Wednesday, May 25, 2016

RPG Futurist for a Day

1984 - Actually used a variant of the color chart system that started in MSH
Sometimes it seems like there's nothing new and interesting in the RPG world. I'm not suffering from this right now with Savage Rifts and some other Kickstarter delivering soon, but my friend Barking Alien mentioned something about it on Facebook a while back. he was asking in one of the FB RPG groups "what is your newest RPG purchase" and there was a wide range of responses. The thing that struck me was how many of them were just a new iteration of a game that's been around for years. How much "new" are we really getting in RPG's these days? For example:
  • D&D - 5th edition
  • Pathfinder - another edition of D&D
  • Star Wars - new system but it's covering the same ground (less ground in many ways) then the prior games on the subject
  • Shadowrun - 5th edition here too
  • Runequest - reprints of old rules, reprints of newer rules, and possibly a whole new system coming soon
  • Call of Cthulu - 7th edition from a kickstarter
  • Traveller - Mongoose is publishing their 2nd edition, which is at least the 7th version of rules for that game overall.
  • Umpteen re-edits of the original D&D rules. Wheee.
  • One Ring - it may be good but it's at least the 3rd version of a LOTR RP that I can think of.
  • Conan - different mechanics but I've seen (and owned at some point) a TSR version, a GURPS version, two d20 versions, and now we have a new one coming out.
  • Vampire the Requiem 2E is a 2nd edition of a 2nd edition. I think there's a sorcerer joke in there somewhere.
1989 - Played around with this one quite a bit at one time

Think about it - most of these games are updates of something that's been in print for 25+ years. As excited as I am for Savage Rifts its not all that new - Savage Worlds has been around since 2003 and Rifts came out in 1990.  I'm trying to think of genuinely "new" RPG's in the last few years and I'm not coming up with many.
  • The Apocalypse World engine games like Dungeon World and Spirit of 77 have covered some new ground
  • FATE while based on FUDGE is new-ish and has spawned some interesting new games. 
  • The Warhammer 40,000 games by FFG were something that had been requested for years and were interesting but even those have started the circular motion with a 2nd edition of Dark Heresy.
  • Monte Cook's Cypher System games seem to be getting something of a following and the mechanics and settings are unusual enough so far.
But I look at the What's New or Hottest Titles section  on DTRPG and it is dominated by very familiar names. There is some new and interesting stuff being done, especially in PDF-only form, but a very large percentage of the business is "game you already know next edition." I suspect some of that is that a fair number of games are created by Kickstarter now and new editions of old games seem to do very well on Kickstarter. Even without crowdfunding, a new edition of a known game is a more solid bet to sell books than something completely new. 

Another factor is that we can divide RPG's into two broad elements: Mechanics and Setting. While players tend to get wrapped up in mechanics, campaigns largely run on setting in my experience. As long as the mechanics don't badly violate the assumptions of the setting, you can get away with all kinds of system changes between editions and people will still buy your game if it's in the same setting. 

2004 - There was an "Atlantean Edition" (second edition) of this one too
That said there are a surprising (to me) number of RPGers who play a very limited number of games and are not terribly interested in picking up more. These are the guys who have been playing the same AD&D campaign for 30 years and have maybe played some Call of Cthulu years ago. They aren't like some of us who are always interested in the Coming Thing - they are happy with what they have and that's what they play. I admire that. I can't do it, but I admire it. To them, new editions are a hassle, not an innovation and it takes a lot for something "new" to get their attention.

Over the last 10-15 years boardgames have undergone tremendous changes with the influx of euro-style games, Board wargames, one of the more dusty corners of gaming have gone from hex and counter games (usually with single-color counters featuring simple black NATO symbols) with lots of charts to more graphically interesting presentations featuring blocks or miniature-like pieces and specialized dice or card-driven mechanics. Even miniature wargaming has seen a surge with the new approach and sudden popularity of X-Wing which features pre-painted (well-done pre-painted) miniatures in individual packs at a relatively low price point for a game that uses special dice and cards and gameplay that's interesting but takes less than an hour most of the time. 

I have yet to see the same "revolution" in RPG's. 

There has been a move back towards simpler mechanics: from D&D 5th edition to recent Supers games Icons, Supers, and BASH (a genre known for comprehensive rules) there is definitely a trend, but I don't think it's a revolution just yet. The FFG Star Wars games and their special dice mechanics are a step in this direction but they way they are handling the games holds them back from "revolutionary" status I think.  

