Mohawks and Mirrorshades


Most RPGs have a “default” style of play that they promote and are designed to accommodate. For example, early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were heavily oriented around the concept that the player characters would be exploring dungeons and looking for treasure. Naturally, these days most players understand that Dungeons and Dragons campaigns can vary wildly from one extreme (pure dungeon-crawling) to the other (pure roleplaying) with plenty of room in between.
I’ll make a bold statement: nearly any RPG can support very different styles of play. This is a lesson I learned over time, but one of the best examples of this idea comes from the classic cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun.
Larry Elmore captures Shadowrun like no one else.
On the surface, Shadowrun is all about playing as skilled operatives/criminals that exist outside the system. These “shadowrunners” are hired by megacorporations to strike at their rivals because they are deniable assets. The setting is a future where man, magic, and machine all exist side-by-side, and style generally triumphs over substance.
I spent over two years playing Shadowun online (as mentioned before in another blog post), and I discovered that for that particular RPG there are two very recognized and distinct styles of play; Mohawks and Mirrorshades.

Mohawks

The first style embraces the whole concept of “style over substance,” and the name itself is a reference to one of the more recognizable features of much of the early Shadowrun art featuring characters with hair styles into outrageous mohawks. Typically, the Mohawk style of play is characterized by over-the-top, cinematic action. The idea of “anything goes” and using some of the more unusual character options (such as playing a vampire, ghoul, sasquatch, AI or Free Spirit) are often associated with Mohawk style. Mohawk puts the “punk” in cyperpunk, and often the outcome of any given situation can be quite bleak.
Check out that mohawk!
One of my early characters for Shadowrun was definitely made for the Mohawk style. X’ian was actually based on an anime character and had a career as a professional athlete (Urban Brawl) before becoming a shadowrunner. Visually and vocally distinctive, “subtle” was really not part of X’ian’s dictionary. She was a lot of fun to play because of how unusual she was, but I did encounter a lot of issues with integrating with other players and staff in the online game who were more interested in a different style of play.
A very memorable incident with X’ian illustrated both sides of these different Shadowrunning approaches. The situation was this: a child had been kidnapped from a rich corporate family, and was being held for ransom. The family had made it known that there would be a large reward for the safe return of their child. X’ian had happened upon some clues about the kidnapping, including an odor trace for her cybernetic olfactory booster, and followed it to a deserted warehouse surrounded by an empty fenced parking lot.
“Aha!” I thought. “This is clearly where the kidnappers are lairing while negotiating for the ransom…” And what, you may ask, did X’ian do then? Did she gather her shadowrunner friends and make a plan to infiltrate the building and rescue the hostage? No. She walked right in through the front door.
She was promptly shot nearly to death by a sentry gun set up inside the warehouse. I think the GM was being fairly generous, in fact.
So lesson learned, right? Not quite. X’ian rounded up the usual suspects (her fellow shadowrunners on her team) and made back for the warehouse lickety-split. This time, she figured, they had a car. Said car crashed through the front gates of the fence and drove right up to the front door. X’ian and crew went full frontal assault on the warehouse, guns-a-blazin’.
This car is way cooler than the one X’ian had.
It didn’t work out so well. In the end, the ninja physical adept had to carry everyone’s bleeding, unconscious bodies back to the car. A pair of white phosphorous grenades had immolated the warehouse, consuming both kidnappers and kidnapped.
This time, I learned a valuable lesson. And I’m proud to say my Shadowrun characters have never advocated using the front door ever again.
To be honest, it was actually quite an eye-opener to find out that bombastic, cinematic action wasn’t going to work with all GM’s. It was time for me to think about adjusting, to consider trying out a more subtle and (dare I say) professional character.

Mirrorshades

In contrast, the Mirrorshades style of play is oriented around professionalism, preparation, and planning. Mirrorshades games focus on doing things “smart” and “subtle.” Mirrorshades games are often more realistic and tend to be quite challenging intellectually (often ending up trying out to outguess the GM!).
This is Mirrorshades style.
Much later in my online Shadowrunning, I created a mercenary named Reason. Reason was one of the most “professional” characters I’d ever made up to that point, although I hadn’t built him so much with that objective in mind. However, that’s how he developed during play, and I actually observed other players that I considered good at that style of play and learned from watching them. Possibly because of this approach (and no doubt helped by my growing experience with the game), Reason was—by far—my most successful Shadowrun character. He ended his career with over 200 karma (Shadowrun’s “experience points”) and actually achieved his long-term goal of retirement after a massive one-million-nuyen job.
Reason and his team (called “Black Omen”) approached every job with a mindset of accomplishing it as efficiently as possible. We researched our targets thoroughly, created detailed plans, and prepared ourselves as much as possible. I developed a leadership style for Reason that took into account the fact that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” So, Reason would get together with his team and make a plan, but he would keep it simple and make sure everyone knew the core goals of the mission. That way, when things went to crap (as they always did), the runners all could react on their own initiative to accomplish the mission. (Oh yes, and I never used the front door!)
I actually had a more “Mohawk” style GM complain that my team was not as much fun to run games for, because Black Omen worked too much like Seal Team Six and had not enough “style” for his preferences. In a way, it was quite a compliment! On the other hand, I could sympathize with him; I could tell he was bored with the clinical approach of my team and was craving something “cooler.”
I definitely enjoyed playing Reason with the Mirrorshade style, but I could tell that there was definitely something to be said for a more stylish and cinematic approach.

The Space Between

Sometimes called “Trenchcoat,” there is a style that lies in between of Mohawks and Mirrorshades, a style that combines some representations of both. “Trenchcoat” can mean many things to many people, so rather than attempt to further define such a broad term, I’d like to present another anecdote from my online Shadowrun days as an illustration of one possible meaning.
This story involves my character Alita – street name “Mouse”—a cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunter. Mouse and her partner, Danrath, had been investigating a series of ghoul sightings in a certain area of the city. A bounty had been placed on these ghouls and Mouse was determined to collect.
My inspiration for Mouse.
Mouse and Danrath followed the trail of the ghouls into the local sewer system and bagged a few of their prey along the way. However, it didn’t take long to discover something very unusual down in the sewers – the sound of pounding rock music. Investigating, Mouse and her partner found another set of bounty hunters camped in a side passage, music playing from a portable recorder they had brought with them. Chained to the wall was a beautiful human woman, her skin and hair colored a stark white, her eyes blank and pupiless. The woman was dancing for the two bounty hunters, but she was clearly their captive.
Mouse, naturally, wanted to know what the hell was going on, but her questions only led to the other bounty hunters to attack. Mouse and Danrath defended themselves and wiped out the opposition. Mouse questioned the woman, who claimed her name was “Lady Death” and that she was “Queen of the Ghouls!” Suspecting something was definitely amiss, Mouse slapped the woman with a tranq patch and knocked her out before taking her back to a safe house apartment for further investigation.
Mouse and Danrath debated what to do for some time… after all, there was a chance that something supernatural could be going on, and there were many mysteries in the Sixth World that had yet to be fully understood. It was decided to take “Lady Death” to a local street doc to have her checked out before taking any further action. Surprisingly, the street doc’s report was that “Lady Death” was in fact a normal human with extensive biosculpting. She even had a datajack registered to Aztechnology – a powerful megacorp that, in Shadowrun, has an extremely dark reputation.
When “Lady Death” awoke, Mouse and Danrath attempted to learn more by talking with her, but she refused to believe anything other than the story she had first given when they had met. Frustrated, Mouse jacked the woman into the Matrix and then pulled the plug, inducing dumpshock on her neural system in hopes this could break the programming. The drastic step worked – “Lady Death” was actually a daughter of an Aztechnology executive who had no memory of the last few weeks. She claimed she knew her name and her father’s name and was very grateful to have been rescued from her fate.
Suspicious but unaware of what else to do, Mouse and Danrath took her at her word and escorted the young woman to meet her father inside the Aztechnology corporate building. The handover of the woman was fraught with sinister undertones considering the nature of the corporation, but her father seemed normal enough. He rewarded and thanked us and then we were escorted out of the building.
Mouse and Danrath had many questions after that – was the girl telling the truth? Why had she been put through that bizarre situation? What was the link with the ghouls? Unfortunately, all these questions would never be answered – but even now, thinking back about the situation, I can imagine many intriguing scenarios that would explain just what we had stumbled onto.
Alas, Mouse’s story has a bittersweet ending. She actually ended up arrested by Lone Star and placed into prison. I definitely feel that the GM was attempting to offer me a way to turn that failure an opportunity, but I was too discouraged to consider it.

In conclusion

Universal RPGs like GURPS don’t generally have an issue with a default style of play. Champions also falls into this category, although it drifts close with its heavy focus on superheroes. As stated earlier, D&D is so wildly varied that it is difficult to define a “default” Dungeons & Dragons experience. Rifts, similarly, is very widely varied in the types of campaigns it can support.
Not exactly what I meant, but close.
Games like Traveller and Star Wars, by contrast, both have a generally accepted “typical” style of play (although both can support multiple styles).
However, no matter what your chosen system of RPG may be, it is fairly easy for established groups to fall into a pattern of a specific style of play. There’s nothing really wrong with this – you should definitely game the way that is the most fun for you – but I would like to encourage gamers to consider thinking about the other options that exist.
It can be very refreshing to try out a different approach to RPGs, to get a fresh look at perhaps your style or the styles of others. Game conventions, such as PAX, Genghis Con, or Gen Con, are one of the best ways to try out a new game and a new style. Even at home, consider trying out something new as a one-shot game night, perhaps for a special occasion like Halloween.
Changing things up from time to time can be really good and give you a fresh perspective on not only what you like about RPGs, but also about how they appeal to other folks as well.

The Price of Failure

I’m currently involved in a truly excellent RPG campaign that fully engrosses my attention when I’m playing. This is what they call “immersive storytelling.” I’m invested.

In last weekend’s game, the GM presented an opportunity for the characters to reach out from our struggling nation and make peaceful contact with neighboring realms. It was an excellent chance both to get some much-needed aid and to build a foundation for a lasting alliance—and these things were very, very important to my character. I happened to be the most diplomatic character, and I had built my skillset so that speaking to other rulers was something I did well. I spent some time the night before the game preparing what I felt was a good speech and had two printed pages of dialogue ready to go during the session.

Given the title of this blog post, I’m guessing you already know how things went. Let me be perfectly clear: I screwed the pooch.
I see what you did there.
Not only did I fail to establish better relations with one of our (up until this point) peaceful neighbors, I managed to kick off an entirely separate front of hostilities. My entire diplomatic team was exiled from the realm on pain of death, and large portions of the nation I was part of were seized. Citizens weren’t killed—they were given plenty of warning to evacuate—but towns and villages alike were burned to the ground. Thousands of people with no homes, no farms, no food, no hope.
It was all my fault.
Again, to be entirely clear, this was a pure roleplaying situation—no dice were rolled. It was simply my choice of what I had to say and how I said it. The GM was generous in that he gave me plenty of coaching ahead of time from a reliable NPC as to how to go about things, and in some regards, I went against that advice.
And so, the land was ravaged.
Oops.

How Does It Feel?

As I had said earlier, this is a game I am highly invested in. I look forward to it every week and exult in the moment when we’re playing. I’m very much “in character” when I’m playing in this campaign. In addition, we’d been very successful up to this point. Sometimes, wildly successful by bucking the odds and acting like Big Damn Heroes when the situation called for it. So, in many ways, I was feeling cocky. After all, I reasoned, this is what my character is good at.
When I first realized just how badly I had screwed the pooch, I froze up. I was paralyzed. I had no idea how to respond. My stomach was churning with embarrassment… this was certainly not how I had expected things to go!
And then things escalated. The realm went from being mildly pissed off to becoming belligerent. Suddenly, my character—a champion of good, nobility, and heroic ideals—was directly responsible for starting up hostilities and the burning of several villages and towns. It was like a punch in the gut.
I had that sick feeling that this was a mistake I couldn’t just fix. There were consequences to my actions… fairly dire ones, in fact. And I was responsible.
Fortunately, some of the other characters in the party were able to manage the situation before it went any further out of control. Nevertheless, I knew that this was a big moment in my character’s life.

Handling Failure

There’s a number of ways to deal with a failure of this magnitude. I’ve known some players to simply pack up and leave. In fact, the last time I was this invested in a campaign and my character died, I nearly did that very same thing myself! Other players can get angry, or very, very quiet (which in many ways is just as bad).
Luckily for me, I trusted my GM. I knew that he had not chosen that I would fail because he was punishing me… rather, it was simply the outcome that the story called for at that moment.
My good friend Dave Mattingly, head of Blackwyrm Publishing, once helped discuss failure in RPGs at HeroCon in Glen Burnie, MD back in 2006. Dave said something that stuck with me:  
“Failure gives the heroes twice as much screen time. First they fall down; then they get back up.”
Dave is a wise, wise man.
The idea that failure is—and should be—another opportunity is a powerful one, and I try to look at in-character setbacks in the same way Dave does. In the situation I mentioned above, I took my character’s setback and used it to try and build some growth of his beliefs and relationships with others.
When it comes to handling failure during the game, the most crucial element (and one that I cite often when discussing roleplaying) is trust. If the players trust the GM, if that bond exists, then it is okay to fail. Failure is another opportunity, it is a way to examine (as I have done) how the character deals with setbacks. Comparatively, it is easy to roleplay a character who is successful… often, it can be more rewarding to handle a character through his darkest hour and come out the other side.
Another very wise man.

Accidental Failure and Deliberate Failure

Failure can come in many guises during an RPG. I like to separate failure into two categories; accidental and deliberate failure.
Accidental failure is unintentional on both the part of the players and the GM—typically it revolves around die rolls. It can be a single crucial roll or a series of important ones. It can even take the form of a certain card (such as in the infamous Deck of Many Things) or just having your miniature in the wrong place at the wrong time on the battlemat.
Deliberate failure happens when someone chooses to fail. Often, this comes in the form of the GM deciding that “this didn’t work.” However, players can also deliberately fail—although rarely in the interests of the game. Most often that I’ve seen, deliberate failure on the part of the players is a way of showing disdain for the game itself, a “I’m taking my toys and going home” sort of decision.

Degrees of Failure

“So just how bad is it?” This is a common question asked whenever a player rolls a critical failure during an RPG. Some games (such as, famously, Rolemaster) have quite a list of possibilities. Many of my own games in the 40K Roleplay line have quite a few horrible fates for a psyker who rolls particularly badly, as another example.
I didn’t make this graph, but I generally agree with it.
For me, I like to divide failure up into two categories. Either the failure is manageable, or it is one of those moments when you say “Oh s#!t.” These categories are what I like to call
Minor Failures and Spectacular Failures.
As mentioned above, Minor Failures are manageable. They’re usually temporary and have few if any consequences.
Spectacular Failures are, well, spectacular—they have long-lasting effects and often come with a boatload of consequences after the fact.

