Monday, March 31, 2014

Plans Going Forward

Phew! Two consecutive months of blogging challenges! I'm pretty proud of myself, I have to say - I managed to keep up a daily posting routine for 59 straight days, even while going through an outpatient medical procedure right smack in the middle of the whole process.

Because I'm not completely insane, I'm taking a pass on the April A-to-Z challenge, but I'm looking forward to seeing what my fellow bloggers come up with. At this point, I'm itching to use the momentum from these two challenges to transition back into writing my own material: getting back to the Grey Box Project, Solo GPC write-ups, and other random musings.

Having said that, I'm also going to take a couple days off!

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Thirty-One

What out-of-print RPG would you most like to see back in publication? Why?

"Well that's the problem right now. At the moment nothing comes to mind."

Seriously, I've had a month to think of an answer to this, the final question of the challenge, and I'm kind of drawing a blank. I mean, sure, there are games like Cyberpunk 2020 that I'd love to see available again, but only for purely selfish reasons. There are still excellent cyberpunky games in print today, so it's not like an aspiring GM can't find something good, either purist or mash-up. And most of my beloved old-school games are either still in print, or else readily available on the second-hand market. I guess I'm just lucky that way - I know there are folks who have beloved games that aren't available in PDF, and with second-hand prices going for ridiculous sums.

When I think about games I'd like to see back in print, I think about genres that are currently underrepresented. It seems like mecha games aren't as common as they used to be. Palladium recently re-released Robotech, but gone are the Mekton Zs and Mechwarriors of yesteryear. And, in a related vein, there's not a whole lot going on with what, ten years ago, was seemingly a flourishing genre: anime RPGs.

I was somewhat of a Big Eyes, Small Mouth fan, and I always thought it was pretty unfortunate that Guardians of Order tanked right when the Third Edition of BESM was dropping, although admittedly 3e was pretty damn crunchy. At least it's still available in PDF (along with the other editions).

And that's the thing - many "out of print" games aren't actually so OOP. They're either still knocking around in PDF format, or else, thanks to Kickstarter, if you just wait long enough, it seems like a new version will come out eventually. Case in point, another anime RPG, OVA, has been out of print for nearly a decade but is now coming back after a very successful KS.

At the end of the day, it feels pretty good to realize that there aren't really any games that I'm actively pining for.

And that is that. Fifty-nine straight days of blogging! I think I'm going to take a couple days off...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Thirty

Which non-D&D supplemental product should everyone know about? Give details.

I have somewhat mixed feelings, personally, about Robin Laws as a game designer. Not that he designs bad games - quite the opposite, in fact. But what he wants out of the games he designs seems to conflict with what I like to see in games I enjoy playing.

On the other hand, I always get something out of his thoughts on game theory, whether it's adventure design, how to be a better player, or how to up your game as a GM. In fact, I think the first time I was really made aware of who Robin Laws was was when I picked up a short booklet put out on the latter topic, Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering.

It's only available in PDF nowadays, but I still have the printed version I picked up soon after the book came out. At the time, I'd been running games for some years but I felt I could be doing a better job. Robin's Laws didn't exactly contain anything I didn't already understand, but it helped organize and clarify a lot of concepts and undoubtedly sharpened my GMing skills. I've largely internalized the contents of the book at this point, but I occasionally go back and flip through it nonetheless. It packs a lot of great advice into a little less than three-dozen pages, and is, in my opinion, required reading for all GMs.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Nine

What OSR product have you enjoyed most? Explain why.

By total coincidence, I started this blog right when the whole OSR thing was just getting off the ground. I knew Grognardia "when" - that sort of thing. It was fun to go along for the ride, to watch the first wave and second wave of posts and products, watching the evolution from close-readings to retro-clones to neo-clones (and, of course, less fun to watch the inevitable degeneration into petty bickering, in-fighting, and dick-measuring that accompanies the emergence of any sort of grass-roots creative movement).

Along the way, I experimented quite a bit with OSR tropes and themes. Because, frankly, the OSR style of gaming was actually before my own time, and to me the OSR was less an exercise in nostalgia and more a way of engaging with the history of gaming and reevaluating certain bits of received wisdom.

At the end of the day, I decided that "purist" OSR gaming (megadungeon-centric crawling, murder-hobos and high PC mortality, super-gonzo fantasy, etc.) just wasn't for me. But it did lead me to embrace my love of old systems like BRP and to gain a greater understanding of what I want out of a system, and out of my fantasy gaming.

In retrospect, my favorite output of the OSR (to date) have been the so-called "neo-clones" - the games that took old-school D&D and did something new with it. Out of all the neo-clones, the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG has proven to be my favorite. Which is a bit ironic, as I initially rejected it out of hand when it first came out.

I'm particularly pissed that I didn't pick up the limited-edition gold foil cover when I had the chance.
It was published at a time when I was pretty much done with the D&D-centric world of the OSR, and was sick to death of the glut of clones coming out at the time - I had bought several and been varying degrees of unimpressed. Everything I heard about DCC seemed to indicate that it played to the OSR's sacred cows, of which I was avowedly uninterested in. And so I took a pass.

Last year, however, I stumbled across a blog post on Age of Ruins about using DCC to run Dark Sun campaigns, and I was sold. Any system (like BRP) that can easily handle running Dark Sun immediately nets approval points in my book, and I saw that DCC didn't necessarily have to be about dungeon-crawling, despite its name - that it was more about a certain attitude, one that lined up naturally with Dark Sun and appealed to a certain personal sensibility.

In fact, as I started looking up published modules, I saw an abundance of delightful creativity, and once I bought and read the rulebook, which was full of more of the same and (even better) written in the breezy and engaging style I look for in a rulebook, I realized I'd found "my" OSR game. The absolutely fantastic art didn't hurt, either.

I ran a short campaign set in the Anomalous Subsurface Environment setting, and found the world and the rules went together like peanut butter and chocolate. I used Tower of the Stargazer for the character funnel, and that also adapted perfectly. In the end, the high character mortality rates proved too derailing for the two-player group I was running, and so the campaign was put on deep-freeze. But I really want to return to DCC (and the ASE world) one day with a bigger group. It's the game that got me excited about open-ended sandbox-style "D&D" again, and I've only begun to plumb its depths.

Friday, March 28, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Eight

What free RPG did you enjoy most? Give details.

I have to admit, this question makes me feel like a bit of a capitalist tool. I've downloaded a few free RPGs here and there, but I couldn't actually tell you what they were. They went straight to my Gaming: Miscellaneous folder and there they probably still sit, unplayed and unread. I guess there really is something to perceived value?

(What's worse is that this question seems to imply that I've got multiple free RPG play experiences under my belt, let alone just one. . .)

At any rate, two experiences do come to mind, and both from relatively recently. First off, I played in a mini-campaign of Zombi, a zombie-horror RPG with a free PDF version I'd first read about on Jeff's Gameblog and which I'd suggested to a fellow member of my face-to-face group who was interested in learning to run games. I figured the rules-lite structure would make for an easier experience, and it came off well for a novice GM's first try.

If we're counting playtests, then I also ran what was essentially a one-shot (stretched over two or three sessions) and played in a mini-campaign of the D&D Next playtest. The games were enjoyable, but were also subject to the realities of playtesting, which is to say, we were playing with half-baked rules that changed with each new version. After that experience, I don't think I'll be playtesting any rules any time soon, although I'd still be happy to playtest scenarios.

