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.
Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse is a new supplement for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons full of old material. Specifically, it brings together information of two types: firstly, player character race writeups, and secondly, monster stats. These are derived from a wide range of sources; the back cover blurb highlights Volo’s Guide To Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but these are not the only sources tapped. (With this release, for example, the Elemental Evil Player’s Companionis rendered wholly redundant: the new character types from there are in here, and the extra spells from there ended up in Xanathar’s Book of Everything.)
That said, you don’t get all the material from Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome here. Oh, sure, all the PC races and monster stats are here – but the chapters providing setting-specific deep dives into various subjects relating to monster culture aren’t here, and a lot of the race and monster entries are condensed somewhat to remove similarly world-specific details.
There’s been much debate and no small amount of culture war snark over why Wizards would take this tack, but so far as I can tell it is more or less consistent with the shift they’ve made in the direction of 5E recently: whilst early 5E materials very much used the Forgotten Realms world as the default setting, and were written assuming you would use it (bar for some nice gestures like the inclusion of pantheons for other worlds in the back of the Player’s Handbook), Wizards’ exploration of that setting seems to have stalled at the Sword Coast. Instead, they’ve gone with a one-product-and-done approach, dipping into a wide range of settings with a single hardback (or, in the case of their upcoming Spelljammer release, a boxed set) before moving on to something else, leaving the third party writers on the DM’s Guild to meet any demand for follow-up material.
Not all of these one-off settings have been entirely to my taste – I have no desire to explore Strixhaven, for instance – but some of them have been pretty good, and I thought the recent Ravenloft book was very good indeed, and it seems to be working out for Wizards. It certainly lets them make use both of their own wider range of IP – witness the number of Magic: the Gathering worlds that have had D&D supplements – as well as do interesting collaborations (like with Critical Role or Rick and Morty) from time to time, and I suspect that whilst none of the setting books sell as well as the core (because core rulebooks almost always outsell supplements), any product which cracks open a brand-new setting will tend to sell better than one which further explores an existing one (especially if that setting is as vanilla-bland as the Forgotten Realms have become). That being the case, it makes complete sense that Wizards would want to help referees separate out the Forgotten Realms accretions from the core concepts of the creatures presented here.
These are not the only tweaks made. Notably, all of the additional PC races now use the new rules for non-human characters from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which shifts away from applying attribute bonuses to specific stats. In part this was brought in to shift away from the “some races are just smarter/stronger/whatever-er” than others and the unfortunate implications that approach suggested, but it also feels like a nice way to expand the range of character builds you can try out (why shouldn’t you be able to play an orc wizard as accomplished as any human one?), makes the genuinely unique features of races (like Kenku mimicry) carry more weight in distinguishing them, and also serves the overall “we’re not making too many assumptions about these species’ cultures because they will vary a lot from setting to setting” ethos of the book. One suspects that when the new revision of the Player’s Handbook comes out in a year or two, it’ll apply this approach to all the PC races.
Another significant change to the monster stats is a change in the way monsters with spellcasting are handled: rather than being given a full breakdown of spell slots and memorised spells, the stat blocks now provide a terser set of spells and guidance on how often they can be used. This is frankly helpful: it reduces decision paralysis and spell-consultation on the part of the referee, and therefore makes it easier to deploy those monsters on the spur of the moment. If you really want to closely track an entity’s spell usage in the same manner as PCs, you’re free to tweak the statlines to do that if you want, but most referees will be aware that this is often overkill in practice.
On the whole, Monsters of the Multiverse is a solid consolidation of Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome (and a few stray things from other sources on top of that), and since it has been cooked up with the coming revisions to the core books in mind, it should hopefully be a bit more future-proof than those two. If you already have those books, I wouldn’t call it a high priority unless you don’t have much use for the setting-specific material in them and you want to save a bit of shelf space (which was the case with me); if you don’t have them, I’d recommend this instead.
One last nostalgia note: as far as putting out a new monster supplement which is basically a tweaked version of two older, bulkier books goes, Wizards are actually being old school here. Back in the 2nd Edition AD&D days, the original monster book for 2E was the two-volume Monstrous Compendium, a chunky think sold in three-ring binders so that settings-specific appendices could be stored with the rest of your monsters in there. It was eventually an annoying and fiddly way to sell books, so TSR gave up on it and put out the hardback Monstrous Manual which replaced it. Some have accused 5E of being an attempt to hark back to 2E (when they are not talking about it harking back to 3E, or being a Trojan Horse for 4E-isms, or a corporate riff on vintage OD&D/1E/Basic), and usually those arguments are a little reductive, but the parallels here are a little amusing to me, having watched this dance play out before.
