Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Cape Too Far: Supers & World War 2

When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield
The Captain America movie is coming out this July. Perhaps you caught the preview they ran during the Superbowl. I didn't- in fact I've kind of been avoiding it. I still have memories of the earlier motorcycle helmeted version of Cap from years back. On the other hand, having a chance to see a superhero punching Nazis kind of fills my heart with glee- at the same time as I'm disappointed that they're most assuredly not going to show Captain America with the Invaders. So no Submariner, the Whizzer or the Human Torch. But to honor that concept, I put together a Geeklist of the various World War 2 sourcebooks for superhero games. I've put them in chronological order, as I think that's a nice way to consider the development of that "genre" of superhero rpg. For this blog post, I want to spin off on to a few tangential issues about that.

Check out the list for this post:
Four-Color Furies: Supers & World War 2

All Those Who Chose to Oppose his Shield Must Yield

My first remember seeing supers and WW2 connected in to very different places. Growing up they showed Marvel Comics cartoons on Channel 44 out of Chicago. There were essentially panels and images from comics cut out, moved across a screen and topped off with voice overs and FX. It covered the early days of Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America. In the case of Cap, we got some WW2 adventures followed by his early days with the Avengers, though the WW2 stuff might have been flashback. In any case, I loved and watched these shows religiously. Of course the other big source would be the prime-time Wonder Woman series, which had its first season set during WW2. That corresponded to the original William Moultan Marston comics. I remember reading some of those in black & white paperback reprints, complete with bondage not so sub-text.

But the question of how superheroes would have interacted with the war, rather than being on covers punching Hitler really hit me, came in two later series. Roy Thomas' Invaders for Marvel showed the characters fighting against Nazi villains in a revisionist take which brought some of the early 1970's themes to bear. On the other hand, we also got the return of the Justice Society, made up of the legacy characters, appearing in DC Comics. I loved the JSA, and followed them in issues of the JLA, various back up stories and eventually in the short-lived All-Star Comics which tried to revitalize them by adding some younger characters. That would lead to Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler and Jerry Ordway's creation of the All-Star Squadron, a modern comic set in WW2 using all of the legacy characters in their prime. I collected those comics until the Crisis on Infinite Earths completely mucked up the continuity. Probably the most interesting thing about the All-Star Squadron (I'm not going to simplify that) was the device of the Spear of Destiny a magical artifact which came into Hitler's hands and kept any superheroes from entering Axis territory (in Berlin or the Pacific). That device forced the focus of the stories onto Fifth Column, Home Front and Allied Territory stories. A goofy narrative device, it meant that the DC WW2 Stories would be necessarily different from the tales of Captain America as a solider marching with his unit across Europe.

Fifth-Column Rat Finks

That difference I think is the big question for GMs wanting to run in this period: how involved to you want the players to be in the war? Are they going to be thematically aping the idea of Golden Age stories with the heroes busting up spy rings in the states. Will they have the feel of the old Superman TV show? Certainly that's an easy approach- and one which uses the war as a backdrop rather than a centerpiece. But the GM does have to come up with the reason why such supers wouldn't head off (better use of resources, other obligations, gender, supernatural forces, etc). One thing which does strike me in some of the WW2 sourcebooks which focus on the homefront is a kind of cartoony and clean feel to the approach. I think this comes from a mistaken sense that comics before the goofy, clean and fun Silver Age had the same kind of morality and purity. However that's certainly not the case, with Batman gunning people down and heroes like the Spectre pushing people into jumping to their death. It might be interesting to do a kind of Watchmen-style dark and gritty game set in the States during WW2- and that might be closer to the comics coming out during the war.

Lifting Tanks and Punching Heads
On the other hand, GMs might want to have the players actually up in the front lines- or at least involved with resistance, sabotage or espionage operations. I think that's a tougher approach for a GM, not least in the question of how to handle the actual "warfare" in connection with the heroes. Of course, the grand-daddy of games which treat this seriously would be Godlike. That game builds a consistent set of rules about how powers works and then crashes those into a gritty and realistic approach to telling war stories. Supers are soldiers and ones with a definite and specific role in the war. Honestly, Godlike's more sci-fi than comic book to me, but it still works. Any GM wanting to deal with the real war in this kind of campaign ought to pick it up.

Choosing to places the PCs in the heart of the conflict brings up other issues. For one, how much impact do you plan on letting them have. Will they be able to shape the course of the war? Will their personal knowledge get in the way? Time traveler PCs can complicate this even further. The question, as always in a supers game, is where you draw the line between realism and the fantasy of the setting. Players may want to emulate the complete wish-fulfillment of the Inglourious Basterds. There's nothing exactly wrong with that, but the GM has to be prepared. Related to that, how much of the real awfulness of the war (Concentration camps, Illness, Dresden Bombing, Japanese Occupation of China, etc) slip into the game. Such details have real power and used badly could significantly impact the tone of the game in the wrong way.

