Monday, July 27, 2015

Gen Con and Games on Demand

Sherri and I will be heading down Wednesday afternoon. We'll probably pick up our reg stuff and try to figure out something to do in the evening. We're just spending Thursday at the con (weird stuff forced us to cut it short). But we'll be spending the whole day at Games on Demand and maybe one trip to the dealers hall before heading out. I might have some Action Cards bits with me as well if anyone want to see those. Anyway, if you see me there- say hi!

Friday's the ENnie Awards- and while I won't win, my friend, player, and fellow blogger Steve Sigety will be there for me in case something weird occurs. 

All of my f2f games for the weekend got blown up by Gen Con as my players flock there. I will have to game harder!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Twelve 2008)

THESE ARE THE WAYS THE WORLDS END
When all is said and done, 2008's a great year for unusual apocalypses. It’s a dynamite year overall in gaming, but there’s a striking variety here. And only a single instance of a company trying to reboot an older edition game. Though we still have years to go before the end of these lists, I wanted to briefly survey what we’ve seen. So, from the existing lists, here are the sources of the Apocalypse from games with individual entries. I’ve had to fudge and make some guesses in a couple of cases.
  • 28 War (Usually nuclear)
  • 21 Supernatural (In a non-Fantasy setting)
  • 15 War (with Mutant PCs)
  • 14 Fantasy
  • 11 Alien Invasion
  • 11 Viral
  • 9 Ecological
  • 8 Robots/Computers
  • 7 Forgotten/Unknown
  • 7 Meteor/Comets
  • 7 Resource/Political Decay
  • 7 Toolbox (Generic or multiple concepts)
  • 6 Biblical
  • 6 Kitchen Sink/Combination
  • 5 Singular Event (Apes, Ship Damage)

There’s an interesting thread over at RPG Geek, What Do YouThink About Post-Apocalyptic Settings? If you dig these games, you might pop over there and offer your two cents. 


NOT WITH A CRITICAL, BUT A FUMBLE
To keep this list easy to read I’ve tightened the years covered. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting material or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” and miscellaneous supplements into a single entry. For example at the end you'll see round-up entries with post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 2008). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year.


An Italian RPG and another instance where my Google-fu has failed me. The ocean levels have risen up, nearly completely flooding the Earth. In this watery world, bands of sailing ship pirates roam and plunder. Decayed technologies still exist alongside newly recovered magical arts. The design and presentation clearly aims for a classic "Pirates of the Caribbean" look with a modern and fantasy trappings. It appears to have only had a single volume, though the pirate-enthusiast author seems to have written a couple of other similar-themed games.

That's a great name- or at least one which makes me look twice at the game. Cannibal Contagion has survival horror with a slight twist, with cannibal lunatics instead of zombies. There are been several films, like The Crazies, using this premise. Avatar's dark and super gory comic Crossed does so as well. The game offers a general post-apocalyptic setting, but doesn't spell out a particular history or event. Instead it provides a toolbox for these games. Cannibal Contagion focuses on the mental & social stress and breakdown among survivors. It uses a competitive card game mechanic to play that out. That's based on simple trumps from a playing-card deck. Trumping another player's card allows someone to add narrative to the scene. That's a clever idea and establishes flow. The longer an exchange goes on, the more damage which must be distributed. The game does present a couple of campaign set ups, including handling it as a traditional zombie game.

Palladium takes another bite of the Apocalypse with this zombie survival game. Another stand-alone rpg using the basics of the Megaversal system, Dead Reign opens several months after the initial outbreak. It has a specific history and backstory, rather than offering a toolkit ala other games (like the keystone rpg, All Flesh Must Be Eaten). There's a ton of history and set up, much written as a first-person journal. While a couple of spots work, generally it feels overwrought and artificial. It mixes forms (like a video transcript) in an awkward way. It reminds me a little Hunter the Reckoning’s approachs; but without the latter’s multiple voices. It isn't that first-person narrative doesn't work - World War Z handles that amazingly well- but here it falls flat. OOH there's a mess of interesting ideas and details here a GM could lift.

The book feels aimed for a GM- it certainly puts up barriers for players wanting to get started. I've complained about Palladium's organization before. But the previous few stand-alone rpgs they released have had more coherence. In Dead Reign we jump from sixteen pages of backstory into a discussion of the zombie observations: how they operate in the world and how they're handled in-game. We get info on P.P.E and SDC before we even get to any rules explanation. There's almost fifty pages of zombie mechanics, stat breakdowns, and other adversaries before we even begin to see how the game works- and that begins by throwing the O.C.C. (Occupational Character Classes) at the reader. And not a basic one, but a marginal optional class. The equivalent to beginning a run-down of D&D classes with an Anti-Paladin. Dead Reign feels originally intended as a zombie sourcebook for other lines. You're literally 144 pages in before you actually get to the game rules- despite having been hit with tons of stats, terminology, weapon lists, powers, etc. Other games do this, but they usually offer context and explanation.

