A Glorious New System For a Grimdark, Wrathful Future

Wrath & Glory is here! This is the brand new Warhammer 40,000 RPG system from the North American branch of Ulisses Spiele, who took over the 40K RPG licence after Fantasy Flight Games dropped it. (The Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar RPG licences went to Cubicle 7; their Age of Sigmar RPG is still coming but their 4th Edition of WFRP is pretty damn good.) Keener that I was, when the preorders came up I plumped for the chunky collector’s edition big box, containing much of the initial volley of Wrath & Glory products. How does it measure up? Well, let’s crack it open and see…

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Fairfolk’s Freeholds

Some games need a little extra something before they really click with you. Changeling: the Dreaming largely didn’t click with me until its 20th Anniversary Edition, but its recent supplement, the Book of Freeholds, finally helps give me a picture of how I’d actually envisage a Changeling campaign functioning.

The supplement, as the title implies, is an in-depth look at the subject of freeholds, including a detailed system for designing your own for your PCs to manage. It’s not a thick thing – it’s less than 60 pages, in fact – but it’s really helped me get a handle on what I want out of Changeling.

Specifically, once you make sure to add in a freehold focus to your Changeling campaign, what you end up with is a sort of whimsical modern-day Ars Magica. Freeholds are basically Changelings’ sanctuary from the banal world where they can let their fantastical side all hang out, just as in Ars Magica your covenant is a sanctuary from the chilly reception wizards otherwise get in Mythic Europe. Likewise, adventuring to defend the freehold against threats, stave back Banality and harvest Glamour is much like the way Ars Magica characters seek to defend their covenant against threats, ward off antithetical sources of power, and gather magical power for their own purposes.

Other World of Darkness games had played on this idea to a certain extent, of course – particularly Werewolf and its cairns – but it feels to me like Changeling freeholds seem closer than anything to Ars Magica covenants in terms of how the inhabitants are supposed to buy into them and the sort of interactions that they set up with the outside world.

The Recent Requiem

Over the last year or two, the 5th Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade has been embroiled in controversy – to the point where it literally caused an international incident and caused Paradox to step in and shut down their new version of White Wolf, reducing its functions to merely overseeing the IP and rubber-stamping the work of licensees, rather than being allowed to develop anything in-house. (Much like it was under CCP, in other words, except with the recent announcement of Bloodlines 2 it’ll hopefully be more productive on the videogame front.)

Meanwhile, quietly and humbly, Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition has been chugging along doing its own little thing. For those who, like me, can’t be bothered to dip into V5 at this point – oh, some of its system ideas sound fun, but ultimately I feel like its release has been so shaky that I’d rather wait for the inevitable V6 or V5.5 that’ll correct the ship, and I’m much more interested in the metaplot-agnostic version of the setting which V20 offered than the highly metaplot-focused presentation V5 has enjoyed so far. Let’s take a look at a couple of recent offerings in that vein.

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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.

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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.

Spreadsheets, Seeds, and Scenarios: A Sampling of Little Black Books

Classic Traveller fans have a certain fondness for the so-called “Little Black Book” format – the run of game products and accessories whose form factor matched the original small black booklets the rules originally came in. Sure, they didn’t have amazing art, but they otherwise benefitted from a somewhat more consistently clear layout and arrangement than was typical of RPGs of the era, and they managed to balance being cheap enough to be worth dropping a bit of money on whilst having just enough page count that they gave you something useful without going into a redundant level of detail.

When I got that cheap copy of Deluxe Traveller I mentioned previously, it also came with a nice collection of LBB supplements – only the tip of the iceberg as far as the entire run went, but with enough variety in there to, as I’ll outline below, cover the an interesting cross-section of the range. The one significant omission I’d say would be books offering substantive expansions or additions to the actual Traveller rules – such as the supplemental Books 4-8, or Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, which greatly expanded the range of character backgrounds available to player characters.

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Did Traveller Invent the “Campaign Framework”?

A while back I got the opportunity to pick up at a reasonable price a nice copy of Deluxe Traveller. This was a version of the core Traveller rules that GDW published (and gave Games Workshop the rights to release in the UK) in 1981, once Traveller really started getting hot. It comprised the three core booklets of Classic Traveller in their 1981 revisions, a couple of dice, and Book 0 – a beginner’s guide to the game which, as I’ve outlined previously, might be the single most detailed introduction to the hobby written with a view to explaining it to outsiders that existed at that point. (Basic Dungeons & Dragons did exist at this point, but that of course was replete with system stuff – Book 0 is, in effect, a system-free multi-part essay.)

And on top of that, Deluxe Traveller gives you a colour map of the Spinward Marches – later bundled into the MegaTraveller core box – and The Imperial Fringe. This is billed as an introductory adventure but, aside from an introductory encounter, there isn’t much adventure to it – it covers the PCs starting out their post-mustering out careers as Traveller adventurers and getting recruited by the Imperial Scout Service – giving them an opportunity to earn a very welcome extra chunk of cash if they spend a day or so surveying the systems they visit so that the central Scout database can be updated accordingly.

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