Ghost In the Interlocked Shell

You have to give it to Mike Pondsmith. Yes, recent designs of his have included serious misfires like Cyberpunk v3, a terrible mess of doll-based artwork and paper-eating viruses and continued flogging of the dead horse that was the Fuzion system that resulted in a game that nobody actually wanted. Sure, that game was so poorly received that Pondsmith’s R. Talsorian Games has effectively disowned it, reverting to promoting the previous edition of Cyberpunk instead.

But when Pondsmith does get a grip on the zeitgeist – as he did with Cyberpunk 2020 – he’s a real master at getting you fired up for what he’s offering. One of the things I respect most about the game – and something which makes it still a viable choice for cyberpunk-themed gaming despite many of its baseline assumptions either no longer being science fiction or clearly having been rendered nonsensical by the passage of time – is that in the first chapter, when it’s laying out the baseline axioms of life in the cyberpunk future, it declares that number one is “Style over substance”, and for the rest of the book it takes that attitude to heart, making what would have been a point of criticism a badge of pride.

There’s a place for games with a sense of, if not realism, at least a rigorously thought-out setting with a strong sense of verisimilitude – that was the dominant mode when the first edition of Cyberpunk came out, after all – but Cyberpunk really blazed a trail for games where you don’t sweat the setting details so long as they arrive at the aesthetic you want. Shadowrun thrived on this, Vampire and its successors work much better if you take this approach to them, and numerous other games (especially during the 1990s) also took this route, and it’s largely thanks to Cyberpunk.

Which isn’t to say that the book is insubstantial – in fact you get a heck of a lot in here. You get character generation, combat, netrunning and all the other rules you’d expect from a cyberpunk game, plus a sample setting (Night City) with sufficient detail to get you rolling straight away. You also have some fairly reasonable advice for running the game – like “choose a concept for the PC team and have the players make characters with an eye to that rather than going full sandbox” – though this is also mixed in with a somewhat adversarial GM-vs.-players attitude.

(Though it’s actually more reasonable if you dig into the details than some of the adversarial advice in currency during the era; in particular, in the character generation section the game points out that it’s not going to bother writing in any safeguards against min-maxing and doesn’t suggest that the GM overrule such character builds, because the GM can always just kill off a PC who’s becoming a game-wrecking issue anyway. I’d prefer that the referee talk to the player whose character is becoming an issue rather than using GM fiat to punish them for their success, but it’s at least nice that the game doesn’t arbitrarily limit character builds just because some of them can end up quite good.)

Cyberpunk runs off the Interlock system, first aired by R. Talsorian in the Mekton II mecha anime-inspired RPG. This largely means you are dealing with skill plus stat plus 1D10 against a difficulty number (or the other fellow’s roll), along with a fun lifepath system which gives your character a bit of a genre-appropriate backstory. The two major things people cite as issues in cyberpunk games of this vintage definitely exist, but at the same time aren’t actually as big of problems in this context as they are made out to be.

The first is the whole cyberpsychosis thing, where the more cyberware you install the more your Empathy stat goes down. Yes, this is transparently a brake to stop you installing every bit of cyberware you can and becoming a flat-out superhuman. However, each item in question doesn’t yield a direct Empathy loss, but gives you a certain number of humanity loss points – and your Empathy only goes down when you get ten of those. The actual costings of items are actually quite modest by comparison, especially when it comes to things which realistically speaking shouldn’t mess with your sense of who you are and what your personal capabilities are like prosthetic limbs.

You only get the really serious hits when you start installing a bunch of stuff which puts your capabilities well beyond the human norm, which realistically speaking you should expect would put you at risk of a certain amount of hubris. And because you can install up to 9 points’ worth of cyberware before your Empathy even drops by a single, solitary point, that can actually account for a fair bit of cyberware – and if you buy up Empathy specifically to allow for more purchases, you can really go to town. When you combine this with a reminder that this is meant to be a very stylised game, which only goes to the realism well when doing so makes sense for the aesthetic it’s going for, and this really isn’t that much of a problem.

The other major problem people run into with cyberpunk gaming is the whole netrunning thing, which can devolve into the referee running a one-on-one side game for the party’s netrunner. That can totally happen here for when you are going deep into a hacking session, but actually the party’s netrunner has ample reason to stay awake and not jack into the matrix when the party is on an actual mission – if they stay present they can use their deck to detect nearby devices and attempt to take them over, giving them something solid they can do during the thick of the action and allowing you to save the netrunning process so it’s not taking up the game time of the other players. (Of course, the netrunning process also involves the netrunner invoking various autonomous programs, and you could have the other players play those for netrunning purposes to give them a reason to be invested in those.)

