Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Maturing of the One Ring - Songbook

Songs are a big part of fantasy literature, especially where Tolkien is concerned. Setting aside whether you like Tolkien's verse, a Middle-earth game must have rules for songs to be complete.

The problem is that RPGs have historically done a terrible job with songs. D&D set the tone early, with bards being relegated to bland buffbots. It wasn't that the rules for songs in D&D were uninteresting (though they were). It's that there was no interesting fiction attached to them. For repositories of oral lore, bards sure weren't encouraged to keep track of what their songs were about.

This has continued right up until the modern day. Songs give buffs (TOR does this; more in a moment) and that's it. You can track your songs or write something in-character about your adventures, but there are scant few hooks to get you to do so, just like in the old days.

TOR was in a similar boat. For being in a world where song is so important, the base rules relegate it to a social skill only. Rivendell fixes this and lashes it to the fiction.

The PCs can now write songs as a Fellowship activity. The process is simple: roll Song to compose it, with the success of the roll determining how difficult it is to actually sing. You then (and this is the important bit) log the details of the song in a communal songbook for reference throughout the campaign. The idea is to create a shared history through the songs the characters write. It's simple, and by no means does it have to be the emphasis of a campaign, but the mere existence of the songbook tells everyone at the table that songs are important.

Each song is of a particular type and the difficulty is altered during the writing, with Traditional and Thematic being harder to write, Elvish more difficult. The song types break down as: Traditional (tied to a specific culture, +2 difficulty for outsiders to sing), Thematic (cannot be sung outside a specific event, like meal-time or marching), or Elvish (harder to write but can be used more often).

So what are the benefits? Like most rules in TOR, there's a theme of leaning on and reinforcing your friendship in the song rules. The party can sing each song in the songbook once per adventure (twice for Elvish). If you succeed, you're Inspired, giving you two extra dice to spend on rolls for the duration of the adventure.

This can be game-changing in narrow circumstances, like a hairy combat roll, but it's not remotely overpowered. And this is exactly what it should be: a nice benefit without being too much, with a deep attachment to the fiction.

It's this attachment to the fiction that TOR does so well. Because the designers seem to think in terms of discrete and self-contained actions (a la a board game, as stated in the last edition of this quick look at Rivendell), they can drum up the "feel" of Middle-earth in very little text.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Maturing of The One Ring - Rivendell

I don't post much here. I'm a bad blogger. But I'm going to fire this up again in the next few days for something which is, compared to my last few posts oh so long ago, fairly trivial. Which is all good by me, since trivial means I'm having fun.

What's moved me is The One Ring, the pen and paper RPG for Tolkien's world put out by Cubicle 7. I'll spare the intro except to say that the tabletop RPGs put out for the license historically have been (and I'm being generous here) a little at odds with the spirit of Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined.

This wasn't really the fault of the creators of the two prior systems, MERP and Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. They came around at a time when design goals were different and it was both fine and good to plug a generic rules system into a setting. Decipher did better than MERP in this regard, but it was still lacking, while MERP put out remarkably in-depth setting books attached to a slightly stripped down Rolemaster, an explicitly generic fantasy system.

The One Ring is different. Every rule in the game has been very explicitly inspired by a piece of M-E fiction. It plays in an almost board game-esque fashion; by that I mean that there are distinct moves and phases to the game. This enhances the fiction, rather than detracts from it, by making each one of those moves and phases feel momentous. It's no surprise that the designer, Francesco Nepitello, is both a board game designer and inspired by the games of Greg Stafford, a man who also liked those deep dives into rules as a means of emphasizing specific actions in play.

This isn't really a review of TOR, though. It's not even really a review at all, even though it's going to read like one. TOR recently put out a new supplement called Rivendell. It opens up the game to Eriador and the titular vale of the elves. It also adds a lot of new rules which are elegant and mature.

