Pedantry & Pointlessness

The story is legendary: Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus penned Chivalry & Sorcery originally as a document named Chevalier, which they took to Gen Con intending to pitch it to TSR as a greatly improved take on Dungeons & Dragons. Ed Simbalist would later claim that they thought better of it after getting “very bad vibes” concerning Gary Gygax, after they witnessed Gary telling off a con volunteer. That may or may not be true, but in retrospect I can’t imagine that Ed or Wilf would have had much luck with their pitch anyway. If the idea was to publish Chevalier alongside Dungeons & Dragons, I think even early TSR knew better than to divide their customer base by publishing two competing generic fantasy RPGs, and if the idea was that it would replace D&D I think both Gary’s ego and the preferences of the D&D fanbase wouldn’t stand for it.

Either way, at the con they also ran into Scott Bizar, head honcho at Fantasy Games Unlimited. As I’ve noted in previous reviews of games from FGU’s back catalogue, Bizar’s business model was based on a mixture of selling his own game designs and publishing the work of individual authors whose manuscripts caught Bizar’s eye; this gave a wide distribution to games which wouldn’t have had the same reach had the authors self-published, whilst simultaneously allowing FGU to boast an extremely broad portfolio, with products ranging from oddities like Bunnies & Burrows to treatments of neglected but decidedly game-worthy genres like Bushido, Flashing Blades or Privateers & Gentlemen to significant hits like Villains & Vigilantes.

At the time, FGU hadn’t quite moved to focus on RPGs – I think, in fact, only Bunnies & Burrows had been put out by them in the RPG field – but the Chevalier manuscript was going begging and seemed to lend itself naturally to filling the “generic D&D-inspired fantasy RPG”-shaped hole in the FGU portfolio. Scott, Ed, and Wilf shook hands on it right there at the Con, and come 1977 Chivalry & Sorcery was unleashed on the market.

As Ed notes in that interview I linked earlier, FGU had a tendency to toss a game out there and then let it sink or swim, moving on to the new hotness unless a game’s original creators or some other parties were enthused enough to produce support material for it. Simbalist seems to take the position that Bizar was at fault here, but I think that both shows a misunderstanding of Bizar’s business model (which was largely based on people taking the initiative in creating material and then bringing it to him to publish, with games like Space Opera which were solicited specifically to meet a perceived need being very much the exception) and overestimates Chivalry & Sorcery‘s importance to FGU.

After all, whilst most FGU lines were core book-and-done affairs, or maybe had a small smattering of supplements, the true cash cow lines got a bunch of supplements for them – in particular, Villains & Vigilantes had a pretty extensive range of support out for it, to the point where there was a point in the 1980s when it was seriously contending with Champions and Marvel Superheroes for the “top superhero RPG” spot.

Why, then, would FGU step away from seriously concentrating on Chivalry & Sorcery after putting a bunch of energy into putting out a decent supplement line for its 1977 first edition, and then putting out an updated 2nd edition boxed set and a brace of updated supplements for it in 1983? Well, we can speculate a lot, and based on that interview Simbalist seems to have some long-lasting beef with Bizar, but I’d like to propose a simpler answer: Chivalry & Sorcery was, quite simply, an early fantasy heartbreaker, and one which doomed itself by its own decisions to have an extremely limited appeal – and by 1983, it had already become extremely dated.

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Pendragon (Actually) Comes Home

So a while back I posted an article called Pendragon (Sort Of) Comes Home, reporting on how the new regime at Chaosium and Nocturnal Press had reached a deal on collaborating on getting Pendragon-related material out there.

Well, we can drop the “sort of”: Chaosium just announced that they have regained the rights to Pendragon from Nocturnal. (Go read the announcement, by the way, it’s got a really lovely anecdote about White Wolf and Chaosium toasting each other at Gen Con once.) Whether this includes the new Paladin line isn’t clear, though since the print-on-demand proofs for Paladin were recently sorted out I’m not so concerned about that – delivery of that project seems to be imminent regardless, and given the new regime at Chaosium’s approach to Kickstarters I’m sure they would want to make sure everyone with skin in that game gets what they are owed if only to avoid damaging the game line’s reputation.

I imagine negotiations on this must have been grinding on for some time – you just don’t make this sort of decision based on a passing whim – so odds are Greg Stafford was aware when he died a little while back that this particular one of his babies would likely be coming home for good. Chaosium are retaining the current line editor for the game too.

Between a solid new RuneQuest and Pendragon coming back to Chaosium and Call of Cthulhu remaining the king of the Lovecraftian gaming space, it really does seem like Chaosium’s returning to its former glory. If the current management can just negotiate a deal with Michael Moorcock – who the old regime managed to annoy enough to make him pull the Stormbringer licence – then they’d really have all of their “greatest hits” back together under one roof.

Update: Nocturnal just posted an update to Paladin backers on this. They confirm that they remain responsible for delivering the backer rewards on the Kickstarter, which I guess would be one of the thorny points the negotiations behind this would have had to navigate.

