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Out of the Box
Out of the Box 12/28/01 by Kenneth Hite
webdate: 12/31/2001 05:27 AM

2001: Yup, That's A Monolith, Alrighty

And so we come to the end of another end of another millennium, or something. No, actually, we've merely ended a fairly standard, low-key year for the gaming industry, terrorist atrocities and concomitant international brouhaha notwithstanding. 2001 seemed pretty decent financially (if not particularly creatively) from where I was standing, and I think the gaming scene in some respects looks pretty good creatively (if not necessarily financially) for 2002. Assuming we can get these damn pod bay doors open, that is.

My God, It's Full Of D20-Compatible Stars

2001 was the year that the Open Gaming License flowered to its fullness and began to bloat more than a little bit in the sun. We'll see who, and what, dies off in the ensuing cholera epidemic next year; for now, the expanding gases made things look fat again. Wizards of the Coast ground along with its own D20 stock (including a Wheel of Time D20 RPG), of course, although the announcement of a revision for 2002 of their barely year-old Star Wars RPG made an interesting flat note in the symphony. Not speaking of White Wolf, they did pretty well out of their D20 stuff, but not well enough to keep Arthaus alive; it's not officially dead at the end of 2001, but it's certainly not a well parrot. (No, I don't know what this means for Ravenloft, but I imagine it's okay.) D20 has also made a nice impression for Fantasy Flight Games and Atlas; to a lesser extent, it's been a boon for Alderac, Chaosium, and Eden Studios (which will get another sound uptick from its new Hack! card game based on Knights of the Dinner Table, and from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG license it just got), and it has quite likely kept Pinnacle afloat.

Which flotation it needed after, its previous corporate shell, imploded messily. Pinnacle escaped the maelstrom by clinging to a raft; Obsidian went under completely as far as I can tell, and a coterie of investors including Steve "That's Mister Dark Champions To You, Pal" Long has bought the intellectual property and naming rights to Hero Games from a beachcombing vagrant. The new conglomerate promises us the Hero System fifth edition in 2002, for which the world's breath seems less than bated, but we'll see. (A different coterie of investors has bought the remnants of Iron Crown from a different beachcombing vagrant, so perhaps Hero System 5th can fight it out with Rolemaster More Standard for shelf space.)

More siginificantly, FASA closed up shop.

Also significantly, Zocchi Distribution vaporized, leaving a trail of below-cost product and unpaid invoices, while Wargames West declared victory and will dissolve with honor. Either way, however, that leaves Diamond/Alliance as the sole national distributor by default, and through no virtue of their own. This bids fair to cause trouble in 2002; it will be interesting to see if a revived RPGA and similar "peer to peer" gamer-service systems set up by Ryan Dancey's new company OrganizedPlay can create mechanisms for customer retention and customer demand to counteract this unfortunate trend. All this and cholera, too.

As the kids say, watch this space.

Auld Acquaintance, Auld Acquaintance -- Nope, Doesn't Ring A Bell

Well, auld acquaintance may be forgot, but not the coveted Out of the Box Awards for 2001. As always, the coveted "Outie" has been burnished to a fiery luster by cyberspatial gnomes using chamois cloths ripped from the steaming flanks of Price Waterhouse. Let's get ready to ramble!

Best New RPG of 2001: This category is traditionally a tough one, and it still is. Clear-cut Honorable Mentions go to Jason Roberts and Michael Miller's Fvlminata and to Geoff Grabowski et al's Exalted for their success at taking stuff we thought we all knew by heart and grinding our faces into it creatively while making us love it. All three of the finalists have some flaws; Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is brilliant but recondite, Jason Blair's Little Fears is starkly elegant but can easily go off the rails, and Bruce Baugh and Andrew Bates' Adventure! is sheer delight but starts with a brutal horse-choker of an "in voice" infodump. However, none of these are necessarily flaws of design, but rather issues of accessibility and utility -- which I, frankly, don't really care about in my heart of hearts. The Outie could, legitimately, go to any of them, but since of the three Adventure! is the most accessible and usable (thanks to its well-tweaked Storyteller-plus game system), it shall take the palm this year.

