Usually here at Black Gate I write about old-school tabletop roleplaying games or elements related to them, but now I’m going to truly show my age by writing about Deadlands. See, I continue to think of Deadlands as a new rpg even though it’s now a quarter of a century old. And what a quarter century it has been for this game.
Developed by Shane Lacy Hensley and originally released in 1996 by the Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Deadlands immediately proved quite popular with gamers and with critics, eventually earning as many as eight Origins Awards. And why not? Combining elements of horror with the legendary atmosphere of the Old West, along with a few touches of fantasy and steampunk, Deadlands was quite innovative not only for its time but also for today. I think that mixture of horror and Westerns was what originally drew me to this game.
Throughout the 1970s and very early 1980s, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was a company known for its board war games. Then in 1980 it took a stab at the growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and other popular tabletop role-playing games. SPI came up with a different style of fantasy RPG known as DragonQuest(DQ), published in a boxed set with multiple books.
Eventually there would be three versions of DQ. SPI published a second edition in 1982 in a single book, but soon after the company was purchased by TSR, the developers of D&D. Eventually in 1989 TSR would produce the final, third edition of DQ, this one also in a single book, but since then they have done next to nothing with the property though they did release a few gaming modules for the system. Fortunately a few other companies also released DQ-related material and to this day there is a somewhat active DQcommunity online. As for the three versions of the game, they are pretty much compatible with few differences between them, especially between the second and third editions.
Created by Eric Goldberg, later known for his role in the publication of the tabletop RPG Paranoiaand numerous other games both at the table and online, DragonQuest separated itself from D&D and its imitators by not focusing so much upon a class system for character creation and advancement. Instead, characters in DQ were mostly based upon growth in skill rankings.
I’ve been hankering for some old school pen and paper adventuring lately, but not having a gaming group here in Madrid (or indeed any gaming group for a few decades now), I did what old school gamers always used to do when they found themselves all on their lonesome — I played some solo Tunnels & Trolls adventures.
But I did it with a modern twist. I played Tunnels & Trolls Adventures, a free app by MetaArcade. The app takes you through various classic adventures such as Sewers of Oblivion and Buffalo Castle and runs very smoothly. It’s been decades since I’ve played T&T, so I read all the intro material, which explained the game quickly and concisely and had me playing within minutes.
Previously I talked about what made the main branch of the Shin Megami Tensei series so amazing when it comes to Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) design. While the series has been going strong for over two decades at this point, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same number of titles as Final Fantasy. The reason has to do with how the developers have expanded things with side stories.
The concept of a side story is something we see a lot from Japan: Where a story takes place within the same universe or features the same themes as the main narrative, but has something unique to distinguish it. Some other video game examples are the various titles in the Kingdom Hearts series, or direct sequels such as Final Fantasy X-2.
Due to some side stories remaining exclusive to Japan (at least at this time,) we’re going to focus on the ones that have been ported to the US. With that said, we have several side stories to talk about and I want to save the most popular for last.
In my previous post on Etrian Odyssey, I spent the majority of my time examining what the series did to revive the dungeon crawler genre, and attract a new generation of fans through the use of mixing modern and classic game design. By the time this post is up, the second game in the Etrian Odyssey Untold series will be out, and I wanted to take a look at how Atlus is giving old and new fans a revised take on the series.
Previously, I talked about how the Etrian Odyssey series was reviewed very harshly by most critics for the first couple of installments; the reason was that a lot of people didn’t want to play a dungeon crawler, and were hung up on the series’ hardcore difficulty. And to be fair, their complaints had some merit, due to the quirks of the series.
While Etrian Odyssey did make a lot of allowances compared to older dungeon crawlers, this was still a series that forced you to find the enjoyment in it. Enemy stats were scaled very high, and all it took was one bad battle to wipe out your party and lose all progress from your last save. While party composition wasn’t as complicated as previous series, a novice could still mess up early by not understanding good party compositions, and the game’s use of harvesting field points for items/money.
This may surprise some of you after my love letter to Etrian Odyssey, but for the longest time I didn’t like the RPG genre. During the mid 90s to early 00s, I was stuck between the grind-heavy traditional Japanese RPG (JRPG) design, and the number-crunching computer RPGs of the day. There were exceptions of course, such as Earthbound and Knights of the Old Republic. But it wasn’t until I found the Shin Megami Tensei series that I fell back in love with the genre.
Change is Coming
Shin Megami Tensei has been a Atlus staple since the early 90s; the brand has gotten so big that I have to split this examination into two parts, with this one covering the main branch titles.
