This is very belated, as I just gave myself about a month off to regain some sanity, but here’s my roundup of this year’s Gen Con.
The big news from where I sit is obviously Eclipse Phase. It’s finally out, and it’s a beautiful baby. At 400 pages, it’s a big baby, too. Catalyst had only a limited number of copies to sell at the con, so the people doing retail in the exhibit hall booth were cracking open one box each morning and selling out as fast as they could run the cash registers. I’m pretty sure we could have beaten some records for units sold at Gen Con if we’d had more copies, but trans-Pacific shipping (from Thailand, specifically) cuts deep into your margins if you airlift in too many advance copies.
Despite the dearth of actual books to sell, we had full tables for every demo we ran over in the Catalyst room at the Hyatt, and I was running demos more or less nonstop in the exhibit hall. I’m thankful to everyone who spent some of their time trying the game out. After all, there’s a lot to see at Gen Con. I even got to play in a demo run by Sprite (or “Rob Boyle,” as they call him there in Gondor). It was great getting to just be a player after writing and GMing a playtest group for two years. But this gets to the heart of what I told one blogger who stopped by to talk: we made Eclipse Phase because it was the sci-fi game that we all wanted to play.
Games for Which I Want to Write
The Gen Con exhibit hall is a non-stop assault of amazing new stuff, much of which a true gamer wants to buy and take home. One unexpected (and lucky, maybe) side effect of having moved to Massachusetts is that I can’t bring back much stuff due to airline weight restrictions. If I bring ten pounds worth of chapbooks with me to the con and get rid of all of them, I’ve got ten pounds of swag and purchases, max. This year I took a an approach to shopping I’d never tried before. I took my mandatory swing through the Indie Revolution booth and picked up a board game there (Andre Monserrat’s intriguing House of Whack). I eyed a really neat-looking storytelling game set in Asian antiquity whose mechanics apparently call for serving tea and stabbing other players’ character sheets with a knife (whose name I forgot, damn it!).
I then spent most of my time in the hall looking for games on which I’d want to work as a writer. I love running games, so for me, the litmus test of whether I’m going to love a new RPG is whether it immediately gets the creative gears turning in my head. There were some clear standouts. Some of these won’t be news, but having spent the last two years completely absorbed in making our game (and barely having gotten to leave our booth last Gen Con), I’d missed a few things.
Desolation (Greymalkin Designs)
When I saw this game’s tagline, “post-apocalyptic fantasy,” I was immediately intrigued. Take your typical happy high fantasy world. You’ve got lots of self-satisfied elves, dragons soaring over mountaintops, happy halflings at work in their barley fields — in other words, a wellspring of boredom as old as the Silmarillion. Really, your only option is to destroy it and set your game in the ashes. Now the halflings are resorting to cannibalism and the elves are wearing cloaks of elvenkind that haven’t been washed in eighteen months. Suddenly things are interesting! I wasn’t able to bring this one home, but I’m definitely giving it a read when I can grab a copy.
Geist (White Wolf)
I’ll admit: I’ve been known to beat up on White Wolf a little when I discuss RPGs with my friends. I love Exalted, but there are times when I’ve talked about them as if they were the Quentin Tarantino of the RPG industry (“I’m not into Kill Bill, and other than that, what has he done for me lately?”). Maybe I was bored with the formula for World of Darkness game titles (parodied by White Wolf themselves in the card game Pimp: The Backhanding). Maybe it was petulance at their killing Wraith (was I the only person who ever loved this game?). And to be fair, they’ve put out some products that I just didn’t like (Hunter: The Reckoning comes to mind).
Geist is not one such product. The people at the White Wolf booth were very quick (defensively so, it seemed) to tell me that the game is not a reworking of Wraith. That said, it retains in some form what I think was one of the most powerful aspects of Wraith: the shadow. Instead of playing ghosts with an evil twin, though, this game tells the story of living humans, recently returned from near-death experiences, who’ve bonded to an entity called a Geist. The Geist is a former person whose death was so emotionally charged that it transforms them into a near-archetypal persona whose drives and desires thereafter pull constantly at the Sin Eater, the mortal to which it bonds. Less brutal in its disempowerment of the PC than Wraith, yet no less spooky, Geist looks like a nice addition to the WoD franchise.
