Niche product producers will not find much joy selling their webspace to internet advertisers. Numbers from a Secret Squirrel RPG Industry Mailing List. Approximates of course.
To give you a rough sense of the math:
Niche product producers will not find much joy selling their webspace to internet advertisers. Numbers from a Secret Squirrel RPG Industry Mailing List. Approximates of course.
To give you a rough sense of the math:
I have to tell you that the book is stalled again. Layout is a fiendish and complicated beastie now we’re down to the last few chapters, because it’s in those chapters that we have tables and lists and stat blocks (if anyone wants to help out, let us know! Many hands make faster work!)
What’s that you ask? Do we have new rules in all those tables and statblocks? Why, what would a sourcebook be without cool new powers to use upon your enemies? Poorly reviewed and undersold, that’s what. So no, we don’t just bring you setting information. There are a set of new monsters, new chargen tables, fencing powers and of course, new spells for the servants of the Maiden. 33 to be exact. Here’s six to give you a taste:
Apprentice to Master
Casting Number: 12
Casting Time: Special
Ingredient: A tool used to build a great temple (+2)
Description: As part of the casting of this spell, you must watch another individual creating something using a Perform or Trade skill. Until the next sunrise, you gain the skill you observed. You may use this skill as many times as your Magic characteristic, then the knowledge fades from your hands.
Arena of Reckoning
Casting Number: 14
Casting Time: Half Action
Ingredients: A circlet of gold (+2)
Description: When you cast this spell, you and one target are locked in combat to the death. An immovable magical aura rises surrounding only the two of you (just enough to cover your two squares with about a foot of give around) – any others that might be caught are flung out. Aside from a Dispel spell, the aura remains totally impenetrable to anything and anyone until either you or the target are dead.
Arms of the Sister
Casting Number: 10
Casting Time: Half Action
Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)
Ingredients: A broken arrow (+1)
Description: When you strike, you strike with the arms of Shallya, Myrmidia’s merciful sister. When striking to Stun, you automatically succeed on the Strength test. If you strike to wound while the spell is in effect, it immediately ends.
Beacon in the Tempest
Casting Number: 9
Casting Time: Half Action
Duration: 1 minute (6 rounds)
Range: 24 yards (12 squares)
Ingredients: An owl’s beak (+1)
Description: While Myrmidia’s faithful command soldiers, they must also look to those who cannot fight. All allies within range can hear your voice as clearly as if they were standing next to you, and can understand you whatever language they speak. Your voice sounds calming and wise, and those who hear it gain a +10% bonus to Willpower tests to resist Initimdate tests, and Fear or Terror effects for the next hour.
Casting Number: 9
Casting Time: Half action
Duration: 1 hour/Magic
Ingredients: A paintbrush (+1)
Description: You apply a beautifier’s eye and hand to one object you nominate. The object’s Craftsmanship goes up one level (Poor to Common, Common to Good, Good to Best). You may Beautify as many objects as your Magic characteristic. Weapons enhanced in this manner gain the standard bonuses. However, Myrmidia frowns upon deception for profit and any attempt to sell items enhanced by this spell cause the glamour to immediately vanish and the deception to be revealed.
Blade for Blade
Casting Number: 10
Casting Time: Half Action
Duration: 1 minute
Ingredients: A silvered blade (+2)
Description: When you cast this spell you can see the attacks of your enemies coming towards you as if in slow motion. You may parry as many times per round as your Magic characteristic. You may still only parry once per attack.
Boon of Surrender
Casting Number: 15
Casting Time: Half Action
Range: 24 yards
Ingredients: A ring of silver (+2)
Description: When you cast this spell, you demand that your enemies surrender (making Charm or Command tests as the GM directs). All enemies you can see within range of the spell who cease fighting immediately heal 1d10 Wounds. They also cease to be Frightened, Terrified or subject to frenzy if they were previously. Those who do not surrender suffer -10% on their next WS or BS roll. For the next hour, if the subjects of the spell attack or direct harm towards you or a number of your allies equal to your Magic characteristic, the subject loses 1d0 Wounds.
RPGs are a crowded marketplace. Particularly in the traditional mode: there’s only so many ways to differentiate the idea of simulated avatars moving through an imagined environment. And the thing we do in them almost as much as kill monsters in fantasy dungeons is kill monsters in modern day horror. Which is to say, it’s not enough for the modern-day monster killing RPG Chill to be decent, or even good. It also needs to bring something new to the table. Chill tries hard to rise to this challenge, but its successes are never quite without qualifications.
Of course, Chill is something old, not new. Chill was first released by Pacesetter Games in 1984 – an eternity ago in gaming. I never played the original so I’m not sure how much new stuff they’ve added and how much is a relic of the past. The sense I get is they’ve tried to keep as much as possible, and sometimes I fear that might have led to some preservations which might have been better culled or at least cleaned and polished. On the other hand, not all changes are improvements…
To pick an emblematic example, let’s talk the core system. Chill was one of the last of the great dividers: nowadays, it’s considered taboo but in the 80s it was commonly expected for players of roleplaying games to be able to do division and multiplication on the fly. Chill is in fact an acronym for how the system works: there are three levels of success – Colossal, High and Low – ChilL (not to be confused with California Highway Patrol, which is completely different). A Low success is rolling under your (usually above 50%) stat on a d%, a High was rolling under stat halved, and a Colossal was rolling under it quartered. New minty fresh Chill keeps the High and Low, but replaces the Colossal with rolling doubles on your percentile dice and getting a success (doubles while failing is a Botch). That means a few things, such as critical successes and failure now happen 10% of the time, which is much more common. There’s now less reason to have stats above 100%, except in the case of modifiers, (although I don’t see why you need modifiers if you have success levels), and now there are five levels of outcome to deal with rather than four. But it does mean you don’t have to divide by four. Better? Maybe. To me it feels like not much really gained and still fiddly anyway.
And there’s some more of that around. There’s a gorgeous mechanic where the game has a number of two-sided tokens on the table and the GM turns them to the good side to power up the bad guys and players turn them to the bad side to power up themselves. This allows a visual, visceral sense of how much trouble you’re in and how the tide is turning. But there are six different things that can cause or arise from token turning and they’re not written on the character sheet. Another example is every stat is linked to exactly one skill, which is rated at half your stat. A lovely idea that really helps establish setting: this is your general skill with Perception, whereas Investigation is using it specifically in genre, ie to solve mysteries and hunt monsters. The problem is they couldn’t think of specific examples narrow enough for Strength, Agility or charisma (here called Personality) so those skills (Prowess, Movement and Communication) start at your full stat. Maybe I’m a stickler for symmetry but that just feels messy. It’s the opposite of elegant.
Parts of the design and layout of the book also feel messy. Now, RPGs aren’t like normal books. RPGs are toolkits, which is to say when you open them they need to unfold like a toolbox to reveal all the useful tools close at hand, but being books they have to be lined up in a linear order. You can’t understand chargen until you know the rules but the rules don’t mean anything without knowing what the characters are and none of that means anything without a setting. Over the decades different games have solved this in different ways and none are perfect, but Chill’s approach seems particularly off-kilter. To stop you from having to learn the complexities of chargen at the start, the pregens come first, but that means you have the examples before the process (and I’ve never met anyone who likes pregens). Then after chargen we have a huge chapter on setting and the chapter of cool powers before we get to the main rules, and parts of those end up in the GM’s chapter. And because the setting chapter is entirely focussed on the organisation the PCs work for, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the game’s direction until you reach the antagonist chapter at the very end – you get a who’s who before you get what they do. The game is complete (and expansive) but you have to read the whole thing to get that, and at times it almost feels like work to unravel it.
