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.
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 1984, Brave 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Cyberpunk, Twilight 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.
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.
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.”
That’s not the worst part though.
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.
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…
When you look at the roleplaying games released at the beginning of the 1990s, a common trend emerges; fantasy was out and dark sci-fi was very much in.
“Corps” dealt with high tech conspiracies fuelled by super-science and magic, duelling with each other, whilst “Morpheus” covered a world where characters linked minds in a high tech virtual reality simulation. I’m sure the title and the setting are a coincidence and have nothing in common with a certain famous movie franchise…
“Reich Star saw the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan conquering outer space before settling into a Cold War with each other – kind of like the Man in the High Castle but with laser guns and aliens.
“Rifts” blasted its way onto the scene (presumably dealing MEGA DAMAGE in the process) and introduced us all to the Rifts Megaverse, while “Torg” saw the players take on the roles of heroic Storm Knights arrayed against the extra-dimensional entities that were lining up to invade earth.
“Dark Conspiracy”’s demonic forces from beyond enslaved aliens and conjured up a global depression that plunged the global geopolitical and economic situation into ruin, allowing the forces of the Dark to slip into our world to feast and rampage.
However, if you want bleak and bold settings, “Timelords” is literally set at the End of Time!
Therefore, if you were a games designer at the turn of the nineties (I can picture the acid washed jeans and flock of seagulls haircut from here…) trying to conceive of THE setting for a game that would flip the gaming scene on its head, you’d probably go hog-wild with the elements that were proving popular and populate a barren, irradiated earth with aliens, demons, Nazis and knights.
What you probably wouldn’t suggest as a setting would be “Gary, Indiana”.
Located around 25 miles from downtown Chicago, Gary borders lake Michigan and is typical of those US “rust belt” cities that saw their reliance on traditional industries cause them to enter an economic death spiral from the end of World War II onwards.
Yet, it was this cracked and crumbling landscape – with its boarded up houses, silent steel mills and crippling unemployment – that inspired a young games designer by the name of Mark Rein-Hagen to conceive of a game set in a world where such urban decay was the norm, and which was caused – at least partially – by the monsters who lurked in the shadows.
Foremost amongst these monsters were the vampires – creatures of cunning and passion who controlled an unsuspecting human population from the darkness.
So far, so Dark Conspiracy.
In the grand scheme of things, this feels pretty similar to the other settings mentioned previously.
All we’re missing now are the heroes – and that’s going to be the players, right?
Rein-Hagen’s ideas were never conventional, and unlike other games designers who would simply have taken the idea and cast the players as humanity’s bold defenders, he decided to flip the concept and ask the question “What would it be like to BE the monster?”
By this, he didn’t mean “What would it be like to be a creature who can shrug off bullets, move extra fast and arm wrestle mecha-godzilla without breaking sweat”, but instead he focused on the psychology of the situation.
Just what would it feel like to BE a monster – a monster that used to be human? What would it be like to cling to that notion of humanity – the only thing you’ve ever known – while all the time wrestling with the monstrous, predatory urges that surge within you; urges that could sometimes bubble to the surface in the most bloody and tragic ways possible? What would it be like to exist in a society of creatures like this – each battling their own inner Beast?
The tag line of “A storytelling game of personal horror” was never more apt.
Vampire wasn’t Mark Rein-Hagen’s first game though. He had been involved in games design for many years prior to his vampiric epiphany, and perhaps the game he was best known for up to that point was Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica – a fantasy game set in “Mythic Europe” which revolved around a society known as The Order of Hermes and their interactions with a world in which the supernatural and magical were very, very real.
Unlike other fantasy games, this wasn’t simply an RPG about bad ass groups of magi swanning around the countryside frying their enemies with spells. Instead, it had an extremely strong focus on storytelling – positing the idea that the players made up a troupe, who took equal responsibility for the tale being told, rather than focusing on XP and loot taken from the cold, dead hands of the monsters.
This idea resonated strongly with a lot of people, and two of the biggest fans were Steve and Stewart Wieck – publishers of a growing RPG magazine called “White Wolf”. Originally dedicated (like most other magazines of the time) to AD&D, White Wolf increasingly focused on more independent games and, in 1988, published a glowing review of Ars Magica. The focus on storytelling was seen as particularly praiseworthy and, as a result, nearly every issue of White Wolf from that point onward saw an article dedicated to the game.
Rein-Hagen had big plans for Ars Magica. He loved the concept of a series of games set in the same consistent, immersive world. He also loved the idea of being able to set Ars Magica in the modern day – with magic slowly dying, and the magi facing off against creatures like – amongst other things – vampires…
However, it was not to be – Lion Rampant found themselves in financial hot water by the end of the eighties, and it looked like Rein-Hagen’s dream of a multi game world was doomed to die.
Thankfully though, with the Wiecks such firm fans of the game, and with a growing business that was doing extremely well, it was logical that they would offer to merge with Lion Rampant and form White Wolf Game Studio to continue the publication and development of Ars Magica.
It was this series of events that led them to be in a car together, heading towards Gen Con ’90, and which would lead to Rein-Hagen’s vision of a world in which vampires were lurking in the shadows, and which saw his desire for a series of linked games taking a different direction.
You see, the journey to Gen Con took them through Gary, Indiana and – as we know – that’s where the idea for Vampire was born.
I have no idea what is involved in the development of a game system and the associated setting, but as a long time GM I know it feels like it takes forever for me to come up with an engaging adventure set in a world someone else has created. Therefore, I can’t even conceive what frenzy (no pun intended) of activity must have gripped White Wolf between Gen Con ’90 and the release of Vampire in 1991.
Set in the World of Darkness – a world just like ours but more corrupt, decaying and violent – Vampire saw the players take on the roles of the titular monsters, stalking amongst the human population and dealing with the night-to-night perils of unlife as undead, blood sucking monsters, the desires of the Beast within and co-existing in a society of alpha predators.
“The Masquerade” in the title referred to vampiric society’s first, and most important law – namely never making humanity at large aware of the existence of vampires, and this prohibition was a masterstroke to stop players running amok in the World of Darkness.
Because of the Masquerade, there were no vampires wearing frilly shirts with lace cuffs and opera cloaks. The characters in this game had much more in common with those from Those Lost Boys and Near Dark than they did with Dracula. These guys weren’t the lost scions of noble houses, living in drafty Transylvanian castles who would “vant to drink yur blud” but much more modern both in their outlook and their aesthetic. There are some extremely evocative images by artist Tim Bradstreet that were used in both the main rulebook and the clanbooks of the types of vampire that peopled the World of Darkness. In a recent interview for a documentary on the history of White Wolf (called – surprise, surprise – World of Darkness and available on Amazon; well worth a watch!) Tim relates that when he was asked to do these drawings he simply called up his friends – most of whom were in a band – and asked them to pose…
As well as some fantastic interior art, the cover of Vampire was a testament to the beauty of simplicity. A simple slab of green marble with a single red rose on top of it and the game’s title above this it instantly captured imagination. Curiously, White Wolf had commissioned another cover by Dan Frazier – which can be seen as the cover of the 1st edition Players’ guide – but it was deemed too expensive and too “generically rpg” to be used for the main book. This was a great decision, for there is no doubt that the original, eye-catching cover drew a lot of people to pick up the game in the first place.
