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Back from the Grave (#RPGaDay 2017, Day 11)

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

Which ‘dead game’ would you like to see reborn?

This is an interesting question, and, for me, an odd one. I’ll try provide some answers I think are helpful for thinking about this. 

First, I think this is a question that assumes a certain amount of brand-name nostalgia. Spend a little time with gamers online and you’ll see people who think the Red Box D&D Basic (the Mentzer edition) was a step in the wrong direction, and for whom B/X  D&D has remained the One True Way. I don’t feel much of that: I started with Mentzer and my own sense that it was a great package pretty much suggests people end up often loving best what they started with.

Second, I think it’s funny because we’re actually in a kind of golden age of reborn RPGs. Not long after publishing a reprint of the original D&D books (“OD&D”) in a fancy-pants wooden box, and releasing the Fifth edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast has started offering tons of old 1st and 2nd edition D&D/AD&D in PDF and Print on Demand (PoD) formats. The OGL also unleashed a whole raft of OSR retroclones of D&D and AD&D, some of which (like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Labyrinth Lord) distill one’s favorite elements into a new-feeling game with familiar mechanics… one that can be bought in hardcover, new, in 2017. Beyond D&D, Bundle of Holding has built up a following selling PDFs of games, some of which are new and cool and still in print, but others of which are out of print and unlikely every to come back, but for which people still have a hunger.

There’s also been relaunches, updates, and new editions of other major and minor game systems and lines: the old World of Darkness books have long been available in PoD—but have also been relaunched in updated, revised-for-the 21st century editions via crowdfunding efforts (one of which, the Wraith 25th Anniversary edition, I’ve backed myself). There’s been a new Call of Cthulhu, and new editions of plenty of other games, including many I know little or nothing about, like Unknown Armies, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Puppetland. TSR’s Top Secret/SI is being relaunched as a new game (again, on Kickstarter: the campaign just ended), and there’s rumors of yet another edition of Car Wars on the horizon. Traveller’s remained in print, though its’ gone through various metamorphoses over the decades. For games that simply aren’t likely to ever be reissued, like the James Bond 007 game, there’s been efforts to do all-but-in-name retroclones: for the Bond game, the closest (from descriptions, I haven’t read it) seems to be Joseph Browning‘s Classified.

Meanwhile, there’s been groundbreaking new stuff, too: a whole raft of Apocalypse-powered and Fate– based games, loads of experimental story games, piles of OSR releases that go beyond what old-school used to mean. Warhammer‘s still around (I never played it, but it’s been around since I was young, I think), but it’s getting competition from something I know almost nothing about, called Malifaux. There’s a whole Savage Worlds system I know next to nothing about1, but which seems to serve the kind of role GURPS did back in the old days, and which seems to have a comparably huge following. Brand new systems with different design goals are also proliferating: Numenera, The Strange, and other Cypher games look cool, and seem to be aimed at making learning to play and run RPGs easier… and then there’s the whole Gumshoe-based set of lines that have a very different conception of play than what I grew up with. There’s games for people who love crunch (Pathfinder, Burning Wheel) and games for people who would rather not do math at the table, too (Fiasco, Dread). There’s epistolary RPGs, and RPGs designed to be played via videochat windows, and probably tons more I don’t even know about.

My point is this: one really has never been so spoiled for options—and so much diversity—when it comes to choosing what kind of game one will run.

So why are we talking about a sense of longing that defunct game lines be brought back? I think it fundamentally boils down to nostalgia. I’m far from the only person who’s gone back and picked up old games because the ads he saw in Dragon as a teenager continued to tantalize him—and yeah, that’s totally why I got bought up a bunch of old Paranoia books and the 2nd edition Skyrealms of Jorune boxed set on eBay. (I’m even kinda sad I missed the Talislanta Kickstarter back in March.)

But when we get down to actually playing? I’m a bit lazy about learning new systems, especially new complex systems. Reading the rules in the 3rd edition core book of Skyrealms of Jorune, my eyes glazed over. I’m attracted to retroclones because they’re good enough for me to run the kinds of games I know they can run, and I think they can be modded to run other, similar games, too. I’m happy enough to run my postapocalyptic game using Gamma World or Mutant Future. I’d just as soon run Skyrealms of Jorune as a Lamentations game with the planetary energies as a bolted-on system. Also, I’d likely not even run Jorune, so much as steal piles of cool stuff from it and from other sources and create my own even cooler thing. And yet I’m also happy I have the Jorune books I have, and plan on getting the remaining (affordable, 3rd edition) ones at some point when I can. There’s definitely a consumer-nostalgia thing going on, in other words.

So I think there’s maybe a few different cases here.