Other Superhistories
Obviously WW2 isn’t the only historical setting for Supers games. On the list I mention Adventure! as a supers game with pulp trappings (or vice versa) and the can see a number of other Pulp games which have characters with mysterious powers. Spirit of the Century, Crimefighters, and Daredevils, all for example include such things. One of the questions, I think, is where the line gets drawn between "Non-Powered Adventurers" and "Superheroes". Great characters like Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Avenger, Batman, and the Spirit sort of straddle that line. In fact until a couple of days ago, DC had a wealth of talent lined up behind their First Wave line, ready to bring those back. That, of course, got canceled. Some rpg books have covered the later part of the 20th Century, Omlevex for example is one of the few sourcebooks to deal with the Silver Age. But we also have a more serious Cold War in the Wargames setting, 1970’s in the form of Bedlam City, and a tribute to the excesses of the 1990s in the Iron Age.

There's the additional irony that some of the earliest superhero rpg books are now "historical" covering a time and place far enough removed from the modern as to seem foreign. I'd be curious how many rely on or are rendered obsolete by our present level of tech and political situation.

But we also have a number of superhero stories set in more far flung alternate times. In the comics, Marvel 1602, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Elseworlds have all shown how situating superheroes in other historical times can create interesting effects. We've seen something of the same in rpgs. For example, Wild Talents has spawned several setting books. The Kereboros Club takes the LXG idea and carries it forward. On the other hand, This Favored Land uses the backdrop of the American Civil War. Basic RolePlaying has produced their own take on LXG in the form of Agents of the Crown. Blood of the Gods goes further back, using Wild Talents to do divine heroes in ancient Greece. I recall several Ken Hite columns for Suppressed Transmission also presenting alternate super histories. On the other hand, GMs may be interested in going forward in time. In own own group we spent a couple of years on a Cyberpunk/Watchmen style campaign. If GMs want a dark take on such futures they can consider eCollapse or Underground. Or they could try to unravel the continuity of something like DC's Legion of Superheroes (I can't wait until M&M 3e tackles that...)

Dissecting a Superhero RPG Line
It's worth considering as well where the "Golden Age" sourcebook fits in the continuum of the Superhero RPG line. For the typical fantasy RPG line, we can expect the main book or books, which provide the core rules. Most often, the Monster Book comes next. After that we'll see the Player's Book, a Setting Book (if there's a setting), new Class/Race Options Book, Book of Magic, Book of Items (Magic or Otherwise), and then we start moving off into the specialized aspects of the line or setting (if generic then we begin getting setting specific books and if built with a background then we get slices of that). I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that we typically develop some expectations- and when those get broken, we get interesting things. On the other hand, there is a danger in predictability. White Wolf ran many of the product development lines in such tight parallel that they bordered on parody (splat books, city books, adversary books, mortal books, oriental books, Year of X, and so on).

So for Superhero games, we can expect main book, enemies book, another enemies book, and then probably a powers supplement. The powers book may also be a players' book. Magic's another big one, if the system/setting has it. More often those books will provide color and flavor rather than any actual rules for making the Arcane significantly different. An organizations book, villainous or otherwise, often shows up. A sourcebook for the setting, created for the game will either deal broadly with the whole universe or focus on a single campaign city. A gadgets, weapons, and/or vehicles book is an likely option. Super Agents may be done in a number of ways, usually as an organization sourcebook and a campaign frame. Gritty, street-level or Watchmen-style sourcebooks can appear. Eventually we'll get an alternate dimensions book- this usually signals the late period of a line IMHO.

Final Thoughts
Interestingly enough, though I've played a lot of supers and in many unusual campaigns, I don't think I've ever played a straight WW2 game. I've used it as a backdrop in other campaigns. In our Watchmen-style campaign supers had existed in WW2 but vanished, inspiring modern vigilante characters. I played a DC Heroes campaign which took places close to WW2, and a V&V game set firmly in the late 1950's. The closest I've come has been the most recent supers campaign, in which time travelers had upset the balance of things, leading to a German victory. One of the PCs was also from the future and our group had to set things right. Of course, some of us had become Supers due to the war so the victory and timeline reversion was an even greater sacrifice. I think a WW2 game would be an interesting challenge, but the question for me would be what I'd gain for the narrative at the cost of sacrificing some player familiarity with the world?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Hounds of Lore are Hunting Me

What is it?
Large sourcebook for a London-based bookhunting Trail of Cthulhu campaign (with many, many maps).

Bookhounds of London is the latest supplement for Trail of Cthulhu. My review is based on the pre-order pdf; the printed copy will be available in March. I've reviewed a number of other Gumshoe and ToC products and my impression has been pretty universally positive. As with the other Pelgrane books, this one looks great with excellent art and graphic design. This was an advance pdf which may explain a few minor problems (some references unexplained and a few distraction justification spacing problems). Bottom line: Pelgrane's provided another complete campaign sourcebook with Bookhounds, one which will have appeal beyond Trail of Cthulhu gamers.

