After recording every Roll to Save Roundtable, myself and my co-hosts generally sit around and discuss what we’re going to cover next. After last episode’s discussion of Vampire we decided that something more light-hearted was in order for the next episode, and we settled on Paranoia.
For those of you who haven’t experienced the fun of Paranoia, it’s a roleplaying game of “a darkly humourous future”. I won’t go into the whole history here – that’s what our next podcast episode is for! – but it’s a game that started publication in the early 80s, went through some bumpy phases, re-emerged in the early 2000s and is still in production to this day. Paranoia was one of the first “funny” roleplaying games, and even though it’s 36 years old the premise it is based around is still largely unchanged to this day. There’s something about the concepts presented in this game – a mix of 1984, dark satire and a touch of genuine insanity – that gamers find inherently appealing.
I first came into contact with Paranoia in 1990 and had some wonderful experiences with it, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I actually really began to appreciate the setting and its potential. A lot of people approach Paranoia as an exercise in slapstick or as “the game where you get the players to kill each other”. These wacky, zaaaap style games can probably be fun – and I’m pretty sure all my early forays into Paranoia were like this – but the game REALLY comes into its own when its played – as the wonderful Paranoia XP book puts it – Straight.
That’s not to say “straight up serious” – playing in that world would be depressing beyond belief. However, it makes the assumption that Alpha Complex (the default setting for the game) is largely functional, and that The Computer – the digital despot that runs the Complex – genuinely has the best interests of the humans under its care at heart. With that in mind the humour comes from the dreadful situations and the competing agendas of the players. I learned long ago that in this setting the laughs come, not from something wacky like “Oh look – traitors in babushka hats speaking eeeen theeeek Rrrrrrrrashan ak-sents…” but from the team figuring out “How do we get out of this with our hides intact and as much personal glory as possible?” While I might write in the odd recurring joke, the game works so much more smoothly if the comedy unfolds naturally in the game between the players. It’s much funnier watching one player try to procrastinate their way out of doing something they really, really REALLY don’t want to do than it is to have someone rush in armed with a “custard pie launcher” or some other nonsense.
So, going back to the original point of this post, we’ve decided to do a Paranoia episode. As part of this, I agreed to run a game for my cohosts and some others, and we had our inaugural game today.
To refresh people’s memories naturally – not because I like torturing my co-hosts.
I took the premise from an old scenario, rewrote the main body of it (and the characters) and threw the players in.
It was a complete blast to run and the players – some of who had never played Paranoia before (hence the point of the game before the podcast) – really, REALLY got into it.
The best part of all of this? The comedy came very naturally to them – none of it was forced, and there was nothing in the way of wackiness and zaniness – something that came to characterise a lot of the later West End Games material and which sadly imprinted on a lot of people and is therefore what many folks think of when someone mentions Paranoia to them.
In fact, the only real running joke I had was distinct ring tones for each of the characters’ PDCs (Alpha Complex’s equivalent of a smart phone). I started introducing these early on, and the characters in question would try and slip away to answer it in secret as it was frequently a secret society contact or some other nefarious individual calling. Once the players became accustomed to this I would simply play the sound and there would be a flurry of activity along the lines of “Oh I go to answer my PDC” and “Oh I’m going that way too, let me walk with you citizen. Don’t worry, I won’t eavesdrop…” I was very pleased when one of the players said afterwards “I loved that you used the theme tune for “Bullseye” for the team leader’s ring tone…”
Paranoia – the original roleplaying game of a darkly humourous future. My players did a great job of being exactly that today – darkly humourous.
When you look at the roleplaying games released at the beginning of the 1990s, a common trend emerges; fantasy was out and dark sci-fi was very much in.
“Corps” dealt with high tech conspiracies fuelled by super-science and magic, duelling with each other, whilst “Morpheus” covered a world where characters linked minds in a high tech virtual reality simulation. I’m sure the title and the setting are a coincidence and have nothing in common with a certain famous movie franchise…
“Reich Star saw the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan conquering outer space before settling into a Cold War with each other – kind of like the Man in the High Castle but with laser guns and aliens.
“Rifts” blasted its way onto the scene (presumably dealing MEGA DAMAGE in the process) and introduced us all to the Rifts Megaverse, while “Torg” saw the players take on the roles of heroic Storm Knights arrayed against the extra-dimensional entities that were lining up to invade earth. “Dark Conspiracy”’s demonic forces from beyond enslaved aliens and conjured up a global depression that plunged the global geopolitical and economic situation into ruin, allowing the forces of the Dark to slip into our world to feast and rampage.
However, if you want bleak and bold settings, “Timelords” is literally set at the End of Time!
Therefore, if you were a games designer at the turn of the nineties (I can picture the acid washed jeans and flock of seagulls haircut from here…) trying to conceive of THE setting for a game that would flip the gaming scene on its head, you’d probably go hog-wild with the elements that were proving popular and populate a barren, irradiated earth with aliens, demons, Nazis and knights. What you probably wouldn’t suggest as a setting would be “Gary, Indiana”.
Located around 25 miles from downtown Chicago, Gary borders lake Michigan and is typical of those US “rust belt” cities that saw their reliance on traditional industries cause them to enter an economic death spiral from the end of World War II onwards.
Yet, it was this cracked and crumbling landscape – with its boarded up houses, silent steel mills and crippling unemployment – that inspired a young games designer by the name of Mark Rein-Hagen to conceive of a game set in a world where such urban decay was the norm, and which was caused – at least partially – by the monsters who lurked in the shadows. Foremost amongst these monsters were the vampires – creatures of cunning and passion who controlled an unsuspecting human population from the darkness.
So far, so Dark Conspiracy.
In the grand scheme of things, this feels pretty similar to the other settings mentioned previously.
All we’re missing now are the heroes – and that’s going to be the players, right?
Rein-Hagen’s ideas were never conventional, and unlike other games designers who would simply have taken the idea and cast the players as humanity’s bold defenders, he decided to flip the concept and ask the question “What would it be like to BE the monster?”
By this, he didn’t mean “What would it be like to be a creature who can shrug off bullets, move extra fast and arm wrestle mecha-godzilla without breaking sweat”, but instead he focused on the psychology of the situation.
Just what would it feel like to BE a monster – a monster that used to be human? What would it be like to cling to that notion of humanity – the only thing you’ve ever known – while all the time wrestling with the monstrous, predatory urges that surge within you; urges that could sometimes bubble to the surface in the most bloody and tragic ways possible? What would it be like to exist in a society of creatures like this – each battling their own inner Beast?
The tag line of “A storytelling game of personal horror” was never more apt.
Vampire wasn’t Mark Rein-Hagen’s first game though. He had been involved in games design for many years prior to his vampiric epiphany, and perhaps the game he was best known for up to that point was Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica – a fantasy game set in “Mythic Europe” which revolved around a society known as The Order of Hermes and their interactions with a world in which the supernatural and magical were very, very real.
Unlike other fantasy games, this wasn’t simply an RPG about bad ass groups of magi swanning around the countryside frying their enemies with spells. Instead, it had an extremely strong focus on storytelling – positing the idea that the players made up a troupe, who took equal responsibility for the tale being told, rather than focusing on XP and loot taken from the cold, dead hands of the monsters. This idea resonated strongly with a lot of people, and two of the biggest fans were Steve and Stewart Wieck – publishers of a growing RPG magazine called “White Wolf”. Originally dedicated (like most other magazines of the time) to AD&D, White Wolf increasingly focused on more independent games and, in 1988, published a glowing review of Ars Magica. The focus on storytelling was seen as particularly praiseworthy and, as a result, nearly every issue of White Wolf from that point onward saw an article dedicated to the game. Rein-Hagen had big plans for Ars Magica. He loved the concept of a series of games set in the same consistent, immersive world. He also loved the idea of being able to set Ars Magica in the modern day – with magic slowly dying, and the magi facing off against creatures like – amongst other things – vampires…
However, it was not to be – Lion Rampant found themselves in financial hot water by the end of the eighties, and it looked like Rein-Hagen’s dream of a multi game world was doomed to die. Thankfully though, with the Wiecks such firm fans of the game, and with a growing business that was doing extremely well, it was logical that they would offer to merge with Lion Rampant and form White Wolf Game Studio to continue the publication and development of Ars Magica.
It was this series of events that led them to be in a car together, heading towards Gen Con ’90, and which would lead to Rein-Hagen’s vision of a world in which vampires were lurking in the shadows, and which saw his desire for a series of linked games taking a different direction.
You see, the journey to Gen Con took them through Gary, Indiana and – as we know – that’s where the idea for Vampire was born.
I have no idea what is involved in the development of a game system and the associated setting, but as a long time GM I know it feels like it takes forever for me to come up with an engaging adventure set in a world someone else has created. Therefore, I can’t even conceive what frenzy (no pun intended) of activity must have gripped White Wolf between Gen Con ’90 and the release of Vampire in 1991.
Set in the World of Darkness – a world just like ours but more corrupt, decaying and violent – Vampire saw the players take on the roles of the titular monsters, stalking amongst the human population and dealing with the night-to-night perils of unlife as undead, blood sucking monsters, the desires of the Beast within and co-existing in a society of alpha predators. “The Masquerade” in the title referred to vampiric society’s first, and most important law – namely never making humanity at large aware of the existence of vampires, and this prohibition was a masterstroke to stop players running amok in the World of Darkness.
Because of the Masquerade, there were no vampires wearing frilly shirts with lace cuffs and opera cloaks. The characters in this game had much more in common with those from Those Lost Boys and Near Dark than they did with Dracula. These guys weren’t the lost scions of noble houses, living in drafty Transylvanian castles who would “vant to drink yur blud” but much more modern both in their outlook and their aesthetic. There are some extremely evocative images by artist Tim Bradstreet that were used in both the main rulebook and the clanbooks of the types of vampire that peopled the World of Darkness. In a recent interview for a documentary on the history of White Wolf (called – surprise, surprise – World of Darkness and available on Amazon; well worth a watch!) Tim relates that when he was asked to do these drawings he simply called up his friends – most of whom were in a band – and asked them to pose…
As well as some fantastic interior art, the cover of Vampire was a testament to the beauty of simplicity. A simple slab of green marble with a single red rose on top of it and the game’s title above this it instantly captured imagination. Curiously, White Wolf had commissioned another cover by Dan Frazier – which can be seen as the cover of the 1st edition Players’ guide – but it was deemed too expensive and too “generically rpg” to be used for the main book. This was a great decision, for there is no doubt that the original, eye-catching cover drew a lot of people to pick up the game in the first place.
The book itself includes a lot of the kind of detail you’d expect from an RPG rulebook. There’s background and setting information, rules, and guides to character creation, but once those are out of the way there’s an additional 120 or so pages dedicated to drama and storytelling. Whereas other games would have guides to monsters and antagonists, and probably hints on writing “an adventure” Vampire’s focus was on creating a chronicle made up of stories that focused on character development and how the players interacted with this emerging narrative. You wouldn’t find any treasure tables, maps or XP guides for creatures defeated. Instead, there was information on setting the mood and tone of the story. There was suggestions on running individual preludes for the characters – where they started as mortal – so they could experience the daylight world and realise just what it felt like and meant to become an undead creature of the night. Guides to creating suspense and using advanced techniques such as flashbacks and foreshadowing were included. In short, it was an evolutionary leap in roleplaying.
This showed in the sales. Within weeks of its launch, Vampire was back to the printers for a second run…
Of course, not everybody was a fan. Some magazines at the time lampooned White Wolf’s style – citing the prose as purple and overwrought. There were elements of the – traditionally male – roleplaying hobby who chafed at the use of female pronouns throughout the book. Others felt that the use of the term “storytelling” rather than “roleplaying” and “storyteller” instead of “games master” was pretentious – after all, wasn’t this D&D with fangs? There was also a tendency to stereotype both the characters in the game and the people who played as hand-wringing goths, burdened by their angst and wearing waaaay too much eye liner.
Regardless of these opinions, the game’s sales were astronomical and the player base grew exponentially. Much like the growth of D&D in the seventies, Vampire blossomed in an age before the internet was widely and commercially available and thus its popularity can be very firmly attributed to the fact that what was being done here was new, exciting and well executed. By the end of 1991 White Wolf had published – in addition to the main rulebook – eight other supplements, including guides for the storyteller and players, adventures and a couple of books – Chicago by Night and Succubus Club – that gave a sample setting.
People still rave about Chicago by Night to this day, and that’s because it very clearly laid out – for this first time – how a city in Vampire the Masquerade worked. Not everyone would set their adventures in Chicago, but by using this book it was very easy to take the framework and base your own city around it. Because, let’s face it, every Vampire storyteller has set a game in their own city – I know I have. And this really was the beauty of the setting – rather than having to imagine a vastly different fantasy realm, populated by creatures of legend and peopled with folk who had names like “Golondriel” and who talked with faux English accents, how much easier was it to imagine your own city – only worse? I know when myself and my co-host Jason planned a Vampire chornicle set in the town we were living in it was very easy to look at some places and say “Oh yeah – that’s definitely controlled by Vampires…”
Come 1992 and Vampire was really making a splash. It won the Origins 1992 award for best RPG rules. Curiously, these were hosted in Milwaukee, and the same year saw the release of the second “city book” – Milwaukee By Night.
1992 also saw White Wolf experimenting with an idea that Mark Rein-Hagen had for Ars Magica many years before, namely that of combining different game lines within one cohesive world.
