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.)

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Six linked Amber Zones

I've been enjoying a bit of nostalgia following the recent Bundle of Holdings for Traveller and GURPS Traveller.

I've never had so much Traveller goodness as I do now!

Anyway, it made me go back into my files and dig out six linked Amber Zones that I wrote for a little fanzine called Cerebreton, way back in the late 1980s.

I've updated them with links to the Traveller Map and the Traveller wiki, but apart from that they're pretty much unchanged. Here they are:

AZ1: Search for the Stardrive

AZ2: The Skywhale

AZ3: The God Monster

AZ4: Where Eagles Dare

AZ5: The Derelict

AZ6: The Poseidon Adventure

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Kindle gamebooks

Over the summer I turned the free version of our Way out West murder mystery game into a book, using Amazon’s Createspace. You can read more about that on the Freeform Games blog.

Way out West's cover
One thing that Amazon made it pretty easy to do was to turn your Createspace files into a Kindle file as well. And while I made a couple of changes to the layout (largely to remove some tables, which the Kindle software didn’t really like), the Kindle version of Way out West and the book version of Way out West are the same.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about creating a Kindle version. Just because I could doesn’t mean that I should have.

I’ve read three gamebooks to date on my Kindle Paperwhite (FATE Core, The Esoterrorists and DungeonWorld), and none of them have been completely satisfactory.

In episode 172 of Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff Ken Hite puts his finger on the problem. He suggests that there hasn't been a good graphic design that overcomes the difference between the schizophrenia of a RPG manual needing to both teach the game AND be a technical reference manual.

And that problem is compounded when you read a game on a Kindle. Kindles are great for long-form reading (like a novel), but lousy for anything where you have to flip between sections (like a gamebook).

I don’t think anyone expects someone to run a game on a Kindle - instead a Kindle edition should be about teaching the game. That’s certainly my reason for reading RPG games on my Kindle. But instead I’ve had to wade through pages of skills...

So I was in two minds about turning Way out West into a Kindle Edition.

My reasoning for doing it ended up as follows:

  • I wanted to see what was involved in the process, in case I ended up doing it again. I know that’s not a particularly customer-focused reason, but it was still a reason.
  • I had already spent some time thinking about how the book would be laid out compared to the downloadable pdf files. The Way out West book is ordered in such a way that it hopefully makes sense to anyone wanting to read it from start to finish. It’s actually ordered differently to the downloadable pdfs, which are arranged according to how they needed to be printed out.
  • We really don’t expect anyone to run Way out West from the Kindle Edition. No, really. But they can download the free version for that from our website. So the Kindle edition is a taster, a marketing hook rather than the main product itself.

Having done it once, if we were to turn another of our murder mystery games into a book, I doubt I would bother creating a Kindle edition - not unless demand was unexpectedly high.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

DramaAspects for Fate

The last time I ran Fate I used Hillfolk to create “drama-aspects” for all of the characters. Well, I didn’t create them - the players did.

This is what I did and what happened.

The Crasta Demon

I’ve written a short three hour convention game for Fate Accelerated, which I ran for my regular bunch of players. The game involves members of the city guard investigating a demon.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to me to be invested in my character when I’m playing a one-shot, so I had the players do the following:

  • I asked them to describe their most recent exploit together, and I asked them what impressed them about one of their colleagues - and they could use that as an aspect if they wanted.
  • I let them choose their last stunt (I’d carefully chosen the other two stunts for them - based on what I knew was coming up).
  • And I got all Hillfolk on them.

In terms of Hillfolk, what I did was ask them what they wanted from one of the other characters (love, respect, forgiveness, power, etc), and then asked that player why they couldn’t have it. (I made sure that these relationships were evenly spread - we could have done more but I only wanted a hint of Hillfolk.)

Here’s what they came up with:

  • Captain Wickham: ‘I want Librarian Helsing’s subservience (but he thinks I’m an idiot).’
  • Librarian Helsing: ‘I want power over Private Loxley (but she won’t grant it as I’m outside the chain of command).’
  • Private Loxley: ‘I want Captain Wickham’s love (but he won’t fraternise with his troops).’

These then became one of their aspects.

Two sessions

We played the scenario over two sessions (which means I may need to trim the scenario a bit for when I run it at a con).

I let the players decide how to run with these aspects - I didn’t push them at all, except that the start of the second session I asked the players to remind me what their aspects were.

As it turned out, these aspects lead to some lovely roleplaying at times, particularly in the second session. (It’s possible that in the first one they got lost in amongst the rest of the team-building.)

Although I set them up as aspects, we didn’t invoke or compel them. They influenced play, but we could have been more mischievous; Helsing could have offered a fate token to Wickham to get him into trouble ‘because you want my subservience and you don’t want me to think that you’re an idiot.’ We didn’t do that, but it’s something I shall try and remember for the future.

(Being a short game, we didn’t have to worry about resolving any of these drama-aspects. In a longer game Loxley might have decided to leave the Watch, which would overcome the obstacle to Wickham’s love. That might then result in a new drama-aspect - depending on how events played.)

Player feedback

After the game the players told me that they really enjoyed the drama-aspects, and that they influenced how they played their characters. Certainly there were some lovely moments that only occurred because we’d set up the drama-aspects.

I’ll definitely do it again.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Convention Games

The 2000s were a bit of a desert for me in terms of tabletop roleplaying. I wrote and ran and played loads of freeform larps, but no tabletop. And while I love freeforms, tabletop roleplaying scratches a different itch, so I’ve been trying to do a bit more.

