Sunday, 31 December 2017

My favourite books of 2017

I’ve read (or listened to, via Audible) 67 books in 2017. These were my favourites:

Armada by Ernest Cline. I enjoyed Ready Player One (which, with its mix of computer games, roleplaying games and Rush felt like it was written just for me) so when Armada turned up on Audible’s deal of the day, buying it was an easy decision. The story has a lot of similarities with The Last Starfighter (but the games are on a bigger scale) and Wil Wheaton’s narration is just perfect.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel. A first contact novel in which a strange alien artefact is discovered piece by piece. Unusually it’s written entirely using interview transcripts (with a very enigmatic interviewer) and journal entries. The sequel isn’t quite as good, unfortunately.

Hunting Hitler's Nukes: The Secret Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Deadliest Weapon by Damien Lewis. I’ve written previously about this.

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross. Probably my favourite Laundry Files book so far, and not only because it features scary elves attacking Leeds (which is where I live). I think the only geographical mistake I saw is the reference to the Odeon, which hasn’t been in city centre for some quite (I think it must be at least a decade since it was turned into a department store).

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. I’ve written about this previously as well.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. This was a pleasant surprise at how much I enjoyed this. I picked it up as I spotted it was cheap for the Kindle, and I’d already read a couple of others of his so I knew it wouldn’t be awful. But I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. It’s basically old people sent into space to fight, and makes a pleasant change from young kids doing all the heroic stuff. (The old people get new bodies, but retain their memories and perspective.) It turns out that I'm not the only one who liked this as it was Hugo nominated and generated a bunch of sequels. I gather Netflix may be turning it into a tv series.

The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson. Best comic book series ever, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of praise goes to Alan Moore, but I am just as much a fan of Ian Gibson’s artwork (I’ve always enjoyed his art). I resubscribed to 2000AD a year or so ago and there has been nothing recently to match Halo Jones. It’s interesting how spare the dialogue is - there’s very little wasted, and some of the modern strips seem wordy by comparison.

This was a re-read, as part of the current 2000AD partwork. It was nice to read the series in one hardcover volume, but being slightly smaller than the original and now being the wrong side of 50, I found the fonts a bit too small for comfort (so I’m not replacing my original Titan copies). Rebellion are preparing a colourised version for 2018. I’m not sure what I think of that as I really like the black and white art - I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Night Without Stars by Peter F Hamilton. Second (and final) book in The Chronicle of the Fallers, this is a huge improvement on The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which I found a little slow. I like Hamilton - he writes well and his SF is full of augmented humans and other craziness. A good place to start is the thoroughly epic Pandora’s Star (and its sequel Judas Unchained).

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. This is Helen Russell’s delightful account of a year of living in Denmark. Her husband gets a job with Lego, and they both move to Denmark and embrace the happiest country in the world. I loved it - lots of laugh out loud moments as cultures clash and they try to fit in. I wouldn’t normally have chosen something like this, but Mrs H wanted to listen to it on Audible, and I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. It’s really not a diet book, it’s instead an exploration of your biome and what it does for you and how to keep it healthy (TL;DR eat lots of veg, lots of variety, with occasional fasting). A healthy biome helps us lose weight, keeps us healthy. There are a small handful of recipes, but I didn’t read those. I preferred this over Gut by Giulia Enders as it’s easier to read, and seems more up to date.

Empire Games by Charles Stross. Excellent start to a new series in his Merchant Princes series (the one where the USA carpet-nuked one faction out of existence). The world-hoppers are back and trouble is brewing with two aggressive nuclear superpowers in two separate timelines. I don’t know if you need to read the previous series (starting with The Bloodline Feud), but I found that it helped.

So it seems I particularly enjoyed science fiction in 2017. I wonder what 2018 will bring...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

#RPG12 Q12: Looking forward to 2018

Name an RPG, setting, or adventure you haven't run or played before, but really want to try out in 2018. What particularly appeals about it?

I’ve got a few things I’d like to try - not necessarily in 2018, but they’re on the wishlist.

One hour one shots: Guy Milner has talked about one hour one shots on his blog, and I’d like to both play and run one. It would be interesting to limit myself to an hour, because I have a tendency to let the players go where they want.

Fiasco: I’ve never played Fiasco and I’d like to.

Monster of the Week: Another game I think I might enjoy. I’ve yet to play a PbtA game that has felt “right”. I’m not sure what’s not working, though.

Cthulhu Dark: Now that I have Cthulhu Dark (my thoughts on it here) I want to run it, and play it.

Follow: I intend to play Follow at some point during the year.

