Saturday, December 31, 2022

Goodbye 2022! Also, some Thoughts about Pathfinder 2E after Reading the WotC OGL 1.1 Annoucment

 2022 wasn't as rough as 2020 or 2021, and frankly might have been an ordinary crappy year if it hadn't been preceded by two years that were the poster children of misery and misfortune. So: here's to a long but generally better year than people give it credit, goodbye 2022, and welcome to a hopefully even better and more productive 2023!!!!

Wizards of the Coast announced their plans and design for an OGL 1.1, the content license they want all future D&D-compatible products to function under. Based on what has been released and analyzed it sounds like they have two goals here: to mitigate or remove digital space competition from their planned Digital One D&D product, and to get some sweet, sweet royalties from the companies that they believe make $750K or more a year from D&D-compatible products. Off-hand I know Morrus of ENWorld admits to being in that category, and I would say Kobold Press, Paizo (which dabbled in 5E releases this year), Green Ronin (maybe), and allegedly around 20 publishers in total might fit that bill. I wonder what the criteria for this is, though.....would Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds count? I thought their platforms catered to licensed deals, but maybe WotC considers, say, something like Shard Tabletop to count for its support of third party publishers.

Do smaller groups like AAW games, Legendary Games, and others count? Is the figure based on the sort of money being pulled in from Kicksarters? Kickstarter earnings generally encompass the cost of creation, design, production and whatever is left at the end may be revenue, but the new OGL 1.1 may be looking at a total skim of 30% off the top of raw dollars earned, not after overhead, prodcution and manpower costs.

This is suddenly starting to feel like 2008 all over again with the D&D 4E SRD, but much, much worse. The 4th Edition SRD was a limiter on what could be done with content. The new OGL 1.1 is actively seeking to either profit freely from the competition or to squelch it. Either way it is incredibly bad news for the hobby at large, hobbyists in particular, and ultimately will hit WotC down the road when the generated interest in their product takes a hit from the diminishing creative output from third party sources.

This is where the Paizo and Pathfinder 2E deal comes in. Paizo capitalized on the shift to the SRD in 2008 by sticking with the OGL 1.0a (which remains in perpetuity, thankfully), and produced Pathfinder 1E, effectively a restatement of the 3.5 edition of D&D that people grew to miss following the arrival of 4th edition. There's a new opportunity brewing for someone to do something similar with D&D 5E, and Paizo technically knows (or knew) how to do this.

The problem is that the current Pathfinder 2E ruleset is not an especially great fit as a replacement. It has many virtuous qualities, but it retains a rigidity which D&D 5E does not have, one which is artificially baked in due to the level-scaling design of the game, and which even Paizo admits is not needed, as demonstrated by the optional rules in the Gamemastery Guide to simply redact level-scaling entirely, leaving a more robust and flexible game that caters to the strength of something more akin to 5E's bounded accuracy. That style of game is buried within Pathfinder 2E, but due to a design choice they went with the level scaling mechanic instead, and likely Paizo will never see a way to go differently now that that choice has been made. Worse yet, I am sure Paizo is committed to their current product, which while fine (and fun to play if you can work within its limits), will never be able to capture the average D&D gamer who is maybe disgruntled with the upcoming One D&D project and where it is taking the game. 

Still, this is a chance for Paizo to recapture some of the old market, I suspect. And it is a chance for a new publisher to maybe move in to that space, and offer something up to gamers who prefer not to be held captive to locked down content and platforms. Its a chance for profitable third parties like Kobold Press to consider leveraging their goodwill now with a product line that supports D&D 5E, rather than comporting to WotC's new standards and going to One D&D. 

In my year end posts I mentioned being done GMing Pathfinder 2E. That might certainly have been true, but I sort of feel like I should maybe just consider this a break period for now, and revisit it later on....there's a very good chance, now, that it looks like Paizo may be the best alternative source for a well-supported D&D-like fantasy system that is not carefully regulated into a revenue generating locked content model like WotC is trying to do with D&D. For that alone I feel I need to do more to support Paizo and their product. 

