I ran Libri Vidicos for seven years, bi-weekly with the same five players, same five characters. We had a sixth at the start, but she dropped when her boyfriend had a blow-up in another campaign. It was the first long-term campaign I’d started since our friend & player Barry died. He’d been in the previous campaign set in this ongoing world, so we definitely had an empty chair at the start.
I wanted to run a Harry Potter-style campaign, but hadn't read Harry Potter. I think at that point I’d seen perhaps one or two of the films. But I’d skimmed Redhurst, followed plenty of manga, and had read other fantasy books with magical schools. Before choosing the theme, I knew I wanted to return to the fantasy world we’d played in since ’86. The last campaign I’d set there ("Steambuckler" aka Arcane Rails) had moved the high fantasy world forward and introduced steampunk elements. I wanted to continue on with that.
At the time, I was still in heavy prep mode for campaigns. I wrote up a ton of background material, details on different school houses, notes for all the various NPCs. It may have been this game that finally made me re-examine my process. I wrote so much stuff: gazetteers, class lists, etc for the players that I found it exhausting. Sherri finally said don’t. If it isn’t going to hit the table, if it doesn’t help, don’t waste time writing it up. It’s not writing a novel, it’s running a game which the players will inevitably destroy. As the game rolled on I did less and less concrete High Prep, and instead focused on plots, ideas, and threads.
The campaign used Action Cards, in a third version I retooled just for this. Five of the six players wanted to use magic. That meant coming up with a system of sorcery with room for specialization, decent flexibility, and wouldn’t take me months to write. We had many game elements in that early version that have since been cut away or heavily modified (combat styles, granular magic power rankings and types, Traits, stacked Edges, the Vagaries of Fate card). We made a few heavy changes to the system as we went along (a major overhaul in Year Three to Spellcasting in particular). But I didn't want to do too much revision during play, for fear of invalidating player choices. And once we hit three years of playing I became extremely wary of shifting things.
Coming up with an entirely new RPG system and running it for seven years is like buying a used car and driving it hard every single day. Seats tear, bolts begin to rattle, parts fall off and you desperately tape them back on, oil changes just delay the inevitable. By the end you had a rattling, wheezing vehicle you’re hoping will get you to work one more day so you can earn enough to trade it in and get a new car.
Also, for those of you familiar with Action Cards, realize that this version existed before I’d encountered Fate and added in some of those elements. We had some proto-Fate bits that we tweaked once we saw that system (three major campaigns later).
The players came in as first year students to the mysterious Libri Vidicos, a secret and select school which kept itself hidden from the world. At the start I told the group that we’d play through five years of schooling, plus summer vacations. A strange incident upon their arrival placed all of the PCs in one of the five “Houses” and suggested a common link between them. Play moved between social stuff, interactions with NPCs, trying to make a name for themselves, and the looming, yearly threats. It worked: we had romances, battles over school clubs, expeditions to strange places, hijinks, beloved teachers, hated instructors, conspiracies, strange and hidden places, races, an evil Student Council ala Utena, putting on plays, games of Wickets & Imps, and much, much more.
The sinister Headmaster, Direlond, died at the end of one school year, revealed to be a more ambiguous figure. A year and a half later they discovered the trick he’d used to escape death and brought him back. They had one year of transfer students from other schools. Some beloved NPCs traveled away for that year, creating new social tensions. The found a rival school which trained Villains (or a “School for Minions” as they termed it). Things changed and evolved. The players started out with characters young and perhaps unformed. As we played they become more distinct. You could see sessions where they had to make serious choices about their character’s future. Not just who to go to Prom with, but which education track to take (stay with my music or concentrate on my studies in Summoning?).
I loved the initiative the players took. They always had something they wanted to do, someone they wanted to see, and not enough time to do it. The school declare itself neutral from events in the world, but the players fought to have it become a force for good. Great NPCs died or moved on. My favorite trick was stopping and doing snippets from classes: bits of lectures, calling on PCs & NPCs for answers, talking about testing. I used those moments to reinforce themes, drop in elements I could call back to later, and demonstrate personalities. It gave the players a chance to respond to something, like the reaction to the instructor for Monster Lore who classified Orcs as monsters despite having one as a student in the class.
