I’ve written a bit of a monster article about the new edition of Paranoia over on Ferretbrain.
tl;dr: I think it’s kind of a huge mess.
I’ve written a bit of a monster article about the new edition of Paranoia over on Ferretbrain.
tl;dr: I think it’s kind of a huge mess.
Cubicle 7 have announced that they are doing a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, set as always in the Old World (a separate RPG with a different system is planned for the new and extremely different Age of Sigmar setting) and taking inspiration from the 1st and 2nd editions of the game.
All this is music to my ears, particularly since I didn’t care for Fantasy Flight’s 3rd edition of the game; as interesting a testbed as it was for a component-heavy style of presenting an RPG, aspects of which eventually manifesting in their Star Wars RPGs, such a test could have happily been done with a different property without trampling all over an existing and well-loved system. (Moreover, FFG never quite seemed sold on the idea of using that system for Warhams purposes – they never switched their 40K RPGs over to it.)
At this time, then, it’s worth having a good look at the first and second editions of WFRP to see what Cubicle 7 could usefully draw from each.
Emerging in 1986, when the Warhammer wargame and Old World setting were still new, WFRP is an impressively complete-in-one-book RPG. Games Workshop had, by this point, been instrumental in getting a number of classic RPGs into the UK market, having printed UK versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and even Paranoia, but with their distribution agreement with TSR coming to a close they decided they needed to fill the D&D-shaped gap in their portfolio.
Another factor driving the development of the Warhammer setting was the desire to make a wargame players could use all of their fantasy-themed Citadel miniatures in, which of course included miniatures for several of the games I mentioned above. Thus, as well as more standard races, Stormbringer Melniboneans became Warhammer-style dark elves, Chaos warriors from that became Chaos warriors here, Runequest broos became Chaos beastmen, and so on. (For similar reasons, I am convinced that Arbitrators in Warhammer 40,000 are riffs on Judge Dredd because of Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG line having its associated miniatures line.)
This heady mix of influences quickly coalesced into a distinct setting and tone of its own, because this first WFRP core book is absolutely dripping in atmosphere and flavour. (This is especially the case if you compare it to Rogue Trader – not the RPG, the original Warhammer 40,000 rulebook – where, in part because they hadn’t yet pulled the trigger on incorporating Chaos into that setting too, the whole thing feels like much more of a heterogeneous patchwork of bits that don’t really feel like parts of the same setting.) Particularly impressive is the setting chapter, which paints a fairly complete picture of the Old World in general and the Empire specifically in the space provided that essentially hasn’t changed that much since.
Other bits of flavour arise from the extensive bestiary and the wide selection of character professions. WFRP is joked about as being the game where you can start out as a rat-catcher with a small but vicious dog, and that is the case, but each and every one of those starting professions is useful in its own right as a source of stat advances and skills.
The profession system feels to me like it was inspired by Maelstrom, a British RPG written by a schoolboy who managed to get it published by Penguin as part of their gamebook lines. The professions in Maelstrom were rich and flavourful in the sense that they covered just about any job you might have in Tudor England, but the weakness was that many of those professions wouldn’t give you many useful ways to contribute to an actual adventure. WFRP very successfully ensures its professions are defined in terms of game usefulness, whilst at the same time conveying much of the similarly Renaissance-themed style of the setting through the selection presented.
Having the fame and the vintage that it has, the major drawbacks of WFRP 1st Edition are pretty well-known by now. Characters start out with some fiendishly low stats and will tend to fail at most rolls; at the best of times, this encourages a gritty, cautious style of play in which cunning planning to maximise the bonuses on the player characters’ side is the order of business, but that requires a GM being willing to provide such bonuses and handle such unusual plans, and the GMing advice section isn’t especially good at encouraging that. At the worst of times, it can just be downright frustrating.
On top of that, the magic system is rather flavourless, and is also set up to make it frustratingly difficult to actually learn any magic in the first place; it’s easily the most fiddly and overengineered part of the rules. The Realms of Sorcery supplement, which finally replaced it with something more flavourful, only creaked out towards the end of Hogshead’s run with the licence.
Still, for grim low fantasy gaming there’s nothing quite like the flavour of classic WFRP, where even the artwork is rich and evocative. This, then, set the bar which future editions would be compared to.
