Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics

Part of the reason Paranoia XP remains the best version of Paranoia is the way core designer and line overseer Allen Varney built in support for various different styles of play. Denoted as “Classic”, “Straight” and “Zap”, these denoted respectively the delicious blend of satirical bite and egregious violence that characterised the best of the first two editions of the game, a more purely satirical take on the concept tonally reminiscent of Gilliam’s Brazil, and the sort of pun-heavy high-wackiness goofy slapstick nonsense that the game degenerated into in the late West End era, and which too many assumed was the default style of the line.

Varney makes little secret of the fact that there was a clear agenda here: namely, to cordon off the Zap stuff into a corner and emphasise the Classic style of play as the default, bringing Paranoia back to the roots which made it such a success in the 1980s and dialling back the excesses that had driven the West End line into the doldrums over the 1990s. Different people draw the line in different places when it comes to figuring out when West End Games’ management of Paranoia jumped the shark, but most fans (including me) tend to think things went seriously wrong after 1989’s The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure – for one thing it’s after that point that West End stepped up the Secret Society Wars, an attempt to apply an ongoing metaplot to Paranoia that the game absolutely didn’t need.

Of course, if you want to help cultivate the best of West End-era Paranoia and consign the dross to unhistory, it’d be a good idea to have an updated showcase of the sort of mission you want to hold up as representing best practice. Thus, one of the first major accessories for Paranoia XP was Flashbacks, a lavish hardback compilation of the cream of West End’s Paranoia missions, followed a few years later by Flashbacks II. Between them, these two products more or less cover all the adventures released during West End Games’ management of the game line that fans care to revisit – whilst some stinkers preceded the cut-off point of People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure (I genuinely cannot recall Don’t Take Your Laser to Town as being anything other than a drably bland Westworld riff), the material that followed that certainly doesn’t measure up to the glory days of the game line.

Flashbacks

In his introduction to this volume Varney takes the time to outline differences in approach between the XP line and the 1st edition/2nd edition days, mostly so people would understand the context in which the adventures were written and be able to adapt accordingly. One thing which I note is that the bits which the previous editions don’t have tend to be the setting additions that most Paranoia players and referees seem to ignore in XP – the idea of service firms within the service groups, and of the game having an economic element, and of varying which service groups the Troubleshooters are doing a little extra side-favour for on their mission rather than just having them pick up new kit from R&D all the time, all seem to have fallen by the wayside. It’s interesting how Flashbacks, by being one of the first major supplements for XP, might have inadvertently helped prompt people to roll back those changes.

Another difference is that the adventures are revised to take out the puns, because Varney considered them a little too silly for Classic-style play (which the compilation assumes as a default); an appendix helpfully allows you to add them straight back in if you wish.

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A Quick Introduction to What We Already Know

Chaosium’s upcoming revision of RuneQuest will be the 4th edition of the game issued by its home company. Indeed, the copyright notice at the back of this set of quickstart rules (including an adventure) produced for Free RPG Day refers to this new version as the 4th Edition, though of course there they might simply want to avoid any implication of trying to claim copyright to text actually produced by Mongoose or Design Mechanism.

Still, some will no doubt see these quickstart rules as a decisive rejection of the direction that RuneQuest took for the two Mongoose editions and the version Design Mechanism produced. For my part, I tend to instead see it as a tacit acknowledgement that that particular fork of the system already has a very good expression in the form of Design Mechanism’s Mythras (which is what they relabelled their Runequest 6th Edition as). If there is going to be a point to Chaosium’s new RuneQuest, it needs to do something different from Mythras – and from all the other BRP-inspired fantasy systems out there.

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Kickstopper: Righteously Bland

This isn’t going to be a fully developed Kickstopper article because in all honesty I don’t have that much to say about the Kickstarter fulfillment process for the new 5E version of Aaron Loeb’s Book of the Righteous – Green Ronin were reasonably communicative, shipment of the physical books came about half a year after estimate but PDF delivery was substantially before then and that’s really not much as far as Kickstarter delays go, and crucially delays were clearly signposted and explained. I have no real complaints there and would generally trust Green Ronin to do right by their backers in future Kickstarters. Great job, ronins, hope you find a master who can make proper samurai of you again one day.

