At its core, there’s a moderately straightforward dice pool system. Roll some d6s, 4s are successes, more successes is better. But then there’s so much layered on top of that. There’s three different types of “fate points” (actually called Artha, although slightly confusingly one of the Artha types is Fate…), combat works in scripted system where you set your actions secretly at the start of a round, and the numerical rating of your stats is referred to as an exponent.
It’s got a strong story-based element at its heart, although it does frequently feel obfuscated by the other mechanics layered on top of it. Still, the Belief and Instincts mechanics are very neat and help to flesh out a character (Instincts in particular are something I’d like to play around with a little more, as effectively scripted bits of behaviour when triggered by the right circumstances).
It’s a game I doubt I’ll ever actually play, but one I’ve enjoyed reading. If you get the chance to pick up a copy, I’d recommend it, if only to see an interesting take on game design.
Well, my limited edition Mage: the Ascension set certainly ranks pretty highly.
A very nicely put together slip-cased set, complete with an art book, it’s pretty enough that I don’t really read it much for fear of damaging it. Unfortunately, it’s also the only copy of Ascension that I own until the M20 Kickstarter comes through…
On a similar topic, the Mage: the Awakening tarot deck is pretty gorgeous.
It’s complemented by the Keys to the Supernal Tarot book, which is an excellent book of plot hooks, locations, NPCs and Legacies to throw into an Awakening game, all themed around the major arcana cards. I’ve got a huge amount of use out of that book over the years, and I suspect will continue to do so in games in the future.
I’ve already touched on Planescape, so go and read yesterday’s post for more on that. But yeah, Planescape’s art is beautifully weird.
And finally there’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. Full disclaimer – this is my one RPG credit, as I was involved in the early brainstorming and system design for the game, but my own semi-professional bias towards it aside, I think it looks great.
It’s so very Who, and the later versions improve even further on that. Well worth a look in my opinion. 🙂
Day 22 of RPG a day. Due to my birthday weekend, I’m running somewhat behind, so the next few posts are going to be (hopefully) a little shorter and punchier.
Best Secondhand RPG Purchase
So, this is a trickier category than it would have been a few years ago. I’ve gone from buying most of my RPGs new to more than half of my RPG purchases being second hand. I think this is in part due to me finally cottoning on to the idea that I’ve now got the disposable income to pick up some of those games I thought looked super cool when I was a teenager but was unable to afford.
This is going to be the third time that Alternity has cropped up during this month (see also Day 14 and Day 15), so clearly it’s a game that’s left an impression on me. At least some of this is nostalgia, as while the system is perfectly usable, it’s not particularly ground-breaking now a days. But at the time I first encountered it in the late 90s, it seemed like a real breath of fresh air when compared to D&D 2nd Edition (which was basically the only thing I was playing at the time).
Alternity is a generic sci-fi RPG, designed to handle a wide range of settings (the published settings were high space opera, X-Files style paranormal investigation and Gamma World). I suspect it’s generic nature may have made it a little hard to sell, and the game was discontinued in 2000 as part of Wizards of the Coast rationalising TSR’s holdings.
I managed to pick up the core rulebooks on Amazon for a very reasonable price a few years ago, and I’m happy to have them in my collection. It’s a game I’d love to run at some point, if only for the sake of nostalgia…
An interesting focused slice of the classic World of Darkness, Orpheus covers the not often trodden ground of corporate mediumship, astral projection and employment after death. Touching on similar ground to Wraith: the Oblivion, Orpheus is a somewhat lower-key approach to the crossover between the living and the dead and without a doubt is a major foundation for Geist: the Sin-Eaters.
I’ve managed to collect all of the limited Orpheus line over time, but I’ve not yet had the chance to read it in much depth as yet. It looks like a game line full of interesting ideas, and one I really should make time for!
