Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #1

Huzzah! We have arrived at long last at the end of the list of my top ten role-playing games. As is traditional with this sort of thing, let's run down the list before we get to my favourite rpg.

Unless you're reading this via a feed or Google Plus, in which case the preview image probably gave it away. Oh well.

#10 - Dragonlance: Fifth Age
#9 - Fighting Fantasy
#8 - Shadowrun
#7 - Cold City
#6 - Lamentations of the Flame Princess
#5 - 13th Age
#4 - Savage Worlds
#3 - Pendragon
#2 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

At number one, of course, is Call of Cthulhu, which is only appropriate given that it's the best role-playing game ever according to both rpggeek and the arcane magazine poll that inspired this series of posts in the first place. I am being facetious, but only a little, because it is my favourite rpg ever and has been since I first played it.

My group at school knew of another group a couple of years above us, in the nigh-mythical Sixth Form. We didn't mix with them -- they had cars and didn't even wear uniforms! -- but somehow we got in touch with Dave, and he had such sights to show us! He introduced us to RuneQuest and Cyberpunk 2020 and Star Wars -- the latter only played once because of a misunderstanding in which Dave thought we hated it for some reason -- and Call of Cthulhu.

My memories of that first session are vivid. Dave lived in what seemed like an ancient cottage in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and it was the perfect setting to introduce a bunch of impressionable teenagers to horror gaming. We played "The Haunting" because everyone starts with that -- unless they start with the upcoming seventh edition, but that's an exasperated sigh for another day --and it was wonderful. Characters were thrown out of windows while my character tried to deflect attention by claiming that it was a comedy film in production, someone got possessed and shot someone else in the back, and in the end the haunted house was burned to the ground, as I suspect happens in the majority of attempts at the adventure.

It was great fun but it was also scary, in part because we were playing it in the dark in the middle of the countryside and in part because it was the first time we'd played a horror game. There were no monsters to hit and no special powers to use to our advantage so we felt more vulnerable than we had in any other game up until then, and we had no idea what we were facing, and to use an appropriate quote, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

That first game had quite the effect. We pestered Dave to run more adventures and the discarded sheets of dead or insane characters piled up. I bought three thick Lovecraft collections, and grappled with his baroque prose, a trial which didn't do much for me but impressed my English teacher. We all rushed out and bought copies of the rulebook and Tim ran some games, then Paul ran a couple -- including another creepy adventure played out in the boondocks -- and Stephen ran a few, and then I ran Horror on the Orient Express for a year for two different groups. We played the heck R'lyeh out of this game and some of my happiest gaming memories -- and all of the scary ones -- happened while playing. My current group likes D&D a lot so we've played a great deal of that in the years I've been part of it but that aside, I've played Call of Cthulhu more than any other rpg and I will never get bored of it.

Do I need to describe the system? It's been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out -- how appropriate -- and hasn't changed much so I'm sure everyone knows about it by now, but if not, guess what? It's quite simple! It's more or less RuneQuest with most of the fiddly bits taken out and is based on percentile skills, so is intuitive enough to be easy for even newcomers to grasp; I've introduced a few people to role-playing using the game, as everyone understands what Persuade 65% means, and the resistance table aside everything is on the character sheet and there are no hidden player mechanics.

Player-characters are normal folk rather than the specialists or heroes of most other rpgs, and are as such somewhat fragile, becoming incapacitated through injury and -- more often -- insanity; the latter mechanic is often derided as "mental hit points" and while it may not present a nuanced and realistic view of mental health it does the job for a game about librarians and archaeologists fighting ancient evil gods, is consistent with the source material, and once again it's presented in a simple and transparent manner that anyone can understand.

Of course, since the game has been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and hasn't changed much it is a bit clunky in places, but just like a vintage car -- another motoring metaphor? -- a bit of affectionate tinkering gets it up and running and it's so light a system that there isn't much work required. I'm sure that my years of play mean that even I have managed to memorise at least some of the rules but I find I can run the game with a character sheet as a reference and that's a good sign, as it means the system gets out of the way and I can concentrate on the mystery and the horror, like that time that I got the players screaming in disbelief as an axe-wielding maniac started swinging at their characters.

