A few weeks ago my friend Adam Sink bought me a copy of Stormbringer first edition rulebook that he found on the shelf of a used bookstore for fifteen dollars. Knowing that I was in the midst of collecting a mammoth Stormbringer collection, he texted me, asking if I wanted him to pick it up on my behalf. I demurred, saving money for Gen Con. Adam, the sport that he is, picked it up anyway as a gift.
Any man, I sure am glad that he did.
Stormbringer is set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm where the Elric portion of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle of novels takes place. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with nascent powers and the fate of tragic figures driving this world into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the characters are powerless to prevent.
The 144 page softcover book is actually the manual that came inside of the 1st Edition Stormbringer boxed set. This was published in 1981 by Chaosium and is written by old school roleplaying luminaries Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin. The art for the book is wonderfully evocative and composed by Frank Brunner.
The copy Adam found for me was sans boxed set, which is why it was priced so attainably. The boxed set comes with a fold out map of Michael Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms and some other play aides, but everything you need to play the game is contained inside the covers of the manual. Additionally, I have like 4 other versions of the Stormbringer RPG so I’m up to my eyeballs in maps of the the Young Kingdoms anyway.
Now, I could get into a whole screed on the differences between this edition and any other. Some of those differences are big, some are nuanced, but they are beyond the scope of this review. My purpose here is to inspire you to go on eBay immediately and hunt up a copy of first edition Stormbringer, regardless of its condition, regardless of whether it has the box and the dice and all that crap.
But in order to go forward I have to go back a little further first. See all of this was presaged to me by none other than Sunderland’s resident wizard Jamie over a year ago via Instagram.
Jaime owns and operates Colosseum Rex in Sunderland, UK, and I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about him here before. But In case you haven’t, I’ll catch you up. I met Jaime on Instagram back in 2014. At the time we would just talk about roleplaying games that captured our imaginations. He lived in the UK. I lived in LA. As the years have passed, Jaime has constantly challenged my perceptions of roleplaying and pushed me to explore more and be open to new ideas. As a thinker and a student of tabletop gaming he’s always about a year ahead of me. I find it incredibly vexing, but if past precedent is any kind of future predictor, whatever Jaime is up to now – will be the fad that I’m binging on in twelve to fifteen months.
One day on Insta he called out my love of the OSR movement directly. I wish I could find the quote. But his point was simply “Do we even need an OSR movement when there are so many great old games laying around, waiting to be rediscovered and played?” Of course, even after a spirited round of debate with him, I still believe that new blood exhuming old ideas and breathing new life into them is a necessary force in the roleplaying community and an objective good. I don’t think the brilliance of Diogo Nogueira’s “Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells” or James Vail’s “Xas Irkalla” would be with us if we didn’t have young blood developers looking back in order to find the way forward. But I will say that Jaime’s argument opened my mind to taking a deeper look at games that had more or less run their course by the time I was discovering the hobby in the very late 80s, early 90s.
So that brings us to Stormbringer first edition. I started reading it on a lark. There was something about the way the high weight pages of the manual felt in my hand that took me back to my teenage years when I would spend all day on the weekends or when school was not in session, draped across a couch reading a softcover Vampire manual. Seized by this nostalgia I began to read the book carefully from the inside cover, and fell in love with a brilliant and beautiful game that as far as I am concerned never got the attention or the lifespan it deserved.
Now this is the part of the review where we would usually start breaking things down into bullet points, pros and cons. I’m going to forego that tradition for this game because I don’t think that kind of binary thinking serves old school games very well. There are aspects of this game that some people will delight in, those same aspects will make others climb the walls with frustration.
I will say this as a downside: Stormbringer books are very difficult to get a hold of. In the last year since I have gotten serious about collecting them, I have noticed that their prices have risen sharply, and they were not cheap to begin with. If you are a compulsive collector of things of beauty, consider this before starting down the path of collecting Stormbringer: you cannot have just one.
You cannot have just one core book, one edition, one sourcebook. Once you have partaken of this game, you have no choice but to have them all, and some pieces will come at great cost.
Character creation in Stormbringer should really be called the character lottery. It’s clear that Ken St. Andre didn’t have balance on his mind when he was writing this game. And on some level that’s fine. The Elric cycle of novels doesn’t have much to do with balance. The central protagonist of the novels is the monarchy of one of the world’s greatest empires and he spends his time in the novels chumming around with everyone from scum of the earth adventurers to merchant princes to everyone in between.
