Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.

Catalogues of Cthulhu

One of the advantages of a game line which has lasted as long as Call of Cthulhu and has maintained an excellent level of backward compatibility (7th Edition may offer the largest change, but even then you can fit conversion guidelines onto one side of a business card) is that there is an enormous amount of source material to draw on, official or otherwise, with exciting new additions to your portfolio of tricks offered up in numerous adventures or supplements.

This is also handy for Chaosium as a publisher, because it puts them in a position to sell you convenience. All they need to do is draw together a bunch of different monsters or spells together from the massive pile of adventures they were introduced in and put them between two covers, and they produce a tool that’s both handy for those with massive Call of Cthulhu collections and who don’t want to go combing them for that one spell from one scenario they vaguely half-remember, and provides a whole bunch of material which would otherwise be inaccessible for those who don’t have the money, time, or inclination to acquire all the sources these collections draw on in the first place.

The new management clearly understand this, because one of their first major supplements for 7th Edition (aside from the various Kickstarter stretch goals) is a big book of spells – so now’s a good time to take a look at that, plus the monster book whose approach it draws on.

Continue reading “Catalogues of Cthulhu”

Toon In Its Time

I was inspired by S. John Ross’s rather excellent recent post on the subject to take another look at Toon. The story behind the writing of Toon is rather famous but bears repeating: Jeff Dee was having a discussion with some fellow games industry buddies, including Greg Costikyan, about whether there were any genres of fiction which you couldn’t feasibly make into a tabletop RPG. Dee proposed that Looney Tunes-style cartoons would be impossible to translate into a game; a few years later, with a little help from Warren Spector, Costikyan would crack the problem, with the original edition of Toon emerging through Steve Jackson Games in 1984.

The original booklet didn’t even hit 70 pages; the most commonly-available version, though, is 1991’s Toon Deluxe Edition, which goes over 200 pages but remains a delightfully light and easy RPG. The Deluxe version incorporates the material from the supplements Toon Silly StuffSon of Toon, and Toon Strikes Again. For the most part, the supplemental material simply integrates a few additional optional rules into the core rules text, adds some useful improv resources like a random adventure generator and a collection of funny tables, and introduces the “Cartoon Series” concept (of which more later) – but for the most part, it just adds an enormous number of additional scenarios, so whilst the page count has gone up the core of the system remains delightfully simple and in one book you have both the core game and a remarkably deep well of support material.

Continue reading “Toon In Its Time”

Old Ways to the Old World

Cubicle 7 have announced that they are doing a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, set as always in the Old World (a separate RPG with a different system is planned for the new and extremely different Age of Sigmar setting) and taking inspiration from the 1st and 2nd editions of the game.

All this is music to my ears, particularly since I didn’t care for Fantasy Flight’s 3rd edition of the game; as interesting a testbed as it was for a component-heavy style of presenting an RPG, aspects of which eventually manifesting in their Star Wars RPGs, such a test could have happily been done with a different property without trampling all over an existing and well-loved system. (Moreover, FFG never quite seemed sold on the idea of using that system for Warhams purposes – they never switched their 40K RPGs over to it.)

At this time, then, it’s worth having a good look at the first and second editions of WFRP to see what Cubicle 7 could usefully draw from each.

1st Edition

Emerging in 1986, when the Warhammer wargame and Old World setting were still new, WFRP is an impressively complete-in-one-book RPG. Games Workshop had, by this point, been instrumental in getting a number of classic RPGs into the UK market, having printed UK versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and even Paranoia, but with their distribution agreement with TSR coming to a close they decided they needed to fill the D&D-shaped gap in their portfolio.

Another factor driving the development of the Warhammer setting was the desire to make a wargame players could use all of their fantasy-themed Citadel miniatures in, which of course included miniatures for several of the games I mentioned above. Thus, as well as more standard races, Stormbringer Melniboneans became Warhammer-style dark elves, Chaos warriors from that became Chaos warriors here, Runequest broos became Chaos beastmen, and so on. (For similar reasons, I am convinced that Arbitrators in Warhammer 40,000 are riffs on Judge Dredd because of Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG line having its associated miniatures line.)

