Here’s another in my occasional series on game supplements which I read and have some thoughts on, but not enough thoughts for an entire article. This time I’ve got a slightly unfocused expansion for Wrath & Glory, a couple of issues of an old-school D&D zine, and a Call of Cthulhu campaign.
Redacted Records (Wrath & Glory)
This feels like an odd little grab-bag of material for the official Warhammer 40,000 RPG, a bit like the Archives of the Empire volumes offer grab-bags of material for 4th Edition WFRP. The cover and the back cover blurb make it seem like this is a space hulk-themed supplement – a sort of update of material from Ark of Lost Souls for Deathwatch – but this only covers about a third of this supplement’s content (and since the book is only about 100 pages long that’s not a lot). Other material includes more frameworks for your PC party, a brief chapter on unusual servitors, an overview of some cults from two of the worlds of the default setting of Wrath & Glory (the Gilead system), and the start of a greatly expanded Talent list. (Literally: it covers A-I, implying that there will be followup chapters in other books covering J-Z.)
The weird thing about the supplement is that much of this feels like it’s been chopped out of a larger body of work – as well as the J-Z sections of that additional talent list, you’d expect similar cult rundowns of the other worlds of the system to exist somewhere, for instance. Still, as a sort of half-supplement-half-magazine thing it’s not useless – but I feel like it should be presented as being Volume 1 of a series, like the first Archives of the Empire book was, because it’s very apparent that this is merely the first of a series of miscellanea-themed supplements with not much connecting theme.
Cults of Cthulhu is an expansive new Call of Cthulhu supplement spanning over 300 pages, penned mostly by Chris Lackey and Mike Mason. A referee-facing book, it’s a deep dive into the titular subject matter, offering an extensive discussion of the role cults play in Call of Cthulhu, how to design sects for your own games, and some extensive worked examples, as well as offering a brace of scenarios making use of some of the groups detailed in the book.
It’s worth emphasising that the title really isn’t kidding: this is a book about cults of Cthulhu – not Yog-Sothoth, not Shub-Niggurath, not Nyarlathotep, not the King In Yellow, but the big blobby squiddyfriend itself. The “cults throughout history” section, giving brief glimpses of sects ranging from Roman or medieval times to the present day and including fictionalised takes of classic “cult true crime” outfits like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Scientology, is a series of Cthulhu cults through history. The five cults given extensive deep dive coverage, ranging from the 1890s to the modern era, are all Cthulhu cults – three are new to this book (and are each the subject of one of the three scenarios here), and then there’s also treatments of the Louisiana swamp cult from The Call of Cthulhu and the Esoteric Order of Dagon from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which do a good job of teasing out the horror whilst dialling back the racist implications as much as is possible with Lovecraft’s original material. (The idea that the Cthulhu cult is directed by immortal Fu Manchu-esque manipulators, for example, is explained away by the character of Castro in The Call of Cthulhu having been recruited in China and assuming all the leaders were similar to the leader he met there.) The examples given in the build-your-own-cult chapter are all of Cthulhu cults, and the spells, creatures, items, and generic NPC stats offered in the system toolkit chapter are all for Cthulhu cults.
If you think Cthulhu is absolutely rubbish and overplayed and are only interested in running Call of Cthulhu games focusing on other entities, that may be disappointing, but even in that instance I still think the book is of potential use. In particular, many of the issues raised in the build-your-own-cult chapter are just as applicable to other cults as to Cthulhu sects, and the examples given in the rest of the book of how to make a cult feel appropriately Cthulhu-y point to ways in which you could do the same for other Mythos entities with suitable aesthetic tweaks and distinctive, entity-specific features. The 7th Edition update of the Malleus Monstrorum would be particularly useful in conjunction in this book, because it not only offers ideas on the types of cults that accrue around particular Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but also presents example “blessings” given to followers by those deities – a concept this book runs with hard for Cthulhu’s purposes. Take the design-a-cult chapter here, cross-reference with the Malleus Monstrorum entry for the deity in question, and you’re in business.
The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.
Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.
For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.