Death Bat's Year in Review: Best Reading of 2022

 This year I spent more time building up my specific collections on Kindle and Nook, but continue to maintain a physical book collection for certain niches, especially Valancourt Books editions in particular. I also tend to collect and read a lot of translated Japanese literature and prefer physical copies for my collection. My favorite reads this year shaped up as follows:

#6 The Bog by Michael Talbot

An author who died too young and only published a few novels in the 80's and early 90's, Michael Talbot's strange story of an archaeologist exploring an English bog in which numerous bodies are found, including one which appears to have Roman connections, rapidly turned into an even stranger tale of dark magic and ancient evil in ways I did not anticipate. I really enjoyed this book, re-released by Valancourt (my favorite publisher of old classics) and wish Talbot had lived long enough to write a lot more.

#5 The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson was a real eccentric, known for his mystical philosophy and occult writings, he spent a period of time writing Lovecraftian pastiche to demonstrate he could do it better than the HPL himself. Space Vampires is one of the results, and this book inspired the film Lifeforce (I say inspired because the entire film is basically the first two chapters of the book plus some serious liberties after that point). Both this book and the movie it spawned have had a nontrivial impact on my view of the mythos, and I actually finished a recent campaign in Call of Cthulhu in which the eponymous space vampires played a significant role. This book is notable for having an unusually "happy" ending, atypical of your average mythos tale, and suggestive of the fact that Colin Wilson can indeed write great pastiche Lovecraft but maybe not in the proper traditional form of a dour and gloomy ending as one might expect.

#4 Cult X by Fuminori Nakamura

If you read enough Japanese fiction you will notice a trend, especially in the 90's, of deep and introspective stories about the nature of religion, philosophy, obsession and cults in Japan, all driven (I suspect) by the 1995 sarin gas bombings that were initiated by a cult called Aum Shinrikyo. Cult X is an excellent example of this need to explore the nature of cults and how they form and grow, doing so through the eyes of a man pursuing the history of a woman who briefly entered and left his life, and the rabbit hole of belief and obsession with cults that she disappeared down in to. It's a long read but quite engaging, and Nakamura is a great writer who gets some very good translations into English. 

#3 The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

This was a great read, which I snagged by accident at a book store in Florida and also grabbed on Nook (because convenience is the mother of completion). A deep dive, well researched, into the fascinating rise of murder as a media subject and cultural phenomenon of morbid curiosity during the 19th century in England, it also touches on so many other subjects in relation, providing a solid framework for better understanding how recent a phenomenon the concept of police, detectives and forensics are in our modern era, and the nascent fields which sprang out of the Victorian obsession with highly publicized murders over a century. If you're at all into Cthulhu by Gaslight or Vaesen I suggest this book to you, as it will provide a level of insight into that century that I did not previously have before reading it.

#2 Reassuring Tales by T.E.D. Klein

I read most of T.E.D. Klein back in the 80's and early 90's, and he remained one of my favorite Lovecraft-inspired horror authors as a result. Ceremonies is one of the best novels I have ever written. Until recently finding any of his works in print or on the back shelf of an old bookstore was all but impossible, and then abruptly his work made it to ebook format. As a result I have at last had a chance to read him again, and discover his short fiction in the form of this collection. His narrative approach is fantastic, intuitive, and engaging. His subject matter is always interesting, and it is well worth the time and investment of any horror author to read all of what T.E.D. Klein wrote. Look him up on wikipedia, he's a fascinating person who has not gotten nearly enough attention and I am so glad his books are available again.

#1 Best Read of the Year: In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

This horror/crime/mystery mashup is pure pulp, a dive into the seedy 90's underbelly of Tokyo from the view of a tour guide named Kenji who ends up saddled with an American tourist named Frank who wants to explore the seedy sex industry of Tokyo. Kenji does this for a living, but as he takes Frank around the town he begins to suspect something is really wrong with the guy...and then bodies start appearing. 

Ryu Murakami (who has no relation to the incredible Haruki Murakami so far as I know) is a great crime and horror author, and is also behind the book (and film) Audition, which I have not been brave enough to try reading yet, but this was an incredibly thrilling read and I heartily recommend it to anyone into either crime fiction, horror fiction, or Japanese literature.

