Dragonmeet Hoard: Basic Booklets

Finally, to polish off my Dragonmeet hoard of 2018, I picked up the five booklets that make up B/X Essentials. As the title implies, this is a retroclone of B/X D&D – the rules version decided by Tom Moldvay and David “Zeb” Cook in 1981.

This is a widely-cloned version of D&D, so what does Essentials bring to the table? Produced by Necrotic Gnome, the B/X Essentials booklets are designed from the ground up for at-the-gaming-table utility. It’s not a version of the game which offers extensive guidance and examples and explanations or otherwise tries to teach the game to you; instead, it focuses on clearly-stated presentations of rules information optimised for use mid-game.

For the most part, this is the game as originally devised by Moldvay and Cook (as opposed to Labyrinth Lord, which differs in a number of respects), with errata incorporated, a little invention here and there to patch obvious holes (like how there’s a spell that the original B/X booklets mention in passing but don’t actually provide rules for), some rephrasing of the rules so as to abide by OGL requirements and add clarity, and with the different sections integrated together and then separated into different booklets. So, for instance, the Monsters book covers all the monster stats, whilst the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book covers all the spells. If you are working from the original B/X booklets, this is already an improvement – no more having to remember which booklet a particular spell or monster was found in!

In addition, the Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman) has made the layout clear, legible, and tried to ensure that as much as possible the discussion of a topic fits into at most a single two-page spread – so, for instance, in the Core Rules booklet, the rules for chases and pursuits are all on a single two-page spread, so once you’ve found them there’s no further page-flipping needed. Norman even goes so far as to provide the details of how spell effects work with treasure descriptions as much as possible, to minimise cross-referencing between the treasure description in Adventures and Treasures and the spell booklet.

Between them, these five booklets – Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic User Spells, Monsters and Adventures and Treasures represent perhaps the easiest way to play basic D&D available, provided you have a sufficiently experienced referee to run the game. However, while I’m not sorry to own these booklets, at the same time I’d advise people to wait a little before purchasing them themselves.

The reason for that is that, Necrotic Gnome actually intends to make further improvements to the line. A recent Kickstarter for a new edition – retitled Old School Essentials to make the name a bit less inexplicable to those who don’t follow the fine differences between versions of basic D&D – has just wrapped up. Forthcoming are new versions of the booklets – hardcovers with stitching such that they can lie flat on the gaming table – along with a complete-in-one-book version for those who’d prefer that – incorporating some further errata and improvements as well as paving the way for making the game line more extendable. Supplements were funded as stretch goals, for instance, to provide a range of extra character classes not found in B/X, options for playing with an AD&D-style race/class split, and to cover druid and illusionist spells, and one could even see the range continuing to cover other genres like a Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World-esque world of mutants and mayhem.

I don’t feel like my B/X Essentials booklets are at all redundant as a result of this, mind; having extra copies at the gaming table adds utility. But at the same time, Necrotic Gnome have suspended sales of the original B/X Essentials on DriveThru so as not to sell a product which is about to be superseded, and I am greatly looking forward to what the Kickstarter yields. Tune in for the inevitable Kickstopper article to see how that goes!

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Dungeons & Diaries

Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.

The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.

Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.

The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.

The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.

Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.

As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.

Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.

By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

Mini-Review: A Patch For Pendragon

The fifth edition of Pendragon has proven to be its longest-lasting edition, having originally been published in 2005 and remained supported by some publisher or another ever since. The original release of 5th Edition, with its cover art depicting Arthur fighting… erm… a giant piggy, came about through ArtHaus Games – an imprint of White Wolf, would ya believe it – before the purchase of White Wolf by CCP and the departure of Stewart Wieck, whose baby the ArtHaus imprint was. Wieck’s new Nocturnal publishing house was the home of Pendragon for some years, until recently it made its triumphant return home to Chaosium.

Over time, Nocturnal made a couple of patches to the fifth edition core book. The 5.1 revision, which I never got around to looking at, incorporated some errata and corrections and sported new cover art of Arthur accepting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. More recently, the upgrade to Edition 5.2 – the version you can currently get from Chaosium – took place. Folding in further corrections and embellishments, the book also benefits from an updated layout, which is delightfully clear and readable, and a gorgeous interior with subdued but welcome use of colour. Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the use of the absolutely gorgeous artwork from the Spanish translation of the game.