The book itself includes a lot of the kind of detail you’d expect from an RPG rulebook. There’s background and setting information, rules, and guides to character creation, but once those are out of the way there’s an additional 120 or so pages dedicated to drama and storytelling. Whereas other games would have guides to monsters and antagonists, and probably hints on writing “an adventure” Vampire’s focus was on creating a chronicle made up of stories that focused on character development and how the players interacted with this emerging narrative.
You wouldn’t find any treasure tables, maps or XP guides for creatures defeated. Instead, there was information on setting the mood and tone of the story. There was suggestions on running individual preludes for the characters – where they started as mortal – so they could experience the daylight world and realise just what it felt like and meant to become an undead creature of the night. Guides to creating suspense and using advanced techniques such as flashbacks and foreshadowing were included. In short, it was an evolutionary leap in roleplaying.
This showed in the sales. Within weeks of its launch, Vampire was back to the printers for a second run…
Of course, not everybody was a fan. Some magazines at the time lampooned White Wolf’s style – citing the prose as purple and overwrought. There were elements of the – traditionally male – roleplaying hobby who chafed at the use of female pronouns throughout the book. Others felt that the use of the term “storytelling” rather than “roleplaying” and “storyteller” instead of “games master” was pretentious – after all, wasn’t this D&D with fangs? There was also a tendency to stereotype both the characters in the game and the people who played as hand-wringing goths, burdened by their angst and wearing waaaay too much eye liner.
Regardless of these opinions, the game’s sales were astronomical and the player base grew exponentially. Much like the growth of D&D in the seventies, Vampire blossomed in an age before the internet was widely and commercially available and thus its popularity can be very firmly attributed to the fact that what was being done here was new, exciting and well executed.
By the end of 1991 White Wolf had published – in addition to the main rulebook – eight other supplements, including guides for the storyteller and players, adventures and a couple of books – Chicago by Night and Succubus Club – that gave a sample setting.
People still rave about Chicago by Night to this day, and that’s because it very clearly laid out – for this first time – how a city in Vampire the Masquerade worked. Not everyone would set their adventures in Chicago, but by using this book it was very easy to take the framework and base your own city around it. Because, let’s face it, every Vampire storyteller has set a game in their own city – I know I have. And this really was the beauty of the setting – rather than having to imagine a vastly different fantasy realm, populated by creatures of legend and peopled with folk who had names like “Golondriel” and who talked with faux English accents, how much easier was it to imagine your own city – only worse? I know when myself and my co-host Jason planned a Vampire chornicle set in the town we were living in it was very easy to look at some places and say “Oh yeah – that’s definitely controlled by Vampires…”
Come 1992 and Vampire was really making a splash. It won the Origins 1992 award for best RPG rules. Curiously, these were hosted in Milwaukee, and the same year saw the release of the second “city book” – Milwaukee By Night.
1992 also saw White Wolf experimenting with an idea that Mark Rein-Hagen had for Ars Magica many years before, namely that of combining different game lines within one cohesive world.
“The Hunters Hunted” was released in 1992 and included rules for playing normal humans who had taken to hunting vampires. Well, I say “normal humans” but this book did actually include rules for playing government agents, psychics, sorcerers and truly faithful inquisitors. The sample characters did include a normal woman out for revenge, but they also included a hundred and seventy year old ghouled witch hunter blazing with true faith, an actual vampire, a mage, a werewolf, and a TV celebrity who makes a living from debunking supposed frauds which are a far cry from “vengeful housewife armed with a sharpened broomhandle, a can of hairspray and a lighter”. As a long time fan of Hunter: The Reckoning and its focus on “the everyman” it used to always rankle me when people would say “Oh I don’t like Hunter with its fancy powers. I prefer Hunters Hunted with its theme of normal people hunting the supernatural…”
This gripe aside, Hunters Hunted was a fun read, and it showed that Mark’s vision of a multi-faceted game world was possible. This was expanded upon in White Wolf’s second similar release that year – “Mummy” – which allowed players to take on the roles of very different kinds of immortals. 1992 was also the year the White Wolf released “Werewolf: the Apocalypse” and started a trend that would see White Wolf releasing a new main game line every year for the next three years.
By the end of 1992 second edition of Vampire had been released – something that many long time players still consider to be the high point of the line. With this we also got the release of a little book called “The Players Guide to the Sabbat”.
Up until this point, the default setting of Vampire had always been that of a Camarilla (or Cam-ah-ree-ah if you’re being traditionally Spanish) city. The Camarilla were the sect of Vampires responsible for the Masquerade and who upheld the rest of the Traditions. All the information in previous books about how cities worked, the hierarchies within them and the types of vampires that lived in them – these were all Camarilla. Both first and second edition included a page giving information about a rival sect of vampires known about the Sabbat, but there wasn’t much information about them other than the fact that the revelled in their undead nature, engaged in some weird blood rituals, played with fire and generally rampaged around like “baddy vampires”. This book, and it’s companion volume “The Storyteller’s Handbook to the Sabbat” were meant to change things and give us a proper look inside of the sect.
The problem with these books, is that they did nothing but really give the Sabbat an image problem. If they were to be believed, the Sabbat was peopled with freaks and misfits who loved nothing more than murder, rampaging, murder, fire, murder, devouring the souls of other vampires, murder and murder. Oh, and the sect was riddled with infernalists. It was their control of places like Detroit, Miami and Mexico City that explained why these places were so awful.
That must have been fun for a resident of these cities to read…
The end of 1992 heralded the arrival of the first of Vampire’s “clanbooks”. Much like each player had a class in D&D, in Vampire each character belonged to a clan – a supernatural lineage that explained what strengths, weaknesses and vampiric powers a character had. The clans also had rivalry with other clans, which generated a lot of the game’s political content. This series of books would explain how each clan worked, what their social and political structures were like and would offer character creation and roleplay tips for people interested in playing a character from each clan. As a long time Storyteller for Vampire, I’ve made a point to own most of these and I can honestly say, with very few exceptions, after reading each one my mind would be going “Oooh! I really fancy playing one of those!” They really helped drag you into any given clan’s culture, and made them much more than a grab bag of vampire stereotypes.
By 1993 Vampire was proving unbelievably popular, and an aggressive publishing schedule saw more and more books about the World of Darkness falling into the hands of fans of the game. Clanbooks came rolling off the press in droves, more cities got the “By Night” treatment and “The Book of Nod” – the vampires’ creation myth – was published. This was pure setting material – there were no rules included – and it provided an indepth look at what many vampires believed was the literal truth of how they were created. It was also the beginning of what became known as White Wolf’s metaplot slowly creeping into the mainstream.
1993 saw what some consider to be a slight misstep on White Wolf’s part when they released Berlin by Night and included amongst the cast of the city’s vampires two real life Nazis – Herman Goering and Henrich Himmler. While it didn’t cause a hue and cry in the same league as the Satanic panic of the 1980s it did raise a few eyebrows.
