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Daniel Swensen
All the ways you were don't matter anymore
All the ways you were don't matter anymore
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Late game Diablo III is so wonderfully ridiculous.
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12/9/18
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#10RPGsthat had an impact on you in 10 days. 8/10: Dungeon Crawl Classics

Confession: Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted my own collection of D&D modules. I'd go to the local Waldenbooks and pine over their selection of shrink-wrapped adventures, poring over the back cover copy and letting my imagination run wild with what secrets lay inside. As a kid, I could afford exactly four D&D modules (Keep on the Borderlands, Isle of Dread, Temple of Elemental Evil and Against the Cult of the Reptile God), and those had to be enough for me. Adult me has made kid-me's dream of a heap o'modules come true, and I'm very happy about it.

So let's dig into Dungeon Crawl Classics a bit.

Even though I didn't mention D&D in these posts, it's undoubtedly the game that had the most impact on me. It informed all the games that came after. Even as I delved into story gaming and started playing very different games, part of me always yearned for the simplicity of my first gaming love.

That's a bit of a fraught sentence now, with politics being what they are in gaming. There are elements of the OSR that seem to want to go back to a "simpler time" in more ways than one -- the part that leaves out or actively exclude people who don't look like me, in short. I'm not interested in having or hosting that argument here, as it lies beyond the scope of this post. I merely want to say I have no truck with old-school gaming's politically or socially regressive elements: past, present, or future. My love is of the "I've got a sleep spell, a dagger, and 1 hit point, let's go" variety.

That's probably why I like Dungeon Crawl Classics so much. My other forays into old-school gaming seemed too much like warmed-over versions of stuff I'd already seen before. Yeah, I know. But isn't that what I want?! MORE OF THE SAME? Sort of! But a lot of the OSR clones play and feel like just that: clones. If I wanted to play classic AD&D, I still have my old books. (Actually, that's a lie: I sold them decades ago and then replaced them from eBay later.)

DCC bears some passing resemblance to those older games, but sets itself apart with a wild-eyed enthusiasm for randomness and chaos. I read somewhere (I think on a DCC fan forum) that "gonzo" is not a preferred term, but I'm going to use it anyway. DCC's entire sensibility revolves around unpredictability and novelty. The "funnel" gives each player multiple 0-level player characters and introduces them into a deadly debut. The survivors must be lucky, skilled, or both -- and things don't get any less dangerous once you level up.

Here is a game where epic tales can unfold with the roll of dice on a random table: your wizard might learn a spell which siphons life from another dimension, and a distraught sorcerer haunts the wizard in their dreams, begging them to stop using their gifts. Or the dice may come up with no result of any consequence. Neither PC nor GM know for sure, and that's so much fun.

The modules carry on this tradition of unpredictability. Players might bypass half the encounters, or might all meet their deaths in the first scene. The baker's dozen of DCC games I've played have always ended with at least one surprise that leave the table gasping or laughing or both.

And that's where the impact came in for me. I'm a big-time prepper, historically speaking. DCC got me over that. I learned to embrace the joys of the drop table and random chart. I learned to let story emerge from gameplay rather than "knowing" the story up front and letting the players participate in it only when their actions served my ideas. I learned to let go and embrace the beautiful chaos.

But isn't this true of all old-school games, at least the good ones? Probably. But DCC is a quality product made with love. The production values are top-notch and the writing solid. The modules evoke the same simplicity and sense of adventure as those old D&D games, but with a vibrant new flavor. DCC doesn't feel like a clone to me. It's doing its own thing, with plenty of enthusiasm and verve. It's the first old-school game whose language and approach really clicked with me, even more than the games that inspired it.

Dungeon Crawl Classics isn't all I want from a tabletop game. But when I'm in a particular mood -- the kind of mood where I fire up Basil Poledouris' Conan soundtrack and dream of a scruffy band of adventurers delving into unknown deeps to brave monstrous horrors and gain gold and glory -- it scratches that particular itch very well.
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So... this is a thing only because nobody bothered to remove it, right? It’s not like they’re gonna save it if I give it five stars.
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How the hell did it take this long for me to start listening to Ghost?!
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Long-Form RPGs: A Post

+Bruce Baugh asked me to write a post on what RPG systems I like for long campaigns. I'm flattered anyone would ask, because my RPG background is not as varied and rich as some. Specifically, my experience tends toward more traditional games; I'd like to see how certain storygames play out in long play, but a lot of indie and storygames are a little out of my current play group's comfort zone. So this post will feature some repeats from my #10RPGs posts.

