Classic RPG Review #15: Stormbringer

4th edition softcover
by Ken St. Andre, Steve Perrin, John B. Monroe
1990 Chaosium Inc, Oakland CAL USA

One of the oldest fantasy heroes, and possibly one of the most famous and dramatic, is Michael Moorcock's creation Elric of Melnibone. Together with is not so trusty, soul slurping sword Stormbringer, prince Elric lives through many an adventure. He slays his most beloved, he fights his kin, he sees far shores, he fights the forces of Chaos with a capital C and... he's an albino.

Stormbringer is the first commercial role playing game that tries to bring his adventures to life – for role players. And it's written by Tunnels & Trolls inventor Ken St. Andre, with the help of RuneQuest writer Steve Perrin, and Cthulhu buff John B. Monroe. That's quite a team. So you might expect straightforward adventuring, and no beating around the bush like in T&T. You might expect streamlined and logical, realistic rules like in RuneQuest. You might expect a touch of evil - like in CoC, not Orson Welles. And in all these expectations you are right.

Stormbringer is well written, easy to read, and full of background information and detail. It has some nice artwork, beautiful colour plates – even if they may no longer be up to todays standards, they're very evocative. And if you don't know the Elric stories, the book will help you get a long way, with character descriptions and a summary of the novels. So you shouldn't have too many problems if your fellow players did read the books and you did not.

A special part of the game is the summoning and binding of demons, chaos creatures, and controlling them. This goes so far, that a large part of the rules is spent on how many demons you can bind, what the features of the demon are – like how many legs - and how many points that would cost. And as if that's not evil enough, you can also play a follower of one of the elemental forces. Then you can collect Elan points by... converting or killing followers of other cults. Stormbringer is a game about the battle against Chaos. Evil against Chaos if need be. Stormbringer RPG is as bloodthirsty as the sword Stormbringer itself. Not too scary for the average roleplayer, but you have to like the gore.

I wanted the Stormbringer game for a long time before I bought it. And I guess I waited such a long time because I had doubts. Doubts whether you could play such dramatic, tragic heroes like Elric. And do it in Michael Moorcock's world.To me that sounds like being an elephant handling porcelain. Because... well, what if I screw up? Will Michael Moorcock come and get angry at me?

Silly of course. But Ken St. Andre might to have had the same considerations. Before providing five complete adventures (over 50 pages), he has a very short section on how you could play the game. Originally he says, Stormbringer was to be played in the Young Kingdoms, but preferably as far away from Elric as possible. Ken does not give many handles on role playing Elric or his friends and enemies – not beyond giving a fairly good resource book. Seems like I'll have to face the challenge of being Michael Moorcock on my own.

The writers do provide some nice examples of what you could do for an adventure. But if you expect real stories, you may be disappointed. They're really nicely made dungeon bashes, with a little twist, a rival party, some deadly traps and tricks and some bizarre creatures. But, they're dungeon romps, not dramatic storylines.

And that while Elric off Melnibone is dramatic in the extreme. He mistakenly kills his own wife Cymoril in one of the books, so how much more over the top can you get? Just suppose an example adventure assumed one of the player characters was Elric, and his wife was kidnapped by his evil brother. That already would have been a different sort of game.

Maybe the above is the reason I always postponed playing Stormbringer. The game looks well made. It's well written. With a great setting. But now it's too close to straight D&D for me. Then again, if you're an old style D&D fan this might exactly be the reason for you to love it.

(rules are elegant, mostly simple, easy to learn, fairly realistic and fairly balanced, based on the RuneQuest set of rules, with a good deal of attention to demons and poisons)
(the game uses the strong backdrop of Elric's world, with a lot of background information, but even though example adventures are provided, the real dread and tragedy of the novels is lacking )
(the game as such is probably easy to play as a variant of D&D using RuneQuest-esque rules, doing hard core search, destroy and get the loot missions, but there is virtually no advice on storytelling, recreating the feel of the novels, or even an introduction to role playing – as such the game master needs to do much to propel the game forward for a longer period)
(dungeon romping in the fantasy world of Elric as created by Michael Moorcock, extensive rules on making demons, lists of creatures and main characters from the novels, maps of the Young Kingdoms, and five sample adventures)


  1. Real problem than seems to lie in the fact that Stormbringer is based on a superb novel with excellent characters and character depth. Much like Lord of the Rings RPG and (especially!) Wheel of Time RPG these games seem to thrive for a short time because of their literary reputations.

  2. Yes, and they thrive for a short time only. Like many games based on popular novels, movies or series. However, there's at least one example of a game that does thrive, also as a game and not just on movie reputation: Star Wars RPG. In both versions.