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.

Continue reading “The Recent Requiem”

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.

Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes

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.

This is going to be a bit of an odd article. I initially thought it’d just be yet another supplement for the rather hit-and-miss Werewolf 20th Anniversary line. However, new wrinkles have arisen over the course of this Kickstarter, wrinkles which have a bearing on a story already partly told in previous Kickstopper articles, with the result that although there’s still a supplement to review here, there’s also a broader story to tell

Specifically, this is a story about the twists and turns of the Onyx Path, and that company’s relationship with White Wolf Publishing.

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: Retconned Schemes”

Kickstopper: The God-Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party

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.

Last Kickstopper was an opportunity to look at how White Wolf grew up, sold out, broke free in the form of Onyx Path, and made Kickstarter a significant component of their business plan, through the lens of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Classic World of Darkness line, as well as examining how Kickstarter specifically plays an important role in the Classic revival.

This time around, the Kickstarter in question gives us a chance to look at the New World of Darkness line and how it’s developed from its inception to the present day. This is a story with a number of curious twists and turns, many of them arising from the unusual situation Onyx Path found itself in. The publication of the core rulebook for the new line came shortly before the acquisition of White Wolf by CCP, makers of EVE Online, whose intention was to make a World of Darkness MMO (confusingly enough based on the Classic World of Darkness setting, though arguably its tendency towards big worldwide power blocs of supernaturals actually made the Classic line more suitable for MMO purposes than the New World of Darkness‘s tendency towards more localised power factions).

For as long as White Wolf existed as a tabletop game producing team after that, their projects were greenlit with an eye to minimising potential disruption or consumer confusion affecting the MMO; for the early part of Onyx Path’s existence, a similar situation has pertained with respect to their World of Darkness products. Now that the MMO has died an ignoble death, CCP gives Onyx Path much more of a free hand in what they do and don’t publish; as we shall see, whilst CCP were still telling themselves that the MMO was a possibility, they forced White Wolf/Onyx Path into a number of contortions which has ironically made the New World of Darkness line a more confusing and less approachable prospect than the old line.

I’ll go into more detail about that along the way. For the moment, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the consequences this confusion has had for White Wolf/Onyx Path’s game lines. Presently, if you want to play the latest version of a Classic World of Darkness game line, you just have to buy the relevant book – Vampire: the Masquerade, Wraith: the Oblivion, or whatever – and set to it. With the New World of Darkness, if you want to play the latest version of the rules you might need to just buy the latest core rulebook on its own (as is the case with Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition), or you might need to get the core rulebook for a game line plus the overarching World of Darkness core book (as is the case with Demon: the Fallen), or you might need to get the core book for the particular game line, plus the overarching World of Darkness book, plus a special rules update, as is presently the case with Dan’s bete noire Changeling: the Lost. Onyx Path are currently in the process of minimising the extent of this nonsense, but it’s still something of an irritation.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The God-Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party”

Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs

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.

This Kickstopper is going to delve quite deeply into what might otherwise be a slightly niche topic for Ferretbrain – I’ve included tabletop RPG products on Kickstopper articles before, of course, but not to the extent I’m going to do here. At the same time, I think it’s justifiable because not only does it involve a company that has turned the Kickstarting of product into a smooth and routine process, but it also involves a product line whose present existence has been shaped by Kickstarter. Moreover, the products provided give a fascinating cross-section of the history of the line in question. What we have is the story of how Kickstarter reinvigorated a game line which in its prime was unquestionably one of the most important force in tabletop RPGs, how the game line in question came to need reinvigoration in the first place, and how Kickstarter allowed a new publisher to rise from the ashes of White Wolf.

In short, we’re going to be looking at how Vampire: the Masquerade rose from its crypt to feed on the wallets of crowdfunders.

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.

At 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.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs”

Who Aberrates the Aberrant?

Aberrant is a big colourful mess. Part of a continuity of games including Adventure and Trinity (AKA Aeon), which Onyx Path are now reviving with a comprehensively rejigged system as the Trinity Continuum game line (with Aeon as the first major setting book), part of its awkwardness comes from the fact that it was trying to act as the superhero-themed midpoint of a setting which ranged from the pulp adventure of, uh, Adventure to the starfaring psi-wielding antics of Aeon. Though you can see conceptual links between the genres, that’s still a sequence of jarring, clunky gear changes, and a big pile of baggage that each individual game would have never had to deal with (and have been stronger for it) had they not been set in the same continuity.

Aberrant is also often derided for its system, which attempts to extend the Storyteller system into superheroics and somehow manages to make a clunky mess of it, despite the fact that Vampire‘s early editions managed it perfectly well, but the thing which personally turns me off it is the setting. Part of it arises from the fact that, in diverging from real life in 1998, some of its predictions now seem kind of laughably out of date. Part of it arises from simple research failures (like the UK deciding to stay out of the European Union in the 1990s – a body it had already been a member of since the 1970s).

But most of the reason the setting doesn’t click with me is that it’s tryhard 1990s edgelord nonsense, with each faction carefully crafted to be maybe heroic but probably secretly evil. (The major exception are the Teragen, who seem to be pretty clearly monstrous on the face of it.) Maybe part of this comes down to the necessity to have the superhumans one and all become the villains of Aeon/Trinity later on down the timeline, but probably a larger part of it comes from the fact that in the 1990s everyone was trying to be darker than everyone else in the superhero field. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had been out for a decade and had become enshrined at the peak of the comic book pantheon, and everyone wanted to recapture that. Dark Champions steered Champions into the grim and gritty mode of the era, and all was darkness and drabness.

What’s weird for me about the Aberrant setting is that it isn’t, in many respects, all that grim and gritty – in fact, in an awful lot of respects it’s a much cleaner, brighter timeline than the one we got. (The fact that it doesn’t include 9/11 or anything like the War On Terror is a big factor; even the clashes of superhumans feel like they pale in comparison to the Iraq War or the slow, gruelling death of Syria.) This is presumably to allow a space for gamers to run a more four-colour take on the whole concept if they really want to. The problem with that is that the basic presentation of the factions has enough sneering 1990s cynicism to it that it doesn’t quite work – what you end up with is a bunch of shitty, self-serving factions suitable for a post-Watchmen grimfest in a world that’s just a few notches too bright and colourful for them.

The incongruity doesn’t quite work for me – as with the various settings that have been put out for GODLIKE or Wild Talents, or even for that matter Champions, I think you get much better results if you make a firm call on what sort of superhero setting you are going for and then design it from the ground up to support that decision, rather than trying to build a setting which can waver all the way from four-colour black-and-white-morals Comics Code Authority vapidity to edgelord Frank Miller/Alan Moore ripoffs.

Then again, the entire story of the Trinity game line seems to have arisen out of a series of messy compromises and hastily cobbled-together settings; the original Aeon setting had to be knocked out in a space of 10 months after Mark Rein-Hagen walked away from White Wolf in 1996 and took Exile, the sci-fi game series he’d been developing, with him. The games do have their advocates – Adventure seems to have a certain charm to it, perhaps because as the first game in the line it carries the least baggage, but both the Aberrant and Aeon settings have their advocates too. Part of the point of the new Trinity Continuum game line is to apply a new system to the setting (the Storypath system, which has also been used for the new edition of Scion), one better suited to it than the rather overheated Storyteller engine under the hood of 1st edition Aberrant; if this also includes giving the setting a comprehensive tune-up, perhaps even offering specific sliders to better adapt it to different takes on the superhero genre (“If your morality dial is set to ‘Frank Miller’, use the ‘evil’ version of Project Utopia”, etc.), then that might be just the tune-up the old beast needs.