It’s been a few years since I ran a game, well the odd one off here and there, but nothing particularly long. The last campaign-ish thing I ran was a terrible Vampire campaign that fell apart, largely because I made every NPC an unbelievable cunt. Earlier this year I ran a short Traveller campaign, which started off rocky as I was fairly rusty but I was getting back into the swing of it by the time it ended. Last week I picked up the most recent mega-campaign for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, Curse of Strahd.
I’ve read the majority of it by this point (I will admit, to my eternal shame, that I may have skimmed the monster stats). It’s a good campaign, plenty going on and plenty for the players to get involved with. It’s also a nice and faithful update of the original Ravenloft adventure and it blends horror and heroic fantasy together much better than the official Ravenloft campaign from TSR did.
That’s not to say it’s without its problems though. The campaign is extremely “sandboxy” in nature. There is no central plot line, instead there are a large number of situations that the PC’s can (will) get entangled with and they’ll drive the PC’s from location to location. Honestly its a format I like but it can be hard at the table unless your players are motivated. But perhaps its biggest problem is that, due to the nature of the D&D beats, not all of these locations are created equal. Some are higher level than others, significantly so. So if your PC’s rock up to, say, the Amber Temple, too early then they are in for bad times. You can avoid this to some extent by explicitly pointing out to your players that running away is definitely an option. But that might run contrary to their assumptions to what a D&D game is about.
Which brings me to the next possible issue with the campaign, it’s tied quite strongly to its Gothic horror themes, so they PC’s will often face overwhelming odds which they will need to run from or circumvent in non traditional ways (i.e. by not hitting it in the face). None of these are overwhelming problems, they can all be handled by setting out expectations for the campaign clearly at the beginning. But they do all make me feel that maybe D&D isn’t the greatest fit for the campaign.
So after finishing Strahd I was in two minds about running it. It had some issues but I wanted to run something and it was a good campaign in a system both I and my potential players were familiar with. The latter is more of an issue these days. In my misspent youth I didn’t mind learning system after system, after all I had the time and so did my general play group (even though half the fuckers were too lazy to read the book). But these day’s its tough enough to keep even a semi-regular game going so “wasting” time with new unproven systems can be a stumbling block. Or maybe I’m just old and lazy.
As those thoughts were going around I coincidentally decided to migrate my RPG collection to RPGeek, largely because I couldn’t sleep last Sunday. This required me to first update my master collection on Librarything (which I bought a lifelong membership for a few years ago). After updating and migrating my list (as an aside its fucking ridiculous that RPGeek doesn’t support some kind of mass input) I was reminded that I owned a number of games I’d actually forgotten purchasing (and this not even counting legally obtained PDF’s). So the past week I have bounced from book to book, system to system, campaign to campaign, looking for that perfect Goldilocks game, the one that’s “just right”.
I started off looking at Savage Worlds (specifically Savage Worlds Deluxe). I’d been thinking about giving the system a go since the Savage RIFTS kickstarter popped up. Because I am definitely running a RIFTS campaign at some point (I first wanted to run one in 1998, so its been a long time coming). I’ve read the core rules before and they seem solid enough, not particularly granular but good for broad action movie-esque stuff. On the way home from last weeks gaming session I’d mentioned to Steve and Donal that if I were to run WHFRP again I’d do a “Columbus/New World/Lustria” campaign so I’d sailing ships in mind. Which lead me to Freeport setting from Green Ronin. It’s a cool pirate city which mixes high seas adventure with dark occult secrets, all set in a fantasy world. The setting is system agnostic but has conversion books for a number of the bigger rules systems. It also has a fairly well-regarded campaign of three linked adventures. I skimmed the first and read summaries of the latter two.
The campaign is solid and easily expandable, the setting is good and ticks all the things I’d want in a fantasy pirate setting. But I had my issues with it, the Savage Worlds conversion was overly dense and suffered from the common conversion problem of trying to convert rules not setting. It was also not a particularly attractive document. Which shouldn’t be an issue, but any excuse not to have to learn new rules seems to work. I also think the setting might be too fantasy for my liking, I could strip out most or all non-human races but then whats the point in not just using Savage Worlds historical pirate setting, Pirates of the Spanish Main?
Which was in fact the next book I took a look at. I’d read good chunks of it before and its well put together (if again rather ugly). But Savage Worlds just wasn’t blowing the wind up my pantaloons. Daddy bears bed just wasn’t comfy enough.
The next bed I tried was a strange one. And to clarify that labored segue, it was The Strange. Which feels like an overly complicated excuse to do a Slider’s campaign (which reminds me of a campaign I ran in college actually). Anyhow, The Strange. Lovely looking book, well written, poorly laid out. Each section works well enough but they don’t flow together very well and it really really needs a section which just lays out what exactly is going on and what the average PC is going to do. The Cypher system looks good, I haven’t run it but from a read through it feels like a nice mix of simplicity and narrative control. The setting works well enough and ties in some cool mechanical stuff (changing Foci) with the setting (“Translations”). I also read some of the adventures and they generally seem good, even if I think they (and the main game) makes a mistake in not properly addressing how to play with characters that done know about The Strange. The adventures are worse for this, one of them suggests how to include them in the first part of the adventure and then promptly never mentions it again, which is a problem as later parts explicitly call for the PC’s to know about The Strange. I think it’s a good game but it felt like I was wrestling the play experience and campaign I wanted out of it. Like the game was fighting me on it. So I put it aside.
