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: First as Farce, Then as Tragedy

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Strap yourself in, folks. Whereas some Kickstopper articles document a fairly simple interaction, this is one of those which documents a rough and bumpy ride – and unlike the saga of the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Kickstarter, this time the delivered goods are a bit too disappointing to justify the rough journey.

On one level, it’s hard to justify declaring a Kickstarter a failure when it actually delivers the tangible product it originally promised. However, the saga of Mongoose Publishing’s new edition of Paranoia reveals a development process in which the interests of rights holders, publishers, game designers and Kickstarter backers ended up at odds with each other, with the inevitable dysfunction that arises from such a situation. It also reveals a tabletop RPG whose previous editions have (mostly) been widely loved reduced into a cheap and tatty-feeling product which doesn’t feel like it lives up to its heritage.

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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The Old World’s Never Felt So Fresh

WFRP 4th edition is here! As the back cover blurb proudly puts it (beneath the classic tagline of “A Grim World of Perilous Adventure”), “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay takes you back to the Old World.” Whereas Games Workshop blew up the Old World setting to kick off the Age of Sigmar setting as far as their tabletop wargame offerings go, Cubicle 7’s new edition of WFRP is one of a range of licensed products, including the Total War: Warhammer videogames and Black Library reprints, to have been set in the original Old World setting despite emerging after the Age of Sigmar release.

An entirely separate Age of Sigmar RPG, with a different system more suited to the somewhat different style of fantasy that setting lends itself to features, is apparently in the pipeline: WFRP 4th Edition, in contrast, is something of a nostalgia product – Cubicle 7 set themselves the goal of presenting an updated, improved take on the 2nd edition rules but injecting a lot of 1st edition feel and atmosphere, and they pretty much deliver exactly that – right down to the cover art paying tribute to 1st edition’s cover.

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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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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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