A Grim, Dark Route Into the Old World

RPG starter sets are in vogue again. There was a time when they more or less went extinct, except for extremely desultory efforts by TSR or Wizards of the Coast, partly because they can be tricky things to produce and partly because publishers of games other than Dungeons & Dragons assumed that nobody would pick up their products who wasn’t already fully aware of what sort of game these RPG things were and who weren’t already specifically looking for the full-fat version of the game in question.

To be fair, that seemed to be reflected by the market realities; for the most part, companies other than TSR/Wizards didn’t manage to get their products distributed outside of specialist gaming shops, and many such shops were of such a nature where you were deeply unlikely to spend much time browsing there unless you were very much interested in their contents. Where a game did manage to obtain a sudden following of people who hadn’t previously been RPG customers, as Vampire: the Masquerade did, it was typically seen as the result of a catching-lightning-in-a-bottle moment which it was pointless to try and capitalise on by building a smoother, easier onramp. (It’s bizarre that Masquerade never had a starter set, when you think about it.)

The craze for actual play podcasts and YouTube series – spearheaded by Critical Role but with a healthy penumbra of other shows around it, several of which step into games beyond D&D from time to time (Critical Role itself did a one-off Call of Cthulhu episode lately) – seems to have exposed a bunch of people to tabletop RPGs lately, and whilst a good many of them will likely never extend their involvement beyond watching the shows in question, at least a subset of them are likely to look deeper.

This being the case, there’s now a plausible route for people who are not currently active RPG players and referees to discover a whole range of games which would have escaped their notice in previous eras – and that being the case, it’s suddenly substantially more worth it to at least consider doing a starter set for your game, especially if its core rules are sufficiently complex to merit providing an easier onramp, and especially if, say, your game happens to be connected to a venerable and widely-recognised fantasy IP like Warhammer.

Thus, starter sets seem to be back on the menu. Chaosium’s one for Call of Cthulhu seems to be the gold standard at the moment, and for good reason – it’s a pretty decent collection of adventures, offering multiple full sessions of play (in stark contrast to the desultory offerings of the worse TSR/Wizards starter sets), effectively teaching players the underpinnings of the game, and more than adequately setting them up to move on to the rest of the game’s offerings, and the adventures therein are sufficiently interesting that the set offers reasonable value even to experienced gamers. WFRP has a long and hallowed history of following Call of Cthulhu‘s lead: does Cubicle 7’s Starter Set for 4th Edition WFRP manage to pull off the same trick?

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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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Grim, Dark, Hot NPC-On-NPC Action

Rough Nights & Hard Days is an adventure supplement for 4th Edition WFRP. It offers as a side dish some appendices detailing Gnomes for 4th Edition – an expanded version of the 1st Edition Gnome material from Apocrypha Now! – and a number of pub games popular in the taverns of the Empire and suggestions on resolving them at the gaming table, but the main course consists of five adventures by old hand Graeme Davis.

These aren’t just any five adventures, however – they’re five adventures riffing on the same adventure format, as pioneered by Davis in the 1st edition adventure A Rough Night At the Three Feathers – originally emerging in White Dwarf, later reprinted in The Restless Dead and Apocrypha Now during the 1st Edition days, updated for the 2nd edition adventure reprint collection Plundered Vaults and now offered in an expanded director’s cut as the first adventure here.

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Wrath & Glory and Other Warhammer 40,000 RPGs Disappear From DriveThruRPG

Despite its first wave of products coming out and its core rules being pretty solid as far as I was concerned, there’s been a concerning silence about Wrath & Glory. Aside from a few mentions in interviews, there wasn’t much emerging from the design team with respect to details of future products. The game’s standalone website was still up, though it’s a singularly crap effort – there’s no link to buy the game from, only the starter set is detailed, and the social media links go through to WordPress defaults – and all mention of the game seemed conspicuously absent from Ulisses North America’s front page. Rumours floated around about poor sales, though sales figures in the RPG industry are incredibly difficult to pin down.

