The Ring Reforged

Cubicle 7’s history, as is the often the case with RPG publishers who base significant chunks of their portfolio on licensed settings, has had its share of ups and downs. They decided to not renew their licence with Chaosium, leading to the end of their Call of Cthulhu-compatible lines like The Laundry and Cthulhu Britannica and prompting them to provide partial refunds to backers of the World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter due to them being unable to complete one of the books. Then they lucked out and picked up the licence to the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, Wrath & Glory, after Ulisses North America dropped it, which would see them put out a revised core rulebook which significantly improved the game after Ulisses’ rather muddled original rollout.

Perhaps the most dramatic twist when it comes to Cubicle 7-related IP news of late, however, has been the end of their licence for The One Ring, the Middle-Earth RPG penned by Francesco Nepitello for Sophisticated Games. In its original version, The One Ring did a masterful job of presenting a system for Middle-Earth gaming which felt true to Tolkien’s distinctive themes and atmosphere, especially compared to previous official Middle-Earth RPGs. (Whilst MERP still has its advocates, I still feel that it feels more like diet Rolemaster than it does a distinctly Tolkien-ish fantasy RPG.) It also inspired Adventures In Middle-Earth, a conversion of the material to 5E D&D which you’d have thought would be a licence to print money.

One would think that Cubicle 7 would have done whatever it took to keep the licence, especially since I know for a fact they had more products planned – I’d heard from them at Dragonmeet back in the pre-pandemic age that they’d been developing a lavish boxed set detailing Moria, and they’d also been previewing a second edition of the game. The licence would eventually make its way to Free League, publishers of recent hit games like Mutant: Year Zero, Tales From the Loop, and the Alien RPG, and after a blockbuster Kickstarter hard copies of their second edition of The One Ring have begun issuing forth.

This hasn’t been without hiccups. One of the dice used in The One Ring is the Feat Die: a D12 with 1-10 numbered, the Eye of Sauron on the 11 spot, and a G-for-Gandalf rune on the 12. You can, of course, perfectly easily just use a normal D12, of course, but dice sets were part of the Kickstarter stretch goals and of course made sense to put in the new starter set for the game. Unfortunately, the initial run of dice for 2nd edition has been misprinted – instead of being numbered 1-10, they’re numbered 2-11, with the Eye of Sauron replacing the 1, not the 11. A simple mistake easy to adjust for (simply read the 11 as 1, or get a permanent marker of the right colour and colour the die in), but it’s still an embarrassing and unfortunate error. Free League have done what they can to fix it – they’re going to offer either replacement dice or store credit – and they are revising their quality control processes to stop it happening in future. Were the other components similarly botched, or has The One Ring risen again to bring us all and in the darkness bind us?

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)

It’s time for another entry in my infrequent series of Fighting Fantasy gamebook reviews. This time around, we’re going to wrap up the rest of the series’ gamebooks from 1986. We’re now four years after the series has released, but there’s a sense that the early boom is beginning to plateau – six gamebooks were released in 1986 (two of which I reviewed in my previous article in this series), but that’s less than the 1985 peak (7 mainline gamebooks plus the final volume of Sorcery!), and the quality is starting to get a bit hit and miss.

This time around, I’m going to get to cover four gamebooks from four different authors, each of whom applies a different approach to their gamebook-writing craft. The main common factor is, as always, that in whatever the scenario is YOU are the hero…

Trial of Champions

Scenario

Ian Livingstone’s first Fighting Fantasy book since Temple of Terror is a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon. Baron Sukumvit has redesigned his infamous dungeon and is offering his challenge once again. You have no intention of participating – but Lord Carnuss, the Baron’s good-for-nothing brother, has his eye on the prize purse! He therefore has kidnapped a range of warriors – including you – and sets them against each other in a grand elimination tournament until only one is left. The sole survivor will be Carnuss’ champion in the Deathtrap Dungeon challenge; should you survive, it is only by mastering Baron Sukimvit’s maze that you’ll have a chance to take down Lord Carnuss. There, nice and simple.

