Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Rogue Warden Retrospective

Greetings, readers! It’s the end of 2013 and I wanted to take a moment to look back at this year. It’s traditional in December to contemplate one’s accomplishments and setbacks, and that’s where I wanted to go with this post.

In general, 2013 was a pretty good year here at Rogue Warden. I got to design some games, write some fiction, go to some great conventions, and even flew to another country. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that I didn’t quite live up to some of my own goals—I didn’t get any novels written, I didn’t manage to get enough Rogue Warden going, and it wasn’t my most productive year  for game writing.

This year in: Blogs!


I posted 43 entries this year, just 9 shy of one per week. That’s a big improvement over last year, and I’m closing in on my goal of one post per week. However, I’m beginning to believe (and accept) that one post per week probably isn’t going to happen given my schedule and responsibilities to things that, you know, actually pay the rent.

I think Rogue Warden did real good this year: I reviewed 4 game systems (including a big one of all the editions of Champions), showcased 12 interviews, and I even got a nomination for Best Blog in the Ennie awards!

What I’m looking forward to in 2014 is to do some more reviews of my favorite supplements, interviewing more luminaries of the gaming industry, and hopefully posting some more of my thoughts on elements of game design.

This year in: Podcasts!

This year I got a chance to act as co-host for a gaming podcast, something I’ve been interested in doing for some time. I loved being a guest on the D6Generation and several other podcasts, so when Darryl Mott approached me to host the Gamer’s Tavern with him, I signed up fast!

Since we started, we’ve released 12 episodes and we’ve got plenty more in the works. The Gamer’s Tavern has had a great start and I’m looking forward to doing more shows covering different aspects of my favorite hobby.

This year in: Game Design!

One thing I really enjoy are miniature games, from Battlefleet Gothic to Battletech. This year, I got a chance to design a skirmish-level miniature game for Catalyst Game Labs called Shadowrun: Sprawl Gangers. I had a ton of fun designing this game and I can’t wait to see how the models turn out.

Possibly the biggest thing I did this year is that I got together with my good friends John Dunn and Jason Marker to design and develop a dark fantasy setting for Savage Worlds called Accursed. This was my love letter to Hellboy and Solomon Kane via Ravenloft, and we launched a kickstarter for this in September. The kickstarter was a big success and I’m extremely pleased to report that the book is done and on sale now at DriveThruRPG. It was a hell of a challenge, and I wanted to find out if I could successfully get a game book made without a huge license or a big RPG company behind me. The answer is: yes I can! My roles on this project were many and varied, from layout to art direction to fiction editing to overall game development.

This year in: Game Writing!

There’s quite a few projects I just can’t talk about yet in this category, so I’ll stick the ones that are released or announced.

First, there’s the Fatemaster’s Almanac for the Through the Breach RPG. I got to lay it out, write a big chunk of it, and even did some development. I’m excited to see these books come out and it’s a very cool game universe to write for.

My long-running association with Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay continued in 2013, as I was able to write some really fun portions of books for Only War: Enemies of the Imperium, Hammer of the Emperor, and Shield of Humanity. I love writing for 40K, and I hope that these two books aren’t my final entries for the line.

This year in: Conventions!

One of my favorite things about the gaming industry is gaming conventions. I love going to conventions, running games at conventions, doing seminars at conventions, and, well… pretty much everything. 2013 was a good year for me and conventions. I got to attend Genghis Con in Aurora, Colorado as a guest of honor. Genghis con, in case you’re not aware, is simply one of the best gaming conventions (for people who love playing games) period. Genghis Con consistently offers high-quality RPG games, packing in three four-hour sessions per day for a total of 9 over the weekend. That’s 9 great games. You’re nearly guaranteed to have a great time, which in my book is a no-brainer. If you live anywhere near Colorado and love gaming, GO TO THIS CON.

I’m honored to attend Genghis Con in 2014 as a guest again, and it’s fair to say I am looking forward to it with incredible anticipation.

Of course, there’s also the superbowl of the RPG industry: Gen Con.
This year, I attended Gen Con in Indianapolis! It is always fun to head to Gen Con, and this year was extra-special. John Dunn, Jason Marker and myself chaired three seminars on getting into the gaming industry, professionalism in gaming, and working with a licensed product. We also debuted the first preview of Accursed, and got some excellent advice and guidance from folks like Shane Hensley.

