Mason Builds Something From Petersen’s Raw Material

One beneficial side effect of Sandy Petersen and Greg Stafford stepping in to take direct control of Chaosium and put a new regime in place (spearheaded by the Moon Design Publications crew) is that it allowed the new regime to work closely with the creators of Chaosium’s most beloved setting (Stafford and Glorantha) and RPG (Petersen with Call of Cthulhu). On the Stafford side of things, it enabled them to produce a shiny new edition of RuneQuest that’s truer to Stafford’s vision than any preceding edition (having incorporated concepts developed in his home campaign and Pendragon in quite an artful manner), and it’s nice that they were able to do this before Stafford’s unexpected passing.

On the Petersen side, his takeover took place a bit late in the day for him to have much direct role in the new edition of Call of Cthulhu – Mike Mason and Paul Ficker had largely done the job already and the old regime at Chaosium had got up to the point of working on the layout and preparing for printing before they fell over and died. Moreover, the new edition is pretty dang good and doesn’t really need that much of a tweak in the first place, and Petersen has Petersen Games and Cthulhu Wars to manage as well, so one can’t necessarily expect to him to just dive in and start writing masses of material for the game again.

No, I’d say the first really big fruit of Petersen’s new closer involvement with nu-Chaosium is Petersen’s Abominations, which is a set of five modern-day scenarios based on scenarios devised by Petersen for convention play.

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RuneQuest Comes Home

Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest is now out in the wild in hardcopy and PDF. Whereas RuneQuest was pushed as a generic fantasy system for its third edition (developed by Chaosium and published by Avalon Hill), its two Mongoose editions and the incarnation offered up by the Design Mechanism, for its return to Chaosium it’s also returning to its roots as a game intrinsically tied to the Glorantha setting, as was the case for its first two editions.

Part of this doubtless arises from the preferences of the new regime at Chaosium. After Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen reassumed control of the company – as I’ve chronicled elsewhere – they brought in the gang from Moon Design to become the new board of directors. Moon Design are a group of Glorantha superfans who had previously teamed up with Greg Stafford to produce the Hero Wars/Heroquest RPG, the epic Guide to Glorantha, and other Gloranthan materials. It’s only to be expected that they would feel a certain affection for the setting and a certain nostalgia for the glory days of RuneQuest‘s 2nd edition, which as well as being a generally favoured edition in the wider fandom is also the clear favourite of the Glorantha-happy section of the fandom.

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The Burden of Choice

GURPS came out in 1986 and hit its boom period by the early 1990s, with a dizzying variety of supplements for it – supplements covering specialist rules subjects like vehicles or space travel, supplements detailing genres ranging from the broad to the narrow, and supplements detailing various settings, and even a few adventures.

Over the course of that process it was inevitable that there was a certain amount of overlap between the supplements – new character generation options and new rules which, after being introduced in one supplement, turned out to be of broad enough use that other supplements ended up reproducing them (or reinventing the wheel by producing similar but very slightly different rules or options that did more or less the same thing – though by and large Steve Jackson Games seem to have done a good job of avoiding that).

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Forget It, Jack, It’s Cuddletown

I’ve never seen a campaign world that couldn’t benefit from a decent city supplement. Cities are great because they can both act as a nigh-endless source of local adventure and also be a place where player characters put down roots and develop relationships – which gives them something they want to defend. The latter is particularly important if you want to steer away from the “picaresque wandering in a search for glory” style of fantasy campaign (or the “murderhobo” style, to use a less kind name people have given it).

Blue Rose is, as the introduction to Aldis: City of the Blue Rose notes, rooted in a style of fantasy where it’s particularly important to have a home to go to and people to develop relationships with, because romantic fantasy needs people to romance, fall in love with, and seek to build lives together with – and somewhere to build that life.

Continue reading “Forget It, Jack, It’s Cuddletown”

The Realities of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing your own homebrew material is a tradition about as old as the hobby is, and thanks to the combination of DriveThruRPG’s platform, the proliferation of games issuing Open Gaming Licence-style agreements to let people produce and sell material using their system, and the DM Guild-inspired fad for publishers to create curated areas on DriveThru where people can use even more of their IP in return for giving the publisher a cut of their take, it’s never been easier to produce something cool for your favourite game and sell it yourself.