But once you get passed the messiness, there is an interesting, well developed and at times beautiful game in here. So let’s talk about the good stuff.
Chill takes its lead from many, if not most, twentieth century horror films: evil is a real, potent force, it takes the form of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters, black-eyed children, creepy old ladies and evil dolls, and all they want to do is kill people and cause pain. The players are members, or “envoys”, of SAVE, a Latin acronym for the Eternal Society of the Silver Way, although Eternal is big talk for a society invented in 1844. But that big talk is part of SAVE’s nature: it feels realistic and human. It’s not a society that somehow magically lasted all of time and whose members are almost always entirely loyal and whose goal always good. SAVE is in fact riven by internal politics disputes, frustrated by its inadequacies and limitations, and possibly entirely betrayed from within. Indeed, in 1989 their world clubhouse in Dublin was attacked in an inside job and still nobody knows how (and nobody trusts anyone either). They’re not the Watchers or the Templars or even the CIA; they’re more akin to the National Geographic Society, only without funding coming in from sales of the magazine. They’re big enough to have people all over the world and keep a mailing list going, but they rely on members to bring their own guns, cars, computers and sometimes even office buildings. And given that every time they gather information and resources in one place it gets blown up, smallness appears to be on their side.
This approach has become explicit since 2012 when a new leader emerged in Hayat Nejem, a Syrian woman who discovered the Unknown (capital U, as SAVE calls the force of evil) when she saw demonic spirits surrounding Assad. Her response was to kickstart SAVE back from the torpor of confusion and suspicion since Dublin, but with the caveat that from now on, everyone was going to use a cell structure to stay connected but anonymous. Meanwhile old schoolers want to pretend they’re still an academic gentleman’s club and are resisting the new methods, and some parts of SAVE are still off the grid and don’t know anything about leaders, new or old. Players get to build their own SAVE base and choose which group they fall into, although only brainstorming guidelines are provided, not actual mechanics.
It’s a good setting not just because it feels realistically broken and organic; SAVE is designed to be just big enough to get envoys in trouble while small enough to be completely unable to get them out of it. However, the exhaustive chapter on SAVE goes into enormous detail about some things that feel irrelevant and skims over stuff I would have loved to have seen more about. For example, there’s endless information on the first three missions and surrounding life and times of the folks who set up SAVE, and a breakdown of every central office, director and local hotspots for every continent on earth. Having a historical and global view is important to get a sense of things but unless you’re planning on setting your game outside modern day USA, most of the detail is superfluous. Especially since those sections are much much longer than stuff about the modern day and the local, comparatively, and the every day functioning also has a short shrift. I’m fascinated with the idea of a society trying to exist in a post-9/11 world while requiring its members to remain in clandestine contact with military agents inside Syria. I’d love to play either side of that equation. Instead I’m reading about haunted houses in Outer Mongolia and lengthy journal entries of some long-dead Oxford don about whom I could not care less.
Nothing is actually absent in this book, it’s just sometimes disproportionate; others hard to find. The real meat is in the rump, in the last and second last chapters. Yes, players need to know what dice to roll but the nature of an RPG is in its structure and tone. To its enormous credit, Chill knows this and devotes much to the art of crafting these elements. And I don’t just mean a long discussion on the relevant sources and the methods of emulating them using the rules. The damage rules are in this section, because it’s in those rules that GMs have the main ability to affect the characters, and drive home the horror. Chill’s setting is one where the characters are really normal people, getting the absolute crap beaten out of them by a dark force they cannot really match, but choosing to fight on anyway, and representing that is all about damage, physical AND mental. The horror checks are more complicated than Cthulhu but not as complicated as Unknown Armies, but either way are meaty and realistic. This is a game where trauma counselling is vital, and the feat giving training in it is as sought after as Great Cleave in D&D.
That sets up tone. Structure comes from the investigation model: finding the horror and learning what might be its weakness before it beats the crap out of you. Chill is a high-prep game where GMs develop a series of bread-crumbs which players can find in different avenues to get the important information. The monsters aren’t generally unbeatable without their silver bullet, thankfully, and the structure takes its key from the lesson of GUMSHOE – key clues are available even on botches, although sometimes with extraneous information. Do I want to come up with five outcomes for every investigation avenue? No, but that’s what pre-written adventures are for. The one we’ve seen (in the quickstart) is excellent at this; I hope we’ll see more of them announced soon. Even if not, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to the investigation genre, and by taking you through the process inch by inch, Chill does every bit of heavy lifting it can to help you.
They also give some help in the last chapter, the extensive bestiary, with most listings have some guidance on tell-tale signs and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that you can see SAVE actually applying in setting. Lest your players crack the code and become bored, many monsters are adjustable and the game also comes with sixty monster powers allowing you to mix and match your monsters to keep players guessing. The powers also allow you to emulate important horror tropes like descending silence, slamming doors and phones breaking, without having to give everyone complicated telekinesis. If the player character sheets look a bit fussy, the opposite is true with the opposition – the stats are streamlined down and the use of the flipping tokens also thins down what each beasty can do and when.
The tone of this review has ramped up towards positivity as it’s gone along, and that’s because the RPG works the same way. When I’d finished it, I finally got the sense of all the tools and how to use them to tell a story, but actively trying to learn that from the game proved difficult. It’s certainly not a product to give to your players to teach them. There’s no handy summary tables and back references and chargen doesn’t feel like a step-by-step guide so much as a list of information. There isn’t even a character sheet – or maybe they just took it out of the PDF?
Yet at the same time this game goes above and beyond with what detail and support it does provide. The information on the background and antagonists is exhaustive to the point of actual exhaustion. The tools for building investigative structure and intense horror are purposeful and cleverly designed. This is a game built with care, but it is also not very user-friendly or easily grasped, because there are still plenty of rough edges. It’s a claymore of a game: certainly potent but also unwieldy. And like a claymore I respect it and I think it will really suit some people’s style, but it also requires some work to master, and if I was backed into a corner, I’d pick a slicker, more convenient weapon.
In the end, the first question was around the wrong way: Chill clearly some nice new things to the table, but it also has to be good. And it is quite good, but in a crowded marketplace, you have to be great to be good, and quite good is only decent.
RPGs are a complex recipe, involving a lot of different aspects which require a range of skills. That’s why it’s always exciting when a designer who has been prolific in working on other games takes the helm of his own – we get a new window into their strengths, weaknesses, preferences and styles. Such is the case with Mr Robert J. Schwalb who has spent more than fifteen years working on a plethora of games from Warhammer to Numenera, not to mention three separate editions of D&D – and doing work so consistently good and interesting that it was worth notice even if, like me, you didn’t care about Dungeons and Dragons.
