Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain

Whilst geography and economics has played its part in shaping local RPG scenes, another major factor which cannot be overlooked is language. For instance, generally speaking in the Anglosphere the dominant RPG is D&D, but this isn’t always the case – in other languages other games have become the big beasts of their scene, usually as a result of something other than D&D getting first mover advantage.

Translations of game from one of these other spheres into English is not as common as all that – after all, translation isn’t free, good translation even less so. Kickstarter has provided an interesting platform for companies to use to fund the translation of foreign-language games. Ryuutama has been the beneficiary of this, and Nocturnal Games – previously famed mostly as the publishers of Pendragon – got quite enthusiastic about this concept with Kickstarter projects to translate material like the French prehistory game Würm and Aquelarre, a historical horror game set in medieval Spain. I’ve previously covered the Kickstarter for the former game, and now it’s time to get our Satan on and look at the latter.


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

The Kickstarter for Aquelarre ran from October to November 2015 and ended up raising $57,694 from 738 backers; it’d have needed about twice that to make the list of top RPG Kickstarters compiled by Shannon Appelcline for that year.

I’d call this reasonably good going but maybe just a tad disappointing. Aquelarre, though it hasn’t previously appeared in English, has been discussed in Anglophone RPG circles before, and in general whenever those conversations happened people seemed interested in finding out more about it… but that evidently didn’t translate to a large base of customers being interested in funding a translation.

This is despite some of the interest in the English-speaking RPG world being derived from a review in Dragon magazine of the game’s first edition, penned by Lester Smith in 1992 – and Lester Smith had taken on the role of translator for this edition. Smith’s original review was the result of an American publisher asking him to look over the game with an eye to assessing whether it was appropriate for the American market.

In both his review and his report to the publisher, his answer was “No, the American market won’t want this.” He thought that the American audience would be left cold by the historical setting (stop, just for a moment, and think what it implies about a gaming culture where the tumult of the medieval era in the Iberian Peninsula seems boring but the setting of Rifts seems entirely viable). He also thought the use of real-world demonological lore in the construction of the magic system would offend American market sensibilities.

This made him a fool, and his employers bigger fools for listening to him: you could be forgiven for arriving at that assessment before Vampire: the Masquerade became a monster hit, but in 1992 it should have been obvious that dark, edgy horror was a market that had been left sorely underserved in the US scene and it really feels like Lester had told the publisher in question “Nah, you don’t need that money. Leave it on the table.”

Both the market and Lester’s thinking had moved on in the intervening years, however, and Smith was game for setting things right, and Stewart Wieck, head honcho at Nocturnal, was ready to help out…

What Level I Backed At

** BLESSED MASTER **
** Only available Halloween weekend! **
All Aquelarre in Print & PDF —
As MASTER but you may add the limited edition Halloween, Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day d10 as add-ons. Shipping charges added at survey/checkout.

Here’s the description of the MASTER level:

** MASTER **
All Aquelarre in Print & PDF —
Print and PDF copies of the 250-page “Brevarium”, the 500-page full-color hardcover edition, and the 4-panel Game Director’s Screen. Shipping charges added at survey/checkout.

Delivering the Goods

Aquelarre had a delivery estimate of December 2016; I finally got my copy of the book in October 2019. That’s a pretty alarming slip.

Certain allowances must be made. The Aquelarre Kickstarter was one of several Kickstarters that Nocturnal had on the go when Stewart Wieck died in 2017, very suddenly and very unexpectedly, leaving those projects at varying levels of completion. Steve Wieck – Stewart’s brother and the founder of DriveThruRPG – stepped in to help Nocturnal’s Alan Bahr get things in order and the various projects sorted out.

However, the various delays in the Aquelarre Kickstarter’s delivery process can’t be attributed to Wieck’s death alone. The translation had turned out to require more time than Lester Smith had expected. In his last update on the project in June 2017, Stewart said it looked like the full text would be done soon, and he thought if the translation continued at that pace the book would be laid out and in backers’ hands by the end of July 2017; he said that if that wasn’t possible, he would at least make sure some sort of digital version of the game was in fans’ hands prior to Gen Con in August.