One of the features that the DriveThru platform offers is to set the price of your product as “pay what you want”, so people can get your product absolutely free if they want or give you a tip if they want to help out. Some may wonder whether this actually raises a decent amount of money or not, but few are in a position to look at overall trends across the platform to make a call on that.

Fortunately, Chaosium are in just such a position since they are in the loop on how much all the products in their Miskatonic Repository sell. (The Miskatonic Repository is their “sell your stuff through this storefront and give us a cut and we’ll let you associate our trademark with it” setup.) Their blog post on this subject is worth a read for anyone considering the “pay what you want” route, but the summary is this: most people don’t want to pay anything at all, so if you actually want to get money for your products, charge an actual price for them. Even if you just charge 99 cents – which for most interested customers will be below their mental “might as well be free” threshold – you get more than if you go full PWWW.

Lessons At the Dinner Table 2: Bundle Boogaloo

I’ve previously talked about my enjoyment of Knights of the Dinner Table and how the dysfunctional gaming depicted in its pages can offer a range of interesting lessons you can apply to real gaming – so why not continue that? This time around I am going to start going through the various Bundles of Trouble – the collections they do of the strips from the main Knights of the Dinner Table comic book (which has gone from being a thing which Jolly did as a fun tie-in to becoming the main focus of Knight-related creative efforts, particularly since Kenzer & Company stopped producing strips for other people’s magazines).

Bundle of Trouble 1

This collects the first clutch of comics that Blackburn essentially wrote by himself and put out in 1994-1995 before he joined up with Kenzer & Company. It’s consequently a simple affair, with the characters not yet especially rounded out, but it does contain the classic Gazebo strip – in which the party of Bob, Dave and Brian (Sara having not been added to the strip yet) attack and “kill” a perfectly innocent bit of garden architecture because they don’t recognise the word and assume it refers to a monster.

It’s this strip that really encapsulates one of the key jokes which Knights of the Dinner Table keeps coming back to, which is also one of the key lessons it has to offer; namely, that tabletop RPGs are an exercise in communication, and if you miscommunicate as a result of assumptions, expectations, or life experiences you don’t share then your game session will descend into absurdity. That absurdity is great to observe from outside for comedy purposes, but frustrating to play through yourself.

Bundle of Trouble 2

This has the first issues that came out through Kenzer & Company in 1997, and so benefits from Jolly getting a whole team of pals to help him tune up the scripts. The lesson from that is that a group on the ball will be able to think up stuff that no individual member would be able to come up with by themselves – which is part of why we play RPGs as a group activity, I suppose.

Noteworthy strips include a jaunt into Spacehack (a parody of Traveller with perhaps a pinch of Prime Directive), in which B.A. regularly falls foul both of his shoddy command of the setting’s invented technology and of actual science. (He isn’t aware that water has hydrogen in it, for instance.) This is actually an interesting illustration of a contrast between fantasy and SF: in a fantasy context people are generally much more willing to say “your world, your rules”, whereas in a science fiction context you really want to make a call on the “hardness” of the science – and if you go for a hard SF approach (as Traveller shows tendencies to), then your capacity as a GM to just ignore reality in order to come up with imaginative fun is going to be curtailed by the implied agreement that you’re trying for scientific accuracy and plausibility.

Bundle of Trouble 3

Sara’s characterisation here starts being fleshed out more when she starts being less of a passive spectator to the horrible things the other players get up to in the game – there’s multiple times this issue where she not only speaks up for but actively helps out NPCs instead of the player characters. By the end of the compilation she even seems to have succeeded at shifting the group’s culture a little – Brian playing a Cattlepunk character whose schemes, whilst they involve OOC cheating in the form of using knowledge his PC couldn’t possibly possess, do at least require him to engage constructively with NPCs. (In another story, even Bob and Dave come around to the idea of having hirelings and servants around if it means they can zerg rush the opposition.)

