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.

Phew.

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
Urgh…

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. 

LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS 3RD EDITION REVISED CORE BOOK - RPG L5R AEG  ROLEPLAYING | eBay
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.

Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 1 Roll to Save

  1. Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 1
  2. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 2
  3. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – All Episodes!
  4. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 6
  5. Whitewash – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 5

If George Orwell ever wrote an RPG, it would be Paranoia.  Indeed,  when you consider that the game’s premise is a futuristic dystopia, ruled over by an omnipresent, all-seeing ruler; where anyone could turn on you at a moment’s notice, where facts that are patently true are denied in favour of the party line and where surveillance is rife, it’s hard not to imagine a more Orwellian setting.


It is therefore fitting that Paranoia was released in the year 1984.

t has always been a very unique game, and this was doubly so in the year of its release.  Whereas previous years had seen a surge of fantasy and sci-fi games, 1984 saw no less than five superhero themed games released.  The likes of “Golden Heroes”, “Marvel Super Heroes” and “Heroes Unlimited” suggested that there was an appetite amongst the roleplaying public to don spandex, fly through the air like a speeding bullet and fight crime with an array of dazzling powers.


These games – more so even than their fantasy and sci-fi counterparts – saw the players take on the roles of larger than life heroes, bristling with raw power and all the advantages that came with it.  These characters would fight for truth, justice and all that was good and pure.  They would band together in mighty super-heroic teams, take on villains and generally make the world a better place to live in.  There was no obstacle they couldn’t overcome, no enemy they couldn’t face.  They were brave, heroic and honourable.

Anyone who knows anything about Paranoia will know that this is pretty much the antithesis of anything played in that game…


The brain child of Greg Costikyan, Eric Goldberg and Dan Gelber – a trio of World Famous Games Designers at West End games – and conceived at the height of the Cold War, Paranoia invited players to explore Alpha Complex – an underground city existing at some vague point far in the future.  Set some time after a cataclysm had wiped out most of humanity, players in Paranoia took on the roles of Troubleshooters – elite (ha!) agents of the benevolent Computer that rules over Alpha Complex.


And this is where the Paranoia begins…


You see, in a bid to understand the event that devastated the world the Computer searched its (incomplete and damaged) memory banks and pieced together the (limited and incomplete) information it had access to.  The Cataclysm had devastated and damaged a lot of The Computer’s subsystems, so a lot of the information it had access to was was mostly in the form of Cold War era civil defence files, leading the Computer to the logical conclusion that all this chaos was caused by “The Communists” and that they might – AT THIS VERY MINUTE – be trying to infiltrate Alpha Complex and put an end to this last bastion of freedom.  Concerned for its citizens, the Computer put Alpha Complex on lockdown, and it has remained that way to this very day.


Not only that, but in a bid to defend its citizens from the evil Commie mutant traitors who were working insidiously to collapse society, the Computer instituted a system of surveillance, internal security and constant monitoring of activity for the duration of the emergency.  Reasoning that happy citizens are loyal citizens, the Computer took control of all means of production and distribution and sought to provide those that lived in Alpha Complex with everything that they’d ever need.  Shelter, food, entertainment, meaningful work – the Computer provided all of these and more.


Those of you who are astute students of history are probably smiling at this point.  That’s right; in its fight against “the Commies” the Computer has essentially created a miniature Soviet Union… 


Ok – so it’s got a dystopian setting, but so what?  There’s plenty of sci-fi games around.  What makes this so special?


Well, for starters, the Computer’s paranoia is infectious.  Think about it – when your all powerful leader is convinced that there are enemies everywhere, what are you going to do to prove that you’re not one of those enemies?  That’s right – you’re going to start rooting out the enemies.  And what happens when the majority of those enemies are more imagined than real?  Right again – you’re going to find evidence proving that they are real and, more importantly, prove that you’re not one of them.  And what do you think uncovering actually enemies does to an already paranoid yet all powerful ruler?  Yup – they’re going to realise they were right, and they’re going to double down on rooting out more enemies.  And what are you going to do…? 


You get the idea…

Unlike most roleplaying games that are co-operative experiences, Paranoia actively pits the players against each other.  The cleverest part?  Each of the players actually IS a bonafide traitor!  In Alpha Complex it is illegal to be either a member of a Secret Society or a Mutant.  Each player is both, and everyone KNOWS this – they just need to find the evidence…


What is more, Paranoia actively encourages the GM to stir the pot.  The best Paranoia adventures gives the players pre-written characters – characters that are pre-written with objectives that bring them into conflict with the other characters.  In any given game your character will have a mission that the group has to complete, but you’ll probably be given a mission by your Service Group or Secret Society that will bring you directly into conflict with another character and probably with your team’s mission.  


For example, your team might be instructed to repair a malfunctioning robot.  However, your character works for Power Services and the leaders of Power Services want to make Technical Services – their biggest rivals – look bad, and the robot is Technical Services’ responsibility, so maybe you could ensure that the robot malfunctions in some spectacular and public way?  Meanwhile, one of your team-mates, who works for the Armed Forces, has been instructed to alter the robot’s programming so that it only takes instructions from Armed Forces soldiers, while your colleague from Research and Design has been instructed to outfit the robot with some experimental gizmo that does dear-knows-what…. Oh, and all the while you don’t want to make it look like you were the one who sabotaged the robot.  In fact, it would be much better if you made someone else take the fall for this…


Couple this with missions that characters are given from their Secret Societies that will inevitably bring them into conflict with yet more people, and it’s easy to see how players in Paranoia very easily become…well…paranoid


Given that in most cases treason is punishable by summary execution, and given that all Troubleshooters carry powerful weapons, it is also easy to see just how lethal this game can be.
And that’s why – thank you Friend Computer – that every character has six clones; identical copies of each other than can be activated in the event of a previous clone’s unfortunate demise.  This simple device leads to most Paranoia players having a fairly cheerful and nonchalant attitude to death – and it also ensures that players don’t take it personally when one of their characters is caught doing something naughty and then subsequently terminated.
There’s also the small matter of information control.  

You see, one of the first things that the rulebook encourages the GM to do is to foster an atmosphere of “fear and ignorance”.  The Computer has enforced a system of security clearances across Alpha Complex, which corresponds to the electromagnetic spectrum.  At one end is INFRARED (represented by the colour black) and at the other, higher end is ULTRAVIOLET (represented by white).  In between are Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.  Everything in Alpha Complex, from people to corridors to equipment is assigned a security clearance.  You must remain in areas that are equal to or lower than your security clearance.  You can only use equipment of the same or lower security clearance.  Most importantly, you can only access information available to your security clearance.  Many Paranoia players, after asking the GM a question, will automatically start mouthing the phrase “I’m sorry, citizen.  That information is not available at your security clearance.”  This fact, whilst amusing the first few times you say it, works nicely to help the GM shape adventures.  Most Paranoia adventures would be fairly easy if the characters had access to the correct information.  When it’s not available, and the players have to fumble around in the dark, that’s where the humour begins.

Oh, and the game’s rules?  They’re security clearance Ultraviolet.  That’s right – apart from the rules outlined in the players’ section of the rulebook, knowledge of any other rule is illegal!  Again, whilst largely a humorous device, this rule does make it so that the GM can focus on making the game entertaining rather than having to deal with rules lawyers.


With all of these conceits, it is easy to see why the authors chose the tag line of “The roleplaying game of a darkly humorous future”.
That being said, first edition Paranoia took a fairly serious tone.  However, as supplements were released over the course of 1985 and 1986 the game and its play style took on the lighter tone that is usually associated with it.  Gone were the allusions to 1984 and Brazil and instead scenarios encouraged a much more playful, free-wheeling style.  Rather than assuming that the players were trying to survive in an insane, nightmarish dystopia, most supplements played up the comedy aspect of Paranoia – putting players in touch with wacky characters and wacky situations and encouraging a cheerful, carefree attitude to death.  Adventures were clearly written as one shots – the very notion of a Paranoia campaign was ridiculous given the high levels of mortality – but most of them were great fun.  


At that time, Paranoia adventures introduced several staples into their scenario design which most Paranoia GMs and future writers followed faithfully.  Amongst these were running jokes that rapidly got out of hand, insane firefights involving dozens of participants, situations of escalating degrees of danger that would probably be fairly easy to navigate if only PCs would co-operate with each other and crazy, malfunctioning equipment that the players were obligated to test.  

Unlike a lot of RPG companies that flood their release schedules with various splat books, player and GM guides and other “accessory” books, first edition Paranoia simply focused on the publishing of adventures.  There was a GM’s screen, but other than that the entire first ed run was all scenarios.  A lot of these early Paranoia supplements were genuinely funny, and a pleasure to read even if you were never going to run them.  

One of my absolute favourites was Acute Paranoia, a volume that included (amongst other things) the excellent adventure Me and My Shadow, Mark IV which sees the players assigned to guard the new Warbot Model Mark IV – a gigantic weapons platform with enough firepower to take on the entirety of Alpha Complex’s armed forces single-handedly, and with a suitably smug and arrogant personality to boot.  Every time I’ve run this I’ve loved watching the players debate amongst themselves who’s going to have to go and explain to Mark IV that they’re there to guard and protect him…. This adventure does a brilliant job of introducing all the elements that make Paranoia scenarios so much fun, without going off the rails into the realms of over the top cartoon craziness (although, it COULD be played that way if you wanted to – there is an optional Will-E-Coyote style ending)…


Unsurprisingly, Paranoia won the Origins Award in 1984 for Best Roleplaying Rules, and one of its supplements, The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, won the H.G Wells Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure of 1985.


It should be noted at this point, that both first and second editions were published in two separate forms – one by West End Games in the US, and one by Games Workshop in the UK.  The West End Games first edition was a boxed product consisting of the Player Handbook, the Gamesmaster Handbook and an Adventure Handbook.  It also came with a couple of ten sided dice.  The second edition was also boxed, and came with a new introductory adventure, two twenty sided dice and a guide called “The Compleat Troubleshooter” which included details on “Mandatory Bonus Duties”.  These were assignments for team members like Team Leader, Loyalty Officer and Recording Officer that have since become a staple of the setting.  The idea is that each player is given some extra responsibility to make their life that more…interesting, and to give their team mates another reason to be more Paranoid…


The Games Workshop first edition was a hardcover volume that included all three books from the basic set as well as three additional short adventures that were published with the first edition Paranoia GM’s screen.  It also didn’t come with dice.  

GW’s second edition was identical to West End’s second edition except, again, it was bound as a single hardcover, and it didn’t include the Compleat Troubleshooter or dice.

Come 1987, the second edition of Paranoia was released.  This was much more rules-light than the first edition, abandoning complexity in favour of a much looser system that favoured Paranoia’s crazy, fast-moving style of play.  
As shown by the rules changes, Paranoia second edition fully embraced the move from the dystopia suggested in first edition’s main rulebook, to more comic territory.  With Ken Rolston as line editor, Paranoia defined a style for itself; a style that was funny, clever, irreverent and utterly unlike any other roleplaying game out there.  Jim Holloway’s superb artwork brought this dark, insane world to life.  Players found themselves falling in love with this game that was utterly unlike anything they’d played before.  After years of being told that RPGs were about collaborating, here was a game that actively encouraged you to hose your friends!  2nd edition – at least initially – was generally considered to be the high point of the original line.    

And then 1989 happened…

Actually, I should back up for a moment and give this some context.  With the release of second edition in 1987, West End Games were pretty slow in getting supplements out.  Three adventures eventually showed up in 1988, but until then Paranoia GMs were left either running old adventures or writing their own.  Ken Rolston left at around this time, as did the main line developers.  

However, regardless of this, 1989 suddenly saw a deluge of supplements released, and what’s more four of them were apparently connected in an arc called “The Secret Society Wars”.  
It’s here that I’m going to provide two warnings – one for spoilers, and one for the rant that I’m probably about to embark on…

The “Secret Society Wars” were the beginnings of what we’d probably nowadays term “meta plot” – that is, an overarching storyline, the outcomes of which could affect your game and would affect the development of future supplements.  Those of you familiar with White Wolf products will know all about this – the kind of supplement that says “Yeah, you’re free to ignore this stuff but future books will take it into account”.

Full disclosure – The Secret Society Wars that these books reference aren’t really a war per se or something that the players can easily get involved in without substantial work on the behalf of the games master.  For example, in The DOA Sector Travelog, the first book in this series, it is simply mentioned that someone is targeting members of the Sierra Club secret society for termination.  That’s it.  I’m not even sure they address who this someone was in a later supplement.