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Exorcising the Demons Haunting the West

Darker Hue Studios, helmed by Chris Spivey, made their mark with the original version of the Harlem Unbound supplement, a meticulously researched guide to Harlem in the 1920s for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu which was so well-received that Chaosium picked it up to give it a lavish 2nd edition. Now Darker Hue have upped their ambition and put out Haunted West, their first standalone RPG, its production funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The underlying concept of Haunted West is to provide a “weird West”-style RPG that makes a concerted attempt to tease out the stories of people who were decidedly present in the Old West, but who more traditional Westerns have glossed over. As well as providing a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of indigenous peoples (making a point of calling indigenous groups by their own names for themselves, rather than names coined by settlers for them), this entails making sure that women, LGBT+ folk, and people of a diverse range of racial backgrounds all get featured – for they were all riding those dusty trails back in the day, but the mythmaking of early Western writers and Hollywood depictions would variously whitewash them away, demonise them, or reduce them to caricature.

This is a laudable goal, supported by impressive research; Spivey and his crew both provide ample real-world historical detail and, for those who prefer to game in settings a little more distant from actual history, the Haunted West: Reconstruction setting. This is an alternate history where, as the name implies, the process of Reconstruction after the Civil War ends up working out better for the emancipated black population than it did in real life; whereas the old powers of white supremacy reasserted themselves through “Jim Crow” laws and the concerted removal of voting rights from black citizens in our own timeline, here various events mean that doesn’t happen – and makes the Old West a melting pot of peoples that is still an interesting setting for Western adventure, but is somewhat less driven by the logic of white supremacy and manifest destiny than the real one was.

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The Terralon Diary, Prologue: Let’s Game Through 2022!

Sundial Games’ Quest Calendars series is an innovative gamebook format in which the game unfolds over the course of a year – they’re sold not as books at all, but as desk calendars of the tear-off-a-page-each day variety. The idea is that each day on the calendar is a scene in the story, presenting the player with a little thing to resolve – with necessary information on the resolution being printed on the reverse of the previous day’s sheet. This way, each day when you tear off a new sheet you have a fun little adventure snipped to play through.

I backed the Kickstarter for the 2022 calendar, The Gates of Terralon by Thomas Bedran, and fortunately despite the shipping and materials crisis which seems to have blighted every crowdfunding project (and, indeed, every industry utilising physical goods) I’ve received my hard copy in time for the new year. (Backers and preorder customers who don’t get their calendars in time aren’t out of luck – Sundial have put out PDFs to tide people over until their physical calendars arrive.) I thought it would be fun to play through the game and log my progress here on the blog. Rather than daily (I will almost certainly end up missing some days when I am off LARPing), I’ll probably start out doing this weekly and see how it goes from there – contracting to monthly if the articles feel a bit light.

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the goodies and the rules rundown. Though you can play with just the calendar (in physical form or PDF format), I paid a little extra to get some handy tools – darling little polyhedral dice (I already have plenty, but these are very cute and compact), dry erase markers, and the Hero Book Companion to scrawl in with the markers. The Companion starts out with a rundown of the rules (handy so you don’t need to hold onto the first few pages in the calendar, though I imagine many players will want to keep hold of old pages to remind themselves of plot points), sheets for logging your equipment and inventory, and character sheets for the various playable characters (and a blank character sheet if you want to roll your own).

Apparently, we have to play through the first few days as a specific character for a sort of tutorial before our character choice opens up, so I’ll get into the PCs listed here in detail when I get to the point of choosing, but I notice immediately that there’s variants of their character sheet provided – one for each level they advance to, which is quite handy. In terms of the rules rundown, it looks like most of the resolution mechanics will be on the daily sheets, though there’s some pointers here about ongoing issues like rest, potion use, followers, and so on. (No unified resolution mechanic that I can see – let’s see how that pans out.)

Two interesting mechanics catch my eye. The first is that combat is on a time limit – rather than roll, roll, rolling until you are defeated, you have a set number of turns to defeat an adversary in, otherwise they win and presumably you suffer some detrimental effect. The second is that there’s rules for continuing after you are reduced to 0 health – you have to roll a die to see what sort of lingering problem afflicts you. We’ll have to see if that ends up putting us in death spiral territory, but it’s good to know we’ll be able to continue even if we get knifed in the heart on January 3rd.

