You’re Indestructible, Always Believe In, ‘Cos You Are Gold(en Heroes)

Golden Heroes was first published in 1981 on a small press, hobbyist basis – a labour of love by Simon Burley and Peter Haines, its authors. Come 1984, it ended up getting a revamp and release by Games Workshop: they’d bought the rights to the system as part of a plan to bid for the Marvel Comics RPG licence, and then when their bid fell through (losing to TSR, whose Marvel Super Heroes took a very different approach) Games Workshop decided to not bother applying the Marvel-flavoured reskin and put out Golden Heroes as it stood, in a boxed set which was the basis for a short-lived product line which retains a strong fan following to this day.

In fact, that fan following is strong enough that even decades after the game went out of print, both the fan community and one of its original designers have kept the flame burning. Codename: Spandex is a full-blown retroclone of Golden Heroes, whilst Simon Burley has kept his hand in the RPG design game (focusing mainly on the superhero genre) and produced Squadron UK, a spiritual successor to the game based on many of the same principles. If you want the Games Workshop version, the original boxed set still pops up on EBay, or if you want to go a bit thriftier with it you can find the actual rulebooks (the only components you strictly need) separately.

Continue reading “You’re Indestructible, Always Believe In, ‘Cos You Are Gold(en Heroes)”

Lagging Behind the Turtles

Despite Palladium’s recent history having been known more for accidents, tragedies, betrayals, and blunders, with Kevin Siembieda’s working process infamously not keeping up with the times, there was an era when they were substantially more on the ball. Perhaps their best business decision came about in the mid-1980s, when they landed the licence to do an RPG adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, let’s remember that this was before the cartoon series turned Master Splinter’s best students into pop culture icons (and generated a slew of “badass animal-people fight crime” cartoons that clogged 1990s television schedules – Biker Mice From Mars, Avenger Penguins, Street Sharks, you know the drill). Back in 1985, when the game came out, the Turtles were mostly known via the original indie comic book from Eastman and Laird – in other words, they’d already become a significant hit in the comics world but hadn’t yet become the monster multimedia franchise they’d eventually become.

Continue reading “Lagging Behind the Turtles”

The Island Economy

The latest post on Uncaring Cosmos ruminates about how the “British Old School” style may have arisen out of the RPG scene in the UK being largely curated by Games Workshop – global distribution not having reached the point where the RPG culture in the Anglosphere has become more homogenised more recently. (It goes without saying, of course, that the development of RPGs in non-English speaking markets has tended to be based largely on who’s managed to make it big with licensed translations or homebrewed games; Die Schwarze Auge is, as I understand it, the biggest game in Germany because its designers moved first before D&D got a lock on the market, most Swedish RPGs of a certain vintage draw heavily on BRP because the original Drachar och Demoner was largely an unauthorised RuneQuest translation, and apparently in Japan Call of Cthulhu is absolutely huge, especially among women.)

I think there’s definitely something to the idea of local gatekeepers shaping local gaming scenes. It’s particularly interesting how Games Workshop, by virtue of being a) the primary importer of American RPGs into the UK and b) by far the largest specialist homegrown producer of RPGs got to have as much influence as it did as a gatekeeper. (Even D&D and Traveller got their start in the UK by being brought over by Games Workshop, after all.)

That said, I would argue that it wasn’t the sole gatekeeper, or necessarily even the largest – just the only one which was a specialist in RPGs and other hobby games. I’d say that the biggest companies dealing in RPGs in the UK in the 1980s would have actually been Puffin and Corgi and their various competitors – book publishers whose main bread and butter wasn’t in the RPG field, but who put out game material as a notable and profitable sideline. Puffin not only gave us Fighting Fantasy but also the original Maelstrom, whilst Corgi imported Tunnels & Trolls (and gave us those gorgeous Josh Kirby reimaginings of the various book covers) and produced Dragon Warriors.

Of course, all of that was in the context of the gamebook craze, with the full-blooded RPGs in question usually being associated with a gamebook line – Fighting Fantasy obviously had the gamebooks come first before the basic and Advanced RPG versions came out, Tunnels & Trolls began as an RPG before Flying Buffalo hit on the notion of combining Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks with RPG mechanics, even Maelstrom needed to incorporate a self-contained solo adventure to slip onto Puffin’s schedule. (In this respect, I think Dragon Warriors was a bit of an outlier.) And the gamebook craze in the UK was driven by Fighting Fantasy, which Jackson and Livingstone openly admit was concocted as a gateway drug to RPGs in general. So arguably every substantial player in the market in the UK was dancing to Games Workshop’s tune – if you were jumping on the bandwagon, odds were you were trying to emulate the success of Games Workshop or Fighting Fantasy.