Over the last three years I've made an effort to do more tabletop. As I don’t have a regular weekly group, this has been mostly at conventions and GoPlayLeeds every month. And I've been reflecting on the difference between the games I've enjoyed, and the games I haven't.

Here's what I've learned.

Invested in my character

It doesn't seem to matter which system I play, or who the GM is, the more invested I am in the character, the better the game is. This works best when I have some involvement in creating my character. Hillfolk is supremely good at this, because my character and his/her relationships with the other PCs is developed collaboratively during the the pre-game workshop.

It doesn't have to be as extreme as Hillfolk, but please give me a bit more than a sheet of numbers. Give me some backstory, a sense of how my character fits into the world.

And let me customize my character, even just a bit. So in FATE let me decide an aspect, or choose my last stunt (from a list). The Apocalypse World games do this well.

If you do just have a list of numbers, then please spend half an hour before we start playing to flesh out our characters. Here's some examples that have worked well:

  • During my first experience of D&D5 (about a year ago), the GM had three questions for each of the players as part of the set up. The questions were tailored for each player. I was a ranger, and mine were: What was remarkable about your tribe? What is your spirit animal? What got away from you while hunting? (That last one turned out to be the best for me, and lead to a nifty resolution at the end of the adventure.)
  • On the other hand, in a recent Masters of Umdaar FATE Accelerated game, the GM got us to create a shared background by asking each player to describe a key scene from the previous adventure - which he used to create team aspects.

(Oddly, I find this very hard as a player to do this without the GM's direction. I've no doubt that says something about me, but I've not seen other players force this either. We obviously need the GM to do this sort of thing.)

Characters that fit the scenario

This really shouldn't need saying, but if you are preparing pre-generated characters, make sure they fit the scenario. If you are giving the players a choice, what happens if they don't pick the character that has the skills to make your scenario work?

More than once I've played characters that didn't fit into the planned scenarios. Unsurprisingly, they often aren't very satisfying sessions.

During play, ask reflective questions

All tabletop roleplaying games are about answering questions (‘the troll charges towards you, what do you do?’) but I’ve particularly enjoyed games when the GM has asked reflective questions such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • Who do you think is the leader of this party?

I also like it when I get to describe the outcome of my actions - so when I dispatch an enemy, let me describe the outcome. When I roll a critical, let me say what happens.

Again, this is something as players we could do ourselves. But for some reason we choose not do.

Keep to time

The best GMs know how long they have got, and leave you wanting more. On the other hand, if I’m not that engaged in a session I don’t really mind if I have to leave early.

So you need to know how long you’ve got. Do any of the players have to leave early? (This is particularly important at an event like GoPlayLeeds where the sessions don’t really have a defined length. They can run on into the evening if everyone wants. So there’s not always an obvious pressure to keep the game focused.)

Similarly, it’s best to keep it focused. A con game should be a short, intense experience - it’s not the start of a lengthy campaign. So the players should be crystal clear on what they need to do. Don’t let us wander for too long without finding the scenario.

Limited mechanics

In a four hour game, I’ve noticed that there’s really not much time for more than three sets of complicated mechanics - whether that’s combat or some other part of the game system. Combat is  particularly time consuming.

The problem for me is that the best part of a tabletop roleplaying game is when I’m not rolling the dice. I play these game to make tough decisions, to talk to players and non-player characters, and to figure out the puzzles that stand in our way. I like banter and angst and creating a story.

When I’m rolling dice I’m getting none of that.

My plan for the future

So if you’re running a tabletop game, that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.

And as I’m hoping to start running tabletop con games in the near future, that’s also the kind of thing I’m going to try to deliver...

Monday, 18 July 2016

Writing Mars Attracts

Mars Attracts is a freeform larp exploring the nature of romance and space exploration for 12 players. It was written at Peaky 2015 by Graham Arnold, Kath Banks, Graham Charles, Mo Holkar - and me.

I've just made it available online, and this is the story of how it came about.

Before Peaky

About a week before Peaky 2015 was due to kick off, Graham C posted on the Peaky mailing list that he was interested in exploring the romance side of freeforms. He explained that romance was often very mechanistic (matching cards, completing tasks) and didn't reflect what romance is really like. He also suggested using Nordic techniques (workshops and the like).

(There are a number of traditional freeform larp romance mechanics here.)

I had two conflicting reactions to that. It seems to me that there's always talk about immersion and bleed whenever someone talks about Nordic games. I don't have much experience of Nordic games, so this could be complete nonsense, but it makes me very wary of signing up to such a game. But on the other hand I'm curious to know more.

So I decided that unless something else really blew my socks off, I'd try to be part of Graham's group. That way, I could find out more and remove the risk of actually playing the game if I didn't like the direction it was going in.

And as there wasn't another game I liked the sound of more, I joined Graham C, Mo, Graham A and Kath. That was a really nice writing group - I've only written games with Graham A before, so it was nice to be working with other people. The group was really supportive, and although we all had strong opinions, we were all pulling in the same direction and it felt effortless.

Friday night - talking about romance

Once we'd formed out group, we didn't get out the computers at all on Friday (which is unusual for Peaky - I've usually started writing by 10pm). Instead we discussed what might be in a romance game, and what we thought was romantic. Here's a sample of the things we discussed:

  • We talked about when romance had worked in other games. I suggested that it was often where the players had chemistry, rather than anything that the game did.
  • The game would use player-generated character creation much like Picking up the Pieces.
  • Romance is often about making your partner feel special. Can we create that in a game?
  • We wanted to include same-sex romances. Or at least, not exclude them.
  • There would be workshops to get the group to bond.
  • We would have a honeymoon workshop/session where the idea was to make partners feel special.
  • We didn't want to emphasise sex - this was about romance, not the physical act of sex.
  • We talked about oxytocin and the chemicals of love.
  • We talked about the power of touch and looking into your partner's eyes - although we didn't do anything with either of those.
  • We talked about arranged marriages and how we might use them.
  • We talked what we might do if we were writing a traditional game, and Graham suggested Jane Austen. Thinking about that, I could imagine a "traditional freeform" with lots of different characters with different aspects of romance.
  • Everyone needed a right of veto, in case play was touching on trigger points.
  • And probably other things that I now don't recall.

