The Utilitarian Mongoose

So let’s say you’re running Mongoose’s version of Traveller – the first edition, because you’re not enough of a schmuck to buy an edition of Traveller that doesn’t have basic ship building rules in the core rulebook. You have your core book, you might have the referee screen (portrait orientation panels, ugh, but at least there’s a nice “view through a starship viewscreen” aesthetic to it), what are the other tools you might be resorting to frequently?

Well, there’s every chance you’d also be looking at their supplement line. With a plain aesthetic and a numbering scheme reminiscent of the little black books of Classic Traveller, a few of them (like Dynasty) offered substantial additions to the Traveller rules, but most of them consisted of highly utilitarian compilations of stuff.

For instance, for those who don’t have time to design an entire galaxy’s worth of starships, the three starship supplements – Supplement 2: Traders and GunboatsSupplement 3: Fighting Ships, and Supplement 10: Merchants and Cruisers – offer all you could want, with various worked examples of a wide range of ship types and some lovely deckplans. (Fighting Ships concludes with an Imperial battlestation of truly vast proportions, whose audacity is just a joy to contemplate). The first two of these have some nice artwork of the ships which in their simple style give me fond memories of looking at spaceship artwork in library books back as a little Arthur; sadly, Merchants and Cruisers instead has somewhat ugly CGI of the ships instead, and loses some of its charm as a result.

Another set of worked examples was Supplement 7: 1001 Characters. Whereas “masses of NPC stats”-type supplements had been produced for Traveller before, these mostly consisted of statlines produced by a spreadsheet – useful in days when everyone didn’t have computers handy, near-useless otherwise. The modern update of the concept here is somewhat more useful, with various instant NPCs with appropriate statlines, names, brief backgrounds and, most usefully of all, a clear archetypal niche for them in bold. Flip to the appropriate chapter, look at the bold text until you spot something that suits the sort of NPC you want to deploy, and then bombs away. It’s a great example of how even with an extremely simple, bare-bones layout you can with a little thought make something extremely useful in actual play.

Other supplements added additional bits to the rules; Supplement 4: Central Supply Catalogue not just provided lots of and lots of equipment, but also guidelines on adapting equipment (such as coming up with higher tech level equivalents of lower-tech gear). My main complaint about it is that it’s a bit gunbunny-tastic – there’s masses and masses of weapons and armour detailed but comparatively slimmer sections on non-combat requipment. Supplement 5-6: The Vehicle Handbook was a replacement for two somewhat shonky earlier vehicle supplements, and provided a fairly simple vehicle design system which could model everything from a bicycle to a tank – quite nice, though I am not sure why you would ever bother to come up with detailed game stats for a bicycle. Supplement 11: Animal Encounters expanded on the animal encounter rules in the core book.

Supplement 8: Cybernetics might just be the hidden star of the supplement line. Yes, it’s a shopping list of cyberware – but more significantly, it offers detailed rules on cyberware and reworked career profiles oriented towards a cyberpunk setting and rules for handling cyberspace. Between these components, it offers all you need to run 1980s-1990s style cyberpunk in Traveller – decades late, maybe, but a welcome filling of a gap that GDW left open really absurdly long.

Supplements like this aren’t flashy, aren’t sexy, but are extremely useful for running any tabletop RPG – sometimes you need those worked examples handy when there just isn’t the prep time to do it yourself. One could wish that more games remembered the utility of such things.

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Watership Gaming

Scott Bizar’s Fantasy Games Unlimited was an early publisher to get onboard the RPG bandwagon. After putting out some simple wargames in 1975 to get a name for the company, Bizar first entered the RPG sphere after meeting the designers of Chivalry & Sorcery at Gen Con IX in 1976, where they’d unsuccessfully (and perhaps rather presumptuously) attempted to pitch it to Gary Gygax as a replacement for Dungeons & Dragons. Signing them up, Bizar realised that there were plenty of gamers with the creativity to write their own RPGs but without the publishing resources to put them out there (self-publishing being a vastly more rudimentary prospect at that point in time), and started actively soliciting games for publication.

