Games Years Ahead of Their Time

edited August 2011 in Story Games
I clearly don't want to work today.

Years ago, here in LA there was a game company called Better Games. They produced four striking RPGs, albeit the sci-fi game (Battle Born) was just another version of their FANTASY game. Barony, Crimson Cutlass, and Good Guys Finish Last may be a decade ahead of their time. And as a result, died early deaths.

Barony was a really smart, fast, abstract system for dealing with magic, swords and so on.

Good Guys Finish Last is now and will always be the best super hero game ever made. If you could find a way to make it GMless, it would be the single best RPG ever made.

Finally. There was Crimson Cutlass. The pinnacle of pirate rpgs with an entire book of tarot-card related references to events and intrigue played out over the course of ANY adventure you design.

I can't really find much chatter on line about these games and I don't even know where you would buy them now. But if you ever get a chance, sit down and play some of the best games that while they didn't directly affect the present movement of indie games, certainly paved the way.

Comments

  • Can you explain why you thought these games were good? You gave the high level summary, but that's not enough for me to do any more than nod to what you're saying. Or if your whole point is just "Hey, trust me: check out these three games if you can find them," then I guess there's no conversation to be had here and I'll just nod.
  • I've searched for years for the second book in the Crimson Cutlass set. I would pay $$$ to get my hands on it.
  • FreeMarket is years ahead of its time in my opinion.

    I've seen people in person get upset just talking about FreeMarket. In 2 cases they had a mini freak out. I don't understand the reaction. It's often greeted with a barrage of questions… but if that… what about this… and then this… and then… but how could you… but what would happen if… and then.... but...???

    I suspect FreeMarket may be a great concept in the wrong medium. As an MMO, I suspect it would be a stellar success.
  • edited August 2011
    Posted By: jenskotI suspect FreeMarket may be a great concept in the wrong medium. As an MMO, I suspect it would be a stellar success.
    That's an interesting observation, John. I've struggled with Freemarket - I'm very impressed with the game - it's incredibly innovative and ambitious, but I can't find anything I want to do with it. I really want to, though.
  • The Lost Worlds books. They're like turn-based Street Fighter, complete with illustrations that show what your character sees at all times.

    Unfortunately they're hobbled by coming about fairly early in the history of RPGs. The writing is unclear and the game is needlessly complex. But man, if you can look past that...
  • Continuum and Nobilis. Two games with mind-breaking premises ("you can time travel at will" and "you are the embodiment of a Platonic ideal") but, originally, few instructions on what to do with them once you're ready to play. The half-finished demo version of Continuum's companion game, Narcissist, is even more this way. I hear very good things about how the recent 3rd edition of Nobilis makes things much clearer, but I keep forgetting to ask Dave Fooden about their long term plans for Cont/Narc. He was at GoPlay and I mostly missed him.
  • J. Walton. Add first edition Unknown Armies to that list. In fact, the majority of 90s RPGs never helped you with how to use them. It's as if the designers just assumed you knew. "Oh yeah. Just like that other game you played."

    Anyone have a link to Free Market? I am curious to see it.
  • Posted By: jim pinto
    Good Guys Finish Last is now and will always be the best super hero game ever made. If you could find a way to make it GMless, it would be the single best RPG ever made.
    I'm with Adam: tell us more about these games! That's a big claim; I want to know why it's the best supers game ever made.

    Oh, and Freemarket.
  • Good Guys Finished Last was an innovative comic book emulator. The players were writers and editors of the comic, as well as the characters in the story.

    The grid of powers was innovative too. You had some 8 or 10 power groups to choose from (Chemical, Electrical, Power, etc.) and you would cross-reference those to create vague power descriptions (Chemical + Ballistic meant doing Lethal Chemical damage at Range). Depending on the campaign, you would select 2, 3, or 4 groups as your starting power level and experience points would increase your power in a given area. Granted the game was long before "framing scenes" but the innovative initiative system was designed for conflict resolution, even though that wasn't a term yet.

