The Overlooked Planes

Though the Outer Planes enjoyed a lavish boxed set presentation in the Planescape setting, the Inner Planes (and the planar highways of the Ethereal and Astral) had to settle for being detailed in more conventional books. Part of this probably comes from the fact that the relevant supplements came from later on in the game line’s lifespan – when TSR’s financial woes were biting or after the Wizards of the Coast buyout enforced a more grounded approach. But part of it also comes from the fact that the Outer Planes are, simply put, more interesting – especially from the perspective of the purported “philosophers with clubs” approach of Planescape.

The Outer Planes are planes of ideology, the Inner Planes are planes of materialism; as such, the Outer Planes fit Planescape‘s declared aims much better than the Outer Planes do. In some respect, even the Prime Material Plane feels like it can back up the ideas of the setting better than the Inner Planes; you can have a sort of “as above, so below” thing going on in which developments in the Outer Planes have subtle and pervasive effect on Prime Material worlds. It doesn’t quite feel possible to do that in a universe made entirely of water. I know for a fact that every Planescape campaign I have participated in gave way more attention to the Outer Planes than the Inner, and to be honest it feels like the core setting was written with the Outer Planes very much in mind and support for the Inner being nothing more than a mere afterthought.

However, the idea of such guides isn’t entirely useless. Even if they are sidelined in Planescape, they’re still part of the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, and as such the line would feel incomplete without detailing them. On top of that, support for these planes is of at least some use to non-Planescape campaigns, provided they’re at a level where characters are making significant extraplanar excursions or if the referee wants to have an incursion from the Planes in question hit their campaign world.

A Guide to the Astral Plane

Monte Cook’s approach to the Astral Plane, which underlies the philosophically-driven Outer Planes plus the Prime Material, is to take the idea of it as a place of abstract mental concepts and run with it, pushing the idea that it’s not so much a plane as a Platonic realm of ideas, a nonplanar nonspace that exists in the conceptual gaps between things that’s only called a “Plane” because that’s a convenient way to think of it, inaccurate though it is.

In particular, I really like the way Cook talks it up as a backstage area which people were never meant to peep into, and which was largely uninhabited until people went exploring there – that both ties into the concept of interplanar conduits and portals passing through there and into the idea that it’s where dead gods are to be found. (The gods, of course, do not need a physical form – but they certainly represent enormous intellectual concepts, thus their corpses litter the Astral Plane as giant floating conceptual islands.)

A big advantage Cook has as far as filling out the page count goes is the fact that the Astral Plane is home to the Githyanki, who’ve consistently been one of the most entertaining and interesting monster races in Dungeons & Dragons ever since their introduction in the 1E Fiend Folio. Somehow, despite occasionally unfortunate tendencies in the artwork towards making them look like racist caricatures of Chinese people rather than the withered clearly-not-any-sort-of-human weirdos their better depictions make them out to be, their essential awesomeness has never been diluted. The likes of the drow have had to deal with femdom fetishists, Drizzt fans, and a depiction bordering on blackface over the years, but somehow there’s something about “Interplanar badasses who live on the Astral, are ruled by a lich queen and fight genocidal wars against the illithids who once enslaved them and the Githzerai who split from them during their revolution against the mind flayers” which proves impossible to screw up. Cook’s take on them is no exception.

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane

Bruce R. Cordell tackles the Ethereal Plane which connects the Prime to the Inner Planes here. For the most part he struggles because he doesn’t quite have as strong a hook to hang it on as Monte has with the Astral, but the fact that the Ethereal is the home to the Demiplanes is of some help. The diverse nature of them (you’ve got the Demiplane of Dread where Ravenloft happens, the Demiplane of Time, various realms of dream and so on and so forth) does mean that the Ethereal ends up being a bit of a conceptual dustbin, but at least allows Cordell to fill the page count.

I am altogether unconvinced that there’s a meaningful conceptual difference between the Astral and the Ethereal Planes; certainly, in the various folkloric and fictional sources drawn on in devising the planar cosmology of D&D, “the astral plane” and “the ethereal plane” would seem to me to have been basically synonymous. Cordell does a decent job here of filling a book about the Ethereal, but it’s mostly clarifications of material already known plus some notes on things like the monsters that can be encountered there and some sample locales.

The Inner Planes

Monte Cook and William W. Connors have the truly thankless task here of making the various elemental, energy, paraelemental and quasielemental planes interesting. Here they have the advantage that the absurd number of paraelemental and quasielemental planes means they can fill the page count of the book without necessarily having to develop any of these specific planes very much – whilst the core elemental planes get fairly chunky writeups, the paraelemental and quasielemental planes only get 4-6 pages each, which means that once Cook and Connors cover the very basics they’ve already covered most of the space allocated.

