Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin

Chuck Tingle is probably our greatest living satirist, his primary platform being the titles, blurbs, and absurdly photoshopped covers of his short stories (“Tinglers”) on Amazon. Oh, sure, there’s the content of those stories too – but I would be willing to bet that Chuck works on the basis that 99% of people wouldn’t actually sit down and read any of his erotica about urbane dinosaurs, friendly living objects, manifested abstract concepts, or sexy unicorns and bigfoots; the joke has to be delivered in the title and blurb, ideally just the title, and then the actual action of the story is fairly self-evident from there.

Nonetheless, for what’s basically a long-running repetition, refinement of, and iteration on the same basic joke, the whole Tingler thing seems to be going from strength to strength. It certainly help that Chuck – despite portraying himself as a somewhat naïve figure on his Twitter feed and reliant on his “son name of Jon” to get by – actually seems to be remarkably savvy. When the Rabid Puppies’ block voting attack on the Hugo Awards was at its peak, they got Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion nominated in the short story category. Whilst this seems to have been intended both to denigrate Chuck and the Awards by making them look silly, Chuck took things in hand, turning the incident into an opportunity to advocate for more or less all the causes which the Puppies disliked. (The peak of his counter-trolling came when he declared that if he won, he’d have primary GamerGate target Zoë Quinn collect the award on his behalf.)

That’s the thing about Chuck – he’s got this magic touch which has taken his long-running joke about getting pounded in the butt by sexy night buses or billionaire dinosaurs or alluring manifestations of abstract concepts or your own butt and made it strangely wholesome for work that still retains one foot in the world of erotica. His Twitter feed is a mashup of his surreal take on the universe and moments of clearly expressed, unequivocal good lessons about self-acceptance and treating each other right. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Dadaist literary pornography who just wants to prove that love is real.

Now the long-running Tingle joke has taken on yet another dimension – that of a tabletop roleplaying game, The Tingleverse, named after the multiverse which his stories take place in. The concept of the game has players taking on the role of inhabitants of this universe – Humans, Unicorns, Bigfoots and Raptors are viable PC races in the core book, and you get to choose from classes like “Sneak”, “Wizard”, “True Buckaroo”, and “Bad Boy” (Chuck notes that being a bad boy doesn’t limit your choice of gender in any respect). Beginning your adventure in Billings, Montana, Chuck’s hometown that prominently features in all his stories, you’re encouraged to go forth and do good in the world against the encroaching forces of the Void, as represented by evil Void Crabs, dubious Reverse Twins, and the vile force of darkness and destruction known only as… Ted Cobbler, who anyone who’s not sufficiently high level just perceives as a perfectly normal resident of the neighborhood.

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An X-Edition of an X-Traneous Game

Let’s take a look at two trends in geek-adjacent culture in the 1990s: The X-Files was massive on television- a show in which an ensemble of characters in a modern-day setting investigate supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows – and tabletop RPGs were going through a phase of being very keen on modern-day settings replete with supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows.

Given that the Lone Gunmen play D&D at one point, it seems likely that the X-Files creative team weren’t ignorant of RPGs, and given that RPG publishers were hog-wild for licencing anything and everything – West End Games made RPGs of Tales From the CryptSpecies and Tank Girl, for crying out loud – so it’s not entirely clear to me why there wasn’t an official licenced X-Files RPG, particularly since Call of Cthulhu‘s perennial popularity proved that investigative RPGs are a viable niche.

If I had to put a bet on it, however, I’d say it came down to the larger publishers who could have conceivably afforded the licence failing to move quickly enough, by which time smaller publishers proved you could fill the gap without really needing the licence at all. Sure, without the licence they couldn’t use the specific lore and characters of the show – but for the purposes of an RPG where people will likely want to make their own player characters anyhow the characters are less essential, and I’d argue that the background lore of the X-Files is the least valuable part of the IP. The show always got by more on its mysterious atmosphere than it did on the actual answers to those mysteries; so long as you hit something acceptably close to the atmosphere of the show, it’d be good enough for most gamers.

Delta Green, for instance, adeptly recognised that the vein of conspiratorial paranoia and supernatural horror that The X-Files were built on complements the cosmic vertigo that’s the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos (or at least the good bits of it which aren’t based on racism) nicely, and also worked on the basis that if you already have a system which works well for investigative RPGs and can handle a modern day setting, you can do The X-Files in it.

(OK, strictly speaking the earliest Delta Green materials preceded The X-Files – but in practice, that meant Pagan Publishing were perfectly placed to pivot the subsequent material to to cater to the X-Files niche and had the jump on everyone else in that respect.)

And then there was 1996’s Conspiracy X, which, as you might guess from the title, wasn’t exactly shy about what it was trying to do. Whereas the more recent 2nd edition is based off Unisystem – of Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten fame – this review’s going to take in the first edition, which had its own bespoke approach.

