The Limits of Authenticity

Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits is a system-agnostic RPG supplement with a long heritage; its original edition came out in the 1970s from Chaosium, whilst Steve Jackson Games put out an extensively revised version in 1998. Though it’s available in an e-book edition from Steve Jackson Games’ e23 storefront, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a reprint: not only did Bonewits die in 2010, but in 2018 Moira Greyland, daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley, implicated Bonewits as having a peripheral role in the abuse that she suffered at Bradley’s hands.

Either edition purports to offer more or less the same thing: an analysis of tabletop RPG magic, a discussion of what real-world magical practitioners believe and do, and a proposal for a magic system based on real-world practices and the sort of effects people claim to get out of them. The whole thing is written from the perspective that the point of an RPG is to be a realistic simulation, and therefore Bonewits has little time for magic systems which don’t resemble real-life magical practices, even though such systems might be more suitable for, say, presenting a challenging and exciting game, or for providing an interesting feature or metaphor in a story. I, a highly trained scientist, can enjoy science fiction stories can be enjoyed even when the science involved has been discredited or was never that realistic to begin with: why can’t Bonewits do the same for fantasy stories whose treatment of magic doesn’t match his worldview?

And the thing is, that worldview is decidedly central to the book, and it’s rooted in the late-1960s/early 1970s neopagan scene that Bonewits emerged in. The thing is that Bonewits clearly has a highly developed personal ideology of what magic is and isn’t and how it works, and he seems to be personally offended by different ideas in the field.

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De Weimar Mysteriis

Cthulhu in R’lyeh eternally lies
Somewhere in the depths of the sea
But soon, says the cultist
“Iä! Iä!
Tomorrow Belongs To Thee!”

So, Chaosium has turned its attention to Weimar-era Berlin in Berlin: The Wicked City, a 7th edition supplement primarily written as a passion project by David Larkins (with assistance from product line gurus Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy). This is a chunky supplement which provides a rich level of detail on Berlin as it existed in the span shortly after World War I – in which street violence and radical politics rubbed shoulders with a rich nightlife that included unprecedented freedom to explore drugs, sexuality, gender, and identity – to the period just before the Nazi takeover, at which point street violence and radical politics rather rubbed out said nightlife, save for those sections saved by NSDAP patronage.

Despite my little filk above, however, this isn’t just H.P. Lovecraft’s Cabaret – though there’s inevitably a major overlap of themes. Yes, the bars and cabarets and theatres of Weimar-era Berlin do get a close examination – as does the underworld of drugs and the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by the LGBT+ community at the time, though in the latter case the text does offer sufficient depth to note that the community wasn’t a monolith; there, as in so many areas of German life, an extreme fringe of proto-fascists existed, and the community had a social pecking order in which crossdressers and those cultivating an androgynous presentation tended to be looked down on a little by everyone else.

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Breaking News: The Confederacy Falls Again In Deadlands

So, Pinnacle have kicked off a significant spring-cleaning of the Deadlands setting, and as part of this they’ve kicked off a metaplot event called the Morgana Effect, which has provided them with an excuse to go back and retcon some aspects of the setting. The big news, as extensively explained by game creator Shane Hensley, is that whereas in the previous version of the setting the Confederacy survived the Civil War, in the new version of the setting it fell.

Given that the continuation of the Confederacy – in an unfortunately sanitised non-slaveowning form that made an absolute mockery of the Confederacy’s cause, at that – was one of the main problems I’d previously had with the game, obviously I find this development very welcome, and this decision makes me markedly more likely to both play/run Deadlands in the future and take a look at the revised game line, even if I prefer the old system to Savage Worlds.

Hensley, I think, does a good job in his Facebook post of explaining why the Confederacy was there in the game in the first place, and why he’s made the call to remove it now. Initially it was meant to be a pawn for the Reckoners to use, but with the intervening time the setting’s been developed to the point where the CSA is redundant – there’s other factions that can play its role just as handily. Game materials directly dealing with the Confederacy were actually thinner on the ground than you’d expect, and so it doesn’t actually do that much damage to the setting to have the Confederacy defeated, particularly when one notes that nothing stops tensions between North and South continuing to be a thing in the setting, just as they were in the Reconstruction era – it’s just that the South doesn’t have its own government and army any more.

And most importantly, Hensley has recognised – perhaps late, but still recognised – that there’s been an ongoing cost to having the reformed CSA as part of the game. And as he puts it, “it’s one I don’t have to pay…someone else does. And I don’t want that.” As long as it remained an option in the game to play a dyed-in-the-wool CSA loyalist – even one loyal to an anti-slavery CSA which stands in jarring contradiction to the CSA’s actual values – that’d make some uncomfortable at the gaming table, inevitably and with good reason. Removing the option makes the game more fun for those who don’t want a loud and proud Confederate being one of the “heroes” – and I think Hensley has realised that if denying someone the opportunity to use the game as neo-Confederate wish-fulfillment loses him customers, those are customers that he’s entirely happy to lose.

