Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rambling End of the Year Post for 2011

The Amazing Aluminum Man keeps an eye on Baby New Year - just in case

Wrapping up a few loose ends and clearing the decks for 2012:

 - A week or so before Christmas: Wizards of the Coast's annual Christmas layoffs appear to have begun. So far, casualties appear to include Rich Baker and Steve Winter. Yeah that's great. A wonderful holiday tradition. I've been "downsized" a few times over the years ad it's not fun at any time of the year. Hopefulyy (given their time with the company) there were severance packages sufficient to see them through the holidays and find something new.

 - Going back to Thanksgiving: Hero Games has been around for 30 years with ups and downs. The economy's been pretty rough lately, as has the gaming market. With declining sales and fewer releases, Hero has reached the point where it's no longer possible to maintain a full time staff of three, so it's scaling back. Darren and Steve will be departing December 2nd, with our thanks for a decade of hard work that gave us 108 books, and best wishes for their future endeavors, which may include producing new books under a Hero System license. We'll keep you posted on that. Jason will remain to continue shipping books and handling day-to-day matters. Existing books will continue to be available for purchase, and the company will continue in business, just a bit more slowly. The online store remains open. Steve will continue to answer rules questions on the Hero boards as "the guy who wrote the rulebook." We're looking into doing a Kickstarter to print Book of the Empress, since it's complete and ready to go. For the near future Hero would appreciate your kind thoughts and your patience. Transition periods of this sort take time, and Jason has a lot of work cut out for him, so the support of our fans is much appreciated. Wow more good news. Forum discussion here.

I think Hero's biggest problem is that while it has a great system (one of the best if you like crunch) it doesn't have any compelling worlds to play in. 5th edition was sold primarily as a toolkit and the game universes were left as sort of an add-on. People get interested in systems but they get attached to worlds and Hero has little in the way of shared experiences the way everything from D&D to RuneQuest to Traveller to Pathfinder has. Even Champions has only a proto-universe that gets rewritten every time the edition changes. The first Champions game I played had Gargoyle and Marksman as heroes. Then we got Seeker and Obsidian. Now we have Ironclad and some other new faces. Sure some of the villains are still in the game, and some of the organizations, but they change pretty drastically between editions too, and that's their BEST universe! What's a compelliong reason to play Star Hero? It lets you do anything you want? Traveller covers a lot of that ground, and so does Savage Worlds, and if I'm looking for a universe they have everything from the Third Imperium to Hammer's Slammers to Slipstream! Same question for Fantasy Hero - if I haven't been a fan since the 80's or 90's, why should I even look at it? Between the 14 versions of D&D out there from OSR clones to Pathfinder to 4E I have a whole lot of D&D to choose from. Oh wait, it's "not D&D"? Well I have everything from RQ to  WFRP to Savage Worlds (again! - Evernight, Sundered Skies, etc.) for "not-D&D". Fantasy Hero's potential campaign worlds get 1 book (at most) and then get changed in every edition (80's-90's-00's) anyway! I know the thinking is that Hero players prefer to create their own worlds but does that mean you shouldn't try to create some compelling world to share with your players instead of yet another edition of "300 pages of pre-built spells" ? I suspect 6th edition Hero will sputter along for a while under most people's radar until some new blood/new money gets interested and takes a run at a 7th edition.

 - Dark Sun 4E: I realize I'm a year behind on this one but I finally got it, read it, and it's a pretty good version of Dark Sun. I think it's great for Heroic, interesting for Paragon, and then I'd like to know what Epic is supposed to be about. With no gods and almost no planar travel, then if you're playing the game of thrones at Paragon what do you do after that? Conquer the world? Alright I guess. Restore the world? Even at Epic that seems like more of a long-term mission than something you roll dice for - "Alright now we're in the Great Slat Flats - roll your Gardening check, DC 50 - OK, it's green again. See you next week!" I think it needs something more. Maybe you restore an old battleship and head off through Astral Space to Iskandar or something, but I don't think it's a great setting for Epic as it stands right now. Earlier levels though, I can see it being a fun change of pace from the usual approach.

 - The Sellswords Trilogy:
  • Servant of the Shard - This first one is OK, but it was written yeras before the next two and was notable at the time as the first Drizzt novel without Drizzt. It does wrap up the story of the Crystal Shard nicely though.
  • Promise of the Witch King - This second one is actually pretty good, and serves as a shining example of how an "evil" party of characters might go adventuring together to investigate/avert/steal from a larger threat. I really liked it.
  • Road of the Patriarch - The third one is terrible as it picks up right where #2 leaves off and then goes in a completely different direction, focusing back in on Artemis Entreri, particularly his bad childhood which I didn't find all that interesting. I also think that Calimshan had been covered pretty thouroughly in the earlier books and wow, the world's greatest assassin takes his revenge on a corrupt local priest - whee. A letdown after #2.

 - Obligatory End-of-Year-Prediction: Despite pronouncements to the contrary when 4E was released that we would never need it, and despite pronouncements that Essentials was and was not 4.5, I think that we will probably see D&D 5th Edition announced in 2012, probably at GenCon, for a 2013 release. The timing works with a 2013 release coming 5 years after the 2008 release of 4E. Beyond that I don't think they would have hired Monte Cook this year if they didn't have a job for him to do, and I suspect that job is 5E. 

