Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RPGaDay 2017 Pt. 2: Reviews to Slaadi to Mutants

I continue to cannibalize content by pulling together my "RPGaDay" answers. You can see Part One here

Day 9: Alt Question: What do you look for in a review of an RPG?
1) A clear statement of whether the reviewer has played the game, run the module, or used the sourcebook. If they haven’t they should say. If it’s a core book review, how much did they run it? I can handle “reading reviews” but I assess those opinions differently. I just want to know.

2) A summary of the product offering more than I could get reading the product description and back cover blurb. It should tell me some of the elements and cool stuff I wouldn’t have gotten from that. I'd like a sense of the resolution mechanics, the world/rules/GMing info ratio, and what extra tools it has.

3) At the same time, the review shouldn't be just section-by-section summary and restatement. I’ve read too many reviews that feel like someone flipped through the book as they wrote the review. Here’s chapter one, here’s what’s in chapter two, etc. These often end with a micro-paragraph saying, “hey it’s weak” or “yeah that was ok.”

4) It should point out the cool stuff in the game and talk about what you might do with it. That’s assuming it has cool stuff.

5) If not, the review should talk about those failings. I want to know where the game breaks down for them. Perhaps they could compare it to other games so we have a better sense of the context (and perhaps the reviewer’s preferences).

6) The review shouldn’t stick with a tone of high snark, condescension, gatekeeping, or goofy comedy. I shouldn’t sense contempt from the reviewer, even if the product's bad. Maybe more disappointment at the potential. Overall I shouldn't feel like the review has an axe to grind or wants to punch down.

7) Finally it should have some discussion of usability. Does the electronic product have layers you can control? Do the page backgrounds and layout make things easier or more difficult? Has play at the table been sacrificed for cool graphics? Has someone thought about the ordering of material in play? If the product has playbooks, have the moves from each of those playbooks actually been presented in the core book? (After several recent frustrating sessions, I really want to know this.)

Day 10: Where do you go for RPG Reviews?
I wrote about what I look for in good reviews yesterday, so where do I find those? I’ve had to hunt for a ton of game reviews over the last couple of years. If possible, I find reviews for rpgs I add to my RPG Genre History lists. I’ve also done some copy for the Bundle of Holding, which requires gathering blurbs. The further you go back, obviously, the harder it can be to find these. Sometimes I’ll locate transcriptions of reviews from magazines, like Pyramid, Scrye, or even Different Worlds. But more often than not games, even recent games, don’t have reviews.

It’s one of the curses of our hobby that so many products go without his kind of information. I’ve seen what look like cool, new core systems come out from smaller publishers and even several years later have no reviews. Or they only have fragmented Amazon or DTRPG reviews. These either provide no real info (“It’s a cool setting”) or look like friends of the designer (“X has produced a masterclass in rpg design which will set the bar for future fantasy games.”). I tend to be pretty cynical about reviews in either of these places and usually discount them.

RPGNet’s a mixed bag. A good chunk of the reviews are solid. But many are badly written, adopt a weird voice, or don’t tell me much. There’s also a lot not covered there. RPGGeek has better coverage, but also can be a mixed bag. The Geekgold incentive for posting things means that many reviews are short summaries followed by a sentence or two of assessment. I used to find excellent pieces on DieHardGameFan, but the search function there’s abysmal. Even Google often doesn’t show me results from that source.

So where have I actually found reviews? It’s self-serving, but I’ve heard and gotten more assessments of games from The Gauntlet Podcast network than anywhere else. The monthly round-up of gaming usually has one or two new games—with an assessment of how they played. The new Fear of a Black Dragon podcast is looking at OSR products in depth. And +1 Forward, while not giving reviews, does give the designers a chance to explain themselves so I can make a judgement. I follow a lot of blogs and I always check out reviews where they’re posted. Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer has done at great series of “Let's Study” of new games. They’re reading reviews, but solid and thorough. Finally though I have to use Google translate to read them, I dig the reviews at the French site, GROG. Often you get multiple reviews and an ongoing discussion of the product line.