One of the earliest such is Bunnies & Burrows by B. Dennis Sustare and Scott Robinson, a charming game in which the player characters are fuzzy bunnies flopping about in a sort of Watership Down mode. They’re very bunny-like bunnies for the most part, though in some respects their capabilites go a little beyond what we humans know bunnies can do – they can carry about items in little bags, treat herbs to make special preparations, use powers of empathy and precognition, and even talk to other animals. (The exception on the latter is humans – animals can’t talk to humans for some reason, and tend to regard them as weird irrational beasts.)

Considering that D&D had only come out in 1974, to show the level of imagination involved in executing such an eccentric concept for an RPG a mere two years after the format came to mass attention is impressive. Sustare and Robinson not only give you a very clear idea of what a Bunnies & Burrows game would be like (namely, flopping about in a meadow or forest evading danger and having gentle rabbity adventures), but also make a game which is actually reasonably well-explained and engineered for its vintage.

There are eight character statistics, with a character class associated with each one – a pleasing symmetry that even D&D didn’t have. Rather than bunnies having a single level, they have a Level associated with each of their characteristics, distinct from their innate score. Each time they accomplish something or overcome a challenge, bunnies get the right to make a percentage die roll against an appropriate attribute; if they succeed at the roll, they gain a Level in that attribute, which may unlock different capabilities (some universal, some class-specific). You’re limited to one Level increase in a particular characteristic per game day, and the higher your innate score, the more chance you have of boosting your Level. Combat largely involves matching appropriate stats of attackers vs. defenders, modified based on what attacks and defences are being used.

In some respects questionable design decisions are made; for instance, you’re encouraged to keep the herb details secret from herbalist players so they can discover them via trial and error, except to be honest the number of different ways herbs can be prepared and the necessity to prepare them just right to actually get the wanted effect out of them makes me suspect that going through the whole trial and error process would just be frustrating – plus characters tend to be extremely fragile. (I mean, of course they are. They’re bunnies.) But on the whole, this FGU oddity retains a certain charm that I rather like.

Simply Designed, Solo Friendly, Slightly Racist

In mid-1980s Britain the Fighting Fantasy boom led to a craze for gamebooks of all kind. Casting about for material, Corgi Books realised that they could go back to the source to find an existing body of solo RPG adventures ripe for republication in a trade paperback format. That was the extensive number of solo adventures published by Flying Buffalo for their major RPG product, Tunnels & Trolls – in fact, they put out substantially more solo adventures than they did conventional adventure modules. In fact, with the first of these, Buffalo Castle, coming out in 1976 they have a strong claim to being the first gamebooks based on RPG mechanics. (Treasure Hunt by Alan George, which came out in 1945, is generally acknowledged as being the first gamebook in the modern sense, though it has no RPG mechanics beyond picking which page to turn to next like in Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

This isn’t the only “first” that Tunnels & Trolls can claim; in putting it out in 1975, Ken St. Andre can claim to have designed the first tabletop RPG which was not either Dungeons & Dragons or a transparent copy thereof. It’s a simple, stripped-down affair, in keeping with Ken’s design agenda of producing a fantasy dungeon-crawling RPG that was much less complex than D&D; only D6s are used, a spell point system is used instead of Vancian memorisation (up to and including 5th Edition this was based off your Strength score; to counter the rise of beefcake wizards the “5.5” revision added a separate magic points stat), and the class options are greatly truncated. You can be a warrior, you can be a wizard, you can be a rogue (who isn’t a D&D-type rogue – those were still called “thieves” – but is more of a dabbler who draws on warrior and wizard abilities alike), or you can be a warrior-wizard (who’s like a rogue who’s much better at dipping into both classes, but you only qualify as one if you have really good stats). Monsters are largely described by a single “monster rating” stat, which acts as both their hit points and a measure of combat power – so as they get hurt in combat they get into a death spiral. Perhaps the oddest system quirk of Tunnels & Trolls is how combat works – with both sides rolling attack rolls and adding them up, seeing which side got the higher total, and doing damage to the losing side based on the difference.

These days Tunnels & Trolls gets reprinted in a new edition every so often, though to be honest the updates seem to be largely aesthetic these days. After a quick edition churn in the game’s early days, the 5th edition was arrived at in 1979, and remained the current edition until the 5.5 update in 2005, which patched the 5th edition rules with a little extra material, and the concurrent 30th Anniversary Edition which represented a more radical update of the game, modifying the level-gain process and adding in a skill system.

