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.

Continue reading “MegaTraveller As a Resource For Classic Traveller”

Advertisements

Turns Out Zak S. Is Worse Than We Thought

If you’ve been around RPG online discussion for a while – a somewhat different field from simply writing, playing and enjoying tabletop RPGs, with less overlap between the two than you might expect – you’ll probably be aware of one Zak Sabbath – AKA Zak S., AKA Zak Smith. He’s an artist, a porn actor, and a game writer and publisher. In terms of his RPG writing credentials, he first gained visibility through his blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars, which at least in its early phases came across as an entirely wholesome account of his fun home campaigns played, as the title implies, primarily with friends and colleagues he met through the porn world. The blog would later spawn a spin-off off video series on The Escapist, entitled I Hit It With My Axe.

On the back of this initial exposure, Zak has built an audience within the tabletop RPG community. He’s produced some well-received OSR-flavoured gaming materials, such as Vornheim (published through the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game line). He was one of several figures named as having been “consultants” on 5E Dungeons & Dragons; he also wrote a text-based mobile game for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf as one of the first releases in their new Vampire: the Masquerade game line.

If you’re not the sort of person who keeps a weather eye on online forum culture or Internet RPG discussion, odds are that you’d only be aware of the above – if, indeed, you are one of the people who actually care about what name appears on an RPG supplement in the first place. (I greatly suspect that those people account for much less of the hobby than you may think.) In RPG discussion circles, however, for years Zak has had a vastly more controversial reputation.

Zak is persona non grata at a wide selection of RPG forums and platforms. Typically, he’ll get banned because of his posting style. Zak’s rhetorical style can best be described as take-no-prisoners; he charges in, asserts his point vigorously, has no qualms about demonising or belittling his opponents – suggest that there’s too much chainmail bikini cheesecake material and too little sensible armour in RPG artwork and he’ll compare you to Tipper Gore (because he’s stick in the mid-1990s for some weird reason) – and basically charges into a debate like a bull in a china shop. He has very developed and specific opinions and rules as to how debate should go, and if he spots somebody not following those rules he will try to present them as participating in bad faith.

This pattern has happened over and over again, over a wide range of fora, including his own blog. In general, he treats every disagreement or debate like it’s a full-on battle of crucial importance. It makes him very, very exhausting to discuss anything with, and I long ago gave up any attempt to engage him. (He tried to comment here once – a one word comment, “Ew”, in response to some article I wrote; I forget which because the comment was long since binned and purged, but I think it might have been this one. The only way to “win” at Zak is not to play his game, or let him into your playground in the first place.)

In short, Zak’s approach to online discussion is not conducive to a chill, relaxed space where people chat about their hobby in an essentially friendly manner. Rather, it’s the sort of rhetorical tactic which will turn a forum into a screeching hellhole of divisiveness, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise that many forum owners and moderators find it easier to do without Zak’s presence. The last I was aware, he was still welcome at therpgsite – I suspect because it’s run by the RPGPundit, who’s got a similar reputation for off-the-hook aggressive debating tactics.

The Pundit connection is significant. Back when 5E D&D was being released, a clutch of “consultants” were named in the Basic Rules PDF – Rob Monroe gives a fairly neutral accounting of them here. As I understand it, their role was mostly to act as sounding boards for Mike Mearls and his team to bounce ideas off of, so the concept of getting people with a wide range of outlooks on RPGs for that sort of consultancy is a good one. It’s a pity that none of the people listed are women, and an extra double pity with cream that the folk listed included RPGPundit or Zak S., neither of whom really rate on the same level as a Jeff Grubb, a Robin Laws or a Ken Hite, and both of whom took a substantial ego boost out of being named in that exalted company.

It was around this time that I became aware that a number of people had accused Zak of either directly harassing them himself, or mobilising fans through various platforms to do that. A number of people wrote in-depth posts about Zak and the issues surrounding him (and Pundit), such as this one from Fail Forward, and others such as the Problematic Tabletop blog have tried to bring together various evidences of the behaviour of Zak along with other toxic elements of the community. (Unfortunately, Problematic Tabletop used donotlink for a lot of their links – which now don’t redirect anywhere except a French domain squatter’s advertising page about folding touchscreens.) “Consultantgate” was underway, as folk decried Wizards for legitimising Pundit and Zak to that extent.

The tricky thing is that the nature of a lot of the harassment involved meant that – particularly before Problematic Tabletop and others did a lot of the legwork – actually recognising the pattern involved wasn’t all that easy for folk who hadn’t already been at least partially aware of Zak’s recurrent online behaviours. Shawn Struck hit the nail on the head when he outlined how Zak operates to give himself some form of plausible deniability. Since then, Problematic Tabletop has gathered some much more direct evidence – such as screencaps of Zak posting a link to some article he disagreed with, along with the on-word command “destroy” – and people have given cogent accounts of their own experiences with Zak, but at the time much of the evidence readily available was either far more indirect, or had been deleted and not archived.