I love this game to bits. It works for long campaigns -- I don't think it's as much of a character killer as some suggest, although I have heard stories of some proper meat grinders -- and it's an amazing fit for a one-shot scenario for a dark winter's night. It's a game in which the players feel actual relief when they finish an adventure, and the only game in which I've experienced actual fear. I have played it almost every year for almost two decades and I hope that I continue to play it for years to come until the stars are right.

Next: nothing! We're finished! I'm sorry it took so long but I hope it was a worthwhile and interesting series.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #2

If you've been reading this series since the start you may have been wondering when this game would be coming up; after all I've already expressed my love for Fighting Fantasy and mentioned my dalliances with Games Workshop, so there was a certain inevitability about the appearance in the top ten of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

WFRP is a bit of an orphan. Games Workshop had a great deal of early success selling role-playing games but almost all were reprints -- albeit handsome ones -- of existing products. I'm sure someone will pop up in the comments and tell me about something I've forgotten -- I know both Inquisitor and Warhammer Quest have rpg elements, and more on the latter in the new year -- but as I recall the only home grown rpgs GW produced were Judge Dredd and WFRP; both got a couple of years in the sun but the latter was released just as the company was moving over to miniature-based war games and not even the Warhammer name was enough to save it from cancellation. WFRP retained a healthy and enthusiastic fanbase and popped up again at the now-defunct Hogshead, then a second edition was again published by Games Workshop before again being axed. Fantasy Flight Games released a third edition with a different ruleset but also produced a big pile of Warhammer 40,000 rpgs that used the same system as the second edition. At the time of writing the game is once again in limbo. It's all a confusing mess and it's a wonder that I managed to play the thing at all.

I had been reading White Dwarf since 1991 so I knew about WFRP from the occasional article -- even then they were becoming more sporadic -- but I didn't get to play it for the first time until around 1997. I remember being intimidate by the size of the rulebook -- larger than anything else I'd seen at the time -- and the dense and teeny tiny text. My friend Chris took the challenge of running the game and we made it through some of The Enemy Within before we stopped, I think through a combination of the group splitting -- university beckoned -- and the rest of the campaign being out of print at the time. Still, it was good fun and it set the tone for how I see the game to this day.

WFRP is often characterised as either horror-fantasy or -- more often -- as grim and dark and po-faced but I don't think either is true. Yes characters can be fragile, and yes it is possible to die of an infected stab wound, and yes it seems as if everything in the world is out to kill the player-characters, but a bit of murder and demon daemon summoning in the first chapter of the game's iconic campaign -- er, SPOILER -- has given the wrong impression of what is to my eye a comedy game.

Almost every name in the game is a pun or joke based on poor German translation; the dwarves have mohawks; the orcs are the Hulk as played by Ray Winstone; almost all of the player-characters are going to be working class oiks and if any of them are nobles they are probably idiots or drunks or both; any scheme, for good or ill, is bound to fail due to someone's incompetence; and in a fight no one can hit anything but if they do the damage will probably multiply so when they try to knock out the watchman in Bogenhafen they instead end up splattering him across the sewer wall. Oops.

What it is, you see, is Blackadder does D&D. How anyone can think it's supposed to be a serious game I don't know.

My favourite version of the game in terms of mechanics is the second edition; in polishing some of the rough edges of the first edition some of the game's unique personality is also lost but I do think it is the better game and as I tend to run it based on my own jumbled conception of the setting circa 1988 it all balances out. As should not be a huge shock to anyone at this point I like the simplicity of the system; it's based on percentile rolls against the characters' attributes, with skills and abilities modifying the rolls rather than having values of their own. There is a bit of wonky design in that one has to remember what Strike Mighty Blow -- for example -- does in terms of actual numbers but whenever I run the game I cheat and use simplified non-player-character statistics with all that stuff built in so it's not an issue from my end, and the idea at least is an elegant one.

