By Christopher Helton
Wednesday I will be in Indianapolis, Indiana for the "Best Four Days In Gaming," Gen Con. The convention itself doesn't start until Thursday, but the fun starts on Wednesday night. Last year, as the lead in to my covering Gen Con for the first time for Bleeding Cool, I put together a list of some of the new and interesting games that will get their big Gen Con debut. For this year I have put together another interesting list of games.
If you are a fan of simpler, less "crunchy" roleplaying games, then this year's choices are for you. We, as roleplayers, are currently in a golden age of gaming where every sort of taste, and nearly every genre out there, is being catered to with some roleplaying game, big or small. This year's Gen Con is going to be exploding with games, old and new, that will appeal to someone out there in the world of gaming.
Feng Shui 2 is a game from one of the great thinkers of tabletop RPGs, Robin D. Laws. This second edition of the Feng Shui game was successfully crowdfunded by Laws and publisher Atlas Games. And, it was released to backers earlier than scheduled. That alone deserves some recognition. It is a game of "action movie" roleplaying, although it does deal more with the archetypes of Chinese action movies more than the Western variety.
The game is simple and quick paced. Pick a template, customize it to your needs and go. I played the first edition of this game a few times in the past, and it was always a fun game. One of the things that I like better about this new edition is that between it and its supplement Blowing Up The Movies it reduces the buy in needed to play the game. Even today there are still a few people who haven't seen a Hong Kong action movie, so every little bit will help.
In the game your characters are participants in a Shadow War across time, traveling via mystic portals to eras in the Earth's past and present, and to realms beyond the Earth. The villains aren't always certain, but your characters will be. This game should appeal to fans of Hong Kong action movies, the Iron Fist comics and upcoming Netflix series, and fans of any sort of high-octane, high action fiction.
Say what you will about the genre, but tabletop roleplaying is driven by fantasy games. This year Green Ronin Publishing will debut its semi-generic fantasy RPG , the Fantasy AGE (Adventure Gaming Engine) Basic Rules. This game is cool. It successfully straddles the line between old school games and more current approaches to fantasy gaming. The system was first used in the Dragon Age tabletop RPG (the new, combined edition of which will also be showing up at Gen Con), and this game is a streamlined version of those rules.
Like Feng Shui above, Fantasy AGE uses only the common six-sided dice for its mechanics. I like the simplicity of this. Sometimes you just want to keep your games easy and not have to worry about what die does what, and when you have to roll which dice for what. Using the contemporary approach to unified mechanics, Fantasy AGE also calls back to the early days of D&D with a weirder look at fantasy (something that you would expect from the creator of Freeport, one of the most interesting game settings of the D&D third edition era).
Everything that you will need to get a fantasy game going is included in this book. Don't let that "Basic Rules" on the cover worry you. This isn't a "crippled" game where you only get enough information to start playing, and then you quickly need another , and then another, rulebook to keep playing. Everything that you need to build characters and put a campaign together are in this book. Also available at Gen Con will be Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, the first supplement for Fantasy AGE, co-developed by Wil Wheaton and played on his Tabletop channel at Geek & Sundry. I will admit that I have been avoiding the Titansgrave actual play videos, because I want a fresh look at the setting when it comes out.
Fantasy AGE is also the basis of the upcoming Blue Rose game from Green Ronin, which I am also looking forward to seeing released. The fact that Fantasy AGE will be able to handle high-energy science fantasy, inspired by the Heavy Metal magazine, and Romantic Fantasy in the mode of Mercedes Lackey and Diana Paxson speaks volumes.This simple, but robust system will be able to handle any sort of fantasy campaigns that you want to throw at it, and is hackable enough to bend and push into the directions that you want to take your games. I expect that Fantasy AGE will be the hot selling fantasy game of this year's Gen Con.
Fantasy AGE should appeal to fans of fantasy video games, like Dragon Age, or tabletop gamers who are looking for a simpler alternative to games like D&D. Comic fans of Red Sonja and Conan will find use for this RPG as well. The Fantasy AGE game would make for an excellent introduction to gaming for a fantasy fans who has been interested in RPGs but couldn't decide on that first game.