One of the most interesting decisions of this year was the release of “The Masquerade” – or rules for playing Vampire in a live action environment. Now, I’m not going to go into Vampire LARPing here – that will be a separate podcast of its own – but this release slowly snowballed into an unstoppable force of its own and brought more people than ever into Vampire’s World of Darkness. Unlike other LARPs that saw people dressed like characters from Tolkein running around a muddy field whacking each other with foam weapons, this was a game that could be played in a club or a bar. The very nature of the vampires’ Masquerade meant that sharp wit and pointed conversation would serve you much better than a rubber sword. Plus, it was infinitely preferable (and less socially embarrassing) to wear a suit or your best clubbing gear to a LARP than running around looking like an overweight discount Legolas…
Vampire’s popularity continued unabated into the mid 90s. Yes, White Wolf had released rules for playing Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths and Changelings but none of them proved as popular as Vampire. People were eating it up so much that by 1994 White Wolf had released what can be considered the first – but most definitely not the last – Vampire merch in the form of Clan pins. Whilst fun in their own right, players often used to wear these to find others who shared the love of the same game. I know that I managed to meet a few like minded players who spotted my Lasombra pin at the student union and felt compelled to come over and say “Hey – you play Vampire too?”
It was also in 1994 that White Wolf released what can be considered one of their most controversial products. Not because it was offensive, or made light of any historical tragedy, but because it was so thematically at odd with what went before.
Mention “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand” to most Vampire players and you’ll either get a response of “Man! I LOVED THAT BOOK!” or a sigh and a roll of the eyes. Dirty Secrets detailed a secret society that used another secret society as a front and which, whilst mainly vampiric, also included a hodge podge of other supernaturals from throughout the World of Darkness. It also introduced some new bloodlines of vampires, posited conspiracies behind nearly everything, and wrote in two or three shadow wars being fought on a nightly basis behind everything else that was going on.
The biggest complaint from detractors of this book was “What happened to ’The Storytelling Game of Personal Horror’?” Wasn’t that the cornerstone of this game, not battling against extra dimensional horrors called “souleaters”? While White Wolf didn’t specifically come out, hold up their hands and say “Ok – this was a mistake” they did LITERALLY nuke the cult outlined in this book in a later publication, so we’ll just leave that there.
1994 was also the year that saw White Wolf enter the collectible card game market when they licensed the rights to create a Vampire themed CCG. The result was “Jyhad” – named after the Vampire’s term for the political struggle amongst their kind – and unlike other CCGs of the day that were one on one duels, this game was designed around multiplayer play, and included politics as well as simple opponent smashing. In 1995 it changed its name to “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” because…well…come on. Jyhad? Really?
1995 began with an innovation being introduced across the World of Darkness lines. From this year onwards, White Wolf would designate a theme to each year, and 1995 was to be “Year of the Hunter”. Sadly, rather than releasing a series of publications themed around hunters, what this meant in practice was that each game line got a single book dedicated to a group that hunted the main game line’s protagonists. For Vampire this was, unsurprisingly, “The Inquisition”.
White Wolf also introduced another innovation this year in the form of printing books under the “Black Dog Game Factory” imprint. Named after a company that existed in the Werewolf universe, Black Dog games were intended for a “mature audience”. Initially this was surprising, as White Wolf had always marketed themselves as “Games for Mature Minds” and some naysayers assumed that this was simply a marketing gimmick, and that any Black Dog publications would simply be regular White Wolf publications only drenched in gore and nudity.
Thankfully, the naysayers were proved wrong – Black Dog games simply dealt with subjects that needed to be handled with maturity and which dealt with themes unsuitable for the less mature. Their first publication – an adventure called “The Last Supper” saw the players take on the roles of mortals who attended a feast where – unbeknownst to them – they were to be the main course for the other guests who were all vampires. This book dealt with themes such as sadism, powerlessness and having another’s will forced upon you, so it is not surprising that White Wolf chose to brand it as “for mature audiences only”! Handled by the immature, this game would horrific!
1995 was a high point for the World of Darkness. They had five games in their stable, and – next to TSR – they were the biggest RPG company out there. Oh, and Fox were going to be producing a TV series based on Vampire, with Mark Rein-Hagen as the writer. Things could only get better from here, right?
Unfortunately, the answer was “No”.
Various problems had begun to hit the book trade in 1995, and over the next couple of years the collectible card game bubble had burst; this was unfortunate as White Wolf had put out two CCGs of their own as well as licensing “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” to Wizards of the Coast. In addition, apart from Vampire, their other game lines weren’t selling brilliantly. Wraith had been critically acclaimed but was almost dead in the water (pun very much intended).
Worst of all, “Kindred: The Embraced” – the Fox TV series – was a complete flop, and was canned after eight episodes. The producers wouldn’t listen to Rein-Hagen and ended up doing their own things thematically and story wise. As the man himself said “The show wasn’t as good as it could have been, if they only had listened to me more.”
All of these events led to a falling out between Mark, Steve and Stewart and as a result Mark – the man who had conceived of Vampire in the first place – left White Wolf.
Production continued throughout 1996 and 1997 but it was clear that a change of direction was needed – amongst the publications during these years were various reprinted books and compilations of older material.
The change of direction came in 1998 with the launch of a Revised edition of Vampire the Masquerade. Unlike previous editions this one was FAR MORE focused on metaplot – meaning the ongoing background story that White Wolf was weaving through the World of Darkness. Beforehand, White Wolf were keen to give you the history of the setting and leaving it at that. Now? Now they were making changes that could affect your games! Examples of this over the years to follow include the Gangrel clan leaving the Camarilla, the True Black Hand being literally nuked, and the Ravnos clan being almost extinguished in a fratricidal orgy of bloodshed known as the Week of Nightmares.
Now, whilst I (and a great many players) had no problem with the Ravnos being wiped out, there was a genuine gripe from a lot of players that White Wolf had – intentionally or not – introduced an arms race into their games by focusing on metaplot. Many storytellers have examples of players turning up to games with the latest and greatest supplements, pointing at a change that the storyteller was unaware of, and asking to introduce it into their game.
However, on the flip side, the metaplot was exciting! Nobody likes a static setting, and it was great to see White Wolf breath (un)life back into their world with the introduction of changes that would affect the global scene. They also made a point of saying “Look – this is just our thing. If you don’t want to do it – don’t.” However, there was always the caveat of “…of course, later supplements will take this event into consideration…”
Along with the release of revised edition, White Wolf released guides to both the Sabbat and the Camarilla. As mentioned previously, the Sabbat had needed an image make over for a while, and this book was exactly that! Gone were the demon summonings – in fact, the Sabbat as a whole were dead against them – the mindless rampaging and the being-freaky-just-for-the-sake-of-being-freaky. Instead, we had a sect of vampires that behaved the way they did, not because they were “the bad guys” but because they were trying to stave off a vampiric apocalypse and saw the Camarilla as just the sort of saps who were enabling it. They didn’t attack Camarilla cities because they liked flipping cars and scaring mortals. Rather, they wanted to get at the elders who they knew were in league with the REALLY SCARY older vampires who were going to awaken soon and EAT EVERYONE.
Their rituals were detailed and it was clear that, much like zealots in our own world, they fulfilled the purpose of reinforcing the member’s believes, ensuring their loyalty and strengthening the sect – usually in the most Darwinian way possible.
It was a complete breath of fresh air. I remember devouring this book when I got it and then thinking “Wait – so the Sabbat are the GOOD GUYS?” I also more or less instantly set about planning a Sabbat game of my own…
As the millennium approached, White Wolf started publishing their Clan Novel saga. Set over 13 books – one for each clan – this epic dealt with the unlives of dozens of vampires and the impact of a major Sabbat crusade across the east coast of the USA. The very first book in the series – Clan Novel: Toreador – caused everyone reading it to double take at the very end. All that metaplot advancing that I mentioned beforehand? Well, the end of this book saw it advance in the most gigantic and frightening way possible. I remember a friend lending it to me and saying “Not wanting to spoil things, but the Sabbat were right…”
Remember how I earlier mentioned that White Wolf had decided that each year would have a theme? The year 2000 was designated as “The Year of Revelations” – where the fall out from the previous year’s reckoning (which saw, amongst other things, the progenitor of the Ravnos clan awakening and destroying most of his filthy clan) would be addressed. However, taking a look back on what was released that year, it could very well be entitled “The Year of Merchandising Opportunities”.
