A Gentle Learning Curve For Glorantha

Chaosium’s new RuneQuest Starter Set is very much designed along similar lines to their extremely successful one for Call of Cthulhu. Like that set, it has cover art clearly riffing on the game’s original cover art – as with early editions of the game you get a Bronze Age warrior woman fighting a monster here, but you have a wider party of adventurers with her and it’s more evident that party members are using a mixture of magic and combat prowess. Like that set, it’s intended to provide some semblance of training wheels to help owners of the set go from zero to refereeing their own games by offering a solo adventure to provide an introduction to the rules before providing a rich set of sample adventures to play through as a group. Like that set, the provided rules summary is actually in-depth and useful enough to remain useful for consultation even should you graduate to using the full-fat RuneQuest rules.

At the same time, the RuneQuest Starter Set necessarily deviates from the example set by the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set in some important ways, necessary because of the somewhat different nature of the game. For one thing, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game where player characters start out not knowing much about the true evils of the world, and which is set in the real world and real history. This means that there’s little need for the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set to offer much of anything in the way of setting material, because players and referees alike can draw on their general knowledge of the period and place and use Wikipedia or other sources to cover any particularly severe gaps.

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Children of Fear, Arthur of Doubts

The Children of Fear for Call of Cthulhu, authored primarily by Lynne Hardy, bills itself as “A 1920s Campaign Across Asia”, and it is exactly that: a chunky (over 400 page) long-form campaign which will likely take a good long time to play through and involves travel throughout China, India, and Tibet. That said, what it doesn’t bill itself as is “A 1920s Cthulhu Mythos Campaign Across Asia”, and there are good reasons for that. These, and other issues I note about the campaign, mean I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. I think it remains a potentially useful book, but I also think it’s a very, very nonstandard release as far as major Call of Cthulhu campaigns go, and a campaign which has some nagging issues at that, and I think referees contemplating acquiring it deserve to know that before they make the decision to purchase.

One of the selling points of the book is that the referee is given a lot of latitude in deciding the level of Cthulhu Mythos involvement in the events of the campaign – so the campaign can involve full-bore cosmic horror in its underpinnings or it can be a much more low-key affair. In practice, this comes down to the true nature of the two major supernatural factions involved being presented in a somewhat agnostic manner (though not completely – more on this later), so the referee can decide they are manifestations of the Outer Gods or forces from the Dreamlands or something out of a Theosophical pipe-dream or esoteric Buddhist or Hindu mythology.

However, the practical effect of this does not actually change all that much about the action of the campaign itself, or its overall aesthetic, which beyond a very few cameo appearances is largely devoid of Cthulhu Mythos content and very heavy on material from the folklore and mythology of the region. You don’t get alternate stats or notes on these things to play them like they are Cthulhu Mythos entities masquerading as such, they are very much written up with the assumption that they are those things. To a large extent, the campaign feels like it was written from beginning to end with a view to it being an essentially non-Mythos book whose wonders and terrors are rooted in Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, and a pinch of Theosophical legend, and then the “oh, you can pick what these factions really are” bit at the start was patched on after the fact. If you want more Mythos content than the bare minimum provided in the text, the “choose-the-nature-of-these-things” section suggests how you could do that, but all the legwork for implementing the consequences of that choice is left down to you.

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A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad

The 2013 Kickstarter-funded rerelease of Horror On the Orient Express was a major undertaking for Chaosium, and from certain perspectives can be seen as a bit of a disaster. Sure, sure, the product did indeed come out and backers by and large got what they were promised and so on and so forth – but the handling of the Kickstarter, and the subsequent Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, involved errors so major that they spelled the end of the Charlie Krank regime at Chaosium, as Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen were forced to step in and use their majority control of the company to prompt Charlie to resign, clearing the way for Moon Design Publishing to become the new management team.