The magic system is great fun; wizards have to roll dice to generate the energy they need to cast spells but as it is WFRP there is always a chance of something going wrong, from all milk in the locality curdling to a daemon crawling out of the caster's ears and laying waste to everything in sight. Spellcasters feel as dangerous to play as the superstitious folk of the setting believe them to be and with that danger comes a thrill, although it is perhaps best suited to the more reckless player. I was lucky enough to have just such a player when I ran the updated-but-not-really-related Enemy Within and his character ended up with a flaming skull head, umpteen fingers on each hand, and a long, skeletal trunk. As you do.

In stark contrast to most of the games on the top ten so far I do play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay quite often; it's one of those games that everyone -- both in my group and the larger world -- seems to like so it's a surprise and shame that no one seems to be able to keep it in print. I hope to be playing it again in 2015, following the player-characters of The Enemy Within II as they enter the world of Imperial politics, because what could go wrong for a noble with a burning skull face?

Next: loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. Or something.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #3

I my last post I wrote about the folly of the generic role-playing game; in contrast the next entry in my top ten has a laser-like focus that brings with it a heap of restrictions and despite that Pendragon remains a superb game. Expansions and later editions would change some details but in the core game everyone plays a knight, everyone plays a man, and everyone plays a goodie; this should feel restrictive but it doesn't, in part because different backgrounds allow for even four English knights of about the same age to feel varied, and in part because that's the game, that's the genre, and if you've sat down to play at all then you've probably already made that first leap. Unless your gamemaster is a duplicitous sort. If so, sorry.

The game uses the familiar Chaosium system -- albeit using a d20 instead of a d100 for some reason I've never understood. -- and as a result the rules are simple and intuitive. Aside from the use of the wrong dice there are a couple of other major differences between Pendragon and its parent system, the first of which is its heavy use of personality mechanics.

Everyone is assumed to uphold the laws of chivalry to some extent so D&D style alignment is more or less irrelevant; you can be Sir Evil of Sodshire but you'll still act with honour, at least most of the time. Instead the game uses a system of virtues and passions, the former a set of twinned characteristics like Pious and Worldly and the latter stronger motivators like Loyalty, Love, or Hate. The virtues give an idea of what a knight's personality is like and a knight can claim bonuses if certain virtues have a high value; the downside is that with more extreme values comes a more extreme personality, which could cause trouble for the knight. Passions are the knight's core beliefs and they can be used to bolster a roll -- a character could use his Loyalty to Arthur give him a bonus on his Sword skill, for example --but in doing so he runs the risk of going mad if the roll goes wrong. It's a simple system and allows for a fair bit of player choice while also emulating the bonkers romanticism of the source material; if you want a game about blokes in plate armour falling in love with the wrong women and chopping up Saxons while in the grip of a mindless fury, then this is for you!

The other big difference between Pendragon and not only its Chaosiumish cousins but the wider world of rpgs is that down time between adventures is given as much importance as the adventures themselves. I had played plenty of games in which characters did stuff between adventures, whether it was researching old and musty spellbooks or investing in shady nightclubs, but Pendragon was the first rpg I ever played that used distinct phases of the sort common in board or war games. Such ideas are much more common now with games like Mouse Guard and The One Ring out there but when I first encountered the idea that role-playing games about adventuring knights could be about more than the adventures it seemed revolutionary.

Yes Pendragon's knights go on adventures but they only do so in the summer; the rest of the year they're attending feasts and tournaments, or running their estates, or wooing ladies, or raising children, or -- as always seemed to happen to us -- cross-breeding horses with their fey counterparts to create super hybrid steeds that could gallop at absurd speeds but only at night. We were teenagers.

Player-knights retire and die -- while adventuring, while hunting, or even in their sleep -- and Pendragon allows for play to continue through the characters' family trees; if a knight hasn't fathered a son -- or daughter in disguise -- then they're bound to have at least a brother or cousin to carry on the family name. In Pendragon a player doesn't run a single character but a whole family and the challenges the dynasty faces can be just as exciting as riding off to fight some Saxon raiders or investigate a magical tower. Again, the idea of playing an entire family line was something that I'd never encountered before -- unless one counts Paranoia -- and it was an exciting innovation.

