Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Death Bat's Must Read Shelf of Neglected RPGs (October 2022 Edition)

 As I slowly work on bringing my study under control (it's reached a level of clutter and disorganization that makes doing anything prohibitively difficult) I keep finding buried gems which once again demand my attention. Without further adieu....here are the top ten RPGs I have unearthed (or been slowly reading) which I really need to get crackin' on so I can run some of these within the next year, as well as the reasons I haven't actually gotten around to running them or learning the systems:

10. Vaesen

This curiosity is a treatise on Swedish period horror from Free League publishing, specifically using a famous illustrator to reflect the weird world of Scandinavian fears. The concept is sound, Cthulhu in a specific cultural environment with specific legends and lore, if you will. The system seems quite robust, and it has some nice support. 

So why am I not playing it? I just can't decide if its specific style of horror is something I, personally, could invest myself in running.....but I might totally play this if the opportunity arose.

9. Fallout RPG

This looks like a pretty sweet take on the post-apocalypse, and manages to take the very conic setting of the Fallout games and turn it into a competent tabletop game. I kind of love everythng about this.

So why do I neglect it? Because every time I read through it, I end up playing the computer game instead.

8. Cold & Dark RPG

Another one distributed by Modiphius, a one-book system that I don't think got the attention or support it deserved. This take on science fiction horror is great, and predates the whole movement kicked off by Mothership and its competition. 

So why am I not playing this? Because its so obscure that talking my group in to it is prohibitively difficult, plus I don't think any VTT supports it right now (that I know of). 

7. Alien RPG

It goes without saying, as a fan of the Alien movies and novels that I greatly enjoy this RPG iteration of Alien. It manages to pull together a lot of content for the IP and get it to work, even dabbling in the comic contributions to the Alien universe, all while skirting around the curious question of whether Predators are also in that universe, or just one very similar to it. My biggest failing with the Alien RPG is that I keep reading the world and lore background and pushing off learning the game system!

The reason I haven't gotten as far with Alien RPG as I should have? Mothership took its lunch.

6. Star Trek Adventures

Similar to Alien, I find myself spending far more time reading the lore and setting material for the many Star Trek books published by Modiphius, and not nearly enough time learning the actual game system. For me, Star Trek is an ancient guilty pleasure, an old love I left behind for a long time and only recently have come back to, and its a lot of fun to do so and realize I still enjoy the universe.

The reason I haven't gotten as far with learning the rules? Modiphius's 2D20 system is kind of boring to learn, and also I've sort of been running my "Star Trek" campaign, just with the serial numbers filed off and using the Cypher System.

5. 2300AD

Traveller's new expensive boxed set packages the 2300AD setting, mildly updated for the 21st century edition of Traveller, and puts it all together into a pretty efficient (if expensive) package. I know little of the 2300AD setting from back in the 90's, it was a thing I simply had no time or money to get in to. Now, here it is in 2022 and I have the boxed set, but still no time to invest in it. Some day!

4.  Anime 5E

This book takes the Tri-Stat Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th edition and converts it's core conceit (point buy character build mechanics) to D&D 5th edition. In the course of doing so it creates a tome fully compatible with 5E, but also stand-alone...you don't need any other books to play, though any 5E stuff will work just fine with it. It's loaded with anime flavor, and it is hard to escape the fact that you can easily imagine running a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy flavored 5E game using this book.

Why have I neglected it? Because I also grabbed Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) 4th edition and as a result am torn by the fact that the actual game off of which Anime 5E is derived is, itself, and even more robust anime/manga simulator.

3. BESM 4E

Speaking of which, Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th Edition is back, and indeed its even back in the hands of the original creator. Loaded with flavor this is easily the best edition of BESM yet, and for the first time in many years I am contemplating what I could do with the game system, what sort of anime-derived worlds I could explore. With my anime/gamer interests lying heavily with Shin Megami Tensei, mecha shows, Berserk, Junji Ito, and games like Code: Vein I can only imagine what I might do with this.

