Category Archives: Editorial

Reviews, opinions, and whatever else strikes our fancy!

Apocalypse Keys Review

Powered by the Apocalypse, or PbtA, is one of the most popular RPG rulesets in the indie gaming sphere. After getting its start with Apocalypse World and the Bakers’ permissive license, PbtA blew up first among single designers and small groups and then in the wider gaming sphere. While Apocalypse World was modestly successful in its own right, many of the games it spawned, including Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, and Blades in the Dark, multiplied its success many times over.

Mainstream PbtA success continues to this day, fed mostly by two mid-sized publishers: Evil Hat Productions and Magpie Games. Magpie Games, arguably the largest and most successful company to design primarily PbtA games, first saw success with titles like Urban Shadows, Bluebeard’s Bride, and Masks, and has gone on to rake in millions of dollars from some of the first licensed PbtA games, Root and Avatar Legends. Evil Hat Productions, more known as the company behind Fate, doesn’t design PbtA games in house, but publishes several of significance. Evil Hat publishes Monster of the Week, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and Blades in the Dark, and they’re about to add another PbtA game to their library.

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The Trouble with RPG Prices

In the past we have discussed playing RPGs, of course. We’ve also discussed reading RPGs, and collecting RPGs. One thing we haven’t discussed much, though, is buying RPGs. A tabletop roleplaying game is a creative work that can take up to hundreds of man-hours, not to mention the intellectual and emotional investment of almost everyone involved with bringing it to fruition. Despite this, there are plenty of people on the internet who deign to call RPGs overpriced. This is in spite of the fact that most indie RPGs cost $30 or less while D&D Monopoly, a monstrosity of branding that should pay me for having to know it exists, costs about $50.

The trouble with pricing is that people not trained in economics think it’s a science. I, however, am the Level One Wonk, with over five years of real actual economics experience and actual professional industrial economics training. All economics aligns to a popular aphorism by George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. The notion of an ‘invisible hand of the market’ is wildly incorrect, even something you consume every day, electricity, only can be sold in a carefully constructed market that is watched every day by engineers (and still fails wildly from time to time anyway). Similarly, creative goods, far from the ‘widgets’ of every dismal Econ 101 textbook, don’t follow nearly any of the rules proscribed by the masters of micro. So, in order to speak more clearly about RPG pricing, we’re going to talk about some of the economics that doesn’t really work for role-playing games, and then talk through some of the psychology that does.

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Power Rangers RPG Review

There is a new generation of companies emerging in the RPG world. Free League and Modiphius were founded in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but an even younger studio is making big waves. Renegade Game Studios was founded in 2014 by hobby game industry veteran Scott Gaeta, and his business acumen shows through in Renegade’s portfolio. In addition to publishing more indie titles like Alice is Missing, Kids on Bikes, and Overlight, Renegade rocketed into the trad scene when they took over publishing White Wolf games Vampire: the Masquerade and Hunter: the Reckoning from interim publisher Modiphius. Now, they’re internally developing licensed RPGs that have already turned them into a sales powerhouse. Two Renegade titles showed up on the ICv2 top 5 RPG list last quarter, and I was unaware either were out, let alone already selling so well.

These two games, GI Joe and Power Rangers, make sense as sales successes. The licenses are for properties that peaked in the early 90s, aiming squarely at a mid-millennial market while Wizards aims younger (the core D&D demographics have been teens and twenty-somethings at least as long as Wizards has owned the game, if not even longer). And if it wasn’t these games it could have been others; Renegade also published a Transformers RPG and will soon release an official My Little Pony RPG as well.

