Posted 1 month ago

Designers & Dragons: mini review

I’ve just finished reading volume one (“the 70s”) of Shannon Appelcline’s Designers and Dragons, which is currently available via Kickstarter.

This is a new edition of the book, significantly revised from the Mongoose published original.

It’s an interesting book, although the decision to divide the history of RPGs into chapters describing each company is not without it’s limitations. For one thing, while this book covers the history of Dungeons & Dragons up to 1997, you’ll have to wait until the third volume before it starts discussing Wizards of the Coast and picks up the story again.

The designers of the title keep popping in and out of the narrative as their work for this and that company gets mentioned. As such, it can be a little disorienting. Likewise, it doesn’t explicitly draw out the design trends of each era until the appendix at the end.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating work. For someone like me, who got into RPGs in the early 80s, much of this book was a trip down memory lane; especially the chapters on TSR, Games Workshop and Chaosium. It really has left me an itchy finger away from buying a load of 1e AD&D manuals on eBay.

It’s striking how quickly the RPG “industry” developed from self published wargamer hobbyists’ homebrew hacks of D&D to a much more slick, professional and homogenised group of companies. On the one hand, they were enthusiasts at the end of the day and didn’t always make the best commercial decisions; on the other hand, the much more commercial approaches by some would do a lot to suck the soul out of the profession and, at the end of the day, didn’t appear to be that much more commercially viable. The cycle of boom and bust is vividly described in this book, and assume the following three volumes will serve to highlight that even more.

For $15, you get all four volumes in PDF (the physical books are somewhat more expensive), so it’s well worth your support.

Posted 1 month ago
#RPGaDay XXI: Favourite licensed game: Judge Dredd RPG (1985)
Particularly during the early days of roleplaying, licensed games were such a big deal that it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly, when I was a kid, it was quite overwhelming looking at the number of games that carried high profile licenses, from Star Trek to Doctor Who.
The first licensed game I ever bought was also my second ever RPG - Middle Earth Role Playing. Looking back on it now, it was almost laughably unthematic with regard to playing a game set in Tolkien’s world, with players playing wizards, weird new races such as the Umli (half dwarves) that never appeared in Tolkien’s writings and a huge map, again featuring things that Tolkien never talked about. It still deserves a lot of respect for its ambition however.
I’d argue that the most influential licensed RPG was Call of Cthulhu. These days, HP Lovecraft’s writing is public domain, but Call of Cthulhu originally wasn’t. It pretty much single-handedly created the horror RPG genre. Unlike most licenses, most people of my generation (I suspect at least) bought the game and went on to discover Lovecraft’s work rather than bought the game because of Lovecraft’s name, so it deserves a lot of credit for getting a whole new generation to discover the writer. Of course, that’s a double edged sword; Call of Cthulhu probably also did more than anything to reduce Cthulhu to the status of a cutesy tentacled Godzilla in the popular imagination, albeit indirectly.
The licensed game I have probably played the most of over the years is probably DC Heroes, by Mayfair Games. However, that’s sort of cheating because I never used the DC setting, favouring my own cobbled together setting instead based on the Golden Heroes scenarios and the 2000AD strip Zenith. In terms of DC, I did once set up a game of Vampire: the Masquerade mashed with Batman and at some point I’d love to give that another go.
Probably the licensed RPG I have the most affection for however is Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG. Combined with the board game, it’s what got me into 2000AD. I played a lot of it when it first came out and had a really different feel to most games I’d played up until that point.
Looking back on it, the system wasn’t brilliant. However, it was almost certainly better suited for the setting than the D20 version which Mongoose published years later. I’d love to see someone come out with a new, definitive Judge Dredd game (a distinct possibility; RPG publisher Cubicle 7 is owned by Rebellion who also own 2000AD and they’ve already announced they’re working on a 2000AD-related game). For me, the ideal Dredd game would have the following features:
- it’d be quick and simple; Fate Core would make a great basis for a Dredd RPG, as would Apocalypse World.
- all the various Dredd RPGs have made a big deal of the equipment and gear, and this is right and proper. The GW version did this the best, although this could have been streamlined so that you weren’t keeping track of every single bullet.
- instead of trying to turn Dredd into D&D by giving all street judges different specialities (Med Judges, Tech Judges, Psis, etc.), the focus on the game ought to be drama and backstory. Look at classic strips such as The Pit and it’s various sequels. All the existing versions of the game have assumed that judges are uncorrupt true believers in the law. In the comic series, that’s rarely the case. Everyone has their lovers, dirty secrets and problematic families.
- Judge Dredd has been going for nearly 40 years now and has a rich history. It has phases. The original RPG was very much influenced by the “comedy” era of the early to mid 80s while the Mongoose RPGs seemed undecided about which style to place the game in. A definitive Dredd RPG ought to give groups different options for different styles of play, from gritty police procedure to wacky future crazes.
A few more Dredd-themed board games wouldn’t go amiss, either. I’d love a Doomsday Scenario board game myself.

