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Captain Sasta, Ironclaw, and Pirates of the Spanish Main:
Around this time, I got dragged back into Ironclaw again, as Rafferty was working on a version "2.0" of the system. Yeah, I said Akoma was the end of my involvement? Well, I had a chance to get involved again (though anything I asked about Akoma was met with silence -- I suppose I must just have REALLY disappointed with that draft).

I printed off huge binders of the playtest rules, and started with a premise that probably wasn't the best-thought-out: Koogrr wanted to do something with Sasta, his "alt" on a number of MUCKs, and there was this thing about Sasta and her faithful rat minions. So let's have a sailing ship crewed by Sasta's ridiculously loyal Rats, and the other PCs are special members of the crew. Koogrr was my most active player, but I was pretty much setting up for a lot of intra-party meta-gamey rifts by assigning my "star" player so much authority, with such a crew of fanatically loyal minions. (Problem #1: Questing, getting treasure, and Sasta would pretty much claim it ALL FOR HERSELF, occasionally buying "gifts" for other PCs, but never doing the basic thing of splitting it all up into shares for everyone. We got to the point where the supposedly die-hard-loyal rats were on the verge of mutiny, eventually.)

Anyway, the first Ironclaw had a certain elegance to the way it combined basic attributes, skills, and racial/species/natural abilities toward skill rolls, but its d12 system (as in, 12 is the maximum possible outcome) tended to lead to some Irresistible-Force-vs.-Immovable-Object issues once the PCs got suitably experienced, and it had a problem with scaling. There were things I loved about the system, but where it had what I perceived to be flaws, I had NO IDEA how they could be possibly addressed.

Ironclaw 2.0 addressed many of the flaws in basic Ironclaw ... then turned around and added a bunch of bizarre mechanisms that felt like they were inspired by collectible card games or abstract board games, or WHO-KNOWS-WHAT. The jargon was clunky, the learning curve was a challenge, and gameplay was obnoxious. I so wanted to avoid combat or any sort of skill-test for that matter. We dutifully filled out our feedback, and I got feedback basically questioning the intelligence of my players. Yeah, sometimes they were being a bit nitpicky, and I was dutifully passing it along anyway because this was a playtest group and that's what I was supposed to do, but it wasn't all baseless. I'd read some of the feedback in the hopes of sharing some responses to the questions we'd raised, and some of my players just got angry at being blown off.

We got to a situation where we had players interested in the characters they developed, but about to mutiny over the game system. Around this time, I discovered the "Pirates of the Spanish Main RPG," and these cool little plasticard ships from the "Pirates of the Spanish Main" game. I decided to jump ship and jump systems: I introduced an adventure wherein the PCs essentially went through a "Bermuda Triangle" sort of vortex, and ended up in the Caribbean in the world of Pirates of the Spanish Main.

Okay, but they're a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, yes? Well, I had to come up with some racial packages (possible within the Savage Worlds framework), but then I hand-waved a magical "veil" effect: In this world, the supernatural is real, but it is most powerful in those "Here There Be Dragons" places far from civilized lands and rational minds. Sasta might be a talking cat-lady, but to human eyes she would appear to be just a lady pirate ... EXCEPT under the light of the full moon. (And thus a little tie-in with legends of werewolves and all that.)

I ran a rather bizarre campaign where I took the PCs on a tour through the different series of "Pirates of the ____" card/ship game. (Pirates of the Spanish Main, Pirates of the Barbary Coast, Pirates of the Frozen North, Pirates at Ocean's Edge -- and then, after a bit of a time-forward -- Pirates of the Mysterious Islands, with a take on the Island of Dr. Moureau.)

It was crazy, barely sensible, and still a great deal of fun (especially once we got that little matter fixed of properly sharing the loot).

Also, around this time, I actually managed to get my foot in the door to do some artwork for Pinnacle Games (and its split-off, Triple Ace Games), for such games as Necropolis, Weird Wars, Slipstream, Deadlands, Space 1889, Wonderland No More, and more. I was a bit of an "emergency artist," doing filler art, maps, and occasionally some "figure flats," when more professional artists were unavailable. I even managed to make enough to get Gwendel a (then-)new laptop.

Savage Worlds One-Shots, Mini-Campaigns, etc.
Around this point, my games at Necronomicon were almost entirely Savage Worlds. It had replaced Advanced HeroQuest as the sort of basic system I could QUICKLY teach totally new players, and which was intuitive enough that ... well, most of the basic stuff players would want to try to do in a system, there was probably a fairly simple rule for it.