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Editions and Edition Wars

Last week, the first in what’s assumedly a fairly long series of playtest documents came out for One D&D, the revised version of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition that is scheduled to be released in 2024. Fifth Edition’s product lifecycle is quite long for modern D&D: 10 years is the second longest any edition of D&D has gone with no major revision, still not quite beating out the first edition of Advanced D&D which went without a revision for 12 years. The main difference between AD&D 1e and D&D 5e, though, is that Fifth Edition is the best selling version of D&D ever and AD&D 1e is one of the worst; Basic D&D sold better at the same time and saw three iterations over those 12 years, clearly getting more of TSR’s attention. This contrast gets us to the broader point that running an RPG business is a complicated game, especially when it comes to figuring out how to maintain your product lines.

New editions of games have been part and parcel of the RPG industry since Gygax attempted to close the Pandora’s Box of D&D hacking by releasing AD&D. Even that first public revision of a game, a wholesale rewrite as opposed to small revisions gained over time, laid bare the various and sundry motivations designers could have for revising their game. It may be an attempt to regain editorial control, or appeal to a new audience. It may, cynically, be a way to sell more books after the product line has flagged. And maybe, in some limited circumstances, it could actually be to improve the game.

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Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 2

The role-playing hobby is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many games, so many game ideas, and in contrast to that, only so much time. You don’t need to be all that prolific to reach a number of campaigns you want to run that will take literally your entire remaining life…and do so even if you’re just in your 30s. It’s from this massive buffet that we want to find one dish we can savor; that’s the concept of anti-boredom.

If you were here with us last time, you saw a discussion about the plots and premises that can feed a long-running, deep, and memorable campaign. Today, we’re going to start executing on our anti-boredom campaign by figuring out what support we need to make it happen. There are so many games under the sun, but some are better suited to long-running games than others, and an even smaller number still can truly support the breadth of play that will keep you, the multi-genre, multi-system, and ultimately very easily distracted GM, from abandoning them.

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On Character Creation

Role-playing games are games about characters: Who they are, what they do, and what happens to them. In most games, a character is the lever through which the player interacts with the world, and even in broader games the actions of characters are still primary in terms of what happens. What this ends up meaning is that game setup for a role-player, the act of character creation, takes on much more importance than setting up would in most board, card, or other tabletop games. 

Character creation is game setup, yes, but it’s also a game in and of itself, and was the solo act of role-playing well before solo games were popularized. Making characters is fun, and many of us who either couldn’t find people to play with or had more desire to game than time would make sheaves of characters who would never be played. As this was the one way everyone could interact with RPGs, friends to play with or not, it created a shift towards games with interactive and evocative character creation systems. Making choices was fun, though rolling random dice and seeing what you got could be fun too.

So where are we at with this? Character creation has broadened significantly since the days of D&D, and games now have longer, shorter, simpler, and way more complicated character creation methods. Each one generates different results and puts you in the head of your character in a different way, and not just because of math. This past week I had a gaming weekend with my primary gaming group, and as preparation I made characters for games of Legend of the Five Rings, Twilight:2000, and a couple others. It was the first time in a long time I had sat down to make a really involved character, and it made it clear that character creation can provide a lot more than stats if you want it to.

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Doctors and Daleks Review

Gamers have long memories. In the early 2000s, the first iteration of the Open Gaming License was released by Wizards of the Coast, and accompanied by the ‘D20’ branding, which allowed many games to claim official compatibility with the Third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. While this new era in licensing created some new and interesting games, it also created a lot of, well, garbage. This large quantity of garbage combined with Wizards handing out the ‘D20’ branding to essentially anyone combined to erode consumer confidence in the brand. Unfortunately, D&D was the biggest game in the industry at the time (much like it is now), so this, combined with some misplaced faith in the brand on the part of game stores and publishers, caused the ‘D20 bust’. Books didn’t sell, publishers and game shops went bankrupt, and Wizards…well, they published 3.5e and went on their merry way.