By far the most interesting and unusual convention that I attended this year was Tracon in Tampere, Finland. I was very pleased to be the gaming guest of honor at this convention (and you can read my full report about it here). Finland was amazing, the convention was amazing, and I encourage anyone who has a chance to go to Finland to visit. I personally can’t wait to go back.

This year in: Fiction!

I wrote two short stories this year, which is better than 2012’s big fat zero. This is the one area where I feel most disappointed in myself—I consider it a personal setback that I didn’t get more fiction written this year, as that was one of my big goals back in January.

I wrote one short story for the Sprawl Gangers game and another for the Deadzone universe by Mantic Games, and I’m quite pleased with both. Here’s hoping I can build on this momentum in 2014.

In Closing

I want to say thank you very much to all my readers and supporters for Rogue Warden. This blog has been a great way for me to talk about the things that I find most interesting and unique about this hobby we all love, and I deeply appreciate all the support and kind words of my readers. I look forward to seeing great feedback from you about the blog in 2014!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Top 10 Favorite RPG Systems

Greetings, readers! At the closing of the year for 2013, I think it’s a good time to talk about some of my favorite RPGs of all time. I can’t really say much more than that—I like top 10 lists, the end of the year seems like a good time for that, and I feel like talking about some RPGs that I have enjoyed the most.

There are some things I should go over when talking about this list—these are the RPGs that I remember having a ton of fun with and are judged solely on my own experiences. I’m also grading these games primarily because of their system and gameplay, nothing else. This means I’m not taking into consideration things like setting, artwork, or even writing quality—just the pure “fun factor” of the game’s mechanics through my own subjective lens. 

My standard disclaimer applies, your mileage may vary, and not everyone is going to have the same experiences with each game. Also, the games below are not ranked according to overall quality. Instead, I will rank them based on the number of campaigns I’ve participated in over the years, so the top numbers on the list are going to be older games that I played a lot in my early years.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get this show on the road!

My Personal Top 10 Favorite RPG Systems

#10: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition

Why I like This Game: For me, WFRP has two things that set it apart from other games and make me really enjoy playing it: griminess and randomness. I’ll explain. WFRP is grimy—it’s a world where the heroes (the player characters) start on the very bottom rung as rat catchers and agitators who may, if they’re lucky, someday dream of being something like a pit fighter! On top of that, the setting is also grimy—it’s a low-fantasy world where corruption, greed, and many other vices are front and center while “saving the world” is something that rarely, if ever, gets any focus. And, lest you get the wrong idea here, these things are all great.

Also, WFRP is very, very, very random. Sometimes, random is a lot of fun, and I’ve been blessed to have several groups of friends who enjoy this aspect of gaming play WFRP with me. What do I mean by random? Well, almost everything is random in WFRP. Your race, your career, even quirks of your own appearance all have their own chart that you roll on. WFRP is one of the first games (other than classic Traveller) that I ever played where I had little control over my character’s creation. It was oddly freeing, and I really enjoyed the challenge of it.

#9: TORG

Why I like This Game: I’ve reviewed TORG before on this blog, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. I love the interesting mechanics of the Drama Deck, the interesting premise, and above all—the pulp-y superhero awesomeness of the Nile Empire (which includes special mechanics just for that region and characters from that reality!).

#8: Savage Worlds

Why I like This Game: This particular RPG is on my mind a lot lately, thanks to being the core system for my own, recently-published setting Accursed. There are two things that I think are great about Savage Worlds: the Fast, Furious, Fun approach and the immense amount of support material. The Fast, Furious, Fun approach means that Savage Worlds is one of those games where the mechanics are designed to “get the job done and get out of the way,” prioritizing an enjoyable experience and minimal-effort preparation. My experience with Savage Worlds games means that they don’t bog down and the game allows for—and even encourages—thinking outside the box, roleplaying in-character, and memorable moments… which are all things I enjoy the most about RPGs.

In addition, of course, Savage Worlds has a huge lineup of settings to use with the game, from interesting superhero settings like Necessary Evil to the venerable and awesome zombie-cowboy goodness of Deadlands.

#7: Star Wars D6

Why I like This Game: Star Wars has found its way into several different RPGs over the years, but my favorite iteration has to be West End’s D6 Star Wars designed by Greg Costikyan. While this system has its flaws, the fun flow of force points and the very broad skill categories allow for a really iconic Star Wars experience. It helps that this system was designed in an era when the original trilogy was all we had to go on, so it feels very Rebellion-Era to me… which is my favorite part of Star Wars! The gameplay of this particular system of Star Wars always struck me as a very fun version of “a bunch of guys in a ship,” similar to (but, for me, more fun than) Traveller. Flexible and fun, I also very much enjoyed the starship combat rules.

