Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reboots, Relaunches and RPGs

Sometimes good games die awful early deaths, and sometimes bad games come back from the dead undeservedly. In some cases the authors and publishers like some aspects of the original idea but want to fix major problems, draw in new audiences, alter the central concept, or just keep the name but go in a new direction. That can be good- creating a new and superior product with what made the original great, and the addition of new ideas and voices. Sometimes it can just create an opportunity for old players to jump ship or gripe about the changes.

I'm not talking so much about edition changes, but more about really significant reboots and major changes in the approach. For example Rolemaster shifted to Rolemaster Standard System. And while that was a major shift which rendered all the earlier books invalid, it was still pretty much "Rolemaster." Shifts in editions for GURPS and HERO have likewise made shifts but kept the same basic approach and concept. I'm also, with a couple of exceptions not talking about properties which bounced around from publisher to publisher for a new system but generally similar kind of game.

So this list is dedicated to major reboots which dramatically change the game, literally and figuratively.

1. Cybergeneration
Cyberpunk 2020 did a great job of bringing some of the feel and character of Gibson and company's literary movement to the gaming table. The original game was dark and a little nihilistic, emphasizing how decay had led to an emphasis on style over substance and violence as ordinary. Technology was useful but dehumanizing- there were consequences for living in this world. Over time, however, a good deal of the cautionary and critical nature of cyberpunk got filed away: leaving flash, techno-fetishism, gun-love, and an emphasis on super-slick, high powered violence and weaponry. That was the nature of an evolving genre and a game line moving to answer its audience's desires (more guns, more cyber mods, etc).

Cybergeneration as an rpg is an explicit response to that. It reboots the Cyberpunk setting in a direction which, I know, a lot of players and GMs did not like. Instead of the lethal, modded up, cybercycle-riding mercenaries of Cyberpunk, you had youths, torn out of their element, given strange powers and embarking on a crusade against the powers that be. Cybergeneration emphasizes hope and the ability for some to stand up against nihilism and corporatism. It points out the flaws and problems of "dark games" and tries to provide an antidote. It feels like a set of designers who met their actual buying audience and didn't like them very much.

2. Gamma World Roleplaying Game
I played Gamma World when it first came out- and even then it felt like a strange mish-mash game. I think we often forgot that it was a far-future apocalypse, and often just thought the high tech was the product of some other factor of the setting. You can see that GW's suffered a lot of attempts at re-envisioning: the original and second editions, then a massive system change with the third edition, then a switch back with the fourth, then a fifth edition which jammed it into Alternity, and then the obvious d20 edition done by White Wolf's Sword and Sorcery Studios. We might also mention Gammarauders which took more than a little from GW.

When I heard that Gamma World was going to be rebooted again, I was skeptical. However the idea of bizarre reality warps wipes away so many issues that the new GW seems to really work and hum along.

3. World of Darkness
A reboot to end all reboots in some ways. White Wolf finished out their metaplot with the Time of Judgment series, providing GMs with the tools to finish everything off. Then they reworked everything with a universal system, parallel structures and changes to the brand identities- some large (Changeling: The Lost) and some small (Vampire: The Requiem). The original lines had become something of a mess, but there's a little bit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater in what they did. In particular, I find the new approach to Mage doesn't grab me at all, whereas I liked the concepts and mechanics of the original. There's some serious question about where the new World of Darkness is headed, with older material now PoD, a reduced publication schedule for new books...but most of all with the forthcoming MMORPG being based on the original Vampire cosmology.

4. RuneQuest Deluxe Edition
Chaosium had had modest success with the early editions of Runequest and had built a decent fanbase for the Glorantha setting. That setting had strong popularity outside the US in particular. RQ, of course, used a early version of Basic RolePlaying, with a number of arcane systems included in it. Then Chaosium licensed Runequest to Avalon Hill. AH wanted a fantasy setting and a generic fantasy game to create other worlds for (so we got Griffin Island, Vikings: Nordic Roleplaying for RuneQuest, and Land of Ninja). The AH publication schedule ended up a mess with some great products coming out in the later period and some awful products early on. They included some of the worst artwork I've ever seen in a game.

