2013's Top 10 Moments in RPGs: The Good, the Bad, the Middling

Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:00 am

2013 - The year Kickstarter became the most important RPG website

RPGs have had a small resurgence lately. Local RPG stores have always been the main distribution network for most RPG companies, but during the last decade or so, this network has become increasingly small. When I was in my early teens, Orange County had close to twenty game stores that I can think of, but these days I know of only one dedicated game store and three comic shop/game store hybrids - keeping in mind that hybrid stores may only have a single bookcase of RPG product at most. The good news is that with the help of the web, Kickstarter in particular, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. That being said, not all lights are good, and as such, the following is separated into highlights, mixed-lights, and lowlights. This being year's end, we are going to take a look at some of the events that made it an interesting 2013 for RPG companies and players alike.


1. Pathfinder Game Changers

Many hours of entertainment here.

Paizo released the excellent Mythic Adventures and Ultimate Campaign supplements for the Pathfinder game, which was timely for us as these books contained many new adventure options just as it seemed the old options were wearing thin. Mythic Adventures could be called the book of badass characters: instead of the usual idea of expanding play by adding extra levels above 20 (the standard level cap for D&D), Mythic Adventures introduced a separate "Mythic levels" advancement system. This means, for example, you can be a level 5 Bard and also be a level 8 Mythic Guardian, or a level 19 Fighter and a level 1 Mythic Trickster. The first set of levels is how far you have advanced and the other set is how awesome you are in terms of mythic power.

Some examples of Mythic power are things like being able to go without sleep, not needing to breath or being able to parry energy with your bare hands. Mythic characters can also build weapons of legend, make their own artifacts, and have massively powerful spells. One of the things I like best about Mythic Adventures is that they took the time to add a more awesome version of most spells and feats from the normal game, so it makes sense as a progression and doesn't change your character's flavor.

Ultimate Campaign is a whole mess of more mundane minded options, introducing rules to cover things such as heroes having day jobs, running towns, being youths, gathering renown in guilds, and running mass combats. It also has a truly hilarious character background generation system that, while not having an overwhelming mechanical effect, is just a lot of fun. The new system provides random tables to determine everything from your economic background to how many significant others you have had. It is the sort of thing that would quite possibly have irritated me when I had a lot more time for games and cared a lot more about small details, but now it seems like a fun tool.

It also has much stranger and edgier backgrounds than you might expect from an official book such as being displaced in time or having returned from the dead to avenge yourself. Frankly, playing an undead version of a dude who came back to kill all the bad dudes is just the sort of character people used to tell me I couldn't play, so I like that you can roll it randomly. It also unintentionally results in a mini game within the game where people mock each other for finding out that they are the youngest of 8 kids or their parents worked at a carnival, and thus they are carnies (being a carnie is matrilineal). This is the best part by far.

2. Reaper Miniatures Has Another $3,000,000 Kickstarter

Yup. That's a cool $3,000,000.

On the more cutting-edge side, Reaper Miniatures completed a second Kickstarter for their Bones line. For those willing to pony up $100 in advance, you could have enough miniatures to fill a bag of holding! Reaper made a cool $3 million plus that started as a $30,000 goal, so obviously it was good for them as well. It came in slightly lower than the original Bones Kickstarter, which almost hit $3.5 million, but still, very impressive. That said, this was not my favorite Kickstarter this year, since I found the goal structure a little confusing: some stretch goals gave you extra miniatures for your $100 investment, while others only added more miniatures as a option to buy, if you wanted to throw in even more money. On top of that, there were three different groupings of miniatures you could buy, and those also grew with stretch goals. Honestly, I prefer the model of Kickstarter wherein you slap down money and watch your rewards grow, like the Fairy Tale Games: Miniatures Kickstarter, which happened at the same time. However, bottom line, Fairy Tale Miniatures couldn't quite hit a quarter of a million and Reaper sailed past three, so clearly this was the more popular model.

Business model issues aside, the Reaper minis look very nice. The Bones minis are a little oddly-colored in that they are white (hence the "bones" name) but the detail work on the actual sculpts is great and the bewildering setup did result in a variety of figures being offered. There were pulp heroes and gunslingers available as well as the usual fantasy types, great for those games with more modern settings. They even had official Pathfinder figures and a figure that looked an awful lot like a TARDIS. The Pathfinder figures were called out, so we'll assume those were officially licensed, while the Doctor Who themed items were named things like "Angels of Sorrow" and "Telephone Call Box". Regardless, they are both a nice part of the Kickstarter. The best part of this one, though, was an ability to increase your contribution even once it closed. Since this Kickstarter had overlapped with one I liked better, I originally had not paid for the core miniatures and just cherry-picked some minis from the stretch goal sets. However, they later allowed me to add a higher pledge, even a month after the deadline. I thought this was amazing, and I am sure Reaper will end up making even more money with Bones 2, though we may never know how much as the counter stopped at $3 million.

