Category: RPGs

Continuity is King — the King is Dead! All Hail the King!

Fans of created universes (*Star Wars*, *Star Trek*, the World of Darkness, *Forgotten Realms*, etc., etc.) love continuity, those thousands of details and “historical” events that convince readers/watchers/players that the world has internal *consistency*, a hallmark for being “real.”

But for creators, continuity can become a shackle. Certainly, it initially provides for the type of limits — the enclosed box — that can spur creative solutions. Alan Moore, for instance, is renowned for his ability to reinvent characters without rewriting old continuity, such as he did with *Swamp Thing*: he peels back layers of realization, showing that the new version was always there, waiting for its cue. Geoff Johns did the same when he brought back Hal Jordan in *Green Lantern*, brilliantly re-envisioning the sad Parallax affair in such a way that it opened up whole new vistas of metaphysics for the title. But still… continuity that gets too tight, too specific, can restrict creativity, especially if the editorial department isn’t willing to let creatives do the sort of radical Moore-ian or Johns-ian twists that can reinvigorate tired, stale old storylines.

All that preamble is to say: Let’s talk about *Star Wars: the Force Awakens*. The new owners have thrown out years of continuity-based stories that appeared in comics, novels, and video games. Why? Because the new filmmakers didn’t want to tell those stories. They had their own. And, especially in the case of Star Wars, the movies are the central core, with all other media subservient to its imperial dictates.

The sort of continuity “reboot” has happened many times in comics, with the DC’s ’80s *Crisis on Infinite Earths* perhaps being the first full-scale universe reboot (rather than individual title reboot). Later, we saw Marvel introduce separate universes (the New Universe, and then the Ultimates) rather than break up their core continuity. But now *Battleworlds* and *Secret Wars II* have torn all that up, just as DC’s the New 52 and then *Convergence* rewrote the DC universe (again).

I’ve had some experience with this, when we ended the “classic” World of Darkness in the mid-‘00s and introduced newly visioned takes on modern-day vampires, werewolves, and wizards. We learned the same lesson I know the comics guys learned (despite their continuing to bust up their worlds): Every crack in continuity splits the fanbase. Some people stay with the original, even if it means no longer buying new products, and some buy into the new stuff. (This same splitting happens with new RPG editions, even if the continuity change is merely an advance of the “metaplot”.)

All the benefits of continuity — a shared, sprawling universe in which all stories are facets of the universe’s single story, growing the fanbase with each new spinoff — are belied by the raw fact of continuity’s lifecycle: Creators will one day have to tear it all down, and with it might go the fanbase that ensured its success.

Fans come to love certain characters, places, plots. When they’re taken away, it leaves an empty place, a void. Of course they get angry, now that they have to confront death, a reminder of their own mortality. All things must pass. *It’s not fair — I read to escape such hard realities*!

So, fans: Use these lessons, these little deaths, as esoteric gifts, invitations to rehearse your own eventual ultimate letting go. Things come, things go, and then come again.

You’ll fall in love again. Some day there will be a new property (who knows? it might be the reboot of the old property!) that will grab you and suck you in, soaking you in all sorts of spinoff tales: movies, books, comics, games.

And then, it too will pass. And another will rise to take its place. Continuity is fleeting. Creativity is forever, universes without end.

The Promethean Fire

It’s nice to hear from fans who have been deeply affected by my games. The Onyx Path blog just posted this email, from a fan who found resonance with the plight of the Prometheans from Promethean: the Created. The gist of it is that the author, recently diagnosed with Asperger’s, has seen himself in the lonely, misunderstood, pieced-together Prometheans (brothers and sisters of Frankenstein’s monster). Thanks, Michael, for sharing your story. It helps creators like me to know when our work hits home for somebody.

#RPGaDay

I’ve been playing every day on Facebook with #RPGaDay posts for August. This was started on this website here, where you can see the full list of each day’s topic.

I thought I’d collect my posts here:

1st – First RPG Played: AD&D (technically, the D&D Basic Set rules, but with the Monster Manual and the Players Handbook, while we waited for the DM’s Guide).

2nd – First RPG Gamemastered: AD&D — I think. It _might_ have been Gamma World, but my memory isn’t crystal clear on this.

3rd – First RPG Purchased: AD&D Monster Manual — but that was dad’s money. The first one I bought with my own money? Hmmm… might have been Traveler?

4th – Most recent RPG purchase: Fiasco, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. (The Strange is the most recent RPG I have _received_, but I “bought” it months ago by backing its Kickstarter.)

5th – Most Old School RPG owned: Empire of the Petal Throne. (Because White Bear and Red Moon isn’t an RPG, although its Glorantha setting became one.)

6th – Favourite RPG Never get to play: Tie between any RPG set in Glorantha or any set in Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne’s setting). Since I did play in a Glorantha Heroquest game about 4 years ago, I guess Tekumel edges out — because I’ve _never_ got to actually play it, although I’ve read many of the books.

