Friday, March 31, 2006

The Rebirth of the Weird West?

During a period of time when my enthusiasm for RPGs had lapsed a bit, Pinnacle Entertainment's Deadlands was one of the very select group of new games that drew my attention. It was, to put it gently, an original concept; sort of Wild Wild West meets Dawn of the Dead, with some of the feel of an over-arching plot that the old World of Darkness achieved, but without the WOD need to take itself as seriously as cancer. Lots of games have original concepts, but Deadlands had a system to back it up that was interesting, fit the feel of the game, and was reasonably playable. The d20 Deadlands conversion never did it for me, as a result; d20 was just too generic and too rigid to fit with what had been a very thematic and flexible system.

Now I hear that after months and months of rumors and delays, Deadlands is returning to the world of the living... Great White Games, the successor to PEG Inc., is bringing Deadlands back, this time using a variation of the Deadlands-influenced Savage Worlds system. The new Deadlands will be the first real incentive I've had to take a look at the SW system. I'm normally a little wary of multi-world generic systems; to me, every d20 game feels mostly like D&D in funny outfits, and GURPS.... well, I've been working on making a GURPS character for the past several years, and I'm hopeful that sometime soon I'll have some progress to report (in all fairness, the incredible detail of GURPS is great.... for playing other games, or if you're interested in putting in the time and effort to design your own RPG. I've got a whole list of things from GURPS High Tech and GURPS Low Tech that I want to pilfer for my WFRP games...).

There are a couple of things about the resurrection of Deadlands that has me wondering. For one, Great White is saying that the core rulebook is going to be all you need to play the entire game- that there won't be a bunch of supplements with extra edges and flaws or expanded rules and spells, etc. I'm not sure if they mean that other Savage Worlds products will be the means by which expansions to Deadlands enter the market, or if they really mean to not add anything to the line other than the promised Plot Point expansions that push the settings timeline forward. But frankly, I've heard the old 'one book is all you need' line before; it usually translates to 'if you're willing to make your DM do a lot of work to build some additional background and setting for your game', or 'we're hoping you won't notice what's missing until you're too far in to do more than complain on a web forum somewhere'. WFRP1 came very close to meeting that exalted goal of 'one book only'; outside of that, most of the games that I have seen haven't lived up to that promise.

The other odd thing is that Great White is making a big push to sell through the old Deadlands material that they still have in stock. They're claiming that the old material still makes for great background reading, but that it won't be reprinted once Deadlands Reloaded hits the street. That seems a little odd to me. There was a great deal of information that was covered in the old Deadlands books- expansions to the major character types, lots of background on the organizations and settings of the Deadlands world, etc. This makes it difficult for me to assess what their promise not to reprint this material means. It seems to either mean that 1) there is going to be very anemic background material for Deadlands available outside the core book, or 2) the information is going to be reprinted, but in new books and a new form, or maybe 2) plus "we'd really like to sell through our old stock".

Great White has slipped several times on the publication date for Deadlands; it seems that its author is rather overcommited working for City of Heroes, for one thing. It just leaves me wondering how well supported the Deadlands line is going to be once it gets back into circulation.

The State and Future of Gaming

This entry by Gareth-Michael Skarka puts some concrete numbers from Comics & Games Retailer to the rather rickety state of the RPG industry. The numbers look, in a word, horrible. Clearly, the growth of MMORPGs and other factors are taking a big chunk out of the gaming world.

A lot of people seem to blame Wizards of the Coast and the d20 system for killing off a lot of companies in the RPG market... Wizards certainly has the strongest visibility in the RPG market, and enjoys penetration into the main-stream retail space that other publishers just can't match right now. I think as a result, Wizards has picked up more and more of the 'new gamer' market over the past several years, which has probably put the hurt on some other companies.

On the other hand, you could make the argument that really, Wizards is responsible for making the market as a whole larger than it previously was. TSR long had an edge in the 'new gamer' market that gave it a competitive advantage over the other systems. Dungeons & Dragons remains the single most recognizable name in gaming, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the d20 system and the OGL did a lot to lower the barrier to entry in the market for new publishers and new games. Potential writers no longer had to either convince an existing publisher to take a chance on them, or overcome consumers reluctance to learn a new, untried rules system. d20 meant that you could write your modules- whether it was a new setting, an expansion, an adventure, etc.- without worrying too much about the nuts and bolts of the rules. If your product made it to market, there was a large body of players and DMs that already knew and played by the same ruleset, and had a big hand up on learning or using your game. Even if your product couldn't stand on its own two feet, there was a good chance that if there was something worthwhile in it, people would be willing to buy it since it was so easy to incorporate things into other d20 games.

What I suspect happened is that this spawned a whole generation of hobbyists who thought they were going to be the next Gary Gygax, and tried to enter the traditional publishing market. The traditional publishing market, if you haven't heard, is hurting all over. Production costs are remaining high, demand and retail outlets have declined, and challenges from other media are threatening their consumer base and their bottom line. Add to that the fact that entering the publishing business involves managing issues of inventory and production that are capable of destroying even veteran players (TSR anyone?), and you have a recipe for disaster. Hundreds of new companies offering products in 1,000 different d20 lines simultaneously waded into the publishing business, unaware of what they were really getting into. It's little wonder that five years later, most of them are belly up in the tank.

The retail space has its own problems. Note that the figures that Skarka was quoting are primarily gathered by game retailers. RPGs are a perfect example of the sort of niche product that translates very well to Internet delivery- hence the 'long tail' discussion. The inevitable result is that as the number of gaming shops declines, more and more companies will go to direct sales and PDF distribution. And as more publishers make an end-run around retail distributors, more and more retailers are going to exit the business, either by going under or by deciding that it is no longer worth their time and money to be in the business of selling RPG products.