Okay, that's it for 2022! For 2023 I plan to do a lot more reading, even more so than I managed to get in for 2022, as I have stacks of books and dozens of ebooks I have yet to get to. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Death Bat's Year in Review 2022: Video Games of 2022

 As usual, this year was a mix of me playing some genuinely good older games and occasionally even picking up (and playing) an new game, so this list represents what I played and now what was fresh and new. So that said....

Best Walking Simulators of 2022: Scorn, Moons of Madness and Soma

That it took me so long to play Soma and Moons of Madness is a shame, but at least I got to discover them for the first time this year, a year in which I really decided that I love the shorter form of an exploratory walking simulator with a deep story/realm to uncover. Unfortunately there are plenty of less thrilling examples of this genre out there, but these three games in particular were each amazing in their own ways:

Soma was a deep dive in to the nature of human consciousness, viewed through the lens of a posthuman apocalypse;

Moons of Madness was an SF excursion into Lovecraftian tradition but on Mars, and presented a really fascinating mix of hard SF tropes mixed with cosmic horror;

Scorn was a wordless nightmare written in Giegeresque imagery of a universe which wasn't merely posthuman but had long ago abandoned the concepted of the ideation of self. It was a nightmare from beginning to end, and not for everyone, but I loved it.

Best Open World Game I Finished in 2022: Assassin's Creed Origin

Ubisoft makes games that are simply too large for me to get to with any proper sense of time, and I sometimes wonder if Ubisoft sees this in their numbers, that for every Mountain Dew-powered gamerbro who grabs their latest game and plows through it in a couple weekends, there's a torrent of gamers like me to take months or even years to finish one of their giant worlds. Origin isn't even close to the size of Odyssey or Valhalla which has me worried....I am working on Odyssey now, and wondering how many years before I finish it. I question whether I have the energy to ever tackle Valhalla, given that so many new AC games are scheduled for release (and thankfully Ubisoft has made noises to the effect that their future games will be a bit shorter). In any case, exploring a fictional Ptolemaic Egypt was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate that the developers of these games put so much effort into making them the way they do; it got my son into Egypt and he is learning so much more as a result now. 

Best CRPG of 2022: Tactics Ogre

I'm still playing it, but I am gonna call it for this one. Tactics Ogre is an incredibly satisfying experience. I played other RPGs this year: I tackled, at last, Xenoblade Chronicles I on Switch and while it was fun, that game got long in the tooth well before getting to the end. Tactics Ogre is by contrast a perfect game for a portable experience like Steam Deck or the Switch, and its turn-based rules are a lot of fun to parse out. The story isn't bad, either! I recall playing the original back in the PS1 days, and enjoying it just as much.

Best Shooter of 2022: Halo Infinite

First, I actually finished this in 2022, so there is that. Second, the campaign is really fun, a nice return to form for the Halo franchise which felt like Halo as its fans tend to think of it. The only real issues with Halo Infinite are the fact that the open-world sections felt a bit forced to me; once I finished the main campaign there simply wasn't that much left to keep me involved in the game afterward, and of course the fact that the multiplayer component does not live up to modern standard of what a multiplayer persistent games-as-a-service experience is supposed to be. Some might consider this a feature, not a bug, but I know those who were really hoping for Halo Infinite to rank next to Fortnite and Warzone were certainly disappointed. But for me? I've only ever played Halo for the campaigns, and this one delivered.