What's holding me up? Old age, and a lack of time to properly divest the energy into building all the cool things for whatever game I might seek to come up with. 

2. Cyberpunk Red

From around 1990-1994 the single most played non-D&D game system on my shelf was Cyberpunk 2020 (GURPS was #3 and Traveller was #4). After all these years, a high quality, decent, focused and true to spirit new Cyberpunk edition is out and I have shockingly neglected it far too much.

Why does this remain neglected? I think its because the old gang I had in college is a scattered diaspora and I only still know of a couple of them. My current gaming group just doesn't seem very....ah....Cyberpunk-centric. I could be wrong. I guess there's always one way to find out!

1. Esper Genesis RPG

The first two books for this game are graphic powerhouses, capturing a modern rendition of science fiction replete with powered armor suits, exotic aliens, weird tech and psionics. The system is powered by 5th edition rules which makes adopting it a piece of cake. There is little not to love about this, and with the core rules plus bestiary out, only the Master Technician's Guide, which will provide key rules for gear, ships, vehicles and GM stuff is not in print yet (it is in PDF). 

Why have I neglected this? I ordered the third book around 2 years ago and am still waiting to see if they ever release it. I have a real pet peeve with running games that have an incomplete book set, especially if there's some worry it will end up dying on the vine as a neglected system. I don't think that has happened here...yet...but we shall see. Luckily I didn't order it on Kickstarter, I think I'd be even more remorseful if I had. But...their site suggests its physical arrival is imminent, and they seem to be getting slightly better at updating those with preorders (their site is providing slightly more information these days), but when you check the Kickstarter it looks like backers are lucky to get any updates at all. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

SOMA, Scorn and the Appeal of Walking Simulators in Weird Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes

 A few weeks back, roughly five years late, I finished SOMA, an adventure game on Steam (and other platforms) which focuses on the experience of a man who starts his day getting an ordinary brainscan, and rapidly finds himself in a scifi apocalyptic landscape through which he must navigate and uncover the story of humanity's last days. After playing SOMA I realized that, on average, most of the games I play (and actually finish) tend to be this sort of game: you have a main character, a storyline to uncover, you may or may not have to worry about combat as a part of the experience, and you likely have some puzzles, but nothing that harkens back to the pixel-bitch era of the adventure game age. On occasion the format may vary (Oxenfree was a fascinating "side scroller" style adventure, for example) but usually its in first or third person mode. Other games of similar type which I have finished in recent years include obvious ones like The Evil Within and all of the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games, but recent treasures such as Moons of Madness, Conarium, the Amnesia series, Layers of Fear, Dear Esther, Paradise Lost and many more are all games I have completed. 

The genre isn't perfect. There are a nontrivial number of horror titles in this genre that break the mold a bit with an emphasis on undefeatable horrors which you must either outwit or evade; Outlast as a series is a notable example, and one which I have never gotten past a certain point in due to the fact that the game requires a measure of punishing repetition in some grim scenarios to proceed. Some day maybe I'll pick it up again...I'd love to get out of the water-filled dark basement alive one day. Horror titles like this are seeking a slightly different experience than other titles I have played, where horror as a genre is a component, but for which the horror of escape/survival is not so relevant. SOMA and Moons of Madness are both really good examples of horror which does not lean hard into survival, preferring instead to keep the player's focus on story and advancement.

Scorn just came out a week or so back, and I picked it up, played and finished it this weekend. The exact nature of this game eluded me before getting it; it clearly was leaning hard into a gory, weird world inspired by H.R. Giger, but beyond that I couldn't tell if it was going to be a moody shooter, an elaborate puzzle game or what. As it turns out, it's a walking simulator with a lot of puzzles, a little bit of gunplay, and a wordless approach to storytelling that exposes the player to a thick, mysterious narrative told entirely through the ambient experience of trying to figure out who your avatar is, why he is in this dystopian apocalypse, and what his inevitable fate means. Along the way you get treated to some at times clever puzzles and a bewildering array of disturbing imagery and events that have kept me thinking about this game long after I completed it. 

