Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

Mummy – also billed as A World of Darkness: Mummy, using the same branding as the original A World of Darkness supplement – was a 1992 release for Vampire: the Masquerade and was one of the last books for the Storyteller system released when Vampire had the stage all to itself. Indeed, as well as hyping the forthcoming release of Werewolf: the ApocalypseMummy makes a mild pretence of being a crossover supplement, claiming that you can use it just as well in a Werewolf game as in Vampire.

However, whilst you doubtless could use the rules explanation from Werewolf to run this, the fact remains that this was released with the distinctive green marbled trade dress that’s associated with Vampire, and precisely because Werewolf was still in development when this was being written it leans on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf; there’s a very, very few token references to the Garou, and the spirit world that the titular mummies enter between bouts of life is clearly based on a rough outline of Werewolf‘s Umbra, but the whole mummy thing calls on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf. (Indeed, the backstory of the mummies is intimately entwined with that of the Followers of Set, having been sparked off by a Kindred intervention in proto-Egyptian politics.)

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Old Ways to the Old World

Cubicle 7 have announced that they are doing a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, set as always in the Old World (a separate RPG with a different system is planned for the new and extremely different Age of Sigmar setting) and taking inspiration from the 1st and 2nd editions of the game.

All this is music to my ears, particularly since I didn’t care for Fantasy Flight’s 3rd edition of the game; as interesting a testbed as it was for a component-heavy style of presenting an RPG, aspects of which eventually manifesting in their Star Wars RPGs, such a test could have happily been done with a different property without trampling all over an existing and well-loved system. (Moreover, FFG never quite seemed sold on the idea of using that system for Warhams purposes – they never switched their 40K RPGs over to it.)

At this time, then, it’s worth having a good look at the first and second editions of WFRP to see what Cubicle 7 could usefully draw from each.

1st Edition

Emerging in 1986, when the Warhammer wargame and Old World setting were still new, WFRP is an impressively complete-in-one-book RPG. Games Workshop had, by this point, been instrumental in getting a number of classic RPGs into the UK market, having printed UK versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and even Paranoia, but with their distribution agreement with TSR coming to a close they decided they needed to fill the D&D-shaped gap in their portfolio.

Another factor driving the development of the Warhammer setting was the desire to make a wargame players could use all of their fantasy-themed Citadel miniatures in, which of course included miniatures for several of the games I mentioned above. Thus, as well as more standard races, Stormbringer Melniboneans became Warhammer-style dark elves, Chaos warriors from that became Chaos warriors here, Runequest broos became Chaos beastmen, and so on. (For similar reasons, I am convinced that Arbitrators in Warhammer 40,000 are riffs on Judge Dredd because of Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG line having its associated miniatures line.)

This heady mix of influences quickly coalesced into a distinct setting and tone of its own, because this first WFRP core book is absolutely dripping in atmosphere and flavour. (This is especially the case if you compare it to Rogue Trader – not the RPG, the original Warhammer 40,000 rulebook – where, in part because they hadn’t yet pulled the trigger on incorporating Chaos into that setting too, the whole thing feels like much more of a heterogeneous patchwork of bits that don’t really feel like parts of the same setting.) Particularly impressive is the setting chapter, which paints a fairly complete picture of the Old World in general and the Empire specifically in the space provided that essentially hasn’t changed that much since.

Other bits of flavour arise from the extensive bestiary and the wide selection of character professions. WFRP is joked about as being the game where you can start out as a rat-catcher with a small but vicious dog, and that is the case, but each and every one of those starting professions is useful in its own right as a source of stat advances and skills.

The profession system feels to me like it was inspired by Maelstrom, a British RPG written by a schoolboy who managed to get it published by Penguin as part of their gamebook lines. The professions in Maelstrom were rich and flavourful in the sense that they covered just about any job you might have in Tudor England, but the weakness was that many of those professions wouldn’t give you many useful ways to contribute to an actual adventure. WFRP very successfully ensures its professions are defined in terms of game usefulness, whilst at the same time conveying much of the similarly Renaissance-themed style of the setting through the selection presented.

Having the fame and the vintage that it has, the major drawbacks of WFRP 1st Edition are pretty well-known by now. Characters start out with some fiendishly low stats and will tend to fail at most rolls; at the best of times, this encourages a gritty, cautious style of play in which cunning planning to maximise the bonuses on the player characters’ side is the order of business, but that requires a GM being willing to provide such bonuses and handle such unusual plans, and the GMing advice section isn’t especially good at encouraging that. At the worst of times, it can just be downright frustrating.

