The Archival Call

Recently I got a chance to pick up a copy of Games Workshop’s 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu from 1986. Much as with their edition of Stormbringer, this is a handsome hardcover presentation of what had been a boxed set of core rules and a separate supplement (the Cthulhu Companion) in the US.

As far as the core rules go, this is effectively a reprint of the 2nd Edition rules from 1983, which in turn were really no different from 1981’s first edition rules. As with Stormbringer, the first edition of Call of Cthulhu included the original Basic Roleplaying rules booklet, and a second rules booklet that adapted the rules for Call of Cthulhu purposes and a booklet providing source material for the assumed 1920s setting. Though both games were hot sellers, it must have quickly become apparent that juggling the Basic Roleplaying pamphlet and the game-specific rulebook was a royal pain, so in 1983 when they both came up for a reprint they got bold new 2nd editions in which the required information from Basic Roleplaying was fully integrated into the text of the main rules booklet.

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Mordenkainen’s Disguised Monster Manual

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is out, and to a large extent it’s a third Monster Manual for 5E, much as Volo’s Guide to Monsters was a second one. That said, as with Volo’s Guide the fat stack of new monsters is backed up by some delicious setting material offering stuff for both players and GMs to chew on; in 2nd edition terms, then, it’s perhaps more like a Monstrous Compendium appendix joined at the hip with a collection of mini-Van Richten’s Guide-type supplements putting a microscope on particular creatures.

This time, the book is deliberately less Forgotten Realms-focused; not only is Mordenkainen a Greyhawk native (Gary Gygax’s first PC, in fact – and the often morally dubious exploits of him and Bigby in Gary’s home campaign are alluded to in the text here), but the detailed treatments on offer cover a set of major conflicts which repeat themselves across the mulitiverse on numerous campaign worlds and planes. You’ve got the Blood War between devils and demons, you’ve got elves vs. drow, you’ve got dwarves vs. dueregar, you have githyanki vs. githzerai, and to round out the treatment of iconic PC races you have a look at how halflings and gnomes alike are able to eke out their comfy existences despite all the conflict around them. (This includes a canonical statement that Kender are the halflings of the Dragonlance setting, which I am sure will make Dragonlance superfans infuriated even though they’re dead to rights there.)

On the whole, this is a useful exercise in teasing out lore which had been seeded in a range of monster statblocks and other supplemental material from right back to the 1st edition days and compiling it in centralised descriptions which enrich the cultures of the folks described. The elf stuff does a great job of selling the Eladrin and Feywild ideas even to stuffy old 4E refuseniks like me, the duergar material injects them with a fat shot of flavour by leaning hard on the “twisted by slavery under the Mind Flayers” aspect of their history, the Blood War stuff updates the idea nicely and the githyanki/githzerai stuff gives a really vivid look at their weird-ass ways of life.

All of this comes with useful system bits here and there that are enormously useful. Do you want special powers for devil cultists or folks who’ve made pacts with particular demons? Do you want PC githzerai or githyanki? Do you want to tweak the flavour of your Tiefling depending on which Lord of the Nine they descend from? It’s all here.

As far as the monster selection goes, there’s a decent focus on the subjects covered (so you have a devil, demon or drow for all occasions) as well as some nice miscellaneous bits and pieces. The lavish descriptions of major demons and devils are my favourite, if only for the brimstone-tinted whiff of the joy to be had reading their original Monster Manual writeups.

In general, Wizards’ quality-over-quantity approach to 5E releases seems to be paying off still. The more multiversal approach leaves me with hope of more non-Realms setting material to come – for one thing, it would be odd to spill so many words on Oerth and Krynn in this book if there were not some intent of eventually doing something with them. And as well as the githzerai and the githyanki, this book updates for 5E the giff – the spacefaring, gun-toting hippo people from Spelljammer

In the Land of Rohan Where the Horsies Neigh…

One of the nice things Cubicle 7 has done with the One Ring line is to do regional supplements in a two-book format: one supplement to give a general overview of the region and its major characters, and an adventure book to provide prewritten adventures for the area in question. They haven’t done these for all the regions they’ve covered – Bree, for instance, covered a small enough area to combine both setting details and adventures into a single book – but where they have it’s a nice way to do it. It means that if you only want the setting detail and don’t give two shits about the prewritten adventure, you don’t have to buy the latter – but if you do go for the prewritten campaign, the setting book greatly enriches it, as well as giving you ample support for if and when the players go off the rails altogether. (Games Workshop ended doing something rather similar with 1st Edition WFRP, with the Power Behind the Throne episode of the Enemy Within mega-campaign being supported by the setting supplement Warhammer City, known by various names in reprints with the most recent renaming being Middenheim: City of Chaos).

