Kickstopper: Swirling Through History

Arion Games, the small press RPG publisher operated by Graham Bottley, has become something of a haven for games which you can think of as being part of the “British old school”, as Joe from Uncaring Cosmos often talks about – a swathe of games published in the UK primarily in the 1980s that reflected the gaming subculture as it developed here.

Specifically, as well as landing a licence to reissue and significantly expand the Advanced Fighting Fantasy line, Arion Games is the new home of MaelstromMaelstrom is notable mostly for its core rulebook having been released by Puffin – the Fighting Fantasy publishers – as part of their gamebook line in. There is a strong argument to make that, in fact, the RPGs with the most widespread commercial reach in the UK in the 1980s were Fighting Fantasy (in its basic and advanced forms), Tunnels & Trolls, and Maelstrom, because whilst all other RPGs were published by specialist game design companies and largely only available through specialist shops except for a few toy shops stocking the D&D Basic Set, the other three games had their core rulebooks published by major children’s publishers and stocked in conventional bookshops and libraries across the land.

It’s particularly notable that whilst the Tunnels & Trolls rulebook came out through Corgi in order to support its associated line of solo adventures (which Corgi had wisely realised presented a ready-made source of gamebooks they could simply reprint in order to present some competition to Fighting Fantasy). Likewise, Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy were RPG rulebooks that existed as adjuncts to the gamebook line. Maelstrom, however, was a one-and-done affair, with a short solo adventure slipped in just so that it could be presented as a gamebook but otherwise the emphasis is 100% on the RPG aspect.

The complete lack of supporting material meant that it was overlooked by many, but it gained enough of a cult following to be well-remembered, and the default setting of Tudor England was different enough from usual RPG fare to stand out and be notable (and also, I suspect, got it stocked in school libraries). Part of the reason for the lack of support was that its original creator, Alexander Scott, had been a 16-year-old school attendee when he wrote it, and naturally moving on to university and adult life made him shift his priorities and he didn’t go in for RPGs as a career path, opting to concentrate on his academic pursuits instead as far as earning his crust went.

However, just because he didn’t go into indie RPG publishing himself and didn’t produce new material for Puffin doesn’t mean Alexander Scott has lost all affection for the game. After Arion Games got the licence from Puffin to reprint the game and produce new material, Scott has reportedly been kept in the loop by Bottley about new developments and ideas for the line in order to ensure he broadly approves of what’s been done with the game.

But would Arion Games’ Kickstarters based on the game be an aid or a detriment to the game’s legacy? Let’s see…

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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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