Today I got together with friends and played a fun miniatures game, AT-43. The company that created it went into liquidation four years ago. After a brief flurry of interest brought on by fire sale prices, the game settled into its new normal–it slipped from people’s minds.
We face this struggle all of the time in roleplaying. Many local fans of 4th edition D&D were disappointed by the coming of 5th Edition–and it’s growing harder to recruit for 4e campaigns starting up now, despite an abundance of books still available for 4th.
When a New Edition Splits the Player Base
The worst situation is where the new edition is much less popular than older editions. White Wolf games suffered this locally; players had a great deal of themselves invested in the old World of Darkness. The new die system may have featured better math (and fewer game breaking powers), but people didn’t fall in love with the new clans, conflicts, and stories.
Recruiting for games became difficult and for a while the games weren’t publicly offered, but recently there’s been a local renaissance. People are unapologetically offering old World of Darkness games, while others are offering games from the new. GMs for both make it clear that experience (and interest) in either is sufficient… and it’s working. But recruiting is still harder than it used to be.
When the whole player base has moved on–as, say, it felt like in the world of D&D by 2002, or Champions on release of 4th edition, the situation is easier for a new player. You join the game that’s on the shelves, the game that everyone is running.
It’s often difficult to recruit players for an old edition at this point–though, if your group is generating new roleplayers, they’ll learn the game you’re running. As they gain more experience, they might want to experiment with the new hotness… but you’ve created new gamers who will probably always treasure the game that got them into roleplaying. That’s still a big success.
One very interesting trend of late is the Old School Revival movement. Via clones of old editions of D&D (and actual old D&D books), people are returning to (and recruiting for) D&D as it was played in the 70s and 80s. Even better, many GMs are using forty years of experience to craft new experiences with skillful rules mastery. Martin’s articles about Hexcrawls have been a fascinating look into that world. Another interesting tool for these games with Martin’s fingers all over it, is the Drop Map.
So Many are Lost
While a lot of games have happy endings, there are even more that have faded completely into obscurity. When I was discussing RIFTS last week, I briefly remembered TORG, a similar “worlds collide” system from the early 90s. For all of the great games that live on in new editions, there are a number that just disappear.
One of the games that intrigued me, but was too much math for me to casually tackle, was Journeyman. I rarely think about dragging it out of mothballs, but it’d be interesting to use the world physics, settings, and random tables to create a galaxy to explore. These days I’d probably break out Diaspora for the actual rules system… but it’d be an interesting journey.
Do complete in one book indie RPGs avoid the trap of obsolescence? It’s been a long time since I played The Pool, but you wouldn’t have to ask me twice to take a Dog to Bridalveil Falls to save the faithful. On the other hand, there are a number of games that never caught on and count among the lost…
What’s your favorite game that’s been lost to time? Did an edition change split the player base, or was it just never popular enough to be supported sufficiently? Is there a game (or edition of a game) that you keep alive, but you never meet anyone else who still plays?
Mage the Ascension is still my favorite game of all time, and I’m looking forward to the 20th Anniversary books.
I also enjoyed XXVc, the Buck Rogers game based on D&D 2e, and the Dragonlance SAGA Edition game. Both were very tinker friendly, and I had very divergent settings created for both games, but I never really played them (except the Gold Box style computer games for XXVc).
I also ran TORG for a while. There was a new edition of TORG published about 10 years ago, taking place after the Reality War has ended and Core Earth has incorporated the other realms into itself, but it saw limited distribution (I think) and crazy prices (i think the core rulebook was around $60 for a softback at the time).
There are a lot of stellar games out there, waiting to be played again, I think.
I always wondered about TORG; I heard good things, but no one local (that I knew) was playing it. I didn’t hear about the reboot, but $60 would have prevented me from giving it a shot.
I was a big fan of Mage: The Ascension; several of my favorite GMing moment come from those campaigns. Awakening came out when I was deep in the indie-roleplaying orbit, so I never really gave it a chance. (I bought the core cook but only ever skimmed it.)
I own a ton of Torg stuff and I love it. Never could get a group behind it though. However, not too long ago, Torg released a revised edition with most of the material all in one 272 page book, though you may still need a splatbook or 7 all of which are now available in PDF.
In the past couple years I think we’ve been in a real push towards easier to play, more rules-lite games. Publishers are really working harder to sell their games in a way they can’t sell older and much denser games.
True, though as I was writing I wondered about the current status of Amber Diceless. It was quite rules light… well, the printed rules were light. But yes, FATE and Primetime Adventures point me in a different direction than older games do.
The current status is you can still buy a PDF version of the old rulebook from current owner Diceless by Design via DriveThruRPG. Unfortunately they’ve had trouble getting the rights from the Zelazny estate to do a second edition.