Amongst the “goodies” released for fans of the series were candles, letterheads for each of the clans, a chess set, Camarilla and Sabbat pieces for the chess set, tattoos, flasks, clan T-shirts, clan stickers, clan sweatshirts, a CD-ROM of various utilities and the first every Vampire: The Masquerade video game – Redemption.
Praise for the game is mixed. I remember buying it the day it was released and enjoying it, but it felt much more like a generic PC RPG like Diablo which happened to have Vampires as main characters. A lot of the tabletop game’s background is outright abandoned. For example, one of the Camarilla’s most important rules is the Sixth Tradition, which says that you won’t kill other vampires. Anyone who has ever played Redemption will know that you’re pretty much knee deep in dead vampires throughout it…
2001 and 2002 rolled along with many, many publications rolling out. When New York by Night was released shortly after the horrors of 9/11 White Wolf showed some very well-needed sensitivity and maturity by including in their introduction a note saying that they weren’t going to crowbar in the events of that dreadful day and try to pin it on some conspiracy of supernatural creatures. Doing so, they said, would be the height of insensitivity. They also pointed out that by not including the events of 9/11 in their book they were not intending to denigrate what happened through omission, but rather they were maintaining a respectful silence. A mature and well considered decision, and one that I applaud them for.
By the end of 2002 it was clear that White Wolf was beginning to struggle for inspiration when it came to supplements. They had already released two books about Blood Sorcery that read very much like D&D spell books, and an “Encyclopaedia Vampirica” which was…well…an encyclopaedia which referenced characters and places from everything that had been released for Vampire up until that point. However, I remember when “Havens of the Damned” was released a friend of mine asked “What next, Favourite Cars of the Undead?” What could they do to keep things interesting?
White Wolf clearly play by the law of “Go big or go home”, because in 2003 they announced “The Time of Judgement” where they were going to END the World of Darkness. Yes, the were killing ALL OF THEIR GAME LINES.
Gehenna – the vampiric apocalypse – was going to get its own sourcebook in 2004.
This wasn’t entirely unprecedented – White Wolf did the same for Wraith in 1999 with the release of “Ends of Empire” which killed off that game line, but it didn’t have Vampire’s popularity and, more importantly, it wasn’t White Wolf’s cash cow! Other game designers were scratching their heads in wonder and horror and settled down with all the glee of rubberneckers at a massive pileup.
Fans of the game were incredulous, shocked and excited (sometimes all at the same time) and braced themselves for what to come. White Wolf did a great job of building up to this momentous event – over the course of 2003 a series of “Time of Judgement” books were released for each of their major game lines – sometimes crossing over – to show the World of Darkness slowly falling apart. They also put a news ticker on their website that included, from mid July onwards, daily updates that showed the rapidly disintegrating state of their universe. The vampire’s masquerade was crumbling, werewolves were preparing for the final battle, mages found reality constricting, demons were drawing up battle lines and hunters…well, hunters were having the biggest of “WE TOLD YOU SO” moments.
So it was, on January the 14th 2004, after thirteen years of continuous publication, that Vampire: The Masquerade came to a bloody and fiery end with the Gehenna sourcebook. I can still remember rushing out to get it on the day it was released and reading as much as I could in a single sitting and I genuinely liked what was there. It was sad seeing one of my favourite games ending, but this was a very, VERY fitting ending. I won’t spoil the contents of the book – there are people out there that won’t have read it and it is a fun read – but I was left thinking “Yup – I’m ok with that.”
Besides, White Wolf had already been promising “A brand new World of Darkness”. Like all other Vampire players out there I was awaiting this “Vampire: the Requiem” with bated breath, but I’m not ashamed to say I was a naysayer from day one. I had seen what had been teased to the pensive vampire loving public, and I didn’t like it.
This wasn’t “brand new”. It was a reskinned version of Masquerade. I was happy to be proved wrong though and, like many, many others I bought the rulebook as soon as it was released.
I won’t lie – it was pretty.
It also sold truckloads.
It just didn’t do ANYTHING for me.
The whole background was an amalgamation and reworking of various Masquerade concepts, all peppered with “…and nobody can remember what happened in the past so make it up”.
I tried playing a game – even stuck with it for a few sessions – but it felt like Masquerade only gutted of everything that made it come alive. Yes, vampires aren’t alive – stop being pedantic, you know what I mean…
After that, I abandoned it…but wasn’t surprised when a 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire was published in 2011. Nor was I surprised when they continued to publish supplements for it as it proved popular despite saying they never would.
Vampire is now in it’s 5th edition – I’m guessing the 20th anniversary edition counts as the 4th – and I haven’t played it yet, but from what I’ve read and understand it’s a continuation of “classic” Vampire but with new mechanics. Reviews so far seem fairly mixed but I’ll keep an open mind until I actually play it. It’s also had its fair share of controversy attached it too, but I won’t go into that here…
It’s very difficult to understate the impact that Vampire made on the gaming scene. Back in the early 90s things were slowly moving away from the classic fantasy dungeon crawls to a far more open style of play, but Vampire was the first game to my mind to really focus on the social aspect of play over combat. It encouraged character arcs and personality development rather than the accumulation of powers (although I know plenty of Vampire players who were totally in it for the powers).
Most of all though, it will be remembered as the first mainstream game to stand up and say this is about the story – not the system. It encouraged players to be as invested in the tale being told as the storyteller. It encouraged those thinking of writing scenarios to focus on mood, theme and the how of storytelling rather than which rooms had traps and monsters in them and where the treasure was to be found.
In short – it encouraged a different style of play. Was it a better style of play? No, not at all, but it did show players and GMs that you weren’t constrained by ONE style of play.
Not bad for a brainwave prompted by a trip to America’s rust belt.
That’s probably why the city of Gary gets a dedication in the first edition…
I can still remember that day in the school playground (that’s “recess yard” or something similar for my American readers…) back in 1985 when Greig McKinnon rushed over to me in an excited frenzy and thrust a book into my hands.
“You have GOT to read this. It’s like a story, but you’re the hero in it!”
The book looked amazing. It was called “The Temple of Terror” and had a cover featuring some kind of armed and armoured snake guy barring the entrance into a desert city.
The blurb began:
“The dark, twisted power of the young Malbordus is reaching its zenith. All he needs now is to retrieve the five dragon artefacts which have been hidden for centuries in the lost city of Vatos, somewhere in the Desert of Skulls…”
I had no idea what “zenith” meant, but this guy sounded like he needed stopped, and given that the blurb also said “Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU become the hero!” it sounded like I was very much the person to stop him!
Needless to say I DEVOURED the book – actually, I still have my original copy (I think I swapped Greig some comics for it) and it does sort of look like it’s been physically consumed and regurgitated.
