Death On the Reik – The Return Voyage

Cubicle 7’s revised rerelease of the classic Enemy Within campaign for WFRP continues apace, with the emergence of the second wave of physical products for it. The first phase, Enemy In Shadows and the Enemy In Shadows Companion, provided a thorough 4th Edition update to (most of) the material that was originally issued back in 1st edition days as the first two episodes of the campaign, and collected together under one cover in various reprints (the most easily found these days being the Hogshead release of Shadows Over Bögenhafen). Now the same treatment has been given to Death On the Reik, with a hardcover of the same title giving the adventure itself and the Death On the Reik Companion providing supplementary material, “deleted scenes”, and some material of more general use even if you don’t plan to run the campaign itself.

It took me a while to warm to the original Death On the Reik, and in retrospect I think that’s because it looks like a very sandboxy scenario, with the PCs free to travel the waterways of the Empire as they wish, it actually has a very involved plot, but the original presentation of the materials on a strictly location-by-location basis made the expected itinerary of the PCs somewhat obscured even as the River Life of the Empire section provided a toolkit for a much more free-roving affair.

For this new edition, Cubicle 7 have made the interesting – and, I think, probably justified – decision to change up the presentation of information just a little. The actual adventure portion of the old material is given in the main Death On the Reik book, and any particular location in the scenario will get its full writeup in the logical part of that book, but the arrangement of information in the book gives a better idea of the “expected” flow of the campaign (as well as ample advice on what to do if the timeline diverges).

Meanwhile, the information and systems in River Life of the Empire have been placed in the Death On the Reik Companion, in which context they can be greatly expanded on and polished without worrying about page count in the main book. This, to me, seems extremely sensible, since I suspect in actual play of the original version the River Life section either got extremely heavy use (if your group got really, really into the whole “Renaissance canal boat Traveller“) or was almost entirely ignored (if your group just wanted to concentrate on the plot).

This arrangement of information, in particular, means that groups who just want to blaze through the Enemy Within plot with a minimum of sandbox roving or B-plot are absolutely free to do so – all they need to do is play through the Death On the Reik hardback and leave the Companion be. On the other hand, if you want to play through the campaign with much more freedom of direction and more secondary plots not related to the core thing, fold in the Companion – or if you want to run a game based around the river routes of the Empire but don’t give a fig for the Death On the Reik plot, grab the Companion and ignore the adventure book. There’s a combination that works for everyone.

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Kayfabed By the Apocalypse

World Wide Wrestling by Nathan D. Paoletta is a tabletop RPG with a publishing history and overall place in the field that’s in some ways similar to Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. Both games had their first editions funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign that ran in 2014; both games have been reissued in second editions (also Kickstarter-funded) which incorporate into the core book the best materials from the supplement line; both games use the Powered By the Apocalypse system that debuted in Apocalypse World, but take it in genuinely interesting directions which I think play to the strengths of the system.

As the title implies, World Wide Wrestling is a professional wrestling-themed RPG. Players take on the role of the major wrestlers in a televised promotion, with the non-player character wrestlers, backstage admin figures, bookers, camera operators, interviewers and whatnot being played by the referee (dubbed “Creative” here). By default, each session of the game revolves around one episode of the promotion’s regular show (though it would require little effort to base it around a major event like a pay-per-view, or an untelevised event like a house show, and support is also provided for running material based around the trials and tribulations of touring and the like).

Like many tabletop RPGs, that means that the session is going to play out as a series of combats. Unlike more traditional RPGs, the combats aren’t really about who can legitimately beat the other up – unless the match turns from a work (a simulated combat) into a shoot (a legit fight). Instead, it’s about building up the audience’s investment in the match. If you end the match with the audience heavily invested in your character, you benefit – and it isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, since all the participants in a match can ultimately benefit if the audience gets into both of them equally.

Between this and vignettes in which wrestlers can do on-camera promos (or indulge in off-camera backstage politics), the game embraces both in-ring action and the behind-the-scenes gossip which many modern fans love as much as the actual performances, which means it immediately is a step up from Know Your Role, the officially sanctioned WWE RPG, which clunkily used the D20 system to implement a game in which kayfabe (the illusion that the simulated matches are genuinely competitive) was maintained and the game was about actually fighting each other in the ring to see who’d win, rather than fighting a worked match to try and get over with the crowd.

