Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Crossover Combat: The Laundry vs. Bureau 13

Two quasi-governmental agencies tasked with defending the world against the supernatural. Who comes out on top?

In this corner, we have the 13th Bureau of Justice Department.

There were a lot of game stores and comic shops in the 90s. When I worked in comic store a couple years later, someone more familiar with the industry said that if you had the capital to open a game store in that era, then you were just about guaranteed to make money. The boom was unsustainable, being, as it was, fueled in large part by speculation, but Ah my friends, and oh, my foes, it made a lovely light.

I first encountered Bureau 13 in one of those local game stores during the 90s. They sold used games for cheap. The Phil Foglio cover caught my eye. I'd been playing Magic the Gathering and I really liked Foglio's distinctive style. I figured that for five dollars, I could take a chance.

I usually describe Bureau 13 as the X-Files before the X-Files. It's a game about government agents investigating the supernatural and weird science, and it predates the X-Files by a good ten years.

Gamers often make a distinction between "crunch" and "fluff". Crunch represents the rules of the game and fluff represents the setting. Bureau 13 had wonderful fluff, but I felt that its crunch was far too complex for its play style. Does my free-wheeling adventure game really need rules for hydrostatic shock? Phoenix Command called. It wants its rules back.

The fluff, though. That was some great stuff. I loved the writing and the humor and the wonderful villain groups. It reminded me of the old 1st edition DMG, this crazy sprawling mishmash overflowing with adventure seeds on every page.

I'm not a huge fan of universal systems, but I thought the d20 edition released during the d20 boom was a better fit. When I played it online, our GM used cinematic GURPS.

The novels, too, are outstanding. They're even more broadly comedic, and somewhat different in tone. The RPG assumed that PCs would be civilians conscripted into the Bureau's service after surviving an encounter with the supernatural, but the heroes of the books were sorcerers, super-evolved apes and psychics. It's been my experience that most groups tend to reflect the books more closely. (My first character was a Neanderthal mathematician and marksman.)

I was sorry to see that Nick Pollotta, author of the Bureau 13 novels, had passed away in April. We'd had one or two exchanges on the old Bureau 13 group, but more than that, he seemed like a really nice guy, and he wrote a combination of wry humor and sci fi action better than anyone else.

I was surprised by how much I liked the Atrocity Archives, because I liked almost none of the components that made it up. The dialogue is dreadful, his metaphors are overwrought and I hated every one of his characters. It also has the idiosyncrasy peculiar to British works, which tend to be written with the premise that the UK is still a world power, rather than an island that exists to create media properties for the consumption of the rest of the world.

I'm not exaggerating. I couldn't think of a single character I didn't hate. The world was fascinating and I envy the incisive combination of imagination and precision Stross used to bring it to life.

I've only read the Atrocity Archives, which collects the Atrocity Archive and Concrete Jungle. I've been told his gender relations improve, but this was by die-hard fans who cited Concrete Jungle as when we first started seeing the improvement, and I felt, if anything, Jungle was even worse in its portrayal of women.

It's probably addressed in the later books, because Stross really impressed me as a world-builder, but the biggest problem facing the Laundry seems to be that they are trying to protect the world England from the effects of what in the Laundry universe, are basic scientific truths. The same problems were present in the arms race. Once you know the math, A leads inexorably to B, and you can't keep a lid on it forever, and once is all it takes.

I see that there is also an RPG based on the series, and I think I might be interested in that, because, as I've said, I love the world, but hate its inhabitants. Telling stories there with a bunch of characters who aren't outrageous dickwads might be a lot of fun.

It's unfair to match them up directly, because the power levels are so uneven, and the Laundry's purview is so limited. It's only on British soil that the Laundry would have any kind of hope, and even with that, the outcome is far from certain. It's not impossible to concoct a scenario that would see the Laundry victorious, but you'd really have to build it with that outcome in mind and work backwards from there. 99% of the scenarios are going to show the grey old men of the Laundry that geases and being an asshole isn't enough to cut it against the jet-powered apes and the .50 caliber machine guns of the Bureau.

Bottom Line, Bob encountered remnants of a victorious Third Reich in the first book.

Bureau 13 regularly tangles with the SIXTH Reich. You gotta go to Delta Green if you want better Nazis than that!

Game, set, match: Bureau 13

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