Tagged: moorcock

The Revised Elric of R’lyeh

5 years ago I made my first post here on Department V.

To celebrate 5 years of blogging I’ve revised, edited and expanded my Elric of R’lyeh setting. You can grab the pdf here.

Moving forward, I’m going to update the site over the next few weeks to simplify the pages and consolidate downloads. None of the content is going away.

And after that, something new. Watch this space!

EoR Inspiration

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.

Maps of the Young Kingdoms

This post from 2011 showcases a number of different maps of Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms. Some of these appear in the novels (the Collier and Collier/Romanski versions). One is the “classic” William Church version from the Stormbringer RPG. Two are in French; I’m wondering if at least one comes from Oriflame’s French language editions of their Eternal Champion jeux des roles.

For completeness, here are mine (photos rather than scans, sorry).

J. Cawthorn, 1992

Based on the Collier/Romanski map this one appears in my Eternal Champion omnibus editions, published by Millennium in the early 90s. I can’t see a scale anywhere.

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Stormbringer 4e, William Church

This is the one most role-players of a certain age will know. The smaller map in the back of the book puts one inch at 300 miles.

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Elric! map by Gustaf of Uhaio

This one appears in Elric! (which was later Stormbringer 5e, though I don’t know if it kept the same map). The scale (which you need a magnifying glass to see) is approx 500 miles to an inch.

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Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone

Not the prettiest map, suffering from both Mongoose’s horrible grey-on-grey printing and the Papyrus font, but it is the most complete — joining the “unknown East” with the better known area around the Oldest Ocean. Around 500 miles to an inch, which is the same as the others; but while this map covers a lot more area, there isn’t nearly as much margin padding so curiously the distances aren’t wildly different.

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Mournblade

French-only, full colour, with 500 km to just over half and inch (around 580 miles to the inch). Definitely the prettiest (which is consistent with the rest of that book).

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Orientation and Distances

Stormbringer’s original map by William Church is “Authorised by Michael Moorcock”. I assume the Collier/Romanski map is similarly authorised and pre-dates the RPG. I would also assume that Church wouldn’t deliberately contradict previous maps. In general the relative distances are roughly the same between different versions, as are the directions. Hawmgarl is north of Imyrr, Menii is to the east, Vilmiro is north-east.

For more fun, when you measure the actual distances Church’s Stormbringer map puts the distance between Imyrr and Hawmgarl at 630 miles; Mongoose’s map puts it at 700 miles; Elric! at 870 miles; and Mournblade at 1280 miles.

There are a few references to distance in the books, but I can’t remember them. But J. Cawthorn (and possibly Collier/Romanski before them) saw fit to just not bother with a map scale; and Moorcock almost certainly pulled the original distances out of thin air.

It hardly matters, being fiction and all. I guess you might be concerned with distance if the Young Kingdoms world was a sphere and Imyrr was a certain distance from the equator and the weather varied. 700 miles is the distance between London and Marseille, where it’s warm enough to grow palm trees. Another 700 will get you to the North African coast.

Cartographers lie anyway. It’s 925 miles from Chicago to Houston but it’s 4500 miles from Caracas to Buenos Aires; 1800 miles from London to Morocco but 7500 miles from Morocco to Cape Town. Not that you could tell from a Mercator projection. Are the Young Kingdoms cartographers telling the truth?

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OSR Demons Part 2: Needs, Relationships, Services and Forms

Just over 6 months since part 1, but better late than never, eh?

So, to recap: these are some thoughts on how to make Stormbringer-style demons work mechanically for OSR frameworks.

Here I’ll talk about demon Services and Needs. Later in part 3 I’ll talk about Costs, Contracts and Taxes (yawn).

But first…

What Are Demons?

In part 1 I hedged on a definition of what demons are — because (a) it’s not necessary and (b) use what fits with your campaign. However since it might be useful to understand where I’m coming from (and how specific or general I’m being) my out of game definition for demons is:

**Demon**
An entity which manifests when the sorcerer exerts their will on the world.

This may work for your in-game definition too. It still works when it’s dressed up in some lay belief or religious dogma, whether demons actually come from the other place or if they’re truly conjured from a piece of the sorcerer.

What Do Demons Want?

The classic answer is “to get out of the pentagram and devour their summoner”. Actually my demon is quite happy where it is, thanks.

My demon wants to (metaphorically speaking) hollow out the summoner and walk around in their skin. It wants to take all the humanity in the sorcerer and pervert it, diminish it, until the demon dominates.

The best example of how this works is the wraith’s Shadow in Wraith: The Oblivion. The Shadow has Dark Passions which are goals fuelled by a negative emotion; it may attack the Wraith’s own Passions and Fetters (i.e. connections to the mortal world, what’s left of their humanity); it has its own special powers as Thorns.