I told the full story of how that went down in my retrospective of the 7th Edition Kickstarter, and since I was not a backer of the original Orient Express Kickstarter I can’t give much insight into how major management errors affected it. (In particular, I can’t see any of the backer-only Kickstarter updates which would allow me to get a full picture.) However, some of the problems are well known. In both Kickstarters, the Krank regime went a bit hog-wild with the stretch goals, making the classic Kickstarter error of promising a grand conga line of additional features which will greatly increase the work needed to complete the project, as well as getting overenthusiastic about making various little bits of associated merch which, whilst charming in concept, weren’t really within Chaosium’s wheelhouse when it came to manufacturing or sourcing them.

A truly major problem, however, was that they badly undercharged for shipping – a blunder compounded by the fact that they did the exact same thing on the 7th Edition Kickstarter. Even if a backer only wanted the main Orient Express boxed set, this was a problem, because thanks to all of those stretch goals the new boxed adventure was astonishingly heavy – I don’t own it, but I’ve picked it up in game shops to get a feel and it’s like it’s got lead plates in there or something. This only exacerbated the issues with the shipping costs, and can’t have made manufacture all that easy either.

As a result, when Greg, Sandy, and Moon Design burst into the command centre at Chaosium HQ and wrestled Charlie Krank away from the main control panel, one of their first orders of business was tidying up the mess that had been made of the two Kickstarters. This involved some triage – on the 7th Edition Kickstarter, a brace of stretch goals or add-ons relating to random merch and tat were simply dropped, though since backers were getting an astonishing amount of stuff (thanks to those stretch goals) for a comparatively modest outlay I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t get way more value for money out of that Kickstarter than could be reasonably expected.

To all appearances, Chaosium are back on an even keel now, but it was certainly a scary moment for them, and to get this stability an awful lot of work had to be done honouring promises to Kickstarter backers and mending bridges with various creditors. The Orient Express boxed sets did end up going to backers, and did indeed end up distributed to game shops and sold – but I have to wonder whether it turned a profit in the end, after so much money got eaten up in shipping and other charges. In addition to this, it’s pretty clear that the boxed set stuffed with booklets and deluxe handouts and the like was just not a viable form factor for reprints; the interior layout was also done to the standard of the better releases of the late Krank regime, which means a very simple no-frills two-column monochrome layout; this is not in keeping with the production standards the new regime at Chaosium now insist on for major products, and which they brought to bear on releases like the revised Masks of Nyarlathotep.

For those that are very keen to get a hard copy of the campaign, Chaosium have now put out a two-volume hardcover set, which essentially reprints the material from the boxed set in a somewhat more manageable form factor. This has not been subjected to extensive editing and revision, though apparently some especially bad typos have been squashed. Some optional material is not included, like the in-character Traveler’s Companion, though this was not actually a plot-critical document in any way; a bigger issue is that a lot of the page number references have not been updated (at least, not as of the printing of the hardcovers my copies came from), which can be a pain because of course the hardcovers have different page numbering to the original collection of booklets.

That said, if you buy the hardcovers via Chaosium’s website they come bundled with PDF and ebook format downloads of all the materials from the boxed set, and ultimately material is presented in the hardcovers in a sufficiently logical order that it will rarely be difficult to find the thing you need. (If you only want a PDF, you can get that via Chaosium’s site too, or via DriveThruRPG, and that’ll also contain the materials.) It may take a little work, but then again juggling some six booklets would take some work, so when it comes to the physical manifestations of this new version of the adventure I feel it’s much of a muchness in the convenience stakes.

But is it worth it in any format? My answer is a tentative “maybe”. I am not as enthused about running the full-fat Horror On the Orient Express campaign as written as I am about potentially running Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I do still think it is a useful resource for Call of Cthulhu Keepers.

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The Greater Festival of Masks

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a touchstone campaign for Call of Cthulhu, much as the original Ravenloft adventure is for Dungeons & Dragons; just as that adventure has been repackaged for different editions of D&D (as House of Strahd for 2E and Curse of Strahd for 5E), so too has Masks been revised and polished multiple times over its existence. In its current incarnation, it is a bit of a beast, selling in two hardcover volumes that between them come to some 666 pages or so, with Chaosium offering a handsome slipcase version which comes with a referee screen optimised to give information specific to the campaign and a collection of nicely-printed versions of a lot of the handouts. This is a bit of a contrast to the most version of the campaign I owned (and attempted to run back in my teens), The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, which released as a softcover book for 5th edition Call of Cthulhu weighing in at less than 250 pages. (Chaosium would do another edition of Masks in 2010, but from what I can tell this was a reprint of Complete Masks with a slightly updated layout.)

