RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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The Black Hack may have all the OSR (and indie) cred right now, but I’ve just been reading two other 2016 OSR releases.

The first is Perdition from Hack and Slash publishing. It’s self-consciously a third wave OSR game:

It is a third wave clone because it is not a game designed to emulate or provide an improved version of the “Fantasy Adventure Role-Playing Game”. It is not a game designed to allow you to create your own fantasy realm and have whatever type of adventures you wish. It is a game designed to allow you to explore the world of Perdition. It crosses a line of setting books that work with whatever ruleset you are using and provides the setting information via mechanics, classes, equipment, spells and monsters, instead of through large blocks of flavour text and fiction writing.

I said before that the third wave of the OSR will be defined by those who claim it. I also said that these definitions will diverge; and Perdition is clearly diverging from earlier hand-waving claims of simply “innovation of setting”.

The other is Crypts and Things from D101 games, a very British “Sword and Sorcery RPG” with nods to White Dwarf and Fighting Fantasy, and with no elves or dwarves. Speaking of which the Encyclopaedia of SF has this to say about the genre:

Tolkien’s long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard’s, the two representing the two ends of the genre’s spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard’s heroes were very big, Tolkien’s very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

C&T’s influences are Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Moorcock’s Elric, placing the game at the “amoral vigour” end of the spectrum. I always felt D&D was like that anyway, and perhaps that’s why the fantasy races felt so out of place in BECMI D&D. C&T’s core classes and focus on human cultures feel like a clean but necessary break.

(of course it’s not the only humanocentric Hyborian/Hyperborean S&S OSR game, and North Wind’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea was also a contender for my wallet — but getting the HC of either the 1st or 2nd ed. in Kickstarter would have been punitive to a non-US customer)

Reading through both books reveals interesting differences that point at fundamental design decisions, and I’m going to consider these in a bit. First, the lowdown on each book.

Perdition

Perdition is about playing in a world (Prime Material Plane) overrun by devils and demons. The latter are Chaotic and would tear creation asunder if it were not for the actions of the former who represent law and stability. They are at war and power their infernal war machine by corrupting human souls. The Vile Court oversees everything.

Perdition’s cover of a weirdly inverted city and a three-quarters view of a corpulent devil’s buttocks is by Matthew Adams, and will look familiar to fans of Yoon Suin. The other artists are Russ Nicholson, Heather Gwinn, Marcin S., and Michael Ralston. Nicholson’s art (a main attraction for me) is mainly found in the Monsters section detailing the major devils or lords. Interior book sections are graced by full-page illustrations, which are anything but traditional and have a spooky, dark fairytale and folk-art feel that would fit in with an occult anthropology book.

I love digest format books; but for once, I wonder if this one shouldn’t have been in a larger format. It’s a dense book and (as indicated by layout issues) there’s not a lot of white space.

(Actually there was some trouble with the PoD for Perdition, where page numbers, flags and some full plates were truncated (vertically and horizontally). This was fixed in my replacement copy (mostly) although the borders of some of Russ Nicholson’s full plates are slightly cut off)

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

  • character generation including class, race and other bits (around 80 pages)
  • the usual miscellaneous rules for encumbrance, hirelings, languages, skills etc. (30 pages or so)
  • equipment (12 pages)
  • encounters (20 pages)
  • magic (90 pages)
  • monsters (40 pages)
  • finally GM’s section (“Agonarch”) that runs to the end (30 pages)

The contents page is great and the order is (mostly) logical. I had no trouble jumping to the sections I wanted to read. The book also provides a “Change Quick Reference List” on page 10 that tells us exactly where the system diverges from the SRD template. The authors know who their audience is.

Remarks

First, the Character Class and Magic sections — which are effectively player-facing — dominate the book with more than 50% of the page count. There are a lot of options for what you can play, and the game is the AD&D race-plus-class style with over 80 combinations (if you have the right stats). The classes are thoughtfully arranged into four groups based on Tarot suits (although I can’t see much Tarot symbolism elsewhere, but maybe I’m being thick) and the way you like your characters to get things done — fighting, skills, social and magical.

The magic section is extensive and that’s partly because there are many branches, some of which are specifically for certain classes. This means if you want to cast magic you’ve got to absorb both the class options and the magic section to make your decision on what to play. I like the way magic is handled with all the different schools, the Minor/Major/Grand distinctions (as opposed to levels) and the spell surges and so forth. But it’s a significant undertaking for starting players (and taxing if you’ve only got one book between you).

The monsters are the next largest section (and note that there are several fiends in the Summoning and Druidic magic sections also) and the Devil Lords get Russ Nicholson’s lovely art. If the goal is to communicate the setting through rules then I guess class, magic and monsters should be the dominant sections.

But actually the part of the rules I expect the whole game to revolve around is relatively short. The section on dealing with Devils and Demons (including summons, contracts and communication via the Vile Court) is appended to the general rules for equipment and skills and is maybe around 10-12 pages long. This sub-system together with some comments on the Wickedness stat in the Agonarch’s section is possibly the most important in the whole book. That I feel is the game’s real USP.

What else? Experience is treated as Prestige, an in-game currency that is used to claim levels, and also pay for petitions via the Vile Court (an idea I love, as it’s something I have in mind for Black Mantle). There’s a bit on Titan-sized monsters which can be both antagonists and locations (as in Shadow of the Colossus, island fish, etc.). There’s social and mental conflict (and hit points & armour class). The Encounter process causes PCs to suffer stress with successive encounters.

In summary, a lot to like, but also a lot to digest. I expect most OSR games to be nicely modular with a simple core — and Perdition is probably the same, but it’s different enough that you need to absorb it properly — it’s medium rather than low crunch and demands investment to play.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things is much more mainstream in terms of fantasy, though as said above it’s at the Howard and Leiber end of low fantasy as opposed to Tolkien’s high fantasy and great clomping feet. Comparisons with Conan and Hyboria (or Hyperborea) are inevitable — a ruined world besieged by “Others” via a mountaintop gate, pre-human civilisations, and a Barbarian character class.

I thought publishers steered clear of green book covers (when I was putting this image together for Fictoplasm it was a real struggle not to make the image as single wall of blue). Whether that’s true or not the lambent green cover is all you need to tell you that everyone on Zarth is fucked like a chronic case of Martian syphilis. Singing maggots aside it’s a very pretty cover (by David Michael Wright, who also did the interior art) with a male barbarian and female sorcerer squaring off against horned undead, a huge snake and a skull shaped portal in the background. The interior B&W art is consistent and sharp and on the whole very nice if a little safe with a procession of PC in a pose, snake person, ziggurat, snake person, temple, PC in a pose again. The best art (IMHO) is in the monster section (the place where it’s needed most).

The book is your traditional, large format and 2-column layout, plenty of white space. Hardly exciting by modern standards, but — and this is a big plus for me — printer friendly. The content is broken down into books — the Scrolls of Wonder (Player’s Guide) and the Book of Doom (for the GM). The former runs to just over 100 pages:

  • Creating a character, character classes and Life Events (approx. 40 pages)
  • Spell lists (20 pages)
  • How to play (20 pages)
  • The Continent of Terror (5 pages)
  • What the Elder told me (10 pages)

Then the Book of Doom’s approx 130 pages is divided like this:

  • The Secrets of the Continent (15 pages)
  • The Others (8 pages)
  • Antagonists including Snake People (4 pages) other bad guys (5 pages) and a bestiary (60 pages)
  • Treasure (5 pages), Adventures (20 pages) and author’s notes on play (10 pages)

The contents page is brief, the index longer but it’s all functional — I certainly wouldn’t have any trouble finding the section I needed.

Remarks

Let’s say retro-clones diverge in two directions: either greater diversity and choice, mixing and matching racial and class options (the AD&D way) or a reduction in the number of options (the Basic D&D way). Perdition is a great example of the former, while C&T does the latter.

Reducing options means reducing the number of decisions players have to make before kick-off. With four core classes and one homogeneous magic system C&T has a much lower cognitive overhead than Perdition. In fact C&T has an immediacy to it — thanks to the life-paths, the gazeteer and the “What the Elder Told Me” section (eight sets of culturally-biased answers to common questions like “who are we?” and “what is magic?”) I expect it would be quick to get up and running — which matters to me as I’m most likely to run OSR games as casual one-shots.

Downsides? C&T is a bit cartoonish; the classes are templates to be filled in, as is the landscape. That’s not a downside for me — I like my games painted with a broad brush and I don’t care for overly detailed settings. I feel C&T hits a sweet spot with just enough of a sketch to make the world a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket.

What else do I like? I like Skill and I like Luck. I also like the one kind of Sorcerer (as opposed to MU and Cleric) and three colours of magic, each with their own costs. Although based on earlier reviews (e.g. here and here) I had certain expectations and there have clearly been a few changes in the “remastering”. It seems previously White magic cost nothing, Grey cost HP and Black cost Sanity. Now White attracts “Others”, Black gains you Corruption and Grey has no cost.