Overall I loved the campaign. The system got clunky at the end. And, if I’m being honest, it went on a little too long. We hit some really amazing high points in year four and five. Those were hard to match later on. I wish I’d been able to find a solid wrapping point at Year Six. That isn’t to discount the final year, which had dramatic challenges, great expeditions, and massive battles. But there’s a change which comes in a school game once the characters have effectively become adults. You see that a little in Harry Potter.
Which I eventually read.
Like many, I’ve done the trial by fire of running an all-night session.
But only twice in almost four decades of playing. I’ve gone late, but I’ve only managed two overnight games, where we started at 7pm and wrapped up after dawn. There's a connection between those two sessions for different campaigns. For the first one, I’d been running for a long time in our group, but the only finally managed a long-term and steady campaign I with GURPS Fantasy. It showed me I could handle extended games and have cool stories sustain and develop. It also set up the world I’d run for the next several decades.
About two and a half years in, I had to wrap the game up. In the next month I’d be heading out to Egypt for my Junior year of college. For weeks we played hard, leading up to a massive finale. I didn’t expect we’d play all night: it just happened that way. We had windows in the basement and when dawn’s light crept in, it fell upon the last of the big wrap-up. One of the players had to bolt out of there, rush over to his annoyed girlfriend’s house and drive her down to college.
When I got to Cairo, I took some gaming books with me. New students who arrived second semester heard that I’d done a one-shot in the first and asked me to run. I ended up doing another GURPS Fantasy campaign, building on the one I’d wrapped a few months earlier. We had a good group- with players who hadn’t done anything besides D&D and even that from modules and scattershot sessions. They hadn’t experienced a solid campaign world. As the end of the semester approached, I worked hard to bring all the threads together. Once again I wrapped with an all-night, epic session. Afterwards we wandered out into the streets in search of food, just as vendors began to set up and the city came to life.
Afterwards several of us went to an outdoor, rooftop pool where you could buy a day pass to swim and relax. About halfway through we realized one of our players had gone missing. He showed up an hour later. In men's room he'd fallen asleep in the stall, still exhausted from the session…
I’m always struck by the number of rpgers I’ve met who don’t like fantasy. I’m never sure where that comes from: oversaturation, bad experiences, personal taste. Fantasy’s been such an important default for me as a gamer. I enjoy the room it offers and still dig trying to figure out new thigs with it.
But I’m also not an old D&D hard. I played it in the Brown Box, Blue Box, and AD&D versions. But other games and genres lured me away: Stormingbringer & Rolemaster; James Bond 007, Champions, Top Secret, V&V, and so on. At some point though, I transitioned from espionage and supers being my focus, to fantasy. Some of that came from lackluster campaigns: games with potential that squandered it quickly.
I’m circling around the topic because this may be the hardest question yet. As I’ve done elsewhere let me walk through some of my thinking. First, I’ve probably run my best and most solid fantasy campaigns using our homebrew Action Cards system and also modified forms of GURPS. But both of those are engines, generic, so I can’t really consider them a fantasy rpg. Rolemaster’s another solid one. I ran years of great campaign with it. But the chaos, density, and crunch of that system pushes it away for me. I like playing it, and I even considered running a session for VirtuaCon. But there’s so much effort needed and rules to plow through, I flinch away. Let’s consider that a close second to my choice. I love the Legend of the Five Rings setting. Despite some problematic elements, I dig it and have bought just about everything for the line. But I’ve never run it with the actual rules. Instead I’ve done three different campaigns each using a hack (Rolemaster, Storyteller, Action Cards). Dungeon World appeals to me and I’ve bought a bunch of stuff for it, but I’ve only actually played it once. That was a good session, but I can’t say if I love it yet or not.
And then there’s 13th Age.
Remember how I said I wasn’t a D&D hand. I also skipped a lot of the other games which followed that model (RM being the exception). I don’t have any great nostalgia for that period. The mechanics & approaches of that system and its emulators don’t ring the bell for me. They’re not bad, but they don’t usually excite me. That’s why I’m often lukewarm about OSR stuff. Often I love the concepts, ideas, and craziness on offer, but the mechanics and play purpose don’t grab me as strongly.
So 13th Age had some hurdles to pass to get me exited. But it did.
