Kickstopper: Swirling Through History

Arion Games, the small press RPG publisher operated by Graham Bottley, has become something of a haven for games which you can think of as being part of the “British old school”, as Joe from Uncaring Cosmos often talks about – a swathe of games published in the UK primarily in the 1980s that reflected the gaming subculture as it developed here.

Specifically, as well as landing a licence to reissue and significantly expand the Advanced Fighting Fantasy line, Arion Games is the new home of MaelstromMaelstrom is notable mostly for its core rulebook having been released by Puffin – the Fighting Fantasy publishers – as part of their gamebook line in. There is a strong argument to make that, in fact, the RPGs with the most widespread commercial reach in the UK in the 1980s were Fighting Fantasy (in its basic and advanced forms), Tunnels & Trolls, and Maelstrom, because whilst all other RPGs were published by specialist game design companies and largely only available through specialist shops except for a few toy shops stocking the D&D Basic Set, the other three games had their core rulebooks published by major children’s publishers and stocked in conventional bookshops and libraries across the land.

It’s particularly notable that whilst the Tunnels & Trolls rulebook came out through Corgi in order to support its associated line of solo adventures (which Corgi had wisely realised presented a ready-made source of gamebooks they could simply reprint in order to present some competition to Fighting Fantasy). Likewise, Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy were RPG rulebooks that existed as adjuncts to the gamebook line. Maelstrom, however, was a one-and-done affair, with a short solo adventure slipped in just so that it could be presented as a gamebook but otherwise the emphasis is 100% on the RPG aspect.

The complete lack of supporting material meant that it was overlooked by many, but it gained enough of a cult following to be well-remembered, and the default setting of Tudor England was different enough from usual RPG fare to stand out and be notable (and also, I suspect, got it stocked in school libraries). Part of the reason for the lack of support was that its original creator, Alexander Scott, had been a 16-year-old school attendee when he wrote it, and naturally moving on to university and adult life made him shift his priorities and he didn’t go in for RPGs as a career path, opting to concentrate on his academic pursuits instead as far as earning his crust went.

However, just because he didn’t go into indie RPG publishing himself and didn’t produce new material for Puffin doesn’t mean Alexander Scott has lost all affection for the game. After Arion Games got the licence from Puffin to reprint the game and produce new material, Scott has reportedly been kept in the loop by Bottley about new developments and ideas for the line in order to ensure he broadly approves of what’s been done with the game.

But would Arion Games’ Kickstarters based on the game be an aid or a detriment to the game’s legacy? Let’s see…

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Kickstopper: Rowan, Rook & Decard Build Their Ambitions High

Over the previous Kickstarters of his I’ve covered I’ve come to respect Grant Howitt’s capabilities both as a game designer and as a Kickstarter project owner. Yes, he was involved in the Paranoia Kickstarter which turned into a bit of a debacle, but I’m disinclined to hold that against him; based on the snarky developer commentary that was released as part of that project, it sounds like he was working under a number of constraints not of his own choosing from the publishers and rights owners.

In addition it wasn’t 100% his project. James Wallis was his co-worker on it, and seemed to be very much in the senior position there; it was James, not Grant, who took an age to get the manuscript to Mongoose Publishing, it’s James who went dark to an extent that Mongoose had to put out a statement saying “Yeah, we’re not really in contact with Wallis any more, we have to filter all our communication to him through an intermediary because he won’t talk to us directly, and we’ve given up all hope of ever receiving the stretch goal content he committed to produce”.

And even then, before it went sour, the project was very much pushed as a James Wallis design primarily. Yes, Grant’s involvement was touted on the Kickstarter campaign too, but it was very clear from how things were framed that we were supposed to see James as the big draw: this wasn’t framed as a “James Wallis and Grant Howitt” project, Paranoia was very much framed as a “James Wallis!!! (and also Grant Howitt)” deal.

No, I feel that the true measure of Howitt is better reflected in Goblin Quest, a game which manages to be a better Paranoia-type game than the latest edition of Paranoia was. That project, though the production of hard copies ended up being somewhat late, at least avoided becoming a morass of toxicity between game designer and backers (unlike, say, every Kickstarter that has had James Wallis in a major role), largely because Howitt was able to keep communicating with us adequately. And the actual game was pretty good too!

So, whilst it’s nice that Howitt has kept up a stream of additional small games, it was still exciting to hear that he, his wife Mary Hamilton, and fellow game designer Chris Taylor were consolidating their efforts and, taking on the corporate identity of Rowan, Rook & Decard, were going to Kickstart Spire – a tabletop RPG of dark elves treading the difficult tightrope between “revolutionary freedom fighter” and “occult terrorist” in a weird city struggling under an oppressive high elf regime. With Spire – and its followup project Strata – having delivered, and with new project Heart approaching completion, now’s a good a time as any to look back and see what Grant and his colleagues have accomplished with Spire and Strata

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Chaosium’s Slim Scenario Sets

Whilst the new edition of Call of Cthulhu has enjoyed some big, thick adventure releases – the Cyclopeanly chonky slipcase edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep perhaps being the most attention-grabbing example of this – the new regime at Chaosium do seem to understand that there’s also a place for slimmer, cheaper volumes of adventure material.