Let’s talk briefly about Corruption and Sanity. I honestly can’t see the value of having both and in general I can’t see the point of CoC-style Sanity in a fantasy game — it made no sense when it was tacked onto Stormbringer and it’s not a great choice here. Corruption, now that makes sense. If only there had been more than one page devoted to it. The rules seem punitive; if it really goes up for every spell level cast then a 5th level sorcerer could see a bump of 9 points in a day’s adventuring. The rules for other classes being corrupted are hand-waving, as are the ones for reducing. The real problem is this isn’t a currency the players can manage except by not going near Black magic in the first place. A fair strategy and maybe the designer’s intent, but boring.

Final Words

Crypts & Things is formulaic, safe, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I’d call that a strength, because the people I play with are only likely to engage with OSR games on a casual basis. The game has just enough flavour. It could be my go-to system for clearing up those LotFP modules cluttering my hard drive.

Perdition is uncompromising, detailed and unique. I don’t think I’d get the time to play it to the depth it deserves. But even so, I’m very glad I read it because it’s remarkable both in concept and execution.

Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

RPG Retrospective: Hawkmoon

Just recently I found this site cataloging the Premier and Nouvelle Editions of the French Hawkmoon RPG. The links to Oriflam and other places are long dead, and it’s a shame that the graphics aren’t bigger but you can see that the French line was extensive — while not much became of the English language RPG until Hawkmoon was picked up by Mongoose around 2008 (whose translation constitutes the French 3rd edition, I think).

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It took the French to keep Hawkmoon alive with its European heroes and Granbretan as the big bad. If only the Cornish nationalists had pulled their finger out we might have a line of Corum games somewhere. Although I can’t read Cornish.

1986’s Hawkmoon

Hawkmoon probably doesn’t qualify as Dying Earth although it has many of the trappings in common with Vance (and Wolfe, and Harrison) — a weird fantasy landscape, ancient technology as sorcery, regression to medievalism and feudalism, etc. I think this is important to bear in mind for this kind of setting where nods to a past Earth are dotted around like Easter eggs. Without it the whole thing degenerates into a weak sub-Tolkien fantasy of warring medieval nations.

In the mid-80s the genre wasn’t particularly well exploited in RPGs — there was enough post-apocalyptic stuff with Gamma World, After the Bomb and arguably Paranoia, but the only explicitly future earth settings that come to mind came much later, e.g. GURPS New Sun (1999) and Chronicles of Future Earth (2010). Is Kerie L. Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon RPG the first of its type?

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Chaosium’s Hawkmoon came in a box set with 3 books — one for players, one for GM and the Science book. There are maps, and a lovely cover by Frank Brunner.

Much like Stormbringer, Hawkmoon’s treatment of Tragic Europe’s locations is terse and mostly confined to the Character Generation chapter of the Player’s guide. Aside from the map the rest of that booklet is skills, combat, injuries and other fairly generic stuff. Likewise the GM’s booklet is just two scenarios plus a beastiary. The Science booklet is the most interesting with a fictional timeline — which I think is wholly created by the RPG authors — that places the end of the Runestaff chronicles around 5304 CE. There’s a section on technology and artifacts, one on animal and plant mutations, and a final piece on interdimensional travel. Actual “magic” or science that the players can manipulate is conspicuous by its absence. Even the sorcerer-scientists, Granbretan’s Order of the Serpent, only get the briefest mention.

System-wise this is pretty much identical to Stormbringer first edition — but without magic, demons, or any system for tracking affiliation to Law and Chaos. It’s definitely my favourite iteration of BRP, particularly with the grouping of skills.

Mongoose Hawkmoon RPG

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If Campbell-Robson’s Hawkmoon was sparse, Gareth Hanrahan’s offering for Mongoose goes in the opposite direction. At nearly 30 pages the gazeteer of Tragic Europe is thorough but a lot of it is dull, plodding stuff. Here and there the writing threatens to inject some colour, such as the boxed-text description of “wormwoods”:

That is not to say, of course, that wormwoods are empty – quite the opposite. They writhe with unnatural, twisted life. Trees drip bulbous green-glowing maggots and scream at the dawn;three-headed wolves hunt through the undergrowth, pushing through strange poisonous plants that shiver a thousand colours down their leaves and spit venom when disturbed. Mutant barbarians and mechanical things lurk in the shadow of the wormwoods; they are not good places to go.
The eldest wormwood is said to be in Muscovia, where they call it by its native name of Kernobul.

Yeah! That sounds great, let’s go wonder around some wormwoods, fight three-headed wolves and plunder the ancient tombs of mechanoids. Except… wormwoods are hardly mentioned again throughout the supplements (there’s three instances in passing in Hanrahan and Steele’s Granbretan, nothing in the linked adventures in Secrets of Tragic Europe).

Obviously Hanrahan appropriated and injected a few extra bits here and there; the wilds of Tragic Europe sounds more like the toxic marshes of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and I like that — but if Hanrahan’s Tragic Europe is going to be toxic and dangerous, where is that content in the Adventuring chapter? Where are my rules for toxic environments and ancient mechanical traps?

My second gripe about the core book is Science and Sorcery. This system has been lifted almost wholesale from the Sorcery rules from RQIII (and I presume MRQ1) so include all the effects like Intensity, Duration, etc. So far, OK. I can even forgive the generic spell descriptions like Damage Boosting, Cast Back, and so forth, which have been lifted directly from RuneQuest. What spoils things is the “requirements” for the spells which include workbenches and laboratories — a perfect fit for sorcerer-science, but totally incongruous with the point-and-click of RuneQuest magic spells. Casting a spell like Acid requires a workbench — a restriction which would seem to make the other restrictions (range Touch, casting time 5 minutes) totally irrelevant. It’s an incoherent union of system and setting.

The rest of the book is about skills, adventuring sub-systems (falling, sneaking, etc.), combat, and some statted-up Moorcock personalities, and a brief synopsis of the fiction; and since I own a lot of BRP material and a lot of Moorcock, I don’t really need either. And system-wise this is the iteration of RQ/BRP I like least.

Mongoose Hawkmoon is a plodding mess that completely drops the ball — in representing the source material, in presenting a compelling setting to play in, and in presenting a coherent system. Its one saving grace are the 2 pages at the beginning which discuss several kinds of parties and adventures (a Lord and Retinue, Mercenaries, Agents at Court, etc.).

Now the supplements are much, much better — Granbretan is both more useful and more fun to read, with spells that actually make sense, biological weapons, and a summary of Granbretan’s campaign in Europe. But then a company which releases a weak and incomplete core rulebook doesn’t deserve loyalty from customers for the rest of the game line. All of this is moot of course since there will be no more EC products from Mongoose. Still if you’re buying secondhand I’d say the core book is for completists only.

Closing

What a disappointment. Chaosium’s product is too sparse, Mongoose’s is too long-winded, and both understate the most important aspects of the setting — Granbretan as the villain, mad science-sorcery, weird yet familiar landscapes. Mongoose’s version does have some quality writing in the supplements — and I’m guessing that Hanrahan did much better when he wasn’t obliged to incorporate the MRQ1 SRD in the middle of his book.

Given that neither system is complete as far as doing the sorcery-science, these are the alternatives for running Hawkmoon:

  1. Use Stormbringer, and re-interpret demons as sorcerous devices, elementals and beast lords as lost technology, and so forth. Of course this magic is now devised rather than summoned, but it could still work. Was this what Chaosium intended? If Hawkmoon had caught on, might we have seen supplements? I’d love to know how the Nouvelle Edition of Oriflam’s product handles science.
  2. The CYD system in Mournblade could be made to work, and is way more coherent. Also it has a built in allegiance system.
  3. Whitehack would be a totally different but probably workable solution (given the flexibility of Wise characters re: magic).
  4. Last but not least, how about a game like Omnihedron’s Duty and Honour? It would only suit a certain kind of campaign, i.e. military action by the Kamarg forces against the advancing Granbretan army. Also it would need some hacking — reputations, social class and so on would need to fit into the Tragic Europe setting.

RPG First Look: Mournblade

I got my copy of Mournblade at Librarie la Licorne in Aix. Last visit they’d moved all the jeux de roles to the cellar and kept the bandes desinees on the ground floor. They had lots of sexy French editions of L’Appel de Cthulhu and even translations of Monsterhearts and Polaris. Service is great! Recommended when you’re between sojourns along la cote d’azur.

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Mournblade is produced by the French RPG house Sombres Projets. Both Mournblade and their other game Wasteland use their Choose Your Dice (CYD) system, which is a clean but otherwise run-of-the-mill, trad-modern, middle-crunch fantasy RPG system. Production values (like all French RPGs, IME) are fantastic.

(Just FYI Wasteland is all about a new Knights of the Round Table in a post-apocalyptic world where only southern England and northern France exist. This is the only game I know that makes Eastbourne a major location, which is hilarious.)