I try to support my local gaming stores on principle, but I can see a coming time when they just won't have a place in the market due to a combination of economics and redundancy. I've recently been thinking about buying the new Knights of the Grail supplement for WFRP. Now, do I buy that from Amazon for less than $20, or from a local retailer for $30+? What, really, other than instant gratification, am I getting from my local hobby shops? What are they getting from me? I do sometimes browse games in shops, and see things that I otherwise might not (though one place I shop occasionally shrink wraps all their games; very irritating), but is that really worth paying a premium for my games?

I think that gaming can survive losing the brick-and-mortar retail channel. I'm sure that retail could survive losing gaming (though it would be a hardship for some of the most dedicated retailers, which is a shame). Unless someone can come up with a more fruitful relationship for the two, they're going to have to.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On Finding Games

Noticing a couple threadlocks at the BI forum today got me wondering about their policy regarding looking for games and players on the boards- which is, by the way, "you can't". It seems like a silly rule. The nearest I've seen to an official explanation for this policy is Dave Allen's response in this thread.

Bad publicity? Really? That's the concern? That's the reason why the BI forums aren't a central hub for finding online and offline WFRP games? That seems a little bit strange.... The odds against a serious incident occuring seem to be very high- and the odds that it would be somehow 'blamed' on BI are even higher. Lots of companies provide this sort of service to support their game- for instance, take a look at the extensive efforts that Wizards goes to to make sure that people can find a D&D game: RPG Gamer Classifieds. A whole forum and multiple subforums, just for the purpose of advertising what is already one of the most popular and widely played RPGs in the world. WFRP is much less well known, and has a much more scattered player base. I've often wished that there were some way to find WFRP games- particularly play by post games- that was easier than just running out to every single gaming website on the net and searching for games individually at PlayByWeb, ENWorld, and a dozen others. Here's hoping that BI eventually sees the light on this one- or that an acceptable unofficial alternative comes along.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dreamblade and the 'Miniatures Cycle'

Poking around a bit today looking at the early info up on WoTC's new Dreamblade miniature game, officially announced this month at the GAMA Trade Show. I have to admit that the early pics of the figures do look neat. I've always lingered right on the fringe of... miniature games. WoTC removed one barrier for me by sticking to pre-painted (and fairly detailed) miniatures, rather than relying on my paltry painting skills, but I've still never really made the jump.

The Dreamblade announcement has me thinking a bit about the balance between miniature games and mini-less RPGs.... As most people know, RPGs developed out of mini-scale wargaming. Since then, the ties between miniature gaming and RPGs have ebbed and flowed quite a bit. Several modern games- D&D, for instance- have a fairly tight connection with a miniature line. Other games, like the World of Darkness line, have never had much to do with them. The ability to sell miniatures has been a make-or-break proposition for some games (like early v1 WFRP), and a negligible sideline for others.

The consensus seems to be that the mini business is more lucrative than text-only RPG publishing. I think at times this has created a little anxiety on the part of the RPG community as to the future of their hobby. Right now, with the popularity of miniature gaming and collectible card games (not to mention the growth of MMORPGs), it sometimes seems that traditional RPGs are in danger of being overshadowed or swept from the field by their cardstock and tin counterparts. Certainly a majority of the announcements coming out of GTS seemed to focus more on CCGs and miniature games than on RPGs.

(Unrelated note: Battlestar Galactica RPG. Please. Yes, I know about the fan projects on the web. That's not what I want. I want a well thought out and well supported, gritty, low-tech BSG roleplaying game sold in glossy thick volumes replete with pictures of the cast and sets, and tons of additional official technical details and background. I'd play it. My wife would probably even play it. And where are the neat, lavishly illustrated technical books for the new BSG series? Star Wars is rotten with them, and compared to BSG the tech in Star Wars only seems plausible if you've taken a nasty blow to the head.)

Overall though, I think that RPG fans don't have too much to worry about. I don't doubt that the popularity of CCGs and miniature games right now is taking some market- especially on the younger end- from traditional RPG products. I also don't doubt that they are stealing some focus away from roleplaying games in the development schedules of companies like WoTC and others. In the long term though, these games may be what's ensuring that there is still a strong market for RPGs ten or twenty years down the road despite the major threat to every non-electronic hobby presented by the growth in PC and console gaming (not to mention Tivo!).

Miniature games and card games have an appeal to younger gamers that traditional RPGs really can't match. First, they are generally less complicated than RPGs (as a lad, I once had a conversation in a hobby shop with a kid a few years younger who had given up on AD&D because he and his friends couldn't figure out the THAC0 rules. He also pronounced it 'taco'.). Second, despite the predictions made by Back to the Future 2, games where you get to hold something, play with something, or collect something are deeply appealing to our inner shiny-thing collecting ape self. How many roleplayers have a dice collection that looks like a desperate attempt to attract a female magpie? How else to explain the popularity (albeit brief) of pogs?

But while new gamers are likely to become attracted to card and mini games, it seems that many of them will eventually the same compulsion that led Gygax and Co to move from miniatures into actual RPGs. It becomes much less fun to spend money on collectible games when it's your cash, rather than mom and dad's. And while pushing minis around a table or stacking cards can certainly be interesting, there's no story there, and if you're interested in the world that forms the background for the game (and a lot of games seem to be creating a fairly extensive background for their CCGs and standalone miniatures), you're ultimately going to want more. In the long term, miniature and CCG markets feed RPG markets. A gamer that no longer has time or inclination to shop for and tote around miniatures may well enjoy sitting around the gaming table with some friends, some dice, and some beer.

