Chaosium’s Slim Scenario Sets

Whilst the new edition of Call of Cthulhu has enjoyed some big, thick adventure releases – the Cyclopeanly chonky slipcase edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep perhaps being the most attention-grabbing example of this – the new regime at Chaosium do seem to understand that there’s also a place for slimmer, cheaper volumes of adventure material.

I’m going to cover two recent releases of products in just this category in this article, but before I go into it I do want to highlight one interesting thing: both the collections I am going to review include in their back cover blurb a statement that they can be played using either the rules in the Keeper Handbook (in other words, the full-fat 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules) or can be played with the information in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

This is an excellent idea. Too many games don’t provide materials which can be used to continue playing with just their starter sets; in fact, the only game I can think of which has done this previously is Dungeons & Dragons, where in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was an entire run of adventures designed to be playable just with whichever Basic Set (Holmes, Moldvay, or Mentzer) was current. We’re not talking patronising shovelware either, here – revered modules like Keep On the Borderlands were part of that line.

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A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK only available on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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SAN Loss At House On the Hill…

Mansions of Madness is a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios put out by Chaosium in 1990 (a reprint over a decade later would tack on an extra scenario), based around the loose common theme of having a significant building (if not several) at the hub of the investigation. Though fairly elderly by the standards of the game line’s entire lifetime – Call of Cthulhu was a mere 9 years old when the book came out, the game is now some 38 years old – it’s still widely recommended to this day, with players and Keepers still finding much to enjoy in it.

Indeed, I’ve played through some of the scenarios in it myself in the past, enough that I think it’s safe enough for me to look at it for myself to see if it’s worth the hype. I liked the parts of it I’ve played through, but was it merely down to the unquestionable talents of the Keepers involved?

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De Weimar Mysteriis

Cthulhu in R’lyeh eternally lies
Somewhere in the depths of the sea
But soon, says the cultist
“Iä! Iä!
Tomorrow Belongs To Thee!”

So, Chaosium has turned its attention to Weimar-era Berlin in Berlin: The Wicked City, a 7th edition supplement primarily written as a passion project by David Larkins (with assistance from product line gurus Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy). This is a chunky supplement which provides a rich level of detail on Berlin as it existed in the span shortly after World War I – in which street violence and radical politics rubbed shoulders with a rich nightlife that included unprecedented freedom to explore drugs, sexuality, gender, and identity – to the period just before the Nazi takeover, at which point street violence and radical politics rather rubbed out said nightlife, save for those sections saved by NSDAP patronage.

Despite my little filk above, however, this isn’t just H.P. Lovecraft’s Cabaret – though there’s inevitably a major overlap of themes. Yes, the bars and cabarets and theatres of Weimar-era Berlin do get a close examination – as does the underworld of drugs and the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by the LGBT+ community at the time, though in the latter case the text does offer sufficient depth to note that the community wasn’t a monolith; there, as in so many areas of German life, an extreme fringe of proto-fascists existed, and the community had a social pecking order in which crossdressers and those cultivating an androgynous presentation tended to be looked down on a little by everyone else.

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Sorcerously Resurrecting the Line

I swear that I didn’t know this was coming when I put out my more recent Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd Edition review, but there’s now a Kickstarter running for a 5th Edition of the game. The rightsholders, Brittannia Games, have been very quiet for some years, but it seems like they haven’t been lazy: rather, they’ve spent at least part of that long silence wisely making sure that they get all their ducks in a row for this Kickstarter (I am particularly reassured by the fact that Quickstart rules are already available and work on the main book layout seems to be at an advanced stage).

Particularly interesting for those interested in RPG history is this piece on Chaosium’s website, recounting the tale of an encounter between Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame and Chaosium as they were in the process of thrashing out RuneQuest – it’s interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of ideas there, since I’d identified already that both games were very interested in rooting player characters in a specific social context.

Now, as I noted in my earlier, more sceptical take on Chivalry & Sorcery, Brittannia Games is not a full-time endeavour on the part of its principle movers. However, they seem to be approaching the project in a decidedly sensible manner. The text of the book is said to be complete, and they show clear evidence that the layout process is ongoing; indeed, the fact that they’ve been able to produce the Quickstart rules so soon after beginning the campaign suggests that they’ve got their layout ideas more or less worked out and it’s just a matter of working through the material. The February 2020 date for fulfillment sounds entirely plausible on those grounds. On the balance, I have decided that it’s worth the risk of backing; we’ll see how this apparently definitive attempt to present the game comes out.

Mini-Review: A Patch For Pendragon

The fifth edition of Pendragon has proven to be its longest-lasting edition, having originally been published in 2005 and remained supported by some publisher or another ever since. The original release of 5th Edition, with its cover art depicting Arthur fighting… erm… a giant piggy, came about through ArtHaus Games – an imprint of White Wolf, would ya believe it – before the purchase of White Wolf by CCP and the departure of Stewart Wieck, whose baby the ArtHaus imprint was. Wieck’s new Nocturnal publishing house was the home of Pendragon for some years, until recently it made its triumphant return home to Chaosium.

Over time, Nocturnal made a couple of patches to the fifth edition core book. The 5.1 revision, which I never got around to looking at, incorporated some errata and corrections and sported new cover art of Arthur accepting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. More recently, the upgrade to Edition 5.2 – the version you can currently get from Chaosium – took place. Folding in further corrections and embellishments, the book also benefits from an updated layout, which is delightfully clear and readable, and a gorgeous interior with subdued but welcome use of colour. Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the use of the absolutely gorgeous artwork from the Spanish translation of the game.

Is it worth the upgrade? In my case I’d say yes, if only because my old copy of the ArtHaus edition is beginning to feel fragile after the rigours of play in my old Pendragon campaign. On the whole, I would say that it’s still essentially the same take on the game as was offered up in 2005, so if you already have the ArtHaus version or the 5.1 edition you don’t urgently need the upgrade – but it is undeniably an upgrade and given a choice between 5.2 and another version I’d go for 5.2.