Two Systems, Both Generic In Dignity…

GURPS and the HERO System have a slate of similarities. Both arose out of earlier games; GURPS is at its core an extensively revised and genericised take on The Fantasy Trip, whilst HERO came out of Champions. Each system has influenced the other – Champions drew inspiration for its point-buy character generation and its 3D6 resolution mechanic from The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS took the idea of character Disadvantages that get you points back and numerically rated Skills whose base value is tied to your attributes from Champions. Both games went through a process of rapid early evolution before attaining a stable state in the late 1980s, with the GURPS 3rd Edition of 1988 and the 1989 4th Edition of Champions/HERO remaining the standard versions of those respective games for the whole of the 1990s. And both games have gained reputations for being highly crunchy, especially in the wake of thick hardback new editions of the respective lines in the mid-2000s – since when, both games seem to have suffered a waning of their fortunes.

For this article, I am going to review 3rd edition GURPS and 4th edition Champions – both well-regarded versions of those respective game lines which are generally held to have marked the point before bloat took hold of both systems – and also take a look at how the future development of each game took them down what, in my view, are evolutionary cul-de-sacs, and what their current publishers are doing to try and correct for that now. I’m also going to look at a supplement for each system which I think exemplifies the strengths of the respective support lines.

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Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

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Succumbing to Shadowrun

I am a late convert to Shadowrun. Despite coming to the hobby in the 1990s, when Shadowrun was at its prime and the 1990s zeitgeist it rode so successfully was at its peak and I was a teenager and therefore at that time of life when you are most likely to find such things TOTES BADASS, it always seemed to be a bit goofy to me and my peers. The feeling was that Shadowrun went a step too far into the goofy with its inclusion of fantasy elements; if you wanted fantasy, D&D and other games served you perfectly well, if you wanted cyberpunk Cyberpunk 2020 was the gold standard (with GURPS Cyberpunk getting some kudos too, partly because GURPS was strong at the time and partly because of the ill-conceived Secret Service raid). If you wanted both fantasy and cyberpunk at once, that was… well… a little odd – and with its inclusion of elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons, Shadowrun seemed to the outside observer to incorporate fantasy in a kind of a cheap, lazy, Tolkien-imitating way which didn’t seem like it could mesh well with cyberpunk themes.

At some point after the early 1990s, Shadowrun dropped off my radar altogether. New editions came and went; FASA collapsed without me noticing, and a curious dance of licences and ownership ensued. 2007 saw the ill-conceived Shadowrun first-person shooter come out on the XBox 360 and flop abysmally – it managed to alienate fans of the game by excising almost all the lore and presenting a hollowed-out, oversimplified shell of the setting, whilst the decided lack of atmosphere or aesthetic depth combined with issues with the game itself ensured that a new audience would not be enthralled by it.

Then the Kickstarter happened for Shadowrun Returns, which I ended up backing for the sake of supporting new isometric-style tactical CRPGs. I ended up enjoying Shadowrun Returns a lot, liked the sequel campaign Dragonfall even more, and right now I am starting to play Shadowrun Hong Kong and loving it to bits. As a result of that, I’ve finally decided to give the tabletop RPG another look; it’s on its 5th Edition right now, and I also took a look at a copy of 2nd Edition to see if my dislike of the game back then was justified by more than setting snobbery.

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Why I Love Mongoose Traveller, Why I Won’t Get the New Edition

As with many games that have been revised and reissued regularly since the 1970s, Traveller is in the precarious position of having a rather startling number of different versions of it available. This is particularly the case if you consider that actually the term Traveller refers, in the minds of many, to two connected and distinct things: there’s Traveller in the sense of the game systems that have carried that name, and then there’s Traveller in the sense of the Third Imperium campaign setting which became the default setting of the game reasonably early on in the lifetime of its original incarnation (known today as Classic Traveller).

As far as the setting goes Marc Miller, its creator and custodian of most of the old Game Designers’ Workshop RPG back catalogue, has been very generous with the licensing rights over the years, so if you want to play in the Third Imperium there are an embarrassment of choices available. Hero system? There’s a Traveller for that. D20? There’s a Traveller for that too. GURPS? Why, some people swear that GURPS Traveller is their absolute favourite presentation of the Third Imperium! I admit to losing track of which of all these variants are still in print, but I do remember getting the impression a while back that the answer was probably “too many” – although each licence probably gave Miller a nice injection of royalties, at the same time I do wonder whether they have been a double-edged sword: each successful adaptation can only have fragmented the fanbase further (with a big question mark as to whether it grew the fanbase sufficiently to compensate for that), whilst each unsuccessful one can’t have done much to build the fanbase further.

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Legend of the Five Rings Prediction: FFG Aren’t Going to Reinvent the Wheel

So, it’s been brought to my attention that the Legend of the Five Rings franchise has been bought out by Fantasy Flight Games. They’ve announced that they are going to convert the CCG to their “Living Card Game” model and debut the LCG version at Gen Con 2017 – probably a wise move, after all if the CCG were still the big earner it was back in the day AEG wouldn’t be letting go of it to begin with – but they haven’t said what they are going to do about the RPG beyond mentioning that they are mulling over their options there.