Moorcock in RPGs: A History

I think I’m correct that there have been five incarnations of Eternal Champion/Elric RPGs:

  • Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin for Stormbringer 1e-4e (with John B. Monroe for 4e)
  • At the same time, the French Hawkmoon and Elric lines by Oriflame, which probably include direct translations — although the Hawkmoon line contained a lot of new material I believe (can’t confirm as I don’t own any)
  • Lynn Willis and Richard Watts and others for Elric!/Stormbringer 5e (and also Darksyde’s Corum supplement)
  • Lawrence Whitaker and others for Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone (and at the same time, Gareth Hanrahan for Mongoose’s Hawkmoon), using the Mongoose RuneQuest (MRQ1) rules
  • Ismael Saura, Jawad and others for Mournblade

As a Moorcockian reference Mournblade is a footnote at best, a device that underlines Yyrkoon as counterpoint to Elric and Stormbringer. In an alternate narrative Yyrkoon is a drug-addled sociopath, reaving his way across the Young Kingdoms after sacking his home city, with Mournblade as his conscience like a soul-devouring Jiminy Cricket.

So in the context of the RPG timeline Mournblade is a knowing wink that brings us full circle back Stormbringer. But what matters in the whole timeline is the point where the title transferred from Chaosium to Mongoose. Despite a new system Mournblade is still “a collective endeavour based on Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone, the works of Michael Moorcock and the CYD system” and bears both Mongoose and Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone branding alongside Sombres Projets, who appear to be producing the game under license from Mongoose. Not only is Mongoose’s writing team acknowledged in the credits, portions of Mournblade’s text are direct translations of Whitaker’s work from Elric of Melnibone.

(Back in 2013 when Sprange announced that there “were no plans for future Elric books” he dodged the licensing question; I suppose Mournblade answers that question.)

In some ways Mournblade is the clean break that the Elric of Melnibone RPG failed to make with five generations of Chaosium product. Whittaker’s writing has real heart, not to mention significantly more volume (Stormbringer and Elric! each devote about two pages to the various islands, Elric of Melnibone and Mournblade have 8 pages each on the equivalent section, with a lot more context and history) but that game was hamstrung by a mediocre version of BRP and Mongoose’s shocking production values (poor headings, low contrast grey-on-grey printing, a character sheet that looked like it was knocked up in Word). The fact that Elric of Melnibone used a variant of BRP can’t have helped — and while the CYD system won’t set the world on fire it does at least make Mournblade its own thing.

Despite the change in writing team Willis and Watts’ Elric! still feels like a Chaosium game with concomitant production values and a particular atmosphere. Make no mistake, I have a deep, nostalgic love for Stormbringer and Elric!, especially early SB with the best magic system, fewest compromises and demons, demons all the way down. But just as Call of Cthulhu isn’t about playing a Lovecraft story but playing in Lovecraft’s worlds, Stormbringer is about playing a fantasy game with all the trappings of Moorcock’s worlds, but not necessarily with the same tone as his stories. In some ways I think SB suits low fantasy better than high, absurd demon power levels notwithstanding.

Sombres Projets’ Mournblade: An Overview

Mournblade is one big, thick hardback book with 300 full colour pages. Old art from former products (Mongoose’s, and also Frank Brunner’s art from SB 1e) appears alongside new illustrations. The division of content is traditional:

Livre 1: Les Jeunes Royaumes (pp 7-82)

This is the history, geography, and slice-0f-life fluff that sets the stage. Includes:

  • A brief history of the Young Kingdoms (mostly focusing on the golden age and fall of Melnibone, and upstart nations)
  • Les Enjeux (“issues”): law and chaos, conflict, the age of exploration and the “agony of the old kingdoms”
  • Life in the Young Kingdoms
  • A big section on geography, covering northern, southern and western continents, islands, and mentioning the Unknown East

Livre 2: Les Elus (pp 83-246)

Literally “the elected”: in the context of Moorcock’s fiction les elus are characters who do the bidding of Law and Chaos. This reflects “Les Dieux Vous Ont Choisi” on the back cover.

This section is the largest and comprises:

  • the CYD (Choose Your Dice) system
  • character creation
  • combat
  • magic (runes, elementals, demons, automata)

Livre 3: De L’Autre Cote De L’Ecran (pp 247-301)

The GM’s section with adventures and characters, focused around Bakshaan on the northern continent.

Livre 1: Les Jeunes Royaumes

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The headline here is that a good portion of the text is directly translated from the Mongoose RPG — right down to prose. I haven’t gone through and directly compared every passage, but I know that e.g. the sections on Religion and Melnibone are near identical.

However the first book has more than double the page count of the corresponding chapter in Whitaker’s book, with no appreciable art padding or difference in font size — so there is new content here. Some of it seems to be expanded from Whitaker’s book (e.g. “Magic and Technology” appears to have been more than doubled, and includes a section on l’etat des sciences). Some of it may be new. It’s possible that some of it may come from other Mongoose supplements like Bright Shadows, but I’m not inclined to go through the text with a fine tooth comb.

This section has pretty much everything you’d expect — geography, history, life in the Young Kingdoms, arts, sciences, magic, Law and Chaos. I think Whitaker’s treatment of the source is both more thorough and more engaging than the Chaosium offerings (which seem to rush things), and Mournblade appears to be more of the same.

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My one complaint is that when Whitaker wrote the section on Melnibone he included a fair amount of localised but important history, and since his work has been repeated here it follows that the History section doesn’t contain all of the History — pieces are still scattered throughout the geography and other sections. This isn’t the best organisation, though hardly a deal-breaker.

Livre 2: Les Elus

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The USP of CYD is that you get to choose whether to roll a d10 or a d20 for skill tests.

  • Use a d10 for a “prudent and measured” approach where the linear result is applied to the stat+skill value against target number.
  • Use a d20 for a “flamboyant and risky” approach. If you get an even number, you get your result; if you get an odd number, it’s zero. But a 1 or 11 is automatically un echec dramatique, i.e. a critical.

Otherwise the CYD system works around the tried-and-true Attribute+Skill+Roll formula. There are five attributes:

  • l’Adresse is reflexes, manual dexterity, etc.
  • la Clairvoyance is mental acuity, memory, spirit and senses
  • la Presence is charisma, leadership and personality
  • la Puissance is strength and physical resistance
  • la Trempe is courage and willpower

There are secondary derived attributes (defence, health, psychic energy and speed), a fixed number of skills, and predilections (specialities, sub-classes) for those skills. There are about 18 skills listed on the character sheet. It’s neat enough, and much more consistent than BRP (and especially Mongoose’s RQ1).

Other parts of the character sheet include system currency in the form of Bonne Adventure points and Eclat points, which are gained and spent in-game to represent fortune and heroic acts much like Drama points in other games (and as part of the overall experience section). The Cosmic Balance is determined by the character’s affinity to Law and Chaos, and the margin between.

There are the usual sub-systems and examples for cooperation, conflicts, duels (which could be any conflict between two or more individuals, resolved in a fixed number of dice rolls).

Origins, Heritage and Professions

This is the usual “character tuning” section by geographic location, by social class, and by profession. The Origins (homelands) section is a nice summary for players of the different regions with divinities (Law, Chaos, beast lords and elementals) and advantages. Then the Heritages tend to be a package with advantage and disadvantage, including pariahs, nobles, abominations, hermits, and scoundrels (“crapule”). Finally the professions (assassins, courtesans, scholars, knights, etc.) provide an effective class with specialities and starting equipment.

Combat

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The combat section is predictable, with combats divided into rounds (tours de jeu) of six seconds, initiative, tests and damage. There’s a section on the effects of an echec dramatique on the outcome of a fight. For melee combat there are four basic attack options (violent attack, precise attack, feint and coup bas or trick) plus some advanced ones like charging into combat, containing an adversary, disarming them, or fleeing; there’s rules for improvised weapons, advantageous positions, etc. Wounds are lethal and non-lethal; there are rules for healing and the disadvantages of being wounded.

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Granted this is my first read-through and I may have missed something, but I’m struggling to get excited about any of it. It’s straightforward enough. I’d need to play it out to confirm it’s actually functional.

Cults and Pacts

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This is another familiar section, right down to the Grome illustration by Frank Brunner:

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This section seems much more extensive than both Stormbringer and Mongoose Elric. While I like the latter for the list approach of does-don’ts for each cult, Mournblade’s approach to La Veneration Des Puissances works like this:

  • the character sacrifices Ame (psychic) points to form a Principal Pact
  • this gives access to various Gifts
  • depending on the cult, each Gift has an associated Tendency (e.g. visions, demonic aspects, chastity, hydrophobia depending on Law, Chaos, Elemental or Beast cults)

There are lots of examples and choices. I do feel that Mournblade does a better job than previous versions in connecting the characters to the higher powers. I haven’t checked how much of the text is directly translated from other sources, e.g. Mongoose’s Cults of the Young Kingdoms but the content here is more than enough, and most importantly a lot is player-facing and puts the cults in the context of an agreement between individual and deity (whereas in Mongoose Elric the “gift” comes from cult devotion — mechanically the same, but thematically more like Runequest)

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Magic

The magic system borrows heavily (and possibly wholesale) from Mongoose Elric, so if you know that system it’s basically more of the same. Mournblade has

  • Rune Magic
  • Elemental Summoning
  • Demon Summoning
  • Automata and Enchantments

It’s worth noting that the various Demons of Desire, Knowledge, Combat, Protection and Travel (but not Possession) made it back into Whitaker’s game, and also appear here. They’re still not quite the same conceptually as early Stormbringer, but at least they’re not the “breeds” from SB 4e/5e.

