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Genghis Con 2014 Report

Greetings, readers! Today, I’m going to share a brief report of my time at Genghis Con in Aurora, Colorado this year. I was a gaming guest of honor, and thoroughly enjoyed my trip. Genghis Con is one of my favorite conventions, and it is something I strongly urge any gamer to check out if they can.
Eventually, I need to post a follow-up about just what it is that makes Genghis Con such a fantastic gathering of gamers. Something more to put on my “to-do” list! 
Wednesday Night: I arrived and was picked up by DGA president Bill Stilson and his wife Tammy. Bill and Tammy waited with me for Michael Surbrook to arrive and we talked about all kinds of stuff. Bill and Tammy are wonderful people! Unfortunately, Surbrook’s luggage was lost, but would eventually be mailed to the hotel.
Thursday: Started the day out with a nice surprise–the Red Lion hotel for the convention had greatly improved its restaurant! Breakfast was actually quite good. Followed this up with talking to Robert Dorf and his lovely wife Elizabeth A Dorf, hanging out with Jacob Burgess, and generally enjoying the company of friends!
That afternoon, I got a chance to be part of a Savage Worlds Smiling Jack’s Bar and Grill Podcast with Sean Patrick Fannon and Justin Suzuki, with plenty of other folks (including Michael, Sean Gore, Chris Fuchs, and others).
My evening game was very special–I had been invited to a Rogue Trader RPG game where I was to take on the role of my very own PC/NPC, Sarvus Trask! The GM had thoughtfully included an old character sheet for Trask and his ship, and the adventure was a fine time had by all with a clever twist at the end. An excellent start to the convention!
Friday: In the morning, I ran my Shadows Angelus game for Michael Surbrook and a group of four other gamers (among whom I remember “Mohawk guy” as the most memorable) who had played two years ago. It was awesome to find people following Shadows Angelus from year to year. Mike seemed to particularly enjoy the fun, and we fought demons all morning long. My afternoon game was Dreadnaught, ran by Jacob Burgess. In this game, I played a Texas Ranger dealing with a surprising foe in an alternate post-civil-war encounter with trains fighting other trains. It was a lot of fun, and ended with some surprising character interactions. Playing a Texan while BEING a Texan was actually quite fun as well.
Lars Shear (left), Olivia (center, and our awesome server), Jacob Burgess (right).
Friday night was the first of the two most memorable and exciting games of the convention for me (and possibly one of the best games of all time that I’ve been a part of): Bill Keyes’ The Widening Gyre. This game had an all-star squad of players, from Mike to Ken (forgot last name), Dan (forgot last name), Jake, and another fellow (forgot name entirely). Part of the reason I have trouble remembering the names of the players is that we all submerged entirely into our characters for the night, one of those magical games where we were in total immersion for the setting, cracking some hilarious jokes, and basically enjoying the cream of the crop for everything that is Steampunk. My character invented an electric guitar and heavy metal about two centuries too early, and we fought Ninjas, explored ruins, and rescued folk from dire threats. It was absolutely one of the best gaming experiences I can remember.
Saturday: I ran a game of my setting for Savage Worlds, Accursed in the morning. The game overall went pretty well, although there were some bumps along the way with my handling of the character sheets. I always look critically at my own work and I am certain I could have done this much better–and will, in the future. However, I am reasonably certain everyone had a good time (Robert Dorf was doing very well as the golem priest and Mike Surbrook took the Revenant Witch Hunter like a pro!).
Saturday afternoon provided the second incredibly memorable game of the convention. Robert Dorf ran his Champions of Justice 2014 game where we took on the roles of Luchadors fighting for the honor of the ring. The game was incredibly imaginative and entertaining, ending with one of the most climactic battles ever—a 90-foot tall Vampire doing battle with a 90-foot tall Mega-Lucha!
Saturday evening, I participated in one of Sean Patrick Fannon’s Justice & Life games for his setting, Shaintar. This was my fourth time playing Shaintar, but it was the first playing alongside Sean as a fellow gamer rather than with him as the GM. Sean had turned over the GMing reins that night to Sean Gore instead, and the evening’s adventure was a bunch of rollicking good fun. Sean and I had some fantastic roleplay moments between his priest and my paladin, especially when pondering the unique nature of the two worlds (Shaintar and Accursed) colliding as they had. At the end of the night, I was able to throw in one of the Savage Worlds Adventure cards (Noble Sacrifice) to great effect, essentially saving Sean from sacrificing his priest to close a portal to evil. It was great fun, and I definitely see the appeal of the continuing, living universe built by the Justice and Life concept.
Bill Keyes, with Mike Surbrook on the left.
Sunday: The final day of Genghis Con is always a challenge—all the energy and passion of the last few days tends to catch up to people (and lack of sleep!), and this year was no exception. My morning game was to run a game of Deathwatch (once more featuring Mike Surbrook and the crew of “Mohawk guy”). The game went really well overall, and Mike managed to find a way to broker a nearly impossible compromise between the three bickering Space Marine chapters—something that’s never been done before in over six different runs of that particular scenario. In the afternoon, I played in another of Jake Burgess’ games, this time Fantasy Hero! I got to play a big dumb barbarian who was more than he seemed (and the perfect role for someone as loopy and tired as I was). We ended the con with the (by now traditional) Birthday dinner for Tammy Keyes at Pappadeaux… I had a fantastic steak!
And thus ends another year of Genghis Con. I’m already counting the days until I can go again. I’m extremely grateful to the DGA, the Con Committee, Bill Stilson and Leif and Ed and all the other great folks who run Genghis Con, the Rocky Mountain Savages, Chris Fuchs, Justin Suzuki, and all the gamers and GMs I got to play games with this year.

Roleplaying as Another Gender


Sometimes, it is just like this.
Greetings readers, I’m interested to find out how people feel about this particular blog post, because I consider it to be yet another (somewhat) controversial topic: playing RPG characters of a gender other than your own.
  
I should begin by stating that my personal opinion is that the whole point of roleplaying is to be someone other than yourself, and that can certainly include things like race (such as playing an elf) as well as social class (say, a king or prince) and, naturally, gender as well.
To reiterate: My opinion is that roleplaying a character of another gender from your own is just fine.

Also, just to clarify, I’m talking about a player roleplaying as another gender in a gaming group over a campaign, not the DM and not generally in one-shot games (such as ones found at gaming conventions).
This topic is somewhat controversial because there are many gaming groups out there where playing a character of another gender is discouraged or considered “weird.” 
In my experience, many all-male groups find a male player roleplaying as a female character (aside from the GM) to be taboo. There are many other resources on the internet discussing this topic (such as Sandy Antunes’ article) as well.

My Take

I think it is important to start out this topic by stating that I’ve played several female characters over the years, and many of them are amongst the most memorable characters I’ve ever created. So, keep in mind that I’m speaking from experience as a gamer who enjoys occasionally playing characters of another gender. I’m not going to classify myself as an expert by any means, however!
Our world is going through some interesting changes with how gender is perceived, especially with regards to gender roles, their perception (quite recently and prominently in the gaming space), human sexuality, and people who are transgender. I think now is a good time to continue the conversation about these issues through the lens of our shared hobby.

Why Play Another Gender?

Or people pretending to be girls.
This was not an easy blog post to write. My inner procrastinator actively attempted to discourage me from writing this by offering distraction after distraction, but… ooh, shiny! Seriously though, this is a topic I’ve wanted to cover for some time on Rogue Warden.
As I mentioned above, I think roleplaying as another gender is fine—it’s something I’ve done myself on many occasions. In addition, I think there’s something very rewarding about opening up and seeing things through the eyes of someone completely different from myself. This, of course, ncludes gender, expectations of gender roles, and how that gender is involved with the society of the game’s setting.
Roleplaying as a different gender, in my opinion, helps people understand gender issues like stereotypes, the reactions from people that other genders are exposed to, and the ramifications of a gender-separated society. For example, the Zentraedi race in the Robotech RPG are strictly segregated by gender. The males and females go so far as to have their own separate military formations, command structures, and unique war machines. It can be very interesting to explore some of the social issues that flow from such an usual structure.
To look at it from one perspective, I once wrote up an NPC who was the first woman paladin of a specific knightly order. This situation was interesting to me because of the idea of breaking down the social barriers barring women from fighting, and exploring some of the really unique elements (such as the way Paladins in this setting were focused on facing and defeating supernatural evil) that made this setup different. Another perspective is a legacy character I once designed based on the DC Comics setting, involving the son of Batman and Wonder Woman. The direction I wanted to go involved the boy learning to fight from his mother’s people, the Amazons, who have only very rarely welcomed men onto their secluded island.
Ultimately, roleplaying as a different gender is an experience that I would unhesitatingly recommend to most mature roleplayers. It provides a chance to see things through fresh eyes and can add some unique dynamics to make a particular character or campaign that much more memorable. Before I go on, however, let’s talk a bit about character concepts.

