Kickstopper: The Legacy of Three Kickstarters

Accountability disclaimer! This Kickstopper article’s going to be about a trio of projects run by UFO Press, owned by Liz and Jay Iles (with Jay being the lead designer on most of the material I’m about to discuss). These are friends of mine I know in real life, so if that makes you want to apply a grain of salt to my opinions and question my objectivity on the subject… don’t care, writing article anyway.

Anyway! This Kickstopper article’s going to be a little different from the usual one because I’m going to be reviewing a series of three linked Kickstarters – the first one being for the original edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, the second for the 2nd edition of that game, and the third for The Next World – a set of additional settings for Legacy. These three Kickstarters chart the birth and rise of UFO Press from one small indie publisher among many to one which, to my admittedly biased eyes, seems to be punching above its weight in the industry, with Legacy getting widespread critical recognition – there’s currently a Bundle of Holding offer dedicated to the 2nd edition – as well as a crucial commercial leg up thanks to a distribution deal with Modiphius.

Jay’s been able to shepherd her game from a passion project reliant on DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand arrangements to deliver hard copies to a series which gets traditional print runs and wide distribution via one of the industry’s current major players, and hopefully this article might highlight how that’s possible thanks to the combination of interesting content, delightful presentation, and excellent Kickstarter management that UFO Press has been able to bring to the table.

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Kickstopper: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Rob Schwalb, for those of you who don’t read the credits pages on your RPG rulebooks, is a game designer with a pretty decent CV. His first especially notable work was as a Green Ronin staffer, in which capacity he wrote a bunch of well-received material for WFRP 2nd Edition and designed the Song of Ice and Fire RPG. He then ended up working at Wizards of the Coast during the 4th Edition D&D years, the culmination of his work there being his job as part of the design team under Mike Mearls for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Schwalb exited Wizards of the Coast after turning in his last work on 5th Edition and, having made some contributions to Mahna Mahna, decided he wanted to follow Monte Cook’s lead and start his own publishing company. Schwalb Entertainment’s big debut was to be Shadow of the Demon Lord, a Schwalb-penned tabletop RPG with an unfettered grimdark aesthetic, and naturally Schwalb turned to Kickstarter to fund it.

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Kickstopper: Dark Ages, Delightful Anniversary

Although the various World of Darkness games unfold by default in the modern day, back in their prime White Wolf eagerly put out various guides – whether as fully standalone games or as supplements to their parent game – to exploring different historical eras of the games’ settings, and perhaps the most successful of these was Vampire: the Dark Ages.

Vampire: the Dark Ages represents a particularly apt marriage of game line and time period. Vampire politics in Masquerade already draws on the feudal, and its main conflicts stem back to fault lines from the original establishment of the Camarilla and Sabbat in the wake of the Anarch Revolt. Set during the medieval period prior to the Revolt, Dark Ages offers players the opportunity to play its ringleaders, or to experience the life of the clans from back before vampires had to tiptoe around and be quite so careful of the human masses, or to generally dial up the feudalism and rule the land as a dark overlord. This sort of action fits perfectly with the way that, say, Dracula is supposed to have ruled over his little region of Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s original novel. Vampire fiction regularly looks to the medieval period for its imagery and its roots – even stuff that’s blatantly copying White Wolf – and Vampire: the Dark Ages offers an opportunity to crank that dial up to 11 in a gaming context.

Naturally, since the 20th Anniversary Edition of Masquerade had done so well out of crowdfunding, it was only to be expected that 20th Anniversary Dark Ages material would get the same treatment.

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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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Over On Fake Geek Boy: Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG Review!

In case you don’t follow all my blogs, a point of potential interest: over on Fake Geek Boy I just posted a Kickstopper review of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG adaptation.

tl;dr: It’s pretty good, the main problem with it being that it keeps going after you hit the high levels where D&D 3.X-derived systems tend to break and the kingdom management system isn’t up to snuff.

The Delta Green Archives

With UFOs high in the zeitgeist in 1992, and shortly before The X-Files made the subject matter a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, Pagan Publishing’s Call of Cthulhu fanzine The Unspeakable Oath published a little adventure called Convergence, which introduced the concept of Delta Green – a top-secret, unsanctioned, off-the-books conspiracy within the US government to investigate and contain the threat of the Cthulhu Mythos.

In years to come, Convergence would begat a whole swathe of supplements. The original run of Delta Green material would provide an exciting model for modern-day Call of Cthulhu play. In more recent years, Arc Dream Publishing – consisting of many former Pagan personnel and generally speaking the inheritors of their illustrious mantle – has turned Delta Green into its own standalone RPG, though not with a system so radically divergent from 5E/6E Call of Cthulhu as to render the original supplements useless. In essence, the Delta Green RPG is a fork of Call of Cthulhu, with adaptations and changes made to better reflect the style of the Delta Green setting – substituting out the Call of Cthulhu sanity system for an adapted version of the Unknown Armies one being the most significant system deviation.

Sooner or later I’ll be doing Kickstopper articles covering the new Delta Green RPG, since the product line has been underwritten by crowdfunding efforts, but until then (and to avoid those articles getting even more absurdly big than they are already), here’s some reviews of the original run of supplements.

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Kickstopper: Dead Man’s Silhouette

Turning to Kickstarter to fund a print run of an expensive RPG core book with a niche audience is commonplace these days, so it’s no surprise that Kenzer & Company did a Kickstarter to fund their second edition of Aces & Eights, their Wild West-based RPG. Unlike, say, DeadlandsAces & Eights plays the subject matter more or less straight (with a significant difference I’ll get into later), which makes it a bit of a niche in the tabletop RPG market – in which fantasy, horror, and SF spins on historical settings tend to be more common than history played “straight”.

Why is this the case? I’m not sure. Maybe part of it is that geek culture buys into the idea that “historical thing plus wildly historical element” is more interesting than “historical thing”, despite the fact that if history has one lesson to teach us it’s that fact is often wilder than fiction. Perhaps another part is a dislike of historical research as an element of gameplay – though there’s an odd contradiction here, in that the same gamers who aren’t so keen on historical research might be entirely happy to play games in extremely detailed fictional settings in which boning up on bits of canon might become a significant part of running a game.

On this latter part, I wonder whether there’s something in geek culture which prefers the cast-iron certainty of an authorially-approved “canon” of a fictional setting to the grey lines and uncertainties that exist in actual historical research. In a fictional setting there are clearly designated goodies and baddies; in a historical setting, you get the same (people freeing slaves in the antebellum South = goodies, fucking Nazis = baddies), but you also have this big blurry mass in between. For some, that’s off-putting, particularly if they just want a bit of escapism; for those that prize historical roleplaying, those grey areas and that scope for research and study informing your gaming is often part of the appeal.

The cognitive trick you need to overcome is that it doesn’t matter if your game is 100% historically accurate, any more than it matters whether your Star Wars game is 100% canon – you will make mistakes in either. It’s just that in the historical game, debates on how a hazily-thought-out supernatural metaphysic interfaces with the action are replaced with discussions of historical points. Both forms of table talk can be constrained or encouraged to the tastes of those present by an attentive referee.

Such rants aside, though… is it any good?

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