Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter

A while ago I backed a Luke Crane project on Kickstarter. It didn’t end well, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.

Now Luke Crane is running his Perfect RPG Kickstarter, a little zine of fun little micro-RPGs based around a droll little joke “Perfect RPG” concept. It’s a neat idea, but it’s kicked off more controversy.

I have not backed The Perfect RPG because Luke Crane has made it clear he doesn’t want my money, and I’m happy to go with that. But I figure since “Luke Crane Kickstarter controversy” might be a common search term in the near future, I’d throw up my view on what’s currently going on so people who make their way to these parts as a result of that needn’t feel like their time was wholly wasted.

So far as I can tell, the sequence of events is this:

  • The Perfect RPG Kickstarter goes live.
  • People notice that Adam Koebel is listed as one of the contributors to the project.
  • People remember that Adam did a really shitty thing on a livestream a while back, and followed it up with apologies which many felt didn’t ring true or came across as somewhat self-centred.
  • People ask Luke and other contributors about this.
  • A non-zero number of those other contributors say “Wait, Adam Koebel is contributing to this?” and yank their contributions.
  • Luke cancels the project hours after it opened.

There are some further wrinkles which may come up in whatever report on this has prompted your curiosity about this, which I may as well address.

Continue reading “Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter”

Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design

A discussion on Facebook prompted a textwall from me about investigative scenario design. I’ve banged on about some of these ideas on here before, but I thought I may as well also post this here for referring back to.

For my purposes the key things I think about when designing an investigative scenario are:

  • How do the players first become aware of this mystery?
  • What is at the heart of the mystery, and how can that be meaningfully interacted with?
  • What is dynamic about this mystery?

The last bit is key. 99% of mystery scenarios need some sort of dynamism to them, by which I mean there needs to be stuff happening independent of the PCs, and which will keep happening unless the PCs actually stop it or prompt it to change course.

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A Bestiary Refined

Chaosium have gotten around to updating the Malleus Monstrorum. Previously published for the 6th Edition of Call of Cthulhu, having been compiled by Scott David Aniolowski, the original version was an impressively expansive book crammed with stats culled from publications of the whole of the game’s history, both of full-blown Mythos deities and of the various gribbly monsters that fill out the intervening parts of the food chain between the Old Ones and humans.

Naturally, the new revision entails updating the presentation to the new higher standards Chaosium have adopted for 7th Edition, and the book is both very nicely presented and substantially better laid out than the original. In addition, it is now divided into two volumes – one for monsters, creatures of folklore, and conventional animals, and one for Mythos deities.

Whilst some might regard this as a price gouge – selling two books where previously they’d only sold one – I actually think the division is extremely sensible, because it emphasises that you are going to get very, very different uses out of the different halves of the Malleus. In effect, volume 1 is now devoted to detailing creatures which you might consider throwing into a Call of Cthulhu scenario for the PCs to directly encounter, volume 2 is now a catalogue of entities whose direct appearance is probably a campaign-ending moment, but which will more typically have an indirect effect via humans and aliens who worship them or otherwise interact with them in inadvisable ways.

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Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…

Rolemaster Escapes Under Cover of Darkness

Rolemaster, in terms of its official editions, is stagnant. I know that’s a stark statement, but it’s essentially true. No major new version of the game has come out for over two decades (Rolemaster Classic is not a new edition but a rerelease of the second edition with spruced-up art and layout). The fanbase is splintered between several camps. Some consider the original system as developed during its first and second editions to be, if not perfect, at least solid enough for their purposes, and regard the changes of later editions to be mistakes which ultimately took the game in the wrong direction. Some swear by the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS), which the consensus seems to regard as the most complex variant, perhaps because they consider the complexity to pay off or because they prefer it as a generic system which yielded some extremely interesting contributions outside of the fantasy genre, or Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP), the 1999 version which retained a lot of the crunch of the Standard System but pivoted back to a focus on fantasy. Others prefer HARP or MERP, simplified systems which incorporate ideas from Rolemaster to differing extents without encompassing the whole package.

The current incarnation of Iron Crown Enterprises has, for some years, promised that a new edition is forthcoming, and have billed it as Rolemaster Unified. In and of itself, that title is making a big promise, and it’s one which is reiterated by the first line of ICE’s webpage about the playtest process.

Looking forward, the multiple variations of Rolemasterwill be unified into a single Rolemaster system. This new edition of Rolemaster will include the best of all versions of Rolemaster as well as new enhancements and improvements to the Rolemaster system for the 21st-century.

That FAQ concludes by saying that “the voice of the community is very clear that multiple competing editions are a major problem.” However, I feel like the very mission statement of Rolemaster Unified gives ICE a tremendously difficult task, and one which is perhaps impossible. Sure, it is probably possible to make a version of the game which takes elements of Rolemaster Classic and RMFRP/RMSS and blends them together, but the differing tastes between the camps mean that producing a new edition which will please everyone (or even the majority of invested fans) is a tall order – and that’s before you consider how a failure to reach new fans to cover attrition in the player base and maybe even expand it would also be undesirable.