Anyway, as I just mentioned, The Secret Society Wars begins with The DOA Sector Travelog – a guide to an entire sector.  On the face of it, this is an ok idea; up until this point there had never really been any guidance as to what a sector actually WAS.  How big was it?  Who lived there?  What went on there?  Then again, one of the most beautiful aspects about Paranoia was it vagueness – Alpha Complex could be anything you wanted it to be.  Did we actually need things defined?  There’s also the problem of absurdity.  Unlike the original premise of Paranoia where the humour came from the situations that arose simply trying to survive in Alpha Complex – a lot of which was fairly dark in nature – this supplement is rooted firmly in the wacky.  
Take its entry for the Junior Citizen Nursery Station.  This is one of the areas detailed in the Travelog, and it’s where the clones of Alpha Complex are raised and educated.  Now, if you were to choose to go down the “darkly satirical” route you could probably conjure up a lot of black humour with the possibilities afforded here.  Images of 1984Brave New World and Soviet education spring to mind.  Here young clones are indoctrinated, and this is where we see the roots of Paranoia beginning.  Fear and ignorance is fostered in the youth of Alpha Complex so that, when they go out into the world as adults, they do so looking over their shoulders; seeking to get ahead through duplicity and backstabbing rather than co-operation.  Rather than create the next generation of bold clones who will change Alpha Complex for the better, The Computer, in its paranoid state, has sewn the seeds of mistrust and misery, and contributed to another cycle of things deteriorating across the Complex rather than improving.
Instead of this, what the Travelog treats us to is a room filled with conveyor belts, babies on the conveyor belts, servo-arms flinging baby food around the place, and characters with names like Sesame-Y-STR-5 and Mister-R-GRS-2.  Yes, this book goes all in on the pun names, and the pop culture parodies…
However, bad puns and wacky humour aside, the one thing that really stood out to me when I opened this book was the art.  Or rather, the fact that it’s not Jim Holloway art!  For long time fans of Paranoia, Jim Holloway’s drawings defined the setting.  They absolutely captured the insanity of living in Alpha Complex, and really helped the setting come alive.  These drawings though…they’re not bad exactly, but they just don’t feel the same.  Also, there are far too many Commies in furry hats for my liking…


The second book in the Secret Society Wars cycle is The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure.  Now, again, spoiler warning here.  On the face of it, this adventure itself is actually based around a fairly clever conceit.  In a bid to understand the Communist threat and what makes supposedly loyal citizens join them, Friend Computer has walled off a disused sector, and set it up as “Alpha State”, even going as far as turning the resident compode (which is to say, that part of Friend Computer that oversees the sector) into “Tovarich Computer”.  It then populated the sector with lots of citizens of proven loyalty, who were all given hypnosis drugs and told that they were Commies.  Each of these citizens was given a carefully constructed past, and none had any memories of life in Alpha Complex.  The Computer then settles back to see what happens.
Again, handled correctly, this would be a really interesting adventure.  Having the players realise that their entire existence is a lie, all the while also realising the Alpha State isn’t actually that different from Alpha Complex could be a lot of fun.  However, the way the adventure is presented…
In the section on roleplaying suggestions it says “Everybody in Alpha State Talk with good, tick, Rrussian accent!”  This is followed by a section that begins “Everybody knows all Russians have BIG moustaches!  Even the women.  Just look at any Russian Olympic team, and tell me the women weren’t shaving at a younger age than most American males.”
Right.
Crass stereotyping aside, how does the adventure play?  As I said before – it’s wacky.  It features mud pies, pun names, far too many tractor jokes and a plane armed with banana peel dumpsters and confetti bombs.
Yes.
There is another nod to the “secret society wars” which at this point is simply three masked men wiping out another small group – again, no explanation is offered.


Following the book, More Songs About Food Vats was released, and it was so memorable that I’m afraid that I can’t remember what it was even about.  I own a copy, but something is preventing me pulling it off the shelf and reading it.  Probably some kind of post traumatic defence mechanism.


Finally, the grand build up of the Secret Society Wars pays off in the form of The Iceman Returneth – which I think honestly left a few people going “Huh?” as so far the wars had amounted to two “on screen” scenes and one “off camera” reference in the Travelog.
This book met a mixed reception.  On one hand, some fans applauded West End for trying to do something new to “freshen up” the setting.  On the other hand there were people who pointed out that the setting didn’t need freshening up, and that by doing so the line developers broke it.  
Iceman featured the return of a cryogenically frozen programmer from the past – one of the Computer original programmers in fact.  He is horrified in what he sees in Alpha Complex, and enlists the players’ help in setting things right.  
Like The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure the premise is rather interesting.  What WOULD Alpha Complex look like to an outsider, and could it be saved?
However, also like The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure it falls down horribly in the execution.  The main character is uninteresting, there’s more shenanigans with “non-lethal weaponry” (which is the authors’ excuse to put in more custard pies, water pistols etc), some indestructible leaflets and underwear inspections…
What’s more, the plot is ridiculously contrived and railroaded.  For example, near the end, the PCs are in a direct position to threaten the Computer itself.  If one of them dies WHY would the Computer activate their clone replacement?  Simple answer, it wouldn’t.  Yet it does, so that the plot can happen.


Prior to recording this podcast, I ran a game of Paranoia for my cohosts and some friends.  The thing that really struck me about it was that it was a genuinely funny experience – I actually laughed out loud a few times – but that all the humour came through the players’ interaction with the scenario and the other characters.  There were no jokes per se written into the scenario – sure, each of the characters was given objectives that clashed with those of other characters, but nothing was written as “funny haha”.  There were no pun names, and there was no ridiculous slapstick.  Yet people still found humour in the situations.  One of the players said that he loved when the Computer would randomly interject and ask for a status update, usually at the most inconvenient moment.  None of the players would say anything particularly comedic at these moments, but watching the object of the Computer’s scrutiny trying to think on their feet whilst everyone else around them desperately is hoping that they would fail – that’s where the humour would come in.
This probably explains why I’m so down on The Secret Society Wars supplements.  Something like Me and My Shadow Mark IV finds humour in Alpha Complex’s bureaucracy and simply trying to stay alive in such an insane world.  The Secret Society Wars scenarios find humour in people slipping on banana skins and being hit by custard pies.


Anyway, back to The Iceman Returneth – the players end up killing the Computer.

Yes.

Seriously.

At the end of the scenario they cause the Computer to crash.

And this is what is the focus of the next supplement, Crash Course Manual, and the next iteration of the meta plot.
I bought Crash Course when it first came out as the setting intrigued me.  Actually, if I remember correctly, my friend Callum and I chipped in together to buy it when we were in the Virgin Megastore in Glasgow, but as I was usually the GM I ended up having it round my house more often and now, 31 years later, it’s living here in the US with me – sorry Callum!
Anyway, this was the book that described Alpha Complex WITHOUT the Computer.  It had a few nods to the Secret Society wars, but no real conclusion.  Oh, and remember earlier how I mentioned that in the DOA Sector Travelog the writers had started to include pop culture references like Mister-R-GRS-2?  Well, starting with the Crash they went ALL IN on parody.  The sample adventure that came with the manual, A Passage to NDA Sector, contains enough on its own – the expedition is led by Marco-B-OLO, the transport is the SIMBot (and it looks like an elephant), they come across Ollie-B-ABA who has forty odd thieves as his cohorts, they encounter a sailor called Sin-B-ADD, and meet the would be king of IAM sector called Yul-B-RNR.  Actually, just reading these out you realise how stupid they are.  In earlier supplements, a pun name like Johnny-B-GUD worked, because it sounded like it was written.  Ollie-B-ABA though?  It’s clearly meant to be “Ollie Baba” but it doesn’t work when said out loud.
Anyway…
It doesn’t stop there though.  There are FSA sector battle bots.  There’s a troubleshooter team called Kell-Y’s heroes.  Again, another case where it works better written down than it does said out loud).  There’s a clone wandering the corridors who doesn’t adhere to any security clearance colours, known as Dan-G-ALF the grey.  There’s even a clone called Mad-O-NNA.  In the illustration she looks like 1980s Madonna.
You get the idea.
Bad puns and parodies aside, although the setting is interesting as a premise, it practically guts Paranoia of everything that makes it worthwhile.
What makes Paranoia funny?  It’s certainly not slapstick or pop culture references.  No, the humour in Paranoia comes from the setting.  It comes from struggling in a dystopian world where you’re constantly under surveillance, where everyone wants you to fail, and where you’re serving the needs of an inept bureaucracy and trying to satisfy a well-meaning but insane ruler.  
Take all of that away and you have to manufacture your humour as the post apocalyptic setting that you’re left with isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with comic potential.

This is readily apparent in the other supplements that were released for the Crash.  
Take, for example, Gamma-LOT where part of Medieval England is teleported into LOT sector.  See what they did there?  They’re not using anything to do with post-crash Alpha for the humour, they’re dredging it up from outside sources.
We then have the Vulture Warriors From Dimension X trilogy, which is a series of time travelling adventures where the Troubleshooters are sent back in time to stop the Crash.  What follows are three adventures that parody CyberpunkTwilight 2000 and Dr Who.  In a bid to be innovative, the first two adventures include rules for crossover play, to allow characters from the systems being parodied to be played alongside the Paranoia characters.  I guess this could be fun as a one off, but it’s not really explored in great detail – the adventures are all presented from the Troubleshooters’ perspectives.  Anyway, they end up resolving nothing and return to a Crashed complex.  
Again, this is a case of wasted potential – these adventures could be interesting if they weren’t so damned insistent in cramming in tired, unfunny gags.   

Look at Twilightcycle: 2000 for example,  The main antagonist in this is an ultraviolet Communist called Bigbro-U-THR.  But when he’s hanging around with 21st century Soviets he goes by the name Bigolas Brudderkof.  Oh and, of course, he speaks with theeeeeck Rrrrrrrasssian accent.
Really?


Following these books comes Death, Lies and Vidtape – supposedly the conclusion to the Secret Society Wars and an adventure in which the Computer returns.  Yup – after West End killed it off they decided a couple of years later to bring the Computer back.  Amusingly, this adventure was written by Allen Varney – a very talented writer who went on to head up Mongoose publishing’s release of Paranoia XP in the early 2000s.  When asked about Death, Lies and Vidtape he described it as something he “wrote because of an urgent cash-flow crisis – one of the sorriest projects in my bibliography”.


Following the conclusion of The Secret Society Wars (such as they were) West End started the next phase of their meta plot with The Paranoia Sourcebook that gave a guide to Post-Reboot Alpha. 
I’m not going to bother going into masses of detail here, because by this point Paranoia is limping along like a lame dog.  There’s a phrase in TV – “Jumping the Shark” – to describe that moment where a show that was once widely popular but which has since grown less popular, resorts to increasingly desperate tactics to keep viewers’ interest.  If the Crash was Paranoia’s attempt to Jump the Shark, Post Reboot Alpha was an attempt to turn the boat around for a second pass.  
The supplements that were produced were bland, unfunny, and lacked everything that had once made Paranoia great.  In fact Allen Varney, the line developer for Paranoia: XP sums it up best when he says “Top to bottom, stern to stern, front to back and throughout, the meta plot was poorly conceived, disastrously executed, hermetically free of actual humour — in short, a complete waste of time and effort.
However, the worst was yet to come…

In 1995 West End Games released “Paranoia: The Fifth Edition”.  “Wait a minute”, I hear you say, “This is only the third edition, right?”  Yup – calling it fifth edition was a HILARIOUS joke.
That really sums up all you need to know about fifth edition.  Oh, other than the artwork…. Remember how I was bemoaning the fact that Jim Holloway no longer did the art for a lot of second ed?  Well, the artwork for fifth edition is so bad – so cartoonish – that it makes the non-Holloway art of second ed look like a breath of fresh air.


