Friday, August 14, 2015

RPGaDay 2015: Week Two Roundup

#8 Favorite Appearance of RPGs in Media
At first Adventure Time tempted me. It’s a program I love- and one I know other smart & awesome people I know do not love. It wears rpg roots on its shoulder, and throw off references to leveling up, dungeon-crawling, NPCs, and beyond in episode after episode. And there’s more than a little hint of Gamma World in there as well, plus a LotFP joke…

But the more literal use of RPGs in Media is DM of the Rings and its spiritual successor, Darth & Droids. These remain among my favorite webcomics and they really capture the feel of a good rpg session and a bad rpg session. DM of the Rings broke new ground and you can see the players become more and more frustrated with the game in places. It nicely sends up Lord of the Rings as much as it does D&D. But Darth& Droids is so much more ambitious. It carries jokes for the long haul. And it has worked through all of the Star Wars films so far. The current arc’s in the middle of _Return of the Jedi. Read the comment text as well. The authors include smart and funny suggestions for tabletop play.

Read one, read both, they’re worth the rabbit hole journey.

#9 Favorite Media You Wish Was an RPG
My wife’s answer to this would be easy: any of the Atelier video games. She played through the Ateiier Iris and Mana Khemia series, screaming each time catastrophic game bugs ensured she couldn’t finish the games. She’s played the more recent and varied Atelier games on PS3 & DS, reveling in her process of establishing a shop, gathering materials, and making things. I don’t get it myself. But she’s forced me to spend the last week working on an AW hack for this so she knows what she wants.

Once again I have a close runner up for my choice, but one that’s pretty cliché: Harry Potter. I’d love an official one which would offer lots of info and set up. I like school games and finally seeing inside this world for play would be great. And would allow me to hack it for a dark, Aurors gone bad concept.

But what do I really want? Like many of the responses I've seen today, something we’re never going to get: Gotham Central. It’s a licensed property so niche, I can’t imagine them even expending the energy. It’s set in the DC Universe, but I don’t think Green Ronin’s DC Adventures is equipped to handle it (and I say that as an M&M fan). As well, I think the Gotham TV show has poisoned the well for GC. Therefore I’m “Old Man Get Off My Lawn” mindlessly opposed to Gotham.

But Gotham Central, I love that series. It’s a police procedural comic which only lasted 40 issues. Amazing noir-inspired writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker wrote it. It’s about cops in Gotham.

And right out of the gate it shows how effing dangerous it is to be one. In the first issue, follow up a completely unrelated lead, two detectives stumble across Mr. Freeze in a flop house. He kills one of them, casually, without any kind of challenge. He’s swatting a fly. And he gets away, again casually. Mr. Freeze is never brought to justice for this in the entire series. There’s a message here: how deadly and awful just being around these superfolks can be. Every time the detectives cross paths with them, bad things happen to the cops.

But they still press on, they still keep doing their duty. And they don’t love Batman. There’s a complicated and realistic relationship between the vigilante and the police. It questions how much he helps and how much he harms. It questions the detective’s decision to bring him in when they’re caught in a corner. In some ways, oddly, it reminds me of Mouse Guard: the question of scale and strength between these people and the weirdness going on around them.

But the series isn’t just about that. We have tales of the toll police work takes on loved ones. Of the tension between police and reporters. Of police corruption and the Blue Shield. Of the challenges of being a woman in law enforcement, and of being gay in a conservative culture. Of labor disputes. Of memories of and reaction to great and epic cross-over events (like No Man’s Land and Infinite Crisis). And we have good, old fashioned mysteries.

I love the social drama of Gotham Central. I really want a good police procedural RPG and I dig the twist that life in a supers city puts on that. It’s subtle; Gotham’s a better choice for this than say Metropolis or Astro City. There’s mythic nature to the Bat Family which any game would have to play out. The superbeing stuff would have to be secondary to the social life and daily work of the characters. It would be a Sword of Damocles hanging over them. Drama, passion, police work, and the threat of super awful stuff going down without warning.

#10 Favorite RPG Publisher
That's a weird question. Publishers shift and change over time. White Wolf isn’t the same beast it once was and WotC’s Christmas bloodlettings seem to have stopped. If we’re just focusing on present-day, active publishers, I’m going to go with Gnome Stew. I say that as someone who hasn’t dug everything they’ve released. I thought a couple just missed the mark for me. But overall they do seriously good stuff. I love substantial gaming advice books and generic toolboxes. They have a great blog, they have excellent customer service, they support all kinds of online conventions, and they released Unframed, one of my fav rpg books. Side note: I hope to have a review of their new release, Focal Point, up this next week.

BUT for all time favorite publisher, I have to go with Iron Crown Enterprises.

For sheer insanity.