Day 11: Which dead game would you like to see reborn?
I’ve seen some good answers already this morning—Ghostbusters, Underground, BESM. We’ve recently two trends that have changed the idea of “dead” games. It used to be once a game line OOP, that was it and you had to scramble to find books. But many of those remain “in print” via DriveThru and more have seen a revival via Kickstarters (Feng Shui 2, TORG).

What I’d really like to see is a return of Planescape. Not a reboot, not a homage, but an actual republishing of this setting with updated stats, cleaned up typos, maybe some other editorial polish, and better printing techniques. Update the material for D&D 5th edition and release it that way. You don’t have to release everything, just the best parts and pieces. Skip particularly lame modules and hold off on the boxed “Planes Of…” sets right away. Maybe consolidate some of the smaller supplements into a single collection (a “Best of Monstrous Compendium” for example).

Of course keep in mind for me Planescape is less about the Planes and more about Sigil.

I lost all of my Planescape stuff in the fire and WotC has been slow to roll out into their PoD line. Those they have I already managed to pick up. So my request is generally selfish. But at the same time I think there’s some value to taking older products and representing them with new edition mechanics. Not doing the kinds of weird tear downs and complete rewritings we’ve seen—so that they don’t resemble the original.

Geez, now that I look at this I feel like I’m yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

Day 12: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?
I have to echo yesterday’s answer—Planescape. Those first several releases (the core set, the Planescape Monstrous Compendium, Faces of Sigil, The Factol’s Manifesto) develop a distinct and consistent look. It’s, of course, all built on Tony DiTerlizzi. His unique character designs, imaginative shading, and striking locations make Planescape.

I know Bradstreet’s the iconic figure we think of with Vampire the Masquerade. Like him a few other artists have managed to be associated strongly with a line. Like Dan Smith with GURPS 3e or James Holloway with Paranoia. But I think those lines still work with other artists. I don’t think that’s the case with Planescape. There’s something about DiTerlizzi’s work that defines the setting. Some of the later books, even the great ones like Planewalkers Guide and In the Cage, don’t work nearly as well simply because of the art. You can see some of the artists trying to echo DiTerlizzi’s style and not quite making it.

More than any other game line before or since, I went back to the Planescape books just to look at the art. Eventually I read the words, but by that time I’d created a whole world in my imagination.

Day 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you play.
When I went to Origins a few years ago, I met up with the RPGGeek contingent. A Euro-group had come over and that was the excuse for everyone to hang out. I’d interacted and played with Richard Rogers several times before that, but this was the first time we’d met in person. We ended up hitting it off and hung out most of the con.

I’d interacted with a number of people at cons and online who had grand theoretical or philosophical positions on games or “the industry,” most of them incredibly negative. More often than not, when pressed on what they were actually playing, it would turn out to be only the game they’d written; one or two games at cons; or often nothing at all. Not so with Rich—we talked about games he liked, but more often we talked about what games were like at the table.

How something felt when it ran, what tools a game gave you as a GM, what things worked better with certain games. It was the first time I’d gotten to talk ace-to-face about GMing with a peer, someone I respected. He said a bunch of stuff that weekend that has stuck with me (like about avoiding empty qualifiers when you’re running…) and he talked really honestly about how he felt about games. I agreed and disagreed with him and it was great.

Anyway, Rich played in one of my sessions, a game about fantasy city guards using my Action Cards rules. Afterwards he said, “Man I really loved the voice you did for that Slaadi Monster Merchant. That was awesome.” I’ve always done voices, but I’ve always been self-conscious about them. I used to avoid them at cons and running online. Sherri always said they were good, but she has to because she’s married to me. But Rich’s open, honest compliment stuck with me. And I do a lot more voices now when I run. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t but I’m willing to give it a try just because of that small bit of praise and feedback.

If your GM does something well, tell them.

Day 14: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?
Since 2001 I’ve run most of my f2f campaigns using our Action Cards homebrew. That started as an experiment trying to rethink Castle Falkenstein’s single deck into individual decks. Then I realized you could make those unique and off we went. I first used it with a couple of modern fantasy/supernatural campaigns. Eventually I moved that on to be the basis for many multi-year games (Libri Vidicos 6 years; Last Fleet 3 years; Legend of the Five Rings two years; etc). Right now I only have one f2f campaign using it, but it’s massively open-ended. Ocean City Interface has the players cycling through different worlds and adjusting their decks to them.