But by the time I went to bed (early Saturday morning), we had no idea what the game was going to be about. We didn't know what framework or setting we were going to use for our romances.

Saturday - writing our game

By the time that Saturday morning arrived, we had a solution (which I believe Kath proposed early Saturday morning). Our game was about selecting "stable" partnerships for a mission to Mars. Our players were going to be potential candidates for the first manned mission to Mars. As the mission involved being cooped up in a small space for a very long time, partner compatibility was key, and thus this became our game.

We talked about the structure of the game for a bit, and ended up with the following.

  • Character generation
  • First workshop - training session
  • Second workshop - final few exercise (romantic partners would be in the same group, but at this stage they wouldn’t know who they were partnered with)
  • Honeymoon debriefing
  • Half hour meet and mingle
  • "Shit happens" - six months has passed and not everything is rosy
  • Resolutions
  • Self-evaluation and the decision on who is going to Mars.

(I've made it sound as if we arrived easily at the structure. It wasn't like that - we went around in circles a bit.)

We also came up with a title, Mars Attracts.
Writing Mars Attracts - overacting
for the camera

Character generation

We based character generation on Picking up the Pieces. We assigned roles to our players - these were Pilot, Navigator, Counsellor, and so on. The players then had to choose:

  • A Mars role, such as Geologist, Town planner, Poet.
  • A reason for going to Mars, such as because it's there, to become rich, to find a second home for mankind. (Each of these had a supplementary question to reflect on.)
  • Emotional baggage, such as divorced, sibling rivalry, married.
  • What they're looking for in a significant other, such as a best friend, someone to rescue me, a soulmate.

We hoped that the players would use these to inform their character. What they chose to do with their emotional baggage, or reason to go to Mars, was up to them. We weren't enforcing anything.

These lists didn't take us very long to produce - we had them complete in under an hour.

One of the things that I really don't like about some freeforms is being told how I am to play my character. Personally, that's something that I feel that I should bring as the player, and I know that I don't play "perky" or "energetic" very well. So I was keen to avoid anything like that in the lists. Happily the rest of the group didn't feel strongly otherwise.

First workshop

For the first workshop we formed small groups (that we had prearranged) for a training exercise. The groups had to decide on something that happened that had got them to bond as a team. And each group member had to tell the other members: a) what they really liked about that member and b) what they felt was would be beneficial about that person in a relationship.

The purpose of this workshop was for the players to start practising complimenting each other. We also wanted them to start forming bonds within each other, and to start feeling good about their characters and each other.

Second workshop

The second workshop mixed the characters up and we told each group that their romantic partner would be part of that group. The participants had to explain what had happened in the previous workshop, why they wanted to go to Mars, and find one thing they liked about each other member of the group. Again, this workshop reinforced the good feelings the group was hopefully reinforcing.

The players were encouraged to roleplay this as much as possible, rather than just answer questions. (Because, you know, we were supposed to be writing a roleplaying game.)

The Honeymoon

At the end of the second workshop, we told everyone who their romantic partner was, and told them they were going on a romantic trip for two weeks to properly get to know their partner.

The couples then had to spend ten to fifteen minutes answering a few questions about their honeymoon. The couples decided where they went and what they did, and we gave them questions prompting them to say nice things about their partner. Some examples.

  • Name three good things about your partner
  • What did you do to make your partner feel special?
  • What made you laugh together?

After this, we're hoping that the players will feel good about themselves and their romantic partner.

Entering the space

With the honeymoons over, it’s time to enter the simulator and meet everyone else (kind of like a cocktail party). We instructed our players to introduce themselves and their partner to the rest of the crew. This was the start of the game proper - 30 minutes of roleplaying.

Shit happens

After about 30 minutes, we planned to introduce some complications ("shit happens") representing complications that had occurred during the six months of the simulator. This was done with more bits of paper - these were things like "I think the relationship has gone stale" or "I worry that I'm not very good at my job". Affairs are often the meat and drink of a romantic freeform, and so we included the possibility for one affair, but one only (and it required two different people to choose that particular complication).

The final 30 minute session involved resolving the shit (one way or another), ideally by getting advice from another player (rather than just keeping it in the couples).

The shit happens complications were the last thing we wrote. We actually worked out the game resolution first so that we knew where we were aiming for. Once we knew that, the complications themselves almost wrote themselves.


At the end of the game we find out who is going to Mars. We did this by asking everyone whether they want to still go to Mars with their partner, how well they rated their relationship, and to draw a smiley face reflecting that relationship. If the faces on both partners were smiles - then we decided they were compatible and they were off to Mars.

So that's where we were headed with our romantic game.

Writing and printing

And that was about it. Over the course of a couple of hours we had scribbled this down on a couple of sheets of flipchart paper. It was time to type it up.

While the rest of the group typed it up (it didn't take long), I organised how the games would be run on the Sunday and who would be playing in them. This wasn't straightforward, and I think for the first time ever at Peaky I ended up not actually typing anything towards the game itself.

We (and by that I mean everyone else) printed the game on different coloured card to make everything stand out. I thought it all looked rather fine.


