The Limits of Authenticity

Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits is a system-agnostic RPG supplement with a long heritage; its original edition came out in the 1970s from Chaosium, whilst Steve Jackson Games put out an extensively revised version in 1998. Though it’s available in an e-book edition from Steve Jackson Games’ e23 storefront, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a reprint: not only did Bonewits die in 2010, but in 2018 Moira Greyland, daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley, implicated Bonewits as having a peripheral role in the abuse that she suffered at Bradley’s hands.

Either edition purports to offer more or less the same thing: an analysis of tabletop RPG magic, a discussion of what real-world magical practitioners believe and do, and a proposal for a magic system based on real-world practices and the sort of effects people claim to get out of them. The whole thing is written from the perspective that the point of an RPG is to be a realistic simulation, and therefore Bonewits has little time for magic systems which don’t resemble real-life magical practices, even though such systems might be more suitable for, say, presenting a challenging and exciting game, or for providing an interesting feature or metaphor in a story. I, a highly trained scientist, can enjoy science fiction stories can be enjoyed even when the science involved has been discredited or was never that realistic to begin with: why can’t Bonewits do the same for fantasy stories whose treatment of magic doesn’t match his worldview?

And the thing is, that worldview is decidedly central to the book, and it’s rooted in the late-1960s/early 1970s neopagan scene that Bonewits emerged in. The thing is that Bonewits clearly has a highly developed personal ideology of what magic is and isn’t and how it works, and he seems to be personally offended by different ideas in the field.

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De Weimar Mysteriis

Cthulhu in R’lyeh eternally lies
Somewhere in the depths of the sea
But soon, says the cultist
“Iä! Iä!
Tomorrow Belongs To Thee!”

So, Chaosium has turned its attention to Weimar-era Berlin in Berlin: The Wicked City, a 7th edition supplement primarily written as a passion project by David Larkins (with assistance from product line gurus Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy). This is a chunky supplement which provides a rich level of detail on Berlin as it existed in the span shortly after World War I – in which street violence and radical politics rubbed shoulders with a rich nightlife that included unprecedented freedom to explore drugs, sexuality, gender, and identity – to the period just before the Nazi takeover, at which point street violence and radical politics rather rubbed out said nightlife, save for those sections saved by NSDAP patronage.

Despite my little filk above, however, this isn’t just H.P. Lovecraft’s Cabaret – though there’s inevitably a major overlap of themes. Yes, the bars and cabarets and theatres of Weimar-era Berlin do get a close examination – as does the underworld of drugs and the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by the LGBT+ community at the time, though in the latter case the text does offer sufficient depth to note that the community wasn’t a monolith; there, as in so many areas of German life, an extreme fringe of proto-fascists existed, and the community had a social pecking order in which crossdressers and those cultivating an androgynous presentation tended to be looked down on a little by everyone else.

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Kickstopper: The Legacy of Three Kickstarters

Accountability disclaimer! This Kickstopper article’s going to be about a trio of projects run by UFO Press, owned by Liz and Jay Iles (with Jay being the lead designer on most of the material I’m about to discuss). These are friends of mine I know in real life, so if that makes you want to apply a grain of salt to my opinions and question my objectivity on the subject… don’t care, writing article anyway.

Anyway! This Kickstopper article’s going to be a little different from the usual one because I’m going to be reviewing a series of three linked Kickstarters – the first one being for the original edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, the second for the 2nd edition of that game, and the third for The Next World – a set of additional settings for Legacy. These three Kickstarters chart the birth and rise of UFO Press from one small indie publisher among many to one which, to my admittedly biased eyes, seems to be punching above its weight in the industry, with Legacy getting widespread critical recognition – there’s currently a Bundle of Holding offer dedicated to the 2nd edition – as well as a crucial commercial leg up thanks to a distribution deal with Modiphius.

Jay’s been able to shepherd her game from a passion project reliant on DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand arrangements to deliver hard copies to a series which gets traditional print runs and wide distribution via one of the industry’s current major players, and hopefully this article might highlight how that’s possible thanks to the combination of interesting content, delightful presentation, and excellent Kickstarter management that UFO Press has been able to bring to the table.

