Candela Obscura Quickstart Review

This review doesn’t really matter.

This review doesn’t matter because there are four types of people who will click on this review when they see it, and none of them are looking for more information in order to form an opinion. You will have critters who’ve already decided they love Candela Obscura and want to see if I do too, and then critters who’ve already decided they hate Candela Obscura, think switching rulesets was pointless…and want to see if I do too. On the indie/OSR side, you have those who can’t stand Critical Role, and want to see if I’m going to bag on it, ranting as long as I did when I reviewed Root. You also have those who are just thankful that the largest Actual Play in the game is using something other than D&D, and have already decided it’s better. Ultimately, I don’t think my conclusion is going to satisfy any of these camps.

It’s fine.

Now, given my own biases from both years of experience in RPGs as well as other media (not to mention writing to a specific audience for a living), I find it hard to believe that anyone was expecting a conclusion other than ‘it’s fine’ for the first ground-up new game from Darrington Press. Just like nobody should have expected Tal’Dorei to be a Planescape or Spelljammer or other setting that really pushes on the conventions of the D&D genre, nobody should really have expected that a new game from Critical Role Productions would do anything other than nestle neatly into the range of genres already popularized in roleplaying, specifically nestling in next to another bestseller, Call of Cthulhu.

I’m starting the review in this way because, ultimately, the specifics of Candela Obscura aren’t nearly as interesting as the reactions they’ve elicited. On Twitter, the first reactions I saw were mostly from indie designers who seemed primed to hate it. Apparently everyone became an IP lawyer since the OGL kerfluffle, because there were people outright claiming that the game had plagiarized Blades in the Dark and was violating the terms of the Creative Commons license (in case it isn’t clear, this is untrue). On Reddit, I read a lot of confusion about the system, though it’s hard to tell from comments if this is just from newness and lack of context, or if it is actually confusing in play. And, of course, the first big review expressed disappointment at how much of a retread the whole thing is.

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What are RPGs made of?

The roleplaying experience cannot be solely defined by which books you pick up at your hobby shop. More than essentially any other medium, RPGs are changed by the people who play them and what they attempt to do with the game when they play. It is both the medium’s greatest strength and its greatest source of annoyance when trying to both critique published RPGs and set standards of good play.

If there’s one thing the RPG community is better at than anything else it’s talking past each other, and in a way this is inevitable. Every game and everything about each of those games which makes them good, bad, memorable, or forgettable is dependent on the people sitting around the table (on the discord, in the LARP space) actually playing. Now, this human element doesn’t discount what the rules bring to the game, and the ability to enjoy yourself in spite of a game doesn’t make it good (likewise, having a game bounce off your group because of your particular preferences and predilections doesn’t make it bad). This does mean, though, that we need to know what we’re talking about.

RPGs are more complicated than other games because they present three separate surfaces of writing which, in other media, either aren’t separated or don’t exist at all. The RPG system is the scaffold, the underlying mechanics, rules, and math which define how games work. The game is the group of elements built around that scaffold, the setting, procedures, and options which tell the players what the game is actually about. Finally, the campaign is the game itself, either from the players’ heads or from a pre-written adventure or two (or three). These elements in total build up to the game a group will actually play, and all of them bring something different and important to the final product.

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Postmodernism and RPGs

If you’re a millennial and deigned to even dip your toe into art or literary criticism, you ended up in a discussion about postmodernism at some point if only because of the time you grew up in. Modernism was a dominant bloc of philosophical and artistic thought in the western world from the 19th through the twentieth century, heavily informed by how society was changing at the time. While I’m not an especially well-read critic (I had the good fortune to study engineering in school, which is why I can blog for free), I do understand the broad tenets of modernism, which are rooted in scientific inquiry and the ability to discover truth, human capacity to create order, and an implied mission to improve all aspects of life and society through creation of something new. Modernism rejected earlier principles of realism, allowing for more innovations of form in visual art, music, and literature. And if you think I’m not about to tie this back to RPG theory communities and extensions of form like journaling and lyric games…well, you’re wrong.

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The Trouble With Combat

Role-playing games have their origins from wargames. The through-line from Chainmail to Dungeons and Dragons is an undisputed point of historical record, and the through-line from Dragon Pass to RuneQuest pretty much the same. And as the eponym of wargame is war, it’s pretty clear that all wargames have concerned themselves with killing and dying all the way back to the invention of chess. The problem is that, derivative as they are, role-playing games are not wargames. Role-playing games need not merely concern themselves with killing and dying. After nearly fifty years of evolution, I’d argue that role-playing games shouldn’t only concern themselves with killing and dying.

To be fair, even back to the earliest editions of D&D there were more interesting things going on than just monsters to slay. By 1983 we had Call of Cthulhu, where few or none of the foes within the game were intended to be ‘taken on’ in a violent manner. White Wolf games prized intrigue and social dynamics over outright violence, though both clearly had a place. White Wolf games, though, especially Vampire:the Masquerade, revealed the distinct liability of designing a game, regardless of genre or intended primary activity, with a wargame-like combat system at its center.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: May, 2023

Welcome to Crowdfunding Carnival for May! Now, I admit, last month I was a bit low on energy, low on patience, and I forgot some things. For one, I forgot to write a five year retrospective for April. Now, there’s no use in crying over spilt free content, but I assure you that my energy is up and we’re back in the swing of things for May. In addition to this month’s five year retrospective, I have thirteen different games that I’ll run through in rapidfire fashion. We’re back to all Kickstarters for standalone games this month, but in between the copycat 5e pablum and a whole lot more NSFW miniatures (seriously, what is up with that), there were some diamonds in the rough.

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The Unpublished Network at PAX East 2023

If you want to catch a tabletop game in one of its more interesting stages, it’s always a good idea to swing by the Unpublished Game Network.  The ‘Unpub’ Network  provides, well, networking for unpublished games that are still in development and at a convention gives them a place to put their game through its paces. It’s notable that the signage says ‘looking for playtesters’ instead of just ‘looking for players.’ While not quite as rich in traditional CHG content as its Unplugged sibling PAX East offers the advantage of being right in my own stomping grounds, and getting to attend its ’23 iteration for all four days meant I was able to swing by the Unpub tables multiple times.

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