#RPGaDay XXI: Favourite licensed game: Judge Dredd RPG (1985)

Particularly during the early days of roleplaying, licensed games were such a big deal that it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly, when I was a kid, it was quite overwhelming looking at the number of games that carried high profile licenses, from Star Trek to Doctor Who.

The first licensed game I ever bought was also my second ever RPG - Middle Earth Role Playing. Looking back on it now, it was almost laughably unthematic with regard to playing a game set in Tolkien’s world, with players playing wizards, weird new races such as the Umli (half dwarves) that never appeared in Tolkien’s writings and a huge map, again featuring things that Tolkien never talked about. It still deserves a lot of respect for its ambition however.

I’d argue that the most influential licensed RPG was Call of Cthulhu. These days, HP Lovecraft’s writing is public domain, but Call of Cthulhu originally wasn’t. It pretty much single-handedly created the horror RPG genre. Unlike most licenses, most people of my generation (I suspect at least) bought the game and went on to discover Lovecraft’s work rather than bought the game because of Lovecraft’s name, so it deserves a lot of credit for getting a whole new generation to discover the writer. Of course, that’s a double edged sword; Call of Cthulhu probably also did more than anything to reduce Cthulhu to the status of a cutesy tentacled Godzilla in the popular imagination, albeit indirectly.

The licensed game I have probably played the most of over the years is probably DC Heroes, by Mayfair Games. However, that’s sort of cheating because I never used the DC setting, favouring my own cobbled together setting instead based on the Golden Heroes scenarios and the 2000AD strip Zenith. In terms of DC, I did once set up a game of Vampire: the Masquerade mashed with Batman and at some point I’d love to give that another go.

Probably the licensed RPG I have the most affection for however is Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG. Combined with the board game, it’s what got me into 2000AD. I played a lot of it when it first came out and had a really different feel to most games I’d played up until that point.

Looking back on it, the system wasn’t brilliant. However, it was almost certainly better suited for the setting than the D20 version which Mongoose published years later. I’d love to see someone come out with a new, definitive Judge Dredd game (a distinct possibility; RPG publisher Cubicle 7 is owned by Rebellion who also own 2000AD and they’ve already announced they’re working on a 2000AD-related game). For me, the ideal Dredd game would have the following features:

- it’d be quick and simple; Fate Core would make a great basis for a Dredd RPG, as would Apocalypse World.

- all the various Dredd RPGs have made a big deal of the equipment and gear, and this is right and proper. The GW version did this the best, although this could have been streamlined so that you weren’t keeping track of every single bullet.

- instead of trying to turn Dredd into D&D by giving all street judges different specialities (Med Judges, Tech Judges, Psis, etc.), the focus on the game ought to be drama and backstory. Look at classic strips such as The Pit and it’s various sequels. All the existing versions of the game have assumed that judges are uncorrupt true believers in the law. In the comic series, that’s rarely the case. Everyone has their lovers, dirty secrets and problematic families.

- Judge Dredd has been going for nearly 40 years now and has a rich history. It has phases. The original RPG was very much influenced by the “comedy” era of the early to mid 80s while the Mongoose RPGs seemed undecided about which style to place the game in. A definitive Dredd RPG ought to give groups different options for different styles of play, from gritty police procedure to wacky future crazes.

A few more Dredd-themed board games wouldn’t go amiss, either. I’d love a Doomsday Scenario board game myself.

