Supplement Supplemental! (Beasts For WFRP, Vehicles For Wrath & Glory, and More Imperial Archives)

Time for another entry in my ongoing series of brief looks at interesting game supplements. This time, it’s a Warhammer special, looking at a clutch of supplements from Cubicle 7 for Wrath & Glory and 4th Edition WFRP.

The Imperial Zoo (WFRP)

Back in the era of 2nd Edition WFRP, the Old World Bestiary had a neat conceit where the first half consisted of bestiary entries on the creatures detailed therein, whereas the back half provided the actual stats, so you could have a gap between what was IC known about the monsters in question and what was true. The Imperial Zoo for 4th Edition WFRP takes this tradition one step further, by presenting the stats embedded in accounts of daring expeditions undertaken to study rare beasts on behalf of the titular zoo.

This is an unconventional way to do a monster book, but it’s certainly a flavourful one; if you need an alphabetical listing, after all, there’s always the index, and the approach gives the referee freedom to choose which aspects of the writeups are true and which are misunderstandings, whilst using the writeups as a basis for handouts and information the PCs can acquire by asking the relevant NPCs.

The book also provides extensive details on the harvesting of monster parts for making magic item, in suitably gruesome detail, as well as a handy summary table of creature traits which is useful for quickly figuring out what a creature can do. The book also reflects a tune-up in the way Cubicle 7 present WFRP monster stats, better optimised for helping refs quickly work out a creature’s capabilities with less cross-referencing, which is very welcome. The collection is rounded out with some sample player characters, designed to be especially suitable for a campaign based around follow-up expeditions building on the work of the Imperial Zoo’s previous parties of explorers, which would certainly be a way to get maximal value out of the book.

If you want an encyclopedic collection of WFRP adversary stats, this may seem a little thin – particularly since the emphasis here is very much on beasts (and perhaps some goblins and skaven here and there), not on a broader range of foes. On the other hand, The Imperial Zoo is an interesting and worthwhile experiment in rethinking what an RPG monster book can be, and I think it is richer for it.

Church of Steel (Wrath & Glory)

This is essentially the vehicles supplement for Cubicle 7’s revised version of Wrath & Glory. The original release of the game had vehicle weapons in the core book, but they were somewhat underbaked (as were other aspects of that slightly rushed project); after Ulisses North America gave up the rights to the line and Games Workshop tasked Cubicle 7 with the salvage job, the revised rulebook trimmed that back, in service of the bid to refocus the game around its’ system’s strengths. This supplement in essence provides a fully revised vehicle system, plus some fluff on the Adeptus Mechanicus and how various factions view and interact with their vehicles, plus a deep bench of example vehicles from a range of PC factions, and so on.

I’m usually not enough of a gearhead to want much out of vehicle rules in RPGs. To my mind, a vehicle in a game is there to eithe provide a means of allowing characters to travel from A to B, or to provide a situational or environmental modifier, such as in a chase scene. I’m particularly disinterested in having a fully-developed system of vehicular combat, rather than just using vehicles as modifiers to the baseline combat system; going further than this often gets quite wargamey for my tastes.

Fortunately, Church of Steel largely follows this approach. The rules for using vehicles are kept fairly simple, vehicle stats are kept terse, and the supplement includes useful guidelines and tools for running journeys on a narrative basis. If you want to go full gearhead, Church of Steel may end up disappointing, but if you just want a bit of system support for handling travel sequences or vehicular combat which doesn’t get too bogged down this will do the job.

Archives of the Empire Volume 2 (WFRP)

As with the previous volume of this series, this is a bit of a grab-bag of stuff. This time there’s a deep dive on ogres, including rules for PCs (a treatment which does an OK job of avoiding some of the more racist implications of earlier iterations of the lore), details on star signs and astrology, rules for making magic items and handling the exploits of PCs in battles, and an overview of the Grand Hospice.

It’s perhaps best to see the Archives of the Empire series as a sort of high production value, thick WFRP magazine – any particular issue is going to have a weird grab-bag of stuff, you may struggle to use all of it (and probably won’t want to), but there’ll likely be something which tickles your fancy.

