Moon Design/Chaosium and Hasbro Reach Deal Over HeroQuest

Nostalgic boardgamers of a certain age have been cheered by Hasbro announcing the return of HeroQuest through their Avalon Hill subsidiary (and gnashing their teeth with annoyance at only US and Canada release plans being in the offing so far). As has been announced by Chaosium, this coincides with them striking a deal with Hasbro, permitting purchase of the trademark, which will result in the HeroQuest RPG – which has nothing to do with the boardgame – being renamed QuestWorlds, which has previously been established as the name of their HeroQuest fan publication licence.

The history behind this is a bit of a tangled one. As far back as 2nd edition RuneQuest, Chaosium had been pushing the idea that they’d bring out a product called HeroQuest which would deal with high-powered Gloranthan characters engaged in the process of “heroquesting” – an in-setting concept in which Gloranthan characters take on the roles of mythic figures in order to enact significant changes in the world. (Unless Chaosium have been extremely short-sighted in the way the transfer has been negotiated, they probably have some reassurances that using the term “heroquest” as an in-setting term for this in Glorantha-related products is still legit.)

However, the product never saw the line of day, and eventually the HeroQuest name was used (and the trademark registered) by Hasbro for the boardgame. Hasbro didn’t keep up the trademark renewals when the game went out of print, however, so Moon Design were able to register the trademark and use it for new editions of the RPG formerly known as Hero Wars.

Evidently, Hasbro’s desire to rerelease the game was strong enough to bring them to the negotiating table, leading us to the deal announced this week – Moon Design having since become the leadership of Chaosium, having been set up in that role by Greg Stafford after he and Sandy Petersen took control back from the Charlie Krank-helmed regime (as I chronicled during my account of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter and its associated drama).

As with many intellectual property transfers, there’s probably a bunch of clauses which aren’t being publicly aired and it’s not as simple as Hasbro giving Chaosium/Moon Design money and Moon Design handing over the trademark. There’s currently a sale on at Chaosium’s website of existing books using the HeroQuest brand name, which will all be repackaged as QuestWorlds books on their next printing, much as happened to RuneQuest 6 when it became Mythras.

My hunch is that Moon Design probably don’t have that much in the way of stock to clear in the first place. Remember, one of the first things they did when they took control of Chaosium was to do a fire sale at the warehouse, selling off a bunch of stock which the old regime had been paying to store more or less completely pointlessly. (It is ludicrous that they had significant stock of the entire English language Nephilim product line some two decades after it crashed and burned, for instance.) That and the subsequent closure of the warehouse suggests to me that Moon Design understand how modern publishing trends in the RPG industry point away from warehousing large amounts of stock and more towards running smaller print runs and keeping lower amounts of material in stock.

In addition, it may well be that the deal reached with Hasbro also included some form of deal when it came to unsold stock – clearly, it includes at the very least a window of time to allow for the sale of the remaining materials, it’s not impossible that it also includes some form of payment to cover the losses involved in pulping anything which can’t be sold. That doesn’t mean it’s not preferable to sell those products at a profit, but either way I don’t think Moon Design are going to be too troubled by pulping the remaining copies using the HeroQuest trade dress.

Using QuestWorlds for the game line is also a canny move as well. The fact is that HeroQuest is a term with specific Gloranthan connotations, but a system which had become genericised (with a Glorantha-specific version available), and the QuestWorlds branding is already used for community content. Questworld was an old RuneQuest 2nd edition boxed set which described an “open” campaign world for the game, which was intended to act as a setting subject to less canon oversight than Glorantha, but in subsequent years both the system-neutral editions of RuneQuest and the fantasy implementations of Basic Roleplaying have rather displaced that when it comes to fantasy, and the BRP licensing setup and SRD already provide a basis for people making new non-Gloranthan fantasy material inspired by the system. (Fan-made Gloranthan material also has a home in the form of the Jonstown Compendium storefront.)

Chaosium/Moon Design have already, for quite some time, bedded in QuestWorlds as a generic synonym for the HeroQuest system, complete with licence and SRD, which is both an apt use of the term and an indication of how long negotiations have probably been progressing on this.