1. GURPS. I know! Who's out here playing GURPS in this day and age? All the same, this game scales more elegantly than any other game I've played. I ran a 7-year campaign of GURPS that started with a small group of human monster-hunters, some of whom had metahuman powers, and some who didn't. By the end of the campaign, it was a full-on supers game where both PCs and opponents had staggering abilities and unreal skill levels, and I could still mount meaningful challenges and craft threatening opponents. It required knowing the system pretty well, but seven years gave me plenty of time to practice. I never ran into a situation where I felt the mechanics had failed to address the appeals and pitfalls of high-level play. Like any ongoing game where you're rolling your own opposition, it was a bit of an arms race, but that's just the game.

2. Marvel Heroic. Marvel Heroic is one of the most graceful and robust systems I've ever played, and it scales nicely as characters advance. Yes, having character running around with d12 attributes means challenges must level up accordingly, but that's in tune with the games's tone. Also, the Doom Pool is something of a great equalizer, and doesn't lose any of its punch as characters level up. This is the kind of game where you want characters to go from beating up punks in a back alley to throat-punching Galactus, and the system supports it from end to end.

3. Fate (with important caveat). So, in my Starblazer Adventures post, I said I'd never had a Fate game that didn't fall apart in the late game. That's not exactly true. I had one successful long-term campaign that ran on Fate, but with an important distinction: we threw out character advancement. No getting better at skills, no getting more stunts or Fate points. Just switching up aspects to reflect a change in character. Is it practical in every case to run a game where players never get any better at what they're doing? No. But in the case of this game -- an occult psychological thriller -- it worked perfectly. Characters were coming to terms with themselves and their flaws, not battling bigger and badder enemies. Fate can run into a problem where characters can do everything well and thus become kind of indistinguishable from one another. There's a sweet spot where PCs are just capable enough while still running into frequent challenges, and frankly I find Fate works the best when you just leave it there.

4. Dungeon Crawl Classics. This one is short and sweet: Dungeon Crawl Classics is all about random weirdness resulting from a roll on a random table. Mercurial magic, critical failures and successes, and the random charts included with almost any published DCC adventure means you can never predict what's going to happen. Death, dismemberment, or terrifying cosmic transformation is every bit as likely at high level as low -- in fact, the effects at the top end tend to be more game-changing, unpredictable and irreversible the higher up you go. In other words, chaos increases with player character level, and that is fully in the spirit of this game. Less lethal at high levels? Not in my experience!

There are other games I feel scale well into high-level play, but they come with a lot of qualifiers. For example, I want to say Pathfinder does well at high level, but I think that requires managing your expectations very carefully. Low-to-mid-level Pathfinder works great for fighting baddies in dungeons. Get up to 15th level, though, and the PCs are basically masters of time and space, demigods on earth, and have to be treated accordingly. As in old-school play, I feel like gameplay should shift to more extraplanar and political concerns, because straight dungeon-delving isn't as much of a thing when you can stop time and mass teleport. Pretending that's sustainable is where people run into trouble, IMO.

I welcome your thoughts on this subject!
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#10RPGsthat had an impact on you in 10 days. 7/10: Starblazer Adventures

Starblazer Adventures represents the most public involvement I ever had with a game. I created a fan site for it (now long defunct). I created mini-adventures, resources, and articles. Because of that work, I got hired to write an adventure for Cubicle 7's Mindjammer. That, unfortunately, didn't work out, and it was never published. But for a brief, shining moment circa 2012, I was probably the biggest SbA booster on the Internet, aside from perhaps its creators.

Starblazer Adventures is an odd duck, which is one of the reasons I love it. It's a FATE-powered tome 600 pages thick. The artwork is entirely made up of pages from the old comic book. Its take on the FATE system is pre-Core and not far removed from the sensibilities of Spirit of the Century: inflated, sometimes overcomplicated, often bonkers. Late in our game, the PCs were Epic-level and had multiple starships, which all had Fate points the same way characters did. So it wasn't uncommon for thirty or more Fate points to be on the table at the same time. Just totally berserk.

