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The very same copy from all those years ago…

My first RPG back in the day was Maelstrom – published under the Adventure Gamebooks label by Puffin.  I didn’t realise it was an RPG when I bought it – I assumed it was some kind of new fangled Fighting Fantasy book with a blue spine, rather than the distinctive green ones that had become such a feature on my bookshelf during the mid 80s.  However, rather than another foray into the fantasy kingdom of Allansia, Maelstrom actually turned out to be something called a roleplaying game – and it led to me merrily taking up the mantle of gamesmaster as I wrote adventure after adventure for my friends. 

Happy Christmas to me!

I don’t remember much of those early games, other than the fact that we all had great fun and our eyes were opened to the wider possibilities that this hobby offered.  At around the same time I had received a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Battle second edition as a birthday present, and I was absolutely sucked into the world that Games Workshop had created.  When I became aware of the fact that GW were releasing a roleplaying game set in this universe, well; I had to have it!  I got a copy the Christmas it was released and at that moment Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became my first “proper” RPG. 

No disrespect Maelstrom.

A grim world of oversized nonsense

I stuck with it until the early 90s, but by then the direction GW were going left me disenchanted with the setting – gone was the grim world of perilous adventure and instead we had the high magic world of oversized hammers and shirtless dwarves on steroids.  I bought a copy of second edition when it was first released but, again, I was put off by its artwork and focus on “chaos spiky bits”. 

I didn’t even bother with Fantasy Flight’s third edition – their fetishism for board game components and custom dice in their RPGs always puts me off their products.
Why am I mentioning all of this in the context of a review of Cubicle 7’s 4th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay?  Well, I thought it only fair that I lay out my stall early on and make it abundantly clear that I was a massive fan of first ed, didn’t really give second ed much of a chance and didn’t bother with third ed at all.  Therefore, this is a massive “your mileage may vary and Iain’s a bit of a grumpy old grognard” warning.

Pretty but not exactly functional

As far as first impressions go, it’s an impressive book.  Weighing in at just over 350 pages, this is a hardback that you could do some serious damage with.  The cover is an homage to John Sibbick’s iconic first edition artwork and everything is laid out in a clean, clear, easy to read manner.  I’m not a massive fan of the maps  found at the beginning and end of the book.  It seems, in a bid to make them more stylistically appealing they’ve actually made the maps more difficult to read.  They’re also out of place – they’d be much better served in the chapter dealing with the setting.  As it is, a reader unfamiliar with place names will find themselves flipping back and forth when reading about the setting to try and build up an impression of the land.

Regarding the rest of the artwork, it’s well produced…but it’s not my cup of tea.  Remember what I said earlier about disliking GW’s change in direction from “grim and dark” to “oversized everything for everyone”?  That very much applies here. Let’s dig into that for a moment. 

I have an issue with that the fact that over two thirds of the dwarf illustrations in the book are of Slayers.  For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of the Warhammer mythos, Slayers are Dwarves who have suffered shame or dishonour and seek to make amends by finding  death in battle.  The thing is – they’re presumably not that common in the setting otherwise the dwarven population would be considerably smaller than it is.  However, if these images are anything to go by, a good sixty six percent of the resident dwarves have dishonoured themselves to that point that they feel the need to go off and seek a glorious death.  For new players, this pretty much cements the idea that dwarves have to be jacked-up shirtless Crossfit bros with ridiculous haircuts.

Speaking of which, I’m not a fan of the signature characters that the artists keep using again and again throughout the book.  We’ve got our aforementioned Slayer, whose hair seems to take on more and more ludicrous proportions.  Seriously – check out page 12; I actually laughed out loud when I saw that.  We’ve also got a lady sporting an ever-so-mysterious Guy Fawkes look.  All I can say is that if I pulled a hat down as low as she has in nearly every picture she’s in, I think I’d be banging into things constantly.  Seriously, how does she see where she’s going?  We’ve also got some kind of wizard guy.  Now, in the Warhammer setting, although magic is legal – provided you’ve got a “wizard license”; we’ll get to that later – the common folk are still fearful of sorcerers and the Church still have an annoying habit of burning those who get out of hand.  This fella though, seems either oblivious to the prevailing feelings towards wizardy types or is willing to provoke the ire of all around him, as he’s clearly going for some kind of Grim Reaper vibe.  Honestly – the guy’s carrying an honest-to-goodness scythe and is dressed in a long robe.  There’s also a woman who owns a hat which – much like our troll slayer’s hair – seems to vary in terms of impracticality.  On page ten it looks fairly normal, but by page fifteen it has grown to silly proportions, whilst on page 25 I’m not sure how she can walk about with it on without breaking her neck.

There’s also an over abundance of firearms.  Our angsty Guy Fawkes is pretty commonly seen posing with two of them, but they also absolutely litter the careers’ illustrations.  There are careers that don’t even have firearms listed as one of their trappings that see their character posing dramatically with one in their picture!

Check out my purity scrolls…

Speaking of the careers’ artwork, there seems to be a weird fetish – and I’ve seen this repeated in other Cubicle 7 Warhammer products – for characters to wear Warhammer 40k style “purity scrolls”, which is to say little sheets of paper secured to their person with a wax seal.  It also appears that 40k Terminator honours – that vaguely Maltese cross style medal with a skull on it – are worn as some kind of fashion accessory too.  There’s also weirdness like characters having scrolls tied to various parts of their costume, even when their profile doesn’t include the “Read/Write” talent – is this some kind of odd practical joke that happens in the Empire?  I remember in science classes in secondary school where pupils would attach crocodile clips to the bottom of their classmates’ blazers and wait to see if they’d notice them.  Maybe this is the equivalent?  “Hey!  Gunter!  Check it out!  Franz can’t read but we’ve pinned a copy of the Reikland gazette to his tunic!  Lol.”

By far the worst  image, just in terms of sheer “WTF” excess is that of the “thief” career.  I’ve looked at it several times, and I still can’t work out why a thief from Warhammer’s Empire would dress like Bane from Batman.
On the positive side, it’s nice to see some diversity in the artwork for a change.  Yes – you don’t have to exclusively play a white Anglo-Saxon Sigmarite any more…
As I’ve said, your mileage may vary – the Warhammer aesthetic might very much be your thing; it’s just not for me. 

So, now that you’ve finished bleating on about the artwork Iain, what’s the actual content like?  Well, the  first two dozen or so pages are made up of background fiction.  The first part of this provides two views of the Empire – one is clearly written by a sycophantic courtier who has nothing but praise for the rule of the Emperor, whilst the other view comes from someone more worldly and cynical.  It’s a nice touch, presenting both sides of the story – as always, the truth falls somewhere between them.  There’s also a letter, written providing an overview of the Empire.  It is what it is – as a long time fan of Warhammer there was nothing new there, but maybe new players will get something useful out of it.

We then jump into the chapter on creating a character.  This is all fairly similar fare to previous editions – you select a race, a career, attributes, skills and talents.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had ditched alignment.  It was present in first ed, but I always felt like it was a hangover from the Warhammer Battle game; the inclusion in which was probably a hangover from D&D.  Heroes in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay always seemed to operate in that “shades of grey” territory (remember, it’s a GRIM world of perilous adventure…) so it always seemed unnecessary to clearly box in someone’s morality.  As it largely served as a roleplaying aid, its inclusion as a “stat” was redundant.

Unlike first ed, where your attributes, skills and careers are all generated at random, fourth ed gives you the option to choose everything from stats to career.  However  you can choose to roll randomly and if you go with what you roll, you are awarded extra experience points.  I like this, as it encourages players to accept the vagaries of fate.  It can also be more fun taking the mish-mash of options that has been dealt to you and trying to tell a coherent story with it.

When it comes to race, players can be humans, dwarves, halflings or one of two types of elf – wood or high.  As usual, the non-human races have better profiles than poor old humans – with elves particularly falling into the “everything you can do we can do better” territory – but this is balanced out later on as human are given more Fate Points; Warhammer’s “extra life” currency.

One gripe I do have around character creation is the use of the word “skill” when describing the characteristics of “weapon skill” and “ballistic skill”.  Now, I know why they use this nomenclature – these two attributes, representing as they do your natural fighting ability have been around since the beginning of the Warhammer line.  However, given that they’re attributes and you have a second category called skills the inclusion of a couple of “not quite skills but we’re calling them skills” in the attributes section can be understandably confusing.  In fact, I’m confusing myself as I say this so I’ll stop!

The skills themselves are bonuses that you add on top of an attribute when trying to do something that you’re, well, skilled at.  So, for example, the Pick Lock skill gives you a bonus to your Dexterity characteristic when you’re trying to nefariously tinker with a closed door.  In first ed skills existed, but they were a mix of bonuses to certain tests, additions to your characteristics and other more esoteric things such as the ability to cast spells.  4e takes this jumble of concepts and breaks them down into three separate stats:

  • Characteristics – your raw ability to do certain things.  Strength, dexterity and intelligence are all examples of characteristics.
  • Skills – things that you have been learned to do.  Cook, pick lock and navigation are all skills.  Some skills are advanced meaning that regardless of what your characteristic is, you can’t attempt this skill without having trained in it.
  • Talents – these are akin to special abilities; quirks or tricks that you’ve learned.  Things like spell casting, combat shenanigans and being able to hold your ale in a drinking competition count as talents.

What determines what skills and talents you can learn?  Well, that comes down to your career.  Unlike other games with their levels and classes, WFRP has a system of careers – namely what was your profession before you decided to sod off and become an adventurer?  This will inform what skills and talents you will have, as well as your social standing and any possessions you may own.  I’m pleased that Cubicle 7 have stuck with the careers system, as it’s always the thing that’s marked WFRP out as being somewhat different from other fantasy RPGs, and it certainly went a long way to contributing to it’s more grounded feel, as opposed to a high magic setting like D&D.

Unlike previous editions, where characters would bounce around from career to career, looking to pick up as many useful skills and characteristic bumps as possible, 4e looks to keep characters in their main career as long as possible.  Yes, you can switch career, but each one has its own system of levels – or a career path as the book calls it – which allows you to develop expertise within the confines of a single career.  This means that certain desirable skills or characteristic advances won’t be “unlocked” until you’ve devoted some time and effort to mastering your career. 

I’ve not played 4e yet, so I’ve not seen how this works in practice.  At an initial glance I like the thought of characters sticking with what you know, rather than being jacks of all trades.  Certainly, it takes away that issue that 1e WFRP saw where the GM – if they were running the game in a purist manner – would have to invent contrived excuses for how a character moved from one career to another.  Also, this idea does have precedent.  In 1st ed the wizard careers and things like the jump from mercenary to mercenary sergeant to mercenary captain all followed this route.

Artist’s impression of 4e’s mechanics

One aspect of the new system that I’m not so hot on, is how they handle advances.  In 1e, you had an advance scheme where you bought improvements to characteristics in ten percent chunks, and where skills were one off purchases.  In 2e I believe that characteristics were bought five percent at a time.  In 4e, not only can you improve characteristics, you can buy advances in skills and you can also buy talents – sometimes you can even buy them multiple times.  When you’re buying skills or characteristics, you’re improving them in one percent increments.  In addition, as you take more and more advances, the cost to improve goes up.  Oh, and the costs for skills and characteristics are (obviously) different.  This will lead to a LOT of book keeping.  I can quite easily see a situation where a character is paying three different costs to advance his characteristics and several more for his skills while trying to determine if those talents he has can be bought more than once and, if so, how much they cost.  That’s not to say the system is bad – merely that it’s very crunchy.  D&D players – and players of other “You reach this XP threshold and you level up” games – be warned!

Careers also have the social level of the character baked into them.  This is represented by something call their status tier, and it can be brass, silver or gold representing the poorest in society to townspeople and professionals all the way up to the rules of society.  Each tier is further split up into five separate levels, representing the distinction between people of the same class.  This is a nice split – it shows that a simple trader won’t be able to distinguish one noble from another as they all seem important to him and people he should curry favour with.  Likewise, to the aristocracy, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hard working peasant or a filthy beggar – those at the bottom of society are all smelly oiks!  There are various rules for the effects of interactions between people of differing statuses, as well as mechanics for the cost of maintaining your standing in society.  Yes, it is possible for nobles to lose status by slumming it with the hoi poli…  More rules and crunch, but I think they’re handled pretty well – a few scribbled notes on the back of a GM’s screen should make this fairly easy to remember.

Speaking of crunch, characters also have fate, resilience, fortune and  resolve points – all of which let you interfere with core game mechanics in certain ways, and which are all regained in different manners.  
Character creation is rounded out by around half a dozen pages on “adding detail”.  A lot of this is cosmetic, like hair and eye colour, age and other physical details, but there’s a surprisingly crunchy (there’s that word again) section on your long term and short term ambitions – conditions which, if you fulfil them, you get a mechanical bonus.  There’s also the same for the party – rather than a “you all meet together in a tavern and decide to go on an adventure” approach to party building, 4e assumes that the protagonists will have a collective goal – the fulfilling of which will, again, generate a mechanical bonus.