(SPOILERS ahead)

Scorn is not for everyone. SOMA, by contrast, has some creepy stuff, but it will be hard to say that anyone who has played other games in the horror genre (such as Resident Evil or even Silent Hill) will be surprised by; it's got a great visual aesthetic but it also deals with a future in which a machine-flesh fusion brought about by a technological advance in ferrofluids allows for a merging of the notion of biological consciousness and machine sentience. Scorn, by contrast, is about a future, likely so far in the future that whole epochs of existence have come and gone, that mankind is no longer recognizable as such. Or, maybe Scorn is an entirely different world. It's hard to say, but I like my interpretation that it is a future in which biotechnology became all-consuming, and changed the foundations on which humanity predicates its existence. The problem, of course, is that the depiction of this future existence is incredibly raw and disturbing; the concept of humanity as we understand it today simply no longer exists in the world of Scorn. To be human in Scorn is to be a product, weak, and desperate. Your avatar starts off apparently human, or human enough, but early on strange things happen and you awaken, apparently having died or been suspended in some state, for an indeterminate amount of time, determined to move forward into the belly of the great machine, for an inscrutable purpose. Along the way the evidence of life as a commodity that has been prioritized from the most base line form and existence on up to the most elaborate ascended forms by the late game can be seen everywhere, and a freakish ecology has grown up around the detritus of this approach to existence. 

Scorn doesn't really provide you any answers, it just offers questions followed by a range of experiences, and leaves you to interpret them. When I write what I see it as representing, know that this is how I interpreted it. By the end of the game I feel it is fairly obvious that your wretched character seeks an end goal of transcending existence, and instead his vicious symbiote counterpart makes him a permanent resident. It's not a happy ending, but it is incredibly fitting for this game and it's world.

Both SOMA and Scorn really got me thinking about how what I like most out of a very good, thoughtful video game is the ability to experience and visit these strange universes for a time, but they don't outstay their welcome. I think SOMA took about 14 hours to complete, and Scorn took around 8 hours, of which about an hour was spent mulling over a few key puzzles (I managed all of them without FAQs, which was nice, given that no one's written any detailed guides yet for Scorn). Both of these games had a bit of lite combat. In SOMA's case it was mainly a few very specific story-driven events, and most of the time evasion was your only recourse to survival. In Scorn you do get actual weapons (ironically I missed the pistol and finished the game with the bolt gun and later shotgun and grenade launchers), and there are things that try to kill you later on in Scorn for which shooting them is a solution. However, Scorn is really not a shooter; these sequences are essentially still puzzles, and waiting for the monsters to wander off to their lairs is a viable solution to most of these encounters. When you finally get something approximating a boss encounter it follows a specific set of behaviors that, exploited, really amount to a puzzle more than anything.

If you want some really good and interesting story-driven walking simulator experiences about the terrifying end of humanity, SOMA and Scorn are both well worth investigating. Just be aware, Scorn is grotesque, and you must enmesh yourself within the notion that humanity as a concept no longer exists....it is now warped beyond all possible recognition. If you can, I suggest playing these two titles back-to-back, they both hold freakishly interesting messages about humanity's future, and the elaborate dialogue and discovery in SOMA will make the harsh, wordless exposure to nightmare in Scorn even more interesting as a result. But be warned! If you thought some of the stuff in the Silent Hill franchise was disturbing in its implications, you might want to avoid Scorn, which doesn't waste time with silly implications; it's universe stopped coddling human sensibilities eons prior. 