Come to think of it, I think Games Workshop must have established a virtual monopoly fairly early on in the British industry in terms of being a specialist RPG publisher (as opposed to a generalist publisher dipping their toes into RPGs), because whilst I am aware of some small press RPGs from the UK from this era, I can’t think of any more substantial UK companies putting out RPG material on a professional basis (as opposed to a small press hobbyist basis) aside from TSR’s short-lived UK branch until Games Workshop made the decision to cease publishing and importing RPGs.

I guess beforehand it made most sense, if you were a UK-based wannabe RPG designer, to submit material to White Dwarf and otherwise look to working with Games Workshop. Once they walked away to focus exclusively on their wargames and boardgames, most people interested in RPG design in the UK stopped submitting their stuff to White Dwarf and decided to develop their own IPs instead. Not only did you have the rise of Hogshead in the mid-1990s as a result of this, but a bit before that you had a range of new publishers arising in the UK, often associated with an idiosyncratic game line which felt like it a) took a bit of influence from Games Workshop’s grimdark stylings and b) could well have been devised as an “in-house” setting to use material which perhaps was developed for one of Games Workshop’s lines; I’m thinking specifically here of games like SLA Industries and Tales of Gargentihr.

Even then, Hogshead largely carried the publishing torch in the UK by itself for much of the 1990s; with international distribution networks being better-developed and the Hot New Thing in RPGs being the decidedly US-centric early versions of Vampire: the Masquerade and its siblings, perhaps that’s no surprise. It feels like only comparatively recently that there’s actually been multiple UK RPG publishers active at the same time of significant size, between Cubicle 7, Mongoose, Chronicle City and Modiphius (and Mongoose is looking poorly these days). I guess the reason that Hogshead never quite managed to exert the same level of scene-shaping cultural influence over the UK RPG community as Games Workshop did is because of precisely the globalisation factors that Uncaring Cosmos outlines.

The Lawman’s Erratic Companion

The hardcover Judge Dredd Companion is, aside from a few adventures, the only substantive supplement that Games Workshop put out for their Judge Dredd RPG. Emerging in 1987 and edited by Marc Gascoigne, it largely comes across as a mixed bag of setting details, adventure ideas, and rules additions cobbled together more or less at random, and I suspect that’s mostly because it is; it smells like a grab-bag of White Dwarf articles for its first half, with the second half taken up by Fear and Loathing In Mega City 1, a Hunter S. Thompson parody in which the PC Judges end up chasing a gonzo journalist on a bender across the city.

The parodic aspect there is notable because, tonally speaking, the various writers producing material for the Dredd RPG seem to have increasingly been influenced since the game’s debut by the tone of Paranoia. This is probably no coincidence, since Games Workshop for a good chunk of the 1980s had the UK licence to produce Paranoia products and put out their own versions of the first two editions as handsome hardcovers, and both games are science fiction dystopian satires which cast the player characters as the enforcers of a nightmare regime. The big difference is that the default assumption of Paranoia is absurd incompetence on the part of the PCs, though even then as early as the 1st edition of Paranoia supplements like HIL Sector Blues were airing the idea of casting the PCs as moderately powerful law enforcers. (The impression that most of the writers here would rather be writing Paranoia stuff isn’t lessened by the decision to refer to mini-adventure outlines as “Code 14s”, in tribute to the “Code 7” Paranoia adventures first appearing in the Acute Paranoia supplement.)

Still, this doesn’t stop the Companion from offering material of use to Judge Dredd referees. There’s some rules tweaks – in particular, a revision to the way Strength is determined, which solves the bug in the first set that most citizens of Mega-City 1 ended up being stronger than the average Judge – some welcome expansions like extra special abilities or rules for designing Cursed Earth mutants, and even if you don’t run the adventures as written, they’re handy resources for strip-mining.

Perhaps the best inclusion is Downtown, the description of a little section of Mega-City One which you can hand over to the players to be their turf to patrol (along with NPC supervising and supporting officers and a breakdown of various criminal groups in there). This provides a nice instant sandbox setting which you can deploy your PCs into immediately. There’s also a nice solo adventure provided, intended to be an introduction to the Judge Dredd setting for non-comics reading roleplayers and an introduction to RPGs for non-gaming 2000 AD readers, which is a good enough idea that they should have probably put something like it in the original boxed set.

