Saturday, 15 July 2017

Looking back at Tales of Terror

I first published Tales of Terror in 1990.

Tales of Terror was put together using an Amstrad PCW 8512. I had bought one in 1986 or 1987 to write my dissertation. While I did use it for that, I also discovered a joy in writing that I didn’t know I had. That eventually led to Tales of Terror (and many things beyond).

The idea from Tales of Terror came from my delight in Call of Cthulhu’s elaborate handouts. For me, Call of Cthulhu was the first rpg that made good use of handouts, but one thing that I found slightly irritating was that it was always clear when you found a handout - you could tell from the fact that it had been copied from the book.

As a Keeper I liked the idea that you could drop other handouts into a scenario that might lead to other places. I envisaged a product that was almost entirely handouts (newspaper cuttings, extracts from books, letters, and so on), with some simple ideas for where the handouts might take you. (When I look back on that now, I wonder if that was really a sensible idea. As a player I might have found it very frustrating.)

From there, that lead me to the Tales of Terror format. (The idea of three different variations I took from Traveller’s 76 Patrons.)

That’s why the first edition features so many newspaper cuttings and book extracts. Over time, I realised that they weren’t necessary, and they’re rarer now.

Garrie Hall was my co-conspirator with Tales of Terror, and he helped with the printing. Garrie had produced a small-press fiction fanzine called Tales After Dark. As luck would have it, Garrie lived in Loughborough, where I was studying at university. I liked the feel of Tales After Dark; its glossy card covers gave it a veneer of quality that was lacking in many rpg fanzines of the time. We used the same printer for Tales of Terror and printed 250 copies.

I did the art in the first edition, inspired by Lynn Willis’ silhouettes in Call of Cthulhu. I didn’t like later editions of Call of Cthulhu that had detailed picture of the entities. Silhouettes left plenty to the imagination, and let me fill out the details. So I took the same approach with Tales of Terror.

Pulling it all together and getting it into print was one thing. Selling it was another. I’m not very good at selling. I sold a few by post, I sold a few at Convulsion, and I sent a whole bunch to John Tynes to sell via Pagan Publishing.

I sent a couple to Chaosium, just out of courtesy. I got a nice letter from Lynn Willis, followed by a scary letter from Greg Stafford telling me I’d infringed their trademark. That caused me a sleepless night or two before it was resolved, but it seemed that Chaosium thought that Tales of Terror was a professional publication, rather than the not-for-profit small press zine it most definitely was. (Mark Morrison suggested I should consider it a compliment.)

Pagan Publishing persuaded me to edit two more volumes, one in 1996 and one in 2000. All I had to do this time was put the words together. They took care of the layout and the sales. That was easier, but looking back I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not.

In 1994 I got my first web-space, and one of the first things I did was create a Tales of Terror website. That’s now defunct, as is the website that followed it. I am now slowly populating a new Tales of Terror website using Blogger, here. If you want to keep up you can follow it via RSS, or my Tales of Terror Google+ collection.

I still write the occasional Tale, but only two or three a year, just to keep my hand in. My most recent was The Old Quarry.

As for the future, I will continue to populate the new website with all the old Tales, and I will continue to write new Tales now and again, as the mood strikes me. But a new collection? I’m not so sure.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Knee Deep in Doom

I’ve just finished listening to 2003’s Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner and read by Wil Wheaton. I couldn’t stop listening to it - I was even kicking everyone out of the kitchen so that I couldn’t continue to listen while I did the washing up. (It’s not something I can listen to when Megan is around - the language isn’t very age appropriate.)

Anyway, I really enjoyed listening to how John Romero and John Carmack met, created some astonishing games, and then self-destructed. And it got me thinking about Doom again.

Doom was released in December 1993, but I don’t think I played it until 1994. My first PC was a 486-66 DX2 (if I remember correctly). I bought the parts from a shop in Armley and, with my good friend Richard’s help, built it. I bought it so that I could play X-Wing, but it wasn’t long before I was also playing Doom.

Richard introduced me to Doom (and X-Wing and many other games as well). He was always a lot better than me, and we played cooperatively at first - he helped me learn the levels.

I loved the shareware levels, Knee Deep in the Dead. We played them over and over. We didn’t often play much deathmatch - Richard was so much better than me that it wasn’t that much fun. I’ve never really liked deathmatch (which is particularly interesting given the prominence that it had in most of the Doom community, at least according to Masters of Doom).

I didn’t enjoy the later levels of Doom (The Shores of Hell and Inferno) as much as the shareware levels. To my mind they weren’t as attractive, nor as memorable. They’ve sort of faded in my memory into a bit of a flesh-coloured blur. Doom 2 I really liked, and was one of the many millions that bought it as soon as it came out in September 1994.

