Reading Time!

Very occasionally, the Indie Game Reading Club actually, you know, reads rules and then talks about them. Like in the good old days. Here’s what I’ve been reading the past couple weeks.

Ars Magica 5th Edition

Prompted by an interesting and ultimately aggravating thread hosted by Cam Banks​ — last week maybe, it’s still going — I busted out my 5th Edition copy of Ars Magica and started from the very beginning. It’s old-but-deeply-loved, much in the same social vein as King Arthur Pendragon and Runequest. Cam’s premise was that he doesn’t know what to do with the thing, since it’s pretty much played out and there are a zillion supplements and anyone who would ever play it already has, I guess. I haven’t! And I feel like I’m the target demo for this.

The book shows its age. The on-ramp has nothing to do with getting you stoked to play: it brags on itself about its amazing magic system and innovative troupe-style play. Whenever 5E came out, it was already nostalgic for itself.

Fine, whatever, I plowed on. Only in the final 20ish percent of the book does it finally start talking about campaign play, the constant what do you dooooo question that I bring to every reading. (I settled on five “o”s by the way, for those who want to use the phrase, cc:by and all that.) The on-ramp is littered with a hundred pages of spells and character creation (there are prebuilt templates of archetypal characters, and they’re marvelous) and systems and systems and systems.

And here I am, probably having read this 400-some page tome three or four times end-to-end in my life (I did skip the spells after a while), and I still have no idea how or why I’d ever get a game of it going.

The old die-hard fans are more than ready to walk me through it. I find that aggravating because that is not my jam. I’m a strict originalist/autodidact I guess. And given how I greatly prefer to approach games, it’s still impenetrable.

Still a project I’d like to take on at some point. KAP was a terrific experience and I sort of hope ArM delivers in a similar way. Dunno. I don’t even know how to sell it to my players, and the intro sales pitch in 5E is terrible.

Unknown Armies 3E

I guess Cam has a lot to answer for! Because when I first received UA3 I bounced off the first of the three books. Like, couldn’t penetrate more than about 20 pages before I shrugged and shelved it. Buuut I’m in the mood to figure it out so I have a lot more patience for the process.

Again, a perplexing approach to engaging the reader. The whole first book is just explaining the what do you dooooo. And while it’s an essential question: a whole book? Really? It is such a unique premise that I get having to explain it in detail. I do. And it got me thinking real hard about how short the on-ramp of all the PbtA games are: because they’re all pretty much genre emulation engines that leverage what we already know and love. I get that. I’m personally faced with a non-genre-driven PbtA design right now so this weighs heavily on me: how much front-loading can we ask of our audience?

The second book is the rules, and again: it’s editorially perplexing. Greg Stolze’s voice comes through super-clear because it’s written in a chatty, personal style. But lordy I wish I could get to The Rules in a more direct way. Even small procedures feel like they’re scaffolded to so, so much chat. Reminds me of Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine in that way. And most of the games of the’ 90s I guess. I’m so grateful that luke crane​ calls out his little chatty asides with a specific mascot in Burning Wheel.

I never got to the third book because I ran out of juice trying to decode the second book.

The three-book series feels, to me, like a challenge: can you handle all this? I think I’m up for the challenge but it doesn’t feel like an interesting challenge the same way BW did back-in-the-day. Like, I’m not the audience. I think the audience is probably old-skool UA fans who want lots more Greg chat and can quickly suss out the systems and how they’re different from earlier editions.


So my Tuesday crew wrapped up Apocalypse World a couple weeks ago (awesome) and we’re picking up on an old Epyllion game for a two-week run starting today. Then a buddy is running Burning Wheel for us. Then, at some point this spring, imma run Coriolis. So I’ve been going through it in detail for the first time.

New games are so much better an onboarding the reader. Really, the state of the art has advanced really dramatically the past twenty years (which further confuses me about the Unknown Armies approach, but I guess the creator wants what they want). You get right into the basics of the setting and situation, the rules are concise and rulesy and not at all editorial, or when there is an editorial comment it’s a sidebar and it’s kind of cool and impersonal.

