Thursday, July 26, 2012

RPG System Review: Torg

Greetings, readers! This week, I’m taking a look at a somewhat obscure RPG from the 90’s that took on some ambitious goals—and in many ways represents an innovative step in roleplaying game design. I’m talking about the boxed set containing cyberpunks, barbarian warriors, dinosaurs and superheroes… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the game known as Torg.

Cyberpunks and Priests. This is actually just one realm in Torg.

Created by West End Games in 1990, Torg is a cinematic, multi-genre roleplaying game from the talented pens of Greg Gordon and Bill Slavicsek. Torg is an acronym for “The Other Roleplaying Game,” and its original presentation was as a boxed set that included rulebooks, a “possibility shard” that was in fact an oddly colored D20, and a “drama deck” of cards (more on these later). Also included in the box was an advertisement for the Infiniverse magazine, a periodical of in-universe information for Torg that promised to track and include the progress of a campaign through “rumors” in the magazine that would be confirmed or denied. This system made use of a response form to tell West End Games what happened during your campaign.

What is it all about?

Yeah, it's kind of like that.

In “the near now,” Earth has been invaded by a number of other dimensions, each ruled by a “High Lord.” The High Lords have changed the natural laws wherever their reign rules supreme, and large areas of the planet have transformed to match the invading reality. The player characters are “Storm Knights,” special people from Earth and the invading dimensions who are gifted with a limited ability to affect “possibility energy,” a rich field that envelops Earth and interacts with all of the invading dimensions. The Storm Knights oppose many of the High Lords and the plans of one in particular, the evil Gaunt Man.

For the rest of the review, click to follow after the jump! 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Interview Time: Sean Patrick Fannon

When I started Rogue Warden, one of my goals was to go around and interview a number of my friends and colleagues in the RPG industry—partly to help raise awareness of the blog, of course, but also to get some insight into the professionals that create the games I love. Today’s interview is with a man I would describe as a rogue, a colleague, a Game Master, and a friend: Mr. Sean Patrick Fannon.

Sean with his fiancee, Carinn Seabolt. Sean, you lucky dog!!

I’ve known Sean for several years, having run into him in a particularly memorable (and somewhat embarrassing) incident at Gen Con during its last year in Milwaukee. I got a chance to play in one of Sean’s demo games that year for Shards of the Stone, and I could tell right away that Sean had a notable passion and love for games.

I had known of Sean’s work before meeting him due to my deep appreciation of Champions 4th edition, and Sean worked on many of my favorite books of that line.

Later on, Sean gets the credit for introducing me to (at the time) a new-fangled RPG system called Savage Worlds—I was particularly impressed by how that system handled 20+ players at the same time in one of Sean’s Shaintar convention games!

I’d like to call out a couple of really interesting and thought-provoking pieces written by Sean: the first being the Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible and the second being his Project ’77 "gamer manifesto" post.

Currently, Sean has finagled his way into a great position as the Customer Marketing and Communications guy for DriveThruRPG. Also, Sean is the man responsible for single-handedly convincing Kevin Siembieda to bring Palladium Books into the 21st century by offering PDFs of their products on DriveThruRPG. Way to go, Sean!

Sean wrote the excellent "How to use Enemies" chapter in this book.

Lastly, I’m pleased to say that Sean and I are colleagues, having worked together on projects including the ENnie-award winning Creatures Anathema. Take it from me, Sean’s a talented writer and one HELL of a GM.

If you want to know more about Sean, check out his blog and this episode of The Game’s The Thing (it’s an eye-opener!)

Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
(See the rest of the interview after the jump... it's a big one!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gaming Awards

The list of nominees for the 2011 ENnie awards have just been released, and I’m super-proud to say that there are three products on that list with my name in it. I have won some ENnies before (for Dawnforge in 2003 and Creatures Anathema in 2008), and I’m honored that my work has been recognized in this way.

Today’s blog post is all about the art and science of gaming industry awards, so I need to be clear up front with full disclosure: I’ve won some ENnies—I’ve participated in the ENnies process many times, and they are probably my favorite set of gaming awards in the current landscape.

All that having been said, let’s talk about gaming awards in general. What are they? How do they work—or not work? Is there a better way? These are the questions I’d like to address.

Hey now, no recursion!

Who Are the Awards For?