Both the translation and the layout process were being handled by other hands, rather than done by Stewart directly; that meant that Nocturnal were able to share a copy of the full manuscript of the game (pre-layout) to backers in July 2017, and then Gen Con gave Steve and Alan an opportunity to plan out how they would handle everything else. So far, so good.

Then a wrinkle arose: Nocturnal’s usual layout person (evidently a third party freelancer) couldn’t dedicate themselves to the job immediately, but had a queue of prior jobs to deal with first… and this is where we start getting communication issues. We are told in an October 2017 update, quite unequivocally, that “the core Aquelarre book is in layout”, and told this again in November 2017, which also told us that the GM screen had been sent off to have its layout dealt with after the book was done.

However, in late December 2017 an update came out which seemed to contradict this. It said that the layout artist was only now moving on to handle the outstanding Aquelarre material, having been held up in the process by the Prince Valiant Episodes book – a product of a different Nocturnal Kickstarter! – which was ahead of Aquelarre in the queue. We had absolutely zero examples of completed layout from the main Aquelarre book before this, and several examples offered in subsequent updates, so it seems likely that this latest update was the accurate one and that Aquelarre had only just gone into layout at this point.

Further evidence of this lies in the fact that the initial layout was only completed in late February 2018, with the PDF going to backers after some tweaks requested by Nosolrol (the Spanish publishers of the game) in March 2018. Recall that Stewart Wieck had estimated that, with translation expected to be done in June 2017, they’d be able to get the layout finished by the end of July 2017, so December 2017 to late February 2018, allowing for the Christmas holidays, seems like a plausible length of time to do the job.

Why am I going on about this? I consider it significant because in October and November we were told that the book was “in layout”. To me, this seems to be misleading, accidentally or deliberately. I think for most people, if you say a book is “in layout” that means that a layout artist is actively in the process of working on the book – it doesn’t mean that the book is sat in their “in” tray waiting to receive attention while they work on something else.

Perhaps it actually does have the latter technical meaning within the publication industry, but most of the backers of the project do not work in the publication industry and cannot reasonably be expected to understand that rather counterintuitive sense of the word. If it is used in that sense in the industry, my appeal to professionals in the field is this: stop being avoidant cowards and be honest with your audience. Tell them that the book is “waiting for layout” and save the term “in layout” for when it is actually being worked on!

As it stands, there’s really only four possibilities here:

  • Alan botched the December update and it doesn’t mean what it reads like it means, which is a pretty serious lapse in communication.
  • “In layout” is understood within the industry to include “sat around in the layout department waiting to be worked on”, and Alan didn’t make that clear in his communications to customers who couldn’t possibly have been expected to know this. Again, a botched job of communication.
  • Alan genuinely believed from October to November that Aquelarre was being worked on, which is a pretty alarming break in communication between him and the layout artist – especially when the job which had been in the way was one of Nocturnal’s own jobs he himself had sent her!
  • “In layout” genuinely does mean “is in the process of actively being laid out” and is not generally used to refer to a product which is waiting for the layout artist’s attention but hasn’t received it yet, or was intended by Alan to be interpreted as “is currently being worked on by the layout artist” when he put out the October and November updates, in which case Alan lied to backers. In this case I can see it as a bit of a “white lie” – the project was completed in the end and we all got what we paid for, after all – but this still reflects worst on Alan out of all the possibilities.

I could forgive Alan and the rest of Nocturnal and their freelancers for not being 100% on top of their communication with each other in the months following Stewart’s death – navigating that sort of shock is difficult – and if this was simply a miscommunication, that’s fine. If it was a deliberate lie to keep the backers off Nocturnal’s back, however, that’s much less excusable.

With the layout sorted, it came time to get the printing done. It took a while before this could begin because not only did they have to collect errata from the backers who’d read over the PDF, but some of the errata was of a nature where they had to get clarification on how a particular thing should be translated and dig into Stewart’s old notes to figure out why he made particular decisions. In addition, once the text of the core book was set, they needed to pick which sections would be used in the Brevarium – the abridged rulebook intended for player use – and then do the layout on that.