I'm probably being unfair here. The bottom line is that Dead Reign's intended as the zombie game for Palladium vets. But it doesn't sell itself that way. A few pages on the organization at the start to show readers how to grok the game would have helped. But let's assume that you're Palladium person; is this good? There's a lot of crunchy bits for handling zombies in your game. If that's what you're looking for then you'll dig it. For GMs looking for general zombie ideas, I'm not so sure. Dead Reign feels conventional and doesn't really bring anything new to the table. You might find some useful concepts in the first half of the book. But overall the organization, density, and weak art doesn't serve the game well. On the other hand Dead Reign did well enough to garner four supplements: Civilization Gone, Dark Places, Endless Dead, and Fear the Reaper. So my argument's probably invalid.

A last minute discovery forced me to redo the numbering. Desolation is a post-apocalyptic fantasy rpg embracing the conventions of both genres. Rather than the disaster being incidental (invasion, return of great old one) this rpg embraces classic themes of the genre: survival, community, exploration, group tensions, humanity, and rebuilding.
Desolation begins with a simple description of Night of Fire and then delves into the history of the different regions. The book keeps these tight so as not to overwhelm. It could use some sidebar guides, but overall it works. From there it details the apocalypse: how it happened and what changes it wrought. I particularly like the emphasis on the disaster tearing the Weave of Magic itself and what that does in play. The game begins eighteen months  after The Long Winter. While it takes about 60 pages to get to mechanics, Desolation never feels like a slog. Each chapter has a focus, the material’s broken up into chunks, and everything takes a broad stroke approach. There’s no current map presented: the game expects it to develop through play.

The game uses a Stat/Skill combination. Races allow access to different traits. Overall the system feels moderately crunchy and unclear in places. We get figured stats, skill specializations, point buys, and large talent & flaw lists. It has some problems; I had to hunt for a long time before I figured out what kind of dice to use for checks- something you probably need to know before character creation. At 130 pages in I finally learned the game uses dice pools rather than a single check. Only on page 163 did I find out it uses the Ubiquity system (and finally get an explanation of what that means). Despite that, there’s a lot to love here. If you’re thinking about doing post-apocalypse with fantasy, this is a solid pick with some interesting twists.

If you've followed my lists, you may have noticed I twitch when I come across certain things in games. Back cover text that doesn't actually tell me what it’s about. d20 adaptations offering 90% mechanics and next to no setting. Claims to be new and unique without actually explaining what's new or unique. Kitchen-sink games with twist after to wring out double mumbo jumbo. Then there's some variant of this phrase: "I played all the other games and they weren’t realistic, so I made a game which stresses realism and has [Dragons, Mutations, Ethereal Space Beings, etc. Usually if I see this claim, I'm going to get a crunchy or over-elaborated system. Many heartbreaker games open with some variant of that.

Halcyon opens with, “Since my foray into role-playing, I have found myself constantly searching for a system that was grittier and more realistic, without depriving the gaming experience of its allure, fantasy, and pure enchantment." Several paragraphs go on to knock other unnamed games, expound on the importance of realism, and at the same time stress the system's simplicity without over-simplification. We do get a fly-by two paragraph summary of the game's premise. And then thirty-five pages of dense history and background. The concept’s Post-Apocalyptic Shadowrun. Mind you the book takes its time getting to that. We hear about economic downturns, rise of the megacorps, creation of a space elevator, collapse of democracy, a magnetic pole reversal, environmental devastation, meteor strikes, and the arrival of fantastical creatures (Elves, Demons, etc). A grittier Shadowrun cyberpunk setting with lots of devastated world. Halcyon, the titular location, is a destroyed and rebuilt New York City.

Halcyon arrived originally as a Players Guide, later expanded and released as the Halcyon Core Rulebook. The publisher only released a single supplement, a pdf-only intro adventure. In a move that makes perfect sense if you wade through the background material, the designer released a novel set in this world: Money for Nothing. If any of this sounds interesting I recommend checking out the core book preview available on RPGNow and/or the intro module. While it feels derivative to me, my own interests don't sync up with this. As I read through it felt like wasted energy: material, history, and writing which won't really impact the table or be useful to the GM. The same ideas could have been handled in a few pages. Then we could have gotten to meat of actual play and what you do in the setting quickly.

6. Helix
A small indie release that also mashes up several genres to create a "Post Apocalypse, High-Tech, Fantasy, Western Role Playing Game." In 2081 humanity struggles to survive after a nuclear war and the return of something like magic in the form of "The Code." That's presented more as reality hacking than classic sorcery. The world has added all kinds of oddness: giant scorpions, goblins, dinosaurs. Players take on pseudo-Western characters, travelling the land with their wits, powers, and six shooters. Helix received mixed online reviews with several liking the simple system, but others seeing it as thin and half-developed. The art and layout come in for harsh judgement. It appears to be currently OOP.

A German rpg. with unusual approach focusing on a time of relative peace to start. In 2190, humanity is devastated by the close pass-by of a detached section of the Lunar surface. Earthquakes, tidal waves, climate shifts destroy much of humanity. Now ten years later various factions have begun to rebuild and reconstruct. Five civilizations have emerged and a quiet peace exists between them. How that will change in the future remains to be seen. However now Gaia itself has awoken and released forces to destroy humanity and save itself.

The game suggests this battle is not as much between the different civilizations, but against the Earth itself. That's neat- other apocalypses have left us with a corrupted, polluted or transformed Earth. But I don't think we've seen one where "Nature" operates as the dominant and calculating enemy. The game itself seems to have be moderately supported with GM screen, setting supplements, and adventures. However it looks like publisher 13Mann no longer handles the line and it may be OOP.