The basic problem here is that in a campaign setting whose elevator pitch is “philosophers with clubs”, the Inner Planes don’t really lend themselves to philosophy very much at all, since each one just consists of a particular type of matter dominating the realm in question. The book more or less acknowledges this; whilst it talks about some ideas underpinning its treatment of the Inner Planes – like “Parallelism”, the idea that things which arise on one Inner Plane will tend to have their equivalents on the other Inner Planes, it still has to admit that there just isn’t much grist for the philosophical mill here.

This is largely a consequence of the legacy Planescape inherited from older treatments of the planes, but The Inner Planes, whilst it does offer a few interesting places in the elemental realms to visit, still ultimately doesn’t do much to change the fact that it’s the Outer Planes which tend to be where much of the action is. As A Guide to the Astral Plane established, you can do some interesting philosophical stuff with the Astral too, and A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, whilst it didn’t find an interesting philosophy to hang the Ethereal Plane on, at least established it as an interesting sandbox to cook up demiplanes and the like. The Inner Planes, though, leaves the elemental realms as being decidedly secondary in the wider action of Planescape, perhaps inevitably.

The Sourcebook That Never Was

The one sourcebook which I think the original Planescape line most needed, and yet never received, is one for the Prime Material Plane(s). Whilst, of course, any non-Planescape and non-Ravenloft D&D setting (or any setting suitable for adaptation on the fly to D&D) can be found there, at the same time it would have been nice to have a supplement offering tools for coming up with especially bizarre parallel material planes, perhaps with a suitable set of worked examples. It would also have been a good chance to have the philosophical struggles of the Planescape setting reflected interestingly in the lives of the Primes. Let’s say the Athar get the upper hand in the cross-multiverse struggle… what does that mean for Anytown, Faerun?

Advertisements

Planar Boxes

The massive proliferation of boxed sets from TSR in the mid-1990s might not be the primary contributor to their financial downfall, but they certainly posed dilemmas for shops and customers alike. From a consumer perspective – particularly for those of us who were too young to really have much discretionary income at the time – such products were incredibly visually tempting but also rather expensive to keep up with, and it didn’t help that in some product lines there seemed to be little rhyme or reason as to which boxes were truly important which were not.

Nonetheless, there’s no question that the best TSR boxed sets are absolutely gorgeous items, TSR using its status as industry leader to produce some downright beautiful work. The real question comes in as to how much of it actually represented useful, game-worthy material. To that extent, the major boxed sets around which the Planescape line was built stand at the head of the pack. I’ve previously covered the core box, but now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the rabble.

Planes of Chaos

The first boxed set supplement sets the pattern for the rest of the Planes of… series. You have a booklet of player-facing information, you have a DM-facing description of the planes in question (in this case the five Outer Planes whose natures range from Chaotic Good to Chaotic Evil on the Great Wheel), you have a set of adventure ideas, some additional monsters, and some really beautiful poster maps.

This time around the DM information is offered in a single thick booklet, and by and large does a good job of injecting extra depth and flavour and detail and adventure-worthy stuff into each of the planes in question. The player’s guide offers decent pointers on how to go and do adventures in the planes in question, and also usefully introduces the concept of “sects” – planar groups powerful enough to be of note, especially in the planes especially compatible with their philosophy, and who may even have a presence in Sigil, but who do not have enough influence there to be a full-blown faction controlling some aspect of Sigil’s governance.

The introduction of this feature to the setting is a great help in ensuring that Sigil politics does not become too ossified; not only can a great campaign be played around the elevation of a sect to faction status (most probably coinciding with the fall of an existing faction to sect status), but it also points to a way you can customise Sigil to your own taste by swapping out factions that don’t work for your campaign with sects that are a better fit.

The adventures booklet is actually much more useful than I remember it being; rather than presenting a fully-developed adventure or two, it instead offers a series of substantial one-page adventure notes – one set for each plane in the box – each giving you plenty of scope to adapt it to your campaign and not overwriting it to the extent that it becomes a railroad but giving you enough support and pointers that it’s more helpful than a mere adventure seed.

Developed by Lester Smith and Wolfgang Baur, Planes of Chaos adds important flesh to the bones of Planescape, and whilst it may have been more economical to present it as a single book, the poster maps and other aspects of the boxed set presentation are gorgeous enough that I am inclined to forgive that.

Planes of Law

The second box in the series gives a similar treatment to the Lawfully-inclined planes, with the major difference in presentation being that rather than having a single thick GM book, you instead get a sheath of little booklets, one for each plane. Whilst this does make for gorgeous presentation (the more of that super-1990s Sandman-style cover art I see the better as far as I’m concerned), it also makes the boxed set rather more cluttered – and I can’t help but suspect it probably drove up the manufacturing cost substantially.

Beyond that, I really don’t have much to say about it – it sticks close enough to the Planes of Chaos game plan that if you liked that, you’d probably want this too.