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Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure

In Star Bastards, the first of the Two-Fisted Fantasy books to see release, an elegant new gamebook system was combined with a classic 1980s gamebook aesthetic to deliver quite a good short space adventure. Star Bastards, however, was merely the test balloon. If Two-Fisted Fantasy has really made a mark on the field, it’s through the mighty tome which was the second release in the series: The Sword of the Bastard Elf.

When I say “mighty tome”, I am not kidding: the book is over 800 large-format pages long, and the adventure has some 1825 numbered entries, many of which are fairly long. The rules section runs some 60 pages, though the actual rules for playing the adventure cover just five of these; the rest include a full adaptation of the Two-Fisted Fantasy system for running as a conventional tabletop RPG, with a referee (“Dungeon Bastard”) and multiple players. You’re explicitly encouraged to not read the RPG until you’ve played the adventure at least once, since it’s tied to one of the major locales and therefore could contain spoilers.

As well as providing a massive adventure, plus a simple tabletop RPG system, plus lots of gorgeous art from S. Iacob (available in colour or black and white – though I personally prefer black and white since it really teases out how S. Iacob captures the aesthetic of 1980s gamebooks), The Sword of the Bastard Elf also elaborates on the mythos around Two-Fisted Fantasy.

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They Sued Regularly

2021 marks an interesting anniversary: it marks the point when TSR’s been dead and buried for longer than its original lifespan (1973-1997, a run of 24 years). From this year onwards, Wizards of the Coast will have been in control of D&D for longer than TSR ever was.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Shannon Appelcline of Designers & Dragons fame just posted an interesting RPG.net column documenting the various infamous legal entanglements of TSR over their lifespan. What’s particularly interesting is the evolution over time; at first, TSR were actually being pretty co-operative, and there’s a possible alternate universe where they continued to play nice with licensors all through their lifespan, much as Chaosium have over the years. (Whether they survived longer in that universe or not is a different question.)

It was only later when they started burning bridges and getting more ruthless in their business practices that they started attracting legal disputes – and then got more aggressive. When I came into the hobby, Internet wags’ second-favourite nickname for TSR (after “T$R”) was “They Sue Regularly”, stimulated in part by the company’s utterly needless (and legally baseless) own goals when it came to aggressively going after fansites posting homebrew material. The article’s pretty decent at covering this history – check it out.

Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business

Welcome back to an occasional series of posts where the joke is I am taking a gag strip about tabletop RPGs entirely too seriously. Specifically, Lessons From the Dinner Table is where I like to look over old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and ponder what sort of lessons applicable to real-world gaming we can take from them – whether it comes to storytelling considerations of how the issues themselves are written, gaming techniques used (or abused) in the comic, or ideas concerning larger gaming communities which the series touches on.

Bundle of Trouble 16

There’s two plot threads in this Bundle I want to highlight, one of which isn’t so good, the other of which pretty funny, and a lesson that can be drawn from how each of them landed.

The not so good one is an entry in the occasional “retro KODT” series of strips set earlier in the continuity, which are usually thrown in so that each issue can have a more small-scale story not bound to the longer-form storytelling in the main strips. In this case, they’re an expanded sequel to the old strip where Dave and Bob join a Vampire LARP and start acting weird. Back in the day, the original strip wasn’t so annoying, mostly because it was too brief to expose the weakness of the writing – and in particular, the comparatively shallow level of understanding of LARP on the part of the Knights of the Dinner Table team, which is exposed here.

This isn’t me being overly defensive – there’s some good satire you could do about the quirks of the LARP community, particularly the drama-prone world of Vampire-inspired games. But you need to really know the scene to produce something which isn’t outright shallow, just like you need to know tabletop RPGs to make something like Knights of the Dinner Table‘s usual fare. The plot here fails to convince me that it’s the product of sufficient research.

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A Long-Standing Conflict of Interest At Kickstarter Has Been Corrected

Long-term readers of this blog – or people stumbling across it in Google results – may recall two previous articles about controversies involving Luke Crane’s Kickstarters, the first concerning the Burning Wheel refund controversy and the second concerning the kerfuffle over The Perfect RPG, the latter in my view being somewhat more egregious in the grand scheme of things.

One of the conclusions I reached in connection to those two situations was that Luke Crane’s role at Kickstarter seemed to involve some inherent conflicts of interest – first having authority over the gaming division before reaching the rank of Vice President. During both Kickstarters, his role meant that he would have significant influence over the very section of the site his projects would be classified in.