Organising the games wasn't easy, but when everything was done we had seven players sign up to our game. (I don't think we sold it very well - the title, Mars Attracts, probably didn't send the right message. We also had three drop-outs from Peaky by that point, which didn't help.) So with three of the writers playing, we planned for ten players.

As I said at the start, I was worried about the direction a romance game might head. Having seen it evolve, I was now keen to play it as I thought it could be something special. So I ended up playing.

Once we knew who was signed up, we needed to work out who was going to be paired up with whom. We had already decided that the romantic partnerships would be decided at the start. For example, character A was always going to be with character F, and we told everyone which group they were in for each workshop. But how to decide who gets to play characters A and F?

We ended up doing it semi-randomly. We had four females and six males playing, which meant that we definitely had one same-sex partnership. Knowing that this might be a hot-button topic for some, I checked with a couple of players first to see if they would be happy with a same-sex partner. Once they had agreed, everyone else was assigned randomly into opposite-sex couples.

Uneven workshops

Our original plan was to have 12 participants. That gave us four groups of three for the first workshop, and three groups of four for the second, and was nicely balanced.

With ten players, that became three groups for the first workshop (3/3/4) and two (4/6) for the second. (We wanted the romantic partners to be together in the second workshop.)

Inevitably the larger groups took longer to complete the exercises than the smaller groups. This wasn't ideal, and I think in future I would add optional questions in the workshop for speedier groups. I was in the larger group for one exercise, and it felt important that we finished it.

Playing Mars Attracts - creating characters

I found creating a character quite hard. As players we could choose the categories in any order, and I ended up following a particular path that made sense:

  • Mars role - I chose publicity officer as a relatively neutral role. I was tempted by philosopher, but wasn't sure I could do it justice.
  • Reason to go to Mars - to be the first
  • Emotional baggage - I can never please my family. I decided I came from a large family and had many brilliant brothers and sisters who I could never compete with. Apart from going to Mars.
  • What I'm looking for in a relationship - someone to grow old with, which I felt was one of the more classically romantic options.

I liked how my character shaped itself as I chose the cards. In the feedback, someone suggested that the emotional baggage should be random. I'm not sure if I would have liked that - I was deliberately shaping my character to help the process, and a random baggage forced on me might not have helped. But I think we can have both - if someone wants random baggage, they can close their eyes and pick one (or pick three and choose one). And for those that want to choose, let them choose.

The workshops

I know that workshops aren't everyone's thing, but I enjoyed them. I'd recently done a postgraduate certificate in leadership and management and there were similarities (perhaps deliberate) between some of the work I'd done on the certificate and the workshops. Knowing what we were trying to do with the workshops helped when it came to participating.

I liked how I changed my behaviour as the workshops progressed. For example, in the first workshop I was part of the bridge crew, and in the first workshop we agreed that we had bonded as a team during an exercise in the zero-g tank (ie underwater) that had gone wrong. The pilot said that he liked that I was very communicative and kept everyone informed during our crisis. As a result, I found in the next workshop I was more communicative than I might ordinarily be, and I shared my emotional baggage really early. (And shortly after, someone else then picked up on that and said that they liked that I was very honest.)

Honeymoon debriefing

The honeymoon debriefing was lovely. My partner (Traci) and I spent ten or so minutes building this lovely romantic story about a holiday in the Alps in summer, hiking, enjoying the scenery and sharing bottles of wine in the evening.

Some of the feedback suggested that the honeymoon could have been done in-character, and not as a series of questions. But to me, just because they were questions didn't stop me from being in-character. I never felt out of character during that session.

And after all that ego-stroking, I probably felt higher then than I did all weekend. At this point, the game was doing everything I hoped it would.

Entering the space and the meet and greet

The meet and greet/cocktail party was okay. It was a good way to meet everyone and find out who everyone was and where they had been on honeymoon, and it was a pleasant half an hour. But I'm not good at that sort of thing in real life, and I probably found myself waiting for the next session sooner than most.

6 months later and shit happens

At this point in the game, I realised that my relationship was probably more important to me than going to Mars. Mars was important, yes, but I really didn't want to ruin the relationship. So when it came to choosing a Shit Happens card, I avoided those that threatened the relationship and picked one about confidence - "I'm not very good at my job".

(There was also some discussion as to whether these should be random, as they might be in real life. Well, maybe. I'd let the players decide. While I carefully selected my complication, at least one other player picked one completely at random.)

Final session - resolving shit

I resolved my confidence issue with another player, who boosted my confidence. My partner had a bigger problem though - she'd discovered that our relationship was getting very samey. So we talked about that, and agreed that we should open ourselves to new experiences, and that it was important that we talk about issues before they become bigger problems.


Then it was just the final self-evaluation questionnaire, and the relief of discovering we were both off to Mars.

Not everyone did go. There were two couples who split up - and a new couple formed from that split. (So there were two people who didn't go to Mars from our group.)


I'm very happy with the whole experience. It was a delight to write, and a delight to play.

It can be difficult playing a game that you've written - I've found that you can end up being a background character and facilitating other people's play (because you know all the game secrets). That certainly wasn't true this time. While I think that I had an advantage in that I knew what was going on (in that I knew what to do in the workshops), it's also true that knowing what was in the game didn't help me as what happened depended very much on the other players.

From Peaky to published

As with pretty much any Peaky game, the published version isn't much different from the Peaky version.

Apart from some instructions, the only real change I made was to what I considered to be some of the sillier job descriptions (such as poet) which didn't feel right for the first mission to Mars. Personally they don't feel "realistic" to me. One player created a comedic Scientologist character, which wasn't the effect we were aiming for. I don't know if that was a reaction to "unrealistic" job titles, but I don't suppose it helped.