However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…
Although Doctor Who has had multiple official RPGs, its younger sibling Blake’s 7 never has – but fear not, fans of Terry Nation serials with even thinner budgets than Who, for fandom will often fill a gap that official canon refuses to touch. The Blake’s 7 Roleplaying Game by Kin Ming Looi and Zoé Taylor was published via Horizon, an officially-endorsed fan club for the show, so whilst it’s still in the realm of a fandom product (and certainly looks like a mid-1990s fanzine in terms of production values) it sails about as close to being official as it can without actually being official.
Dated to August 1994, in system terms it’s clearly inspired by Basic Roleplaying-powered RPGs: the attributes do not map precisely to BRP, mind, but they play a similar role much of the time, there’s percentile skills you can improve by succeeding at tasks in a manner exactly like BRP, and in general it’s sufficiently close to BRP in its basic principles that I’m happy to consider it part of the extended family.
Given that Horizon is a UK-based group and I suspect Blake’s 7 fandom is generally healthiest in Britain, this might be due to the prominence that Chaosium’s games enjoyed over here thanks to Games Workshop giving them important early promotion in the mid-1980s through their editions of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Stormbringer. If you were a British RPG fan looking to make a homebrew system and you didn’t feel like starting 100% from scratch, and your subject matter clearly wasn’t suitable for adapting to Dungeons & Dragons, it feels likely that you would consider Basic Roleplaying, especially in 1994 – an era that’s before the proliferation of open gaming licences gave you more system options to adapt, before the Internet made widespread research of systems cheaper on a budget, and when Chaosium was still in good health.
Spire as an RPG has now settled down into a fairly comfortable cycle of run Kickstarter/release wave of products/rinse and repeat. It worked for the core book and the Strata supplement, it worked for Heart – theoretically an independent spin-off RPG, though it’s set in the same universe and has some Strata-usable bits and seems to have been used as a means of clearing the creative cobwebs to come back to Spire with a fresh perspective – and now it’s worked for the Sin supplement and its associated lesser releases.
I’m posting this as a mini-Kickstopper rather than giving them the full treatment, mostly because there’s nothing very exceptional to say about the delivery process. Sure, the physical books this time took a while to get to backers, but we’re in the middle of a paper shortage and a total breakdown of the international shipping system, it’s not meaningfully something which was in the hands of Spire publishers Rowan, Rook, and Deckard to actually affect. Instead, I’m merely going to give this wave of material a quick look and a sniff to see how it’s shaped up.
The tentpole of this wave of material is Sin, a hardback supplement like Strata was. In the case of Sin, there’s a pinch of system stuff here, the most significant being of two new classes, the Gutter Cleric who’s a sort of unlicensed theologian, and the Mortician Executioner. (In theory, executing people is banned in Spire, so the city get around it by having morticians pronounce the condemned dead and then make the appropriate adjustments to make their status fit the paperwork.) However, by far the biggest draw here is going to be the wealth of setting material, all collected under the three broad categories of Crime, Order (policing), and Religion. Good judgement is shown in dealing with these subjects; the material here is meaty and exciting, but (for example) they decide not to categorise sex work within crimes because criminalising it and/or dwelling on crimes against sex workers for titillation is thematically lazy and contributes to crappy real-world attitudes the writers are not interested in promoting.
All of this provides a deep well of material for referees to draw on in planning Spire sessions, or for players to latch onto and proactively pursue should they wish; each section also has a little adventure associated with it which makes use of the chapter’s themes. Indeed, there’s so much in here that trying to read it all and absorb it and implement it as a block is going to be unviable – it’s much more useful to dip into if you want to run an adventure on a particular theme, or if the players are interested into digging in the intricacies of high-status crime among the high elves or weird cults or whatever. Need a location, an NPC, or organisation based around one of the themes in here? You’ll probably find one in Sin, and given that Spire is a game in which the PCs are all criminals in a forbidden cult fighting the cops, you’ll likely have lots of reasons to go looking.
