Sharpe? No, Actually It’s Quite Blunt

Aaah, “Napoleonics”. The Napoleonic era holds a special place in wargaming circles. After all, before wargaming became a hobby, it was a serious training and contingency planning exercise, which first took on a form broadly familiar to modern wargamers in the Kriegsspiel engaged in by the Prussian High Command during the Napoleonic era itself. Moreover, it is well-documented that before Dungeons & Dragons not only kicked off the roleplaying game genre but also injected a new enthusiasm for fantasy and science fiction into the wargame scene, the dominant form of wargaming was historically-based, with the American Civil War and the Napoleonic eras being the most popular eras. (One suspects as well that the American Civil War era is somewhat less popular outside of the United States itself.)

Either way, perhaps undeservedly Napoleonic wargames have gained the reputation of being a particularly dry or stuffy niche of the hobby – “grognard” as a term, after all, is a slang term originating from Napoleon’s forces themselves. But there’s no reason why that has to be the case – and the Napoleonic era, whilst it has been extensively mined in fiction (as in Sharpe and Hornblower and other such series) and wargaming, has hardly been touched when it comes to tabletop RPGs.

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“I Am a Servant of the Secret Heartbreaker!”

George Strayton’s The Secret Fire is about as blatant a fantasy heartbreaker as you could hope to find in this day and age. The days of the classic fantasy heartbreaker, a game designed by someone who apparently has little to no exposure to game design ideas beyond Dungeons & Dragons and whatever weird idea they want to graft onto the Dungeons & Dragons chassis but for some reason believes they have created something absolutely revolutionary, have waned since the release of the Open Gaming Licence and the rise of the retroclones – now if you want to release your very own D&D-alike game or house rules for such, it’s easier to either put out your very own retroclone or release your ideas as a supplement for the retroclone closest to your heart.

The Secret Fire does not take this route; indeed, it shows little evidence that it’s even aware of retroclones, or the OGL (which it doesn’t use). At most, George Strayton seems to have a vague passing knowledge of some OSR talking points, which he throws out in an apparent attempt to gain OSR credibility but doesn’t deliver on in his actual design.

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A Diceless Picnic In the Zone

Penned by Ville Vuorela and put out through his Burger Games small press, Stalker is an officially licensed RPG adaptation of Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Vuorela having received permission from Boris. Roadside Picnic was, as cinephiles know, adapted for cinema under the Stalker title by Tarkovsky, resulting in one of his greatest accomplishments; the videogame series S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whilst riffing on many of the same themes, was not actually an authorised release. The RPG takes its primary inspiration from Roadside Picnic itself, but has a lot of time for the particular mood and aesthetic of Stalker, whilst not giving much time to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at all. Released in Vuorela’s native Finland in 2008 and using his Flow system, an English translation was released in 2012.

The basic premise is this: at an unspecified point in the future, some sort of extraterrestrial and/or transdimensional event happened to Earth – the Visitation. At six points along the 43rd parallel, at locations in the United States, Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan, mysterious Zones appeared where the Visitation took place. Within the Zones the laws of physics are violated in bizarre, dangerous ways, strange artifacts and monuments with unusual powers can be obtained, terrestrial lifeforms are mutated and altered into strange forms or gain strange powers and various other oddness occurs.

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Woke Up, Got Out of Bed, Dragged an Archetype Across My Head

Onyx Path’s second edition of Mage: the Awakening continues the general trend of second edition Chronicles of Darkness games of greatly refining and refocusing the concepts of their often-muddled first editions. Since both the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness series are both active concerns, the various Chronicles games no longer need to be conflicted between the desire to do something new and the commercial incentive to provide a safe harbour for fans of the equivalent World of Darkness line, which means they can be more confident in their own, distinct identities.

In the case of Mage, the second edition is also an opportunity to restate that core identity in a way which wins over more people. The main thing which people who otherwise don’t know much about the first edition of Awakening seem to latch onto about it is “Isn’t that the one which is all about Atlantis?”; the Atlantis stuff isn’t exactly gone here, but it’s relegated to a brief appendix to illustrate just how inessential to the core concept it is.