That’s all I’ve got to say for now – I’ll check back with you in early-to-mid January with an update on how the adventure kicks off.

The World Is Your Setting Guide 5

Time for another instalment in my occasional series about books on real-life subject matter which can be potentially handy for games set in the real world (whether in the modern day or in history). This time around, I’m going take a sort of thematic look at the world of heresies, secret societies, folklore and occultism. All of these are things which fantasy and horror fiction drawing on real-world history loves to play with – think Ars Magica, think Call of Cthulhu, think the entire World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness family – so real information on the subject matter is often useful.

One of these books offers a modern-ish treatment of a subject which has had an awful lot of rubbish talked about it, and is useful for getting an accessible pass at what our current understanding of the subject is. The rest are also somewhat more archaic, but precisely because they are a bit old are interesting for getting an insight into how people at the time the books in question were written viewed the subjects in question.

The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea

There is an amazing amount of nonsense written about the Cathars, largely thanks to the romanticisation their legend has undergone ever since the reassessment of their cause in the early 19th Century by French intellectuals of an anti-clerical bent. If you want to know the actual history of Catharism, the dualist heresy of the 12th to 14th Centuries which became so widespread in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France that it inspired a Crusade against fellow Christians, the foundation of the Inquisition (and its pioneering of modern police state tactics), and some of the greatest atrocities of medieval Europe, The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea is a great big-picture survey of the subject.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Forsaken Systems, Lost Litanies, and Sigmar’s City)

Occasionally I end up looking at supplements where I don’t have that much to say about them individually, but I do have more to say about them in aggregate; that’s when I run a Supplement Supplemental article. This time around, it’s a bit of a Warhammer special, since I’ve finally received delivery of some hard copy goodies from Cubicle 7 for Wrath & Glory and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Let’s take a look and see what Papa Nurgle’s brought us…

Forsaken System Player’s Guide (Wrath & Glory)

Though the Wrath & Glory system – the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG to replace the plethora of similar-but-different games published during the Fantasy Flight Games era – has plenty to recommend it, the original release of the core rules, managed by Ulisses North America, had its issues. As well as some major sticking points with the system, there was also the issue that the default background of the game – the Gilead System, a cluster of worlds cut off from the rest of the Imperium by the opening of the Great Rift – was only lightly touched on, despite extensive material having apparently been prepared for it.

The Cubicle 7 rerelease of the core rules already went a long way towards fleshing out the Gilead System material and providing better pointers on how it was intended to be used in play, and that process continues with the Forsaken System Player’s Guide, a supplement which almost all Wrath & Glory referees and players will find something of interest in.

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I Ain’t Afraid of No Wraiths

World of Darkness: Ghost Hunters – yet another Kickstarter project from Onyx Path – is another entry in the extensive 20th Anniversary World of Darkness line. It’s a supplement, rather than a standalone core book, and the front cover bills it as being for Wraith: the Oblivion, which is sort of true but not quite the whole story. It’s a Wraith supplement in the sense that ghost hunters are, specifically, ordinary human beings who go looking for spooks, and in the World of Darkness setting that means that if they find what they are actually looking for, they’ll have turned up a Wraith, or at least something Wraith-related; it’s also thematically something of a reimagining of The Quick and the Dead, the old “here’s the mortals that hunt your particular splat” supplement from the original Wraith line.

On the other hand, it doesn’t absolutely require Wraith. It needs one of the 20th Anniversary core rules to explain the basic system stuff, of course – but you don’t need to use the Wraith one for it, and indeed there’s a little appendix at the end giving a simplified system for statting up spooks to use in conjunction with Ghost Hunters if you don’t have Wraith to hand. This is a little reminiscent of the 1st edition New World of Darkness core rules (before that line got renamed Chronicles of Darkness and had the God-Machine Chronicle folded into its new core rulebook), since that book included some brief rules on ghosts to provide something to investigate or be antagonised by if you were running a mortals-only campaign using only that book.

