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UK Games Expo 2024 – Treks & Trails: Conversations with Modiphius Entertainment and Pelgrane Press

by on July 1, 2024
 

One of the lovely things about UK Games Expo is getting to meet some of the people behind beloved games and have a chat with them. It helps to have a press pass, admittedly. I spoke with one of the PR crew from Modiphius and Cat Tobin from Pelgrane Press for an extended amount of time. While I could have covered these in my two convention diaries about the Expo, these felt like they deserved their own space.

Modiphius Entertainment

Okey Dokey!

The Modiphius Entertainment space was nice and open, with shelves full of RPG books and boxes of miniatures. A glass cabinet gave views of games while a Pip Boy the size of a person attracted folks for photos throughout my time at the stand. Oh, and there were staff lugging Fallout weapons and multiple people dressed as Vault Dwellers.

Modiphius are known primarily for their licensed games, which has included Star Trek, Conan, John Carter, Fallout, Dishonored and more. It’s a fairly trad framework which involves mixing a couple of stats and rolling under it, but they’ve varied it up with each game.

Star Trek Adventures Second Edition

Going boldly once again

First up, I asked if they hated me specifically because I’d only recently bought Star Trek Adventures First Edition. They abstained from answering, which I feel means that yes, they did.

The new edition is going to tighten up the rules, while still remaining compatible with previous edition books. It wouldn’t make sense to republish every book, given how many they’ve released. Modiphius have released a ton of books which utilise the 2d20 system since Star Trek Adventures first came out and the system’s evolved a lot since then, so they wanted to put that experience into practice. The main difference people will notice are that you only use d20’s instead of the funny d6’s which I thanked them for. It felt like that would be an obstacle for getting it to the table as I’d not bought any of their dice yet.

They weren’t able to explain how they’ll express compatibility with previous editions yet. Personally I’m expecting it to be an appendix or something.

I asked if they could share what upcoming books there would be, but the only thing they shared was that a GM Toolkit was in the pipeline.

Dreams & Machines

Even Hopepunk futures can get a bit violent from time to time.

Modiphius is known for their licensed games, something they’ve honed over the years. A little while ago they announced their first original IP, “Dreams & Machines”. I didn’t realise just how much they had already released or what it’s about.

The game uses a few key phrases we’ve heard before in games like Legacy: Life Among the Ruins and Earthborne Rangers. “Hopepunk”, “post-post apocalypse’. It’s an interesting realm to play in and Dreams & Machines feels like it’s done a lot with the space.

Set on a planet far from Earth, an AI called The Builder went awry and there was a Terminator-scale war. The Builder was damaged, the machines went silent and humanity “put a tarp over it and moved on” as the PR guy said. Fast forward 200 years and there are different factions with different ideologies driving what humanity’s up to now. All while some of the mechs are beginning to wake up. 

Compared to other 2d20 systems, there’s a Spirit die to help people and supply points which help abstract inventory. There’s a starter set for it, a core book and currently a plan of releasing about two books a year. I walked away with the quickstart which I’m looking forward to checking out.

Fallout

The Hollywood Heroes

The Fallout TV show loomed over the display, between the giant Pipboy, the people with prop weapons and the Hollywood Heroes miniatures flying off the shelves. Apparently the TV show’s success hasn’t changed any of Modiphius’ plans, but has helped energise them. They didn’t disclose much more than that, but the stall was buzzing from all the Fallout hype.

Discworld

I couldn’t find any official art yet, so here’s some rad Paul Kidby art.

Discworld’s only existed in official RPG form as a GURPS Sourcebook, so Modiphius have been very excited about getting the license.

The game’s going to come to Kickstarter around October this year, and shockingly for Modiphius, won’t be using their 2d20 system. They’ll be using a “Narrativium” system, which they didn’t go further into. Apparently they’ve been working closely with the Pratchett estate and they even have Paul Kidby on board for art.

I’m not a Discworld person, but my partner and a number of my friends are, so I’m happy for them with this. It’s a shame they weren’t willing to disclose more about their Narrativium engine, but I’m curious to see how this trip away from the 2d20 world goes for them.

Pelgrane Press

Pelgrane Press publish a number of games using the Gumshoe system, originally made for Trail of Cthulhu but now it’s been used for a number of different settings & genres. They have also published a number of indie RPGs and anthologies. They’re a mainstay of UK conventions with a massive stall and a number of things I had to ask about.

Cat Tobin’s always been a great person to talk to at events and patiently sat through a ton of questions going all across the Pelgrane line, Lovecraft in general and an area which made me wary about supporting Pelgrane for a time.

Trail of Cthulhu Second Edition

Trail of Cthulhu’s getting a little long in the tooth for an RPG. At 16 it can get a full time job or enjoy a drink along with a meal at a pub. While Pelgrane are still handling their successful 13th Age Second Edition Kickstarter, they’re also gearing up to launch a campaign for a second edition of Trail of Cthulhu.

Especially given recent years with the OGL debacle, there’s been a lot of thought about tactful de-coupling of dependence on other companies. Pelgrane had re-upped their agreement with Chaosium about using Mythos elements which are specific to them (and there’s a surprising amount of those). Even so, Pelgrane want to edge away from being too dependent on that, something they showed in The Yellow King where they made their own Yellow Sign.

Trail is not going to be a QuickShock game, but will have learnt from the various Gumshoe systems. There will be a new core book adventure as they love the original one, but feel it’s not fitting for a new GM. Instead the new adventures will reflect the two tones; pulp and purist. 

