Role-playing games are a delightfully analog hobby; the best parts of coming together with your friends to roll dice and tell stories cannot be duplicated by digital media. The way we play, though, has changed, with forums and voice chat programs and online dice rollers all giving us ways to use technology to enhance the RPG experience. When it comes to the actual reference materials, progress has been uneven. Online SRDs and paywalled content providers like D&D Beyond show we at least acknowledge that digital reference materials can look different, but the majority of game PDFs out there are just books, barely improved from the days when RPG PDFs were made with a scanner.
Role-playing games are perceived as complex due to their volume of rules. What really makes RPGs complicated, though, is the relative dynamism of these rules and the degree to which they sit in the text. In other words, the rules of a game you must know in order to play an RPG are not limited to those which are printed in the rulebook.
While this of course varies from game to game, it can be generally stated that a board game will contain all the rules necessary to play inside the box. This is not always true with an RPG. Given the significant breadth of concepts that a game could potentially cover, RPGs have usually needed a GM to establish a more concrete set of boundaries which make up a campaign. The key here is that what the GM is doing, from writing the world to tweaking the mechanics to actually running the game, involves making and enforcing rules which are supplemental to those actually written in a book.
Last month was famine. Instead of putting together a Kickstarter Wonk article at all, I wrote briefly on why Tabletop RPG Kickstarters fail. This month is feast. There are ten games below, and I can say genuinely that there are 2-3 more that easily would have made the cut as well. A great number of campaigns, and I’m probably spending a bit more money than usual this month. Speaking of money. There’s been some turmoil over at the Kickstarter corporate office, mostly involving a distasteful activity called ‘union-busting’. Kickstarter employees are trying to unionize, and someone upstairs fired two of the organizers. Not good, guys. Not good at all.
Nonetheless, Kickstarter campaigns are primarily about the creators. Beyond that, the process to get a union formally recognized is fraught, so even if the company is making distasteful (read: bad) decisions regarding the rights of their workers, the creators on the platform and the broader business as a whole shouldn’t necessarily suffer. For one thing, it makes that whole organizing thing that much harder if there’s evidence that organizing a union is impeding business. The intent of organized labor is to make productive compromises between a company and its employees, and a preemptive boycott fails at that. Therefore I am still here, still promoting Kickstarter campaigns, and still spending some money to support the excellent creators on the platform. If you’re interested in supporting Kickstarter United and are a project creator, you can sign a petition here. After you’ve done that, read on, because there are some really great games out this month.
Old games never die, they just get new editions. Some games take big design steps and then walk them back (D&D, WFRP), while others start forking out into multiple, concurrent editions (Traveller and RuneQuest). Others still just revise every concurrent edition, walking a tight balance between satisfying the fanboys and making the game accessible to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy it the last time around. No game is better suited to tell this perilous story than Shadowrun. Shadowrun was born in the late 80s around the same time as Cyberpunk, but took to that genre with its own twist, adding in magic and Tolkienesque “metahuman” races. Originally developed by FASA, the same design studio behind Battletech, Shadowrun has always had wargaming roots show through by virtue of its complexity and level of detail. This both gained it many fans as well as an intimidating reputation, especially when we’re talking about the first three editions of the game.
There’s a lot of reasons people say that the RPG hobby is in a golden age right now. Increased legitimacy of the hobby in general, new audiences reaching games through streaming and podcasts, and an exploding variety of types and titles of games make for a more diverse and dynamic hobby than we’ve ever had before. But what do we actually know about the hobby and how it’s growing? What do we know about the competitive dynamics of the industry, from Wizards of the Coast down to the one-man shops? The simple answer to “what do we know” is “not much”. Finding real data about this hobby of ours is a struggle—and that’s when it isn’t downright impossible.
Tabletop RPGs evolved from wargames, which has somewhat stunted their growth with regards to most conflicts which don’t involve killing things. As board games show us, though, we can easily develop satisfying mechanics for a whole range of things other than combat. For the Cyberpunk Chimera, we’re envisioning a world that, while potentially violent and dystopic, doesn’t center around monsters or a national enemy or anything else that assumes that the majority of problems can be solved by killing.
Kickstarter Wonk is an opportunity for me to, every month, show off some neat Kickstarter campaigns that deserve to get a little extra attention. To write these articles, I read pretty much every Kickstarter campaign that could be termed as an original RPG, and then pull from there to make my list. Some months, getting to ten is difficult because there are twenty or more games, sixteen or more that are worth covering, and narrowing down the list gets really hard. That’s when I apply some really arbitrary metrics like “the campaign ends less than two days before the article will be published” and “I will weigh my choice towards the game with original mechanics as opposed to the one which is using Fate”. On the other hand, sometimes there’s fewer than ten games I want to cover, and the last one or two which are all right will have a bit of sarcasm in the descriptions. What has not happened until now was a month where I couldn’t even muster up half a dozen games I was excited about.
It’s time again to look at one of Evil Hat’s purple books for Fate. The Fate Toolkits, or the purple books, are the cornerstone of Fate rules hacking and, in my humble opinion, some of the best resources for a Fate GM out there. Today’s purple book takes a very different approach than the others, but still provides a comprehensive resource. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit is the book in Evil Hat’s lineup which deals bluntly with how to approach disability in your games, both in terms of characters and players.
Eclipse Phase has been in my gaming shelf ever since it first came out. The transhuman horror game has one of the best original settings available in the sci-fi RPG world, but its take on d100 mechanics were dense and difficult to work with, especially when it came to figuring out character creation. Now, Posthuman Studios has finished their work on the second edition of Eclipse Phase, taking notes from the community on the first edition and the reception of their Fate version, Transhumanity’s Fate. Eclipse Phase Second Edition (2e) is not intended to be a simpler or less complicated game than First Edition (1e) was, but what it does do is take the crunch and streamline it, including a significantly easier character creation system, revised faction rules, and a combat chapter which is an easier read while still doling out some ludicrous weapons and cybernetic enhancements. For me though, the discussion of Eclipse Phase begins with the core of what makes the game pop, the setting.
The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit made a splash at GenCon, selling out huge stacks of the black and red box set in what seemed like no time at all. Given the hype of Cyberpunk 2077, it’s important to step back and look at both what this means for Cyberpunk fans as well as what we can honestly expect out of a product which is still just a Beginner Box.
Personally, I’ve been waiting for this moment in one way or another since 2005. 2005 was, for those of us who remember, the release of Cyberpunk v3. Without casting (too many) aspersions at that product, I can say that it was not what Cyberpunk fans expected or wanted, and was disappointing to many, including myself. After making my peace with the fact that Cyberpunk 2020 was the last edition of the line that I’d play, the announcement of Cyberpunk Red split me between side-eyed skepticism and bouncing off my chair like, well, a nerdy teenager.