Gender and Character Concepts

I’ve been roleplaying now for over 29 years, and in that time, I’ve played a very large amount of different RPGs. My experience has taught me that I can come up with a character concept for just about any particular setting or campaign. However, I have also learned that, for me, some character concepts inherently possess characteristics that move them towards a particular gender.
Some character concepts make sense as any gender.
For example, many of my character concepts are inherently masculine in my imagination. If I want to play Jack Burton, Jr., (from the film Big Trouble in Little China), I simply can’t imagine the character as anything other than a man. Similarly, I came up with a superhero-in-powered armor vigilante character idea called Technicality that just wouldn’t fit anything other than a woman.
Below is a brief selection of characters that I felt were inherently a feminine concept:

Technicality

As mentioned above, Technicality was one of the darker characters I ever played. She was featured in my good friend Grady Elliot’s campaign, Vendetta Rhapsody. You can find her character sheet here.

Monolith

Featured in Digital Hero, this character was originally built for the old Marvel Super Heroes game by TSR. I especially enjoyed the playing-against-type bit in our high school game where she was one of the better football players in her school.

Ramien Meltides

One of my favorite tropes is the young innocent thrust into a world of adventure, and my first character to really take advantage of this was Ramien. She was a farmgirl fresh from the orchards of her homeland when she was plunged into a grand quest.

Miss Junior Olympia

A pastiche of Mary Marvel, this character was actually created by my good friend Robert Dorf for his Young Titans game, but I quickly adopted her. I love the idea of a “Mary Marvel”-esque character, especially with Robert’s particular twist that, in his campaign, each of the young heroes has a particular mentor. Miss Junior Olympia is being trained by Ithicles, a great hero who occasionally gets his ward into trouble.

Shadows Angelus

Now, this example is from the standpoint of a GM rather than a player. I ran two campaigns set in Shadows Angelus, both times with an all-male group of players. In the second game, I ended up with 4 female characters and 2 male characters. This made for an interesting dynamic that we nicknamed “Charlie’s Angels.” Having a group with the majority as female characters made for some very intriguing situations (especially when the characters were off-duty).

Fun Uber Alles

For me, roleplaying games are all about having fun above all. So, while I am an advocate for trying out roleplaying as another gender, and while for me personally, having something like that in a game is never a dealbreaker, I’d recommend testing the waters out with your group (i.e., talk it over!) before jumping in with both feet. I believe that (in general) having fun is optimized when everyone feels safe and comfortable! This next section of the post talks about the best practices (in my experience) that people should keep in mind when roleplaying as another gender.

For the Player

Maturity

This should go without saying, but I am a big believer in getting everything out in the open up front as much as possible: you should be a mature roleplayer to roleplay a gender other than your own. Portraying another gender in an immature or inappropriate manner makes everyone sad. It makes you sad, because doing this is tantamount to admitting idiocy. It also makes everyone else sad, because most gamers don’t show up to the table to see crude portrayals of other genders (especially with stereotypical or exaggerated social tropes).

Even classic characters take on new dimensions when in another gender.
This is not to say that you should never, ever roleplay as a character that exemplifies a stereotype—it can be done, and it can be done well. Even then, however, I would only entrust such a portrayal to a mature roleplayer.

Consistency

Roleplaying any character consistently is a vital element to making the other folks at the table understand what your character is about. I would say that consistency is even more important when you are roleplaying as another gender.

Separation from Reality

Roleplaying as another gender can be awkward, especially if other gamers around the table are focusing on the player’s appearance and mannerisms rather than his or her character’s. One possible solution for this is a tactic that helps separate the two.
One thing that has worked well for me is to have a picture of my character at the table, either printed out or present on an ipad or tablet. Putting this image up so that it is visible during roleplaying scenes can make it easier for other players to imagine interacting with your character rather than the player.
This separation works especially well over the internet. When I was playing on MUXes back in the day, the medium of pure text made the player’s real-life gender more or less irrelevant.

For the GM

Romance and Sex

In a character-driven campaign, it is not unlikely for characters to get into meaningful relationships—either with each other or prominent NPCs in the game setting. This can include situations such as romance and sex, both of which should be treated with respect when you are roleplaying as someone of the opposite gender. Gamemasters often roleplay as males and females of various races during the course of a campaign, and thus, GMs are the kinds of roleplayers who are generally most experienced at accurately and respectfully portraying someone of another gender from their own. Now, the subject of romance and sex in games is a large one—far too big for a single post to cover comprehensively—so all I will say here is that the GM should carefully consider how he approaches these issues in a campaign when the players are roleplaying as another gender. This consideration is just to ensure that (again) everyone feels comfortable during the game and that the most fun is had by all.

In Closing

Here are some interesting links discussing the concept of a man roleplaying as a woman and vice versa. I won’t say I agree with everything in these threads, but I think there’s some very interesting and thought-provoking material there for those who want to know more.

Interview Time: Mack Martin

The man himself.

Greetings, readers! I’m very pleased to present an interview with a good friend and colleague of mine, Mack Martin. I first met Mack when he spoke to me about working in the gaming industry and his podcast (which at the time was Dice Like Thunder) at a convention called Adepticon in Chicago, Illinois. When the time came that there was an opening in the RPG department at Fantasy Flight Games, I unhesitatingly recommended Mack for the job. Mack and I got to work together for a couple of years at FFG and it was excellent to collaborate with him, because he’s very creative and he has a very agile mind when it comes to game design.

