Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain

Whilst geography and economics has played its part in shaping local RPG scenes, another major factor which cannot be overlooked is language. For instance, generally speaking in the Anglosphere the dominant RPG is D&D, but this isn’t always the case – in other languages other games have become the big beasts of their scene, usually as a result of something other than D&D getting first mover advantage.

Translations of game from one of these other spheres into English is not as common as all that – after all, translation isn’t free, good translation even less so. Kickstarter has provided an interesting platform for companies to use to fund the translation of foreign-language games. Ryuutama has been the beneficiary of this, and Nocturnal Games – previously famed mostly as the publishers of Pendragon – got quite enthusiastic about this concept with Kickstarter projects to translate material like the French prehistory game Würm and Aquelarre, a historical horror game set in medieval Spain. I’ve previously covered the Kickstarter for the former game, and now it’s time to get our Satan on and look at the latter.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain”

Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled”

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”

A Dragon Slain By TSR

As I related in my review of Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils, Avalon Hill and SPI – the two big beasts in the US market when it came to wargames in the 1970s – were caught napping when it came to tabletop RPGs. Avalon Hill were left with egg on their face when they turned down D&D, prompting Gary Gygax to set up TSR; rather than being in a position to be the dominant force in an entire market which overlapped with the wargaming fandom enough to draw money from its fans but also could reach a wider audience, Avalon Hill had conceded the nascent RPG industry to TSR and other publishers who jumped onto their bandwagon.

I covered Avalon Hill’s mid-1980s bid to finally break into the RPG market in that review, which resulted in what you could charitably call “mixed success”. To summarise, Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils were poor efforts whose failure in the market was largely a justifiable reflection of their poor design – overly sloppy in the former case, overly fussy in the latter. Their subsidiary. Victory Games, produced James Bond 007, lately cloned as Classified, which was ahead of its time in some ways and, during the window of time when it was on sale before Avalon Hill gave up the licence, beat out TSR’s Top Secret and Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes to become the top espionage RPG on the market. Third edition RuneQuest, though still largely the work of Chaosium, was produced and distributed by Avalon Hill, and despite some issues with both the design itself and Avalon Hill’s management of the game line was still a significant success, selling more in its first four months than Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils sold in their first year combined.

This followed SPI’s own bid to break into the RPG market, which they launched in 1980 and was also a mixed success – and arguably a more intense one at that, with lower troughs and higher peaks. (This is especially the case if you count RuneQuest as a Chaosium game which Avalon Hill happened to have a distribution deal for rather than a “true” Avalon Hill game in the sense of being developed in-house by them or a subsidiary.)

As far as the troughs go, the Dallas RPG lives on in infamy as a major laughing stock of the industry. In more recent years, the existence of games like Fiasco makes me think that the idea of a soap opera-themed RPG or storygame could have some legs – but at the same time, I think such an endeavour calls for game mechanical ideas and approaches which simply hadn’t been developed in 1980. As it stood, the market at the time was not ready for such a product, and the field of game design didn’t offer the tools needed to make it work.

But that trough had its corresponding peak in the form of the mighty DragonQuest. (No relation to the adorable Akira Toriyama-illustrated console JRPG series of the same name – in fact, the reason the first few games in that series came out in the west as Dragon Warrior was to avoid a trademark clash.) Though Dallas bombed, DragonQuest was a hit, selling out completely at the 1980 Origins convention, and in the months that followed gathered significant critical acclaim and commercial success. Origins 1981 was another triumphant moment for DragonQuest, when it took away the award for the best roleplaying rules for 1980. Judges’ Guild did some third party products for it, which of course would have been a pointless endeavour had the game not gained a sufficient following to make it worth Judges’ Guild spending their time on it.

Continue reading “A Dragon Slain By TSR”

Ia! Ia! Canada Fhtagn, Eh?

For a brief span in 1985, Chaosium dipped their toes into producing solo adventures for Call of Cthulhu, having previously made the SoloQuest range for RuneQuest. At the time, only two adventures were released before the company reconsidered and decided to get out of solo adventures altogether – a situation which would persist until the Kickstarter for 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu, in the wake of which the solo adventure Alone Against the Flames was devised.

This seems to have done pretty well for itself, because the new regime at Chaosium have been putting it front and centre when it comes to introducing people to the game. For instance, in the tie-in mobile gameAlone Against the Flames is the first scenario you play, and the adventure is packaged with every copy of the Starter Set, where it serves as a gentle introduction to how the system works and what a Call of Cthulhu investigation is like.

