You’re sick of your dead-end job at the drive-through chocolate milk stand in Billings, Montana. Why, here you are stuck working for a boss who doesn’t remotely respect you, whilst tonight at the Grand Billings Arena Riled In the Ring, the biggest event on the Buckaroo Championship Wrestling calendar, is unfolding. As your shift ends a chance encounter with Andy the Mammoth, legendary wrestler, inspires you to quit your job and head to the BCW tryouts. You’re determined not to miss next year’s Riled In the Ring – and you plan to be there not as a fan, but as a competitor! Before you get to that dream Riled In the Ring moment, however, you’ve decisions to make and challenges to overcome. Will you be a face or a heel? Will you prevail in the ring and justify a championship shot? And what of the plans of the owner of BCW, the notorious scoundrel Vinny Cobbler?
Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of Choose Your Own Adventure-styled gamebooks continues with Decisions To Wrestle With. This is an apt choice of subject matter; one of the things which made Choose Your Own Adventure stand out back when I was younger was the way they touched on a broader range of concepts than a lot of gamebook series, and “You’re a (insert sport here) star” was one of the concepts they sometimes ran with. Chuck is likely also writing about what he knows here; he’s eased off on it lately, but there was a time a while back when he worked a pretty shrewd wrestling .gif game on his social media accounts, and the book suggests a level of knowledge of the field a bit deeper than “I used to be a casual fan but drifted away”.
It’s Gen Con season, which means the RPG publishers are all making their big announcements, and Cubicle 7’s pulled out a big surprise in the form of Imperium Maledictum – an upcoming new Warhammer 40,000 RPG.
This is a bit of an interesting move, not least because they’d only recently expended energy into salvaging Wrath & Glory, the previous 40K RPG, going to the extent of putting out an entirely revised version of the core book because the previous version by Ulisses North America, whilst it was built on some pretty solid ideas, had some fairly major quality control issues. And part of the selling point of Wrath & Glory, from its original unveiling under Ulisses to Cubicle 7’s adoption and resuscitation of the line, was its scalability – thanks to its clever Tier system it could handle PC parties ranging in power from baseline scum to high-powered Space Marines, Inquisitors, and other movers and shakers. What’s the need for a new game?
Reading Cubicle 7’s press release doesn’t give a ton of details – nor would you expect such from an early preview – but there are some bits that stand out and make me inclined to make some guesses as to what the deal is here. Imperium Maledictum is directly called “the spiritual successor to the beloved series of roleplaying games started by Black Industries over ten years ago”. There’s a little ambiguity here; Dark Heresy in both its editions is definitely included, because Black Industries did publish the earliest 1st Edition products before Games Workshop shut it down; whether Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade, and Only War are also intended is something where there’s a bit more wriggle room for, because whilst Black Industries did plan for some of those games to be part of the line eventually, they were shut down long before they were actually made.
Histories of D&D and TSR have become thick on the ground. Representing the gold standard – in terms of completeness, standard of scholarship, and avoiding a slide into hagiography – are the works of Jon Peterson, such as Playing At the World (covering the design and initial publication of OD&D), The Elusive Shift (digesting the early fan discourse within the RPG fandom), and Game Wizards (covering TSR in the years under the control of Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers).
Peterson’s books hit the high standard they do largely because he primarily bases his research on surviving contemporary documents, which aren’t prone to the misrememberings, mythologisings, evasions, and other inaccuracies which creep in when you’re looking at statements made by participants, especially long after the fact. On the other hand, relying on witness evidence offered up decades down the line can often be more fun; Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series might be much more reliant on such recollections, but some of the material it is able to dredge up is pretty juicy.
Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon takes a bit of a middle route here – Riggs admits his reliance on interviews with a good many of the primary actors in the story he’s telling, but he does a good job of flagging where this is the case, noting where he wasn’t able to talk to significant actors who might otherwise have given a different perspective, and even points out instances where he double-checked claims with other interviewees to corroborate some testimony. In addition, he is able to make some significant coups in terms of turning up documentation, and flags when he’s able to rely on that information in order to present his narrative.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Riggs extends the story into a period which has so far been poorly served by existing work. So far, most of the histories out there have tended to give a lot of attention to the Gygax-helmed era of TSR, and comparatively little to what came afterwards. Peterson and Kelly’s histories haven’t advanced the timeline past the Gygax era, but at least have the excuse of covering it in sufficient detail that giving a similar treatment to the Williams years would be a major undertaking in itself. Some of the more hagiographic treatments of the story have tended to either sing the praises of Saint Gary (a term Riggs uses here in jest – he doesn’t buy into the whitewashing of Gygax’s reputation) or maximise the role of Dave Arneson. (Riggs takes the position, which I think is the most reasonable one, that OD&D was the sort of thing which needed Arneson to come up with the seed idea in the first place, but Gygax to turn it into a product that could actually be sold to an audience and give them a faint hope of replicating something approximating similar gameplay.) Other, general histories like Shannon Appelcine’s Designers & Dragons have given broad overviews but haven’t gone into depth.