7th – Most “intellectual” RPG owned: Probably any of the Tekumel variants, but I need to give a shout out to Legacy. I didn’t own a copy, but friends did. It had a chart, as I recall, for figuring out how much of your brain you were using for a given task (and maybe even what part of the brain). Very weird game. Daniel Greenberg provided this handy link.

8th – Favourite character: oh, good lord, which one to choose? Alustro, from Fading Suns, perhaps. But I did have a blast playing Urlak, High Priest of The Lord of the Unhallowed Dead, in Greg Maples’ game oh those many years ago. He was a complete creep and degenerate, but so fun to play.

9th – Favourite Die / Dice Set: My first set of polyhedral Gamescience dice. They had a highly influential magazine ad where they lined their dice in vertical columns against their competitors’, to show how much more regular theirs were. My gaming group had a bit of a fetish for purity of probability, so that Intentionality could better nudge the results of our karma dice.

10th – Favourite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction: “Man of Gold” by M.A.R. Barker, set in his Tekumel world. But I’m also quite fond of “The Book of Nod” for Vampire, by Sam Chupp and Andrew Greenberg, as well as “Garou Saga” for Werewolf by Rustin Quaide.

11th – Weirdest RPG owned: It’d have to be HOL, Human Occupied Landfill. I scored the original Dirt Merchant printing at Gen Con (or was it Origins?). The whole White Wolf crew dug it, and so we republished it, along with a new supplement (Butterery wHOLsomeness). I’m sure there are weirder RPGs out there, but I don’t own them.

12th – Old RPG you still play / read: Glorantha, of course. This was the setting for Runequest back in the day, and it’s now available through Heroquest (and soon… 13th Age in Glorantha). I haven’t been able to play for a few years, but I certainly read it when I can, and the new Guide to Glorantha is a beautiful excuse to start reading.

13th – Most Memorable Character Death: Hmm… this is a tough one. I haven’t had many characters die, either as my own PCs or as my player’s characters when I run games. I remember really losing my shit when my Gamma World character died, but that was junior high school, when everything was about capital D Drama. And then there was Black Leaf…

14th – Best Convention Purchase: I guess a copy of White Bear and Red Moon, or Nomad Gods, doesn’t count, because they’re not RPGs (although they are Glorantha). So, that leaves Vampire: the Masquerade. I bought it at Origins ’91. Andrew Greenberg asked me if I was interested in writing for the line, but when I asked for a copy of the rulebook to assist in that task, the cheapskate made me buy it! He still owes me the 20 or so bucks for that.

15th – Favourite Convention Game: I have to go way back to high school and nominate the ridiculous D&D games I encountered at my very first con, a one-day gaming event called Edain Rally. From fire-breathing kobolds to 300-pound thieves, there was much to impress my fresh, uh, “imagination.”

16th – Game you wish you owned: There are lots of non-RPGs I could list, but to stay on topic… well, besides Legacy (see earlier posts in this topic), Angus Abranson mentioned TORG, and I don’t have a copy of that (despite Daniel Greenberg having written many sourcebooks for it back in the day). I wouldn’t mind an original Bunnies & Burrows, just for the nostalgia factor. Otherwise, I spent many Gen Cons scouring booths to get copies of the games I was missing. But I’m sure somebody will remind me of one I’m missing.

17th – Funniest Game you’ve played: Toon.

18th – Favourite Game System: I don’t have a single favorite system. I think different systems are good for different things. The universal system holy grail is, IMHO, as yet unattainable. Sometimes I like Heroquest, and sometimes I like OGL d20, sometimes Champions, etc. But… if I had a to call out a system I’m most fond of, it’d probably be the Storytelling system (the new World of Darkness system), although it’s vain of me to say so, since I led the design on it. Still, I have to mention Pendragon as the closest to the holy grail (pun intended) of elegant game design perfectly wedded to its setting. I can’t think of another game that so expertly models its inspiration — Arthurian literature — than Greg Stafford’s masterwork.

19th – Favourite Published Adventure: That would be the first Watchmen sourcebook for DC Heroes (hi, Daniel Greenberg!). It is “official” Watchmen continuity, in that Alan Moore considered it so, and yet it is largely forgotten by comics historians. I must admit I never played it, so my nominating it here is from the excellent writing and pure comics fandom glee.

The other ones I would mention are disqualified by my either having developed them (Under a Blood Red Moon for Vampire/Werewolf — hi, Steven Brown!) or playtested them (Tournament of Dreams for Pendragon — hi, Shams Shirley and Leslie Brooks!), or wrote part of them (Savage Mountains for Pendragon).

20th – Will still play in 20 years time… I can’t imagine not wanting to still play in Glorantha, ever, regardless of what system iteration is available then. Otherwise, I’d certainly still want to be playing in my own worlds, Fading Suns (assuming the suns haven’t gone out by then), and, of course, Werewolf (even if the Wyrm has won, I’ll still struggle). As Angus Abranson said, Call of Cthulhu is a perennial. Hard to imagine that not still be played by me and my crew in our old age home.

And, hopefully, if Hasbro doesn’t screw it up, the kids then will still be playing D&D and using it as a gateway to the real good stuff.

