The Ludonarrative Dissonance of the Late, Late, Late Show

Stellar Games are by and large one of the great also-rans of the gaming industry, putting out a few products which have gained some attention but with none of their game lines ever quite catching fire to the extent necessary to sustain them in the long term. You may have heard about their Nightlife RPG, which rolled out the whole “vampires and wizards and werewoofles kicking about in the modern day” concept before Vampire: the Masquerade and its kin did, but not in any way which really captured people’s imaginations. (I don’t see people getting anywhere near as excited about that game’s setting lore as I do about the finer points of the Camarilla vs. Sabbat feud, for instance.)

Out of the whole Stellar Games roster, the game which seems to have prompted the most discussion over the years – not much, at least in the Anglosphere (apparently the Japanese translation was a minor hit over there), but at least it’s been namedropped here and there – is It Came From the Late, Late, Late Show. This came out in 1989, the same year that saw the nationwide cable debut of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there must have been something in the water at the time promoting geekdom’s already well-ingrained love of cheesy movies – for Late, Late, Late Show is an RPG of playing through crappy Z-movies.

Continue reading “The Ludonarrative Dissonance of the Late, Late, Late Show”

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The World is Your Setting Guide

At the moment I’m involved in running Anarchy, a LARP set during the 1135-1153 civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. As I’ve found running Ars Magica, the advantage of running a historical RPG – in whatever format – is that there’s stacks of material out there you can use for reference material. Here’s an overview of some of the materials I and others on the GM team have found useful as resources.

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

This doesn’t quite have as wide a scope as the title might imply – it specifically focuses on life in medieval England and France in the span of 1050-1300 – but if you are looking for a general overview of that place and time, this isn’t bad. The emphasis is less on reciting the sequence of historical events so much as it’s to offer an overview of what everyday life was like in the era. Usefully divided into subject-specific chapters, it offers a solid foundation and a useful jumping-off point for deeper inquiry.

Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury

This is a brief and highly readable summary of the history of the period we were looking at. It wasn’t perfect – it’s arguably a bit pro-Stephen, though where the line exists between being partisan and treating Stephen fairly lies is hard to judge. Nonetheless, it’s useful with this sort of project to have a main reference you go to to set a baseline before you incorporate other features or make alterations, and for that purpose it’s pretty good.

The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II: 871-1216

As an academic reference work, this obviously has a bit of a price tag on it, but I’ve found it fascinating. It gives an overview of the development of English law ranging from the Anglo-Saxon era all the way to the end of King John’s reign. John Hudson, who wrote this volume, writes in an extremely accessible style, arising from the necessity of making law intelligible to historians and history intelligible to interested lawyers, so this is really handy if you want to depict the legal procedures and norms of a particular era within the time period covered.

If you want a book which, whilst still quite detailed, is substantially easier to digest (and easier on the wallet), John Hudson’s The Formation of the English Common Law might be a good option. Covering the span of time from Alfred the Great to Magna Carta, it’s quite good at teasing out how the law developed over that period of time. Whilst this subject can seem quite dry, it also opens a window onto how people generally saw their relationship with the law and their rulers, and thus is a bit of a snapshot of society in general, and so is particularly useful if you want to think about how society changed over the time period in question (and change it very definitely did). Such considerations are really important if you want to avoid treating the medieval period as just one big generic blob of time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

As a historical document, this is available in various translations into modern English; I’ve got the one that is translated and edited by Michael Swanton, who provides all the different variant texts of the different chronicles presented in a nice clear way, and also extensively annotates them to help unpack matters which the monks writing entries don’t explain very well, offer additional insight, and point out outright errors or propaganda. The time period covered in detail ranges from the coming of the Saxons to Britain to nearly a century after the Norman Conquest, including the events of the Anarchy. What it lacks in precision, neutrality and accuracy it more than makes up for in flavour.

The Domesday Book

A rather dry prospect if you attempt to read it cover to cover, this is another text which is mostly handy for inspiration – just dip into it anywhere and you get a snapshot of just how much individual character William the Conqueror’s surveyors managed to capture of each manor and holding in England.

The Bible

If you are running a historical game set in a time period and a culture where Christianity is a significant force, then you’re going to want its base text, of course. For actual quoting purposes I like to use the New English Bible from 1970 which I picked up second hand – it casts the text in modern English, distinguishes neatly between text that seems to have been intended as poetry or song and text that seems to flow better as prose, though it isn’t especially gender-inclusive and uses a default “he” to a greater extent than the original text necessarily mandates.

However, any edition of the Bible is a dense old text to look stuff up in, which is why it’s nice that some of my co-referees got me the Illustrated Family Bible from DK. This thick, handsome book boils down a surprisingly large number of Biblical stories into easily-understood two-page spreads, with useful sidebars providing additional historical context. This is very handy to look up the broad brushstrokes of an idea in before you look up the full-fat text in your Bible of choice.

