24 February 2010: Winter games and retro-clones

College D&D charactersFriends, I hope you’ve had a good fortnight. Janice and I have been busy watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, leaving me to catch up on recorded genre television on the weekends. In addition, I’ve been comparing notes on comic books and graphic novels with new fan David I.S. and playing various games.

Since wrapping up my “Vanished Lands: the Faith-Based Initiative” fantasy campaign, which used Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D4e), the current role-players have been involved in a series of one-shots. While I’m taking a break from serving as primary Game Master, I’m trying to encourage the Boston-area group of about eight people to try other genres, rules systems, and styles of games.

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D4e is still the most popular tabletop (or pen-and-paper, or dice-and-pizza) game on the market, thanks to 35 years of leading the hobby, brand recognition, and wide distribution. However, the boom of the past decade thanks to the D20 Open Game License has been replaced by economic recession, a move from print to online publishing of PDFs, and fragmentation of the market.

Locally, Greg D.C. has run InSpectres, a rules-light horror/humor game, and Paul J. used D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed. for his “Vaguely Interesting People — the Four” comedic superhero scenario. Brian W. demonstrated collaborative storytelling with FATE 3.0 in his “Spirit of the Caribbean!” pirate one-shot. In addition to a “Paranoia” cyberpunk comedy one-shot, Brian ran Savage Worlds: Hellfrost, a Nordic-themed fantasy. So far, all of these games have gone well, although we’ve had some debates about what system would be the best fit for a longer-term campaign.

These “indie”-style games are good examples of the alternatives to D&D4e. I’ve already blogged about my ongoing Pathfinder: Holy Steel” teleconferencing team and the “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk/fantasy homebrew using D20 “Lite.” Another trend among face-to-face (F2F) RPGs is “retro-clones,” or games that emulate older editions of D&D and other games. I have fond memories of my early years as a role-player in the early 1980s.

Although I’d be the first to acknowledge that game design has developed since then, I’ve downloaded several retro-clones, which remind me of a time when magic was rare and mysterious, monsters were unpredictable and deadly to Player Characters, and the games tried to evoke folkore and literature rather than second-hand adaptations into other media such as movies or computer games (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that if it’s your preference).

Coming soon: Space opera, the “rules-light” movement, and newer games!