For my part, though, I swear by my Corgi reprint of the 5th Edition rulebook, with those lovely Josh Kirby reinterpretations of the original artwork; it feels like trying to add modern features like a skill system to Tunnels & Trolls is kind of redundant and steers its away from its core strength. We already have a reasonably simple dungeoneering RPG with a skill system – it’s D&D 5E – but Tunnels & Trolls stands out for being a nice pick-up-and-play game suited to solo or group play equally and which you can play with just a few six-siders. Tunnels & Trolls isn’t without issues – there’s a mind control spell called “Yassa Massa”, which reads like a jarringly pointless racist joke, but in its classic format it offers pocket-sized fun to an extent that innumerable OSR attempts at a stripped-down D&D haven’t been able to compete with.

Foundations of the Petal Throne

The Tekumel setting, designed by Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, has the distinction of being the oldest published roleplaying game world. (Though Greyhawk lent its name to the first D&D supplement, that was mostly a collection of rules and didn’t really include any setting information as we understand it.) It did not originate as one – like Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, it had been developed by its creator for quite some time before being used for gaming purposes, Barker having dreamed it up in his middle school years in the 1940s and been developing it in subsequent decades, though he did have some exposure at the time to the wargaming hobby and had been producing home-made Tekumel miniatures armies.

However, once Barker crossed paths with Mike Mornard, one of the early playtesters of Dungeons & Dragons, he became acquainted with the nascent RPG format and recognised in it a way to game in Tekumel which appealed to him greatly and was nicely compatible with some of the other gaming activities he’d applied to it. It was not long afterwards that the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG emerged through TSR, and every so often someone else tries to do a Tekumel RPG.

There’s a small but faithful fan community around the setting, but it’s never been a runaway commercial success. This may come down to two factors: the setting material has a fearsome reputation for being extremely dense, and the setting itself is pretty distant from what Western fantasy audiences have come to expect. For one thing, it takes extensive inspiration from Mesoamerican and South Asian cultures; for another, it’s not so much straight fantasy as a Vancian science fantasy setting.

The planet of Tekumel is, in fact, a terraformed world which was discovered 60.000 years after the present day and conquered by humanity, its old ecosystem cleared off, its former rulers isolated in reservations, and the planet repopulated by a mixture of human beings and various alien allies and client races of humanity (as well as alien foes of humanity infiltrating to do mischief). Disaster fell when for reasons unknown the Tekumel star system was snatched away into a pocket dimension in which it was the only matter in existence. Cut off from the interstellar empires that sustained it, high-tech civilisation on Tekumel crashed, and what you have today is the strange thing that arose after humans and their allies rebuilt in the face of that disaster and the re-emergence of their various enemies – including the justifiably upset original owners of the planet.

That’s a wild concept that has various implications in play (many of the “monsters” and intelligent nonhumans of the game are various sorts of alien, for instance), but it needn’t be unapproachable. For my money, you can get a pretty good handle on Tekumel just with two sources – the original Empire of the Petal Throne for the broad brushstrokes and the Tekumel Source Book from Swords & Glory for the fine detail.

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Playing It Straight

As I’ve previously covered, part of Allen Varney’s agenda with Paranoia XP was to reclaim the game from the morass of lazy parody and cheap puns it had slid into under the custodianship of West End Games. Part of this process was to present three different playstyles in the core Paranoia XP rulebook – Zap, Classic, and Straight. Zap was the poor cousin of the edition, the old puns-and-pointless-violence style that Varney specifically wanted to discourage. Classic was the style Varney mostly wanted to aim it – the original approach which won over the gaming world back in the 1st edition and early 2nd edition days of the game. Straight was what you got if you turned the dials the other way – more purely based on satire as opposed to other forms of comedy, more subtlety and preparation required for flinging about accusations of treason, and a slightly more functional Alpha Complex that could conceivably form the basis for campaign play if that’s what you really want to do.

Of course, one of the best ways to delineate the difference between these play styles is in offering worked examples of each. The West End back catalogue had a decent number of high-quality Classic missions, hence the Flashbacks compilation – but though their latter-day missions were, I suppose, examples of Zap play, they were also kind of shit and not really worth reprinting, and examples of Straight were nonexistent.

