Sunday, August 14, 2022

Stormbringer Redux # 14 - Untangling The Threads of Stormbringer

Classic Stormbringer is a funny old game. In some places it replicates Moorcock's fiction, while in others it totally deviates from or subverts it. It has some mechanics and tropes from D&D and BRP, but also does lots of things entirely its own way.

So let's try to follow some of these strands to see Stormbringer's DNA, and the implications for running or playing the game.

I see three categories of Stormbringer concepts:

1) Moorcockisms (ie narrative conceits), what most of us lovers of the novels came for

2) Stormbringerisms (ie game designer conceits specific to the game), which were made supposedly to please us fans of Moorcock, but which largely go off in a different direction due to the change in genres from fiction to game

3) Chaosiumisms or D&Disms (ie mechanic conceits specific to certain systems), such as dice rolling or number crunching from the hobby's wargaming roots.

Let's look at a few of the major gameplay characteristics associated with Stormbringer to see where they come from, and whether they work or not.


This is definitely a Stormbringerism. For Moorcock's characters, death serves the story, so there is no chance of an unlucky roll or a TPK. That said, regular Chaosium rules (ie Runequest) give a bit more robust characters than Stormbringer. From my rereading, the critical hits and fumble rules are the main culprit for Stormbringer's storied lethality, which is why I proposed a way to mitigate crit/fumble lethality while giving players more choice in my combat rules.

Personally, I have no problem with some lethality. Just as in Moorcock's fiction, a character's death should be linked to their choices, and thus the threat of death from the road the player puts his alter ego on gives a very Moorcockian vibe.

Random Nationalities

The different nations come from Moorcock, naturally, but the various bonuses (and especially penalties) attendant with them are Stormbringerisms. I used to think they add a bit of verisimilitude to characters through diversity, but the penalties especially are very D&D grognard in their 'challenge of using a hopeless character' ethic. As the designer notes in [] on running a beggar,

"However, those players who enjoy a challenge may get a special kick out of attempting to beat the system and win with a character who is blind, deaf, or partially crippled. Any triumphs won with such a character would be correspondingly greater than those won by more normal characters. If you do choose to play a Beggar, you have my condolences and best wishes."

The problem I now see is that there is a decided lack of 'triumphs' in the system of Stormbringer. I suppose you could become an Agent, but this is a power up, not an endpoint. Alternatively, you could accumulate wealth and enough political power to rule a nation, thus gaining the ear of greater powers if you are also a sorcerer. But as noted, this would have to happen largely through GM fiat, as no overarching system exists for it. This system of linking social class and arcane power is precisely what I sketched out in previous posts on the cosmic struggle, and is something that I hope to complete at some point.

Although I used to swear by the old random nationality table, hearing the Breakfast in the Ruins podcast pisstake on it the other day, and based on my own reflections, if I ran or played Elric! or later editions, I would be happy to let it slide. I think modern players would appreciate the equality of all starting characters more, and at some point I may make up a Random Nationality table that provides balanced bonuses to all nationalities instead of rehashing the superior civilized and inferior savage dialectic the old table reinforces. Although this is a staple of pulp fiction, it is much less than fun in a game.

My few memories of national characteristics from Moorcock's fiction are either descriptions of personality (ie Melniboneans as cruel and aloof, Purple Towners as gregarious yet mercenary), or very brief introduction of troop types (ie Chalilite archers). This latter was my inspiration for the troop rules I posted earlier, and will inform any nationality rules if I devise them.

Churches of Law and Chaos

I do not recall mass worship churches of the planar forces ever being mentioned in the Elric books, save for the existence of the Theocrat of Pang Tang, whose title reflects the hierarchy of organized religion. 

As the designer notes at the start of the Magic section [5.1]

"Michael Moorcock is not a simple man, and he does not write simple stories. The implications behind his theology of Law and Chaos at war with each other are profound, and would bear considerable philosophizing, but this is not the place for it. Unfortunately, in order for this game to work well, I must simplify and abbreviate many of Moorcock's concepts."

This quote really points out the crux of the matter - for Moorcock's fiction to work as a game, it needs simplification & abbreviation. In the Elric novels, Law vs Chaos is NOT a 'theology', which is defined as religion or belief in god, but is rather a cosmology, an explanation of how the universe works. Stormbringer skirts the overarching cosmological system and replaces it with a theological system, so every PC or NPC can have their 'alignment' like in D&D, even if it doesn't mechanically matter for anyone but priests and agents. Law vs Chaos thus become a hybrid D&D / Stormbringerism.