And two games that I’ve played, but would like to play more of:

Monsterhearts: I’ve played this once, and I’d like to play it some more.

Hillfolk: I’ve played this once at a convention - I want  to play more. If I had a regular face to face group I’d love to run it (although it feels like it has a steep learning curve - but that might just be in my imagination).

But frankly, I'll play pretty much anything.

Cthulhu Dark: some thoughts

Scaring players is hard. I've been roleplaying for over 35 years now (admittedly with some long gaps) but I can only remember two occasions of real fearfulness.

In the first, I was a player. I can't remember the details of the game, but we were playing Call of Cthulhu and we were exhuming the body of what we thought was a sorcerer. And I remember being on the edge of my seat as I imagined what we would find.

In the second, I was running Call of Cthulhu and the players were exploring the derelict half of an old mansion. There was nothing there for them to find, but I just made it as creepy and unsettling as I could. The players soon fled. I might be wrong, but it seemed to me that the players fear of what they might find overcame their boldness and they retreated to safety.

So my experience of playing and running Call of Cthulhu (and writing adventures for it) is that most scenarios involve solving a complicated puzzle - one with monsters. But they're not actually scary.

Cthulhu Dark is different.


Cthulhu Dark is Graham Walmsley's cut-down rules set for playing Lovecraftian horror. He first published them as a free pdf in 2010, and in 2017 he Kickstarted a full hardback, which I backed.

Physically, the book is lovely. It has a gloriously understated cover by George Cotronis, black and white full page illustrations by Matteo Bocci, and maps by Stentor Danielson. The text is simply black on white, with the occasional boxed text.

If I had to pick one word for it, that word would be elegant.

The rules are wonderfully simple, and distils the Gumshoe "you never fail to find a clue" system to its essence. I won't describe them - you can read them here (it will be quicker for you to read them than it is for me to explain them).

As the basic rules take up two pages in the hardback, the rest of the 190 page hardback book is taken up with a more detailed review of the rules, excellent advice on constructing a horror scenario, a look at Lovecraft's creations and how to use them in Cthulhu Dark, and four settings, each with a detailed scenario.

The Cthulhu Dark Philosophy

What the full Cthulhu Dark book brings is its philosophy (which the free pdf doesn't explain). This philosophy can be summarised by three statements:

  • The investigators are doomed.
  • Investigators should be powerless.
  • This game is meant to be scary.

There's nothing stopping you from playing Cthulhu Dark using the basic free rules and treating it just like Call of Cthulhu. But I think you're missing a trick if you do.

Doomed investigators

Most of the Call of Cthulhu scenarios that I've written can be "won" in one way or another. There's a solution, an evil to be defeated. And that's fine - I'm happy with them all.

But my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenario (of the ones I've written) doesn't have a happy ending, and that's In Whom We Trust. That scenario typically ends with most of the investigators dead or having succumbed to a foul great old one. (If you want to see what I mean, you can find it here.)

And that's the Cthulhu Dark philosophy - investigators are doomed. The mythos threats are not there to be beaten, they're immense forces of darkness. The scenarios are about the investigators uncovering a truth that dooms them. (So much closer to Lovecraft's stories.)

Next time I run In Whom We Trust, I will probably use Cthulhu Dark. (But more on that below.)

Powerless Investigators

Cthulhu Dark recommends that you play powerless characters. In his design notes, Graham Walmsley notes that this came about following his response to the usual dilettante Call of Cthulhu characters. So instead, Cthulhu Dark is full of the poor and working class.

Aside from any social commentary, I do think that taking power away from investigators increases the fear and horror. I approve of that.

As example, Alien features powerless working-class space-truckers, and is exquisitely scary. Aliens, on the other hand, is filled with powerful space marines. Aliens is a thrilling ride, but Alien is the scarier of the two.

And if you don’t like the idea of powerless characters, there’s nothing in the rules preventing you from playing the usual dilettantes if you want.

This is a scary game

Cthulhu Dark contains 38 pages of Director’s advice about creating a scary game. That’s something that was missing in Call of Cthulhu (although as I haven’t seen the latest edition, maybe that’s changed). Still, I’ve not seen such advice elsewhere. Such advice includes:

Lovecraftian Threats: There are no statistics in Cthulhu Dark’s list of monsters. Instead it is much more interesting and instead includes discusses how the threats might be used in a story. Cthulhu Dark limits itself purely to original Lovecraft (no Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath here), but also pushes that limit by including less obvious threats like the rats in the walls and reanimation solution.