Of the gamers I know in my local area, roughly two-thirds of them are aware of gaming industry awards in a general sense, and amongst those, there are many who find them useful and/or possibly influential. One-third simply does not care and is not influenced by them at all.

I’ve heard it said that mostly gaming awards are for the industry, not the consumers—I guess I just like to imagine that, just like there are film buffs who discuss the Academy Awards, there are game buffs who discuss gaming awards.

In my experience, the ones that are most affected by industry awards are the industry professionals themselves. The folks who spend all that time and energy and money making games are the most invested in the recognition those games receive… and I’m fine with that. It definitely looks good on a resume, and I can speak from experience that having won an industry award is helpful getting one’s foot in the door for doing work with a professional gaming company.

I think for many gamers, relevance is the most important issue when it comes to awards—but that is also a complicated issue. Obviously, the award is meant to be given to the most qualified recipient. But what meaning does an award have if it is given to an extremely obscure product? There’s something to be said for the awards raising awareness of more niche games, and I am definitely a proponent of that… but a quality game, IMHO, is generally one that is recognizable to many, if not most, gamers who pay attention to the awards in the first place.

Now this is an award I'd love to have on my shelf...

Is There a Better Way?

My friend and colleague Kevin Wilson used to say that what the industry really needs is some kind of journalistic approach to awards. For example, printed novels have the “New York Times Bestseller List.” RPGs have no real journalistic, “neutral third party” group to provide an objective viewpoint. Having researched this issue for some time, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a better and more ideal way of handling awards… but I have no idea of what it is. I can say that I feel personally the ENnies is the most representative option of gaming awards in our industry—although there’s still room for improvement.

Which Awards?

Let’s check out the current crop of gaming industry awards. The “big two” are the Origins Awards and the ENnies. There are also smaller award groups like the Golden Geek awards, the Indie RPG awards, and the Diana Jones award.

The Origins Awards

According to their Wikipedia entry, the Origins Awards have been around since roughly 1987 and have been more of a force in the industry since 2000. I know that I first became aware of them sometime in the 90’s and started paying a lot more attention towards the early 2000’s, especially given the rocky events of that decade (see below). The Origins Awards has the prestige of being the first and probably most recognized set of game industry awards. The Origins Game Fair is built around the Origins awards, and it is the current keeper of the game industry hall of fame. For these reasons, Origins is one of the “Big Two” in the gaming industry awards set alongside the ENnies awards (see below).

The Good

The Origins awards try hard to be comprehensive; they attempt to recognize nearly every category of product you’d see in a typical game shop—from RPGs, to miniature games, to board games, and so forth.

Additionally, the Origins awards encompass the Hall of Fame mentioned above and are a proponent of the Origins Game Fair. These are all good things that I personally give them credit for.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the Origins awards have become increasingly irrelevant over time. I myself know of at least two big name game companies that refuse to have anything to do with the Origins awards. In addition, the method by which awards are nominated and which games are recognized is confusing and opaque.

Personally, the last several years of Origins awards have never failed to leave me scratching my head and wondering why certain games won awards and others were ignored. A good example from the 2011 awards is the Best Miniature Game category. While I am certain that the Blackest Night Heroclix had some quality to it, I’m very surprised that games like Malifaux were passed over in its favor.

Similarly, the 2006 awards gave RPG of the year to Burning Empires whilst ignoring Spirit of the Century… if someone can explain this to me, by all means, chime in down in the comments section, because I find these kinds of decisions absolutely baffling.

The RPG of the year for 2011, according to the Origins Awards, is Arcanis. I’m certain Arcanis is a fine product, but this is also the year of the Pathfinder Beginner’s box, the Mouse Guard boxed set, and Savage Worlds Deluxe… which (for me) makes no sense.

The actual awards show itself (hosted at the Origins Game Fair) is an impressive affair… but is noticeably lacking some of the bigger names of the industry in attendance. Even companies that participate in the awards (i.e., sending in product for consideration) rarely make an appearance.

These are some of the reasons why I believe the Origins Awards have become essentially meaningless—the awards are being shunned by significant publishers, the awards themselves are handed out without seeming rhyme or reason, and…

The Ugly

The Origins Awards are frustratingly opaque as to how the awards (and the Hall of Fame) are handled. The Origins Awards are decided by the “Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design,” which is apparently a part of GAMA. I regret to say that I don’t have a lot of hard facts regarding the specific function of the Academy or the Awards, nor could I find such information on the GAMA website. It’s possible that such info is there, but it’s certainly buried beyond a casual search. 