Tome Raiders
This frame originally appeared in a handful of pages in the Trail of Cthulhu core book. Author Ken Hite has taken that concept and expanded it- running with the wild ideas and logic inherent in that original outline. Basically the the PCs take the role of employees/owners of a bookstore specializing in the strange and esoteric. Through the process of hunting to strange and rare lost tomes, they come encounter elements of the supernatural and cross paths with the Mythos. They aren't out to save the world, they just manage to get caught up in craziness when they try to make a good sale. Its a great idea, breaking from the usual Cthulhu backdrop and has more room for humor (albeit dark) and social interaction than many classic approaches. Hite sets the frame definitively in London-- that city becomes a necessary and integral part of the atmosphere.

Paging Cthulhu
The opening section does an excellent job to describing the kinds of characters necessary for this campaign. Hite adds a number of new occupations specific to a Bookhounds game, as well as some discussion of how to modify existing ones. The new abilities added have some nice discussion (Forgery, Textual Analysis, The Knowledge, etc); they're fairly narrow but its nice to see skills built particularly for the campaign style. I think my favorite part of the section considers how a bookshop functions in the game- suggesting elements for collaborative design and basic mechanics for play. The shop serves as a shared resource for the group and the rules provides some nice abstract ways to handle that. The rule manages throughout to strike the right balance between dealing with the details of running and business and keeping out minutiae which could slow the game down. I think some of the concepts presented here could easily serve as the backbone for handling players who want to run mercantile enterprises in other games.

Truly Black Books
The section which follows complements that idea of the business side of this. In the course of twenty pages, Hite covers books and bookbuying in what feels like extensive detail. I was actually surprised when I went back to do a page count- I recalled the section being longer, an illusion created by the depth. The concepts of finding books and buyers get a nice discussion, all aimed at entangling players in plots. Libraries have always been a stable of Cthulhu games, and the book has an overview of the most important ones in the London. Probably the most interesting section here covers auctions. That's another staple which has appeared in classic scenarios. Hite makes these into a cornerstone of the campaign, breaking them into Narrative and Dramatic Auctions. That's a nice parallel to the way Gumshoe handles necessary vs. risky moments in the campaign. He provides some rules for Dramatic Auctions which allow players to feel invested and keeps the stakes high in those situations. These could be easily pulled out for any game with auction events. Lastly the section provides some example of real world and mythos occult tomes. I was expecting more of this in the book- and at first I was a little disappointed we didn't end up with more books presented. However given the other material here I don't feel too put off. The books presented here do utilize the optional occult rules presented in Rough Magicks. That book plus the main ToC book do offer more volumes which could easily be brought into a Bookhounds campaign. I'm also fully expecting (and will buy) a book just of tomes with plot hooks.

London Crawling
The next forty or so pages, over several sections, covers London. While there's some overview- the book sticks to the program. Hite recognizes that several other sources for London exist. We get some discussion of how 1930's works, but much more a sense of the fantastical London and one tied to the kinds of threads Bookhounds would look out for. Hite has a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of the setting, but that doesn't get in the way. Instead his presentation of the city is infectious- in a good way. You can see all of the ideas, leads and plots he throws out in paragraph after paragraph. I especially like the way each city section gets an overview, a set of interesting contacts, and a set of rumors. He considers how the lore and legends of the city might be tied up with Mythos creatures and cults- it reads like a great and extended version of his Suppressed Transmission articles. For GMs who like the magical side of things he presents Megapolisomancy which comes from Leiber but I originally spotted in Unknown Armies. It would be an excellent background element to a scenario or campaign arc. Overall I think Bookhounds presents its version of London well, although I perhaps wanted a little more (something I'll come back to). To complement this overview, the book includes a location index followed by twenty-eight pages of maps of the city and locations, nearly all of them in full color. That's followed by a twelve-page street index. It is pretty amazing and I'm looking forward to seeing how the final printed version appears.

Fearless Textual Hunters
Thirteen pages follow which talk about the specifics of a Bookhounds campaign. Most of that is taken up with some interesting NPCs built for different roles in the campaign. Again, here's another section which I wish had been longer-- not that it feels short, but that I would have loved to see more. Honestly I'd easily buy a supplement of these. Hite presents the characters along with variations based on the style of the campaign: Arabesque, Sordid or Technicolor. I like this approach which combines with the Purist vs. Pulp thematics given in the main Trail of Cthulhu book. He talks about how those choices affect the look and feel of the campaign. My favorite addition here is a discussion of how to create a Hammer Horror London for Cthulhu. There's a parallel between this "Technicolor Horror" and the Backlot Gothic presented in the earlier Shadows Over Filmland. In grew up watching the Hammer films on Saturday afternoons of "Son of Svengoolie" out of Chicago.