As it stands, the Civil War is still a bit counterfactual in Deadlands; the CSA lasts longer than it did historically, dragging on another 7 years until a brutal defeat in 1871’s Battle of Washington in the Deadlands timeline. Post-Morgana Effect, the Battle of Washington is now the point where the CSA collapsed entirely. Frankly, I have no problem with this treatment of it, even if they retain the point about the CSA abandoning slavery in the mid-1860s. In this setup it’s possible to spin that as a feint – a cheap trick to get some motivated fighters to the front line as things got increasingly desperate, with the CSA leaders planning to reimpose slavery should circumstances permit.

What’s most important about it is that it means the Confederacy is out of the picture as of the assumed starting date for Deadlands campaigns. It’s one thing to say “The Confederates abolished slavery, but too late to turn things around for them, and so the CSA collapsed.” It’s a beast of a whole different stripe to say “The Confederates abolished slavery, and as a result they survived the Civil War and forced a stalemate with the Union”, and a whole other thing to have that Confederacy present as a feature of the setting, and a whole other thing still to have it be a viable faction for player characters to support.

Ultimately, none of the great Western stories we still love today – conventional, spaghetti, or Weird – ask us to accept ideological loyalists to the Confederacy as heroes, so not offering that as a player character option in Deadlands is no great loss – and if anything, throwing that bit of politics out there just confuses discussion of the game and distracts from the supernatural horror and mayhem which is the game’s stock in trade. So let’s raise a glass at the saloon to Pinnacle, for finally correcting course on what’s been a long-standing point of contention with the game line.

Kickstopper: The Legacy of Three Kickstarters

Accountability disclaimer! This Kickstopper article’s going to be about a trio of projects run by UFO Press, owned by Liz and Jay Iles (with Jay being the lead designer on most of the material I’m about to discuss). These are friends of mine I know in real life, so if that makes you want to apply a grain of salt to my opinions and question my objectivity on the subject… don’t care, writing article anyway.

Anyway! This Kickstopper article’s going to be a little different from the usual one because I’m going to be reviewing a series of three linked Kickstarters – the first one being for the original edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, the second for the 2nd edition of that game, and the third for The Next World – a set of additional settings for Legacy. These three Kickstarters chart the birth and rise of UFO Press from one small indie publisher among many to one which, to my admittedly biased eyes, seems to be punching above its weight in the industry, with Legacy getting widespread critical recognition – there’s currently a Bundle of Holding offer dedicated to the 2nd edition – as well as a crucial commercial leg up thanks to a distribution deal with Modiphius.

Jay’s been able to shepherd her game from a passion project reliant on DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand arrangements to deliver hard copies to a series which gets traditional print runs and wide distribution via one of the industry’s current major players, and hopefully this article might highlight how that’s possible thanks to the combination of interesting content, delightful presentation, and excellent Kickstarter management that UFO Press has been able to bring to the table.

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Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin

Chuck Tingle is probably our greatest living satirist, his primary platform being the titles, blurbs, and absurdly photoshopped covers of his short stories (“Tinglers”) on Amazon. Oh, sure, there’s the content of those stories too – but I would be willing to bet that Chuck works on the basis that 99% of people wouldn’t actually sit down and read any of his erotica about urbane dinosaurs, friendly living objects, manifested abstract concepts, or sexy unicorns and bigfoots; the joke has to be delivered in the title and blurb, ideally just the title, and then the actual action of the story is fairly self-evident from there.

Nonetheless, for what’s basically a long-running repetition, refinement of, and iteration on the same basic joke, the whole Tingler thing seems to be going from strength to strength. It certainly help that Chuck – despite portraying himself as a somewhat naïve figure on his Twitter feed and reliant on his “son name of Jon” to get by – actually seems to be remarkably savvy. When the Rabid Puppies’ block voting attack on the Hugo Awards was at its peak, they got Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion nominated in the short story category. Whilst this seems to have been intended both to denigrate Chuck and the Awards by making them look silly, Chuck took things in hand, turning the incident into an opportunity to advocate for more or less all the causes which the Puppies disliked. (The peak of his counter-trolling came when he declared that if he won, he’d have primary GamerGate target Zoë Quinn collect the award on his behalf.)

That’s the thing about Chuck – he’s got this magic touch which has taken his long-running joke about getting pounded in the butt by sexy night buses or billionaire dinosaurs or alluring manifestations of abstract concepts or your own butt and made it strangely wholesome for work that still retains one foot in the world of erotica. His Twitter feed is a mashup of his surreal take on the universe and moments of clearly expressed, unequivocal good lessons about self-acceptance and treating each other right. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Dadaist literary pornography who just wants to prove that love is real.