Like Dice In Rain

The first releases in Free League’s Blade Runner RPG – the core rules and the starter set – are now out, and what’s immediately obvious when you look at the material is that they’ve really hit a high bar when it comes to the production values here. I’d been favourably impressed with their execution of the second edition of The One Ring, I’ve heard good stuff about their other games, and they’ve kept up the high standards here. The core rulebook and the starter set look gorgeous, fit the aesthetic of the movies nicely without being reliant on screenshots from the films (indeed, the illustrations all look to be original, bespoke art made for the game), and are also laid out very nicely and usefully for the purposes of actual play.

The concept of the game is simple: it’s an investigative RPG, you are either a human or a replicant working the Blade Runner beat in 2037 LA, your official task is to track down and “retire” renegade replicants and investigate other replicant-connected crimes, but of course the investigations you get into will throw up ethical quandaries and emotional entanglements which might force you to choose between the departmental rulebook and your personal morality.

This is the sort of thing which if executed thoughtlessly could end up being kind of distasteful – the sort of copaganda we really need less of. Both the original movie and Blade Runner 2049, however, avoided that fate by taking a specifically dystopian route, making it clear that the work of the bounty hunters is a dehumanising process, and the bounty hunters exist in a grim and corrupt system, and the violence unleashed by the replicants is a matter of self-defence against a world intent on destroying them.

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Supplement Supplemental! (ISIS vs. Delta Green and Mr. Darcy vs. Cthulhu)

Time for another entry in my occasional series of articles giving short thoughts on game supplements which prompted some thoughts for me, but which I didn’t feel inspired to do a full article about. This time it’s a Lovecraftian special, with supplements for Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu which take those games into unexpected settings and eras.

Iconoclasts (Delta Green)

Although the Delta Green Kickstarters have already yielded a healthy crop of core books, supplements, adventures, and campaigns, the stretch goals just keep coming. Iconoclasts, by Adam Scott Glancy, is one of them, and is a truly epic scenario – weighing in at a bit over 200 pages, it’s got the sort of form factor one would expect of full-length campaigns, and it could conceivably take a fair bit of time to play through, though it’s really a single investigation and the thing which has caused the page count to expand to this extent isn’t a large number of encounters or incidents so much as it’s the extensive material Glancy needed to provide to make the concept work.

Ever since the early days of the standalone edition of the game, with scenarios like Kali Ghati, Arc Dream’s been tossing out the occasional Delta Green scenario which departs from the assumed “investigating X-Files cases on US soil” baseline that’s been the norm since the original supplements; Iconoclasts is perhaps the most ambitious one yet, and also goes deeper than ever into the “ripped from the headlines” approach (which means it may risk becoming dated over time).

Set in 2016, the action focuses on Mosul under the brutal rule of ISIS – yes, they’re the titular iconoclasts. Unfortunately, they’ve gone and broken the wrong relic and set something terrible free. Delta Green tasks the PCs with setting up a forward HQ in a friendly airbase in Kurdish northern Iraq, gather what intel they can, and then undertake a mission to get into Mosul and suppress the horrors – by any means necessary.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Material Cultures, Filled-In Blanks, and Arthurian Encyclopedia)

Time for another instalment in my occasional series talking about RPG supplements which by themselves don’t inspire me to write an article, but which I still find worthy of comment.

Weapons and Equipment (RuneQuest)

From the title, you might expect this to be a fairly dry piece – perhaps along the lines of …and a 10 Foot Pole for Rolemaster, with lots of expanded equipment lists and the like. There’s an extent to which it is utilitarian in nature – it deliberately includes a chunk of the information from the equipment rules in the RuneQuest core rulebook, for instance, specifically so the book can be of maximal use in actual play. (If you know the information is definitely in there, there’s no need to juggle between this and the core book to find the equipment details you want.)

However, as someone on one of the RuneQuest discussion groups on Facebook pointed out, this supplement’s title undersells it – you could almost call this Material Culture of Dragon Pass, for it doesn’t merely provide you with a price list, but goes into a little detail about what the equipment is, what it tells us from a cultural perspective, and so on. Old World Armoury for 2nd Edition WFRP did something along similar lines to this, though I would say Weapons and Equipment takes the approach even further. Details on availability are here as well as pricing, and there’s also information on the obtaining and maintenance of livestock, mounts, dwellings, and so on. Services as well as goods are covered to an extent, with information on hiring mercenaries and other skilled personnel, or obtaining skill training.

