsters were defined by level and typically, the deeper underground you ventured, the deadlier the monsters became. Game balance wasn't as strictly defined as it would become in later editions, but players still knew that they wouldn't face an ancient red dragon in the first level of the dungeon.

Likewise, I sort of understand what Simulationism means, although the definition seems a bit fuzzy when applied to modern games. Basically, simulationist games try to model the reality of the game world as accurately as possible. In older games, this typically meant modelling reality itself. For example, RuneQuest was more simulationist than D&D because it had hit location tables and armour-as-damage-reduction and other aspects which made combat more realistic (and more deadly). However, the broader definition means modelling a reality defined by the setting. If you had a game based on cartoon physics, for example, you would have to include rules that accurately model the fact that you don't fall after running off a cliff until you notice that you have done so.

Where the GNS Theory really breaks down for me is Narrativism. I have read the definition on Wikipedia and the best I could distill from the verbal diarrhea is that narrativism is role-playing, you know, all the stuff we do between fights. Deciding that your elven character doesn't like dwarves, knowing full well your buddy is going to play a dwarf, then playing up the conflict, that's narrativism. By this definition, every damn role-playing game ever written is narrativist, making it a fairly unhelpful term for defining game design characteristics. Now, there are games like Vampire: The Masquerade which are described as narrativist, or, I suppose, more narrativist than every other narrativist game. So, I assumed that meant you spend less time throwing dice and more time talking about your character's alienation. However, I have recently uncovered some information which suggests to me there is something more to narrativism than I thought. Reading up on the HeroQuest rpg from Moon Design (under license from Issaries), I found this little tidbit regarding the narrativist aspect of the game:

The game's mechanics are focused on quick resolution; Contests are resolved by comparing the results of two twenty sided dice, each tied to a character ability chosen by players and/or narrator. After the die roll, the participants work together to interpret the outcome in story terms.

So, apparently narrativism actually impacts game mechanics and conflict resolution and does it in the most pablum-spewing, self-esteem-building, non-confrontational way possible. It's like playtime at pre-school where everyone wins and ribbons are awarded for participation. Maybe I'm interpreting this wrong. Help me out, Storytellers and indie gamers, what does narrativism mean to you?

And please remember, I'm a science guy, so use small words.


Thursday, September 08, 2011

Balkanization of the rpg industry, pt.2

My previous post on the fragmentation of the tabletop rpg industry was picked up in this post over at one of my favourite gaming blogs, Whitehall ParaIndustries (someday I'll work up the courage to ask what the name means). Gleichman and I are in general agreement about the state of the industry, although I sense he is somewhat more pessimistic than I. However, we disagree about the relative importance of the D&D edition wars to the overall state of things. I actually believe the divergence of D&D 3.5/Pathfinder and D&D 4e is, on the whole, beneficial to the industry. I don't believe the rpg industry lost very many customers as a result of this. D&D fanboys got a whole new line of gamebooks to buy with the emergence of 4th ed. People like me, who were more or less satisfied with D&D 3.5 got Pathfinder. The beauty of Pathfinder is that for many gamers who didn't feel the need to either move to 4e or the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game, they could still purchase the adventure paths and use them with their old D&D 3.5 rules with only a small amount of tweaking. As a result, you have D&D 4e fans, Pathfinder fans and D&D 3.x fans still spending money on game materials.

This brings us to the OSR. I think the big question that needs to be asked is when did these guys drop out? Gleichman believes this exodus resulted from the release of D&D 4e. That doesn't ring true to me. Sure, the OSR movement seemed to coalesce sometime around 2008, judging from the start dates of many of the most high-profile old-school blogs, but these guys seem no more enamoured with 3e than 4e. If the OSR is a response to 4e, why scurry all the way back to '74 or '77? No, it appears more likely that the old school guys were lost to the rpg industry for much longer and there is not much the industry could do to keep them spending. The one big mistake WotC did make with respect to the grognards was to remove the old edition pdfs from circulation. Selling out-of-print games doesn't keep game designers employed, but giving up an easy revenue stream makes no damn business sense whatsoever.