This heady mix of influences quickly coalesced into a distinct setting and tone of its own, because this first WFRP core book is absolutely dripping in atmosphere and flavour. (This is especially the case if you compare it to Rogue Trader – not the RPG, the original Warhammer 40,000 rulebook – where, in part because they hadn’t yet pulled the trigger on incorporating Chaos into that setting too, the whole thing feels like much more of a heterogeneous patchwork of bits that don’t really feel like parts of the same setting.) Particularly impressive is the setting chapter, which paints a fairly complete picture of the Old World in general and the Empire specifically in the space provided that essentially hasn’t changed that much since.

Other bits of flavour arise from the extensive bestiary and the wide selection of character professions. WFRP is joked about as being the game where you can start out as a rat-catcher with a small but vicious dog, and that is the case, but each and every one of those starting professions is useful in its own right as a source of stat advances and skills.

The profession system feels to me like it was inspired by Maelstrom, a British RPG written by a schoolboy who managed to get it published by Penguin as part of their gamebook lines. The professions in Maelstrom were rich and flavourful in the sense that they covered just about any job you might have in Tudor England, but the weakness was that many of those professions wouldn’t give you many useful ways to contribute to an actual adventure. WFRP very successfully ensures its professions are defined in terms of game usefulness, whilst at the same time conveying much of the similarly Renaissance-themed style of the setting through the selection presented.

Having the fame and the vintage that it has, the major drawbacks of WFRP 1st Edition are pretty well-known by now. Characters start out with some fiendishly low stats and will tend to fail at most rolls; at the best of times, this encourages a gritty, cautious style of play in which cunning planning to maximise the bonuses on the player characters’ side is the order of business, but that requires a GM being willing to provide such bonuses and handle such unusual plans, and the GMing advice section isn’t especially good at encouraging that. At the worst of times, it can just be downright frustrating.

On top of that, the magic system is rather flavourless, and is also set up to make it frustratingly difficult to actually learn any magic in the first place; it’s easily the most fiddly and overengineered part of the rules. The Realms of Sorcery supplement, which finally replaced it with something more flavourful, only creaked out towards the end of Hogshead’s run with the licence.

Still, for grim low fantasy gaming there’s nothing quite like the flavour of classic WFRP, where even the artwork is rich and evocative. This, then, set the bar which future editions would be compared to.

2nd Edition

Published via Games Workshop’s Black Industries imprint but developed by Chris Pramas and his team at Green Ronin, the 2nd Edition of WFRP was a welcome tune-up for the system with a couple of quirks here and there. The introduction of character talents – effectively feats under another name – were an inevitability at the time, since this was during an era when 3.X D&D was being widely imitated by other systems. (Feat-like heroic abilities were added to Mongoose’s version of RuneQuest at around this time too.)

They’re nice to have for player characters, but the extensive reliance on them in this system and the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs which would follow its lead – and the infuriating insistence on just listing the talents in monster listings rather than listing out what they all did right there, ensuring that if you wanted to know a monster’s full capabilities you had to do an excessive amount of flipping back and forth, made them a bit of a chore. What designers of this era didn’t grasp is that whilst a player only has to know what the feats their PC happens to possess does, the GM needs to understand both the feats of all the player characters and every NPC they meet, creating an enormous burden for them.

Another major rules tweak is the complete revision of the magic system, which is both vastly more flavourful and much more faff-free than the original 1st edition system. It’s quite nice how it handles magical backlash – to cast a spell you can roll a number of D10s up to your total ability (but can roll less if you wish) and total them up, and if you get doubles, triples, or even quads you get to roll on progressively more perilous tables for associated phenomena. Between this and the target number of spells, this means that you can if you wish get off minor but undeniably useful spells more or less safely and, if not 100% reliably then at least with decent chances of success (especially if the winds of magic are with you and you have the ingredients to hand) by rolling a single die, and you can get more accomplished with still decent chances of not-too-horrible consequences by rolling two dice (giving a 1 in 10 chance of having to roll on the mildest table), or you can pull out the stops and roll three dice or more at the cost of potentially hideous consequences.

