Mini-Kickstopper: Crawford Does Right By His Pack

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.

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Mini-Kickstopper: Nibiru

At the end of 2018 I ended up getting the Nibiru Quickstart and was sufficiently impressed to back the Kickstarter for the game. That campaign rounded out as smooth and easy as could be expected, and since I’ve already discussed the game somewhat I can’t be bothered to do a full Kickstopper article for it, but I thought I’d run down how the full game is.

As it turns out, having the quickstart rules handy may be useful. Nibiru itself is daunting – impressively constructed, beautifully presented, and patiently explained, yes, but still rather daunting.

The main thing you get here that we didn’t get back in the quickstart is an extensive breakdown of the setting, which is the daunting part – this is an incredibly detailed world that is obviously the product of extensive careful thought. Once you are able to get the basics of the setting straight, however, the setting chapters become a useful resource, detailing some significant settlements in the major different regions of the station whilst leaving other settlements less developed so there’s scope for you to develop them yourself (or for future supplements to detail them).

A major principle of the setting is that proximity to the core of the station has a major effect on how people live. The closer you are to the core, the more access you have to power (because that’s where the power core is) and the lighter the “gravity” (the station spins to simulate gravity, which means that the acceleration force is zero at the axis of rotation and increases as you go further out). The further out you go, the sparser the settlements and resources, and the stronger the gravity, until you reach regions beyond which humans cannot survive. The history of the communities in the station have been shaped in part by these factors, and so the different concentric zones correspond to different social patterns and tend to lend themselves to different campaign themes.

You don’t get all the answers here, the team evidently leaving some things back for future supplements. (This annoys me. In today’s market, acting like you’re definitely going to be able to write that next supplement is an act of utter hubris; small press RPG publishers should really work on a basis of “if this was the last product we could ever put out in this game line, would we be satisfied with it?”) You do, however, get plenty to riff on and offer your own answers through.

Neatly, the different origins for your amnesiac PCs lend themselves to somewhat different themes in their flashbacks, and different benefits to exploring their memories, which helps character differentiation in a game where everyone otherwise has the character backstory “uh, I dunno”. Beyond that, there’s not many system surprises here since the basic principles were already outlined in the quickstart.

On the whole, I’d put Nibiru as another entry in the long tradition of British small press RPGs with really detailed and incredibly odd settings, like SLA Industries, Tales of Gargentihr, and A|State, but I’d say that it’s a particularly good example of the form, particularly with the “you’re all amnesiacs” structure meaning you don’t need to spend ages explaining the setting to the players before getting down to the action.

Kickstopper: Get Along, Get Along King Charlemagne, Get Along King Charlemagne…

Nocturnal Media was founded by Stewart Wieck, who’d previously been one of the cofounders of White Wolf until he departed in 2010, a few years after the CCP acquisition and around the time White Wolf’s in-house RPG-writing process was being wound down before eventually being outsourced to Onyx Path. The parting was amicable, so far as anyone knows, and it included the licence for the 5th Edition Pendragon game line, which White Wolf had previously put out under their ArtHaus imprint.

A string of new supplements for the line followed, along with a couple of revisions of the core rules, and then in 2017 came Nocturnal’s most ambitious project yet. The myths of King Arthur and those attached to Charlemagne had always had parallels; before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain popularised the Arthur legend, the nobility of France, Normandy, and Norman-ruled England looked to Charlemagne as their model of chivalry, and the troubadour poetic tradition which flowered in the 12th to 13th Centuries took inspiration from Arthur and Charlemagne both.

For some time, as a result, fans of Pendragon have considered the game fertile ground for adaptation to the Charlemagne legend, since that tradition and the Arthurian mythos have so much in common thematically. But would Paladin win the same accolades and favours that its Arthurian cousin had earned?

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Kickstopper: The Devil Rides Out To Spain

Whilst geography and economics has played its part in shaping local RPG scenes, another major factor which cannot be overlooked is language. For instance, generally speaking in the Anglosphere the dominant RPG is D&D, but this isn’t always the case – in other languages other games have become the big beasts of their scene, usually as a result of something other than D&D getting first mover advantage.