They released one supplement for it – Creatures of the Nightcycle – that was a parody of Vampire: The Masquerade.  
It was bad.
Really bad.
The pun names were awful, and yes, you’re probably thinking “But characters have always had bad pun names in Paranoia.”  True, there have been puns throughout Paranoia’s history.  But whereas in previous editions you characters like Sue-R-RAT, and Barb-R-ELA at least you could shorten them to thinks like Sue-R or Barb-R when your characters were interacting with them.  In this monstrosity (yes, THAT pun is fully intended!) you’ve actually got sentences that read like “Mag-Y-ICK approaches Mask-R-ADE…” and “Bramst-O-KER used to be a mystic…”  How do you exactly bring those characters into the game?  “Bramst-O is waving at you?”  “Looks like Mask-R wants a word with you.”
Urgh.
That’s not the worst part though.
The writing…
I think they’re trying to come off as glib and casual, but it’s just really bad and forced.  Again – Paranoia doesn’t need humour hammered into it, the situations it creates, when played properly, should be funny enough in themselves.
In one paragraph where it talks about tips on getting the PCs to travel to a certain location it reads “I don’t know, have giant alien ships that run on DOS (TM) fly over the Complex and kill everyone except the characters who, because they’re the protagonists, can hide in the one doorway that doesn’t get blown down, and then retreat to the secret underground laboratory from which the can save the world with their PowerMac.  Or something like that.”
I’ve reread that a couple of times and I still don’t know what they’re aiming for with it.  Yes, Independence Day had some plot holes, but I don’t understand what it’s got to do with getting your characters to travel from A to B…
Compare this style to a piece written in one of the Ghostbusters’ supplements, that was produced at around the same time as 2nd edition Paranoia was at the height of its powers, and penned by the same folks that made that edition of Paranoia so memorable.  The context is the same – it’s offering the Games Master advice on getting the players to do what they’re supposed to do.
Now we’ve set everything up in a nice, neat order for you.  Are your players going to follow that nice, neat order?  Well, probably.  Real clever players may think up ways to bypass a couple of steps.  Real cheerful players may resolutely pursue self-destructive, impractical approaches.  We never promised you a rose garden.
The message is clear – know your audience Mr GM! – but the way it’s delivered is amusing.
However, the agonising writing style of this book isn’t the worst thing about it.  No sir.
There’s scene in a lab where there are two R&D techs who are straight up copies of Bunsen and Beeker from the Muppets.  Nope – I don’t know why either.  
Oh wait, I do.  You see, this scene leads to a song and dance act…  
I kid you not.  It actually reads “Then suddenly, a broad smile moves across his face and music begins to play.  As he sings, mutants pop out of the walls next to him, joining in…”
What follows is a parody of the opening song sung at the beginning of each Muppets episode.  And because it’s in bold it means that the GM has to read it aloud to the players.
It should be noted that this isn’t the only song in this adventure…
There’s a clone that can only speak in song and rhyme.
There’s a parody of The Timewarp.
There’s even a parody of the Jack Rabbit Slim’s twist contest from Pulp Fiction…
Ok, enough.  This isn’t good for my blood pressure…

Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, this bloated, humourless, mess of a supplement was the last thing that West End Games published for Paranoia.  According to the introduction to Paranoia: Flashbacks the whole Secret Society Wars arc, the Crash, the Reboot and the abomination that was Fifth edition resulted in West End games seeing a 90% slump in sales.  When the company went under shortly afterwards, many thought that Paranoia was dead and buried for good…

…until in 2004 when those nice folks at Mongoose Publishing released Paranoia: XP (shortly followed by Paranoia: XP – Service Pack 1).  Mongoose had to drop the XP part – apparently a certain tech giant had issues with it – but this game was – how do I put this without sounding hyperbolic – bloody amazing.  XP did several things.  Firstly, not only did it take Paranoia firmly back to a Computer controlled Alpha Complex, it also made the bold move of declaring most of the Secret Society War adventures and everything following them (including the Crash, the Reboot and everything fifth edition related) as “unproducts”.  As bold as this Orwellian statement was, it was welcomed by almost all fans of the game, as it made it quite clear that XP and any of its up and coming supplements would remain fully rooted in the setting that made Paranoia great.  
What’s more, the developers acknowledged that there were different ways to play Paranoia, unlike the assumption that had crept in towards the end of the West End reign that wacky craziness was the default.  
Firstly, there was Classic; the play style made popular in the halcyon days of first edition and early second edition.  This is the Paranoia of rapid fire hose jobs, malfunctioning equipment, stifling and sanity blasting bureaucracy, and jokes that reoccur with terminal frequency.  Troubleshooters may go through a clone or two before the mission starts, and probably will say goodbye to all of them before the mission is over.  Players are generally at each others throats from the get-go, and work frantically to pin an accusation of treason on their rivals.  
There was also Zap – that style that people who didn’t play Paranoia associated with it, and which proliferated the last days of West End Games.  Pop-culture parodies, cartoon physics, custard pies, silly-string and cries of “TRAITOR!” punctuated by laser fire every time someone so much as opened their mouth.  Character names were always outlandish puns, without any nods to plausibility.  Chaos and mayhem abound.

I’m not lying; there’s an adventure in here, the implications of which are chilling…


Now, whilst these two were acknowledged as the most common ways of playing, Mongoose made the bold step of also suggesting a third way, a style they called Straight (or sometimes Dark).  In this mode, Alpha Complex is actually functional.  The Computer is present, but not omnipresent.  Rather than focus on the crazier aspects of the setting, Straight play focuses on fear, ignorance and power.  There’s even a chance for (whisper it) the players to succeed.  Rather than running around, pointing at their team mates and screaming “I BURN HIM WITH MY LASER!” Straight play encourages players towards mutual suspicion and the careful collation of evidence against rivals.  Troubleshooters didn’t always turn on each other at the drop of a hat, and this resulted in an environment where tension and paranoia rapidly built.  Think about it – in Classic you knew that EVERYONE was out to get you.  Here you didn’t.  Which is scarier?  This version of Paranoia is much more 1984 than Laurel and Hardy.  Mongoose even released an entire supplement of Straight adventures, which includes the darkest scenario ever written for Paranoia.
As well as bringing the rules up to date, XP did the same for the setting.  Alpha Complex now had much more in common with Communist China than it did with Communist Russia.  The Cold War fears of the 80s were replaced with….well, the Paranoias of the early 2000s.  Filesharing, computer viruses, terrorism, WMDs, spam and an unstable economy were now de rigour.  This made the whole thing much more relevant to newer audiences who had perhaps only heard of Paranoia by reputation before.


Mongoose went onto publish a whole swathe of wonderful supplements for Paranoia: XP between 2004 and 2009.  Special mention must go to Flashbacks which revisited some of the classic Paranoia adventures from the glory days of 1st edition and brought them up to date for the new edition.  

Also of note was the Traitor’s Manual which went into depth on each of the secret societies.  For those of us who liked dabbling with the new Straight style of play, this book was a God send.  Thought that Paranoia Commies were moustachioed Cossacks, wearing most glorious furry Babushka and taking in Rrrrrroooooshian accent?  Take a look at them in Straight play where they are genuinely scary terrorists that blow up buildings full of innocent people…

Come 2009, Mongoose released the 25th anniversary edition of Paranoia; this time having three different rulebooks, which allowed players to create Troubleshooters, Internal Security Troopers, or….wait for it…High Programmers!  Now, playing as different clearances of characters was nothing new; back in first edition there was the HIL Sector Blues supplement with rules on playing Internal Security Troopers, and XP had published Extreme Paranoia that included rules for citizens all the way up to Violet.  However, rules to play High Programmers?  Blimey.  Production continued until 2012.

Finally, in 2017 Mongoose released the Red Clearance Starter Set.  Featuring completely reworked mechanics and updates to the setting, this edition none the less carried on the tradition of fear and ignorance started over thirty years previously.  I’ve not played this edition, so I can’t comment on it, but the reviews I’ve read seem favourable.

So there you have it.  One of the funniest roleplaying game ever made, conceived and firmly based on the mindset that made the prospect of nuclear armageddon a very plausible reality for decades.  Despite being almost forty years old, I’d argue that Paranoia remains as tangible and relevant today as it did in “glory days” of the Cold War.  Sure, we might not be huddling in fear of the Commies unleashing a hellstorm on us from above, but just turn on the news and tell me that a game dealing with fear, ignorance, hatred of those that are in someway “different”, shadowy conspiracies, terrorism, excessive bureaucracy, technofear and excessive gun violence isn’t topical.  In fact, when you see who’s in charge these days, suddenly Friend Computer doesn’t seem that bad.  At least in Alpha Complex you get six lives… 

I can still remember that day in the school playground (that’s “recess yard” or something similar for my American readers…) back in 1985 when Greig McKinnon rushed over to me in an excited frenzy and thrust a book into my hands.

“You have GOT to read this. It’s like a story, but you’re the hero in it!”

The book looked amazing. It was called “The Temple of Terror” and had a cover featuring some kind of armed and armoured snake guy barring the entrance into a desert city.

The blurb began:

The dark, twisted power of the young Malbordus is reaching its zenith. All he needs now is to retrieve the five dragon artefacts which have been hidden for centuries in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls…”

I had no idea what “zenith” meant, but this guy sounded like he needed stopped, and given that the blurb also said “Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU become the hero!” it sounded like I was very much the person to stop him!

Needless to say I DEVOURED the book – actually, I still have my original copy (I think I swapped Greig some comics for it) and it does sort of look like it’s been physically consumed and regurgitated.

Given that this was carried around in my schoolbag like a holy relic I’m surprised it’s still in one piece…

After reading this I knew I needed more; Temple of Terror was book 14 in a series so there were at least 13 other ones I hadn’t read… I badgered my mum to take me to the library, and I scoured the shelves for those tell-tale green spines. Any pocket money I had went on new game books.

I was hooked.

This started my love affair with a series of books that went on for over 50 titles, spawned numerous spin off media, and which drew me – like the tractor beam on the Death Star – towards the wider hobby of roleplaying and really grew my love of the fantasy genre.

The series I refer to is – of course – the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the co-founders of Games Workshop.

The books will open with an introduction that explains the background to the main tale. The story is then split across numerous numbered paragraphs – traditionally Fighting Fantasy books have 400 but there are exceptions – which will make zero sense if read in order. Instead, as the reader finishes a paragraph they will be given a series of choices which allows them to influence the direction the narrative is taking. These are represented by other numbered paragraphs the reader can turn to. This continues until the story concludes, either successfully – the words “Turn to 400” were the sweetest words a Fighting Fantasy fan could ever read – or…er…less successfully (usually in some hideous, gory fashion). Seriously, the number of times my eyes would widen in horror as I read some horrible description of my failure followed by the words “Your adventure ends here…”

Of course, this concept of branching narrative, you-are-the-hero type stories wasn’t new – Choose Your Own Adventure books had been around since the late 1970s. What made Fighting Fantasy new and exciting when it first hit the shelves in 1982 was the inclusion of the GAME element.

According to the blurb in each gamebook “Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need to make your journey…” – yes, you’d be keeping score on a character sheet (or “Adventure Sheet” as FF called it)!

Of course, compared to most RPGs, FF was really simple. For starters, there were only three statistics to keep track of; SKILL – reflecting your swordsmanship and general knack for all things heroic, STAMINA – health or hitpoints; if this ever got to zero you were dead regardless of where you were in the story, and LUCK – which was…er…how lucky you were. Simple as these were, they combined beautifully as the engine that ran the crunchy bits of your adventure. When something was in doubt, you tested your LUCK. If you were lucky then something good (or something “not bad”) happened. If you were unlucky the consequences could vary from losing a couple of points of STAMINA, to missing out on an important item to death! When a battle occurred, SKILL and STAMINA scores were given for the creature you were fighting and this was resolved using a simple, but effective, combat system.

There was some interplay between the stats; you could use LUCK in combat to influence how much damage you did or took, and various potions and provisions were available to raise your STAMINA. Occasionally some magic objects or adventuring gear would be on hand to raise your SKILL or make you more effective in combat but, on the whole, the system remained elegant and simple.

Of course, I’m writing this with the hindsight of an adult. Nowadays, when I pull out a Fighting Fantasy book for a read through I’m scrupulously honest. I roll my stats and stick with them no matter how bad. Ever combat is fought fairly, and if I die to a monster I shrug, roll up a new hero and start again. Should my LUCK plummet to absurdly low levels and I end up succumbing to Murphy’s law, so be it – I can hope to be luckier on my next adventure.

Did I do this as a kid though?

Ha!

Ian Livingstone – one of the original authors – has made reference before to the “five fingered bookmark”; an allusion to the fact that most discerning school children would keep their fingers wedged between the various paragraph choices that they came to, being able to quickly “rewind” if the room they had blundered into contained a hungry monster rather than the treasure they expected.

In addition to this, most schools didn’t really approve of clattering dice during reading time. Naturally, being the good boy I am I didn’t want to break these rules. No, far better to assume that my hero bossed his way through every combat and shrugged off all damage like a champ than risk behaving like some kind of anarchist

Later series of the books actually came with dice printed at the bottom of the right hand pages so that players could flick through to simulate a dice roll. However, even this wasn’t a cure to rampant cheating – I’m pretty sure when I did this the amount of double sixes I rolled was uncanny (and the particular page that they sat at the bottom of looked suspiciously worn…).

Later entries in the series were much more clever in how they dealt with cheaters. Rather than let them get to the end and ask things like “Do you have item X?” (which of course I always did…) they would have entries like “If you have a key with a number on it, subtract that number from the paragraph you are on just now and turn to the new reference number…” There were even a couple that had mechanisms designed specifically to catch cheaters and punish them!

Thou shalt not suffer a cheater to live – nope, this guy didn’t…

So, we’ve got a series of books where you are the hero with a basic roleplaying system bolted on. That’s all well and good (and potentially gimmicky) but how did they read?

