The World Is Your Setting Guide 4

It’s been a while, so here’s another in my series of interesting sources to look at for campaigns set in Earth (whether modern-day or historical). This time, an overview of a particular society at a particular time, a big picture view of the history of magical grimoires, and a somewhat more dated book on the same subject.

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This is a guide to medieval society which steps away from providing a recounting of events and focuses more on presenting a more immersive view of the times, Mortimer’s technique being to treat the period in question like an actual place and then giving a rundown of the sort of details you’d notice on an actual visit. This means that a timeline of major events is avoided (after all, how likely are you to participate in any of those if you visited?), but there’s more details given on things like the social order, overall cultural attitude, methods of travel, what you eat, how you dress, how towns are arranged, and so on and so forth.

The approach is rather similar to another book I’ve covered in this series, The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, though I would say the two books complement each other rather than rendering each other redundant. Crucially, Mortimer’s focus is a bit geographically tighter (just England rather than England and France), and relates to a somewhat different time period – 1300 to 1400, rather than 1050 to 1300.

Mortimer’s book is incredibly useful for anyone running historical RPGs, or RPGs using settings riffing on history, at the tabletop or in LARP format. This is simply because it gives a great look at the actual practicalities of life in the era. If you want to depict a realistic cross-country journey, feast, market visit, or sailing voyage in the era, Mortimer has you covered. This is the sort of question which might often come up in a historical (or close-to-historical) campaign: Wikipedia can quickly tell you when a particular battle was or who was king, but can be a bit less helpful in giving you an idea of, say, how you would actually make your way from London to York in an era when accurate maps simply aren’t available, and those maps that do exist really aren’t made for the rigours of travel.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Changeling Cliques and Gloranthan Glamours)

Sometimes I read a supplement and I want to say a few things about it on here, but don’t want to give it a full article; for this purpose I’m going to start reviewing such things in this new ongoing feature, Supplement Supplemental. This time around, I’ve got some slim additions to Changeling: the Lost and RuneQuest to look at.

Oak, Ash, & Thorn (Changeling: the Lost)

Oak, Ash, & Thorn is billed as “The Changeling: the Lost Second Edition Companion”, this feels like something of a misnomer. Usually, when RPG supplements are billed as “companions” – and that’s been true for Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness output as any game line – that’s usually a signal that they have a fairly broad scope, offering a diverse range of material which may be a bit of a grab-bag, but precisely because of this can be potentially useful for a wide variety of campaigns within the envisioned scope of the game. Onyx Path have used the “companion” designation for some of their own material – think the V20 Companion or the Dark Ages Companion – which very much fits the status of stuff which, whilst useful, didn’t fit in the core book for their respective lines.

That is not quite the case with Oak, Ash, & Thorn, which actually is more specific in intention and unified in theme than that. As the introduction notes, it’s pitched to “Tier 2” Changeling games. Tier 1 is street-level, low-status stuff, where the PCs are probably not the movers and shakers in their Courts and events focus tightly on the motley’s immediate needs and foes. (Think the classic mode of play of early Vampire: the Masquerade, when the overriding assumption was that the PCs were all new-ish vampires towards the lower end of an extensive hierarchy as of the start of the campaign.) At the other end of the scale is Tier 3, which are intended to be more global in scope; this is the sort of cosmic-scape campaign which culminates with you bursting into the True Fae’s homes in Arcadia to go full Long Lankin on them.

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Choose Your Own Fantasy Pounding

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos is the latest in Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline gamebook series, which was inaugurated with Escape From the Billings Mall and continued with explorations of the glitzy film industry, the roving world of the long-distance trucker, and the chilly depths of the Frozen Lake. All the books in the series take place in the morass of interwoven timelines which is the Tingleverse, but so far have taken place in timelines which are fairly close to our own, bar for the statistically higher proportion of bigfeet, dinosaurs, intelligent objects and similar talkative handsome non-humans in the population.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos departs from this, set not in the familiar environs of Billings, Montana but a fantasy kingdom which also happens to be called Billings. Ruled over by King Rolo, a sentient talking D20, Billings finds itself under threat from incursions of the Void. A prophecy predicts that a great role-player will arise in the kingdom that will save it from the Void in its hour of need; plucked from your friend’s cottage (in which you were playing a tabletop RPG in which you play people who live in a futuristic world where you have to contend with grumpy bosses and onerous office tasks), you are offered the call to adventure.

Chuck’s billed this as being his longest gamebook yet, and part of that length arises from the way he offers four distinct quests through the gamebook (though these paths do cross ways and intertwine at points, so you can start on one and finish up on another). The overtly-offered choices are those of the warrior, the wizard, and the true buckaroo; there’s also a “sneak” path (think thieves, complete with guilds), which in keeping with the covert nature of the profession is a secret route you can pick up partway through a runthrough.