I dug it when I finally sat down to read it, I enjoyed my choices when I got to play it, and I came to love it when I started running it.
It does many things that work for me. The most important is that it handwaves in all the right places. Elements that I usually gloss over in play (distance, serious healing, skill specificity, encumbrance, money) have been refined down to easy to handle abstractions. I like the way it puts the weight of interesting rules on the players, but not in an overwhelming way. Add to that how the game comments on its complexity- discussing that certain classes involve more than others. I think the mechanics for monsters are among the most fun and streamlined I’ve seen. I like the tools there and I’ve tweaked and played more beast-builds more with this than any other game I’ve played. I appreciate the way it handles recoveries and makes that a simple but potent resource managing consideration. I like the way it handles action in general.
But 13th Age doesn’t simply retool. It brings new and interesting ideas to the table. While I’m not using the Dragon Empire setting of the book, there’s plenty there to lift and steal. The “One True Thing” is very cool and adds a nice hook at the start. It helps set tone. The in-book dialogue between the designers works for me and reinforces how different interpretations creates distinct tones. And I love the Icon system. Even if I don’t apply it as often as I like, it does an awesome job of allowing the players buy-in. It’s applicable to many games.
13th Age allows me to run in Roll20 with cool maps and tokens, but without having to eff with much beyond that. I’ve liked everything 13th Age related I’ve bought from Pelgrane. I’m looking forward to 13th Age Glorantha. Did I mention how pretty it is?
I don’t play much sci-fi. And a good deal of the sci-fi I have done has been in via generic systems (using Action Cards to do Star Wars, HALO, and Fallout).Some were decades ago (Star Trek games from Heritage Models and FASA). Some others have been hacks (like Jim McClain’s completely diceless Star Trek game). Cyberpunk’s probably the sci-fi game I’ve played the most, but I didn’t care for it at the time. That may have to do with the focus of the campaign I played.
I like the concept of Ashen Stars and I think I could easily do something by tweaking that more than a little. I could see playing GURPS War Against the Chtorr and Alpha Centauri (perhaps combining…). I’ve also bought but haven’t played Mutant: YEAR ZERO and that looks like it could be a strong contender. And I have many more post-apocalyptic games in my back pocket beyond that Hot War, Legacy, octaNe. That’s fallout from writing these rpg history lists.
But I have to go with a game I find deeply flawed and strangely appealing: Fading Suns.
I bought the lovely first edition of Fading Suns and enjoyed the setting, but didn’t care for the system. I picked up sourcebooks from time to time. But I didn’t look hard at it until Barry invited me into his ongoing campaign. Then I bought what I could and learned the game had moved to a second edition. Barry said he’d added rules variants picked up from online, so I assumed that’s why the mechanics felt rough and unformed. We didn’t play very long, but I liked playing with the families, the general backdrop, and the High Sci-Fantasy feel. But the whole thing felt unfocused and cobbled together.
Fast forward a few years and I decided to try running a short campaign of Fading Suns for our group. I’d inherited all of Barry’s books for it when he’d passed away. I read through everything and we played, and…
Only a few times in my gaming life have I had the players flatly go “Nope, nope, nope” about a system (Dying Earth being another case which springs to mind). Three sessions in, everyone rebelled. And I couldn’t blame them. It wasn’t the crunch. This same group had played Rolemaster, Storyteller, GURPS, and HERO. For me it felt like it had a huge amount of flab- overly elaborate mechanics and systems. But the players just hated the way checks worked and combat flowed. We ended up hacking it quickly over to Storyteller just to finish the mini-campaign out.
I’d held out some hope that the new edition would streamline, pare down, and reduce the mechanics. I looked at the new books and they clearly weren’t for me. I appreciate what they set out to do and I’m sure lots of groups are getting awesome campaigns out of them. But phew. They’re dense and offputting to present-day gaming me.
Jeez, Lowell that’s your favorite?
I’m not done yet.
See my favorite sci-fi game’s kind of an alternate universe version of Fading Suns. I like the sci-fi meets high medieval feeling of the setting. It sort of is and isn’t Dune. When I’ve compared it to D&D in space, others have corrected me: it’s Warhammer Fantasy RP in Space. That’s certainly closer to the truth. I like all the pieces, parts, ideas, groups, aesthetics, and tools of Fading Suns. But the whole of it leaves me wanting more. In my head things don’t quite hang together as they should.
