Thursday, May 30, 2013

Obscure RPG Appreciation Day: Conan the Roleplaying Game (TSR 1985)

S&W Appreciation Day (and before that Basic Fantasy RPG Appreciation Day) may have set some balls rolling. Today is Obscure (Fantasy) RPG Appreciation Day. I’m always up for more appreciation of tabletop roleplaying games. They are fascinating things, little (or sometimes major) quirky artifacts of game design that should be played with, analyzed, taken apart, and put back together (I’ll settle for just playing these games at the least given the volume of games out there).

As organized by the Mesmerized by Sirens* blog, Obscure RPG Appreciation Day is confined to RPGs published between 1975 and 1989. As much as I want to participate, the topic is out of my league. I didn’t get into RPGs until about a decade after that cut-off and it would be about another decade before I started to really accumulate games. Suffice to say, all the games I own are firmly of the “modern” advent.

Err ... wrong game.
What’s a new school gamer to do? Nothing I guess. Then I remembered David “Zeb” Cook recently auctioned off a bunch of his old gaming stuff. It was mostly the usual D&D stuff to be sure, but amongst them were some interesting items such as WIP manuscripts for games like Star Frontiers. One of the items was a shrink wrapped copy of Conan the Roleplaying Game by TSR published in 1985. Until this point I had never seen this game before. I was aware of the D&D modules based on the movie franchise and the more recent d20 based Conan RPG by Mongoose. A quick search also reveals a GURPS Conan, but this 80s TSR game had its own system, a chart based system. Seems such systems were in vogue during the mid-80s. I believe the Pacesetter games and TSR’s Marvel Superheroes also used charts (and in a way AD&D in the hit tables as well, come to think of it). Charts are cool.
Closer ... but wait, what? The Darkness!

Conan RPG was a short-lived affair, one boxed set and three adventure modules. Probably didn’t sell well and never had a huge publication run. Copies of this game and associated modules are a bit hard to find, as far as I can see, and expensive, definitely so last I looked. Now in truth, I don’t actually own this game, given the aforementioned uncommon availability and cost. That’s okay, there’s a retroclone for that (and this is something I can say with increasing regularity nowadays as more obscure games receive the retroclone treatment).

With the blessing of Zeb Cook himself, Mark Krawec has reimagined and restated the rules of the system (scrubbing the IP) into a retroclone engine dubbed ZeFRS (Zeb’s Fantasy Roleplaying System). Available in on site HTML, PDF download, and even RTF (Rich Text File) for your own formatting and hacking. It’s even one of the systems available with the Legends of Steel campaign setting from Evil DM Productions (other systems paired with the setting are Barbarians of Lemuria and Savage Worlds). That’s right, the system is actually utilized in a new property.
There we go!

With a retroclone to distribute, this relatively obscure system is far from dead, but even the retroclone is still fairly obscure. I haven’t heard much about it and it’s been out since around 2007-2008. Aside from the Legends of Steel release, it hasn’t been implemented in other products as far as I know. Even then I knew of Legends of Steel from the designer interviews discussing the Barbarians of Lemuria version.

I appreciate Mark Krawec and the other contributors to the system, with David “Zeb” Cook giving his nod or go ahead, compiling the ZeFRS so newcomers like myself can have a version of the game to try out without having to track down a print copy of the original. Having a retroclone raises the profile of games that simply don’t exist in useable (gameable) quantities after they’ve been out of print for decades.

* I highly recommend blogs like Mesmerized by Sirens, which covers the lesser known games of the hobby. For people who haven't been following tabletop RPGs since their inception, in particular the wild first two decades, it's like going through history books in the library to discover entire civilizations and historical periods I had no prior cognizance of. Some of the games covered are the definition of "lesser known, forgotten, obscure or neglected". In all likelihood, I will never lay hands on a copy of such games, thus following the exploration of such games from those who have access to them is quite educational.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ventures Beyond the Wall

A few weeks ago, Rob Barrett started posting on G+ about Flatland Games’ Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures.* It is an OSR type game, a neoclone that models the YA bildungsroman** fantasy genre, inspired by Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. LeGuin. Though I’m not well versed in the direct inspirational sources of this game, the concepts are classics of the genre and were instantly recognizable to me.

From Rob’s discussion of the game, what immediately struck me was the interesting collaborative party creation system. Each player chooses an archetype, instantly familiar to fantasy RPG players and fans of the genre. In round robin fashion, players create their characters based on their respective archetype playbooks, which determines their stats and skills, but furthermore influences their characters' backgrounds, relationships, and aspects of their companions. Everyone is connected to at least two player characters and some NPCs. Character creation even results in a complete home village.

While I’m still new to the OSR games and have limited experience with RPGs outside of D&D and recent descendants, I don’t recall a fantasy RPG with character creation done in this way with an emphasis on building interconnections culminating in a starting hometown. The playbooks are brief but extensive. Browsing through them never felt restrictive but rather creative, as I saw the possibilities they hold for each archetype and subsequently each character. Even if two players pick the same playbook, their characters could turn out very different due to the rolls they get on the charts, divergent upbringings, their own histories, separate goals, mentors, and adversaries.

