Introduction and Product
After a number of ordinary-to-positive reviews, the folk at Mongoose Publishing decided that it was time for a second edition of RuneQuest, which it must be admitted was a very good decision and shows that the company was listening, even if a little late in such an execution. Bringing in author's Whitaker and Nash was also a wise choice given their prior writing histories. On the other hand the decision to call the product RuneQuest II was a bit of a marketing disaster. Clearly they wanted to capture the popularity of RuneQuest second edition fans; instead they annoyed the grognards from that era - lose 0.1 points of style, right away, for not being cool.
Introduction and Product
Ringworld, perhaps the most famous landmark in Larry Niven's "Known Space" series was one of the few science fiction roleplaying games to come from Chaosium. Unless, of course, you count Call of Cthulhu as science fiction, and there's certainly a good argument for that. So let's say futuristic science fiction. The game is quite old of course and has not been reprinted, at least partially due, so I've been told, because of licensing issues. As a result it apparently quite collectable and commands a price to boot. Nevertheless I recently had the opportunity to run several sessions of this old classic, and thought it more than worthwhile to express a few thoughts on this classic.
The product comes the early boxed era of production from the folk at Chaosium, and was primarily designed by one Sherman Kahn (ably helped by Lynn Willis, Sandy Petersen, and Rudy Kraft), who went on to write the Ringworld Companion (also worthy of a review), and write an article on the Dolphins of Known Space in Dragon magazine - but that's about the extent of his contribution to our hobby, as far as I can tell. The cover art by Ralph McQuarrie is of a strange set of humanoids (grass giants), a landscape of the Ringworld horizon, with a floating city in the background. The interior art is simple, evocative, and contextually appropriate. The work of Lisa Free in particular is notable. The text itself is in three-column, ragged right, in a small serif font (a little harder to read), with chapter heading on each page and page numbers. The writing style is clear, formal, and exacting, packed with information, albeit a little dull.
Ringworld comes in a fairly sturdy box, with three saddle-stapled books with cardstock covers. Each of the books has its own table of contents on the back cover, and is damn useful, like the boxed edition of RuneQuest, for allowing distribution around the game table during actual play. Split up in such a fashion also negates the need for an additional index. The inside covers of the Explorer's book includes a well-formatted character sheet, and this is repeated with several sheets in the autopilot print out. The four-page reference sheets are likewise useful and if printed on cardstock would have made a GMs screen! There is a set of cardboard heroes, plus an explanation of why there is no map - a band on the bottom of the box contents sheet explains, that if extended a further 12.5 feet in either direction, the 597,000,000 mile circumference (with a million mile width) "will give players a very good idea of the actual proportions of Ringworld".
The second anthology of roleplaying blogs by Open Game Table is much like the first in terms of presentation. The murky green cover with the barely distinguishable Victoria-era technician is replaced with an improved tone with advanced cyborg warriors. The internal artwork has improved somewhat as well, as has the general layout with much better use of white-space, although notably with more advertisements taking up the gaps. As per the previous edition a two-column justified serif font is used throughout and articles are specified by domain rather than absolute URLs.
Open Game Table has the accurate subtitle of "The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Volume 1". Editor Jonathan Jacobs has scoured the 'net in a quest of a number of articles that provide a snapshot of what is happening 'on the street', as it were, within our hobby. It is, of course, a highly selective and subjective process, however it is evident that some effort has been made to seek a diversity of sources. The book is softcover, well bound, with two column serif font throughout.
To think that tens of millions of individuals over the world in the past thirty-five or so years have participated in improvised story telling in the fictional settings created by the roleplaying game hobby is, quite frankly, quite staggering and certainly one that will receive some small mention in cultural history of our time in the future. But how do these various published worlds stack up? There has been, by now, more than sufficient time to generate quite a variety of styles and thematic considerations which can be reviewed with the objective to tell whether there is any particular elements which provide lasting aid in the establishment of such settings. The overall orientation is, as always, constantly seeking improvement and further improvement for the RPG industry.
As an attempt to derive a typology, a simple classification is used which illustrates the key features of a multitude of settings. This is not, of course, an exhaustive study as the sheer quantity of game worlds is beyond the scope of this article. First, is the what can be described as (i) heroic fantasy, (ii) mythic fantasy, (iii) historical fantasy, (iv) modern fantasy, (v) science fantasy, and (vii) science fiction. The emphasis on the word "fantasy" will become apparent. The terms do not necessarily represent just a spatial-temporal location, as this is just the most obvious component of setting, but also setting devices in place which contribute to character generation and which can drive the narrative.
Jonathan Tweet is a significant figure in the game design industry. With the first publication as co-author with Mark Rein*Hagen for the award-winning Ars Magica in 1987, Tweet is also the designer of the surreal Over The Edge (1992) and Everway (1995), two rules-simple narrative-heavy games, the designer of Talislanta Guidebook (3rd edition) also in 1992, and most notably the core rule books for third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. With more than twenty-five other supplements and scenarios there can be no doubt that an indelible mark has been left by Tweet on the industry.
