A while back on here I did a quick review of the core book and major supplements for a/state. OK, apparently strictly speaking it’s a|state, but a/state fits the style of presentation on here better – it aesthetically bugs me that the horizontal line in a|state doesn’t slant when typed in italics, and I’m damned if I’m giving up my use-italics-for-game-titles convention this deep into this blog. Either way, the title translates to “we want to make it harder to Google about our product”.
Anyway, however you type it a/state was an example of the well-worn “nice setting, shame about the product line” phenomenon. You know the sort of thing – a game where the unusual setting is the main draw, but ends up being insufficiently niche in its appeal to support the sort of follow-up which its publishers were clearly envisaging. Empire of the Petal Throne pioneered this sort of thing in the 1970s, Skyrealms of Jorune did it in the 1980s, Tales of Gargentihr was an example from the 1990s, a/state did it in the 2000s; I am sure you can imagine other examples.
It’s often the case, with this sort of game, that the people behind it were clearly planning to put out way more material but the game’s success simply wasn’t of a level to make it viable. Empire of the Petal Throne and various subsequent Tekumel games had products coming out in fits and starts, but never a sustained period of consistent releases. (Thanks to M.A.R. Barker having been exposed as a closet fascist who wrote a neo-Nazi novel for National Vanguard under a pseudonym and was closely involved with a leading Holocaust denial journal, it is deeply unlikely it’ll ever revive.) Jorune got a trickle of supplements and the occasional new edition, and even managed to get a videogame adaptation (Alien Logic), but on a commercial level is now pretty dead – there’s an online fandom still, but it doesn’t seem to be a large or especially active one. Gargentihr managed to get its core book out, and apparently there was an adventure distributed in PDF format on floppy disk at some cons, but then vanished into the ether.
The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.
Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.
For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.
However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…
Spire as an RPG has now settled down into a fairly comfortable cycle of run Kickstarter/release wave of products/rinse and repeat. It worked for the core book and the Strata supplement, it worked for Heart – theoretically an independent spin-off RPG, though it’s set in the same universe and has some Strata-usable bits and seems to have been used as a means of clearing the creative cobwebs to come back to Spire with a fresh perspective – and now it’s worked for the Sin supplement and its associated lesser releases.
I’m posting this as a mini-Kickstopper rather than giving them the full treatment, mostly because there’s nothing very exceptional to say about the delivery process. Sure, the physical books this time took a while to get to backers, but we’re in the middle of a paper shortage and a total breakdown of the international shipping system, it’s not meaningfully something which was in the hands of Spire publishers Rowan, Rook, and Deckard to actually affect. Instead, I’m merely going to give this wave of material a quick look and a sniff to see how it’s shaped up.
The tentpole of this wave of material is Sin, a hardback supplement like Strata was. In the case of Sin, there’s a pinch of system stuff here, the most significant being of two new classes, the Gutter Cleric who’s a sort of unlicensed theologian, and the Mortician Executioner. (In theory, executing people is banned in Spire, so the city get around it by having morticians pronounce the condemned dead and then make the appropriate adjustments to make their status fit the paperwork.) However, by far the biggest draw here is going to be the wealth of setting material, all collected under the three broad categories of Crime, Order (policing), and Religion. Good judgement is shown in dealing with these subjects; the material here is meaty and exciting, but (for example) they decide not to categorise sex work within crimes because criminalising it and/or dwelling on crimes against sex workers for titillation is thematically lazy and contributes to crappy real-world attitudes the writers are not interested in promoting.
All of this provides a deep well of material for referees to draw on in planning Spire sessions, or for players to latch onto and proactively pursue should they wish; each section also has a little adventure associated with it which makes use of the chapter’s themes. Indeed, there’s so much in here that trying to read it all and absorb it and implement it as a block is going to be unviable – it’s much more useful to dip into if you want to run an adventure on a particular theme, or if the players are interested into digging in the intricacies of high-status crime among the high elves or weird cults or whatever. Need a location, an NPC, or organisation based around one of the themes in here? You’ll probably find one in Sin, and given that Spire is a game in which the PCs are all criminals in a forbidden cult fighting the cops, you’ll likely have lots of reasons to go looking.
