From Ronin To Radiation…

Postapocalyptic tabletop RPGs are a small but notable niche subgenre, with their influence perhaps most felt via Fallout – which, whilst a CRPG, was very much developed with a tabletop game fan’s sensibilities (right down to the designers originally planning to use GURPS as the underlying system before their agreement with Steve Jackson Games fell through). The forefather of them all is, of course, Gamma World – but Gamma World tends much more towards the sillier end of the postapocalyptic setting spectrum, with very unrealistic, borderline cartoonish mutations being very much the order of the day.

As such, the first clutch of games to come out following Gamma World all seem to have positioned themselves to try and offer a more serious-minded approach to the subject matter – and interestingly, they all have different ideas as to how long after the initial civilisational collapse the game should be set in. 1980’s The Morrow Project followed Gamma World in setting itself a comparably long time after the big kill; the specific conceit of the game is that PCs are all volunteers in the titular continuity-of-civilisation project, cryogenically frozen when it looked like things were about to go to shit with the intention of being thawed out after a reasonable time period had passed so that they could take the lead on rebuilding, only for the cryogenics computers to malfunction and leave them frozen for 150 years.

The major difference between this setup and Gamma World is that whilst Gamma World PCs are way too young to have any personal memories of the time before (and chances are their communities have little to no institutional memory of it), The Morrow Project presents you with PCs who only know the world before, who are able to explore and make discoveries about the postapocalyptic world whilst making full use of the technological knowhow they’ve retained, are perfectly placed to exploit any remaining technological caches they can uncover, and are tasked with restoring order and imposing their values on a hostile present day. (In some respects it can come across as a sort of time-hopping colonialism…)

Twilight: 2000, by comparison, took the opposite tack by presenting a setting in which civilisation collapsed under the weight of Too Much War within the past few years. All the player characters are not only assumed to have lived through the downfall (and therefore have vivid memories of the way things used to be), but are also among the last representatives of the pre-downfall US Army. The events of the Twilight War have been intensely disruptive – but not enough time has passed to cause people to forget that things used to be better, or the values that held sway before the war, and so when the PCs swing by to help a community rebuild it feels a bit less like colonialism and a bit more like humanitarian intervention. (Unless your PCs go bandit, of course…)

In between Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project, both in terms of assumed IC time period and in terms of publication date, is 1981’s Aftermath! by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette. This was a game originally prepared for publication by Phoenix Games, who’d also republished Hume and Charrette’s Bushido after its original publisher folded; however, Phoenix went bust in early 1981. Luckily, Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Scott Bizar stepped in to rescue Hume and Charrette’s two RPGs, making them part of the FGU catalogue and, I suspect, substantially increasing the extent of their distribution in the meantime. (The FGU edition of Bushido is easily the most widely-available version on the second hand market, after all.)

Continue reading “From Ronin To Radiation…”

Chivalrously Giving It Another Chance

So I’ve previously made it clear that I consider 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery to have been a bit of a botch, and that the revisions which came with its second edition to be too little too late to save the game line. Whilst commercially speaking the game did end up going into the wilderness shortly after the publication of 2nd edition in 1983, and never quite recovered its former niche despite several attempts at reviving it, I’ve recently had a chance to give 2nd Edition a closer look and I feel inclined to be nicer to it than I was in my previous article.

The big differences between the two editions of the game are less to do with game mechanics and more to do with writing approach. 1977’s 1st edition of the game was a difficult read not just because of the absurdly shrunk-down text, but also because it was actually quite bad at explaining its fundamental assumptions of play. This isn’t wholly the fault of Wilf Backhaus and Ed Simbalist; back in 1977 the tabletop RPG market was only three years old, people hadn’t settled on a nomenclature yet, and Backhaus and Simbalist seemed to be coming from a gaming context which had a bunch of local quirks and features which they’d assumed everyone else would be able to follow because they didn’t appreciate just how few common assumptions and practices existed at the time. Indeed, they were writing at a time when the boundary between RPGs and wargames had not been very clearly enunciated at all, and 1st edition Chivalry & Sorcery wanted to offer both type of game all in one book as part of its “grand campaign” concept.

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Mini-Review: How Long Has This Been On the Cards?