Yes, I’m one of those gaming snobs who finds no appeal in the Big Kahuna. I don’t even have any nostalgia for the old days, even though my introduction to roleplaying was losing Aleena to Bargle (spoilers) in the redbook Basic Edition by Frank Mentzer. And that’s important because there’s a lot of that book in Schwalb’s opus Shadow of the Demon Lord. So much so that Mentzer wrote the foreword.
So is Shadow a nostalgia piece or retroclone? Not really. Perhaps better to say that it identifies very clearly the things that were good about BECMI/Cyclopaedia – things like simplicity, streamlining and surprise – and replicates them in a modern, accessible, stylish game product, one that is accessible to all but unlike anything else, familiar to any D&D fan but matured from lessons learned by Shcwalb and gaming in general. The marriage between old and new isn’t perfect, but the tension is as interesting as it is problematic, and the shiny gems of genius outweigh the flaws.
So what is it?
It’s definitely an old-school fantasy RPG, in the sense that it assumes you live in a world of magic, elves, dwarves, fighters, thieves and clerics, and expects you to do a lot of killing of things, sometimes in dungeons. It’s also old school in that it doesn’t tell you anything about that world at the front of the book (apart from quick notes on tone) before we leap into chargen. And this is exactly what I mean about an uneasy marriage between old style and new sensibilities.
On the one hand, I’m hate reading endless waffling setting material, and doubly so if it is shoved on me at the start. I like learning the game through the mechanics; I think that’s how it should work. And I’m tired of too many games working to the formula of front loading the (ponderously explained) setting before I see the playing pieces. But the introduction here was too swift, too reminiscent of games where rules were the purpose, because of course you were in a D&D-like world because every game was another D&D clone. It makes it hard to actually understand what the game is about and where it takes place. Getting a grip on the face of this game is not easy. And the cover is no help; after reading the whole game I’m still not sure what monster is depicted on it (an ogre maybe?).
Getting a grip on the style, however, is helped by the example of play which gives us the usual Schwalbian grand guignol gorefest. If you didn’t want to see blood and faeces flying out of writhing, living intestines, you came to the wrong place.
Until we get to the gazetteer stuff at the end (and not even then), this is your basic fantasy world, except darker. World-destroying doom is consuming the land of Rul, and you are the only ones who can stop it, and the rest you have to work out for yourself in dribs and drabs. But those dribs reveal some lovely, extremely atypical stuff: elves are the terrifying child-stealing old-magic kind, and their changeling children are a playable race. So are the clockworks, mechanical objects given life by turning their cranks, and goblins, rejects from fairyland who prefer to live and work in squalor, and orcs who are tainted by dark magic, not just another race. Humans and dwarfs round out the list, and retain their usual roles of flexible and grumpy.
The inclusion of clockwork people, and goblin muckers and working pistols and rifles (and mages who use them) are all reminiscent of the Iron Kingdoms setting from Warmachine; while the clockwork people, artficers and changelings suggest Eberron, and the pistols, demons and encroaching corruption and insanity suggest Warhammer. And the truth is, there is a lot of references and keynotes in here, but Schwalb has the sense to steal wisely, well and often enough to create a patchwork that never feels derivative. You’ll also see references to major personalities like the Arch-Mage and the Dark Lady ala 13th Age, mechanics lifts from Pendragon and Warhammer and Dark Heresy and Call of Cthulhu, nods to Tolkein and Howard, and stuff from literally every single edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Every now and then there’s a choice that sticks out a bit in this, but overall the tone is maintained while at the same time showing us Schwalb’s greatest loves, a sample bag of his favourite things in every RPG he’s played.
Meanwhile, if I was trying to sum up the feel of the setting, I ended up being reminded of the 1985 film Return to Oz, in that sense of dark despair combined with the madly inexplicable, plus wind-up men. Return to Oz also has a late 70s-early 80s tight-angle horror feel to it like The Shining and Halloween and the Omen and that is definitely part of this setting. You don’t have to play the game for horror, but you certainly can.
Speaking of things from the 70s, chargen can be done entirely through random dice rolls, which is lovely to see, especially when it doesn’t result in unbalanced characters like it always has in D&D. Races (or ancestries as they are called) have a starting suite of attributes, and the rest are then fairly and equally assigned depending on rolls. As you might expect from the man who gave us the d1000 Chaos Mutation Tables, chargen also has random tables for age, build, personality, background, professions (which take the role of overarching skills) and 120 different strange items. All of this provides the kind of characters only random chargen can create, and an extremely flexible and fun class and level system helps keep you bouncing around life’s curveballs into paths nobody could have designed.
Lest talk of classes and levels turn you off, let me say this may be the best class/level system ever designed, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because you don’t have a class at level 0, which allows your character to actually have a prologue experience before selecting a life role. Fantasy gaming has always suffered from a lack of prologue, perhaps because nobody wants to spend ten years in Hobbiton with Gandalf visiting occasionally or twenty years tied to the Wheel of Pain like Conan. But in gaming it’s often hard to know who you want to be until the first adventure sets the scene and tone for the campaign, so a prologue makes a lot of sense. And it’s not like picking your first class locks you in to a restrictive bind: yes you have it for the rest of the game but the low-level class choices are extremely general – Magician, Priest, Warrior or Rogue – and provide very general abilities. You want to be a book-reading wizard, or be a druid-priest not a cleric-priest, wait until you get to level 3 to pick your Expert Class and hone your concept down – or switch to book-reading wizard from warrior or rogue or cleric. At level 7 you can choose to narrow your focus again, or choose another Expert class, while all the time still gaining benefits from your first choice, your first instinct and general approach towards the world.
From four Novice classes we go to sixteen Expert to sixty four(!) Master, which is wonderfully enormous especially when you know you can pick any of them. Want to suddenly become a Chronomancer at level 7 after six levels of warrior stuff? That’s fine. You won’t however, be as good a Chronomancer as someone who spent their life preparing for it but you’ll have a better grounding in hurting people. It’s a system that is streamlined, simple and maintains total flexibility while completely balancing the specialist and the generalist better than anything has before. Scuttlebutt is Schwalb and his crew spent three years playtesting this, and it shows. This has the laser-like attention to balance that D&D 4E has, without the sacrifice of flavour and variation.
It’s also wonderful that everyone can learn magic. That plays into the dabblers of old school, pre-D&D fantasy, and by grouping them into 30(!) different traditions, each waiting to be unlocked through exploration and discovery, it provides a sense of a world infused with magic and mystery, without throwing a billion magic items at you like D&D. Indeed, as written, players will own at most three magic items in their lives, and maybe one powerful, story-changing relic, which still won’t have huge in-game power – but enough to swing things importantly in your favour.
It is a system where small changes matter, which is great at hammering home the knife-edge horror of the setting. Using a single d20, yes, makes it very “swingy” with the uniform distribution, but it helps that almost everything centres around the middle range. Stats range from around 8 to 14, they are also your target number, or, when you subtract ten, what you add to the die roll. Bonuses and penalties come in the form of boons and banes. For each boon, you roll an extra d6 and add the highest of those d6s, subtract for banes. So you’ll never get more than a +6 or -6 but more banes and boons shift the likelihood towards a big bonus. Yes, you could just make it +2/+4/+6 but the possibility of a single boost giving a massive +6 adds gambling excitement AND the randomness of that works to cancel out the randomness of the D20 roll, which is some elegant stuff.
