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 only available 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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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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The Old World’s Never Felt So Fresh

WFRP 4th edition is here! As the back cover blurb proudly puts it (beneath the classic tagline of “A Grim World of Perilous Adventure”), “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay takes you back to the Old World.” Whereas Games Workshop blew up the Old World setting to kick off the Age of Sigmar setting as far as their tabletop wargame offerings go, Cubicle 7’s new edition of WFRP is one of a range of licensed products, including the Total War: Warhammer videogames and Black Library reprints, to have been set in the original Old World setting despite emerging after the Age of Sigmar release.

An entirely separate Age of Sigmar RPG, with a different system more suited to the somewhat different style of fantasy that setting lends itself to features, is apparently in the pipeline: WFRP 4th Edition, in contrast, is something of a nostalgia product – Cubicle 7 set themselves the goal of presenting an updated, improved take on the 2nd edition rules but injecting a lot of 1st edition feel and atmosphere, and they pretty much deliver exactly that – right down to the cover art paying tribute to 1st edition’s cover.

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Deeper Into the Empire

OK; maybe in my previous look at 1st edition WFRP adventures I was a little harsh, though when you’re setting material like the Doomstones nonsense against the excellence of Shadows Over Bögenhafen it can be easy to lose perspective. Having given a second look to some of the material from the period, I think there’s actually more gems from back then than I gave it credit for.

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