Hall of Shame: Destiny 2

What the hell has happened to this game? It's focus on story is now so disjointed and at times nonsensical that keeping up with what is happening and why is impossible. By abandoning a model closer to Halo, we no longer can access and play older campaigns, are stuck on a seasonal treadmill of content that forces gamers who only play for story to grind through unpleasant content to get the most out of it (which I refuse to do; my time is too valuable), and the overall experience feels disjointed and shallow as a result. I have played less of Destiny 2 this year than ever before, and I have decided I will refrain from picking up the next $100 "expansion" as that's the kind of cash I reserve for games I can properly revisit and enjoy on my own time, not Bungie's. To Bungie: start releasing stand along "Best of Destiny" releases with the older campaigns that can be bought for a static price, played forever, and don't turn in to gated content in the future, and I will return. Until then, I will accept that despite the fact that this was once one of my favorite franchises, I must accept that I am not your target demographic anymore.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Death Bat's Year in Review: The Top RPGs of 2022

 As usual, I like to put forth the caveat that these are games I discovered/interacted with in 2022, and not necessarily games that actually came out in 2022. In no particular order....

Game I GMed and Got the Most Out of: Mothership

By far and away Mothership dominated the first half of the year with an ongoing game that lasted to the summer, providing some amazing bang from the buck considering zero edition is a rather slim zine size book, and the first module I ran was about 4 sessions' worth of gaming out of a two page tri-fold. Mothership is a unique zeitgeist of everything I personally need out of a game for it to work, and thankfully in 2023 we'll see the official boxed kickstarted First Edition Mothership for more fun. 

Game I have Hit the Wall On: Pathfinder 2E

I ran some Pathfinder 2E earlier in the year but came to a screeching halt as the numbers became too transparent to me, the rigorously balanced values of the game becoming too obvious, and later as a player I found that I, like many of my players had also expressed, just didn't find character generation very fun. There is fun to be had here, but it it so specific in design and intent that, having run one campaign from level 1 to 20 already, I just don't feel I could continue it any further. I'll continue playing in my friend's campaign when he runs it, but as a GM I am done with it. (EDIT: Maybe not. After writing this post it got me thinking a lot more about Pathfinder, and realizing that the issue was more about the fact that I couldn't keep up with the weekly schedule of content I had inflicted on myself for better than two decades. This year, getting a chance to take a break from GMing periodically while someone else takes on the mantle has helped me greatly in feeling more creatively refreshed. So....we'll see. I'm already plotting a Dark Archive inspired campaign now, so my proclamations are, as always, fickle and tempestuous!)

Most Exciting New Discovery of 2022: Everything by Free League Publishing

Whether we're talking about Forbidden Lands and its retro aesthetic approach to hexcrawl style play, Vaesen's exploration of gothic victorian era nordic horror, Mutant Year Zero's modernized take on Gamma World, sci fi like Alien RPG and Coriolis, or the brand new procedural future crime engine in Blade Runner, I am really into the vibe and style of Free League Publishing's take on gaming. It's been pretty much all I can think about for the last few months, and this includes games like vaesen and Mutant: Year Zero which I've had for a while but only recently really started exploring in depth (part of my effort to focus more on reading what I own rather than continuing to mindlessly collect more, more more). 

I plan to run at least a couple of these games in 2023. I think Forbidden Lands and Vaesen will be first on the proposal, with Blade Runner and Mutant: Year Zero following quickly behind.

Trend I Most Bought in to in 2022: Zine-Style Publishing

I bought a lot of stuff from Exalted Funeral in 2022, as well as Tuesday Knight Games. I spent a lot of time playing Mothership, I ran two campaigns using OSE and the assorted modules that are out on the market for this traditional take on retro OSR D&D gaming. Although I think I am at a hard brake point on D&D gaming as I go in to 2023, I definitely got a lot of mileage out of the exotic, artsy, and weird fun that has come from the small press chapzine style publishing market that has swept one corner of gaming this year. 

Game of the Year for 2022: Mothership

The fact that a 48 page (give or take) 0 Edition player's guide and a handful of supplements can make for one of the best non-Cthulhu horror games and perfectly encapsulate a wide range of the axis of horror and science fiction in the genre that it does is amazing. The way it creates simple but elegant mechanics for fast but deep character generation, rules which drive forward the fear, horror and panic of the genre, and provide a robust yet incredibly simple framework for GMs to run games on the fly with a bewildering array of modules that range from long and deep to a mess of incredibly fun two-page adventures is also amazing. Mothership exploded out of the chapzine craze and captured a new style of gaming that works so incredibly well. Even its imitators wish they were Mothership.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Weird Element of Horror RPGs - Recurring Character-Driven Storytelling in the Face of Death

