WFRP Returns To Middenheim

The Enemy Within is a campaign which is legendary for being potentially daunting but quite rewarding to run, and was a cornerstone of the 1st edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay line. Cubicle 7 have been steadily working through the process of putting out a definitive “Director’s Cut” of the campaign for their new edition of the game; in terms of what’s released in hard copy, I’ve covered the first and second episode (and their associated Companion volumes) previously.

Now we get to the part where Cubicle 7 must handle Power Behind the Throne, legendary as being one of the more complex episodes of the campaign, in part because of the richness and depth of its setting – the city of Middenheim. Detailed for 1st edition WFRP not just in Power Behind the Throne but also a standalone city supplement – the first that WFRP received – Middenheim, in-character, sacred ground to the Cult of Ulric. Arguably, it’s also sacred ground to long-term WFRP fans, a city which many campaigns have extensively explored.

So, how does Cubicle 7’s treatment of the city stand up? Is it a place worthy of a revisit – or to visit for the first time, if you’ve not been before – or has the rock of the White Wolf been desecrated?

Middenheim: City of the White Wolf

Cubicle 7’s idea of matching their Enemy Within volumes with companion volumes full of side-adventures, setting material of more general use beyond the immediate scenario, and further bonuses arguably follows past precedent. Back when he originally designed Power Behind the Throne, Carl Sargent ended up cooking up so much setting material on Middenheim that Games Workshop balked at putting it all in the campaign. Instead, much of the setting material was separated out and put into a separate product, originally called Warhammer City before being given the current title in reprints.

Cubicle 7 might have gotten away with just making the Power Behind the Throne Companion a reprint of Middenheim, but they’ve gone the extra mile, keeping the Middenheim volume as its own thing and producing an entire separate Companion for Power Behind the Throne. This is probably a good call. Thanks to Middenheim having been the only major city supplement for a good long chunk of the game’s existence – it took 12 years before Marienburg: Sold Down the River offered a comparable city setting for the game – it’s become a well-established and well-loved part of the setting, and has doubtless been used for a bunch of campaigns which otherwise never touched the Enemy Within stuff. Making this the Power Behind the Throne Companion would not only likely mean losing most of the stuff which we do get in the Companion, but also risks a great standalone supplement for the game being overlooked.

That said, the new supplement doesn’t ignore The Enemy Within entirely. It explicitly presents the situation in Middenheim as it exists just before the start of Power Behind the Throne. If you don’t intend to run The Enemy Within, you can just take this situation and run with it; if you are planning on incorporating it (or just Power Behind the Throne) into your campaign, then useful pointers are provided to highlight which situations and NPCs need to stay in place before Power Behind the Throne kicks off, as well as some suggestions as to what might be going on in town after Power Behind the Throne wraps up.

Another appendix provides some expanded character gen rules; the core WFRP 4th Edition rules tend to assume Reiklander PCs, and whilst they’re broadly useful across the rest of the Empire, the rules here offer a way to make human characters who better reflect the local culture of Middenheim and its neighbouring Provinces of Middenland and Nordland. Between this and the setting material incorporated – featuring deep dives into each district of the city and the surrounding lands besides – you could run an entire Middenheim-focused campaign with just the WFRP core book and this, which is exactly what the original Warhammer City supplement delivered.

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The Shifting Definitions of Roleplaying

The Elusive Shift, published as part of MIT Press’s Game Histories range, can be seen as Jon Peterson’s followup to Playing At the World, picking up on some subjects alluded to in there, expounding on them further, and taking the discussion forwards.

Playing At the World was focused on the creation of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules – touching on the history of wargames leading up to it, the particular innovations by Dave Arneson which led to the Blackmoor campaign, the transmission of those ideas to Gary Gygax (whose Greyhawk would be the home of further innovation and refinement), the honing of the concepts into a sellable product, and the immediate reception of that product by both the existing wargame scene and a chunk of the SF/fantasy fandom of the era, who by coming to the game without the sort of assumptions both its designers and the existing wargame audience shared ended up spurring its evolution in new directions.