“The Hunters Hunted” was released in 1992 and included rules for playing normal humans who had taken to hunting vampires. Well, I say “normal humans” but this book did actually include rules for playing government agents, psychics, sorcerers and truly faithful inquisitors. The sample characters did include a normal woman out for revenge, but they also included a hundred and seventy year old ghouled witch hunter blazing with true faith, an actual vampire, a mage, a werewolf, and a TV celebrity who makes a living from debunking supposed frauds which are a far cry from “vengeful housewife armed with a sharpened broomhandle, a can of hairspray and a lighter”. As a long time fan of Hunter: The Reckoning and its focus on “the everyman” it used to always rankle me when people would say “Oh I don’t like Hunter with its fancy powers. I prefer Hunters Hunted with its theme of normal people hunting the supernatural…” This gripe aside, Hunters Hunted was a fun read, and it showed that Mark’s vision of a multi-faceted game world was possible. This was expanded upon in White Wolf’s second similar release that year – “Mummy” – which allowed players to take on the roles of very different kinds of immortals. 1992 was also the year the White Wolf released “Werewolf: the Apocalypse” and started a trend that would see White Wolf releasing a new main game line every year for the next three years.
By the end of 1992 second edition of Vampire had been released – something that many long time players still consider to be the high point of the line. With this we also got the release of a little book called “The Players Guide to the Sabbat”.
Up until this point, the default setting of Vampire had always been that of a Camarilla (or Cam-ah-ree-ah if you’re being traditionally Spanish) city. The Camarilla were the sect of Vampires responsible for the Masquerade and who upheld the rest of the Traditions. All the information in previous books about how cities worked, the hierarchies within them and the types of vampires that lived in them – these were all Camarilla. Both first and second edition included a page giving information about a rival sect of vampires known about the Sabbat, but there wasn’t much information about them other than the fact that the revelled in their undead nature, engaged in some weird blood rituals, played with fire and generally rampaged around like “baddy vampires”. This book, and it’s companion volume “The Storyteller’s Handbook to the Sabbat” were meant to change things and give us a proper look inside of the sect. The problem with these books, is that they did nothing but really give the Sabbat an image problem. If they were to be believed, the Sabbat was peopled with freaks and misfits who loved nothing more than murder, rampaging, murder, fire, murder, devouring the souls of other vampires, murder and murder. Oh, and the sect was riddled with infernalists. It was their control of places like Detroit, Miami and Mexico City that explained why these places were so awful. Right. That must have been fun for a resident of these cities to read…
The end of 1992 heralded the arrival of the first of Vampire’s “clanbooks”. Much like each player had a class in D&D, in Vampire each character belonged to a clan – a supernatural lineage that explained what strengths, weaknesses and vampiric powers a character had. The clans also had rivalry with other clans, which generated a lot of the game’s political content. This series of books would explain how each clan worked, what their social and political structures were like and would offer character creation and roleplay tips for people interested in playing a character from each clan. As a long time Storyteller for Vampire, I’ve made a point to own most of these and I can honestly say, with very few exceptions, after reading each one my mind would be going “Oooh! I really fancy playing one of those!” They really helped drag you into any given clan’s culture, and made them much more than a grab bag of vampire stereotypes.
By 1993 Vampire was proving unbelievably popular, and an aggressive publishing schedule saw more and more books about the World of Darkness falling into the hands of fans of the game. Clanbooks came rolling off the press in droves, more cities got the “By Night” treatment and “The Book of Nod” – the vampires’ creation myth – was published. This was pure setting material – there were no rules included – and it provided an indepth look at what many vampires believed was the literal truth of how they were created. It was also the beginning of what became known as White Wolf’s metaplot slowly creeping into the mainstream.
1993 saw what some consider to be a slight misstep on White Wolf’s part when they released Berlin by Night and included amongst the cast of the city’s vampires two real life Nazis – Herman Goering and Henrich Himmler. While it didn’t cause a hue and cry in the same league as the Satanic panic of the 1980s it did raise a few eyebrows.
One of the most interesting decisions of this year was the release of “The Masquerade” – or rules for playing Vampire in a live action environment. Now, I’m not going to go into Vampire LARPing here – that will be a separate podcast of its own – but this release slowly snowballed into an unstoppable force of its own and brought more people than ever into Vampire’s World of Darkness. Unlike other LARPs that saw people dressed like characters from Tolkein running around a muddy field whacking each other with foam weapons, this was a game that could be played in a club or a bar. The very nature of the vampires’ Masquerade meant that sharp wit and pointed conversation would serve you much better than a rubber sword. Plus, it was infinitely preferable (and less socially embarrassing) to wear a suit or your best clubbing gear to a LARP than running around looking like an overweight discount Legolas…
Vampire’s popularity continued unabated into the mid 90s. Yes, White Wolf had released rules for playing Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths and Changelings but none of them proved as popular as Vampire. People were eating it up so much that by 1994 White Wolf had released what can be considered the first – but most definitely not the last – Vampire merch in the form of Clan pins. Whilst fun in their own right, players often used to wear these to find others who shared the love of the same game. I know that I managed to meet a few like minded players who spotted my Lasombra pin at the student union and felt compelled to come over and say “Hey – you play Vampire too?”
It was also in 1994 that White Wolf released what can be considered one of their most controversial products. Not because it was offensive, or made light of any historical tragedy, but because it was so thematically at odd with what went before.
Mention “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand” to most Vampire players and you’ll either get a response of “Man! I LOVED THAT BOOK!” or a sigh and a roll of the eyes. Dirty Secrets detailed a secret society that used another secret society as a front and which, whilst mainly vampiric, also included a hodge podge of other supernaturals from throughout the World of Darkness. It also introduced some new bloodlines of vampires, posited conspiracies behind nearly everything, and wrote in two or three shadow wars being fought on a nightly basis behind everything else that was going on.
The biggest complaint from detractors of this book was “What happened to ’The Storytelling Game of Personal Horror’?” Wasn’t that the cornerstone of this game, not battling against extra dimensional horrors called “souleaters”? While White Wolf didn’t specifically come out, hold up their hands and say “Ok – this was a mistake” they did LITERALLY nuke the cult outlined in this book in a later publication, so we’ll just leave that there.
1994 was also the year that saw White Wolf enter the collectible card game market when they licensed the rights to create a Vampire themed CCG. The result was “Jyhad” – named after the Vampire’s term for the political struggle amongst their kind – and unlike other CCGs of the day that were one on one duels, this game was designed around multiplayer play, and included politics as well as simple opponent smashing. In 1995 it changed its name to “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” because…well…come on. Jyhad? Really?
1995 began with an innovation being introduced across the World of Darkness lines. From this year onwards, White Wolf would designate a theme to each year, and 1995 was to be “Year of the Hunter”. Sadly, rather than releasing a series of publications themed around hunters, what this meant in practice was that each game line got a single book dedicated to a group that hunted the main game line’s protagonists. For Vampire this was, unsurprisingly, “The Inquisition”.
White Wolf also introduced another innovation this year in the form of printing books under the “Black Dog Game Factory” imprint. Named after a company that existed in the Werewolf universe, Black Dog games were intended for a “mature audience”. Initially this was surprising, as White Wolf had always marketed themselves as “Games for Mature Minds” and some naysayers assumed that this was simply a marketing gimmick, and that any Black Dog publications would simply be regular White Wolf publications only drenched in gore and nudity. Thankfully, the naysayers were proved wrong – Black Dog games simply dealt with subjects that needed to be handled with maturity and which dealt with themes unsuitable for the less mature. Their first publication – an adventure called “The Last Supper” saw the players take on the roles of mortals who attended a feast where – unbeknownst to them – they were to be the main course for the other guests who were all vampires. This book dealt with themes such as sadism, powerlessness and having another’s will forced upon you, so it is not surprising that White Wolf chose to brand it as “for mature audiences only”! Handled by the immature, this game would horrific!
1995 was a high point for the World of Darkness. They had five games in their stable, and – next to TSR – they were the biggest RPG company out there. Oh, and Fox were going to be producing a TV series based on Vampire, with Mark Rein-Hagen as the writer. Things could only get better from here, right?
Unfortunately, the answer was “No”.
Various problems had begun to hit the book trade in 1995, and over the next couple of years the collectible card game bubble had burst; this was unfortunate as White Wolf had put out two CCGs of their own as well as licensing “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” to Wizards of the Coast. In addition, apart from Vampire, their other game lines weren’t selling brilliantly. Wraith had been critically acclaimed but was almost dead in the water (pun very much intended).
Worst of all, “Kindred: The Embraced” – the Fox TV series – was a complete flop, and was canned after eight episodes. The producers wouldn’t listen to Rein-Hagen and ended up doing their own things thematically and story wise. As the man himself said “The show wasn’t as good as it could have been, if they only had listened to me more.”
All of these events led to a falling out between Mark, Steve and Stewart and as a result Mark – the man who had conceived of Vampire in the first place – left White Wolf. Production continued throughout 1996 and 1997 but it was clear that a change of direction was needed – amongst the publications during these years were various reprinted books and compilations of older material.
The change of direction came in 1998 with the launch of a Revised edition of Vampire the Masquerade. Unlike previous editions this one was FAR MORE focused on metaplot – meaning the ongoing background story that White Wolf was weaving through the World of Darkness. Beforehand, White Wolf were keen to give you the history of the setting and leaving it at that. Now? Now they were making changes that could affect your games! Examples of this over the years to follow include the Gangrel clan leaving the Camarilla, the True Black Hand being literally nuked, and the Ravnos clan being almost extinguished in a fratricidal orgy of bloodshed known as the Week of Nightmares.
Now, whilst I (and a great many players) had no problem with the Ravnos being wiped out, there was a genuine gripe from a lot of players that White Wolf had – intentionally or not – introduced an arms race into their games by focusing on metaplot. Many storytellers have examples of players turning up to games with the latest and greatest supplements, pointing at a change that the storyteller was unaware of, and asking to introduce it into their game.
However, on the flip side, the metaplot was exciting! Nobody likes a static setting, and it was great to see White Wolf breath (un)life back into their world with the introduction of changes that would affect the global scene. They also made a point of saying “Look – this is just our thing. If you don’t want to do it – don’t.” However, there was always the caveat of “…of course, later supplements will take this event into consideration…”
Along with the release of revised edition, White Wolf released guides to both the Sabbat and the Camarilla. As mentioned previously, the Sabbat had needed an image make over for a while, and this book was exactly that! Gone were the demon summonings – in fact, the Sabbat as a whole were dead against them – the mindless rampaging and the being-freaky-just-for-the-sake-of-being-freaky. Instead, we had a sect of vampires that behaved the way they did, not because they were “the bad guys” but because they were trying to stave off a vampiric apocalypse and saw the Camarilla as just the sort of saps who were enabling it. They didn’t attack Camarilla cities because they liked flipping cars and scaring mortals. Rather, they wanted to get at the elders who they knew were in league with the REALLY SCARY older vampires who were going to awaken soon and EAT EVERYONE. Their rituals were detailed and it was clear that, much like zealots in our own world, they fulfilled the purpose of reinforcing the member’s believes, ensuring their loyalty and strengthening the sect – usually in the most Darwinian way possible. It was a complete breath of fresh air. I remember devouring this book when I got it and then thinking “Wait – so the Sabbat are the GOOD GUYS?” I also more or less instantly set about planning a Sabbat game of my own… As the millennium approached, White Wolf started publishing their Clan Novel saga. Set over 13 books – one for each clan – this epic dealt with the unlives of dozens of vampires and the impact of a major Sabbat crusade across the east coast of the USA. The very first book in the series – Clan Novel: Toreador – caused everyone reading it to double take at the very end. All that metaplot advancing that I mentioned beforehand? Well, the end of this book saw it advance in the most gigantic and frightening way possible. I remember a friend lending it to me and saying “Not wanting to spoil things, but the Sabbat were right…”
Remember how I earlier mentioned that White Wolf had decided that each year would have a theme? The year 2000 was designated as “The Year of Revelations” – where the fall out from the previous year’s reckoning (which saw, amongst other things, the progenitor of the Ravnos clan awakening and destroying most of his filthy clan) would be addressed. However, taking a look back on what was released that year, it could very well be entitled “The Year of Merchandising Opportunities”. Amongst the “goodies” released for fans of the series were candles, letterheads for each of the clans, a chess set, Camarilla and Sabbat pieces for the chess set, tattoos, flasks, clan T-shirts, clan stickers, clan sweatshirts, a CD-ROM of various utilities and the first every Vampire: The Masquerade video game – Redemption.
Praise for the game is mixed. I remember buying it the day it was released and enjoying it, but it felt much more like a generic PC RPG like Diablo which happened to have Vampires as main characters. A lot of the tabletop game’s background is outright abandoned. For example, one of the Camarilla’s most important rules is the Sixth Tradition, which says that you won’t kill other vampires. Anyone who has ever played Redemption will know that you’re pretty much knee deep in dead vampires throughout it… 2001 and 2002 rolled along with many, many publications rolling out. When New York by Night was released shortly after the horrors of 9/11 White Wolf showed some very well-needed sensitivity and maturity by including in their introduction a note saying that they weren’t going to crowbar in the events of that dreadful day and try to pin it on some conspiracy of supernatural creatures. Doing so, they said, would be the height of insensitivity. They also pointed out that by not including the events of 9/11 in their book they were not intending to denigrate what happened through omission, but rather they were maintaining a respectful silence. A mature and well considered decision, and one that I applaud them for.
By the end of 2002 it was clear that White Wolf was beginning to struggle for inspiration when it came to supplements. They had already released two books about Blood Sorcery that read very much like D&D spell books, and an “Encyclopaedia Vampirica” which was…well…an encyclopaedia which referenced characters and places from everything that had been released for Vampire up until that point. However, I remember when “Havens of the Damned” was released a friend of mine asked “What next, Favourite Cars of the Undead?” What could they do to keep things interesting?
White Wolf clearly play by the law of “Go big or go home”, because in 2003 they announced “The Time of Judgement” where they were going to END the World of Darkness. Yes, the were killing ALL OF THEIR GAME LINES. Gehenna – the vampiric apocalypse – was going to get its own sourcebook in 2004. This wasn’t entirely unprecedented – White Wolf did the same for Wraith in 1999 with the release of “Ends of Empire” which killed off that game line, but it didn’t have Vampire’s popularity and, more importantly, it wasn’t White Wolf’s cash cow! Other game designers were scratching their heads in wonder and horror and settled down with all the glee of rubberneckers at a massive pileup. Fans of the game were incredulous, shocked and excited (sometimes all at the same time) and braced themselves for what to come. White Wolf did a great job of building up to this momentous event – over the course of 2003 a series of “Time of Judgement” books were released for each of their major game lines – sometimes crossing over – to show the World of Darkness slowly falling apart. They also put a news ticker on their website that included, from mid July onwards, daily updates that showed the rapidly disintegrating state of their universe. The vampire’s masquerade was crumbling, werewolves were preparing for the final battle, mages found reality constricting, demons were drawing up battle lines and hunters…well, hunters were having the biggest of “WE TOLD YOU SO” moments.
So it was, on January the 14th 2004, after thirteen years of continuous publication, that Vampire: The Masquerade came to a bloody and fiery end with the Gehenna sourcebook. I can still remember rushing out to get it on the day it was released and reading as much as I could in a single sitting and I genuinely liked what was there. It was sad seeing one of my favourite games ending, but this was a very, VERY fitting ending. I won’t spoil the contents of the book – there are people out there that won’t have read it and it is a fun read – but I was left thinking “Yup – I’m ok with that.”
Besides, White Wolf had already been promising “A brand new World of Darkness”. Like all other Vampire players out there I was awaiting this “Vampire: the Requiem” with bated breath, but I’m not ashamed to say I was a naysayer from day one. I had seen what had been teased to the pensive vampire loving public, and I didn’t like it.
This wasn’t “brand new”. It was a reskinned version of Masquerade. I was happy to be proved wrong though and, like many, many others I bought the rulebook as soon as it was released.
I won’t lie – it was pretty.
It also sold truckloads.
It just didn’t do ANYTHING for me.
The whole background was an amalgamation and reworking of various Masquerade concepts, all peppered with “…and nobody can remember what happened in the past so make it up”. I tried playing a game – even stuck with it for a few sessions – but it felt like Masquerade only gutted of everything that made it come alive. Yes, vampires aren’t alive – stop being pedantic, you know what I mean…
After that, I abandoned it…but wasn’t surprised when a 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire was published in 2011. Nor was I surprised when they continued to publish supplements for it as it proved popular despite saying they never would.
Vampire is now in it’s 5th edition – I’m guessing the 20th anniversary edition counts as the 4th – and I haven’t played it yet, but from what I’ve read and understand it’s a continuation of “classic” Vampire but with new mechanics. Reviews so far seem fairly mixed but I’ll keep an open mind until I actually play it. It’s also had its fair share of controversy attached it too, but I won’t go into that here…
It’s very difficult to understate the impact that Vampire made on the gaming scene. Back in the early 90s things were slowly moving away from the classic fantasy dungeon crawls to a far more open style of play, but Vampire was the first game to my mind to really focus on the social aspect of play over combat. It encouraged character arcs and personality development rather than the accumulation of powers (although I know plenty of Vampire players who were totally in it for the powers).
Most of all though, it will be remembered as the first mainstream game to stand up and say this is about the story – not the system. It encouraged players to be as invested in the tale being told as the storyteller. It encouraged those thinking of writing scenarios to focus on mood, theme and the how of storytelling rather than which rooms had traps and monsters in them and where the treasure was to be found.
In short – it encouraged a different style of play. Was it a better style of play? No, not at all, but it did show players and GMs that you weren’t constrained by ONE style of play.
Not bad for a brainwave prompted by a trip to America’s rust belt.
That’s probably why the city of Gary gets a dedication in the first edition…
When Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was released back in 1986, it was building on a setting previously established in Games Workshop’s miniatures’ wargame, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Even though the latest edition to this game had been released two years previously, the “Known World” as it was called then had not been substantially defined. Warhammer Fantasy Battle came with a book entitled “The Battle Bestiary” which provided outlines for the various races available in the game, as well as a three page overview of the nations therein.
Curiously, it states that the Warhammer world “bears more than a passing resemblance to our own. This is because the Known World exists in a parallel reality…”.
I’m pretty sure that this is the first and last time that this concept was referenced.
Therefore, all the material released in both the main WHFRP rulebook and The Enemy Within source pack was, in 1986 at least, brand new.
The main setting – a human kingdom known as “The Empire” – was akin to Germany at the beginning of the Renaissance. It was also firmly a “low fantasy” setting. Magic was rare and feared – indeed, it was exceptionally hard for players to become and succeed as wizards. This was not a D&D-esque setting where dragons roamed the skies and potions could be bought off the shelf at “Ye Olde Magick Shoppe”. Most people in the Empire were from the lower, labouring classes and were more concerned with putting food on their families’ tables than worrying about quests, fantastic creatures and magic.
This is very much reflected in the player characters themselves. Rather than choosing to have their alter-ego reflect some heroic fantasy trope like fighter, wizard, cleric or barbarian as was the case in most fantasy RPGs of the time, player characters in WHFRP had recently chosen to become adventurers as they had become bored of the mundane life that they were living, and were therefore leaving their old careers behind. These careers were suitably mundane as a result – things like “herdsman”, “student”, “labourer” and “beggar”. Sure, some were more traditionally suited to the fantasy RPG genre like “solider”, “thief” and “mercenary” but whereas in the likes of D&D you might be a paladin outfitted in glittering armour and wielding a magical sword called something like “Light of Justice”, a soldier in WHFRP was very likely to be a foot-slogger in some Grand Duke’s army, outfitted in a shabby mail shirt, and wielding a second-hand sword that most likely didn’t have a name…
That being said, it was made clear to the players that they were a bit special and unlikely to die, as the book put it, “at the hands of the first goblin to swing an axe at them”. This was reflected in the concept of “Fate Points”. Each character started off with a small pool of these (sometimes only with a single point!) and these could be used to cheat death. If a character was going to die – either as a result of combat or by doing something ridiculous and stupid in game – they could expend a fate point to live and fight another day. The GM was encouraged to get creative and use these moments of miraculous escape to advance the plot rather than simply as “extra lives”.
Of course, as gritty and “in the mud” as the setting was, this was still a fantasy world – a “grim world of perilous adventure” no less – so the GM needed some more fantastic building blocks with which to construct their world. This was provided in spades by the main rulebook. Following all the “rulesy” chapters came the setting elements – namely details on the types of creatures that inhabited the Warhammer world (complete with all the stats and special rules you’d ever need) and an extensive look into the history of the setting, information on the Known World and a deep dive into the Empire itself.
The chapter on creatures and monsters included everything you’d expect from a fantasy RPG – goblins, orcs, dragons and griffins abound – but, this being WHFRP, there were several things unique to the setting, some of which have built up a cult following over the years. Things like Skaven, Zoats and Fimir were GW creations, and these – along with the setting itself – helped make adventures in WHFRP’s world refreshingly different to some of the more Tolkienesque RPGs on the market at the time.
Players of the more recent editions of WHFB coming to first ed WHFRP might be surprised by what they find. When it was first published back in 1986, the authors were very clear that they wanted to make this world “grim” and “perilous”.
No where is this more clearly illustrated than in the Emperor of the Empire – Karl Franz himself. In later editions of WHFB this guy is a handsome, charismatic and mighty warrior, armed with the eponymous Warhammer, leading from the front, and riding a mighty griffon called DEATH CLAW.
“Death Claw”? Really?
Is he like that in WHFRP?
He’s a weak, inbred puppet who only happens to be Emperor because the rest of the Imperial Electors find him easy to control and manipulate. As long as he’s in power the rest of the nobility can do what it pleases.
But that’s just one individual, I hear you say. Ok, let’s look at the Old World nation of Brettonnia. In the last iteration of WHFB Brettonnia was a land of knights, sorcery and folk lore. Here, Arthurian myth is blended with medieval France to create a cauldron of valiant questing heroes, magic, forest spirits, honour and more chivalry than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, they even have a “Lady of the Lake” and a “Green Knight”. Oh, and grails. Brettonnia is your go-to place if you want a grail…
However, in WHFRP, Brettonnia is much more like France on the eve of the French revolution. The nobles of the land are riddled with corruption – wilfully blind to the decay around them, and sordidly decadent in every way.
The book describes painted fops parading around in their finery amidst the mud and dung of the streets, whilst ladies sit like dolls in shining carriages, bedecked in glittering jewels and tall, white wigs, while hiding their ghastly pox-marks (and worse…) behind rogue and white powder. Meanwhile, the majority of the population are described as being “poor, disabled, diseased and politically volatile”. This is a land where Chaos has wormed its way into the nation’s very soul – very much an embodiment of “the enemy within”.
Contrast this to the Bretonnia of years later, where ranks of glittering knights with brightly coloured banners heroically charge the enemy whilst virtuous maidens sling spells from afar and heroes on Pegasi descend from the heavens. At some point it was clear that GW had realised that “the enemy without” sold more models…
As the Brettonnian example illustrates, GW’s vision at the time was that WHFRP adventures would be based around rooting out the corruption that was gnawing at the heart of society. Yes, there were still goblin dominated mountain-holds and dark, haunted forests for those that wanted a more traditional flavour to their fantasy adventures, but it was investigating in society itself where WHFRP really shone. The first parts of the Enemy Within Campaign really highlight this, and produce some of the game’s finest moments. Even the introductory scenario that came with the main rulebook – “The Oldenhaller Contract” – held true to this theme.
Set in the city of Nuln, this scenario sees the brand new adventurers agreeing to investigate a local organised crime cartel who have taken something from the main NPC. Ostensibly a dungeon crawl, this adventure none-the-less deals with the theme of corruption eating away at the heart of the Empire. As the players investigate they find out that the local criminals were dealing with more than they bargained for, and the climax of the adventure suggests that the characters’ patron may not be quite whom he seems.
Although in later years – particularly after the arrival of the Realm of Chaos books – Warhammer became synonymous with “chaos spikey bits” and armies of huge, black-clad armoured warriors descending from the north in droves, first edition WHFRP very much treated Chaos as a more insidious, subtle and corrupting force. Yes, you could put your players up against hordes of beastmen and Chaos warriors if you liked – indeed, the history of the world has a section on the “Incursions of Chaos” so there’s a precedent – but it was at the heart of human civilisation that the greatest danger lurked.
The more physical manifestations of Chaos’ corrupting taint are seen by humanity at large as easy to deal with. Malformed or mutated infants are slain at birth, and those who don’t manifest their taint until later in life are driven deep into the Empire’s vast forests, presumably to be slain by the creatures that live within. However, it is the spiritual taint – the corruption of the soul – that will be humanity’s downfall. Mankind’s meteoric rise to power is in part down to Chaos. The versatility and lust for change that drives humans to greater and greater heights – and which will ultimately doom them – is down to the mark that Chaos has indelibly left on their souls. It’s also made clear that Chaos, by its very nature, is not necessarily “evil”. Chaos is about conflict, excess, corruption and change, but it doesn’t necessarily have a moral tinge to it. Indeed, the ultimate victory of chaos is portrayed as having all of reality decay into a seething mass of formless protoplasm. Even the antagonists that the players encounter aren’t necessarily evil in the traditional, moustache-twirling-Saturday-morning-cartoon villain sense of the word.
Take the main opposition to the players in Shadows Over Bogenhafen. His road to damnation is ultimately driven by the fact that he felt outcast and overlooked as the younger son of a rich family, and his embrace of Chaos as a quick and easy road to power came through a desire to make something of himself. His subsequent descent into greater and greater corruption came from the fact that his initial dash had been foolhardy, rash and short-sighted and he was looking to correct things. The fact that this will result in more death and destruction perfectly illustrates the corrupting nature of Chaos. He didn’t set out to cause the deaths of thousands. He just wanted a bit of power. Now, in a bid to save his own soul, he is willing to damn others because he is selfish and lacking in moral character. That’s on him, not Chaos. Chaos “merely” wants to dissolve all of creation back into its primal building blocks. This clown’s actions are simply a stepping stone to get there. The death and destruction caused along the way are not Chaos’ objectives – they’re just collateral damage.
Is Chaos uncaring?
Is it evil.
And when portrayed correctly that, more than anything else in this setting, should frighten your players.
I can still remember that day in the school playground (that’s “recess yard” or something similar for my American readers…) back in 1985 when Greig McKinnon rushed over to me in an excited frenzy and thrust a book into my hands.
“You have GOT to read this. It’s like a story, but you’re the hero in it!”
The book looked amazing. It was called “The Temple of Terror” and had a cover featuring some kind of armed and armoured snake guy barring the entrance into a desert city.
The blurb began:
“The dark, twisted power of the young Malbordus is reaching its zenith. All he needs now is to retrieve the five dragon artefacts which have been hidden for centuries in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls…”
I had no idea what “zenith” meant, but this guy sounded like he needed stopped, and given that the blurb also said “Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU become the hero!” it sounded like I was very much the person to stop him!
Needless to say I DEVOURED the book – actually, I still have my original copy (I think I swapped Greig some comics for it) and it does sort of look like it’s been physically consumed and regurgitated.
After reading this I knew I needed more; Temple of Terror was book 14 in a series so there were at least 13 other ones I hadn’t read… I badgered my mum to take me to the library, and I scoured the shelves for those tell-tale green spines. Any pocket money I had went on new game books.
I was hooked.
This started my love affair with a series of books that went on for over 50 titles, spawned numerous spin off media, and which drew me – like the tractor beam on the Death Star – towards the wider hobby of roleplaying and really grew my love of the fantasy genre.
The series I refer to is – of course – the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the co-founders of Games Workshop.
The books will open with an introduction that explains the background to the main tale. The story is then split across numerous numbered paragraphs – traditionally Fighting Fantasy books have 400 but there are exceptions – which will make zero sense if read in order. Instead, as the reader finishes a paragraph they will be given a series of choices which allows them to influence the direction the narrative is taking. These are represented by other numbered paragraphs the reader can turn to. This continues until the story concludes, either successfully – the words “Turn to 400” were the sweetest words a Fighting Fantasy fan could ever read – or…er…less successfully (usually in some hideous, gory fashion). Seriously, the number of times my eyes would widen in horror as I read some horrible description of my failure followed by the words “Your adventure ends here…”
Of course, this concept of branching narrative, you-are-the-hero type stories wasn’t new – Choose Your Own Adventure books had been around since the late 1970s. What made Fighting Fantasy new and exciting when it first hit the shelves in 1982 was the inclusion of the GAME element.
According to the blurb in each gamebook “Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need to make your journey…” – yes, you’d be keeping score on a character sheet (or “Adventure Sheet” as FF called it)!
Of course, compared to most RPGs, FF was really simple. For starters, there were only three statistics to keep track of; SKILL – reflecting your swordsmanship and general knack for all things heroic, STAMINA – health or hitpoints; if this ever got to zero you were dead regardless of where you were in the story, and LUCK – which was…er…how lucky you were. Simple as these were, they combined beautifully as the engine that ran the crunchy bits of your adventure. When something was in doubt, you tested your LUCK. If you were lucky then something good (or something “not bad”) happened. If you were unlucky the consequences could vary from losing a couple of points of STAMINA, to missing out on an important item to death! When a battle occurred, SKILL and STAMINA scores were given for the creature you were fighting and this was resolved using a simple, but effective, combat system.
There was some interplay between the stats; you could use LUCK in combat to influence how much damage you did or took, and various potions and provisions were available to raise your STAMINA. Occasionally some magic objects or adventuring gear would be on hand to raise your SKILL or make you more effective in combat but, on the whole, the system remained elegant and simple.
Of course, I’m writing this with the hindsight of an adult. Nowadays, when I pull out a Fighting Fantasy book for a read through I’m scrupulously honest. I roll my stats and stick with them no matter how bad. Ever combat is fought fairly, and if I die to a monster I shrug, roll up a new hero and start again. Should my LUCK plummet to absurdly low levels and I end up succumbing to Murphy’s law, so be it – I can hope to be luckier on my next adventure.
Did I do this as a kid though?
Ian Livingstone – one of the original authors – has made reference before to the “five fingered bookmark”; an allusion to the fact that most discerning school children would keep their fingers wedged between the various paragraph choices that they came to, being able to quickly “rewind” if the room they had blundered into contained a hungry monster rather than the treasure they expected.
In addition to this, most schools didn’t really approve of clattering dice during reading time. Naturally, being the good boy I am I didn’t want to break these rules. No, far better to assume that my hero bossed his way through every combat and shrugged off all damage like a champ than risk behaving like some kind of anarchist…
Later series of the books actually came with dice printed at the bottom of the right hand pages so that players could flick through to simulate a dice roll. However, even this wasn’t a cure to rampant cheating – I’m pretty sure when I did this the amount of double sixes I rolled was uncanny (and the particular page that they sat at the bottom of looked suspiciously worn…).
Later entries in the series were much more clever in how they dealt with cheaters. Rather than let them get to the end and ask things like “Do you have item X?” (which of course I always did…) they would have entries like “If you have a key with a number on it, subtract that number from the paragraph you are on just now and turn to the new reference number…” There were even a couple that had mechanisms designed specifically to catch cheaters and punish them!
So, we’ve got a series of books where you are the hero with a basic roleplaying system bolted on. That’s all well and good (and potentially gimmicky) but how did they read?
Simply put, they were extremely immersive. This was especially true once the series built up a head of steam. Sure, the first few followed some fairly basic fantasy tropes (“Go and kill the big bad over there…”, “Go and collect the magic item over here…”) but once these had been established the authors started actually world building, and the results were wonderful. Every new book felt like a return to a setting that the reader was familiar with, and which was exciting for that familiarity. When new books explored as-of-yet-unseen corners of Titan (as the FF world was named) the excitement grew further. Over the years the series explored other settings – notably sci-fi but also including post apocalyptic, superhero and horror – but because none of these settings were anchored in the familiar and fascinating world of Titan, none of them really stuck, and this goes a long way to explain why the series remained “Fighting Fantasy” and not “Fighting Fantasy and Associated Trades”.
Aiding and abetting the world building, were a wonderful cast of artists. Fighting Fantasy books were lovingly illustrated by a whole host of talented people, and the paintings that adorn their covers put today’s computer generated images to shame. Every single piece of art – from the aforementioned covers, to the illustrations accompanying the main text, to the little incidental pieces that split up the paragraphs to the maps on the insides of the covers – helped drag you – the reader – deeper and deeper into the world that was being created. I had a particular soft spot for the maps. They just fostered a wonderful sense of “You are here”…
Fun fact, Iain McCaig who provided many of the illustrations for FF was also the chap who created Darth Maul. Take a look at the cover of City of Thieves – created way back in 1983 – and you can see the genesis there…
I mentioned the world-building earlier as the thing that had really captured my imagination and dragged me headlong into the FF phenomenon, but a special mention must be given to the Sorcery! spin off series written by Steve Jackson. Originally conceived as a product for Penguin books (Puffin’s “grown up” brother) Sorcery! was advertised as a more advanced variant of Fighting Fantasy, and an early advert boldly touted “…why should kids have all the fun…?“
I’m not sure how much success the “for adults” concept had – the editions I have are all from Puffin; but the Sorcery series was fantastic. Spread across four books and published between 1983 and 1985 the Sorcery series was truly epic. It covered a single story, and saw the main protagonist journeying from their home kingdom of Analand to the distant Mampang Fortress – home to the evil Archmage who had stolen the Crown of Kings from Analand’s ruler. The crown was an ancient magical artefact that bestowed powers of unnatural leadership upon the wearer. With it, the Archmage hoped to unite the various chaotic races that made their homes in the land of Khakabad (the corner of Titan where the series was set). Only you – Analand’s champion – could retrieve it…
I was obsessed with this series as a child, but I approached it in a weird manner. Sorcery! 2 – Kharé: Cityport of Traps – was actually the second Fighting Fantasy book I ever read and, boy, was it difficult! I eventually struggled my way through it but my first few reads were confusing. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing or where I was – my fault for starting in the middle of a series.
That being said, my nine year old self was enraptured with Sorcery’s flagship feature, its magic system. Each Sorcery title included a spell book with over forty spells. For the serious collector, you could even buy this separately – in a book beautifully illustrated by the legendary John Blanche. Each of these spells had a cost in STAMINA and was identified by a three letter code that gave you a clue as to the spell’s function. For example, the ZAP spell threw lighting bolts, whilst the WAL spell created an invisible wall. The more powerful spells cost more STAMINA, whereas the cheaper spells generally needed some kind of physical component to cast successfully. The text suggested you didn’t consult the spell book during play (after all, would a real mage have time to start flipping through their spell book when the baddies were bearing down on them?) and instead spend time to actually LEARN the spells.
I don’t know if it’s a testament to my Taurean stubbornness, but I did exactly that, and even today can tell you what each spell does, how much they cost and what artefacts (if any) they need to cast.
Of course, I still didn’t play properly with any of that dice rolling malarky but I was scrupulously honest where the spells were concerned!
There was the option to play a simpler game where you were a warrior with no spells (and instead got a SKILL bump) but, to be honest, where’s the fun in playing a series called Sorcery when there’s no actual sorcery involved…
As well as being part of one larger story (with your character progressing from each one as you went) each of the Sorcery books was longer than your average FF book. The first three books had 456, 511 and 498 references each, while the final one clocked in at a massive 800! All in all, this means the Sorcery series is about the length of five and a half “normal” FF books!
I’ve mentioned previously that John Blanche illustrated the spell book – he also provided ALL the artwork for the series; from the covers, to the internal illustrations, to the maps, to the little separator images between sections. This consistency combined with Jackson’s vivid descriptions (most paragraphs were longer than was usual for an FF book) helped conjure up a unique, interesting and – there’s that word again – immersive world. Sure, there were standard fantasy creatures like manticores, goblins and giants, but what about the Svinn, Red Eyes, Elvins and Mucalytics – each and every one a unique Jacksonian creation.
What is particularly fascinating about the Sorcery series is its internal consistency. Things you did in one book could go onto affect something in a later book. For example, in book 1 (spoilers obviously!) you meet an assassin who tries to rob and kill you. If you fight him you can kill him. Or, you can choose to spare him. If you do, there’s a chance you can meet him in a later book. Likewise, an artefact found in book 2 can give you powers over something you encounter in book 3. Most importantly, if you defeat the archmage’s spies in book 3 the archmage’s minions in book 4 will respond differently to you because they don’t actually know of your mission to steal back the Crown.
Oh, and then there’s the time travel, but I won’t spoil it…
In our modern day of video games with cloud saves and multi million dollar budgets this probably doesn’t seem significant, but back in the 80s this was HUGE. Bear in mind the most video games back then still came on tape and their level of sophistication was such that they could run on 64K of RAM….
When I first started playing Sorcery, only three of the books had been released. It’s a testament to how obsessed I was about this series that, when the fourth book was released, it went straight on my Christmas list, and I was more excited about getting it than the computer I got that same year…
As the series grew and expanded, and as the demand for the books surged, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone moved from being sole authors to overseeing the growth of the series and the worlds being created. Writing was taken over by other writers that they commissioned, and the books now bore the tag line of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone present…”
Here the series really went into overdrive; while there were seven books in the main series published between 1982 and 1984, 1984 to 1986 saw a further 17 added to the catalogue! The series went on to see a total of 59 books being published between 1982 and 1995, alongside the four books making up the Sorcery epic.
In addition to this, FF spawned two lines of roleplaying games. The first “series” (and I’m using this term loosely based upon when they were released – I’m not aware they were an official series as such) was composed of “Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Roleplaying Game”, “The Riddling Reaver” (a campaign dealing with the titular villain), “Out of the Pit” (Fighting Fantasy’s equivalent of a monster manual) and “Titan” (the guide to the FF world).
The idea for FF as a roleplaying game was the brainchild of Steve Jackson. He and Ian Livingstone were both D&D players (indeed, their early business had been based off importing and selling D&D to the British market) but Jackson wanted to create a really simple RPG – something as simple as multiplayer FF. The book was small and thin, but it contained enough goodness for a prospective GM to run a nice, simple campaign – provided they were willing to put the leg work into writing one…
…or providing they were willing to buy a copy of “The Riddling Reaver”.
This campaign saw the adventurers pursue said Reaver – an agent of the Trickster gods of Luck and Chance – and attempt to stop his unhinged schemes. I ran this for my friends as a kid and I remember being so determined to prepare it properly that I was caught reading it in class when I should have been paying attention to something else… My campaign went on hold for a month after the teacher confiscated it, and no amount of protestations to my parents about the injustice of it all would convince them to march down to the school and demand it back.
The Riddling Reaver is split into several chapters, and the story follows the characters as the pursue the Reaver for the murder of a local nobleman. It’s not exactly taxing on the brain, nor will you find enormously detailed dungeon floorplans, but the feeling of it is VERY Fighting Fantasy. I’ve yet to reread it, but I recall my players enjoying it enormously back in the day.
“Out of the Pit” and “Titan” are in effect the setting books for an FF campaign, but they’re also great reads in their own right. I remember buying Out of the Pit from McDougal’s bookshop in Paisley, and reading a large portion of it on the bus on the way home, my attention gripped by all the foul monsters that populated its pages as well as the fantastic artwork. Titan gives a great view of the history and setting of the FF world, and is full of great little nuggets of information that could be used for expanding into larger adventures or campaigns. In fact, I’d wager that the setting of Titan is more fully realised than some “grown up” roleplay settings.
Interestingly, both “Titan” and “Out of the Pit” were both originally published in a format larger than the usual A5. These books came with beautiful colour plates that I remember some philistines ripping out to use as posters.
The second “series” were the “Advanced Fighting Fantasy” books. These originally came in three volumes – Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Allansia – covering dungeon, city and wilderness adventures respectively. As well as containing rules for playing more complex FF RPGs, each volume also included sample adventures. Allansia was probably my favourite as it came packed with detail about the the world of Titan as well as additional rules (including those for massed combat!).
