Aufklärung ist der Aufbruch des Menschen…

Aufgrund technischer Schwierigkeiten, als besonderen Service für unseren geneigten Leserbriefschreiber Banbai-Sama, hier der dreist mit Steurung-Charley /Steuerung-Victor gerippte Artikel von Altmeister Kenneth Hite.

January 19th, 2006
By: Kenneth Hite

2005: Legends of the Fall

Things just kept on not keeping on in the world of RPGs last year. Sales were down, the cold winds of structural readjustment kept a-blowing, and more and more companies started to get that wild-eyed look as they compared the printer’s bill to the cost of a forged passport and a beach house in Antigua. Fortunately, we had the unparalleled fires of creativity to keep us warm. No, wait, I’m thinking of some other year.

New For 2005: 2004!

It’s official. If the 1980s were the Decade of Getting Out of the Dungeon and the 1990s were the Decade of Getting Into Eyeliner, then the 2000s are the Decade of Getting One Last Drop Out of Previous Decades. We did Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition in 2000, and D&D 3.5 in 2003, and the Wolfies re-vamped (I will never get tired of that joke) the World of Darkness in 2004. That year we got GURPS Fourth Edition, Paranoia XP, and Ars Magica 5th to boot. These were followed in 2005 by revisions of Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Mutants & Masterminds, Torg, Spycraft and the canonical „many many more,“ many many more of which can be found down in our „Retread“ Out of the Box Awards section, which now bids fair to be more important than a mere „Best New RPG Award.“ Seriously, the last new mass-market, successful, important RPG was C.J. Carella’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG in 2002. If you exclude licenses, as well you might, you have to go back to Geoff Grabowski’s Exalted the year before that. No wonder we’re all starving here, jonesing for the Next Big Thing, that Godot: The Roleplaying Game that just never shows up.

I Don’t Think There’s A Pony In Here At All

And perhaps this, rather than any guff about online orc-bashing, is a big part of why RPG core market sales — even including Dungeons & Dragons — have been nosing down for the last three years or so. I don’t want to make too much out of this — Hollywood box office is down about 9% from last year, and even real book sales declined by about 2% in 2005; things are tough all over entertainment (except online orc-bashing), and let’s not even talk about pop music. (Please.) But I’ll note that comic book sales of all things are actually up over last year and trending upward; the ongoing reinvention of the format, combining a return to narrative quality and the universalization of the trade paperback, has begun to pay off. No such reinvention has taken place in RPG publishing, the core business of which still lies there like a gut-shot unicorn. The obvious culprit is the broken three-tier system, which has been forced by one or another decision that no doubt seemed good at the time into a „periodical model“ which is perhaps the worst imaginable way to produce and sell roleplaying games. Hero Games is the first important publisher to begin its extrication from the three-tier tar pit, with an announcement on its Web page that its fans should consider buying Hero products direct if their game store sucked. Hero sales haven’t tanked any worse than anyone else’s, so that’s some comfort.

On the bright side, no major, or even second-tier, RPG publisher closed its doors in 2005, although a couple barely squeezed by. Green Ronin was badly hit by a defaulting fulfillment house; their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay reboot and the deal with Games Workshop probably saved them. Likewise, Guardians of Order was nearly demolished by a strengthening Canadian dollar, and White Wolf bailed them out by agreeing to publish Guardians‘ Game of Thrones RPG. West End Games scaled way back (again) but didn’t actually vanish; Shane Hensley’s day job is no longer Great White Games (nee Pinnacle) but game design for Cryptic Studios and the City of Heroes franchise. AEG had a „bad day at Black Rock“ in November and laid off a whole great whack of their staff; Wizards of the Coast had its annual Christmas of the Long Knives likewise.

The really annoying thing about this is that in terms of artistic development, this has actually been a pretty terrific decade for RPGs. Ron Edwards, Luke Crane, Paul Czege, and Vincent Baker (along with the rest of the indie design crop at the Forge and elsewhere) have produced tremendously interesting riffs on the concept, purpose, and structure of roleplaying, and some damn fine games to boot. Robin Laws — likely the finest working RPG designer today — is perhaps at the peak of his form, with Rune, Dying Earth, and Hero Wars all 21st-century stuff. R. Sean Bergstrom has come into her own in the last five years, and Greg Stolze remains vital. Geoff Grabowski has taught a veritable master class in line development with four years of Exalted releases, and Steve Kenson’s run on Mutants & Masterminds is not far behind. Responses to the d20 Open Gaming License may have disappointed some of its early enthusiasts, but Patrick Kapera, Steve Kenson, Rob Schwalb, and Mike Mearls (among others) have demonstrated that it’s possible to hit some dingers out of the park with it. But art doesn’t pay the bills.