Quicksand Box
Hite also includes some discussion of how to shape Bookhounds into a sandbox game. I have to stop here an talk about a problem with the Pelgrane Press books. Quite honestly they've raised the bar for me about what I expect from a role-playing game book. Armitage Files blew my mind and most of the other Gumshoe stuff put out has really made me think or else immediately bloomed a metric ton of campaign material for me. When I first heard about Bookhounds I got excited by the idea that it would provide material for "sandbox" games. Armitage Files had provided an incredible toolset for Improvisation Games, built on the brief Armitage frame mentioned in the main book. I expected Bookhounds would do something like that. In some ways, I expected a more player-driven supplement ala the great Kaiin Players Guide for Dying Earth. That's not what this book does- the advice on sandbox games seems good, but because that's the kind of open game I usually run it wasn't revelatory to me. It took me a bit to get past my initial expectations to realize how dynamite this book is. There will apparently be an "Occult Guide to London" companion volume, and that may have material closer to my initial expectations.

Bookhounds provides an easily workable campaign- one firmly attached to its setting. It takes London as a place seriously and fully. I've read other books which have presented a city for use in a game. But I don't think I've ever read a gamebook which so carefully integrated the character of the city with the character of the play. It is an imaginary London, but one vivid and playable.

ToC GMs should pick this up. It provides material which could be easily ported to other campaigns. While I think it would be difficult to set this unique theme anywhere else, I can imagine it as inspiration for other more broadly Antiquarian campaigns in another city (focusing on collecting in general). The particular notions of how to handle a business and auctions could be used in other non-Cthulhu campaigns. It reminds a little of InSpectres in that regard. Bookhounds could obviously be easily used by a traditional Call of Cthulhu GM and I'd recommend they pick it up. Anyone with an interested in London or England in the first half of the 20th Century should consider it as well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Planning the Gaming Year

Defining a New Calendar
So I've decided by fiat to change my reporting structure-- from now on my gaming year will end at the end of February and begin on March 1st. Banks and other business do this all the time, changing what the key quarters and time lines are. By making this shift, I finish off the year fairly close to my birthday. I also pack together the lowest performing sections of the year (December/January) which usually get hit by holidays, schedule conflicts, weather and illness. In fact this is the first year in a long time that I haven't (knock on wood) gotten seriously ill. I've had a cold but nothing like last year. The switch also reflects the fact that this is the one year anniversary of quitting smoking. I think its worth honoring the positive and seismic changes which came out of that awful bronchial infection of Feb 2010. Shifting the timeline seems fairly appropriate. So I'm writing this post in compliment with my earlier one in Jan to consider some of the other gaming events of the past year and plans for this coming gaming year. It's my birthday so that seems like as good a plan as any.

Gaming in the Ludological Year 2010-2011
Non-Campaign RP Gaming
I didn't get to run any real one-shot session this year. I do like putting together one-offs, as they give me a chance to do some really tight planning. They're useful for introducing new players as well. However I didn't get a chance to do that at all. I did manage to get in a couple of session of the Magic School/Mage: the Ascension game for my niece and Sherri-- but we didn't move any further forward on that. I'd at least like to get to a solid story point in that, but schedules have been bad. She and I have been doing a collaborative story using Google Docs, but it moves a little slowly as well. My biggest success on this front wold be the Star Wars seven session campaign I did using our homebrew Action Cards system. I've written about that before.

My Play: RPGs
This year I got to play in two other campaigns. First, Kenny used Action Cards to model HALO. I was unfamiliar with the setting and actually got quite a bit out of these sessions. I still can't aim at all on a console, but playing a simulation at the tabletop gave me a better sense of the universe. Likewise I've been able to play in Dave's Fallout campaign.

Fallout's another video game setting I only had a passing knowledge of. That has been an absolute blast. He's done some really interesting hacks to the Action Cards rules and has pulled off a few narrative tricks I wish that I had thought. Dave has also been generous enough to let my neice Kali sit in on several sessions of the Fallout game. She's really enjoyed it and plays quite well. Kali knows the Fallout setting, which gives her a leg up on me. Though she'd played little before this she slotted into the group well. I also got her to sit in on a couple of sessions of the Third Continent Fantasy Campaign. That was a good deal more daunting since that campaign has a lot of background, has been running for some time, and isn't your classic fantasy setting. Still she did well and in the second session she sat in on really moved the plot forward with a couple of her choices. I wish I'd gotten a combat in there as well, but you can't have everything. I'm pleased she's been willing to take the risk and try these things out. There's a real challenge of being a young person playing with a group of older gamers. That's how I learned-- everyone I seriously played with was at least five years older than I. When I was in grade and middle school it was the adult gamers at conventions, willing to teach and be patient, who really inspired in me a love of all games: rpg, board and miniatures. I wish there was more of that available. Kali's good in that she keeps up with a plays well with adults/people older than her. I've seen younger players have problems with that before-- from questions of maturity to questions of emotional problems.