In short, though it is hard to judge without sight of the actual deal struck between Hasbro and Moon Design, in general it sounds like sensible minds have prevailed to achieve a solution beneficial to everyone. Hasbro gets to bring back HeroQuest (the board game); Chaosium/Moon Design do have the inconvenience of renaming the HeroQuest RPG, but since it debuted as Hero Wars anyway it’s not like the game line hasn’t been subject to this confusion anyway, and the HeroQuest name has always given rise to some confusion with the boardgame anyway so perhaps it is for the best in the long run – most importantly, nobody is losing any stuff, it’s just that the stuff currently put out will need to be renamed. Hasbro have given Chaosium/Moon Design some form of payout which made Moon Design decide it was worth the inconvenience of the rebrand – an injection of money which will surely help them advance other projects and endeavours going forwards, and so will have a positive knock-on effect not just on QuestWorlds but all of Chaosium’s product lines. There’s no losers here, which is what makes this a good deal all told.

Mini-Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Bare Their Hearts

I’ve previously covered how Rowan, Rook & Decard are pretty dang reliable when it comes to delivering on their Kickstarters, and this has remained true of their latest, so I won’t be giving their new RPG Heart the full Kickstopper treatment – there just isn’t that interesting a story to tell there. Instead, I’m just going to review the swag I got. Here goes!

Heart

Where Spire focused on political intrigue and scheming, freedom fighter heists, social pitfalls and all that jazz, Heart is based more on the traditional exploration-and-dungeoneering type of play that very old school tabletop RPGs often focused on, but given a decidedly new school twist. The titular Heart is a region below Spire itself – an oozing wound in reality itself, that’s been leaking in strange ways ever since the high elf occupiers of the Spire tried to use it as the hub of a railway network that went wrong.

Whereas the aboveground world of the Spire is rife with racial tensions, the strange communities which make their home in the Heart and the no-elf’s-land between Heart and Spire tend to be a bit more egalitarian in that respect, consisting of individuals bound together by common agendas rather than cultural or ethnic affiliation. The Heart reshapes those who plumb its depths into the shape of their desires… but it’s clumsy at it. And in its fractured depths, it is even possible to reach entire other worlds.

Continue reading “Mini-Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Bare Their Hearts”

Mini-Kickstopper: Lancer

Pity Mekton. After Mekton II managed to gain traction despite its flaws (due, perhaps, to having very little in the way of competition beyond Palladium’s Robotech RPG), Mekton Zeta provided a somewhat tidied up and debugged (albeit at some points quite crunchy) take on the game. Still, you’re talking about a 1994 design there, and there’s an appetite for further refinement and polishing. That appetite drove a Kickstarter for Mekton Zero, a new edition of the game, which raised some $50,000 in 2013.

However, the development and writing process for the game bogged down, and in 2018 Mike Pondsmith made the decision that, rather than allowing it to be another Far West situation, he was going to refund everyone’s pledges rather than making any promises about if and when the game would eventually come out. Since then, when it comes to new material R. Talsorian Games has had more success in getting out the starter set for Cyberpunk Red, their new edition of Cyberpunk (putting the Cyberpunk 3.0 timeline aside and acting as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame), with the core book delayed at first to ensure lore consistency with the videogame and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps Pondsmith will, one day, come back to Mekton Zero – but if he does, he’ll find there’s new competition. Massif Press’s chunky new Lancer RPG takes the same general gameplay breakdown of Mekton – rules-light, largely freeform play for when your characters are out of your mechs shifting into crunchy, tactically rich combat when you get into a mecha fight – and applies fresh eyes to the concept, yielding a much more modern system for delivering the same general deal.

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Harlem Revived

After the first edition of Chris Spivey’s Harlem Unbound earned Kickstarter success and critical acclaim and put Darker Hue Press on the map, Chaosium sit up and took notice. The original book had been put out under licence from Chaosium, dual statted for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu; now Chaosium were interested in working more extensively with Spivey, not only reaching a deal to put out a 2nd edition of Harlem Unbound directly from Chaosium but also commissioning other work from him, including a spruce-up of the racially-themed classic scenario Dead Man Stomp and a quick discussion of Lovecraftian racism for the absolutely superb new Starter Set for the game.

