Supplements of Paranoia XP

Supplements (as opposed to prewritten adventures) for Paranoia are, as a concept, something the game used to struggle with a lot. Acute Paranoia for 1st Edition was basically an adventure collection with some bonus essays here and there of mixed quality; in 2nd Edition The DOA Sector Travelogue was interesting as far as an overview of a sector goes, but a bit bland, and was hampered by the intention to tie it into the start of the Secret Society Wars metaplot; later supplements like the Crash Course Manual or Paranoia Sourcebook were misguided attempts to make the game suitable for long-term campaign play and pander to a metaplot nobody wanted. As far as later editions go, the 25th anniversary version just had a few adventures released for it, whilst supplements for the latest version seem to take the form of additional card backs (doubling down on what I think is a fundamentally misguided design approach).

In between, though, was a golden age. Paranoia XP‘s supplement line wasn’t perfect, and there were some releases (like a supplement for playing Armed Forces troopers, or one about bots) which felt like a misguided attempt to rekindle bad ideas whose shortcomings had already been exposed in the late 2nd edition days. But that was late in the game line, when the bottom of the barrel was being scraped and a lot of the writers who had been producing Paranoia stuff had, for whatever reason, stopped and left Gareth Hanrahan to write everything. (Writers ceasing to work for Mongoose is a long-term trend, as is Gareth Hanrahan eventually taking on the bulk of the writing work for a line.) Before that, Mongoose actually produced some of the best non-adventure resources for Paranoia ever seen. Here, I’d like to take a quick look at a cross-section of them.

Criminal Histories

Lashed together by Bill O’Dea, this is an extensively expanded character generation system whose main draw is its extensive set of lifepath tables. (In a jocular dig at Traveller, the supplement notes that whilst in some games you can die in character creation, Criminal Histories allows you to die multiple times in character creation.)

The book suggests that its main use is for small games with only two to three players, so as to give the player characters a more developed set of personal issues and disputes and allies and enemies beyond the other party members. I can see the rationale there (it’s useful in such small games to give PCs additional enemies because it’s otherwise too easy for them to guess which PC is backstabbing them), but I actually think it’s even more useful for a different purpose – namely, coming up with pregenerated PCs for your home adventures to give out to your players. The pregens in the best prewritten Paranoia adventures were often the highlights, and a long pre-game character generation session isn’t really in the spirit of Paranoia, but using this process as a creative tool to make pregens would be really fun. (All between-game prep should be fun; if you don’t find aspects of it fun, adapt your GMing style to eliminate that.)

In fact, by creatively tying together the backstories here and extrapolating forwards, you could even make the construction of a pregen party with Criminal Histories step one in adventure design – simply have the crisis they are sent to Troubleshoot arise as a consequence of the nuttiness that happened in their background and viola, instant guilt!

Extreme Paranoia

This is probably the most ambitious supplement for XP: an expansive treatment of the rise through security clearances from ORANGE to VIOLET. Though not billed as a Straight-oriented supplement, the regular suggestions that you could totally run a campaign based off this material de facto shunts it into that territory, particularly since arguably “Troubleshooters shooting Trouble using the traditional Paranoia mission structure” is a hallmark of the Classic playstyle and this supplement is essentially a large brainstorming exercise in coming up with alternatives to that.

For each Security Clearance, the book offers both an alternate model of what Troubleshooters are doing at that security clearance (ranging from mission dispatchers to personal assistants to High Programmers) and an entirely non-Troubleshooter-related model for Clearance-appropriate Paranoia play. That’s all quite sound in principle, but with only 128 pages to cover all this (plus general considerations of how the security clearance system works and a fun chapter on extracurricular clubs) the supplement doesn’t have enough space to properly develop any single one of these ideas, with the result that you’re left with broad brushstrokes of something which might lend itself to an interesting one-shot scenario but an awful lot of development left to do in order to make something gameable out of it.

The major exception is the BLUE clearance chapter, which is fatter than the others because it consists of a reprint of the first edition supplement HIL Sector BLUEs by Ken Rolston. This has the premise of having the player characters acting as BLUE clearance Internal Security troopers, with more reliable weapons and armour than typical Troubleshooters, and an assumption of better co-operation between player characters (enforced by the team leader being able to control when the PCs’ guns can fire). On the plus side, this includes a fairly well-developed Internal Security station of NPCs for the characters to bounce off; on the minus side, it just doesn’t feel like Paranoia any more so much as it’s a wry riff on Judge Dredd. (It also has the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting just how underdeveloped the other clearance chapters are by comparison.)