8. Hot War
A double ENnie winner in 2009 for Best Setting and Best Writing. I don't dispute that assessment. In the 1960's the Cold War goes hot, resulting in a limited nuclear engagement. But in addition to that strange technologies and horrors originally developed by the Germans in WW2 spill out. Adapted as weapons, they add to the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb. Hot War is set in the South of England, about a year after the conflict. This is a dark London full of fear and tension. Tribalism, xenophobia, and paranoia mix with the struggle for survival. Hot War uses a tight focus on a single city to push players to consider relationships and their own humanity. I can’t help thinking about the recent video game This War of Mine.

Designer Malcolm Craig (a/state) connects Hot War with his previous game, Cold City. In that game players acted as agents in post-war Berlin, hunting down the monsters and strange tech left behind by the Nazi's. Hot War serves as a thematic sequel, set in something like the same world but not directly connected. I'm always intrigued by alt history post-apocalyptic games. We've seen several medieval ones but few set in other places or periods. Off the top of my head the only two which come to mind: Weird Wars and Clockwork & Chivalry. Though I supposed Twilight 2000 would also count now.

Hot War combines creepy fantastic and real world horrors. The graphic design's striking and the rules well-written. It includes some in-game fiction and lots of interesting postings & visual artifacts. They're brief snippets- enough to add a brushstroke to the bigger picture. Hot War has interesting mechanical elements as well. Characters have Hidden Agendas and the group can decide to have these as open or closed knowledge among the players. That's built into the highly collaborative character and campaign creation process. The game assumes the PCs will be members of the Special Situations Group: a combination intelligence agency, police, and weird stuff department. Think of a more domestic version of The Laundry from Charles Stross' series, with less access to weirdness. The frame's written openly and you could craft other kinds of campaigns- criminals, desperate survivors, enemy agents. The system's relatively basic and narrativist, but with the ability to draw in relationships and secrets mechanically.

The core book offers a lot of support: description of agencies, pre-gen characters, story ideas, rival agencies, a tour of strange London, sample frames, and recommended reading. Everything's cleanly presented and angled to make it easy for a potential GM. Here's a minor detail worth appreciating: the electronic version comes with both a standard and printer friendly version. While the standard edition looks nice and has interesting page backdrops, I find them distracting reading on a tablet. Too many games come with color page frames and watermarks, but don't let the reader turn these off. We've had electronic publications for enough years, usability ought to be second nature to publishers. Overall I highly recommend Hot War. A very cool game.

Like old-school rpgs? Don't have a copy of Gamma World 1st edition? Then I've got a game for you. Mutant Future emulates those in system, layout, and art. I'd initially assumed the designers had simply reskinned Labyrinth Lord for this. But these system's distinct, though apparently compatible with LL (something you can't say about D&D and Gamma World). Of course the original GW clocked in at only 56 pages. Mutant Future delivers about 160 pages of material, but it doesn't feel overstuffed. It keeps the simplicity of earlier systems, while rounding things out with more options.

Players can pick from one of five broad groups: Androids, Mutant Humans, Mutant Animals, Mutant Plants, and Pure Humans. Androids include Basic Androids, Synthetics, and Replicants. Players dice for the standard six characteristics and their racial pick affects hit dice and number of starting mutations. Players roll randomly for these from several tables split between beneficial and drawback powers. The game breaks these into physical, mental, and plant with the first one oddly having significantly more drawbacks. Mutant Future avoids adding too many rules with these abilities: most get a quick and dirty paragraph (a welcome relief). The game includes everything else you need: lots of monsters, encounter ideas, artifact tables and details, GM advice, sample adventures, and guidelines for combining with Labyrinth Lord. My only fault with the game is the lack of anything close to the awesome random artifact usage flowcharts from GW. Overall a strong pick and a neat game if you're into old school designs.

A hard military sci-fi setting using Savage Worlds. Triple Aces games produces several striking and well-supported settings for SW as well as their Ubiquity system. Necropolis echoes the feel and themes of Warhammer 40K and Mutant Chronicles. In the future, a supernatural force battles against the remnants of humanity, sustained by a massive and powerful Church. In this game the enemy's called the Rephaim or Dead Ones and they operate via Necromantic powers. The PCs are warriors, knights, and chaplains from the military battling against the threat. Several orders exist, offering access to different powers and traits. There's a lot of chrome and crunch here: weapons, equipment, and vehicles. The setting takes advantage of Savage World's utility as a miniatures/high combat game. Necropolis 2350 won't surprise anyone familiar with this military sf genre. It offers "Humanity's Last Stand" in a devastated galaxy. There's lots of dark corners and demented tech. But the game does the job it sets out to do and it looks good doing it. The publisher has supported this with several pdf supplements, the Necropolis 2351-55Update, and the Necropolis 2350: Adventure Compendium 1.

11. Radz
"Apocalypse with Attitude." This notably suggests the existence of an apocalypse lacking in attitude. Radz is a tongue-in-cheek game (we've seen this before with HoL, Tank Girl, and octaNe). There's an ongoing joke that everything has a "z" in place of the "s" to make it more extreme (Law Dawgz, Gleanerz) and lots of wildly spelled terms (like the Wikkid). The world's been destroyed and now you've got a Mad Max/Fallout homage landscape. The book doesn't spend too much time on the history and background, instead throwing you right into the character concepts. It has a simple skill system and a distinct art style. If you really like comedy games, then you may want to check this out, but otherwise it doesn't seem that useful.