And no, I didn’t win an Origins Award. Thanks ever so much for noticing.

Auld Acquaintance, New Edition

But January in Chicago is grim and gray enough without such news roundups as these. It’s time to celebrate, to deck the virtual halls and ring the virtual welkin for the Out of the Box Awards for 2005. Again our brickbats are corked and our bouquets wrapped with daintiest baby’s-breath. Once more, Out of the Box Global Headquarters resounds to the huzzahs of good cheer, honoring the best in gaming, or at least the best in gaming review piles in my office. As always, the coveted „Outie“ has been burnished to a fiery luster by cyberspatial gnomes using chamois cloths ripped from the steaming flanks of Price Waterhouse. Let’s get ready to ramble!

Best New RPG of 2005: Let’s begin with some very honorable Honorable Mentions, specifically Jared Sorensen’s bleak „prison rules“ RPG The Farm, Chad Underkoffler’s super stab at Truth & Justice, and Steve Kenson and John Snead’s romantic-fantasy evocation in Blue Rose. Honorable Mentions are all about atmosphere, this year anyway; all three games nailed their „feel“ dead on. I’d like to give a specially Honorable mention to Green Ronin’s decision to release the Blue Rose line in a „three books and out“ model. If we’re going to get out of periodical Hell, we have to treat our books differently, and train our customers likewise. Our second runners-up range from the bullet train sleekness of Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch, with its powerful Trust mechanic and finely honed story sense meshed into Japanese legend, to the Amish antique of Douglas Anderson’s Northern Crown, which turns good old d20 loose on the insanely under-exploited American Mythos. The first runner-up is John Wick’s Discordia, which is agonizingly close to being the best game he’s ever done, and closer yet to being the best funny conspiracy game anyone has ever done. But the clear winner this year is a game that just wants to kill stuff and get badass, and it’s the best there is at what it does. Any half decent designer can improve d20 settings or skills or story shaping tools — Mike Mearls‘ Iron Heroes proves that if you hit it hard enough, and mightily, you can even make d20 fantasy combat better. That’s points for difficulty, and that’s the 2005 Best New RPG Outie.

Best Licensed Thing of 2005: I’m not sure if Mark Smylie’s Artesia RPG counts in this category, since he licensed the military fantasy setting from his own comic book, but he also licensed Mike Pondsmith’s Fuzion RPG engine, so I’ll give it an Honorable Mention. The other one goes to the sheer weight of work involved in Jesse Scoble’s making Guardians of Order’s A Game of Thrones d20-based Open Gaming RPG, based on the popular-with-the-kids George R.R. Martin fantasy novel series, itself based on the Wars of the Roses. The result is a vastly detailed game, nearly 500 pages of Jeff Mackintosh graphic splendor, and a herniated Honorable Mention. Mechanically interesting and a near-perfect example of a licensed game done correctly (and also based on a license I don’t much care about), Tony Lee’s Know Your Role! combines d20 Modern and the WWE for a near-smackdown, and a first runner-up position. But when Rebecca Borgstrom speaks, the Outies listen, even if she speaks some kind of manga moon-man gibberish. Fortunately, her Weapons of the Gods RPG is fairly solidly grounded in Chinese lore, and wonderfully grown up out of it in all manner of interesting directions. Hence, a well-deserved Outie Award for Rebecca Borgstrom, author of the Best Licensed Thing 2005.

Best Sui Generis RPG of 2005: Often a tight category, this year saw the „not quite a roleplaying game“ flower with a vengeance. Emily Care Boss‘ „first three dates“ guided story-production thing Breaking the Ice deserves more than a mere Honorable Mention, except that the weird tragic liturgies of Ben Lehman’s Polaris are yet more mentionable still. Clinton Nixon’s bizarre, yet intuitive combination of board game feel, card game management, and roleplaying game tension makes City of Brass something to wonder at; I may give it a full Outie next year when the final production model comes out. But the greatest thing of 2005 (or of 61 A.D.) that has weird shaped dice, characters, story lines, and dice pool mechanics — while still not quite being an RPG — is Paul Czege’s unforgettable Bacchanal. Sex, drunkenness, and now the 2005 Outie for Best Sui Generis RPG.

