Storytelling Patient Zero

Back when I reviewed the 1st Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, I took note of the various other RPGs cited in Mark Rein-Hagen’s afterword (only included in later printings). One game which was conspicuous by its absence from this list is Prince Valiant, a Chaosium RPG based on the Arthurian newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster. Emerging in 1989, not only does it proudly proclaim itself a “Story-Telling Game” on its front cover, but it also explicitly refers to the referee as a Storyteller, works in the idea of rotating the Storyteller position over the course of a game (which may be influenced by Ars Magica‘s ideas about troupe play), and has what is effectively a disguised die pool system.

To cover that latter point in brief: in principle, rolls in Prince Valiant are actually based on coin tosses – you add together stat and skill, toss an appropriate number of coins, and count heads as successes. This seems to have been a decision made in part to make the game approachable to non-gamers who might not have dice handy, but almost certainly have coins – but whilst tossing a bunch of coins in sequence is burdensome, you can roll much faster and get mathematically equivalent results simply by rolling a bunch of dice and, say, taking odds as successes and evens as failures, or rolls of over 50% of the maximum roll as successes (so 4-6 on a D6, or 3-4 of a D4, or 11-20 on a D20).

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The Fandom Perspective

Mythic Perspectives was an Ars Magica fanzine that came out between 1997 and 2001. This was the era of 4th Edition Ars Magica – a welcome return to form for the game after the various missteps of 3rd Edition (mostly involving various kludges added to make it the backstory to the World of Darkness – including the imposition of the Realm of Reason and various unintended consequences arising from it, like libraries counteracting rather than helping the decidedly intellectual, empirical, experimentation-oriented and scholarship-focused magic of the Order of Hermes).

It was also just about the last era when producing a fanzine through conventional printing methods rather than throwing it up online or maybe doing it as a PDF download made even the slightest bit of sense. These days, most of what you’d want a fanzine for is provided much better via online communities – with greater regularity and interactivity at that.

Still, back when I was running my Ars Magica game for my now-dissolved Monday evening group, one of the players gave me a couple of copies of Mythic Perspectives (thanks Andrew!), and I’m favourably impressed. These were issues 8 and 9, two of the three issues released in 1999 – and the last issues to be put out with any regularity. (One more squeaked out in 2000, and another in 2001.)

The tail-off in publication frequency can be attributed to the fact that Mythic Perspectives was put out by Damelon Kimbrough through his Gnawing Ideas imprint – and in early 2000, Atlas recruited Kimbrough to become the line editor for Ars Magica. However, his stint in the job would be short-lived; he would be replaced by David Chart in 2001, and Chart would go on to manage the line up to 2015, thus overseeing not just the tail end of the 4th edition line but the entirety of 5th edition issued to date. According to the fandom grapevine Kimbrough got married and moved to France in 2008, where he pursues other interests these days; good for him.

The 1999 issues, then, represent perhaps Kimbrough’s inadvertent “audition tape” for Atlas Games – produced on the back of winning the 1998 Origins Award for Best Amateur Game Magazine. As you would expect of a product of the Ars Magica fandom, it’s a delicious mixture of folklore, real history, and game system tinkering, and there’s a familiar name or two in the credits – indeed, David Chart contributes some considerations on “Society and the Gift” in issue 8.

Atlas Games have traditionally been a bit weird about putting their Ars Magica catalogue on DriveThruRPG, and I’m not sure why that’s the case – they’ve been happy to put the new editions of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies up there, for instance, and have gone to the extent of putting up Statosphere, a shopfront for fan-made Unknown Armies material along the lines of the DM Guild for D&D. Perhaps the issue is contractural, because as well as putting their full range up on Warehouse 23 – Steve Jackson Games’ awkward PDF outlet – they’ve got the last three issues of of Mythic Perspectives up there as PDFs too. (Presumably their deal with Kimbrough to bring him in as Line Editor gave them rights to these but not the earlier issues – or perhaps they just haven’t been able to produce nice scans of the earlier ones yet.)