So my favorite sci-fi game is one I’ve twiddled with for the last five years, but still haven’t run. You can see my old work on it as the post below. Fading Suns is cool, but it lacks a common ethos or code to brings things together. That’s what holds together and drives games like Legend of the Five Rings and Vow of Honor. That’s what I want in Fading Suns, a set of codes for the nobility and perhaps likewise but distinct for the other groups. Each one trying to work within those rules, while struggling against their restraints. Different families with different takes on the rules. Not the religious ones from the Church, but greater codes that answer how this society manages to sustain and work together across the stars. Combine that with collaborative family building and some high political drama and you have the game I want. The game that I haven’t yet run.
The game that serves as an amazing cop-out answer to this question.
So this is my bag. This is my swerve. This is a genre I talk about a lot but don’t actually run that many campaigns in.
I dig superhero stories, in good part because I dig superhero comics. Maybe not the ones currently published, but I do love them. And I’ve tried to read or skim as many supers systems as I can. Too many reinvent the wheel- changing the color, inflating things a little more, adding new treads. But so much of that blends together and it takes a lot for these games to get me hyped on system. In the last couple of years I’ve run a half dozen different supers systems, some to try out.
But before I begin, let me tell you I come out of decade of Champions. In our area and group, V&V did well for a few moments, but then Champions buried it. Marvel Superheroes never caught on. We had a brief dalliance with DC Heroes. We always went back to Champions and HERO. We played it hard and I got many awesome campaigns out of it: several incarnations of Saviors, our Watchmen style game; Frontline; Weird World; Super Ninjas; Wild Cards; and more. But in the late 90’s something snapped for me. It broke hard and I knew I didn’t want to run Champions again. I didn’t want to do the kind of work it asked for in prep or at the table.
Like a lot of superhero fans I own a ton of superhero games (Cold Steel Wardens; Amp Year One; Aberrant; Brave New World; Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul; many Wild Talents volumes; and many, many more). I know I’m not going to play them, but I hope to raid them for other games. That game being Mutants & Masterminds. A few others I’ve played or run in the last year or so. Right now I'm trying an online game with Worlds in Peril. That's a more story-oriented game "Powered by the Apocalypse" for system. Fun and there's some interesting stuff in there. It does take some tooling around to figure out how it works. I ran a session of ICONS Assembled. That's decent and quite fast. It wasn't entirely my cup of tea, since it focuses on random generation. While you can do point buys, they feel a little wonky. But solid art and easy to use. I also ran Venture City Stories which is an adaptation of Fate Core for supers. I liked it, but I also like Fate. It really needs some additional material, which I understand they're going to be releasing in the next few months.
Back to Mutants & Masterminds.
...But first let me split superhero rpgs into two camps. On the one hand we have games which offer engines (Heroes Unlimited, Triumphant, Supers!). On the other we have those which have solid and interesting settings. They create a distinct world and often tune the system to that. My favorite for that would Rotted Capes (Zombie vs.), Kerberos Club (Victorian), Progenitor (Supers History), and Lucha Libre Hero (Luchadore). But the best and most awesomest of these is Base Raiders. If you like superhero games you need to buy it- regardless of your system of choice. All the major superbeings of the world vanish, leaving behind sidekicks, fourth-stringers, and wannabes. But while the supers of the world vanished, their stuff didn’t. Now there’s an underground industry in raiding old bases, discovering lost tech, and commercializing powers. It is, as the cover says, Superhero Dungeon Crawling, and more.
And I mention that because I’m assuming if you’ve read this far and have some interest in Superhero games, you already have a system. You’re probably willing to argue about the merits of that system. You’ve already nodded or shaken your head violently when you saw I planned to pick M&M. I do the same time when I see folks advocating other core games. I fear that’s the curse of the Superhero gamer (perhaps more so than any other genre, I don’t know…)
Mutants & Masterminds works for me. The power construction system clicked right away. When they went to second edition, it took me a bit to get it, but I saw the smarts in the changes. Third edition continues that trend. M&M doesn’t have that many calculations and those present aren’t that tough. It feels versatile and I can model many things. Most importantly I know the game really well. I can run combats quickly, I can adjudicate rules easily, I rarely have to check the book, I can stat up bad guys off the top of my head. It works for me and it works quickly and that’s what makes it my favorite.