Some of the expansion in page count can be ascribed to Chaosium shifting to a new layout template for Call of Cthulhu products, and making some of the handouts less crabbed and tiny; the previous version of the book struggled to pack a lot of text between its covers. But this can’t account for all, or even most of that expansion. For the latest edition of the adventure, Chaosium has bestowed upon it a thorough process of revision, expansion, and improvement. The end result might be a bit of a monster, but perhaps it justifies this size.

For one thing, it’s a revered campaign, to the point where people have written entire book-length supporting products to provide further information, support, ideas, and details for people running the thing. It’s the most famed of the “globe-trotting mission to stop a major peril” model of campaign which Chaosium have occasionally produced for Call of Cthulhu – the first having been Shadows of Yog-Sothoth – and so it deserves an edition that Chaosium can be proud of. For another, it’s a campaign which is likely to take a good long time to play; there’s an in-character deadline, with the action of the main plot unfolding over a span of about a year, and it will likely take the better part of a year of in-character time for many groups to play through it. If it’s going to be a deluxe experience demanding a significant time commitment from participants, giving it a form factor commensurate with that is reasonable – especially if these two sturdy hardback tomes stand up to the rigours of play better than a softback book.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Chambersian Clues, Chilly Catastrophes, and Slim Scenarios)

Sometimes you read a game supplement which is worth taking note of, but isn’t quite substantial enough to waffle on about at length. When that happens to me, I make articles in this series. This time around, I have a couple of Delta Green offerings and an adventure book for Land of the Rising Sun.

Static Protocol (Delta Green)

This is a sort of little companion supplement to Impossible Landscapes, much as The Labyrinth had a companion booklet in the form of its Evidence Kit. Like that Evidence Kit, it’s a collection of handouts, but it’s more focused; in essence, it’s a little dictionary of likely subjects player characters may wish to research while playing through the campaign, and underneath each entry there’s a clutch of little clues provided as little text boxes with dates and salient facts – perfect for adding to red string boards! – arranged based on which sources are likely to yield that information.

This makes running research processes in the campaign nice and easy – just consider what avenues the players have chosen to take in their research, judge whether they need a roll (remember, Delta Green encourages you to let people have stuff for free if it’s fairly basic and they have decent skills), and then provide the items in question in response to successful research.

Like the Evidence Kit, this can be obtained in hardcopy via DriveThruRPG’s print on demand service, but I genuinely think it is most useful as a PDF, since then clues can quickly and simply be copy-pasted into whichever group chat or Discord server you’ve set up for your game (or PMed to players at the table). In-person, really the best way to do this is to provide index cards, write the clues on them, and let the players come up with a massive timeline or red string board on their own using them.

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Land of Ninja, Workshop of Games, and Bushido By Other Means

I took another look at my copy of Land of Ninja recently, which was the 3rd Edition RuneQuest supplement directed at adapting the system to a “medieval Japan with all the elements of magic and folklore having objective existence” type of setting. My copy is the Games Workshop release, which re-edits the booklets from the Avalon Hill boxed set into a slim hardcover.

In some respects, Games Workshop were really going all-out with their launch of their 3rd Edition RuneQuest line; 1987 would see them mounting a real blitz of releases, which would see them release the core rules (split into RuneQuest and Advanced RuneQuest), the Monsters volume, this, and Griffin Island, all adapted into hardcovers from original Avalon Hill sources. (Monsters incorporated creature from Monster Coliseum but, perhaps well-advisedly, ignored the rather lacklustre arena combat components; Griffin Island was an Avalon Hill repackaging of the classic 2nd Edition release Griffin Mountain with the Gloranthan connections surgically excised, and is considered rather inferior to the original.)

