Catalogues of Cthulhu

One of the advantages of a game line which has lasted as long as Call of Cthulhu and has maintained an excellent level of backward compatibility (7th Edition may offer the largest change, but even then you can fit conversion guidelines onto one side of a business card) is that there is an enormous amount of source material to draw on, official or otherwise, with exciting new additions to your portfolio of tricks offered up in numerous adventures or supplements.

This is also handy for Chaosium as a publisher, because it puts them in a position to sell you convenience. All they need to do is draw together a bunch of different monsters or spells together from the massive pile of adventures they were introduced in and put them between two covers, and they produce a tool that’s both handy for those with massive Call of Cthulhu collections and who don’t want to go combing them for that one spell from one scenario they vaguely half-remember, and provides a whole bunch of material which would otherwise be inaccessible for those who don’t have the money, time, or inclination to acquire all the sources these collections draw on in the first place.

The new management clearly understand this, because one of their first major supplements for 7th Edition (aside from the various Kickstarter stretch goals) is a big book of spells – so now’s a good time to take a look at that, plus the monster book whose approach it draws on.

Continue reading “Catalogues of Cthulhu”

Mapping the Trail

This Cyclopean textwall is a review of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG which got way, way out of hand. I considered breaking this into several parts, but then you’d get the thing where people start commenting and responding to an earlier part when they’ve not yet read and digested the later parts, so you’re getting the whole epic in one big post.

Disdain For Derlethians

My favoured flavour of Lovecraftian RPG is and always has been Call of Cthulhu, which may partly be down to my familiarity with the system and the sheer amount of material out there for it but I think also comes down to the strength of the original design (the lack of major revisions from early editions to 6th Edition is testament to this) and the way that 7th Edition has made genuinely useful improvements to the system (along with optional systems like luck spends or pushing rolls which help dial back the swinginess of the system).

Some of the significant improvements to 7th Edition seem to be a reaction to or refinement of ideas from Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press. Trail has carved out a niche for itself as perhaps the most significant of the surprising number of “it’s Call of Cthulhu, but with a different system” games out there, and I think you can track this pre-eminence to three important factors. The first is that Pelgrane have gave Trail it a fairly substantial support line right out of the gate, whilst much of Trail‘s early run has coincided with the old regime at Chaosium being in a bit of a decline and therefore not producing so many Cthulhu products in their own right (though in fact Trail is made by arrangement with Chaosium, so they probably get their cut out of this). The second factor which made Trail stand out from the crowd comes from it being written by Ken Hite, who’s well-versed both in Lovecraftiana and in horror in general – his Nightmares of Mine is still the definitive text on horror RPGs as far as I and many others are concerned. The third factor which put Trail on the map comes from it being a Lovecraftian implementation of the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws, which unlike most systems people try to convert Call of Cthulhu to is designed from the ground up to support investigative RPG play.

That said, I resisted trying out Trail for a long time. There is an irrational part of me which largely rejected it because it’s named after August Derleth’s absolute worst Cthulhu Mythos story, an incredibly repetitive “novel” lashed together from a set of short stories which are outright mutually contradictory – and not contradictory in a cool, evocative cosmic horror sort of way so much as a “this is a massive display of basic authorial incompetence” sort of way. Hite seems to have this enjoyment of Derleth which is weirdly uncharacteristic of someone who is even remotely discerning in terms of their reading material – tastes do vary, but there is such a thing as objectively bad writing and Derleth’s Trail is living proof of that – though Hite at least admits that his is not the majority opinion.

This Trail of Cthulhu is bad and should feel bad.

Continue reading “Mapping the Trail”

Pendragon On Parade

So, my long-running Pendragon game seems to be more or less officially dead – it’s been on hiatus for a good long while, at any rate, and nobody seems especially anxious to rekindle it. I’m not too disappointed, though, because we got through about half the Arthurian saga and ended with Arthur claiming the Roman Empire for himself, at the very height of his powers, which is a reasonable stopping point. But now it’s done, I think it’s high time I offered my general impressions on the game line and its associated bits and bobs here.

Pendragon 5th Edition

After subsequent editions expanded the scope of the game to the point of making the core book unwieldy and seriously undermining the premise, the 5th Edition of Pendragon – now published by Nocturnal Media but previously emerging from ArtHaus Games, an imprint of White Wolf – brought everything back to the central concept. Stafford casts the player characters as novice knights – the default is that they’ll start out in the service of the Earl of Salisbury – and sets the scene for gaming over the span of time covered by the Morte d’Arthur. (If you go with the assumed starting point, there’s a nice range of tables to let starting PCs work out what their grandfathers and fathers did in the time period between the Romans abandoning Britain to its fate and the rise of Uther.)

Continue reading “Pendragon On Parade”

Many Basic Flavours

As with any game with its long pedigree, the publishing history of RuneQuest is awkward and complicated and has included more than a few missteps – I get the impression, for instance, that Moon Design/Chaosium these days consider farming the publication out to Avalon Hill and then to Mongoose to have been serious historical mistakes, and given how annoying overcomplex RuneQuest 3 was and generally shoddy the Mongoose RuneQuest products often were I can’t altogether disagree with them. However, between that, Mongoose’s SRD experiments, and Chaosium’s own attempts to promote the Basic Roleplaying system in other ways when they no longer had control of RuneQuest (including putting out the component booklets of RuneQuest 3 as Basic Roleplaying monographs), there has been a proliferation of fantasy-leaning setting-agnostic Basic Roleplaying-based systems out there.