At any rate, that's a pretty sparse resume. I know there are tons of fabulous free RPGs out there - anyone have any suggestions they want to share?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Seven

What IP that doesn’t have an RPG deserves it? Why?

I had to think about this one a bit since, as I wrote yesterday, I tend to not buy RPGs based on IPs I'm already familiar with.

In a general sense, I suppose, it would probably be cool if there was a Harry Potter RPG, just because it would do a great service towards growing the hobby, although the iron's not nearly as hot now in that regard as it was even a few years ago.

I guess, personally, the best answer I can come up with - and this is a bit of a cheat, I'll admit - is that I'd love to see a decent English-language Lone Wolf RPG. No, not the manga; the 80s game books. Mongoose had a d20 version that was, well, pretty execrable. Both in terms of mechanics and (especially) art. They redeemed themselves quite a bit with their second try, a rules-lite RPG that stuck very close to the game book mechanics. But there was still something missing from the aesthetic, although Rich Longmore got a lot closer than previous Mongoose illustrators.

The folks at Le Grimoire publish the French language version called Loup Solitaire, and they clearly get that a big part of the appeal of Lone Wolf (which is, let's face it, a fairly generic fantasy world) lies in the art, and they brought in original Lone Wolf artist Gary Chalk as well as the mighty Russ Nicholson to do illustrations. If I was a Francophone, I'd have no problems.

But for some reason, English-language efforts keep trying to update the look of the world to make it into just another post-3e/post-Skyrim clone. Snoozers.

Mongoose finally lost the Lone Wolf license and it went to Cublice 7 last year. I'm optimistic. C7 does good work and has a firm track record of putting out excellent licensed games. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll finally get an English-language Lone Wolf RPG that does justice to the setting's legacy. We shall see...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Six

What RPG based on an IP did you enjoy most? Give details.

I've talked about some IP-based games in this series already: Riverworld, Aliens, Robotech...but I can't really say I've played any of those enough to enjoy "the most." And there are a few biggies I've been interested in but have never had a chance to play, namely any iteration of a Star Wars RPG.

Even though Lovecraft's works are in the public domain now, they weren't when Call of Cthulhu was published, so I guess that qualifies as an RPG based on an IP, right? Is something still considered an IP once it's in the public domain? Does anyone care?

At any rate, my love for Call of Cthulhu is well-documented on this blog and even preserved in audio amber. Like most other IP-based RPGs, I was unfamiliar with the property prior to buying the game, but the game then served as a gateway to familiarizing myself with the source material. This has been a pattern of mine ever since I started gaming, to the exclusion of buying IP-based games based on properties I already know about. It's almost like there's an aversion there. Maybe it's because there's a feeling of familiarity, or a feeling that it's somebody else's story? If I don't know the major players in the story, or I'm intrigued by the setting and want to find out more, it seems I'm more apt to enjoy the game initially.

I've got a couple friends who are very interested in the forthcoming Firefly RPG. I've never seen so much as a minute of footage from either the show or the movie. (I've got a passing familiarity with the characters and the world because, really, how could I not have absorbed that through geek osmosis?) At this point, I'm thinking the greatest service I can do to guarantee my interest in playing in those campaigns would be to maintain my ignorance, and only check out Firefly and Serenity after we started playing! Something to ponder...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Five

Which game has the sleekest, most modern engine?

Ooh, see, I've got a problem with the implication in the wording of this question. Because it kind of gets into issues of Western historiography in general. "The march of progress," and all that. Newer=sleeker=better. If the OSR has taught me anything, it's not to dismiss older games as antiquated and unplayable just because they're, well, older.

But there's no denying that games go through trends in design, and nowadays we're seeing a lot of designs that are intentionally narrow of focus and light of design. One example that leaps immediately to mind is Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley. This is a system that fits on a brochure-sized foldout, and that uses no character sheet and only good ol' six-siders, yet (according to everything I've read and the couple actual-plays I've listened to - I have yet to play it myself) perfectly captures the significant tropes of Lovecraftian horror gaming.

For a sleek universal system, it's hard to beat S. John Ross's Risus: The Anything RPG. It's more "traditional" in design, in that it uses things like attributes and character sheets, but it also fits on just four pages. Haven't played this one yet, either, however.

Of the games I have played, Dungeon World stands out as another example of a sleek, focused design, this time oriented towards explicating all the implicit elements of the D&D experience. Although not nearly as rules-lite as Cthulhu Dark (frankly, I don't think you could get much lighter and still have a recognizable RPG), it shares a similar focus mechanically in that there's an emphasis on "plug and play" gaming - ideally, the first session should be all improv on the part of the GM, with world-building taking place through game play, and character sheets have pretty much everything each player needs to know about how the game mechanics apply to their character and nothing more.

As a post-script, and in reference to my grousing above, I'd like to point out that TWERPS ("The World's Easiest Role-Playing System"), which featured only one attribute and one die type and certainly gives games like Cthulhu Dark and Risus a run for their money in terms of simplicity, was first published in 1987.

Plus ça change...

Monday, March 24, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Four

What is the most broken game that you tried and loved to play, warts and all?

My initial knee-jerk answer to this was any game by Palladium, but then I gave it some thought. For all the guff it receives, I wouldn't call Palladium's core system "broken," necessarily. Creaky as hell? Yes. Non-intuitive? Absolutely. And it's those elements that killed our enthusiasm for Palladium rather than any perceptions of brokenness.

Of course, Rifts is a whole other ball of wax, potentially. But even then, I think the most broken system that got played warts-and-all anyway had to have been AD&D 2.5. That is to say, Second Edition circa the mid-90s, back when there were a ton of splats and (even worse) the Player's Option series. I've written before about those dark days, when TSR was churning out unplaytested material by the ream, and that's not even counting the stuff that showed up in Dragon magazine every month. My memories of games played back then are full of just flat-out game-breaking characters.

But we still had fun with it. Some of our most successful AD&D campaigns of that era hail from the 2.5e years. There's no doubt that by the time Third Edition came out, we were all ready for it, and welcomed it with open arms, but I think there's something to be said that, up until August of 2000, we were still chugging along with our "broken" AD&D games.

The funny denouement to all this is that I've recently come back to running 2e. I've played a bunch of retro-clones and neo-clones over the last five years or so, but so far this 2e campaign is the most fun I've had playing traditional D&D. I'm sure part of that is simple familiarity - 2e is by far the edition I've run the most of - but I have to say that I'm also enjoying the "warts and all" nature of this particular edition. It hits a nice sweet spot in terms of organization and explication versus funky old school mechanics that allow for rulings over rules. Pretty much all the house rules we're using right now come out of personal preferences rather than any attempt to "fix" the system.

That said, I'm exercising quite a bit of DM oversight in terms of what I'm allowing in my campaign, and I have zero interest in returning full-on to the days of Player's Option and edition 2.5.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Three

What is the most broken game that you tried and were unable to play?

Three words: Ray. Winninger's. Underground.

(And how's that for a pretentious 90s-era RPG title, eh?)

I picked up Underground not too long after it came out, lured in by its appearance more than its content. Full-color, full-bleed pages. Color-coded text and tabs to aid in navigation and reference. Art styles reminiscent of Aeon Flux. The "edgy" content helped close the deal. It definitely got my adolescent attention.