After reading this I knew I needed more; Temple of Terror was book 14 in a series so there were at least 13 other ones I hadn’t read… I badgered my mum to take me to the library, and I scoured the shelves for those tell-tale green spines. Any pocket money I had went on new game books.
I was hooked.
This started my love affair with a series of books that went on for over 50 titles, spawned numerous spin off media, and which drew me – like the tractor beam on the Death Star – towards the wider hobby of roleplaying and really grew my love of the fantasy genre.
The series I refer to is – of course – the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks; brainchild of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the co-founders of Games Workshop.
The books will open with an introduction that explains the background to the main tale. The story is then split across numerous numbered paragraphs – traditionally Fighting Fantasy books have 400 but there are exceptions – which will make zero sense if read in order. Instead, as the reader finishes a paragraph they will be given a series of choices which allows them to influence the direction the narrative is taking. These are represented by other numbered paragraphs the reader can turn to. This continues until the story concludes, either successfully – the words “Turn to 400” were the sweetest words a Fighting Fantasy fan could ever read – or…er…less successfully (usually in some hideous, gory fashion). Seriously, the number of times my eyes would widen in horror as I read some horrible description of my failure followed by the words “Your adventure ends here…”
Of course, this concept of branching narrative, you-are-the-hero type stories wasn’t new – Choose Your Own Adventure books had been around since the late 1970s. What made Fighting Fantasy new and exciting when it first hit the shelves in 1982 was the inclusion of the GAME element.
According to the blurb in each gamebook “Two dice, a pencil and an eraser are all you need to make your journey…” – yes, you’d be keeping score on a character sheet (or “Adventure Sheet” as FF called it)!
Of course, compared to most RPGs, FF was really simple. For starters, there were only three statistics to keep track of; SKILL – reflecting your swordsmanship and general knack for all things heroic, STAMINA – health or hitpoints; if this ever got to zero you were dead regardless of where you were in the story, and LUCK – which was…er…how lucky you were. Simple as these were, they combined beautifully as the engine that ran the crunchy bits of your adventure. When something was in doubt, you tested your LUCK. If you were lucky then something good (or something “not bad”) happened. If you were unlucky the consequences could vary from losing a couple of points of STAMINA, to missing out on an important item to death! When a battle occurred, SKILL and STAMINA scores were given for the creature you were fighting and this was resolved using a simple, but effective, combat system.
There was some interplay between the stats; you could use LUCK in combat to influence how much damage you did or took, and various potions and provisions were available to raise your STAMINA. Occasionally some magic objects or adventuring gear would be on hand to raise your SKILL or make you more effective in combat but, on the whole, the system remained elegant and simple.
Of course, I’m writing this with the hindsight of an adult. Nowadays, when I pull out a Fighting Fantasy book for a read through I’m scrupulously honest. I roll my stats and stick with them no matter how bad. Ever combat is fought fairly, and if I die to a monster I shrug, roll up a new hero and start again. Should my LUCK plummet to absurdly low levels and I end up succumbing to Murphy’s law, so be it – I can hope to be luckier on my next adventure.
Did I do this as a kid though?
Ian Livingstone – one of the original authors – has made reference before to the “five fingered bookmark”; an allusion to the fact that most discerning school children would keep their fingers wedged between the various paragraph choices that they came to, being able to quickly “rewind” if the room they had blundered into contained a hungry monster rather than the treasure they expected.
In addition to this, most schools didn’t really approve of clattering dice during reading time. Naturally, being the good boy I am I didn’t want to break these rules. No, far better to assume that my hero bossed his way through every combat and shrugged off all damage like a champ than risk behaving like some kind of anarchist…
Later series of the books actually came with dice printed at the bottom of the right hand pages so that players could flick through to simulate a dice roll. However, even this wasn’t a cure to rampant cheating – I’m pretty sure when I did this the amount of double sixes I rolled was uncanny (and the particular page that they sat at the bottom of looked suspiciously worn…).
Later entries in the series were much more clever in how they dealt with cheaters. Rather than let them get to the end and ask things like “Do you have item X?” (which of course I always did…) they would have entries like “If you have a key with a number on it, subtract that number from the paragraph you are on just now and turn to the new reference number…” There were even a couple that had mechanisms designed specifically to catch cheaters and punish them!
So, we’ve got a series of books where you are the hero with a basic roleplaying system bolted on. That’s all well and good (and potentially gimmicky) but how did they read?
Simply put, they were extremely immersive. This was especially true once the series built up a head of steam. Sure, the first few followed some fairly basic fantasy tropes (“Go and kill the big bad over there…”, “Go and collect the magic item over here…”) but once these had been established the authors started actually world building, and the results were wonderful. Every new book felt like a return to a setting that the reader was familiar with, and which was exciting for that familiarity. When new books explored as-of-yet-unseen corners of Titan (as the FF world was named) the excitement grew further. Over the years the series explored other settings – notably sci-fi but also including post apocalyptic, superhero and horror – but because none of these settings were anchored in the familiar and fascinating world of Titan, none of them really stuck, and this goes a long way to explain why the series remained “Fighting Fantasy” and not “Fighting Fantasy and Associated Trades”.
Aiding and abetting the world building, were a wonderful cast of artists. Fighting Fantasy books were lovingly illustrated by a whole host of talented people, and the paintings that adorn their covers put today’s computer generated images to shame. Every single piece of art – from the aforementioned covers, to the illustrations accompanying the main text, to the little incidental pieces that split up the paragraphs to the maps on the insides of the covers – helped drag you – the reader – deeper and deeper into the world that was being created. I had a particular soft spot for the maps. They just fostered a wonderful sense of “You are here”…
Fun fact, Iain McCaig who provided many of the illustrations for FF was also the chap who created Darth Maul. Take a look at the cover of City of Thieves – created way back in 1983 – and you can see the genesis there…
I mentioned the world-building earlier as the thing that had really captured my imagination and dragged me headlong into the FF phenomenon, but a special mention must be given to the Sorcery! spin off series written by Steve Jackson. Originally conceived as a product for Penguin books (Puffin’s “grown up” brother) Sorcery! was advertised as a more advanced variant of Fighting Fantasy, and an early advert boldly touted “…why should kids have all the fun…?“
I’m not sure how much success the “for adults” concept had – the editions I have are all from Puffin; but the Sorcery series was fantastic. Spread across four books and published between 1983 and 1985 the Sorcery series was truly epic. It covered a single story, and saw the main protagonist journeying from their home kingdom of Analand to the distant Mampang Fortress – home to the evil Archmage who had stolen the Crown of Kings from Analand’s ruler. The crown was an ancient magical artefact that bestowed powers of unnatural leadership upon the wearer. With it, the Archmage hoped to unite the various chaotic races that made their homes in the land of Khakabad (the corner of Titan where the series was set). Only you – Analand’s champion – could retrieve it…
I was obsessed with this series as a child, but I approached it in a weird manner. Sorcery! 2 – Kharé: Cityport of Traps – was actually the second Fighting Fantasy book I ever read and, boy, was it difficult! I eventually struggled my way through it but my first few reads were confusing. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing or where I was – my fault for starting in the middle of a series.
