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Jeff's Gameblog
Friday, 18 June 2004
The Next Big Thing? Prolly not.
Topic: RPGs
Coming soon to a friendly local gaming store near you: Wraeththu, the game of psychic swordfighting posthuman hermaphrodites stuggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world!

I shit you not.

The setting, if a bit on the weird side (even for an RPG), has literary credibility. The Wraeththu RPG is apparently based upon a trio of dark fantasy novels written by Storm Constantine. Ms. Constantine's works are highly regarded in some circles and it was apparently a bit of a coup when White Wolf was able to get her to write the intro fiction for Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. (Ms. Constantine's Pen&Paper entry has a nifty photo of her. In addition to her writing talents, she ain't hard on the eyes.)

The Wraeththu rpg itself, however, seems to have gone through all the growth pains that one sees when folks who aren't RPG industry-saavy try to step up to the plate. The initial Wraeththu PR machine was sloppy even by RPG industry standards. Here are the two RPG.net threads that clued me into Wraeththu's existance:

Most Pretentious and Artsy RPG Ever Created?: Wraeththu

Wraeththu: Bring On the Clowns

Those are both monster huge threads with large swaths of only-barely-on-topic material. I'll try to summarize the key points, split into three departments.

The "Your PR Sucks" Department: The overhype of the Wraeththu rivals the things I've heard from the bad old days of SenZar, Synnibarr, and Multiverser. "Wraeththu is going to take the RPG world by storm, no one will play [your fave game]anymore, playing Wraeththu cures cancer, etc., etc." Also, despite hoping that White Wolf players would buy their products, both gabby and the official site spend time knocking the World of Darkness. I can't see how alienating the fanbase is going to make sales. Furthermore, the frontman for the operation, 'gabby2600', seemed to pull the old gag of posting under multiple identities so that he could agree with himself. Finally, claims were made that look like just plain lies. The big one was that Storm Constantine is acknowledged as an influence in the 1st edition Vampire core book. No such acknowledgement seems to exist in the real world.

The "This is an innovative system?" department: Yet again the new kid on the block is claiming to have an utterly revolutionary system. (Here's a hint folks: Is your name Jared Sorensen or Robin Laws? No? Then you system probably ain't revolutionizing jack squat. And if you've never heard of Messrs. Sorensen or Laws, then you have no goddamn business claiming your system is revolutionary to begin with.) Turns out the innovative system is nothing more than yet another fantasy heartbreaker, i.e. mostly stuff we've seen before. More disappointingly, the system was written in '92 and was not created with the Wraeththu setting in mind. Now, there were certainly good rpgs written in or before 1992, but the odds are long that a designer could break new ground today if they are ignorant of Sorcerer and the Pool and Dying Earth and Universalis and Adventure! AND Rune AND Inspectres AND HeroQuest AND EVEN FRICKIN' D&D 3rd edition. I mean, come on.

What do I actually know about the system? Not a whole lot. You have 6 or 8 stats, rated 3-18 or 1-20 or something like that. You roll a d20 to do stuff. There's some sort of enigmatic weapon creation subsystem combined with an emphasis on swordplay. The psychic/magic/psionic rules use a freeform system reminiscent of Ars Magica. No hint of hardcore social or psychological mechanics, despite some folks claiming those would suit the novels to a 'T'. In fact, such rules seem to better fit the spirit of the Wraeththu Mythos more than the swords and swordfighting, which are downplayed or even nonexistant in the novels.

The "I'm playing WHAT?" department: RPG.net hasn't seen any gabby antics in a long time. The website has mostly cleaned up its act. I haven't actually seen the mechanics, they could work just fine. Heck, the 'Storm system' mentioned on the current incarnation of the website may be a totally different set of rules than gabby2600's musty old homebrew. Assuming all these issues are under control, that still doesn't address the main hurdle for this game to be a success: all the PCs are members of a race of gay posthuman hermaphrodites. I know "gay hermaphrodite" sounds like a contradiction. It's not. The 'hara' race is composed of male humans who have mutated into hermaphodites. (I'm not going to get into their strange "flower penis" biology here, you'll have to follow the RPGnet threads above for the lowdown on that.) According to reports, some of the characters in the novels were homosexual prior to their transformation. Either way, the result is that hara sexual intercourse is between two posthuman entities who previously were both human males. Apparently the characters in the novels all use male pronouns as well. In short, and to simplify greatly, the novels might be called "gay science fantasy" if you felt the need to pigeonhole it. (Some would disagree with that assessment, which is fine. Mischaracterizing a trilogy I've never read isn't the worst thing I've ever been accused of. Like, today.)