Simply put, they were extremely immersive. This was especially true once the series built up a head of steam. Sure, the first few followed some fairly basic fantasy tropes (“Go and kill the big bad over there…”, “Go and collect the magic item over here…”) but once these had been established the authors started actually world building, and the results were wonderful. Every new book felt like a return to a setting that the reader was familiar with, and which was exciting for that familiarity. When new books explored as-of-yet-unseen corners of Titan (as the FF world was named) the excitement grew further. Over the years the series explored other settings – notably sci-fi but also including post apocalyptic, superhero and horror – but because none of these settings were anchored in the familiar and fascinating world of Titan, none of them really stuck, and this goes a long way to explain why the series remained “Fighting Fantasy” and not “Fighting Fantasy and Associated Trades”.

Aiding and abetting the world building, were a wonderful cast of artists. Fighting Fantasy books were lovingly illustrated by a whole host of talented people, and the paintings that adorn their covers put today’s computer generated images to shame. Every single piece of art – from the aforementioned covers, to the illustrations accompanying the main text, to the little incidental pieces that split up the paragraphs to the maps on the insides of the covers – helped drag you – the reader – deeper and deeper into the world that was being created. I had a particular soft spot for the maps. They just fostered a wonderful sense of “You are here”…

Fun fact, Iain McCaig who provided many of the illustrations for FF was also the chap who created Darth Maul. Take a look at the cover of City of Thieves – created way back in 1983 – and you can see the genesis there…

Darth Mau…er…Zanbar Bone welcomes you to Port Blacksand

I mentioned the world-building earlier as the thing that had really captured my imagination and dragged me headlong into the FF phenomenon, but a special mention must be given to the Sorcery! spin off series written by Steve Jackson. Originally conceived as a product for Penguin books (Puffin’s “grown up” brother) Sorcery! was advertised as a more advanced variant of Fighting Fantasy, and an early advert boldly touted “…why should kids have all the fun…?

I wish books were still those prices…

I’m not sure how much success the “for adults” concept had – the editions I have are all from Puffin; but the Sorcery series was fantastic. Spread across four books and published between 1983 and 1985 the Sorcery series was truly epic. It covered a single story, and saw the main protagonist journeying from their home kingdom of Analand to the distant Mampang Fortress – home to the evil Archmage who had stolen the Crown of Kings from Analand’s ruler. The crown was an ancient magical artefact that bestowed powers of unnatural leadership upon the wearer. With it, the Archmage hoped to unite the various chaotic races that made their homes in the land of Khakabad (the corner of Titan where the series was set). Only you – Analand’s champion – could retrieve it…

I was obsessed with this series as a child, but I approached it in a weird manner. Sorcery! 2 – Kharé: Cityport of Traps – was actually the second Fighting Fantasy book I ever read and, boy, was it difficult! I eventually struggled my way through it but my first few reads were confusing. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing or where I was – my fault for starting in the middle of a series.

That being said, my nine year old self was enraptured with Sorcery’s flagship feature, its magic system. Each Sorcery title included a spell book with over forty spells. For the serious collector, you could even buy this separately – in a book beautifully illustrated by the legendary John Blanche. Each of these spells had a cost in STAMINA and was identified by a three letter code that gave you a clue as to the spell’s function. For example, the ZAP spell threw lighting bolts, whilst the WAL spell created an invisible wall. The more powerful spells cost more STAMINA, whereas the cheaper spells generally needed some kind of physical component to cast successfully. The text suggested you didn’t consult the spell book during play (after all, would a real mage have time to start flipping through their spell book when the baddies were bearing down on them?) and instead spend time to actually LEARN the spells.

I don’t know if it’s a testament to my Taurean stubbornness, but I did exactly that, and even today can tell you what each spell does, how much they cost and what artefacts (if any) they need to cast.

Of course, I still didn’t play properly with any of that dice rolling malarky but I was scrupulously honest where the spells were concerned!

There was the option to play a simpler game where you were a warrior with no spells (and instead got a SKILL bump) but, to be honest, where’s the fun in playing a series called Sorcery when there’s no actual sorcery involved…

As well as being part of one larger story (with your character progressing from each one as you went) each of the Sorcery books was longer than your average FF book. The first three books had 456, 511 and 498 references each, while the final one clocked in at a massive 800! All in all, this means the Sorcery series is about the length of five and a half “normal” FF books!

I’ve mentioned previously that John Blanche illustrated the spell book – he also provided ALL the artwork for the series; from the covers, to the internal illustrations, to the maps, to the little separator images between sections. This consistency combined with Jackson’s vivid descriptions (most paragraphs were longer than was usual for an FF book) helped conjure up a unique, interesting and – there’s that word again – immersive world. Sure, there were standard fantasy creatures like manticores, goblins and giants, but what about the Svinn, Red Eyes, Elvins and Mucalytics – each and every one a unique Jacksonian creation.

What is particularly fascinating about the Sorcery series is its internal consistency. Things you did in one book could go onto affect something in a later book. For example, in book 1 (spoilers obviously!) you meet an assassin who tries to rob and kill you. If you fight him you can kill him. Or, you can choose to spare him. If you do, there’s a chance you can meet him in a later book. Likewise, an artefact found in book 2 can give you powers over something you encounter in book 3. Most importantly, if you defeat the archmage’s spies in book 3 the archmage’s minions in book 4 will respond differently to you because they don’t actually know of your mission to steal back the Crown.

Oh, and then there’s the time travel, but I won’t spoil it…

In our modern day of video games with cloud saves and multi million dollar budgets this probably doesn’t seem significant, but back in the 80s this was HUGE. Bear in mind the most video games back then still came on tape and their level of sophistication was such that they could run on 64K of RAM….

When I first started playing Sorcery, only three of the books had been released. It’s a testament to how obsessed I was about this series that, when the fourth book was released, it went straight on my Christmas list, and I was more excited about getting it than the computer I got that same year…

Winner: Christmas Present of the Year 1985

As the series grew and expanded, and as the demand for the books surged, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone moved from being sole authors to overseeing the growth of the series and the worlds being created. Writing was taken over by other writers that they commissioned, and the books now bore the tag line of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone present…”

Here the series really went into overdrive; while there were seven books in the main series published between 1982 and 1984, 1984 to 1986 saw a further 17 added to the catalogue! The series went on to see a total of 59 books being published between 1982 and 1995, alongside the four books making up the Sorcery epic.

In addition to this, FF spawned two lines of roleplaying games. The first “series” (and I’m using this term loosely based upon when they were released – I’m not aware they were an official series as such) was composed of “Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Roleplaying Game”, “The Riddling Reaver” (a campaign dealing with the titular villain), “Out of the Pit” (Fighting Fantasy’s equivalent of a monster manual) and “Titan” (the guide to the FF world).

The idea for FF as a roleplaying game was the brainchild of Steve Jackson. He and Ian Livingstone were both D&D players (indeed, their early business had been based off importing and selling D&D to the British market) but Jackson wanted to create a really simple RPG – something as simple as multiplayer FF. The book was small and thin, but it contained enough goodness for a prospective GM to run a nice, simple campaign – provided they were willing to put the leg work into writing one…

Probably the simplest RPG you’ll play or run – but still a lot of fun!

…or providing they were willing to buy a copy of “The Riddling Reaver”.

This campaign saw the adventurers pursue said Reaver – an agent of the Trickster gods of Luck and Chance – and attempt to stop his unhinged schemes. I ran this for my friends as a kid and I remember being so determined to prepare it properly that I was caught reading it in class when I should have been paying attention to something else… My campaign went on hold for a month after the teacher confiscated it, and no amount of protestations to my parents about the injustice of it all would convince them to march down to the school and demand it back.

Can’t believe you spent a month in Miss Lindsey’s cupboard-of-confiscation along with various footballs, sticks of chewing gum and pencil toppers

The Riddling Reaver is split into several chapters, and the story follows the characters as the pursue the Reaver for the murder of a local nobleman. It’s not exactly taxing on the brain, nor will you find enormously detailed dungeon floorplans, but the feeling of it is VERY Fighting Fantasy. I’ve yet to reread it, but I recall my players enjoying it enormously back in the day.

“Out of the Pit” and “Titan” are in effect the setting books for an FF campaign, but they’re also great reads in their own right. I remember buying Out of the Pit from McDougal’s bookshop in Paisley, and reading a large portion of it on the bus on the way home, my attention gripped by all the foul monsters that populated its pages as well as the fantastic artwork. Titan gives a great view of the history and setting of the FF world, and is full of great little nuggets of information that could be used for expanding into larger adventures or campaigns. In fact, I’d wager that the setting of Titan is more fully realised than some “grown up” roleplay settings.

You’d be hard pushed to find a setting this detailed for this price…

Interestingly, both “Titan” and “Out of the Pit” were both originally published in a format larger than the usual A5. These books came with beautiful colour plates that I remember some philistines ripping out to use as posters.

No pages ripped out here as I’m not a monster…

The second “series” were the “Advanced Fighting Fantasy” books. These originally came in three volumes – Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Allansia – covering dungeon, city and wilderness adventures respectively. As well as containing rules for playing more complex FF RPGs, each volume also included sample adventures. Allansia was probably my favourite as it came packed with detail about the the world of Titan as well as additional rules (including those for massed combat!).

Years later, these books were rereleased by Arion games in one large volume as “Advanced Fighting Fantasy Deluxe”. Given that it came with all the AFF information as well as that from Titan and Out of the Pit this is probably as complete a Fighting Fantasy RPG as you could ever want!

You could seriously injure someone if you hit them with this bad boy…

Although the original FF series ended in 1995 with the publication of the 59th book, the series has been resurrected a couple of times since, and is currently published by Scholastic Books. There have been additions to the line up of books published since the first run and the most recent book – Assassins of Allansia – is a particular toughie. Even though the newer books don’t have the traditional green spine – these ones are all fancy and shiny! – the writing is still pure FF.

So, in a month where I’m taking part in an event to celebrate all things fantasy, I can’t think of something more fitting to write about than the series that got me absolutely hooked on the genre. A series that promised me that “YOU decide which route to follow, which dangers to risk and which monsters to fight.”

Which was always easier with a five-fingered bookmark.

Mention Star Wars and Ghostbusters in the same sentence, and most people will assume that you are indulging in some geek-culture comparison.  Both were enormously successful films, both have rabidly devoted fan bases, and both spawned a host of franchise off-shots like action figures, cartoon series and fiction.  Amongst those spin-offs were role-playing games.  


Given that we’re a podcast devoted to RPG history, you’d be on the right track assuming that this would be what we’re talking about.

It would probably surprise most folks to learn that Ghostbusters got an RPG before Star Wars.  Viewed through a modern lens, this seems somewhat off.  After all, fun as Ghostbusters is, isn’t the Star Wars franchise worth something like $70 billion?  Aren’t they continually churning out movie blockbusters and critically acclaimed TV shows?  You don’t get bought by Disney unless you’re a rock solid money maker, right?  

True, but back in 1986 – the year that the Ghostbusters’ RPG was released – Ghostbusters had recently grossed just shy of $300 million at the box office.  There was talk of a new film, a cartoon was just about to be released, a video game based on the film had proven to be a surprise hit, Marvel were publishing Ghostbusters comics, and there was a line of action figures in development.  Hell, they even had their own breakfast cereal!

By contrast, Star Wars was old news.  There were a couple of – fairly terrible – cartoons still limping along, two made for TV movies had just ended, and Marvel were looking to drop their comic book lines.  While the merchandising was reputed to be worth around $2 billion, interest in it was starting to tail off.  Also, the movies had “only” grossed around $30 million.  Simply put.  People were losing interest in the galaxy far, far away, and were much more drawn to the catch phrase “Who ya gonna call?”

It therefore seemed logical that the team behind Call of Cthulhu – the world’s most successful horror roleplaying game – would team up with West End Games – publishers of Paranoia, one of the funniest RPGs out there – to produce, under license from Columbia pictures, the Ghostbusters RPG.

What has this got to do with Star Wars, other than to show how quickly the public lose interest in established franchises?  Well, firstly, the system that was developed for Ghostbusters – what became known as the D6 system – became the backbone of the Star Wars RPG.  Secondly, it meant that when West End games picked up the license for what is now a multi-billion dollar franchise they did so for a song.

It also meant that when they sat down and started creating material for their new RPG, they did so in a complete vacuum.  

You see, by 1987 – the year that West End games got their license for Star Wars and also the 10th anniversary of the release of the first flim – there was literally nothing new being created for fans of the franchise.  The last new material that hopeful Star Wars fans had got were a series of “Droids” comics published in 1986 to tie in with the cartoon series.  Other than that – nothing.
Therefore, West End games were in the fortunate position of having an audience hungry for new content and a carte blanche to go forth and create.

And man, did they take that mandate and run with it!

In the first three years after the game was launched the went ahead and released over 20 supplements!  The supplements that were released varied in quality, but the most important thing for Star Wars fans were that not only did they now have a place where they could have epic adventures in the Star Wars universe, they now saw the universe that they have loved seeing on cinema screens being EXPANDED before their very eyes.  Early adventures dealt with familiar territory like the desert world of Tatooine, but very quickly West End started giving names to characters and species that previously had only been known by fan nicknames or side notes in the scripts. 