I’m going to cover two recent releases of products in just this category in this article, but before I go into it I do want to highlight one interesting thing: both the collections I am going to review include in their back cover blurb a statement that they can be played using either the rules in the Keeper Handbook (in other words, the full-fat 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules) or can be played with the information in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

This is an excellent idea. Too many games don’t provide materials which can be used to continue playing with just their starter sets; in fact, the only game I can think of which has done this previously is Dungeons & Dragons, where in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an entire run of adventures designed to be playable just with whichever Basic Set (Holmes, Moldvay, or Mentzer) was current. We’re not talking patronising shovelware either, here – revered modules like Keep On the Borderlands were part of that line.

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A Westeros Toolkit

Green Ronin’s licence to do the Song of Ice and Fire RPG has wrapped up; under its terms, they can no longer put out new products in the line, though they can still sell the products they’ve already released and they’ve committed to putting out non-Westeros products based on the game system, which they have dubbed the Chronicle system.

But let’s not pretend – the Song of Ice and Fire RPG isn’t something you’re going to go poking at unless you are specifically interested in a Westeros or Westeros-adjacent game. There are ample other fantasy RPGs, within which there’s a decent spread of games that either directly cater to or can be played in a grimdark, gritty style, but the specific Game of Thrones setting is nicely captured here.

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Kickstopper: A Cluster of Projects In Which YOU Are The Hero!

This is a bit of a housekeeping article, to be honest. Arion Games, Graham Bottley’s small press RPG outfit which happens to have the licence for reprinting and producing new Advanced Fighting Fantasy material, fairly regularly does Kickstarters to produce new material for it, and indeed I’ve reviewed one here before, and I’ve let several stack up where I didn’t have enough to say about one or the other to really justify a full article.

These are:

  • Stellar Adventures – an adaptation of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system to science fiction.
  • Demons of Doom – an infernally-themed supplement.
  • The Titan Herbal – a set of expanded herbalism rules for Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

In the spirit of spring cleaning, I’m getting around to covering these now. Let’s go!

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Kickstopper: Reigning Cats and Dogs

One of the aspects of Onyx Path that often gets overlooked is that it’s supposed to be a haven for creator-owned games, as well as White Wolf properties (whether still owned by White Wolf or now owned outright by Onyx Path). Part of the reason this aspect of their mission statement often gets overlooked is that it’s only been comparatively recently that they’ve been able to divert attention away from serving their various White Wolf-connected projects (including a bunch of highly time-sapping Kickstarter projects, like the morass that the 3rd Edition Exalted campaign turned into).

Among the first creators to use Onyx Path as the launchpad for an entirely new gaming franchises is Eddy Webb, old hand at White Wolf, and his Pugsteady studio. The studio is named not just for Webb’s pug Murray, but also its first in-house franchise – the Realms of Pugmire, a “future-fantasy” setting in which humans have disappeared and their pets have inherited the world.

Such a whimsical project is a great fit for Kickstarter – combining cute characters with a setting that’s well-suited to all sorts of traditional RPG action, and with a name like Eddy’s behind it which clued-in Onyx Path and White Wolf fans would recognise and trust to deliver solid content. So far, two RPGs in the Realms of Pugmire series have been delivered: the doggo-themed Pugmire (such dungeons, many treasure, wowe) and the cat-based Monarchies of Mau. Are they any good? That’s what this article’s here to tell you!

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Kickstopper: Blades In the Dark

The idea of a “thieves’ guild” or other such structure has long been a hallmark of the sort of fantasy that D&D drew on – ever since Fritz Leiber first treated the world to the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, organised criminal gangs have been part of fantasyland. Since then the larcenous life has enjoyed a range of depictions in a fantasy context, with Scott Lynch’s stories of Locke Lamora perhaps being the most successful recent riff on the idea.

That being the case, it’s rather interesting how RPG systems specifically designed to support heist-style gameplay have been surprisingly thin on the ground. The overall direction of evolution of the D&D thief – from exploration-focused obstacle-bypasser to something more combat-oriented as the editions have gone by – feels in part like a consequence of this; in the absence of game mechanics for specifically thief-like activities, and with only the thief character having access to those mechanics which do cater to them, heists in D&D are not so widely featured.

Blades In the Dark is a game system which promised to reverse that trend, being an engine focused specifically on the execution of daring burglaries and other such escapades. It also provides one of the more interesting subjects for a Kickstopper article, for reasons I will get into later…

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