SOMA and Scorn: both solid A games!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Hulu and how Streaming Co-Opted Mid-Budget Franchise Films (TL;DR Hellraiser and Prey were pretty fun movies)

 I recently resubbed for a month to Hulu just to catch the new Predator movie (Prey) and the new Hellraiser movie, which thankfully fell within the one-month slot of time I had paid for. For the price one one month (with ads) which is just going up to about $9/month it's a pretty good deal, cheaper than movie tickets, for three films that would be perfectly fine theater fare in a different time, but which are just too low in the budget, thrills and star power set by blockbuster films these days. Don't get me wrong....I would rather watch a more well thought out mid-range film like Hellraiser than sit through any more Disney Marvel films right now, but it's pretty clear that there's a subtle and permanent change to where entertainment can be found going on now due to streaming services. 

Either way, the real problem in the end is one of value: as soon as I saw these two movies I unsubbed from Hulu as their general mix of films and shows is simply not enough for me to keep up with it, not when there is so much competition. I'll wait and resub for a month when they have yet another interesting movie worth watching. Maybe someday someone will make some new original property that's just as interesting as watching these tired old properties get revified like some Herbert West experiment, too....who knows!

That said, it is worth mentioning that both Prey and the new Hellraiser were quite fun, and they both appeared to make an earnest effort to capture the essence of their franchises. Indeed, Hellraiser felt like a better sequel to Hellraiser 2 than the subsequent 8 films that actually (and shamefully) do bear the series' name. Prey, meanwhile, had some curious gaffes and a shiny coat of "made for TV" on it, but still managed to be a far more entertaining and successful Predator film than the last theatrical release, by a hard mile. 

Although people may gripe about streaming and how many services there are now, I guess we can at least be happy that they haven't (yet) returned to the Cable model of exorbitant, costly packages stuffed with channels no one actually wants, in a medium over which you have no control as to when you want to view a program. So there is that, I suppose. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Amazing What a Little Normalcy Can Do!

 Work has abruptly evened out for me. The last of a lengthy series of webinar events I serve as a sort of host/moderator/technical assistant to all ended, meaning that the majority of my work day is no longer being forced into webinar events. This sure does change my outlook on Roll20 for entertainment...I can once again feel like gaming on Roll20 is not subsuming my entire day into one long webinar, in other words!

So gaming resumes tonight....since we are all old and worn out, various injuries and other issues mean Roll20 again tonight, but the prospect of a live game looms imminently. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 3, 2022

Meandering Interests and the Reality of GM Burnout

 Super short post just for the heck of it, more a thought really than a full fledged discussion or monologue. Lately I have been....ah.....feeling less than motivated to run RPGs, or even really play RPGs. I have been super swamped for time due to work issues so that hasn't helped, of course,  but a side effect is that I have not felt very motivated to run games when the opportunity does arise, as it is looming this week.

I don't know why, exactly, other than life being so busy that any moment to relax and have a quiet moment is much valued right now, and RPGs, while fun, are neither quiet nor relaxing in the strictest sense of the word; indeed, they are "intellectual roller-coaster" style fun, I would say. 

Maybe it's just my age showing.

So I am preparing to return to a more regular series of games soon, but I am finding myself intensely unmotivated to actually do so. I have an elaborate plot for one night, all worked out and the players are enjoying it (a Cypher game), but it's perhaps too well plotted out, and I find myself disinterested in seeing it follow through because ultimately I know how it will all play out, what choices will be made, and where everyone will likely make their decisions and which way. It's almost....performative, in a sense. Is it possible to have played RPGs too much?

This does tell me that I, once again, need to think of ways to break myself out of the old shell. I believe this has happened before, and the best way to figure it out is to do the unexpected. Maybe if I am plotting things too well I need to stop plotting entirely, go back to broad, general strokes and see if the players can surprise me. On the Wednesday night game we are planning to meet live again, I am dying to see how that feels once more, it has been so long.*

Anyway.....just some thoughts. I believe a lot of GMs go through this at different times, but I admit, this time feels different. I feel like I could just walk away from it all, indefinitely, and I'd be okay with that. That's definitely different from times I have felt like this in the past.

*And while a lot of it is Roll20, I am still finding it hard to motivate to actually run a live game. I plan to do so this week, though, and sincerely hope the experience breaks me out of this phase.