Then we actually tried to play a game. Character creation took hours. First combat? TPK. No joke. Wikipedia says: "The game rules for Underground [are] an adaptation of the Mayfair Exponential Game System, originally developed at Mayfair Games for the earlier DC Heroes roleplaying game depicting the DC Universe. However the rules were modified to depict lower-powered characters and a more deadly setting." Yeah, no kidding. I've seen randomly-generated B/X D&D characters with longer lifespans, and at least replacement characters in that system only take 10 minutes to generate, tops.

The game was meant to be a typically 90s "grim & gritty" take on superheroes. It referenced a bunch of comic books I'd never read; when I first bought the system, I thought I was buying a cyberpunk game and was somewhat surprised to realize it was a supers game instead. In the end, though, I just used it as an idea mine for my own cyberpunk games. There was some wonderfully ridiculous dystopian satire in there. Presidential candidates cloned from JFK's brain matter and cannibal cuisine always make an appearance in my cyberpunk worlds thanks to Underground.

So it was by no means a total waste of my time or money. But I wouldn't try running the game itself again if you paid me.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-Two

What is the most gonzo kitchen sink RPG you ever played? How was it?

Yeah, I think that would have to be Rifts. Although, frankly, I don't think it's quite as kitchen sink as popular wisdom holds. Don't get me wrong - it's pretty damn gonzo. But I think Gamma World (which I owned in its 3rd edition incarnation but never played) is way more gonzo/kitchen-sink than Rifts, just to cite one example.

On the other hand, a typical adventure can easily find a titan-sized Cyber-Knight, a teenaged Mystic, and partial cyborg Headhunter working for a secret godling to help smuggle mutant animals out of the breeding pens of Texas Nazis, so maybe my blasé attitude is simply due to long-term exposure to the effects of Rifts. . .

Ramon Perez nails it again.

Friday, March 21, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty-One

What is the narrowest genre RPG you have ever played? How was it?

If you're even passingly familiar with the content of this blog, you're probably already nodding your head and thinking, "He's going to say Pendragon." And that is a damn narrow-focus game. In fact, a lot of people dismiss it because, "Oh, I can only play a knight? Boring!" (Please don't be that person, dear reader.)

But I have to say that, in my experience, Fiasco was an even more narrowly-focused game. I mean, here's a game where, no matter what flavor it takes on, it's designed to go pear-shaped and screw everyone over by the end of the session. Every Fiasco game, no matter the gloss, ends the same way. "The Coen Brothers RPG" is how I've heard it described, and that's not far off.

Furthermore, that gloss of the way you interact with the game is defined by the "playset" you choose. So if you only have a handful of playsets, those will be the only flavors of Fiasco that you ever experience. (Of course, playsets tend to be free, so there's no excuse not to grab lots of them.) I've only played Fiasco once, and it was using one of the playsets from the main rulebook. So I have no idea how re-playable playsets are. My suspicion is that, much like Pendragon, the seemingly narrow nature of these playsets actually conceal an incredibly deep, rich gaming experience that invites multiple plays.

Between my interest in Fiasco and Dungeon World, it seems like the seeds are there for some completely different incarnation of RPG gaming I could be engaging in, that of the pick-up/low-prep indie game, should I choose to do so. It's kind of funny when you realize there's a whole other way to interact with your chosen hobby, and that you could be spending 100 percent of your time interacting in that fashion. It's sort of in the same vein of what I've written about people who are exclusively convention gamers.

Worlds within worlds, man.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twenty

Which setting have you enjoyed most? Why?

Oh man, this is a tough one. So many great settings have come and gone. Really, "setting" is one of the things that attracted me to the hobby in the first place, and one of the things that keeps me engaged and coming back.

So I don't think I could ever choose a single one I've enjoyed the most.

One that comes to mind as being up there in the Top Ten, though, is Riverworld. GURPS Riverworld was among the spate of licensed settings/games I purchased at the beginning of my involvement in the hobby, and like all the other ones, I had zero familiarity with the source material. But the cover really snagged my attention: a somewhat futuristic-looking paddle-wheel steamboat decked out with missiles and artillery, escorted by biplanes, making its way down a huge river valley. And then I read the copy on the back:
Welcome to the Riverworld, where everyone who has ever lived is reborn, from primitive cave-dwellers to astronauts . . . all on the banks of a mighty river millions of miles long. At the end of that river lies the ultimate secret of the universe – and the key to human immortality!

The grand vision of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series is brought to life in GURPS Riverworld. Your character can be anyone who has ever walked the Earth – play famous historical figures, or even yourself! Meet people from all across history . . . re-create technology . . . form nations . . . build riverboats and airships . . . journey to the Polar Sea and the Dark Tower of the Ethicals!
Wowza! How could I not be swayed by such a high-concept setting? I mean, really!

The trouble was that I was way too inexperienced (both in real-world terms and as a GM) to really do justice to the scope of the setting, or the challenges inherent in running it (there really aren't any environmental challenges to speak of, and it's almost exclusively NPC-driven, with those NPCs conceivably coming from any time in human history!). I ran a short campaign sometime in high school, the details of which I'm still trying to drink away. I tried again about 10 years ago and things got off to a promising start, but then fell apart when one of the two players moved out of state. (And this being in the days before your Skypes and your Google Plusses and so forth.) Back in 2012, I tried yet again with the same group from the aborted 2004 campaign, and the third time proved a charm.

In addition to the satisfaction gained from finally getting a chance to run something in a setting I'd owned and loved for 20 years, I got a lot of interesting insights into the philosophy behind Farmer's creation (points completely missed, it seems, by the 2010 SyFy adaptation, but what else is new?). It's not often you get a bit of food for thought out of a campaign you run, but I definitely did this time. And it was suitably entertaining enough that I'd like to do it again some day. Some day. . .

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Nineteen

What is the fluffiest RPG you have played? Was it enjoyable?

I'm a little hung up on semantics with this one. Yesterday's question asked about "the crunchiest RPG" I've ever played, which I took to mean the most rules-heavy. But I don't necessarily equate "fluff" with being the opposite, as in rules-lite. To me, the term "fluff" (which I really, really am not a fan of, incidentally) denotes setting details. So a really "fluffy" game would be one, by my understanding, that has a metric tonne of back story. Something like Harn leaps to mind, although I've never played it.

Comic by Ryan Pequin.

But really, you can't beat good old Planet Earth for maximum fluff-factor. In fact, it's my favorite "game world" - almost all of my gaming these days takes place on some version of our Earth, even if that version happens to feature faeries or shoggoths or mad scientists or rotting Midgaard Serpent carcasses or whatever. Three-time soapbox derby champion Ken Hite has laid out the case for choosing Earth over a fictive world nine times out of ten much more effectively than I ever could. Owing to the fact that pretty much everything I've run in recent years has been "enjoyable," I'd say this approach has worked out really well for me. The one downside, really, is that I have a feeling it will take me a lifetime to even begin to absorb all the information in the setting guide.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Eighteen

What is the crunchiest RPG you have played? Was it enjoyable?

That would be the Aliens Adventure Game. (Note the careful omission of any claim to be a "role-playing" game in the title.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I went through a phase early in my gaming career of buying RPGs based on licensed properties that I was otherwise unfamiliar with. I particularly remember picking up the Aliens RPG, as I got it at the very same time I picked up another unfamiliar IP, Call of Cthulhu. I spent spring break switching back and forth between reading the two core books. I couldn't have asked for a more schizophrenic reading experience, as the two games basically inhabited completely different galaxies in terms of game design philosophy.