Now, though, a much more concrete sign of trouble has emerged: without warning, all Wrath & Glory products have been pulled from DriveThruRPG, along with all the PDFs of the Fantasy Flight Games-era 40K RPGs which Ulisses Spiele had been given the rights to sell as part of their deal with Games Workshop. The products are still available in your library if you’ve purchased them already, and they still show up on searches – but you get an error if you click on those search results, so it’s no longer possible to buy the products on DriveThru if you haven’t already.

On doing further checks, other Ulisses North America game lines like The Dark Eye and Torg are unaffected, so it doesn’t look like this is a shift in policy on their part to shun DriveThruRPG (a bizarre choice since it’d mean walking out of the biggest shopfront in the market). Likewise, Rough Nights and Hard Days – the new supplement for WFRP – is still available on DriveThruRPG (and is doing pretty well in the sales rankings at that), so it seems unlikely that Games Workshop has abruptly decided to cancel all their RPG offerings or ban their licensees from using DriveThru. (Such a move would be a bit out of character for Games Workshop these days anyway, since under their new CEO they seem much more reasonable and gamer-friendly than they’ve been for a long while.)

On the whole, the situation stinks of a licensing issue between Games Workshop and Ulisses – extending, possibly, to a full-on cancellation or freezing of the licence. Why this would be the case I do not know; a lot hinges on what termination clauses and measures were written into the licence, and as a result it’s possible that this was initiated by Games Workshop, or by Ulisses, or by both.

It’s difficult to speculate what could have prompted this, but if I had to put bets on it, I’d say that some sort of acrimonious disagreement is involved. Compare this to the situation where Fantasy Flight gave up the licence voluntarily, and were able to declare as much to give customers a chance to make a last few purchases before the clock ran down. I can’t see that either Ulisses or Games Workshop would have wanted it to go down this way if they had a choice about it.

Possibly it’s just a momentary argument about royalties due from PDF sales or something of that nature, and PDF sales will be restored in due course… but it feels more likely that Wrath & Glory is dead in the water. Whether this came down to Ulisses tossing the 40K licence away (perhaps due to poor sales making it no longer worth their time, or their arrangement with Games Workshop constraining them from making other deals they thought would be more worthwhile), or down to Games Workshop slapping the franchise out of Ulisses’ hands, we don’t know. We can only hope that sooner or later someone else will step up to the plate to handle the grim darkness of the far future in tabletop RPG format.

UPDATE: It’s been announced that Ulisses are turning over development of Wrath & Glory to Cubicle 7. Cubicle 7 press release here, Ulisses statement here.

Despite Ulisses putting a brave face on this, I feel like this is mostly good news for Cubicle 7 and Games Workshop, and a bad sign for Ulisses North America. UNA lose a major brand, Games Workshop greatly simplify their oversight workload on the RPG front, and Cubicle 7 get all the Warhams RPGs under their banner. I have to suspect that Ulisses Spiele may feel that UNA has overextended itself and have decided to prune back their American branch accordingly.

Cubicle 7 confirm that there’ll be a revised printing of the core book, which I actually welcome – as much as I like the new system, the production values on the core book could do with a little Cubicle 7 magic, and folding in the errata would be a nice move.

A Glorious New System For a Grimdark, Wrathful Future

Wrath & Glory is here! This is the brand new Warhammer 40,000 RPG system from the North American branch of Ulisses Spiele, who took over the 40K RPG licence after Fantasy Flight Games dropped it. (The Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar RPG licences went to Cubicle 7; their Age of Sigmar RPG is still coming but their 4th Edition of WFRP is pretty damn good.) Keener that I was, when the preorders came up I plumped for the chunky collector’s edition big box, containing much of the initial volley of Wrath & Glory products. How does it measure up? Well, let’s crack it open and see…

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Fisting Myself Isn’t As Fun As I Thought It Would Be

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

I’ve previously paid attention to Games Workshop/Black Library’s line of Path to Victory gamebooks, which I felt did a generally good job of evoking the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings despite having some issues with errata. Well, the third book in the line – Herald of Oblivion – is out, and gives YOU, the reader, the chance to play a Space Marine. Specifically, a member of Ferretbrain’s favourite ever Space Marine chapter, the Imperial Fists.