Change of Perception

Failure of either kind can change your perception of the character. A series of minor failures or even a single spectacular failure can have an effect on the tone for a story arc or even an entire campaign.
Generally, the effects of failure are magnified if they occur earlier in a character’s adventuring career—and by “career,” I don’t mean backstory. I’m talking about actual, in-game performance.
A classic issue of different expectations, and a reaction thereof.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an anecdote from my own gaming history. I had one of those character concepts that I was really, really excited about but never got a chance to play long-term. I got to play the character one time in one game, and that was it. So when a friend offered to GM a campaign that was perfect for this character, I was thinking oh yeah, this-is-gonna-be-awesome. The character’s name was Nimrodel, she was a dryad who survived her tree getting cut down, and she had become a warblade (a fun fighter-type class from the Tome of Battle for D&D 3.5). I was, to say the least, jazzed to play this character.
So, in the first session, we’re fighting our way through some guards when my character gets her chance. “I got this,” I announced confidently, triggering one of the cool warblade powers for kicking ass and advancing on the enemy. 
What happened next? I rolled a critical failure. Yep, the very first swing with my awesome sword-mistress was a fumble.
It was fortunate for me that I didn’t end up rolling a lot of fumbles for Nimrodel, but it certainly affected both how I and the other players saw the character in-game. This was definitely an accidental failure, not a deliberate one, but it was still a real bummer and the fact that I’m writing about it here shows how memorable it truly was. I am sure that I’m not alone… no doubt many players can think of moments like these for their characters.
Another example I can point to regarding how failure can change the tone of a campaign comes from Shadowrun 4th edition. Our characters discovered that regardless of having high skills in Infiltration (the catch-all “Being Sneaky” skill) and ruthenium (think the Predator’s camouflage) suits, we were getting spotted by your typical beat cop on patrol at one in the morning. This is an example of deliberate failure—the GM had chosen that sneaking around like ninjas just didn’t work in his campaign.

Failure, Frustration and Punishment

I started out talking about how failure should be looked at as an opportunity, and I believe that is a good ideal to strive for because the alternative is detrimental to the game—frustration and a feeling of punishment. Failing every so often can be a doorway to some really great roleplaying. Constant deliberate failure can feel more like you’re being punished for trying to go against the GM’s style, story, or preferences.
Let’s do a quick breakdown of the types and degrees of failure—when do they stop being opportunities and become frustrating?
Deliberate Failure: When deliberate failure happens occasionally, it can cause frustration (especially if it results from a misunderstanding of expectations from either the player or the GM), but it is generally going to be manageable. Deliberate spectacular failure is, surprisingly not as frustrating, probably because failing big can be quite entertaining with many groups. In fact, many roleplayers that I personally know ascribe to a “go big or go home” school of thought.
However… constant deliberate failure, as mentioned above, is generally about as fun as getting smacked with a lead pipe.
Accidental Failure: Occasional accidental failure is simply part of the RPG experience. Any game with dice is going to have times when they completely abandon you. The vast majority of gamers are pretty philosophic about occasional accidental failure. Constant accidental failure, however, can be extremely frustrating. As humans, our brains tend to seize more on the outliers when looking at a random system, meaning that you remember the really amazing rolls and the really crappy ones and generally forget the far more numerous average results. 
I’ve known some gamers, including a good friend, former roommate, and game author Grady Elliot, who can get really frustrated with a bad run of dice. Grady’s bad luck with d20’s is fairly legendary, in fact. I can sympathize… it’s no fun to fail over and over again. 
Again, this category usually causes more feelings of frustration when the failures are manageable than when they are spectacular—but I should definitely mention that it depends on the game and the situation. Losing the fight against the big bad because of one critical fumble is certainly memorable, but it can also cause some serious stress in many players.

Final Thoughts on Failure

If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this post, it’s this: don’t be afraid to let your characters fail from time to time. It can change your perception of the character’s place in the world, give you fodder for more stories, and act as a catalyst for change. Just don’t make it a punishment… especially if you’re the GM!

The Secret History of MMOs — MUDs and MUSHes

Sorry about the lack of updates—August has been crazy for me this year, possibly one of the craziest months ever. Not an excuse, just background. My father was kind enough to give me some incentive (i.e., “I’ve read enough about Gen Con, time for something new.”) so get ready for more blog goodness here on Rogue Warden.
Today’s blog post is about Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs… but not in the way you’d think. Currently, MMORPGs in the video game industry seem like they’re suffering—good examples include City of Heroes and SWTOR—and the business model is in the process of change. It’s possible that MMOs as we know them may be on the way out. However, rather than talking too much about the present and future, I’d like to focus on the MMORPG’s distant past… a world of text-based adventures on the early internet known as MUDs, MUSHes, and MUXes.

An MMO By Any Other Name

If you can’t already tell, dear reader—this post is chock-full of acronyms. Don’t worry… I’ll explain. A MUD is a multi-user dungeon—these online games generally were the closest to modern-day MMORPGs in that they weren’t really about roleplaying. Instead, MUDs centered around the player taking his character through a series of dungeons, slaying enemies, and taking their stuff. There were also guilds to join, characters could get married, shops to buy things and bars to get virtually drunk.

It’s not that kind of mud.

By now, this should all sound very familiar to any World of Warcraft player. Of course, the major difference here is visual—everything in a MUD (and by extension every other MU* game I’m discussing in this post) is entirely scrolling text on the computer screen. Scenery, actions, battles, monsters, gear… literally everything in the game was described through text, with the player’s actions being entered in a series of commands. Typing “L” for example, meant that your character looked at his surroundings, and a description of where your character was would then appear on the screen. This was usually followed by the command “kill orc” and then “get gold.” In fact, the first MMORPGs started out with the label “Graphical MUD.”

The Wikipedia entry for MUD contains a lot more detail about these games, so I won’t re-state much here about that… instead, I’ll tell you about my experience with them. I first encountered MUDs at the University of Wyoming in 1992. A friend of mine introduced me to MUDs after discovering we shared an interest in roleplaying games. (Side note: I was one of those nerds who took every single rpg book I owned with me to college. Yeah. I’m that guy.)
Thus I began my exploration of Shadow MUD (there’s currently another game of that name, but I don’t think there’s any relation to this earlier incarnation) and I was instantly hooked. As I was a writer, this was right up my alley—it was using all the typing skills I’d developed in high school and putting them into practice online. I could play any time of the day or night, and I could even play with some of my friends, including my then-roomate.
Keep in mind this was twenty years ago, so my memories are a bit fuzzy… I think my character’s class was a Shadow Mage. I remember that the character could summon shadows to devour the bodies of the slain and gain health. Shadow Mages were also unique in the game in that they could heal other characters that were not in the same virtual “room,” no matter where they were in the game. When I reached a higher level, it was common for me to grab a few virtual beers in the tavern while casting heals on adventuring parties out fighting dragons and whatnot! Drinking beer, in that game, helped restore a character’s magic and hit points at the same time.
As much as I enjoyed MUDding, I grew tired of it quickly and sought out a new challenge. Fortunately for me, I had made several friends online, and one of them pointed me towards another online game that would prove to be a huge impact on my life. This game, he told me, was ALL about roleplaying.
Read more (a LOT more) about MUDs and MUSHes after the break!

Is It Time For My MUSH?

The place I was directed to go was a game known as TwoMoons MUSH. MUSH stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination. There are various other kind of MUSH, such as a MUX (multi-user experience), MUSE, and many more. Eventually, the shorthand became MU* to indicate that you were talking about the general category of MUSHes. 
Just add elves!
In stark contrast to most MUDs, the majority of MUSHes are focused nearly entirely around roleplaying. Several MUSHes, for example, have no actual coded commands for combat. Instead, all conflict (yes, ALL conflict… even “I swing a sword at you!”) is handled by storytelling and mutual consent. This is not to say that all MUSHes were like this. Some MUSHes (such as many of the World of Darkness and Shadowrun MU*s—see below) did have plenty of conflict resolution coding present so that characters could resolve combat, skill uses, and any other reason for rolling virtual dice.
However, TwoMoons was of the first type; it was definitely all about the storytelling, all about the characters, all about the experience. TwoMoons was based on the ElfQuest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini, a series that I had read and enjoyed greatly in my younger years. I was instantly attracted both to the theme of playing in the world of ElfQuest and in the idea that everything happening in TwoMoons was in-character roleplaying. I did have some difficulty adjusting at first, but I’m a quick learner when it’s something I’m really interested in… and in no time it seemed like I was an old hand helping out other newbies learn all about TwoMoons.
A tale of adorable pointy-eared short people and their pet wolves.
I could write an entire blog post just about this game. I played a number of characters, my two favorite (and most well-known amongst TwoMoons players) being the wolfrider Truestrike and the underworlder Melendrian. I did some of my first world design with TwoMoons: I was the main designer for Ravenholt, which was a large, detailed region in the game that characters could explore and at the same time, a tribe and group identity for players to use in their backgrounds and storytelling. 
TwoMoons was a very long-running game that was in operation from 1991 until only a few years ago, and players came to the game from all across the world. I myself met many players from Norway, Sweden, Australia, the list goes on. I made several lifelong friends while playing the game, and nearly got married (yes, married in real life) to a woman I met on TwoMoons. My best friend whom I have known over 19 years was once a curious player who wandered into my character’s home on TwoMoons and struck up a conversation while playing the game. A fellow TwoMoons player that some of my readers may recognize is the novelist C.E. Murphy, who had a very memorable character on the game.
Playing TwoMoons was the opening of the creative floodgates for me as a young man. Not only was I telling stories in a way I never had before, I was interacting with people on a whole new level and building dynamic relationships both in and out of the game. I wrote songs, I wrote poetry, I wrote entire stories about my character and others, I commissioned artwork of my characters. It’s fair to say that playing TwoMoons changed my life.
However, I would not remain in this idyllic realm of pure story and imagination forever. There was a slightly darker side of online roleplaying that was calling my name and seducing me into the shadows.

Beasts and Bloodsuckers

The RPG scene in the early 90’s was dominated by the World of Darkness games from White Wolf—Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse being probably the two biggest and most influential. The world of online text games like MUSHes were no exception, and once Vampire hit the marketplace, there was a veritable explosion of World of Darkness-themed MU* games. One of the first of this breed was simply called Masquerade (shortened to Masq by many players), followed by Elysium, Texas Twilight, and many, many more.
Alas, poor storyteller system. We knew you well.
Unlike TwoMoons, these MU* games had quite a bit of coded gameplay. While, for the most part, storytelling and roleplaying was still freeform, there was now a way to roll virtual dice to determine an outcome. Each game had staff members (commonly called Wizards or Wizzes) and a site owner/operator (commonly called the God/Goddess of the MU*). 
When a character playing the game was in need of getting a die roll adjudicated (for instance, if the character was attemping to pick a locked door, there was no option to simply go through the door), he would contact a staffer who would then arrive on the scene to handle the situation. Often, this involved throwing down an object called a “timestop.” This object was important, since what would happen if a staff member was around is that it would naturally draw bored players like moths to a flame. In our example, the poor guy trying to pick a lock would suddenly have a dozen folks “just happening” to be in the area once the staff member showed up.
This is the opening screen of a typical MUSH
The timestop fixed this by establishing a basic boundary—no one could enter the timestop except for the staff member and the players involved. This limited (and in most cases, outright stopped) any interference from other players. Once the area had been “roped off,” the staff member would then observe as the player rolled his virtual dice and then make a ruling on what happened next.
Since coordinating efforts between multiple players can be problematic, even through the near-instantaneous medium of the internet, often a timestopped action scene could take hours in the real world to resolve. These kinds of situations only grew more complex by adding in more than one player into the mix. Similarly, anytime two players were attempting to attack each other, things got even crazier.
So now, gentle reader, you may understand a bit more about what things were like on these early World of Darkness MU*s when I tell you that timestops and player-versus-player combats were happening constantly.
Since the MU* was operating 24/7, plenty of action was occuring even when a player was logged off. Other players could steal his stuff, kill his girlfriend, or set him up as a criminal in the eyes of the police by the time he logged back in—although generally, this was fairly rare. Most times, players would prefer to settle things when their targets were actually online inside the game.
Despite all this chaos, I found the World of Darkness MU*s to be fascinating. Now, in most World of Darkness games, the players take on the roles of vampires, werewolves, and other such supernatural creatures. However, in the World of Darkness online realms, the MU*s commonly chose to limit the number of supernatural creatures present in the playerbase. So, if your game had around 150 players, only about 30 would be supernatural in origin… all the others would be normal people (although, granted, we’re talking about roleplayers here… so many of those “normal people” were certainly not normal, although they were mundane humans, just with bizarre lives that you’d only find in fiction).
My first character on Masquerade was Rand, a fairly normal Irish-American jewelsmith who’d wandered into town in order to get away from a clingy girlfriend. Rand quickly got involved in some creepy stuff with a local business owner who was tracking a kidnapped girl. Rand volunteered to help and ended up following a blood trail through the sewers that led straight into the basement of the local hospital. I could my feel my neck hairs lifting up while I was playing through this scene, since it was genuinely creepy… and I knew that I was just a normal guy poking his nose into a situation that involved some real monsters.
Rand’s life became very complicated soon afterwards, and his jewelry experience was put to the test making silver bullets for a group of vigilantes seeking justice against the supernatural monsters infesting the city. Alas, Rand poked his nose into one situation too many, and he was betrayed, arrested, and assassinated in jail by werewolves working for a vampire clan (I told you it was complicated)!
Ultimately, few plots and storylines in the World of Darkness MU*s could pack the same impact and meaning—in fact, I found many of the storylines to be fairly mundane, even with the supernatural trappings. The fact of the matter was that these games were so popular and so oriented towards a certain demographic, that the playerbase turned out be much like the early days of internet fanfiction… mostly amateurish and fumbling attempts to present an “artistic” story.
World of Darkness MU*s actually had a bit of a reputation for such melodrama, and these games were also full of other internet issues of the decade, like cybersex and identity theft. Often, the only way some staff could get their player’s attention towards a story was to throw a seemingly-random adversary at them and then breadcrumb the players (usually bickering between themselves!) towards the set-piece where some resolution would be planned (but only rarely achieved…).
One website described playing on a World of Darkness MU* as very, very unlike a typical tabletop RPG. “Instead,” the website explained, “imagine that all the players around the table are either fighting each other, screwing each other in the closet, or huddled whispering with each other in the shadows. After a few hours of this, the GM jumps out of the hallway and shouts, ‘A scary monster attacks you!’ That’s kind of what it’s like.”
Should you want to investigate further the internet drama of online text games like the ones described here, check out the forum known as When Online Roleplaying Games Attack, or WORA for short.