Before “Rolemaster” was a fully formed thing, ICE released Spell Law, Arms Law, and Claw Law as discrete supplements for other FRGPs (read AD&D). These crazy books answered the munchkin demand for More Spells, More Combat Options, Bigger Critical Tables! They came in weird formats: parchment booklets, card board folios, perforated sheets. ICE early publications used a font I can only describe as Fantasy Handwritten Double-Serif Execrable. If you couldn’t read it, you weren’t worthy. That same challenging philosophy carried over to their explanations: here’s how you might convert this over to another game, maybe, and here’s some other things we’re not going to explain. You know, just figure it out idiot. If you can’t you’re not worthy.

I mean seriously. Even once they released Campaign Law andCharacter Law, the whole thing remained shockingly incoherent. Imagine someone putting gears and bolts in a bag, shaking it up, and telling you “Here’s your engine!” But we played it. The spell lists went to Level 50! Who wouldn’t play that? Life in this game was simultaneously epic and fragile. No matter your level, a bunny could still tear your throat out. And did.

And somehow ICE got the license to Lord of the Rings for f*ck’s sake. They went at it the best way they could: adapting the skeleton version of Rolemaster to their earliest releases. And so you got The Court of Ardor and Umbar, Haven of the Corsairs with INSANELY OVERPOWERED CHARACTERS. They presented Middle Earth as a world everywhere filled with Magical Superbeings. Those books are gonzo. Eventually ICE would rein that in and create Middle Earth Role-Playing which toned that down, but still presented every significant NPC as level 30+.

And ICE tuned and retuned Rolemaster, trying to make it more coherent. They added new options combined books. Sections and rules bounced around the pages. Nothing, and I mean nothing, fell in a logical order. Trying to find a specific mechanic could mean a half hour of shunting around. But eventually they had something that felt more complete and workable. At which point they began to release the Rolemaster Companions, anthologies with a ton of random new rules options. I’m not talking “themed” supplements, but legendary grab-bags of options: some of them vital and clarifying (graduated stat bonuses, compiled secondary skills) and others just perverse (point-spend initiative tracking, sectional armor). This led to specialty sourcebooks (Elemental Companion, Alchemy Companion, War Law, Sea Law).

And it led to Shadow World, one of the most over the top, huge, and epic setting out there. Coherent? No, certainly not that. It got better in later versions, but the early material had the same ICE mind-numbing approach to information presentation. Modules and setting sourcebooks likewise barfed forth a weird mish-mash of history, maps, and location keys. A few had actual plots, but most had places, herb lists, and trap difficulties.

But they kept coming out with stuff. Space-Master, Dark Space, Cyberspace, Oriental (sic) Companion, Outlaw_…and I’m not counting the non-RM stuff like cross-branded sourcebooks with _Fantasy Hero, CYOA books, Silent Death, and Bladestorm. And ICE kept going back to the well and refining things: reboxing, “new” editions, new covers that suggested a game that held together. Then they blew the whole thing up and rebuilt everything with theRolemaster Standard System which went halfway towards fixing the game and halfway towards making it even more involved. That would get an entirely new re-dress in a few years which tweaked the rules in a kind of 3.5 revision.

Eventually ICE dropped dead, not least in part due to investment in CCGs and the loss of the Tolkien license. But they came back...with new editions and most shockingly actual organization (thanks to Guild Companion). As much as I seem to be complaining, most of that’s in hindsight. I flip through those old supplements and I can’t believe how disorganized they are. But at the same time, I can’t believe how much crazy, wonderful, overelaborate stuff is in there as well.

Carry on Iron Crown Enterprises, you magnificent bastard.

#11 Favorite RPG Writer
 So here’s another tough question. I could pick someone who always jumps the rails, like Ken Hite. Or someone who creates a legacy of world-building I’m still wrapping my head around, like Greg Stafford. Or someone who engineers striking systems, like Brad Murray.

But in looking through my shelf at recent useful products close at hand as well as on my wish list, I have to go with another name:

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan.

Here’s his RPG Geek page. Look at that list. He does amazing stuff of his own (Deus Vult), contributes to core books (Primeval, The Laundry, The Esoterrorists). But more than that, he knows how to take the basics of a setting and build more, more, and more. Look at his work on Paranoia, Conan, Traveller, Dr. Who, Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues, Night’s Black Agents, Runequest, 13th Age, and more. He’s a builder, coming through and making things even more awesome. I may be wrong, but from here he looks like the hardest working guy in gaming- turning out solid and playable material all the freaking time. 

#12 Favorite RPG Illustration(or)
I’ve got a couple of illustrations and illustrators that kind of sum up a game or setting for me. Ironically both of them were guests of honor at Gen Con this year. Bill Willingham’s work on early V&V defined that that for me. I loved Jeff Dee’s stuff, but there’s something about the way Death Duel with the Destroyers looks that says 'early superhero gaming.'

Unlike the first artist, my second and real pick didn’t blow up a panel with his douchiness (as far as I know).

