Costikyan’s Ugly Rant

Violence: the Roleplaying Game of Egregious Bloodshed is satire, and transparently. unsubtly so. In some respects it was quite forward-thinking: the utter pay-to-win scam of its experience point system, for instance, recalls some of the ways in which free-to-play MMORPGs would find to monetise themselves decades later. (Violence was published in 1999.) In other respects, it’s a grumpy, mean-spirited attack on a style of gaming which was actually on the back foot when it came out in the first place: to be specific, it’s bashing a particular approach to playing Dungeons & Dragons which wasn’t even in vogue among Dungeons & Dragons players and designers at the time.

Penned by Greg Costikyan under the pseudonym Designer X, Violence was put out in Hogshead Publishing’s New Style line of arthouse indie-style games. This was the same line which included John Tynes’ Power Kill, which also took an obnoxiously simplistic slam at an obnoxiously simplistic parody of what D&D players actually wanted. During James Wallis’ time at the helm of Hogshead he was constantly claiming to be working on FRUP, a parody RPG based around a world where the three core AD&D rulebooks had fallen from the sky and had been adopted as holy writ.

Between all this, you can be forgiven for wondering whether Hogshead had some sort of ragingly hot hate-boner for AD&D. If it did, it wouldn’t exactly be a boner without an ulterior motive, seeing how Hogshead’s flagship product was WFRP, a competitor for the same fantasy RPG market as Dungeons & Dragons. However, the thing about Power KillViolence, and what little we know of FRUP is that they were largely taking aim at a style of D&D play which wasn’t even in-vogue at the time – the mindless hack-and-slash crawl through a dungeon, killing everything you encounter and taking its treasure.

It is a style which has, perhaps, historically been over-represented when it comes to convention and game store play, simply because it’s far more suited to the particular issues in those environments (like lacking a consistent, week on week player group and the necessity of getting a sufficient chunk of gaming in within a set time slot), but it would be a profound mistake to assume that public play is representative of play as a whole. (In general, I find that game store, club and convention play is the thing you do when you have no better alternative.)

It is also a style which, though it’s been parodied and mocked more or less as long as Dungeons & Dragons has been a thing, extremely few people seem to actually espouse or play for a long period of time – some people go through it as a phase, but many never do. It certainly isn’t representative of how Dungeons & Dragons was actually played in its earliest days, as testimony from gamers of the era and the reconstruction work by the OSR has widely established. Even the OSR doesn’t advocate the hack-and-slash approach very much – out of the diversity of game styles the OSR has offered up, the most authentically “old school” seems to be based around keeping your wits about you and making the strategic decision to avoid combat and regard it as a failure state unless you are able to establish a decisive advantage. Play your average Lamentations of the Flame Princess module in a full on hack-and-slash style, for instance, and your character will likely come to an incredibly bad end.

Most of all, it’s a style of gaming which Dungeons & Dragons itself hadn’t actually been endorsing or promoting for literally over a decade by the point that Violence came out, with the mid-1980s unveiling of Dragonlance arguably being the stage when D&D went all-out for a “fantasy heroes on an epic quest” model for the assumed basis of campaign play rather than “fantasy mercenaries out for personal enrichment”. As far as criticism of 1999-vintage D&D goes, Violence is pretty weaksauce, given the diversity of settings (and associated assumed play styles) TSR was intent on offering.

The fact is that the hack-and-slash masters were already leaving the hobby in droves during the 1990s, were briefly retained by certain styles of play around 3rd edition D&D in the 2000s, but by now are largely a solved problem. The increasing effectiveness of videogames at providing a hacky-slashy wonderland of guilt-free killing and looting (with a social aspect if you dip your toe into MMOs) is largely responsible.

Ultimately, these days if you want a hack-and-slash game, a tabletop RPG is a decidedly suboptimal solution when you could be playing a videogame (or one of many dungeoneering-themed boardgames) instead, and that’s been the case since, oh, several years before Violence came out anyway. A computer can handle larger battles with far more consistent application of rules than a human referee can, after all. Whilst there may be some gamers who go through hack-and-slash phases, and a few benighted souls who, shunned by other groups, gravitate into clusters of their own where they do the kill-and-loot cycle all day long at the tabletop, the fact is that characterising them as the majority, or even a considerable minority, of the tabletop RPG hobby these days is not really accurate, and it was already ceasing to be the case when Violence came out.

