A Microscopic Supplement

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.

Mike Mearls’ Vindication

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.

Why I Won’t Be Doing a Review of the Burning Wheel Codex

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.

Pendragon On Parade

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.)

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Are We Not Doing “Cloning” Any More?

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.

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From Cook to Cook (or Planescape Revisited)

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.

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Expanding the Boundaries of the Art of Magic

So, in my ploughing through the various Ars Magica supplements on offer I’ve come to what I think of as the “expanded magic” supplement. These are supplements which add onto or provide alternatives to the Hermetic magic system as provided in the core rulebook; this includes hidden secrets possessed by the Order of Hermes, lost magics as yet unknown to the Order, hedge magics belonging to lone practitioners and small groups here and there, and a few types of magic which may pose an actual danger to the Order’s monopoly…

The Mysteries, Revised Edition

Updating the original 4th edition supplement, The Mysteries is built around the idea of mystery cults but isn’t exclusively devoted to them; rather, the titular Mysteries constitute a range of magical techniques that have not entirely been folded into the mainstream of Hermetic magic, but are practiced by individuals and groups within the Order of Hermes, either within the established Mystery Houses, or cross-House Mystery Cults, or as areas of obscure knowledge that are widely experimented with but aren’t part of the “core curriculum” (these latter “curious common magics” get an entire chapter filling you in on them). The book therefore mixes in both accounts of how these specialist magics work and details of groups dabbling in them, and rounds itself off with a chapter of additional Mystery Cults to round things off (along with an appendix on immortal magi).

Implementing all of these ideas in one campaign would, frankly, be incredibly difficult; however, the basic idea of new forms of magic which allow you to accomplish things not allowed for by the Hermetic magics in the core rulebook and which player characters can try to track down is a sound one. (It provided the basis of several other supplements in this vein, after all.) What puts these Mysteries aside from, say, the sort of magic outlined in Ancient MagicHedge Magic, and Rival Magic is that they are varieties of magic which, thanks to their association with Mystery Cults and Houses within the Order, helps get player characters seeking them out to engage with and become entangled in the politics of the Order of Hermes by virtue of needing to track down and gain the trust of individuals within the groups in question to obtain them.

The book is also, of course, a natural companion to Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults, and indeed there’s some bits in here like Hermetic Architecture which you will want to have handy to get the most of some of the Houses outlined in there. I suppose this is why The Mysteries is listed as a core supplement on the Atlas website; between this factor and the way the book covers little miscellanea which aren’t offered in the main rulebook, it provides a really dense set of options for Ars Magica which a whole swathe of other books build on.

Ancient Magic

Ancient Magic offers a range of varieties of magic which have either entirely or are right on the brink of extinction. (The language of Adam, for instance, has at least one speaker still living – unfortunately, it’s Cain, who for this post-White Wolf iteration of the setting isn’t the first vampire but could very easily be reskinned as a vampire if you really wanted.) Thus, there’s an extent to which it’s another selection of little magics which are a bit more simple and narrower than the main magic system, but the method by which PCs obtain them are different; PCs have to go out into the world and explore to track down their last remnants, and then undertake extensive study to reframe them in Hermetic terms. There’s a fairly diverse range of magics on offer, but unlike The Mysteries it may be a little trickier to work these in; whereas it’s reasonably easy to work in a Mystery technique in any campaign where the PCs are regularly interacting with Order of Hermes types, Ancient Magic will often not come up unless the PCs actively have a reason to go looking for it, though then again an Ars Magica party which doesn’t include at least one lorehound eager to hare off after long-lost wisdom would be an unusual one.

Hedge Magic

Naturally especially useful for campaigns where House Ex Miscellanea is a big deal, Hedge Magic covers varieties of magic which are still practiced by small groups here and there outside of the context of the Order of Hermes typically, but which can be folded into the Order’s practices under the right circumstances. (In particular, a practitioner of hedge magic isn’t necessarily Gifted, which means the Order puts less of a priority on putting the “Join Or Die” ultimatum to them than they would for Gifted individuals.)

The types of magic on offer range from types which feel like perfect fits for Ars Magica – folk witchcraft and Viking-style rune magic – to varieties which I don’t think work quite as well. Elementalists, for instance, don’t feel like they really fill any niche than a Hermetic mage working largely with Aquam, Terram, Auram or Ignem wouldn’t fill, and likewise I’m not sure there’s much conceptual space in between the various types of “Learned Magic” and the scholarly Hermetic magic of the Order of Hermes.

Rival Magic

The final member of the quartet presents a clutch of different magical groupings which each, in their own way, could conceivably become an existential threat to the Order of Hermes. Neatly, the designers make sure that none of these varieties of magic are quite as flexible as Hermetic magic, and crucially the Order’s possession of Parma Magica provides, at least in the baseline default setting, a crucial advantage. Of course, this does mean that protecting the Parma Magica is all the more important…

Of all the supplements in question, this is the one which I think merited going last – not because it’s bad, so much as it’s a niche application. Any particular Ars Magica campaign is quite likely to involve wizards going after lost magic or delving into the mysteries of the Order, and anything which helps give a bit of colour to House Ex Miscellanea can only be a good thing, but whilst many referees may find it interesting to pit their players against a potential rival society of magicians, in other campaigns the subject will never come up. Furthermore, most of the varieties of rival magic here are quite regional, so it may be difficult to shoehorn some into particular campaigns. Still, the options are nice to have.