Tivoli on Crowdfunding!

The Finnish role-playing game Tivoli is up on the Mesenaatti crowdfunding platform. Written by Kristel Nyberg and illustrated by Ninni Aalto, it’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game set in a circus or a carnival, and looks good. I haven’t played it, but it does look very promising. There’s currently an actual play video on Twitch from last Sunday, run by the designer herself.

There’s still 12 days left on the clock, and the game has already funded, but there are two stretch goals of interest. At 5,000 euros, there will be a Swedish translation, and at 7,000€, an English translation.

The Magician! Art by Ninni Aalto

The setting in Tivoli is co-created by the players. The game provides a loose framework, but the details are up to you. The test games featured such intriguing settings as a small family circus in rural Finland in the 1980s and a space amusement park built in the cargo hold of an old space freighter visiting far-off colonies. One of the players takes on the role of a facilitator, directing the discussion on world building, asking questions and making suggestions. There are also suggestions for settings in the book if you want to start right away!

The game is also of personal interest to me because — besides both Ninni and Kristel being friends — I am also running a circus campaign, Pathfinder 2E’s Extinction Curse adventure path. The two games are very, very different, but their view of the circus seems to be fairly similar — at least based on what I’ve seen — a place of refuge, a found family, and the place where the magic happens. Now that I think of it, they’re basically the only role-playing game treatments of carnivals outside the genre of horror that I can think of (I mean, there must be others but I’m only drawing Ravenloft, World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu).

And now’s your chance to have your own copy! And if the translation doesn’t fund, at least you’ll have an interesting game in an exotic language and a warm fuzzy feeling for patronising the arts.

Interviewed on Legends & Lore!

Since Sampo Haarlaa and I cannot leave a campaign that ended thirteen years ago alone, we were interviewed yesterday on the Legends & Lore show on Twitch about Living Greyhawk and what we got up to in the Principality of Naerie. It was a part of their ongoing series of Living Greyhawk interviews with Circle and local Triad members. It is really important work, because for a campaign of such size — of tens of thousands of players and thousands of released modules — it vanished very swiftly. The scenarios cannot be distributed, the Yahoogroups are gone, the old RPGA forums are offline with only spotty Wayback Machine coverage, and the association itself was dissolved in 2014. Greyhawk Online is doing valuable work by archiving some of the old regional homepages.

It was a megalomaniacal project that rather got away from its creators. It was too big to be controlled and too lively to be contained, and the creative spirit in it was sometimes intoxicating. It was far from perfect, but it was unique, and it was ours. The world will not see its like again.

Anyway, here is the interview. I had great fun, apart from the real-world sports interruption at Sampo’s end towards the conclusion. For context, the Danish player Christopher Eriksen collapsed on the field in the Denmark — Finland game at the UEFA Euro 2020 (yes, 2020) tournament and had to be taken to the hospital. His condition is stable.

Playing ALIEN, or, How I TPK’d the Entire Party

The ALIEN Roleplaying Game came out in 2019 from Fria Ligan. It was a bit of a surprise – on one hand, it felt like a likely very expensive, major license, but on the other, there was also the feeling that the more recent, very unfortunate movies had kinda killed interest in it. Certainly, I felt like that Alien’s very specific mode of survival horror in space was perhaps too narrow a frame to support the classical approach of putting out a big rulebook, adventures, sourcebooks, and an introductory boxed set. That’s the stuff you want in a long campaign, but long campaigns imply characters stay alive. This is Alien. People don’t do that here.

However, Fria Ligan makes quality stuff, so when the opportunity came to play, I jumped on it. Also, it’s not as though there’s anything else to do these days than play roleplaying games online.

We played the Starter Set’s introductory adventure Chariot of the Gods. The venue was Foundry VTT, where you can buy modules with all the necessary stuff already set up. I find it helps getting used to a new system when the VTT does half the work for you and tells if your roll was a success or a failure. Voice and video we got through Discord. Playing virtually also had the crucial advantage that we could send secret messages to the Game Mother without the other players seeing us pass notes, which can be a very important part of ALIEN.

ALIEN uses Fria Ligan’s house ruleset, the Year Zero Engine, used in Mutant: Year Zero, Tales from the Loop, and the rest. Basically, you roll a pool of six-siders and sixes are successes. Failure is very common, which fits some games better than others. It fits ALIENs desperate survival horror very well.

The following, of course, will have SPOILERS for Chariot of the Gods. Proceed at your own risk.