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.
That’s mostly because I ultimately don’t have that much affection for the worlds in question. Forgotten Realms is so generic that I struggle to care all that much. Eberron is a setting which leans hard into a lot of ideas which were in vogue when 3.X was fresh, because it was explicitly designed for a 3rd Edition-era setting contest, so it largely reminds me of a time when I’d walked away from D&D. I was never that into Magic: the Gathering and don’t particularly care about its settings.
What I do have some affection for is Ravenloft. The 2E rendition of the setting may have had its issues, but it did a great job of adapting D&D to a style of play which on the one hand was several notches spookier than the default but still worked within a D&D framework, and offered an approach to horror distinct from the major offerings of the time like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade. 5E’s first dip into the setting was Curse of Strahd, an update of the original Ravenloft campaign (much as 2E’s House of Strahd was that edition’s update). It was enough of a commercial success to prompt a lavish deluxe reprint (mildly revised to make the depiction of the Vistani less based in anti-Romani racist tropes), and seems to have been pretty critically acclaimed – on a purely anecdotal level, I’m aware of more people who’ve played or run D&D games using Curse of Strahd than any of the other major Wizards-released campaigns.
In this face of such success, it was probably inevitable that we’d get a 5E update of the setting as a whole, and that’s exactly what Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft offers. This brings in a swathe of tweaks to Ravenloft canon, but I don’t regard that as a problem; the design team have done a good job of adding in diversity in a way which enriches and enlivens the stories and makes the setting richer as a result, and if you really want the old canon the old supplements are right there on DrivethruRPG for you to consult.
Some of the changes are more radical than “inject more diversity into the cast of NPCs”, mind you. A major shift is that the idea of Ravenloft’s “Core” has now been abolished. Cosmologically speaking, rather than Ravenloft being a single Demiplane of Dread, its Domains are basically all pocket planes in the depths of the Shadowfell (a clever application of a bit of post-4E cosmology which makes a lot of sense), and when you leave a Domain you enter the Mists and can conceivably end up in any other Domain. In other words, they are all now like the old island “Domains”, and the idea of having (for example) a consistent road between Barovia and Darkon is now gone: now the road out of Barovia goes into the Mist and you don’t know where it will take you when you go in.
When it comes both to the designers writing the game materials and the publishers releasing them commercially, Dungeons & Dragons is in a Ship of Theseus situation: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR as a whole ceased being involved in the game’s publication decades ago, and have ceased participating in mortal life in general for a good while at that (setting aside recent attempts to revive the TSR name, with varying levels of personal dignity and good taste involved).
However, whilst companies cease to exist once they have been dissolved as legal entities, human beings often kick around for much longer after you’ve dismissed them. After he was turfed out of TSR in 1985 and control ended up in the hands of Lorraine Williams, Gary Gygax saw to it that his version of events was promulgated far and wide. Years later, when the Internet was a thing and when forums like Dragonsfoot, through their advocacy of pre-Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D, were laying the foundations of what would later become the OSR, Gary was only too glad to make posts further pushing his recollections, fuzzy though the passage of time may have made some of them.
Dave Arneson, by contrast, was a somewhat quieter figure for the last decade or two of his life. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the aftermath of his departure from TSR, he would vociferously promote his own version of events, especially when his years-long dispute with his former employers over the D&D royalties situation kicked into high gear. Even at this early stage, Dungeons & Dragons was already the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG market, with success of orders of magnitude greater than its competitors, and TSR had a tendency to throw that weight around; this created enough resentment that Arneson found many willing to accept his side of the story.
Such situations where competing narratives about an event obscure the truth are far from uncommon in history, and it’s the mark of a good historian to be able to pierce through them and provide an account supported by the facts and dispelling the misconceptions generated by years of gossip and rhetoric. Game Wizards, published as part of the Game Histories range from MIT Press, is Jon Peterson’s latest attempt to do exactly that.
Once upon a time, back when 4E was the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, vicious edition wars raged across the land, and Wizards of the Coast had yanked all of their PDF offerings from older editions from storefronts, retroclones played a valuable role. They provided a means to provide access to the rules to older editions of D&D for people interested in the history of the game, and they also meant that it was possible for people to develop and promote their own material for the game without worrying about treading on Wizards’ toes when it came to trademarks – “Compatible with OSRIC” would be understood as “Compatible with 1E”, for example.