If you’re not hitting someone else’s stat, you’re just trying to break ten which as I said makes every point matter, and that makes levelling up a huge deal, as it should be, especially when there are only ten of them. And for once, this is a levelling system that understands what levels do: they’re not just fun rewards for characters, they cause dramatic shift in the game’s tone. And as such, it has the best experience system ever, which is that characters level when that dramatic shift is appropriate, and not before. That usually means after achieving a significant story goal or ending an important adventure, which means you can use levels to structure your entire campaign in a rigid way (eleven adventures will do it) instead of a haphazard, guess-work way where you may or may not need filler. Campaigns are soon to be released to make direct application of this system.
With so many class and level powers, they take up the majority of the book. Combat and rules adjudication are sweetly simple; the rules are just complicated enough to have fun with them and have fun breaking them. What’s left is world description, GM advice and possibly the biggest bestiary in a corebook ever.
World design takes us on the whistle-stop tour of Rul in a confusing way – alphabetically by geographical features first, then nations and city states – which leaves us just as confused as we began until you’ve consumed the whole thing. It doesn’t help that the backstory about the elves and the world history in general doesn’t appear until we get to the zoomed-in section about the default campaign starting area. The feel of this Northern Reach is a nice combination of a frontier far enough from the Empire capital to be self-governing, cut with an Empire-born religious Crusader class because even further north is where the evil comes from. Props for making the evil tropical, too – the land of Rul is in the southern hemisphere, amazingly for fantasy gaming.
Some of the world building is derivative or uninspiring but it’s usually saved with some wonderful flashes of vividness and invention. Yes, there are fantasy Vikings but they’re made more interesting by being conquered years ago and blasted with dark magic to make orks. Yes orks are a mindless warrior race, but only until yesterday (setting-wise) when for some reason the magic ran out and they rebelled and murdered the Emperor who enslaved them. There’s a bunch of mercantile city states that are a bit the Hanseatic League and a bit BarterTown but one of them was built for an enormous population that then suddenly died of plague so the city’s architecture is ten times what its population needs. And so on.
These flourishes, these sudden moments of not just invention and colour but also revelation are for me the best thing about the book. They’re everywhere, too, little notes in classes power descriptions and random tables that suddenly open up some part of the world you never though about, and there’s a score of them in the bestiary, like the entire race of dwarf-like beings who have transparent skulls or the fact that mirrors are mistrusted because one-eyed demonic slimes can leak through them. Remember when I said that one of the best things about the old redbook D&D was surprise? This is what I’m talking about: these moments where you can turn a page and find a new entry and suddenly everything is new again.
That said, there are times when this approach lurches from wonderful surprises to appearing haphazard and even slapdash. It’s funny that there are Shrieking Eels from Princess Bride and graboids from Tremors but it can pull you out of the game. It’s nice to reference D&D and warhammer but were the amphisbaena and the beastman really worth including? And then there’s the reen which are basically the robot squids from the Matrix invading from another RPG and throwing the tone off completely. Listen, people: Barrier Peaks was a stupid idea. It will always be a stupid idea.
There’s also the fact that some of these things should be more integrated into the game. Like the the fact that most of the farmers of the Empire are Halflings but you only find they exist when you’re 80% through the book. Or that we only find out that the one and only dragon in the land lives on Mount Fear when we get to that location’s description. Or that rifles and pistols are a thing but no mention of whether cannons or greek fire exists. Too much ‘Rule of Cool’? Or just some chinks in development that will get more follow through in the next edition?
Lack of follow-through also haunts the whole concept of the game. The eponymous demon shadow is more than just a mood component: we’re told that his scrabbling at the edges of reality is already casting a pall over everything, his cults and agents are everywhere, the End Times are near. The GM chapter provides twenty different ways you can choose how this doom will specifically incarnate, with the suggestion that the orcs throwing off their masters (causing the likely collapse of the Empire) is the one operating in the default setting. And while that is cool, there’s not a lot of development about how it matters, or how to stop it. The other ideas have brief rules suggestions but only one or two lines. The bestiary has demons and demonic powers, and there’s dark magic in the spell list, but no real development on how such things appear. Shadow, in other words, is there in tone and feel but not as much in fact, in setting, rules or narrative structure. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t just have the Old Ones coming back, it gives you a road map to how they can be at least temporarily held back. This may be alleviated in soon-to-come supplements or campaigns, but at the moment this feels unfinished.
It could be an artefact of the Kickstarter: a whole series of PDFs were unlocked through the campaign which might give more insight, and a companion is on the way. These problems, therefore, may be likely on their way to being fixed. And they’re far from fatal flaws, just niggles. This is definitely a four-star game as it stands, you just might have to spend a little bit more on a companion or a campaign to get a five-star game.
Luckily, these supplements are coming and in no small measure. This is going to be a massively supported game that is also to be converted to a post-apocalyptic and SF setting in the future. Given that we see in Shadow of the Demon Lord Schwalb’s trademark vivid imagination, command of style and elegant mastery of rules, this is great new for roleplayers whatever their genre preference. In other words, I’m not just excited to play this game, I can’t wait to see how it develops.
A few people have asked for the rundown on the WFRP campaign I’m playing in, and also my thoughts on Storium as a system, so here’s both, in that order.
The title of our adventures is “A Mark On the Empire”, and our initial pitch would be us coming together to ferment rebellion against the Powers That Be, in our home town and elsewhere. Our brave protagonists are:
Violet, kicked out of the Roadwardens for being too relentlessly upbeat
Kannter, House of Cards Francis Underwood crossed with a Mummerset pigfarmer (me)
Wilhelm, ex-soldier with a dark past and grim demeanour
Faragast, paranoid prognosticating Wizard who cannot tell a lie
Violet, Wilhelm and Faragast are all relative strangers to our town of Schoppendorf but no strangers to rebellion and a sense that the Powers that Be shouldn’t. Getting a tip off about a secret society dedicated to ousting the Emperor and his fellow travellers, we met at a farm one morning only to find a dead man and an assassin waiting for us. Killing the assassin in cold blood to cover our tracks let the conspirators believe we hadn’t killed the corpse of their members so they told us their plan: infiltrate a nearby Nurgle cult to steal talismans that spread disease, then use them to poison the highest of the high during an Imperial retreat. We had little choice but to accept and take up rooms the society provided at the inn. Unfortunately we were rumbled there by our local Witchhunter and had to kill him too, then hide the body. Without doing anything revolutionary at all we were up to our necks in it.
The plan was sound but we quickly realized things were far worse in Schoppendorf than just being run by bastard guildsmen who took all the money: there was a cult of Bauseele that had sprung up and was making everyone super-healthy, due no doubt to their being a front for the Nurglites in the forest. But that was also our way in: by pretending to be innocent Boesee cultists from the next town over we could find their contacts with Nurgle. Meeting the head cultist, Tim Berr and some of his young acolytes Andric and Tamla, we went the latter two into the forest to scatter the ashes (Bauseele worships wood and fire, life and death symbolized, we burn wood then we scatter the ashes). There the two young-uns were greeted joyfully by a cellar full of maniacs: Nurgle cultists raging with disease and having the most disturbing birthday party ever. After a hearty game of Pass The Balloon of Diseased-Pus they ripped off Tamla’s skin and applied some hideous goo which caused her to start screaming and sicken. We decided to leave and lock the cultists’ hideout behind us, hoping to come back later with reinforcements. Unfortuntely when we got back to town Witch Hunter Captain Slovane was setting up camp and arresting everyone and we knew we were likely to be burned or hanged by association.