Ultimately, I have no idea how the Origins Awards work—I presume that if you’re a member of GAMA or on the GAMA board, you can vote with the Academy… or maybe the Academy is the board… I just don’t know. And to me, opaque awards committees are basically just a recipe for disaster.

There was, in fact, just such a disaster in the early part of the new millennium. In 2004, Ryan Dancey had been elected treasurer of GAMA—Dancey had previously served as a Brand Manager for WOTC during the heady years of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd and 3.5 edition and was a key figure in the Open Game License of that era. Dancey’s election was part of a much-anticipated “reform group” that it was hoped would change the Origins Awards, the Academy, and GAMA for the better.

This scandal tainted the Origins Awards’ integrity and was one of the reasons that some publishers (mentioned above) chose to steer clear of the awards show from that point forward.

My Opinion: The Origins Awards used to mean something, but now I believe they are completely irrelevant both to the average gamer and the industry at large. The meaning and significance of the Origins Award has been severely tarnished by the 2004 scandal, and I think it would take some major effort on the part of the Academy to redeem the awards into something meaningful once again.

The ENnies Awards

The ENnies have been around since 2001 and are an outgrowth of a popular and influential RPG website known as EN World, a site built by Eric Noah focused around Dungeons and Dragons (particularly its D20 incarnation during 3rd and 3.5 edition). Initially, the awards were solely internet-based and only recognized contributions to the d20 license, but the awards have since blossomed and grown into a much more comprehensive look at the RPG industry as a whole. Since 2002, the awards have been held at a live event at Gen Con—it’s actually quite a lively and fun show, and I definitely recommend attending if you have any interest in the awards or the nominees.

The Good

The ENnies, as mentioned previously, take a good long look at the RPG industry and recognize a number of elements in that industry every year, from “Best Production Values” to “Game of the Year.” A panel of Judges are nominated and voted on each year by the public, and these Judges then select the top nominations for each category. The winner in each category is then determined by popular vote.

This means that getting an ENnie nomination is the real victory—the most popular game in each category generally wins (there was a particularly memorable sweep of awards by Pathfinder in 2010, for example).

The nomination and voting process are fairly transparent, the nominations in each category are quite relevant and generally reflect the best entries for that year, and a majority of publishers—both upper- and lower-tier—participate every year.

Even in years where one company dominates (such as 2010), the nominations list makes sense to me—in my opinion, it accurately reflects the highest quality of the games released. There are definitely some cases where I disagree with the winner, but I generally nod my head when scanning over the nominations list.

One thing that is critical to note is that the ENnies Judges review only the games that are sent to them by the publisher. As one example, the Fantasy Flight Games entries for 2010 (including amongst them Deathwatch and a number of other 40K RPG books) were not submitted in time due to some health issues, and thus they were not considered for that year’s awards.

The Bad

My only serious criticism of the ENnies is that I would like to see them widen their scope—as I mentioned during my look at the Origins Awards, I enjoy seeing comprehensive awards that look at every aspect of tabletop gaming. The ENnies has done a good job of growing and evolving since its inception in 2001, and I would really like to see that continue and encompass broader portions of tabletop gaming… maybe start looking at board games, or including more categories for miniatures, as some examples.

The Ugly

I don’t really have much to say here. The ENnies have, to my knowledge, stayed clear of any major stumbling blocks and have done a great deal to bring respect and honor to the industry in the form of official recognition—the awards themselves.

My Opinion: I’m a self-admitted fan of the ENnies. I think they’re the most relevant and significant awards you’ll find in the gaming industry, and I’m planning on attending the award show at this year’s Gen Con.

And the Rest

After the "big two," there are a few other RPG awards that I feel are worth discussing:

The Diana Jones Award

My Opinion: The Diana Jones award is quirky, but relevant, and the awardees all appear deserving. Overall, I’m a fan.