The "gay thing", to use a lame turn of phrase, ought to be enough to doom Wraeththu's chances of being a mainstream commercial rpg hit. Too many RPGers will be squicked with the idea of playing mutant homos. It's that simple. With a little luck and a lot of post-"RPGnet fiasco" work Wraeththu might make it as a good niche game. If the game gabby2600 was pushing gets published as described, the best it could hope for is a spot in Middle Finger Evolution's hall of shame.

(I supposed this would be as good a place as any to insert the usual disclaimer: I'm het, but I'm not a hater. If you think I've written any homophobia into this piece, go ahead and call me on it.)

All in all, Wraeththu is lined up to be the next rpg that everyone loves to hate. Heck, they've already got a great head start over at RPG.net. And yet, I can't help but think that the game has serious promise, even if it sticks to the tacked-on '92 homebrew system. The few details I've heard about the system do seem to contain kernels of good ideas. There's a lot to be said for an elaborate weapon construction system that is well-integrated into kickass sworddueling combat rules. Team the sword rules up with an effective magic-on-the-fly mechanic and you've got the basis for some great fightery. I see visions of glittering futuregoth prettyboys dancing about the battlefield, swinging intricately bejewelled razorwhips and katanachuks, dodging each others' luminescent multi-hued psychic emanations. It could rock. These rules might not have much to do with the world of the Storm Constantine novels, but what do I care? I've never read them. (Though I have put the 3-volumes-in-1 omnibus edition on my Amazon wishlist but no one in my family ever uses the damn thing come gifty time. It's not that I end up with crappy birthday and Xmas gifts, it's just that I maintain the wishlist to make it easier on them. Why no one uses it is still a mystery. Anyway, I guess I should try my local used books emporia. I have no idea what section of the store to go to find them. Sci-fi? Queer fiction? I dunno.)

And as to the whole "hermaphodites with flower-anemone shaped penisvaginas" angle, I can't say I'm completely annoyed with the idea of playing one. I play too many characters who are obviously expressions of my own Freudian anxieties. You know the type, guys with big guns or swords. Right now I'm going through a phase in which all my PCs wield large knobbby quarterstaffs. And of course all these guys are straight. Being forced to play a gay hermaphrodite could very well afford some insight into these overcompensating tendencies. Or maybe it'll just creep me out. Won't know unless I try.

Then there's the whole posthuman angle to the hara. Most games that deal with this sort of stuff posit posthumanity as either a fairly clearcut but interesting set of technological extrapolations (I'm thinking of Transhuman Space here) or else as Nietzschean overmen, taking the form of spandex-and-cape clad Olympian gods. Wraeththu goes with the idea that the next step in human evolution will be unexpected and pretty damn weird. I gotta give props for that. After all, if you were to thaw out a neanderthal and expose him to modern America, I think he would be pretty freaked out. It rings true to me that homo sapiens would have the same reaction to the beings that come after us in the chain of evolution.

All in all, I have to give credit to the people behind the Wraeththu rpg for trying to bring something truly different to the table. I really hope their game gets into print and finds its way onto the shelves of friendly local game stores everywhere. I'd love to flip through a copy and I might even buy it. Of course, they might not end up publishing my ideal version of Wraeththu, in which mutant girlymen spend all their time engaging in Jedi duel style combat using their personalized battleblades.

Either way, best of luck to them and theirs.

Posted by jrients at 2:45 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:31 PM CDT

Topic: Chess Variants
Been thinking about my large variant project. I've been unsatisified with the fact that the wizards are pawnless. Every other piece in the game has a pawn of ... that can promote to a new piece of that type. (Excepting that the pawn of kings promotes to the prince piece and not a second king). The wizards have no apprentices. I could add pawns of wizards onto the board, but that would probably mean putting them in advance of the normal pawn line or some other inelegant arrangement. Instead, it occurred to me that I could borrow Enochian chess's priveledged pawn rule, whereby the last pawn a player has is allowed to promote to any piece save king. Although this rule would not lead to many games with a third wizard on the board, it at least introduces the possibility.