Mack is now the head RPG guru and miniature design czar at Wyrd Games, having developed some great games like Evil Baby Orphanage and, more recently, Malifaux 2.0. Mack joins us here on Rogue Warden to answer some of my questions about his experiences in the industry.
As always, my questions are in red text:
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
MM: Like many game designers I’ve been playing games for a very long time. I was raised (more or less) by my Grandmother, and she tried desperately to stop me from playing D&D and MTG when I was in high school. It didn’t work to well, and now she and I have a pretty good laugh about it.
My true loves are RPGs and Miniatures games. I like games where the two collide a lot. I think that’s pretty evident in my appreciation for both Pathfinder and D&D 4th. I’ve been playing miniatures games for years, and I’ve enjoyed the Warhammer 40k tournament scene a lot in the past. 
Unfortunately, I have bad luck playing in RPG’s.
I call it the 5 level curse. I only get to play about 5 levels worth of an RPG before something happens. Sometimes terrible things (shudder). I occasionally wonder if this has skewed my view of RPGs. If it has, I can only hope that it gives the RPG’s I design a unique feel and that it isn’t readily apparent in my design philosophy.
To date I’ve worked on the following properties: Warhammer 40k Roleplay, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Dust Warfare, Dust Tactics, Malifaux, Through the Breach, & Evil Baby Orphanage. I’ve also worked on a few projects that didn’t see market, and I’m currently working on a hard sci-fi miniatures wargame, but that’s still in early development.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
MM: Ross actually gave me my start in the industry during his tenure as the lead RPG developer at FFG. I had been podcasting and making my own homebrew supplements for a while, and I had a degree in Game Design, but I was looking for work, and Ross and the gang at FFG chose me to come on board as a producer.
Mack designed this game within weeks of starting at Wyrd.
A lot of people ask me how to get into the industry, and the answer is simple. Just start doing it. I was putting free PDF’s up online, and it gave me a portfolio of tested material that I believe made it possible for me to get my foot in the door. I only knew Ross from the two interviews he’d done with my podcast, we weren’t friends at the time, I had to prove that I could wrangle testing and produce a decent final product. There are companies (like FFG) who are willing to give a new guy a shot, if he can show he is willing to learn the skill. Start writing and applying!
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
MM: I wake up every morning excited to go to work. Sick days are a real punishment to me. I often just end up working while lounging in bed. There is just nothing like the joy of seeing a product you made on the shelf at the local game store.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
MM: For the most part the industry is great, and its fans are the best. I don’t say that to pander to the audience, but to counter balance this next point. Some people are cray-cray! I’ve had guys follow me into the bathroom, make up wild stories and accusations about me, and even try to bargain uh… services for information on future releases. It can get pretty insane.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
MM: Honestly, it’s been pretty much what I expected. I used to think there was a lot more money that went into producing products. Before I started working in the industry I used to have much stronger opinions. Now I have a much broader view. I know that I’m not the only kind of gamer out there, and just because a game doesn’t appeal to me personally, that doesn’t make it a bad game. I would say I’m a lot mellower now, and I look back on what I used to think and it’s kind of embarrassing sometimes. I owe Jervis Johnson a serious apology!
RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?
MM: I’m a bit more “shoot from the hip” now. I used to work very hard to keep a tight schedule so that everything would fit into a standard eight hour day and get done. Now I just accept that sometimes I need to put in a twelve hour day, but sometimes I have a more relaxing schedule. I’ve become much more accepting of crunch time vs. creative time.
I also tend to target certain areas of a game much more aggressively and add extra effort to them. My current project, for instance, sees me giving some real in depth thought to Line of Sight systems, and I think I’ve finally found a way to make an abstract LoS system run smoothly without having pages of explanation.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
MM: Staying calm and communicating. This is a tricky one, because a game company is habitually under staff. As long as both parties keep communicating, and have respect for each other, I think everything goes well. This is beyond the bare-minimums in my mind, like paying for work and getting work completed within quality standards and deadlines. I mean the day to day, the building of a game communication.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
MM: This is going to get me in trouble… but the pricing system. Games right now aren’t profitable enough to really put a lot of budget behind a project. Luckily, Kickstarter is helping to alleviate that problem, and I’m hoping to see some insane innovations or even just some fresh minds coming to the table.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
MM: Frequently, if I can. It keeps me wanting to produce games, and it keeps me on task to make them better and better. I’m a classical example of an extrovert, chatting about my job with people who are enthusiastic about it really gets me charged up.
When I can, I even like to disassociate my authorship a bit, and give the fans a turn to guide the boat, usually through big events. In my current project, I’m trying to build it with that design philosophy from the grounds up. I want fans to be able to look at major events in the universe and say “I was there when that event happened. I helped secure the western flank.”
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
MM: That’s a tough one to answer. I’m going to go with the way Through the Breach interacts with the Malifaux skirmish game. I’m really happy that the two can interact so well together. Although if you ask me again tomorrow (or in an hour) I might have another answer!
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
MM: I think the toughest thing I have had to do (and I don’t know if this counts) was handing over the reins of the Only War RPG so that I could helm Dust Warfare. It would have been much harder if I hadn’t been giving it to Andy Fischer, who is brilliant in his own right. I was very excited about the project, and it was a tough hand off for me.
Honestly it was probably tougher for Andy, since I had a lot of balls in the air at that point, and it caused him more frustration than it caused me, I’m sure!
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
MM: I just lean into it a bit. I try to prepare a toolbox of well-designed and clearly written rules. I accept that every table is different, and that every GM is unique. Hopefully I make my mechanics transparent enough that the GM can adjust on the fly to his own personal tastes, and that the system is elastic enough to take that pressure.
RW: If you were a space explorer, you’d be a…?
MM: I’d hope for Ethan Hawke. If you don’t get that joke look it up on IMDB! Honestly though, I’d be excited. Deep space imaging is starting to come back with some fascinating stuff and I just wish I could get out there and see it.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
MM: I feel bad choosing a favorite. I’m going to go with Pathfinder right now, however. Why? Cus I finally hit level 6… so that means I might break the curse if we play one more session.
I’m going to cheat though and give two answers. My favorite to play is Pathfinder, but my favorite to GM is Shadowrun.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
MM: Red flags are the usual stuff, like trying to rebuild something the writer doesn’t like in the world. Just a sense of “you need me to fix this.” What I really look for though, the thing I want to see, is a sense of the world. Being able to expand on a universe in an interesting way is tricky. I like to see people who have a different view on the world than I do.
A good example with Malifaux, for instance, is that I love the society. I like to consider what it would be like to live in in that world. I don’t, however, have a flare for the unique thought patters of the Neverborn and Gremlins. If we removed those two factions from Malifaux, the stories that I love the most would barely change. But, they are an awesome part of the world, and they deserve someone who really groks them. I can write fun stories about the two groups, but I feel I look for people who have a unique take on them, or people who just have a very obvious love.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
MM: Pathfinder. I’m assuming I can’t name my own game… so Pathfinder.
RW: Tell us a bit about your experience in the miniature games industry!
MM: This one is a bit shorter, since I’ve only worked on two RPG’s that saw print. Dust Warfare was a huge learning experience. What I learned, however, was to trust myself. It’s hard to have the arrogance to stick to your guns sometimes. It turns out, however, that I actually understand the underlying math of a miniatures game very well, and that I can make that math into a fun game. I can focus on a competitively tuning a game, and that actually ends up with a better product for casual gaming as well.
M2E was an exercise in putting that knowledge to practice. I wasn’t alone on that project either, and it was just a lot of fun. I enjoyed it completely.
I also worked on a project (between those two) that never saw print. It was a pretty big deal, however, and I got to work pretty closely with Alessio Cavatore. He’s a fantastic guy and I wish I could game with him every week!
Now I’m working on my new miniatures game. I’m putting all these lessons to the test again. It’s still in very early development, but I get to design everything from the ground up, and more or less with a free hand to do so. If this doesn’t work, I’ve nobody to blame but myself… which is scary!
Mack checks out the design of Dust Warfare.

RW: What is special about your approach to miniature gaming?
MM: I think I take less as written in stone than others. I prefer less randomization, more player control of events, and more rigid timing structures.
For instance, in my current project, the game doesn’t end in a set number of turns. Instead the game ends at a certain score. This still leads to a game of about the same length, but it keeps the strategy more fluid. It isn’t about killing for a few turns then moving in for the objective.  You have to pace yourself differently.
RW: What is your process for working through a system design in an RPG or a miniature game?
MM: While the two are very different, the most important similarity in my approach is that I do it from a player experience view. I worry a lot about how players will interact with the game from start to finish. In an RPG this would be about giving players as many options for their character as possible. In a miniatures game, however, I want players to feel like every unit they choose has a purpose and is able to achieve that goal.
I want players to choose the toys they like and then learn how to use them correctly in interesting ways. The last thing I want is for a player to fall in love with a model or character class and then discover that it just can’t keep up.

2013 Rogue Warden Retrospective


Greetings, readers! It’s the end of 2013 and I wanted to take a moment to look back at this year. It’s traditional in December to contemplate one’s accomplishments and setbacks, and that’s where I wanted to go with this post.

In general, 2013 was a pretty good year here at Rogue Warden. I got to design some games, write some fiction, go to some great conventions, and even flew to another country. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that I didn’t quite live up to some of my own goals—I didn’t get any novels written, I didn’t manage to get enough Rogue Warden going, and it wasn’t my most productive year  for game writing.

This year in: Blogs!

 

I posted 43 entries this year, just 9 shy of one per week. That’s a big improvement over last year, and I’m closing in on my goal of one post per week. However, I’m beginning to believe (and accept) that one post per week probably isn’t going to happen given my schedule and responsibilities to things that, you know, actually pay the rent.
I think Rogue Warden did real good this year: I reviewed 4 game systems (including a big one of all the editions of Champions), showcased 12 interviews, and I even got a nomination for Best Blog in the Ennie awards!
What I’m looking forward to in 2014 is to do some more reviews of my favorite supplements, interviewing more luminaries of the gaming industry, and hopefully posting some more of my thoughts on elements of game design.

This year in: Podcasts!

This year I got a chance to act as co-host for a gaming podcast, something I’ve been interested in doing for some time. I loved being a guest on the D6Generation and several other podcasts, so when Darryl Mott approached me to host the Gamer’s Tavern with him, I signed up fast!
Since we started, we’ve released 12 episodes and we’ve got plenty more in the works. The Gamer’s Tavern has had a great start and I’m looking forward to doing more shows covering different aspects of my favorite hobby.

This year in: Game Design!

One thing I really enjoy are miniature games, from Battlefleet Gothic to Battletech. This year, I got a chance to design a skirmish-level miniature game for Catalyst Game Labs called Shadowrun: Sprawl Gangers. I had a ton of fun designing this game and I can’t wait to see how the models turn out.
Possibly the biggest thing I did this year is that I got together with my good friends John Dunn and Jason Marker to design and develop a dark fantasy setting for Savage Worlds called Accursed. This was my love letter to Hellboy and Solomon Kane via Ravenloft, and we launched a kickstarter for this in September. The kickstarter was a big success and I’m extremely pleased to report that the book is done and on sale now at DriveThruRPG. It was a hell of a challenge, and I wanted to find out if I could successfully get a game book made without a huge license or a big RPG company behind me. The answer is: yes I can! My roles on this project were many and varied, from layout to art direction to fiction editing to overall game development.

