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.