Alpha Omega (Mindstorm Labs)
And here I confidently thought we were going to be the prettiest game at Gen Con. Damn. We’ll have to settle for prettiest new game, since this one’s been out since 2007. Mindstorm had their core book and a book of monsters on sale, both gorgeously produced at an appealingly unusual aspect ratio. Post-apocalyptic occult horror games aren’t exactly new ground in the industry, but this one boasts a solid combination of compelling writing, innovative mechanics, and totally eye-popping art. The added presence of angels and demons (with halfbreeds as playable characters) introduces some interesting storytelling possibilities to a world that’s already gone through some over the top transformations by fire, flood, and comet.
Song of Ice & Fire RPG (Green Ronin)
The history of RPGs is littered with failures, a surprising number of which are games licensed off of properties that probably seemed to their developers like a sure thing due to the built-in fan base. Some failed due to poor design (Aliens), others due to weird restrictions imposed by licensors who didn’t understand the RPG industry and developers who agreed to their terms when they should’ve just walked away (Indiana Jones, Star Trek). These failures have become no less common over the years; they’ve just gotten more expensive (witness Buffy, a property that no RPG company in its right mind will ever touch again). So after the rather spectacular failure of Guardians of Order’s Song of Ice & Fire RPG, it’s heartening to see a good company like Green Ronin taking a whack.
It looks like they’re off to a good start. Rather than producing a door stopper of a core book full of material that’s only marginally useful (did anyone really need stats for every single knight in Westeros?), Green Ronin’s core book comes in at a slimmer, saner page count while maintaining great production values. Need setting material? GRRM’s notoriously incomplete series has what you need. Need a game for it? It’s right here. The fact that Green Ronin’s web site is currently offering it on sale makes it even more tempting. Oh, and in case you still haven’t heard: George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.
One of the big pieces of news this year was Paizo’s release of Pathfinder. The running joke on the con floor was that Pathfinder is what D&D 4th Edition should have been. Maybe this is a little unfair to WotC, who, let’s face it, weren’t going to make anyone happy by releasing a new edition of a game whose last edition only came out five years ago. D&D 4th Edition was clearly intended to bring new players into the hobby by producing a product that would be friendlier to massmorg players, and in this it will perhaps succeed. Whatever the case, I don’t need to be miffed that the game I’ve played for 26 years has suddenly gone from semi-realism to a much more video game-like experience, because Pathfinder is there to keep D&D 3.5 in print.
The execution is great, and the price is right. Lest you think from the last section that I don’t like big, beefy core rulebooks, think again. I just don’t like them when they’re full of useless NPC stats or other filler that any good GM could generate themself while in a vegetative coma… which this book is not. At 576 pages, Pathfinder may knock a few vertebrae out of alignment when carried in your messenger bag, but the MSRP (only $50) is right, especially when the book contains everything you need to play. Contrast with D&D 4th Edition, where just the two players’ books will set you back $70, and this is a steal (although WotC was offering a very nice deal on Player’s Handbook I at the con this year — which I took). The anime-inspired art is phenomenal, and the fact that the Pathfinder setting book won an ENnie last year doesn’t hurt in piquing my interest, either.
Cthulhutech (Catalyst Game Labs)
Last but not least, there’s Cthulhutech, not a new product this year but one I didn’t get my hands on until Matt Grau handed me a signed copy at this year’s Con. Despite sharing a booth with them last year, I hadn’t gotten a chance to check out their product. I’m now devouring the book and enjoying it immensely.
The first lesson I’ve learned from this game (in combination with working on Eclipse Phase) is that if you’re doing an RPG and want the art to be effin’ slick, hire Mike Vaillancourt as your art director. This is a damned pretty book, with a very consistent visual style throughout. Is there a little bit of fan servicing thrown in there with the giant robots and unspeakable horrors? Well, yeah, there is… but it’s largely pretty classy.
Second lesson: it’s possible to design a fun, playable vehicle combat system without resorting to everything-but-the-kitchen-fabricator Star Fleet Battles-esque rules. I was initially a little skeptical about this game because I didn’t see how the designers could cram workable mecha combat into such a slim core book along with everything else this game covers. But Cthulhutech’s mecha rules build elegantly off of the personal combat system without adding more than a handful of special rules for handling vehicles.
Final observation: the writing is bang on. This isn’t just some silly “Cthulhu versus Battle Mechs” genre mixing mess. The writers have successfully envisioned a world transformed by contact with cosmic horrors, and they’ve followed through on all of the implications. I haven’t yet gotten a look at Vade Mecum, the first major rules expansion for the game, but I’m now pretty psyched for it.