As far as the product itself goes, it’s clearly a well-realised product with decent art and production values, but I suspect how much you’d want to make use of it hinges on your personal philosophy of worldbuilding and the place of religion in it. For some, the book will be an absolutely amazing tool. For others, and I include myself in this category, I think it would be a bit of a woolen teapot – the craft and artistry involved in making it is impressive, but I’d never want to actually use it for its declared purpose.

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Black Crusade: A Retrospective

Ulisses Spiele have landed the licence to do Warhammer 40,000 RPGs and announced Wrath and Glory, a “one core book with supplements exploring many options”-type RPG with a D6 dice pool system which feels like a very different approach to doing a 40K roleplaying game from the design philosophy that Black Industries pioneered and Fantasy Flight Games followed. As such, it feels like a good time to start a run of retrospectives of the previous generation of 40K RPGs, and where better than the most nonstandard and obviously self-contained of them? Dan’s wrapped up his Black Crusade campaign recently, so I’ve had a chance to get quite familiar with the exciting roleplaying game of black metal mayhem in the service of the Chaos gods.

Black Crusade

One notable thing about Black Crusade is that it is absolutely and 100% Fantasy Flight’s baby. Black Industries had originally planned 3 Warhammer 40.000 RPGs – Dark HeresyRogue Trader, and Deathwatch, with the intention that each of them would be mutually compatible. Of course, in one of their regular stinging slaps to the faces of gamers everywhere Games Workshop decided to shut down Black Industries more or less immediately after the release of Dark Heresy and its GM screen and Inquisitor’s Handbook; according to the intro in Black Crusade, the materials Fantasy Flight received from Black Industries constituted of the completed Black Industries products plus the notes for Disciples of the Dark Gods. We may never know whether it was due to contractual commitments or simply an admirable willingness to see Black Industries’ original vision fulfilled, but Fantasy Flight didn’t really tamper with the core system all that much for producing Rogue Trader and Deathwatch, resulting in a more or less entirely mutually-compatible line that, if it wasn’t exactly what Black Industries had intended, was at least about as close as anyone could have reasonably expected Black Industries to get to it.

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I Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghosts (Five Out of Six Times)

The Ghostbusters RPG from 1986 was a major step forwards for West End Games – as well as being their second RPG after Paranoia, it was also their first major foray into producing RPGs based on a licensed franchise and the first game to use their D6 System, which would go on to power their Star Wars RPG and a whole host of other games besides. It also came out at a golden time for the Ghostbusters franchise – the original movie had been out for a couple of years, the Real Ghostbusters cartoon series was just kicking off, and Ghostbusters II hadn’t yet emerged to take the shine off of things. It was a magical time when it felt like everything Ghostbusters was gold, and fortunately the RPG was no exception.

Unusually for the RPG market it was produced as a collaboration between two different publishers, with Chaosium along for the ride. Based on the fact that Chaosium’s Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis and Greg Stafford are credited with design whilst various West End regulars of the era were credited with development, it feels like the basic principles of the game system were cooked up by Chaosium, whilst West End Games handled the presentation of those ideas, writing them up and offering a swathe of introductory adventures and adventure ideas and referee advice. In particular, the text of the game is written in that highly readable and very funny style that West End had perfected in its better Paranoia releases.

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Word to the Wise: Original Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader Reprinted

This hasn’t been trumpeted as loudly as I’d have thought it would be, but Games Workshop has made a hardcover reprint of the original Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader rulebook.

Now, to be fair, it’s a Warhammer World exclusive, so it hasn’t been as widely distributed as it might be. But the fact that it’s out there has had a helpful knock-on effect on the price of second-hand copies of the old softcover release, so if you’ve been interested in that and have been holding off on getting it now might be a good time to give that a look.

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Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.