Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Retrospective: Stormbringer

The first Chaosium game I ever owned was Call of Cthulhu, a game I still consider one of the most well-written and designed RPGs of all time -- a near-perfect evocation of its source material, as well as a model of continuity between editions. Call of Cthulhu was released in 1981, the same year as another remarkable game published by Chaosium, Stormbringer. Co-written by Steve Perrin of RuneQuest fame and Ken St. Andre, creator of Tunnels & Trolls, it too is a near-perfect evocation of its source material, in this case the Elric tales of Michael Moorcock.

Unlike Call of Cthulhu, which I have played extensively over the last 28 years, I never managed to play a single game of Stormbringer, something I've always considered a great shame. Much as I admire RuneQuest, I have long felt ill at ease in Glorantha. Somehow it feels far too personal a creation, as if it ought to be viewed -- and only viewed -- from a safe distance rather than sullied by my feeble attempts to set adventures within it. I realize that this is an idiosyncrasy of my own; many people have, after all, managed to use Glorantha quite enjoyably over the years. Still, I can't shake the feeling that I'm just not up to the challenge of running a game set in Glorantha.

The same is not true of the Young Kingdoms, which, contrariwise, strike me as exactly the kind of setting in which I'd feel right at home as a referee. The setting has a terrifically gloomy, surreal air about it, not to mention being more an outline of a setting than one whose every detail has been nailed down in voluminous detail. That "fuzziness" suits me well and I've been grateful that Moorcock isn't one of those authors who's interested in spelling everything out for his readers. Whatever his deficiencies as a writer may be, being overly fastidious when it comes to his settings is not one of them -- thus the disappointment I feel in never having had the chance to run a game in the Young Kingdoms.

What made Stormbringer so special to me, I think, was not its rules -- though I do think that Basic Roleplaying is well suited to Moorcockian pulp fantasy, moreso than to RuneQuest in my opinion -- but the sense it conveyed, just as Call of Cthulhu did, that, though based on someone else's world, that world now belonged to you. I can't quite put my finger on how and why the game achieved this, but it did so effectively and that's why I still pine for the chance to play it after all these decades. Stormbringer is a rare RPG whose succinct, elegant rules feel complete and whose setting feels gloriously incomplete, demanding that the referee and players fill in the blank spaces with their own creations.

I often don't feel that way about most licensed games and yet Chaosium has made me feel that way often. But then such magic is to be expected of the company that also produced Pendragon, another well-nigh perfect game. That a single company made not one but three games of which I think so highly is an amazing feat, one that even TSR never managed. I really do think that Chaosium is one of the great unsung heroes of the early days of the hobby and, if popularity really did have a clear relationship to quality, its games would be more widely played today.

21 comments:

  1. I actually bought this game back in 83 or 84 too. I never got to play it either, though I did make some characters and a short adventure (even created a couple of monsters for it).

    Now I am going to have to dig this game out of a box in my basement and look through it again - I remember being enthralled of the character creation process. It was so different from AD&D (which is all I had played at the time).

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  2. I too have wanted to give that game a proper whirl. I agree with what you say about it.

    On Glorantha: the world has never had much appeal to me, but there was a time when I had an attitude similar to yours regarding Tekumel. However, my EPT campaign has shown that if you just jump in and get your feet wet, it will probably go fine. I also happen to have a confirmed Tekumel fanatic in my game (a fellow you would also know by reputation) and I have no problem turning to him and saying "How do you pronounce this?" or "The audience chamber of the temple is large and looks like... [*turn and look at him so that he finishes my sentence*]".

    Anyway, my idea with these nicely realized settings like Tekumel and Glorantha is to just blunder in and ruin them. Because guys like you and me probably won't actually *ruin* them... we'll just make them our own.

    Word Verification:
    "Nonsons" - ChiCom Newspeak for daughters.

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  3. I agree with you, James, but for me the number of games is five, not three:
    • Call of Cthulhu
    • Stormbringer (orig) and then Elric
    • Pendragon
    • Ringworld
    • Prince Valiant

    I should add RuneQuest to that list as well, but the version of RQ I fell in love with (oddly enough) was the Avalon Hill RQ3 edition, and not RQ2.

