Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Slick as S**t through a Goose

SO…my apologies to, well, everyone. The last week and more has been spent obsessing over World Cup action. Many of my American and Canadian readers aren’t going to understand this, I realize…heck, ten years ago I didn’t get it either. But like sushi or steak tartar…or really ANY spectator sport…soccer is an acquired taste, and a frigging addictive one once you do “get” it.

Funny thing is, the U.S. used to be big into soccer back before the sport went professional. Hell, we went to the semi-finals in the first World Cup (1930) and were retroactively awarded 3rd place in the event by FIFA (at the time, there was no 3rd place award). That places the U.S. ahead of Mexico (whom we have a good history of beating in the tournament) for World Cup achievement, despite the latter country’s long history of passion for the sport.

In fact, it appears the only reason soccer died off in the U.S. is the rise of professional “American” football during the 30s and 40s (see the film Leatherheads for a fairly decent look at the early years of the NFL) at a time when FIFA was on hiatus due to World War II. If not for pro-football (that’s American football, Brits) and Nazi Germany, the U.S. might have become the same kind of powerhouse that Brazil is today. Don’t laugh…we won quite a few Olympic medals in the sport prior to the founding of FIFA. And the U.S. loves to throw money at their world domination of, well, everything.

ANYway…let’s talk about games other than soccer for a minute. I have in front of me, four glossy, soft-covers. They are:

- Deathwatch: Final Sanction
- Under the Rose for Exalted (2nd edition)
- Legacy of Disaster for Legend of Five Rings (4th edition)
- Athlon Sports Pro-Football Magazine

The first three are all things I picked up at Gary’s on Free RPG Day last Saturday. The last is a magazine devoted to scouting the NFL (mostly for the purpose of playing “fantasy football”). I’ve been playing fantasy football for about three years now…I’ve been buying Athlon Sports for more than ten. I find it gives me a nice overview of the teams for the upcoming season, plus compared to other “pre-season” magazines, it’s made with quality paper, has good photography, and excellent lay-out.

Of course, the predictions aren’t always the greatest. For example, this year they’re picking the 49ers to win the NFC West…something they’ve been picking three years in a row. I have to think the publishers are either from San Francisco or just downright retarded; I mean come on! Likewise, they’re picking Seattle to come in #2 which means the defending NFC champ (Arizona) isn’t even going to the play-offs? Bizarre.

But actually, this isn’t really a new trend for Athalon Sports. I can trace the beginning of their wonkiness back to the season following the Seattle's Super Bowl XL loss in which, despite ranking all of the ‘Hawks stats as better than the rest, they predicted we would miss the play-offs due to the “Super Bowl Loser Curse.” Ridiculous. Instead, the Seahawks ended up one game out of the Super Bowl, only losing to the eventual NFC representative Bears in Chicago in over-time.

[meanwhile, it was the “defending Champ” Steelers that completely missed the play-offs in the 2006 season…go figure]

So accuracy of predictions is NOT Athlon Sports’ strong suit. And yet, of the four documents in front of me, I find their publication to be the most accurate, most interesting, and most practically useful.

Let’s start with the one I WANTED to like: Deathwatch.

Of all the various game settings that have been created over the years…for ANY game…the Warhammer 40,000 universe is one of my favorites. Especially back in the days prior to 3rd edition 40K (with the introduction of the Tau and Necrons…jeez, undead in space?), it was sci-fi as dark, grim, and gritty as the Warhammer FRP world. O sure…you can use "magic" (psionics), but you might well be possessed by a bloodthirsty demon! And legions of psychotically loyal killer space marines will hunt you down for being an abomination in the Emperor’s sight…

Deathwatch is the 3rd “40K RPG” Games Workshop appears to be releasing, and this one is the somewhat-long-awaited “space marine RPG” (the first two were for Inquisitors and Rogue Traders, special character types dating all the way back to the original 1st edition of the wargame rules). Of course, space marines were never “special characters” like Rogue Traders and Inquisitors in the original wargame…they were grunts. So now we have an RPG where you play a badass grunt.