Creeping horrors: Creeping horrors are “unexplained, unsettling moments of weirdness, which repeat throughout the mystery.” Their purpose is to unsettle the players. Cthulhu Dark suggests creeping horrors for each of the threats, such as the stink of the sea (deep ones) or sudden darkness (shining trapezohedron).

Themes: Themes are the topics that a scenario explores, what it’s really about. Again, themes are suggested for each threat. Suggested themes for the elder things are doomed civilisation and imitation (in relation to shoggoths).

Scenario/story design: Cthulhu Dark’s story/scenario advice is superb - I think it’s the best I’ve seen. This section covers themes, creeping horrors, locations, final horrors - and more. And it’s then followed by a way to look at your potential story from different perspectives. For example, The Descent suggests imagining your mystery as a descent into darkness. I am now tempted to go back to some of my old Call of Cthulhu adventures and “darken” them. (And I don’t think for a minute that’s as easy as just removing the stats.)

London 1851, Arkham 1692, Jaiwo 2017, Mumbai 2037

I have previously stated that I don’t like reading backgrounds, so for me, the four Cthulhu Dark backgrounds are mercifully short.

The backgrounds are London 1851, Arkham 1692 (written by Kathryn Jenkins), Jaiwo 2017 (a fictional African country written by Helen Gould), and Mumbai 2037. So that’s two “standard” horror settings, and two unusual horror settings. I was pleased to see that Cthulhu Dark omitted the usual 1920s and 1930s settings; I think enough has been written about them already.

Each background is 10-20 pages long, including a full page map. Over half of the background information is given to typical investigator occupations, and ideas for making sure their occupation is relevant in your mystery.

The occupations themselves are unusual - so the London 1851 setting includes cleaners, costermongers, mudlarks, housewives and toshers. Not your usual RPG characters then.

The rest of the setting provides enough to be able to run a game, and there’s a bibliography for each if you want to dive deeper. From my perspective, that’s just about enough background for me - if I need more I can look it up (or make it up).

The mysteries

Cthulhu Dark contains four mysteries: Screams of the Children (London 1851), The Doors Beyond Time (Arkham 1692), The Curse of the Zimba (Jaiwo 2017), and Consume (Mumbai 2037).

The scenarios are all equally doom laden as the investigators work their way to the final horror. There are no happy endings for anyone. I think they’re great, with Screams of the Children and The Doors Beyond Time standing out as the creepiest.

I also like the fact that the mysteries are usually longer than the setting material. That’s the right mix of setting and background in my opinion!

However, I have two criticisms of the mysteries.

The first is that, for a book with “Cthulhu” in the title, none of them use any of the threats described in the rules. I actually think that the mysteries are all the more effective for that (and I can’t really complain about not using mythos creatures - I’ve done that myself). But it does seem odd that none of the mysteries in Cthulhu Dark uses the threats (with the exception of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “man-faced rats” in The Doors Beyond Time).

My second criticism is layout, which doesn’t look as if it will help actual play. Cthulhu Dark is laid out in elegant blocks of text that are somewhat stark and minimalist. I really like it for most of the book - but not the mysteries, which need to be easier laid out so that information can be quickly found during an adventure. Here’s an example page:

Okay, I admit that I chose a particularly bad page here, but that’s not how I like my scenarios to be formatted.

I’ve not tried playing any of these - but if I do I’m going to have to make lots of highlights and notes to make it easier to run.

From Call of Cthulhu to Cthulhu Dark

I really like Cthulhu Dark - it’s a simple elegant system and next time I run a Call of Cthulhu adventure I’d like to use the Cthulhu Dark rules.

Which of course I can - I can use them for exactly that. (And I probably will, as I’m not as familiar with Call of Cthulhu as I once was.)

But I think I’d be missing out on Cthulhu Dark’s philosophy of personal, doomed horror.

So I’ve been thinking about running In Whom We Trust again. And while I could run it exactly as written using the Cthulhu Dark rules (it is almost systemless as it is), I feel that if I did so I’d need to add creeping horrors, themes and think about what rolling a 6 means. I then started thinking about more structural changes to suit Cthulhu Dark’s philosophy, but then I may as well write a new mystery from scratch.

The fifth mystery - and a nagging problem

As part of the Kickstarter, Cthulhu Dark includes Mo Holkar’s As Good as a Feast pdf, a mystery set in dust bowl America that, again, doesn’t use any of the Lovecraftian threats. It’s laid out just like the mysteries in Cthulhu Dark itself. I don’t know if it will be available separately.