12. Stalker
As I said above, a great year for unique world destruction. Stalker builds on the premise of "Roadside Picnic" a novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Aliens visit the world in several sites, and then simply leave. But their nature disrupts and changes these sites, called Zones. Scientists and scavengers go into these looking for secrets and salvage. But the very inhumanity of the landscape confronts them and hints at the absolute alien nature of what lies beyond our world. It's a solid read which you can find online. Later Russian master director Andrei Tarkovsky made a film based on it, called Stalker. The title comes from the slang for thieves who go into the Zones. That's an awesome film which plays up the sense of industrial breakdown. You seee that the visitation has uniquely disrupted the world. All of this inspired the later S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game series which even more fully embraces the post-apocalyptic vibe. However there the strangeness comes from an anomalous explosion at the defunct Chernobyl plant. 

The Stalker rpg draws more from the original novella, though I suspect the video games' popularity has come to shape the reception. Finnish designer Ville Vuorela has created a massive game which expands the lore and concepts of the original. It hints at conspiracies, further explains how the zones have been dealt with, provides details on all the international visitation sites, and presents many tools for running the high weirdness and traps of the Zones. And does this with a diceless system. That surprised me; I'd come to associate this setting with a kind of grittiness. Stalker characters have stats and skills, but the GM and players use those to negotiate and decide results. That's a hard sell for some gamers. The Zone’s arbitrary and random- things can simply kill you with a misstep. I'm not sure if a diceless system putting fickleness in the GM's hand supports or works against that.

Interestingly, the Stalker RPG "...is published with the permission and license from Boris Strugatsky, who will also be receiving royalties for every copy sold. This makes it the only official "Stalker" roleplaying game out there and your support to a literary genius is highly appreciated." That clearly breaks it away from the video game. But as importantly it distinguishes itself from a several highly developed fan adaptations: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The RPG for d20 Modern; STALKER: The Other RPG homebrew; STALKER: The Zone RPG using Dark Heresy; and Savage Worlds S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. There's a notable focus on the military/combat side in most of these versions. You have the sense the video game has more influence than the novella or film with these.

An English translation for Stalker the RPG arrived in 2012. That same year Vuorela released a novel, The Hollow Pilgrim. That's described as a Stalker RPG Novel, intended to be the first in a series created with the approval of Boris Strugatsky. It apparently takes a more conventional noir approach than the original uncanny novella. Overall the Stalker RPG received strong reviews with two caveats: translation/editorial problems and hesitation over the diceless system. Many reviewers note the rich and excellent mechanics for handling the "dungeon crawl" of Zone exploration.

So the world becomes a forest. Overnight. One day modernity. The next day a walk in the woods. Everything: buildings, cars, roads, theme parks: overgrown and emerald. Civilization holds together briefly and then flickers out. This isn't a normal forest: it has dangers and stalking beasts and a song that gets into the head of the weak-minded.

So what do you do in the Summerland? The PCs are Drifters, the rare few who have the talent to pass through "The Sea of Leaves" to uncover old things and reach out to other communities. They're necessary, but also regarded as dangerous and damaged. They lack a permanent home but must refresh and attach themselves to communities as then can. It sounds pretty compelling and Summerland does a great job setting that up, riding the line between history and myth. It has a simple, story-driven system focusing on personal issues and lives of the PCs. Characters have traumatic experiences and must deal with those in their journeys. The system takes up about a third of the book, with mechanics focusing on descriptors and tags. The remainder supports the GM: offering more ideas on the nature of the forest without taking away the mystery, giving advice for narrators, and laying out useful NPCs, places & hooks.

Summerland's another striking and sharp post-apocalyptic game. It's unlike any other. The revised and expanded version released in '09 almost doubled the page count. It looks great with smart art and excellent page design. High recommended.

Another setting from Triple Ace, Sundered Skies solders together fantasy, steampunk, and post-apocalypse. Sky ships, wonky tech, and fantasy races join for a pretty cool design. Here the world's shattering has left a deadly magical radiation permeating the skies. The lands remain as floating islands and travel between them utilizes magical vessels. I especially dig the way Sundered Skies creates a claustrophobic feeling with the magical radiation. Travel becomes more dangerous and contamination serves as constant low-level threat. Overall Sundered Skies is brutal and dark. Enslaved races, vicious in-fighting, and few factions fully on the side of good. Some of the racial options and world-building here is clever and novel (their version of the Elves and the created subject races in particular). The steampunk's more a visual element- gadgets and gear have that mixed fantasy and tech look. As with many Savage Worlds setting books, Sundered Skies offers a complete campaign arc story. That makes it less useful for GMs just looking for an overall setting sourcebook. This has been supplemented by a couple of products including Sundered Skies Companion, Sundered Skies: Compendium 1, and Sundered Skies: Compendium 2.