I would reinstate them if we changed the game to be about the first Mars colony rather than the first Mars mission. Maybe.

Beyond Mars Attracts

Some of the lessons from Mars Attracts I'd like to take to other games (and beyond):

  • I think the biggest thing that I've taken is to make romance in freeforms special. It's not just about matching cards or performing tasks, we've got the opportunity to do something different. Matching cards might be the start of it, but we can also ask our players to consider what it is about their new partner that attracts them? What are they doing that makes them feel special? Those are easy questions to ask (and this thought fed my all-purpose romance rules).
  • I should do more Yes and-ing. I was better at it when I was younger.
  • And I can imagine adapting some of the workshops for team-building exercises at work. (Probably not with the romantic emphasis, but maybe in terms of finding good things about each other.)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Secrets of the Ancients

In 1984 I left school and started university. I had discovered roleplaying three years earlier, seduced by an advert for Traveller in (if I remember right) Starburst magazine.

I was a science fiction fan, which is why I was drawn to Traveller. And what I really liked about SF were the aliens, particularly enigmatic long-dead aliens who would leave behind grand structures and other mysterious traces of their advanced civilisations for us to stumble across.

My favourite books were Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Arther C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, and Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang. My favourite thing in Alien is the space-jockey. I loved the sense of wonder and mystery. I still do: as I write this I am re-reading Peter F Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star - more enigmatic aliens with their grand structures.

So I loved Traveller’s Ancients. I thought Twilight’s Peak was amazing, although I don’t think I ever ran it. I loved the hints about the Ancients that appeared here and there through the background material. I wanted to know more.

Looking back, Traveller, for me, was about the Ancients.

I don’t remember much about how we played Traveller. I remember running Annic Nova (ooh, a mysterious alien ship), and I remember playing through Shadows (ooh, mysterious alien pyramids). But I don’t remember playing through many of the other adventures. I bought quite a few, but I don’t remember running them.

Although I loved Traveller, by 1984 I was moving away from it - I had discovered Call of Cthulhu.

Looking back on it, and with this in mind, I wonder now if Call of Cthulhu satisfied the sense of awe and wonder that Traveller wasn’t giving me. I’ve never found Call of Cthulhu particularly scary, and to me the Cthulhu mythos is often more SF than horror, full of ancient cities and enigmatic, technologically advanced aliens.

Which brings me to Secret of the Ancients. First published in 1984, it was a crushing disappointment to me for at least four reasons.

First, Secret of the Ancients was a bit of a let-down. That was perhaps inevitable, as it had been hyped for years. But even so, I wasn’t very inspired by Grandfather and his pocket universe.

Second, it felt if Marc Miller was shutting down the Ancients. It felt very final: the last Ancient  was tucked away in his pocket universe and that was that. No other Ancients anywhere. Period. So as a committed fan of the Ancients, I was never going to sign up to anything that ruled them out from the rest of the game.

Third, the adventure was such a railroad (although I probably didn’t call it that then). There are no interesting player decisions whatsoever.

Fourth, Secret of the Ancients reads more like a set of adventure notes rather than a published adventure. I know that the Traveller adventures were sparse, but Secret of the Ancients is ridiculous, particularly when compared to things like 1982’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or even 1983’s The Traveller Adventure.

Secret of the Ancients wasn’t quite the last Traveller book I bought, but it signalled the end of my days as a Traveller fanboy. I watched from the sidelines as MegaTraveller arrived and the Imperium was turned upside down. Not, from what I could see, for the better. (Although, to be honest, I didn’t look very hard.)

Time passed. I ran and played a lot of Call of Cthulhu. I ran Traveller 2300AD for a bit, I played in one of Dom Mooney’s Traveller games in the mid nineties, still one of my favourite tabletop experiences. I got some articles and scenarios published here and there. I published Tales of Terror. I got into freeform larps and even started Freeform Games, a business selling freeform larp-style murder mysteries to non-gamers.

At one point I thought writing a three-part Traveller freeform/scenario. If it was as good as the idea I had in my head, it would have been epic. It would start with a freeform, during which decisions would be made. Those decisions would then affect the next stage, a traditional tabletop roleplaying session (several games played simultaneously by the freeform players). This would then be followed by another freeform, dealing with the consequences of that tabletop scenario. My working title: Return of the Ancients… But it wasn’t to be; I never found the time.

Which brings me to Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients

While I’ve been looking elsewhere Traveller has carried on fine without me: GURPS, Mongoose, 5E… It’s fairly bewildering.

And while I’ve not been looking, Gareth Hanrahan has taken Marc Miller’s 1984 rough notes and turned them into an epic ten-part campaign brimming with wonder and awe and gives the Ancients the send off they deserve. It’s a reboot to be reckoned with.

Superficially, Secrets of the Ancients follows the same path as the original. A relative dies and leaves an inheritance to one of the player characters (I almost typed “investigator” there…) which leads to an Ancient ship deep in a gas giant and from there to Grandfather’s pocket universe.

But there the comparisons end.

Hanrahan’s adventure has more of pretty much everything:

  • More pages: The original was a 6x9 48 page booklet, the reboot 202 pages of A4.
  • More detail: Hanrahan’s version includes many non-player characters, ship plans, locations, and masses of adventuring detail. The reboot takes place over ten chapters, each taking two to four sessions to complete (according to the introduction at least).
  • More Ancients: As well as Grandfather, Hanrahan introduces Seven, one of Grandfather’s children hellbent on destroying him.
  • More secrets: Note the extra ‘s’.
  • More epicness: Seven (who isn’t your standard Droyne), augmented human agents of the Ancients, family archives, an epic trip through the pocket universe...
  • More Traveller: Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients even has time for nostalgia as at one point the adventurers end up in the Gaesh, the Kinunir class prison from 1979’s Adventure 1: The Kinunir. The Darrian star trigger (or one like it) even makes an appearance.