Naturally, given how in the Tingleverse the “fourth wall” is not so much a wall as it is a revolving door, there’s a certain amount of metatextual playing with the gamebook concept here, but Chuck finds a different angle to take with it this time. In previous entries in the series this sort of thing has largely taken the form of directly addressing the fact that the player is playing a gamebook. This time, the recursion takes a different course, focusing instead on the fact that the main character in the story is a great role-player of the kingdom of Billings and leveraging that to reveal that they are in fact a role-player in the modern day. (Indeed, perhaps a modern day timeline closer to ours than we’ve seen before in Tingle’s work, since I didn’t notice any Tingle-esque characters like dinosaurs or living objects in the modern-day sections of the gamebook.)

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OpenQuest and Clarity of Design

OpenQuest has a new 3rd edition out. My thoughts on it are broadly in line with my thoughts on 2nd edition, since OpenQuest is one of those games where a new edition is taken as an opportunity for iterative improvement rather than radical reinvention. However, one thing which impressed me looking over the new book is the clarity of the design and the willingness to take a little space to explain some design decisions.

The refereeing advice chapter, in particular, is extremely good, offering a wealth of advice based on years of not just running and playing OpenQuest but a good knowledge of the rest of the Basic Roleplaying ecosystem. In this vein there’s quite a good bit at the start of the referee advice chapter where author-publisher Newt Newport explains what he considers to be both the traditional elements of BRP-ish games which OpenQuest inherits and embraces, and where it’s deviated from the rest of the field in general (and its immediate ancestor, the Mongoose Publishing edition of RuneQuest, in specific).

He doesn’t call it Basic Roleplaying, mind; OpenQuest uses the euphemism of “D100 gaming” to refer to BRP, wisely giving Chaosium’s protected areas of intellectual property a wide berth, but if you know your gaming history and a wider range of systems you know damn well that it’s not any particular percentile-driven system that’s being referred to by this but specifically BRP. Despite being coy about using the term Basic Roleplaying, OpenQuest is willing to namedrop Legend (which Mongoose renamed their second edition of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name( and Mythras (which the Design Mechanism renamed their version of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name).

In doing so, Newt ends up being a little modest when he refers to OpenQuest as being a “little brother” to Mythras. This might be true in terms of, say, rules complexity or big-name settings – OpenQuest hasn’t landed a licence on the level of, say, Lyonesse or Luther Arkwright, Mythras has. But in terms of seniority, OpenQuest has the edge, the original version having emerged in 2009; this is clearly earlier than the emergence of Mythras, even if you regard Mythras‘s “zeroth edition” as being the 2010-released second Mongoose edition of RuneQuest, which is now called Legend. (To recap the argument for doing so: Nash and Whitaker of The Design Mechanism did the original design on Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend before they did Mythras, and they’ve said previously that Mythras is basically the “director’s cut” of that game, the original release of Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend having suffered a butchered edit.)

What particularly impressed me, though, was the clear explanation of some aspects of the Empire of Gatan, the sample setting provided here, in which Newt does the decent thing and levels with the reader – something which RPG setting designers, fond as they are of keeping secrets and wanting to keep interpretations of their setting open are often reluctant to do. Here he points out explicitly how much of the setting material provided is from an Imperial perspective, and gives a more clear-sighted rundown of what he considers to be the Empire’s positive attributes and which aspects of it he considers to be significant flaws in the society depicted.

Some might question whether this is necessary, but in the realm of speculative fiction it’s not unknown for authors to design settings which reflect how they believe the world should work (or how they believe the world actually works – which results in a world infused with their personal worldview which, inherently, is going to include some personal biases and preconceptions), and especially not unknown for uncritical readers to brush past all the indications that you aren’t meant to take the in-character statements about the world at face value.

This sort of ambiguity suits movies and books and videogames with strong designer-imposed plots better than they do RPGs. In the former, the events of the story can help tease out what the author actually thinks about the world in question. In an RPG, everything ends up filtered through the referee, and the action of the plot is up for grabs, so there’s much more scope for people to miss the point of a setting – and therefore not get the best out of it – without this sort of direct statement of “this is what this is about”.

This sort of clarity is very much OpenQuest‘s stock-in-trade, and this remains true of the new edition, making it a welcome inclusion in the somewhat crowded penumbra of BRP-derived games.

Also, there’s a duck on the cover, proving that Newt is on the correct side of history on the ducks issue.