3. FATE Gets Generic

Evil Hat Productions
The next generic universal role playing system?

The FATE Core and the System Toolkit books shipped out to much praise. FATE has been around since 2003, but has been fairly under the radar until recently. Evil Hat Productions had a very enjoyable game called Spirit of the Century come out in 2006, which won awards but never really became super popular. I think it may have been limited a bit by the subject matter, which was a pulp/gonzo game set just after World War I that was full of biplanes and angry apes (I mean, I love this setting, but it may be a bit of a tougher sell for some). FATE got more into the spotlight with their Dresden Files RPG, an RPG version of the famous-by-geek-standards (it had a Syfy show for five minutes!) books series. The RPG was pretty fantastic with a cool powers system, a flexible magic system, and a surprisingly deep way to create your own cities and settings. However, again, it was somewhat limited in that it was designed to mimic a specific property.

Finally, this year, we received small but nicely-bound books featuring Fate Core and the Fate System Tool Kit. These books are intended to let you run FATE for any setting or circumstance and provide a fair amount of help to do so. The great thing about FATE is how adaptable it is - it is a somewhat abstract system based on degrees of success and so it works for almost anything. That is to say, a player makes a roll against an aspect of the character and gets a result like poor, fair, excellent, etc. This is the same result regardless of whether the aspect is shooting guns or working on one's doctorate. It also bypasses things by reducing most character traits to a +2 bonus, dependent on circumstances. A character might be a trick shooter, with +2 to perform tricks with guns, or be a squid-man with +2 to make rolls to escape enemies as long as he can use his ink. Since it all has the same central mechanic, imagination becomes the only limiter.

I have heard more people talking about Fate Core than all of the previous versions of FATE put together, so I am hoping this opens up a new level for the company. In a time when role-players are getting older and have less time, FATE has a faster and easier approach to things that I think should start catching on.

4. GURPS Shows New Life By Embracing Zombies

Steve Jackson Games
Zombie, zombie, zombie, ee, eeeee...

GURPS was formerly an extremely prolific line, with easily a hundred books in GURPS 3rd edition and a monthly newsletter with additional content. GURPS is published by Steve Jackson Games, and they are a veteran company, having been around for decades since the first GURPS edition in the mid 1980s. However, like the other RPG lines, GURPS has been significantly affected by the poor market. Their solution thus far has been to drastically tone down releases, only producing new books periodically, although they are far more complete than their versions from previous editions. They also changed from the large hardcover books to cheaper packaging, such as soft back books or PDF downloads. This strategy, combined with an increased emphasis on card games and board games, has resulted in GURPS dying down to a trickle, at least in the old-school giant hardback format.

However, at Christmas time this year I was happy to see a full-color, hardback book called GURPS Zombies on the shelf at my local game store. Zombies are a genre that benefits greatly from the GURPS approach, which is to say anal-retentive research of all iterations of a certain topic. Also, GURPS combat is fast and brutal and ends the lives of many player characters at semi-random intervals, which is another plus for zombies. There are many game systems where the player characters will eventually grow beyond mundane methods of injury and being threatened by things like zombies, but this is not the case in GURPS where a well-placed attack can still end your life in most circumstances. Brutal hit location rules can magnify even the most basic of attacks into being lethal, while also allowing well-balanced headshot rules, which is essential for zombie games. Overall, I am excited for this one.

5. The Onyx Path Continues and Branches

Onyx Path
Also one of the best covers of 2013.

Onyx Path is ramping up production on their new lines. I already wrote a list about the reboot of the World of Darkness here, but that was before Mummy or Demon were finally unleashed on the gaming community. I was not sure if everything would be done in time - the best summary would be an optimistic skepticism, in fact. However, late this year Onyx Path shipped the Mummy books, released the PDF for the new Vampire rules, and completed the Kickstarter for Demon. This makes three brand new lines, and the old lines have not been completely forgotten, though there has been more emphasis on the 20 year anniversary stuff than new content per se.

From what I have seen of the new releases, they do not seem rushed, and in fact there has been a very vigorous system of previews, sample mechanics, free RPG day editions, and all of those good things. Onyx Path is interested enough in fan feedback that they wait a month before turning their PDF releases into printed books, so customer feedback can be incorporated into the final release. For a company that sometimes dreamed big and missed in the past, it is a good milestone. Next year's release schedule is even more ambitious than this year so again I am slightly skeptical, though optimistic. For better or worse, the days of these games being a massive cultural force may be gone, so I would like to think that being so dependent on the fans will keep them honest, but I admit that may be the internet populist in me speaking.

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