An Aetheric Guide For Christmas
12 Downloadable Games in 2004
By Matthew Pook, with Allan Sugarbaker, Demian Katz, and Mike Sugarbaker
Even though they come in little bits, the PDF has become big business in 2004 with releases being put out by nearly every game company. It proved the perfect means for fans to create games of their own, the best serving as calling cards to the industry. Proven industry writers used the electronic format to scale back and develop smaller, more personal projects and ideas of their own, perhaps testing the waters for a later, paper release? For publishers, it let them support their current titles with smaller releases and make available their back catalog without having to resort to a new print run, distributors, and the rest. With such proven versatility, it cannot be denied that the PDF in gaming is here to stay.
Another advantage of the PDF is that they are the ultimate "just in time" product. Need a game gift fast? A little electronic commerce and a download away, and the gamer has a product that he can burn to a CD and drop in a stocking, which makes this gaming dozen perfect for that last minute, caught in the Christmas rush, gift idea. No gift will ship faster, to be sure.
Thus we come to our final list of 2004, in which we suggest the best games of the year released in an electronic format. If you're in last minute panic mode, this list has you covered. And to get you in the festive mood, let us kick off with something Christmasy...
A Kringle in Time
Cumberland Games, $15
Santa has been split into seven jolly avatars of sin, and his reindeer have been forced to hire
adventurers to travel through time and space and kill these abominations before they change the very fabric of Christmas! This irreverent 85-page adventure uses the quick and easy Risus system to take heroes of nearly any kind through an adventure they're unlikely to forget, and its thorough design makes running it a pleasure. Best of all, even if you don't plan on playing, it makes a hilarious read. Every year seems to bring a new silly holiday-themed RPG, but this is among the best.
20 by 20, free
Okay, so it "came out" (read: got posted to a weblog) in late 2003. But in 2004, Neel Krishnaswami’s meta-RPG/improv competitive writing game set the RPG world on fire, driving new growth in the Nobilis community as well as the creative development of the new edition of Paranoia. The game structure is the alphabet - the players are scholars, creating encyclopedia entries related to the game's topic, one letter at a time. It is not perfect - every online play group seems to have a different idea of how to tweak the rules for manageability - but if you and your players like building worlds, give them the gift of this challenging, intense structure for multiplying their creativity. At just the cost of sending an email with a URL, we are pretty sure that Lexicon will fit your budget.
Dead Inside: The Roleplaying Game of Loss & Redemption
Atomic Sock Monkey, $13
In Chad Underkoffler’s game, the characters awake to find something missing: their soul. With the world now cold to them, sanctuary and perhaps the chance to regain this loss can be found in the strangeness of the Spirit World. Once there, a dead inside’s actions are no longer constrained by the physical laws of the “real” world, and if he can master these new skills and regain or cultivate his soul once again, he has the opportunity to become much more than he was. Clear and simple mechanics, a fantastically realized game setting, and an emphasis upon the characters conducting themselves in both a “good” and moral manner, all make this amateur RPG stand out from the herd.
Buccaneers & Bokors: Treasure Chest
Adamant Entertainment, $10.50
Amongst the flurry of pirate themed games and supplements, one of the best was Green Ronin Publishing’s Skull & Bones: Swashbuckling Horror in the Golden Age of Piracy, so news of Adamant Entertainment’s continued support of the setting had us making a "booty" call. Taking a leaf out of their recently republished Underworld, Adamant’s 100-page supplement includes a random adventure generator, extensive random encounter tables, historical articles, ready-made scenarios, and advanced rules for handling ship-to-ship action. In all, it provides more than enough to keep the piratophile in us happy until the release of the publisher’s forthcoming Corsairs, an in-depth examination of sailing ships for the d20 System. This really is enough to make you shout, "Aarrrrrr."
Allen Varney, free
One early example of the influence Lexicon is likely to have over the next several years of RPG development is this simple game by Allen Varney, developer of Paranoia XP and its "Toothpaste Disaster" game, which serves as a leading example of Lexicon's potential. Where Lexicon is freeform and diffuse, and sometimes barely resembles a game at all, Noteworthy is focused and direct (but no less bursting with possibilities for play style). The game is essentially built for LiveJournal (hey, there's a gift idea: a paid LJ account for your prospective players!), and characters keep journals of events while periodically challenging one another. Challenges are voted on by all surviving PCs. It is a bit like LARPing over the net... but that's a distortion of the nature of online writing, and an oversimplification of how well this game uses it. Noteworthy is pure heaven for roleplaying gamers who want the game to be in the roleplaying.
In the past, the pocket-friendly gaming goodness of Deep7'’s 1PG range of
mini-RPGs has meant that one or more of their titles has made it onto
OgreCave’s lists. Of course, An Aetheric Gaming Dozen is the perfect home
for the 1PG, coming as they do in sizes that easily fit on a floppy disc!
The Hero Force 1PG is no exception, presenting the quickest and
simplest means available to start gaming in the superhero genre along with five single session adventures. Although it may not handle the gun-toting vigilante with any finesse, in comparison, the Hero Force 1PG lets the players soar into air, zap the bad guy’s minions with laser blasts from the eyes, and go on to thwart the supervillain in true Silver Age style.
