Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Stormbringer (1st ed.): Crazy, Random, Cool RPGs

LAIR OF THE WHITE WOLF
I don't know when or where I got my copy of the Stormbringer rulebook. I bought my original copy when it came out in 1981- I'd just finished reading the Elric books and looked forward to playing in that setting. I'd first come to Moorcock's novels through the original Deities & Demigods, before TSR had to remove the Melnibonéan mythos from the book. Everyone in grade school wanted to have Stormbringer, Mournblade or a sword like those. The hot summoned chicks drawn by Jeff Dee helped raise interest as well. In the years since I bought the game, my original copy of the rules vanished. The rulebook I own now comes from a later printing, judging by the errata on the inside front cover. But I love this copy because I know someone else owned it: it is worn, there's coffee and other liquid stains on the front and inside. Someone started to trace the letters of the logo with a silver pen, but stopped half-way through the "o". Inside a previous owner highlighted every single heading and sub-heading throughout the book. Every page has four or five of these marks, despite those headings being in bold. There are annotations throughout, but the most notable thing is that someone went through and added an accent mark by hand to every single instance of the word Melniboné. Every single one. It appears a lot.

That's pretty awesome.

EARLY DAYS YET
And Stormbringer itself was pretty awesome. 1981 would have been the same year as the first editions of Universe, Aftermath!, Merc, the D&D Expert Set and Call of Cthulhu. Thirty years ago. It stands as one of the earliest licensed adaptations of a fantasy setting to an rpg- though interestingly it came out the same year as Thieves World, also from Chaosium. The boxed set included charts and tables, blank character sheets, a large and very nice map of the Young Kingdoms (done by William Church) and the 144 page perfect bound softcover. The book itself is solid- with decent page layout for the time, and only a few significant typos (like the accent mark mentioned earlier...). For a game thirty years old, the spine's held up better than more recent games I've owned (*cough* GURPS 3e... *cough*). It uses the classic old school grognard system for rules, so you get headings like: "5.7.1.4. Special Demon Abilities"). But what I love about the book are the Frank Brunner illustrations. He provides a set of six full-page black and white images (as well as the box cover). These show a more visceral and weird fantasy side than the art approach used in later editions of the game. Chapters begin with one of the large images and then use small cut-outs from that picture for spot illustration. The cover of the rulebook reuses two of those illustrations- but in red and white.

Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin, two titans of the hobby wrote Stormbringer, basing it on a fairly simple version of Basic Role-Playing, Chaosium's house system then as now. I should be noted that the game's based pretty exclusively on the first six 'books' in the Elric series, given that this appeared before Moorcock decided to go back and milk revisit the the setting and create more tales. St. Andre & Perrin mention some of the other places where Elric had appeared beyond those stories-including comics and magazine tales not yet collected. The authors show an understanding and affection for the material and ideas. Even if some of the systems end up being more than a little clunky, there's a sincere and honest attempt to take the magic and world presented in Elric and make it work within the rpg paradigm operating at the time. I think there's an interesting parallel to be drawn between Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu, both of which have gone through several editions- but the former which has had to change and be retooled to match the tastes and approaches of modern rpgs and the latter which set the bar high enough to remain relatively unchanged.

ROLL, ROLL, ROLL
Stormbringer opens with a chapter offering an overview of the setting. There's a few paragraphs give over to the question of what is an rpg- but it really feels a little like lip service. The game itself assumes the players have played other rpgs. Likewise, while the setting material and story synopsis are excellent- they still really need someone who has actually read the books. Ten pages give an overview of each nation of the Young Kingdoms with special attention paid to the "cool" places of Melniboné and Pan Tang. That's follow by three pages on money and a few more notes on Fantasy Role Play or FRP gaming.

Chapter Two moves into character creation. Players begin by rolling straight 3d6 for each of seven attributes (Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity and Charisma). Size offers a whole set of charts with additional rolls to get the specific height and weight. There's no system for extra rolls or choosing placement of values, but some of the numbers can change later in character creation. Hit Points remain within a fairly limited range; these are equal to a character's CON plus one for each point of SIZ over 12 or minus one for each point below 9. Next players roll to determine their character's nationality. Here's where it starts to get a little odd. The game mentions that certain campaigns may require players to be from a particular nation, but otherwise they roll on the table. There's no balance between those nationalities- each one can restrict or allow certain classes and most have modifiers to the character's stats. For example, if you roll a 01-02 on the table, you win. You're a Melnibonéan. You roll 1d10 and add it to your INT, add 2d6 to POW, and +3 to SIZ. You're either a Noble or a Warrior, unless your total INT and POW is 32 or more, in which case you're a Sorcerer. On the other hand, if you roll 82-88, you're from Lormyr, roll 1d4 and subtract that from your INT and add +2 to SIZ. Luckily you get to roll on the class table without restriction- or course you can't be a Sorcerer, because that's not available there.