Okay, aside from the glaring discrepancies in the rules (I’ll give an example or two in a moment), let’s talk about theme/premise. Um…what? The party is a group of hand-picked marines from a variety of space marine chapters put into a special squad and now gunning for the Emperor’s enemies on “special missions?”

Just because you elaborate on the stat-line of your average 40K marine profile does NOT mean you have an RPG. Just because you add a handful of skills doesn’t make it an RPG. The fact that space marines are default “trouble-shooters” (in the literal sense…they are trained to resolve situations with combat), ultimately sets the game up to be all about blasting people…and there’s no elaborate stat-line needed for such a game.

Check out 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars…you can run a Deathwatch game simpler and with more role-playing and pathos using ITS rules than the stuff in this 30 page booklet. Really, honestly.

Of course, 3:16 doesn’t have nifty weapons with “special abilities” (well, abilities other than rolling bunches of dice and blowing xenomorphs all to hell). Take the power fist, for example. It has two abilities that are unique to it (i.e. no other listed weapon has either of these attributes):

- Power field: a field of power wreaths weapons with this quality, increasing their damage and penetration. Such modifiers are already included in the weapon’s profile. When the wielder successfully uses this weapon to parry an attack made with a weapon that lacks this quality, he has a 75% chance of destroying his attacker’s weapon.
- Unwieldy: huge and often top-heavy, Unwieldy weapons are too awkward to be used defensively. Unwieldy weapons cannot be used to parry.

Emphasis added to point out the retarded-ness.

Exalted barely deserves mention…at least, mention bereft of derision. I’ve never played/owned/read ANY edition of Exalted, despite owning half-a-dozen-plus other White Wolf games. I was interested to see what the game was all about.

Apparently it is about elaborate fiction masquerading as an RPG. What the F?

If I wanted to play a game that looked something like Avatar the Last Air Bender, I would probably go with Big Eyes, Small Mouth. This game is just…so…much…dross…ugh! I can’t even wade through all of it just to get to the super-elaborate stat block pre-gens at the end. Apparently, this isn’t an actual Quick-Start offering from White Wolf, but an adventure module for Exalted; you have to own the game to play the adventure (there are no rules printed un Under the Rose). After browsing the adventure, I have no desire to own the game. The over-the-top super-enriched fantasy world is…well, it’s a setting. One that probably deserves an elaborate series of novels or short stories. But NOT one I want to have to study (like taking courses in ancient Mesopotamia) in order to understand how the game is to be played.

There is a huge disconnect going on here, in my opinion. RPGs either provide rules for “adventure creation” (for example: D&D) or provide rules for playing a particular established IP (for example: Star Wars, Firefly). White Wolf is trying to give you the game AND the IP and it’s super-elaborate-as-hell…ugh.

No. No. No. I don’t want it. You can’t make me learn about it. Crap on that.

Finally we have Legend of Five Rings, 4th edition. Like Exalted, L5R is a game I’ve never owned, read, or played. Like Exalted I have heard of it…though I had no idea it was in its 4th edition (they still haven’t gotten all the bugs out yet?! Sheesh!). I know there is a substantial portion of the RPG community that LOVES the whole “samurai-thang.” Personally, I find samurai to have the same level of “interesting role-play potential” as space marines (i.e. not much). Yes, it would be cool to ride around and duel folks with your katana over honor…however, it would seem (to me) to get OLD after awhile. Like that Highlander TV show…how many times do they repeat the formula that ends with someone’s eventual decapitation before you stop watching?

And UN-like Ron Edwards (surprise! My game design hero!) I am NOT interested in exploring the human drama that comes with conflicts of honor mixed with soap opera family conflicts. Sorry, just not all that interested in what RPGs can teach us about the human condition (at least, not when it comes to blade-slinging ronin).

Actually, I found the L5R booklet better than expected. It had good art in a Magic: the Gathering kind of way. The rules provided appeared short and succinct, variations of a couple different games that are escaping my memory right now (perhaps shades of Deadlands). The pre-gen characters had fairly short “stat blocks” than what I anticipated (certainly in comparison to Exalted!). All in all, I was intrigued enough to do a little further research on-line regarding Legend of the Five Rings.

