Thursday, 27 October 2016

The last five books

Prompted by this blog post, I've been thinking about how I find new authors and where I buy my books. I must admit that I'm not great at finding new authors - I tend to rely on old favourites rather a bit too much. So I thought I'd look at the last five books I bought (and I'm pleased to say that three of them were by new authors to me).

Anyway, here are the last five books I've bought: the why and the where.

Gut by Giulia Enders

Why? I've seen Gut in bookshops before, and there have been enough hints on some of the health programmes on television that have piqued my curiosity. So I was always going to get this (or something like it.)

Where? I bought this from Paragon Books in Sidmouth, a small independent bookshop. I must admit that I don't normally buy paperbacks (I'm too fond of my Kindle Paperwhite), but I know the owner and I wanted to support him.

So what did I think? I don't read too much popular science, but I found Gut fascinating. I've suffered in the past with a dodgy tummy, so it was about time I learned more about my gut. It's a great book for some choice quotes to share, but maybe not at the dinner table.

Gut is the first book that I've ready by Giulia Enders, so a new author to me.

The Fifth Witch by Graham Masterton

Why? I've been reading rather a lot of urban fantasy lately, largely because I've been thinking about a London-based urban fantasy game and I'm mining the genre for ideas. Overall, I'm finding urban fantasy a pretty mixed bag - a few gems with an awful lot of dross. The Fifth Witch, however, isn't urban fantasy: it's horror. And frankly after all that teenage angst it was a pleasure to read about some really nasty witches.

Where? I bought this for my Kindle, via the BookBub newsletter which sends me daily bargains. I probably wouldn't have tried it if it hadn't been cheap. I can't say it was brilliantly written, but I did enjoy it.

So what did I think? A bit of a guilty pleasure. I can't claim it was brilliantly written, but I liked the evil witches.

Graham Masterton is hardly a new author, but this is the first book I've read by him, so he counts as new to me. I'd read another one.

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones.

Why? A few weeks ago I received my character hint for Across the Universe, uk-freeforms' next weekend freeform. Rupert Venables, from Deep Secret, is one of the inspirations for my character and so I thought I'd better read it.

Where? I bought this from Amazon, for my Kindle.

So what did I think? From what little I know about Across the Universe, this novel appears to be share a lot of the same concepts. It will be interesting to see what they use. As for the book itself, I enjoyed it overall, although I found the story flagging towards the end. I'd try another by Diana Wynne Jones (maybe even the next in the series).

And again, Diana Wynne Jones is new to me.

The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

Why? I've been reading Christopher Fowler for decades, and I really enjoy his doddery old detectives, Bryant and May. This is twelfth in the series - although the detectives turn up in his other books as well (such as Soho Black).

Where? I bought The Burning Man from Amazon, for my Kindle.

So what did I think? I was always going to like The Burning Man, and so I did. I wouldn't start my Bryant and May journey here, though, I'd start with The Water Room the second in the Bryant and May series. (The first in the series, Full Dark House, has too many flashbacks and in my view needs to be read once you understand the characters.)

The Truth about Employee Engagement by Patrick Lencioni

Why? I've read quite a few of Patrick Lencioni's management books, and they've never been anything less than good. This was one that I hadn't read yet. (And technically I read Three Signs of a Miserable Job, which was the book's original title.)

Where? I listened to this via Audible (so Amazon, again).

So what did I think? Again, I enjoyed this. It's never rocket science, but Lencioni's advise is always straightforward and common sense. And as they always say about common sense, it's rarely that common... I'd recommend Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team first, though.

Looking back

This is fairly representative of the stuff I'm reading (or listening to) at the moment. Some genre fiction (fantasy and horror in this case, but often urban fantasy and science fiction), and some business/management/psychology stuff. Gut is probably the odd one out as a) I didn't buy it from Amazon, and b) I don't read that much popular science.

There are more new (to me) authors in this selection than normal. I am normally more of a creature of habit and I tend to return to the authors I know.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Crasta Demon

Dunstanburgh: my inspiration
for the castle in The Crasta Demon
"Ah there you are, Captain Wickham. I need you to take Senior Librarian Helsing here up to Crasta to investigate a reported demon. It’s probably nothing, but take Crowe, Loxley and Brikk with you. I’ll expect a full report on my desk on your return."

