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 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.
Rolemaster, in terms of its official editions, is stagnant. I know that’s a stark statement, but it’s essentially true. No major new version of the game has come out for over two decades (Rolemaster Classic is not a new edition but a rerelease of the second edition with spruced-up art and layout). The fanbase is splintered between several camps. Some consider the original system as developed during its first and second editions to be, if not perfect, at least solid enough for their purposes, and regard the changes of later editions to be mistakes which ultimately took the game in the wrong direction. Some swear by the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS), which the consensus seems to regard as the most complex variant, perhaps because they consider the complexity to pay off or because they prefer it as a generic system which yielded some extremely interesting contributions outside of the fantasy genre, or Rolemaster Fantasy Role Playing (RMFRP), the 1999 version which retained a lot of the crunch of the Standard System but pivoted back to a focus on fantasy. Others prefer HARP or MERP, simplified systems which incorporate ideas from Rolemaster to differing extents without encompassing the whole package.
The current incarnation of Iron Crown Enterprises has, for some years, promised that a new edition is forthcoming, and have billed it as Rolemaster Unified. In and of itself, that title is making a big promise, and it’s one which is reiterated by the first line of ICE’s webpage about the playtest process.
Looking forward, the multiple variations of Rolemasterwill be unified into a single Rolemaster system. This new edition of Rolemaster will include the best of all versions of Rolemaster as well as new enhancements and improvements to the Rolemaster system for the 21st-century.
That FAQ concludes by saying that “the voice of the community is very clear that multiple competing editions are a major problem.” However, I feel like the very mission statement of Rolemaster Unified gives ICE a tremendously difficult task, and one which is perhaps impossible. Sure, it is probably possible to make a version of the game which takes elements of Rolemaster Classic and RMFRP/RMSS and blends them together, but the differing tastes between the camps mean that producing a new edition which will please everyone (or even the majority of invested fans) is a tall order – and that’s before you consider how a failure to reach new fans to cover attrition in the player base and maybe even expand it would also be undesirable.
Cyberpunk Red has managed to hit the streets, an RPG with about as long a development time as the videogame adaptation it was married to. With both Cybergeneration and (probably more justifiably) Cyberpunk V3.0 both punted down the memory hole, this is the third attempt by Mike Pondsmith and the team at R. Talsorian games to produce a followup to Cyberpunk 2020, the edition of the Cyberpunk RPG which they’d rolled back to as a result of the commercial failure of V3.0.
Set in the “Time of the Red” – so called because of a haze of pollution mingled with nuclear fallout from the nuke which took out the core of Night City at the end of the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline – the game advances the timeline to 2045, a midway point between the first two editions of the game (set in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and the CD Projekt Red videogame.
In some respects, significant changes have occurred to the setting; the balkanisation of the global network into local airgapped VPNs as a result of rampaging AIs making the old Net absurdly dangerous to explore is the big one. That doesn’t mean there’s any less daring hacking exploits – but it does mean that netrunning works a little differently in this iteration of the setting.
SLA Industries 2nd Edition has now shipped to backers of the Kickstarter project, and as one of those backers I’ve had a chance to look over it and the various add-ons I obtained. I’m not going to do a full Kickstopper article on the project, because in terms of the management of a crowdfunding project I think Nightfall Games have done an entirely uncontroversial and smooth job.
Sure, I got my books six months after the estimated arrival date, but pandemic-related delays are going to do that, and more importantly at every stage along the way Nightfall were keeping backers appraised of where the project was, with a regularly-updated table of tasks to complete giving a good sense both of how much was left to do, and what had been accomplished since the previous update was sent out. In short, I have no real complaints there: Nightfall provided an object lesson in how to do Kickstarter right as far as I’m concerned.
Still, reading over the materials has left me with a lot of, shall we say, quite developed opinions about SLA Industries. Having thought I’d got my thoughts out in my review of the 1st Edition, it turns out I have more to say about it after all. So, strap in, I’m going to try and say it all here. What I’m not going to do here is give a general introduction to the game’s concept, however, since my 1st Edition review more or less covers it. Aesthetically and conceptually, the game is still a big silly 1990s mess, the sort of material which HoL was making fun of (to the extent that I half-suspect that the designers of HoL were primarily making fun of SLA Industries when they wrote it).