I've also been thinking about some new piece ideas. The wizard (camel + ferz) and the champion (alifant + dabbabah + wazir) hint at the existence of a whole class of double and triple compound pieces comprised in whole or part of ancient chessmen. Off the top of my head, a knight + wazir would be a nifty piece, I'm not sure what to call it right now.

Another piece I came up with recently is the lighthouse, which captures as a cannon but moves in a much more limited fashion, either as a king or a wazir or a ferz. I'm not sure if the limited 1-step movement should also allow for capturing or not. I call the piece a lighthouse because it's movement is very limited but it can "see" pieces far away.

Posted by jrients at 10:18 AM CDT
Thursday, 17 June 2004

Topic: Collecting Games
Well, I got roped back onto eBay with all my chit-chat about gaming magazines. I had my eye on one of the issues of Dungeoneer that I need. And I also had the old SPI Dallas rpg on my watch list. But I scored a small victory by not bidding for a couple days and then finally deleted them off my watch list. Even better, I'm visiting eBay less often than ever.

Posted by jrients at 1:53 PM CDT

Topic: RPG Actual Play
Last night was Dave Hoover's "Avatars" campaign. I noticed an error in my previously planned advancement scheme for my PC, Rondoo. I had him gaining d10 in the Faith and Healing skill without ever achieving d8 in them! Here's my new plan:

15 Healing, Faith to d8 (gained last night)

20 Spirit to d10
25 Edge: Power Surge
30 +5 Power Points
35 New Power: Dispel

40 Smarts to d10
45 Healing, Faith to d10
50 New Power: Greater Healing
55 +5 Power Points

There's lots of room for switching things up in the above arrangement, so the plan has some flexibility. Like if wizards start popping out of ricebowls to cap our asses, I can move the Dispel power to earlier in the schedule.

I had a great time last night, plenty of furious action and zany antics. Somethings been bothering me though, and I'm having trouble putting my finger exactly on it. I guess part of the problem is that my expectations of "heroic fantasy" and the campaign as played aren't meshing. For example, twice now we've come across the scene of the crime after the bad guys have killed the innocents and split. In a heroic game I would expect us to show up just in time to save some folks. Instead, all we get to do is bury the bodies and avenge the deaths of people we never even met when they were alive. As a result of the folks already being dead, we find ourselves having to interrogate the bad guys and they are rather resistant. End result? The "heroic" PCs torture the captives and still don't get the information they need. I guess maybe I was expecting something a little more like the old formula 1) Save filthy peasants from boblin attack, in nick of time, 2) Peasants say the boblin attacks are the doings of the old Poopmancer who lives in the tower over yonder, 3) Visit tower, defeat Poopomancer. As it stands, the most heroic thing we've done was to save Uncle Lars from the Twisted, and he was never really in any danger, nor was he Johnny's uncle!

Also, we seem to have hints of "stuff going on" but not enough info to actually formulate a plan. Being impotent to thwart the badguys isn't very heroic either. Of course, I've twice now shot myself in the foot by shying away from the dungeons. Last night, though, I think Dante (Joe's PC) was right to not want to go down in the mega-ant tunnels, especially if doing so meant leaving his horsey behind to become ant food. Still, I regret not going into that first dungeon. We're short on food and short on money. Much of the treasure we've scored has been in the form of high-grade Twisted weapons and such, but finding buyers among the locals humans isn't easy. These issues aren't buzzkilling the campaign for me (yet?), but they do raise some concerns. What has Dave got in mind for the game? Is he attempting to address some sort of narrative premise and I'm out of the loop? Maybe next session I need to go over the campaign materials with a fine tooth comb to see if maybe I'm not connecting with something crucial in the setting info.

Eh, I'm clearly rambling at this point. It's not like the game isn't fun. Each individual session is fun. I just can't quite wrap my head around the overall campaign situation.

I want to end on this point: Last night we fought deadly ant riders. That rules! Dave's got a great flair for freakish fantasy foes.

Posted by jrients at 10:37 AM CDT
Updated: Friday, 18 June 2004 9:55 AM CDT
Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Topic: RPGs
Got an email out of the blue from a fella named Doug. Apparently Doug lives in the Shampoo-Banana area. He noticed my listing in the player directory for Ron Edwards' indie rpg Sorcerer. Doug is interested in playing Sorcerer and/or Sorcerer & Sword. S&S is probably one of the best rpg supplements ever written. I rank it right up their with Aaron Allston's Strike Force. Both products really advance the state of the art in the hobby.