I think I may have seen the original Alien at the time I picked up Aliens, but I know for sure I hadn't seen the movie it was actually based on, because there was a lot in the RPG that I just did not get or understand. But I'd picked up the game because I had a friend who was a real nut about the movies, and I was trying to get a group together at the time. I figured I'd play to his interests and run an Aliens campaign for him as a means of getting him into RPGs.

So I'd just like to sarcastically thank Leading Edge Games for turning at least one person off of RPGs forever. Because this is the sort of system that came bundled with Aliens, which was a simplified version of their Phoenix Command system:

Years later, I didn't so much as bat an eyelash at Rolemaster, because I'd already seen crap like this.
I really did try to make it work. I remember typing up a handout to represent telexed orders coming through from Colonial Marine HQ, and my friend and I had a lot of fun in spite of the system. But he definitely came away from the experience with the impression that RPGs were a bit like filling out tax forms for fun. We played one session, and that was it. Eventually, the book fell apart and I threw it out.

It's a shame about the system, because I remember there was actually some fairly good content otherwise. The book expanded the Aliens universe and essentially presented a framework for running a military sci-fi campaign, either with Colonial Marines or (if memory serves) mercenaries. But at the end of the day, it was just way too much crunch.

Monday, March 17, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Seventeen

Which RPG has the best high tech rules? Why?

I don't feel like I'm really that well-qualified to weigh in on this one. As I've stated before, I don't have a whole lot of high tech/sci-fi gaming under my belt, and what games I do have (like Rifts) didn't really feature rules so much as catalogs of cool crap to buy.

But man, I've loved me some cool crap catalogs. In fact, I bought the Street Samurai Catalog for Shadowrun about two years before I ever bought the core game simply on the strength of its cover image, title, and the promise of lots of cool crap to ogle.

I thought the term "street samurai" was just about the edgiest thing ever, and I loved how each page featured a single weapon, lovingly illustrated and described. Even better, there were little snide comments about a lot of the weapons from actual street samurai (or at least those who claimed to be!). Little did I realize that in 1992 Shadowrun was predicting the rise of the Internet troll along with the actual trolls of the setting.

The stat lines meant nothing to me, but I clearly remember reading the Street Samurai Catalog simply for pleasure, and to steal ideas for my own dystopian cyberpunk comic book that I was working on at the time, the evocatively-titled Dark Future.

Hey, what do you want? I was 13.

The Return of Chalk

My love for the classic Lone Wolf game books has been well-documented on this blog. A big part of my continuing appreciation of those books, beyond simple nostalgia, is the art of Gary Chalk, featured in the first eight books in the series. (Readers may also be familiar with Chalk's work via Talisman or his contributions to the Redwall series of kid's books.)

So imagine my complete surprise and utter delight upon finding out that Chalk has returned to the game book format (via an app), teaming up with none other than James Wallis to produce a new game book: Gun Dogs. Judging from the pics featured over on the Fighting Fantasist blog (and if you only click one link from this post, make it that one), Chalk is in prime Lone Wolf-y form here, with that great, grimy cod-Renaissance Fuck-Yeah-Old-School-British-Fantasy feel that I love so very dearly. In fact, there's only one way to sum up my feelings on the subject, really:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Sixteen

Which RPG besides D&D has the best magic system? Give details.

I'm tempted to have my answer be Pendragon 5th edition, which basically boils magic down to: "Only NPCs can wield magic, and it does whatever the GM wants it to do." Simple and effective!

But as far as magic systems that are actually, well, systems, I've always had a fondness for GURPS, both in terms of its "default" system, and the many options and permutations available to otherwise choose from.

I've seen the default GURPS system catch flak even from folks who are otherwise fans of the game, but there's something about it that's always appealed to me. It's sort of a relic of the "D&D, only better!" systems you used to see a lot. It's very D&D, with a veritable encyclopedia of spells to choose from, all arranged in escalating hierarchies of power and grouped by spell college. Indeed, the average GURPS mage ends up with a veritable laundry list of spells in his grimoire thanks to the way the prerequisite system works.

But there are some nice little touches of flavor that set the basic GURPS system apart. Spells are cast using Fatigue Points, and if you overspend your FP, the excess comes out of Hit Points. Any system that encourages wizards to push their magic until they start bleeding out of every orifice, veins throbbing in their temples, eyes bulging - well, that's a great system, right there. Plus, if you critically fumble your casting roll, there's a chance you might accidentally summon a demon! So the basic GURPS magic system, despite sharing similar "mundane" qualities with D&D's, has a certain swords-and-sorcery edge to it that I quite like.

But if that's not to the taste of the GM or the needs of the campaign, there is a massive selection of alternate systems to choose from. GURPS Thaumatology collected a bunch of them, and in that book alone you've got systems for ritual magic, rune magic, herbalism, alchemy, ceremonial magic, spirit-guided magic, freeform magic, Hermetic magic. . . And all of it is built within the rules' existing framework, which is one of the great joys of the 4th edition of GURPS. It's just different permutations within the existing system.

My one caveat to all this is that I've never played games such as Mage or Ars Magica, systems that are famous for their flexible, innovative magic systems. It's entirely possible that my vote might change when/if I ever get to play those systems. But for now, I'm going with GURPS.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Fifteen

What pseudo or alternate history RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?

Unlike strictly historical RPGs, I've played plenty of what I'd consider alternate history RPGs. In fact, I'd say it's one of my most-played (and most-enjoyed) genres of RPG. This is due, in part, to the fact that I consider even settings with secret magic or hidden monsters to be alternate history. Call of Cthulhu's default Jazz Age setting is as much an alternate history RPG as it is a horror RPG, in my eyes.

But there's no denying that some alternate history RPGs are more "alternate" than others. And I have to say that, at the top of my list of most-enjoyed games in this genre, is one that really takes things up to the proverbial 11: Deadlands.

The last couple years have seen me finally getting around to running games that I've long wanted to, and Deadlands was one of those. I knew I had to have the game back when it first came out in the late 90s and I saw it described online as "a Spaghetti Western written by H. P. Lovecraft and directed by Sam Raimi."

And it did not disappoint. I had to exert a certain level of will to not just say to my group, "Hey guys, screw it. Let's just keep going with Deadlands forever and ever!" I know a couple of my players would have had zero problem with that. And I know we'll get back to it eventually. In the meantime, we've got the memories...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Free Breachworld Preview Available

Last week I blogged about a Kickstarter project I'm quite excited about: Breachworld, a post-apocalyptic science-fantasy setting that I'm hoping will prove to be a nice alternative to Rifts proper.

One thing I didn't really mention in that post was the fact that, based off what was up on the Kickstarter page at the time, I really didn't have a good sense for what the "world" of Breachworld was actually like. Since then, the game's author, Jason Richards, has released a preview of the Races chapter for subscribers to check out, and I definitely liked what I saw. But I still didn't have much of a concept of the geo-politics or societies of the setting.

Well sir, that's been addressed as of today - and in spades I might add - with the release of a 77-page preview of portions of the core book's working draft. But here's the best part, and why I'm posting about it: the preview is free to the public! No need to be a Kickstarter backer; just point your browser over to DriveThruRPG and snag a free download.