So where do I think we're heading? Well, I think eventually WotC will abandon the traditional tabletop rpg industry altogether, leaving Pathfinder and maybe Warhammer as the flagship games. The Dungeons & Dragons brand still has some value, so I think it will still exist in some form. The real carnage I think will happen among the second teir companies. There are simply too many of them selling too many products to a market that is not growing. Many of the casualties will probably not die completely, but will contract into one- or two-man operations selling pdfs and POD or turn into living dead companies like Palladium Books, selling one popular game over and over again to a small, but fanatical following. The industry won't die, but nobody is going to get rich either.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Balkanization of the rpg industry

When I started playing tabletop rpgs back in 1981, there were only a handful of games that anybody ever played in my little corner of the North American continent. Most everybody played something from TSR as their main game, be it AD&D, Basic D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers or something more fringe like Boot Hill. Some people played Traveller, although I never knew any personally. A few adventurous types even dabbled in games from Chaosium or FGU, but you typically had to go to conventions to try them out.

Of course, we all knew about other games like Original D&D or Empire of the Petal Throne, but they were really more myth than reality. Even back then, a set of the OD&D books would have been something akin to a hockey stick used by Rocket Richard, more of an heirloom than something you would take out to the local rink for a game of shinny. Other games like GURPS or MERP which would garner a lot of attention were still a few years away.

I mention this because in gaming circles, the early '80s are often described as the golden age of tabletop role-playing. It seems, the trpg community has been wringing its hands in existential dread ever since. Every new development, from the parting of ways between Gygax and TSR to the rise of CCGs to the demise of TSR and the emergence of online gaming has been greeted with a new round of doomsaying. Now, I agree with those who say the tabletop rpg industry is in decline, but I don't think any of the reasons usually cited are responsible. I think the big problem is fragmentation of the market. I'm not talking about the OSR and the edition wars here. The OSR guys have their own little thing going on and good for them. As for the WotC v. Paizo melee, both are big enough to nourish the industry and a little healthy competition is good for both companies. No, I'm really talking about the second tier of game publishers. The most egregious example is what is currently going on with RuneQuest.

Back in the day, RuneQuest, released in 1978, was a pretty popular game in some quarters. Not D&D popular, but it held its own and allowed Chaosium to become a major player, especially with the 1981 releases of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. The Basic RolePlaying system used by Chaosium today is based on the d100 game mechanic developed for RuneQuest. In the early editions, RuneQuest was intimately tied to the Glorantha setting, but in 1984, a new edition (3rd ed.) published by Avalon Hill, broke that connection and the game went into decline. Eventually, Greg Stafford, the original designer of Glorantha, reacquired the rights to RuneQuest under his own company, Issaries. Issaries later licensed both RuneQuest and Glorantha to Mongoose, which released two editions, the second of which is, in my humble opinion, the single best-designed tabletop role-playing game ruleset ever devised. It should be noted that Issaries also publishes another game, called HeroQuest, which is mechanically very different from RuneQuest, but which also uses the Glorantha setting (confused yet?).

Jump ahead to 2011, Mongoose has just ended its licensing agreement with Issaries (note, by this time, Chaosium is completely out of the picture). However, it is justifiably proud of its MRQII rules and wants to continue to support them. Enter Legend, a rebranded version of Mongoose RuneQuest II. Interestingly, Mongoose owns the rights to the Stormbringer license, having acquired them from Chaosium in 2007, so for a few years, Stormbringer, renamed the Elric of Melniboné Role-Roleplaying Game, and RuneQuest were reunited using the same ruleset. Anyway, we now throw in another monkeywrench. Peter Nash and Lawrence Whitaker, the two game designers most intimately associated with MRQII, have left Mongoose to form their own company called the Design Mechanism and wouldn't you know it, they promptly acquired the rights to RuneQuest and Glorantha with the intention of releasing RuneQuest 6 next year. Meanwhile, Mongoose, has several IPs, Deus Vult, Wraith Recon, Age of Treason and Elric of Melniboné that all use the Legend game engine. With that many properties, chances are none are going to get the support they deserve. Indeed, based on the release schedule Mongoose recently put up on their site, it looks like the newly-published Age of Treason campaign setting may be left to wither on the vine.