Masters of Doom describes the t-shirts the designers bought themselves with the Doom logo on the front and “wrote it” on the back. I remember seeing Sandy Petersen at Convulsion in July 1994 wearing one of those t-shirts, and thinking how cool that was. (Wil Wheaton does a great Sandy Petersen impersonation.)

I also remember Sandy saying that each of the Doom levels was designed to be playable from scratch on ultraviolence. That added a new dimension for me - each levels was a puzzle to be solved. Sure, they were easy enough when you started a level with all the weapons from the previous level, but starting with just a pistol? That was a new challenge.

With Doom 2 I really started noticing how the levels were designed, with the ever more powerful weapons leading you through the levels.

It’s interesting that Masters of Doom comments that while Sandy’s levels were fiendish, they weren’t as pretty as those designed by John Romero. That’s something you can see in Knee Deep in the Dead - Sandy’s only level (the finale, Phobos Anomaly) is difficult, but not as visually appealing as the previous levels.

My favourite Doom 2 memory is playing level 15 Industrial Zone (I think) cooperatively with Richard. We were working our way through the levels and unexpectedly encountered a cyberdemon. It’s not there when you play single player. We lured it into the respawn area where it killed us. We respawned, fired a few shots with our pistol before it killed us again. And again. And again. On and on this went. I don’t know how long it took us to take down that cyberdemon with just a pistol, but our corpses filled the area.

I tried Quake, but didn’t get on with it. It was a too brown, the controls were too hard to use, and and it just seemed like Doom but harder.

I played a few other first person shooters. I enjoyed Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D. I enjoyed the story aspect to Half-Life, but I missed having discrete levels to play through. My overall favourite was Dark Forces 2, which (for me) blended levels with story perfectly.

But that was the end of first person shooters for me.

I pretty much stopped playing computer games altogether in 1998. They were taking up too much time, and I was finding them a little too addictive.

(Since reading Masters of Doom I have found shareware Doom for android. It’s a bit fiddly saving a game as you need the keyboard, and as I can’t figure out how to call that up mid-game I’ve been using my bluetooth keyboard. But it works and it’s as fun as I remember - although the controls aren’t as intuitive as they were on the PC.)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Eating our own dogfood

I recently played A Will to Murder, and I wrote about it on the Freeform Games blog.

Mo described this on Facebook as me eating our own dogfood.

Ugh.

I do feel that playing A Will to Murder is a lot more enjoyable than I imagine eating dogfood is.

Unless you're a dog, of course.

(Monty, our 7 month old golden doodle would probably disagree with me. He likes dogfood. On the other hand he's never played a murder mystery larp, so I could be wrong.)


Saturday, 10 June 2017

Swallowing Bones

I’ve just finished running The Bone Swallower, a one-shot urban fantasy investigation using Fate Accelerated set in what we have called Other London. The players were members of Desk 17, responsible for investigating “other” crimes, and they had a missing person to chase down.

Overall, the game was a success. I had a good time, and from what I could tell my two players enjoyed themselves, there was some good banter between the players and also the NPCs.

Anyway, here are some thoughts.

Setting: I loved running a game in Other London. The setting was originally created by my good friend Jon Freeman (and Jon was one of my players this time around). Back when he created it (in the late 90s I think) it probably would have been considered unusual, but these days London-based urban fantasies are everywhere. Anyway I really enjoyed playing in Other London and creating my own, slightly weird urban fantasy.

Jon tells me that he found it interesting seeing my take on characters he had created (I reused some that I had encountered previously), and he was kind enough not to criticise me for doing it wrong.

(And I’ve only just realised that I put a green witch into Greenwich. That pleases me.)

My one-page introduction to Other London Desk 17.

Pregens: My players seemed to like the pre-generated characters that I’d created. I designed the pregens so that the players could tailor them to suit (partly inspired by these). My experience is that allowing the players to tailor the characters gives them more ownership than they might otherwise have.

The only problem is that the players chose neither of the two combat-facing characters, and I knew that there was combat coming up. (I prepared the scenario assuming that I would have four players, giving them five characters to choose from there would always be one fighter.) It wasn’t a huge problem, as I just dialled down the difficulty of their opponents.

My pre-gens are here - my players chose Gunn and Ironwood.

Timing: It wasn’t a real test of the scenario, but it took too long to play. We completed it in four sessions. Each of our online sessions is two hours long (I’m strict about finishing on time as we play on a school night), and in that two hours there’s a bit of chatter and catching up, so we didn’t play for eight solid hours. Probably more like 6-7.