This past weekend I had an extremely good time at the second run of EyeLARP’s Second Breakfast. This was a charming little game set in Middle-Earth, in which the Wild West town and Viking village at EyeLARP’s site stood in for the little village of Frogmore, a hobbit community in the Shire. The basic concept of the game is that it’s the weekend of the Mayor’s birthday, there’s going to be a lovely party, the four extended families of the village (the Thornburrows, the Greengawkers, the Kettlebrights, and Puddlefoots – or is that Puddlefeet?) are engaged in some light-hearted rivalry when it comes to baking delicious pies and/or cakes for the big event, but are all united in one thing: they don’t want anything so exciting as an adventure so any meddling dwarves or wizards showing up trying to coax right-thinking hobbits off on one can move right on, thank you very much.
As you might expect, this was basically a fairly light-hearted, easy-going sort of event, but I think there’s still some interesting points of LARP design which arise from it. In particular, it’s a great example of a LARP which managed to deliver a great event on the strength of pure ambience, after dialling back on more or less every other factor LARPs usually go out of their way to provide.
There was basically no peril to characters, and no real combat, In theory, Second Breakfast worked on EyeLARP’s usual “FilmSim” principle, which includes as a feature a systemless combat system: rather than fighting being a genuinely competitive process, you basically die or get injured when you think that it would make sense or be dramatically appropriate for your character to be. In practice, we were briefed not to expect or initiate genuinely life-threatening combat, and indeed none happened. The biggest outbreak of violence that happened during the second run was a massive food fight, in which a party of annoying dwarves were pelted with LARP-safe “food” (basically sponge balls in different food shapes) to make them go away. EyeLARP’s approach to combat already sets aside their LARP from the vast majority of old-school games which try to make a satisfying tactical game out of the combat system, but still included combat in its function as a cheap and easy power fantasy; Second Breakfast didn’t even have that.
At the end of my previous Fighting Fantasy article, I’d covered the first couple of Fighting Fantasy books released in 1988. It was evident that some attempt was being made to find new writers to contribute to the sequence, as a result of Jackson, Livingstone, and other stalwarts of the early series dialling back their contributions. In other words, the Fighting Fantasy crew were trying to counter the succession problem I’d identified at the end of part 8; for this part of the article, we’ll see that process continue, with two of the four books I’m covering this time coming from people who hadn’t written a mainline entry in the series at all. One of them will be of crucial importance to the later phases of the series’ tenure at Puffin; the other one… well, we’ll get to that.
The other two gamebook authors making a return this time are Luke Sharp and Ian Livingstone. Luke Sharp had put out two previous Fighting Fantasy books, both bad; Ian Livingstone had co-founded the series, but his subsequent gamebooks had been a bit hit-and-miss. Who’ll come out on top here – the old hand whose creative well might have begun to run dry through overuse, or the apprentice whose previous efforts were at best mediocre, at worst a flagrant waste of paper?
You are a solar trooper and secret agent named Sky Lord Jang Mistral, member of a four-armed humanoid warrior of the sixteenth aeon. As a member of the Ensulvar race, you serve mighty King Vaax. Recently, Vaax fell out with his former major-domo L’Bastin, who had been embezzling from the royal household to fund his cloning hobby and replacing household staff with mind-controlled clones to cover for this. Now L’Bastin has apparently established a weaponised clone laboratory and is churning out Prefectas, dog-headed super-warriors. You must board your starship, the Starspray, and root out this menace!
There’s no two ways about it: Sky Lord is weird. This is the sole Fighting Fantasy book in the mainline series to have been penned by Martin Allen, who had previously co-authored the Clash of Princes two-player gamebook with Andrew Chapman. After this, at least according to the database at gamebooks.org, he never wrote another gamebook, and it’s entirely possible that the bizarre nature of Sky Lord contributed to this.
Remember my Chasms of Malice review? How I hated that book! If you recall, one of the first red flags was the bizarrely terse introductory blurb, which came across more like brief notes than a fully fleshed-out introduction. (“I swear I finished my homework, Mr. Livingstone! Here it is!”) Here, again, the introductory material provides its own red flag, but of a rather different nature. It’s certainly vividly detailed and imaginative, but it’s also a farrago of utter nonsense, a total fever-dream version of a setting writeup. Perhaps the intention is for the gamebook to be a very deadpan parody, but if it is the writing style doesn’t quite manage to pull this off; it just gives the impression of absurd, arbitrary things happening largely at random. (Spoiler: this continues into the main adventure.)
