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A Song of Dice and Wires

A Song of Dice and Wires

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Searching for Scorpia — Whatever Happened to Gaming's First Celebrity Critic?


Ben Burns

This article was initially published on the now defunct 'Kotaku UK' website on September 6th, 2019. I feel that it tells the tale of an important part of videogaming history and so I have re-posted it here for the purposes of cultural posterity. I make no money from this and fully acknowledge that it is the property of Future PLC, who initially commissioned the piece.

 

I was recently stumbling my way through Wikipedia, bouncing from page to page, consuming information like the academic hungry caterpillar that I am, when I found a quote from a review of an old PC game called Times of Lore. The words of the review itself were not what piqued my curioisity as much as the name of the author: Scorpia. That might not mean much to younger gamers, but anyone who was a fan of RPGs and adventure games back in the ‘90s will remember this pseudonym and the sting behind it. Well before the age of influencers was upon us, Scorpia was blazing her own idiosyncratic path through video games. But in recent times she seemed to have just dropped off the grid.

So who is Scorpia, and what happened?

'Angry' video game reviewing is now a genre in itself. Guys like the Angry Videogame Nerd and Jim Sterling have armies of fans who tune in to hear them rip into games both old and new, but that wasn’t always the case. I distinctly remember those halcyon days of the ‘90s being much more respectful in terms of how various publications offered their opinions on games. Of course you still got the occasional explosion when something was unutterably bad, but these were the enjoyable exceptions in coverage that tended to err on the side of optimistic caution.

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Scorpia, on the other hand, was at times utterly vitriolic. Writing for Computer Gaming World, her review of Ultima VIII is widely considered to be one of the harshest in the history of games journalism. She concludes it by stating that it’s “a disaster and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British and Ultima fans everywhere.” Her absolute destruction of Might & Magic II (in which she wrote several paragraphs on how buggy the game is, followed by summarising the plot as “remarkable for its pointlessness”) so upset the game’s designer, Jon Van Caneghem, that he wrote a furious response to the magazine which they subsequently published. His dissatisfaction must have remained for some time, because he named one of the enemies in Might & Magic III after her.

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Earlier editions of CGW typically contained a lot of black and white screenshots, such as these from the February 1988 issue.

Still, Scorpia loved and hated with an equal amount of passion and always gave credit where it was due. She concluded her review of Ultima IV by announcing it was destined to be a classic, ending “what are you waiting for? Go get it!” This opinion, like all of her published writings, was peppered with hints and tips on how to get the most out of the game. Reading the review you sense how much fun she had fun playing it, and that she wants her readers to share in her discoveries. You can see why, to those of us who grew up reading her work, Scorpia was a bit of a legend: the first part of the magazine you'd flick to.

She was also an inspiration to young women with aspirations of designing or writing about games. The games industry may still have problems with misogyny and sexism but 25 years ago it was even worse. It was an era when few women were asked their opinion on games and those involved in creating them were rarely visible: yet here was this absolute badass ripping everything to shreds and getting paid to do so. Arinn Dembo, writer for several cult gaming classics including Homeworld, Sword of the Stars and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, had the following to say about her in 2010:

“To this day, Scorpia is still probably the most famous computer gaming journalist of all time; I can't think of anyone working today who has achieved both her level of name recognition and the level of professional respect that she had earned from her audience. Thousands of readers have said over the years that they bought or subscribed to the magazine specifically for Scorpia’s column. She was the sort of reviewer you could count on, not only to be fair, accurate and impartial, but to be an authentic gamer who was in touch with the concerns of real gamers.”

Scorpia wrote for Computer Gaming World for 16 years, from 1983 to 1999, at which point there was an editorial shake-up and she was unceremoniously booted out. Despite being at the height of her popularity, publisher Ziff Davis decided that it wished to go in a different direction with the magazine. Scorpia would, in her only post-CGW interview, state that she felt her firing and subsequent inability to find more work was due to her reputation for harsh criticism.

Indeed the industry was, at this point, entering into the modern age of gaming review scandals. A couple of years after Scorpia's exit we would see the infamous ‘Driv3rgate’ controversy, where a very poor game got very good scores. Then in 2007, reviewer Jeff Gerstmann would part ways with GameSpot amidst rumours about his refusal to misrepresent opinions on cover shooter Kane & Lynch. It’s crazy to think that Scorpia, who wrote consistently for a decade and a half, accumulating a huge fan base, ended up being unable to find work again. But the truth, at least in terms of attitudes, is that the difference between 1999 and 2007 was more than eight years. The industry was an altogether different beast.

Charles Ardai, another former freelancer at CGW, remembers all-too-well how the industry was changing. “Scorpia was always writing for what [CGW editor] Johnny Wilson called the grognards: the hardest core of hardcore gamers. I think the publishers wanted a break with the past and with the image of the magazine as being for grizzled, bearded, middle-aged men who'd otherwise spend their leisure time pushing lead soldiers around hexagonal maps or arguing about the hitpoint count of a beholder.”

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Charles Ardai now owns and operates Hard Case Crime, a publisher of hardboiled crime novels.

Ardai is certainly no stranger to ‘grognard’ culture. At the tender age of just 13, he had his first article published in the abysmally named ‘Electronic Fun with Computers and Games.' By the time CGW came knocking, he was an established journalist and would go on to write over a quarter of a million words for the magazine.

Ardai clearly has a lot of respect and fondness for Scorpia, something which is universal among everyone I speak to. “Her columns had personality, which much writing in the field did not back then,” Ardai says. “Maybe it still doesn’t. You felt she was talking to you, and that she knew an awful lot about what she was talking about. She was better than you at what she did, more knowledgeable than you – more knowledgeable than anyone. It was like getting a lesson from the best golf pro ever, or taking a kung fu class from the most revered sensei. You respected her and felt not just entertained but improved by her columns.”

You could be forgiven for assuming that Ardai knew Scorpia well but, even as a former colleague, he only ever met her in-person once. “It was at a press junket, possibly held by Infocom, possibly at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan,” he recalls. “There was a large crowd of people and a quiet, unassuming, shy woman not interacting much with any of them. We spoke briefly. I admired her columns quite a lot, always enjoyed reading them, and I hope I had the good grace to tell her so. She seemed nice, and smart, but very clearly uncomfortable in a crowd, and the overwhelming sense I had was of someone who would much rather have been behind her computer screen than holding a plastic cup of white wine while PR people jabbered around her.”