So, Zak plead innocence and claimed that people were making mountains out of rhetorical molehills; depressingly, Wizards of the Coast seemed to believe him – and the Paradox-controlled White Wolf seemed to believe him later on, when objections were raised after they hired him to make that Vampire text game. I won’t go into all the complaints about that game, but I will note that it was one of the first signs that the Paradox-controlled White Wolf were going down the edgelord route real hard, taking the worst excesses of 1990s White Wolf and cranking them up to 11 – to the stage where Paradox has recently had to step in, dissolve White Wolf, and reconstitute it as a carefully managed and supervised subsidiary which no longer has that much independence and exists solely to licence out work and handle the approvals process with licencees, much as it was in the latter days of its ownership by CCP. (There’s a quote about a severed ass which goes around which reveals the absolutely risible writing standards the game is lumbered with.)

Controversy rumbled on from Consultantgate onwards, with new outbreaks occasionally happening (such as when Zak’s Vampire: the Masquerade game was announced.) Around the time of Consultantgate, Zak’s partner Mandy Morbid – despite being quite ill at the time – put out an impassioned defence of him; Zak would extensively link back to this, particularly when defending himself against allegations that women and/or LGBT+ folk tended to be recurring targets of his ire. Those opting to defend Zak would tend to link Mandy’s post on the subject, because of course why wouldn’t they? This is someone in Zak’s life who knows him extremely well, giving another perspective on the situation, and who was finding the whole situation distressing at a time when she was dealing with an ongoing chronic illness.

Time rolled on. More incidents happened. Bit by bit people who had defended Zak previously started backing away from him, as it became more and more difficult to deny that there was a problem there. (After all, if even 90% of the accusations against him are false, the remaining 10% are pretty fucked.) At one point Zak was caught red-handed impersonating Shannon Appelcine, owner of RPG.net, on Reddit, and pulled out the old “oh, my friend was using my computer as a joke” excuse, which seemed to nudge a few people out of his corner.

Now, however, we have a bombshell. Yesterday, Mandy Morbid re-emerged – having gone quiet for a good while – to reveal that she had split up from Zak, and that throughout their relationship Zak had been abusive towards her.

Mandy’s words are difficult to read – there’s violence in there, there’s lack of consent, there’s threats, there’s all sorts of shit, so I am not going to copy-paste them to here for the time being and will instead link them. (If you are Facebook-averse here is an archive.is link.)

It’s entirely possible that Mandy will come under attack from Zak’s defenders for posting this. I hope the support network around her will do what it can for her during that; she does at least seem to have a lot of support on the Facebook post itself. In particular, it’s heartening to see people saying that they had defended Zak previously but now felt differently, or that they were going to decline opportunities to work with him in the light of all this.

Whilst it is a shame that they didn’t see through Zak previously, I do applaud them for changing their minds with the emergence of new evidence. It is difficult to abandon an entrenched position when you have held it this long, and whilst we can carp on them for deciding to take that position in the first place, I feel that the “nyah, I told you so” angle is unhelpful and unimportant next to the community doing right by Mandy by supporting her – and doing right by itself by not giving an abuser the free run he’s had so far.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that it’s Mandy’s words that have nudged people into definitively breaking with Zak – or convinced them that their previous decision to break with him was the right call. That essay that Mandy put out in defence of Zak that I mentioned earlier? I was careful to say “put out” and not “wrote” because, whilst it was published through her blogging platforms and presented as coming from her, Mandy now says that Zak wrote the entire dang thing and had her publish it under her name, and that one of the major fault lines in their relationship was how he dragged her into his “online gaming arguments nonsense”.

This is far from the worst thing that Mandy reports, but it’s surely the one which sticks in the mind of many of Zak’s former supporters, since “Mandy’s” defence of Zak seems to have played no small part in persuading them of Zak’s good character. Mandy speaking out certainly has made Rob Monroe disavow his previous stance on Zak.

Another story worth looking at is that of Patrick Stuart from the False Machine blog, who over the past five years has gone on quote a journey in his interactions with Zak. At first he was an emphatic Zak supporter. Then he attempted to put together a timeline of all the facts which, whilst I think it tends to come at things from a Zak-believer’s perspective (it puts a lot of weight on people +1’ing a Google Plus post about James Desborough which Zak chose to kick off a crusade about, for instance), does end up highlighting how Zak clearly isn’t wholly innocent in all this; it’s pretty hard to correlate all the information together and not come away with questions about what Zak’s been playing at.