So maybe, just maybe, I'll get a chance to play Sorcerer.

Meanwhile back in the world of actual play, tonight is Dave hoover's game. I'm looking forward to another night of his "Avatars" campaign, but I am starting to wonder about something. Maybe I am on the wrong track in trying to steer the group away from dungeon crawling. Maybe that's exactly where we need to be. After all, plumbing the depths of moral dilemnas seems like a kinda odd way to approach a fantasy campaign world in which the paladins can detect lies with ease.

Or maybe that's just my D&D genie whispering into my ear.

Posted by jrients at 10:40 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 June 2004 10:38 AM CDT
Tuesday, 15 June 2004
Gaming Magazines of Yore, Part 2 of 2
Different Worlds was a truly great generalist magazine. Unlike Dragon or early White Dwarf it never seemed to have an overpowering bouquet of AD&D. The mix was just right. IIRC Chaosium published it, but you couldn't tell. There was one special Call of Cthulhu themed issue and a fair amount of Runequest stuff, but any decent game magazine would carry articles on CoC or RQ.

Although I wouldn't pass up a chance to get any DW for cheap, two issues in particularly stand out. Number 15 had a Traveller article by Paul Crabaugh called "More Citizens", which had new basic (Book 1,Supp 4) career paths for char gen. As I understand it, one of the career paths in the article is a generic "citizen", i.e. for regular schmoes. Issue 20 contains a piece called "Zarzeena's World", a campaign setting for Magic World, the generic fantasy BRP rules that came in the old Worlds of Wonder boxed set. I'm curious about Zarzeena and his/her/its world because the article is by Steve Perrin of Runequest fame. I'd like to see what he does when tasked with creating a fantasy setting that isn't Glorantha.

Another great magazine from the old days was Stardate. It was a sci-fi oriented mag, aimed mainly at the two hot FASA properties of the time, BattleTech and the Star Trek rpg. They covered other stuff, Traveller probably coming in third in terms of games covered. Great magazine. You could really tell the folks cranking it out loved the subject matter. Most every issue I owned had a good amount of crunchy stuff like stats for new BattleMechs or new Trek vessels. I need to sit down and figure out exactly which issues I still own and which I still need. I believe the magazine got through two years of roughly bi-monthly publication. The third year started out with a name change to Stardrive, maybe due to Paramount getting huffy about the term stardate. I think only one issue of volume three was published before the whole thing disappeared. Too bad. The gaming world was a better place when StarDate was around.

The were plenty of other magazines (and a viking horde of fanzines) produced back in the first couple decades of the rpg hobby. You can't properly discuss this subject without mentioning Alarums & Excursions, the very long-running rpg APAzine. Lee Gold is one of the invisible saints of the hobby for keeping A&E on track all these many years. I'd love to get into A&E, but it seems like a momental task to jump into this late into the game. I suppose I could just order some back issues and see if I liked them.

I mentioned Vortext in one of yesterday's blog entries. I don't know much about it other than it went about 8 issues and number 4 has a World of Synnibarr adventure.

White Wolf produced a decent gaming magazine back before they turned it into Inphobia. The earlier White Wolf Magazine incarnation was a pretty decent generalist magazine. I only had one issue, but it was pretty good stuff. Issue #10 has an article that I'm very curious about, written by the Rasmussens of Top Secret fame.

Finally, I'd sure like to learn more about Ares magazine. It was published by wargaming great SPI, so it undoubtedly had a somewhat different focus than other rpg mags. Still, I seem to recall it had a Call of Cthulhu themed issue.

Posted by jrients at 9:53 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 15 June 2004 7:49 PM CDT
Monday, 14 June 2004
Gaming Magazines of Yore, part 1 of 2
The golden age of print rpg magazines is over, but thanks to the internet getting back issues is easier than ever. As a kid I was absolutely hooked on Dragon. I might not have been able to get a rulebook or module every month, but I could almost always count on a new issue of the big D. I even had a subscription at one point. That was supercool. Of course, this was back when Dragon was oriented more to servicing the entire RPG hobby. Nowadays I can't hardly stand to pick up an issue of Dragon or Dungeon unless it has something decidedly old school inside.