In any chat about a Lovecraftian game there’s always a conversation about the man himself. “My goal is to make him spin in his grave,” Cat says, reassuringly. I’m a fan of his work, but that’s always an admirable goal. They’ll be looking as madness and sanity mechanics as they’re tricky ground. Inspirations include games like Lovecraftesque which had some fantastic essays on madness and representation of anyone who’s not an effete white man from Providence.

Boundary into the Darkness will be a campaign from Phil Masters and Sarah Saltiel, set in Birmingham in the industrial age. Pelgrane ran a campaign for The Dracula Dossier a while ago which had some amazing looking extras which took forever to make and sounded like they could have destroyed the company. Cat admitted the madness of it, but her temptation to make ‘some kind of tome’. She was also talking to Sirynscape about some kind of collaboration for Trail, which could be interesting.

Swords of the Serpentine

I didn’t have a good-resolution image from Swords, so here’s a cool image from their 2023 Free RPG Day adventure.

The game’s done incredibly well and personally I know it’s been sought after by a number of friends. Cat said that at the moment energies are focused on fulfilling 13th Age and preparing for Trail of Cthulhu, but she wants more from Swords of the Serpentine in the future.

Fear Itself

There are vague future plans for the horror game, but Cat wouldn’t share more than that.

QuickShock

There are no plans beyond The Yellow King. I shared my enjoyment of the system, although we both had a few things to say about the cards used for any shock or injuries. Personally, I found them fine in lockdown when I used them on a Discord, but in person they could be a bit tricky.

Night’s Black Agents

Jason Bourne Vs Dracula probably sounds better than Alias Vs Ultraviolet, but that’s how I feel I’d end up running it.

Things have been difficult with working out new things for Nights Black Agents, the game of “Jason Bourne Vs Dracula”. The Dracula Dossier was a stone cold classic, a fascinating look at the making a mystery and letting players choose the direction of play while the GM has their conspiracy board they build and customise as the campaign goes on. The problem is that coming up with something new means the inevitable comparison. They’ve been looking at things, but nothing’s quite taken yet.

The Yellow King

Art from Yellow King: Paris

The next big release for The Yellow King is the campaign, “Cassilda’s Song” which is likely to be in late 2025. There’s been a lot of playtesting and as this isn’t one campaign but four, that can be pretty time consuming. The ‘This is Normal Now’ segment was the last and at the time of our chat was wrapping up playtesting. From there it would take about four weeks to gather feedback. The shape of Cassilda’s Song was uncertain, although the preference would be one book. We’ll see how that goes.

There are plans to eventually do community content the way they have with some of their other games, but not for a while.

AI

Finally we came to the thorny subject of our chat.

I was a massive fan of Pelgrane after reading The Yellow King and went back through their catalogue, joined their discord, ran and played games. They opened up preorders for Legions of Carcosa, a monster book for The Yellow King. I admit I held off from preordering as I was still waiting for their magic sourcebook to come out. I was pleased when I didn’t after hearing that the interior art was all going to be AI-made. The cover art would be the only original art in the book.

There was an article about this on Pelgrane’s site, explaining the process, but for some people (myself included) it wasn’t really enough.

On the Friday of UK Games Expo I posted on BlueSky about how proud I was at not shouting “Mike Mearls?!” At Chaosium’s stand and “AI art?!” At Pengrane’s. Both are companies I like who have made some baffling decisions and tested my affections. I’d been well-behaved and kept from heckling, but now I was here, having a lovely chat with Cat at the Pelgrane stand, and I could feel the question bubbling up in me.

I asked Cat about the use of AI, both in Legions of Carcosa and potential future use of it. I’ll say here, I’m biassed. I’m a big fan of Ed Zitron’s newsletter and the Better Offline podcast. I’m friends with a lot of comic artists who are seeing more threat and de-valuing of their skills than the limited potential help the form can provide them. AI’s a bit of a thorny subject. Apparently Pelgrane are very much in two camps with its use. Robin Laws (author of The Yellow King among other things) loves playing with it. As there’s no budget for art on the blog side of the Pelgrane site, AI art has been used to punch up some articles and make them look interesting. As mentioned in the Pelgrane AI blogpost, they attempt to do their due diligence with making sure they’re not plagiarising artists and acting as ethically as they can. Of course, whether you believe that is ultimately up to you.

On the other side of the AI debate is Pelgrane crowned Simon Rogers who is apparently ‘a big no’ to AI art. 

Legions of Carcosa was an experiment with AI art, as a lot more art was needed than Pelgrane usually have in their books. Robin apparently felt that leaning into AI hallucinations would look interesting. I admit my counterpoint is that hallucination or not, a lot of the AI art I’ve seen samples of don’t look great, especially compared to the art in The Yellow King.

As far as the use of AI art in more books, apparently this was an experiment. After a lot of heated talks about ethics, the decision was, ‘let’s do one book’. There are no plans in the pipeline for use of AI art in their books. Cat was hesitant to say ‘never’ as the tools of generative AI may change or be useful in ways that are difficult to predict outside of the current ‘burn a small zoo’s amount of energy to make a bad piece of art’. That’s an understandable amount of wiggle room, especially if they give any of these tools a proper amount of scrutiny.

Personally, speaking with Cat was a joy, and it’s ultimately going to be up to the individual whether your concerns about Pelgrane and AI art are assuaged. I’m a lot more interested in Trail of Cthulhu Second Edition, knowing that it won’t be made using AI art and while I’m happier coming out of the discussion, it won’t stop me being wary of them in the future.