Kickstopper: Pelgrane Dredges Carcosa

Pelgrane Press love their literary inspirations for games. They take their name from their first major line, the The Dying Earth RPG based on the Jack Vance novels, their The Dracula Dossier adapts and radically reinterprets the original Dracula for the purpose of Night’s Dark Agents, and of course the GUMSHOE system allowed Trail of Cthulhu to unveil a new take on gaming in the Lovecraftian mythos which, whilst it isn’t entirely to my taste, does at least represent a distinct and different philosophy on how you do an investigative game from Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, as John Tynes explains extremely well.

It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve looked to adapting the GUMSHOE approach to the work of other authors of mysterious horror stories, and with The Yellow King they’re tackling the work of Robert Chambers. Will this be a game fit for a king, a dog’s breakfast, or something in between? Let’s find out…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Pelgrane Dredges Carcosa”

Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming

This is an article about a Kickstarter campaign which ended up offering two distinct things to two different (but significantly overlapping) audiences, and to my eye seemed to do pretty well at pleasing both of them – a high risk strategy which paid off in a big way.

Specifically, this is a Kickstopper overview of the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter. On the “streaming” side of the equation, this is about a plucky young company’s attempt to obtain funding to set up a nice new studio space to livestream their gaming content from. On the “strongholds” side of the equation, the Kickstarter was all about making a book – Strongholds & Followers – intended to work the idea of building a stronghold and gathering followers back into 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with the idea that the proceeds from the book would help get the streaming side of the equation going.

Stronghold construction and domain management are endgame features which TSR editions of D&D were very big on, but Wizards editions had largely discarded, creating a number of issues: for one thing, it meant that high level characters are still doing the same sort of shit that low level characters are doing in terms of their assumed activities, which dilutes the sense of progression. For another, it takes out one of the things which was at least supposed to balance out the whole Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard thing.

See, at lower levels of D&D the issue where spellcasting characters can, via their spells, do anything any other character can do but better is alleviated significantly by their limited spell slots; spellcasting powers can be extremely useful but judgement must be used in their use because if you spam all your spells you’ll be left hampered going forwards. (This works especially well if referees remember to actually fill the adventuring day with sufficient peril so that the wizards can’t just cast at will and then take a long rest between every encounter or two.)

However, once you get to the middle levels not only are higher-level spells unlocked, enabling utterly wild abilities which are beyond anything which the humble fighter is ever permitted to do (because magic is allowed to be highly unrealistic but fighters are, by a significant chunk of the fanbase, not allowed to develop unrealistic fighting abilities), but also the spellcasters are starting to get a significant number of spell slots, which means that they can simultaneously a) do way more and b) do it significantly more often.

Giving the Fighter an army at “name” level when their Magic-User contemporaries only get a few low-level apprentices was supposed to balance this, except actually an army of ordinary dorks is usually much less useful than some additional spellcasters who can act as extra walking spell slots for you. In addition, not to put too fine a point on it, but Wizards took this sort of thing out of the game because so far as I can tell very few people actually used the rules in question.

If you could update the concept, though, and put it out in a supplement designed for 5th Edition but with ideas you could conceivably tweak for other versions of the game, that would be something that the OSR and grognard crowd would be quite interested in. And if you have a YouTube following already and want to parley it into livestreaming gaming sessions for fun and profit (emphasis on profit), that’s going to get the attention of the significant new audience that Critical Role and the like have cultivated.

That, at least, was the plan of MCDM, the new enterprise spearheaded by Matt Colville. I’ll admit immediately that I don’t really watch or listen to much in the way of livestreamed games because it tends to involve a lot of strangers doing something which I enjoy much more when I am a participant in than when I am an observer of, so this article will focus exclusively on the book side of this equation, but the streaming series – The Chain – seems to be going strong so far as I can tell. Would the book side be just as strong, or would one half of the Strongholds & Streaming equation fall short?

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming”

Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge

Atlas Games seems to have undertaken a slow process of updating their 1990s RPG portfolio via the medium of Kickstarter. Following the campaigns for a new edition of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies there came the inevitable and long-rumoured bid to revive Over the Edge.

This seems, on the face of it, to be a somewhat challenging prospect. Jonathan Tweet’s not offered much in the way of new Over the Edge material in recent years – indeed, before this Kickstarter it had been well over a decade since any new products had come out in the game line. Whereas when it first came out it genuinely represented a bundle of fresh new ideas both in terms of RPG system design and setting concepts, a quarter of a century has passed by and the field has evolved extensively since then.