This year in: Game Writing!

There’s quite a few projects I just can’t talk about yet in this category, so I’ll stick the ones that are released or announced.
First, there’s the Fatemaster’s Almanac for the Through the Breach RPG. I got to lay it out, write a big chunk of it, and even did some development. I’m excited to see these books come out and it’s a very cool game universe to write for.
My long-running association with Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay continued in 2013, as I was able to write some really fun portions of books for Only War: Enemies of the Imperium, Hammer of the Emperor, and Shield of Humanity. I love writing for 40K, and I hope that these two books aren’t my final entries for the line.

This year in: Conventions!

One of my favorite things about the gaming industry is gaming conventions. I love going to conventions, running games at conventions, doing seminars at conventions, and, well… pretty much everything. 2013 was a good year for me and conventions. I got to attend Genghis Con in Aurora, Colorado as a guest of honor. Genghis con, in case you’re not aware, is simply one of the best gaming conventions (for people who love playing games) period. Genghis Con consistently offers high-quality RPG games, packing in three four-hour sessions per day for a total of 9 over the weekend. That’s 9 great games. You’re nearly guaranteed to have a great time, which in my book is a no-brainer. If you live anywhere near Colorado and love gaming, GO TO THIS CON.
I’m honored to attend Genghis Con in 2014 as a guest again, and it’s fair to say I am looking forward to it with incredible anticipation.
Of course, there’s also the superbowl of the RPG industry: Gen Con.
This year, I attended Gen Con in Indianapolis! It is always fun to head to Gen Con, and this year was extra-special. John Dunn, Jason Marker and myself chaired three seminars on getting into the gaming industry, professionalism in gaming, and working with a licensed product. We also debuted the first preview of Accursed, and got some excellent advice and guidance from folks like Shane Hensley.
By far the most interesting and unusual convention that I attended this year was Tracon in Tampere, Finland. I was very pleased to be the gaming guest of honor at this convention (and you can read my full report about it here). Finland was amazing, the convention was amazing, and I encourage anyone who has a chance to go to Finland to visit. I personally can’t wait to go back.

This year in: Fiction!

I wrote two short stories this year, which is better than 2012’s big fat zero. This is the one area where I feel most disappointed in myself—I consider it a personal setback that I didn’t get more fiction written this year, as that was one of my big goals back in January.
I wrote one short story for the Sprawl Gangers game and another for the Deadzone universe by Mantic Games, and I’m quite pleased with both. Here’s hoping I can build on this momentum in 2014.

In Closing

I want to say thank you very much to all my readers and supporters for Rogue Warden. This blog has been a great way for me to talk about the things that I find most interesting and unique about this hobby we all love, and I deeply appreciate all the support and kind words of my readers. I look forward to seeing great feedback from you about the blog in 2014!

My Top 10 Favorite RPG Systems


Greetings, readers! At the closing of the year for 2013, I think it’s a good time to talk about some of my favorite RPGs of all time. I can’t really say much more than that—I like top 10 lists, the end of the year seems like a good time for that, and I feel like talking about some RPGs that I have enjoyed the most.
There are some things I should go over when talking about this list—these are the RPGs that I remember having a ton of fun with and are judged solely on my own experiences. I’m also grading these games primarily because of their system and gameplay, nothing else. This means I’m not taking into consideration things like setting, artwork, or even writing quality—just the pure “fun factor” of the game’s mechanics through my own subjective lens. 
My standard disclaimer applies, your mileage may vary, and not everyone is going to have the same experiences with each game. Also, the games below are not ranked according to overall quality. Instead, I will rank them based on the number of campaigns I’ve participated in over the years, so the top numbers on the list are going to be older games that I played a lot in my early years.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get this show on the road!

My Personal Top 10 Favorite RPG Systems

#10: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition

Why I like This Game: For me, WFRP has two things that set it apart from other games and make me really enjoy playing it: griminess and randomness. I’ll explain. WFRP is grimy—it’s a world where the heroes (the player characters) start on the very bottom rung as rat catchers and agitators who may, if they’re lucky, someday dream of being something like a pit fighter! On top of that, the setting is also grimy—it’s a low-fantasy world where corruption, greed, and many other vices are front and center while “saving the world” is something that rarely, if ever, gets any focus. And, lest you get the wrong idea here, these things are all great.
Also, WFRP is very, very, very random. Sometimes, random is a lot of fun, and I’ve been blessed to have several groups of friends who enjoy this aspect of gaming play WFRP with me. What do I mean by random? Well, almost everything is random in WFRP. Your race, your career, even quirks of your own appearance all have their own chart that you roll on. WFRP is one of the first games (other than classic Traveller) that I ever played where I had little control over my character’s creation. It was oddly freeing, and I really enjoyed the challenge of it.

#9: TORG

Why I like This Game: I’ve reviewed TORG before on this blog, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. I love the interesting mechanics of the Drama Deck, the interesting premise, and above all—the pulp-y superhero awesomeness of the Nile Empire (which includes special mechanics just for that region and characters from that reality!).

#8: Savage Worlds

Why I like This Game: This particular RPG is on my mind a lot lately, thanks to being the core system for my own, recently-published setting Accursed. There are two things that I think are great about Savage Worlds: the Fast, Furious, Fun approach and the immense amount of support material. The Fast, Furious, Fun approach means that Savage Worlds is one of those games where the mechanics are designed to “get the job done and get out of the way,” prioritizing an enjoyable experience and minimal-effort preparation. My experience with Savage Worlds games means that they don’t bog down and the game allows for—and even encourages—thinking outside the box, roleplaying in-character, and memorable moments… which are all things I enjoy the most about RPGs.
In addition, of course, Savage Worlds has a huge lineup of settings to use with the game, from interesting superhero settings like Necessary Evil to the venerable and awesome zombie-cowboy goodness of Deadlands.

#7: Star Wars D6

Why I like This Game: Star Wars has found its way into several different RPGs over the years, but my favorite iteration has to be West End’s D6 Star Wars designed by Greg Costikyan. While this system has its flaws, the fun flow of force points and the very broad skill categories allow for a really iconic Star Wars experience. It helps that this system was designed in an era when the original trilogy was all we had to go on, so it feels very Rebellion-Era to me… which is my favorite part of Star Wars! The gameplay of this particular system of Star Wars always struck me as a very fun version of “a bunch of guys in a ship,” similar to (but, for me, more fun than) Traveller. Flexible and fun, I also very much enjoyed the starship combat rules.

#6: Rifts/TMNT/Robotech

Why I like These Games: I’m lumping a bunch of games with very similar systems into one for this blog post. On a fundamental level, they’re all basically the same system with a few tweaks—I enjoy playing them mostly for nostalgia factor. I played the hell out of these games in my youth, and I remember enjoying several different games using these books. I don’t think they would hold the same magic for me now, especially due to the way my tastes in RPGs have matured, but I have to say there are still some things that these games do right—offering a very deep player character creation system and some interesting approaches to combat and martial arts. In the end, these games earn a spot on the list more for the memories than for the realities, but they did leave me with some /great/ memories.

#5: Marvel Super Heroes

Why I like This Game: This was probably my first exposure to a really “rules-lite” RPG. I’ve covered it before on this blog, so this will be another short section. The FASERIP system is remarkably simple and yet remarkably complete for a superhero RPG. I have my issues with a few small parts of the design (such as skills), but the overall implementation of the RPG rules make for a very coherent take on the superhero genre. I played a ton of games of this in high school!

#4: Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay

 
Why I like This Game:  Anyone who knows me well probably saw this one coming from a mile away—and it’s important that I point out three things up front. First, Warhammer 40,000 roleplay is very heavily based on the WFRP engine, so mechanically, it’s very similar. Second, I didn’t create this system—that would be Kate Flack, Owen Barnes, and Mike Mason in the original Dark Heresy. Third, I did work on this system for many years at Fantasy Flight Games. So, having said all of that—I love Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. The system has a lot of quirks, but at its heart, it’s quite flexible (having been built on the foundation of WFRP) and has been used to do everything from man-on-the-street investigation to legendary heroic action on the battlefield. It’s been a lot of fun putting my mark on this game system and I’m very proud of all that it has become.

