Referee’s Bookshelf: Adventures of 1st Edition Kult

The English-language Kult line’s 1st edition was cut short. If you want proof, you can take a look in the back of the two adventure supplements put out for it – Fallen Angels and Taroticum – and there’s a series of products promoted as forthcoming which were simply never released in their English versions. As well as a Player’s Companion and a GM’s Companion, there was also the epic adventure The Black Madonna, which is quite well-regarded by those who can read the languages it has been translated into. Most frustrating is the fact that apparently the manuscripts for all those products were done – it’s just that Metropolis never managed to get the layout and art done and the print runs ordered before they died a death.

What few adventures did come out for the 1st Edition line were both translations of releases for the orignal Swedish line – in fact, both supplements are written by Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, the game’s original creators. That being the case, would they provide definitive answers to the question of “What do you do in a Kult campaign?”, or would they just be typical crappy 1990s railroad shovelware adventures?

Spoiler: they’re the latter.

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Wuffle-Woofs Then and Now

In my Monday evening group we’ve started up our occasional Werewolf: the Apocalypse game again, so I thought the time had come for me to properly digest the tattered second-hand 1st Edition rulebook I picked up at the start of the game, as well as looking into the 20th Anniversary Edition of the game.

Following on from Vampire: the Masquerade, this was actually the last major World of Darkness game which Mark Rein*Hagen was the sole lead designer on. (He wasn’t a main designer on Mage at all, whilst on Wraith and Changeling he shared top credit with a team.) As such, on the one hand you have his various idiosyncracies as a writer coming here at full blast, but on the other hand it’s kind of impressive just how different a tone Werewolf hits compared to Vampire.

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The Dream of an Indie RPG Boom

I read with some interest Alessando Pirodi’s recent post on the so far limited commercial success of story games and other highly-coherent hobby games that take the lessons of the Forge to heart, compared with more traditional RPGs. I think he raises a number of good points, but may be overoptimistic in his long-range prognosis.

First off, he certainly seems to be right in his assumption that RPGs deviating from the “Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional” format are a niche of a niche. This is one area where ENWorld’s charts of how much different games are being discussed online comes in handy. Although it’s possible that ENWorld are failing to track significant foci of indie RPG discussion, I can’t imagine they’d do that deliberately – if nothing else, the tracking includes the forums, which are exceptionally busy and which tend to be quite friendly towards indie RPGs. And what do we see? Consistently, a chart dominated by games which fall into precisely the sort of Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional style Pirodi refers to, with perhaps a very few games like FATE and the various Apocalypse World derivatives which strive for greater coherence but don’t deviate very radically from the GM-centric and Traditional parts of the IGT puzzle.

That said, I question Pirodi’s understanding of the major sellers in the industry. As I mentioned, FATE and Apocalypse World are still GM-centric and Traditional games. Numenera is about as “IGT” as a game can get – yes, it borrows some mechanics from FATE, but simply including some mechanics usually regarded as narrativist doesn’t make a game coherently narrativist. (By definition, coherence isn’t about the presence or absence of a particular mechanic, but how all the mechanics included hang together.) 3rd Edition WFRP may or may not have been a success, but certainly wasn’t enough of a barnstormer to justify Fantasy Flight continuing to produce new materialEdge of the Empire isn’t a new edition of D20 or D6 Star Wars but a brand new Star Wars RPG with a system influenced by WFRP3, though notably it scales back an enormous number of the innovations WFRP3 brought in (hence Edge of the Empire not coming in a massive box crammed with components) and merely keeps the use of non-standard dice, suggesting a retreat away from the very experimental direction WFRP3 took. D&D 4E might have been coherently Gamist, but it was also a commercial disaster when compared to how every previous edition fared; 5E, meanwhile, seems to be explicitly embracing incoherence in order to provide a “Big Tent” RPG.