Supplements of Humanity

And so we come to the end of our slog through the 40K RPGs of a now-bygone era with the supplements to Only War. There weren’t many of these – out of all the 40K RPGs under Fantasy Flight’s custodianship, Only War pretty much got the least love. Sure, Black Crusade only had one full-length adventure put out for it – but it at least had a supplement put out for each Chaos God, whereas there were only three Only War supplements and, as we’ll see, a pretty major gap in the line which Fantasy Flight had ample time to fill and yet didn’t. And by comparison all three of Dark HeresyRogue Trader and Deathwatch got stacks more support.

Still, Only War did get a few bits and bobs, and I’m going to cover them here so we can put it in the past and look forward to Wrath & Glory

Hammer of the Emperor

This adds a nice fat chunk of extra regiment creation options, as well as a bunch of additional writeups of canonical regiments (including the Tanith First-and-Only from the Gaunt’s Ghosts series). You also get some rules embellishments (like mounted combat on horsies!) and advanced careers for most of the rank-and-file Guardsmen types. As fun as the advanced careers are for giving guardsmen a bit of extra flavour, there is a caveat: there was never a supplement published giving advanced careers for the Scholar careers – the Commissars, Storm Troopers, or Psykers of Only War – so if you have any of those in your party it may seem a little unfair to use advanced careers when they don’t have any available (unless you’re willing to cook up your own or trust in fan-written ones).

On the one hand, at least in the case of Commissars and Psykers I think you can make a case that the basic concepts are flashy enough that they don’t necessarily need Advanced Careers – on the other, it’s a shame that they don’t get the additional differentiation that Advanced Careers offer. As such, this aspect of the supplement is one you might have to finesse a little depending on the preferences of your group.

Shield of Humanity

This does the Hammer of the Emperor job for your support specialists – your Ratlings, Ogryns, tech-priests, regular priests, those sorts of folks. Emerging in 2014, it was the last non-adventure supplement put out for Only War, which adds insult to injury when it comes to the lack of an equivalent for the Schola characters – FFG were able to put out supplements for Dark Heresy 2nd edition for subsequent years so the failure to fill out the line like they did for Black Crusade and 2nd Edition Dark Heresy is a little galling.

Then again, it may be indicative of overall poor sales for the line compared to the other two games. Somehow this supplement, as interesting as it is for the support characters, feels a little lightweight – it feels like at points they are stretching a little hard to find new archetypes to based Advanced Careers around, for instance. I do wonder whether a better approach would have been to condense the material here down to the absolute best bits and use the space saved to give a little love to the Schola careers instead.

Enemies of the Imperium

Your standard enemies supplement, standing out from the 40K RPG pack by the fact that it also includes a substantial breakdown of a human faction – not Chaos cultists, not Genestealer-contaminated nasties, but regular ol’ humans. Specifically, the book includes an extensive unpacking of the Severan Dominate, an area of space that has declared secession from the Imperium which was introduced in the core rulebook.

The nice thing about the Dominate is that though in their desperation its leaders are not above engaging in gentle diplomatic contact with alien races, for the most part it consists of citizens who still entirely believe in the Imperial Creed. Regardless of whatever undeclared reasons Duke Severus might have for declaring independence, the publicly declared casus belli – and thus the reason most of the Dominate’s citizens believe they’ve left the Imperium – is the corruption of the High Lords of Terra. The Dominate still believes in the Emperor – they just don’t believe in those who claim to speak for him. And since Imperial history includes periods like the Age of Apostasy, the idea that the central government might end up deviating from the true path and that rebellion against it may therefore become justified actually has a certain currency in the setting.

The upshot is that the Dominate provides a delightful opportunity for Imperial Guard regiments to face disturbingly familiar forces and have delightful “Are we the baddies?” conversations, so seeing them fleshed out in the first tranche of Enemies of the Imperium – as well as delicious suggestions about the desperate and ill-advised avenues Duke Severus may explore once the Dominate starts to crumble – is very welcome, and helps set Only War apart from much of the rest of the 40K RPG settings.

GM Kit

Standard screen, average adventure, expanded ideas on how to actually structure and run a Guard-based campaign. Again, worth it if you want the screen, not really worth it otherwise.