What's especially neat is that you can also download the free Mini Six system and actually start running some Breachworld action as soon, really.

And for the record, I'm quite pleased with the world as presented in the preview. There's tons of meaty goodness and story hooks, and well-considered blends of high-tech, low-tech, and the supernatural. Great stuff! If you're a fan of Rifts, Gamma World, or post-apocalyptic science-fantasy in general, you should definitely check this one out.

My favorite Breachworld race so far: "The Holy".

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Fourteen

What historical or cultural RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.

Ever since I can remember, I've been a big history nerd. Hell, I've got a degree in the field, and I've even done some quasi-academic work based off of said degree. So it's only natural that I've long wanted to do a "pure" historical campaign. Unfortunately, a combination of lack of interest and bad timing have so far prevented that.

I've owned this damn book for 22 years, and I keep saying to myself, "Some day..."
Even as recently as late last year, I thought I was going to make it happen with a Viking Rus' merchant-raider campaign I'd cooked up to use with the Legend system, but I got hung up with trying to set up the virtual tabletop (this was going to be played with my weekly Google+ group) and the technical difficulties I encountered sort of sucked up all my momentum. So that's on the backburner for now. Hopefully I'll get another crack at it soonish, but it's just the latest in a long string of "nearly-rans" that fall under the "historical RPG" umbrella.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Thirteen

What horror RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?

Back in college, my buddy Alex painted a mural of this cover on our game room wall. Even though he never finished the whole thing, it's a pity we didn't think to take a picture before it got painted over...
For some reason, 1991 was the year that I bought a bunch of gaming books based on licensed or intellectual properties I had no prior experience of. I bought the Robotech RPG before I'd ever seen a single episode. After I bought GURPS Riverworld (and devoured the contents) it took me another 15 years to finally read the eponymous novels. Apart from the pop-cultural gestalt imagery, I was completely unfamiliar with either of the (then) two Aliens movies, but I got the Aliens Adventure Game nonetheless. And I'd never even heard of H. P. Lovecraft, but you can bet I was all over an RPG based on the fictional universe he and a passel of admirers had created. (I was 13 at the time; just qualified for that "Ages 12 and Up" endorsement on the cover! Oh Chaosium, you so subversive...)

Actually, the Lovecraft connection was even more tenuous in my mind than one might otherwise think. I looked at Call of Cthulhu primarily as a "must-have" on its own merits. Thanks to Dragon magazine and the Wargames West catalog, I had received the common knowledge that this was the premier horror RPG on the market. I'd owned GURPS Horror for about a year at that point, I think, and very much wanted to run some horror games, and this seemed like the best way to go about it.

So here we are twenty-plus years later. Out of all those games (or indeed, pretty much any other game I was digging at the time), Call of Cthulhu remains. It's actually only in the last three years or so that I've had the opportunity to run CoC for anything more than the occasional one-shot or short-form game. (Efforts were made during high school and college to run classic mega-adventures like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express, but they didn't pan out.) And I've found that, contrary to what most people seem to think and indeed contrary to my own earlier suspicions, in my opinion CoC works even better in an extended campaign format.

(My own standards of what constitutes an "extended" campaign are somewhere in the dozen-or-more sessions neighborhood, but I know folks who have run CoC campaigns that lasted years.)

I think this is because, if you're running one-shots with CoC, you're going to be going all out, both as player and Keeper (the game's term for GM). That is to say, you're going to be going for the punchy, gory scare, the "oh shit!" moments, and sort of playing a mini-game of which person can die or go insane in the most memorable fashion. Which is tons of fun, don't get me wrong. Whereas with a campaign, the players are going to start building emotional connections to their characters, and the Keeper can take time to build a sense of creeping dread more effectively. And as I've run more of these sorts of games, I've found that the moments that pay off do so to a much greater degree.

But here's the reason why CoC is such a great game, and why it's held such a lasting place in my heart: it works brilliantly either as one-shot or campaign game. Lots of games, D&D in particular, really only start to shine after extended play. Hell, one of my other all-time favorite games, King Arthur Pendragon, practically requires extended campaigning to really get to the heart of the game. Other games, meanwhile, do best as one-shots or in very short campaigns, either by design (as is the case with many indie games), or because game play gets too repetitive or mechanically cumbersome over time. But with Call of Cthulhu, the play experiences may be different, but they're equally satisfying and memorable.

There's a lot to be said for CoC's old school mechanical brilliance, but I don't want to ramble on too much longer than I already have. I'll just say that, for me, another element of CoC that's kept me coming back is one it has in keeping with all horror genres, and is the reason that it's my favorite genre: horror gaming is probably the toughest genre of gaming to get "right" and requires investment and focus from everyone at the table. It usually doesn't work, frankly. But when it does? Those moments stay with you the rest of your life. You get back dividends many hundredfold over what you put in.

For folks wondering about how to run horror games, I'd heartily suggest GURPS Horror (the current 4th edition, in particular) or the Keeper's advice section in Call of Cthulhu d20 (yes, you read that right). Read some fantastic advice from two of the all-time greatest horror gaming authors (Ken Hite and John Tynes, respectively). Then get some friends together, dim the lights, and scare the crap out of each other.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Twelve

What humorous RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.

Man, this is probably the biggest gap-in-need-of-filling in my gaming lexicon: I've never played a game that's overtly marketed as a humor RPG.

This seems to be a genre that had its golden age in the 80s, although lord knows there have been some gems produced here and there since. But back then, you had Paranoia, Toon, and the Ghostbusters RPG all coming out around the same time.

That time happened to be before my time, although I remember chuckling over ads for Paranoia in my Dragon magazine back issues. But I have no recollection of seeing those games on the shelf at my local game store. (Well, except for Toon...) They were probably still in print, but it just never happened. Plus, with the extremely small groups I played in back then, some the appeal of the insanity of Paranoia would doubtlessly have been lost.

But Paranoia is very much on my gaming bucket list, and I think I need to make it a priority to acquire a copy of...whichever edition is considered the "classic" one - I'm sure there's one. There's always a Classic Edition.

At any rate, yeah. Acquire a copy and run it at some point. Also, Ghostbusters. I'm not sure if it's meant to be played as overtly comedically as Paranoia, but c'mon. It's frigging Ghostbusters. If ever there was a movie that perfectly captured a typical group of PCs doing what PCs do best, this is it.

And even though it was published by West End Games, it was written by the Chaosium all-star team of Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, and Greg Stafford. Good grief! Also, it was the progenitor of the D6 system, which I've taken a recent and renewed interest in thanks to the Breachworld kickstarter.

So I say all that to say, this may be my year for making up for the lack of comedy RPGs, both in my collection and in my actual-play experience.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Eleven

What post-apocalyptic RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?

The funny thing about my answer to this question is that the post-apocalyptic game I've enjoyed most isn't actually post-apocalyptic.

I'm talking, of course, about Rifts. The game certainly is (or at least was) presented as post-apocalyptic in its original form, but even back in the core rulebook, if you really look at it, the game's pretty far removed from conventional elements that typically characterize the post-apocalyptic genre. Dungeonskull Mountain does a great job of summarizing the points of why Rifts isn't actually post-apocalyptic, even though even Palladium has made extensive use of such imagery.

That bus is looking pretty good for having sat out in the sun for 300 years...
Nowadays, I'm very keen to try Apocalypse World. I love the system (which I've so far experienced only via Dungeon World), and everything I've heard about AW leads me to believe that I'm going to dig that game's approach to post-apocalypse quite a bit.