Jump forward years after AH has died and Mongoose picks up the license to Runequest which again gets done as a generic fantasy system. And it gets used to reboot several properties with earlier gaming versions: Elric, Hawkmoon and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Plus they reboot the game into Glorantha: The Second Age which puts RQ back into Glorantha, but the time of high myth and...quite honestly if you don't know Gloranthan continuity and history it just plain gets weird. Of course, now that's out the window and Mongoose is again rebranding this system as something else- and not doing the Glorantha Second Age stuff any longer.

5. Hero Wars
Following up from the previous item, Hero Wars came out of the downfall of AH and the return of the Glorantha license to people who wanted to do something with it. For a couple of years, that was discussed on various boards until the newly formed Issaries, Inc finally released a rebooted game for Glorantha. That game polarized many players. Some had cut their teeth on classic RQ and loved the setting and the system equally. HW offered a pretty radical departure in gameplay and mechanics. The rules had a narrativist approach which emphasized characters and ideas over stats and discrete spell lists. That polarized the community. Myself, I didn't like it very much- I wasn't married to the RQ system, but I had a hard time understanding the rules as presented in Hero Wars and the later HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha renamed and revised version.I didn't get it until they rebooted the game again- creating the second edition of HeroQuest- this time presented as a generic system. Another drastic change, but one which made the game accessible to me.

6. The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game
So there's a strange history to reworkings of existing properties to create new Lord of the Rings material. ICE originally published their licensed LotR material as generic, but really using Rolemaster (1st, 2nd & Classic Editions) (see Umbar and Ardor as examples. Then they reworked Rolemaster into MERP. Then there was Tolkien Quest and the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game as attempts to reboot or rework the license to draw more users.

Eventually ICE lost the licensed to LotR after which Decipher picked it up to parallel the movies. In some ways that's a pretty radical reboot in itself- you expect different companies to have different systems, but this was a kind of radical rethinking of the approach to gaming in the setting: action directed to the movies vs. a historical approach to the whole of Middle Earth. Of course Decipher ended up with two distinct rebooted flavors of LotR: Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game. And now we get to see how Cubicle 7 approaches this.

7. Champions: New Millennium
Super games have had many reboots, not unlike the comics themselves. Villains and Vigilantes, for example changed their system radically between the first and revised editions, though most people have forgotten that earlier version. Champions/Hero has had many reworkings even though most of the basics have remained the same (even some secondary lines have been drastically retooled- consider the shifts between Espionage! and Danger International). One of the oddest reboots and attempts to create synergy was the rebranding, cross-over, what-have-you experiment of Champions: New Millenium which tried to marry some Hero mechanics, R. Talsorian's Fuzion system, and a new Champions setting together. I know players who loved both Cyberpunk and Champions- but every one of them hated this.

Related we could consider the various flavors of Marvel. We've had at least three distinct and incompatible versions of a Marvel Supers RPG. The first, Marvel Super Heroes, from TSR remains the most popular, a really simple and abstract system that many loved. But there's also Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game and The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game. DC's had much the same experience. The original DC Heroes (1st Edition) had to contend with a massive change in continuity happening right in the middle of things- Crisis on Infinite Earths. Later editions had to provide dual stats, new sourcebooks to keep up and so on. We seen this echoed more recently with DC Adventures Hero's Handbook. We've been waiting on the oft-delayed characters book, volume one of which is now coming out. But the DC Universe is "relaunching" with new continuity in September. Where does that leave Green Ronin?