Having said all THAT, I have to say that in the end, I find the game to be kind of dumb. Why not just call it Samurai & Shugenja? After all, that’s all it seems to consist of. Do you want to play a Warrior or a Wizard? A space marine or a psyker? And most any dude between the age of 17 and 30 is going to be laughed out of the table if he belongs to “Clan Unicorn.”

Or perhaps I’m being unnecessarily hard on this game…or all these games for that matter. I admit I’ve been feeling a bit crusty lately, as I’d rather be watching World Cup games than working (and being forced to nip out to the bar across the street to catch scores on the sly).

But really, is THIS what RPGs are coming down to? I mean is this WHERE THE MONEY IS in the RPG industry?

I mean, just look at the common thread. Your "party" is basically a group of ass-kickers (samurai, space marines, “exalted” heroes) with various tweaks to distinguish you from one another (clan, chapter, caste) brought together at the behest of some higher power (daimyo, Emperor, whatever-the-hell-Exalted-has) to perform missions that require ass-kicking.

Lame. I mean really, just…lame.

One commentator either here or on another blog I was reading wrote something about how “if it’s an RPG it should include combat.” Huh? Because playing an RPG is all about playing an ass-kicker of some sort? That’s as stupid as exercising in the gym for the sake of “getting big muscles.” What exactly is it all in aid of?

Again, let me reiterate that, cool and interesting as it might be, I do NOT generally play RPGs for catharsis or therapy or to address the drama of the human condition. But I DO play them and enjoy them for something else…stretching the imagination. And there’s nothing fantastically imaginative about ass-kicking with dice. Go play a fucking video game, chumps.

I mean, really. Have you seen what’s available on the console these days? Plenty of cool games that allow you to adventure through a linear environment, ass-kicking in many graphically enhanced ways, with guns and without, acting in concert with other players or alone. What the hell do you need an RPG for if that’s all you want to do?

All right, I’ve wandered a bit off topic. Just to bring it back for the moment, understand that I hold table-top RPGs in hella’ high esteem, and if the three games I picked up at Free RPG Day are an indication of the general mold of commercial games being issued these days…well, that’s a bloody shame, that's what it is. But, whatever…this blog post is not any kind of attempt at resolving the issue, it’s just me venting my opinions about the nicely printed free booklets I picked up on Saturday.

Well, that and me taking a break from all this soccer watching.
; )


  1. Deathwatch is the 40K RPG that interests me the least. Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader hold far more interest for me... though in Rogue Trader you now get a license to trade, so I'm wondering where the whole "rogue" part comes in, but that's another story I suppose.

    I think you might be onto something with the direction commercial RPGs are taking. Look at 4e. Wouldn't you expect the other companies to follow where the Big Dog is going?

    For me, rpgs used to be about stories. These days, they are more about exploration and interaction and solving problems. I think I understand what you mean with this post, minus the soccer part. (I don't care for any type of sport, though.)

  2. Here's a bright spot to cheer you up... my grandson is 9. I know the Moldvay edition recommends 10 and up, but hey, he's 9. :) Anyway, he has been playing Savage Worlds with his parents, his sister (6) and my wife (his grandma) for about a year. He also plays HeroScape, but I digress. Anyway, he's just now figuring out that grandpa is imagining all these stories. Sure, I'll borrow a map or picture off the interwebs, but the story -- the monsters -- the magic -- the flow of the game -- grandpa (me) is making that up. Well, he's decided that he'd like to make up his own stories. I printed him a copy of Swords and Wizardry whitebox AND we are going to make him his own battlemat out of vinyl cloth on Friday. (I made my own megamat - it's kinda like a jedi making his own lightsaber. LOL) See! There's hope in the next generation!

  3. A thought on the power fist rules: I would imagine that the "power field" quality would also apply to power swords, which would be able to benefit from the parry ability. There may be circumstances where power fields (either sword or fist) interact in special ways with other objects, that made them give the PF this rule.

    That said...yeah, they'd be much better off just giving the power sword and power fist special rules, rather than trying to make them universalized in such a terrible fashion.

