One of the greater joys of heavy-duty rpg tinkering is that I never seem to come away from doing it without learning something unexpected. In the last week of transplanting alien hybrid brains into a Stormbringer body—done and a total pleasure, thanks for asking—I felt like I left the project with a great deep appreciation for what into the host body.
I could probably write a string of (likely not-heavily) read posts about what rocked that old warhorse mechanically, but perhaps the strongest impression came from the least quantifiable one: how distinct and wonderful the writer's voice is in the rules sections. And when I mean the writer, my gut is guessing one of the two co-writers in particular, Ken St.Andre of Tunnels and Trolls fame.
What exactly makes for a strong authorial voice is a tough thing to pin down in a neat teachable bullet-pointed list. In truth, it's more like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: you know it when you read it.
It's the quirky phrased section on the binding of demons or what may lie behind a multi-dimensional gate. It's the explicit reveling in the asymmetry and fine distinction of the various starting backgrounds in the Young Kingdoms.
It's the enemy of the bland and dry. It's the lack of fear of expressing a strong opinion. It's the reaching through the page to address you directly, and it transcends the relative strength or weakness of the rules mechanics themselves.
A number of other rulebooks of that time pop with similar distinctiveness: the baroque, wide-reaching descriptions--and snarky, sometimes defensive polemics--of Gygax in the first edition DMG; the gonzo kitchen-sink charm of Holmes in the first Basic iteration; the huffy calls to medieval fantasy realism in Chivalry & Sorcery; and the glowing recounting of Saturday Night Specials by Barker in Petal Throne.
Sadly as I thumb through rulebooks as early as 1981 voices that have become fainter and tamer over time. As much as I love me some retro-clone most have—somewhat by necessity—written out that voice. Sure we have nice, clean, accessible copies of those games, but I miss the voices of the original.
There has been some recent and welcome trend bucking fortunately. Chris Hogan's Warhammer hack, Small but Vicious Dog, one of the inspiration points for my hackery, leaps immediately to mind.
Take this description of Elves in the character races section:
“All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker. No one’s quite sure what the mohawked, spandex-wearing paramilitary Riverdance troupe known as Wardancers are supposed to be, apart from FABULOUS!”
Attention neo-classical game designers—and I am putting myself on notice here too--you will have to find your own path to idiosyncratic glory like above; but please, please loosen the collar, stretch a bit, and just let it rip.