The French Side of… RPG

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The beautiful GM Screen for French 6th edition of The Call of Cthulhu. Image: Sans-Détour. Used by permission.

I don’t know if you had the same feeling in the US, but for a while, we French RPG players were quite convinced we were the last generation of a very brief-lived phenomenon.
Younger people seemed to mark no interest at all in our favorite hobby. We saw people growing (relatively) older around RPG tables and on LARP fields.

Image: Willy Favre. Used by permission. WarsaW cover, featuring JFK famous quote “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”… As you can see, French RPGs obviously have American references, too.

Then it changed. I cannot date it.
But we experienced a sudden revival of RPGs.
One of the symptoms was the creation (or come-back, in the case of the once-famous Casus Belli LINK) of RPG magazines.
But even more interesting and encouraging was the increasing number of new French-created RPGs.

I found it worthy to investigate. As I am writing for you (mostly) American readers one of my major inquiries was the differences between French and American RPGs.
Don’t misunderstand me:  AD&D, The Call of Cthulhu, the White Wolf games and Warhammer are the most played in France as well as in the US. A poll was recently organized by Mystery Machine among 3 000 French RPG players (or ex-players) and the results are clear: among the 10 favorite games of French players, only two are actually French (In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas and COPS, two games actually written by the same author, Croc).

However, the GROG (a reference website for French RPG) counts not less than 11 new French RPGs published in 2010.

So… why are all these French people creating RPGs? Are they not satisfied with American ones?
What about the old cliché? Do the French RPG creators really see American RPGs like “blockbusters”? Do they believe French RPGs to be more subtle?

I interviewed 3 of these newly-published RPG creators and as you will see, their answers are quite different.

Julien Heylbroeck aka Wyatt Scurlock is the author of WarsaW, a survival RPG set in a dystopian version of the Polish city in a parallel 1964 where WWI never ended. Warsaw is published by John Doe Editions (yes, they’re French, despite their name).

Jerome Larré is the author of the critically-acclaimed Tenga, an historical RPG set in 16th century Japan, published this January, also by John Doe. Among the archetypes offered by Tenga Core Rulebook is a “Mother Courage”. How cool it is! How many RPGs feature mother heroines?

Yann Lefebvre is a history teacher and the author of Crimes, an historical RPG set in the “Belle Epoque” (end of the 19th century), aimed at investigation, horror and atmosphere. Nine extensions have already been published (+5 free scenarios) by Les écuries d’Augias. The last published scenario for Crimes, L’amour d’une étoile (A Star’s Love) may be played by adults or children PC, offering two different perspectives on the story.

So… what sort of audience are their games aiming at?
Most of them admit that would be a mature audience because of the serious background of the game (WarsaW), the dark atmosphere, and the literary style and references to classic works. (Crimes).
But all of them also think about a passionate audience, players sharing their desires and interests, such as Orwell’s 1984 or Guillermo del Toro’s movies (WarsaW), the Japan depicted in Masaki Kobayashi‘s or Hideo Gosha‘s movies, with heroes not necessarily less gifted but more tragic, with dramatic issues and personal dilemmas (Tenga).
Crimes‘ author guesses his game could help non-gamers interested in ending 19th century, roles and psychology to discover RPGs.

Crimes cover art by Benoît Guillaumot. Used by permission.

Are they reading and playing American and/or French RPGs? What do they appreciate and/or regret in those games?
I got very contrasted answers on that one. Only one of them actually sees American “mainstream” RPGs as blockbusters lacking maturity and originality and stopped playing them.

But there’s so much diversity in the American RPG production that they all find games they appreciate such as Deadlands, Legend of the 5 Rings, Obsidian, Angel (Wyatt Scurlock), Battlestar Galatica and Robin D. Laws‘ games (Jérôme Larré) and Dark Heresy (Yann Lefebvre).
And all of them are interested in the new “indie” RPGs from US, GB and Scandinavia and their many innovating creations such as Parsely games and Fiasco.
In the same way, the French games they like best are very recent ones, such as the other RPG from John Doe (Exil, Patient XIII which takes place in a mysterious asylum, or the wonderful “film noir” atmosphere of Hellywood), or La Brigade Chimérique about which I’ll write again.

They mostly deny the cliché and don’t find any “typically American flavor” in these games.

So it seems that the real parting isn’t between American games and French ones, but between “oldies” and new, more diverse and innovating games. Yann Lefèvre (Crimes) declares :

I like their choices, formal (new formats) as well as thematic (non-consensual topics) or artistic/narrative (new ways of writing and playing RPGs– Crimes is actually written as a game-novel).

Do they feel their games have something “typically French”?

They mostly… don’t know.

Which is a good sign, isn’t it? At least that’s how I’m feeling about that. They tried to design original games on subjects they love, and that’s the important thing.

Obviously, only one of the games (Crimes) is actually set in France. Both Crimes‘ and WarsaW‘s authors assume their games have to do with European culture and history that may not be familiar to everyone in the US. Warsaw‘s author points that

our relationship to History, both WW, occupation are not the same as [the American’s].

Crimes adopts also a very literary approach of horror and fantastic, something between gothic novels and French author Maupassant which may or may not be typically European.
Jérôme Larré (Tenga) points a few differences between the American and French RPG markets: more American players means usually wider ranges of extensions, by example.

A very special case to illustrate the complexity of the matter :

An example of the use of old photographs: the cover of the Lands of Lovecraft: Arkham extension. Image: Sans-Détour. Used by permission.

The last edition of the well-known RPG The Call of Cthulhu (L’Appel de Cthulhu in French) was published in France by Sans-Détour Editions.

But that’s not a regular translation. They changed the rules (only “dust-removing”, they say), changed most cover art, changed the formatting of scenarios…
As Samuel Tarabacki, one of the publishers, says:

Since the earliest contacts with Chaosium (American publisher of the Call of Cthulhu), we let them know we wished to (…) adapt the extensions in our own way. We gained Charlie Krank’s and Greg Stafford’s trust and were allowed to rewrite the Corebook, without betraying the game’s and rules’ spirit. We also choose to complete it with everything we thought useful to help the players entering this world.

Among the most adapted extensions are the “Terres de Lovecraft” (Lands of Lovecraft) series, whose visual identity is very original, using photographs from the 20’s and 30’s.

I’ll talk about another RPG published by Sans-Détour quite soon. Let’s say for now it has something to do with super-heroes, and the reason why they seem to be mostly American…

Tenga cover art by Pierrick May. Used by permission

You read French and would like to buy these games ?

You may download a free demo of Crimes.
If you want to buy the complete game, you’ll have to contact their shop and ask about a US delivery. They’ll probably manage it, as they often sent the game to Canada.

You’re an American RPG publisher and would like to translate these games? As the snobbish French cliché was proved wrong, you’ll probably be more than welcome… Feel free to contact them.


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3 thoughts on “The French Side of… RPG

  1. Excellent analysis! It’s great to see some exposure for our cool games to non-French speakers. Now somebody needs to do the same for our graphic novels… =)

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