So yeah, those are the oddities of the early days of gaming. I'm certainly not in favor of absolute balance, and there's an appeal to random generation- but holy cow with these options you can end up with huge disparities in real power and cool factor. Now, the game does suggest that GMs could select a single nation for everyone. But you have to wonder about the game design logic of the early days. Why the random chart for both this and the classes? Using randomness to create an illusion of balance? Were players going to be attracted to that as an option or simply discard it fairly quickly? Perhaps they wanted to emulate the brutal and fickle nature of the Young Kingdoms stetting? Perhaps it was simply trying to break new ground in game design, asking players to move out of their comfort zone? Or perhaps they recognized that they'd have to apply massive penalties or bonuses on one side or the other to keep everyone from playing a sweet Melnibonéan? I'm not sure,

As I said, players also roll for their classes- with some restricted or switched depending on nationality. There are ten basic classes (Hunter, Farmer, Beggar, etc) representing background more than anything else. These determine starting skills and access to initial equipment. In play, they don't have any role. Three classes have sub-classes (if you roll a Warrior, you can be an Assassin if you get a 9 or 10 on a d10). Classes really only affect the character's starting skills and equipment, with a couple of exceptions, for example Priests have to choose a cult and Beggars get 1d4 random afflictions. If you were lucky enough to qualify as a Sorcerer based on nationality and stats, you get your class skills plus Sorcerer abilities. After class skills, players get 1d6+2 additional skills to pick (with melee weapons counting as two picks for attack and parry). These additional skills have a rating of 1d100/2, meaning that again the player ends up subject to the whims of fate. Skill ratings are also affected by various abilities bonuses, a percentage bonus based on characteristics. For example, a character's Manipulation bonus is affected by STR, INT, POW and DEX with each point over 12 adding +1 and each under 9 subtracting -1. Manipulation includes such skills as Tie/Untie Knot, Set/Disarm Trap, Sleight of Hard, Juggle and Pick Lock. Every skill falls into a category, with different numbers of skills under each and different bonuses or penalties. The character creation section wraps up with the mention that, unlike Runequest, attributes cannot change in this game except for divine intervention or players having made a significant attribute save, called for by the GM requiring the player to roll under the value on percentiles. Alternately players may have their attributes reduces if, as the example in the book states, they have their hands cut off.

LET'S YOU AND HIM FIGHT
In most books, I'd expect to move from Character Creation to Skills, since those serve as the backbone for the system. However, here we go Movement, Combat and Damage. It is a hallmark of these older games that we spend time defining the terrain effects on daily grand scale movement. Combat rounds have three segments:

1Declaration of Intent: with a round of declaration of actions, with the GM choosing either to alternate declarations between players and NPCs or else have lowest DEX declare first.
2Resolution of Missiles and Melee: Done again in DEX order from high to low.
3Movement of Non-Engaged Figures and Appearance of Conjured Elementals and Demons: Perhaps the first and last time that particular wording appeared for a game sequence.
The combat options are pretty much swing to attack- rolling under the relevant Attack skill for the weapon on percentiles. If successful, the opponent has two options. They may parry- with each parry done in a round taking a cumulative -20 penalty. Alternately, they may opt not to attack, and instead Dodge, rolling under that skill. Missiles may be parried at half value, but arrows can only be parried by shields. Critical hits happen if the character rolls under 1/10 of their skill, causing double damage and additional effects. Criticals can only be dodge by a critical dodge roll or a standard parry success, but with the parrying weapon breaking. The system offers a few other standard options (fumbles, surprise, fortifications, sea battles, and mass combat). The rules suggest for grand scale mechanics, that the players look at the Chaosium board games Elric! and White Wolf. (The latter of these may actually be a typo...perhaps referring instead to White Bear & Red Moon or a cancelled game?) The chapter presents the usual weapon and armor choices, with players restricted on their choices of such depending on their class background. Probably the thing which struck me most when I was younger was the major wound table, with characters suffering permanent injuries (hamstring cut, lost eyes) for being on the receiving end of criticals. There are particularly brutal and offer nasty attribute penalties.

The chapter on Skills follows- with each skill being percentage based. As with other Chaosium BRP games, success with skill use allows a roll to check for improvement after a session. Unless you're rolling for Poison, Plant or Music Lore, in which case you can only improve those through training. Beyond combat skills, Stormbringer offers 40 skills broken into six bonus groups. Four of those are Language skills however. It does offer some interesting social skill options such as Persuade, Orate and Credit (the first time I'd seen that in a fantasy game). Evaluate Treasure is probably my favorite Old School skill from the list. Each skill gets a brief treatment and all use the same roll under the rating for success. There's little or no discussion of time, modifiers, or difficulty- a skill value is a skill value.