Hanrahan’s brilliant conceit can be broadly summed up in two words: Grandfather lied. The Ancients’ war isn’t over, but it’s now fought covertly, in the shadows. It’s a cold war, fought with augmented puppets.

In Secrets of the Ancients, the player characters become caught up in that war, as the cold war turns hot as Seven and Grandfather fight it out to the death. Only one will survive…

So there’s loads for me to like about the new Secrets of the Ancients. It pressed a lot of my buttons.

There are also a couple of things that could be improved. I found the adventure flow a bit clunky at times. It wasn’t always clear on a first read why the player characters would go to a particular location or visit a certain person. A few signposts would help, and the Ancient ship would have benefited from a diagram.

But these are quibbles. Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients is one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve read. In my opinion it’s up there with Masks of Nyarlathotep...

But then I am biased: after all, Traveller, for me, is about the Ancients.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Updating Venice

I’m curious to know what’s the least I have to do to make a game written at Peaky presentable.

I’m not talking about endless rewriting, or honing it to within an inch of perfection, but presenting the game with minimum rewriting so that others can see the kind of thing we get up to at Peaky, warts and all.

I’ve written about the Post-Peaky Writing Process before, following my update of The Highgate Club in 2010, but I now wonder if we needed to go that far. I don’t begrudge the changes I made to The Highgate Club, but maybe I didn’t have to do that much.

My thinking about this was prompted by this NZ rant. I don’t want to present the raw Peaky files (as that would be dreadful), but I want to see what can be done with a typical Peaky game without spending weeks on a rewrite.

So I thought I’d give it a go.


I’ve decided to develop Venice, a game from Peaky 2013 for 15 people that I wrote with Tym Norris and Kate Dicey. We had a bit of help from Debbie Hollingworth on the Friday night, before she had to drop out.

Inevitably, the nature of three people writing a 15 player freeform doesn’t result in a densely plotted game. Instead, Venice is what I think of as a ‘factions’ game. In this case, the factions are Venice’s ruling families, and the prize is power (as measured by status).


I can’t remember exactly what time we finished writing. But a typical Peaky Saturday include starts at 9am and finishes at 10pm, with two hour long breaks (lunch and tea). That’s 11 hours of writing each, or 33 hours. So my challenge is to get Venice into shape in less than 33 hours. (Or preferably, no more than the 11 hours I’ve already spent on it.)

First, though, I needed to work out what Venice looked like. We wrote it in 2013, and I’ve slept since then. And looking at the files in our Dropbox folder, they’re a bit of a mess. (Lots of duplicates.) So I’ve spent a bit of time sorting them out. I’ve not included that in my hourly log, as I figure that ideally I’d do this straight after Peaky and with a bit of luck I’d still remember everything.

Scope of the work

So my base plan is to make Venice presentable - which means checking on errors and typos. I am not going to write any significant new plots, or add any characters. My starting point for this is that the game as played at Peaky is just about there. (That may be an assumption too far, but bear with me.)

But because I am me, I cannot bear to leave well enough alone. So I’m making a few changes:

I want to make it easy for people to improve Venice: My plan for Venice is to stick it on the Internet and allow other gamers to download and run it for free. If they want to amend it and add extra characters, then great. I might also want to do that when I come to running it again, and I want to make it easy. (And I’m hoping that they will share their ideas as well, and help make Venice even better.)

Player involvement: I want to include a couple of ideas I had for Venice following What Happened in Blackpool. I wrote about these here, but essentially I want to let the families to decide why they hate their rivals, and I want everyone to publicly state what their overall goal is. Neither of these are big changes, but I suspect they will have an impact on play.

So here’s what I did

Checked with the other authors: I made sure that the other authors were happy with what I proposed. Happily they were.

Recreate the Information sheets: When we wrote the game, we created lots of sheets of information - for the Inquisition, the Navy, the Heretics, and the like. Because we had a bit of time, we folded these into the characters. However, because I want to make it easy to adapt and expand, I wanted them separated again.

So that’s what I’ve done.

(I understand the school of thought that wants such sheets embedded in the character backgrounds. It means that you can tailor them exactly to the character, and makes printing the game easy. However, in my experience there often isn’t all that much tailoring done (certainly not for Venice) And burying them in character sheets makes it much harder to make changes - if you want to add another Heretic, or change their objectives slightly, you’ve got to remember to change everything or risk continuity errors. It is, however, pretty easy just to stitch pdfs together if you want to create a single character sheet with everything in it.)

A side effect of this is that it makes the game very flexible. If you don’t have 15 people, you can drop one and just move the information sheet over to another character with minimal rewriting.

A sprinkling of formatting:I don’t think we had any formatting for Peaky, which is a shame as it wouldn’t have taken much (but can be a real pain when you’re juggling files). So I’ve added a light sprinkling of formatting - a nicer font, a background image for old paper (that I originally used for Pirate Island), a front page for each character. But that’s about it.

Adding a cast list and rivalries diagram: I’ve added a cast list, and player feedback suggested that we include the rivalries diagram that we used to help us write the game. So that’s been added.

Moving status rules to general rules: We had secret rules for managing the family status (all the families have a goal to maximise their status). I think it is more fun if the families can see how they can influence their status, so I’ve added them to the player rules.