The famous Yugoslav academic of science fiction literature, Darko Suvin, once referred to science fiction as the mythology of modernity framed within a scientific cognitive framework. It is the mythological aspect that is explored here, the idea that 'near future' roleplaying games reflect the hopes, dreams, fears and speculations of the authors, whether consciously or not. The scientific cognitive requirement in this context is less important than what Suvin would desire in defining a science fiction game, requiring a solidly materialist outlook.
It came with great promise, it generated polarised debate around 2001 to 2003, it has now almost entirely disappeared, the website gone, the book out-of-print and rarely seen in second-hand sources. It is The Riddle of Steel, and when I managed to pick up a copy recently, I could not help but give it a few sessions to find out what all the fuss was about.
The Physical Product
The 270 page hardback is well bound and comes with an attractive fish-eye lens graphic of a warrior holding aloft an implausible sword. The interior art is often below average in terms of technique and well-below average in terms of creativity, although the inclusion of reprints from renaissance era manuscripts is an exception, as is the amusing female lancer on the back of the giant lizard. Nearly all of the art is placed with little regard to context either, with some exceptions (e.g., encumbrance).
The book is formatted with a two-column justified layout and a serif-font. The margins have chapter and section headings (top and side, respectively), which is pleasing. There is a good two-page table of contents and four-page index, although the formatting of the latter is a little askew. The product is broken into eight "books", each containing several chapters and some of those with sub-chapters.
The writing style is accessible and efficient with a direct statement of rules, elaboration and/or explanation and examples, although with the occasional spelling error and lapse into silliness. Each 'book' is unfortunately introduced with a short narrative with does nothing for the understanding of the game or the setting; compare with The Travels of Biturian Varosh.
Corporation is released by Mongoose Games, under their Flaming Cobra of independents, in this case, Brutal Games. It's a beautifully bound hardback, absolutely rock solid in production qualities and lies quite flat when opened. The 256 page text is two column justified, sans-serif (not a good look for print, great for online), with boxed page numbers and chapter titles in the modest margins, top right and top left respectively. This is supplemented by boxed italic text providing short, descriptive narratives, and sectioned text to highlight specific rules. The cover is simple but evocative, a group of four Agents (think covert ops, men in black etc) overlooking a misty river with a spire and an old city in the background. The internal art is competent and evocative, presenting the cyberpunk and special agent setting which is central to the game. Unfortunately the printing is far too dark and much of the detail of the internal artwork has been lost in production. I've been told the clarity of the artwork is superior in the full-colour PDF version of the game.
The book is broken up into thirteen chapters, made explicit by a very clear two-page table of contents, with a three page index supplementing. After a brief introduction the game dives right into Character Generation followed by four chapters assisting the process (Equipment, Cybernetics, Telepathics, Character Advancement), and two chapters of central setting information for characters (The Corporations, the UIG and the Order of the Truth Faith). It is well into the book (chapter 8, p137) until the actual game system is explained, and this brief chapter (13 pages) is followed by supplementary setting information for the next three (The World in 2500, The Cities, People and Places). The last two chapters are GM aids, including sample scenarios and sample NPCs (Running Corporation, Antagonists).
There was a time in the late 1980s when there was quite a run on cyberpunk roleplaying games; Cyberpunk (1st edition and 20.20), and Shadowrun were, of course, the big names, and even Traveller 2300 (2300AD) decided to have a shot with the Earth/Cybertech supplement. From the ICE corner of the publishing market, came Cyberspace. It did strike as a little contrived and incongruous at the time. After all, ICE was known for their detail-heavy Rolemaster fantasy RPG, their Middle-Earth line, and a rather space operatic Spacemaster. Nevertheless, author Todd Foley (previously responsible for War on A Distant Moon and Beyond The Core for Spacemaster) stepped up to the task, with a stripped down version of the 'Master' system supplemented with cyberpunk setting and style.
Cyberspace came in a 206 page softcover with cover art from Rick Veitch, representing a juxtaposition of the crowded, polluted cybernetic environment and the abstract neon of cyberspace. It shows some creativity, but the technique is very much comic-book style, which is the illustrator's area of work. The interior art, by Rick Lowry, Angela Bostick, Del Harris, and Karl Martin, is nearly all good, giving a good sense of the style of cyberpunk with some images reminiscent of scenes from books and films of the time. The text is mostly presented in three-column ragged-right with an somewhat annoying sans-serif font, made up however by very clear and common sub-section headings along with obvious chapters heading and numbers on each page. Despite the density of the text finding the relevant material during play was as easily acquired skill.
After a short preface there are six chapters, The System, Running The World, Technology, Cyberspace, an Adventure and some very handy Appendices. These are supplemented by a good two-page table of contents and a somewhat short one page index. The writing style in the rules is mostly formal, to the point but supplemented with plenty of examples. There are thankfully short narratives introducing each chapter along with interesting occasional box-sections outlining annual events up to the year 2090, when the game is set.