What are the main constraints to a tabletop RPG? 
  • Big rulebooks that take time to read and can be expensive. 
  • Complex rules that often get in the way of a good time
  • Need for multiple players to get together in person for hours at a time on some kind of regular schedule
How do we mitigate these barriers?
  • We're already seeing simpler rules systems as a trend and PDFs are usually a more budget friendly option
  • Some kind of a system where the rules are just built in to the medium of the game, whether everything you need to know is on your character sheet - period - or  there is technology involved. Have you seen the manuals for MMORPGs? They have complex mechanics behind the scenes but they do not publish 300 page rulebooks.
  •  There has to be a way to let people participate in a meaningful way that doesn't require 4-10 hours around a table per week or month.   
2016:Latest and greatest?

I'm not sure what it will be but I think we will some kind of major change in the next few years, probably with some major upheaval among the major game companies. Some kind of confluence between physical mechanics, settings, presentation, conceptual approach, and maybe even technology like smartphones + augmented reality will combine to give us something new. Imagine if a GM could set up encounters through an augmented reality app ranging from monsters to chatty NPC's that players could encounter away from a table, while going through their daily routine. With some kind of integrated and persistent chat/skype you could theoretically have a game going on "in the background" all the time and then have specified times to gather as a group to focus on major milestones in the game. This would require a GM with a vision for a campaign, an app that could handle this kind of game including visual assets and a rules structure - or a means to insert them,  players looking for something new, and it can't cost $1000 per player to set it up. 

Of course, it may well use an existing setting. Maybe Star Wars. Driving in to work when your phone pings that there's a Mandaloran on your six could make things quite a bit more fun.

It's definitely a different kind of campaign than our traditional books-around-the-table exercise. It's not LARP. It's not an MMORPG. That said it is playing a character with your friends in a setting and hopefully doing some fun and interesting things. It's a moderated "let's pretend" and "what if this happened", and isn't that a big part of why we do what we do?

Traditional "book" games will still exist for us old-timers but I think a lot of good could come from an infusion of new approaches and new thinking as lifestyles and technology change and a new generation comes of age.

I admit some of this thinking comes as my daughter graduates this weekend so I'm having more past-future thoughts than usual. Our oldest son started running his own Pathfinder game last year and I have a second kid who is now running his own game with friends too. 


They all grew up with the internet all around them. Between texting, social media, skype, and smartphones in general they are as connected to their friends as they want to be at any given time. With xbox live and mobile apps they don't have to gather around a table to play games with their friends and doing that is an unusual occurrence, a special occasion, not something they do every day. What kinds of games will they be playing when they are my age? Will it be retro-cool to meet up and play King of Tokyo at a friend's table? Will they be playing some kind of Everquest Hologram Dream Park run from the comfort of their own home's holo-set? Will they look at Dad's shelves and shelves of game books the way we would look at a storage room full of vaccum tubes?  I don't know, but I hope I'm around long enough to see where it goes next. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


We (finally!) managed to play pandemic for the first time (I know!) over the weekend! I thought it looked like fun and I can now confirm - it is fun! On the surface, to me, a game about fighting diseases sounds pretty dull but remarkably it is not. Lots of exclamation points here but it's a rare thing to find a modern boardgame that adds something new and clever and yet is interesting enough that the whole family gets interested and it becomes a member of our (admittedly very slow) rotation. King of Tokyo did that for us last year and this year it's Pandemic.

The coolest thing about it is that it's cooperative, so we're playing as a team. That's cool, especially for "family game night". Each player gets a "role" which lets them deviate from the standard rules in some way - typically doing things faster or at a lower cost than other players. There are 8 roles so with 4 players there is a different mix of abilities in every game which changes up how you might tackle the problem. This plus the random nature of the card decks keeps it interesting and it's a lot trickier to come up with a "standard" solution compared to something like Axis and Allies. The roles also make it feel a little like an RPG as you're playing a character to some degree and people do seem to get into it.

I am convinced that this framework could be used in a superhero themed boardgame with the roles being replaced by superhero archetypes, the diseases representing criminal outbreaks or organizations, and research centers being replaced by super-team bases. I need to think about how to add more super-themed options to it but I think it could be done.

If you're wondering about the game there's a good episode of Tabletop that explains it more entertainingly than I can here. Take a look - if you have friends and especially kids it's an interesting option. We failed our first game yet everyone had a good time and agreed that we need to play it more.