My Plans: RPGs
For this year, I want to finish at least one campaign off and begin at least one new one. I have several I'd like to commit to a longer format: Trail of Cthulhu, HCI or even the fantastic Rome idea. I have a few others as well. That's however a fairly loosely defined plan-- this year gives me plenty of room to pick and choose. I know the Sunday night campaign arc means we will be hitting some of the big beats, so that's the obvious choice.

More importantly I have some one-shots I really want to try. I'm running Dread soon for a group as an experiment. I also really want to get my brother in to play at least once; I told him about Fiasco and he seemed intrigued. I have a one-shot in mind for Kali and her brother David; I hope to put that into operation over one of her school breaks. She heads off to college next year which means that will be harder to do in the future. So I need to hit them with a zombie horror game sooner rather than later. I also hope to either do the next chapter of the Star Wars mini-campaign or anothr short experiment I have in mind once dave finishes his game, but before Kenny picks up again.

I want to either run, play in or see run the following games over the next twelve months: an ORE game (preferably Reign), Apocalypse World, HeroQuest 2e, Time & Temp, Dogs in the Vineyard, Don't Rest Your Head, Fiasco, Dresden Files, Mouse Guard and Diaspora. If I can manage at least half of those I'd be happy. I also want to go to a convention this year, a good rpg one (not GenCon) and either run seriously or play fully. I may have to look to Chicago, Fort Wayne, or Indianapolis to get that settled out.

I also want to have lunch with Ken Hite again.

Finally, I really want to get a finalized version of our rules for Action Cards done up. I keep getting distracted and I need to press forward.

My Play: Video Games
Nothing I played this year really grabbed me like other games have in the past. I enjoyed Left4Dead 2 and probably had my most vivid experiences in that. I also played the hell out of Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy XIII until a system crash robbed me of my saves for both of those. I did some Persona, Persona 4, and SMT: Strange Journey all of which have been decent, with P4 leading the pack, but that's an older game. Bayonetta was fun but outside my skill set. If I had to pick the three games this year which I played most and got the most out of, I'd have to say Rock Band, Final Fantasy XIII and Blur.

My Plans: Video Games
Right now I'm beginning work on Dragon Quest IX on the DS. There are a couple of other DS rpgs (Radiant Historia, DQ VI) I'm interested in as well. But there's nothing I'm waiting for on the console, unless Rune Factory Frontier 2 comes out. Final Fantasy XIV still looks good to me if they fix the problems; the Secret World probably won't be out this year or that would be on my list.

My Play: Board Games
I've been really lucky this year to have two really solid board gaming groups. The Tuesday night group moves on, especially since we have Jan back as a regular. I also finally got off my duff and went over to the Goshen group's play more regularly which has been amazing. I've played a lot more games this year than in years past, with a wider group of people. In the past, outside of the Tuesday group, I'd had a difficult time finding people who played games with the same kind of experience over competition approach. The Goshen group has provided that.

My Plans: Board Games
I want to play more games: simple as that. I want to play at least one serious wargame this year. I am about 95% of the way done with the board game I designed (Right of Succession). I've been reworking the design and want to get a couple of nicely done prototypes done. At that point I want to look for a publisher and get it out the door. I have several other designs in my head that I don't want to commit to working on until I get this to a more finished stage. We've been playing it on Tuesday and have really enjoyed it.

Related to board games, I haven't played any miniatures in a couple of years. I need to get back to a planned Mordheim-style Confrontation campaign for local players, using modified Dogs of War rules. I haven't painted since the fire, but I want to take the first step of actually fixing and assembling some figures.

Get gaming.

Additional Thought/Plan

I want to recruit at least one, good new solid player into the rpg games. We've had some bad experiences of late with new players, but I think it is important to keep working to keep the ranks filled. We've been lucky in that some who haven't played as much have been playing more, but I'd like to expand beyond that. I'm not sure how yet.

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.

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.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Inventory of RPG Cities

First Words
As some know, I'm fond of RPG Geek. I think it has a pleasant and moderately-sized community which, at least right now, gets along pretty well. RPGG offers a database of rpg items with the ability to browse, search and rate items. The UI could use improvement but I've found it to be a great resource for learning about games I might otherwise have missed. I've been able to work through my favorite genres to track new and old rpgs. Users can post forum comments, session reports, and reviews of course. The site uniquely offers Geeklists where users can put together commented lists of items, including series, other posts, designers, and of course game items themselves.

I think one of the more useful purposes for Geeklists is organizing and bringing together items or ideas which might not otherwise be searchable in the data structure. As examples, I'll point to three lists I produced: Systems with Deeper Martial Arts Treatments, Games with Community Building, and RPGS with Evocative Magic Systems. While tags can be a good way to find things, they rely on time and the community to build things up. I usually search for geeklists first when I'm hunting for something obscure on RPG Geek.