So I get my gaming rags these days second hand off the eBay and at cons. I already own the Dragon CD-ROM. Although the interface sucks and the data is slightly incomplete (see bottom of this page) I still highly recommend it to anyone with any interest in the early days of the hobby. The collected issues of The Strategic Review are worth the price of admission alone.

Apart from The Dragon, as it used to be known, there were plenty of other great rpg magazines. White Dwarf started life out in the same way as Dragon, as a generalist mag with a D&D bent. Alas, around about issue #100 they switched over to their all-GW, all-the-time format. I have three issues of the old WD: #40, #45, and #73. I look forward to getting more. I learned a valuable lesson from playing a couple of the UK series of AD&D modules and reading the original Fiend Folio: the Brits have a lot to contribute to gaming that the cornfed boys of Wisconsin just couldn't bring to the table.

White Dwarf had a major competitor for a while over across the pond, a little number produced by TSR UK called Imagine. Can't say I know much about this one, never having seen a copy for sale on this side of the pond. The fellows over at StarFrontiers.com have some stuff from Imagine in the modules department. One of the articles includes Star Frontiers stats for shotguns in space, so I know the guys at Imagine are my kind of people.

I already have an near-complete archive of the Judges Guild published mag Dungeoneer. I need to track down issues 7 and 13 (the superhero issue) and then I'm done. Dungeoneer is cool. It was edited by Paul Jacquays and has the homey feel of a good APAzine. JG published a couple of other mags, the Judge's Guild Journal and Pegasus. The only thing I know about JGJ is that the original City-States material first appeared there. Pegasus is a complete unknown to me.

I used to have some issues of Polyhedron, the old RPGA magazine. I'd like to track down some back issues, but they are fairly rare and can be expensive. Issue 7 to 14 had a good solid run of non-D&D stuff: Gamma World, Gangbusters, Boot Hill, and Dawn Patrol. I'd also like to get issues 20, 27 and 30, though I only want #27 because it features an article about the She-Hulk. Rowr.

HEROES Magazine, the Avalon Hill rpg house organ, only ran ten issues. Seven of those issues had Lords of Creation articles and another two had James Bond 007 stuff. Volume II, number 1 was a special all-Runequest issue, meaning it's probably two damn expensive to ever hope of getting a complete run of the mag. (Damn those Gloranthans and their completist ways. They interfering with _my_ completist ways. The nerve of some people!) Anyway, I own four issues (I3, I5, II2, and II3) leaving I1, I2, I4, I6 and II4 to get the rest of the LoC and Bond goodies.

Posted by jrients at 9:15 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, 14 June 2004 9:30 PM CDT
I must have it!
Today, during another round of obsessive googling, I discovered Shannon Appel's index for Vortext magazine, a game publication I don't recall encountering before. (Incidentally, Shannon's indexes are a great resource for any gaming nut.) Apparently, issue #4 of Vortext inluded a Synnibarr adventure, "Bio Starr 1", by Raven McCracken and Bryce "Playing Synnibarr will open avenues in your imagination for
which you probably did not even know you had an address" Thelin. I must track down this magazine!

Posted by jrients at 12:50 PM CDT
Sunday, 13 June 2004


Here's the latest version of my 6 Islands campaign setting. I'm leaning towards the humans that live on the island possessing a culture and technology somewhat like England just prior to the Norman Conquest. Among other things, doing so would reduce the importance of horses. I've never had a whole lot of empathy for horses and I have almost always imagined fantasy rpg parties as walking rather than riding. If they are riding, it's almost always been either by ship or on the back of fantastic creatures.

The light bluish-green areas are shallows. I'm not exactly sure about the brownish island. It's basically a coloring error I left in because it gave me something to think about. Maybe the land on that island is less wooded or less fertile.

The scale of the map is probably about thirty six miles to a hex. Bigger then a breadbox, but smaller than most settings.

Posted by jrients at 8:48 AM CDT
Saturday, 12 June 2004

Ran to the library today. They had 4 paperbacks from the Destroyer series on the shelf. I picked up #16, Oil Slick. Good, fast read. I managed to finish it in eight hours and still get all my usual Saturday afternoon/evening stuff done.

I also borrowed The Year 1000, subtitled What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, further subtitled An Englishman's World, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Being a bit of an Anglophile, I alwyas turn to Britain circa 1066 when I start to think about a psuedo-historical D&D campaign.

Posted by jrients at 9:09 PM CDT

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