Retro Reviews: Elric! (Chaosium, Inc.)

Occasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here.  You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.

If there’s one thing Chaosium has always understood, it’s that without unique characters, roleplaying tends toward stereotype. Without colorful individuals, a roleplaying game is particularly susceptible to bland cliché. Perhaps it is for that reason that Chaosium turns to literature for inspiration more frequently than other companies. Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu are two fine examples of literature made gamable. Based on Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero, Elric! (a.k.a. the second edition of Stormbringer) is Chaosium’s addition to the growing line of dark fantasy role playing games. The game’s tone is gloomy, of course. But rather than emphasize simply a doomed world, Elric! remains true to Moorcock’s novels by stressing a gorgeous, baroque setting tragic fate and the ultimate despair of its inhabitants.

An Empire In Decay

The sourcebook begins with a brief introduction of Moorcock’s books and a discussion of roleplaying, then goes on to describe the degenerate, inhuman Empire of Melnibone. Also detailed are the Young Kingdoms, upstart nations who hate and fear their ancient, alien neighbor.

The chapter gives an overview of the land’s history, social outlook, magic, economy and language, then gives more detailed individual entries for each kingdom. These provide each country’s individual history, and more importantly, evoke local flavor and mood. Finally, there is a discussion of gods and cults. Beyond the character’s petty struggles are the Lords of Law and Chaos, who continually wage war for cosmic dominance. Arioch, the cruel patron deity of Melnibone makes his appearance here, as do Mabelode the Sword King and Donblas the Justice Maker. Playing their own part in the conflict are the beast- and plant-lords, embodiments of the world’s many living things, and the elementals — animate, intelligent manifestations of the physical world.

Rules Lite

Only 71 pages of the 160-page sourcebook are loaded with rules, and since they are based on Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying System, they are easy to pick up. A simple percentile roll versus a skill rating from 1-100 dictates success or failure, with especially low or high rolls determining an extraordinarily good or bad result. The seven characteristics are determined by a die roll range of 8-18 (two six-sided die plus six) with the option of redistributing three points between characteristics. Hit points are an average of constitution (CON) and size (SIZ), and will not change greatly unless supplemented by temporary magic. The player may then allot points among occupational skills. Summarized on just two pages, character creation is quick and dirty; ready-to-play adventurers are even provided for those who want to start playing right away. The survival tips section is a lot of fun; suggestions such as “remember how to laugh” and “have a believable ransom” seem quirky, but then so are some of the characters I’ve seen played.

Combat in Elric! is on the deadly side. A character who takes a major wound — more than half the total hit points in a single blow – can only remain conscious a number of rounds equal to his or her remaining hit points. In addition, there is a chance that the wound does not heal properly, and permanent scarring can result. A chart for fumbles can make for interesting fights, and spot rules are provided for unique situations such as fighting from a narrow position or on a slippery surface.

A change from the first edition combines weapon attacks and parries into one weapon skill. A character’s chance to parry equals his or her percentage decreased by 30 percent each time he or she uses the skill in a round. Parries no longer count against the number of actions a character can take.

Although not new to the second edition, an especially interesting twist on combat is variable armor protection. Rather than a straight number of armor points or an armor class, armor in Elric! is assigned a die roll; for example, leather armor deflects one to six points of damage. Any damage beyond the number rolled does physical harm. Of course, characters usually get a chance to parry a blow before armor comes into play, but not knowing how well your armor is going to protect you makes for scarier (and more interesting) fights.

Throughout Elric! the artwork, though sparse, is of good quality, some excellent. The smiling image of Doctor Jest testing the edge of a small knife is reminiscent of Hannibal Lector. The layout is nice looking, although finding a rule in the labyrinth of sidebars could be a bit of a chore. GMs should make good use of the index, however, and the most important charts are repeated at the end of the book.

Magic, Demons and Other Strange Stuff

Magic is learned through scholarly research or grimoires, and lean toward the utilitarian side. The names are interesting — “Hell’s Razor” gives bonuses to edged weapon damage — but I found I liked the more exotic spells best. One in particular, called “Four-in-One,” enables four adventurers to merge into one awesome fighting machine. Taken directly from the books, the writers took some heavy liberties by including Four-in-One as a “standard” spell. However, most of the spells in the novels read as if they were unique anyway. Although Four-in-One was used under very special circumstances in the books, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be used in game play; gamemasters, however, may wish to take precautions such as limiting powerful spells to Champions of Law or Chaos before making them available. No doubt future supplements, such as Melnibone, will include more of these bizarre, colorful spells.

Perhaps the game’s most controversial element is its attention to the summoning of demons. Although the book states that Moorcock’s demons are “amoral residents of another universe, not an infernal power of Earth,” there will no doubt some who take offense. But for those who take roleplaying as simple hobby, Elric’s! demons make for great roleplaying as well as powerful allies and foes. I especially liked the sections detailing demonic “needs,” which summoners must satisfy if they are to remain in control of their otherworldly servants. The game makes no attempt to list every possible demon, but instead provides guidelines for creating interesting and unique entities.