The World Is Your Setting Guide 3

As readers might be aware, one reason I like historical or real-world settings for tabletop RPGs is that it means that there’s a wealth of material out there in non-gaming reference works ready for you to adapt for your game. In this occasional series, I review things which have caught my eye as being particularly useful for adapting to RPG purposes.

The Isles of the Many Gods by David Rankine and Sorita D’Este

Put out by Avalonia, this is primarily aimed at a pagan audience, but is particularly aimed at what’s sometimes called “reconstructionist paganism” – as in people who are not so much interested in constructing new forms of paganism as they are in figuring out how older forms of pre-Christian spirituality may have been practiced.

Specifically, it is an attempt to provide as comprehensive as possible a list of the deities with some form of recorded worship or recognition in Britain, prior to Christianity becoming predominant. The growth of Christianity in Britain went in fits and starts – the Roman Empire converted, but people didn’t exactly forget their older traditions overnight, and outside of Wales the Romano-British territories were largely taken by the incoming Saxons.

As Rankine and D’Este note in one of their introductory essays, by the time Alfred the Great compelled Guthrum, ruler of East Anglia, to convert to Christianity as part of a peace deal in 878 CE things were on the wane. They note that from the tenth century onwards, any pagan practice had to be clandestine; they don’t note, possibly to avoid offending that section of their readership who buy into Wiccan myths about their religion being a survival of an ancient pagan faith and other such legends, that by the time of the Norman era pagan worship in Britain was basically done.

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Mini-Review: A Rising Tide of Solo Adventures?

In the past I’ve been clear that I think the management change at Chaosium was overall a good thing and that by and large the Moon Design gang have done a much better job of running the firm than the Charlie Krank-led regime. Whilst the work they have done to raise production standards, mend bridges, and pay debts have all been a breath of fresh air, especially considering the doldrums that Chaosium had languished in for so long, at the same time the new team haven’t just been knee-jerk innovating for the sake of innovating. They’ve stopped doing the stuff that didn’t work, sure, but they’ve kept going with things which made sense.

The Call of Cthulhu solo adventure line is a case in point, since to give credit where credit is due its modern revival began under Charlie Krank. After a brief dabbling in solo adventures back in 1985, Chaosium largely left the field for third party licensees to play with, but that all changed with the March 2015 release of Alone Against the Flames – which, coming three months before Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen hit the big shiny button which launched Charlie Krank’s ejector seat, was among the last products put out by the old regime.

Not only has the Moon Design crew kept Alone Against the Flames in the product line, but they have also recognised just how good it is as an introductory adventure, and in that capacity incorporated it into the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. They’ve also brought back into print updated versions of Alone Against the Dark and Alone Against the Wendigo (the latter retitled Alone Against the Frost), the old 1985 solo adventure releases. Now, with Alone Against the Tide, they’ve put out a brand new solo adventure, hopefully indicating that more solo fun will be coming from time to time in the future.

Credited to “Nicholas Johnson and Friends”, the adventure has you visiting the swanky Massachusetts lakeside town of Esbury. Local dignitary Professor Harris has died; his widow is presiding over a sale of some items from his estate. But why’s a Buddhist monk from India come all this way to the sale? For that matter, who are those toughs in the sharp suits who’ve turned up? Was the Professor’s death really suicide? And what’s with that curious idol he brought back from his expeditions?

Designed to be used in conjunction with either the full-fat Call of Cthulhu rulebook or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Alone Against the Tide comes with a pregenerated investigator in the form of Dr. E. Woods. In fact, character sheets are provided for Ellery Woods or Eleanor Woods – the interior art seems to generally assume you’re Eleanor, and the stats are the same on both versions, but you get a different portrait on your character sheet and a slightly different description of your appearance and clothes depending on which you pick. Regardless of chosen character gender, the adventure pans out the same – Eleanor can choose to flirt with the same women Ellery gets to flirt with – so there’s that.

Alternatively, you can stat up your own investigator, and the adventure includes motivations for whichever of the professions available in the Starter Set you choose (if you’re working with the full rulebook you have to pick one of those professions, and indeed so far as I can tell there’s nothing you need to refer to in there which isn’t in the Starter Set rules anyway). This is kind of just a gesture – ultimately, regardless of who you are, you are interested in some capacity in Professor Harris and/or the work he left behind – but it’s a nice one to offer.

As far as the adventure itself goes, it follows similar principles to Alone Against the Flames: you are in this town, weird stuff is going down, there is a set order of events which are unfolding and thus a fairly linear timeline, but there’s lots of ways you can branch out around this timeline depending on what you choose to concentrate on.