Ardai’s idea of an enigmatic computer game sensei was all the inspiration I needed to start trying to find Scorpia, and find out how and why she disappeared from the gaming scene. It strikes me as somehow insane that, in a world where every Joe and Jane Bloggs has a huge internet footprint, this major cultural critic was somehow able to go quietly into the night. I ask Ardai if he can help me out and he gives me the email address of Johnny Wilson, former editor of CGW, as well as a telephone number, which he says is several decades old.

Johnny Wilson remembers how the industry was moving on at the time of Scorpia’s dismissal. She had traditionally reviewed RPGs and graphical adventure games in the kind of style which had its heyday during the ‘80s and ‘90s. “There were fewer and fewer titles that fit Scorpia’s predilection," says Wilson. "We had always tried to provide at least two articles per issue for her, and it was becoming more and more difficult.”

This change in the market’s taste was only exacerbated by the editorial desires of publisher Ziff Davis. “They further squeezed us by cutting the ad/editorial ratio. They felt that our 50:50 ratio of ads to articles was too generous. They wanted closer to a 75:25 relationship.”

The more I speak to Wilson, the more I realise that the folks writing for CGW were there because of their interests outside of computer games. He gives as an example M. Evan Brooks, another writer working during Scorpia’s time. “He’s still respected by professional soldiers and airmen for his breadth of knowledge of wargames and simulators," says Wilson. "I don’t want to sound like an old man in decrying the influence of the web [laughs] but the exigencies of web publishing and the realities of web publishing work against this idea of journalism.”

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Scorpia’s Gaming Lair looks just as it did when it went into stasis over a decade ago.

Wilson would also leave CGW at around the same time Scorpia left, eventually finding himself at Wizards of the Coast, working on the likes of Dragon, TopDeck and Star Wars Insider. Scorpia, on the other hand, tried to make a go of running her own website, but it was not to be. Amazingly it’s still up, and among the broken links and nostalgic design you’ll find what I think is Scorpia’s last-ever online article. On June 3rd, 2009, the culmination of 26 years of consistent computer game reviewing ended in a frustrated paragraph about the impossibility of keeping up with an industry that felt increasingly alien.

…I re-opened this site as a blog. It was my hope that I could finally make a go of it on the ‘net. But things didn’t work out that way.

At best, the site pulls in just enough to cover expenses; I haven’t made a penny from it in all this time. What is worse is that I’ve fallen behind the curve.

My system can’t handle new games at all. There is no way I can afford a computer that could. And let’s face it, it was on game reviews primarily that my reputation was built.

So between no income and no modern system, I’ve lost heart. I’ve been struggling with this since the weekend; it hasn’t been an easy decision to make.

The site is going into suspended animation. No more posts will be made, unless my situation changes for the better.

It’s a sad, oddly relatable tale, and one that we’ve seen repeated by many a budding Twitch streamer and YouTube reviewer. The instability of trying to go solo in an online world, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to make rent, can be an incredible culture shock.

As we say our goodbyes, Johnny Wilson gives me an email address for Scorpia. I try it and get no response. At this point I try the decades-old number that Ardai had: there's no dial tone but an ancient answering machine message still plays, the words of which I can barely make out. I leave a message and try several more times, but get nothing and am left with no more lines of inquiry. I begin to think that I won’t be getting in touch with Scorpia and that, in fact, she probably doesn’t want to be found by some nosey upstart. I draft up a conclusion around the idea that perhaps Scorpia’s legacy is best left alone, alongside some fruity hyperbole about how she was a victim of her era, the last gunslinger in the old west, a templar in a dying order.

Then I stumble across something that I wasn’t expecting – a very recent article, penned by the lady herself.

RPGWatch is one of those old-school gaming sites. You probably know the kind: a place where the forums are more active than the front page and where little, pocketed communities exist beyond the scope of the major gaming press. It was here that I saw a post about an upcoming anthology book to be released by Bitmap Books. It’s titled The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games and it contains a review by Scorpia.

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The CRPG Book contains new reviews by a number of old favourites.

I get straight on the phone to Bitmap Books and explain what I’m trying to do. They're surprised but humour me. Emails are exchanged back and forth to prove I am who I say, that yes Kotaku UK wants to publish this, asking about the article's angle... it's all rather like a vetting process but, praise be, I’m deemed kosher and am finally able to get in touch with Scorpia.

I'm not going to use Scorpia's real name, but it is the topic I want to ask about first: how and why did she write under a pseudonym for decades? As it turns out, the answer is less complicated than I expected. Scorpia was known as Scorpia long before her CGW days.

“[Former CGW editor] Russell Sipe was a member of the GameSIG (Games Special Interest Group) on CompuServe, where I, as Scorpia, was one of the three people in charge,” she says. “I already had some reviews and walkthroughs in the database and he liked what he saw. One night he called me into a private chat and asked me to write for the magazine. It was as simple as that.”

As for actually maintaining her pseudonymous status, Scorpia never put much thought into it. “There weren't many people who knew my — let's call it — dual identity. The gaming and non-gaming parts of my life were quite separate. Perhaps that helped. Of course the folks at CGW knew my other name, although the cheques were made out to Scorpia: yes, I had a bank account in that name. I just used Scorpia for any and all things related to gaming, and had the PO Box for people to send me their questions.”

On the subject of her Might & Magic II review, Scorpia says to the best of her knowledge there was never any truly bad blood between her and Jon Van Caneghem, and says of her reincarnation as a monster: “I was disappointed; he ought to have made me big and nasty!”

As for that legendary Ultima VIII review, she's equally cool about the whole thing. “My intent was always to tell readers about the game — good and bad — so they could decide for themselves whether it was worth their time and money. It's never bothered me if someone disagreed with my assessment of a game, including developers.” Scorpia points out that Origin actually patched a lot of the technical issues that she uncovered: “perhaps some good came out of it.”

