Storytelling Patient Zero

Back when I reviewed the 1st Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, I took note of the various other RPGs cited in Mark Rein-Hagen’s afterword (only included in later printings). One game which was conspicuous by its absence from this list is Prince Valiant, a Chaosium RPG based on the Arthurian newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster. Emerging in 1989, not only does it proudly proclaim itself a “Story-Telling Game” on its front cover, but it also explicitly refers to the referee as a Storyteller, works in the idea of rotating the Storyteller position over the course of a game (which may be influenced by Ars Magica‘s ideas about troupe play), and has what is effectively a disguised die pool system.

To cover that latter point in brief: in principle, rolls in Prince Valiant are actually based on coin tosses – you add together stat and skill, toss an appropriate number of coins, and count heads as successes. This seems to have been a decision made in part to make the game approachable to non-gamers who might not have dice handy, but almost certainly have coins – but whilst tossing a bunch of coins in sequence is burdensome, you can roll much faster and get mathematically equivalent results simply by rolling a bunch of dice and, say, taking odds as successes and evens as failures, or rolls of over 50% of the maximum roll as successes (so 4-6 on a D6, or 3-4 of a D4, or 11-20 on a D20).

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The Fandom Perspective

Mythic Perspectives was an Ars Magica fanzine that came out between 1997 and 2001. This was the era of 4th Edition Ars Magica – a welcome return to form for the game after the various missteps of 3rd Edition (mostly involving various kludges added to make it the backstory to the World of Darkness – including the imposition of the Realm of Reason and various unintended consequences arising from it, like libraries counteracting rather than helping the decidedly intellectual, empirical, experimentation-oriented and scholarship-focused magic of the Order of Hermes).

It was also just about the last era when producing a fanzine through conventional printing methods rather than throwing it up online or maybe doing it as a PDF download made even the slightest bit of sense. These days, most of what you’d want a fanzine for is provided much better via online communities – with greater regularity and interactivity at that.

Still, back when I was running my Ars Magica game for my now-dissolved Monday evening group, one of the players gave me a couple of copies of Mythic Perspectives (thanks Andrew!), and I’m favourably impressed. These were issues 8 and 9, two of the three issues released in 1999 – and the last issues to be put out with any regularity. (One more squeaked out in 2000, and another in 2001.)

The tail-off in publication frequency can be attributed to the fact that Mythic Perspectives was put out by Damelon Kimbrough through his Gnawing Ideas imprint – and in early 2000, Atlas recruited Kimbrough to become the line editor for Ars Magica. However, his stint in the job would be short-lived; he would be replaced by David Chart in 2001, and Chart would go on to manage the line up to 2015, thus overseeing not just the tail end of the 4th edition line but the entirety of 5th edition issued to date. According to the fandom grapevine Kimbrough got married and moved to France in 2008, where he pursues other interests these days; good for him.

The 1999 issues, then, represent perhaps Kimbrough’s inadvertent “audition tape” for Atlas Games – produced on the back of winning the 1998 Origins Award for Best Amateur Game Magazine. As you would expect of a product of the Ars Magica fandom, it’s a delicious mixture of folklore, real history, and game system tinkering, and there’s a familiar name or two in the credits – indeed, David Chart contributes some considerations on “Society and the Gift” in issue 8.

Atlas Games have traditionally been a bit weird about putting their Ars Magica catalogue on DriveThruRPG, and I’m not sure why that’s the case – they’ve been happy to put the new editions of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies up there, for instance, and have gone to the extent of putting up Statosphere, a shopfront for fan-made Unknown Armies material along the lines of the DM Guild for D&D. Perhaps the issue is contractural, because as well as putting their full range up on Warehouse 23 – Steve Jackson Games’ awkward PDF outlet – they’ve got the last three issues of of Mythic Perspectives up there as PDFs too. (Presumably their deal with Kimbrough to bring him in as Line Editor gave them rights to these but not the earlier issues – or perhaps they just haven’t been able to produce nice scans of the earlier ones yet.)

Supplements of Humanity

And so we come to the end of our slog through the 40K RPGs of a now-bygone era with the supplements to Only War. There weren’t many of these – out of all the 40K RPGs under Fantasy Flight’s custodianship, Only War pretty much got the least love. Sure, Black Crusade only had one full-length adventure put out for it – but it at least had a supplement put out for each Chaos God, whereas there were only three Only War supplements and, as we’ll see, a pretty major gap in the line which Fantasy Flight had ample time to fill and yet didn’t. And by comparison all three of Dark HeresyRogue Trader and Deathwatch got stacks more support.

Still, Only War did get a few bits and bobs, and I’m going to cover them here so we can put it in the past and look forward to Wrath & Glory

Hammer of the Emperor

This adds a nice fat chunk of extra regiment creation options, as well as a bunch of additional writeups of canonical regiments (including the Tanith First-and-Only from the Gaunt’s Ghosts series). You also get some rules embellishments (like mounted combat on horsies!) and advanced careers for most of the rank-and-file Guardsmen types. As fun as the advanced careers are for giving guardsmen a bit of extra flavour, there is a caveat: there was never a supplement published giving advanced careers for the Scholar careers – the Commissars, Storm Troopers, or Psykers of Only War – so if you have any of those in your party it may seem a little unfair to use advanced careers when they don’t have any available (unless you’re willing to cook up your own or trust in fan-written ones).

