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Fits and Starts

January 2, 1997:

Welcome to a new year. The last year ended with a bang, particularly when White Wolf Games underwent some, umm, changes. New releases were, as usual, scarce, but most companies seemed lively and active. And Chaosium released hints on their live game system, which seems worthy of note.

Let's tackle the White Wolf news, first. Anonymous rumors, quickly confirmed by WW, revealed that 15 employees were fired (and one resigned), and that Mark Rein*Hagen left WW. It's a small industry, and 16 people is a lot of folks, all considered. Sad news, all around. MR*H left to his "Null Foundation", supposably keeping the licensing rights to WoD, as well as the much-ballyhoed science fiction game "Exile". Rumor suggests White Wolf is still interested in a SF game, perhaps titled "Aeon". And WW's card and fiction departments are effectively gone-- oh goodness, a role-playing company actually focusing on role-playing games! How controversial! Those are the facts-- opinions are a dime a dozen on the net as to why, and (like the similar Wizards of the Coast debacle two years ago), we'll have to wait to see what survives. If any company were to rise from the dead, though, one would have to assume it'd be WW, if just for the irony of it.

Is media heat making everyone hunker down? With the whole "Vampyre Murders" bit, and a similar case reported in Wired! (a magazine that has categorically refused to publish gaming reviews), there are valid reasons to be worried.

Web presences continue to shift. Though Atlas Games once had a custom site, now they are back to AOL-- but their pages still look excellent. Does this mean webmania is settling down? Are people now looking for value instead of prestige? I for one hope that company commitments to the Web remain strong, as its one of the few public outreach methods strongly available. To give up now would be a tragedy.

A few new releases drifted out this way-- "Guns Guns Guns" from Greg Porter, a "dime novel" adventure and some other stuff for Deadlands from Pinnacle Games (who seem to get mentioned in every column, they release so much!), a lukewarm "Starships" for Imperium Games's Traveller, and probably a couple I'm missing. No big Christmas releases, alas, but the slightly-earlier release of SJG's DinoHunt was a nice game to play across age boundaries. I shouldn't complain of no new releases, though, as I'm guilty of it myself-- I haven't built the review section or the encyclopedia for this site yet. Perhaps the entire industry, pro to part-timer, should make the same resolution-- To Finish What We Start, and Finish On Time. End of story.

Now, for a soapbox. Chaosium (one of the more thoughtful, deliberate companies) released details on their upcoming LARP system for Call of Cthulhu. The full details, by Robert "Mac" McLaughlin, are in the Chaosium Digest. The short summary is, it's a live action system focusing on drama and props, where players are run through a scenario by a Keeper and Non-Player characters provide opposition and adversity. In short, it's very much like an expanded, 3-D, real time tabletop RPG session.

There are several approaches to LARPs. One primary style is "Players versus Players", where there are at most a sprinkling of Cast-type figures, and the primary conflict is between players thrust into some situation from differing or similar sides. Such a game is more character-driven, and has multiple plots that involve different subgroups of players, adding a political aspect to this game. White Wolf's MET is this type of system, as are the majority of games run at the ILF's weekend-long conventions. The strength here is on character, setting, social dynamics and individual scenes, with the final ending(s) rarely predictable. However, you have to have simple mechanics to allow the players to interact on all levels (social, magical, combative, etc), and be willing to let the game go where it wants.

The style taken by Chaosium Players versus Cast, has been used in many successful adventures by Xanodria, by Brian Thomas's Lovecraftian group, and undoubtably others. As with many table-top scenarios, you can generally assume the rest of the party are your allies, and 90% of the rest of the world are evil cultists trying to eat your brain (well, perhaps that'd be a little paranoid... make it 30%). The presence of one main plot and "us versus them" helps to keep things moving along. This approach generally has well-focused adventures, good menace, and scripting that actually matches what happens in the game. The downside is, you need a referee around to do most anything, and you pretty much have to stay together as a group-- but is that such a bad thing in a Lovecraftian game? To support the path they've taken, Chaosium's game promises lots of advice on staging, prop finding and costuming, and special effects.

For either approach, there is the issue of how to deal with combat. Xanodria, and the various NERO, and other troupes use the "boffer style", where you carry padded weapons and literally fight as well as you fight. Other groups (like John Kilgallon's "SLAG" and WW's MET) use a simple abstraction to quickly resolve combat (dice, rock-paper-scissors, playing cards and other methods), so that fighting is simulated and you fight as well as your character was written to do. Chaosium has sort of chosen the later, with a bit of Keeper adjudication. Combat shifts the game into slow motion, with the Keeper announcing each combat round and the players resolving their combat actions and movement allowance according to their rule system. For comparison, the Georgian group mentioned earlier did this to a larger extreme-- combat was in slow motion, but with even simplier rules-- since few were armed, guns took people out, knives were the next effective, and then it was whether your character was skilled in fisticuffs. Brian Thomas has said, "drama should always be more important than combat." Good words to live by.

Given the few live game systems published, it's good news that Chaosium is putting theirs out, and given the success of other troupes in running similar games, hopefully it will due quite well. For more information, Brian David Phillips maintains pages on LARPS in general, including free games, group details, scenarios, and events.

Until next month,

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All Soapboxes

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    Other columns at RPGnet

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