The Cyber Generation

I dropped out of playing online games for a while to join the US Army. After training and a memorable deployment to Korea, I returned to the United States at Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1996. I was definitely ready to get some more roleplaying going! Wandering around online, I happened to locate Shadowrun Seattle, the original and longest-running MUX related to the Shadowrun RPG by FASA. In checking things out at Shadowrun Seattle (hereafter simply called SR Seattle), I discovered that this MUX was quite a bit different than others I had encountered before. SR Seattle was part of a new movement of MU*s that had chosen to become “elitists,” focusing on quality in writing, character concepts, and ability to roleplay. This was often described as “Less angst, more story please.”
Like others of its ilk, SR Seattle required several steps in order to successfully build a character and join the game. Central to this process was an application. The player would need to fill out a long form of information about the character he wished to play, including backstory, personality, and story hooks that could potentially be used to create further stories in the game. The implication was that Staffers would read these and create stories just for your character at some point… but this promise was actually rarely fulfilled. However, that didn’t really matter—what was important about the application process is that a member of the game staff (sometimes folk of lesser authority or volunteers) would review the application and flag it either for further review or for someone of higher authority to check over and then grant access to the game. 
SR Seattle was unapologetically elitist about this approach. It was entirely intended to weed out casual players and retain only those were very passionate about the game, passionate about their character, and had a modicum of talent at being able to write and get across ideas that could grow into stories.
The chargen model embraced by SR Seattle and other places like it resulted in generally smaller playerbases than the World of Darkness games, but the people who did play did so in much more stable manner. People stayed around, and since you had spent so much effort on your character in the first place, character death became much more meaningful. Weeding out the casual folks also resulted in generally higher quality of roleplay, in that you could generally enter into any ongoing roleplaying scene with your character and expect to find some interesting stories to get involved in. Juvenile behavior and anything that didn’t match the genre was discouraged.
This is not to say that SR Seattle was some mecca of perfect roleplayers and writers… but it was certainly a step up from the MU* scene I had left behind a few years earlier. The 24/7 schedule of the MUX meant that I could log in and play anytime of the day or night, and the generally high level of roleplayers involved meant that my time was spent getting into some very rewarding stories. This period of time was right at the end of Shadowrun Second edition and extended into much of Third edition’s lifetime as well. I spent several years playing Shadowrun online, from about 1996 to 2003. My most well-known characters are probably Alita (Mouse), X’ian, and Reason, the latter two having been developed on Shadowrun’s sister game set in Detroit. If playing on TwoMoons had improved my typing skills and gave me a basic ability to write well, Shadowrun refined both these skills to the next level. Writing a single pose for Shadowrun could be quite a challenge, and there were times it seemed like there was quite a friendly competition in the game to see whom could write the most descriptive action for their character.
Unfortunately, the latest build of SR Seattle closed its doors in 2012. Farewell, old friend—you will be missed.

The MMO Connection

In case it isn’t clear from the rest of this article, there are many, many similarities and patterns in modern-day MMORPGs that have their roots solidly in the days of MUDs and MUSHes. Many influential designers in the MMORPG industry were once players, designers, and staff members of MUDs. I myself am a video game designer who’s done some MMORPG work, and I definitely credit my background in the textual realms for much of my own skills and development as a designer. I suspect I’m not alone—I believe that there’s quite a few people out there… dozens, maybe hundreds, possibly as many as thousands… who once upon a time, lived and breathed through words on their screen and adventured through the worlds of MU* games.

Gen Con 2012

When I was working for Fantasy Flight Games, Gen Con was described as “the Superbowl of the industry.” I think that’s a fair assessment of the impact and importance of Gen Con to the gaming field—specifically for RPGs but also encompassing board games, card games, miniature games, and even interactive media like videogames.
The lovely Marie-Claude Bourbonnais, cosplaying as Rin from Relic Knights. MCB made the costume herself!
Each category of games has their own “main event”—for board games, it is probably Essen Spiele. For Miniature Games, it is becoming Adepticon. Videogames and other media have Pax Prime and the San Diego Comic Con.
Gen Con, however, is like a delicious mishmash of those categories with a generous helping of tabletop RPGs ladled over and surrounding the whole.
I’ll admit it—I’m additcted to Gen Con. I’ve gone just about every year since 2000, and every year it’s one of the things I look forward to most. The things that I enjoy most about each year’s con are the friends I meet there, the events I get to enjoy, and the energy and inspiration that I bring home with me.

Energy and Inspiration

Gen Con always instills me with a fresh sense of purpose. Seeing all my friends, their accomplishments, and the brand new horizon for the industry never fails to get me all fired up about my own projects and assignments.
Some awesome cosplayers for 40K; a Warrior Acolyte, Vindicare Assassin, and a Tech-Priest.

There’s a sense of celebration and enthusiasm that simply can’t be contained at the show. Fans, retailers, authors, freelancers—we’re all alike in that Gen Con is a form of homecoming. It’s a place where we all belong, where our passions can run free (but not too free, or someone will call the cops).
The convention is also a great kick in the pants to anything I’ve been procrastinating or waiting on, and I can’t help but feel propelled to get more things done after seeing all the coolness on the shelf and being enjoyed by the fans at the show.
Even this blog post right here is an example. I came home and was ready to smash some writing! If you’re looking to get a boost on your motivation to get things done in the game industry, visit Gen Con and I guarantee you’ll come home jazzed to begin some serious work.

Friends

Gen Con is also where I meet a lot of friends that I see rarely… generally once a year, in fact! I’ve made a lot of contacts in the gaming industry, and I’ve been very fortunate to also have a lot of friends who are also either gamers or game industry professionals.
I’ve heard it said by some of my friends that “Ross knows everybody” at Gen Con. While this is not technically true (Sean Fannon has that honor), I do know a lot of people at Gen Con. Walking through the Dealer’s Hall results in me saying “Hi” to someone I know around once every five minutes on average. I’m not saying this to brag, but just to help express how much I love going to Gen Con and seeing all the people I know. It’s a good time to catch up, to shake hands, to congratulate them on their accomplishments… and, of course, to give them my card if they’re looking for a writer. 🙂
Lars makes the sign of the Aquila at the Dark Heresy game.
This year I spent a lot of time hanging out with my “partners in crime,” John Dunn and Jason Marker. The three of us are kind of like the Musketeers, once you get us together, anything can happen.
Special shout-outs for this year also include Sean “where’s the party at?” Fannon and Carinn “I’m a brunette now” Seabolt, Andrea Castellow, Randall “Leviathans master” Bills, Jason “I also liked Fields of Fire” Hardy, and Mack “I made a game about evil babies in 6 weeks” Martin. It was similarly awesome to hook up with my compadres at FFG and hoist a mug or two to the announcement of the new Star Wars RPG.

Events

Gen Con is stuffed full of things to do. If you’re a fan of any kind of pop culture, you’re going to have a plethora of options for events during the entire weekend. In fact, things have grown so much that I’ve started calling it “the best /five/ days in gaming.”
This year, as with every year, I had a lot of fun in the events. I tried out the Dungeons and Dragons crossword and got the answer right with “Catoblepas.” I joked with the organizer that he should’ve had a harder word like “ixitxachitl” or “penanggalan.”
There were plenty of parties and celebrations at the Ram and (my personal favorite) Scotty’s Brewhouse. There were the ENnie awards on Friday night, which is quite fun—and Paizo cleaned house for another year with Pathfinder products. Good work, Paizo Team!
I attended the Fantasy Flight Games InFlight Report and learned what is coming up in the future for my old alma mater, and it was there that the big announcement for Edge of the Empire, the new Star Wars RPG was unveiled. This announcement was complete with stormtroopers and free copies of the beta game, so it was kind of a big deal! I helped a little with the skills and races, but unfortunately, most of my work was cut out of the Beta so… my name was left off the credits. (cue sad, sad trombone!)
Of course, the best events for me were the games.
I got to play in Jason Marker’s Savage Robotech game, which was a real hoot—also present was my friend Paul Algee, John Dunn, and Josh “Dead Reign” Hilden. This adventure helped codify a particularly distinct attitude that can be summed up thusly:
“Why? Because F&*@ Yeah Robotech, that’s why.”
Behold the glories of Shaintar, presented by Sean Fannon (far left)
I also played a totally awesome game of Shaintar with Sean Patrick Fannon—as I’ve mentioned in his interview, Sean is a true game master, and this session was no exception. Shaintar has recently been released as a free beta, so I encourage you to go check it out.
I got to play a game of Leviathans with the developer, Randall Bills. Leviathans is a really fun ship-to-ship combat game that is unlike nearly anything else on the market. It was a complete blast and it is no surprise that Leviathans sold well throughout the convention.
Saturday, I played in a Dark Heresy game run by Andrea Castellow, featuring some old friends (Hi Lars!) and some new ones (like Teras Cassidy of Geek Nation Tours).
Late Saturday night I ran a game of Deathwatch using the “Traitor’s Dawn” scenario from First Founding. I call this my “podcast” game, since I had the D6Generation crew, Cody and John from Game On, and the Nerdherders all gathered at my table. It went really well and it was a great session.

Preparations!

When going to Gen Con, you’ve got to prepare. Even this year, when my schedule was really light, it was also very chaotic. I ended dropping the ball quite seriously for a Thursday night game of Deathwatch I was supposed to run for the Catalyst Game Labs guys, and I feel pretty crap about it.

In addition, there’s just so much going on at Gen Con, I never get to do all the things I want to do. I always end up looking at the program book a few days later and thinking “Man, how did I miss that?”

Next year, my advice is the same as my own intentions: plan ahead as much as possible!
Lastly, I want to give a special mention to the VIG program. This is a premium package that is well worth the extra cost. The amount of goodies given away to VIGs this year was mind-blowing, plus VIGs don’t have to worry about huge lines for registration, they have a place to store their bags for free, plenty of refreshments, and lots of special VIG-only events. VIGs also get to go into the Dealer’s Hall an hour early on Thursday, which is huge.
All in all, Gen Con is and continues to be a great show. If you’ve ever thought about going, I hope this account has helped you make up your mind—it is totally worth it!

RPG Setting/System Review: Birthright

Greetings, readers! This week’s blog post is all about one of my absolute all-time favorite campaign settings: Birthright. This setting was initially created for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition and was released in 1995. I first encountered it in 1996 when playing Dungeons and Dragons in the army at Fort Knox. At first, I wasn’t sure about all this—players are kings? Prior to reading Birthright, my main exposure to a fully-developed campaign setting was the Forgotten Realms, so it was with some suspicion that I picked up the boxed set and began reading.
Michael Roele falls before the Gorgon and ends the reign of Anuirean Empire.
Overnight, I became a Birthright nut. It’s fair to say that I am one of the most ardent fans of the setting in the world—I’ve ran or played in over a dozen campaigns, both tabletop and through the internet; I contributed to the 3rd edition Birthright fan-made sourcebook; I negotiated for original art with the main artist of the setting, Tony Szczudlo; I tracked down the creators at every opportunity to thank them for making such an awesome setting; I read all the novels and played the hell out of the computer game. I’m proud of being known as “The Birthright guy.”
So it should be clear by now that the Birthright setting is very important to me as a gamer and is a significant part of my gaming history. Writing this blog post is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, but I wanted to make sure that I took care to do it right!

The Creators

When you talk about Birthright, there are four names you need to know.
Rich Baker and Colin McComb were the architects of the main setting and rules, while Ed Stark and Carrie Bebris fleshed out much of the rest of the world of Birthright.
The talent of this group is remarkable—consider that these folks created 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, built the Forgotten Realms we know today, developed the best iteration of the Planescape setting, and helped craft amazing games like Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2—and that’s just a highlight reel.
It should also be mentioned that the art of Tony Szczudlo really brought the setting to life; he brings a stark and grim style that still feels epic and fantastic and encompasses everything Birthright was about in his paintings.

The Setting

Birthright is a fantasy setting that has a distinct feel from other “D&D-like” realms. I enjoy Baker’s quote about Birthright from a Dragon Magazine article (and referenced in his Wikipedia Page): “I’m very proud of it. It represents an entirely new approach to the traditional fantasy roleplaying campaign, and the world itself is filled with a strong sense of history.”
A glorious battle scene by Tony Szczudlo.
The main focus of Birthright is the continent of Cerilia and the default region known as Anuire. Birthright’s Wikipedia page contains some info on the other regions if you’re curious.*
*Note: I’m going to be careful to try and not re-state info from Wikipedia, and if you really want to know more about Birthright, I’m including some links below to a number of freely available materials on the web.
More about Birthright after the break! (This is a long one, folks)

Death of the Gods

Probably the most significant element of Birthright is that a major war between the gods occurred over fifteen centuries ago; the god of evil, Azrai, gathered a huge force of monsters, men (mostly the tribes of Vosgaard), and elves (whom Azrai had seduced with promises of support to root out the humans from their forests and restore their ancient glory). The other gods gathered their own armies and together these two forces met in battle on the slopes of Mount Deismaar. The battle was apocalyptic in scale—the elves switched sides at a pivotal moment, tipping the balance against Azrai. 
The battle ended when the gods sacrificed themselves to destroy Azrai before he could unleash his vengeance. Thus, the gods died—their divine essence rained down onto the battlefield, raising new gods from those closest to the confrontation and imbuing hundreds more with divine power in their bloodlines that connected them to the lands they ruled.

