One of the things which I think White Wolf and their successors in Onyx Path were actually quite good at, when they put their minds to it, was in providing interesting alternate modes of play in their various games through supplements. When they were at their best, a core World of Darkness rulebook would offer a strongly-defined default mode of play (or a selection of such modes in the case of the 20th Anniversary bricks) and then use supplements to open up interesting alternate possibilities, offering Storytellers a brace of new ideas and players suitable character generation guidance and support to make PCs who would engage with those ideas.
This was not just commercially sensible – though it does mean many of their books could appeal to player and Storyteller alike, which can’t have hurt. By approaching the product line in this way, at their best White Wolf made sure to give a clear answer to the old “but what do we actually do with this?” question, and I would go so far as to say that the weakest game lines were consistently those which did the worst job of handling that question.
The iconic example of this sort of thing is, of course, The Hunters Hunted and its V20 sequel, flipping Vampire on its head to let you play human vampire hunters going after bloodsuckers. Arguably the various guides to the Sabbat or the Anarchs also qualified, since they provided alternatives to the assumed Camarilla focus of the pre-V20 core books. For this article, I am going to look at a brace of other examples of this sort of thing in the Vampire: the Masquerade line, the first one from its early run and the latter two from the V20 line.
Indie RPGs of the arthouse school which actually get supplements published for them are a bit of a rarity. Plenty of indie games simply never get the sort of traction which would create an appetite for a supplement in the first place; in other cases, the core expression of the game represents more or less everything their creators want to say on the matter, at least in the form of an actual product, or the designers end up transferring their enthusiasm to new projects.
One exception is Microscope, whose designer Ben Robbins has turned out Microscope Explorer, both a collection of alternate spins on the core game, tools and aids to help support the standard game, and hints and pointers on best practice in play. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Explorer that wouldn’t be something of a rehash of my original review of the game, but I want to put a particular spotlight on the way the advice on good Microscope practice is clearly built on experiences in actual play, which is something I wish were true of all RPG products but often isn’t.
Robbins has clearly both played a bunch of Microscope himself and taken into account the experiences of the wider audience that took it up after it got published, and it really shows in the points he chooses to expand on here and the way he explains why he considers particular approaches to be useful. One expects that if a Microscope 2nd Edition ever happened, some of the explanations offered here would likely make their way into the core book, especially since the Explorer seems to reflect Robbins’ evolving thoughts on this interesting new game format he has invented as much as it does a clarification of matters he wishes in retrospect he had expressed a little better in the original book.
In the interests of putting something positive at the top o’ the blog, I want to recommend Mike Mearls’ twitter account. It’s remarkably informative.
For instance, earlier this month he offered up a really nice breakdown of how streaming and podcasting games has fed back into game design. I find it particularly interesting for illustrating how the forum culture during the 3E-4E years ended up freezing out some preferences, and gave abstract theory the upper hand for a while to the detriment of actual play at the table. It’s particularly interesting because it ties into some of the stuff Mearls was saying during the D&D Next playtest process, where he talked about the designers were surprised at how much appetite there was for a simpler, lighter game than 3E or 4E.
You also have him slipping out bombshells like the fact that over its lifetime the 5E Player’s Handbook has outsold the lifetime sales of the 3E, 3.5E, and 4E Player’s Handbooks (individually, not combined). Of course, we just have his word for it. But I am not sure WotC or Hasbro would be too thrilled with Mike sharing such information on his public twitter feet, using the #WotCStaff hashtag, unless it were true by at least some definition. (Mike makes it clear in subsequent tweets that this is in terms of books sold, not cash revenue.)
I can’t help but see this as a bit of well-deserved vindication of the new direction Mearls has taken D&D in – especially in terms of steering it back to the “big church” approach and going for a slow and steady release schedule rather than a glut of extra supplements. The forum culture may whine that it isn’t getting enough grist for the charop mill, but I think it is healthier for the game overall.
As you might know, sometimes I review RPG stuff on Ferretbrain as part of my Kickstopper series of articles doing autopsies on various Kickstarter outcomes.
Luke Crane and I had a bit of a bust-up so it looks like I won’t be getting the Burning Wheel Codex. Details here, may be of interest to those interested in gaming crowdfunding projects since he is Head of Games at Kickstarter.