Does it have problems and quirks? Sure (as do all these supers systems). But they aren’t close to being deal breakers for me.
And so, though I know it makes several players in my local group hang their head in shame, I’m a Mutants & Masterminds GM.
I like horror rpgs, but I have players in my f2f group less enthused about them. They’re also more challenging to run online, with its separation and distraction (though Chandler’s ViewScream gets around that). So I run them rarely. But the ‘horror’ game I’ve run the most might not be a horror game. I think Changeling the Lost can be horror. It’s a dynamite setting and so many elements of the premise offer real terror: loss of identity, PTSD, blacking out awful things you did to survive, the alien nature of the Keepers hunting you, the network of broken people you have to rely on to survive. But I’ve had some arguments about this as horror. Some see it as just urban fantasy. I’ve had the same debates over other Onyx Wolf games (Mage in particular). As well, despite having run a ton of CtL, I’ve only run it a little using World of Darkness (instead Action Cards and Fate Accelerated). WoD has an easy to get resolution mechanic, but it builds a massive pyramid of mechanics atop that. I don’t enjoy it.
So my favorite horror rpg is Dread.
Because it works.
Using a Jenga tower for resolution may seem like a gimmick. But it works. It is terrifying and draws out the real moments of fear. You have to get used to the pacing and flow of it, but when you do you get a huge payoff. Once players have drawn a few bricks, you can turn the screws on their decisions. They don’t want to draw, but they know they have to. I knew Dread worked thirty minutes into the one-shot I ran based on The Hangover. But then at Origins I got my first chance to play it. Even though we sat in a bright and open place, had weird cross-traffic, and ended up cutting things seriously short, I still became tense and anxious. It still kept that feeling, despite the structural elements working against it.
I’ll also say that I love the questionnaire system it uses for character creation. That often gets overlooked when talking about this game. But those questions and how they preview the game for the players is pretty brilliant.
Ugh and double ugh. We’re talking about published settiings, so I’ll leave out my own which are awesome (CyberNinja Land; Fantasy BSG; Steampunk Hogwarts…). I’m initially tempted to say Glorantha. I’ve run a ton there and I dig so many of the concepts. But the phrase “Your Glorantha May Vary” really applies here. Mine’s a bastardized version that steals from Harn and Rolemaster. It’s a pastiche. The same can be said for my Rokugan, which puts Legend of the Five Rings a little out of there. Players from other games would note my questionable geography and cobbled version of the clans. You might say, “Well, everyone does that.” But the version of these settings in my head’s far enough away from the source material and play that I’d feel weird citing them.
Especially when there’s a strong and clear contender. And it isn’t Changeling the Lost (which feels more like a premise than a setting, so that’s why I’m snubbing my beloved…).
Planescape. I still love it.
And like many people, it isn’t necessarily the traversal of the multiverse that I dig. I love Sigil. That’s a great concept, a crossroads to join these places together. It has always reminded me of Cynosure from Grimjack. Sigil is Planescape to me. All the other stuff outside, that’s the in-between bits. The dungeon-crawl section of the program. I like to imagine that characters hunt for keys to get into those and raid. That general passage out requires more energy, effort, and organization. So that’s why big groups, mercenary companies, and organizations, can travel there. For the average adventuring party, it’s a tougher trick. These doors and places are like hundreds of version of the Big Rubble from Pavis. You rush in, try to survive, and come back into town for your real life.
To run Sigil, you need four books. The base Planescape set, The Factols Manifesto, Uncaged: Faces of Sigil, and In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil. These are among the best city sourcebooks out there: evocative, filled with hooks, and beautifully illustrated. They’re awesome. I still regret that I didn’t do more with Sigil during the single 3.5 Planescape campaign I ran. I lifted elements from The Black Company and made them planar mercenaries. So most of the adventures had them on the road carrying out missions. They’d return to the Cage from time to time. The next time I do this, it’ll be set there.
Why not a Planescape hack for Blades in the Dark. With the factions as gangs and the unique monsters as the threats (like Ghosts are there)…
I have to go.