Friday, August 29, 2014

Bloodlines: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Five)

Bloodlines Template
This series draws from supers campaign I put together almost ten years ago, "Bloodlines." That focused on inherited super-powers limited to certain bloodlines around the globe. This material sets up some of the groups in the setting. You can see the first post here which lays out the general concept.

Part Two: Bloodlines 1
Part Three: Bloodlines 2

GM Note: I'm a big believer in a larger cast of NPCs- as you can see below. This was a twelve session campaign IIRC; it might have been even shorter. We had one player die, Barry, just before the finale. It was hard but we pressed on and wrapped it up. As you can see from there's a mix of new concepts with team names and ideas borrowed from existing super games. I really wanted the feel of a campaign world with an absolute mess of heroes and villains- a chunk of which I killed off in the first session. I managed to bring a couple of these groups to the table, but that was less important than the feeling of a complicated and jam packed world. Some of these ideas I still like (The Nursery for example), but others feel more than a little lazy when I re-examine them. If nothing else, I hope this might be useful as a grab-bag of concepts for other GMs to throw into their game. 

Based out of Chicago, the PC superteam has chosen the name, the Untouchables.
The PC's
  • Shutdown (Symanski Power Nullifier)
  • Cruel Butterfly (Bradock Flyer)
  • Grey (Xiaomin Mentalist)
  • Roaming Wolf (Rakepaw Tank)
  • Onyx (Muzenda Elementalist)
  • Bolt (Hunter Speedster)

Supporting Staff
  • Abbey Relihan: Administrator and liaison with their mysterious patron.
  • Davis Holden: Driver
  • Carrie Ming: On-staff tech and support officer
  • Dana Klemanski: On-staff tech who has Demolitions
  • Lieutenant Solis Montoya: Contact on the police force
  • Jesse Pergrom: High strung contact in the Minion underworld

Other Notable Characters
  • Detective Badger: Man on scene at Brookfield incident
  • Ace Braddock: International singing sensation and Cruel Butterfly's cousin
  • Firstborn: Anarch; Shutdown's father
  • Holly Glenn: Troublesome Reporter
  • The Kangaroo: Bolt's father
  •  Arthur Karnak: Low level ex-Sinistry agent with fade powers
  • Trey Karnak: Ran "The Minion Bar"
  • Timothy "Wizard" Loring: Vanished Sorrentino tech
  • Patriarch: Leader of Justice
  • Karl Rody: Head of A-SWAT
  • Transcendance: Shutdown's ex-wife now involved with Firstborn
  • Lennox Braddock aka Paragon III: Cruelbutterfly's cousin with the DHPD
  • Manifest: Independent hero who apparently survived the Zero Moment event. Bloodline uncertain
  • Caliber Saint: Notorious Anarch weapon-maker from the 1960's and 1970's. Apparently Abbey Relihan's father.
  • Tate Morgan: Sidekick to the late Durandal. Murdered in Chicago. Created the Zero Moment Video

One of three government sponsored super-groups, this one specifically under the auspices of the FBI. The group generally operates in high-risk environments and deals with the most unpleasant situations. Current team leader is Bane. Killed recently in the Zero Moment.

Government sponsored and made up of the most visible and powerful supers presently in the service of the US, they are generally portrayed in the most favorable light possible. They handle operations with clear black and white players and incidents. Current team leader is Patriarch.

Also known as Homeland: The department of Parahuman Defense is made up of those Bloodliners with more subtle powers and abilities who still want to carry out active duty operations for the government. Their membership roster is not officially known, though a few key agents have been made public. Most come to the organization through the Parahuman Civil Service system. Visible representative is Marvel Vaughn aka Quantimite.

Team Future
A group brought together by a conclave of research organizations and technical teams, ranging from IBM to MIT to Verizon. The group's mission is the development of ways in which the skills and abilities of Bloodliners can be used to better aid the world. They have, at times, fought crime and supervillains, but their operations tend to be about the maintenance of order and stability. They do, however, have a strong rivalry with Vision. Team leader is Impact, a Braddock.

While there have been other corporate superteams, none has been as stable and long-lived as Vision. They have operated both in the United States and in other regions with the permission of local governments. The network and support backbone developed for the group is second to none. Among the Bloodlines community they have a reputation for being the best and most elitest of the super teams. Current team leader is Avalon, a Rakepaw.

The Sentrymen
One of the first "super" groups devoted to fighting crime and protecting society. The team came about in the late sixties and lasted until the mid-seventies. Refounded in the late 1980's by some of the big hitters, including Black Havok, Patriarch, Professor Risk and the White Sword, it managed to steer the group out of the negative publicity and public feeling of the time. The group changed membership quite a bit over the years, until by the late 1990's it was made up of what might be called second string supers. Finally even they left resulting in an underpowered group that was annihilated by Ravage less than a year ago.

New Centurions
The primary West Coast superteam. They operate outside of corporate control and government authority. They have a reputation for being more than a little free-wheeling in their approach to stopping crime. Current team leader is Galileo aka Ben Holt, a Drammen.

It is unclear is this group still exists as they have not been seen in a number of months. They operated across the East Coast, usually deliberately offending local government officials while carrying out their duties. Known leader: Anthem.

The Valkyries
An all-female team that operates across North America.

The Untouchables
The newest superteam in the US. Formed hours after the Zero Moment killed off scores of Bloodliners. The group flew into Chicago, a notorious Anarch stronghold and set up shop in a former Sentrymen base. So far they have met only success. Team leader is Shutdown; other members include Onyx, Cruel Butterfly, Bolt, Roaming Wolf and Grey.

Associated with the Cosa Nostra organization. However, recent reports indicate that they also have ties to Latin American Drug Cartels. This is believed to be indicative of the growing reports of ties between these two groups. They have a high variable membership and seem more interested in low level crimes than anything else.

One of the most feared Anarch teams, this group has alternated between effective leadership with calculated planning and brutal unplanned assaults. Ravage is known for drawing the most dangerous and high powered super-villains in the country. Their various attacks have been unbelievable in their audacity, notably their destruction of the Denver Mint in 1999.