In general the magic is interesting and provides a lot of variety and I guess it’s necessary to have a discrete magic system market a fantasy game in general. Maybe I’d like them to have been a bit braver and roll the elemental and demon summoning into the system of Pacts and make personal power solely about connections with higher powers. But it’s a good, muscular magic system you can sink your teeth into.

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Livre 3: De L’Autre Cote De L’Ecran

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The obligatory GM’s section always follows the same format: an adventure, maybe one or two essays on how to GM, and a few charts and tables and a character sheet in the back. From what I can tell the adventure is perfectly serviceable, there are setting maps and personalities and nice pictures to go along with them.

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I think to properly evaluate the content I’d have to run it. But otherwise it’s pretty much what you’d expect: maps, personalities, a synopsis (a rescue mission to an island of cannibals in the archipelago near Bakshaan, if I read correctly).

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Closing Remarks

“What, you can actually read French?”

My French is not great, but with Mournblade I’m not only familiar with the source material, I’m also expecting certain rules and structures (from world-building to character creation to combat rules). All that compensates for the gaps of my vocabulary and make sense of the content. And RPGs are (usually) written for comprehension rather than prose, which helps. Fiction and bandes desinees are harder owing to prose and slang.

Am I glad I bought Mournblade? Hell, yes. It makes me happy that there’s still someone making a Moorcock RPG, even if it’s not in English.

Would I run it? Before I gave it a proper read through I expected it to just be a souvenir and sit on my shelf next to SB 4e, Elric! and the Mongoose books. I don’t really feel the need of any new system — and since I’ve been thinking up an OSR hack for SB 1e’s demons, I’m more likely to use that. But I do feel the urge to run with the CYD system, at least once. I can see myself running See Hawmgaarl and Die! at a Con with a bunch of CYD pre-gens.

Should you buy it (if you can find it)? That depends:

  • If you’re a completist, then of course. It’s the prettiest Moorcock game I own.
  • If you want to show off by running a French RPG, then go for it.
  • If you loved MRQ Elric of Melnibone and want a tidier package with a better system, it could be for you. Note that I never owned the second edition of Mongoose’s game (for MRQ2) which may be a lot cleaner.
  • If you feel that MRQ Elric is all you need, or are inclined to take MRQ Elric and run it with a hacked OSR system then Mournblade may not add anything new.
  • If you’re a Stormbringer diehard from the mid-80s, and frankly you don’t approve of anything other than the Perrin/St. Andre version, you might want to give this a miss.
  • OTOH if you felt Stormbringer didn’t do Moorcock justice and never got a chance to own MRQ Elric, you may be pleasantly surprised if your French is up to it.

RPG First Look: Starvation Cheap

starvation cheap

I finally sat down to Starvation Cheap — Sine Nomine’s military campaign supplement for Stars Without Number — after re-reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

That in turn reminded me of the first war RPG we played, Revised RECON. Back in the 80s we’d play that during breaks under the stairwell in the college’s creepy abandoned B Block. Given that our only cultural touchstone for the Vietnam war was Tour of Duty (taped on VHS from the 1 am broadcast on ITV) the game was a sensationalist mix of cartoon jingoism, violence and unintentional racism.

Our next foray into war was only slightly better, hacking the original WFRP to play the newly released WH40K:Rogue Trader as a RPG, and playing out a thinly veiled Aliens pastiche of surreal jingoism, unintential violence and cartoon racism.

So, two out of two of the military campaigns I’ve played have been rather juvenile and not something I’m inclined to repeat. It wouldn’t really have occured to me to buy another military RPG, but I backed the Starvation Cheap Kickstarter on impulse, after loving Silent Legions and more importantly the promise of Starvation Cheap also in epub format.

Content

In a nutshell, Starvation Cheap does for a military campaign what Silent Legions does for the Lovecraftian horror genre. Just as Silent Legions creates a complete campaign starting with the supernatural pantheon and working downwards through cults and locations, Starvation Cheap does the same by focusing on the source of the conflict then populating it with personalities, missions and the like.

Military Life and Organisation

The first 25% or so of the book is mostly text (and the ePub version is especially welcome) covering a range of topics:

  • Ranks, Divisions and other Units
  • Chain of command, laws, and justice
  • Artillery and Vehicles
  • Logistics
  • Psychics
  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Robots and Drones

The Logistics section deserves a special mention with all kinds of problems that might arise — and adventure hooks that result.

The Sandbox

Since the book is also a Sine Nomine sandbox product, the next major chunk of the book is table after table for generating content, including

  • Your commanding officer, including their current goal, what they’re likely to do in an engagement, etc.
  • Vital points (fortifications and other strategically important areas) and why they’re important
  • From-scratch creation of actual conflicts using the ubiquitous Tag system
  • Civillians
  • Army creation (both planetary armies and mercenary legions)
  • Missions with Mission Tags
  • Complications (combat, social, environmental, etc.)
  • Map features
  • Battlefield encounters

This content is actually spread over several chapters (before and after the massed combat rules) but it’s all part of the same whole — a top-to-bottom war scenario generation tool. The amount of utility is quite staggering, and crucially it’s largely system agnostic — yes, there are mentions of hit dice and Luck rolls here and there, but a huge chunk of this book could be repurposed for your system of choice.

There’s plenty of debate about what “innovation” means in the OSR (as if that were one monolithic entity). One reason it’s hard to pin down is the sheer number of diverse examples from settings to new takes on old rules to highly functional supplements. Starvation Cheap falls into the third category; but rather than using it as a poster child for the OSR, we should be recognising its broad general potential — it’s an innovative RPG supplement, full stop. Mainstream RPGs would do well to pack this much utility into just over a hundred pages.

Mass Battles

Tucked in the middle of the book with just a few pages there’s a section on running massed battles, using the “war turn”. This boils military units down to a few descriptors (strength, condition, type) and with a few die rolls you can resolve old battles and start new ones. All of this can be used to frame the ongoing conflict as a backdrop for the PCs’ adventures.

New Gear

The least appealing section for me, but expected by most RPG consumers. The section is still brief and to the point, and the descriptions of new equipment (personal and vehicular) are fun enough.

Comparison with Skyward Steel

After reading Starvation Cheap I went back to see how much had been cut and pasted from Skyward Steel, the Naval counterpoint to the army campaign.

The answer is, there actually very different in presentation. I found Starvation Cheap much more complete and accessible with all those tables — but the fact is they complement each other. Skyward Steel has the sections on Life in the Navy and Running Naval Campaigns, but it lacks any of the random generators, tag systems, mission generators, or attention to detail concerning the chain of command. The one thing it does provide is the very fun Battle Stations section with the different roles on the ship’s bridge.

With a bit of thought I reckon the two could be combined effectively — use the mission generators, the chain of command and so on from Starvation Cheap and apply to a Navy setting, and away you go.

The ePub

Thanks to Bundle of Holding I’ve owned the other SWN supplements (including Starvation Cheap’s naval counterpart, Skyward Steel) for ages, and just not read them because they’re in an very awkward format for me; too small for a tablet, and the two-column layout makes them a pain to read on a 16:9 laptop screen on a first pass. But for Silent Legions I basically read the epub cover to cover, then bookmarked the pdf for the important sections.

An ePub version is no guarantee of writing quality, of course (of the few RPGs I own that are Kindle-ready, Urban Shadows is excellent, but Nobilis is excerable). Nor does it do tables or boxed text very well. What the ePub version of Starvation Cheap does is get its foot in the metaphorical door of my reading list so I can skim it and make the decision to read more.

Closing

I’m still not sure I’ll ever use this for a campaign, but it’s been a joy to read. I could probably still use a lot of the tools to generate material for one-shots for convention play.

RPG First Look: Black Hack, Malandros and Blades in the Dark

I backed the Kickstarters for the three games below. In no particular order:

The Black Hack

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The thing I admire most about OSR games is how they’ve taken the moving parts and tuned them for a particular kind of experience. The Black Hack is a stripped-back second-gen OSR title, extremely short in presentation and focused on the dungeon combat experience. Whereas Whitehack applies nuance and narrative creativity to the D&D class formula, The Black Hack goes in the opposite direction and focuses on class activities in the dungeon context. The text’s sole concern is on fighting monsters, healing and resting, and carrying around stuff. There are magic spell lists in the back but no actual spells, because why reprint them when they’re available in the SRD?