#3: Shadowrun

Why I like This Game: Most of my experience with this game flows from 3rd and 4th edition, although I’ve been a player and a fan since the very beginning. Shadowrun’s best when it is using its game system to provide a deep, immersive take on a cyberpunk future with magic and monsters. I love the character options, I love the sheer crazy amount of spells and guns and adept powers you can choose from. I love that it is not a class and level based game but allows you to build to an archetype. I love that it has a strong adventuring paradigm. I played the hell out of this game in the 90’s up to the present day (through 4th edition), and I will always look at it fondly.

#2: Champions

Why I like This Game: It should be no surprise to long-time readers of the Rogue Warden that I love Champions—I mean that I have a deep, abiding, heartfelt love of this game. And it’s fair to say that the real heart and soul of Champions is the system. Champions lets you build exactly the character you want, by spending points to build each power or ability by selecting advantages, disadvantages, power levels and limits. It’s a tinkerer’s dream and it solidly placed my feet on the path towards game design early in my gaming life.

#1: Dungeons & Dragons

Why I like These Games: This game is the grand-daddy of ‘em all. The first RPG I ever played and the gateway to a hundred more, Dungeons and Dragons captured my young imagination like nothing else. I learned a ton about games, gaming, game design, social interaction, and even some things about myself through playing Dungeons and Dragons over the years. I’ve gained some amazing lifelong friends through this game. The systems are quite different from the beginning white box set through to the new Next, so most of my memories come from 2nd and 3rd edition (+3.5) where I played the vast majority of my games of D&D. This is also where I got my start as a game designer as well (during the d20 boom). There’s not much more I can say except that there are certain mechanics and gameplay elements that I have firmly lodged in my brain as being “Dungeons and Dragons” and they will always be there.

Champions System Review Part 4: 6th Edition


Greetings, readers, and welcome to the final installment of my review of the Hero System. This particular entry in the series focuses on the sixth edition of Champions, released originally in 2010. 
My review of this edition is going to be relatively short and sweet—the newness of this system and the fact that it is difficult for me to find an ongoing Champions campaign means that I haven’t played very much of this edition. Most of my experience comes from running and playing in one-shot adventures at conventions (such as the amazingly fun Genghis Con in Denver, Colorado).

A Grand Adventure

One of the biggest factors involved with sixth edition that simply must be addressed up front is the fact that the video game studio Cryptic purchased the Champions IP to use in their MMO, Champions Online. This purchase provided a huge money infusion into Hero Games, and paved the way for a major improvement in the overall look and feel of the game in this edition. First of all, the artwork received a much-needed upgrade; nearly everything is in color, and all the art appears to have had a huge jump in overall quality. Secondly, the production values in general for the line (including logos, trade dress, etc.) all improved as well.

Making, or Breaking, the Rules

Sixth edition changed more than just appearances. Steve Long conducted an online poll of Hero gamers to find out what most people wanted to change about the new edition, and took that into consideration when redesigning the ruleset. Sixth edition is a much more refined ruleset than, say, the difference between 4th and 5th editions, and several rules that remained unchanged for decades were altered in profound ways. Figured characteristics were removed, the points costs of other characteristics modified, and a character’s combat value was separated out as a distinct characteristic and not just part of Dexterity. Comeliness as a characteristic was removed, replaced by a “striking appearance” Talent. There are other changes, but the ones listed above are the ones I found most memorable.
Personally, I am a big fan of Sixth edition’s ruleset. I love that Strength has no figured characteristics, because in previous editions of the game, Strength was basically king (leading to a description of Champions by many gamers as “Champions Loves Bricks!”). This separation means that Strength could now be a part of my character power builds, as something that made mechanical sense. I also appreciate the removal of Comeliness, since “Striking Appearance” does everything meaningful you wanted for looking particularly bad or good. In general, I definitely feel that Sixth edition is my personal favorite ruleset of all the editions.
All of these improvements to the rules did come with one drawback–the already-intimidating size of the rulebooks for 4th and 5th edition pale in comparison to the size of the rules for 6th. In fact, the rulebooks were broken up into three separate volumes!

Critical Hits

I love making characters for Sixth edition. I love the way that the new powers work (such as Damage Negation, which is flat-out the best way to represent a “bulletproof” superhero I’ve seen so far in the system). I love the vibrancy that seems to fill the line in the wake of its predecessor, and I love the way that Sixth edition gains quite a bit from the connection to the Champions MMO (particularly in terms of artwork!).
Adding in more contributions to the line from respected authors like Mike Surbrook, Derek Hiemforth, and others has also helped the line feel more distinct and have a different voice from its predecessor. The addition of Champions Complete to the lineup feels like an excellent move to try and get more gamers interested in the system. I’m pleased by the books that focus on the big threats like Mechanon—these are welcome additions to the line. I’d also like to single out the Ultimate Base as being a book worthy of high praise, with a ton of interesting ideas for setting up your superhero group’s headquarters.

Critical Misses

There’s not a lot to dislike in Sixth edition, so all I will say here is that I found the villains books a bit lackluster, but then, my yardstick will always be 4th edition’s Classic Enemies, which is a hard act to follow!

Featured Creators

Mike Surbrook: Mike was tapped to write quite a bit for this addition, adding in his contributions to the Hero System Bestiary and receiving cover credit for the Hero System Martial Arts book. Mike continues to add a lot of value to the Champions line (and make sure to check out Kazei 5 as well, below).
Scott Heine: For more about Scott, see my 4th edition Champions review. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see Scott contributing more material for Hero.
Steven Long: For more about Steve, see my 5th edition Champions review. Steve continues to be the main writer for Sixth edition, producing so much content I am certain that Steve is in fact a golem built by a wizard who wanted more Hero products.

Third Party Material

Sixth edition is blessed with quite a bit of excellent third party material. Especially noteworthy are the pulp adventure The Day After Ragnarok by Kenneth Hite, featuring an alternate WWII involving a mind-bogglingly huge jormungandr serpent, and Kazei 5.
A Note From the Editor. I need to make a correction from something I pointed out in my 5th edition review—Mike Surbrook’s Kazei 5 was actually printed for sixth edition, not fifth, this making this excellent addition for the Champions game part of this section of the review.

Blackwyrm Publishing created a ton of settings for this edition as well, including Bill Keyes’ The Widening Gyre, Grady Elliot’s Terracide, Ryan Wolfe’s Lux Aeternum, and Patrick Sweeney’s The Fires of Heaven.

What the Future Holds

The Sixth Edition of the Hero System is off to a strong start, with over 30 products on the shelf and a robust set of supplements. However, the publisher—Hero Games—is essentially on life support since sharply reducing production and staff in 2011. This is not to say that the game is dead or dying; Champions Complete came out this year, further products are planned, and Darren Watts is putting his characteristic energy and passion into the Champions Live Action LARP project.
I hope you’ll join me in hoping for more and better things for Champions in the future, wishing all of the creators well, and keeping an eye on further developments for the Hero System.

Top 10 XBOX 360 Games: A retrospective


Greetings, readers!
My apologies for being rather quiet in November—I had a lot going on with getting the Accursed RPG setting wrapped up and ready to send out to the backers, plus I moved, plus I had some other writing things I had to do in the meantime.
I definitely want to take a moment and point folks towards the Gamer’s Tavern podcast. My co-host Darryl and I have had quite a few interesting guests and topics on the show, and there’s a lot of things we mention on the podcast that have to do with things I’ve talked about here on Rogue Warden.
With all of that out of the way, this week’s post is going to be one of my favorite bits: a top 10 list!
Now that the new generation of consoles are out on the market, it’s a good time to take a look back at my library of games for the XBOX 360 and pick out the ones that I felt were the best.
As a top 10 list, I’ll start with the bottom and go to the top—although all of these games are amongst my favorites, you gotta start somewhere.
Here’s my top 10 list of games for the XBOX 360. Keep in mind that this is my personal list, based on my own experiences, so your mileage may vary.

#10: Farcry 3

Critical Hit: This game impressed me, and I’m not easy to impress with first-person shooters. The gameplay was fun and inventive, and I adore the stealth-action style that this game fosters—particularly with the outpost assaults. I had been a big fan of the original Farcry, and felt very disappointed in Farcry 2, so this installment was the last chance for the franchise to reel me back in. It’s fair to say that it succeeded!
 
