Here’s another in my occasional series on game supplements which I read and have some thoughts on, but not enough thoughts for an entire article. This time I’ve got a slightly unfocused expansion for Wrath & Glory, a couple of issues of an old-school D&D zine, and a Call of Cthulhu campaign.
Redacted Records (Wrath & Glory)
This feels like an odd little grab-bag of material for the official Warhammer 40,000 RPG, a bit like the Archives of the Empire volumes offer grab-bags of material for 4th Edition WFRP. The cover and the back cover blurb make it seem like this is a space hulk-themed supplement – a sort of update of material from Ark of Lost Souls for Deathwatch – but this only covers about a third of this supplement’s content (and since the book is only about 100 pages long that’s not a lot). Other material includes more frameworks for your PC party, a brief chapter on unusual servitors, an overview of some cults from two of the worlds of the default setting of Wrath & Glory (the Gilead system), and the start of a greatly expanded Talent list. (Literally: it covers A-I, implying that there will be followup chapters in other books covering J-Z.)
The weird thing about the supplement is that much of this feels like it’s been chopped out of a larger body of work – as well as the J-Z sections of that additional talent list, you’d expect similar cult rundowns of the other worlds of the system to exist somewhere, for instance. Still, as a sort of half-supplement-half-magazine thing it’s not useless – but I feel like it should be presented as being Volume 1 of a series, like the first Archives of the Empire book was, because it’s very apparent that this is merely the first of a series of miscellanea-themed supplements with not much connecting theme.
Cults of Cthulhu is an expansive new Call of Cthulhu supplement spanning over 300 pages, penned mostly by Chris Lackey and Mike Mason. A referee-facing book, it’s a deep dive into the titular subject matter, offering an extensive discussion of the role cults play in Call of Cthulhu, how to design sects for your own games, and some extensive worked examples, as well as offering a brace of scenarios making use of some of the groups detailed in the book.
It’s worth emphasising that the title really isn’t kidding: this is a book about cults of Cthulhu – not Yog-Sothoth, not Shub-Niggurath, not Nyarlathotep, not the King In Yellow, but the big blobby squiddyfriend itself. The “cults throughout history” section, giving brief glimpses of sects ranging from Roman or medieval times to the present day and including fictionalised takes of classic “cult true crime” outfits like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Scientology, is a series of Cthulhu cults through history. The five cults given extensive deep dive coverage, ranging from the 1890s to the modern era, are all Cthulhu cults – three are new to this book (and are each the subject of one of the three scenarios here), and then there’s also treatments of the Louisiana swamp cult from The Call of Cthulhu and the Esoteric Order of Dagon from The Shadow Over Innsmouth which do a good job of teasing out the horror whilst dialling back the racist implications as much as is possible with Lovecraft’s original material. (The idea that the Cthulhu cult is directed by immortal Fu Manchu-esque manipulators, for example, is explained away by the character of Castro in The Call of Cthulhu having been recruited in China and assuming all the leaders were similar to the leader he met there.) The examples given in the build-your-own-cult chapter are all of Cthulhu cults, and the spells, creatures, items, and generic NPC stats offered in the system toolkit chapter are all for Cthulhu cults.
If you think Cthulhu is absolutely rubbish and overplayed and are only interested in running Call of Cthulhu games focusing on other entities, that may be disappointing, but even in that instance I still think the book is of potential use. In particular, many of the issues raised in the build-your-own-cult chapter are just as applicable to other cults as to Cthulhu sects, and the examples given in the rest of the book of how to make a cult feel appropriately Cthulhu-y point to ways in which you could do the same for other Mythos entities with suitable aesthetic tweaks and distinctive, entity-specific features. The 7th Edition update of the Malleus Monstrorum would be particularly useful in conjunction in this book, because it not only offers ideas on the types of cults that accrue around particular Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but also presents example “blessings” given to followers by those deities – a concept this book runs with hard for Cthulhu’s purposes. Take the design-a-cult chapter here, cross-reference with the Malleus Monstrorum entry for the deity in question, and you’re in business.
The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.
Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.
For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.
However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…
Although Doctor Who has had multiple official RPGs, its younger sibling Blake’s 7 never has – but fear not, fans of Terry Nation serials with even thinner budgets than Who, for fandom will often fill a gap that official canon refuses to touch. The Blake’s 7 Roleplaying Game by Kin Ming Looi and Zoé Taylor was published via Horizon, an officially-endorsed fan club for the show, so whilst it’s still in the realm of a fandom product (and certainly looks like a mid-1990s fanzine in terms of production values) it sails about as close to being official as it can without actually being official.
Dated to August 1994, in system terms it’s clearly inspired by Basic Roleplaying-powered RPGs: the attributes do not map precisely to BRP, mind, but they play a similar role much of the time, there’s percentile skills you can improve by succeeding at tasks in a manner exactly like BRP, and in general it’s sufficiently close to BRP in its basic principles that I’m happy to consider it part of the extended family.
Given that Horizon is a UK-based group and I suspect Blake’s 7 fandom is generally healthiest in Britain, this might be due to the prominence that Chaosium’s games enjoyed over here thanks to Games Workshop giving them important early promotion in the mid-1980s through their editions of RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Stormbringer. If you were a British RPG fan looking to make a homebrew system and you didn’t feel like starting 100% from scratch, and your subject matter clearly wasn’t suitable for adapting to Dungeons & Dragons, it feels likely that you would consider Basic Roleplaying, especially in 1994 – an era that’s before the proliferation of open gaming licences gave you more system options to adapt, before the Internet made widespread research of systems cheaper on a budget, and when Chaosium was still in good health.
