Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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

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

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

That’s pretty impressive.

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

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Three 2004-2006)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Four 2007-2008)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Five 2009)
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Eight 2012) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Super Capsules: Hazard, Criminal Intent & Corporations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Designers & Dragons: RPG Histories I Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Designers & Dragons: Q&A with Shannon Appelcline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the kind words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bloodlines: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Four)

This series draws from supers campaign I put together almost ten years ago, "Bloodlines." That focused on inherited super-powers limited to certain bloodlines around the globe. I'd originally pitched the group that they would be a moving superteam, hired to patrol the Midwest. That changed in mid-briefing when the Zero Moment occurred. This is some of the background I gave players before the game and a quick summary of the ZM. You can see the first post here which lays out the general concept. You may spot names and groups adapted from other sources, including Bill Coffin's Century Station.

Part Two: Bloodlines 1
Part Three: Bloodlines 2

Public Perception and Terminology
One of the real difficulties for parahumans, Bloodliners, supers, whatever you wish to call them has been the pendulum-like response to them by the public, the media, and the government. At times they've been seen as superstars and at others as genetic freaks that pose a potential threat to real humans. The last decade has seen a fragmentation and polarization of these attitudes.

There are many theories for why this is. The polarization of America following 9/11. The glut of superhuman movies and TV shows during the late 70's early 80's that are now being viewed nostalgically. An increased awareness of the implications of genetic research and the patent tensions between nations. The rise of the internet and the ability for information to be widely disseminated and responded to quickly.

In any case, parahumans today typically fall into one of several groups, at least in the US.

Government: there is and will always be a great deal of suspicion about the involvement of parahumans in the government, particularly as officers in law enforcement and information gathering capacities. The existence of the Parahuman Civil Service program has done little to alleviate these concerns in the public.

Political: some cross the line between government and celebrity to run as active politicians. Though there numbers are few, they are important. Most generally downplay their Bloodline status.

Celebrity: Probably the most accepted category of Bloodliner. It is also the most exposed and subject to the ups and downs of fame. However over the last two decades celebrity bloodliners have become more vocal about the private beliefs and politics, in some cases causing significant negative reactions.

Corporate: Many corporations actively seek out Bloodliners as employees and for projects. The response to these hires depends on the image of the corporation itself. Recently Microsoft spun off its own super division, Vision, in order to avoid further negative publicity. Family: In the case of some of the tighter Bloodlines, such as Braddock and Syzmanski, the Bloodlines work towards the development of the family company. Again here the reaction depends on the image of the family.

Private: Sometimes referred to wrongly as diaspora. These are people, in smaller positions, usually keeping their powers and abilities secret.

Super: Persons involved in private law enforcement and vigilante activity. The response to these groups and persons varies from area to area. There has been a rise in Bloodliners choosing these roles in the last five years, in part a response to a generation exposed to the ideas coming of age and in part and response to the political climate.

Anarch: Bloodliners who use their abilities for criminal ends.

Midwest Cities and Supers
Detroit: A town notable for a high crime level and as a cross road for gang members in the region. The Foundry is said to operate out of here. In the past, the racial situation here has created some problems. The Sentrymen had one of their last bases in this city. Also a border point with Canada which of course has looser restrictions on certain goods.

Indianapolis: One of the smaller of the Midwestern bumper towns. It is however in the center of some of the larger meth production areas. The presence of a variety of corporate HQs for smaller and mid-sized companies has meant that it has drawn White Collar crime. Redact is the most Anarch team that most recently hit the city.

Chicago: The most feared of Midwestern cities for both corruption and anarch presence. Most superteams avoid the area and it is believed that at least one government sponsored team that went in quietly was completely eliminated. Ravage and Synistry operate out of the city, and Chimera and the Shadow Margin have as well in the past. It also has become the place for lone anarchs to congregate to. Operations will not take place here.