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Boldly Going Where Many Systems Have Gone Before…

Star Trek vs. Star Wars might not be the iconic Coke vs. Pepsi/Sega vs. Nintendo-style franchise rivalry it was once back in the day – the proliferation of franchises and continued diversification of fandom has largely seen to that – but given their prominence in science fiction over the past few decades, it’s interesting to note how they’ve been differently handled when it comes to the tabletop RPG licence.

In particular, when it comes to the Star Wars licence, Lucasfilm and Disney after them haven’t exactly been reluctant to parcel out third party rights to spin-off products – as the masses of Star Wars spinoff products testify – but they’ve always been at least somewhat careful as to who gets to play in their playground. West End Games were only able to land the licence for their much loved-version in 1987, a time when the series was generally considered to be almost ready for mothballing by the powers that be at Lucasfilm. That might sound absurd, but it’s worth remembering that by that point Return of the Jedi had been out for some 4 years, both the Ewok Adventure TV movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoons had come and gone, and the Star Wars well seemed to have run dry.

It’s now a matter of record that both the success of the RPG itself and the wealth of material it produced as an aid to referees was instrumental in kicking off the Expanded Universe, injecting a new dose of life into the franchise until George Lucas ensured it would live on in flamewars forever by making the prequels. West End Games kept the RPG going for 12 years, with the licence only pulled by Lucasfilm in 1999 after West End Games got into financial difficulties. From there, it didn’t take much time at all for Wizards of the Coast to pick up the licence and produce the D2o Star Wars line in various editions from 2000 to 2010, at which point they surrendered the licence voluntarily; a year later, Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence, and in 2012 they’d bring out their new Star Wars RPG line, which has remained current despite the shift to Disney (and indeed has engaged with the Disney line constructively, with a starter set coming out based on The Force Awakens).

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Mini-Review: All the Dream’s a Stage, and the Changelings Merely Players…

The Player’s Guide for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Changeling: the Dreaming kicks off by talking about how the 20th Anniversary Edition is very much designed to be adaptable for your own tastes and needs, and certainly the Player’s Guide delivers on that general approach as far as I’m concerned. Take, for instance, the matter of Banality – truly the Marmite of Changeling: the Dreaming, the part of the system which people tend to either angrily reject (as you’d know I do if you’ve seen my review of the 20th Anniversary Edition and 1st Edition) or consider to be a core part of the experience; I was impressed by the extent to which, to my eyes at least, the Player’s Guide almost never mentions Banality except in contexts where it’s absolutely necessary to, making much of the material here useful to deploy in campaigns where you’re not buying into the Banality idea very much (and equally viable in campaigns where Banality is of supreme importance).

In fact, they throw a brand new PC type in here – Lycians, a particularly persistent type of chimera which are inanimate objects or abstract concepts that are special enough to someone or have enough resonance in the Dreaming to end up with some sort of life. (An example given is a child’s teddy bear who protects them from dark forces when they sleep, for instance.) The sheer range of things which can conceivably become Lycians – a badass car, for instance – this further puts Banality into the background, since if the Dreaming can be expressed through literally anything, then you can no longer say an entire category of thing is necessarily Banal by its nature; it’s only Banal if it doesn’t bring light and joy and wonder into anyone’s life.

Beyond that, you get a grab-bag of useful bits here – stacks of details on Changeling politics (including a deep dive on the Shadow Court), an overview of the Changelings of other cultures around the world, and various other interesting bits and pieces and details. There’s even details of those Changelings who have managed to overcome the tug-of-war between Banality and Bedlam to become effectively immortal, and how you can become one of them.

What it’s most intensely stuffed with, however, is atmosphere and inspiration, which is what you want most for a Changeling: the Dreaming supplement really.

You’re Indestructible, Always Believe In, ‘Cos You Are Gold(en Heroes)

Golden Heroes was first published in 1981 on a small press, hobbyist basis – a labour of love by Simon Burley and Peter Haines, its authors. Come 1984, it ended up getting a revamp and release by Games Workshop: they’d bought the rights to the system as part of a plan to bid for the Marvel Comics RPG licence, and then when their bid fell through (losing to TSR, whose Marvel Super Heroes took a very different approach) Games Workshop decided to not bother applying the Marvel-flavoured reskin and put out Golden Heroes as it stood, in a boxed set which was the basis for a short-lived product line which retains a strong fan following to this day.

In fact, that fan following is strong enough that even decades after the game went out of print, both the fan community and one of its original designers have kept the flame burning. Codename: Spandex is a full-blown retroclone of Golden Heroes, whilst Simon Burley has kept his hand in the RPG design game (focusing mainly on the superhero genre) and produced Squadron UK, a spiritual successor to the game based on many of the same principles. If you want the Games Workshop version, the original boxed set still pops up on EBay, or if you want to go a bit thriftier with it you can find the actual rulebooks (the only components you strictly need) separately.

