Roleplayer Blues

So generally I spend most of my free time messing around with pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Although I don’t know if “messing around” is exactly the right phrase to describe what I do. Maybe it would be more accurate to say “wallowing in them and obsessing over them like a junkie with his drug of choice”. There are a lot of people who suffer from this particular habit apparently and I usually get encouragement in my addiction from the good people over at

Some of these people do actually seem to be decent, well balanced folks. But when I say “good people” here I am of course using this phrase ironically or at least as flattery. I mean “good people” in the same sense that western Europeans of centuries past referred to the fairies as “the good people”. Basically in that many are wise or impressive, but also strange or unkenable and likely as not alien to the narrator’s cosmology and morality. The sort of creatures that should be referred to as “good” out of politeness lest they take a malign interest in the you and curdle your milk or worse.

These good people keep me engaged with their threads on roleplaying matters. But after awhile the really compelling threads stop coming so I’m forced to turn to my own devices and get back to the actual RPG design that I claim to be some kind of minor expert in.

Everyone in the RPG community is doing something with RPGs. The real trend-setters actually invent their own games with innovative mechanics, settings, and/or themes from scratch. Other people memorize everything they can about a given bunch of settings or systems and become major authorities on these matters. Still others become good Game Masters (GMs… or Dungeon Masters, DMs) able to share the gift of collective storytelling (or whatever) and make it enjoyable for others.

But not me. If the great RPGrs are like the Ancient Greeks then I’m more like the Romans (except without the expansive empire): Rather than mastering the classics or inventing something new I generally just take existing things and modify them to suit my needs. Mostly I find game mechanics and such that have always bugged me and try to tinker them into a shape that makes me happier. My other great time-consumer in RPGs is finding a game system that I sort of like and trying to convert my favorite settings to that system.

This is a time consuming process that is sort of rewarding in the short run, but not much in the long run. The problem being I find myself alternately a pawn of zeitgeist (among other fancy words) and apathy. If something is cool at the moment I start working on it, but it’s soon forgotten when the new shine wears off and I realize that no one cares about it anyway.

This guy named Jared A. Sorensen came up with a game awhile back called octaNe. The default setting for octaNe is a sort of crazy post-apocalyptic western world, something like a mixture of Gamma World and the movie Repo Man (It would also probably be pretty close to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone if Spacehunter had more capuchin monkeys and heavy metal guitarists.). I always pictured the octaNe setting as something Loki might get into if he was still playing RPGs heavily these days. But in any case I’m non-plussed by the default octaNe setting, I only like the mechanics really. So there you have it.

My current project is trying to convert all my favorite settings to the octaNe system. In this case “all my favorite settings” seems to include all settings which are past their prime and whose game lines are now out of print if they were ever popular in the first place. I’d like to apply the octaNe’s mechanic to:

Mage: The Ascension – The Mage setting is one in which reality-altering magicians live in a darkly modern world trying to get their personal projects done while contending with a variety of dangerous and annoying oppositions.

What kind of opposition? Well, since their world-views contrast with the predominant one the magic they work causes dangerous backlashes which could easily maim or kill them if they’re not careful. Also, the active agents of the modern world-view (ominously called “the Technocracy”) would rather not have necromancers, hermetic wizards, and mad scientists wandering the streets and so pose a constant threat. And to top it all off there’s personal vendettas, demonic forces, and Things Man Was Never Meant To See™ kicking around as well. All honest fun really.

This game was one of the more popular ones in White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” (WoD) line. Not quite as popular as Vampire: The Masquerade, probably because it didn’t have quite the degree of gothy angst.

Changeling: The Dreaming – Characters in this game are sentient dream entities who possess human hosts and try to deal with living in two worlds simultaneously. They have to deal with court politics (blah), a force of dreariness called “Banality” (blah), and a myriad of awful creatures and forces summoned up from humanity’s collective subconsciousness (yah!). In it’s day this game was not very popular and was derided for many reasons, not least among them:

  • The book had color pictures. Seriously. For people weaned on White Wolf’s other angsty black and white games the color pictures made the tone seem too light-hearted and cheery. It didn’t help that about half the pictures were “cute” by anyone’s standard. Heck, the dancing bear early on just about put me off my feed.

