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.

Continue reading “The Delta Green Archives”

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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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…

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

Kickstopper: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

It makes sense that many of Greg Stolze’s recent projects have had Kickstarters associated with them, seeing how Greg was doing crowdfunding well before Kickstarter became a significant platform for RPG publication. Back when he was self-publishing REIGN, Greg pioneered the use of crowdfunding in RPG publication by his so-called “ransom model” – he’d write a product, set a “ransom” for it, and then release it to the world for free once the ransom had been paid.

The ransom model was a good way for Greg to ensure he wasn’t putting out too much stuff which nobody actually wanted, and to get a reasonably predictable level of recompense for his writing time; if a product struggled to hit the ransom, he’d know that the market was less hot for it than a product which hit ransom quickly. At the same time, the ransom model rewards freeloaders and doesn’t offer anything extra to people who chip in beyond the satisfaction of knowing you contributed to the product being released. If you were confident that a particular thing that Greg had written was popular and would hit its ransom anyway, then there was little reason for you yourself to pay any of the ransom – and that factor, perversely, gets stronger the more apparently-popular the product is.

Kickstarter, by comparison, avoids this issue. Some Kickstarters are a back-this-or-miss-out affair, where if you weren’t in on the crowdfunding campaign, you won’t get the product, but the majority of them still make their fruits available to the general public eventually (should the products in question actually get made at all, that is); this means that if people genuinely can’t afford to throw money in during the funding period they don’t necessarily miss out completely. At the same time, Kickstarter allows project creators to appropriately reward people who do pitch in, ensuring that their contribution is valued and creating a reason to want to get in during the funding period when you could just hold onto your money and wait.

It’s appropriate, then, that when Atlas Games decided that it was the right time to bring out a new edition of Unknown Armies, they used Kickstarter to do it. And where there’s a Kickstarter, there’s scope for a Kickstopper…

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Kickstopper: Friends, Romans, Great Old Ones!

One of the recurring strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it’s very easily adapted to other time periods. Tweak the skill list to remove anachronistic skills, introduce skills appropriate to the time period, and update the baseline skill values appropriately – people are likely to have a generally higher level of computer skill in a present-day game than one set in the 1970s, where computer use is likely to be a highly specialised skill, for instance. Once you’ve done that, you’ve done 90% of the work; do an equipment list and a career list and you’re basically there.

Cthulhu Invictus is a game line which takes this principle to heart by adapting Call of Cthulhu to ancient Rome. It’s also not a game line which Chaosium themselves are interested in directly managing these days – though they did put out material for it for 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu, and did include some conversion guidelines in Cthulhu Through the Ages.

Instead, in 2017 they gave Golden Goblin Press, a third party publisher, a 3-year licence to handle the line, beginning with The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus – a new core book, updated to the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules. What happens when that three years up, I rather suspect, depends on how well Golden Goblin do as custodians of Cthulhu Invictus. How’s the line’s flagship product, as produced via this Kickstarter? Let’s have a see…

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Kickstopper: Divinity Lost, Quality Found?

Once upon a time there was a game called Kult, whose original Swedish-language release came out a few months before Vampire: the Masquerade‘s original English-language release. Despite being penned in different languages and presented for different markets, both of them managed to tap into the zeitgeist in a broadly similar way; each of them stepped away from the fantasy worlds, science fiction galaxies, historical settings or superhero milieus that had dominated tabletop RPGs to date in favour of setting themselves in a dark take on the real world, with supernatural horror lurking just out of sight of ordinary life. Both games had a distinctively edgy aesthetic drawing on goth and industrial influences freely. Both games tackled the subject of sexuality directly, rather than tiptoeing around it or pretending that sexual or romantic stories had no place in tabletop RPGs.

And as a result of all of that, both games ended up both making a splash in their respective RPG scenes – Vampire is famous for successfully getting people into RPGs who wouldn’t have previously given them a second look – and sparking cultural controversy. Vampire got tenuously connected to some murders in the USA, but Satanic Panic conspiracy theorists’ interest in tabletop RPGs had largely already waxed and waned by the time that Vampire emerged, and it rather got lost in a mass of a whole other range of stuff to get outraged over like DOOM and Marilyn Manson. Conversely, Kult was at the centre of a firestorm of controversy in Sweden, effectively becoming the hub of its version of the RPG-related Satanic Panic just as Dungeons & Dragons had in the Anglosphere.

Kult‘s English-language versions, however… those have had a bit more of a patchy record. The first English edition made a bit of a polite splash but I felt it was let down a little by a mixed bag of supporting supplements and adventures – with, in particular, some issues arising as a result of a mixture of Swedish 1st and 2nd edition materials being used, giving rise to contradictions between some materials.

There were also issues with the system being poorly received in the English market, being regarded as a bit clunky and uninspiring. This would have been less of an issue in the Swedish market, since Kult followed what was then the in-vogue style of system design, which largely consisted of ripping off Basic Roleplaying, since that was the first system which made it big in the Swedish market. What was then the norm in Sweden had become clearly a bit old-fashioned and behind the curve in English-speaking markets, especially compared to Vampire which (along with Shadowrun and Star Wars) did a lot to popularise the “dice pool” school of RPG design. Subsequent English editions failed to make much of an impact at all, with the third edition being quite badly botched – right down to the printing of the actual physical book.

When Swedish publishers Helmgast landed the rights to Kult, they decided to do right by the old beast – putting a new system under the hood to better support the themes of the game, and producing the English-language and Swedish versions of the new edition in conjunction with each other so that no more would the English version be out of step with the Swedish. And the grand plan to fund all of this? Why, a Kickstarter!

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Divinity Lost, Quality Found?”