Planes of Conflict

The third box in the trilogy tackles the Neutrally-inclined planes except for the Outlands, which are detailed perfectly well in the core Planescape set. Hence the title – for whereas the other boxes each respectively detailed a set of planes that formed a continuous arc on the Great Wheel, the six planes here consist of three Neutral Good sorts and three Neutral Evil sorts, and as such are radically opposed to each other.

Once again the presentation of Dungeon Master-focused information is tweaked – as a compromise position between the “one thick book” approach of Planes of Chaos and “every plane gets a booklet!” one of Planes of Law, there are two separate booklets here – one for the good-aligned planes, one for the evil-aligned one.

Unfortunately, the presented adventures shift from the useful adventure seeds from the previous two boxes into more developed efforts. This is a problem for two reasons: the first is that the adventures are developed just a shade past the point where it’s trivially easy to repurpose them, necessitating more work to make them fit the action of your campaign and the approach of your player characters than the briefer seeds of the previous boxes.

The second is that, because they take up more space, there simply isn’t space for an adventure corresponding to each of the planes detailed, which I think is a huge mistake: part of the point of these boxed sets is to establish the planes as viable locales for adventure, and the fact that the developers don’t seem to have been able to think up an adventure for each and every plane covered here sends precisely the wrong message. Whilst it is nice that the trilogy of boxes was completed, it’s a shame that they didn’t take the same adventure seed approach across all three.

Hellbound: the Blood War

Written primarily by Colin McComb and Monte Cook, this final major boxed set for Planescape doesn’t describe the planes as such – instead, it details the most prominent interplanar conflict in the game, the Blood War between the demons and devils.

To be honest, this is the point where TSR should really have stepped back and considered whether it would be best to just put this stuff out as a single book. You have your player booklet, your DM booklet (which proposes an interesting “truth” behind the Blood War for those who feel like it particularly needs one), and an adventure booklet of three reasonably developed adventures; beyond that you don’t get a whole lot to justify making this a boxed set. There’s no poster maps or anything like that; there’s a brief comic book, The Bargain, written by Jeff Grubb and stuffed with gorgeous Tony DiTerlizzi art, but the story is nothing to get too excited about and it feels like an excuse to stuff in more DiTerlizzi art, as is Visions of War, a booklet of illustrations you are supposed to show your players at certain points in the prewritten adventures. To be honest, it feels like at this stage they were grasping at straws to justify making this a boxed set.

Still, the actual information here is really good. The player booklet offers just enough to justify why player characters may want to stick their nose in this infernal business in the first place, whilst the DM booklet really helps unpack why the Blood War is not merely the fiends’ business but is in effect a microcosm of the wider multiverse-wide conflict of Law and Chaos: precisely because the fiends are such bad neighbours and nobody wants the the wrong flavour of fiend to win, you have stuff like the major powers of Mechanus and Limbo using it as a proxy war, and the various flavours of angel trying to keep the fiends fighting each other as much as possible and keeping innocents out of harm’s way to the extent that they can. It’s therefore a conflict which could conceivably have ramifications anywhere, which is really useful because it helps stop the setting feel as static as it can do if you just look over the prior boxed sets. The developed adventures I might not run as written, but they seem to be reasonably open to wildly variant outcomes, and there’s a good spread offered between mercenary errand work and stuff that could extensively change the direction of the War. The “all evil all the time” backdrop of the lower planes can tend to get wearing, but on the whole Hellbound is a great addition to Planescape lore.

The Sigil Trilogy

So my Roll20 group’s very long-running 5E Planescape campaign is over, which seems like a good time to have a look at my old Planescape material one last time and review it before we move on to our next game. (It’s going to be some Victorian-era Mage: the Awakening business.) I’ve previously looked over the core Planescape materials, so now it’s time to drill into the various supplements.

I would actually argue that the most useful supplements for a Planescape campaign are not, in fact, the legendary big fat boxed sets of planar information that followed the core boxed set. Of course they are useful for any extended visit to the planes in question – but equally, the planes in question a) have their basic principles already outlined in the core box, so you have all the tools you need to improvise your own locations and adventures there if you have to, b) are infinite, so you have little need to worry about your own inventions crowding out the “canon” material, and c) almost certainly aren’t the home base of the campaign, and therefore will be under correspondingly less of a microscope than that home base.

Odds are, if you’re playing Planescape your home base is going to be Sigil – and that’s why the trilogy of supplements giving further detail on the City of Doors is so useful for a Planescape campaign. If your characters are regularly spending time there, then your players are correspondingly going to be giving it much closer scrutiny, and therefore the more help you have in making it feel like a rich, real location with actual people with actual agendas living in it, the better off you are.

