RPG Blog Carnival: Travelling

(Before settling for that topic title, I went through the following thought process: “Need a good title. What’s a good title. Hey, what was that “will travel” line? Have Horse, Will Travel, so… Have Dice, Will Travel? No! Damn you, Keith Baker! Damn you!”)

This is my contribution to the January RPG Blog Carnival, themed Games & Travel, hosted by The Gamer Traveler.

I would also have to characterise myself as a gamer traveller. I grew up bouncing across Europe, partly thanks to my father’s job. I’ve lost count how many times we went to Strasbourg and Paris. I currently live a life of shuttling between the cities of Espoo and Tampere, 170 kilometers apart, and am active in roleplaying and science fiction clubs in both.

When I grew up a bit and found gaming, I naturally started to look for something to do with the hobby in foreign countries. When I was still a kid, this was mostly about finding game stores, because my parents would buy me stuff far more readily when we were on a holiday trip. Now in my mid-twenties, finding game stores is still one of my primary concerns in new cities, though for a bit different reason. I like to find new, strange games and to chat with gamers from different cultures. Learning new things and meeting new people is fun. I also collect games. Since I haven’t played a fraction of the English-language games I own, I can deal with them not being in a language I don’t even know. I’ve got copies of the sixth edition Drakar och Demoner and an unknown edition of Das Schwarze Auge in my bookshelf, and neither my Swedish nor my German are sufficient to read them. From a mid-nineties trip to Düsseldorf I also have a copy of Warhammer: Festungen that I later purchased in the English-language edition, Siege.

Finding Game Stores

Game stores, however, are elusive. They tend to hide into areas where a tourist does not normally look for them, with the exception of Games Workshop stores, and often are difficult to find online, especially when the language barrier prevents effective google-fu. Not that the google-fu still isn’t worth trying, though – it’s how I found one in Berlin after my trickier methods failed.

The obvious way to get around this is to ask in a big online gaming forum about game stores in your destination before embarking on your trip. RPG.net and EN World are both good for this.

Then there’s a sneaky one that I’ve developed. Games Workshop stores are easy to find, but they do not carry roleplaying games. However, there are three different RPGs based on their licences, so it comes naturally to ask for a GW store clerk where you could buy Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play or Dark Heresy books. This worked in Edinburgh and Amsterdam, at least. Not in Berlin, though, as I found after walking for several kilometers from my hotel to the GW store (the distance looked so short on the map…). The only guy in the establishment who even spoke English was this red-headed kid who couldn’t have been twelve. The advantage to this system, though, is that Games Workshop stores do have an online database, a user-hostile turd though it be, and can be found pretty much everywhere.

On the language thing, by the way… it is polite to learn at least the “restaurant vocabulary” when you go to a country where they speak Foreign. You know the stuff, “thank you”, “please”, “hello” and so forth. This will also get you a much friendlier response. (My father is really annoying about that. He doesn’t just learn the restaurant vocab, he makes sure to know the basics of the entire language. I’ve never been quite sure how many he speaks fluently, but apparently at least four.) This is especially true in Finland, because we apparently are a grim and reserved people, which is strange and off-putting to foreigners used to other people smiling. Learning a few words of Finnish will serve as an icebreaker. I find it also works well in Germany. The French can sometimes be weird about it, but it never hurts to try.

I’ve also had local friends, met online, show me the local game stores (Copenhagen), and occasionally I’ve been able to find them just by myself, by keeping an eye out for certain kinds of display elements. The Sci-Fi Bokhandeln in Stockholm’s Old Town I found like this, noticing this big dragon hanging in the front of a building. Then, it’s in the one place in the town where all the tourists will go anyway. Found another one in Dublin.

Dragon logos, Games Workshop logos on display and so forth are good clues.

See New Places, Meet Interesting People, and Play with Them

Well, playing games is what we do, and to broaden one’s horizons, it’s occasionally worthwhile to head out of the basement and meet new people to play with. Gaming conventions are pretty good for this. I’ve been to every major roleplaying games convention in Finland and played or run games in them (Ropecon in Espoo, Tracon in Tampere, Conklaavi in Turku and Maracon in Oulu). I’ve also been to conventions in Dublin (Leprecon 2003 – still have the t-shirt!) and Aberdeen (DrakCon… 2006, I think).

