One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

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Death to the Ophanim! Long Live the New Flesh!

Rafael Chandler, through his Neoplastic Press, is a designer who emerged from the ranks of the Forge who isn’t usually thought of as a Forge-style indie designer, perhaps because of his idiosyncratic design approach. When people think of the Forge, they often think of the “narrativist” school that was heavily promoted by Ron Edwards and others, with games like Dogs In the VineyardMy Life With MasterPolaris and others drawing on those ideas.

However, as I outlined in my retrospective on the Forge, narrativism and the RPG theory underpinning it was not the only preoccupation of the Forge, only the most loudly controversial. It was also, back in the day, an excellent resource for anyone looking to self-publish their own RPG materials. Whilst today websites like Lulu and others make putting your own book out on a print-on-demand basis about as simple as you could ever hope it to be, the Forge rose at a time when such tools were either still in their infancy or didn’t yet exist, and as such it served as an extremely useful concentration of information and expertise on the self-publication process.

Chandler was an early beneficiary of the Forge’s advice, and in 2002 put it into effect to release Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, a high-octane gorehound splatterpunk RPG of demon hunting. A second edition followed in 2007, and a sequel themed around hunting equally despicable angels – Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium – emerged. Chandler at this point seems to have decided that the games’ concepts overlapped enough that it made sense to combine them, so for a new release on PDF and print-on-demand platforms he combined them to produce Pandemonio. The PDF version is a single 512 document on DriveThruRPG; hard copies are available through Lulu in the form of a Player Guide and a Director Guide.

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A High Water Mark of the OSR

Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.

As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.

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Monster: the Monstering

Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).

More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.

Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably​ develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.

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The Other Half of the Galaxy

It’s now pretty well known that West End Games’ take on Star Wars became a major seed of what became the Expanded Universe. Whilst additional stories of questionable canonicity have always been part of the franchise – Alan Dean Foster did Splinter of the Mind’s Eye back when the original trilogy was coming out, based on the story George Lucas had mapped out for the second movie in case the studios wouldn’t give him the budget for Empire Strikes Back – but it’s fair to say that the whole Expanded Universe thing didn’t kick into high gear until Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and it’s well known how when he was writing that Lucasfilm gave him a fat stack of West End supplements to use as background reference material. Although much of the Expanded Universe has been declared non-canon by Disney (though they still acknowledge its existence under the Star Wars Legends label), extensive details of the West End line remain having crept into canon via the later films and other materials that didn’t get made into unhistory.

One reason that the West End line has been so influential is because of the sheer mass of material produced for it. As well as providing sourcebooks based on obvious subjects like the Rebellion and the Empire, it also did supplements based on specific releases, so not only did you have supplements focused on each of the original trilogy but you also had a phenomenon where each new Expanded Universe hit ended up getting its own West End sourcebook building on what it did, and since that Expanded Universe stuff was building on things West End had done you ended up with a feedback loop going where West End were constantly churning out ideas. (This was exacerbated in their late-life shovelware period, where they cranked out Star Wars stuff at a wild pace because it was a licence to print money for them and the main thing making their business viable.)

Just as West End was the wellspring of the Expanded Universe, The Star Wars Sourcebook is the seed of that approach. The actual 1st edition Star Wars RPG rulebook didn’t actually​ include an awful lot in the way of setting information, and to be honest it didn’t necessarily need to – if there’s one franchise out there where you can reasonably be sure most people have a passing familiarity with the setting, it’s Star Wars. The Sourcebook was published alongside the core rules and was mainly authored by Bill Slavicsek, the line editor for the Star Wars RPG, and you can sort of see it as the other half of the originally intended core line. (Remember, the supplement churn didn’t go into high gear until the RPG started selling in a big way.)

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Anarchy In the Sixth Age

Shadowrun 5th Edition may be gratifyingly huge, but that comes at a price: it’s one of the crunchier RPG systems out there, to the point where some may find it a bit unapproachable. To my tastes, it’s at the point where if it were a bit more crunchy I’d be disinterested, and as it stands I would rather not engage with the system for the purposes of a quick one-shot game because the effort involved in engaging with it would be enough that it doesn’t quite feel worth it for a game that brief.

In principle, then, I was very interested in Shadowrun: Anarchy, a game which adapts the rules-light Cue System to Shadowrun and thereby offering a setup where character stats resemble truncated versions of the full-fat Shadowrun equivalents, allowing you to strip-mine existing Shadowrun supplements for source material whilst sticking to the lighter rules system offered here.

The issue with the book is that I kind of feel like it’s misread what people actually wanted on this front. Whilst plenty of people down the years have expressed a wish for a more rules-light take on Shadowrun, what I think most of them actually wanted when they expressed that wish was, in fact, a rules-light take on Shadowrun – namely, a system which would support the same traditional RPG experience that Shadowrun is good at, just with far less fiddly bits. What Catalyst Game Labs seem to have interpreted this desire as is as a desire for some sort of narrativist indie game which made at least a token bid to break out from the classic traditional RPG format into some sort of shared storytelling business.

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Fun? Sure, Oui!

After we’re done with my current 4-session dose of Ars Magica, my Monday evening group is going to be doing some Feng Shui, so to get ready I acquired and had a read of the core rulebook. This is the 1st edition book, since it’s the version we’ll be playing, but apparently the new 2nd edition is very similar with a few points of distinction.

Feng Shui bills itself as being the Hong Kong action movie RPG, and on that front it knocks things out of the park – indeed, it’d be pretty decent for most other action movie genres at that. There is a default setting in which feng shui sites all over the world are the key to a Big Trouble In Little China-esque battle for occult supremacy that takes place over a swathe of time periods, ranging from ancient history to a cyberpunk future, but it’s completely viable to ignore this if you want to. The best thing about the default setting is that Robin Laws packs into the core book all the stuff you need to support play in any of the time settings presented, which cover more or less all the potential settings you might want to run an action movie RPG in. Running Feng Shui in a homebrewed setting or a specific movie’s world will in many cases be as simple as deciding what bits of the book you want to leave off the table, rather than having to cook up a bunch of new stuff.

(In the new edition, the bio-cyberpunk future is relaced with a Fallout-esque postapocalyptic setting, presumably because cyberpunk isn’t as popular these days, but I consider this a mistake; if you want a postapocalyptic setting, all you need to do is take the equipment list for the time period you reckon the apocalypse happened and then wreck everything, boom, done.)

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