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

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.


6. Mummy Is Off-Kilter In Good Ways and Bad Ways

Can you tell I still have trouble taking mummies seriously?

My first mixed item is Mummy: The Arisen The Curse. Looking at this book I see excellent production values, well-written flavor, and a whole lot of effort and love, but on the other hand, I really don’t seem to get it. I know people that have run this game over multiple sessions and made it fun. In fact, I imagine if I were to play this game I would understand what it is supposed to be. Just reading it does very little for me, though. You are mummies and a long time ago you were bonded to some Egyptian Judge, which is different from an Egyptian God. You have a cult that alternatively kisses your feet and bosses you around depending on how often you are sleepy and how good your memory is. You really like collecting magical relics. Fair enough, I guess. But as I have said before, it is not as strong of a concept as “you are a vampire” or “you are a werewolf.” I was not able to figure out a method of game play from reading the book alone, which made it much less useful to me than a book I would read and be bursting with ideas afterward.

Also, and more irritatingly, Mummy chooses to make the game difficult to cross over with other lines. Basically, nearly all World of Darkness characters are built in the same way. You start as a basic human and then you add a monster template. That template has a “power stat” on a 1-10 scale that says how powerful you are. All else being equal, a power stat 3 werewolf and vampire are pretty similar. Mummy uses the same power stat, but throws a massive wrench in the works by saying mummies start as maximum power and then slowly lose it over time. There is still a limiter on the early characters, as they struggle with amnesia, which means a basic mummy is extremely powerful but can’t remember anything. It’s actually a neat system and replicates mummy lore pretty well, but I don’t like crossovers being made more difficult, as this rule does. This is only the most egregious way this game bends the normal rules, which is cool in some ways but very irritating in others. I don’t want the Onyx developers to treat what has come before as sacred, but I kind of do want them to treat things like the 1-10 power stat as sacred because otherwise everything is confusing. Hence, the mixed rating.

7. D&D Next Is Fun But Nothing Special

I played an enjoyable demo of D&D Fifth Edition (aka “D&D Next“) at a gaming convention this year. The game ran fast and easy and just sort of cruised along. No one was really obviously better or worse than anyone else, and for a con game that was 90% fighting, there was a decent amount of variety and stuff to do. My issue was that the game felt like an over-correction. When D&D Fourth Edition came out, it was popular, but many people thought it was too complicated. When Pathfinder rolled around, it ended up attracting those people. D&D Next tries to one-up Pathfinder by not only returning to D&D Third Edition play style as Pathfinder does, but all the way back to the golden age of AD&D. Now this makes sense in some ways as AD&D Second Edition probably had as many successful book releases as both Third and Fourth put together, but I think the ship may have sailed. The original D&D Next I played had a mixture of skills from your class and from a background you chose, e.g. soldier or forester. The latest D&D Next treated backgrounds as a side note, saying you should work with the game master on making them useful.

The math also seemed a bit sketchy to me, which is to say most things in D&D (once called a ‘d20 system’) are resolved by rolling a 20 sided die and aiming to get a result above 10. This gives you a lot of possible outcomes. Say you are a Level 1 Fighter with +1 to hit. Well, you are getting anything from 2 to 21 as a result. Usually D&D style games overcome this by giving you a steady flow of bonuses tied to your level, so a level ten character might be +10 or +15. With a +15, you are rolling between 16 and 35, which means you always roll above 10 or 15, nearly always hit 20, etc. D&D Next, as I understand it, depends on letting you roll twice as you gain levels, so your bonus isn’t any higher but you have more opportunities to randomly roll high. This seemed to be across the board, from attacks to skills to almost anything. It just seemed really loose and all over the place as a guaranteed 10 or 15 is very different from three chances to roll 10 or 15. That and the diminished importance of backgrounds turned me off some to this newest release.

8. Pathfinder Dice Arena Ditches the License

Well, that happened.