I first encountered Pendragon in the mid 1990's and I have played it only a few times over the years decades but it was so much fun and so different to anything else I've played before or since that I have nothing but fondness for it. I would probably play it more often if the blasted thing stayed in print for more than five minutes every five years but even so my personal character sheet has a "Love (Pendragon)" score of at least 16 on it.

(The pictured first edition box was donated by friend of the blog Zain -- thanks Zain! -- but is alas incomplete so I am still looking questing for a playable copy.)

Next: grim and perilous adventure!

Friday, December 26, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #4

I'm not sure there's such a thing as a true generic role-playing game, although they gave it a jolly good try back in the 1990's. Any system brings with it certain assumptions of play that mean that it will be good at some things and not so good at others; just look at the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu with its tenth-level librarians. Even Fate -- a game that's suggested within five nanoseconds of someone posting a "What system should I use for this idea?" thread on rpg.net -- has certain assumptions about storytelling styles built in that make it not the best match for, say, a tactical military type game.

The same is true of Savage Worlds, which is promoted as a system appropriate for all genres of role-playing but was derived from the first edition of Deadlands -- a supernatural western rpg -- and has always had a pulpy, action-based feel to it; it wouldn't be a good fit for court intrigue and political machinations, unless you're running a game about the Italian parliament:



That said, the relative failure of concept inherent in the game does not diminish my affection for it one bit. It is for the most part a light and simple ruleset and -- as I'm sure you're well aware and more than a little bored of being told by now -- I much prefer uncomplicated systems in my games. It's simple enough that it manages to squeeze a complete multi-genre rpg into fewer than two hundred pages -- as you'd expect, additional setting books expand on the rules, but all the basics are included -- and a game is always off to a good start with me if the whole thing fits into one volume; I'll have none of this artificial separation into player and gamemaster books, thank you. The current edition of the game comes in what they call an "Explorer's Edition" but the rest of the world calls "A5", the game book format of kings, and at just under seven quid one doesn't have to be a king to afford it.

With a few exceptions -- almost all of which are elsewhere in this top ten -- whenever I think of a new idea for a game, running it in Savage Worlds is my first thought. I've got notes here for Hellboy-style monster-hunting game, a post-apocalyptic hexcrawl full of radioactive mutants, World War II soldiers zipping around Europe in a tank searching for Nazi gold, and a modern gonzo pulpish thing inspired by lucha libre, Tarantino and Rodriguez, and the Wii game No More Heroes.

There are even some cases where a setting already has a system attached but I would supplant it cuckoo style with Savage Worlds; I've found that it's a great match for Eberron, despite my fondness for West End Games' d6 rules I've long pondered a Savage Star Wars game, and assuming one could bolt on a decent martial arts system -- an odd omission from the sizeable body of material published for the game -- I reckon that Savage Worlds would do a better job of Feng Shui than Feng Shui did.

Is a vast stack of unfinished campaign ideas a sign of a good role-playing game? I don't know, but the fact that Savage Worlds inspires me to such an extent must be a good sign. Anyway, it's a wonderful little game and it's one of the few entries in the list about which I have nothing negative to say; the only reason why it's not higher in the list is because my top three games are untouchable in their greatness.

Next: we're knights of the Round Table.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #5

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and-

Hang on, this is all a bit familiar.

If Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favourite "basic" D&D variant then 13th Age is where I go for my "advanced" jollies, although that's not the most accurate label as most of the complexity is on the players' side, and the rest of the game is quite simple. Indeed, that's what first attracted me to the game; I was looking for a compromise between the lighter D&D variants that I prefer and the more complex approaches that are popular with others in my group.

Having now run a campaign -- or rather half of one; I hope to revisit it in 2015 -- I can say that 13th Age is a successful compromise, although I know a couple of my players are not as convinced as I am. I haven't experienced it as a player yet -- Stuart has hinted at running a few sessions -- but as a gamemaster it is almost perfect.

