An Old State Reforged, and States We Have Lost

A while back on here I did a quick review of the core book and major supplements for a/state. OK, apparently strictly speaking it’s a|state, but a/state fits the style of presentation on here better – it aesthetically bugs me that the horizontal line in a|state doesn’t slant when typed in italics, and I’m damned if I’m giving up my use-italics-for-game-titles convention this deep into this blog. Either way, the title translates to “we want to make it harder to Google about our product”.

Anyway, however you type it a/state was an example of the well-worn “nice setting, shame about the product line” phenomenon. You know the sort of thing – a game where the unusual setting is the main draw, but ends up being insufficiently niche in its appeal to support the sort of follow-up which its publishers were clearly envisaging. Empire of the Petal Throne pioneered this sort of thing in the 1970s, Skyrealms of Jorune did it in the 1980s, Tales of Gargentihr was an example from the 1990s, a/state did it in the 2000s; I am sure you can imagine other examples.

It’s often the case, with this sort of game, that the people behind it were clearly planning to put out way more material but the game’s success simply wasn’t of a level to make it viable. Empire of the Petal Throne and various subsequent Tekumel games had products coming out in fits and starts, but never a sustained period of consistent releases. (Thanks to M.A.R. Barker having been exposed as a closet fascist who wrote a neo-Nazi novel for National Vanguard under a pseudonym and was closely involved with a leading Holocaust denial journal, it is deeply unlikely it’ll ever revive.) Jorune got a trickle of supplements and the occasional new edition, and even managed to get a videogame adaptation (Alien Logic), but on a commercial level is now pretty dead – there’s an online fandom still, but it doesn’t seem to be a large or especially active one. Gargentihr managed to get its core book out, and apparently there was an adventure distributed in PDF format on floppy disk at some cons, but then vanished into the ether.

a/state would experience this same sort of tepid impact. A few supplements trickled out for it – but only a fraction of those planned. (You can get a picture of the product line they had mapped out because they’d printed it the back of the 1st Edition rulebook.) I actually ran a campaign using it, but I’m fairly sure that puts me in a select few. The main strength of the game was the fact that its setting was at once strikingly vivid and enigmatic, but at the same time had enough touchstones to make it easy for players to get to grips with; unlike Jorune or Gargentihr or Tekumel, there wasn’t a mass of unusual terminology, which is the sort of thing which might be flavourful when you are reading a setting description but is a barrier to actual play, because your players are trying to visualise the world through the referee’s verbal descriptions and if those include a lot of unfamiliar terms that makes it harder to picture what’s going on. The actual presentation of factions and locations in the rulebook and supplements was also noteworthy.

There’s many reasons why an RPG might fail to make the hoped impact on the market; bad business decisions, poor distribution, and over-optimism about how much you’re actually going to sell can all come into play. For Contested Ground Studios, the original publishers, to get a brand-new non-D20 RPG into the conventional distribution channels in the mid-2000s – I picked up a/state at my local RPG shop and it didn’t seem to have been specially ordered in – was pretty good going. On the other hand, Gargentihr got into those distribution channels and then sank like a stone. I don’t know how a/state fared commercially, but I guess the answer is “not well enough to support the intended product line, not badly enough to kill Contested Ground”, because they did put out a few other games after a/state before head honcho and a/state creator Malcolm Craig dropped out of the industry.

However, setting aside the potential business reasons why the 1st Edition of a/state didn’t become a big critical and commercial hit, I’d say there were two big millstones around the original version of the game which would have been a problem for it, even if it had been put out by a major publisher. The first issue was that the system simply wasn’t up to much. It’s not that it was outright incompetent – it’s just there was absolutely nothing special about it whatsoever, to the point where the only thing which was memorable about was “it’s too fiddly in some respects”. In the midst of the OGL boom, when there was ample opportunity for using other people’s systems to get your game out there, it felt like a system which existed solely for the purpose of giving the game its own bespoke way of doing things, rather than because there was a particular vision for what this system would do which was better than any of the generic systems out there.

The other issue was that the book really didn’t give you much of a strong idea of what you were meant to do with the setting. You had this Dark City-esque, erm, dark city full of mysteries, you had lots of conflict between the macrocorporations that pulled the strings, you had a lot of people struggling to make ends meet at the lower end of the social scale. What was the intended mode of play here? Are you meant to be investigating the mysteries of the city? (Good luck – the core book didn’t offer you much to go on and the supplement which was meant to lay out all these secrets never came out.) Is this a riff on Shadowrun, where you do a bunch of dangerous shit on behalf of the corps to get ahead? Are you meant to be playing movers and shakers who make a material difference in the struggle between the macrocorporations? Are you here to look out for the voiceless and powerless, taking the side of the dispossessed of the City against those who’d grind them underfoot?

The core book didn’t seem to know – and, indeed, provided a character generation system which seemed set up to potentially cater to any of these. In a “big tent” kind of game, designed to have broad appeal, that might help – but “big tent” games and quirky, unusual settings don’t really mix, precisely because the unusualness of the setting inherently narrows the appeal of the game. Either way, referees had to figure it out for themselves.