I keep coming back to the word mature when I describe the book. It's the work of a team who have thought about every nook and cranny of where the rules came from and where they're going. They're remarkably well-thought out and clever, expressing the feel of M-E through hard rules text. The rules breathe in a way I don't know that I've seen many game texts do. And they're not complicated. Quite the contrary, they're mostly simple. But that's why it's so tight and interesting.

So that's why I've come to blog. I'm going to do some periodic short entries, each on a different bit of rules text in Rivendell to talk about why they're so interesting. I'm that jazzed about this one single, not even that thick game book. So let me start with a short one:

Rivendell as Land of Dreams

In Tolkien's text, there's a hazy, dreamy quality to Rivendell for everyone but the elves who live there. That exists in any of the elf-holds which he mentions, but Rivendell is almost a anthropomorphized character in its own right.

But that's hard to model in rules text. Hell, it's hard to describe with enough style that your players fully get it, no matter how good a GM you are.

Francesco leans on his board game background here. The GM is supposed to make very clear that characters visiting Rivendell have a choice, one which has benefits and drawbacks. It's very consciously made. The rules:

1) If you spend adventuring time in Rivendell, the Shadow rating of the characters is considered zero. (Shadow is the measure of how weighed down the heroes are by the ugliness happening in Middle-earth). Characters also heal from physical wounds at a much faster rate.

2) If you do the above, however, you only get 1 experience point that session. Period. If you were set to get 2, 4, or a dozen, it doesn't matter. You get 1. Because time is weird in Rivendell. It passes slowly. You get complacent. It's too wonderful to leave, especially when it's so ugly outside of it. You get lazy, basically.

And that's it. A lesser game might rely on the well-worn fantasy game trope of "make a willpower save to leave" or something equally blunt. Rivendell (the book) presents a firm choice, equal parts good and bad: stay here if you want, enjoy it while you do, but realize that you're risking your competency long-term.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Case Scenario With Irrational Games

Yesterday saw the surprise closing of Irrational Games, developers of the Bioshock series. I say surprise because, by all accounts, Irrational was a well-regarded, profitable entity in 2K Games' constellation of studios. Bioshock, of course, is considered one of the finest games of the past decade. Bioshock Infinite was almost as much of a critical success in the mainstream gaming press, though it was much less so on blogs and independent outlets, being criticized for some very unfortunate in-game racial commentary.

(It should be noted that I have not played either Bioshock nor do I intend to. My FPS adventures have always been limited to multiplayer PVP fests, and that was before I lost a noticeable step in my mid-30s.)

The commentary on twitter and elsewhere has been pretty pointed, primarily because studio head and Bioshock series creator, Ken Levine, has landed on his feet at Take Two. He wants to make smaller boutique games. Not small or boutique enough to start an indie studio, of course, and that's an important tell. Between his comments about storytelling blocks, a weird press release by 2K, and his desire to concentrate on "core gamers" (I'll give some easy odds on what gender, race, age, and class his "core gamer" is), it sure looks, from the outside, like a bored guy with an enormous amount of name recognition shutting the gate behind him. And it should be stressed that an awful lot of people were left behind; he's taking anywhere from 0 to 15 people with him, going by snippets, while an estimated 185 people lost their jobs.

Naturally, the conversation has centered on these dimensions. Essentially, the thinking is one of two things.

1) 2K didn't want to back Levine on his next project and told him no. Levine said, "screw this, I'm going on my own". Levine leaves, 2K reckons that Irrational is nothing without Levine, and everyone gets fired.

2) Levine really did get bored and restless. He still had a lot of control and basically just shuttered the studio on his way out.

I'm simplifying greatly, here, but the two most common takes are those. What I've seen less of is an examination of the third option: that Irrational Games was unprofitable and probably misrun.

Before we go further, I think it's vitally important to read two very good pieces on the situation, linked directly below. The politics of the aftermath of the closing are really important.

Games By Humans

Ken Levine Isn't Looking For a Job

On profitability, I'm leaning on my friend, Russ, who pointed out that Bioshock took six years to complete and was certainly over budget. Yes, it sold four million units, but that was maybe just enough to break even. 2K, when Levine started making noise about wanting to do something with narrative Legos or storytelling primitives or whatever pomo garbage he's considering doing, is naturally skittish about Bioshock Infinite's issues.

