Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Retrospective: Stormbringer, Part II

In a break with tradition, I'm going to use this week's Retrospective as an opportunity to go back and talk about a game I just recently talked about: Chaosium's Stormbringer. I'm doing this because I just recently laid my hands on a copy of the original boxed set and, having read through the rulebook, it's eating at my brain. Normally, when I write a Retrospective, I'm working mostly on my memories of the game or gaming product in question. That's in fact part of the point of this regular feature. I'm reflecting on things from my gaming past and (generally) talking about them without having spent a lot of time reading and thinking about them. They're thus not really reviews in any formal sense so much as occasions to talk about whatever thoughts my memories of these products inspire in me.

Stormbringer has proven quite different, though, perhaps because I never had a chance to play this game the first time around, unlike most of the products to which I devote a Retrospective entry. Or perhaps it's just refreshing to spend some time with a Chaosium game, whose style and approach, although quite different from OD&D, are nevertheless thoroughly old school. For me, Chaosium games have a distinctly "literary" quality to them, something that, Appendix N to the contrary, TSR games never had. That's certainly why Chaosium games held such interest for me even when I was playing D&D -- they provided me with things I found utterly lacking in most other games from the same time period.

What most stands out about Stormbringer is its authorial voice. Unlike most RPGs, Stormbringer is not written like a technical manual. There are many places in the text where the author(s) offer explanations of and insights into the rules, sometimes with examples from their own games. Even more intriguing is that there's no ban on the use of the pronoun "I" in these sections. This gives the rulebook a not-quite-conversational tone that's refreshing without being cloying. I never got the sense that Ken St Andre and Steve Perrin were using the rulebook as an excuse to show off or share their dimestore philosophies of life with me. Rather, the author(s) come off as fellow gamers giving some context to the new ideas they're sharing across the table. That they do this without sacrificing intelligibility is very impressive and has made me reconsider my notions of what constitute good writing in RPG rulebooks.

Stormbringer is 144 pages long, including charts, tables, character sheets, and a sample adventure (with maps). That's probably about as long as it needs to be and, despite my completist mania, I feel no urge to seek out its one supplement or those written for later editions of the game. The game feels quite complete in 144 pages and I can easily imagine running a lengthy campaign without any need for additional material. Indeed, I'm not even sure what form additional material would take, since, as presented, Stormbringer is both self-contained and evocative. Any expansions I might feel the need for can be easily extrapolated from what's in the rulebook, which is the mark of a well-made RPG.

The game's not flawless by any means. There are a number of house rules I'd probably implement almost immediately, chief being a simplification of the ability bonuses, which I've found needlessly fiddly for too little benefit, either mechanically or flavor-wise. But, all in all, I continue to be very impressed by Stormbringer and regret even more that I never had the chance to play it back in the day. Had I done so, I have little doubt that my subsequent development as a roleplayer might have been very different indeed.

27 comments:

  1. It was 1e Stormbringer's magic system that really wowed me. Demons bound into objects? I know MM came up with the idea in the Elric books but COME ON! How cool is that?! That really made the game stand out to me when I was younger.

    That, and the naked Empress of the Dawn pic on the back cover ;-)

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  2. The magic system is indeed awesome. I plan to talk specifically about that later, because it deserves a post all to itself :)

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  3. I'll state that the Stormbringer magic system was definately one of the cooler aspects about the game. Very evocative of the source material. I suppose the backlash caused by RPGs being "Tools of the Devil" led to the ultimate watering down of the system in Elric.

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  4. Totally towing the line with Stormbringer's demon magic . Loved it.
    To go back to 'authorial voice' for a moment, and back to T&T, I do hope you get a chance to read the 5th edition at some time - it's a wonderful read, and I think you'd find it edifying also!

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  5. My favourite edition of this game was the Elric! edition. The layout was compact, the contents well organized, I really liked the tuned "what kind of character do you want to play" creation rules, and the various fixes and tweaks to make playing grossly powerful characters in a percentile system a bit less bumpy.

    The cover art for the edition following that one (Stormbringer) was nicer, and I liked that they got back to the cooler name for the game, but the interior layout was not nearly as nice as with Elric!.

    I do recognize that editions of the game prior to Elric! (shades! of! Yahoo!) had a less-watered-down magic system... I had always been more interested in the game as a sword-n-sorcery type thing with magic firmly in the background, so it didn't really bug me that much.

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  6. * Make that two supplements: The Companion, and the Demon Magic companion.

    :)

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  7. Rather, the author(s) come off as fellow gamers giving some context to the new ideas they're sharing across the table

    As was pointed out above this is a feature of T&T. Ron Edwards also remarked on that in his fantasy heartbreakers essay. After reading the essay I got inspired to get most of the heartbreakers he discussed (and tried to get all). He was right.