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Scorpia's logo adorned her CGW work

Scorpia has been quizzed in the past about her experiences as a woman in the early days of games journalism. In her last interview with Gamasutra, she stated simply that she’d never experienced any issues over her gender, saying, “after considerable thought, I can't come up with any incident of discrimination.” Chatting with me on the subject, she elaborates a little. “I've given this topic the most thought, but have no answer. It is both amazing and distressing that this situation exists. My experiences off and online were not like that. The GameSIG was originally started and run by three women, on a proprietary system where you had to apply for an area, and most SIGs at the time were managed by men.”

"In all the years I wrote for the mag, no one ever made an issue of my gender that I was aware of. For that matter, I wasn't the only woman who wrote for CGW, either. Offline, it was similar. Gender was never an issue. Some department heads I worked for were women. At one bank, a simple project I was working on mushroomed into something so large, an entire consulting team was called in, and it was headed by a woman.”

I find myself wondering if this is perhaps a modern phenomenon, maybe owing to the more mainstream appeal of gaming. After all, most early computer programmers were women, an area now dominated by men. It seems Scorpia is thinking along similar lines, suggesting that maybe she just showed up early to the party.

“The start of a new industry is always exciting. It’s usually the most creative, the most innovative, the most boundless time. Anyone with something to offer can get in, because such people are still rare. Now the industry has grown tremendously, and there are more people around to choose from. Yet that doesn't explain the situation. Women are in many professions today that were unthinkable not so long ago; why should game design/journalism/etcetera be any different? Maybe the industry needs more maturity before women can get in on an equal basis.”

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Scorpia has, in the past, cited Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father as an example of how many of gaming’s earliest classics were designed by women.

It was the industry’s semi-maturation that found Scorpia running her own website. Looking back on it, she explains why going solo was tempting. “My own area would give me more freedom of choice in what I covered or reviewed. No deadlines, either. At CGW, you had to think about the advertising. Johnny [Wilson] told me once that one company had pulled their ads after several less-than-stellar reviews. I felt badly about that, since I had no axe to grind with the company; the products just weren't that good. Since my site would have no direct advertising, there'd be no problems in that regard.”

As we already know, it didn’t quite work out that way. The main reason was her difficulty in translating her print appeal into enough online traffic to make advertising pay. “My appeal was mainly to those who were already familiar with me through CGW. The Internet was a much, much bigger venue, with much larger websites, and plenty of them.”

Another major contribution to Scorpia’s lack of impact is that, to be frank about it, she doesn't seem much of a self-promoter and being a solo success on the internet depends in large part on doing that. She’d never had to push her own work before and at CGW had a captive audience. “I'm simply not good at self-promotion. Also, for a while, my kind of gaming was drying up. Looking over the posts for the last year of the site, I had only one game review. So with all that in mind, I decided it wasn't worth going on. Yes, it hurt a lot to make that last post, but there's no way you can go on without making money.”

It seems a sad end to such a sparkling legacy but, if Scorpia feels that way, she certainly doesn’t show it. After all, she’s achieved a hell of a lot and it shows in her response when I ask her if she’d ever consider coming back into the industry. “I still do some gaming,” she says, “however I have no desire to go back to reviewing games. Once was enough! It's really more work than most people realise and I do enjoy playing just for myself.”

We say goodbye, and Scorpia signs off with the following: “you can consider me retired.”

Scorpia is a fascinating and unique thread in the games industry's history. I certainly owe her work a debt of gratitude: she’ll always be my hero for keeping the flame alive for point-and-click adventures and traditional CRPGs, two genres which fell out of fashion in the late ‘90s, when the industry moved onto shinier things. The recent resurgence in the popularity of those genres, which I credit to the enthusiasts who refused to let it go, will hopefully provide Scorpia some decent entertainment in retirement.

It's a reminder of the other side of her appeal as a writer, too. Scorpia's legend may, somewhat understandably, always be told with reference to scabruous takedowns of games she didn't like (and the Ultima VIII: Pagan review really is a stone-cold classic). To those who followed her work, however, the deep knowledge of and love for games was what really kept us coming back. Perhaps the name Scorpia lasted because what it suggests fitted her so perfectly: some sort of cosmic enigma, with a sting in the tail.

Anything but D&D - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay


Ben Burns

When I’m thinking about which RPG I’d like to run next, I generally imagine them somewhere on a single spectrum. Of course, RPGs are nuanced and couldn’t possibly all be summed up by a single value, but I find this tool to be quite useful for categorising systems. This sliding scale asks the question - ‘how combat-oriented is the system?’

You can extrapolate a lot by answering this simple question and pretty much all RPGs sit somewhere on the line. The more rules a system has for fighting, the more likely it is that the game’s tempo is going to be defined by a series of combat encounters. In a combat-oriented system, stats and their manipulation are going to be of paramount importance. Perhaps most telling of all is that in a combat-heavy game, there will be a higher sense of the ‘players vs gm’ attitude.

“You should never be trying to beat your players!” I hear you cry out. Yes, I know that. But here’s the thing. While I’m always rooting for my players to win, and while I don’t want to beat them, the NPCs I’m controlling don’t feel the same way. By proxy, if I’m controlling an antagonist, I’m playing against my players. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t play these characters as though they want my players to die.

It’d be nice if Dungeons & Dragons, the game so many of us experience first, was smack in the middle of this spectrum, but it absolutely is not. D&D has more rules for combat than almost any other system out there. Epic stories, nuanced characters, and deep lore are really a modern addition to D&D. First edition was a game about looting dungeons and acquiring gear. It was a concept derived from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s experiences playing (and creating) miniature war games. Modern D&D, though much more narrative-driven, still carries the fundamental design ethos of those salad days of RPGs.

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Modern players demand RPing from D&D, so the custodians of this legacy came up with a very clever way to deal with this issue. Players in D&D are above average in every way. The basic human NPC in D&D has a 10 for every stat. The players, even at level 1, vastly outmatch 99% of the rest of the world in both wits and muscles. Indeed, while the band of thugs that ambushes the party in their level 1 adventure absolutely intend to kill them, and while their DM should definitely be trying to kill them, the truth is that they never really stand a chance. Their purpose is not to challenge the players, but to nourish them, nudging them on their way to level 2.