Half of the ruleset is a light and uncomplicated variant of the d20 system with the stacks of modifiers and situational mechanics stripped back to a minimum, almost to the level of Basic D&D. Monsters are even simpler in terms of numbers, having only five or six statistics rather than a full statistic block; 13th Age uses the space saved to give each monster a unique and interesting special ability that is easy to remember and -- in most cases -- fun for the gamemaster. I keep banging on about the 13th Age kobolds but they're an excellent example of the system's approach; I have never had as much fun running monsters in a fantasy game as I have in 13th Age.

The other half of the game consists of airy fairy storytelling mechanics of the sort one would expect to see in Fate rather than the offspring of D&D. Every character gets One Unique Thing, a non-mechanical feature that places them in the setting as someone special; in 13th Age everyone is a Special Snowflake and I should hate that but in play it involves the players in creating the setting, involves the player-characters in the setting, and helps to generates story. Each character also has a number of relationship dice representing their connection to powerful non-player-characters in the setting; these have various effects, from generating story details on the fly -- who sent the assassins? -- to giving the GM hints about what could happen in the next session. I will be honest and say that this is one part of the game that I found difficult to grasp and exploit to its full potential but I think that's a problem of explanation rather than concept; the rulebook needs more examples of how the relationship dice are supposed to work at the table.

All this results in a game that is recognisable as a version of D&D but with a lot of back-and-forth at the table, not in the sense of rules arguments -- hello Pathfinder! -- but more in terms of a series of "what if this happens?" or "how about my character does this?"; this is what makes role-playing games unique and what they should always be about but I think a stricter ruleset can obfuscate things and one can forget to have fun. D&D4 was designed to be robust and fair but 13th Age tells you to buy the biggest d6 you can and slap it down in the middle of the table to use as the Escalation Die and add tension to battles. I know which approach I prefer.

Next: rampant Savagery!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #6

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and Red Box non-AD&D -- although by that time it came in a big black box -- but neither suited me, and in recent years I've played D&D4 and Pathfinder and have had even less success getting on with them. There was always something -- overcomplicated rules, counter-intuitive mechanics, optimisation metagames, THAC0 -- that got in the way and overwhelmed any desire I had to play D&D. Back when D&D was the only, er, game in town players made do or converted it to their  liking but I've lived and played through an era of great choice so the easier option was to give up and play something else.

I was fortunate that my interest in role-playing games was rekindled just as the old-school renaissance began and retroclones started to appear; I may not have the same nostalgic interest in D&D that the pioneers of those two related movements have but they produced and continue to produce a great deal of varied content that is not beholden to a single publisher's interests or vision. There are more versions of D&D around and in print than ever before and as such there's one for everyone.

Well, sort of.

I don't know if I've found my perfect version of D&D but thanks to the proliferation of clones and remixes there are two close contenders, one of which is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I have to confess a little bit of bias in that LotFP has paid my bills on occasion but part of the reason I've produced content for the game is because I like it a lot. It's a variant of [INSERT COLOUR HERE] Box D&D so it has the mechanical simplicity that I have grown to prefer over time, but because it was designed within the past few years it has also eliminated or modified many of the rules and assumptions of D&D that I find weird and archaic. I won't go into too much detail on the rules because you can read them for yourself for free but it is enough to say that they are almost perfect for what I want for an old-school approach to dungeoneering.

The other big draw is the setting implied by the rules. Where D&D has sort of hovered around a romanticised Middle Ages LotFP instead rolls the clock forward to something like the early modern period -- it could have been called Pirates and Puritans -- and is far from romanticised, presenting a game where magic is dangerous and untrustworthy, where elves are burned by holy water, wizards can end the world with a fluffed summoning spell, and mirror image is not the illusion one may expect but instead pulls alternate versions of the spellcaster from other realities for the sole purpose of dying in combat. It is a dark, strange, and nasty reflection of something almost twee in its familiarity and I love it for that.

There is one downside to that implied setting, and to the game as a whole, and it is that the experience system is more or less unchanged from that of Basic D&D -- go into holes in the ground, kill orcs, and take their stuff -- but the game itself seems to want to be Solomon Kane and I'm not sure the two approaches are compatible. It cannot be an insurmountable problem because enough people play LotFP as intended without any trouble but I always struggle with what I perceive to be a clash in tone. The author James Raggi has mentioned in the past that if he were to do another edition he would change the experience system so perhaps it's not just me, although such a change would distance the game even further from its forbears, and if the whole idea is to play a version of D&D that I like then that's a problem and I may as well just play RuneQuest.