What did jump out at me is how super-long the GM’s setting material is. It’s the back half of the book — I like that a whole lot more than front-loading all the readers, including the players — and it’s in the same vein as the provocatively incomplete text of Exalted’s first edition: tons of leads to be teased out, based on the crew type the players settled on.

It’s a lot to take on all at once for sure. I think my recommendation would be to stick to the first half, get the crew and characters sorted, then start picking at the setting buffet for bits and bobs that are relevant to what you’ll actually use. But I get the urge for completeness, I really do: while I’m digging around for archaeology-oriented leads, I’m trying to pack it all into my head in the hopes that second-order leads will pop out of the quantum foam of my brain. This is why I could never decode Glorantha: there’s no way I could ever read and keep the whole Guide to Glorantha in my head, and I’d hate knowing I was getting something wrong.

And in Conclusion

My goal this year is to play all of this! Coriolis is easy because it’s modern, it’s built on a familiar framework, and I’m already stoked. Ars I think will click with a session or two and, yeah, conceding to the wisdom of the old fans (apparently Faith and Flame is a strong representative campaign framework). Unknown Armies just pisses me off and I kind of want to hate-run it. (Not really, I don’t hate it at all! But I want to crack the code.)

What rules are you reading right now?

0 thoughts on “Reading Time!”

  1. I mean this affectionately, but Ars Magica is a completely 1980s game in design (even in 5e) and as you say Unknown Armies is totally 1990s.

    I kind of want to design an “Ars Magica heartbreaker” with streamlined rules, some formalisation of troupe play, and adventuring and lab phases where the latter doesn’t get taken over by bookwork. And the general magic rules are a bit lighter too. Not to mention the experience rules.

    And a big “what you do” section at the start.

  2. I’m making my way through The Nightmare Underneath, and it hits the “what do you dooooo?” button pretty precisely and decisively. “You live in the World of Dreams, which is basically like a normal human world but with magic. There is a Nightmare World that wants to invade. Your characters are, for whatever reason, partly immune to Nightmare curses, and you suck at living a normal life, so you go into Nightmare Incursions (dungeons) and kill monsters. Eventually you will die from this.”

    I also keep bouncing off of UA3. I got them all in PDF, but I demur at the challenge you’ve mentioned. Like, how on earth am I expected to read all this, AND summarize it in a way that’s accessible to my players AND keep track of all the little minutiae in play, short of making constant fiat calls?

    AM, both in 4th and 5th editions, are great failures of mine. I’ve literally never brought a whole group through character creation. I think once I had a full cast in front of me, I would be able to find lots of little things to do with them. This mage needs special components to work on their artifact, this companion wants to get married to a local lord, but the family doesn’t approve of her associating with wizards, these grogs got drunk in town and got arrested, but one of them has a map to the Covenant’s vis source tattooed on his back. But, like, I can do that same stuff with much easier rules.

  3. We wrapped up our Blades campaign in December and are playing Nightmares Underneath now. The books next to my bed right now are Harlem Unbound; Cthulhu Dark, and Alas For The Awful Sea.

  4. Hey Todd Crapper​​ started a community based around reading games you haven’t like READ yet. You should join!

    My current read is Hillfolk / Blood on the Snow. February read is Circle of Hands

  5. Even small procedures feel like they’re scaffolded to so, so much chat.

    This is why I also bounced off the first book after maybe 80 pages and shelved it. Honestly, Stolze’s style really grates on me. I just want to understand the premise and know how to play, but he will not shut up.

    I feel confident you could boil the game down to 80 pages and would lose nothing.

  6. What rules are you reading right now?

    I’m rereading HeroQuest 1st edition in anticipation of running it at Dreamation. Our conversation the other day about it put it into my head how underrated it is, and how it deserves to still be played today.

    I should probably also read Apocalypse World 2nd edition since I’m running that too, though I am perhaps foolishly assuming my experience with 1st edition will carry me as long as I familiarize myself with the new moves.