My personal prediction on this point is that it’s going to be a while before an RPG is announced – it seems fairly clear to me from the various statements made on this that the LCG is their top priority for the time being as far as this franchise is concerned – and when it does come out, it will likely be more of the same, rather than a radical redesign like we saw Fantasy Flight attempt for the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. which included all sorts of unique dice and components and fiddly bits (whose model has been repeated, in a somewhat more component-light style, for their Star Wars games).

FFG have gone the “fiddly components” route for RPGs four times; with WFRP3 it was hugely controversial and arguably killed the line (and at the very least schismed the fanbase to an extent which few games other than D&D 4E can claim to have done). The other three times it was for their various Star Wars RPGs, where completely changing system was less controversial – nobody expected them to reprint the old West End Games D6 version of Star Wars or either of Wizards of the Coast’s takes on the franchise, after all – and where the emphasis on funny components has been toned down compared to WFRP3. (So far as I can tell they use special dice and that’s it, whereas WFRP3 was so married to the fiddlybits that every single supplement and adventure had to be in a big chunky box too in order to incorporate the required components.)

Notably, they haven’t switched any of their Warhammer 40,000 RPGs to a fiddlybits system, even though they have had ample opportunity to do so. Even the first version of the Dark Heresy 2E beta, which involved much more radical changes to the system and a far greater willingness to deviate from past precedent than the version they eventually decided to go with, didn’t go in that direction. Had they wanted to introduce such components to Dark Heresy, they’d have brought them in at the first beta, so I can only assume that they decided at some earlier stage of the process that they weren’t going to take that approach.

In the case of L5R, I think FFG would be very reluctant to ditch the roll-and-keep system that its fans have gotten used to over the past four editions in favour of one of their fiddlybits systems; the backlash over the transition from WFRP 2E to 3E, combined with the objections to the proposed changes to Dark Heresy 2E, have repeatedly taught FFG the lesson that people want new editions of an existing game to be refined, improved versions of what has come before, not radical departures that completely reinvent the game.

Frankly, it shouldn’t have taken them that long to learn that lesson – after all, if a game has developed a fanbase of sufficient size then presumably it’s doing something right, and junking the whole deal just for the sake of making your mark on it runs the entirely predictable risk that you will alienate the game’s existing fanbase whilst not attracting sufficient new fans to make up for your losses. If a game doesn’t have that fanbase, then unless you really and truly believe you’ve identified the flaws in the present work that have prevented the game from finding its audience, making a new edition is a questionable move in the first place and feels like throwing good money after bad.

It’s a bit different if you are a hobbyist who happens to have acquired the rights in question and can spend the time and energy to produce and put out a new edition of a game for the sheer love of it, of course. However, if you are a big commercial publisher like FFG and need to consider the bottom line on the projects you take on, it doesn’t make any sense to churn out a new edition of an RPG that has already demonstrated a lack of commercial viability; even if you’re just as motivated by a love of games as the hobbyist, when you run a business you have to make decisions like this with your business hat on and the awareness that if a project is a major flop, then it can have a knock-on effect on the reputation and/or the viability of your existing product lines.

Frankly, I think there’s a very real chance that Fantasy Flight won’t even bring out a 5th edition of Legend of the Five Rings in the first place. They may decide that there’s sufficiently little money in the RPG that they can’t justify taking the development time to produce an all-new edition when they could just reprint the 4E range as and when existing demand merits it, and perhaps occasionally putting out a new supplement or adventure when plot developments in the Living Card Game merit it. They might even decide against doing even that modest amount if they don’t think the RPG will give enough return on investment.

 

ENWorld’s Hot Roleplaying Games – July 2014

For a while here I was keeping track of ENWorld’s chart of the “hottest RPGs” – hotness, in this case, being based on what’s being actively discussed on as wide a pool of internet fora and blogs as they can find RSS feeds for. I haven’t kept up the monthly updates for a while, because… well, just check out what’s going on down there.

Remember: this 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.