Cities of the Reddish Night
With that in mind I assembled four geeklists over the last several days- hoping to build a useful reference index, this time of cities as they appear in role-playing games. When I was growing up, I loved maps- I remember getting a copy of The Atlas of Fantasy early on. In particular I loved city maps and back when I was really collecting rpg books, those would usually be the first things I'd pick up. At risk of repeating what I say on the lists themselves, city settings remain my fallback for any campaign or session. I enjoy the sense of place a good city can create. They offer opportunities to develop NPCs, explore social aspects and still have fights and exploration. Players can invest in a city-- when it is their home threatened, the stakes get raised. Some players don't like static settings that force them to consider the consequences of their actions, but I see that as a plus.

So I went through and broke down my examination into four parts and four lists:

Inexorable Cities: City Sourcebooks for Fantasy RPGs
I went for the “in” bit in the title of each list to group them together. I'd already written a list called Invisible Cities some time back so I didn't want to duplicate the Calvino reference again. I also wanted to make sure the words 'cities' and 'city' as well as the genre keywords popped up in the name of the list to make it easier for searching later. In creating the lists I tried to restrict myself to books which focused on a particular city--where a significant portion of the book would be spent on that named city. That left off a number of regional sourcebooks like many of the Shadow World books, the Known World Gazetteers, and many of the MERP books. Certainly even larger lists could be put together of books which just cover regions or nations.

I wasn't too surprised to realize that the fantasy grouping would have the greatest number of city books. Cities in that genre have always been fascinating characters in their own right: Lankhmar, Tanelorn, Minas Tirith, Atlantis. I ended up with almost too many choices so I tried to put on my list only one or two from each settings. Sublists could easily be built of the cities for just Forgotten Realms, D&D, Middle Earth, Warhammer Fantasy, and so on. I figured if I had a few, other people might go through and think- wait, why isn't that one there? I'm also amazed at the number of versions of some of the classic cities: Sanctuary, Pavis, Greyhawk, City State of the Invincible Overlord-- which have been done and redone. I think one way to really examine changes in design and game focus over the last thirty years would be a close reading of those.

I saw many cities I'd never heard off- many of them forgettable, but the best had some kind of really interesting hook: unique location, a feature of design, a customizable rumor system, modular encounter systems and so on. Beyond that, if I got a sense of the character of the city just from the blurb and the product cover, then I consider that a success.

Iniquitous Cities: City Sourcebooks for Historical and Modern Settings
I'd originally planned to have anything before the 18th Century in with the fantasy books for some reason, but the size of possibilities quickly made that impractical. This list ended up being pretty easy to populate-- and I left quite a few off to be added later. As you can guess, White Wolf ended up in the lead on putting out modern city sourcebooks. Their Vampire: the Masquerade “By Night” series alone runs to about a dozen and a half entries. Then you have books for the other lines and the new World of Darkness city books and you end up with something you could build a significant list from. The World of Darkness material does point to an interesting issue: how much of books like these should deal with the location generically and how much with the particular game 'people' (Werewolf, Vampire, etc). Err too much on one side and it becomes less useful for GMs of that setting, err on the other and the books simply become listings of supernatural NPCs and how they control everything. The WoD books got better as they went along, but often I'd hit “Ugh” NPCs, characters clearly meant to be cool or interesting, but just unpleasant.

There are fewer historical city books than I would have guessed. A few pop up in the “By Night” series, and there's a handful of others, but generally historical books focus on regions over particular cities. I'd like to see a historical Venice, Tokyo/Kyoto, or Paris city book. The Constantinople book brought me back to the Avalanche Press “historical” d20 series, books with the most accurate history and most boobalicious covers.

Infinite Cities: City Sourcebooks for Sci-Fi, Near Future and Post-Apocalyptic Games
I had a more difficult time filling out my list here. I suspect a couple of factors affect that. First, I suspect sci-fi makes up a smaller proportion of rpgs than modern (including horror) or fantasy. Second, and more importantly, Interstellar rpgs don't usually have city books. Games like Traveller, Fading Suns, and Star Frontiers focus on planets and star systems instead of cities. Mobility helps explain this a little- a city serves as a kind of boundary. Once players can get anywhere on a planet quickly, the bounds shift. Additionally there's the GMs narrative need for simplicity. Most planets end up characterized by one or two key groups or elements. Stereotypes for the planet end up easier to handle than a more granular approach to defining a world. These two factors mean that a GM doesn't really want to overly define a place if the players will likely blast off from there after just one session. On the other hand, one might consider starbases or starports as taking the role of cities in these settings.

I put post-apocalyptic games together on this list out of convenience. Some of the classic apocalyptic games, Gamma World and All Flesh Must Be Eaten, don't actually have any real city books (so far as I saw). Aftermath and Twilight 2000, on the other hand, did have a number. These games are interesting to look at for what they say about the expectations of the time. Twilight 2K still has a following, more as an alternate history game now, rather than a near future one. I'd also note that it's interesting to see which cities get the most attention in Cyberpunk games; Seattle, Hong Kong, and Berlin for example.