I’m not sure how I feel like this – it feels a bit like the old White Wolf concept of Nature and Demeanour, which were tools to prod characters into roleplaying a certain way (with the promise of getting a refill on willpower) but which, in practice, very rarely came into effect.

Likewise, a lot of players, when a new game begins, don’t generally have a firm view of what their character’s long term goals are, and instead like to settle into their character and see where things will go.  Forcing them to nail down their ambitions – without necessarily knowing what form the campaign will take – seems artificial and limiting.

This far in, and still no actual system

So, after the introductory, character creation and careers chapters we come to the fourth which details the various skills and talents that a character can have.  It’s here that I have a problem with the book’s structure.  By the time you’ve finished the fourth chapter you’re over one hundred and thirty pages into the book and you still don’t know what the rules are!  I can imagine a lot of flipping back and forth in the first few sessions of a game – in fact, session zero where people make up their characters is probably going to particularly painful.  People like to know what effect on the game their choices at character creation will have – especially in a system as crunchy as this one.  When you consider that the actual core system itself only takes up around five pages, would it have been that hard to move the basic method of resolving tests to much earlier in the book?  There are also a lot of talents and, when you consider how they interact with fundamental game mechanics, I can imagine that these would slow a lot of games down and necessitate a lot of homework on the GM’s part to memorise the more important ones and what they do. 

Speaking of the system, when it comes to resolving challenges, 4e has two types of tests – simple and dramatic.  The difference between the two is…well…simple.  If the degree to which a test succeeds or fails is important you make a dramatic test, otherwise you make a simple test. 
A simple test involves throwing a d100 and comparing the result to the skill or characteristic that the GM asks you to use.  If you get lower or equal to it you pass, otherwise you fail.  The GM can impose a modifier depending on how difficult or routine the task is.

Easy, right?

Sadly, dramatic tests are not as straightforward.  These are used when it’s important to know how well (or badly!) a test went.  This is done through the concept of Success Levels (or SLs).  To determine this, take the 10s number of what you rolled away from the 10s number of the characteristic or skill you’re testing.  The higher the SL, the better things have gone, whereas the more negative it is the worse the consequences.  There’s a handy “have you succeeded” table for GMs to consult.  Like simple tests, it is also possible for the GM to throw over modifiers as necessary.  One nice touch is that an “average” test gets +20% to its success chance, taking away some of the “wiff factor” that WFRP is famous for.

Again, I’m going to caveat this with “…and I’ve never played this…” but the feedback I’ve seen online is that the concept of SLs – which is baked into a lot of talent usage not to mention combat – slows things down a lot.  Any test that has modifiers and which is affected by talents is going to take a lot longer to resolve than a simple D100 roll.  With a system already burdened by crunch this is probably not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s a welcome surprise.

Combat essentially boils down to a series of opposed dramatic tests.  Both combatants roll their melee and whomever scores the most success levels hits.  For ranged combat, you simply make the test – your opponent doesn’t oppose it. 

If you hit, reverse your roll to determine the hit location, then take the weapon’s damage number, your strength bonus and the number of success levels you scored, add them together and the resulting total is the number of potential wounds caused.  Then, subtract your opponents toughness bonus and any armour points on the location hit from the potential wounds total to determine the final damage total.


WFRP combat can feel like this

There are also additional rules for critical hits and fumbles, but it should be evident by now that there is a fair amount of maths involved in every swing of the sword.  Yes, 1e had a fairly similar and cumbersome system, but that was over thirty years ago!  One of my hopes for the new system was that it would cut some of the fat from the mechanics, but it feels a bit like Cubicle 7 have doubled down on the complexity.  Thinking of the opening chapters of the Enemy Within – the flagship Warhammer Campaign – the combats that crop up there could easily take up a sizeable chunk of a game session.

Anyway, this goes on for twenty odd pages with rules for critical injuries, healing and using fate and resolve to survive otherwise lethal blows.  It’s all very detailed.  Fine if you like that stuff, but fairly hair raising if you don’t.

There’s then ten or so pages dealing with corruption, disease and psychology.  This is all good, Warhammery stuff.  One of the things that always made WFRP stand out from the crowd was that it was set in a pretty grubby, dirty world.  Unless those wounds you take are going to be treated, chances are they will become infected.  Likewise, in the filthy cities of the Old World, disease abounds and things like the plague and the pox are as deadly as any monsters from the forests. 

Hand in hand with this physical decay is the concept of corruption, which represents the insidious influence the Ruinous Powers of Chaos  have on a character’s soul.  The more corruption a character accrues, the more likely the are to fall to the lure of Chaos and then they’ll start to change in various interesting ways…

THIS is Warhammer!

One aspect of this system that I love is that of “dark deals” and “dark whispers”.  In short, you can gain corruption by voluntarily accepting a point in exchange for something like a re-roll, whilst you can also lose corruption by letting the darkness within come out to play for a little while and generally cock things up for you.  Letting an enemy escape, making a mess of a ritual or telling that important noble exactly how you feel about him are all great examples of this.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to have played in more than a handful of games run by me will learn, very quickly, that I adore mechanics like this.  I’ve always found that any “temptation” mechanism can be used to drive story and interparty roleplay like nothing else, and I really, really  take a gleeful delight in letting players damn themselves like this.

In short, this is exactly the kind of approach to Chaos that I would put into my Warhammer games.  It’s insidious, subtle, slow and frequently starts from a place of good intentions.  In short, it embodies The Enemy Within.

We then come to a chapter that is…well…let’s just say I’ve seen mixed feedback about it online.  It’s entitled “Between Adventures” and it covers how to fill the potential weeks of downtime between adventures.  This isn’t a new concept – I’ve seen stuff like this in other games.  In Vampire’s The Transylvania Chronicles, for instance, there is a system of “maturation” to cover what the characters get up to for the decades that can exist between chapters of the story.  It uses a system of tables and points to allow players to further develop their characters and provide a bit of colour other than “Yeah, I guess I slept off the years in my coffin…”

WFRP tries to do something similar.  It breaks downtime down as follows:

First, you generate a random event that has occurred.  Then, you spent any money you might have acquired on your last adventure.  After this you take part in what is called “endeavours” to represent tasks that you might take part in when not adventuring like plying a trade, or managing an estate.  Finally, all of this players resolve this stuff and they are ready for their next adventure.  Oh, and then the players lose all their money.  I’ll come back to that one shortly.

Now, credit to Cubicle 7, they DO have a box saying “IT’S ALL OPTIONAL” and that some people might choose not to follow the rules presented in this chapter, and after reading them, I know I would be one of them.  Simply put, there is waaaay too much crunch here for the sake of crunch with little regard to logical consistency. 

As an example of this, each player gets one endeavour per week of downtime between adventures, but no more than three regardless of the length of time that passes.  This makes no sense – yes, I get that they want to limit players potentially abusing the endeavours system, but there is a substantial difference to what a character can do in three weeks of downtime and what they could accomplish if there were six months of downtime between adventures (which isn’t an overly unrealistic thing to imagine!).

Then there’s the fact that high tier characters have to take an income endeavour or they’ll drop to a lower career tier, and the fact that elves have to use one of their special endeavours to send messages back to their elf families – this wasted endeavour is apparently a way of balancing out the fact that elves are so much better at everything else.

By far the most egregious part of this system – and the one that I’ve seen most outcry about online – is how it handles money.  In a nutshell, if you don’t bank your cash you lose ALL THE MONEY YOU’VE ACCRUED ON THE LAST ADVENTURE DURING DOWNTIME. 


Cubicle 7 vs their WFRP players between games

Apparently you’ve drunk it, gambled it, paid off old debts, had it stolen or whatever other reason you want but, it has all gone. Now, for adventurers with a purse full of coin, I can see  that being possible.  You’ve just come back from seeing off those goblin bandits and you’ve spent your three weeks (no more, remember?) of downtime living it large.  Time passes and you’re left thinking “Best sharpen the old sword, strap on the backpack and get adventuring again, because those beers won’t buy themselves.”  However, what if instead of dealing with some miserable goblins you and your erstwhile companions had undertaken a quest of epic proportions and had returned with a king’s ransom in treasure?  Or even just a few thousand gold crowns.  Are we honestly meant to believe that you’ve somehow managed to splurge all of that with nothing to show in a couple of weeks?

Now, there are options to try and mitigate this.  If you want to start the next adventure with some money you can either take the “income” endeavour and earn an honest wage, or you can choose to “bank” your cash.  With the latter you can choose to “invest” and can then roll for things like interest rate and whether or not your investment goes bankrupt and you lose all your money.  If the investment succeeds you can use another endeavour to withdraw your money and do more fun bookkeeping to work out how much interest you’re due.  If that doesn’t sound appealing you can choose to stash your money – you don’t earn any interest, and you can withdraw your cash without spending another endeavour, but there’s a ten percent chance someone will find your stash and steal all your money.

Do you get the impression that the authors thought that if they took cash away from the players GMs would be able to make more use of “…and the NPC offers you great riches if you’ll accept the adventure?”  Only, if they know that they’re probably going to lose it all when they finish whatever quest they’re on, it’s hardly a great incentive is it?

Moving away from downtime, we jump into the Religion and Belief chapter.  This was always one of my favourite sections of the original WFRP, and I’m pleased to say that Cubicle 7 have done a brilliant job with it this time around.  The gods of the Warhammer world always had a very unique feel to them, and this has been captured perfectly across 20 or so pages.  All of the main deities of the Old World are accounted for, with one page write-ups for each detailing things like worshippers, holy sites, penances and strictures. 

One of the best chapters

Following these, there’s a brief overview of non-human deities, and an even briefer note on the Chaos Gods.  Hopefully, a future supplement will expand upon these topics in more detail, as these were always areas that I felt were lacking in the original (Realms of Chaos supplements not withstanding). 

We then get details on the two types of powers available to clerics – blessings, which are minor miracles, and invocations which are your flashier manifestations of divine favour.  Each deity provides those with the Blessings talent six Blessings, whilst the miracles are flavoured to each of the individual cults.  I really like this update to the system.  In first ed, Clerics were essentially wizards with a much more limited choice of spells.  In this edition, clerical magic feels special, different and – more importantly – themed to each of the individual gods.  Therefore, a Cleric of Verena will invoke miracles of a very different type to those of a worshipper of Ulric.  My only gripe is that the focus of miracles is purely limited to human Old World cults – it seems like halfling, dwarf and elven clerics will have to wait for another supplement to get spells of their own.

Following on from Religion we dive into a chunky chapter on magic.  This was one area that first edition REALLY struggled with.  Seriously – the magic system was a straight port from Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Ed and really not suited to an RPG.  Advancing as a wizard was difficult, learning new spells was difficult, casting spells was difficult and in general the whole thing was a clunky mess.  With a few exceptions, all of the spells were a straight port from WFB, and as a result their application in a non-battle setting was seriously limited.  Hell, the main body of spells (which Clerics drew their magic from too) was called “Battle Magic”.
So, how does 4th edition compare?  Thankfully, the system is a LOT better, and also a lot more thematic.  Naturally, this means that things are a lot more crunchy but, if you’ve made it this far into this review you’ll probably not be surprised at this!  At its simplest, casting a spell involves making a casting test and accumulating a number of Success Levels equal to the casting number.  If you don’t manage this, you fail.  Given that all but the most basic of spells  have a casting number much higher than that which can easily be achieved, spell casters have the option to “channel” the winds of magic, allowing for the round by round accumulation of arcane energy until they are ready to attempt their spell.  I like this – it conjures up images of sorcerers trying to control the dangerous energy that surrounds them and weave it into a spell which they finally unleash upon their opponents. 

Thankfully it’s not this…

The rules also do a great job of conjuring up how dangerous magic is – a critical roll means that the winds of magic have flared out of your control, granting your spell extra power but with potentially disastrous results.  Being around a source of chaotic corruption makes this more likely, which fits very nicely with Warhammer’s theme of “magic is really just controlled chaos”.  Allowing wizards options to mitigate the effects of miscasts through preparation and ingredients helps add to the flavour and gives magic using players a lot of options.  Do I take the time to safely cast this spell, or do I really need to get it off quickly?

Spells are broken out into petty magic – simple cantrips every wizard learns when starting out – and lore magic, which represents your character’s area of specialisation.  Normally, a wizard can only learn one lore but, naturally, elves are able to learn more if they meet certain conditions.  Because they’re magical and amazing presumably?  Lores might relate to one of the schools of colour magic, witchcraft or something naughty like demonology or chaos magic.  While each lore is wonderfully thematic, magic users can also choose from a pool of “arcane” spells which allow for more generic magical effects like flight, magic shields, teleportation and magic missiles.  There are almost twenty pages of spells, so there’s plenty for budding wizards to get their teeth into.  I love how each Lore feels different from the others, and I’d be interested to see how the system plays out in an actual game.  Yes, it’s crunchy but I think that could work in its favour.  After all, isn’t magic meant to be complicated and laden with potential risk?  I can see a player accidentally forgetting that they could use an ingredient with a spell and having the spell flare out of their control!

But…but…we’re a grimdark, dark fantasy, low magic setting unlike that silly D&D game!