Yet another classic post-apocalyptic game receives a new edition, rising from the ashes yadda, yadda, yadda. With the massive shifts in geopolitics since the original 80's edition how to change things? Instead of a US/USSR conflict there's a death spiral of incidents, reactions, embargoes, brushfire conflicts, and finally a series of limited nuclear exchanges. Detailed? Yes. Realistic? That's a matter for the GM. Several reviewers take issue with the set up and it seems wonky to me. Normally that's not an issue; I'd handwave these details. But this game aims for real-world simulation and has the characters dealing with the literal and figurative fallout, so the GM will have do some tweaking...of course especially now that we're two years after the end of the world.

The Reflex system powering this beast also has issues: drunk with complexity and handfuls of d20's thrown around. It's dense and throws away the earlier versions designs to make an entirely new beast. Lots of calculations, lots of numbers. That's a risky approach and it seems to have failed here. The publisher only released a handful of pdf-only supplements. Twilight 2013 fits with a kind of rpg we've seen less and less of over time: the hard military game. While WW2 still gets attention and crunch, we've seen fewer games focus on modern or near future high chrome and high crunch soldier gaming (I've heard them called gunbunny games). That's a fairly dramatic change given how many of these existed in the early days of the this rpg genre.

16. Marginal Cases
This year had several fringe post-apocalyptic items: marginal PA themes, add on releases, and thematic adventures. For example, John Wick positions Houses of the Blooded as the anti-D&D. It has three distinct apocalypses (The Fall of the Sorcerer Kings, The Betrayer War, The Anguish). While these shape the history, they aren't forefront to the play. Misspent Youth is probably more straight dystopia, but could easily be shifted into a post-apocalyptic frame. Players control youthful rebels against a collaboratively created "Authority." Zombie Cinema is a board game/rpg hybrid. It uses concrete components to shape a collaborative storytelling zombie survival experience.

Two general rpgs get post-disaster scenarios. BRP Adventures includes "Daybreak Tomorrow" set in the first days after a nuclear war; "Escape from the Slavelands" about refugees from a machine overlord camp; "Ruin Nation" has the PCs as the resistance in a war-torn near future; and "The Time Share" delivers a world where a post-nuke anti-rad treatment has extreme side-effects. Tales of Terror Issue 1: Wastelands has two post-apocalyptic scenarios for Dread.

Finally two older games get new stuff. EABA WarpWorld adapts the earlier WarpWorld game to the more modern EABA system. The AFTERMATH! Survival Guide is a new book for an old game. This offers general information on running different kinds of campaigns (aliens, zombies) using the classic system.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Thousand Posts: Millennial RPG Lists & Beyond

This is my 1000th post.

Sturgeon’s law suggests there’s 100 high quality posts hidden around here. I did a rough estimate based on sampling and came up with an average word count of about 1700. That means I’ve got roughly 1.7 million words here. Again, apply Sturgeon’s law as needed. 

I began with the brilliant idea of only titling my posts by date. I ditched that after the first year. When I reread I my first few years of posting I wince. In year two I got some nice attention from RPG Geek but also had some local gamers shit over everything I’d done. It took some time to get the wind back in my sails after that. Eventually I did; I blogged some over at RPG Geek and then stopped; I got on G+ and started online gaming; I helped start Play on Target; and I began to trace the roots of various rpg genres. Things rolled on from there. I've changed the page template just once and might do it again…maybe.

But that’s looking back, I’m going to look forward. Here’s what I’m doing, trying to do, and going to be doing for the foreseeable future:

1. I’m going to finish out the Post-Apocalyptic RPG Histories soon. Then I’ll put together an overview of 2014 releases for each of the previous genres. I want to take some time to edit and reformat the existing lists and figure out a way to release them as single electronic publications. I’d like to increase my Patreon program, but I’m not sure of the best approach.

2. I’m going to hit refresh repeatedly on Friday the 31st and not be too disappointed when I don’t win an ENnie.

3. I’m going to have Right of Succession ready to go for a Kickstarter late this year or early next. We may have Gen Con booth space, so I’d better be ready.

4. Related to that I’m going to get Action Cards into a solid beta state. I want to get it out there so other people can play around with it. That means making the cards and pdf available thru DriveThru and/or Game Crafter. I’m trying to boil down the essentials of the game for the beta doc. Also I got a this new logo done by the amazing Aaron Acevedo.

5. Again related, I’m planning to go to Metatopia once more this year. I’m thinking about driving since I hate airports so much. Plus it’d be significantly cheaper. I have some slices of Action Cards to test out as well as a couple of other things.

6. I'm going to finish this comic pitch with Art Lyon for this publisher's next open submission round. 

7. I want to get Play on Target back on to a regular release schedule. That might mean non-regular host episode series and/or increasing our GM Jam frequency.

8. I want to keep to a 1-2 posts per week schedule. As I mentioned in my interview with Dr. Tom the Frog (plug!), the blog’s a way for me to keep writing and generating content. It sometimes feels like it pulls away from other projects, but there’s a chunk of useful material here. I’ve dropped most of it into Scrivener- now I have to figure out how to cut, reduce and distill the best parts. Even after 1000 posts, I don’t know how to measure success so I don’t try to. Some focus on comments, but that creates worry when posts don’t spark responses. I’m afraid that a desire for argument and reaction might negatively shape my writing. OOH I want to get better at commenting on the other excellent blogs I read.

