An X-Edition of an X-Traneous Game

Let’s take a look at two trends in geek-adjacent culture in the 1990s: The X-Files was massive on television- a show in which an ensemble of characters in a modern-day setting investigate supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows – and tabletop RPGs were going through a phase of being very keen on modern-day settings replete with supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows.

Given that the Lone Gunmen play D&D at one point, it seems likely that the X-Files creative team weren’t ignorant of RPGs, and given that RPG publishers were hog-wild for licencing anything and everything – West End Games made RPGs of Tales From the CryptSpecies and Tank Girl, for crying out loud – so it’s not entirely clear to me why there wasn’t an official licenced X-Files RPG, particularly since Call of Cthulhu‘s perennial popularity proved that investigative RPGs are a viable niche.

If I had to put a bet on it, however, I’d say it came down to the larger publishers who could have conceivably afforded the licence failing to move quickly enough, by which time smaller publishers proved you could fill the gap without really needing the licence at all. Sure, without the licence they couldn’t use the specific lore and characters of the show – but for the purposes of an RPG where people will likely want to make their own player characters anyhow the characters are less essential, and I’d argue that the background lore of the X-Files is the least valuable part of the IP. The show always got by more on its mysterious atmosphere than it did on the actual answers to those mysteries; so long as you hit something acceptably close to the atmosphere of the show, it’d be good enough for most gamers.

Delta Green, for instance, adeptly recognised that the vein of conspiratorial paranoia and supernatural horror that The X-Files were built on complements the cosmic vertigo that’s the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos (or at least the good bits of it which aren’t based on racism) nicely, and also worked on the basis that if you already have a system which works well for investigative RPGs and can handle a modern day setting, you can do The X-Files in it.

(OK, strictly speaking the earliest Delta Green materials preceded The X-Files – but in practice, that meant Pagan Publishing were perfectly placed to pivot the subsequent material to to cater to the X-Files niche and had the jump on everyone else in that respect.)

And then there was 1996’s Conspiracy X, which, as you might guess from the title, wasn’t exactly shy about what it was trying to do. Whereas the more recent 2nd edition is based off Unisystem – of Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten fame – this review’s going to take in the first edition, which had its own bespoke approach.

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PSA: Don’t Touch Shadowrun As Long As the Colemans Are At Catalyst

So, the 6th Edition of Shadowrun is emerging, and it looks likely that there’ll be a certain amount of controversy and probably at the very least a bit of an edition war over it. (Its sudden announcement and the short time span between announcement and release, without much of an apparent playtest period, and the sloppy editing on many recent books from Catalyst Game Labs were, in retrospect, probably red flags.)

But that said, I regret covering 5th Edition core and Anarchy to the extent that I already have on this blog, regardless of how 6th Edition pans out. The problems of 6th Edition may well turn out to be yet another symptom of a significant illness at the heart of Catalyst Game Labs: namely, that some years ago it emerged that two of the firm’s co-owners (Loren L. Coleman and his wife) had pocketed a substantial amount of company money and used it to build an extension on their house, and had only managed to avoid getting run out of the company and/or criminally prosecuted because of the near-cultlike loyalty paid to them by other major figures in the company. This resulted in, among other things, masses of freelancers not getting paid for their work – freelancers who in some cases could have really, really done with that money, in a “I need this to get by” way as opposed to a “It’d be real nice to have a slightly bigger house” sort of way.

I’d completely forgotten the controversy, because it happened at a time when I wasn’t paying any attention to Shadowrun at all and consequently I only paid passing attention to it when it happened. Courtney over at the Hack & Slash blog has covered the controversy in three blog posts which bring together most of the significant evidence, and it’s enough to convince me.

As I understand it, Loren Coleman is still one of the people calling the shots at Catalyst. As long as that’s the case, I’ll be avoiding any Catalyst products. When Catalyst was tested in the balance, Catalyst was found wanting: specifically, Catalyst’s head honchos decided to side with their personal friends, the Colemans, despite a sustained and long-term pattern of siphoning cookies out of the cookie jar on their part, by retaining them in the company and by not prioritising obtaining money for the freelancers (through legal action if the Colemans wouldn’t put their hand in their pockets themselves) above and beyond making sure that the Colemans didn’t suffer any negative effects of their own awful behaviour.

Given the industry’s reliance on freelancers, I increasingly feel like I’d rather spend money on publishers who actually make a point of paying them. If the old regime were still in charge at Chaosium and still indulging in their infamously slack payment habits, I might feel the same about them; as it stands, part of the reason I’m such a keen advocate for the new regime is that they’ve made paying their debts and doing right by their freelancers an overt priority going forwards.