On the one hand, at least in the case of Commissars and Psykers I think you can make a case that the basic concepts are flashy enough that they don’t necessarily need Advanced Careers – on the other, it’s a shame that they don’t get the additional differentiation that Advanced Careers offer. As such, this aspect of the supplement is one you might have to finesse a little depending on the preferences of your group.

Shield of Humanity

This does the Hammer of the Emperor job for your support specialists – your Ratlings, Ogryns, tech-priests, regular priests, those sorts of folks. Emerging in 2014, it was the last non-adventure supplement put out for Only War, which adds insult to injury when it comes to the lack of an equivalent for the Schola characters – FFG were able to put out supplements for Dark Heresy 2nd edition for subsequent years so the failure to fill out the line like they did for Black Crusade and 2nd Edition Dark Heresy is a little galling.

Then again, it may be indicative of overall poor sales for the line compared to the other two games. Somehow this supplement, as interesting as it is for the support characters, feels a little lightweight – it feels like at points they are stretching a little hard to find new archetypes to based Advanced Careers around, for instance. I do wonder whether a better approach would have been to condense the material here down to the absolute best bits and use the space saved to give a little love to the Schola careers instead.

Enemies of the Imperium

Your standard enemies supplement, standing out from the 40K RPG pack by the fact that it also includes a substantial breakdown of a human faction – not Chaos cultists, not Genestealer-contaminated nasties, but regular ol’ humans. Specifically, the book includes an extensive unpacking of the Severan Dominate, an area of space that has declared secession from the Imperium which was introduced in the core rulebook.

The nice thing about the Dominate is that though in their desperation its leaders are not above engaging in gentle diplomatic contact with alien races, for the most part it consists of citizens who still entirely believe in the Imperial Creed. Regardless of whatever undeclared reasons Duke Severus might have for declaring independence, the publicly declared casus belli – and thus the reason most of the Dominate’s citizens believe they’ve left the Imperium – is the corruption of the High Lords of Terra. The Dominate still believes in the Emperor – they just don’t believe in those who claim to speak for him. And since Imperial history includes periods like the Age of Apostasy, the idea that the central government might end up deviating from the true path and that rebellion against it may therefore become justified actually has a certain currency in the setting.

The upshot is that the Dominate provides a delightful opportunity for Imperial Guard regiments to face disturbingly familiar forces and have delightful “Are we the baddies?” conversations, so seeing them fleshed out in the first tranche of Enemies of the Imperium – as well as delicious suggestions about the desperate and ill-advised avenues Duke Severus may explore once the Dominate starts to crumble – is very welcome, and helps set Only War apart from much of the rest of the 40K RPG settings.

GM Kit

Standard screen, average adventure, expanded ideas on how to actually structure and run a Guard-based campaign. Again, worth it if you want the screen, not really worth it otherwise.

Adventures

The two adventures released for Only War – Final Testament and No Surrender – didn’t really grab me. I think the issue is that for the purposes of Only War I’d almost say that the actual events of battle would be more of a backdrop and a basis for combat missions in any game I’d actually run, whilst for in-depth roleplaying and character interaction and setting immersion purposes the truly important thing is the player characters’ regiment – and since the adventures are designed to be fairly agnostic about what regiment you’re running with, they naturally can’t give that much attention to intra-regiment interaction.

Only War Can Make These Rules Seem Right

Ah, Only War. The 40K RPG based around the Imperial Guard was originally going to be a supplement for 1st edition Dark Heresy before Fantasy Flight decided that the subject was big enough to deserve its own game, it ended up inadvertently becoming the model for 2nd edition Dark Heresy in the way it carried forward and built on the system amendments introduced in Black Crusade – especially when fan backlash over the Dark Heresy 2nd edition beta prompted Fantasy Flight to revert to a system much closer to Only War‘s to retain a bit more backward compatibility.

Which isn’t to say that Only War is merely a generic rules testbed – it really goes for the Imperial Guard flavour in some crucial ways. The Comrade rules are great not only for getting the sense of being part of a large, mutually supportive organisation, but also for allowing the referee to present a bit more of a meat grinder than would otherwise be viable. The fact that the PCs all hail from the same regiment really helps distinguish this from Deathwatch (where, though single-Chapter games are completely viable, the text very much assumes you are going for a multi-Chapter party), and as well as being true to the Imperial Guard structure also suggests common roots among the PCs to an extent that none of the other 40K RPGs do. The inclusion of vehicle rules and create-your-own-regiment rules in the core book makes it nicely complete by itself. There’s Ogryns and Ratlings, which I think is the first time abhuman PCs have been added to the 40K RPGs at all.

It’s a simple concept executed with stacks of flavour straight out of the core book, which is just really nice all around. Thumbs up.

SupplementWatch

So to continue my 40K RPG roundup, I might as well go over the various supplements for Deathwatch. Perhaps more than any other 40K RPG line, Deathwatch‘s supplements had this odd split between ones which were useful for more or less any Space Marine-themed game and ones which were very much focused on the Jericho Reach, the default setting of the game. That’s odd because I genuinely don’t remember the Reach getting that much of a buzz, and I wonder whether Fantasy Flight were trying a bit too hard with the Reach-focused supplements to get people to care about a setting which hadn’t taken off. (Perhaps part of the issue is that, as the Ordo Xenos’ designated Troubleshooters, you can pretty much send the Deathwatch anywhere, and the Jericho Reach just wasn’t as interesting as any other random sector in the Imperium people could use.)

Still, the less Reach-focused supplements were, by and large, pretty badass.

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