On top of that, the magic system is rather flavourless, and is also set up to make it frustratingly difficult to actually learn any magic in the first place; it’s easily the most fiddly and overengineered part of the rules. The Realms of Sorcery supplement, which finally replaced it with something more flavourful, only creaked out towards the end of Hogshead’s run with the licence.

Still, for grim low fantasy gaming there’s nothing quite like the flavour of classic WFRP, where even the artwork is rich and evocative. This, then, set the bar which future editions would be compared to.

2nd Edition

Published via Games Workshop’s Black Industries imprint but developed by Chris Pramas and his team at Green Ronin, the 2nd Edition of WFRP was a welcome tune-up for the system with a couple of quirks here and there. The introduction of character talents – effectively feats under another name – were an inevitability at the time, since this was during an era when 3.X D&D was being widely imitated by other systems. (Feat-like heroic abilities were added to Mongoose’s version of RuneQuest at around this time too.)

They’re nice to have for player characters, but the extensive reliance on them in this system and the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs which would follow its lead – and the infuriating insistence on just listing the talents in monster listings rather than listing out what they all did right there, ensuring that if you wanted to know a monster’s full capabilities you had to do an excessive amount of flipping back and forth, made them a bit of a chore. What designers of this era didn’t grasp is that whilst a player only has to know what the feats their PC happens to possess does, the GM needs to understand both the feats of all the player characters and every NPC they meet, creating an enormous burden for them.

Another major rules tweak is the complete revision of the magic system, which is both vastly more flavourful and much more faff-free than the original 1st edition system. It’s quite nice how it handles magical backlash – to cast a spell you can roll a number of D10s up to your total ability (but can roll less if you wish) and total them up, and if you get doubles, triples, or even quads you get to roll on progressively more perilous tables for associated phenomena. Between this and the target number of spells, this means that you can if you wish get off minor but undeniably useful spells more or less safely and, if not 100% reliably then at least with decent chances of success (especially if the winds of magic are with you and you have the ingredients to hand) by rolling a single die, and you can get more accomplished with still decent chances of not-too-horrible consequences by rolling two dice (giving a 1 in 10 chance of having to roll on the mildest table), or you can pull out the stops and roll three dice or more at the cost of potentially hideous consequences.

The various 40K RPGs played with different ways of kicking off Psychic Phenomena and Perils of the Warp from use of psyker powers, none of which quite followed this method. I get the impression they felt constrained to try and make use of psychic powers based off a percentile roll like the rest of the system, but I genuinely think this was an error, because I don’t think any of the solutions they arrived at worked quite as nicely as this one does.

One think the 40K RPGs do manage, however, is to have a slightly better appreciation of the probabilities. Whilst WFRP 2nd Edition does give a bit more of a discussion of applying modifiers to skill rolls, it states that an action of average difficulty should get a 0% modifier – whereas in the 40K RPGs an average task difficulty actually gives you a bit of a bonus. Here, I think WFRP buys into its own hype too much – it’s infamous as a game where player characters aren’t that competent, but I think the advice here exacerbates that.

The presentation of the book is beautifully done in terms of layout and page design, and the artwork is technically proficient, but it somehow feels a bit less flavourful than the classic old artwork of the original edition. Furthermore, the default starting date of 2522 AE is set after the Storm of Chaos metaplot event, which makes the threat of Chaos a bit more overt and obvious and puts the Empire on a bit more of a total war footing than the original WFRP did. However, at least in this core book, there isn’t actually much discussion of that – recent history isn’t really covered in the setting chapter, and the current date is only specified in an out-of-the way sidebar which points out that you can set your game at any point in Imperial history if you really wanted to.

2nd Edition WFRP was a lot of fun, but at the same time I am very interested to see what Cubicle 7 do with 4th Edition. If they are able to get the rich atmosphere of 1st Edition delivered with the production values and (mostly) clarified and tuned-up game mechanics of 2nd Edition, they’ll be onto a very good thing indeed; let’s cross our fingers and pray to Tzeentch for a favourable tide of change.