Is it worth the upgrade? In my case I’d say yes, if only because my old copy of the ArtHaus edition is beginning to feel fragile after the rigours of play in my old Pendragon campaign. On the whole, I would say that it’s still essentially the same take on the game as was offered up in 2005, so if you already have the ArtHaus version or the 5.1 edition you don’t urgently need the upgrade – but it is undeniably an upgrade and given a choice between 5.2 and another version I’d go for 5.2.

Mini-Review: Demon: the Descent Gains a Rogue’s Gallery

The long-running Night Horrors series of supplements for the Chronicles of Darkness games is a series of fully statted-up NPCs for the different game lines, along with suitable supporting suggestions on their deployment and associated story ideas. Though each is linked to a particular game line and represents characters arising in that particular scene (so your True Fae needs are going to be served by the Changeling one and so on), obviously it’s entirely viable to take characters from one game line’s Night Horrors tome and have them show up in a different game line – say, if your werewoofles find themselves needing to get a favour off a mage, or if your hunters need a fresh nemesis after murdering their latest quarry.

Whilst most game lines got the Night Horrors treatment back in 1st edition, the line got revived for the Chronicles of Darkness era for game lines which either weren’t around back then or didn’t get any Night Horrors love. Enemy Action, then, is the Night Horrors book for Demon: the Descent, offering Demons, Angels, Cryptids, Exiles, and some cheeky mortal cultists to round everything out.

Neatly, for most entries the book doesn’t make assumptions about how you are going to use the characters in question in a game – as allies, adversaries, annoyances, or whatever. This makes for much better-rounded NPCs than if they were all intended to be allies or adversaries, since it forces the writer to think about questions like “What can this person offer their friends?” or “Why might PCs object to what this person’s up to?” It’s a solid concept for a supplement and a great addition to the Demon line – especially if you’re in urgent need of more examples of what Demons and Angels are actually like – and hopefully it won’t be the last one; it was the only Demon-specific product we saw in 2018, and 2019 doesn’t have any on the horizon based on the current Onyx Path Monday Meeting Notes.

Wrath & Glory and Other Warhammer 40,000 RPGs Disappear From DriveThruRPG

Despite its first wave of products coming out and its core rules being pretty solid as far as I was concerned, there’s been a concerning silence about Wrath & Glory. Aside from a few mentions in interviews, there wasn’t much emerging from the design team with respect to details of future products. The game’s standalone website was still up, though it’s a singularly crap effort – there’s no link to buy the game from, only the starter set is detailed, and the social media links go through to WordPress defaults – and all mention of the game seemed conspicuously absent from Ulisses North America’s front page. Rumours floated around about poor sales, though sales figures in the RPG industry are incredibly difficult to pin down.

Now, though, a much more concrete sign of trouble has emerged: without warning, all Wrath & Glory products have been pulled from DriveThruRPG, along with all the PDFs of the Fantasy Flight Games-era 40K RPGs which Ulisses Spiele had been given the rights to sell as part of their deal with Games Workshop. The products are still available in your library if you’ve purchased them already, and they still show up on searches – but you get an error if you click on those search results, so it’s no longer possible to buy the products on DriveThru if you haven’t already.

On doing further checks, other Ulisses North America game lines like The Dark Eye and Torg are unaffected, so it doesn’t look like this is a shift in policy on their part to shun DriveThruRPG (a bizarre choice since it’d mean walking out of the biggest shopfront in the market). Likewise, Rough Nights and Hard Days – the new supplement for WFRP – is still available on DriveThruRPG (and is doing pretty well in the sales rankings at that), so it seems unlikely that Games Workshop has abruptly decided to cancel all their RPG offerings or ban their licensees from using DriveThru. (Such a move would be a bit out of character for Games Workshop these days anyway, since under their new CEO they seem much more reasonable and gamer-friendly than they’ve been for a long while.)

On the whole, the situation stinks of a licensing issue between Games Workshop and Ulisses – extending, possibly, to a full-on cancellation or freezing of the licence. Why this would be the case I do not know; a lot hinges on what termination clauses and measures were written into the licence, and as a result it’s possible that this was initiated by Games Workshop, or by Ulisses, or by both.

It’s difficult to speculate what could have prompted this, but if I had to put bets on it, I’d say that some sort of acrimonious disagreement is involved. Compare this to the situation where Fantasy Flight gave up the licence voluntarily, and were able to declare as much to give customers a chance to make a last few purchases before the clock ran down. I can’t see that either Ulisses or Games Workshop would have wanted it to go down this way if they had a choice about it.