Indeed, a very small percentage of the characters in the Stormbringer game will be mind-bendingly powerful. Predominantly magic-users, they will harness the power of demons, slay anyone who dares to stand against them and carve the history of the Young Kingdoms. Everyone else will pale in comparison to their raw power. All of this is determined in the character creation phase by rolling dice. Your ‘race’ your class, your attributes are determined for you by prescribed dice roll. There are very few choices you, as the player, have any say in during this phase. Honestly, if the GM were to lay out 4 or 5 pregenerated characters before the campaign began and let the players discuss which one they wanted to play, there would be more agency and selection. A typical Stormbringer character could be generated by a computer program. Now, as I said, some players will embrace this ‘winds of fate’ style of roleplaying. Others will reject it.
The Stormbringer system is sort of weirdly math-y. It’s a classic OSR style percentile, where the higher your percentile is in something, the better you are at it, and there are incentives to roll low. If you are a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dark Heresy enthusiast you will recognise this game design principle.
While reading, there were times when I would marvel at the system’s simple elegance. Other times I found myself wondering why anyone would bother with this. Overall I found it to be really fun, at least on paper, I haven’t had a chance to run this thing yet. There are lots of unique subsystems dealing with fractions of percentages that at times I found kind of tedious and burdensome. But then there were subsystems that got no constraints at all like the winged men of Myrrh’s ability to fly without defined restrictions, which I thought was amazing.
Combining both the idea of subsystems and power level, a huge part of the Sorcery section of the book details systems that player characters will rarely, if ever, have the chance to use. The magic of the Elric universe is arbitrated by demons. Humans have no ability to wield magic on their own, and must impose on bound demons to borrow their power. Still, the ability to bind a demon is so rare, difficult and risky, it’s unlikely that a PC will ever get to have the experience. The rules seem like they were included largely to cover NPCs, but Ken St. Andre doesn’t tell us this straight out. He waits until the very end of the magic system and then sort of alludes to it, but I think that a lot of players in the 80s sort of glossed over his warning.
I’ve heard that there can be weird problems with this version of the game where people are binding demons to every damned thing in hopes of getting bonuses out of them, which is clearly against the intention of the book, although there are no rules prohibiting it. I guess it’s one of those classic John Wick style situations where the rules end up defining the incentives of the players.
All in all I really can’t say how much I love Stormbringer as a game, the first edition in particular. I could go on and on, but this review has already been our longest yet, so I won’t. I have some guys on deck to play and now that I’m done reading the book, I’m stoked to start the process of putting together an adventure and setting at date to journey into the Young Kingdoms.
Meanwhile,you may be saying to yourself, “yeah, that’s all well and good, but I’ve never read any of those Elric novels. Is this review even aimed at me?”
First, yes it is. And if you haven’t read Elric, get out there and do it. The original Elric cycle of novels is currently out of print in America, and it’s a shame. I recommend hitting up eBay and purchasing some of the Berkley Fantasy silver softcover editions as cheap as you can. The ones with the pictures of Elric on the cover, portrayed as a haunted and lonesome figure.
Start with book one, Elric of Melnibone. It’s a quick read and it will change the way you look at fantasy. At least that was my experience when I first read it after college, after by dear friend Ben Bailey had been on me to read the novels since the early days of high school roleplaying. I suggest that you take a look at book two as well, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. If after reading them you don’t want to go any further, that’s cool, everyone has different tastes and you’ll get only respect from me for broadening your horizons. But check out at least the first two books, you owe it to yourself as a gamer and a game master.
Second, while a love of Moorcock and his novels make the perfect accompaniment to this game, they should not be seen as prerequisite. I would highly recommend Stormbringer 1st edition to any OSR player for it’s dark feel, it’s grit and it’s fatality. I would recommend it for it’s baroque magic system, it’s strange creatures, it’s exotic lands and it’s prevailing sense of doom.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tried to capture what Stormbringer had already created: hopeless adventures in doomed world. But Stormbringer did it first, and I think did it better. Jaime had it right in a certain way, and I encourage my fellow OSR throat slashers to get out there and find a copy of Stormbringer 1st edition for their collections.