Cubicle 7 did Horse-Lords of Rohan a while back, so it was only a matter of time before they got around to doing some horsey adventures with the Riders; Oaths of the Riddermark delivers on this, giving PCs a chance to make a big impact in the court of King Thengel – son of King Fengel, and father of Theoden (the King we remember from The Lord of the Rings).

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A Hibernian Sandbox

On reflection, medieval Ireland really is an obvious location to set an Ars Magica chronicle. The conventional history of the period is turbulent enough to offer plenty of matters of interest to come up, whilst it’s also isolated enough and has enough wilderness to believably have a healthy Order of Hermes contingent there. On top of that, it’s rich in local legends of magic, faeries, saints and devils, to the point where its folklore seems tailor-made to fit into the Ars Magica cosmology.

It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that Atlas took until 2013 – comparatively late in the life of the 5th Edition publication process – to put out The Contested Isle, their treatment of the Hibernian Tribunal of the magi of Ireland. What Lawford, Romer, Ryan and Shirley deliver here is a Tribunal where the local Order of Hermes’ traditions are steeped in the local culture due to years of isolation – right down to a certain acceptance of inter-Covenant warfare that’s not unreminiscent of the clan warfare of Ireland at the time.

Set against this is an influx of continental magi more connected to more mainstream interpretations of the Code of Hermes, riding the coattails of the English invasion and associated with the new ways the English are trying to impose on the realm. All this takes place against the backdrop of a territory where ancient magic and entities have never quite been brought to heel by the Order of Hermes, the local Order having never taken that whole “Join Or Die” ethos that seriously. Will the newcomers respect the old ways – and the pacts underpinning them – or throw all into chaos? And if they do, how will the pre-Hermetic powers of Ireland respond?

With meaty chapters offering insight into the very particular ways that the four Realms of Power manifest on Ireland – from its rich tradition of local saints (and the devilish forces they face) to various faerie creatures and the magical entities that used to hold sway there – The Contested Isle generally offers plenty of fodder for playing an Ars Magica campaign set in Ireland.

The main thing I think the supplement is missing is more of a treatment on how to set up a new player character covenant set there, if your players don’t want to be associated with any of the pregenerated covenants; in particular, some guidelines on how to design a covenant aligned either with the local traditions or with the new “English” ways would be particularly handy, as would suggestions of places where a new covenant might be especially welcome. This is a weakness of many of Atlas’ Tribunal books, but seems especially acute here, where the fine balance of power doesn’t seem to provide much space for shoehorning in new covenants. This is a problem which is easy enough to overcome with a little thought and work, but it does feel like something the designers should be giving pointers on.

If you don’t want to set a campaign exclusively there, the supplement remains useful. Magi from Scottish and English Tribunals in particular may have cause to visit Ireland, as would anyone investigating the deep history of the druids and House Diedne. With this supplement in hand you can make the visit rich and vibrant and make it clear that once you step into a different Tribunal, it’s like visiting a whole other country as far as the local Hermetic culture is concerned.

Who Ya Gonna Clone?

Ewen Cluney through his Yaruki Zero Games small press has quietly pulled off a little coup. Realising that the odds of the classic Ghostbusters RPG being republished any time soon is mininal, and further realising that precisely because that system was so delightfully light the number of integers you’d need to change to avoid copyright infringement would be limited (indeed, by avoiding direct references to Ghostbusters itself the job is mostly done), it would be entirely viable to make a retro-clone of the old game and unleash it on the world – which he has done in the form of Spooktacular.

Interestingly, though one of the various hands that West End Games’ corporate carcass passed through post-bankruptcy put out the D6 System on an OGL basis, Cluney does not seem to have seen any need to do the OGL thing here – possibly because the full-fat D6 System would be overkill for the purposes of reproducing Ghostbusters.

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