Not Core, But Companionable

Produced under the auspices of the effectively-identical 5th and 6th Editions of Call of Cthulhu, the two Keeper’s Companion volumes consist of a grab-bag of essays, resources, ideas and concepts which offer a useful pick-and-mix for Call of Cthulhu Keepers seeking inspiration. The first Companion bills itself on the front as “A Core Book for Keepers”; this feels like mild hucksterism on the part of the Krank-led Chaosium that published it in 2000s, since by my reckoning a genuinely “core” book for a game line is one which provides information essential to making the game happen, and the stuff you get here is nothing of the sort. (Call of Cthulhu has always been very good at providing an extremely complete game in its single core rulebook.)

That doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very useful! You get an extensive list of real-world occult texts to pepper your investigations with, deeper details on a range of significant tomes and alien races which help invest them with more character than the rather brief rundowns in the core book offer, a delicious range of Mythos artifacts, cults, and locales to get inspiration from, extended commentary on the skill list offering further pointers on how skills can be used, and a really useful essay on forensic medicine, how coroners in the US operate, and how law enforcement bodies interact with coroners and use forensic medicine in their own right, which can be great if you want to add a deeper sense of verisimilitude in terms of what the authorities are getting up to. (The Companion also helpfully notes that it contains more or less all the material from the earlier Keeper’s Compendium, so there’s no need to go hunting that unless you are a collector or completist.)

The Keeper’s Companion 2 from 2002 no longer bills itself as a core book on the front cover, though it does on the inside title page – and if anything, the description is even more tenuous when applied to this book. Again, it’s a mixture of essays and compiled lists; the latter includes detailed breakdowns of firearms for those who want that, a random selection of books, spells and creatures not previously collected in one place, and a mass of technological devices invented by humans and others featuring in a range of published Call of Cthulhu adventures and supplements over the years, gathered together in one place for convenience. There’s also a “list of lists”, providing an index of various subjects – characters, creatures, tomes and locales – dealt with in published Call of Cthulhu material, which I guess is useful if you want pointers on where you can go find an adventure which uses one of the things in question.

Aside from a bundle of material on Deep Ones at the back of the book, the two significant essays here consist of one brief snippet and one big monster. The brief one is LaVey, Satanism, and the Big Squid, a quick overview of how some wings of occultism ended up performing rites to Cthulhu in real life. Revised by J. Gordon Olmstead-Dean from an internet posting of his, it’s decent when it comes to covering the LaVey angle – particularly when it comes to illustrating how most LaVeyans are basically atheistic sorts who dress up a might-makes-right libertarian philosophy in Satanic trappings – but doesn’t offer enough details on other aspects which I think would be of interest to readers.

For instance, Olmstead-Dean notes that a certain wing of occultists teach that you can use Cthulhu in occult workings because they regard any such figure as being a basically arbitrary representation of appropriate themes, ideas and associations – so if Cthulhu is more mythologically resonant with you than Poseidon or Superman seems more meaningful to you than Horus, you can perfectly happy use them instead. He does not, however, explicitly make the connection to chaos magic, the field which this idea comes from, or give suitable pointers to find out more about the subject.

In addition, he completely fails to mention Kenneth Grant or his “Typhonian” splinter sect of the OTO – a bit of an oversight considering that Grant was one of the first occultists to pay any significant attention to Lovecraft. In his Nightside of Eden, Grant advocated (with every sign of complete sincerity) the idea that Lovecraft had some subconscious appreciation of hidden occult truths, to the point where the deities of the Mythos had an actual reality to them and that Lovecraft’s writing, influenced as it was by his dreams, reflected that reality. (Subsequent books would see Grant doubling down on this, in the face of a backlash by more “traditionalist” Thelemites, by trying to tie in UFOlogy with the whole business.) Brushing past this without even a reference is a huge omission – it’s not that Grant is necessarily especially respected in occult circles, but he’s certainly infamous within them precisely because of the Lovecraft connection.