Still, in January 2019 at long last an advance proof arrived from the printers in China and was duly displayed to the backers as evidence that the process was ongoing. However, here another error was made. One of the stretch goals unlocked during the campaign was a ribbon bookmark for the book – nothing essential, I can take or leave that sort of thing myself, but some people like them. It was very obvious from the photos that the advance proof did not have one, and indeed the very first comment on the update post from a backer was a query about this. In the end, the books shipped without any sign of the silk bookmark, and Nocturnal had to limply apologised that they’d simply forgotten about it.

I want to stress here I’m not overly annoyed about the bookmark being absent, that’s not the problem. The problem is what the bookmark’s absence represents. Remember, the final specifications cannot possibly have been given to the printer until the second half of 2018 at the vary least – this isn’t something you can reasonably ascribe to the immediate chaos arising in the aftermath of Stewart’s death. It would have been entirely possible, and indeed wholly sensible, for someone to take the proof and go back and do one last check of the stretch goal list, just to make sure that the book the printers proposed to make matched the physical qualities of the book which had been promised to backers.

Remember, this was a stretch goal documented on the front page of the Kickstarter campaign – a careful read of the project description as it stood at the end of the funding period would have picked up on it, we are not talking here about a feature which was concealed deep in the comments page of an obscure update halfway through the funding period or anything like that. It would not have taken much of an arduous check to cover it.

Only one of two things can be the case. Either Nocturnal genuinely forgot about the stretch goal and didn’t bother to do a check of the stretch goals list, or they decided to save some money by not going for the silk bookmark and weren’t honest with us about their reasons for doing so. The former is a hell of a sloppy way to handle a project you are supposedly seeing to completion in part as a fond tribute to the deceased founder of your company; the latter would be a particularly foolish thing to do, given that if they were in a position where they could either go without the bookmarks and break even or go with the bookmarks and put their stability in peril I think most backers would have said “Yeah, ditch the bookmarks”.

This isn’t a mistake which can be chalked up to Stewart keeping all the details in his head and not documenting them properly or something, this is an unforced error on Steve and Alan’s part. Yes, they had a lot of different projects to keep straight, but after a year and a half of straightening they should really have gotten on top of shit by this point.

If they were overworked trying to get this and all the other projects in order, that’s not unexpected, but again, that’s when you get in extra help. DriveThruRPG has a near-monopoly on the RPG PDF distribution storefront market; I genuinely do not believe that Steve could not have afforded to deploy someone to work as Alan’s Kickstarter Fulfillment Consultant with a brief to get all the information in order, dot the i’s, cross the t’s, make sure entire stretch goals aren’t flat-out forgotten about and make sure the backers are all kept informed. (Maybe he did; if so, they did a bad job.)

This wouldn’t be the last issue with the Kickstarter either. The printed books arrived in the US in April and distribution to North American backers began in May 2019. To take half a year to get UK-based backers their books feels excessive, even if the books were put on a slow boat across the Atlantic, and yet the European shipment did indeed take a very long time; communication about this was sporadic, usually followed poking by backers rather than being proactive, and was generally unhelpful in terms of helping backers understand why this was happening.

In some respects these are nagging issues – after all, the game eventually got out. That said, these issues and some similar issues with other Nocturnal Kickstarters from this period have left me with the strong suspicion that Alan had been left swamped with the sheer amount of work left in his lap, with Steve too distracted with DriveThruRPG work to fully commit to sharing the load with Alan, and Alan having all the duties he had prior to Stewart’s death to handle as well as the new workload. I would dearly love to be wrong about this, but there you go.

Yes, what happened to Stewart was a great tragedy – but it would have added insult to injury for the Kickstarters he left unfinished to unravel, marring his legacy and damaging the reputation of the company he left behind. In the end, that didn’t happen, and it’s good that it didn’t! Nonetheless, I feel that Nocturnal sailed remarkably close to that happening – in particular, it seems like Chaosium had to step in to keep the project on track, to the extent that their logo appears on the back of the book – and “Stewart died” cannot account for all the issues which came into play here.