Reading Extreme Paranoia feels like you’re watching the Traitor Recycling Studio – and, for that matter, Mongoose Publishing and the rights holders – in the process of thinking out loud. The question of “what can you do with Paranoia aside from Troubleshooter-based stuff?” is one which has vexed the line since 1st edition days – HIL Sector BLUEs, after all, was an attempt by Ken Rolston to address the issue, and supplements late in both the 2nd edition and XP lines made further attempts at the matter.

The reason for this is, I suspect, quite simple: the more you can diversify Paranoia, the wider the range of supplements and add-ons you can sell. The Troubleshooter-focused game is a classic, of course, but at the same time it’s also well-understood enough that people can keep running it indefinitely from the core rulebook, and there’s only so many resources for that style of play you can put out before it starts feeling like you are repeating yourself.

The problem Extreme Paranoia has is that whilst most of the ideas it offers feel like they’d make an interesting one-shot, none of them feel quite as iconic and archetypal as Troubleshooter-focused play – and few of them are developed to the point where you could take this supplement and make a decent one-shot out of them without substantial further development on your own part. To do justice to every single idea in here the supplement really needed to be at least twice the length it currently is, though that said I’m not convinced every idea in here needs to be developed to that extent; an error may have been made in trying to shoehorn in a concept for each security clearance from ORANGE to VIOLET.

For the 25th Anniversary Edition of Paranoia, Mongoose revisited this idea by putting out three different core rulebooks; Troubleshooters presented the classic Troubleshooter-focused style of play, Internal Security was basically HIL Sector BLUEs expanded to a full standalone game, whilst High Programmers took a leaf from the VIOLET-level chapter here and casts the PCs as ULTRAVIOLET-clearance characters who must tackle crises in Alpha Complex in a “situation room”-type model of play, with the usual backstabbing taking place on a much grander scale than usual. Focusing on just three concepts rather than eight (Troubleshooter-style play and the seven different concepts offered here) is, in retrospect, a much better idea than this rather hubristic attempt.

(That said, some of the additional content in here is worth a look even if it isn’t enough to rescue the supplement as a whole; in particular, the alternate Mandatory Bonus Duties are a hoot, as are the details on extracurricular clubs.)

Service, Service!

This supplement concentrates on the various service groups that manage life in Alpha Complex. Rather than giving a boringly detailed breakdown of their internal workings, the supplement instead gives some general details on how they end up as spectacularly incompetent as they are and then delivers for each service group a brace of ideas for little tasks and duties they can attach to Troubleshooter groups or individuals to complicate a mission, a cluster of additional service firms (presented as public-private partnership-type businesses here due to the satirical targets of XP, but easily reskinnable as bureaucratic subdepartments if you prefer), and a short Troubleshooter mission which involves getting all up in the service group’s business. (The best one is probably the one where the Troubleshooters are assigned to give sensitivity training to battle-hardened Vulture Troopers.)

It’s a simple formula and it works out pretty well, nicely fleshing out an aspect of the setting which is often neglected but probably shouldn’t be, seeing how it’s the basis of the PCs’ legitimate day jobs.

The Mutant Experience

Though its centrepiece is an impressive expansion of the mutant powers available in Paranoia, along with suggestions for delicious variants on and unexpected consequences of them, The Mutant Experience is a really nice, detailed unpacking of all sorts of issues surrounding the subject. You get stacks of equipment and drugs relating to mutant powers, suggestions on different ways to interpret Alpha Complex’s take on mutant powers, really useful suggestions on how to run mutant powers that have clearly been developed in actual play, a fun table to roll on when characters get exposed to mutant powers, and so much more! No, the mutations are not at all balanced, but that’s part of the fun of them, and the more options available on this front the better so far as I am concerned.

The Traitor’s Manual

This is the secret society-focused supplement, and rather than adding a whole bunch of new ones it instead provides additional depth on the existing ones (including plenty of subfactions, and quips about how they could have done White Wolf-style splatbooks for each of the secret societies except they couldn’t face the prospect of writing an entire book about the more shallow ones like the Mystics).

