Friday, August 18, 2017

A Fault In Our Stars: Starfinder, ADnD 2E, and Repeating History

So I wanted to talk a bit about Starfinder and how I see it. Not as a game or in comparison to White Star, but as a business move and why I think Paizo chose to release a sci-fi adaptation of their juggernaut fantasy roleplaying game. But to do that, I have to go back to 1989 and the release of AD&D, 2nd edition.

However you feel about AD&D 2nd Ed, it was an absolute runaway hit. It made money hand over fist and sales had exploded far beyond expectations. The books brought slick, previously unseen production values to the game with full color core books that were priced to buy. By 1993, AD&D 2nd edition dominated the market and it was the game when it came to tabletop RPGs. Granted, tabletop RPGs get compared to D&D by default, but this was unprecedented.

It seemed as though there was nothing AD&D 2nd Edition couldn't do. The campaign settings were fresh as gamers explored Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Birthright. The seemly endless slew of class and race books gave players new ways to customize their characters with optional kits and new equipment, spells, and sub-races. There was no end in sight.

Until there was.

The long and short is that TSR was on the verge of economic collapse because of the runaway success of AD&D 2nd Ed. They had to keep producing supplements to maintain an ever diminishing revenue stream. That's the nature of tabletop roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are a niche of a niche of a niche market. Most folks who play them do so casually, briefly, or out of curiosity. They borrow a book from a more active friend while they're playing, or they buy a single core book for their own reference. Maybe they buy the "core three" books, but never grab a supplement. They might grab a supplement which focuses on their favorite species/class if they're really into the game. But the fact is, most gamers aren't rabid consumers of every single thing published for a game line.

So, TSR had to keep producing supplements on more minuet elements of their flagship game to keep the money coming in. But as the product line bloated, the profit margins thinned. AD&D 2nd edition had more books released for it than you can count (I stopped at 250...) and let's face it, some of them were very narrow in their focus. (Did we really need Thief's Challenge, let alone Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Pointe?)

But, to keep these more tightly focused products viable, you have to keep much of the previous library of material in print, maintain storage space to keep unsold product, pay your employees, and keep the lights on. So, eventually, the numbers just didn't add up and TSR was on the verge of collapse. That's when Wizards of the Coast came in and bought the company.

Then came D&D 3E. There was a lot of backlash against it at first. So many people had spent over a decade chasing the dragon (so to speak) keeping up with the endless gamut of 2nd Ed books that they felt betrayed by the fact that D&D 3E was going to render all that time and investment invalid. While many players recognized that a new game being published did not obligate them to play it, I still understand their frustration.

But in the end D&D 3E and its OGL were a success beyond all predictions. So much so, that when it ended and 4E was announced in 2007 and released the following year many gamers decided not to invest in yet another itteration of the world's most famous fantasy roleplaying game. Enter Paizo's Pathfinder. Serving as as rallying point for those who wishes to continue playing D&D 3E, Pathfinder was released under the OGL with a few minor changes to D&D 3.5.

And it exploded. Pathfinder was a runaway hit, like AD&D 2nd Edition before it. It even managed to out-sell Dungeons and Dragons, the very game from which it was born. For a brief time, Pathfinder was the Rebel Prince, dethroning the king of all roleplaying games.

Pathfinder began to release supplements, as is expected. From the Advanced Player's Guide to Mythic Adventures, they left no stone unturned, no supplement unpublished. Soon the runaway success of Pathfinder ran away with them. Ten years later, and countless supplements later, Pathfinder feels its in the same place as TSR was in 1998. But, unlike Wizards of the Coast, my guess is that Paizo doesn't want to alienate the fans that have been loyal to them for the past decade by releasing a Pathfinder, Second Edition. So, how do they add longevity to their product line when the vein of ore that is fantasy seems tapped?

Starfinder feels to me like an attempt to extend the longevity of the Pathfinder product line and IP without releasing a second edition. But, I'm uncertain about it's potential for success. Yes, it sold out at GenCon - but there hasn't been a whole lot of buzz surrounding it that I've noticed. Admittedly, I'm over here in the OSR corner of the RPG community - but still, the tabletop roleplaying game community isn't exactly vast.

