Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance

Lemmy died recently. Before he made Motörhead happen, he was in Hawkwind, who also collaborated regularly with Michael Moorcock. Michael Moorcock has written an awful lot of stuff, but perhaps his most famous work is the story of Elric. Therefore, this is a good time to talk about Chaosium’s Stormbringer RPG and its successor game, Magic World.

Are you buying this? Never mind, I’m going to review them anyway.

Stormbringer (early versions)

As is often with the case with classic Chaosium RPGs, many of the differences between editions of Stormbringer are essentially cosmetic, at least for their early versions. You had the 1st Edition that Chaosium put out, then you had their 2nd Edition which incorporated errata and split the material into separate booklets, and then you had the 3rd Edition, which I’ve got – a handsome hardcover book published by Games Workshop under licence for the UK market, which recombined the players’ book, GM’s book, and magic book from the 2nd edition into one book again, and also doubled the thickness of the original rulebook by tacking on the Stormbringer Companion (which provides some useful additional monster stats, some interesting magic items, and a brace of adventures, including some solo adventures). All three editions essentially present the same sort of game.

I’ve gone on the record about my feelings about the Elric series beforehand; I do genuinely like it, but I think the absolute strongest and best material is the firey original stuff – the original run of novellas leading up to and including Stormbringer, the epic conclusion to the series. Since then, Moorcock has regularly gone back to the series and added a bunch of additional material to it, tacking on prequels and undertaking increasingly desperate means to crowbar in new stories in between the existing ones. (The Dreamthief trilogy, which is the most recent addition to the series, has to be admired at least for having the audacity to cram in an entire story during a momentary lapse of consciousness on Elric’s part during Stormbringer, even if I don’t like the story that results.) It feels to me that each new layer of padding added to the series just weighs it down rather than adding to it, Moorcock never really recapturing the passionate intensity and firey anger of the original novellas as he got more and more distant from them. This isn’t down to Moorcock declining as an author – he has put out a constant stream of high-quality new material to the present day – it’s just that… Well, put it this way: I want to assume that the later Elric stories are a matter of Moorcock phoning it in for a quick and easy paycheque, because the alternative is to assume that Moorcock genuinely wanted to write good-quality, top-notch additions to the saga, and if that’s true then that speaks badly of his efforts.

Anyway, the Stormbringer RPG emerged before Moorcock got around to putting out a new layer of fat on the saga in the mid-1980s, with the upshot that the canon that Chaosium old hand Steve Perrin and Tunnels & Trolls maverick Ken St. Andre were working from hadn’t swamped the original fire and brimstone too badly. The end result is a presentation of the Elric saga which is raw and vivid, the book benefiting from wild, psychedelic fantasy art that hasn’t yet yielded to the rather homogenised illustration work that would grace fantasy novels (including Moorcock’s) from the mid-1980s onward. As an artifact, the book is packed with atmosphere (and screams out for some appropriate Hawkwind album – perhaps Space Ritual or Warrior on the Edge of Time – to be blaring from the speakers as you play it), and St. Andre and Perrin don’t disappoint on the design end of things.

As a project, Stormbringer occupies an interesting place in Chaosium’s history. It was developed in parallel with Call of Cthulhu, with both games coming out in 1981 (Cthulhu hitting the streets in November, with Stormbringer pipping it to the finish line in July). The previous year had seen the original 16-page Basic Roleplaying pamphlet being developed, arrived at by taking RuneQuest and boiling away some of its more complex aspects (like the fiddly formulae for working out your base skill in each skill category, the use of Strike Ranks in combat, and the use of Hit Locations); Cthulhu and Stormbringer seem to have been developed in part as an exercise in taking this simplified system and applying it to licensed properties, Chaosium possibly coming to the conclusion that doing so would make the games a bit more friendly to fans of the properties in question not familiar with RPG conventions than simply applying the full-bore RuneQuest system would.

Of course, Chaosium had these licences for a little while before the RPGs came out – in fact, they played into the embarrassing saga surrounding TSR’s Deities & Demigods supplements, which included chapters on the deities of the Cthulhu Mythos and the Young Kingdoms setting without realising Chaosium had the RPG rights to both. Chaosium were actually chill about this – some versions of Deities & Demigods include both chapters but have a note mentioning that they are included by kind permission of Chaosium – but TSR eventually decided to pull the chapters in later printings of the supplement when they came to the conclusion that they perhaps didn’t want to be giving a free nod to their competitors – particularly at a time when RuneQuest was the strongest challenger to Dungeons & Dragons when it came to fantasy RPGs. All the more reason for Chaosium to press their advantage, in that case!