And what about those issues? Think about this for a moment, away from the politics. Bioshock Infinite moved four million copies and it wasn't profitable. Obviously not all of those were at the release price point of 60 bucks, but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that half were moved at that price and the other half were at an average of 30 (current price is about 15). That's 180 million dollars. And it wasn't profitable.

No matter how long it took or the size of the staff, the fact that 180m doesn't break even is insane. That is not a sustainable number, particularly when looked at in conjunction with Square Enix announcing a few weeks ago that the latest Tomb Raider only just now broke even... after 3.4 million sold in the first month and, presumably, reaching right around twice that overall.

There is no silver lining to those numbers and the unprofitable theory. These simply aren't sustainable numbers and they're a disastrous portent for the industry. Essentially, numbers like that are going to translate into a more rapid revolving door, as people are laid off in greater numbers as impossible targets aren't met, and more consolidation around the biggest players, as the medium studios are priced out of making anything.

The refrain is always that indie games are the savior here (that was said numerous times in response to my Jacobin piece). My response is always the same: they aren't. Indie games are the savior if and when they can provide a livable wage and decent benefits. That's not a slight on the quality of product which indie studios churn out; indie games are good or bad the same way major studio games are good or bad. It's simply an empiric observation that the long hours and terrible wages aren't any better at an indie and, according to Gamasutra's yearly survey data, are probably worse.

This is what we're left with, then: a critical darling which moved a whopping number of copies wasn't profitable. Around 200 people lost their jobs without warning. Ken Levine is going to be just fine.

There's no real answer here. The industry is going to have to implode before it changes. Or the social safety net in the US is going to have to be able to catch people like the ones who just got canned. But I do want to zero in on Ken Levine being fine again.

More than just about any other sector of the entertainment industry, video game creation is reliant on a lot of people. Your writing can be good but if your code is garbage, people will know and remember the shoddy code. Your animations can be great but your art can be terrible. Contrast with film, another team effort (I hate that term) but one where a good actor or director can carry a movie, or with writing, which is almost always an individual effort.

By all accounts, Bioshock Infinite was at least solid, possibly very good. Everyone did their jobs and did them well. Everyone but one person: Ken Levine. Levine's primary job, more than the writing, was to bring Infinite in on time and under budget. If Irrational had become unprofitable because of Bioshock Infinite's overrun, no matter how unfair and insane the budgetary bloat which has taken hold of the industry, that's on Levine's head.

And yet here we are, with an entire studio turned out on its collective ear for doing its job properly, while the one true failure in the story has not just landed on his feet but is poised to crank out vanity projects, post-Spore Will Wright style, for the rest of his life. The games press, for the most part, is salivating about what he's going to do next, thereby enabling this sort of behavior the next time. Hovering over it all is the vicious irony that a man who made his name by writing about a Randian dystopia is going to be just fine because we're currently living in one.

Like I said, I don't have any answers, at least not any which don't involve the industry as we know it completely collapsing. I am heartened that, in the comments sections of major industry news outlets, there seems to be scant patience, this time, for yet another rock star dev landing on his feet after a failure while hundreds go home with a severance check. Small as it is, cracking the myth of the video game auteur may be the first step in fixing the industry.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal

Jase Short wrote, and Jacobin published, a rebuttal to my piece “On Geek Culture”. I think it’s a well-thought out piece and I appreciate the respectful tone. The fact that this happened, by the way, is one of the reasons why I like Jacobin so much. It’s not monolithic, just as the left isn’t monolithic. The editorial staff are willing to get dissent within the ranks even when it’s stuff that they obviously approve of enough to publish. That’s really cool.

That said, I do want to rebut the rebuttal, but here in my own space. I feel as though Mr. Short has misunderstood a bit of what I wrote, not least of which is the notion that I’m defining being a geek as passive consumption of culture. Since that kind of underpins the rebuttal, I think it’s important for me to respond.