Nevertheless there are innovations here:

  • simplified rolls against attributes (a de facto standard)
  • roll with advantage or disadvantage is taken straight from D&D 5e
  • armour rules are very elegant both for function and handling people wearing the wrong armour; you have to rest to recover armour function
  • weapons are simplified and damage is class-based
  • usage dice for consumable items
  • simplified monsters
  • a great character sheet:

bh_char

This feels like the kind of game you’d want for a one-shot tabletop version of Gauntlet. There’s no world, or discussion of the characters’ lives outside the dungeon, and that suits me fine; but clearly this game is speaking to the kind of player who’s already absorbed the tropes (either first time around, or as an OSR enthusiast). That’s my only reservation: this isn’t a complete game so much as a layer or filter for another game, and it relies on familiarity with other properties — and while you can find those for free, you need to know where to look.

I should mention Into the Odd as the closest “competitor” for “0-60 dungeoneering”. Both games make me think Dungeon Crash as opposed to Dungeon Crawl. ItO has the edge with the flavour of Bastion, while BH has the advantage of familiar assets. For flavour I might pick the former, but I’d love to plug BH into some LotFP modules.

Malandros

malandros

I backed Malandros on impulse and G+ recommendation. It calls itself a Dramasystem game but deviates from Hillfolk in the procedural system.

The Book

Malandrosis absolutely gorgeous, with art throughout that immerses the reader in the setting (late 19c Rio de Janeiro). Thanks to the format Malandros is also way easier to read on my iPad mini than Hillfolk.

System

System-wise it feels like Dramasystem in the split between procedural and dramatic scenes, scene calling, emotional concessions, etc. It’s simplified in that there’s only one kind of token in Malandros (the Drama Tokens still move around according to whether emotional concessions are granted).

But there’s a heavy dose of Powered by the Apocalypse in there both for Procedural “signature moves” and “progress tracks” (a.k.a. clocks). I need to play this to see how it works but on paper it’s a vast improvement over the original, and potentially a case for the whole being much greater than the sum of parts.

Gripes

I have a couple of gripes. The first is about how the GM role can be passed around. Brilliant, I think — a feature I’m eagerly awaiting in Alas Vegas — but very little mention of this in the game aside from flavour text in the introduction and how to handle the GM’s drama tokens in that section.

This leads to my second gripe: this isn’t a game for newcomers. While that’s true of a lot of games in that generally you have to have played a RPG before, in this one it helps to understand both Dramasystem and PbtA. The text order doesn’t help — Signature Moves are mentioned in Character Creation, written about in the following chapter, but Procedural Scenes are only explained 30 pages after that. This isn’t a problem if you’re either looking to make the connection between character, setting and mechanics, or otherwise have the discipline to read the game cover to cover (and Malandros has a sane word count and little padding). But it is a fundamental problem to ask players to make decisions about their character which have mechanical weight, without knowing what those mechanisms are.

My third and final gripe is that in odd places the text indentation isn’t consistent (e.g. in People You Meet the indents for Abilities/Signature Moves). But that’s easy to ignore.

Alternative Settings

Just as Hillfolk has Series Pitches Malandros has its own alternative settings. The first of these, Aluminium Wars by Mark Galeotti follows a similar format to the core book — there’s setting, character types, then a discussion of signature moves, then finally some location-based fluff.

This is possibly the most interesting because it shows off the full potential of the system — by breaking out new Signature Moves it’s basically doing the AW hack thing but in a much more consistent framework, and well supported by the overarching system and micro-setting. At first glance Aluminium Wars offers a great deal more structure and support than Hillfolk’s series pitches.

Bottom Line

Malandros does for Hillfolk what Urban Shadows does for Apocalypse World (and what second-gen OSR games like the Black Hack do for BECMI D&D). It’s a second generation spin on a foundation text, clarifying and retooling innovative system into something more accessible and functional, but also a conscious deviation. Malandros is something special, and if you’re a tablet reader the PDF is a bargain.

For hardcopies I don’t know what’s happening yet — during the Kickstarter the POD provider was switched from DTRPG to a US-only service provider (slightly annoying since pledges were in sterling) and although it seems shipping charges aren’t much worse, I guess it will complicate returns if there’s a problem with your delivery.

Blades in the Dark

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This one was kickstarted around a year ago, and just won the Golden Geek Game of the Year award. I’ve played with version 0.4b of the Quickstart rules with a range of different players. I think it’s now locked in at version 0.6, so we’re waiting for physical products as well as the many stretch goals.

System

This is a post-PbtA design with associated trappings — notably playbooks and advancement. Other comments:

  • it’s slightly more traditional than PbtA with three groups of skills (insight, prowess and resolve) and a single action roll
  • your band of thieves has its own playbook
  • rules for group actions
  • stress plays a factor; aquire stress during the mission, burn it off by indulging vices in downtime
  • take territory from other higher tier gangs in Duskwall
  • avoid planning out the mission; instead, dive in and make use of flashback mechanics to justify on-the-fly mission conditions (e.g. “I brought the Head of Vecna, just in case”). I suspect this is close to the approach in the Leverage RPG, just as it’s implied in Hollowpoint

Because play is funneled into missions and downtime it’s very easy to grasp the flow of the drama during and between missions. The players I ran it with came from more of a trad background than indie, and it took some encouragement to get them to stop planning the mission up front and just go for it and use flashbacks. I found a similar problem when running Hollowpoint for a more traditional bunch of players. But unlike Hollowpoint the mission structure is less abstract and the support materials are there to guide newcomers into the BitD way.

The discussion on Clocks is more in-depth than any I’ve seen in Apocalypse World or hacks, and inspired thinking into Dice Clocks. I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in ramping tension up in their RPG (which should be every GM, right?).

Setting

This is the same setting as John Harper’s Ghost Lines. In the QS it’s implied rather than absolute, and while there’s a lot of evocative characters and places there are also a lot of gaps. Will this get ironed out in the final product? I don’t know; there’s a trend in indie games to assume both tacit knowledge of how to play “the indie way” and also how to parse the text and fill in the blanks.

The problems happen when player-facing documents present some setting element which has no counterpart in the GM materials, putting the GM on the defensive. So, when in Blades a certain character or setting element gets mentioned, it’s hard to tell whether this is

  • a gap that the GM needs to fill, or
  • a load-bearing element that the GM should already be aware of

Examples I have in mind include the nature of the undead, demons and devils in the setting, and specifically how these mesh with the supernatural powers of the Whisper and the Leech. To resolve this the GM has not only to have a broad overview of the setting and the parts of the book (Unquiet Dead and Strange Forces, pp. 60-61) but also look carefully into the detail of the playbooks themselves. With enough time and careful thought these issues can be resolved; but with that much cognitive overhead, the Blades quick start is no longer quick.

Closing

It’s a testament to Blades how quickly my players (with a very broad range of experience, both in style and years of play) all just got it after a few rounds. I recommend reading in any case for the ideas on Clocks, the examples of how to build great player-facing game aids, and the interplay between mission and downtime.

BitD cites Thief as an influence, so it was always going to be an easy sell to me. But also interestingly both Blades and Malandros claim The Wire in their touchstones. And since the latter draws heavily on PbtA, the logical next step may be a Blades/Malandros/Dramasystem hybrid, a heterogeneous design which deliberately weaves in dramatic scenes and emotional concessions between missions as part of downtime, with mechanical feedback.

RPG First Look: Fugue

James Wallis’ Alas Vegas kickstarter was fantastically successful with a backing of 8 times its initial goal. It was also fantastically optimistic with delivery dates with an estimate of June 2013 for hard copies and December 2013 for the Alas Vegas novel. Some people are reasonably irked about the delays, and some have found creative ways to express frustration.

We are receiving some content, slowly. September 2014 got us a partial preview, and as of November 2015 the Fugue rules are “locked” and have been released under the Creative Commons license, so I’m going to look at those.

Alas Vegas

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Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’s Inferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner. A new style of RPG by James Wallis, named by Robin D. Laws as ‘the godfather of indie-game design’, with art from this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award, John Coulthart.

In the backer’s preview (Septemer 2014) James Wallis reasonably asks bloggers, reviewers and the like to hold fire for a couple of years on any of Alas Vegas’ secrets, and as I can’t stand spoilers I’ll do my best not to spoil anything.

Here’s the problem. I’d like to talk about the Fugue system, but the examples I’d reach for are off-limits — both for the reader, and for me, the backer. I’m allowed to read the setting and the first act (the owner of the book gets to be the first Dealer), but not much more than that.

So, this is a review and commentary on the Fugue system in general, but a lot of it will be around what my expectations of the system are, which is something I won’t be able to realise until the release. Alas Vegas and Fugue in general assumes a relationship between GM and game author that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Content Sets

There are three operating constraints on Fugue games:

  1. Your characters have no memory of who they are, how they got where they are, or any skills beyond the most basic (speak language, eat, breathe) at time in.
  2. Play happens over a short, defined span of sessions (“like a HBO miniseries”), typically four.
  3. The GM (“Dealer”) role rotates around the group.

There are some implied thematic constraints too, such as the use of the Tarot in setting elements — since there’s an Alas Vegas set of Major Arcana by John Coulthart, this isn’t much of a spoiler.