The book is written by Jonathan Green, the self-described “King of Steampunk” and a veteran gamebook author (having churned out most of the more recently published Fighting Fantasy books). The former aspect of his work makes me worry that I’ll be expected to play a Space Marine wearing a top hat and a monocle in clockwork power armour; the latter, though, is more promising, especially since he wrote Howl of the Werewolf which Dan and Kyra liked and is apparently fairly popular as far as gamebooks go. How will Green evoke the distinctive character of this Chapter? Will there be options like “Turn to paragraph 28 to put on the Pain Glove” or “Roll against Strength to not cry when the Sergeant brands your buttocks”? When playing the Deathwatch tabletop RPG is a perfectly viable option, how does the solo Fist experience compare to Fisting with friends? Let’s see.

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If You Wish To Worship Chaos, Turn To Paragraph 8

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Alright, fine, the next part of my Fighting Fantasy reviews has been a long time coming. I’m working on it, OK? As a matter of fact, I’ve been prodded into getting back into a gamebook mood over the past year by two things – the first being the Fighting Fantasy-themed podcast Kyra, Dan, Shim and I did a while back, and the second being Games Workshop getting back into the gamebook gig with their new Path to Victory line. Although Games Workshop strictly speaking weren’t the actual publishers of the Fighting Fantasy books, there’s little doubt in founding the series Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were at least partially hoping to provide a gateway drug to gaming in order to cultivate a new generation of customers; equally, since the Fighting Fantasy setting and Warhammer‘s fantasy world developed in parallel, both game lines ended up influencing each other a lot. And yet, at the same time, Games Workshop never seemed to realise that a Warhammer gamebook could be really popular with its customers – until now, that is.

Black Library have been running a print-on-demand sideline for some time now, but they’ve mainly been using it to make long out-of-print material from their back catalogue available when they don’t think there’s a sufficient market for it. (Or, in the case of Space Marine, where the naughty non-canonicity of it all makes them all flustered and swoony.) The first Path to Victory gamebook, C.Z. Dunn’s 40K-based Hive of the Dead was to my knowledge the first all-original print-on-demand title from them. Presumably, part of the reason for making the books print-on-demand was that they didn’t seem sure there’d be a market for them at all. In fact, when I bought the book at least the term Path to Victory didn’t appear on it (due to it being print-on-demand they may have updated that at some point) – evidently it was successful enough to convince Black Library it was worth doing a whole series of them, and so the Path to Victory logo proudly appears on book two in the series, the Warhammer fantasy-based Beneath the City of the White Wolf by M.F. Bradshaw.

In a way, gamebooks for Warhammer and Warhammer 40000 are a perfect fit for the POD side of the business – they might only appeal to a subsection of Black Library’s readership, but they’re an easy sell to those readers of an age to have lived through the Fighting Fantasy craze, as witnessed by the fact that when I got the e-flyer announcing Hive of the Dead I forwarded it to Dan yelling ZOMG 40K GAMEBOOKS!!!!! In a way, the books also represent Black Library sneakily getting back into the RPG business, if only in the form of solo adventures as opposed to fully-featured RPGs; their Black Industries subsidiary had successfully overseen the resurrection of WFRP (that’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying in case you didn’t know) and had produced the first 40K RPG Dark Heresy in house before Games Workshop shut them down and outsourced the RPGs’ development to Fantasy Flight Games (who have done a credible job with the 40K RPGs but made a complete hash of their new editon of WFRP). Evidently there’s still an appetite for crossing the book publishing and gaming streams at Black Library, and gamebooks seem to be the perfect way for them to scratch that itch.

Now that the second book, Beneath the City of the White Wolf, has come out and made it clear that Black Library are in this for the long haul, it’s about time I reviewed these things. I’ll be sticking with the format from the Fighting Fantasy reviews, with the odd tweak as I’ll explain as I go along.

Continue reading “If You Wish To Worship Chaos, Turn To Paragraph 8”