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.
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?
The physical copies of Cubicle 7’s new Wrath & Glory rulebook have now emerged. For those who aren’t up on the backstory here, a quick summary: after Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop’s licensing arrangement died a death, the RPG rights to the various Warhammer settings were up for grabs. Cubicle 7 took the fantasy-based ones, and as well as Soulbound, their new Age of Sigmar RPG, they have brought out a delightfully flavourful 4th Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
Ulisses Spiele, however, took the Warhammer 40,000 RPG licence, and rather than keeping the lights on for the mass of different 40K-themed RPGs that Fantasy Flight had supported – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade, and Only War – they decided to put out an all-new game, Wrath & Glory, with a system intended to cover as many aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 universe as possible rather than going for a series of more focused games as Fantasy Flight had done.
With the design and development process handled by Ulisses North America, the first version of Wrath & Glory offered a promising start. The basic concept of tiered archetypes corresponding to different iconic Warhammer 40,000 character concepts, with the different tiers spanning power levels from low-grade chumps to top-tier superheroes, was basically sensible; furthermore, the designers made the sensible decision to not continue with the WFRP-derived system of the previous Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, which had always struggled a little to handle more powerful characters (WFRP having very much catered to the low-power end of the scale).
That said, the Ulisses Spiele release of the game had its issues. The production values – particularly compared to both Fantasy Flight’s previous offerings and Cubicle 7’s WFRP material – felt a little lacklustre, a couple of ribbon bookmarks not quite hiding the slightly thin paper quality. Some of the art looked a little off; some of the game mechanics seemed either poorly explained, poorly tested, or outright poorly understood by the designers. (Dark Tides, the sole adventure pack released for the game, seemed to assume that characters would be advancing in Tier at a much faster pace than suggested in the core book.) A number of card decks were issued alongside the core book, which seemed to strongly hope you would make extensive use of them, despite some of them being a little half-baked.
In general, a lot of small things seemed to be a bit off, which added up bit by bit to give the impression of a product rush-released in a hurry. In addition, the core rules felt rather bland and thinly stretched-out, with not much meat in terms of setting material – an annoyance to many fans, since the plan had apparently been for the game to be a significant way to showcase what’s going on in the Dark Imperium (the chunk of the Imperium now cut off from the Astronomican’s light) but a bunch of the material developed by the Black Library’s authors for the book didn’t make the cut.
A mixed reception was followed by an abrupt disappearance – after the initial slate of products was released, there was a dearth of announcements of new material, previously-announced supplements didn’t seem to materialise, and everything got ominously quiet at Ulisses’ end. Fans noted that references to the game seemed to be disappearing from Ulisses’ website, and Ulisses didn’t show up with the rest of the Games Workshop licensees at 2019’s Warhammer Fest.
I suspected at the time that Ulisses North America had overextended itself, taking on a product it wasn’t ready to do justice to, and had decided to prune things back. This may be correct, though I note that since then UNA are planning to put out a new edition of Fading Suns, and I wonder whether there might be an issue there. Whatever the behind-the-scenes story is behind UNA, Cubicle 7, and Games Workshop agreeing to rearrange things like this – as the IP owners there is simply no way this switcheroo happened without Games Workshop’s approval at the very least, and it’s very possible they initiated the process in the first place – the fact of the matter is that Cubicle 7 has how consolidated all the Warhammer RPG licences into their hands, and with the release of the printed version of their revised core book, the game is effectively getting a second edition.
The new book is not just a spruced-up reprint of the original; the game has had a root-and-branch rewrite and reorganisation. The system is broadly the same – you can take any of the (extremely limited) amount of support material that Ulisses produced and use it with this edition of the game no problem – but a lot of the criticism of the original release has been accounted for, and further rounds of feedback from the initial PDF of this revision was taken into account in the print run. Some terminology has been changed to better reflect the underlying intention, some sections have been expanded and clarified, other bits have been yanked outright.
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.
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.
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.
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 beforeadnauseum 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.