An anarch team with a decidedly mystical bent. The group has ten members, each associated with an aspect of the Sephiroth, a kabbalistic pattern. Their activities have been bizarre, ranging from money grabs to complex mind-control operations, to simple assaults on super hero teams. It is believed that the leader of the team, Kether, is a deranged Sorrentino Bloodliner.

A more recent group, known to be affiliated with a number of criminal and terrorist organizations. Believed to be apolitical, instead focusing on high-profit robbery and extortion. Apparently has a sophisticated support staff, judging by their ability to evade the authorities. They primarily operated out of Europe until the year 2002, at which they apparently moved operations to the US . They take their names from Greco-Roman mythology inconsistently. (Note, many of these names have been used before, but current classification assigns them to these members). It is uncertain how the team was recruited, but their leader, Augustus, is likely to be the mastermind. Four former members are dead or in custody (Apollo I (dec.), Mercury I (dec.), Pluto I (incar.) and Hercules I (incar.). Two other members have been replaced; the whereabouts of their originals is unknown.

Pantheon tends to concentrate on fast and brutal force in their operations. It is believed that both Augustus and Zeus operate as commanders in the field. They have killed before, but seem to be more interested in concluding their operations. Not afraid to cut loose members if they are captured, and have taken hostages before. It is believed that the group will likely trip themselves up in their extreme lack of subtlety. Members: Augustus, Apollo II, Athena, Hercules II, Zeus, Mars, Mercury II, Neptune, Pluto II and Vulcan.

Little is known about this group. It is believed that a number of Bloodliners make up its membership. However, as of yet, only one is confirmed, Nathaniel Jensen (of the Edige bloodline). It operates internationally with a focus on corporate targets. It operates through long-term, subtle infiltration projects. Information regarding the exact nature and method of this is closely held by the various law-enforcement agencies involved.

It is commonly believed that they use their resources and powers to place their agents inside corporations. Thus far, they have not targeted governmental or public institutions. Strong Hacker access is suspected as well given their likely ability to manufacture false information and identities. It is also suspected that they have access to mental powers and precognitives. Unfortunately, the censored nature of reports on this group makes it difficult to evaluate them. It is uncertain if their motives are ideological, materialist or other. Approach with caution. Members: Nathaniel Jensen (only confirmed).

A classic villain organization that has operated over the years in various guise across the globe. They have a mixed record of success, with many of their members having been captured at one time of another. However, their leader, The Rook, has managed to evade jail and has always reformed the group within a few months with a new roster.

The Word
A gathering of distinctly anti-religious anarchs. While they carry out very few operations, those they do are particularly noted for their viciousness. They attack any and all religious authorities and icons. Even when planning robberies or other typical criminal operations, they make sure to target the faithful. Members: Lilith, Belial, Kali, Heretic, and others.

Said to be a mercenary for hire superteam.
Known to operate out of Chicago.
The Shadow Margin
Uncertain if this is a single figure or a group.
Said to be devoted to organizing resistance of Bloodliners to any form of control by normal humans
The Foundry
Bloodliners who seem to supplement their powers with mechanical means
Black Dawn
Anti-Bloodliner assassination group.

The general name given to the semi-private corporation that works with the government to hold super-powered criminals. Their main facility lies somewhere in the badlands of South Dakota. They also have smaller transport stations located in Oregon, Virginia, and St. Louis. An important point is that while the Syzmanski family possesses the abiltiy to neutralize powers, this has not yet been mechanically reproduced. The suspension tubes used by Lockdown for transport do not, in fact, neutralize powers. They are suspension and sleep generating systems used to keep Anarchs from activating their abilities. Lockdown uses a variety of methods to keep Anarchs secure, but the details of that are covered by national security.

The Nursery
The name given in the West to the Chinese Bloodliner project. It is an open secret that China kidnaps or assassinates Bloodliners as the opportunity presents itself. The few Chinese Bloodliners who have managed to flee the program have been hunted relentlessly. Despite that, little is known about the Nursery. Their agents prefer to work quietly in taking out tehir targets, avoiding situations which could draw attention to themselves or create a diplomatic incident.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part Two: Pure Steam to World of Steamfortress Victory)

As I said on the previous list, 2013 turned out to be a decent year for Steampunk and Victoriana rpgs. We saw several adaptations to existing systems, some new editions, and a few completely new games. So how did these genres look in other kinds of gaming?

In video gaming we saw a several new games with a steam theme: Bioshock Infinite,  Ironclad Tactics, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, and SteamWorld Dig to cite a few examples. On the Victoriana side we saw Victoria II: Heart of Darkness. If we cast our net back further, say five years, to 2009 we can see that these genres have been even more prolific Resonance of Fate, Dishonored , Crimson: Steam Pirates, Gettysburg: Armored Warfare, God Eater, Victoria II, Pride of Nations, EastIndia Company and more.

That’s pretty impressive.

I've left some games off this list- some smaller, self-published, or pdf-only products. If I've missed something big, please give me a heads up. I've opted to mention products during they're year of physical release, rather than Kickstarter success or pdf preview. 

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

I wonder if there will come a time when not going through crowd-funding will be considered a knock against a game? Pure Steam successfully completed a KS campaign in 2012 and released a beta-version and then a final version in 2013. That resulted in a large (226 page) campaign book, as plus a couple of striking miniatures as stretch goals. This product gives a complete setting for Pathfinder, as well as the various mechanical bits and bobs you'd expect from such a sourcebook. About half the book consists of presentation of the setting's races, the two new classes (Chaplain and Gearhead), ten new archetypes for existing classes, feats, equipment, and science & technology.

A little less than 70 pages presents the world. This is a fantasy world with strong analogues to the real world. Rather than focusing on Victorian tropes, it instead opts to offer a more Mytho-American approach. So that's why we get a barefoot hillbilly dwarf on the cover firing off an arcane shotgun. The base book, "focuses on the Federated States of Ullera, a relatively young nation born out of the Abolition War, founded on freedom from oppression and learning to handle its newfound economic prosperity and political power." Pure Steam also includes some monsters and a sample scenario. This book may be of special interest to Pathfinder GMs looking build a new campaign or introduce steampunk elements into an existing one.