The Elusive Shift picks up that latter aspect as its starting point, in order to explore how the nascent hobby groped to find a definition of itself and what the purpose of play actually was. OD&D, of course, didn’t bill itself as an RPG – it called itself a wargame – but audiences quickly decided it was a different sort of beast from the standard wargame. Various terms for this new flavour of game were aired – “adventure game”, “FRP” (Fantasy Role-Playing), and “role-playing game”; eventually, the latter won out. But before it did so, and even in the immediate aftermath of it becoming a consensus term, the definition of what role-playing was, and what it meant to make a “game” of role-playing, remained the subject of intense debate.

As Peterson illustrates. if you look at the games published in the 1970s and early 1980s you can detect the influence of that debate here and there, but if you want the meat of the discussion, you need to look at the fanzines, APAs, and magazines where the real debate took place in those pre-Internet times. This poses a challenge for researchers because whilst towards the end of the time period Peterson focuses on here the debate was picked up by widely-distributed professional magazines such as Dragon, Different Worlds, and White Dwarf, the entirety of the discussion before the advent of those periodicals (and a good chunk of it after) took place in APAs and fanzines with much spottier distribution and more difficulty in finding archival copies. The Alarums & Excursions back catalogue has been issued in PDF, but a good chunk of the other fanzines of the era are much trickier to consult.

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Lessons From the Dinner Table Conclusion: The DIY Mentality

So for a while now I’ve been doing this series of articles where I try to derive some real-life gaming tips from the pages of Knights of the Dinner Table, largely as a method of amusing myself as I gradually reread my collection. Fun as it was at first, I’ve now realised I’ve hit a point where I’m probably not going to get so much meaningful out of the articles in the former format, having reached the point in the comic where longer-form stories (both in the characters’ games and in their out-of-game interactions) are more the norm and where stretching for real-world applicability risks either being repetitive or getting super tenuous.

I do have some last things to say about the series in general, though. The interesting thing about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s kind of ended up being the last man standing in the field of RPG magazines – sure, it’s a comic rather than a more traditional RPG magazine, but the individual issues have various gaming articles filling out their pages.

Let’s look at the competition. Dragon, which the strip used to appear in, has become an online-only advertising showcase rather than a proper magazine, and had long since ceased to cover non-TSR/Wizards of the Coast products. White Dwarf, likewise, is a magazine-length advert for Games Workshop products. Tabletop Gaming Monthly does exist, but it’s not an RPG-focused periodical; Alarums & Excursions rattles on as it presumably will at least until Lee Gold is physically unable to keep compiling it (and maybe longer if she decides to pass the torch), but it’s an APA, which is a rather different beast from a typical magazine, in particular in terms of its distribution.

No, when it comes to English-language magazines which:

  • can be purchased in actual shops, which have obtained it through regular distribution channels rather than special orders;
  • focus on RPGs as their primary subject matter;
  • are not house magazines focusing exclusively on the publisher’s own products; and
  • are not fanzines focusing on specific games (or sets of closely related games, like OSR fanzines);

well… to my knowledge Knights of the Dinner Table is it.

Continue reading “Lessons From the Dinner Table Conclusion: The DIY Mentality”

A High Standard of Deviation

Though Paradox’s management of the World of Darkness line has been somewhat haphazard – I’ve long since lost track of who is responsible for writing books, distributing books, and so on but there’s been at least three companies involved entirely distinct from White Wolf and Paradox themselves – things have gone somewhat more smoothly for the Chronicles of Darkness line, largely because (subject to the name change to avoid confusion with the old World of Darkness) Paradox just don’t seem to care about that side of things all that much, so they are happy to let Onyx Path just keep on trucking rather than trying anything fancy with them. That’s ultimately helpful, because Onyx Path have already hit a point which raises difficulties in further expanding the franchise and a particularly interventionist approach from Paradox is unlikely to help.

Chronicles has long since passed the point where it’s produced equivalents to the old World of Darkness game lines. Admittedly, some of the Chronicles equivalents are fairly distant from their World of Darkness forebears, particularly since the resurrection of the original World of Darkness has meant that the Chronicles no longer need to be a safe haven for players of the old games starved for new material. Geist isn’t all that much like Wraith and Demon: the Descent has only hazy thematic connections to Demon: the Fallen. But this varies: even in its second edition, Vampire: the Requiem hits a lot of the same notes as Vampire: the Masquerade, and arguably more artfully.