So, what is the point I'm trying to make here? I think I represent pretty much an ideal customer when it comes to the gaming industry. Tabletop rpgs are my primary hobby. I don't own an Xbox or a World of Warcraft account. I've played Magic: The Gathering once and even that was with a borrowed deck. I go to maybe five movies a year. But I spend a lot of money on games, many I will probably never play. I am the kind of customer a game publisher wants to keep happy. What the rpg industry doesn't want to do is to confuse the hell out of me! Almost every game I have invested heavily in over the last few years has gone through some kind of similar trauma to that described above. CthulhuTech, Cthonian Stars, Eclipse Phase, d20 Modern, Septimus, an endless litany of failures and lack of support, some terminal, some temporary, but in every case, I stopped buying the game. Only the Star Wars Saga Edition (and, of course, Pathfinder) managed to survive to what I considered an appropriate conclusion and I bought every single book. What I'm saying is, please gaming industry, show me some commitment. I wouldn't buy a car if I thought the automaker was going to hand off the model to another company which would completely redesign it and stop making parts that fit my vehicle. Likewise, I don't want to invest in a game if I think the company is going to abandon it half-finished.


Ed. note: The real reason for this post, I just bought Age of Treason and it looks there won't be any supplements for it in the next 10 months at least. I am not amused.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Myth-A-Con Gaming Report, 2011

For 40 bucks, I was able to attend a three day gaming convention in Calgary called Myth-A-Con. I only spent two of the three days because that's about all I can handle in a single weekend. I constantly ate food (awesome hamburgers, sub-par baked goods) and rolled dice for roughly 20 hours of gaming. Here is a report on the new gaming systems that I tried.

Shadowrun: Awesome genre. I loved the mesh between magic and technology. It was awesome to be in the middle of a gang war. The rolling mechanic was a little bit bulky with all the 6 siders, but it was not really a hindrance to the game. Bruce was a really good DM for this one. No minis were used; it was all old-school in your head combat. I played a car thief that had an awesome van with a mounted heavy machine gun. Yeah, we did a totally cool drive-by shooting and threw a captured orc gangbanger out of the speeding van.

Savage Worlds: This version of Savage Worlds was set in the 1930s. It was sort of an Indiana Jones/ Mummy type of setting. The DM (Mike?) was pretty good. He knew the game system and was able to add lots of flare to make the game believable. The game system was all exploding d6s. You only get 4 hits until you die, but you can use little story points as re-rolls to help you survive gun shots and crocodile attacks. I liked the exploding dice but I thought the system was a little bit bulky. We used little miniature paper cutouts and a little photocopied grid to roughly show the position of our guys for combat. Very cool genre, so-so game mechanics. I played Buck, a sexist, over-the-top man's man that led an expedition to the rain forest to snatch a gem from the natives.

Dresdin Files: I wish I could make a better judgment on this system, but the person running the game didn't really know what they were doing. Very disappointing. The genre was really cool, though. Vampires, undead, demons and that sort of thing running around the modern world. I played an emo-kid that wanted to turn into a white vampire that fed off of depression. At least it was fun to play an emo kid. I modeled the kid after the South Park goth kids. The DM used dice and a piece of paper to roughly position our pcs for combat. The system used a cool and very simple system for resolving combat: 1-2= fail, 3-4= nothing, 5-6= success. Successes cancel failures and viceversa. I need to play this game with an experienced GM to really get a better feel for it.

Eclipse Phase: This was the coolest game at the con. I loved the simple percentile dice system. I loved the genre, BIGTIME. I played a computer hacker that was working for a major corporation and got to hack elevators, security doors, cameras, and other high-tech thingys. I think I have found my new favorite role-playing game for space D&D. The DM was fantastic. No minis were used. This was all old-school in-your-mind combat. Cant's say enough good things about this game. Please go to to check this game out.

Legend of the Five Rings: I am a sucker for Asian themed games so this one was instantly appealing to me. The GM was really good at building intrigue and was really good at promoting role-playing by giving out pre-gens that had certain quirks and mandates. I played a samurai retainer that needed to protect another PC, was jealous of another PC, and despised other PCs. Role-playing in this event was a lot of fun. Combat in Lot5R is all 10 sided dice that explode. The exploding thing is really fun, but the system is really bulky. Hit points are complicated and counting up 9d10 with 7 players in the party made for very slow combat. Combat was all old-school in-your-mind. The DM was quite good, but sort of evil. We failed in our quest, and he put the blame of the failure squarely on the shoulders of on poor PC.

Playing these games over the weekend was really a terrific experience. I got to know a bunch of new people, and learn lots of new games. I also learned that I put way too much emphasis on tactics and miniature combat in my homegames. I love combat with the guys, but doing so much role-playing this weekend reminds me of the pleasures of role-playing, mystery solving and creative, critical thinking. I will surely be adding more of these elements to my home games.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Rippin' on Changeling: The Dreaming

Zack and Steve are back and ready to revisit the World of Darkness. Aww, Changeling: The Dreaming, how adorable.

