Non-Euclidian Training Wheels

Chaosium’s new Starter Set for Call of Cthulhu, whilst attractively presented, doesn’t seem to have required an awful amount of work in terms of generating raw text. The individual components seem to have been drawn together from a range of existing products Chaosium had to hand, to an extent where those who already have an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection probably already own a lot of it. That said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and, of course, anyone who already has an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection doesn’t need the Starter Set in the first place.

Along with a set of dice, some pregenerated player characters and some blank character sheets, and nice printouts of the player handouts for, the box comes with three handsome booklets. The first offers a brief introduction to the concept of the game and then follows the example of the classic “Red Box” Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set by Frank Mentzer by using a solo adventure to teach the basic concepts of the system. Specifically, the solo adventure in question is Alone Against the Flames, which is actually fairly substantial as far as such things go and is probably as decent an introduction to the system as could be offered in this format.

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Some Neat Pendragon Things

So a while back I managed to get my hand on a few pre-5th Edition Pendragon bits and pieces, and I could have sworn I’d reviewed them here but I hadn’t, so here’s my quick thoughts on them.

First up was a nice boxed set of 1st Edition Pendragon. Interesting in part as a historical item, it’s notable just how much of the structure of the game was in place right there from the start – in particular, the revolutionary personality trait and passion system was right there. 5th Edition is a bit more focused in the way the core book assumes that your homeland is Salisbury, which is sensible for making characters for the Great Pendragon Campaign framework because that’s at the heart of the action at the start of that, but this box was designed before that framework was in place and so offers character gen for knights from a range of homelands.

Whilst Stafford does note that the presence of female knights is, by default, assumed to be not a thing, he does point out that this is largely an upshot of the original troubadours writing to the social norms of their time, and that as residents of modern times we have the capacity both to work in our own ideas and draw on concepts and traditions of warrior women that the original troubadours might not have had access to. The set is also nicely rounded out with a poster map of Arthurian Britain, which will enhance play with any edition of the game.

The 4th Edition of the game is a big fat book and, unfortunately, lacks the focus of other editions. A desire to broaden the game opens up a range of non-knightly character generation options, including magicians, whereas I’m of the view that magic is not really a tool for PCs to use in a reliable, repeatable way in a Pendragon game – rather, it should be an environmental factor encountered in adventures, something outside of the PCs’ control and common experience most of the time which spices things up whenever it appears. In general, this dilution of Stafford’s original concept is unwelcome.

That said, 4th Edition did have some interesting supplements, such as Pagan Shore – a treatment of Ireland sufficiently definitive that the 5th Edition Great Pendragon Campaign actually recommends you consult it if the PCs go there. Penned by John Carnahan, it offers a view of a world derived from Irish mythology mashed up with an invasion from across the Irish Sea inspired in part by Henry II’s campaigns, offering the sort of mashup of history and mythology which has been part of the whole Arthurian deal ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth did his thing.

Games Workshop’s Forgotten RuneQuest

When it comes to discussions of the different versions of RuneQuest, some editions naturally have more advocates than others. 1st Edition doesn’t seem to be widely discussed, I suspect due to a combination of a) it not actually being sold for that long before it got replaced by 2nd Edition and b) 2nd Edition largely being an updated version of it. 2nd Edition has many fans and advocates, particularly Glorantha fans who appreciate how Glorantha was intimately tied into the system, and that’s largely guided the design of the latest edition. 1984’s 3rd Edition is a little divisive; some fans appreciate the extra detail it offers and prefer the fact that it is less tied to Glorantha (though the magic systems are 100% derived from the Gloranthan metaphysic), whilst others feel like it went a bit too deep down the high-crunch rabbithole for too little return.

(The current powers that be at Chaosium seem to take this stance, and indeed have taken this stance for a good long time; Michael O’Brien, current Vice President of Chaosium, put out this article on his website and through the Tales of the Reaching Moon fanzine aeons ago back when he was just a regular fan like the rest of us and not one of the Chaosium head honchos. Seeing how the current Chaosium regime is made up of the Moon Design folks, and Moon Design grew out of Tales of the Reaching Moon. Seeing how recent statements by Chaosium leadership suggest that they still consider 3rd Edition to have been a bit of a misstep – not least because it meant that Chaosium lost control of the RuneQuest trademark for a long period of time, I don’t see much reason to think that their opinions have changed that much in the intervening time.)