Really, the only major thumbs down I have with the core Cyberpunk 2020 book is the art. Partly this is because whenever a woman is depicted she is usually in a skimpy and/or figure-hugging costume and is doing a boobbutt pose, which is tiresome. But mostly, it’s because the artwork isn’t anime enough.

This is the hidden secret of R. Talsorian Games: as far as their major in-house projects go, they’re the original anime RPG company. Not in the Big Eyes, Small Mouth sense, because they’re smart enough to realise that anime is a medium and not a genre and there’s distinct genres within that field, but think about it: the Mekton games are overtly based on mecha anime. Whilst Cyberpunk pushes the various cyberpunk novels of the era as inspirations, there was also a strong cyberpunk strand in 1980s anime. Even Castle Falkenstein feels in some ways reminiscent of the not-really-Europe that anime sometimes resorts to as the settings of material like Howl’s Moving Castle or The Castle of Cagiostro.

We know from history that major leaps forward happen in the RPG field when people find useful ways to tap into other fandoms. Playing At the World makes a very convincing case that whilst Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the wargaming community, its rapid early spread came about because of it being adopted by the science fiction and fantasy fan community. (This was a factor in the early RPG scene having a much healthier gender balance than the extremely male-dominated wargaming community of the day.) Vampire famously spearheaded a boom by bridging gamers and goths.

Pondsmith, for his part, got his start in the RPG publishing field effectively by standing with one foot in anime and one foot in gaming, and whilst this isn’t commonly declared as being a moment when substantial numbers of new people came into the hobby, a case can be made that Pondsmith’s particular take on RPG design, which would be so influential for much of the 1990s, would in part be inspired by that mix of interests.

(And really, don’t Shadowrun and Vampire feel like they’d make so much more sense if they were animes?)

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A Chivalric Tribunal

The Lion and the Lily is the Ars Magica 5th Edition supplement detailing the Normandy Tribunal, which corresponds to the northern half of modern-day France. This is a place where the mundane authorities are starkly divided between the King of France and the King of England, whose extensive possessions in Anjou and Aquitaine mean that the extent of French rule is much more limited than we are used to thinking of it as being.

To provide scope to allow player characters to interact with this fascinating bit of history, and to account for the fact that the region is one of the most highly populated in Europe at the time so avoiding contact with the local population would be difficult, the Tribunal is presented as being reasonably permissive when it comes to interactions with mundanes, to the point where if these interactions don’t actually result in magi suffering harsh reprisals from mundanes the attitude of the Tribunal is “no harm, no foul”. This makes it an excellent place to consider for your Ars Magica game if you aren’t up for a stiflingly strict interpretation of the Code of Hermes (and let’s face it, who is?).

Other cultural issues further cultivate the unique flavour of the Tribunal. A shortage of vis sources has knock-on effects on the Hermetic economy, including the development of a system of liege and vassal Covenants paralleling secular feudalism as practiced in the realm as well as providing a further reason to go easy on interactions with mundanes (since these will sometimes be necessary to keep the vis flowing). Furthermore, the craze for troubadour’s tales has prompted mages to consider such things as Hermetic tournament and adventurous mages errant – and of course this is Mythic Europe, so King Arthur and his associated legends were real and had extensive ties here.

Offering a brace of Covenants to populate your campaign with whilst leaving space for PC covenants, the supplement also makes sure to avoid keeping things too static, with various issues potentially about to erupt that could change the face of the Tribunal forever. Had I not gone with the Provençal Tribunal for my now-demised Monday evening Ars Magica game, I’d have been very tempted by The Lion and the Lily.

The Present Day Ain’t What It Used To Be

Chaosium’s The 1990s Handbook for 5th Edition Call of Cthulhu hails from 1995, making it over 22 years old at this point. By the late 1990s, it was already feeling slightly stale, and only seemed more out of date in the Noughties; now, however, the passage of time has hit the point where it’s come full circle to being useful again, if only as a reminder of the zeitgeist of the time. (If nothing else the rudimentary computer rules provide a snapshot of the moment when personal home computers hadn’t quite become ubiquitous yet, and when Internet activity still largely happened through BBSs and other frameworks rather than the World Wide Web.)

It would be easy to mistake this for a gunbunny’s take on Call of Cthulhu, particularly given the attention given to weapons, the inclusion of a hit location system, and the rundowns of government, military, and organised crime groups offered. (Terrorism is relegated to a sidebar because it was pre-9/11.) This is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that few Mythos threats are actually detailed outside of a chapter of adventure seeds and a set of maps of interesting sites around the world (though this does make it a useful sourcebook for the era for any Basic Roleplaying-derived purposes).

