Magic and Mystery In a World Gone Mild!

I’ve not previously had much cause to look into C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft, despite the fact that it’s sat in my DriveThruRPG library for some reason. (I think they give you a free copy when you join DriveThru, or at least they did when I signed up.) Admittedly, it isn’t a game which has exactly set the gaming world on fire, but at the same time it isn’t entirely without significance – in particular, it was the first game to use the Unisystem, which would subsequently be used in games which attained substantially more commercial and critical success (All Flesh Must Be EatenBuffy and Angel, among others).

I think part of what has previously put me off exploring Witchcraft is the whole C.J. Carella’s thing. If you’re trying to sell a game as being Game Designer’s Gametitle, it’s presumably because you consider the name in question to be a big selling point, but here I’ve got to say that Carella and his business partners may be drastically overestimating Carella’s name recognition factor. Prior to the release of Witchcraft and its sister game Armageddon, Carella’s gaming CV seems to have consisted mostly of a couple of GURPS supplements and an extensive amount of writing for RIFTS. Worthy stuff, maybe, but playing second banana to Steve Jackson or Kevin Siembieda doesn’t really set you apart from the crowd. Shortly before he struck out on his own to produce Witchcraft he did take lead on the Nightbane RPG for Palladium Books, mind, but that game wasn’t a success to project his name across the gaming scene either. I can believe that there may be some people who were so won over by Carella’s RIFTS contributions or whatever to an extent that they’d be interested in following up his other work, but at the same time I can’t see them being so numerous that it’d be really worth making his name a cornerstone of the marketing for Witchcraft, unless expectations for the game’s sales were low to begin with.

Continue reading

Dark Heresy 2nd Edition: Under the Influence

What with all this fuss about the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it’d be easy to miss the fact that Fantasy Flight Games have put out a 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy. Replacing the previous edition of the game – the only Warhammer 40,000 RPG which wasn’t developed under FFG’s auspices – the 2nd Edition was, like D&D 5E, subject to an open playtest. Whilst Mike Mearls has mentioned how the 5E playtest took the game’s design into an unexpected direction – in particular, the realisation that a sizable demographic of players preferred a more rules-light and loose approach to the game than both 3E and 4E had offered is cited as something which really changed the development team’s thinking – it’s rare that a game publisher’s intended direction with a game has been so comprehensively changed by an open playtest to the extent that Dark Heresy‘s was.

For those who didn’t follow what went down with the open beta, here’s my understanding of it (as someone who didn’t take part in the beta but kept an eye on the news): the first version of the beta rules which went out were substantially different to the product as released. In fact, it was substantially different to most of the prior Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. A substantial portion of the beta testers objected; they didn’t want the backward compatibility with earlier products to be nuked, and they especially didn’t want to break compatibility with Black Crusade and Only War, whose rules updates had generally been well-received. (Indeed, many had assumed that Dark Heresy 2nd Edition would mostly consist of applying the Black Crusade/Only War updates to Dark Heresy). Thus, midway through the beta test, FFG announced they were changing direction in response to this feedback and released an extensively revised beta which formed the basis for the game we’ve now received. (Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from folks who liked the radical shift represented by the first beta version.)

Continue reading

5E Player’s Handbook: A Cornucopia of Delights

Having been suitably impressed by reading and playing a bit of the Starter Set, as well as the Basic Rules for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I decided to pick up the Player’s Handbook and I am genuinely impressed with what I’ve got for my money.

What jumps out at you if you’ve read over the Basic Rules is that the Player’s Handbook offers, for the most part, exactly the same thing in terms of rules and character generation processes,  just more of it. It’s split into three sections – character creation, playing the game, and magic – and of these the actual rules for playing the game are the slimmest by a long way. (In fact, if you’ve read the Basic Rules you’ve pretty much covered them.) The character generation section and magic sections are substantially expanded from the Basic Rules, by comparison, but at the same time for the most part this consists of the addition of more options – more races and subraces, more classes and class specialisations, more backgrounds, and more spells.

Multiclassing and feats are presented as purely optional offerings to add extra customisation, but the range of feats offered and potential advantages of multiclassing are limited enough to save the game from becoming subject to the same character optimisation arms race that was a feature of the 3rd Edition era. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t quite seem worth multiclassing unless you absolutely, positively can’t make your character concept fit one of the existing class options – with subclasses like the Eldritch Knight, a Fighter who can cast some magic spells, out there for you to play with the need to dip into one class or another to get access to the capabilities you want your character to have is lessened. Furthermore, because all feats are available to all characters, picking up a feat here or there can help you branch out your character in directions not necessarily connected to their niche – for instance, the Dungeon Delver feat gives you the sort of knack for finding secret features of dungeon architecture you might otherwise associate with rogues.

One interesting feature of the new Handbook is the appendices, which range from little bonuses which are nice to have but not essential to really incredibly useful features. There’s an extensive list of statistics for animals and monsters that can be summoned or shapeshifted into by PC abilities, which Druid players and the like will find incredibly useful, and there’s a summary of a range of historical, setting-specific, and classic nonhuman deities which DMs and Cleric players alike will find handy. On top of that, there’s a discussion of the structure of the planes which is quite fun – for the most part the structure from 1E-3E is retained with some tweaks to allow for features like the Shadowfell and Feywild from 4E to be included. (The biggest change is to the elemental planes; close to the Prime Material Plane they are almost-mundane worlds in which one element or another happens to predominate, only becoming the hostile hellscapes they’ve commonly been presented as when you get deeper into them and then merging together at their furthest extent to become the 4E Elemental Chaos, whilst the Positive and Negative Energy Planes now exist outside the Outer Planes to avoid all of that Quasi-elemental plane nonsense.) Oh, and Sigil is canon.