We took cover in the house of one of Vi’s ex-lovers, who wasn’t impressed despite his awesome hat and our adorable piglet companion, but when Tamla worsened we had Andric take her straight to the Sisters of Shallya and went back to Kannter’s to plan. But before we could do much of that the guard was heard in the streets painting doors with plague signs and shutting down the city. We hid in a pigpen until dawn then scampered back to the Sisters only to find Tamla dead and Andric heartbroken. The Sisters thought us suspect so decided to boil us alive as a test of our fervour but around 80 degrees we convinced them we were legit. Finally having the assistance of a group that doesn’t want to murder us (for now) we were granted access to the library to research our enemy…..
As for Storium: I like it. It’s not the second coming but it makes a lot of things easier for online gaming. Since you can ignore the system entirely, I would never play-by-post without it, because it helps you organize EVERYTHING. The only problem is, as its set up, it’s weirdly blurring the role of GM and game designer compared to traditional games. Basically you tend to get rules and world and even adventure-skeleton in one inseparable bundle, so you can’t use like the Warhammer world to do your story the way you can in traditional RPGs. I’m not sure what that does to gaming, but it’s interesting, and I’m interested to see where it goes now the KS is over and they can develop it from beta.
It also has some issue with the formality of it – it’s harder to chat casually in character – but that’s an artifact of all play-by-post, I think. I have some personal issues with the system, but that’s just taste, so I won’t get into them here.
I started work on a post about why Monopoly is a goddamn warcrime of game design, but Matt Forbeck beat me to the punch yesterday. Here’s the thing though: Matt Forbeck is a really nice guy who never has a bad word to say about anything. That Monopoly got Matt to be critical is a testament to how godawful it truly is.
I am not a nice guy. I am a critic, and it is my job – nay, my sacred duty – to be to the game craft what the allosaurus is to slow-witted toddlers.
But I am not unfair. Let’s give Monopoly a running start before we take it down.
Mr J points out that Monopoly isn’t that bad, and it’s true, there do exist worse games. If you go into it with your eyes open, Monopoly can pass the time less painfully than being eaten by a bear. At the same time, the game industry and hobby and craft owes a lot to Monopoly. It is the very giant on whose shoulders all of us are standing. Aside from The Game of Goose, Monopoly is the longest-standing oldest and still-published board game ever, and Goose cheats by being a non-licensed game that was eventually taken over by a company (like if Parker Brothers decided they owned Poker one day). Monopoly put board games in every person’s house and with the kind of cultural imprint that even Poker or Bridge have trouble matching. During WW2, Monopoly sets were sent to British POWs in German camps, containing secret information from the British forces. Nobody has shoes with handles that big on them any more but we remember them because of Monopoly. The Gleaming Terrier of Finance being run over by the race car is a joke of esteemed cultural heritage (I also like Jasper Fforde’s character called Landen Park-Laine). There are wild chimpanzees who cannot use tools but know what happens when you win second prize in a beauty contest.
Monopoly is also important because everyone knows the rules (sort of) and it appeals to children because they get to handle money. Kids love to play grown up, and until someone makes a great, mass-market kid’s game about being a Banker and Investor with lots of cool cash, the let’s-pretend factor of Monopoly cannot be ignored any more than you can ignore that climbing frames are cooler when you shape them like a pirate ship or rocket.
And now, with that out of the way, we can turn to Monopoly’s various sins. Now, of course, every time you bring up Monopoly, some asshole says “oh, it’s not so bad if you play by the real rules”. This is a GODDAMN LIE. It’s one of those situations where people are so keen to point out a correction of information they forget any concept of knowledge. I know the real rules, I play by the real rules and although the house rules make it worse, the real rules are still the goddamn crime. Respect me enough as a critic to realize I’m not a fucking idiot.
1. The Snowball Effect
This is the one Mr Forbeck mentions, and it’s the most common and obvious complaint. The person in the lead has both more power and more options to further that power, meaning their lead only increases. It is perhaps the most egregious snowball effect ever, though, because the losers don’t just lose their ability to win they lose their ability to participate in the game. The less money you have, the less property you can buy. Soon enough you exist solely to prove the winner is winning in much the same way as a pinata or a poker machine. You spend four hours as a game mechanic, spitting out coins to prove a point.
The popularity of the Free Parking rule proves how obvious this problem is, because everyone tries to fix it. Many of the house rules, including the ones now officially being added, do the same ($500 for rolling snake-eyes, more money for passing Go). Of course, it just makes a bad game take longer. Which brings us to:
2. The Length
Every game of Monopoly now says on the box “now with shorter play time”. Basically, there are different types of rules that declare the game won after a certain time or a certain victory point is reached. Again, the desperation with which this rule has been added proves how badly it was needed. Your average game of Monopoly takes about four hours, minimum, plus an hour for each player beyond four. That’s not conducive to fun family play. You can play two hundred games of Hungry Hungry Hippos in the same time, and have more control over the outcome and more fun, and you can stop anywhere between with a sense of satisfaction. I’m not saying all long games are bad, I’m saying that length needs to be balanced by strong involvement throughout, no snowballs and a depth of mechanics to make the time expenditure worthwhile.
3. The Knockout
Knockout games are kind of the ultimate snowball. Bit by bit, players are reduced in their agency to the point of totality: they are out of the game entirely. They cannot engage with the experience, which means they no longer really care who wins. For the remaining three hours or so once they are knocked out, they can do nothing. They can’t get back into the game. They can’t start another. They wander off. The remaining players have a game that feels less social and more of an imposition on those twiddling their thumbs. Every turn you take after the first knockout is an exercise in being rude. And it doesn’t feel like you’re beating the other people any more, because you’re not even playing with them.
Again, not all knockout mechanics are bad (Bang! is a modern example that’s not awful) but it’s a dangerous mechanic with a huge potential to be unfun, when combined with other factors, such as:
4. Cruel, Unavoidable Randomness
Monopoly is, for the most part, as random as a game of snakes and ladders. Technically, there are ways to control the randomness. You are in effect trying to spend the least amount of money to make the longest and most frequently visited traps on the board. Like in Settlers of Catan, there are ways to attack the most likely outcomes, and people compete for them, which is fine. But then there are random dice rolls which power you up or harm you immensely. The Income Tax spaces which suck away a lot of cash. The Go To Jail spot/card event, while excellent in the late game since it is free rent, is enormously punishing in the early game where property must be bought as quickly as possible. The cards are scattershot attacks and boons that can’t be shored up against. And if you randomly roll a double, you get extra turns, which is not just more winning power but more game engagement. Which means basically, Monopoly IS Hungry Hungry Hippos: you’re jamming down the lever and praying randomness helps you land on the ladders instead of the snakes before the others.