Cleveland: A city of troubled inner-city neighborhoods and development at the edges in the wealthier areas. Cleveland has been notable as a gathering place for low-level diaspora with minor abilities who have floated into gangs or other pretty criminal organizations. Not really a site of major Anarch teams, but it does have a fairly competent police force trained to deal with Bloodliners.

St. Louis: The " Gateway City", the population of has been declining since the 1950s, as many have moved to the many suburbs in Saint Louis County , or to other parts of the metropolitan area. Like nearby Kansas City, St. Louis has a suprising number of corporate HQs. While no Anarch group is said to be based in St. Louis, a number have carried out attacks there and it possesses a largish number of independent heroes. For this reason it seems to have drawn the attention of Black Dawn who have made a series of attacks there in the last several months.

Kansas City: A widely spread out city that sits on the Kansas/Missouri border. It has a couple of major corporate HQ's there. The area includes a significant below-ground set of neighborhoods built into old mines and understructures. Team Tomorrow has a facility there which is said to be more for research than anything else. Pantheon may operate from the area. In the past they have hit the city three times in major events.

Milwaukee: A city living in the shadow of Chicago, Milwaukee has suffered a number of superhuman attacks from Chicago groups ranging outside and looking for ripe targets. The Milwaukee Art Museum was hit by Overrun a few months ago in a fairly spectacular raid that ended up in a running battle with a group of local independent heroes.

Minneapolis: In the 1990s, the murder rate and incidence of gang violence climbed in this city, almost entirely in poorer neighborhoods. The Phillips Community was particularly hard-hit. After reaching a record 97 homicides in 1995, the city gained an unpleasant nickname because of the violence: "Murderapolis." The term gained widespread use after The New York Times used it when reporting that Minneapolis had surpassed the per capita homicide rate of New York City. The murder rate retreated in the following years, but area residents often grow concerned that the nickname may make a comeback whenever there is an uptick in violence in the city. There are a number of fairly well-known independent Anarchs operating in the city as well as a potent local hero, Turing.

Cincinnati: Bordering three states, Cincinnati is said to be home to a number of low-key smuggling operations, including as certain human trafficking operations.

(I should note for those reading this that this was all a smokescreen to get them nervous about Chicago and misdirect them from the plot of the game.)

The Zero Moment
It remains unclear what caused the explosion that claimed the lives of dozens of superheroes. When the Anarch teams Ravage and the Sinistry, with a large group of independent agents attempted to gain entry to the main Lockdown facility in SD, they were met in force by Frontline, Vision and their own gathering of independent heroes. At some point during their confrontation and explosion of undetermined source and energy ripped through them, killing everyone in the area. An EMP shockwave soon after disrupted sensors and left officials with few clues. The deaths of so many prominent Bloodliners has left chaos in its wake.

GM's Comment: The Zero Moment was the kicker/starter for the campaign. Essentially the group was recruited and had been planning to be a kind of freelance Midwestern team. However, even as they were in their interview with the recruiter, news started to come over the wire about a titanic battle between several super-villain and super-hero teams, resulting the deaths of nearly all involved. This led them to head to Chicago which had previously been a dangerous super-villain stronghold in an attempt to finally restore order there. Eventually, the plot would wrap up at the end of the campaign when they discovered why the incident had happened.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What Hooks Us?: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 33

A new episode of Play on Target drops- just in time for Gen Con. So I'll curtail my usual comments a little. This episode we consider What Hooks Us? as gamers. From time to time its worth stopping and thinking about what you like in gaming: what you enjoy at the table, what kinds of products you like to read, what genres you absolutely have to buy. Take a moment and really think about that- and then figure out how to get more of that into your gaming experience. I suspect all of us have at least one game or system we really want to try, but it doesn't fit with our current group. Look around and see where you can connect with other people who might want to try it. I've managed to play a ton of games online that wouldn't have worked f2f or fit in due to time. Think about what makes you happy in gaming and grab on to that. 

Play on Target Episode Round Up

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at