Broken Empire

Anuire forms the ruins of a shattered empire. Once, the rulers of Anuire straddled most of Cerilia, having conquered vast portions of the continent over generations of war. However, the last emperor perished roughly 550 years prior to the current campaign date, plunging the empire into disarray and civil war. In the current time, Anuire is a fractured realm, with many smaller kingdoms struggling for dominance. There are a handful of contenders for the Iron Throne of the Emperor, but there is plenty of room for a resourceful and strong player character to unite Anuire beneath his banner. Anuire has a strong historical and cultural link to Britain, and there are many parallels that one can draw between struggles in Anuire to the War of the Roses and other civil conflicts in Britain’s history.
A cleric invests a scion’s heir with his bloodline as he lays dying on the field of battle.
(This is not limited just to the main region of Anuire. Much of Birthright’s setting is based on real-world historical cultures and conflicts. The region of Brechtur, for example, is modeled upon the Hanseatic League.)
What I like about Anuire: While it’s fair to say that I really like all of the Birthright regions (I have a special fondness for the Khinasi Cities of the Sun and the Brechtur Havens of the Great Bay), Anuire is my favorite. I love that you can find nearly every example of Birthright’s touchstones in Anuire, from dangerous Awnsheghlien like the Gorgon and the Spider to mysterious elven realms like the Sielwode. Powerful wizards like the Sword Mage can be found there, as well as lawless regions crying out for a hero to forge them into a realm—such as the Five Peaks. The goblin kingdom of Thurazor, the wonders of the Imperial City, unexplored islands lying temptingly close to familiar shores, ancient ruined keeps and deep-delving dwarves—Anuire has it all.
The region of Anuire is also chock-full of interesting personalities and NPC’s. The Gorgon is the most powerful awnsheghlien on the continent and constantly schemes to claim the Iron Throne. Rhoubhe Manslayer represents the resentment and hatred of the Elves towards the tribes of humanity who drove them out of their forests. The Mhor of Mhoried holds the unwelcome position of the realm most likely to suffer the Gorgon’s wrath; he must be ever-vigilant to raise his defenses against an inhuman and implacable foe. The Archduke of Boeruine schemes to position himself as the pre-eminent candidate for a restored Empire. The wizard known as the Eyeless One conducts mysterious experiments among the lawless mountains of the Five Peaks.
You can practically /taste/ the epic. If you’re like me, you’re probably hearing the Skyrim (or the Game of Thrones) theme in your head right now.
And these are just a handful of the cool characters to encounter in just one region!

The Shadow World

Cerilia has a dark twin, a twisted reflection of itself known as the Shadow World. This is a parallel dimension where shadows and night linger and take the forms of nightmare. The undead draw strength from the Shadow World, and it is a sinister place of great danger for any living thing. The Halflings claim that they once dwelt in the Shadow World, but the dimension slowly changed into its current form and drove them away. 
The Raven is a powerful Awnshegh with ties to the Shadow World.
There are still places in Cerilia where the boundaries between it and the Shadow World are thin, and creatures may pass from one to the other easily. There are some advantages to doing so, for each step travelled in the Shadow World is hundreds of paces in Cerilia, allowing for extremely fast movement between two points. There are many who claim that Azrai’s divine essence corrupted the Shadow World and exists there as a foul and murderous avatar known only as the Cold Rider.

Divine Right

Take your Dungeons & Dragons game, place it in a kickass setting, and add a dash of Highlander. Now, you’re getting closer to Birthright. Since the destruction at Deismaar, the divine essence of the old gods has been passed down through bloodlines. These bloodlines vary in strength, and grant unusual powers (known as Blood Abilities) to the Blooded. Known as Scions, creatures with a divine bloodline can increase their power either through wise rulership or (more commonly) through slaying other blooded creatures with a blow through the heart to steal that divine essence. This process is known as Bloodtheft.
Some old-school miniatures of Blooded Scions and Regents of Cerilia.
Those scions possessing the bloodline of Azrai face a particular danger—if their bloodline gains significant strength through bloodtheft, it is possible that the blood may corrupt them into inhuman monsters of great power known as Awnsheghlien (“blood of darkness”). Several Awnsheghlien roam Cerilia—some of them even rule vast realms and command armies of loyal followers. Others are nearly-mindless beasts who occasionally rampage through civilized lands.
The impact of blood abilities is to add a new layer of interesting things to do and react to in the game. For example, a noble paladin might have the blood of Azrai in his veins, and must struggle against that part of his nature. A stealthy theif may have the blood of the sun goddess and find he has powers over light. A character with a minor bloodline may scheme to improve it, whilst a character with a great bloodline may be pressured to live up to his dynasty’s ideals.

Land of Legends

The Birthright setting is a curious mix of low-magic and epic fantasy. On the one hand, most magic-users in Birthright practice what is known as “Lesser Magic,” essentially illusionists who are restricted from casting truly powerful spells that affect the real world. Blooded Wizards and Elves, however, practice “True Magic” and can cast any of the normal Player’s Handbook spells. This means that wizards who practice True Magic are vanishingly rare—a blooded Wizard is often a figure of legend and fear. Most of these wizards have a particular name or title that reinforces that feel, such as the Sword Mage, the Eyeless One, and so forth. 
True magic is impressive stuff…
When it comes to True Magic, there are three distinct tiers. The first is the normal adventuring magic found in the Player’s Handbook. The second are known as Battle Spells—these incantations are very similar to the ones in the Player’s Handbook, but take longer to cast and can affect entire units of soldiers on the battlefield. An example of a Battle Spell is the Storm of Magic Missiles. The third and most powerful tier is known as Realm Magic—these spells can affect large regions of a realm, known as provinces, and can have an impact on hundreds of people with a single casting.
Similarly, many of the more fantastical monsters of D&D are missing in Cerilia—beholders, ropers, and illithids are unknown, for an example. Instead, many of the classical D&D monsters—Dragons, Griffins, etc. exist in Cerilia, but in small numbers (there are roughly only twelve Dragons in the known world) and are possessed of awesome power. A Cerilian Dragon would probably wipe the floor with most Dragons from other D&D settings, to give you just one idea.
This is expressed even in the nature of player characters—Elves are immortal, capricious beings who haunt their forests like beings of fey. Dwarves are as tough as the rocks they live amongst. There are no known gnomes, tieflings, or other such races in Cerilia.
There are no generic orcs in Birthright… instead, the main foes are the Goblin races (Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears), Gnoll raiders, and Orogs (massive, ogre-like evil humanoids who tunnel up into the world from below and a major enemy of the dwarves). Many of these monstrous races control realms and kingdoms of their own, often right next to (or carved out of!) more civilized lands of men and elves.
The Awnsheghlien, mentioned above, are legendary foes that all have histories, and occasionally special abilities or weaknesses hidden in the stories whispered of them by minstrels. Each Awnsheghlien is simply a fantastic enemy—just reading about them makes it seem like would be eminently satisfying to defeat such a monster! Part of this feel is reinforced by observing the map of Cerilia and understanding that each Awnsheghlien rules over hundreds or thousands of (usually) oppressed subjects and threatens any surrounding realms with death and war. This escalation of importance of the bad guys really brings home the level of threat… and consequently, the potential rewards of finding victory in combat against such a dire foe. The Elven realm of Cmwb Bheinn (pronounced Coom Veen) is threatened by two Awnsheghlien realms, and reading about it never fails to make me want to draw my sword and defend that lonesome forest against the encroaching darkness.

Domain Rules

One of the most interesting features of Birthright is another layer of rules that encompasses ruling a realm. Again, the Wikipedia entry covers this in pretty good detail, so I’ll limit myself to commenting on my own feelings about the Domain rules.
An Awnshegh known as the Ogre destroys a noble’s knights… only a blooded hero can face such a threat and survive.
The Birthright Domain rules were one of the first of its kind—before this, there hadn’t really been any decent rules for running a country or for roleplaying at the level of a king. The rules for running a domain are quite well-developed, robust, and innovative. It all turns on the nature of the regent, of course, meaning that Fighters generally run law holdings better and Rogues get a free Espionage action, as examples. The way the Domain rules are laid out it is entirely possible to run a game without any of the traditional D&D tropes of dungeon crawls! Many, many play-by-e-mail campaigns have been set up using the Birthright Domain ruleset where the rulers of each realm struggle for dominance without ever once setting foot in a dungeon or drawing a blade against a dragon.
The Domain rules are not without some flaws; there’s no real way to run or create secret holdings—regents are generally always aware of all holdings inside their realm. Druids tend to be somewhat screwed compared to other Divine Casters, in that they don’t really benefit from high levels of civilization. The default setting is that Wizards require unspoiled lands to have high level holdings, which can be rather counter-intuitive for other campaign settings (such as the Forgotten Realms), which limits the versatility of the ruleset somewhat.
Even so, these Domain rules are overall well-designed and could be used to portray nearly any fantasy campaign setting with a few judicious tweaks. Even if the other aspects of Birthright don’t really light your fire, definitely check out the Domain ruleset.

My Thoughts

Given what I said at the beginning of this post, gentle reader, it should be clear by now that I love Birthright fiercely.
I feel that the setting fits together really well. Every piece feels interrelated and part of one, singular vision. I think one possibly explanation as to why Birthright feels so solid to me is that it had a short and limited print run—there was never an opportunity for things to go off the rails like so many other settings. This is not to say that Birthright is perfect… some of the Player’s Secrets books are particularly flawed, but others are fairly good, so overall I would call it a wash.
The names of the setting are all very cool, although often difficult to spell and pronounce… especially the Welsh-derived Elven words and names!
The Domain rules and divine bloodlines are unique elements of Birthright that I feel were elegantly executed and make the setting stand out as a truly memorable place to set your campaign.

Swept Under The Rug

Unfortunately, Birthright did not enjoy great commercial success—some have said it was due to the products arriving near the end of TSR’s “setting glut,” a time in which the market was saturated with different D&D settings from Mystara to various flavors of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, amongst others.
Heartless indeed!
In many ways, Birthright never really got the attention it deserved… after the initial release, the line ended prematurely with several products still in development, and few nearly complete (such as the Book of Regency and Blood Spawn).
Possibly the greatest oversight is that the Birthright setting was left entirely out of the 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons retrospective book… a book that covered every other D&D setting ever published.

Player’s Secrets

I’m pleased to say that I was involved with the 3rdedition fan creation of the Birthright setting, found at Birthright.net.
In addition, many of the products of Birthright were made available for free by the Wizards of the Coast in 2005. Amongst these is probably the best of the Birthright novels (written by Rich Baker himself), The Falcon and the Wolf.
Also created for Birthright was a very popular boardgame known as Legacy of Kings. Although this board game had non-stop lines at Gen Con every year it was shown, the board game was never produced.
Just as a side note, if anyone from Wizards/Hasbro is reading this–please release this board game! You seem really into doing D&D board games right now, and this one is a surefire hit! Thank you.
Sierra created a computer game for the setting known as Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance. Although this video game had poor sales, I consider it to be very fun and enjoyable as a Birthright fan.
I won’t share links on this blog post, but the original free downloads of Birthright products made available by Wizards of the Coast are still out there on the internet if one has sufficient google-fu.