Having given thoughtful rereleases to the first, second, and third chapters of the Enemy Within campaign, updating them all to WFRP‘s 4th Edition and providing them with new companion volumes along the way, Cubicle 7’s version of the saga has now reached a crucial juncture. Originally, the Power Behind The Throne was followed by Something Rotten In Kislev, but this has more or less always been controversial. Some people simply dislike that adventure, and even those who find it more to their taste admit that it doesn’t actually belong in the Enemy Within sequence at all: Ken Rolston wrote it as a standalone thing, and then plans changed at Games Workshop’s end and it was hastily re-edited to be crowbarred in as a fourth episode. The transition from the victorious end of Power Behind the Throne to the start of Something Rotten In Kislev, in which the PCs are pointlessly arrested and then forced to go to Kislev as agents of Middenheim, is regarded as especially clumsy, not least because it gives the PCs a massive motivation to abscond as soon as they have a chance, rather than co-operating with the Middenheim authorities.
Another problem with Something Rotten In Kislev is that it ends with the PCs rattling around in Kislev – which of course then created the headache of getting them back to the Empire for the final episode of the campaign, Empire In Flames. Or maybe you wouldn’t bother: Empire In Flames is a reviled product, a rushed product knocked out in a hurry to bring the saga to an end as Games Workshop were in the process of shutting down their in-house RPG publications entirely, farming the later development of WFRP out first to Flame Publications and then Hogshead.
Indeed, when Hogshead were producing their reprints of The Enemy Within, James Wallis declared that they weren’t going to do Empire In Flames – the feedback on it was so universally negative that there was no choice but to scrap the damn thing and write something new to replace it. Wallis, however, has always been a better editor of other people’s work than he is a creator of his own material, and this new conclusion was one of several Hogshead projects which sat in development hell and then died when he sold off the company.
The basic idea that The Enemy Within needed a do-over on the ending, however, has been picked up by Cubicle 7 – who have taken it even further by saying “Well, if we’re changing the ending, we may as well do something about Something Rotten In Kislev too”. What they have done, specifically, is “leave it the fuck alone” – at least as far as incorporating it into The Enemy Within goes – and instead finally release The Horned Rat, the original intended followup to The Power Behind the Throne.
Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse is a new supplement for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons full of old material. Specifically, it brings together information of two types: firstly, player character race writeups, and secondly, monster stats. These are derived from a wide range of sources; the back cover blurb highlights Volo’s Guide To Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but these are not the only sources tapped. (With this release, for example, the Elemental Evil Player’s Companionis rendered wholly redundant: the new character types from there are in here, and the extra spells from there ended up in Xanathar’s Book of Everything.)
That said, you don’t get all the material from Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome here. Oh, sure, all the PC races and monster stats are here – but the chapters providing setting-specific deep dives into various subjects relating to monster culture aren’t here, and a lot of the race and monster entries are condensed somewhat to remove similarly world-specific details.
There’s been much debate and no small amount of culture war snark over why Wizards would take this tack, but so far as I can tell it is more or less consistent with the shift they’ve made in the direction of 5E recently: whilst early 5E materials very much used the Forgotten Realms world as the default setting, and were written assuming you would use it (bar for some nice gestures like the inclusion of pantheons for other worlds in the back of the Player’s Handbook), Wizards’ exploration of that setting seems to have stalled at the Sword Coast. Instead, they’ve gone with a one-product-and-done approach, dipping into a wide range of settings with a single hardback (or, in the case of their upcoming Spelljammer release, a boxed set) before moving on to something else, leaving the third party writers on the DM’s Guild to meet any demand for follow-up material.