Which leads me to believe that we can expect the announcement of a Dreamblade game from WoTC sometime in the next couple years, assuming that the line overcomes the initial risks and becomes a viable product. The background material is scant right now, so it's hard to tell if there is a full game in there or not. It's quite possible that WoTC will treat it much like Legend of the Five Rings; a supplement/expansion for an existing line (likely a psychic powers expansion for d20 Modern), combined with farming out work to another company to produce some additional supplements.

Monday, March 27, 2006

OWA Review at RPGnet

My review of the Old World Armoury has been published on RPGnet, if you would like to read it again for some reason.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review: Old World Armoury (WFRP)

Old World Armoury: Militaria & Miscellania
Design and Writing: Robert Schwalb
Hardcover, 128 pages
Publisher: Black Industries (June 2005)
Overview: A perusal of WFRP-related message boards and mailing lists will reveal a running dispute over the quality and status of Old World Armoury. Some players regard it as one of the best supplements available for 2nd edition WFRP, and rank it just after the indispensable Old World Bestiary in terms of utility and importance. Other players see the OWA as one of, if not the, weakest publications to emerge from Black Industries since the revival of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in 2005.

How you feel about the OWA likely has a lot to do with your expectations going in. If you're expecting an equipment book in the d20 model- with lots of new buffing gear, special rules and materials, and tons of new game mechanics- you're likely to be disappointed. Despite its ostensible focus on weapons, armor, and equipment, OWA is a very crunch-light book. On the other hand, if you're primarily interested in expanding the detail and color of your WFRP campaign, and regard any additional rules and crunch as a bonus, OWA is likely to be much more up your alley.

A few notable problems do persist throughout Old World Armoury. More than any of the other books released in BI's first year, OWA feels like it suffered a little bit from the aggressive publication schedule that Black Industries has pursued. Typos abound in the text- most of them apparently cases where a spell-check program made an incorrect replacement, and a human reader never caught the gaff. None of them interfere with the reader's understanding of the text, but tightly-wound copy editors reading the OWA should expect to spend some time grinding their teeth.

The second book-wide problem that persists in OWA is one that was first noticed by some players after the publication of the core book. Particularly in light of the wage listings given in both the core book and OWA, many players feel that the prices for many common goods (such as slings and rowboats) are grossly inflated- by a factor of 10 or more.

This has turned into one of those polarizing issues on the WFRP boards that gaming geeks love to turn red in the face over- on the order of the great 'would the Federation be able to beat the Empire' debates of the previous decades. And just like most of these debates, it's largely pointless. By and large, if you are just running a game and not worrying about the internal consistency of marginalia, you will never encounter any sort of real problem with the pricing lists. If you're intent on running a more detailed chronicle, say running a business and keeping track of every hay-penny your players spend, you might find yourself stressing out over the fact that, according to the published rules, only an Elector Counts can afford to buy or furnish a house, and only if he buys a small house and does it a little at a time.

Fortunately, the WFRP community has already rushed to solve this problem: a revised pricing table for the OWA have already appeared, re-adjusting the list prices to better please the low-fantasy cheering section, as well as folks like myself that just feel that a slightly 'deflationary' WFRP economy feels a little more realistic and satisfying.

Encumbrance has some of the same issues as pricing: some people think that the current system is terribly broken and needs a major revision, while others find it a silly concern. If you were bothered by this in the core book, you will not be any less bothered by OWA. If this Encumbrance problem is news to you, than you have nothing to worry about. For the Encumbrance-afflicted, a quick glance through the BI forums will produce a number of detailed fixes, as well as a minor solution that is now part of the official Q&A/FAQ.

The Nitty Gritty: Chapter I, Currency & Trade, deals with exchange rates, merchants, and other 'big' economic issues. The section on the coinage of different realms is a nice opportunity to inject some 'local color' into a WFRP game. The map of Old World trade routes is a welcome addition; while it doesn't provide great detail, it at least gives some idea of how ocean voyages might likely proceed, and which cities or nations are in direct contact with one another- information that is given additional detail in the Trade Centers section of the chapter.

Short blurbs on a number of merchant houses provide the bare nub of some adventure ideas; they would require quite a bit of development and additional detail to become useful, but the names and broad outlines are there. Another section that feels a little short-changed is the trade goods section. A table of prices for different sorts of goods is given, but there is no information on the relative demand, availability, or geographic origins of theses products. Some of this can be guessed from the prices and the descriptions of the trade centers in the text, but a little bit more detail would have gone a long way towards creating a fuller picture of trade in the Old World, and setting up some outlines for a GM or players interested in running a trading/merchant-style game- a bit of WFRP meets 'Tramp Freighters'.

The barter rules provided in this chapter are distinctly odd. They regard anything with the same availability as essentially equivalent, despite differences in price, materials, labor required, etc. It certainly makes for fast resolution, but it seems like it creates the potential for some very unrealistic trades. I think most GMs who chose to deal with barter will prefer to create their own system that takes the price and other qualities of the item into account.

Chapter II: Old World Armour begins the equipment shopping spree in earnest. The focus here is on added detail and color rather than introducing new equipment and game mechanics. Two new armor types are introduced (studded leather and scale mail) which offer some minor advantages over the existing leather and chain armors in exchange for added weight and cost. The section on studded leather is worded a little confusingly; studded leather costs as much or more as leather and has equal encumbrance, but it must be worn over leather armor, giving a total of 2 AP for the locations involved. It also can't be worn beneath other armor. Why this couldn't be boiled down to 'studded leather gives 2 AP and can't be worn with any other armor' is a mystery to me. Detailed descriptions of the various armor components available give a bit more information and 'local color' than those in the core book, detailing regional variants and common practices.

The heraldry section presents the opportunity to work some more realism and world details into a campaign, providing extensive information about heraldric symbols used in the Old World, and the insignia of the major cities and counties of the Empire. Players can create their own personal hearaldry, if they desire, and GMs can give recurring antagonists or allies a distinctive 'look'. The chapter rounds out with an armor damage system, recycled from a v1 expansion, that adds some extra oomph and detail to combat.