That strange looking alien that you glimpsed for a few seconds in the cantina?  Now fans knew he belonged to a species called the “Ithorians”.  They also found out much about the planet Ithor (fourth planet in the Ottega star system if you’re interested), the Ithorian culture, they fact that they had ecological priests serving the “mother jungle” and the fact that Ithorians actually had two mouths which let them speak in stereo.   This was much better detail than “Uh…yeah…he’s the guy that had that figure released called ‘Hammerhead’…”

The very first supplement – the Star Wars sourcebook – included ten such entries for alien species along with chapters on starships, droids, vehicles, creatures, equipment, Stormtroopers, bases and a host of heroes and villains.  Sure, there were several things that George Lucas had specified as being off-limits and sacrosanct (basically everything that would end up in the prequels) but everything else?  All of that was up for grabs for the creative minds at West End games.

They were so prolific, that when Timothy Zahn was given a commission to write the “Thrawn Trilogy” he was sent a bumper bundle of West End goodies and told that this was the universe in which he should base his new novels!  Even nowadays, following the Disney take over of Star Wars and their decree that the only things that were canon were the movies and anything produced by Disney following their acquisition of the franchise, a lot of the terms established by West End games remain in use.

So, background aside, how did this game play?  After all, there have been many games out there with rich and wonderful backgrounds, but which ultimately are undone by fairly lacklustre systems.   Well, as was mentioned earlier, the system used for Star Wars was based off the one that was previously developed for Ghostbusters.  As can be imagined, one thing that was at the forefront of the designers’ minds when creating a ruleset for a game based off the madcap Ghostbusters’ movie was that it had to be fast, easy to follow, and which cover pretty much any eventuality.  After all, this was a world that played fast and easy with the rules of physics (and paraphysics!) so it was important that the GM should be able to make rulings on the fly for whatever nonsense that the players wanted to get up to.  When you considered that at this period in time a lot of RPGs were becoming more and more complex (take a look at Rolemaster and AD&D stuff that was out then!) Ghostbusters’ rules merrily backflipped in the opposite direction.  A game where characters only had four stats?  What was this – a Fighting Fantasy book?

When Star Wars was being developed, it took this system, tweaked it slightly and ran with it.  Within a few paragraphs of its opening, the rulebook acknowledges that what the GM should be doing is creating an ADVENTURE for the players – which is to say a story with an interesting plot.  This doesn’t see the GM creating some kind of space dungeon which he populates with loot and Star Wars themed monsters to be tackled.  Instead, the GM’s role is likened to that of a film director.  They are encouraged to think of “scenes” and cut between them to keep the action moving.  

The rules are very much based around this free-flowing, fast-moving pace.  Characters have dice pools of abilities and when they want to do something the GM assigns a difficulty number.  Then, based on how close they are to the number, the GM narrates the results.  That’s it – simple.  Sure, there can be more nuance to it, but in a nutshell the rules really are that simple.  In fact, the players section of the rulebook doesn’t even reach ten pages!  

Players are encouraged to picked a character “template” which they can customise.  These templates are simple Star Wars stereotypes, and I’ve had arguments with other roleplayers who have suggested that these are cop-outs.  However, how is a template any different from a D&D class?  If you take a look at Youtube you can find all manner of videos explaining how to “optimise your class build” for D&D 5th edition – so I’m not sure I can see any difference between that and what West End Games were doing almost a quarter of century before.  

In fact, the beauty of these templates were two fold – firstly it allowed players to very quickly get their characters up and running.  You’re a bounty hunter?  Cool – stick a few points in your various weapon skills and you’re ready to go.  You’re the pilot?  Well, I guess you’re going to need to know how to fly and fix an X-Wing.  The senator?  You’re party’s face so load up on those interpersonal skills.  However, it was the second function of these templates that was so cool – they helped people get into character almost straight away.  Everyone’s seen Star Wars.  Nobody needs to be told how to behave as a bolshy young senator, or a jedi or as a Wookie.  Sure, you can absolutely put your own spin on things, but if you just want to get up and running it’s pretty easy to say “I’ll play a smuggler” and start calling people “kid” and mumbling things like “Never tell me the odds” when things get hairy.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that when I used to play, there was at least one player who said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every session…

The Gamesmaster’s chapters are longer than the players’ – but a lot of that is taken up with examples of just how to go about setting the difficulty numbers for various activities (the result of which means I now know just how tricky it is to hit the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star – good job Luke!).  The combat chapter makes it quite clear that this is NOT a tactical wargame, and it’s very much designed with the fast moving spirit of the movies in mind.  Everything is largely abstract and players are encouraged to act in as heroic a manner as possible, rather than just saying “I plug another Storm Trooper”. 

Chapters follow on various key aspects of the Star Wars universe like droids, ships and the force, but the real difference comes when the rulebook starts exploring how to write an adventure.  

Now bear in mind, up until this point – with a few notable exceptions – most thought in RPGs around designing adventures revolved around “What challenges are in the party’s path, where do they show up, and what reward exists for defeating them?”  A lot of gaming modules followed the linear path of “Going to location X, overcoming obstacle Y, getting access to location Z and repeating until successful”.  Star Wars flipped that on its head.  The focus here was story, and when they mentioned earlier that the GM should think of himself as a director they weren’t kidding.

Sure, the templates helped the players get into character, but something that Star Wars official supplements included, and which the adventure chapter suggested that all GMs incorporate into their own adventures was scripts.  Actual “character 1 says this, then character 2 says this” type scripts.

I can imagine a lot of modern roleplayers being utterly horrified about this, but these scripts were always fun and – more importantly – served a few valuable purposes.  

Firstly, they very much made it clear to the players “You’re the cast of a movie”.  Sounds like a small thing, but when you’re told “You’re the A-listers in this film” it encourages you to act in a second way.  

Secondly, they did a wonderful job of imparting pretty good information.  Rather than “You all meet up in the cantina and decide to go on an adventure” these scripts very firmly made it clear to the players why they were together and what they were meant to be doing.  

Finally, they set the mood for what was to come, and plunged the players straight into the action.  All the Star Wars published adventures I’ve played in did exactly the same thing – they took a leaf out of the movies’ books and plunged the players straight into the action In Media Res.  Much like Episode IV begins with Princess Leia being pursued by Darth Vadar, rather than dealing with the minutiae of the theft of the Death Star plans, the adventure modules produced by West End games rarely start with the players in a briefing room getting orders from some general.  “Black Ice” begins with them infiltrating an Imperial Research Facility.  “Tatooine Manhunt” sees them waiting to make contact with a spy who has some information the Alliance desperately needs.  “Scavenger Hunt” has them pursuing an Imperial transport through space.  My personal favourite – “Starfall” – sees them confined in the brig of an Imperial Star Destroyer, heading towards a date with an interrogation droid.

Aside from being extremely atmospheric, the “In Media Res” approach was simply more exciting for players.  I remember players looking forward to the start of new adventures, as they always knew that they would open with a bang!  Plus, Star Wars was the one of those games where you didn’t have to sit through long, drawn out background sessions.  Anyone who wanted to play would have seen the movies – hell, even if they hadn’t they’d KNOW of them – and rather than having to start with a recap on what the political situation was in the galaxy at any given moment, you just dropped the players in, gave them the equivalent of the opening crawl, had them read the script and they were off.  They knew what they had to do, they knew they were the heroes and they got on with it.  

I have compared this to the one time I tried to run the Nephilim RPG – a very detailed and background rich occult roleplaying game – and I quickly discovered that I was boring myself as I trudged my way through the background and saw the exhausted looks in my prospective players’ eyes…

Another device popular in the Star Wars RPG is the concept of “cuts”.  Often, in published adventures – usually at the end of a chapter – you’d find stage directions.  Consider this from Starfall.  The players have just been through some fairly high action scenes and are having a rest.  The NPC accompanying them assures them that he has found an easier route through the Star Destroyer (which is currently under attack from a Rebel fleet).  

CUT AWAY TO KOLAFF
INTERIOR: SUBJIGATOR BRIDGE.  Framed against a sea of stars, Captain Kolaff peers anxiously out the giant viewport.  At his right, the female Imperial official scowls impatiently.  
“They’re coming” the captain says, “I can feel them drawing closer.”

There then follows some dialogue which makes it clear that the Imperials no longer believe the Rebels to be dead and that they are searching to bring them back into custody.  Plus, it also hints at some kind of diabolical plan being concocted by the Captain.  Would the players know this in character?  Absolutely not?  Does it add to the game?  100%. Their faces when some kind of plot twist is revealed is often reward enough, but these cuts help to reinforce the cinematic feel of the adventure.

One of my favourite moments like this occurred during a homebrew adventure I ran once.  The rebels were on a mission to steal a protype star fighter, and had put themselves into a fairly favourable position, and were contemplating their next move which was to get onto the hanger floor and get access to the ship.  We then cut away to an Imperial Shuttle landing at the base, the ramp crashing down and a tall, black cloaked figure descending.  The station’s governor bowed before it and said “Lord Vadar.  We are honoured by your presence.” before it cut back to the players.

Now, I knew that Vadar had next to nothing to do with the adventure – they were never going to encounter him – but now they; the players; had the knowledge that he was on the station.  For the next few encounters they were jumpy as hell, and acted as if they were in a race against time.  They no longer wanted to be on that station – they wanted to complete their mission and get out of there!

Of course, once they completed and blaster their way out of the station and jumped into hyperspace, I couldn’t resist having another cut…  

CUT TO VADAR

INTERIOR: STAR DESTROYER BRIDGE. Two enlisted imperial troopers drag a body out of Vadar’s shadow.

“Apology accepted, Governor” the dark lord says before turning to look at the field of stars outside of the view port, in the direction the Rebels fled. He reaches down with a gloved hand and presses a button. A hologram of an Imperial officer, who is nervously straightening his jacket, appears on screen.

Vadar stares at it for a second before intoning “Commander, find out whatever you can about those Rebel saboteurs, and have the information beamed directly to my Star Destroyer.”

FADE TO BLACK

I’m pretty sure Vadar never showed up again, but they were continually looking over their shoulders for bounty hunters and assassins after that…

There was a lot of great advice in the adventure chapter – ranging from “what is Space Opera?” to pacing, to why heroes should be “script immune” (which is to say they have their reckoning at the climax of the story)  and how to maintain an atmosphere.  My personal favourite is when and how to introduce a “I have a bad feeling about this…” moment which is very Star Wars.

A lot of this advice seems commonplace now, but remember when this was written.  Back then, a lot of sourcebooks were more interested in cramming in monsters, treasure and spells than advice on how to run a good story.

The original Star Wars RPG did a lot of things right but, like all roleplaying games, there were always people who wanted more.  A new edition came out in 1992, and it did a great job of adding some new setting elements.  One things that West End Games did was take the concept of the New Republic from the post Return of the Jedi timeline and develop it.  Second edition would see a lot new Republic material released which gave fans a whole different (but familiar!) setting to play with.  

Unfortunately – at least to my mind – this new edition added in more complication than existed in the original.  It still wasn’t quite in the league of AD&D rules bloat, but it wasn’t as fast moving and free flowing as before.  As an example, whilst the original edition gave the players nine pages to read and then they were good to go, the new edition “kind of” explains this before launching into how to create a more advanced character and providing various lists of skills.  It also made the Force MUCH more complicated and turned chases – which had previously been a fast-moving exercise in abstraction and very much in keeping with the Star Wars theme – into a much more tactical battle…. 

It was still a fun game – but it felt, at least to those of us who had played the original, that it had put on a few pounds since 1987…

A revised an expanded second edition was released four years later in 1996 which sought to address some of the issues from second edition.  It also included an extremely comprehensive background section that was a treasure trove for ideas for aspiring GMs, but sadly it came too late.  West End Games were facing financials problems, and the last supplement for Star Wars – Classic Adventures: volume 5 – was released in 1998 before the license to produce Star Wars material was lost.  

There have been other Star Wars RPGs since then – notably by Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight – but none of them captured the fast moving, cinematic atmosphere of the original films as well as the West End Games edition.   What’s more, despite West End falling on hard times near the end, it was they who kept the light of hope burning for Star Wars fans during that period of the late 80s when it felt like the franchise was dying, and it was they who built most of the universe that Star Wars fans take for granted nowadays.  So whenever you play a Star Wars video game and wonder “Who named that type of blaster?” or watch one of the Disney TV shows and think “Where did that alien species get its name?” chances are, it came from one of the creative minds at West End games.

Mention the name “Geneva” to most people and they’ll probably think you’re talking about the second largest city in Switzerland.