Beyond this, the book is largely an update of Cthulhu Now – at least, those parts which hadn’t been cannibalised into the core Call of Cthulhu rulebook. In principle the present day is the era of the game which usually needs a sourcebook the least of all – but in practice the 1990s Handbook is a useful insight into yesterday’s present day.

A Real Bomb of a Supplement

In principle, Atomic-Age Cthulhu should have been great. It’s an official Chaosium supplement for playing Call of Cthulhu games set in the 1950s! You’ve got delicious themes of xenophobia and paranoia under a facade of syrupy-sweet uber-normality! What can go wrong?

Well, the major thing that can go wrong is that it can be a glorified monograph. For those that don’t know about that, this came out under the old Charlie Krank-headed regime at Chaosium, and one of the things they did was a line of monographs written and edited by fans with minimal input from Chaosium and tossed out onto the market with a big fat caveat on it as cheap and cheerful product. (Except the monographs were overpriced for what they were because the Krank regime was bad at business.)

Now, it isn’t unprecedented for Chaosium to turn what had been a monograph into a proper supplement – it happened to Cthulhu Invictus. However, in that case it got a proper layout and editing pass. Here it literally seems like Chaosium printed the monograph and then at the very last minute decided to bind it and present it like a fully-developed supplement, even though the art and layout is clearly extremely rudimentary and the book could have done with some additional editing passes. Even the fonts, paper quality, and general layout look like something more reminiscent of the monograph line (which had heterogeneous layout styles depending on who was doing the layout), rather than resembling the Chaosium house style of the time.

The apparent low level of editing seems to have knock-on effect on the quality of the adventures presented here – most of them could do with a fairly comprehensive tidy-up and rearrangement to better present the information to hand. On top of that, the various contributors don’t seem to have been given that much guidance as to what sort of tone the supplement was going for, so you end up with adventures ranging from fairly purist affairs to cheesy B-movie style action.

Lastly, there’s too many adventures and not enough setting material. There’s a brief guide to the 1950s, but it’s tucked into the back and is too brief – it isn’t extensive enough to feel like it’s giving you much you don’t already know, and it doesn’t seem to have many ideas about how to integrate the Mythos into the era beyond the adventures and adventure seeds offered.

In short, this supplement is a dud. Ignore it.

Comfortingly Familiar Horrors

Compared to the 1890s, you wouldn’t think that there was much use for Call of Cthulhu supplements giving a basic introduction to the 1920s – after all, it’s been the default setting presented in the core book since the game originally came out. Still, a few such things have emerged over the years, so since I’ve just covered my 1890s supplements I may as well cover my 1920s ones too.

The 1920s Investigator’s Companion

In 7th Edition the Investigator Handbook largely attempts to substitute for this, but the old 1920s Investigator’s Companion is still of some use. For one thing, its list of occupations is even more extensive than that in the 7th Edition Handbook (which of course must also incorporate modern-day occupations). For another, it provides a different overview of the 1920s from the Handbook, with some information provided by one not offered by the other and vice versa. There’s some particularly useful notes on how forensics works during the era, as well as resources for research for those far-off pre-Internet times. Simply for the extra depth offered on the era, this is a book that’s still worth keeping handy for player reference.

Green and Pleasant Land

Produced by Games Workshop under the licence through which they released the 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu in the UK, this supplement is largely dedicated to providing a dense set of information on Britain as it existed between the World Wars, along with a brace of adventures and a short story by Brian Lumley, billed as the “British Master of Mythos Fiction”. (I can only conclude Ramsey Campbell decided not to offer something.)

Compiled by Pete Tamlyn, at points the book is rather dry, and as with the Investigator’s Companion much of the information here you can look up yourself. That said, I think people who criticise historical supplements on such grounds are missing a point: yes, you can look this stuff up by yourself, but thanks to the supplement authors you don’t have to.

Furthermore, the supplements can provide a baseline answer to appropriate questions for the purpose of your game. The thing about looking stuff up in history – even comparably recent history like the 1920s – is that you will regularly run into areas where there either isn’t a definitive answer, or which answer is accurate is not always going to be easy to figure out. You could leave this stuff for players to Google – but then you’re likely to get different answers depending on which source people used. By saying “For the purposes of this campaign, this sourcebook is considered definitive in terms of setting details”, you can build your evocation of the time period on a solid foundation.