To be honest, this strikes me as being the right call: the Acute Paranoia supplement for 1st Edition made a token attempt to introduce a bunch of new secret societies, but most of them ended up being variations on the existing ones (the Trekkies, for instance, could have happily just been a subfaction of the Romantics, and even the Clone Arrangers of Send In the Clones, perhaps the best new secret society added to the game since the original core book, can basically be seen as a specialised Free Enterprise project). As it stands, the book gives just the right level of information on the various societies it details, making it handy both for longer-term games where the player characters might actually interact more than once or twice with their society and as a source of ideas for referees to develop missions from.

My main gripe with the book is that it doesn’t give any attention to the two secret societies that could really do with the most development – these being the Spy For Another Alpha Complex option and the Programs Group (in which you are not working on an ideological basis but are simply doing favours for a High Programmer in the hope of advancement that way). These options are both great for Straight games, and yet don’t get any love in this book whatsoever – a huge oversight given how keen the designers clearly were to push Straight as a viable playstyle.

Stuff

Somehow this equipment supplement doesn’t do it for me; I suspect it’s because I’m happy to wing it mostly as far as equipment in Paranoia goes, but also because of the presentation of the supplement as a series of advertisements on C-Bay, the Alpha Complex eBay parody, which comes under the “jokes from this edition that never really got traction and have been abandoned in subsequent editions” category and, unlike repurposing service firms as service group subdepartments, isn’t so easy to smooth over.

The Underplex

Drawing inspiration more from urban exploration than typical RPG dungeon concepts, this slim booklet introduces the idea of the Underplex – a vast labyrinth of abandoned and sealed-off Alpha Complex infrastructure (and the odd natural cavern complex) that’s largely been forgotten by the Computer and become the habitation of mutants and outcasts and a convenient place for secret societies to get up to all sorts of shit. Despite the occasional forced pun, the supplement largely (by its own intention) hovers in a sweet spot between Classic and Straight styles, which is where I personally think the magic resides, and the Underplex is a nice, creative addition to the setting which adds an interesting new dimension to Alpha Complex but feels natural next to established precedent. (I particularly like the idea of Undercommuters – ordinary citizens who have to divert into the Underplex to get to work because there’s otherwise no route permitted to their security clearance.

Mandatory Fun Enforcement Pack

This is the booklet that came with the GM screen. As well as containing some fun forms to inflict on the players, it has the Mission Blender – a magnificent set of tables for random mission generation that’s a handy spur to creativity, particularly since it’s quite good at judging when to step back and let you fill in the blanks and covers most of the archetypal situations you could possibly face in a Troubleshooter mission.

Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Alpha Complex

While I’m at it, I may as well discuss this freebie that was thrown out to promote the 25th Anniversary edition of Paranoia. Making extensive use o recycled text, it offers a brief setting introduction for players, a rules overview for referees, and a sample adventure. The problem is the layout, which is extremely basic and when it comes to the sample characters is actively bad – you want to have one PC to a page or otherwise do the layout in such a way as to make it nice and easy to photocopy and cut out and stick together people’s character sheets, but here that’s totally botched.

The whole point of these Free RPG Day-type samplers is to give an easy, minimum-friction way to start playing a game quickly – with this botching of the PC writeups, the Guide blows this requirement. The art, whilst more competent than the ugly monstrosities gracing the latest edition, is a bit bland compared to Jim Holloway’s characterful work too.

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A Still-Potent Drug

Steve Jackson (the UK one, not the US one responsible for GURPS) and Ian Livingstone have made no bones about the fact that the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were originally designed to act as gateway drugs into tabletop RPGs – the duo having been primarily responsible for introducing the hobby to the UK as co-founders of Games Workshop.

The franchise soon gained a life of its own, however, and it was inevitable that in the 1980s height of the craze that the feedback loop would complete itself, with Fighting Fantasy spawning an RPG of its own. In fact, mimicing the split between Basic and Advanced variants of D&D, it eventually spawned two RPGs – one an iconic introduction to the hobby, the other a massively flawed attempt to build a full-blown RPG out of it. The latter has enjoyed a 2nd edition release from Arion Games – but has Arion managed to sort the wheat from the chaff?

