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Looking Back At Chaosium's Stormbringer Role-Playing Game


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.
 

Comments

JeffB

Adventurer
Great writeup. I recall getting that original boxed set for Xmas the year it came out. Big Elric fan, bitd. Though I was never able convince my group to play. I was mighty disappointed.

Also.worth noting is Chaosium's "Elric" rpg from the mid-late 90s. Essentially another edition of Stormbringer with a different title.
 

Morrus

Administrator
Staff member
I would so love to see Ghostbusters. I ran a session of it for Angus and a few others a while back.
 

Christopher Helton

Registered User
The only real differences between Elric! and Stormbringer 5E are art choices and differing font sizes. Although, strangely, after their initial traditionally printed run of Elric! books ran out, Chaosium switched to doing them using POD. However, Stormbringer 5E had another traditional print run that was a bit overdone. My understanding is that when the old Chaosium warehouse was closed that a LOT of copies of Stormbringer 5E were destroyed.

Stormbringer 5E and Magic World both seem to take older eyes into consideration for their graphic design choices.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
I have a d20 in my collection with 1-10 twice :) I also have the original d20 from my 1977 boxed set. The corners are so worn it rolls forever hahaha.
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
The magic for Elric! and the Original Stormbringer were quite different, as in Elric!, as long as you had POW 16, your "class" had access to minor magic spells that actually related to your class. I don't know about Stormbringer 5E (which should not be confused with that other game company's 5E), but I understood that Chaosium had lost/not renewed the Moorcock license some years ago.
 
Very cool to bring up an oft-overlooked game. I have this nit to pick though:

"There's really nothing in the fiction to demonstrate that the sword Stormbringer is a demon bound into a weapon."

Except the climactic scene of the whole series? You know the one, right? The end of the sixth book? Right before "The end of the saga of Elric of Melnibone"?
That was in print by 77 so it was out there before the game was written. I'm pretty sure it's what inspired that whole bound demon thing in the game.


(Avoiding spoilers to a 40 year old book here, I know, but it's the ultimate moment of the series in a lot of ways)

I like the post but that line jumped off of the screen at me.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
There's really nothing in the fiction to demonstrate that the sword Stormbringer is a demon bound into a weapon.
What?

[Sblock]Wikipedia describes the closing scene of the 6th original book of the Elric saga thusly:
Ultimately, Elric's reliance on Stormbringer proves his undoing: after the utter destruction of the Young Kingdoms in the battle of Law and Chaos, just as it seems that the cosmic Balance has been restored, Stormbringer kills Elric, transforms into a humanoid demon, and leaps laughing into the sky, to corrupt the newly-remade world once more. The sword-spirit says to the dying Elric, "Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!"
Then continues:
In the book The Quest for Tanelorn, a man claims that the demon in the sword is named Shaitan – a variant of 'Satan'. In the same book it is revealed that the demon can inhabit either the black sword or the black jewel, the jewel which was once embedded in the skull of Dorian Hawkmoon. Hawkmoon was an avatar, like Elric, of the Eternal Champion.
[/Sblock]
 
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TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Moorecock is probably my favourite fantasy author, and Stormbringer my favourite Chaosium game. It was also the first RPG I actually bought (the GW edition). There has been some talk of Chaosium being in talks with Moorecock to get a new edition of the game published, however, nothing confirmed.
 

SMHWorlds

Registered User
One of my favorite RPGs of all time and a great game to play when your group wants something grim and grimy. It still has a very active fan community, as you might expect.

I would love someone to do Underground, miss that game a lot.
 

DeanP

Villager
One of my favorite games and the printed scenarios like Rogue Mistress were so much fun. I still have all the old Stormbringer materials, from 1st edition through 5th, Elric! and the Mongoose Elric books.
 

Jhaelen

Villager
Ah, Stormbringer!
Unfortunately, I never got to play it.

In my teens I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock's 'Eternal Hero' novels. As you can possibly tell from my username, Elric wasn't my favorite, though.
And I still think that the 'Hawkmoon' novels are extremely well-suited to be turned into an RPG campaign.

Anyway, Elric and the other incarnations of the eternal hero have certainly been quite influential for D&D.
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
Ah, Stormbringer!
Unfortunately, I never got to play it.

In my teens I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock's 'Eternal Hero' novels. As you can possibly tell from my username, Elric wasn't my favorite, though.
And I still think that the 'Hawkmoon' novels are extremely well-suited to be turned into an RPG campaign.

Anyway, Elric and the other incarnations of the eternal hero have certainly been quite influential for D&D.
You know that they did produce a Hawkmoon RPG right?

I do think that the adventures published under Stormbringer 1E were some of the best. I don't remember the name of the book off hand, but it has 4-5 adventures in it, and I have run those numerous times.
 

Papi Elric

Registered User
Hello from France.

Moorecock is probably my favourite fantasy author, and Stormbringer my favourite Chaosium game. It was also the first RPG I actually bought (the GW edition). There has been some talk of Chaosium being in talks with Moorecock to get a new edition of the game published, however, nothing confirmed.
You are probably my new friend !
Sorry for my english.
 

Salamandyr

Adventurer
really miss that I was never able to play any of the Chaosium games back in the day-except for some abortive attempts at Call of Cthulhu.

As a huge fan of Elric, I was always disappointed I was never able to play this one.
 

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