Chapter III deals with weapons, and like Chapter II sees them primarily in terms of new details and expanded description. A few new-ish weapons are introduced (the garrotte, and some regional variants on axes and swords), but most of the chapter is given over to discussing non-mechanical variants on the weapons presented in the core book. Optional rules for distinguishing between high-Craftsmanship hand weapons are introduced, as well as rules for weapon breakage.

I was pleased to see the return of weapon and armor damage in chapters II and III. I've always felt that the Warhammer world is one in which possessions are, at best, temporary, and the damage system definitely gives that feeling to the game. I would have liked to see Craftsmanship having some effect on weapon and armor breakage; fortunately, WFRPist Dave Graffam has produced some homebrew armory rules that do just that.

Chapter IV gets into gunpowder weapons, and also deals briefly with weapons for large-scale combat. There is additional description of the specifics of different types of firearms, but no detailed rules to deal with the difference between, say, wheelock and matchlock weapons, or an indication of where they come into play. Some rules for keeping matches lit, and their tendency to alert others (particularly animals) to the presence of the firearm wielder would have been welcome; instead, I've found myself turning to an old GURPS book for added information on pre-modern firearms.

An advanced misfire table provides some added details and potentially dangerous fun for GMs whose players are eager to get ahold of some gunpowder weapons. They're not quite as colorful as the rules given in the v1 Warhammer Companion, but they're still a solid addition. The section on war machines is short, and mostly confined to description (diffusing the anxiety of certain veteran WFRP players (dare I say 'grognards'? Dare I nest parenthesis?)), with actual stats given only for a few of the less-lethal weapons likely to be operated by (or pointed at) players.

Chapter V and VI carry us through General Equipment and Special Equipment. Here we see again the strengths and weaknesses of the Old World Armoury laid out. There are lots of bits of equipment that give more depth to the setting, and which might even come in handy if your party is furnishing a house. Additional details about the make, color, and use of different sorts of clothing lend themselves to more detailed character descriptions, and using clothing as a more detailed indication of social status. Unfortunately, there are also a good number of items that are direct repeats from the equipment section given in the core book, and a number of items that seem to be of little use to the player or GM. Will anyone ever really need to know the exact price and encumbrance capacity of a bucket? Is there anyone who is unclear on what a footstool is?

The Special Equipment section ostensibly deals in items slightly more exotic than those in the preceding chapter, but many of them (such as lucky talismans and cheap herbal poultices) aren't really less common than anything in Chapter V. Again, we have a mix of new gear (including new poisons, droughts, some religious trappings, and various anti-poison measures), as well as a number of items carried over from the core book equipment.

Chapter VII is focused on animals and transportation. Again, some stats are repeated from the main WFRP book. Additional pricing and other information for overland and water travel are included, as well as rules for combat while in motion. The information on local cart tracks and minor roads was welcome- I always thought that road maps of the Empire looked a little sparse.

The bulk of Chapter VIII is given over to a rules system for running your own business. I will readily confess to having given this section only a brief read. It's the sort of thing that will immediately become the center of the campaign for some groups, and never merit a second glance for others. The mechanics seem reasonable enough, and for some players it might be fun to take some time off of dungeon crawling and intriguing to run Dad's tannery for a while. It's also a potential source of adventure plots for the GM- a little bit of Grand Theft Auto-style business running/mayhem to take everyone's mind off the goblins and beastmen.

Chapter IX deals with hirelings and henchmen. The big bonus here is a wide selection of NPC stats at various levels of power, ready for a GM to drop into a game as opponents or allies. The table of quirks can help flesh out NPCs a little, and the loyalty rules provide a not-too-onerous mechanism for keeping track of the loyalty and compliance of hired help pushed beyond their limits. The range of expected duties here is spelled out very well, making it clear that players shouldn't be hiring a bodyguard in the hopes of using him as extra muscle in a fight against a gang of trolls.

The advanced medical treatment rules presented here are another minor rules tweak that provides a good deal of color and realism for the game. On the downside, they do significantly increase the deadliness and potential for permanent injury already inherent in the WFRP system; unless you're really sure that you have a good doctor or barber, you might be better off with a broken arm than with a visit to the infirmary.

Chapter X rounds out the book with some information about treasure. Don't expect D&D-style "10d6x200 gold" treasure tables; instead, we have a modest selection of collectors-item coins, and some guidelines for the values of gems, jewelry, and various home furnishings that the eager looter might stuff in his sack.

Conclusions: Old World Armoury is, in many ways, a great expansion to WFRP. It fills in a lot of little details that have been MIA since version 1 was out, ensuring that equipment lists for PCs and NPCs aren't reduced to little traveling weapon racks. The added regional details- trade, heraldry, fashion, etc.- can be added to any campaign, resulting in a world that is a lot more detailed and real than most generic fantasy settings. This sort of detail and specificity has long been one of the strongest points in favor of WFRP over other fantasy roleplaying games.

On the other hand, there are some weaknesses in the OWA that are hard to ignore. There are simply too many things repeated from the main rulebook. While I can understand the desire to have everything in one place, is there really a need to reprint, more or less verbatim:

  • Encumbrance rules
  • Availability rules
  • Craftsmanship rules
  • Starvation rules
  • Drunkenness rules
  • The melee and missile weapon tables
  • All the pieces of personal equipment from the core book
  • Stats for horses, dogs, ravens, and various other animals

That's just too much duplication, and it leaves the reader feeling like there isn't that much in OWA that is really and truly new (particularly since all the tables appear again in the appendix!). It's particularly irritating when there are several sections- the gunpowder section, the merchant houses, and the trade goods info- that could have legitimately benefitted from additional new material.