Published via Games Workshop’s Black Industries imprint but developed by Chris Pramas and his team at Green Ronin, the 2nd Edition of WFRP was a welcome tune-up for the system with a couple of quirks here and there. The introduction of character talents – effectively feats under another name – were an inevitability at the time, since this was during an era when 3.X D&D was being widely imitated by other systems. (Feat-like heroic abilities were added to Mongoose’s version of RuneQuest at around this time too.)
They’re nice to have for player characters, but the extensive reliance on them in this system and the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs which would follow its lead – and the infuriating insistence on just listing the talents in monster listings rather than listing out what they all did right there, ensuring that if you wanted to know a monster’s full capabilities you had to do an excessive amount of flipping back and forth, made them a bit of a chore. What designers of this era didn’t grasp is that whilst a player only has to know what the feats their PC happens to possess does, the GM needs to understand both the feats of all the player characters and every NPC they meet, creating an enormous burden for them.
Another major rules tweak is the complete revision of the magic system, which is both vastly more flavourful and much more faff-free than the original 1st edition system. It’s quite nice how it handles magical backlash – to cast a spell you can roll a number of D10s up to your total ability (but can roll less if you wish) and total them up, and if you get doubles, triples, or even quads you get to roll on progressively more perilous tables for associated phenomena. Between this and the target number of spells, this means that you can if you wish get off minor but undeniably useful spells more or less safely and, if not 100% reliably then at least with decent chances of success (especially if the winds of magic are with you and you have the ingredients to hand) by rolling a single die, and you can get more accomplished with still decent chances of not-too-horrible consequences by rolling two dice (giving a 1 in 10 chance of having to roll on the mildest table), or you can pull out the stops and roll three dice or more at the cost of potentially hideous consequences.
The various 40K RPGs played with different ways of kicking off Psychic Phenomena and Perils of the Warp from use of psyker powers, none of which quite followed this method. I get the impression they felt constrained to try and make use of psychic powers based off a percentile roll like the rest of the system, but I genuinely think this was an error, because I don’t think any of the solutions they arrived at worked quite as nicely as this one does.
One think the 40K RPGs do manage, however, is to have a slightly better appreciation of the probabilities. Whilst WFRP 2nd Edition does give a bit more of a discussion of applying modifiers to skill rolls, it states that an action of average difficulty should get a 0% modifier – whereas in the 40K RPGs an average task difficulty actually gives you a bit of a bonus. Here, I think WFRP buys into its own hype too much – it’s infamous as a game where player characters aren’t that competent, but I think the advice here exacerbates that.
The presentation of the book is beautifully done in terms of layout and page design, and the artwork is technically proficient, but it somehow feels a bit less flavourful than the classic old artwork of the original edition. Furthermore, the default starting date of 2522 AE is set after the Storm of Chaos metaplot event, which makes the threat of Chaos a bit more overt and obvious and puts the Empire on a bit more of a total war footing than the original WFRP did. However, at least in this core book, there isn’t actually much discussion of that – recent history isn’t really covered in the setting chapter, and the current date is only specified in an out-of-the way sidebar which points out that you can set your game at any point in Imperial history if you really wanted to.
2nd Edition WFRP was a lot of fun, but at the same time I am very interested to see what Cubicle 7 do with 4th Edition. If they are able to get the rich atmosphere of 1st Edition delivered with the production values and (mostly) clarified and tuned-up game mechanics of 2nd Edition, they’ll be onto a very good thing indeed; let’s cross our fingers and pray to Tzeentch for a favourable tide of change.
Over on Ferretbrain we’ve had a long-running series called Kickstopper, with articles reviewing the outcome of Kickstarters from a backer’s-eye-view. That said, some of the Kickstarters I back cover topics which are a bit niche for a general audience, especially when it comes to tabletop RPGs. The general line I’ve taken is that if I can see my way to reviewing the core game in the article, then it’s appropriate for Ferretbrain, but if I can’t and the article doesn’t really shed much light on a topic of more general interest, like the long-term future of White Wolf (to give a recent example), it’d make more sense to put the review here.
For this first time putting a Kickstopper article over here, I’m going to cover what may be some of the last supplements for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire: the Masquerade; with White Wolf announcing that a 5th Edition will be coming out next year and precious little still to release for it on Onyx Path’s schedule, it looks like the game line – which is already remarkably complete – will likely be mothballed, at least to the extent of new products not coming out for it, so that the spotlight can go on the new edition.
