The Continuing Saga of BRP

Chaosium’s efforts to support the Big Yellow Book version of Basic Roleplaying before the new regime took over ended up being a bit of a mixed bag. Devil’s Gulch was horribly botched when it came to the presentation. and Kenneth Spencer’s rather interesting Blood Tide was merely good rather than great because of a sloppy editing job weighing it down. In both cases, there seemed to be a basic lack of professionalism involved in the editing and layout at Chaosium’s end – like the products in question had originated as monographs, and didn’t really get a full polishing-up into a professional-grade product.

Enjoying a much better presentation, and perhaps the best of the Big Yellow Book supplements, was Mythic Iceland. Primarily designed by Brazilian-Icelandic game designer Pedro Ziviani, with the aid of a range of other Icelandic contributors and playtesters, this offers exactly what it says on the tin: a guide to running campaigns in a version of historical Iceland (the baseline assumption is that games will be set somewhere between the foundation of the Alþing assembly and the appointment of the first Christian bishop) where all the myths and legends believed by the Icelandic people are true.

This is a rich blend of genuine folklore derived from sources such as the Eddas, historical details conserved in the Icelandic Sagas, and some of Ziviani’s own inventions to fill in the gap, which he readily admits and highlights. The major gap is that the source material, whilst giving some importance to elves, doesn’t really fill in many details on them, so Ziviani had to flesh them out a lot himself. They are not, at least by default, a PC option, instead being a hidden people that PCs can encounter on adventures.

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Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies

So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.

And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.

Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.

Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)

The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.

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WFRP: Stepping Past the Starter Set

As well as putting out the initial releases in their Enemy Within reissue, Cubicle 7 have also put out a couple of fresh new products for 4th edition WFRP lately: here’s an overview.

Ubersreik Adventures

Around the release of 4th edition WFRP, Cubicle 7 put out a bunch of PDF-only adventures on DriveThruRPG set around Ubersreik, the city that the Starter Set is based in. This seemed like a good deal for everyone; from Cubicle 7’s perspective, it’s another chance to sell old timers on the Starter Set for the sake of the Guide To Ubersreik booklet in there, for beginners who’ve played the Starter Set it’s a neat source of additional support, and for old hands it’s some fresh WFRP material that ties in nicely with the new Ubersreik-based plot and isn’t just a revision of stuff they already own. Everyone wins.

Cubicle 7 hadn’t been planning to do hard copies of the material, but there was enough demand to issue this compilation of the five adventures (plus a new sixth one). The artwork in the book tends towards simple black and white pieces in comparison to the more lush artwork of, say, Empire In Flames or the core book, but this is largely down to the status of this book as an unplanned compilation.

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Mini-Kickstopper: New Observations On Deep Carbon

I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.

Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.

Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.

There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.

The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.

In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?

Shadows Refreshed, an Enemy Renewed

The first two parts of the Enemy WithinThe Enemy Within and Shadows Over Bögenhafen, are shorter than the other parts and closely connected; the adventure in Enemy Within is basically an extended bit of setup for Shadows. It’s no surprise, then, that the two were compiled together in most reprints – first as Warhammer Campaign, then (along with Death On the Reik) as Warhammer Adventure, then in 1995 under Hogshead’s auspices as, slightly confusingly, Shadows Over Bögenhafen.

Enemy In Shadows is Cubicle 7’s new update of the campaign for 4th edition WFRP, which has laid fallow over the whole run of the 2nd and 3rd editions. (3rd edition had a campaign released for it called The Enemy Within, but it’s a completely different scenario which happens to touch on the same themes.) It’s part of a “Director’s Cut” reissue of the entire campaign, overseen by original designer Graeme Davis, with each of the five volumes of the campaign having “DVD extras” in a separate book, such as the Enemy In Shadows Companion for this one.