In short, whilst the book gives you the fine item-by-item details it can also, with a quick skim, give you a quick grounding in what the material possessions of RuneQuest characters are like, what that says about them, and how all these things fit into the world – thereby helping evoke the distinctive cultures of Glorantha. This means it’s both extremely useful and extremely flavourful, which is a rare and welcome combination.

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The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 11)

In the previous episode of my Fighting Fantasy review series, I finished off the Fighting Fantasy releases of 1988 – an era when it seems like quantity was prioritised over quality, with some absolute clunkers slipping out (including Sky Lord, far and away the worst gamebook I have covered yet). There were some signs of hope – the best of the four books I covered in that article, Stealer of Souls, was really very good, perhaps the best Fighting Fantasy book I’d yet tackled in the series not written by Steve Jackson. On the other hand, a tepid contribution by Ian Livingstone – Armies of Death, most charitably described as an experiment which doesn’t quite work – highlighted how the scaled-back involvement of the series’ creators was causing issues.

Remember, Steve Jackson wrote his last gamebook for the Puffin series way back with Creature of Chaos, and Ian Livingstone’s contributions have become more and more sparse; in fact, we’ll only see one more gamebook by him in the remainder of the Puffin series. (He’d be credited with two solo works, but one of them was ghostwritten by Carl Sargent.) This time around, we have another clutch of gamebooks written by other parties, under the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents” banner. This has historically had mixed results; some of these gamebooks have been very good, some of them have been outright terrible, and of course you have the recurring issue where whenever you have a new person beginning to contribute to the series, they always seem to have a period of growing pains as they feel out best practice.

The four books in this review cover all the main Puffin-series releases for 1989 – that’s right, after this we’re out of the 1980s and coming into an era when increasingly sophisticated videogames become serious competitors with gamebooks when it comes to solo fun. That means Fighting Fantasy really needs to pull up its socks now if it’s going to keep up. Does the series manage this? Let’s see…

Portal of Evil

Scenario

For ages the dense forests at the foot of the Cloudhigh Mountains of Khul have been considered totally inhospitable to humans, occupied as they are by dangerous monsters and hordes of goblins. However, a while back an expedition from the frontier town of Kleinkastel went exploring the forest. The survivors came back with important news – there’s gold in them thar woods! The region has now become the hub of a gold rush, with Kleinkastel becoming a boom town and the centre of mining activities for the region.

Now, however, miners have been disappearing from their camps and villages within the forest. The mining leaders suspect that something is up; you’d previously passed on an offer to come to Kleinkastel and work as a caravan guard, but this sounds like a more serious matter, so as the adventure begins you are travelling into the outskirts of the forest, intent on reaching Kleinkastel and discovering what the problem is…

Portal of Evil is the second Fighting Fantasy book by Peter Darvill-Evans. His first one was Beneath Nightmare Castle, which I generally enjoyed, but knocked down a few marks for a slightly thoughtless recycling of racist tropes. Here Darvill-Evans looks like he is potentially getting into dodgy territory again. Having a gold rush naturally nudges the reader to think of the US one, so the gold being found in lands previously held by inhuman goblins is a little troubling. That said, the introduction does suggest that Darvill-Evans is entirely aware of the colonialist impulses associated with gold rushes, so maybe this will be handled better than expected.

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Empire In Ruins, But WFRP In Fine Shape

The emergence of hard copies of Empire In Ruins and the Empire In Ruins Companion sees Cubicle 7’s “Director’s Cut” version of The Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition come to a close. The Enemy Within project has been one of the most welcome aspects of the new edition; though the original first edition releases were justifiably well-regarded, they were also very much of their time, with some design decisions and refereeing tips which may have made sense back in the day but don’t reflect best practice now (and were potentially frustrating even when originally published).