The major essay offered up here is a detailed breakdown of Prohibition by Adam Gauntlett – how it arouse, how it died, and how things were in between. Whilst this is, of course, a subject any of us could research for ourselves given time, I find the presentation here very useful – it’s substantially longer than, say, a typical Wikipedia article on the subject, shorter and pitched at an easier level than a more scholarly treatment of the subject, and hones in usefully on potentially interesting subjects for gaming – whether the players are producing, smuggling, selling, or buying suppressed liquor or trying to stop the above. Most usefully, it provides enough detail to help the Keeper feel like they can get across how Prohibition and its evasion functions during the era without getting bogged down in trivia.

The two Companions are, I would say, companions for between game sessions, not for the gaming table itself. Flipping about within their pages for details at the session is undesirable – but digging into them to mine ideas for preparing for your next session can be very profitable. As such, even in this 7th Edition era, I think there is still a place for them.

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Not Much Underneath the Animal Masks…

The Hawkmoon self-contained RPG was a boxed set put out by Chaosium as a sort of cautious attempt at expanding Stormbringer into other fictional settings from Michael Moorcock’s stories. On the face of it, this wasn’t a bad idea – after all, the whole Eternal Champion premise that underpins so much of Moorcock’s fiction hinges on the idea of a multiverse of alternate worlds. Moreover, the Hawkmoon series would seem on the face of it to be a good one to pick for a first salvo into the wider multiverse, because it’s another sword and sorcery sequence and so extensive reworking of the Stormbringer system isn’t particularly necessary.

The series in question concerns Duke Dorian Hawkmoon, who resides in a future Europe that is stumbling out of a new Dark Age brought about by the devastating wars and catastrophes of the Tragic Millennium. Hawkmoon spends a lot of time fighting the sinister forces of Granbretan, a twisted future Britain that has become an evil empire, its repressive culture represented in part by the way its citizens go about in animal masks denoting their station in life and in part by the menacing figure of King Huon, its centuries-old king who rules over the Empire and preserves his existence thanks to the fabulous technology of his sorcerer-scientists.

So far, so science fantasy. The Hawkmoon boxed set attempts to convey this setting by providing character generation rules for player characters hailing from a great swathe of Europe and North America, details on fabulous sorcery-science artifacts and terrible mutations, summaries of the Hawkmoon saga and a general overview of the setting, complete with NPC stats. Fine. Yet despite providing most of these features it still feels hollow and flavourless somehow next to Stormbringer.

Admittedly, part of what leaves me cold here might come down to the fact that I don’t really like the source material. Moorcock has gone on the record as saying that he cranked out the Hawkmoon novels in the space of mere days for the sake of earning some quicky and easy money so he could concentrate on weightier work, and is kind of surprised by their continued warm reception by fantasy fans. Frankly, as far as I am concerned the novels betray their origins as rush-written disposable trash very easily, and the high regard they are held in by some readers is evidence of generally poor taste and low levels of discernment in the fantasy fanbase. The series is blighted by flat characterisation that gets contradicted from book to book, a similarly contradictory and hopelessly muddled plot, and degenerates in the final three books (and final novel The Quest For Tanelorn in particular) into a mass of self-indulgent multiversal crossover waffle and heavy-handed allegory that never misses an opportunity to insult the reader’s intelligence.

Still, there’s stuff to enjoy there – the descriptions of Granbretan, in particular, were places where the novels really came alive (not least because it was Moorcock’s vicious autopsy of British culture’s worst tendencies), and made me feel like conceivably this could be an interesting setting to game in. Whilst it might be possible to whip what you get in the books into an interesting, gameable setting, the Hawkmoon set doesn’t quite get there.

For one thing, it gives lots of attention to the various little nations of 6th Millennium Europe and America, all of which are a bit flavourless at best and tastelessly based on national stereotypes at worst, and whilst it does give a certain amount of detail to Granbretan, it could have afforded to concentrate on it a bit more in order to invest things with the flavour the broader setting is sadly lacking. For another, designer Kerie Campbell-Robson puts in sops towards having a scientific invention system, whilst at the same time not really offering much of a robust invention creation system – a particular problem since most of the items described in the set are items from the books which play a very specific role in those very specific plots and aren’t of enormous utility outside that context.