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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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Expanding Rolemaster

Poking about further at classic-era Rolemaster, I’ve begun to suspect that the system’s reputation for being overcomplex hails less from its core rules – which, whilst crunchy, are perfectly manageable – and more from the extent to which they were expanded by subsequent releases in the line. With supplement after supplement churned out, the mass of material available for the line became unmanageable, and when the revision into the Rolemaster Standard System was made ICE made the error of pandering too much to the hardcore fanbase who were absolutely fine with all of these additions and who relished all the crunch, resulting in an edition which dialled them up entirely too far.

This is an evolution we’ve seen time and time again in gaming – it happened to 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons too – though at least ICE have the excuse that they were operating early enough that these pitfalls weren’t so well-known and widely exemplified. (The custodians of 3.X D&D had less excuse, given the influence that Rolemaster had on that game.) Still, that doesn’t mean that no expansions to Rolemaster are welcome – here’s a quick look at some additions I’ve found quite interesting.

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Most Dangerous Character Generation System Ever

Villains & Vigilantes wasn’t the first superhero RPG – that’s generally believed to be Superhero 2044. It was, however, the first superhero RPG to get much in the way of actual traction after its release in 1979. Written by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, it was originally put out by Fantasy Games Unlimited, who worked on a solicitation-based business model for RPGs – people who’d written their own homebrew games (or released them as small press efforts) would come to FGU head honcho Scott Bizar with their games, and he’d produce them and unleash them on the market with a much higher profile than they’d have had on their own.

An upshot of this model is that in its heyday the FGU portfolio was intriguingly diverse. As well as the occasional attempt to jump on the D&D bandwagon like Chivalry & Sorcery or Swordbearer, you had genuine departures like Bunnies & Burrows and historically-inspired games like Flashing BladesBushido and Privateers & Gentlemen. In that context, Villains & Vigilantes, as an experimental foray into a genre that RPGs hadn’t widely explored yet, makes sense as part of that throw-everything-at-the-market-and-see-what-sticks approach; the fact that it was one of the few FGU product lines to get an active flow of support and a second edition suggests that it was one of their bigger successes at the time.

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There Were Gamers In the Earth Those Days…

One of the nice things about Chaosium’s fire sale following the ousting of the Charlie Krank regime by Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen was that it was a great opportunity for people to snag any Nephilim products they fancied which they hadn’t otherwise obtained. Unaccountably, the Krank regime still had boxes of Nephilim product uselessly taking up space in the warehouse, and the entire line could be bought in the fire sale for a very reasonable price. With the exception of the adventure supplement Serpent Moon (since prewritten campaigns often don’t do it for me), I gladly took the chance to fill the gaps in my collection, because out of all of the lesser, B-grade Chaosium RPGs, Nephilim is the one whose decline and fall I’m the most sad about.

Nephilim

Emerging in 1994, the English-language version of Nephilim was Chaosium’s big attempt to jump on the White Wolf-inspired bandwagon for modern-day occult horror games, though in a case of parallel evolution the French-language original from MultiSim came out at about the same time as Vampire. The titular Nephilim are disembodied Secret Masters, inhuman spirits who were involved in the fall of the dinosaurs and the creation of humans in a Blavatsky-esque alternate history of Earth, and who have lived multiple past lives in human bodies with the goal of raising their spiritual power, or Ka, to the point where they achieve a transcendent state called Agharta. They are also various types of mythical beats like elves and satyrs and serpent people and the like, though at low Ka levels this isn’t especially evident to those without the mystical capability to perceive this.

This is some absolutely off the wall shit – I mean, it’s Thetan: the Thetaning, for crying out loud – so it’s incongruous just how seriously the game takes this whacky Theosophy Gone Wild mythology. Indeed, it hypes itself as a specifically occult-themed RPG and has a quote from the back from an actual practicing occultist to say “Yeah, sure, this is the real shit alright”. I suppose the fact that the Satanic Panic was a) basically over by that point and b) a great driver of sales for games targeted by it made Chaosium decide that the more balls-out “this is the sort of game Jack Chick warned you about!” they could go with it, the better.

The thing is, though, there’s no Pope of Occultism, or even an ecumenical council setting what is and isn’t occult canon. Certain ideas keep cropping up here and there, true, but part of that is because even in esoteric philosophy there’s only so many ways to reinvent the wheel and likewise occultists are individually and as groups  fantastic magpies, with a grand tendency to grab at whatever bit of lore looks fascinating to them.