21st – Favourite Licensed RPG: Okay, I’m going to get some laughs for this, and I worked on the game (so I shouldn’t be listing it), but… White Wolf’s Street Fighter.

Yeah, I know, people scratch their heads at this one, probably because Ryu and Ken aren’t Goth enough, but damn it had a great combat system (thanks, Mike Tinney!). And more importantly, it was _fun_. It was very intentionally a modern pulp game. If it had been set in the ’30s and called Justice, Inc., everybody would have understood.

BTW, the initiative system is still my favorite. You used cards that listed your combat maneuvers, each of which had an initiative (some higher, some lower, based on the maneuver). You and your opponent chose your move and then placed the card down on the table, face down. When you turned them over, you compared initiatives.

I’ll also mention Margaret Weis’ Marvel superheroes game, which I only recently played but enjoyed, and TSR’s older Marvel game. And Mayfair’s DC Heroes was good, too.

22nd – Best Secondhand RPG Purchase: Oh, this one’s easy — Chaosium’s Griffin Mountain for Runequest. A friend of mine needed some money so he sold his copy to me for $25 (this was, oh, ’85 I think; sorry, pal, but you can’t have it back). It helped me complete my Glorantha collection. And thanks to Jennell Jaquays and Greg Stafford and Rudy Kraft for writing the book!

23rd – Coolest looking RPG product / book: Hands down it’s got to be first edition Vampire: the Masquerade. It’s elegant cover was like nothing in gaming at the time. Along with the Tim Bradstreet full-page chapter illos, it helped launch that game (and thus the entire World of Darkness). (20th Anniversary Vampire is no slouch, either.) Other than that, there are a lot of cool looking products but I’ll call out the Petersons Guides to Cthulhu Monsters as especially fun.

24th – Most Complicated RPG Owned: Well, Tekumel is a pretty complicated gaming world, but I don’t think that counts here. Since the requirement is “owned”, I guess I’ll say FGU’s Aftermath, since I don’t own a copy of ICE’s Rulemaster (or Synnibar). Aftermath has a detailed hit location system, and very mathematical system for converting real-world guns and ammo into game-rules damage. Apparently trademark reasons didn’t allow them to list specific guns by brand, so they used a confusing code. Still, Robert Busch figured out which guns were which.

In general, I avoid too much complication in tabletop RPG rules. Champions is an exception (and it almost made the mark here), but its foundations are relatively easy to grasp, so long as you have a calculator and understand basic fractions.

25th – Favourite RPG no one else wants to play: Hmm… I don’t think there is one. My favorites are all games I could get people to play. Tekumel, admittedly, isn’t easy, but even that I could gather a few players for. (Not that I have time for that daunting task anytime soon.) Maybe Slugs and Ditches (my old crew will know this), but only because time and distance has spread the player base far and the joke is old.

26th – Coolest character sheet: When Vampire: the Masquerade first came out, it had the most streamlined and elegant character sheet. Since then, character sheets have gotten a lot of love and layout skills. If I had to pick my current favorite, I’d probably say Numenera’s tri-fold sheet. It’s a neat idea and has a nice tech-arcane vibe to it. (The only problem is marking off damage and effort and then erasing those marks, over and over, leaving smudgy holes on the sheet.)

27th – Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of… I’d like to see a comprehensive Tekumel atlas like the recently released Guide to Glorantha. No game system, just the world. We’re living in a renaissance of new/improved editions, thanks partly to Kickstarter.

28th – Scariest Game you’ve played: I hate to disappoint you World of Darkness fans out there, but for me it was a session of Call of Cthulhu run by a friend of mine. There were supposed to be other players, but they either didn’t show or had to leave early, so it was just me, wandering around the spooky Mountains of Madness. The GM did a great job with atmosphere and building a sense of the ominous. Hat tip to you, wherever you are, Ryk.

29th – Most memorable encounter: The Tyrannosaurus Rex that surprised our party in the wilderness at night. The GM offered no excuse for how such a beast could sneak up on us, so Satyros Phil Brucato (as I recall) sarcastically suggested it must be wearing Boots of Elvenkind. Oh, I know I’ve had more memorable encounters, but for some reason that stands out right now (as I type this at Dragon Con).

30th – Rarest RPG Owned: Original Empire of the Petal Throne boxed set, I guess.

31st – Favourite RPG of all time: I am allowed to say this, despite my heavy involvement with the line: Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Mark Rein-Hagen, Sam Chupp, Robert Hatch, take a bow. Even if I hadn’t taken the role as line developer I’d still have thrown all my love into this game.

Very close runners-up here are Pendragon, Champions (for old times sake), and (I gotta say it, although it’s very egotistical of me to do so) Fading Suns. I’d love to put Glorantha here, too, in some form, although I haven’t stuck with any particular game system for it.

This is the finale of RPGaDay in August. Thank you, David Chapman, for creating this August diversion: http://autocratik.blogspot.com/2014/07/rpgaday-in-august.html.

Game on!