 We recently wrapped a seven-part Call of Cthulhu campaign, one which I honestly started with the premise of "like a Grindhouse Movie, where everyone dies," but in the end it turned out to be more like "A Grindhouse film, but only half of the party dies." Fair enough! But it raised an interesting specter to me about the horror game market, one which I have been somewhat aware of for many an age: as fun as it is to play horror RPGs, there is a weird measure of investment on the part of the player to make and play a character who is just interesting enough that you like playing them, but not so interesting that when they die you find yourself disappointed or disconnected from the game as a result. 

High PC mortality is something I have often handled in Call of Cthulhu (or GURPS Horror) by either laying down the likelihood of death at the start of the campaign and advising the group to prepare one or more PCs in advance and let their darlings sit it out; and often I try to design around the idea that the really lethal moments tend to come on plot beats that coincide with a grim middle act or the finale. However, given that I also encourage as much free agency on the part of my players as possible this can be a harrowing process to see if the players, by coincidence, comport to the plot and pacing as I have outlined it.

Either way, as a GM I have come to accept that Cthulhu campaigns work best when you plan them out with the expectation of clear and periodic breaks; each works best as a discreet tale, and there is opportune time for reflection and recovery in between. As a result, some of my regulars have characters who have survived for three or more campaigns this way now, and often the "win" as always in Cthulhu is if the players decide to keep them pleasantly retired in their game folders.

At the end of the latest campaign we were left with a unique series of conclusions, some of which clearly hinted at future potential adventures for each character. I myself was left thinking about how interesting this would be, but also realizing that as with all things Cthulhu, any investigator who continues his life in this world is living on borrowed time before madness, death, or oblivion await. That got me to thinking: what horror ruleset or universe might be better suited to an episodic style of tale, one in which the risk of mortality was present, but not necessarily inevitable or even the goal? Or, to put it another way: are there horror games where the focus is on the survivor and their travails, rather than the monsters and the madness against which any number of faceless gumshoes must prevail?

I think it's perfectly possible to accomplish this in Call of Cthulhu, if you commit to a generally more low-key campaign where maybe the mythos creep in in the slightest of ways on occasion. GURPS Horror could accomplish this as well. I hesitate to suggest Savage Worlds, which can handle a certain kind of horror but one which (in my experience) is more suited to "heroic horror" and is maybe less about the discreet moments of character building and world exploration in between....and again, not that you couldn't do this in any system, its just that certain systems may be better at this than others.

The Trails of Cthulhu setting might, but I've got my issues with the Gumshoe mechanics which are aimed at solving an investigative problem that only exists for certain interpretations of the process, one for which I have no need of a solution. Cypher System has its horror genre book, but Cypher, like Savage Worlds, is not about characters of a mundane nature and is more clearly suited to heroes of a most unusual quality; I love Cypher for what it can do, but feel it maybe handles "low key nitty gritty character building" less well than some other systems do.

Anyway.....the idea of a game system aimed at thematically being all about the investigators, the survivors, the people discovering the creepy, weird and the unknown; something modeling the X-Files, essentially, in which we are tuning in for Mulder and Scully first and the Smoking Man and the black goo second....I am not sure that's fully out there, at least in print; I bet Conspiracy X or Bureau 13 might do this. 

I guess several (or even all) of the horror games out there can do this, but it requires a concerted effort on the part of the GM and players to decide that this is how they are going to roll. The tricky part is, if you allow players to grow too invested and attached in their characters, what happens then? Or is the secret that players are doomed, as their character survives one horrifying scenario after another, to inevitably grow attached to their lucky survivor? 

I know I the campaign where I have been a player I have two rotating characters in a Gaslight era Cthulhu campaign, and both have taken on some measure of significance to me, enough so that I contemplate ways to get them to pleasantly retire from the "game" of constantly flirting with death. Arguably this is either a sign that the GM in that campaign is too merciful (too much time and leniency has allowed me to grow fond of my creations), or I have myself simply allowed my own guard to slip, and no longer think of my characters as hapless sacrifices waiting for their number to be drawn, but actual sympathetic fictions trapped in a harsh realm. I'd suggest they buy beachfront property but in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos that is, clearly, the worst idea. 