So, my long-running Pendragon game seems to be more or less officially dead – it’s been on hiatus for a good long while, at any rate, and nobody seems especially anxious to rekindle it. I’m not too disappointed, though, because we got through about half the Arthurian saga and ended with Arthur claiming the Roman Empire for himself, at the very height of his powers, which is a reasonable stopping point. But now it’s done, I think it’s high time I offered my general impressions on the game line and its associated bits and bobs here.
Pendragon 5th Edition
After subsequent editions expanded the scope of the game to the point of making the core book unwieldy and seriously undermining the premise, the 5th Edition of Pendragon – now published by Nocturnal Media but previously emerging from ArtHaus Games, an imprint of White Wolf – brought everything back to the central concept. Stafford casts the player characters as novice knights – the default is that they’ll start out in the service of the Earl of Salisbury – and sets the scene for gaming over the span of time covered by the Morte d’Arthur. (If you go with the assumed starting point, there’s a nice range of tables to let starting PCs work out what their grandfathers and fathers did in the time period between the Romans abandoning Britain to its fate and the rise of Uther.)
The retro-clone craze seems to have died down a little recently, which most new OSR games emerging focusing more on providing a novel twist or different focus to the games they emulate rather than providing a more loyal transcription. This is probably at least in part due to most editions of D&D now having a decent corresponding retro-clone, since games with an SRD as expansive as the D&D 3E one are ripe for cloning due to the extensive safe harbour the OGL offers for borrowing text. Whilst game mechanics in the abstract aren’t protected by intellectual property laws, having to rewrite stuff to the extent necessary to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit is the main barrier to cloning a game which wasn’t released under the OGL. Still, that hasn’t stopped people trying.
The James Bond 007 RPG by Victory Games was a classic of its time, and is believed to be one of the first RPGs (possibly the first) with a hero points mechanic. Unfortunately, it was a licensed RPG, and just like Ghostbusters (the other major 1980s licensed RPG which showcases a bunch of game design innovations) once the licence inevitably died it was shunted out of print.
Classified is Expeditious Retreat’s attempt to do the gaming scene a favour by retro-cloning the James Bond 007 system. It has a distinctly no-frills presentation; whilst it isn’t devoid of examples or detailed explanations, they aren’t exactly thick on the ground either, and the layout is rudimentary but functional. (It isn’t quite “straight into MS Word in Times New Roman, single column, clip art images added here and there as appropriate”, but it’s getting there.) That said, they do make sure important rules which intersect with other rules are repeated where said other rules come up and generally have a good understanding of the fact that reduncancy is not necessarily a bad thing in designing a rulebook if it is done in a way which helps participants find material quickly.
It’s interesting to me that whilst Gary Gygax gets ample credit for his custodianship of 1E AD&D, Dave “Zeb” Cook isn’t similarly celebrated by 2E fans – despite the fact that Cook was arguably the game’s “show-runner” in the early 2E period much as Gary was for the early period of the game’s existence and Mike Mearls seems to have become for 5E. As well as writing the 2E core books, Cook was also the primary author of Oriental Adventures (despite Gary being given the credit), which as well as being one of the more beloved of the post-Unearthed Arcana 1E hardbacks was also the book which introduced the idea of nonweapon proficiencies to the game – a system feature which would underpin a bunch of other distinctively 2E mechanics, like the “kits” offered in the line of brown splatbooks (ew) that acted like a fiddly, class-specific, not-really-very-balanced set of forerunners to 5E Backgrounds. Moreover, between the release of the 2E core and his departure from TSR in 1994, Cook helmed two out of the three major hardback additions to the system – the Tome of Magic and the Book of Artifacts. (Legends & Lore was penned by Jim Ward and Troy Denning, building on Ward and Rob Kuntz’ previous work on Deities & Demigods).
His last major contribution to the game was Planescape. In the 1E era Jeff Grubb had produced the Manual of the Planes, taking the Great Wheel cosmology as outline by Gary in previous works (notably the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide) and stacking a whole bunch of dry rules detail on it. Interesting in principle, it was felt that it didn’t really support much in the way of adventure on the planes, and when 2E rolled around the idea started brewing of giving it an update with an eye to using the planes as a basis for campaigning in their own right.