ALIEN has two game modes, Cinematic and Campaign Play. Campaign Play is exactly what it sounds like, while the Cinematic mode has pre-written adventures with pregenerated characters, each with their own secret agendas. They’re long enough for a one-shot or a mini-campaign, and at least Chariot of the Gods lived admirably up to the “Cinematic”. The first session, our approach on a derelict ship in the dark between the stars, our exploration of its frozen corridors and disused laboratories, was straight out of the movies. Of course, this was also because that’s what we as players were there to do, so that’s how we played it. The characters were archetypical and easy to fall into – the crew of the Nostromo, basically.

We also observed a shift in style in the later sessions. After we had explored the ship, the fear of the unknown dissipated, and once we had fought some monsters and discovered them to be dangerous but killable, we went from playing Alien to playing Aliens, as it were.

The scenario also had an act structure, which governed the characters’ secret agendas that shifted as the situation escalated. Some of the goals were mutually exclusive and drove player-versus-player conflict. The corporate liaison, for instance, is pretty much Burke from Aliens. Oh, and one of the PCs is a secret android (because of course there is a secret android!) whose Act III agenda was to kill everyone who knows too much and stop any xenomorph crap from reaching Earth. Which I then proceeded to do. I think that was the first time I’ve effected a Total Party Kill from a player position. And it was total, since after shooting the corporate liaison and putting the other two crewmembers in cryostasis, I started the ship’s self-destruct sequence. No survivors, great game.

It was interesting to play a game that not only allowed lethal player-versus-player conflict, but was also designed to spark it. The Cinematic modules are such self-contained stories that they can allow for frequent PC death. There are also plenty of NPCs that can serve as replacement characters, and Story Points carry with the player and aren’t lost when your space trucker gets disembowelled by something that came out of the air duct.

One thing I am not entirely certain about was how the android worked in the narrative from the viewpoint of the other players, because our debrief was very brief indeed. From my point of view, it worked well, because I knew all along that my character was a synthetic, with double sets of agendas. For the other players, it just suddenly turned out in the third act that the roughneck Cham isn’t Cham at all but a synthetic, and then he shot Wilson and told his name was really Lucas, and then the story was suddenly over. I think there was little in the way of foreshadowing, apart from some players having realized that one of us must be a secret android because this is ALIEN and there’s always a secret android.

I think ALIEN also somehow redeems Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I do not think they are good movies (to be frank, I think they should’ve quit after Aliens). However, Prometheus has a mythological gravity to its setting. While it doesn’t really work in the context of the previous films in the franchise and feels like Ridley Scott pulled it out of his hat, the ALIEN Roleplaying Game uses that mythological aspect to great effect and synthesizes it with the bug-hunting marines and space truckers of the original movies. Your crew may be just working joes hauling stuff from one colony to another for a paycheck, but they are doing it across the awful majesty of deep space. You might be a down-to-earth colonist on the final frontier, just wanting to make a living, but that earth is not yours. There are terrible secrets at the edges of the galaxy older than life on Earth, and they do not want to be discovered. Alien didn’t need to ask the question of why the xenomorphs exist, it just needed to have them there so hijinks could ensue. Prometheus… also really didn’t need to ask that question, but it did, and that’s why we have a setting to explore. I’m not sure we had that before Prometheus. Certainly the previous attempt at making an RPG of the franchise flopped hard. Then, the 1991 Aliens Adventure Game was also based on the ruleset of Phoenix Command, so it was never destined to widespread appeal.

I kinda want to run this myself, now. The idea of a longer campaign appeals to me less and I am already running three of those, but a series of adventures in the Cinematic mode, with conflicting character agendas, chaos, carnage, and few survivors, sounds just great.

Giant Space Hamster in Pathfinder 2E

The second edition of Pathfinder has been out for a while now. Those of us who can cope with online gaming have had ample opportunity to get to know it – seriously, I got in around 60 sessons last year. It plays a bit different from the first edition, but under the hood it is very different. Pathfinder 1E was descended from D&D 3E, and the core conceit was that the PCs and monsters run under the same rules. This made designing for it easy (not simple, that’s different). The underlying logic of the system was clearly visible. In 2E, conversely, monsters and NPCs run under their own system. There is less complexity but it’s more of an art than a science. It can still be learned and understood, but it takes practice.

So here’s a giant space hamster.