Incomplete Cities: Sourcebooks for City Building

For the last list I tried to pull together all of the generic resources for running city games I could find. Or at least until I hit my self-imposed limit of 40 items...there's still quite a bit more out there. Several series, Flying Buffalo's Citybooks and The Game Mechanics City Quarters stand out. I like the approaches presented there: detailed and rich, but generic enough to be moved from game world to game world. Too often designers go for the most general version or else just a set of jumbled details-- rarely thinking that even these kinds of toolboxes need a compelling tale. By far most of the resources here focus on fantasy and medieval cities, but I found a few for other campaigns I want to track down: Damnation City and GURPS City-Stats.

Last Words
I think sometime in the future I'll try to do an online wiki game in which the players build a city. I'd like to see how that kind of collaboration might work.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

RPG Supplements I Like: The Court of Ardor

What is it?
A regional sourcebook for an area you probably never thought about in Middle Earth.

How Do I Get to the Shire?
In some respects this review serves as a sequel to my review of Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs, another pre-Middle Earth rpg product which Iron Crown Enterprises put out covering areas well off the beaten path of Tolkien's universe. The Court of Ardor (a.k.a. The Court of Ardor in Southern Middle Earth a.k.a.k.a. the insanely longer way to put it) goes all the way to the bottom edge of the map. Here's an area well outside the thinking of most classic fans. There's a certain license- perhaps a freedom to go crazy, and perhaps to have something tacitly of Middle Earth, yet perhaps out of continuity. What ICE delivers is that- an over-the-top supplement only slightly recognizable as taking place in the setting. It's worth noting that they didn't distance themselves from it in later years- long after the module had gone out of print. Characters from the Court of Ardor show up in the later compendiums like Elves with their full crazy backstory.

It Depends on What You Mean By Evil
A group of "Evil" Elves make up the Court of Ardor, controlling an area called the Mumakan which is mostly jungle and tropics (so again not what we usually see in Tolkien). I put "Evil" in quotes because the book points out that Elves can't really be evil...just misguided...and then says that some of the Elven members of the Court are in fact Evil. And partner with Demons, who are also members of the Court. Ardana controls the Court; a Noldor who served Morgoth, she came here on a particular mission ages ago. Just to be clear, that means that Ardana's a peer of Sauron. Ardana's potent and has a great host of evil or evilish allies in the Court dedicated to carrying out their plan...very slowly as it turns out since it has taken them 1700 years to get close to finishing. Mind you, they plan to tear down the Sun and Moon from the sky, so they can perhaps be forgiven for double-checking their work.

The Court rule the several "countries" of the Mumakan. They all have their own agendas, but generally serve Ardana. Perhaps the most telling detail of the Court comes from its association with the Tarot. Each member falls into one of the four suits and its associated elements (such as Orbs and Earth; Swords and Air). Each also also has a role title taken from a psuedo-High Arcana, such as The Magician, The Monk, The Persuviant, and so on. These titles aren't purely symbolic-- a set of magical cards join the Court together, used for communication and other purposes. So the Court of Ardor appear to be a strange mash-up of Zelazny and Tolkien. And there's more than just the concept of the Trumps taken from the Amber series of Zelanzy: the interactions and plots of this supplements echo those books.

The book itself clocks in at 52 pages of classic old-school dense two-column design. It comes with a detachable 16" x 20' map. That shows the region on one side and several of the cities on the reverse. I like the design here- hand-drawn, hand-lettered, hand-colored. The interior art is about half maps and landscape shots. Charles Peale provides some shots of members of the Court of Ardor. These have been done to look like the Trumps cards and are one of the best things about the volume.

* Table of Contents, general Middle Earth background, mechanics for converting Rolemaster, map keys: All of which takes up the first 10+ pages. Most of that material repeats across all of the Middle Earth books. Includes a nice b&w version of the regional color map with added breakdowns of the nations. That's nice as it means the color map could be used for other purposes, disconnected from the Ardor campaign.
* History: Two pages, which set up the premise of the Ardoran Court's plans and provide a timeline.
* Flora, Fauna, Climate: One+ pages, including a detailed weather chart for the different regions.
* Inhabitants: One+ pages breaking down the ethnic groups of the area- three kinds of men plus Elves and Dwarves. Short but detailed.
* Politics and People: Sixteen pages. The first page+ breaks down the "countries" of the region giving them a little over a paragraph each. The bulk of the chapter covers the members of the Court of Ardor, with 7+ pages breaking down the stats of those characters and allies. A full page covers the cards of the Court. The last six pages cover other groups in the area, including Sauron's direct agents, and provides stat blocks for those.
* Places of Ardor: Sixteen pages. Maps of the various holds and castles of the lords, plus some other key dungeons. Nice set of maps plus keyed descriptions for all of them. .
* Gamemaster Aids: Two pages suggesting how the GM might use the set up as a quest scenario. Then a one-page NPC stat summary and a one-page herb & poisons chart.
* The Court of Ardor in Other Times: Half of the last page.