That being said, my nine year old self was enraptured with Sorcery’s flagship feature, its magic system. Each Sorcery title included a spell book with over forty spells. For the serious collector, you could even buy this separately – in a book beautifully illustrated by the legendary John Blanche. Each of these spells had a cost in STAMINA and was identified by a three letter code that gave you a clue as to the spell’s function. For example, the ZAP spell threw lighting bolts, whilst the WAL spell created an invisible wall. The more powerful spells cost more STAMINA, whereas the cheaper spells generally needed some kind of physical component to cast successfully. The text suggested you didn’t consult the spell book during play (after all, would a real mage have time to start flipping through their spell book when the baddies were bearing down on them?) and instead spend time to actually LEARN the spells.
I don’t know if it’s a testament to my Taurean stubbornness, but I did exactly that, and even today can tell you what each spell does, how much they cost and what artefacts (if any) they need to cast.
Of course, I still didn’t play properly with any of that dice rolling malarky but I was scrupulously honest where the spells were concerned!
There was the option to play a simpler game where you were a warrior with no spells (and instead got a SKILL bump) but, to be honest, where’s the fun in playing a series called Sorcery when there’s no actual sorcery involved…
As well as being part of one larger story (with your character progressing from each one as you went) each of the Sorcery books was longer than your average FF book. The first three books had 456, 511 and 498 references each, while the final one clocked in at a massive 800! All in all, this means the Sorcery series is about the length of five and a half “normal” FF books!
I’ve mentioned previously that John Blanche illustrated the spell book – he also provided ALL the artwork for the series; from the covers, to the internal illustrations, to the maps, to the little separator images between sections. This consistency combined with Jackson’s vivid descriptions (most paragraphs were longer than was usual for an FF book) helped conjure up a unique, interesting and – there’s that word again – immersive world. Sure, there were standard fantasy creatures like manticores, goblins and giants, but what about the Svinn, Red Eyes, Elvins and Mucalytics – each and every one a unique Jacksonian creation.
What is particularly fascinating about the Sorcery series is its internal consistency. Things you did in one book could go onto affect something in a later book. For example, in book 1 (spoilers obviously!) you meet an assassin who tries to rob and kill you. If you fight him you can kill him. Or, you can choose to spare him. If you do, there’s a chance you can meet him in a later book. Likewise, an artefact found in book 2 can give you powers over something you encounter in book 3. Most importantly, if you defeat the archmage’s spies in book 3 the archmage’s minions in book 4 will respond differently to you because they don’t actually know of your mission to steal back the Crown.
Oh, and then there’s the time travel, but I won’t spoil it…
In our modern day of video games with cloud saves and multi million dollar budgets this probably doesn’t seem significant, but back in the 80s this was HUGE. Bear in mind the most video games back then still came on tape and their level of sophistication was such that they could run on 64K of RAM….
When I first started playing Sorcery, only three of the books had been released. It’s a testament to how obsessed I was about this series that, when the fourth book was released, it went straight on my Christmas list, and I was more excited about getting it than the computer I got that same year…
As the series grew and expanded, and as the demand for the books surged, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone moved from being sole authors to overseeing the growth of the series and the worlds being created. Writing was taken over by other writers that they commissioned, and the books now bore the tag line of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone present…”
Here the series really went into overdrive; while there were seven books in the main series published between 1982 and 1984, 1984 to 1986 saw a further 17 added to the catalogue! The series went on to see a total of 59 books being published between 1982 and 1995, alongside the four books making up the Sorcery epic.
In addition to this, FF spawned two lines of roleplaying games. The first “series” (and I’m using this term loosely based upon when they were released – I’m not aware they were an official series as such) was composed of “Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Roleplaying Game”, “The Riddling Reaver” (a campaign dealing with the titular villain), “Out of the Pit” (Fighting Fantasy’s equivalent of a monster manual) and “Titan” (the guide to the FF world).
The idea for FF as a roleplaying game was the brainchild of Steve Jackson. He and Ian Livingstone were both D&D players (indeed, their early business had been based off importing and selling D&D to the British market) but Jackson wanted to create a really simple RPG – something as simple as multiplayer FF. The book was small and thin, but it contained enough goodness for a prospective GM to run a nice, simple campaign – provided they were willing to put the leg work into writing one…
…or providing they were willing to buy a copy of “The Riddling Reaver”.
This campaign saw the adventurers pursue said Reaver – an agent of the Trickster gods of Luck and Chance – and attempt to stop his unhinged schemes. I ran this for my friends as a kid and I remember being so determined to prepare it properly that I was caught reading it in class when I should have been paying attention to something else… My campaign went on hold for a month after the teacher confiscated it, and no amount of protestations to my parents about the injustice of it all would convince them to march down to the school and demand it back.
The Riddling Reaver is split into several chapters, and the story follows the characters as the pursue the Reaver for the murder of a local nobleman. It’s not exactly taxing on the brain, nor will you find enormously detailed dungeon floorplans, but the feeling of it is VERY Fighting Fantasy. I’ve yet to reread it, but I recall my players enjoying it enormously back in the day.
“Out of the Pit” and “Titan” are in effect the setting books for an FF campaign, but they’re also great reads in their own right. I remember buying Out of the Pit from McDougal’s bookshop in Paisley, and reading a large portion of it on the bus on the way home, my attention gripped by all the foul monsters that populated its pages as well as the fantastic artwork. Titan gives a great view of the history and setting of the FF world, and is full of great little nuggets of information that could be used for expanding into larger adventures or campaigns. In fact, I’d wager that the setting of Titan is more fully realised than some “grown up” roleplay settings.
Interestingly, both “Titan” and “Out of the Pit” were both originally published in a format larger than the usual A5. These books came with beautiful colour plates that I remember some philistines ripping out to use as posters.
The second “series” were the “Advanced Fighting Fantasy” books. These originally came in three volumes – Dungeoneer, Blacksand and Allansia – covering dungeon, city and wilderness adventures respectively. As well as containing rules for playing more complex FF RPGs, each volume also included sample adventures. Allansia was probably my favourite as it came packed with detail about the the world of Titan as well as additional rules (including those for massed combat!).
Years later, these books were rereleased by Arion games in one large volume as “Advanced Fighting Fantasy Deluxe”. Given that it came with all the AFF information as well as that from Titan and Out of the Pit this is probably as complete a Fighting Fantasy RPG as you could ever want!
Although the original FF series ended in 1995 with the publication of the 59th book, the series has been resurrected a couple of times since, and is currently published by Scholastic Books. There have been additions to the line up of books published since the first run and the most recent book – Assassins of Allansia – is a particular toughie. Even though the newer books don’t have the traditional green spine – these ones are all fancy and shiny! – the writing is still pure FF.
So, in a month where I’m taking part in an event to celebrate all things fantasy, I can’t think of something more fitting to write about than the series that got me absolutely hooked on the genre. A series that promised me that “YOU decide which route to follow, which dangers to risk and which monsters to fight.”
Which was always easier with a five-fingered bookmark.
Mention Star Wars and Ghostbusters in the same sentence, and most people will assume that you are indulging in some geek-culture comparison. Both were enormously successful films, both have rabidly devoted fan bases, and both spawned a host of franchise off-shots like action figures, cartoon series and fiction. Amongst those spin-offs were role-playing games.
Given that we’re a podcast devoted to RPG history, you’d be on the right track assuming that this would be what we’re talking about.
It would probably surprise most folks to learn that Ghostbusters got an RPG before Star Wars. Viewed through a modern lens, this seems somewhat off. After all, fun as Ghostbusters is, isn’t the Star Wars franchise worth something like $70 billion? Aren’t they continually churning out movie blockbusters and critically acclaimed TV shows? You don’t get bought by Disney unless you’re a rock solid money maker, right?