(They had also signed on to make a science fiction game with him based on a blend of black and Jewish themes, Kadimah, but the two have agreed to part ways on that – Chaosium’s statement on the matter, which was co-issued with Spivey and doesn’t seem to represent any great rancour on either side, explains that Chaosium had realised that with their existing commitments and plans they couldn’t commit to giving it a release schedule of the sort it deserved. In addition, the impression I get is that it’s an intensely personal passion project on the part of Spivey, tied in with his own family heritage to such an extent that it really makes more sense as an indie solo project of his, rather than a conventional commercial RPG with contributions from a variety of hands which would inevitably dilute the vision.)

Now 2nd edition Harlem Unbound is out in hard copy, and good golly is it a lovely item; the original book was a pretty decent item in its own right, but Chaosium have brought to bear production values above and beyond what a startup publisher like Darker Hue had been able to muster on that project.

Continue reading “Harlem Revived”

A Fistful of SAN Loss

Shadows Over Stillwater is the first adventure supplement supporting Down Darker Trails, the Wild West setting for Call of Cthulhu. It’s also another example of a trend in current Chaosium releases I’ve highlighted with my recent reviews of Reign of Terror and The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories, in which supplements offer a mix of adventure material and setting material, with the adventures also including a bunch of stuff you could very happily recycle for your own purposes.

Really, any adventure for any RPG should be able to do this, and to an extent it’s always possible to grab some NPC stats and restate them. But there’s been a lot of sub-par adventure releases over the years (and Call of Cthulhu wasn’t entirely innocent of this) where the adventures present a single, linear plot, and focus on it so tightly a) it doesn’t really develop any material beyond that which is placed directly under the spotlight of the adventure and b) that material which does get developed is a royal pain to extricate from the action of the adventure, because it is largely defined solely in respect of its role in the immediate story at hand without much thought given to making it a persistent place, person, or thing in the world once that story is over.

The adventures in this book are not like that; whenever they introduce a town (and we get several in here), where lesser adventures would give a brief rundown of the place and only really talk about the locations and NPCs directly relevant to the adventure, here the towns are developed to be living, breathing places, and any one of them could be places the PCs visit time and time again in an ongoing campaign.

Indeed, one of the sections of the book isn’t really an adventure at all, or at least not labelled as one – that’s the chapter offering a deep dive into the town of Stonegarden. Stonegarden, in fact, is a sandbox with no specific adventure attached, because to a sandbox-minded referee it really doesn’t need one; it’s a mining town where hidden Mythos peril lurks in the shadow but is also shaped and warped by good old-fashioned human greed and desperation. Toss some Wild West PCs into that environment and, particularly if your players are good at playing proactively, shit will kick off in memorable fashion sooner rather than later.

As well as offering a mixture of long adventures and short adventures, sandbox settings and linear campaigns, the book also offers a mix of pulp-leaning and purist-leaning material; whilst all the material in the book can happily be run with or without the Pulp Cthulhu rules, it feels to me like the titular mini-campaign really badly wants to be run as a Pulp Cthulhu game, with its action presenting a classically campy, over-the-top pulp plot, and if you wanted to run it in a more purist style you would need to do a substantial amount of work to hit the right tone. That’s fine, though – you can still use the towns in the adventure even if you don’t follow the action itself, should Pulp Cthulhu not be your style.

Conversely, Beneath the Burning Sun is really nicely pitched; it’s an adventure which could be run as a very pulp affair, or instead you could pivot it towards a more purist take simply by putting more emotional weight and gravitas on the darker moments of the adventure.

It should be so easy to do this, but so often adventure designers don’t do this, or if they do it’s framed as an utter afterthought. Kevin Ross, who seems to be the creative lead on the Down Darker Trails setting, has helmed another useful project here, and it’s certainly pleasing to have some more fodder for the setting other than cannibalising the Devil’s Gulch supplement, a Basic Roleplaying supplement from late in the life of the Charlie Krank-helmed regime at Chaosium which had a similar “Weird West” feel but was horribly sabotaged by a nasty, cheap layout and editing job which had no place in a professionally-released product. Comparing the production values on this book to that is like night and day, and perhaps exemplifies the good that the Moon Design regime has worked at Chaosium better than anything.