5. The Puzzle
And make no mistake, there are clearly defined snakes and ladders here. The absolute best properties, by a mile, are the orange ones, because they are six, eight and nine spaces from jail. Red is a close second. The two lowest and two highest are not worth getting because of their small catchment areas, and the stations and utilities are a trap. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a game being a puzzle, with certain strategies offering more return than others, and said strategies emerging through continued game play. As a game for kids, particularly, emergent high strategies are a great idea as it helps kids learn and learn how to learn. But once you’ve spotted these high points, the entire game defaults to a race to grab those high points, a race which is full of random setbacks. And a race that you can stop anyone else from winning by being a spoilsport because of:
6. Chokepoint Blocking Negotiation
It doesn’t matter one bit in Settlers of Catan if everybody is feeling anti-social and refuses to trade. Resources will still come in. It doesn’t matter if everyone refuses to deal with everyone in Diplomacy, the battle moves will still happen. Monopoly doesn’t work that way. The game hovers at a gigantic chokepoint in that until you get a set of properties there’s not much you can really do. Stopping anyone from getting past that chokepoint is always in your interest, even if it is also stopping you. The winning negotiation strategy therefore is about a crushing game of brinkmanship, of making the game so dull and lifeless that eventually your opponents will becomes so bored with nobody moving forward they agree to make a trade that gives you a primary value set and them a lower value set (or worse, just closer to a set). The auction rule most people aren’t aware of makes breaking this lock a little more open, but only to those who have already had better luck, of course.
In essence the strategy of the game is risk management and brinkmanship: it might be worth say, getting yellow and red and purple in return for giving away orange, and the poorer everyone gets the more knife-edge that choice becomes. That is an interesting choice. But there is still nothing that will ever force anyone to make that choice. Players playing to win are generally better of not negotiating, which means – and this is the biggy – activities that help you win go against activities that make the game more enjoyable for you and everyone else.
7. Hating Monopoly Is The Whole Damn Point
Elizabeth Magie designed Monopoly’s first draft, The Landlord’s Game, to make a real-life political/economic point, which was that monopolies destroy competition, crush business and send everyone to the poor house except one person. The fact that is a long, slow, un-fun descent into abject poverty that nobody enjoys because one jerk can set prices so high he bankrupts everyone else is a scathing attack on 20th century finance, particularly in the United States, and it was a hundred years before its time. You could say that if you don’t mind playing the game, then Magie has failed at her goals but I think most people really don’t like Monopoly, they only play it because it is there, and they just don’t know how better things can get. They don’t realize that scattershot randomness and having to wait your turn and playing for four hours and boring themes and crappy little wooden houses and knockout mechanics and blocking negotiations and tedious mathematics are all game design dinosaurs, long since extinct in every other gene pool. Instead, because of its popularity, we make excuses for Monopoly, because everyone knows it or the kids like it, but that is actually the exact opposite of what Magie wanted.
Pointing out that Monopoly is awful is, in fact, playing it how the designer envisioned. It’s what we’re supposed to do. So not only is sticking with and apologizing for Monopoly remaining blind to a world of wonder, it’s missing the point. We should shout from the rooftops every single day about how goddamn awful Monopoly is, because that’s what it was for: to put its awfulness on show to tear down the architects of that awfulness. It’s as bad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Not at our game tables, nor from our politicians. Occupy Wall Street, and burn your little silver terrier when you get there.
I’m serious. The world – and more importantly, game design – will get a lot better if we stop pretending we can put lipstick on a pig, and make Hasbro stop producing this shit. Gamers don’t let gamers play, own or buy Monopoly. Ever.
Last week we looked at the five Best-Named products and as warned, now it’s time for part two. The flipside. The missteps, mistakes and wtf moments in titling over the last forty years. As always, this isn’t about the product, just the name. A rose by any other name would still have new class feats, right? Things that inherited bad names because of a pre-existing license are off the hook, too, and so are people trying to avoid last minute threats of litigation. The first one means I can’t ping Dragon Age for having very few, if any dragons. The last one means I have to be merciful to Lejendary Adventures. And yet it sickens me to even type that. Direct all bitching to the internet, it loves that stuff.
#5: The Annoying Acronym – G.U.R.P.S.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with acronyms, but like everything good, geeks love them so much it becomes creepy and wrong. As a result the RPG industry is full of unnecessary and painful acronyms and abbreviations, from companies like BTRC and ICE and LUG and TSR to games like FUDGE and FATE and ORE and CORPS and QAGS and JAGS and the poorly fudged CHIL-L (the last L didn’t stand for anything). Maybe we weren’t supposed to pronounce EABA (it sounds like someone popping a hamstring while pooping), but after GURPS could we ever be sure? GURPS became a household name which proves it doesn’t matter if you sound like a bowel movement if your content is good enough. Maybe you think I’m being unfair but the final nail in the coffin comes from the games full title: the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Generic and Universal is very redundant. No points.
(Yes I know it originally stood for “the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System”, but that’s no excuse. TORG originally stood for The Other Roleplaying Game and it sounds much less like belching, and doesn’t stand for anything.)
Acronym Runner Up: OSRIC. Because not only does it have nothing to do with minor characters in Hamlet, it also has none of the letters of Dungeons and Dragons which it is basically a rehashing of, and it takes me ten hours to remember what any of the letters mean. The 5 slot would have gone to OSRIC but it slides on the technicality of not actually being a product.
#4: The Unpronouncable – SLA Industries
We’ve done some truly horrible things to the English language and its list of characters to make game titles. The endless love affair with colons and ampersands lasted well beyond the boundaries of good taste, but then there was the pointless inanities like the little, up in the air “o” in C*ntinuum (which I can’t even write on this blog), or the lower case reversal of deadEarth or the dollar sign in Vampire$. Or the never-explained circle in Mark Rein-SPLAT-Hagen’s name. Dear game writers: stop that, it’s incredibly annoying, and it’s also bad business. I don’t want to pick up a game that I can’t read, or have trouble trying to pronounce. But there was no greater offender then the game that wanted you to pronounce things incorrectly to make it work. In no universe ever would the word SLA be pronounced “slay”. It looks like a hard A, it quacks like a hard A. At best it could be SLAW Industries, which might explain the guy with the pumpkin on his head.
Unpronounceable Runner Up: H.O.L., unless it was a deliberate parody of SLA, which is definitely plausible, forcing it to sound like a hole in the ground was just annoying. Everyone I have ever met uses the name to rhyme with “toll”. Again though, maybe that WAS the joke.
#3: The Terribly Under-Selling – Underground
Okay, so imagine the best cyberpunk setting you’ve ever seen, something that is built on the rules of political and social satire at its fundamental level, like Transmetropolitan and Judge Dredd got married and had a super-powered baby. And it poked fun at roleplaying as well, casting the PCs as in-genre murder-hobos, cybernetic superheroes built for war and now turned lose on the streets with nothing but bystanders to kill – but subtle and low-key, unlike other satires like Violence! and Power Kill. And more playable too. And clever. And sexy. And with awesome rules. Now name it Underground. I guess it’s about moles? Or alternative music?
Under-Selling Runner Up: Feng Shui. Most people get that it’s not about moving furniture. Eventually. Eeeeeventually.
