Not Much Underneath the Animal Masks…

The Hawkmoon self-contained RPG was a boxed set put out by Chaosium as a sort of cautious attempt at expanding Stormbringer into other fictional settings from Michael Moorcock’s stories. On the face of it, this wasn’t a bad idea – after all, the whole Eternal Champion premise that underpins so much of Moorcock’s fiction hinges on the idea of a multiverse of alternate worlds. Moreover, the Hawkmoon series would seem on the face of it to be a good one to pick for a first salvo into the wider multiverse, because it’s another sword and sorcery sequence and so extensive reworking of the Stormbringer system isn’t particularly necessary.

The series in question concerns Duke Dorian Hawkmoon, who resides in a future Europe that is stumbling out of a new Dark Age brought about by the devastating wars and catastrophes of the Tragic Millennium. Hawkmoon spends a lot of time fighting the sinister forces of Granbretan, a twisted future Britain that has become an evil empire, its repressive culture represented in part by the way its citizens go about in animal masks denoting their station in life and in part by the menacing figure of King Huon, its centuries-old king who rules over the Empire and preserves his existence thanks to the fabulous technology of his sorcerer-scientists.

So far, so science fantasy. The Hawkmoon boxed set attempts to convey this setting by providing character generation rules for player characters hailing from a great swathe of Europe and North America, details on fabulous sorcery-science artifacts and terrible mutations, summaries of the Hawkmoon saga and a general overview of the setting, complete with NPC stats. Fine. Yet despite providing most of these features it still feels hollow and flavourless somehow next to Stormbringer.

Admittedly, part of what leaves me cold here might come down to the fact that I don’t really like the source material. Moorcock has gone on the record as saying that he cranked out the Hawkmoon novels in the space of mere days for the sake of earning some quicky and easy money so he could concentrate on weightier work, and is kind of surprised by their continued warm reception by fantasy fans. Frankly, as far as I am concerned the novels betray their origins as rush-written disposable trash very easily, and the high regard they are held in by some readers is evidence of generally poor taste and low levels of discernment in the fantasy fanbase. The series is blighted by flat characterisation that gets contradicted from book to book, a similarly contradictory and hopelessly muddled plot, and degenerates in the final three books (and final novel The Quest For Tanelorn in particular) into a mass of self-indulgent multiversal crossover waffle and heavy-handed allegory that never misses an opportunity to insult the reader’s intelligence.

Still, there’s stuff to enjoy there – the descriptions of Granbretan, in particular, were places where the novels really came alive (not least because it was Moorcock’s vicious autopsy of British culture’s worst tendencies), and made me feel like conceivably this could be an interesting setting to game in. Whilst it might be possible to whip what you get in the books into an interesting, gameable setting, the Hawkmoon set doesn’t quite get there.

For one thing, it gives lots of attention to the various little nations of 6th Millennium Europe and America, all of which are a bit flavourless at best and tastelessly based on national stereotypes at worst, and whilst it does give a certain amount of detail to Granbretan, it could have afforded to concentrate on it a bit more in order to invest things with the flavour the broader setting is sadly lacking. For another, designer Kerie Campbell-Robson puts in sops towards having a scientific invention system, whilst at the same time not really offering much of a robust invention creation system – a particular problem since most of the items described in the set are items from the books which play a very specific role in those very specific plots and aren’t of enormous utility outside that context.

It feels like the weird science of the Hawkmoon series and its occasional forays into interdimensional wackiness are regarded by Campbell-Robson as being the meat of the setting, given the energy put into describing them, but after this description is offered it remains unclear what you’re really meant to do with them. The interdimensional travel rules exist mostly to allow characters from Stormbringer to visit the Hawkmoon setting and vice versa, which is nice in principle but in practice if I were going to spend a significant proportion of a campaign in the Young Kingdoms I’d just bite the bullet and play Stormbringer rather than bringing in this watered-down stuff. The mutation stuff we’ve seen before in Gamma World, and like I said most of the super-science items are very tied into particular plots from the novels.

Campbell-Robson does not successfully identify a niche for players to get involved in this stuff independently of the action of the novels, which speaks to a wider failure to offer a distinctive time period for adventure. Stormbringer assumes that campaigns kick off before Elric’s saga passes the point of no return and thus takes place in an identifiable point in time in the setting; in Hawkmoon it’s not clear whether we’re assumed to be playing before, during, or after Hawkmoon’s own adventures. It doesn’t help that the sample adventures, though imaginative, end up sliding well outside the scope of the novels – having the player characters uncover long-frozen folk from the 21st Century feels like the sort of thing which instantly tonally shifts the campaign to something well outside of the world presented in the books.

Apparently Hawkmoon underwent significant further development in its French translation, but in terms of the English-language product it remains a bit of an also-ran compared to the wild, flavourful Stormbringer.

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Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance

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

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

Continue reading “Chaosium’s Worlds In the Balance”