The result of this is that it really isn’t true to say that there is any one particular occult tradition so much as there’s a whole bunch of them, with great diversity of ideas and approaches in those traditions. As such, if you dig long enough you can probably find an occultist willing to endorse anything as a suitable game reputation of higher esoteric truths, because (especially given that it’s the sort of field that tends to attract flakes, blowhards and charlatans) if you work at it you can find an occultist willing to say anything whatsoever.

The particular hodge-podge of esoteric beliefs that Nephilim is based on doesn’t just mash up the weirdest bits of Theosophy and Scientology, though. It also embraces conspiracy theory like nobody’s business, stuffing the setting to the gills with secret societies who are either supportive of or inimical to the Nephilim and making it absolutely clear that the entirety of human history is completely shaped and controlled by the actions of the Nephilim and human occultists.

In some respects the game has this refreshing willingness to grasp nettles that other games of this style hestitate to – it is outright stated that Jesus Christ was a Nephilim, for one thing. In other respects, though, this is part of a trend which can make the game extremely alienating: this is a universe where ordinary human beings are meaningless beyond their roles as pawns for secret societies or meat puppets for Nephilim to possess. It’s more or less overtly the case that this is flat-out possession too, and it’s treated very callously; there’s references to Nephilim who want to adopt a different Simulacrum (human body) committing suicide because you don’t get to exit a Simulacrum until it dies, there’s a game mechanic for stealing your Simulacrum’s skills, your human’s personality reasserting itself is very much a failure state, and whilst there is a faction of Nephilim who deliberately believe that they can get closer to Agartha by attempting to identify with and advance the ends of the human personality of their Simulacrum, the game explicitly encourages players not to do that.

One of the common criticisms of Nephilim (at least in this edition) was that people weren’t sure what you were supposed to do with it, but to be honest the game does rather directly tell you its assumed mode of play – I suspect the real issue was that people flinched back from that and assumed it was kidding. The assumed mode of play is for your party of Nephilim to knock about chasing down occult secrets as hard as they can, so they can meet the requirements to ascend to Agartha, all the while avoiding the interference both of confused mundanes worried about this weird personality shift your human is displaying and the secret societies of human occultists who want to hurt, destroy, or manipulate the Nephilim for their own ends. (In particular, it’s very clear that humans can only really do magic as a by-product of their interactions with Nephilim and the traces Nephilim leave behind.) That’s cool, but requires a playing group willing and ready to buy into a potentially extremely callous and inhuman concept.

Though it makes bold claims about being based on real occultism, the extent to which this is the case is highly variable. The magic system comes in three flavours – sorcery (generic spell-slinging), summoning and alchemy – with varying levels of tenuous connection to real folklore and occult practices. The Nephilim’s factions are falled the Arcana, and are all named after the Major Arcana of the tarot (or rather, in this setting the tarot cards are named after these factions), though they’re all a bit odd and several of them are called out as being not for PCs or apparently nonexistent and it really isn’t clear how they interact with each other. Perhaps the most impreseively nutty concept in here is the astrological modifiers that come into play each and every day, which adds fiddliness but also flavour (since it gives characters a reason to plan major workings for specific days when they can anticipate that the flow of Ka-energy will be optimal).

One nice thing about the game is that it completely accepts and acknowledged that it’s riffing on Western occult concepts which are not culturally universal, and doesn’t invalidate other cultures in doing so; it specifies that the Nephilim seem to be bound to cultures in some respect, and that in other cultures the experiences of the Nephilim, their approach to magical power, and their interactions with humans are fundamentally different (and in some cases are way more equal and consensual).

The major bad guys in the setting are the Templars, who naturally existed thousands of years prior to their exoteric foundation during the Crusades, with a good cross-section of the most malevolent secret societies being offshoots of them. The emphasis on the Templars having a Grand Plan tied in with the flow of occult energy for the sake of taking over the world puts me in mind of Umberto Eco’s amusing and erudite Foucault’s Pendulum, to the point where I question how seriously the game is meant to be taken; if the original core book is more humorous this wouldn’t be the first time a Yankerdoodle translation of a French RPG failed to convey that (it happened to In Nomine), though the wild paranoia of the book’s discussion of secret societies and the over the top secrets and campaign premises suggested at least nudge the setting in the direction of the delirious fractal conspiracies-all-the-way-down high weirdness of GURPS Illuminati.