The Shadow is part of the point of Wraith. When your character dies and their Wraith comes into being, their Shadow just bubbles to the surface with all the other emotions, ready to cause mischief in a struggle for dominance. Naturally your typical White Wolf game takes 300 dense pages to communicate the idea, but it’s a great idea.

Now, what kind of power-crazed sociopath would deliberately bring out such a force into the living world?

One other demon trope I’d like to address is the idea of total possession, i.e. a skin-ridden character completely sublimated to the demon’s will. If you’re a demon and your end-game is to get the sorcerer to behave badly (to the point of complete self-destruction) then this seems like a good strategy. Here’s why it’s not:

  1. The demon exists thanks to its relationship with the summoner — it has no life or relevance without its master. That’s the in-game reason.
  2. There’s a place for the vampire’s frenzy, or the Darkest Self a la Monsterhearts, but not here. Such a total loss of control takes both agency and responsibility away from the protagonist. That’s the metagame reason.

There could be exceptions — say, when a sorcerer dies, the demon (or demons) decide to walk around in the recently vacated corpse and have a bit of fun while there’s still time. That would make for a nice antagonist, but it’s a short-term thing at best.

Needs

Stormbringer and Sorcerer both present the demon with some kind of need (which is often habitual and/or physical, like eating something). If you let the demon satisfy its need then you get a Service in return.

I don’t care for that, for these reasons:

  • Satisfying these needs is often trivial and not interesting plot-wise. Who cares if your demon needs to eat iron filings? That’s colour at best.
  • Demons are not infants throwing tantrums if they dont’ get what they want. Demons are smart, and they play a long game. And ascribing a trivial need to the demon trivialises the demon.
  • Most importantly it’s not the demon, it’s the sorcerer with the Need. They summoned a demon to meet their own shortcoming.

The most generic demon need is the need to transgress. That compulsion is an essential part of the genre — but it’s not a need, it’s a consequence. And it’s not really the demon that’s transgressing, it’s the sorcerer. It’s the Shadow’s Dark Passions at work.

Relationship

There are six needs, aligned with six demons, and six kinds of relationships — one for each attribute.

The relationship is pretty simple — it’s a struggle for dominance between the conjurer and their demon. The demon knows that it provides a needed service. When everything’s going fine that service isn’t in question, but during times of stress — if the sorcerer asks for something outside the original contract, or something that puts the demon in harms way, or refuses the demon some comfort, you might want to test the relationship.

The roll could be as simple as a pass/fail (e.g. roll under the attribute). It would be more interesting with more potential results, e.g.

  • Powered by the Apocalypse-style hits and partial hits (a pass means the Demon does your bidding; a partial hit means they do it on a promise; a fail means the demon rebels and Taxes the sorcerer)
  • A reaction roll like this using the stat modifier on the roll
  • Itras By’s cards for results as no/and, no/but, yes/but, yes/and.

Services

Demons provide (well, are) magical effects. Each kind of demon defines the scope of magical effects.

For an actual working system I can think of two approaches. The first is the “Whitehack way”: a general description of a power, and a negotiated cost for that power in HP — the cost may be modified by circumstance (in this case, how the demon is feeling, whether the sorcerer has partaken of transgressive behaviour to “feed” the demon, etc.).

The other way is the “Vancian way” where the demon can cast a number of spells per day of a certain class. There’s still room for negotiation though — let’s assume the demon’s power is limitless, and it’s only cutting the sorcerer off because of the contract. I’ll talk about contract negotiation in part 3.

By the way I’m not going to itemise D&D spells, especially since these will vary between publications. I heartily recommend Whitehack which does a sort of ranking of “classic” OSR spells by level for the purposes of judging spell costs, etc. Personally I like spells with no levels, e.g. Beyond the Wall, Wonder and Wickedness.

Six Demons

There are six kinds of demon — one for each attribute (although that’s a happy accident from Stormbringer 1e rather than design). Each follows the template:

  • Need (the sorcerer’s need that the demon satisfies)
  • Relationship (the attribute that forms the basis for struggles for dominance)
  • Services (the effects the demon can generate — expressed in fairly broad and generic terms)
  • Forms (sample forms for each demon type; just for a bit of fun.)

Demon of Combat

Need To physically dominate, overcome, cause harm.

Relationship Strength

Services Damage, Accuracy, Penetrate Armour, Poison or Disease, Cause Pain, Inhibit or Restrain, Extra Attacks, Elemental Attacks

Form A chattering sword. A bulging vein on the sorcerer’s arm that projects a limpid adhesive. A lantern containing a vermillion mist. A six-legged panther, steered by an insectile brain parasite. An oil-black ape with a mass of cruel quills at its back.

fingers

Demon of Travel

Need To overcome physical and metaphysical obstacles.

Relationship Dexterity.

