Mini-Review: A Rising Tide of Solo Adventures?

In the past I’ve been clear that I think the management change at Chaosium was overall a good thing and that by and large the Moon Design gang have done a much better job of running the firm than the Charlie Krank-led regime. Whilst the work they have done to raise production standards, mend bridges, and pay debts have all been a breath of fresh air, especially considering the doldrums that Chaosium had languished in for so long, at the same time the new team haven’t just been knee-jerk innovating for the sake of innovating. They’ve stopped doing the stuff that didn’t work, sure, but they’ve kept going with things which made sense.

The Call of Cthulhu solo adventure line is a case in point, since to give credit where credit is due its modern revival began under Charlie Krank. After a brief dabbling in solo adventures back in 1985, Chaosium largely left the field for third party licensees to play with, but that all changed with the March 2015 release of Alone Against the Flames – which, coming three months before Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen hit the big shiny button which launched Charlie Krank’s ejector seat, was among the last products put out by the old regime.

Not only has the Moon Design crew kept Alone Against the Flames in the product line, but they have also recognised just how good it is as an introductory adventure, and in that capacity incorporated it into the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. They’ve also brought back into print updated versions of Alone Against the Dark and Alone Against the Wendigo (the latter retitled Alone Against the Frost), the old 1985 solo adventure releases. Now, with Alone Against the Tide, they’ve put out a brand new solo adventure, hopefully indicating that more solo fun will be coming from time to time in the future.

Credited to “Nicholas Johnson and Friends”, the adventure has you visiting the swanky Massachusetts lakeside town of Esbury. Local dignitary Professor Harris has died; his widow is presiding over a sale of some items from his estate. But why’s a Buddhist monk from India come all this way to the sale? For that matter, who are those toughs in the sharp suits who’ve turned up? Was the Professor’s death really suicide? And what’s with that curious idol he brought back from his expeditions?

Designed to be used in conjunction with either the full-fat Call of Cthulhu rulebook or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Alone Against the Tide comes with a pregenerated investigator in the form of Dr. E. Woods. In fact, character sheets are provided for Ellery Woods or Eleanor Woods – the interior art seems to generally assume you’re Eleanor, and the stats are the same on both versions, but you get a different portrait on your character sheet and a slightly different description of your appearance and clothes depending on which you pick. Regardless of chosen character gender, the adventure pans out the same – Eleanor can choose to flirt with the same women Ellery gets to flirt with – so there’s that.

Alternatively, you can stat up your own investigator, and the adventure includes motivations for whichever of the professions available in the Starter Set you choose (if you’re working with the full rulebook you have to pick one of those professions, and indeed so far as I can tell there’s nothing you need to refer to in there which isn’t in the Starter Set rules anyway). This is kind of just a gesture – ultimately, regardless of who you are, you are interested in some capacity in Professor Harris and/or the work he left behind – but it’s a nice one to offer.

As far as the adventure itself goes, it follows similar principles to Alone Against the Flames: you are in this town, weird stuff is going down, there is a set order of events which are unfolding and thus a fairly linear timeline, but there’s lots of ways you can branch out around this timeline depending on what you choose to concentrate on.

Despite the title, incidentally, the scenario is not actually about Deep Ones! Instead, it’s riffing on the fact that a certain Buddhist holy site shares a name with a certain location in a Lovecraft story, though thankfully the Buddhist priest is an essentially friendly presence who’s filling in the same role as, say, your typical “Catholic priest who’s trying to contain a terrible evil” stock character in other contexts – his order has been containing the horror for generations, Professor Harris was being an arrogant colonialist and disrupted that, the monk’s trying to sort things out before it is too late. Though I ended up getting to a good ending without interacting with the monk that much, an alternate (and easier) route to victory hinges on you befriending him, and in general I think the character is well-handled.

I also quite like the artwork. Since this is a short product (under 100 pages) rather than a hardback – and since it’s aimed in part at people who’ve sprung for the modestly-priced Starter Set and haven’t necessarily got the appetite to the game which would make them pay out more for a more lavish product – there’s no need to give this the lush full-colour hardback presentation of other recent products, and the interior is all black and white. The interior art by Doruk Golcu and Andrey Fetisov are incredibly flavourful, eschewing excessively ornate detail in favour of a more atmospherically murky approach – I’d love to see their work gracing more Chaosium products.

