After some online conversations on social media, I decided that I should talk about a few older games and supplements in my column here. I ran a Twitter poll with some options, some of which I may visit in future pieces, and Stormbringer came out as a pretty dominating choice. The game took the lead, and kept it throughout the duration of the poll. So, I hauled a couple of Stormbringer pieces out of my library: the second printing of the first edition Stormbringer boxed set put out by Chaosium, and the "third edition" book put out by Games Workshop in the UK.
When I put up the poll, I figured that Ghostbusters would win, hands down. I know that Stormbringer is a solid game, but I figured that Ghostbusters would have the more dedicated audience. Considering that both games were the result of the design team at Chaosium, either would have been a win to talk about.
Stormbringer came out from Chaosium in 1981, with the idea to adapt Michael Moorcock's seminal fantasy anti-hero to role-playing games. In 1977, Chaosium had already produced a licensed board/war game based on the setting and the character of Elric, and looked to expand their license into RPGs.
What was an inspired choice was that, along with in-house designer Steve Perrin, they reached out to Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre to work on the new game. It was an inspired choice because St. Andre really wasn't known for dark role-playing games. Where Moorcock's Elric stories were apocalyptic in tone, and for a long time the standard bearer for the dark fantasy sub-genre, Tunnels and Trolls isn't. This isn't a knock on Tunnels & Trolls, or St. Andre's work. T&T is a great game, and the first edition of it was remarkable in a number of ways, but it isn't the game that springs to your lips when looking for rules to run a dark fantasy campaign.
Is this collaboration what made Stormbringer into a game that still gets talked about 35 years later? I think that it is. St. Andre definitely looks at game systems in a different way than a lot of other game designers (yes, this is a compliment) and I think that this perspective is what helped to give the game such a strong foundation. St. Andre and Perrin could have simply reprinted the Runequest rules with some references to the Young Kingdoms of Elric's world and sat back, waiting for the money to come in. The fact that they didn't shows their strengths as designers.
When an RPG publisher has a house system, it is easy enough to just slap a new coat of paint onto it, and sell it as a new game. You see this all the time with licensed role-playing games, particularly at the height of the D20 boom. Stormbringer wasn't a huge divergence from the core of the Basic Role-Playing rules, but they took an already simplified set of rules and streamlined them a bit more, particularly in character creation, to make a ruleset that is somewhat different from the main stream.
Mechanically, Stormbringer is based on the Runequest rules. The basics of character creation (i.e. the attributes used), the working of skills and the rules for task resolution are the same. In theory you could migrate characters between your Stormbringer and Runequest 2 games, but you would likely run into a few problems with that when you came to magic.
Despite the existence of gods, sentient runeblades, Animal Lords and extradimensional elemental creatures, the worlds of Stormbringer aren't particularly magical places, at least not in the way that fantasy role-playing games tend to look at magic. You don't have clerical spellcasting and healing magic. You don't actually have magic-using spell casters at all. The magic in Stormbringer is built around the idea of summoning extradimensional beings, whether chaos demons or elemental beings, and either channeling their power into some sort of spell-like function, or binding them into items that protect the user or allows some access to the bound creature's powers. You could do something like a fireball in a Stormbringer game, it would just take summoning a fire elemental and "throwing" it at a target, or somehow utilizing its powers as an attack. This means that you can get some of the effects that you might get from games like D&D or Tunnels & Trolls, but the tone of the genre would be enforced by the mechanics.
Stormbringer might be the earliest example of using a game's mechanics to enforce the genre of a game's setting.
There are flaws to the game. If balance is a concern to you, the options for characters would be an issue. For example, a Melnibonean character that starts play with a couple of bound creatures will be a lot more potent than someone who happens to roll up a beggar. Like with early Dungeons & Dragons, the idea is that random character creation is a valve to control relative power level between characters in a group. This isn't going to be for everyone.
The other, and to me more major, problem with the game is that it doesn't really do a great job of simulating the world of Moorcock's Elric. I think that first edition Stormbringer is one of the single best role-playing games in the dark or weird fantasy genres, but as a Moorcockian RPG based upon the Elric saga, it falls short in a number of ways. The summoning/binding rules are really innovative and interesting (in fact you can see how they influenced Ron Edward's summoning rules in Sorcerer), but the rules sort of fall out of step with the source material. There's really nothing in the fiction to demonstrate that the sword Stormbringer is a demon bound into a weapon. Like with many of his concepts, Moorcock shifted and altered what the rune sword was over the course of the Elric stories, but even at the time of the RPG that wasn't how the sword was portrayed in the stories.
An argument could be made for the summoning rules, based upon Elric calling up elemental creatures, and even Chaos Lords, during stories but even then the match up isn't perfect. Despite this, they are a favorite part of the game for me, and I like the idea of magic in a game being based around summoning rather than the usual Vancian-derived fire and forget methods of magic.
In 1987, Games Workshop put out an edition of Stormbringer in the UK. This edition was a book, rather than the two previous boxed sets that Chaosium put out. It combined the material from the boxed sets with the Stormbringer Companion, an early supplement that had additional creatures for the game, some Melibonean characters of import and some adventures for the game. The Games Workshop edition of Stormbringer came on the heels of their own entry into RPG publishing with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I think that this is important because I have long described Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as being the result of "Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu getting D&D drunk in an Eastern European tavern." The influence of Michael Moorcock's fiction, and the Stormbringer RPG, on the rules and setting of Warhammer cannot be understated.
One last thing that I want to show is the dice from my boxed set. Yes, I never inked them. The first couple of editions of Stormbringer come from an era before what we as gamers know as "standard" dice had really been finalized. That is a d20, a d8 and a d6. The d20 would be used for the standard 1-20 rolls, but it was also used as a ten sider and in the case of Stormbringer it was used as the percentile dice. You can't tell by looking at it, but instead of being numbered from 1-20, it was numbered from 1-10 twice. The accepted method for inking it, which was a bit of work and the reason why mine is unlinked, was to use two different colors. This way you could use one color for 1-10, and the other for 11-20. This meant less material in the box, making production of the game cheaper as well.
The d8 also saw double duty as both a d8 and a d4. However, it was numbered from 1-8. You got the 1-4 result by dividing results by half.
I was talking recently that I would like to see a return of the double duty d20 die. Of course, it turns out that Gamescience still makes them. I know what my next dice purchase is going to be.
If you're interested in tracking down an edition of the Stormbringer game, there are still a number of the 5th edition versions of the Chaosium published rules out in the world. You can also still find some of the edition published by Mongoose, when they had the license and the rights to the Runequest name. I prefer the Chaosium editions, and if I had my choice it would either be one of the first editions by Chaosium, or the Games Workshop version of the game. Everyone has their favorite editions, however.
There is also a cool Stormbringer RPG fansite with a few supplements that fell through the cracks at the end of Chaosium's ownership of the license, and a forum where you can discuss the game.
Even though I don't like it as much for being an Elric-based role-playing game, I would really like to see Stormbringer brought back out to market because I think that it was one of the best dark fantasy role-playing games made. While the 5th edition of Stormbringer continues on with a life of sorts as Chaosium's game called Magic World, if nothing else I would like to see a generic version of the earlier version of the game released as well. There are few games that handle swords and sorcery as well as it did.