Interview Time: Owen Barnes

I’m excited about this week’s interview… Owen Barnes is a very talented and prolific RPG writer whose work has appeared in a number of places, possibly most notably in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition and in all(!) of the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay lines, from Dark Heresy on forwards into the present.
Owen is a consummate professional and extremely good to work with–when I was a lead developer at FFG, Owen was a surefire way to generate great content for any book. It was Owen I turned to every time we needed to generate a Free RPG Day preview of the upcoming 40K Roleplay Game for that year. Owen and I worked together in dozens of books, and I’m pleased to call him both a colleague and a friend.
From my own career, working with Owen was in some ways a “passing of the torch” from Black Industries when I took over the 40K RPG line at Fantasy Flight Games. Owen is, in fact, part of the original Dark Heresy team and has been uniquely involved through the entire run of the game lines.
I never really got to meet or work with most of the other creators of Dark Heresy, but I always felt that by incorporating Owen into everything we did, we were continuing the legacy of those pioneer game designers.
As a fun note, Owen himself appears in the Deathwatch supplement Rites of Battle as “Inquisitor Barnabus.” 
It’s a spitting image of the chap!
Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
Owen: Like a lot of gamers I started young; my first memories of gaming were in the early 80s at the age of seven when my older Brother wouldn’t let me play DnD with him and his mates… apparently it contained gold pieces, secret doors and other things I wouldn’t understand. Needless to say it didn’t put me off and I spent much of my youth gaming in one form or another; starting out the with classic DnD Red Box and then moving on to ADnD and finally discovering the wider world of RPGs in high school. Fast forward 20 odd years and somehow I’ve managed to turn writing adventures for a small group of mates into some semblance of a career.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Owen: Growing up in New Zealand and then Australia I never really gave much thought to actually having a career in roleplaying games, especially in the days before the internet when the people who created these games seemed a long, long way away. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK and got a job at Games Workshop that it became a possibility. It all kind of just happened very randomly, and while I started at GW as a mail order troll, it’s the kind of company where I got the chance to write something for the then Black Industries, which in turn led to a job, and the figurative ‘foot in the door’.
A trip down the picturesque and perilous canals of the Old World…
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The thing I love more than anything else about the RPG industry is that you are sharing in other people’s imaginations and the worlds and adventures they create with their friends. Few other hobbies have that same level of involvement with its members, where when you write a book you are not saying “this is how it is and will always be” but “here, take what you want and create your own stories”. I know from my own experience the memories of adventures and campaigns played with your mates live on years after they finish, and to be part of that with other people is an amazing thing.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The first thing that springs to mind is money… though to be fair writing is universally a poorly paid profession unless you are very lucky, very talented or more likely both. Unfortunately it means a lot of people which would make excellent writers, games designers and artists will never get the chance because there are simply better ways of making a living, many of which leave little room for the time and effort of creating games.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
Owen: For the last five years I’ve largely been working as a freelancer, and it has taught me a lot about myself, and my limits. Coming from a large successful company and sitting in an open-plan office to surviving as a freelance writer does feel akin to leaving the Staff HQ and joining the men in the trenches. While it has been hard, it has also been great, and I feel closer to the industry. It has also helped my writing no end; nothing like the fear of not getting paid to get fingers hitting keys.
This product was one of the highlights of Free RPG Day 2012!
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?
Owen: Having now had a fair amount of experience from both sides of the fence I think I’d try and communicate more with the other writers, developers and designers, and encourage them to communicate more with me. From my experience many of the issues encountered when creating a project seem to stem from misunderstandings or divergent ideas, which can be a problem to set right once you have a finished draft in your hands. It’s also been my experience that everyone working on a project wants it to be great, and so even a few emails or a five minute conversation can clear things up before someone knocks out 20,000 words, which as great as they might be don’t fit the brief.
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?
Owen: As a freelancer: hit your deadlines, keep to your brief and most importantly of all talk to your developer; you need to know what his vision for the project is and you need to tell him any ideas you might have early on, so he can work it into that vision (especially if there are other writers involved).
As a publisher: create clear briefs and make sure your freelancers (be they writers, artists or developers) know exactly what you want from them; you can’t blame them for creating something you are not 100% happy with if you didn’t tell them what you wanted. As a publisher I’d also say be flexible and don’t micro manage too much; like a good landlord you need to create the environment but then step back and let them get on with it.
One of the great cover art pieces of Ralph Horsely
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
Owen: I’d make it bigger; say 10 million more avid roleplayers would be a good start. This of course would mean more money, bigger and more professional companies and more people choosing it as a career path, becoming designers, writers and artists. It would also most importantly mean more high quality products for gamers to choose from.
That said though I do think the RPG industry does pretty darn well given the resources at its disposal.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Owen: Sadly I don’t get to meet fans of my work very often, though I have from time to time chatted with people at cons. While I do post on forums about gaming I tend to do so anonymously, an old habit from years of working at GW. I also read a lot of forums and observe people (not in a creepy way) at cons and events who are looking at things I’ve worked on. Though it doesn’t really count as ‘engaging’ one of my abiding memories of this was in 2007 at a con in Sydney. I was going down a stairwell and had to go around a bunch of young guys pouring over a copy of Dark Heresy (which at the time had just come out); reminded me of how excited I get about games and what it is all about.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Owen: I probably say contributing to the Free RPG day for the last 4 years, writing the free adventures for Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade and most recently Only War. I really enjoyed creating something which anyone could get their hands on and which was for many the first taste of a game. It was also an added bonus that I got to work with the fantastic Warhammer 40,000 world and Fantasy Flight Games which have very high production values, even when it comes to a free product.
A very close second though would be the Critical Hit tables from Dark Heresy; which are up there as the most fun I’ve had as a writer.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
Owen: Not doing enough of my own stuff. I think to really succeed in the RPG industry you need to be really motivated, you need to not only do the stuff that pays but the stuff that might pay and the stuff which doesn’t pay but you want to do anyway. I have a lot of trouble with the last two, and tend (like most freelancers) never to turn down a paying job, which means I don’t get around to writing my own stuff, or working on products I am simply interested in but for which there is no real paying work.
Owen served as the developer for the Dark Heresy line with Black Industries with Kate Flack and Mike Mason.
RW: You’ve been with 40K Roleplay since the very beginning (Dark Heresy). How do you feel about the way the lines have grown and changed over the years?
Owen: I think it is great how much it has expanded since its relatively humble beginnings. Given the few books Black Industries created before we closed down, and that there were only really a couple of us putting them together I didn’t think at the time it would have the life it has taken on. I was prepared for Dark Heresy to be a standalone game with a few supplements, existing by itself until someone had another crack at RPGs in the 40k universe. The way Fantasy Flight Games has taken it and turned it into one of the biggest RPG lines out there is awesome, not to mention it has given me a chance to continue working on a universe I really love. Someone was telling me recently that there is actually more written about the Calixis Sector and its surrounding regions than all of the table-top material put together. Certainly it has to one of the most detailed sections of the 40K setting.
I’m also pleased to see FFG expanding and cleaning up the system from the rather creaky thing we started with (basically the 2nd Edition WFRP system adapted for 40K). Like any roleplaying game for it to grow and develop people need to play it, and publishers need to put out books and I’m happy to see the 40K RPG is doing both.
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?
Owen: This is actually something about roleplaying games I love. Unlike a lot of other creative mediums you are inviting the end user to take what you have created and alter it for their own needs; adding things, taking things away or ignoring things to make their own games the way they want them.
I did find this a challenge at first since I was coming from writing wargames which by their nature need to be clear cut. The real trick I discovered was finding that balance between just enough information to be useful without drowning the reader in detail; something which is especially true of adventures, where you need to predict what the reader is going to what know for his players.
Owen’s done quite a bit of work for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay both in 2nd and 3rd edition.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
Owen: A disillusioned Cleric of a little known god, wrestling with his questionable life choices and a love/hate relationship with his deity. He would preach the virtues of his god to any who will listen while inside struggling with self-doubt over the righteousness of the path he has chosen to walk.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
Owen: SLA industries. I love the dark cyberpunk nature of it mixed with the crushing bureaucracy and the monstrous nature of the PCs themselves. Over the years I’ve had some great games of SLA which mix in my mind the best bits of horror and investigation along with some really gritty combat thrown into the mix. Bullet tax: love it.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Owen: Command of English is a pretty big one, something which you can tell early on from reading someone’s work. This is not to say that the grammar and punctuation need to be perfect (though in the age of spellcheckers there is no excuse for misspelled words), but it shouldn’t be difficult to read and should have some kind of flow. Communicating ideas is also an important aspect; does it clearly tell me something, or do I have to dig through the text for what the writer is trying to say.
When I was working as a developer for Black Industries I would actually forgive the above as long as the writer had a good understanding of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings. In my experience it’s easier to improve your writing techniques than it is truly ‘get’ a setting, and be able to create something which fits seamlessly into it. 
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Owen: Savage Worlds. I’ve come to it kind of late, only really getting into it in the last couple of years but I have been very impressed with its versatility and depth as well as its ease of play. I used to use GURPS for all my generic gaming needs (when I wasn’t playing in a world with a specific system tied to it), but it only really shines with a group of people that are very familiar with it. By contrast Savage Worlds can be picked up in a few minutes, characters knocked out in that same about of time and you are on your way!

RPG System Review: Torg

Greetings, readers! This week, I’m taking a look at a somewhat obscure RPG from the 90’s that took on some ambitious goals—and in many ways represents an innovative step in roleplaying game design. I’m talking about the boxed set containing cyberpunks, barbarian warriors, dinosaurs and superheroes… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the game known as Torg.

Cyberpunks and Priests. This is actually just one realm in Torg.
Created by West End Games in 1990, Torg is a cinematic, multi-genre roleplaying game from the talented pens of Greg Gordon and Bill Slavicsek. Torg is an acronym for “The Other Roleplaying Game,” and its original presentation was as a boxed set that included rulebooks, a “possibility shard” that was in fact an oddly colored D20, and a “drama deck” of cards (more on these later). Also included in the box was an advertisement for the Infiniverse magazine, a periodical of in-universe information for Torg that promised to track and include the progress of a campaign through “rumors” in the magazine that would be confirmed or denied. This system made use of a response form to tell West End Games what happened during your campaign.

What is it all about?

Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
In “the near now,” Earth has been invaded by a number of other dimensions, each ruled by a “High Lord.” The High Lords have changed the natural laws wherever their reign rules supreme, and large areas of the planet have transformed to match the invading reality. The player characters are “Storm Knights,” special people from Earth and the invading dimensions who are gifted with a limited ability to affect “possibility energy,” a rich field that envelops Earth and interacts with all of the invading dimensions. The Storm Knights oppose many of the High Lords and the plans of one in particular, the evil Gaunt Man.
For the rest of the review, click to follow after the jump! 

In my opinion, the most distinct and interesting things about Torg were its setting and its system.

The Setting

Pseudo-Victorian gothic colonialism Horror is just one of many, many parts of the setting.

Torg’s Wikipedia article does a better job than I can explaining the various “cosms” that have invaded Earth in Torg, but I will single out a few to mention here that I found to be interesting or unusual.
The Cyberpapacy: This realm is bound to raise some eyebrows with its very concept, and it can definitely make some folks uncomfortable with its portrayal of a pre-reformation—meaning /very/ corrupt and immoral—Catholic Church.
The Nile Empire: This realm rocks, period! The authors of the game are obviously fans of pulp adventure, and it shows through in many places. Not just the Nile Empire, either: Orrorsh, the Land Below, and (of course) Terra are all very pulp-y and flavorful.
The Nile Empire has some really great character archetypes, from the Amazon to the Rocket Ranger, and I heartily endorse it as my personal favorite realm—both to adventure in and to build characters from.
Tharkold: This is a really interesting mashup of the Terminator and Hellraiser… and definitely the kind of place I don’t think you’d be able to find anywhere else. While it is not as interesting to me personally as the Nile Empire, it is still a cool idea and worth checking out.

The System

One notable thing about the Torg system is that it strongly encourages a cinematic approach. Game sessions are divided into Acts and Scenes, for example, and the ways that characters interact with the world are intended to be more epic than a typical roleplaying game. Keep in mind that the following is a very basic overview and that my own experience has been limited to just a few games so far!
D20 and Result: To resolve actions in Torg, you roll a D20 and consult a simple chart. Low numbers on the roll give you penalties, high rolls on the chart grant bonuses. Applying these to the base attribute or skill produced your result. The D20 is rolled again if the player rolls a 10 or a 20, meaning that very high results are possible. The value of a skill is directly added to an attribute for this purpose.
The “possibility shard” d20.
Here’s an example: Rex Steele is trying to hit a cultist serving the evil Dr. Mobius. Rex’s Dexterity is 10 and his Unarmed Combat skill is 3. Rex rolls a d20 and gets a result of 14, which is a +1 result on the chart. Adding the +1 to Rex’s Dexterity and Unarmed Combat gives him a total of 14, which is higher than the cultist’s Dodge. The cultist is roundly struck by the Rocket Ranger’s fist.
Possibilities: The idea of Possibilities is interesting; these represent the Storm Knight’s ability to affect reality. A player can spend a possibility to enhance his roll, giving him an additional roll of the d20 and adding it to his previous roll to find the result on the chart (for example, Rex Steele in the above example spends a possibility when attacking the cultist. Rex rolls an additional d20 and gets a result of 9. Rex adds the 9 to the 13 that he previously rolled for a total of 22. Comparing that number to the chart shows that Rex would get a +8 modifier. Adding that to his Dexterity of 10 and Unarmed Combat of 3 means that Rex’s total result would be 21.).
Characters start the game with a number of possibilities (typically 10) and are awarded more at the end of each game session. Spent Possibilities are gone forever.
Unfortunately, Torg also says that Possibilities are your experience points. Player characters spend possibilities to increase their abilities and attributes over time. 
What is cool is that characters can learn and grow in interesting ways. A mage from Aysle can learn Kung fu. A priest from Orrorsh can learn computer hacking skills. A superhero from the Nile Empire can learn to cast spells. Gaining abilities like this is not cheap, but it is possible!
Characters from the Nile Empire with superpowers were required to spend a number of Possibilities (typically 3) every session to keep their powers working. I’m not a fan of this approach. At all.
Many of the named bad guys (the more important and dramatic foes that you encounter during a session) can spend possibilities as well, and doing so is the only way they can re-roll a low result. However, possibilities can be spent to oppose each other, essentially cancelling each other out. Therefore, a character may spend a possibility to stop a hated foe from re-rolling a low result, or vice versa.
Actions:  In keeping with the cinematic nature of the game, Torg allows all characters to do much more than simply attack an enemy in combat. Other Actions that any kind of character can take include Maneuver (Move yourself or someone else, shift positions, etc.), Trick (get someone to do something you want them to do), Test of Wills (attempt to get an opponent to flee or surrender), Taunt, or Intimidate. These abilities are further incentivized by the Drama Deck (see below), where characters are offered a bonus if they perform the specific action called for on the card.
The Drama Deck: One of the most controversial elements of Torg’s system is a deck of cards known as the Drama Deck. These cards are multipurpose; not only do they determine who goes first in combat (either the heroes—the PCs—or the villains), they determine various effects that occur in combat (such as Setbacks) and offer players a number of options that they can play during combat to enhance their own abilities (such as cards that offer extra actions or bonuses). 
When the Drama Deck is being used to determine initiative, it also offers a selection of actions (see above) that are given a bonus; if the player performs one of the actions during that round of combat, he can draw an additional card from the deck into his hand. Thus, if the card is turned over at the beginning of the combat has “Maneuver/Trick” on it, players are incentivized to use those actions that round. 
Personally, I really like the Drama Deck, as it makes combat interesting and constantly provides something fresh to work with in every part of the fight.
Realities and Cosms: The rulebook also contains some really interesting rules for how the various cosms work; each one has their own “realm laws” that change the way things work when in that reality. On top of that, there are ways for groups of Storm Knights to use their abilities to affect reality, create “possibility shards” to help stabilize their own individual realms, and even carry a portable piece of a certain reality around with them.
In Addition: The game handles separate rules for miracles of faith, magic spells, cybernetics, and superpowers. Later on, psionics were also added.

A Troubled History

 

Alas, poor Infiniverse… a great idea brought low before its time. I seem to be saying that a lot lately.
Torg had some limited success in the market, but was held back by a number of issues. One of the most notable issues involved the writing of the rules system—while the system itself was sound, the descriptions of how things worked had been left at a very technical stage and there was no time allotted to edit it into something more easily understood. Some sources claim that Torg was rushed into production to compete with Palladium Books’ Rifts game that came out at roughly the same time.
It has been said that one of the common sayings is that if you could send Greg Gordon to every gamer’s house who purchased Torg to run it for them, the game would have been a huge success… this concept was called “Greg-in-a-box.”
Unfortunately, the game ground to a halt only a few years later. Infiniverse floundered, and the game did not take any advantage of the birth of the internet.
A company known as Omni Gaming Products released a new issue of Infiniverse as part of their attempt to relaunch the game, but the attempt failed.
West End Games announced in 2004 that they were interested in and working on a new edition of Torg, but despite promises that the game would be revealed at Gen Con 2006, nothing has actually been produced for a Torg “2.0.”

The Good

Just about anything is possible in Torg!
 
Torg’s setting and mechanics are, in my opinion, inspirational and revelatory. The Drama Deck is exciting and unique, and the die roll mechanic is a blend of Savage Worlds and D20, with a simple and elegant resolution mechanic.
The game’s focus on cinematics encourages imaginative combat scenes with lots of action and creative stunts.
The system as a whole strikes me as one that is surprisingly rules-light while providing plenty of depth.
The setting is intriguing and presents so many options that it is hard to find something that doesn’t give you a few adventure ideas just on a casual read. In addition, many of the settings (especially the Nile Empire and Tharkold) are quite cool and unlike anything else out there in the RPG industry.
The idea of your character using the universal laws of various dimensions and taking advantage of his own ability to affect reality is especially cool and distinct, and I definitely feel that this is a great game to study as a game designer for some interesting and unusual twists on the normal RPG experience.

The Bad

The way the rules of Torg are written, they are difficult to understand and are not very well explained—a good editing pass and some additional playtesting would have really helped, but in my opinion the rules sections should be entirely re-written with an eye towards clarity and ease of use.
I feel that Torg failed to capitalize on many of the unique opportunities of its setting. A good example is the Victorian-Horror realm of Orrorsh. While you can play a vampyre or a werewolf, some additional attention to playing as monsters (like Frankenstein’s monster) or monster hunters (perhaps in the same style as Solomon Kane) would have really added a great deal of flavor. In the same vein, I think it is good that the realm of Aysle exists in the setting, but I found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to play a traditional fantasy adventurer with all of the other options that are available.
Each Cosm has different ratings in Technology, Spirituality, Magic, and Culture. Generally speaking, if you try to use an item, skill, or ability that has a higher rating than the cosm you are currently in, it has trouble working or may fail to function at all. Therefore, using high-tech gear in the Living Land (which is primitive) or Aysle (which is roughly medieval, much like many fantasy worlds) has a chance to result in failure—the item may disconnect from your home reality or even transform into something more fitting for the cosm you’re in at the time, like a rock or a sword replacing a handgun.
This is generally fine as an idea, but it means that low-tech items remain useful more often than high-tech ones. This means that an Eidinos (lizardmen native to the Living Land) with a stone spear can continue to use his stone spear without too much trouble in nearly every realm. Likewise, a Hospitaller from the Cyberpapacy will find that his power sword, machine gun, and cybernetic implants are far more troublesome to use in nearly every other realm aside from Tharkold. Overall, this means that lower-tech items are more valuable over the long run. Admittedly, this is a bit of a nit-pick, but I feel it is worth mention.
Lastly, I think it is quite a shame that Infiniverse floundered the way that it did, and I wish that the game had more embraced the World Wide Web during its day.