Alone Against the Tide was previously released by Johnson as a homebrewed product by himself alone, as part of Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository storefront on DriveThruRPG, which is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of similar publisher-supported “monetise your homebrew” schemes like DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons and Storyteller’s Vault for World of Darkness. Whilst there’s a conversation to be had as to the merits of these schemes, I think it speaks well for Chaosium that they are actually willing to pick out the cream of the crop from the Repository, give it a spruce-up, and release it as a canonised part of the game line – I’m not, off the top of my head, aware of Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf doing the same.

Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

To round off this catch-up series on the Delta Green RPG (remember, I covered the core rules and some supplemental material in the previous two parts of this series), I’m going to cover here three scenario collections. A Night At the Opera and Black Sites are largely compilations of material previously released as individual scenarios, but I think smart buyers will prefer the collections to getting the individual ones. Both of them are quite diverse collections, and as a result there will probably be some scenarios you like and some which don’t appeal to you – but if you buy a collection then you can run the scenarios you like and strip-mine the others for what material you can, whereas if I am putting money down for a single scenario I want to be fairly sure it’s one I enjoy and will be appropriate for my table.

Control Group, on the other hand, is a sort-of campaign. I say “sort of” because each of the scenarios in it can be run individually as one-offs (or, in the case of the final scenario, slotted into a long-running Delta Green game without having to play through any of the others), but it’s presented as a series of scenarios all designed by Greg Stolze.

A Night At the Opera

As mentioned, this is a hardcover compilation of various adventures, many of which are stretch goals funded by the original Delta Green Kickstarter campaign. I got free PDFs of many of the adventures in question through my pledge level, and I liked more of them than I disliked and therefore preordered the hardcover compilation when Arc Dream presented the opportunity to do so.

(In case you were wondering: the title comes from the euphemism used in Delta Green to inform Agents that they are required for an operation. Though I’ve used the term in my home campaign, it always reminds my players of Queen albums and Marx Brothers movies; I’ve informed them that their PCs should be really worried if they ever get a message about “A Day At the Races”.)

It kicks off with Reverberations by Shane Ivey, a brief but decent introductory mission marred by the fact that it’s entwined with the Tcho-Tcho concept – and, in particular, the unreconstructed version of the concept from August Derleth and earlier iterations of Call of Cthulhu. It should be viable to tweak the investigation to make it less reliant on a “this entire ethnicity is evil and genociding them would have some positive aspects” trope – but Arc Dream haven’t done that, so still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in a time when Chaosium have backed away from the more unacceptable implications of the Tcho-Tcho idea.

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Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.

The Complex

So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.

As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.

You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.

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Delta Green’s Return To Duty

For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of CthulhuDelta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.

In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.

To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.

Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)

In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…

Agent’s Handbook

The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.

Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)

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Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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PODs of Cthulhu

Like many other publishers, Chaosium have recently established the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing. Really, for them this should have been a no-brainer: they’re a well-regarded company with a deep back catalogue, but these days people’s expectations of production values in the industry are pretty high and they also want to keep up a flow of new product. They need to be selective about what they give a full traditional print run to, and some products it just doesn’t make economical sense to keep in print and distributed in the traditional fashion.

This being the case, POD provides them with a pathway to making an ever-expanding proportion of their back catalogue available for people who want hard copies of the items in question rather than just getting a PDF, whilst at the same time reserving traditional print runs and distribution to brick and mortal game shops for perennial earners (like core rulebooks) or major releases with solid production values.

The major use of POD so far has been to make the full RuneQuest Classic line available in hard copy, but they have also put out a number of Call of Cthulhu products as POD. For this article I’ll review two of these and assess how suited they are to the POD setup.

Ripples From Carcosa

Ripples From Carcosa, primarily written by Oscar Rios, consists of three scenarios focusing on the whole Hastur/King In Yellow deal. This is a rather well-worn angle in Lovecraftian RPGs – it feels like everyone who decides they want to do something a bit different with all this cosmic horror stuff resorts, at a first impulse, to at least considering doing some Carcosa business, which ironically means it ends up as much of a cliché as “fish people” or “ghouls again” or “Nyarlathotep shows up in yet another fake moustache to fuck with people” or whatever.