Possibly it’s just a momentary argument about royalties due from PDF sales or something of that nature, and PDF sales will be restored in due course… but it feels more likely that Wrath & Glory is dead in the water. Whether this came down to Ulisses tossing the 40K licence away (perhaps due to poor sales making it no longer worth their time, or their arrangement with Games Workshop constraining them from making other deals they thought would be more worthwhile), or down to Games Workshop slapping the franchise out of Ulisses’ hands, we don’t know. We can only hope that sooner or later someone else will step up to the plate to handle the grim darkness of the far future in tabletop RPG format.

UPDATE: It’s been announced that Ulisses are turning over development of Wrath & Glory to Cubicle 7. Cubicle 7 press release here, Ulisses statement here.

Despite Ulisses putting a brave face on this, I feel like this is mostly good news for Cubicle 7 and Games Workshop, and a bad sign for Ulisses North America. UNA lose a major brand, Games Workshop greatly simplify their oversight workload on the RPG front, and Cubicle 7 get all the Warhams RPGs under their banner. I have to suspect that Ulisses Spiele may feel that UNA has overextended itself and have decided to prune back their American branch accordingly.

Cubicle 7 confirm that there’ll be a revised printing of the core book, which I actually welcome – as much as I like the new system, the production values on the core book could do with a little Cubicle 7 magic, and folding in the errata would be a nice move.

Dragonmeet Hoard: A Metamorphosis From Alpha To Gamma

After five months of distraction with other things, it’s time to turn my attention back to the remaining treasures I obtained at last year’s Dragonmeet.

Goodman Games, as one of the larger OSR publishers out there, occasionally gets to land a grognard’s dream project here and there. Witness Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition, an expanded reprint of the original 1976 version of Jim Ward’s science fiction RPG. Set on the Starship Warden, the game casts players as mutants and mainstream humans who must explore this vast generation ship – huge enough to contain entire ecosystems whose inhabitants have no idea they’re on a spaceship – and perhaps uncover the mysteries of why its colonisation mission went wrong and how it can be put right again.

Now, Jim Ward had regained the rights to the game and had been selling a facsimile copy of the slim 32-page 1976 booklet via PDF and POD for a while when Goodman proposed this project – but here’s where the “expanded” bit of “expanded reprint” comes in. You see, rather than just reprinting the original text, this edition also comes with a brace of articles covering the history of the game’s development, some errata and new ideas, and perhaps most importantly a clutch of magazine articles from around the time of the game’s original run.

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The Cost of Sincerity

How to explain West End Games’ oddity The Price of Freedom? Well, put it this way: had it come out in the mid-1990s, when West End Games were absolutely cuckoo for licensing movie properties to adapt them into tabletop RPGs without giving any consideration for a) whether there was a market for these properties as RPGs or b) whether it was even possible to adapt them into RPGs, then The Price of Freedom wouldn’t be called The Price of Freedom: it’d be the official Red Dawn RPG.

Yep, turns out that all that glasnost business was the sham that the John Birchers thought it was. After a “gutless” President signs misguided weapon control treaties with the Soviet Union – treaties the USSR’s tyrannical regime sees nothing wrong in breaching themselves. This means the Soviets are able to perfect a nigh-perfect missile defence system for the motherland, whilst gaining an overwhelming strategic advantage against the USA. The President capitulates to USSR demands and soon enough Soviet forces begin landing in the US (along with their Cuban and Nicaraguan buddies) to act as a peacekeeping force in support of a puppet government.

The PCs in The Price of Freedom are, much like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, an unlikely rabble of freedom fighters – ordinary Americans having to face up to extraordinary times, fighting against a regime near-indistinguishable from the Stalinist version of the Soviet Union. On the face of it, this is undeniably a fantasy scenario derived in a large part from the fears of the extreme right of the 1980s; the very concept that the Soviets would mount an invasion of the USA, and attempt to occupy it in the long term, was considered absurd by most even at the time. (After the Cold War ended, declassified Soviet-era documents revealed that not even the Soviets thought that an invasion of the US was a good idea – primarily because of there being way too many guns floating around.)

On the other hand, the game was released by West End Games – known in RPG circles at the time mainly for Paranoia and Ghostbusters – and designed by Greg Costikyan, known both for his work on those games and on Toon. All comedic games – with Paranoia, in particular, incorporating a fat dose of Cold War satire. Was the game supposed to be taken seriously, or was it a really dry satire? Opinion at the time was sharply divided, with some convinced that the game couldn’t possibly be intended to be taken seriously, whilst others believing that West End had gone full Reaganite on its audience.

Continue reading “The Cost of Sincerity”