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Blog Posts from June 2020 (35)

Books Received, June 6 — June 12

13 Jun, 2020


In this exciting science-fiction technothriller, a top-notch pilot encounters a virtual disaster during the highest profile project of her career. Now she must unearth a crucial truth: was her discovery due to a betrayal, a business rival — or did she encounter something never before seen in the stars?

We are live, we are live, we are live …

Helen Vectorovich holds the unique distinction of failing at first contact — and she did it in virtual reality. 

Only the most elite teams of operators and navigators get to pilot in remote space-mining operations. And no one was better than Helen and her navigator, Ted. Together they secured a multibillion contract for establishing an interstellar gate to a distant star. But during a routine mission, what should have been an easy success turns deadly.

Helen is grounded in a desk job, yet trying to avoid treacherous politics. She has overeager junior pilots jockeying to take her place, jealous corporate rivals, and nasty rumors blaming her for the botched job and Ted’s death. Meanwhile, Helen’s amazing new discovery in space — the Scale — seems to be … evolving. 

When someone — or something — wants to terminate the project, Helen must find out why before it is too late. 

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RPG Moments of Awesome 3: Heavy Gear

12 Jun, 2020


Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear RPG depicted the ongoing struggles between Terra Novan factions as that world recovered from an interregnum that followed Earth’s retreat from empire. These conflicts often focused on Gears, Landmate-like piloted mechas. I liked the game mechanics but being hooked on Masamune Shirow’s manga at the time, mostly used the rules to try to design Tachikomas with a system that was never intended for that purpose1.

The Heavy Gear product line cover designs were unusually eye-catching, unambiguously identifying the brand at a glance2. No customer ever had a problem picking out Heavy Gear products, regardless of where they were shelved. 

One day, I decided to test just how recognizable the Heavy Gear products were. I handed a copy to a customer and had him walk away from the store until I could no longer recognize the Heavy Gear rule book. 

The test failed because buildings and hills got in the way before resolution was a factor. 

1: I could have used it as an Appleseed RPG but that never occurred to me. 

2: And not in a I’d better make sure that’s not the first thing people see when they enter the store.”

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RPG Moments of Awesome 2: Vampire the Masquerade

11 Jun, 2020


Mark Rein*Hagen’s 1991’s Vampire the Masquerade offered players the opportunity to play lugubriously morose undead, cursed with eternal youth and abilities beyond those of mortal kind, generally with supernatural beauty tossed in there as well. The only distraction from their melancholy, endless backbiting politics. Basically, Drama Students: the RPG.

I could and have made fun of many aspects of the game, from the designer’s splat to the game mechanics, but VtM did one thing extremely well. VtM was in its self-conscious 1991 way a lot more inclusive than competing RPGs and it sold buckets loads to women. It was also pretty popular with the queer kids as well. 

This shouldn’t have been exceptional in 1991 and yet it was. Women make up half the population. Games unlikely to sell to women leave half the money on the table but until Vampire came along, the best one might encounter was games that weren’t actively hostile to women gamers. Others made it pretty clear they considered women second class or possibly mythical. White Wolf was a notable exception. 

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RPG Moments of Awesome 1: Ex Machina

10 Jun, 2020


And now for something more positive: ten awesome little moments in RPGs, beginning with a very self-serving one.

Bruce Baugh, Rebecca Borgstrom, Christian Gossett, Bradley Kayl and Michelle Lyons’ 2004 Ex Machina was a cyperpunk roleplaying game, published by Canadian game company Guardians of Order. It got a very favourable review from BoingBoing. It was also my first professional editing credit.

It only took me a quarter century of playing and selling RPGs to get into the design end of things.

It was a very educational experience for me:

Always back up your projects
: After a month of working on this, my computer suddenly died with my only copy of the file. As it happened, my brother was able to get it working again but since then I’ve been diligent about off-site backups. 

Reality is always worse than you think [1]: There were a couple of details I thought were implausibly dystopic that Michelle revealed were taken from real life.

Amazon does not care: This may be my only Amazon credit. They spelled my last name Micoll”. Never got it fixed.

Reality is always worse than you think [2]: Guardians of Order tossed a lot of work my way. At the time it was flattering. In retrospect it was more likely because I was available, enthusiastic, and gullible enough to accept payment terms that let them get six months of work out of me before owner Mark C. MacKinnon admitted they had no means to pay me. Since I declined work I could have been paid for to focus on GOO stuff I didn’t get paid for, I figure I got screwed two different ways.

But still! I have professional gaming credits and physical artifacts to which I can point!

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RPG WTF 10: The Great Return of 1996

9 Jun, 2020


One of the more horrifying aspects of modern publishing, at least if one is a publisher (or loves books as artifacts), is returns. For reasons going back to the magazine trade, items distributed to the conventional book trade are often returnable for credit against future orders. Generally speaking, for every book that goes home with a reader via conventional book stores1, two or three are returned2.