Then, despite clearly still wanting to be a pal with Zak on some level, seems to have decided that this simply wasn’t possible given how Zak behaves all the time; here Patrick finally snaps at Zak and says “People call you a dick because you act like a dick.” As Patrick notes in his latest post, responding to Mandy’s revelations, the connection to Zak in and of itself seems to have had a poor effect on his mental health; Zak seems to be a very, very difficult person to be online friends with (which should give you some idea of just how difficult people find it to be his enemy). I am going to quote Patrick here because I suspect these words of his may resonate with those who have been trying to reconcile their own interactions with Zak with what Mandy has said:

Its the dual-vision of being friends with Zak. There’s this person who’s such a great guy, and so interested in you personally, so talented, intelligent, charming and funny, with rare good taste.

And then there is this other guy. The one that comes out in text form usually. In arguments about nerd stuff. This guy is condescending, aggressive, clever and manipulative. This guy will say anything to win some fucking internet argument and never, ever, ever admits wrong, backs down or recognises the humanity in his opponents.

The first guy has friends who like him. They second guy has tools, things he uses, doling them out like playing cards or little army men.

At first it seems like the vituperative shit online is just a flaw in the larger person. Something you will have to put up with, a manageable flaw in an otherwise good man.

It takes a long fucking time to work out that the second guy is the real actual guy. That is the person making the decisions and for whom the decisions are made. The first person, the good guy, is just a set of behaviours he puts on like clothes.

Certainly, between the material that Problematic Tabletop has amassed since this controversy first kicked off, what Mandy has been brave enough to say now, and the way others who have previously been close to Zak have said “Yeah, actually, that kind of is how it is to be friends with him”, it feels like if you aren’t already persuaded that Zak has engaged in entirely inappropriate actions, you’ll never be persuaded of it.

Update: This situation has blown up and I would not blame anyone if they find it impossible to keep up with more than a fraction of what is being said about it. But there’s something which shouldn’t get lost in the hustle, and that’s Viv’s story as another one of Zak’s ex-partners.

Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)

The story so far: James Wallis, old hand in the British RPG industry, takes to Kickstarter to fund his return to RPG design. His campaign is very successful, based largely on his good reputation among gamers; he then pisses away that reputation on a massively delayed delivery process which involved multiple broken promises, several long stretches of total silence and non-interaction with backers, and an honest-to-goodness tie-in with Far West.

Eventually, some products crept out of the darkness, and in this part of the saga I am going to take a look at them and then offer some final thoughts.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)”

Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 2)

The story so far: James Wallis, former head honcho of Hogshead Publishing and a bit of a RPG design celebrity*, runs his Alas Vegas Kickstarter to fund his new indie RPG – his return to game design after a long break. Asking for a humble £3000, he came away with just over £24,000. That’s not a huge budget, but hey, apparently the core text was mostly finished, so the production process would mostly be a matter of waiting for third party stretch goal contributions and the artwork to come in, doing the editing, proofing, and layout, and sorting out the process of printing. All these tasks are the bread and butter of an experienced publisher like Wallis, so there was no reason to expect any great difficulty. And yet…

* That said, his reputation is mostly built on his role in publishing the works of others – WFRPNobilisDragon Warriors – but he also is reasonably well-known for Once Upon a Time – a game he designed with a group of collaborators – and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which as I’ve outlined in my review of it is actually kind of a riff on Once Upon a Time‘s design ideas.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 2)”

Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 1)

This is a Kickstopper article I took great care in writing, and had to think carefully about publishing. Ultimately, although I wasn’t satisfied with my experience with this Kickstarter, I did end up getting my money back – more than my money back, in fact – and I could just walk away from all of this. However, at the same time I also believe there is a strong public interest component in laying out this information. I’m not, at the end of the day, setting out anything which isn’t to a large extent a matter of public record, or which hasn’t already been disclosed to a sufficiently great number of project backers so as to dissolve any expectation of confidentiality – but the story has unfolded sufficiently long and slow that I think there is value in gathering the facts together and presenting them like this.

This article is necessarily going to involve a great deal of criticism of the actions of the initiator of the Alas Vegas Kickstarter project, James Wallis. Whenever people complain about the outcome of a Kickstarter they’re very quick to cry “scam” or “fraud”, but I don’t want to do that, not just because I have no evidence that it is the case but because all the evidence I have available to me suggests the opposite. On the basis of all of my interactions and research into this situation, I genuinely do not believe that James set out to cheat or defraud anyone, nor do I think anyone has been deliberately defrauded in the process of this Kickstarter. I believe that his intention was to do exactly what he said he was going to do and to meet all of his promises.

