Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Unlicensed "Licensed" RPGs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 25

About a brief holiday break we return for “Year Two” of the Play on Target podcast. This week we look at games which really aren’t a particular licensed property (we swear, I mean it just looks like that and you shouldn’t sue us…). We find a surprising number of games offering popular settings with the serial numbers filed off. We also have several points where we get particularly stupid and those listening at home may find yourselves shouting out answers we’re unable to come up with during the recording. I’m sure we forgot a number of these pseudo-simulation games; feel free to mention them in the comments.

The delay for ‘season two’ came from technical shifts and problems. Last year Skype opted to remove support and functionality for third-party applications (as I understand it). That meant we had to find another recording set up. As you’ll be able to tell from this episode, this is among the first we did using the new program (Mumble for anyone interested in the details). In the show you’ll hear we’re still getting things settled with the microphone sensitivity. That’s more than a little trial and error for us. More notably you’ll catch some overtalking and precognitive commentary towards the end of the show. We’re still playing around with multichannel editing, especially since we had to pair that with fixing some of the problems from our bad mic set-up. Bear with us, we’ll be getting that in order soon enough.

I should also mention the nice support we’ve gotten for the podcast in the first year. We had a number of great comments and suggestions. If you have ideas for future episodes you’d like to hear, please send them on. We had the great fortune of being nominated for Best RPG Podcast this year in the Golden Geeks. You can see the nomination and voting list here. Users came up with an amazing roll call of RPG Podcasts there; I’d recommend most for anyone hunting for something new. You can vote if you’re an RPGGeek, BGG, VGG supporter in good standing.

This episode links to our previous one about licensed settings. I still think the best settings are those with plenty of imaginative space. Harry Potter does that for me. I can imagine other stories and plots within that world. Perhaps a campaign covering gumshoe Aurors who have to hunt down the last remnants of Voldemort’s forces. Despite the victory, their numbers have been decimated and the pall of the recent battles still hangs over these enforcers. Paranoia, uncertainty, PTSD, mixed with hope for a better future. Or a historical game of the early days of Hogwarts. Or what an American school for magic looks like. On the other hand, Dune doesn’t appeal to me as a game (sorry Brian). I can’t really imagine playing out stories there. I’ve read the first six books and enjoyed them, but it felt static to me. The universe doesn’t seem to have real room or interesting spaces to insert a group of PCs. I know it does and I’m sure a good GM would make that come alive for me. But it doesn’t spark stories that I want to tell.

As an interesting case, there’s Dave Duncan’s King’s Blades series. I dig the setting and the ideas. The Blades themselves are swordsmen bonded to a particular person. This grants them strength and a danger sense regarding their charge. I love the concept and the magic system of balances which Duncan presents in the stories. However most of the tension and drama comes from the relation between a Blade and their Charge. Sometimes they get bonded to someone awful- and they have to obey their orders. That’s a compulsion I can’t imagine players being particularly down with- except perhaps in a one shot. You could skip that set up, but then you lose some of the essential nature of the setting. I don’t see it being particularly workable for a long-term campaign.

I love figuring out homebrews for existing concepts and settings. I done that with Watchmen, GI Joe, L5R, Changeling, and others. That’s a challenge worth doing because it forces you to drill down and figure out what actually makes a setting tick. What grabs you about it? Is about the tone? Is it about the places? Is it about the magic or some other cosmological principle? In the episode mention Adventure Time as an rpg setting I’d like to see presented. Part of that comes from wanting even more sourcebook-style materials. What would an AT style game look like? It would have to have a measure of weirdness- with flexible and odd powers available to the characters. So doing a list of feats or advantages, ala Pathfinder probably wouldn’t work. It would need to be something open like Fate’s approach. On the other hand, combat needs to be interesting, stunt-filled, but still have a measure of crunch. The characters take hits, suffer damage, get worn out, and even lose. Characters often go on dungeon-delves, hex-crawls, and extended and taxing quests. So there needs to be some detail and resource management. How do I build a game that echoes the things that I love about the world of Ood?

One question would be how much I need to rely on the mechanics to carry the tone- and how much simply comes from the players knowing the setting. When I went to run my homebrew Star Wars game, I relied heavily on the players' knowledge of the setting and the conventions. I simply elaborated on that for the backdrop. I kept the system simple. When they built characters they each chose an archetype. I had advantages, flaws, and benefits suited to those kinds of things (Gambler’s Luck, Droid, Weird Alien, Knack with Machines, Head in the Stars), but only a page's worth. The pilot got an additional set of choices, a list of possible ship upgrades. Finally for the Jedi I created a relatively light set of power rules and encouraged them to develop in different directions. I left a good deal out: weapons, lists of species, elaborate space combat rules, methods to fully balance the Jedi to the PCs. The campaign worked in great part because I emphasized and played up the genre elements. I got the mechanics out of the way.

Consider another perennial licensed product: Lord of the Rings. That’s an odd setting to work with for a number of reasons. You play LotR game to participate in and interact with Middle Earth. It doesn’t work as a version with the serial numbers filed off (see The Sword of Shannara for that). Or actually it works too well because it has so influenced D&D and most other fantasy games. So a good Middle Earth game rests on detail: history, peoples, sights, and sounds. Forget vague atmosphere, it draws on specifics. System matters a little, in that players know what characters in the setting ought to be capable of. They know about Dwarven heartiness or the legendary skills of the Rangers of the North. If you get something basic wrong (like MERP’s problematic handling of magic), it can undercut everything else. If I went to put together a Middle Earth homebrew I’d either go completely open (like hacking Fate Accelerated) or I’d go in the opposite direction and spend some months getting all of the details right. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check out Play on Target. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.