The print run for Paladin apparently had to be delayed a wee bit in order to co-ordinate everything for Chaosium, but is now back on track. I guess we’ll see if the books end up with a little Chaosium logo on them when I get them.

Dragonmeet Hoard: Nibiru Quickstart

This past weekend was the Dragonmeet annual RPG convention in London, which I had a pleasant time at catching up with friends and purchasing a fat stack of loot. One of the bits I picked up from there was the Nibiru Quickstart Guide – a taster of the rules and a brief adventure for Nibiru, a new RPG currently being Kickstarted. (If you want a PDF of the Quickstart it’s up on DriveThruRPG for free.)

I’m not going to go too deep into a critique of the rules here because the Quickstart admits that it’s an abbreviated version of the system that’s intended to get the general idea across. Nor am I going to delve too much into the sample adventure (it’s so linear the map for it is literally a corridor), since it’s largely meant to be a taster to let you sample the core game mechanic rather than anything more involved or deeper than that.

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Kickstopper: Divinity Lost, Quality Found?

Once upon a time there was a game called Kult, whose original Swedish-language release came out a few months before Vampire: the Masquerade‘s original English-language release. Despite being penned in different languages and presented for different markets, both of them managed to tap into the zeitgeist in a broadly similar way; each of them stepped away from the fantasy worlds, science fiction galaxies, historical settings or superhero milieus that had dominated tabletop RPGs to date in favour of setting themselves in a dark take on the real world, with supernatural horror lurking just out of sight of ordinary life. Both games had a distinctively edgy aesthetic drawing on goth and industrial influences freely. Both games tackled the subject of sexuality directly, rather than tiptoeing around it or pretending that sexual or romantic stories had no place in tabletop RPGs.

And as a result of all of that, both games ended up both making a splash in their respective RPG scenes – Vampire is famous for successfully getting people into RPGs who wouldn’t have previously given them a second look – and sparking cultural controversy. Vampire got tenuously connected to some murders in the USA, but Satanic Panic conspiracy theorists’ interest in tabletop RPGs had largely already waxed and waned by the time that Vampire emerged, and it rather got lost in a mass of a whole other range of stuff to get outraged over like DOOM and Marilyn Manson. Conversely, Kult was at the centre of a firestorm of controversy in Sweden, effectively becoming the hub of its version of the RPG-related Satanic Panic just as Dungeons & Dragons had in the Anglosphere.

Kult‘s English-language versions, however… those have had a bit more of a patchy record. The first English edition made a bit of a polite splash but I felt it was let down a little by a mixed bag of supporting supplements and adventures – with, in particular, some issues arising as a result of a mixture of Swedish 1st and 2nd edition materials being used, giving rise to contradictions between some materials.

There were also issues with the system being poorly received in the English market, being regarded as a bit clunky and uninspiring. This would have been less of an issue in the Swedish market, since Kult followed what was then the in-vogue style of system design, which largely consisted of ripping off Basic Roleplaying, since that was the first system which made it big in the Swedish market. What was then the norm in Sweden had become clearly a bit old-fashioned and behind the curve in English-speaking markets, especially compared to Vampire which (along with Shadowrun and Star Wars) did a lot to popularise the “dice pool” school of RPG design. Subsequent English editions failed to make much of an impact at all, with the third edition being quite badly botched – right down to the printing of the actual physical book.

When Swedish publishers Helmgast landed the rights to Kult, they decided to do right by the old beast – putting a new system under the hood to better support the themes of the game, and producing the English-language and Swedish versions of the new edition in conjunction with each other so that no more would the English version be out of step with the Swedish. And the grand plan to fund all of this? Why, a Kickstarter!

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Kickstopper: Is This The Way To Do It?

Arc Dream Publishing have a string of Kickstarters to their name. Perhaps their biggest and most successful relate to Delta Green, which Arc Dream has inherited the publication of (along with most other Pagan Publishing-related properties), and at some point I’ll put out some (probably quite epic-length) Kickstopper articles breaking those down in the future. But they’re big projects with lots of associated stretch goals and it’ll be a little while before all of those are wrapped up, and even longer before I’m able to read all of them.

A smaller project, however, which has completely wrapped up is their new release of Puppetland, a John Tynes project of past decades which remains an influential example of truly experimental RPG design.

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Kickstopper: The Wurm Has Turned

Würm was originally published as an amateur game on the Francophone RPG website La Cour d’Obéron in 2007, and gathered enough interest that eventually Editions Icare gave it a professional release in 2011. Now, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign by Nocturnal Media, the cream of Würm content is now available in English. Was it worth the wait? Time for a Kickstopper investigation…

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.

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Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)

The story so far: James Wallis, old hand in the British RPG industry, takes to Kickstarter to fund his return to RPG design. His campaign is very successful, based largely on his good reputation among gamers; he then pisses away that reputation on a massively delayed delivery process which involved multiple broken promises, several long stretches of total silence and non-interaction with backers, and an honest-to-goodness tie-in with Far West.

Eventually, some products crept out of the darkness, and in this part of the saga I am going to take a look at them and then offer some final thoughts.

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