    I think this is a huge lesson for the OSR to learn that some of the Indie scene of about a decade ago got. Authorial voice that doesn't ape trends (or history in our case) but is original helps express what is one of the key OSR ideals: make the game your own.

    Not to mention it was so effective in at least one case (The Forge Out of Chaos) it made me want to play the game as I read it.

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  8. I have no experience with these games, despite being a giant fan an player of other Chaosium products. I'm most interested in hearing what kind of characters are suggested. Games based on Conan seemed to want you to run Conan or a sidekick of some kind. Did this game want you to play established characters like Elric and Moonglum?

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  9. @Brunomac: somebody may beat me to this, but the quick answer is no - you had a far better chance of playing a trader from the Purple Towns or some nobody Ilmyrian grunt. The character generation tables had more a tendency to insert characters into the background than place them at the fore. Melniboneans were not impossible, just unlikely.

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  10. Ragno: I always preferred the "in the background" types when it comes to big properties. I found it so weird back in the 80's when some games wanted you to be Conan or Captain Kirk or whatever. I thought it would be hellacool to explore the Conan/Star Trek/Star Wars universes as some grunt far from the big boys of legend.

    The Elric entries in Deities and Demigods from AD&D back in the day always made me want to do a D&D campaign based in that world.

    But I'm thinking that if Elric does show up, your character better damn well better pray that sword just ate.

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  11. Now this is the game that *did* totally change my roleplaying. This game converted me from D&D to d100 and a path of gaming that led me away from D&D. I *am* you if you'd played Stormbringer. Mind you I had already discovered T&T, so Ken St Andre had started to call me to the Dark Side. Steve Perrin is a great of the hobby, and also a very approachable and nice guy.

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  12. James:
    I feel no urge to seek out its one supplement or those written for later editions of the game.

    Timeshadows:
    Make that two supplements: The Companion, and the Demon Magic companion.

    While I can very well sympathize with James' sentiments I must say that "Demon Magic" is well worth having for the scenario "The Velvet Circle", written by Larry di Tillio (of Masks of Nyarlathotep memory) which cleverly combines more "narrative" devices with gloriously pulpy location based adventure sites, such as the eponymous Velvet Circle pleasure district of Ilmar, fully detailed to the last brothel...

    There are other Stormbringer adventures (not so much rules supplements) that are exceptionally good such as the "Rogue Mistress" campaign or the "Perils of the Young Kingdoms" scenario anthology, but they cannot be (fully) considered "old school".

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  13. James:

    Your recent Stormbringer posts have inspired me to go back and look at my copy of the 4th edition which I picked up at the Compleat Strategist in downtown NYC around 1993 or so. Like you I never got to play this game!

    As far as I can tell--both Elric and the 5th Edition made fairly substantial changes to the game even though they still use Basic Roleplaying as the core system. I'll have to see if the authorial voice you mentioned was eliminated by this point.

    While I think the Brunner covers are superior--the 4th edition Whelan cover is kind of amazing too (and they kept the Brunner art for the interiors).

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  14. @James: The game's not flawless by any means. There are a number of house rules I'd probably implement almost immediately, chief being a simplification of the ability bonuses, which I've found needlessly fiddly for too little benefit, either mechanically or flavor-wise.

    Ah, that's my No. 1, even though it's pretty manini all things considered. I did find some issues with the Demon Summonings in play: it was was too tempting to bind demons, whereas one-off service ought to be easier to acquire. This made even 2nd+ rank sorcerers try and bind everything they could get their hands on, which was not really in genre. Also, Demons of Desire seemed to need a lot of fleshing out, as I recall.

    But, still, great game. One thing I really liked about the 1st edition was that Attack and Parry were separate skills. Given the way BRP does improvements, it was very possible to end up with a guy who was a master of defense and only so-so with attacking. That;s the kind of thing that woudl never happened if the player had a choice.

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  15. I've never actually read Elric, so I have no idea if it was an improvement or degeneration of the game, but I have always found the 4th edition of Stormbringer to be the best. It retained all of the cool bits like random character creation (and the awesome paragraph on playing a beggar), but improved the magic system by making demons a little more, well, Chaotic!

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  17. Maybe the attribute bonuses would be more palatable if handled more as in RuneQuest?

    Up to 4: -10%
    5-8: -5%
    13-16: +5%
    17-20: +10%
    21-24: +15%
    Etc. (Each further increment of 4 = +5%.)

    Flip the sign for SIZ in Parry, Agility and Stealth. Double the value for INT in Knowledge (and add for age).