The good news here is Rite Publishing licensed the Amber Diceless rule system and used it to produce a new game called Lords of Gossamer and Shadow. It was written by Jason Durall (who wrote a never-published Rebma supplement for Phage Press), and essentially reskins the original Amber Diceless rules to a new multiverse with no Zelanzy IP in it. They are very actively working on further material for the game, and have a bunch of people very knowledgeable about Amber Diceless working for them.
And I’m with you on rules light. There are a number of us who have been running games with various stripped-down versions of Amber Diceless with great success…
I saw the Lords of Gossamer and Shadow kickstarter and was intrigued, but decided not to back it due to my backlog of currently not-played games. Did you pick it up? If you’ve run it, did you enjoy it?
I did pick it up, and I’ve both run in it (one session) and played in it (I think four sessions now). I’ve definitely enjoyed it so far.
One lovely difference between it and Amber is there are no Amber and Chaos dominating Shadow. In this game, the Gossamer Worlds (which are the equivalent of Shadows) are where the action is. It’s a very refreshing change from the perspective of a long time Amber player/GM.
No contest – it’s WitchCraft from Eden Studios. I bought it back in 2001 and have been running it off and on ever since, although I don’t think anything’s been published for it for almost a decade now.
I also have a huge soft spot for 7th Sea, but I think it needs a big overhaul before I’d run it again.
7th Sea 🙂
I love 7th Sea. The only overhaul I ever thought it needed was to strip out the stupid space aliens metaplot/cosmology.
“Get your sci-fi out of my swashbuckling!”
As a game store owner, Scott, I’m sure you can relate. I was wondering about this situation:
Players who stick with an older game (or, especially, an out-of-print game) who rely on their local game store as a play area — I wonder if they find themselves being nudged or pressured to adopt the latest hotness? (This space is reserved for people who participate in the organized play of games we can actually sell … or for demos of new games …)
What is your approach to those who play older games? Can they secure space the same as those of current games? Has anyone experienced pushback from store owners? Or do store owners understand that if people are playing games — any games — they are likely to buy more?
As a store owner, a little from column A, a little from column B. We’re unlikely to host nights dedicated to products that we can’t sell–we don’t have AT-43 nights, though AT-43 games are welcome at general minis nights. Similarly, “dead” games don’t have formal organized play, but playing them at general roleplaying nights, or running them at cons and mini-cons is welcome.
With a smaller space, I’d understand stores having to prioritize games that they can sell. We’re fortunate to have space enough for everyone, most of the time.
Alternity. A phenomenal mechanics system with several compelling campaign settings. I’m a particularly big fan of its “Star*Drive” space opera setting.
The system was abandoned by WotC for Star Wars, but the fan base continued to develop the settings for many years afterward. I think what flaws the system did have would have been addressed if it had stayed in development longer. Many of the mechanics concepts as well as the campaign elements have been incorporated into a variety of other products since.
Interesting! I never played Alternity, but people who liked it seemed to really like it. For most systems, ceasing publication early is one of the few ways to prevent rules bloat. On the other hand, there are a number of games where one good supplement to close some holes or provide a sub-system that’s mentioned as forthcoming in a core book but never delivered would have been welcome.
I almost all dead games, all the time. Starting with Victory’s “James Bond: 007” from the 1980s, which was my go-to modern setting rules set. We stretched it to run Cyberpunk and Stargate, even. Compared to some of the stuff today, the rules are a bit heavy and some of the elements of character creation could do with retooling, but it’s still a solid bit of mechanics.
From the ’90s, it was Castle Falkenstein — I loved the card-based randomizing, rather than dice (“Gentlemen don’t play dice!”), but the combat system was a disaster that needed house rules to fix. I wasn’t a big fan of the fantasy-meets-Victoriana sci-fi (and this is from one of the guys that’s been on the Victoriana line since the beginning until a few years ago), so we used it for Space: 1889. (Which is coming out again using Ubiquity — the rules from Hollow Earth Expedition — another mostly dead game we play.)
My big go-to set of mechanics is Cortex. Not Cortex Plus (or more accurately, Cortex: the Fatening.) Just crunchy enough to satisfy the gronards, light enough for the storyteller types, high customizability to different settings and detailed character creation without getting to granular.
I’m resisting the Fate-ification of gaming, right now, just as i did the OGL craze. Why? “Because you want it.”
Now get off my lawn.
Do you have a constant group, or do you recruit fresh people for no-longer supported games successfully?
I wonder what the Space 1899 developers are thinking, to go to the effort to release a new edition including a conversion to an unpopular brand. Any thoughts on why they’re shifting to ubiquity?
First question: I’ve had a small core group for about 15 years, but it was dramatically reduced a few years back. Since then, I’ve manage to recruit new folks — mostly for the Hollow Earth Expedition game, but also for BSG. The system for the latter often wins the gamers over, and my next cyberpunk/dystopian game will probably use the rules set.
