Dragon Meh-iors

Back in the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze there were a number of RPGs released in the UK market not as standard-format RPG rulebooks issued via game publishers to the gaming market but as small paperbacks released by book publishers to the book market. This provided a range of gateway drugs into the hobby marketed to young readers outside of the usual channels. Fighting Fantasy had its own RPG adaptations, of course, and the Corgi reprint of Tunnels & Trolls arguably falls into this category; there was also Maelstrom, whose rich historical flavour made up for many of its system quirks, and Dragon Warriors.

Penned by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, this is another one issued by Corgi, and originally came out as a series of small paperbacks which each added a little more wrinkle to the system – so the fighter-y classes were in the first book, the magic-y ones in the second book, and so on. This was neat enough, but the format did mean that it could become awkward to play as you flipped about between the different books to find the information you needed.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Eldritch

Helmed by Kevin Ross, Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails is a major new Call of Cthulhu supplement that takes the action of the game into a whole new realm. Whilst previously most supplements along these lines have been dedicated to covering a particular time period, the era covered by this one actually overlaps the existing Cthulhu By Gaslight period – for Down Darker Trails challenges players to mosey on down, saddle up, and shake hands with danger in the Old West.

Though this is an area that Call of Cthulhu has touched on before – useful notes on existing adventures set out West are included – it’s one which hasn’t seen this extent of development, but it makes a lot of sense. As well as Lovecraft himself writing a few quite significant tales set in the American West – including The Mound, perhaps the most significant of his ghostwritten pieces – Robert E. Howard wrote a number of horror tales set there which drew on the history of the region. (Whilst I cannot say I especially recommend Robert E. Howard’s work, fortunately Chaosium’s treatment of the subject matter largely avoids the stuff which usually infuriates me about Howard.) So on a simplistic level, adding this allows Call of Cthulhu to more completely incorporate the action of its source material.

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Flashing Blades

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of their products, Fantasy Games Unlimited had a novel but rather effective business model: Scott Bizar, their head honcho, would solicit freelance authors to submit their games to him, and if they made the cut a deal would be struck for FGU to produce and distribute the games in question. This allowed FGU to put out a lot of product on a “throw everything out there and see what sticks” basis – game lines which became a hit could have supplements published for them, whilst those which didn’t gain traction could be abandoned – and also meant that FGU’s roster was impressively diverse, with games ranging from classic fantasy subject matter (like Swordbearer and early editions of Chivalry & Sorcery) to riskier experiments. Bunnies & Burrows was perhaps the greatest oddity of their back catalogue, but Bushido represented a bit of a departure as far as subject matter was concerned when it first came out and whilst Villains & Vigilantes was not the first superhero RPG, it was arguably the first one to really gain traction.

That deep roster has proven a boon for Bizar in the PDF age – whilst it would be obviously uneconomical to keep all of FGU’s different products in print at the same time, thanks to PDF distribution and print-on-demand Bizar doesn’t need to, so thankfully a large proportion of FGU’s releases have become available again through legitimate avenues. (A happy side effect of the Villains & Vigilantes ownership dispute is that Bizar went out of his way to get the extensive back catalogue on the game up on DriveThru – presumably to add weight to his claim – and the terms of the settlement between Bizar and the game’s designers is that he gets to keep almost all that supplemental material available.) Through this means we have available once again Mark Pettigrew’s delightful historical RPG Flashing Blades.

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The Empire Renewed, the Old World Refreshed

The Empire is often the focus of WFRP campaigns, and for good reason; whilst a British RPG publisher producing a fantasy world that was basically a twisted funhouse mirror version of our own world back in history times might have been expected to default to medieval England, Games Workshop elected to take the world less travelled and centre the gameworld on this strange take on the Holy Roman Empire circa the early Renaissance. (Albion, in the WFRP setting, is a near-irrelevant dirt pile haunted by horrors – like 2000 AD, Alan Moore, and Michael Moorcock, they were riding a wave of 1980s British fantasy that was out to burst the bubble of jingoistic British exceptionalism, and it warms the patriotism-despising cockles of my globalist Remainer heart to see it.)

For WFRP purposes, the main sources of lore on the Empire during 1st edition days consisted of the brief writeup in the core book and the welcome additional detail provided in The Enemy Within – later compiled in various ways, the most recent and easily-available version of which is the Hogshead Enemy Within Campaign Volume 1: Shadows Over Bögenhafen, which compiles the original Enemy Within set and the full-length Shadows Over Bögenhafen adventure, which is now on sale as a PDF on DriveThruRPG thanks to Cubicle 7. The second edition, which due to Games Workshop requirements takes place after the “Storm of Chaos” metaplot event, required an update to this material, and the main delivery mechanism for this update (aside from the core WFRP2 rulebook) was Sigmar’s Heirs.