It feels like the weird science of the Hawkmoon series and its occasional forays into interdimensional wackiness are regarded by Campbell-Robson as being the meat of the setting, given the energy put into describing them, but after this description is offered it remains unclear what you’re really meant to do with them. The interdimensional travel rules exist mostly to allow characters from Stormbringer to visit the Hawkmoon setting and vice versa, which is nice in principle but in practice if I were going to spend a significant proportion of a campaign in the Young Kingdoms I’d just bite the bullet and play Stormbringer rather than bringing in this watered-down stuff. The mutation stuff we’ve seen before in Gamma World, and like I said most of the super-science items are very tied into particular plots from the novels.

Campbell-Robson does not successfully identify a niche for players to get involved in this stuff independently of the action of the novels, which speaks to a wider failure to offer a distinctive time period for adventure. Stormbringer assumes that campaigns kick off before Elric’s saga passes the point of no return and thus takes place in an identifiable point in time in the setting; in Hawkmoon it’s not clear whether we’re assumed to be playing before, during, or after Hawkmoon’s own adventures. It doesn’t help that the sample adventures, though imaginative, end up sliding well outside the scope of the novels – having the player characters uncover long-frozen folk from the 21st Century feels like the sort of thing which instantly tonally shifts the campaign to something well outside of the world presented in the books.

Apparently Hawkmoon underwent significant further development in its French translation, but in terms of the English-language product it remains a bit of an also-ran compared to the wild, flavourful Stormbringer.

Roll to See If You Are the Law

One of the most important business relationships in the history of Mongoose Publishing is that between them and Rebellion, the videogame company that also happens to own 2000AD and its associated intellectual property. This started early on in Mongoose’s existence; they landed the Judge Dredd RPG licence that had laid fallow since Games Workshop’s 1985 attempt at a Dredd RPG, and managed to put out a D20 Dredd game as early as 2002. It reached its zenith in the late 2000s, when Mongoose became a part of the Rebellion group, but by the early 2010s it was on the wane – Mongoose detached itself from Rebellion for reasons that have never been wholly explained, and more recently their various 2000AD-related licences came to an end.

Though the split was cordial and civilised, it’s clear that this gradual winding-down of relations was very damaging to Mongoose. Rebellion seem to be happy enough having added Cubicle 7 to their family (a company I generally find to be rather superior to Mongoose in the production values, editing, and overall quality stakes) – they quite evidently didn’t need Mongoose nearly as much as Mongoose needed them. Conversely, Mongoose’s product range has been gutted, with lines based on Rebellion properties like Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog vanishing from their catalogue. With their loss of other important licences, Mongoose have been left a gutted shadow of their former selves.

It is a shame that one casualty of this is their 2009 Judge Dredd campaign setting book for Traveller. Not only does the militaristic bent of Traveller prove a good match for the brutal Justice Department of Mega-City One, but it’s also a rather gorgeously executed product, with generally tighter editing than expected for Mongoose and excellent layout and use of the 2000AD art assets.

The darkly comedic undercurrents of the Dredd series even make some aspects of the Traveller system feel more appropriate than in vanilla Traveller. Character creation, for instance, is adapted so that instead of starting as an adult and going through terms of service in some career or other, you start as a child recruit to the Academy and character gen takes you through the process of training as a cadet until you have your Full Eagle Day, when under the watchful eye of an active Judge you do a live-fire street patrol, and if they reckon you are ready you become a full-fledged Judge. (More experienced characters can be produced using tables covering terms of service as an actual Judge if desired.)

Everyone laughs about Classic Traveller character generation and the way it makes it possible for characters to die in character gen, and in some respects this a return to that, but for my money it’s an amusing and characterful implementation of the idea which, crucially, establishes useful stuff about the setting. Although flunking the Academy isn’t likely, it’s definitely possible, and the danger of it existing means that new PCs feel like they have survived a recruitment and training process as cartoonishly gruelling as it’s supposed to be, and like any good lifepath system it’s a nice instant introduction to the flavour and style of the setting.

That commitment to the flavour of the setting remains firmly in place throughout the book, even when it comes to rather dated and unkind storylines (like the whole “Fatties” thing concerning a cultish subculture based around weight gain), and is arguably the strongest aspect of the book. You get the big picture stuff – an extensive rundown of the history of Mega-City One as recounted in the comics, details on the structure of the Justice Department, descriptions of other Mega-Cities and offworld colonies, and stats for baddies ranging from street toughs to invaders from other dimensions. You also get a nice discussion of how things work at a Sector level (as well as a sample Sector, Sector 13, to use as a pregenerated focus for the campaign), which helps tie things down to the level of the player characters.