For the most part, though, this is a book with few surprises if you’ve read the Basic Rules and/or Starter Set, which in itself is probably a good thing. The 2E feel with 4E mechanical rigour thing that Dan identified is the big selling point of 5E, so far as I am concerned, and this Player’s Handbook feels thoroughly in the 2E tradition. In particular, the artwork, like 2E’s, draws on a range of aesthetics and styles that all feel D&D-like whilst not being homogenised – a stark gear shift from the “dungeonpunk” style used for 3E and 4E, but arguably a necessary one since Pathfinder does dungeonpunk damn well these days and 5E is deliberately going for a big tent approach. (In fact, it’s arguably a bigger tent than core book D&D has ever been; the inner front page sports artwork of an African warrior fighting decidedly nontraditional-looking goblins in a desert, the Monk class’s ties to classic martial arts movies is explicitly acknowledge by talking about how Monk powers work off manipulating ki, and in general both the text and the artwork emphasise that you don’t have to be white and European to be part of the D&D cosmos.)

In a nice touch, the last thing you get before the index and character sheers is Appendix E – an update of Appendix N from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide, complete with Gygax’s original preamble, with new books added to the list to supplement those Gary already cited as being influences on the game. The inclusion of new books is an interesting acknowledgement that from its publication D&D has been an influence on as well as influenced by literary fantasy; as well as the major Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, the list includes works by RPG-inspired writers like George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. (It also includes The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, which isn’t very D&D-like but does at least show good taste.) The most distinctive new inclusion on the list, however, is Andre Norton’s Quag Keep and her Witch World series- the first of which was the first D&D novelisation, the latter of which is a classic Norton series that was almost certainly grounds for her inclusion in the original Appendix N. Hopefully, with this solid new edition D&D will stay part of the fantasy fiction feedback loop for years to come.

Meanwhile, how’s 5th Edition doing in the ENWorld chart?

It’s over one thousaaaaaaaaaand!

ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – August 2014

Time to check in on ENWorld’s chart of the “hottest RPGs”. As usual, remember that RPGs are scored on the chart based on what’s being actively discussed on as wide a pool of internet fora and blogs as they can find RSS feeds for. It isn’t tracking sales, and it isn’t even tracking popularity (because conceivably a game could get onto the chart if there were a sufficiently virulent negative reaction to it). Note that I’m presenting here the scores assigned to each game, not the percentages.

1	D&D 5th Edition				896
2	Pathfinder RPG				138
3	D&D 3rd Edition/3.5			105
4	D&D 4th Edition				 47
5	13th Age				 31
6	Old School Revival (OSR)		 22
7	AD&D 2nd Edition			 15
7	Shadowrun				 15
9	Savage Worlds				  9
10	AD&D 1st Edition			  8
10	Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures	  8
10	FATE					  8
13	World of Darkness			  7
14	Star Wars: Edge of the Empire		  5
14	Star Wars (SAGA/d20)			  5
16	OD&D					  4
17	The One Ring				  3
17	Warhammer FRP				  3
17	Traveller				  3
17	Numenera				  3
21	Colonial Gothic				  2
21	Dungeon World				  2
21	Runequest				  2
21	Call of Cthulhu				  2
21	All Flesh Must Be Eaten			  2
21	Other Superhero RPGs			  2
27	A Song of Ice & Fire			  1
27	Hackmaster				  1
27	d20 Modern				  1
27	The Strange				  1
27	Star Trek				  1
27	Exalted					  1
27	Dread					  1
27	RIFTS					  1
27	GURPS					  1
27	Ars Magica				  1
27	Dungeon Crawl Classics			  1
27	Warhammer 40K				  1
27	Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space	  1
27	Paranoia				  1
41	Ashen Stars				  0
41	Aberrant				  0
41	Brave New World				  0
41	Apocalypse World			  0
41	Golden Heroes / Squadron UK		  0
41	Silver Age Sentinels			  0
41	Rotted Capes				  0
41	Smallville				  0
41	TMNT					  0
41	Villians & Vigilantes			  0
41	Alternity				  0
41	Marvel Super Heroes			  0
41	HERO System / Champions			  0
41	Godlike / Wild Talents / NEMESIS	  0
41	ICONS					  0
41	Marvel Heroic Roleplaying		  0
41	Marvel SAGA				  0
41	DC Heroes				  0
41	d20 Future				  0
41	Firefly					  0
41	Gamma World				  0
41	Gumshoe					  0
41	Feng Shui				  0
41	Dragon Age				  0
41	Earthdawn				  0
41	Eclipse Phase				  0
41	Fading Suns				  0
41	Hobomancer				  0
41	Iron Kingdoms				  0
41	CORTEX System				  0
41	Castles & Crusades			  0
41	Chainmail				  0
41	True20					  0
41	Stars Without Number			  0
41	Mutant Chronicles			  0
41	Deadlands				  0
41	Star Wars (d6)				  0
41	BESM					  0
--	Dnd/Pathfinder				DNC
--	Stage					DNC
*DNC = Did Not Chart

Note that according to the chart page a 0 score doesn’t mean nobody’s mentioned a particular game –  a statistically significant sample has shown up but no more than that. For sanity’s sake I’m only tracking zero-scores which previously scored. Games which did not chart presumably either failed to even yield a statistically significant sample or have had their categories retired from the chart (as appears to be the case with the redundant Dnd/Pathfinder category).

Continue reading