Some of this misunderstanding is really about how the piece was written. I was a bit of a victim of my word count, an eminently understandable situation. This forced me to truncate bits of my argument. Some of it is that this is an evolving thesis and, really, two pieces in one. The first piece is trying to shift what we mean when we say geek. If I’m frank, this is the argument that I’m most interested in of the two; I firmly, categorically think that geekdom has nothing to do with what you like but how you like it.

The second piece is how that passion is harnessed by corporations. I think I do a decent job of showing how this happens in the video game industry workplace in my prospective next Jacobin piece without making the argument an outright follow-up. I’ll avoid long spoilers for now, but the tradeoff in the industry is “you work insane hours, you get to do what your subculture considers awesome”.

But let’s zero in on the first piece of that combo. As near as I can tell, Mr. Short and I are in total agreement: the geek is defined by the depth of passion toward the admired object. It seems strange that the rebuttal should center on the “passivity” of the geek when I really argue no such thing.

In fact, I argue something quite the opposite. The passion of the geek toward the object or activity, whether that’s Star Trek or a sports team or record collection, is so great, the interaction so rewarding, that it can and does supplant ties of race, gender, and class solidarity. It’s not enough to both be dock workers; if one is a traditional sports-hating geek and the other is a rabid anime-hating Giants fan, odds are that the casual bonds of commonality which might, say, let them work in opposition to management much more naturally don’t form.

Mostly my piece was well-received, but one of the common counters (and Mr. Short touches on it in his) is that this is really just human nature. That of course you make everyday social bonds around common interests.

Which is absolutely true. The problem, of course, is one which is much broader and that is corporate intrusion and ownership of what those common interests are. And, again, we return to the passion/passivity argument. By exalting those common interests to such a degree, the geek (and, again, I remind readers that I’m using this to mean people very different than the commonly used term) is essentially exalting a corporate brand as identity. It is not passivity which is the problem; it’s the passion and what it does.

But what of reclaiming the properties? What about cosplay and fanfiction? These are, indeed, active forms of engagement with the object. My counter is: reclaim them from what? If a property is created by a corporation, owned by a corporation, there is no way to reclaim it. Its essential nature is corporate. There is no separating out Iron Man from Marvel. Mr. Short brings up Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney; left unsaid is that Lucas was hardly a non-corporate entity. I daresay he’s the poster child for Boomer monetization of intellectual property and that Disney may be kinder to the intersection between capitalism and fandom than he was, though that’s a bit of a side argument.

There seems to be an air that I am dumping on geek culture as low brow or worthless. That is absolutely not the case. I love low brow stuff. I watch almost exclusively terrible movies. I love stupid games with no real higher message. I eat junk food and watch NFL football while obsessively watching my fantasy football scores. I own two Arsenal jerseys. So it is most certainly not that I have a disdain for mass culture.

What I am asking for is merely awareness of where the beloved media in question comes from, coupled with (and I could have done a better job putting this to the fore) a sincere attempt to liberate creators on the part of fans. On the creator front, I have seen so many geeks claim love for creators, whether that’s a running back or a comic artist. When push comes to shove, when those creators are sincerely, unequivocally abused by the corporations which employ them, geeks are largely silent. Not all of them, as Mr. Short is quick to point out, and that’s true, but the majority are conspicuously on the side of the ownership class, not the creator. It is galling, even as a non-comic reader, to see calls for boycotts by bloggers met with “creators will really starve if we join in”. That is passivity and helplessness, a perversion of the usual passion which is deliberately and consciously harnessed by the ownership class in these media industries for poor ends.

One final note on Mr. Short’s piece, one which I think reinforces my premise that geek culture ends up supplanting traditional cultural bonds. Toward the end he writes:

“For many, the act of “owning up” to a label once imposed by oppressive social forces, most often in middle school and high school, is analogous to the re-appropriation of labels by oppressed groups.”