Nephilim is a weird core book, and could do with a thorough layout revision and a really comprehensive set of cheat sheets, because it has a slightly bad habit of distributing little bits of important game mechanics across the text rather than, for instance, covering all the things you need to bear in mind when making a skill roll all in one place. (In particular, it’d be too easy to miss rules like how if you roll a critical success on a skill belonging to your Simulacrum rather than your Nephilim, you get a chance to steal the skill, transposing it from the Simulacrum column to the Nephilim column on your character sheet and keeping it when you transmigrate to a new Simulacrum.) Still, there’s something about its weird mixture of actual occult beliefs and totally off-the-wall nonsense that I can’t quite completely write off; whilst it would take the right group and a bit of work and patience to get the best out of it, it seems to me like it would be worth the effort to do so.

Chronicle of the Awakenings

This is an odds-and-sods collection of various bits and pieces likely to be of use to players and referees alike. As the first supplement to be mostly put together by Yankerdoodle game designers as opposed to the original French designers, there’s points where the book edges away from the gleeful transgression of the core book. In particular, in discussing Hitler it refuses to commit to Hitler being a Nephilim. I can absolutely see why there’s good reasons to tread cautiously if you want to avoid the pitfall of the Holocaust as being the outgrowth of supernatural evil that ordinary folks couldn’t have been expected to stop, as opposed to decidedly human evil of a sort which absolutely could arise again under the right circumstances. However, if you’ve already said that Hitler was under the absolute control of the Thule Society and the Third Reich was designed to serve their occult agenda, you’ve already gone there; you might as well own it at that point and pursue the angle to its wildest and most exciting conclusion, rather than simply wimping out and only going halfway.

How does Hitler become relevant? Why, because Germany in 1933 is one of the new past life eras for use in character generation that this supplement adds, expanding your range of choices on that front substantially. This section takes up about half the supplement, but there’s so much fun to be had and so many great bits of history worked in that it’s absolutely worth it.

The second major addition to the game offered by the supplement is an alternate system for handling your Nephilim’s physical transfomations – whereas previously you just accumulated points and attained changes as the points increased, this time around each Metamorphosis type is associated with a brace of five passions – and the more you play to those passions, the more points you get in your passions and the further your transformation progresses. This is a great way to get more of an emotional handle on your Nephilim – it means that one seeking to attain Agharta cannot be the sort of cold, unemotional accumulator of power that the core rulebook might suggest, but instead needs to develop and master the particular set of emotions associated with their type.

The last thing the book offers is a big stack of Simulacrum stats, which nicely serve a dual purpose – not only are they fodder for possession, and thus a great expansion of the available character generation options, but they’re also a brace of handy NPC stats with it.

Chronicle of the Awakenings is a bit of an odds-and-sods supplement, though it remains of substantial use; there’s just about a connecting thread between the sections since they each in their own way are important elements of character generation, and provide additional options and depth there whilst, crucially, not particularly increasing the complexity of the game. Each section offers a clear improvement over the core book, so on the whole it’s an excellent addition to the product line; my main complaint about it is that it started the unfortunate tendency of Chaosium’s Nephilim supplements towards having absolutely terrible cover art.

Secret Societies

Sporting somewhat better cover art and mostly credited to a single writer – the ever-capable Kenneth Hite – Secret Societies drills down into the Nephilim setting’s… well… secret societies. As well as providing deeper writeups of their structure, agenda, and notable NPCs associated with them, Hite also takes the time to give a more generalised look at how secret societies operate in the setting – a discussion of enough general value to occult conspiracy games that it’s effectively Ken’s own personal take on GURPS Illuminati, and therefore well worth the price of entry.

One thing I particularly like about the book is how Hite seems to have picked up on the same Foucault’s Pendulum angle as me. Of course, he may be partially responsible for it, having been one of many contributors adding polish here and there to the core book, but it’s in this context that he goes for it really hard, with quotes from the book popping up with near-comical frequency. I cannot for the life of me blame him, because the overall temperament and sardonic humour of the Nephilim setting seems to fit the tone of Eco’s novel markedly.

Gamemaster’s Companion

1996 found Chaosium back on the awful covers and releasing this, a weird grab-bag collection of little articles with no immediately apparent overarching theme. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem – Chaosium kind of has a tradition of putting out Companion volumes for each of their game lines along similar lines.