I can’t trust that Catalyst won’t leave their freelancers high and dry again in the future – if not because of another Loren Coleman hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment, then because of some other crisis where the company leadership decides that the personal comfort of them and their friends takes priority over their contractual obligations to freelancers. And when you add to that the way Coleman just plain got away with it, well, it sticks in my craw to think of my money going to Catalyst as long as he’s involved.

Chivalrously Giving It Another Chance

So I’ve previously made it clear that I consider 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery to have been a bit of a botch, and that the revisions which came with its second edition to be too little too late to save the game line. Whilst commercially speaking the game did end up going into the wilderness shortly after the publication of 2nd edition in 1983, and never quite recovered its former niche despite several attempts at reviving it, I’ve recently had a chance to give 2nd Edition a closer look and I feel inclined to be nicer to it than I was in my previous article.

The big differences between the two editions of the game are less to do with game mechanics and more to do with writing approach. 1977’s 1st edition of the game was a difficult read not just because of the absurdly shrunk-down text, but also because it was actually quite bad at explaining its fundamental assumptions of play. This isn’t wholly the fault of Wilf Backhaus and Ed Simbalist; back in 1977 the tabletop RPG market was only three years old, people hadn’t settled on a nomenclature yet, and Backhaus and Simbalist seemed to be coming from a gaming context which had a bunch of local quirks and features which they’d assumed everyone else would be able to follow because they didn’t appreciate just how few common assumptions and practices existed at the time. Indeed, they were writing at a time when the boundary between RPGs and wargames had not been very clearly enunciated at all, and 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery wanted to offer both type of game all in one book as part of its “grand campaign” concept.

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When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe

The Price of Freedom, weird little oddity that it is, was designed in many respects as a response to the first edition of Twilight: 2000. Both games have some important parallels: they both attempt realistic takes at a somewhat fanciful political/military scenario, said scenario setting up the assumed starting point of play for the player characters, and said scenario also making it necessary for characters to take a survivalist attitude.

This is a bit of a niche model for running an RPG, but equally it’s not altogether surprising that someone should have looked to Twilight: 2000 to see if they could mimic its success. For make no mistake about it: the first edition of the game was a huge hit. Marc Miller’s Far Future Enterprises, inheritor of the GDW legacy, offer some evidence for this: their guide to the product line includes, amongst a wealth of useful data, figures on how many of each product were printed, which tends to track reasonably closely to sales levels (since products which did not sell did not require so much in the way of reprints). The core set of 1st edition Twilight: 2000 had some 97,518 copies produced.

This is incredibly healthy by tabletop RPG standards – it’s not D&D levels, but very few games reach that order of magnitude, and by comparison GDW produced just shy of 250,000 copies of the Classic Traveller core rules when you add the various different formats they sold them on. When you consider that Traveller was the top-flight science fiction RPG of the era until it was eventually overthrown by Cyberpunk and Star Wars, it’s clear that there’s strong evidence for the contention that Twilight: 2000 was the market leader in the military RPG niche – and to a large extent it was that niche, with more or less no other attempt at a military or postapocalyptic tabletop RPG approaching its success.

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Kickstopper: If There’s Onyx Path In Your Hedgerow, Don’t Be Alarmed Now: It’s Just a Spring Clean For Changeling

While it’s not true that Kickstarter is the sole route by which Onyx Path brings games to market, it’s certainly true that it’s a major foundation stone of their business strategy, and that by this point seeing them pivot away from using Kickstarter at all would arguably be more newsworthy than them launching yet another one.

With repeated Kickstarters comes mistakes and accidents, and from those comes lessons. Backing an Onyx Path Kickstarter these days is a bit more of a certain prospect than it was in earlier years. Previously, Rich Thomas had followed his creators-first instincts by allowing project managers to largely structure their Kickstarters as they chose, which led to some wild variations in results. Some books came to Kickstarter with at least the first pass of the text already prepared and ready for backer inspection, thus substantiating that the time-consuming part of the writing process was more or less done and what remained consisted of writing stretch goal content, editing and tightening up the text, and getting that layout and artwork action going prior to producing the PDFs and hard copies. Such projects were rarely very late.

Other projects took a different tack, launching prior to the text being completed with the expectation that they would be resolved in good time. In some cases this led to major delays and no little controversy. Wraith: the Oblivion‘s 20th Anniversary Edition only recently managed to ship its deluxe copies to backers, with the project massively delayed due to project lead Rich Dansky having taken on a new full-time job unexpectedly; Exalted 3rd Edition was both extremely late and had a controversy-laden design process, with the two original lead designers eventually leaving the project under a cloud of mutual recriminations.