The various 40K RPGs played with different ways of kicking off Psychic Phenomena and Perils of the Warp from use of psyker powers, none of which quite followed this method. I get the impression they felt constrained to try and make use of psychic powers based off a percentile roll like the rest of the system, but I genuinely think this was an error, because I don’t think any of the solutions they arrived at worked quite as nicely as this one does.

One think the 40K RPGs do manage, however, is to have a slightly better appreciation of the probabilities. Whilst WFRP 2nd Edition does give a bit more of a discussion of applying modifiers to skill rolls, it states that an action of average difficulty should get a 0% modifier – whereas in the 40K RPGs an average task difficulty actually gives you a bit of a bonus. Here, I think WFRP buys into its own hype too much – it’s infamous as a game where player characters aren’t that competent, but I think the advice here exacerbates that.

The presentation of the book is beautifully done in terms of layout and page design, and the artwork is technically proficient, but it somehow feels a bit less flavourful than the classic old artwork of the original edition. Furthermore, the default starting date of 2522 AE is set after the Storm of Chaos metaplot event, which makes the threat of Chaos a bit more overt and obvious and puts the Empire on a bit more of a total war footing than the original WFRP did. However, at least in this core book, there isn’t actually much discussion of that – recent history isn’t really covered in the setting chapter, and the current date is only specified in an out-of-the way sidebar which points out that you can set your game at any point in Imperial history if you really wanted to.

2nd Edition WFRP was a lot of fun, but at the same time I am very interested to see what Cubicle 7 do with 4th Edition. If they are able to get the rich atmosphere of 1st Edition delivered with the production values and (mostly) clarified and tuned-up game mechanics of 2nd Edition, they’ll be onto a very good thing indeed; let’s cross our fingers and pray to Tzeentch for a favourable tide of change.

Kickstopper: More of the Clans

Over on Ferretbrain we’ve had a long-running series called Kickstopper, with articles reviewing the outcome of Kickstarters from a backer’s-eye-view. That said, some of the Kickstarters I back cover topics which are a bit niche for a general audience, especially when it comes to tabletop RPGs. The general line I’ve taken is that if I can see my way to reviewing the core game in the article, then it’s appropriate for Ferretbrain, but if I can’t and the article doesn’t really shed much light on a topic of more general interest, like the long-term future of White Wolf (to give a recent example), it’d make more sense to put the review here.

For this first time putting a Kickstopper article over here, I’m going to cover what may be some of the last supplements for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire: the Masquerade; with White Wolf announcing that a 5th Edition will be coming out next year and precious little still to release for it on Onyx Path’s schedule, it looks like the game line – which is already remarkably complete – will likely be mothballed, at least to the extent of new products not coming out for it, so that the spotlight can go on the new edition.

For these supplements, the 20th Anniversary line offers its answer to the classic Clanbooks…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

At the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place.

The Campaign

The Lore of the Clans Kickstarter was the last World of Darkness Kickstarter that Onyx Path would successfully fund before the future of the World of Darkness line would change forever due to the purchase of White Wolf by Paradox, as I outlined in the Shattered Dreams Kickstopper article. (The subsequent Beast: the Primordial Kickstarter was for what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness line to distinguish it from the World of Darkness setting, and the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter for Werewolf: the Apocalypse saw the Paradox takeover happen partway through the funding period.)