It’s also tempting to compare this book to The Hunters Hunted, in either its original version or its 20th Anniversary edition update. After all, Hunters Hunted was the original “play mortals hunting the supernatural” supplement for the World of Darkness, and a critically revered one at that, and it kicked off the trend for each of the original World of Darkness games to have an associated supplement on a similar theme, The Quick and the Dead being the one they did for Wraith; this process culminated (as far as the original World of Darkness is concerned) with Hunter: the Reckoning, a game which took the “you are playing mortals hunting the supernatural” concept and botched it by making all the PCs “Imbued” – in other words, a new flavour of supernatural individual with their own special powers.

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A Gentle Learning Curve For Glorantha

Chaosium’s new RuneQuest Starter Set is very much designed along similar lines to their extremely successful one for Call of Cthulhu. Like that set, it has cover art clearly riffing on the game’s original cover art – as with early editions of the game you get a Bronze Age warrior woman fighting a monster here, but you have a wider party of adventurers with her and it’s more evident that party members are using a mixture of magic and combat prowess. Like that set, it’s intended to provide some semblance of training wheels to help owners of the set go from zero to refereeing their own games by offering a solo adventure to provide an introduction to the rules before providing a rich set of sample adventures to play through as a group. Like that set, the provided rules summary is actually in-depth and useful enough to remain useful for consultation even should you graduate to using the full-fat RuneQuest rules.

At the same time, the RuneQuest Starter Set necessarily deviates from the example set by the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set in some important ways, necessary because of the somewhat different nature of the game. For one thing, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game where player characters start out not knowing much about the true evils of the world, and which is set in the real world and real history. This means that there’s little need for the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set to offer much of anything in the way of setting material, because players and referees alike can draw on their general knowledge of the period and place and use Wikipedia or other sources to cover any particularly severe gaps.

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Children of Fear, Arthur of Doubts

The Children of Fear for Call of Cthulhu, authored primarily by Lynne Hardy, bills itself as “A 1920s Campaign Across Asia”, and it is exactly that: a chunky (over 400 page) long-form campaign which will likely take a good long time to play through and involves travel throughout China, India, and Tibet. That said, what it doesn’t bill itself as is “A 1920s Cthulhu Mythos Campaign Across Asia”, and there are good reasons for that. These, and other issues I note about the campaign, mean I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. I think it remains a potentially useful book, but I also think it’s a very, very nonstandard release as far as major Call of Cthulhu campaigns go, and a campaign which has some nagging issues at that, and I think referees contemplating acquiring it deserve to know that before they make the decision to purchase.

One of the selling points of the book is that the referee is given a lot of latitude in deciding the level of Cthulhu Mythos involvement in the events of the campaign – so the campaign can involve full-bore cosmic horror in its underpinnings or it can be a much more low-key affair. In practice, this comes down to the true nature of the two major supernatural factions involved being presented in a somewhat agnostic manner (though not completely – more on this later), so the referee can decide they are manifestations of the Outer Gods or forces from the Dreamlands or something out of a Theosophical pipe-dream or esoteric Buddhist or Hindu mythology.

However, the practical effect of this does not actually change all that much about the action of the campaign itself, or its overall aesthetic, which beyond a very few cameo appearances is largely devoid of Cthulhu Mythos content and very heavy on material from the folklore and mythology of the region. You don’t get alternate stats or notes on these things to play them like they are Cthulhu Mythos entities masquerading as such, they are very much written up with the assumption that they are those things. To a large extent, the campaign feels like it was written from beginning to end with a view to it being an essentially non-Mythos book whose wonders and terrors are rooted in Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, and a pinch of Theosophical legend, and then the “oh, you can pick what these factions really are” bit at the start was patched on after the fact. If you want more Mythos content than the bare minimum provided in the text, the “choose-the-nature-of-these-things” section suggests how you could do that, but all the legwork for implementing the consequences of that choice is left down to you.

