Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Retrospective: Hawkmoon

I've never made a secret of my love for post-apocalyptic RPGs. Maybe it's a product of growing up during the Cold War or maybe it has to do with my melancholy, pessimistic attitudes generally, I don't know. Whatever it is, I find something incredibly powerful and evocative about The End of the World as We Know It.

I've also never made a secret of my love-hate relationship with Michael Moorcock, a conflict that has only become more acute as I've gotten older and read more of his non-fiction works. Consequently, though I find much to enjoy in his stories of Elric of Melniboné, there's always this nagging feeling at the back of my brain that prevents me from enjoying them unreservedly.

For whatever reason, though, I don't have this problem with Moorcock's Hawkmoon books. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I suspect a good part of it is that they're -- at least nominally -- post-apocalyptic tales, taking place in the "Tragic Millennium" of 54th century Earth. Chaosium's 1986 game, Hawkmoon, provides rules for roleplaying in this setting. The game is written by someone called Kerie Campbell-Robson ("also by Sandy Petersen"), a writer who's otherwise unknown to me, though she (I am assuming the author is a woman) also contributed to The Shattered Isle, the one and only supplement to Hawkmoon, published in 1987.

Hawkmoon is a peculiar product. Though playable as a stand-alone RPG, it nevertheless feels more like a supplement to the excellent Stormbringer. Throughout the text, there are numerous references to using the Tragic Millennium as an alternate setting for Stormbringer, including guidelines for converting characters between the two games. Likewise, there's a fair bit of artwork recycled from Stormbringer and its supplements, which only contributes to the sense that Hawkmoon isn't really its own game but rather an adjunct to its "big brother." If I were to guess, I suspect that Hawkmoon was a labor of love by its author, submitted to Chaosium unsolicited, who were impressed enough with it that, after some minimal polishing by also-author Sandy Petersen, released the game to see how it might do. Judging from its lack of support and relative obscurity, I'm guessing that it never did very well.

And that's too bad. Make no mistake: Hawkmoon is decidedly inferior to Stormbringer in almost every way. The rules are sketchy in many places -- mutations and mass combat come immediately to mind -- and there's more space than necessary spent on recounting the events of the Hawkmoon novels. Yet, there's still something very compelling about this game and I regularly find myself opening up its box and paging through its booklets. The Tragic Millennium is a unique creation: a medieval/early modern society built amidst the ruins of a high-tech world that cleverly blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction. Moorcock doesn't provide a lot of information on the world in his stories and the RPG doesn't add much more -- just enough to intrigue and inspire, as all good RPG settings ought to do.

Now, I've never actually played Hawkmoon. I only acquired a copy of it comparatively recently and I won't deny that, while I regularly skim its pages, I've not felt a strong urge to play it, as I do with, say, Stormbringer or RuneQuest. I wish I could put my finger on just why that is. Ironically, it might be because I like the Hawkmoon stories that I find it harder to work up interest in the RPG than I do with Stormbringer, since my feelings about the Elric tales are decidedly more mixed. Or it might be that, as I said above, Hawkmoon feels like a "half-game," neither a mere supplement to its predecessor nor a complete RPG in its own right. I really wish I understood my ambivalence toward it. I want to want to play it, if you get my meaning, but something prevents my doing so and it baffles me.

23 comments:

  1. I would guess that the Petersen credit is for his work -- from earlier incarnations of the BRP ruleset -- which is replicated in Hawkmoon, rather than any direct involvement. Just a guess, though.

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  2. I can't resist asking what about Moorcock's nonfiction bothers you? I have not read any, and wikipedia is no help on this count. Thank you!

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  3. LCM,

    If you look for "Epic Pooh" in Google, you should be able to find lots of links talking about his literary criticism, much of it from a viewpoint I neither agree with nor think holds much water.

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  4. I ran some Hawkmoon in 1989, and quite enjoyed it. I was planning on running the Shattered Isle, but managed to cover only the included scenario and a few homemade ones.