Adventures

The two adventures released for Only War – Final Testament and No Surrender – didn’t really grab me. I think the issue is that for the purposes of Only War I’d almost say that the actual events of battle would be more of a backdrop and a basis for combat missions in any game I’d actually run, whilst for in-depth roleplaying and character interaction and setting immersion purposes the truly important thing is the player characters’ regiment – and since the adventures are designed to be fairly agnostic about what regiment you’re running with, they naturally can’t give that much attention to intra-regiment interaction.

Only War Can Make These Rules Seem Right

Ah, Only War. The 40K RPG based around the Imperial Guard was originally going to be a supplement for 1st edition Dark Heresy before Fantasy Flight decided that the subject was big enough to deserve its own game, it ended up inadvertently becoming the model for 2nd edition Dark Heresy in the way it carried forward and built on the system amendments introduced in Black Crusade – especially when fan backlash over the Dark Heresy 2nd edition beta prompted Fantasy Flight to revert to a system much closer to Only War‘s to retain a bit more backward compatibility.

Which isn’t to say that Only War is merely a generic rules testbed – it really goes for the Imperial Guard flavour in some crucial ways. The Comrade rules are great not only for getting the sense of being part of a large, mutually supportive organisation, but also for allowing the referee to present a bit more of a meat grinder than would otherwise be viable. The fact that the PCs all hail from the same regiment really helps distinguish this from Deathwatch (where, though single-Chapter games are completely viable, the text very much assumes you are going for a multi-Chapter party), and as well as being true to the Imperial Guard structure also suggests common roots among the PCs to an extent that none of the other 40K RPGs do. The inclusion of vehicle rules and create-your-own-regiment rules in the core book makes it nicely complete by itself. There’s Ogryns and Ratlings, which I think is the first time abhuman PCs have been added to the 40K RPGs at all.

It’s a simple concept executed with stacks of flavour straight out of the core book, which is just really nice all around. Thumbs up.

SupplementWatch

So to continue my 40K RPG roundup, I might as well go over the various supplements for Deathwatch. Perhaps more than any other 40K RPG line, Deathwatch‘s supplements had this odd split between ones which were useful for more or less any Space Marine-themed game and ones which were very much focused on the Jericho Reach, the default setting of the game. That’s odd because I genuinely don’t remember the Reach getting that much of a buzz, and I wonder whether Fantasy Flight were trying a bit too hard with the Reach-focused supplements to get people to care about a setting which hadn’t taken off. (Perhaps part of the issue is that, as the Ordo Xenos’ designated Troubleshooters, you can pretty much send the Deathwatch anywhere, and the Jericho Reach just wasn’t as interesting as any other random sector in the Imperium people could use.)

Still, the less Reach-focused supplements were, by and large, pretty badass.

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Very Fun But Overburdened

Deathwatch holds a special place in the history of this humble blog, seeing how it’s the first game I wrote about on here. Out of all the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs it’s by far the most pure and simple in its tone; you play Space Marines assigned to the Deathwatch, a body whose members are drawn from all the different Space Marine Chapters out there in order to provide Astartes-scale backup for the Ordo Xenos. This obviously and naturally lends itself to mission-based, violence-oriented, alien-blasting gameplay. The Deathwatch concept is a nice, setting-supported angle to allow for PCs of different Space Marine Chapters to go on missions together, but the system is also robust enough that you can absolutely run a game based around a single Chapter, and there’s some quite nice rules for squad-based abilities and the like and the sacred history of your power armour and gunning down massed hordes of low-powered enemies.

The main problem with the game is that it’s built on the Dark Heresy chassis, which in turn was based on extending the WFRP system in directions it had never been intended to really accommodate. Whilst that just about works for the purpose of Dark Heresy provided you’re willing to play it as the low-power high-threat WFRP-in-space version the rules suggest, for the purposes of handling Space Marines it requires tacking on heaps of stat boosts and Talents (the FFG-era 40K RPG equivalent of Feats, with all the niggling exceptions and rulebook-flipping that entails), and pitching them against enemies with a similarly burdensome amount of game mechanical widgets.