Especially back in the days of Living Greyhawk, this was a major motivation for me, though I didn’t get to play in all that many foreign games. Just one in Amsterdam, a Sunndi regional, SND4-02 Whispers in the Dark, and another in that Aberdonian convention, an Onnwal two-rounder, ONW5-03 The Unplumbed Depths. Loads of fun both times.

That trip to Aberdeen was a strange one, though. It was a family vacation, but in Edinburgh, not Aberdeen. To get to the convention, I had to take the train from Edinburgh on the previous evening, spend the night in Aberdeen and go play in the morning. I had time for one game before it was time to hit the rails and go back to Edinburgh. Since I was strapped for cash, I opted not to sleep in a hotel or any such frippery, but to spend the night walking around central Aberdeen, marvelling how they’ve managed to build such an architecturally homogenous city. I didn’t get cold, since it was summer and I’m a Finn, but my legs ached something fierce after that. Also, come morning, I acquainted myself with Scotland’s answer to Mountain Dew, a bright orange caffeinated soda named Irn-Bru. They say it is made of girders.

I loved the game, though. It was a return to Scarlet Brotherhood’s Obelstone Keep, which held a certain significance to Onnwalon players after previous modules set there, including the meatgrinder intro Escape from Obelstone, had established it a certain infamy. We went in, rocked the house, kidnapped the head honcho, fed one floor of the castle to a huge gelatinous cube, and then hit the bricks before the eldritch horrors from beyond space and time could eat our brains. My character, Captain Xaylen Ambedor, also made off with the head wizard’s spellbook, which would net him a death sentence were he caught with it in Onnwal. Good thing he doesn’t live there. I think it ate a point of Wisdom off him, too.

Unfortunately, my Berlin vacation was timed simultaneously with a big convention in Bonn, and all the German gamers were in there.

There were also plans for a border convention between the Principality of Naerie (the Nordic Countries) and the Free State of Onnwal (the United Kingdom and Ireland) that would’ve taken place on a ferry from Göteborg to the UK. It’s a pity that one never happened. It is also a pity that the campaign ended, and its follow-up no longer has a regional mechanic. If LFR worked the same way, I could even overcome my instinctive loathing towards 4E to play, just because of the ease with which it facilitated finding one-off games with new people in new places.

The Museums and Stuff

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but I’ll do it anyway. In addition to the directly game-related pursuits, there are loads of inspirational and interesting things to be found in foreign countries – and likely also your home city, if it is worthy of the title. Museums always have something worth the price of admission. I have something like ten pages of handwritten notes I scribbled down during a day spent in the British Museum some years ago. In Tampere, where I primarily dwell now, there’s a spy museum. Most European capital cities have war museums of some description. In Copenhagen’s… Royal Museum, I think it was, there’s the halberd that was used to kill the first Swedish soldier who came over the walls of Copenhagen during the siege in 1658-59. In the Armoury of the Stockholm Royal Castle, there is a museum that, among other things, displays the jacket King Gustavus Adolphus was wearing when he was shot and killed on the field at Lützen, the last of the European monarchs to fall in battle.

Interestingly, when I went to see it, they also had a special exhibition about fencing and swords, and I got to try fencing with a sabre against a local fencing hobbyist. I won, narrowly.

Art museums vary, but ‘ve never gone to one that didn’t have at least something to make the it worth the time. Even a museum of modern art, and I’m generally not a fan of modern art. Kiasma in Helsinki, for instance, has a mosaic depicting Lara Croft in the entry hall floor, and a chandelier made entirely out of chicken bones (yeah, I know, the Sedlec Ossuary has one made out of human bones).

Museums also tend to have shops with literature related to whatever they’re exhibiting, in case you want to know more about something.

Travelling on the Couch

Finally, there are places where you just do not want to go. Well, dunno about you, but there are places I don’t want to go, and the people living in those places probably don’t want me there, either. There are also experiences I’d rather not have (and I’m willing to try a bungee jump or any local delicacy that doesn’t bite back). For these places, there are travel shows.