But it was also super-fun. Starblazer Adventures lets you play a high-octane pulp game that scales up nicely. The organizational rules let you literally pit one corporation, alliance, or entire star empire against another, shifting the landscape of play as you go. The collaborative campaign creation rules are so much fun I still use them when starting a new game, regardless of system. And the book itself is full of wonderful gratuity, like the multi-page list of Starblazer titles you can read through for inspiration. And the art... so pulpy, so fun.

Is Starblazer Adventures perfect? Naw. The rules are ambitious but often don't quite hang together. Fate points for starships is a little bit bananas. SbA is best summed up by the words "scruffy charm." I do love it so.

It kind of breaks my heart that this game was never going to be a runaway hit. It's too niche, too retro in subject matter, to be any kind of darling. It's kind of too bad. Starblazer Adventures is a wonderful vehicle for telling huge, cosmic, blow-out tales of derring-do, whether you want to explore strange new planets, clash in grand galactic conquest, or just enjoy some Fate-powered High Weirdness. This game fueled a six-year campaign that I thought about getting into here, but it would take too long to explain. One of my players still calls me sometimes to tell me how much it meant to him. That's the kind of thing I really am in this hobby for.

Hey, Cubicle 7! I'm still waiting for Planet Killers to come out!
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10 RPGs that had an impact on you in 10 days. 6/10: GURPS #10RPGs

GET OUT YOUR SLIDE RULES EVERYBODY, IT'S GURPS! Math, amirite? Haha! GURPS Candymancer! GURPS Goblins Fighting in Mud Vol. II! Okay, just needed to get that out of my system.

I picked up GURPS after literal decades of rejecting it. I played a little of it in high school, but GURPS committed what was, to my teenage mind, a cardinal sin: no funny dice. If I'm not out here rolling a d12 for some reason, why am I even in this bullshit hobby? GURPS seemed dry and fussy and only theoretically fun, the RPG equivalent of Avalon Hill's AIR ASSAULT ON CRETE.

This changed years later when I played in a session of GURPS HELLBOY with a GM who was a huge enthusiast of both Hellboy and GURPS. He showed me the virtues of the system, how you could build a truly interesting and well-rounded character. Reluctantly, I had to admit the system grew on me after a couple of play sessions.

However, it was the fourth edition that really had an impact on me. Inspired by the Hellboy session I'd played, I started an epic BPRD-style monster hunters campaign -- a game that would last over six years and see many players come in and out. Next to Starblazer Adventures, it's the broadest and longest-running game in my "career." During that time, I found out how much GURPS rewards a deep dive into its mechanics.

The more I GMed and played GURPS, the more I became obsessed with it. I loved the granularity of the mechanics, the way you could flip switches on and off in the game to create different tones and challenges, even inform genre. GURPS gets flak for being dry and fussy (what kind of poltroon would ever say such a thing?!) but look: it has a rule for "bulletproof nudity." You can make a game that focuses on intricate combat moves between duelists, or a superhero epic where PCs drop planets on one another.

A lot of GMs, for reasons I can totally understand, don't love the idea of the RPG as a toolkit to roll your own, and that's basically what GURPS is. You have to do the work up front and play with the rule toggles if you're going to create anything with any flavor. I get that a lot of players and GMs aren't into that. I super was for about eight years running, and the more I played with the rules and customization in GURPS, the more of a toybox it became.

I even created an entire fantasy game world, with multiple magic systems and a rich history, so I could make full use of the mechanics. The two separate games I was running in this world both collapsed, but I stripped out the best parts of them and used them in my fantasy novel ORISON, so I have GURPS to thank for that.

When I decided to go all-in on Pathfinder, I had to retire my shelf of GURPS books and box them up. I don't know if they'll ever come out to play again -- but I kinda hope so.
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10 RPGs that had an impact on you in 10 days. 5/10: Spirit of the Century #10RPGs

Spirit of the Century, Or: A Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

So, when I first heard of Spirit of the Century, I was over the moon. A new pulp adventure game set in the 1930s? I'd already spent a good couple of decades mainlining pulp movies: Indiana Jones, the Rocketeer, the Shadow, even the Phantom, for crying out loud. I'd bought GURPS Cliffhangers and Hollow Earth Expedition in an attempt to scratch that pulp adventure itch.

