Wednesday, April 8, 2015

New Buildings in the Old Neighborhood

Finally...after months and months, perhaps years at this point...of looking and longing and pondering, I finally clicked "Buy it Now" on Dead Reign.

Dead Reign is a zombie apocalypse roleplaying game by Palladium Books. That's right, folks: Palladium. The father of Rifts. Yes, they're still around. No, they haven't changed much. And I just bought their latest game.

Palladium Books, helmed by Kevin Siembieda, has been around since 1981. Palladium Books RPGs were indie before indie was a thing in the hobby, old-school when today's old-school was new-school. The books were printed in these thick, softcover volumes where the gloss on the covers would always peel. Their early games had a grungy, inconsistent layout, stuffed with typos and contradictions. The writer (often Siembieda himself) would take this hyper, defensive voice in his writing, almost like he was defending his design decisions right there in the text. And the system? Oh man, the system was awful. It melded all these weird abbreviations...S.D.C., M.D.C., P.P., P.B., M.A., M.E.., put them on a 3-18 scale that it consistently broke (stats for gods would often have scores right up into the 100s), and then had a skill system that used a whole different, percentage scale. It's like Siembieda took Call of Cthulhu and D&D and wrapped them together with duct tape...when he was 13. Without playtesting. And then somehow published it and called it a game.

Then, in 1990, Siembieda released Rifts. It was an absolute fever dream of ideas...interdimensional travel, sci-fi technology, medieval societies, aliens and mutants and cyborgs and magic and psionics, and King Arthur is back and Atlantis has risen from the ocean...it was like every fantasy and sci-fi franchise was thrown into a blender and then scribbled down in a WordPerfect document. It was fucking crazy. And the system, which barely held together under relatively plain circumstances, spun apart. There was this class (called "Occupational Character Classes," or O.C.C.s) called the Glitter Boy that fired a rail gun so huge it had to plant itself into the ground with six-foot long pylons or the kick would send it flying backwards. The book also had a vagabond, a wandering human with absolutely no redeeming skills or special abilities. Both of these classes were in the corebook. There was no practical reason to take the vagabond over the Glitter Boy.

Rifts, to this day, is one of the biggest RPGs ever made, in terms of sheer, literal page count. In addition to its own magazine (the Rifter) it has somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety sourcebooks. Not to mention, since it's using the same bizarre contraption of a system as every other one of its books, it's fully backwards, forwards, and sideways compatible with every other book Palladium has ever released. So, yeah, you could play in this crazy setting as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if you wanted to. (P.S. Palladium Books did a licensed TMNT RPG in 1986. It was glorious).

So if you're new to Palladium, you're probably wondering "If this system is so bad, how is Palladium Books still around?" That's a valid question. Palladium's system has flown in the face of common logic for nearly 30 years. It is too technical to be a rules-lite, cinematic-style game, but not nearly consistent enough to be a robust, universal system. So how is it still around?

The answer, at least in my humble opinion, is because of Palladium's style. Maybe it was just timing, but I grew up with Palladium Books. They supercharged my imagination like no other game did, or ever has since. I mean, re-read that paragraph about Rifts. Seriously. The creative chaos of that setting is the apex of Palladium's design philosophy, such as it has one: throw fucking everything at the wall, and the shit that doesn't stick? Pick that up and throw it again! Just fucking throw it! Palladium games are pulp RPGs...not an emulation of the pulp genre, but actual, literal pulp role-playing, right down to those cheap covers and layout hack-jobs. True pulp, not trendy retro pulp.

And the art...man, the art. If pictures really are worth a thousand words, then Palladium books have shitloads of words in them. I remember sometimes I would just sit there on my couch or on the living room floor and just stare at that artwork. It, to me, was better than any comic book (and, of course, it was the best of both worlds in the TMNT RPG, his art combined with Eastman and Laird's original work on the TMNT comics).

There is something so scrappy, so defiant, so rough-and-tumble about Palladium games that I find myself just smiling warmly when I think about it all. I remember reading Apocalypse World and how Vincent Baker said balance doesn't matter in his games because it's all about the conversation, all about the story. But 20 years ago, in Rifts, I'm sure Siembieda said something similar. The gameplay certainly seems to imply it. Palladium games aren't about the balance, or even the rules making sense; they're about spilling the contents of your brains right onto the table and finger-painting with whatever's there.

The rational, forward-thinking part of my brain knows that my irrational love of Palladium is just nostalgia, and as of such I've managed to avoid ever even thinking about bringing Rifts back to the table. But I have a weakness, Dear Reader, and that weakness is zombies. So combine the most wildly creative, spunky, attitude-laced RPG maker of my youth with the zombie apocalypse...and looking back, it's amazing I even held out as long as I did. I pity the young, sophisticated gamers who end up at my table the day I bring Dead Reign out. They're going to hate it, and I'm going to love it.