Some aspects of the supplement do indeed stand alone – there’s quite a nice magic item creation system which is quite good because, as is appropriate to the setting and cosmology, magic items are never simply cool toys in this setup. (Stats for various items, including literal, actual Excalibur, are provided.)

However, looking closer at others, it feels like a reasonable number of these articles are actually framed as an attempt to fill in gaps and respond to customer feedback. There’s a decent summary of the timeline of the Nephilim universe, which should probably have been in the core book, and a table summarising the important details of every past life era from the core book and Chronicle of the Awakenings, which should probably have been in Chronicle. At the back there’s a brief discussion of the Nephilim community of the San Francisco Bay Area, clarifying how the various sample NPCs in the core book fit together in that, which again should probably have been in the core book.

On top of that, you also have an extensive section explaining best practice for setting up and running a Nephilim campaign, and what sort of scenarios you could populate that campaign with. Whilst I personally think that the core book more than adequately communicates its assumed mode of play, evidently the wider audience badly needed help there, which I guess explains this supplement; whilst most of these articles could quite happily just gone in one of the various Nephilim fanzines that were in circulation at the time, putting this stuff out in a supplement is a somewhat louder and more official way to answer the “What do you do with this game?” question which was haunting the line.

Liber Ka

Helmed by John Snead and released in 1997, this provides as an appetiser an overview of traditional Western occultism and the modern day occult scene from the point of view of the Nephilim, and then as a main course offers a wholesale replacement of the Sorcery system from the core rulebook.

Whilst the Summoning and Alchemy systems from the core book were pretty flavourful, the Sorcery section was notable for being a bit flavourless and tending more towards typical RPG magic system wackiness. The system offered here simultaneously makes the most baseline uses of sorcery a bit more broadly applicable (simple casual magic being largely an exercise in applied Ka-vision), whilst more substantial workings involve quite involved rituals that are time-consuming and may well require help from others. Magical outcomes here tend to do the Mage coincidental magic thing of having their outcome arise through apparently natural circumstances.

Personally, I quite like this because it further embraces Nephilim‘s core schtick; I’d put it alongside the retooled Metamorphosis system from Chronicle of the Awakenings when it comes to really nice refinements of the system which add a lot if you implement them.

In fact, it’s evident that Chaosium stood by the magic system here and the Metamorphosis system from Chronicle much more than they did the core book system; Major Arcana, which would be the only supplement put out for the line after this, assumed that you were using both systems. This makes them seem more like mandatory patches than supplemental systems, and whilst they are enough of an improvement to make it seem worth it, I do wonder whether this exacerbated the game’s sales issues.

Major Arcana

Helmed by Ken Hite, this provides a badly needed expansion on the details about the Major Arcana, the key organisations in the Nephilim world. Most of them are covered to a decent level of detail, with a basic explanation that expands on the hyper-brief core book description that covers what rank and file members of the Arcanum in question would know and deeper secrets for the higher ranking members, along with associated scenario ideas. (You also get those very White Wolf-y sidebars where you get quotes expressing what each faction thinks about every other faction’s schtick, though to the credit of Hite and his co-authors these are actually much more direct and to-the-point and generally useful than the vague nonsense that White Wolf tend to offer in those.) On top of that, you also get little essays on their origins, the general principles of their internal working, and how they interact with each other.

With 22 Arcana to detail, the job at hand is a tricky one, but Hite and his co-authors by and large do a decent job. (They do end up “going there” in terms of riffing on the idea of Roma people as being mystical fortune-tellers in their discussion of the history of the Tarot, though this is in the context of a single paragraph discussing the folkloric history of the deck so it’s nowhere near on the level of White Wolf’s treatment of the subject.) Only two Arcana are given short shrift, mostly because they aren’t really for Nephilim PCs; the 21st Arcanum, The World, consists of those who have attained Agharta, whilst the 13th Arcanum, pretentiously called “the Unnamed” one because for some reason either Chaosium or MultiSim wussed out of calling it the Death Arcanum, is for the Selenim. The Selenim are ex-Nephilim who have become actual, honest to goodness vampires, and who operate on a fundamentally different metaphysical basis; MultiSim did an entire big fat supplement on them and Chaosium promise one here, but of course the cancellation of the line put paid to that, which is a shame.

On the whole, Major Arcana is another extremely useful supplement for Nephilim, providing substantial support for the organisations in question which ideally should have been in place long before. I have to wonder whether a lot people’s “What the fuck am I meant to do with this?” issues with Nephilim would have been substantially alleviated had this information been in the core book.

