Friday, 9 May 2014

Desert Island RPGs

If I had to move house, say to the Cayman Islands, and hypothetically had to get rid of my large stock of games, or could only take a small number with me to the Caribbean, what would they be? I've decided to limit myself to a short list of five.

Starting at number five, we have King Arthur Pendragon. I've played this game on and off since the very early 1990s, when my brother ran a campaign using the second edition of the game. I have played it more recently as well. If an RPG could be described as epic, then Pendragon is probably it. Greg Stafford has said it represents the pinnacle of his career as an RPG writer. I still don't feel I've properly got to grips with it, particularly the passions and personality traits part of it, but as a game it was so far ahead of the pack when it was first published, and even now it is laden with atmosphere and a sense of tragedy and destiny against the bloody backdrop of Arthur's campaign to unite the Britons. The classic Arthurian setting is also timeless and easy to sell to new players - everyone knows who the Knights of the Round Table are. I think it is important not to get side-tracked when playing this game: in our original campaign we deviated when we started delving into characters from other cultures (introduced in Knights Adventurous in 1990), while more recently the whole estate management sub-game began to feel a bit like playing Civilization with pen and paper. If the game stays focused on the acquisition of glory and living up to chivalric ideals, I think it can be fantastic. We've had talk in our group of starting a viking campaign using the Land of Giants (1996) supplement, which could be awesome. I'm also really sorry that the game seems to have lost much of its momentum recently - it would be great to see some of the old supplements back in print.

At number four we have Cold City. This would be a great game to take to a desert island, as it is so small, coming in an A5 booklet. Again, this is an easy concept for newbies to get to grips with: your are secret agents working in Berlin in 1950, seeking lost Nazi technology. It is a horror game, it is an investigative game, but it is so much more. It brings in mechanics for secret agendas and trust which I absolutely adore. And like Pendragon, there are personality mechanics here. Players have a great deal of control over who they want to be, and their actions in the adventure can also impact them, giving them new traits. Cold City has been modified by its successor game Hot War, which is also brilliant, and if I could fit both of them into my suitcase, I would. Cold City is fast to play. It is fairly abstract, so you don't get bogged down too much in combat. I've had a party generated and a mission played to completion in one four hour session. The background of Cold War Berlin and the developing tensions between the former wartime allies is also excellent, with a certain noir feel to it. Running this game makes me want to go off and watch The Third Man again. As with Pendragon, I felt in recent sessions we were just beginning to get to grips with some of the deeper mechanics, as this can be a game which looks simple on the surface, but has hidden depths. Players can exercise a degree of control over the plot, which is something we have really only started to do more of with our 13th Age games, but which is actively encouraged in Cold City. This is a game I can prep and run at very short notice should the need arise.

At number three is Savage Worlds. This is a generic game system which can be used to run a wide gamut of games. We've used it for pulp action scenarios (for which it is eminently suited), Wild West, and even for fast-paced fantasy action in the Eberron campaign world. I've even managed a large gothic horror skirmish game using these rules. It is the rules engine for the popular Deadlands game setting. The game's roots are in a tabletop miniatures game, namely Great Rail Wars, which was spun off the original Deadlands franchise (and which I still have not played). Savage Worlds favours the use of miniatures, but also incorporates cards and dice in its mechanics. Again, it is a great game for introducing newbies, as you can literally grab the setting that works for your group. Fancy running Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Victorian London? No problem. Star Trek crossover with Alien? Easy. Plus, this is a system which makes it very easy to manage bigger battles, including ones where the player characters have allied forces fighting with them. This can be a headache with some games, but not this one. SW also has add ons in the shape of setting companions which can be used if you are going to focus on a particular genre, like super heroes or science fiction, for example. Of all the RPGs I've played, this is arguably the most generic, and far easier to get your head around than GURPS. It plays a lot better with miniatures, although these are not essential.

At two we have Pathfinder. Currently, this is my go to set of rules for playing what might once have been called Dungeons and Dragons. This game assumed the tarnished crown of 3.5 when it breathed its last, and fought off the foul usurper 4.0. Heck, I've been playing DandD since I unwrapped the red box in 1983, and d20 since 2003. Right now, Pathfinder is still the best iteration, out of many, of this game on the market. Certainly there seem to be more people playing it than 4.0. Caveat emptor - these are heavy books. You really only need the core rules (pictured) and the first Bestiary (call it a Monster Manual if you will). If you're mad, like my group, you can go on to buy hardback after hardback as you seek to upgrade your game. However, I've found that the online Pathfinder SRD is a very useful reference tool, plus I use a reference app on iOS which includes 99% of the information contained in the hardbacks, in a format which it is easier to navigate. Finally, I've found HeroLab to be an awesome resource for running characters in this game, and it can be readily run on a laptop at the game table. Pathfinder is not an entry level game, in my view. It makes even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons look straight forward. Right now it is facing a challenger in the form of 13th Age, which we're currently playing regularly, and there is also the looming, monstrous bulk of 5.0 on the horizon in August. For the time being, however, if I was packing my bags for the Caymans, it would be the two core Pathfinder books, plus perhaps the GM's Guide which I'd be slinging into my battered hold all.

So, finally, my top must-have RPG for basking on Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman? It has to be Call of Cthulhu. Soon to be enter its new edition if Chaosium can get it out this year, CoC regularly appears at the top of surveys like this. Why not Trail of Cthulhu? Probably because I've not been able to run any Gumshoe games yet, or indeed play in any, other than a short session of Esoterrorists at Dragonmeet one year. Call of Cthulhu has many different aspects to appeal to the player - mystery, intrigue, tension, a setting which is readily accessible to newcomers, suicidal battles against an invincible enemy. I've run or played this game so many times now, I rarely need to consult the rules on anything, which is more than I can say for the other games on this list. I would say ToC, from what I've read of it, plays more like a classic H.P. Lovecraft scenario than CoC does, but CoC was published way back in 1981, and even then it was ground breaking. To have held its own for the next FOUR decades is an impressive feat. Only Dungeons and Dragons has had more longevity and popularity. Very little has been done to CoC over the years - you could play a scenario from 1982 using the rules as they appear in the current edition. I guess published Chaosium has taken the view that if it isn't broken, why fix it? Still, I couldn't help but feel there was something missing last time I ran this game. I think it is the absence of Drives as they appear in ToC more than anything else, and it makes me wonder whether I can house rule this into the CoC core rules. One to consider for a future post.

Which brings me to honourable mentions. Missing from this list are, notably, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Shadowrun. I've played both quite a bit, and enjoyed both, but if I was going to turn up on a desert island and try to put together a gaming group from scratch, these would not be the games I'd take. You need games that would be easy to explain to newcomers to the idea of tabletop roleplaying games, and neither of these games are that. Of the list above, only Pathfinder is perhaps harder to sell to the newcomer, and I've included that because you're more likely to find a Pathfinder gamer (or a former player of Dungeons and Dragons) in the Cayman Islands, Ghana or the South Pole than you are anything else.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that Call of Cthulhu 7 does include some form of drive mechanic for the player-characters, based I think on the Passions system from its cousin Pendragon, so that should make you happy!