Do I hope Starfinder is a success? Absolutely. By all accounts Erik and the folks at Pathfinder are good people. Besides, even at its most successful, RPG publishing profits are razor thin. Given that many fantasy gamers aren't interested in sci-fi (and vice versa), I'm doubtful that Starfinder will be as successful as Paizo needs and that may create a rough road for Paizo in the days to come.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why I Don't Do Kickstarters

It's funny. When I tease a product one or two people usually ask when I'm launching the Kickstarter for this. The answer is always "I'm not." I don't crowdfund. That's not to say I never will in the future, but I can't imagine a circumstance that would warrant me doing so. Turning to Kickstater makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me nervous. It's a great way to get your product out there and get support, but I don't think it's for me.

I did one crowdfunding, several years ago. I did an Indiegogo for Class Compendium, my largest project up to that time. But I didn't do it specifically to fund the Class Compendium. I did it because my computer was becoming unreliable and without a computer I couldn't publish at all. So, I did an Indiegogo with half the money going to art for the Compendium and the other half to a new laptop. Nothing fancy, just to keep myself writing. I made all this very clear in my pitch video.

I thought Class Compendium would be easy. It was almost done before I even launched. It was so close. But, to be safe, I gave myself an extra six months as padding for my deadline. That was a helluva lot of wiggle room, right? Wrong.

You see, one of my stretch goals was to add a spell index in the back. A complete spell index. That way any class in the Compendium would have instant access to spell details right in the same book. No flipping between books. Easy, right? Well, not so much. See, at the time I worked solo. I hadn't found awesome layout guys like +Jason Paul McCartan+Michael Herrmann, or +Thomas Novosel. From cradle to grave, it was a one-man show. Everything was done manually. Everything.

It took me all my padding time to get that damn index in place. I even went over deadline, though only by two weeks.

For me, that was unacceptable for several reasons.

First and foremost, I hate missing deadlines. It feels unprofessional. If you give a deadline, meet it. People even said "Two weeks isn't bad at all for a crowd-funding project." Didn't matter. Late is late for my releases.

Secondly, I'm very mercurial in my interests. As it stands at the time of this blog, I've got two large projects in the works (White Star: Galaxy Edition and Saga of the White Box), a large project I won't name, as well as four small projects, one personal project, a project I'm secretly working on, and am coming up on a freelance gig. It's like someone gave Attention Deficit Disorder a pen and a set of dice. This means that focusing on a single project for an extended period is very difficult for me. I get an idea and I want to grab it and run - then bounce between the many hollows of my mind.

That makes for a potentially disasterous crowd funding project. And that's not fair.

It's not fair to those who put their money in my hands. It's not fair to the way I operate. It's just asking for a train wreck and permanent damage to the good will the OSR has been so kind to grant me. So, I won't be doing Kickstarers or crowd-funding projects any time soon. I'll be patient, leaping from passion to passion, hoping folks are kind enough to accept the time it takes for me to get a project to the table. So far, the community has been quite kind in that regard - and I am appreciative of that grace.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells

+Diogo Nogueira is a work horse in the OSR. Known primarily for preaching the Gospel of Dungeon Crawl Classics and being an amazing artist, what some may not realize is that Diogo has published his own fantasy roleplaying game. It's not another retro-clone, though it shares some commonalities with traditional d20-based games. Diogo's baby is called Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, and it's available in both PDF and digest-sized softcover on DriveThru and RPGNow. Did I mention that both the PDF and the physical are priced at Pay-What-You-Want at the time of this writing?

Nogueira's love of Howard, Smith, and other iconic pulp fantasy authors is evident in his product. The entire book amounts to 48 pages, but that page count could probably be cut in half if you removed the art. That's not a criticism at all. It's the art and how it's been carefully selected or crafted to evoke that Hyborian feel that really sells the game.

SS&SS really trims the fat, though the author's inspirations seem evident in reading the product. Diogo's love of DCC is obvious, but I also get a bit of a White Box vibe going on. I feel as though he took Dungeon Crawl Classics, D&D 5e, Swords & Wizardry, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and Polyhedral Dungeon and ripped them apart of the Tree of Woe, then reassembled them to create something both familiar and different.

