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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Onyx Path Replaces Lead Designers On Exalted

As announced on Onyx Path’s regular Monday Meeting Notes, Onyx Path are making major changes to their product roadmap and ongoing approach to finishing off the Kickstarter for Exalted 3rd Edition. The core book is out, but there’s controversies swirling around it – it includes no Charm trees, for one thing, which makes the system vastly more complicated to use, and there’s apparently substantial issues with the manufacturing on the deluxe hard copies. Plus, of course, it has a swathe of stretch goals which need to come out, and the rest of the product line’s schedule has seemed rather bare.

So, the plan for forthcoming products has been changed, but what is perhaps more interesting is that previous lead developers John Morke and Holden Shearer are now no longer in charge of the line, with Eric Minton and Robert Vance stepping up to the plate to take control of the line.

This might just be the sort of personnel churn you would expect anywhere (though Morke and Shearer departing at exactly the same time seems to make that a bit less likely)… but on the other hand, it might be an even bigger deal than it looks like, with potential implications for other licensed products that Onyx Path release – remember, whilst Onyx Path own the Trinity universe game lines and their original games like Pugmire outright, they licence ExaltedWorld of Darkness, and Chronicles of Darkness from White Wolf.

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Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

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