OK, so technically this isn’t a purchase, but rather a gift from friends for my birthday a few days ago. Thanks to their generosity, I now own a copy of the Planescape boxed campaign setting in darn near mint condition. It’s a beautiful, beautiful product, split neatly over four booklets, a DM’s screen and four double-sided posters. And the art, oh the art…
Planescape just wouldn’t be Planescape without Tony DiTerlizzi’s illustrations.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHRP) was the sadly short-lived RPG by Margaret Weis Productions set in the Marvel comics universe. Launched in 2012, the game used a new version of the Cortex Plus system (dubbed “Cortex Heroic”) and had fantastic production values and a great initial line-up of supplements.
Like most of the Cortex Plus games (Smallville, Leverage, Firefly), it does a great job of emulating its genre, but MHRP goes further than most. Every element of the game encourages you to play and run the game like it’s leaping straight off the page of a comic – and it’s worth noting that it’s firmly emulating the comic rather than cinematic universe.
The game’s default assumption is that you’re going to play existing Marvel heroes in an existing event (more on Events later), and does a great job of that. In fact, it succeeds better than any game I’ve played at getting people to play along with genre tropes and conventions. Having run the game with a group of mixed roleplaying experience, everyone from the most experienced to the least got into the swing of their character, and we rapidly had a quipping Spider Man, smack-talking Luke Cage, square-jawed Captain America, a Daredevil struggling to keep his secret identity, a Thor being a jovial force of destruction, and a slightly inebriated technobabbling Iron Man.
The character mechanics really encourage acting like the character, with Distinctions providing a mechanical bonus for acting in accordance with short phrases that describe your character (so Captain America Leads By Example, is a Man Out Of Time, and acts as a Sentinel Of Liberty) and the Milestone system giving XP for playing your character in accordance with their goals (so Cap gets XP for mentoring other heroes and leading and creating superhero teams). Superhuman abilities are represented by Power Sets, which importantly all include one or more Limits to represent the narative quirks and problems that come with being a super hero and rewards you for taking a hit for the sake of the story (so Cap’s Vibranium-Alloy Shield power set has the Gear limit, meaning you can lose the shield temporarily to gain a Plot Point).
The game was frequently criticised for lacking a character creation system, but it does have one in there. It’s just that it takes a mechanically loose approach of “assign the traits that you feel match the character/concept”. While that possibly sits uncomfortably for a lot of gamers used to dice rolls and point buy systems, it’s the best approach to letting your heroes be who they are, rather than artificially limiting them due to a points budget. And due to the flexible nature of the system, its entirely possible to have Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk and Thor on the same team and all of them be able to contribute in satisfyingly meaningful ways.
There’s a lot more to the system than I can easily explain here, but I’d encourage anyone with an interest in game design and genre emulation to take a look at it. Which is, unfortunately, a little tricky to do…
In early 2013, Margaret Weis Productions announced they wouldn’t be renewing their licence with Marvel for the game due to cost reasons. While sales had been very good for the line, it’s been suggested that Marvel wanted notably more to renew the licence than MWP could feasibly afford. So the game line came to an abrupt haul, with the supplements to the Civil War event only seeing a limited release, and the Annihilation Event book only being released in PDF. As a result, while copies of the core rulebook can easily be picked up from Amazon or other online sources, the supplements are much harder to get your hands on.
Before we sign off on MHRP however, I want to talk about one element of the game in particular – Events.
Rather than publishing individual adventures, MHRP used an “Event” format, where they focused on a particular event in Marvel Comics history. Unfortunately, the line was cancelled before they got the chance to do many of these supplements, but Breakout, Civil War and Annihilation had supplements released to cover them.
The really nice thing about the Event approach was that it was very non-linear. Even Breakout, the mini-Event included in the core rulebook, took a toolkit approach. Civil War and Annihilation took this further, providing the Watcher (the GM) with a wealth of setting information, background on the event, and information on the important factions right upfront. The action of the Events themselves are structured into Scenes and Acts. Scenes are pretty much what you’d expect, notable moments of action, drama or recovery, while Acts divide the Event up into larger structural segments.