#2: The Inanimate Object – The Window
Okay, maybe I’m being unfair. The Window was a system, so it didn’t have any cool ideas from a setting to use for its title. The Window was free, it didn’t have to try and sell itself. It was a metaphor about a window into drama, or narrative. Sorry, not good enough. Even if it’s just a generic system, that’s no excuse to name it after an inanimate object. Even a game engine deserves a good name. Like The Amazing Engine. That works. D20 is succinct and clear, and doesn’t make me feel like the sequels will be called Door and Wall. There was, of course, an RPG called The Ladder, but it actually had a justification for that in its dice ladder. The Window doesn’t justify itself at all, but does – ironically – make heavy use of a ladder.
Object Runner-Up: Burning Wheel. It’s just plain false advertising. There’s no fast cars, no auto-racing, and the rules offer no real guidelines for chariot duels. The Wheel is vaguely hinted at as being involved in the system, kind of like the ladder, but they don’t try very hard, and it ends up feeling like it was named by a random generator. Two more rolls and it might have been the Fisting Banana. Man, I would play that.
#1: The Oh My God Did Nobody Edit This At All Insanity – Panty Explosion
It has a new name now, because obviously. I know hindsight is 20-20, but you should at least squint into the future sometimes. Try and make out the blurry shapes. One of them is a train coming to punish those stupid enough to play on the tracks.
Oh My God Runner Up: there is a supplement for Silver Age Sentinels called Country Matters. That’s old fashioned slang for fucking, made famous by Hamlet, the most famous thing ever. The book is also about female superheroes because we wanted that book to have the letters C U N and T right front and center to make that clear. Is that better or worse than the gynecological exam of Exalted’s Savant and Sorcerer? You decide. I still need to point out that nothing in the Forgotten Realms seems to have been forgotten…
Oh, and one final thing: nobody has ever, EVER, called Denver the City of Shadows. And nobody ever will, no matter what your setting says.
Because the listicle is Cthulhu: it rises and we worship it, and we need more of them about RPGs. Now, understand this has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Just the name.
#5: The Imperative – All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Nothing’s better in a title than an imperative. It grips you by the throat by its very nature. Verbs are exciting but turning them to the imperative commands attention like nothing else. And this is isn’t any small demand. Eden Studios Zombie RPG is very clear that ALL flesh is involved, and it needs to be goddamn eaten. This is as unpleasant as it is all-consuming, if you’ll pardon the pun. You’re left with no false illusions. All flesh is going to be eaten. Whose flesh? YOUR flesh. Chills the blood just to say it.
Imperative Runner Up: Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind by Mind Ventures. This little-known horror title had a doozy of a command, with a great reason. But it’s a little long, and when it comes to a command, you want it punchy. Of course, length can also be a plus, as we see below…
#4 The Quote – Lawyers, Guns and Money
True story: I discovered the music of Warren Zevon because of this supplement for Unknown Armies. Oh sure, I knew Werewolves of London, but that was it, and boy, was I glad I found out. And Lawyers, Guns and Money is one of the best of his incredible collection, which is important: if you’re going to do the quote, you have to take from the best. Zevon’s catalogue tends to deal with rogues, vagabonds, mutineers, losers, sinners and junkies, plus the occasional undead machine gunner and psycho killer, so its amazing he’s not an RPG on his own, and that it it took twenty something years to borrow from his work for a title. Tynes, you are a glorious son of a bitch.
Quote Runner Up: Nasty, Brutish and Short. It was a good joke applying Hobbes’ quote to a book about orcs, but it was for Columbia Games’ Harn so nobody gave a damn, and also, depending on when you saw the book, the pun got pretty old.
#3 The Insanely Literal Description – Cute and Fuzzy Cock-Fighting Seizure Monsters
Sometimes, legal injunctions and similarity to licenses cause terrible copywriting disasters (Lejendary Adventures, anyone?). Sometimes, though, it causes genius. When it came time for the clever people at Guardians of Order to turn their anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth to the wonderful world of Pokemon, Digimon and Monster Rancher and all the rest, they decided to explain exactly what was going on with a duty to precision that leaves the reader gasping for air. It’s like being bitch-slapped with a dictionary, and you’ll never think of Pokemon as anything other than that. For the sake of propriety, some were issued without the Cock-Fighting in the title, allowing gamers to righteously walk into their stores and demand more cock.
Insanely Literal Runner Up: TWERPS, aka The World’s Easiest Roleplaying System. Gutsy, and precise in what it is gutsy about. And it tried hard to live up to the claim.
#2: The Exotic – Comme Il Faut
There’s an old saying that if you served boiled boots in a restaurant but put them on the menu in French, they’d taste fantastic. The same pretty much goes for roleplaying games. But it’s not just that it’s a classy French phrase that suits a classy-as-all-fuck game like Castle Falkenstein so perfectly, it’s that it’s a French phrase that says it better than English. Literally it translates as “As it Should Be” and it refers to etiquette and appropriate behaviour. What made Falkenstein so special was how it made social manners front and centre of the gaming experience, like say, Pendragon, but in a very different way. A way that needed an entire supplement to communicate. A way that could only ever possibly be expressed in French.
Exotic Runner Up: Parma Fabula. It might sound like a ham and salad sandwich but anyway you slice it it’s more exotic than “GM’s Screen”. Ars Magica doused itself in Latin, but nowhere so perfectly in making something that sounds stupid sound mysterious and otherworldly.
#1: The Exquisitely Mysterious – The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues
A title is like lingerie: it’s what it hides as much as what it shows that makes it so enticing. This behemoth that graced a Paranoia supplement suggests a great deal of specification – the box is black and only available to Yellow Clearance clones or higher – but then again, tells you nothing at all, because what’s in the box? What’s in the box??? Brad Pitt would later say the same thing as your players did back in 1987, and with the same mixture of dread and sure knowledge. And what’s more, this title has cadence. It trips off the tongue. You can dance to it. Heck, you could write a song to it. I got the blues, you got the blues, we got them yellow clearance black box blues….
Mysterious Runner Up: Deeds Not Words. Scott Lynch’s minor entry into D20 superheroing evokes great depth with three tiny words, but leaves all the details hidden – but you want to know more.
That’s my list, but like any list, it exists to miss things out and include heresies. What did I miss? What did I wrongly include? Let me know in the comments! And tune in next week for the five WORST named products in roleplaying!
Yes, it’s that time again, where I fight the holiday blues by viewing the year through a lens of terrifying meritocracy to sift out the very best things it had to offer. And as always, the rules are simple: it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter what year it was made or released, it matters when I encountered it. These are the best things Steve found this year.
This goes to isolating the Higgs Boson. Finding the electron made the modern age possible. This sucker could give us a future we literally cannot imagine. Honorary mention to the fusion drive engineer and the people working on warp speed, just because of the enormous “fuck you” to people who said they were impossible.
Malala Yousafi, Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, it was a hell of a year for politics. But behind it all was grass roots stuff and the power of Twitter and social media. Thanks to those, millions of people around the world witnessed someone change the official time record to try and shaft Wendy Davis. And it was the engine behind taking Indi away from Sophie Mirabella and into the hands of Cathy McGowan. It’s not the only solution and the big players will try to turn it against us but it’s changed the landscape. Some more examples of grass roots power from the excellent twitter-warrior Van Badham are here.
A great year for SF, and a special note must go to Elysium for generating more irony in audience reactions than a gigantic furnace of pure irony-burning-coal, but this goes to Gravity. Simple, perfect, wonderful. Powerhouse performances for a gorgeous story in a genre oft-forgotten but one of my favourites (man vs nature). Nothing more to say.