Chivalry & Sorcery is a game whose early editions had some pretty significant issues, but also had some interesting ideas to mine, many of which were teased out somewhat better in the 2nd Edition of the game than the 1st. However, once Fantasy Games Unlimited largely lost interest in producing new material for it, it entered into a long period in the wilderness. After the rights to the game were retrieved from FGU, a 3rd Edition would be put out from Highlander Designs, which so far as I can make out was a company formed specifically for this purpose.
However, after putting out the core 3rd Edition rules in 1996 and a brace of supplements in 1997, Highlander Designs would go bankrupt, having perhaps both overestimated the market’s appetite for a high-crunch fantasy system in the mid-1990s and made the questionable decision to radically scale back the game’s emphasis on historical detail, thus undermining its major selling point.
Brittannia Game Designs stepped into the breach here; they’d previously been formed with the intent of producing third-party supplements for the game, but a deal was struck to allow them to pick up the rights. A 4th Edition followed in 1999-2000 (with Chivalry & Sorcery Light, a condensed version of the new edition, preceding the full-fat version, dubbed Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth), as would an extremely condensed version of the game, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence, released as a 4-page PDF. 2011 would see another Chivalry & Sorcery Essence released, this time expanding its page count to some 44 pages (though with the same 4-page system underlying it), but the general idea of providing a lighter version of the game persisted. All these iterations made at least some effort to start bringing back the sort of historical detail which the third edition had downplayed.
All of these brief flowerings did not amount to a whole lot in the long run, and Brittannia suffered from extensive periods of apparent inactivity. Still, a community of Chivalry & Sorcery fans still existed, evidence for which can be found in the existence of the various Red Book editions of the game. The first of these, released in 2000, was a free PDF of the game’s first edition, with the layout redone to be remotely sensible. (As a reminder: the original release of Chivalry & Sorcery 1st Edition would have spanned some 512 pages if printed conventionally, so FGU condensed it into a 128 page book by shrinking down the manuscript pages and printing them four to a page, with the result that the text is tiny to the point of being nearly unreadable.) This one was authorised; later recompiled versions of the Red Book, circulated within the fandom, included the texts of various supplements and were very much not authorised.
Now, however, Brittannia seem to have been able to crack the art of using Kickstarter to bankroll a revival of the game, having run two Kickstarters to fund various major new releases (the 5th Edition core rules and the Land of the Rising Sun supplement), with a clutch of supplements funded as stretch goals on each project. At the time of writing, they’re coming into the last stages of a third Kickstarter to produce a bestiary supplement.
On this latest Kickstarter, the stretch goals are not additional books but 3D printer templates to produce miniatures – a clever way to add a little bonus for people who enjoy that sort of thing without creating a substantial backlog of books yet to be written. Whilst producing further books has for the most part been well within Brittannia’s means, one stretch goal from their first Chivalry & Sorcery Kickstarter has been substantially delayed; Ars Bellica, the miniatures and mass combat rules, has had its production hampered by the pandemic putting a cramp on the production of various illustrative photos deemed necessary to get some of its concepts across. (That said, Ars Bellica is kind of a bonus anyway, since the stretch goal did not fund but Brittannica decided to go ahead with it anyway.)
That said, with Kickstarters stretch goals are the cherry on the top; so long as delivery of the core product pans out fine, you can forgive a lot otherwise. And Brittannia have actually been very good on that front, with both 5th Edition Chivalry & Sorcery and Land of the Rising Sun hitting my mailbox right when they were originally estimated to. This is especially impressive when Land of the Rising Sun was funded, printed, and distributed entirely within the pandemic. I’ve been glad to back the bestiary Kickstarter because I think I can be fairly confident of actually getting that bestiary.
So much for the reliability of delivery: what of the quality of product? Let’s take a look at the loot so far.
As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.
So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.
As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.
You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.
For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.
In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.
To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.
Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)
In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…
The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.
Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)
I’ve previously covered how Rowan, Rook & Decard are pretty dang reliable when it comes to delivering on their Kickstarters, and this has remained true of their latest, so I won’t be giving their new RPG Heart the full Kickstopper treatment – there just isn’t that interesting a story to tell there. Instead, I’m just going to review the swag I got. Here goes!
Where Spire focused on political intrigue and scheming, freedom fighter heists, social pitfalls and all that jazz, Heart is based more on the traditional exploration-and-dungeoneering type of play that very old school tabletop RPGs often focused on, but given a decidedly new school twist. The titular Heart is a region below Spire itself – an oozing wound in reality itself, that’s been leaking in strange ways ever since the high elf occupiers of the Spire tried to use it as the hub of a railway network that went wrong.
Whereas the aboveground world of the Spire is rife with racial tensions, the strange communities which make their home in the Heart and the no-elf’s-land between Heart and Spire tend to be a bit more egalitarian in that respect, consisting of individuals bound together by common agendas rather than cultural or ethnic affiliation. The Heart reshapes those who plumb its depths into the shape of their desires… but it’s clumsy at it. And in its fractured depths, it is even possible to reach entire other worlds.
Pity Mekton. After Mekton II managed to gain traction despite its flaws (due, perhaps, to having very little in the way of competition beyond Palladium’s Robotech RPG), Mekton Zeta provided a somewhat tidied up and debugged (albeit at some points quite crunchy) take on the game. Still, you’re talking about a 1994 design there, and there’s an appetite for further refinement and polishing. That appetite drove a Kickstarter for Mekton Zero, a new edition of the game, which raised some $50,000 in 2013.
However, the development and writing process for the game bogged down, and in 2018 Mike Pondsmith made the decision that, rather than allowing it to be another Far West situation, he was going to refund everyone’s pledges rather than making any promises about if and when the game would eventually come out. Since then, when it comes to new material R. Talsorian Games has had more success in getting out the starter set for Cyberpunk Red, their new edition of Cyberpunk (putting the Cyberpunk 3.0 timeline aside and acting as a bridge between Cyberpunk 2020 and the Cyberpunk 2077 videogame), with the core book delayed at first to ensure lore consistency with the videogame and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps Pondsmith will, one day, come back to Mekton Zero – but if he does, he’ll find there’s new competition. Massif Press’s chunky new Lancer RPG takes the same general gameplay breakdown of Mekton – rules-light, largely freeform play for when your characters are out of your mechs shifting into crunchy, tactically rich combat when you get into a mecha fight – and applies fresh eyes to the concept, yielding a much more modern system for delivering the same general deal.
I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.
Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.
Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.
There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.
The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.
In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?
Kevin Crawford’s old-school RPGs, which he puts out through his Sine Nomine Publishing small press, have been one of the most interesting pillars of the OSR scene for about a decade, ever since the release of Stars Without Number.
Rather than being based on a retro-clone of a specific D&D edition, Stars Without Number drew its system inspiration from a mixture of OD&D, B/X D&D, and Traveller. Its choice of D&D influences means that the system broadly resembles something like the sort of “rationalised” D&D system that a talented referee might have worked out at their home table from the OD&D rules set, had they taken the lighter approach of the Holmes-authored Basic Set or Moldvay and Cook’s B/X distillation of the rules instead of the crunchier approach taken by AD&D. (To a large extent both Advanced and Basic D&D represent different approaches to clarifying and tidying up OD&D.)
The Traveller input in Stars Without Number is most immediately obvious on the choice of setting and genre rather than the system side of things – both games are about crews of starfarers gadding about in a hard-ish SF universe – but there are also some important system aspects there. The inclusion of a Traveller-style skill system adds a welcome resolution mechanic to proceedings and makes the early D&D approach feel like it offers a bit more character definition outside of the immediate dungeoneering tasks of fighting, magic use, and exploration. In addition, the extensive use of random generators to help the referee generate material for the game is both a feature of Traveller and has become a hallmark of Kevin Crawford’s games.