With the second edition of Chronicles creating some system space between it and the standard World of Darkness iterations of the Storyteller system, and the second editions of the earlier Chronicles games doing a good job of dialling up what worked well and scaling back on what fell flat, to the point where I can confidently say (for example) that Mage: the Awakening is a just plain better game and setting than Mage: the Ascension, which labours under a fatal burden of lingering 1990s nonsense which no amount of well-intentioned labour can quite fix.

However, now Onyx Path has hit this point, it must turn its attention to considering the possibilities of new lines. Some might question the creative necessity of such – I often do – but there is a compelling commercial argument, in the sense that as is often the case with RPG lines core books tend to sell way, way better than supplements do. Still, the tricky thing here is to come up with a splat which feels distinct enough from the existing ones that you can offer a compelling answer to the question “why is this not just a supplement for Earlier Game?”, and which has a cool, vivid elevator pitch which quickly and succinctly sums up the appeal of the line to get people hooked.

The most recent-but-one attempt at this, Beast: the Primordial, was something of a botch, for many and varied reasons, not all of which were to do with the actual design of the game (but which certainly left a bad taste in people’s mouths and made them disinclined to be generous to it). To my mind, one of those reasons is that any elevator pitch you offered for the game would either be a) way too long and complicated to be meaningfully described as an “elevator pitch” or b) extremely misleading due to all the detail it left out. I hear word that the original elevator pitch for the game was something like “greedy dragons”, and whilst you can sort of squint and see how you got to the end product from there, that’s a pitch which misses out almost everything which is actually important or distinctive about the game.

Beast, for all its other faults, is actually based around creatures which are a very, very specific type of entity, interpreted in a fairly specific way; in many ways, even the title of the game is a problem, because Beast suggests something way broader than the tight focus the game actually goes with. Sure, sure, there’s these connections to ancient mythology, but you wouldn’t start with any of those creatures and work from there to figure out that they must be something like Beasts, it’s very much a case of starting with the Beast concept and then finding tenuous reasons to connect them to old folklore enttiies.

The upshot of this, plus a plethora of other issues, means that Beast to all appearances is a critical and commercial flop, and it feels like Onyx Path have quietly cancelled the line. It’s still in theory on sale, but there is sweet fuck all in the way of future products in the pipeline for it that I can find on Onyx Path’s product schedule or in their latest weekly blog post. (I’m a little sad to see nothing planned for Vampire: the Requiem, come to think of it, but I imagine their work on 5th Edition Vampire: the Masquerade supplements takes a lot of the creative oxygen which might otherwise have gone to that.)

Step up Deviant, the Renegades, a game which takes a radically different approach to expanding the Chronicles of Darkness series and ends up being a much more appealing product as a result.

Continue reading “A High Standard of Deviation”

Land of Ninja, Workshop of Games, and Bushido By Other Means

I took another look at my copy of Land of Ninja recently, which was the 3rd Edition RuneQuest supplement directed at adapting the system to a “medieval Japan with all the elements of magic and folklore having objective existence” type of setting. My copy is the Games Workshop release, which re-edits the booklets from the Avalon Hill boxed set into a slim hardcover.

In some respects, Games Workshop were really going all-out with their launch of their 3rd Edition RuneQuest line; 1987 would see them mounting a real blitz of releases, which would see them release the core rules (split into RuneQuest and Advanced RuneQuest), the Monsters volume, this, and Griffin Island, all adapted into hardcovers from original Avalon Hill sources. (Monsters incorporated creature from Monster Coliseum but, perhaps well-advisedly, ignored the rather lacklustre arena combat components; Griffin Island was an Avalon Hill repackaging of the classic 2nd Edition release Griffin Mountain with the Gloranthan connections surgically excised, and is considered rather inferior to the original.)

This stands out even in a year when Games Workshop were putting out classic early WFRP material like Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death On the Reik, and Warhammer City, was actively supporting their own Judge Dredd RPG with the release of its Companion, put out their hardcover version of Paranoia 2nd Edition, and were giving Chaosium more love by putting out their hardcover version of Stormbringer! and their Green and Pleasant Land supplement for Call of Cthulhu (the 3rd edition of which they had put out in hardcover the previous year). By anyone’s measure, that’s an absolutely vintage year for RPG releases from Games Workshop, both in terms of their own homegrown offerings and their licensed products, but even in the context of those impressive offerings, bringing out five RuneQuest hardcovers within a year feels like a big deal, and would have come across as a big deal at the time.

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Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style

Once upon a time, back when 4E was the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, vicious edition wars raged across the land, and Wizards of the Coast had yanked all of their PDF offerings from older editions from storefronts, retroclones played a valuable role. They provided a means to provide access to the rules to older editions of D&D for people interested in the history of the game, and they also meant that it was possible for people to develop and promote their own material for the game without worrying about treading on Wizards’ toes when it came to trademarks – “Compatible with OSRIC” would be understood as “Compatible with 1E”, for example.

These days, however, those functions are much less essential. When it comes to branding, people have generally realised that “Compatible with the first edition of the world’s most famous roleplaying game” or words to that effect work just as well as “Compatible with OSRIC“. More significantly, Wizards have wised up and put the PDFs of old editions of the game back on sale at fairly reasonable prices. Whilst they could always change their mind again and yank them from sale once more, it seems likely that they have learned that all they accomplish by doing that is giving oxygen to the retroclone scene, and they have committed enough time and attention to making PDF and print-on-demand versions of old D&D material available that making it all vanish would seem like a massive waste of labour; they are much more likely to keep the “long tail” going.

This being the case, the classic purposes of retroclones now no longer serve that much purpose, but that doesn’t mean there’s no role for them whatsoever. Nowadasys, if you interested in what one might call a “pure” retroclone of a TSR-vintage edition of D&D – in other words, a version which isn’t trying to spin the early D&D system in some novel new direction or closely tie it to a unique setting, but is simply trying to provide a fresh presentation of the rules to a particular TSR-era version of the game – then there’s basically 5 criteria you’re going to be looking at.

  • Fidelity to whichever edition of the game it’s cloning. The whole point of such a retroclone is to allow you to play material from the edition in question; errors, tweaks, and incompatibilities undermine that purpose.
  • Corrections of errata, resolutions of flat-out contradictions, and provision of material that was clearly intended to be there but was missing in the original rules in question. If the retroclone isn’t at least as error-free as the PDFs – if not more so – that’s embarrassing, especially since there’s been several decades to spot the errata in question.
  • Clarity of presentation. If the retroclone is more confusingly presented than the original rules, why would anyone use it in preference to the official PDFs from Wizards? The fact that some people will be playing using PDFs displayed on screen rather than printed books – something that TSR would not have been contemplating – offers an area where retroclones can make genuine advances over the original offerings.
  • Improvements to the existing system where these do not sabotage the former criteria. For instance, many gamers feel that ascending Armour Class is simply superior to the descending Armour Class/THAC0 system of TSR-era D&D, and if you can find a nice, simple way to permit the use of both without overcomplicating things, it’s a nice optional rule to include.
  • Usefulness in actual play, something which the other three factors all contribute to. If you can play the game more smoothly and easily using the retroclone as your reference, then that’s a genuinely worthwhile contribution. If it’s easier to play by using the original material instead of your retroclone, what is the goddamn point?

These are the four criteria that Necrotic Gnome’s Old-School Essentials line makes its top priority, and they are criteria which OSE excels at. When it comes to D&D retroclones, if you are specifically interested in the B/X iteration of the game as designed by Tom Moldvay or Zeb Cook then it’s a no-brainer: simply put, there is no competitor which combines fidelity to the original, corrections of errata, clarity of presentation, quality-of-life improvements, and sheer usefulness as an actual play reference work than Old-School Essentials, which means there’s simply no better set of resources for playing B/X, the original B/X rulebooks included.

The only criteria it falls down on is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of verbose, in-depth descriptions of monsters (but then, neither did B/X), or a detailed explanation of what RPGs are (but telling people that they can look up YouTube Actual Play videos is probably a better and faster way to help people “get it” than trying to write laborious comparisons to radio plays or whatever). It’s very much a set of books for ease of reference, so you might want to have your original books handy for the fluff. But for reference purposes and for use in actual play, OSE sings in a way which the original TSR rulebooks in whatever edition never did.

Continue reading “Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style”

Navigating the Unnavigable

Impossible Landscapes is a new supplement for Delta Green with an extremely long history. In its introduction its author, Dennis Detwiller, explains how since the early 1990s he’s tried to produce an epic King In Yellow-themed campaign for Call of Cthulhu; with this, he’s kind of done it, at least to the extent that Delta Green shares enough DNA with Call of Cthulhu that if you wanted to just run Delta Green material with the Call of Cthulhu system it wouldn’t be that difficult.

Taking as its initial seed Night Floors, an adventure from the second of the original Delta Green supplements (the legendary Countdown), Impossible Landscapes substantially builds on that adventure and then jumps the timeline forward some 20 years (you could fit in an entire campaign of more Delta Green investigations in there) before the other shoe finally drops, dumping the player characters into the sort of bizarre morass of surreal horror the whole King In Yellow concept lends itself to.

Delta Green has a history of dealing with this sort of thing, of course. As well as providing the original outing for Night Floors, the Countdown supplement provided John Tynes’ seminal essay The Hastur Mythos, which hyped up the potential of the themes delineated in Chambers’ The King In Yellow for a more surreal and personal style of horror than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror that Call of Cthulhu usually defaults to; Impossible Landscapes is the result of Detwiller spending a few decades refining that idea.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Imperial Enclaves, Condensed Conspiracy, and Classy Clues)

Sometimes you read a game supplement which is worth taking note of, but isn’t quite substantial enough to waffle on about at length. When that happens to me, I make articles in this series. This time around, a WFRP release and a couple of tasty treats for Delta Green.

Archives of the Empire Volume I (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay)

This is presumably the first of a series, the idea seeming to be to package up small amounts of material on WFRP-relevant subjects in broadly thematically-related collections – kind of like Hogshead’s old Apocrypha Now collections, only a bit more focused. This first Archives of the Empire is broadly based around diversifying the coverage of the Empire. First up, there’s a useful section giving a rundown of the various Grand Provinces of the Empire, as they exist just prior to the events of the Enemy Within campaign. (There’s a promise that the final Enemy Within volume – Empire In Ruins – will give an update detailing what the lie of the land is once the campaign concludes.)

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Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – The Story So Far

Chivalry & Sorcery is a game whose early editions had some pretty significant issues, but also had some interesting ideas to mine, many of which were teased out somewhat better in the 2nd Edition of the game than the 1st. However, once Fantasy Games Unlimited largely lost interest in producing new material for it, it entered into a long period in the wilderness. After the rights to the game were retrieved from FGU, a 3rd Edition would be put out from Highlander Designs, which so far as I can make out was a company formed specifically for this purpose.

However, after putting out the core 3rd Edition rules in 1996 and a brace of supplements in 1997, Highlander Designs would go bankrupt, having perhaps both overestimated the market’s appetite for a high-crunch fantasy system in the mid-1990s and made the questionable decision to radically scale back the game’s emphasis on historical detail, thus undermining its major selling point.

Brittannia Game Designs stepped into the breach here; they’d previously been formed with the intent of producing third-party supplements for the game, but a deal was struck to allow them to pick up the rights. A 4th Edition followed in 1999-2000 (with Chivalry & Sorcery Light, a condensed version of the new edition, preceding the full-fat version, dubbed Chivalry & Sorcery: The Rebirth), as would an extremely condensed version of the game, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence, released as a 4-page PDF. 2011 would see another Chivalry & Sorcery Essence released, this time expanding its page count to some 44 pages (though with the same 4-page system underlying it), but the general idea of providing a lighter version of the game persisted. All these iterations made at least some effort to start bringing back the sort of historical detail which the third edition had downplayed.