I think I enjoy the genre (whether cod-PA like Rifts or "purist" like AW) because it's almost like a subset of the horror genre; the sense that this is where we could very well be heading, either via a bang like nuclear war or a whimper like post-oil/post-scarcity collapse. There's a sense of possible realness to the genre that lends a frisson of recognition to the proceedings, but leavened somewhat by its alien reality (very much so, in the case of Rifts) and even moments of slight comedy - who can resist the temptation of throwing in degenerate cults that worship Elvis or having pre-cataclysm hordes stuffed full of cheap junk that people now regard as priceless?

Monday, March 10, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Ten

What science fiction RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.

Like superhero games, this seems a genre that folks are likely to either really be into, or hardly ever play. Unlike superheroes, I'm not quite sure why that is. Sci-fi, I think it's safe to say, held a much bigger place in Western pop culture at least through, arguably, the popularization of fantasy in the early 2000s (what with your Harry Potters and your Lords of the Rings). Certainly, during the formative years of the role-playing game hobby, even though fantasy lit was enjoying a major revival of interest, sci-fi was still the reigning champ. I guess there's something that's just a bit more accessible about fantasy?

At any rate, I certainly fall into the category of folks who gravitated naturally towards fantasy to the near-complete exclusion of sci-fi. I was certainly aware of games like Traveler and Star Wars d6, and they held a certain undeniable appeal, but that appeal never really translated into a burning desire to pick up a game and do something with it.

There were half-hearted attempts here and there (though, even then, they tended to be some sort of science-fantasy affair, like Mutant Chronicles), and one of my long-time friends, Tim, is a huge sci-fi guy and has talked a lot about running something in the sci-fi genre - but he hardly ever GMs, so that's that.

Now, does the cyberpunk genre count as sci-fi? Or should I save it for tomorrow's question about post-apocalyptic games? Nah. Let's call it sci-fi.

So yeah, I played a fair amount of Cyberpunk 2020. Even then, though, I think my group and I were more enamored of the concept of the game rather than actual gameplay. I mean, we never managed anything resembling a campaign. Just one-shots that usually culminated with a big shootout and lots of blood and guts getting spilled everywhere. We made lots of characters and giggled when someone picked up the Mr. Studd Sexual Implant (3d6 Humanity loss!).

Yet the only gaming-related item of clothing in our group was owned by Alex, a t-shirt that featured the above illustration and a garish "Cyberpunk" logo on the front. (Yeah, we were pretty cool.) But certainly, we never really explored the full potential of the game or the genre.

At any rate, the cyberpunk genre still holds tons of appeal for me, especially since nowadays there are kind of two different ways to run it: either as intentionally "80s-retro" sci-fi, or else attempting to adapt the genre to current trans-humanist, post-scarcity visions of futuristic dystopia. (Personally, I tend towards the former, both because that's what I originally fell in love with and, frankly, it's less depressing.)

I'm not sure if CP2020 would be our choice of system, but out of all the different flavors of sci-fi gaming out there, this is the genre that continues to hold the greatest appeal for me.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Nine

What superhero RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?

Based on purely anecdotal evidence, superhero RPGs strike me as being the sort of thing that you either play a lot or almost never. I suspect this maps closely to one's enthusiasm for superhero comics in general, although I'm sure there are plenty of people who enjoy that particular genre of comics and never play the RPGs (or even vice-versa!).

This topic actually came up during the most recent episode of my podcast, and as I stated during that discussion, I've never been a four-color superhero comic person, really. I love the medium of the comic book/graphic novel as a storytelling platform, am fascinated by the role of comics in American popular culture and history, and enjoy the occasional superhero blockbuster movie. But the whole costumed hero thing as a general concept? Whether Golden/Silver Age do-gooders or post-modern tales of gray morality, there's just not a lot of pull there for me.

So I've never really sought out superhero RPG systems. I'm aware of them, sure. And if someone in my group offered to run Marvel Superheroes or Icons, I would happily give it a shot. But so far, I believe my only experience with superhero gaming goes back to the days of my adolescent Palladium fandom. Clearly, looking back, we used Palladium's back catalog as a way to test out various genres, since they had at least one game out for all the big ones. Heroes Unlimited was one such genre test.

In the Palladium universe, the layered flip never went out of style.
My friend Alex had acquired the core book after receiving some store credit at our local not-so-friendly game store (I believe they'd refused to issue him a refund after he'd bought what turned out to be a book for a system we didn't even play - hey, we were 14 years old). Looking for something to spend the credit on, he selected HU.

I believe Alex was more of a superhero comics fan that I was at the time. Certainly, at around the same time he was really getting into the whole Image Comics thing and was collecting issues of Spawn and what-not. So he was a good pick to run the game. I recall that I went with as much random chargen as I could and ended up with some sort of alien hero, the precise details of which are largely lost to me now. I recall that Alex set the intro scenario in our hometown, which was a nice touch. I've never really attempted that sort of set-up since, but it's a great way to promote buy-in and immersion if you're running a modern day sort of campaign, thinking back.

At any rate, we played one session, had a decent time, and never really did anything else with the game. Maybe about 10 years later, I ran a goofy one-shot where the PCs were all luchadors (I think they selected the "Physical Training" OCC?) and they dismantled some rampaging giant robots.

Heroes Unlimited is actually a great example of the sort of goofy appeal that typifies a lot of Palladium games. There's nothing particularly elegant about it, and in fact it really pales next to the deep and rich "you can build any sort of character you want" superhero games that, since Champions, have been largely the standard design direction for the genre. But I dig the somewhat low- to medium-powered granularity of the system, the random chargen elements, the grab-bag of different hero types all thrown together with no regard for balance or internal consistency. Kevin Siembieda (who, I believe, had wanted to get into comic book illustration before getting sidetracked by RPGs) infused the game with his trademark enthusiasm, no doubt about it.

Out of all the clunky old Palladium games out there, Heroes Unlimited is one of the few that I would unreservedly play again if someone in my group offered. Running it, on the other hand...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Breachworld: Don't Call It Rifts

In my last Rifts:2112 post, I talked about filing the serial numbers off of Rifts and simply running a magic-infused, post-apocalyptic science-fantasy setting. Well, it looks like I've been beaten to the punch, and by an established Palladium freelancer, no less!

Jason Richards has just launched a Kickstarter for a game called Breachworld.
Earth's society reached its peak thanks to the establishment of a network of Gates that connected all corners of the globe, creating a unified, global village that thrived on science, technology, and cultural exchange. When the Gates began to malfunction, no one could see the disaster just around the bend. Then the Gates split their terrestrial pairings and formed permanent Breaches in space-time, and alien beings, monsters, and environments poured through and became trapped on Earth's dimensional shores.
Sounds pretty familiar, eh? Fortunately, there's an endorsement from none other than Kevin Siembieda himself at the top of the Kickstarter page, so I guess enough IP has been changed that the threat of a lawsuit is not in the cards.

I'm pretty excited about this, actually. It uses a variant of the OGL Open d6 system, which means it's much more tinker-friendly than Rifts, and seems to have a nice set of baseline assumptions pretty close to where I've been going with my own musings. This is probably about as close to a "Rifts retro-clone" as we're likely to get, and I think it could be a launchpad for a bunch of peoples' "alternate takes on Rifts."