It's not a PERFECT game system, by any means. It doesn't scale well with giant stompy robots, and, truth be told, the ship-to-ship battles in Pirates of the Spanish Main were rather lacking. (The strength was more in the swashbuckling boarding action sequences, where I could fairly easily manage battles with a score or more pirate extras, and a small band of PCs and their allies.) Damage is also a bit wacky. The "generic" system greatly needs tweaks to the basic rules for different settings, and I've been trying to refine those tweaks for a long time now. But in the times I've tried OTHER systems after Savage Worlds, I often find myself wanting to go back again. It has the basics for so much I want in a game system; the parts where it fails are in the areas where I'd EXPECT a specialized game system to need special (non-generic) rules. (E.g., a world full of giant stompy anime robots? Yeah, you're going to need special rules for those that wouldn't make much sense to include in a wild-west game.)

Sadly, by this point, Moonwolf and K drifted out of our social circle (Borders Books closed down, to drive home the point), and Koogrr had to leave the country. (He'd delivered an ultimatum to his employers to stop messing around with his green card application, and when they called his "bluff," he didn't have any other engineering jobs lined up, so he had to go back to Canada.) Some time ago, I'd managed to royally wreck my associations with Prester_Scott and his wife, Mach drifted off, and many of the other people who would show up from time to time were associated with one or another of them (and wouldn't just show up on their own).

My various experiments included a series of Ghostbusters-themed adventures, but with my shrinking circle of potential players, I started getting out of the house and running games at Dr_Rhubarb's "Rhubarb Games" store -- and then, when that closed, the "Amorous Armadillo" store opened by JV. I tried a few one-shot scenarios of games such as Slipstream or Weird Wars, but primarily I ran an ongoing Pirates campaign, where I managed to meet up with some new players to the area.

The store eventually closed, alas, but some of those players stuck with me as I tried a zombie apocalypse campaign ("War of the Dead," followed by "Zombie Run," and then followed up by another "War of the Dead" continuation), more Ghostbusters, and then I tried playtesting a cyberpunk setting called "Interface Zero."

Again, playtesting was a bewildering experience. At some point, we might submit playtest feedback, and the rules update features some drastic course corrections ... then the next time I get fierce pushback from the writer. Then, I write up some sloppy hash rules as an EXAMPLE of the sort of rules mechanism that I think MIGHT be usable to solve some particular problem, and the writer distributes this atrocity, without any cleaning up, to the playtest teams as something to try out.

Gwendel briefly got into the game with a PC, but around this time, she lost interest in things quickly -- usually wandering off to the computer room to go play World of Warcraft or whatever, and never returning. I think part of it might simply be that once Moonwolf drifted out of our orbit, any time she was here, she was the only girl at the table, and -- worse -- the "GM's girl." I'm afraid I can't do much to address that.

Anyway, although the campaign managed somehow to reach a halfway-decent conclusion, I had a lot of negative feedback from the players, and they laid a lot of blame on the Savage Worlds system itself.

I followed up with a few gag games featuring My Little Pony characters, dungeons, and ridiculously lethal deathtraps (with red Play-Doh to represent the resulting gore), and Gwendel briefly got involved again (but she'd wander off mid-game again). JZ's son, JHZ, got involved at this point -- and was involved in a rather notorious incident where his archer character managed to sneak up on a sleeping dragon, and, thanks to a couple of Adventure Cards applied strategically, managed to shoot an arrow up its backside that one-shotted it without any chance for it to spend Bennies to soak the damage.

It was a ridiculous situation in an intentionally ridiculous game, but unfortunately it was also held up as an extreme example of how damage-handling in the game was extremely "broken." When we'd talk about what to run next, any of my ideas involving Savage Worlds would get shot down. (And I really, REALLY wanted to run some "Savage Fallout." But I ended up having to confine that one-shot playtest sessions, and scenarios at Necronomicon.)

As it so happened, any demand for my work from Pinnacle, Triple Ace Games, or anyone else associated with Savage Worlds trickled away. The last "real" work I did was first for the "Horror Companion" (where I did a whole mess of monster pictures), but I never got paid, and never got a contributor's copy for it (like I used to). I managed to get in some weapon art for a supplement for "Necessary Evil," but there I didn't even get a mention in the credits. I think it's pretty much around this time where my enthusiasm for doodling took a nose-dive. At family reunions, I might manage a few vanity portraits for relatives, and at the end of the year, I'd manage to scratch out my "traditional last unicorn doodle of the year" (even if it might very well have been my ONLY unicorn doodle of the year), but that's about it.