Fourth Millennium: Science Fiction At The End Of History – Campaign Model
Ronin Arts, $6.95
Anyone looking for Science Fiction gaming beyond the frothy space opera mix of aliens, FTL-travel, anti-gravity, and artificial intelligence will find their prayers answered in Fourth Millennium. Designed for the d20 Future RPG, this Campaign Model serves as an introduction to the multiple Earths of the Year Of Our Lord 3001. Technological and social advancement has been intentionally stalled to prevent "Emergence," the evolution of mankind beyond the mere human, a fate that befell the neo-humanist "Psaikhailou." This is a setting in which the characters work to maintain this "Stasis" across parallel worlds populated by a multitude of cultures and faiths. If future releases are as good as this, then Fourth Millennium is going to make for a fascinating and intelligent milieu, all served up in easily digestible chunks.
In a more traditional vein (gaming-wise, that is), this gorgeously produced website is a fantasy campaign book on the web. There are stories, characters, dead gods by the bushel load, illustrations that are two or three cuts above industry average, and oh, those maps. If the three folks credited with Agyris - Daniel M. Davis, Shannon K. Potratz, and Ben S. Hunter - had tried to make a print product out of all this, the result would have cost them ten times as much and been about half as nice. Instead, they built it up slowly to a phenomenal standard, and made it available for free. Every small RPG publisher has something to learn from them. Now, if they let us pay them to log in and track our own campaigns' progress through their world on those sexy maps and such, they would have a real revolution on their hands; but the future will have to give us that gift. Meanwhile, we leave it to you to figure out how a free website can make a holiday gift.
Ronin Arts, $10
In a new world following an asteroid strike in Missouri, America must rebuild while struggling against a whole new threat: Necros. The undead stalk the wastelands between the fortified settlements, as shuffling hordes, zombie motorcycle gangs, and even worse horrors. Against them are the player characters, "knights of the road," keeping communication and trade open between the many governments of America. Players cooperate in the design and souping up of a vehicle, supercharging the engine and adding weapons and other little details that are key to keeping its crew alive and well. They also man the vehicle in combat, so everyone works to ensure their collective survival. Although a big PDF, none look so good as Motocaust with its Christopher Shy illustrations, and the game itself is testosterone-fueled, turbo-charged road dueling against rivals and zombie packs lead by the gas guzzling Motorheads.
The Ruins at Riverside Farm
As any gamemaster knows, good props are hard to come by, and usually rather expensive. This is especially true when it comes to terrain pieces. However, MicroTactix has long been in the business of proving cheap terrain doesn't have to look it, and The Ruins at Riverside Farm sets are excellent examples of this. The first in the Budget Battlefield BattleLands line, the three Riverside Farm sets, Farm Buildings, Farmland Scenics, and The Ruins provide full-color farmhouses, fences, trees, ruined chapels, and other rural scenic elements. Designed for 28-30mm scale, print these files on heavy cardstock, cut them out, assemble with glue, and you'll have a gorgeous farm village, and ruins to boot.
Wicked Dead Brewing Company, $10
Monopoly is a classic, the very measure of a family boardgame, and far too old to appear on any of OgreCave's lists. Thankfully there is an alternative, an anti-Monopoly,
anti-family game. Well, since it has to do with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu
Mythos, Necronomonopoly is probably anti-human as well. In this
subversion of the family classic, players race around the board
attempting to acquire the properties and artifacts needed to stop the
plans of the evil cultists while still trying to retain their Sanity.
The way to get Sanity back is charge it in rent when other players land
on your property. Not only that, players have to contend with monsters
on the loose, getting sent to Arkham Asylum, and of course, "Pass
Mi-Go, lose 10 Sanity." Those who succumb to insanity join the monsters, who travel in the opposite direction around the board. You always knew that property development
was dangerous to your health, didn't you?
Vs. Monsters Deluxe Edition
Originally designed and released in 2003 as part of a "Create an RPG in
24 Hours" project, Vs. Monsters came out in 2004 in a deluxe version and
is thus eligible to make this list. A moody little affair, it casts the
players as monster hunters in America in the closing years of the 19th
century, thus tapping into the same vein of Gothic revival as last
year's glorious My Life With Master, this year's Gloom (both of which
were list worthy), and the forthcoming Frankenstein Factory from
Cubicle7. To get the most out of the game, make use of all the expanded details Ronin Arts has to offer: Vs. Monsters gives you the basics, including the pleasingly
simple card driven mechanics; Vs. Monsters Additions gives you more
rules, monsters, and setting; and the Vs. Monsters Anthology gives a little
more, along with ready-to-play scenarios.
And again, because we're fond of bonus tracks (and there were so many good choices)...
Hard Nova ][: Space Opera Collection
Politically Incorrect Games, $7.50
Whether used for a one-night session or to run an entire campaign, HardNova ][ is the toolkit that can handle it. Smuggle rare goods from one world to another, explore the mysteries of uncharted space, defend the galaxy against those who seek to claim it, or anything else you can imagine. Using two six-sided dice and the genreDiversion i rules, the game provides 115 pages of goodies to keep the game moving. All the best ingredients are here, from alien species and space liners to ready-to-play scenarios and character templates. Intuitive and gritty, HardNova ][ draws a longing for high adventure out of the most jaded roleplayer.
And so we wrap up (no pun intended) another OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide until next year. We hope our 2004 suggestions have been of some use in your month of need, and invite you to look over our Gift Guides from 2003,
2002 or 2001. We'll see you here next year.