    Hawkmoon didn't feel like a 'half-game' to me, but then I didn't own Stormbringer (until I purchased Elric! in 1993), so perhaps I simply didn't know any better. I do remember that it was a refreshing change from the Middle-earth campaigns that I had run throughout most of the late 1980s (using MERP).

    I still own the game, and think about running it again, from time to time.

    As for Moorcock's fiction, I highly recommend his Corum novels. If find them superior to both the Elric and Hawkmoon tales. Especially compelling is the way in which Moorcock draws on Celtic mythology.

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  5. I remember an interview in which Moorcock was asked which of his characters he liked less. He answered Hawkmoon on the basis that he never felt real to him.

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  6. He answered Hawkmoon on the basis that he never felt real to him.

    I can believe it.

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  7. I can believe it.

    Me too, although I like Dorian Von Koln.
    Probably too "sane" a character for Michael's tastes.

    I would have answered Corum, which is a shame since I really wanted to like Corum.
    So sad that the first trilogy is not as good as the celtic-inspired second one.

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  8. Could you go into any more detail about the "sketchy" rules? Does it bring anything new to the table when it comes to the BRP ruleset? Or is it practically a clone of Stormbringer, mechanically-speaking?

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  9. When I say the rules are "sketchy," I meant that there are several areas, like the section on mutations, for example, where the rules are a bit vaguer than I expected. Now, to some extent, this shouldn't be a surprise, since even Stormbringer is vague too and that's part of its charm. Still, I expected a bit more treatment of things like high technology and science than we get. Otherwise, the rules are very similar to those in Stormbringer, just not as comprehensive.

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  10. I think it was the fact that it was released when Chaosium was starting to go through a whole lot of financial troubles was the major reason that it was lacking in supplements, rather than any fundamental innate lack in the work itself. [Later English editions were licensed from Chaosium, essentially by fans of the game in Australia, and didn't have a great deal of market penetration, and thus lacked support.]

    On the other hand it turned out to be surprisingly popular in France, going through at least three well-supported editions there (and mutating to something that looks nothing like the original, as seems to be the case with most BRP games released in France and allowed to develop their own way). The artwork in these is far more interesting than the almost purely medieval artwork of the Chaosium edition. Definitely has much more of a avant-garde science feel to it. [I confess that I haven't looked in depth at the rules themselves since I'm not a native French speaker.]

    The MRQ version was quite well supported, giving the additional supplements that you really need to run such a game, especially the Granbetan Sourcebook. But still seems rather medieval rather than the retro-medieval that the Tragic Millenium seems to imply. It's still very much a fantasy game, rather than a neo-fantasy game.

    [That being said, personally I think The Lesser Shades of Evil is my favourite game for portraying the Moorcockian future apocalypse where Magic and Science are confused.]

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  11. The Hawkmoon stories have some wonderfully vivid imagery, and I've always wanted to run a game/play in a game set in that world. One of these days...

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  12. I never managed to finish the Hawkmoon books. I think I came to them too late. My feelings towards Moorcock's fiction fall on the negative side of ambivalent. As for his non fiction, to quote the man himself, "After all, anyone who hates hobbits can't be all bad."

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  13. While not every word of Moorcock's written is to my taste, I positively devoured his various sagas and series as a young adult. He writes with a mix of intelligence and sarcasm that appealed to me.

    Hawkmoon was always a favorite, and felt fresh and original. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of having a German hero and British villians in contrast to the stereotypes of the day. The imagery of the books, especially the immortal King-Emperor and his palace, was incomparable.

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  14. My friends and I had some good experiences with Stormbringer (1st and 4th editions) back in high school, and one of my buddy's picked up Hawkmoon (used) despite none of us having read anything besides Elric and Corum. We thought the game looked pretty cool, but never had a chance to play it (or even roll up characters), though I seem to recall PCs were assumed to be much more "Law-oriented" than the standard sorcerers of Stormbringer. Since I was always intrigued by Stormbringer's "Champions of Law," Hawkmoon seemed pretty cool...was it as outright deadly as Stormbringer?