There’s several lessons to learn here. The first is that you know you’ve really excelled at presenting a sympathetic NPC when players start seriously considering siding with them against the party. The second is that you can’t change a gaming group culture’s overnight – and whatever new approach you contribute to it is likely to be coloured by the group’s existing prejudices. The third and greatest one is that B.A. is an absolutely terrible referee – any GM worth their salt would have flat-out declared that Brian’s PC couldn’t take the actions he took because it required him to have knowledge he didn’t possess in-character – or invoke a referee’s right to amend the secrets and mysteries of a campaign setting and change up where all the gold deposits are, so that Brian’s land purchases become worthless. As it stands, lying down and allowing Brian to act in a way fundamentally against the basic social contract of traditional RPGs is the worst possible option.

Bundle of Trouble 4

This includes a story that has Sara taking on GM duties to playtest an adventure she’s written, and assigning a set of female pregenerated characters to the players. The end result is a disaster, with the players turning tricks for experience points in defiance of character alignment or rebelling against the concept altogether until they are able to find a way to switch their character’s gender.

It’s an ugly picture it paints, but given the eruption of gamer misogyny surrounding Gamergate it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a subset of gamer guys who have really odd ideas about women, and for the most part I’m willing to read the story as a biting satire. When writing a comic for a subculture about that subculture, the temptation to slide into flattery and pandering is probably always there – look at how many gamer webcomics descend into Ctrl-Alt-Del-esque smug self-congratulation. One of the things that’s laudable about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s always balanced its celebration of gamer culture with a certain amount of cutting insight and criticism.

There’s also a more general lesson to take from the story in question: if someone plays a character with aspects of identity or personality they don’t personally possess, and they haven’t been provided with a really detailed set of guidance on how to handle that angle, then to the extent they engage with that characteristic they will do so based on their assumptions about what people with that characteristic are like. They might not engage at all, of course – but if they do address that aspect of their character, odds are you’re going to see any prejudices or baggage they’ve got on the subject aired for all to see.

That said, the story isn’t perfect by modern standards. At the end of the story the other Knights get freaked out when Bob decides he likes his female character as she is and doesn’t want to turn her into a man; in a bonus strip in this Bundle Sara kills off “Bobarello” because she’s disturbed by how Bob talks about the character’s fashion accessories.

If you’re feeling very, very generous, you could read this as a magical realm thing – the idea being that Bob is getting off on this to an extent that the other people at the table aren’t comfortable with being dragged into; certainly, having a tabletop game get hijacked to pander to someone’s fetish without the mutual consent of all participants is a shitty thing to happen.

However, in context it reads as being simply transphobic, or maybe just dudes-showing-an-interest-in-feminine-things-phobic. The mention of Gordo’s pixie-fairy character – the first time the subject comes up in the comic – only emphasises this in context. Again, when we actually see Gordo in action with the Black Hands in later issues we’ll see that he plays pixie-fairies in exclusion to all other character types and runs campaigns focused around them, so you could read it as an odd obsession verging on magical realm situation – but those stories hadn’t been written yet.

I have reason to believe that if the story were written today, some two decades and change later, Jolly would handle these punchlines with much more care. Even here, he does have Sara mention that Gary Jackson sees nothing wrong with people playing characters of genders other than their own, and more recently when revising strips for enhanced standalone publications he’s changed up at least one transphobic punchline to remove that implication, so I’m as sure as I can be that his heart’s in the right place on the subject.

Bundle 0f Trouble 5

This includes the Barringer’s Rebellion story, which was continued in the Bundle-exclusive bonus material in this and subsequent Bundles of Trouble as the Bag War Four plot arc. This was eventually successful enough that a separate Bag War Saga volume was published, collecting together expanded versions of the original strips to offer the definitive version of the storyline, and the Bag War cosmology would have knock-on effects on the series for years to come beyond that.

The whole Bag War business is based on a great joke – one which, like much of the best Knights of the Dinner Table material, is based on a real gaming anecdote – and also offers a really nice extended example of a particular lesson, especially when you set them alongside the anecdote. Both the joke and the anecdote are based around the idea of a player deciding to put a group of their hirelings in a Bag of Holding as a cheap method of magical travel – one of those fun bits of lateral thinking which you can do when magic items and the like are provided with broad, simple descriptions in natural language, rather than over-precise descriptions which strangle the life out of them and rule out creative uses of them.