As a Middle Earth Supplement
I've been thinking about the double (or triple) bind of writers trying to present material for areas outside of northwestern Middle Earth. First, there's less original source material to work from- a few hints perhaps. That means less guidance, but at the same time some more creative freedom. This leads to the second bind, in that anything still has to feel like it works within Middle Earth. It has to seem possible and means that any freedom must be tempered. But I think a third difficulty pushes against that as well: the need to make a compelling setting.

Here's the thing with a location like Ardor- how do the PCs actually get there? Will they be traveling down from Gondor? Past Umbar, past the Haradwaith, around the coast of the Seven Kingdoms and thence finally to land here? The story of the Lord of the Rings is a travel story across a land significantly small than this: from the Shire to Mordor. Players won't be moving back and forth willy-nilly without some serious hand-waving. So there has to be a pretty interesting set of situations and adversaries present here to make a GM either move his campaign to this place or else begin it there.

And I can imagine that conversation: GM: "I'm going to run a Middle Earth campaign!" Players: "Cool, I'm going to run a Ranger..." GM: "Um...actually it will be set in in the Mumakan..." Players (all at once): "Where?" "Can I run a Hobbit?" "Are there Orcs?" and so on.

So Ardor does provide an interesting Sauron-level adversary, or perhaps Ringwraith might be a more apt power description. They're tied into some of the old Tolkien stuff and there's a bunch of them. Fifteen Dark Rider equivalent bad guys...Rolemaster Level 40 or so with tons of magic items, all kinds of spells, demon blood, huge towers, and...well, it becomes a little overkill. Ardor tries to offer a compelling and somewhat independent story but ends up breaking the verisimilitude through its power gaming.

As a Regional Supplement
One question I usually ask of supplements like this is how well the area could be lifted out and dropped like a jigsaw piece into another campaign world. If it can't, on the one hand, then ideas may be harder to borrow without rebuilding things or doing a great deal of work. If it can, it may indicate a generic setting lacking in interesting ideas. The problem here really is that The Court of Ardor isn't really a regional supplement- the regions and areas really don't matter. The real detail and structure lies in the Court as adversaries.

As a Campaign Seed

I do love the idea of looming and powerful bad guys known by their name, but also a title-- Linsul...the Harper! for example. The structure appeals and the authors do well in borrowing some of the concepts from Amber, though they do so more literally than necessary. They also make an odd design choice related to this and the Court and their Arcana. The book sets up 16 characters for the 21 trumps, leaving five as "inactive." It's unclear whether these have been left blank for the GM to add in additional NPCs or perhaps space for the PCs to take over a role. The campaign against the Court could be done-- the material presents the bare bones for that complete with an NPC entry point for that who unfortunately serves as a deus ex machina for overthrowing everything- potentially undercutting the players' role. Serious changes would be needed to make that work.

How I Used This
I usually approach modules and supplements like these with an eye to adapting them. The maps, of course, proved the most useful-- interesting layouts for a couple of dungeon crawls. However the rest seemed more problematic-- but at the same time a compelling idea and set of potential adversaries for players. The difficulty lay in their power and coming up with some framework for them. Strangely enough, the solution for me came from another crazy ICE product for Rolemaster, the Elemental Companion. This would be another over-the-top power gaming supplement for that system, providing insanely potent magics. That wasn't as interesting to me as the ideas about complex elemental theories, including bizarre kinds of elements such as Nether, Vacid, Time, and Heat. I'm a big fan of typologies, so liked the strange and convoluted hoops the authors went through to justify their cool new blast powers.

In the end I combined the two, creating a set of elemental lords who sought to move from a world they'd undone with their elemental poisoning (a concept borrowed from the Elemental Companion and Red Steel). I took the characters of the Court as presented and associated them with the different elements. For several campaigns they served as either the big bads or as secondary bad guys. In retrospect it was a kludge and a stretch, and I probably could have built a more logical and complete system by starting with new premises. However I enjoy the challenge of finding the interesting ideas in supplements like these and crowbarring them out into something else.

The Court of Ardor is the kind of book which would be done in at least 192 pages today. It has a ton of cool ideas given just a brief mention and discussion. That's not to say that all of those ideas hold together. Ardor's a good book to look at for a snapshot of a kind of rpg design. Hugely powerful NPCs, big dungeons and a thinly described backdrop-- a whole campaign setting done in 52 pages, complete with maps. For those looking for Middle Earth material per se, I think it doesn't work.

As you can see I managed to find some things to steal-- my favorite thing to do with game material. I ruthlessly thieve cool stuff and this book has that. It also has some great crazy location maps worth lifting as well.