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay XX: Game I’ll still be playing in 20 years

I feel I tend to “cheat” at lot with this meme, because a lot of the time I reject the premise of the topic at hand and instead use it as a launch pad to talk about something else. I’m not going to make an exception in this case. :)

So, I could give you a trite answer about a game I really like and right now could conceive I’ll still be playing in 20 years time. But the real answer is that I’m actually far more excited by how games have evolved over the last 40 years and thus I hope to be playing something completely different in 20 years time.

When I first starting roleplaying 30 years ago, I was playing D&D, trying to figure out MERPS and RuneQuest, and generally having a fantastic time.

20 years ago, I was playing mostly Vampire: the Masquerade and DC Heroes (mixed with a Golden Heroes inspired setting). Nothing really seemed to gel though.

10 years ago, having moved back to London, I was playing the D20 Slaíne RPG, specifically the “Horned Lord and Moon Sow” campaign. The campaign fizzled out after a couple of sessions and I stopped roleplaying for about seven years after that.

Two years ago, I discovered Fiasco, indie RPGs and haven’t looked back since.

What’s clear to me is that during the last 40 years, and especially during the last 20, roleplaying has evolved. Despite that, it is only really now truly beginning to move beyond its wargaming origins. This year has been a bit of a watershed, with both DramaSystem and Fate Core winning lots of awards at the various GenCon held events. Both these systems straddle the world of “narrativist” story gaming and more traditional roleplaying. Other games like Numenara and 13th Age - also big Ennie winners this year - have more narrative touches I understand. I’ve already mentioned the storygame elements of the One Ring and the new Star Wars RPGs and even D&D 5th edition has more emphasis on character and roleplaying than any previous edition.

Meanwhile, there are games that are pretty out there in terms of play style, such as Microscope (in which you tell a fictional history asynchronously and fractally), the Quiet Year (where you tell the year of the life of a community by drawing a map using a custom deck of cards to prompt you) and games like Witch: Road to Lindisfarne in which the characters and overall plot are constrained but which gives you terrific narrative freedom despite those restrictions. Who knows how such ideas might influence games over the next couple of decades?

Some forms of gameplay currently restricted to “indie” games with relatively tiny print runs, I think are actually more accessible to average people than the GM-and-players format of mainstream games. I think it’s only a matter of time before a GMless/GMful/rotating GM game hits the mainstream (after all, I hear a lot of people adapt traditional RPGs in that way), and opens roleplaying out to a whole new audience.

So I like to think that that’s the game I’ll be playing in 20 years time, quite possibly a version of an existing game. Either way, I’m optimistic that over the next 20 years I’ll continue to have my mind blown from time to time by new ideas that transform what I think a story game can actually do. That’s really exciting.

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay XIX: Favourite Published Adventure

This is a tough one for me because, alongside splatbooks, published adventures are two of the things I have come to be most leery of. Having said that, I’m currently waiting for one to come back in stock, so bear that in mind.

Why am I dubious about them? Well, because the early eighties drive to produce ever more published adventures helped make the hobby more accessible to a new generation but in so doing allowed a lot of publishers off the hook in terms of helping their players tell a story. Specifically, most RPGs were and still are appalling at giving good advice about how to write your own adventure.

When you look at it, it’s bizarre. RPGs typically fill enormous sections of their core rulebooks telling you how to create a character in enormous detail. They encourage you to make that character unique, to focus on their drives and personality. And then, with very little in between, they encourage you to plonk that character in a scenario which takes almost none of that into account (other than being careful to ensure that each group has at least one fighter, cleric, thief and wizard - or equivalent).

The most recent egregious example of this I’ve come across is Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. The new Star Wars RPG has a lot of things about it that I really like: narrative task resolution, streamlined rules, a focus on obligation and motivations - aspects which have both a mechanical effect and give the GM an idea about what sort of story the players want to explore. Somewhere in the development process however, they appear to have lost the courage of their convictions. In the GM’s section, motivation and obligation are relegated to hooks to link the characters into whatever preprepared scenario you have for them. It ought to be the first thing GMs are encouraged to think about; instead its an afterthought.

The effect is to deprotagonise the player characters. In all the adventures they go on, what really matters is what drives their enemies and patrons; they might be thrown the odd bone in the form of a subplot, but their role is just to go along with what the real players are trying to achieve. They’re witnesses to the action, not the instigators.