My next port of call was Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Largely because I saw it mentioned. The core book is one of the most handsome books I own (though the artwork is of variable quality and, weirdly, theme). It is also one of the most poorly laid out rulebooks I own. But if poorly laid out rules were enough to stop me I’d never have got anywhere in this hobby. I decided to re-read it and create some sample characters, all the while documenting the process on my blog. I got half way through making my character (which is a simple task that the books terrible layout complicates) and then I realised I was wasting my time. Anima is largely a Rolemaster derivative and the system is quite simple, even if it’s a little front loaded and might look complex. But the character creation is flat-out complex, in a great way, in a super customisable way that I love and enjoy. But, as I realised, in a way that appeals to me as a player. I like the game but I am far more interested in playing it than I am in running it. It’s a cool world, a fairly dark fantasy world which you probably wouldn’t get from its over the top art style. It also has one of the best setting books out there, Gaia Vol 1, nearly entirely system free but with adventure hooks on more or less every page. But with all that I just couldn’t get myself excited about running it, because I want to play it. This would have been the perfect game for me when I was younger. But it’d be hard to find the right group for it at the moment.
Next I flitted around a bit, I skimmed Tribe 8 and Blue Planet, which I’d read in the past but had forgotten about until I did my inventory. They still have the same problems they always had, interesting, in-depth, alien worlds that feel too hard to do justice to unless your players have read the setting as well (which was always an issue I had with Werewolf: The Apocalypse). After that it was Double Cross, one of the handful of Japanese RPG’s translated into English (I’m fairly sure I own all of them actually). If you haven’t read any I’d suggest checking them out, while they are all fairly different one thing they have in common is very different and often quite explicit rules for how to play the game. This is due to the way the games are played in Japan, where campaign play is rarer and GM duties are rotated more often.
Double Cross is a dark game about super powered characters (though not really super heroes). I like its super power system and the world, it reminds me of stuff like Project ARMS (which is tragically under-rated) or Tokyo Underground, etc. It has a fairly explicit session structure which ties into various other rules systems. To give a brief summary, each session has a pre-game, main game and after game. Each of these is broken down further, for example in the main game part you have an Opening, Middle, Climax and Ending phase. These phases are broken down into individual scenes, and scenes have their own structure. The GM declares a character to be the lead character for the upcoming scene and determines which other characters will be “on-stage”. The GM then gives a summary of the scenes setting so other characters can determine if they may want to enter the scene later. The lead character can then request other characters join them in the scene (including NPC’s), the GM says yay or nay and the scene starts. After that other characters can request from the GM to enter the scene. Any players in a scene must pay a random cost in terms of Enroachment rate (think of it like a sanity meter). The GM can announced the end of the scene at any time and its generally when the Lead Character leaves. There’s a few other odds and ends but as you can see its very, very structured.
Which I think could be a big stumbling block for experienced role-players, because it’s quite alien to both their experiences and how Western rpg’s are structured. I’d like to try it out, but both the rules and the setting would require a particular group. Double Cross also does some good stuff with its XP system, XP is explicitly given to the player not the character and the GM also earns XP so that GM-ing duties can be more easily rotated. Both rules that I like.
After Double Cross I moved to Kuro, which is a game of Japanese horror published original in French. I’ve had the core since it came out but hadn’t got around to reading it. I’m glad I did. It’s an interesting setting that blends a lot of elements I enjoy into one fairly consistent whole. I’m not entirely crazy about its die pool system but it isn’t a huge sticking point (these days I generally like more transparent odds in my dice systems). The starting adventure in the core is good and leads into a campaign book that’s gotten fairly positive reviews. While set in the future (2046) the setting is still quite relatable and I’ve always liked horror games. This wasn’t a perfect fit but it’s certainly one of the front-runners.
After Kuro it was back to more flitting, I returned to the Savage Worlds system and took a look at the two campaigns I owned for Achtung! Chtulhu. I kickstarted it “back in the day” and like every Modiphus kickstarter it comes with a ridiculous amount of books. Two of which happen to be fairly long campaigns. Though their structure cleverly makes each arc quite episodic. I like Nazi’s (as bad guys I feel I must add in case my hairstyle suggests otherwise) and Lovecraftian wigglies, but for some reason a WWII campaign doesn’t appeal at the moment. Next it was the OSR derivative Godbound, which has a really interesting power system reminiscent of Nobilis or Ars Magica, bolted to a classic OSR chassis. One of the cooler games about playing a demigod out there (miles better than the execrable Scion). But despite all that I only got a few chapters in before interest waned.
Perhaps I have ADD? Next morbid curiosity made me decide to catalogue all the full published campaigns I own. The answer would best be described as distressing. Assault on the Mountains of Madness and Shadows of Atlants for Achtung! Cthulhu, Dark Symmetry, Dark Legion and Venusian Apocalypse for Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition, Eternal Lies for Trail of Cthulhu, The Dracula Dossier for Nights Black Agents, Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss for D&D 5th edition, etc. And those are just my more recent acquisitions. My curiosity satisfied I couldn’t shake that crunchy crunchy itch that Anima’s chargen had stirred up so I dug out Mekton Zeta. Which is fairly old at this point but remains my favourite, and I would argue simply the best, mecha creation system out there. Which reminded me of my old Pendragon+Mekton Zeta campaign idea. Which I posted about on here. I do love the idea, but again, it isn’t quite right.
So, coming full circle, I returned to D&D and started re-reading the Out of the Abyss campaign. But, because I clearly fear even the minimal commitment of sticking with a single book, I’ve also been reading bits and pieces of Ryuutama (another translated Japanese RPG, this time all about taking journeys) and Curse of the Crimson Throne (the second most popular Paizo adventure path). Two weeks on I can’t decide which rule system, which campaign or which combination of the two feels just right. But don’t worry dear reader, I’ll keep stuffing my mouth with all the hot porridge I can take until I’m finally satisfied.