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Sunday, 19 September 2021

1981: Stormbringer

 1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

With the publication of the novella, The Dreaming City’ and the first appearance of Elric of Melniboné in 1961, Michael Moorcock upended the Swords & Sorcery genre. The appearance of the frail and anaemic last emperor of the Dreaming Isle freed the genre of its muscled, mighty thewed barbarians cutting swathes through their enemies and sent it in a different direction. Elric’s fate was to destroy his home, become a pawn in the conflict between Law and Chaos, and wield the horrid demon sword Stormbringer throughout his exile in the Young Kingdoms until he would be the one to blow the Horn of Fate and so bring about the end of reality. As more and more of Elric’s stories were written, Moorcock joined J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Howard in being an author whose works would influence the fantasy of the first roleplaying games, and subsequently, even roleplaying games directly adapted from their fiction. Of course, Elric would make his first appearance in gaming, if only partially authorised, in Deities & Demigods, the 1980 supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, before receiving his own roleplaying game in 1981.

Designed by Steve Perrin and Ken St. Andre, and published by Chaosium, Inc., Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing in the Young Kingdoms introduces the players to roleplaying in the eponymous Young Kingdoms. The island and peoples of Melniboné have dominated and ruled these surrounding lands for millennia, but have been in decline for four centuries and in their stead haved arisen the Young Kingdoms. They include the Island of Pan Tang and its scheming sorcerer-priests who worship the Lords of Chaos, Tarkesh and its hardy sailors, the Lords of Law-worshipping, but poor Vilmir, Tanelorn which stands truly neutral between the forces of Law and Chaos, and the Island of Purple Towns made rich by its merchants and its worship of Goldar, Lord of Profit. The city of Imrryr and Melniboné have long been sacked as part of the revenge that took Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, upon his cousin, Yyrkoon, for his perfidy, and now he is doomed to wander the Young Kingdoms, wielding the dread demon-bound sword, Stormbringer until the end of time…

Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game enables players to take the roles of denizens of the Young Kingdoms. They may be some of the few surviving exiles from Melniboné, they may be from the many other lands of the Young Kingdoms. The Young Kingdoms are theirs to explore, and they can do this using Player Characters of their own, who may or may not encounter Elric of Melniboné and his companions. Alternatively, the players can take the role of Elric of Melniboné and his companions and play out their further adventures beyond those described in Moorcock’s novels. All this can take place in the decade between the sack of Melniboné and the End of Time, but alternatively the Game Master could set a campaign before the fall of the Dragon Isle or take off in a wholly new direction in lands beyond the Young Kingdoms. All of these options are suggested options given for the Game Master in Stormbringer.

The roleplaying game begins with introductions to roleplaying and roleplaying in the Young Kingdoms and Michael Moorcock and a synopsis of Elric’s saga, all before presenting an overview of the Young Kingdoms. This covers its size, customs, economics, and so on, done in fairly broad detail, whilst the background on each of the Young Kingdoms is much more detailed. Including some advice regarding dice and game characters, as well as miniatures, it sets the Game Master and players up for playing in the Young Kingdoms.

A character—whether Player Character or NPC—will look familiar to anyone who has played a Basic RolePlay roleplaying game, whether that is RuneQuest or RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha or Call of Cthulhu up until Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. A character has seven attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, and Charisma, and from these are derived bonuses to skills, Hit Points, and so on. They range, as in other Basic RolePlay roleplaying games, between three and eighteen, but can go much higher depending upon the origins of the character and then through play.

Character generation is random. A player rolls three six-sided dice for each of his character’s attributes, then percentile dice for both his character’s Nationality and Class. Nationality can involve various species, including of course, Melnibonéans, but also the winged men of Myrrhyn and the degenerate dwarfs that are the Org. Most however, will be Human, whether from Pan Pang or Vilmir or the Weeping Waste. Some Nationalities dictate what Class a character is. Thus for a Melnibonéan, he or she will be a Warrior and a Noble, those from Pan Tang are either Sorcerer-Priests or Warriors, whilst any from Nadsokor, the City of Beggars, always follow that ‘noble’ tradition. Otherwise, a character might be a merchant, sailor, hunter, farmer, thief, or craftsman. In addition to skills gained from a Class, a character also receives between three and eight other skills. Oddly, these extra skills are supposedly the character’s best skills rather than those of his Class and their values are determined randomly, such that sometimes, they can be better than the starting skills of the Class. Now it should be made clear that none of this is balanced. Attributes can vary wildly; a character can have more than one Class if his player rolls well enough. It is all down to the vicissitudes of fortune, if not Chaos.