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  4. Yeah, Ken did a great job with it. I praise him to this day, which of course he appreciates, after having his name stripped from later versions through more of Chaosium's skullduggery.

    What a shame some of the nicest gaming products ever made were produced by such an underhanded mastermind who failed to pay royalties to the IP holders or the writers/designers.

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  5. I don't own Stormbringer so I can't comment on its quality, but I will join the chorus of praise for Chaosium. Lack of production aside, they made some truly great RPGs. Runequest, Pendragon, and CoC are amazing and should be in any serious RPGers collection.

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  6. The funny thing is that even though the Young Kingdoms is a great setting for role-playing, I always had difficulty in using it: the shadow of the books and characters was just too great for me. Thus, while I ran Stormbringer for a time, I still felt hemmed in (possibly because I loved the books so much).

    Nowadays, I would turn the map upside-down, rename the countries, and go.

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  7. I too hold CoC in very high esteem. Stormbringer was a great game to play, but I never owned it. I suspect if I had run it Stormbringer might rank right up there for me as well.

    I was lucky enough to play in two different Stormbringer campaigns run by the same GM (who was also one of my own D&D players).

    In both campaigns I played a Pan-Tangian; the first a Barbarian (iirc) and the second a Sorceror. Good memories!

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  8. I’ve run many Stormbringer 1st edition games over the years…as late as the early-mid 1990s (considering the 4th edition of the game was already released, I think that’s saying something). Regarding your “why does this sandbox feel so right” feeling:

    I had only read the novels Elric of Melnibone and Sailor on the Seas of Fate when I acquired Stormbringer. To me, I found the descriptions of the Young Kingdoms remarkably brief and sketchy (similar in many ways to the Mystara continent presented in X1: the Isle of Dread…a name, a couple stereotypes, then Go!). When I finally had a a chance to read EVERY OTHER ELRIC NOVEL I found that for the most part these descriptions are MORE than anything Moorcock presents in his writing. Whether countries, are the various monsters, Moorcock’s novels are not written with an eye towards RPG design; he writes about the characters, their actions, the consequences of those actions, their psychology.

    The Stormbringer RPG is a great game, providing just what you need to play, and leaving a LOT to the imagination. I personally consider it the best setting for the Chaosium BRP system I’ve yet encountered (better than Call of Cthulhu, ElfQuest, and Nephilim, in other words). I think its critical hits and fumbles really help conjure the bloody destruction and randomness of battle in the Elric novels. And the ridiculously high mortality rate of characters is also quite appropriate to the setting, IMO.

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  9. Ahh, Stormbringer, the other system (aside from B/X) that my old group turned to after the debacle of trying to play AD&D with the Unearthed Arcana classes and races.

    As mentioned above, the character creation system was enthralling (if a little time consuming), and produced starting PC's of wildly variable competence.

    When we played, we rolled everything but race - we were always Melniboneans - because, really, what 14 or 15 year old would rather play a Count Smiorgan Baldhead rather than Elric?

    In my estimation (based on 25-year old recollections), the setting does make a great sandbox. Look at the map: a vast inner sea with land at the fringes. It almost seems natural to play an episodic sea-based campaign with rootless wanderers as PC's.

    We got a lot of play out this one boxed set - ironically, James, Call of Cthulhu is the one game I love that I've never played.

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  10. As a dedicated Chaosium fanboy (from back when it was "The Chaosium"), I always felt sad that its business acumen matched the quality of product it produced. Not that other problems didn't interfere as well.

    Still there games have an incredibly loyal fan base, even after all these years. We still play them.

    I think the thing that attracts you more to Stormbringer than Runequest is simply the fact that it is very much a pulp (rune)sword and sorcery world.

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  11. Stormbringer was a bit like Traveller in that rolling up a character was enough of a lottery that it felt like a game itself!

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  12. Stormbringer was a bit too obscure to reach me back then, but I did pick up its eventual re-write "Elric!" when it first appeared. I dallied with it, ran a couple games but it didn't hook me and I forgot about it. Now however, years later, I'm reading it again and eagerly starting up a fresh campaign. Something about it just clicked for me in a way that didn't the first time.