These days, however, those functions are much less essential. When it comes to branding, people have generally realised that “Compatible with the first edition of the world’s most famous roleplaying game” or words to that effect work just as well as “Compatible with OSRIC“. More significantly, Wizards have wised up and put the PDFs of old editions of the game back on sale at fairly reasonable prices. Whilst they could always change their mind again and yank them from sale once more, it seems likely that they have learned that all they accomplish by doing that is giving oxygen to the retroclone scene, and they have committed enough time and attention to making PDF and print-on-demand versions of old D&D material available that making it all vanish would seem like a massive waste of labour; they are much more likely to keep the “long tail” going.
This being the case, the classic purposes of retroclones now no longer serve that much purpose, but that doesn’t mean there’s no role for them whatsoever. Nowadasys, if you interested in what one might call a “pure” retroclone of a TSR-vintage edition of D&D – in other words, a version which isn’t trying to spin the early D&D system in some novel new direction or closely tie it to a unique setting, but is simply trying to provide a fresh presentation of the rules to a particular TSR-era version of the game – then there’s basically 5 criteria you’re going to be looking at.
Fidelity to whichever edition of the game it’s cloning. The whole point of such a retroclone is to allow you to play material from the edition in question; errors, tweaks, and incompatibilities undermine that purpose.
Corrections of errata, resolutions of flat-out contradictions, and provision of material that was clearly intended to be there but was missing in the original rules in question. If the retroclone isn’t at least as error-free as the PDFs – if not more so – that’s embarrassing, especially since there’s been several decades to spot the errata in question.
Clarity of presentation. If the retroclone is more confusingly presented than the original rules, why would anyone use it in preference to the official PDFs from Wizards? The fact that some people will be playing using PDFs displayed on screen rather than printed books – something that TSR would not have been contemplating – offers an area where retroclones can make genuine advances over the original offerings.
Improvements to the existing system where these do not sabotage the former criteria. For instance, many gamers feel that ascending Armour Class is simply superior to the descending Armour Class/THAC0 system of TSR-era D&D, and if you can find a nice, simple way to permit the use of both without overcomplicating things, it’s a nice optional rule to include.
Usefulness in actual play, something which the other three factors all contribute to. If you can play the game more smoothly and easily using the retroclone as your reference, then that’s a genuinely worthwhile contribution. If it’s easier to play by using the original material instead of your retroclone, what is the goddamn point?
These are the four criteria that Necrotic Gnome’s Old-School Essentials line makes its top priority, and they are criteria which OSE excels at. When it comes to D&D retroclones, if you are specifically interested in the B/X iteration of the game as designed by Tom Moldvay or Zeb Cook then it’s a no-brainer: simply put, there is no competitor which combines fidelity to the original, corrections of errata, clarity of presentation, quality-of-life improvements, and sheer usefulness as an actual play reference work than Old-School Essentials, which means there’s simply no better set of resources for playing B/X, the original B/X rulebooks included.
The only criteria it falls down on is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of verbose, in-depth descriptions of monsters (but then, neither did B/X), or a detailed explanation of what RPGs are (but telling people that they can look up YouTube Actual Play videos is probably a better and faster way to help people “get it” than trying to write laborious comparisons to radio plays or whatever). It’s very much a set of books for ease of reference, so you might want to have your original books handy for the fluff. But for reference purposes and for use in actual play, OSE sings in a way which the original TSR rulebooks in whatever edition never did.
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?
So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.
And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.
Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.
Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)
The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.
I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.
Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.
Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.
There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.
The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.
In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?
With its core rulebook and its monster guide having been a success, Chuck Tingle’s Tingleverse RPG has kept up a steady pace of releases. The latest releases continue in the well-worn path of other RPG supplement lines: more PC options, and more campaign setting information.
Living Object Handbook
Living objects – talking bicycles, personifications of abstract concepts, sentient Chuck Tingle novels like Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt” and Pounded In the Butt By My Book “Pounded In the Butt By My Book ‘Pounded In the Butt By My Own Butt'” and whatnot – are a major part of Chuck’s unique vision, but were conspicuous by their absence from the playable options in the core game.
Chuck had hinted back then that this gap would be addressed in some form of supplement, and the Living Object Handbook is the fulfillment of that promise. As well as adding a significant number of more adversarial living objects to use as monsters, it increases the range of character types in the game by providing some seventeen varieties of living objects to play, each of which have some associated stat adjustment and Unique Ways available to them. (If you want to get really meta, you could play The Physical Manifestation of This Game – no, not the Tingleverse RPG in general, the specific campaign you are playing right now.)