Years later, these books were rereleased by Arion games in one large volume as “Advanced Fighting Fantasy Deluxe”. Given that it came with all the AFF information as well as that from Titan and Out of the Pit this is probably as complete a Fighting Fantasy RPG as you could ever want!
Although the original FF series ended in 1995 with the publication of the 59th book, the series has been resurrected a couple of times since, and is currently published by Scholastic Books. There have been additions to the line up of books published since the first run and the most recent book – Assassins of Allansia – is a particular toughie. Even though the newer books don’t have the traditional green spine – these ones are all fancy and shiny! – the writing is still pure FF.
So, in a month where I’m taking part in an event to celebrate all things fantasy, I can’t think of something more fitting to write about than the series that got me absolutely hooked on the genre. A series that promised me that “YOU decide which route to follow, which dangers to risk and which monsters to fight.”
Which was always easier with a five-fingered bookmark.
Mention Star Wars and Ghostbusters in the same sentence, and most people will assume that you are indulging in some geek-culture comparison. Both were enormously successful films, both have rabidly devoted fan bases, and both spawned a host of franchise off-shots like action figures, cartoon series and fiction. Amongst those spin-offs were role-playing games.
Given that we’re a podcast devoted to RPG history, you’d be on the right track assuming that this would be what we’re talking about.
It would probably surprise most folks to learn that Ghostbusters got an RPG before Star Wars. Viewed through a modern lens, this seems somewhat off. After all, fun as Ghostbusters is, isn’t the Star Wars franchise worth something like $70 billion? Aren’t they continually churning out movie blockbusters and critically acclaimed TV shows? You don’t get bought by Disney unless you’re a rock solid money maker, right?
True, but back in 1986 – the year that the Ghostbusters’ RPG was released – Ghostbusters had recently grossed just shy of $300 million at the box office. There was talk of a new film, a cartoon was just about to be released, a video game based on the film had proven to be a surprise hit, Marvel were publishing Ghostbusters comics, and there was a line of action figures in development. Hell, they even had their own breakfast cereal!
By contrast, Star Wars was old news. There were a couple of – fairly terrible – cartoons still limping along, two made for TV movies had just ended, and Marvel were looking to drop their comic book lines. While the merchandising was reputed to be worth around $2 billion, interest in it was starting to tail off. Also, the movies had “only” grossed around $30 million. Simply put. People were losing interest in the galaxy far, far away, and were much more drawn to the catch phrase “Who ya gonna call?”
It therefore seemed logical that the team behind Call of Cthulhu – the world’s most successful horror roleplaying game – would team up with West End Games – publishers of Paranoia, one of the funniest RPGs out there – to produce, under license from Columbia pictures, the Ghostbusters RPG.
What has this got to do with Star Wars, other than to show how quickly the public lose interest in established franchises? Well, firstly, the system that was developed for Ghostbusters – what became known as the D6 system – became the backbone of the Star Wars RPG. Secondly, it meant that when West End games picked up the license for what is now a multi-billion dollar franchise they did so for a song.
It also meant that when they sat down and started creating material for their new RPG, they did so in a complete vacuum.
You see, by 1987 – the year that West End games got their license for Star Wars and also the 10th anniversary of the release of the first flim – there was literally nothing new being created for fans of the franchise. The last new material that hopeful Star Wars fans had got were a series of “Droids” comics published in 1986 to tie in with the cartoon series. Other than that – nothing. Therefore, West End games were in the fortunate position of having an audience hungry for new content and a carte blanche to go forth and create.
And man, did they take that mandate and run with it!
In the first three years after the game was launched the went ahead and released over 20 supplements! The supplements that were released varied in quality, but the most important thing for Star Wars fans were that not only did they now have a place where they could have epic adventures in the Star Wars universe, they now saw the universe that they have loved seeing on cinema screens being EXPANDED before their very eyes. Early adventures dealt with familiar territory like the desert world of Tatooine, but very quickly West End started giving names to characters and species that previously had only been known by fan nicknames or side notes in the scripts.
That strange looking alien that you glimpsed for a few seconds in the cantina? Now fans knew he belonged to a species called the “Ithorians”. They also found out much about the planet Ithor (fourth planet in the Ottega star system if you’re interested), the Ithorian culture, they fact that they had ecological priests serving the “mother jungle” and the fact that Ithorians actually had two mouths which let them speak in stereo. This was much better detail than “Uh…yeah…he’s the guy that had that figure released called ‘Hammerhead’…”
The very first supplement – the Star Wars sourcebook – included ten such entries for alien species along with chapters on starships, droids, vehicles, creatures, equipment, Stormtroopers, bases and a host of heroes and villains. Sure, there were several things that George Lucas had specified as being off-limits and sacrosanct (basically everything that would end up in the prequels) but everything else? All of that was up for grabs for the creative minds at West End games.
They were so prolific, that when Timothy Zahn was given a commission to write the “Thrawn Trilogy” he was sent a bumper bundle of West End goodies and told that this was the universe in which he should base his new novels! Even nowadays, following the Disney take over of Star Wars and their decree that the only things that were canon were the movies and anything produced by Disney following their acquisition of the franchise, a lot of the terms established by West End games remain in use.
So, background aside, how did this game play? After all, there have been many games out there with rich and wonderful backgrounds, but which ultimately are undone by fairly lacklustre systems. Well, as was mentioned earlier, the system used for Star Wars was based off the one that was previously developed for Ghostbusters. As can be imagined, one thing that was at the forefront of the designers’ minds when creating a ruleset for a game based off the madcap Ghostbusters’ movie was that it had to be fast, easy to follow, and which cover pretty much any eventuality. After all, this was a world that played fast and easy with the rules of physics (and paraphysics!) so it was important that the GM should be able to make rulings on the fly for whatever nonsense that the players wanted to get up to. When you considered that at this period in time a lot of RPGs were becoming more and more complex (take a look at Rolemaster and AD&D stuff that was out then!) Ghostbusters’ rules merrily backflipped in the opposite direction. A game where characters only had four stats? What was this – a Fighting Fantasy book?
When Star Wars was being developed, it took this system, tweaked it slightly and ran with it. Within a few paragraphs of its opening, the rulebook acknowledges that what the GM should be doing is creating an ADVENTURE for the players – which is to say a story with an interesting plot. This doesn’t see the GM creating some kind of space dungeon which he populates with loot and Star Wars themed monsters to be tackled. Instead, the GM’s role is likened to that of a film director. They are encouraged to think of “scenes” and cut between them to keep the action moving.
The rules are very much based around this free-flowing, fast-moving pace. Characters have dice pools of abilities and when they want to do something the GM assigns a difficulty number. Then, based on how close they are to the number, the GM narrates the results. That’s it – simple. Sure, there can be more nuance to it, but in a nutshell the rules really are that simple. In fact, the players section of the rulebook doesn’t even reach ten pages!
Players are encouraged to picked a character “template” which they can customise. These templates are simple Star Wars stereotypes, and I’ve had arguments with other roleplayers who have suggested that these are cop-outs. However, how is a template any different from a D&D class? If you take a look at Youtube you can find all manner of videos explaining how to “optimise your class build” for D&D 5th edition – so I’m not sure I can see any difference between that and what West End Games were doing almost a quarter of century before.
In fact, the beauty of these templates were two fold – firstly it allowed players to very quickly get their characters up and running. You’re a bounty hunter? Cool – stick a few points in your various weapon skills and you’re ready to go. You’re the pilot? Well, I guess you’re going to need to know how to fly and fix an X-Wing. The senator? You’re party’s face so load up on those interpersonal skills. However, it was the second function of these templates that was so cool – they helped people get into character almost straight away. Everyone’s seen Star Wars. Nobody needs to be told how to behave as a bolshy young senator, or a jedi or as a Wookie. Sure, you can absolutely put your own spin on things, but if you just want to get up and running it’s pretty easy to say “I’ll play a smuggler” and start calling people “kid” and mumbling things like “Never tell me the odds” when things get hairy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when I used to play, there was at least one player who said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every session…
The Gamesmaster’s chapters are longer than the players’ – but a lot of that is taken up with examples of just how to go about setting the difficulty numbers for various activities (the result of which means I now know just how tricky it is to hit the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star – good job Luke!). The combat chapter makes it quite clear that this is NOT a tactical wargame, and it’s very much designed with the fast moving spirit of the movies in mind. Everything is largely abstract and players are encouraged to act in as heroic a manner as possible, rather than just saying “I plug another Storm Trooper”.
Chapters follow on various key aspects of the Star Wars universe like droids, ships and the force, but the real difference comes when the rulebook starts exploring how to write an adventure.
Now bear in mind, up until this point – with a few notable exceptions – most thought in RPGs around designing adventures revolved around “What challenges are in the party’s path, where do they show up, and what reward exists for defeating them?” A lot of gaming modules followed the linear path of “Going to location X, overcoming obstacle Y, getting access to location Z and repeating until successful”. Star Wars flipped that on its head. The focus here was story, and when they mentioned earlier that the GM should think of himself as a director they weren’t kidding.
Sure, the templates helped the players get into character, but something that Star Wars official supplements included, and which the adventure chapter suggested that all GMs incorporate into their own adventures was scripts. Actual “character 1 says this, then character 2 says this” type scripts.
I can imagine a lot of modern roleplayers being utterly horrified about this, but these scripts were always fun and – more importantly – served a few valuable purposes.
Firstly, they very much made it clear to the players “You’re the cast of a movie”. Sounds like a small thing, but when you’re told “You’re the A-listers in this film” it encourages you to act in a second way.
Secondly, they did a wonderful job of imparting pretty good information. Rather than “You all meet up in the cantina and decide to go on an adventure” these scripts very firmly made it clear to the players why they were together and what they were meant to be doing.
Finally, they set the mood for what was to come, and plunged the players straight into the action. All the Star Wars published adventures I’ve played in did exactly the same thing – they took a leaf out of the movies’ books and plunged the players straight into the action In Media Res. Much like Episode IV begins with Princess Leia being pursued by Darth Vadar, rather than dealing with the minutiae of the theft of the Death Star plans, the adventure modules produced by West End games rarely start with the players in a briefing room getting orders from some general. “Black Ice” begins with them infiltrating an Imperial Research Facility. “Tatooine Manhunt” sees them waiting to make contact with a spy who has some information the Alliance desperately needs. “Scavenger Hunt” has them pursuing an Imperial transport through space. My personal favourite – “Starfall” – sees them confined in the brig of an Imperial Star Destroyer, heading towards a date with an interrogation droid.
Aside from being extremely atmospheric, the “In Media Res” approach was simply more exciting for players. I remember players looking forward to the start of new adventures, as they always knew that they would open with a bang! Plus, Star Wars was the one of those games where you didn’t have to sit through long, drawn out background sessions. Anyone who wanted to play would have seen the movies – hell, even if they hadn’t they’d KNOW of them – and rather than having to start with a recap on what the political situation was in the galaxy at any given moment, you just dropped the players in, gave them the equivalent of the opening crawl, had them read the script and they were off. They knew what they had to do, they knew they were the heroes and they got on with it.
I have compared this to the one time I tried to run the Nephilim RPG – a very detailed and background rich occult roleplaying game – and I quickly discovered that I was boring myself as I trudged my way through the background and saw the exhausted looks in my prospective players’ eyes…
Another device popular in the Star Wars RPG is the concept of “cuts”. Often, in published adventures – usually at the end of a chapter – you’d find stage directions. Consider this from Starfall. The players have just been through some fairly high action scenes and are having a rest. The NPC accompanying them assures them that he has found an easier route through the Star Destroyer (which is currently under attack from a Rebel fleet).
CUT AWAY TO KOLAFF INTERIOR: SUBJIGATOR BRIDGE. Framed against a sea of stars, Captain Kolaff peers anxiously out the giant viewport. At his right, the female Imperial official scowls impatiently. “They’re coming” the captain says, “I can feel them drawing closer.”
There then follows some dialogue which makes it clear that the Imperials no longer believe the Rebels to be dead and that they are searching to bring them back into custody. Plus, it also hints at some kind of diabolical plan being concocted by the Captain. Would the players know this in character? Absolutely not? Does it add to the game? 100%. Their faces when some kind of plot twist is revealed is often reward enough, but these cuts help to reinforce the cinematic feel of the adventure.
One of my favourite moments like this occurred during a homebrew adventure I ran once. The rebels were on a mission to steal a protype star fighter, and had put themselves into a fairly favourable position, and were contemplating their next move which was to get onto the hanger floor and get access to the ship. We then cut away to an Imperial Shuttle landing at the base, the ramp crashing down and a tall, black cloaked figure descending. The station’s governor bowed before it and said “Lord Vadar. We are honoured by your presence.” before it cut back to the players.
Now, I knew that Vadar had next to nothing to do with the adventure – they were never going to encounter him – but now they; the players; had the knowledge that he was on the station. For the next few encounters they were jumpy as hell, and acted as if they were in a race against time. They no longer wanted to be on that station – they wanted to complete their mission and get out of there!
Of course, once they completed and blaster their way out of the station and jumped into hyperspace, I couldn’t resist having another cut…
CUT TO VADAR
INTERIOR: STAR DESTROYER BRIDGE. Two enlisted imperial troopers drag a body out of Vadar’s shadow.
“Apology accepted, Governor” the dark lord says before turning to look at the field of stars outside of the view port, in the direction the Rebels fled. He reaches down with a gloved hand and presses a button. A hologram of an Imperial officer, who is nervously straightening his jacket, appears on screen.
Vadar stares at it for a second before intoning “Commander, find out whatever you can about those Rebel saboteurs, and have the information beamed directly to my Star Destroyer.”
FADE TO BLACK
I’m pretty sure Vadar never showed up again, but they were continually looking over their shoulders for bounty hunters and assassins after that…
There was a lot of great advice in the adventure chapter – ranging from “what is Space Opera?” to pacing, to why heroes should be “script immune” (which is to say they have their reckoning at the climax of the story) and how to maintain an atmosphere. My personal favourite is when and how to introduce a “I have a bad feeling about this…” moment which is very Star Wars.
A lot of this advice seems commonplace now, but remember when this was written. Back then, a lot of sourcebooks were more interested in cramming in monsters, treasure and spells than advice on how to run a good story.
The original Star Wars RPG did a lot of things right but, like all roleplaying games, there were always people who wanted more. A new edition came out in 1992, and it did a great job of adding some new setting elements. One things that West End Games did was take the concept of the New Republic from the post Return of the Jedi timeline and develop it. Second edition would see a lot new Republic material released which gave fans a whole different (but familiar!) setting to play with.
Unfortunately – at least to my mind – this new edition added in more complication than existed in the original. It still wasn’t quite in the league of AD&D rules bloat, but it wasn’t as fast moving and free flowing as before. As an example, whilst the original edition gave the players nine pages to read and then they were good to go, the new edition “kind of” explains this before launching into how to create a more advanced character and providing various lists of skills. It also made the Force MUCH more complicated and turned chases – which had previously been a fast-moving exercise in abstraction and very much in keeping with the Star Wars theme – into a much more tactical battle….
It was still a fun game – but it felt, at least to those of us who had played the original, that it had put on a few pounds since 1987…
A revised an expanded second edition was released four years later in 1996 which sought to address some of the issues from second edition. It also included an extremely comprehensive background section that was a treasure trove for ideas for aspiring GMs, but sadly it came too late. West End Games were facing financials problems, and the last supplement for Star Wars – Classic Adventures: volume 5 – was released in 1998 before the license to produce Star Wars material was lost.
There have been other Star Wars RPGs since then – notably by Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight – but none of them captured the fast moving, cinematic atmosphere of the original films as well as the West End Games edition. What’s more, despite West End falling on hard times near the end, it was they who kept the light of hope burning for Star Wars fans during that period of the late 80s when it felt like the franchise was dying, and it was they who built most of the universe that Star Wars fans take for granted nowadays. So whenever you play a Star Wars video game and wonder “Who named that type of blaster?” or watch one of the Disney TV shows and think “Where did that alien species get its name?” chances are, it came from one of the creative minds at West End games.
Mention the name “Geneva” to most people and they’ll probably think you’re talking about the second largest city in Switzerland.
Mention “Lake Geneva” and they will assume the city has a lake – which it does; it’s one of the largest in Europe.
However, if you inform them that you’re talking about “Lake Geneva, in WISCONSIN” most of them will look blankly at you.
Which isn’t surprising really. Lake Geneva is a small, mid-western town of less than 8000 people, and it’s around 50 miles away from the larger (and better known) city of Milwaukee. It does have a lake, although it’s considerably smaller than its European relative. Although it is popular with tourists from Illinois, it remains largely unknown to the population at large.
Unless, that is, you’re an old school roleplayer.
You see, Lake Geneva, can be argued as being the spiritual home of roleplaying games, because it was there, in 1972, that Dave Arneson – a wargamer from Minneapolis – ran a game set in a fantasy world of his own creation for a fellow wargamer, a Lake Geneva resident named Gary Gygax.
The game took place in a setting that Arneson called “Blackmoor” and it was run using rules Dave had developed from the wargame “Chainmail” – a system that Gygax himself had worked on along with Jeff Perren. Ostensibly created to simulate battles between medieval armies, Gygax had written a fantasy supplement for it that provided rules for monsters, magic items, and spells with which wizards could zap their opponents with.
However, the thing that really blew Gygax away by the game that Arneson ran for him was the scale. Rather than focusing on a pitched battle between two sides, Arneson had conceived a game where each player took on the role of a single character, and together they formed a party to explore a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. The whole experience lit Gygax’s mind on fire, and before long he had started work on his own setting – Greyhawk – and had asked Arneson for a copy of his rules. Together they collaborated on what eventually became Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax felt that the game would be a hit, so he and Arneson went to Guidon Games – the publisher of Chainmail – and asked them to support the venture. In a day and age where the sales of D&D are astronomical – recently Hasbro posted figures suggesting that sales of Dungeons and Dragons had propped up their other products that were performing poorly – it will probably come as a surprise then that, new game in hand, Gygax found it difficult to find a publisher for his baby. Guidon Games considered themselves too small for such an undertaking and Avalon Hill – at the time the world’s biggest publisher of wargames – turned it down; unable to understand what this new mutation of wargaming was all about.
Gygax was still passionate about publishing the game and proposed setting up their own company to do so, but Arneson felt that he was unable to commit to such a venture. Undaunted, Gygax and business partner Don Kaye found Tactical Studies Rules – or TSR as they became known – in 1973. The urgent need to publish on Gygax’s part was more than simple enthusiasm for a new fad – he knew that other groups were out there who had similar games, and if they weren’t the first to market they might miss this opportunity. It was because of this that they accepted an offer of funding from Brian Blume in exchange for a one third share in the company. It was therefore possible, in 1974, to release the first commercial version of D&D.
It was an instant success.
The first 1000 copies sold out in less than a year, and sales simply shot into the stratosphere after that. Sadly, Kaye died of a heartattack in 1975 and, after much wrangling over Kaye’s share of the business, Blume and his father ended up owning the majority, leaving Gygax as a minority shareholder in the company.
Dave Arnseon made a reappearance in 1976 – hired as Director of Research – but he left shortly afterwards, citing the fact that he and Gygax still had creative differences over how D&D was being developed.
1977 saw the release of what became known as the Holmes Basic Set – a version of D&D geared towards newer players that got its name from the fact that it was edited by American writer J Eric Holmes. This set was built on both the original D&D set released in 1974 as well as the Greyhawk setting, and was designed to gently introduce new players into the hobby – making the assumption that they might not come from a wargaming background. It came either as a rulebook, or in a box which contained the book, and some supplemental materials such as maps, monster lists, treasure charts and dice. Later printings replaced these with modules – TSR’s term for adventure supplements – including classics such as “The Keep on the Borderlands”.
The original conception was that players of the basic rules would end up “graduating” to a new product that was being developed by TSR called “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”. However, the basic set was a runaway success, and by 1978 had seen four printings! In 1981 a decision was made not to have players from the basic set be absorbed by D&D, but instead Basic would be developed as its own product. In line with Holmes’ original vision, Basic continued with its lighter, more personal tone whilst AD&D became increasingly more rules heavy. However, a new set was developed – the Expert Set – that allowed players from third level to move upwards to play characters of levels four to fourteen.
1983 saw the publication of what – for a lot of UK gamers – was their first brush with D&D: the red box edition. Featuring an iconic cover image by Larry Elmore of a fighter locked in a life or death struggle with a dragon, this edition was revised by Frank Mentzer and now included a sixty four page Players’ Manual, a forty eight page Dungeon Master’s Rulebook and six dice that had to be coloured in with a crayon. This probably seems ludicrous to younger players, but this was fairly standard practice for games at the time – I remember first edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle having something similar.
The Mentzer edition also went beyond Expert rules, introducing Companion rules for characters levels fifteen to twenty five, Master rules for levels twenty six to thirty six and Immortal rules from playing gods (where levels didn’t really mean anything anymore).
In an interesting change from the previous editions, the Mentzer edition now included in place of a module, a solo adventure to teach players the rules and an introductory scenario for a Dungeon Master to run.
While not much in the way of rules had changed from previous editions, the presentation of the Mentzer editions were a step beyond what had been released before, and the decision to have the game act as a tutorial to ease new players into the hobby is still seen and felt today in video games, that frequently use their first few levels to introduce players to the basic concepts and rules of the game. All of this has its roots in Basic D&D.
In parallel to the development of the Basic editions, in 1977 Gygax threw himself into the development of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This saw the rules broken up across three books into the Players’ Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual – a format that is still in use to this day. AD&D also included many more options around character including additional classes and a LOT more rules.
LOTS of rules.
It also saw the development of some of the most…well, I’m not sure “loved” is the word…maybe “remembered” is better? adventures for the game. Supplements like Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil and Isle of the Ape were all released in this period of creative frenzy.
By 1980 D&D’s sales had reached the staggering heights of over 8 million dollars! However, AD&D also brought with it its own share of controversy. In 1977 TSR claimed that AD&D was different enough of a product that Dave Arneson wouldn’t be entitled to any royalties from it. This resulted in a lengthy legal battle which ended with TSR and Arneson settling out of court, with an agreement that Arneson would be credited as “co-creator” of all D&D products and that he would receive a 2.5% royalty on them.
If TSR thought a lawsuit was bad, that was just the calm before the storm. It began in 1979 when a Michigan State University student, James Egbert, allegedly disappeared while playing a live action version of D&D. This wasn’t true – he reappeared several weeks later. Egbert’s disappearance – and his tragic suicide in later years – was an unfortunate result of stress and clinical depression, but it had nothing to do with D&D. However, this furore represented the first shots to be fired in a wider torrent of negative mainstream media attention. In 1981 a book was published called “Mazes and Monsters” which was a thinly veiled version of the Egbert story as reported by the press. This was followed in 1982 by a made for TV movie starring none other than a young Tom Hanks. The plot was nonsense, but it cemented an idea in the minds of certain people who were largely ignorant of the hobby, namely that roleplaying can cause players to breakdown and lose touch with reality. And then, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.
In 1982, a Virginian woman named Patricia Pulling founded an advocacy group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or – to use its none too subtle acronym – BADD. Pulling had been a long time anti-occult campaigner, but she founded BADD in response to her son – Irving’s – suicide. Irving Pulling had been an active roleplayer, and his mother attributed his tragic death to a D&D curse put on his character shortly before he took his own life. She filed lawsuits against her son’s school and TSR as a result – both of which were dismissed by the judge. After this, her campaigning with BADD went into high gear, as she started airing her views that D&D encouraged – amongst other things – devil worship and suicide. Flawed as these opinions were, she managed to get quite a substantial amount of press coverage from a media that had grown fat on stories such as the Egbert Case and Mazes and Monsters. Gygax ended up appearing on a 60 Minutes special to defend the game; a show that included interviews with Patricia Pulling and other parents that claimed their offspring had been motivated to commit various unhealthy acts after playing D&D.
In 1988, a wealthy American businessman by the name of Leith Von Stein and his wife Bonnie were attacked in their home in North Carolina. Tragically, Leith died from his injuries, but Bonnie survived and was able to summon the police. It eventually came to light that Von Stein’s stepson Chris had coerced two of his friends – James Upchurch and Neal Henderson – into committing the crime in return for a promised share of the inheritance money he would receive after his stepfather’s death.
It was a horrendous tragedy motivated by pure greed, but two books written on the subject – “Cruel Doubt” and “Blood Games” – both heavily emphasised the perpetrators interest in Dungeons and Dragons, as if that was what drove them to commit such a horrible crime. Despite this storm of controversy, D&D continued to flourish, with sales almost doubling to around $16 million.
However, all wasn’t well at TSR. In 1981 Kevin Blume – Brian’s brother – had purchased their father’s shares, and as a result the Blume Brothers ended up having the controlling interest in the company. The end result was that Gygax and the Blumes found themselves increasingly at loggerheads over management of the company. This, coupled with Gygax’s turbulent personal life – which led to an acrimonious divorce in 1983 – saw TSR split into two divisions – TSR, Inc and TSR Entertainment, Inc; the latter of which Gygax was made President of. This saw him flying to Hollywood to negotiate – amongst other things – a D&D cartoon and the production of a D&D movie, whilst the Blumes oversaw the hobby aspect of the business.
It was in 1984 – whilst tying down some details of a D&D movie – that Gygax received word that the Blumes were looking to sell TSR for $6 million. Shooting back to Lake Geneva, he found that although TSR was doing very well on paper – they were grossing over $30 million – the expenses incurred by the business were absolutely staggering, which saw them teetering towards insolvency. He convinced the board to fire Kevin Blume as company president and, to prevent the board from selling the company out from underneath him, he exercised a stock option that gave him just over 50% control.
Appointing himself president and CEO he set to work tasking TSR with the production of new material that he hoped would turn around the slump. He even called upon Dave Arneson again, asking him to produce a series of Blackmoor modules for D&D.
While he was busy producing new content, he hired a company manager, Lorraine Williams, on the basis of her management expertise. Gygax knew of Lorraine through her brother who he had met in Hollywood whilst working on the D&D film. Originally he had asked her to invest, but when she declined he offered her a job, knowing that she had the skills and chops to deal with TSR’s creditors and get the wheels of commerce turning again.
Unbeknownst to Gygax, when he removed Kevin Blume from his position, Brian Blume triggered his longstanding stock option. Both brothers, realising that they had no future at TSR, took the opportunity to dump their stock on a new investor.
That investor’s name?
Despite having created the products that may have saved the company, Gary now learned that Lorraine was the majority stakeholder and she quickly replaced him as CEO. In addition, she felt that his creative direction was not necessarily in the best interests of the company and ordered that his projects be shelved. Gygax attempted to have the stock transfer declared illegal in courts, but he lost.
So it was, in 1986, the Gary Gygax resigned all positions in TSR and left the company he had founded.
1989 saw the publication of AD&D 2nd edition – a move that was seen by some as a way of cutting Gygax off from the royalties of previous editions of the game. This saw the standard three book format, but instead of a Monster Manual, there was a Monstrous Compendium that was a loose-leaf binder. This idea didn’t do well, and it was replaced by a Monstrous Manual in 1993 in the traditional hardback book format.
Conscious of the controversies of the early 80s, the writers of 2nd ed deliberately removed all references to demons, devils and the like. Sexually suggestive artwork was toned down, and the option to play evil things such as assassins were removed.
Probably one of the things that 2nd Edition was most fondly remembered for was the modules that focused on genres other than the traditional, Tolkienesque, European-medieval fantasy setting. Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Al-Qadim were all developed in this era, and classics such as Ravenloft were further enhanced.
However, all was not rosy for TSR. n series of increasingly unwise business ventures including a collectible dice game, CD-ROM accessories and games with videotapes – led to the company once again nearing financial collapse. As a solution, the entered into an extremely sketchy deal with their distributor and printer which ultimately led to their distributor returning boatloads of product and their printer refusing to print anything new for them.
TSR, it seemed, was not long for this planet. The company that had created the roleplaying hobby was facing oblivion just over twenty years after it started. It would take a miracle to get them out of this hole.
Remember that scene in the film adaption of The Two Towers, when Gandalf says “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east”? Well, on the metaphorical fifth day, any TSR employees looking to the east would indeed see a wizard riding to their rescue, but rather than bringing a horde of cavalry with him, this wizard brought financial salvation.
Wizards of the Coast – the gaming company that produced the hit game Magic: The Gathering – rode into town in 1997 and purchased the half-bankrupt husk that was TSR. Three years later they released 3rd edition D&D – making the move to end the split between basic and advanced D&D. They also introduced something called “The D20 System” with the intent on making a core system that could be used for various different genres and settings. More options were given to customise characters and a lot of work was done to make the rules more streamlined and easier to play. A 3.5 edition was released in 2003 – this included a boatload of minor rules changes, but was otherwise the same game.
4th edition was released in 2008, and almost immediately prompted an angry backlash from players who had become financially invested in the 3rd edition. 4th edition was a major revision to the game’s systems, and many who played it have commented that it felt more like a tactical miniatures game than an RPG. The use of a “battlegrid” and – you know – miniatures helps reinforce this. Although the core rules are relatively simple to learn, one of the biggest complaints from players – other than “Why’d you kill 3rd edition???” – is that combat ended up taking substantially longer in this edition compared to the others.
In 2012 Wizards announced the development of a project called D&D Next, and invited players to take part in the playtesting, which would take approximately two years. The end result was D&D 5th edition that was released in 2014. Unlike the wargame-lite that 4th edition was, this edition goes back to the roots of the 1st and 2nd editions and draws from that well. And unlike the complicated mess that some other editions became, 5e is refreshing for its simplicity. There’s the option for a lot of other rules like tactical combat and multiclassing, but they’re not essential to play, or even part of the main body of rules.
Curiously, when 5e was released, it wasn’t being released into a market where the previous version of D&D was the number one RPG at the time. Instead, upon 5ed’s release it was Pathfinder – the game created in response to fans who were unhappy with D&D 4th ed and the premature death of 3rd edition – that was currently sitting at the top of the heap. To generate interest in the new edition, Wizards released the basic rules as a free PDF in July 2014, roughly a month before they brought out the Starter Set.
It is this edition, and the elegant simplicity of its rules, that has probably led to the massive resurgence in D&D popularity. Wizards estimate at the moment that around 40 million people world wide play the game.
Think about that for a moment.
To put that into perspective, that’s equal to the total population of 23 of the USA’s states! Numerous celebrities like Vin Diesel, Drew Barrymore, Dwayne Johnson, Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper have all “come out” as D&D players, and the game has been featured repeatedly in mainstream shows – most famously on Netflix’s Stranger Things, which even led to a Stranger Things edition of the red box basic set being released. Today, D&D is played at meetup events, in pubs and restaurants. That’s a far cry from the days in which players were considered nerds who lived in basements.
Consider the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Now consider the fact that some therapists use D&D in their treatment and research has proven that playing D&D improves mathematical, comprehension and conflict management in children.
Oh, and that whole business about D&D being linked to suicide? Yeah, researchers proved no link between D&D and suicide.
D&D has also become MUCH more inclusive in its recent edition. No longer is every character a white western male European. Gone is the sexist artwork portraying female warriors in chainmail bikinis, or the weak and helpless princesses that were just there to be rescued from marauding orcs like another piece of treasure. And guess what? Over forty percent of D&D players are now women. When I used to play back in the day we had ONE girl in our group and that was considered odd…
D&D is also broadcast online. Last year, over 400 million hours of D&D content was streamed online. That’s an insane amount of hours devoted to allowing players to watch other players playing D&D…. The popularity of shows like “Critical Roll” and “Girls, Guts, Glory” show that there’s actually a living to be made playing D&D.
These days, it’s even possible to hire a Dungeon Master to run your game for you (although, I strongly urge you to be very careful on what you click on after googling “Dungeon Masters For Hire” – you may get more than you bargained for).
It’s insane when you think about it. What used to be the “nerd hobby” that people got bullied for, is now a multi million dollar industry, is played by millions of people, is broadcast worldwide and is considered – dare I say it? – cool.
However, never forget that it all started when a gamer in Minneapolis thought “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to play the role of a single person in this wargame rather than a whole army?”
Back in the mid 1980s, White Dwarf was a very different magazine to the glorified catalogue it has become today. Issue 82 – released in October of 1986 – still bore the strap-line of “The Role-Playing Games Monthly”.
The contents very much reflected that; this issue saw reviews for the AD&D “Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide”, the Paranoia adventure “Orcbusters”, the excellent Call of Cthulhu double-header of “The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer” (still one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu supplements), an AD&D adventure, a brand new fantasy RPG called “Skyrealms of Journe”, and the board game “Kings and Things”.
In addition to this, there was an AD&D scenario set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a Traveller adventure, not to mention information on running informants – or “narks” as we Judges call them – in the Judge Dredd roleplaying game.
Mixed in amongst these were the usual blend of adverts, publicising such delights as GW boardgames, first edition “Paranoia” supplements, D&D modules, the usual avalanche of mail order firms peddling their wares and – in a move that would stun people that have only ever seen White Dwarf in its more modern incarnations – only three pages advertising Citadel miniatures.
However, this issue was special. Sandwiched amidst all this roleplaying goodness was a pull out, advertising a new roleplaying game. Embossed across a dark grey page were the words “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – a world of perilous adventure”. Inside this pull out were two pages of fiction – fiction that had a rather grim and unsettling ending – which made it quite clear to the reader that whatever was being advertised here was not set in the shiny, heroic, high-magic world of D&D.
There then followed a brief explanation of the game’s setting, a bit about the system – making it abundantly clear that the combat would be fast, deadly and bloody – and then information on the package itself and how it was going to be supported in the future. The pullout was also lavishly illustrated and ended with a paragraph of fiction that sounded far more Call of Cthulhu than D&D.
Like a lot of gamers back then, this went straight on my Christmas list for 1986 as a must-have present…
And what a present it was! A beautiful hardback that weighed in at just shy of 400 pages, it was absolutely PACKED with information. Unlike a lot of RPGs whose rulebooks were more like pamphlets, or which saw their information spread across several different books – D&D was particularly guilty of this… – WHFRP tried to cram everything you needed into one package. As well as the rules needed to play – which took up the first half of the book – it included background on the religions of the world – with each of the main gods getting a multipage write up – a forty page bestiary that covered nearly every conceivable creature a games master would want to throw at their players, a massive guide to the setting and a full, ready-to-play scenario! It was extremely well laid out – with its first chapter leading the players through character creation and the rest of the book being GM territory. The rules were clearly explained and logically split up – there were no rules for combat found outwith the “Combat” chapter for example.
Oh, and did I mention how great the illustrations were? Featuring the talents of such powerhouses as Tony Ackland, Dave Andrews, Colin Dixon, Jes Goodwin, John Sibbick and John Blanche, WHFRP was absolutely crammed with amazing black and white pictures and some outstanding colour plates – all of which did a great job of helping the reader visualise this low-magic, gritty and – dare I say it? – perilous world. The cover? An absolute masterpiece… Published almost simultaneously with the main rulebook, and designed to let new owners know that GW were firmly intent on supporting their new baby, were a couple of supplements. The first was a set of Dungeon Floorplans – the rulebook made it quite clear that GW would be very happy if you bought their miniatures to use in your adventures – and “The Enemy Within” campaign pack.
Most long time gamers will have heard of “The Enemy Within” being spoken of in hushed reverence as one of THE best RPG campaigns of all time. One of the factors that set it up for so much success was the publication of this pack. Consisting of a flimsy cardboard cover, a 56 page booklet, a map and some handouts, this was the publication that would breath life into the WHFRP setting and – arguably – help build the foundation for the rich world that GW would go onto create in later years.
Not only did it provide detailed information on the history, people and places of “The Empire” – the main setting for WHFRP – it also gave a guide to the tone and setting that the GM should affect, even offering notes on how to inject humour into the proceedings.
It also came with an introductory adventure, but the main take away from reading this pack was clear – the setting and the atmosphere of this game was a far cry from that of existing fantasy RPGs. Rather than medieval Tolkien, this game was set in what could only be described as early Renaissance Germany! And unlike the other games, magic was not at the centre of things. Instead, this setting very much concentrated on the everyman. Rather than having players who were heroic paladins or powerful wizards, the average WHFRP character was more likely to be an artisan’s apprentice, a trader or even a grave robber. These were characters who became adventurers because they were bored with the mundane life they lived – not because of any heroic calling.
All in all, it promised to be a VERY different game.
1987 saw four releases for WHFRP, including a character pack – which was really just a pad of character sheets and a background booklet; photocopying was still expensive back then! – two adventures, and a guide to the city of Middenheim.
The adventures – “Shadows Over Bogenhafen” and “Death on the Reik” – are both classics that stand up even today. Shadows was the first supplement I bought for the game, and it has a very special place in my heart. In a day and age where people were becoming bored of dungeon crawls and wilderness treks, Shadows showed that it was possible to make an urban, investigation-based adventure for a fantasy setting.
It is also incredibly well paced, with just the right level of challenge for a beginning party, and it comes with the usual range of incredible hand outs and maps that help the whole thing come alive.
I also need to give a shout out to the illustrations. To this day, Shadows remains one of THE most atmospherically illustrated supplements I have ever seen for an RPG. After all, when you have Wil Rees and Ian Miller doing the art for what is essentially a horror game, how can that fail to hit the mark? I remember, as a teenager, finding the cover art particularly unnerving. I won’t spoil anything, but Shadows strikes that perfect balance between investigation and action, and it should appeal to almost any party. After all, who doesn’t like foiling the machinations of evil cultists masquerading as the great and the good of society?
“Death on the Reik” was WHFRP’s first “big box” product coming, as it did, in a box! As well as a sprawling adventure, the box also included handouts, a large, full colour map, and a booklet entitled “River Life of the Empire”. Without giving away spoilers, the PCs come into possession of a boat fairly early on in this adventure. With this they are free to go here, there and everywhere throughout the Empire.
This is what makes this adventure so good – it is essentially a sandbox, that gives the adventurers free reign. While I’m not 100% sure of this, I’m fairly certain that this was one of the first times that this was attempted and successfully executed in a fantasy RPG, and one of the reasons it worked so well was down to the “River Life” booklet.
Here were all the details that the GM needed to keep life on the river interesting, to allow the PCs to make a bit of cash by trading and – most importantly – to make the whole thing feel consistent and really engender a feeling of player agency. The main book has a whole, action-packed adventure in it, complete with cultists, Skaven, the undead and a fully detailed spooky castle, but it also makes clear that the players can take as much time as they want messing around on their boat – the hooks to draw them into the main plot are all there to be used as and when they need to be.
1988 was another busy year for WHFRP, seeing as it did the publication of “The Power Behind the Throne” – the fourth chapter for The Enemy Within -, “Something Rotten in Kislev” – a series of “filler” adventures set between the fourth and fifth chapters of the campaign, the republishing of the the first two chapters of the campaign in a single hardback called “Warhammer Adventure”, the republishing of “Death on the Reik” as a hardback and the long awaited release of the “Realm of Chaos” supplement.
When I say “long awaited” I’m not exaggerating – the first edition of Warhammer Battle contained references to a future, as-yet-unnamed, chaos themed book. It was then finally named in the first “Citadel Compendium” in November of 1983, promising – amongst other things – rules on “Roleplaying a Champion of Chaos”.
When the first book – “Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness” was released in 1988 it received a so-so reception from those who purely played the roleplaying game (whereas those that played the Battle game absolutely lapped it up – I was lucky as I did both!).
Why so-so? Well, firstly, this book only covered two of the four chaos gods, meaning that we’d have to wait another couple of years to get the full picture. Secondly, while the book contained a TON of background and detail, most of it was aimed at Warhammer Fantasy Battle players. Indeed, whilst the – at the time – young, upstart game of 40k got an entire chapter dedicated to the “Dark Millennium”, the rules for Champions of Chaos as Player Characters were confined to a single page, with the proviso that these rules were much better for creating NPC villains. For those had waited over five years for this “roleplaying supplement” this was disappointing to say the least.