So, what of this spectrum? If D&D is so far on the combat-oriented side of the line, what could possibly lie even further in that direction? The answer, as you’ve no doubt guessed, is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

WFRP is a truly brutal, unforgiving slog through a pseudo-medieval Germanic land that is rife with squalor and corruption. This is emphasised pretty much immediately upon playing the game, during character creation, which is likely to result in your players being a ramshackle collection of peasants, beggars, thugs and various other bits of muck from the underside of life’s boot. Even if one of the players has the incredible good fortune to randomly roll up someone built for combat, such as a gladiator or a road warden, their stats will still be randomly generated anyway, so all they’re really getting is the ability to use a slightly better weapon without lopping their own arms off.

...And arms will come off. Every fight is a desperate, last-ditch struggle for survival, often resulting in semi-permanent injuries that have long-lasting effects. In my last campaign, one of the players was running a kind of orator, whose strengths lay in convincing groups of people to see things his way through the use of sound logic and a flowery vocabulary. Unfortunately for him, the party got into a bar brawl very early in the adventure and he got his jaw smashed to pieces. He had to spend 4 weeks of in-game time healing, during which he couldn’t talk properly (gaining a huge penalty to all checks which required speech) and couldn’t eat any solid food. At the end of this period, his player was allowed to roll to see if his jaw had set properly. Fortunately for him, it had.

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Frankly, our chatty friend got off lightly. Literally any swing of a blade in WFRP can result in extremely dire consequences. Unlike D&D, scoring a crit in WFRP prompts players to roll on a ‘crit table’. This table contains everything from simply being nicked on the ear, causing a round of being stunned, to major arteries being severed and players imminently bleeding out, to straight up decapitation, from which there is no return. Entering into combat in this system is a very grim decision to be forced to make. Every time you step up to an opponent, you know this might be your character’s last action. It creates a sense of consequence that is simply not possible in a more forgiving system like D&D.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does have a lot of the trappings of other RPGs, they’re just simultaneously more muted and more exaggerated. Magic, for example, is a constant gamble for any wizard-like characters. You’re just as likely to blow your fingertips off as you are to actually cast the desired spell. Similarly, being of a religious persuasion is often a risky endeavour. Clerics and the like can actually pray at shrines for a chance to receive miraculous buffs and boons. However, woe betide those who fail to strictly follow the teachings of their deity, as the Gods will inflict curses, with characters auto-failing checks, being unable to recover lost magic points or HP, or possibly even causing the word ‘HERETIC’ to appear, tattooed across their chest.

That’s not to say WFRP neglects the actual role playing elements of the hobby. It just approaches them in a very grimy way. Consume Alcohol, for example, is a skill that almost every player will put a decent number of points into. Much of the game is spent in taverns and alehouses, and there are very precise rules for the chugging of booze and the inebriation that follows. Many skills have sub-skills. Others will perhaps be advanced skills that only very specific characters, in very specific circumstances, can acquire. For all of the emphasis on ensuring each character is a weak, mewling nobody, the truth is that few other systems create characters that seem so unique. Consequently, few systems provide this many gut-punches when your beloved character dies.

Warhammer’s Old World is obviously an established setting, which the core rulebook does a pretty decent job of describing. You won’t be able to run your steampunk homebrew games in this system without significant tinkering with the rules. But if you’re a fan of Warhammer, or simply want to kick the shit out of your players for a bit, WFRP is as good as it gets.

Anything but D&D - Starfinder


Ben Burns

Starfinder is about the closest thing to Dungeons & Dragons ‘in space’ we’re ever going to get. I can hear the echo of a thousand angry keyboards, refuting me in unison for daring to utter such heresy, followed by "SPELLJAMMER!" Hear me out.

Back when Wizards of the Coast released the 4th edition of D&D in 2008, a lot of people were concerned that 3rd edition’s open game license, a system by which people could modify the rules of D&D and release their creations to the world, would die. In response to this, Paizo released an RPG called Pathfinder, which was essentially a streamlined version of D&D 3.5. In fact, it was so similar to D&D that some of us simply called it D&D 3.75.

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4th edition went on to do very well for Wizards of the Coast, but many people felt that it was too much of a departure from D&D’s roots. At the time, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Everquest were bringing a whole load of new interest to the fantasy genre and there were murmerings that 4th edition was ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to a newer generation of kids, who were looking to transition from PC games into pen & paper RPGs. Regardless of where you or I stand on this issue, the resulting sentiment became that Pathfinder was the spiritual continuation of 3rd edition (and therefore traditional) D&D.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the guys at Paizo release Starfinder. Taking a queue from Starcraft and simply replacing the first syllable of their product’s title with the word ‘star’, Starfinder is, quite literally, a continuation of Pathfinder’s world, set in its distant future, after its various races have taken to the stars. The planet on which Pathfinder games take place, Golarion, has mysteriously disappeared, and its inhabitants have been forced to colonise and interact with the rest of the solar system.

But here’s the thing, Golarion was created to be a replacement for the myriad of high fantasy settings in which D&D takes place. It has most of the races, spells, conventions and tropes of classic D&D settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron. Consequently, with Starfinder being a continuation of a continuation of D&D, we now have a miserable little dark planet, populated and controlled by the drow, in a not-so-subtle analogue to their subterranean cities of the underdark. We have a dying planet full of undead creatures living in a kind of sci-fi necropolis. We have a dangerous asteroid belt full of lost civilizations containing such fantasy tropes as mysterious cathedrals, forgotten tombs and motherflipping space pirates!

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You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned a single element of this game’s mechanical design. That’s because I don’t need to. You already know it. It’s D&D. You roll a D20 and add some stuff to it, then you maybe roll some other die/dice, if you need to. The classes themselves are basically space fighter, galactic wizard and sci-fi paladin. It’s so analogous to the classic D&D/Pathfinder fantasy systems that the core rulebook even contains a section on transferring classes and monsters from Pathfinder into Starfinder. If you’ve played D&D, you’ll almost certainly be able to slip right into playing, without really having to do much more than skim over the rules. In fact, I’d highly recommend starting with the section at the back which details the setting. It’s got some really cool world-building elements and they alone make it worth the time investment.