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Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin

Chuck Tingle is probably our greatest living satirist, his primary platform being the titles, blurbs, and absurdly photoshopped covers of his short stories (“Tinglers”) on Amazon. Oh, sure, there’s the content of those stories too – but I would be willing to bet that Chuck works on the basis that 99% of people wouldn’t actually sit down and read any of his erotica about urbane dinosaurs, friendly living objects, manifested abstract concepts, or sexy unicorns and bigfoots; the joke has to be delivered in the title and blurb, ideally just the title, and then the actual action of the story is fairly self-evident from there.

Nonetheless, for what’s basically a long-running repetition, refinement of, and iteration on the same basic joke, the whole Tingler thing seems to be going from strength to strength. It certainly help that Chuck – despite portraying himself as a somewhat naïve figure on his Twitter feed and reliant on his “son name of Jon” to get by – actually seems to be remarkably savvy. When the Rabid Puppies’ block voting attack on the Hugo Awards was at its peak, they got Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion nominated in the short story category. Whilst this seems to have been intended both to denigrate Chuck and the Awards by making them look silly, Chuck took things in hand, turning the incident into an opportunity to advocate for more or less all the causes which the Puppies disliked. (The peak of his counter-trolling came when he declared that if he won, he’d have primary GamerGate target Zoë Quinn collect the award on his behalf.)

That’s the thing about Chuck – he’s got this magic touch which has taken his long-running joke about getting pounded in the butt by sexy night buses or billionaire dinosaurs or alluring manifestations of abstract concepts or your own butt and made it strangely wholesome for work that still retains one foot in the world of erotica. His Twitter feed is a mashup of his surreal take on the universe and moments of clearly expressed, unequivocal good lessons about self-acceptance and treating each other right. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Dadaist literary pornography who just wants to prove that love is real.

Now the long-running Tingle joke has taken on yet another dimension – that of a tabletop roleplaying game, The Tingleverse, named after the multiverse which his stories take place in. The concept of the game has players taking on the role of inhabitants of this universe – Humans, Unicorns, Bigfoots and Raptors are viable PC races in the core book, and you get to choose from classes like “Sneak”, “Wizard”, “True Buckaroo”, and “Bad Boy” (Chuck notes that being a bad boy doesn’t limit your choice of gender in any respect). Beginning your adventure in Billings, Montana, Chuck’s hometown that prominently features in all his stories, you’re encouraged to go forth and do good in the world against the encroaching forces of the Void, as represented by evil Void Crabs, dubious Reverse Twins, and the vile force of darkness and destruction known only as… Ted Cobbler, who anyone who’s not sufficiently high level just perceives as a perfectly normal resident of the neighborhood.

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An X-Edition of an X-Traneous Game

Let’s take a look at two trends in geek-adjacent culture in the 1990s: The X-Files was massive on television- a show in which an ensemble of characters in a modern-day setting investigate supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows – and tabletop RPGs were going through a phase of being very keen on modern-day settings replete with supernatural gribblies lurking in the shadows.

Given that the Lone Gunmen play D&D at one point, it seems likely that the X-Files creative team weren’t ignorant of RPGs, and given that RPG publishers were hog-wild for licencing anything and everything – West End Games made RPGs of Tales From the CryptSpecies and Tank Girl, for crying out loud – so it’s not entirely clear to me why there wasn’t an official licenced X-Files RPG, particularly since Call of Cthulhu‘s perennial popularity proved that investigative RPGs are a viable niche.

If I had to put a bet on it, however, I’d say it came down to the larger publishers who could have conceivably afforded the licence failing to move quickly enough, by which time smaller publishers proved you could fill the gap without really needing the licence at all. Sure, without the licence they couldn’t use the specific lore and characters of the show – but for the purposes of an RPG where people will likely want to make their own player characters anyhow the characters are less essential, and I’d argue that the background lore of the X-Files is the least valuable part of the IP. The show always got by more on its mysterious atmosphere than it did on the actual answers to those mysteries; so long as you hit something acceptably close to the atmosphere of the show, it’d be good enough for most gamers.

Delta Green, for instance, adeptly recognised that the vein of conspiratorial paranoia and supernatural horror that The X-Files were built on complements the cosmic vertigo that’s the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos (or at least the good bits of it which aren’t based on racism) nicely, and also worked on the basis that if you already have a system which works well for investigative RPGs and can handle a modern day setting, you can do The X-Files in it.