Slaying the Dragon, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. It dispatches the Gygax-helmed era in some 61 pages, and spends over 200 subsequent pages going into a deep dive on the next phase of TSR – the era which would see its critical and artistic zenith, its decline and fall, its purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, and the initial phase of repairing burned bridges which Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens of Wizards had to undertake.
In other words, this is the first deep dive into the Lorraine Williams era of TSR we’ve seen.
Here’s another in my occasional series on game supplements which I read and have some thoughts on, but not enough thoughts for an entire article. This time I’ve got a slightly unfocused expansion for Wrath & Glory, a couple of issues of an old-school D&D zine, and a Call of Cthulhu campaign.
Redacted Records (Wrath & Glory)
This feels like an odd little grab-bag of material for the official Warhammer 40,000 RPG, a bit like the Archives of the Empire volumes offer grab-bags of material for 4th Edition WFRP. The cover and the back cover blurb make it seem like this is a space hulk-themed supplement – a sort of update of material from Ark of Lost Souls for Deathwatch – but this only covers about a third of this supplement’s content (and since the book is only about 100 pages long that’s not a lot). Other material includes more frameworks for your PC party, a brief chapter on unusual servitors, an overview of some cults from two of the worlds of the default setting of Wrath & Glory (the Gilead system), and the start of a greatly expanded Talent list. (Literally: it covers A-I, implying that there will be followup chapters in other books covering J-Z.)
The weird thing about the supplement is that much of this feels like it’s been chopped out of a larger body of work – as well as the J-Z sections of that additional talent list, you’d expect similar cult rundowns of the other worlds of the system to exist somewhere, for instance. Still, as a sort of half-supplement-half-magazine thing it’s not useless – but I feel like it should be presented as being Volume 1 of a series, like the first Archives of the Empire book was, because it’s very apparent that this is merely the first of a series of miscellanea-themed supplements with not much connecting theme.
Cults of Cthulhu is an expansive new Call of Cthulhu supplement spanning over 300 pages, penned mostly by Chris Lackey and Mike Mason. A referee-facing book, it’s a deep dive into the titular subject matter, offering an extensive discussion of the role cults play in Call of Cthulhu, how to design sects for your own games, and some extensive worked examples, as well as offering a brace of scenarios making use of some of the groups detailed in the book.
It’s worth emphasising that the title really isn’t kidding: this is a book about cults of Cthulhu – not Yog-Sothoth, not Shub-Niggurath, not Nyarlathotep, not the King In Yellow, but the big blobby squiddyfriend itself. The “cults throughout history” section, giving brief glimpses of sects ranging from Roman or medieval times to the present day and including fictionalised takes of classic “cult true crime” outfits like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Scientology, is a series of Cthulhu cults through history. The five cults given extensive deep dive coverage, ranging from the 1890s to the modern era, are all Cthulhu cults – three are new to this book (and are each the subject of one of the three scenarios here), and then there’s also treatments of the Louisiana swamp cult from The Call of Cthulhu and the Esoteric Order of Dagon from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which do a good job of teasing out the horror whilst dialling back the racist implications as much as is possible with Lovecraft’s original material. (The idea that the Cthulhu cult is directed by immortal Fu Manchu-esque manipulators, for example, is explained away by the character of Castro in The Call of Cthulhu having been recruited in China and assuming all the leaders were similar to the leader he met there.) The examples given in the build-your-own-cult chapter are all of Cthulhu cults, and the spells, creatures, items, and generic NPC stats offered in the system toolkit chapter are all for Cthulhu cults.