The story was interesting and the characters were fun, especially one of the villains—Vaas and his monologue on madness is just sublime.
Critical Miss: I wish this game had a way to re-play the outpost assaults, as they were easily one of the most fun things to do, but you could only do them once. Re-play value would have been higher if I could go back to the earlier outposts and try out some of my more advanced abilities. I wanted more skills and more depth for growing my character, because I felt like I peaked too early during the campaign. Hunting was fun, but soon lost its luster.
Bonus Round: This game had a stand-alone DLC named “Blood Dragon” that is completely awesome. It re-skins the entire game as a cheesy 80’s cyberpunk sci-fi VHS action movie, and it is fantastic. Neon dinosaurs, cyber-hearts, and Michael Biehn as the main character mean that this DLC on its own nearly made the list.
Gaming Connection: Farcry 3 has an interesting “heroes’ journey” that makes you question just whether you’ve become a hero in the end or just another psychopath on the island. You can definitely feel your character “levelling up” over time.

#9: Saint’s Row the Third

Critical Hit: I have a thing for open world games, particularly ones where I can drive fast cars, shoot people, and do crazy stuff. Saint’s Row the Third satisfied those urges in spades. While I believe that Saint’s Row 2 had a stronger overall narrative experience, Saint’s Row the Third had extremely memorable characters and pulled off its own unique completely over-the-top style in a superb manner. If anyone ever wants to see an extreme example of “pink Mohawk” Shadowrun-style action, Saint’s Row the Third has got you covered.
 
Critical Miss: Although the characters were memorable, the story was a bit disappointing coming off of Saint’s Row 2—but I don’t see how it could have been otherwise given the major shift in the game’s overall tone and approach. Some of the missions to unlock areas of the game were less than stellar, but overall I just can’t find a lot to complain about!
Bonus Round: Saints Row 2 is also part of the XBOX 360 generation, and it is a fantastic game in its own right, particularly in its approach to the story. Make sure to check out the awesome voice acting by Michael Dorn!
Gaming Connection: Over the top action has never felt so good. If I were running a game of Feng Shui, I would definitely have some crib notes based on some of the action scenes in this game.

#8: Sleeping Dogs

Critical Hit: As I just said for #9, I enjoy open world games, and Sleeping Dogs adds in the exotic world of Hong Kong into the mix. I loved the racing mini-games (where I normally don’t in other games), and I really liked the innovative combat system that really let me feel like a martial artist who can take on ten guys at once and win. Fantastic voice acting, particularly from James Hong and Kelly Hu.
Critical Miss: The soundtrack was a little tough to love, most likely due to the nature of it being all Hong Kong music… I would have loved a wider selection of music to drive with. Only a few of the characters were really memorable, alas.
Gaming Connection: Much like Saint’s Row the Third, Sleeping Dogs has a lot about it that works great for Feng Shui. Any game set in Hong Kong gains a lot from playing this as well! Lastly, Sleeping Dogs has an excellent narrative for organized crime, the police, and undercover operations—if your game has any of these as a focus, Sleeping Dogs is going to be a great inspiration.
Bonus Round: There’s a DLC that involves hungry ghosts, hopping vampires, and tons of great Asian mythology!

#7: Dragon Age: Origins

Critical Hit: The first Dragon Age game was a bright star in the constellation of console RPGs. Bioware provided some excellent characters, an amazing story, and a particularly interesting take on “dark fantasy” that hadn’t really been seen before. One thing that took my breath away with this game were the difficult choices and moral quandaries that you were presented with—it felt like Dragon Age was intentionally going for a game where you had to agonize over some of the outcomes. In the end, all this effort led to an excellent payoff.
Critical Miss: With only three classes, there wasn’t really a lot of differentiation between characters, and the party AI wasn’t much to write home about. However, aside from that, there’s really not much I can point to as disappointments!
Gaming Connection: Of course, Dragon Age has its very own RPG published by Green Ronin… but there are tons of characters, quests, items and stories that are very applicable to just about any fantasy RPG as well.

#6: Skyrim

Critical Hit: It’s difficult to describe just how amazing Skyrim is if you haven’t played it. The stunning visuals display a very interesting and unusual fantasy world—this is what I wanted to see when I imagined the Rjurik Highlands from Birthright. Just looking around and finding something else interesting over the next ridge was fun, and when you found a pair of giants sitting around an enormous fire with their mammoths… well, that was a very memorable moment. Skyrim was a game that I had to call other people into the room to show them how beautiful it all was. I loved the quests, the story, and the world that Skyrim immersed me in. The music and soundtrack are also amazing!

Critical Miss: There are a few bugs in the game and odd quirks (such some repetitive dialogue and the amazingly funny bit where if you kill one chicken, everyone in town goes berserk), but other than that, there isn’t much to complain about.
Gaming Connection: There are several actual dungeons in the game, complete with traps, puzzles, and riddles. There’s an epic quest that leads into the afterlife, and confrontations with truly impressive enemies. Skyrim has tons of elements that would be an excellent fit for any fantasy RPG.

#5: Mass Effect 2

Critical Hit: When it comes to console RPGs, I think ME2 is probably the king. It has an amazing story that escalates and raises the stakes and builds the threat against the universe to a fever pitch. By the end of the game I was literally on the edge of my seat. The characters are similarly amazing, and there’s a huge cast of companions to choose from to share your adventures with along the way.
 
Critical Miss: Nothing really to say here except that a couple of the class choices are rather sub-optimal given the improved combat system… for example, the engineer I played spent most of his time hiding behind cover letting the rest of the party do the real fighting. Well, there were a couple of the characters who just didn’t… really do it for me, but that’s forgivable given the size of the cast and how amazing the others are. In the end, this game was only really let down by the disappointing third installment.
Gaming Connection: Any sci-fi game would gain some great inspiration from playing through ME2. It’s beyond me why there isn’t a Mass Effect RPG or miniature game out there right now.

#4: Batman: Arkham City

Critical Hit: This game is a huge amount of fun, with excellent gameplay, boss battles, and a very immersive open-world environment… but by far the coolest thing about this game is being BATMAN. You get to investigate for clues, find evidence, track down criminals, solve riddles, and beat seven kinds of hell out of bad guys. You get to fly around, use all batman’s gadgets, and even make a couple of important choices along the way. This game is amazing, and a clear improvement over its already very impressive predecessor.
 
Critical Miss: There is some odd hypersexualization of catwoman going on in this game that makes me a bit uncomfortable during the period where you’re forced to play as her. Other than that, I don’t really have any flaws I can point out… this game is exceptionally good in almost every respect.
Gaming Connection: Any street-level superhero campaign would benefit greatly from some of the areas, villains, and missions in this game. The setting of Arkham city has some stunning visuals that would benefit any campaign city facing a cataclysm or extreme urban blight.
Bonus Round: Batman: Arkham Asylum is this game’s predecessor and was a total surprise. Arkham Asylum came out of left field and proved that you CAN make a good Batman game. Arkham Asylum did have some flaws (there was no reason to ever switch out of Detective Mode, for example), but it was Rocksteady’s love letter to fans of Batman.

#3 Fallout: New Vegas

Critical Hit: I’ve always been a huge fan of the Fallout series—I’ve played every single game for the franchise ever made (even some truly, truly bad ones) and I have to say that New Vegas is one of the best installments for someone like me. The characters were very memorable, the storyline was interesting, and the post-apocalyptic vision of Las Vegas was one that I’ll never forget. A strong game, New Vegas is made even stronger by its DLC chapters that add on even more awesome places to visit in the wasteland.
Critical Miss: Again, this game is plagued with a series of odd quirks and bugs that can really harm the experience, and there are some storylines that just didn’t work as well as they were meant to. Overall though, there’s not a lot to point to as flaws.
Gaming Connection: Any post-apocalyptic setting will find some interesting things to riff off of from New Vegas. Gamma World, TORG, Rifts, just to name a few, could certainly find some great bits and pieces that would enhance a game.
Bonus Round: The “Old World Blues” DLC is worth buying the game for on its own. Old World Blues is brilliant in every single way and I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.

#2: Assassin’s Creed 2

Critical Hit: Very few games have ever earned the description “breathtaking” for me. AC2 succeeded at doing that, however, and then some. This was my introduction to the Assassin’s Creed series, and I found it to be absolutely exhilarating. The character of Ezio is one of the best in all video games, and playing through his journey is one of my favorite video game experiences of all time. Climbing over the rooftops of Venice, launching surprise assassinations in the center of a crowded church, and climbing through some truly challenging platforming levels added up to a good game. The outstanding stealth-action gameplay and throwing in the fun switch-ups of using Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs (like the glider and the tank!) turned this game from “insanely good” to “great.”
 