The only real gripe I have with the magic chapter is that I am not a fan of the direction Warhammer went with regards to magic following the 3rd edition of fantasy battle.  Suddenly we had “wizard licenses” and “magical universities” and the low fantasy world of Warhammer all of a sudden became much more high magic.  This is a personal thing – I know some people love it – and this edition was released with over three decades of fluff established for it, so I’m not going to suggest that the inclusion of these elements somehow makes this a bad product.  Just don’t claim your game is gritty, low magic grimdarkness when you’ve got wizards wreathed in blazing nimbuses of fire, whizzing by on griffons and blasting people from their skull-topped wands.

After we’ve finished with magic we get around half a dozen pages on how to be a gamesmaster.  There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’m sure new players would find it useful.
We then get around 20 pages that serve as a guide to the Reikland – a section of the Empire that is the game’s default setting.  The content is fine, and it details the setting quite nicely, but as someone who has ready the World Guide in first ed this just feels somewhat sparse in comparison.  If 1e could give us an overview of the entire world, how come we only get detail on what amounts to a single province here? 
Worst of all, there are no maps!  If you want to work out in your head where everything is, you’ll be flicking back and forth between this chapter and the end papers which, as I mentioned earlier, aren’t that easy to read.  Whilst these maps do a wonderful job of looking like an Olde Worlde mappe, they’re not that usable.  Plus, they’re repeated – once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.  Why not replace one of these with a useful, simple, black and white map?  This example of style over substance goes a long way to making the Reikland chapter less useful than it could be.

We then have the Consumer Guide, which is to say pages and pages of useful equipment to spend your hard earned gold crowns on – presumably before downtime steals them away!  This includes everything from weapons, to clothing to prosthetics.  Weapons, unsurprisingly, add more complications to the game.  They can have “qualities” and “flaws” which is to say extra rules that affect combat.  On one hand, this makes weapons more interesting than “this is a sword and this a plus one sword – I like the plus one sword better” but it does mean that there’s a lot more to remember in a fight and combat will consequently take a lot longer.

Quick! Let’s buy something before our money all mysteriously vanishes…
This guy looks properly monstrous unlike some of the tosh GW used to churn out…

The final chapter is a bestiary made up of a mix of generic fantasy creatures and creations that are pure Warhammer – Fimir and Skaven, I’m looking at you! Each entry is exactly what you’d expect – a brief description of the creature, a stat block and a picture.  One nice thing is that creatures are assigned a number of “traits” which do a good job of shorthanding things like skills, talents and weapon qualities.  For example, the Orc has a trait saying “weapon +8” which means when it hits, to calculate damage you just take the success levels earned in combat and add them to 8 to get the total wounds caused.  This is a great design decision and should hopefully make things like combat move more quickly.  The downside is that most creatures have a LOT of traits – the goblin, one of the most generic of adversaries, has at least half a dozen!  This means that the GM will have to do quite a bit of prep before most games and, I would imagine, it will probably entail a lot of page flipping during the first few games they run. Speaking of orcs and goblins, the artwork for them is great and the descriptions are devoid of the “gobbo” nonsense that Games Workshop are  so fond of in every publication ever to feature these creatures…

It’s funny ‘cos dey soundz like cockneys…

…so imagine my disappointment to find a quote from an “Orc Boss” full of the “dis, dem, day” pigeon English that is still serving as a substitute for humour after almost three decades.  Still, at least I’ve not found any references to “Zoggin’ ‘oomie gitz“….yet…


That was a BIG book.

So, after 350 or so pages, what do I think?  Well, gripes about artwork aside, I think there’s a lot to like.  It’s a complete package in one book, and its overhauled some aspects of earlier editions quite nicely.  I have my reservations about how complicated some of it feels, but not having run it yet I can’t comment fully on that just yet.

The most important thing is that it “feels” like a Warhammer product – again, other than my gripes around some of the more high magic elements creeping in.  I was happy that, after reading it, my first thought was “I can’t wait to run it”.

Guess I’d better get something planned before Steve listens to this and takes that last statement as a promise…

Pretty much the contents of my schoolbag circa 1985.

I’ve got a wonderful little app on my phone called Fighting Fantasy Classics by Tin Man Games. At its core, FFC is a virtual bookshelf with a built in engine that allows the reader to play Classic Fighting Fantasy books. There are currently around a dozen to choose from, with each costing a few bucks, and they can be played in a variety of forms – from Hardcore Hero where every decision is final, to something approaching “old school cheater”, where you can jump back and forth between book marks (nicely mimicking the old “five fingered bookmark”) and decide the results of combat and other tests.

These fellas make a good app

Much as I love the tactile feeling of books, and much as I have an enormous nostalgic love for the physical products – seriously, my bookshelf has all the originals bar two – this app is brilliant for things like long journeys on public transport or waiting around in a doctor’s surgery, needing as it does none of those new fangled internets. In terms of presentation, the app is lovely, with options for different fonts, new or classic versions of the illustrations and even a choice of atmospheric music.

Yesterday I found myself waiting around for my daughter whilst she was visiting the doctors’, and rather than spending my time doomscrolling on Twitter and trying to avoid the urge to get involved in discussions with people who were losing their minds over the “startling revelation” that Critical Role was making quite a lot of money over on Twitch, I decided to fire up Fighting Fantasy Classics. Upon doing so, I found that they had added a new book to the shelf…

Now, for those of you not aut fait with the wonderful world of Fighting Fantasy (shame on you!) you’re probably thinking “So what?” The title is fairly typical Fighting Fantasy “The something of something!” fare, with no hint as to what the story might be about, other than the fact that the guy on the cover is probably not going to be one of the good guys…

This game is much better than it looks – trust me.

Eleven year old me probably thought something similar when I first bought this back in *cough cough*. I was in town with my mum, and I had some pocket money burning a hole in…well….my pocket. I had just bought the computer game Feud for my Amstrad for the princely sum of £1.99 and was on the look out for something else. Naturally, I gravitated towards a Fighting Fantasy book, and it was as I was browsing them that I found this new release – Creature of Havoc. The thing that REALLY stood out for me? The very first line on the blurb…


Hmm. Tell me more…

Obviously, to learn more a purchase was required, so I quickly parted with the princely sum of £1.95 and the book was mine. In a display that would probably have my kids rolling their eyes in an “Ok dad, whatever…” sort of way if I told them, I rushed home, put my new computer game to one side, and dived into this book.

They weren’t kidding when they said it was unusual…

For starters, there was the little story on the first page.

Blah blah evil is festering in the land blah blah evil necromancer blah blah legions of chaos blah blah bestial creature, ruled by hunger blah blah taste for fighting and flesh of other creatures blah blah you’re playing the creature bla…wait. WHAT?

You’re NOT playing this guy…

That’s right – in this adventure, you’re not brave adventurer set on vanquishing the evil from the land. Instead, you’re this near mindless brute who loves fighting and eating other creatures.

But, as the blurb promises, it may be possible for you to begin to control your bestial nature. It also goes on to say that it may be possible for you to learn more about yourself, and even to learn your true destiny.

Even back then, I loved stuff like this so at that point, I was pretty much considering my £1.95 well spent.

The whole “the most unusual Fighting Fantasy yet” claim was pretty much born out in the rest of the introduction. Normally, an FF book would have some character generation rules, a bit on the system, how to use your equipment and magical potions, some general hints and advice, a character sheet, and then your “story so far…” background, which was usually a fairly standard “…and here’s how you were summoned on this glorious quest” boiler plate piece.

Creature of Havoc takes a different tack – you start with a character sheet, which is essentially three boxes for your stats followed by a massive section for clues. Where were the boxes for me to record my equipment, weapons and gold? Clearly this was not going to be an Ian Livingstone “collect these items or perish!” tale. We then got rules on creating our character, some system stuff…and then Tales of Trolltooth Pass. Unlike the other FF background sections which were very much “the background story for your character”, the Tales section was exactly what it said – stories about the region in which the game is set. It’s good stuff too – about twenty pages of world building, followed by a page that basically says “…and most of this will probably be of no help to you…”

VICTORY! Take that books!

Once you get into the game it is very different from a “normal” FF story. For starters, most of your early decisions are governed by a throw of the dice, and what is more you can’t understand anything that is said to you, something that is represented in game by an ingenious cypher.

I’ll be honest though, tweeny-me didn’t really get on with this book. The randomness was frustrating, and the puzzles – like the language cypher – were pretty tricky. I quickly gave up on it – I cheated to find out what the big mystery was – and ended up putting way more time into Feud than I ever did with Creature of Havoc.

Ok, so if it was such a drag, why write a blog article about it? Well, Mr Smartie-Pants, I didn’t say it was a drag – I said it was something that eleven year old Iain couldn’t wrap his tiny little mind around. Coming back to it years later as an adult, I can honestly say it is one of the cleverest, most finely crafted, and most satisfying Fighting Fantasy stories to play through. From the dungeon at the beginning where you have to come to terms with your nature (and where a few fantasy tropes are turned on their heads) to the exploration of Trolltooth pass, to your final destiny – all of them are beautifully put together, excellent to read, and extremely good fun to puzzle your way through.

The overall story is fantastic – wedding elements of Frankenstein into a fantasy narrative where the role of the hero is turned on its head – and the endgame, in whatever form it takes (this book has multiple endings rather than a binary “You won!” / “You died!”) closes things off nicely. Yes, I’m being deliberately cautious with what I say, as there are a lot of potential spoilers for this book, and I really don’t want to spoil it for people who are lucky enough not to have played through it yet.

And that, I suppose, is the point of this article. Now that this book is available via the Fighting Fantasy Classics app, my recommendation is that if you’re looking for an entertaining, if slightly different, fantasy story, you really should pick up Creature of Havoc. It is difficult enough that it will keep you going for a while, but it is not impossible to overcome – I have managed to complete this without cheating! Plus, it costs less than a cup of coffee (unless you’re drinking really cheap, nasty coffee that is)!

Check it out – you won’t regret it – there’s a reason this book has been reprinted every time the Fighting Fantasy license moved to a new publisher…

In 1993, I found my first “proper” job, as a waiter no less.  Actually – I say “found”, but the job actually found me, in the form of my mother thrusting a copy of the Evening Times in my direction, jabbing at a classified ad, and suggesting it might be nice for me to earn some cash for myself.

Aaah… Happy days…

The hours were long , the shifts were gruelling and – this being in the days before “minimum wage” was even a concept – the pay was lousy.  Thankfully, the tips – at least to my teenage mind – more than made up for my paltry weekly earnings.   I learned to be effortlessly charming and efficient very quickly. 

And it was a good job I did too, because in 1993 I had a lot to spend my money on.  Some new game called “Magic: the Gathering” had just hit the market, and it was a lot of fun.  It combined the fantastic worlds of RPGs with the giddy rush that I had only previously felt collecting football stickers as a kid. 

Got, got, got, got, NEED!

Ah – those memories of standing around in the freezing cold of a Scottish primary school playground watching as your friend flicked through a massive pile of stickers while you and your friends chanted something along the lines of “Got, got, got, got, NEED!” like some demented cultists.  If anyone did end up “needing” any of the stickers, that was usually the cue for the owner of the pile of cards to assume the stance and bearing of a Mafia don and ask you what you had to offer for it.

Magic had that same feel, but was considerably more expensive.  Fun fact – as part of my spending spree on Magic cards back in the early 90s I managed to get a Black Lotus.  Players of Wizards of the Coast’s card game will no doubt be seething with envy right now.  The Black Lotus is, without a doubt, THE best card ever printed for Magic.  It is also on a list of cards never to be reprinted. 

Yours for a cool $150k…

In fact, it’s so sought after that one recently sold at auction for well over $150,000.  I thought I was being smart in 1998 when I sold mine for £300…  Que sera.  Mind you, I doubt mine would have raised much more at auction.  I played the hell out of that card on many a beer stained university union table, and that was in the days before deck protectors were a thing…

It was during one of these forays to spend my ill-gotten gains on Magic cards that I discovered one of my favourite RPGs of all time.  I use “ill-gotten” in the truest sense, because I learned very early on that if you said to a table of old ladies “I’ll be with you in a minute, girls” you were onto at least a £5 tip.

On this particular excursion, the guy behind the Virgin megastore counter told me that they were all out of Magic cards, and that they didn’t know when they’d have more back in.  Disappointed, I started browsing the RPG aisle instead, and my eyes hit upon a game that I hadn’t seen before.
It was a softback book, and the cover depicted a fella wearing a trenchcoat – and looking for all the world that he’d been rejected by a tribute band for The Cure.  He was standing in the pouring rain and at the top left, in bright red letters were the words “S.L.A Industries”.  I would later learn that this was pronounced “SLAY”.

Flipping it over, I scanned the blurb.  It suggested that this was a game where the players were agents for the titular company.  It sounded pretty violent, but it also seemed that there was a televised element to it – was this like the Running Man?  Then there was the tag line:
Guns kill – but so does the truth.
I HAD to know more.

Curiously, it also seemed like SLA was published in the town I was living in at the time – Paisley, in Scotland.
That evening I read ALL of the background to this game and I was absolutely hooked.