And so The Crasta Demon begins…

I wrote The Crasta Demon for the Furnace XI tabletop roleplaying convention using Fate Accelerated. Set in a fantasy world called The Great Circle, The Crasta Demon uses pre-generated characters because I find that works best for conventions and one-shots.

With five characters it took about three hours to play, with a fifteen minute break. We spent the first twenty minutes on character creation, including creating some DramaAspects (as I’ve named them).

The Crasta Demon: scenario, pre-gen characters and background.

If you enjoy the scenario, I’d love to hear about it.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Furnace XI

The Garrison
Last weekend I had a wonderful time playing tabletop roleplaying games at Furnace XI, held in Sheffield’s marvellous Garrison Hotel. As usual I drove down and back each day, but this year for a change I actually ran a game.

Here’s how my convention went.

Slot #1: Fate Accelerated

This was my slot - I ran The Crasta Demon, a  Fate Accelerated demon hunt set in my own fantasy background. I had a full group (five players) and we finished just about on time, with a fifteen minute break. Everyone looked like they were having fun, and they threw me some curve balls that I had to think about, so that was good.

I tried out my "DramaAspects" again, and again some players took to them and some didn't. I'm certainly going to continue with it.

Because I knew that time was likely to be tight, I didn't roll the dice much, Instead, I assumed that all the bad guys would always roll zero on their Fate dice (actually the most likely result anyway), and that speeded up combat as I always knew what my result was.

There were only a couple of things I would do differently next time, both of which concern preparation rather than my running of the game:

  • For Fate pregens I would give each character five useful stunts, and let the player choose three.
  • I would give each character the rules summary and the background summary (which Richard did for his Owl Hoot Trail game).

Anyway, I'll post the scenario on the blog when I've made a couple of minor amendments to it.

Slot #2: Owl Hoot Trail run by Richard Lock

I played Tuco, a taciturn orc gunslinger in this fantasy Wild West game. Our mission was to find a railroad engineer and save the day from an evil railroad rival. While I took the name from Eli Wallach's character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I think I was channelling the Man With No Name as I pursued a shoot-first-don't-say-much-at-all policy.

I'd not played Owl Hoot Trail before, and I put my character in significant peril early on when I called out my arch enemy to a duel. It was the right thing to do storywise (him being my arch enemy), but I didn't realise quite how badly it could have gone until much later. Luckily the dice were with me.

I liked the character packs (character sheet, map of Perdition, rules summary) that Richard provided - I will do that next time.

Slot #3: An early night

The biggest downside of not staying on-site is that I miss the Saturday evening slot. But they have a habit of dragging on into the early hours of the morning, and I know I wouldn’t be safe driving back.

The upside, on the other hand, is that I see my family instead, and I was so tired on Saturday that I ended up with a relatively early night.

Slot #4: Spirit of 77 run by Matt Nixon

I played Father Nick ‘The Priest’ James, a tattooed martial artist, and one of four deniable government black-ops assets. Our mission was to capture a triad leader in the top of an office building, which we accomplished after wading through dozens of mooks and causing untold property damage.

Very enjoyable, although once again I found myself slightly dissatisfied with a PbtA game. I’ve now played three PbtA games (Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and now Spirit of 77) and in each case I’ve come away thinking that I’m missing something.

I don’t think it’s the system itself, as from what I can see it should be right up my street. Instead, I suspect that in each case it has been my lack of familiarity with that particular variant, and how the GM is running it; each time I’ve played convention one-shots, which probably doesn’t help.

In this case, although I was playing a tattooed martial artist, my reading of the character playbook suggested that he was more effective in battle using his revolver. So that’s what I mostly did. It was only at the end of the game, when I mentioned this, that Matt pointed out how effective my martial arts skills could be. It wasn’t that clear to me from the playbook, and I think if I were playing a second session then I’d be more likely to play the character ‘properly’.