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Lagging Behind the Turtles

Despite Palladium’s recent history having been known more for accidents, tragedies, betrayals, and blunders, with Kevin Siembieda’s working process infamously not keeping up with the times, there was an era when they were substantially more on the ball. Perhaps their best business decision came about in the mid-1980s, when they landed the licence to do an RPG adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, let’s remember that this was before the cartoon series turned Master Splinter’s best students into pop culture icons (and generated a slew of “badass animal-people fight crime” cartoons that clogged 1990s television schedules – Biker Mice From Mars, Avenger Penguins, Street Sharks, you know the drill). Back in 1985, when the game came out, the Turtles were mostly known via the original indie comic book from Eastman and Laird – in other words, they’d already become a significant hit in the comics world but hadn’t yet become the monster multimedia franchise they’d eventually become.

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The Island Economy

The latest post on Uncaring Cosmos ruminates about how the “British Old School” style may have arisen out of the RPG scene in the UK being largely curated by Games Workshop – global distribution not having reached the point where the RPG culture in the Anglosphere has become more homogenised more recently. (It goes without saying, of course, that the development of RPGs in non-English speaking markets has tended to be based largely on who’s managed to make it big with licensed translations or homebrewed games; Die Schwarze Auge is, as I understand it, the biggest game in Germany because its designers moved first before D&D got a lock on the market, most Swedish RPGs of a certain vintage draw heavily on BRP because the original Drachar och Demoner was largely an unauthorised RuneQuest translation, and apparently in Japan Call of Cthulhu is absolutely huge, especially among women.)

I think there’s definitely something to the idea of local gatekeepers shaping local gaming scenes. It’s particularly interesting how Games Workshop, by virtue of being a) the primary importer of American RPGs into the UK and b) by far the largest specialist homegrown producer of RPGs got to have as much influence as it did as a gatekeeper. (Even D&D and Traveller got their start in the UK by being brought over by Games Workshop, after all.)

That said, I would argue that it wasn’t the sole gatekeeper, or necessarily even the largest – just the only one which was a specialist in RPGs and other hobby games. I’d say that the biggest companies dealing in RPGs in the UK in the 1980s would have actually been Puffin and Corgi and their various competitors – book publishers whose main bread and butter wasn’t in the RPG field, but who put out game material as a notable and profitable sideline. Puffin not only gave us Fighting Fantasy but also the original Maelstrom, whilst Corgi imported Tunnels & Trolls (and gave us those gorgeous Josh Kirby reimaginings of the various book covers) and produced Dragon Warriors.

Of course, all of that was in the context of the gamebook craze, with the full-blooded RPGs in question usually being associated with a gamebook line – Fighting Fantasy obviously had the gamebooks come first before the basic and Advanced RPG versions came out, Tunnels & Trolls began as an RPG before Flying Buffalo hit on the notion of combining Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks with RPG mechanics, even Maelstrom needed to incorporate a self-contained solo adventure to slip onto Puffin’s schedule. (In this respect, I think Dragon Warriors was a bit of an outlier.) And the gamebook craze in the UK was driven by Fighting Fantasy, which Jackson and Livingstone openly admit was concocted as a gateway drug to RPGs in general. So arguably every substantial player in the market in the UK was dancing to Games Workshop’s tune – if you were jumping on the bandwagon, odds were you were trying to emulate the success of Games Workshop or Fighting Fantasy.

Come to think of it, I think Games Workshop must have established a virtual monopoly fairly early on in the British industry in terms of being a specialist RPG publisher (as opposed to a generalist publisher dipping their toes into RPGs), because whilst I am aware of some small press RPGs from the UK from this era, I can’t think of any more substantial UK companies putting out RPG material on a professional basis (as opposed to a small press hobbyist basis) aside from TSR’s short-lived UK branch until Games Workshop made the decision to cease publishing and importing RPGs.

I guess beforehand it made most sense, if you were a UK-based wannabe RPG designer, to submit material to White Dwarf and otherwise look to working with Games Workshop. Once they walked away to focus exclusively on their wargames and boardgames, most people interested in RPG design in the UK stopped submitting their stuff to White Dwarf and decided to develop their own IPs instead. Not only did you have the rise of Hogshead in the mid-1990s as a result of this, but a bit before that you had a range of new publishers arising in the UK, often associated with an idiosyncratic game line which felt like it a) took a bit of influence from Games Workshop’s grimdark stylings and b) could well have been devised as an “in-house” setting to use material which perhaps was developed for one of Games Workshop’s lines; I’m thinking specifically here of games like SLA Industries and Tales of Gargentihr.

Even then, Hogshead largely carried the publishing torch in the UK by itself for much of the 1990s; with international distribution networks being better-developed and the Hot New Thing in RPGs being the decidedly US-centric early versions of Vampire: the Masquerade and its siblings, perhaps that’s no surprise. It feels like only comparatively recently that there’s actually been multiple UK RPG publishers active at the same time of significant size, between Cubicle 7, Mongoose, Chronicle City and Modiphius (and Mongoose is looking poorly these days). I guess the reason that Hogshead never quite managed to exert the same level of scene-shaping cultural influence over the UK RPG community as Games Workshop did is because of precisely the globalisation factors that Uncaring Cosmos outlines.