Critical Miss: AC2 is nearly flawless – I’m struggling to think of anything I didn’t like.
Gaming Connection: Playing a thief or assassin in another game is where I’d draw a lot of inspiration from this game. The interesting historical backdrop can be useful for games with similar technology, such as many “steampunk” settings.
Bonus Round: Assassin’s Creed 2: Brotherhood. If AC2 is an 8 out of 10, then AC2: Brotherhood takes that up to a 9.5 out of 10. Brotherhood added bonuses to just about every aspect of the game, including some great missions where you recruit, train, and send out other assassins on missions. AC2 Brotherhood is my benchmark for what makes an expansion good.

#1: Borderlands 2

Critical Hit: Of all the games on this list, there were none that I played more than Borderlands 2. I played this game to death. I played this game so much that I know damn near every mission, area, and boss fight by heart. I’m normally a hermit when I play video games, and I’ve always avoided the lure of multiplayer—until BL2 came along. Multiplayer on BL2 was actually fun, and the well-designed classes and skill system really made things work so much better than other games I’ve seen with multiplayer. The story and characters of BL2 are simply mind-blowingly cool, and the setting of the game—a mash-up of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic world called Pandora—has some really unique elements to it that make it feel like no other place I’ve ever visited in a video game.
Critical Miss: Nearly flawless is one of the best descriptions I can give for this game—it is a highly polished jewel in the landscape of so-so shooters out there.
Gaming Connection: If you can’t find something fun for your campaign to bring from BL2, there’s something wrong with you! There’s even an entire DLC focused around tabletop RPGs, and bringing in any of the game’s more prominent characters as an NPC into your campaign is nearly a guarantee of adding something cool.
Bonus Round: SO MUCH DLC. 2K has been supporting the hell out of BL2 with additional characters and block after block after block of quality content. Granted, none of this DLC is free, but just the fact that you can add so many more options and bonuses to your game through the offerings is impressive.

Champions System Review Part 3: 5th Edition

Greetings, readers! My apologies for taking so long since my last post – I was doing some additional research on today’s topic and got caught up with more work to make sure the Accursed setting gets everything together the right way!
In addition, I need to make sure and let you guys know I’m co-hosting the Gamer’s Tavern podcast with Darryl Mott (the Abstruse One at AICN Tabletop). The podcast is going quite well so I want to invite all my readers to come over and have a listen as we talk about all things gaming.
Without any further ado, let’s get into the meat of today’s post—part 3 of the Champions System review, focusing on the 5th edition of the Hero System.
As always, this review is from my own personal experiences, and your mileage may vary!
My personal journey with 5th edition is a long one—it’s fair to say that the majority of the games I’ve played of Champions have taken place in this edition of the game. I played a ton of 4th edition, of course, but 5th edition is where I got the most actual play of the game.
One of the best Champions games I was a part of during this period of time was the Vendetta Rhapsody campaign, GM’d by my good friend Grady Elliot. Grady structured the campaign like a mix of champions and dark champions, and I definitely remember how challenging the battles were—but the development of the characters and interaction with the world were even better.

A Look at 5th Edition

There are two names you need to know when it comes to the Hero System 5th edition: Steve Long and Darren Watts. Darren was the president of the company and basically its outward face, injecting a ton of passion for superheroes and fun into everything he touched. Steve was a writing machine, producing nearly all of the line either on his own or leading a team of additional designers on over 60 products. Where Darren brought passion and energy, Steve brought precision and production—he generated tons of content and tightened up the rules system, which is no small task. Steve’s background as a lawyer helped prepare him for this task!
The core book for 5th edition was a huge, thick tome—famously, it was considered bulletproof. It didn’t just look like a textbook, either—it was crammed full of the new rules system for Champions. The rules for 5th edition were quite extensive and well-balanced overall. The system on the surface did not differ much from 4th edition, but there were several changes that became evident with an in-depth look. I believe that 5th edition’s ruleset was superior to 4th in a number of ways, but there were few revolutionary changes. Most of the additions to the game rules involved adding considerable examples and clarifications to help players learn how to define their character’s abilities.
One of the most important things to note about 5th edition is that it was by far the most comprehensive and in-depth look at the Hero System ever made. The product line is immense and spans over 100 different products and over a dozen individual settings. Much like an earlier edition of Champions mingled with Autoduel, 5th edition had a crossover with the Guardians of Order superhero RPG, Silver Age Sentinels.

A True Hero Indeed

Without 5th edition, there would be no Hero System as we know it — in the late 90’s, the property had fallen into the hands of a company called Cybergames and was languishing there until Darren Watts got the ball rolling sometime in 2000 to put together a new incarnation of Hero Games. By 2002, the core books were released for the system and 5th edition was off and running. This edition of the Hero System would last eight years, until it was eventually replaced by sixth edition in 2010.

Triumphs

5th Edition won tons of awards for the core book and for other books in the line. The line gained recognition from all corners of the gaming industry, and could be found on bookshelves across the country. Lucha Libre Hero, Champions Battlegrounds, Dark Champions, Pulp Hero, and many others have all been nominated for or have received individual awards as well.

Setbacks

5th Edition suffered from some bad luck, especially with regards to its personnel. Andy Mathews was the art director for 5th edition for over seven years until his untimely death in 2008. Well-liked and a prolific gamer, Andy is greatly missed. Around 2003, writer Allen Thomas was hired to work on a number of books for 5th edition. There are many rumors surrounding Allen’s tenure with 5th edition, ranging from why he was hired (some say it was his proficiency with Indesign) over other well-known contributors (like Bob Greenwade and Michael Surbrook) to why he left (rumors claim it was due to a severe writer breakdown). Whatever the truth, Allen was no longer part of the team for 5th edition in 2006.

Creators Spotlight

Let’s take a quick look at the major names for this edition.

Steven Long

As mentioned above, no one defined the writing of 5th edition more than Steve Long. He wrote a huge chunk of the line by himself and even more as part of a team of writers.

Darren Watts

Darren is the true heart and soul of 5th edition, the architect of saving the line from falling into obscurity, and the tireless champion of passion and fun for the game. Darren’s love for the Hero System is obvious to see, especially in products like Lucha Libre Hero.

Storn Cook

Storn’s cover art and black and white interiors stand out as being high quality and helping to define the overall look of many of the line’s better-illustrated books.

The Fraim Brothers

These two artists provided some excellent covers and interior artwork that was always nice to see.

Michael Surbrook

Michael Surbrook is a big contributor to 5th edition, having written the two Asian Bestiaries and Ninja Hero. Michael also holds the record for writing the most articles for Digital Hero of any individual contributor!

Jason Walters

The “silent partner,” Jason Walters helped Hero Games succeed with 5th edition and provided key support to the line over many years.

Dave Mattingly

During 5th edition, Dave Mattingly was the director of the official online magazine for the line, Digital Hero.
Another awesome cover by Storn Cook.

Critical Hits

There are several shining lights of fifth edition that I want to single out for special mention here. These books were all of high quality overall, and many (such as Tuala Morn and Lucha Libre Hero) gave me the same feeling of excitement and vibrancy that I felt from many 4th edition products. Ninja Hero, the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Speedster, and especially the Ultimate Skill all provided some excellent expansions of the main rules and some really interesting ways to push the Hero System to the next level of creativity and elegance. Villainy Amok, PS238, and Fantasy Hero were all excellent additions to the game and are of great use to any Champions fan!

Critical Misses

Most of these are not terrible products (certainly not on the level of European enemies) and simply suffer from being entirely forgettable. There isn’t much more to say about these products except that they have the same issues as many other products in the line, including some poor quality artwork, bland setting information, and low-quality graphic design.

  • Everyman
  • Dark Champions: The Animated Series
  • Champions of the North 

A Word from the Editor

I want to take a moment here to mention that my personal feelings about Fifth edition are deeply involved with this particular blog post. For example, many of the main creators of 5th edition (such as Steve, Darren, and Jason Walters) are all friends of mine, and I have often described myself as a Hero System fanatic. That having been said, I feel that Rogue Warden deserves my most unbiased and honest opinions, especially with regards to presenting the information as accurately as possible. To be clear, I’ve done a ton of research on this particular topic, but there are some things mentioned here that are, at best, rumors, and cannot be entirely corroborated. The overall tone of this blog is not meant to be harsh or hateful–quite the opposite, as I do indeed love the Hero System.