And it’s the last part which I think Pirodi is especially missing: the fact that the ideology of coherence inherently requires that coherent games direct themselves towards particular niches, rather than angling for a mass audience. In particular, I’m highly sceptical about Pirodi’s assumption that there’s a major target audience out there for these games that is being missed out. He talks about these Facebook RPGs that the kids are apparently into these days, but then hilariously imagines that a game designer out there needs to come in and make a fun and interesting game out of that to sell to that audience. This is ridiculous because the audience in question is already playing fun and interesting games in the form of their Facebook RPGs, and nothing could be more foolish than trying to sell people an experience they are already enjoying for free and which they probably understand better than you in the first place. As far as the power fantasies Pirodi talks about, that’s something which his “IGTs” already cater to perfectly capably – as illustrated by the fact he talks about being snared by Heroquest and Red Box D&D when he was 12.

Heck, I don’t entirely agree with him that indie developers are designing for other adults as a group – I think for the most part indie RPGs are designed for the sort of people who already play and design indie RPGs. The very fact that there are particular trends and fashions in indie RPG design that you can identify suggests that indie designers are consciously and deliberately targeting a very particular niche, after all. Ron Edwards’ Spione might not have been marketed along RPG channels (and doesn’t even describe itself as an RPG), but so far as I can make out it doesn’t result from Ron identifying a particular target audience and designing a game to meet its needs (the correct way to approach the concept of target audiences, as Pirodi rightly points out), so much as he wrote the game he wanted to write and then tried to find a target audience who might enjoy it.

The thing is, I’d rather indie and small press designers concentrated on writing games which they personally enjoy myself. We have Hasbro and Paizo and Fantasy Flight and other giants to take the corporate give-the-people-what-they-want approach, and when they allow themselves to take that route they tend to do quite well at it. Compare the warm welcome that the extensively playtested and survey-driven D&D 5E has enjoyed compared to 4E; compare the outcome of the centrally-imposed WFRP3 experiment (game line support dries up after a few years, and then after a long gap they eventually put up the white flag) to the success of the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition and Only War public beta playtests.

If you’re on the indie and small-press end of the scale, you’re better off producing something a few people love rather than trying to hit on something that vast numbers of people quite like, because if you go for the Big Tent approach you’re directly trying to compete with the biggest gorillas in the market and that doesn’t usually end well. If your game happens to be a runaway success, great – you’ve designed the new Vampire: the Masquerade and you are a fucking hero – but nobody can predict ahead of time whether they’re going to catch lightning in a bottle.

That said, Pirodi does correctly identify a bunch of trends in recent indie RPGs which seem doomed to limit their appeal still further than their dedication to coherence. In my experience, games like Fiasco or Hell 4 Leather do genuinely suffer unless everyone has been fully briefed on the rules beforehand, and they do demand that everyone is fully engaged all the time whether or not they’re feeling it; indie RPGs are also chronic for dreaming up their own idiosyncratic resolution systems to master from scratch, rather than basing themselves on more familiar resolution systems. In short, Pirodi is 100% correct that indie RPGs demand that all participants approach them from a “hardcore” perspective and tend to leave little room for engagement from a more “casual” angle. I think there’s a time and a place for all-hardcore games and there’s nothing wrong with that; I also think that this is an inherent outcome of coherence ideology and the Forge theories associated with it, since these intrinsically assume that everyone has a big fancy Creative Agenda going into a game that’s more developed than “have fun with my pals by mucking about playing pretend”.

Meanwhile in the Story Games discussion on this point, check out user AsIf’s first post, which is a really excellent takedown of the idea that coherent indie-type RPGs are inevitably going to take over from inherently inferior IGTs.

ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – January 2015

It’s a new year, so let’s see how the Christmas period has affected ENWorld’s chart of hot RPGs. Usual reminder applies: 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 (which can tend to obscure whether there’s been a recent explosion of RPG discussion – as there has been for 5E – or whether things are comparatively quiet on the RPG talkosphere).