My personal favourite is Madventures, which chronicles the journeys of two Finns, Riku and Tunna, as they make their way around the world, eat interesting things, meet interesting people and experience things I’d generally rather leave for my player characters to experience. They’ve now released three seasons, the last of which was shown on the Travel Channel. I believe all three DVD sets have English subtitles, and the third one also has English narration. Madventures is good fodder for gaming inspiration.

And now I’m in this vein, I would also recommend Richard Attenborough’s nature documentaries, especially Planet Earth and Life, since they’re prettiest things I have ever seen on television. All of his shows, however, do a good job of chronicling the dangerous, beautiful and often downright weird things found in nature. It places some of D&D’s more outrageous monsters in perspective when you know there’s a fly in South America that pumps its head full of air, which then channels into its eyes and inflates them so they’re at the ends of long stalks. The fly with the longest eyestalks wins mating rights. There’s also a cave in… Borneo, if I remember correctly, that is home to a million bats and has a full cave-floor ecosystem revolving entirely around their crap. And when you go underwater, it gets really trippy. The gelatinous cube is pretty damn freaky, but let’s face it, it’s hardly without precedent.

Incidentally, it seems like I will be in Bratislava, Slovakia, in May. Anyone know a game store in town?

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Good News and Bad News

I’ll give you the bad news first: according to Greg Yahn, Wizards of the Coast Director of Marketing, WotC is not going to renew their Star Wars licence, and the Star Wars Miniatures and Star Wars Saga lines will be coming to an end. The licence is expiring in May, and the products will be available until August. There are still a couple of releases coming down the pipe in the next few months, but after April’s Unknown Regions, that’s it for WotC and Star Wars.

You’ll notice how I’m exercising great restraint here and not reporting that WotC is getting out of the RPG business for good.

I’m kinda sad to see Star Wars Saga come to an end. I like the game, and had they used it as a model for how to do 4E, I might have written some fifteen thousand words less about my hatred for the game and its supplements. I might also be still buying WotC products. This does kinda render my boycott meaningless, because now that Paul S. Kemp is no longer writing for them and with Saga ending, they’re really no longer selling anything that I want. It is notable, though, that the line is pretty much complete as it is. They got all the era sourcebooks out, a spaceship sourcebook, an alien book, and whatever else. There’s nothing really missing that I can think of.

Now, the only thing for me to do is to hoard the supplements – especially Old Republic, for my favourite era of play – from second-hand sellers.

We’ll see if someone else picks up the licence. It’ll probably happen sooner or later. Mongoose Publishing is one possible candidate for it, I suppose. Cubicle 7 is another possibility, though they’ll probably have their hands full with the Lord of the Rings licence for the time being. Green Ronin? Perhaps even Paizo? Time will tell.

However, there are also good news!

The people at Evil Hat have locked down a release date for The Dresden Files RPG! It’s coming out at Origins, June 23rd!

It’s coming out in two books, one, Your Story, containing the rules and the other, Our World, the setting. It uses the Fate system from Spirit of the Century, which I’m not personally familiar with but which is allegedly pretty good for a certain type of game.

For those of you not in the know, the Dresden Files is a series of modern-day fantasy novels about Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phone book. The setting draws a lot from White Wolf’s World of Darkness, except it left out all the angst. I like Jim Butcher’s prose style, and he has the rare ability to distill the pure essence of awesome into some elements of his novels. There are currently eleven out, with the twelfth, Changes, hitting shelves in April. I can recommend the novels to everyone and the TV series to no one, except perhaps a strange breed of masochist who gets their kicks out of boredom.

That is all for now. I shall return sometime next week after I’ve dissected some of the PDF offerings from that Haiti bundle and tell you what I think.

RPGs for Charity

While the blogosphere has already reported about this widely, I figure that there is no such thing as too much exposure in a case like this.