In the wake of this, Chaosium have brought the two long-lost solo adventures back into print. First they did Alone Against the Dark, which I found to be somewhat overcomplex due to its ambition to replicate the action of a full-blown globe-trotting mega-campaign in a single solo adventure. Now Alone Against the Frost is an updated reprint of the original Alone Against the Wendigo – retitled because the Wendigo is only one thing you might encounter on your expedition into the mysterious North Hanninah region of Canada.

Continue reading “Ia! Ia! Canada Fhtagn, Eh?”

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”

Bears Up Surprisingly Well

Swordbearer is part of the glut of fantasy RPGs which came out in the early 1980s – in which I’d include DragonQuestPowers & PerilsRolemasterPalladium Fantasy, and The Fantasy Trip. Sure, there’d been a sprinkling of new fantasy RPGs over the course of the 1970s, but it does seem like there was a little bubble around 1980-1983, especially at the upper end of the market – you can see for yourself on the year-by-year breakdown on John Kim’s highly useful RPG encyclopedia.

Why this would be the case you can ascribe to a number of factors; the spike in the commercial fortunes of D&D with the release of the mega-popular Basic Set in its different versions (Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer’s iterations doing increasingly well) made it clear that there was a gravy train to catch if you could write a suitable ticket.

At the same time, the success of RuneQuest demonstrated that there was a hunger in the market for fresher, more innovative fantasy RPGs, a hunger which was perhaps exacerbated by the release at the end of the 1970s of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The Basic Set was explicitly for beginners, and those who looked past it to B/X D&D would find a game which was essentially a clarified restatement of OD&D – hardly something to satisfy the appetites of gamers dissatisfied with the same old way of doing things – and AD&D, whilst tremendously popular, was also rarely played rules-as-written.

Continue reading “Bears Up Surprisingly Well”

And Did These Games In Ancient Times Spring From Avalon Hill So Green?

Before TSR’s rise to prominence and the emergence of the tabletop RPG hobby as a significant new factor in the hobby games market, SPI and Avalon Hill were words to conjure by as the market leaders in the world of tabletop wargames, particularly hex-and-chit stuff. To draw an analogy with tabletop RPGs, imagine American wargames of the 1970s were D&D/Pathfinder, and then SPI and Avalon Hill would be like the Paizo and Wizards of the Coast of that market – both selling products with broad similarities, but with enough of a distinction in their house styles to make room for both in the market (it’s my understanding that SPI’s material tending to be a notch more complex than Avalon Hill’s, for example).

Another commonality between Avalon Hill and SPI is that both companies were caught snoozing by the rise of RPGs. Whilst for the second half of the 1970s the RPG hobby began gathering steam, both attracting customers from outside of the world of wargaming that Arneson and Gygax had emerged from as well as winning converts within that fanbase, it took until the 1980s for the two companies to realise that they were leaving money on the table needlessly. They had the size, the reach, the distribution and production capacity, as well as the overlap in fanbase, to really make a mark in this exciting new market (and revive their fortunes, flagging somewhat with the decline of their style of wargaming), but for the better part of a decade they’d turned their nose up at RPGs, with the result that TSR was able to consolidate its first move advantage and other small presses and new companies were able to rise up and fill the gap.

In 1980 SPI made their move with DragonQuest, which managed to get a bit of critical acclaim and a certain level of commercial success. (As well as SPI’s own support line, Judges Guild made some third-party products for it, and Judges Guild generally didn’t bother to do that unless you’d attained a certain level of popularity.) It wasn’t enough to fix SPI’s financial woes, however – which debacles like their other roleplaying effort, the official Dallas RPG, didn’t help.

As I’ve recounted in my article on Arcane‘s old features on what were considered “retro” RPGs back in the mid-1990s, a bit of financial chicanery from TSR – in effect pretending like they were offering SPI a loan to help them survive, only to then pull the rug out from under them, grab all their assets, and hang them out to dry – killed DragonQuest; TSR’s almost-total mothballing of SPI’s intellectual property has only fuelled speculation that this was a cynically anticompetitive gambit to take out either SPI in general – TSR was still competing in the wargame field to an extent at the time – or DragonQuest specifically.

Continue reading “And Did These Games In Ancient Times Spring From Avalon Hill So Green?”