12. Slawia
Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy received a English language edition in 2012. I had a chance to look at the printed book at Gen Con and its pretty nice: a full-flavored and rich new setting which embraces the steam elements. We have yet to see other materials for the line translated. It's not clear if that's on the table or if that isn't viable. Slawia presents a hefty setting book for the Polish-language original game. Interestingly this book covers the analogue for Poland itself in this pseudo-European setting. Ironically Slawia is also known as "The Cursed Republic"...

The publisher Starbright released a wave of genre and setting-specific books powered by Fate in the wake of Evil Hat's open license to the system. In some cases, like Extreme Future: Fate Edition, this took an earlier product and reworked it. I had a chance to look through some of the Starbright products, in particular Future Heroes and was struck by problems with art, layout, and coherence. Steampunk Fate is, as far as I can tell, simply a set of genre tools- tacked on to the base Fate Core rules. It has a setting, but not deeply developed. The reviews for the line of products seem quite bad, as illustrated by the collected reviews here. That's too bad. I think there's a potential market for a company to offer some interesting genre frames or toolkits for Fate. These could be generic, with perhaps three or more distinct world frames (ala Fate Worlds) to show how these ideas could be applied.

Steampunking up the Western seems to be a theme in 2013. While we'd seen some of that before (notably with Deadlands and Six-Guns & Sorcery) its nice to see gamers going back and reconsidering how to play with those elements, both the actual American West and the idea of the Western. Steamscapes provides a Savage World setting based in a divided steampunk 1870's North America. At about 90 pages (including the covers, index, & supplementary materials) it gives a mix of stuff- beginning with the obligatory new professions, edges, and other mechanical material for SW. The next third of the book presents a quick history and overviews of the four major nations of the setting (American Consolidated Union, Confederation of Texas, Rocky Mountain Republic, Plains Tribal Federation). The last dozen and a half pages give a GMing overview plus a couple of scenarios. The layout and presentation's good- except for the annoying page backgrounds. I admire the designers for taking on this genre with a system already heavily associated with another big Western game. They have several free previews available as well as a substantial player's supplement, Steamscapes: Gunslinger's Guide, released this year.

With a system as popular as Pathfinder, you'd expect companies to spin out games and worlds using it. But Pathfinder feels much tighter to me than the old OGL/d20 material- it has such an identity tied to its sources that I have a hard time picturing adaptations. But we've seen them across genres, including supers (Heroes Wear Masks), cyberpunk (NeuroSpasta), and modern (Modern Adventures). Terah brings steampunk to Pathfinder and also funded through a Kickstarter in 2012 and released in 2013. The 200 page book opens with the world background and setting. It appears to be a conventional fantasy setting, but with steampunk elements. For me the problem is the lack of clear info or selling points in the company materials. You have to hunt through to put something together- and there's almost nothing saying "this is what makes us different from other steampunk fantasy games." Years ago you could simply lay claim to doing that genre and it would be enough. But that ground's been plowed thoroughly.

And that's not to say that Terah's bad- far from it. It just needs to really sell what's cool and unique about it- beyond new classes and feats. What makes this world some place worth exploring and playing in? I see there's some mention of psychic powers- that's potentially intriguing and different. Perhaps it brings psionics into the setting- if so what does that make the world look like? I should also mention that Rossi Publishing has done better than some companies in supporting their game. 2013 also saw the release of Pebble inthe Pond: Within Wheels. This is a 100 page adventure that aims to use time-travel to introduce the world to the players. Its also the first adventure of an arc (ala Pathfinder Adventure Paths) so that's promising.

Airship Pirates remains top on my wish list of games. I just haven't yet swung back to pick it up with so many excellent products released in the last few years. The game's built on the work of a steampunk band, Abney Park. They're transported back to 1906, where they cause a calamity to the timeline. They arrive in 2150 to find a post-apocalyptic, steampunk, neo-Victorian world with dinosaurs. I've compared it to Etherscope and Unhallowed Metropolis which also combine Victorian tropes with the far future. Underneath the Lamplight is the first supplement for the game since 2011, but it is a doozy- clocking in at almost 250 pages. This is a massive world-building book detailing the lives, cultures, cities, and peoples of the Neovictorian society. It includes new mechanics and options for the game as well as a deeper view of the different social and cultural castes. You have to dig any game with Ministries of Truth, Legacy, Hope, Diligence and Defence. The GM section deals with some of the mysteries and plot hooks of the setting. It looks quite cool and I'll be moving this up on my 'to do' list for the future. 

The venerable Victorian RPG Victoriana got a fresh new third edition in 2013. I'm glad to see games in this genre continue to evolve. Rather than completely change the base system (as they did when moving from 1st to 2nd edition), Victoriana 3rd keeps the Heresy Game Engine which uses a dice pool for resolution. An obstacle dice pool, called the "Black Dice Pool" can actually cancel successes. Airship Pirates uses the HGE system as well. This edition makes some notable changes, especially the shift to an 1856 date for the game, rather than the previous 1867. It also apparently integrates more technology into the setting. Where before sorcery and the fantastic had been the prime mover, now mechanisms and weird science have a stronger role. That seems a smart move to me. Given the kinds of supplements we saw for 2nd edition it probably answers fan's needs and positions it as a viable Victoriana and steampunk game.

Keeping the base system meant that previous supplements and adventures can still be used with this edition. That's another smart move and allows them to keep selling and pushing those products in pdf form. At the same time Cubicle 7 supported the line strongly in 2013, releasing two adventures- The Spring-Heeled Menace and TheDevil in the Dark, as well as longer connected campaign collection Streets of Shadow (Victoriana). Some of that material has been presented before, but these versions revise and expand them.

A steampunk western RPG funded through Kickstarter. It ended up coming out about a year after the estimated date. It managed to commit one of the cardinal sins of Kickstarting (from a backer's point of view,) putting the game out into retail distribution and selling it at conventions before delivering copies to those who supported the project. I know that created some bad blood and I watched several excited gamers shift from enthusiasm to apathy (and anger in some cases).