Mention “Lake Geneva” and they will assume the city has a lake – which it does; it’s one of the largest in Europe.

However, if you inform them that you’re talking about “Lake Geneva, in WISCONSIN” most of them will look blankly at you.

Which isn’t surprising really.  Lake Geneva is a small, mid-western town of less than 8000 people, and it’s around 50 miles away from the larger (and better known) city of Milwaukee.  It does have a lake, although it’s considerably smaller than its European relative.  Although it is popular with tourists from Illinois, it remains largely unknown to the population at large.

Unless, that is, you’re an old school roleplayer.

You see, Lake Geneva, can be argued as being the spiritual home of roleplaying games, because it was there, in 1972, that Dave Arneson – a wargamer from Minneapolis – ran a game set in a fantasy world of his own creation for a fellow wargamer, a Lake Geneva resident named Gary Gygax.  

The game took place in a setting that Arneson called “Blackmoor” and it was run using rules Dave had developed from the wargame “Chainmail” – a system that Gygax himself had worked on along with Jeff Perren.  Ostensibly created to simulate battles between medieval armies, Gygax had written a fantasy supplement for it that provided rules for monsters, magic items, and spells with which wizards could zap their opponents with.

However, the thing that really blew Gygax away by the game that Arneson ran for him was the scale.  Rather than focusing on a pitched battle between two sides, Arneson had conceived a game where each player took on the role of a single character, and together they formed a party to explore a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure.  The whole experience lit Gygax’s mind on fire, and before long he had started work on his own setting – Greyhawk – and had asked Arneson for a copy of his rules.  Together they collaborated on what eventually became Dungeons and Dragons.  Gygax felt that the game would be a hit, so he and Arneson went to Guidon Games – the publisher of Chainmail – and asked them to support the venture.
In a day and age where the sales of D&D are astronomical – recently Hasbro posted figures suggesting that sales of Dungeons and Dragons had propped up their other products that were performing poorly – it will probably come as a surprise then that, new game in hand, Gygax found it difficult to find a publisher for his baby.  Guidon Games considered themselves too small for such an undertaking and Avalon Hill – at the time the world’s biggest publisher of wargames – turned it down; unable to understand what this new mutation of wargaming was all about.

Gygax was still passionate about publishing the game and proposed setting up their own company to do so, but Arneson felt that he was unable to commit to such a venture.  Undaunted, Gygax and business partner Don Kaye found Tactical Studies Rules – or TSR as they became known – in 1973.  The urgent need to publish on Gygax’s part was more than simple enthusiasm for a new fad – he knew that other groups were out there who had similar games, and if they weren’t the first to market they might miss this opportunity.  It was because of this that they accepted an offer of funding from Brian Blume in exchange for a one third share in the company.  It was therefore possible, in 1974, to release the first commercial version of D&D.

It was an instant success.

The first 1000 copies sold out in less than a year, and sales simply shot into the stratosphere after that.  Sadly, Kaye died of a heartattack in 1975 and, after much wrangling over Kaye’s share of the business, Blume and his father ended up owning the majority, leaving Gygax as a minority shareholder in the company.

Dave Arnseon made a reappearance in 1976 – hired as Director of Research – but he left shortly afterwards, citing the fact that he and Gygax still had creative differences over how D&D was being developed.

1977 saw the release of what became known as the Holmes Basic Set – a version of D&D geared towards newer players that got its name from the fact that it was edited by American writer J Eric Holmes.  This set was built on both the original D&D set released in 1974 as well as the Greyhawk setting, and was designed to gently introduce new players into the hobby – making the assumption that they might not come from a wargaming background.  
It came either as a rulebook, or in a box which contained the book, and some supplemental materials such as maps, monster lists, treasure charts and dice.  Later printings replaced these with modules – TSR’s term for adventure supplements – including classics such as “The Keep on the Borderlands”.

The original conception was that players of the basic rules would end up “graduating” to a new product that was being developed by TSR called “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”.
However, the basic set was a runaway success, and by 1978 had seen four printings!  In 1981 a decision was made not to have players from the basic set be absorbed by D&D, but instead Basic would be developed as its own product.  In line with Holmes’ original vision, Basic continued with its lighter, more personal tone whilst AD&D became increasingly more rules heavy.  However, a new set was developed – the Expert Set – that allowed players from third level to move upwards to play characters of levels four to fourteen.

1983 saw the publication of what – for a lot of UK gamers – was their first brush with D&D:  the red box edition.  Featuring an iconic cover image by Larry Elmore of a fighter locked in a life or death struggle with a dragon, this edition was revised by Frank Mentzer and now included a sixty four page Players’ Manual, a forty eight page Dungeon Master’s Rulebook and six dice that had to be coloured in with a crayon.  This probably seems ludicrous to younger players, but this was fairly standard practice for games at the time – I remember first edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle having something similar.

The Mentzer edition also went beyond Expert rules, introducing Companion rules for characters levels fifteen to twenty five, Master rules for levels twenty six to thirty six and Immortal rules from playing gods (where levels didn’t really mean anything anymore).

In an interesting change from the previous editions, the Mentzer edition now included in place of a module, a solo adventure to teach players the rules and an introductory scenario for a Dungeon Master to run.  

While not much in the way of rules had changed from previous editions, the presentation of the Mentzer editions were a step beyond what had been released before, and the decision to have the game act as a tutorial to ease new players into the hobby is still seen and felt today in video games, that frequently use their first few levels to introduce players to the basic concepts and rules of the game.  All of this has its roots in Basic D&D.

In parallel to the development of the Basic editions, in 1977 Gygax threw himself into the development of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  This saw the rules broken up across three books into the Players’ Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual – a format that is still in use to this day.  AD&D also included many more options around character including additional classes and a LOT more rules.

Seriously.

LOTS of rules.

It also saw the development of some of the most…well, I’m not sure “loved” is the word…maybe “remembered” is better? adventures for the game.  Supplements like Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil and Isle of the Ape were all released in this period of creative frenzy.  

The result?  

By 1980 D&D’s sales had reached the staggering heights of over 8 million dollars!
However, AD&D also brought with it its own share of controversy.  In 1977 TSR claimed that AD&D was different enough of a product that Dave Arneson wouldn’t be entitled to any royalties from it.  This resulted in a lengthy legal battle which ended with TSR and Arneson settling out of court, with an agreement that Arneson would be credited as “co-creator” of all D&D products and that he would receive a 2.5% royalty on them.

Lucky Dave.

If TSR thought a lawsuit was bad, that was just the calm before the storm. It began in 1979 when a Michigan State University student, James Egbert, allegedly disappeared while playing a live action version of D&D.  This wasn’t true – he reappeared several weeks later.  Egbert’s disappearance – and his tragic suicide in later years – was an unfortunate result of stress and clinical depression, but it had nothing to do with D&D.  However, this furore represented the first shots to be fired in a wider torrent of negative mainstream media attention.
In 1981 a book was published called “Mazes and Monsters” which was a thinly veiled version of the Egbert story as reported by the press.  This was followed in 1982 by a made for TV movie starring none other than a young Tom Hanks.  The plot was nonsense, but it cemented an idea in the minds of certain people who were largely ignorant of the hobby, namely that roleplaying can cause players to breakdown and lose touch with reality.  And then, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.

In 1982, a Virginian woman named Patricia Pulling founded an advocacy group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons or – to use its none too subtle acronym – BADD.  Pulling had been a long time anti-occult campaigner, but she founded BADD in response to her son – Irving’s – suicide.  Irving Pulling had been an active roleplayer, and his mother attributed his tragic death to a D&D curse put on his character shortly before he took his own life.  She filed lawsuits against her son’s school and TSR as a result – both of which were dismissed by the judge.
After this, her campaigning with BADD went into high gear, as she started airing her views that D&D encouraged – amongst other things – devil worship and suicide.  Flawed as these opinions were, she managed to get quite a substantial amount of press coverage from a media that had grown fat on stories such as the Egbert Case and Mazes and Monsters.  Gygax ended up appearing on a 60 Minutes special to defend the game; a show that included interviews with Patricia Pulling and other parents that claimed their offspring had been motivated to commit various unhealthy acts after playing D&D.

In 1988, a wealthy American businessman by the name of Leith Von Stein and his wife Bonnie were attacked in their home in North Carolina.  Tragically, Leith died from his injuries, but Bonnie survived and was able to summon the police.  It eventually came to light that Von Stein’s stepson Chris had coerced two of his friends – James Upchurch and Neal Henderson – into committing the crime in return for a promised share of the inheritance money he would receive after his stepfather’s death.  

It was a horrendous tragedy motivated by pure greed, but two books written on the subject – “Cruel Doubt” and “Blood Games” – both heavily emphasised the perpetrators interest in Dungeons and Dragons, as if that was what drove them to commit such a horrible crime.  
Despite this storm of controversy, D&D continued to flourish, with sales almost doubling to around $16 million.

However, all wasn’t well at TSR.  In 1981 Kevin Blume – Brian’s brother – had purchased their father’s shares, and as a result the Blume Brothers ended up having the controlling interest in the company.  The end result was that Gygax and the Blumes found themselves increasingly at loggerheads over management of the company.  This, coupled with Gygax’s turbulent personal life – which led to an acrimonious divorce in 1983 – saw TSR split into two divisions – TSR, Inc and TSR Entertainment, Inc; the latter of which Gygax was made President of.  This saw him flying to Hollywood to negotiate – amongst other things – a D&D cartoon and the production of a D&D movie, whilst the Blumes oversaw the hobby aspect of the business.

It was in 1984 – whilst tying down some details of a D&D movie – that Gygax received word that the Blumes were looking to sell TSR for $6 million.  Shooting back to Lake Geneva, he found that although TSR was doing very well on paper – they were grossing over $30 million – the expenses incurred by the business were absolutely staggering, which saw them teetering towards insolvency.  He convinced the board to fire Kevin Blume as company president and, to prevent the board from selling the company out from underneath him, he exercised a stock option that gave him just over 50% control.  

Appointing himself president and CEO he set to work tasking TSR with the production of new material that he hoped would turn around the slump.  He even called upon Dave Arneson again, asking him to produce a series of Blackmoor modules for D&D.  

While he was busy producing new content, he hired a company manager, Lorraine Williams, on the basis of her management expertise.  Gygax knew of Lorraine through her brother who he had met in Hollywood whilst working on the D&D film.  Originally he had asked her to invest, but when she declined he offered her a job, knowing that she had the skills and chops to deal with TSR’s creditors and get the wheels of commerce turning again.  

Unbeknownst to Gygax, when he removed Kevin Blume from his position, Brian Blume triggered his longstanding stock option.  Both brothers, realising that they had no future at TSR, took the opportunity to dump their stock on a new investor.  

That investor’s name?

Lorraine Williams.

Despite having created the products that may have saved the company, Gary now learned that Lorraine was the majority stakeholder and she quickly replaced him as CEO.  In addition, she felt that his creative direction was not necessarily in the best interests of the company and ordered that his projects be shelved.  Gygax attempted to have the stock transfer declared illegal in courts, but he lost.  

So it was, in 1986, the Gary Gygax resigned all positions in TSR and left the company he had founded.

1989 saw the publication of AD&D 2nd edition – a move that was seen by some as a way of cutting Gygax off from the royalties of previous editions of the game.  This saw the standard three book format, but instead of a Monster Manual, there was a Monstrous Compendium that was a loose-leaf binder.  This idea didn’t do well, and it was replaced by a Monstrous Manual in 1993 in the traditional hardback book format.

Conscious of the controversies of the early 80s, the writers of 2nd ed deliberately removed all references to demons, devils and the like.  Sexually suggestive artwork was toned down, and the option to play evil things such as assassins were removed.  

Probably one of the things that 2nd Edition was most fondly remembered for was the modules that focused on genres other than the traditional, Tolkienesque, European-medieval fantasy setting.  Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Al-Qadim were all developed in this era, and classics such as Ravenloft were further enhanced.

However, all was not rosy for TSR.  n series of increasingly unwise business ventures including a collectible dice game, CD-ROM accessories and games with videotapes – led to the company once again nearing financial collapse.  As a solution, the entered into an extremely sketchy deal with their distributor and printer which ultimately led to their distributor returning boatloads of product and their printer refusing to print anything new for them.

TSR, it seemed, was not long for this planet.  The company that had created the roleplaying hobby was facing oblivion just over twenty years after it started.  It would take a miracle to get them out of this hole.

Well…

Remember that scene in the film adaption of The Two Towers, when Gandalf says “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east”?  Well, on the metaphorical fifth day, any TSR employees looking to the east would indeed see a wizard riding to their rescue, but rather than bringing a horde of cavalry with him, this wizard brought financial salvation.