You thought you were playing Luke Skywalker; sadly you’re really C-3PO. Sucks to be you.

And this tends to be true whether or not you are playing an especially railroady scenario or not. Look at a game like Vampire: the Masquerade. The players might be free to go and do what they want, but the real story going on is the game of thrones being played by the Prince and his court. In the 90s, this reached its apotheosis, with publishers like White Wolf publishing book after book of fiction masquerading as game supplements. You have the Great Pendragon Campaign in which you were invited to play an 80+ year campaign in which you got to look at the rise and fall of King Arthur from afar. Ironically, that’s quite freeing as the GM could then run their own adventures with that ticking over in the background. But it feels an awful lot like most scenarios for traditional roleplaying games either have you on rail tracks or keep you well away from the real action.

Fundamentally, it would be almost 30 years between buying my first RPG and reading a core rulebook that had anything really helpful to say about creating your own scenarios (hats off to Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts and Mouse Guard). Of course, there were better scenarios than others; the three core Warhammer FRP Enemy Within adventures Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death on the Reik and Power Behind the Throne were all pretty open ended, especially the latter one. But it was noteworthy that by the time I came to running Power, I was pretty thrown because I’d never encountered anything like it.

Obviously, not everyone’s experience was the same as me, but I think it’s a real shame that game designers put so little effort into making it as easy as possible for GMs to create their own scenarios - ideally with the player characters at the centre. Obviously, this didn’t hold back thousands of GMs from managing it anyway, but the fact that relatively so few people are ever tempted to GM (to the extent that there’s even talk about it being a commercial service that you pay someone to provide) suggests that this has severely limited the accessibility of the hobby by turning GMing into an exclusive thing.

I’ve posted the picture of the published adventure (well, campaign) that I’m currently waiting to buy, the Darkening of Mirkwood for The One Ring RPG. I’ve heard good things about it, specifically that it has the vision of the Great Pendragon Campaign while still allowing the character’s actions to matter (no mean feat given that this is set between The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings). On the downside it’s still a 40 year campaign, but I’m hoping it contains enough to give The One Ring game I’ve preparing a bit of depth.

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay XVIII: Favourite Game System - Apocalypse World

For those who don’t know, Apocalypse World is a game set in an apocalyptic future by D. Vincent Baker. Published in 2010, it has since inspired dozens of other games “Powered by the Apocalypse,” most notably Monsterhearts by Avery Mcdaldno, Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel and Sagas of the Icelanders by Gregor Vuga. So what is it about Apocalypse World that has inspired so many other games?

It’s hard to talk about generalities about Apocalypse World’s spin off games, but at its core are two very important elements (not all of which some of its imitators have achieved): it is very simple; and almost every moving part in the system is designed to drive the narrative forward.

Player characters are generated using playbooks - essentially pro formas which you go through and customise to your own preferences. As a result character creation is very quick. Game play involves invoking certain “moves” - some basic, others unique to your playbook - which trigger certain effects. Task resolution involves rolling 2 six-sided dice. A roll less than 7 and you’ve failed, 7-9 and you achieve a success, but with consequences, 10+ you achieve a notable success. That’s pretty much it.

The other side of the coin is those narrative elements. Most moves drive the story forward in some way, whether it is a success or failure. Within that framework, players are given a terrific amount of narrative control. At certain points they get to reveal backstory or can seize control of an NPC’s actions. A core aspect of the set up and ongoing game is having the MC (Master of Ceremonies; the equivalent of Game Master) ask the players questions, and incorporate the answers into the narrative. As such, it is more a tool for collaborative world building than for having the players explore an already established. The system doesn’t merely discourage you from railroading the players, it makes it pretty impractical. As it says in AW spin-off Monsterhearts, you should aim to keep the story feral and allow it to veer off in all kinds of unexpected directions.

That sounds harder than it turns out to be in practice; in fact, its quite exhilarating. Helping the MC are a list of principles and moves which the MC them self gets to make (the MC never gets to roll any dice in the game; that’s reserved for the players). In my experience, once you let go of trying to force the story in certain directions and gain the confidence do crap on the player characters when the narrative justifies it, it’s incredibly smooth to play.