Our sample character is Fenschon the Juggler, a Hunter of Filkhar with all of the famed dexterity, but little else. He is barely competent as a hunter and despite his unpleasant looks and personality, at times he makes a little money as a street entertainer, juggling everyday items.

Fenschon the Juggler, a Hunter of Filkhar

STR 11 CON 11 SIZ 09 INT 08 POW 07 DEX 20 CHA 07

Frame: Light, 5’2”, 85 lbs.

Age: 19
Hit Points: 11
Major Wound Level: 6
Armour: Leather (1d6-1)
Combat Bonuses: Attack +05%, Parry +06%, Damage –

Weapon
Dagger 30% Attack, 30% Parry, 1d4+2
Self Bow 35% Attack, Parry 11%, Damage 1d8+1

AGILITY SKILL (+06% bonus): Balance 16%, Dodge 52%, Climb 16%, Jump 29%, Swim 38%
MANIPULATION SKILL (+05% bonus): Juggle 50%, Set Trap 55%
PERCEPTION SKILL (-03% bonus): Scent 18%, Track 47%
STEALTH SKILL (+07% bonus): Ambush 57%, Hide 32%, Move Quietly 29% 
KNOWLEDGE SKILL (+00% bonus): Craft: Blacksmith 20%
COMMUNICATION SKILL (-05% bonus): 

Mechanically, Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game uses a variation upon the Basic RolePlay system, as designed by Steve Perrin, and used elsewhere in RuneQuestCall of Cthulhu, and others. In design and execution it is not a complex game, certainly not as complex as the then contemporary version of RuneQuest. The base roll is a percentile one against a skill, with the tenth of the value of the skill counting as a critical success. Thus, for Fenschon the Juggler, a roll of 5% or less would be a critical success. Critical fumbles are usually rolls of 100% exactly.

Combat is only slightly more complex. Order is based on Dexterity, damage is deducted directly from a character’s Hit Points rather than having hit locations as per RuneQuest, a character has both an Attack skill and a Parry skill in each weapon, and armour provides protection, but rather than a set number as per other roleplaying games, the amount of protection granted is rolled. So, Leather provides 1d6-1 points of protection, whilst plate provides 1d10-1. Lastly, if a character suffers damage equal to, or greater than his Major Wound level, in one blow, he is severely injured, and might suffer a scar, lose an eye, break a jaw, and worse.
For example, Fenschon the Juggler is out hunting boar when the Game Master asks his player to make a Scent check. He only rolls 19% and fails to note a sudden shift in the smell here deep in the woods that would indicate he is not only one hunting the boar. It means that he is surprised when a pair of the beaked and clawed Hunting Dogs of the Dharzi burst out of the bushes. It must mean that someone nearby has engaged the services of the Dharzi lords in temporarily obtaining the use of one of their packs of hunting dogs, and that perhaps this pair has got away from the pack. So he manages to only fire the one arrow before they attack rather than two. The creatures are fast, but not quite as fast as Fenschon, who manages to lose the one arrow he had nocked. His player rolls 10% and the arrow strikes the flank of the lead creature. This inflicts seven points of damage. Then the beasts attack, each having two claw attacks at 20% and a beak attack at 25%. The Game Master rolls 67%, 56%, and 98% for the two claw and beak attacks for the first Hunting Dog of the Dharzi, and then 77%, 73%, and 81% for the second.

In the next round, Fenschon realises that he has the wrong weapon for what is now a close engagement and so has to change his weapon. This costs him the equivalent of five points of Dexterity, so for this round it is reduced to the equivalent of 15. Since the Hunting Dogs have a Dexterity of 19, they attack first. Only the first Hunting Dog successfully attacks Fenschon, snapping at him with its beak with a roll of 21%. Fenschon cannot parry as he does not have his dagger out, but he can dodge, but with a roll of 57% fails. The Hunting Dog’s beak attack inflicts 1d6+1 damage, the Game Master rolling a five. Fenschon’s leather armour might protect him and his player rolls 1d6-1 for the effect. Unfortunately the result is a one, which is reduced to a zero, and the hunter suffers the whole five points! This is not enough to inflict a Major Wound, but that is half of his Hit Points. Finally, with his dagger in hand, Fenschon stabs at the first beast and rolls 02%—not just a successful strike, but a critical hit. The Game Master rolls 19% for the Hunting Dog and fails its parry roll, so Fenschon inflicts double damage for the critical hit. Fenschon rolls a five, which is doubled to ten. This reduces its Hit Points from fifteen to five. The situation looks dire for Fenschon. Perhaps a career as a hunter is not for him?
In comparison with other fantasy roleplaying games, Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game does not have wizards wandering around lobbing off spells at will. Magic is available, but is the opposite of Law, and in Elric’s time as the Balance between Law and Chaos tips in favour of Chaos, magic is available to study to anyone should they possess sufficient intelligence and force of will. What this means is that a character needs to have a combined Intelligence and Power of thirty-two or more to even summon and control Elementals. Typically, Melnibonéan, Pan Tangan, and Priests with such stats are trained in sorcery, whilst Nobles and Merchants may also have been trained. Instead of casting spells, Sorcerers and Sorcerer-Priests summon and bind Elementals and Demons. Once successfully summoned and bound, an Elemental or Demon can be directed to use its abilities and powers to benefit the summoner. Thus Demons can be summoned to fight for the summoner, be bound into weapons and armour, provide protection or wards, teach knowledge, and even provide the means to travel to other Planes of Existence. 