By this point, Onyx Path had the process of doing Kickstarters for World of Darkness supplements down to a fine art, setting sensible stretch goals and, as had become the norm, offering a mostly-complete text of the supplement during the funding period so that people could both see if it was the sort of thing they were interested in and satisfy themselves that a viable product actually existed. As such, the progress of the campaign was smooth and unremarkable and it ended up earning over $138,000, which by this point was pretty reasonable for a supplement and substantially better than more “niche” supplements have managed.

What Level I Backed At

Clan Lexicographer: You will receive a copy of the Deluxe V20 Lore of the Clan book, a copy of the V20 Lore of the Clan PDF, and the V20 Lore of the Clan PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll receive a PDF of the classic Encyclopaedia Vampirica so you can delve deeply into significant Clan representatives. You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the evocative beautiful art from V20 Lore of the Clans. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Clan Loyalist. There will be an extra shipping charge added automatically to nonUS pledges.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the above, some of the stretch goals involved producing writeups for the Bloodlines which, after sufficient goals were hit, were set to be compiled into a supplement called Lore of the Bloodlines, the PDF of which would be included in my funding level.

The Delivery Process

I got my hard copy of Lore of the Clans in April 2016, and its estimated delivery date was March 2016, so by the standards of RPG Kickstarters Onyx Path did pretty well. The PDF version went out to backers in mid-October 2016, a couple of weeks before the announcement of Paradox purchasing White Wolf – which may explain why that event didn’t disrupt this delivery process nearly as much as it otherwise might have, since it meant that the book was a fait accompli with its approvals process done and dusted before Paradox came in.

Reviewing the Swag

Lore of the Clans

One of the recurring commercial problems tabletop RPGs have is that once someone has obtained the core rules, they and their friends can pretty much play forever without ever buying another product. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of traditional categories of RPG products, like prewritten scenarios and campaign settings, tended to be bought mainly by Game Masters/Storytellers/(insert absurd ego-puffing title for referee here) because they are stuffed with information it’d be actively game-ruining for players to read.

In the late 1980s, TSR made a bid to crack the problem by starting a line of player-facing supplements for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons . Each book would take a different class (like fighters, priests or wizards) or race (like elves or dwarves) and offer the player a bunch of options for customising and detailing such characters, as well as providing game rules to help both players and Dungeon Masters cater to such classes. (For instance, the thief book included an extended discussion of thieves’ guilds.) By putting out a book that would be of interest both to referees running a game featuring such characters and players interested in such character types, TSR had created products which they could sell to a much broader proportion of the AD&D audience than more purely Dungeon Master-oriented products.

Although it was TSR who pioneered this product format, it was White Wolf who became synonymous with it, perhaps because the World of Darkness games were so adeptly suited to that model. In Vampire you had Clans, in Werewolf you had Tribes, in Mage you had Traditions and so on, but all of these “splats” ended up getting associated splatbooks. (The “splat” comes from the way they were referred to in early online discussion as “*books”, with “splat” being slang in some circles for “asterisk”.) Each game had its own line of player-focused Clanbooks, Tribebooks, Tradition Books, etc., and the market snapped them up.

What made the various splats such iconic and important features of the World of Darkness games is the way they very smoothly served two simultaneous functions. On the game mechanical side of things, they worked much like Dungeons & Dragons classes, offering a means of differentiating player characters and giving them distinctive areas of expertise. (In general, for example, a Brujah vampire will be better in a fight than a Ventrue, who will be better at political intrigue than the Brujah, unless the characters in question have been deliberately designed not to engage with their own Clan’s particular strengths.) At the same time, they also gave player characters an instantaneous social context in the game – not all thieves in D&D work in the same guild, for instance, but all Brujah in Vampire are connected to the extended vampiric family of Brujah, if only by the fact that it was a Brujah who turned them into a vampire in the first place.