For these supplements, the 20th Anniversary line offers its answer to the classic Clanbooks…
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
At the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place.
The Lore of the Clans Kickstarter was the last World of Darkness Kickstarter that Onyx Path would successfully fund before the future of the World of Darkness line would change forever due to the purchase of White Wolf by Paradox, as I outlined in the Shattered Dreams Kickstopper article. (The subsequent Beast: the Primordial Kickstarter was for what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness line to distinguish it from the World of Darkness setting, and the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter for Werewolf: the Apocalypse saw the Paradox takeover happen partway through the funding period.)
By this point, Onyx Path had the process of doing Kickstarters for World of Darkness supplements down to a fine art, setting sensible stretch goals and, as had become the norm, offering a mostly-complete text of the supplement during the funding period so that people could both see if it was the sort of thing they were interested in and satisfy themselves that a viable product actually existed. As such, the progress of the campaign was smooth and unremarkable and it ended up earning over $138,000, which by this point was pretty reasonable for a supplement and substantially better than more “niche” supplements have managed.
Clan Lexicographer: You will receive a copy of the Deluxe V20 Lore of the Clan book, a copy of the V20 Lore of the Clan PDF, and the V20 Lore of the Clan PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll receive a PDF of the classic Encyclopaedia Vampirica so you can delve deeply into significant Clan representatives. You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the evocative beautiful art from V20 Lore of the Clans. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Clan Loyalist. There will be an extra shipping charge added automatically to nonUS pledges.
It’s worth noting that in addition to the above, some of the stretch goals involved producing writeups for the Bloodlines which, after sufficient goals were hit, were set to be compiled into a supplement called Lore of the Bloodlines, the PDF of which would be included in my funding level.
I got my hard copy of Lore of the Clans in April 2016, and its estimated delivery date was March 2016, so by the standards of RPG Kickstarters Onyx Path did pretty well. The PDF version went out to backers in mid-October 2016, a couple of weeks before the announcement of Paradox purchasing White Wolf – which may explain why that event didn’t disrupt this delivery process nearly as much as it otherwise might have, since it meant that the book was a fait accompli with its approvals process done and dusted before Paradox came in.
One of the recurring commercial problems tabletop RPGs have is that once someone has obtained the core rules, they and their friends can pretty much play forever without ever buying another product. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of traditional categories of RPG products, like prewritten scenarios and campaign settings, tended to be bought mainly by Game Masters/Storytellers/(insert absurd ego-puffing title for referee here) because they are stuffed with information it’d be actively game-ruining for players to read.
In the late 1980s, TSR made a bid to crack the problem by starting a line of player-facing supplements for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons . Each book would take a different class (like fighters, priests or wizards) or race (like elves or dwarves) and offer the player a bunch of options for customising and detailing such characters, as well as providing game rules to help both players and Dungeon Masters cater to such classes. (For instance, the thief book included an extended discussion of thieves’ guilds.) By putting out a book that would be of interest both to referees running a game featuring such characters and players interested in such character types, TSR had created products which they could sell to a much broader proportion of the AD&D audience than more purely Dungeon Master-oriented products.
Although it was TSR who pioneered this product format, it was White Wolf who became synonymous with it, perhaps because the World of Darkness games were so adeptly suited to that model. In Vampire you had Clans, in Werewolf you had Tribes, in Mage you had Traditions and so on, but all of these “splats” ended up getting associated splatbooks. (The “splat” comes from the way they were referred to in early online discussion as “*books”, with “splat” being slang in some circles for “asterisk”.) Each game had its own line of player-focused Clanbooks, Tribebooks, Tradition Books, etc., and the market snapped them up.
What made the various splats such iconic and important features of the World of Darkness games is the way they very smoothly served two simultaneous functions. On the game mechanical side of things, they worked much like Dungeons & Dragons classes, offering a means of differentiating player characters and giving them distinctive areas of expertise. (In general, for example, a Brujah vampire will be better in a fight than a Ventrue, who will be better at political intrigue than the Brujah, unless the characters in question have been deliberately designed not to engage with their own Clan’s particular strengths.) At the same time, they also gave player characters an instantaneous social context in the game – not all thieves in D&D work in the same guild, for instance, but all Brujah in Vampire are connected to the extended vampiric family of Brujah, if only by the fact that it was a Brujah who turned them into a vampire in the first place.