Gamemaster’s Veil

This is your GM screen, combining a rather uninspiring design with a cheeky introductory scenario which has the player characters Awakening in the British Museum and having to escape a Templar trap set up there and a really fun little component – an Astrological Wheel that can be used to work out the various penalties and bonuses to magic based on astrological factors with great ease.

Another Shuffle of the Cards?

1997 was the end of the line for the English Nephilim line. Whilst the French line had become a cornerstone of the national RPG scene – MultiSim only being brought low by a generalised crash of the French RPG industry in 2003, and Nephilim being one of the games which soon got picked up by another publisher – the English line simply never took off to the extent that Chaosium had hoped for, and poor sales led them to bring the line to an untimely end.

That’s a shame, because in retrospect, looking over these books, it feels like the line was really coming into its own. In fact, I tend to put Nephilim into the same category as Demon: the Fallen in terms of being a game line which only really came into its own in the light of its later supplement line. It’s not quite the same because Demon‘s core book was flat-out broken and needed its supplements to fix it; conversely, the core Nephilim book is a perfectly cromulent gaming manual, but the various additions and changes made in the supplements add improvements to it which are so major that I would be disinclined to run Nephilim without them – especially when it comes to the emotional ties to Metamorphosis from Chronicle of the Awakenings, the expanded details on the Arcana from Major Arcana, and the more flavourful Sorcery system from Liber Ka.

I genuinely think that a second English language edition that integrated these updates and went out of its way to provide a loud and clear answer to “what do you do with this game?” could have a real shot at providing something really meaty and useful for the Anglosphere RPG market. Now that the fad of modern-day occult games has died down, I think Nephilim could offer something that has a distinctly different flavour from the main surviving expressions of the idea. Both Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies are big into the whole postmodern magic/chaos magic dealio, whereas Nephilim offers something much more rooted in traditional ceremonial magic, even more so than what I know of Mage: the Awakening. (Atlantis is also a big deal in Nephilim, but Nephilim actually integrates Atlantis into its mythology quite nicely rather than having it be a big fuzzy indistinct enigma.)

The major barrier seems to be the “possessing entity” angle, which may make it hard for some to sympathise very much with their Nephilim. As I understand it, Chaosium had issues with it at the time and kind of wanted to nudge the interpretation of the game towards Nephilim being enlightened human spirits to make them a bit more relatable. I could definitely see a possibility in a variant of the system where a “Nephilim” is simply someone who has attained a point of enlightenment where they get total recall of their past lives, or at least that subset of their past lives where they reached this level before; you could have the “Stasis” be a repository of the memories rather than the soul, the acquisition of one’s own Stasis being a prerequisite for attaining this status, and then all you need to do is work out what to do with the “possessing other people when you die” angle. (My inclination would be to either run a less fatal game but work on the basis of “when you die, you die”, or do some sort of cosmological “all souls are really one soul so it’s not so much possessing people as giving them a form of enlightenment in their own right” dealio.)

That said, that would very much be an alternate fan canon; the whole “inhuman possessors” thing was so prominent in this edition that I suspect a second edition that dropped or removed it would run into issues where it didn’t feel like a good faith continuation of the original line. Still, given all the entities that White Wolf/Onyx Path have asked us to accept as player characters over the years, it doesn’t seem like it’d be impossible to get a wider audience to love the Nephilim on their own terms.

All This Space and Nothing To Do There

It really isn’t Chaosium’s fault that their Ringworld RPG didn’t last all that long. Shortly after its publication, the movie rights to Ringworld were picked up, and Larry Niven was obliged to pull the RPG licence because supposedly there was some sort of clash between the licences. Of course, given that the Ringworld movie has spent the past thirty years or so in development hell that’s a bit of a shame – and it surely isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility to work something out. (One suspects Niven’s agent just doesn’t consider it worth the hassle.)

As such, it’s become a major rarity, prized by gamers and fans of Niven’s Known Space setting alike. When Niven started the Man-Kzin Wars series, in which he set aside a particular span of time in his future history for other authors to play with in a shared-world fashion, he needed a writer’s bible for the setting – rather than writing one from scratch he just photocopied the RPG.

Continue reading “All This Space and Nothing To Do There”