Sunday, May 3, 2009

Recent Things I've Liked: rpgs and others

So my insomnia reared its ugly head last night once again. I'll admit I drink more coffee than humanly necessary. But on non-game evenings I try to stop in the early evening. I was in a lazy mood so I watched a few things online and then about 11pm I got the yawns pretty bad. I went to bed and then just laid there. Finally about 1:30am I'd reached the obvious conclusion that I wasn't going to actually fall asleep. Part of the problem comes from my old injury which reduces the circulation in my left leg. It makes that leg itchy from time to time where I have to spend hours flexing my ankle to pop the joint or the tension from it drives me crazy...and keeps me awake. Anyway, I went and dithered on Rune Factory on the Wii until 4am, when my boredom finally started to match up with my exhaustion.

However there's a point when I get that tired and unable to sleep that I start getting little tiny audio hallucinations, the kind that reach into my dreams. So while I was able to lay down and start to drift off-- I woke up twice because I thought I heard something in the house. And the fire's made me a raving paranoid about that, so each time I had to get up and check everything out. Of course, it was nothing, but I really hate that point where I can't distinguish between dream experience and real world sensory input.

So a brief look at a couple of comics and game products that I've read recently.

Gene sent me several graphic novel collections that I've been working through. One of them, Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian, I'm of two minds about. On the one hand there's a brilliance to the storytelling-- it just keeps rolling without spending too much time establishing the exact context of the situation. Then at other points you have a good deal of exposition about features within the fantastic universe she's created. I'd describe the whole thing as a kind of long surrealist fable. Imagine in some ways if the author of the Phantom Tollbooth had a set of even darker sensibilities. Some of the ideas hooked me and I wanted to see more about them, while others left me cold. Overall as a complete work I think it holds together. If you like off-kilter and more fabulistic storytelling then you might enjoy this.

I'm of an even greater split in my response to the Umbrella Academy. I'd read a little bit about this in the various comic blogs, but mostly about the first couple of issues. In my mind, I'd put it in the category of something like Dynamo 5 by Faerber or Five Fists of Science by Fraction-- lighter fare exploring the dynamics of an odd group of super characters, perhaps with a steampunk or mad science thematic to it. While Umbrella Academy might start there, it goes dark really fast.

You have a group of children with strange powers, notable by all being born across the globe at the same time. They're adopted by a mentor figure super-scientist/adventurer/secret alien and raised to “save the world.” We see them in the first issue fighting Robot Gustav Eiffel and his secret rocket-ship monument. Then we flash forward twenty some years-- where things have gone horribly awry for them and their lives. It goes dark, and then even darker. I think the panel with the friendly evolved monkey butler character getting his head blown open probably represents the apex of this. Or the throat-slashing of one of the protagonists later on. I think part of my reaction comes from my expectations of this being a lighter book-- if I'd had a better sense of it, I might have not been so stunned.

It is however, filled with a thousand and one interesting ideas and concepts, thrown up, mentioned and then moved past quickly. While I won't say all of it holds together coherently, it does manage to create amazingly depth in the course of the six issues (bundled together in the gn I read). I think I'll appreciate it better on the second or third reads. In some ways it reminds me of the superb world building of Warren Ellis where you're fairly certain the writer has a full sense of everything that's mentioned in passing. I love me some Grant Morrison, but sometimes I think he's just throwing stuff around because it sounds cool. I should also note that the singer from My Chemical Romance, Gerald Way, wrote Umbrella Academy. If I'd been paying closer attention, I might have picked up on that as a cue to what the book would be like. Overall I liked it and I suspect that my enjoyment will raise up on a second and third reading.

I ordered a pdf from one Indie Press Revolution, called Play Unsafe. Here's the product page. It had some decent review comments and seemed to be a nice set of ideas about running and playing in role-playing games. It has some good ideas in it-- essentially he talks about Improv theory and how that applies to the game table. So we have discussions of free form planning, avoiding negation and so on. I did four years of Improv in high school, so I'm at least a little familiar with that, although we didn't have a lot of formal thinking about it. The author has some good ideas, but the volume lacks real depth. For one thing, the pages average 200-250 words apiece, with lots of white space. We get blank pages, half-pages, and summary lists on top of that, probably reducing the average word count across the book. Add to that about ten pages of game listings, thanks and afterword and the already thin page count gets even lower. It is these kinds of things that make me wary of purchasing interesting rpg books from those places. I've had that experience with a couple of other games I've bought. But then I'll pick up something like Zorceror of Zo or Polaris and I'm completely satisfied. I think part of the problem lies in a lack of deep reviews. I have to judge based on the company it comes from and the few comments that often feel suspect.

For a nice review of the content, see here.

Finally, I had a 40% coupon for Borders their traditional method for hooking me in. A 30% will make me drive over if there's something specific I want, but less than that doesn't move me. I feel a little guilty about that. I'm undoubtedly contributing to the downfall of the traditional bookstore. I like going to bookstores, but I will admit that the ability to track like books and get immediate recommendations from places like Amazon has shifted my buying pattern. I'm significantly less likely to make impulse purchases as I would in the past. The exception is for manga which never has a good discount online, so I don't worry about buying it in the stores. But that's another problem, as the selection and variety of manga in places like Borders and Barnes and Noble has changed. I haven't been able to find any of the later volumes of series I enjoy like Nodame Cantabile and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service in the stores. That means I either stop collecting volumes or get them online.