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A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad

The 2013 Kickstarter-funded rerelease of Horror On the Orient Express was a major undertaking for Chaosium, and from certain perspectives can be seen as a bit of a disaster. Sure, sure, the product did indeed come out and backers by and large got what they were promised and so on and so forth – but the handling of the Kickstarter, and the subsequent Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, involved errors so major that they spelled the end of the Charlie Krank regime at Chaosium, as Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen were forced to step in and use their majority control of the company to prompt Charlie to resign, clearing the way for Moon Design Publishing to become the new management team.

I told the full story of how that went down in my retrospective of the 7th Edition Kickstarter, and since I was not a backer of the original Orient Express Kickstarter I can’t give much insight into how major management errors affected it. (In particular, I can’t see any of the backer-only Kickstarter updates which would allow me to get a full picture.) However, some of the problems are well known. In both Kickstarters, the Krank regime went a bit hog-wild with the stretch goals, making the classic Kickstarter error of promising a grand conga line of additional features which will greatly increase the work needed to complete the project, as well as getting overenthusiastic about making various little bits of associated merch which, whilst charming in concept, weren’t really within Chaosium’s wheelhouse when it came to manufacturing or sourcing them.

A truly major problem, however, was that they badly undercharged for shipping – a blunder compounded by the fact that they did the exact same thing on the 7th Edition Kickstarter. Even if a backer only wanted the main Orient Express boxed set, this was a problem, because thanks to all of those stretch goals the new boxed adventure was astonishingly heavy – I don’t own it, but I’ve picked it up in game shops to get a feel and it’s like it’s got lead plates in there or something. This only exacerbated the issues with the shipping costs, and can’t have made manufacture all that easy either.

As a result, when Greg, Sandy, and Moon Design burst into the command centre at Chaosium HQ and wrestled Charlie Krank away from the main control panel, one of their first orders of business was tidying up the mess that had been made of the two Kickstarters. This involved some triage – on the 7th Edition Kickstarter, a brace of stretch goals or add-ons relating to random merch and tat were simply dropped, though since backers were getting an astonishing amount of stuff (thanks to those stretch goals) for a comparatively modest outlay I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t get way more value for money out of that Kickstarter than could be reasonably expected.

To all appearances, Chaosium are back on an even keel now, but it was certainly a scary moment for them, and to get this stability an awful lot of work had to be done honouring promises to Kickstarter backers and mending bridges with various creditors. The Orient Express boxed sets did end up going to backers, and did indeed end up distributed to game shops and sold – but I have to wonder whether it turned a profit in the end, after so much money got eaten up in shipping and other charges. In addition to this, it’s pretty clear that the boxed set stuffed with booklets and deluxe handouts and the like was just not a viable form factor for reprints; the interior layout was also done to the standard of the better releases of the late Krank regime, which means a very simple no-frills two-column monochrome layout; this is not in keeping with the production standards the new regime at Chaosium now insist on for major products, and which they brought to bear on releases like the revised Masks of Nyarlathotep.

For those that are very keen to get a hard copy of the campaign, Chaosium have now put out a two-volume hardcover set, which essentially reprints the material from the boxed set in a somewhat more manageable form factor. This has not been subjected to extensive editing and revision, though apparently some especially bad typos have been squashed. Some optional material is not included, like the in-character Traveler’s Companion, though this was not actually a plot-critical document in any way; a bigger issue is that a lot of the page number references have not been updated (at least, not as of the printing of the hardcovers my copies came from), which can be a pain because of course the hardcovers have different page numbering to the original collection of booklets.

That said, if you buy the hardcovers via Chaosium’s website they come bundled with PDF and ebook format downloads of all the materials from the boxed set, and ultimately material is presented in the hardcovers in a sufficiently logical order that it will rarely be difficult to find the thing you need. (If you only want a PDF, you can get that via Chaosium’s site too, or via DriveThruRPG, and that’ll also contain the materials.) It may take a little work, but then again juggling some six booklets would take some work, so when it comes to the physical manifestations of this new version of the adventure I feel it’s much of a muchness in the convenience stakes.

But is it worth it in any format? My answer is a tentative “maybe”. I am not as enthused about running the full-fat Horror On the Orient Express campaign as written as I am about potentially running Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I do still think it is a useful resource for Call of Cthulhu Keepers.

Continue reading “A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad”