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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Call of the Cults

Cults of Cthulhu is an expansive new Call of Cthulhu supplement spanning over 300 pages, penned mostly by Chris Lackey and Mike Mason. A referee-facing book, it’s a deep dive into the titular subject matter, offering an extensive discussion of the role cults play in Call of Cthulhu, how to design sects for your own games, and some extensive worked examples, as well as offering a brace of scenarios making use of some of the groups detailed in the book.

It’s worth emphasising that the title really isn’t kidding: this is a book about cults of Cthulhu – not Yog-Sothoth, not Shub-Niggurath, not Nyarlathotep, not the King In Yellow, but the big blobby squiddyfriend itself. The “cults throughout history” section, giving brief glimpses of sects ranging from Roman or medieval times to the present day and including fictionalised takes of classic “cult true crime” outfits like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Scientology, is a series of Cthulhu cults through history. The five cults given extensive deep dive coverage, ranging from the 1890s to the modern era, are all Cthulhu cults – three are new to this book (and are each the subject of one of the three scenarios here), and then there’s also treatments of the Louisiana swamp cult from The Call of Cthulhu and the Esoteric Order of Dagon from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which do a good job of teasing out the horror whilst dialling back the racist implications as much as is possible with Lovecraft’s original material. (The idea that the Cthulhu cult is directed by immortal Fu Manchu-esque manipulators, for example, is explained away by the character of Castro in The Call of Cthulhu having been recruited in China and assuming all the leaders were similar to the leader he met there.) The examples given in the build-your-own-cult chapter are all of Cthulhu cults, and the spells, creatures, items, and generic NPC stats offered in the system toolkit chapter are all for Cthulhu cults.

If you think Cthulhu is absolutely rubbish and overplayed and are only interested in running Call of Cthulhu games focusing on other entities, that may be disappointing, but even in that instance I still think the book is of potential use. In particular, many of the issues raised in the build-your-own-cult chapter are just as applicable to other cults as to Cthulhu sects, and the examples given in the rest of the book of how to make a cult feel appropriately Cthulhu-y point to ways in which you could do the same for other Mythos entities with suitable aesthetic tweaks and distinctive, entity-specific features. The 7th Edition update of the Malleus Monstrorum would be particularly useful in conjunction in this book, because it not only offers ideas on the types of cults that accrue around particular Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but also presents example “blessings” given to followers by those deities – a concept this book runs with hard for Cthulhu’s purposes. Take the design-a-cult chapter here, cross-reference with the Malleus Monstrorum entry for the deity in question, and you’re in business.

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An Unearthing of Ancient Mythos Tomes

The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.

Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.

For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.

However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…

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Blake’s BRP

Although Doctor Who has had multiple official RPGs, its younger sibling Blake’s 7 never has – but fear not, fans of Terry Nation serials with even thinner budgets than Who, for fandom will often fill a gap that official canon refuses to touch. The Blake’s 7 Roleplaying Game by Kin Ming Looi and Zoé Taylor was published via Horizon, an officially-endorsed fan club for the show, so whilst it’s still in the realm of a fandom product (and certainly looks like a mid-1990s fanzine in terms of production values) it sails about as close to being official as it can without actually being official.

Dated to August 1994, in system terms it’s clearly inspired by Basic Roleplaying-powered RPGs: the attributes do not map precisely to BRP, mind, but they play a similar role much of the time, there’s percentile skills you can improve by succeeding at tasks in a manner exactly like BRP, and in general it’s sufficiently close to BRP in its basic principles that I’m happy to consider it part of the extended family.

Given that Horizon is a UK-based group and I suspect Blake’s 7 fandom is generally healthiest in Britain, this might be due to the prominence that Chaosium’s games enjoyed over here thanks to Games Workshop giving them important early promotion in the mid-1980s through their editions of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Stormbringer. If you were a British RPG fan looking to make a homebrew system and you didn’t feel like starting 100% from scratch, and your subject matter clearly wasn’t suitable for adapting to Dungeons & Dragons, it feels likely that you would consider Basic Roleplaying, especially in 1994 – an era that’s before the proliferation of open gaming licences gave you more system options to adapt, before the Internet made widespread research of systems cheaper on a budget, and when Chaosium was still in good health.

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