Mini-Review: The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories

The latest hardcopy release from Chaosium for RuneQuest is The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories, another supplement offering a nice mix of setting material and prewritten adventure stuff, which was also the case for The Reign of Terror release for Call of Cthulhu that I reviewed recently.

The balance here is still mostly in favour of adventure material than pure setting detail, but less so than in that product. The book includes an overview of the South Wilds, a region of Dragon Pass which includes, among other things, the titular Smoking Ruin – a city where legend has it a group of trolls met a terrible end and their corpses burn eternally. (The truth of this may be discovered by characters who attempt the longest and most detailed adventure in here.)

The book also offers a closer look at some significant locations in the South Wilds, and some more adventures – there’s the Wild Temple, a massive open air holy site, the Lost Valley which offers an interesting little community, and the adventures Urvantan’s Tower in which the fate of the Lost Valley relies on quick action from the player characters and Grove of Green Rock, in which the player characters can get hired to help a massive elven project to establish a new sacred grove in Dragon Pass.

Glorantha can be a daunting setting, given all the detail that has been lavished upon it, and the question of “How am I meant to make a game out of this?” can come up; the adventures provided here, as well as offering deeper insights into the locales in question, are useful worked examples in this respect. Each of them, in their own way, provides both an interesting immediate challenge, potential for future campaigning based on them, tie-ins with longstanding history and myths of Glorantha, and a strong emphasis on the consequences of the adventure for the communities affected.

All of the adventures assume that player characters are starting off from the settlement of Clearwine, which is detailed in the GM screen pack, though The Smoking Ruin gives enough of an overview of it that you could make a start with just this book and the current core rules, though the Clearwine reliance of them varies; I would say the other two scenarios could pretty happily be run without a Clearwine connection, but The Smoking Ruin has enough of an impact on the politics of that settlement that you’d need to do some serious work to shift it to a different starting locale.

Each scenario, in its own way, helps tease out something distinctive about the Glorantha setting and how this present of the game depicts it. The Smoking Ruin emphasises mythic history, storytelling, and relationships with spirits as part of the game; Urvantan’s Tower can showcase the capabilities available through Heroquesting and Illumination, Grove of Green Rock can present a regular diversion for the player characters over years, in keeping with the game’s new “one adventure per season” assumptions.

The book also has references to books for the line which have not come out yet, but which seem likely early components of the supplement line. There’s word on an upcoming Gods of Glorantha, for instance, and reference to Heroquesting rules in a Gamemaster Sourcebook which doesn’t exist yet. One can only hope we’ll see those soon; not only does this book suggest that the production values and quality of material for the new RuneQuest is going to remain strong, but it will be damn shame for this to be yet another edition of RuneQuest which makes passing reference to Heroquesting rules but doesn’t actually get around to publishing them.

Mini-Review: Reign of Terror

Although I am much less inclined to run multi-episode globe-trotting campaigns in Call of Cthulhu as written as I was in my earlier years of running the game, I think there’s good reasons why the game’s classic megacampaigns like Masks of Nyarlathotep or Horror On the Orient Express are as popular as they are; they also act as backdoor setting supplements. Masks offers looks at locations on a range of different continents in the 1920s; Orient Express literally takes you on a whistle-stop tour of Europe. As such, the setting material can be useful even if the scenario itself isn’t used.

However, especially in their latest versions, we’re talking about some dang expensive products to buy just to use the setting stuff. They’ve also been expensive to produce; the 7th edition Masks set seems to have done pretty well without major snafus, but the Horror On the Orient Express Kickstarter was one of the two which broke the old regime at Chaosium.

Perhaps a more sustainable type of scenario-cum-setting guide product is something more like Reign of Terror. This is a significantly more terse scenario – it’s essentially a two-episode micro-campaign – attached to sufficient setting material to bring to life the place and time it depicts. And that place and time is pretty damn interesting, because we’re talking Paris, 1789-1794, during the rise and fall of the French Revolution.

A substantially thicker supplement could be made of the subject matter, of course, but the basic details here, the scenario seed suggestions, and the adapted character creation rules is more than enough to run Call of Cthulhu material in the setting in question, and should hold more or less true for game running from a broadly late-18th-to-early-19th Century campaign.