However, I am not blind to its flaws, and Rogue Warden would not be doing any service by ignoring or failing to mention that 5th edition ran into a number of serious snags along the way. With all this having been said, let’s take a look at some of the issues that plagued this edition:

All Substance, No Style

While 5th edition produced over 100 products, there were not many standouts due to a number of factors. Low production values, bland writing, and an uninteresting setting unfortunately led to a perception that this edition’s overall approach was quantity over quality.

The Steve Long Edition

Steve Long’s dominance of the writing for the line was both a blessing and a curse for 5th edition. His blessing, of course, is that he produced an amazing amount of content for the line. However, Steven’s particular style was very dry, and (especially for most of the setting books) ended up making for very bland reading. The effect of this approach meant that the Hero System line as a whole ended up feeling very homogenous. Nearly every important project was headlined by Steve, and this led to the direction of the game being nearly one-dimensional. Although 5th edition produced more content for the Hero System than any other incarnation, there are only a relative few standout books, especially compared to the wide variety of exciting, interesting, and fun to use products from 4th edition.

Vulnerability: Bad Art and Graphic Design (x2 effect)

If there’s one thing that I can point to as one of the downfalls of 5th edition, it is the artwork and graphic design. Unfortunately, 5th edition is chock-full of terrible, awful artwork. There are some pieces that work (mostly from the Fraim Brothers and Storn Cook) but overall, nearly every book has some artwork that simply makes the reader either feel confused (“Is this the guy that the text is describing? I really can’t tell.”) or displeased. It is truly a shame, since most of the books for 5th edition are not bad books—they deserve much higher quality artwork than they received. On top of that, the graphic design for the line—and for this, I am mainly talking about the covers and trade dress—doesn’t help the books stand out. On a shelf, the 5th edition line looks like a set of textbooks for a college course, not just in size, but also in the presentation. There is little to draw a customer in and make them realize just how cool and exciting and interesting the system truly is.

Erasing the Past

One of the true shames about the effects I just described above is that they compound on each other and actually cast shadows onto other parts of the system as well. When 5th edition left behind the well-developed world and characters from 4th edition, it lost a ton of interesting stories, characters, tropes and themes that had been created by a vibrant group of game authors. Unfortunately, the bland writing and poor artwork failed to bring much of the replacements developed for 5th edition to life. The headliner team of the Champions were nearly entirely replaced (leaving Defender intact, which was a bit confusing to fans of 4th edition – why keep him and not the rest? Why not just reinvent the entire team?), the Champions universe was reinvented (losing a lot of the fun, flavorful elements from before), and the rest of the setting was developed along those lines. This resulted in the 5th edition Champions Universe feeling like a very grim, depressing, and ultimately uninteresting place (with some exceptions, notably Dr. Silverback).

Third Party Publishing

The 5th edition of the Hero System enjoyed considerable support from third party publishers during its run, adding some of the best products for the line.
 

Blackwyrm Triumphs

Blackwyrm Publishing made significant additions to 5th edition, beginning with their award-winning character books, the Algernon Files and continuing with one of the best superhero settings ever written—Scott Bennie’s Gestalt.
In addition, Michael Surbrook published his own animepunk campaign setting Kazei 5—a setting so complete and thorough in its exploration of cyberpunk tropes that there was no need for any 5th edition Cyber Hero product.

And the Rest

A special mention here goes to Adventures into Darkness by Ken Hite; a fun look at comic books as if they were written by H.P. Lovecraft!
Also, Comstar Games produced Traveller Hero during this period—possibly the only license that actually works with 5th edition’s trademark minimalist cover design practice.

Jason Walters Interview

During my research for this post, I got a chance to talk to Jason Walters, current head of Hero Games. Jason was very gracious to allow me to present his answers here on Rogue Warden.
RW: Can you tell me more about why the 5th edition Champions Universe moved away from the setting established by 4th edition? For example, Champions of the North, the Mutant File, PRIMUS and DEMON, and VIPER are all very different in 5th than they were in 4th.
JW: Some of the changes can be attributed to the fact that Steve Long and Darren Watts (and, to a far lesser extent, other Hero authors such as Allen Thomas and Dean Shomshak) were simply different people than George McDonald, Steve Peterson, and their immediate circle of authors and designers. And the new Champions Universe products were tried out on entirely different and new playtest groups which had their input as well. (I belonged to Darren Watts’ Masonic Street Irregulars.)
Thus, we had different tastes in comic book authors, watched different movies, had alternate views on how a super hero setting should operate, liked or disliked different characters, and so forth. It’s understandable. For example, one reason C.L.O.W.N. didn’t find its way into the 5th Edition Champions Universe was that Steve Long didn’t find characters like Slapstick and Merry Andrew to be particularly funny. (I’m pretty sure Stan West wouldn’t agree, but I’m with Steve on this one.)
Another factor was the need to update the Champions Universe a bit. All superhero universes need to be periodically updated, and the Champions Universe was certainly no exception. And it never pays to constantly walk over the same ground. People get bored with that.
Additionally, when a new creative team takes over an intellectual property as large and diverse as the Champions Universe — particularly one created by a large group of designers with different thoughts, goals, and perceptions — it’s often easier (and better) to “reboot” the setting to some extent rather than keep trying to herd all those super-cats.
RW: On a similar note, can you tell me more about why the Champions themselves changed so much between 4th and 5th editions? (Losing Seeker, Solitaire, Jaguar, Obsidian, etc.) I had heard a rumor that there were some IP copyright issues involved with some of the characters.
JW: As far as I know this isn’t true. I’m not aware of any copyright issues pertaining to these characters at all. Steve changed the team from 4E to 5E for two reasons. First, he didn’t like most of the characters on the 4th Edition team, and didn’t want to continue them. Second, he wanted iconic NPC heroes whom he felt were better examples of common comic book archetypes – and that newcomers to CHAMPIONS would find more useful.
RW: Can you tell me what you think was the biggest triumph for 5th edition? What about the biggest regret?
JW: IMO the biggest triumph of 5th edition was the sales numbers for the core book: roughly 30,000 individual copies sold in physical and electronic formats. That’s a lot for a small roleplaying game publisher, and something Steve and Darren can always be proud of. Also, under Darren’s stewardship, Hero Games released over 100 new products and was turned into a popular MMORPG. Not too shabby.
I think we all regretted our inability to consistently get high quality artwork into the books. We tried of course. Very, very hard. But Hero Games had a very small budget, and was trying to get 10 to 12 books published a year at one point. So the quality of the artwork often suffered.
RW: Can you tell me more about the rescue of Champions and the Hero System from Cybergames?
JW: I’m not going to go into great detail on that due to confidentiality agreements and my own sense of professionalism. Frankly, there’s a lot about that time which will never be told… at least not in print! 
A great cover art piece by the Fraim brothers.
However, I will say that Cybergames were way ahead of its time in what they were trying to do. Namely, they eventually wanted to sell RPGs in electronic format to an online audience. RPGNow, DriveThroughRPG, e23, and so forth have proved that they were on the right track, generally speaking, but the technology just wasn’t there in the late 90’s. And they’d decided that the best way to accomplish their goal was to literally buy every company whose products they would sell. This turned out not to be such a great idea.
That’s how Hero Games ended up in semi-limbo: Cybergames had bitten off more than they could chew half a decade before the technology or customer base existed to chew it. And that’s why they were willing to sell the IP to us. Think of it as an excess, rather than a lack, of vision on their part.
RW: There are a lot of rumors about Allen Thomas’ tenure with the company (particularly the ending) – is there anything you can tell me on the record for the blog entry?
JW: As you know Allen Thomas was and is a tremendously talented author and game designer. We enjoyed working with Allen and feel that he created some superb products for us. Unfortunately, sales fluctuated some during his time with us, and we eventually felt it wasn’t financially viable to keep him on staff. We were very sorry to let him go, since he did great work, but sometimes business doesn’t go the way you want it to.

In Conclusion

The 5th edition of the Hero System is not a bad line at all – there are many strengths that were brought to bear upon the game line during this period. It does have many flaws and some very unfortunate setbacks, but it is important to remember that 5th edition made a huge contribution to the overall popularity and exposure of the Hero System.  The line provided immense support for the game, including the revolutionary software Herodesigner that is nigh-indispensable for making characters for the system. Constant releases and excellent communication with the fanbase were the hallmarks of this edition, and its creators have reason to be proud.