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. Pathfinder1E 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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Erikoisjoukot, Pohjoismaat-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 , 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.
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.
I do admit that I am an easy sell on certain tropes. One of these is the conspiracy for good fighting against supernatural threats. In role-playing games, Delta Green is the classic, existing to date in at least four different rule systems. The Laundry Files, based on Charles Stross’s novels is another. ENOC: Operation Eisenberg is a pulpier take. And then there’s The Esoterrorists, the inaugural game of the GUMSHOE system, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press. The first edition came out in 2007, and the second followed in 2013, which is about on par for how current I am with this stuff. I happened to read it just now, so here are thoughts. I cannot honestly call this a review.
GUMSHOE, of course, is the ruleset created for investigative games that abandoned the surprisingly long-lived paradigm in traditional games – most notably Call of Cthulhu – that to find clues, you had to roll Spot Hidden. When you have to roll for something, there’s always the chance of failure, and if the investigators had bad luck, they’d miss out on clues and if this eventuality hadn’t been planned for (and it usually wasn’t), there was the real danger of getting stuck in the investigation, and then the Keeper would get to come up with something convoluted and weird. GUMSHOE’s solution is that if your character has the appropriate investigation skill, you need only ask to receive whatever clues there are to get. In some cases, there is the question of perhaps spending skill pool points for more information, but in GUMSHOE, the investigation never gets stuck because your characters didn’t find a clue at the crime scene. After all, the book notes, in detective stories and TV shows, the interesting bit is never how the protagonists don’t find a clue. It’s what they do with the stuff they find.
I have previous experience with GUMSHOE from Trail of Cthulhu, and I prefer it over traditional CoC. The system is very simple, and since apart from multiple flavours of horror investigation (The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents) it also does time-traveling hijinks (TimeWatch), superheroes (Mutant City Blues), and space opera (Ashen Stars), it’s evidently easy to teach it new tricks.
The Esoterrorists, then, is a very tightly focused game. The characters are agents of the Ordo Veritatis, a secret society fighting against the Esoterrorists. The Esoterrorists are a conspiracy of loose cells that seek to break the Membrane between our world and the Outer Dark. This is accomplished by fomenting fear and panic in the public and undermining the consensus reality. The OV’s job is to figure out something is wrong, follow the clues, put down any gribblies, either apprehend or take out the bad guys, and then feed the public a line of bullshit to cover it all up as something mundane.
It’s a really strange read in the media landscape of 2020.
Unlike OV’s cousins the Delta Green and the Laundry, it’s not a conspiracy within the government nor a state-sanctioned top secret outfit, but a very loosely defined group with a cell structure and some sway here and there (ok, there is also a sourcebook on the Ordo, but I haven’t read it yet). Information on the Ordo Veritatis is distributed on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know, because that’s outside the mission parameters.
The mission, then, is where the tight focus comes in. The Esoterrorists sells a very specific session structure, where the characters are called into the location of some supernatural hinky stuff, given a briefing by Mr./Ms. (or Mx., I suppose, but this is from 2013) Verity, and then it’s off to find leads, follow them, probably get into a fight with the other guys, follow some more leads, have a final confrontation, and then sweep everything under the rug so that people can sleep at night.
A really, really strange read.
The book also has another campaign frame, “Station Duty”, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, where the OV agents set up a watch station in a small town, and set about unravelling its larger mysteries together with some locals. It’s suggested that the local characters be built using the rules of Fear Itself, a game that I understand is a lot more about running away than shooting back. It’s a very evocatively written chapter, and I like the format of its presentation. The town is very much fleshed out yet given to the GM and the players to develop, and the gallery of NPCs is each written up as a potential victim, someone influenced by the Outer Dark, and as a full-on Esoterrorist.
The Esoterrorists is very light on mythology, though it clearly has Call of Cthulhu in its DNA (but then, which horror RPG doesn’t?). In addition to Health, agents also have Stability, and when Stability runs out, madness follows. The rules for mental disorders are funky. For instance, if the agent gets afflicted by selective amnesia, the group together comes up with a new fact from the agent’s life, such as a marriage, that the PC has now forgotten.
That kind of thing is possible because of the tight mission focus, moderate to high lethality, and fast character generation. Characters are liable to be whipped up quick and enter play without an extensive backstory, and get to work fighting crime. There is a system for dependants and pillars of stability, but it is not very fleshed out. The focus also makes the game look ideal for convention games.
Though the Lovecraftian influences are clearly there, The Esoterrorists is also very different in its aesthetics. Where Call of Cthulhu is all about the nameless horror, indescribable creatures, and the slow erosion of sanity as you discover that everything you thought you knew about the world is not just wrong but also that you being wrong is meaningless, The Esoterrorists is more about highly-trained individuals with a hard, scientific world-view engaging with definable and classifiable horrors that will eviscerate you and then wear your skin for a suit. It’s a graphic, gory horror that does not suggest things. It shines a cold, bright light on the chunky salsa so the forensic pathologist can get to work.