The rules offered are generally quite good, but some editing issues here and there crop up. The thing which stood out for me the most is the duty allocation table you roll on to see what job your party’s been assigned to for today’s shift; on a 2-8 you get a standard street patrol, on a 9-12 you roll 2D6 to see what sort of special duty you end up with. Unfortunately the special duties have been arranged on that 2D6 table in alphabetical order, without any regard given to the relative probabilities involved, leading to the absurd situation where you are twice as likely to be dealing with a Block War as you are to do a simply patrol of a block. This isn’t too hard to amend, but it’s still an irritation.

On the whole, the Traveller incarnation of Judge Dredd is a great one-book presentation of a distinctive SF setting. Yes, it’s a misanthropic world in which a fascistic police force lords it over a twitchy population prone to violent criminal crazes – a cartoon crapsack world which has become dystopian largely because it’s mostly inhabited by various flavours of total asshole – but as a vehicle for cathartic venting or dark satire it’s still a great setting, and this may be the nicest treatment for an RPG it’s had.

The Utilitarian Mongoose

So let’s say you’re running Mongoose’s version of Traveller – the first edition, because you’re not enough of a schmuck to buy an edition of Traveller that doesn’t have basic ship building rules in the core rulebook. You have your core book, you might have the referee screen (portrait orientation panels, ugh, but at least there’s a nice “view through a starship viewscreen” aesthetic to it), what are the other tools you might be resorting to frequently?

Well, there’s every chance you’d also be looking at their supplement line. With a plain aesthetic and a numbering scheme reminiscent of the little black books of Classic Traveller, a few of them (like Dynasty) offered substantial additions to the Traveller rules, but most of them consisted of highly utilitarian compilations of stuff.

For instance, for those who don’t have time to design an entire galaxy’s worth of starships, the three starship supplements – Supplement 2: Traders and GunboatsSupplement 3: Fighting Ships, and Supplement 10: Merchants and Cruisers – offer all you could want, with various worked examples of a wide range of ship types and some lovely deckplans. (Fighting Ships concludes with an Imperial battlestation of truly vast proportions, whose audacity is just a joy to contemplate). The first two of these have some nice artwork of the ships which in their simple style give me fond memories of looking at spaceship artwork in library books back as a little Arthur; sadly, Merchants and Cruisers instead has somewhat ugly CGI of the ships instead, and loses some of its charm as a result.

Another set of worked examples was Supplement 7: 1001 Characters. Whereas “masses of NPC stats”-type supplements had been produced for Traveller before, these mostly consisted of statlines produced by a spreadsheet – useful in days when everyone didn’t have computers handy, near-useless otherwise. The modern update of the concept here is somewhat more useful, with various instant NPCs with appropriate statlines, names, brief backgrounds and, most usefully of all, a clear archetypal niche for them in bold. Flip to the appropriate chapter, look at the bold text until you spot something that suits the sort of NPC you want to deploy, and then bombs away. It’s a great example of how even with an extremely simple, bare-bones layout you can with a little thought make something extremely useful in actual play.

Other supplements added additional bits to the rules; Supplement 4: Central Supply Catalogue not just provided lots of and lots of equipment, but also guidelines on adapting equipment (such as coming up with higher tech level equivalents of lower-tech gear). My main complaint about it is that it’s a bit gunbunny-tastic – there’s masses and masses of weapons and armour detailed but comparatively slimmer sections on non-combat requipment. Supplement 5-6: The Vehicle Handbook was a replacement for two somewhat shonky earlier vehicle supplements, and provided a fairly simple vehicle design system which could model everything from a bicycle to a tank – quite nice, though I am not sure why you would ever bother to come up with detailed game stats for a bicycle. Supplement 11: Animal Encounters expanded on the animal encounter rules in the core book.

Supplement 8: Cybernetics might just be the hidden star of the supplement line. Yes, it’s a shopping list of cyberware – but more significantly, it offers detailed rules on cyberware and reworked career profiles oriented towards a cyberpunk setting and rules for handling cyberspace. Between these components, it offers all you need to run 1980s-1990s style cyberpunk in Traveller – decades late, maybe, but a welcome filling of a gap that GDW left open really absurdly long.