Successful summoning can increase a Sorcerer’s Power, whilst unsuccessful summoning may result in a loss. In general, summoning and binding involves lengthy rituals, but it can also be done on the fly with the Sorcerer’s skill being halved. A summoned Demon will typically have a total in attribute values equal to that of its summoner, minus a randomly determined Power stat. 

Our second sample character is Princess Kragulan, a Fourth Rank Sorcerer-Priestess of Arioch of Pan Tang. She is fourth in line to the throne of Pan Tang, but eschews the conniving and scheming of her brothers and sisters. Instead, her interest is in serving her cult and investigating the older ruins of Melniboné.

Princess Kragulan, a Sorcerer-Priestess of Arioch of Pan Tang

Cult: Arioch
Elan: 9

STR 10 CON 10 SIZ 12 INT 24 POW 22 DEX 10 CHA 13

Frame: Heavy, 5’5”, 232 lbs.

Age: 23
Hit Points: 10
Major Wound Level: 5
Armour: Leather (1d6-1)
Combat Bonuses: Attack +22%, Parry +10%, Damage –

Weapon
Dagger 52% Attack, 41% Parry, 1d4+2
Broadsword 62% Attack, 51% Parry, 1d8+1
Self Bow 42% Attack, Parry 16%, Damage 1d8+1

AGILITY SKILL (+10% bonus): Balance 20%, Climb 20%, Dodge 56%, Jump 20%, Swim 65%
MANIPULATION SKILL (+22% bonus): 
PERCEPTION SKILL (+22% bonus): Listen 32%
STEALTH SKILL (+12% bonus): Hide 22%
KNOWLEDGE SKILL (+24% bonus): Evaluate Treasure 29%, First Aid 24%, Make Map 47%, Memorise 56%, Navigate 25%, Plant Lore 54%, Read/Write Common Tongue 104%, Read/Write Low Melnibonéan 84%, Read/Write High Melnibonéan 64%
COMMUNICATION SKILL (+23% bonus): Credit 64%, Persuade 48%
SORCERY SKILL: Summon Air Elemental 80%, Summon Earth Elemental 91%, Summon Fire Elemental 59%, Summon Water Elemental 92%; Summon Combat Demon 73%, Summon Desire Demon 60%, Summon Knowledge Demon 95%, Summon Possession Demon 55%, Summon Protection Demon 76%, Summon Travel Demon 95%
For example, Princess Kragulan is researching ancient Melnibonéan history and wants to summon a Lesser Demon of Knowledge who might know more. She selects the demon, having researched its name, purchases both a finely wrought ring into which she plans to bind the demon, the necessary sacrifice, and prepares the necessary ritual circles. After the necessary purification processes, Princess Kragulan spends several hours chanting and so formulating the summoning, and upon excising the heart of the sacrifice, attempts the summoning. Princess Kragulan’s player rolls her Summon Knowledge Demon 95% and with a result of 23% brings forth the Lesser Demon, who appears in the circle and crises out, “Who disturbs the deep studies of Brerin the Knower?” Princess Kragulan states, “I am Princess Kragulan and in the name of the Lord of Chaos, Arioch, you will make your knowledge mine!” Having summoned the Demon, she attempts to Bind him. This is a Power versus Power using the Resistance Table. Princess Kragulan has a Power of 22 and it was previously determined that the Lesser Demon’s Power is 12. This gives her a 95% chance of successfully Binding Brerin. The Lesser Demon reluctantly agrees and is drawn into the ring that Princess Kragulan had prepared. Had her player failed, Brerin may have fled or even agreed to stay and lie about what he knows when asked a question…
The summoning and binding rules are actually the most complex part of Stormbringer. In comparison to the core mechanics, they are actually not that much more complex, but they do add a level or two of extra detail and record keeping to the game, especially if one or more players has a character capable of sorcery. Further, once a Player Character—or two—has access to sorcery, it adds to the power creep in Stormbringer and it adds to the imbalance between Player Characters. Again, this is in keeping with the source material. Nevertheless, the rules for summoning and binding both Elementals and Demons are nice and clear, and relatively easy to use. They are also supported with some entreatingly detailed examples which greatly aid their learning.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that at the time of Stormbringer’s publication—and its subsequent editions—that Dungeons & Dragons was subject to negative attention for alleged or perceived promotion for Satanism, witchcraft, and other practices. Subject to the then moral panic, Dungeons & Dragons was accused of encouraging sorcery and the veneration of demons. This was not the case, of course, and nor was it the case with Stormbringer, but then in Stormbringer it does have the players roleplaying sorcerers, summoning and venerating demons. Obviously, Stormbringer was never going to receive the attention that the world’s most popular roleplaying game was and of course, it was not drawing upon the Christian mythology that Dungeons & Dragons was. However, it should be noted that Stormbringer does not shy away from the subject, the examples given actually involving the sacrifice of human slaves!