    Crimson Cutlass remains the only pirate game worth playing (that's right, I worked on 7th Sea and I'm still saying that). It came in three books, one of which was for resolving story threads and forks. It used a tarot deck for success, which was keyed against player aspects like "swimming" or "captaining." It drew heavily from the Tales of the Arabian Nights board game or vice versa. And because of the book design, you could play without a GM (not that the designers considered this) or rotated the GM around the table so players could take turns steering the adventure (just like Inspectres).

    Barony had a brilliant Magic System where there were five laws to magic and casting a spell meant violating 1 to 5 of those laws, which determined the difficulty in casting the spell. Sadly, on a 2d8 system, the range just wasn't there and the game needed a slightly better chart. We had a game once where someone actually had the sun come down and touch the villain, burning him to a crisp. Of course, everyone on earth died too. But if you like that kind of freedom in your magic systems, have at it.
  • edited August 2011
    In nostalgia threads like this I always, always pull out Bunnies and Burrows, which I adore and which was ground-breaking in a zillion different ways.

    It's 1976, and we've got:

    Animal protagonists like it is no big thing
    Detailed martial arts rules
    Detailed rules for the sense of smell, reproduction, etc. (extreme procedural genre emulation)
    Leveling of individual attributes, which in play comes perilously close to Keys
    Attribute-based classes with built in, elegant niche protection
    Games within games - play rabbits playing games (It just occurred to me how weird and awesome this is)

    So much more, a totally crazy game.
  • Posted By: jim pintoYears ago, here in LA there was a game company called Better Games. They produced four striking RPGs, albeit the sci-fi game (Battle Born) was just another version of their FANTASY game. Barony, Crimson Cutlass, and Good Guys Finish Last may be a decade ahead of their time. And as a result, died early deaths.
    I am stunned that I have never heard of any of these.

    How do I get my hands on Good Guys Finish Last?
  • We once played Bunnies and Burrows in public at an art cafe. People stared at us!
  • Good Guys Finish Last was published along with Villains Finish First and a scenario creation guide as Avengers of Justice. Battle Born was published along with an encounters book and a scenario creation guide as Era Ten.

    Avengers of Justice is everything that Jim says it is. It prefigures the mystery solving structure in Mutant City Blues by more than a decade.

    Paul
  • Posted By: buzzPosted By: jim pintoYears ago, here in LA there was a game company called Better Games. They produced four striking RPGs, albeit the sci-fi game (Battle Born) was just another version of their FANTASY game. Barony, Crimson Cutlass, and Good Guys Finish Last may be a decade ahead of their time. And as a result, died early deaths.
    I am stunned that I have never heard of any of these.

    How do I get my hands on Good Guys Finish Last?

    My copy would cost you hundreds of dollars. :)

    I actually don't know where to find them, actually. I would love another copy and at least two copies of Crimson Cultass. I have seen Red and Conrad a few times at shows. If I run into them again, I will just buy a huge stack of books.
  • Posted By: sageThe Lost Worlds books. They're like turn-based Street Fighter, complete with illustrations that show what your character sees at all times.
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarIn nostalgia threads like this I always, always pull out Bunnies and Burrows, which I adore and which was ground-breaking in a zillion different ways.
    Agreed on both.

    I would add Toon, for many of the reasons Jason lists here.

    I almost said Paranoia, but it was so much a product of its time that I can't say that it's anything but perfectly timed, even though it was...really quite amazingly advanced.
  • [ Unknown Armies [2]]
    I feel like games like Vampire really were *so close* to actually doing something like Sorcerer does - - you still need/benefit from things like Bangs and Relationship Maps and Premise when you're telling "a story of personal horror".
    I think what weirds out some Vampire fans who try Sorcerer (or games like it) is that the game gives some structure to things they're used to coming up with totally on their own - I mean, obviously not Humanity, but there's a way in which explicit explanation of Bangs might make some GMs feel a little insulted, like, "Hey, I don't need help coming up with stories!"