The Shin Megami Tensei series has several staples that exist between all the games, with “change” being the principle theme. In every title, the protagonist is either a part of a cataclysmic event, or will be the one that changes the world forever by causing one. Aiding him are a changing stock of demons that the player can recruit through different means; usually by talking to them.
Demons belong to different families and have varying stats and powers. What’s important about the series’ design is that your party is never the same for long due to two things. First is that exploiting enemy weaknesses is vital to having any chance of beating a SMTgame. (Later titles, such as Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei 4, actively punished or rewarded the player for keeping track of element resists, but more on that in a minute.)
The idea for a role-playing game focused on playing legionaries was in my head as early as August of 2009 when I did a podcast series on playing military characters in role-playing games, and did episodes on Republican Rome, the Civil Wars and the early Empire. I had always loved Roman history and the image of the legion, and I had run games set in Imperial Rome, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but hadn’t thought about actually designing a game for legionaries.
What’s the point, you might ask, of developing a game with such a specific focus when there are other games out there that could probably do the job? One of the reasons is because I can. The mountain climber answer never appeased anyone, so let me try this: other games might do the job, but what if one wants a game designed for the job. There’s a good chance that game will do the job better.
I spent most of my role-playing life playing with one system: Dungeons & Dragons. Why bother to learn another system when this one does what I want? And, yeah, sometimes it doesn’t do exactly what I want, but it’s close, and I can always house-rule it.
So until a little under a decade ago, I was in the thrall of D&D. Completely. It was not a bad place to be, and let me tell you, I am excited about 5E … or D&D Next … or whatever it’s going to be. I still love D&D and that’s because it does its own thing so well. It has created its own fantasy genre that is different from anything else out there. That doesn’t mean it is the perfect game for all genres.
I belong to the first generation of tabletop roleplayers. In fact, I’m probably among the youngest of that generation, since Dungeons & Dragons first started to reach popular culture when I was about seven, and my friends and I were playing it regularly by the time we were eight. We didn’t really know what we were doing—the rules for the game at the time, spread over various manuals and sets, could often be confounding to adults—but rolling the funny dice and fighting monsters was what our imaginations craved, and for us it became the equivalent of a previous generation’s “Cowboys n’ Indians.”
None of our parents understood what we were doing, and when the anti-D&D campaign hit the magazine circuit with its fundamental misunderstanding of roleplaying, we got some grief. Most older people thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a big waste of time, even if they didn’t think it was outright dangerous or unhealthy.
I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons any more. When I do play RPGs, which is rare these days, I only use Fudge, which is simply the greatest roleplaying system I’ve ever encountered . . . simple, flexible, and brings out great storytelling skills. And any game adapts to it. But I don’t regret one moment of my youth with D&D. Because I believe Dungeons & Dragons helped prepare me to become a fantasy and science-fiction reader, and eventually a writer as well.
I’ve previously mentioned in a comment thread that when it comes to tabletop role-playing games, I lean toward the rules-lite side of the equation. I’d rather have a system that allows flexible play, with minimal die-rolls and looking up charts, and greater focus on the “role-playing” instead of the “game.” Given a good Game Master, rules-lite games can feel as close to realistic as any of the more simulationist systems. My favorite RPG of all time, Fudge, has managed to adapt and handle any other game system, setting, or style I’ve thrown at it. In fact, it’s almost the only system I use. Any RPG that comes out I translate into Fudge…
…with the exception of “Beer and Pretzels” RPGs, in which sheer simplicity and ludicrousness are the norm.
Most rules-lite systems are geared toward the Beer and Pretzels genre: RPGs that are played for comedy and speed and with minimum planning and plenty of bad bad bad beer. Risus is the Beer and Pretzels equivalent of Fudge, a complete generic system (six pages long!) usable for quick ‘n’ silly RPGs late at night. I might discuss Risus in another post—it’s interesting both as a rules-lite system and as a purposeful parody of all other early RPGs. Fudge also deserves a long review, because it’s so wonderful that it’s a shame it isn’t spread like a beautiful pandemic to every corner of the hobby.
But today I bring you the most popular setting-specific Beer and Pretzels game, a funny and witty spoof on the concept of “cannon fodder” in Dungeons & Dragons: Dork Storm Press’ Kobolds Ate My Baby! Super Deluxx Edition, written by Chris O’Neil and Dan Landis—and hereafter abbreviated KAMB! (The manual loves exclamation marks! With a passion! See!)