In the Cage: a Guide to Sigil

Its title comes from an old Genesis song; its subtitle explains what it is perfectly. This is an absolutely stuffed-to-the-gills, information-dense sourcebook on Sigil. No time is wasted on any sort of introduction or prefacing guidance on how to use this stuff in-game, to a large extent because the guide to Sigil in the core box already covers the sort of stuff an introduction would have covered; instead, the book leaps straight into the action, offering a tidal wave of locations (many of which have associated maps), significant NPCs, bits of trivia and information about life in Sigil, in-character advertisements, flyers, and declarations and more besides. There’s some especially useful notes on where to find the most well-known portals to particular planes too.

If you like Sigil and the Planescape house style – and you probably aren’t even thinking about Planescape supplements if you don’t – this is gold. Any Planescape campaign which includes any significant adventuring in Sigil would be enriched by this book, and since 99% of Planescape campaigns qualify as that this makes it near-essential.

The Factol’s Manifesto

Where In the Cage provided a simple enough breakdown of locations, this book provides a deeper look at the various Factions. Despite having kind-of invented the splatbook with their line of Complete (Insert Class/Race Here)’s Handbook products, TSR didn’t go for the Vampire: the Masquerade route of having a splatbook for each and every Faction in the game; instead, The Factol’s Manifesto condenses the sort of information that would have been in there into a single slim volume, and it works great.

Each Faction is given a player-facing look at their philosophy, their leader, their headquarters, and some significant NPCs and other snippets. There’s also a DM-facing section in each chapter which offers ideas for stuff which may be going on behind the scenes, though the authors emphasise that these are just ideas and aren’t necessarily canon for the purposes of your home campaign. (Already, the contrast with White Wolf from the same era is refreshing.) Special powers are given for Faction members which go beyond the abilities everyone gets for joining, giving players a strong incentive to try and seek advancement with their Faction in order to gain additional abilities.

Although it came out in 1995, a mere year after the campaign setting premiered, the book already shows some striking developments over the original core setting. Aside from the new D&D logo at the top which was phased in when the new, tweaked 2E core books got brought out (removing the iconic dragon-ampersand, an unforgivable omission which wouldn’t return until 5E), there are also some new amendments and additions to the overall settings in here. For instance, the leader of the Sensates is given a new surname – she’s now Erin Montgomery, with “Darkflame” being her middle name – presumably because they realised that in actual play having a “Factol Darkwood” and a “Factol Darkflame” as the leader of very different Factions ended up being confusing. (It certainly was in our campaign; killing them off was probably the best thing we could do to bring clarity to Sigil politics.)

More substantively, there’s hints that there used to be many more Factions in Sigil – dozens of the things! – but the Lady of Pain imposed a strict limit of 15, which prompted a brief civil war-cum-purge which the Factions of today are the survivors of. This is a nice development which answers a whole bunch of significant questions about the setting, including (off the top of my head):

  • “Why aren’t there Factions for every goofy philosophy?” Answer: there’s a strict limit, so if you can make your personal philosophy fit the broad church of one Faction or another you are better off doing that.
  • “Why don’t the Revolutionary League/Sign of One/Xaositects/Free League/any other Faction whose members are likely to have sharp disagreements with each other to the point of not being able to work together schism?” Answer: they’d lose massive amounts of power by doing so, and nobody is entirely clear which side of the schism – if any – would get the vacated Faction spot, so unless you simply don’t believe in the major underlying principles of the Faction it is always better to try and change minds within the Faction than to quit.
  • “Why can’t we start our own Faction?” Answer: in principle you can, in practice if you wanted it to be an actual Faction you would need to knock down one of the other Factions, which would make a great goal for a long-term campaign.

There’s also a shift in emphasis noticeable, with the book referring the reader not to the Planescape boxed set to get the basic rundown on the Factions, but The Planewalker’s Handbook, which is already spoken of here as though it is the core book of the setting. That may simply because it’s a player-facing book, and had come out that year to boot so it was an opportune moment to give it a plug and push its sales a bit, but I suspect that there is also an aspect here of TSR realising that the big boxed set approach they had been taking was beginning to become commercially unviable and wanting to reposition The Planewalker’s Handbook as the core book of the setting so as to ease the need to stock lots of copies of the core box, which could be marketed more exclusively to DMs.

In short, the Manifesto is a supplement which finds the Planescape setting evolving, but evolving in a way which for the most part makes sense and feels like a natural embellishment of what had gone before.

Uncaged: Faces of Sigil

Uncaged is a big collection of NPCs which makes good use of the fact that all the NPCs live in the same town. Whilst they can be treated entirely atomistically if you wish, each of the NPC descriptions also includes links between the NPC in question and at least one other NPC in the book – sometimes a minor connection, sometimes something more significant. Thus, the book describes not only a series of NPCs to enrich Sigil with, but also a network of connections between them which helps the GM find the answer to questions like “Are there any rumours of X having enemies?”