It’s notable, in fact, that you could probably use the rules support here and a bit of research of your own to run a Call of Cthulhu game set in the Napoleonic era – a concept which Modiphius had been saying they wanted to do with Mon Dieu! Cthulhu, a followup to Achtung! Cthulhu, but which doesn’t seem to have taken off yet. Although some technological advances in weaponry were made between the revolution and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, I’d argue that whilst significant on the macro battlefield scale, the simple gun stats here are fine to cover any rifle during the era for the purposes of a roleplaying scenario, and the professions here would suffice just fine for the period.

The scenario presented touches on enough Revolution-relevant themes that the material there could be usefully used outside of the story in question – the 1789 episode includes a visit to Versailles, for instance, with a map of the place offered, and the 1794 episode includes a certain amount of the secret police paranoia of the Terror. It is also designed to be either played as a standalone or used as part of the Horror On the Orient Express campaign, which already includes some flashback scenarios set in other places and eras.

Brief enough to not outstay its welcome, but cramming in enough substance to feel like good value for money, I’d say Reign of Terror more than adequately opens up a new time period for Call of Cthulhu, and I hope Chaosium have more planned for it.

Deeper Into the Eldritch Dark Ages

Back when I had a quick look over the first edition of Cthulhu Dark Ages, I felt it was a product which fell between two stools a bit (it was a supplement-length product that was trying to in a whole spin-off game, when really it could have gotten away with being a historical period supplement for baseline Call of Cthulhu or being fully spun off with a full-size core book), and it could do with a second edition which tuned things up a bit.

Well, I am now the happy owner of a hard copy of the rather gorgeous Cthulhu Dark Ages 3rd Edition. Wait, third? Yes; there was a second edition of the product put out in extremely limited numbers in the last days of the Charlie Krank-helmed regime at Chaosium, but when Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen exerted their ownership rights to oust Krank and install Moon Design as a new management team, the decision was made to give the product more of a spruce-up to be more in keeping with the production values they were aiming for with the product line going forward.

The 3rd Edition, then, is essentially the 2nd edition with recent-Chaosium production values and perhaps a last bit of polish. How does this differ from the 1st edition? Well, for one thing, it is definitely a supplement, not a standalone game – Chaosium have learned their lesson about putting out standalone games which they then don’t really support outside of monographs. For another, whereas the original was penned by Stephané Gesbert, this one is primarily by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton – creators of the excellent original version of Cthulhu Invictus – though plenty of ideas from Gesbert have made their way into this version, including the use of figures like Lilith.

In addition, much more support is offered to help capture the era’s mindset, and to root the game in a particular culture (since “Dark Ages Europe” is a broad canvas and many things often taken as universal to the continent in the time were not as universal as all that). The supplement very much assumes that you are running the game in Anglo-Saxon England at some point between 950 AD and 1050 AD, and provides both a fairly in-depth and informative look at the culture at the time and the imagined small town of Totburh, a Saxon settlement in the region of Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley. This is a well-worn bit of history, but perhaps the familiarity is useful for helping people get a grasp on the setting.

There are also a range of period-appropriate rules tweaks. Aside from the expected rules for mounted combat and use of shields and the like, there’s also less obvious rule changes like tweaks to the Sanity system – working off the idea that events which might be shocking to modern sensibilities may be much less so to people living in a more violent era; other events which might seem to us mere Fortean curiosities may be perceived as omens of spiritual disaster. In addition, there’s some very useful notes about how to run an investigative game in an era of low literacy, with some handy rules on how to use the oral tradition of storytelling that would have been common at the time as a game feature.

With a prebuilt setting provided in the core book, it’s much more ready to pick up and play than the previous edition. In terms of material from the old edition which turns up here, the suggestions on running historical horror are carried for and tune up, the selection of professions on offer is essentially the same, some interesting rules suggestions for adjudicating edge cases like “How difficult is it to dig something large out of the ground in this era?” are preserved, the setting material is almost entirely redone and the scenario The Tomb, being quite long, is replaced with three shorter ones.