The Indie RPG Awards

My Opinion: I don’t know much about the Indie RPG Awards, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. The Indie awards exist in part to help raise awareness of the more obscure and niche RPGs in the industry, and I think that is a laudable goal. Many of the winners of this award are definitely relevant and I am pleased that they’re around—I wish there was a way to incorporate them into the ENnies to help both sides of this equation grow and receive the recognition they’ve earned.

The Golden Geek Awards

My Opinion: The Golden Geek Awards are a very recent entry into the industry awards area, brought about by the site Lately, the Golden Geeks have added categories for RPG products, and I definitely hope to see the Golden Geeks improve in both prominence and breadth. My only concern is the opacity of how the awards are nominated and voted on… but this is a hurdle I think the Golden Geeks can easily overcome.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hack Factor

A quick side note--I've been slackin' lately! I missed a whole week of updates. I'll try to do better. Enjoy a super-sized blog post this week to make up for it!

Today’s blog post title is slightly disingenuous… I’m actually intending to talk about two main factors of RPG character types, and “Hack Factor” is only half of the equation. A sexy, sexy half. So sexy that the name itself forced me to grant it the singular honor of the post title. Congratulations, id!

Moving on, I want to briefly talk about tabletop RPG characters. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with various folks, from my D&D Dungeon Master to fellow game designers about what makes a particular type of character compelling. Naturally, any character can have a compelling concept, backstory, or even something as simple as a cool name or a really sweet picture (often found on Deviantart or 4Chan).

Who do I want to be today?

However, for me and many gamers like me, among the most important elements of a character are mechanical in nature. How does the character interact with the game’s mechanics? How well can they weather the storm of combat? Most RPGs have a strong focus on combat because of the nature of RPGs… I would posit that most RPGs feature direct, violent action against the antagonist of the story in a confrontation as the climax of a given session or campaign.

Thus, while my own taste in characters definitely involves the intangibles of his backstory, concept*(see below), name, image, and so forth, I often spend far more time and energy considering the character’s mechanical benefits: his Utility Factor and Hack Factor.

*Caveat: I should take the time here to say that, for me, the concept of the character is the trump card. If I have a really compelling concept, that’s what I’ll want to play, regardless of any other influences.

Utility Factor


If it's good enough for Batman...

My definition of a character’s Utility Factor is a measure of how often he can meaningfully interact with the game on a mechanical level. Another way to put it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—outside of combat?”

Often a character’s Utility Factor is a representation of things like the number and variety of skills he possesses (especially social skills), social abilities, the number and variety of spellcasting or psionic or similar powers, movement abilities, and any realm-building or leadership-style abilities.

For example, in Rifts, I really like the Manoan Amazon R.C.C. This character can cast spells, use psionic abilities, and possesses a bunch of interesting nature-related skills as well as some enhanced senses. That’s a lot of utility factor in one character!

Similarly, in the Hero System, I like a character that has a wide variety of skills. My character Technicality can investigate a crime, hack the syndicate’s computers, and even argue a case in a court of law—all valuable and meaningful ways to mechanically interface with a superhero game.

Versatility Trumps Everything Else

One thing that I’ve learned from over 25 years as a tabletop RPG player is that he who has the most options generally “wins” by having something cool to do more often. I’m generalizing with a broad brush here, admittedly—I’ve played in games before with very un-versatile characters and have had a lot of fun. So to get it out of the way early, I should point out that a talented GM can make nearly any game fun, regardless of mechanics.

That having been said, I do find that the more options I have, the better my play experience tends to be, especially in the long run over a number of sessions in the same campaign. In many, many gaming systems, spellcasters happen to be an excellent example of this. Spellcasters are rarely the strongest or toughest or most agile character type you can pick, but they usually have a huge bag of goodies to choose from in any given situation. Zap the bad guy? No problem. Breathe underwater? Got it covered. Invisibly snatch the idol from the primitive altar? You got it.

Versatility usually comes at a price; spells can only be cast once a day, or must be re-memorized before being cast again, or cost a number of “spell points” that must then be replenished.

Having a versatile character means that you have a high Utility Factor, and often, it also means you have a high Hack Factor as well. Why? The Utility Factor part should be self-evident; the more versatile a character, the more opportunities are present to engage with the game. Versatile characters are also generally good at combat as well, especially with being able to engage enemies at range (via a lightning bolt spell, for example) or locking down foes with debuffs, adjustments to their movement (such as a web spell), or altering the conditions of the fight itself (such as summoning a storm). 