Finally, Starfinder is a great way to get your fantasy-obsessed players to try something a little bit different. It’s probably the least sci-fi game of its ilk, with most of its trappings and atmosphere being very much rooted in its fantasy origins. However, it is still a science fiction world, with androids, laser guns and space travel.

Starfinder - give it a go.

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Ben Burns

Some time ago, I wrote a rather impassioned argument on the importance of cycling through systems. It received a pretty decent response, but I’m also aware that some dude who has played a lot of systems, telling you that you should also play a lot of systems, isn’t a huge amount of use in the grand scheme of things. So I’ve decided to start a new series of mini-articles, each on a different pen & paper RPG, describing why I think it deserves more attention. I’ll endeavour to compare these systems to the conventions of D&D, on the assumption that it’s probably a game we’re all familiar with.

So with that in mind, this week we’ll be looking at Genesys, a relatively new system from Fantasy Flight Games. Genesys is a truly fascinating beast in many ways. Firstly, it’s a settingless, classless, raceless system, which provides a generic set of rules through which players and GMs can run pretty much any kind of RPG they like. This isn’t a new concept. In fact, GURPS did this way back in 1986. However, when combined with Genesys’ other curio, it takes on a new level of narrative awesomeness. You see, Genesys doesn’t use any of those boring old dice that you already own. Oh no, Genesys has its own, unique set of dice with a bunch of weird, enigmatic markings on them.

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These markings are easy to understand, and when used in play, provide a truly compelling gateway to a narratively deep experience. The basic concept is as follows.

Let’s say one of your players wishes to shoot a fleeing enemy. Her character has an Agility of 3 and a Ranged attack skill of 2. That player will take three (good) green dice, equal to their Agility, and upgrade two of them to the (better) yellow dice to represent their specialisation with ranged weapons. This forms the player’s dice pool. The GM will then start throwing negative dice in there to represent the difficulty of the task. The player is at long range, so that’s three (bad) purple dice. Furthermore, remember when your character injured her hand? That means there’ll be a black die in there as well, as she struggles to line up her shot. The player then rolls all of the dice and looks at the results. Each die has a number of successes and failures and you simply subtract failures from successes to determine if the attempt was successful. But where the nuance really comes in is in the existence of the ‘advantages’ and ‘threats’ which each die can also generate.

What this means (and what I think is truly fantastic about this system) is that it is entirely possible to succeed whilst suffering a bunch of complications in the form of threats. Similarly, you might fail, but generate several advantages. Just as in real life, success isn’t black and white in Genesys. There is a menu of ways in which players can spend advantages, as well as a similar one for the GM to use for threats. These involve such things as recovering from strain, giving advantage dice to the pools of allies, or inflicting critical damage on enemies.

Ultimately, this takes what would normally be very rigid, mechanical elements in other RPGs, stuff like combat, casting spells, hacking into computers etc. and turns them into an exciting, action-filled, narrative experience for Genesys players. Rather than having one player’s numbers try to beat some arbitrary DC, something which, while perfectly serviceable, does often remove you from the fantasy, this system tries to keep everything as descriptive as possible. It’s typical for a slice of a Genesys game to sound something like this.

“Damn, I missed him. But I generated an advantage. I’m gonna say that my character has forced the enemy into a slightly awkward position as he takes cover from my shots. This’ll give the next player an opening to exploit. I’ll give him a blue die.”

This simple mechanic is stretched out across the whole system and even extends to social encounters, where players will battle against an enemy using words and concepts rather than weapons and spells. There’s even a ‘strain threshold’ system for social combat which is designed to simulate intelligent debate. In the last game I ran, the players were attempting to track down a shamanistic villain who was grinding up the bones of the dead and infusing them with necromantic energy to create a kind of narcotic, which he was then distributing to the populace.

When the players finally caught him, rather than engage him in battle, they decided to try talking him down. The villain proceeded to point out that while what he was doing was technically illegal, he was also providing a consequence-free form of escapism to the city’s most miserable and alienated people, and that he ought to be viewed as a service provider rather than an illegal peddlar. Over time, this point ground down the party’s hedge wizard, who began siding with the shaman.

The whole thing eventually concluded when the party agreed to help their foe integrate his medicinal practices into the law of the city. It was a conclusion that simply wouldn’t happen in many of the more traditional systems and it felt like one of those real-life situations where you neither won nor lost. It was a compromise, and one which added to the inter-party conflict between the hedge wizard and the deeply religious priest and knight in the party. The next week it was continuously brought up by the knight, as he expressed his bitterness and inability to trust his compatriot. In short, it was fucking epic and served to make these characters feel real to us.

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As a GM, this is extremely exciting. I want my players to interact with the world I’ve created on an emotional level and Genesys has this hard-baked into its system. It gives GMs the tools to create their own archetypes (races) and careers (classes). You could just use the default ones that come in the book, but it’s even more fun if you collaborate with your players beforehand and build a world together. When my group first played Genesys, we actually used Microscope (that’s a whole other article’s worth of info) to create a fictional setting together, with a rich detailed history, geography and social structure. I then went away and transferred that setting into Genesys. I cannot begin to describe how satisfying it is to run an RPG in which the players have the same knowledge of the setting as you do.

I sincerely feel that Genesys is the most underappreciated RPG out there. At the time of writing, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Even F.A.T.A.L has a mention on Wikipedia’s list of role-playing games, and that’s a system which contains such important stats as your penis size and anal circumference. If you’re looking for a more story-driven, narrative experience, or if you’ve got a world in your head that just doesn’t fit with any of the RPGs you already play, Genesys will complete you.

Why you should play D&D with kids


Ben Burns

For those of us who regularly take up the mantle of GM, there’s a pattern to be observed in mature players who are new to RPGs. They generally go through three phases.

Phase 1 - Childhood
Some budding dice-rollers skip this phase, but most people taking their first tentative steps into the hobby start off apprehensive and shy. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. After all, it can be scary to lose your inhibitions. It leaves us open to ridicule and ultimately makes us feel vulnerable. Phase 1 is a bunch of beginner musicians, picking up their instruments for the first time, still a little too inexperienced to share their new songs with one another

Phase 2 - Adolescence
Much like human adolescence, RPG adolescence is a time of emotional attachment and unbridled experimentation. You’ll test the limits of the rules, building broken characters just for the hell of it and doing stupid, anti-social things that annoy your DM and your party. You’re no longer afraid to engage with the story, because it’s there purely to provide a playground for you to go wild in. As in real life, some of us never grow out of this. That's a shame because while adolescence is often looked back on with fondness, it's an inherently shallow period of our lives. Phase 2 is the beginning of the band’s competence, stringing together basic chords and belting out sincere, but simplistic, lyrics.