I already covered Magic World in my review of the Stormbringer RPG, due to the fact that Magic World is basically 5th Edition Stormbringer with the Moorcock scraped off and a new system tacked on the end, but it’s probably worth taking a look at various other BRP-based fantasy RPGs I’ve gathered over the years and see whether they are entirely redundant, or whether their differing focuses makes them useful for different purposes. It seems particularly apt at this point in time because the new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has made it clear that generic or setting-neutral RPGs are not where their heart is at: they would rather put out games where, as in pre-Avalon Hill editions of RuneQuest, or Call of Cthulhu, or Stormbringer, the game is constructed around supporting a strong setting from the get-go, rather than a setting being an afterthought, opting to allow other publishers to struggle over the crowded “generic BRP-ish fantasy” space.

Continue reading “Many Basic Flavours”

Proud to Be Pro-Duck

I’m reading the Guide to Glorantha at the moment, and this bit of art brought joy to my heart. Not just the awesome depiction of dragonewts – though they are cool – but how in the background you can see a dragonewt negotiating with a party of ducks.

Now, these are unabashedly ducky ducks. We’re not dealing with the sort of situation you see sometimes in D&D, where someone takes a creature whose description was originally a bit goofy and tries to make it look a bit more badass and realistic (like how Demogorgon’s heads don’t really look like chimp heads any more). No, these are not watered down at all. And that’s great.

For those who don’t know, ducks are in RuneQuest effectively as a little homage to the awesome Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comics; folk of my generation may be less familiar with them, but will be familiar with Duck Tales, which was basically Carl Barks’ Duck Comics: the Animated Series. Ducks aren’t a sloppy, crowbarred-in addition, mind: they have a very specific history and cultural place in the world which incidentally makes them total badasses.

Unseen Phil’s tumblr post compares the duck thing to the way people to the “men culturally ride side-saddle if they ride at all so all cavalry warriors are women” thing in the default setting of Reign, but I think there’s a mild difference there. Both Glorantha and Reign‘s setting are a bit weird – with Reign I personally found the side-saddle thing not especially odd, since it’s basically a cultural assumption, but found the shonky geography to be kind of annoying – but I think there is a crucial difference. Reign‘s weird bits have a whiff of “try-hard” about them, like Stolze is straining to throw in odd little things simply for the sake of being odd. Conversely, Glorantha’s oddness is richly contextualised, and so far as I can tell has been from the start. It probably helps that Greg Stafford was thinking about and developing the setting for about a decade before producing any games or other publications set in it, whereas Reign‘s setting comes across as something Greg Stolze made up on the fly when cooking up the game because he thought a more generic version of the system wouldn’t get traction.

Either way, for whatever reason I find that I can buy into the eccentricities of Glorantha far more easily than those of the default Reign setting. Anyone whose imagination can embrace wizards, vampires, werewolves, owlbears, monsters that have literally evolved to look like treasure chests for the sake of trolling adventurers, and a host of “animal heads on human bodies” creatures of all varieties but balk at angry death-worshipping waddling heroes defending the cosmos against undead horrors is welcome to take it up with Donald here.

Donald had this armour designed specifically to mock the Lunar Empire, because he’s a badass like that.

Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance

Lemmy died recently. Before he made Motörhead happen, he was in Hawkwind, who also collaborated regularly with Michael Moorcock. Michael Moorcock has written an awful lot of stuff, but perhaps his most famous work is the story of Elric. Therefore, this is a good time to talk about Chaosium’s Stormbringer RPG and its successor game, Magic World.

Are you buying this? Never mind, I’m going to review them anyway.

Continue reading “Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance”

Clockwinder General

In the not-too-distant future one of my Monday night group is going to be running some of Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton’s Clockwork & Chivalry, so I thought I would check it out. The conceit is that it’s set during an alternate version of the English Civil Wars of the 1600s (exactly how many Civil Wars were fought in that period is apparently a non-trivial question). The twist is that Parliament, supported as it is by the craftsmen and merchants of the middle classes, can bring a range of amazing clockwork devices to bear on the battlefield; meanwhile, the Royalist forces bolster their chances by turning to alchemy, and whilst most of those persecuted for witchcraft in this age are innocents, there are a few genuine Satanists with true magical power lurking in the shadows.

The default starting point for the game is the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby, which deviates from the result in our world due to it being the first fight where the various clockwork and alchemical contrivances were used on the battlefield. In this version, King Charles was captured and quickly executed by Oliver Cromwell, who has declared himself Lord Protector; however, the Royalist forces under Prince Rupert of the Rhine still control significant sections of the country (King Charles II is too young to lead the war at the moment, so he is staying in Paris with his mum). An uneasy break in the fighting has occurred as both sides come to terms with the twin shocks of the apocalyptic battle of Naseby and the sudden regicide following it – but surely that cannot last.

Continue reading “Clockwinder General”