What you actually get with Stormbringer is an eccentric and atmospheric game which, much like Ken St. Andre’s earlier Tunnels & Trolls, embraces the random a bit more than RuneQuest and other Chaosium games did. In particular, character generation notoriously involves some random determinations of cultural background and profession which can make a huge difference to starting capabilities – one character may be a powerful Melnibonéan sorcerer, whilst another might be a maimed beggar. On top of that, it eschews the model of magic as involving casting formulaic spells for predictable effects, as presented in most previous RPGs, in favour of basing it more or less entirely around the summoning of elementals and demons. Lastly, it includes a system for currying the favour of various powerful entities, up to and including extremes like becoming a sworn agent of Law or Chaos. It’s all extremely heavy metal, and sometimes unfair, but the idea of presenting a system where a player character party will likely end up involving some more powerful characters and some less powerful characters as their retainers works in a party dynamic which differs interestingly from the assumptions of many games before and after, and which could be interesting to explore provided you had OOC buy-in for that.

Magic World

As the 1990s rolled around, various changes came to the game line: the rather transitional 4th Edition of Stormbringer worked in some changes to the magic system, then the retitled Elric! radically reformed the game, taking out a lot of the random unequalities, changing the way that currying the favour of the cosmic powers worked, and incorporating a more traditional spell-based magic system that the summonings were subsumed into (reflecting, to a certain extent, some ways in which the setting had developed in Moorcock’s subsequent fiction), and then the 5th edition of Stormbringer was, in effect, a retitled Elric!, the retitling experiment having been abandoned as being needlessly confusing. Then again, perhaps they were onto something with the retitling, since the tweaks to the game represent one of those fandom-splitting shifts that doom some game lines to have eternally divided fanbases. Some swear by the wilder and weirder earlier editions of Stormbringer, others quite like the reforms.

Subsequent to that, Chaosium lost their licence to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion works entirely, with the licence then going to Mongoose who used it to put out some material for their version of RuneQuest. For a long time, this branch of the Chaosium family tree was left fallow – until they decided to revive Magic WorldMagic World was a name originally given to a slim booklet in Worlds of Wonder, a mostly-forgotten attempt by Chaosium to put out a generic core set for Basic Roleplaying in the 1980s; of the three World booklets in the set, only Superworld had given rise to a subsequent game line.

However, at some point Chaosium seem to have become embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t have any currently in-print fantasy-focused RPGs, at a time when fantasy BRP variants were thick on the ground – Mongoose had Legend, Design Mechanism had their iteration of RuneQuestOpenQuest was making the rounds, and so on. The new Magic World isn’t so much a revival of the old Magic World booklet (for one thing, there frankly isn’t that much of substance there to revive) so much as it’s a continuation of the Stormbringer game line with Moorcock-specific elements removed. The core book is, like the 5th Edition of Stormbringer, cobbled together from various books in the old Elric! line – the core book, plus the magic supplement The Bronze Grimoire, plus some seafaring rules from Sailing On the Seas of Fate – as well as other sources. (Some bits are worked in from the deluxe Basic Roleplaying book, for instance, and there’s a monsters chapter sourced from the 3rd Edition RuneQuest monsters book.)

What you get out of this is a complete-in-one-book generic BRP fantasy RPG, of the sort which isn’t exactly scarce these days, coupled with the alignment system of late-edition Elric!/Stormbringer, with Law and Chaos renamed to Light and Shadow respectively. It’d be ripe for writing off as the sort of product which is interesting but not really that different from any number of competing fantasy BRP variants, were it not for the Southern Reaches campaign setting. This setting, summed up in one chapter penned by David Ackerman, is a generic fantasy affair that is saved from irrelevance by the exciting macro-scale scenario it suggests. Rather than unfolding across an entire campaign world that realistically you could only explore a fraction of in an average campaign, instead it presents a small region of this world – namely, the southernmost province of an expansive empire. This used to be the realm of the Fey, who disappeared from this world centuries ago, leaving it ripe for the empire to expand into it; two rival families were given command of the province, one a line of bluff warriors who eventually ended up allied with the region’s dwarves and the other a cabal of sophisticated mages who have struck an understanding with the elves, who are in the interesting position of being somewhere between human and Fey in their nature.

For a good long while, the two noble lines have maintained an attitude of mostly good-natured competition, not really being especially friendly but at least managing to be mutually respectful. Recently, however, this looks set to shift gear into a state of more overt antagonism – for the betrothed of one of the lords has left him, opting to marry the leader of the other family instead. On top of that, there are signs that the Fey are beginning to return to their old haunts. Between them, these two situations create a situation ripe for RPG purposes – you could viably run a sandbox campaign where these events form a flavourful backdrop which might yield interesting adventuring opportunities, and where the PCs opt whether or not to get involved in this nonsense and in what capacity to get involved, or you could go for a more guided campaign using these events as a starting point. Either way, it’s exciting stuff… but there’s a couple of interrelated problems.

The first problem is the usual one that faces anyone contemplating a very traditional fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and the like: “Why don’t I just run this in Dungeons & Dragons?” The second, related problem, is that whilst the scenario and setting there is very interesting, it doesn’t really closely interface with the particular novelties that Magic World brings to the table; the most glaring example of this is the fact that, throughout the entire Southern Reaches chapter, the concepts of Shadow and Light are not even mentioned once. This might be forgivable if the whole Shadow/Light thing were the sort of alignment system which is purely a reductive shorthand description of someone’s moral outlook, as is often the case in D&D; however, in Magic World as in Stormbringer (and in the better D&D implementations of alignment) the alignments represent active cosmic forces with a tangible reality and a specific agenda, and the system goes to some lengths to underscore the reality of this (not least through the mechanism of becoming a Champion of Shadow, Light, or the Balance.)

It seems absolutely bizarre to give these forces the page count they get in the Magic World system, and then present a sample setting where they are essentially absent. It’s almost as though the Southern Reaches were cooked up in an entirely different context and tacked on to round out the book. Between this, and the sometimes sloppy presentation and editing that unfortunately was an all-too-regular hallmark of Charlie Krank’s latter-day reign over Chaosium (particularly when it came to non-Call of Cthulhu products), Magic World represents an interesting first pass, and something which I could probably do something fun with, but at the same time I can’t fault the new Chaosium team’s apparent decision to put support for Magic World on the back burner somewhat whilst they concentrate on sorting out the troubled gestation of 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu and getting RuneQuest back in-house and firing on all cylinders.

In fact, let me unpack that more: one of the things that the new Moon Design-helmed Chaosium have specifically said they are going to do is that they are putting settings first – whilst Basic Roleplaying will still be the backbone of their games, it’s going to be a decidedly flexible backbone and the intention is to craft each game to really robustly support the particular setting it is trying to support. This makes a massive amount of sense; between the general difficulty of enforcing IP claims around game rules and the fact that Mongoose let the cat out of the bag by putting out their their RuneQuest under an OGL, Chaosium will be on a losing game if they try to make uniquely good systems, but if they can give the definitive treatment to particular settings they can get a lot of traction with fans of those settings. Indeed, the refocusing of RuneQuest to be exclusively Glorantha-focused, just as its original two editions were, seems to be based on a recognition that whilst Chaosium would struggle to win over a majority of the BRP generic fantasy customer base, they can count on being able to sell to a large proportion of the Glorantha fanbase provided that they put out good products, since they control Glorantha and nobody can commercially play in that playground without their invitation.

This being the case, it would seem both consistent with this strategy and a decent idea in and of itself for Chaosium to bench Magic World for a while and give it a good hard look before making a second edition, and not pushing ahead with any such thing until they can answer the following questions to their own satisfaction:

  1. Is the Southern Reaches a compelling enough setting to base a commercial product line around?
  2. If it is, what are the truly unique elements of the setting which Magic World needs to reflect from page 1?
  3. If it is not, do we have a setting available to us which makes it worth putting out Magic World at all?

The early editions of Stormbringer, like Call of Cthulhu and classic RuneQuest, present a fantastic example of how a really strong setting can not only provide an in-character context for playing a game, but can also on an out-of-character level generate buy-in and enthusiasm for the game. The classic Chaosium games don’t wait until page 237 to talk about their settings – they reflect those settings and are shaped by them from page 1 onwards. If Magic World‘s Southern Reaches setting is to have a future, it needs to be the sort of setting that can lend itself to the same treatment. BRP-based systems are thick on the ground these days, and whatever fiddling about and houseruling any particular iteration of the systems in question does is not really going to be enough to justify a sale on the system alone; the settings of these games need to be a front-and-centre selling point, not an afterthought tucked into the back of the book.

And you really need a more evocative name than Magic World.

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7 thoughts on “Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance

  1. Reblogged this on The GROGNARD Files and commented:
    At the moment. I’m preparing the introduction to the Stormbringer episode of The Grog-Pod (due in February). This blog post does a great job at examining the various iterations and developments of the game. Recommended!!

  2. Frank,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve not played Stormbringer for over 30 years, I’m about to revive a game at the end of the month, so as I write I’m up to my eyes in the various supplements and rules editions. I belong to the camp that believes that the original system was best. It was part of it’s charm that you had to play the hand that you were dealt. We only had a small group back in the day, at times there were only two players, so there was a certain challenge to one character being better than the other, wandering the world like Elric and Moonglum.

    Part of the reason why we loved living and breathing in the Young Kingdoms is that it seemed much more open to our inventiveness than a closed world like Glorantha. Moorcock himself wasn’t that precious about it, so it was possible to do anything as long as it was in the spirit of the place.

    I’ve started to read the Elric! supplements. While I like some elements of the magic and the magical objects that they include, it seems much more generic than the eccentric appeal of debating with demons and elementals. It’s probably fitting that it found its way into the BRP system in the 90s.

    As part of my series of podcasts about playing RPGs back in the day, I’ll be covering Strombringer next month – please can I quote from your blog post? (particularly the bits about Magic World?) – I’ll make sure that you get a full citation.

    Thanks again – it’s a really interesting piece.

    1. The name’s Arthur, not Frank, but you can go ahead and quote at will.

      I think the next year or so is going to be a very interesting time for anyone keeping an eye on this particular game’s lineage. New-Chaosium have said that they fully intend to have exciting new BRP-related stuff happening beyond reinvigorating the Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest lines – there’s a second edition of Mythic Iceland in the offing, for instance – and Magic World seems to be a game which boasts at least a few vocal fans, even if it hasn’t been a monster hit.

      It will be interesting to see if Chaosium’s new management can find a way to justify keeping Magic World going in one form or another. It’ll also be interesting to see if they can recapture the Eternal Champion RPG licence – to my knowledge Mongoose don’t have it any more (if they had, I’d have thought they’d be pushing Elric stuff for Legend much more loudly, though I don’t pretend to understand what basis Mongoose make business decisions on),

      I think it’ll be a hard sell – Michael Moorcock seems to have been extremely unhappy with the way old-Chaosium handled the licence towards the end of their tenure (probably with good reason, considering Chaosium’s recurring payment issues under Charlie Krank’s stewardship). On the other hand, Moorcock seemed favourably impressed with Chaosium’s work at one point – a very enthusiastic quote graces the back of my Games Workshop hardcopy of Stormbringer – so it’s not impossible that they might win him over, especially if they can establish a track record of settling their debts and managing business in a much more efficient and reliable way than old-Chaosium did.

      1. Sorry about that Arthur, to be frank, I’m polishing off the Christmas wine so I can start Dry Jan tomorrow, which accounts for my momentary lapse in reason.

        Chaosium responded to a tweet yesterday during a discussion about Stormbringer, confirming that they no longer hold the licence, but I’m not sure where it’s up to at the moment. I’ve not seen the Mongoose supplement, but if it’s like their other efforts, it will be lots of fluff and little substance.

        It’s hard to find quotes regarding Moorcock’s attitude towards the game (other than the one you mention). I remember that he was rather bemused by it all back in the day, saying that it all seemed like gaming was very hard work.

        It’s fascinating to note that Ken St Andre has never met or corresponded with Moorcock, before or after producing Stormbringer.

        Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Many Basic Flavours « Refereeing and Reflection

  4. Disagree about the relevance of your “3 questions” at the end there. The Southern Reaches is a nice little example setting which takes up maybe 10% of the page count. I don’t think Chaosium worried too much about whether the rules especially reflected it or ever intended to hang the line on it. Magic World was let down in execution, and now abandoned, but it was a workable fantasy BRP iteration a little lighter than RQ6/Mythras. I’d be happy to play it anytime, though its niche is a little too crowded.

    1. The fact that the previous regime at Chaosium doesn’t seem to have had any firm plans with the Southern Reaches is part of the problem, to be honest – 10% of page count on a throwaway setting that they never intended to do anything interesting with is still a waste of page count.

      And if they really didn’t care about whether the rules reflected the setting, that’s a huge problem – even if it was only meant to be a one-appearance-and-done sample setting, the sample setting for an RPG ought to reflect the rules to that RPG, because it’s supposed to be the showcase of what you can do with the system, and if the rules and setting don’t match then either the setting or rules need to change.

      Either way, the three questions at the end there are less about the old Chaosium’s decisions (though there’s plenty of reason to dispute those) and more about trying to find a niche for Magic World in the new Chaosium’s new setting-first strategy. The fact that they have cancelled the line would seem to suggest that there isn’t any good answers to those questions.

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