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Storytelling Patient Zero

Back when I reviewed the 1st Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, I took note of the various other RPGs cited in Mark Rein-Hagen’s afterword (only included in later printings). One game which was conspicuous by its absence from this list is Prince Valiant, a Chaosium RPG based on the Arthurian newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster. Emerging in 1989, not only does it proudly proclaim itself a “Story-Telling Game” on its front cover, but it also explicitly refers to the referee as a Storyteller, works in the idea of rotating the Storyteller position over the course of a game (which may be influenced by Ars Magica‘s ideas about troupe play), and has what is effectively a disguised die pool system.

To cover that latter point in brief: in principle, rolls in Prince Valiant are actually based on coin tosses – you add together stat and skill, toss an appropriate number of coins, and count heads as successes. This seems to have been a decision made in part to make the game approachable to non-gamers who might not have dice handy, but almost certainly have coins – but whilst tossing a bunch of coins in sequence is burdensome, you can roll much faster and get mathematically equivalent results simply by rolling a bunch of dice and, say, taking odds as successes and evens as failures, or rolls of over 50% of the maximum roll as successes (so 4-6 on a D6, or 3-4 of a D4, or 11-20 on a D20).

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The Fandom Perspective

Mythic Perspectives was an Ars Magica fanzine that came out between 1997 and 2001. This was the era of 4th Edition Ars Magica – a welcome return to form for the game after the various missteps of 3rd Edition (mostly involving various kludges added to make it the backstory to the World of Darkness – including the imposition of the Realm of Reason and various unintended consequences arising from it, like libraries counteracting rather than helping the decidedly intellectual, empirical, experimentation-oriented and scholarship-focused magic of the Order of Hermes).

It was also just about the last era when producing a fanzine through conventional printing methods rather than throwing it up online or maybe doing it as a PDF download made even the slightest bit of sense. These days, most of what you’d want a fanzine for is provided much better via online communities – with greater regularity and interactivity at that.

Still, back when I was running my Ars Magica game for my now-dissolved Monday evening group, one of the players gave me a couple of copies of Mythic Perspectives (thanks Andrew!), and I’m favourably impressed. These were issues 8 and 9, two of the three issues released in 1999 – and the last issues to be put out with any regularity. (One more squeaked out in 2000, and another in 2001.)

The tail-off in publication frequency can be attributed to the fact that Mythic Perspectives was put out by Damelon Kimbrough through his Gnawing Ideas imprint – and in early 2000, Atlas recruited Kimbrough to become the line editor for Ars Magica. However, his stint in the job would be short-lived; he would be replaced by David Chart in 2001, and Chart would go on to manage the line up to 2015, thus overseeing not just the tail end of the 4th edition line but the entirety of 5th edition issued to date. According to the fandom grapevine Kimbrough got married and moved to France in 2008, where he pursues other interests these days; good for him.

The 1999 issues, then, represent perhaps Kimbrough’s inadvertent “audition tape” for Atlas Games – produced on the back of winning the 1998 Origins Award for Best Amateur Game Magazine. As you would expect of a product of the Ars Magica fandom, it’s a delicious mixture of folklore, real history, and game system tinkering, and there’s a familiar name or two in the credits – indeed, David Chart contributes some considerations on “Society and the Gift” in issue 8.

Atlas Games have traditionally been a bit weird about putting their Ars Magica catalogue on DriveThruRPG, and I’m not sure why that’s the case – they’ve been happy to put the new editions of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies up there, for instance, and have gone to the extent of putting up Statosphere, a shopfront for fan-made Unknown Armies material along the lines of the DM Guild for D&D. Perhaps the issue is contractural, because as well as putting their full range up on Warehouse 23 – Steve Jackson Games’ awkward PDF outlet – they’ve got the last three issues of of Mythic Perspectives up there as PDFs too. (Presumably their deal with Kimbrough to bring him in as Line Editor gave them rights to these but not the earlier issues – or perhaps they just haven’t been able to produce nice scans of the earlier ones yet.)

Supplements of Humanity

And so we come to the end of our slog through the 40K RPGs of a now-bygone era with the supplements to Only War. There weren’t many of these – out of all the 40K RPGs under Fantasy Flight’s custodianship, Only War pretty much got the least love. Sure, Black Crusade only had one full-length adventure put out for it – but it at least had a supplement put out for each Chaos God, whereas there were only three Only War supplements and, as we’ll see, a pretty major gap in the line which Fantasy Flight had ample time to fill and yet didn’t. And by comparison all three of Dark HeresyRogue Trader and Deathwatch got stacks more support.

