Archive for September, 2008

carry on my wayward son

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

I got a demo of carry (76-page black-and-white digest, $15) from its designer, Nathan Paoletta, at a convention last year: Origins, I think. At the time, I thought this column was coming back sooner than it did, and I promised him a review, because the demo sold me on the game. It took awhile, but here it is.

In most RPGs, the dice constrain the story; in carry, perhaps appropriately for a game about futility and the Vietnam War, they do so more overtly than normal. The size of the dice you roll depends on your character’s Profile and the Approach he takes (an “Accuser” gets a d12 for Subversive actions and a d6 for Honorable ones; the “Brawler” would get a d8 and d10 for the same choices). Your Profile changes as you burn out; an Accuser can become a Brawler (“fight back”) or a Soldier (“man up”). The GM, also, has a dice pool, which she must expend; the combination of a GM budget and the Vietnam genre points toward very adversarial play. Players pass dice around to each other, driving the story with those actions, as the GM frames conflicts and the players set the stakes. As the action scenes mount up, even “successful” actions cost fallout: wounds and death for PC Grunts and NPC Fodder alike. Your dice pool includes a “Burden,” a die that represents your “major malfunction,” in the words of F. Lee Ermey. Your Burden stays the same, or gets bigger, but it’s the only die you can always roll. Even if you resolve your issue, you just get another one the same size. Eventually, everyone’s Burden is too big, all the Fodder are dead, and there’s nothing left but the final conflict in a last-scene endgame.

This isn’t Recon, in other words. It’s a tragedy of inevitable human failure set not even in the Vietnam War but in our hazy cultural recollections of it. I could see the same engine powering stories of the Civil War or, hell, the Trojan War. But in all cases, the engine drives the story, not the other way around. But it drives it directly, interestingly, and well from a base of recognizable, genuine human concerns. If that sounds like your kind of Approach, carry won’t be a Burden you can easily put down.

Broadswords & Bell Curves

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

The potential for irony abounds in any discussion of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, the first installment of which Steve Jackson Games released around Christmas of last year as a PDF original supplement on their e-store e23. To begin with, there’s the irony that after thirty years, we’re three-quarters of the way back around to The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson’s first multi-book simplification of Dungeons & Dragons. In fine epicyclic fashion, though, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is a multi-book simplification of GURPS for the purposes of playing games very much like Dungeons & Dragons. (Dungeons & Dragons, meanwhile, is moving around that same wheel, with its multi-book new edition a beautifully elegant, souped-up version of Blue-Book-era D&D “kick in the door and go” dungeon fantasy, likewise of thirty years ago.) But rather than reinvent GURPS for graph-paper delving, in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, GURPS Line Editor Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch presents, rather, a set of comprehensive “house rules” for a GURPS game with the same goals that Tom Moldvay had in 1980. Which, it bears repeating, are the same goals possessed by an overwhelming proportion of the RPG player base – including me, one Sunday a month, given that I’m playing in a D&D 4e campaign.

Having addressed Genre, we move from the Universal to the RPSpecifics: GURPS Dungeon Fantasy comes in four books (so far). GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers (31 pages, PDF, $7.95) is the basic “Player’s Handbook,” featuring GURPS templates for 11 “classes” (barbarian to wizard, although if you play a wizard, you’ll need GURPS Magic, too), a few rules fillips, and a bunch of delving gear in GURPS terms. Even the streamlined list of dungeon-focused skills holds 100-odd entries; the suggestion of further collapsing them into single-descriptor class skills (Over the Edge- or Risus-style) is welcome. (Had it been me, I might have tried doing the book with just the skills in GURPS Lite; as it is, players will still need access to the main GURPS Basic Set.) GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons (31 pages, PDF, $7.95) is the real winner, a “Dungeon Master’s Guide” to quick decision-making and sound rules calls in GURPS for most anything you want to do in a dungeon. Comprehensive, fair-minded, and clever, it’s the equal of the best GURPS genre books, but with a lot more crunch than most. It doesn’t quite achieve the plug-n-play utility of the original DMG, but then the current DMG doesn’t quite achieve that either. It doubles as an abbreviated “Monster Manual,” with 19 monsters from the standard (dire wolf) to the weird (ambulatory mushroom-men). No dragons, though. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 3: The Next Level (44 pages, PDF, $7.95) adds templates for 37 races optimized (like the “classes”) for dungeon-bashing, and some excellently focused rules and guidelines for character advancement and experience awards. It also adds 20 pages of lenses for “multi-class” characters, which seems a bit much of a muchness, although we get templates for Evil Clerics and Anti-Paladins (or “Unholy Warriors”), so that’s pretty good. Finally, GURPS Fantasy 4: Sages (17 pages, PDF, 4.95) adds two classes: Artificer and Sage, plus yet more multi-class lenses, plus some excellent rules for tomes and books. Again, had it been me, I would probably have released a “Dungeon Bestiary” instead, but it’s good for what it is.