#6: Rifts/TMNT/Robotech

Why I like These Games: I’m lumping a bunch of games with very similar systems into one for this blog post. On a fundamental level, they’re all basically the same system with a few tweaks—I enjoy playing them mostly for nostalgia factor. I played the hell out of these games in my youth, and I remember enjoying several different games using these books. I don’t think they would hold the same magic for me now, especially due to the way my tastes in RPGs have matured, but I have to say there are still some things that these games do right—offering a very deep player character creation system and some interesting approaches to combat and martial arts. In the end, these games earn a spot on the list more for the memories than for the realities, but they did leave me with some /great/ memories.

#5: Marvel Super Heroes

Why I like This Game: This was probably my first exposure to a really “rules-lite” RPG. I’ve covered it before on this blog, so this will be another short section. The FASERIP system is remarkably simple and yet remarkably complete for a superhero RPG. I have my issues with a few small parts of the design (such as skills), but the overall implementation of the RPG rules make for a very coherent take on the superhero genre. I played a ton of games of this in high school!

#4: Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay

Why I like This Game:  Anyone who knows me well probably saw this one coming from a mile away—and it’s important that I point out three things up front. First, Warhammer 40,000 roleplay is very heavily based on the WFRP engine, so mechanically, it’s very similar. Second, I didn’t create this system—that would be Kate Flack, Owen Barnes, and Mike Mason in the original Dark Heresy. Third, I did work on this system for many years at Fantasy Flight Games. So, having said all of that—I love Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. The system has a lot of quirks, but at its heart, it’s quite flexible (having been built on the foundation of WFRP) and has been used to do everything from man-on-the-street investigation to legendary heroic action on the battlefield. It’s been a lot of fun putting my mark on this game system and I’m very proud of all that it has become.

#3: Shadowrun

Why I like This Game: Most of my experience with this game flows from 3rd and 4th edition, although I’ve been a player and a fan since the very beginning. Shadowrun’s best when it is using its game system to provide a deep, immersive take on a cyberpunk future with magic and monsters. I love the character options, I love the sheer crazy amount of spells and guns and adept powers you can choose from. I love that it is not a class and level based game but allows you to build to an archetype. I love that it has a strong adventuring paradigm. I played the hell out of this game in the 90’s up to the present day (through 4th edition), and I will always look at it fondly.

#2: Champions

Why I like This Game: It should be no surprise to long-time readers of the Rogue Warden that I love Champions—I mean that I have a deep, abiding, heartfelt love of this game. And it’s fair to say that the real heart and soul of Champions is the system. Champions lets you build exactly the character you want, by spending points to build each power or ability by selecting advantages, disadvantages, power levels and limits. It’s a tinkerer’s dream and it solidly placed my feet on the path towards game design early in my gaming life.

#1: Dungeons & Dragons

Why I like These Games: This game is the grand-daddy of ‘em all. The first RPG I ever played and the gateway to a hundred more, Dungeons and Dragons captured my young imagination like nothing else. I learned a ton about games, gaming, game design, social interaction, and even some things about myself through playing Dungeons and Dragons over the years. I’ve gained some amazing lifelong friends through this game. The systems are quite different from the beginning white box set through to the new Next, so most of my memories come from 2nd and 3rd edition (+3.5) where I played the vast majority of my games of D&D. This is also where I got my start as a game designer as well (during the d20 boom). There’s not much more I can say except that there are certain mechanics and gameplay elements that I have firmly lodged in my brain as being “Dungeons and Dragons” and they will always be there.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Champions System Review Part 4: 6th Edition

Greetings, readers, and welcome to the final installment of my review of the Hero System. This particular entry in the series focuses on the sixth edition of Champions, released originally in 2010. 

My review of this edition is going to be relatively short and sweet—the newness of this system and the fact that it is difficult for me to find an ongoing Champions campaign means that I haven’t played very much of this edition. Most of my experience comes from running and playing in one-shot adventures at conventions (such as the amazingly fun Genghis Con in Denver, Colorado).

A Grand Adventure

One of the biggest factors involved with sixth edition that simply must be addressed up front is the fact that the video game studio Cryptic purchased the Champions IP to use in their MMO, Champions Online. This purchase provided a huge money infusion into Hero Games, and paved the way for a major improvement in the overall look and feel of the game in this edition. First of all, the artwork received a much-needed upgrade; nearly everything is in color, and all the art appears to have had a huge jump in overall quality. Secondly, the production values in general for the line (including logos, trade dress, etc.) all improved as well.