    Anyway, it feels like White Wolf and other 90's designers felt like they could only give vague suggestions as to what you actually did in play - they could suggest an activity, or a particular relationship to explore (between factions, between different status levels, etc.), but they couldn't give any rules on And here's how you do it. It's like it was a mental block or something.
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaAnyway, it feels like White Wolf and other 90's designers felt like they could only give vague suggestions as to what you actually did in play - they could suggest an activity, or a particular relationship to explore (between factions, between different status levels, etc.), but they couldn't give any rules onAnd here's how you do it. It's like it was a mental block or something.
    Can you agree 105% with something? Because this has been my banner for about 15 years. What does it always feel like White Wolf was going to do this... and then stopped? Ever read their player's guides? So close to giving you "something" and then. "Well. You figure it out. You're smart."

    What the what?
  • edited August 2011
    I donno, most of the Usenet conversations I saw made fun of White Wolf for giving too many instructions. This is something I've pointed out before. I guess some people looked at those "here's how you play" essays and they just got completely turned off by them, to the point where they just didn't recognize them as the game trying to tell them how to play.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyI donno, most of the Usenet conversations I saw made fun of White Wolf for givingtoo manyinstructions. This is something I've pointed out before. I guess some people looked at those "here's how you play" essays and they just got completely turned off by them, to the point where they just didn't recognize them as the game trying to tell them how to play.
    It always felt like advice that couldn't be followed through. I've written hundreds of pages of gaming advice in my career and I always provide examples, how-tos, and so on to "playing differently." The thing I always failed to do (and all 90s writers failed to do) was realize that games needed to BE different to PLAY different.
  • Posted By: jim pintoWhat the what?
    That's what I kept saying, in high school. We just kind of made characters and then the GM had to come up with something cool to happen, and it went from there. I look back on it now and almost want to shake it and yell, "What do you want me to do with you?"
  • Posted By: jim pintoIt always felt like advice that couldn't be followed through.
    I guess we could do some kind of empirical test to see if people actually played the game successfully, and if they did, we could disprove this?

    Anyway, another thread for another time.
    Posted By: Zac in VirginiaWe just kind of made characters and then the GM had to come up with something cool to happen, and it went from there. I look back on it now and almost want to shake it and yell, "What do you want me to do with you?"
    I kind of think that a game centered around the selection and pursuit of your own Theme and Tone should minimize a lot of "wants", even to the degree that any inanimate object can be said to have desires.
  • Posted By: buzzPosted By: jim pintoYears ago, here in LA there was a game company called Better Games. They produced four striking RPGs, albeit the sci-fi game (Battle Born) was just another version of their FANTASY game. Barony, Crimson Cutlass, and Good Guys Finish Last may be a decade ahead of their time. And as a result, died early deaths.
    I am stunned that I have never heard of any of these.

    How do I get my hands on Good Guys Finish Last?

    I did some poking around after Jim posted, and apparently, Better Games was responsible for one of Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer's abortive rebirths in the late eighties & early nineties, and several of their games first saw the light of day in the pages of that magazine. Good Guys Finish Last initially appeared in issue #3, and Villains Finish First debuted in issue #7. I was able to grab issue 3 on Ebay tonight for about six bucks. I'm pretty excited to check it out.

    Here's a link to their website.
  • edited August 2011
    Posted By: Zac in VirginiaAnyway, it feels like White Wolf and other 90's designers felt like they could only give vague suggestions as to what you actually did in play - they could suggest an activity, or a particular relationship to explore (between factions, between different status levels, etc.), but they couldn't give any rules on And here's how you do it. It's like it was a mental block or something.
    Totally. Though, not sure if this was actually the case or not, but there's a business reason why you don't give explicit instructions: giving people detailed instructions on how to play with your toy limits your audience to those who want to play with it in that way. But as Hanlon's Razor states, never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity - it's equally or perhaps even more likely that they simply carried on the tradition of poor editing and blind reliance on oral traditions which they grew up with.

    In retrospect though, good for them - people took V:tM and made it their own. I was steeped in the Swedish tradition of BRP / CoC, and played disadvantages, RP rewards, conflicting nature/demeanor pairs, inter-party conflicts, and self-directed status play to the hilt. But as soon as I acquired Internet access, I found all these North American websites with house rules for playing Black Hand Sabbat agents on dangerous missions, including single use "Discipline Tomes", XP awards for killing people, and other very odd D&Desque artifacts which made absolutely no sense to me. But clearly, people were having fun with the game in their own ways, which couldn't have hurt WW's bottom line one bit.