Slot #5: Shadow Hunters run by Declan Feeney

I played Claudia Hawk, a vampire combat medic (and yes, that went about as well as you might expect). I was one of six members of a team of government demon hunters – except that we were the clean-up crew hoping to break into the big time. Our adventure involved encountering the kraken at Hoover Dam, demonic possession and a strange ritual at a roller derby. Shadow Hunters is ‘supposed’ to be a comedy-horror roleplaying game, but Declan played it straight, with full-on angst for some of the team, and it was all the better for that.

I found the Demon Hunters system a bit frustrating. It’s a Fate hack, but in my view it’s not an improvement. It seemed much more complicated, and I spent much of the game wondering why they didn’t just use Fate or Fate Accelerated.

Over for another year

So that was Furnace XI. Overall a huge success – I played in some great games, met some new people, and I didn’t disgrace myself running Fate Accelerated.

Here’s looking forward to next year!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

In Whom We Trust for Call of Cthulhu

In Whom We Trust was the last Call of Cthulhu scenario that I wrote - although to be honest it’s almost system-less and there’s barely any reference to the Cthulhu Mythos.

I originally wrote it for the Call of Cthulhu tournament at Convulsion ’96. Since then it has been played a number of times and suffered a variety of edits.

In Whom We Trust was also used as the RPGA tournament scenario at GenconUK 2001.

Anyway, here are the game files:

Friday, 30 September 2016

Eat Well for Less

I am fascinated by Eat Well For Less, an undemanding BBC1 television programme in which Gregg Wallace (him from Masterchef) and Chris Bavin (who I’ve not seen before) show how a family can save money from their weekly shop. Usually the advice works along the lines of buy own-brand labels, and don’t buy prepared food, and the results can often be a saving of 60-70 each week.

I’m not always sure how much they really save. Sometimes in order to make the savings as shown, the families need to shop at four different supermarkets - clearly that’s unlikely to happen (you’d spend more on petrol than you would save).

But I’m mainly interested in the taste tests. Most of the time, it turns out that the families cannot tell the difference between branded food and own-brand food. And it turns out that they can save a significant amount of money by swapping from Coke to a supermarket’s own brand.


Studies have shown that there’s more to our perception (including taste) than just the taste sensation. Pepsi beats Coke in a blind taste test, but Coke beats Pepsi when people know what they are drinking.

From what I can tell, nobody is exactly sure why. I’ve seen a couple of theories. One theory suggests that Pepsi is slightly sweeter than Coke, which helps it in the taste tests. But that extra sweetness is its undoing in the long run as most people don’t want to guzzle litres of something very sweet.

However, I think my preferred theory is more about identity (and marketing). When you drink a Coke, you are buying into the Coke ideal, as promoted in all those sun-kissed adverts filled with beautiful people. Drinking a Coke makes you feel good, more so than drinking a Pepsi.

(Other research shows that branded painkillers are more effective than unbranded pain-killers, so there’s clearly some cognitive dissonance going on somewhere. This seems to be related to the placebo effect that puzzled me recently.)

Which is why I think that it’s harder to give up something like Coke, if that’s what you drink. It would be like giving up on your identity.

I suspect the link is less strong for something like canned tomatoes.

I’d be really interested to see Eat Well For Less revisit the families to see what the long-term changes are, but I’ve a feeling that’s outside the scope of the programme.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Current projects

These are my current games projects.

Death on the Gambia for Freeform Games

We changed our layout for our murder mystery games a few years back, introducing 8-page character booklets. Some of our older games are still in the old format, and as Death on the Gambia is one of those, I'm bringing it back into format.

I may also add a couple of characters. I want to add Aggie Marbles, a detective character who originally appeared in The Night Before Christmas and Dazzled to Death, but whom we have since added to Murder at Sea and others. And because she's a good guy, I probably need to balance that by adding a scoundrel as well.

I'm currently targeting early October (for the re-format - adding extra characters will take longer).

Sword Day for Peaky Games

Sword Day is one of my favourite games from Peaky, and I've been nagging the writers to publish it for ages. As I was becoming impatient, I asked them to give me access to the files and I would take it as far as I could. so that's what they've done.

Mostly I'm formatting the character sheets, and noting gaps (I have a list of questions).

The GM notes remain outstanding - things like the game timetable, instructions for preparing, and notes about the plots. The authors didn't need those (as it is all in their heads), but for everyone else they are essential. I will put a structure together, and leave gaps that then shouldn't take too much time to fill.

I should have that done by the end of October (at which point I'll need to go back to the authors).

Bubbling under

You could say that these projects have stalled, but it's truer to say that as I don't have unlimited time to work on this stuff. Typically I can only handle two projects (one of which is for Freeform Games) at any one time.

So these are simmering away in the background and will get their time in the sun when I have space.

Peaky Games Vol 1: Tornadoes, Swords and Pebbly Island

This is the next book of Peaky Freeforms. A few years ago I put together three books, each containing one game. The idea was that we'd sell them at conventions to support the Peaky Writing Weekend, but for various reasons that hasn't happened.

Following Larps from the Factory, I thought about creating a collection of Peaky freeforms, and this is the first one. So far I've got Small Town Folks and An Ecumenical Matter (both of which are already available for sale), and when Sword Day is read I'll drop that in.

So that's waiting for Sword Day.

Tales of Terror

Earlier in the year I tried to resurrect Tales of Terror, but as often happens with Tales of Terror, things stalled. I've got two things planned for Tales of Terror. The first is to get all the old tales from the website onto the blog, and the other is to turn my Tales in to a book.

Neither of these are high on my to-do list.

Other London

Other London is an urban fantasy setting that my good friend Jon created back in the 90s. It was a bit of this and a bit of that, and I've always thought we should turn it into a setting of some sort. As we're both fans of Fate (and Fate Accelerated in particular), and we like the worldbooks that Evil Hat have been putting out, we're starting to explore what an Other London worldbook would look like.

I'm very aware that the world is awash with urban fantasy games and settings, but maybe we've all got a fantasy heartbreaker inside us somewhere.

A Neolithic Fate Accelerated scenario

I spent a happy week on Orkney this summer with the family, visiting Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Stones of Stennes, the Ring of Brodgar (right), Ness of Brodgar and lots of other ancient monuments.

I hadn't realised until I visited Orkney quite how close these sites are to one another, and that got me thinking about running a scenario of some sort set in Neolithic times.

If I can get this to work I may run it at GoPlayLeeds or Furnace next year.

Other Freeform Games work

I also need to reformat Snow Business and Happy Birthday RJ, so these will follow Death on the Gambia. Or I might resurrect The Reality is Murder, a game that I'm supposed to be editing (but haven't worked on in years).

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Do placebos work if you don't believe in them?

Yesterday I watched the glucosamine trial on BBC's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (which I saw on iPlayer) with interest as I am currently taking glucosamine for a bit of joint pain in my knees.
The detailed trial results are here, but the essence is that 50% of the trial group did a simple strengthening exercise (with 80% success rate), the other half of the trial took a supplement (with 55% success rate).

55% is still pretty good, but at the end of the trial it was revealed that the supplement was in fact a sugar pill - a placebo. They weren't taking glucosamine at all.

So I then wondered about the supplement half of the trial. Did their joint pain immediately come back, now that they knew that they had been taking a placebo? Or did it stay away?

The programme didn't answer that, but a quick Google search revealed this article in the Guardian, which talks about research that placebos seem to work even when patients know they're taking a placebo.

(I also found this article criticising the study on the grounds that because the subjects were told that placebos have a powerful effect, they were lied to and effectively manipulated into believing that they would - and as a result the placebo effect kicked in.)

Which makes me wonder what's going on. It seems clear to me that there's something psychological going on, but is a case of "This nice man in a position of authority is telling me that this sugar pill works, therefore it will."? Or maybe "Because I am doing something about my pain I am therefore getting better."

Or is it something else?

One thing I haven't seen is whether placebos work if you don't believe in them. So for that 45% of the trial, why didn't it work for them? Was it because the pain was too intense, or was there something else going on?

(As for me, I'm trying the exercises as I'd rather not take a supplement if I don't need to. We'll see how that goes.)