Tony DiTerlizzi is my favorite RPG artist. And he has been since the moment his work caught my attention in Planescape. I’m sure he’d done other projects before that, but something about this blew my mind. He managed to evoke a distinct and striking atmosphere like few other artists do. He did it with strange line weights and color choices. And I know from having friends who worked on rpg books, that’s not an easy thing. In those days you could easily have your images washed out or reproduced badly. His work stood up to that.

It’s so distinct. And he moves between the absolutely beautiful (like the Hawk Lord) to the strikingly weird (his Modrons) to the abyssal (the Glabrezu). He gives real feeling and expression to his non-human characters. And he’s not constrained by conventional form and anatomy. So many of his humans have a striking “Wonderland” feel to them. He makes the world of Sigil and beyond feel deeply weird and yet still human (?), I’m not sure how to put it. I mean look at that guy there...

And DiTerlizzi absolutely defines Planescape for me. They had other great artists working on it and the book designs are first rate, but his artwork brings something new. I love Planescape as a setting, but I also know I might not love it as much it I didn’t have such strong memories of The Factol’s Manifesto, Faces of Sigil, and the PS Monstrous Compendium. While I’ve seen his work elsewhere (like Changeling the Dreaming), it doesn’t hit me nearly as hard as it does with this series.

That’s why I’m not sure WotC could reboot Planescape. Besides the fact that they’d probably go for something completely different. I really wish WotC would provide PoD options for these books. I’d love to have them again in nice pristine copies, without having to spend a fortune on them.

#13 Favorite RPG Podcast
Not the best, but my favorite. And I have a self-serving answer.

So my favorite’s Play on Target. I know it’s good, a few times it’s been great, but I know we can make it better. We have a few episodes that make me cringe when I relisten and a couple with unbalanced audio. But I think overall, incrementally, we’re getting better. During recording last week we had a long conversation about how to keep better to a schedule and stay on track. I’m hoping we’ll be able to release bi-weekly episodes from this point forward. I’m working on figuring out how to build up some additional inventory shows.

Our format’s the one I most enjoy listening to in other podcast: focused discussion around a single topic or theme. I like having 3-4 voices. More than that and I have a hard time following who is talking at any moment. Less than that and there has to be really solid chemistry between the hosts. We rarely stop to talk about “what we’re up to now.” I’ve listened to some shows where that’s spun out of control. +Richard Rogers has the best framework for handling that: keeping participants to a brief, minute and a half spiel so it doesn’t eat up time.

Yeah so that’s my favorite and I want to make it better. I want to get more listener feedback, suggestions for topics, and helpful critiques. I want to do more GM Jams; I have L5R, Monsterhearts, and Shadowrun on my wish list for that. I want to be able to one day honestly tell myself that we’ve moved from good to great.

So, yes, a tremendously self-serving answer.

#14 Favorite RPG Accessory
Years ago I might have said a GM screen. I got a ton of use out of the James Bond 007 and DC Heroes screens, mostly because playing them required going to those charts constantly. I had a brief but torrid affair with the Call of Cthulhu screens, which were revolutionary by the dint of being landscape format. I liked those because they blocked my view of the players and vice versa. Eventually I realized that the screen didn’t work for me. I didn’t need to reference it, I lacked things I needed to conceal, and I felt better when I had an unobstructed eyeline to the players.

I do like the idea of tricks and toys. I recently repaired a decent sized flat screen TV and hooked it up to an old computer. I want to figure out how to use that unobtrusively to show images and maps at the table. But I don’t have that worked out yet. I backed the Combat Description Cards Kickstarter and was hugely excited when they came, but even though I’ve had them at the table for every session since, I’ve never used them. I have worked out how to use them without breaking my rhythm and the few times I’ve grabbed them, they haven’t added much. The same for other devices and toys I’ve tried (stopwatch for timing combats, recorder to have episodes to playback and assess, magnetic initiative tracker).

But I do have one thing that I’ve used consistently- not since I bought it, but since I saw how to really use it. Two years ago I bought a Noteboard. I’d seen it mentioned in G+ discussions and it looked cool. Since I already had a Chessex mat, it wasn’t that useful with my home games. I thought maybe I’d do secondary maps on it, but I never needed to. However I knew I’d be going and running at conventions, so I figured it would work there. But I run abstract games and I never even pulled it out of its pouch. Then, at Origins, I saw Phil Lewis working with these great laminated cards. He wrote out NPCs, aspects, details, etc on them- the kind of thing I usually burned through index cards for. It took me more than a little while to realize he’d cut up his Noteboard to make these.

I set to chopping when I got home. They’ve been great. They have a nice weight and size, and I’ve been able to cut down on waste. I’ve been very happy with these. Of course, since then I’ve seen the Fate Accompli Erasable Game Aids Kickstarter. I like those, but they’re focused on Fate whereas the dissected Noteboard works for everything. That didn’t stop me from backing them though. 

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