Then you have the two Mongoose editions, which don’t seem to have many advocates; the first one seemed thrown together quickly and cheaply and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone seriously claiming it was their favourite version, whilst the second version is generally held to have been butchered by editing; it survives as Legend, but doesn’t seem to have gained much traction, not least because its main designers went to set up the Design Mechanism and publish RuneQuest 6 (now known as Mythras), providing a much stronger version of their vision for the game. This edition does have its advocates, mainly from folk who are happy with high crunch and appreciate the wide range of combat options it delivers and don’t mind that it isn’t closely tied to Glorantha.

There is, however, another RuneQuest edition which doesn’t get so widely discussed – or when it is considered, it’s lumped in with the standard Avalon Hill presentation of 3rd Edition RuneQuest (whether that be in the form of booklets in a boxed set, as Avalon Hill initially presented it, or as a big fat book compiling the booklets as they shifted to midway through the edition’s run). This would be Games Workshop’s presentation of 3rd Edition, which came out in a set of hardcover volumes in 1987, some 4 years after RuneQuest 3rd Edition debuted.

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Dragonmeet Hoard: Rifts

One of the cornerstones of Dragonmeet is the bring-and-buy sale, and on the sale stall this time for the deliciously small price of £5 was a much-battered, clearly extensively used in play copy of 1st edition Rifts.

Rifts is pretty infamous, as is its author Kevin Siembieda and his publishing company Palladium Books, but that infamy seems to me to be a bit patchy. I’ve always had the impression that Palladium fandom was the sort of thing which was very regionally concentrated; you had tight clusters of Palladium fans here and there where their games had taken off, and outside of those bubbles you had numerous gamers who either write them off entirely as juvenile nonsense or haven’t heard of them.

To be fair, in the intervening years since Rifts came out Palladium have done their reputation few favours. Former employees and freelancers have talked of how difficult it can be to work with Siembieda, with this RPG.net post from Bill Coffin being a particularly evocative example. The company’s public-facing communications are usually heavily focused on making a sale to you – which arguably is the case for most PR statements issued by any company, but Palladium’s sales pitch comes across as particularly strident, artless, and nakedly hucksterish; a bit too much like a used car salesperson desperately trying to close a deal, and in a way which can put people’s back up.

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Dragonmeet Hoard: Ryuutama

What the hell is “Natural Fantasy”? Atsuhiro Okada’s Ryuutama bills itself as a “natural fantasy” roleplaying game, but it doesn’t really give much of an overt definition of that. So far as I can tell, the general aim of the game is to provide an experience reminiscent of the Dragon Quest or early Final Fantasy games in terms of having a charmingly wholesome atmosphere, a lot of travel, slimes as a low-level adversary in combat, and adorable artwork. There’s also a certain emphasis in the setting background on the idea that the world is a natural, interconnected system which people are just as much a part of as anything else, with various natural terrains being inhabited by dragons of various sorts reflecting those zones and descended from the dragons that created the world.

The dragons are also how one of the game’s quirkier angles creeps in: you see, this is the game where the referee has their own character, who levels up as the referee runs game sessions and the player characters progress. Specifically, this character is a Ryuujin – a sort of dragon spirit whose job it is to create travelogues detailing the journeys of travelling adventurers (said stories acting as delicious food for the dragon your Ryuujin serves).

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Pedantry & Pointlessness

The story is legendary: Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus penned Chivalry & Sorcery originally as a document named Chevalier, which they took to Gen Con intending to pitch it to TSR as a greatly improved take on Dungeons & Dragons. Ed Simbalist would later claim that they thought better of it after getting “very bad vibes” concerning Gary Gygax, after they witnessed Gary telling off a con volunteer. That may or may not be true, but in retrospect I can’t imagine that Ed or Wilf would have had much luck with their pitch anyway. If the idea was to publish Chevalier alongside Dungeons & Dragons, I think even early TSR knew better than to divide their customer base by publishing two competing generic fantasy RPGs, and if the idea was that it would replace D&D I think both Gary’s ego and the preferences of the D&D fanbase wouldn’t stand for it.