Best Sui Generis RPG of 2001: This year, there's not much demanding attention here, what with 2001 creative game design meaning where to place the D20 logo. However, the round-robin GM style and relentless linearity combined with reactionary dungeon-crawl in Robin Laws' Rune RPG does, at least, run a respectable race to keep this category from, again, becoming a Hogshead turkey shoot with the epistolary horror RPG/MUD/retreat into madness that is De Profundis. Most likely, next column I'll have a more complete review of De Profundis -- the winner of the Sui Generis Outie.

Best Supplement of 2001: Honorable Mentions would include GURPS WWII (another one we'll review anon), potentially either Traps & Treachery or Touched by the Gods for D20, and definitely Gold Rush Games' Shinobi for Sengoku. Phil Masters' GURPS Atlantis and, quite frankly, my own GURPS Cabal, are solid runners-up worthy of the palm. But the bruising battle this year is not in sourcebooks but in adventure books; Rick Neal, James Palmer, Greg Stolze, John Tynes, and Chad Underkoffler present a powerhouse showcase of cutting-edge adventure design in Atlas Games' Weep and Bruce Ballon's Unseen Masters is worthy of mention with the classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns of all time, both books presenting compelling testimony to the fact that great adventures often start with great games. The Outie goes to Unseen Masters for its intensity, its intricacy, and its powerful sense of theme and place, gifts matched only by Palmer's scenario in Weep.

Best Retread of 2001: Two GURPS books make the Honorable Mention this time out, as the tweaks to GURPS Atomic Horror 2nd Edition improve a swell supplement, and GURPS Deadlands provides a solid, unified resource for the Weird West. Neither is without some major flaws, somewhat inherent in their initial source material. Mummy: the Resurrection, meanwhile, removes some of the real advantages from its prior incarnations, but replaces them with different (if lesser) ones in a much more attractive package. The new, 3rd-edition compatible Manual of the Planes is the clear standout in this category, but it's narrowly beaten to the Outie by its crosstown rival Ravenloft 3rd Edition which has the advantage of an even better foundation, and some all-important focus.

Most Improved Retread of 2001: Sadly, we grandfathered new editions of Call of Cthulhu out of the Outies last year, or we could just give this one to the leather-bound, Smythe-sewn Call of Cthulhu Anniversary Edition and call it a column. I'm tempted to give this Outie to Hammerdog Games' Grande Temple of Jing for improving the physical presentation of the dungeon crawl, but I'm not sure that it really counts as a specific retread, rather than a retread of a whole concept. The new Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting probably deserves a legitimate Honorable Mention here, for really shining as a physical, utile artifact, and for almost making me care -- but once the words "physical artifact" come into play, this Outie inevitably goes to Ron Edwards' hardback version of his eRPG Sorcerer. Since, you know, it is a physical artifact now, which I (Ron's vocal disagreement notwithstanding) consider a vast improvement.

Biggest Fizzle of 2001: If it isn't, it certainly should be. Fortunately, it is

Most Blatant Plugs of 2001:

Although the blatancy is still thick on the ground, the actual pluggables tapered off pretty dramatically for 2001, as a consequence of the Big Company Shift. Besides my ongoing column "Cities for the Ages" in the pages of Dragon mostly monthly (and, of course, "Suppressed Transmission," still mostly weekly in Pyramid), slavering devotees of my every syllable can mark the day they bought GURPS Cabal off on the In Nomine 2001 Calendar and be glad. Hopefully, between the beginning of the Decipher RPG schedule rollout, GURPS Horror 3rd Edition, and a few other morsels of joy, 2002 will see more pluggage, and even more blatancy, and hopefully, I'll see you all then.

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