Some games, I’d like to see reborn because they do things extant games don’t quite so, and which aren’t easily available. Ghostbusters is a good example: it was a groundbreaking system when it was new, and it seems simple and fun—and apparently also remains serviceable enough to use today—but the boxed sets cost way too much online unless you luck out, and the scans posted on the websites of those trying to give the game a renaissance are… not optimal.

Other games, I’d like to get in PoD format because, whether I want to use them at the table, I’d like to give them a read. I’m thinking of the 4th edition core rules for Gamma World and the full run of Gamma World adventure modules through the first four editions, for example. I think Mongoose and Allen Varney were definitely onto something when they updated and released classic Paranoia adventure modules in the Flashbacks hardbacks for the XP line, and reworked a lot of older material into newer books. Suddenly, my desire to pick up more of the older edition kind of dissipated for me when I got those books.

Other games, you show up for the setting. For those games, I really do wish there were more of a market for system agnostic gamebooks: beautiful, full-color hardbacks that detail gameworlds (mostly) without getting getting into the specifics of the game system. (They could, of course, be offered with supplementary rule/guide booklets outlining how to port elements of the gameworld into specific game systems.) I’d love to get Jorune, Tékumel, Spelljammer, Space: 1889, Ravenloft, and Talislanta books of this kind, and I think there’s probably other settings that could be fruitfully explored in this way too: who wouldn’t love a hardback detailing the cosmology and worlds of Burroughs’ Mars books, or Vance’s Dying Earth, or even just a world cobbled out of wuxia novels and Northeast Asian history, by someone who truly knows the milieu?

Then I think there are games I haven’t seen rebooted that I’d like to see. Think of Gangbusters: an RPG set in the roaring twenties, concerned with the mafia but also cops, and reporters? A journalist class? Or what about Boot Hill: I know Deadlands is the default for weird western games, but what about for a straight-up Western, what would you use? Maybe there’s a system, I don’t know—I know Go Fer Yer Gun is probably a great modern substitute for 1st or 2nd edition Boot Hill, for example, since they’re all kind of more wargamey—but I feel like I could dig a straight, no-magic, 3rd edition Boot Hill type game, made with a 21st century sensibility (both in terms of mechanics and in terms of its handling of race and gender), so I could run a campaign with the flavor and mood of Deadwood or 3:10 to Yuma or even The Hateful Eight.

And finally, there are games that I think represent a fully or partially dropped ball, and which I wish could be reborn so they’re just better executions of a great (or at least of a really cool) idea. Kindred of the East is one such game. I think White Wolf could have done something cool with the setting and the notion of a specific set of “vampires” that aren’t like the Western ones, but which are at war with them. But while everyone in an RPG ends up being exaggerated and stereotyped to some degree, the degree of stereotyping—and the relative laziness of what stereotypes got used—left much to be desired, as did the general failure to go beyond covering almost exclusively just China and Japan. Kindred of the East certainly could have been a cool game. I’d love to see it reborn so it is that game, one I could suggest to Korean friends here in Korea without feeling like cringing.

Another example of this kind of game might be Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet. I say might be, because I haven’t actually read the rules. The book is pretty crazily overpriced online, as with anything else out of print. I know, I know, Kevin Kulp’s Timewatch looks like a ton of fun, for a smart-yet-pulpy time-cop type RPG, and I plan on eventually picking it up and running it someday. But Continuum aims for something more like hard SF time travel, and it sounds like a great concept… except for the fact a ton of people found it unplayable. (The most enthusiastic play report I’ve seen involved the designer as the GM, which tells you something. The fact I’ve only seen a few tells you something else…)

I haven’t read the rules—the book is notoriously hard to get your hands on—so I can’t help but wonder whether the difficulties people faced running and playing it came down to design flaws, the lack of some kind of digital assistant tool at the time when the game came out, or just how hard it necessarily is to do hard SF time travel. Maybe all that was needed was a veteran game designer who could help iron out some of the load imposed. Or maybe, just maybe—I’ve seen it argued online—the game is generally fine, if only one could buy a copy.  Even so, I’d appreciate a veteran designer’s take on the game: like Trail of Cthulhu is a a variant on Call of Cthulhu that’s supposed to be faithful to the original but solve some problems, I think a variant on Continuum might be a neat thing to see.

(Then again, maybe that’s what Timewatch is! Now I’m talking about games I’ve not read or played, so, er, take all of this with big grains of salt.)

Oh, one more of these games: I think Engel was a cool game concept, done in by really bad d20 implementation… and apparently by a horrible metaplot, in the German original version. I wish the English-language edition had included the cards for action resolution, skipped the d20 rules, and done a single player handbook that combined information from all the German-language splats. The books that did get published are gorgeous, but the bad d20 implementation apparently killed the game. Which is too bad, it had a neat underlying concept.

  1. Yes, I have the simplified Explorer Edition of the rules, and Weird War II, but I haven’t had a chance to read either book yet.

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