In the campaign I ran, I cheated a little – I used the classic old “you all wake up with amnesia” angle, which meant my players and I could get into the action quickly without giving them a setting rundown, and then the early part of the campaign was focused on them figuring out who they were and why they lost their memories. By the time they’d done this, they had enough to decide what they wanted to do, and focus on that. It’s long ago enough that my memories of the campaign are fuzzy, but my recollection is that they went for the “side with the people and make a little corner of the City a little brighter” option.

Now, rather unexpectedly, Handiwork Games have popped up with a second edition of the game, with original designer Malcolm Craig coming along for the ride. In his afterword to the new edition, Craig is very magnanimous and humble, making sure to give full credit to those who’ve gone the heavy lifting in terms of getting the new setting in place in particular, and also not shying away from criticism of his own choices in the original game. “In its original conception,” he notes, “The City contained much that was juvenile, nonsensical, and at times offensive. For that I was solely responsible.”

I’m sure if I went back and did a deep read of the original core book I’d find some edgelordy stuff that has aged like milk – there was definitely some of that in my own campaign, partially through my own decisions which I wouldn’t make if I were running it today – but it does feel like a reasonable amount of tightening-up of the setting has been done here, teasing out what’s cool and distinctive, removing what was just kind of rubbish, whilst keeping the whole thing recognisable. There’s still big corps running things – they’re called “Trusts” rather than macrocorporations these days, but that’s quite cool – and there’s still some specific flavours of oppression or bigotry in the setting, but these are purposefully and respectfully explored and clearly flagged early on.

The biggest change in second edition, however, relates to system – this is a Forged In the Dark game, using the same system that drives Blades In the Dark. The way Handiwork manage this actually kills two birds in one stone, settling both the major issues with the previous book I thought held it back on its original release. (Sad though I am to say it, edgy, juvenile, or offensive content wasn’t really that much of a barrier to commercial success in the mid-Noughties.)

Specifically, Forged In the Dark is a system which more or less demands that you decide what the focus of play of your game actually is, and then design around that, and is generally quite good at delivering a certain type of gameplay – namely, dangerous little missions or heists in which parties of characters fitting into particular setting-appropriate archetypes accomplish their ends, with little downtime sections between missions to give some spotlight to how their successes or failures change things.

As a result, not only does this change mean a/state now runs off a system which is current and popular and reasonably well-engineered as far as its fundamentals go, rather than a nondescript bespoke system which adds nothing, but it also has a system which explicitly frames what the game is actually about. Nicely; Handiwork seem to have opted for the “defend the folk of your little corner of town from the people who are out to step on them” model I suggested earlier. Not only was this the direction my campaign eventually ran in, it also seems to be what was intended all along – the first edition supplement The Lostfinders’ Guide To Mire End, at the very least, seemed to better enunciate this approach to the game and nudge readers in that direction.

It also helps that it covers a niche which feels distinct from other, comparable games. Blades In the Dark characters tend to be more about personal enrichment than loftier goals or community spirit; in some respects Spire can sort of handle “stand up for the little people”, but the approach there is more based on being a cell of terrorists who are out to fuck up the day of their oppressors and who might keep the well-being of ordinary folk in mind whilst they do it, but are equally free to treat them as collateral damage and eat the consequences of doing that.

Conversely, as well as creating individual characters, when you start an a/state 2nd Edition campaign you define your own little Corner – a little area of one of the larger zones of the City, with larger factions perhaps interested in it but not necessarily for good reasons, and which campaigns will largely focus on defending and fostering. The Corner becomes the place where the large, abstract themes of the setting end up meaning something concrete – in the chapter giving a general overview of the city, each section has a text box accompanying which gives ideas of how the topic under discussion manifests at your Corner, which is good because it minimises the “how the hell is this relevant to actual play?” factor which can be a pitfall of setting material of a certain vintage.

Handiwork are fully aware that this new focus necessarily implies that some things people might have done in 1st Edition no longer really work, and they are fine with that. The edgy Shadowrun-ish let’s-do-missions-for-corps stuff, and the high-level power politics, are a poor fit for this iteration of the game, because it isn’t trying to accommodate them. Check out just how emphatic Craig is on this point in the afterword:

This is a game about hope in a dark place. It is about those who struggle to improve the lot of the community. It is about those who, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If you come to this game wishing to play outright villains, evil-doers, robber barons, or rentier capitalists, this is not the game for you. Please go elsewhere for your kicks.

That is a much clearer and more focused declaration of intent than anything in 1st Edition, which tried a little too hard to be all things to all people, perhaps out of fear of driving away potential customers.

2nd Edition is also quite clear that it isn’t really an investigative game – some information-hunting is involved, but this is largely to research what you need to know to undertake a mission, and it’s not meant to be the focus of play. This does undermine the other main possibility suggested by the core book – investigating the mysteries of the City – but it seems that Handiwork have come to the conclusion that actually, the mysteries are more important for the sake of atmosphere and aesthetic than as enigmas to be solved, because there’s not that much detail in here about them.