The good news is that most of the new mechanics that were added in OWA are all nice additions to the game- the hireling rules, weapon and armor damage, and the more detailed medical treatment. The expanded personal equipment listings are great for giving a little more detail and color to a character, but are unlikely to change your game in major ways. Overall, the OWA is a great book for players and GMs who want to bring as much detail as possible to their characters and campaign world, but a much less attractive choice for gamers just looking for lots of cool new practical equipment.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review: The Life of Sigmar

The Life of Sigmar
Author: Matt Raplph
Hardcover, 96 pages
Publisher: BL Publishing/Games Workshop (December 2005)

Overview: Author Matt Ralph's The Life of Sigmar is a collection of moral tales and legends about the divine founder of the Warhammer Fantasy Empire, Sigmar Heldenhammer. Several of the stories contained within- such as Sigmar's rescue of a Dwarfen king, or the Battle of Black Fire Pass, are established parts of the Warhammer cannon that are being fleshed out for the first time. Other legends are newly minted, and fill in gaps in the narrative of Sigmar's rise to power and the founding of the Empire. The Life of Sigmar presents itself as an example of the type of book that might be rolling of the first printing presses in the Empire in the present day of the campaign setting- its title page proclaims that it was printed in Altdorf in 2520 IC with the blessings of the Emperor, and a Printer's Introduction provides a little context for the stories.

Eleven stories of varying length are contained in the book, as well as an appendix that provides labels and explanations for the small illustrations that appear throughout the text. Six full-page black and white illustrations depict significant events in Sigmar's life, as well as a pictorial summary of Sigmar's life and a map of the tribal territories of the age of Sigmar at the front of the book.

The Good: Particularly for WFRP players and GMs, The Life of Sigmar does an excellent job of providing some additional color for the Warhammer world. The myths and stories that it contains can be used as the basis of some 'common culture' for characters from the Empire. Most Imperials would have heard most of these stories growing up, and Sigmarite preachers might make reference to them when delivering sermons. This is a big boon for WFRP fans, helping the Old World feel like more of a 'real' place with its own culture and history.

Each individual story does a fairly good job of illustrating some aspect of Sigmar's character, or provides some sort of instructional moral lesson. This makes it easier to see why this sort of book might appear in the Empire, and also provides opportunities to refer to the book in the course of play. It also does a good job of paying attention to the most significant events that are mentioned in the Warhammer games. The Battle of Black Fire Pass is given particular attention, and enough is shown of Sigmar's shrewd tactics in uniting the Human tribes of the Empire to make it seem plausible that he would be able to create a united- if not always unified- empire out of the tribes of the Old World.

The Bad: The writing within The Life of Sigmar varies somewhat in quality. At times, a proper mythical tone is maintained, particularly when describing Big Events and mighty actions. During these periods, it's easy to believe that you really are reading a book of myths published in the Empire and drawing on thousand year-old sources. However, there are a number of times- particularly during dialogue between Sigmar and his cohorts- when the writing sounds jarringly modern, more like something lifted out of one of Black Library's Warhammer pulp novels, and less like an ancient religious text. I imagine that the publishers wanted to avoid putting off potential readers who might be turned away by too much heavy-sounding prose and weird, archaic words. Instead, I found myself distracted by the anachronistically modern dialogue (particularly, for some reason, a Dwarven king using the word 'galvanize'). Moments like this really intruded on the atmosphere for me. Myths should read like myths.

Second, there are some stories in the book that are either under-realized or drawn out far too long. It's reasonable to spend a good deal of time on Black Fire Pass, a watershed event in the history of the Empire. But while most of the major events in Sigmar's life are given a good going over, his receipt of the hammer Ghal Maraz from King Ironbeard is reduced to a single line at the end of the chapter about Sigmar rescuing the king from Orcish captors. Not nearly enough is made of the introduction into the story of one of the most important pieces of Sigmarite iconography in the game- not to mention the namesake of the Warhammer world itself!

Another disappointing story in the book is the encounter between Sigmar and the necromancer Nagash. Weighing in at slightly less than 4 pages of text, this story is so woefully underdeveloped that one has to wonder why it was included at all. After three pages of introduction- much of it relating to Sigmar's acquisition of the Crown of Sorcery- the actual confrontation between Nagash and Sigmar occurs in two sentences- neither of them particularly long or descriptive. Here's a summary: Nagash tries to take the crown of sorcery. Sigmar hits him with his hammer. Nagash flees. Actually, I'm not sure that it can be called a summary, since it contains all the information in the story, and is nearly as long.

Overall: Though marred by a couple of weak stories and occasional tone problems, The Life of Sigmar does a great job of fleshing out the myths and background of the Old World. The book itself is a neat little physical artifact that you can easily imagine sitting in the pack of a WFRP player character, and the stories and myths that it contains will enable enterprising players and GMs to spike their in-game dialogue with references to the shared mythical heritage of the citizens of the Empire. Overall, a solid addition to the flavor and tone of the Warhammer world, and quite intriguing for gamers interested in the Empire.

Buy The Life of Sigmar at

Yet More 40KRP Details

Another dispatch from the GTS front.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

40KRP: A Few More Details

Few more details about the release schedule and supplements for the 40k RPG emerging from the GAMA Trade Show posted here. Seems that in the 18 month gap (!) between the release of the three main games, we can expect 4-6 supplements and some web material. That comes out to four years before we'll see the release of the final core game book (apparently dealing with the elite marines of the Deathwatch unit), with between 10 and 14 books in publication before the last core game hits the shelves.