In fact, some of these connections amount to larger plots, with useful diagrams in the appendix at the back of the book giving extremely clear overviews of how the plots in question are structured. You could, in fact, very happily run a sandbox Planescape campaign using this book as the primary reference, simply by having the player characters bounce off the NPCs in question. Used in conjunction with In the Cage and the Factol’s Manifesto, it makes Sigil a city setting as rich as any described in the citybook-happy days of the 1990s, with books like the excellent original version of Chicago By Night for Vampire appearing almost shallow in comparison.

Pendragon (Sort of) Comes Home

So Chaosium have just announced that they’re partnering with Nocturnal Media, in order to provide assistance in marketing and distributing Pendragon and helping them with the fulfillment of various Kickstarters. The press release does not specify which Nocturnal Kickstarters are involved, but it seems a fair bet that one of them is Paladin, an adaptation of Pendragon to focus on the legends of Charlemagne.

This is a bit of a homecoming for Pendragon. Its first four editions were published through Chaosium – it was Greg Stafford’s pet project, Chaosium was Greg’s company, no-brainer, right? Right – until, that is, the late 1990s, when the collapse of the Mythos card game and associated tensions meant that Chaosium needed to trim the fat and Greg found himself wanting to disengage from the company and see about working with other publishers. (This is in part how we ended up with Mongoose and Design Mechanism publishing editions of RuneQuest before its return to Chaosium.)

As it happened, former West End Games designer Peter Corless, who had largely left the games industry to work at Cisco, fancied playing publisher as a bit of a side gig (and, presumably, was a big Pendragon fan). Corless had given Chaosium a substantial loan at one point to keep operating, which they had defaulted on; in order to make good, Corless accepted instead of payment on the loan the full rights to Pendragon. Setting up Green Knight Publishing, Corless kept the Pendragon flame alive when Chaosium might have otherwise neglected it, until in 2004 he sold the rights to White Wolf, who put the fifth edition (and the mighty, magnificent Great Pendragon Campaign) via their ArtHaus imprint.

Fast forward a bit to the end of White Wolf as we formerly knew it, with CCP buying out the company. Stewart Wieck eventually decided to leave White Wolf, the company he’d co-founded with Steve Wieck and Mark Rein-Hagen, to go it alone, so he made his farewells, picked up the rights to Pendragon (which White Wolf was at this point more or less no longer interested in), and set up Nocturnal Media to keep the flame alive, with Greg issuing further 5th Edition material through Nocturnal.

Som years later, Stewart undertook a brace of ambitious Kickstarters – ranging from revivals old Lion Rampant/early White Wolf ideas like Whimsy Cards and Storypath Cards to new variants of existing properties like Paladin to English translations of highly-regarded Spanish or French games like Aquelarre or Wurm. Unfortunately, before completing these projects Wieck died incredibly suddenly and unexpectedly.

That’s how we get to this current pass. As a backer of several of those projects, I can confirm that whilst progress has been happening, it’s been agonisingly slow. Why this is the case isn’t always particularly visible, but it’s become evident that Stewart didn’t exactly leave behind an especially clear and unambiguous action plan for getting the Kickstarters sorted. Things which had been believed to have been in hand weren’t, and stuff which had been promised ended up getting overlooked, and in general it’s been a bit of an awkward slog.

Chaosium getting involved sounds like a really positive step to me. Kickstarters which overrun have a way of becoming financial millstones around a publisher’s neck (because they budget for X amount of work and it turned out to take X+Y amount of work to actually get the job done), and when multiple projects are in place there’s a dangerous temptation to rob Peter to pay Paul, using the funds of one to get a different one finish in the hopes that the income stream from selling the project might cover the gap. I don’t know whether that’s the case here or how healthy Nocturnal’s finances are in general, but the aid of Chaosium in distributing and marketing Pendragon and associated materials is surely going to be a big help.

On top of that, it’s worth bearing in mind that the new regime at Chaosium – made up of the key players at Moon Design publications, one of the various producers of Glorantha material during Greg Stafford’s sojourn away from Chaosium – were brought in by Greg and Sandy Petersen in part to act as a crack team of Kickstarter troubleshooters. The major problem they were facing was taking the mess that the old Charlie Krank-led regime had made of the Horror On the Orient Express and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarters and untangling it, and they did a pretty fine job. If anyone has a track record of giving a troubled Kickstarter delivery process a much-needed shot in the arm, it’s them.

John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.

Kickstopper: Cthulhu & Commies

Yesterday I started a survey of Cubicle 7’s major Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters by picking apart Cthulhu Britannica: London and its associated products. Today, I’ll finish the process by tackling the second Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstater of theirs I backed – that for World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

It had always been Cubicle 7’s intention to do four sub-product lines for World War Cthulhu; one for World War I (potentially very useful for people wanting to play Great War veterans in 1920s-based games), one for World War II, one for the Cold War and one for World War III. The World War II line, World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I covered in my review of the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter, due to them coming out close to each other and having very similar themes, and that might be why Darkest Hour didn’t have a Kickstarter associated with it – it would have looked too much like a hop onboard the Modiphius bandwagon, even though so far as I am aware the two game lines are a matter of parallel evolution rather than one ripping off the other.