At first glance, SLA seems to be a sci-fi investigation game.  Set in a dystopian universe, the players take on the roles of Operatives working for SLA Industries.  Ops fulfil all sorts of functions for the company.  On one hand they are investigators and detectives, but they can also be hit squads, spokespeople, EMTs, janitors – basically anything the company needs them to do.

Set on the company’s HQ world of Mort – a dying planet where it continually rains – the players operative out of Mort City; a gigantic hive, where the super rich and glamorous live at the top levels, and where the further down you go – literally to Downtown – the worse the conditions become, and the more awful your life is.  SLA Industries owns EVERYTHING – they refer to the known universe under their control as The World of Progress.  However, despite their dominance, the World of Progress is not an amazing place to live in.  The crime rate on Mort is through the roof, so it is up to the Ops to hold things together. 

Welcome to SLA – this is your life now.

They do this by carrying out the missions that are assigned to them.  Called Blueprint News Files (or BPNs) these missions are colour coded, and are what Operatives carry out to get paid.  BPNs vary from Blue – which equates to street maintenance, and which covers the filthiest, most simple, worst paying jobs; usually clearing out a sewer of some undesirables – to White – which are investigations – to Red – which are literally Red Alerts – all the way up to the top secret Platinum BPNs that are only issued by Head Office.  Sometimes squads even get a choice of BPN.

These are your new colleagues – happy induction day!

As well as a steady pay check, BPNs also give squads a chance to advance their Security Clearance Level (or SCL) and to get noticed by the media.  You see, in a bid to keep the unwashed masses happy, SLA has pretty much wholeheartedly embraced the Roman poet Juvenal’s maxim of “Bread and Circuses”.  Every citizen is paid a stipend of unis – the civilian currency –  every week and, to keep them entertained, most of the work carried out by SLA Ops is televised live.  There are is also “The Contract Circuit” where SLA sanctioned “Contract Killers” compete against each other in futuristic gladiatorial games.  Occasionally, channels such as Gorezone will go into a neighbourhood, open up all the sewer covers, and let all the nasties that live there pour out onto the streets while Ops, Contract Killers and anyone else who wants to get in on the action will take them down, live on air.  Occasionally, Ops will get caught up in something like this whilst their in the middle of a BPN…

It’s really not surprising then that one of the driving motivations for Ops – and therefore the players – is to earn enough money to  buy the latest armour and weapons.

Of course, the televised aspect CAN make investigations tricky.  If your squad is trying to track down a notorious serial killer, it’s kind of hard to get the drop on him when he can sit at home in front of the TV getting a play by play from Third Eye news on how close he is to being caught…

At this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would want to work for SLA.  After all, wouldn’t it be simpler being one of the idle civilians, lounging about on your benefit cheque, watching TV all day?

“Join up” they said. “Visit exciting places” they said…

The simple answer is not “no” but rather “HELL NO”.  Mort is a horrible place to live, and Downtown – where the bulk of the unemployed masses dwell – is literally the pits.  Put aside for one moment the fact that you’ve barely got enough money to survive, there are gangs everywhere who want a cut of whatever you own “for protection” and the police – a corporate force run by SLA called The Shivers – are amazingly corrupt and are more interested in penning you in and making sure you don’t bother the great and the good in Uptown than they are of preventing crime.  You’ll also probably find that there is at least one serial killer active near you at any given time – Mort’s dark, hellish, claustrophobic conditions aren’t exactly conducive to good mental health – and the fun part is that these guys aren’t the worst thing that could come crawling into your apartment!  Mort’s sewers are infested with all sorts of nasties, from carnivorous pigs to the omnipresent Carrien packs – a weird, humanoid race of creatures with dog-like skulls for heads and an insatiable appetite for flesh.
Still, although living in Downtown sucks, you could find yourself stranded outside off the city walls living in the Cannibal Sectors.   This blasted wasteland clearly owes a lot to Judge Dredd’s “Cursed Earth” but it’s like someone said “How could we take that concept and make it more horrific?”  EVERYTHING in the Cannibal Sectors wants to kill you and eat you – yet as an Op you sometimes have to go there for work…

Further enriching the background of SLA are the cast of aliens that make up Mort’s population.  There are – of course – humans, but they’re joined by Frothers – humans born with a predilection for drugs and raised in a pseudo Scottish culture, Ebons and Brain Wasters – creatures who are similar to humans except they can manipulate a force underpinning reality called The Ebb – Shakters – big, red reptile guys who live by a code of honour and have a lot of Klingon and Predator going on – Wraith Raiders – super fast cat people from a frozen homeworld with all the empathy you’d expect to find in a domestic moggy – and Stormers – SLA’s genetically engineered super soldiers.  Think eight foot tall walls of muscle with weird, slightly equine faces and you’re not going far wrong.

All of that probably sounds pretty odd and that’s because it is!  However, it all kind of works – SLA has a VERY unique vibe, and all these weird aliens, the strange city and this strange, mega-consumer driven society where it is perfectly legal – and encouraged – to shoot up on combat  drugs really comes to life through the book’s black and white images and the fiction which crops up randomly from time to time.

These black and white images are a zillion times better than some modern CG

I say randomly because, although this is a professional production, it still has a bit of a feel of a fanzine.  There’s a lack of organisation to some of the sections, and sometimes the artwork can feel slightly out of place or not at all connected to what is being discussed.  At one point, for example, there’s a two page spread of what looks like CAD drawings… 

The contents reflect this too.  There’s  some general scene setting pieces, followed by the standard “What is a roleplaying game?”  We then get almost ONE HUNDRED pages of background before we hit any rules.  Now, the early 90s was infamous for this sort of thing – White Wolf, I’m looking at you – but a HUNDRED PAGES?  Most of it will either not impact the players, or will have little material outcome on the state of play – the history which is such a big part of this material is rigorously suppressed and sanitised by  SLA in the game world that most starting characters would not know of it. 
Even within the history chapter, the structure is plagued by this same randomness.  There’s the history, then there’s a section on what an operative does, then there’s a load of information on Mort.  Wouldn’t it have made sense to have had the Op information first, then rules & character generation, and confine the other stuff to a GM’s chapter?

The last chapter of the book is a particular head-scratcher.  It includes information on the media….followed by a brief look at the Carrien – the problem vermin from the Cannibal Sectors.  Huh?

I’m probably making more of a big deal out of this than there needs to be – as I mentioned before, the setting reeks of atmosphere; the fact that they way it’s laid out does nothing to diminish this.  Indeed, after my first reading I was very much of the opinion that I NEEDED TO RUN THIS NOW!

Unfortunately, where SLA did fall down, was the system.  It’s a bit cobbled together, and the kindest way to describe it would be “functional”.  When I ran games of SLA it worked just fine and we all had fun, but it wasn’t exactly sleek and streamlined.  Take the organisation – again – for example.  There are almost four pages given over to rules on fear and reputation.  These are rules that, in all my times running SLA, I hardly ever used as written.

Combat – always the longest section of most RPG rulebooks – takes up around a dozen pages and is pretty crunchy.  However, there’s not a lot of randomness in there – apart from the rolls to hit – so it’s pretty easy to game the system, and after a bit of time with it, it becomes pretty readily apparent that certain types of ammunition are just flat out better than others.

The section on wounds leads to situations that make little sense.  Under the SLA rules, every time a character is hit, they take it a wound.  It doesn’t matter if they’re hit by the biggest gun in the game, or the worst gun in the game – if they take damage they take a wound regardless.  The mechanical effect of having a wound means that you lose a hit point every five rounds.  Multiple wounds shorten this duration, and more than five wounds increase the hit points loss.  You also get a -1 penalty to your actions for every wound you take. As mentioned before, a blow has to do at least one point of damage to cause a wound, but given that the worst civilian rifle is capable of penetrating starting operative armour, this is kind of moot.  Imagine a starting Op, highly trained and armed to the teeth being jumped by a gang – five of which manage to damage him.  He SHOULD be able to tear through them, but the rules as written mean that he’s flailing around all over the place and bleeding out where he stands.  Not a great look on Third Eye News.

Then we come to character creation…

There’s a lot going on in this character sheet..

I’m not going to spend too much time here, but suffice to say it’s a points based system… 

…and every character has 300 points to spend on their characteristics and their skills.

Given that for your average human their stats are on a range of five to ten, and that each skill is governed by a stat and that skill can’t go above the stat value you can see that this leads to a LOT of bookeeping!

As was the fashion for the 1990s, there are a ton of merits and flaws to choose from.  However, each merit and flaw comes on a scale of one to ten and you either  receive or pay a certain amount of points per level you take.  This gets unwieldy very quickly. 

Let’s take the first merit / flaw combo – Handsome / Ugly as an example.  There are  ten levels.  Each one gives you or costs you a point.  One point of handsome is “slightly better looking” and ten points mean “stunningly attractive”.  What effect does this have on the game?  Well, that’s not clear.  Stuff like this really needs to be defined, otherwise how does the GM work out what effect one point of “handsome” has on a roll that relies on appearance?

It gets more ridiculous when you pair up certain advantages and disadvantages.  Remember our definition of 10 points of “handsome” – stunningly attractive.  Well, there’s a disadvantage called “bad figure” – also on a one to ten scale.  What happens if you take ten points of handsome and ten points of bad figure?  Apparently you’re stunningly attractive…but with an overweight, misshapen and hideously ill proportioned body.  Literally just a pretty face…  Oh and there’s no guidance on how this Igor-like body impairs your physical day to day.

If it was said that “The GM decides the effects of the different levels of advantages and disadvantages” things wouldn’t be so bad.  However, Captain Inconsistency  shows up again.  Guess what?  Some advantages and disadvantages DO have mechanical effects written into the rules…

By far the most infamous advantage, though, was “sterile”.  It landed you TEN points to spend on skills.  To put that into perspective, that’s the same as being THE most horrendously ugly person on the planet or being possessed of the Quasimodo-like figure we talked about a minute ago!  Unless one of your driving goals was to have a family (and who in their right mind would try and raise a kid on Mort?) this disadvantage had ZERO impact on the game.

Yes – these are the “good” guys…

Following the character creation rules, were write ups on each of the races.  This positioning is an odd choice – it’s traditional for players to read about their character choices BEFORE the make up their characters.  However, this is a minor gripe as these two page spreads were a great read, and really helped conjure up the weird atmosphere of the setting.  However, due to the way the rules worked it became clear VERY quickly that there was little point – other than flavour – in playing a Shaktar because, pound per pound if you were going to play the squad’s “big fighty guy” you’d be better off playing a Stormer.

In short, the rules were a bit of a mess.  However, much as I’ve spent time here highlighting this, that’s only to contrast with the fact that they didn’t stop myself and my group having an absolute blast with the game!  I’ve probably not conveyed it very well in my description, but the unique atmosphere of SLA helped to completely eclipse any of the crunchy shortcomings of the rules system.  Yes, there were other sci-fi dystopian games out there, but none of them felt like SLA, with its weird aliens, its strange Ebb forces and its drugs – and what was with all those little call backs to the real world – the world that the players were living in?  As an example, Mort’s most infamous serial killer was called “Halloween Jack” and he had a Jack O Lantern shaped mask.  Clearly, there is nothing in SLA’s cosmology that corresponds to Halloween, so why is this?  Likewise, all the months of the year share the same names as those of the Gregorian calendar.  An oversight, or something else?  There’s also the song titles from real life bands scattered throughout the text.  SLA’s background captured the mind, and I’ve never met anyone who played it who didn’t absolutely love it.

Case in point: one of these fans was Max Bantleman who produced a fanzine called “The Big Picture” which was distributed and sold at games shops and cons.  This fanzine featured fan-made articles on races, creatures, opponents, equipment – all sorts of good stuff to slot into your SLA campaign.  Now, bear in mind that this was when the internet was in its complete infancy.  Nowadays, this sort of stuff would be on a website or a Facebook group somewhere.  However, back then a fanzine was the best way to distribute this information. 

Unfortunately, Max didn’t exactly endear himself to the folks at Nightfall.  He needed art for his fanzine, and he decided that the best place to take it from would be the main SLA rulebook.  As he said himself, his intentions were good, but this didn’t really help his cause and he was considered something of a nuisance by Nightfall.
Like Max, most fans who bought into SLA wanted more content.  So, when I saw a review of Karma – SLA Industries first supplement – in Valkyrie magazine, I naturally rushed out and bought it!