    Compare this with the more procedural and clear way of teaching mechanics of play and play processes of many modern designs, and one thing that pops to mind (for me, at least) is that a certain kind of ubiquitous gamer will dig their heels in and say "that's not how I like to play, so screw it". These guys have a comfort level with a particular mode of game and are unwilling to learn not only a new set of core rules, but a totally new (or worse, a similar but with several very important key differences) set of techniques to generate play properly - instead, they want to take everything they've learned in every game in their gaming history and willy-nilly apply it to all their games because "that's what works in their group". White Wolf would've alienated this crowd by telling them how to play - instead, they authored a pretty game with a ton of vampire micro-fiction, tables upon tables of abilities and powers, and Rule Zero, which obviously goes over better with the masses.

    Edit: To tie this post in with the topic, I'd hazard to say that Vampire was a cutting-edge game mostly because it figured out how to capitalize on a trend, whereas most games prior to that was deeply entrenched in its own self-described genre. From a marketing perspective, this served to bring more people into the hobby rather than just poaching players from other, similar games. I wouldn't say it was "before its time" though, because it was clearly a very timely release.
  • Posted By: torkPosted By: buzzPosted By: jim pintoYears ago, here in LA there was a game company called Better Games. They produced four striking RPGs, albeit the sci-fi game (Battle Born) was just another version of their FANTASY game. Barony, Crimson Cutlass, and Good Guys Finish Last may be a decade ahead of their time. And as a result, died early deaths.
    I am stunned that I have never heard of any of these.

    How do I get my hands on Good Guys Finish Last?

    I did some poking around after Jim posted, and apparently, Better Games was responsible for one of Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer's abortive rebirths in the late eighties & early nineties, and several of their games first saw the light of day in the pages of that magazine. Good Guys Finish Last initially appeared in issue #3, and Villains Finish First debuted in issue #7. I was able to grab issue 3 on Ebay tonight for about six bucks. I'm pretty excited to check it out.

    Here's alink to their website.

    These are actually reprints of the original games. Abbreviated for magazine length. But that's a great find, nonetheless. Crimson Cutlass never appeared in the magazine. It died by issue 5 or something.
  • Posted By: lachekwhich obviously goes over better with the masses.
    Honestly, I feel like the "masses" in this case were responding and appreciating on the basis of the oral tradition you mention - fudging has a long and proud history in American RPing (if not elsewhere, also), and making it OK to fudge and to tweak and everything, right there in the rules, was probably a bit of a pressure-gauge-release for some people.
    I rarely, if ever, invoked Rule Zero. My friends and I did experiment with ignoring the mechanics and using informal Drama resolution to settle conflict in-game (i.e. "just talking it all out"), so we didn't invoke the Rule; we basically lived it. We had first RPed with Everway, king of 90's Drama-rez play, and I was in love.

    The sequence was basically Everyway - D&D2 - Vampire. D&D was wayyyy too structured and table-heavy for my/our tastes, so when we got around to Vampire, we loved the setting and mood and rich detail (including that awesome list of true and false vampire myths! so cool.) but weren't interested in gun tables, soak values, etc.
    I actually once ran a brief session of Vampire while swimming in a river with my players. No, we didn't bring dice with little flotation devices on them :)
  • Guys, the game contained massive amounts of very specific instructions. But this thread derail is getting really far down the line.
  • edited August 2011
    Posted By: buzz

    How do I get my hands on Good Guys Finish Last?