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  15. A friend of mine ordered a copy of the boxed set direct from Chaosium in around 1991 or so. They told him they still had several copies left, and they'd happily sell him one. I'm imagining these were still leftover from the original print run (although that's pure speculation on my part) which means it took four or five years to sell through what they had.

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  16. I really enjoyed the Hawkmoon novels - they are probably my favourite thing of Moorcock's other than the Elric books. The game (or game supplement, more accurately) was also pretty interesting. It felt brimming with unrealised potential - potential my teenaged self just wasn't quite up to awakening. We used it as more of an adjunct to our Stormbringer games. Interestingly, while I no longer have a copy of Stormbringer, I still have my Hawkmoon boxed set.

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  17. Hawkmoon is better than Elric, in my opinion. However, neither of them match up to the Cornelius Chronicles. However, that is getting off-topic.

    When I ran Hawkmoon, I treated it not as a post-apocalyptic game but more as a pulp-fantasy game. This seemed to fit better with the novels, particularly the first three Hawkmoon stories. The second three stories always seemed to fit in better with Moorcock's multiverse, which was something I was never too keen on.

    It's a pity nobody did anything based on some of Moorcock's lesser-known stories, like the Oswald Bastable/Nomad of Time trilogy, the Dancers at the End of Time or the Time Dweller.

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  18. It's a pity nobody did anything based on some of Moorcock's lesser-known stories, like the Oswald Bastable/Nomad of Time trilogy, the Dancers at the End of Time or the Time Dweller.

    I've read -- it may be in the introduction of the new "big yellow" edition of BRP but I don't have it to hand -- that the plan was to release a whole line of Moorcock games, but the failure of Hawkmoon ended that expansion.

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  19. "...that the plan was to release a whole line of Moorcock games, but the failure of Hawkmoon ended that expansion."

    I've seen the "Eternal Champion" boxed set from that era show up on ebay, on occasion. The boxtop is in the same style, but features a pic of Erekose.

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  20. James---

    Out of curiosity, does your interest in Hawkmoon's post-apocalyptic setting also carry over into Erekose's world of the Eldren from The Eternal Champion?

    I was never a big Hawkmoon fan as a teen/young adult, and I haven't re-read them in years, so I should dig them out again sometime. The Count Brass sequels (and end-game for the Eternal Champion saga), however, are definitely among my favorites of his fantasy novels (although for me, few of them hold a candle to The Warhound and the World's Pain or to Mother London).

    Allan.

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  21. Chaosium continued to publish Moorcockian games long after Hawkmoon. They published the d20 Dragonlords of Melnibone in 2000 IIRC.

    I don't think they ever published a set/book called Eternal Champion though they did use it as the name for the product line. Maybe a later sub-licensee or Mongoose?

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  22. James- with respect to why you like post apoc tales so much I would wager that all fantasy is post apocalyptic. Conan is bookmarked by apocalypses: Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of... Middle Earth is post apocalyptic with the sinking of Numenor, the first defeat of Sauron and the fall of Arnor. One of the core fantasy tropes is apocalypse. I believe this comes out of religion. Some examples: The fall in the garden of Eden is an apocalypse, the flood of Noah, the famine that send the Hebrews to Egypt, the hebrews invading the promised land, the assorted exiles of the Hebrew people, the fall of Troy, Atlantis, the defeat of the titans, etc etc. Anything to do with Napoleon, post Rome Europe, or post WWI and WWII in Europe. Mythology and history are replete with apocalypses so it fills our literature.

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  23. The Hawkmoon RPG was very popular in France, much more than in the US.

    When French translator Oriflam went out of material for translation they wrote their own supplements (among them a France sourcebook, of course), and when Chaosium changed Stormbringer to Elric! they adapted Hawkmoon to the Elric! rules: Hawkmoon Deuxième Édition

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