The Ugly

The back side of the Drama Deck cards.

 

The way that Possibilities act as both a way to boost your abilities in the game and as experience points is a terrible, terrible idea. Punishing players who want to do cool things is a direct refutation of the otherwise cinematic-focused system. Possibilities should be used just as boosts or as ways to interact with the reality rules of each dimension… something completely separate should be earned and used instead as experience points. Otherwise, Drama Cards and the use of Possibilities in-game as boosts become an option that several players—including myself—would simply ignore in favor of developing the character’s own abilities.
Characters with cybernetics are basically screwed right from the start. Oh, cybernetic characters have a lot of built-in advantages; they’re usually better in many ways than other starting characters and have access to very effective gear. Some of the best starting weapons and armor in the game, for example, are available to cybernetic characters.
However, Cybernetic characters have a unique flaw in that they suffer from cyberpsychosis—whenever a card from the drama deck indicates a “setback,” cybernetic characters must make a Spirit test, and the result of that test is compared to the Cyberpsychosis chart. Most of that chart is bad, ranging from suffering minor penalties to being stuck doing nothing for a couple of rounds. Some of the chart is very bad, involving rolls on a systems failure chart (no good results on that one, either) and going bezerk, attacking all other characters for a number of rounds. At the extreme end of the chart (and, admittedly a very unlikely result), the character is removed from play and becomes an NPC. 
The issue here is that Setbacks are very likely to occur around once per game session, and Cybernetic characters don’t really gain any other benefits from having a good Spirit. The Tharkold sourcebook later introduced a skill called Cyberpsyche that could be used in place of a Spirit Test (skills add to characteristics and are generally easier to improve), which did go a ways to help out. Taking into account the technology issues of using higher-tech gear in lower-tech cosms, Cybernetic characters faced significant handicaps compared to other kinds of characters, which is unfortunate given the rich array of character options for cybernetic PCs.

My Torg Experience

My favorite cosm by far.
I bought the boxed game for Torg when it first came out, and I was initially very excited by the game’s promises of cinematic gameplay, multiple genres all crossing over each other, and the living campaign through the Infiniverse magazine.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure out how to play the darn game… the rules were written in such a way that I couldn’t grasp what I was supposed to do to make the game work (and this is in the era where I was regularly running Star Wars D6 games, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Robotech!).
Thus, the box remained unused and forgotten for many years.
Later, I had the honor of working alongside Brian Schomburg at Fantasy Flight Games. Brian had previously been a big part of the art direction at West End Games, and through talking to Brian about many games of mutual interest—amongst them Star Wars D6 and Ghostbusters—Brian brought up the subject of Torg. I hadn’t really thought of the game in years, but after discussing it with Brian, I began to remember some of the more distinct elements of the game and I became interested in it once more.
Unfortunately, Brian and I weren’t able to play Torg during my tenure at FFG, but again Fate stepped in. I was hired at Vigil Games to work with Ed Stark, a luminary of the RPG industry with numerous credits under his belt, including a stint working on Torg.
Ed ran a game of Torg for me that was a twofold landmark moment. It was both the first time I had ever played Torg and the first time I had ever played in an RPG alongside my father. Needless to say, I had a great time, and having played Torg, the mechanics of the game suddenly all made sense.
Since then I have joined another group for a Torg campaign and it is quite enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

I really like Torg. But I do have some issues with the system.
I wish playing a superhero or a cyberpunk didn’t come with so many negatives. I wish that possibilities weren’t also XP. I wish the rule system was easier to understand.
Overall, however, it is an excellent cinematic system for fun, action-filled games. With all the setting material, you can basically play almost any kind of game you want, and I like that there’s a sense that anything can happen. Playing around with the concepts of different rules for each reality is interesting and unique.
People who love RPGs and especially those who enjoy cinematic genres should play Torg to check it out. It is a unique system with a lot to offer even the most jaded gamer. I would love to see a second edition of this system that cleans up the rules and explains them in a much easier to understand way, changes possibilities so they are not your XP, and fixes cyber characters and superheroes to be more playable. I’d love it if a company like Fantasy Flight Games or Catalyst Game Labs would pick up the license for a Torg 2.0 and release a new boxed set of the Possibility Wars.
For more information about Torg, check out these RPG.netreviews.

Interview Time: Sean Patrick Fannon

When I started Rogue Warden, one of my goals was to go around and interview a number of my friends and colleagues in the RPG industry—partly to help raise awareness of the blog, of course, but also to get some insight into the professionals that create the games I love. Today’s interview is with a man I would describe as a rogue, a colleague, a Game Master, and a friend: Mr. Sean Patrick Fannon.
Sean with his fiancee, Carinn Seabolt. Sean, you lucky dog!!
I’ve known Sean for several years, having run into him in a particularly memorable (and somewhat embarrassing) incident at Gen Con during its last year in Milwaukee. I got a chance to play in one of Sean’s demo games that year for Shards of the Stone, and I could tell right away that Sean had a notable passion and love for games.
I had known of Sean’s work before meeting him due to my deep appreciation of Champions 4th edition, and Sean worked on many of my favorite books of that line.
Later on, Sean gets the credit for introducing me to (at the time) a new-fangled RPG system called Savage Worlds—I was particularly impressed by how that system handled 20+ players at the same time in one of Sean’s Shaintar convention games!
I’d like to call out a couple of really interesting and thought-provoking pieces written by Sean: the first being the Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible and the second being his Project ’77 “gamer manifesto” post.
Currently, Sean has finagled his way into a great position as the Customer Marketing and Communications guy for DriveThruRPG. Also, Sean is the man responsible for single-handedly convincing Kevin Siembieda to bring Palladium Books into the 21st century by offering PDFs of their products on DriveThruRPG. Way to go, Sean!
Sean wrote the excellent “How to use Enemies” chapter in this book.

Lastly, I’m pleased to say that Sean and I are colleagues, having worked together on projects including the ENnie-award winning Creatures Anathema. Take it from me, Sean’s a talented writer and one HELL of a GM.

If you want to know more about Sean, check out his blog and this episode of The Game’s The Thing (it’s an eye-opener!)
Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
(See the rest of the interview after the jump… it’s a big one!)

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
Sean: In 1977, I discovered D&D thanks to a “GAMES Magazine” article, and got my mom to buy me the early boxed set (the one with the powder blue rulebook inside). I had a keep on the border of some lands, and no one to teach me a thing about what I was doing. I honestly believe my impetus to become a designer of worlds and a writer of gaming stuff came from that “first one into the wilderness” beginning. 
From that beginning, I forged ahead as a gamer, GM, and writer/designer with a heavy focus on the immersive qualities of roleplaying. For me, it’s always been about creating the environment in which all of us get to tell stories like the ones we read and watch. With Star Wars releasing the same year I discovered D&D, you can rest assured the sweeping, epic qualities of action/adventure cinema have always been a huge influence on me, and remain so to this day.
A man wears a hat like that, isn’t afraid of anything.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Sean: At some point, all of the worlds and characters and stories I’d created convinced my players and friends that I was at least as good as anyone being published at the time. This was the mid-eighties, as the RPG industry was just beginning its meteoric climb from a “some copies sold at conventions” to a pervasive presence in any store likely to carry games and toys. 
I finally decided to take my shot at writing professionally by submitting a review to Scott Haring, who was Editor-in-Chief for “The Gamer Magazine.” I got a few published, and that was all I needed to decide it was indeed time to dive headlong in. At this stage of things, there was no easy access via the Internet, so face-to-face and mailed letters were still the best way to communicate with the publishers you wanted to write for.
(Note that self-publishing wasn’t the easy way in that it is today; if you didn’t work with an established publisher – who was taking all of the financial risk to develop, prepare, and print a product as well as the massive effort to sell it through the distribution networks – you were going to have to come up with rather significant financial capital just to get a single book done and out yourself.)
I’ve always been pretty good with in-person encounters, and I had plenty of friends on the staff of DragonCon. I got myself a Staff badge, hit the floor of the exhibitor hall on set-up day, and proceeded to help the folks of Iron Crown Enterprises and Hero Games set up their booth. Hero was partnered with ICE at that time to publish all of the Champions and Hero System stuff at that time, and that was the realm I wanted to play in as a designer and writer. Helping them gave me an opportunity to not only introduce myself, but make a pitch for a game product.
The Final Reich – a modern-day team of Nazis and their organization.
They pretty much rejected it out of hand; they’d just had to recall Wings of the Valkyrie, a module where the superheroes had to actually save Hitler to save the future. This did not apparently sit well with an influential Jewish organization, so ICE yanked it rather than deal further with the controversy.
Fortunately, I’d impressed them enough to open the way for another pitch, which is where High Tech Enemies came from. After that, I was on their list, and eventually became the Continuity Editor for the Champions Universe for a time. At that time, success bred success, as other companies and editors wanted to work with folks who had proven they could write and get work in on time.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Sean: People live in worlds I create or help to develop. I really can’t think of anything more heady than that.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Sean: I’m one of the very few people I know who enjoys a steady paycheck and insurance benefits in this industry, and I still live literally paycheck to paycheck. Anyone who treats their role in the RPG industry as their primary income probably lives well below the poverty line. 
Alas, poor Shards of the Stone–a great concept, dead before its time.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
Sean: I have no illusions about how much time, effort, and struggle is involved in making this a career. At the same time, things are so very much easier than they were at the beginning. In just the five years you mention, technologies and techniques have developed so rapidly that literally anyone can go from fan to published creator in a single night. Nothing stops anyone from getting into this professionally – except themselves. You still have to actually do the work, instead of just talking about it.
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?
Sean: Using the tools and tech that’s available now, I see building teams around an idea and moving forward with everyone owning a piece of the total result. It’s not possible to cut everyone in for a percentage of the revenue of a specific product without anyone fearing “getting screwed.” Using the royalty system of a site like DriveThruRPG, you can do “moment of transaction” royalty splits; each time a product is purchased, each person that’s a part of it gets their cut instantly.
Frankly, I’m kind of surprised we don’t see more of this happening than we do right now.
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?
Sean: With the “Everyone Can Play” atmosphere of the `Net, it’s more important than ever that all of us who represent the working professionals of the industry act in a fashion that provides the right example. We don’t need to be stiff-necked and difficult (leave that to the better-paid non-gaming sector), but we can certainly maintain a level of mature composure and professional demeanor that gives our customers and fans confidence in us as they support us.
Freelancers best serve themselves by communicating effectively with the teams they are working with. They need to hit their deadlines, and if for some reason they can’t, they need to let their editors and developers know as soon as they do. Freelancers also need to ensure they respect the properties they are being allowed to play with; if they bring too much into a project that isn’t really compatible with what has gone before, they force their editors to do a lot more work to get the product in shape.
Publishers need to be forthright about all of their expectations right from the start. At the same time, they can go a long way towards easing new freelancers into the process by providing helpful tools and examples of what they need and expect. I recently finished a project with Fantasy Flight Games, and I was massively impressed and pleased to work with an actual template they provided for my writing; it provided all of the headings and related formatting right in the document, which meant what I ultimately delivered fit neatly into their development and layout process right off.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
Sean: The money. It is a sincere shame that we all work just as hard as any other creator of entertainment, yet most of us cannot really make a decent living at it. Unfortunately, the realities are that our customer base remains a niche marketplace. The pie we’re all scrambling to eat from is only so big, and that means there’s just not the kind of revenue flowing through that the electronics industry sees – never mind the fiction, television, and motion picture industries.
I’d just like to see easier access to health care options. Too many of my colleagues have to hold onto jobs they utterly despise in order to have crappy insurance that barely takes care of them and their families.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Sean: I’m very active in social networking, especially Facebook and Google+. As well, I go to a lot of conventions (a LOT of them), and I love doing panels where I can talk about all of this stuff. Most importantly, though, I love just sitting down at the gaming table and playing with my fellow gamers.
A must-own for any serious roleplayer.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Sean: At one point, I would have said writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible. However, in 2010 Haiti was hit with a 7.+ earthquake and it literally rocked the world in many ways. Chuck Childers (my colleague at DriveThruRPG, where I work now) and I jumped on a plan to pull together products from all of the publishers that wanted to help and do a kind of “mega bundle” for raising funds. We figured we’d help pull together a few thousand dollars, if all went well.
We raised nearly $179,000.00, which we donated to Doctors Without Borders (that was Carinn Seabolt’s idea, the love of my life). 
Creating and developing a means for our culture to be more socially conscientious and effective in helping the world be a better place? That is, undoubtedly, my greatest achievement so far in this industry. 
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
Sean: I don’t write nearly enough. A complete lack of effective time management, mixed with other issues and distractions, has kept me far from my potential for the amount of work I should have produced by this stage of my career.
One of my favorite Champions 4e books!
RW: Your book, Hi-tech Enemies is one of the best Enemies books for 4th Edition Champions (IMHO). Can you tell us a bit more about the Destruction Company, Doc Digital, or the development process of the book in general? Were Sci-Fi and Fastball former player characters of someone in your group?
Sean: Wow, it’s been a long, long time since I thought about that book! Thanks for the very kind words. 
Here’s the funny thing – many of the characters created for High-Tech Enemies were created whole cloth for that book. I had a few technological and scientific enemies in my ongoing campaign, and the Montgomery family was very prevalent in my personal “mythology,” both as a GM and as a player. So Master Control had been the main villain for me for quite some time, and the STRIKE Units had been plaguing my players for a while. As well, Crossbow and Stellar Paladin (though the latter was originally called Starknight when I played him, way back in 1984-86) have always been player characters for me.
The Destruction Company was also an infamous villain group in my campaign, and the Weasel remains the single-most hated supervillain I’ve ever put into a game.
Pretty much the rest of the villains – and their stories – came up as I developed the book from scratch. Granted, I intentionally wove various stories together as I did so; I’ve always loved having a sense of continuity and back story for the villains, and tying all of them into the framework of the campaign overall. I didn’t mean, at first, to create a continuity whole-cloth for the what would become the Champions Universe, but somehow that’s a major part of what happened as I wrote up all those stories, relationships, and backgrounds.
Doc Digital and his group sprang forth from pure inspiration, and that remains one of my favorite creations for the C.U..
RW: Hi-Tech Enemies tied in to two other 4th Edition Champions books; Corporations (for Montgomery International) and Allies (for the Cyber-Knights). How many years were the Cyber-Knights active in your home campaign? (My personal favorites are Crossbow and Heavy Duty)
Sean: Again, the Cyberknights as a group never actually existed in play form; Crossbow was a personal player character for me for a long time, and Hardwire evolved from another character I played for a bit. I built the rest of the team around them, strictly based on the fact that they’d been mentioned so much in High-Tech Enemies. 
They became very real after publication of the book, though, and frequently assisted other hero groups in my campaigns afterwards.
Part of any good Champions 4e collection…
RW: When you designed The Mutant File for 4th edition Champions, what were your biggest influences? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of that book?
Sean: Naturally, Marvel’s take on mutants and their place in society strongly informed everything that had been done with mutants in the Champions Universe by the time I got handed the book. My goal was to tap into that particular gestalt while still trying to create distinctive elements that were unique to the CU.
At the time, I really enjoyed creating all of the stuff I did for Genocide. In hindsight, however, I have to admit that so much of it was very derivative of existing material in comics. I still think the characters and agents are cool, but I really could have stretched farther than I did.
I think the Downtrodden remain some of my favorite characters, and I truly enjoyed riding the line between villainous and sympathetic with IMAGE.
RW: Can you tell us more about your thoughts on the Downtrodden (the mutant superpowered biker gang led by Fry Daddy) and Genocide?
Sean: The Downtrodden are generally decent, but they’re mostly just a bunch of people out on the road, trying to get by. I’ve had a lot of fun using them as surprise allies in various stories, especially when Voodoo needs to reach some heroes and let them know about something happening on the Grand Scale. 
As with all my character stuff, these folks just start writing themselves. I come up with a bare-bones concept, and then start writing and see where it goes. The relationship between Fry Daddy and Tabitha literally wrote itself as fingers hit the keyboard. I love that.
The same thing happened as I was working on Genocide, and even though much of it is conceptually derivative, I remain proud of the fact that all of the characters stand up as their own people. The inner workings, conspiracies, and the rest of it just gelled together, and it is a scary and effective organization.
Immortal Legends indeed…
RW: I believe that your fantasy RPG setting, Shaintar, represents one of your greatest accomplishments in gaming. Do you feel that’s true?
I know that my most well-known work is either from my original association with Champions or writing The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, but I do feel that Shaintar is my very best work – especially the new stuff about to be released by Reality Blurs.
RW: Shaintar has lived both in convention games, online, and in your home campaign across the country. Can you tell us more about how you’ve developed this world for so many years?
Sean: That would be a long essay all by itself, Ross. 😀