In addition, the multi-part campaign infamously fell apart towards the end in its original release. The episodes up to and including Power Behind the Throne were always considered to be the strongest, but then instead of the intended followup, The Horned Rat, seeing the light of day, instead Something Rotten In Kislev by Ken Rolston was published as the next episode. This was, at best, incongruous – Ken hadn’t written it as an Enemy Within episode but intended it as a self-contained Kislev-based adventure set, and some of the liberties taken to get the PCs from Middenheim to Kislev were rather heavy-handed, and once they got there more or less nothing that happened was particularly relevant to the ongoing plot threads established in preceding episodes.

Things went from bad to worse with Empire In Flames, the original finale of the campaign. Despite being penned by Carl Sargent, who was more closely involved with the wider Enemy Within project than Rolston (Sargent was the author of Power Behind the Throne), it’s generally regarded as the worst episode of the lot – entirely tonally inconsistent with what came before, and on top of that extremely railroady, with the PCs spending a lot of time watching NPCs doing cool stuff but not doing very much themselves (with some notable exceptions).

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An Old State Reforged, and States We Have Lost

A while back on here I did a quick review of the core book and major supplements for a/state. OK, apparently strictly speaking it’s a|state, but a/state fits the style of presentation on here better – it aesthetically bugs me that the horizontal line in a|state doesn’t slant when typed in italics, and I’m damned if I’m giving up my use-italics-for-game-titles convention this deep into this blog. Either way, the title translates to “we want to make it harder to Google about our product”.

Anyway, however you type it a/state was an example of the well-worn “nice setting, shame about the product line” phenomenon. You know the sort of thing – a game where the unusual setting is the main draw, but ends up being insufficiently niche in its appeal to support the sort of follow-up which its publishers were clearly envisaging. Empire of the Petal Throne pioneered this sort of thing in the 1970s, Skyrealms of Jorune did it in the 1980s, Tales of Gargentihr was an example from the 1990s, a/state did it in the 2000s; I am sure you can imagine other examples.

It’s often the case, with this sort of game, that the people behind it were clearly planning to put out way more material but the game’s success simply wasn’t of a level to make it viable. Empire of the Petal Throne and various subsequent Tekumel games had products coming out in fits and starts, but never a sustained period of consistent releases. (Thanks to M.A.R. Barker having been exposed as a closet fascist who wrote a neo-Nazi novel for National Vanguard under a pseudonym and was closely involved with a leading Holocaust denial journal, it is deeply unlikely it’ll ever revive.) Jorune got a trickle of supplements and the occasional new edition, and even managed to get a videogame adaptation (Alien Logic), but on a commercial level is now pretty dead – there’s an online fandom still, but it doesn’t seem to be a large or especially active one. Gargentihr managed to get its core book out, and apparently there was an adventure distributed in PDF format on floppy disk at some cons, but then vanished into the ether.

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Love Is Real For Faces and Heels

You’re sick of your dead-end job at the drive-through chocolate milk stand in Billings, Montana. Why, here you are stuck working for a boss who doesn’t remotely respect you, whilst tonight at the Grand Billings Arena Riled In the Ring, the biggest event on the Buckaroo Championship Wrestling calendar, is unfolding. As your shift ends a chance encounter with Andy the Mammoth, legendary wrestler, inspires you to quit your job and head to the BCW tryouts. You’re determined not to miss next year’s Riled In the Ring – and you plan to be there not as a fan, but as a competitor! Before you get to that dream Riled In the Ring moment, however, you’ve decisions to make and challenges to overcome. Will you be a face or a heel? Will you prevail in the ring and justify a championship shot? And what of the plans of the owner of BCW, the notorious scoundrel Vinny Cobbler?

Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of Choose Your Own Adventure-styled gamebooks continues with Decisions To Wrestle With. This is an apt choice of subject matter; one of the things which made Choose Your Own Adventure stand out back when I was younger was the way they touched on a broader range of concepts than a lot of gamebook series, and “You’re a (insert sport here) star” was one of the concepts they sometimes ran with. Chuck is likely also writing about what he knows here; he’s eased off on it lately, but there was a time a while back when he worked a pretty shrewd wrestling .gif game on his social media accounts, and the book suggests a level of knowledge of the field a bit deeper than “I used to be a casual fan but drifted away”.