9. I'm going to do another clearing pass of books and games before the end of the year. I want to set some ground rules for myself about what stays and goes. I've seen others do it, surely it can't be that hard?

10. I’m going to do more and more varied online gaming. I’ve started work towards that. I want to plan and run an online campaign; something like my earlier Changeling Lost Vegas game. Aimed towards shorter arcs, and trying to see what I can learn from that.
I’m going to continue to be immensely grateful to Sherri Stewart the love of my life. I’m very lucky she’s the person she is. I’ll also be thankful for the amazing new gamers and new friends I’ve met online.

OK, so to round out the blogging about blogging, I give you TEN LISTS OF OTHER THINGS WHICH OCCURRED TO ME.

TEN RPGS I’VE RUN THE MOST (from high to low)
  1. Action Cards
  2. GURPS
  3. Champions
  4. Mutants & Masterminds
  5. Classic World of Darkness/Storyteller Hacks
  6. Rolemaster Classic
  7. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st ed)
  8. Rolemaster Standard System
  9. James Bond 007
  10. Exalted

TEN HABITS TO BREAK
  1. Cake
  2. Watching Reddit trainwrecks
  3. Steam Sales
  4. Creating a Vast Nest of Cups and Plates Around My Workspace
  5. Always wearing dark colors on G+ because I heard they were slimming
  6. Cake
  7. Turtling Down When I Could Be Out Doing Something
  8. Buying Figures Without Finishing at Least Some I Already Have
  9. Visualizing my accidental death at the hands of every random new object or situation (Unwanted Final Destination Thoughts Syndrome)..
  10. Cake

TEN MINIATURES I NEED TO PAINT NEXT
  1. Mice and Mystics base set
  2. Silver Moon Starter Set for Bushido
  3. Skorne Praetorians from Hordes
  4. Infinity Japanese Sectorial Army
  5. Crimson Skies planes repaints
  6. Confrontation Ninja Gobins
  7. Clan War Nagas
  8. Orc Warriors of the Wind from Confrontation
  9. Reaper Mouslings
  10. Infinity Cyber-bikers

TEN GAMES I WANT TO RUN
  1. The current zeitgeist has me thinking about a Post-Apocalyptic campaign. Some of that comes from working through the history of these rpgs. But Mad Max: Fury Road, Mutant: Year Zero, and Legacy: Life Among the Ruins have me seriously considering it. I don’t think I’ve ever run true PA and I’m not a Fallout fan, but I want to give it a try.
  2. I really want a police procedural game, with relationships and mysteries. I don’t want the police to have powers, but I do want the world to have at least some strangeness. I love Gotham Central, so I want something like that. Maybe a modification of Mutant City Blues? I want the investigation to be important but not everything to the game; questions of corruption, morality, and drama should be there as well.
  3. I dig what I’ve read of Blades in the Dark, though I have to wrap my head around the changes in the most recent version. I’ve only played a little of the key source material- Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed and Thief. I’d like to do BitD with a cosmetic shift, making it less Western-looking. A hodge-podge city with various cultures, and given my love for it, perhaps a little low-key wuxia. So something closer to Jadepunk but not quite that powered.
  4. I have a new idea for how to do Magic, Inc.
  5. In upcoming portals for Ocean City Interface, I’m going to get to do tangential versions of two things I’ve always wanted to run: Crimson Skies and Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade- the latter significantly more tangential than the first.
  6. I’ve been working my way through Phil Lewis’ Wrath of the Autarch. I got just a taste of it at Origins. I want to try this out, though to do it justice seems to require a serious commitment of sessions.
  7. Trying to figure out how to do Codici Malefactus. While cool, The Warren’s not a great fit. Cairn’s a little odd and not quite to my liking. Might be FAE.
  8. I love, love Kingdom. But so far I’ve only played it in single session bites. I think we’ve only ever gotten through two Crossroads. I want to try and play out a story over several sessions.
  9. I want full-on wuxia game of some kind. It doesn’t have to be classic "legendary times." But I want high punching action and weirdness. Feng Shui is cool, but having read through the 2e book, I’m more taken by the setting than the system. I’m thinking of how to handle this via some kind of Apocalypse World engine.
  10. Eventually I want to do my galactic political drama set in Fading Suns. The tale of a family rising up and battling others for dominance. Maybe my version of Dramasytem with the procedural bits torn out and replaced with some Fate mechanics could work.

TEN BEST ONION AV CLUB COVERS
  1. Screaming Females “Shake It Off”
  2. Punch Brothers “Reptilia” 
  3. GWAR “West End Girls”
  4. OK Go “Tempted”
  5. Trampled by Turtles “Owner of a Lonely Heart” 
  6. Screaming Females “If it Makes You Happy”
  7. The Polyphonic Spree “Heart of Gold”
  8. Field Report “Chicago”
  9. Trampled by Turtles “Rebellion (Lies)” 
  10. The Swell Season “Two-Headed Boy”

TEN GAMING BOOKS I CONSISTENTLY RETURN TO
  1. Things We Think About Games
  2. Microscope
  3. City of Lies (L5R)
  4. Fate Core
  5. GAZ3 The Principalities of Glantri (D&D)
  6. Citybook: Nightside
  7. Villainy Amok (Champions)
  8. Kingdom
  9. Creatures & Treasures (Rolemaster)       
  10. Covenants/Order of Hermes  (Ars Magica)