Services Carry Burden, Flight, Jump, Scale Vertical Surface, Penetrate Wall, Open Lock, Teleport, Co-location, Breathe Underwater, Survive Space.

Form A seven-headed swan. A wardrobe full of fur coats. A circular gateway etched with hyroglyphs. A displacing cloak. A giant winged insect with a vial of amber potion.

Demon of Protection

Need To survive, to resist injury and death, to remain hidden, to have privacy.

Relationship Constitution.

Services Soak damage, Reflect damage, Redirect damage, Resistance, Immunity, Hide, Misdirect, Disguise, Sound Warning, Cause Fear, Guard Threshold.

Form A blackened brass shield. A penetrating sound. A cloak of dripping eyes. A riddling goblin. A hyena-headed bear.

Guardian

Demon of Knowledge

Need To perceive, understand, or know facts.

Relationship Intelligence.

Services Scrying; Divination; Knowledge of past, present, future; Knowledge of another’s heart or mind.

Form A mirror with a disembodied mouth. A hairless dwarf advisor with a bifurcated throat and duotone voice. An iron-bound book. A painting of shifting scenes. A dream with common themes. A deck of Tarot cards.

Demon of Desire

Need To imagine, to dream, to grasp desires, to have material whims satisfied.

Relationship Wisdom.

Services Conjure, procure or steal something. Provide sensation. Transform, modify, or heal.

Form A suit with an iridescent lining. A briefcase with a golden shining interior. A bronze-skinned youth with purple almond eyes. A chattering brass bird.

Bird

Demon of Possession

Need To control perception, thought, emotion, and action of others.

Relationship Charisma.

Services Control (thing or person or beast); Convince; Sow Doubt; Inject Thought; Command; Provoke; Sensation; Illusion; Emotion.

Form A drug, supplied from a jade poison ring. A red gold circlet. A slender bald human in a suit. The sorcerer’s mirror image, horribly disfigured.

7 Ages of Magic

Reworking a thing I did a couple of years ago. Originally it was inspired by The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, but considering society as a vehicle for magic.

The seven ages are:

  1. Age of Reclusive Sorcerer
  2. Age of Itinerant Sorcerer
  3. Age of Folk Magic
  4. Age of Regulation
  5. Age of Revolution and Innovation
  6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance
  7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

The graphic.

7 Magical Ages

1. Age of the Reclusive Sorcerer

Magic is feared/forbidden/evil. Magicians are separate from human civilisation. The Divine is separate from Earth. Humans pay dearly for venturing outside.

Thematic Elements: hidden horror, secrecy, things humanity was not meant to know

Games: Wraith, Kult, Call of Cthulhu

2. Age of the Itinerant Sorcerer

The magician walks into the Earth to connect with human communities, seeking disciples. Magicians as Gods/Divine Spark on Earth.

Thematic Elements: magicians as deities, ages of myth

Games: Exalted, Stormbringer, Barbarians of Lemuria, Everway

3. Age of Folk Magic

Human communities in balance between their civilisation and liminal elements of their community (fair folk, ghosts, myths). Wise women and cunning men.

Thematic elements: village magic, fairies and ghosts, walking legends, small communities

Games: Beyond the Wall, Runequest (Spirit Magic/Primitive cultures), Everway

4. Age of Regulation

Human civilisation realises a taxonomy of magical and Divine elements; seeks to categorise, gain control over. Humanity divided between minority of powerful sorcerers and majority of peons. Humans, not the Divine, decide who is worthy of Magic.

Thematic elements: secret societies, initiation rites, religion, vampires

Games: Ars Magica, Vampire, Runequest

5. Age of Revolution and Innovation

The human majority take back power from minority gatekeepers. Individuals find new ways to do magic outside prescribed methods. Freedom to conjure. 

Thematic Elements: personal empowerment, meritocracy, superheroes identified as ordinary humans

Games: Wild Talents, Unknown Armies, Mage, D&D, Ghostbusters, Spirit of the Century

6. Age of Incorporation and Ignorance

Magic becomes commodity, weaponised, mass manufactured, disposable

Thematic Elements: technology and science, greed, separation from the Divine, spiritual listlessness

Games: Cyberpunk, the Bret Easton Ellis RPG, Changeling

7. Age of Mistrust and Decline

Humanity mistrusts magic. Earth is purged of self-serving magic. Magicians withdraw wholly to the realm of the Divine.

Thematic Elements: the Apocalypse

Games: Apocalypse World, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Werewolf

Unstoppable Sex Machines

In the summer of ’93 I discovered two new favourite things: Bowie and Moorcock.

IMG_3185

Previously I hadn’t really gone for glossy, commercial ToTP 80s Bowie, although Bowie the actor was interesting in Labyrinth (and perversely Absolute Beginners).

But Suffragette City was sampled in Carter’s Surfin’ USM, which was interesting. That year Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and especially Hunky Dory were on pretty constant rotation in the walkman. Also, Suede. Speaking of which, here’s a nice picture of David Bowie and Brett Anderson:

David and Brett

Anyway, I was listening to Quicksand and The Supermen and Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud and at the same time getting into Hawkmoon (in the big Millennium omnibus imprint) and reading about Granbretan’s masked armies and giant flamingo riders with flame lances over the Kamarg. Also, drinking short-dated beer from the Classic Deli and watching Orlando and Naked Lunch at the PPP. Speaking of which:

David and Bill

There was also Vampire, which became next year’s big campaign, through my finals year, where I laid the foundations for future gaming and friendships to this date. Some of those friends are no longer here. They are who I am thinking about right now, as well as all the friends I have made who are still here.

Anyway, David Bowie was there. I’m hanging onto the tapes.

Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.

Elric of R’lyeh: Appendix

  1. Appendix 1: Skills in excess of 100%
  2. Appendix 2: What About The Dharzi?

Use the various Chaosium and Mongoose texts as you see fit. But for the record this is what I would use:

  • any edition of Call of Cthulhu, with the monsters, modern weapons, spells and so forth.
  • Demon creation rules from the edition of Stormbringer you can get your hands on.
  • Optionally, spells from the Bronze Grimoire, though it’s more for colour than anything eles. Mix them in with the other CoC spells which, as previously noted, are forbidden.
  • CoC‘s Dreamlands. I like that there’s a Moorcockian treatment of dreams as well, but I confess to preferring the Lovecraftian one. It’s weirder.

Appendix 1: Skills Exceeding 100%

Originally in Runequest some skill percentages of were considered adequate at 30% or so (languages, for example). Unfortunately not all skills are created equal; a 30% skill for the most part does not indicate competence. Even if the GM says “hey, don’t bother rolling, your skill is good enough” it jarrs with the character’s perception of their PC — which should be of a capable individual the player can have confidence in (otherwise, why attempt anything, ever?).

For BRP-style systems I like to consider skills well in excess of 100%, and call that the base level of “expertise”. A pass for a skill is rolling equal to that number or less; a success, however, is rolling under half the skill. Now, the ideal range for percentiles in a challenging system is between 30 and 70%. Any less than 30% is really no chance, and any more than 70% is a walkover. With the pass/success granularity you can start making base skills above 50% for novices, which means the players can at least have some confidence in their character. Additionally equating a skill level of 100% to expertise seems right; experts will make routine tasks seem trivially easy.

Other levels can be added — this is what I like to use:

  • Roll under the skill % — Pass
  • Roll under 1/2 skill % — Success
  • Roll under 1/5 skill % — Extra Success
  • Roll under 1/20 skill % — Critical

…and so on. You could add another level of granularity at say 1/10 skill if you really wanted, but I wouldn’t bother — for someone with 100% skill the difference between Pass and Success is 50%, between Success and Extra Success is 30%, and between Extra and Critical is 15%.

If you want to get really creative you could consider “Super Crits” of 1/50 or even 1/100 of the skill — but those should only come into play when absurdly high percentages are reached (say 300%).

In combat splitting the percentage is an option, and this starts to be a tactical decision at high percentages. Should you split the % for multiple Passes, or should you roll fewer times to get Successes?

(for combat I’ve usually considered a Pass to function at half the effectiveness of a Success for parries, e.g. halving the AP of the parrying weapon).

Appendix 2: What About The Dharzi?

Of course, what did for the Melniboneans’ global Bright Empire was a big war with the Dharzi. Crucially this came long before Elric’s time, and is given as a reason for humans taking hold of the world as Melnibone retreated to the Dragon Isle to lick its wounds. This makes the Dharzi hardly relevant — certainly they have no role to play in the 1920s society. They do have a role as an ancient enemy of Melnibone, and could feature in myth as another component of the broader Mythos.

There is the option to make the Dharzi appear here and now. In doing so you’re lifting events from long before Elric’s time and inserting them well after the end of his life (after he blows the Horn of Fate), but it would work. Dharzi came from the “unknown East” which in this game could be Asia, with opportunities for tie-ins with the Plateau of Leng and other mysterious places in the Mythos.

This would lead your campaign in a couple of directions. Firstly you will probably diverge from Earth history, which is fine if that’s what you want. Second, your game may turn into a war game, which could also be fun but not the same as an investigation game.

A third consideration: if the Dharzi emerge now, does this change the relationship of people with natural forces and beasts? Dharzi were “beast worshippers”. On the other hand Melniboneans already had ancient relationships with the Beast Lords and Elemental Rulers, so the lack of Dharzi in the history of your game world probably won’t upset the metaphysic.

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