It’s for this reason that I am less grumpy about the new 40K RPG expected for 2018, Wrath & Glory, ditching the Dark Heresy-era system in favour of a new one than I was about WFRP3 ditching the WFRP system. For one thing, they are at least having the decency to give the new RPG a different name, so it’s not like it’s claiming to be the inheritor of the legacy of a previous game whose approach it’s completely dispensing with. For another, they apparently intend to build Wrath & Glory from the ground up with an eye to making a system which can account for characters at a range of power tiers smoothly, and even provide ways for low-powered characters to adventure with a high-level party and still make useful and important contributions.

That all sounds great and the sort of stuff you need to do to produce a general system which can handle the full variety of player characters people might wish to play in a 40K-based game, and is exactly what Fantasy Flight didn’t do. (Ross Watson is developing the system and he was the lead designer on Deathwatch, and I suspect the frustrations he must have faced trying to make Space Marines work smoothly in the Dark Heresy model have left him with all sorts of ideas about how to accomplish this.) We’ll never know what Black Industries’ original plan was for when they got around to doing Deathwatch (it’s the third of the planned trilogy of games they originally conceptualised before they were shut down and the line was licensed to Fantasy Flight), but as it stands Fantasy Flight seemed to take the approach that you can just keep tacking stuff onto a character sheet and people will keep following it.

Now, to be fair, especially if you just relax and stop worrying too much about tracking every single little Talent and power every entity have, Deathwatch works reasonably well. However, it’s still stiffer and slower than a high-octane Space Marine battle really should be, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that the system is straining to handle all sorts of stuff it was never really meant to. I still have a certain affection for it, but out of all the 40K RPG systems it’s the one I suspect will be come most redundant for my purposes once Wrath & Glory‘s Space Marine support gets fleshed out.

Supplemental Trade

Like I argued in my recent postRogue Trader was one of those games where it really only reached its full potential over the course of the supplement line. Since a Bundle of Holding containing all this material cannot be too far off, given the recent Dark Heresy bundles, it seems timely to look over the support line now.

Into the Storm

This is your generic “pile of additional stuff” supplement, the sort of major general-purpose release that followed the lead of The Inquisitor’s Handbook that most of the early run of the 40K RPGs got. (From Black Crusade onwards the sort of material which was found here got distributed among themed supplements, like the Ordo-specific books for 2nd edition Dark Heresy or the God-specific supplements for Black Crusade.) You get a host of new character generation options, new equipment, vehicle rules, more starship stuff, more psychic powers, and so on. Perhaps the most exciting addition are career paths for playing ork and kroot mercenaries, adding that gonzo “aliens in the crew” element that the core book was missing, but I also quite like the new background paths that apply the character path idea to the backstory of your starship or Warrant of Trade.

Hostile Acquisitions

This is to Rogue Trader as The Radical’s Handbook was to Dark Heresy – a handy supplement giving all sorts of extra options and stuff for those who want to go truly rogue and do flat-out criminal stuff that’ll get the Imperial authorities annoyed at them (and I suspect any particular Rogue Trader crew that is at all interesting will be at least tempted at points to do this). There’s also the lowdown on the various enforcement options the Imperium has, as well as a nice career path-based system for making a suitable nemesis for the player characters.

Faith and Coin

This is the missionary-themed supplement, but – perhaps because Blood of Martyrs over in the Dark Heresy line had slightly stolen its thunder – it seems a bit thin to me. It has much less widely-applicable, general-purpose religion stuff than I expected, and way more in the way of Koronus Expanse-specific stuff, with a bunch of details mostly revolving around one Imperial Saint’s story and the missionaries that followed them. It’s OK, but if you aren’t using the Expanse it’s of somewhat more limited utility.

The Navis Primer

This digs into the various extranormal human player character options available – both psyker Astropaths and the mutant Navigators, with particularly welcome details of the various Navigator houses. The expanded discussion of how Warp travel actually works from the Navigator’s perspective is especially welcome.

Battlefleet Koronus

This is your big fat expanded shipbuilding book, including a bunch of Imperial Navy ships and the sort of ships they end up tangling against and some setting detail on the Imperial navy.

