One OGL To Rule Them All

D&D and Middle-Earth have had a rather complex history. On the one hand, Gygax admitted to not enjoying Tolkien as much as more sword and sorcery-esque fare, and that certainly comes across in the more mercenary assumptions of early editions. At the same time, Gygax knew what was popular. Part of the motivation for Gygax’s original fantasy rules to Chainmail that gave Dave Arneson the seed that became the original Blackmoor campaign, which went on to spawn D&D once the feedback loop passed it through Gygax again, was a desire to pander to a desire to do Tolkienesque battles that had been percolating about in the wargame scene. The balors, treants and halflings of D&D were originally named as balrogs, ents, and hobbits until the Tolkien estate caughed and asked them to stop.

Following that, decades passed with no official meeting of D&D and Middle-Earth, despite some sort of Middle-Earth RPG existing for much of that time span. ICE’s MERP was based off Rolemaster, Decipher’s heavily movie-based Lord of the Rings RPG used their CODA system, and of course Cubicle 7’s The One Ring is a bespoke system made specifically for that game.

However, let it not be said that Cubicle 7 are blind to an opportunity. They have the Middle-Earth RPG licence, Wizards put out a pretty functional OGL for 5E, all the tools were there for them to make a legal, commercially viable Middle-Earth adaptation for D&D, so that’s exactly what they have done in the form of Adventures In Middle-Earth, the rules for which are presented in the Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide.

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Death to the Ophanim! Long Live the New Flesh!

Rafael Chandler, through his Neoplastic Press, is a designer who emerged from the ranks of the Forge who isn’t usually thought of as a Forge-style indie designer, perhaps because of his idiosyncratic design approach. When people think of the Forge, they often think of the “narrativist” school that was heavily promoted by Ron Edwards and others, with games like Dogs In the VineyardMy Life With MasterPolaris and others drawing on those ideas.

However, as I outlined in my retrospective on the Forge, narrativism and the RPG theory underpinning it was not the only preoccupation of the Forge, only the most loudly controversial. It was also, back in the day, an excellent resource for anyone looking to self-publish their own RPG materials. Whilst today websites like Lulu and others make putting your own book out on a print-on-demand basis about as simple as you could ever hope it to be, the Forge rose at a time when such tools were either still in their infancy or didn’t yet exist, and as such it served as an extremely useful concentration of information and expertise on the self-publication process.

Chandler was an early beneficiary of the Forge’s advice, and in 2002 put it into effect to release Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, a high-octane gorehound splatterpunk RPG of demon hunting. A second edition followed in 2007, and a sequel themed around hunting equally despicable angels – Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium – emerged. Chandler at this point seems to have decided that the games’ concepts overlapped enough that it made sense to combine them, so for a new release on PDF and print-on-demand platforms he combined them to produce Pandemonio. The PDF version is a single 512 document on DriveThruRPG; hard copies are available through Lulu in the form of a Player Guide and a Director Guide.

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A High Water Mark of the OSR

Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.

As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.

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Monster: the Monstering

Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).

More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.

Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably​ develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.

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Anarchy In the Sixth Age

Shadowrun 5th Edition may be gratifyingly huge, but that comes at a price: it’s one of the crunchier RPG systems out there, to the point where some may find it a bit unapproachable. To my tastes, it’s at the point where if it were a bit more crunchy I’d be disinterested, and as it stands I would rather not engage with the system for the purposes of a quick one-shot game because the effort involved in engaging with it would be enough that it doesn’t quite feel worth it for a game that brief.

In principle, then, I was very interested in Shadowrun: Anarchy, a game which adapts the rules-light Cue System to Shadowrun and thereby offering a setup where character stats resemble truncated versions of the full-fat Shadowrun equivalents, allowing you to strip-mine existing Shadowrun supplements for source material whilst sticking to the lighter rules system offered here.

The issue with the book is that I kind of feel like it’s misread what people actually wanted on this front. Whilst plenty of people down the years have expressed a wish for a more rules-light take on Shadowrun, what I think most of them actually wanted when they expressed that wish was, in fact, a rules-light take on Shadowrun – namely, a system which would support the same traditional RPG experience that Shadowrun is good at, just with far less fiddly bits. What Catalyst Game Labs seem to have interpreted this desire as is as a desire for some sort of narrativist indie game which made at least a token bid to break out from the classic traditional RPG format into some sort of shared storytelling business.

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Fun? Sure, Oui!

After we’re done with my current 4-session dose of Ars Magica, my Monday evening group is going to be doing some Feng Shui, so to get ready I acquired and had a read of the core rulebook. This is the 1st edition book, since it’s the version we’ll be playing, but apparently the new 2nd edition is very similar with a few points of distinction.

Feng Shui bills itself as being the Hong Kong action movie RPG, and on that front it knocks things out of the park – indeed, it’d be pretty decent for most other action movie genres at that. There is a default setting in which feng shui sites all over the world are the key to a Big Trouble In Little China-esque battle for occult supremacy that takes place over a swathe of time periods, ranging from ancient history to a cyberpunk future, but it’s completely viable to ignore this if you want to. The best thing about the default setting is that Robin Laws packs into the core book all the stuff you need to support play in any of the time settings presented, which cover more or less all the potential settings you might want to run an action movie RPG in. Running Feng Shui in a homebrewed setting or a specific movie’s world will in many cases be as simple as deciding what bits of the book you want to leave off the table, rather than having to cook up a bunch of new stuff.

(In the new edition, the bio-cyberpunk future is relaced with a Fallout-esque postapocalyptic setting, presumably because cyberpunk isn’t as popular these days, but I consider this a mistake; if you want a postapocalyptic setting, all you need to do is take the equipment list for the time period you reckon the apocalypse happened and then wreck everything, boom, done.)

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Onyx Path Replaces Lead Designers On Exalted

As announced on Onyx Path’s regular Monday Meeting Notes, Onyx Path are making major changes to their product roadmap and ongoing approach to finishing off the Kickstarter for Exalted 3rd Edition. The core book is out, but there’s controversies swirling around it – it includes no Charm trees, for one thing, which makes the system vastly more complicated to use, and there’s apparently substantial issues with the manufacturing on the deluxe hard copies. Plus, of course, it has a swathe of stretch goals which need to come out, and the rest of the product line’s schedule has seemed rather bare.

So, the plan for forthcoming products has been changed, but what is perhaps more interesting is that previous lead developers John Morke and Holden Shearer are now no longer in charge of the line, with Eric Minton and Robert Vance stepping up to the plate to take control of the line.

This might just be the sort of personnel churn you would expect anywhere (though Morke and Shearer departing at exactly the same time seems to make that a bit less likely)… but on the other hand, it might be an even bigger deal than it looks like, with potential implications for other licensed products that Onyx Path release – remember, whilst Onyx Path own the Trinity universe game lines and their original games like Pugmire outright, they licence ExaltedWorld of Darkness, and Chronicles of Darkness from White Wolf.

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