Heck, a certain amount of that evolution was at Tweet’s own hands. In terms of really pushing the envelope in terms of how loosey-goosey you could make a traditional RPG system and how avant-garde a setting you can get, Everway arguably left Over the Edge in the dust. 3rd Edition D&D, which he was the lead designer on, may have had its flaws, but it does at least represent one of the most major system shake-ups that D&D has had since its inception, and yet at the same time succeeded far better at selling audiences on its reforms than 4th Edition did.

Whilst 3.X could hardly be said to be a revolutionary system – it’s basically TSR-era D&D with a swathe of ideas borrowed from Rolemaster, especially in terms of characrer generation – there’s no denying that it was an influential one, in part due to the glut of D20 knock-off products yielded by the OGL. Thankfully, the tide has receded and the floodwaters have sunk in recent years – to my eyes, it seems like the RPG game design ecosystem is much healthier in terms of diversity of system than it was at the height of the D20 craze – but the end result is still a generation of gamers who one way or another have had their attitude to system shaped by 3.X D&D – either through their embrace of it, or through their reactions against it.

On top of all that, away from Tweet’s own projects other games seem to have rather stolen his thunder in terms of some of the more unique setting and atmosphere aspects of Over the Edge, with Unknown Armies absolutely nailing the postmodern weirdness angle (especially in terms of the occultism-tinged aspects of it) and the various World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness games taking the whole “urban environment in which weird stuff goes on in the shadows” concept and wringing everything they could out of it.

Is Over the Edge redundant, then? Or is there cause to believe it can be revived? Let’s dig deeper and see…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge”

Kickstopper: New Life For a Dead Game

Given that it is a game about playing a dead person, in some ways it is appropriate that Wraith: the Oblivion was the first of the World of Darkness games to die – not even making it past 1999. Having received even less support than Changeling, in some respects it’s the member of the initial “big five” World of Darkness RPGs which both needs the most love from a 20th Anniversary edition and, you would think, would be one of the easier game lines to sum up in a big fat 20th Anniversary rulebook – after all, since less was published for it, less needs to be compiled, right?

On the other hand, in some respects Wraith is the most genuinely clever and cutting-edge of the original World of Darkness games. Whilst White Wolf spent most of the 1990s trying their hardest to adopt a pose of being sophisticated artists bringing a new level of sophistication to tabletop RPGs, it was rare that their games actually reflected this in terms of system and the supported gameplay and the overall concepts being played with. Wraith was a major exception in this respect.

With Rich Dansky, respected in the fanbase for the work he’d done on the original game line, in place to write this updated edition, would it provide this unique game with the treatment it’s always deserved but never quite received, or would it be another victim of the reputed Wraith Curse?

Continue reading “Kickstopper: New Life For a Dead Game”

Kickstopper: Swirling Through History

Arion Games, the small press RPG publisher operated by Graham Bottley, has become something of a haven for games which you can think of as being part of the “British old school”, as Joe from Uncaring Cosmos often talks about – a swathe of games published in the UK primarily in the 1980s that reflected the gaming subculture as it developed here.

Specifically, as well as landing a licence to reissue and significantly expand the Advanced Fighting Fantasy line, Arion Games is the new home of MaelstromMaelstrom is notable mostly for its core rulebook having been released by Puffin – the Fighting Fantasy publishers – as part of their gamebook line in. There is a strong argument to make that, in fact, the RPGs with the most widespread commercial reach in the UK in the 1980s were Fighting Fantasy (in its basic and advanced forms), Tunnels & Trolls, and Maelstrom, because whilst all other RPGs were published by specialist game design companies and largely only available through specialist shops except for a few toy shops stocking the D&D Basic Set, the other three games had their core rulebooks published by major children’s publishers and stocked in conventional bookshops and libraries across the land.

It’s particularly notable that whilst the Tunnels & Trolls rulebook came out through Corgi in order to support its associated line of solo adventures (which Corgi had wisely realised presented a ready-made source of gamebooks they could simply reprint in order to present some competition to Fighting Fantasy). Likewise, Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy were RPG rulebooks that existed as adjuncts to the gamebook line. Maelstrom, however, was a one-and-done affair, with a short solo adventure slipped in just so that it could be presented as a gamebook but otherwise the emphasis is 100% on the RPG aspect.