So, back to the coupon. I ended up spending it on the new Scion Companion from White Wolf. I'd gone in looking for that, a particular Thai cookbook or perhaps a cool looking strategy guide for a video game I don't own. Let's ignore that last one as it illustrates a weird collecting penchant I'm trying to control. Scion's one of the new rpg lines from White Wolf. On the one hand it looks like a modern like on some of the anime/over-the-top conventions from their Exalted line; on the other it has a fully fleshed and unique setting with the children of classical gods and mythology battling it out in the modern world. I ran a Scion short campaign recently, which will likely be my next campaign postmortem.

I really like the Scion line for several reasons. For one WW has adopted a specific approach for some of these new lines. A few years ago they blew up their core World of Darkness lines, including Vampire, Werewolf and so on. They'd been evolving the metaplot in those books over the years and finally brought the End Times to bear on all of them. That's something probably worth looking at in another entry-- what I liked about that metaplot and how they handled things. When they brought back the new World of Darkness, nWoD, they built the “core” lines: Mage, Werewolf, and Vampire which would be open-ended, with new supplements coming out on a fairly regular schedule. For secondary lines they would only do a set number of books. This applies for Changeling, Promethean, and Scion.

One of the effects of this has been that each book has been solidly full of good material. There's less in the way of filler volumes-- where they have a thin premise and have to flesh that out. Scion had additionally the virtue of each book being about a different power level for the characters (Hero, Demigod and God). They ended up adding a Ragnarok volume and now this companion to add new character options. However this book signals the end of the line. I suspect they'll do some pdf supplements to keep interest going, but these books are all you need. I like the new Scion Companion. It doesn't suffer from power inflation. The new character options fit easily into the existing structures, and the three new pantheons, Celtic, Chinese and Hindu work naturally with the others.

There is some mixed weirdness at the end of the book with a discussion of how you might run a historical Scion campaign- particularly a WW2 game. That's not a bad idea, but they then include an “American” and “Allied” pantheon based more on concepts than strong historical and mythological ideas. That's certainly not something I'll be using. There's also still the absence of an Native American mythic presentation, but that might be in one of the other books I haven't picked up or else they might be worried about the broad swath of myths not centralized to those cultures. However if they can reduce Chinese and Hindu myths to a small and supposedly coherent set, they should be able to do that. Overall, the Companion's a worthwhile book to have if you're interested in the setting. I'll likely be going back to Scion in the future so it is a good purchase.


  1. Thanks for reading Play Unsafe. I'm glad you liked the bits you liked.

    It does seem to polarise opinion: some people think it's short and lightweight; some people think it's stripped down to the essentials. In retrospect, I think the layout doesn't help me much.

    There are two pretty detailed reviews on RPG.NET: Sophie Lagace's review is fairly fair and balanced, I think.


  2. Sounds like you put your insomnia to good use.

  3. I'm curious about the new pantheon info in the Scion book, but at the same time -- this is one of those things, like Changeling, where it's probably just as satisfying to create your own material if you've any familiarity with the source myths.

    Creating an "American" pantheon could be done, a la Gaiman's American Gods, and could be an interesting vehicle to explore a different theme, like abstract worship or cultural appropriation. (For example, not just the conceptual stuff like Patriotism and Innovation and whatnot, but look a look at whether belief and focus can create gods that are bastardized versions of other pantheons. Say, a fluffy-bunny Wiccan version of Kali, or a schizo mash-up of all the various Raven or Coyote figures from Native American myth.)

  4. -To be a little more fair to Play Unsafe, I went back and posted a link to the product page and to a more complete review of the substance of the product than the one I presented here. I do think the layout does undercut the really good materials and ideas presented in the product.

    -The real problem with the insomnia is the two day count down afterwards to when I collapse from the weird sleep schedule.

    -I really like Scion, mostly for the ideas. I does avoid some of the problems of more recent WW product in that it doesn't spend a page detailing the mechanics of every single power and ability. Their take on the American mythos just feels a little trite-- but it is also purely in the context of their WW2 scenario set up. It feels more than a little cartoony compared to the rest of the stuff.

  5. I haven't read the Scion take on an American pantheon. I'll trust it's not quite there. I like Gaiman, but I wasn't impressed with his new gods in American Gods.

    One quality I think American gods would have is that they'd go through rapid phoenix cycles. They'd die and be reborn in new forms every decade or so. This would be quite traumatic for the previous worshipers if they're not ready. Essentially, it'd be about a new hysteria swamping the old. Tradition and continuity are weak here.

    Imagine what an American war god would look like throughout the 20th century. Starts off idealistic and weak, then weak and overconfident (WWI-1930s), strong and incompetent (early WWII), strong and bureaucratic (WWII-early 60s), bureaucratic and incompetent (Viet Nam), etc. And has been trying various versions of Rambo ever since.

    Foreign gods who enter this pantheon would have to accept the loss of personal identity every few years.

    Another quality is that they'd have lots of international supplicants. The Rolling Stones don't worship British gods.

  6. I like that cyclical idea-- and could be an interesting reason why these Nationalist pantheons don't have a real longevity. The American pantheon includes Betsy Ross, John Henry, Uncle Sam, etc. That sort of bugs me as it seems to be a kind of lazy approach. The Allied pantheon is the same.

    Since they're built around a WW2 timeframe, as a concept it would be interesting if they the pantheons would arise and then fall based on a response to some major event or cataclysm-- or perhaps that would be the catalyst for change. I'm not sure what a more modern version of the American Pantheon would look like except that it would be divided, have some significant change and response to 9-11, and include the bad guy from No Country for Old Men.