There are three “Content Sets” in addition to Alas Vegas (all stretch goal offerings from the Kickstarter). I’m going to assume these sets all obey the same constraints for now.

Now, here’s the problem. The Fugue rules tell us how to negotiate some of the operating constraints, but not all. I assume those gaps have been deferred to the Content Sets, but since (a) we only have half of a draft of Alas Vegas and none of the others and (b) I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway without spoiling it for myself, I can’t say for certain. Anyway…

The Fugue Rules

I went through the Fugue document and made this cognitive map:

Fugue

(pdf version here) Here is what you’ll find in the Fugue rules:

  1. What you need to play (pens, paper, a tarot deck, etc.)
  2. How and when to do flashbacks (lead by the Dealer, the player of the Persona, and other players; or triggered by the game content). The mechanism for exploring the first operational constraint is almost all there, with one key exception which I’ll discuss later.
  3. The principles of play, such as not contradicting players with flashbacks and One More Thing; and how much of the Content Set the players (who are Dealers) are allowed to read.
  4. How to do all kinds of contested actions, a Blackjack mini-game, and so on, including narrating the outcome based on the Tarot draw.

Now, here’s what you don’t find in the Fugue document:

  1. There’s nothing about weaving flashbacks and abilities into the narrative.
  2. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  3. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  4. How to hand over between sessions.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

While the player-led narrative control sounds like the new indie school, all of this freedom is entirely around the flashback mechanism and turning the Tarot strings into a narrative. It’s totally freeform, but it’s not dissimilar to other minimalist designs from the 90s like Over the Edge and Everway.

When it comes to Dealer behaviour, other than being prompted for flashbacks when a Significator comes up it’s very traditional, authoritarian GM stuff. The first act I read is not completely railroaded to hell, but it’s not far off. It’s been structured with scene-by-scene set pieces, drip feeding the plot to the players as you go on.

Now, thinking about the constraints above — 4 sessions, 3 hours each, and rotating Dealer with deliberate obfuscation of objective facts in the early acts — I am not sure if it could be done another way. But this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between game author and GM. The author of any Content Set is going to be unable to playtest their own game in the way it’s supposed to be presented to the players according to the Fugue rules.

This is an adventure-as-novel style, heavily plotted, a 90s throwback. There are other clues in the document — the way the Dealer is advised to make the Personas’ lives a misery, but stop short of actually killing them; the way the Dealer is advised to put off the players’ difficult questions, to restrict their movements, because where they’re supposed to be is defined by the act they’re playing in. Honestly? It reminds me of Vampire. Not a metaplotted to hell Vampire, but the intensely personal, introspective, first-edition Vampire. The version I actually like.

Closing Remarks

Thanks to this design, Alas Vegas could never have taken advantage of crowd-sourced playtesting. This is because the Fugue rules are only half of the required mechanism in any Fugue game; the other half is the Content Set.

I expect the Content Set to plug these gaps:

  • weave the Personas back into the narrative. I guess the logical place this will happen is where there are Flashback triggers written into each Act. I don’t see any dynamic, player-led linkage.
  • handover from Dealer to Dealer between sessions. The game may well assume this “just happens” because “the GM knows how to do this kind of thing”. But actually I think this is non-trivial; what if the Dealer played the cards close to their chest and didn’t reveal everything in the previous session? What if the party refused to go where the Dealer was supposed to send them? What if a later Dealer forgot some vital plot from the previous session? Consensus is needed.

Time will tell if this is successful; but these are the criteria I will be using to judge all four content sets when we finally see them. But considering a Content Set needs to plug these gaps and provide a snappy, structured four-act game, I’m not surprised that the initial delivery dates proved ambitious.

I’d compare Fugue to Hillfolk (with its Series Pitches) or WaRP or possibly GUMSHOE. Ostensibly freeform, but from a school of heavy up-front plotting. Like I said, a 90s throwback. Fugue is the antithesis of modern emergent design; it isn’t is Fiasco or Monsterhearts or (ironically) Penny For My Thoughts. The controls on the Dealer authority are baked into the Content Set but instead of mechanistic controls (e.g. the way PbtA limits MC moves) the controls are entirely fictional, deliberately limiting context.

I’m still very optimistic about the final product. Partly because I’ve done this kind of game in the past — when four of us played four Eternal Champions back in the 90s, where we muddled through four sessions, rotating the GM role. Almost entirely free-form, with no controls on how far each GM could go aside from trust and a shared commitment.

As for the Fugue system itself, I think there would be no problem in running a game with a very traditional structure, avoiding the whole rotating Dealers thing. The flashback mechanics and the action rules still work, compartmentalised from the Content Set. I’m sorry I didn’t do that a year ago when we had the first document.

RPG First Look: Whitehack

I’ve said before that the OSR is like Linux:

OSR games are like Linux distributions: they reflect the operability ideals of the designers, they’re essentially a diffuse package of commands that the distribution maintainer curates and forces to operate together

These little differences between distros (package managers, system tools, desktop environment) form the basis of preference for Linux enthusiasts, but… they’re completely irrelevent to outsiders who make computing decisions on a completely different set of criteria (ideology, need for apps, shiny hardware).

And the OSR is like that. Outsiders can’t grok the difference between the retroclones, even if those differences are fairly significant. Their decision to look at OSR products comes from a different set of decision-making criteria (ideology, community they play with, style, genre, etc.).

In Decision Behaviour, Analysis and Support (excerpt here) Prof. Simon French discusses the “Strategy Pyramid”:

Pyramid

(also, another strategy pyramid — for another time)

The decision for “which OSR” or “which Linux” is Operational/Instinctive — it comes down to a set of low-level activities (which dice, ascending/descending AC, which commands). The decision to use or not use Linux in favour of Windows, or an OSR game in favour of, say, GURPS, is a strategic one with completely different criteria. For the RPG choice you’ll be thinking

  • What do my friends play/like?
  • What products are available in the shops?
  • What settings appeal to me?
  • What community do I identify with?

And so on. Yes, some of these have nothing to do with system — but they’re fair, high-level strategic decisions on which game to invest time in.

By now you’re thinking: what the hell has this got to do with Whitehack?

whitehack_booklet

Christian Mehrstam’s Whitehack speaks the language of OSR — “zero edition roots”, streamlined rules, implied conversions from other OSR sources. Those markers help the OSR types identify this game as part of that family of games, and therefore something to be curious about. If that’s you, check out Sophia Brandt’s 7-part study where you can get the information you need to decide how Whitehack differs from your favourite OSR beast.

For the wider RPG audience for whom Whitehack is “just another D&D game” there’s not much reason to seek out those differences, and that’s a shame. So here’s where I break it down. Because this isn’t only an OSR game, it’s a conduit between the OSR and 90’s minimalist designs which also understands the indie drive towards emergent setting.

Founding Principles

In play Whitehack appears to be built on two very important principles:

  1. You can negotiate for advantage at any time.
  2. When you negotiate for advantage, you explain where the fictional source of that advantage comes from.

The first principle is dear to my heart and core to playing light freeform-style games such as Everway and WaRP/Over the Edge. But it’s the second that drives the emergent setting, growing the world over time. That same principle lies at the heart of indie darlings Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

Genre Aware

The genius in Whitehack is not just in its re-treading of the OSR mechanisms, though these are certainly innovative and sleek — it’s in the game’s awareness of genre and setting as they pertain to “adventure”. From the beginning Referees’s section, p.24:

Nobody ever comes “clean” to a game or a genre.

Then from “Hacking Your Notion of Normal” (p.25)

The expression “normal fantasy” may sound contradictory, but it isn’t… if you want to hack your group’s notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest

and from “Switching or Mixing Genres” (p.25)

Genres are formalised answers to historical social needs, not just containers for stereotypes, tropes and typical trappings… Genres run much deeper. For example, science fiction answers the need to shed new light on common beliefs and conceptions.

From the outset Whitehack makes the correct assumption that the reader has their own biases and experience with the genre; it doesn’t work against that, rather provides a framework for emergent setting.

Fluid Framework

I’ll mention one aspect of the mechanics, which is the interaction of the Classes and Groups. Much like Numenera’s characters which are typically

adjective noun who verbs

Whitehack’s character classes are not vocational but only imply a core activity (Deft, Strong and Wise). The book encourages the creation of e.g. Deft Magicians and Wise Warriors with different interpretations on their vocation (a Wise Warrior is a strategist, for example).

Combining this with the different Group options — everyone gets two groups, which can be vocational, affiliation or even species — the result is almost the antithesis of D&D’s rigidly imposed class structure. Instead the classes are a starting point and a means to diverge from the traditional classes, while retaining the usefulness of D&D’s experience reward system.

The Booklet

Whitehack has a clear message to deliver, and is uncompromising as it is clear. It’s not available as an electronic version — it’s POD only, and the hardcover editions don’t ship outside North America. It’s also completely lacking any artwork — the cover is the character sheet, and the interior is 64 pages long with a few tables and diagrams but otherwise just text. This is a very interesting design statement about both the neutrality of the content (your genre, your emergent setting) and the way the content is to be consumed.