By giving player characters a social context in the setting, you prompt players to take an interest in the setting and their character’s place in it, and it’s also a big help to the Storyteller – if a player player is keen to play a Clan loyalist, that provides one way to pitch content which will be of interest to them, and if a player wants to play someone who actively rebels against their Clan or tries to resist efforts to draw them into Clan politics that provides a different lever. There’s no position you can take on your Clan which doesn’t open the door to scenario possibilities – if “Do me this favour because it will help the Clan” isn’t going to motivate the player into action, “Do me this favour because it will hurt the Clan/change the Clan/free you from the Clan hierarchy/make the Clan leave you alone” is just as good.

Your typical Clanbook back in the day was a 64 page book detailing a specific Clan; you’d have sections on the Clan’s history, its current internal organisation and interests, perhaps some rumours about Clan secrets, and the package would be rounded off with some pointers and templates for making characters especially appropriate to the Clan and special powers that Clan members may be able to learn.

Now, 64 pages isn’t nothing, but if you are a player who wants to add depth to their character or understand their Clan better it’s entirely manageable. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that if the Clanbook is in play, the Storyteller will probably want to read it too so they can get a handle on the material in it and use it appropriately – at least to the extent of being able to either portray it in the way it is portrayed in the Clanbook or, if the Storyteller has a different plan, outline where the Clan differs for the purposes of this specific campaign.

Say you have five players in a tabletop game, each of whom is playing a character of a different Clan, each of whom wants to use their Clan’s Clanbook. Each individual player only has about 64 pages of reading to do. The Storyteller suddenly has 320 pages to look over and either approve or overrule. And if you want to give a similar level of depth to all 13 canonical Clans – perhaps because you don’t want a Clan to seem flat and lacking in depth simply because no PCs belong to it, or because you are running a LARP with sufficient numbers that there are PCs of all Clans, you’re looking at 832 pages of reading.

Lore of the Clans is a condensed one-book solution to that problem. Each of its chapters provides a summation, generally written from the point of view of a member of the Clan in question, of Clan history, structure, interests and so on, along with a few suggestions for archetypal character templates and cool Clan-specific powers for people to dabble in. In other words, it’s basically a bunch of mini-Clanbooks, mashing up the best of the old run with some fun new ideas and providing a much more manageable package than the full stack of Clanbooks, making using it in actual play a much more viable prospect. What’s more, because a lot of the information is presented as in-character rumours rather than out-of-character statements of fact, Storytellers need not feel bound by any of it.

I didn’t go in at a tier which would have given me downloads of the old Clanbooks, but in terms of information provided I suspect you actually get most of the good stuff here. Stripping out a lot of the mini-short stories that characterised White Wolf’s material back in the day, improving the layout, and going for a more information-dense writing style could help you drop the space required appreciably; jettisoning ideas which in retrospect seem silly, half-baked, or just plain bad must also be a big help. (They do still take the time to give a tip of the hat to some of the more infamous of the discarded plot points; the Tzimisce chapter mentions the old “the Tzimisce flesh-sculpting powers are the result of them being controlled by alien parasites” from the infamous Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand supplement (and semi-resurrected in the strictly apocryphal The Black Hand: Secrets of the Tal’Mahe’Ra supplement) as being a total absurdity… before dropping an alternate theory that manages to be similar in principle but more horrifying and much more in keeping with the general tone of Vampire, although very much also presented as a mere rumour.) On top of that, the core V20 book already compiled a great number of vampire powers from across a wide range of sources, so a lot of the cool Clan powers from old Clanbooks would already be compiled there, allowing the rules additions here to be mercifully brief.

The book is rounded off by a brace of useful appendices unlocked as stretch goals during the Kickstarter, including a section on Caitiff (vampires belonging to no Clan), some brief insights into antitribu of each Clan (antitribu being Clan members who have rebelled against the power structure and general consensus of their Clan and sided with its enemies), and a section on notable vampires. No rules details are provided on the VIPs, but that actually makes a lot of sense – remember, this is meant to be a player-facing book in part, so providing a full picture of these characters’ capabilities would give them a bunch of information they aren’t meant to have, and this also lets Storytellers set the power level and capabilities of these characters at a level they are happy with.