The complete lack of supporting material meant that it was overlooked by many, but it gained enough of a cult following to be well-remembered, and the default setting of Tudor England was different enough from usual RPG fare to stand out and be notable (and also, I suspect, got it stocked in school libraries). Part of the reason for the lack of support was that its original creator, Alexander Scott, had been a 16-year-old school attendee when he wrote it, and naturally moving on to university and adult life made him shift his priorities and he didn’t go in for RPGs as a career path, opting to concentrate on his academic pursuits instead as far as earning his crust went.

However, just because he didn’t go into indie RPG publishing himself and didn’t produce new material for Puffin doesn’t mean Alexander Scott has lost all affection for the game. After Arion Games got the licence from Puffin to reprint the game and produce new material, Scott has reportedly been kept in the loop by Bottley about new developments and ideas for the line in order to ensure he broadly approves of what’s been done with the game.

But would Arion Games’ Kickstarters based on the game be an aid or a detriment to the game’s legacy? Let’s see…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Swirling Through History”

Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Build Their Ambitions High

Over the previous Kickstarters of his I’ve covered I’ve come to respect Grant Howitt’s capabilities both as a game designer and as a Kickstarter project owner. Yes, he was involved in the Paranoia Kickstarter which turned into a bit of a debacle, but I’m disinclined to hold that against him; based on the snarky developer commentary that was released as part of that project, it sounds like he was working under a number of constraints not of his own choosing from the publishers and rights owners.

In addition it wasn’t 100% his project. James Wallis was his co-worker on it, and seemed to be very much in the senior position there; it was James, not Grant, who took an age to get the manuscript to Mongoose Publishing, it’s James who went dark to an extent that Mongoose had to put out a statement saying “Yeah, we’re not really in contact with Wallis any more, we have to filter all our communication to him through an intermediary because he won’t talk to us directly, and we’ve given up all hope of ever receiving the stretch goal content he committed to produce”.

And even then, before it went sour, the project was very much pushed as a James Wallis design primarily. Yes, Grant’s involvement was touted on the Kickstarter campaign too, but it was very clear from how things were framed that we were supposed to see James as the big draw: this wasn’t framed as a “James Wallis and Grant Howitt” project, Paranoia was very much framed as a “James Wallis!!! (and also Grant Howitt)” deal.

No, I feel that the true measure of Howitt is better reflected in Goblin Quest, a game which manages to be a better Paranoia-type game than the latest edition of Paranoia was. That project, though the production of hard copies ended up being somewhat late, at least avoided becoming a morass of toxicity between game designer and backers (unlike, say, every Kickstarter that has had James Wallis in a major role), largely because Howitt was able to keep communicating with us adequately. And the actual game was pretty good too!

So, whilst it’s nice that Howitt has kept up a stream of additional small games, it was still exciting to hear that he, his wife Mary Hamilton, and fellow game designer Chris Taylor were consolidating their efforts and, taking on the corporate identity of Rowan, Rook & Decard, were going to Kickstart Spire – a tabletop RPG of dark elves treading the difficult tightrope between “revolutionary freedom fighter” and “occult terrorist” in a weird city struggling under an oppressive high elf regime. With Spire – and its followup project Strata – having delivered, and with new project Heart approaching completion, now’s a good a time as any to look back and see what Grant and his colleagues have accomplished with Spire and Strata

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Build Their Ambitions High”

Kickstopper: Reigning Cats and Dogs

One of the aspects of Onyx Path that often gets overlooked is that it’s supposed to be a haven for creator-owned games, as well as White Wolf properties (whether still owned by White Wolf or now owned outright by Onyx Path). Part of the reason this aspect of their mission statement often gets overlooked is that it’s only been comparatively recently that they’ve been able to divert attention away from serving their various White Wolf-connected projects (including a bunch of highly time-sapping Kickstarter projects, like the morass that the 3rd Edition Exalted campaign turned into).

Among the first creators to use Onyx Path as the launchpad for an entirely new gaming franchises is Eddy Webb, old hand at White Wolf, and his Pugsteady studio. The studio is named not just for Webb’s pug Murray, but also its first in-house franchise – the Realms of Pugmire, a “future-fantasy” setting in which humans have disappeared and their pets have inherited the world.

