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.