The point of recounting this is that the D20 bust is one of the root causes of distrust in the current crop of games developed using the D&D 5e ruleset. Because D&D is the largest, most successful RPG brand, it stands to reason that associating yourself with that brand is a way to make more money, regardless of the quality of your game, and regardless of whether or not your game aligns with the mechanics of D&D. It also doesn’t help that one of the recent high-profile games using the 5e ruleset, the Dark Souls RPG, was released in a pretty messy state, giving it no real chance to disprove the notion that D&D was a poor choice for emulating the ‘Soulslike’ video game genre (whether or not it could have otherwise is an open question).

It was in this environment that Cubicle 7 announced ‘Doctors and Daleks’, a Doctor Who role-playing game built on the 5e ruleset. The announcement was met with a fair amount of criticism, much of it baseless given that there wasn’t a game yet. The surface-level thinking, though, made sense. Doctor Who, especially the newer runs which started with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor, is a fantastical series about time travel, the history of the world, and a generally optimistic outlook on coexistence with life all over the universe. The Doctor has a code against killing, gadgets like the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver have capabilities mostly defined by the scripts in that season, and the stories rapidly shift from small and intimate vignettes involving Vincent Van Gogh to apocalyptic, universe-ending plots where the Doctor faces off with the Master, or the Daleks, or the Cybermen. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, is a game where the rules are roughly 90% predicated on killing things and taking their stuff. The mismatch observation is a fair one.

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Decisions and Endings in Video Games

When taken as a whole, it’s really only been in the most recent sliver of video game history that we’ve seen an explosion of robust narrative development. Sure, we must acknowledge the early pioneers, companies like Infocom and their titles like Zork. Still, modern video games, thanks to Bioware, Telltale, Quantic Dream, and others, have provided immense richness within the limitations of hardcoded storylines, settings, and decision points, richness that was not reachable earlier on.

Tabletop RPGs arguably got to this point earlier and have been there longer. It is simply more straightforward to write out several possible endings to a given module or adventure path than have to code them out and make more ingame content knowing that many players will never see it. In a weird way, though, that’s why I think looking at how narrative complexity presents itself in video games is so interesting and instructive. When video games fracture their storylines into multiple endings or complementary subplots (like, for example, character romance subplots), it has to be deliberate. Everything is designed intentionally, and for some players figuring out the combination of actions that leads to a given outcome is part of solving the puzzle of the game. 

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The Trouble With Drama Mechanics

Role-playing games are all about characters, otherwise they wouldn’t be role-playing games. And what really gets someone invested in a fictional character, whether they’re playing the character or watching or reading the character, is the character’s personal journey. We love to see it in books and movies and we love to see it in RPGs, but in RPGs we typically aren’t given additional rules to support these sorts of stories. This is in part because these stories haven’t been the focus of most RPGs, well, ever, but it’s also in part due to the belief of designers that characters’ inner lives should be governed by the people who play them, not by rules.

The issue with this is that mechanics are what provide richness for games. We want PbtA games to have a palette of different moves, and we want each playbook to feel different. We want a military simulation to differentiate between all its guns and vehicles. So why would we not want rules that help us look at and play out character drama? When I looked at Hillfolk a few weeks back, one thing I thought it did very well was stake out three necessary drivers of dramatic conflict: character desire, character internal conflict (the ‘dramatic poles’), and character external conflict (‘fraught relationships’). What was missing was the next step, which was to provide structure and guidance to build and play with those drivers.

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Hillfolk Review

The early 2010s produced the indie darlings of today. While game design moves fast, systems like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse still form the bedrock of what most gamers consider ‘indie’, even though they are relatively conservative extensions of traditional games like Dungeons and Dragons. There were other games that pushed further, though. In 2012, Robin D. Laws and Pelgrane Press campaigned a game called Hillfolk on Kickstarter. The Hillfolk campaign emphasized its Iron Age setting, even including a neat bit of interactivity in the campaign where backers could choose to back either the ‘Lion Clan’ or the ‘Wolf Clan’. The mechanics, though, were significantly more important and more interesting than the setting, as well as the most divisive feature of the game.

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