Although the blurb emphasizes that Breachworld will retain Rifts' open-ended, "whatever you want to do is cool" approach to campaign style, it also has a nice little baked-in "default" campaign centered around trying to seal up rifts breaches, which strikes me as a great framework and definitely addresses one of Rifts' weaknesses, which is that it's sometimes too open-ended.

I've backed the KS and am looking forward to getting my hands on the game and seeing if it could be the sort of toolbox that would enable me to continue developing (and even, gasp, playing in) the sort of setting that's very near and dear to my heart. My only complaint right now is the logo, which kind of looks like it belongs on a surfboard. Oh well, can't win 'em all...

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Eight

What spy RPG have you enjoyed most? Give details.

Thinking about espionage RPGs, I get the feeling that (a) they used to be much more popular, and (b) they seem to be making a bit of a comeback. And that my trajectory in the RPG hobby sort of fell between those two poles. Ergo, not a whole of spy-gaming in my history.

I missed out on the "golden age" of spy RPGs like James Bond 007 and Top Secret. I'm sorry that I did. I've read enough fond remembrances and retrospectives to make me want to play those games. (This Grognardia retrospective on James Bond 007 had me particularly intrigued.)

However, I did play quite a bit of another espionage game, Palladium's Ninjas & Superspies. Being a total Palladium fanboy at the start of my involvement in RPGs, coupled with the too-nice price tag of $14.95, pretty much guaranteed I'd pick up the game, even if it hadn't featured an infamously badass cover. The fact that it was one Eric Wujcik's designs meant it was a pretty solid entry in Palladium's line of games at the time.

It should be said, however, that we focused almost exclusively on the "Ninjas" portion of the title, paying very little mind to the "Superspies" part. For us, it was our go-to game for martial arts action, and our N&S games tended to resemble a sub-par American Ninja direct-to-video sequel more than Remo Williams or what-have-you.

Of course, that didn't stop us from giving our Dedicated Martial Artists their own custom spy vehicles, obsessively statted-up using the system in the back of the book.

Later, after I bothered to take a look at the spy-focused classes and realized they were just as cool as the martial artists, we did make an effort to mix in some more overt espionage elements. I have a dim memory of a shootout in some backwater bar between Yakuza thugs and our heroes: a pair of two-fisted, gun-toting Agents and...a Ninja chucking throwing stars from behind the bar. So those latter-day games tended to resemble a sub-par, direct-to-video American Ninja sequel directed by John Woo. Progress, I guess?

At any rate, as I mentioned at the top of the post, spy games seem to be enjoying something of a resurgence these days. (Indeed, they never really went away.) Despite my general reservations regarding the Gumshoe system, I'm particularly keen to try out Ken Hite's Night's Black Agents - if there's anything Hite knows as well as Fortean weirdness, it seems, it's the spy genre. And I keep mulling over doing a TMNT & Other Strangeness/Ninjas & Superspies crossover campaign one of these days. The tropes of pulpy espionage call out to me still. . .

Friday, March 7, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Seven

What fantasy RPG other than D&D have you enjoyed most? Why?

Could there have been any doubt as to what my answer would be?

As a kid, back before I got into D&D (or RPGs in general), I was a huge medieval geek. Castles, knights, dragons, fair maidens, Robin Hoods, Vikings. . . Other than dinosaurs and Star Wars, things medieval occupied my imaginative space the most. I loved reading books of British and Scandinavian folklore, too. Tales of Jack the Giant Killer and trolls and all that good stuff.

D&D addressed these interests, sure, but it had a lot of other stuff added to the mix, too. In fact, overtly medieval stuff (like jousting tournaments, say) always felt a bit out of place, really. Then I read a review of a supplement (The Spectre King) for a game called King Arthur Pendragon in Dragon magazine #200.

I may have heard of Pendragon prior to that, but the Spectre King review really opened my eyes to the game's tone and possibilities:
The designers seem as knowledgeable of the era as Ph.D. candidates, bringing it to life with vivid observations and rich settings. Innkeepers announce the presence of honored guests by hanging banners and shields from the windows. A manor house serves honey-glazed chicken with pine nuts for dinner. While squires parade embroidered tapestries, gold-embossed pillows, and other tournament prizes through a banquet hall, knights pound their dagger pommels on tables in approval. Marvelous stuff.
Marvelous indeed. KAP shot right to the top of my most-wanted-games list. A couple years later, I finally picked up the Fourth Edition core book, a massive softcover beast. It sat on my shelf for some time after that, one of those games I'd always wanted to play but never made the time for.

In 2006, I finally did make time. Much to my surprise, I found the game even more engaging than I'd anticipated. Not only was it dripping with evocative imagery, as cited in that Dragon review, but (far more importantly) the system drove engaging, genre-appropriate game play in a manner I'd rarely if ever experienced elsewhere. It was pretty much impossible not to have an epic experience when playing Pendragon.

The phrasing of today's question seems to indicate that I might have enjoyed Pendragon at least as much as I've enjoyed D&D. It's quite the other way around. Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of fun with D&D, but none of the various iterations of that venerable game have ever given me as much consistent, deeply satisfying enjoyment as Pendragon.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Six

What non-D&D monster do you think is as iconic as D&D ones like hook horrors or flumphs, and why do you think so?

A couple folks who are ahead of the curve in answering this question have put forth Cthulhu as their iconic monster of choice, and that's certainly a worthy answer but. . . I know I've been on a real Rfits kick of late, conent-wise, but how I could I pick anything other than the Splugorth Slaver?

Owing in large part to its appearance on the original cover of the main Rifts rulebook, the Splugorth Slaver is about as iconic as monsters get. It kind of sums up everything about the core Rifts experience in one creature, really. You've got the weird cybertech, the odd quasi-magical accoutrements, the vaguely 80s-esque T&A of the Blind Warrior Women. . .

My understanding is that the image of the Slaver came from Keith Parkinson's own fevered imagination, and that it was only statted up and made into a canonical monster after the fact, once its iconic status became apparent. This would seem to be borne out by the fact that we didn't see stats for the Slaver until the appearance of Sourcebook One, which was sort one giant appendix/grab-bag of things that probably should've been in the main book: an actual mini-bestiary of monsters, some more useful information on Rifts North America and the Coalition, a starter adventure, stuff like that.

The image that graces the top of this post was featured on the back cover of Sourcebook One, and my 13-year-old self was mildly scandalized by it. Not so much for the image itself (being 13, I was perfectly capable of imagining even filthier tableaux myself, thanks very much) but for the fact that I had asked for the book, sight unseen, as a birthday present. Knowing that my mom would've seen that image while wrapping up the book sort of drained away any titilation it might otherwise have presented.

Kudos to my mom, though, for being cool about it - what she thought about the picture I've never known, as she never commented on it, much less gave me any guff. The benefits, I guess, of having had an older brother who had already passed through adolescence, his bedroom plastered with Iron Maiden and Samantha Fox posters.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Five

What other old school game should have become as big as D&D but didn’t? Why do you think so?

Would it be disingenuous of me to suggest Pendragon? I feel like it would, because - as big a fan of the game as I am - I can also recognize that it's a pretty dang narrowly-focused game. Part of D&D's appeal, of course, is that one can do so much with it, after all.