It works for me. It replaced other generic systems and games I’d used for years: GURPS, Storyteller, HERO, Rolemaster. It works for many reasons, but primarily because I wrote it to support the way I like to run. I like having the players make tough push-your-luck choices on the fly, I like being able to dole out spendable XP every session, I like laundry lists of interesting stunts which don’t require me or the players learn new sub-systems or rules, I like games that create a physical artifact. It’s fast and I know it super well. Some of the other players in the group have run it and enjoyed it, but I think they want more of a net to fall back on. I can dig that.

I’ve tuned it and the group over the years. Everyone knows the rules pretty well and they’re willing to engage with add-ons and changes. We’ve tried several different variations on magic, I rebalance the XP spend system from time to time, I modify how we handle damage. I don’t change in mid-stream, but we’ve play it enough I can iterate between campaigns. I think I’ve had a campaign running of it since 2001, with maybe a one year gap in there. More often than not I’ve had multiple games running in parallel.

Open-ended campaign play has two meanings to me: improvisational plot & unknown length. The first I do regardless of the campaign. Action Cards gives me the mental and mechanical support I need for that. It also helps with the second meaning. When we’re talking open-ended, we’re probably talking longer games. If you’re going to run long—you want a system that you love. I’ve had a cases where I didn’t love them and it showed (M&M 3e, Scion). The solution I think, is not to hunt for the out-of-the-box game that will fill all your needs. Instead figure out the kind of game you want to run and either build whole cloth or 'Frankenstein' it. And be willing to keep tinkering with it, knowing you’ll never be done.

Day 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?
I have to refer everyone to yesterday’s entry. In the fifteen or so years we’ve been playing Action Cards we’ve used it for:
  • Assassins of the Golden Age: Assassins Creed/Mage Sorcerers Crusade Mash Up
  • Changeling the Lost
  • City of Ocean: Unknown Armies Weird
  • Fallout
  • Glorantha
  • Guards of Abashan_: Fantasy City Guards
  • HALO
  • Legend of the Five Rings
  • Last Fleet: Battlestar Galactica inspired fantasy
  • Libri Vidicos: Steampunk Fantasy School
  • Magic, INC: Supernatural Office Politics
  • Microscope-built Fantasy (a few times)
  • Middle Earth
  • Modern Fantasy
  • Neo-Shinobi Vendetta: CyberNinjas
  • OCI: Near Future Sci-Fi
  • Sellsword Company: Fantasy Mercenaries
  • Sky Racers Unlimited: A Crimson Skies homage
  • Star Wars
  • Three Musketeers Fantasy

…and I’m probably forgetting a few.

Day 16: Which RPG do you enjoy as is?
OK finally a super hard question on this list. I’ve almost always adapted or house ruled games I’ve run over the years—Rolemaster's initiative, GURPS' mana, speed limits for Scion. But in the last couple of years I’ve run lots of short 2 and 4 session online games with new systems. I try to run those as is—with a couple of exceptions (Kuro, for example). Usually because I’m not running these games long, I don't bridle at rules elements that fit awkwardly with my style.

But I’ve also run a handful of longer campaigns f2f with new systems. Most of these have had unusual moving parts and gears. They promise a great deal, so I’ve been willing to adjust my style to fit them. I hope the payoff will be worth it: Godbound, Blades in the Dark, The Sprawl, The Veil. I've found changes I'll need to make in some of these. The players have suggest adjustments in others.

But of those, one game has provided a satisfying experience out of the box. We haven't felt the drive to make changes. That's Mutant: Year Zero. I think It’s great—and I’ve already written a long post about why I think that is. But the quick rundown: easy character mechanics, a significant push-your-luck die system, resources & equipment handled well, great tools for the GM, and colorful setting. We did sixteen sessions f2f and I did another online-- without any need to make house rules or smooth off rough corners.