Rob asked for participants in a shared mini-setting design exercise who will run through Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures character (and home village) creation process. Participants will detail their contributions on their blogs following the round robin style as if we were seated at a virtual table. Suffice to say, this is right up the alley of the intents of this blog, gaming chatter, setting creation, the whole nine. I can’t wait to see how this turns out in actual practice.

Things began to move this week once we gathered six participants to form our party. We’ve already decided on playbooks over G+ and will start the full process in the order we signed on to participate. Check out Rob’s blog post detailing the process and order: Beyond the Wall: It Takes a Crowd to Source a Village. The participants, their blogs, and respective chosen playbooks are:

+Rob Barrett of Vargold: The Wolf-Time is creating a Dwarven Adventurer.
+Brett Slocum of The Eye of Joyful Sitting Amongst Friends is creating a Would-Be Knight.
+Henry Wong of The Campaign Expanse is creating a Self-Taught Mage.
+Pearce Shea of games with others is creating a Witch's Prentice.
+Anthony Simeone of Once More Unto the Breach is creating a Young Woodsman.
+Mike Lizardi of Fear No Darkness is creating a Halfling Outrider.

* Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures is available at DriveThruRPG, best thing is it has free support materials in the form of more playbooks in two sets, Nobles and Demihumans. In total these playbooks outnumber the ones offered in the main book. They offer a good preview of the character creation system.

** German, the language has a word for everything you wouldn't expect it to have.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Unleash the Kickstart!

The Torchbearer Kickstarter is up. Powered by the Burning Wheel system and designed by Thor Olavsrud, Torchbearer is described as Advanced Mouse Guard RPG (AMGR?), or to put it another way D&D Basic on Hard Mode.

Honestly, they had me at "murder hobo" in an earlier description of this game. I have no experience with the Burning Wheel games, but did come into recent possession of the Mouse Guard hardcover. The blasted boxed set is still far out of my budget range due to the intense bidding on that out-of-print cardboard beast.

For Torchbearer, Luke Crane and company are keeping it simple, just the 200-page black & white interior hardcover with four color cover. Letter-sized unlike the other digest-sized Burning Wheel books, cause it's a nod to AD&D. Aww, now they're just getting sentimental.

It's good to see a Kickstart keep it simple, no frilly add-on stretchy bits. As always, I get home too late to grab one of the signed copies. Anyway, pretty cheap to buy in and coming from an established entity, this should be relatively safe. Oh look, it's already funded.

In other Kickstart news, Joseph Bloch, the Greyhawk Grognard, has launched the KS project for the next component for the Adventures Dark and Deep RPG, a massive ADD Bestiary of 900(!) critters. Adventures Dark and Deep (or "ADnD", heh, but seen it as ADD mostly for differentiation purposes I guess) is the "What if Gary Gygax wrote 2E" role-playing game. As this blog has started to become 2E-centric, I'm interested in all things 2E, actual, tangential, or theoretical, which this falls under.

I backed the first supplement of this alternate universe AD&D 2nd Edition, A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, and the book ended up at my doorstep before I knew it was done. It's full of neat ideas and classes (all OSR compatible). I missed the Players Handbook, which I hear shipped early. Now I expect this book to deliver before I realized I wanted it.

This latest project for the ADD Bestiary has tiers with baked-in Players Manual and even the forthcoming Game Masters Toolkit, so slackers like myself can play catch-up.

And last but not least, this one actually went live yesterday by George Strayton is the supplement to The Secret Fire RPG, The Way of Tree, Shadow & Flame. It has a nice modest goal of $3000, but it's the stretch goals that have my attention. It's basically a list of who's who of RPG art and design luminaries and freelancers, running the gamut from Old School to newer school (and many who exist in all worlds). They've got names like David "Diesel" LaForc, Stan!, Brian Berg, Owen K.C. Stephens, Bruce Heard, Ed Greenwood, Matthew Finc, Tom Phillips. It's not just all contributor names, peppered through those stretch goals are support for Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder, more adventures, stories, miniatures.

Heck, let's throw in one more ending soon, Shadowlands Campaign Guide headed by Chris Merwin. The Shadowlands is a campaign setting for Pathfinder, now with a Fate Core supplement from the stretch goals. Contributors include (the Ubiquitous) Ed Greenwood, Colin McComb, and potentially Tracy Hickman (stretch goals permitting).

All of these companies have delivered product before.

One more thing. These four projects have authors/designers/creators/companies centered within the Tri-State area, three from New York, one from New Jersey. Odd little coincident I noticed while writing this up.


(Disclaimer: As always, backing a Kickstarter project involves risks. Exercise judgement and fiscal responsibility at your own discretion. I have no vested interest or relationship in these projects, other than as a project backer, some previous ones, and most likely these current projects.)