    As for L5R - I don't play it, don't know the background, but it would seem to me that the social intrigue combined with combat has the potential, at least, to make for an interesting game. I am not sure I follow why you are equating samurai to 40K Space Marines - samurai had lives and personalities outside of combat :)

    Your description of Exalted is making me feel relieved that I have never tried to pick it up, beyond a free PDF of the 2nd Edition that WW gave out at one point.

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I can’t understand why anyone wants to play a computer game in which they have to do all the complex logic & numbers management. A portion of the industry doesn’t seem to reflect the strengths of the tabletop game (or respect its weaknesses).

    I have no doubt that a lot of people playing those games are playing them in a more traditional style despite that. I’ve witnessed that. There are elements of the industry—and not just the OSR—that are putting out strong tabletop products, but I didn’t see them at Free RPG Day. Though, it was afternoon before I got there, so maybe all the good stuff went early. I hope so.

    BTW, no apology needed for the soccer or blogging about it. A good blog reflects the person behind it.

  5. When they announced Deathwatch, I did think to myself that they'd have to go some way to topping what 3: 16 does so well. From what I've seen so far, they're attempting to compete directly, rather than offering an alternative, and I don't think it's for me. It will still do well, because it has that official status 3: 16 does not, and that's enough for a lot of people, but it's not for me. With Rogue Trader, I've had half a year of struggling with that ruleset, which is fine for fantasy gaming but gets clunky in the futuristic setting, and I've had enough of it.

    I bought the first edition of L5R, and it was a mess of bad editing. I am astounded that the same problems remain, three editions later. Underneath all the rubbish though, there is a good game. It does seem limited at first glance, but it's very much like Pendragon in that regard, and the limitations do become strengths. The clans are a rubbish idea though, a clear bit of contamination from the World of Darkness.

    Big day today in the football! I predict England either (a) living up to recent form and crashing out due to a 1-0 loss to Slovenia, or (b) somehow remembering how to play football, beating Slovenia by three or four, then swaggering into the next round even though they deserve to be coming home in disgrace like the French. USA beat Algeria and go through, either way.

  6. @ Kelvin: congrats to both teams...watching the Germany-Ghana game as I type (and didn't go into work till AFTER the USA game...woo-hoo!). RE L5R: I suppose without the WoD taint, you'd just have Japanese Pendragon...or FGU Bushido.

    @ Robert: Thanks!

    @ allandaros: Well, I'd think the similarities between the stoic samurai willing to die for their honor/daimyo and the stoic space marines willing to die for their Emperor would be readily apparent...as would both groups' observed devotion to their weapons and armor. Samurai have "clans/families" and space marines have "chapters/gene seed" but it's the same thing...and most treatments, I've seen of samurai/bushido is just as macho/"man's world" as the space marines (i.e. women, children, and parents play little role compared to student-master/mentor). Either way, it's dudes getting their rocks off in combat.

    @ Jim: I have a LOT of faith in the potential of the younger generation; I just hope we can teach them all right!

    @ Ryan: You know, the World Cup only takes place every four years...consider it a one month crash course in sport (and then take a break for three years and 11 months).
    ; )

  7. So, soccer...that's when they kick the ball around and try to get a "home run", right?

  8. @JB: I see your point, but Space Marines carry it out to an extreme which leaves the samurai waaaay behind in the dust. I can see multiple gamestyles for a samurai character (even though the getting-rocks-off-in-combat style may predominate in practice) but a Space Marine seems *locked* into that.

  9. Re: Deathwatch

    I just read the intro adventure myself last night and also noted the design simularity to 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars. Unlike yourself, I see this as a good thing, and prior to reading the adventure I did not have much interest in the game, now it will likely find a place on my shelf.

    You are 100% correct though, it is more a boardgame with some RPG seasonings than an RPG, and I could not see ever running anything more than a few one offs as part of a bear and pretzles game session, but, I could not see a better way to capture a game about a squad of 40K Space Marines than this. They already have two 40K rpg offerings which are much more in line with traditional role playing, so I am rather glad it did not end up as simply more of the same but with bigger guns and armor.

    Just my take.