Breaking News: The Confederacy Falls Again In Deadlands

So, Pinnacle have kicked off a significant spring-cleaning of the Deadlands setting, and as part of this they’ve kicked off a metaplot event called the Morgana Effect, which has provided them with an excuse to go back and retcon some aspects of the setting. The big news, as extensively explained by game creator Shane Hensley, is that whereas in the previous version of the setting the Confederacy survived the Civil War, in the new version of the setting it fell.

Given that the continuation of the Confederacy – in an unfortunately sanitised non-slaveowning form that made an absolute mockery of the Confederacy’s cause, at that – was one of the main problems I’d previously had with the game, obviously I find this development very welcome, and this decision makes me markedly more likely to both play/run Deadlands in the future and take a look at the revised game line, even if I prefer the old system to Savage Worlds.

Hensley, I think, does a good job in his Facebook post of explaining why the Confederacy was there in the game in the first place, and why he’s made the call to remove it now. Initially it was meant to be a pawn for the Reckoners to use, but with the intervening time the setting’s been developed to the point where the CSA is redundant – there’s other factions that can play its role just as handily. Game materials directly dealing with the Confederacy were actually thinner on the ground than you’d expect, and so it doesn’t actually do that much damage to the setting to have the Confederacy defeated, particularly when one notes that nothing stops tensions between North and South continuing to be a thing in the setting, just as they were in the Reconstruction era – it’s just that the South doesn’t have its own government and army any more.

And most importantly, Hensley has recognised – perhaps late, but still recognised – that there’s been an ongoing cost to having the reformed CSA as part of the game. And as he puts it, “it’s one I don’t have to pay…someone else does. And I don’t want that.” As long as it remained an option in the game to play a dyed-in-the-wool CSA loyalist – even one loyal to an anti-slavery CSA which stands in jarring contradiction to the CSA’s actual values – that’d make some uncomfortable at the gaming table, inevitably and with good reason. Removing the option makes the game more fun for those who don’t want a loud and proud Confederate being one of the “heroes” – and I think Hensley has realised that if denying someone the opportunity to use the game as neo-Confederate wish-fulfillment loses him customers, those are customers that he’s entirely happy to lose.

As it stands, the Civil War is still a bit counterfactual in Deadlands; the CSA lasts longer than it did historically, dragging on another 7 years until a brutal defeat in 1871’s Battle of Washington in the Deadlands timeline. Post-Morgana Effect, the Battle of Washington is now the point where the CSA collapsed entirely. Frankly, I have no problem with this treatment of it, even if they retain the point about the CSA abandoning slavery in the mid-1860s. In this setup it’s possible to spin that as a feint – a cheap trick to get some motivated fighters to the front line as things got increasingly desperate, with the CSA leaders planning to reimpose slavery should circumstances permit.

What’s most important about it is that it means the Confederacy is out of the picture as of the assumed starting date for Deadlands campaigns. It’s one thing to say “The Confederates abolished slavery, but too late to turn things around for them, and so the CSA collapsed.” It’s a beast of a whole different stripe to say “The Confederates abolished slavery, and as a result they survived the Civil War and forced a stalemate with the Union”, and a whole other thing to have that Confederacy present as a feature of the setting, and a whole other thing still to have it be a viable faction for player characters to support.

Ultimately, none of the great Western stories we still love today – conventional, spaghetti, or Weird – ask us to accept ideological loyalists to the Confederacy as heroes, so not offering that as a player character option in Deadlands is no great loss – and if anything, throwing that bit of politics out there just confuses discussion of the game and distracts from the supernatural horror and mayhem which is the game’s stock in trade. So let’s raise a glass at the saloon to Pinnacle, for finally correcting course on what’s been a long-standing point of contention with the game line.

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.

Kickstopper: What a Long Fantasy Trip It’s Been

This is the story of a Kickstarter which many in the RPG community had thought would never be possible, or at least wouldn’t be possible until at least one stubborn rights-holder had ended up in the grave. The departure of Steve Jackson (the US one who does GURPS and Munchkin, not the UK one who started Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy) from Howard Thompson’s Metagaming was, as I’ve discussed previously, a bitter breakup involving no small amount of acrimony, largely from Thompson’s direction (at least in terms of public behaviour and incidents).

One of the ways in which Thompson tried to get back at Jackson concerned The Fantasy Trip, an RPG which Jackson had written whilst at Metagaming (and, indeed, the subject of some of the ill feeling between them, with Jackson and Thompson having very different tastes in RPGs and ideas about what form the product should take). After Metagaming went bust, it was only natural that Jackson should ask after the rights to The Fantasy Trip, but Thompson demanded a quarter of a million dollars for the rights.

This was an absolutely absurd amount of money, even during the early 1980s RPG boom, and Thompson’s reasons for asking for it have been the matter of lasting speculation. Was he absolutely kidding himself about how much the rights were actually worth? That would be consistent with a caricature of Thompson as a clueless businessman who didn’t know his own industry, but the dude had kept the lights on at Metagaming for nearly a decade, so if he were that clueless it’d be surprising. Did he have half a mind to get back into the industry? If so, after three-and-a-half decades he hasn’t made any apparent effort to do so.