There are many ways to donate money to the Haiti relief effort after the earthquake that levelled Port-au-Prince. For us gamers, DriveThruRPG provides a rather appealing one. For $20 donated to charity, you get a bundle of some 180(?) PDF products, including some choice products. In addition, the charity in question is Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders for the English-speaking world (or the clunky Lääkärit ilman rajoja in Finland), which is established, trustworthy, reliable, and won’t run off to the Bahamas with the cash. Looks like they’ll be in the neighbourhood, though.

At the time of writing, the gaming community has dropped off $127,960 to help the effort, which is a tremendous sum. However, let’s face it, it’s not really a donation. It’s a purchase, and one that gets you more bang for your buck than… well, pretty much anything else. The real donation comes from the publishers who have freely given their products, sometimes even entire games, for the cause. I’m keeping an eye on them now, and will be sending some of my gaming euros their way in the near future. Especially Adamant Entertainment and Arc Dream have products I’ve had my eye on for some time now and will finally be picking up next month because of this.

It’s a big bundle. No, scratch that, it’s a fucking huge bundle. Over the next few days, I hope to be able to download most if not all of it and check out what it has to offer. While I know that Dork Covenant will be good and already own and love Serenity RPG in hardcover, there’s all that other stuff that I’ve never heard of, from publishers I know nothing about. There’s a lot of reading to be done.

I believe the bundle will be up until the end of the month. Note that the generosity of the gaming community is overwhelming, and among the things it whelmed over are the DriveThruRPG servers. There’s a delay of a couple of days before you can download the materials. I bought it on the 22nd and only got the e-mail just after I started writing this post. But, well, it’s some 180 gaming products for what amounted to €14, which is less than I usually pay for even one.

Now, go buy the damn thing. Even if it means you’ll be eating noodles for the rest of the month. You’ll be doing  good.

(For noodles, by the way, I recommend buying the stuff without spice sachets. I boil them with a bouillon cube, usually beef or chicken-flavoured, and throw in a chopped onion and some leftovers from the fridge, possibly a tin of button mushrooms. Before I pour the noodles into a bowl, I lay out a few slices of cheese on the bottom, so they get melted by the heat of the noodles. This may not be overly healthy, but it is delicious. And cheap.)

Maracon, In a Wicked Age

A few months ago, I visited a small convention up north in Oulu, the frozen armpit of Finland. Good pizza, nice people, no city to speak of, terrible climate. Generally, not a town one wants to sit six hours in the train for.

However, the local collection of giant Lego blocks that they call a university has a roleplaying club, CRYO. A couple of times a year, CRYO organises an event called Maracon, and I’ve gone farther afield in search of those. At least, this time I never left the continent. It’s a small convention type thingy, with, I understand, the occasional presentation or program item, but mostly just gaming. I got to test out a bunch of board games, and one RPG. I should’ve written this post an age ago, and now remember very little of the board games, except that FFG’s Chaos in the Old World was plenty cool, and I got to blow up Bretonnia in big, huge, disease-ridden chunks. Though the game takes a while to play, as Fantasy Flight games are wont to do, I picked it up pretty quickly and was in the lead when I had to hoof it to catch a train back to more temperate climes. I also won a miniatures painting competition, though it was the beginner round and with some 13 years of miniature painting under my belt, there would be something wrong if I hadn’t. I handed over the prize to the second-place winner.

Then there was the single RPG session that I got to play. I’d planned to play in a session of Serenity, but unfortunately it started too late and I couldn’t make it. However, I had the opportunity to test something else, a game rather far from my usual fare. In a Wicked Age is one of those storygames whose roots can be traced back to the Forge forums. It’s written by D. Vincent Baker, whose other works include the pirate RPG Poison’d and kill puppies for satan. He is also one of the co-authors of Executive Decision, an interesting attempt at creating a roleplaying game about political decision-making. As a long-time West Wing fan, I’ve wanted to try it for some years, but it’s a bit obscure and sadly, the topic doesn’t seem to generate interest in the player base.

The game was sold to us as a sword & sorcery game set in ancient Sumeria or Assyria, or somesuch. Evoking images of Conan was sufficient to get at least my imagination moving.