In short, Lore of the Clans provides the same sort of deeper depictions of the Clans and enrichment of the game experience that the Clanbooks offered, for the price of a single book and at a much more modest page count. It’s actually a better deal than what White Wolf presented gamers with back in the day, and is a product far more likely to be used in actual play than a teetering stack of Clanbooks.

Lore of the Bloodlines

This pretty much gives the Lore of the Clans treatment to a set of the more interesting Bloodlines – groups of vampires which aren’t as widespread or powerful as the thirteen major Clans, but are still forces to be reckoned with. Much of what I’ve said about Lore of the Clans applies to this, and it’s a handy resource if you want to develop any of the Bloodlines detailed future – especially if you’re veering away from canon and want options for replacing one of the Clans with something developed to a similar level of detail.

As a stretch goal, the extent of this book was largely dependent on how much funding was received in the project. As it stands, I think the backers inadvertently hit the sweet spot: the book is substantial enough to be useful and cover the most interesting Bloodlines, but stops before getting to any of the more silly or disposable ones. (The next stretch goal would have added the Blood Brothers to this book, which are to my tastes just a bit too much of a one-trick schtick to make for an interesting clan writeup – useful to throw in as creepy disposable goons, not interesting to unpack as fully fleshed-out characters.)

Encyclopaedia Vampirica

Not really a clanbook, but it’s a similarly information-dense summary of material covering the whole run of Vampire: the Masquerade. This came out in 2002, right towards the end of the original World of Darkness game line’s run, and is presented as an in-character encyclopedia written by vampires for vampires.

Since it’s designed as a document written by characters in the setting, it’s actually suggested that you could just hand it over to the players for them to read as and when they discover it in the game. That’s fine in theory, but there’s a few issues with it in practice. The first, lesser issue is that because it came out at the end of the game line’s run, the encyclopedia covers a bunch of metaplot events that may or may not be true for your particular campaign. That’s troubling, but you can at least patch this somewhat simply by pointing out that the compilers of the encyclopedia may simply be wrong.

The second and larger problem is that by putting the Vampirica into the hands of the players, you are rather implicitly stating that most of the stuff that is in there will exist in your campaign in some form or another. Whilst in principle if the players get interested in a particular entry but you don’t want to include it, you could just pull the old “the compilers fucked up” line again, there’s a limit to how often you can do that before the encyclopedia ends up looking like a massive waste of time. Generally, if you hand players a tome weighing in at over 200 pages to read, it’s considered a bit of a dick move if it turns out to be mostly useless. At the same time, reading the entire book to decide how much of it you want to actually be true would be an enormous chore, but on the flipside having to make a spot decision very suddenly on the truth or otherwise of some entry you didn’t notice and the players are now Very Interested in can be a royal pain.

Whilst I wouldn’t just toss the book out there to the players, I still think it’s useful for a referee, simply because it’s this big, dense collection of setting material you can keep to yourself and pick and choose from as you please. If you’re after an idea, just browse the book for a bit and something will jump out at you. (It’s nice that the book retains some self-awareness of how silly some Vampire topics and terminology is: for instance, in the setting Amaranth is the vampiric practice of drinking another vampire’s blood to consume their soul, but the designers goofed and didn’t realise originally that it’s the name of a cute little red bird from Africa, and sure enough the entry here for Amaranth gives “Small red finch from Africa” as its first definition and then the vampire-specific definitions after that.) There’s also a bunch of fun annotations in the margins, though the book often does a poor job of making sure they appear close to the references they actually relate to.

Encyclopaedia Vampirica is, therefore, a big fat 200-page reminder that Vampire: the Masquerade’s setting as both a blessing and a curse; a curse in the sense that if you got worried about canon (and if you wanted to actually follow the metaplot this was somewhat necessary) it’s a burden, a blessing in the sense that there’s always something you can draw on for inspiration when you need it.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Yeah, sure, this is a decent product and there’s no embarrassment in being named in it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I reckon I got this Just Right – going lower would have meant missing out on the rather fun Encyclopaedia Vampirica, going higher would have meant getting stuff I have little or no interest in, like the old Clanbooks and novels and the like.

