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Close to the Edit

Back To The Future

by Ross Winn
Sep 21,2005


Back To The Future

GenCon 2005 was a resounding success. I played Clout Fantasy, Rocketmen, and High Stakes Drifter, and almost nothing else. The rest of my time was spent talking about and to RPG publishers. I got a lot of very positive feedback on the column, and I got a lot of positive feedback on a few other ideas I had. All of this was in the midst of a fairly flat year in RPGs. DDL[1] is all over but the shouting. There are a few publishers still putting out very good stuff, and everything else is crap. Because of this a lot of retailers are awash in crap that isn't going to sell and is tying up valuable inventory dollars. A few things are going to help clear out all the useless dross left over from the DDL boom.

There are some HUGE licenses coming out, specifically City of Heroes and Serenity. This will force new product through the system and hopefully inject some much needed cash into everyone's pockets this holiday season. If you are a retailer with too much DDL crap in your store, sell it on eBay or write it off. It isn't going anywhere anytime soon. While the aftermath of the d20 crash is going to cost a lot of people money, the crash itself is not an inherently bad thing. The market cycles like everything else, and it is time for some new stuff, even when it isn't exactly brand new.

Few RPGs have ever had the success or the fan support of TORG. The game simply would not die. Version 1.5 is amazingly spiffy. All of the big holes are patched, and to stretch a metaphor, you can't even see the seams in the plaster. Mongoose has also released the WARS RPG, a big, pretty hardback that I will shortly wade into along with Dawning Star and the daunting RIFTS Ultimate Edition. I may even include Shadowrun as I survey some cool new SF games becoming available. Right after that I should be finished reading MAGE: The Awakening from our friends at White Wolf.

What I am not going to be doing is writing a series of columns about my Traveller series as I promised last time, because a funny thing happened to me at GenCon. You know when I start something like the Traveller column I am usually pretty amazed when my head shoots off in a completely different direction, but at GenCon I realized that I wasn't writing a Traveller game; I was writing something else. The story I wanted to tell and the universe I wanted to tell it in didn't work in Traveller. Rather than spend months forcing the game to fit into Traveller, I decided to start work on my own game, a new genre-specific[2] roleplaying game for classic SF. I am sure I will write more about it in the future, but for now I will just say that I don't even really have a title but I hope to have a completed game in a few months.


On the plane to Indianapolis I was trying to reconcile what parts of what Traveller starship design systems I wanted to allow and disallow and I realized that what I really wanted to do was to design my own ship construction system. In a restaurant on Thursday I discussed alternative character generation methods with Neal Sofge from Fat Messiah Games and Mark Schumann, formerly of RTG. I realized I wasn't happy with a completely random approach, and neither did I care for completely designed characters; I wanted to design my own character generation system. I talked to Christian Williams the author of Dreamlands for Call of Cthulhu and former publisher of Vortext magazine about how much I wanted to see him write again, and how much I wanted to work with him. I read Chris Hockabout's amazing Secret of Zir'An game published by Arthaus/White Wolf and it struck me how much you can do with a simple idea. I talked to a lot of different people; by seven o'clock Saturday I was more than a little drunk and determined to take over the world.

I started writing a modern horror game in 1989 that I never finished. I always like the simple resolution mechanic I had for it, so I am dusting it off and exposing it to light for the first time in fifteen years. I wrote a horrible SF game in about 1980; the system was atrocious but there were a lot of what I, at least, think are cool ideas there. We will see if everyone else thinks so too. I have almost thirty years of notes, including Mike Pondsmith's patented "So you are stupid enough to want to write a new game" speech. I have a Sharpie marker, a frightening number of legal pads, OmniOutliner, Word 2004, and an awesome PowerBook.

When Paul Lidberg and I started working on UNSanctioned there was a dearth of modern supers RPGs. By the time we had done serious work they were coming out of the damned woodwork. I had had a similar experience working on Protect & Serve for Cyberpunk 2020 almost a decade earlier; four of the contributors sent in the same piece of equipment with almost the exact same stats. It was something we joked about for months. "Who wrote that? We all did!"

The RPG hobby is a tad incestuous mess at best, and a very abusive dysfunctional family at worst. We read many of the same books, we watch the same films, and those of you who have TV's[3] watch the same shows. It is not random coincidence that we have the same ideas, and ten years later I am surprised it doesn't happen a lot more. So while I think that it is time for a new SF RPG, I am sure others do too.  Even with that, I know there are no parades, no groupies, and no untold millions in my future; but maybe, just maybe, I can make it new again.

[1] So what is DDL? To put it simply, I got tired of getting into arguments with people online when I couldn't use D20, OGL, D&D branded, D&D licensed, and cool whip in the same sentence. Frankly they all use the same resolution mechanic and they are fairly interchangeable as far as rules go so I need a term to describe them that is both broad and inexact. I chose DDL, short for D&D Licensure. This is a term I use to describe all of the various permutations of D20, OGL, D&D branded, and D&D licensed.

[2] I do think that, with the exception of GURPS and Hero, "universal" systems are really showing their faults. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like people are missing the idea that some genres need specific reinforcement and almost all genres benefit from it in the game's system. Even DDL games tend to show that they are just versions of D&D and they reinforce D&D-styled roleplaying and nothing else.

[3] I do not have a TV, and haven't had one for years. I still think it is one of the best decisions I ever made. People say to me "where do you find the time?" I simply reply "I don't watch television, and I don't have one in my house". Then they look at me in horror and run away.

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