Most convention games are fairly linear, and as an occult investigation I’d planned a clue trail and various scenes. However, to hide its linearity I'd thought out some alternative routes and some optional scenes. The players didn’t need to visit every scene, but because I was happy to let them go where they wanted to, they did end up in a couple of scenes I would have skipped if we'd been at a convention.

Overall, we ended up running nine scenes (with two combats). I think I could drop three scenes easily - but balanced against will be having more players. Will more players make the scenario run quicker or slower? I don’t know and I need to test.

One thing I can do is plan out how long I expect the scenes to take, and try and keep to schedule. I’ve never done that as a GM, so that will be interesting to try.

Fate Accelerated: I like the simplicity of Fate Accelerated, but even having played it a fair bit I still  struggle with approaches. I’m finding it hard to unlearn skills.

The other challenge I have with Fate is that I often forget to use my GM’s Fate tokens. I need to get better at that. I should probably give myself a rule to use them as soon as I can in a scene, rather than save them and end up not using them.

Having watched the recent Tabletop Fate Core episode, I’ve discovered that I don’t play Fate the same way as I tend to keep the system in the background. But I don’t think that matters, and I subscribe to Risus’ most important rule: there’s no wrong way to play.

Online Play: I don’t know if this is normal, but every time I’ve played online we’ve typically had 3-4 drop outs each session, where one player has to log back in. It doesn’t seem to matter which system we’re using (we’ve used Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook messenger).

But other than that, online play has been ideal, particularly when we’re located in different parts of the country. (But it will never replace face-to-face play…)

What next for The Bone Swallower? I need to run it again, probably at GoPlayLeeds. And if that works then I will run it at Furnace or Continuum or both. And at some point I will make it available in some format or other.

What next for Other London? We enjoyed The Bone Swallower so much that we’ve already started on the next case: Murder of a Templar.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hunting Hitlers Nukes

I have just finished listening to Hunting Hitler's Nukes: The Secret Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Deadliest Weapon, Damien Lewis' gripping account of the SOE operations to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant during WW2.

The book accounts in detail operations Musketoon, Grouse, Freshman, and Gunnerside - the allies missions to stop Hitler's atomic bomb programme. Musketoon, Grouse, and Gunnerside involved injecting a small number of SOE agents into Norway (by sea or air), them trekking across the wilderness before executing their mission with surgical precision.

Several things struck me:


  • The achievements of everyone involved - and how young they are. I was aware of this with my Dad, who was a Mosquito navigator. It seemed as if he had two lives, one during the war and one after. I know events in my lifetime haven't been anywhere as tumultuous (thankfully), but even so it's humbling. (I often feel this when I read WW2 histories.)
  • Grouse and Gunnerside makes for a great RPG scenario. A small team, a clear mission, a dramatic location, huge consequences, plenty of obstacles. It would be easy to turn this into a Star Wars scenario.
  • How effective a small group of commandos can be in tying up other troops. Thousands of German troops were shipped into Norway following Gunnerside, effectively hunting just 11 men.
  • The complacency of the German defenders.  Why didn't anyone say, "Okay, so we've got this precious installation - I want you to take a squad of troops and spend a couple of months trying to infiltrate it. Let us know what you learn." Or "Imagine you're the British and you want to stop this extremely well guarded train carrying heavy water from reaching Germany, using only a small number of undercover agents. How would you do it?" (But that maybe hindsight, of course. That and I’m a gamer.)


Anyway, very enjoyable.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Limited Words

I love writing, but I don’t have unlimited words. So I tend to abandon my blog when I have other projects on the go.

So here are some recent projects that have distracted me from writing anything here:

The Peckforton Papers: I proposed a couple of ideas for The Peckforton Papers, a larp project. Both were accepted. While one paper was ‘just’ a revamp of an old article, the other was a discussion about Peaky, and completely new. The first draft of both are finished, I’m letting them rest for a week or two before revisiting.

Murder of a Templar: I’ve been really enjoying running The Bone Swallower, an urban fantasy Fate Accelerated game recently (although for various reasons we haven’t played for about six weeks now so it’s not quite finished). So part way through, I started thinking about the next installment, and because I like to prepare by writing out the scenario, that’s just what I’ve done. I’ve hit a bit of a stumbling block, which I’m currently working through.

The Reality is Murder: This is the current game I’m editing for Freeform Games. It’s a game that was submitted an embarrassingly long time ago, and I’ve finally decided to pull it together.