(OK, sure, once he was a Vice President he was no longer specifically in charge of the games side of stuff – but if you’re running the games division at Kickstarter and a VP instructed you to do something, would you feel obliged to do it? I’d certainly think there’d be an expectation I would follow instructions given by someone on that level.)

In the case of The Perfect RPG, despite that project only being up for a scarce few hours, it very quickly gained the “Projects We Love” tag, which carries with it some benefits in terms of both being a perceived endorsement from Kickstarter and some benefits in Kickstarter’s promotional algorithms compared to projects that don’t have the accolade.

As I previously said, I think the only really tenable way for Kickstarter to operate would be to say that Kickstarter staff should not also run Kickstarters. Permitting this allows the same sort of blurring of the rules as, say, when gamekeepers and poachers start getting very comfortable relationships with each other. Even if nothing corrupt happens as a result, it creates a perception of nepotism and corruption which can almost be as damaging as the actual thing.

I also felt that if Kickstarter did not feel able to impose such a restriction on their staff, then they at the very least should expect their staff to regard themselves as on the clock when running their Kickstarters, and to run them in a comprehensively exemplary fashion, because if Kickstarter staff can get away with shitty practices or dodgy communication when running their own projects that either sends a message that it’s OK for anyone to do it, or (if other people get punished for the same nonsense) that Kickstarter staff get special benefits when running projects that other project owners simply don’t – which is nepotism and corruption, pure and simple.

Well, it’s resolved now, Luke is out, as per a statement to Polygon from Kickstarter, so the conflict of interest with respect to him is now gone.

I note that in his latest update to The Perfect RPG, apologising for the project, Luke addresses various subjects to varying degrees of effectiveness. He does not comment on his role at Kickstarter in any respect – not even to mention he is stepping away from it, despite Kickstarter announcing his departure to Polygon – let alone give any thought to the conflict of interest it represented.

One would hope that, even if Luke is not thinking about conflicts of interest at all, others at Kickstarter are.

Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

To round off this catch-up series on the Delta Green RPG (remember, I covered the core rules and some supplemental material in the previous two parts of this series), I’m going to cover here three scenario collections. A Night At the Opera and Black Sites are largely compilations of material previously released as individual scenarios, but I think smart buyers will prefer the collections to getting the individual ones. Both of them are quite diverse collections, and as a result there will probably be some scenarios you like and some which don’t appeal to you – but if you buy a collection then you can run the scenarios you like and strip-mine the others for what material you can, whereas if I am putting money down for a single scenario I want to be fairly sure it’s one I enjoy and will be appropriate for my table.

Control Group, on the other hand, is a sort-of campaign. I say “sort of” because each of the scenarios in it can be run individually as one-offs (or, in the case of the final scenario, slotted into a long-running Delta Green game without having to play through any of the others), but it’s presented as a series of scenarios all designed by Greg Stolze.

A Night At the Opera

As mentioned, this is a hardcover compilation of various adventures, many of which are stretch goals funded by the original Delta Green Kickstarter campaign. I got free PDFs of many of the adventures in question through my pledge level, and I liked more of them than I disliked and therefore preordered the hardcover compilation when Arc Dream presented the opportunity to do so.

(In case you were wondering: the title comes from the euphemism used in Delta Green to inform Agents that they are required for an operation. Though I’ve used the term in my home campaign, it always reminds my players of Queen albums and Marx Brothers movies; I’ve informed them that their PCs should be really worried if they ever get a message about “A Day At the Races”.)

It kicks off with Reverberations by Shane Ivey, a brief but decent introductory mission marred by the fact that it’s entwined with the Tcho-Tcho concept – and, in particular, the unreconstructed version of the concept from August Derleth and earlier iterations of Call of Cthulhu. It should be viable to tweak the investigation to make it less reliant on a “this entire ethnicity is evil and genociding them would have some positive aspects” trope – but Arc Dream haven’t done that, so still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in a time when Chaosium have backed away from the more unacceptable implications of the Tcho-Tcho idea.

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Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.

The Complex

So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.

As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.

You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.

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Delta Green’s Return To Duty

For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of CthulhuDelta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.

In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.

To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.

Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)

In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…

Agent’s Handbook

The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.

Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)

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Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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