I cannot get on board with this. Being a geek growing up and reclaiming the word is not the same thing as owning up to racial, gender, or sexual preference slurs. He immediately says that it’s not the same scale or type, but by putting it out there at all the equation exists. I admit that I’m taking the least charitable reading, but I see this time and time again with those who have grown up being teased: no, it’s not like being called the N-word, but we were made fun of and we’re taking the word back, so it’s sort of like that in a small way.

I don’t ever want to question the severity of bullying or tell people to get over it, but there are some bounds here which must forcefully be called out when crossed. Being a geek is not something you’re born into. There is nothing set in stone which says that you must wear that media allegiance on your t-shirt or on your mug. Nobody should ever be tormented for those things, but it is not remotely in the same league as racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia.

I sincerely doubt that Mr. Short (who seems like a very sharp, well-meaning fellow) meant to equate these things. Perhaps we need a new language for this sort of thing. Or, perhaps, we should be wary of exalting media consumption and the passion it sometimes engenders to a place where such analogies exist at all, which is really the core of my argument.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's been an age, hasn't it?

I've left this blog fallow for quite a long time. I think my last post was in June and even it wasn't very long. Status updates, though, are good for the people who found out about Before Iron and ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD through here.

Before Iron: This is still in limbo, despite my having been told that I could talk about it a year and a half ago. It is, I am assured, still a priority. I've received some good news on the Before Iron front from Stewart, but it's not the sort of thing I can share publicly.

It'll be out when it's out. I don't know when that is, but it's probably best to not think of it until I post firm news.

ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD: Always in caps. Always.

As far as I'm concerned, AMW is feature complete for testing. Not feature complete for release, of course, but for testing, absolutely. You can find the latest playtest docs here:

The only reason I haven't been playtesting the hell out of this online (we've done some locally and it's gone swimmingly) is because Apocalypse World derived games are really tough to do properly without playbook pdfs to consult. There's something deliciously tactile about the *W experience, so doing it without those pdfs is both incomplete and lacks a certain ease of use.

The pdfs are slowly, ever so slowly, coming together. Work on them has been turned over to my brother and co-author on Before Iron. But he's started a new job at a new school, which slows things down, and I've started school again, been busy with other projects, and my daughter started preschool, which slows things down even further. Rest assured that our mutual breaks in the action are devoted to things like the playbook and script pdfs. I suspect testing will come in hardcore once the holidays roll around and everyone has some time off. I also suspect it might be ready for release by the end of Summer 14, though that is optimistic.

Release is already more or less settled. My brother and our friend (that's +Peter Williams and +John Cocking, respectively) have a company called Flatland Games which publishes a very nifty and well-regarded OSR titled Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. AMW will be released there when it comes out.

Will there be a Kickstarter? That's unsure. Frankly, signing on with Flatland means that it's not strictly necessary; the infrastructure for printing on demand and having an awesome pdf are already there. That doesn't mean it won't happen, however; I like Kickstarter as a way of helping with lump sum payments to talent and getting the word out.

If we do go Kickstarter (and this is probably a topic for another post), it will be handled quite differently from many others. For one, it won't go to KS unless and until it's fully written. Since it's not necessary to have the operating capital a KS could offer to get it out in some form, I see no need to kickstart it and then write it over the next however many months. This is not least because I'm rotten at time management and I want precisely zero risk that it goes over my time allotment.

We also won't have any stretch goals as they've come to be thought of. It'll be very simple: more money means better art. Maybe there's a hardcover version. Maybe it's in color. The initial goal would be very modest, as well. I prefer things simple and streamlined as much as possible.

Geeky & Genki: I'm proud to be doing some entertainment writing over at Geeky & Genki. It's a bunch of cool folks I respect the hell out of doing podcasts and writing on all sorts of things. If anything's suffered because of my busy Fall, it's really G&G; I hope to write some more for them very soon (I already have my In the Heat of the Night cultural criticism magnum opus written in my head for Fall break).