Whilst some may find the 1st edition of Cthulhu Dark Ages useful to hold onto for a more big-picture perspective, I have to say that I greatly prefer this new take on the supplement, since the more specific place allows for a more vivid setting description and requires less research on the referee’s own part before commencing play.

Mini-Review: Advanced Sorcery for Magic World

Chaosium’s 2012 Magic World RPG was, at its heart, a version of the 5th Edition Stormbringer system with the Michael Moorcock-specific aspects polished away so that the game could act as a generic Basic Roleplaying-powered fantasy RPG, much as the 3rd Edition of RuneQuest had in the past and games like RuneQuest 6th EditionLegend, and OpenQuest would be doing at around the same time as Magic World made it to publication.

What’s quite interesting about Magic World is that, by being primarily based on a setting-neutral version of Stormbringer instead of a setting-neutral version of RuneQuest, it’s starting from a somewhat simpler baseline, which allows it to stand out somewhat in what was a crowded field. Ben Monroe’s Southern Reaches, the sample setting in the core book, was also interesting to some, though I found there was an unfortunate lack of detail on how system concepts like Light and Shadow played out there.

In the comments on my Magic World review, Ben was nice enough to swing by and talk about the plans he’d had for the line, which would have included a supplement line in which each supplement would either be mostly generic content with a significant pinch of Southern Reaches stuff, or mostly Southern Reaches stuff with a bit of stuff for more generic use. I imagine as the line went on, this might have led to a closer integration of the rules into the Southern Reaches setting.

In the end, Monroe was only able to bring out Advanced Sorcery before the old regime at Chaosium collapsed and a new crew came on, who made the decision to stop putting out new Magic World for the foreseeable future as part of a bid to refocus on key lines and generally reconfigure the company into a more sustainable shape. The book is a collection of alternate magic systems and expansions to the existing magic systems in Magic World.

In some respects it offers an interesting glimpse of what Magic World could have evolved into, with Monroe’s rules for fae magic in the Southern Reaches giving some crucial rules underpinning to Reaches-specific concepts whilst other ideas suggest interesting directions for other settings. There’s a Deep Magic system which offers a sort of keyword-based freeform casting system, for instance, and “Arete” – a system in which characters whose skills end up exceeding 100% can end up attaining quasi-supernatural or genuinely supernatural effects from their superhuman competence.

At the same time, however, Advanced Sorcery is still very much a product under the shadow of previous products, since a good chunk of the material in it originally hailed from sources Chaosium can no longer republish like RuneQuest Vikings and The Bronze Grimoire. Thus, it’s still part of Operation Repurpose Old Material, as Magic World was, rather than consisting of wholly-original work.

The Continuing Saga of BRP

Chaosium’s efforts to support the Big Yellow Book version of Basic Roleplaying before the new regime took over ended up being a bit of a mixed bag. Devil’s Gulch was horribly botched when it came to the presentation. and Kenneth Spencer’s rather interesting Blood Tide was merely good rather than great because of a sloppy editing job weighing it down. In both cases, there seemed to be a basic lack of professionalism involved in the editing and layout at Chaosium’s end – like the products in question had originated as monographs, and didn’t really get a full polishing-up into a professional-grade product.

Enjoying a much better presentation, and perhaps the best of the Big Yellow Book supplements, was Mythic Iceland. Primarily designed by Brazilian-Icelandic game designer Pedro Ziviani, with the aid of a range of other Icelandic contributors and playtesters, this offers exactly what it says on the tin: a guide to running campaigns in a version of historical Iceland (the baseline assumption is that games will be set somewhere between the foundation of the Alþing assembly and the appointment of the first Christian bishop) where all the myths and legends believed by the Icelandic people are true.

This is a rich blend of genuine folklore derived from sources such as the Eddas, historical details conserved in the Icelandic Sagas, and some of Ziviani’s own inventions to fill in the gap, which he readily admits and highlights. The major gap is that the source material, whilst giving some importance to elves, doesn’t really fill in many details on them, so Ziviani had to flesh them out a lot himself. They are not, at least by default, a PC option, instead being a hidden people that PCs can encounter on adventures.

Continue reading “The Continuing Saga of BRP”