Now the long-running Tingle joke has taken on yet another dimension – that of a tabletop roleplaying game, The Tingleverse, named after the multiverse which his stories take place in. The concept of the game has players taking on the role of inhabitants of this universe – Humans, Unicorns, Bigfoots and Raptors are viable PC races in the core book, and you get to choose from classes like “Sneak”, “Wizard”, “True Buckaroo”, and “Bad Boy” (Chuck notes that being a bad boy doesn’t limit your choice of gender in any respect). Beginning your adventure in Billings, Montana, Chuck’s hometown that prominently features in all his stories, you’re encouraged to go forth and do good in the world against the encroaching forces of the Void, as represented by evil Void Crabs, dubious Reverse Twins, and the vile force of darkness and destruction known only as… Ted Cobbler, who anyone who’s not sufficiently high level just perceives as a perfectly normal resident of the neighborhood.

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An X-Edition of an X-Traneous Game

Let’s take a look at two trends in geek-adjacent culture in the 1990s: The X-Files was massive on television- a show in which an ensemble of characters in a modern-day setting investigate supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows – and tabletop RPGs were going through a phase of being very keen on modern-day settings replete with supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows.

Given that the Lone Gunmen play D&D at one point, it seems likely that the X-Files creative team weren’t ignorant of RPGs, and given that RPG publishers were hog-wild for licencing anything and everything – West End Games made RPGs of Tales From the CryptSpecies and Tank Girl, for crying out loud – so it’s not entirely clear to me why there wasn’t an official licenced X-Files RPG, particularly since Call of Cthulhu‘s perennial popularity proved that investigative RPGs are a viable niche.

If I had to put a bet on it, however, I’d say it came down to the larger publishers who could have conceivably afforded the licence failing to move quickly enough, by which time smaller publishers proved you could fill the gap without really needing the licence at all. Sure, without the licence they couldn’t use the specific lore and characters of the show – but for the purposes of an RPG where people will likely want to make their own player characters anyhow the characters are less essential, and I’d argue that the background lore of the X-Files is the least valuable part of the IP. The show always got by more on its mysterious atmosphere than it did on the actual answers to those mysteries; so long as you hit something acceptably close to the atmosphere of the show, it’d be good enough for most gamers.

Delta Green, for instance, adeptly recognised that the vein of conspiratorial paranoia and supernatural horror that The X-Files were built on complements the cosmic vertigo that’s the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos (or at least the good bits of it which aren’t based on racism) nicely, and also worked on the basis that if you already have a system which works well for investigative RPGs and can handle a modern day setting, you can do The X-Files in it.

(OK, strictly speaking the earliest Delta Green materials preceded The X-Files – but in practice, that meant Pagan Publishing were perfectly placed to pivot the subsequent material to to cater to the X-Files niche and had the jump on everyone else in that respect.)

And then there was 1996’s Conspiracy X, which, as you might guess from the title, wasn’t exactly shy about what it was trying to do. Whereas the more recent 2nd edition is based off Unisystem – of Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten fame – this review’s going to take in the first edition, which had its own bespoke approach.

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Boldly Going Where Many Systems Have Gone Before…

Star Trek vs. Star Wars might not be the iconic Coke vs. Pepsi/Sega vs. Nintendo-style franchise rivalry it was once back in the day – the proliferation of franchises and continued diversification of fandom has largely seen to that – but given their prominence in science fiction over the past few decades, it’s interesting to note how they’ve been differently handled when it comes to the tabletop RPG licence.

In particular, when it comes to the Star Wars licence, Lucasfilm and Disney after them haven’t exactly been reluctant to parcel out third party rights to spin-off products – as the masses of Star Wars spinoff products testify – but they’ve always been at least somewhat careful as to who gets to play in their playground. West End Games were only able to land the licence for their much loved-version in 1987, a time when the series was generally considered to be almost ready for mothballing by the powers that be at Lucasfilm. That might sound absurd, but it’s worth remembering that by that point Return of the Jedi had been out for some 4 years, both the Ewok Adventure TV movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoons had come and gone, and the Star Wars well seemed to have run dry.

It’s now a matter of record that both the success of the RPG itself and the wealth of material it produced as an aid to referees was instrumental in kicking off the Expanded Universe, injecting a new dose of life into the franchise until George Lucas ensured it would live on in flamewars forever by making the prequels. West End Games kept the RPG going for 12 years, with the licence only pulled by Lucasfilm in 1999 after West End Games got into financial difficulties. From there, it didn’t take much time at all for Wizards of the Coast to pick up the licence and produce the D2o Star Wars line in various editions from 2000 to 2010, at which point they surrendered the licence voluntarily; a year later, Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence, and in 2012 they’d bring out their new Star Wars RPG line, which has remained current despite the shift to Disney (and indeed has engaged with the Disney line constructively, with a starter set coming out based on The Force Awakens).

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