Jacobin: Being a more or less lifelong socialist of one stripe or another, I've been very excited to be able to write for Jacobin (and by extension Salon) on geek culture. Jacobin is a magazine I really and truly respect, young as it is, and to have my name next to people like Eileen Jones, Bhaskar Sunkara, Connor Kilpatrick, Corey Robin, etc truly, sincerely blows my mind and humbles me.

If all goes well with the draft, I'll have a long read on the political economy of the video game industry in the next print issue. It should hilariously torpedo any hopes I may have had of returning to the video game industry (spoiler: I actually have no desire to return), but I hope it proves a thought-provoking read.

Anyway, keep an eye on here and follow me on G+ for updates. My next focus is AMW, AMW, AMW, at least once midterms are done.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


+Jonathan Reiter was awesome enough to do a playtest of AMW's current alpha rules. Feedback was good. It was very cool because I'm extremely into seeing what people do with the game when I'm not there. I know how I run the game and I know how to explain it. Those two things can cover a lot of holes. So it's always nice to see what happens when I'm not there.
Anyway, I've excised some of the specific feedback for readability, interest, and because I prefer to keep feedback notes (good and bad) in the design talk vault while it's in development. But the play report is below.

I GM'd a one-shot of +Ian Williams' Action Movie World: First Blood for five willing-ish test subjects. Here's what happened.

Brandt Sterling as AGENT JONAH STAIN
Jason Stacy as OFFICER ISAAC

Premise: Jonah Stain is an Irish INTERPOL cop on the case of a transatlantic human trafficking ring. Officer Ford Abrams is the NYPD wunderkind who is mere inches from finding Shadowsmith Sanderson, the head of the ring. Can Stain drive out the snakes on a St. Paddies' weekend in NYC?

Some key moments:
1. The Musclehead (Tila) is undercover with her partner in Vice, The Gunfighter (Isaac). They are infiltrating a strip club that is the front for the ring. Tila is the working girl to Isaac's pimp, and they are decked out in green sequined bikini and crushed velvet jacket respectively. They decide to bring in their informant, and a gunfight breaks out. Tila uses her boiled ham thighs to drag the informant out while Isaac provides slo-mo covering fire. "Next time," Tila says exasperated, "you get to wear the bikini."

2. Our Op (Jonah) is the lead. The Smartass (Ford), is driving. They are hot on the tail of Isaac and Tila's car, which is currently being flanked by two black Hayabusas, riders armed with TEC-9s. They shoot ahead of the chase via shortcut. While Ford t-bones one of the cycles into flames, Jonah throws his cane at the other rider. The riders falls roughly into a heap of garbage. Jonah stands over, uses the cane to flip open the visor, exposing his love interest, Katya, and her gorgeous flowing auburn locks. Smoldering looks are inevitably exchanged.

3. After Ford is kidnapped by the smugglers, everyone at his precinct falls apart a little bit. At the bodyless funeral, The Thesbian (Drake) tries to deliver a lifting soliloquy over Ford's presumed death. Unfortunately, despite the best effort of his NA sponsor, Jonah, Drake has fallen off the wagon. He harangues about how the department is filled with bastards and lectures the shocked crowd about the inevitability of violent death.

4. Isaac drives a shamrock diesel truck into a vacant party supply warehouse in Queens, burning tons and tons of goons and himself in the process. Pathos for Jonah who comes crashing in to the third floor through a skylight, assaulting goons with his cane. "And now you know why they call me Jonah Stain," he says economically, leaving behind a heap of bloodied bodies. Jonah tangles with Sanderson, and they both go out a window, leading to broken bones and Pulp Fiction limp chase. Meanwhile, Tila convinces Katya to get out of the ring through a released captive daughter, an emotional high for the flick.

5. A tank chase in the middle of the St. Patrick's Day parade, as Sanderson threatens the city with a dirty bomb strapped to Miss Delaware's chest.

It was super fun and people had a ton of fun. I initially thought it was going to be very hard work, because 5 players is a bit much for an AW game. But, it turned out fine.