Of the two adventure books released, “Power Behind the Throne” is by far the better one. A dramatic scenario set within the city of Middenheim, it places the PCs at the centre of some heavy duty politics, and it is through their interaction with the many, detailed NPCs that they will succeed.
These detailed NPCs, whilst being the scenario’s strongest point, also mean that a LOT of pre-work was required for the GM running this adventure. There is information given on where various characters are at various points in the proceedings, so it is essential that the GM keeps track of this, as well as what effect other PC interactions will have on the NPCs responses. However, by far the weakest part of this adventure is the simple fact of getting the PCs to Middenheim in the first place. Unless the GM has prepared some hooks to transition from “Death on the Reik” to “Power Behind the Throne”, this is going to feel forced. Indeed, when this adventure was reprinted years later, the new publishers attempted to solve this problem by including another, shorter scenario as a link.
“Something Rotten in Kislev” is…well….rotten. Actually, that’s unfair – and largely an excuse to make a terrible pun. “Something Rotten” simply doesn’t fit in with the themes established earlier in “The Enemy Within” campaign. Whilst the other adventures feature a large degree of NPC interaction and investigation, and conjure up the atmosphere of being embroiled in a broader conspiracy, “Something Rotten” throws that out of the window in favour of a more high fantasy “questing” vibe. Also, it takes place outside of the Empire – an area which the previous modules have spent a lot of time establishing in the players’ minds. It also features an extremely forced, and slightly contrived, way of getting the players to go to Kislev in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of players who, if I played the “A powerful NPC comes and tells you that you have no choice but to go this place and do a quest” card, they would roll their eyes and seek to derail things at the first opportunity.
All that being said, as a stand alone piece it’s actually ok. It features three interesting scenarios, and the background on Kislev makes for an interesting read. You could easily turn this into a campaign setting of its own. However, it really doesn’t seem to fit within the rest of “The Enemy Within” campaign. Indeed, it’s almost like GW thought “How can we make this sell better? I know – say it’s part of that campaign that’s been flying off the shelves…”
Come 1989 the production of new material was slowing, and GW were rapidly coming to realise that they would turn a much tighter profit by focusing on making little plastic soldiers, rather than by printing weighty roleplaying supplements…
However, we did see the release of “The Restless Dead”, “Warhammer Adventure” – which was the first three parts of “The Enemy Within” collected within one volume – “Warhammer City of Chaos” – a reprinting of “Warhammer City” and “Power Behind the Throne” as a single volume – a softback version of the main rulebook, and – fanfare please – the final part of “The Enemy Within Campaign” – “The Empire in Flames”.
“The Restless Dead” is a collection of scenarios from White Dwarf, with tips on how to insert them into “The Enemy Within” or run them as a campaign in their own right. The quality of these vary from “really quite good” in the case of “Grapes of Wrath” to the “patently ridiculous” in the case of “Eureka”. This is “Restless Dead”’s biggest problem as a campaign – the GM will have to do a lot of work to make the adventures thematically consistent if they want to establish the tone of a campaign, otherwise the whole thing feels disjointed. Each chapter includes tips on doing this, but it feels like hard work.
The book also includes some other White Dwarf articles on career advancement and training, magic, magic items and revised combat rules. Handy if you don’t have the original articles, but filler otherwise.
“The Empire in Flames” was the long anticipated ending to “The Enemy Within” campaign. As I mentioned earlier, the previous chapters in the campaign did an excellent job of stirring up that feeling of being embroiled in a conspiracy, and often the PCs’ investigative skills served them far better than a strong sword arm would.
When I was talking about “Something Rotten in Kislev” I made the point that what I didn’t like about it was that it felt shoehorned into the overall campaign. The adventures themselves were solid and interesting. As a standalone mini-campaign it would be a lot of fun, it’s just that in the broader context of “The Enemy Within” they simply didn’t fit thematically into what had been established before.
The material presented in “Empire in Flames” is also at odds thematically with what has been established before AND is also not very good into the bargain…
I’m not going to give too much away – some people might still want to play in this after all – but on page three of the book, there is this little nugget of wisdom under “Running the Adventure”: “Empire in Flames is not an adventure like Power Behind the Throne. In PBT the PCs could try any one of dozens of approaches to get at the information they needed. This is an adventure with a linear plotline.”
Yes – this is a rail road job. Now, in fairness it suggests that the GM avoids “at all costs” making the players feel that they are being led by the nose, and suggests creating side quests and encounters. However, all of the previous adventures had this as part of the main body of the text! Why should this be extra busy work for the GM?
In terms of set up, this adventure makes little to no reference to the events of “Something Rotten in Kislev” – further reinforcing the impression that that module was created as a standalone and tacked onto “The Enemy Within” campaign to sell it. What is worse, there’s a feeling that nothing that happened in previous adventures actually meant or impacted upon anything. Again, without spoiling too much, consider the protagonist in “Shadows”. He has on him a clue which leads to the PCs trying to track down a villain in “Death on the Reik”. Likewise, the cult that the players accidentally stumble upon in the first module show up throughout the campaign.
This is NOT the case with “Empire in Flames”. Nothing from previous books is really referenced. Nothing that happened before matters. This is basically just a standalone piece. For the climax to the campaign, this is unforgivable.
There’s also the perpetual problem that is seen in some campaigns, where the PCs are reduced pretty much to the role of observers whilst the great and the good make decisions and occasionally send the players off on errands.
However, by far the most egregious mistake made by those who wrote “The Enemy Within” is that fact that rather than have the players track down clues and foil the machinations of…well…the enemy within, this adventure instead opts for a wilderness trek, followed by a dungeon crawl and then a boss battle.
Oh, and the fact that the book has a bright yellow cover that seems completely at odds with the colour scheme established in the other books. Yes, it’s a petty point but it looks ODD.
1990 saw only one WHFRP release by GW themselves – the companion volume to the first “Realm of Chaos” book, this time focusing on the gods Tzeentch and Nurgle and entitled “The Lost and the Damned.” It’s a well produced book, with some great fiction and brilliant illustrations, but this is largely Fantasy Battle and 40k territory. Anything that WHFRP GMs would take from it would have to be converted into that system to work.
1990 was also the year that GW moved publishing of any material for WHFRP over to Flame Publications – an internal division dedicated to RPGs.
Their tenure wasn’t long – in 1992, due to financial difficulties, Flame ceased their operations. During that two year period they published The Doomstones Campaign, two reprintings of the character pack, “Lichemaster” – a reworking of an old 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle scenario, the Warhammer Companion (which was more old White Dwarf articles) and the scenario books “Death’s Dark Shadow” and “Castle Drachenfels”.
Doomstones was not well received, being as it was adapted from old AD&D material. What you have is four, fairly generic, high-fantasy dungeon crawls, that don’t really fit thematically with what has been established as the setting of WHFRP.
“Death’s Dark Shadow” features a series of scenarios set in the – very – detailed village of Kreutzhofen, so named as it is the crossroads where four different trade routes meet. I say “very” detailed as nearly EVERY HOUSE in the village is detailed, which kind of feels like over kill. It’s not a bad supplement, but it feels pretty high fantasy. In fairness to the authors, Warhammer itself was switching to a much more high fantasy feel by this point in time, so some of that probably bled through into this publication.
“Castle Drachenfels” was a sourcebook detailing the setting and some of the personalities from Jack Yeovil’s novel “Drachenfels”. This novel was extremely popular with fans, so it was only natural that a sourcebook would be produced. In fact, in the September 1989 issue of White Dwarf – number 117 – the stats for the various main characters had already been printed. The book itself is “ok”. It gives an atmospheric location in which to have a dungeon crawl, but given the nature of the encounters detailed (especially those with Drachenfels himself) a party would have to be pretty high level to contend with them. A couple of scenarios are included, and there’s even tips for using one of these instead of “Something Rotten in Kislev” as the “interlude” chapter in “The Enemy Within” campaign.
Drachenfels is an intriguing villain, but his appearance was in line with the changes fans were seeing with WHFB at the time – namely a move to focus on the more high powered “hero” characters.
Drachenfels was also the last publication produced by Flame.
And so it was, that in 1992, GW’s first RPG, which had promised (and BEEN promised) so much, went out with a whimper…
…that was until 1995 when Hogshead publishing received the license to publish WHFRP material. It was back!
Although, was it really?
1995 began with the reprint of the main rulebook, a reprint of the first two chapters of “The Enemy Within” and the publication of “Apocrypha Now” which was a collection of White Dwarf articles. This was fine for people who were looking to get into the game for the first time but, for veterans, this wasn’t terribly exciting.
However, this year also saw the publication of “The Dying of the Light” – a campaign set in the Wasteland against an apocalyptic background. Like “The Restless Dead” it suffers for the fact that rather than it being a coherent campaign it was a selection of individual adventures loosely stitched together. The fact that each of the chapters was written by a different author didn’t help in establishing a consistent tone and feel.
Between 1996 and 2002 Hogshead reprinted seven books from the Doomstones and Enemy Within campaigns as well as Death’s Dark Shadow. In terms of new content they came out with a fifth chapter from the Doomstones campaign, a GM screen and reference pack, a guide to the city of Marienburg – which itself was based off old articles in White Dwarf – a compilation of the best of Warpstone magazine, a Dwarf Sourcebook and Realms of Sorcery.
If Realm of Chaos had been long awaited, Realms of Sorcery had been anticipated even longer – it was mentioned in the original WFRP in 1986, but I seem to recall references to it in WHFB 2nd edition which had been released in 1984! Therefore, when it finally appeared in 2001 it was an understatement to say that the Warhammer community were intrigued.
We’ll discuss this more when we talk about the system, but it’s fair to say that Realms of Sorcery had an uphill battle on its hands. For starters, the WHFRP magic system was…to put it mildly…a bit crap. It had clearly been ported straight from 2nd edition WHFB and that showed. A lot of the spells were much more suited to grand, sweeping battles than they were to individual adventurers. Aside from the inclusion of “ingredients” and “petty magic” the magic system seemed more or less the same as it had been in 1984…
The expectation amongst a lot of fans was that Realms of Sorcery would remedy these short comings. So, how did it do?
The honest answer?
It was a bit of a damp squib.
Rather than revamp the existing magic system, what Hogshead seemed to try and do with RoS was to cram in more of WHFB’s existing magic system into WHFRP. One of the most glaring problems with this was the fact that by 2001 the setting and what was considered canon in WHFB had long since passed that of WHFRP. While the latter still espoused its low-magic “everyman” setting, WHFB was much more magic intensive and high fantasy. This is nowhere more apparent than in the first chapter – A History of Magic – where the current (for 2001) WHFB setting as regards to magic is crammed into the current WHFRP setting. Apparently Battle Magic has only been around for the last 200 years or so (a gift from the elves it seems), which begs the question what exactly were wizards casting in battle prior to this?
Chapter 3 breaks the setting even further, by introducing the concept of wizards needing a license to be a wizard. Something as patently ridiculous as this, takes us firmly out of a “grim world of perilous adventure” where wizards are rare and feared, and straight into Harry Potter territory where they all go to universities and run magic shops…
The rest of the book is given over to spells of various different kinds, but all it succeeds in doing is painting a picture that magic is common and readily available. Take for example, WHFB’s “colour magic”. According to this book, colour magic is what wizards go to universities to learn. The only people who have mastered colour magic are wizards of level 4 and above. To have the concept of a “magic university” suggests a substantial body of people are learning this, which means a corresponding high number of faculty members. To service the twelve colours of magic mentioned means you’re looking at relegating hundreds of wizards of AT LEAST level 4 to teaching duties…
With this delivered, Hogshead handed the license for WHFRP back to GW in 2002, signalling the end of the line for the THIRD time…
All was silent for two years, before GW announced the creation of Black Industries whose main task would be the publishing of the brand new second edition of WHFRP. This appeared in 2005, and between 2005 and 2007 Black Industries aggressively churned out brand new material. These publications were not reprints of what went before – this was WHFRP brought up to date to match the current WHFB setting – in this case set in the aftermath of the ill-fated Storm of Chaos narrative campaign for WHFB.
The art was also given a refresh. Gone were the moody, dark images from the original WHFRP and instead the imagery of WHFB abounded. Huge, oversized hammers and axes were everywhere, firearms – previously the rarest of the rare – seemed to be as common as swords, dwarves sported impractical Mohawks, Chaos had gone from being the Enemy Within to very much being the Enemy In Your Face, and wizards looked a lot more…er…wizardy. Whereas in the first edition, the picture for the wizard’s apprentice career showed some poor soul lugging around heavy things for his master, the wizard’s apprentice in 2nd ed has flowing robes and a staff with a skull on top. Guess she got that with her wizard’s license…
In 2008 Fantasy Flight games took over publication of Warhammer 2nd edition before announcing a year later that they were publishing the third edition. This new edition was more like a board game than an RPG, using special dice only available from Fantasy Flight games, and a variety of cards and counters.
Between 2009 and 2013 a huge amount of publications were produced before Fantasy Flight abruptly announced that 3rd edition was “complete”. The license stayed with them for a couple of years before passing back to GW.
Finally, in 2017, GW announced that Cubicle 7 would be publishing a fourth edition that would very much be in the mould of the first and second editions. So far, they’ve released around a dozen or so supplements and have also started reworking “The Enemy Within” campaign for the new edition including a replacement for “Something Rotten in Kislev” and a brand new ending! It looks like WHFRP has gone back to its roots, and has a bright future on the horizon.