All of these brief flowerings did not amount to a whole lot in the long run, and Brittannia suffered from extensive periods of apparent inactivity. Still, a community of Chivalry & Sorcery fans still existed, evidence for which can be found in the existence of the various Red Book editions of the game. The first of these, released in 2000, was a free PDF of the game’s first edition, with the layout redone to be remotely sensible. (As a reminder: the original release of Chivalry & Sorcery 1st Edition would have spanned some 512 pages if printed conventionally, so FGU condensed it into a 128 page book by shrinking down the manuscript pages and printing them four to a page, with the result that the text is tiny to the point of being nearly unreadable.) This one was authorised; later recompiled versions of the Red Book, circulated within the fandom, included the texts of various supplements and were very much not authorised.

Now, however, Brittannia seem to have been able to crack the art of using Kickstarter to bankroll a revival of the game, having run two Kickstarters to fund various major new releases (the 5th Edition core rules and the Land of the Rising Sun supplement), with a clutch of supplements funded as stretch goals on each project. At the time of writing, they’re coming into the last stages of a third Kickstarter to produce a bestiary supplement.

On this latest Kickstarter, the stretch goals are not additional books but 3D printer templates to produce miniatures – a clever way to add a little bonus for people who enjoy that sort of thing without creating a substantial backlog of books yet to be written. Whilst producing further books has for the most part been well within Brittannia’s means, one stretch goal from their first Chivalry & Sorcery Kickstarter has been substantially delayed; Ars Bellica, the miniatures and mass combat rules, has had its production hampered by the pandemic putting a cramp on the production of various illustrative photos deemed necessary to get some of its concepts across. (That said, Ars Bellica is kind of a bonus anyway, since the stretch goal did not fund but Brittannica decided to go ahead with it anyway.)

That said, with Kickstarters stretch goals are the cherry on the top; so long as delivery of the core product pans out fine, you can forgive a lot otherwise. And Brittannia have actually been very good on that front, with both 5th Edition Chivalry & Sorcery and Land of the Rising Sun hitting my mailbox right when they were originally estimated to. This is especially impressive when Land of the Rising Sun was funded, printed, and distributed entirely within the pandemic. I’ve been glad to back the bestiary Kickstarter because I think I can be fairly confident of actually getting that bestiary.

So much for the reliability of delivery: what of the quality of product? Let’s take a look at the loot so far.

Continue reading “Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition – The Story So Far”

Technocracy Reloaded, Ascension Declined

As the title implies, Technocracy Reloaded is the Technocracy-themed supplement for Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition, a sort of fresh take on the much-respected Guide to the Technocracy from previous editions. From this perspective it’s… it’s fine. It’s a competently designed bit of work which makes the best of a challenging task – that task being to update the Technocracy concept for an era when anti-vaxx sentiments and QAnon conspiracism suggest that scientific rationalism is neither a villain nor an unchallenged, dominant worldview these days. On a quick read, I found nothing especially wrong with it as a concept.

At the same time, I think with this book I am kind of done with Mage: the Ascension – not just this edition, but the game in general.

The problem is that to present a nuanced view of the Technocracy that’s worth devoting a 240 page supplement to, and to update it for the 2020s, the writing team have found they needed to grasp the nettle and really address some of the major issues with the standard Mage: the Ascension setting as it has been previously presented. A big reason that so many Mage fans like the idea of being able to play as the Technocracy is that it’s hard to deny that they do have some admirable aspects. As well as frequently being more egalitarian than the Traditions, there’s the simple fact that what the Technocracy mainly want is a world where the general public has some sense of cosmological security and stability, which can provide them with the basis of actually having a halfway decent life. Vaccines and modern medicine may have their issues, but doing without them (or relying on the goodwill of a healing mage who might decide you aren’t worth it if their ideology suggests it) would be much, much worse.

More than that, though, the book acknowledges absurdities like how the idea of Paradox as it exists in Mage and the usual explanations for it simply don’t work. It is 100% predicated on the assumption that the Sleepers, in general, do not believe in supernatural stuff, and magic and the paranormal go against their worldview that it unleashes the force of Paradox in order for consensus reality to reassert itself.

Continue reading “Technocracy Reloaded, Ascension Declined”