This stands out even in a year when Games Workshop were putting out classic early WFRP material like Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death On the Reik, and Warhammer City, was actively supporting their own Judge Dredd RPG with the release of its Companion, put out their hardcover version of Paranoia 2nd Edition, and were giving Chaosium more love by putting out their hardcover version of Stormbringer! and their Green and Pleasant Land supplement for Call of Cthulhu (the 3rd edition of which they had put out in hardcover the previous year). By anyone’s measure, that’s an absolutely vintage year for RPG releases from Games Workshop, both in terms of their own homegrown offerings and their licensed products, but even in the context of those impressive offerings, bringing out five RuneQuest hardcovers within a year feels like a big deal, and would have come across as a big deal at the time.

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Navigating the Unnavigable

Impossible Landscapes is a new supplement for Delta Green with an extremely long history. In its introduction its author, Dennis Detwiller, explains how since the early 1990s he’s tried to produce an epic King In Yellow-themed campaign for Call of Cthulhu; with this, he’s kind of done it, at least to the extent that Delta Green shares enough DNA with Call of Cthulhu that if you wanted to just run Delta Green material with the Call of Cthulhu system it wouldn’t be that difficult.

Taking as its initial seed Night Floors, an adventure from the second of the original Delta Green supplements (the legendary Countdown), Impossible Landscapes substantially builds on that adventure and then jumps the timeline forward some 20 years (you could fit in an entire campaign of more Delta Green investigations in there) before the other shoe finally drops, dumping the player characters into the sort of bizarre morass of surreal horror the whole King In Yellow concept lends itself to.

Delta Green has a history of dealing with this sort of thing, of course. As well as providing the original outing for Night Floors, the Countdown supplement provided John Tynes’ seminal essay The Hastur Mythos, which hyped up the potential of the themes delineated in Chambers’ The King In Yellow for a more surreal and personal style of horror than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror that Call of Cthulhu usually defaults to; Impossible Landscapes is the result of Detwiller spending a few decades refining that idea.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Imperial Enclaves, Condensed Conspiracy, and Classy Clues)

Sometimes you read a game supplement which is worth taking note of, but isn’t quite substantial enough to waffle on about at length. When that happens to me, I make articles in this series. This time around, a WFRP release and a couple of tasty treats for Delta Green.

Archives of the Empire Volume I (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay)

This is presumably the first of a series, the idea seeming to be to package up small amounts of material on WFRP-relevant subjects in broadly thematically-related collections – kind of like Hogshead’s old Apocrypha Now collections, only a bit more focused. This first Archives of the Empire is broadly based around diversifying the coverage of the Empire. First up, there’s a useful section giving a rundown of the various Grand Provinces of the Empire, as they exist just prior to the events of the Enemy Within campaign. (There’s a promise that the final Enemy Within volume – Empire In Ruins – will give an update detailing what the lie of the land is once the campaign concludes.)

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Supplement Supplemental! (Changeling Cliques and Gloranthan Glamours)

Sometimes I read a supplement and I want to say a few things about it on here, but don’t want to give it a full article; for this purpose I’m going to start reviewing such things in this new ongoing feature, Supplement Supplemental. This time around, I’ve got some slim additions to Changeling: the Lost and RuneQuest to look at.

Oak, Ash, & Thorn (Changeling: the Lost)

Oak, Ash, & Thorn is billed as “The Changeling: the Lost Second Edition Companion”, this feels like something of a misnomer. Usually, when RPG supplements are billed as “companions” – and that’s been true for Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness output as any game line – that’s usually a signal that they have a fairly broad scope, offering a diverse range of material which may be a bit of a grab-bag, but precisely because of this can be potentially useful for a wide variety of campaigns within the envisioned scope of the game. Onyx Path have used the “companion” designation for some of their own material – think the V20 Companion or the Dark Ages Companion – which very much fits the status of stuff which, whilst useful, didn’t fit in the core book for their respective lines.

That is not quite the case with Oak, Ash, & Thorn, which actually is more specific in intention and unified in theme than that. As the introduction notes, it’s pitched to “Tier 2” Changeling games. Tier 1 is street-level, low-status stuff, where the PCs are probably not the movers and shakers in their Courts and events focus tightly on the motley’s immediate needs and foes. (Think the classic mode of play of early Vampire: the Masquerade, when the overriding assumption was that the PCs were all new-ish vampires towards the lower end of an extensive hierarchy as of the start of the campaign.) At the other end of the scale is Tier 3, which are intended to be more global in scope; this is the sort of cosmic-scape campaign which culminates with you bursting into the True Fae’s homes in Arcadia to go full Long Lankin on them.