Phase 3 - Adulthood
RPG adulthood is when those truly memorable campaigns are played. You know the ones, because they’re plastered all over YouTube. Your DM is on the level of Matt Colville or Matt Mercer or some other very knowledgeable Matt. Your fellow adventurers are puritanistic priests of the God of light, rugged rangers from the forlorn wilderness, or sardonic sorcerers on a mission from the arcane university. Campaigns last for months, perhaps years, and you cycle through different systems, experiencing both an entertaining and academically satisfying hobby. Phase 3 is a group of seasoned musicians, effortlessly jamming out complex melodies, rarely missing a beat.

---

This progression is just a natural part of acclimatization for anyone forced to live in the adult world of paying bills and being a super-serious grown-up. Fortunately, there’s already a bunch of players out there, eager for you to run games for them, who exist outside of this culture. They’re innately imaginative, spend most of their free time playing games already, and don’t have much responsibility. I am, of course, talking about children.

Kids are awesome. I know this because I used to be one and, according to most of the people close to me, still am one. I used to run a weekly D&D game for under-12s and it was some of the best D&D I’ve ever played. Sure, I couldn’t fill my sessions with grim-dark slaughter and subjugation, and the plots had to remain as simple and ‘PG’ as possible, but really that just meant less prep was required.

Children aren’t burdened by a sense of shame or social anxiety. Anyone who has taken a toddler to the supermarket and suffered through them yelling “Daddy, why is that man so fat?” will attest to this. When it comes to pretending to be an elf or a wizard, kids will rarely feel any trepidation about throwing themselves, heart and soul, into the role.

In all the time I ran games for young’uns, they never acted like RPG adolescents. Every single one of them took the story and the world with seriousness and, unlike any adult campaign I’ve ever run, none of them played douchebag characters. They always wanted to do the right thing. Always stood up for the little guy. Always helped out the villagers. Always tried to avoid bloodshed by negotiating rather than drawing blades.

Running D&D for kids was a humbling experience for me. Not just because I was being trusted to be a good mentor and ambassador for the hobby, but because it made me into a better DM. Most of us won’t admit it, but the reason we play RPGs is to feel like kids again. We want to unburden ourselves and experience a little bit of that pure, immature joy that we were once able to so easily attain by pretending to be a Ninja Turtle on the playground. While we’re now able to understand more nuanced concepts, such as lust or political intrigue, ultimately we all just want to be a badass for an evening.

I meet a lot of parents who, between raising a family and earning some dough, struggle to find time to get their gaming in. I always tell them the same thing. Play D&D with your kids. Join them in creating a world, crafting stories, and be a little munchkin with them. They're only awesome for a short time until the become salty teenagers, so make the most of it.

Why you should stop playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while


Ben Burns

I love D&D and have played it pretty much non-stop since 3rd edition. It’ll always be my go-to RPG whenever I’m tasked with introducing someone to the hobby, and I’ll never get bored of creating homebrew worlds and campaigns for the system. However, I do think there are far too many people out there for whom D&D is the only RPG they’re interested in playing and that makes me sad.

I’ve been in a lot of RPG groups over the years, almost always as the GM, and there’s something that all of the most successful ones had in common — we cycled between systems. There’s a number of reasons why this was key to our success, and I’ll outline them here.

It staves off burnout
Any GM will tell you that constantly planning new material for their campaign is tiring and leaves them susceptible to burnout, but what isn’t discussed very often is the fact that players can get burnt out too. I’ve seen a number of enthusiastic dice-rollers get tired of their character, bored of the system, or lose interest in the setting. This almost never has anything to do with any inherent faults on the part of the GM or the story, or the system itself, it’s simply a part of human nature.

We crave progression, it’s at the very heart of the RPGs we love. Just like how you’d get frustrated if your character never levelled up and learned new spells, it’s easy to find the very vanilla-flavoured mechanics of D&D tiresome after a while. Taking a little holiday in Call of Cthulhu or Shadowrun is often just what you need to remind you of how much fun you’re having in your regular campaign.

You’ll have a better game
One of my groups is currently playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and we’re nearing the end of our campaign. I asked the guys what they felt like playing next and one of them said the sweetest words a GM can ever hear — “we’re happy to play anything that you’re enthusiastic about running”. Not only did that make me feel like some sort of badass games guru, but it reminded me of why I love this group so much. There’s an understanding between us that if I’m having fun, they’ll inevitably get a much better game than if I was just going through the motions.

A lot has been written about why GMs prefer to run the game, but I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that it’s an academic process for us. We enjoy experimenting, understanding and conquering a system. When you provide your GM with the space to do that, magical things can happen. Quite literally!

It’s fair
If you’ve got five players and one GM, statistically speaking, at least a couple of you are going to prefer another system to D&D. You might not even know this, perhaps you’ve only ever played D&D, but by trying out new stuff you’ll give those players, who perhaps aren’t engaging a great deal with your jaunt around the Forgotten Realms, the opportunity to flex their muscles in a system that is better suited to them.

I have a friend who is an absolute RPG nut, but for the longest time he believed that RPGs weren’t his jam because he’d only ever played D&D and he just couldn’t vibe with it. D&D is, after all, a very combat-oriented system. It might not seem like it, but most rulebooks don’t have half the number of combat mechanics as D&D. Perhaps that guy who gets bored easily and never pays attention during the fights just needs to play a more story-driven game, like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. By giving them the opportunity to do that, you’ll inevitably help them figure out how to recreate that vibe in D&D when the time comes to go back to it. That leads me nicely into my next point, which is...

Your D&D will improve
Nobody ever got better at something by strictly limiting the scope of their knowledge. D&D is the absolute definition of default fantasy and that’s great, because it’s versatile. However, by playing other systems, you’ll find yourself discovering just how to make the most of D&D’s modifiable design.