However, Ripples tries to do something a bit different with it by having each scenario take place in a somewhat offbeat time period. There’s one adventure that uses the then-current iteration of Cthulhu Invictus, one using the then-current version of Cthulhu Dark Ages, and one using the setting from the End Time monograph.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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RuneQuest Classic: the Solo Adventures

In 1982 Chaosium would publish a clutch of solo adventures for the 2nd Edition of RuneQuest – the SoloQuest collection of three mini-adventures, Scorpion Hall, and The Snow King’s Brides, all penned by Alan LaVergne, who along with his wife Debra had been a participant in Steve Perrin’s RuneQuest campaign. As Chaosium’s first foray into solo adventures, the SoloQuest series – now reprinted in one volume as the SoloQuest Classic Collection – is a rather interesting early pass at the concept, and also one which raises the question of what solo adventures are for and how they fit in with more traditional referee-implemented RPG gameplay.

One thing which is especially interesting about the SoloQuest adventures is that they are very much designed to be played using a player character that you have fully rolled up for yourself. This is in contrast to solo adventures produced for Call of Cthulhu like Alone Against the Dark or Alone Against the Frost, which both gave you control of pregenerated characters (with some level of customisation possible).

It’s also something of a burden, because RuneQuest 2nd Edition character generation could be a bit fiddly, as well as having various options (such as rolling up five years’ worth of pre-game experience, which was often a very sensible option if available) which could be a bit laborious to work through if it’s just for the sake of a short solo adventure. By comparison, the more streamlined Basic Roleplaying framework that Call of Cthulhu was built on made it easier to take Alone Against the Flames and incorporate a simplified stat-up-as-you-go method of developing your character attributes into the adventure itself, as was done for the version published in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set.

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RuneQuest Classic: Six Years That Changed Gaming

After the infamous corporate drama which saw a new regime take over at Chaosium in order to save the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter from disaster, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen arranged for the operators of Moon Design Publications, creators of the QuestWorlds RPG (AKA the RPG formerly known as HeroQuest), to take control of day-to-day operations at the company.

Moon Design began as RuneQuest fan publishers before, impressed by their work, Greg Stafford teamed up with them and they became the official custodians of Glorantha. It’s no surprise, then, that one of their first priorities when they took over was to bring RuneQuest home – both home to Chaosium as a publisher, and home to Glorantha as a setting.

In fact, so keen were they to bring a distinctively, inherently Gloranthan-flavoured RuneQuest back, they did it twice. Not only did they serve up a freshly-cooked new edition of the game, but they also ran a Kickstarter to put out RuneQuest Classic – a rerelease of the core rulebook for the 2nd Edition RuneQuest rules which were the primary inspiration for the new edition. Stretch goals funded PDF reissues of the majority of the 1st and 2nd Edition product lines, and now print-on-demand copies of the reissues have been made available via Lulu.

RuneQuest may well be the most influential RPG since the original white box release of Dungeons & Dragons, so for this article I’m going to cover the entire line, taking a look at how it evolved from a scrappy 1978 fantasy RPG with an eccentric setting to the rich mythic tapestry it was offering by the end of the run of the “classic” line.

The Rulebooks

One reason why it is appropriate to treat the RuneQuest Classic line as, in effect, one single game line (rather than a first edition line and a second edition one) is that the first edition of the game was only available for a small window of time, in comparatively limited numbers, rushed out to allow for a release at the 1978 Origins convention. With a monochrome version of what would later be the iconic colour version of the second edition cover, and much text in common with second edition, it was essentially an “early access” version of the game decades before Early Access was a thing. Various tweaks were applied between the two – including the revision of the name of the campaign setting from “Glorontha” to the more familiar “Glorantha” – but the systems are sufficiently close that material for one can be used for the other more or less as-is.

RuneQuest Classic is not quite a perfect reprint of the second edition of RuneQuest – the layout has been spruced out and cleaned up, the various pieces of errata that had previously been printed on the inside front and back covers have been incorporated into the text along with a range of other tweaks, various useful reference sheets that in the original had been presented as a pull-out section are instead provided as a separate booklet, some setting description sections (writeups of various cults) have been updated to match the expanded, definitive descriptions presented in later supplements, additional text boxes with relevant snippets from sources like Wyrm’s Footnotes that further clarify things are added in, and alongside the existing appendices various additional articles of general use have been added.