It was an interesting game. At the start, an oracle was picked, and then, with the assistance of a deck of playing cards, a number of plot elements were created from the oracle’s list. Then, from those plot elements, we came up with our characters and a number of NPCs. Lumpley Games provides an oracle generator on their website, so you can see what it’s like.

The player characters we came up with were a wrongfully accused man, the bloke who framed him, a vengeful widower, and the manservant/bodyguard of a brothel mistress. The last one was my PC, named Zain. Each PC had a certain special ability that added dice to his roll in the appropriate conditions. I don’t remember the others’ abilities, but Zain was notable for his mighty thews and chiselled musculature. In other words, he was strong as an ox, which came into play whenever there was fighting to be done.

The NPCs, then were the Satrap who condemned the accused man, the sorcerer Ugurnaszir who slew the widower’s love when she spurned his advances, and Gemekaa, an enchantress returning from the wilderness to the city.

Then, we came up with some plot hooks tying the characters to one another. Ugurnaszir, in addition to being a murderous bastard, wanted the brothel Zain worked at for his own, which Zain wanted to prevent. The accused man, Aram Seen, wished to clear his name with the Satrap and Ador Palassar, his framer, wanted him to get caught. The widower Shalmanizar, naturally, wanted the head of Ugurnaszir. He also turned out to have a beef with Zain, whom he considered partially responsible for his wife’s death. Finally, stirring the plot was the enchantress Gemekaa, who came to claim Shalmanizar as her husband and whom Zain saw as a terrible omen and wanted to drive back into the wilderness.

I probably should have drawn a flowchart.

It’s an interesting feature of the game, by the way, that conflicts cannot be resolved by talking. This resulted in a lot of violence, though surprisingly few deaths.

I do not recall all the specifics of the game, so I can’t give you a blow-by-blow recap of the events. However, I can tell you that the game ran very smoothly and the tensions between the player characters drove it onward, especially once we got the hang of things and started to really push the conflict situations. At one point, Zain had Shalmanizar hanging from a brothel balcony and beat his hands with a burning torch. After this, they allied to defeat Ugurnaszir, with the promise that if Shalmanizar still wanted Zain’s head, they could settle it like honourable men after their mutual foe had been dealt with. In the end, Aram Seen managed to flee, never to be seen again, Ador Palassar was dumped out of Ugurnaszir’s tower window into a pile of manure, and Ugurnaszir himself got decapitated by a raging Shalmanizar. At this point, his tower was on fire, and Gemekaa got crushed by a burning ceiling beam, illustrating the destructiveness of Shalmanizar’s quest for revenge.

The game is on my shopping list, now.

The conflict-resolution system and the tensions forced by the character generation make for a fast-paced game that’s good for convention games and other one-shots. It’s a storygame, though, so you’ll need imagination and you’ll need to focus on the game more than, say, Dungeons & Dragons requires you to focus in order to get good results. This isn’t a game for the shy and quiet wallflower player, either, because sooner or later, you and your character will have to take the limelight.

Playing D&D with Porn Stars had an excellent post on that topic a few days ago, incidentally. It’s also why I don’t play these games more often, even though I own a fair pile of them.

And, well, I’m too damn lazy to actually read them.

The Dawn of a New Year

In what is apparently forming into a tradition, I hereby post about the last year several days into the new one, after every other blogger has already done their recaps. Like last year, I also blame World of Warcraft, and also Steam for selling me Mass Effect for a little under four euros and a pack of LucasArts adventure games from the early 90’s for a bit under two.

My tauren druid is now level 80, finally. He’s totally awesome.

This is how you know it’s a gamer blog. The normal people would blame the delay on the hangover after New Year’s. Had that one, too, though. Several, actually.

Aaanyway, let’s take a look at what I wrote a year back about 2009.

Well, to start with, The Dresden Files RPG did not materialise. However, it’s not vapourware yet and Evil Hat is aiming for release at Origins 2010. I feel they’re being realistic and refreshingly honest about their chances of hitting a definite release date. Still looking forward to this one. I’m a huge fan of the novels – not so much the TV series – and I feel they will translate rather well into a roleplaying game. Indeed, they were strongly inspired by RPGs in the first place.