With only four attributes, three classes, and no skill system you'd think the game would feel a bit thin - but not so. The author is clearly trying to emulate a specific subgenre of fantasy and he stays laser-focused on that style. The system is pretty simple. Attributes (Physique, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower) are determined by your traditional "roll 3d6" method.

Tasks are accomplished by rolling a d20 against an attribute value. If you score under your attribute, the task has succeeded. The closer you get to the attribute without going over, the better you did. These tests can be modified by Positive or Negative Die, which works in a manner similar to D&D Fifth Edition's Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. If it's a Positive Die, you take the better. Negative, take the worse. Combat is actually resolved using the same attribute test mechanic, but the monster's hit dice modifies the roll - meaning a monster who's hit dice exceed a character's level are going to be harder to hit while those that are lower are going to be easier. Simple and elegant.

Some fast and dirty pulp spice is added by adding options to push your roll (ala Call of Cthulhu 7th edition) and a Luck option. Equipment and weapon ammo are also handled in a truncated, but intuitive and appropriate way.

Casting a spell? Intellect test. Trying to be stealthy? Agility test. It's all that simple.

Weapon damage is equally simple. Small weapons (whether dagger, short sword, hand ax, whatever) do a 1d6. Medium weapons do a 1d6, Large weapons do 1d8. Warriors automatically increase this die by one type (d4s become d6s, d6s become d8s, d8s become d10s). Any class can use any weapon.

Armor provides a form of damage reduction, but make you easier to hit by capping your Agility, while shields make you harder to hit.

Spells are simple, nasty and potentially dangerous to the caster. Casters choose the power level of the spell their casting, which modifies their roll. That means you can potentially throw a heap-nasty spell, but there's serious risk of things going south if you roll poorly. Men were not meant to know sorcery in SS&SS. Magic items are similarly powerful, but always with a cost.

Monsters all have one statistic: Hit Dice. They might also have specific special abilities, but given the player-centric nature of dice rolling and how hit dice of an opponent impacts combat, that's all you need.

Like I said earlier, where this game really shines is in its art and flavor. SS&SS requires characters to begin play with a Complication, which can be randomly generated if necessary. In addition, charts are included to generate on the fly adventure scenarios. These charts, again combined with the art, really give it that dirty sword-and-sandals pulp feel. What's so impressive that a lot of the art in this book is stock art that's been floating around for a long time - but when you get an artist to actually put a book together as a labor of love (which this clearly is), the unity of disparate parts really shines.

If I had to offer any criticisms, it's that SS&SS has a few areas where efforts to keep things brief make some explanations feel truncated or abrupt. Another sentence or so explaining a few of the rules would have clarified things quite a bit, but after reading over it a second time the designer's intent became pretty clear - so this is a minor issue at best. And for being PYWY in any format,  there are really no complaints. Another minor issue was that though the book included an ample list of monsters (35 or so), they did not appear to be organized in any fashion. Having them listed alphabetically or by HD would make for easier reference.

Long and short is that if you're looking for an ultra-light pulp fantasy game you can stuff in a backpack and run on the fly, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a must. Grab it now. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The White Box One-Sentence Background

So one of the common arguments I see regarding Swords & Wizardry White Box and White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is that it's too narrow. Characters have no abilities beyond their combat or class related listings to give them any definition, background, or motivation. I regard this as a strength of the system as it keeps things simple - but I understand how it could frustrate some people.

So, I tried to come up with a solution that kept to the core of White Box's simplicity. I give you the One-Sentence Background.

The One-Sentence Background is exactly that. A character's background defined in a single sentence. This sentence must include some form of motivator and some kind of profession or skill outside the character's class.

Example One: Arki the Dwarven Fighter was a Blacksmith who wants revenge for the destruction of his clan.

Example Two: Jana the Thief is a former Woodworker who took to the road to search for her missing daughter.

The profession is something the character can attempt to use as is appropriate to the situation and with Referee approval. This can be narrative, or mechanical. If a mechanical system is used, I'd recommend having the character simply make a Saving Throw, but receive +2 to any saves tied to using their profession.

The background has no mechanical effect. It simply serves as a springboard so players can call back to their character's primary motivation and have a sense of how their character will act in a situation.

Simple enough?