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OpenQuest and Clarity of Design

OpenQuest has a new 3rd edition out. My thoughts on it are broadly in line with my thoughts on 2nd edition, since OpenQuest is one of those games where a new edition is taken as an opportunity for iterative improvement rather than radical reinvention. However, one thing which impressed me looking over the new book is the clarity of the design and the willingness to take a little space to explain some design decisions.

The refereeing advice chapter, in particular, is extremely good, offering a wealth of advice based on years of not just running and playing OpenQuest but a good knowledge of the rest of the Basic Roleplaying ecosystem. In this vein there’s quite a good bit at the start of the referee advice chapter where author-publisher Newt Newport explains what he considers to be both the traditional elements of BRP-ish games which OpenQuest inherits and embraces, and where it’s deviated from the rest of the field in general (and its immediate ancestor, the Mongoose Publishing edition of RuneQuest, in specific).

He doesn’t call it Basic Roleplaying, mind; OpenQuest uses the euphemism of “D100 gaming” to refer to BRP, wisely giving Chaosium’s protected areas of intellectual property a wide berth, but if you know your gaming history and a wider range of systems you know damn well that it’s not any particular percentile-driven system that’s being referred to by this but specifically BRP. Despite being coy about using the term Basic Roleplaying, OpenQuest is willing to namedrop Legend (which Mongoose renamed their second edition of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name( and Mythras (which the Design Mechanism renamed their version of RuneQuest to when they lost the rights to the name).

In doing so, Newt ends up being a little modest when he refers to OpenQuest as being a “little brother” to Mythras. This might be true in terms of, say, rules complexity or big-name settings – OpenQuest hasn’t landed a licence on the level of, say, Lyonesse or Luther Arkwright, Mythras has. But in terms of seniority, OpenQuest has the edge, the original version having emerged in 2009; this is clearly earlier than the emergence of Mythras, even if you regard Mythras‘s “zeroth edition” as being the 2010-released second Mongoose edition of RuneQuest, which is now called Legend. (To recap the argument for doing so: Nash and Whitaker of The Design Mechanism did the original design on Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend before they did Mythras, and they’ve said previously that Mythras is basically the “director’s cut” of that game, the original release of Mongoose’s second RuneQuest/Legend having suffered a butchered edit.)

What particularly impressed me, though, was the clear explanation of some aspects of the Empire of Gatan, the sample setting provided here, in which Newt does the decent thing and levels with the reader – something which RPG setting designers, fond as they are of keeping secrets and wanting to keep interpretations of their setting open are often reluctant to do. Here he points out explicitly how much of the setting material provided is from an Imperial perspective, and gives a more clear-sighted rundown of what he considers to be the Empire’s positive attributes and which aspects of it he considers to be significant flaws in the society depicted.

Some might question whether this is necessary, but in the realm of speculative fiction it’s not unknown for authors to design settings which reflect how they believe the world should work (or how they believe the world actually works – which results in a world infused with their personal worldview which, inherently, is going to include some personal biases and preconceptions), and especially not unknown for uncritical readers to brush past all the indications that you aren’t meant to take the in-character statements about the world at face value.

This sort of ambiguity suits movies and books and videogames with strong designer-imposed plots better than they do RPGs. In the former, the events of the story can help tease out what the author actually thinks about the world in question. In an RPG, everything ends up filtered through the referee, and the action of the plot is up for grabs, so there’s much more scope for people to miss the point of a setting – and therefore not get the best out of it – without this sort of direct statement of “this is what this is about”.

This sort of clarity is very much OpenQuest‘s stock-in-trade, and this remains true of the new edition, making it a welcome inclusion in the somewhat crowded penumbra of BRP-derived games.

Also, there’s a duck on the cover, proving that Newt is on the correct side of history on the ducks issue.