In both the anecdote and the Knights story, the player in question forgets that the hirelings are in there until several sessions of real time and several months of in-character time have passed. Here they diverge; in the anecdote, they open the bag to find that most of the hirelings are dead except for one very upset survivor of a “Donner Party”-type situation. In the strip, though, the greatly put-upon Sgt. Barringer and his fellow hirelings use the materials stored in the bag to feed themselves and construct themselves a fortress, which they use to control access to the region inside the bag; after losing a war with him over it, the Knights are forced to pay Barringer whenever they want to retrieve stuff from the bag.

This is an example of the difference between “failing forwards”, as RPG theory circles call it, and whatever the opposite is. In the anecdote that wasn’t much of a failing forwards situation – an accident happened, the PCs lost resources and a bunch of employees, the game moved on. In the comic, however – thanks to B.A. employing a bit of lateral thinking and making sensible use of the materials stored in the Bag – the situation became a source of ongoing plot which eventually filled years’ worth of comic strips, as well as presumably filling a similar amount of campaign time.

Now, I tend not to think “failing forwards” should happen in relation to every single failure in a game – it can become a bit of a burden on the referee (or the group as a whole) to think up an interesting way for something to fail forwards, and if it happens too often the game can ultimately feel a bit aimless, with the player characters so caught up in handling the consequences of past fail-forwards that they never get to proactively chase their own agenda. But particularly exciting fuck-ups demand especially exciting consequences, and here that’s very much the case.

Multiplanar Monster Mash

For the purposes of filling out coverage of the Planescape line, I’ll just briefly cover here the various monster-oriented supplements put out for the line. Most 2nd edition settings got a bunch of these, but those for Planescape might have had the biggest job of any outside Ravenloft. Whilst Ravenloft‘s monster material needed to create creatures which could be viable gothic adversaries, rather than mere “slay me and take my treasure” gribblies, Planescape needed to provide suites of monsters to suit the schticks of each of the dozens of planes involved in the game.

The first Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix was largely there to do two jobs: replace the long out of print Outer Planes Monstrous Compendium Appendix, and put all the devils and demons (and modrons and slaad!) back into AD&D which the more controversy-averse approach by TSR management had caused to be left on the shelf in preparing 2E. It’s pretty solid, not least because a lot of the creatures outlined here are tried and true iconic entities from 1E. The second appendix concentrates on filling out the Outer Planes roster, including a stab at detailing the Rilmani, who are to the true Neutral Outlands what celestial are to the good planes or fiends to the evil planes or modrons to Mechanus or Slaad to limbo. This was an easy enough job to do because ultimately the Outer Planes are the fun, characterful ones.

The third Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix was put together by Monte Cook, and my heart goes out to the guy because he had the thankless task of trying to make the monsters of the Inner Planes (plus some Astral and Ethereal critters) interesting. (To that extent, it parallels the long slog he had to do on the official Inner Planes supplement.) To be fair, with the vast numbers of paraelemental and quasielemental planes cluttering things up, he had a better pallete to work with than just “fire stuff”, “water stuff”, “air stuff” and “earth stuff”, and he makes some headway with the idea of “Parallelism” (the concept that anything on one elemental plane will tend to have its equivalents on the other), and most of the individual monster entries are decent, but it’s a bit of a samey concept for a supplement and I suspect few Planescape games spend enough time in the Inner Planes to use most of these anyway.

Another monster-focused book from the line is Colin McComb’s Faces of Evil: the Fiends. This is a sort of extended meditation on the organisation and social structure of the fiends, presented as a collection of in-character essays (and, annoyingly, assumes a particular outcome to one of the adventures in Hellbound: the Blood War as canon – fuck off, metaplots, nobody likes you). It isn’t quite a Van Richten’s Guide to Fiends – notably because the Ravenloft line already did one – but it’s very helpful for fleshing out the internal structure of the infernal realms and could therefore also be very useful for any non-Planescape campaign in which the machinations of demons and devils and their cousins are significant elements.