If you think Cthulhu is absolutely rubbish and overplayed and are only interested in running Call of Cthulhu games focusing on other entities, that may be disappointing, but even in that instance I still think the book is of potential use. In particular, many of the issues raised in the build-your-own-cult chapter are just as applicable to other cults as to Cthulhu sects, and the examples given in the rest of the book of how to make a cult feel appropriately Cthulhu-y point to ways in which you could do the same for other Mythos entities with suitable aesthetic tweaks and distinctive, entity-specific features. The 7th Edition update of the Malleus Monstrorum would be particularly useful in conjunction in this book, because it not only offers ideas on the types of cults that accrue around particular Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but also presents example “blessings” given to followers by those deities – a concept this book runs with hard for Cthulhu’s purposes. Take the design-a-cult chapter here, cross-reference with the Malleus Monstrorum entry for the deity in question, and you’re in business.
The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.
Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.
For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.
However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…
Although Doctor Who has had multiple official RPGs, its younger sibling Blake’s 7 never has – but fear not, fans of Terry Nation serials with even thinner budgets than Who, for fandom will often fill a gap that official canon refuses to touch. The Blake’s 7 Roleplaying Game by Kin Ming Looi and Zoé Taylor was published via Horizon, an officially-endorsed fan club for the show, so whilst it’s still in the realm of a fandom product (and certainly looks like a mid-1990s fanzine in terms of production values) it sails about as close to being official as it can without actually being official.
Dated to August 1994, in system terms it’s clearly inspired by Basic Roleplaying-powered RPGs: the attributes do not map precisely to BRP, mind, but they play a similar role much of the time, there’s percentile skills you can improve by succeeding at tasks in a manner exactly like BRP, and in general it’s sufficiently close to BRP in its basic principles that I’m happy to consider it part of the extended family.
Given that Horizon is a UK-based group and I suspect Blake’s 7 fandom is generally healthiest in Britain, this might be due to the prominence that Chaosium’s games enjoyed over here thanks to Games Workshop giving them important early promotion in the mid-1980s through their editions of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Stormbringer. If you were a British RPG fan looking to make a homebrew system and you didn’t feel like starting 100% from scratch, and your subject matter clearly wasn’t suitable for adapting to Dungeons & Dragons, it feels likely that you would consider Basic Roleplaying, especially in 1994 – an era that’s before the proliferation of open gaming licences gave you more system options to adapt, before the Internet made widespread research of systems cheaper on a budget, and when Chaosium was still in good health.
Spire as an RPG has now settled down into a fairly comfortable cycle of run Kickstarter/release wave of products/rinse and repeat. It worked for the core book and the Strata supplement, it worked for Heart – theoretically an independent spin-off RPG, though it’s set in the same universe and has some Strata-usable bits and seems to have been used as a means of clearing the creative cobwebs to come back to Spire with a fresh perspective – and now it’s worked for the Sin supplement and its associated lesser releases.
I’m posting this as a mini-Kickstopper rather than giving them the full treatment, mostly because there’s nothing very exceptional to say about the delivery process. Sure, the physical books this time took a while to get to backers, but we’re in the middle of a paper shortage and a total breakdown of the international shipping system, it’s not meaningfully something which was in the hands of Spire publishers Rowan, Rook, and Deckard to actually affect. Instead, I’m merely going to give this wave of material a quick look and a sniff to see how it’s shaped up.
The tentpole of this wave of material is Sin, a hardback supplement like Strata was. In the case of Sin, there’s a pinch of system stuff here, the most significant being of two new classes, the Gutter Cleric who’s a sort of unlicensed theologian, and the Mortician Executioner. (In theory, executing people is banned in Spire, so the city get around it by having morticians pronounce the condemned dead and then make the appropriate adjustments to make their status fit the paperwork.) However, by far the biggest draw here is going to be the wealth of setting material, all collected under the three broad categories of Crime, Order (policing), and Religion. Good judgement is shown in dealing with these subjects; the material here is meaty and exciting, but (for example) they decide not to categorise sex work within crimes because criminalising it and/or dwelling on crimes against sex workers for titillation is thematically lazy and contributes to crappy real-world attitudes the writers are not interested in promoting.
All of this provides a deep well of material for referees to draw on in planning Spire sessions, or for players to latch onto and proactively pursue should they wish; each section also has a little adventure associated with it which makes use of the chapter’s themes. Indeed, there’s so much in here that trying to read it all and absorb it and implement it as a block is going to be unviable – it’s much more useful to dip into if you want to run an adventure on a particular theme, or if the players are interested into digging in the intricacies of high-status crime among the high elves or weird cults or whatever. Need a location, an NPC, or organisation based around one of the themes in here? You’ll probably find one in Sin, and given that Spire is a game in which the PCs are all criminals in a forbidden cult fighting the cops, you’ll likely have lots of reasons to go looking.