Reviewing the Swag

Aquelarre

Aquelarre is claimed to be the first tabletop RPG to have been designed from the ground up in Spain, having been penned by Ricard Ibáñez and published by Joc International on the 13th November 1990. That isn’t to say there were no RPGs in Spain prior to Aquelarre coming out – it’s just that prior to that the industry was more focused on Spanish translations of foreign-language games.

The game’s claim to be 100% designed in Spain needs a strong caveat: the game system is strongly, and I mean strongly, reminiscent of Basic Roleplaying. In fact, it’s so strongly reminiscent of Basic Roleplaying that I think that it’s somewhat cheeky for Ricard Ibáñez to claim it as being wholly his own work, rather than something he adapted from other Basic Roleplaying systems.

It’s easy to see how this happened, of course. In his afterword to this edition, Ibáñez mentions how Joc International handled the Spanish-language versions of RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, and that he’d worked on those games before. If you don’t have that broad a knowledge of tabletop RPGs outside of those, you might not realise how broad your design options are, and BRP is certainly one of the easier RPG systems to reskin for a particular setting. And it’s not like that this sort of situation hadn’t happened before in other markets; in the Swedish-language RPG market, many early games originating within that market drew heavily on Basic Roleplaying, because the first major commercially successful RPG was Drakar och Demoner, a translated expansion of the Basic Roleplaying booklet mashed together with Magic World booklet from the Worlds of Wonder boxed set.

It’d rather apt, then, that the English-language publication of the game has now come back to Chaosium. I don’t want to minimise Ibáñez’s accomplishment here too much, because there’s a lot of material here which is quite creative (which I will get into in a bit), but at the same time I think the game is doing itself a disservice by selling itself on this “first ever 100% Spanish RPG”, because it borrows enough of a framework from Basic Roleplaying that I’d say that isn’t wholly true, and there’s a lot to like about the game beyond that. Ultimately, first-mover advantage only lasts so long, especially in a market where there were Spanish language RPGs preceding it in the form of translations, but Aquelarre has some unique selling points which deserve closer attention.

The main draw of the game is its setting – the Iberian peninsula in the late medieval period, a patchwork of kingdoms destined to accumulate together to form modern Spain (aside from resolutely independent Portugal) in later years but still independent of each other in this era, as well as a cultural crossroads with significant Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations.

This is a rather different cultural picture from the version of medieval Europe which usually gets depicted – which, 90% of the time, largely seems to riff on the situation as it existed in feudal France or England under the Normans and Plantagenets, and naturally the folklore, demonology, occultism, angelic lore, and stories of the region have this distinctly syncretic flavour all of their own which the game is absolutely steeped in. For the game assumes that the demons and angels of the Abrahamic faiths are, broadly speaking, real, as are the powers of magic to summon and compel them. (An “Aquelarre” is a Spanish term for a Satanic ceremony, with connotations much like that of a witch’s sabbath.)

One particularly interesting notion is the inclusion of a “Rationality” and “Irrationality” trait. Irrationality is the superstitious belief in a demon-haunted world of arbitrary chaos, and a certain level of irrationality is necessary to work magic. Rationality is associated with, interestingly, conventional, orthodox religious faith, which might sound odd from a 21st Century perspective (especially if your views tend towards the Richard Dawkins-y), but Aquelarre correctly notes that the theology of the major religions of the Iberian Peninsula of the day – whether you’re talking Rabbinical Judaism, Catholic Christianity, or the various schools of Islam – posits a universe which is not random, arbitrary, or without rules, but one which God created according to a design and operates according to predictable, reliable laws which the observant can discern.

(The idea that the medieval Church in particular was against superstition may be surprising, but there’s evidence to support it. For instance, it’s worth noting that for much of the medieval period, the official doctrine of the Church was that there was no such thing as witches, because that would imply that the Devil had a capacity to intervene in the world and grant special powers to people to the frustration of God’s plan, and in 1080 the Pope wrote to the King of Denmark sternly warning that witches should not be put to death on allegations of having raised storms by magic, because the official position of the Church was that such magic didn’t exist. In the late 15th Century Heinrich Kramer, author of the Malleus Maleficarum, had to persuade the Pope to issue a bull specifically acknowledging the existence of witches before he could formally begin his witch-hunting activities. More generally, the theological argumentation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike drew heavily on the philosophical traditions of the Mediterranean.)

