Kickstopper: A Cluster of Projects In Which YOU Are The Hero!

This is a bit of a housekeeping article, to be honest. Arion Games, Graham Bottley’s small press RPG outfit which happens to have the licence for reprinting and producing new Advanced Fighting Fantasy material, fairly regularly does Kickstarters to produce new material for it, and indeed I’ve reviewed one here before, and I’ve let several stack up where I didn’t have enough to say about one or the other to really justify a full article.

These are:

  • Stellar Adventures – an adaptation of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system to science fiction.
  • Demons of Doom – an infernally-themed supplement.
  • The Titan Herbal – a set of expanded herbalism rules for Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

In the spirit of spring cleaning, I’m getting around to covering these now. Let’s go!

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign(s)

Bottley is an old hand at Kickstarter and knows how the system works, and he’s also well aware of what Arion Press’s strengths are and what is outside of the small press’s competence. As such, he doesn’t do blockbuster Kickstarter projects with tons of stretch goals attached – instead, he does more modest projects, not asking for much in the way of money and not requiring much in the way of backers. All of these projects ended up with 200-something backers, with funding totals ranging from the £4000 region (for the two supplementary works) to £7000 (for Stellar Adventures, which as standalone core rules could be expected to do a little better than supplementary material).

Where stretch goals were offered, they tended not to be the sort of thing which would make the core product harder to deliver – instead, they’re the sort of thing which can be delivered as a separate product later, and strictly the sort of product that Arion Games specialises in. We’re talking, in other words, game supplements or paper miniatures – not t-shirts or mugs or fancy extras of any sort.

What Level I Backed At

For Stellar Adventures:

Softcover Copy: You receive Softcover and pdf copies of the final game. You will also receive access to the playtest forums at the end of the KS campaign.

For The Titan Herbal:

Softcover copy: A softcover copy shipped shortly after the end of the KS campaign, and a pdf copy of the book as soon as the project is funded.

And for Demons of Doom:

Softcover Copy: A pdf as above and a Softcover copy of the book.

As you can see, Bottley offers largely similar goals for each campaign he does.

Delivering the Goods

Stellar Adventures had a November 2016 delivery estimate, and I got my copy in July 2017. Unlike the other Kickstarters, the text of the thing wasn’t set when the Kickstarter ran – a lesson that Bottley learned for the later campaigns – and the writing process ended up taking somewhat longer than expected.

The Titan Herbal estimated delivery for August 2017, and I got my copy in September 2017. As far as RPG Kickstarters go, this is close enough to on-estimate as to make no difference. The delay was due to proof copies taking a little longer than expected to reach Bottley, and so not really anything under his control.

Demons of Doom estimated delivery for October 2018, and I got my stuff in February 2019. This was delayed both by proof copies taking longer than expected to arrive and by Bottley’s day job suddenly having a big rush of work – for Arion Games is essentially a side hustle for Graham – so again, these are factors out of his control.

In all cases, Bottley maintained a decent level of communication with backers and so I never felt like the projects were forgotten about or in trouble.

Reviewing the Swag

Stellar Adventures

Stellar Adventures doesn’t really offer much of a radical rethink of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system, and on balance it would have probably been a mistake if it had – cross-compatibility of the lines is an advantage, after all. Psionics (for psychic characters) and Tech (for robots) take the place of Magic as the optional stats in character generation, Skill is still massively better than anything else you can invest in, and so on.

Where most of the design effort has gone is in providing robust support for various features of science fiction games of wildly varying stripes. Bottley wisely follows the lead of Traveller in working in the concept of “tech levels” – the higher tech level the setting a game takes place in, the more futuristic its technology gets. This allows the game to make less assumptions about the setting than Advanced Fighting Fantasy tends to – whereas the world of Titan was extensively developed in the fantasy-themed gamebooks, the science fiction gamebooks in the Fighting Fantasy line never really developed a similarly cohesive common setting.

Stellar Adventures has the ambitious goal of taking in settings with a technology level ranging from the pre-modern to the Star Trek-esque, and broadly speaking it succeeds. Little subsystems for everything from cybernetics to psionics to starship command (including guidance on running starship combats that keep the whole “bridge crew” involved) are offered up, and by picking out the bits which make sense for the sci-fi setting you want to explore and leaving the rest on the table you can go as embellished or as simple as you wish.

This toolkit approach requires a certain amount of judgement calls on the part of the referee and gaming group, a situation which tends to be a bit more daunting for beginners to the hobby – as such, Stellar Adventures seems to be even less interested in being a clean introductory onramp to the hobby than the 2nd edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy is. That may prove to be its major limiting factor – anyone experienced enough at tabletop RPGs to make best use of it is probably also going to be well aware of the system’s limitations and probably already has a sci-fi game they’d prefer to this. Still, for me the nostalgia factor just about remains enough; there’s all the tools here needed to run a game inspired by The Rings of Kether, for instance, and this slim little volume doesn’t take up much shelf space at least.