Still, Only War did get a few bits and bobs, and I’m going to cover them here so we can put it in the past and look forward to Wrath & Glory

Hammer of the Emperor

This adds a nice fat chunk of extra regiment creation options, as well as a bunch of additional writeups of canonical regiments (including the Tanith First-and-Only from the Gaunt’s Ghosts series). You also get some rules embellishments (like mounted combat on horsies!) and advanced careers for most of the rank-and-file Guardsmen types. As fun as the advanced careers are for giving guardsmen a bit of extra flavour, there is a caveat: there was never a supplement published giving advanced careers for the Scholar careers – the Commissars, Storm Troopers, or Psykers of Only War – so if you have any of those in your party it may seem a little unfair to use advanced careers when they don’t have any available (unless you’re willing to cook up your own or trust in fan-written ones).

On the one hand, at least in the case of Commissars and Psykers I think you can make a case that the basic concepts are flashy enough that they don’t necessarily need Advanced Careers – on the other, it’s a shame that they don’t get the additional differentiation that Advanced Careers offer. As such, this aspect of the supplement is one you might have to finesse a little depending on the preferences of your group.

Shield of Humanity

This does the Hammer of the Emperor job for your support specialists – your Ratlings, Ogryns, tech-priests, regular priests, those sorts of folks. Emerging in 2014, it was the last non-adventure supplement put out for Only War, which adds insult to injury when it comes to the lack of an equivalent for the Schola characters – FFG were able to put out supplements for Dark Heresy 2nd edition for subsequent years so the failure to fill out the line like they did for Black Crusade and 2nd Edition Dark Heresy is a little galling.

Then again, it may be indicative of overall poor sales for the line compared to the other two games. Somehow this supplement, as interesting as it is for the support characters, feels a little lightweight – it feels like at points they are stretching a little hard to find new archetypes to based Advanced Careers around, for instance. I do wonder whether a better approach would have been to condense the material here down to the absolute best bits and use the space saved to give a little love to the Schola careers instead.

Enemies of the Imperium

Your standard enemies supplement, standing out from the 40K RPG pack by the fact that it also includes a substantial breakdown of a human faction – not Chaos cultists, not Genestealer-contaminated nasties, but regular ol’ humans. Specifically, the book includes an extensive unpacking of the Severan Dominate, an area of space that has declared secession from the Imperium which was introduced in the core rulebook.

The nice thing about the Dominate is that though in their desperation its leaders are not above engaging in gentle diplomatic contact with alien races, for the most part it consists of citizens who still entirely believe in the Imperial Creed. Regardless of whatever undeclared reasons Duke Severus might have for declaring independence, the publicly declared casus belli – and thus the reason most of the Dominate’s citizens believe they’ve left the Imperium – is the corruption of the High Lords of Terra. The Dominate still believes in the Emperor – they just don’t believe in those who claim to speak for him. And since Imperial history includes periods like the Age of Apostasy, the idea that the central government might end up deviating from the true path and that rebellion against it may therefore become justified actually has a certain currency in the setting.

The upshot is that the Dominate provides a delightful opportunity for Imperial Guard regiments to face disturbingly familiar forces and have delightful “Are we the baddies?” conversations, so seeing them fleshed out in the first tranche of Enemies of the Imperium – as well as delicious suggestions about the desperate and ill-advised avenues Duke Severus may explore once the Dominate starts to crumble – is very welcome, and helps set Only War apart from much of the rest of the 40K RPG settings.

GM Kit

Standard screen, average adventure, expanded ideas on how to actually structure and run a Guard-based campaign. Again, worth it if you want the screen, not really worth it otherwise.


The two adventures released for Only War – Final Testament and No Surrender – didn’t really grab me. I think the issue is that for the purposes of Only War I’d almost say that the actual events of battle would be more of a backdrop and a basis for combat missions in any game I’d actually run, whilst for in-depth roleplaying and character interaction and setting immersion purposes the truly important thing is the player characters’ regiment – and since the adventures are designed to be fairly agnostic about what regiment you’re running with, they naturally can’t give that much attention to intra-regiment interaction.