GIANT SPACE HAMSTER————————–CREATURE 3
N—-LARGE—-ANIMAL
Perception +9; low-light vision, scent (imprecise)
Skills Acrobatics +9, Athletics +10, Stealth +7
Str +4, Dex +1, Con +3, Int –4, Wis +1, Cha –1
——————————————————————————-
AC 18; Fort +12; Ref +9; Will +6
HP 55; Immunities disease
——————————————————————————-
Speed 20 feet, burrow 10 feet
Melee ◆ jaws +10, Damage 1d10+6 piercing
Melee ◆ claw +10 (agile), Damage 1d8+6
Swallow Whole ◆ (attack); Medium, slowed 1 and grabbed, Rupture 8

Larp Crowdfunding Things!

There’s two larp-related crowdfunding campaigns live right now that I thought I should highlight.

First, with twelve days still on the clock, there’s the scriptbook of the Norwegian larp Just a Little Lovin’. I played in the Finnish run in 2018, and it was a powerful experience. The larp is a masterclass in designing for emotional impact. It is about three consecutive Fourth of July celebrations during the early years of the AIDS crisis, about friendship, death, and desire.

The other campaign is Engines of Desire: Larp as the Art of Experience, an essay collection by Juhana Pettersson, up on IndieGoGo for a few more weeks. It is 460 pages long and contains 31 articles and essays. Nine of them are new to this book, the rest collected from larp books and other publications from over the years. I proofread the book, and it is marvellous.

Both books have already been funded and the latter is basically finished already, so it’s a sure deal!

Stalker – Le Jeu de Rôle Crowdfunding!

The French translation of Stalker — The SciFi Roleplaying Game has entered crowdfunding stage on the Ulule platform. It’s being published by La Loutre Rôliste and translated by Charlotte and Christophe Dénouveaux. At the time of writing it’s been up for some six hours and is 29% into its 10,000€ funding goal with 31 days to go, so I’m optimistic about it. The translation is, by my understanding, based on the English translation by yours truly. They’re aiming to have the goods delivered in December 2020, which feels a bit optimistic in the current situation, but I’ll believe them on the PDFs. It’s been in the works since 2017, so at this point I expect the work is done and all that remains is the part that really needs money to move around.

The project looks gorgeous, with all new art in full colour by Tania Sanchez-Fortun. While the stark monochrome of the original and the English version serve the game’s tone and atmosphere, there’s something to be said for going all in on the production values. The preview pictures look like it’s a hardcover, too.

And they have a trailer as well.

Knights of the Dinner Table and Self-Loathing

Early this year, before the world went all the way to hell, back when we still met people, a friend dropped off his entire collection of Knights of the Dinner Table at my place. This amounted to about 40 Bundle of Trouble trade paperbacks, all five Tales from the Vault collections, a few other collection books, and where the paperbacks tapered off, single issues up to around 240’s.

So I did what any self-respecting geek does and began reading, while taking notes.

The strip itself started in 1990, intended as filler for the Shadis magazine, and kicked off in 1994 as a monthly comic book which is still ongoing. The first Bundle of Trouble collects the first three issues of the magazine. The first eight Bundles of Trouble are stapled, but from the ninth book onward they are perfect-bound. Starting from Vol. 12, they compile four issues of the magazine each.

Here are my observations after reading the first book.

So.

Um.

The comic tells of a gaming group in Muncie, Indiana. The Game Master is B.A. Felton, who’d like there to be role-playing in his game. Brian, Dave, and Bob are hack & slashers to the core, and will kill everything they meet. In the second issue, they are joined by Sara, who’s also capable of diplomatic solutions. Nobody ever talks in character. I understand Bob, Dave, and Brian are based on certain people Blackburn knows, while Sara is a composite of many female gamers of his acquaintance.

It’s been drawn once. There’s a wide shot of the table and the players, a couple of close-ups, and some variation on these themes that’s then copied and pasted into comic strips. These are short tales, a couple of pages long at the most, about how something goes wrong. Half the time the players threaten each other or B.A. with violence and in several instances they actually come to blows. It’s like looking at some secluded tribe that never came up with the idea of non-violent problem solving. What I don’t get out of this is why these people would spend time with one another or play role-playing games. They don’t seem to be having any fun, ever. The strip is missing the love of the game that’s intrinsic to the success of, say, The Order of the Stick.