(OK, strictly speaking the earliest Delta Green materials preceded The X-Files – but in practice, that meant Pagan Publishing were perfectly placed to pivot the subsequent material to to cater to the X-Files niche and had the jump on everyone else in that respect.)

And then there was 1996’s Conspiracy X, which, as you might guess from the title, wasn’t exactly shy about what it was trying to do. Whereas the more recent 2nd edition is based off Unisystem – of Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten fame – this review’s going to take in the first edition, which had its own bespoke approach.

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Boldly Going Where Many Systems Have Gone Before…

Star Trek vs. Star Wars might not be the iconic Coke vs. Pepsi/Sega vs. Nintendo-style franchise rivalry it was once back in the day – the proliferation of franchises and continued diversification of fandom has largely seen to that – but given their prominence in science fiction over the past few decades, it’s interesting to note how they’ve been differently handled when it comes to the tabletop RPG licence.

In particular, when it comes to the Star Wars licence, Lucasfilm and Disney after them haven’t exactly been reluctant to parcel out third party rights to spin-off products – as the masses of Star Wars spinoff products testify – but they’ve always been at least somewhat careful as to who gets to play in their playground. West End Games were only able to land the licence for their much loved-version in 1987, a time when the series was generally considered to be almost ready for mothballing by the powers that be at Lucasfilm. That might sound absurd, but it’s worth remembering that by that point Return of the Jedi had been out for some 4 years, both the Ewok Adventure TV movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoons had come and gone, and the Star Wars well seemed to have run dry.

It’s now a matter of record that both the success of the RPG itself and the wealth of material it produced as an aid to referees was instrumental in kicking off the Expanded Universe, injecting a new dose of life into the franchise until George Lucas ensured it would live on in flamewars forever by making the prequels. West End Games kept the RPG going for 12 years, with the licence only pulled by Lucasfilm in 1999 after West End Games got into financial difficulties. From there, it didn’t take much time at all for Wizards of the Coast to pick up the licence and produce the D2o Star Wars line in various editions from 2000 to 2010, at which point they surrendered the licence voluntarily; a year later, Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence, and in 2012 they’d bring out their new Star Wars RPG line, which has remained current despite the shift to Disney (and indeed has engaged with the Disney line constructively, with a starter set coming out based on The Force Awakens).

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Mini-Review: All the Dream’s a Stage, and the Changelings Merely Players…

The Player’s Guide for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Changeling: the Dreaming kicks off by talking about how the 20th Anniversary Edition is very much designed to be adaptable for your own tastes and needs, and certainly the Player’s Guide delivers on that general approach as far as I’m concerned. Take, for instance, the matter of Banality – truly the Marmite of Changeling: the Dreaming, the part of the system which people tend to either angrily reject (as you’d know I do if you’ve seen my review of the 20th Anniversary Edition and 1st Edition) or consider to be a core part of the experience; I was impressed by the extent to which, to my eyes at least, the Player’s Guide almost never mentions Banality except in contexts where it’s absolutely necessary to, making much of the material here useful to deploy in campaigns where you’re not buying into the Banality idea very much (and equally viable in campaigns where Banality is of supreme importance).

In fact, they throw a brand new PC type in here – Lycians, a particularly persistent type of chimera which are inanimate objects or abstract concepts that are special enough to someone or have enough resonance in the Dreaming to end up with some sort of life. (An example given is a child’s teddy bear who protects them from dark forces when they sleep, for instance.) The sheer range of things which can conceivably become Lycians – a badass car, for instance – this further puts Banality into the background, since if the Dreaming can be expressed through literally anything, then you can no longer say an entire category of thing is necessarily Banal by its nature; it’s only Banal if it doesn’t bring light and joy and wonder into anyone’s life.

Beyond that, you get a grab-bag of useful bits here – stacks of details on Changeling politics (including a deep dive on the Shadow Court), an overview of the Changelings of other cultures around the world, and various other interesting bits and pieces and details. There’s even details of those Changelings who have managed to overcome the tug-of-war between Banality and Bedlam to become effectively immortal, and how you can become one of them.

What it’s most intensely stuffed with, however, is atmosphere and inspiration, which is what you want most for a Changeling: the Dreaming supplement really.