Now that all that is out of the way, I have to say that for me 2011 started off on the lower end of things and has ramped up nicely in the family, professional, and recreational sense. I hope 2012 continues the trend, and if your personal trend hasn't been going the same way then I hope it turns around soon. I plan to continue the blog through thick and thin so there should be no major changes here.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from the Family Blacksteel! See you in 2012!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WFRP Campaign Thoughts

The Warhammer universe is extremely rich, which, oddly enough, makes it difficult to decide what kind of campaign to run. For some games, they are built around a particular type of play: Mechwarrior is mainly aimed at playing giant robot drivers; Shadowrun is focused on largely criminal behavior by off-the-grid free agents;. Sure, you can try something else but the premise of the game and most supporting material drives it in a particular direction. Other games present a universe and a mechanical system for playing in that universe and leave the rest up to you: Traveller is pretty strong at this, and most universal type games are good at this. Even something like a Star Trek game can fall into this category: Fasa Trek started out centered around playing Star Fleet officers out exploring the galaxy. Over time it added support for the major alien races for similar kinds of campaigns, then it added rules for the intelligence services opening things up for espionage type games, then it added rules for playing a merchant type campaign as well. After digging through my WFRP material I would add it to the list of games that says "here's a universe - go!"

The mechanical part of the game does make certain assumptions:

- you're playing a human, elf, dwarf, or halfling. That covers some physical items but culturally there are a lot of options that are independent of physical race.

- technology is at a renaissance level: armor, swords, early firearms, telescopes, and some beginning experiments with steam power

- magic is present, unpredictable, powerful, and dangerous

- there are gods in the universe that are benevolent to indifferent

- there is a thing called Chaos that underlies the world, it's bad, and it contains entities that care nothing for the current state of the world or the beings that live in it

There are not a lot of assumptions, though, about what characters will be doing. There is a combat system, but it's pretty d*mn dangerous and it is explicitly stated in the game that a lot of combat leads to maimed and dead characters, so much so that a Fate point mechanic was added to help mitigate the seriousness of those consequences. There are various skills and abilities that relate to personal interaction between characters and to business transactions too.

I could certainly see running a traditional D&D style campaign that involves dungeon and wilderness encounters on a personal quest for wealth and power - it would probably feel quite different than most D&D campaigns but it could be done.

Having recently looked through Pendragon and then through my Bretonnia supplement, I think you could run a very solid "Lords and Ladies" campaign similar to what a Pendragon game would encompass set in Bretonnia and involving a little more of the fantastic than a baseline Pendragon game. I'm thinking about writing this up in more detail a bit later but I do like the idea of combining these two things.

You could run a Traveller-style Merchant game running a ship up and down the major river of the Empire.

If you wanted to tie in the Warhammer miniatures game you could have a very fine Mercenary campaign that included some occasional mass battles.

Need political intrigue? The nobles of ther Empire are quite a bickering lot, as are the major religions, and then there are the hidden threats of Chaos cults and the Skaven to make things even more shadowy that stubborn noble houses.

Picking up the Tome of Corruption supplement then you could flip things upside down and go over to Chaos, running a campaign where each player runs an aspiring champion of chaos, perhaps using the recent Storm of Chaos invasion as the background.

There is another supplement that covers the Border Princes but is largely composed of a system for creating, mapping, and then managing a small realm  pacified, claimed, and run by the player characters.

Now you could try a lot of these in various editions of D&D but the difference here is that there is quite a bit of support, both mechanical and with background material and advice for each of them. That was not always true in various editions of D&D - or Runequest or Fantasy Hero or whatever other system you care to compare. The fact that all of these options feel like they could fit coherently within one edition of a game set in one particular fantasy world is a pretty strong positive in my opinion. I like the idea that I could run 3 different campaigns at the same time in this world and not feel like I'm repeating myself at any point.  

I also think that this could be run as an episodic campaign if the DM had a particular aspect in mind - say one fo the items above - but it could also run just fine as an open-ended-wander-the-world-and-see-what-happens kind of game. I do think I would run it as a more traditional serial campaign in most cases as that just feels more right to me in an age when traveling long distances is supposed to be part of the adventure. You're in Altdorf and need to talk to someone in Marienburg? Getting there might be a whole session in itself whether by land or by sea!

There are several published starting scenarios, more if you drop back and use some of the old 1st edition material. There are quite a few published adventures, both long and short, linked and independent, enough to sustain a decent campaign if that's the way you wanted to go. I do like the idea of using some of those for that shared experience  that lets you swap stories with other players about how YOU handled that trouble in Bogenhafen, but I would definitely want to mix in my own stuff as well. The border princes book is pratically a campaign in itself, as is the mammoth Thousand Thrones advanture and the Altdorf-Nuln-Middenheim trilogy. For a limited campaign I think any of those is a solid choice.

This is a little more general than I originally planned but I have some ideas on some specific campaigns that I will get into in a little more detail and some other ideas too.