The people who are still playing RPGs are to a large extent doing so because they want something more than mere hack and slash – and given that many new entrants to the RPG hobby these days are coming to it via Actual Play podcasts and livestreams and the like in the Critical Role mode, the new generation of gamers have been drawn into the hobby based on a range of good examples of non-hack-and-slash play. From the perspective of today, Violence resembles an angry rant at what is basically a solved problem; back in 1999, it was an angry rant aimed at people whose primary sin is that their sense of fun was not that compatible with Costikyan’s or Wallis’s.

Another thing that’s rather tedious about Violence – aside from the open contempt expressed for large sections of the hobby and the skeevy rape and BDSM jokes – is that it’s basically a long-form version of a joke that the New Style line had already told. The basic premise of Violence is that you’re playing a thuggish character who’s going around kicking in doors, killing the inhabitants of rooms and taking their stuff, only the doors are in inner city apartment buildings instead of dungeons and the inhabitants are various innocents, criminals, and fellow kill-crazed murder-bunnies alike.

This is making the exact same point that Power Kill was making, except far longer and much less cleverly. Specifically, the point is that if you change the entire context of a player character’s actions – culturally, historically, in terms of their personal background and in terms of the adversaries they face and the nature thereof – then suddenly they seem monstrous. Well, no shit. To be honest, the PCs in zero-plot zero-motivation hack-fests are pretty obviously mercenary shitbags even without this analysis. Violence ultimately doesn’t offer anything that Power Kill didn’t as far as commentary goes, and whilst in principle there’s a game you could attempt to play here, the screed is so obviously intended as a thought experiment (and the game design is so deliberately shitty for parody purposes) that actually playing the damn thing is nigh-unthinkable and wouldn’t really illuminate any points that just reading Violence wouldn’t avoid.

To give Power Kill slightly more slack than I usually do, I will give it this: its structure at least admits the possibility that even when you change up the context, the player characters were behaving in as moral and as upstanding and as helpful and as constructive a way as they could be reasonably have expected to, considering their beliefs about the situation placed in front of them. It doesn’t begin from the assumption that you are a shitty person who plays or runs shitty games.

Violence, on the other hand, goes out of its way to insult a class of RPG gamer who, as I argue above, had already become largely irrelevant to the hobby and who has become increasingly irrelevant since, and who odds are would never bother to read Violence in the first place anyway. The people who, in 1999’s RPG market, were most likely to read Violence were people who already considered themselves above the people who play that sort of hack-fest, and who would derive a nauseating sense of self-satisfaction from reading it and imagining how superior they were to such players, like a microcosm of nerd culture’s general tendency towards declaring itself superior to all those jocks and other high school cliques.

The fact is that screaming your head off about how something is badwrongfun is never a good look, and that is what Violence boils down to: the grumpy rant of a game designer who, whilst talented, seems bitter that they never got to get a big fat iD Software paycheque peddling ultraviolence to videogamers like Sandy Petersen did.

Advertisements

Once Upon a Time By Proxy

One of the more revolutionary accomplishments of Hogshead Publishing back in the 1990s was the New Style line of brief pamphlets offering extremely innovative RPGs and story games – major experiments often moving entirely out of the traditional tabletop RPG format and forming a precursor to the wave of indie RPGs and storygames that would be unleashed in the subsequent decade by the Forge.

The premier release in the line was James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a second, expanded edition of which he issued through his own Magnum Opus Press in 2008 and a third edition of which was published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2016. Each new edition has largely reprinted the text of the previous edition and then tacked on a number of new variants of the game; the third edition, to my eyes, doesn’t do much beyond offering up an incoherent babble of fairly facile reskins of the basic concept for different genres, a task eminently doable by any reasonably skilled playing group for themselves once the basic concept is mastered. The version reviewed here is the 2nd Edition, from Magnum Opus Press.

Interestingly, though it is devoid of dice rolls, is based almost entirely around improvised storytelling, and is entirely GM-less, arguably Baron Munchausen remains an RPG, albeit one which bears almost no resemblance to the traditional RPG format, since it retains the presumption that each of the players is playing a role – namely, the PCs are 18th Century nobles (or at least purported nobles) regaling their peers with tall tales of their exploits. Each person takes a turn to tell a tale, the premise of which is presented to them by one of the other players (story seeds based on the good Baron’s own adventures having been provided in an appendix for the aid of those who cannot think of one on the fly). Each player has a certain number of coins, which they can use to challenge the facts of another player’s story, forcing them to either up the ante with their own coins and refuse to concede the point or accept the coin and come up with some explanation for the disparity in their narrative. After all have told their stories, everyone votes on who told the best story, on a basis of one coin held equals one vote; the winner buys drinks for all and another round is held if the group likes.