Supplements like this aren’t flashy, aren’t sexy, but are extremely useful for running any tabletop RPG – sometimes you need those worked examples handy when there just isn’t the prep time to do it yourself. One could wish that more games remembered the utility of such things.

Watership Gaming

Scott Bizar’s Fantasy Games Unlimited was an early publisher to get onboard the RPG bandwagon. After putting out some simple wargames in 1975 to get a name for the company, Bizar first entered the RPG sphere after meeting the designers of Chivalry & Sorcery at Gen Con IX in 1976, where they’d unsuccessfully (and perhaps rather presumptuously) attempted to pitch it to Gary Gygax as a replacement for Dungeons & Dragons. Signing them up, Bizar realised that there were plenty of gamers with the creativity to write their own RPGs but without the publishing resources to put them out there (self-publishing being a vastly more rudimentary prospect at that point in time), and started actively soliciting games for publication.

One of the earliest such is Bunnies & Burrows by B. Dennis Sustare and Scott Robinson, a charming game in which the player characters are fuzzy bunnies flopping about in a sort of Watership Down mode. They’re very bunny-like bunnies for the most part, though in some respects their capabilites go a little beyond what we humans know bunnies can do – they can carry about items in little bags, treat herbs to make special preparations, use powers of empathy and precognition, and even talk to other animals. (The exception on the latter is humans – animals can’t talk to humans for some reason, and tend to regard them as weird irrational beasts.)

Considering that D&D had only come out in 1974, to show the level of imagination involved in executing such an eccentric concept for an RPG a mere two years after the format came to mass attention is impressive. Sustare and Robinson not only give you a very clear idea of what a Bunnies & Burrows game would be like (namely, flopping about in a meadow or forest evading danger and having gentle rabbity adventures), but also make a game which is actually reasonably well-explained and engineered for its vintage.

There are eight character statistics, with a character class associated with each one – a pleasing symmetry that even D&D didn’t have. Rather than bunnies having a single level, they have a Level associated with each of their characteristics, distinct from their innate score. Each time they accomplish something or overcome a challenge, bunnies get the right to make a percentage die roll against an appropriate attribute; if they succeed at the roll, they gain a Level in that attribute, which may unlock different capabilities (some universal, some class-specific). You’re limited to one Level increase in a particular characteristic per game day, and the higher your innate score, the more chance you have of boosting your Level. Combat largely involves matching appropriate stats of attackers vs. defenders, modified based on what attacks and defences are being used.

In some respects questionable design decisions are made; for instance, you’re encouraged to keep the herb details secret from herbalist players so they can discover them via trial and error, except to be honest the number of different ways herbs can be prepared and the necessity to prepare them just right to actually get the wanted effect out of them makes me suspect that going through the whole trial and error process would just be frustrating – plus characters tend to be extremely fragile. (I mean, of course they are. They’re bunnies.) But on the whole, this FGU oddity retains a certain charm that I rather like.

Simply Designed, Solo Friendly, Slightly Racist

In mid-1980s Britain the Fighting Fantasy boom led to a craze for gamebooks of all kind. Casting about for material, Corgi Books realised that they could go back to the source to find an existing body of solo RPG adventures ripe for republication in a trade paperback format. That was the extensive number of solo adventures published by Flying Buffalo for their major RPG product, Tunnels & Trolls – in fact, they put out substantially more solo adventures than they did conventional adventure modules. In fact, with the first of these, Buffalo Castle, coming out in 1976 they have a strong claim to being the first gamebooks based on RPG mechanics. (Treasure Hunt by Alan George, which came out in 1945, is generally acknowledged as being the first gamebook in the modern sense, though it has no RPG mechanics beyond picking which page to turn to next like in Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