The schedule presents some interesting problems in itself. While older gamers and fans of the Inquisitor game will probably be most interested by the Inquisitor-type and Rogue Trader games, younger games and new players will most likely be drawn primarily to the opportunity to play a Space Marine, and will not be too happy with the early games if there aren't opportunities along these lines introduced in the first couple of games. BI must be pretty confident that the enthusiasm for a 40k RPG will overcome the 'wait and see' tendencies of gamers that realize that there is quite a bit of cash that will have to be put forth to pick up books in each line. I'm also wondering how they will handle the three core books; putting all the core rules in each book would optimize people being able to focus just on the game that they're most interested in, but would involve duplicating a lot of material and irritating players who want to try out more than one game. On the other hand, taking the d20 "the D&D Player's Handbook is required to play this game about telekinetic ninjas in a futuristic dystopia" approach could elicit some groans from folks who don't want to lay out the cash for, say, Dark Heresy just so they can play Rogue Trader.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out, and we can look forward to a full year of speculation and rumors in the meantime.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Warhammer 40k RPG Announced

Press release posted on Black Industries page today announced the publication, at long last, of a Warhammer 40,000 RPG, titled Dark Heresy. There's been a lot of speculation on the forums that a 40k RPG was waiting in the wings; the mention of the 40k property in the early announcements from BI and Green Ronin made it sound like a likely outcome.

From the press release, it sounds like the RPG will probably be borrowing a bit from Games Workshop's Inquisitor skirmish game, which had a fair number of RPG elements to it when it came out. Future expansions- oddly described as "two further games"- will revisit the Rogue Traders of the early, early days of 40k, as well as one of the branches of the Space Marines (the elite Deathwatch marines).

Over the years there have been several unofficial attempts to create a 40k ruleset. Some have used the WFRP system (which will be the basis for the new BI game), and some have used homebrew systems, or other published rulesets (there's at least one d20 conversion floating out there on the net). One of the big issues that always comes up is scale. While certain games (Ars Magica, Buffy, and to a lesser degree WFRP) have dealt more or less successfully with having player characters of wildly differing power levels in the same game, 40k presents a more serious challenge. Players drawn in from the 40k tabletop game are going to want to play the types of critters that they've seen in their armies. But characters like Space Marines are a far cry more powerful than the sorts of characters to be depicted in the first version of the 40k RPG rules- members of an Inquisitor's warband. It will be interesting to see how BI handles the scaling issues- this may be why they're referring to the expansions for the 40k RPG as separate games.

An interesting development, though certainly not unexpected. I'm eager to see more details about what Dark Heresy is going to look and play like. Just as long as it doesn't push back the schedule for any WFRP products... ;)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hilarious Video

Posted to several forums over the last couple days: Fear of Girls.

Friday, March 10, 2006

More on the Trouble with Psionics

Hot on the heels of my rant about new magic systems in D&D and the problem of psionics, we have this article from the "Save my Game" column on Wizard's site. It seems that even the design team is aware that there are some problems in the proliferation of new 'magic' systems in the D&D world.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Breaking Up is Hard To Do

So I dropped out of a play-by-post game the other day that had been going nowhere for nearly 6 months. I find that leaving a bad online game is like getting out of a bad relationship. You linger around longer than you should, thinking that things will get better and hoping to avoid a confrontation. At times, you rededicate yourself to just making it work and put more effort into it than it really warrants. Finally, you found yourself reverting to childish, passive aggressive behavior: lets see how long it takes the GM to notice that I posted something that he never replied to. Maybe I'll just stay real quiet and see if they all notice that I've gone. They'll miss me when I'm gone... You become the RPG equivalent of a bad high school girlfriend, drawing out the inevitable the summer after graduation (great quote from an unknown TV show I flipped past the other day: "Long distance relationships are a lie high school kids use to get laid the summer before college").

Every bad play-by-post or play-by-email game is slightly different, but most of them have one thing in common: the GM. Sure, crappy players can make for crappy gaming, but my experience is that game-ruining GMs outnumber game-ruining players by at least 10 to 1. Of course, a bad GM has an advantage in screwing up a game; while the game can work around any number of defective players and still survive, a bad GM or DM brings everything to a screeching and immediate halt. Liber Fanatica tackled the topic of online gaming in WFRP in their third volume, providing hints and tips on organizing and running online games. Here's my companion advice.