Adding an introduction: I added an introduction, with the rules and notes about casting and the game timetable. I’m not expecting anyone to run the game as it is, but they can if they want to. I’ve also taken the opportunity to talk about things that could be developed further - should anyone want to.

Corrected some errors: I spotted a few errors as I went through the files. I’ve sorted those out as I’ve found them. No doubt there are still some in there.

Released it under a Creative Commons sharealike licence. This licence lets anyone publish and use Venice, providing that a) anything they do is attributed back to the original authors, and b) anything that they further develop is also released under the same licence.

I’ve done this for a couple of reasons. One, I’d like to encourage others to amend Venice to suit their taste, and this licence seems a good way of promoting that. Two, it also allows Peaky Games to publish Venice, should they decide to do so.

What I haven’t done

And here’s what I haven’t done…

Rename the characters: The family names all suffer from a bit of Peaky-itis: the Corleones, Sopranos, Capones, Montagues and Capulets. They give the right idea (powerful families), but in my opinion only the last two really give the flavour of mythic Venice that we were aiming for. The character’s first names are a bit too modern for my liking, as well. But I haven’t changed them; they’ll do.

Adding characters or plots: I haven’t added any new plots or characters. That’s deliberate, even though I know that some characters are weaker than others. (That’s another advantage of splitting out the information sheets from the characters - it becomes really obvious who the weaker characters are.)

I do think it would be very easy to add more characters or plots, I just haven’t done it. That’s not the goal of this exercise.

So how long did it all take?

I kept track of time and I reckon it took me about eight hours to do all this.

It may not be perfect, but I’m pretty sure even with no further development Venice will entertain 15 players for about 2.5 hours, which isn’t bad return on effort.

What next?

I’m quite happy at how this has turned out.

I now want to run Venice again at some point, to see how my changes to the introduction impact on play.

And given that it didn’t take me that long to do, I’m sure it won’t be long before I give the same treatment to another Peaky freeform.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Peaky 2016

Peaky is the annual freeform (larp) writing weekend held in April in Derbyshire. It is organised by Peaky Games. Games are written on Friday evening and Saturday, and then played on the Sunday. It's been going since 2001 and is my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

From what I saw, and judging from the very subjective measures of "energy in the room" and "post-game frothing,” ReGenesis looked to me as if it would be heading the pack if we had a "Best Peaky Game of 2016" award. (We don't.)

Obviously I'm biased as I was on the writing team for ReGenesis. (And two of the games I only heard about, so I could be doing them a huge disservice.)

AIs learning who they are in ReGenesis

But, for me, Peaky 2016 was also very disatisfying, and for at least two reasons.

But before I get to those, here are some thoughts on the games I played.

Trenches was written by Ben Allen, Alli Mawhinney, Ric Mawhinney, Rich Perry and is set in a trench in the grim universe of Warhammer 40K, on the eve of "the big push", a probably suicidal charge to capture an enemy stronghold. It mashes Blackadder Goes Forth with Warhammer 40K.

I played Corporal Booker, one of the unfortunate squaddies. We had a clueless commander, a scary psyker, a political officer and a whole bunch of grunts. It was dark and intense, and we filled it with gallows humour. Unsurprisingly, it didn't have a happy ending. Some died, and those who lived had an uncertain future.

Personally, I don't think it needs much more than a light edit (to make sure those unfamiliar with the background aren't left floundering). It will never appeal to everyone, but as a dark antidote to all those other cheerier freeforms, it's ideal.

Miss Maypole and the Case of the Wretched Admiral was written by Graham Arnold, Nickey Barnard, Natalie Curd, Clare Gardner, Abi Kirby, Sue Lee. Set in the same world as the 2010 Peaky game (Miss Maypole and the Christmas Pudding Affair), this game involved a 1934 Scottish country house, a dead body, mysterious rituals, a nearby Naval base and other mysteries.

I played a school physical exercise teacher who is coaching an ex-pupil to become an Olympian. I ran out of plot relevant to my character fairly quickly and gravitated to whatever interested me. I had a nice enough time though and with a bit of development it will be a fine ‘traditional’ freeform.

My biggest issue with the game came in the debrief, when the main plot that I thought was going on, the murder, turned out not to be a murder at all. (I felt not having a murder was a bit of an omission when the whole game is set up to feel like a Miss Marple murder mystery.) But it's only the first draft, and maybe they'll put a murder in. I would.


So, ReGenesis. ReGenesis was written by Theo Clarke, Tony Mitton, Tym Norris, Mike Snowden, Karolina Soltys, and me.

It concerns four scientists working on developing six humanoid AIs in an isolated Finnish complex. The four scientists have slightly different agendas, while the AIs are discovering their place in the world and learning emotions and skills... What could go wrong?

A combination of me being very tired on Friday evening (by about 9pm most of my energy was spent) and organising the Sunday game timetable (plenty of that below) meant that I didn't always fully understand where we were going with the game, and drifted in and out. (The game was inspired by Ex Machina, which I've not seen, so that didn't help either.)

Hard at work writing ReGenesis

I think my input was some proofreading of the scientist characters, a few paragraphs of text about what the scientists knew about each other, and I wrote the mechanics for the AIs learning new skills.

So although ReGenesis appeared to be a resounding success, I didn't contribute as much as I would have liked.

And it certainly wasn't perfect: our biggest problem was that the poor scientists had a multi-page character booklet to absorb and didn't have anywhere near long enough to absorb it. In an ideal world they would have had a 20 minute head start on the AIs, but that's not something we were able to give them. (We hadn't recognised beforehand that it would be necessary.)