A Versatile character may not be able to dish out as much damage as a character who focused entirely on fighting, but such characters can still achieve a high Hack Factor by being able to do more than just inflict damage. In fact, some versatile character types (such as spellcasters in Dungeons and Dragons) can eventually achieve immense amounts of damage or eliminate the opponent outright at higher levels of play—all simply due to the vast amount of options available.

Hack Factor

When in doubt... Hack!

My definition of a character’s Hack Factor is a measure of his raw ability to perform meaningful actions on a mechanical level in combat. Another way to define it is an answer to the question, “How often do I get to do something cool—mechanically—in combat?”

Meaningful combat actions often involve doing lots of damage, hitting enemies on a consistent basis, applying status effects (such as blinding them, grabbing them, etc.), locking down enemies with special abilities (such as spellcasters, psionics, etc.), and being able to drop lots of lower-level enemies or (often, singular) higher-level enemies more efficiently.

In the Feng Shui RPG, I played Keiichi O’Hara, a Karate Cop who focused his abilities on being able to take out Named Characters (the more powerful and rarer type of enemy) more efficiently—this was his role in combat, to seek out the biggest, baddest bad guy and hand him his head.

In West End’s D6 Star Wars RPG, I played Kaldryn, a Trianii Ranger. He was an alien warrior whose abilities were well-suited for causing havoc on the battlefield and taking out lots of lower-level enemies while the other party members handled the bigger threats.

Damage is Not the Key

In most tabletop RPG’s, combat happens a lot. That means inflicting damage is good, and inflicting lots of damage is great! However, if your character’s only option to do serious damage to an opponent depends on your ability to run up to him and whack him with a sword, it’s not as good as it initially appears. Many RPGs feature magic, science, some combination of the two, or other such esoteric abilities that let opponents fly, levitate, create walls or change the nature of the battle’s terrain. Thus, the ability to reach a foe and hit him with a sword is certainly not guaranteed. How fast can the character move? Can he fly?

If you asked me what I consider the most important part of Hack Factor, I would define it thusly: one’s ability to consistently affect the battle. Naturally, “affecting the battle” often involves simply defeating as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible, but doing direct damage is not absolutely necessary to qualify. Grappling an enemy wizard, using a debuff on the entire enemy force, or shutting down the supervillain’s impervious force-field all fall under this category as well.

Using this metric, a strictly melee warrior has a rather low Hack Factor. He may be able to inflict impressive damage on a directly adjacent foe, but such a warrior struggles whenever he must move to engage a distant enemy and is seriously hampered whenever terrain interferes (i.e., limited access via a bridge, having to move through deep water or mud, etc.) or if his enemy is flying or otherwise out of melee range.

Factors and Systems

Most often, RPG systems with fairly open and flexible character creation systems don’t have too many issues with imbalances of Hack Factor and Utility Factor. In the Hero System, for example, it is relatively simple to change a few points around to acquire more skills to raise your Utility Factor or to buy some additional combat levels or power dice if you want to increase your Hack Factor.

Class-and-level RPG systems, however, seem to have the most trouble balancing these two elements in my experience. For this particular blog entry, I’m going to use the character classes from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition as an example.

Why 3.5 D&D? I should say upfront that I believe all editions of Dungeons & Dragons have their strengths and weaknesses, and my personal favorite edition is 3.5. I’ve done a fair amount of work in the industry for this edition, and it’s fair to say that I’ve studied it’s game design more thoroughly than nearly any other system (with the exceptions of Hero and Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay) in my collection. I’m going to limit myself to discussing the classes from the Core Player’s Handbook for this post, although I will certainly mention other books along the way, simply because the classes from the Player’s Handbook are more well-known and iconic to the genre than any others, and thus are perfect examples for this discussion.

What about 3.0 and Pathfinder? Well, in 3.0 I’d go so far as to say the differences were even more pronounced—Fighters, Bards, and Rangers had it particularly bad in 3.0. Pathfinder goes the opposite direction, helping out nearly every class, but in general I’d apply the same rankings to Pathfinder characters of these same classes.

Tl/dr: 3.0 ratings are the same but worse, Pathfinder ratings are the same, but slightly better.

Check out the 3.5 character classes and their rankings after the jump!