Despite the title, incidentally, the scenario is not actually about Deep Ones! Instead, it’s riffing on the fact that a certain Buddhist holy site shares a name with a certain location in a Lovecraft story, though thankfully the Buddhist priest is an essentially friendly presence who’s filling in the same role as, say, your typical “Catholic priest who’s trying to contain a terrible evil” stock character in other contexts – his order has been containing the horror for generations, Professor Harris was being an arrogant colonialist and disrupted that, the monk’s trying to sort things out before it is too late. Though I ended up getting to a good ending without interacting with the monk that much, an alternate (and easier) route to victory hinges on you befriending him, and in general I think the character is well-handled.

I also quite like the artwork. Since this is a short product (under 100 pages) rather than a hardback – and since it’s aimed in part at people who’ve sprung for the modestly-priced Starter Set and haven’t necessarily got the appetite to the game which would make them pay out more for a more lavish product – there’s no need to give this the lush full-colour hardback presentation of other recent products, and the interior is all black and white. The interior art by Doruk Golcu and Andrey Fetisov are incredibly flavourful, eschewing excessively ornate detail in favour of a more atmospherically murky approach – I’d love to see their work gracing more Chaosium products.

Alone Against the Tide was previously released by Johnson as a homebrewed product by himself alone, as part of Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository storefront on DriveThruRPG, which is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of similar publisher-supported “monetise your homebrew” schemes like DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons and Storyteller’s Vault for World of Darkness. Whilst there’s a conversation to be had as to the merits of these schemes, I think it speaks well for Chaosium that they are actually willing to pick out the cream of the crop from the Repository, give it a spruce-up, and release it as a canonised part of the game line – I’m not, off the top of my head, aware of Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf doing the same.

Death On the Reik – The Return Voyage

Cubicle 7’s revised rerelease of the classic Enemy Within campaign for WFRP continues apace, with the emergence of the second wave of physical products for it. The first phase, Enemy In Shadows and the Enemy In Shadows Companion, provided a thorough 4th Edition update to (most of) the material that was originally issued back in 1st edition days as the first two episodes of the campaign, and collected together under one cover in various reprints (the most easily found these days being the Hogshead release of Shadows Over Bögenhafen). Now the same treatment has been given to Death On the Reik, with a hardcover of the same title giving the adventure itself and the Death On the Reik Companion providing supplementary material, “deleted scenes”, and some material of more general use even if you don’t plan to run the campaign itself.

It took me a while to warm to the original Death On the Reik, and in retrospect I think that’s because it looks like a very sandboxy scenario, with the PCs free to travel the waterways of the Empire as they wish, it actually has a very involved plot, but the original presentation of the materials on a strictly location-by-location basis made the expected itinerary of the PCs somewhat obscured even as the River Life of the Empire section provided a toolkit for a much more free-roving affair.

For this new edition, Cubicle 7 have made the interesting – and, I think, probably justified – decision to change up the presentation of information just a little. The actual adventure portion of the old material is given in the main Death On the Reik book, and any particular location in the scenario will get its full writeup in the logical part of that book, but the arrangement of information in the book gives a better idea of the “expected” flow of the campaign (as well as ample advice on what to do if the timeline diverges).

Meanwhile, the information and systems in River Life of the Empire have been placed in the Death On the Reik Companion, in which context they can be greatly expanded on and polished without worrying about page count in the main book. This, to me, seems extremely sensible, since I suspect in actual play of the original version the River Life section either got extremely heavy use (if your group got really, really into the whole “Renaissance canal boat Traveller“) or was almost entirely ignored (if your group just wanted to concentrate on the plot).

This arrangement of information, in particular, means that groups who just want to blaze through the Enemy Within plot with a minimum of sandbox roving or B-plot are absolutely free to do so – all they need to do is play through the Death On the Reik hardback and leave the Companion be. On the other hand, if you want to play through the campaign with much more freedom of direction and more secondary plots not related to the core thing, fold in the Companion – or if you want to run a game based around the river routes of the Empire but don’t give a fig for the Death On the Reik plot, grab the Companion and ignore the adventure book. There’s a combination that works for everyone.

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An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form

DestinyQuest is a line of gamebooks authored by Matthew J. Ward, the first of which is The Legion of Shadow. The first three books were put out by Gollancz, who would then turn down the fourth book, which would emerge some years later following a successful Kickstarter. (This was not without some drama – the original publishers, Megara, went bust, and based on Ward’s news posts on the official site it’s suggested that there was some pretty disreputable actions from their side of the equation which has left Ward somewhat grumpy.)