In retrospect, it’s kind of weird that Wizards of the Coast hasn’t done more crossover material between D&D and Magic: the Gathering. One can easily imagine a parallel universe where Wizards churned out worldbooks for the various worlds of Magic to feed the ever-hungry 3rd edition market, had they been less conservative about the number of settings they were willing to directly support for the game (having been, perhaps, scared off the idea of supporting large numbers of settings as a result of TSR’s experience overstretching itself). It would, after all, be an easy enough crossover to accomplish – and you’d have a wealth of art already done for the setting in question in the form of the cards related to it.

As it stands, it’s taken Wizards until their third edition of the game to finally get up the courage to cross the streams. The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica is a campaign guide to the titular gameworld, dominated by a grand metropolis ruled by a set of ten distinct guilds. Rather than taking the route taken by TSR with the 2nd Edition settings – or even by Wizards themselves for 3rd Edition settings – the major hardcopy products have been kept strictly limited: just the book itself and a Maps & Miscellany collection of useful maps and handouts.

By and large, it’s a supplement much along the lines of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, giving a range of character generation options, treasures, monsters, and suggestions for adventure design in a package useful to players and referees alike. The Guilds, being the distinctive feature of the setting, naturally get a lot of attention; indeed, between their inclusion, the somewhat more technologically advanced nature of the setting, the idea that the setting is used to Planeswalkers showing up thanks to the central conceit of Magic, and the rules and framework provided for modelling rank and its benefits within the Guilds, the book is highly reminiscent of Planescape, to the point where it could be used as a model for a 5E take on Planescape if Wizards ever decides to go back to that well (or if you want to homebrew one yourself).

Another major commonality it has with Planescape is a really distinctive aesthetic. Here’s the real advantage of drawing on Magic: because in that context a lot of the flavour, lore, and general atmosphere of the game’s various worlds has to be conveyed through the medium of the cards, the artwork for the cards has to carry a lot of the weight of that. As time has gone by, this has become more generally understood and appreciated by the Magic team; if a picture is worth a thousand words, the Magic artists have Ernest Hemingway-esque skills in terms of how much they can cram into those words. This is just as useful in an RPG book as it is on Magic cards, and with full-size pages to work with rather than just the cards themselves the artists do a fantastic job of getting across the atmosphere of Ravnica, just as Tony DiTerlizzi nailed the atmosphere of Sigil.

On the whole, I’d say Ravnica has proven to be a truly worthwhile addition to the D&D campaign setting roster. In particular, it could provide a good example of a Prime Material world with extensive links to other planes of existence – something which the Planescape campaign setting sorely lacked. Indeed, you could run an entire Planescape game using Ravnica as an alternate player character “home town” to Sigil – or replacing Sigil entirely if you find the Ravnica Guilds more interesting than Sigil’s Factions.

When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe

The Price of Freedom, weird little oddity that it is, was designed in many respects as a response to the first edition of Twilight: 2000. Both games have some important parallels: they both attempt realistic takes at a somewhat fanciful political/military scenario, said scenario setting up the assumed starting point of play for the player characters, and said scenario also making it necessary for characters to take a survivalist attitude.

This is a bit of a niche model for running an RPG, but equally it’s not altogether surprising that someone should have looked to Twilight: 2000 to see if they could mimic its success. For make no mistake about it: the first edition of the game was a huge hit. Marc Miller’s Far Future Enterprises, inheritor of the GDW legacy, offer some evidence for this: their guide to the product line includes, amongst a wealth of useful data, figures on how many of each product were printed, which tends to track reasonably closely to sales levels (since products which did not sell did not require so much in the way of reprints). The core set of 1st edition Twilight: 2000 had some 97,518 copies produced.

This is incredibly healthy by tabletop RPG standards – it’s not D&D levels, but very few games reach that order of magnitude, and by comparison GDW produced just shy of 250,000 copies of the Classic Traveller core rules when you add the various different formats they sold them on. When you consider that Traveller was the top-flight science fiction RPG of the era until it was eventually overthrown by Cyberpunk and Star Wars, it’s clear that there’s strong evidence for the contention that Twilight: 2000 was the market leader in the military RPG niche – and to a large extent it was that niche, with more or less no other attempt at a military or postapocalyptic tabletop RPG approaching its success.

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Dragonmeet Hoard: Basic Booklets

Finally, to polish off my Dragonmeet hoard of 2018, I picked up the five booklets that make up B/X Essentials. As the title implies, this is a retroclone of B/X D&D – the rules version decided by Tom Moldvay and David “Zeb” Cook in 1981.