Either way, at the con they also ran into Scott Bizar, head honcho at Fantasy Games Unlimited. As I’ve noted in previous reviews of games from FGU’s back catalogue, Bizar’s business model was based on a mixture of selling his own game designs and publishing the work of individual authors whose manuscripts caught Bizar’s eye; this gave a wide distribution to games which wouldn’t have had the same reach had the authors self-published, whilst simultaneously allowing FGU to boast an extremely broad portfolio, with products ranging from oddities like Bunnies & Burrows to treatments of neglected but decidedly game-worthy genres like Bushido, Flashing Blades or Privateers & Gentlemen to significant hits like Villains & Vigilantes.

At the time, FGU hadn’t quite moved to focus on RPGs – I think, in fact, only Bunnies & Burrows had been put out by them in the RPG field – but the Chevalier manuscript was going begging and seemed to lend itself naturally to filling the “generic D&D-inspired fantasy RPG”-shaped hole in the FGU portfolio. Scott, Ed, and Wilf shook hands on it right there at the Con, and come 1977 Chivalry & Sorcery was unleashed on the market.

As Ed notes in that interview I linked earlier, FGU had a tendency to toss a game out there and then let it sink or swim, moving on to the new hotness unless a game’s original creators or some other parties were enthused enough to produce support material for it. Simbalist seems to take the position that Bizar was at fault here, but I think that both shows a misunderstanding of Bizar’s business model (which was largely based on people taking the initiative in creating material and then bringing it to him to publish, with games like Space Opera which were solicited specifically to meet a perceived need being very much the exception) and overestimates Chivalry & Sorcery‘s importance to FGU.

After all, whilst most FGU lines were core book-and-done affairs, or maybe had a small smattering of supplements, the true cash cow lines got a bunch of supplements for them – in particular, Villains & Vigilantes had a pretty extensive range of support out for it, to the point where there was a point in the 1980s when it was seriously contending with Champions and Marvel Superheroes for the “top superhero RPG” spot.

Why, then, would FGU step away from seriously concentrating on Chivalry & Sorcery after putting a bunch of energy into putting out a decent supplement line for its 1977 first edition, and then putting out an updated 2nd edition boxed set and a brace of updated supplements for it in 1983? Well, we can speculate a lot, and based on that interview Simbalist seems to have some long-lasting beef with Bizar, but I’d like to propose a simpler answer: Chivalry & Sorcery was, quite simply, an early fantasy heartbreaker, and one which doomed itself by its own decisions to have an extremely limited appeal – and by 1983, it had already become extremely dated.

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Pendragon (Actually) Comes Home

So a while back I posted an article called Pendragon (Sort Of) Comes Home, reporting on how the new regime at Chaosium and Nocturnal Press had reached a deal on collaborating on getting Pendragon-related material out there.

Well, we can drop the “sort of”: Chaosium just announced that they have regained the rights to Pendragon from Nocturnal. (Go read the announcement, by the way, it’s got a really lovely anecdote about White Wolf and Chaosium toasting each other at Gen Con once.) Whether this includes the new Paladin line isn’t clear, though since the print-on-demand proofs for Paladin were recently sorted out I’m not so concerned about that – delivery of that project seems to be imminent regardless, and given the new regime at Chaosium’s approach to Kickstarters I’m sure they would want to make sure everyone with skin in that game gets what they are owed if only to avoid damaging the game line’s reputation.

I imagine negotiations on this must have been grinding on for some time – you just don’t make this sort of decision based on a passing whim – so odds are Greg Stafford was aware when he died a little while back that this particular one of his babies would likely be coming home for good. Chaosium are retaining the current line editor for the game too.

Between a solid new RuneQuest and Pendragon coming back to Chaosium and Call of Cthulhu remaining the king of the Lovecraftian gaming space, it really does seem like Chaosium’s returning to its former glory. If the current management can just negotiate a deal with Michael Moorcock – who the old regime managed to annoy enough to make him pull the Stormbringer licence – then they’d really have all of their “greatest hits” back together under one roof.

Update: Nocturnal just posted an update to Paladin backers on this. They confirm that they remain responsible for delivering the backer rewards on the Kickstarter, which I guess would be one of the thorny points the negotiations behind this would have had to navigate.

The print run for Paladin apparently had to be delayed a wee bit in order to co-ordinate everything for Chaosium, but is now back on track. I guess we’ll see if the books end up with a little Chaosium logo on them when I get them.