The History of the Kings of England (by Geoffrey of Monmouth)

This is absolutely wackydoodles, so it’s perfect either for emphasising how confused medieval scholarship could get or for mining for a mythic history of Britain that didn’t happen.

Heresies of the High Middle Ages (ed. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans)

This is a translation into modern English of various first-hand sources on the subject, ranging from Church condemnations of heresies to heretical texts themselves. (Cathar fans note: this has got the full text of the Book of the Two Principles which was quite significant to Cathar theology.)

 

Devil’s Gulch, Amateur’s Layout

So the new regime at Chaosium are still purging their storage space of old product which was stacked up under Charlie Krank’s watch. (For a full breakdown of how Chaosium’s leadership has changed, who Charlie Krank was, and why it’s probably kind of a good thing that Charlie’s no longer running Chaosium, see the first part of my overview of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter.) The upshot of this is that sometimes when you’re purchasing from their website – say, to get your shiny hardcover copy of the brand new edition of RuneQuest – you’ll notice that they’re selling, say, back catalogue items from their fiction line for less than $5 a pop.

Thus, when I got my RuneQuest I also bought a bunch of old Chaosium products I’d semi-had my eye on which were going for a reasonable rate. Devil’s Gulch was not discounted, but it did jump out at me since it’s meant to offer a complete Western town with an eye to using it with the generic Basic Roleplaying Big Yellow Book system for Weird West, Deadlands-style adventures. Obviously, this is a product which may well have useful synergy with, say, Down Darker Trails, but whereas that product showed professional, modern production values and a thoughtful take on its subject matter which was well worth the praise it won, Devil’s Gulch is… not.

Continue reading “Devil’s Gulch, Amateur’s Layout”

Kickstopper: Comics Where YOU Are the Hero!

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.

Illustrations have often been a feature of gamebooks – the artwork in Fighting Fantasy books constitutes some of the most aesthetically interesting fantasy art of the era, particularly given the number of pieces which depict a first person viewpoint. But just how much can you incorporate illustration into a gamebook? Graphic Novel Adventures seeks to find out…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Comics Where YOU Are the Hero!”

Kickstopper: Turning the Lights Out On Those Who Most Need Them

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.

Cthulhu gets into everything these days; it’s become an unfortunate nerd culture cliche that almost anything can potentially get some sort of Lovecraftian-themed special edition, and some addled fan will be fool enough to buy it. The descent into kitsch and cliche has not yet prevented the Call of Cthulhu RPG from continuing to be a major success; nor has it prevented Pelgrane Press’s Trail of Cthulhu from providing an alternative which has become a significant success in the RPG market in its own right, and nor has it prevented other hands from trying to pen RPGs intended to support their personal vision of what a purist Lovecraftian game should be like.

One such game is Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, who ran a Kickstarter to fund the production of a full-sized rulebook after a prototype version of the game gained traction through free distribution online. That basic version, whilst a little rough around the edge as you might expect for an early draft, is really remarkably rules-light – the question remains as to whether such a light, simple prospect can really justify a full-sized RPG rulebook by itself.

As it turned out, though, the full-fat version of Cthulhu Dark isn’t just an extremely lean, mean, rules-light delivery mechanism for quick and easy horror gaming. Walmsley also has a number of laudable aims he wishes to pursue with it – aims which I find entirely worthy of support in general, but which give rise to a number of serious problems when you combine it with the rules system presented.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Turning the Lights Out On Those Who Most Need Them”

Kickstopper: Punch Nazis and Feed Them To Cthulhu

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.

The controversy over the latest Wolfenstein game is absurd and illustrative of a wider absurdity: it’s startling how quickly violent opposition to a Nazi regime has gone from being entirely uncontroversial (to the point of being a bit tired and cliched) to being regarded as somehow politically controversial.

Thus, in the service of supporting games where you fight Nazis, I’m going to cover a game line blending the action of the Call of Cthulhu RPG with all the Nazi-shooting goodness of World War II. Hang on to your Indiana Jones hat, we’re going to cover Achtung! Cthulhu.

Usual Note On Terminology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Punch Nazis and Feed Them To Cthulhu”

Kickstopper: First as Farce, Then as Tragedy

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.

Strap yourself in, folks. Whereas some Kickstopper articles document a fairly simple interaction, this is one of those which documents a rough and bumpy ride – and unlike the saga of the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Kickstarter, this time the delivered goods are a bit too disappointing to justify the rough journey.

On one level, it’s hard to justify declaring a Kickstarter a failure when it actually delivers the tangible product it originally promised. However, the saga of Mongoose Publishing’s new edition of Paranoia reveals a development process in which the interests of rights holders, publishers, game designers and Kickstarter backers ended up at odds with each other, with the inevitable dysfunction that arises from such a situation. It also reveals a tabletop RPG whose previous editions have (mostly) been widely loved reduced into a cheap and tatty-feeling product which doesn’t feel like it lives up to its heritage.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: First as Farce, Then as Tragedy”