This is a widely-cloned version of D&D, so what does Essentials bring to the table? Produced by Necrotic Gnome, the B/X Essentials booklets are designed from the ground up for at-the-gaming-table utility. It’s not a version of the game which offers extensive guidance and examples and explanations or otherwise tries to teach the game to you; instead, it focuses on clearly-stated presentations of rules information optimised for use mid-game.

For the most part, this is the game as originally devised by Moldvay and Cook (as opposed to Labyrinth Lord, which differs in a number of respects), with errata incorporated, a little invention here and there to patch obvious holes (like how there’s a spell that the original B/X booklets mention in passing but don’t actually provide rules for), some rephrasing of the rules so as to abide by OGL requirements and add clarity, and with the different sections integrated together and then separated into different booklets. So, for instance, the Monsters book covers all the monster stats, whilst the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book covers all the spells. If you are working from the original B/X booklets, this is already an improvement – no more having to remember which booklet a particular spell or monster was found in!

In addition, the Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman) has made the layout clear, legible, and tried to ensure that as much as possible the discussion of a topic fits into at most a single two-page spread – so, for instance, in the Core Rules booklet, the rules for chases and pursuits are all on a single two-page spread, so once you’ve found them there’s no further page-flipping needed. Norman even goes so far as to provide the details of how spell effects work with treasure descriptions as much as possible, to minimise cross-referencing between the treasure description in Adventures and Treasures and the spell booklet.

Between them, these five booklets – Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic User Spells, Monsters and Adventures and Treasures represent perhaps the easiest way to play basic D&D available, provided you have a sufficiently experienced referee to run the game. However, while I’m not sorry to own these booklets, at the same time I’d advise people to wait a little before purchasing them themselves.

The reason for that is that, Necrotic Gnome actually intends to make further improvements to the line. A recent Kickstarter for a new edition – retitled Old School Essentials to make the name a bit less inexplicable to those who don’t follow the fine differences between versions of basic D&D – has just wrapped up. Forthcoming are new versions of the booklets – hardcovers with stitching such that they can lie flat on the gaming table – along with a complete-in-one-book version for those who’d prefer that – incorporating some further errata and improvements as well as paving the way for making the game line more extendable. Supplements were funded as stretch goals, for instance, to provide a range of extra character classes not found in B/X, options for playing with an AD&D-style race/class split, and to cover druid and illusionist spells, and one could even see the range continuing to cover other genres like a Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World-esque world of mutants and mayhem.

I don’t feel like my B/X Essentials booklets are at all redundant as a result of this, mind; having extra copies at the gaming table adds utility. But at the same time, Necrotic Gnome have suspended sales of the original B/X Essentials on DriveThru so as not to sell a product which is about to be superseded, and I am greatly looking forward to what the Kickstarter yields. Tune in for the inevitable Kickstopper article to see how that goes!

Dungeons & Diaries

Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.

The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.

Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.

The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.

The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.

Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.

As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.

Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.

By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

Mini-Review: A Patch For Pendragon

The fifth edition of Pendragon has proven to be its longest-lasting edition, having originally been published in 2005 and remained supported by some publisher or another ever since. The original release of 5th Edition, with its cover art depicting Arthur fighting… erm… a giant piggy, came about through ArtHaus Games – an imprint of White Wolf, would ya believe it – before the purchase of White Wolf by CCP and the departure of Stewart Wieck, whose baby the ArtHaus imprint was. Wieck’s new Nocturnal publishing house was the home of Pendragon for some years, until recently it made its triumphant return home to Chaosium.

Over time, Nocturnal made a couple of patches to the fifth edition core book. The 5.1 revision, which I never got around to looking at, incorporated some errata and corrections and sported new cover art of Arthur accepting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. More recently, the upgrade to Edition 5.2 – the version you can currently get from Chaosium – took place. Folding in further corrections and embellishments, the book also benefits from an updated layout, which is delightfully clear and readable, and a gorgeous interior with subdued but welcome use of colour. Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the use of the absolutely gorgeous artwork from the Spanish translation of the game.

Is it worth the upgrade? In my case I’d say yes, if only because my old copy of the ArtHaus edition is beginning to feel fragile after the rigours of play in my old Pendragon campaign. On the whole, I would say that it’s still essentially the same take on the game as was offered up in 2005, so if you already have the ArtHaus version or the 5.1 edition you don’t urgently need the upgrade – but it is undeniably an upgrade and given a choice between 5.2 and another version I’d go for 5.2.