Let’s just say I started with a keep on some borderlands of somewhere back in 1977 and, having no world to work with, I started building one. Over the decades, that world evolved organically, benefiting from all I was learning about world-building, story-telling, and running good campaigns. Inspired by fantastic people like Ed Greenwood, Lawrence Kasdan, and Joe Straczynski, as well as exceptional game masters like Albert Deschesne, Mike Dean, and Marcus Pregent, I learned a great deal about making a campaign setting full of story potential and a compelling place for players to inhabit with their characters over the long haul.

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?
Sean: My job isn’t to create inviolable rules of play. My job is to create processes and tools that foment creativity and facilitate creative shared storytelling. If I empower a Game Master with a set of rules and guidelines that give him or her confidence in making good on-the-spot decisions, I am successful. If the players had a great time and want to play again, that goes in the Win column.
RW: If you were a shadowrunner, you’d be a…?
Sean: Street samurai with a serious paladin complex. This would, of course, make me very unpopular with other shadowrunners. I know this already from painful experience…
RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?
Sean: Kind of funny, that, because inevitably any system I become enamored of becomes one I want to work with. I’d say BASH! (Basic Actions Super Heroes) is one at this point, though I am already doing some development in that area. I love its clean resolution, its flexibility, and the ease at which it handles most superheroic combat situations.
I want to give props to Pathfinder for getting the OGL version of D&D right. I am also keenly interested in the Ubiquity system (though, again, my non-involvement with it may not last very long).
I will always love both Torg and Rifts – not for the system, in either case, but for what they accomplished in terms of epic genre-twisting and big stories.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Sean: Confident and clear communication, and a respect for what has been done already. Whenever someone comes crashing through the door with the idea that they know better than anyone else, all I can do is remember how I felt that way… and how wrong I was. 
Someone who talks a lot about something but has little to show for it? Instant red flag.
Finally, if you wish to be a professional game designer/writer, you must be willing to use proper words, grammar, and spelling in all forms of communication. If you tend towards “l337” or “Text-ese,” I tend to not take you seriously. Yes, this even means texting; don’t use “I have something 4 u.” Take the time to write “I have something for you,” if you want me to not put a block up where you are concerned as a writer.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Sean: Savage Worlds – just about anything.

Gaming Awards

The list of nominees for the 2011 ENnie awards have just been released, and I’m super-proud to say that there are three products on that list with my name in it. I have won some ENnies before (for Dawnforge in 2003 and Creatures Anathema in 2008), and I’m honored that my work has been recognized in this way.
Today’s blog post is all about the art and science of gaming industry awards, so I need to be clear up front with full disclosure: I’ve won some ENnies—I’ve participated in the ENnies process many times, and they are probably my favorite set of gaming awards in the current landscape.
All that having been said, let’s talk about gaming awards in general. What are they? How do they work—or not work? Is there a better way? These are the questions I’d like to address.
Hey now, no recursion!

Who Are the Awards For?

Of the gamers I know in my local area, roughly two-thirds of them are aware of gaming industry awards in a general sense, and amongst those, there are many who find them useful and/or possibly influential. One-third simply does not care and is not influenced by them at all.
I’ve heard it said that mostly gaming awards are for the industry, not the consumers—I guess I just like to imagine that, just like there are film buffs who discuss the Academy Awards, there are game buffs who discuss gaming awards.
In my experience, the ones that are most affected by industry awards are the industry professionals themselves. The folks who spend all that time and energy and money making games are the most invested in the recognition those games receive… and I’m fine with that. It definitely looks good on a resume, and I can speak from experience that having won an industry award is helpful getting one’s foot in the door for doing work with a professional gaming company.
I think for many gamers, relevance is the most important issue when it comes to awards—but that is also a complicated issue. Obviously, the award is meant to be given to the most qualified recipient. But what meaning does an award have if it is given to an extremely obscure product? There’s something to be said for the awards raising awareness of more niche games, and I am definitely a proponent of that… but a quality game, IMHO, is generally one that is recognizable to many, if not most, gamers who pay attention to the awards in the first place.
Now this is an award I’d love to have on my shelf…

Is There a Better Way?

My friend and colleague Kevin Wilson used to say that what the industry really needs is some kind of journalistic approach to awards. For example, printed novels have the “New York Times Bestseller List.” RPGs have no real journalistic, “neutral third party” group to provide an objective viewpoint. Having researched this issue for some time, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a better and more ideal way of handling awards… but I have no idea of what it is. I can say that I feel personally the ENnies is the most representative option of gaming awards in our industry—although there’s still room for improvement.

Which Awards?

Let’s check out the current crop of gaming industry awards. The “big two” are the Origins Awards and the ENnies. There are also smaller award groups like the Golden Geek awards, the Indie RPG awards, and the Diana Jones award.

The Origins Awards

According to their Wikipedia entry, the Origins Awards have been around since roughly 1987 and have been more of a force in the industry since 2000. I know that I first became aware of them sometime in the 90’s and started paying a lot more attention towards the early 2000’s, especially given the rocky events of that decade (see below). The Origins Awards has the prestige of being the first and probably most recognized set of game industry awards. The Origins Game Fair is built around the Origins awards, and it is the current keeper of the game industry hall of fame. For these reasons, Origins is one of the “Big Two” in the gaming industry awards set alongside the ENnies awards (see below).

The Good

The Origins awards try hard to be comprehensive; they attempt to recognize nearly every category of product you’d see in a typical game shop—from RPGs, to miniature games, to board games, and so forth.

Additionally, the Origins awards encompass the Hall of Fame mentioned above and are a proponent of the Origins Game Fair. These are all good things that I personally give them credit for.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the Origins awards have become increasingly irrelevant over time. I myself know of at least two big name game companies that refuse to have anything to do with the Origins awards. In addition, the method by which awards are nominated and which games are recognized is confusing and opaque.
Personally, the last several years of Origins awards have never failed to leave me scratching my head and wondering why certain games won awards and others were ignored. A good example from the 2011 awards is the Best Miniature Game category. While I am certain that the Blackest Night Heroclix had some quality to it, I’m very surprised that games like Malifaux were passed over in its favor.
Similarly, the 2006 awards gave RPG of the year to Burning Empires whilst ignoring Spirit of the Century… if someone can explain this to me, by all means, chime in down in the comments section, because I find these kinds of decisions absolutely baffling.
The RPG of the year for 2011, according to the Origins Awards, is Arcanis. I’m certain Arcanis is a fine product, but this is also the year of the Pathfinder Beginner’s box, the Mouse Guard boxed set, and Savage Worlds Deluxe… which (for me) makes no sense.
The actual awards show itself (hosted at the Origins Game Fair) is an impressive affair… but is noticeably lacking some of the bigger names of the industry in attendance. Even companies that participate in the awards (i.e., sending in product for consideration) rarely make an appearance.
These are some of the reasons why I believe the Origins Awards have become essentially meaningless—the awards are being shunned by significant publishers, the awards themselves are handed out without seeming rhyme or reason, and…

The Ugly

The Origins Awards are frustratingly opaque as to how the awards (and the Hall of Fame) are handled. The Origins Awards are decided by the “Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design,” which is apparently a part of GAMA. I regret to say that I don’t have a lot of hard facts regarding the specific function of the Academy or the Awards, nor could I find such information on the GAMA website. It’s possible that such info is there, but it’s certainly buried beyond a casual search. 
Ultimately, I have no idea how the Origins Awards work—I presume that if you’re a member of GAMA or on the GAMA board, you can vote with the Academy… or maybe the Academy is the board… I just don’t know. And to me, opaque awards committees are basically just a recipe for disaster.
There was, in fact, just such a disaster in the early part of the new millennium. In 2004, Ryan Dancey had been elected treasurer of GAMA—Dancey had previously served as a Brand Manager for WOTC during the heady years of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd and 3.5 edition and was a key figure in the Open Game License of that era. Dancey’s election was part of a much-anticipated “reform group” that it was hoped would change the Origins Awards, the Academy, and GAMA for the better.
This scandal tainted the Origins Awards’ integrity and was one of the reasons that some publishers (mentioned above) chose to steer clear of the awards show from that point forward.

My Opinion: The Origins Awards used to mean something, but now I believe they are completely irrelevant both to the average gamer and the industry at large. The meaning and significance of the Origins Award has been severely tarnished by the 2004 scandal, and I think it would take some major effort on the part of the Academy to redeem the awards into something meaningful once again.

The ENnies Awards

The ENnies have been around since 2001 and are an outgrowth of a popular and influential RPG website known as EN World, a site built by Eric Noah focused around Dungeons and Dragons (particularly its D20 incarnation during 3rd and 3.5 edition). Initially, the awards were solely internet-based and only recognized contributions to the d20 license, but the awards have since blossomed and grown into a much more comprehensive look at the RPG industry as a whole. Since 2002, the awards have been held at a live event at Gen Con—it’s actually quite a lively and fun show, and I definitely recommend attending if you have any interest in the awards or the nominees.

The Good

The ENnies, as mentioned previously, take a good long look at the RPG industry and recognize a number of elements in that industry every year, from “Best Production Values” to “Game of the Year.” A panel of Judges are nominated and voted on each year by the public, and these Judges then select the top nominations for each category. The winner in each category is then determined by popular vote.
This means that getting an ENnie nomination is the real victory—the most popular game in each category generally wins (there was a particularly memorable sweep of awards by Pathfinder in 2010, for example).
The nomination and voting process are fairly transparent, the nominations in each category are quite relevant and generally reflect the best entries for that year, and a majority of publishers—both upper- and lower-tier—participate every year.
Even in years where one company dominates (such as 2010), the nominations list makes sense to me—in my opinion, it accurately reflects the highest quality of the games released. There are definitely some cases where I disagree with the winner, but I generally nod my head when scanning over the nominations list.
One thing that is critical to note is that the ENnies Judges review only the games that are sent to them by the publisher. As one example, the Fantasy Flight Games entries for 2010 (including amongst them Deathwatch and a number of other 40K RPG books) were not submitted in time due to some health issues, and thus they were not considered for that year’s awards.

The Bad

My only serious criticism of the ENnies is that I would like to see them widen their scope—as I mentioned during my look at the Origins Awards, I enjoy seeing comprehensive awards that look at every aspect of tabletop gaming. The ENnies has done a good job of growing and evolving since its inception in 2001, and I would really like to see that continue and encompass broader portions of tabletop gaming… maybe start looking at board games, or including more categories for miniatures, as some examples.

The Ugly

I don’t really have much to say here. The ENnies have, to my knowledge, stayed clear of any major stumbling blocks and have done a great deal to bring respect and honor to the industry in the form of official recognition—the awards themselves.
My Opinion: I’m a self-admitted fan of the ENnies. I think they’re the most relevant and significant awards you’ll find in the gaming industry, and I’m planning on attending the award show at this year’s Gen Con.

And the Rest

After the “big two,” there are a few other RPG awards that I feel are worth discussing:

The Diana Jones Award

My Opinion: The Diana Jones award is quirky, but relevant, and the awardees all appear deserving. Overall, I’m a fan.

The Indie RPG Awards

My Opinion: I don’t know much about the Indie RPG Awards, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. The Indie awards exist in part to help raise awareness of the more obscure and niche RPGs in the industry, and I think that is a laudable goal. Many of the winners of this award are definitely relevant and I am pleased that they’re around—I wish there was a way to incorporate them into the ENnies to help both sides of this equation grow and receive the recognition they’ve earned.

The Golden Geek Awards

My Opinion: The Golden Geek Awards are a very recent entry into the industry awards area, brought about by the site BoardGameGeek.com. Lately, the Golden Geeks have added categories for RPG products, and I definitely hope to see the Golden Geeks improve in both prominence and breadth. My only concern is the opacity of how the awards are nominated and voted on… but this is a hurdle I think the Golden Geeks can easily overcome.

