Tag Archives: Opinion

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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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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The Maximalist Fallacy

I enjoy a whole lot of different role-playing games. Indie games, trad games, OSR games, solo games, you name it. As I’ve said before, there’s a wide world of games out there. Despite that, there is one design method for RPGs that profoundly irritates me. And, as luck would have it, it is incredibly common.

The basis of pretty much any RPG is that you, the player, have a character, and you guide that character through the setting, using the rules to determine what happens. The ways that RPGs can structure those rules are basically endless; you can have the entire game determined by a single die, or you can map out six phases of play in as much detail as any strategic board game. Where many games seem to fall, though, is that characters and all they can do are defined by long lists of incremental abilities, all assigned or selected one by one. This is a form of maximalist game design, where the quality and capability of a game is defined by the number of incremental elements you can cram in there. And yeah, it kind of cheeses me off.

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How the Wonk GMs: Running a Session

You’ve prepped, plotted, and planned. You have character sheets from the players, printouts from the rulebook, and everyone found a spot on the calendar that works. Now, your players are sitting around the table, dice in hand, and are looking expectantly towards your end of the table. What do you do?

I wouldn’t go so far to say that running your game is easier than prepping for it, but it is a completely different set of skills. Many of those skills, like using the game’s rules and putting yourself in the headspace of a character, apply equally to all players, whether they’re the GM or not. Others, like taking notes and tracking what’s going on in the setting, look the same whether they’re happening during the session or in prep time before. There is one skill, though, that is both admired and dreaded in equal measure: improv.

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Crowdfunding Carnival: April, 2023

Welcome to the Crowdfunding Carnival! It’s April, which means two things. First, we’re done with ZineQuest for real; there are no more event stragglers (though an odd zine will pop up from time to time) and we’re back to “normal” campaigns. Second, April is my birthday month. Readers, I’m feeling old, I’m feeling it in my bones. Looking at campaigns this month has gotten me all crotchety. I will admit, I’m turning 36 and that’s not actually old; I’d still be ‘the kid’ in many gaming groups I’ve played with in the past. What has happened, though, is that in advance of my birthday a lot of the Kickstarter campaigns have got me complaining. Nothing makes you feel older than complaining about stuff you have no control over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there aren’t that many interesting campaigns live right now in the wake of ZineQuest. There are plenty of 5e filler modules, which I don’t care about, and a lot of model files for semi-pornographic minis, which is weird and a bit disconcerting. In my usual market, though, new original RPGs, there are only a few of interest and weirdly a bumper crop of ones I can’t bring myself to be interested in or write about. It’s made me realize it may be another good time to go over the crowdfunding market, and ways that the crowdfunding market could be more useful for project backers.

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System Split: Campaign Managers

Roleplaying games are an information-heavy endeavor. Before the game, you need to sketch out your setting and initial conceit. During the game you need to track what your characters do and who they encounter. Between sessions you need to prep and see what’s changed. How do you keep all that straight? For years, the standard answer was a spiral-bound notebook, maybe a binder if your notes got particularly voluminous. And while that answer still works, it’s 2023. We can use a little technology.

Somewhere between a completely analog down-in-the-basement experience and a session run entirely on a virtual tabletop is the use case of the campaign manager. Campaign managers don’t aim to run your game or change your environment, but instead serve to provide structure for both your game notes and the setting material you present to your players. What makes campaign managers different from simple note-taking software is that ability to share and collaborate with your players, which helps extend your table into the setting as you’re envisioning and creating it. If it sounds good, it’s because I think it is good; I’ve used the campaign manager Obsidian Portal in the past and it’s very likely that I will start using one of the sites reviewed in this article in the near future. That said, a campaign manager is another tool in the GM’s already bursting toolbox, and reviewing the campaign managers out there fairly starts with a question of need.

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“We Didn’t Touch Dice the Whole Session!”

Role-playing games are games which involve role-playing, and that would only be a tautology if the category was consistently named. As it is, plenty of games termed RPGs can run just fine without any role-play to speak of, and plenty of role-play described in so-called RPGs lacks the structure which would allow it to fit the loosest definition of a game. Whether not an RPG is a game or involves role-play, it is certainly a product, and perceived experience sells a product as well as if not better than the actual experience that the product delivers. There is no other medium where the audience exclaims, quite positively, that they did not in any way engage with the experience as delivered to them.

When gamers state, often with happiness, that they went through a whole session without touching their dice, this is a tacit declaration that they did not engage with the game they were playing as intended; if the game did not intend for the players to roll many dice, or had no dice at all, such a declaration wouldn’t typically be made. This is not debatable, the experience of not engaging with the rules is special only insofar as the rules are there to be engaged. As much as it’s clear that the game isn’t being played as intended, what we cannot do in a blanket way is state this is a bad thing. RPGs are designed to deliver specific experiences and many of them, especially more rules-intensive games, deliver multiple specific experiences depending on the fraction of the game you’re engaging with. Looking at what players are or aren’t doing with a specific game requires which mechanics they are or are not engaging with, as well as what they’re doing in their game which isn’t in the rules and is done without touching any dice at all.

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