What is mostly clever and innovative about Baron Munchausen is its presentation, the game being written as though it were penned by the good Baron himself. Whilst I suspect most actual play will find participants referring primarily to the brief summary of the rules, providing them with the Baron’s full digressions, diversions, anecdotes and wool-gathering is a really nice way to set the assumed tone of the material. There are points where Wallis slightly overdoes it, but by and large the prose of the game is nice to read.

In terms of game mechanics, what’s mostly interesting about it is that it’s essentially a simplified, cardless riff on Once Upon a Time, the fairytale storytelling card game that Wallis co-designed with Andrew Rilstone and Richard Lambert in the early 1990s. Whereas in Once Upon a Time the cards provide the players with an endpoint they must reach and factors they must work into their stories, in Baron Munchausen all these are provided by the interjection of other players, and whereas in Once Upon a Time everyone’s competing for control of the same story, here everyone has their own story and there is a voting phase to see which is best – but the familial links between the games are evident.

My major gripe with Munchausen is the inclusion of the duelling rules. If sufficiently insulted, or if they run out of coins entirely but do not want to back down on a confrontation, a player can fight a duel with another player; this is done by rock-paper-scissors, and the loser of the duel is out of the game entirely. This can happen even if they haven’t even got to tell their story yet, and means that if you’re feeling competitive enough to go for the win and you reckon your story was weak enough that you have little hope of being voted the winner, there’s no point not immediately picking duels to see if you can’t get a win by sheer chance.

In general I consider it poor game design to give the players the option to do something which clearly wouldn’t be fun for anyone, especially when it’s not-fun in a way which sabotages the main point of the game: the duelling mechanic allows players to knock each other out of the game on a more or less entirely arbitrary, random basis, doing an end-run around the entire storytelling process which is meant to be the point of the exercise. By and large, the duelling rules are greatly to the detriment to the game, and it’s a mark against Wallis’ credentials as a game designer that he has kept them in place for multiple editions.

The Brief, Tabloid-Length Life of Pandemonium!

Pandemonium! was originally designed by Stephan Michael Sechi, the creator of Talislanta; the core rulebook bills it as being developed by Deja Vu Studios, which Sechi was presenting as being his design studio at the time (following the collapse of his previous company, Bard Games), and it’s supposedly put out by MIB Productions, which I suspect is an only theoretically separate entity from Deja Vu (especially since MIB is listed as being based in Greenwich, CT in the book and what references exist out in the wild to Deja Vu also refer to it as being based there). In practice, though, distribution was handled by Atlas Games – my hunch is that Sechi developed it with an eye to self-publishing, then managed to land the distribution deal with Atlas, making his MIB Productions imprint slightly redundant as a result.

The Atlas connection is a natural one; Over the Edge is cited as an inspiration in the bibliography at the back and Pandemonium! exists in a similar high-weirdness setting. It is distinguished from Over the Edge largely by its much lighter take on the high-weirdness concept – rather presenting a vividly realised setting based on the strangest corners of J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs’ writing, it’s a wild and wooly take on a world where the wildest excesses of the Weekly World News and similar supermarket tabloids are all real.

In keeping with the comedic spin on the game, the system is extremely simple to the point of being near-absent; the main draw here is the range of delicious ideas cribbed from the tabloids that the book offers. As well as a fat chunk of the book being devoted to setting details to use (including, naturally, stats for Elvis), there’s some delicious rules tweaks to emphasise the wacky nature of the world. For instance, the PCs (scuzzy tabloid reporters all) can, if they save enough money, arrange to “fake their death”, so any situation where it looked like their PC died can be retconned so that they survive, and all the PCs have past lives – and if they tap into their past lives they can, temporarily, use the abilities they mastered in those lives.

Pandemonium! isn’t a game I suspect lends itself to long-term play, and it’s kind of a cultural artifact of the 1980s or early 1990s – the Weekly World News is no more than a website these days and the supermarket tabloids have been poorer for it (and much more sober) as a result. You could respin it as having the PCs working for a Fortean Times-type magazine, though that tends to have a more serious stance than the way the News, which had a fine byline in sly winks to its readers and the like. Still, for a game based around that zeitgeist, Pandemonium! hits the nail on the head and would be pretty entertaining for a one-shot or two.