Wizards of the Coast – the gaming company that produced the hit game Magic: The Gathering – rode into town in 1997 and purchased the half-bankrupt husk that was TSR.  Three years later they released 3rd edition D&D – making the move to end the split between basic and advanced D&D.  They also introduced something called “The D20 System” with the intent on making a core system that could be used for various different genres and settings.  More options were given to customise characters and a lot of work was done to make the rules more streamlined and easier to play.  A 3.5 edition was released in 2003 – this included a boatload of minor rules changes, but was otherwise the same game. 

4th edition was released in 2008, and almost immediately prompted an angry backlash from players who had become financially invested in the 3rd edition.  4th edition was a major revision to the game’s systems, and many who played it have commented that it felt more like a tactical miniatures game than an RPG.  The use of a “battlegrid” and – you know – miniatures helps reinforce this.  Although the core rules are relatively simple to learn, one of the biggest complaints from players – other than “Why’d you kill 3rd edition???” – is that combat ended up taking substantially longer in this edition compared to the others.  

In 2012 Wizards announced the development of a project called D&D Next, and invited players to take part in the playtesting, which would take approximately two years.  The end result was D&D 5th edition that was released in 2014.  Unlike the wargame-lite that 4th edition was, this edition goes back to the roots of the 1st and 2nd editions and draws from that well.  And unlike the complicated mess that some other editions became, 5e is refreshing for its simplicity.  There’s the option for a lot of other rules like tactical combat and multiclassing, but they’re not essential to play, or even part of the main body of rules.  

Curiously, when 5e was released, it wasn’t being released into a market where the previous version of D&D was the number one RPG at the time.  Instead, upon 5ed’s release it was Pathfinder – the game created in response to fans who were unhappy with D&D 4th ed and the premature death of 3rd edition – that was currently sitting at the top of the heap.
To generate interest in the new edition, Wizards released the basic rules as a free PDF in July 2014, roughly a month before they brought out the Starter Set.  

It is this edition, and the elegant simplicity of its rules, that has probably led to the massive resurgence in D&D popularity.  Wizards estimate at the moment that around 40 million people world wide play the game.

Think about that for a moment.

Forty.

Million.

To put that into perspective, that’s equal to the total population of 23 of the USA’s states!
Numerous celebrities like Vin Diesel, Drew Barrymore, Dwayne Johnson, Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper have all “come out” as D&D players, and the game has been featured repeatedly in mainstream shows – most famously on Netflix’s Stranger Things, which even led to a Stranger Things edition of the red box basic set being released.
Today, D&D is played at meetup events, in pubs and restaurants.  That’s a far cry from the days in which players were considered nerds who lived in basements.

Consider the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.  Now consider the fact that some therapists use D&D in their treatment and research has proven that playing D&D improves mathematical, comprehension and conflict management in children.

Oh, and that whole business about D&D being linked to suicide?  Yeah, researchers proved no link between D&D and suicide.

D&D has also become MUCH more inclusive in its recent edition.  No longer is every character a white western male European.  Gone is the sexist artwork portraying female warriors in chainmail bikinis, or the weak and helpless princesses that were just there to be rescued from marauding orcs like another piece of treasure.  And guess what?  Over forty percent of D&D players are now women.  When I used to play back in the day we had ONE girl in our group and that was considered odd…

D&D is also broadcast online.  Last year, over 400 million hours of D&D content was streamed online.  That’s an insane amount of hours devoted to allowing players to watch other players playing D&D…. The popularity of shows like “Critical Roll” and “Girls, Guts, Glory” show that there’s actually a living to be made playing D&D.

These days, it’s even possible to hire a Dungeon Master to run your game for you (although, I strongly urge you to be very careful on what you click on after googling “Dungeon Masters For Hire” – you may get more than you bargained for).

It’s insane when you think about it.  What used to be the “nerd hobby” that people got bullied for, is now a multi million dollar industry, is played by millions of people, is broadcast worldwide and is considered – dare I say it? – cool.

However, never forget that it all started when a gamer in Minneapolis thought “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to play the role of a single person in this wargame rather than a whole army?”  

Dave Arneson, we thank you. 

Back in the mid 1980s, White Dwarf was a very different magazine to the glorified catalogue it has become today.  Issue 82 – released in October of 1986 – still bore the strap-line of “The Role-Playing Games Monthly”.  


The contents very much reflected that; this issue saw reviews for the AD&D “Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide”, the Paranoia adventure “Orcbusters”, the excellent Call of Cthulhu double-header of “The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer” (still one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu supplements), an AD&D adventure, a brand new fantasy RPG called “Skyrealms of Journe”, and the board game “Kings and Things”.  


In addition to this, there was an AD&D scenario set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a Traveller adventure, not to mention information on running informants – or “narks” as we Judges call them – in the Judge Dredd roleplaying game.  

Mixed in amongst these were the usual blend of adverts, publicising such delights as GW boardgames, first edition “Paranoia” supplements, D&D modules, the usual avalanche of mail order firms peddling their wares and – in a move that would stun people that have only ever seen White Dwarf in its more modern incarnations – only three pages advertising Citadel miniatures.

However, this issue was special.  Sandwiched amidst all this roleplaying goodness was a pull out, advertising a new roleplaying game.  Embossed across a dark grey page were the words “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – a world of perilous adventure”.  Inside this pull out were two pages of fiction – fiction that had a rather grim and unsettling ending – which made it quite clear to the reader that whatever was being advertised here was not set in the shiny, heroic, high-magic world of D&D.  

There then followed a brief explanation of the game’s setting, a bit about the system – making it abundantly clear that the combat would be fast, deadly and bloody – and then information on the package itself and how it was going to be supported in the future.  The pullout was also lavishly illustrated and ended with a paragraph of fiction that sounded far more Call of Cthulhu than D&D.

Like a lot of gamers back then, this went straight on my Christmas list for 1986 as a must-have present…

And what a present it was!  A beautiful hardback that weighed in at just shy of 400 pages, it was absolutely PACKED with information.  Unlike a lot of RPGs whose rulebooks were more like pamphlets, or which saw their information spread across several different books – D&D was particularly guilty of this… – WHFRP tried to cram everything you needed into one package.  As well as the rules needed to play – which took up the first half of the book – it included background on the religions of the world – with each of the main gods getting a multipage write up – a forty page bestiary that covered nearly every conceivable creature a games master would want to throw at their players, a massive guide to the setting and a full, ready-to-play scenario!  
It was extremely well laid out – with its first chapter leading the players through character creation and the rest of the book being GM territory.  The rules were clearly explained and logically split up – there were no rules for combat found outwith the “Combat” chapter for example.

Oh, and did I mention how great the illustrations were?  Featuring the talents of such powerhouses as Tony Ackland, Dave Andrews, Colin Dixon, Jes Goodwin, John Sibbick and John Blanche, WHFRP was absolutely crammed with amazing black and white pictures and some outstanding colour plates – all of which did a great job of helping the reader visualise this low-magic, gritty and – dare I say it? – perilous world.  The cover?  An absolute masterpiece…
Published almost simultaneously with the main rulebook, and designed to let new owners know that GW were firmly intent on supporting their new baby, were a couple of supplements.  The first was a set of Dungeon Floorplans – the rulebook made it quite clear that GW would be very happy if you bought their miniatures to use in your adventures – and “The Enemy Within” campaign pack.

Most long time gamers will have heard of “The Enemy Within” being spoken of in hushed reverence as one of THE best RPG campaigns of all time.  One of the factors that set it up for so much success was the publication of this pack.  Consisting of a flimsy cardboard cover, a 56 page booklet, a map and some handouts, this was the publication that would breath life into the WHFRP setting and – arguably – help build the foundation for the rich world that GW would go onto create in later years.  


Not only did it provide detailed information on the history, people and places of “The Empire” – the main setting for WHFRP – it also gave a guide to the tone and setting that the GM should affect, even offering notes on how to inject humour into the proceedings.  


It also came with an introductory adventure, but the main take away from reading this pack was clear – the setting and the atmosphere of this game was a far cry from that of existing fantasy RPGs. Rather than medieval Tolkien, this game was set in what could only be described as early Renaissance Germany!  And unlike the other games, magic was not at the centre of things.  Instead, this setting very much concentrated on the everyman.  Rather than having players who were heroic paladins or powerful wizards, the average WHFRP character was more likely to be an artisan’s apprentice, a trader or even a grave robber.  These were characters who became adventurers because they were bored with the mundane life they lived – not because of any heroic calling.  


All in all, it promised to be a VERY different game.


1987 saw four releases for WHFRP, including a character pack – which was really just a pad of character sheets and a background booklet; photocopying was still expensive back then! – two adventures, and a guide to the city of Middenheim.


The adventures – “Shadows Over Bogenhafen” and “Death on the Reik” – are both classics that stand up even today.  Shadows was the first supplement I bought for the game, and it has a very special place in my heart.  In a day and age where people were becoming bored of dungeon crawls and wilderness treks, Shadows showed that it was possible to make an urban, investigation-based adventure for a fantasy setting.  


It is also incredibly well paced, with just the right level of challenge for a beginning party, and it comes with the usual range of incredible hand outs and maps that help the whole thing come alive.  


I also need to give a shout out to the illustrations.  To this day, Shadows remains one of THE most atmospherically illustrated supplements I have ever seen for an RPG.  After all, when you have Wil Rees and Ian Miller doing the art for what is essentially a horror game, how can that fail to hit the mark?  I remember, as a teenager, finding the cover art particularly unnerving.
I won’t spoil anything, but Shadows strikes that perfect balance between investigation and action, and it should appeal to almost any party.  After all, who doesn’t like foiling the machinations of evil cultists masquerading as the great and the good of society?


“Death on the Reik” was WHFRP’s first “big box” product coming, as it did, in a box!  As well as a sprawling adventure, the box also included handouts, a large, full colour map, and a booklet entitled “River Life of the Empire”.  Without giving away spoilers, the PCs come into possession of a boat fairly early on in this adventure.  With this they are free to go here, there and everywhere throughout the Empire.  


This is what makes this adventure so good – it is essentially a sandbox, that gives the adventurers free reign.  While I’m not 100% sure of this, I’m fairly certain that this was one of the first times that this was attempted and successfully executed in a fantasy RPG, and one of the reasons it worked so well was down to the “River Life” booklet.  


Here were all the details that the GM needed to keep life on the river interesting, to allow the PCs to make a bit of cash by trading and – most importantly – to make the whole thing feel consistent and really engender a feeling of player agency.  The main book has a whole, action-packed adventure in it, complete with cultists, Skaven, the undead and a fully detailed spooky castle, but it also makes clear that the players can take as much time as they want messing around on their boat – the hooks to draw them into the main plot are all there to be used as and when they need to be.


1988 was another busy year for WHFRP, seeing as it did the publication of “The Power Behind the Throne” – the fourth chapter for The Enemy Within -, “Something Rotten in Kislev” – a series of “filler” adventures set between the fourth and fifth chapters of the campaign, the republishing of the the first two chapters of the campaign in a single hardback called “Warhammer Adventure”, the republishing of “Death on the Reik” as a hardback and the long awaited release of the “Realm of Chaos” supplement.


When I say “long awaited” I’m not exaggerating – the first edition of Warhammer Battle contained references to a future, as-yet-unnamed, chaos themed book.  It was then finally named in the first “Citadel Compendium” in November of 1983, promising – amongst other things – rules on “Roleplaying a Champion of Chaos”.


When the first book – “Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness” was released in 1988 it received a so-so reception from those who purely played the roleplaying game (whereas those that played the Battle game absolutely lapped it up – I was lucky as I did both!).  


Why so-so?  Well, firstly, this book only covered two of the four chaos gods, meaning that we’d have to wait another couple of years to get the full picture.  Secondly, while the book contained a TON of background and detail, most of it was aimed at Warhammer Fantasy Battle players.  Indeed, whilst the – at the time – young, upstart game of 40k got an entire chapter dedicated to the “Dark Millennium”, the rules for Champions of Chaos as Player Characters were confined to a single page, with the proviso that these rules were much better for creating NPC villains.  For those had waited over five years for this “roleplaying supplement” this was disappointing to say the least.   


Of the two adventure books released, “Power Behind the Throne” is by far the better one.  A dramatic scenario set within the city of Middenheim, it places the PCs at the centre of some heavy duty politics, and it is through their interaction with the many, detailed NPCs that they will succeed.  


These detailed NPCs, whilst being the scenario’s strongest point, also mean that a LOT of pre-work was required for the GM running this adventure.  There is information given on where various characters are at various points in the proceedings, so it is essential that the GM keeps track of this, as well as what effect other PC interactions will have on the NPCs responses.
However, by far the weakest part of this adventure is the simple fact of getting the PCs to Middenheim in the first place.  Unless the GM has prepared some hooks to transition from “Death on the Reik” to “Power Behind the Throne”, this is going to feel forced.  Indeed, when this adventure was reprinted years later, the new publishers attempted to solve this problem by including another, shorter scenario as a link.