Frirek I (930-962) round two

A time of troubles came to Novgorod, to all Slavs and Norse
Brother battled brother for years
Weakling Frirek was determined, with respect on his mind
Brother Hrodalfr began war anew

Black Suzdal became new brother to Hrodalfr, Yarsolavl joined
Finally Borkvard fought Frirek, too
Frirek jarl again, jarl removed again
To Novgorod and Torzhok, Frirek retired

Love bloomed late for Frirek, lust-cunning Pora captured his heart
Frirek's senses fled him and he took her name
Af Odense as their children were called, a curse on Rurikovich
But Frirek believed naught but his heart

Brother Borkvard remembered Rurik, the promise of Rus anewed
To Setyamka to Rus a demand
"Restore Rurik's throne to me, Rus by right is mine!"
The Muromids met Rurikovich in battle

Blood proved bonding for brothers, thicker than Muromid oaths
Save for Frirek and Pora
Remained in Novgorod rutting, replacing Rurikovich blood with af Odense
Barid died in battle while Borkvard was cast in a pit

Rus-king reigned ruinously, Frirek did not care
His eyes halted upon Pora
Rich as he remained, richer still he became
Lagoda left to Frirek with Narva not far behind

Finally an heir, finally a Rurikovich son!
Concubine-born castoff
Eleven years of life altogether, young Rikulfr yearned for a throne
But Pora believed only in the others and had him killed

Years and years wore on, young af Odenses swarmed Novgorod
Frirek was fraught with terror at what he'd wrought
His love halted years prior, hatred consumed his heart
Too late his loins had stirred

Peace turned pillage again, past foes invaded once more
Sweden came swimming from the west
A Norseman on the throne again, no rejoicing aloud
With Denmark came danger not six years later

Frirek's fate was not happy, rebellions followed again
Damned Frirek's dungeon was not pleasing
Pora's face turned from Frirek, he fainted from stress
Never to stir to awakening again

So the Sons of Rurik were no more

Out of Character

So this is the first game of CK2 I've ever lost. I've played counts, dukes, kings, republics, everything.

Some of it has to do with a possible bug. Frirek got married and it was apparently matrilineal. I'm not discounting the possibility that I might have clicked on matrilineal marriage at all, but this is the second time this has happened with the expansion pack, though the first one was with my female heir in a different game trying to have a matrilineal marriage which just didn't get recognized.

I decided to work it into my story. Frirek was so entranced by his prospective bride that he rashly took her name, meaning no Rurikovich babies. From a game standpoint, once I realized that all of the kids were from the af Odense dynasty, I went nuts trying to get some concubine kids going. And I did! Twins! A boy and a girl. Except Frirek's wife promptly murdered the only Rurikovich son and that was it. My fate was sealed.

The brothers might have hung in there, but they all died in a dumb rebellion after Borkvard took the Novgorod ducal title from me. Two in prison, one in battle. That left just me. I had tons of land, since I inherited all of their titles save the ducal one (the king stripped that one from Borkvard and wouldn't give it back). I decided to wait things out, hopefully overthrowing the new king once the rapidly aging Setyamka kicked the bucket.

Well, Sweden put a stop to that. They invaded in force to subjugate Rus, which they did. That left me with only Narva to my name Then the Swedish king died and gavelkind kicked in, leaving his six year old on an unstable throne. Then the Danes invaded to subjugate the Finnish portions of the kingdom (ie me) and that was basically it.

I ended up in prison in 961, where I died in 962. An af Odense took the throne. There were other Rurikovich folks out there, but none of them had land, meaning they weren't playable. So that was it for the game.

I like this expansion, but it's hectic. The Norse, as I mentioned, can be incredibly powerful. By default, they are. All the pagans are. But the gavelkind inheritance and the massive cliff to climb to get out from underneath it can really, really screw you over. Wars are nearly constant. The more or less permanent casus belli from your other pagan neighbors means that they can swoop in for the leftovers after whatever dynastic struggle du jour wraps up. There's a real sense of chaos to things, particularly when you're over in Russia, which makes for an active game.