Karma was a very clever sourcebook.  Presented as a SLA Industries lifestyle magazine for Operatives, it was all flavour, with the rules crammed into the back.  Loads of sourcebooks since then have followed this pattern, but back then this was really unique and refreshing.
Karma doubled down on the atmosphere created in the main rulebook, with more evocative art and prose, and introduced some further typically SLA concepts.  One area that received a lot of exploration was that of biogenetics.  Unlike other games in the genre, SLA didn’t have any kind of focus on cybernetics – indeed, there’s a slice of history that talks about that having been a passing fad in the World of Progress.  Instead, SLA has biogenetics as an equivalent.  Want to be stronger, faster or tougher?  Get some biogenetic implants.  Want to see in the dark?  Get some biogenetic implants?  Want your life extended?  We can do that too with biogenetics.  In fact, one of the big articles in Karma is the concept of L.A.D, or Life After Death.  For a small fee, operatives can be fitted with an implant which notifies Karma when they die so that they can dispatch a medical team to stabilise you and bring you in for resurrection.   Like all things SLA, there was no guarantee it  would work.  End up dead in Cannibal Sector 1, and chances are the medics won’t be able to get to you in time…

It was around this time that Wizards of the Coast took note of SLA Industries and bought the game outright.  Amongst their publications was the “Mort” sourcebook that covered the HQ planet of the company.  It received mixed reviews.

Anyone who knows anything about Wizards of the Coast will know that they are not a company famed for their RPGs (other than that one time they swooped in and helped a little known game called Dungeons and Dragons that is….).  In December 1995 they announced that they were dropping their entire roleplaying line, SLA included.

The rights for SLA went back to Nightfall who made an agreement with Hogshead Publishing.  The main rulebook was reprinted along with a couple of supplements.  These were an adventure called “The Key of Delhyread” and a sourcebook called “The Contract Directory” which sought to define exactly what the Contract Circuit was, and what all these TV shows that the unwashed masses consumed were all about.  Both were ok, but neither really set the SLA world aflame.  Hogshead folded in the early 2000s and, once again, the rights for SLA went back to Nightfall.

Did I dream all of THIS?

When discussing SLA from this period, it is impossible not to talk about “The Writer’s Bible”.  Remember that quote from the back of the original rulebook – Guns Kill, But So Does the Truth?  Well, in 1998 a document called The SLA Industries RPG Writer’s Bible / Style Guide was leaked one of the SLA mailing lists.  Kids – ask your parents what a mailing list was.This document was just over two dozen pages long, and it seemed to be an internal Nightfall document for freelance authors, explaining how certain aspects of the World of Progress worked thematically and what the game’s metaplot was.  Clearly, the idea was that new writers would be able to stick to the game’s canon, whilst also knowing what could and couldn’t be discussed.  The document itself was very rough and ready – but then again it was an internal document intended for internal use; not as a polished piece ready to be consumed by the public.The really interesting part of the document was the second section,  entitled The Truth.  In this, Nightfall explain the secrets behind the various forces at play within the World of Progress.  About three and a half pages into this section we come to the metaplot.I’m not going to go into it here – the document is easy enough to find if you go looking for it – but suffice to say, the general reaction from the SLA community upon reading this was “WTF”?  Personally, I found it all rather interesting – it was like no other RPG I’d read before.  Yes the document was rough as you like – but it was never intended for public consumption.  I often wonder what would have happened if it wasn’t leaked and Nightfall were able to explore their Truth through publications.  There were aspects of The Truth that went a long way to explaining why the World of Progress was the way it was, and I really wish that some of this had come out in the form of supplements, rather than being left to fester in a Writer’s Guide.Back in the world of publishing, SLA Industries was taken on by Cubicle 7 in the early 2000s. 

Not a fan, I’ll be honest…

Despite an initial flurry of enthusiasm, Cubicle 7 only released two of the supplements they had lined up – “Cannibal Sector 1” and “Hunter Sheets Issue 1”.   Unfortunately, Dave Allsop – one of Nightfall’s directors and the guy responsible for most of the iconic SLA imagery – left Cubicle 7, and this probably took a lot of energy out of the SLA project.  2007 was the last time Cubicle 7 released anything for the game and then – once again – it reverted back to Nightfall games.

Nightfall spent the early 2010s releasing a variety of PDF only “data packets” for SLA Industries.  These small supplements were short on pages but VERY rich in lore.  For fans of SLA, they were an absolute delight to read through.  Many of them came with a “Truth Rating” on the front, which corresponded to how deep into the game’s metaplot they would go.  Interestingly, when Cubicle 7 took over SLA it was announced that The Truth as presented in the writer’s guide was no longer canon.  However, reading through these data packets it was very easy to see the influence of that document – albeit far better presented.  Did this mean that the Truth was back?  The way that some of the data packets left things dangling it was clear to fans of SLA that something was brewing on the horizon.

The form that the “something” took was not what a lot of SLA fans were expecting.  In 2016 Daruma Productions announced a Kickstarter for a SLA Industries miniatures skirmish game called “Cannibal Sector 1”.  According to the Kickstarter, backers would get the rulebook and factions decks.  Dave Allsop would be doing the artwork, and he would be collaborating with Jared Earle – one of SLA’s original creators – on the lore and background of the game.  Apparently there would be “other goodies” included, but something that was stated in the first update was that “we will not be including any faction starters or miniatures in this Kickstarter.  If the stretch goals reach high enough levels, we do aim to create on special character for each faction.”This didn’t bother me – as a rule I’m EXTREMELY wary about backing Kickstarters that include miniatures, as they never run to time, so I happily backed it for the book.  Some new official, tangible material that I could hold in my grubby hands from the guys behind SLA?  Yes please!There is a phenomena that I like to call “Kickstarter Bloat” – where a creator puts in a ton of stretch goals in a bid to entice more and more backers and ends up having to produce more than they can realistically hope to produce or ship.  CS1 was absolutely riven by this, and Daruma seemed completely oblivious to it.  Although I wanted the main rulebook (that is, the one with all the RPG bits in it – not just the skirmish rules) my pledge, after the stretch goals included:

  • A signed hardback rulebook
  • An A5 copy of the skirmish rules
  • A PDF of the rulebook
  • All 6 faction decks
  • A CS1 T-Shirt
  • A CS1 pin
  • A CS1 bag
  • A shiver sergent mini
  • A manchine mini
  • 4 character minis
  • A warithen mini
  • A shaktar mini
  • An ebon mini
  • A 313 stormer mini
  • A Xeno stormer mini
  • An Aetherman mini
  • A vevaphon mini
  • A sector ranger mini
  • A grit stormer mini
  • A chagrin stormer mini
  • An advanced carrien mini
  • An ex-War Criminal mini
  • A digger mini
  • Glyph cards
  • 6 sets of 4D10s done up in different factions’ colours
  • A campaign medal
  • A PDF campaign pack

That’s….a LOT!  Given that most miniatures games that are fulfilled on Kickstarter run into the hundreds of millions of dollars,  the fact that this one was funded on just over fifty thousand was concerning. People who backed the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition kickstarter are probably getting deja vu round about now…As was expected, in 2017 I received a message saying that “Things wouldn’t be delivered as planned” and then unfortunately – but not entirely unsurprisingly – in June 2018 backers received a message from Nightfall saying that they had parted ways with Daruma who were going into liquidation.  To help try and deliver the Kickstarter they were going to partner with Word Forge games but, unfortunately, all the funds from the Cannibal Sector 1 Kickstarter were gone and thus Nightfall and Word Forge were going to have to work out how to fund fulfilment. 

What followed was painful for a lot of people, but the new Nightfall and Word Forge partnership had to make some tough choices.  They had a bloated, creaking Kickstarter, and they had to cut some fat in order to make fulfillments of the core deliverables a reality.  In the end – by the middle of 2019 – I received my books, along with a handful of miniatures, some dice, the bag and a pin.  Was it worth it?  Well, the hardback – the only thing I REALLY cared about from the whole campaign – was a thing of beauty, and it was MASSIVE.  This mighty, full-colour tome delved into the entire history of CS 1 – from its origins as “Central Outskirts” all the way to the present day…and then into the future.  Yes – SLA’s authors had chosen to move the metaplot forward!  There were also a couple of moments where I’d read something, stop and go back and read it again as there were some tasty nuggets of the new Truth in there.

So, a few months later when the Kickstarter for SLA Industries 2nd edition went live I was all in!  Despite the shaky ending to the CS1 campaign, Nightfall had shown a lot of integrity in the way they had acted.  They took a massive financial hit themselves to ensure that the backers would at least get something – the main thing for the project.  Plus, their communication was spot on – they were honest, transparent and didn’t mess around with timelines.  Speaking as a professional project manager, this is all you can ask for! The SLA 2.0 kickstarter went largely to plan.  There was a little thing called Coronavirus that got in the way of a summer 2020 delivery, but otherwise it went smoothly. A Quickstart was released early on to give us a taste of the game. 

As mentioned before, Nightfall’s communication along the way was great, and whilst the shipment of physical product was delayed, backers did get their hands on PDFs of the book on schedule, and I have to admit that this was a pretty exciting moment for me.  My co-host Jason was spammed by a series of messages from me – the tone of which probably came across as that of an excitable teenager – as I read through the book.  Jason was a massive spoil sport though – declaring that he would be waiting till he got his physical reward before reading anything (SUBTEXT: ENOUGH WITH THE SPOILERS IAIN).Interestingly, as the campaign was coming to a close, Nightfall announced that certain of their products were now no-longer  canon.  These included the “Mort” sourcebook (which was rendered redundant by the Mort chapter in the new rulebook), “The Key of Delhyread” (that never really felt canon in the first place), “The Contract Directory”, the Cubicle 7 “Cannibal Sector 1” sourcebook (which didn’t have any of the original SLA crew involved in its production, and which was rendered pointless following the release of the new CS1 book) and the “Ursa Carrien” data packet (which didn’t fit with the new origins of Carrien as presented in 2nd edition and the new CS 1 book).  They also commented directly on The Writer’s Bible and pointed out that the Truth as presented there was not the Truth under pinning second edition.  Now, for those of you familiar with it, there’s clearly still a kernel of the old Truth there, but I’m interested to see where they go with it.Lately, Nightfall announced that all the other first ed supplements were now being considered non-canon and they’re going to be removed from Drive Thru RPG.  This is a somewhat puzzling decision.  Why remove them from DTRPG?  Sure, make them non-canon but why cut off a potential revenue stream?  I’m sure there’s more to come here…

Going back to the campaign, Nightfall will have my eternal thanks due to the way they handled my pledge, personally.  Because of circumstances beyond my control, myself and my family had to move house pretty quickly at the end of last year.  This was around the time that Nightfall were shipping the Kickstarter Rewards, so I contacted them asking if they could redirect mine.  They messaged me – ON CHRISTMAS DAY – asking for my details.  A few days later my goodies turned up.  It goes without saying that THAT level of customer service is above and beyond what is expected!

This may have been sent to Jason along with a note saying “What do I have in front of me that makes me cooler than you?”

So, how does 2nd ed compare to that original edition I picked up in Glasgow all those years ago?  The biggest change is the production values.  One thing that long time fans of SLA joke about is the quality of the old books.  Both my copies of Karma and my original rulebook fell apart in record time.  This new book is a study hardback that will retain its pages for many, many years.  The layout and organisation is also far more professionally done that in 1993, but that’s hardly surprising with both the advancement in technology and the fact that the Nightfall crew have had many moons to hone their craft!  When it comes to artwork, on one hand, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in the early 90s.  Dave Allsop was an excellent artist back in the day, but it’s clear that he’s become even better over time.  The pieces are all full colour, and they still reek of that strange, odd, SLA Industries atmosphere.  It’s actually very hard to compare them to the original pieces completed almost thirty years ago.  The production values in the new book are MUCH higher.  Seriously – I’ve mentioned it before but it deserves mentioning again – the layout and the simple construction of the book is up there with the best modern RPGs have to offer. 

However, there was something extremely compelling about 1st edition SLA.  Part of me really misses the black and white artwork from that first book.  Yes, the newer book is much more polished, but there was a certain raw power to the imagery in the original.  I don’t know – I should probably take these rose tinted glasses off…One of the new pieces of artwork that I loved – and which was long overdue – was the map of Mort.  This REALLY brings to life the bizarre structure of the city, and just why living in Downtown (not to mention LOWER Downtown) is so awful.  It really brings alive the scale of the place – from the spires of head office to the wastes of the Cannibal sectors.  Previously, Mort was pretty much whatever an individual GM made it – which was fine – but it was often hard to reconcile what was written in one place, from where it was described elsewhere.  With this new artwork it actually makes sense – albeit a twisted, dark, dystopian kind of sense…

The background and history sections have been expanded upon since first ed, being updated to include some of the material from Cannibal Sector 1 in addition to a whole load of brand new stuff.  For the keen eyed, the Truth – in some form – is clearly still there.  Indeed, there are blatant name drops for some of the folks mentioned in that original document.  However, this is clearly something that’s going to be built upon in future supplements, so I’m excited to see where they go with it.  Actually, I don’t know why I said “keen eyed” – the opening and closing pieces of fiction are both massive truth bombs that I loved.  However, if I was entirely new to SLA I’m not sure I would understand them or their significance.  That said, I’m not sure I understood SLA’s original opening fiction back in 1993 so maybe I’m over thinking this!There’s a new type of BPN too – Orange – to represent investigations into the Sh’ien cult that is making its presence known on Mort.  For long time SLA players the subnote of “LAD cannot respond to requests for assistance from operatives on an Orange BPN” should be suitably chilling reading.Along side the cults, one of the “new” foes facing Ops are the Conflict Aliens. 