The smarter “Powered by the Apocalypse” games take those basic components and add their own unique style. Sagas of the Icelanders transposes the action to 8th century Iceland and adds some interesting rules exploring gender and society. Monsterhearts effortlessly shifts the game into the high school urban fantasy of Buffy, Jennifer’s Body and Twilight. Dream Askew, also designed by Avery Mcdaldno, ditches the MC and dice and queers the apocalypse. In place of the dice is an interesting economic system in which players are forced to make weak moves in order to make strong ones later on.

A lot of people I game with have got very into more freeform games, and that’s great. For me however, Apocalypse World has just the right balance between freeform narrative elements and a random task resolution system to drive the story in unexpected and exciting ways. I haven’t yet found a system which ticks all the boxes for what I want out of a roleplaying game quite so well.

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay XVI: Game you wish you owned - Mouse Guard Box Set

We live in an age where, in terms of roleplaying games at least, you can get virtually anything, virtually, one way or another. Thanks to sites such as DriveThru, games that have been out of print for decades can still be bought in PDF format. As someone with indie proclivities, many of my games are either free to download, pay-what-you-want or have only ever been available in electronic format. So in one sense this is an odd question: if you want a game so much, you should be able to just get it.

There is something about physicality though. This weekend is GenCon, and I’ve been eagerly watching my Twitter feed and Facebook for news about new releases - for the most part in the case of miniature, card and board games. Gaming is enjoying a renaissance at the moment. For RPGs, this has mostly been because of the opening up of design. For other tabletop games however, it has also been technological in nature. Simply put, it is cheaper to produce beautiful game components than ever before, and that has lead to the production of games that are as much a delight to the eyes and fingers as they are to the mind. When I look at the games I played obsessively in the 80s, it’s clear that we forgave them a lot for their drab components.

The physicality of games matters. I have not played Splendor with a single person who didn’t remark on the satisfaction of playing with its thick, heavy poker chips. X-Wing has managed to excite people in a way that previous Star Wars tactical ship games failed to do so because of great game design, but that has gone hand in hand with great components (not just the models; the movement templates are an amazing innovation).

Technology has helped RPGs as well, but mostly in the case of distribution. When I first got into roleplaying, no self-respecting game would be released without a box core set. Those sets - particularly the Games Workshop reprints that I devoured as a kid - contained almost everything you needed to get started: dice, floorplans, paper minis. Somewhere along the road, roleplaying divided between those games and publishers that clung onto the physicality and those games that became increasingly abstract, although it would still take decades before roleplaying games managed to slough off their wargame origins (contrast a game like Vampire: The Masquerade, which ultimately is just D&D with different stats and dice, with a game like Archipelago). Increasingly it became the fashion that the only physical things you needed to play a game were the character sheet, the dice and the books. In the case of the latter, instead of trying to flog you floorplans or miniatures, you were encouraged to buy ever more books of ever more obscure subjects. For me, at least, that slowly drained my enthusiasm as the hobby became less about playing games and more about managing shelf space.

I’ve heard it said before that a good RPG should be able to be compressed into a 20 page rulebook; everything else is just fluff that gets in the way. I might not entirely agree with that as accessibility is key, but I certainly agree that if your business model is based on selling dozens of supplements for your game then I probably won’t like it. Your game will probably be telling me that I need to dedicate years and possibly even a decade to get the full experience out of it and be focused around a setting with very little emphasis on telling a great story, let alone collaboratively with people who haven’t necessarily read all the books first.

On the other hand, if you can fit your entire game into a small drawstring bag, as Avery Mcdaldno managed with The Quiet Year, then I’m yours. What Avery managed with that game was more than simplification and condensing; the genius of that game is basing it around a deck of cards. And of course it is a map drawing game, meaning that everyone playing is sitting around a table focused on a single central element; it has that sense of playing like a board game.

More mainstream publishers have experimented with using different elements for their games, not entirely successfully. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs use custom dice and encourage you to invest in decks of cards to represent your character’s special abilities, but they’re really just an optional add on that don’t have any role in the game itself; you can equally well list your abilities on the character sheet provided (I think FFG were slightly stung by their failure to excite people with a similar system in their Warhammer FRP 3rd edition a few years before).