Two words that you are going to get tired of reading me use, but which describe The Cypher System Core Rulebook from Monte Cook Games, are simple and robust. But this game does so much with so little, that you can't not use them to talk about the game. I love a good generic game. The appeal of them to me is to be able to play in as many different genres and worlds, without having to change the rules each time our group wants to do something different.
The customization rules for characters allow you to work from the simple core of the Cypher System rules and make a variety of unique characters. While they are called "character types" in these rules, they are similar in execution to classes in class and level-based systems. As one of the designers of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it isn't surprising that Cook would take a familiar approach to character building. The four character types in the Cypher System Core Rulebook are warrior, adept, explorer and speaker. Their design concepts should be fairly self-explanatory. Descriptors then put a spin on your character's type, and by choosing a Focus you can access alternate abilities to the ones from their type.
In some ways, the Cypher System treads over the same territory as Feng Shui, but this isn't unusal because a lot of RPGs have an action/adventure focus to them. This has been hard coded into the main strains of roleplaying games since the original designers of D&D first drew upon pulp fantasy novels as one of their inspirations.
One of the things that I like about the Monte Cook Games games is the fact that they make exploration the focal point of what you do, rather than killing. Where other games say that they put an emphasis on things other than combat, all of the Cypher System games from Numenera to The Strange to these generic rules take away an sort of advancement scheme based on combat. That is a refereshing approach. It helps that the creative minds at Monte Cook Games back up this idea with a couple of the most creative and evocative setting on the roleplaying market currently.
The Cypher System Core Rolebook would be great for an "action horror" game in the vein of Justice League Dark, Demon Knights or Constantine from DC Comics, and should appeal to the fans of those games.
Finally, but not least importantly, we have Heroquest Glorantha from Moon Design. The Heroquest rules are interesting because they make the story part of roleplaying the important thing. What does this mean, exactly?While success and failure are given mechanical weight, like in any roleplaying game, instead of worrying about the immediacy of the current or next task (picking the door lock, overcoming the alarm, making your way to the safe and opening it), the rules look instead to the success or failure of your ultimate goal in a scene. This means that, from the above example, that you look at getting past the door and alarms as a part of the process of getting into the safe (which is your character's ultimate goal for the scene) rather than as a series of tasks which must be done one after the other. If you get into the safe and get what you're looking for you know that your character has bypassed the initial steps successfully. Rather than bogging down the entire scene with minutia, you get to the heart of the dramatic impact of the scene. Whatever that might be.
Another thing that I like about Glorantha, and Heroquest, is the emphasis on your character being part of a community, whether that community is religious, social, economic or political. Too often roleplaying characters fall into the cliche of "lone wolves." In a Gloranthan campaign your character is part of something bigger than themselves, something which makes them a part of their world and an integral part of their comrades lives.
Heroquest Glorantha also uses a single die for everything, this time a 20-sider. While the rules have a narrative focus to them, they still manage to do so in a way that is an homage to the setting's roots in the Runequest roleplaying game. In this way it manages to look to gaming's past while keeping itself fresh and current.
The setting of Heroquest Glorantha is patterned after Earth bronze age cultures, so I think that it would be well suited for people looking for games inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard. In a world where magic is real, and gods and monsters walk the world, you could make an awesome Red Sonja game with these rules.
I am also going to give an honorable mention to Passport Games Studio and their Warehouse 51 board game. Unfortunately it arrived from their printers too late to get a review copy sent off before the convention, however from what I have read about it, this auction/bidding game sounds like it is not only a lot of fun, but right up my alley as a relatively neophyte board game player. Remember that warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? The idea behind this game is that the U.S. government is in dire need of money, so what better way to raise a lot of money than by auctioning off the weird items from a warehouse like that. What could possibly go wrong? The idea is to be the person who wins the most valuable items from the Warehouse, while avoiding anything bad that might happen from having them.
Originally a French game by Bruno Faidutti, this new English language version will make its debut at Gen Con this week. I think that this game will appeal to fans of the Warehouse 13 television show.
Christopher Helton is a blogger, podcaster and tabletop RPG publisher who talks about games and other forms of geekery at the long-running Dorkland! blog. He is also the co-publisher at the ENnie Award winning Battlefield Press, Inc. You can find him on Twitter at @dorkland and on G+ at https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherHelton/ where he will talk your ear off about gaming and comics.