Westward offers a complete rpg system, built on a D6 System (OpenD6) base. Rather than being a Victorian or even alternate Earth, Westward takes place in the future. The setting opens over three centuries after human colonists crash-landed on a new world. The ongoing battle against a hostile environment has decayed technology and society to steam and gunslinger levels. That’s a cool concept, and it does seem to open things up for play (i.e. not having to hold to conventional analogues). However I’m not sure the game really does anything with that futuristic or alien planet premise. In practics and as presented it simply feels like an alt-world steampunk setting. The GM advice and discussion focuses on that side of things.

Regardless, the book’s really well done. The layout’s excellent- and concepts are clearly presented. There’s a ton of equipment and tech, if that’s your thing. The art ranges from excellent (for character illos and pieces) to weak (for the equipment just mentioned). World background takes up about 100 pages of the book, with half of that made up of beasts and NPC write ups. There’s a sample adventure at the end. My only knock would be the weird “graffiti” bits they use to fill some of the space on the pages. These just look dumb and detract from the overall presentation. I hope Wicked North Games opts to do more with this game line.

A couple steampunk-esque games have built a larger story for themselves, a meta-plot that moves the setting forward and allows for new material. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand I enjoy how those events upset the status quo and introduce new concepts. On the other hand, I see those things at a distance, rarely integrating them into the games I run (like my various old World of Darkness games). That mean games present a chunk of material I'm not interested in or going to use. But more importantly it can box designers into a corner- they have to move forward. That can lead to backlash and collapse, as with the third edition of Cyberpunk or to burning everything to the ground, as with the old World of Darkness. So I'm wary when I see tnew games come right out of the gate with an evolving arc. That isn't a selling point for me.

The World Beneath the Clouds is a sourcebook for Venus in 1883 for Stars of Empire. It moves away from the focus of the evolving Hive War in the main part of SoE. It funded through a Kickstarter project and reflects the game's focus on crowd-sourcing and creating a open world for the players. While the material has a little of the look of John Carter, there's a definite focus on what the designers call "Hard Science Victorian Science Fiction." That's a smart niche- and one only a few other games (notably some of the earliest) have focused on. The book itself it 312 pages, standard size, but I haven't seen any previews of the final product. I suspect it is a must-buy for fans of the original game and a useful purchase for GMs looking to do 'other-worldly' exploration in an alternate Victorian setting. 

Steamfortress Victory released in parts over several years, with a quick-start product (A Day at the Fair) and a player book (The Player's Workshop) in 2010, followed by a GM guide (Engineer's Manual) in 2012. The game offers an interesting premise; in an alternate 1900, the discovery of "Bloodore" in Georgia leads to advanced steamtech. And in turn, the assault of the airship Victory lays waste to Chicago on the first day of the World's Columbian Exposition. This shatters America into five nation-states. Players are thrown into the middle of the Great Steam War. It is a neat idea, and it is nice to see a steampunk game which focuses on the United States and has a compelling backstory.

2013 saw the company further expand the line...a little. They release Core Mechanix which revises the earlier Players Workshop. That's available (at the moment) for a cheap price on RPGNow, so anyone interested might want to cheak it out. The World of Steamfortress Victory came out next- a volume which offered details on the setting, world, and the metaplot they've developed, called the "Timewelder Schism." I have no clue what that means but it sounds good. However WoSFV isn't available any longer, at least in pdf format. I suspect that's because they then published CompleteCore Rules: Year 1901, which bundles together the Core Mechanix, WoSFV, and the Engineer's Manual into one book. So the long way around is to say that if you're looking for a 'done-in-one' version of this game, that's the one to pick up.

This material is supported by a Patreon project I've established just for these lists. I hope you'll check that out and spread the word. If you've enjoyed the work so far, consider becoming a patron. 

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Three 2004-2006)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Four 2007-2008)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Five 2009)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Eight 2012)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part One: Äther, Dampf und Stahlgiganten to Owl Hoot Trail)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2013 (Part Two: Pure Steam to World of Steamfortress Victory)
The Year in Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs 2014
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs
History of Horror RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Wild West RPGs

History of Universal RPGs

Monday, August 25, 2014

Super Capsules: Hazard, Criminal Intent & Corporations

I’d like to get through my backlog of smaller superhero support products. Good non-core supplements can get lost in battles over new editions and revisions. I’m always looking for books offering great superhero ideas and advice, regardless of system. For these micro-reviews I’ll note the relative balance of mechanical to non-mechanical material. I calculate character write-ups into the mechanical side of things. I’ll also note the number of these characters present, counting only those with full presentations in the game’s system.

Hazard IPSP/ISIS Official Map 7 (1980, Superhero 2044)
Reading through Designers & Dragons' history of Judges Guild reminded me of this weird and unique product. Hazard (IPSP/ISIS Offical Map 7) may well be the first superhero rpg supplement. It’s definitely the first and last supplement for Superhero 2044. I bought it when it first came out years ago and lost it; Blue Tyson generously gifted me a new copy last year.

Hazard has several claims to strangeness: the source material, the topic, and the format. The game Hazard supports, Superhero 2044, gave gamers the first superhero rules. And weirdly, rather than presenting a modern game, it opted for a near future, sci-fi setting. Christian Lindke has an awesome history of that game which you can find here. I’ll keep linking to that article in hope that he’ll keep his promise and write more histories. S2044 presented a somewhat post-apocalyptic world- distinct and unusual. Instead of the US, players romp through the fictional island of Inguria, located just south of Japan and Korea. Hazard presents the larger Pacific Region, but oddly doesn’t provide a connection to Inguria or any real context.

Instead Hazard presets a quick and dirty overview of a changed pacific- focusing on Australia, New Zimbabwe, and a weird unexplained Novaterra. I’m still unsure if this last land mass comes from an alien invasion, broke off from California, or just exists in this setting. Hazard’s presented as a “tour guide” for subscribers to a fictional exploration organization. Through that it gives us a whirlwind tour covering the regions with a quick political overview, discussions of important cities, and a bizarre mix of factoids. There’s little in the way of headers for the main text, which makes figuring out the info even more difficult.

