Out of the Box 9/7/01 by Kenneth Hite
webdate: 09/07/2001 05:58 AM
Not Quite Out of the Box Just Yet
Well, last column, I lied. Not, I hasten to state, through any malice aforethought on my part, but rather through an entirely creditable, though in retrospect not entirely credible, belief that I would by now have completely unpacked the six thousand books I spent the last two weeks moving to my new house. But, as it turns out, some of what I promised to review is still buried deep beneath my treasured copies of Torg and Mercenaries, Spies, & Private Eyes, and some of it I just haven't read yet, because I'm too busy sorting through forty identical U-Haul boxes marked "Games" for my copy of Mercenaries, Spies, & Private Eyes. We'll try to do better next time; meanwhile, here's what was both close to the top of the box.
Is That An Adorable Pit Bull In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?
In less time than you might think, it will again seem odd that we as a society used to encourage small children to engage in simulated cockfighting using imaginary monsters stored in their pants. Hopefully, the always-superb Emily Dresner-Thornber's wonderfully-mordant, often-clever, and reliably-funny Cute & Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters (110 digest sized pages, $15.95, also available in a rooster-free "nervous distributor friendly" Cute & Fuzzy Seizure Monsters variant cover version), from Guardians of Order, will help to show us the way. But until then, she presents a surprisingly even-handed sourcebook for using pocket-monsters in Big Eyes, Small Mouth games. CFCFSM begins with a solidly constructed 40 pages on the assumptions of the "cute dueling monster" genre, campaign advice, and the divergent ways to get them into a game from nuclear accident to isolated case to parallel invasion. We then get 40 more pages of rules for monster creation and breeding (oh, the Japanese have much to answer for), some goony sample trainers and monsters, and a random name table before the traditionally-useful Guardians of Order index. Em's prose is alternately tongue-in-cheek and tongue-stuck-out, and I can't really say which I prefer, since she does them both so well. I don't know if gamers in non-anime genres can get much actual game use out of CFCFSM, save perhaps as a guide to thinking about a seemingly daft subject in world-building terms, but I do know of at least one such gamer who used it to get through a transcontinental flight on ATA, which is saying something. And not even in a high, trilling voice, either.
I Choose You, Lucifuge Rofocale!
By an uncomfortably odd coincidence, one of the games I promised to review did turn up in time for this column, and it, too, is about summoning monstrous entities to put the smack down on your enemies. Only not in a good way. Ron Edwards' Sorcerer (trade-sized 141-page hardback, $20), from his Adept Press, deals with deals with the devil the old-fashioned way -- summoning and binding demons. It's easily one of the most impressive new games I've ever seen, partly because Ron Edwards has a number of very intriguing notions about game design (he, unlike me, believes in the quest for new systems), and partly because this is the hardcopy version of an RPG four years in the online production, testing, refinement, and (the most important part) selling. Given the number of really quite suitable RPGs available for free online (I'll give a shout out to S. John Ross' underrated but brilliant Risus here, along with my customary praise for Steffan O'Sullivan's FUDGE), the fact that people have given Ron Edwards enough good money for a fairly (not to say extremely) setting-light and minimalist PDF RPG to support a really snazzy hardcopy (and hardcover) version is almost a recommendation in itself.