Indeed, in a horror tale or movie, the death of the protagonist is often tied to the end of the film. In role playing games, the true horror is that when you die the game inevitably continues, proving that you were wrong: you were never the protagonist, you were just another b-list actor who's number was up. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Collecting the Evercade

Around two years ago the Evercade became a thing among vintage and physical edition game collectors. I think I've written a bit about it before, but if you're not sure what the Evercade is you can check out their website here and take a look; it's a nice website. Most recently the third iteration of this console is about to release: the Evercade EXP, a more robust handheld console which has internet connectivity and some preloaded games. It's a step in the right direction, even for a system which is selling itself on the idea that you can buy and play vintage games in cartridge collections.

Anyway, as a person who got swept up in the collector's fever of this console, I thought I'd share a few observations about it, and offer some advice for those of you who are new to the Evercade but might be interested in picking it up. First and most importantly is that the original is a nice, sturdy handheld design, and its only failing is it can be mildly awkward to connect to your PC for any necessary updates (there's usually one you need to download when you get it), and it does not support all the cartridges in current release....I believe the original Evercade only works with the red box releases. That said, there are at least 26 of these collections out there so the original still has a lot of content, and if you find one on sale its probably worth it (but see below).

The Evercade VS is the "console" version of the system, slightly more robust, and designed to handle arcade ports of up to 23 bits (iirc). It's able to play all the games, but its collection of purple box cartridges contain arcade ports and other titles that the handheld can't handle. It's main feature is you can easily hook this up to a TV and play with friends using the retro controllers it comes with. It's main downside has been, from my experience, it can sometimes be hard to "wake up." It's fun, son and I have had a good time plowing through old games I never had the quarters on hand to complete back in the day. I now know for example that it would have probably taken me 120 or more quarters to finish Dark Seal I or Dark Seal II. I bet some of these old arcade classics never had their full range of content fully explored by most people, simply because it cost too much to get there! 

Now there is a new Evercade EXP coming out next week, a slimmer handheld which is compatible with all cartridges, some wireless connectivity, and a range of games preloaded (including some actual notable titles like Mega Man). This one looks like a measured improvement over the origina handheld, and I will report on it when I get my copy in. 

So far, my main realization in collecting Evercade so far has been the following: any of the iterations are worth having if you like retro gaming or physical cartridges, but unless you love owning all games for their own sake, you may wish to look closely at each cartridge release and assess whether the games on it are worth the typical $20 price tag you can get the cartridges for. For example, I know I have gotten my money's worth out of cartridges like the Namco and Atari collections, and there's a great collection of mostly RPGs that I never played back in the day but find well worth the time now to have (Piko Interactive Collection), but some other collections have provided precious little....owning them is more so you can smugly say you have it all, or to admire the equivalent of an electronic museum of forgotten relics of the past than anything else. 

A few collections contain games new to the console or at least newer, such as the Xenocrisis/Tanglewood collection, well worth owning if you don't have these games elsewhere yet) and the Indie Heroes collection, which gathers a range of more contemporary titles for the Evercade and puts them in an ideal medium of play. But for many collections, I have been lucky to find one game that made me happy to have the cartridge, and often the main appeal of the other games was simply to discover that they even existed....and that anyone cared to bring them back! The Atari Lynx collections, as an example, were all new to me, and while a couple were fun, I suspect I would be a lot more enamored of the collections if I had ever owned a Lynx back in the day.

So basically: take the time to look at what's on the cartridges, and make sure at least a couple of the titles appeal to you or scratch the nostalgia itch. Unless you're planning to dive deep into the collector's zone, chances are you can probably pick up 5-6 cartridges with most of the actual games you might want to spend time with and be scrutinizing of the rest.

Okay, maybe next week I'll talk more about the Evercade EXP, unless my wife forces me to put them under the Xmas tree, we shall see.