  7. Oh, as for your question, I am hoping to squeeze in first edition MERP after I finish the Tolkien biography I am reading and before I start a LotR deep-dive.

  8. My rules reading of rules for games I’m not playing has stymied. Instead, I’m re-reading MYZ as I really want to bring the beast to a satisfying closure. At an average of once a month playing, this could take some time.

    I’m picking at Zweihander. Traditional RPG approach and I’m super-duper okay with that. But reading trad-built games is a chore, wading through umpteen-thousand pages of skills and spells is not my thang.

  9. When I was into Ars Magica it was still a Lion Rampant game. Much newer, fresher, and un-baggaged.

    I could never get into Unknown Armies. It ranked up there with On The Edge and Nobilis as games too in love with their own wierdness. For me they fit into that bizarre 90s era RPG state of repressed authors who’ve developed a high volume of setting material but can’t come up with a compelling plot…so instead of writing a novel they dump the setting into an RPG and punt the plot to players…and only tack on some rules as an after thought. Drives me batty.

  10. Right now I’m up to my ears in the Burning Wheel Codex, which is more essays than rules admittedly, but buddy oh buddy those essays have been illuminating for me. My first ever character burning session is happening after work today, so I’ve bounced back over to the core Gold to just refresh my memory. I’ve got those new-campaign-new-rules jitters!

  11. I’m reading D&D 5e because I’m playing a bard in a 5e game. I like the bard in this edition better. Also it kind of has almost no music. I’m secretly reading 5e because I need to port Wonder & Wickedness, Marvels & Malisons and Chthonic Codex to 5e. Playtest is going to be utterly ridiculous.

    I’m reading Blades in the Dark because omg it’s so dense with crunch and I love formal systems. I think it’s ripe to have a coop boardgame developed on top of it. Also, it’s the game that made me so hangry (yes, hangry) that I resolved to actually write a gang game as an answer (some early design for Gangs & Bullshit is based on the excellent Street kids of Ur-Hadad, Blades made me upset way later)

    Also I’m reading AM5 because I want to run AM5 and I have no idea how to dammit.

  12. Ralph Mazza​ oh yeah Over the Edge for sure is in the same zip code.

    Something tells me the inevitable Kickstarter for a new edition (now with more nostalgia!) will not take modernization to its logical conclusion.

    Cam Banks​​ are you going to be involved with that? How can I help them steer straight?

  13. I’m reading Stars Without Number Revised right now. WRT Unknown Armies, I think I could run it but I feel like my UA and someone else’s UA (and another hypothetical third person’s UA) would be completely different, and that feeling undermines my GMing confidence somewhat.

  14. I am rereading The One Ring Core Book as well as the Darkening of the Mirkwood campaign & setting books in hope of running this soon. The Mirkwood setup feels very grabby and makes me want to dig in a run it in a way that most big settings don’t for me. Plus all that terrific art work…

  15. Colin J I have mad love for Darkening. Followed Ara Winter​ ‘s advice for integrating the adventures from Tales From Wilderland and played, dunno, 12 years into the campaign?

    (Do the kids still say mad love?)

  16. Paul Beakley I have seen similar advice on adding those and suggested years to do it so I will def need to try that. Darkening is probably the best campaign book since the Great Pendragon Campaign and I can totally see it’s DNA in its

  17. Paul Beakley I’m the developer for the new OTE, yes. I did a call for playtesting last year and that lasted a few months. It’s a completely new system from the old one.

  18. Paul Beakley lots of people say they want to playtest but when I set it up, they can’t manage it. Sadly I do actually want people to play the games, not just peer review them (which certainly has its place.)

  19. Paolo Greco The Darkening of Mirkwood is the The One Ring mega-campaign, kind of its Great Pendragon Campaign. Runs for 30 years, big overarching thing you can fit your fellowship’s life into.

  20. I’ve been reading Cthulhu Dark (yeah, I know, it takes 5 minutes) and trying to wrap my head around just HOW I’d use these simple rules to simulate CoC. I’d sure love to read a play report or watch an actual play with these rules.