Thus, Crash Priority and WMD, two of the earliest adventure supplements for Paranoia XPCrash Priority was the first all-original mission collection offered by Mongoose, coming hot on the heels of the XP core rulebook; WMD came out a year later in 2005, making it the second all-original mission collection for the edition. WMD consisted of all-Straight missions (Classic fans got Flashbacks in 2005, which was more than enough to be getting on with for a good while), whilst Crash Priority in principle offered missions of all styles but went heavy on the Straight – three Straight missions, one Classic, and one Zap tucked in at the back.

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Varney’s Curated Paranoia Classics

Part of the reason Paranoia XP remains the best version of Paranoia is the way core designer and line overseer Allen Varney built in support for various different styles of play. Denoted as “Classic”, “Straight” and “Zap”, these denoted respectively the delicious blend of satirical bite and egregious violence that characterised the best of the first two editions of the game, a more purely satirical take on the concept tonally reminiscent of Gilliam’s Brazil, and the sort of pun-heavy high-wackiness goofy slapstick nonsense that the game degenerated into in the late West End era, and which too many assumed was the default style of the line.

Varney makes little secret of the fact that there was a clear agenda here: namely, to cordon off the Zap stuff into a corner and emphasise the Classic style of play as the default, bringing Paranoia back to the roots which made it such a success in the 1980s and dialling back the excesses that had driven the West End line into the doldrums over the 1990s. Different people draw the line in different places when it comes to figuring out when West End Games’ management of Paranoia jumped the shark, but most fans (including me) tend to think things went seriously wrong after 1989’s The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure – for one thing it’s after that point that West End stepped up the Secret Society Wars, an attempt to apply an ongoing metaplot to Paranoia that the game absolutely didn’t need.

Of course, if you want to help cultivate the best of West End-era Paranoia and consign the dross to unhistory, it’d be a good idea to have an updated showcase of the sort of mission you want to hold up as representing best practice. Thus, one of the first major accessories for Paranoia XP was Flashbacks, a lavish hardback compilation of the cream of West End’s Paranoia missions, followed a few years later by Flashbacks II. Between them, these two products more or less cover all the adventures released during West End Games’ management of the game line that fans care to revisit – whilst some stinkers preceded the cut-off point of People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure (I genuinely cannot recall Don’t Take Your Laser to Town as being anything other than a drably bland Westworld riff), the material that followed that certainly doesn’t measure up to the glory days of the game line.

Flashbacks

In his introduction to this volume Varney takes the time to outline differences in approach between the XP line and the 1st edition/2nd edition days, mostly so people would understand the context in which the adventures were written and be able to adapt accordingly. One thing which I note is that the bits which the previous editions don’t have tend to be the setting additions that most Paranoia players and referees seem to ignore in XP – the idea of service firms within the service groups, and of the game having an economic element, and of varying which service groups the Troubleshooters are doing a little extra side-favour for on their mission rather than just having them pick up new kit from R&D all the time, all seem to have fallen by the wayside. It’s interesting how Flashbacks, by being one of the first major supplements for XP, might have inadvertently helped prompt people to roll back those changes.

Another difference is that the adventures are revised to take out the puns, because Varney considered them a little too silly for Classic-style play (which the compilation assumes as a default); an appendix helpfully allows you to add them straight back in if you wish.

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A Quick Introduction to What We Already Know

Chaosium’s upcoming revision of RuneQuest will be the 4th edition of the game issued by its home company. Indeed, the copyright notice at the back of this set of quickstart rules (including an adventure) produced for Free RPG Day refers to this new version as the 4th Edition, though of course there they might simply want to avoid any implication of trying to claim copyright to text actually produced by Mongoose or Design Mechanism.

Still, some will no doubt see these quickstart rules as a decisive rejection of the direction that RuneQuest took for the two Mongoose editions and the version Design Mechanism produced. For my part, I tend to instead see it as a tacit acknowledgement that that particular fork of the system already has a very good expression in the form of Design Mechanism’s Mythras (which is what they relabelled their Runequest 6th Edition as). If there is going to be a point to Chaosium’s new RuneQuest, it needs to do something different from Mythras – and from all the other BRP-inspired fantasy systems out there.

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