Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Place of Dead Games

Programmed Consumer
I will admit that sometimes I buy games not for themselves, but for some hope that another game will come out that I do want. I love the Shin Megami Tensei video game series, but some of the iterations have mechanics I'm no good at, but I still want more SMT games. So I buy X and then I buy the sequel. I try them but they end up outside my skill and comfort zone. But still there's always the chance for more coming- teases about other volumes or side stories. By the same token I have bought supplements that I didn't need for games (*Exalted*) like a good and hopeful drone...

The Nearly Men
My rpg thoughts today come inspired by a Geeklist by Andy Leighton, presenting rpgs which were solicited or advertised but never saw the light of day. From that question of vaporware, I'd like to consider the broader question of dead games...and undead games.

The Nearly Men Geeklist

In some ways my wanting to talk about this comes out of recent announcement by WotC that they would be canceling several already announced items for D&D 4e: Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell, Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, and Hero Builder’s Handbook. Geek User Vestige added that to the list; he points out that these items would have served as important additions/transitions for the newer Essentials line. What this means about the future of 4e I can't really say. I've heard some speculation that there's preparation for a 5th edition; I've heard about a shift to more randomized or collectible material (ala the new Gamma World); and I've heard about a shift to board or other games for the D&D brand identity. Regardless the removal of such big ticket items- i.e. serious sourcebooks, from the list indicates some kind of major change.

Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
It is frustrating to see really interesting things not see the light of day. The Call of Cthulhu products in particular look like interesting tracks. And I would love to see GURPS India actually come out. On the other hand, those lines still exist so there's always a chance we'll actually see them in the future. Game lines which die out, such Dragonquest or Buffy from the list, mean interesting products never released. Or at least that used to be the case. In the new era, we're seeing companies who shift lines actually put out some things for users. WoTC released a number of pdf only products at the end of the AD&D life cycle, including material for Birthright. We've also see unpublished products leak out into the wild. Still its frustrating when you'd like to have a nice printed copy for a game line you've been collecting. Then there's the case of great games which don't exactly die, you just stop getting any kind of response from their boards. Perhaps there's a minor pitiful update or increasingly pushed back release date. Weapons of the Gods, a great game for source material seems to have gone that direction; the English version of Qin: The Warring States, from Cubicle 7, has an incredibly slow schedule, with massively slipping dates which suggests a terminal game line.

Suck of the New
I think we've all played dead games- or games which seem to be heading towards their last legs. That's more possible now with the existence of pdf reprints bringing back vanished games. I've been watching Guild Companion Publications begin the slow process of making all of the old crazy Rolemaster things available again. Not that I'm ever going to play that again- I left that system behind for a reason. A couple of factors run against this movement however. First, of course, there's the mental sense of a dead game being just that- not alive or perhaps passe? Even those people working on Old School Games aren't working from the original or reprinted materials (for the most part). They're remixing those ideas and creating new games which try to emulate that experience. But at least in my group there's a matter of gamer fatigue. We've been playing long enough that we've seen many games come and go- in many editions. In reality only a few players in our extended group actually buy game books. They might pick up a core volume for something being run, but they're unlikely to go beyond that. New editions make them flinch- so I doubt we'll ever move to something like the third edition of Mutants and Masterminds, regardless of its strengths.

DOA
An interesting case to be considered would be those supplements which are, effectively dead on arrival. They appear so late in a game's lifespan that they become useless. That's actually pretty hard to do. Usually by the time a line's gotten that far along, the supplements coming out deal with new settings, story frames, adventures and so on. But I'll point to one case I can think of. Late in its design cycle, the first edition of Mutants and Masterminds published Gimmick's Guide to Gadgets. This was actually one of my favorite books. It took the gadget system from the base book and reworked it in new and interesting directions. That's actually saying quite a bit for me- I generally dislike equipment building books and systems which have complex or relatively detailed mechanics for construction (so things like GURPS Vehicles and Gadgets and Gear leave me cold). But this seemed fairly easy and workable.

However, not long after the Gimmick book came out, Green Ronin published M&M 2e. Don't get me wrong, I like the 2nd edition, but it effectively rendered all of the mechanics of GGG moot. The system and mechanics presented there were completely incompatible with the new edition. Sure, you could convert the items given in the supplement to the new version, but that reduced it to an equipment book. The obvious response would be: then don't shift systems- a whole 'nother can of worms.

All Hail Hydra
So what about the games which refuse to die? The games which keep coming back in edition after edition? In this case, I'm not talking about something like Dungeons & Dragons or HERO System. Those seem more thematic, with overlapping editions. But there are games with significant breaks in their existence. Off the top of my head I can point to three: Paranoia, Traveller, and Gamma World. I think each shows a different aspect of the reasons for revisiting a game line.