Fortunately, the game doesn't require such fiscal Darwinism to justify its existence -- it's a tremendously interesting example of design elegance, to start with. For example, PCs can pretty much pick any power they want for their summoned demons -- which makes said demons much more dangerous to summon and bind. Neatly self-reinforcing, that -- just like nearly every aspect of the game. Even the bits that don't mesh perfectly (each PC has a "Kicker," a dramatic event that starts their story going, and kind of seems contrived) are in aid of enhancing drama, story, and roleplaying. Another nice touch: the PCs will, statistically, fail a lot of key tests (which involve beating the GM's highest die in a pool with the highest die in the player's), unless they get bonus dice -- which are most easily gained by roleplaying and investing the action (or the character) with rich, meaty details. Edwards provides these extremely solid mechanics, plentiful examples, and a lot of excellent gaming advice, all in a very readable (and again minimalist) package. Only those desperate for a whole lot of setting in a whole lot of hurry will feel stiffed; the "default" campaign, of a few dozen sorcerers carrying out private vendettas in the mostly-unaffected modern world, is sketched in with impressionist effect and spare prose, and the only actual setting in the book is seven pages of Edwards' own campaign. However, new players with a yen for old-school personal horror in the Ramsey Campbell/Clive Barker vein, as well as jaded old art-gamers looking for a fix, will both find Sorcerer a meal in itself. And for would-be and experienced game designers alike, Sorcerer is quite likely mandatory reading.
I Choose You, Githyanki!
Moving from this side of the Veil to the other, we come to a whole new book. And, to be fair, moving from this side of the Veil to the other, and moving about on that side, really does require a whole new book. It used to require a whole new game setting, the immensely inventive and endlessly fascinating Planescape -- but those were the old days, before the modrons of fiscal wariness marched their way across Seattle. Fortunately, however, we do have a brand-new, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition version of Jeff Grubb's much-loved Manual of the Planes, which is, for my money, one of the great unsung accomplishments of old-school AD&D. This new Manual of the Planes, (223 page full-color hardcover, $29.95) also by Jeff Grubb along with Bruce R. Cordell and David Noonan, brings us back up to speed on all those places where "back," "up," and "speed" may vary without warning. But first, a little digression: Multiplanar gaming does a lot of things for heroic-fantasy, plain-vanilla D&D over and above providing a stapled-on cosmology. Most immediately, it gives the DM an out for almost anything; the planes can support any kind of adventure, or produce any kind of threat, without even stretching hard. More importantly, the planes, if used well (as Planescape did) can provide that all-important sense of scale, of sheer possibility, that may have died out with the third or fourth looting of the City-State of the Pretty Darn Vincible After All Overlord or Temple of Ultimately Butt-Pounded Evil. And while this Manual of the Planes does a marvelous job explaining the planes in clear, modular form (I had to keep looking at the cover to see if I was reading GURPS Planes), it doesn't do as much to offer that sense of infinity that multiplanar gaming almost demands.
On the other hand, it staples on that cosmology like a champion; not only the default "Great Wheel" of D&D, but plenty of other options, too -- I especially liked the "Winding Road" cosmology, where all the planes are linked up along (you guessed it) a big, dangerous path. By such clever presentation of standards and options, this book well and truly walks its own dangerous path of both being fully usable as written and fully customizable by the DM with his own mad notions. (A Plane of Dreams! A really-truly Plane of Faerie! Both in here.) We also get a lot of cool planar monsters (including special non-psionic versions of the githyanki and githzerai) and, even cooler, planar templates! (Want to build the Shadow Bugbear? Or the Air Ilithid? You can now!) All the usual planar suspects get their due, and each plane's writeup is more than suitable for the DM with a plane-crashing party. (There's also four somewhat restrictive planar prestige classes, for building just such a party.) The modular, patient style makes building your own planes and demiplanes a breeze, too; all that's really missing is that big, honking sense of wonder. Maybe it's out on one of these planes somewhere.
Out of the Box Global Headquarters should be mostly out of the boxes by then; we'll try to do that Big Raft of D20 Stuff I promised awhile back, possibly in a vastly compressed form utilizing an Open Review License and topped off with a look at D20 campaign settings including (brr) Forgotten Realms. If so, there will be more new stuff jammed in there, including mayhap another late review, this one of Robin Laws' progressive, reactionary RPG Rune. I doubt, though, that we'll have the space for a gratuitous plug of my new book, GURPS Cabal -- I'm sorry for any crushing sense of disappointment these harsh words evoke. Try to master it, and click back here in fourteen!
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