By giving player characters a social context in the setting, you prompt players to take an interest in the setting and their character’s place in it, and it’s also a big help to the Storyteller – if a player player is keen to play a Clan loyalist, that provides one way to pitch content which will be of interest to them, and if a player wants to play someone who actively rebels against their Clan or tries to resist efforts to draw them into Clan politics that provides a different lever. There’s no position you can take on your Clan which doesn’t open the door to scenario possibilities – if “Do me this favour because it will help the Clan” isn’t going to motivate the player into action, “Do me this favour because it will hurt the Clan/change the Clan/free you from the Clan hierarchy/make the Clan leave you alone” is just as good.
Your typical Clanbook back in the day was a 64 page book detailing a specific Clan; you’d have sections on the Clan’s history, its current internal organisation and interests, perhaps some rumours about Clan secrets, and the package would be rounded off with some pointers and templates for making characters especially appropriate to the Clan and special powers that Clan members may be able to learn.
Now, 64 pages isn’t nothing, but if you are a player who wants to add depth to their character or understand their Clan better it’s entirely manageable. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that if the Clanbook is in play, the Storyteller will probably want to read it too so they can get a handle on the material in it and use it appropriately – at least to the extent of being able to either portray it in the way it is portrayed in the Clanbook or, if the Storyteller has a different plan, outline where the Clan differs for the purposes of this specific campaign.
Say you have five players in a tabletop game, each of whom is playing a character of a different Clan, each of whom wants to use their Clan’s Clanbook. Each individual player only has about 64 pages of reading to do. The Storyteller suddenly has 320 pages to look over and either approve or overrule. And if you want to give a similar level of depth to all 13 canonical Clans – perhaps because you don’t want a Clan to seem flat and lacking in depth simply because no PCs belong to it, or because you are running a LARP with sufficient numbers that there are PCs of all Clans, you’re looking at 832 pages of reading.
Lore of the Clans is a condensed one-book solution to that problem. Each of its chapters provides a summation, generally written from the point of view of a member of the Clan in question, of Clan history, structure, interests and so on, along with a few suggestions for archetypal character templates and cool Clan-specific powers for people to dabble in. In other words, it’s basically a bunch of mini-Clanbooks, mashing up the best of the old run with some fun new ideas and providing a much more manageable package than the full stack of Clanbooks, making using it in actual play a much more viable prospect. What’s more, because a lot of the information is presented as in-character rumours rather than out-of-character statements of fact, Storytellers need not feel bound by any of it.
I didn’t go in at a tier which would have given me downloads of the old Clanbooks, but in terms of information provided I suspect you actually get most of the good stuff here. Stripping out a lot of the mini-short stories that characterised White Wolf’s material back in the day, improving the layout, and going for a more information-dense writing style could help you drop the space required appreciably; jettisoning ideas which in retrospect seem silly, half-baked, or just plain bad must also be a big help. (They do still take the time to give a tip of the hat to some of the more infamous of the discarded plot points; the Tzimisce chapter mentions the old “the Tzimisce flesh-sculpting powers are the result of them being controlled by alien parasites” from the infamous Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand supplement (and semi-resurrected in the strictly apocryphal The Black Hand: Secrets of the Tal’Mahe’Ra supplement) as being a total absurdity… before dropping an alternate theory that manages to be similar in principle but more horrifying and much more in keeping with the general tone of Vampire, although very much also presented as a mere rumour.) On top of that, the core V20 book already compiled a great number of vampire powers from across a wide range of sources, so a lot of the cool Clan powers from old Clanbooks would already be compiled there, allowing the rules additions here to be mercifully brief.
The book is rounded off by a brace of useful appendices unlocked as stretch goals during the Kickstarter, including a section on Caitiff (vampires belonging to no Clan), some brief insights into antitribu of each Clan (antitribu being Clan members who have rebelled against the power structure and general consensus of their Clan and sided with its enemies), and a section on notable vampires. No rules details are provided on the VIPs, but that actually makes a lot of sense – remember, this is meant to be a player-facing book in part, so providing a full picture of these characters’ capabilities would give them a bunch of information they aren’t meant to have, and this also lets Storytellers set the power level and capabilities of these characters at a level they are happy with.
