A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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The Lawman’s Erratic Companion

The hardcover Judge Dredd Companion is, aside from a few adventures, the only substantive supplement that Games Workshop put out for their Judge Dredd RPG. Emerging in 1987 and edited by Marc Gascoigne, it largely comes across as a mixed bag of setting details, adventure ideas, and rules additions cobbled together more or less at random, and I suspect that’s mostly because it is; it smells like a grab-bag of White Dwarf articles for its first half, with the second half taken up by Fear and Loathing In Mega City 1, a Hunter S. Thompson parody in which the PC Judges end up chasing a gonzo journalist on a bender across the city.

The parodic aspect there is notable because, tonally speaking, the various writers producing material for the Dredd RPG seem to have increasingly been influenced since the game’s debut by the tone of Paranoia. This is probably no coincidence, since Games Workshop for a good chunk of the 1980s had the UK licence to produce Paranoia products and put out their own versions of the first two editions as handsome hardcovers, and both games are science fiction dystopian satires which cast the player characters as the enforcers of a nightmare regime. The big difference is that the default assumption of Paranoia is absurd incompetence on the part of the PCs, though even then as early as the 1st edition of Paranoia supplements like HIL Sector Blues were airing the idea of casting the PCs as moderately powerful law enforcers. (The impression that most of the writers here would rather be writing Paranoia stuff isn’t lessened by the decision to refer to mini-adventure outlines as “Code 14s”, in tribute to the “Code 7” Paranoia adventures first appearing in the Acute Paranoia supplement.)

Still, this doesn’t stop the Companion from offering material of use to Judge Dredd referees. There’s some rules tweaks – in particular, a revision to the way Strength is determined, which solves the bug in the first set that most citizens of Mega-City 1 ended up being stronger than the average Judge – some welcome expansions like extra special abilities or rules for designing Cursed Earth mutants, and even if you don’t run the adventures as written, they’re handy resources for strip-mining.

Perhaps the best inclusion is Downtown, the description of a little section of Mega-City One which you can hand over to the players to be their turf to patrol (along with NPC supervising and supporting officers and a breakdown of various criminal groups in there). This provides a nice instant sandbox setting which you can deploy your PCs into immediately. There’s also a nice solo adventure provided, intended to be an introduction to the Judge Dredd setting for non-comics reading roleplayers and an introduction to RPGs for non-gaming 2000 AD readers, which is a good enough idea that they should have probably put something like it in the original boxed set.

The Roots of Dredd – and WFRP?

Attempts at adapting Judge Dredd to an RPG setting have been intermittent but persistent over the years. Mongoose Publishing landed the licence and gave it a D20 treatment back in their OGL shovelware days, before producing an adaptation of the setting to Traveller which I’ve reviewed previously. More recently, ENWorld’s publishing arm has attempted it with their What’s Old Is New system, a generic system which seems to have made almost no waves and gained no attention outside of ENWorld itself (though arguably, it’s a big enough forum that they don’t need to).

The original stab at it, however, was a 1985 effort from Games Workshop. Boxed sets of this edition (complete with maps for the scenarios and cardboard figures) circulate for a fair bit of money; if you just want the rulebooks, however, you can get them separately at a cheaper rate if you look. Divided into a Judge’s Manual and a Game Master’s Book, coming to a total of 200 pages together, this provides a system very much focused on playing Judges (which I think is the only sensible way to approach a Dredd RPG) and a setting guide to the world Dredd inhabits which is dripping with flavour. (There was also a hardcover release which compiled the two books into a single volume, though this is quite rare these days.)

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