Golden Gaslight

Though Call of Cthulhu has been adapted to an impressive range of time periods, three tend to get the most attention, not least because they were offered as alternate options in the core 5th edition and 6th edition rulebooks. The 1920s was the default setting of the game for early editions, and is still the time period most commonly associated with it. Modern day material for the game is also plentiful, not least because the present day is (hopefully) a familiar place to all participants in the game.

The poor cousin of the three major time periods is the 1890s setting; in fact, it’s no longer offered as a core setting in 7th Edition, though conversion notes are provided in the Cthulhu Through the Ages supplement. I suspect that this is because the 1890s setting is different enough from the 1920s era to require a bit more in the way of support material and research to make the distinction clear. For this review I’m going to look at two supplements offered in the past to provide more meat for the bones of the 1890s in Call of Cthulhu, one official release from Chaosium and one third party release from Pagan Publishing.

Continue reading “Golden Gaslight”

The Value of Tone

So a while back I looked at some of the earliest Vampire: the Masquerade material and was rude about the Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, but I have to make a little confession: I’ve kept hold of them, rather than passing them on as I ordinarily would.

The thing is, whilst the substance of what is said in them I tend to disagree with a lot, I can’t help but feel a certain weird enjoyment of their style. “Style over substance” was a charge levelled at Vampire a lot by its critics back in the day, but I’ve come around to the opinion that this was a feature of the line, not a bug.

Try to reconcile the various World of Darkness game lines and you end up with a headache; try and reconcile the various contradictory materials issued in one specific game line under that umbrella and you end up with a similar headache. White Wolf and Onyx Path like to wheel out the “Oh, it’s all written in-character from the perspective of the various factions” excuse, but that doesn’t hold water much of the time (too often it’s contextually clear that this isn’t meant to be a specific NPC speaking in the rulebook, but the neutral, omniscient tone of the designers trying to convey information directly to the Storyteller).

This is inevitably going to become a big problem for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf. They declare they want One World of Darkness, a single cohesive setting that can be used as the basis of a transmedia franchise. If they actually intend to deliver that, they’ll need to make a final, definitive call on how VampireWerewolfMageWraithChangeling and all the rest fit together.

This will inevitably cause great drama. Entire factions of fans will no doubt feel that their favourite splat has been dumped on, or some other splat has been made too powerful. (The consensus in places I have discussed this seems to be that Mage is either going to stomp all over the other lines or end up feeling utterly gutted compared to prior editions, with little scope for a middle way between those extremes.)

This is a basic problem with the World of Darkness: it was never really brilliantly fine-tuned for crossover purposes, and whilst people did it anyway, I think they were fools to attempt it. As far as I am concerned, Vampire is at its best when it is presenting a setting designed solely with an eye to being an interesting setting to play a vampire in, and the same is true of each of the other lines; Werewolf is not improved by having to consider how Pentex fits in with the Technocracy, Mage is not improved by trying to figure out how the cosmology of Demon: the Fallen fits into it.

So there’s no cohesive setting and attempting to reach a canonical one is a doomed exercise. What’s left? What’s left is the tone, the atmosphere. I have come to the conclusion that the last thing I want in a Vampire: the Masquerade game is a setting which worries about trying to look too much like the real world; what I’m after is dry ice everywhere, ludicrous gothic cityscapes like something out of The Crow or Tim Burton’s take on Batman, and a world where the This Corrosion music video is a reasonable approximation of an Anarch meeting.

This is quite far away from a serious exploration of serious themes in a realistic setting along the lines of what the new edition is offering; it does, however, feel like a game where three-eyed vampires with a distinctly anime aesthetic to their introductory artwork are a viable addition to the game.

It helps that on the whole I actually think I was slightly unfair to these two books. The Player’s Guide is actually quite handy for giving a snapshot of what a player’s-eye-view of the setting was supposed to look like back when Vampire first came out, the templates offered, whilst not necessarily brilliantly designed, at least give clear pointers as to what you’re supposed to be able to do with the game, and the essays about roleplaying in the first edition Player’s Guide are reasonable enough accounts of people’s personal gaming experiences, which is far more useful than the 2nd edition Player’s Guide which replaced those with waffling about roleplaying and the Hidden God and other risible notions. The Storyteller’s Guide actually has some decent suggestions when it comes to setting design and the like.

Mostly, though, I prize them for the snapshot they offer of the early 1990s White Wolf style – a little naive, much less profound than it pretended to be, and a bit more willing to pander to melodrama rather than offering grounded drama. Here in 2017, I reckon that if you are going to do Vampire: the Masquerade, you may as well turn it up to 11, put your best goth playlist on shuffle, and be the full-blown cartoon version of the setting that the publishers since the earliest days have constantly tried to distance themselves from, and yet can’t quite stay away from.