Would Back Again?

The various Onyx Path Kickstarters are a bit of a crapshoot in terms of how smooth or shaky the delivery process is, largely as a result of head honcho Richard Thomas giving the various freelancers placed in charge of the projects their heads in terms of delivery. But the Vampire: the Masquerade contributors seem to have been pretty damn consistent in terms of getting product out.

Would I back another Vampire: the Masquerade Kickstarter from Onyx Path? The question seems academic – they’re almost certainly not going to do another one, at least not for a tabletop RPG product. But for the right product I might; I didn’t back Beckett’s Jyhad Diary, which followed this Kickstarter, because I have little-to-no interest in metaplot, and to be honest I am not sure what could be added to the V20 line at this point that would feel useful or necessary – it’s very complete. I guess if they did an official Underworld supplement or something I might.

Easily the Most Useful Demon Supplement Ever

Onyx Path and White Wolf before them have produced Translation Guides to allow people to convert characters and concepts between their various World of Darkness games and their Chronicles of Darkness equivalents – for example, if you want to use Vampire: the Masquerade setting ideas with the (generally superior) Vampire: the Requiem system, or blend ideas between the two, there’s a Vampire Translation Guide for you. Generally, I haven’t found them especially attractive; I feel like if I wanted to play or run some classic Masquerade, I’d be inclined to do it system warts and all, the effort required to convert everything not quite being worth the mild improvements made across the board.

The Demon Translation Guide, though… that’s a different matter. Allowing for conversion between Demon: the Fallen and Demon: the Descent, it’s an absolute godsend, because the original Fallen system was horribly broken – and whilst its supplement line did a hero’s job of trying to fix it, it’s still worth the effort to convert to the Chronicles system. In particular, there’s finally a system for determining whether your powers go off in their high-Torment versions by accident instead of the low-Torment versions: that happens if you end up getting less successes than your Torment score on the roll, but if you spend Faith in triggering the power, so long as you get at least one success on the dice you get to add the number of Faith points you spent to the successes total for the purpose of working out whether your Torment kicks off. This gives players a decent shot of having some semblance of self-control, at the cost of rationing their Faith a bit more (but then again Demon is a game which cries out for a brisk and active Faith economy to begin with).

Author Eric Zawadzki seems to have a decent handle on the virtues of both games, as well as how they’re played in the wild; for instance, in the discussion of converting Fallen‘s Apocalyptic Forms to the Descent system, he specifically assumes that the system for personalising one’s Apocalyptic Form provided in the Demon Player’s Guide are in use, and that system was so fun and such an improvement over the sometimes uninspiring off-the-shelf Forms in the core book that I suspect anyone with access to that book would be using that system.

The two Demon games have extremely different aesthetic takes on the topic. Whilst there are themes of espionage in common (which the book has some quite interesting ideas on teasing out), Fallen went very much for “Judeo-Christian demons emerge from Hell only to discover that God and the Angels have gone and aren’t coming back, and must deal with that”, whereas Descent went for “It’s The Matrix at its most Gnostic.” That filtered through all the powers. Providing a way to utilise the more classically demonic powers of Fallen in Descent‘s system means that Chronicles of Darkness users get to have their own equivalent of Demon: the Fallen on an aesthetic level, which is something I think Descent didn’t deliver.

Sure, the two Vampires and Werewolfs and Mages have different takes on the same stuff, but the vampires are still vampire-y in both, the werewoofles are still woofly, and the mages are still wizardy (if anything, they’re even more wizardy in the Chronicles version). Demons in The Descent just don’t feel very demonic, and whilst that game offers an interesting cosmological concept it doesn’t quite scratch the itch for playing “yeah, we’re Satanic fallen angels out to corrupt people’s souls”.