The jokes are so worn that the stories would be disturbingly familiar even if I’d never read KotDT. The first story in the book is a retelling of “Eric and the Gazebo”. There’s a larp story, where Dave and Bob go to a vampire larp and start dressing up goth and wearing makeup and piercings, because larping is weird. There’s the story where Sara joins the group, Brian doesn’t dare talk to a girl, and Dave is a tedious sexist. Sara solves the situation by threatening Dave with violence. There’s a story where the players go play with the infamous Nitro Ferguson (or Furguson, or Fergueson – Blackburn never settles on a spelling) while B.A. is away. Nitro runs an adventure based on Deliverance and Bob gets traumatised by what his elf experiences. He no longer wants to play the character. This is played for laughs.

In the editorials and the collection’s introduction, there’s a running theme of fans finding their own experiences and their gaming buddies in the situations and characters of the comic. In a way, I kinda also do, but in these characters I see all those people I’ve had to ban from gaming clubs and online spaces. The image of gamers in KotDT is suffused with the self-loathing that characterizes American nerd media, which makes most of this stuff entirely unbearable (see also The Big Bang Theory).

It will be interesting to see how the book’s portrayal of gamers changes with the times. Three down, 237 to go.

As the Clock Strikes Midnight: The Finnish T2Kv2.2 Timeline in English

After my previous post, people asked me if I might translate this strange and exotic version of the timeline to English (and also if I might translate the sourcebooks, to which the answer is that if someone handles the rights and pays me a fair wage, sure). And so, because fiddling with it took my mind off more pressing stuff that needed doing, I did.

The text is frankensteined together from paragraphs the original and my translations of the bits from the Finnish edition. It tapers off before the end because the last few years of the timelines are identical and in 1997 and 1998 there’s very little that was added and nothing removed. The year entries before that are reproduced in full to show where material was cut as well as replaced or expanded.

This is a translation produced purely for purposes of scholarship and no challenge of anyone’s copyright is intended.

Twilight: 2000 – A Study in Localization

So, Fria Ligan is coming out with what I would’ve thought the least likely RPG to make a comeback after Spawn of Fashan, and is running a Kickstarter for a new edition of Twilight: 2000. At the time of writing, it’s cleared a quarter of a million dollars with 18 days to go, presumably owing to the allure of its comforting escapism. This gives me an excuse to talk about something I’ve wanted to write for a while.

For some background, the original Twilight: 2000 came out in 1984 from Game Designers’ Workshop, designed by Frank Chadwick, Dave Nilsen, Loren K. Wiseman, and Lester W. Smith. It was a post-apocalyptic war role-playing game, set in the immediate aftermath of an extended nuclear exchange after the Cold War turned hot. There was a slightly edited second edition in 1990, and v. 2.2 in 1993 with an extensively rewritten alternate history, as history had caught up with the old one, what with the Soviet Union collapsing and everything. There’s also a 2008 Twilight: 2013 by an entirely different crew from a company called 93 Games Studio, which has since gone out of business. It is silly, and we will not be talking about it.

Instead, the interesting one here is v. 2.2. It was released in Finnish in the same year, translated by Janne Kemppi and Joona Vainio. It was published by TK-Kustannus Oy under its imprint Finnish Game House. In addition to the 1993 and 1990 versions of the core rules, FGH also released a translation of the Twilight Encounters supplement, as well as three original supplements, ErikoisjoukotPohjoismaat-lähdekirja, and Kööpenhaminaan (all released in 1990). They’re the special forces and Nordic Countries sourcebooks, and an adventure module “To Copenhagen”, respectively.

Personally, I have never played Twilight: 2000, and my contact with the game line is limited to reading the rulebook and the Finnish sourcebooks, and bouncing off the ruleset hard.

Now, Kemppi and Vainio did not just translate the book, but… adjusted some things, slightly. After all, this was a version to be marketed next door to what had been the Soviet Union, in 1993, and you couldn’t peddle just any Hollywood make-believe. So, for contrast, the alternate history’s point of departure in Twilight: 2000 v.2.2, American:

On August 19th [1991], elements of the Taman Guards and Kantemir Motor Rifle Divisions move into the center of Moscow and seize the most important public buildings and radio stations. An eight-member Emergency Committee deposes Gorbachev (for “reasons of health”) and bans strikes, protests, or public assemblies. Defiant protesters gather at the Soviet Parliament building, along with a few dissident military units and a cadre of Afghan War veterans, to defend Yeltsin and the Parliament. On August 20th, elements of the Kantemir Division, spearheaded by the elite KGB “Alpha Team,” storm the Parliament building and scatter the protesters. Russian President Yeltsin, along with an estimated 800 others, die in the assault.