To me, the explanation which is most consistent with the facts is good old-fashioned spite: Thompson still bore a grudge against Jackson for leaving (and taking some hot IP like the OGRE boardgame with him), Thompson therefore demanded an absurd amount of money from Jackson for the Fantasy Trip rights, working on the basis that it was more insulting than simply refusing to negotiate at all – and that if Jackson were actually fool enough to pay him the money, he’d be gambling with the stability of Steve Jackson Games itself.

Thompson, however, didn’t figure on the arcane operation of 17 U.S. Code § 203, a legal clause allowing authors to claim back the rights to works they’d signed away after 35 years. A little known and even more infrequently used clause, invoking it allowed Jackson to reclaim all the rights he had in The Fantasy Trip. Whilst that didn’t include the artwork, or the range of products that Metagaming had made written by other hands, that did include the text to all the products that Jackson himself had written – and since that included all the core rules to The Fantasy Trip, the stage was set for the game’s return after decades in the wilderness. And what better platform to fund the big comeback than Kickstarter?

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One More Note On Zak S.

Back when I did my post on Mandy Morbid coming forward about abusive behaviour on Zak S.’s part, I tried to structure the post so that it could be a reasonable introduction to the controversies around Zak, because part of the issue with his behaviour is that it’s spread over such a diffuse range of the Internet or buried in very long discussion threads and built up over a span of years. Collating and gathering together all the details is exhausting, and has become more difficult since the shuttering of Google+, which is where a lot of OSR types (including Zak) conducted a lot of their discussion.

It’s nice, then, that Ettin has given us a comprehensive look at the problem that is Zak, with a particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on the story everyone wants to know about: namely, that it is not impossible that Zak shit his pants at Chik-fil-A on the last day of Gen Con 2017.

Wrath & Glory and Other Warhammer 40,000 RPGs Disappear From DriveThruRPG

Despite its first wave of products coming out and its core rules being pretty solid as far as I was concerned, there’s been a concerning silence about Wrath & Glory. Aside from a few mentions in interviews, there wasn’t much emerging from the design team with respect to details of future products. The game’s standalone website was still up, though it’s a singularly crap effort – there’s no link to buy the game from, only the starter set is detailed, and the social media links go through to WordPress defaults – and all mention of the game seemed conspicuously absent from Ulisses North America’s front page. Rumours floated around about poor sales, though sales figures in the RPG industry are incredibly difficult to pin down.

Now, though, a much more concrete sign of trouble has emerged: without warning, all Wrath & Glory products have been pulled from DriveThruRPG, along with all the PDFs of the Fantasy Flight Games-era 40K RPGs which Ulisses Spiele had been given the rights to sell as part of their deal with Games Workshop. The products are still available in your library if you’ve purchased them already, and they still show up on searches – but you get an error if you click on those search results, so it’s no longer possible to buy the products on DriveThru if you haven’t already.

On doing further checks, other Ulisses North America game lines like The Dark Eye and Torg are unaffected, so it doesn’t look like this is a shift in policy on their part to shun DriveThruRPG (a bizarre choice since it’d mean walking out of the biggest shopfront in the market). Likewise, Rough Nights and Hard Days – the new supplement for WFRP – is still available on DriveThruRPG (and is doing pretty well in the sales rankings at that), so it seems unlikely that Games Workshop has abruptly decided to cancel all their RPG offerings or ban their licensees from using DriveThru. (Such a move would be a bit out of character for Games Workshop these days anyway, since under their new CEO they seem much more reasonable and gamer-friendly than they’ve been for a long while.)

On the whole, the situation stinks of a licensing issue between Games Workshop and Ulisses – extending, possibly, to a full-on cancellation or freezing of the licence. Why this would be the case I do not know; a lot hinges on what termination clauses and measures were written into the licence, and as a result it’s possible that this was initiated by Games Workshop, or by Ulisses, or by both.

It’s difficult to speculate what could have prompted this, but if I had to put bets on it, I’d say that some sort of acrimonious disagreement is involved. Compare this to the situation where Fantasy Flight gave up the licence voluntarily, and were able to declare as much to give customers a chance to make a last few purchases before the clock ran down. I can’t see that either Ulisses or Games Workshop would have wanted it to go down this way if they had a choice about it.

Possibly it’s just a momentary argument about royalties due from PDF sales or something of that nature, and PDF sales will be restored in due course… but it feels more likely that Wrath & Glory is dead in the water. Whether this came down to Ulisses tossing the 40K licence away (perhaps due to poor sales making it no longer worth their time, or their arrangement with Games Workshop constraining them from making other deals they thought would be more worthwhile), or down to Games Workshop slapping the franchise out of Ulisses’ hands, we don’t know. We can only hope that sooner or later someone else will step up to the plate to handle the grim darkness of the far future in tabletop RPG format.

UPDATE: It’s been announced that Ulisses are turning over development of Wrath & Glory to Cubicle 7. Cubicle 7 press release here, Ulisses statement here.

Despite Ulisses putting a brave face on this, I feel like this is mostly good news for Cubicle 7 and Games Workshop, and a bad sign for Ulisses North America. UNA lose a major brand, Games Workshop greatly simplify their oversight workload on the RPG front, and Cubicle 7 get all the Warhams RPGs under their banner. I have to suspect that Ulisses Spiele may feel that UNA has overextended itself and have decided to prune back their American branch accordingly.

Cubicle 7 confirm that there’ll be a revised printing of the core book, which I actually welcome – as much as I like the new system, the production values on the core book could do with a little Cubicle 7 magic, and folding in the errata would be a nice move.

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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