How to Run a Terrible Play-by-Post or Play-by-Email RPG

  • Write Like Sling Blade: Not everyone is a great writer. Not everyone is a great real-life Gamemaster. Ideally, a great online GM should be a little of both, but in a pinch I'd take a better writer over most other things. Players rely on the GM more than usual for description and to set the scene in an online game. While there might be a map to look at, there aren't miniatures, player handouts, or books to look at. Furthermore, the pace of online games means that a GM who leaves out important details from his descriptions is going to bring the game to a halt while players either a) pester him for more information, or b) attempt actions that don't make any sense because they don't understand the situation (Player: I attack the orc. GM: Um... The Orc is in the room next door.). Finally, the GM is likely to be doing more writing than anyone else in the game, and it's simply painful to have to look at screen after screen of confusing, misspelled, a-gramatical drivel. I'm not a wunderkind among spellers myself, but honestly folks, it's 2006. My microwave oven has spell check, and if you're playing an online RPG so do you.
  • Constantly Surrender the Initiative to Players: Nothing kills the pace of a game faster than a GM who insists on pausing any time a player has failed to respond to the latest post or request in a timely fashion. I once watched a game wither and die before my eyes as the DM sat back and waited for each and every player to roll a Reflex save. His commitment to player participation was such that he let his board go inactive and let the game sit for over a week waiting for every single character to take the hint and log in, rather than use the character sheets that he had to make the roll for the laggards and move the game forward. If a player has forgotten to make a particular roll make it for them. Yes, it's good to let players participate in these sorts of things (some people continue to see rolling the dice as the most exciting part of playing RPGs. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But one word for you folks: Yahtzee.), but not at the expense of the pace and momentum of the game. Likewise, if players aren't responding to an "open-ended" message at all, it's generally a sign that they aren't sure what to do and are waiting for more instructions or details from the GM. While really character/player driven games might work for experienced players who have been together for a while, online games need some help in finding and keeping direction, particularly in the early stages. If things aren't moving, give them a push rather than let them flounder.
  • Make Players Wait on You: In a related issue, GMs need to be mindful that their participation is what makes the game keep going. If a game seems to have stalled, go through your messages with a fine-toothed comb, making sure that you have answered every question that has come to you OOC, that all the NPCs that you are running have responded appropriately to the players, and that every player action that requires your attention or intervention has been resolved. Make particularly sure that you have done your research before you complain to players about the rate of play. In the game I recently left, twice(!) in the span of as many weeks the DM complained that no-one was posting, and I had to point out that I had posted something days before that he had never responded to.
  • Overcommit Yourself: Any time I see a new game forming that advertises that they are looking for more than about 6 players, I move on past. The larger, more ambitious the plan for an online game is, the greater the odds that one of two things will go terribly wrong. Either the sheer number of players will bog things down, as everyone sits back and waits for character creation and other pre-play rules diddling to be completed, or the GM will realize that he has bit off far more than he can chew and quietly slip out the back door while the players are talking among themselves. GMs new to play-by-post often have grandiose notions of what they can accomplish in an online game. They don't realize the effort involved in keeping even a small game running, and that running a game (particularly on a large scale) involves a commitment of many, many months- during some of which the game may not seem to be making much progress at all.
  • Draw Out Combat: A hard one to avoid at times, especially if you're intent on keeping players involved in the game, but... A player I know pointed out that most of the games that he has been in tend to die off during the first combat encounter of the game. The reason, more often than not, is that the person running the game is trying too hard to directly translate the experience of running combat around a table to combat on the computer. Each player rolls initiative. Each player declares actions and rolls to hit, or what have you. Players decide if they are going to parry or dodge attacks aimed at them. Players roll saves and damage. Six months later, you have one lightly wounded goblin and a one dead game. Speed things up when the swords come out. Roll for players when you need to. Have them send you multi-round strategies instead of individual actions. Focus on narrating the combat, rather than resolving each individual cut and parry. You may have to take some tactical decisions out of the players hands in order to make it work, but it beats having to look for new players.
  • Make It Up as you Go Along: Yes, it's easier to improvise a game online than it is around the kitchen table. Yes, you have more time to figure out what your next move is going to be, and plan for your players unexpected responses. No, that doesn't mean that a worthwhile gaming experience will materialize in your lap simply because you posted an advertisement for players. Games that are improvised without a strong, detailed setting that the players and GM can fall back on are predisposed towards stagnating. At best, they degenerate into a series of meaningless encounters that aren't tied together by anything, and that scream "generic fantasy setting" at passing pedestrians. At worst, they just grind to a halt when no-one knows what to do for sure, and the GM realizes that his initial germ of an idea has played itself out without giving rise to any new or interesting possibilities for the players.

As is always the case, this is not an exhaustive list of ways to fail.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Churn, Baby, Churn

An interview with Matthew Sernett, the developer of the new Tome of Magic supplement from Wizards was posted to the official D&D site yesterday. I haven't seen the new book, and frankly everything that I've seen about it has left me lukewarm at best. This excerpt from the interview pretty much sums up my problems with this sort of supplement:
Wizards:Tome of Magic looks to be three entire concepts rolled into a single sourcebook: pact magic, shadow magic and truename magic; in fact, each section has its own layout. Essentially, are these new magical elements that can be incorporated by existing spellcasting classes and with exiting systems (core spellcasting, psionics, incarnum)? Or are these separate systems, with their own core classes?

Matthew: Each is a new system with a core class yes,...

Sernett goes on to say that all of the systems in the new book can be integrated into existing characters without bending over backwards, but doesn't offer any concrete examples of how this would work. Hmm.

When TSR brought out The Complete Psionicist back in the day, there was a whole essay in the front of the book devoted to "Why does D&D need another magic system anyway?". The author's conclusion was: "It doesn't. But this is something altogether different. We swear." They got the first part pretty much right; the second half was a bit of a punt, from where I sit.

Psionics has never settled too well into D&D, from what I've seen. The Darksun campaign setting did the best job of it, and did so by pushing psionics into the forefront of the setting. That's been pretty much the only real attempt at integrating them solidly into the core of D&D. Coverage of psionics in the present iteration of the Forgotten Realms setting has been minimal; the new Eberron setting placed most of the major psionics in the world on a yet-to-be-detailed continent, finally making a geographical divide out of the metaphorical one that has existed for years. Browse advertisements for new online or local games on the Internet, and the 'no psionics' restriction will peep out at you time and again.

The problem is that despite what The Complete Psionicist said back in the day, psionics really is just another form of magic in most D&D games. 3rd Edition made that more explicit than usual by having saves and other magical effects work identically with psionics, rather than burden down the core game with psionics-specific rules. And then the question returns: why does D&D need another magic system?

The answer: in most people's eyes, it doesn't. Learning a new system takes time and energy that most gamers have in short supply, and most of these new systems don't offer that much more bang for your considerable mental and literal bucks. In a bookstore one day, I found myself flipping through Magic of Incarnum, another book similar in flavor to the new Tome of Magic. Partway through the introductory pages, my eyes were glazing over. Chakra points? Soulmelds? Essentia? No thanks. I don't want to have to learn a whole new vocabulary just to drop a new resource into my game. And even if I did spend my time learning how to use these new systems, what would I do with them then? Most DMs have had at least one nightmare about players constantly trying to squeeze new expansions into their game, forcing furious attempts to make sure that the new system doesn't open gaping new holes in the rules or upset the delicate balance of their campaign- meaning that 'no incarnum' is soon to join 'no psionics' on the 'Most Popular Character Creation Restrictions' short list.