8. Rokugan Campaign Setting
Legend of the Five Rings is a weird beast as far as reboots go. Several times they've moved the timeline forward significantly, to parallel the card game's story. That has, in turn, rendered a chunk of earlier material less useful or even outright invalid. Those reboots have effectively kept the game and concept but rewritten the history- in a way that makes it difficult to simply port your character over from one edition to the next if the GM keeps the background. But the more significant reboot happened in with the second edition of L5R which, a little ways in, switched to hybrid L5R 2e/Rokugan d20 presentation. The switch meant double the system material in books, with half being a waste for those not playing that flavor. That was a strange reboot period, attempting to cash in on the d20 craze. Legend of the Five Rings 3e switched back to the house system with another jump forward in the timeline.

AEG also switched over 7th Sea to d20 with Swashbuckling Adventures. In that case they didn't bother with dual statted material, but instead tried to create a solely d20 setting out of 7th Sea, IIRC. I'm used to companies putting out d20 flavors to grab some of that money (Aberrant (d20 Edition) for example), but this was a more significant reboot. 7th Sea/Swashbuckling Adventures eventually ceased publication, so make of that what you will.

9. Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure
Mystara and the Known World remains my favorite of the classic TSR fantasy settings. The GAZ - Gazetteer series has some of the best material. It was a setting which managed to bring together some really divergent stuff (Hollow World, Blackmoor, Red Steel). But the problem was that most of this was written for the Basic Dungeons & Dragons game- particularly the third edition which included things like the Basic, Expert, and Companion sets of rules. Eventually TSR decided to make everything Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. So they went back and reworked the world of Mystarra in several boxed sets including this one, Mark of Amber and Glantri Kingdom of Magic. These IMHO ended up badly done- smashing much of what made the originals consistent and interesting. They devastated the setting to kill off things and places. It was annoying, and a pretty clear attempt to have an "event" which would require new purchases.

10. Top Secret/S.I.
The original Top Secret was a classic genre simulation. Players took the role of spies in a generic spy agency. Of course the GM could and would define that further, but what was more important than the world, background and trappings was the mechanics for playing a spy. Boot Hill took a similar approach to Western gaming, while Gamma World and Star Frontiers existed in more detailed worlds. Of course, as we'd see across the history of TSR, nothing got the attention or did as well as classic fantasy- though they tried again and again to find gold. Top Secret went through two editions before they decided to reboot it.

From that came Top Secret/SI with a new and drastically simplified resolution system. In fact, it is pretty much a completely different set of mechanics. But on top of that they added a metastory- with players as members of the detailed agency ORION. Despite building a concrete world, the game served as a core to a couple of different flavors of spy gaming in addition to the base (TSAC2: Agent 13 Sourcebook for supernatural and TSAC4: F.R.E.E. Lancers for sci-fi spying).

11. Orpheus
I found Wraith: The Oblivion an interesting idea, but not exactly my cup of tea. Some of the ideas for the Chinese Underworld were striking (Dark Kingdom of Jade). But I could never quite get behind the pitch of the game: was the intent an interaction with the real world or instead souls fighting in an afterlife fantastic setting? It wasn't clear- but it felt as it moved along that the focus shifted from any real interaction with the WoD to the wars and metastory of the afterworld. Which had a significant event...and I'm not entirely sure, this is based on a picture I've put together from skimming books and reading posts. But at some point someone sets of a ghost Atomic Bomb?

That shift and change up gets hinted at the in reboot of the "Ghosts as a PC Race" concept for World of Darkness in the form of Orpheus. That's actually what drove me back to try to pick up what the Wraith connections were. Orpheus piqued my curiosity. This reboot of the ghosts concepts has people in the real world using and manipulating their own ghosts- a nice concept. Orpheus also changed up the game by making it a limited series of books with a running campaign plot that began and wrapped up over the course of six supplements. As with everything else, the idea of ghosts got hit with the global reboot stick in the new World of Darkness relaunch mentioned above. Now it has become Geist: the Sin-Eaters, which sounds a lot like the old Mummy: The Resurrection game...