On New Year’s Day, 2010, the RPG hobby wasn’t feeling very lively. Dungeons and Dragons was plodding along with Fourth Edition, though a lot of players had abandoned it for Pathfinder, or, as your friends called it, “D&D 3.75e”. The New World of Darkness was out, but you were having trouble finding the new part. Shadowrun 20th Anniversary came out…but that was just Fourth Edition from 2005 with errata. Though things weren’t looking so hot, there was some interesting stuff going on. This new website Kickstarter had been causing a stir in tech news, and more and more of the games you’ve been looking for had been made available in PDF. Something’s going to change, you think.
In 1994, Richard Night had a vision for a new modern city. By 2009, that vision had gone awry, and what was supposed to be an urban utopia became an urban hellhole. As Bes Isis once said, “Nobody leaves Night City. Except in a body bag.”
On Christmas Eve, 2019, four enterprising RPG bloggers found themselves at a strange conjunction of parallel dimensions. Whether it was their campaign worlds, their characters, or Aaron’s insistence on reviewing Fate of Cthulhu while writing a time travel game, no one could say. Nonetheless, when they stepped through the strange, neon-colored portals that appeared in their respective homes, Seamus, Aaron, Aki, and Jason could not be less prepared for what lay on the other side.
Sent back in time, you must save humanity from its enslavement by a godlike overlord. You must
protect John Connor stop Cthulhu! …wait. What? We’ve talked about kitchen sink games before, and this mashup definitely edges towards that territory even while sitting firmly in Lovecraft’s Mythos. If you’ve seen one too many investigator go over the brink, spent one too many hours in a briefing room with Delta Green or can’t seem to get all of these Laundry Files out of your inbox, here’s another angle on Lovecraftian Mythos: Time Travel. That’s right, it’s time to go 30 years in the past to 2020 and help change the Fate of Cthulhu.
Welcome to another Review In-Depth! Here I explore and attempt to critique a game using not just a reading or even a mere one-shot, but rather a full short campaign of play. While reading may tell you about rules and ease of use, and a one-shot may demonstrate game balance and fun factor, it takes several sessions to really tease out how well a game accomplishes its stated goals. And because rules aren’t everything, I cast an equally critical eye to the content of the story the group ended up telling.
Today’s game tells a sadly real story about the gap that exists between enthusiasm and actually finding time to play something. Cannibal Halfling’s first breakout article was written in March of 2017, about four months after the site was founded, and it was about two Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) Cyberpunk games, The Veil and The Sprawl. This recent campaign was the first time I successfully ran The Veil, in fact the first time I successfully played it at all…it was over two years after I first read it.
There’s a wide world of RPGs out there. In that world, Dungeons and Dragons represents a small sliver of the gameplay experiences and stories that are possible, but a disproportionately large slice of the games that are actually played. It’s from this juxtaposition that comes the frequent and often irksome question “how do I hack D&D to play [insert genre]?” However, when you mix D&D mechanics with a designer who has actually played other games and given thought to how the mechanics must change, you can get something rather good. Carbon 2185 has taken 5th Edition D&D mechanics, given them a solid restoration to work better in the Cyberpunk genre, and then added some bolt-on systems which take inspiration from the best of sci-fi roleplaying.
The RPG space is filled with unchecked assumptions regarding what gaming groups actually do. We already know that market information is hard to find, but it’s even harder to find information on how people consume whichever RPGs they choose to consume. Are they playing mostly in organized games hosted at game stores? With a group of friends at someone’s home? At cons? How often do they play? How many different systems do they try? We have, as one of my players once said, no hard data but a lot of assumptions and circumstantial evidence. The one element which is most significantly reflected in how games are actually designed is how long a discrete ‘game’ or ‘campaign’ is intended to be played.
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.
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.
I’ve made plenty of hay over my opinions about D&D. D&D is not a bad game, but it’s such a limited expression of what a role-playing game can look like. The most common counter-argument I get to saying that a gamer should play games other than D&D is somewhere along the lines of “if that’s what they like, that’s what they should play”. This is usually followed by pointing out several more obscure games, which usually look absolutely nothing like D&D, and harping on about how that’s not the play experience they want. And this straw man argument is one of many reasons I’ve decided to sing the praises of the giant middle ground of the hobby, the traditional RPGs.