The Hack Factor

A quick side note–I’ve been slackin’ lately! I missed a whole week of updates. I’ll try to do better. Enjoy a super-sized blog post this week to make up for it!
Today’s blog post title is slightly disingenuous… I’m actually intending to talk about two main factors of RPG character types, and “Hack Factor” is only half of the equation. A sexy, sexy half. So sexy that the name itself forced me to grant it the singular honor of the post title. Congratulations, id!
Moving on, I want to briefly talk about tabletop RPG characters. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with various folks, from my D&D Dungeon Master to fellow game designers about what makes a particular type of character compelling. Naturally, any character can have a compelling concept, backstory, or even something as simple as a cool name or a really sweet picture (often found on Deviantart or 4Chan).
Who do I want to be today?
However, for me and many gamers like me, among the most important elements of a character are mechanical in nature. How does the character interact with the game’s mechanics? How well can they weather the storm of combat? Most RPGs have a strong focus on combat because of the nature of RPGs… I would posit that most RPGs feature direct, violent action against the antagonist of the story in a confrontation as the climax of a given session or campaign.
Thus, while my own taste in characters definitely involves the intangibles of his backstory, concept*(see below), name, image, and so forth, I often spend far more time and energy considering the character’s mechanical benefits: his Utility Factor and Hack Factor.
*Caveat: I should take the time here to say that, for me, the concept of the character is the trump card. If I have a really compelling concept, that’s what I’ll want to play, regardless of any other influences.

Utility Factor

 

If it’s good enough for Batman…
My definition of a character’s Utility Factor is a measure of how often he can meaningfully interact with the game on a mechanical level. Another way to put it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—outside of combat?”
Often a character’s Utility Factor is a representation of things like the number and variety of skills he possesses (especially social skills), social abilities, the number and variety of spellcasting or psionic or similar powers, movement abilities, and any realm-building or leadership-style abilities.
For example, in Rifts, I really like the Manoan Amazon R.C.C. This character can cast spells, use psionic abilities, and possesses a bunch of interesting nature-related skills as well as some enhanced senses. That’s a lot of utility factor in one character!
Similarly, in the Hero System, I like a character that has a wide variety of skills. My character Technicality can investigate a crime, hack the syndicate’s computers, and even argue a case in a court of law—all valuable and meaningful ways to mechanically interface with a superhero game.

Versatility Trumps Everything Else

One thing that I’ve learned from over 25 years as a tabletop RPG player is that he who has the most options generally “wins” by having something cool to do more often. I’m generalizing with a broad brush here, admittedly—I’ve played in games before with very un-versatile characters and have had a lot of fun. So to get it out of the way early, I should point out that a talented GM can make nearly any game fun, regardless of mechanics.
That having been said, I do find that the more options I have, the better my play experience tends to be, especially in the long run over a number of sessions in the same campaign. In many, many gaming systems, spellcasters happen to be an excellent example of this. Spellcasters are rarely the strongest or toughest or most agile character type you can pick, but they usually have a huge bag of goodies to choose from in any given situation. Zap the bad guy? No problem. Breathe underwater? Got it covered. Invisibly snatch the idol from the primitive altar? You got it.
Versatility usually comes at a price; spells can only be cast once a day, or must be re-memorized before being cast again, or cost a number of “spell points” that must then be replenished.
Having a versatile character means that you have a high Utility Factor, and often, it also means you have a high Hack Factor as well. Why? The Utility Factor part should be self-evident; the more versatile a character, the more opportunities are present to engage with the game. Versatile characters are also generally good at combat as well, especially with being able to engage enemies at range (via a lightning bolt spell, for example) or locking down foes with debuffs, adjustments to their movement (such as a web spell), or altering the conditions of the fight itself (such as summoning a storm). 
A Versatile character may not be able to dish out as much damage as a character who focused entirely on fighting, but such characters can still achieve a high Hack Factor by being able to do more than just inflict damage. In fact, some versatile character types (such as spellcasters in Dungeons and Dragons) can eventually achieve immense amounts of damage or eliminate the opponent outright at higher levels of play—all simply due to the vast amount of options available.

Hack Factor

When in doubt… Hack!
My definition of a character’s Hack Factor is a measure of his raw ability to perform meaningful actions on a mechanical level in combat. Another way to define it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—in combat?”
Meaningful combat actions often involve doing lots of damage, hitting enemies on a consistent basis, applying status effects (such as blinding them, grabbing them, etc.), locking down enemies with special abilities (such as spellcasters, psionics, etc.), and being able to drop lots of lower-level enemies or (often, singular) higher-level enemies more efficiently.
In the Feng Shui RPG, I played Keiichi O’Hara, a Karate Cop who focused his abilities on being able to take out Named Characters (the more powerful and rarer type of enemy) more efficiently—this was his role in combat, to seek out the biggest, baddest bad guy and hand him his head.
In West End’s D6 Star Wars RPG, I played Kaldryn, a Trianii Ranger. He was an alien warrior whose abilities were well-suited for causing havoc on the battlefield and taking out lots of lower-level enemies while the other party members handled the bigger threats.

Damage is Not the Key

In most tabletop RPG’s, combat happens a lot. That means inflicting damage is good, and inflicting lots of damage is great! However, if your character’s only option to do serious damage to an opponent depends on your ability to run up to him and whack him with a sword, it’s not as good as it initially appears. Many RPGs feature magic, science, some combination of the two, or other such esoteric abilities that let opponents fly, levitate, create walls or change the nature of the battle’s terrain. Thus, the ability to reach a foe and hit him with a sword is certainly not guaranteed. How fast can the character move? Can he fly?
If you asked me what I consider the most important part of Hack Factor, I would define it thusly: one’s ability to consistently affect the battle. Naturally, “affecting the battle” often involves simply defeating as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible, but doing direct damage is not absolutely necessary to qualify. Grappling an enemy wizard, using a debuff on the entire enemy force, or shutting down the supervillain’s impervious force-field all fall under this category as well.
Using this metric, a strictly melee warrior has a rather low Hack Factor. He may be able to inflict impressive damage on a directly adjacent foe, but such a warrior struggles whenever he must move to engage a distant enemy and is seriously hampered whenever terrain interferes (i.e., limited access via a bridge, having to move through deep water or mud, etc.) or if his enemy is flying or otherwise out of melee range.

Factors and Systems

Most often, RPG systems with fairly open and flexible character creation systems don’t have too many issues with imbalances of Hack Factor and Utility Factor. In the Hero System, for example, it is relatively simple to change a few points around to acquire more skills to raise your Utility Factor or to buy some additional combat levels or power dice if you want to increase your Hack Factor.
Class-and-level RPG systems, however, seem to have the most trouble balancing these two elements in my experience. For this particular blog entry, I’m going to use the character classes from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition as an example.
Why 3.5 D&D? I should say upfront that I believe all editions of Dungeons & Dragons have their strengths and weaknesses, and my personal favorite edition is 3.5. I’ve done a fair amount of work in the industry for this edition, and it’s fair to say that I’ve studied it’s game design more thoroughly than nearly any other system (with the exceptions of Hero and Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay) in my collection. I’m going to limit myself to discussing the classes from the Core Player’s Handbook for this post, although I will certainly mention other books along the way, simply because the classes from the Player’s Handbook are more well-known and iconic to the genre than any others, and thus are perfect examples for this discussion.
What about 3.0 and Pathfinder? Well, in 3.0 I’d go so far as to say the differences were even more pronounced—Fighters, Bards, and Rangers had it particularly bad in 3.0. Pathfinder goes the opposite direction, helping out nearly every class, but in general I’d apply the same rankings to Pathfinder characters of these same classes.
Tl/dr: 3.0 ratings are the same but worse, Pathfinder ratings are the same, but slightly better.
Check out the 3.5 character classes and their rankings after the jump!

 

Barbarian

An axe is a Barbarian’s weapon…
Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D
Barbarians are made for one role; doing lots of damage. They’re tough, possessing large numbers of hit points, but they’re limited to lighter armors and don’t have a high amount of skill points—although they have more skills and a better variety than the Fighter. Unlike the fighter, however, Barbarians are nearly doomed to melee-only, and have a lot of difficulty reaching flying enemies or dealing with threats they can’t simply run up to and hack.
On the flip side, there are a lot of great concepts you can make with a Barbarian, and their Utility Factor would likely be higher in certain campaigns than in others (such as adventures taking place largely in the wilderness or away from civilization).

Bard

Bluff, bluff, bluff the stupid Ogre!
Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: D
The Bard’s decent Utility Factor is due to his variety of skills, decent number of skill points, a small selection of spells, and abilities that have a lot of value in social situations. The Bard’s Utility Factor takes a hit if the campaign is largely focused on dungeon-crawls or avoids social situations like the plague, however. In battle, the Bard’s Hack Factor is mostly due to his ability to buff or heal his companions—Bards are not great combatants on their own.

Cleric

Today’s sermon begins with an asskicking…
Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A
Question: What has good hit points, good saving throws, can kick butt in combat and sling spells almost as good as a Wizard? The Cleric. These characters are one of the first powerhouses on this list—the sheer variety of spells available improves the Cleric’s Utility Factor and his ability to smite infidels is quite potent, explaining the high Hack Factor. A well-designed Cleric character at higher levels can outperform nearly any Fighter in combat and is only barely eclipsed by the Druid and Wizard in dealing with out-of-combat situations.

Druid

The wrath of nature is a frightening thing…
Utility Factor: A+
Hack Factor: A+
In my opinion, the unquestioned champion of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor is the Druid. The animal companion is nearly as good as a Fighter in melee combat, and a great spell list plus the Druid’s ability to wild shape into animals (and other creatures with the right feats) enables him to meaningfully interact with almost any challenge you can imagine. Similarly, the Druid (and his mighty animal companion or any summoned critters he chooses to bring along) can kick massive amounts of ass in combat. In a one-on-one faceoff—at any level!—with any other class on this list, the Druid comes out on top with only one notable exception: a properly prepared Wizard.

Fighter

 The Men-at-Arms just aren’t what they used to be…
Utility Factor: F
Hack Factor: C
Alas, poor Fighter. I hardly knew ye. The Fighter suffers a failing grade in Utility Factor due to his abysmal number of skill points, a limited skill selection, and nearly zero abilities that do anything meaningful outside of combat. Even when the Fighter is doing his job (i.e., fighting stuff), he is often outclassed by other characters simply due to a lack of options. Thanks to his high number of feats, a properly built Fighter can be a formidable opponent in the right circumstances, but change the playing field even slightly (i.e., a fly spell) and the Fighter can be next to useless.
For those people (like myself) who enjoy playing Fighter-type characters, I strongly recommend checking into the Tome of Battle (AKA the Book of Nine Swords), as the Warblade class in that book is a great replacement with significant improvements in grade for both Utility and Hack Factors.

Monk

You want a piece of me???
Utility Factor: D
Hack Factor: D
The Monk has great saving throws but little else going for him. Monks have better skill options than a Fighter, but require significant investment in a lot of attributes in order to really benefit. Monks are similar to Fighters in that they do their best work up close and personal with the enemy, and they lack any real answers to flying enemies. In addition, Monks have difficulty dealing out significant damage when compared to many of the other classes on this list, limiting their usefulness considerably.

Ranger

Welcome stranger, to our danger…
Utility Factor: C
Hack Factor: C
A decent set of skills, a small handful of spellcasting abilities, and his animal companion provide the Ranger with a reasonable Utility Factor. However, like the Barbarian, this Utility Factor can suffer greatly if the campaign is largely confined to dungeon-crawling or large cities. Rangers have a decent Hack Factor due to their ability to strike foes at range (archer Rangers rather than dual-wielders) and the benefits of the animal companion and spellcasting. This Hack Factor rating is fairly generous, however (it assumes an archer ranger and a good selection of feats and the animal companion). Many Rangers (particularly the dual wielder style) will struggle to match up.

Rogue

Stealing hearts and purses in equal measure…
Utility Factor: C+
Hack Factor: C+
Rogues benefit from the best skill selection and number of skill points available, providing a more-than-decent Utility Factor. Rogues can also put their skills to good use in combat, and hit many enemies with a devastating sneak attack strike. Unfortunately, sneak attack does not work against several common monsters (such as undead), and the Rogue’s sneak attack is best used only in melee—and even then, only against a flanked target.

Sorcerer

She’s got the power, ah-ahhhh….
Utility Factor: B
Hack Factor: B
Although the Sorcerer shares a lot in common with the Wizard, he simply cannot compete on the same level when it comes to Utility Factor and Hack Factor. The Sorcerer’s limited number of spells that he knows does not make up for the freedom from preparation and the increased number of uses per day. The Sorcerer does regain some ground with his high Charisma and decent skill selection, but in the end he is only playing second fiddle to the other full spellcasters on the list.

Wizard

Can’t beat the classics, baby!
Utility Factor: A
Hack Factor: A
The Wizard is one of the kings of both Utility Factor and Hack Factor, thanks to his massively varied spell list (and not hurt at all by having a good number of skills and skill points added into the mix). A properly prepared Wizard can vanquish nearly any foe at high levels, and even at low levels Wizards contribute greatly to the party if given an opportunity to study the appropriate spell for nearly any situation.

Options Vs. Uses—The Inverted Pyramid

Particularly in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0/3.5 paradigm, using a single ability more times per day is generally less powerful than having more options of what ability to use. This is because that recharging “per day” abilities is often fairly trivial—usually a simple matter of the party deciding to stop and rest after defeating any particularly powerful opponent or after exploring a portion of a dungeon.
Consider the following classes placed in an inverted pyramid—the widest array of options is at the top, with the number of options available narrowing as you step down the pyramid towards the bottom.
Thus, the top portion of the Pyramid is best represented by the Wizard—he has the widest selection of options available to him, and his one of his defining features is the variety of his spell list. The wizard is limited mainly by the fact that he must pre-memorize his spells and cannot change his spells on the fly (albeit there are some advanced feats, abilities, and magic items that go a ways towards mitigating this limitation).
Just below the Wizard are other classes with very broad and comprehensive spell lists, such as the Cleric and the Druid.
In the middle band of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Sorcerer and the Bard, both of whom have more sharp limits on the number of spells they are able to cast, but a higher number of times per day that those spells can be used. Similarly, they do not need to prepare their spells ahead of time.
At the very bottom of the pyramid you’d find classes like the Warlock. Warlocks have unlimited uses of their abilities—essentially able to use their powers “at will”—but have only a relative handful of abilities to choose from.