Some of the ideas here are interesting, suggesting “travel” adventures a hero team could engage in. You can pick out some hooks and suggestions for particular classes. There’s a half-begun section of ideas about how the tourist information organization itself could be presented in play. Australia in particular gets some call out attention. This focuses on the effects of radiation on the country- leaving the already deadly flora and fauna even more predatory. Kanagroos have evolved into a semi-sentient race now used as servants. I can’t quite tell if the material's a fond joke by a native Australian or more a weird bunch of stereotypes.

Ultimately Hazard’s undercut by the presentation, strange even for Judges Guild. It is a 22 x 24 quad-fold poster print. On one side you get the numbered hex map of the Pacific Zone- most of it consisting of the ocean. There’s little in the way of details or features- just a few cities marked out. Additionally the garish yellow and blue cover image eats up one of the eight panels there, blocking the middle of the map. On the reverse side is all of the text- in great long blocks running the full length of the page. The art’s mixed, with a couple of OK pieces and some really weak attempts. Two of the six panels there are taken up by unconnected illos and a catalog page for other products.

Bitter Pill: Fun for nostalgia, but not really useful as a modern gaming product.
Mechanics: 0%
Setting/Ideas: 100% (well, more like 40% if you remove the map and ads.)
Character Write Ups: 0

Criminal Intent (2003, Silver Age Sentinels)
I wanted to like Silver Age Sentinels more than I did. The Tri-Stat version looked kind of interesting, but wasn’t what I wanted in a point-buy game. The d20 version, on the other hand, felt tacked on. I’d already crossed that line with M&M so I wasn’t interested in another variation. Still the main SAS book had some intriguing world-building ideas- perhaps some of the sourcebooks would be useful? I received Criminal Intent in a trade (I think) and only just got around to going through it. It offers generally useful materials for GMs of any supers game- a consideration of villains without just being a monstrous manual of them.

The 128-page book’s broken into five major chapters. Chapter One “Anatomy of a Villain” covers the basic outlines of building a villain: considering motive, justification, opposition, and so on. It talks about assessing the “level” and scope of a villain's schemes as well as the campaign context. I like this chapter, which takes up a third of the book and offers some new ways to consider building your foes. Chapter Two on the other hand is pretty short- covering lone villains. Those are often the high-powered masterminds, but CI considers other reasons why such characters might exist. There’s good discussion of the implications of being a loner on the villain's behavior and ability to operate in the criminal underworld.

Chapter Three, as you’d expect covers supervillain teams. It offers a good breakdown of typical team patterns- though perhaps that could have been rounded out with more discussion of variations. The idea of team roles and tactics can be useful. I’ve often found myself simply throwing together groups because I like the individual concepts. The material here offers some new approaches. While it might be obvious for some veteran GMs, I like being reminded of these concepts in a clear way. The brief Chapter 4 follows that up with material on organizations (ala VIPER and HYDRA) and how they might operate. A distinct book on those would have been too much, but I’d still like to have seen more here. The last chapter offers a dozen villains, some hench-types, and a few plot hooks.

The book itself is nicely put together. I’m not as fond of the weirdly fuzzy cover image, but the interior artwork’s decent, consistent, and very ‘90’s in places. There’s a good mix of male and female images, with some refreshingly cheesecake male costumes. The layout’s decent and readable, with the body font being maybe a little light on the page. But headings and sub-heading break the text up well, there’s cool art for chapter breaks, and it shockingly offers an index. Crazy!

Bitter Pill: This is pretty good- and makes me want to track down more of the SAS support materials. It isn’t as generally useful for putting together adventures for the table, but it presents good food for thought. I can imagine rereading this before planning a new campaign. While I don’t think you can find this book in pdf format (due to GOO’s legal problems), cheap copies can be found on Amazon and elsewhere (though they oddly show a different cover image).
Mechanics: 15%
Setting/Ideas: 85%
Character Write Ups: 14 (4 female, 2 generic)

Corporations (1994, Champions)
Putting together my history of supers rpgs reminded me of a several oddball sourcebooks I meant to pick up. I’d forgotten about Corporations, written during the later part of Champions 4e’s reign, when Hero Games still had their distribution agreement with ICE. Authors Mark Arsenault (San Angelo, Sengoku) and Geoff Berman (Adventurer’s Club) put together what’s clearly a labor of love- and long-time study. Every once in a while you see sourcebooks like there- clearly crafted by someone who really loves the subject matter, perhaps even more than the game itself (GURPS Russia’s another one). Corporations does what the title suggests- it considers corporations in superhero games. That’s a staple of the genre- OsCorp, LexCorp, Halo Corporation, Kord Industries. That’s a great idea but is it useful for general superhero campaigns?

Corporations splits into two halves. The first presents sample companies and the second deals with what companies actually do in a campaign world and how to present them. The book has 26 corporation write-ups, each about 1-2 pages. They run the gamut tech, criminal, financial, etc. Some are marked out as existing in the Champions continuity. Each has a few stats, history/background, campaign use, slogan, alternate use, and scenario hook. These aren’t bad but could be better/more useful. A page with a reference sheet detailing these companies and areas of interest would be helpful. That would make looking up in play much easier (“What company deals in experimental petrochemicals?”). I really appreciate the book offering another take on each company’s use rather than presenting a monolithic entity. That opens up the ideas for GMs. But I wish the background stories were tighter in many places. There’s detail there, but only a portion of it would actually hit the table. I’d like more scenario hooks- written even shorter- and perhaps a couple of quick NPCs.

The second half of the book shows off the authors’ research- which is both good and bad. There’s a ton of nitty-gritty details on how companies and corporations actually operate (bond issues, organizational structures, regulatory functions). I’d like more of this tightened- or at the very least more examples of how this information might be brought into play. I especially dig the discussion of different ways to use corps in a campaign (patrons, adversaries, allies, etc). Some of that’s a little obvious, but it works as an idea generator. That could have been expanded, ala Villainy Amok. Throw out more hooks for each of those modes and perhaps even connect them directly to the example companies already given.