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One More RED Nightmare

Cyberpunk Red has managed to hit the streets, an RPG with about as long a development time as the videogame adaptation it was married to. With both Cybergeneration and (probably more justifiably) Cyberpunk V3.0 both punted down the memory hole, this is the third attempt by Mike Pondsmith and the team at R. Talsorian games to produce a followup to Cyberpunk 2020, the edition of the Cyberpunk RPG which they’d rolled back to as a result of the commercial failure of V3.0.

Set in the “Time of the Red” – so called because of a haze of pollution mingled with nuclear fallout from the nuke which took out the core of Night City at the end of the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline – the game advances the timeline to 2045, a midway point between the first two editions of the game (set in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and the CD Projekt Red videogame.

In some respects, significant changes have occurred to the setting; the balkanisation of the global network into local airgapped VPNs as a result of rampaging AIs making the old Net absurdly dangerous to explore is the big one. That doesn’t mean there’s any less daring hacking exploits – but it does mean that netrunning works a little differently in this iteration of the setting.

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The Limits of (Narrative) Control

Inspired by a discussion elsewhere, I got to thinking about narrative control in games. The discussion in question was about a Forge-era concept called the “Czege principle” (named after Paul Czege of My Life With Master fame), defined as follows:

The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.

This is certainly a “your mileage may vary” statement, but the basic root concept seems to be that this separation of “author of adversity” (who comes up with the challenge facing a character?) and “author of resolution” (who decides how the character deals with that?) is pretty essential to satisfying RPGs.

My thoughts here aren’t so much about the principle directly. Mostly, it’s a tangent arising from the fact that the Principle is an attempt to explore the limits of narrative control – and specifically, the limits of how much that can be shared. Since the Forge days there’s been a tendency to assume that sharing narrative control more equally in an RPG group is what the cool kids do and 100% the way to go, but I am of the opinion that there are some types of narrative control that, even handed to a player briefly, could potentially ruin a game for that player.

It greatly depends on context and the sort of game people after, of course. The classic example here would be scenarios with a strong investigative component – by which I mean investigative in the sense of “it’s possible for the players to get stuck and fail to solve the mystery, because this is the challenge”, not the GUMSHOE sense of “the players will always get the breadcrumbs that lead them to the intended end of the scenario, ‘investigation’ is a pacing mechanism for the release of information”.

A player may have all sorts of motivations for not wanting to have narrative control over the answer to the mystery. It could be based on simulation or prioritising immersion and adopting an in-character perspective (“how the hell does my character know that?”), it could be based on gamism (“doesn’t that kill the challenge?”), or it could have storytelling motivations (“I’d rather have the GM have a set idea ahead of time of what the answer is, the better to ensure that what transpires in the game session is consistent with that, than have to come up with an answer on the spot and maybe contradict a bunch of stuff that happened earlier I forgot/was out of the room for, therefore yielding a story which is broken and makes no sense”). Those are all good reasons for not wanting the GM to ask you to decide whose face is under the mask when you rip off the ghost’s disguise.

This is what bugs me about the old “If the players are investigating a mystery and zoom off on a wrong tangent, just change the answer to fit whatever idea came into their head, it might be better than yours” advice that sometimes gets wheeled out.

It might be appropriate for some campaigns, especially if they weren’t billed as being investigative. But if I sign up for an investigative game, I want to have an investigation. I want the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle. I don’t want a Potemkin Village mystery where the identity of the murderer changes on a whim because the ref liked some whimsical joke one of the players made better than their own plan – or, worse, never had a plan at all.

I have no sense of accomplishment if our prime suspect was always going to be the guilty party, no matter who we point the finger at. If it is not possible for me to fail, then successfully working out the clues means nothing, and I resent gaming time being spent on a fait accompli: if a particular outcome was always going to happen, let’s brush past it so that we can concentrate on the bits where our decisions, luck, strokes of genius and terrible mistakes actually mean something, rather than being different routes to essentially the same general outcome with the specifics changed. (“The PCs accused A, it turns out it was A, the PCs earn the rewards of success” ultimately is much the same as “The PCs accused B, it turns out it was B, the PCs earn the rewards of success”, whereas a very different outcome is “The PCs accused A, it turns out it was B, the PCs endure the consequences of failure.”)

It has been pointed out that in some types of game people are really after genre emulation, not an immersive experience – they want a game that feels to play like crime mysteries feel to read/watch, they don’t necessarily want to actually solve a mystery themselves. This is true; that genre emulation is the type of play that some later statements of GUMSHOE more unambiguously orient themselves towards.

I think the most horrible violence done to the idea of an “investigative game” has arisen from the confusion between “investigative” in the sense of “the players must feel they are actually working to solve a mystery” and “investigative” in the sense of “the characters progress through the plot by doing investigative stuff”. They’re different things, and there’s a difference between a crime story designed to be an engaging story and a crime scenario designed to be solved.

This is why I twitch whenever people recommend GUMSHOE as an investigative game without caveats. There are different flavours of investigative game and not clarifying which someone wants when making the recommendation is hideous negligence. Maybe it is exactly what they want, or maybe you have sent them down the primose path to destruction (or, at the very least, a ruined evening spent wondering why the system isn’t giving them what they want out of it).