Time for another entry in my occasional article series covering game supplements which didn’t inspire a full article but did prompt some thoughts. This time around it’s a classic fantasy special, with supplements for various fantasy RPGs with long, distinguished lineages: a Chivalry & Sorcery monster tome, a significant D&D 5E rules expansion, and some material for Basic Roleplaying and OpenQuest.
European Folklore Bestiary (Chivalry & Sorcery)
Like much of the 5th Edition Chivalry & Sorcery lineup, this is the product of a Kickstarter – in this case, a carefully unambitious one, in which stretch goals were sensibly not used to bulk up the book itself but to unlock various 3D printer files for printing miniatures. That’s not something which is necessarily all that interesting if you’re not into using minis for RPG or wargaming purposes, but it’s a nice approach to running a Kickstarter regardless, since it helps steer well clear of the “we added too many stretch goals and now our core product is too ambitious” trap.
Weighing in at a shade over 150 pages, the European Folklore Bestiary is an extensive collection of additional creatures for Chivalry & Sorcery – the schtick here being is that they are derived from medieval bestiaries and folklore, and so represent the creatures as people of the era might have thought of them. It’s a fun concept that’s suitable to the game’s overall focus on historical detail, and I don’t mind owning a hard copy now that it’s out, but at the same time I think it’s a product I would have been happy to just get the PDF for.
The main reason for this is that it’s just a little light for a 150 page supplement. Each creature has a full-page illustration accompanying, and whilst some of these illustrations fill that space nicely, others seem a little under-detailed – like the plan was for them to be smaller initially and used in the corner of a page, rather than blown up to full size.
Pretty much all the creatures here fit onto a single double-page spread, and since each creature has a full-size illustration this means that around half the book is artwork. In the remaining half of the pages, the fairly extensive Chivalry & Sorcery stat blocks often take up half the page, and the written details on the creatures in question are sometimes a little sparse. Not always – some carry more detail – but often enough that this is noticeable.
Of course, this may well be that you’re dealing with some creatures which just aren’t widely mentioned in the bestiaries, just a brief aside here or there, and so there’s not that much authentic detail to provide – but it still makes the book feel a little sparse. There’s a good bibliography at the end, though perhaps it would have been helpful to provide individual citations in the creature entries to better indicate the specific sources of particular beasts. I’m still glad to have the resource, but I think customers coming to this late might be well-advised to consider just getting the PDF.
Tim Wiseman’s Tatters of the King is a Call of Cthulhu campaign released by Chaosium in 2006. It is notable for being one of the last long-form Call of Cthulhu campaigns released when Lynn Willis was co-running Chaosium alongside Charlie Krank; in 2008, Willis would step down due to ill health, and it would be after that that Chaosium would enter the period of decline under Charlie Krank’s near-sole control until Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen enacted their boardroom coup in order to save the company. The presentation of the material, in terms of layout and art and overall production values, really isn’t that much further developed from material that Chaosium were put out in the mid-to-late 1990s, and whilst at this point in time that wasn’t as incongruous as it would become when they were still using essentially the same approach in the later years of the Krank regime, it can still feel a little rinky-dink at points compared both to the nicer products the market was producing in the mid-2000s and the sort of production values we expect from Chaosium under the new management.
That said, the simplicity of the layout has made it easy for the current powers that be at Chaosium to make the campaign available via print-on-demand. The POD version is a straight reprint of the 2006 release, without updates for the 7th Edition rules (not that many are really needed – multiply all the attributes by 5 and you’re basically there) and without correction of typos, of which there are a few. (Not, admittedly, as many as there were in products from the later years of Krank-era Chsosium – Lynn Willis helped maintain tighter standards as long as he was able – but enough that it’s noticeable.)
What of the content itself? Well, as more or less anyone with a smattering of Mythos knowledge will have guessed from the title, it’s a King In Yellow-themed campaign. Wiseman has good taste in the sort of material he draws on – as well as Chambers himself he looks to Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell for inspiration – but perhaps the most important touchstone he looks to comes from Chaosium’s licensees at Pagan Publishing.
Keepers Tips is a small tome put out by Chaosium as part of their celebrations of Call of Cthulhu‘s 40th Anniversary. It’s a short thing – barely over 110 pages, in a small pocketbook size if you get the hard copy – and it’s full of short tips, little suggestions on various subjects relevant to the task of running Call of Cthulhu submitted by a fairly wide spread of Chaosium’s contributors and colleagues.
In essence, it’s like Life’s Little Instruction Book for running Call of Cthulhu; precisely because it consists of a large number of small tips rather than detailed essays on the subjects it covers (fairly broad topics like “Preparation”, “Designing Scenarios” and so on), you aren’t going to get major deep dives into the subject matter at hand. (If you wanted that, the Keeper advice in the main Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rulebook is a better starting point; if you wanted an entire pocketbook of highly insightful essays on horror gaming, you could dig up Nightmares of Mine by Ken Hite.)
Instead, what you get here is a bunch of suggestions, and a proportion of them will make sense but seem obvious, a proportion will probably be an interesting take worthy of further thought, and a chunk of them will probably bug the living shit out of you (sometimes in a way where you instantly know why you’re rejecting it, sometimes in a way which calls for a certain amount of deeper thought to figure out why you’re getting that reaction). The odds of two Keepers agreeing on which tips go in which categories, though, feel pretty slim, which is where the value of the book comes in – it’s a book to argue with, something to look at to interrogate your refereeing style and to better feel out where your preferences lie.
In the spirit of the book, here’s a tip of my own: why not find suggestions you find especially thought-provoking on this book, put them on flashcards, and use them like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies? You can pull a card when you need a jolt of inspiration when you’re developing material for a game and feel stuck and maybe it’ll help you find a new way to get past the block.
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.
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.
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.