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Why I Like and Dislike “The Enemy Within” (and Other 1st Edition WFRP Adventure Supplements)

Whenever people talk about classic WFRP, one of the products which always gets mentioned is The Enemy Within campaign. Originally released between 1986 and 1989, the campaign is to WFRP what Masks of Nyarlathotep is to Call of Cthulhu – an extensive campaign released in the 1980s that gets regularly reprinted and talked up a lot, and is a reasonably iconic example of a particular style of play, but at the same time actually has a number of issues which have become more and more apparent in retrospect as best practice in scenario-writing has moved forwards.

In fact, poke WFRP fans a bit harder and it becomes apparent that most of them are actually more keen on the idea of The Enemy Within than they are with the campaign itself. Some parts of it are held to be of much higher quality than others, and in particular whilst opinions do (as always) vary the consensus seems to be that WFRP‘s various publishers over the years have never quite been able to stick the landing when it comes to delivering the full campaign.

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A Skeevy Inheritance

Back in the days of 1st and 2nd edition WFRP, the fanzine Warpstone was an important lynchpin of the fan community. It is no longer extant; a large part of this probably comes down to the fact that to a large extent Internet discussion fora and fansites largely fill the niche that fanzines used to fill, and do so both with less expense to customers and creators alike and with a great deal more convenience. The typical issue of Warpstone involved some homebrew adventures or setting material of varying quality, a few reviews, and some letters and commentary; a reasonably active fan forum will deliver to you all of that, in greater quantity and with greater interactivity and a tighter community, and do so all year long. Another driving factor in the shuttering of Warpstone may have been WFRP 3rd edition; amidst the fan controversy surrounding its stark abandonment of the old system, Warpstone announced that it would not be publishing material supporting it.

Back in the 2nd edition days, Warpstone hit issue 25. Whilst I can take or leave most issues of Warpstone, this one was rather special, since aside from the briefest possible news and reviews section most of the issue is given over to what is essentially a fully-developed mini-supplement. This is The Fimir: Ruinous Inheritance, drawn together by Robin Low from material penned first with an eye to release by Hogshead before it got passed over, and largely updated to 2nd edition WFRP whilst retaining some concepts from 1st edition which hadn’t been so prominent there (like the gods and daemons of Law and daemons of non-Chaos gods).

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changeling! (Turn and Face the Dream…) Ch-Ch-Changeling!

Of the big five original World of Darkness lines, Changeling is the one it’s taken me the longest to warm to. I think it’s because I had the feeling that to some extent Changelings were a bit redundant. The basic faerie myth being played on is that there’s a race of creatures with magical powers who exist in a place that’s in the shadows of the everyday world where they conceal themselves from the rest of us, but who can have a profound effect on those who stray into their sphere of influence. Right there, I have described most of the other major World of Darkness splats – what is the clear thematic distinction between a vampire court and an Unseelie court with a particular focus on blood economics?

Having had an opportunity to pick up the 1st edition of Changeling: the Dreaming for cheap and flipping through it, I have ended up changing my mind. It helps that the 1st edition of any particular classic World of Darkness game tends to form the most clear and distinct statement of the game line’s intentions*, with0ut the accretion disc of clutter that comes out as a game line progresses – though at the same time, the recent 20th anniversary editions remain excellent collections both of somewhat tuned-up rules and nicely complied heaps of stuff for you to use directly for gaming purposes. 1st edition convinced me that there was merit to the concept – a dip into the 20th anniversary edition would later convince me that Changeling is actually something you could run a solid, viable game around.

(* Interestingly, I tend to think that the reverse is the case for the pre-God-Machine Chronicle entries in the Chronicles of Darkness series. There, the 2nd editions of the respective games have so far seemed to be less cluttered presentations of a particular vision than the 1st editions – because the 1st editions tended to have the baggage of needing to simultaneously offer something new whilst at the same time providing a bit of comfort to fans of their discontinued classic World of Darkness equivalents, like how Vampire: the Requiem had to fill the gap left by the cancellation of Vampire: the Masquerade. Now that the classic World of Darkness is a going concern again, the 2nd editions are doing a much better job of standing on their own two feet as their own particular things.)

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