It’s tough being the first. Back in 2010, before Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (and before Fourth Edition Essentials too), Vincent Baker released the first edition of Apocalypse World. While the praise was immediate, the snowball effect of the game had just started. By the time Baker released the second edition, now (and from this point forward) sharing the byline with his wife Meguey Baker, Powered by the Apocalypse had become a force in the indie game world. After another five years, the Baker family revisited Apocalypse World again, with Vincent and Meguey working with their children to produce Burned Over.
There are two things about Burned Over which caused me to overlook it initially. The first was a misunderstanding, though also a reflection of how many indie games are made these days. Burned Over is a hackbook, and having not heard this phrase before I confused it in intent with an ashcan. An ashcan is essentially the game equivalent of a minimum viable product or Early Access; it contains the rules to play and a first draft of the written game while being otherwise incomplete. Burned Over is not incomplete; though some of the initial rules were released on Vincent Baker’s Patreon (of which I am a subscriber, full disclosure) in ashcan form, the hackbook as it stands is complete, laid out, and 100% playable. What hackbook means is that Burned Over is a hack of Apocalypse World released as a book; Burned Over requires Apocalypse World to play though this belies the differences made somewhat.
The second element which caused me to overlook Burned Over at first came from the description of what it was. When the Baker family undertook Burned Over as a project, it was described as a version of Apocalypse World which toned down the sex and violence of the original. My initial reaction was that this would be a bowdlerized Apocalypse World, and I didn’t really like that. Needless to say I was wrong, but it meant that I didn’t actually read Burned Over until I had seen praise of it elsewhere. Burned Over strongly recenters many elements of Apocalypse World without changing the core mechanics of the game or its core gameplay loop; this recentering both revises and strengthens the rules as well as shifts the game’s relationship towards its own setting. While this is perhaps too informed by recent discourse, I think Burned Over shifts Apocalypse World from genre emulation of post-apocalyptic film and games to being a post-apocalyptic work in its own right with its own setting.
Continue reading System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook
A while ago I had a bit of a hot take off the press. At the time I had played the Beginners Box for Legend of the Five Rings 5th edition produced by Fantasy Flight Gaming and then, in purely coincidental timing, played in a campaign of 4th edition that had been written by AEG. Excited, and with childhood memories rekindled, I ran to write up the differences I have seen between the two. So, why do I mention it?
It’s been a few years since that article was written, and the world proceeded to break time with the years of 2020 and 2021. With a slew of personal life changes, and with a need for incredible caution for social gatherings, my choice in games became dictated by what I could find online. Over the last two years, I’ve had a healthy diet of games run in 4th edition and finally had the chance to build characters and play in a campaign using the full 5th edition rules. As I reflected, I began to wonder: had I done a disservice by rushing to put something out? Sometimes we become too excited at a new prospect, and become so eager to champion it that we don’t get the full picture. There is also another element in play now as well: time. Back when I did my first crack at a System Split, FFG were the new kids on the block, with their hands on a shiny new property and some interesting ideas on how to freshen things up. Now, not only have they released the full rules and published several expansion books for Legend of the Five Rings and reorganized. EDGE Studio has now taken over the IP, and while books continue to be published, and the system itself remains mostly intact, I feel like it’s worth circling back and taking a deeper, more nuanced dive into the differences between the two systems. Overall, with some time and space, I have come to believe that FFG created their version with a firm eye on past editions, but there are noticeable differences that might sway both gamerunners and players in one direction or the other.
Continue reading System Split Redux: Legend of the Five Rings (AEG and FFG/EDGE)
It’s never been a better time to be a dungeon crawler. Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition and Pathfinder, two versions of the same underlying D&D ruleset, are bestsellers 1 and 2 in the RPG world, and have been for some time. Pathfinder is built for detail and breadth of options, while D&D’s Fifth Edition is built for accessibility and continuity with earlier versions and settings. They offer two versions of a fairly modern D&D experience, where GMs run story arc-based campaigns built around fighting monsters and exploring dungeons. Characters are treated like protagonists, and death is relatively rare. At the same time, we’ve seen a resurgence in “old-school” playstyles, usually represented within the D&D ecosystem by the OSR. Old-school games tend to have fewer rules, presenting challenges and decisions to the players rather than the characters. They tend to have weaker characters who aren’t treated like protagonists, and they need not be organized around a story.