We also have a naming issue. ReGenesis is also the name of another larp. We'll change the name of ours if we ever do anything with it. (And I’ve just learned that it’s the title of a tv series. Welrd.)

The Sunday Game Timetable

My other challenge was Sunday's game timetable.

At one point, it looked as if everything was going to be just perfect for Sunday. We appeared to have games of the right size, and enough players that everything would just slot together nicely.

Oh, how I was wrong...

Peaky had 29 attendees this year. Experience has told us to keep writing groups to no more than five or six writers (in general), and with 29 that results in five groups of five, and a group of four. (We don't always stick with this, but it's a good rule of thumb.)

Assuming that all the writers are available to play (and also want to see the game they've written being run), then that means that they will typically have about nine or ten players from the other groups available to them. If they need more players, it's up to them to source them (we usually do this by having the writers play characters).

Organising the game timetable means juggling the needs of the writers (in terms of needing players for their games) and the available players. The two don't always match.

This year, my first iteration was pretty good. Everybody would be happy - there were players enough for everyone.

And then I went to share the timetable, only to learn that five players were leaving mid-afternoon, which meant that there were only 24 people for the last slot of the day. I reshuffled the timetable and re-ran the casting, and inevitably one of the games now in the last slot did not have enough players. Unfortunately, they couldn't make up numbers from their writers, and they weren't able to drop characters at that stage (about 9pm Saturday).

We ended up with a compromise. By taking 15 minutes from lunch, the previous games, and the comfort breaks between games, we created a fourth slot and only finish an hour later than normal. This wasn't ideal - the day was even more rushed than it usually is and I think all the games could have done with longer, both during them and in the breaks.

So all this took several hours to figure out on Saturday, made me grumpy, and took me away from writing and preparing ReGenesis.

What I've learned

So here’s what I’ve learned.

A more robust process. I'm going to think more about the process of organising Sunday. It will always involve judgement and seat-of-the-pants organisation, but I really suffered this year by not having all the information I needed. So I have set up an Excel file to remind me to capture everything. (And I'm doing it now while it is fresh in my mind!)

I'm not expecting this to solve all the problems, but I want to be able to identify them early so that we can discuss them in good time.

A slicker process should mean that I spend less time firefighting and more time writing.

Visual management: I sorted out the changed running times first thing Sunday morning, and wrote it all up on a flipchart and taped that to the wall. I found it very useful, so I will do that again.

Be popular or be flexible! And when I'm writing a freeform, it needs to either be popular (which means writing a compelling description that appeals to those present) or flexible (to manage variable player numbers). Or ideally, popular and flexible.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


Icerigger by Alan Dean Foster

Nearly 40 years ago, I discovered science fiction. I discovered it through the Star Wars novelization in the summer of 1977, and I must have read it four or five times before I saw the film itself. Shortly after, I came across Alan Dean Foster's Bloodhype in the occasional school bookshop. That was my first entry into the Humanx/Commonwealth universe. Although Bloodhype isn't the easiest of reads, I was hooked.

(It was years later that I discovered that the Star Wars novelization had been ghost written by ADF.)

I guess I read Icerigger a year or so later, and I'm sure I've read it since then, but I'm sure it's been at least 25 years since I last read it. We've been clearing out junk, and I came across Icerigger and thought that before I pass it on I ought to re-read it.

Icerigger follows a half dozen humans castaway on the icy planet of Tran-ky-ky. There they encounter the primitive Tran, fight off a vast horde, encounter enormous whale slugs, build an enormous clipper-style ice ship (the Slanderscree, the icerigger of the title), and eventually make their way back to civilisation.

It's harder to read than I remember. ADF's writing style is slightly archaic, and scattered with obscure terms that I occasionally need to loo up (or more likely, just ignore). These days I wouldn't normally have the time for it - I don't like having to struggle over the writing style. The plot isn't earth-shattering, but I really like ADF's Humanx universe: aliens, mysteries, and larger-than-life characters.

The plot uses a lot of standard ADF tropes:

  • Intriguing aliens, evolved for their environments (in this case the Tran, whose claws evolved into skates and have a wing membrane that allows them to skate across Tran-ky-ky's ice). If I had a criticism of the Tran (and other ADF aliens), its that they aren't very alien - but there are few SF authors that truly manage that.
  • Immense, indestructable creatures (stavanzers, a sort of jet-propelled whale-slug). These are sometimes used as a weapon by our heroes as a weapon against another unstoppable foe (in this case against the Horde, in Midworld, one column of Akadi is used against another).
  • A journey, peppered with encounters (a lot of ADF's novels work like this - it's perhaps most obvious in the Spellsinger series).

As far as gender equality goes, Icerigger is a product of its time. There are three named female characters in the entire book - and none of them are particularly strong or have significant presence. If Icerigger was a movie, it would fail the Bechdel test.

Science fiction often underestimates advances in computing power, but this isn't an obvious flaw with Icerigger. After the first few pages, our heroes are stranded and spend their time with the primitive Tran, so I didn't miss the lack of processing power.

My copy of Icerigger was published by New England Library (NEL) in 1976 and features a cover by Tim White. One thing I really liked about NEL's treatment of the ADF novels was their consistent presentation: they used the same font and general cover design, and most of them had Tim White covers.

I enjoyed reading Icerigger again. I was initially frustrated with the way it was written, but I soon overlooked that as I became caught up in the plot. When I first picked it up, I thought it unlikely that I would enjoy it enough to read the sequels (Mission to Moulokin and The Deluge Drivers), but I'm pretty sure I will be reading them soon.