But despite being an improved reprint, RuneQuest Classic is still basically a reprint, and so its quality hinges on the quality of the original. Fortunately, that quality is extremely high. Within a substantial faction of the game’s fandom, RuneQuest 2 is held to be one of the best versions of the game – and it’s no surprise that the Moon Design crew who now run Chaosium are of that school of thought, seeing how they put out Glorantha Classics in the first place. Whereas the 3rd edition worked in various extra wrinkles that many (including the main developers at Chaosium these days) consider to have added too much complexity for too little benefit (especially when it comes to modern tastes in RPGs), RuneQuest 2 hit a sweet spot, polishing the original game’s presentation sufficiently to better implement and communicate its ideas without needlessly cluttering it.

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A Severn Valley Holiday

Ramsey Campbell is one of the best horror authors of recent decades, and has sustained an amazingly high standard in his work from the 1960s to the present day. His body of work extends well beyond Cthulhu Mythos material, but the Mythos represents an important component of his portfolio and he retains a lot of affection for it – in fact, he just completed a full-length trilogy of Mythos novels that may represent some of his best work.

In particular, it’s with Mythos material that Campbell got his big break, after sending some stories to August Derleth. I’ve gone on before ad nauseum about how little I care for Derleth’s work as a Mythos author, and I have major reservations about some of his conduct as Lovecraft’s self-appointed literary executor (shoving R.H. Barlow out of the role, running promising Mythos authors like C. Hall Thompson off his turf, and passing off stories wholly written by himself as Lovecraft stories). However, as an editor it’s undeniable that he played an important role in keeping the whole Mythos thing going, and Campbell (alongside Brian Lumley) represents one of his successes in terms of providing the encouragement and advice a new author needed to develop their work.

Campbell’s earliest published Mythos stories (as gathered in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants) were basically well-polished pastiches – the sort of stuff that riffs heavily on over-familiar Lovecraftian tropes, but was about as good an example of that sort of thing as exists. His even earlier stories that he first sent to Derleth were even rougher and even more dependent on Lovecraft, to the point of being based in “Lovecraft country” locales like Arkham. Derleth advised Campbell to instead exploit local knowledge and set his stories closer to home to give them more of an individual flavour; thus Campbell’s accursed region of the Severn Valley was born, incorporating a range of small and out-of-the-way communities in the general vicinity of the fictional town of Brichester along with a distinct set of Lovecraftian entities that originally hailed from this neck of the woods.

Campbell would continue to develop the region as time went by. Realising that absolutely nothing requires you to write a cosmic story using an imitation of Lovecraft’s prose style style, with pieces like Cold Print and The Franklyn Paragraphs, he would develop an authorial voice of his own, and with later stories like The Faces At Pine Dunes and The Voice of the Beach he demonstrated that strong characterisation, social and political issues, and deeper emotional themes don’t need to be incompatible with cosmic horror, and can in fact help it: after all, the more you create the impression that these are real people existing in a real place and time, the more impact it has when something Mythosy insinuates itself into that. In keeping with this, Brichester and its cursed environs kept up with changing times, because Campbell realised that you don’t need to set Lovecraftian stuff in the 1920s (after all, Lovecraft set his stories in what were for him the present day); that recent trilogy I mention depicts a saga ranging from the 1950s to the late 2010s.

Campbell is not into Call of Cthulhu, or tabletop RPGs in general, but he’s not unsympathetic to the medium: he just finds that since his day job involves devising scenarios or imagining the inner lives of characters, refereeing or playing RPGs during his leisure time would feel too much like work. He has also been fairly generous about allowing the use of his creations in the game – indeed, Glaaki stars in one of the introductory adventures in the current core rulebook – so it’s no surprise that Chaosium eventually got around to producing an entire sourcebook themed around “Campbell Country” as a UK equivalent to their “Lovecraft Country” releases.

That book is Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places, a project credited to various hands. The main driving force behind the project was Scott David Aniolowski; after a brief introduction by Ramsey Campbell explaining the origin of “Campbell Country” and generally being about as nice about the project as you can expect a non-roleplayer to be about an RPG book, Scott spends his introduction giving a potted history of the project, which ground on for about a decade and faced various delays until Chaosium finally released it in 2001, after it began as a pitch to Chaosium, almost got farmed out to Pagan Publishing, before finally being finished for Chaosium.

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