Kickstopper: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Rob Schwalb, for those of you who don’t read the credits pages on your RPG rulebooks, is a game designer with a pretty decent CV. His first especially notable work was as a Green Ronin staffer, in which capacity he wrote a bunch of well-received material for WFRP 2nd Edition and designed the Song of Ice and Fire RPG. He then ended up working at Wizards of the Coast during the 4th Edition D&D years, the culmination of his work there being his job as part of the design team under Mike Mearls for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Schwalb exited Wizards of the Coast after turning in his last work on 5th Edition and, having made some contributions to Mahna Mahna, decided he wanted to follow Monte Cook’s lead and start his own publishing company. Schwalb Entertainment’s big debut was to be Shadow of the Demon Lord, a Schwalb-penned tabletop RPG with an unfettered grimdark aesthetic, and naturally Schwalb turned to Kickstarter to fund it.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Shadow of the Demon Lord”

Kickstopper: Dark Ages, Delightful Anniversary

Although the various World of Darkness games unfold by default in the modern day, back in their prime White Wolf eagerly put out various guides – whether as fully standalone games or as supplements to their parent game – to exploring different historical eras of the games’ settings, and perhaps the most successful of these was Vampire: the Dark Ages.

Vampire: the Dark Ages represents a particularly apt marriage of game line and time period. Vampire politics in Masquerade already draws on the feudal, and its main conflicts stem back to fault lines from the original establishment of the Camarilla and Sabbat in the wake of the Anarch Revolt. Set during the medieval period prior to the Revolt, Dark Ages offers players the opportunity to play its ringleaders, or to experience the life of the clans from back before vampires had to tiptoe around and be quite so careful of the human masses, or to generally dial up the feudalism and rule the land as a dark overlord. This sort of action fits perfectly with the way that, say, Dracula is supposed to have ruled over his little region of Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s original novel. Vampire fiction regularly looks to the medieval period for its imagery and its roots – even stuff that’s blatantly copying White Wolf – and Vampire: the Dark Ages offers an opportunity to crank that dial up to 11 in a gaming context.

Naturally, since the 20th Anniversary Edition of Masquerade had done so well out of crowdfunding, it was only to be expected that 20th Anniversary Dark Ages material would get the same treatment.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Dark Ages, Delightful Anniversary”

PSA: Don’t Touch Shadowrun As Long As the Colemans Are At Catalyst

So, the 6th Edition of Shadowrun is emerging, and it looks likely that there’ll be a certain amount of controversy and probably at the very least a bit of an edition war over it. (Its sudden announcement and the short time span between announcement and release, without much of an apparent playtest period, and the sloppy editing on many recent books from Catalyst Game Labs were, in retrospect, probably red flags.)

But that said, I regret covering 5th Edition core and Anarchy to the extent that I already have on this blog, regardless of how 6th Edition pans out. The problems of 6th Edition may well turn out to be yet another symptom of a significant illness at the heart of Catalyst Game Labs: namely, that some years ago it emerged that two of the firm’s co-owners (Loren L. Coleman and his wife) had pocketed a substantial amount of company money and used it to build an extension on their house, and had only managed to avoid getting run out of the company and/or criminally prosecuted because of the near-cultlike loyalty paid to them by other major figures in the company. This resulted in, among other things, masses of freelancers not getting paid for their work – freelancers who in some cases could have really, really done with that money, in a “I need this to get by” way as opposed to a “It’d be real nice to have a slightly bigger house” sort of way.

I’d completely forgotten the controversy, because it happened at a time when I wasn’t paying any attention to Shadowrun at all and consequently I only paid passing attention to it when it happened. Courtney over at the Hack & Slash blog has covered the controversy in three blog posts which bring together most of the significant evidence, and it’s enough to convince me.

As I understand it, Loren Coleman is still one of the people calling the shots at Catalyst. As long as that’s the case, I’ll be avoiding any Catalyst products. When Catalyst was tested in the balance, Catalyst was found wanting: specifically, Catalyst’s head honchos decided to side with their personal friends, the Colemans, despite a sustained and long-term pattern of siphoning cookies out of the cookie jar on their part, by retaining them in the company and by not prioritising obtaining money for the freelancers (through legal action if the Colemans wouldn’t put their hand in their pockets themselves) above and beyond making sure that the Colemans didn’t suffer any negative effects of their own awful behaviour.

Given the industry’s reliance on freelancers, I increasingly feel like I’d rather spend money on publishers who actually make a point of paying them. If the old regime were still in charge at Chaosium and still indulging in their infamously slack payment habits, I might feel the same about them; as it stands, part of the reason I’m such a keen advocate for the new regime is that they’ve made paying their debts and doing right by their freelancers an overt priority going forwards.

I can’t trust that Catalyst won’t leave their freelancers high and dry again in the future – if not because of another Loren Coleman hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment, then because of some other crisis where the company leadership decides that the personal comfort of them and their friends takes priority over their contractual obligations to freelancers. And when you add to that the way Coleman just plain got away with it, well, it sticks in my craw to think of my money going to Catalyst as long as he’s involved.