True, but back in 1986 – the year that the Ghostbusters’ RPG was released – Ghostbusters had recently grossed just shy of $300 million at the box office. There was talk of a new film, a cartoon was just about to be released, a video game based on the film had proven to be a surprise hit, Marvel were publishing Ghostbusters comics, and there was a line of action figures in development. Hell, they even had their own breakfast cereal!
By contrast, Star Wars was old news. There were a couple of – fairly terrible – cartoons still limping along, two made for TV movies had just ended, and Marvel were looking to drop their comic book lines. While the merchandising was reputed to be worth around $2 billion, interest in it was starting to tail off. Also, the movies had “only” grossed around $30 million. Simply put. People were losing interest in the galaxy far, far away, and were much more drawn to the catch phrase “Who ya gonna call?”
It therefore seemed logical that the team behind Call of Cthulhu – the world’s most successful horror roleplaying game – would team up with West End Games – publishers of Paranoia, one of the funniest RPGs out there – to produce, under license from Columbia pictures, the Ghostbusters RPG.
What has this got to do with Star Wars, other than to show how quickly the public lose interest in established franchises? Well, firstly, the system that was developed for Ghostbusters – what became known as the D6 system – became the backbone of the Star Wars RPG. Secondly, it meant that when West End games picked up the license for what is now a multi-billion dollar franchise they did so for a song.
It also meant that when they sat down and started creating material for their new RPG, they did so in a complete vacuum.
You see, by 1987 – the year that West End games got their license for Star Wars and also the 10th anniversary of the release of the first flim – there was literally nothing new being created for fans of the franchise. The last new material that hopeful Star Wars fans had got were a series of “Droids” comics published in 1986 to tie in with the cartoon series. Other than that – nothing.
Therefore, West End games were in the fortunate position of having an audience hungry for new content and a carte blanche to go forth and create.
And man, did they take that mandate and run with it!
In the first three years after the game was launched the went ahead and released over 20 supplements! The supplements that were released varied in quality, but the most important thing for Star Wars fans were that not only did they now have a place where they could have epic adventures in the Star Wars universe, they now saw the universe that they have loved seeing on cinema screens being EXPANDED before their very eyes. Early adventures dealt with familiar territory like the desert world of Tatooine, but very quickly West End started giving names to characters and species that previously had only been known by fan nicknames or side notes in the scripts.
That strange looking alien that you glimpsed for a few seconds in the cantina? Now fans knew he belonged to a species called the “Ithorians”. They also found out much about the planet Ithor (fourth planet in the Ottega star system if you’re interested), the Ithorian culture, they fact that they had ecological priests serving the “mother jungle” and the fact that Ithorians actually had two mouths which let them speak in stereo. This was much better detail than “Uh…yeah…he’s the guy that had that figure released called ‘Hammerhead’…”
The very first supplement – the Star Wars sourcebook – included ten such entries for alien species along with chapters on starships, droids, vehicles, creatures, equipment, Stormtroopers, bases and a host of heroes and villains. Sure, there were several things that George Lucas had specified as being off-limits and sacrosanct (basically everything that would end up in the prequels) but everything else? All of that was up for grabs for the creative minds at West End games.
They were so prolific, that when Timothy Zahn was given a commission to write the “Thrawn Trilogy” he was sent a bumper bundle of West End goodies and told that this was the universe in which he should base his new novels! Even nowadays, following the Disney take over of Star Wars and their decree that the only things that were canon were the movies and anything produced by Disney following their acquisition of the franchise, a lot of the terms established by West End games remain in use.
So, background aside, how did this game play? After all, there have been many games out there with rich and wonderful backgrounds, but which ultimately are undone by fairly lacklustre systems. Well, as was mentioned earlier, the system used for Star Wars was based off the one that was previously developed for Ghostbusters. As can be imagined, one thing that was at the forefront of the designers’ minds when creating a ruleset for a game based off the madcap Ghostbusters’ movie was that it had to be fast, easy to follow, and which cover pretty much any eventuality. After all, this was a world that played fast and easy with the rules of physics (and paraphysics!) so it was important that the GM should be able to make rulings on the fly for whatever nonsense that the players wanted to get up to. When you considered that at this period in time a lot of RPGs were becoming more and more complex (take a look at Rolemaster and AD&D stuff that was out then!) Ghostbusters’ rules merrily backflipped in the opposite direction. A game where characters only had four stats? What was this – a Fighting Fantasy book?
When Star Wars was being developed, it took this system, tweaked it slightly and ran with it. Within a few paragraphs of its opening, the rulebook acknowledges that what the GM should be doing is creating an ADVENTURE for the players – which is to say a story with an interesting plot. This doesn’t see the GM creating some kind of space dungeon which he populates with loot and Star Wars themed monsters to be tackled. Instead, the GM’s role is likened to that of a film director. They are encouraged to think of “scenes” and cut between them to keep the action moving.
The rules are very much based around this free-flowing, fast-moving pace. Characters have dice pools of abilities and when they want to do something the GM assigns a difficulty number. Then, based on how close they are to the number, the GM narrates the results. That’s it – simple. Sure, there can be more nuance to it, but in a nutshell the rules really are that simple. In fact, the players section of the rulebook doesn’t even reach ten pages!
Players are encouraged to picked a character “template” which they can customise. These templates are simple Star Wars stereotypes, and I’ve had arguments with other roleplayers who have suggested that these are cop-outs. However, how is a template any different from a D&D class? If you take a look at Youtube you can find all manner of videos explaining how to “optimise your class build” for D&D 5th edition – so I’m not sure I can see any difference between that and what West End Games were doing almost a quarter of century before.
In fact, the beauty of these templates were two fold – firstly it allowed players to very quickly get their characters up and running. You’re a bounty hunter? Cool – stick a few points in your various weapon skills and you’re ready to go. You’re the pilot? Well, I guess you’re going to need to know how to fly and fix an X-Wing. The senator? You’re party’s face so load up on those interpersonal skills. However, it was the second function of these templates that was so cool – they helped people get into character almost straight away. Everyone’s seen Star Wars. Nobody needs to be told how to behave as a bolshy young senator, or a jedi or as a Wookie. Sure, you can absolutely put your own spin on things, but if you just want to get up and running it’s pretty easy to say “I’ll play a smuggler” and start calling people “kid” and mumbling things like “Never tell me the odds” when things get hairy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that when I used to play, there was at least one player who said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every session…
The Gamesmaster’s chapters are longer than the players’ – but a lot of that is taken up with examples of just how to go about setting the difficulty numbers for various activities (the result of which means I now know just how tricky it is to hit the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star – good job Luke!). The combat chapter makes it quite clear that this is NOT a tactical wargame, and it’s very much designed with the fast moving spirit of the movies in mind. Everything is largely abstract and players are encouraged to act in as heroic a manner as possible, rather than just saying “I plug another Storm Trooper”.
Chapters follow on various key aspects of the Star Wars universe like droids, ships and the force, but the real difference comes when the rulebook starts exploring how to write an adventure.
Now bear in mind, up until this point – with a few notable exceptions – most thought in RPGs around designing adventures revolved around “What challenges are in the party’s path, where do they show up, and what reward exists for defeating them?” A lot of gaming modules followed the linear path of “Going to location X, overcoming obstacle Y, getting access to location Z and repeating until successful”. Star Wars flipped that on its head. The focus here was story, and when they mentioned earlier that the GM should think of himself as a director they weren’t kidding.