There’s not nothing, mind – rather than giving a single canonical answer, the mysteries of the setting are instead addressed briefly at the back of the book, in which each of them is given one of three different potential answers. All of the proposed explanations are fairly well-worn and obvious twists; respectively, they’re “You’re in space”/“You’re in the afterlife”/“You’re in a dreamworld”, all of which have been extensively done before and will be doubtless be rehashed yet again. It’s this that makes me think that Craig and colleagues have come to the conclusion that the central enigmas of the City don’t actually bear up to scrutiny, so it’s better to focus campaigns on the process of making things better and maybe throw out an enigma related to the deeper mysteries here and there for the sake of keeping the setting weird rather than making uncovering these truths a core part of the game. Whatever answer Craig had in mind for the Truth back in the mid-2000s by now probably seems kind of trite and played-out, and won’t be to the taste of all groups anyway.

Handiwork’s general approach to this edition of a/state is reminiscent of Helmgast’s custodianship of Kult. The earlier editions of Kult might have made comparatively more of a splash than the 1st Edition of a/state did – a bit of media controversy will do that – but the consensus seems to be that Kult: Divnity Lost‘s system, derived from Powered By the Apocalypse, along with a more nuanced and sensitive approach to its subject matter with a greater emphasis on the use of safety techniques and informed buy-in, has resulted in the best edition of the game date. 1st Edition a/state did not make that much of a splash – but the 2nd Edition might be in a position to do substantially better, largely due to the improvements it brings to bear. (Even the art is better – there’s still some 3D art, but it looks much nicer than the Poser illustrations the original game sometimes resorted to.) 1st Edition materials may still prove useful in terms of providing further setting material to mine, but at this stage I really can’t imagine why you’d want to use 1st Edition in preference to 2nd, unless you were absolutely determined to run a type of campaign very thematically different from what Craig and his team envisaged.

6 thoughts on “An Old State Reforged, and States We Have Lost

  1. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #167

  2. While I loved the look of a|state, I never did buy it. I had, however, bought two other Contested Ground products: Cold City and Hot War. Both of which used bespoke systems (both different) which didn’t really work 100% for what they wanted to achieve. I also found that Hot War suffered a similar “what do you do with it” problem as a|state seems to have had. It was set in Britain after the cold war went hot in the 60’s but added in Lovecraftian occult horrors being used as weapons by both sides. In that regard it was post-apocalyptic but I could never work out what the intended campaign frame was. Were you hunting horrors? Helping rebuild? Fighting the fascistic state that had developed? It was more an environment and setting but without a proposed use for it.
    Cold City was the exact opposite. It was very clear about who you were, what you were doing and why, and had some awesome aspects to the system that mechanized the neatest bits of characterization. The game was set in 1950 Berlin, and characters were investigators, each from a different nation who fought in WWII. Their stated goal was to investigate “strange” cases. Their unstated goal was to collect occult technologies used by the Nazis and repatriate them to their home countries a la Operation Paperclip. The best mechanics the system had were for using and abusing trust between characters, and the use of national and personal agendas which were often at odds with each other. It was a blast to play but I found the action resolution system was clunky at best, using fate-style aspects in a way that didn’t necessarily work. If I were to use it now, I’d likely port the setting, agenda and trust mechanics to Gumshoe or Delta Green.

    1. So as I remember it, Cold City was the game Contested Ground did after a|state, and was a specific attempt to get into more indie-style game mechanics after they heard the feedback “yo, a|state’s mechanics are stale and don’t support the themes you are going for”. Hot War is a sequel to it, so I’m surprised to hear it uses a different system.

      a|state 2nd edition uses some interesting trust-based mechanics, so perhaps that’s something they borrowed from Cold City – or Cold City was a dry run for testing that sort of mechanic for a Contested Ground-brewed a|state 2E which never happened.

      1. So after reading (and writing) the above, I went back and looked at the Hot War book, and lo and behold, I am totally wrong. It’s exactly the same system. I have no idea how I remembered so incorrectly, but it obviously didn’t make a huge impact on me at the time! The only difference I found is a lack of national level agenda and that trust was instead “relationships” which was a mechanical way to force a connection between party members and to me doesn’t work as well as in Cold City.
        You’ve got me very interested in the new a|state 2nd ed. I was very interested in the first incarnation, and with the fixes it sounds like they made I might just need to pick up a copy! Many thanks!

      2. Maybe the issue is that the system was originally designed for Cold City, so it fit like a glove there, but then they did Hot War as a sequel due to Cold City getting some success (I don’t remember it being a massive hit but it felt like it had more buzz than a|state), and inevitably going from one to the other meant the setting and the implicit themes would radically change… but they didn’t change the system. Which meant it was slightly out of step with the new game, and so was more noticeable when it was out of step. (I hasten to add I didn’t read either game, this is just a guess on how your memory might have ended up tricking you.)

  3. I think you’ve hit it exactly. Cold City did get some good press at the time, and so I think they needed a follow up, with the hope of it being a “house system” sort of thing. But then it wasn’t the firmest to begin with, so the port to a new environment was perhaps a bridge too far.

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