In short, Lore of the Clans provides the same sort of deeper depictions of the Clans and enrichment of the game experience that the Clanbooks offered, for the price of a single book and at a much more modest page count. It’s actually a better deal than what White Wolf presented gamers with back in the day, and is a product far more likely to be used in actual play than a teetering stack of Clanbooks.
This pretty much gives the Lore of the Clans treatment to a set of the more interesting Bloodlines – groups of vampires which aren’t as widespread or powerful as the thirteen major Clans, but are still forces to be reckoned with. Much of what I’ve said about Lore of the Clans applies to this, and it’s a handy resource if you want to develop any of the Bloodlines detailed future – especially if you’re veering away from canon and want options for replacing one of the Clans with something developed to a similar level of detail.
As a stretch goal, the extent of this book was largely dependent on how much funding was received in the project. As it stands, I think the backers inadvertently hit the sweet spot: the book is substantial enough to be useful and cover the most interesting Bloodlines, but stops before getting to any of the more silly or disposable ones. (The next stretch goal would have added the Blood Brothers to this book, which are to my tastes just a bit too much of a one-trick schtick to make for an interesting clan writeup – useful to throw in as creepy disposable goons, not interesting to unpack as fully fleshed-out characters.)
Not really a clanbook, but it’s a similarly information-dense summary of material covering the whole run of Vampire: the Masquerade. This came out in 2002, right towards the end of the original World of Darkness game line’s run, and is presented as an in-character encyclopedia written by vampires for vampires.
Since it’s designed as a document written by characters in the setting, it’s actually suggested that you could just hand it over to the players for them to read as and when they discover it in the game. That’s fine in theory, but there’s a few issues with it in practice. The first, lesser issue is that because it came out at the end of the game line’s run, the encyclopedia covers a bunch of metaplot events that may or may not be true for your particular campaign. That’s troubling, but you can at least patch this somewhat simply by pointing out that the compilers of the encyclopedia may simply be wrong.
The second and larger problem is that by putting the Vampirica into the hands of the players, you are rather implicitly stating that most of the stuff that is in there will exist in your campaign in some form or another. Whilst in principle if the players get interested in a particular entry but you don’t want to include it, you could just pull the old “the compilers fucked up” line again, there’s a limit to how often you can do that before the encyclopedia ends up looking like a massive waste of time. Generally, if you hand players a tome weighing in at over 200 pages to read, it’s considered a bit of a dick move if it turns out to be mostly useless. At the same time, reading the entire book to decide how much of it you want to actually be true would be an enormous chore, but on the flipside having to make a spot decision very suddenly on the truth or otherwise of some entry you didn’t notice and the players are now Very Interested in can be a royal pain.
Whilst I wouldn’t just toss the book out there to the players, I still think it’s useful for a referee, simply because it’s this big, dense collection of setting material you can keep to yourself and pick and choose from as you please. If you’re after an idea, just browse the book for a bit and something will jump out at you. (It’s nice that the book retains some self-awareness of how silly some Vampire topics and terminology is: for instance, in the setting Amaranth is the vampiric practice of drinking another vampire’s blood to consume their soul, but the designers goofed and didn’t realise originally that it’s the name of a cute little red bird from Africa, and sure enough the entry here for Amaranth gives “Small red finch from Africa” as its first definition and then the vampire-specific definitions after that.) There’s also a bunch of fun annotations in the margins, though the book often does a poor job of making sure they appear close to the references they actually relate to.
Encyclopaedia Vampirica is, therefore, a big fat 200-page reminder that Vampire: the Masquerade’s setting as both a blessing and a curse; a curse in the sense that if you got worried about canon (and if you wanted to actually follow the metaplot this was somewhat necessary) it’s a burden, a blessing in the sense that there’s always something you can draw on for inspiration when you need it.
Yeah, sure, this is a decent product and there’s no embarrassment in being named in it.
I reckon I got this Just Right – going lower would have meant missing out on the rather fun Encyclopaedia Vampirica, going higher would have meant getting stuff I have little or no interest in, like the old Clanbooks and novels and the like.
The various Onyx Path Kickstarters are a bit of a crapshoot in terms of how smooth or shaky the delivery process is, largely as a result of head honcho Richard Thomas giving the various freelancers placed in charge of the projects their heads in terms of delivery. But the Vampire: the Masquerade contributors seem to have been pretty damn consistent in terms of getting product out.
