I did an interview earlier this week for the Open Design podcast and that’s up already at www.opendesignpodcast.com. One of the things we talked about was licensed games and the pitfalls of dealing with someone else’s property. Something that came up on an rpg.net thread is a case in point.
When I started designing the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, one of the biggest tasks was the presentation of the setting. The question was, what should the default era of the game be? My preference was for a period of time in between world changing events, so we could set a baseline of what the Empire and the Old World were like. However, Games Workshop was pushing one of their periodic big events for the miniatures game, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, at the time. It was called the Storm of Chaos and it was the story of a new Chaos incursion into the Empire. As far as GW was concerned, the Storm of Chaos was current events in the Warhammer world and it had to be reflected in the RPG.
So what would be the best way to use the Storm of Chaos in WFRP? What I wanted to do was set the game right before the incursion. Strange things are happening all over the Empire, there are grim portents of the future, etc. This would have allowed us to still establish the baseline of the setting. Nordland is like this, Averland is like this, and so on. We then could have provided material for playing through the Storm of the Chaos. Not in mass battles (that’s for the minis game) but certainly the disruptions of a major invasion and the sense that the End Times were here would have provided plenty of fodder for adventures. It would also have neatly separated that material out, so those not interested in using the Storm of Chaos in their campaign could build off the baseline their own way.
The snag was that by the time the RPG came out the Storm of Chaos was going to be over. GW thus wanted the RPG set in the post-invasion time period. I argued that doing so was like setting a WWII game in 1946 (by which I did not mean that WFRP was a war game, but that if such an event was to take place, you should give players a chance to experience it). That was the state of the property though so thus it had to be. So we forged ahead and I think the team did a good job and put out many excellent books. It just wasn’t an ideal starting point from my point of view. When we did the Empire sourcebook, Sigmar’s Heirs, for example, huge swathes of the northeast were described as being destroyed and depopulated. If you wanted to set your game in another period, the info provided about these areas wasn’t very useful.
Towards the end of our tenure on WFRP, Rob Schwalb and I spent some time kicking around ideas about a potential third edition of the game. We thought that a cool approach might be to present three different time periods in the core rulebook so GMs had options. I believe we suggested the Age of Three Emperors, the Enemy Within period, and then the post-Storm of Chaos era from second edition. With the end of our deal and then the dissolution of Black Industries though, that vision of third edition WFRP never moved ahead. The irony is that since then GW has stopped advancing their world timeline year to year, and now keeps the “official” year static. Such are the challenges of licensed games.