Changeling: The Dreaming


Friday, September 02, 2011

Age of Treason campaign setting for MRQII/Legend

Mongoose recently terminated its license to produce RuneQuest and any related Gloranthan material. However, it is still quite happy with the MRQII rules and intends to continue supporting the game under the new brand Legend. The first product under the new branding (even the core rules aren't released yet) is Age of Treason - The Iron Simulacrum campaign setting. Age of Treason centers around the Taskan Empire, a collection of city-states with a decidedly Roman flavour. Ruled by a God-Emperor, who has been in seclusion for centuries and speaks to his court through a golem-like entity known as the Iron Simulacrum, the Taskan Empire is a potent and enlightened nation at the height of its power. This is in contrast with the frequent fantasy rpg trope of a campaign world living in the shadow of an ancient golden age. The golden age of the Taskan Empire is now. However, as with all great empires, the fall begins long before it becomes apparent to all. Rivals from beyond her borders grow more confident, while would-be rulers from within grow restless and the masses, comfortable in their prosperity, are none the wiser. It is up to the player characters to battle the treasonous forces that seek to undermine the Empire...or perhaps, join them.

Age of Treason introduces a few new rules to distinguish it from the standard MRQII ruleset. Most obviously, Common Magic is no longer available to everyone. This was always controversial anyway, being a feature of the Glorantha campaign setting that elicited strong feelings on both sides. My own feeling is that magic should be rare. When every blacksmith and barmaid knows a few minor spells, it creates a feeling of magic as being mundane and ordinary. So, I'm gladdened by this change. Common Magic doesn't exist as a discrete type of magic in the campaign setting, rather being mixed in with other sources of power and cultural factors. The other major types of magic from MRQII, namely Divine Magic, Spirit Magic and Sorcery are all present, however. Another important change is the addition of a new characteristic, Social Status (SOC), in keeping with a general emphasis on intrigue and social interaction prevalent in the setting.

While it is generally expected that most players will be citizens of the Empire, other races are possible. Interestingly, there are only humans in this world, but some are so different from the mainstream that they might as well be different species'. For example, there is a brutal race of barbarians called the Orcs of Kasperan who practice human sacrifice on a massive scale to appease their vile gods. Although technically human, their physical appearance and brutal behaviour are certainly congruent with D&D-style orcs.

Religion in the setting is complex and integral to every aspect of the campaign. By virtue of being a citizen of the Empire, everyone has a Pact with the Imperial cult. However, there are other gods which characters may also form into Pacts with and, indeed, any character wanting to use Divine Magic will have to do this as the Emperor has not achieved full divinity and cannot grant spells. In keeping with the RuneQuest tradition, there are all manner of mystery cults and funeral clubs to join. All worship is understood to be transactional. A character agrees to worship a particular god, granting power to that divine being, in exchange for some measure of favour in the present and protection in the afterlife.

It's all pretty cool stuff and a bit of a departure from the standard fantasy campaign setting fare. The book itself is 200 pages, hardcover with all black-and-white interior art and fairly striking cover art. It includes a 70 page mini-campaign to get you started and sells for about $40. For fans of MRQII, it's a pretty solid investment.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

Phineas and Ferb

OK, this post has nothing to do with gaming. I have two small children and its a struggle to find TV for them that does not make my eyes bleed or brain rot. While on vacation and staying at the in-laws I had to find some new TV for the kids to zombify them and keep them from driving me insane.

Most of the shows were junk but I did stumble across Phineas and Ferb. Created by the same guys that created Rocco's Modern Life and wrote for the Family Guy, it works on multiple levels. I laugh at stuff all of the time and my oldest just looks at my and asks what was so funny.

Most episodes follow a similar plot. P&F are deciding what to do with a day of summer vacation and end up building something crazy. Their older sister Candace is constantly trying to "bust" them to their mother. The second plot involves the pet platypus Perry who happens to a secret agent. Each episode he has to go stop the evil doctor Doofenschmirtz from building his latest "inator". The battle always ends up destroying and removing any trace of whatever Phineas and Ferb built that day just before their mother shows up which makes Candace look crazy.

Most episodes have a short little song of a style matching the episodes theme. There are some great lines. Ones which stand out include "Karl, keep up the good work and you may make unpaid intern". "I was part of the resistance but I'm so good at resisting, I started resisting them."