Would I back another Vampire: the Masquerade Kickstarter from Onyx Path? The question seems academic – they’re almost certainly not going to do another one, at least not for a tabletop RPG product. But for the right product I might; I didn’t back Beckett’s Jyhad Diary, which followed this Kickstarter, because I have little-to-no interest in metaplot, and to be honest I am not sure what could be added to the V20 line at this point that would feel useful or necessary – it’s very complete. I guess if they did an official Underworld supplement or something I might.
Onyx Path and White Wolf before them have produced Translation Guides to allow people to convert characters and concepts between their various World of Darkness games and their Chronicles of Darkness equivalents – for example, if you want to use Vampire: the Masquerade setting ideas with the (generally superior) Vampire: the Requiem system, or blend ideas between the two, there’s a Vampire Translation Guide for you. Generally, I haven’t found them especially attractive; I feel like if I wanted to play or run some classic Masquerade, I’d be inclined to do it system warts and all, the effort required to convert everything not quite being worth the mild improvements made across the board.
The Demon Translation Guide, though… that’s a different matter. Allowing for conversion between Demon: the Fallen and Demon: the Descent, it’s an absolute godsend, because the original Fallen system was horribly broken – and whilst its supplement line did a hero’s job of trying to fix it, it’s still worth the effort to convert to the Chronicles system. In particular, there’s finally a system for determining whether your powers go off in their high-Torment versions by accident instead of the low-Torment versions: that happens if you end up getting less successes than your Torment score on the roll, but if you spend Faith in triggering the power, so long as you get at least one success on the dice you get to add the number of Faith points you spent to the successes total for the purpose of working out whether your Torment kicks off. This gives players a decent shot of having some semblance of self-control, at the cost of rationing their Faith a bit more (but then again Demon is a game which cries out for a brisk and active Faith economy to begin with).
Author Eric Zawadzki seems to have a decent handle on the virtues of both games, as well as how they’re played in the wild; for instance, in the discussion of converting Fallen‘s Apocalyptic Forms to the Descent system, he specifically assumes that the system for personalising one’s Apocalyptic Form provided in the Demon Player’s Guide are in use, and that system was so fun and such an improvement over the sometimes uninspiring off-the-shelf Forms in the core book that I suspect anyone with access to that book would be using that system.
The two Demon games have extremely different aesthetic takes on the topic. Whilst there are themes of espionage in common (which the book has some quite interesting ideas on teasing out), Fallen went very much for “Judeo-Christian demons emerge from Hell only to discover that God and the Angels have gone and aren’t coming back, and must deal with that”, whereas Descent went for “It’s The Matrix at its most Gnostic.” That filtered through all the powers. Providing a way to utilise the more classically demonic powers of Fallen in Descent‘s system means that Chronicles of Darkness users get to have their own equivalent of Demon: the Fallen on an aesthetic level, which is something I think Descent didn’t deliver.
Sure, the two Vampires and Werewolfs and Mages have different takes on the same stuff, but the vampires are still vampire-y in both, the werewoofles are still woofly, and the mages are still wizardy (if anything, they’re even more wizardy in the Chronicles version). Demons in The Descent just don’t feel very demonic, and whilst that game offers an interesting cosmological concept it doesn’t quite scratch the itch for playing “yeah, we’re Satanic fallen angels out to corrupt people’s souls”.
Back when I reviewed The Complete Psionics Handbook, I noted that part of the problem psionics faced was that most official D&D settings had been designed without really making much of a space for it, so we were left without a model for how it could be used in a game and integrated into a setting that also had clerical and arcane magic. The Dark Sun setting, on the other hand, was designed with an eye to providing a world that could tie into the major supplemental additions to the AD&D system – as well as psionics, it was also supposed to rely a lot on the Battlesystem mass combat rules, though poor sales of that meant that its significance was dialled back considerably in the released version of the setting.
Within a mere four years of its release, Dark Sun‘s possibilities would be exhausted due to an ill-advised decision to let setting co-creator Troy Denning resolve all its major conflicts in a series of novels, but the early Dark Sun material reveals not just an impressively equal-opportunity display of rippling thews, but also a refreshingly original campaign setting. Here, I’m going to review the core setting and the major supplement releases of its first 20 months or so.