RANK	GAME					SCORE
1	D&D 5th Edition				522
2	Pathfinder RPG				133
3	D&D 3rd Edition/3.5			121
4	D&D 4th Edition				 44
5	Old School Revival (OSR)		 20
6	13th Age				 18
7	Savage Worlds				 14
8	Shadowrun				 12
9	Mutants & Masterminds/DC Adventures	 10
10	FATE					  9
11	AD&D 2nd Edition			  8
11	AD&D 1st Edition			  8
13	Star Wars (SAGA/d20)			  7
14	World of Darkness			  6
15	Numenera				  4
15	Star Wars: Edge of the Empire		  4
15	GURPS					  4
15	Dungeon World				  4
19	Castles & Crusades			  3
19	d20 Modern				  3
19	Warhammer FRP				  3
22	Traveller				  2
22	The One Ring				  2
22	Runequest				  2
22	Colonial Gothic				  2
22	Dungeon Crawl Classics			  2
22	OD&D					  2
28	All Flesh Must Be Eaten			  1
28	Other Superhero RPGs			  1
28	Rotted Capes				  1
28	Star Trek				  1
28	Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space	  1
28	Hackmaster				  1
28	Call of Cthulhu				  1
28	RIFTS					  1
28	Paranoia				  1
28	Firefly					  1
38	DC Heroes				  0
38	Godlike / Wild Talents / NEMESIS	  0
38	Golden Heroes / Squadron UK		  0
38	Brave New World				  0
38	HERO System / Champions			  0
38	Aberrant				  0
38	Ashen Stars				  0
38	Apocalypse World			  0
38	ICONS					  0
38	Gumshoe					  0
38	Marvel SAGA				  0
38	Smallville				  0
38	TMNT					  0
38	Villians & Vigilantes			  0
38	Silver Age Sentinels			  0
38	Gamma World				  0
38	Deadlands				  0
38	Marvel Super Heroes			  0
38	Alternity				  0
38	Marvel Heroic Roleplaying		  0
38	Dragon Age				  0
38	Fading Suns				  0
38	True20					  0
38	Warhammer 40K				  0
38	Mutant Chronicles			  0
38	The Strange				  0
38	Stars Without Number			  0
38	Exalted					  0
38	Star Wars (d6)				  0
38	Eclipse Phase				  0
38	Earthdawn				  0
38	CORTEX System				  0
38	Ars Magica				  0
38	BESM					  0
38	d20 Future				  0
38	Hobomancer				  0
38	Chainmail				  0
38	Iron Kingdoms				  0
38	Feng Shui				  0
38	Dread					  0
38	A Song of Ice & Fire			  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).

At the moment, let’s face it, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is the big story. It’s got a higher score than every other game in the chart combined, which means that over half of all the conversations tracked by ENWorld’s algorithms involve D&D 5E in some respect. The gulf between it and every other game may even be greater than it looks here; ENWorld don’t publicise how the underpinnings of this chart works precisely, presumably to stop people spoofing them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of the score for PathfinderD&D 4ED&D 3E and other D&D-alikes like the OSR games and 13th Age actually arise from discussions where people are directly comparing 5E to those games.

Either way, because of the way the scores work, every other game that isn’t 5E or directly peripheral to the 5E conversation has had its score crash. That doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about those games – it just means that people are talking a lot about 5E. It shot to the top of the chart soon after the product line was released, its score has only increased since, and I suspect that the staggered release of the three core rulebooks will keep the conversation going strong until at least the end of the year. Either way, I’m not going to give a comparison of where each individual game has moved since the last chart because I suspect the scores aren’t very comparable; what is clear is that thanks to the elephant in the room regenerating Doctor Who style, the state of the dialogue within the RPG community is in flux, and it’ll be a while until things die down back to normal. The big question is what “normal” will look like with the new D&D exerting itself.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Kult

More or less emerging simultaneously with the release of Vampire: the Masquerade (the two games being published within a month or two of each other), Kult hit the RPG scene at just the right time to ride the wave of horror games focused on pessimistic modern-day settings, though it came from a very different angle compared with White Wolf’s output. Whereas Vampire and its offspring cast the player characters as entities set apart from the common run of humanity, Kult was based around the premise that “humanity” as a category is broader, more powerful, and far more sinister than you think it is. Whilst the World of Darkness games tried to claim highbrow inspirations, Kult showed no aversion to embracing the most outrageously surreal end of the splatterpunk spectrum. Whereas White Wolf would occasionally try to moderate their content, if only for the sake of not losing sales (at least at first – the Black Dog era would rather change that), Kult is a game specifically about transgression and paid absolutely no heed to any boundaries suggested by good taste or common sense, and caught a certain amount of grief in its native Sweden as a result, being cited by pundits in murder and Satanism cases in a manner parallel to the way American panic-mongers would try to latch onto Dungeons & Dragons. (The English versions of Kult didn’t attract that sort of attention very much at all, though, possibly because the peak of the Satanic Panic had passed and the likes of Pat Pulling had been exhaustively discredited by that point.)

Kult has been stubbornly out of print in English for a while now, but I recently had an opportunity to snag the 1st and 3rd Edition cheap and thought I’d do the old compare-and-contrast (and then eBay them if I decide not to keep either because they go for silly money on eBay). The first edition, penned by game creators Gunilla Johnsson and Michael Petersén, is a well laid-out and very readable rulebook which suffers a little here and there from slightly diffuse organisation (though actually, having read through it once I reckon I could reasonably quickly find any particular bit of information there – it enjoys an index which is actually functional too, which is a nice bonus). Following the split of subject matter from the original Swedish boxed set, the book is divided into The Lie (character creation and experience rules), The Madness (the rest of the rules systems, including magic) and The Truth (the cosmology underpinning everything).

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