Except I like LotFP more than I like RuneQuest. All that griping and philosophical hand wringing aside, I can put up with one small mechanical niggle if I don't think about it or if I compromise by using an abstract levelling system like that of Dragonlance: Fifth Age; it is not enough of a flaw that it tarnishes what is for me a sharp, efficient, and evocative interpretation of Dungeons and Dragons.

Next: to be this good takes Ages.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #7

As if to prove that my top ten is not all nostalgic waffling, my seventh favourite role-playing game ever was published this century, is one that I do not own, and is one that I have played only twice, and that was four years ago.

Twice? Four years ago? What kind of skullduggery is this?

Well, the truth is that if I had played Cold City any more than I have to date it is possible that it would be higher in my list than it is, because the thrill I felt when playing it was much like that I felt when I first played my number one game. It is that good. Or rather, I think it is that good, it just has one near-fatal flaw.

The default setting for the game is Berlin just after the Second World War and the players take the roles of members of a special unit dedicated to rooting out Nazi secrets of a more esoteric sort. It's sort of like B.P.R.D. 1946, except each player-character is torn -- or perhaps not -- between their loyalty to the Reserve Police Agency and their own national government; no two player-characters can represent the same Allied power so competing agendas are in play right from the start.

On top of that each character has a personal goal that can clash with or complement those of their home nation, and a pool of trust points that must be spent on the other player-characters in anticipation of the game to come; in brief, if a player-character you trust helps you during the game you can use those trust points when attempting to complete the task or action, but if they turn on you -- perhaps as a result of competing secret objectives -- those same points can be used against you!

The system is a simple one. Characters are defined by three attributes and a handful of traits and all tests are based on rolling a number of ten-sided dice equal to the relevant attribute, augmented by traits and trust points but reduced by disadvantages or injury. Rolling is reserved for significant events and the success or failure of a roll can affect the character, leading to the development of a new trait; for example a firefight may be resolved in a single opposed roll, with the loser -- if not killed or incapacitated -- gaining "niggling shoulder wound" as a negative trait that would affect relevant rolls from then on.

I could be getting that wrong as it has been four years since I played it and I've never read the rules, but that's more or less how we played it. The point is that the mechanics are simple and get out of the way of the fun stuff, which is juggling all the different, often opposing, objectives while trying to stop some horrible Nazi occult weapon escaping into the Berlin streets, where it is of no benefit to Uncle Sam a danger to civilisation.

The simple addition of both a trust mechanic and reasons for player-characters to distrust each other lifts this great little title above most other investigative horror type games. With that said, why have I not played it more often and why is it not higher in the list? The simple answer -- as Stuart says in one of the summaries linked above -- Cold City doesn't lend itself well to campaign play; given enough time characters can become long lists of special traits that can be applied in some combination to any task and the system falls apart a little as a result. I enjoy the game too much to let it end up like that, so that's why I haven't played it since 2010.

That said, it must be about time for another go.

Next: Dungeons and Dragons' red-headed step-child, but not the one you think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #8

After my tentative and fumbling experiences with Fighting Fantasy I didn't play another role-playing game for about five or six years. Instead there was a bit of a diversion as I contracted discovered the Games Workshop affliction hobby through the mighty HeroQuest then got stuck into Space Marine, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000. One day my friend Tim came to me and said something along the lines of "if you like orcs with guns you'll love this" and he was not wrong.

I fell in love with Shadowrun and it was my group's main game for years before we moved on to something you'll be seeing later in the top ten. The mix of fantasy and cyberpunk rubs a lot of people the wrong way but it never bothered me, perhaps because I was already blending genres with 40K or perhaps because Shadowrun was -- aside from some dodgy early 90's anime -- my introduction to cyberpunk, so I didn't know any better.