I’m using airquotes around new, because the Conflict Aliens aren’t new – they’re a part of SLAs murky past that they thought were long defeated.  As antagonists go, these guys are seriously scary, very well equipped and out for bloody revenge.  Given how much SLA have sanitised their own history, Ops facing these guys are going to be totally ill-prepared.Join the cast of “newish” bad guys are the Dream Entities.  Those who have read some of the data packets released by SLA or Cannibal Sector 1 will know what these guys are – they seem to be the manifestations of the fears of people living in and around lower downtown.  They’re an interesting change to serial killers and carrien, because often these things can’t simply be blasted away, and they really let a creative GM make the lower reaches of Mort a thing of absolute terror.  They also raise some rather unsettling questions about the nature of the whole of SLA Industries’ reality.

The system is where SLA has REALLY made improvements.  Things have been simplified, streamlined and balanced.  I’ll caveat this with the fact that I’ve not played it yet, but a casual reading shows that it’s a zillion times better than the bloated mess that 1st ed was.  My co-host Steve is eager for me to run a game, so hopefully I’ll have a more informed opinion soon!  Combat looks to be fast moving and streamlined – minimising the amount of numbers that need to be crunched at any one given time – and gone are the silly rules on wounds.  Under the new rules, wounds are serious affairs that happen when you take a lot of damage.Character creation is much more balanced and simplified.  Gone are the need to keep track of several hundreds of character points, and each of the races seems to be fairly evenly balanced.  There are reasons to choose from all of them now. 

Gone, but not entirely forgotten – check out Progress Report Three on Drive Thru RPG…

Sadly, for long time players and fans of the Karma supplement, Vevaphons  – the biogenetic polymorphs – are no longer a character choice, but I can see why they were removed.  I only ever had one player choose to be a vev in first ed, and while it was a fun character it was THE most bookkeeping intensive character in the whole party!  They’re not ENTIRELY gone from the setting, and I can easily envisaged the opportunities of using a rogue vev as an NPC villain. 

The Chagrin variant of the Stormer is also gone too, but I’m personally not that bothered about this.  The Chagrin was really just for those folks who wanted to play the ultimate combat monster – as if playing a normal stormer wasn’t enough – and they weren’t that interesting to roleplay outside of their rather narrow “Hulk.  Smash!” window. Two other character options are added in place of the vev and the chagrin.  Firstly, we have a race that was made playable in “the contract directory” – the advanced carrien.  These are carrien with a human level of intelligence that have been captured and domesticated by the company.  The insight into their ways of thinking and how to roleplay them are fascinating.  I particularly love the picture in part of the book of an advanced carrien trying to comfort a distraught civilian – I think think this will be the experience of many players choosing this race!

This is not the most bizarre thing you’ll find in SLA.

In the “brand shiny and new” corner we have the Neophron – an avian race of conflict aliens.  These guys were never really at war with SLA, and after the Conflict Years they just faded into Conflict Space and did their own thing.  However, with the advancing metaplot and cults and other conflict aliens popping up all over the place, the neophron have decided to throw their lot in with the company.  Technically, they’re not BRAND NEW – Neophron have been referenced before.  Indeed, one of the big bads in Hunter Sheets 2 is a Neophron, but this is the first time players have been given them as an option.  Like the advanced carrien, there are some great notes around the psychology of this species and how to roleplay them.  These guys are much more Sherlock Holmes than Arnie, so they’ll be a welcome addition to any squad looking to make bank on White BPNs.  I’m also happy that Nightfall chose to not give them any kind of flight.  It wouldn’t be amazingly practical in Mort for starters, but I always find that unlimited flight powers can often disrupt the most well plotted scenarios…

So there you have it – SLA Industries’ on-and-off history for the last few decades.  What’s really interesting is how SLA has survived all these years.  On one hand, it looks like a really niche game.  A small press title that was released in the mid 90s, and which churned out a few titles before being bought by someone bigger before being dropped.  Most games would vanish into obscurity by this point, but SLA has somehow managed to keep going, even though the going got pretty rough at points.  What’s even more interesting is that, prior to 2nd ed being released, people were still playing SLA, years after it had vanished, even though it had a terrible system that most groups ended up houseruling within an inch of its life.  Why would players stick with this?

I think the answer is obvious – the creators of SLA Industries managed to craft a setting that was so unique, so compelling and so interesting to play in, that nobody minded if there weren’t official supplements being released – they simply wanted to explore and game in the World of Progress.  At one point the only two books I had were a tatty copy of the main rulebook and an equally tatty copy of Karma, but that didn’t stop me from running a four year long campaign, long after Wizards had dropped all support for SLA.

Like the Carrien who lurk in Cannibal Sector 1, SLA Industries has proven to be tough, adaptable and only slightly prone to mutation.  If you’ve never given SLA a try, now’s the perfect chance to jump in with both feet.  The shiny new 2nd edition is available both on Nightfall’s website and Drive Thru RPG.  For those of you who are veterans of the World of Progress, grab your FEN 603, strap on your Body Blocker armour and make sure you’ve packed enough Kick Start in your medical kit – there’s a whole new world of BPNs out there to explore and it’s as dangerous as ever.

SLA Industries is available from Drive Thru RPG and from Nightfall Games’ website.

As a Scotsman, I always have to contend with the stereotype of being tightfisted. Thankfully, this isn’t the case – in fact, if you take a look at my RPG bookshelves my wife would probably prefer if I was…

However, tight-fistedness or not aside, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to shop around for a bargain and, after another mammoth session looking through Drive Thru RPG at the various amazing products that can be had for – literally – nothing I was compelled to put this together.

RPGs have become massively popular in recent years. Indeed, if you had told teenage-me that people would tune in in their millions to watch other people playing D&D I would have laughed. And then probably asked something searingly stupid like “I’m assuming this was on Channel 4?”

Truth is, shows like Critical Role – regardless of what you think of them – have played a huge part in making the hobby of tabletop gaming slowly inch its way towards mainstream acceptance. As a result, players numbers are booming – at last count, D&D alone claimed around 40 million of them!

However, for every player out there having a great time…well…playing, there are also folks who would dearly love to get involved, but can’t – and sometimes that’s down to the perception that this wonderful hobby of ours is a bit too expensive. Take a look online for D&D books and you’ll see what I mean.

Likewise, people in the hobby seem to love flashy dice. No, I’m not sure why – I’ve got the same mismatched collection of little plastic polyhedrals that I’ve used for years – but some people really crave the truly beautiful ones crafted out of stone, wood and metal. These bad boys will cost you a pretty penny and no mistake!

Is it therefore possible to get involved in roleplaying without dropping a hefty chunky of gold (presumably stolen from a dragon’s lair)? The answer is, of course, “yes” – otherwise this would be a pretty disappointing article! Below, I’m going to list various different systems – some of which we’ve covered on our podcast – and how you can get cracking in them for nothing.

However, before we start there, I’m also going to recommend one other tool – with the caveat that “other options also exist” – and that’s the wonderful Roll20. For those of you not in the know, Roll20 is a virtual desktop that allows you to play RPGs online. If you just want to play – and I’d imagine most people starting out in the hobby want to do just that and aren’t foolish enough to want to run their own game with zero experience! – this application has everything you need…and it’s free. Actually, it doesn’t have everything. You still need someone to run the actual game, but that’s a whole topic in itself…

Once suitably armed with Roll20 (or one of its peers) here’s how you can get involved with various other systems for free.

I’ll start here, as this is probably the system that most newcomers to the hobby are first exposed to. As I mentioned above, D&D books carry a pretty heft price tag. Is it real possible to start playing D&D for free? Of course it is – after all, they want to hook you in so that you can start buying those gorgeous, expensive books… If all you want to do is play, head over to D&D Beyond – Wizards of the Coast’s site for everything D&D related – and you will be able to find a basic version of the rules and an online character creation tool. There’s also starter adventures if you want to look at how they’re structured or your GM needs something simple to take you through. Think of these as being like “tutorial levels” in a video game.

Mention “horror gaming” to any long time roleplayer, and the most famous one that will come to mind is Call of Cthulhu. First publish waaaaaay back at the dawn of the 80s (that sounds like an RPG in itself), Call of Cthulhu was a bit of a break from the usual sword and sorcery fare. Instead, it thrust the players into the shoes of investigators – normal people following clues to solve a mystery; only these mysteries were set amidst the Cthulhu mythos created by early 20th century horror writer HP Lovecraft. Despite this, the game makes it quite clear that even though the “default” setting is 1920s New England with the Cthulhu mythos festering and bubbling behind the scenes, Call of Cthulhu can be set in any time or place – Cthulhu and his chums are essentially ageless after all. In addition, if you fancy more traditional horror fare – with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, that’s possible too. With very high levels of lethality, and much more focus on investigation than combat, Call of Cthulhu is a refreshing change of pace for players who don’t want another romp down a dungeon. I’m sure the orcs would be glad of the break too – it’ll give them time to clear the place up. The most recent version – 7th – has a free quick start here. It’ll also tell you how to pronounce “Cthulhu” (and various other weird and wonderful names too).

Without going into a ton of RPG archaeology here, when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR (the original makers of Dungeons and Dragons) they released an Open Game license that essentially allowed for the creation of “retro clones” of previous versions. Yes, it’s more complicated than that of course, but the end result is that there are a lot of versions of earlier editions of “the worlds most famous roleplaying game” out there. A personal favourite of mine is Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. I did a review in an earlier episode of the podcast, and am guilty of periodically raving about it. OSE (as it is known to its friends) allows players to take part in adventures that have the mood and feel of those around at the birth of the hobby back in the 70s. It’s slick, it’s simple and it’s a lot of fun. While I can’t recommend the books more highly – seriously, they’re some of the best laid out products I’ve ever seen – Necrotic Gnome have their basic rules available for free here. Everything you need to get started in minutes!

Speaking of games close to my heart, next up on our list is SLA Industries by Nightfall Games. If you want the full scoop on SLA, check out our episode on the subject. For those of you happy with the tl;DR version, SLA (pronounced “slay”) has a futuristic setting; a nightmare universe ruled over by one omnipotent mega-corporation that controls everything. As part of this control, they employ operatives to ensure that everything goes according to their plan. Players take on the role of SLA ops, and game sessions see them investigating the various horrors and monstrosities that inhabit this awful setting. This is a rich and dark universe, and therefore might not be for every newcomer, but the quick start available here is the ideal introduction to the World of Progress. Watch your step in the sewers, rookie…

Vampire was White Wolf Game Studio’s flagship product for all of the 90s and the first part of the 21st century…

…then they killed it, and released Vampire: the Requiem in its place…

…then they released Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition in 2011 to bring the old setting back and it ran alongside Requiem as a separate game…

…then a new 5th edition was released in 2018 by Modiphius that updated the setting and the rules…

…but this new edition is currently available on Renegade Games Studio’s website…

If you want more about the game’s history, we have an episode about it (of course we do).

Vampire has a lot of lore – some would say an overabundance – but it is an extremely compelling premise. Rather than hunting or battling the monsters, you are the monster; a creature of the night, with alien hungers, trying to remain unseen by the humans whom you depend upon for sustenance.

With its unique, dark setting, Vampire lets you tell a ton of exciting and compelling types of stories, from the political machinations of vampires, to battles between undead monsters, to extremely introspective tales of personal horror.

There’s a reason Masquerade kept rising from the grave (pun very much intended) and it’s because of the setting.

If you’d like to get started with Vampire you can find the classic rules here or 5th edition here. I’m intentionally not including Requiem here as I, personally, don’t find the setting as compelling as the others and therefore won’t be recommending it.

So there you have it, five ways to get started for free in the wonderful world of tabletop RPGs. What are you waiting for? Also, if you’re a long time rolplayer, what quick starts would you recommend?

All images belong to the original copywrite holders. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

Roleplayers are always interested in cartography for some reason. Therefore, I’ve put together this map for the Dying World. Now, there’s not a great deal on it just yet – after all, we’ve barely spent any time with our party – but expect it to be added to over time.

Oh, and I’m rubbish at art as you might be able to tell… I might have to get my daughter to draw a better version for me.

For those of you aut fait with the Mörk Borg system, here are the character sheet for our intrepid adventurers as of game 1.


I won’t be including details of the various pieces of equipment that they are carrying as there are some things there that…well….you’ll have to listen to the story to find out what they do!

So, we’ve added a new mini series to our podcast – the Dying World, a Mörk Borg solo actual play. Our first episode went up on the 3rd of August 2021, and I’ve decided to use this site as a repository for things like character sheets, maps and all that other stuff that it’s kind of hard to put into a podcast.

As I mentioned in the introduction to the podcast, I’m honestly not sure how long this is going to last – solo play is something I’m new to and Mörk Borg is an incredibly lethal setting. There’s every chance my lovely characters will end up killed off within the first few episodes.

Hopefully not though.

Stay tuned for more content!

Back in my university days, I had a lot going on RPG wise. During Fresher’s week, I discovered the University’s roleplaying society and the Star Wars RPG’s joys. 