    It was published in issue 3 of the Space Gamer Fantasy Gamer. I think I had something in that issue as well. You might be able to find old issues somewhere: http://www.spacegamer.com/spacegamer/history.asp The horror game looked pretty cool. I played Battle Born, the fantasy game and the Arabian game. I actually created the prototype of a Native American game in the same style. It was pitched in the magazine as a possibility for the future, but the magazine went under.
  • On Stage! by Luca C. Giuliano, an Italian game of Shakespearian what-ifs, came out in the early or mid-Nineties, 'though I didn't discover it myself 'till the late Nineties. Apart from sporting the first dice-less conflict resolution system I've personally seen (which in fact it drew more-or-less straight from Amber, Luca's all-time favorite), On Stage! taught me:
    • the framing of scenes, done with explicit and formal mechanics (and which the game very much centered around);
    • "metagame as a good thing", that is, consciously embracing a discordance between in-character information and out-of-character (audience) knowledge as a source of dramatic tension (thus to be encouraged, as opposed to being considered a logistical nuisance to get rid of).
    These two things alone made that game almost a decade ahead of its time, I believe (and in fact a significant portion of the Italian-language dialogue about the game centered around whether it was an rpg at all).
    Too bad they never made an English-language edition.
  • @Rafu: It sounds like On Stage! was inspired directly by the medium/media that it sought to emulate. Pretty cool! :) And kind of a neat short-circuit, conceptually, sort of a shortcut to more Story Nowish play. Neat, I say!
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaAnyway, it feels like White Wolf and other 90's designers felt like they could only give vague suggestions as to what you actually did in play - they could suggest an activity, or a particular relationship to explore (between factions, between different status levels, etc.), but they couldn't give any rules onAnd here's how you do it. It's like it was a mental block or something.
    I honestly believe that's how it felt to you, but I found the advice in Vampire 1e pretty clear and easy to follow. I ran a campaign pretty much by the book using the advice in it. I was always puzzled later on when people talked about how it didn't tell you how to play - it seemed to me right there in the book.

    Obviously others weren't so fortunate. I guess I was more on the designers' wavelength but I was far from alone in that.

    Of course, first time I played it rather than ran it we were sent into the fucking sewers with shotguns. I was underwhelmed.
  • JD has said as much, Max.
    I know that part of it could be how I was relatively unfamiliar with RPG texts when I first encountered Vampire. I'd only ever read Everway and D&D2 before that, and even then there was a very strong "rules? Eh.." kind of approach, which I picked up for a long time.

    Do you think your better experience had anything to do with how much you'd RPed before?
  • Posted By: jenskotI suspect FreeMarket may be a great concept in the wrong medium. As an MMO, I suspect it would be a stellar success.

    Well, you know the story John. :) FreeMarket was the analog prototype for an MMO. *GASP*
  • Hey Zac,

    Sorry for repeating a point. I was tired reading the thread and missed JD saying the point was done,

    Anyway, I can t be sure now but I had been playing various RPGs for over ten years by then, so it's absolutely possible that it made a difference. It was obviously trying to do something different, but having prior experience meant I knew what it was trying to be different to. The problem with the shotguns and sewers game I played in was that it was D&D with fangs. It was obvious though that Vamp wasn't supposed to be that. Knowing though what it wasn't supposed to be must have made it easier to see what it was trying to be.

    Plus I'd read Anne Rice. Also, the Chicago by Night supplement made a huge difference. It introduced relationship maps (for the first time I believe in an rpg product) and it contained a lot of really useful advice (as I recall - it's been a long time since I read it).

    I think too though that some games just resonate more with some people than others. I'm not sure there is always a reason we can point to for that. I got the genre and the advice seemed to fit it, I'm too tired right now but I'll try to think of an example where that didn't happen and I had to get help from others to understand how a game was meant to be played.
  • I hate this thread for making me crave an game I can't have (Crimson Cutlass).