TEN BEST ROCK BAND SONGS TO SING (imho)
  1. “Dani California” Red Hot Chili Peppers
  2. “PDA” Interpol
  3. “Walking on the Sun” Smashmouth
  4. “Abbey Road B-Side Medley” The Beatles
  5. “Spaceman” The Killers
  6. “Clocks” Coldplay
  7. “Beethoven’s C***” Serj Tankian
  8. “Ironic” Alanis Morissette
  9. “Hey Bulldog” The Beatles
  10. “Portions for Foxes” Rilo Kiley

TEN RPG MECHANICS I DIG
  1. Aspects from Fate
  2. Keys from Lady Blackbird
  3. Icons from 13th Age
  4. Core/Secondary Clues from GUMSHOE
  5. Dramatic Poles and Scene Power from DramaSystem
  6. Teamwork from Blades in the Dark
  7. Collaborative World Building from Microscope
  8. That Thing Keith Stetson Did in His Prototype at Metatopia
  9. Collective Places from Ars Magica
  10. Zones and Relative Distance from Fate/13th Age

TEN RPG GENRES I MIGHT DO HISTORIES FOR
  1. Generic RPG Systems
  2. Cyberpunk
  3. Western
  4. Pulp
  5. Mecha
  6. Anthropomorphic
  7. Espionage
  8. Representation of Asian Cultures (a more analytical overview)
  9. “Historical”
  10. Swashbucklers & Pirates

TEN “GRAIL”/HUNT-DOWN RPGS
  1. GURPS War Against the Chtorr
  2. Planescape (most things to replace what was lost in the fire)
  3. Birthright nation books
  4. Nobilis 2nd Edition
  5. Someone to fully explain Weapons of the Gods/Legends of Wulin to me
  6. Exalted (filling in gaps in my 1st and 2nd edition collection)
  7. Ars Magica (filling in gaps)
  8. Statosphere for Unknown Armies
  9. Way of Shadow/Book of the Shadowlands for Legend of the Five Rings
  10. MERP region and location books

TEN BELOVED POSTS
  1. The Wayward Notebook (and The Pinterest Board with the Full Notebook) A great prop for a game which had some problems. 
  2. 13th Age: System Guide for New Players My favorite of these guides and one that helped me get a handle on the game. 
  3. Creating Memorable NPCs Decent post which references some of my earliest and messiest posts. Has useful tools. 
  4. The Place of Dead Games: GURPS Last of a series of three and a good conisderation of what I like and have liked. 
  5. Cat Rambo Taught Me D&D My awesome sister. 
  6. The Many Names of Gamemasters (Updated) More than you expect. 
  7. History of Superhero RPGs (Part One: 1978-1982) I love superhero games and this series is where I began to really hit my stride with these.
  8. Powers of the Titan’s Age: New Icons for the 13th Age Had fun coming up with this. 
  9. Thanes of Whiterun: Skyrim via Hollowpoint A great session showing this game's strengths. 
  10. History of Amphibian RPGs Because it is awesome 
10x10x10=1000. There you go. Hope you've gotten something out of the blog so far. Disagreements, refutations, and like-mindedness can be added to the comments below. 


Monday, July 13, 2015

History of Amphibian RPGs (1977-2015): Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Gamers

FOR THAT FROG MAY BE SOMEBODY'S GAMEMASTER
Over the last several years, I've been tracing the history of various rpg genres (Post-Apocalyptic, Superhero, Steampunk & Victoriana, Horror). I've hunted down obscure games and tried to traces shifts in game approaches and systems. I'd considered myself fairly well read in the field. Recently, however, I discovered a major gap in my knowledge. Thankfully gaming expert and noted talk show host Dr. Tom the Frog pointed me in the right direction. 

While speaking with Dr. Tom's Production Assistant at Origins, he mentioned the good doctor's frustration that a whole line of rpg development had been ignored by mainstream writers. Jon Peterson's otherwise excellent Playing at the World exhaustively examined the role-playing's origins, but ignored Amphibian games. Shannon Appelcline's Designera & Dragons shows a distinct "Mammalian" bias. Even MIT's series of collected essays on gaming dismissed these products as "outside their research pool." That's a slippery slope to ignoring all non-human contributions to the field. With this list I hope to correct those glaring omissions and shine a flashlight onto the emerald underbelly of our hobby. Below I've assembled a brief and selected history of these cold-blooded rpgs. 

Tunnels & Toads (1977)
While TSR became known for the strikingly original Dungeons & Dragons, true connoisseurs understand the importance of Flying Bullfrog’s Tunnels & Toads (T&T). The developers had spent years working on wargames adapted from popular novels, in particular Winds & Willows: A Concise Set of Miniatures Rules for Tabletop Play and Conflict. When they saw how D&D overlooked the amphibian market, they sprang into action. T&T has had multiple editions over the years and spawned many fantasy imitators:  Polliwogs & Perils (1983), Warthammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986), and Tailslanta (1987). But none have matched the reach of this true original.