Such a whimsical project is a great fit for Kickstarter – combining cute characters with a setting that’s well-suited to all sorts of traditional RPG action, and with a name like Eddy’s behind it which clued-in Onyx Path and White Wolf fans would recognise and trust to deliver solid content. So far, two RPGs in the Realms of Pugmire series have been delivered: the doggo-themed Pugmire (such dungeons, many treasure, wowe) and the cat-based Monarchies of Mau. Are they any good? That’s what this article’s here to tell you!

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Reigning Cats and Dogs”

Kickstopper: Blades In the Dark

The idea of a “thieves’ guild” or other such structure has long been a hallmark of the sort of fantasy that D&D drew on – ever since Fritz Leiber first treated the world to the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, organised criminal gangs have been part of fantasyland. Since then the larcenous life has enjoyed a range of depictions in a fantasy context, with Scott Lynch’s stories of Locke Lamora perhaps being the most successful recent riff on the idea.

That being the case, it’s rather interesting how RPG systems specifically designed to support heist-style gameplay have been surprisingly thin on the ground. The overall direction of evolution of the D&D thief – from exploration-focused obstacle-bypasser to something more combat-oriented as the editions have gone by – feels in part like a consequence of this; in the absence of game mechanics for specifically thief-like activities, and with only the thief character having access to those mechanics which do cater to them, heists in D&D are not so widely featured.

Blades In the Dark is a game system which promised to reverse that trend, being an engine focused specifically on the execution of daring burglaries and other such escapades. It also provides one of the more interesting subjects for a Kickstopper article, for reasons I will get into later…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Blades In the Dark”

Mini-Kickstopper: Powered By Jeeves

This is not quite a full-blown Kickstopper article as I’ve done for Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, since I don’t really much to have to say about the actual Kickstarter delivery process there that doesn’t equally apply here. Usual caveat is that I know the designers, Jay and Elizabeth, in real life and so it’s not impossible that my assessment of her work is skewed, but the What Ho, World! Kickstarter was handled pretty well. The estimated delivery was April 2017, I actually got my core set in March 2017 (and that was through the regular, ordinary post like any other backer, not just going over to the UFO Press gang’s house and grabbing a copy), the lesson to take away is that the team actually do have a good handle on how long shit takes to accomplish and communicate that well, go figure.

However, I’ve had this review sat in my queue for a while and I do want to get it out there, largely because with this design UFO Press have managed something rather clever with the Powered By the Apocalypse system – namely, hitting on an interesting way to migrate it to a different format whilst still retaining the essentials of play. You see, not only is What Ho, World! a Powered By the Apocalypse RPG, it’s also a card game…

What Ho, World!

What Ho, World! is a card-based RPG that’s inspired by the whole Jeeves and Wooster thing (with somewhat more diversity-friendly artwork encouraging a diversity-friendly take on the time period). Characters are various figures like the Gadabout or the Pillar of Society who you might find in such stories, and they rattle around inter-War Britain getting into jolly scrapes and pursuing their various goals.

Continue reading “Mini-Kickstopper: Powered By Jeeves”

Kickstopper: Consensus Reality Means These Books Will Exist If Backers Believe Hard Enough

Mage: the Ascension has, from its beginning, been a bit of a weird old game. The central “consensus reality” conceit – without which the stack of cards largely collapses – is a particularly Marmite-y aspect of the game; out of all the people I have encountered in person or online who’ve said that they just weren’t able to get along with Ascension, I’d say that the consensus reality aspect is the first reason the majority give for why they don’t get along with it.

Beyond that, the setting is very much hardwired around a conflict between establishment science and various flavours of cultural belief steeped in the supernatural, a conflict couched with all the sensitivity and nuance that you’d expect of White Wolf in the early 1990s (absolutely none).

This and other aspects of the game make it highly controversial – even among fans, interpretations of the setting vary widely. In every platform I’ve ever discussed White Wolf games on, two things have been true: when it comes to the Chronicles of Darkness, anyone who isn’t outright wrongheaded understands that Beast is absolutely fucking terrible and is very eager to explain why they despise the game, and when it comes to the old-school World of Darkness discussions about Mage: the Ascension have a tendency to spiral into wide-ranging philosophical debates.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Consensus Reality Means These Books Will Exist If Backers Believe Hard Enough”