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?