Campaigns for older editions of D&D did a lot of modding that 5th edition seems to have left behind. Spelljammer introduced sci-fi concepts, Dark Sun did away with the Gods, severely altering how magic and religion functioned, and classic Ravenloft introduced sanity mechanics that were effectively lifted from Call of Cthulhu. By experimenting with other systems, even if you find they’re not for you, you’ll see your games of D&D improve through the innovations that you start to make.

But you don’t have to
Having said all of the above, don’t feel obliged to fix what isn’t broken. Some groups can play D&D, week after week, year after year, and never feel the urge to mix things up, and that’s fine too. Ultimately, we’re all here to have fun. But if the cracks do start to show, if a couple of your players aren’t feeling it, or if you’re beginning to dread the prep work, perhaps it’s time to put the Player’s Handbook away and mix it up a little. There’s some awesome stuff out there and I’d hate for any of you to miss out.
 

Ben Burns

On Supernatural

It's no revelation to suggest that TV has achieved a level of respect that we never thought possible. There have been some great shows over the years, but let's face it, until fairly recently, television was bargain bin compared to the level of production in films. For me, I think the first time I realised how incredible a serious TV show could be was my first viewing of Supernatural. I was stuck alone, in a house, for the whole summer of 2010 and I was feeling both isolated and bored. I needed something to occupy my mind and, being a huge horror fan, I stumbled across this spooky serial about a couple of brothers who hunt monsters and ghosts. It sounded like a lot of dumb fun so I 'acquired' the first season and started watching. I was immediately hooked and, seeing that there were five whole seasons already, I binged the whole thing over the next two months. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Season 5 of Supernatural is probably the best single season of a TV show I've ever seen. It still illicits the feels from me on a level that few other shows can. The episode where they go over the history of their car, a prop that has been in pretty much every episode of the show, has basically been integral to their success on more than one occasion, but one which you barely pay attention to, is absolutely genius. They actually made me feel emotions about a car! I remember the first time around, my enthusiasm for the show slowly died after season 5. I think I limped on into season 8 and then gave up. Re-watching it, I realise why now. It's no secret that the creators of Supernatural never intended it to go past 5 seasons. But the narrative decisions made in season 6 feel like a betrayal of what made the show so great.

Castiel, probably my favourite character, was shown on multiple occasions throughout season 5 to be a stalwart, loyal friend to the WInshesters. In fact, there’s even an episode where they travel to a future in which Dean and a band of survivors struggle against Lucifer in a blasted, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Castiel is still there, working with them. For this reason, I’ll never be able to accept his betrayal in season 6 and I think that was the start of what I saw as the show’s decline.

I’m about to embark on season 7. I vaguely remember something about a virus called Leviathan and I know Bobby Singer, the other big ally to our heroes, is going to die. But the memories from my viewing past season 5 are hazy because the quality just wasn’t there anymore and the best characters kept getting axed.

It’s sad what became of Supernatural, but it just goes to show that you can have too much of a good thing. It should have ended after five seasons and I think, for me, it probably always will have. Still, they’re now onto their 15th season, so there must be something worth sticking around for. I’ll keep an open mind.

Five criminally underappreciated YouTube gaming channels


Ben Burns

One of my favourite pastimes is finding obscure YouTube channels, dedicated to very niche things, and just watching the host geek out over their chosen subject. For me, there are few more appealing qualities in a human being than genuine enthusiasm for something. I don’t care what it is, but if you’re obsessed with it, I want to hear about it.

Still, it seems a shame that these guys don’t get the attention they so sorely deserve, so I thought I’d share a few of the gaming-related channels I enjoy with you guys. Who knows, perhaps you’ll find something that ignites your imagination like it did mine.

One Credit Classics
Subscribers - 1.5k
Uploads - 231
Views - 90k

Despite what I said above, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Twitch and video game streaming. I’d much rather be playing a game myself than watching some rando do it for me. This channel, however, is the exception to the rule.

As the name might suggest, this dude runs through classic arcade games on just a single credit. Not only is he a master at what he does, but he’s somehow able to be entertaining whilst doing it. There are maybe a dozen games that I can smash through in a single credit, using decades of familiarity and a lot of concentration. This dude manages it with ease, all whilst engaging in banter with the viewer and explaining how he’s doing what he does.

The Southern Sega Gentleman
Subscribers - 1.9k
Uploads - 20
Views - 45k

As a European who grew up in a country where Sega was king, it’s always interesting to me when I meet Americans who are obsessed with the likes of the Dreamcast or Streets of Rage. This is especially true for the Saturn, which more or less bombed over in the U.S. The Southern Sega Gentleman is one such YouTuber who specialises in documentary-style videos, discussing all of the oddities and (sometimes atrocities) of Sega’s mid-’90s heyday.

However, the real reason this channel deserves a mention is for the quality of the production. Transitions are often peppered with deft camera work and expertly taken, high-res images. The content is always carefully researched and well-executed. It’s just an all-round professional set-up. Also, I could happily listen to this dude say the word ‘peripheral’ all day long.

Leftover Culture Review
Subscribers - 7.2k
Uploads - 140
Views - 610k

About five years ago I was convinced that The Leftover Culture Review was going to become one of the biggest retro channels on YouTube. The host, Bruiser, is a professional video editor and so his shows, mostly about obscure Atari and Sega games, were full of slick editing and cool presentation.

Sadly, life happened and Bruiser had to stick his channel on the back burner. What we’ve been left with is over 100 videos of the best retro reviews you’ll ever see. This guy is pretty much the reason I sought out and purchased an Atari Jaguar. He actually made the Jaguar seem fun. Think about that for a moment.

ST1KA’s Retro Corner
Subscribers - 3.9k
Uploads - 121
Views - 200k

St1ka is a really amusing guy. In fact, he really embodies what I mentioned in my opening paragraph about just being passionate and having fun. His videos range from serious journalism to silly things about sex-scenes in retro games, but he injects them all with a kind of dry humour that is even more impressive when you realise that English isn’t his first language.

If you’re looking for a more light-hearted, pick-up-and-watch kind of experience, you really can’t go wrong with this channel.