One especially nice thing is that as well as planning Empire In Ruins – a brand new ending to the campaign to replace Empire In Flames, which by and large nobody is especially satisfied with, they’re also doing The Horned Rat as a replacement for Something Rotten In Kislev, which had previously slotted into The Enemy Within between The Power Behind the Thone and Empire In Flames but which is generally agreed to be not really anything to do with the main Enemy Within plot and better treated as a standalone Kislev campaign.

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Lessons From the Dinner Table 4: Back To Basics, With New Nuance

Now for another instalment of this occasional article series where I look at old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and think about whether they present any useful considerations when it comes to actual play. The Bundles we’re dealing with this time around compile material from 1999-2000, a period which saw the storytelling in the comic continue to become more intricate and developed, both in terms of the out-of-game lives of the players and the action at the table.

This is significant because as well as there being insights into gameplay here, the comic is also taking more of an interest in the idea of gaming as a wider community, which given the gatekeeping and controversies of recent years is a concept which it was arguably ahead of its time in addressing. Whereas in the early days of the RPG hobby, and even the era when this comic came out, many gamers would not have much interaction with people outside their immediate geographic area, the rise of online tabletop gaming through platforms like Discord or Roll20 means that the gaming community has effectively become one big global Muncie, Indiana, and we’ve seen growing pains as a result of that.

Bundle of Trouble 11

In the last Bundle of Trouble I looked at, Sara exited the Knights and joined her boyfriend’s gaming group because superficially they turned out to be more interested in the type of roleplaying-and-setting-detail-heavy gaming that she’s interested in. This time we see more of Sara’s new gaming group, including some red flags that suggest that it isn’t as good a fit for her as she initially thought it was. Whilst the strong emphasis on negotiation and deep setting knowledge and NPC interaction would seem on a superficial level to match Sara’s tastes, there’s profound problems with that group which become apparent in this Bundle.

Let’s deal with an easily-overlooked but still significant issue first: the social contract in the group is different from the Knights when it comes to the simple act of “paying attention to the game”, in a way which would likely have bugged Sara even if the even worse issues weren’t present. At one point, one of the players (Lanky) gets up and just abandons the game completely for hours on end, and when he comes back it turns out he was just watching a movie that happened to be on in one of the college common rooms; Troy, the referee, takes it completely in stride and it’s pretty clear from the reaction of the other players that this happens all the time.

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Choose Your Own Pounding In the Butt

After branching out in to tabletop RPGs via the Tingleverse RPG, Chuck Tingle has once again expanded his range outside of his usual surrealist comedy erotica niche by producing a gamebook. Specifically, he’s written Escape From the Billings Mall, the first of hopefully several Select Your Own Timeline books.

Spoofing the Choose Your Own Adventure series in both trade dress and execution, it has essentially no pornographic content and instead presents a comparatively wholesome scenario with a horrific twist. It’s the day before your son’s birthday and you’re running a little late, but you just have time to swing by the shopping mall in your home town of Billings, Montana to buy him something. However, all is not well, for a timeline rift by the local lake has caused an outpouring of the dark forces of the Void. Besieged in the mall by Void Crabs, hunted within by a handsome unicorn security guard who has been warped into a hideous Void monster, can you navigate the mall, avoid perils like your Reverse Twin, and escape to safety?

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Pounded In the Butt By a Handsome Supplement Treadmill

With its core rulebook and its monster guide having been a success, Chuck Tingle’s Tingleverse RPG has kept up a steady pace of releases. The latest releases continue in the well-worn path of other RPG supplement lines: more PC options, and more campaign setting information.

Living Object Handbook

Living objects – talking bicycles, personifications of abstract concepts, sentient Chuck Tingle novels like Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt” and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Book ‘Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt'” and whatnot – are a major part of Chuck’s unique vision, but were conspicuous by their absence from the playable options in the core game.

Chuck had hinted back then that this gap would be addressed in some form of supplement, and the Living Object Handbook is the fulfillment of that promise. As well as adding a significant number of more adversarial living objects to use as monsters, it increases the range of character types in the game by providing some seventeen varieties of living objects to play, each of which have some associated stat adjustment and Unique Ways available to them. (If you want to get really meta, you could play The Physical Manifestation of This Game – no, not the Tingleverse RPG in general, the specific campaign you are playing right now.)