Translations of game from one of these other spheres into English is not as common as all that – after all, translation isn’t free, good translation even less so. Kickstarter has provided an interesting platform for companies to use to fund the translation of foreign-language games. Ryuutama has been the beneficiary of this, and Nocturnal Games – previously famed mostly as the publishers of Pendragon – got quite enthusiastic about this concept with Kickstarter projects to translate material like the French prehistory game Würm and Aquelarre, a historical horror game set in medieval Spain. I’ve previously covered the Kickstarter for the former game, and now it’s time to get our Satan on and look at the latter.

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Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

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Kickstopper: Pelgrane Dredges Carcosa

Pelgrane Press love their literary inspirations for games. They take their name from their first major line, the The Dying Earth RPG based on the Jack Vance novels, their The Dracula Dossier adapts and radically reinterprets the original Dracula for the purpose of Night’s Dark Agents, and of course the GUMSHOE system allowed Trail of Cthulhu to unveil a new take on gaming in the Lovecraftian mythos which, whilst it isn’t entirely to my taste, does at least represent a distinct and different philosophy on how you do an investigative game from Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, as John Tynes explains extremely well.

It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve looked to adapting the GUMSHOE approach to the work of other authors of mysterious horror stories, and with The Yellow King they’re tackling the work of Robert Chambers. Will this be a game fit for a king, a dog’s breakfast, or something in between? Let’s find out…

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Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming

This is an article about a Kickstarter campaign which ended up offering two distinct things to two different (but significantly overlapping) audiences, and to my eye seemed to do pretty well at pleasing both of them – a high risk strategy which paid off in a big way.

Specifically, this is a Kickstopper overview of the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter. On the “streaming” side of the equation, this is about a plucky young company’s attempt to obtain funding to set up a nice new studio space to livestream their gaming content from. On the “strongholds” side of the equation, the Kickstarter was all about making a book – Strongholds & Followers – intended to work the idea of building a stronghold and gathering followers back into 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with the idea that the proceeds from the book would help get the streaming side of the equation going.

Stronghold construction and domain management are endgame features which TSR editions of D&D were very big on, but Wizards editions had largely discarded, creating a number of issues: for one thing, it meant that high level characters are still doing the same sort of shit that low level characters are doing in terms of their assumed activities, which dilutes the sense of progression. For another, it takes out one of the things which was at least supposed to balance out the whole Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard thing.

See, at lower levels of D&D the issue where spellcasting characters can, via their spells, do anything any other character can do but better is alleviated significantly by their limited spell slots; spellcasting powers can be extremely useful but judgement must be used in their use because if you spam all your spells you’ll be left hampered going forwards. (This works especially well if referees remember to actually fill the adventuring day with sufficient peril so that the wizards can’t just cast at will and then take a long rest between every encounter or two.)

However, once you get to the middle levels not only are higher-level spells unlocked, enabling utterly wild abilities which are beyond anything which the humble fighter is ever permitted to do (because magic is allowed to be highly unrealistic but fighters are, by a significant chunk of the fanbase, not allowed to develop unrealistic fighting abilities), but also the spellcasters are starting to get a significant number of spell slots, which means that they can simultaneously a) do way more and b) do it significantly more often.

Giving the Fighter an army at “name” level when their Magic-User contemporaries only get a few low-level apprentices was supposed to balance this, except actually an army of ordinary dorks is usually much less useful than some additional spellcasters who can act as extra walking spell slots for you. In addition, not to put too fine a point on it, but Wizards took this sort of thing out of the game because so far as I can tell very few people actually used the rules in question.

If you could update the concept, though, and put it out in a supplement designed for 5th Edition but with ideas you could conceivably tweak for other versions of the game, that would be something that the OSR and grognard crowd would be quite interested in. And if you have a YouTube following already and want to parley it into livestreaming gaming sessions for fun and profit (emphasis on profit), that’s going to get the attention of the significant new audience that Critical Role and the like have cultivated.

That, at least, was the plan of MCDM, the new enterprise spearheaded by Matt Colville. I’ll admit immediately that I don’t really watch or listen to much in the way of livestreamed games because it tends to involve a lot of strangers doing something which I enjoy much more when I am a participant in than when I am an observer of, so this article will focus exclusively on the book side of this equation, but the streaming series – The Chain – seems to be going strong so far as I can tell. Would the book side be just as strong, or would one half of the Strongholds & Streaming equation fall short?

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