Of course, Cold War material hasn’t exactly been overlooked by Call of Cthulhu publishers either; the new Delta Green product line includes The Fall of Delta Green, a standalone GUMSHOE-powered game set in the 1960s. However, that’s narrow enough in terms of focus and time period (and setting assumptions) to leave ample room for alternate takes on the Cold War through a Mythos lens. The World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter was intended to fund not just the core book but, through stretch goals, help make a call on what support materials to produce and how many resources to throw at them. (For instance, several stretch goals involved budgeting for a higher page count for Yesterday’s Men, the big fat super-campaign that was going to be part of the line.) Unlike Cthulhu Britannica: London, there was no talk of making card decks or big fancy boxed sets – just simple books like Cubicle 7 are used to producing – so I anticipated that it would be subjected to less delays than that campaign.

What Level I Backed At

SECTION HEAD – Everything! The standard edition World War Cthulhu: Cold War core setting book plus the 4 supplements – the actual physical books and the PDFs, and your name in the book!

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date of my tier was April 2016, and I actually got the core book in November of that year, so that’s a seven month delay – shorter than the delay on Cthulhu Britannica: London, mind. As previously, reasonable amounts of communication were maintained to keep everyone in the loop, and with the PDF of the core setting book delivered in May 2016 we at least got something to sink our teeth into whilst we waited for our hard copies. One supplement, Our American Cousins, managed to get delivered to us as the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence started to bite, so I suspect that few people who weren’t Kickstarter backers got much of a chance to buy that one. As for the epic Yesterday’s Men campaign… I’ll get to that when I get to it.

Reviewing the Swag

World War Cthulhu: Cold War

The main book is a chunky hardcover beast, weighing in at over 200 pages and presenting a lot of material in that space. The interiors are black-and-white, generally quite readable, with art that isn’t mindblowing but is generally effective.

The basic conceit of the supplement is that it’s the 1970s, and Network N has metamorphosed into Section 46, a segment of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) which, as well as handling conventional work, also fights the Mythos under N’s direction. There’s also the option to play members of the CIA friendly to N’s cause, though the Our American Cousins supplement is meant to give more full support for that. As well as providing background information on the workings of intelligence agencies during the era, the supplement also provides some useful guidance on how to handle various common espionage escapades using the Call of Cthulhu system.

In terms of setting material, to a large extent the lead of World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour is followed, with notes on significant Mythos forces provided as well as an overview of various countries PCs might undertake missions in, with examples offered in each of both conventional tasks and Mythos-related missions. The major difference is, of course, the time period, and the murky nature of the Cold War which by its nature raises far more “Are we really on the right side here?” questions than the World War II setting. (Take, for instance, the entry on South Africa, which doesn’t flinch from reminding the reader that apartheid was very much the major story out of that quarter of the world and something which intelligence agents may well have deep qualms about interacting with, especially since the apartheid regime is in principle an ally of the West and the anti-apartheid forces are widely held to be backed by the Soviets.)

The sense of paranoia is heightened by a shift in the dynamics of N’s network. As well as N himself becoming older and frailer, and thus having less direct control of the network, there’s another force exerting its influence over matters: a mysterious woman nicknamed “H” by Section 46, who has taken to appearing in the dreams of some of the network’s agents. The fact that any player character could be unconsciously passing information to H in their dreams – or even be subverted into doing work for her – adds a paranoid dimension that nicely contrasts with the more “We’re all in this together” camaraderie of The Darkest Hour’s World War II setting.

Although the book assumes you are running it in the 1970s, it really shouldn’t be that hard to use it to run a game set at any earlier or later phase of the Cold War; because the Internet age hadn’t really kicked off by the time the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the overall technological paradigm of the book is broadly applicable for any time from the late 1940s to early 1990s. (You could very easily run a game inspired by Edge of Darkness with this supplement.) That said, the reasons given for picking the 1970s are sound – in the wake of the Kim Philby affair and other scandals in the UK, and the exposure of various CIA misdeeds in the USA, the West’s intelligence communities are under intense scrutiny during the time period in question, which adds a potential further complication to Section 46’s work.

The material offered here is capped off with Intersections, a sandbox espionage campaign set in Istanbul. This is a bit of a daunting prospect to run, since it moslty offers a bunch of NPCs and locations and some pointers on things which are likely to happen once the PCs are set loose, but I tend to regard that as good adventure design and expect it to be an interesting experience to run if you get your head around the way it’s presented.