It isn’t just a problem limited to mainstream publishers either. While my eyes have been opened to the potential of the humble index card, I sometimes wish indie game designers were as keen as I am to break free from it’s papyral tyranny. I have this instinct that it must be possible to introduce the tactile and design elements of the best board and card games and combine them with an open world RPG, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Or have I? Because if there’s one game I wish I owned, its the Mouse Guard RPG Box Set. I already have a PDF of the rules and so I have a pretty good idea about how it plays, but the box set introduced several elements to make the game less cumbersome: custom dice, equipment cards and conflict resolution cards.

The latter are the most exciting component. Mouse Guard is based on the Burning Wheel system which has an innovative system of conflict resolution in which all conflicts - from fights to attempts at oratory - are abstracted to a system in which the participants opt to either attack, parry or feint over a series of rounds. It’s a clever system, but its one that really needs cards to prevent it from being quite cumbersome.

The other thing about this set is that it looks beautiful. Mouse Guard comic creator Dave Peterson was intimately involved in the production of the game and produced a lot of original art for both the book and the cards. For a game based on a comic, it just seems wrong to play it without the art and that’s a large reason why I haven’t tried playing it without a copy of the physical edition.

Fortunately for me, there’s a new edition coming out so hopefully I won’t have to wait too long before I get my hands on a copy. I’m keen to discover for myself how smooth it is to play.

Posted 1 month ago

rhube:

How freaking much of a coincidence is this????

http://31.media.tumblr.com/66f24eb6d1d3ef03f911d0128f4d00a5/tumblr_mr0s1zk3BI1qlk4meo2_250.gif

BAD WOLF

(Source: oimatchstickman)

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay Favourite Convention Game - Erm… Fiasco?

I don’t really have a huge amount to say about conventions because between Games Day 88(?) and UKGamesExpo in 2012 I didn’t go to any gaming cons.

I’m not really a con person. I find panels a bit insular and claustrophobic. I find meeting celebrities dull. Fortunately at gaming cons you can avoid all that and just play games, but even there I often prefer to board game rather than roleplay.

On the other hand, due to the nature of the London Indie RPG Meetup, I do play an awful lot of convention-style one shot games. Indeed, two slots per meetup and sometimes 2-3 meetups a month. At Indiemeet we have a practice whereby we only play one shots and that is both its blessing and its curse. On the plus side, it means you get to try out an awful lot of new games and it is a very welcoming place. On the downside, its left me with a real hankering for more long form games. In this respect I suspect, indie gamers are the inverse of more traditional gamers in that for us the one shot is the default game while the ongoing campaign is the exception.

Two years ago, when I was first discovering indie RPGs, the fact that you could complete an entire story in just four hours was entirely mind blowing and awesome. Up until that point, roleplaying for me had been dominated by games that just fizzled out as our collective ambition far far outweighed our time, ability to coordinate and enthusiasm.

These days I just associate the idea of a years-long epic campaign with disappointment and regard it as something to avoid (I know this isn’t the case for everyone, and I envy the people who can make it work, but I suspect it is far more of a minority than the number of rulebooks presenting this as the only way to play would have you believe /rant). On the other hand, a 6-9 session “season” a la Monsterhearts or Prime Time Adventures is both a viable prospect and enormously satisfying.

If I were to extend the term “con” game to include meetups, then probably the game that has most stuck with me has been the game of Fiasco I played earlier this year using a playtest version of a Japan-themed playset devised by my friend Sean of Leisure Games and Back to the Old House fame. It worked because, at a time when I’ve got a little jaded about Fiasco, we played a very weird game while managing to avoid it sliding into comedy, wackiness and all the tropes and conventions that Fiasco has become notorious for (lest you think I’m a Fiasco hater, at least 2 of my other top five one shot experiences have been playing more conventional Fiasco playsets).

The problem with this and a lot of other really satisfying one shot games I’ve played, is that I’m always left wanting to continue the story, revist the characters and flesh out the world we’ve created. Of course, it’s awesome to end the story at a point before disillusionment has set in, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

So while I’ll continue to be a regular at Indiemeet and go to cons such as Concrete Cow and Dragonmeet, I’m really keen to dedicate my energies to multi-session games at the moment. Whether I can make that happen of course, is a different matter!

