My Reading Stack (July 2017)

My Reading Stack

These three games are about as different from one another as you can get in the traditional rpg (GM + character-monogamous players) space.

Torchbearer reimagines a genre/play style/aesthetic invented in the ’70s and ’80s. It adds some modern indie twists (incentivized nudges toward juicy drama) but its about-ness is squarely centered on the dungeon delve.

Unknown Armies has been dolled up a bit but is still fundamentally a child of the ’90s, an iconoclastic personal vision. No real tie to outside media. In fact more likely there were dreams of doing the transmedia thing, movies and toys and video game tie ins. UA isn’t “like” anything. But lots of things are like UA.

Then there’s The Veil, which is a self conscious mashup of dozens of media influences. You might sense the Burroughs influence in Unknown Armies but they never came right out and said it. Or “this game is like Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell and Windup Girl,” which The Veil very much does.

When I get uneasy about many modern games and their slavish devotion to emulating their source material, this is what I’m thinking about. I’m stoked to run The Veil for sure. Procedurally and formally it’s a better game than the other two (fight me). And yet I’m left looking down the barrel of a lot of prep and thought about how to make it my own and not just celebrate Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Windup Girl.

You know what it’s like? It’s like figuring out how to compose entirely unique music on one of those keyboards that comes with built in rhythms and instrument sounds and effects. It’d be so easy to toss off something that sounds a lot like a movie soundtrack and everyone would probably like it. I made something that sounds like Jerry Goldsmith!

This could very much be a generational thing. I get that. Might be that I was unconsciously nudging my dungeon delves toward Moria the whole time. But I don’t think so. Designs were more…meta, I think. Some designs today still drill down to the themes that underpin whole story families. Urban Shadows strikes me as enormously more meta about its subject matter than just being “like Charmed” or “like True Blood.”

I have no particular suggestion here, nor am I really saying there’s a “problem” of any kind. It’s just notable to me, reading these particular volumes side by side, how many approaches there are in This Thing of Ours. How many different kinds of instruments for us to play.

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0 thoughts on “My Reading Stack (July 2017)”

  1. I think that Veil’s playbooks are a strange blend of being pitched as slavish devotions so people grok them, while actually being a challenge to move beyond the source and explore a particular theme. But, Ugh, the examples are derivative.

  2. Urban Shadows is great. It does remind me of other games/media, though. When I read through US I compared it alot to my experience with Dresden Files FATE. Maybe because I needed a familiar format to map out the flow of play? It also seemed to have tools that I would of liked when running Dresden Files. Similar to how The Sprawl filled missing pieces of my experience with Shadowrun. I know other people look at US and see WoD, but maybe that’s just a learning tool for comprehension.

    I will agree that Torchbearer is obsessed with dnd B/X. So much so that if the players aren’t familiar with B/X then TB can feel mean and arbitrary. I first played B/X after running TB and it made so many things click for me. I tend to prefer TB over BW because the premise is so strong. BW is the deeper experience but requires a lot of negotiation in the beginning to set up the Situation. Where as, with TB the premise is set and clear, if you have the right past experience.

    The colonial marines hack of TB where you fight Aliens is an easier sell at my table, because more people are familiar with the inspiring media. I wonder if people use media as a short cut to reach players who rarely open up rulebooks and wouldn’t find a grip on rule nuance. When I sell people on BitD I def mention Thief/Dishonored.

  3. I sense Fraser Simons​ could give some pointers on the prep side of things…

    Aaron Berger​ I keep forgetting that colonial marines hack. That might be a fantastic way to get that to the table for me as well.

  4. Oh, I agree for the most part. The Veil definitely asks more from players than most PbtA, because it also puts forth the idea that by being aware of the media you can then subvert it, which is very satisfying. But I would very much say it’s a cognitive load heavy game, which is why Cascade is pretty well aimed at reducing a ton of it for the players to make it more accessible. But at the same time create a nice bridge from The Veil to Cascade thematically.

    A huge part of making a cyberpunk game to me was the media perception of it, because not a lot of people are aware of what the genre looks like today. And I wanted people to both be aware of the source material but be OK with making their own cyberpunk, disregarding the stuff that doesn’t work and, in the case of first wave stuff, be problematic, too!

    In that way it’s a post cyberpunk game as it struggles against the genre and thereby broaden it with the contributions of people creating new fiction. But, it also requires more from the MC and players than other games.

    I also think that you could just have a good time not doing that stuff and say, hey, I love Blade Runner. Let’s do the story that never was in that universe. Both are OK. But in order to struggle critically against something I thought it was important to make people aware of it. In order to be instructive in the book, I felt it needed a mix of both.

    Because you have media reference points and the playbooks deviating and celebrating them, a lot of the time just choosing playbooks will make it your own, anyways. Because I’ve kind of done the work at making these cyberpunk tropes and motifs as interesting as possible, and I think, unique at the same time.

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