Not all of these one-off settings have been entirely to my taste – I have no desire to explore Strixhaven, for instance – but some of them have been pretty good, and I thought the recent Ravenloft book was very good indeed, and it seems to be working out for Wizards. It certainly lets them make use both of their own wider range of IP – witness the number of Magic: the Gathering worlds that have had D&D supplements – as well as do interesting collaborations (like with Critical Role or Rick and Morty) from time to time, and I suspect that whilst none of the setting books sell as well as the core (because core rulebooks almost always outsell supplements), any product which cracks open a brand-new setting will tend to sell better than one which further explores an existing one (especially if that setting is as vanilla-bland as the Forgotten Realms have become). That being the case, it makes complete sense that Wizards would want to help referees separate out the Forgotten Realms accretions from the core concepts of the creatures presented here.
These are not the only tweaks made. Notably, all of the additional PC races now use the new rules for non-human characters from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which shifts away from applying attribute bonuses to specific stats. In part this was brought in to shift away from the “some races are just smarter/stronger/whatever-er” than others and the unfortunate implications that approach suggested, but it also feels like a nice way to expand the range of character builds you can try out (why shouldn’t you be able to play an orc wizard as accomplished as any human one?), makes the genuinely unique features of races (like Kenku mimicry) carry more weight in distinguishing them, and also serves the overall “we’re not making too many assumptions about these species’ cultures because they will vary a lot from setting to setting” ethos of the book. One suspects that when the new revision of the Player’s Handbook comes out in a year or two, it’ll apply this approach to all the PC races.
Another significant change to the monster stats is a change in the way monsters with spellcasting are handled: rather than being given a full breakdown of spell slots and memorised spells, the stat blocks now provide a terser set of spells and guidance on how often they can be used. This is frankly helpful: it reduces decision paralysis and spell-consultation on the part of the referee, and therefore makes it easier to deploy those monsters on the spur of the moment. If you really want to closely track an entity’s spell usage in the same manner as PCs, you’re free to tweak the statlines to do that if you want, but most referees will be aware that this is often overkill in practice.
On the whole, Monsters of the Multiverse is a solid consolidation of Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome (and a few stray things from other sources on top of that), and since it has been cooked up with the coming revisions to the core books in mind, it should hopefully be a bit more future-proof than those two. If you already have those books, I wouldn’t call it a high priority unless you don’t have much use for the setting-specific material in them and you want to save a bit of shelf space (which was the case with me); if you don’t have them, I’d recommend this instead.
One last nostalgia note: as far as putting out a new monster supplement which is basically a tweaked version of two older, bulkier books goes, Wizards are actually being old school here. Back in the 2nd Edition AD&D days, the original monster book for 2E was the two-volume Monstrous Compendium, a chunky think sold in three-ring binders so that settings-specific appendices could be stored with the rest of your monsters in there. It was eventually an annoying and fiddly way to sell books, so TSR gave up on it and put out the hardback Monstrous Manual which replaced it. Some have accused 5E of being an attempt to hark back to 2E (when they are not talking about it harking back to 3E, or being a Trojan Horse for 4E-isms, or a corporate riff on vintage OD&D/1E/Basic), and usually those arguments are a little reductive, but the parallels here are a little amusing to me, having watched this dance play out before.
So last week my fortnightly-on-Wednesdays group put our Star Trek Adventures campaign out to pasture. The adventures of the USS Audacity aren’t necessarily 100% over, but we’ve decided to declare the most recent episode the season finale and pick it up later if and when we feel like doing so. (One of the group has been cooking up a Ravenloft campaign we’ll be dipping into in the meantime.) Now that we’ve had just short of a year of play under our belts, here’s some thoughts on how it went.
Boldly Going Where No Troupe Play Has Gone Before
We decided to run the campaign troupe-style, like Ars Magica: we all had our own player characters, and anyone who wanted to run an “episode” (a full adventure which usually took some 2-4 sessions) could step up and do so. This is an approach which early editions of Ars Magica proposed; 5th edition still presents it as a viable option for play, but no longer assumes it as a default.
This actually ended up being a good fit. Because of the supporting character rules, you can quickly roll up an Ensign or other minor character to play when your bridge crew character isn’t present, and the bridge crew/supporting character dichotomy there ends up paralleling the magi-and-companions/grogs split in Ars Magica. It’s often the case in Star Trek that some characters will be more present in some episodes than others, so having the bridge crew PCs active vary a little from mission to mission was, if anything, appropriate to the genre.