TSR – I know I said each company only gets one of these but this isn’t really about TSR – had a highly successful fantasy novel line. While TSR had a number of distributors selling directly to game stores, their connection to the conventional book store chains was Random House. The conventional book trade had a seemingly insatiable appetite for TSR’s extruded fantasy product, regardless of author or content. Books flowed out and didn’t come back, which for a company under increasing pressure from a number of directions was a godsend.

What was actually happening (at least in the book trade side of things) was that books and other products were flowing out, a significant fraction was not selling, but rather than being sent back to TSR, they were accumulating in Random House’s warehouses. Why this was happening is an interesting question. In any case, the situation was temporary. Ultimately, what happened was that towards the end of 1996, all of those unsold products were returned. Instead of being returned gradually over time, the books came back in a single, unexpected, fiscally-indigestible six-figure return. 

And that (aside from desperate flailing) was that for TSR as an independent company. Within the year, TSR would be a WOTC subsidiary.

1: Game distributors (like Lion Rampant) and comic distributors (Like Diamond) aren’t locked into this relic of magazine sales and don’t do returns. 

2: The marginal cost of printing another mass market paperback is so small it’s not worth sending the actual book back. Instead, the covers get ripped off, bundled and returned. The coverless book is destroyed and discarded. 

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RPG WTF 9: SPI’s Loan

8 Jun, 2020


Once a dominating figure in table top wargames, by the early 1980s Simulations Publications, Inc. had by means of a series of extremely bold decisions a desperate need for an infusion of cash. Who better to appeal to than the young company who by creating roleplaying games had contributed to SPI’s increasing challenging environment? SPI borrowed $425,000 from TSR. What could go wrong?

I remember sitting in RAFM’s lunch room reading a Gygax Dragon editorial in which if I recall correctly he angrily denounced Origins as an SPI/Avalon Hill anti-TST plot. It may be at least some elements of TSR were not entirely fond of SPI. In any case, SPI did have two RPGs (DragonQuest and Universe) and that made them a competitor. 

Two weeks later, TSR called in their loan. SPI could not pay. RIP, SPI. 

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RPG WTF 8: The Primal Order

7 Jun, 2020


Peter Adkinson’s 1992 The Primal Order, was Adkinson’s basement publishing company Wizards of the Coast debut product. The supplement was a fairly comprehensive take on integrating god-level entities into roleplaying campaigns. In fact, it was a bit too comprehensive.

To ensure utility to as broad a swath of gaming as possible, the product included conversion stats for the following systems.

The process by which WOTC consulted with the IP owners was somewhat flawed. To quote Adkinson:

We never specifically excluded Palladium from such discussions, it’s
just that we only *included* game companies in such discussions if a
gaming rep was online, the company was local, or some other
convenience arose.

Palladium Games was and is famously protective of their IP, even in circumstances where one might not expect extraordinary diligence to come into play. Silence is consent is not the way to bet with Palladium Games. In fact, Palladium objected quite strongly to WOTC’s use of their IP and sued the infant game company. 

It could have been the end of WOTC! Although it wasn’t, thanks in part to a collectable card game they’ve had some success with. 

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RPG WTF 7: Space 1889

6 Jun, 2020


Frank Chadwick’s 1988 Space 1889 was GDW’s foray into Steampunk roleplaying, although as I recall Jeter had just coined the term steampunk” and it wasn’t applied to Space 1889. Instead, this planetary adventure RPG, set in a Victorian era where implausible physics handed spaceflight to 19th century humans, got the tag line Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time.“

Since this was a time when, for example, women in most nations barely had rights, sixty million or so Indians starved to death under the British, the Belgians were busily converting the Congo over to a severed-hand based currency, and the North American settler nations were enthusiastically genociding their way to the West Coast, it does raise the question of from whose perspective the 19th century could be said to be more civilized, and what precisely there was to be nostalgic about. 

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Books Received, May 30 — June 5

6 Jun, 2020


The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction — from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. Perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir. For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts his younger sister, Nadia, as payment to enter the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal — kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom. But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic … requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition. When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a heart-pounding course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death? 

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RPG WTF 6: GURPS Cyberpunk

5 Jun, 2020


Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS RPG itself was never to my taste but their supplements were generally top drawer. Designer Loyd Blankenship’s Cyberpunk proved a bit too convincing. The American Secret Service, demonstrating a level of discernment not seen since the heyday of Dark Dungeons, convinced themselves the game supplement was a blueprint for computer crime. An astounded Steve Jackson Games found itself the subject of a Secret Service raid. It’s all part of the glorious American tradition of handing firearms and sweeping legal powers to people who literally cannot tell fact from fiction.

Although publication was delayed several months, GURPS Cyberpunk did see print. SJG did reasonably well in Steve Jackson Games, Inc. v. United States Secret Service. The affair was part of a series of events leading to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

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