Honestly, even though such a theological interpretation is largely absent from Moorcock's works, in a roleplaying game about lowlifes traipsing around the Young Kingdoms, it is acceptable, almost inescapable trope of D&D derived fantasy roleplaying games.


Many have already noted that the magic system of Stormbringer is largely ported over from Chaosium's Magic World, and the debate about whether Stormbringer magic is 'like in the books' rages on. Frankly speaking, no systematized magic in a game could ever satisfy or completely emulate what a great writer like Michael Moorcock makes up to further his story and the themes therein, so I will refrain from going into that. Magic in an RPG is thus inescapably a systemic conceit.

What I will say is that it is easy to see what works and what doesn't. The rules for Elementals work well - they are rules lite, narrative more than mechanic, and were largely untouched from 1st to 4th editions. Demon rules in 1E are half baked, which is why they went from an unfinished and disorganized mess in the first 3 editions to a GURPS style point buy in the 4th. I don't consider this a total success.

Lords of Law and Chaos are arguably overpowered for a game, but emulate the fiction, to an extent. I always objected with the D&D urge to stat out every god and demigod - shouldn't some beings be too powerful for the PCs to touch?

Once again, a balanced systemic approach is lacking with demon magic, which I hope to address sometime in the near future. For the time being, the random tables I previously posted to determine demon, elemental, and deity reaction to being summoned should give the GM some good narrative hooks to help them roleplay summoned entities better and more consistently.

Currency and Encumbrance

Breakfast in the Ruins rightly lambasted the currency and prices list especially, envisaging Moonglum and Elric bickering over the price of canoes. As they note, the trope of pulp fiction is, a la Conan, rags to riches and back to rags again next week. This would seem to be better abstracted instead of codified into currency and prices, which lean into the resource management aspect of D&D and wargames. Considering that Elric never touches money except in rare instances, enforcing bookkeeping would seem to detract from the game.

On the other hand, I could see this being useful if tied to social status and ambition within the larger struggle of the gameworld. As posted previously, I tied the currency of starting characters to their social status, and in our Stormbringer game the Melnibonean high priest that was generated instantly became the patron of all the other Young Kingdom adventurers. In future, I hope to add to this what old D&D bloggers like Hill Cantons call 'the domain game', where PCs play a long game of gaining wealth, buying influence, and building their base while acquiring followers.

If the beggar character mentioned by the game's designers and lambasted by Breakfast in the Ruins could have a chance of climbing the rungs of Young Kingdom society, and even playing a part in the struggle between Law and Chaos, THAT would certainly be a worthy triumph to shoot for.


As I noted before, the scenarios of Stormbringer are hit or miss. For every Hall of Risk that hints at the greater cosmology and sets things on a literal cosmic chessboard, there are a dozen Crystal of Daerdaerdath dungeon crawls that are ripped from D&D. To combat this, I implemented the system of life goals, and it has generated side quests and character motives that, by and large, obviate the need for a published scenario by producing organic and genre-appropriate character ack stories. Just take a look at the motivations of our party members:

Lord Soo (Melnibonean high priest)

Purpose: Restore Melnibone to glory (she was sacked by Pan Tang in our world)

Bones (Vilmir sailor)

Purpose: Get enough money to captain a ship again

Maleia (Dharijoran merchant)

Purpose: Protect her lord

That said, there are things to be ripped from old Stormbringer scenarios, as some of them did hit the mark on occasion. My campaign, The Laughing Tower, is an updated homage to The Hall of Risk, and for the next arc of our campaign, I will be repurposing the Sisters of Chaos from the Sea Kings sourcebook. Basically, I would probably not run any Stormbringer scenario from back in the day as is, but I would definitely take the best parts, amp them up, and fling them at my players.


Classic Stormbringer is a mixed bag, but also a trove of treasures that the original designers put their blood and souls into. I am finding my own ways to make it emulate the source material better, but I realize that it can never fully do that. As lovers of Moorcock's fiction, we have to be realistic about what we can expect the game to do, and what we might need to change to fit our conception of what Stormbringer should be. What complicates this for the GM is, of course, the players. Where fans of Moorcock might play true to character despite this leading to their doom (or even because it does) , a more D&D-honed or modern player might try to 'win' by exploiting gaps in the rules, such as when one player in my old game carried ten swords because they break often and there is no encumbrance system. So my final suggestion would be that GMs, as much as possible, let players in on what their conception of Stormbringer is, whether it is pulp or saga, or just D&D in Elric's world. That way, a better experience can be had by all.

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