The art work and presentation holds the book back. The layout uses the typical dense text of the period and 4e Hero Games books in particular. There’s a ton of information, and much of it could use sub-headings to help break things up. There’s not as much art as usual for these books which compounds the problem. A few pieces are quite good, but others feel dashed off to fill in. A couple of the larger ones repeat. The cover’s particularly bad- with an oddly painted Storn Cook image, a weird orange border made of paper clips, and a prescient catch phrase “You’re All Fired.” Don’t buy this for the looks.

Bitter Pill: I like, but don’t love this book. I think it could be most useful as a resource for quickly coming up with companies for future plots. Or if a GM planned to make companies and corporations a cornerstone of their campaign. Not available as a pdf, but I found a cheap copy on Amazon.
Mechanics: 5%
Setting/Ideas: 95%
Character Write Ups: 5 (All Male)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Designers & Dragons: RPG Histories I Like

This is my 900th post. I have no idea how many words that is, but I average between 1300-1700 words per post, so that’s crazy. 900 means I’m within striking distance of 1000 sometime next year. That’s nuts. I ran into one person at Gen Con who followed the blog- so that's nicely validating. Anyway I hope if you follow Age of Ravens you're getting some useful ideas from it!

It’s ’77. I’m eight years old and we’re at the Arnold’s house. Across from me is John M. We’re still friends. This is years before middle school when he, Matt, David, and Rex would push me out of the group and ostracize me. I’m a kid and I’m probably an asshole so I probably deserve it. It’s before he’d borrow my copy of Top Secret and slather the cover with glow-in-the dark paint. Before we’d get together for sessions of Gamma World and all the other players would kill my new PC in the first five minutes and tell me to get out. I don’t tell my parents about that because despite all that I still love gaming and every once in a while I get to actually have a decent session.

But right now its 1977 and we’re playing a game while our parents and their friends have a dinner party or something. It’s Knights of the Round Table. It’s like an rpg where we play out little jousting fights. We’ve each got a deck of maneuver cards we play against each other. We dig player versus player battling rpgs. We ended up spending more time with Traveller’s Snapshot than the main game itself. But right now John and I are playing and having a good time- the only time I played that game. I’d forget the name of this little one-off pseudo-rpg from a one-off publisher.

Until last week, when I’m reading Designers & Dragons Vol. 1- 1970‘s and there it is- from a company called Little Soldier games. 

Knight's of the Round Table. That was it. That's how I learned what prowess and puissance meant because I had to go look them up. 

That’s one of the many reasons I love Designers & Dragons.

Designers & Dragons offers a four-volume history of the RPG Industry, from the earliest days through 2009. Each volume roughly covers a decade. Author Shannon Appelcline organizes that by the company’s founding- but traces their story up out of that framework. So while Volume One opens with the story of TSR, that tale covers the whole history from creation, through boom times, to management changes and finally to collapse and sell-off in the late 90’s. Appelcline does an amazing job organizing this information and drawing connections between these publishers' stories. It’s a tough balancing act- the paths of producers, lines, licenses, and authors crisscross throughout. Yet somehow he manages to keep things clear and manageable.

The material originally began as a series of history posts at RPGNet. I remember reading many of them there- especially the weirdness of Iron Crown Enterprises and the shifting editions. Later Mongoose Publishing gathered the essays together into a single volume which quickly vanished. I tried to track a copy down shortly after release but couldn’t find one for anything close to a reasonable price. Now Evil Hat has put together a cool new version. They cleverly opted to go with distinct volumes- giving each decade room to breathe. Additionally Appelcline has revised and expanded each volume. According to the publisher, he wrote an additional 50,000 words for volume one alone.  

Right now there’s a Kickstarter going on for these books, I don’t really need to boost for the series since they’ve already punched through their stretch goals. So what I’m saying is this: these are dynamite books. I enjoyed them immensely and if you have even a passing interest in where this hobby came from, you should back the Kickstarter or pick them up later when they arrive in general circulation. Check out a free sample of the TSR chapter there so you can see how Appelcline approaches the information. The Kickstarter page has a number of testimonials by gaming greats, but I’ll admit I didn’t listen to any of them. I’d been waiting for the project and I backed it pretty much immediately.

Part of what I like about this is that there isn’t anything else quite like it. We’ve seen some interesting early looks at gaming (Of Dice and Men, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games) and theoretical examinations of gaming (Second Person, The Functions of Role-Playing Games, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games). The most recent and talked about book has of course been Playing at the World which focuses on the earliest days of the creation of fantasy role-playing games and TSR. And the history of simulation games and mechanics stretching back to the 19th Century. And much, much more. I like PatW, but man is it a hard slog. It is a deeply academic text, tracing the evolution of elements like hit points, levels, and initiative back to Kriegspiel protoversions. I have to read that in small pieces and after nearly a year I’m only half way through the whole book.

On the other hand I tore through the first 400 page volume of Designers & Dragons in an evening. And then when Evil Hat released the second volume in electronic form to backers I ripped through that equally fast. Designers & Dragons is readable, comprehensive, well laid-out, and just plain fun.

Author Shannon Appelcline was kind enough to answer a few questions about the books and his research. You can see that post here.

I’ve been gaming pretty heavily since my sister got the original boxed set back in 1975. That same year we had a local game store open- The Griffon- which still remains in business. I think hardly a week passed that I didn’t go in to check the shelves. My sister worked behind the counter and then I did for many years. When I finished grad school I came back to South Bend and worked as Assistant Manager there and ran the upstairs game room for the shop for several years. I watched game lines rise and fall, I watched products sit on the shelves until they leapt into the used section, I watched weird edition shifts and strange marketing decisions.

I thought I knew a lot about the industry and the hobby- but these books pulled the curtain back and explained so many of the moves. I never really got what was happening with the Traveller licenses and why they dropped some products like a hot potato, I wasn’t sure why Steve Jackson split from Metagaming, and I had no idea what the full rationale was behind Chaosium selling Runequest to Avalon Hill. Designers & Dragons answered those questions and more. I can’t wait to read volumes three and four and then read everything again when they arrive in finished dead tree form.

