RPG Blog Carnival: Things to Love, Things to Hate – Giant Space Hamsters and Eclipse Phase

There’s a blog carnival going on at Nevermet Press, on the topic of things that we love and hate. They’ve even conveniently limited it to RPG products, which works well for me.

As long-time readers know, I’m very good at hating things, especially 4E. I decided that this time, I’d direct my considerable powers of derision towards something else, especially since nobody has sent me any new 4E books to detest. I hear they’ll be going for cheap soon, though.

But then, I’m not in this hobby because I hate everything in it. There are great things in it, beautiful things, things that I love and things that inspire me to create, and to rave about how awesome this thing here is. There are many books and product lines in the hobby that I absolutely adore. I’ve written on a number of them, but there’s a conspicuous omission in my oeuvre, especially considering the subheading of my blog.

Hamster, Giant Space

D&D’s been around for a long time, and been blessed with circumstances that have allowed prodigious amounts of content to be produced. When you have a corpus of over a thousand volumes, there’s room for some pretty weird stuff. A lot of this weird stuff accumulated into theSpelljammer setting, which essentially gives astrophysics the finger and goes with a grab-bag of the coolest misconceptions we’ve had of the makeup of the universe to take D&D to the stars.

(That’s probably the subject of a blog post all on its own – the astronomy of Spelljammer, much like the Cant of Planescape, isn’t just random stuff that they made up. They based it all on something. But I digress.)

Anyway, like all AD&D settings back then, Spelljammer received its own entries in the Monstrous Compendium series. It was still the early years after the release of Monstrous Compendium I, which was packed into a three-ring binder. The idea was that you could use the binder to put in all the other Monstrous Compendium entries and sort them alphabetically, for one, ginormous binder full of things to challenge your players. There are also some loose monster pages in boxed sets from this era. I really have no idea how it worked in practice – I came to the game just a few years too late for it and own only a few of loose-leaf Monstrous Compendiums. There were two of these collections for Spelljammer, both annoyingly titles Monstrous Compendium: Spelljammer Appendix. They’re MC7 and MC9 (MC8, in case you’re interested, is the Outer Planes Appendix).

The first one of these includes stats for one of my favourite creatures in all of D&D, the giant space hamster.

It’s pretty much what the name says, a really, really big hamster. Unlike your average D&D giant rodent, which is gonna be the size of a big dog at best (such as the dire rat), the giant space hamster isn’t called “giant” for nothing – the common breed grows to the size of a brown bear. Of course, they were originally bred by the tinker gnomes of the Dragonlance setting, and lemme tell ya, their biological creations work no better than their technological ones. I quote, from MC7 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix, released by TSR in 1990:

Possibly the worst aspect of the giant space hamster (aside from its ludicrous existence) is that enchanted substances from numerous other sorts of nonhuman monsters can be introduced into its reproductive processes, producing unbelievable (except to a gnome) new sorts of giant space hamsters. Some gnomish communities deliberately breed unique subspecies in competition with other communities to produce the most interesting varieties. Usually, the results are more or less like the normal sort of giant space hamster, such as the wooly, mottled, ochre, Oriental, Occidental, chartreuse, spotted, not-quite-so-spotted, only-a-little-spotted, plaid, cave-dwelling, three-toed, lesser, greater, greater lesser, lesser greater, albino, and flightless giant space hamsters.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd humour, out of nowhere, and it’s hilarious. According to 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, the coffee-table book WotC released in 2004, it originated when Jim Holloway was drawing spelljamming vessels, and came up with the gnomish sidewheeler, which has these huge paddlewheels on the sides. Jeff Grubb, noting that there’s nothing for them to churn in the void of space, declared loudly that they must be giant hamsterwheels. Roger E. Moore overheard this, and the rest is history.

MC7 supplies us with stats for other funky variations of the giant space hamster, such as the carnivorous flying giant space hamster (“a regrettable if understandable line of inquiry”), the two-headed lernaean bombardier giant space hamster, the fire-breathing phase doppleganger giant space hamster, the great horned giant space hamster, the abominable giant space hamster, tyrannohamsterus rex, and the fearsome giant space hamster of ill omen, also called Woolly Rupert.

The giant space hamster has since made appearances elsewhere, and most gamers of today will most likely remember it from the Baldur’s Gate games, where the berserker Minsc has a miniature giant space hamster called Boo as a pet. It was also recently updated to Pathfinder RPG in Frog God Games’ Tome of Horrors Complete, a work of such weight that while its contents will kill your character, the book itself can be very easily used to kill you.

To me, the giant space hamster is a reminder that there’s room for humour in everything. While I do take games very seriously indeed, it’s good to remember that nothing should be taken allthat seriously.

And now, for something to hate… hard one, especially if I lay off 4E. Let’s try something, though.