  • The setting was kind of complicated. It involves a world where reality has two layers which are perceived simultaneously. For me this was a cool feature, but for quite a few it was just another confusing aspect of things. The complications were somewhat increased by the inclusion of many nit-picky details and mechanics of how these setting elements worked.

  • The theme was unappealing. For one thing the protagonists of the game are “fairies”, a word which only has negative connotations in modern slang, and even when used correctly conjures images of cuteness or at least hazy flower childy-ness. To make matters worse the protagonists are more or less constantly threatened by a force of “uncreativity” which will ultimately tear them apart. Since most people get into RPGs as an escapist activity this does not endear it in their eyes. Ironically this aspect of the game makes it among the most tragic in the WoD line, but people already scared off by the color pictures are unlikely to notice that.

But anyway I still like it to this day, so in for system conversion it goes.

Dragonstar – This was a setting for the new d20 D&D system. Over all I like it. There are some little quibbles I have with D&D and it’s associated mechanics which I might get into at a different time, but for the most part I’m satisfied with it.

The premise of Dragonstar is “what would happen if D&D took place in space, in an otherwise scientifically plausible universe”. Old gamers may remember Spelljammer, an earlier attempt at AD&D in space (which by my reckoning sucked a mean ass). The main difference is that Spelljammer came up with a crazy fantasy-magic space through which magical sailing ships traveled, whereas Dragonstar assumes a relatively normal space-opera universe where D&D magic and races just happen to exist.

This one I’m just converting for “everything and the kitchen sink” thoroughness.

And there are other settings I’d like to do also. Maybe a superheros setting along the lines of Mystery Men or The Tick. And after reading this old out of print book GURPS Ice Age I’ve always wanted to do something neolithic or paleolithic. Other times I think it’d be neat to play Fable as a pen and paper RPG.

But all of these run into the same problem: once they’re completed, if they ever are, who will play them? GMing is not something with which I have much experience and few people I know seem interested in any of the settings mentioned above. Heck, all of them are out of print and thus waning toward obscurity.

Today I press onward into the gloom with my conversion of Mage: the Ascension into octaNe mechanics: Rage! Rage, against the dying of the light!

About Peter

This guy lives in Boston MA with his beloved wife and two kids. You can get some idea of his likes and dislikes from posts on this website or elsewhere.

3 thoughts on “Roleplayer Blues

  1. Gees guys. My first post and it’s a mammoth, link-riddled bomb of a thing. This is the reason loki takes so long to get back to respond to my e-mails.

    I’ll try to keep these things shorter in the future.

  2. Picking up on your Dancing Bear comment in Changeling: in my mind, when the art in a roleplaying game attempts too much to be unified in its style – it is inevitably a bad thing. Recently I picked up my brother a copy of the core rules to Traveller20. The art in the book varies, between either extremely good, very poor, appropriate and completely uncalled for. The game is by no means cheaply produced, and it looks like it has had a good amount of money, thought and time poured into its presentation. Yet at the same time, there is something fan-ish about it all, most readily visible I think in its art. Just looking at the art on the cover, I get the feeling that the fella standing beside the wolf-humanoid is one of the game’s designers, or testers. As I’ve already indicated though, in my experience, varying quality of art in a role-playing game has never been a bad thing, but a good thing. In part, the goofy art is what drew my attention to Traveller20 in the first place. Though I’ve not read it yet myself, it looked like one of the more interesting roleplaying games I’ve seen in a while. When the art becames too consistent in quality (and feel), a roleplaying game tends to loose something – maybe their personality, but also their notions of “unlimited potential”. The original incarnations of D&D and AD&D for example were both a lot more open ended in terms of their universes than the sword and scorcery D&D is marketed as today (for example: there were sci-fi elements in some of the games). The quality of the art they contained varied widely from fantastic Larry Elmore covers to “scratchy art” within. By the third edition though, the art was too unified, and just plain depressing and blah. Anyway – I’ve never really seen the art of Changeling, so I can’t really comment, but it seems as if they went too much for a unified feel. If perhaps they had of just had a one off ‘fey’ Dancing Bear, it might have been alright. But by doing too much of the same style, they produced something that typecast itself in a sense. It’s unfortunate too, because the game actually sounds rather innovative and interesting, more so than Vampire if you ask me.

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