On Designers & Dragons: Q&A with Shannon Appelcline

A few weeks ago Evil Hat launched the Kickstarter for a new edition of Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons, a four-volume comprehensive history of the role-playing industry. Appelcline, a designer with roots at Chaosium has become an important historian of gaming. He's presented historical notes for the digital releases of classic TSR materials, offering insight and putting these products in context. Appelcline generously offered to answer a few questions via email about the books and his research. You can see my thoughts about Designers & Dragons in a separate, parallel post here.  

1. I rode down to Gen Con with a gamer who has been playing since high school but who gave me a blank look when I mentioned companies like R Talsorian or even the more recent Eden Studios. What does Designers & Dragons offer to gamers in general and to modern rpg’ers in particular? Why should they be interested?

Most obviously, Designers & Dragons offers our history: how we got to the 40th anniversary of roleplaying in 2014, and who we should remember along the way. It includes all the fun stories about your favorite companies that you probably don't know about. However, you point to the other cool thing about Designers & Dragons: it details the history of all the companies that you don't know about — the tales of their designers and the games that they produced. It doing so, it might just open up your roleplaying repertoire to something new.

To offer an example: I had pretty poor knowledge of the indie movement of the '00s before I started writing Designers & Dragons. I was plenty familiar with their predecessors from the '80s — games like Ars Magica (1987), King Arthur Pendragon (1985), and Paranoia (1984) — but as with many gamers I'd mainly settled with the games that were out when I was in college. Since writing Designers & Dragons, I've discovered whole new realms of roleplaying possibilities. I've used some techniques from an indie game called InSpectres (2002) in my current Pathfinder (2009) campaign, and I'm playing with the possibility of using Burning Wheel (2002), Dungeon World (2012), or 13th Age (2013) as the basis of my next campaign. Those are all games that I learned about by writing Designers & Dragons — and that others might learn about too by reading the books.

2. You mention the Egbert incident and the resulting crusade against D&D as paradoxically a major boost for TSR and RPGs in the early 1980s. Were there other factors you saw during this (or other boom periods) that really fed success- cultural, social, media, literary?

There's no doubt that James Egbert incident — where a college student went missing and D&D ;got blamed nationally — multiplied the success of D&D (and roleplaying). However, our industry was on a pretty steep upward slope ever since D&D's release in 1974. If you look at some of the self-reported financial data from TSR, their sales were doubling year over year (and then doing better than that when Egbert came along).

The "why?" is a much tougher question. I think roleplaying's success started because D&D offered a unique take on gaming that let players take a very personal investment in a game. This was quite different from the miniatures wargames that preceded it. I also think that D&D initially prospered because of the wide-spread cultural interest in the Lord of the Rings in the late '60s and early '70s. Finally, you have to consider the lack of other interactive entertainment at the time. Board games that were more sophisticated than the typical family fare were still pretty scarce, and you didn't yet have video games. You put together a product that fulfills all those varying desires, and it's not a surprise that you get something that's very popular — and that helped roleplaying boom for almost a decade, into the early '80s.

We of course saw another big boom from 2000-2003. That one seems to have been driven more by internal pressures — by the fact that people were initially willing to purchase any "official" D&D/d20 products, no matter who published them. The early 21st century may also have seen a roleplaying industry that was old enough that lapsed gamers could come back — and d20 got enough publicity to bring some of them back into the fold. However, I suspect that the resurgence of fantasy interest led by the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings movies helped. Heck, MMORPGs may even have fed into it. A rather surprising twist in the 21st century is that fantasy and science-fiction have become cool again.

3. You’ve done an amazing job covering all corners of the industry during these periods- including some significant controversies over money, credit, and IP. What was the most challenging part of doing this research?

Thanks for the kind words.

In general my research focuses on a two-part process. First I hunt down company profiles, design notes, interviews, press releases, and podcasts involving the principals of the companies. I use them to build a narrative. Then I talk with any principals that I can so that they can review my work, and we can see if any mistakes or misrepresentations crept into the history. I've had two problems with this process at various times.

First, some companies aren't represented in the written record, which makes writing their histories troublesome. Lou Zocchi's Gamescience was one of the most difficult. There was no doubt that Lou was a really important person in the early industry, but he didn't tend to write anything himself, nor did he give many interviews. In the end, I put together what notes I could from the very scattered references, then I spent several hours talking to him over a few long phone calls. Because more of the article was based on a modern-day interview, it's probably not as accurate as something based on sources from the time, but it's also better than not including Gamescience at all.

Second, sources were sometimes in conflict either with each other or with a principal's very strident beliefs in the modern day. I had to weigh what to trust and what to write if I couldn't figure out who to trust. Sometimes I opted to drop long-standing rumors from the industry, such as the whispered claim that Bucci Imports contributed to the demise of West End Games; it could still be true, but after talking with the people who had access to West End's financial records, and who absolutely said that the shoe business wasn't at fault, I was no longer comfortable even listing it as a possibility. In many other cases I listed the two viewpoints and noted they were in disagreement.

4. Are there products or publishers you see as so ahead of their time that it undercut them?

I actually think our industry has done a pretty good job of responding appropriately to the innovation of games. I think that Cyberpunk (1988) offers a great example of a game that was very innovative and largely revamped the science-fiction portion of the industry as a result. Eclipse Phase (2011) is a similarly innovative game for the modern day, and though it hasn't created a subgenre of competitors like Cyberpunk did, it certainly seems to have been successful as a game that once more changes how you think about science fiction.

When games that were ahead of their time didn't do as well, I think it was primarily due to other factors. Consider my trio of great storytelling games of the '80s. Paranoia had great ideas about how to recreate roleplaying, but it never figured out how to create a roleplaying campaign, and its line development was very uneven after Ken Rolston left. Meanwhile, King Arthur Pendragon and Ars Magica, which reinvented roleplaying in other ways, were both constrained by their very tight and contained settings. If you move up to the '90s, Last Unicorn Games' Aria (1994) books had some brilliant ideas about roleplaying other things than individuals, but I think their complexity kept anyone from ever playing the game. Though none of these before-their-time games were huge hits, I don't think it was the innovation that kept players from embracing them in the mass-market.