Making, or Breaking, the Rules

Sixth edition changed more than just appearances. Steve Long conducted an online poll of Hero gamers to find out what most people wanted to change about the new edition, and took that into consideration when redesigning the ruleset. Sixth edition is a much more refined ruleset than, say, the difference between 4th and 5th editions, and several rules that remained unchanged for decades were altered in profound ways. Figured characteristics were removed, the points costs of other characteristics modified, and a character’s combat value was separated out as a distinct characteristic and not just part of Dexterity. Comeliness as a characteristic was removed, replaced by a “striking appearance” Talent. There are other changes, but the ones listed above are the ones I found most memorable.

Personally, I am a big fan of Sixth edition’s ruleset. I love that Strength has no figured characteristics, because in previous editions of the game, Strength was basically king (leading to a description of Champions by many gamers as “Champions Loves Bricks!”). This separation means that Strength could now be a part of my character power builds, as something that made mechanical sense. I also appreciate the removal of Comeliness, since “Striking Appearance” does everything meaningful you wanted for looking particularly bad or good. In general, I definitely feel that Sixth edition is my personal favorite ruleset of all the editions.

All of these improvements to the rules did come with one drawback--the already-intimidating size of the rulebooks for 4th and 5th edition pale in comparison to the size of the rules for 6th. In fact, the rulebooks were broken up into three separate volumes!

Critical Hits

I love making characters for Sixth edition. I love the way that the new powers work (such as Damage Negation, which is flat-out the best way to represent a “bulletproof” superhero I’ve seen so far in the system). I love the vibrancy that seems to fill the line in the wake of its predecessor, and I love the way that Sixth edition gains quite a bit from the connection to the Champions MMO (particularly in terms of artwork!).

Adding in more contributions to the line from respected authors like Mike Surbrook, Derek Hiemforth, and others has also helped the line feel more distinct and have a different voice from its predecessor. The addition of Champions Complete to the lineup feels like an excellent move to try and get more gamers interested in the system. I’m pleased by the books that focus on the big threats like Mechanon—these are welcome additions to the line. I’d also like to single out the Ultimate Base as being a book worthy of high praise, with a ton of interesting ideas for setting up your superhero group’s headquarters.

Critical Misses

There’s not a lot to dislike in Sixth edition, so all I will say here is that I found the villains books a bit lackluster, but then, my yardstick will always be 4th edition’s Classic Enemies, which is a hard act to follow!

Featured Creators

Mike Surbrook: Mike was tapped to write quite a bit for this addition, adding in his contributions to the Hero System Bestiary and receiving cover credit for the Hero System Martial Arts book. Mike continues to add a lot of value to the Champions line (and make sure to check out Kazei 5 as well, below).

Scott Heine: For more about Scott, see my 4th edition Champions review. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see Scott contributing more material for Hero.

Steven Long: For more about Steve, see my 5th edition Champions review. Steve continues to be the main writer for Sixth edition, producing so much content I am certain that Steve is in fact a golem built by a wizard who wanted more Hero products.

Third Party Material

Sixth edition is blessed with quite a bit of excellent third party material. Especially noteworthy are the pulp adventure The Day After Ragnarok by Kenneth Hite, featuring an alternate WWII involving a mind-bogglingly huge jormungandr serpent, and Kazei 5.

A Note From the Editor. I need to make a correction from something I pointed out in my 5th edition review—Mike Surbrook’s Kazei 5 was actually printed for sixth edition, not fifth, this making this excellent addition for the Champions game part of this section of the review.

Blackwyrm Publishing created a ton of settings for this edition as well, including Bill Keyes’ The Widening Gyre, Grady Elliot’s Terracide, Ryan Wolfe’s Lux Aeternum, and Patrick Sweeney’s The Fires of Heaven.

What the Future Holds

The Sixth Edition of the Hero System is off to a strong start, with over 30 products on the shelf and a robust set of supplements. However, the publisher—Hero Games—is essentially on life support since sharply reducing production and staff in 2011. This is not to say that the game is dead or dying; Champions Complete came out this year, further products are planned, and Darren Watts is putting his characteristic energy and passion into the Champions Live Action LARP project.

I hope you’ll join me in hoping for more and better things for Champions in the future, wishing all of the creators well, and keeping an eye on further developments for the Hero System.