A few weeks back I started getting emails from Paizo, publishers of Pathfinder, trying to get me excited about a new “dice arena” game. I found this not at all interesting. It was a game with dice and funny tokens. It had nothing whatsoever to do with RPGs, even if it did say Paizo and Pathfinder all over it. I was a bit irritated, to be honest, as it seemed Paizo was just renting out their name and mailing list to random companies. It was just a little blip, since I am quite capable of rolling my eyes and deleting an email and moving on.

I was still surprised to see that they revoked their Kickstarter, however. I had not seen this happen before but they refunded the money and walked away. Their explanation was that they still believed in their product but they had decided that the Pathfinder license was just confusing and irritating people. From my sample size of one, I heartily agree. It may seem a fine line, since I was happy to have Pathfinder miniatures, but the thing is that you actually use miniatures while playing, unlike the little dice… thingies that came with the Pathfinder Arena game.

Do not get me wrong, I am not celebrating the failure of this product, as the owners plan to do a new Kickstarter with an emphasis on how their game is fun instead of the Pathfinder name. I am just glad that what seemed to be a questionable combination is ended and the Dice Arena folks will now make their own way. Presumably they will save a decent amount in licensing fees to boot, and whatever hardcore fans they have will hopefully find the new Kickstarter and I will never have to hear about it again.

Now we address the bad stuff.

9. No Dice With Artisan Dice

This is how I feel about Artisan Dice.

I kind of hate to call these guys out because I know once I have the product I helped fund in my hand most of my sad feelings will melt away. That said, their Kickstarter did fund back in April and it seems like nothing has been shipped yet, despite the fact that they seem to have already made many, many dice. I have to be fair and say this isn’t what people may be thinking, where the company has vanished or gone silent. No, these guys are in communication on both Kickstarter and Facebook. Every delay has been explained, and we have felt the pain they are feeling at basically all points.

The only problem is that I have read all of the updates and I still don’t really have any idea when we will actually get anything in the mail. The updates are long and full of technical detail about how some machine or another was missing some widget. But they don’t really tell me “hey, don’t worry, you’ll get your dice in April at the latest, and please forgive the delay”. Things are getting to a point, I think, where they know they will enrage everyone by going dark, but they are too afraid to commit to a date as they have already missed dates they set before so they don’t really want to say anything too solid. After all of this time, I have to put this one in the net loss column, as I and several friends were very excited about this earlier in the year but now we are all facing disappointment. So basically Artisan Dice is the Star Trek: Into Darkness of RPG Kickstarters.

10. No Need For a Pathfinder MMORPG

Wizards of the Coast
Remember seeing this ad? It’s actually a pretty good argument for tabletop.

Putting aside the fact that Blizzard already beat everyone to the punch with a class-based fantasy MMO in the form of World of Warcraft, it just doesn’t seem like MMOs in general are as popular as they once were. I confess some interest in the Elder Scrolls MMO due out next year, but that makes it even less likely that I would be dusting off a Pathfinder MMO to play as there are two alternatives already, a third if I let my friends talk me into trying Everquest. I am not so addicted to Pathfinder that I need an online version to play between in-person games and if I wanted to play an MMO I think I would choose one that has a track record of making good video games.

The bottom line is we have already seen this before. CCP, owners of Eve Online, which is already a successful MMO, purchased White Wolf games to create World of Darkness MMOs. I think that would be a clear competitor to the existing offerings as Vampire has already successfully been used to create massive live-action clubs throughout the country. There was even a well-liked Vampire P.C. game a few years back. However, in actuality, it has basically been a disaster and almost ended the company if not for Onyx Path and their big ideas. So if that was a failure despite all they had going for them, what is the likelihood of a Pathfinder MMO going anywhere? Call me a grouch, but my prediction is failure. I wish this idea could go the route of Pathfinder Dice Arena. I can’t blame Paizo for wanting to grab up those sweet, sweet licensing dollars, but still… MMO? This isn’t the 1990s anymore.

Previously by David N. Scott

Five Games Masters and Players You See at Every RPG Con

Eight Reasons You Should Care About the World of Darkness Reboots

Ten Things We Learned Attending L.A. By Night: The Grey Ghost Masquerade

10 Things Learned Shopping for a PS4 on Black Friday (At Midnight)