Wizards seems to think that there is a market for this sort of expansion. I certainly prefer it to bumping the version numbers on rule systems, but I don't think it will be finding a place on my shelf anytime soon.

Review: Death's City (mild spoilers)

The new installment in the Warhammer series begun with Death's Messenger, Death's City follows Rudi, Hanna, and Fritz as they try to make their way in the bustling port city of Marienburg. Along the way, they'll encounter new allies and foes, as well as some familiar faces from their home in the village of Kohlstadt.

Death's Messenger was brought out at about the same time as the new version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and tried to tell a story that captured the more gritty and low-level feel of the roleplaying game, rather than the massed battles and god-like figures that dominate Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k. Death's City continues this trend, focusing on the lives of three small-town kids making their way in the big city; it also seems to intend to stay as close as possible to the WFRP rules, seeing at least two of the characters in the book undergo a 'career change', the normal method for advancement in WFRP games. Rudi goes from being a rustic Woodsman to being the newest member of the Marienburg city Watch; Fritz makes the transition from simple-minded militiaman to simple-minded bodyguard.

Whatever else can be said about Death's City, it certainly doesn't drag. Weighing in at almost 400 pages, the combination of fairly large print and frequent action means that the book will make for only a little more than an evening's reading for fast readers. The characters certainly develop from where they were left in Death's Messenger, but at times those transformations seem like a bit much. Rudi's transformation from a somewhat hapless country boy to an unstoppable combatant is particularly odd, though author Sandy Mitchell may be either trying to imply some sort of supernatural intervention on his behalf, or simply mirroring the rather abrupt advancement that RPG-style character development can produce.

While these minor bumps can wrankle, overall the pages keep turning and the story remains engaging. The picture of Marienburg painted is somewhat anachronistic, though still overall conforming to Warhammer's 'low fantasy' roleplay setting. It also made me repeatedly kick myself for missing my opportunity to pick up Anthony Ragan's Marienburg: Sold Down the River sourcebook several years back, when I finally heard about Hogshead's new WFRP publications. The book ends without the sort of wrenching cliff hanger that ended Death's Messenger, but gives enough new insight into the mysteries surrounding Rudi's birth that I was still eager to see where the series was going.

Overall, Mitchell's Death's City is a fine addition to the Black Library's WFRP-focused publishing series, and an enjoyable way to pass an evening or so. WFRP fans might be particularly pleased to see the nuts and bolts of their game represented well in print, providing novice GMs with some notion of how career changes and advancement can work in practice. We also get some additional flavor about Marienburg and the Wasteland, and confirmation that Solkan (one of the Law gods from WFRP v1) hasn't yet been consigned to the Great Warp (though there's no telling if this will be actual canon for Black Industries future efforts.

Buy Death's City or Death's Messenger from Amazon.


Greetings, and welcome to my humble gaming blog. Having previously spent some time venting my spleen on political issues, I've finally decided to give the people what they've been awaiting with baited breath: a blog that tackles the tough issues of modern society, such as reviewing new RPG products that I get my hands on, and marking snarky comments about publishers. Whereas munkipox is my personal soapbox to push my devious political agenda, Small but Vicious Blog is my opportunity to wax eloquent about the interest in roleplaying games, fantasy novels, and sci-fi that I developed as an adolescent and have since been unable to shake- despite several medical interventions.

I am a Nothing in Particular by trade. I've worked as a computer programmer, a teacher, and a graveyard shift stock boy during the past decade, and very nearly went for a PhD in the study of religion at one point. I've played RPG's since I was 10 years old, cutting my teeth on Palladium's line of games, and moving quickly into 2nd Edition AD&D, Shadowrun, WEG's Star Wars line, and my lasting love, WFRP. I currently spend more time playing online than in the real world, running and participating in play-by-email and play-by-post games of the new WFRPv2 and 3rd Edition D&D.

Things that I plan on posting here include:
  • Reviews of new (or semi-new) RPG material.

  • Reviews of fantasy and sci-fi novels.

  • General chatter about Sci-fi and/or fantasy TV and movies.

  • Thoughts on gaming, the RPG industry, Internet gaming, etc.

  • Non-fictional material relating in some strange way, in my estimation, to these topics.

Actual gaming material also remains a possibility; I've created a few rules, adventures, NPC's, and other bits and bobs in my day- mostly for WFRP of late- that may or may not show up at some point in the future here or elsewhere.

Things that probably won't show up here include:
  • Tirades directed at the government or other political figures, unless the War on Terror is soon to be followed by the War on Twenty-sided Dice.

  • Video games- console or PC based. I play them. I like them. I haven't got that much to say about them.

  • MMORPG's, except as they relate to traditional, book-and-dice based gaming. I've just never gotten into them.

Questions and Answers:
Q: Why should we care what you have to say?
A: While I lack what might be technically termed 'credentials', my mother often tells me that I am insightful and amusing. She also once hinted that she flattered me because she thought I might just be a cunning sociopath. And besides- The Power of Christ Compels You!

Q: Small but Vicious Blog?
A: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) has long been one of my favorite games. The Ratcatcher, a foul-smelling peasant employed to keep large psuedo-Renaissance cities free of diseased vermin, has long been one of the iconic WFRP characters for fans of the game. One of his most important pieces of equipment, as laid down in both versions of WFRP, is a Small but Vicious Dog. Yes, it is a terrible "joke", but blogs are like barbershop quartets: the ideal name is one that makes you smile the first time you hear it, and gets less and less funny every time after that.

There we are. Enjoy.