In addition to learning sorcery, another avenue for progress in Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game and the Young Kingdoms is membership of a cult. There are three primary churches during the time of Elric—the Church of Law, the Church of Chaos, and the Church of the Elementals, but each consists of multiple different and even competing cults. Most members of a cult are lay members, but priests always belong to a cult and each cult has its Agents. An Agent has promised his soul to his chosen deity and acts to further the aims of that deity in the Young Kingdoms—and sometimes beyond. To become an Agent, a Player Character must sacrifice points of Power and that gives him a percentage chance of being accepted by a particular deity. All Agents-as can Priests—can call upon their deity for divine intervention, the chance equal to their Elan rating, which reflects their standing in the cult. Agents are also granted other advantages, such as a lesser elemental as a servant for an Agent of an Elemental, whilst Champions of Law and Champions of Chaos are granted great abilities and virtues, which places them above mere mortals. 

Mechanically, becoming an Agent is quite simple and actually, with a good roll, a Player Character could very quickly find himself an Agent. The bonuses gained do represent another step up in power for a Player Character, whether he is a sorcerer or not. Since an Agent is expected to serve his cult, this and other cults also become roleplaying tools for the Game Master to help drive stories and adventures and bring into the play the ongoing struggle between Law and Chaos. The discussion of Law and Chaos, their nature and the balance between them, is discussed throughout and in some ways is the most important section in the book since it underpins the nature and the future of the Young Kingdoms.

There is advice for the Game Master too, whether that is on running a campaign before the time of Elric or after, preparing a game, and more. This includes taking a campaign beyond the confines of the Young Kingdoms and onto other Planes of Existence—and other times, suggesting a crossover with the Norman Invasion or even with the Cthulhu Mythos! The appendices include full stats for the cast from the novels, which of course includes Elric and Stormbringer, as well as Arioch, Lord of the Seven Darks, Lord of Chaos, Jagreen Lern of Pan Tang, Moonglum, and more. Stormbringer is almost a character of its own! Sample summonings taken from the novels should provide the budding sorcerer with inspiration, and numerous tables reprinted from rules.

The sample scenario in Stormbringer  is ‘Tower of Yrkath Florn’ which the designers used as part of the roleplaying game. It details the ruins of an eight-sided tower standing on a remote stretch of the Argimilar coast said to date back to the Melnibonéan occupation of the region. The Player Characters are hired to explore the building by a merchant prince and so brave its dangers on his behalf. Running to just two floors and the roof, described over some seven pages, the scenario is short, focused, and nicely detailed. It serves as a reasonable, if limited introduction to Stormbringer, if not necessarily the Young Kingdoms, and should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

Physically, Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game has the look and feel of a Chaosium period piece. It is clean and tidy, and organised section by section, much like a slimmed down set of wargames rules. The organisation is perhaps a little odd, with price lists coming before the rules for character generation, skills explained after combat, and so on. Throughout, the rules are liberally supported with fully worked examples, and solidly illustrated by the fantastic artwork of Frank Brunner. There is an index, but it refers to the sections of the rules rather than to page numbers which makes it rather awkward to use.

—oO0—

Murray Writtle reviewed Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game in White Dwarf No. 29Stormbringer will give you them, but to get a continuing campaign underway will take a certain amount of rewriting and careful thought.”