And likewise, this is why I twitch when people advocate changing up the plot behind the scenes to suit your players’ speculation. To a limited extent, that technique can work to add elaborations you hadn’t considered or paper over contradictions you accidentally introduced. But make the plot too mutable based on what your players have latched onto in the moment and you risk destroying the reason some of those players are at the table in the first place.

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)

It’s time once again for another one of my (very) irregular reviews of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks. In previous instalments I’ve covered the books up to late 1985 (including Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! spin-off series), and for this one I’m going to cover the last books released in 1985 and the first ones from 1986. The glut is well and truly underway, and a fairly wide range of authors have been recruited to serve it – in fact, each of the gamebooks I’m reviewing this time around were written by different authors.

All of them are men; in fact, not a single Fighting Fantasy book was written by a woman until Crystal of Storms by Rhianna Pratchett, released last year by Scholastic. Despite a certain homogeneity of author, otherwise the series seems to be zooming in a range of different directions, with science fiction, superheroics, pirate adventure and samurai missions encompassed in the concepts this time around. And we start out in the four-colour world of comics, as after quite some delay since my previous article in this series we finally make it to our…

Appointment With F.E.A.R.

Scenario

It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Jackson’s mind was on superheroes in 1985. In the previous year, Games Workshop had just come out of a failed bid to produce a Marvel-themed superhero RPG – the RPG licence eventually went to TSR instead – and had consoled themselves for their loss by releasing a spruced-up edition of Golden Heroes, a superhero game which had originally been self-published in 1981 and which they’d bought the rights to in the vague hope of using it for Marvel before deciding to release it as a generic supers game in order to recoup some of their losses.

It should be remembered that this is comfortably before stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight ReturnsA Death In the Family and The Killing Joke injected a big fat dose of grimdark into the superhero genre, so the tone of Golden Heroes tended to be bright, colourful, and optimistic; this is also true of Appointment With F.E.A.R., which if Jackson didn’t write specifically to perhaps spark interest in superhero roleplaying at the very least came out at an opportune time to do so.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 6)”

Choose Your Own Pounding – In Tinglewood and On the Highway

After kicking off Select Your Own Timeline, his own take on Choose Your Own Adventure, with Escape From the Billings Mall, two-time Hugo Award winner and greatest living thinker Dr. Chuck Tingle proves love is real again with two more gamebooks set in the Tingleverse – a realm littered with familiar places, sentient objects, dinosaurs, Bigfeet, and all the other things you find in his books or RPG material.

First off is Trouble In Tinglewood, in which you head down to the City of Devils – the Tingleverse equivalent of Los Angeles – to try and make it in showbiz so you can tell your story for the world. As you make it into town, it turns out that the place is in peril: a serial killer known as the Tinglewood Slashman is on the loose! Will you be able to find creative fulfillment and stop the murder spree, or will you just be one more victim of the Slashman and/or the unforgiving world of showbiz?

Compared to Escape From the Billings MallTrouble In Tinglewood has a much looser structure, where much of the plot of any particular runthrough will depend on who you choose to try and befriend and how those friendships go – or, conversely, whether you go it alone (though the more solitary you are, the more likely you are to be targeted by the Slashman). As a result of having to accommodate a very wide range of possibilities, any particular playthrough is likely to be quite short, but that’s handy in its own right since it means attempting other options is fairly easy.

The usual Chuck Tingle humour -in its safe-for-work form – is on show here; no poundings in the butt, just wholesome jokes in a surreal world. On any particular playthrough you might go to Chocolate Milk Anonymous with well-known triceratops Bob Downer Jr., confront a rampaging horde of cannibal Valley Girls, join a hippie crew’s recording session or help a punk biker unicorn with her artwork. It’s fun, but the lack of focus makes it feel a bit less substantial than Escape From the Billings Mall.

By contrast, Highway to Heck is more structured. This casts you as a trucker for Truckman Trucking, undertaking your final delivery before retirement. It should be a routine run – just pallets of chocolate milk, delivered from Billings, Montana down to San Diego. However, notorious devilman Ted Cobbler has taken a downright infernal interest in your payload. What is your real cargo? And can you keep it out of Ted’s evil clutches and deliver it safely?

Road trip-style plots have been used in gamebooks before – think of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter – and they’re a good concept if you want to cook up interactive fiction with a strong central plot. Players can better accept a more linear plot if it makes sense for the concept in question – there’s only so many ways you can go from Billings to San Diego, after all. You can weave in elements of interactivity and choice by doing a string-of-nodes structure: have various bottlenecks that the player must visit on the route (here it’s Billings, San Diego, and a few points in between like Las Vegas), and then give them their choices between each node. Chuck uses this to good effect here.

Though the book could do with a few more nods to trucker culture – not once did I get to use a CB radio! – I think Highway To Heck might be his best-designed gamebook yet, particularly for the way it offers a wealth of valid ways to make your way through the book without becoming completely diffused and unfocused.