So for Civil War, Act 1 is the start of the SHRA movement, tensions developing in the superhuman community, and of course the Stamford tragedy. Act 2 covers the SHRA passing and heroes choosing sides. Act 3 goes onto the more morally dubious acts of Prison 42 and the foundation of the Thunderbolts. Options are included for having PCs on either side of the Civil War, and there’s even options for playing both sides of the War at once, giving a wide range of player experiences and potential for alternative outcomes.
The Scenes themselves are presented as interesting encounters to run for the PCs, but there’s very much an expectation that you’ll modify them to the needs of your game, and that your game may well diverge significantly from the Event as presented in the comics. Support for that kind of “what if?” style of play is a big part of the appeal of the published Events for me, and it’s handled well both in the Acts themselves and the supporting materials.
If nothing else, they’re well worth a look to see how major canon events in an existing fictional setting can be handled well for an RPG.
The Marvel Plot Points blog has a lot of resources for the game, ranging from mini-Event write-ups to variant rules and GMing advice.
The Lost Files of Marvel page on the Exploring Infinity website has a huge range of datafiles for heroes and villains alike, from the Marvel universe and beyond.
And just buy yourself a copy of the game from Amazon or elsewhere. It’s probably the best designed RPG published in the last 10 years, and one every gamer with even the slightest interest in superheroes should have in their collection.
Short answer – who knows? 20 years is a long time in RPG development, and I certainly know that my gaming tastes have changed since I started roleplaying almost 20 years ago.
But, I think there are a couple of answers to this – one a safe bet, the other a game only published recently.
The safe bet – Dungeons and Dragons
This one seems like a pretty sure thing. D&D was the first RPG I played or ran, and it’s one I’m still playing and running when I can. Of course, several editions have happened over that time and the core mechanics have substantially changed as a result, but it’s still the same core experience – namely heroic fantasy roleplaying.
Over the years I’ve played in and DMed a lot of D&D. In fact, I’ve probably played more D&D than other RPGs combined (if I don’t take live games into account). The wide range of campaign settings offer a lot of different play experiences, and I’ve no doubt that there are loads of D&D stories that I’ve yet to tell as a player or DM.
Now, having said that, I’ve found for the first time ever that I’m not more excited about the latest edition of D&D than I am about what’s come before. While 5th Edition is without a doubt a slickly presented product that will feel familiar to fans of most editions of D&D, it’s a big step away from 4th Edition, my own preferred iteration of the RPG.
3rd Edition felt like a revolutionary refinement of the game from 2nd Edition, and 4th Edition was a remarkable move towards a new school of game design from the still pretty traditi0nalist 3.5 D&D. But 5th Edition really does feel like it’s playing it safe and trying to appeal to existing D&D players rather than draw new people in or make the game the best it can be. It’s comfortable and familiar, but it doesn’t really try much in the way of new things. And after two editions of notable innovation, that’s quite disappointing.
So, I’m sure I will be playing D&D in 20 years time, but who knows what edition? Here’s hoping the game continues to innovate, and be the flagship fantasy RPG out there.
The new kid on the block – Fate Accelerated Edition
The 2013 publication of Fate Core brought the Fate mechanics to the RPG market in an accessible, streamlined and cheap form. Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) took this a step further, stripping the game down to its bare essentials and dropping the price to the exceedingly affordable point of $5.
It’s an excellent entry point RPG for new players, with simple mechanics and an approachable art style. The art is also perhaps aimed at a slightly younger age group than most RPGs, having more in common with the Young Adult fiction section of a bookshop than the high fantasy or serious sci-fi more common to a lot of other RPGs. Speaking of the art, I’d like to applaud it for being reasonably diverse within it’s limited page count in terms of gender and ethnicity, something that is still sadly rare in RPG illustration.