    You'll end up with some higher bonuses, especially for monsters.

    At an extreme, one could drop them altogether (as in Call of Cthulhu and Elric!).

    I don't know whether Personal Adds in Tunnels & Trolls directly influenced the choice, but the Stormbringer scheme always reminded me of that.

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  18. I encountered Stormbringer before I ever read Moorcock. It was 1982, I was in junior high school, and that game got me hooked on his work. This goes to what you said about the literary quality of Chaosium's work. Call of Cthulhu introduced me to Lovecraft. Pendragon brought me to Malory, and so on.

    As a side note, what about that sensational Frank Brunner art? I still see Elric that way.

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  19. Andrea Rocci:
    "There are other Stormbringer adventures (not so much rules supplements) that are exceptionally good such as the "Rogue Mistress" campaign..."

    Rogue Mistress was the worst Railroad adventure I have ever read. Worse, it is full of Mary Sue NPCs. *brrrr* :-O

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  20. Andrea Rocci:

    "Rogue Mistress was the worst Railroad adventure I have ever read. Worse, it is full of Mary Sue NPCs. *brrrr* :-O"

    R.M. is great 1) because it recreates the exact feeling of Michael Moorcock' Erekose's books. 2) because it is a deadly meat grinding machine. The PC have really to do their best not to die. And they may still die because of bad luck. 3) because some of its mini-settings/ locations are simply great. Who wouldn't want to explore the dead alien ship in that deserted sponge world? Who would not want to participate to the last battle of humanity in an icy world under a dying sun?

    Railroading? It's unashamedly railroading, yes. At least in the macrostructure. But that's to be expected: if you are a champion like Erekose, a warrior on the edge of time, a veteran of a thousand psychic wars you don't decide where to go. Fate decides for you. And you have to cope with that. No sandboxes for champions of Fate.

    I grant you that the uber-NPCs like Justin Carrock and Maria may be a bit difficult to manage and turn out as GM's Mary Sues. But the idea is that PCs are their equal, champions (and victims) as they are. In MM's Hawkmoon novels Count Brass is a uber-character but he does not steal the limelight from Hawkmoon. A good GM can do that in Rougue Mistress.

    Of course, that is one kind of Stormbringer adventure and it may not appeal to everybody.

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  21. @Andrea Rocci

    "veteran of a thousand psychic wars"

    Looks like you either saw "Heavy Metal: The Movie" or are a Blue Oyster Cult fan. Probably both. MM wrote that.

    The Elric stuff is good, but for myself the rest of the eternal champion books are hackneyed. The first six Elric books, then stop. The whole EC concept seems a bit pat to me.

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  22. Looks like you either saw "Heavy Metal: The Movie" or are a Blue Oyster Cult fan. Probably both. MM wrote that.

    Actually, neither. Of course it was an intentional citation of MM. The phrase appears also in the Erekose EC novels ("The Dragon in the Sword" I think).

    I was trying to suggest the feeling that Rogue Mistress tries to emulate (succeeding very well). If Eternal Champion is not for you, stay away from that campaign.

    BUT, if I were to play/run again that campaign I would do that with the Hawkwind as background music: "It's gonna make you run
    Needle, needle gun!"

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  23. Looks like you either saw "Heavy Metal: The Movie"<

    Hey, when you are a teen when HM came out, you don't just "see it." You become it. If, like me, you actually read the HM stories the movie is based on, then saw the movie, your mind was considered blown. And I was never a heavy metal music dude, but the music in the movie was the best of it's kind in it's time.

    Just sayin' is all...

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  24. @Brunomac

    I couldn't agree with you more. I saw Heavy Metal at age 11 in a double feature with Ralph Bakshi's Wizards opening. I consider that a seminal moment in the creation of who I am. I became a fan of the magazine after that.

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  25. Authorial voice that doesn't ape trends (or history in our case) but is original helps express what is one of the key OSR ideals: make the game your own.

    Very much agreed. It's something I intend to promote more heavily in the weeks and months to come, since I think it's in fact one of the things most worth preserving about the Old Ways.

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  26. One thing I really liked about the 1st edition was that Attack and Parry were separate skills. Given the way BRP does improvements, it was very possible to end up with a guy who was a master of defense and only so-so with attacking. That;s the kind of thing that woudl never happened if the player had a choice.

    Agreed. I absolutely adore the way BRP handles skill advancement. It's probably my favorite approach to such things -- elegant and straightforward.

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  27. Literary, yes. While I don't agree fully on that impression, I do remember who we "Chaosiums kids" always wondered what you guys found so fascinating with D&D! :)

    It would be fun to hear more about what kind of house rules you'd consider.

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