Edge of the Abyss

This is a largely fluff-focused book which attempts to flesh out the Koronus Expanse, though for me it’s too little, too late – it still fails to provide me with a really distinctive hook that makes me sit up, pay attention, and really get excited about the setting.

Stars of Iniquity

This is the sandbox support that the game had badly needed. As well as tables to help you generate your own homebrewed star systems, it also includes a welcome discussion of planetside adventures, as well as the process of setting up Imperial colonies and using them as part of your nascent fiefdom. Arriving in 2012 it was among the last books put out for Rogue Trader (Faith and Coin was the only one to come out in 2013 and then that was it), and I can’t help but feel that the game line badly needed it much, much earlier.

The Koronus Bestiary

Unlike the monster book for Dark Heresy (Creatures Anathema), this includes more details on more iconic Warhammer 40,000 aliens like Orks and Eldar. You’ll ideally want Battlefleet Koronus to get the full variety of alien ships too.

GM Kit

The usual screen (with portrait-orientation panels instead of landscape orientation, ugh), the usual disposable adventure, plus a rules snippet. The rules snippet provides some random tables for star system generation (made redundant by the much more detailed material in Stars of Iniquity) and for random enemy ship encounters.

Adventures

As with Dark Heresy, I wasn’t too taken with most of the adventure material for Rogue TraderForsaken Bounty, the Free RPG Day adventure, is nothing to write home about (particularly given the space required to explain the system in the first place). Lure of the Expanse relies on too much railroading, with a frustrating outcome that relies on the main thing the characters have been striving for being arbitrarily snatched away from them; I ran it when it came out because I didn’t have time to develop something more homebrewed at the time, but I modified it extensively. The Warpstorm Trilogy follows the lead of the various adventure trilogies in Dark Heresy, and is as uninspiring as they are.

The major exception is The Soul Reaver, which involves the PCs in an audacious plot to infiltrate the Nexus of Shadows, a Dark Eldar trading port in the webway where they welcome all-comers – provided that those visit show sufficient grit and strength to not just get immediately enslaved – in order to steal the unique ship that exists at his heart in support of a coup attempt.

Part of what I like about it is the Nexus of Shadows itself. Whilst most adventures Fantasy Flight put out for the various 40K RPGs followed the lead of the original Shadows Over Bögenhafen in providing a mini-gazetteer of the main location of the adventure, but compared to Bögenhafen these tend to be rather slim. I think the reason I like the equivalent here is that the Nexus of Shadows is consciously designed as a location that PCs might return to later on, and so is described with sufficient extra depth for that purpose, plus it’s a very different location from what we are used to. Most particularly, it’s a melting pot setting ruled over by a non-Imperial, non-human species, which is the sort of thing which Rogue Trader absolutely cries out for. You had this sort of Mos Eisley-esque place in the original 1980s Rogue Trader iteration of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and it’s nice to have one here. Another useful factor is that the adventure gives the players an enormous amount of freedom in how they meet their goals, with any particular approach being supported and not too much space wasted on prescripted encounters which might never happen or wouldn’t follow the script even if they did happen.

The best thing about the adventure, though, is the mini-supplement that takes up the last third or so of the book that gives you all you need to play a Dark Eldar warrior in Rogue Trader. Astonishingly, Fantasy Flight never did the Eldar supplement that fans were crying out for, but they did bother to provide this.

The main issue with The Soul Reaver is that it really screams out for a group who’ll be down for working with a Dark Eldar Kabal leader to get into the plot. Oh, sure, there’s suggestions for how they could be blackmailed into it – but PCs have this remarkable tendency to say “Fuck you, do your worst” in such situations. Plus given that it’s Dark Eldar a certain amount of mutual trust between group members will be needed to avoid the game drifting unwanted into “Magical Realm“-type let’s-play-my-fetishes territory. (I mean, check out that cover.)

Still, for a sufficiently renegade Rogue Trader it’s a delightful opportunity. Even though the ending is yet another “the main thing you were after gets denied to you” twist, odds are the PCs leave with a major stake in the future of the Nexus, which is a decidedly worthwhile consolation prize and may actually be better than owning an extra ship anyway.