With Yeltsin dead and Gorbachev imprisoned in the Crimea, acting Soviet President Yanayev declares the establishment of a “renewal government.” The governments of Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) denounce the new government as illegal and declare the Soviet Union to be dissolved.

And this is how you get Soviet Union. In 1992, USA elects the President John Tanner (D-CA), with VP Deanna Pemberton (D-OH), and then things roll downhill from there in an escalating shitshow that brings your party of grunts eight years later to a field in Poland with HQ telling you on the radio: “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

The turning point described here was a real event, the attempted coup d’état of 1991. In real life, as in the Finnish edition, it failed, and the American presidential election is won by Bill Clinton. The Finnish edition, pulling a staggeringly cutting-edge move, even manages to incorporate the Russian 1993 constitutional crisis into its timeline. “Constitutional crisis” is a really clinical way to refer to something that saw armoured columns on the streets of Moscow and had a death toll of 187, by the way. There’s a reference to the Soviet OMON (hey, why don’t Russian paramilitaries like mirrors?) activities in Latvia and Lithuania in 1991, which is a pretty deep cut.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific point of divergence in the Finnish edition, which is interesting. It’s more of a cascade of little things. It names real world leaders very readily, killing Deng Xiaoping off in 1995, to be replaced by hardline militarists as the state begins to collapse, and raising Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the position of interior minister in Russia. He eventually stages a coup in 1996 and immediately manages to steer the country into war with China and basically all of the CIS states (except Armenia), but things have been rolling downhill for years at that point. Things are further muddled by incorporating material such as the war in Abkhazia. A small divergence in 1993 is that President Leonid Kravchuk sells the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet to Russia, for fear that if he doesn’t, they’ll take the entire Crimea. According to Janne Kemppi, the writer of most of this, the history also incorporates some material specific to Finland from the first-edition adventure Boomer. He also told me that the license from GDW allowed them to take this kind of liberal approach with the material, with the caveat that this stuff happened around 30 years ago and human memory is fallible.

There are also tonal differences. 1990 in American:

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership in resisting Iraqi aggression, and troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

And Finnish (English translation my own):

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership to secure the industrial nations’ access to oil. Troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

From 1997 onward, the divergence of the versions ends and the rest of the timelines are the same, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact both making liberal use of tactical nuclear weapons, and everything going to hell. Neither version, incidentally, covers Africa, South America, South or South East Asia, or Japan in much detail — though this being Twilight: 2000, the basic assumption is that if it could’ve been nuked, it got nuked.

The Finnish version of the alternate history is, in my mind, the better one of the two. It presents the near past as a muddle, eschewing the clarity of hindsight or an orderly narrative. It creates a mosaic of fact and fiction and raises minor conflicts to the same level as the struggles of great powers. The use of real names of world leaders makes it feel more real. The American version is Hollywood, a war movie set in some exotic elsewhere with weird names, whereas the Finnish one acknowledges that Russia is, like, right there and it’s less than a thousand kilometres to Poland. It’s a starker, bleaker presentation.

I am looking forward to Fria Ligan’s interpretation of the game. Twilight: 2000 has walked a strange path. The first edition came out when the Cold War was still on and played into the very real fears of nuclear war that people had at the time. The second edition came out on the cusp of the USSR’s collapse — which by all accounts came as a surprise to basically everyone — and received version 2.2 soon after to patch over how its future history had become an alternate history in a year. Now, a third edition is on the way, set in that bleak future that’s twenty years in our past. “Whew, glad we dodged that apocalypse scenario!”

But hey, at least it’ll finally have playable rules.

Bad Sex: The Roleplaying Game Out Now!

Indeed, Bad Sex has been available for a couple of weeks now. Designed by Juhana Pettersson, Bad Sex: The Roleplaying Game is a freeform game about, well, what it says on the tin. I think it is the first role-playing game I have seen embrace cringe comedy. Also, there’s more vegetables in the art than in The Veggie Patch, which is an achievement in itself.

The game is ideal for one-shots with people you know very well. Before play, you are to ask two questions: 1. Do you want to play Bad Sex? and 2. Do you want to play Bad Sex with these people? If the answer to either is “no”, don’t play. If the answer is “maybe”, don’t play. The core rule of the game is that every scene must contain bad sex.

I was the proofreader on the project, and one of the few people involved who wanted to be credited on it.

Get it, and the Bad Sex Deck on DriveThruRPG or Itch.io. Or both! They have different covers! Collector value!