August 12, 2016

Revolutions

Hi there! Welcome to Prismatic Word Spray, a probably-weekly newsletter about RPG stuff I find interesting, sometimes new stuff, sometimes old stuff, plus some thoughts, an essay, or RPG material I’ve created.

Who am I? My name’s Clinton, last name Dreisbach, but it used to be Nixon, and I published several games under my former last name: Donjon, The Shadow of Yesterday, and Owl Hoot Trail, among others. I helped get The Forge, a forum for independent role-playing games, started. These days, I’m just a guy who likes to play games. I tend to play fantasy games, but like to branch out. I like weird games with no dice and lots of feelings, and I like old-school dungeon crawls.

So, here’s how it’s going to go. We’ll have a roundup of links with some asides, and then a longer piece. Let’s give it a try.

The Roundup

The Temple by Oli Jeffrey is a game about female revolutionaries fighting a ruling caste of sorcerer-priests. It’s a game where the characters are outclassed and have to find oblique approaches to problems. The likelihood of your character dying or being dragged away in the night is pretty much 100%. Conflicts are handled with domino-based mini-games. It hits me in all the right spots and I hope I get to play it soon.

The Temple was made as part of Brent Newhall’s Fantasy RPG Design Challenge, which is a fun thing that’s been happening for a while. Its goal is to made non-traditional fantasy games.

Speaking of Brent Newhall: he released Spaces of the Unknown, a fantasy RPG made for play-by-post. It’s definitely a traditional fantasy game, which is great by me. I like this bit from the rules:

This is a game about armed people exploring environments that were once peaceful and productive, and have since been taken over by brutish, chaotic forces. ... It’s about civilization, about the wonderful ability of humans (and their kin) to take raw materials and make places where people can peacefully live out their lives. More importantly for the players, this game focuses on the devolution of those places, about brutal forces overrunning and destroying that peace, and the players’ characters sweeping in and reclaiming those places for the good of all.

That should be copy on the for-sale page. It’s a cool concept, and I dig that it’s made for non-face-to-face play (although from my read of the rules, it’d make a great game in person, especially for shorter time slots.)

A game I’ve been keeping my eye on, Epyllion, recently had a gorgeous print run. It was Kickstarter-funded, so no idea if you can buy a print copy, but you can get the PDF at DriveThruRPG. It’s based on the Apocalypse World engine and you play young dragons. It looks like something I’m going to really enjoy when my kids are a little older.

If you are a map nerd or programming nerd – I am both – check out Generating Fantasy Maps. This random map generator is beautiful and the article describing how it works is gripping.

I heard two noteworthy podcasts this week. My friend Jason talked about his game Night Witches on +1 Forward and even ran the host through a short session. Night Witches is in my top 5 favorite games I’ve played in the last few years. The other podcast was The Adventure Zone. It’s three adult brothers and their dad playing D&D and recording the whole thing. It’s crazy long, and I don’t have the patience for actively listening to long podcasts, but it’s good background noise, and occasionally hilarious. It’s sometimes crude or juvenile, so be aware of that.

We've all seen Stranger Things, right? If not, go change that. It is lovely and a paean to classic D&D. My dream is that somehow this proposed game with Frank Mentzer and the Stranger Things cast happens and I get to join the group.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter, a world of infinite projects. I love it and hate it. I can and will write an essay about how it has changed the world of RPGs, sometime in the future. For now, three projects I saw that I liked. I could only afford to back one of them, though.

Swords Against the System

Freedom-fighters and bandits are big inspirations for me in games. The idea of outmatched heroes going up against the powers-that-be gets my imagination going. I tried to put this theme in The Shadow of Yesterday with several of the cultures. One of my regrets with that game is that I didn’t make the entire thing about that power struggle.

Adam Dray’s “City of Brass” setting for D&D 5 (Google+) has been on my radar for this very reason. His setup is great: the PCs are poor members of a commune, starting with nothing, who work to protect their group, help the locals, and avoid both the guard and the criminal gangs. As they grow, they fight against their oppressors:

The “monsters” they fight, more often than not, are the wheels of systemic oppression and the selfish people who benefit from society off the backs of the underclass. … Whether PCs start violent revolutions, organize peaceful protests, or just quietly help people in need, the world is a better place for their actions.

Judd Karlman’s talked about about oppression and fantasy in his classic blog post: “Make Your Own New Crobuzon”. His post talks about how to make a culturally-rich city:

1) Take your three favorite human-ish monsters out of the Monster Manual and they are minority citizens in the city. Detail how they get along, how being in the city has culturally changed them and what niches they fill in the city. How do the powers that rule the city keep them down?

2) Take three really bizarre ... monsters and figure out how they exist in the nooks and crannies of the city and how the powers that rule the city keep these beasts from doing unacceptable amounts of damage?

Doing this is a lot of fun. My attempt at #1:

  • Centaurs were the original inhabitants of this land. When humans came and built their city, a peace was established, but centaurs in the city soon found themselves in a permanent labor underclass. The only work they can get is manual labor, and they aren’t welcome in most human establishments because of their body size and shape. In order to find food and shelter, many centaurs enter indentured servitude to a human master.

  • Ghouls inhabit the alleyways and sewers of the city. They don’t eat living people, although they will eat the dead. Their smell, visage, and eating habits terrify humans, even though they play a crucial role in the city’s ecosystem – they are the garbage disposals of the city, eating carrion and trash alike. Fighting youths, eager to prove their mettle, will go on hunting expeditions into the sewers to hunt ghouls. The ghouls have maintained their fragile survival by forming a spy network. They know all the secrets, and have blackmailed their way into some safety.

  • Lizardmen mercenaries have been hired for years to protect the city and fight its wars. Even so, they must serve under a human officer, as they aren’t trusted to not let their “animal instincts” take over. Lizardmen are technically allowed to hold non-military jobs, but they are required to live in the military compound. They are often sent into the sewers to root out ghoul colonies. These raids keep both the lizardman and ghoul population from growing too much.

Marx and Monsters is another excellent blog post on this same theme. The author hits why radicals and revolutionaries make for such good characters on the head:

The villains of the City are … concerned with the maintenance of the status quo, not its downfall. In fact, this idea is what makes the City such an excellent sandbox for old-school gaming – the status quo mirrors the initial situation of a wilderness sandbox, infested with monsters and hostile to human life.

What I haven’t seen many of are historical, non-fantasy games about revolutions. Grey Ranks is the first one I think of. I'm sure there's more that I'm not aware of  please send me any you know of.

As an idea, historical revolutionary games seem harder to pull off: the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist can be little more than perspective. I don't mean to trivialize terrorism here: the difference can also be in the lines that the fighter will cross, and who they will target. Still, both are insurgent forces. In a world where terrorism is prevalent in the news cycle, it’s less attractive to play one of these characters without the protective layer of fantasy.


And that’s the first newsletter. Hopefully, I’ll see you next Friday with another. Thanks for reading!

– Clinton