Monday, April 6, 2015

The ForROTTEN Realms

In light of recent events, I've decided to take the month of April off from role-playing. I've written before about how it takes a certain strength of will to put together and run an RPG, and quite frankly I just don't have it in me right now, and I know better than to try and fight that. I can look back at just the past few weeks...the rapid jump from Lovecraftian horror to superheroes to Fate Core and back over to D&D...and see that my mind is just not in the right place.

But I do want to return in May. I feel like I may need to. I'm going to need something to help me in those first few months. It's going to be a lonely summer, I fear. So I've begun thinking about what I'm going to do then. Since I think I've burned a lot of goodwill with the recent erraticness and now the April benching, I'm going to have to go back to something strong, something that'll bring people in, something that'll carry the group even if/when I can't. That something, of course, is Dungeons & Dragons. 

I've thought a lot about what I want to do with the game when I return. I've considered that the easiest return to form might just be to run the published adventures. I already have Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, so I could just study those, run them straight, and get a group together pretty easily on that. If I wanted to keep going, I could even transition to the new adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse. 

There's only one problem with all of that: it takes place in the Forgotten Realms, which blows.

The Forgotten Realms is one of the oldest campaign settings in roleplaying, not the oldest (that would probably go to Greyhawk), but way up there. It, like the game it's attached to, has gone through tremendous changes in the past three decades. Hundreds and hundreds of pages have been written about the place and all its heroes and villains and apocalypses and gods and wars and so on. Its heroes...Drizzt Do'Urden, Elminster, the Harpers...are amongst the most well-known in fantasy fiction.

My problem with the Forgotten Realms is pretty basic: it's been done to death. It is essentially the Marvel Universe of fantasy fiction, in that any hero my players roll up is going to inevitably sit in their shadows. It's such a huge world that it has just about transcended being an RPG setting and is fundamentally a franchise of its own (that certainly seems the case when you look at all the card games, board games, videogames, and novels that comprise it; a young fan to the series could in theory not even realize it's a setting for D&D!) So even though the Forgotten Realms was created expressly for gaming groups to forge their own epic legends, publisher Wizards of the Coast (and TSR, before them) has gone ahead and done it for us.

What's interesting is, almost every DM I come across feels the exact same way! Most blogs I've read concerning the Realms usually has some kind of variation of this sentence: "I'm not a fan of the Forgotten Realms, but..." It oftentimes feels like the Forgotten Realms are being forced upon DMs, a necessary evil to get everyone on the same page for organized play.

Perhaps the single biggest disappointment for me about the new 5th edition of D&D (aside from the lack of pdf support..."hi, Wizards of the Coast? This is 2015 calling. Get your shit together!") is Wizards of the Coast's decision to focus all of their early development of the line on the Forgotten Realms. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'd rather have a bunch of "Complete (Insert Class Here) Guide" books to collect than a cross-media product line based on a world that seems almost arbitrarily chosen for me to like. That makes it all sound like a forced marriage...a comparison I find quite accurate.

From a pure mass market appeal, I of course understand this decision. The Drizzt books and the Elminster books have millions of avid fans. The videogame heritage of Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate is legendary. It would be foolish to avoid not tying this all into the very game that created them. But I find it interesting...and sad...that the people who really make a good RPG...the DM and his or her players...are the most put out by this decision. There are plenty of casual fans who may love the idea of playing alongside Drizzt. But I can't think of many RPG veterans who would enjoy such an opportunity.

The counter-argument, of course, is to say "They're all dead." It's to create your own version of the Realms where Drizzt is too busy watching sunrises and frolicking with his pet panther to slay armies of orcs, and Elminister really is a bumbling old fool rather than just acting like one. And that does work, to a point...but I find myself resentful of this answer. WotC is saying it's on me to fix the setting. I'm supposed to pick the lore I don't like out of the setting like picking banana peppers off a pizza. And, following that simile...picking the peppers off still leaves a bit of the taste that I'm trying to avoid.

So my options are a) Run these Forgotten Realms adventures and just force my way through the bits I don't like, or b) Completely design my own adventures from the ground up, including a setting, and ignore all the material WotC has made available for purchase. The former is work I don't like; the latter is work I do like, but a LOT of it. My current plan is c) all of the above. I'm adapting my favorite campaign setting, Ravenloft, to 5e. This is a lot of work, but at least there's a framework in place. Coloring instead of painting. We'll see how it goes...

Behold: the Wal-Mart of campaign settings.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Ugly Truth, Vol.II

Over the years, I've begun to look at this blog as a friend of sorts: a place I can go and just air out my thoughts, no matter how nerdy or how trivial or how uninteresting. This is a place where I can just feel free to say whatever is on my mind.

Well, blog, my life is falling apart.

Several weeks ago, my wife and I decided that This Isn't Working Out, and a real separation...not the weirdness that we did last year...is now in order. On May 1st, she will head west, to Denver, Colorado, and begin a new life for herself, while I'll remain here in D.C., working at my job and living my own life.

Although the separation is a mutual decision and our relationship is still one of love and respect for each other, blog, it has gotten bad. Relationship-long resentments have become bullets in an open war of past grievances. Neither of us can get through an entire day without getting drunk or popping pills. The reality of it all is so cold and cruel and uncertain it is killing both of us.