In Different Worlds Issue 38 (January/February 1985), Keith Herber gave Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game four stars out of five, and said, “I don’t think that the authors of Stormbringer intended the game as a first-time experience for gamers and the brief treatment of role-playing in general would support this theory. Instead, the effort has been directed toward describing and quantifying a specific world unique to fantasy literature. The authors have taken the time to dig out all sorts of small facts that lend color to the Young Kingdoms and detail many aspects of a campaign-world glossed over in other games. I thought Stormbringer not only an excellent adaptation of the Elric series but also found it an extremely enjoyable game. If you have ever read an Elric book (or one of Moorcock’s related novels) and wished it could be a game, this is it. If you haven’t read one yet do so and then consider the game. You may not find the “doomed” atmosphere to your liking, but around this neighborhood there is a growing movement for a permanent Stormbringer campaign.”

Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game was placed at position number twenty-five in ‘Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996’ in Arcane Issue Fourteen (Christmas 1996). Paul Pettengale described it as, “Stormbringer is, as all Moorcock fans should know, the name of Elric’s sword, a weapon that draws the very lifeforce from anyone it even scratches. It doesn’t take a genius, therefore, to work out that Stormbringer is the Elric/Young Kingdoms roleplaying game (which was in fact renamed as Elric! for its 1993 re-release, for clarity’s sake).” before that saying that it was actually like, “A simplified RuneQuest, only set in Elric’s world. It captures the spirit of the books, but to play it properly you really need to be familiar with the novels, and they are of the type of fantasy that you either love or loathe.”

—oO0—

By modern standards, Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game is far from a balanced roleplaying game, players often ending up with widely divergent characters in terms of capabilities and thus power levels, placing them on more varying paths towards becoming Agents of Law or Chaos, and on progression within one of the cults. (This can be seen in the differences between the two sample characters.) Yet that is in keeping with the source material, and similarly, exploring the final years of the Young Kingdoms is also in keeping with the source material. Some may see this as a limitation in terms of the scope of the roleplaying game, playing in a pre-apocalypse, yet arguably, the more recent Mörk Borg, did exactly the same—and is more explicit about it. In the short term, beyond the included scenario, Stormbringer will need development in terms of plot and scope by the Game Master, but there is the whole of the Young Kingdoms—and beyond—to explore and the novels to draw from.

Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game is old fashioned in its design and presentation, and of course, it is unbalanced. That lack of balance and that style means that Stormbringer may not really be suitable for anyone new to roleplaying, but yet… The setting of the Young Kingdoms is immensely playable and rich with roleplaying potential, the mechanics simple and elegant, and the imbalance of Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing Game should almost be embraced because it reflects the source material and as power levels grow. After all, this is Swords & Sorcery at its most doom laden, pulp infused grandeur, and there is something glorious in being able to participate in the great conflict between Law and Chaos until the End of Time. 

6 comments:

  1. " Elric would make his first appearance in gaming, if only partially authorised, in Deities & Demigods"

    In what way was it only partially authorised?

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    1. Dyson, full explanation here:

      https://dmdavid.com/tag/the-true-story-of-the-cthulhu-and-elric-sections-removed-from-deities-demigods/

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  2. (I think Blogspot ate my previous attempts to comment)

    Great review. I really enjoyed the magic system example, it's a system I've been curious about for a long time and this is the best example I've seen. I really want to read more about it now.

    I have read that they changed the magic system in later editions. I wonder why? Maybe for the game balance issues you mentioned? It seems like a core mechanic that would have been a good point of difference from other systems of the time (or now, for that matter.)

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    1. Tom, this review was fun to write and I really enjoyed doing it (I also have an Unboxing video which will go live in about a month). The rules themselves have some really well done examples of play, especially the magic system. I am hoping that a fiend will follow through on his promise to run this too.

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    2. "hoping that a fiend"

      A most appropriate turn of phrase, given the topic :)

      Delete
  3. It is exactly BECAUSE of the chaotic character generation AND especially the chaos tinged demon (and elemental) summoning system that I adore this game. OK, it can be abused by players, but I have discovered over the years that the most buff Melnibonean of Pan Tangian can be killed quite easily by just going by the rules of magic and combat. So, it's NOT the cheesy old over-powered munchkin game that some might think. NO! Just run my favorite adventure: Sorcerer's Isle in the second Stormbringer Companion, and you'll see. I hope so at least. It's the taste of old dead empires and dark old gods that makes this game what it is. And it can all be sensed, not only in its deadly and chaotic atmosphere, but even in its rules. Enjoy!

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