Yomarz
Subscribers - 10.6k
Uploads - 75
Views - 1.3m

Another dead channel, Yomarz specialised in reviewing the shittiest of mobile games, particularly those that illegally ripped off established IPs like Crash Bandicoot and GTA. Most of his videos include various in-jokes, noting that the vast majority of terrible mobile games are the same demo game, re-skinned.

He bowed out a few years ago and his last video, a documentary about the Nostalgia Critic, came out after the controversy with his website poisoned that particular well. A shame, because Yomarz was clearly a talented YouTuber.


 

Why you should check out Elric of Melniboné


Ben Burns

During a bit of research, I recently stumbled across the fact that Ken Rolston, one of the lead designers on both Morrowind and Oblivion, cut his teeth working on the Stormbringer pen & paper RPG. I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t mean anything to you, but that’s exactly why I’m writing these words right now. The more you look into the most celebrated works of fantasy gaming over the years, the more you hear the name of author Michael Moorcock and his criminally underappreciated protagonist, Elric of Melniboné.

Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, might sound like the most clichéd paperback name you’ve ever read, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elric was first introduced to the world in June of 1961, via a novella titled The Dreaming City. At that time, most fantasy fiction was either pulpy stuff like Conan the Barbarian or the high, complex fantasy of writers such as Tolkien. These stories told tales of unlikely heroes, slaves, hobbits and downtrodden humans, who sacrificed everything for the good of their people. Elric, on the other hand, was an irredeemable asshole. While Frodo was busy traumatising himself for the good of Middle Earth, Elric was off betraying his own people to a bunch of pirates, accidentally killing his lover, and spending the entire journey home contemplating his own suicide, and that’s just the plot of the first story.

However, it wasn’t just in its rejection of Tolkienesque tropes that Moorcock’s work was innovative, many concepts which are really key to modern gaming were forged by the pen of this criminally overlooked writer.

He was the first fantasy author to really explore the concept of order vs chaos, especially in relation to a pantheon of Gods. This would later become a staple of fantasy RPGs like D&D and Warhammer, the latter of which pretty much copied everything, right down to the symbol. The concept of a vorpal blade, a term first penned by Lewis Carrol, was really only solidified by Moorcock in the form of Elric’s sword, Stormbringer. A demon which transformed itself into a sword, Stormbringer is capable of devouring the soul of anyone it cuts. Elric both loves and hates the sword, as it is the source of all his power, yet it frequently causes him to slay friends and lovers. This exact archetype would later appear in pretty much every fantasy universe going, from Nethack, to D&D, to the DC comic book universe.

I could go on and write a full essay about why the Elric saga is such an important piece of historical geek culture, but I’d prefer you to discover it for yourself. The legacy of Moorcock’s work is far-reaching, from Hawkwind’s 1985 album, Chronicle of the Black Sword, to Vampire: The Masquerade creators, White Wolf, naming their entire company after one of Elric’s titles.

Stick some heavy metal on, pick up The Dreaming City, and soak up the doom-drenched atmosphere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The time is right for a AAA Dungeons & Dragons game


Ben Burns

How in the name of Selûne have we made it to 2019 without so much as a whiff of a AAA Dungeons & Dragons game? It’s been a full thirteen years since Neverwinter Nights 2, the last quality single-player D&D experience, graced our hard drives. Sure, we’ve had the Neverwinter MMO, by most accounts a decent effort from Cryptic Studios. In 2015 Sword Coast Legends came out, a budget RPG which garnered a lukewarm reception. There was also that godawful Daggerdale atrocity, but the less said about that the better. While excellent CRPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin have certainly filled Wizards of the Coast’s vacated gauntlets more than adequately, I can’t help but find myself pining after another adventure to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale or one of the literally thousands of other compelling locations in the multitude of published settings for D&D.

I’m not just a fanboy moaning about not having enough content to consume either. The time is right for a new, fully realised, D&D CRPG. The game is currently more popular than it has ever been, owing to platforms like YouTube and Twitch generating a whole newer, younger audience for the hobby. It even has two active MMOs, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Neverwinter, both of which maintain a stable player-base.

Once upon a time we would have been able to say with almost certainty that an offering was inevitable, owing to the fact that a major Dungeons & Dragons motion picture is on the way. Currently slated for release in 2021. It seems someone is finally taking D&D movies seriously, with Paramount Pictures producing it in conjunction with Hasbro. A decade ago this would have meant that a videogame tie-in was in the works, which in this case would have been awesome because the film is going to be set in the Forgotten Realms universe, the very same setting that hosts Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, Neverwinter and Icewind Dale. I never thought I’d say this but...what a shame move tie-ins are a thing of the past.

Still, we don’t need a movie to give us an excuse for a new D&D computer game. In fact, there are already plenty of awesome adventures out for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons which would make excellent video games. Out of the Abyss is basically one huge dungeon crawl through the dank, cavernous Underdark, pitting the players in a desperate struggle for survival against the pursuit of Drow slavers and the many alien Gods that hold sway over the landscape’s inhabitants. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist’s bizarre series of events that occur as you search the city for a treasure trove of unimaginable wealth would make for a quality linear narrative. Out of all of the published adventures though, I reckon Storm King’s Thunder, a sprawling adventure that takes the party through innumerable towns and cities along the Sword Coast, would make for a truly Skyrim-esque experience. You may be understandably skeptical about all of this, but let's not forget that Pathfinder, arguably D&D’s closest competitor, managed to push out a decent isometric RPG last year in the form of Kingmaker, itself a conversion of one of the system’s most popular campaign modules.

Better still, why not draw on some of the classic adventures from previous editions of the game? Red Hand of Doom, a criminally overlooked 3rd edition adventure, sees the party rescuing a vale populated by a handful of small cities and farming communities from the onslaught of a horde of bloodthirsty enemies. Or perhaps it’s time the gothic land of Barovia came to our computer screens in the form of a conversion of Ravenloft. After all, the module’s brooding antagonist and moody landscape is widely regarded as a watershed moment in RPG narrative.

I could (and would love to) bang on for days about why literally hundreds of D&D modules would make an excellent CRPG, but the point is that this franchise has both the resources and the audience to make something like this viable, if only Hasbro would be willing to sign off on it. Make it happen guys!

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