A trip into one of Glasgow’s Virgin megastores – a hallowed metropolis of roleplaying goodness! It led to me discover a locally produced game called “SLA Industries” that completely blew my mind and led to a campaign spanning many years. Years later, their “Karma” product still sticks with me as one of the most stylistically clever sourcebooks I’ve ever seen produced for an RPG. It might sound like I’m being guilty of donning the old rose-tinted specs here, but I’m not hyperbolic when I say that I don’t think I’ve ever got as much out of any other system’s supplement as I did out of this one. It was probably for this reason – the fact that the content was causing a near meltdown of my fragile little brain – that caused the book to self destruct into a pile of loose pages after only a few read-throughs. 

SLA Industries RPG: Amazon.co.uk: Allsop, Dave: 9780952217602: Books
Best game ever?

 A subscription to the beautiful “Valkyrie” magazine introduced me to a little-known (ha!) company called White Wolf, which resulted in a buying frenzy that some might have dubbed obsessive and a desire to own every new book and system they produced. Somewhat embarrassingly, it also fuelled a desire to run a crossover campaign; wouldn’t it be so cool to get all these supernaturals together in one game? Thankfully – mercifully – that never happened. I realised what a horrible idea this was and pulled the plug before this monstrosity was spawned. 

None the less, I ran games of Vampire, Mage and Wraith, and ended buying up other books that this renaissance of “darker” games birthed. Kult and Nephilim were two of my favourites. After one abortive attempt to run the latter, I realised how something could be good on paper and extremely impractical, complex and unwieldy in execution. 

However, competing for my attention – and the contents of my wallet – was a little something called the collectible card game craze. Like most gaming junkies at the time, I started with Magic but quickly moved onto Vampire: the Eternal Struggle – or Jyhad as it was known back then. Honestly, I can’t conceive of a poorer name for a gaming product, and I wonder how many CCG message boards, chat rooms and fan sites have been flagged for “attention” by the NSA and GCHQ for that reason alone… 

Magic: The Gathering - Wikipedia
Drugs would have been cheaper…

I enjoyed both games immensely, but, as Inquest magazine showed me, the market was filling up with hundreds and hundreds of games. If these two were good, why not check out the others? This is where the deceptive lure of CCGs is so insidious and so clever. Compared to investing in a new RPG, the entry footprint of a CCG is relatively small. A couple of boosters and a starter – at least back in the 90s – would set you back around a tenner. It was once you got hooked that they got their claws into you, and things started to hurt. None the less, I embraced this new hobby with gusto. In addition to Magic and Vampire, I dabbled in Star Wars, Star Trek, Illuminati, Rage, Middle Earth, Mythos, the X Files….the list was fairly long. 

The dangerous thing though? 

I enjoyed them all. And because of this, I wanted to COLLECT all of these games.

Yeah – that could be COSTLY.

Thankfully, another game came to my rescue and resulted in me becoming SO focused on it that I ignored all others…

Back in the late 90s, my “main” CCG was Star Wars. I was – and still am – a HUGE fan of the expanded universe, and after the first few expansions, the CCG had begun to hit its stride and was doing a great job of capturing the feel and theme of the films. It chimed nicely with the West End Games’ RPG that I was playing at the time, and besides, there was nothing quite like that feeling of opening a pack and getting one of the main characters in your rare slot… 

Depending on how you looked at it, I was also very fortunate as one of my friends owned a shop that primarily dedicated to collectable card games and RPGs. It was a great spot for hanging out, too; we did most of our gaming there – a wise move on the owner’s part as he knew full well that none of us could resist the urge to impulse buy a couple of boosters for whatever CCG we were currently playing.

It was there one Friday evening that said owner came over to me – I think I was just finishing up a game of Star Wars – and asked me if I was interested in a game called “Legend of the Five Rings”, or L5R for short. I had seen a few of the guys in the shop playing that game but had never paid much attention to it.  The whole samurai thing had never really done much for me, so I had largely just written it off as another fantasy game. He explained that he was running a sanctioned tournament in a few weeks – which was very dramatically named “The Day of Thunder” – and he was hoping to have a player represent one of each clan – the name of the game’s main factions. There was one clan that nobody was playing, and he made me an offer – he’d sell me a starter set and some boosters at “mate’s rates” and give me a whole load of cards for this clan that he didn’t use on the proviso that I entered the tournament. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth and forgetting that old drug dealer adage of “the first one is always free”, I acquiesced.   I had, of course, completely disregarded the fact that I had a week to learn a game that I had never played before to compete in a tournament full of guys who played this game religiously. 

Legend of the Five Rings | Board Game | BoardGameGeek
Friends don’t do this to each other…

I hurried home with my bundle of loot and plunged into the starter box, boosters and piles of cards that my friend had given me. After a weekend of poring over all my new goodies – when doubtlessly I should have probably been studying – I came to one, inescapable conclusion.

Everything about L5R BLEW MY MIND.

It wasn’t just the game – which I bloody loved, as it was largely about the interplay at the table between multiple players – but the setting, the story and the history. Alderac Entertainment Group had created an absorbing and immersive world, with an evolving plotline and some fascinating characters. Each clan had a distinct identity and an equally distinctive playstyle, but the little bits of fiction on the cards helped players understand the broader tale being told. I began collecting cards just to piece together the narrative – this was in the days before online Wikis existed to summarise everything in one neat place.

Therefore, imagine for a minute my face when the self same friend who got me hooked on the CCG came up to me a few months later, grinning widely and holding up an L5R RPG. 

He tapped the cover and then pointed at me before cocking his head to one side and raising an eyebrow.

I nodded.

Of course I’d play…

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game - Wikipedia

Entertainment Group – henceforth known as AEG – published the L5R RPG in 1997. It is a fantasy RPG set in the fictional Empire of Rokugan – a place heavily influenced by the legends and myths of Japan and other Asian cultures. However, this isn’t simply another “hey, aren’t samurai so cool with their honour and everything” type of setting. Yes, feudal Japan could make a fascinating period to set a game, but the Emerald Empire isn’t feudal Japan any more than the D&D’s Forgotten Realms are medieval Europe. It’s ultimately a fantasy setting, so expect to find a cast of trolls, goblins, spirits, animal-people, demons, dragons and undead alongside everyday humans! 

One of the fascinating aspects of the rulebook is the time it devotes to describing Rokugani culture. This organisational decision helps make the point that this isn’t just “D&D with katanas”. Everything in Rokugan revolves around the samurai caste, and the samurai, in return, centre their existence around their honour-based code of bushido. Because honour is such a personal thing, Rokugani have to be VERY careful not to offend samurai because doing so tends to result in a duel (or being cut down if you’re not a samurai). As a result, a culture has developed that is painfully polite and extremely carefully spoken. Rokugani do not value honesty – they value people who appear sincere in what they say. Outbursts of passion are considered uncouth, and a samurai is expected to maintain a dispassionate, emotionless demeanour at all times. Needless to say, there are some characters who excel at needling away at this mask…. Indeed, a quick mind and a sharp tongue are just as deadly as a good sword arm in Rokugan, and the potential for courtly intrigue in this setting is huge. That being said, this unique culture does require some investment on the part of the players and the GM. It’s well worth it, though – as I said, without this backdrop, L5R can quickly just become a “generic fantasy game with an Asian twist”.

Unlike the CCG and its expansions, which forged ahead with the timeline of the Emerald Empire, the RPG is set before the main action of the card game – taking place a couple of years prior. The setting is vibrant – detailing everything from day to day life of the people of Rokugan, all the way to the creation of the world by the divine Sun and Moon. Players take on the role of samurai – the nobility of Rokugan – and they can choose to be either bushi – warriors – or shugenja – priests and priestesses who receive magical powers from the divine beings they worship. 

Because of how much care and attention has been poured into the setting and its background, it’s possible to run many different kinds of story, from investigative, to courtly, to horror based. As we’ll see later on, AEG took this diversity to heart when writing adventure modules.

D&D 3rd Edition Character Sheet 2.5.p65
The titular five rings look great on the character sheet

Character creation is points based, with players allocating values to traits – innate abilities such as strength, intelligence and perception – and skills – learned abilities that a samurai is taught throughout their life. Skills might be things such as swordplay, calligraphy or oratory – basically, anything you could learn. These were also broken down into high skills and low skills, with the former being courtly skills – the kind of things that samurai were expected to use in their day to day. Prowess with a sword, the tea ceremony, and origami – these are all good and proper high skills. Low skills, on the other hand…well…this includes things like poison, gambling and stealth. Things that are generally useful but considered beneath a samurai will probably result in the loss of honour if you’re caught using them…

Alongside these two numbers is the concept of rings and yes, there are five of them…. A ring is (with one exception) a pair of traits. For example, the ring of earth is made up of stamina and willpower. The ring’s value is the lower of these two values. The fifth ring – void or, more accurately, nothingness – represents an inner reserve of strength – and points – that a character can use to pull off great deeds in times of need.

The value of rings are essential for several reasons, but two major ones stand out – the first is that they are key to advancing your character’s insight. This is a number made up of your total rings multiplied by ten, and your total points in skills. This unlocks more powerful abilities at certain thresholds – for bushi, this equates to powerful moves that can be unleashed in combat, whereas shugenja become better at spell casting.

The second use of rings comes down to magic – each spell is keyed to a specific ring; a shugenja will be using the value of the ring when attempting to cast a spell of the corresponding element.

 Depending on what clan and role a player takes determines their honour and glory – two life facts that are of immeasurable importance to samurai. Glory can be thought of social rank. The Emperor – as the son of heaven – has the highest glory and everyone defers to him. Peasants on the other hand, have very little glory. Characters generally earn glory through great acts of derring do and courage. 

Honour – on the other hand – is a character’s investment in the concept of bushido – the code of the samurai – and their belief in its righteousness. Characters with a high honour are seen as trustworthy and are generally treated better than characters with a low honour. However, they have to constantly live up to higher standards than a character with a low honour who can generally behave in a much more selfish manner. When put into situations where they could compromise their beliefs, honourable characters can fall back on their honour ranks to salvage the situation.

A system of advantages and disadvantages rounded out character creation. The former were good aspects of your character that cost points, whereas the latter were detrimental to your character and gave you points. One fun aspect of this was that particular merits were cheaper for certain clans. Crab clan samurai were more likely to be big lads, and therefore the Large advantage cost them less, whilst those pretty boys in the Crane found it cheaper to purchase “Benten’s blessing” – the standard “You’re good looking and charming” advantage.

When it comes to the system, L5R uses AEG’s roll and keep system – in short, when faced with a task, the GM gives the player a Target Number – or TN – and they then roll several dice equal to the appropriate trait and skill, and keep several dice equal to the trait. If they roll equal to or over the number, they succeed. For example, in combat, a character will roll agility and their relevant weapon skill to hit. 

The system becomes more nuanced through the concept of raises.  If you want to do something extra fancy, you can raise the difficulty by five. If you then succeed in your roll, you pull off a more spectacular victory. Magic makes excellent use of this to do things like extending the duration, range and effect of spells that are cast. Often certain acts of preparation – for example, aiming with a bow – allow a character to get a free raise – which is to say they get the benefits of a raise without raising the TN.

One other feature of the Roll and Keep system is the concept of “exploding dice”; every ten you roll “explodes”, which is to say you get to roll that die again and add the second number to the ten. If you get ANOTHER ten, you roll again and so on.

While the system is a lot of fun, it does mean that combat is pretty lethal – a reputation that L5R established reasonably early on in its run! 

The great thing about the core L5R book was that it was a complete game – you had everything you needed to start running adventures out of the box. There was a complete guide to the history of Rokugan, an overview of life in the Emerald Empire, comprehensive character creation rules, two schools for each clan plus rules for Ronin – masterless samurai – for those angsty edge-lords out there, detailed skill resolution and combat systems, which included rules for skirmishes, duelling AND mass battles, more information on weapons, armour and equipment than you’d ever need, details on Rokugani religion, a magic system with a ton of spells, GM tips galore, a bestiary, some fun maps and a starter adventure.


Somebody took a leaf out of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s book!

However, with hundreds of the CCG fans clamouring for more, the folks at AEG did not sit on their laurels. Over the next three years, they released no fewer than thirty-five supplements. Foremost amongst these were the “Way of the Clans” series – splat books that gave a detailed overview of Rokugan’s great clans’ history, structure, and culture, along with expanded character creation rules. A particular fan favourite, which played nicely with the theme of ancestor worship, was the history tables, which allowed you to establish a legacy for your character’s family. Perhaps your ancestor was a hero, a villain or something else – regardless, these tables were great fun for players and GMs alike! 

The Way of the Crab by Christina McAllister

In a nice nod to the CCG, each clan book also included sample decks for each clan. 

However, the most exciting thing in the clan books was the new schools they included. Schools were the “roles” the players chose for their samurai. In the core book, they were limited to bushi or shugenja for the leading families in a clan; the Clan Books allowed more variety. Why not be a diplomat, an engineer, a witch hunter or a courtier? These offered more variety for players and GMs alike and expanded the scope of what could be done with the game.