1	D&D 5th Edition				1860
2	Pathfinder RPG				 540
3	Old School Revival (OSR)		 501
4	FATE					 444
5	D&D 3rd Edition/3.5			 350
6	Savage Worlds				 185
7	Call of Cthulhu				 171
8	Traveller				 161
9	World of Darkness			 160
10	D&D 4th Edition				 122
11	Shadowrun				 106
12	OD&D					 101
13	Dread					  96
14	Dungeon World				  91
15	Numenera				  90
16	AD&D 2nd Edition			  88
16	GURPS					  88
18	AD&D 1st Edition			  75
18	The Strange				  75
20	Star Wars (FFG)				  73
21	Dungeon Crawl Classics			  71
22	Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures	  68
23	ICONS					  60
24	Gumshoe					  57
25	Warhammer 40K				  55
26	RIFTS					  54
27	13th Age				  44
28	Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space	  43
28	Stars Without Number			  43
30	Dragon Age				  41
31	Castles & Crusades			  40
32	Apocalypse World			  31
32	Warhammer FRP				  31
34	Star Trek				  28
35	Deadlands				  24
36	Exalted					  23
37	DC Heroes				  21
38	The One Ring				  19
38	Firefly					  19
40	d20 Modern				  18
41	Gamma World				  17
42	Colonial Gothic				  15
42	Earthdawn				  15
42	Marvel Heroic Roleplaying		  15
42	Eclipse Phase				  15
46	BESM					  14
47	Star Wars (SAGA/d20)			  11
48	CORTEX System				  10
49	Iron Kingdoms				   9
49	Star Wars (d6)				   9
51	Fading Suns				   8
51	All Flesh Must Be Eaten			   8
51	Aberrant				   8
51	A Song of Ice & Fire			   8
55	Godlike / Wild Talents / NEMESIS	   7
55	Paranoia				   7
57	Hackmaster				   6
57	HERO System / Champions			   6
59	Feng Shui				   5
60	Mutant Chronicles			   3
61	Ars Magica				   2
61	TMNT					   2
61	Ashen Stars				   2
61	Brave New World				   2
61	True20					   2
61	d20 Future				   2
67	Chainmail				   1
67	Alternity				   1
67	Marvel SAGA				   1
67	Rotted Capes				   1
67	Runequest				   1
72	Smallville				   0
72	Marvel Super Heroes			   0
72	Golden Heroes / Squadron UK		   0
72	Silver Age Sentinels			   0
72	Villians & Vigilantes			   0
72	Other Superhero RPGs			   0
72	Hobomancer				   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).

For the last few months, ENWorld has started tracking the levels of traffic for Paizo and Wizards’ official discussion boards – indeed, as of this post the text on the Hot Games chart suggests they are still doing so, but when I checked nothing of the sort was going on. I guess the mildly ridiculous scores they’d racked up made it obvious that tracking these in parallel to the mentions of RPGs was a ridiculous apples-and-oranges comparison that didn’t really offer any insightful information.

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Referee’s Bookshelf: Tribe 8 core rulebook and Vimary sourcebook

Late last year I crewed at the first event of Falling Down, a LARP event of what I’d describe as a low-medium scale (more than a dozen players, less than a hundred) based on Tribe 8 (with the blessing of Dream Pod 9, Tribe 8‘s publishers). I enjoyed it enough that not only have I already booked to crew the next event, but I also went out of my way to pick up the 1st edition core book and Vimary, which between them constitute Falling Down‘s “canon”. The full Tribe 8 range includes a bunch more material (some of which the Falling Down referees have cherry-picked ideas from), but a lot of it is rendered moot because Falling Down specifically isn’t following the game’s metaplot. (In fact, literally the first plot point the crew had to convey to the players at the very start of event 1 involved a major deviation from the metaplot, and we’ve been off the rails from there on in.)

Having enjoyed the first Falling Down event a lot and having become really excited by the setting, I thought I’d take a look at these books not only so that I could know the setting better and thereby improve my crewing, but also because I wanted to see if the books in question would sell me on Tribe 8 as a setting for tabletop gaming, or whether it was just the Falling Down referee’s particular take on the setting that I’d bought into.

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