FFG Star Wars
As a GM, how can I say "no" when the players buy the books for me? That's basically what happened when Fantasy Flight Games came out with "Edge of the Empire" in 2014. Production is pretty nice. The X-Wing minis are gorgeous. I'm not exactly short on minis to play with -- but it's really not a miniatures-friendly game, oddly enough, as it's more designed to be played in a "theater of the mind" style. I dare say that with a clever MUF program to handle the peculiar dice, it might actually be an ideal system for using for online text-based roleplay such as on SinaiMUCK.

Another player, CH, was supposed to run it, actually, and he DID run the introductory adventure, but then he turned the reins over to me with quite a few loose ends left dangling. By this point, I'd been a bit burned out on having to come up with continuing stories and dramatic twists on demand, ON THE FLY, in ongoing "sandbox" campaigns. I wanted to run some MODULES, drat it, even if (like War of the Dead) I might have to be prepared for players to inevitably go far "off the rails." At least it'd give me somewhere to start.

This was a very mercenary, grey campaign, where there were good guys, bad guys, and somewhere in between to be found among the Rebels (and so-called Rebels), Empire, and outlaws. But then, that was pretty much what had been signed up for, since this was SUPPOSED to be a campaign about a bunch of outlaws/mercs/adventurers who weren't necessarily signed up for any particular idealistic campaign (and certainly no Jedi). It still managed to go a bit overboard at times, and I really went crazy on trying to shoehorn the X-Wing miniatures game into starfighter combat. (This did not go well. The minis looked pretty, but the turn ratios and combat rules didn't mesh well with the RPG, and certainly DID NOT speed things up.)

The basic dice resolution system gave me fits with three axes of "good" and "bad" results -- Success/Failure, Threat/Advantage, Triumph/Despair, and it might ALL HAPPEN AT ONCE depending on the dice involved. I also had severe problems adapting to the matter of PC mortality. Throw a nexu at the party, and we'd get clobbered PCs left and right. Have a PC starship ram head-first into an NPC starship, and the NPC starship would end up being space dust and the PC starship might suffer a "critical damage" effect of ... oh, a slight penalty to maneuvering or temporary loss of shields for one round or so.

That, and the mushy rules regarding movement and range. It just felt so sloppy, what matters fell under the GM's sole determination, what things were very specifically limited by rules, what things demanded the GM come up with yet another clever narrative explanation on the spot of what happens when someone rolls a Triumph-Despair-Success-Advantage-Threat, and so on -- and Heaven help you if one player notices that you were a little more generous with another PC's Triumph-Despair-Success-Advantage-Threat than you were with HIS. I got headaches from the arguing sometimes. It might have given the players some fun story moments, but it was NOT fun to be a GM.

I held out the possibility that we might pick up Star Wars again (someday), but I figured next time around I'd try running a more classic Rebellion game (Age of Rebellion), and stick to some pre-written modules rather than attempting "sandbox" style again.

But what next? Well, I thought, how about if I try some "old-school dungeons"? I mean, hey, all the old D&D modules were put up as free downloads, so maybe I could dig through those and see what's usable.

Except ... nope. All those formerly free downloads were now behind a paywall. I ended up trying one out and finding that one of those "classic" old dungeon modules made about as much sense as a Zork adventure. (I.e., yet another wacky magic dungeon with teleporters and nonsensical arrangements of monsters and generally no sense to be had in WHAT THE HECK was going on in there.) I resolved not to waste money on any more.

I had a couple of players who were really into Warmachine/Hordes -- and I'd painted up quite a few Khador models for Digital_Rampage. What if we tried running the Iron Kingdoms RPG?

Now, I suppose I could have run the old d20 Iron Kingdoms RPG, and I could have actually used some d20 modules as a starting point, if I was short on adventures. However, there was a new system that was based on the miniatures wargame, only with a few RPG elements shoehorned in.

And, I got this crazy idea, inspired by the thought of how I might use all those Khador models. What if I ran a fantasy game loosely based upon Russian/Slavic fairy tales? Say, Ivan and the Grey Wolf and the Firebird? Or Koschei the Deathless? Or Baba Yaga and her Dancing Hut? And so forth? I started to get a "story" in mind, with the novelty being in how to fit in the fantasy-steampunk elements of the Iron Kingdoms universe.

And thus started my (still-current!) foray into Iron Kingdoms RPG -- for better or worse.

(... to be continued ...)

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