The Peaky Files: Volume 1: I’ve just finished putting this together for Peaky Games. It contains three complete freeforms and you can buy it from Lulu. (This is the only one of these four projects that I can say is actually finished…)

Stuff that I want to write about, but need a bit of headroom before I can fit them in: the gender agenda and freeforms (which follows on from Peaky), attention and addiction (I’ve recently read Irresistible, and I’ve had to uninstall World of Tanks), my house rules for board games, reflecting on The Bone Swallower (when we’ve finally finished), a review of Solo Build It (for Great Murder Mystery Games and then here).

And some stuff coming up that may distract me from that lot: Getting Sword Day (a freeform) into a publishable form, editing When in Rome (for Freeform Games), developing Second Watch (the freeform I co-wrote last Peaky) for Consequences, Volume 2 of The Peaky Files.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A return to convention GM-ing

This summer, at Continuum 2016, I ran my first tabletop roleplaying game for complete strangers for absolutely ages. I can't remember the last time I did that - in the late 90s, I think.

So I don’t run tabletop games often enough to be completely relaxed about it.

I have slightly higher standards when I run a con game compared to running one at home. At home I’m with friends and family, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. And while a con game doesn’t need to be perfect, I do expect to bring my A game when I’m running at a con. Players have paid to be there, I’m putting on a show. Things had better be slicker than at home.

I know, all of that is in my head. I’ve played in as many average con games as I have great, and I’ve conveniently ignored that fact that usually GMs don’t get much of a reward. (Perhaps the deeper question is why, as a player, don’t I always bring my A game to the table? That’s a thought for another day.)

So all that adds up to a whole heap of unnecessary and self-inflicted pressure, which is why I don't run many games at conventions. If I did more, I think I’d be more relaxed about it, which is why I want to do more. (So a bit like presentations then…)

(And yes, I have the same nerves with a freeform. Despite two and a half decades of experience, knowing that it will all turn out okay, and players can be trusted, I still experience pre-flight nerves.)


So I eased myself back in gently and I ran one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenarios: In Whom We Trust. I first wrote this as a tournament scenario in 1996 (twenty years ago!) and it concerns an expedition in the Amazon. It’s a mashup of Arachnophobia, Outbreak and The Thing - and once it gets going it pretty much runs itself. It’s also been played a whole bunch of times at other cons, so I know that it’s pretty solid.

I ran it on Sunday morning, which isn’t the best time to be running Call of Cthulhu, but was the only time I could do to fit in around everything else I wanted to do.

I had six players, which was the most I can reasonably handle. For tabletop, I prefer no more than five (and three to four ideally - but that’s a bit too high a GM:Player ratio for most cons). I don’t think six players was a big problem and I tried to ensure that everyone had enough of the spotlight.

I learned a long time ago (before Gumshoe came along) that investigators can’t solve the mystery if they don’t have the clues, so I don’t make players roll to find the handouts. Except, for some reason I’d left something in the scenario that you could only find on a successful roll. Succeeding wouldn’t have changed anything, apart from adding a bit of colour (and possibly mystery), and after they’d failed the roll I kicked myself. So I’ve now edited that out: the next group will find everything...

Apart from that minor glitch, the game appeared to go well. I don’t think anyone was actually scared, but things went from bad to worse and there was a frantic shootout in a mysterious temple. I had three survivors, which is a pretty high for In Whom We Trust.

In terms of how I ran the game, I noticed that I had to stamp on my instinct to ask the players to roll dice for trivial actions where failing the roll wouldn’t have been interesting. For example, if a door was locked I didn’t make them roll to see if they could unlock it or break it open, I just let them succeed with whatever action they were trying to do.

Do as I say or do as I do?


In a previous post I talked about what I thought made for a good convention game experience as a player. So measured against that, how do I think I did?

Invested in my character: I could probably have done better on this. I used the original characters, which were just basic Call of Cthulhu characters. Each did have a goal that ensured they kept with the scenario (rather than turning and fleeing like any sane person). The only activity I asked of the players was, after they had introduced themselves, for them to state out loud who at that point they trusted. I’m not sure if that had any impact on play, but the players gamely complied.

Characters that fit the scenario: Yes, absolutely. I wrote the characters specifically for the scenario - they all have goals driving them forward into the mystery.

During play ask reflective questions: While I like this as a player, it’s not a GM habit for me yet. Must try harder. I could have asked, part way through, who they now trusted.

Keep to time: Yes, no problem here. I had a three hour slot and we were done in just over two hours. I heard later that the players were amazed that we’d fitted so much into only two hours, and I think they were pleased to have a longer break between this and the next game.

Limited mechanics: With only one real mechanic-y section (the shootout at the end), perhaps that’s why we finished so soon.

So overall I’m pretty happy. I need to ask more reflective questions, and maybe think about other ways to get the players invested in their characters. That’s not something that “classic” Call of Cthulhu was that good at - and I’ve not seen 7th Edition.