  21. As for some of the other games mentioned…I’ve played a short campaign of UA3 and I’m hoping for a sequel. It was very good and the psychological element (the shock gauges) did a good job in driving play and the fundamental question of whether my character would be able to function in normal society or embrance the unnatural. It does it for me as a player, though it’s one for me to play rather than run. But that’s really cool too.

    Over the Edge is another extremely 1990s game and all about pouring every sort of weirdness into the setting, with the minimum mechanics (for the time) needed to function. I dig it, and I’ve run it a couple of times but I was very self indulgent. A return tempts me greatly.

    As for the what I’m reading question, I’ve just finished Stars without Number revised and Chill 3e. I’m not sure which RPG book to read next. Suggestions are welcome (though I have a few unread things too).

    By the way, I also nicked encounter TN=Landscape for my One Ring game. It’s really sorted out the Encounters subsystem.

  22. Spent the past week or so reading Blades in the Dark, and it’s some really neat stuff! I like how compact and purposeful it is–one of the few book-size games I’ve seen where the premise and the setting are one and the same, down to including specific NPCs on character sheets. A lot of cool bits in the game, and I’m intrigued.

  23. I almost broke my toe a few minutes ago, but this phrase just picked me right up, “5E came out, it was already nostalgic for itself.”

    Just… so… great. Thanks Paul!

  24. Oh, hey, there’s like a question at the end! I’m reading The Veil which I find just all kinds of intriguing. I played at GenCon and I fell in love with how funky the playbooks are (no cleric, druid, fighter, etc., parallels here).

    I’m forcing myself to read the PbtA boilerplate because I’m fascinated by how different authors handle it. It was great to see a clean simple example of Fictional Positioning and I like that John F puts in a safety tool like it’s no big deal.

    Looking forward to digging in further this week.

  25. I’ve got Mutant Year Zero and Blades in the Dark just sitting there on my shelf. I’m not reading them. Probably because I’m not going to run them any time soon. Reading a bunch of comics instead.

    This post has me itching to reread my Unknown Armies 1st edition book, which is my favorite edition.

  26. I’m reading Bluebeard’s Bride in preparation for running it at a con. It’s a great read, and very clear about what it should be like to play it. I’m less clear about how you make it play like that, and it seems to put a lot of responsibility on the GM for doing it right. But sometimes judging the text before playing the game is wrong-headed: it could be that if I do the things that are written in the book, the game will do what it’s supposed to, even if it’s not readily apparent to me as a reader how that happens.

    I have recently read World Wide Wrestling. It has excellent on-boarding, that does not rely on existing knowledge. It took me from non-wrestling fan to successfully running a game for a group including wrestling fans in a very short time.

  27. The full Cthulhu Dark book is great. The instructions for building horror and creeping dread, the included settings and scenarios- the mechanical part is really the least of it.

  28. Additional comment to David Benson re Cthulhu Dark: I wrote a big long thing about the book a couple weeks ago (link below) but my tl;dr is that trying to “simulate” the Call of Cthulhu experience with Cthulhu Dark is missing the point. Different paradigms and understandings of the Lovecraft work and the Mythos itself underpin each game and it’s not just swapping systems. – Cthulhu Dark Horror is Complicated I have a complicated relationship with th…

  29. Paul Beakley Thanks, Paul. I look forward to reading it. I’ve played CoC for so long as a pulp-style adventure game that it’s been difficult to switch my mindset to the more bleak hopelessness that is required in real Mythos games.

  30. Oh cool! Don’t be embarrassed. 😀

    You’re absolutely right that the mindset will be very hard to switch to. I talk about that myself, and I was even coming off a mindset that I hated (the pulpy punch-Azathoth mode). Also a very tough sell to players if they feel like riding a gloomy railroad feels pointless.

  31. Paul Beakley Well, I’m going to re-read your essay and try to get my hands on the full CD book. Thanks. People like you, Paul, are why I’m on Google+.

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