Like most milieus, the RPG scene is subject to the winds of fashion and one of the areas in which changes in fashion are most visual is the balance struck between what is colloquially known as crunch and fluff. For example, while original D&D may have had a setting that was implied both by the rules and by the inspirational source material, there was no ‘official’ setting in which D&D campaigns were supposed to take place and so people built their own dungeons, their own towns, and eventually their own worlds. Fast forward a few decades and the balance between crunch and fluff had shifted so radically that people in the 00s would often buy RPG books and read them like novels, knowing full well that the books would never translate into actual game sessions.
The movement between these two extremes of fashion and design philosophy is so pronounced that people entering the hobby at one point in its history can often be quite surprised by approaches taken in the past. For example, someone raised to expect a balance of fluff and crunch similar to that built into the World of Darkness games would most likely be appalled by the dryness of a GURPS manual while someone used to the focused design philosophies of 21st Century story games would probably be appalled by the amount of useless background and setting-cruft that filled the pages of RPG books from the late 1990s. Fashions change, people change, and perceptions of games change with them.
As someone who first encountered the scene in the early 1990s, I have come to expect a certain amount of fluff as a means of providing GMs with some sort of steer when it comes to the kinds of adventures they might want to run with a particular game. A game doesn’t need to do a lot but it does need to tell me what kind of stories it is intended to help me tell and provide a few setting details to help inspire me to write my own adventures.
While Sigil & Shadow was first published in 2021 by Osprey Games, the book’s acknowledgements make it clear that the game started life in 2014 as an attempt to create a contemporary occult RPG from the distillation of two distinct systems, one devoted to fantasy and the other devoted to espionage. I mention this as Sigil & Shadow is a book so dry that it feels like a weird hybrid of 1970s writing and 2020s desk-top publishing.
Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.
Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
Sandy Petersen once observed that while Chaosium may have agreed to publish an RPG based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there were always more interested in the idea of a historical adventure game inspired by the kind of golden age pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s work. While the names at the top of Chaosium may have changed a few times in the intervening decades, there remains an institutional bias towards the historical and against the horrific. This is obvious in the company’s habitual production of globe-trotting adventure campaigns, in the tendency of sourcebook to resemble Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities, and in the range of topics covered by their experimental range of monographs.
Chaosium’s innate bias towards historical Simulationism was also influential on non-Anglophonic versions of the game produced by third-party publishers who would often attempt to localise Call of Cthulhu by providing sourcebooks designed to help you play in your native country. Indeed, many of my early experiences with the game involved scenarios set against a background of a France still recovering from the trauma and chaos of World War I. While a lot of these localisations were content to swap currencies and provide male adventurers with differently-shaped hats, some local publishers proved a touch more ambitious.
For example, back in the early 00s, the German games company Pegasus Spiele were publishing a Call of Cthulhu-related magazine entitled Cthulhoide Welten when they received an English manuscript by Stephane Gesbert about running games in dark ages Germany. Pegasus translated the manuscript into German and released it as a special edition of Cthulhoide Welten entitled Cthulhu 1000AD. In 2004, Chaosium took Gesbert’s ideas and used them as the basis for Cthulhu Dark Ages, a game designed to support Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in dark ages England. Successful enough to prompt the publication of several supplements released through Chaosium’s slightly iffy monograph series, Cthulhu Dark Ages is now on its third somewhat chaotic edition.