This would probably be my go-to game to bring new or young gamers into RPGs. Character creation is simple, imaginative and collaborative, the core mechanics are light on maths, and it encourages a wide range of approaches to problem solving beyond just combat. It’s also a lot closer to the “story gaming” approach than many other RPGs, with Aspects and Fate Points allowing players to have a sizeable amount of sway over their character’s destiny and establish facts about their characters and the world.
It’s also great for pick up and play games. It’s a small, lightweight book that you could easily carry around along with a set of Fate dice. Fate’s mechanics are easily adapted to accommodate most genres of gaming, and a bit of collaborative world building as part of character creation could easily have you up and running a game in its own new setting in an hour or two.
But while FAE is a great starting point for new players, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to new GMs. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the limited page count, the advice for running a game is really limited, and it feels as though the text assumes some prior knowledge of Fate when it comes to world building and designing stunts. None of this is a deal breaker, but I would imagine my 13 year old self would have been very confused by parts of it. The main Fate Core book is much better on this front, and I think a much better starting point for a new GM.
There’s no shortage of D&D resources online, so Google is your friend here. The new 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has just been launched (and by just, I mean the Player’s Handbook hit stores yesterday) and while not entirely to my tastes certainly wouldn’t be a bad starting point for anyone looking to get (back) into the world’s most famous RPG. The Wizards of the Coast D&D website has plenty of information, including the stripped down but still remarkably comprehensive (seriously, you could run an entire campaign with them) free to download D&D Basic Rules.
Evil Hat Productions has loads of stuff for Fate Accelerated on its website. You can even legally download Fate Core and Fate Accelerated for free (or pay what you want, if you’re feeling a little more generous)!
The Shackled City Adventure Path for D&D 3.5 is a huge affair, spanning 12 sizeable adventures and no shortage of plot hooks to slot in between them. Designed to take characters from 1st to 20th level, it was originally printed over a couple of years in Dungeon Magazine. A single volume reprint was produced shortly after the final adventure was published, including a couple of appendices of supplemental material and weighs in at 416 pages.
The adventures are set in and around the city of Cauldron, an obscure part of the Greyhawk setting but very easily transplanted into most other D&D settings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it becomes very detailed over the course of the adventures and is populated with dozens of NPCs for the players to interact with. This isn’t to say it’s limited to just urban adventuring however, with jaunts into the neighbouring jungles, mountains, Underdark and even extra-planar jaunts included.
And there’s a lot of varied encounters included. It’s got its fair share of combat, but there’s urban and wilderness exploration to be done, deals to be made, negotiations to be conducted between NPC faction, tense political situations, and even a riot to be incited or stopped.
I took a group through from 1st to 13th level through this Adventure Path, but unfortunately we came to a halt as members of the group moved away and our schedules became increasingly difficult to match up. It’s something I’d love to try running again in the future, although I’d almost certainly want to convert the whole thing over to 4th Edition – no small task in its own right…
It’s not flawless by any stretch of the imagination (the early adventures feel pretty disconnected from one another), but it’s a genuinely impressive work.
Check out the Paizo Publishing website for more information about Shackled City, and no shortage of other adventures and Adventure Paths. While Pathfinder isn’t mechanically to my tastes, I’m consistently impressed by what Paizo produce and their inclusive attitude towards game design.
My initial answer was going to be Cortex Plus in its various forms, but honestly I’m going to be (spoilers) talking about that enough later on in the month. And, in retrospect, while it’s a system I love, it doesn’t have quite the same impact on me as the complex, well-oiled machinery that makes up the inner workings of the system I’m going to talk about today.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is a system I adore. It defines what it expects D&D to be (an action RPG, more on that later) and delivers wholeheartedly on that premise. Its core mechanics, class design, encounter based focus and more really made it deliver on everything I wanted D&D to be, without feeling (overly) restrained by the game’s history and sacred cows.