“Something Rotten in Kislev” is…well….rotten.  Actually, that’s unfair – and largely an excuse to make a terrible pun.  “Something Rotten” simply doesn’t fit in with the themes established earlier in “The Enemy Within” campaign.  Whilst the other adventures feature a large degree of NPC interaction and investigation, and conjure up the atmosphere of being embroiled in a broader conspiracy, “Something Rotten” throws that out of the window in favour of a more high fantasy “questing” vibe.  Also, it takes place outside of the Empire – an area which the previous modules have spent a lot of time establishing in the players’ minds.  It also features an extremely forced, and slightly contrived, way of getting the players to go to Kislev in the first place.  I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of players who, if I played the “A powerful NPC comes and tells you that you have no choice but to go this place and do a quest” card, they would roll their eyes and seek to derail things at the first opportunity.


All that being said, as a stand alone piece it’s actually ok.  It features three interesting scenarios, and the background on Kislev makes for an interesting read.  You could easily turn this into a campaign setting of its own.  However, it really doesn’t seem to fit within the rest of “The Enemy Within” campaign.  Indeed, it’s almost like GW thought “How can we make this sell better?  I know – say it’s part of that campaign that’s been flying off the shelves…”


Come 1989 the production of new material was slowing, and GW were rapidly coming to realise that they would turn a much tighter profit by focusing on making little plastic soldiers, rather than by printing weighty roleplaying supplements…


However, we did see the release of “The Restless Dead”, “Warhammer Adventure” – which was the first three parts of “The Enemy Within” collected within one volume – “Warhammer City of Chaos” – a reprinting of “Warhammer City” and “Power Behind the Throne” as a single volume – a softback version of the main rulebook, and – fanfare please – the final part of “The Enemy Within Campaign” – “The Empire in Flames”.


“The Restless Dead” is a collection of scenarios from White Dwarf, with tips on how to insert them into “The Enemy Within” or run them as a campaign in their own right.  The quality of these vary from “really quite good” in the case of “Grapes of Wrath” to the “patently ridiculous” in the case of “Eureka”.  This is “Restless Dead”’s biggest problem as a campaign – the GM will have to do a lot of work to make the adventures thematically consistent if they want to establish the tone of a campaign, otherwise the whole thing feels disjointed.  Each chapter includes tips on doing this, but it feels like hard work.  


The book also includes some other White Dwarf articles on career advancement and training, magic, magic items and revised combat rules.  Handy if you don’t have the original articles, but filler otherwise.


“The Empire in Flames” was the long anticipated ending to “The Enemy Within” campaign.  As I mentioned earlier, the previous chapters in the campaign did an excellent job of stirring up that feeling of being embroiled in a conspiracy, and often the PCs’ investigative skills served them far better than a strong sword arm would.


When I was talking about “Something Rotten in Kislev” I made the point that what I didn’t like about it was that it felt shoehorned into the overall campaign.  The adventures themselves were solid and interesting.  As a standalone mini-campaign it would be a lot of fun, it’s just that in the broader context of “The Enemy Within” they simply didn’t fit thematically into what had been established before.


The material presented in “Empire in Flames” is also at odds thematically with what has been established before AND is also not very good into the bargain…


I’m not going to give too much away – some people might still want to play in this after all – but on page three of the book, there is this little nugget of wisdom under “Running the Adventure”:
“Empire in Flames is not an adventure like Power Behind the Throne.  In PBT the PCs could try any one of dozens of approaches to get at the information they needed.  This is an adventure with a linear plotline.”


Yes – this is a rail road job.  Now, in fairness it suggests that the GM avoids “at all costs” making the players feel that they are being led by the nose, and suggests creating side quests and encounters.  However, all of the previous adventures had this as part of the main body of the text!  Why should this be extra busy work for the GM?


In terms of set up, this adventure makes little to no reference to the events of “Something Rotten in Kislev” – further reinforcing the impression that that module was created as a standalone and tacked onto “The Enemy Within” campaign to sell it.  What is worse, there’s a feeling that nothing that happened in previous adventures actually meant or impacted upon anything.  Again, without spoiling too much, consider the protagonist in “Shadows”.  He has on him a clue which leads to the PCs trying to track down a villain in “Death on the Reik”.  Likewise, the cult that the players accidentally stumble upon in the first module show up throughout the campaign.  


This is NOT the case with “Empire in Flames”.  Nothing from previous books is really referenced.  Nothing that happened before matters.  This is basically just a standalone piece.  For the climax to the campaign, this is unforgivable.


There’s also the perpetual problem that is seen in some campaigns, where the PCs are reduced pretty much to the role of observers whilst the great and the good make decisions and occasionally send the players off on errands.  


However, by far the most egregious mistake made by those who wrote “The Enemy Within” is that fact that rather than have the players track down clues and foil the machinations of…well…the enemy within, this adventure instead opts for a wilderness trek, followed by a dungeon crawl and then a boss battle.


Oh, and the fact that the book has a bright yellow cover that seems completely at odds with the colour scheme established in the other books.  Yes, it’s a petty point but it looks ODD.


1990 saw only one WHFRP release by GW themselves – the companion volume to the first “Realm of Chaos” book, this time focusing on the gods Tzeentch and Nurgle and entitled “The Lost and the Damned.”  It’s a well produced book, with some great fiction and brilliant illustrations, but this is largely Fantasy Battle and 40k territory.  Anything that WHFRP GMs would take from it would have to be converted into that system to work.


1990 was also the year that GW moved publishing of any material for WHFRP over to Flame Publications – an internal division dedicated to RPGs.  


Their tenure wasn’t long – in 1992, due to financial difficulties, Flame ceased their operations.  During that two year period they published The Doomstones Campaign, two reprintings of the character pack, “Lichemaster” – a reworking of an old 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle scenario, the Warhammer Companion (which was more old White Dwarf articles) and the scenario books “Death’s Dark Shadow” and “Castle Drachenfels”. 


Doomstones was not well received, being as it was adapted from old AD&D material.  What you have is four, fairly generic, high-fantasy dungeon crawls, that don’t really fit thematically with what has been established as the setting of WHFRP.


“Death’s Dark Shadow” features a series of scenarios set in the – very – detailed village of Kreutzhofen, so named as it is the crossroads where four different trade routes meet.  I say “very” detailed as nearly EVERY HOUSE in the village is detailed, which kind of feels like over kill.  It’s not a bad supplement, but it feels pretty high fantasy.  In fairness to the authors, Warhammer itself was switching to a much more high fantasy feel by this point in time, so some of that probably bled through into this publication.


“Castle Drachenfels” was a sourcebook detailing the setting and some of the personalities from Jack Yeovil’s novel “Drachenfels”.  This novel was extremely popular with fans, so it was only natural that a sourcebook would be produced.  In fact, in the September 1989 issue of White Dwarf – number 117 – the stats for the various main characters had already been printed.
The book itself is “ok”.  It gives an atmospheric location in which to have a dungeon crawl, but given the nature of the encounters detailed (especially those with Drachenfels himself) a party would have to be pretty high level to contend with them.  A couple of scenarios are included, and there’s even tips for using one of these instead of “Something Rotten in Kislev” as the “interlude” chapter in “The Enemy Within” campaign.  


Drachenfels is an intriguing villain, but his appearance was in line with the changes fans were seeing with WHFB at the time – namely a move to focus on the more high powered “hero” characters.


 Drachenfels was also the last publication produced by Flame.


And so it was, that in 1992, GW’s first RPG, which had promised (and BEEN promised) so much, went out with a whimper…


…that was until 1995 when Hogshead publishing received the license to publish WHFRP material.  It was back!  


Although, was it really?


1995 began with the reprint of the main rulebook, a reprint of the first two chapters of “The Enemy Within” and the publication of “Apocrypha Now” which was a collection of White Dwarf articles.  This was fine for people who were looking to get into the game for the first time but, for veterans, this wasn’t terribly exciting.


However, this year also saw the publication of “The Dying of the Light” – a campaign set in the Wasteland against an apocalyptic background.  Like “The Restless Dead” it suffers for the fact that rather than it being a coherent campaign it was a selection of individual adventures loosely stitched together.  The fact that each of the chapters was written by a different author didn’t help in establishing a consistent tone and feel. 


Between 1996 and 2002 Hogshead reprinted seven books from the Doomstones and Enemy Within campaigns as well as Death’s Dark Shadow.  In terms of new content they came out with a fifth chapter from the Doomstones campaign, a GM screen and reference pack, a guide to the city of Marienburg – which itself was based off old articles in White Dwarf – a compilation of the best of Warpstone magazine, a Dwarf Sourcebook and Realms of Sorcery.


If Realm of Chaos had been long awaited, Realms of Sorcery had been anticipated even longer – it was mentioned in the original WFRP in 1986, but I seem to recall references to it in WHFB 2nd edition which had been released in 1984!  Therefore, when it finally appeared in 2001 it was an understatement to say that the Warhammer community were intrigued.


We’ll discuss this more when we talk about the system, but it’s fair to say that Realms of Sorcery had an uphill battle on its hands.  For starters, the WHFRP magic system was…to put it mildly…a bit crap.  It had clearly been ported straight from 2nd edition WHFB and that showed.  A lot of the spells were much more suited to grand, sweeping battles than they were to individual adventurers.  Aside from the inclusion of “ingredients” and “petty magic” the magic system seemed more or less the same as it had been in 1984…


The expectation amongst a lot of fans was that Realms of Sorcery would remedy these short comings.  So, how did it do?


The honest answer? 


It was a bit of a damp squib.


Rather than revamp the existing magic system, what Hogshead seemed to try and do with RoS was to cram in more of WHFB’s existing magic system into WHFRP.  One of the most glaring problems with this was the fact that by 2001 the setting and what was considered canon in WHFB had long since passed that of WHFRP.  While the latter still espoused its low-magic “everyman” setting, WHFB was much more magic intensive and high fantasy.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the first chapter – A History of Magic – where the current (for 2001) WHFB setting as regards to magic is crammed into the current WHFRP setting.  Apparently Battle Magic has only been around for the last 200 years or so (a gift from the elves it seems), which begs the question what exactly were wizards casting in battle prior to this?


Chapter 3 breaks the setting even further, by introducing the concept of wizards needing a license to be a wizard.  Something as patently ridiculous as this, takes us firmly out of a “grim world of perilous adventure” where wizards are rare and feared, and straight into Harry Potter territory where they all go to universities and run magic shops…


The rest of the book is given over to spells of various different kinds, but all it succeeds in doing is painting a picture that magic is common and readily available.  Take for example, WHFB’s “colour magic”.  According to this book, colour magic is what wizards go to universities to learn.  The only people who have mastered colour magic are wizards of level 4 and above.  To have the concept of a “magic university” suggests a substantial body of people are learning this, which means a corresponding high number of faculty members.  To service the twelve colours of magic mentioned means you’re looking at relegating hundreds of wizards of AT LEAST level 4 to teaching duties…


With this delivered, Hogshead handed the license for WHFRP back to GW in 2002, signalling the end of the line for the THIRD time…


All was silent for two years, before GW announced the creation of Black Industries whose main task would be the publishing of the brand new second edition of WHFRP.  This appeared in 2005, and between 2005 and 2007 Black Industries aggressively churned out brand new material.  These publications were not reprints of what went before – this was WHFRP brought up to date to match the current WHFB setting – in this case set in the aftermath of the ill-fated Storm of Chaos narrative campaign for WHFB.  


The art was also given a refresh.  Gone were the moody, dark images from the original WHFRP and instead the imagery of WHFB abounded.  Huge, oversized hammers and axes were everywhere, firearms – previously the rarest of the rare – seemed to be as common as swords, dwarves sported impractical Mohawks, Chaos had gone from being the Enemy Within to very much being the Enemy In Your Face, and wizards looked a lot more…er…wizardy.  Whereas in the first edition, the picture for the wizard’s apprentice career showed some poor soul lugging around heavy things for his master, the wizard’s apprentice in 2nd ed  has flowing robes and a staff with a skull on top.  Guess she got that with her wizard’s license…


In 2008 Fantasy Flight games took over publication of Warhammer 2nd edition before announcing a year later that they were publishing the third edition.  This new edition was more like a board game than an RPG, using special dice only available from Fantasy Flight games, and a variety of cards and counters.  


Between 2009 and 2013 a huge amount of publications were produced before Fantasy Flight abruptly announced that 3rd edition was “complete”.  The license stayed with them for a couple of years before passing back to GW.  


Finally, in 2017, GW announced that Cubicle 7 would be publishing a fourth edition that would very much be in the mould of the first and second editions.  So far, they’ve released around a dozen or so supplements and have also started reworking “The Enemy Within” campaign for the new edition including a replacement for “Something Rotten in Kislev” and a brand new ending!
It looks like WHFRP has gone back to its roots, and has a bright future on the horizon.