Monday, December 31, 2012

Everything is Dolphins: RPGs I Like

DAYS OF THE DOLPHIN
Every rpg is, to some extent, a labor of love. With some big ticket and highly polished products that can be hard. The slick production values conceal the energy and enthusiasm of the goofballs who actually spend their time developing structures for make-believe stories that other people get to play out. On the other hand, sometimes a game wears its crazed goober enthusiasm on its sleeve. For me, this has been the year of the performance-art level tonedeaf trolling heartbreaker game, Vampire: Undeath. Watching that creator fail around about his originality and how only fools would draw a connection between it and any World of Darkness. It’s the equivalent of my creating a fantasy game with Materia, Black Mages, Limit Breaks, Summons, and massive swords and claiming that it bears no resemblance to Final Fantasy. Every game like this is the product of effort- of someone who put together something they cared about. You can hope that energy gets channeled into something interesting and original someday. And some people embrace the goofiness of their game, how it borrows, and how crazed it is.

Which brings us to Everything is Dolphins.

Where you play a Dolphin. Sometimes with guns.

In a year where we’ve talked about the massive Kickstarter success of products like Hillfolk and FATE Core, we also have to recognize Everything is Dolphins. The combination RPG/Artbook had a simple gola of $1000, and managed to end up with $4,480. I think the Kickstarter pitch sums it up best:

“Everything is Dolphins is a role playing game hovering somewhere between side scroller video game, talking animal fairy tale, and triptastic fun. It's a pen and paper RPG that you play at a table, not a computer RPG - don't be confused. It's also an art book with work by a selection of high and low and elsewhere artists.”
It is a crazed book that doesn’t really take into account developments in rpgs yet is probably playable. It is also a reflection on place of games and make believe in our childhood. It also pretty clearly could also be called the Ecco the Dolphin RPG rpg (as written by kids).

PRESENTATION
Everything is Dolphins is an 80-page perfect-bound book with full-color glossy interiors. The layout is perfunctory- deliberately Spartan, scattered, and fragmented. A text page will often have only a single paragraph of text on it. In other products, I’d write that off as amateurish, but here’s it serves a purpose. Everything is Dolphins offers a kind of rpg art/archival project. The project curator, Tim Hutchings, wants to showcase gaming ephemera- projects scribbled in notebooks that might otherwise have been simply thrown away or lost in a move. So this comes from the sketches and original concepts of author Ray Weiss. If you’ve been a gamer for any length of time you undoubtedly have these kinds of pieces and documents laying around. So the actual text design and presentation reflects this. There’s little in the way of explanatory text- it assumes you know games and provides the basic rules. There’s a universality to these kinds of hacked games- and read in that spirit, it becomes fun.

On the other hand, to complement the written material, the authors have commissioned a number of artists with varying approaches and medium. None of this is classic rpg art material- so it is pretty avant-garde. Dolphins in bowler hats, rainbow scraps, etched black-and-white seascapes, leather-clad porpoises with shivs. Surreal might be a good way to put this- a different form of surrealism from Itras By, but blowing up meaning all the same. It you like goofiness and discordant wonder, you’ll dig this.

LITERAL SOURCEBOOK
I usually approach my reviews in order of material, but here I have to start at the end. The last 36 pages of Everything is Dolphins reproduce Ray Weiss' original notebook. Pencil sketched details, wild ramblings, pictures of dolphins, ideas for how you might map an rpg as a side-scroller. They’re smudged, the text goes around holes in the paper, and- of course- they’re written on graph paper.

I have magazine boxes of gaming material on my shelves. I went through a few years ago and organized everything. Some bits and pieces from high school exist, but most everything else from before that is gone. Our group wrote a couple of tournament modules for our local gaming conventions in the mid1980s- The Death Frolics. I have one or two pages from them, and one page of the pre-made characters.

Which is to say, if you’re given to reminiscing on gaming nostalgia, you’ll enjoy this section. It made me laugh. The actual character sheets from play just as funny, hand-made scraps and sketches, complete with maps and notes.

THE RULES THEMSELVES 
Everything is Dolphins is, strangely enough, a post-apocalypse game. Humanity has fallen and now the dolphins rule a watery-world pepper with the ruins and relics of our civilization. These are not ordinary dolphins, not an ordinary world- a Gamma World-tinged flippered rpg. Players roll 1d8 for each of six attributes, with a 1 becoming a 2. Tests are made by rolling under the appropriate attribute. Secondary attributes are based directly on these results (with Constitution used the most). Players choose between one of three dolphin races:
  • Bottlenose: begins with an extra feat
  • Atlantic Spotted: starts with an artifact
  • False Killer Whale: gains an extra success in combat
PCs have levels which increase as they gain experience. All start with one feat at level one and gain another every other level. The feat list of 48 items is broken into three tiers; some feats on higher tiers require owning one from a lower level. Every third pick resets the choices back to tier one. Picks include Improved Charge, Extra Breath, Bubble Shot, ocean Ally and so on. Character creation, complete with an example takes up the first 28 pages of the rules.

Combat and conflicts work via a dice pool. Each side rolls a number of dice equal to a pool value- Ranged Attack, Melee Attack or Defense. Each roll of 6+ is a success; the side with the higher # of successes wins. That’s a weird switch from the attribute test rules- flipping from needing low to needing high. There’s a weird gap here in the attribute contested rules. It gives an example of a Dex vs. Dex contest but doesn’t explain how that actually works- a pool based on value or instead using the standard resolution mechanic. The loser of a combat contest takes the difference in damage. There are also rules for breath and a couple of other concepts, but these are incredibly minimal. Artifacts, experience, and so only are barely sketched. A few example monsters and adversaries are presented. Any GM wanting to run this will have to do some serious filling in of the gaps.

OVERALL
If you’re looking for a serious dolphin-simulation game, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a fully playable rpg, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a full-on parody rpg, look elsewhere.

Instead Everything is Dolphins offers a piece of crystalized gaming nostalgia. Like the classic video-game it tries to emulated, EiD plays really old-school: the crappy made-up concept game that you played with your friends. You would have come up with more details and crunch, but you didn’t have enough time so you ran with what you had- filling in gaps as you played. For me that was a riff on Zelanzy’s Amber done in a post-Apocalypse America. Or the Pulp version of GURPS I tried to pull together in 1986. Or the G.I. Joe reskin of Danger International I did. It is a fun book, gentle and amusing, enhanced by crazy and amusing artwork. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine.


Thanks to my sister Cat Rambo for this awesome Xmas gift.