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay Old RPG you still play/read: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Okay, play/read is pushing it: I haven’t actually played this game in about 15 years (although I did have another go about 8 years ago), but of all the games on my shelf that I look wistfully at from time to time and feel hasn’t been entirely replaced by something else, this is the one.

WFRP wasn’t the first RPG I owned, but it was the first fantasy game that I made “mine”. Say what you like about Games Workshop (and believe me, I do), but they had knack of creating fantasy worlds that fully connected with the brains of adolescent boys in way that, at least for me, Tolkien, Stafford, Howard and Moorcock never could.

It’s easy to dismiss the Old World of WFRP as just another fantasy knock off, but there was more to it than that; not least of all its satirical edge. It combined the high fantasy of Tolkien with a back story which mashed Michael Moorcock with Erich von Daniken. The fantasy battle game pretty much left it there, but the roleplaying game then added another layer by realising The Empire as a parodic version of the Holy Roman Empire.

As such, when the first edition came out in 1986, it wasn’t what I was expecting. The cover (the picture above is of my copy - note the crude attempts to draw in the bits the stickers repairing the spine had covered up) was misleading. In a word: orcs. Barely any of them appeared, at least in the flagship campaign The Enemy Within.

Although the game system was essentially Warhammer Fantasy Battle with d100s and a list of skills tacked on, it very much wasn’t WFB the RPG. You weren’t playing a Champion, Minor Hero or Battle Wizard (actually, I’ll come onto magic later), you were playing a rat catcher or an agitator. It’s career system, the equivalent of D&D’s class system, never really worked but it screamed of theme.

This was, literally I understand, the original grimdark. It says as much on the cover: “A grim world of perilous adventure”. You weren’t fighting off hordes of chaos and goblinoids, you were fighting the far less tangible corruption within the society you lived in. As a game it owed as much to Call of Cthulhu as it did D&D. Like Cthulhu, you could go insane, but you could also become physically corrupted due to the ever present threat of warpstone.

Once I’d got over the shock that this wasn’t going to be the heroic fantasy I thought it was going to be, I really got into it. Throughout secondary school, I ran the Enemy Within campaign with my friends. Sadly, we never finished it, although we came fairly close. That’s always bugged me; I even tried running it again a few years later but didn’t get past the second story, Shadows Over Bögenhafen.

Although I have a yearning to give more traditional RPGs another go (as opposed to my main staple, one shot indie story games), for the most part I’m not very tempted to go back to the systems I used to play. Why play Call of Cthulhu when there is Cthulhu Dark and Dread? Why bother with D&D when there’s Descent and Torchbearer? But simply because it was such a part of my youth, if there was one game that I might actually go back to, it’s probably WFRP.

The only real question is which edition? Although I loved the first edition, the second edition (which I’ve never played) did clean the system up and evolve it beyond its battle game origins. In particular, the old magic system was a mess, and the second edition replaced it with something I really liked. On the other hand, the third edition seems to have taken the game into a more narrative direction, which is of enormous appeal to me (the cost of buying yet another edition, less so).

On the other hand, is there really anything about the system I liked other than the career paths? Either way, it’s unlikely I’ll go back to it any time soon. But it stays on my shelf and at least look at it from time to time.

Posted 1 month ago

#RPGaDay Weirdest RPG

I’ve always been a bit wary of surrealism in roleplaying games because the tendency to just go gonzo with no real depth or meaning is so high in games at the best of times. A game of Fiasco a few months ago, where we used a highly surreal playset and just went for it in a heartfelt way that really clicked, has caused me to change my mind - although I still think that it matters very much who you are playing with.

So it would be hard to deny that Itras By by Martin Bull Gudmenson and Ole Peder Giæver is a “weird” game. It’s set in a fictional city in Western Europe full of intelligent apes, mad scientists and libertines and wears its 1920s surrealist influences very openly. Mechanically, it has a lot in common with Matthijs Holter’s Archipelago system - task resolution is handled by drawing a card from a deck which ranges from “yes, and…” to “no, but…”. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a year but it’s high time I gave it a proper try.