Section 46 Operations Manual

This is for the most part a player-facing book-length handout – nothing less than an espionage manual, written like the sort that characters might plausibly study, with annotations from N and other Section 46 high-ups to discuss particular wrinkles that the pursuit of Our Other Enemy adds to tradecraft. There are also a range of sidebars offering brief rules suggestions of how to resolve some of the activities described there in a game context.

The supplement is an excellent resource for looking at how espionage agencies of the era would handle particular things, and is particularly handy for anyone interested in playing in an espionage-themed RPG campaign (especially a Cold War-era one, though not exclusively), but who feels constrained by a lack of prior knowledge about how espionage works.

Our American Cousins

Only the most uncritical patriot would claim that the US intelligence apparatus gained an incredibly grubby reputation in the 1970s. With extensive CIA misdeeds ranging from assassinations to illegal domestic operations to wild nonsense like MK-ULTRA exposed, Watergate destroying people’s belief in the good intentions of the federal government, and the idealism of the 1960s decaying into the malaise of the 1970s, it’s about as far from their finest hour as you can hope to get.

That’s what makes American agencies like the CIA fertile ground for exploration in the World War Cthulhu: Cold War setting. Our American Cousins discusses the American intelligence structure, how N can call on favours from its operatives, and the Mythos threats they face alongside their domestic and international operations.

This is hardly the first time that gaming products have explored the intersection of the US alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and the Cthulhu Mythos, of course – Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green line is all over that business. At the same time, Our American Cousins offers a very different interpretation of the concept. Rather than the US government being host to competing conspiracies rife with Mythos knowledge – from the sinister collaborators of Majestic-12 to the outlawed Delta Green – here the US government is presented as being overall ignorant of the Mythos, and N’s network putting a lot of effort to ensure that the dots do not get connected to a sufficient extent to lead the federal government down a seriously dark path. (At the same time, the 1970s setting means that Majestic-12’s security has never been tighter, and Delta Green has been officially shut down and its renegade mambers have not yet gotten the underground version of the project up to speed, so you could conceivably reconcile the two books by saying that N is not aware of Majestic-12 and isn’t trusted enough by the outlaw Delta Green to be taken into their confidence.

Either way, it’s a grimy slice of period flavour that nicely rounds out the Cold War line.

Covert Actions

This is a collection of missions spanning the 1970s, which between them offer a pretty solid set of investigations. Generally they are quite open-ended, with the starting situation artfully laid out (along with both the official SIS mission and the Mythos-related Section 46 investigation that the characters are tasked with), and then quite nicely stepping back to let the players’ actions drive the action whilst giving you enough material to help you judge how those actions affect the situation.

Some scenarios offer mostly-original situations – for instance, Puddles Become Lakes feels like any number of Cold War-era scandals whilst not being clearly based on one over the others – whilst others riff on events of the era. The Forcing Move, for instance, unfolds in the shadows of the 1972 World Chess Tournament featuring Bobby Fischer’s legendary confrontation with Boris Spassky, whilst Cadenza is set during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

In dealing with real-life situations the supplement is reasonably conscious of where it gets into contentious issues – for instance, the implication of The Forcing Move is that Bobby Fischer’s increasingly eccentric behaviour at the tournament and in the subsequent years was the result of mental illness and existing tendencies to embrace far-right conspiracy theories exacerbated by contact with the Mythos, and it is suggested that groups not comfortable with that approach may wish to replace him with a fictional chess player. Likewise, Cadenza doesn’t brush over atrocities committed during the Cyprus crisis, but leaves it down to personal taste how much these figure in the investigation.

Other missions are clumsier. Guardians of the Forest takes place against the backdrop of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, and is rooted in the racist old “uncontacted tribe worship alien monstrosities en mass” trope that really needs to get out of Lovecraftiana already, whilst Operation Header is based on a similarly dodgy “bloodline tainted by racial miscegenation” angle. (Header also suffers from perhaps the highest density of typos and the least polished writing of all the missions, like they just plain forgot to do an editing pass on it or something.)

Similarly apparently sloppy editing afflicts The Unclean, an adventure that has the player characters operating within Moscow itself but doesn’t really offer much in the way of support in terms of what resources they have access to or how operating in the Soviet capital works for CIA/SIS agents. (Indeed, it doesn’t seem entirely clear whether the adventure is intended for SIS or CIA agents.) There’s also major angles in the adventure which simply don’t get developed – for instance, it more or less directs by designer fiat that in a particular scene a major NPC gets shot in the head by a sniper, but doesn’t at all consider what the implications for the rest of the mission is.

With three solid but not exceptional missions and three missions I don’t care much for Covert Actions is a supplement I am glad to own in PDF but which I probably won’t be keeping hold of the hard copy version of.