This past weekend I had an extremely good time at the second run of EyeLARP’s Second Breakfast. This was a charming little game set in Middle-Earth, in which the Wild West town and Viking village at EyeLARP’s site stood in for the little village of Frogmore, a hobbit community in the Shire. The basic concept of the game is that it’s the weekend of the Mayor’s birthday, there’s going to be a lovely party, the four extended families of the village (the Thornburrows, the Greengawkers, the Kettlebrights, and Puddlefoots – or is that Puddlefeet?) are engaged in some light-hearted rivalry when it comes to baking delicious pies and/or cakes for the big event, but are all united in one thing: they don’t want anything so exciting as an adventure so any meddling dwarves or wizards showing up trying to coax right-thinking hobbits off on one can move right on, thank you very much.
As you might expect, this was basically a fairly light-hearted, easy-going sort of event, but I think there’s still some interesting points of LARP design which arise from it. In particular, it’s a great example of a LARP which managed to deliver a great event on the strength of pure ambience, after dialling back on more or less every other factor LARPs usually go out of their way to provide.
There was basically no peril to characters, and no real combat, In theory, Second Breakfast worked on EyeLARP’s usual “FilmSim” principle, which includes as a feature a systemless combat system: rather than fighting being a genuinely competitive process, you basically die or get injured when you think that it would make sense or be dramatically appropriate for your character to be. In practice, we were briefed not to expect or initiate genuinely life-threatening combat, and indeed none happened. The biggest outbreak of violence that happened during the second run was a massive food fight, in which a party of annoying dwarves were pelted with LARP-safe “food” (basically sponge balls in different food shapes) to make them go away. EyeLARP’s approach to combat already sets aside their LARP from the vast majority of old-school games which try to make a satisfying tactical game out of the combat system, but still included combat in its function as a cheap and easy power fantasy; Second Breakfast didn’t even have that.
At the end of my previous Fighting Fantasy article, I’d covered the first couple of Fighting Fantasy books released in 1988. It was evident that some attempt was being made to find new writers to contribute to the sequence, as a result of Jackson, Livingstone, and other stalwarts of the early series dialling back their contributions. In other words, the Fighting Fantasy crew were trying to counter the succession problem I’d identified at the end of part 8; for this part of the article, we’ll see that process continue, with two of the four books I’m covering this time coming from people who hadn’t written a mainline entry in the series at all. One of them will be of crucial importance to the later phases of the series’ tenure at Puffin; the other one… well, we’ll get to that.
The other two gamebook authors making a return this time are Luke Sharp and Ian Livingstone. Luke Sharp had put out two previous Fighting Fantasy books, both bad; Ian Livingstone had co-founded the series, but his subsequent gamebooks had been a bit hit-and-miss. Who’ll come out on top here – the old hand whose creative well might have begun to run dry through overuse, or the apprentice whose previous efforts were at best mediocre, at worst a flagrant waste of paper?
You are a solar trooper and secret agent named Sky Lord Jang Mistral, member of a four-armed humanoid warrior of the sixteenth aeon. As a member of the Ensulvar race, you serve mighty King Vaax. Recently, Vaax fell out with his former major-domo L’Bastin, who had been embezzling from the royal household to fund his cloning hobby and replacing household staff with mind-controlled clones to cover for this. Now L’Bastin has apparently established a weaponised clone laboratory and is churning out Prefectas, dog-headed super-warriors. You must board your starship, the Starspray, and root out this menace!
There’s no two ways about it: Sky Lord is weird. This is the sole Fighting Fantasy book in the mainline series to have been penned by Martin Allen, who had previously co-authored the Clash of Princes two-player gamebook with Andrew Chapman. After this, at least according to the database at gamebooks.org, he never wrote another gamebook, and it’s entirely possible that the bizarre nature of Sky Lord contributed to this.
Remember my Chasms of Malice review? How I hated that book! If you recall, one of the first red flags was the bizarrely terse introductory blurb, which came across more like brief notes than a fully fleshed-out introduction. (“I swear I finished my homework, Mr. Livingstone! Here it is!”) Here, again, the introductory material provides its own red flag, but of a rather different nature. It’s certainly vividly detailed and imaginative, but it’s also a farrago of utter nonsense, a total fever-dream version of a setting writeup. Perhaps the intention is for the gamebook to be a very deadpan parody, but if it is the writing style doesn’t quite manage to pull this off; it just gives the impression of absurd, arbitrary things happening largely at random. (Spoiler: this continues into the main adventure.)