The books are a lavish proposition; The Legion of Shadow is well over 600 pages long, the adventure comprising some 939 paragraphs, with a colour section in the middle including some maps (of which more later). In some respects it’s somewhat surprising that Gollancz pushed the boat out on the series to the extent of putting out three of these things. That said, the first book emerged in 2012, so with brick-sized fantasy still a healthy seller and Game of Thrones mania kicking off I suppose it made sense at the time. Selling for a chunky £16.99, I suppose the idea was to market it to people who remembered Fighting Fantasy from their childhood and now had the disposable income to spend on a deluxe version of that.

In its chunky page count, the book’s approaching Sword of the Bastard Elf proportions, but DestinyQuest takes a very different approach to the challenge of making a gamebook of these proportions. The key to this is those maps. Each of the three acts of The Legion of Shadow has a different map associated with it, with locations keyed to paragraphs and associated symbols giving you an idea of what’s there. Towns and encampments give you a chance to gather information and buy stuff, quests are offered on the map in four colour-coded grades of difficulty, legendary monsters to battle are indicated, and the final “boss encounter” that wraps up the act is there.

The structure of the adventure then, consists of these non-linear acts in which you can explore the map and have these various mini-quests and encounters in whichever order you wish to have them in, with more linear sections of the story occurring as the intros and outros to the various acts. It’s rather innovative and is great for giving the player a sense of freedom – you can skip the entire act and go direct to the boss fight if you wish, but you’ll miss a lot of information you could have gathered during the act and will probably get slaughtered.

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Kayfabed By the Apocalypse

World Wide Wrestling by Nathan D. Paoletta is a tabletop RPG with a publishing history and overall place in the field that’s in some ways similar to Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. Both games had their first editions funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign that ran in 2014; both games have been reissued in second editions (also Kickstarter-funded) which incorporate into the core book the best materials from the supplement line; both games use the Powered By the Apocalypse system that debuted in Apocalypse World, but take it in genuinely interesting directions which I think play to the strengths of the system.

As the title implies, World Wide Wrestling is a professional wrestling-themed RPG. Players take on the role of the major wrestlers in a televised promotion, with the non-player character wrestlers, backstage admin figures, bookers, camera operators, interviewers and whatnot being played by the referee (dubbed “Creative” here). By default, each session of the game revolves around one episode of the promotion’s regular show (though it would require little effort to base it around a major event like a pay-per-view, or an untelevised event like a house show, and support is also provided for running material based around the trials and tribulations of touring and the like).

Like many tabletop RPGs, that means that the session is going to play out as a series of combats. Unlike more traditional RPGs, the combats aren’t really about who can legitimately beat the other up – unless the match turns from a work (a simulated combat) into a shoot (a legit fight). Instead, it’s about building up the audience’s investment in the match. If you end the match with the audience heavily invested in your character, you benefit – and it isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, since all the participants in a match can ultimately benefit if the audience gets into both of them equally.

Between this and vignettes in which wrestlers can do on-camera promos (or indulge in off-camera backstage politics), the game embraces both in-ring action and the behind-the-scenes gossip which many modern fans love as much as the actual performances, which means it immediately is a step up from Know Your Role, the officially sanctioned WWE RPG, which clunkily used the D20 system to implement a game in which kayfabe (the illusion that the simulated matches are genuinely competitive) was maintained and the game was about actually fighting each other in the ring to see who’d win, rather than fighting a worked match to try and get over with the crowd.

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Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure

In Star Bastards, the first of the Two-Fisted Fantasy books to see release, an elegant new gamebook system was combined with a classic 1980s gamebook aesthetic to deliver quite a good short space adventure. Star Bastards, however, was merely the test balloon. If Two-Fisted Fantasy has really made a mark on the field, it’s through the mighty tome which was the second release in the series: The Sword of the Bastard Elf.

When I say “mighty tome”, I am not kidding: the book is over 800 large-format pages long, and the adventure has some 1825 numbered entries, many of which are fairly long. The rules section runs some 60 pages, though the actual rules for playing the adventure cover just five of these; the rest include a full adaptation of the Two-Fisted Fantasy system for running as a conventional tabletop RPG, with a referee (“Dungeon Bastard”) and multiple players. You’re explicitly encouraged to not read the RPG until you’ve played the adventure at least once, since it’s tied to one of the major locales and therefore could contain spoilers.

As well as providing a massive adventure, plus a simple tabletop RPG system, plus lots of gorgeous art from S. Iacob (available in colour or black and white – though I personally prefer black and white since it really teases out how S. Iacob captures the aesthetic of 1980s gamebooks), The Sword of the Bastard Elf also elaborates on the mythos around Two-Fisted Fantasy.

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