Throughout the course of our relationship, one of us has always been weak while the other has been strong. Now, though, life has thrown us a hurdle that has brought us both, simultaneously, to our knees. A friend of mine, one of the few who knows what's going on, said to me that our marriage hasn't failed, because we still support each other and help each other. That's true, I do believe that...but I also know there are married couples who, upon reading this, are going to think "Wow, thank God our relationship is nice and healthy." That's going to hurt. Because, about a year ago, I was that asshole. And now here I am, losing arguments against a fucking straw man.

I am so, so tired of going over this shit again and again, blog! As the title indicates, this isn't the first time I've come here, heart on my sleeve, full of relationship woes. I assure you, the lack of communication about it since then by no means meant things were okay. I was just managing it the best I could. If I had known back then, that living in a rented room two blocks away from my actual home would be looked back on as good times, I probably would have killed myself then and there.

(That's a figurative thought, blog. Don't worry; I'm not going to hurt myself or others).

When I think about the future, I'm not too worried about her well-being, or my own. She's tough and resourceful; she'll find a job quickly, along with a nice apartment, and be on her way. She's got a good friend in Denver, and is certainly willing and able to make more. And me, I'll be fine, too. I've got a lot of friends here. I've got a good, solid job, that doesn't demand much of me, and when it does I can deliver in spades. I've got ambitions about expanding into a second career (teaching), and getting some writing published. And, of course, there's the tabletop thing, which, with her gone, can become an even larger part of my life than it already is.

Where the despair comes in, blog, is in the future of my relationship with her. She is my best friend, blog. She is...was...my partner. She's pushed and poked and prodded and kicked me into being the man I am now. I would be nothing without her, and I'm not at all exaggerating that. I wouldn't have had the drive to join the Army (let alone the fortitude to remain in for nearly six years), I wouldn't have had the motivation to finish my Bachelors degree (let alone the industriousness to get my Masters), and I wouldn't have left my podunk hometown. I would have remained a lowly cashier at the Casino, always talking about what I was going to do but never actually doing anything. She made me.

But above all of that, blog, I plainly and simply love her. And I don't know how that's going to look in as little as four weeks. Our relationship needs change, but I fear that change. I fear facing this world without her by my side. I'm SO fucking angry at myself for the way things are falling apart now. It's our last month together; we should be the stars of 80's style montages, going to circuses and visiting wineries and having laughs and deep conversations till morning. Instead, a simple conversation on Google Chat just two hours ago degenerated into swearing at each other and a lot of caps-lock action. How fucking pathetic is that?

For a little while there, we were proud of how we were handling this. Could you believe that? We actually thought about how no one could possibly understand our relationship, this marriage built on trust and love, and how we love each other so fucking much that we are willing to let each other go, rather than hold each other back. Isn't that fucking beautiful? But, alas; we are the angry, spiteful, dysfunctional couple that is the caricature of every movie divorce. And that angers me, because we're better than that, and yet I feel like there is no way to get past it.

Don't worry, blog, I'm getting therapy. Saw a new psych yesterday because I don't think my current anti-depressant (Wellbutrin) is strong enough to deal with all of this anymore. And on Monday, I see a new therapist in the city, and I'm actually looking forward to it so I can talk to somebody about this hell I'm in rather than typing it up on this blog that's supposed to be about wizards and dragons and shit. She's got a regular therapist who's been really good to her, and they're going to continue their sessions via Skype when she leaves.

That's if she leaves. That best friend of hers I mentioned earlier? They had a sort of falling out earlier this week that hasn't been resolved yet. She's supposed to be staying with that best friend of hers when she moves. If they don't work out their shit, and she suddenly has no where to go come May...Jesus fucking Christ, I don't know what the fuck we're going to do...

So now I think I've said enough, and I'm left wondering why I wrote any of this...or, perhaps more specifically, why I'm going to hit "Publish," then hit "share," and show this to the world like it's my next rant about the nature of hit points or armor class or some shit. The short answer, of course, is because it helps to get all this bullshit out. But then, why do I have to share it? Is it because this is some awful cry for help? Maybe. I don't know. I'm telling myself it's because this is my blog, I keep it public, and that is what allows me to write consistently, because this is a living thing on the internet, and every day without an entry is something I can be held accountable for. I think some of it might also just be plain old reflexes: if you're a writer, you write, and though you write for yourself first and always, you also write for an audience (even if that audience is just one other person), and writing that you hide isn't writing; it's just a recorded conversation with yourself. And good writing comes from the heart...and this dark shit, all right here, is what's in my heart right now.

Or maybe....just maybe....all the heartache and all the madness has left me completely unable to give a shit about anyone or anything. I'm so stuck in my own pain and so unable to move past it right now that I'll inflict shit like this upon the world and be happy either way: either people will read this and feel sorry for me, or no one will read it and I'll be justified in knowing exactly where my place in the world is. Either way, I'm pretty sure I just don't give a shit anymore.