There is a middle ground, though, and a new entrant in the middle ground has stormed into the DriveThruRPG sales charts. Worlds Without Number presents a dangerous old-school world, but uses rules innovations from later versions of D&D (and other role-playing games) to make the game more accessible and make the characters feel a bit more heroic. On top of all that, it provides tons of tools to help GMs run interesting game worlds with or without a driving story. Although many people will simply call Worlds Without Number an OSR game (and there are fair reasons for that), I think that it deserves to be examined against the current state of the art. That’s why this System Split pits Worlds Without Number against Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition.
Continue reading System Split: Worlds Without Number and D&D Fifth Edition
Memories are a powerful thing. They define much of who and what we are, and even when the edges become hazy some things, some impressions, remain crystal clear in our psyches. I can’t remember how long ago it was (though math tells me that we are pushing 20 years now), but I can remember who I was with and what we were doing (trying the dangerous addiction that is Magic: The Gathering) when I was first introduced to my Friendly Local Game Store. Looking back, it was dingy and in a sketchy part of the neighborhood, but I would wind up spending so much time there over the years that I can’t help but look back at it with fondness.
It was on one of those trips that I was saw something that caught my eye: a card game that I hadn’t seen before, but whose art reminded me of some of the new cartoons I was seeing at the time. I wound up buying a pack and trying out the game and, I had no idea what I had stumbled into. I played for a while, found some of the tie-in novels, and largely forgot about it as a part of my adolescence that I would likely never see again. Suddenly, in the last six months, Legend of the Five Rings (commonly referred to as L5R) came back into my life. I not only found that there a Tabletop RPG version of the franchise, I found myself playing in two different editions: the 4th edition, originally published by the original creators Alderac Entertainment Group, and the new version created by Fantasy Flight Gaming. I found myself marveling at how different they were, and yet, how strong of a fanbase I found for each. After having played a bit of both, it seemed worthwhile to look at some of the pivot points at which the game changes.
Continue reading System Split: L5R AEG 4e and FFG
Star Wars has been around for 41 years, and it’s been in the tabletop roleplaying game market for 31 of them now. There have been many writers, companies, and game systems involved over the course of the far, far away galaxy’s tenure at the table. This System Split is going to do things very differently; rather than compare different games using the same system and genre, we’ll be taking a look at different systems in the same universe: the original D6-based Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games and the modern Narrative Dice System-based Star Wars Roleplaying from Fantasy Flight Games!
Continue reading System Split: Star Wars D6 System and Narrative Dice System
Dungeons and Dragons, by many standards, lives up to Wizards of the Coast’s claim of “The World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game”. It has the longest history and the greatest impact of any game, paving the way for the expansive role-playing hobby we have today. And the versions published in the 1980s are those which had the strongest impact on one of the earliest generations of gamers. Between TSR’s mismanagement and the limitations of technology, though, these early versions were almost lost to history. The desire to rekindle support for the playstyle of Basic D&D was one of the collective motivations which kindled the OSR, or Old School Revival, movement. Today’s System Split splits four ways, looking both at two versions of Basic D&D (B/X and Rules Cyclopedia) and Retroclones which were designed to give them renewed accessibility: Labyrinth Lord and Dark Dungeons.
Continue reading System Split: Basic D&D and Basic D&D Retroclones
Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine two very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today’s System Split requires Clearance: RED, as we take a look at a couple editions of Paranoia! What has changed in over a decade since Mongoose started publishing this infamous piece of 80s RPG lore?
Continue reading System Split: Paranoia
Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine
two three very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today we’re looking at a game that exists in three different systems, and is one of the first to jump on the Pathfinder train! Let’s get Cyberpunk with Interface Zero.
Continue reading System Split: Interface Zero
Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine two very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today’s post involves two spooky games which could not be more mechanically similar, or more thematically different! Let’s talk about Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts, two PbtA horror games.
Powered by the Apocalypse is a rules framework with both immense flexibility and a strongly codified play experience. When I looked at Cyberpunk within PbtA, I found two games which sat in very different places in the mechanical design space of PbtA. In contrast, since all of these games are so driven by story it is possible to produce two very different games which keep the rules very close. Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts do just that, carving out two niches in the paranormal horror genre.
Continue reading System Split: Paranormal Horror with PbtA
Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine two very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today we look at two fantasy RPGs from the twisted and brilliant mind of Luke Crane: Burning Wheel and Torchbearer! Despite one being based on the other, they offer very different experiences. How different? Read on!
Continue reading System Split: Burning Wheel and Torchbearer