A great year was some truly amazing stuff landing on my bedside table. Special props to Saucer Country and Letter 44, for both being about aliens and American politics in two completely unique and compelling ways and blowing my mind both times and demanding I read the rest. And yet, pipped at the post this goes to CHEW by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is hard to explain. It’s basically a dark police procedural set against a conspiracy landscape in a world where chicken is outlawed and food is a metaphor for everything, but it’s also a silly story about a psychic who can tell you everything about whatever he eats. It combines two of my favourite genres: the ridiculously silly and gritty police procedural in a way that diminishes neither, and that’s why I love it. It bestrides both genres like a colossus in a way few dare, fearing that the comedy may undercut the drama, but it doesn’t. Also, it has a building conspiracy arc, perfect pacing and reads like the best TV series ever made. If Bryan Fuller wasn’t already making Hannibal, I would have picked him to make Chew…
Best Table Top Game
For birthday and Christmas I got pretty much every game I was interested in at this end of the year, and there are some super contenders in there, and some I haven’t played yet (like Legends of Andor). I adore how easy it is to get a game of Love Letter and of Hanabi – games I can carry everywhere and sell to anyone. I loved how Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign (on the table and on the pad) reengaged me with the wonder of Arkham Horror, which is still marvelous and almost won just for inspiring those two. Heck, Elder Sign itself justified the purchase of my android device on its own. But I’m giving this to Pandemic. Picked up the new edition and two supplements spending $150 on a game I already owned because I felt it deserved it. Arkham Horror gets more iterations of play, but Pandemic has more pure elegance to it, and taps that modern setting thrill like nothing else. Saving the world feels better when it’s more cogent to our reality, and nothing does it like Pandemic.
I’ve given up reading and playing RPGs but not writing them because I a) still enjoy that and b) get paid to do it, so really the Stevie is going to go to the thing I got paid the most to write and had the most fun doing. I’m very proud to have won two Ennies for my work on Dr Who last year, and to be part of the incredible list of celebrities who worked on Hillfolk but mostly I’m proud of the setting I worked up for Action Cortex in The Hacker’s Guide. I have many more details about that setting in my head, but I got it down nice an succinctly and I love it and I got paid for it.
Best TV Show
The Wire. It’s not television, it’s poetry.
Best Computer Game
For the first time in years this is hotly contested and it’s because of one reason: multiplayer ascendant. I used to hate shooters, but thanks to the elegant design of Team Fortress 2 and the ability to play it with my friends and ONLY my friends I’ve learnt to love the better examples of the genre. And it didn’t cost me a cent. The same multiplayer power has also led to enjoying a platformer, in the excellent Trine 2, something I never believed would ever happen in this universe. But the virtue of multiplayer combined with just wonderful solo play in the clear winner this year: Civilization V. Two excellent expansions have led to game play evolving and staying interesting and it’s a computer game that even without friends, has held my interest long enough to not just keep away the demons but forget they exist. It has nursed me through terrible insomnia. It has fought down the depression. It has carried me through the long dark tea time of the soul and the mind-shattering emptiness of the holidays. And it costs less than the therapy. Hold me closer, Civ 5, for the darkness rises. And if anyone wants to join me for multiplayer, you know how to find me.
Since I’ve put my roleplaying on hiatus, I’ve been gorging my board game addiction as much as cash will allow which is totally not enough in a world full of such brilliant games. Here’s a few I’ve been looking at, for my reference purposes and others’, in no particular order.
Everything By Vlaada Chvatil: Vlaada is a Czech game designer who seems to make unstoppable awesome, and I want everything he’s made. Space Alert, the real time shouty panic card game is top of the list (or its dice-rolling cousin, ESCAPE! Temple Run, if I can’t get Space Alert). Galaxy Trucker also sounds good, with the same wacky comedy of Space Alert where you build a space ship badly then watch it fall apart. There’s also Bunny Bunny Moose Moose which is a party/family game where you have to be a bunny or a moose, depending on cards flipped up. Imagine Simon Says but much more insane. His new hotness genius is Tash-Kalar which is a game about card-management where you play little monsters to build up points to bring out big kahuna monsters but the condition to play cards is based on the arrangement of pieces on a chess-like board. Imagine chess but if you force your opponent to play a bishop next to a knight and boom, you get a second queen. Mad genius.
Collaborative Story Fun: A mouthful but an Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on Cursed Island is an intriguing collaborative game, alas only for four players and with a set-up that makes Arkham Horror look simple. Eight scenarios with different goals but each combining different ways of hunting monsters, exploring a randomly tiled island, building tools and to build settlements and random events throwing it all off kilter, and never enough resources or time to do everything. Like Arkham Horror with Pandemic’s pace. Speaking of the great AH, I’m keen to try it’s very close new cousin Eldritch Horror where Corey Konieczwa applies the same brain that turned Space Hulk into Death Angel and reduces AH down to its bare essentials while still having basically the same mechanic: travel the world, have encounters, gather clues before the gates open. Most of all though I want to pick up Legends of Andor, the winner of the Kennerspiel deh Jahres this year despite being for children and collaborative. All the stress of Arkham Horror but with fantasy heroes exploring the land like Mage Knight! Pseudo-RPGs also lead me to Mice and Mystics a game of miniature heroes fighting cats and cockroaches – basically another Descent or zombie hunter but with a much more distinctive setting.
The Weird and Wonderful: When the Germans do mundanity, it’s REALLY mundane – the thrill of the 18th century post office or pumping electricity around Dusseldorf. But mundane can be pulse-pounding awesome, like Pandemic, or Fire Team Rescue, or Police Precinct or City Council which sounds excellent: pressure from special interests, skim off the top before financial constraints kick in, ponder whether to burn down the zoo to make room for a hospital? I love this trend in games and hope it continues cos I dig real-world stuff. Keeping on weird though there’s the logical games of a kind of Robo-Rally Redux in Twin Tin Bots – program robots to pick up crystals but you can’t change your programming as much as you’d like! Or, work together to give as much information as possible without breaking the rules (like bidding in Bridge) to lay down cards in a perfect pattern with the amazing (not to mention short, sweet, elegant and cheap) Hanabi.
The Euro Reliables, Turned Up to Eleven: What do you get if you combine the hex control of Settlers with the worker placement choices of Village and the random VP goals of Stone Age and the race choices of Cosmic Encounter and the player psychology of Chaos in the Old World? Something like Terra Mystica, which has so many widgets, yet apparently comes together smoothly, in that the choices aren’t difficult to understand, just deep to choose between. Or have the same kind of myriad of choices but with title exploration and resource limitations like you’ve rammed Terra Mystica back into Robinson Crusoe and created Archipelago. And since I can never get people over to game as much as I want, I’m super curious to try the solo genius of Friday. While not euro in truth but in style, I hear good things about AEG’s set of four linked games in the same setting, particularly the uber-simple five minutes to play 12-cards-only Love Letter.
Everything is Better Licensed: There are not one but two Firefly games coming out (and that doesn’t even include the RPG). Legendary, the Marvel Deckbuilder could use the expansion (well, my buddy who owns it could). And they’ve just made a collaborative demon-fighting game based on Journey to the West.
So just a few, you know.