Released in June 2008, there had been almost a year of hype leading up to the launch of 4th Ed, and after several months of struggling with 3.5 at higher levels I was very much ready for something new. An online friend of mine sent me a preview PDF of the core books about a month before their official release, and I read through them rapidly over the course of the next few hours, marvelling at just how new the whole system seemed. Which, given it’s still a D20 game at its heart, was pretty remarkable. In short order my existing D&D campaign was converted over, and the UEA GamesSoc’s demo D&D games for new members were massively oversubscribed each year.
So, what’s so good about 4th Edition? As I’ve said above, it understands that D&D is an action RPG – that is to say, the main game experience is about combat, action and high-energy high-impact encounters first and foremost – and focuses itself around that. Fights are fun, tactical and cinematic experiences and every character has something substantial to contribute to every encounter. Someone put it well when they said “4th Ed is playing the Lord of the Rings films rather than the books.” You’re going to be fighting dozens of orcs at once, or sliding down stairs on a shield while shooting your foes, or being thrown across chasms to face down the vanguard of an army. PCs are competent and durable from the word go, and should face challenges appropriate to that.
That isn’t to say that the game is only about combat. It’s got as much social roleplaying, puzzle solving and investigative potential as any other version of D&D, and in fact explicitly supports non-combat encounters in both direct mechanics and XP rewards with a streamlined set of skills and the Skill Challenge system. I’ve found Skill Challenges to be a very flexible mechanic, easily adapting to cross-country exploration in dangerous terrain, tense diplomatic situations, or even massed battles – essentially any situation where there’s something meaningful at stake for both success and failure.
The class design and balance is fantastic. While every class follows the broadly similar pattern of At Will, Encounter, Daily and Utility powers at various levels, what those powers represent and can do is heavily tailored to the flavour of each class and their role. Importantly, it gives Fighters and other martial types an exciting range of tactical options, and puts them on a mechanically balanced playing field with the other PCs. This is really important, as at no point should anyone feel like they’re being mechanically outshone by other members of the party, and I’m hugely pro everyone feeling like they’re a useful member of the group.
4th Ed’s mechanics also really encourage teamwork, with a party working together being notably more than the sum of its parts. This brings the mechanical focus onto the PCs as a group rather than any one individual, and actively encourages people to share the spotlight around.
And looking at it from a DM’s perspective, it’s a breeze to prepare for. The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual lay out the underlying mathematics of the game really clearly which makes building balanced encounters and new monsters very easy, and levelling up monsters or “re-skinning” them into something else with a few quick changes is exceedingly simple. The focus on the encounter as the default block of time (and the PCs having a lot of per encounter resources) means that you can make each individual encounter an interesting and engaging set-piece rather than having to try and gradually wear them down.
Also, if you read one 4th Ed book, read the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. It’s the single best book of DMing/GMing advice I’ve read for any system, and I’m wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in running an RPG. Heck, it’s probably worthy of a post in its own right, something I’ll consider once #RPGaDAY has finished.
So, there’s a lot that 4th Edition does well. Where does it stumble?
– Daily Powers. These feel really at odds with encounter-based structure of the game, and are a weird introduction of a real-world time into the abstract timing system of encounters and short rests. I would have been much happier if they had been tied into Milestones instead, and I’m likely to house rule them in that direction the next time I run 4th Ed.
– Essentials. While the Essentials books are really quite good, there’s a jarring change in design philosophy between “core” 4th Ed and Essentials. Released as both an introductory product and an attempt to appeal to older-school players or Pathfinder fans, I think the Essentials line could have done with tying into the core 4th Ed line a little more closely.
– Early monster stats. While the mechanical balance of the game is very solid for the most part, the initial monsters were a little underpowered and in a few places rather dull to fight. This was quickly corrected, and it’s not hard to tweak the stats to improve things, but it would have been nice to see this done right straight out of the gate.
There you have it. 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, my favourite game system and one that met its end rather earlier than I would have liked. 5th Edition/D&D Next is a very different game, but that’s another topic entirely…