The original Dark Sun boxed set is a masterfully flavourful presentation of what was, at the time, the most unusual setting released for D&D (if you don’t count Empire of the Petal Throne, which used an eccentric variant of OD&D). The world of Athas is a godless place, where clerics derive their spells from contemplation of the elemental planes, and it is a psionically gifted place, where all characters at least have a psionic wild talent. But its greatest cosmological difference from mainline D&D worlds is in the way wizardly magic works – and how it’s utterly reshaped the setting.
GURPS and the HERO System have a slate of similarities. Both arose out of earlier games; GURPS is at its core an extensively revised and genericised take on The Fantasy Trip, whilst HERO came out of Champions. Each system has influenced the other – Champions drew inspiration for its point-buy character generation and its 3D6 resolution mechanic from The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS took the idea of character Disadvantages that get you points back and numerically rated Skills whose base value is tied to your attributes from Champions. Both games went through a process of rapid early evolution before attaining a stable state in the late 1980s, with the GURPS 3rd Edition of 1988 and the 1989 4th Edition of Champions/HERO remaining the standard versions of those respective games for the whole of the 1990s. And both games have gained reputations for being highly crunchy, especially in the wake of thick hardback new editions of the respective lines in the mid-2000s – since when, both games seem to have suffered a waning of their fortunes.
For this article, I am going to review 3rd edition GURPS and 4th edition Champions – both well-regarded versions of those respective game lines which are generally held to have marked the point before bloat took hold of both systems – and also take a look at how the future development of each game took them down what, in my view, are evolutionary cul-de-sacs, and what their current publishers are doing to try and correct for that now. I’m also going to look at a supplement for each system which I think exemplifies the strengths of the respective support lines.
Although White Wolf turned the splatbook into a central plank of their 1990s business model, they weren’t the first major RPG publisher to hit on the idea of pushing products aimed specifically at players rather than GMs, each themed around a different type of player character. That accolade goes to TSR, who followed up the publication of AD&D 2E’s core books with a series of class-focused books with chocolatey-brown cover art, with the line soon branching out into race-specific books as well as more offbeat entries like The Complete Psionics Handbook and The Complete Book of Humanoids.
The idea of selling books of player-facing material divided by class was in principle a good way to meet demand and to produce products which, whilst designed for 2E, were compatible enough with 1E and added enough that was novel that you could still sell the books to people who hadn’t migrated from the earlier edition. The downfall of the line is that there doesn’t seem to have been much oversight and cross-product co-ordination, with the result that some splatbooks ended up adding more power creep than others. In addition, some of the books seem to have struggled to come up with sufficient material to meet the page count – they often resort to sections of variable length on generic roleplaying advice dressed up as advice on roleplaying the classes in question but frequently amounting to universal platitudes, for instance.
The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, for instance, pads itself out with some extra weapons and a lot of waffle about investing your sword-swinger with a personality, whereas the Thief’s Handbook includes a bunch of waffle about how Thieves’ Guilds are run which is sometimes interesting but should probably be referee-facing, and the Priest’s Handbook incorporates rules for designing religions and cosmologies which should definitely be for DMs to use rather than players under most circumstances. The Wizard’s Handbook, however, commits the ultimate sin of presenting a player-facing supplement: throwing out a bunch of new spells which a referee may or may not be happy with including in their campaign, but which by being put into a player-facing supplement creates an expectation that if a player’s spent their money on the book the referee should at least consider including the stuff – beginning the tendency towards bloat that many complained bitterly about during the 3E era.
One common strand among the class and race handbooks is the inclusion of kits, which provide a new aesthetic skin, a bundle of proficiencies, and some special bonuses and weaknesses for your character class. This is one solution to the age-old problem of members of classes tending to feel alike, but a problem soon becomes evident when you compare them from book to book – the kits range from desperate scraping of the bottom of a barrel (is there any reason a jester should be that different from a regular bard?) or riffing on the same general theme from book to book. (For instance, lots of classes have an amazon-themed kit, a peasant kit, an aristocratic kit and so on.)
Ultimately, I think 5E Backgrounds are much better and more elegant solution to the same general problem, and they have the advantage of not being arbitrarily divided up by class in a bid to fill out splatbooks. And that’s really the main barrier to me embracing a take on 2E that incorporates all of these splatbooks; to get the best out of them you really want to use kits and proficiencies, but 5E covers all the same bases those subsystems cover in a much more robust and adaptable way; were I to play or run 2E these days, I’d advocate for trimming back most of the optional rules, which would make this line rather useless.