Sure, the templates helped the players get into character, but something that Star Wars official supplements included, and which the adventure chapter suggested that all GMs incorporate into their own adventures was scripts. Actual “character 1 says this, then character 2 says this” type scripts.
I can imagine a lot of modern roleplayers being utterly horrified about this, but these scripts were always fun and – more importantly – served a few valuable purposes.
Firstly, they very much made it clear to the players “You’re the cast of a movie”. Sounds like a small thing, but when you’re told “You’re the A-listers in this film” it encourages you to act in a second way.
Secondly, they did a wonderful job of imparting pretty good information. Rather than “You all meet up in the cantina and decide to go on an adventure” these scripts very firmly made it clear to the players why they were together and what they were meant to be doing.
Finally, they set the mood for what was to come, and plunged the players straight into the action. All the Star Wars published adventures I’ve played in did exactly the same thing – they took a leaf out of the movies’ books and plunged the players straight into the action In Media Res. Much like Episode IV begins with Princess Leia being pursued by Darth Vadar, rather than dealing with the minutiae of the theft of the Death Star plans, the adventure modules produced by West End games rarely start with the players in a briefing room getting orders from some general. “Black Ice” begins with them infiltrating an Imperial Research Facility. “Tatooine Manhunt” sees them waiting to make contact with a spy who has some information the Alliance desperately needs. “Scavenger Hunt” has them pursuing an Imperial transport through space. My personal favourite – “Starfall” – sees them confined in the brig of an Imperial Star Destroyer, heading towards a date with an interrogation droid.
Aside from being extremely atmospheric, the “In Media Res” approach was simply more exciting for players. I remember players looking forward to the start of new adventures, as they always knew that they would open with a bang! Plus, Star Wars was the one of those games where you didn’t have to sit through long, drawn out background sessions. Anyone who wanted to play would have seen the movies – hell, even if they hadn’t they’d KNOW of them – and rather than having to start with a recap on what the political situation was in the galaxy at any given moment, you just dropped the players in, gave them the equivalent of the opening crawl, had them read the script and they were off. They knew what they had to do, they knew they were the heroes and they got on with it.
I have compared this to the one time I tried to run the Nephilim RPG – a very detailed and background rich occult roleplaying game – and I quickly discovered that I was boring myself as I trudged my way through the background and saw the exhausted looks in my prospective players’ eyes…
Another device popular in the Star Wars RPG is the concept of “cuts”. Often, in published adventures – usually at the end of a chapter – you’d find stage directions. Consider this from Starfall. The players have just been through some fairly high action scenes and are having a rest. The NPC accompanying them assures them that he has found an easier route through the Star Destroyer (which is currently under attack from a Rebel fleet).
CUT AWAY TO KOLAFF
INTERIOR: SUBJIGATOR BRIDGE. Framed against a sea of stars, Captain Kolaff peers anxiously out the giant viewport. At his right, the female Imperial official scowls impatiently.
“They’re coming” the captain says, “I can feel them drawing closer.”
There then follows some dialogue which makes it clear that the Imperials no longer believe the Rebels to be dead and that they are searching to bring them back into custody. Plus, it also hints at some kind of diabolical plan being concocted by the Captain. Would the players know this in character? Absolutely not? Does it add to the game? 100%. Their faces when some kind of plot twist is revealed is often reward enough, but these cuts help to reinforce the cinematic feel of the adventure.
One of my favourite moments like this occurred during a homebrew adventure I ran once. The rebels were on a mission to steal a protype star fighter, and had put themselves into a fairly favourable position, and were contemplating their next move which was to get onto the hanger floor and get access to the ship. We then cut away to an Imperial Shuttle landing at the base, the ramp crashing down and a tall, black cloaked figure descending. The station’s governor bowed before it and said “Lord Vadar. We are honoured by your presence.” before it cut back to the players.
Now, I knew that Vadar had next to nothing to do with the adventure – they were never going to encounter him – but now they; the players; had the knowledge that he was on the station. For the next few encounters they were jumpy as hell, and acted as if they were in a race against time. They no longer wanted to be on that station – they wanted to complete their mission and get out of there!
Of course, once they completed and blaster their way out of the station and jumped into hyperspace, I couldn’t resist having another cut…
CUT TO VADAR
INTERIOR: STAR DESTROYER BRIDGE. Two enlisted imperial troopers drag a body out of Vadar’s shadow.
“Apology accepted, Governor” the dark lord says before turning to look at the field of stars outside of the view port, in the direction the Rebels fled. He reaches down with a gloved hand and presses a button. A hologram of an Imperial officer, who is nervously straightening his jacket, appears on screen.
Vadar stares at it for a second before intoning “Commander, find out whatever you can about those Rebel saboteurs, and have the information beamed directly to my Star Destroyer.”
FADE TO BLACK
I’m pretty sure Vadar never showed up again, but they were continually looking over their shoulders for bounty hunters and assassins after that…
There was a lot of great advice in the adventure chapter – ranging from “what is Space Opera?” to pacing, to why heroes should be “script immune” (which is to say they have their reckoning at the climax of the story) and how to maintain an atmosphere. My personal favourite is when and how to introduce a “I have a bad feeling about this…” moment which is very Star Wars.
A lot of this advice seems commonplace now, but remember when this was written. Back then, a lot of sourcebooks were more interested in cramming in monsters, treasure and spells than advice on how to run a good story.
The original Star Wars RPG did a lot of things right but, like all roleplaying games, there were always people who wanted more. A new edition came out in 1992, and it did a great job of adding some new setting elements. One things that West End Games did was take the concept of the New Republic from the post Return of the Jedi timeline and develop it. Second edition would see a lot new Republic material released which gave fans a whole different (but familiar!) setting to play with.
Unfortunately – at least to my mind – this new edition added in more complication than existed in the original. It still wasn’t quite in the league of AD&D rules bloat, but it wasn’t as fast moving and free flowing as before. As an example, whilst the original edition gave the players nine pages to read and then they were good to go, the new edition “kind of” explains this before launching into how to create a more advanced character and providing various lists of skills. It also made the Force MUCH more complicated and turned chases – which had previously been a fast-moving exercise in abstraction and very much in keeping with the Star Wars theme – into a much more tactical battle….
It was still a fun game – but it felt, at least to those of us who had played the original, that it had put on a few pounds since 1987…
A revised an expanded second edition was released four years later in 1996 which sought to address some of the issues from second edition. It also included an extremely comprehensive background section that was a treasure trove for ideas for aspiring GMs, but sadly it came too late. West End Games were facing financials problems, and the last supplement for Star Wars – Classic Adventures: volume 5 – was released in 1998 before the license to produce Star Wars material was lost.
There have been other Star Wars RPGs since then – notably by Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight – but none of them captured the fast moving, cinematic atmosphere of the original films as well as the West End Games edition. What’s more, despite West End falling on hard times near the end, it was they who kept the light of hope burning for Star Wars fans during that period of the late 80s when it felt like the franchise was dying, and it was they who built most of the universe that Star Wars fans take for granted nowadays. So whenever you play a Star Wars video game and wonder “Who named that type of blaster?” or watch one of the Disney TV shows and think “Where did that alien species get its name?” chances are, it came from one of the creative minds at West End games.
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.