Closing Remarks

If you have a reason for buying something from Lulu and you’re even remotely interested, I would recommend Whitehack. In many ways it’s a deconstruction and reconfiguration of OSR mechanisms that empower both the GM and the players in owning their setting and exploring it in emergent fashion. But even better because it has the trappings of OSR it’s “compatible” with a broad range of sources, and has the potential to plug into other games. Mixing and matching Beyond the Wall/Further Afield (Threat Packs, Playbooks, Scenario packs) with Whitehack seems a distinct possibility with a bit of care.

I get a similar vibe that I got with Sorcerer and Sword — and while the latter is more genre-prescriptive, the same principles of ownership of one’s own world, and embracing the emergent nature of that world hold true. At the same time this feels as much like Everway and Over the Edge as it does D&D; and it’s a true “hybrid OSR” approach that marries a player-led narrative with traditional GM oversight.

I am truly excited.

RPG First Look: Urban Shadows

We’ve got our 15th session of Apocalypse World coming up next week, and while I love playing PbtA (and the group I’m playing with) I’ve found it a real struggle being the MC.

  • Some of that’s on me. I wanted to run AW (and run the original) to challenge my habits, and engage with all the subsystems (hard moves, clocks, fronts) in earnest. I’m still learning, although the organisation of the book doesn’t help.
  • Some of it’s genre. AW is a particularly violent, desperate example; also much of it is territorial, where my preference in that genre is for the characters to get away from the settlement and explore the areas between (such as H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow, or Greg Saunders’ Summerland).
  • Some of it is the system. There is a whiff factor (our Gunlugger’s record on manipulation, for example). The system is specifically the author’s vision of the genre; if you’re not aligned, you can’t just wing it.

Anyway, Urban Shadows is me breaking my rule about no more rpg pdfs you will never read. The Halloween sale and the promise of an epub version tipped the scales. It’s post-WoD urban fantasy, Powered by the Apocalypse.

Urban Shadows Cover

The first few chapters are predictably moves, playbooks, and the other trappings of PbtA systems like harm. I have to say the writing is incredibly clear and well laid out. All my complaints about AW’s organisation are addressed, e.g. the group combat is both clearer and easier to find by comparison. This must be set against the fact that it’s still PbtA, complete with the jargon and mindset; so if you’re coming to it as a veteran of those games it’s perfect (and great for me as a second go at MCing), but if not it still represents a conceptual hurdle.

There’s not much genre exposition outside the playbooks, but that’s OK; this is a game for a post-Buffy, post-WoD audience. We have genre expectations and the game is aware of that. The genre-specific moves start to come out with Drama moves and Debt moves; in the former case the characters are wrestling with Corruption, which is not unlike MonsterheartsDarkest Self but with a slower climb and long-term effects as you gain moves at the cost of your soul.

PbtA has always been interesting for Advances; for the MC it’s great that the players can just claim advances without intervention, and negotiate for their own rewards. In US the conditions for advancing come from marking Factions (Mortality, Night, Power, Wild). You can’t mark one Faction more than once, and you have to mark all four to advance. I assume this means you have to constantly insert yourself into other people’s business. The actual advances are the usual, genre-keyed stuff — membership of groups, Corruption (q.v.), advancing the basic moves.

Then there’s the MC section, which reads just like all the others — you have an agenda, address the characters not the players, etc. It’s not really anything new, but it does a great job of refining the usual advice with examples of Soft and Hard Moves. The MC has the usual range of moves, some of which are for Factions, others for the City. There’s PvP, NPC, PC-NPC-PC triangles, and so forth; there’s a discussion of the various Playbooks (Archetypes); there’s themes and general advice for narration and MC behaviour. There’s a First Session portion which is completely familiar, but very nicely done.

There is a good bit about Teaching the Game, which acknowledges the effort required in learning and the need for coaching new players without PbtA experience. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it in other PbtA games.

Threats are nothing new, but vastly improved for clarity — the section on Clocks, for example. Threats are thematically linked through Storms (Fronts).

The last chapter deals with creating new moves and the various traps, and a really simple but innovative method of handling players who missed the last session (Love Letters).

Remarks

This feels like a true, second-generation PbtA effort; there’s a clarity, a focus on teaching players and teaching the MC that has been missing. It’s as if the authors have recognised that their do not have a direct social connection to the communities and original authors to make up the shortfall in understanding.

This fixes two of my three complaints about Apocalypse World, one being clarity of the text and the second being my preference for genre. The jury is out on the third — the whiff factor — and for that, we’ll need to play.

I have a similar feeling about Urban Shadows to my feelings on Silent Legions — and granted these are two completely different approaches to roleplaying, but they’re both genre-aware, and both toolkit approaches that put the tools in the GM’s hands.

Where should I position this game with its PbtA Urban Fantasy peers, Monsterhearts and Monster of the Week? If Monsterhearts is Teen Wolf and Vampire Diaries, and Monster of the Week is Buffy and Supernatural, Urban Shadows is somewhere between the two — probably Lost Girl or Mortal Instruments or True Blood.

Recommended, if you like that sort of thing.

urban shadows

(I would have preferred this for the cover, though…)

RPG Third and Final Look: Sorcerer

Sorcerer Concept Art

This is my third and final attempt to read Ron Edwards’ Annotated Sorcerer which I backed in 2013, wrote several posts about it, then ran out of steam. I was pretty positive with the original 2001 text, but when it came to the annotations I made a couple of posts and then quit abruptly.

I was a bit harsh. And while I stand by the thoughts and ideas I had at the time, I do feel a bit bad about leaving it like that, for a few reasons:

  1. I hadn’t even touched the supplements.
  2. I don’t like being negative in general, and if I’m talking about a product it’s because it something good to offer.
  3. The posts are way too focused on details, not enough of a high-level or holistic view.

Also, I’ve since talked with Ron Edwards on social media (not about this game). Maybe it’s foolish of me to admit to that bias, but a lot of my communication for work is impersonal. I don’t want to be impersonal, even if I am a misanthrope. Ending on a low point didn’t feel right.

OK, so why didn’t I take to the annotations first time around?

Part of the problem was reading the file on my iPad — OK for the original text, but once I started on the annotations it was no good. You need to read the book in the intended print format with the orignal on the left and the annotations on the right. I bit the bullet and killed a tree printing out the text and supplements in A4 landscape, then went through the whole thing making margin notes. I won’t say it transformed my opinions but it removed a significant barrier to the reading process.

So, this is my full and final impressions of the original, annotations, and supplements. Here we go.

Sorcerer, 2001

Sorcerer_rpg_bookcover

I tend to treat RPG manuals like other procedures, test methods and papers; I’ll scan the whole document looking for patterns and then prioritise my reading of different parts based on the information I expect to get. For a game manual my priorities tend to be:

  1. core concepts, objects, definitions
  2. procedures
  3. examples of those procedures
  4. lists of powers
  5. author spew
  6. setting fluff

By “author spew” I mean those essays in Vampire and the like that talk vaguely about principles and techniques but don’t offer any real instructions. In truth 5 and 6 change position depending on my mood.

I know this is at odds with some designers who say you need to read their book cover to cover. I’ll tolerate that as long as their priorities in writing are the same as mine in reading. The order above is what you need if you’re learning the game as a new skill to be practiced; and yet very often those priorities are reversed. World of Darkness and Nobilis are particularly tedious. I probably have a strong unconscious bias to ignore anything dressed as fiction in a RPG.

OK, rant over. Sorcerer gets a lot of the learning priorities right, even in the 2001 form. There are parts where the text gets ahead of itself (e.g. the dice mechanic, which the annotations admits is premature) but overall it does the job. The first three chapters give us premise, how to generate the sorcerer, and how to generate the demons. I know from the outset that this game is about people, and people who summon demons, and that’s all I ever really wanted from my urban fantasy games — because the rest of it, the city landscape and the implied connections with other sorcerers (or vampires, or whatever) are things that I can and want to work out on my own.

Here are some high points, some of which I’m reiterating from previous posts:

  • The system is light and functional; what I would call “mid nineties lite”, not surprising as Edwards cites Everway, Over the Edge and Zero. On the Myers-Briggs N-S axis it’s N (that iNtuitive, not Narrative).
  • I strongly approve of Stamina as a physical trait (I wrote this a couple of years ago) and Will as a mental/social one. Doesn’t change function, but does challenge preconception about where physical and social competence comes from, and feels particularly appropriate for the sorcerer.
  • Sorcerers aren’t point-and-click sorcerers, they need containers for their powers. I’ve been in love with this idea since I read the Stormbringer RPG (1-3e, not 4e, and yes, I know the game deviates from Moorcock’s books, I’ve read those too).
  • Demon binding is non-binary. Other games will either have you bind the thing and use it like artillery, or fail and it uses you like a suppository. Here, it’s all about the relationship, and what Needs are satisfied.
  • The four-corner Lore-Kicker-Cover-Price diagram is fantastic. I’m a sucker for a good diagram. Some of the fan character sheets morph the rectangle into a circle (e.g. here). Looks familiar? No bad thing, IMO.
  • Story Now, Kickers and Bangs: I don’t think these anti-railroading principles were ever new to me, I internalised them a long time ago. But good to see them in print.

four corners

There are other innovations which are easier to overlook — where something looks like a list of powers it gets mentally filed in the further reading section next to the scenarios: not critical for understanding right now. When there’s something useful mixed up with that content, it will get filed too.