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Mini-Kickstopper: Crawford Does Right By His Pack

Kevin Crawford’s old-school RPGs, which he puts out through his Sine Nomine Publishing small press, have been one of the most interesting pillars of the OSR scene for about a decade, ever since the release of Stars Without Number.

Rather than being based on a retro-clone of a specific D&D edition, Stars Without Number drew its system inspiration from a mixture of OD&D, B/X D&D, and Traveller. Its choice of D&D influences means that the system broadly resembles something like the sort of “rationalised” D&D system that a talented referee might have worked out at their home table from the OD&D rules set, had they taken the lighter approach of the Holmes-authored Basic Set or Moldvay and Cook’s B/X distillation of the rules instead of the crunchier approach taken by AD&D. (To a large extent both Advanced and Basic D&D represent different approaches to clarifying and tidying up OD&D.)

The Traveller input in Stars Without Number is most immediately obvious on the choice of setting and genre rather than the system side of things – both games are about crews of starfarers gadding about in a hard-ish SF universe – but there are also some important system aspects there. The inclusion of a Traveller-style skill system adds a welcome resolution mechanic to proceedings and makes the early D&D approach feel like it offers a bit more character definition outside of the immediate dungeoneering tasks of fighting, magic use, and exploration. In addition, the extensive use of random generators to help the referee generate material for the game is both a feature of Traveller and has become a hallmark of Kevin Crawford’s games.

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Mini-Kickstopper: Nibiru

At the end of 2018 I ended up getting the Nibiru Quickstart and was sufficiently impressed to back the Kickstarter for the game. That campaign rounded out as smooth and easy as could be expected, and since I’ve already discussed the game somewhat I can’t be bothered to do a full Kickstopper article for it, but I thought I’d run down how the full game is.

As it turns out, having the quickstart rules handy may be useful. Nibiru itself is daunting – impressively constructed, beautifully presented, and patiently explained, yes, but still rather daunting.

The main thing you get here that we didn’t get back in the quickstart is an extensive breakdown of the setting, which is the daunting part – this is an incredibly detailed world that is obviously the product of extensive careful thought. Once you are able to get the basics of the setting straight, however, the setting chapters become a useful resource, detailing some significant settlements in the major different regions of the station whilst leaving other settlements less developed so there’s scope for you to develop them yourself (or for future supplements to detail them).

A major principle of the setting is that proximity to the core of the station has a major effect on how people live. The closer you are to the core, the more access you have to power (because that’s where the power core is) and the lighter the “gravity” (the station spins to simulate gravity, which means that the acceleration force is zero at the axis of rotation and increases as you go further out). The further out you go, the sparser the settlements and resources, and the stronger the gravity, until you reach regions beyond which humans cannot survive. The history of the communities in the station have been shaped in part by these factors, and so the different concentric zones correspond to different social patterns and tend to lend themselves to different campaign themes.

You don’t get all the answers here, the team evidently leaving some things back for future supplements. (This annoys me. In today’s market, acting like you’re definitely going to be able to write that next supplement is an act of utter hubris; small press RPG publishers should really work on a basis of “if this was the last product we could ever put out in this game line, would we be satisfied with it?”) You do, however, get plenty to riff on and offer your own answers through.

Neatly, the different origins for your amnesiac PCs lend themselves to somewhat different themes in their flashbacks, and different benefits to exploring their memories, which helps character differentiation in a game where everyone otherwise has the character backstory “uh, I dunno”. Beyond that, there’s not many system surprises here since the basic principles were already outlined in the quickstart.

On the whole, I’d put Nibiru as another entry in the long tradition of British small press RPGs with really detailed and incredibly odd settings, like SLA Industries, Tales of Gargentihr, and A|State, but I’d say that it’s a particularly good example of the form, particularly with the “you’re all amnesiacs” structure meaning you don’t need to spend ages explaining the setting to the players before getting down to the action.