The Titan Herbal

The more modest of these two campaigns yielded a slim little volume, compiled by Andrew Wright from masses of Fighting Fantasy adventures and other material issued over the years. The big draw here is the list of herbs provided, and the associated system for seeking and gathering them; what might seem like a quaint and quiet profession in a more realistic setting is, in a fantasy setting like Titan, a much more adventurous proposition – the risks involved are greater, but the potential of the plants in question are correspondingly greater. On top of that suggestions are offered for character archetypes which make good use of the herb rules without becoming one-trick ponies.

The main thing the book reminds me of – and this is acknowledged as an influence in the text – is the herb listing from Maelstrom, a complete-in-one-paperback-book tabletop RPG from the mid-1980s gamebook boom whose designer, schoolboy Alexander Scott, had managed to convince Puffin Books to publish it alongside the Fighting Fantasy line (and which Arion Games has produced a reprint of and additional material for, along with sequel games set in other time periods). Emerging in an unusual format for RPGs at the time, and with an unusually wide distribution, Maelstrom might have been more read than played – but a great cross-section of gamers and geeks from the UK of a certain age will have encountered it and been impressed by the herb section, which was crucial in turning the herbalist profession into something you could viably run an interesting game around.

In the early days of the internet transcriptions of the Maelstrom herbal section would circulate on BBSs and newsgroups as a system-neutral tool for all kinds of tabletop RPGs, but based as it is on broadly realistic herbs (if a Renaissance England interpretation of them) the Maelstrom catalogue may be a bit tame for more wild and wooly fantasy settings. The Titan Herbal, given the diverse range of action-packed gamebooks it draws on, is just the ticket for those after a game world where even a happy trip picking flowers can turn into a life or death struggle.

Demons of Doom

The essential concept of the supplement is that it offers you rules to play demons in Advanced Fighting Fantasy. It’s fair to say that this is a bit of a departure from the expected parameters of the game, given the general assumption of heroism on the part of Fighting Fantasy protagonists, and in some respects I had reservations about it – the idea of an “evil” campaign can be interesting, as Black Crusade demonstrates, it can very easily degenerate into juvenile wallowing in unpleasant atrocities.

Bottley manages to avoid this pitfall by keeping the tone of the supplement light and humorous; it feels like the demons of this supplement should arrive on the terrestrial plane ready to make mischief accompanied by the strains of the Gremlins main theme. You begin as fairly low-powered demons – probably of a fairly wild and wacky nature, given the random nature of the demon generation tables here, and you’re out to do mischief on the mortal plane to gain Essence – the higher your Essence, the more powerful a demonic form you gain.

Focus is given to demon-based campaigns by Pacts: either agreements made between like-minded demons, or quests imposed on them by their wizardly summoners, which give demons an agenda to follow and generally provides system benefits for taking actions which advance the Pact. The tone of a demon-focused game can therefore be set through judicious setting of appropriate Pacts; the sample adventure, for instance, involves the demons being used as shock troops by one infamous Fighting Fantasy villain against the forces of a different villain.

The Essence idea also allows for the supplement to be used to devise a demon to act as a recurring villain fought by your player characters; dispatching the demon’s present form is all very well, but if the PCs failed to foil its wider plans it might have the Essence to come back in a nastier form. One suspects that this would actually be a better use for the book in a campaign; PC parties of demons feels like something more appropriate to a one-off palette-cleanser.

The Rough Guide to the Pit

Originally billed as a PDF-only stretch goal for the Demons of Doom Kickstarter that was only barely reached (the stretch goal target was £4,500, the amount taken in the Kickstarter was £4,520), this is another demonically-themed supplement, this time penned by Andrew Wright (of Beyond the Pit). Essentially, it’s an exercise in building on the extremely brief treatment given to the demonic planes in the original Fighting Fantasy setting materials, as well as filling out various other gaps and fleshing out unexplored areas of Fighting Fantasy lore.

For instance, as well as brief little gazetteers of the various demonic planes, there’s also stats for demons alluded to but not previously given Advanced Fighting Fantasy stats, a system for quickly coming up with the terrain of a demonic plane (which could nicely be adapted to coming up with an overland map for other settings), rules on demonic familiars, a greatly expanded list of evil gods for evil priests to serve, and so on. Both an excellent resource for Demons of Doom games and a great grab-bag of ideas for developing adversaries for more conventional Advanced Fighting Fantasy games, it’s a nice little addition to the range and I’m glad the stretch goal got hit so we could get both Bottley and Wright’s take on the “demon supplement” concept.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong

I’d say Just Right for each. It’s nice to have both a hard copy and a PDF version, but I don’t need any of the fancier physical editions offered on each Kickstarter.

Would Back Again?

I would and I have – I consider Arion Games to be one of the more trustworthy outfits on Kickstarter and will tend to back any project from them which appeals to me.

3 thoughts on “Kickstopper: A Cluster of Projects In Which YOU Are The Hero!

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: Swirling Through History – Refereeing and Reflection

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