Rules for the ritual of summoning, negotiating, binding and dismissing are also included, and these have changed considerably since the first edition. The Demon Summoning Fumble Table is great fun. An example: “Chaotic corruption: one of the summoner’s limbs is replaced with one from another mammal, a gigantic inset, an arthropod, etc. Lose lD10 appearance as well.”

Elementals, beast-lords and plant-lords also make it into the magic chapter, as well as guidelines for an attempt to invoke a particular Chaos Lord, Lord of Law or Elemental Ruler. While the Lords of Chaos possess the most powerful magic, they are also destructive enough that characters may think twice before calling on them for aid or using their spells. A Lord must be summoned using an invocation, generally a verse or rhyming chant that makes clear the relationship of the summoner to the Lord. The book interjects wryly, “flattery couldn’t hurt.” Of course, a Lord is never forced to answer the call, either.

Magic in Elric! is tied closely to divine forces, reflected in game terms by “allegiance points.” Actions taken in the course of an adventure can result in a gain in points of allegiance to Law, Balance, or Chaos. For example, summoning a demon would raise a character’s Chaos allegiance by one point, while killing a sworn enemy would raise the Law total by one. Healing someone who is mortally ill would gain a point in Balance. Once the number of allegiance points reaches 20 or more over the next highest number, the character can elect to become allied with that force. An ally gains certain benefits depending on the associated force. An character with allegiance to Chaos can gain additional spell casting power, while one allied with Law gains the discipline to augment selected skills. If a character gains 100 or more points in allegiance, he or she is eligible for apotheosis, and may become a Champion of Law, Balance or Chaos. Champions gain some truly impressive abilities (invulnerability to death!) but, particularly for Champions of Chaos, pay dearly for the privilege. It’s no wonder that Elric fought to resist Arioch’s temptations. The two-page rumors section at the end of the magic chapter is just of the many gems tucked into the pages of Elric! Whispers of rare spells, ancient tomes, and unique artifacts provide impetus for adventure. Some are taken from the novels themselves; others add to, but do not contradict Moorcock’s writings.

A Primer for GMs

The Gamemasters section gives suggestions to the referee, including notes for beginners, preparing for a game, plotting, introducing characters to one another and running a campaign. A comments section draws back from the rules a bit and points out the most important things to remember as a referee. Guidelines for creating enchanted items suggest that artifacts possess a history and that characters only learn an item’s abilities slowly, through trial and error. Not necessary, but nice, is a list of “generic” characters (e.g., Decadent Noble), who, if you read closely, are not so generic. For unexpected player actions, they’re a lifesaver.

A chapter describing important personalities gives the referee a good set of powerful NPCs, including Elric himself, along with statistics. Of course, many of these NPCs are ultimately doomed. Their end, according to the books’ timeline, is detailed, although characters will enter the saga before they occur, and so gain a chance to cross paths with Yyrkoon or Moonglum. The creatures provided are taken directly from the novels, and so have a bit of history to back up the dry stats. One of my favorites from the books was the Theleb K’aarna’s Chaos Butterfly, and it’s included in Elric! in all its glory.

Short and Sweet

‘The Weight of Doom” is a short adventure designed to acquaint new characters to one another. It takes place on the bustling Isle of the Purple Towns and introduces the characters to a number of potential allies and enemies. The local color is established at the outset, with characters making their way through a busy market; there is an element of destiny that feels slightly contrived, but overall the scenario flows nicely, and lays the ground for future adventures.

“The Thought That Counts” goes much further into the machinations that take place on the island. The characters are hired by a merchant to recover a recently stolen golden statue. Things begin to get interesting when the thief kindly greets the party and hands over the statue without a fuss. There’s plenty of roleplaying opportunity, a few good fights, and a neat twist. The adventure can take several different courses, but each is entertaining, and the most likely ending has punch.

From Stormbringer to Elric!

What’s changed? Well, the allegiance system replaces Elan in the first edition. Agents are no longer automatically Champions, and in fact, the formal title of Agent no longer exists. One can be allied with

Law, Chaos or the Balance without being an agent. Virtuous items are no longer in the game, and skill names and functions have been slightly altered. In general, the rules have been simplified to reflect a mood closer to Moorcock’s books. Overall, it’s for the better. Elric! is a rich fantasy setting that offers great dramatic potential. A harsh world filled with great beauty, well realized characters, and a sense of impending doom all make the game ideal for any level of play.

Published 1993 by Chaosium, Inc.
Lynn Willis, Richard Watts, Mark Morrison, Jimmie W. Pursell, Jr., Sam Shirley and Joshua Straw
$19.95

Reviewed by Gilbert Pili
The Gamer magazine #16
December 3, 1993

The Gamer Grade: A

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3 thoughts on “Retro Reviews: Elric! (Chaosium, Inc.)

  1. gretch05 says:

    Always did kind of like old Elric.

  2. While I was a big fan of Stormbringer, I think the Elric! game hit the sweet spot between detail and simplicity. I also greatly approved of it’s inclusion of non-summoning magic, something that appears in the books but not in the older editions of the game.

    • gpili says:

      the scenario packs for both Stormbringer and Elric! were all around excellent but I agree that Elric hit the sweet spot on system. possibly the cleanest implementation of basic role playing.

      The thing I really loved were the scenarios. fresh and original stuff with excellent characters and plot twists.

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