    Anyway, for those of us who haven't read/played Freemarket, can you explain why you believe it's ahead of its time. I have no idea what Freemarket play actually consists of (Something about designing a product).
  • For me it was:
    The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baron_Münchhausen#Role-playing_game
    The idea of a game that was about telling an outrageous story and not much else, blew my mind. And while there may be something that did this early it was first one that I had ever seen.
  • edited August 2011
    Freemarket is sort of amazing. Here are a few reasons why:
    • Genuinely transhuman and post-scarcity in outlook, aggressively and cheerfully so.
    • Handily subverts pretty much everything RPGs are usually predicated on. Sociopathic violence is not really a good option at any point. Radical kindness is always effective. Any activity the players engage with can be rewarding and compelling. Cooperation and friendship are mandatory.
    • Seamless integration of player and character terminology, so elegant you won't even notice you are using the same words to describe IC and OOC situations. I cannot emphasize enough how innovative and cool this simple thing is.
    • Brilliant implementation of a card-based resolution system that encourages cheating. Card-counting, anyway.
    • Game mechanics effortlessly reinforce the game's social hierarchy and structure. Ask the guy who adds an immigrant to his MRCZ what I'm talking about
    • Packaging, components, marketing.
    People will look back on Freemarket and say "huh, so that's where this came from".
  • I've been looking for Crimson Cutlass for literally years. I once contacted the guy who wrote it. I asked about pdf sales, but he said he'd rather the game just ceased to exist since nobody was interested.

    He didn't seem to find it incongruous saying nobody was interested to the guy who'd tracked him down to ask about pdfs. It seemed rude to push the point so I didn't.
  • Posted By: agonyI hate this thread for making me crave an game I can't have (Crimson Cutlass).
    how do you think i feel? i can't find a copy either.

    and i started the damn thread. khan!!!! no. wait. me!!!!!
  • Maybe someone should direct the rightsholders' attention to this thread?
  • i've been trying to find them, actually
  • Posted By: jim pintoi've been trying to find them, actually
    Well, it looks like they're still chatting in the forum at http://www.spacegamer.com/spacegamer/default.asp ? And it looks like there's a discussion about possibly doing pdfs.
  • King Arthur Pendragon
  • If anyone wants to play FreeMarket in the bay area, just let me know. I'll be happy to run a session!
  • edited August 2011
    Posted By: jcfialaPosted By: jim pintoi've been trying to find them, actually
    Well, it looks like they're still chatting in the forum at http://www.spacegamer.com/spacegamer/default.asp ? And it looks like there's a discussion about possibly doing pdfs.

    I doubt that the PDFs will actually happen. Red is exceptionally unmotivated, and Conrad now just does the game stuff for fun. Jim, if you send me your email, I'll put you on the list for the next ConCon (when Conrad comes out to LA and we do a gaming weekend - usually at my place). Last time was in June, and we flipped cards for Cutlass, played Barony, Era Ten and the horror game. Next one probably won't happen until next year though.

    Tony
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaI think what weirds out some Vampire fans who try Sorcerer (or games like it) is that the game gives some structure to things they're used to coming up with totally on their own - I mean, obviously not Humanity, but there's a way in which explicit explanation of Bangs might make some GMs feel a little insulted, like, "Hey, I don't need help coming up with stories!"
    Ladies and gentlement of the jury, exhibit A: The Problem.
  • Game that was ahead of its time for me:

    Scales. While I never was a fan of Croc as a game designer, I found the design of this one was very elegant: single d10 for roll, any descriptor can be made a meaningful character trait, rules for managing.the evolution of the group and its implication in the emergent web of intrigue. Too bad it never really got off the ground.

    As for Vampire: my theory on the game is that it was blessed with being unable to do anything really well, yet allow for a wide variety of game-styles to cohabit, sometimes at the same time, around the same table. You had players who wanted their slice of real world D&D, intrigue backstabbing masters, soap-lovers, those in it for the Gothic horror... and they were all playing together.
    Sometimes (often) it was hell to manage, but when it worked it was glorious. And yes, I'd say the game was exactly of its time.

    The curse of indie games, for me, has generally ben that while I can find games fine-tuned for each and any category of players, I have trouble finding one who'll be "good-enough" for all.
  • James Bond. This might have been mentioned about. But just a briiliant Spy/Action game. The bidding system was unparalleled.

    Castle Falkenstein. Predecessor to so much INDIE-ness it'll make your head explode. Steampunk before there was a term for it. Vague character traits and tags. No attributes, only skills. 21 of them.

    How bad ass is that?
  • Posted By: jim pintoCastle Falkenstein
    Falkenstien's card-based magic system also had some awesome. Best "control vs. speed" mechanic I can remember.
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