With that said, I might have one answer for your question of an RPG hurt by its innovation: Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991). That game was always going to be somewhat constrained because of its very specific setting and its borderline small-press publication. However, in the groups that I was part of it, it got a bad reputation because of its diceless mechanics — which of course were one of the things that made it innovative. If it'd appeared a decade later as an early indie game, I think it might have been even more widely lauded ... but, then, there might not have *been* an indie revolution without Amber (and a few of the other games I've mentioned from the '80s).

5. My sister bought all of the gaming magazines growing up: ;Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Space Gamer, Different Worlds, The Dragon. There’s a theme running through the first two volumes of companies being unsure how to position magazines and yet investing heavily in creating them. What was the appeal? Is there anything that seemed to define a magazine with legs vs. one which failed? Are we past the era of the “magazine”-electronic or otherwise- in gaming?

I love roleplaying magazines too; they were the main source of my earliest research for Designers & Dragons. However, I honestly don't think there's such a thing as a roleplaying magazine with legs. In the end, I'd contend that they all either failed or else were kept alive as a marketing adjunct for a company's other roleplaying production.

The problem is that magazines are hideously expensive in time and resources and if you try to get them into the mainstream where they could sell in much larger numbers, you suddenly run full-steam into a broken system of distribution where the magazine publishers expect to lose money, then make it up on ad sales. This is all before the advent of the internet directly undercut the prime advantages of magazines like news and more personal contact between creators and fans.

As for their appeal, I think there are a few factors.

First, they're an easy entry point to the hobby. It's easier to think about a Call of Cthulhu magazine (like Pagan Publishing did) or a D&D magazine (like Jennell Jaquays did) or a Traveller magazine (like DGP did) than it is to think about creating a larger, more coherent supplement for the same system — let alone a whole gaming system of your own. This is before you realize that it's actually a lot cheaper to create that more complex supplement, mind you.

Related, in the '80s and '90s magazines were an accepted way for fans to contribute to their favorite games without getting tied up in questions of licensing and royalties. Sometimes those fan efforts would also grow to something more (though as usual, it was typically at the cost of the magazine itself).

Second, from the point of view of existing publishers back before the '00s, it was a great way to stay in touch with customers. This was surely the genesis of early magazines like TSR's Dragon and Chaosium's Wyrm's Footnotes. In those early days, I think some publishers also focused on the benefit of altruistically creating a magazine like Different Worlds or the second incarnation of Space Gamer that could really help to draw the industry together.

I do think we're largely past the era of the print magazine, as much as it pains me to say it (and though I have a print subscription to Gygax Magazine). However, I think that online magazines are still alive and well, particularly on the fanzine side of things. Great online 'zines like The Oerth Journal and Star Frontiersman are still around to various extents, and the next great fan magazine could be just around the corner.

6. In the first two volumes we see some discussion of the impact of these American games overseas, in particular on the British scene. I'm wondering during that period how important the non-English speaking market was? Were there companies trying to break into it, and if so how much success did they have? Was there much movement the other direction- games or ideas from companies outside North America or the UK? (This may be outside what you looked at, but I'm curious about how role-playing got started in these other countries).

Designers & Dragons concentrates on the English-speaking market, so I haven't done a lot of research on the foreign markets, so take what I say here with a grain of salt.

I know that TSR actively worked at getting into the international market, so they had licensed companies to publish D&D in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere in the '80s, then TSR UK began publishing into a few of those foreign markets directly in the '90s. As for the rest of the RPG industry: I'd be surprised if many of them were big enough to proactively seek out foreign publishers, though certainly many foreign publishers contracted licenses for some of their favorite RPGs.

As for the effect of foreign publishers on the English market:

TSR actually had an interesting situation where a couple of the people involved with their French translations ended up working for TSR.

François Marcela-Froideval was one of the founders of the roleplaying industry in France and the editor of its first magazine, Casus Belli (1980-1999), so when he came over to TSR in 1982, he immediately began working with Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer on core rules for AD&D. Because Marcela-Froideval was working as an assistant to Gygax it's a little hard to assess how much he individually contributed to the D&D game, but he definitely was a part of the teams working on Monster Manual II (1983) and Oriental Adventures (1985) — though his draft of Oriental Adventures was entirely revamped by Zeb Cook.

Bruce A. Heard came on to TSR as a French translator in 1983, and later helped to coordinate some of their other translation efforts, but he'd have a much larger influence on TSR when he became its Acquisitions Editor in 1985. This eventually led to his creation of the Gazetteer series (1987-1991) for the Known World. Not only did Heard create TSR's first line of geographic splatbooks — a few months before the Forgotten Realms books — but he also oversaw the development of one of TSR's most nostalgic settings.

Overall, I think individual foreign designers are the biggest way that the foreign market has influenced the US, such as the fact that Cubicle 7's The One Ring (2011) was designed by Italian designer Francesco Nepitello.

There have also been a number foreign games that have been translated into English, but that hasn't worked out that well because translating books is about as expensive as writing new ones. There was a big surge in the '90s with translations like Metropoli's Kult (1993), Target's Mutant Chronicles(1993), Chaosium's Nephilim (1994), and Steve Jackson's In Nomine (1997) all appearing. However, none of those lines survived. There have been more translations in recent years, but it's pretty scattered. A recent influx of Japanese games offers some interesting future development, but the French Qin (2006) is one of the few foreign games that seems to be continually supported.

7. Do you have a favorite obscure product or product(s) you discovered in doing the research?

I think I've fallen in love the most with the small-press, unofficial D&D ;supplements of the '70s, because there's this big-screen imagination in them and this ragged sense of newness. You can tell that everyone is figuring out things for the first thing and it's wonderful to see the wacky ideas that they came up with because no one had before. I'd put The Arduin Grimoire (1977-1978) at the top of that list. I'd known about the books before I wrote Designers & Dragons, but I hadn't really understood the gonzo craziness that they contained.