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

Aaah… Happy days…

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

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

Got, got, got, got, NEED!

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

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

Yours for a cool $150k…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to SLA – this is your life now.

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

These are your new colleagues – happy induction day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we come to character creation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes – these are the “good” guys…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I dream all of THIS?

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

Not a fan, I’ll be honest…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SLA Industries RPG: Allsop, Dave: 9780952217602: Books
Best game ever?

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

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

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

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

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

The dangerous thing though? 

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

Yeah – that could be COSTLY.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything about L5R BLEW MY MIND.

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

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

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

I nodded.

Of course I’d play…

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game - Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Way of the Crab by Christina McAllister

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

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

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

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

The Way of the Unicorn by Edward Bolme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, in 2000, AEG released 2nd edition.

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

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

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

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

In short – it’s a LOT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a pretty cool cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game | The Cardboard Republic

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

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

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

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

One of the best cards ever…

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

SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 4 Roll to Save

  1. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 4
  2. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – 4e Review
  3. Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 2
  4. Halls of the Blood King – An Interview With Diogo Nogueira
  5. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is where the Paranoia begins…

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then 1989 happened…

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

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

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

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

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

The second book in the Secret Society Wars cycle is The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Adventure.  Now, again, spoiler warning here.  On the face of it, this adventure itself is actually based around a fairly clever conceit.  In a bid to understand the Communist threat and what makes supposedly loyal citizens join them, Friend Computer has walled off a disused sector, and set it up as “Alpha State”, even going as far as turning the resident compode (which is to say, that part of Friend Computer that oversees the sector) into “Tovarich Computer”.  It then populated the sector with lots of citizens of proven loyalty, who were all given hypnosis drugs and told that they were Commies.  Each of these citizens was given a carefully constructed past, and none had any memories of life in Alpha Complex.  The Computer then settles back to see what happens.
Again, handled correctly, this would be a really interesting adventure.  Having the players realise that their entire existence is a lie, all the while also realising the Alpha State isn’t actually that different from Alpha Complex could be a lot of fun.  However, the way the adventure is presented…
In the section on roleplaying suggestions it says “Everybody in Alpha State Talk with good, tick, Rrussian accent!”  This is followed by a section that begins “Everybody knows all Russians have BIG moustaches!  Even the women.  Just look at any Russian Olympic team, and tell me the women weren’t shaving at a younger age than most American males.”
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 CyberpunkTwilight 2000 and Dr Who.  In a bid to be innovative, the first two adventures include rules for crossover play, to allow characters from the systems being parodied to be played alongside the Paranoia characters.  I guess this could be fun as a one off, but it’s not really explored in great detail – the adventures are all presented from the Troubleshooters’ perspectives.  Anyway, they end up resolving nothing and return to a Crashed complex.  
Again, this is a case of wasted potential – these adventures could be interesting if they weren’t so damned insistent in cramming in tired, unfunny gags.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Big themes.

Big settings.

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”.

And I thought 40k was grimdark…

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.  

Bleak world?


Beleaguered populace?


Evil monsters?


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.

Less Gary Oldman and more Bill Paxton…

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…

What angst?

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.  

Vampires in Chicago clearly don’t mess around

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…”

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang are looking rough

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”.

The folks that hated D&D will love this…

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.

Caine and Abel get the emo treatment

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.

C’mon White Wolf; he was literally the architect of the Holocaust…

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.

Sorry love, but you’re a walking Masquerade breach…

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.

Inset sigh and eyeroll as necessary

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).

This looks like a fairly terrible Vampire LARP…

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. 

Now with greener green!

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.  

So long, too bad, so sad…

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…”

Praise Caine!

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.

Nope – no idea what’s going on here…

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.

I bloody love this book, but that looks like an Evanescence album cover

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 strongly dislike this game…

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…

This book is bloody massive, you could injure someone with it

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.

It’s pretty, but I prefer the marble and the rose thanks!

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.

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

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

I was hooked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I do this as a kid though?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish books were still those prices…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner: Christmas Present of the Year 1985

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which was always easier with a five-fingered bookmark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…  


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.”


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.