The fact remains, however, that it taken him extraordinarily long to do some of the things he said he was going to do, some of those things remain still not done even years after the fact, and promises and commitments he made to his backers have undeniably been broken. In fact, I think it’s a matter of general interest how someone who began a project with essentially good intentions, a reasonable plan for completion, and the core creative task for the project already largely completed could ultimately end up alienating a great many of their backers through their actions, communications, inaction and lack of communication.

Moreover, it’s also a case study of someone for whom Kickstarter success turned out to be more damaging than failure. It would be easy to write a hit piece if James Wallis seemed to be taking some sort of wry joy in frustrating and enraging his backers, but the truth seems to be quite the opposite. The process of getting the core Alas Vegas product finished seems to have been a living nightmare for Wallis. It injured him in a way I’ve rarely seen in other Kickstarters – or perhaps which other Kickstarter project owners are simply less transparent about.

Bizarrely, one of the reasons I’d never fund another James Wallis-helmed Kickstarter is because part of me feels like it would be cruel to do so – enabling exactly the sort of agonising process that Alas Vegas took would do more damage to him than his project failing to fund in the first place. If I saw Wallis attempting another Kickstarter in future, I think I’d feel about as bad as I would if I witnessed him committing an act of public self-harm, because on a certain level that’s exactly what it would be.

The thing is, I don’t think Wallis is unique. The creative process is different for everyone, and for a very few it can seem, from the outside, little different from self-torture. The mistakes and questionable choices made during the Alas Vegas Kickstarter include some decisions which I cannot fathom the logic of, but also a great many which are completely understandable, and which other creators could well make in similar circumstances.

On top of that, I think a number of the issues the Kickstarter ran into arise not from any actual objective mistakes made by Wallis and are more of a byproduct of his preferred method of working not really being right for the Kickstarter format. Perhaps by telling this story, other creators can take this experience and apply it to their own projects and their creative process, and make a call on whether Kickstarter is actually the right platform for their ideas.

On the other hand, Wallis also made a number of unforced errors, and his behaviour towards his backers is about as far from “best practice” as it’s possible to get. I don’t think he is a scam artist or a fraudster, but I do think he’s deeply unreliable and highly unprofessional, and in particular exhibits avoidant behaviour which makes it very difficult to discuss matters with him when things are going wrong. This isn’t even an isolated incident – in the course of this saga we’ll encounter at least one situation where he exhibited all of those traits in relation to a completely different project.

In the unlikely event that Wallis attempts another crowdfunding project, I think people need to know how this one went so they can make an informed choice as to whether they support his future endeavours. Personally, I wouldn’t.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 1)”

Kickstopper: That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternally Restructure (Part 1)

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Kickstarter fulfilment is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes, it’s also a relay race, when the original project creator has to hand over much of the process to someone else. In the tabletop RPG sphere, for instance, there was the Dwimmermount Kickstarter, in which project owner James Maliszewski quite understandably found himself overwhelmed by his father’s terminal illness and had to hand over the work to his publishers at Autarch to finish (though, less excusably, only after they had to go to a really undue level of effort to get in touch with him to find out what was going on).

In the case of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, the Kickstarter was begun and finished by Chaosium… but along the way Chaosium underwent an eldritch transformation. The overall effect, in fact, was much like the central identity switch of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Gone was the familiar Chaosium – eccentric, set in its ways, slightly ineffectual, but with its heart in the right place, rather like Charles Dexter Ward – and in its place was a new Chaosium, stronger, more confident, with the power of old magic behind it, just like Joseph Curwen. And just like in the story, the old Chaosium’s very success destroyed it, leaving the new Chaosium to take its place.

So complex is the saga of this Kickstarter that, for the first time, I am actually going to split a Kickstopper article in half. In this first part, I will cover the exciting Kickstarter fundraising process and the devastating delivery process, picking apart just what went wrong and just how everything went so right in the end. In part 2, I will deliver the actual swag I received.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternally Restructure (Part 1)”

Kickstopper: I Got Refunded By a Burning Wheel of Fire

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Well, this is interesting. Folks, for the first time I am going to do a Kickstarter article on a project which successfully funded and where I received nothing save a refund. Even more interestingly, this is a project which seems, for the most part, to be in the process of delivering right on time.

Specifically, this is the story of how Luke Crane’s schtick started wearing thin, and how he responded to questioning of that with an unrequested refund.

Unusual Note on Methodology

Typically when I do these things, I have received some stuff to review. Obviously, I have received nothing, so nothing will get reviewed.

That said, as always I like to give a caveat that in any discussion of a Kickstarter I can only speak with authority about my own personal experience of the process. That goes double here, obviously, because Luke Crane didn’t fall out with all the backers in the same way he fell out with me and some others.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: I Got Refunded By a Burning Wheel of Fire”