Hopper (1977)
Inspired by the success of T&T, GDW (Game Designers’ Wetlands) took role-playing in a new direction with Hopper, the game of space-faring amphibians. Hopper became legendary for death during character creation due to incidents like Space Carp or Warp-Raccoons. Hopper has seen many extensive reworkings over the years including Hopper 2300, Mega-Hopper, and Hopper: The New Era. Muck Miller recently concluded a successful Leapstarter for a revised and enlarged Hopper Classic “Big Green Book” edition. Hopper's foray into sci-fi set the stage for the more modern games like the recent Fireflies (2014)

Gamma Pond (1978)
When T&T took off, Flying Bullfrog looked around to see what other genres they could spread into. Gamma Pond was the earliest and most successful of these game lines, eclipsing Torpor Secret (1980) and Swamp Frontiers (1992). Gamma Pond presented a wasteland devastated by chemical dumping and running amuck with wild mutations. Players could even run intelligent “humans.” Later editions would shift between more gonzo and less gonzo, but none made the splash of this first release. Many consider Gamma Pond the spiritual granddaddy of the popular Apocalypse Pond (2012).

Croak of Cthulhu (1981)
This classic game of Lovecraftian horror draws on the author’s lesser known series of children’s books set in Newt England. CoC set the stage for endless horror games like Gill: The Game of Cold-Blooded Horror (1984). However few have had the longevity of this line.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1985)
Palladium’s first and last attempt to break into the lucrative amphibian market. However lack of product research led them to focus more on reptiles than frogs. As a result the game did poorly and fell into complete obscurity immediately.

GARPS (1986)
Short for “Generic Amphibian Roleplaying System.” It offers the first attempt to capture the biodiversity of different genres and campaign styles. Some love the game for its breadth, others for the crunch it brings to the table. GARPS is noted for the richness its vast array of sourcebooks for genres and licensed properties, useful even to gamers outside the system: GARPS Axolotl, GARPS Frogger, GARPS Chrono Trigger, and GARPS Muppets.

Shadowhop (1989)
Cyberpunk finally came to amphibian gaming with this release. Players took the role of “Shadowhoppers” carrying out dangerous and shadowy jobs. Characters could chrome themselves up with bionics like Roboflippers and Smart-Tongues. Alternately they could be a sticky-fingered thief or magic-wielding Wartlock. Later the developers would expand the “meta-story” for this setting, connecting it to their fantasy game Swampdawn (1993).

Battletoads of the 23rd Century (1990)
The ‘90’s brought with it an over-the-top attitude. And few rpgs are as gonzo or challenging as Battletoads of the 23rd Century. With a combat system combining extreme lethality and low hit probabilities for the players, few GMs managed to run complete campaigns or even full sessions. Still the company did reasonably well for itself when the property was adapted into a video game the following year.

World of Croakness (1991)
Few game lines have been as revolutionary as the World of Croakness. It combined personal horror, romantic story-telling, and a gloomy dank atmosphere. It also introduced the first “Dice Pool” system, which required players to keep their dice moistened. Weretoad the Dampening, Newtling the Dreaming, and Hopper the Reckoning remain true classics today. WoC remained at the top of game sales, even in the face of CCGs and CCG-based rpgs like Legend of the Frog Rings (1996) and 7th Swamp (1999). It stayed strong in the face of later unusual horror challengers like Unknown Armies (1998) and All Flies Must Be Eaten! (1999).

BEWM (Bugged Eyes Wide Mouth) (1997)
One of the first amphibian games to embrace anime & manga like Keroro Gunso and Neo-Genesis Lillypad. Some of those elements had appeared in the earlier Tadpoles from Outer Space (1987), but BEWM dove in flipper first. The company, however, ended up in bankruptcy, killing this line as well as the revolutionary superhero rpg, Slither Age Sentinels.

Frogs in the Vineyard (2004)
One of the most important “storytelling” games. It heralded a new revolution in the way players approached play. Most later Indie Amphibian rpgs trace their heritage to this: Slimetime Adventures (2004), Flyasco (2009),  Froggymatsu (2012), Questpondia (2015), and even the forthcoming Eject Park, a stealth game by Will Hindmarsh.

Gumflipper (2006)
A game system for simulating hard unboiled detective stories. Appearing first in The Ecoterrorists (2006), it has been popularized in new adaptations such as Tail of Cthulhu (2008) and Newt’s Black Agents (2012).

Apocalypse Pond (2010)
D. Vincent Croaker followed up Frogs in the Vineyard with this striking post-apocalyptic rpg. As opposed to conventional character creation, players select from playbooks describing different roles. Each has a unique set of "Leaps" or actions that character can take. The playbook pool includes many archetypes: The Flycatcher, The Gill-less, The Glad Glander, The Wader, The Hypnotoad, The Hopperator, The Moulter, and more. It anticipates a new resurgence of interest in the post-apocalyptic, like the recent Deranged Dig'em: Fury Creek

Lamentations of the Fire Salamander (2010)
A controversial fantasy rpg, many argue it kicked off the modern Repto-Clone game movement.

Atomic Ribbit (2014)
Based on the popular webbed comic. Atomic Ribbit uses Fate (Froggy Amusements Told Ecstatically). The same system powers Bullfrogs! (2012) and the Dresden Flies RPG (2012).

Note that this represents only a partial overview of the field. I’m sure readers will find a few smaller personal favorites absent like Terrarium Bansho Zero (2013) or Wet Xing: The Ninja Crusade (2010)

You can see my interview with Dr. Tom here.