What it is, or rather what all four are, is also an interesting sign-post on the road. To begin with, it’s a high-profile electronic product from a company that was among the first to embrace the Net (an argument can be made that the Daily Illuminator is the world’s oldest blog) but that has done relatively little electronic publishing (compared to other companies) until recently (e23 only started in 2005). More specifically, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is an emulator, a filter to put over GURPS to get a specific feel, one most typical of another game. Given GURPS’ origins as a gladiatorial combat game – and the overwhelming popularity of that play mode — it’s odd that such a filter has taken so long. According to the e23 “What’s Hot” page, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 1: Adventurers has sold 830 copies in a little over eight months: not bad for an e-book (it’s the third-best selling book ever at e23), but nonetheless perhaps indicative of: the way that assumptions about play style can shape marketing (“We don’t sell to people who play dungeon games”), the power (positive and negative) of branding (“GURPS isn’t for me and my dungeon game, it’s for Something Else”), and hopefully, the eventual erosion of such artificial distinctions in the more fluid world of the Web, where decisions to cross brand lines impose a lower cost on both the publisher and consumer.

On the Bright Side, This Column Will Never Seem Late Again

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I’m back! He exclaimed, knowing full well there were readers who didn’t know he was ever gone, and other readers who had no idea he had been there in the first place. It is for you latter, gentle souls, that I provide this introductory moment.

Box Described, Outitude Explained

For those of you new to “Out of the Box,” perhaps a bit of head-shaking is going on. Who is this guy, you ask, and what is he talking about, and why should I listen? Good questions, all — bear with me, O querulous one, and all shall be made plain. I’m Kenneth Hite, and I’m currently a freelance roleplaying game writer and designer. I’ve been a professional RPG writer and editor full time for about a dozen years (after a couple of freelancing years) and I’ve played RPGs pretty much continuously since about 1979, to the occasional dismay and continued chagrin of my nearest and dearest. Ever since February of 1997, I’ve written this roleplaying news-and-reviews column, jauntily titled “Out of the Box” in blithe disregard for the fact that the vast majority of RPGs were never in boxes to begin with. And ever since about March of 2007, I haven’t written it. Until now.

Over the last decade-and-a-bit, then, I’ve written this column for a webzine, for another webzine that bought the first webzine, for a game store, and for a would-be portal site that got bought by a different not-webzine. Now, after a decorous interval, I write this for IPR, which is to say, for a game store that is also a distributor-slash-fulfillment-house, or vice versa. Over the years, I have given a lot of good reviews to a lot of games available from IPR. I have likewise given a lot of good reviews to games that IPR does not carry. I imagine both will continue to be the case. I almost never bother to write a review of a bad or even a mediocre game; although pixels are infinite, our time is not, and I’d rather spend it talking about good games.

In both reviews and commentary, I make every effort to foreground my biases so that should you, the reader, be of a rigorously epistemological bent, you can extract the Truth from my subjective viewpoint. Speaking of my biases, then — forward. I love roleplaying games, most of all horror RPGs, and most especially Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu, which I and all right-thinking folk consider the pinnacle of RPG design and execution. I prefer worlds to systems, and straightforward, elegant systems to clever, intricate ones. That said, I’m a sucker for a neat mechanic. I am currently not only in the pay of IPR (which is to say, of Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat Games, Galileo Games, and a different game store), but also of Pelgrane Press in its own right, when I can get around to it. I’ve also written for Pinnacle, Iron Crown, Mongoose, Green Ronin, Grey Ghost, White Wolf, Pagan, Atlas, and Arc Dream, and have collected regular paychecks from Steve Jackson Games, Decipher, Last Unicorn Games, Chaosium, and Wizards of the Coast. You shall have to determine for yourself whether these fine people have purchased my good opinion, or merely my good writing — but, of course, much of the reason I write for them in the first place is my good opinion of their games. And as one final fillip, I also write PDFs for Ronin Arts and Atomic Overmind, which PDFs are not available on IPR at this writing, but are sold by many (even 23) Other Binary Sites. So I’m in competition with myself here. Mull that over on your tintype, then, as we go forth.

The Box Opens Monday

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Ken Hite’s celebrated gaming reviews and discussion column Out of the Box returns, Monday September 8th at a time to be determined by Ken’s whim.  Stay tuned!