Second: The market outside the US is pretty different, especially for OOP and oddball systems. Ubiquity’s got a decent following in Europe (especially Germany) and other locales, which is why when Triple Ace isn’t doing things for Savage Worlds, it’s Ubiquity they turn to. They already had a Victorian sci-fi game out, Leagues of Adventure. (Which has some things that the new Space:1889 rules probably should have addressed.) Clockwork in Germany, and Chronicle City in the UK made a decent choice for the rules set, and HEX isn’t quite dead — they have a VERY successful Kickstart for their upcoming Mars book…but seem to be taking their time on getting it out.
I’ve been cranking out material for “dead” games for going on 17 years and get plenty of traffic due to it…so I suspect OOP means only mostly dead.
This is one of my favorite things about tabletop RPGsâ€”they are forever useful and playable.
I’m currently playing in an Ars Magica 4th edition game, with some changes made to run in the modern day. One advantage: the rules are available as a free pdf.
I’d love it if the same GM restarted the Warhammer Fantasy (1st Ed) game he was running.
By Ars Magica “run in the modern day”, are you running traditional Ars Magica around your table today? Or are you running Ars Magica set in the 21st century?
If it’s traditional Ars Magica, what did you decide to update/streamline? Did you borrow from any specific rules set, or just borrow patches from other versions of the same game?
If it’s Ars Magica in 2014… that’s a whole lot different! Whether you go the Shadowrun route would be my biggest question. Do you?
Old systems and games gone by….what a great subject. I’m glad that there is such interest in “ye olde ways” of gaming, given that what I took to be normal 30 years ago is now being given serious study. I think every era of game design and genre packaging has its merits, and an open mind leads to the best games & stories.
That said, I dig into my locker of ancient games periodically for a break from whatever primary game we’re running. As our group’s main GM, I need a break sometimes from whatever it is we’re doing most of the time, in terms of system & genre. For us that’s meant several years of PF games, and now it means 5e.
So every few months, when there’s a major break in the primary story, we take a break and play something old. It guarantees a very different system feel; it’s always non-fantasy; and it’s set aside for a short (2-3 session, usually) story arc, which means that if there are rough spots in the rules we don’t have to worry about being stuck with them for long.
I’ve done this with Pacesetter’s Chill horror game, a nostalgic favorite of mine, which I combined some with their (admittedly awful, in terms of world background) scifi game Star Ace. I’ve run Cyberpunk: 2020 for the same purpose, as well as WEG’s Star Wars. We most recently used the oWOD (the only WOD!) for VtM as a break. I’ve got an eye toward running WEG’s Price of Freedom (Red Dawn knock-off) at some point, and perhaps Chill again, set in the Victorian era.
GIve it a try. Pick something dusty off the shelf – something that you once played the heck out of, with maybe a story setting that you know really, really well – maybe something you created and ran for different players years ago – and use it as a bridge between games, or as a break. There’s a lot to be learned from these old systems, and a lot to shake you head at…and that can help provide a break & some perspective on whatever game you’re running most of the time.
And one day…one day…I’ll break out the Gamma World 3e and some fusion rifles…
I’ve always been fond of finding new (or old) rules sets that handle an old setting well, or better, to draw in new players.
I do enjoy one-shots of older games and short series. A session or two is often enough to remind you of the warts, but sometimes your improved skills as a GM come through and solve things that previously seemed insurmountable.
And don’t forget the retro-inspired games. These are not strict retroclones, but preserve some of the feel of older games (while sanding off some of the bumps). My next campaign is going to be Basic Fantasy: the race/class split and 20 levels of AD&D (2E) with most of the simplicity of Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic.
I adore classic Deadlands, have an active and dedicated group of friends willing to play, and had nearly the entire line of books (and had PDFs of whatever I didn’t have in print). We tried Savage Deadlands, and the rules didn’t quite have the charm and flavor of classic.
Then, last August, I had a fire in my home. The vast majority of my gaming collection was away from the fire, and only suffered smoke and soot damage (bad enough that they’ll never be allowed inside a habitation for any length of time, but can still be references), but, my Deadlands books were at ground zero for the fire…
Replacing them is proving problematic. Edition evolution is a pain… 🙁
I love the OSR movement. A really enjoy how out of print games continue on the backs of fans, and much of the material is free to all. Clones of older games can be even better than the original – cleaning up some of the quirky rules and offering a fresh perspective on art and ideas while keeping with the spirit of the game. And you’re right; there’s simply a strong desire to play the games I cut my teeth on. I’m sure most players who start their RPG experiences with D&D 5th edition will look back on 5e with similar affection in 20 years.
My journey back in time has also introduced me to games I missed out on when I was younger. Talislanta is a good example. Although I haven’t played it, it is chock full of great ideas for any sword and sorcery campaign. It veers away from the familiar Tolkien races or at leasts twists them enough to feel very different. Pure gold.