I never expected Sorcerer to be flawless; what I did expect, and what the original delivers, is an answer to the World of Darkness’ disconnect between the game-as-written and the game that we actually played (see here)).

The Annotations, 2013

Sorcerer_Cover

Now, the annotations seem to fall into one of three kinds:

  • rules clarifications / amendments
  • better examples
  • places where Edwards says yes, I really meant this or no, I got this wrong or other bits of historical context.

If it’s not already obvious, you need to read the annotations in the context of the original text; this is why you need to read the book in the layout suggested. But then I found the whole thing a bit jarring to go from one side to another. Not terribly, for the most part, but not a smooth reading experience.

Some of the annotations are great, for example the diagram that faces the start of each chapter and discusses the transition from initial discussion and characters to Preparing Play; this fits really well with my learning expectations (q.v.). The diagram is discussed on p40. The Four Big Outcomes are talked about further. There are the places where we’re told not to wimp out, which is useful and necessary because left alone we will tend to do this (Chris McDowall addresses this for Into the Odd, and of course Apocalypse World tackles this with hard moves; it’s endemic and pernicious).

But I did get frustrated more than once. Some annotations are terse where I want more exposition, others are long when I feel the point has already been made. And a few times, the advice that’s needed is everywhere but the one place it should be. For example on page 14 of the original, Edwards says:

they do not “cast spells.” Instead, they break the rules of reality to summon beings that are Not Supposed to Be Here.

Sounds like the usual spooky things-that-should-not-be fluff, but I know that it’s more significant than that. The key is that it’s not our world’s laws that the fiction breaks, it’s the fictional world’s laws that are broken by the existence of demons. I know this from a podcast interview (I forget which one, it was somewhere noisy, talking about a super-socialist with a demon factory). That annotation belongs right here, it’s important. There is something but it’s much later, in the closing remarks on p61. Easily overlooked, and I found it because I was hunting for it.

I got more from the annotations second time around, but even with the printout I was suffering cognitive dissonance on going from one side of the page to the other. Maybe there’s a benefit there, because it forces more careful reading, but I honestly think it hurts comprehension of the game for people who were never there first time around.

What the annotations do is illustrate Edwards’ changing views of his own game and the climate that came out of it. I wrote a couple of times in my own notes “has he changed his mind?” The tone of the original game taps into the hermetic scholar archetype (safe, draws comparison with Mage, etc.), but the annotations show the true intent in using “demons” and “magic” as placeholder terms for a particular type of story about relationships and power. Take the “live by the gun” setting in the Playing Sorcerer chapter — if you have a sophomoric robes-and-candles impression of what this game is, that example challenges it forcefully.

The Supplements

Sorcerer_Cover_Supplements

There was always a risk that the supplements would be treated as an afterthought. As it says in the “Indie Manifesto” in the appendix to Sorcerer and Sword:

“Support” is a myth – supplements may be good in and of themselves, but their existence is not required to make an rpg good or to validate its existence.

The irony is that while you don’t need to read Sorcerer’s supplements, they massively improve the overall impression of the game. They help make the conceptual leap from this game as rooted in urban fantasy and horror to a framework where demons are an allegorical tool. Edwards’ writing is incisive and focused, getting to the heart of each subject.

This is my theory: the original Sorcerer has some radical notions (at least radical on page, if not in the actual minds of players) that require some re-orienting; the Annotated Sorcerer spends a lot of time placing those ideas in context, defending and reinforcing them.

But when it comes to the supplements, Edwards is no longer fighting to establish principles and common language, and all that energy can be turned to genre exploration — which incidentally is something he does very well, as well as being right up my street.

I do wonder how these supplements benefitted from momentum at the time. I can imagine Sorcerer being the new hawtness, and the supplements benefit from a number of ideas arising from the Forge. Clearly there was a lot of energy for that kind of discussion.

Sorcerer and Sword

This book transitions Sorcerer to a pulp fantasy genre. There’s a fantastic bibliography where Edwards name-checks the usual suspects, and crucially divides it into three eras of fantasy publishing (‘20s to ‘50s pulp including R.E. Howard and Clark Ashton-Smith, ’50s to ’70s pulp fans including Leiber and Moorcock, and the late ‘70s where heroic fantasy was “betrayed” and mostly vanished).

Basically this is fantasy collaborative settings and emergent play, with a method for how to adapt the core rules to take care of necromancy, natural creatures, etc. The genre deconstruction is good, if a bit uncomfortable at first glance, for example the admission that the worlds are typically both objectively racist and sexist and with few female heroes. That’s not endorsement, it’s something to be sensitive to and work with.

Three examples of emergent shared worlds run through the book (Xar, Black Forest, Clicking Sands) and are used to demonstrate the grounding principles for Lore, Humanity, colour and tone that you need to think about. All in all this is my favourite of the three, the supplement I read and thought “hell yes, I want to run this”.

Other features: a discussion about destiny and knowing the future, and the analysis of “stance” (actor, author and director) which I read in isolation as a Forge essay.

The Sorcerer’s Soul

This is the in-depth treatment and interpretations of humanity (as sanity, etc.), and the modern investigative genre. Here, Edwards is going after both Call of Cthulhu and Vampire. There’s a lot of discussion about transformation and growth of demons, human-demon hybrids (in the sense of transitioning identity, not in the “I’m half fairy in our twee urban fantasy” sense). The section on Angels where the binding relationship is reversed (it’s the Angel meeting the Needs of the sorcerer) and where Angels can intercede and bestow “grace” is also great.

Edwards also deconstructs some investigative novels for the relationships within as a means of mapping transgressions. While I only skimmed this part (it’s a scenario exercise in my priority ladder) it was a useful point.

With the demonic transformations, the primary use I considered was to retool it to run Nephilim. The spirit inside begins as a parasite, then posesser, and finally passer, with an increasing number of telltales.

Sex and Sorcery

This last one is a bit difficult to get to grips with in a way that won’t give a negative impression. It’s about a number of topics — gender and gendered stories, transgressions, dysfunctional relationships. It also explicitly discusses Lines and Veils which tends to be a commonplace term whose origins are not well known — I assume it came from the Forge and was then clarified here.

OK, the big controversial things: “male” and “female” type stories, and separate rules for male and female players:

When I first began hinting about this on-line, oh, you wouldn’t believe how many people clutched their hair and alternately grieved and swore how intolerable and insupportable any such thing would be. They had immediately assumed that these rules would dictate what either gender of player, especially the female one, would not be permitted to do. However, the goal is exactly the opposite. I’m aiming at more attention and enjoyment to various options during play, not less, as only cross-character interactions among players of different genders will reveal the full range of the rules.

Now, concerning “male and female stories”:

what I’m presenting are not the male and female story types, and frankly, they have nothing to do with Jungian or similar “archetypes.” They are, instead, just two types of stories, plucked out of the myriads of potential types. They typically have male and female protagonists, respectively, but even this is not a given, and I see no reason to think that each story type “validates” the gender of the protagonist.

Using more neutral language, “male” stories are focused on power through social contact, and “female” stories are power through affirmation or rejection of reproduction. Also, the gender of the hero in each type of story has significance, and reversing the gender has an influence.

What turns these from story themes to a game is how you interpret the humanity check — as is the general case. I think I’ll leave it at that, and encourage anyone who is interested to engage with the text first, then discuss.

Closing Remarks

I encourage you to read Sorcerer and if you do, I really recommend reading the supplements as well. I think I would print and read the original (a pain to set up the printer, but OK), then the supplements, then come back for the annotations. Trying to read the annotated version as a complete document from a standing start was two different authors speaking to me at once.

Now, the question is, who are the annotations for? Primarily I think it’s Old Forgies, who were there 10-15 years ago when Sorcerer was a hot topic; they’ve been through the process of dissecting and interpreting and crucially playing the original. While Sorcerer railed against the cultural inertia in RPG design (over-focus on setting, metaplot, product line support) the trend of here and now persists in Indie RPG culture, particularly where Kickstarters include an active playtesting component with community involvement. That’s a statement of fact rather than criticism. Those games will go through a peak of activity where the game is both explicit (rules as written) and tacit (game as communicated), and over time the tacit understanding is lost as players diminish, and all that will be left is the written word.

The Annotated Sorcerer captures at least some of that tacit, behavioural stuff. That’s its value, as a thing, a roleplaying cultural artefact. But Sorcerer IMHO needs complete reading in chronological order to be fully appreciated. Am I glad I made the effort? Yes. I expected it to tick all of my post-WoD, 90s minimalist system, intense urban fantasy boxes, and it does, and more. This is a game I would run, which I don’t say often.