Eclipse Phase

There’s a surprise for you. Actually, I don’t hate Eclipse Phase. I kinda like it. Its setting is a beautiful distillation of all the greatest works of transhumanist science fiction. Its recommended reading page alone has yielded me countless of hours of enjoyment in the discovery of new authors. The art is magnificent, the PDF copies take advantage of the format in ways I’ve only seen Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s last two releases do, and the Creative Commons licence and innovative, courageous distribution model is make it a thing of the future in not just content but in fact. I want to love the game. I just can’t.

It’s the system. Though on the surface, the game appears slick, cool, and modern, under the hood it’s straight out the 1980’s. There are percentiles and endless tables and charts and they are making my eyes bleed. The character generation system has you allocating a hundred points in a hundred different places on a sheet that looks like it was vomited forth by Excel after a night of heavy drinking. It’s MERP all over again, the game I started with but could never learn. There are just too many fiddly bits and moving parts, and subsystems. The character generation looks especially daunting. They’ve put up a heroic effort to try and explain the system in the quickstart adventure Don’t Mind the WMD, but I just can’t bring myself to study the system with the dedication it would require.

So, that’s me and Eclipse Phase. I want to love it, but I can’t. Sorry, not much hate here. The last post took it all out of me, and it’ll take some time to build up the reservoir.

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Some Recent Events – Eclipse Phase, Market Fluctuations

A couple of days ago, Catalyst Game Labs released their brand new RPG, Eclipse Phase, on PDF. It’s a post-apocalyptic transhumanist science fiction horror RPG. I’d only seen a single PDF preview and didn’t try and find out anything more before going and buying it sight unseen. While it did help that the PDF preview was the character sheet of a sentient octopus, what really motivated me was that it was released under a Creative Commons licence, making the PDF legal to distribute to all and sundry. This kind of behaviour is worth encouraging, and the PDF only costs $15.

While some speculated that the licence would eat into their sales, they jumped immediately to the second place of the Hottest Item list at RPG Now, and are still there. I’m now waiting for the hardcover to come out so I can buy that, too. Eclipse Phase is one of the prettiest games I’ve seen, and the setting pushes all the right buttons to make my inner science fiction fan squeal with delight. Reading through it, I see the influence of Alastair Reynolds and Terminator, of Ghost in the Shell and Peter F. Hamilton, of Delta Green and even Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A longer review may be forthcoming in the future, when I can find the time to make sense of the rules (I hate reading rules but I don’t like to play rules-light games – the tragedy of my being). At this point, I declare the setting to be magnificent.

For those waiting for the next WotC screwup, the wait is over – and didn’t even have to wait long after the last one. They just unveiled their Gleemax 2.0 (they’re not calling it that, but it’s obvious that they’re going for the same thing). I haven’t gone through all the features, and probably won’t, but I can tell you that they managed to make their forums actually worse. They are unnavigable, annoying to read, and generally look like hell. In addition, the transition mangled my username and ate my message inbox. Well, at least Paizo no longer has the crappiest RPG forum layout on the net.

There have been new rumblings from Sinister Adventures. Their mega-adventure Razor Coast may be forthcoming after all, and should be out in October. There will also be new waves of Indulgences, one for Razor Coast and another for Ebon Shroud, the horror module Nicolas Logue and Richard Pett are crafting together. Their names on the cover together are enough to give me nightmares. I’ll review these new waves of Indulgences when they’re done, like I did the last two.

ICv2 has released a list of the Top 5 most sold RPGs in the second quarter of 2009. While the list is not definitive, it does probably bear a strong resemblance to the actual situation. If nothing else, I’d be really surprised if Dungeons & Dragons really wasn’t the most sold – it’s been that for some thirty-odd years, with the possible exception of a single month in 1992, when it was allegedly outsold by Vampire: the Masquerade. The rest of the list is far more interesting. When I first came to the scene, the top RPGs were D&D, Vampire: the Masquerade, GURPS, and some Palladium game, probably Rifts. Now, that’s in the past. Dark Heresy has knocked Vampire (in the guise of World of Darkness) from the second spot, GURPS is nowhere to be seen, and Palladium Press continues to surprise me by not being bankrupt. Instead, there’s Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a copy of, and Catalyst’s Shadowrun.

For some interesting data about how it works out in Finland, here’s our local game store chain’s list of the fifteen most sold RPG items in the last 30 days. As you can see, the top spot is occupied by Pathfinder RPG, which jumped there on the release day. The Finnish items on the list are number two, Ikuisuuden laakso, which is that penguin RPG I’ve been talking about; #4, Itran kaupunki, which I just reviewed; #9, Efemeros 2: Ryövärien maa, a sourcebook for the excellent Finnish fantasy RPG Praedor; and #15, the 22nd issue of Roolipelaaja, the local RPG magazine that I occasionally write for. The list does also reflect ICv2’s list in that there are three items of D&D and two of Dark Heresy and World of Darkness each. No Song of Ice and Fire or Shadowrun, though.