Yesterday’s Men

This was supposed to be the big fat 1970s Cthulhu-espionage campaign. (This despite the fact that the title has me thinking in much more of a 1960s direction.) The basic premise sounded delicious; so far as I can piece together from the hints we were given, the essential idea was that Network N had a cell based in the divided city of Berlin which, prior to the beginning of the campaign, had gone dark, and N sends the player characters to try and work out what happened to the cell, what they’d been investigation, what needs to be done to tie up loose ends, whether there are any survivors of the cell and whether there should be any survivors of the cell.

The thing is, it never got released. Cubicle 7 made the decision to can it when not one but two teams failed to make sufficient headway on it. The first team assembled included Mike Mason (Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu line editor), Paul Fricker (who had co-designed 7th Edition with Mason), Cubicle 7’s own Scott Dorward (who was the overall World War Cthulhu line editor) and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who’s a normally very reliable industry freelancer. That’s a solid set of people, but it’s also a very busy set of people, so I could see how they could struggle to prioritise Yesterday’s Men. We know less about the second team to be assigned the project beyond that Jason Durrall, a trusted designer in BRP circles, was at the helm. Simultaneously, though, Durrall had been tasked with guiding the design process of Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest.

It seems like that there was no stage in its development process when Yesterday’s Men was actually the number one priority of any of the named designers. That isn’t necessarily going to be a problem for a project; lots of people in the gaming industry need to have multiple irons in the fire if they’re going to have sufficient income to feed themselves, after all. At the same time, it sounds like Yesterday’s Men was always intended to be a truly ambitious project, a real major undertaking – and it seems to me that if you are going to produce something that ambitious, then at least someone on the team needs to feel as though it is their personal magnum opus. You can have people largely working by themselves and then submit their chapters and turn the project in if your campaign isn’t working on any sort of especially complex or innovative structure, but everything we’d heard so far about Yesterday’s Men suggested that it actually was intended to have quite an intricate structure, and for that sort of project you really need someone stepping up to drive it and devote a lot of brain space to it. It doesn’t sound like that was the case here.

That said, the cancellation may have had factors involved beyond the designers being a little slow. It was announced in November 2017, which was of course very shortly before the announcement of the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence, so it may be that it was simply easier to terminate the project them so as to allow for a clean divorce rather than allow the outstanding project to complicate matters.

Either way, Cubicle 7 made sure that backers who’d been expecting Yesterday’s Men were not left high and dry – we could either accept a 100% refund on it through PayPal, or a 150% refund as Cubicle 7 store credit. For my part, I took the store credit so as to subsidise my purchase of 4th edition WFRP.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

I’m fine with having my name on this – although the lack of Yesterday’s Men means that the Cold War line is without a truly compelling campaign adventure, and the demise of the Cubicle 7 licence and the time it’d take for them to come up with some sort of OGL-derived equivalent system as a flag to reprint this material under means that I’m not entirely sure we will ever see one. However, the core book is very decent and it’s that that my name is on.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right, considering that I liked more of the products that I received than I disliked and I got a big fat refund for the product I didn’t get.

Would Back Again?

Absolutely. Cubicle 7’s development process may be prone to delays, but they always keep you in the loop and between this and the London boxed set I think they have shown that they always do right by their Kickstarter backers in the end. The refunds on Yesterday’s Men are a particularly classy touch.

Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London

So, once upon a time Cubicle 7 had a licence to put out third-party Call of Cthulhu products. They do not have the licence any more; word is that they are going to put out their own D100-based system to allow them to reissue properties dependent on the licence at some point in the near future, though given that they have major game lines like Doctor WhoThe One Ring, the absurdly lucrative cash cow which is Adventures In Middle-Earth, and the probably cash cow which is the 4th edition of WFRP on the horizon, plus significant projects like the official Warhammer: Age of Sigmar RPG, I suspect that such a project will be remarkably low on their order of priorities.

We don’t know the inside story of why the licence ended, or who made the decision to kill it. It is possible that the long time it took to deliver the final rewards of two Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters – Cthulhu Britannica: London and World War Cthulhu: Cold War – may have been a contributing factor. Having been made cautious by their own Kickstarter experiences, the new regime at Chaosium have made a point of, from time to time, checking in on licensees’ Kickstarter projects and exerting what influence they can to try and ensure that wayward projects come to an acceptable outcome. (And why shouldn’t they? Dicking around with someone else’s reputation isn’t cool, and that’s what you do if you accept a third party licence to produce game material for someone else’s product line and then shit the bed on Kickstarter delivery.)

Then again, by and large Chaosium seem to have been quite reasonable and understanding about delays, and it’s not like both projects didn’t deliver their main product successfully. It is equally possible that Cubicle 7 had simply become tired of either the costs involved in maintaining the licence or, considering the many demands on their time, the extra work involved in the approvals process. Either way, there’s a cruel irony that the last few rewards to be delivered on these Kickstarters should have slipped out shortly before the licence itself died.

In this article, I’ll cover the Cthulhu Britannica: London Kickstarter; in a later article (probably going live tomorrow), I’ll do World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London”