There were also extensive write-ups for prominent NPCs for each clan, and these, along with the substantive history chapters, helped breathe life into Rokugan. This is vital for a setting that wants to break away from accusations that its subject matter is entirely made up of idealised stereotypes. Having different characters with distinct personalities, motivations, and backstories goes a long way to show “Look! It’s not just some D&D samurai mash-up where everyone spends the whole time screaming about honour and killing themselves when they do something wrong.”

Of course, these books weren’t perfect – there was definitely a feeling of power creep, and that whichever clan had most recently received their clan book was “flavour of the month”. 

The Way of the Unicorn by Edward Bolme

Following these books’ success, “clan” books were released for the Minor Clans, Ronin, Monks and the Naga – the mysterious serpent people from Rokugan’s past. These broadened the scope of what could be played, but some players felt that they took away from what had always been the focus of L5R – the great clans and their families.

Fun as the clan books were, these weren’t the only products produced by AEG. A whole swathe of adventures, all dealing with different themes, were released between 1997 and 2000. Taking a leaf out of early D&D’s book, these were numbered and coded to give the prospective GM a good idea of what was covered. For example, the “S” series of adventures dealt with the Shadowlands, the “B” modules were themed around bushido, whilst the “M” adventures all revolved around magic. There were eleven modules released, with three dealing with the Shadowlands, two with Bushido, two with magic, one with the Imperial City, one with intrigue and two with the infamous City of Lies. 

Three of these products – City of Lies, Tomb of Iuchiban and Otosan Uchi were large, boxed sets that contained multiple booklets and other goodies such as maps. These boxed sets are generally held in high regard – City of Lies, in particular, is frequently cited as one of the high points of the original L5R run.

Otosan Uchi Boxed Set (Legend of the Five Rings, O-1 The Imperial City):  Ree Soesbee, Patrick Kapera: Amazon.com: Books

This use of numbered modules and boxed sets was also a clever marketing strategy; in a day and age where the market was dominated by “storytelling” games and where supplements were more concerned with character-building than published adventures, the L5R products tugged at a chord of nostalgia. The way they were presented was similar enough to D&D that many gamers – consciously or not – felt a natural affinity with them.

Various other sourcebooks were published that were neither splat book nor adventure, but special mention must be given to the Book of the Shadowlands. Printed like an “in-world” document, the Book of the Shadowlands essentially relegates any game “crunch” to sidebars and instead provides a highly atmospheric look into one of the game’s darkest settings. As someone once put it, this publication was more like an immersive storybook that just happened to have RPG rules included. Rereading this book, you get the impression that there was an intention to publish many volumes in a similar style to this. Whilst some later books attempt this, none comes close to Book of the Shadowlands in terms of presentation. 

Taking all of this into account, it should come as no surprise that L5R won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1997.

So far, so good. However, AEG were about to introduce something that would divide fans. You see, in RPG circles, and especially in an established setting, there is one word that can cause hackles to rise – metaplot. In essence, a metaplot is an overarching story that affects all aspects of the game. White Wolf are the most infamous in this regard – they’d release things in one book that would affect all other books they were going to release and, by extension, your campaign. L5R and its players were no strangers to this; the card game had had a metaplot for years. However, the RPG publishers had made a conscious choice to stay away from it, preferring to centre their game in a period that pre-dates the CCG’s metaplot events. 

For those unfamiliar with the CCG, the pivotal event that propelled the CCG timeline forward was an attempted coup by the Scorpion clan, which ended with the Scorpion being banished, a new Emperor in power and significant changes to the leadership of other clans. This sets the scene for a civil war in Rokugan and all the various events during the CCG’s arc. However, the RPG creators chose to put their game’s action before the coup – giving players and GMs a more durable canvas to paint on. After all, when one of the powerful clans is outlawed, and the other six are at each other’s throats, it makes it hard to conjure up a “…, and you all go on an adventure together…” premise.

L5R Legend Of Five Rings Scorpion Clan Coup Scroll 1 Sealed NIB Combo Box  631806055262 | eBay

AEG touched on the Scorpion Clan coup in their Otosan Uchi publication, which detailed the Imperial capital. In the third book in the box, The Scorpion’s Sting, a rough adventure framework is given for playing out the key aspects of that fateful event. However, it makes it quite clear that “not all gamesters, nor all players, will use this book”. The writers point out that this is a big event; it affects the entire Empire and, if you fancy it, you can mess around with it to have it fit your chosen timeline. It serves, if you like, as a bridging point between different points in Rokugan’s history, but it was never mandated in a White Wolf-esque “…and further supplements will take these events into account…” kind of way.

Then, in 2000, AEG released 2nd edition.

Now, it’s not strictly fair to say that 2nd ed was the first time AEG had played with the setting’s timelne – as mentioned previously Otosan Uchi included details of the Scorpion Coup, and several other later first ed supplements are set in its aftermath – but these jumps in time were fairly short and fluid – the coup itself is barely two weeks long. 2nd ed was when someone at AEG yelled, “FULL STEAM AHEAD!” and propelled the metaplot forward at a rate of knots. 

The 1st edition was set roughly two years before the Scorpion coup; the 2nd edition is set around two years AFTER the coup. In addition, this is considered to be the default setting for the new edition. This caused some problems for 1st edition players who had quite happily been plodding along in their pre-coup timeline and were looking forward to 2nd ed products…which were now all set in a future that hadn’t yet happened in their games…. Likewise, for new players who picked up second edition and had to take in all these “well, such and such a clan is now in hiding, and this family has been dishonoured and this thing is now happening over here” it could all feel slightly overwhelming and a bit like that time I walked into a cinema half an hour after a film had started…

However, this wasn’t going to be the only leap in time.

One of the earliest releases was Time of the Void – a supplement that detailed the entire Clan War arc encompassing the first few years of the CCG’s existence. To put this into context, whilst the entirety of L5R’s first edition moved the metaplot on by maybe a year or so, this one book looked to tie up several years worth of meta plot including – spoilers by the way – a civil war between the great clans of Rokugan, a plot to poison the Emperor, the Crab clan’s abandonment of their ancient oaths and their subsequent alliance with the forces of darkness, doppelgängers, the return of the Scorpion, the invasion of the capital city, the emergence of the Naga, the revelation that the emperor is possessed by a dark god who is planning on taking over everything, the rise of a disgraced ronin, the ascendency of an alliance of minor clans, a war between the forces of darkness and the monks, the corruption of one of the great clans, the opening of “The Twelve Black Scrolls” – yes, that’s as ominous as it sounds – and a massive finale in the form of The Second Day of Thunder. 

In short – it’s a LOT!

AEG L5R RPG 1st-2nd Ed Way of the Wolf VG - £21.75 | PicClick UK

Hold on to your hats though, because we’re not done yet! The Hidden Emperor sourcebook, released not that long after, detailed the next stage of the metaplot. Set two years AFTER the events of Time of the Void, this setting – detailed in a single book – takes up another four years of game time…. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the stories being told were bad – quite the opposite in fact! The L5R storylines were rich in detail and flavour, and featured some amazing characters. The pace though… It was breathtaking – the setting had gone from being somewhere stable that you could set a campaign, to an ever changing landscape where the next supplement that came out might very well not be compatible with where you had currently set things. 

It should be noted that the addition of rapidly moving metaplot wasn’t necessarily a misstep – I, for one, have always enjoyed metaplot in games, and I know plenty of others do too. The point I’m making here, though, is that for some people, it was far too much metaplot, far too quickly. 

However, the biggest change to affect 2nd ed and arguably the game’s popularity was the change to the system. Previously, a player would roll dice equal to their skill and trait when making a skill test, and they would keep dice equal to their trait. In this equation, skill equated to learned proficiency and trait to natural talent. 

In the new system, you only rolled dice equal to your skill and kept dice equal to your trait. In addition, skills were now capped at 10 rather than 5, and a lot of skills included specialisations. Whereas in the old system you’d learn to fight with edged weapons, in the new one you could learn that skill, but then learn specialities for different types of weapon too.  

To this day, I don’t know why they changed from the old system to this “new” one. Indeed, given that they went back to the system of rolling trait and skill for third edition, I think that’s a tacit nod to the fact that this new system simply didn’t work.

Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings: Oriental Adventures, Campaign Setting):  Trindle, D.: 9781887953382: Amazon.com: Books

Before we leave second edition, with its meta plots and added complexity, it’s important to note that it was during this time period that Wizards of the Coast – who had purchased the rights to the L5R card game – announced that Rokugan was going to be the setting for their “Oriental Adventures” line for D&D. As a result, aside from a few books released at the beginning of the 2nd ed run, most of its products were dual stat affairs – including D20 and Roll and Keep rules. D20 L5R didn’t survive for long, and I’m not sure its passing was mourned by many, but it was an interesting anomaly none the less.

Come 2005, a third edition was released, which included, amongst other things, an update to the storyline to bring it in line with where the CCG was at the time and a “Legend of the Burning Sands” sister game. In the L5R canon, the Burning Sands was an area roughly to the north of Rokugan, with its setting being a Gestalt of Near Eastern and European myths and legends. I never played this game – indeed, I bought a single starter for the spin off CCG and wasn’t too impressed – so I can’t comment on how it played. However, I think it could have worked as a sourcebook for another part of the world that Rokugan occupied but, then again, that took the focus away from the isolationist Rokugani and their drama. 

This was a pretty cool cover

Production of new material for the L5R rpg had slowed massively by this point, and in the five years of the 3rd edition’s run, it saw only ten supplements released. 

However, third edition succeeded where second hadn’t, by returning to the system previously outlined in first edition, therefore making it compatible with the various excellent supplements released for that earlier version. Besides, the creators had put in some serious work to clean up some of the rules bloat that had accumulated over the first edition’s lifespan and clear up some of the “flavour of the month” power creep mentioned previously. The designers also made skills more desirable, with benefits for taking them at certain levels, eliminating the sometimes purely mathematical approach to deciding between traits or skills in the first edition. 

When it came to character creation, the core book expanded beyond the first edition options and allowed for characters to be bushi, shugenja, courtiers, or one of a clan’s more specialist schools. 

Just like first edition, the main rulebook was a complete product – you had everything you needed in here to run a game, AND you had rules for setting it in whatever point of Rokugan’s history you wanted without being tied to a constantly shifting metaplot.

In the run up to the fourth edition release in 2010, I stumbled upon the developer’s diaries that were put online cataloguing the game’s construction. By this point, L5R was something I had fond memories of, but which I was not actively playing. However, reading those diaries suddenly reignited my interest in the setting and the game! What was being described seemed to me to be the complete version of L5R! Not only did it include the cleanest set of rules to date – from everything from character creation to combat – it also was not tied to any particular part of Rokugan’s vast (and still developing!) metaplot, and instead provided advice for setting your campaign in whichever period suited your tastes best. This was a hefty book – over 400 pages in length – and it was simply packed. 

Legend of the Five Rings hardcover core rulebook (L5R 4th Edition RPG)  AEG3300
This IS a meaty book…

I won’t go into the ins and outs of every section – the 4th edition takes the structure of the core books that have gone before and builds on them – but one section that stood out was the GM’s chapter. In this, there is some fantastic advice on writing all different kinds of adventures, but the part that I really loved was the piece explaining the differences in structure between Western and Asian stories. It’s great reading, even if you’re not planning on running L5R!

Is it perfect? Of course not, but it certainly feels more complete and more L5R than the previous two editions.

This was the last version of L5R that AEG would produce, and in 2018 Fantasy Flight Games bought the license. They have since released the fifth edition. I’ll hold my hands up here and say I’ve never played it – Fantasy Flight’s penchant for bespoke dice for everything they produce has put me off – but reviews I have read seem largely positive. It certainly seems to keep true to the spirit of the original, with a focus on the culture and drama inherent in the setting rather than degenerating into an outing of “Katanas and Kaiju”. Oh, and like most Fantasy Flight products it’s beautiful to look at.

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game | The Cardboard Republic

So there we have it; 25 years after the CCG released, L5R is still going strong as an RPG. If you haven’t given it a try, I’d strongly recommend checking it out. If the Fantasy Flight version seems a bit pricey (who am I kidding, it IS a bit pricey!), a quick sweep of eBay should be able to net you a copy of the first edition and everything you need to get started telling stories in Rokugan. It’s a vibrant, immersive setting – just be prepared for you and your players to spend the time learning the Rokugani culture if you truly want to get the full experience. Believe me though, it’s well worth it. 

Before long you’ll be verbally sparring in the winter courts of the Crane, delving into forbidden lore in the libraries of the Phoenix, foiling the machinations of the Scorpion, or fighting alongside the Crab as they defend the Empire from the encroachments of the Shadowlands. And believe me, you’ll love it.

After all, as a wise Rokugani saying goes, “We tell the tale of heroes to remind ourselves that we also can be great.”

Oh, and for those of you still wondering about that tournament that got me dragged into this whole thing in the first place, I ended up coming in second. Beginners’ luck, or a natural flair for strategy? You decide….

One of the best cards ever…

Join us as we explore the Emerald Empire of Rokugan! L5R is a fantastic fantasy setting that actually began life as a collectible card game of all things.

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