It also helps that it is coherent and consistent and that the authors haven't just mashed magic and elves and neon and mirrorshades together without thought. It seems an odd thing to say about a game like Shadowrun but the mix of genres makes a sort of sense; for example, the more metal one puts into one's body -- in the form of cybernetic limbs, and so on -- the more detached from one's own life-force one becomes and since magic is tied in with such forces, the use of magic becomes more difficult, more dangerous, or even impossible. As such, magicians need to be careful about modifying their bodies and even -- here's the consistency again -- about getting shot too many times, because it doesn't matter where the metal comes from or whose choice it was to put it there.

There's something pleasing about this logical approach, even if it seems contradictory in a game about the return of magic to the world. It feels good to know that if an enemy wizard casts a spell, it is possible to trace that spell back to him and -- if he hasn't taken the right precautions -- enact sorcerous vengeance. It means that games of Shadowrun feel like puzzles; it's not about action -- although using a helicopter to take on a dragon is always going to be a laugh -- but about planning and trying to work out what kind of defences the target has, how to deal with them, and how to respond to the inevitable countermeasures. In a sense every adventure is the Tomb of Horrors, except even if you survive some git in a sharp suit is going to double cross you when you get back to base.

That kind of focus isn't for everyone and while emergent narratives can and do happen the bulk of the game will be mission-based, at least at the start of a campaign. That said, the game Tim ran for all those years back in the Britpop era was more or less a sandbox as we roamed Seattle, picking up jobs and putting powerful noses out of joint, until it sort of dwindled away as open-ended games tend to do.

If I were writing this series of posts ten years ago Shadowrun would have a higher position in the top ten and the reason that it doesn't is that as I've aged I've become less tolerant of everything complicated rulesets. The core mechanics are simple and robust -- roll a number of six-siders and for every one that equals or exceeds a target number you get a success, with the more successes rolled the better -- but Shadowrun's scope is so broad and the applications of those core mechanics so varied and situational that it can be overwhelming. It can sometimes feel like a number of individual games -- one for the gunbunny, one for the rat shaman, one for the hacker, and one for the getaway driver -- all using the same rules, sort of like playing all the World of Darkness games at once.

I've played in games like that and they've been great fun but they're also beyond my ability to, er, run these days, and that's one major reason why I haven't played Shadowrun in years. Every so often I think about digging out the second edition rulebook and running a short campaign, or perhaps buying the latest edition and giving it a try, but that complexity always puts me off. All that said, back when Tim was in charge we tended to ignore the hacking and vehicle sub-games anyway; maybe that's all I have to do in order to walk the neon-drenched streets of future Seattle once more.

Next: willkommen nach Berlin.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Happy Birthday, Little Grey Waffle Maker

I had been a Sega man up until the release of the so-called 32-bit -- did any of us know what that meant? -- consoles but then everything changed. Sega followed up the Mega Drive -- we don't talk about the 32X -- with the Saturn and that looked good, but where was the old enemy? Where was Nintendo? It turned out Nintendo was a year or so behind everyone else but into the void -- twenty years ago today -- stepped a new challenger.

Sony was an unknown quantity. My father always bought Sony electronics because he had a strong and strange conviction that one could always trust the quality of Sony gear -- where that came from I don't know, nor do I know why he pronounced it "Sonny" -- but I had no reason to believe that the company would be any good at games. Even so I wasted a lot of time and thought weighing up the relative merits of the PlayStation and Saturn, before coming to a decision based on some dubious criteria.

The first was that I was -- and still am -- an Amiga fan and a lot of the better Amiga developers seemed to move over to the PlayStation; indeed, the mighty Psygnosis got absorbed into the Sony hive collective a couple of years before the console launched. This is not a bad reason to favour a games platform, but the other is somewhat more embarrassing; I thought the black discs looked cool.

When a wealthy relative gave me a silly amount of money for a birthday gift I took it straight down to HMV on Western Road in Brighton and bought a console, some controllers, a multitap, an Atari arcade collection containing the original Gauntlet, and the brilliant Tekken 2. Maybe I should have put the money aside and saved it for something sensible, but I'm glad I didn't; the PlayStation was a great little console and one that brought me and my friends hours of joy, and a few years later begat one of my favourite games machines ever.

And those black discs still look cool.