Stranger Than Truth! is the sole supplement for Pandemonium! – a selection of six prewritten adventures for the game penned by various Atlas Games stalwarts. (You get one from Rob Heinsoo, one from John Tynes, and the remaining for from Robin Laws.) They are largely uninspiring, highly-railroaded affairs with little lasting interest in terms of game design innovations – the sort of stuff a reasonably skilled referee could just improvise with the core book – and the overall impression is of a product rush-written to provide a bit of support to Pandemonium! out of the gate. Since no other releases for the game ever happened, I guess it wasn’t that much of a success – and to be honest, Stranger Than Truth! probably didn’t help any.

Kickstopper: The Things We Leave Behind

So, a while back I published my Kickstopper article on the Hudson & Brand Kickstarter. I now realise that I had another article mostly written on a previous Stygian Fox Kickstarter which I never got around to publishing – so let’s take a look at this Thing I’ve Left Behind, as we step into a world of modern-day horror.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Things We Leave Behind”

Ritualised Reality Cops

As far as gaming industry figures go, Mike Nystul has had a chequered history. It’s him that the spell Nystul’s Magic Aura in D&D is named after, and his career has spanned writing reasonably well-received material for Fantasy Hero in the 1980s to courting serious controversy through his management of his Kickstarter projects in recent history.

At some point in between these extremes you had the 1990s, with their fascination with modern-day settings, dark horror, grossout splatterpunk, PCs-as-monsters and occult weirdness. You cannot say Nystul didn’t tap into the zeitgeist, for one particular game line he started back then managed a unique combination of all those features.

Continue reading “Ritualised Reality Cops”

Deeper Into the Empire

OK; maybe in my previous look at 1st edition WFRP adventures I was a little harsh, though when you’re setting material like the Doomstones nonsense against the excellence of Shadows Over Bögenhafen it can be easy to look perspective. Having given a second look to some of the material from the period, I think there’s actually more gems from back then than I gave it credit for.

Continue reading “Deeper Into the Empire”

Requiem In Different Veins

I’ve largely come to agree with the apparent critical consensus on Vampire: the Requiem‘s two editions: namely, that the first edition was an interesting first pass that was a little hampered by the commercial necessity of attempting to appeal to fans of Vampire: the Masquerade, which meant that it couldn’t quite diverge as markedly from Vampire precedent as it might have wanted to, whereas the second edition – designed in an era when Masquerade is continuing to be published – has done a much better job of carving out a distinctive new identity for itself and tightening up and modernising the design of the game.

Still, that isn’t to say the entire line was a wash – indeed, the core 2nd edition book recommends some first edition books as being worth a look. For this article I’m going to look at two books which seem to offer diametrically opposite approaches to supporting 1st edition – one big fat chunk of excellent advice and setting-design tools, and one thin tome of uninspiring fluff.

Damnation City

A sourcebook on the design of city environments as physical landscapes, thematic backdrops, and as political chessboards for the purposes of Vampire: the Requiem, Damnation City is such a useful toolkit that it could be used in any other modern-day occult game. Its major weakness is the designers’ insistence that there’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to use the book, and you have to do it the Right Way; for instance, they talk a lot about how the book’s meant to be used as a dramaturgical aid, rather than as a toolkit for a more simulation-styled approach to gameplay, but in fact if you want to run a Chronicles of Darkness sandbox game there’s few better tools.

Likewise, whilst they offer “Barony” and “Primacy” play styles, in which you play increasingly powerful individuals within the power structure of the city, they work on the inflexible axiom that the Prince of the city must always, invariably be an NPC, and that a player character can never take that position. This strikes me as outright cowardice to me: if you’re willing to have the PCs become the powers behind the throne, be willing to let one of them sit on the ding-dong diddly throne already.

There’s other aspects where the book’s design suggestions just fall flat. For instance, altogether too much space is given to various ways of plotting out the power structure of a city, some of which are more or less useful whilst others are nigh-incomprehensible or utterly uninformative. Some of the power structures there make absolute sense; others look like the sort of thing you’d create if you liked the idea of making a diagram of this sort of thing but had never seen a diagram in your life.

Still, when the book’s on form, it’s great. Stuffed with ideas for NPCs, districts, locations, and so on, it’s a grand sandbox toolbox designed by people who absolutely insist that it’s not for that style of play. Well, deny it all you like, mid-2000s White Wolf: you’re the stopped clock that pulls off something useful twice a day and this time you hit the jackpot.

Mythologies

This provides a grab-bag of different urban myths that vampires tell each other, along with rules systems and tweaks to use if you decide they are true in your campaign. Fun in principle, but somehow I find the actual myths presented to be somewhat drab and uninspiring. Perhaps the issue is that the book tries to stuff too many into its limited page count, leaving the mysteries here shallow and underdeveloped.