    I strongly credit my recent experience with old-school gaming for the turn-around. Both for hammering home the S&S pulp adventure style the game is suited for (something I wasn't really aware of back then) and understanding how to play the system on its own terms, rather than struggle with it to create amateur drama.

    I'm less thrilled about the supplements for "Elric!". There are several, and mostly they are attempts to codify the world in terms of a traditional expansive game setting. Which, as mentioned above, is antithetical to how the Elric stories (and S&S in general) were written. Various freelancers attempts to weave the single-narrative threads together creates a very warped tapestry, one that accentuates that the Young Kingdoms were intended only to support one particular character's story. Because of this, I'll be using the "Elric!" rules, but brainstorming a homebrew setting with my players that's heavily inspired by yet clearly distinct from the Young Kingdoms.

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  13. My gaming pedigree differs from most. Though the first RPG I owned was the Holmes D&D set, the first game I played with other people was RuneQuest, which led to Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, and a slew of other Chaosium games after that. It wasn't until 1994 that I actually returned to D&D (the LBBs actually). Stormbringer is a magnificent game, and I dearly miss Chaosium at the height of their considerable powers.

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  14. As a fervent Moorcock fan I owned all editions of Stormbringer/Elric (and Hawkmoon and Corum too), I also inflicted some games of it on my players.
    Chaosium's rulebooks and adventures all got the mood right (weird, moody, heavy metal fantasy), but the rules were not always that great IMHO, with the most recent editions fixing most of the sorcery (and melnibonean) related issues.

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  15. I don't think Chaosium is at all unsung. Maybe in the "D&D only" crowd, but in the wider world of RPG fandom overall, they seem to get the accolades for having designed great games that they completely deserve.

    Of course, they've also managed to temper that with some less than thrilling corporate behavior in more recent years, but oh well. What can you do?

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  16. I had/have the 4th ed (IIRC) of Stormbringer, and I may still have the first cut of Elric too...not sure.

    Thing is I never, ever played the darn game.

    I was, as many other young punks, a fan of the novels (some of them still have the mall-bookstore receipts in them as bookmarks from the early '80s...ha!) and thus I dug the content and the artwork of the game too.

    I may be off on the edition, but mine is the green cover artwork by Michael Whelan, same as the older DAW paperbacks. Anyway, I think it's 4th ed.

    Still, never played it, but I love it when blog posts make me get the urge to go digging in the basement...for old games/books in boxes/bins, not for treasure or body parts under the floor. ;>]

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  17. Like you, this is one of those games I love and regret never getting to play or run. I have all the editions from GW's printing of third through Elric! and Stormbringer 5E, but no one in my local area was ever interested. Barbarians.

    Anyway, one thing I most liked was the whole demon-summoning system: it was ingenious and fun, especially after adding "demonic needs."

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  18. @yoyorobbo:
    "I may be off on the edition, but mine is the green cover artwork by Michael Whelan, same as the older DAW paperbacks. Anyway, I think it's 4th ed."

    Yes, that's the 4th edition, and I love that Whelan cover.

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  19. We played the heck out of this game. Still have it. It's awesome, one of my favorites.

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  20. Stormbringer is my favourite rpg. I played it (mostly as GM) as much as I played D&D. Perhaps even more.
    It's a gem.

    I don't think Chaosium is unsung. Their games are often praised on rpg.net - which published a long history of Chaosium a few years ago- There is currently a small but fervent BRP renaissance tied to the publication of the big tomes of BRP rules. There is more than one analogy between this BRP Renaissance, with lots of fan made quality supplements, and the Old School movement.

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  21. @Timeshadows

    The history is much more complex that you depict it. Chaosium do fairly little "skullduggery" and there were good reasons for them not paying freelancers when they were fighting to survive as a company. Also, the reason Ken is not recognized as the author of later editions is because he didn't write them.

    Now for something completely different!

    This is my game! I freaking love it! I absolutely love how you roll your character randomly and end up with 120cm tall mishapen beggars that weight 200 lbs! The combat is deadly and brutal and feels *exactly* like a good Elric novel. I have played it like crazy and love it. I just wish I had a copy of 1st ed. since I have almost everything else every published for it. Ken St Andre + Mike Moorcock + Chaosium -> masterpiece!

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