This largely boils down to old school Law vs. Chaos when you think it through, a conflict between social cohesion and the disorder that unravels it that has been played out a lot in fantasy RPGs, but Aquelarre gives it a distinctive aesthetic by drawing heavily on actual medieval demonology and angelology, especially when it comes to cooking up a catalogue of demons and angels to seek the supernatural support of.

It’s this aspect of the game which might perturb some, especially if you have strong religious or occult beliefs that lend credence to the existence of the entities in question, though the book does point out that the sources that provide most of the demonic and angelic names it uses were declared uncanonical by the Church itself in its early history. In his original review of Aquelarre for Dragon back in 1992, Lester Smith argued that the inclusion of this material meant that the game would likely not find an American audience, and he’s blogged about how he stands by that opinion on the basis that the RPG industry at the time was still spooked by the Satanic Panic.

I’m not convinced he’s 100% correct, mind; after all, White Wolf was, in 1992, causing a massive disruption to the Anglophone RPG industry as a result of a don’t-give-a-fuck-about-your-censorship ethos which arguably goes substantially further than anything in Aquelarre itself, and Kult‘s most successful English edition (prior to the recent Divinity Lost revival) came out at around that time.

That isn’t the only area where I question some of Smith’s acts of interpretation. His translation may be technically correct, but I feel like it needed another pair of eyes – preferably a native Spanish speaker, ideally one from Spain itself (because cultural idioms are going to vary throughout the Spanish-speaking world) – to give the text a review and make sure that it holds true to the spirit of the original wording, and maybe massage it here and there where a less direct translation would get some of the original attitude across. It feels like the text as originally written had a somewhat cynical attitude towards history, but there’s points where what may well have been a cynical joke in the original text doesn’t quite come across right.

In addition, there’s at least one part where Smith’s translation either a) adds in something which makes the text more offensive than it would have been in the original or b) directly translates something which it might perhaps have been better to paraphrase, I’m not sure which. I’m thinking specifically of the bit in Ibáñez’s afterword where, at least in Smith’s translation, the phrase “bargain like a gypsy” is used. That which may or may not be a Spanish idiom, but it certainly comes across really bad in English, especially in that wording – playing into ugly stereotypes about Roma people.

Still, on the whole despite these missteps I generally feel good about having this translation. The book is gorgeously produced, with artwork done in a distinctively medieval style (though it’s missing that ribbon bookmark, tsk), and in general Aquelarre is an interesting unofficial cousin of the Basic Roleplaying family which I guess, now that Chaosium distribute it, has come home; its parallels with BRP are such that if you wanted to use it as a source for more “classical” demonology than the Mythos magic of Call of Cthulhu, that’d be entirely doable as well.

Brevarium

In principle, this is a convenient, cheap, portable copy of the rules focusing on player-facing material which is handy to have at the table in play to look stuff up in. The problem with this is that it just isn’t attractively produced at all – the paper quality is really cheap, the book is very obviously a black and white print of a colour original, and all in all it isn’t really that much more convenient to look up material in than the main rulebook, especially since all the material in it is just directly copy-pasted from there.

In addition, the condensation of the material here involves some really odd choices. Not only does it include some things like the magic rules which actually probably shouldn’t be player-facing by default, but they also include so much of the main rulebook that it just doesn’t feel like much more of a burden to just tackle the core rulebook itself. I didn’t hang on to this.

In addition, given the cheap and cheerful layout job on this, I really don’t see why it would have taken several months to get the layout on this finished (delaying printing of the other products).

Referee Screen

On the one hand, it’s got some badass medieval-style artwork suitable to the black metal atmosphere of Aquelarre. On the other hand, the panels are portrait orientation (AKA the wrong way) as opposed to landscape orientation (the correct way to do a referee screen).

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I kind of wish I’d gone Lower and just had a tier with the core book by itself, truth be told.

Would Back Again?

Hrm. On the one hand, Nocturnal seem to have pulled past the thicket of outstanding Kickstarter promise which Stewart left behind. On the other hand, the sloppy execution of this one can’t wholly be blamed on that one disaster.

2 thoughts on “Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain

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