Paranoia, for example, in its WEG incarnation, had a couple of editions. The first edition set the bar pretty high for a game concept. It struck out where few other games had- an Orwellian future, but one with real humor. It also embraced the disposablity of the PCs; reveling in the adversarial relationship between GM & players and among the players themselves. The second edition tried to fix the mechanical problems of the first, but then the line spun off into parodies of other games. Those late adventures are generally bad. The last of that series came out in early 1994. Then WEG tried to reboot the following year with a "Fifth Edition" which fails. Paranoia vanishes for almost a decade until Mongoose redoes it as Paranoia XP (a name they were later forced to change) and then very quickly a new edition again with Paranoia 25th Anniversary edition. That last one, btw, makes me feel really, really old.

In the case of Paranoia you had a strong and beloved niche product which had seen real decline in quality coupled with the death of the original company. Traveller, on the other hand, first ended up twisted and reworked in the hands of its own company, GDW. I can't claim to be an expert on the system but I've watched from a distance as it ended up reworked into MegaTraveller and Traveller: the New Era. An argument could be made that Traveller 2300 represents another version, but I prefer to think of it as a side story. Traveller for many people, represented a iconic hard sci-fi game. When it tried to change with the times, you ended up with something of a mess. So then later on you'd have new versions in the form of T20 (Traveller d20) and GURPS Traveller. Eventually Mongoose picked the ball up and ran with it, creating their own flavor of the system: keeping the background while at the same time using the system as a basis for other properties. I've always pictured Traveller as a kind of seamless and timeless Ur setting, so I have a hard time picturing the two parts, system and background peeled apart. So Mongoose seems to be good at Frankengames...

On the other hand, with Gamma World, I've always had a sense of the setting and little memory of the system. Well, except for two facets: randomized character types and technology activation flowcharts. I think Gamma World has come to mean little beyond being a post-crash craziness game. Nearly every version of GW has completely rewritten the system and in great part the background. The new version discards the post-nuke tension for high weirdness. There's a sense in which Gamma World as a brand identity means almost nothing- it is perhaps a kind of genre (one which includes Gammarauders...). Where Paranoia means a fairly specific game and setting, and Traveller describes a family of games, Gamma World's an old name used to show off new concepts. From what I've read this latest version of GW brings a lot of new stuff to the table, giving some pay off for digging the horse up.

Resurrection of the Settings
And I think that's the real question: what do these new incarnations actually bring to the game? Consider the various licensed settings, especially those which have recently seen a tumble: Conan, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. Conan had been pretty meagerly done by its two previous franchise owners: TSR and Steve Jackson. The D&D Conan modules tried to grab some of the energy of the movies, while the GURPS Conan versions tried to hew closer to the books. The GURPS books had the unfortunate problem of being slotted into a limited format: a single medium-length core book which covered everything and then a few adventures. It would take Mongoose to really consider Conan and Hyboria as a serious and expansive campaign setting. They wrapped it onto the d20 movement and produced a great deal of solid material- editing and other problems aside. After a couple of repolishings of the product, they lost the license. My understanding is that Mongoose wanted to produce material with a broader appeal, for Howardian fandom rather than simply game material. That might have opened them up to a broader market in producing Conan sourcebooks, as Random House continues its line Star Wars books.

Star Wars had the classic WEG treatment with two related but distinct editions, followed by WoTC creating two related, but distinct editions. Each version has its own solid fanbase- which I find pretty amazing. They managed to bring new takes and approaches to the setting while remaining recognizably Star Wars. On the other hand, I find it difficult to reconcile the visions of Middle Earth presented by MERP and the Lord of the Rings rpg. The MERP supplements, with a few exceptions, try to provide a serious approach to Tolkien's detail. They take the written world seriously and in many places have the same dryness and laborious catalog of odd things that characterizes some of the secondary Middle Earth works. On the other hand, the LotR games books provide flash, color and obviously a reliance on the movies as their source.

The Pitch Is?
Which brings up the big question: we know pretty certainly that Cubicle 7 has the new Middle Earth license. What will they provide? Obviously a new system, but more importantly what will be their approach to the material? Trying to make it accessible to new players by providing a thinned down version? Or embracing the density of the setting and giving players resource books. I'm a little nervous as they seem like a company which has taken on a lot at once. Likewise, what happens when someone else picks up the Conan or Star Wars licenses. They seem done to death, but what will the designers find to offer. The obvious choices would be to marry it to a popular universal system like 4e or Fudge/Fate or to move to a dummied down player accessible system. For that matter can we expect popular lost franchises like World of Warcraft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Marvel Supers?

The Danger of Lost Licenses
That does bring me a slightly full circle. The new age we're in does mean access to lost games and even unpublished products. The exception comes where we hit these licensed products- lost and unavailable for reprinting. We won't be seeing all of the great ICE MERP modules again legally. The recent clearing out of the Serenity and Battlestar Galactica gamelines from Margaret Weis means those won't be available. I imagine Supernatural, Leverage and Smallville will eventually suffer the same fate, sooner rather than later given how late in the cycle those have come out. The same with those Conan or Babylon 5 products from Mongoose (though you can still get Starship Troopers?). Eden at least seems to have structured their contract to be able to sell the Buffy and Angel products post license loss. It is sad to see some of that stuff go into the great beyond, available only to desperate collectors and pirates.