Best Supplement of 2005: This year, the Best Supplement category seemed a little weaker than normal, although that could have been a factor of less time for reviews on my part. This is nothing against Honorable Mention-worthy works like Richard Baker’s pseudopodous Lords of Madness or Will Hindmarch’s competent Ordo Dracul, but their solid professionalism didn’t deliver the extra oomph one expects from „best of breed“ products. Paul Elliott’s Against the Reich! for octaNe and T.S. Luikart and Ian Sturrock’s Old World Bestiary for Warhammer FRP get closer to what we want, bringing that „zing“ from inspired use of standard contents. Sean Punch and Phil Masters do much the same, only backwards and in heels with our second runner-up, GURPS Powers, which could have been deadly tedious mechanical logic-chopping, but is instead a clear-headed and concretely useful „advanced course“ in high-level GURPS rules. Scott Bennie’s Villainy Amok! is actually amazingly good, even for the new (and usually very good) Champions releases. Its rethink of the „story supplement“ makes it one of the best such since Jim Pinto’s old L5R GM Survival Guide and its Plot Gallery is bloody amazing, and should be required reading for all line developers. It’s only first runner-up because Sam Johnson’s Miskatonic University is such a call-back to the great Call of Cthulhu supplements of yore, informed by actual lived experience and comprehensively presenting a whole new facet for the greatest RPG ever. Thus, it graduates summa cum laude, and with the Outie for Best Supplement of 2005.

Best Retread of 2005: Three terrific games, made even better. Steve Kenson’s Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Edition managed every redeveloper’s dream, removing what didn’t work and adding what was needed, without falling into the „fix what’s not broken“ and „listen to the squeakiest wheel“ traps that doom so many similar attempts. Only the lateral move on the art sends it down to second runner-up. It seems impossible, but Luke Crane actually improved his wonderful scripted-combat fantasy masterpiece with Burning Wheel Revised, adding the beginnings of a powerful social mechanism and clinching first runner-up. But nothing, and I mean nothing, is as purely impressive as Patrick Kapera’s ground-up redress of Spycraft 2.0. Building a year and a half’s worth of supplements into an integrated whole, while adding new mechanics and meta-systems and actually increasing focus — well, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s even harder, because the first edition was so good to begin with; like the other two games in this category, it was hard enough just finding things that could be made usefully better the first time around. I was tempted to give it the Outie for Most Improved, because the change is yet so clear and so stark and so amazing, but Patrick deserves the big palm, the 2005 Outie for Best Retread of 2005. And in this third or fourth consecutive Year of the Retread, that’s powerfully close to Best RPG. So is Spycraft 2.0.

Most Improved Retread of 2005: An Honorable Mention to the Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition, which adds more stuff to an exceptional core game, and to Mage: the Awakening, which gives wildness and mystery back with one hand while taking tradition and madness back with the other. Although some claim Chris Pramas‘ changes don’t go far enough, for me they clearly set the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay on the track for second runner-up. Rob Boyle’s sure hand on first runner-up Shadowrun 4th gets hammered, by contrast, for going too far, but I think the pared-down system a vast improvement over the lurching sprawl of old-school SR. But between the new WoD finally fixing botches, the cross-system balance, and the fact that werewolves are finally recognizably monstrous predators again, I have to give a big, meaty Outie for Most Improved Retread of 2005 to Werewolf: the Forsaken. Owwoooo!

Biggest Fizzle of 2005: I’m tempted to say „distribution,“ except that it hasn’t actually fizzled so much as choked. I certainly haven’t seen any followup to the Serenity RPG, and it looked to kind of waste a great game design opportunity for another go-round with variable skill numbers and hero points, but its sales continue to seem strong if is to be believed. Serenity the movie fizzled spectacularly, of course, which may make the whole question moot. Could we actually be in such dire straits that we can’t even make enough sparks for a good fizzle any more?

Most Blatant Plugs of 2005: After much whooshing of Tardises, GURPS Infinite Worlds bowed from Steve Jackson Games in February, and White Wolf managed to squeeze my „Unreal City“ Mage adventure into their December World of Darkness: Chicago book. In a strange but wondrous holodeck malfunction, Decipher has released Star Trek RPG: Worlds and Star Trek RPG: Mirror Universe, both of which contain goodly portions of that Kenneth Hite Feeling, in PDF format on DriveThru RPG. And speaking of virtual Kenneth Hite, as always I emitted roughly a year’s worth of „Suppressed Transmissions“ in Pyramid. In the world of paper, I tossed off a few more rants for Games Quarterly Magazine. Pick up your copy today, and live the love.

Meanwhile, Later This Year Next time — oh, call it ten days from now — is Con Report ConQuest LA time, and then we’ll hit some of our languishing 2005 releases, especially the Deryni Adventure Game from Grey Ghost, the Weapons of the Gods RPG from Eos, and Miskatonic University from Chaosium. We may try for another column before DunDraCon 2006, if our blood is up; if not, then we’ll have a Con Report from that Bay Area bacchanal and dive into whatever looks good by then. And this may be the year that Everything You Know About Out of the Box Changes Somewhat. Or not. Click back and find out, as you join us in 2006, already in progress.

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