No game is for everyone, which goes double for horror games, but The Esoterrorists looks like an accessible and elegant piece of work, once you wipe off all the blood.
This is a post I’ve been waiting to write for a while now. I playtested an earlier version of The Quick, backed the Kickstarter, and am now happy to announce that the pretty damn nifty horror role-playing game The Quick is finally out and available on DriveThruRPG. It’s published by Myrrysmiehet and made by friends, though apart from that single session I’ve had no hand in it.
From the description:
A Role-playing game of death and ghosts in the world of urban fantasy with the distinct atmosphere of Nordic Noir.
The welfare state and decent society are just masks that hide corruption and decay underneath. Under and intertwined with these mundane horrors lies unknown forces that tear into the everyday reality.
The Quick are death cultists, ghost hunters, exorcists and unspace explorers protecting the fragile everyday reality. Trying to keep the gates of Hell closed.
It’s supernatural investigation as written by Stieg Larsson, broken people banishing ghosts with chilled fingers. The system is lightweight and more concerned with what motivates the characters and what they are willing to do to get the job done rather than calculating attack or defence modifiers.
There were ultimately three monster books released for the Planescape setting, the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums I-III. They eschew the product numbering of the rest of the Monstrous Compendium line, which was a mess anyway. The first printing of the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual was a big binder with loose-leaf monster entries, running off the idea that additional monster supplements could just be slipped in and you’d have all your monsters in the same place. While I like the idea, they’d have needed something in place to address the issue of new monsters that fall alphabetically between two creatures that are on different sides of the same sheet. Anyway, by the time this book rolled around, that concept was dead and buried, and thus in 1994 we got this lavishly illustrated 128-page book and its sequels. Well, by the time this book rolled around the second time.
A lot of Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume 1 — or PSMC1 — is actually recycled content from 1991’s MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “nearly all”. There’s a convenient Wikipedia page that lists the critters and where they’re originally from (while it’s generally bad form to use Wikipedia as a source, but I did check, and at least now in late March of 2020 it was valid). MC8 has 91 monsters, while PSMC1 has 105. By a quick count, 71 of these were carried over. Of the remaining 20, most resurfaced in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II and Planes of Law (notably the archons). Only the air sentinel, the celestial lammasu, and the adamantite dragon didn’t make further appearances. The air sentinel is basically an off-brand djinn native to Bytopia (or the Twin Paradises as it’s still known at the time), and the other two are what it says on the tin. The adamantite dragon is also native to the Twin Paradises. Its breath weapons are the traditional cone of flame, and a time stop effect. Planescape didn’t really do dragons, which is probably why it made no further appearances.
All this makes PSMC1 a dissonant book. While the art was all redone by Tony DiTerlizzi and the layout is the Planescape we know and love, complete with in-character blow-up quotations, a lot of the text was not given the proper attention. While it’s by no means just copypaste, and some entries are lavishly expanded from the original, the fact remains that MC8’s writer J. Paul LaFountain was not a particularly good prosaist. The text is janky, which is thrown into sharper relief when it sits alongside material written specifically for this book.
However, PSMC1 is a vital book. It gathers together most of the major critters of the setting with the exception of modrons and some of the good-aligned outsiders. It’s got the main lineups of baatezu, tanar’ri, and yugoloths. There’s the marut, which D&D 3E later ran with and used as a springing board for the inevitables. There’s the random monster generator that is the hordling, there’s tieflings, shadow fiends, night hags, and the animal lords of Beastlands. We’re introduced to the combatants of the Blood War and the whole larva ecosystem/economy that the Lower Planes have got going on.
Most of the art is good, though a couple of the fiends only have very closely framed mugshots that don’t really tell much about how they look besides ugly, and it took me until the 3E-era Wayne Reynolds illustration of the ultroloth to figure out what it looks like.
Possibly my favourite thing about this book are the mephits. They’re basically elemental imps; small, winged humanoids with breath weapons and bad attitudes. The core of the entry is boosted off MC14 Fiend Folio Appendix, but that one has six mephits whereas this book has sixteen, one for each elemental, paraelemental, and quasielemental plane. They’re characterised by weakness as combatants and being an amusing collection of unwanted personality traits, but what makes them really shine is the concept of mephit messages. They are used as messengers by more powerful creatures, but the mephit itself is the message, and the type of mephit sent. A radiant mephit offers truce, a salt mephit declares open warfare, and so on. It’s like the language of flowers, if the flower was also an asshole to your pets, smelled bad, and tried to cadge cigarettes off you.
Next up is Planes of Chaos, and I’ll see if I can’t draw something more interesting out of that.