So I'll broaden my nomination to include Pendragon's root system, Basic Roleplaying. Here is a system that was pretty much in its completed form by 1980, the year it was first released as a standalone system. The core of the system could be expressed in a simple 16-page booklet, and it was explicitly released as a "generic" system, among the first of its kind. It took D&D-style mechanics and made changes a lot of people wanted to see (like having armor subtract from damage rather than make you harder to hit, or adding handy attributes like Size or things like Luck or Idea rolls, or introducing a skill-based system of character building) built on an extremely robust design while still remaining simple and flexible. (Plus, personally, it's just more fun to roll percentile dice than a d20.)

D&D has always benefited from its name-brand recognition, and I think perhaps part of the reason BRP never got as big as it deserved is that its name just isn't as evocative? But in all seriousness, it probably more likely came down to a combination of market forces and behind-the-scenes management (or possibly mis-management...) derailing any sort of momentum the system might have built up. Because, really, in 1980 BRP had everything D&D was offering and more. Its parent system, Runequest, was giving AD&D a serious run for its money in terms of popularity. I'm not suggesting that BRP could've eventually knocked D&D off its pedestal, but it deserved much more of a lasting place than it received.

Fortunately, BRP has survived the vicissitudes of the market and is still around today, still largely the same game you could have played back in 1980. If you want to hear me and my co-host blather on about our love for the system, check out this episode of our podcast.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Four

What other roleplaying author besides Gygax impressed you with their writing?

When I was first getting into RPGs, the idea of an "authorial voice" being present in the rulebooks was about the furthest thing from my mind. And most of the books I read backed that up. Sure, something like the Mentzer D&D Basic Set was clearly written in a generally more breezy and conversational tone than, say, GURPS, but I never really had the feeling that I was reading one person's distinct voice.

Then I started getting into Palladium games. Back in those days, Palladium employed two writers for the vast majority (maybe all?) of their published work: company founder Kevin Siembieda, and Siembieda's long-time friend Erick Wujcik. And, lo and behold, I began to recognize a clear difference in tone and voice depending on which of those two guys wrote the game I was currently reading.

Wujcik's style remains a model of clarity, economy, and accessibility. But for me, Siembieda was "my" Gygax. I didn't get a chance to read classic "high Gygaxian" prose, coming into the hobby when I did, until many years later. But Siembieda was very much in the same vein, not so much in technical terms but in the way that you felt like, when you read one of his games, he himself was sitting there explaining it to you in person. There was an unapologetically personal tone to all of Siembieda's writing. The front pages of every new Rifts book would often read like a newsletter, with Siembieda going on about the state of the overall Rifts line, how things were going with the company, whatever. Even after getting down to the nitty-gritty, the text maintained this sort of conversational, excited tone that often masked some pretty shoddy game design and layout issues.

Also, like Gygax, Siembieda had his share of strange tics and turns-of-phrasing that, should he have deigned to bring in an outside editor, would have been excised immediately. The one that leaps quickly to mind is his fondness for making compound phrases out of slashes. Some of this is even hard-coded in the rules, such as "Bonus to Roll with Punch/Fall/Impact". It's always "Punch/Fall/Impact", like it's some kind of German compound word. Again much like Gygax, he also showed a great fondness for overblown language. Infamously, and with no apparent hint of ironic detachment, he branded the 2006 embezzlement disaster that almost sank his company as "the Crisis of Treachery".

I was initially enamored of Siembieda's writing style, finding it a refreshing change from the usually dry tone most other RPGs took. Eventually, like most things Palladium, the bloom came off the rose. Those weird technical tics began to really irritate me. "Oh great - here's yet another slashed-up phrase/sentence/paragraph. It's the third one on this page!" Yet reading his words impressed in me a great love for any game that has a distinct authorial voice; I understand the importance of having a game be easy to reference in play, but I'd much rather read someone excitedly telling me about their system page by page than slog my way through an eye-crossing 400-page technical manual.

Nowadays, my favorite RPG writer by a country mile is +S. John Ross. The dude understands the joy of reading a rulebook penned by a writer and not just an author (or, worse, a team of authors). I have yet to do anything more than scattered one-shots in his Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting, but (going back to its original incarnation as a BESM setting) the books have always been a joy to read (and re-read). And GURPS Russia remains easily my favorite GURPS book of all time, based largely on Ross's writing. Unlike Siembieda, it's hard to put a simple descriptor on how Ross writes, in part because he writes across so many different genres. If you're not familiar with his work, you owe it to yourself to check him out.

Monday, March 3, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Three

Which game had the least or most enjoyable character generation?

GURPS, both answers.

Hard as it is to believe looking back, GURPS was the second RPG I ever bought and read, right after the Mentzer D&D Basic/Expert sets. Talk about moving up to a totally different league!

It's not like GURPS (particularly in its 3rd Edition Basic Set incarnation) was terribly complex, but I found myself dealing with a much bigger page count and, more importantly, a much more wide-open approach to campaign and character design. To go from "seven classes (including three race-as-class options) go adventuring in dungeons for three levels and then maybe start doing wilderness adventures" to "pretty much anyone, any time, anywhere" - well, it was a real trip, let me say.

I was completely transported by the options that GURPS opened up. I literally had no idea what to do, paralyzed with the many options. My brain clearly short-circuiting, I think the very first character I made was an epileptic gas station clerk. Just to prove that such a thing was possible, I guess? I min-maxed the hell out of him, regardless.

Eventually I settled down and started building (not rolling!) characters that had some sort of thematic consistency, who weren't necessarily min-maxed to the gills. To this day, GURPS remains my favorite system for character creation. But it's in that versatility that also lies the rub.

As GURPS grew increasingly...not complex, but detailed, I guess? As it grew in girth, the mechanical options certainly opened up more and more. Fourth Edition actually did a great job synthesizing the previous 15 years of growth, but somewhere along the line GURPS character creation stopped being as much fun as it used to be. The addition of so many new Advantages, Disadvantags, and Skills, along with Modifiers and Techniques, rounded out the system and allowed for unprecedented customization, but it also made the process of character creation much more detailed and time-consuming. Nowadays, it's really a good idea, especially if you're building a character from the ground-up and not using any Templates, to have a computer do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

And although GURPS Character Assistant is a great program and an awesome tool, somehow it's just not as much fun as sitting down with a simple one-volume Basic Set, a character sheet, and a pencil, and min-maxing that epileptic gas station attendant.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Two

What was the first character you played in an RPG other than D&D? How was playing it different from playing a D&D character?

This is a bit of a problematic question for me to answer. The reason being that, as mentioned previously, it took me some time to get a regular group going despite being extremely interested in RPGs for a period of two-plus years, and that one of the ways I kept involved in the hobby during that dry spell was by making characters for the fun of it.

I made my fair share of D&D characters, but I also made characters for a wide variety of other systems: GURPS, Rifts, Call of Cthulhu, Ninjas & Superspies... I still have some of those test characters in a folder somewhere, sitting there unplayed even nearly 25 years later, poor chaps.

One thing that all those test characters taught me, however, was how much different systems could vary, even if they were broadly similar at first glance. Palladium games used game mechanics and a class-and-level system very similar to D&D, but the characters I made for those games felt vastly different than the ones I rolled up from the Players Handbook. To this day, simply making a test character for a new system remains one of the best methods, in my opinion, to get a quick read on the game's mechanical and narrative priorities, and to familiarize oneself with the core mechanics of the system at the same time.

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