Adamant Entertainment’s and Cubicle 7’s Tales of New Crobuzon has also failed to appear. I do not know the status on this, though Adamant is still apparently up and running. Their site is going through a redesign and is inaccessible at the time of writing. Cubicle’s site contains no mention of the game, though they do seem to have announced the playtest of an unnamed licenced fantasy RPG back in September. I think we can definitely say that Tales of New Crobuzon may or may not be coming out at some point in the future. Then, in this industry, release dates often do have that Xeno’s Paradox effect going on. We’re still waiting for Sinister Adventures’ Razor Coast, too.

However, there’s one product that I can pretty confidently say is dead, and that’s Kahriptic Knights’ Deliverance. Their website hadn’t been updated for six months by the time I last posted about it, so it doesn’t come as a great surprise that they still haven’t updated it after that. Well, it wasn’t a game I was overly interested in, anyway.

But then there was the stuff that did come out, and boy, is it pretty. As predicted, we got Rogue Trader, from Fantasy Flight Games. I haven’t yet digested my copy wholly, but will probably be posting about it if I ever get around to reading the thing entirely. We also got another big, fat science fiction RPG, Catalyst’s Eclipse Phase. I’ve read the setting stuff in the book and it is awesome, easily worth the price of the PDF by itself, but have yet to start on the rather impenetrable thicket of the ruleset.

I’m pretty bad at reading rules, to be honest.

Eclipse Phase is also notable for being licenced under a Creative Commons licence, making the PDF freely distributable. It’s a bold thing they’re trying and I wish them luck with it. I bought both the PDF and the hardcopy.

There’s also that Starblazer Adventures thing, but I already bought two 400-page science fiction RPGs last month.

In addition to Rogue Trader, FFG released the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. It seems to be dividing opinion, and looking at the components, it is certainly unlike any RPG I’ve seen before in its presentation. The price tag is too much for me, though.

And then we got Pathfinder RPG, which was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. I currently have two active campaigns, though both have been on a holiday break due to the players in Rise of the Runelords scattering to the four winds for December and the DM in Legacy of Fire being a lazy bum and not getting anything done about playing the game during the Christmas break. The bastard.

Pathfinder Society in Finland seems to have sorta dried up and whithered away, likely because it never attracted sufficient DMs to keep the game running on its own momentum. Also, were I to compile a Top Ten list of the weakest products released by Paizo, it’d include every dungeon crawl they’d released for PFS up to Drow of the Darklands Pyramid, which is the last module I am familiar with. I stopped keeping up after that. It seems the last PFS game in Finland was played back in October.

That said, there are some outstanding modules in there. I’d name Frozen Fingers of Midnight, Perils of the Pirate Pact, Tide of Morning and The Decline of Glory as the best of the bunch.

The most awesome thing last year, though, was the RPG course I took at the university. For those of you who missed it, here’s a link to the records.

This year, Ropecon is on the 23rd-25th of July, at Dipoli, in Espoo. It’s gonna be awesome. Tracon will be a two-day event in the summer, from 3rd to 4th of July, this time in Tampere-talo, where Finncon was back in 2008. It will also be awesome. Then there’s the con in Turku, Conklaavi, from April 10th to 11th.

I don’t see anything of magnificent, mind-blowing awesomeness in the future, but Paizo is coming out with the GameMastery Guide in May and the  Advanced Player’s Guide in August. The APG is in open playtest and the six new character classes can be downloaded from the Paizo website. I’ve been busy so I’ve yet to take an in-depth look at them, but hope to do so at some point, preferably before the end of the month when they stop taking playtest feedback.

I also remember hearing that indeed, Fantasy Flight Games will follow the original game plan laid out by Black Industries about releasing three Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying games. Two down, one to go, and that last one will be Deathwatch, about the finest of Mankind, the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines. I can’t find a source for that, though, and don’t know if it’s slated for 2010 or 2011 release.

So, that’s what 2009 looked like and what can dimly be discerned in the mists of the future. Let’s see how it all works out in practice.