This isn’t the only “first” that Tunnels & Trolls can claim; in putting it out in 1975, Ken St. Andre can claim to have designed the first tabletop RPG which was not either Dungeons & Dragons or a transparent copy thereof. It’s a simple, stripped-down affair, in keeping with Ken’s design agenda of producing a fantasy dungeon-crawling RPG that was much less complex than D&D; only D6s are used, a spell point system is used instead of Vancian memorisation (up to and including 5th Edition this was based off your Strength score; to counter the rise of beefcake wizards the “5.5” revision added a separate magic points stat), and the class options are greatly truncated. You can be a warrior, you can be a wizard, you can be a rogue (who isn’t a D&D-type rogue – those were still called “thieves” – but is more of a dabbler who draws on warrior and wizard abilities alike), or you can be a warrior-wizard (who’s like a rogue who’s much better at dipping into both classes, but you only qualify as one if you have really good stats). Monsters are largely described by a single “monster rating” stat, which acts as both their hit points and a measure of combat power – so as they get hurt in combat they get into a death spiral. Perhaps the oddest system quirk of Tunnels & Trolls is how combat works – with both sides rolling attack rolls and adding them up, seeing which side got the higher total, and doing damage to the losing side based on the difference.

These days Tunnels & Trolls gets reprinted in a new edition every so often, though to be honest the updates seem to be largely aesthetic these days. After a quick edition churn in the game’s early days, the 5th edition was arrived at in 1979, and remained the current edition until the 5.5 update in 2005, which patched the 5th edition rules with a little extra material, and the concurrent 30th Anniversary Edition which represented a more radical update of the game, modifying the level-gain process and adding in a skill system.

For my part, though, I swear by my Corgi reprint of the 5th Edition rulebook, with those lovely Josh Kirby reinterpretations of the original artwork; it feels like trying to add modern features like a skill system to Tunnels & Trolls is kind of redundant and steers its away from its core strength. We already have a reasonably simple dungeoneering RPG with a skill system – it’s D&D 5E – but Tunnels & Trolls stands out for being a nice pick-up-and-play game suited to solo or group play equally and which you can play with just a few six-siders. Tunnels & Trolls isn’t without issues – there’s a mind control spell called “Yassa Massa”, which reads like a jarringly pointless racist joke, but in its classic format it offers pocket-sized fun to an extent that innumerable OSR attempts at a stripped-down D&D haven’t been able to compete with.

Foundations of the Petal Throne

The Tekumel setting, designed by Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, has the distinction of being the oldest published roleplaying game world. (Though Greyhawk lent its name to the first D&D supplement, that was mostly a collection of rules and didn’t really include any setting information as we understand it.) It did not originate as one – like Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, it had been developed by its creator for quite some time before being used for gaming purposes, Barker having dreamed it up in his middle school years in the 1940s and been developing it in subsequent decades, though he did have some exposure at the time to the wargaming hobby and had been producing home-made Tekumel miniatures armies.

However, once Barker crossed paths with Mike Mornard, one of the early playtesters of Dungeons & Dragons, he became acquainted with the nascent RPG format and recognised in it a way to game in Tekumel which appealed to him greatly and was nicely compatible with some of the other gaming activities he’d applied to it. It was not long afterwards that the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG emerged through TSR, and every so often someone else tries to do a Tekumel RPG.

There’s a small but faithful fan community around the setting, but it’s never been a runaway commercial success. This may come down to two factors: the setting material has a fearsome reputation for being extremely dense, and the setting itself is pretty distant from what Western fantasy audiences have come to expect. For one thing, it takes extensive inspiration from Mesoamerican and South Asian cultures; for another, it’s not so much straight fantasy as a Vancian science fantasy setting.

The planet of Tekumel is, in fact, a terraformed world which was discovered 60.000 years after the present day and conquered by humanity, its old ecosystem cleared off, its former rulers isolated in reservations, and the planet repopulated by a mixture of human beings and various alien allies and client races of humanity (as well as alien foes of humanity infiltrating to do mischief). Disaster fell when for reasons unknown the Tekumel star system was snatched away into a pocket dimension in which it was the only matter in existence. Cut off from the interstellar empires that sustained it, high-tech civilisation on Tekumel crashed, and what you have today is the strange thing that arose after humans and their allies rebuilt in the face of that disaster and the re-emergence of their various enemies – including the justifiably upset original owners of the planet.

That’s a wild concept that has various implications in play (many of the “monsters” and intelligent nonhumans of the game are various sorts of alien, for instance), but it needn’t be unapproachable. For my money, you can get a pretty good handle on Tekumel just with two sources – the original Empire of the Petal Throne for the broad brushstrokes and the Tekumel Source Book from Swords & Glory for the fine detail.

Continue reading “Foundations of the Petal Throne”