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A Draconic Autopsy

Histories of D&D and TSR have become thick on the ground. Representing the gold standard – in terms of completeness, standard of scholarship, and avoiding a slide into hagiography – are the works of Jon Peterson, such as Playing At the World (covering the design and initial publication of OD&D), The Elusive Shift (digesting the early fan discourse within the RPG fandom), and Game Wizards (covering TSR in the years under the control of Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers).

Peterson’s books hit the high standard they do largely because he primarily bases his research on surviving contemporary documents, which aren’t prone to the misrememberings, mythologisings, evasions, and other inaccuracies which creep in when you’re looking at statements made by participants, especially long after the fact. On the other hand, relying on witness evidence offered up decades down the line can often be more fun; Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series might be much more reliant on such recollections, but some of the material it is able to dredge up is pretty juicy.

Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon takes a bit of a middle route here – Riggs admits his reliance on interviews with a good many of the primary actors in the story he’s telling, but he does a good job of flagging where this is the case, noting where he wasn’t able to talk to significant actors who might otherwise have given a different perspective, and even points out instances where he double-checked claims with other interviewees to corroborate some testimony. In addition, he is able to make some significant coups in terms of turning up documentation, and flags when he’s able to rely on that information in order to present his narrative.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Riggs extends the story into a period which has so far been poorly served by existing work. So far, most of the histories out there have tended to give a lot of attention to the Gygax-helmed era of TSR, and comparatively little to what came afterwards. Peterson and Kelly’s histories haven’t advanced the timeline past the Gygax era, but at least have the excuse of covering it in sufficient detail that giving a similar treatment to the Williams years would be a major undertaking in itself. Some of the more hagiographic treatments of the story have tended to either sing the praises of Saint Gary (a term Riggs uses here in jest – he doesn’t buy into the whitewashing of Gygax’s reputation) or maximise the role of Dave Arneson. (Riggs takes the position, which I think is the most reasonable one, that OD&D was the sort of thing which needed Arneson to come up with the seed idea in the first place, but Gygax to turn it into a product that could actually be sold to an audience and give them a faint hope of replicating something approximating similar gameplay.) Other, general histories like Shannon Appelcine’s Designers & Dragons have given broad overviews but haven’t gone into depth.

Slaying the Dragon, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. It dispatches the Gygax-helmed era in some 61 pages, and spends over 200 subsequent pages going into a deep dive on the next phase of TSR – the era which would see its critical and artistic zenith, its decline and fall, its purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, and the initial phase of repairing burned bridges which Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens of Wizards had to undertake.

In other words, this is the first deep dive into the Lorraine Williams era of TSR we’ve seen.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Redactings, Crawlings, and Harvestings)

Here’s another in my occasional series on game supplements which I read and have some thoughts on, but not enough thoughts for an entire article. This time I’ve got a slightly unfocused expansion for Wrath & Glory, a couple of issues of an old-school D&D zine, and a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Redacted Records (Wrath & Glory)

This feels like an odd little grab-bag of material for the official Warhammer 40,000 RPG, a bit like the Archives of the Empire volumes offer grab-bags of material for 4th Edition WFRP. The cover and the back cover blurb make it seem like this is a space hulk-themed supplement – a sort of update of material from Ark of Lost Souls for Deathwatch – but this only covers about a third of this supplement’s content (and since the book is only about 100 pages long that’s not a lot). Other material includes more frameworks for your PC party, a brief chapter on unusual servitors, an overview of some cults from two of the worlds of the default setting of Wrath & Glory (the Gilead system), and the start of a greatly expanded Talent list. (Literally: it covers A-I, implying that there will be followup chapters in other books covering J-Z.)

The weird thing about the supplement is that much of this feels like it’s been chopped out of a larger body of work – as well as the J-Z sections of that additional talent list, you’d expect similar cult rundowns of the other worlds of the system to exist somewhere, for instance. Still, as a sort of half-supplement-half-magazine thing it’s not useless – but I feel like it should be presented as being Volume 1 of a series, like the first Archives of the Empire book was, because it’s very apparent that this is merely the first of a series of miscellanea-themed supplements with not much connecting theme.

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