I was even more excited when I got it in my hands and read it through. FATE sounded like a fun, easy-to-use system, and I was super into the aspects and storytelling mechanics. I already had an idea for a campaign setting (much of which was ported over into the pulp serial work I'm doing with +Joshua Unruh right now: https://www.patreon.com/pulpdictionpress)

But then we actually played it. And, well. Playing Spirit of the Century is kind of like eating a big fat clove of raw garlic: there's lots of flavor there, but consuming it as-is, you're going to be working hard to get it down.

FATE as a system has come a long way since Spirit of the Century. That's not to say that SotC is bad or poorly designed; just that later refinements of the game learned where all the strengths and weaknesses lay. This next bit assumes you have some familiarity with FATE, so if you don't, sorry!

First of all, Spirit of the Century starts your pulp-hero characters off at Legendary, the top end of the task resolution ladder. This is tonally correct, but also kind of bonkers. Sure, you can fight a horde of Average mooks and level them twelve at a time, as any pulp hero should! But what then?

Then there are the aspects. Contemporary FATE games usually feature two to four aspect per character, and those are carefully structured. Spirit of the Century asked you to come up with ten. For every character. TEN. And ten Fate points! It's easy to judge a game in hindsight, having played a lot of Fate Core in the interim, but ten aspects and Fate points is late-stage RIFTS-level madness. Oh, and fifteen skills and five stunts.

So it doesn't come across like I'm bagging on Spirit of the Century, let's talk about what I loved. Probably the thing I loved most is the "pulp novel" aspect generation:

"Phase three is the character’s first pulp novel, starring him or her! Each player needs to come up with a title for the novel starring his character, in a fashion reminiscent of the pulps. The general pattern is:

Character Name (vs./in.../and) Adventurous Thing!

As such, 'Diego MacKinnon and the Spider's Web' or 'Drake Devlin in... The Redemption Game' would be ideal.

Then, each player needs to think up a story to go with his title. The story doesn’t need to have a lot of detail – in fact, it should be no more detailed than the blurb on the back of the paperback."

And then you'd do a second pulp novel with your character and another, where they teamed up. BLISS.

Let me tell you, coming up with pulp paperback titles and back cover blurbs is something I would gladly do ALL GODDAMN DAY. I would do it for a living if I could manage it somehow.

I also love Spirit of the Century because it introduced me to FATE, which would become one of my go-to pickup games when I wanted to make something with a certain flavor. Spirit of the Century led me to a five-year campaign of Starblazer Adventures, which I'll cover later.

We only ran a few games of Spirit of the Century, but they were a blast -- Legendary skill levels and truckloads of aspects notwithstanding. And the game fueled enough fiction ideas that I'm still writing about it, years later -- and have even managed to rope in another author!

So, tip of the (evil) hat to you, Spirit of the Century. You were the queen of the skies in your day.
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10 RPGs that had an impact on you in 10 days. 4/10: Torg #10RPGs

Torg is special because it represents the first time I engaged with a game community and actually tried to write for a game company. My name is all over the early issues of Infiniverse, the Torg newsletter. I pitched a couple of sourcebook ideas to West End and was politely rejected, but it remains one of the few properties I was ever inspired enough to try to write for.

Torg appealed to me because of its backstory: alternate realities have invaded Earth and are making reality play according to other genre rules. It was a wonderful mix of unapologetic cliches and unexpected combinations, like Britain being Tolkienian high fantasy and the horror reality invading Indonesia. Los Angeles became a haven for techno-demons (and no one noticed, har har). My favorites were the remorselessly goofy Cyberpapacy (complete with Cyberpope) and the high-flying pulp adventure of the Nile Empire. They were almost the only realms I ran games in. I made a couple of diversions here and there, but Nile Empire and its pulp-fiction father dimension, Terra, will always be my favorites.

The other thing I loved about Torg was that you could play everyday people who got a chance to be superheroes. Characters are transformed by the war on reality and have a chance to become something greater than what they were. That theme appeals to me a great deal.

I also really loved the drama deck, the first tool that really got me invested in creating conflicts that aspired to a higher standard than "I hit the guy in front of me." I loved the idea of the narrative being influenced and driven by partially-random elements. Also, stacking up bonuses to get the "Glory" result that could literally change the face of reality was a wonderful goal to aspire to. I wouldn't see a mechanic I loved this much until Marvel Heroic later on.

Sometimes I feel a little self-conscious about these write-ups because other people are talking about these deep emotional experiences they've had or game theory that's over my head and I'm just like "finally a game that let me do Indiana Jones with laser cannons the way I always wanted."
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10 RPGs that had an impact on you in 10 days. 3/10: Star Frontiers #10RPGs

Okay, so here's the thing. I don't love Star Frontiers. Like, at all. I love the idea of Star Frontiers. I love a lot of the cover art. I love the blurbs on the backs of many of the modules. I love Yazirians. I love the idea of the Sathar. I still have vivid daydreams of an 80s-style animated Star Frontiers series.

I even love some of the bonkers ideas that came later in the game's development, like the hydraulic holster from Zebulon's Guide that would let you quick-draw a rifle but might tear your arm off at the shoulder if you don't hold it at the correct angle.

But the game itself? Meh.

So why am I writing about it in this series? Because this is about games that have an impact, and sometimes that impact takes the form of disappointment or frustration.

It's not really the game's fault. I have no doubt the creators made what they set out to make, and I'm sure plenty of people enjoy it.

I got into Star Frontiers not long after I got into D&D, and I desperately wanted it to be a game of breezy, high-flying, space opera adventure. It was not. Apparently they wouldn't figure out how to write that game until WEG's d6 Star Wars. I remember seeing this cover and thinking how exciting it would be to explore alien worlds and have all kinds of thrilling encounters.

But none of the material seemed all that interested in doing that. There was a lengthy play example in the prose, where you... play a space cop who shoots a criminal with a needle gun. Okay. The battle map included in the game was of several nondescript city blocks. You could pilot a hovercraft! Around the buildings. Lots of rules for turning at speed. It often felt to me like Star Frontiers wanted to be a certain kind of game, but couldn't overcome the clunky shackles of its own mechanics.

Probably the biggest disappointment of Star Frontiers? No spaceships. There was no way to play a star pilot, one of the only character types worth playing in any space opera adventure. Oh, you could buy a ticket for a starliner and fly through space coach. But otherwise, you were just running around the same four city blocks, apparently. (Remember in a previous installment where I said I wasn't good at expanding my imagination beyond the materials I was given when I was young?)

Undeterred by my initial disappointment, I bought into KNIGHT HAWKS, thinking surely the addition of spaceships and starfighters would really light this game up. Nope. Turns out it was still pretty dry. More turning rules. Want to own your own spaceship? Want to play a ragtag crew of traders and mercenaries? Sorry, your rules are in another game!

Star Frontiers was the first game where I got frustrated with the limits of what the mechanics would "allow" me to do and started rolling my own. I ditched many of the more fussy, "realistic" rules in favor of unlikely pulp adventure. When Zebulon's Guide came out, I adopted what I wanted and tossed out the rest, like every single one of the ridiculous new species they introduced. Cubist robot cats? Those Freddie Mercury space dwarves? Get the hell out of here. I happily ditched the old core mechanics in favor of Zebulon's FASERIP-style shift system. Star Frontiers suddenly seemed bright with promise, right up until the moment they canned it.

In short, Star Frontiers was the first game that taught me to think beyond what I'd been given, and try my hand at making my own game mechanics. It wasn't a game so terrible and unplayable that I had to make my own game just to refute it -- rather, it fell just short enough of my desires that I found I had to fulfill them myself.

I won't lie. I still love the idea of Star Frontiers. I would love to play the game I saw in my head when I first ran into that gorgeous, vibrant box art. I don't know that I ever will. I've had flings with other sci-fi games since, like Shatterzone, Renegage Legion, WEG Star Wars, and Firefly. None of them quite hit that spot, either. But this cover art will always fire my imagination and get me thinking about it again.
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