These days, Onyx Path runs a tighter ship, at least when it comes to Kickstarters – realising that whilst the company might afford to be indulgent of creators’ bouts of writers’ block and other such issues when it comes to products developed entirely out of the public eye, Kickstarted products inevitably give customers a bit more insight into where things are – and customers can’t be expected to extend the same patience to creators indefinitely, especially when the question of “Why doesn’t Onyx Path step in and help the creators get on with it?” is outstanding. Now, Kickstarters don’t get greenlit by Onyx Path until there’s a manuscript to share with backers during the crowdfunding campaign, and in general the process is much smoother.

From the perspective of, say, a Changeling: the Dreaming character, this may represent a loss of innocence, a banal imposition upon the creativity of project heads. From the perspective of a character in Changeling: the Lost, this is a welcome addition of stability in opposition to the chaos of Arcadia…

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MegaTraveller As a Resource For Classic Traveller

MegaTraveller is an awkward goof in the history of Traveller. On paper, the idea of a fresh new edition of the game which gathered together the cream of the crop from various disparate supplements and accessories in order to provide a brand new unified version of the rules – complete with, at last, a universal task resolution system, something vanilla Traveller had been sorely lacking – was a good one.

Unfortunately, slightly too much of MegaTraveller involved just slopping on the advanced options from Classic Traveller without much consideration as to how likely it was any particular group wanted all these dials turned up to 11 at once. Moreover, the core books are absolutely riddled with errata; the Consolidated MegaTraveller Errata is some 71 pages long, and of those pages 4 consist of explanatory material at the start, 48 consist of errata for the MegaTraveller core books, and the remaining 19 pages cover errata for some 11 supplemental products – coming to less than 2 pages per supplement on average, whilst the MegaTraveller core set has an average of 16 pages of errata per book therein.

Now, it’s true that some of this errata consists of clarifications and additions rather than actual errors – and a few of the corrections already made their way into later printing of the materials. Still, it’s clear that the task of actually implementing all of this errata to the entirety of MegaTraveller, even if you limited yourself to just the core books, would be a mammoth undertaking and, arguably, not really worth the effort – especially when the Classic Traveller material that MegaTraveller was based on (or the Mongoose Traveller stuff that came out later) is more accessible and much more amenable to letting you pick and choose what to use.

That said, what scope is there for using MegaTraveller not as a rules set in itself, but as a body of work to draw on for other Traveller games, particularly Classic Traveller or other systems closely related to it? I decided that was a question interesting enough to merit further investigation, particularly since some of the MegaTraveller materials out there is substantially cheaper to find hard copies of than the Classic Traveller material it draws on.

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Some Neat Pendragon Things

So a while back I managed to get my hand on a few pre-5th Edition Pendragon bits and pieces, and I could have sworn I’d reviewed them here but I hadn’t, so here’s my quick thoughts on them.

First up was a nice boxed set of 1st Edition Pendragon. Interesting in part as a historical item, it’s notable just how much of the structure of the game was in place right there from the start – in particular, the revolutionary personality trait and passion system was right there. 5th Edition is a bit more focused in the way the core book assumes that your homeland is Salisbury, which is sensible for making characters for the Great Pendragon Campaign framework because that’s at the heart of the action at the start of that, but this box was designed before that framework was in place and so offers character gen for knights from a range of homelands.

Whilst Stafford does note that the presence of female knights is, by default, assumed to be not a thing, he does point out that this is largely an upshot of the original troubadours writing to the social norms of their time, and that as residents of modern times we have the capacity both to work in our own ideas and draw on concepts and traditions of warrior women that the original troubadours might not have had access to. The set is also nicely rounded out with a poster map of Arthurian Britain, which will enhance play with any edition of the game.

The 4th Edition of the game is a big fat book and, unfortunately, lacks the focus of other editions. A desire to broaden the game opens up a range of non-knightly character generation options, including magicians, whereas I’m of the view that magic is not really a tool for PCs to use in a reliable, repeatable way in a Pendragon game – rather, it should be an environmental factor encountered in adventures, something outside of the PCs’ control and common experience most of the time which spices things up whenever it appears. In general, this dilution of Stafford’s original concept is unwelcome.

That said, 4th Edition did have some interesting supplements, such as Pagan Shore – a treatment of Ireland sufficiently definitive that the 5th Edition Great Pendragon Campaign actually recommends you consult it if the PCs go there. Penned by John Carnahan, it offers a view of a world derived from Irish mythology mashed up with an invasion from across the Irish Sea inspired in part by Henry II’s campaigns, offering the sort of mashup of history and mythology which has been part of the whole Arthurian deal ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth did his thing.