I SUMMON ARIOCH
The longest chapter follows, the centerpiece of the game, Sorcery. Twenty-six pages offer a very, very different set of magics rules- distinct from the D&D approach or any of the three magic forms of its source game, Runequest. Instead Sorcerers have a Rank, from one to five, based on the total of their INT + POW. At each rank, they gain more power and access. For example, a rank one sorcerer can learn to summon one (randomly determined) type of element at a 90% rating. At higher ranks, they can summon more types, but also summon demons, and eventually at the highest ranks can on Elemental Lords, Beast Lords, or even the Lords of Chaos and Order. There are no spells in the game- no simple fire and forget magic. Instead sorcerers have to prep beforehand. Elementals can be bound, with a POW struggle, for various effects depending on their type. However, binding too many risks the wrath of the Elemental Ruler. Some of the effects are presented abstractly, for example a sylph can "...blow arrows off course." But no mechanics are given for this. On the other hand, the sylph may also "...produce enough air to last one person 1d6 minutes underwater or underearth, but doing so will slay the sylph." The effects are a mixed bag, but do offer an really interesting set of restrictions and requirements for the players. It reminds me more of the kind of work necessary to do magic in the much later Ars Magica.

Even more crazy are the rules for summoning lesser demons. Any summoning is a hugely risky proposition- with a battle of POW between sorcerer and demon. That value is randomly determined by rolling 3d8, so things can quickly get crazy. The rest of a demon's attributes are determined by totaling the sorcerer's stats, subtracting the demon's POW. The sorcerer then gets to distribute those points- usually differently depending on what type of demon they're going for. Losing a struggle can have severe consequences for the sorcerer, but winning against a more powerful demon can increase the character's POW. So summonings, of various types, are the road players need to take to increase their rank.

Stormbringer offers six types of demons. Demons of Combat can be made into weapons or else serve as bound warriors. For the former, putting stat points into STR, DEX and CON have tangible benefits. For the latter, the character can tailor a warrior and by dropping 20 attribute points gain a special ability, like Regeneration or Fear, rolled randomly. Demons of Protection can be made into armor, as guardians or to serve as a warding against certain things. Demons of Knowledge serve as general source of information- with pretty loose rules and subject to limits from the GM. But they can offer information to the sorcerer on most topics. Demons of Travel can more the sorcerer on this world or into others. Demons of Desire...well...um...they're essentially demonic sex toys. Finally Demons of Possession can take over the bodies sacrificed to them. But it gets crazier.

The section finishes out with details on the dangerous process of summoning the Elemental Lords, the Beast Lords (Melnibonéan only) and the Lords of Chaos and Law. "And then my character blew up," would seem to be a likely end in a campaign like this. One the other hand, the following chapter offers some other options- detailing the Cults of the Young Kingdoms. Players can be initiated into a cult (Law, Chaos, or Elemental) and build up elan. That can then be use to attempt divine intervention or gain particular associated virtues. Characters can become agents or champions of these cults- with some significant requirements and restrictions. The game offers some interesting ideas, but less so on how these actually play out at the table.

The final chapters of the book provide a bestiary, four pages of GM's advice, stats for major characters from the books and a very, very basic introductory scenario which has the PCs assaulting a sorcerer’s tower. Ten pages of sample charts and sheets are provided...and then, bizarrely enough a four page, highly-detailed index appears- but one without page numbers. Instead it directs players to the 5.1.3.2, etc coding for the items.

OVERALL
So why am I fond of this? For one thing, it is interesting to see new approaches to games in that early age. But more importantly, Stormbringer was one of the first games I saw that really warped the system and rules trying to emulate a setting. It unabashedly works to try to simulate the Young Kingdoms, without regard to balance and player choice. This was the first magic system I saw that completely broke the paradigm of spell lists and magic items. It was a mess, a crazy mess that colored my thinking about games for years to come. I was disappointed when I picked up later editions of the game (in its incarnation as Elric) and saw that they'd pull back from this and offered more conventional spells, as well as making the elemental and demonic magic more reasonable. I ran Stormbringer for a time, with everyone miraculously managing to roll up Pan tang sorcerers and Melnibonéan nobles. They weren't great games, but I was young. If you're interested in gaming history or want to look at a really evocative magic system, take a look at this game.

LAST NOTE
We put on Thanksgiving for our family and then have the gaming groups over for a video game day on the Saturday after, so this will probably be the only post for the week.