Two Systems, Both Generic In Dignity…

GURPS and the HERO System have a slate of similarities. Both arose out of earlier games; GURPS is at its core an extensively revised and genericised take on The Fantasy Trip, whilst HERO came out of Champions. Each system has influenced the other – Champions drew inspiration for its point-buy character generation and its 3D6 resolution mechanic from The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS took the idea of character Disadvantages that get you points back and numerically rated Skills whose base value is tied to your attributes from Champions. Both games went through a process of rapid early evolution before attaining a stable state in the late 1980s, with the GURPS 3rd Edition of 1988 and the 1989 4th Edition of Champions/HERO remaining the standard versions of those respective games for the whole of the 1990s. And both games have gained reputations for being highly crunchy, especially in the wake of thick hardback new editions of the respective lines in the mid-2000s – since when, both games seem to have suffered a waning of their fortunes.

For this article, I am going to review 3rd edition GURPS and 4th edition Champions – both well-regarded versions of those respective game lines which are generally held to have marked the point before bloat took hold of both systems – and also take a look at how the future development of each game took them down what, in my view, are evolutionary cul-de-sacs, and what their current publishers are doing to try and correct for that now. I’m also going to look at a supplement for each system which I think exemplifies the strengths of the respective support lines.

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Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

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Succumbing to Shadowrun

I am a late convert to Shadowrun. Despite coming to the hobby in the 1990s, when Shadowrun was at its prime and the 1990s zeitgeist it rode so successfully was at its peak and I was a teenager and therefore at that time of life when you are most likely to find such things TOTES BADASS, it always seemed to be a bit goofy to me and my peers. The feeling was that Shadowrun went a step too far into the goofy with its inclusion of fantasy elements; if you wanted fantasy, D&D and other games served you perfectly well, if you wanted cyberpunk Cyberpunk 2020 was the gold standard (with GURPS Cyberpunk getting some kudos too, partly because GURPS was strong at the time and partly because of the ill-conceived Secret Service raid). If you wanted both fantasy and cyberpunk at once, that was… well… a little odd – and with its inclusion of elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons, Shadowrun seemed to the outside observer to incorporate fantasy in a kind of a cheap, lazy, Tolkien-imitating way which didn’t seem like it could mesh well with cyberpunk themes.

At some point after the early 1990s, Shadowrun dropped off my radar altogether. New editions came and went; FASA collapsed without me noticing, and a curious dance of licences and ownership ensued. 2007 saw the ill-conceived Shadowrun first-person shooter come out on the XBox 360 and flop abysmally – it managed to alienate fans of the game by excising almost all the lore and presenting a hollowed-out, oversimplified shell of the setting, whilst the decided lack of atmosphere or aesthetic depth combined with issues with the game itself ensured that a new audience would not be enthralled by it.

Then the Kickstarter happened for Shadowrun Returns, which I ended up backing for the sake of supporting new isometric-style tactical CRPGs. I ended up enjoying Shadowrun Returns a lot, liked the sequel campaign Dragonfall even more, and right now I am starting to play Shadowrun Hong Kong and loving it to bits. As a result of that, I’ve finally decided to give the tabletop RPG another look; it’s on its 5th Edition right now, and I also took a look at a copy of 2nd Edition to see if my dislike of the game back then was justified by more than setting snobbery.

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Why I Love Mongoose Traveller, Why I Won’t Get the New Edition

As with many games that have been revised and reissued regularly since the 1970s, Traveller is in the precarious position of having a rather startling number of different versions of it available. This is particularly the case if you consider that actually the term Traveller refers, in the minds of many, to two connected and distinct things: there’s Traveller in the sense of the game systems that have carried that name, and then there’s Traveller in the sense of the Third Imperium campaign setting which became the default setting of the game reasonably early on in the lifetime of its original incarnation (known today as Classic Traveller).

As far as the setting goes Marc Miller, its creator and custodian of most of the old Game Designers’ Workshop RPG back catalogue, has been very generous with the licensing rights over the years, so if you want to play in the Third Imperium there are an embarrassment of choices available. Hero system? There’s a Traveller for that. D20? There’s a Traveller for that too. GURPS? Why, some people swear that GURPS Traveller is their absolute favourite presentation of the Third Imperium! I admit to losing track of which of all these variants are still in print, but I do remember getting the impression a while back that the answer was probably “too many” – although each licence probably gave Miller a nice injection of royalties, at the same time I do wonder whether they have been a double-edged sword: each successful adaptation can only have fragmented the fanbase further (with a big question mark as to whether it grew the fanbase sufficiently to compensate for that), whilst each unsuccessful one can’t have done much to build the fanbase further.

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Legend of the Five Rings Prediction: FFG Aren’t Going to Reinvent the Wheel

So, it’s been brought to my attention that the Legend of the Five Rings franchise has been bought out by Fantasy Flight Games. They’ve announced that they are going to convert the CCG to their “Living Card Game” model and debut the LCG version at Gen Con 2017 – probably a wise move, after all if the CCG were still the big earner it was back in the day AEG wouldn’t be letting go of it to begin with – but they haven’t said what they are going to do about the RPG beyond mentioning that they are mulling over their options there.

My personal prediction on this point is that it’s going to be a while before an RPG is announced – it seems fairly clear to me from the various statements made on this that the LCG is their top priority for the time being as far as this franchise is concerned – and when it does come out, it will likely be more of the same, rather than a radical redesign like we saw Fantasy Flight attempt for the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. which included all sorts of unique dice and components and fiddly bits (whose model has been repeated, in a somewhat more component-light style, for their Star Wars games).

FFG have gone the “fiddly components” route for RPGs four times; with WFRP3 it was hugely controversial and arguably killed the line (and at the very least schismed the fanbase to an extent which few games other than D&D 4E can claim to have done). The other three times it was for their various Star Wars RPGs, where completely changing system was less controversial – nobody expected them to reprint the old West End Games D6 version of Star Wars or either of Wizards of the Coast’s takes on the franchise, after all – and where the emphasis on funny components has been toned down compared to WFRP3. (So far as I can tell they use special dice and that’s it, whereas WFRP3 was so married to the fiddlybits that every single supplement and adventure had to be in a big chunky box too in order to incorporate the required components.)

Notably, they haven’t switched any of their Warhammer 40,000 RPGs to a fiddlybits system, even though they have had ample opportunity to do so. Even the first version of the Dark Heresy 2E beta, which involved much more radical changes to the system and a far greater willingness to deviate from past precedent than the version they eventually decided to go with, didn’t go in that direction. Had they wanted to introduce such components to Dark Heresy, they’d have brought them in at the first beta, so I can only assume that they decided at some earlier stage of the process that they weren’t going to take that approach.

In the case of L5R, I think FFG would be very reluctant to ditch the roll-and-keep system that its fans have gotten used to over the past four editions in favour of one of their fiddlybits systems; the backlash over the transition from WFRP 2E to 3E, combined with the objections to the proposed changes to Dark Heresy 2E, have repeatedly taught FFG the lesson that people want new editions of an existing game to be refined, improved versions of what has come before, not radical departures that completely reinvent the game.

Frankly, it shouldn’t have taken them that long to learn that lesson – after all, if a game has developed a fanbase of sufficient size then presumably it’s doing something right, and junking the whole deal just for the sake of making your mark on it runs the entirely predictable risk that you will alienate the game’s existing fanbase whilst not attracting sufficient new fans to make up for your losses. If a game doesn’t have that fanbase, then unless you really and truly believe you’ve identified the flaws in the present work that have prevented the game from finding its audience, making a new edition is a questionable move in the first place and feels like throwing good money after bad.

It’s a bit different if you are a hobbyist who happens to have acquired the rights in question and can spend the time and energy to produce and put out a new edition of a game for the sheer love of it, of course. However, if you are a big commercial publisher like FFG and need to consider the bottom line on the projects you take on, it doesn’t make any sense to churn out a new edition of an RPG that has already demonstrated a lack of commercial viability; even if you’re just as motivated by a love of games as the hobbyist, when you run a business you have to make decisions like this with your business hat on and the awareness that if a project is a major flop, then it can have a knock-on effect on the reputation and/or the viability of your existing product lines.

Frankly, I think there’s a very real chance that Fantasy Flight won’t even bring out a 5th edition of Legend of the Five Rings in the first place. They may decide that there’s sufficiently little money in the RPG that they can’t justify taking the development time to produce an all-new edition when they could just reprint the 4E range as and when existing demand merits it, and perhaps occasionally putting out a new supplement or adventure when plot developments in the Living Card Game merit it. They might even decide against doing even that modest amount if they don’t think the RPG will give enough return on investment.