However, it was as I was reading As Good as a Feast, something else started to nag at me: all the mysteries are basically the same. All five are basically railroads where the investigators start to discover something untoward and are slowly drawn in before facing an evil entity. I don’t mind that as a storyline in itself, but I would have liked to have seen some variety. Maybe that’s what happens when your mysteries feature doomed, powerless, characters. But I hope not.


I really like Cthulhu Dark. It has done something few other games have done: it’s changed how I think about roleplaying. Before, I didn’t really find horror roleplaying scary. As I’ve said before, most gaming really isn’t scary at all - horror or otherwise.

But Cthulhu Dark has given me the tools to create unsettling, creepy games. And while I may use Cthulhu Dark’s elegantly simple ruleset, I suspect I will find those techniques creeping into my other games as well.

My biggest complaint is that about the sample scenarios/mysteries. I would like to see some variety, so maybe I won’t change In Whom We Trust too much. I like its current structure, but I think I can darken it and make it more unsettling.

As for the layout not being easy for me to run, maybe that’s just me. After all, I have read reports of people running the scenarios successfully. So perhaps I should get over myself and just run one.

When I do, I’ll report back here...

#RPG12 Q11: My stand out RPG play experience of 2017

Talk about a particular stand out positive experience of playing (rather than running) an RPG in 2017. What was it? What was so good about it?

My stand-out positive roleplaying experience of 2017 was playing in Neil Gow’s The Children of Gaia at Furnace. This was Werewolf the Apocalypse using Fate Accelerated, and was probably the most cinematic game I’ve ever played.

We had a mission that mattered (saving the world from the Wyrm) and a beginning, a middle and an end. Neil sprinkled cut-scenes throughout the game that described the impact our actions had on the world and helped make the whole session seem epic.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

#RPG12 Q10: Mobile phones, the internet and modern day RPGs

Mobile phones and the internet in an RPG setting in the modern day world (perhaps with fantastic elements): discuss. What possibilities do they open up? What, if any, issues come with them when it comes to RPG scenarios?

The modern day (with a weird or dark twist) is my favourite RPG setting, for two key reasons.

Familiar background: I don’t need to explain the modern day to the players - we all know what that means. So that means the games can concentrate on the game and whatever weirdness has been added.

Unknown: I like the fact that history isn’t yet written in the modern day. This was always a problem I had with historical Call of Cthulhu games - particularly “global campaigns to save mankind”. They never meant anything because we knew how history played out. It wasn’t real. That safety blanket doesn’t exist in a modern day game, and that’s why I prefer modern day games.

It’s hard to keep up with the modern day though.

Technology changes so fast that what I think of as modern day soon becomes a historical setting. We’ve had to set some of our murder mystery games in particular years, even when I think of them as modern day, because technology has moved on so much in the few years that they’ve been written. (For example, a game where a video tape is a key prop sets the game 10-15 years ago at least, even though I think of it as a “modern day” game.)

I guess to me, “modern day” means at any point during my lifetime...

Anyway, over the summer I ran a modern day urban fantasy game - so it had smartphones and everything else. The PCs used smartphone tracking to trace a suspect’s movements (I hadn’t planned for this, but it wasn’t an issue as they could have used magic to trace the suspect, and I expected that might be an option).

At one point the PCs decided to arrest a suspect in the middle of London Millenium Bridge in broad daylight. We ended the session with the arrest, and we started the next session with the arrest all over social media. I then worked out what the bad guys would do with that knowledge, assuming that they had seen it.

So the modern day - pros and cons. But for me the pros outweigh the cons.

Friday, 15 December 2017

#RPG12 Q8: Scenarios

Talk about your typical approach to preparation for running an RPG. Is there a particular method you generally follow? What use do you make of published setting or adventure material, if any?

I almost always run my own scenarios. I can’t remember the last time I used a published scenario. I think that’s because I don’t GM often enough to be run out of my own material - I’d need to GM much more than I do.

I also don’t find published scenarios easy to run - I’m usually mining them for ideas instead (which was one of the reasons I did Tales of Terror).

These days I run mostly one-shots, and I aim to run them at conventions. When I GM at a con, I feel that I am on show, and that I need to give the players a good time. So I put more preparation into them than I used to when I had a regular gaming group. I only need to know the basics and some characters/opponents worked up, but I’ve usually done more than that. (For example, I’d pretty much written The Crasta Demon as it is before running it for the first time.)

One thing I always forget to do is have a list of names to hand. I really should learn from that.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

#RPG12 Q7: RPG Mental Blocks

Is there an RPG genre which you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks. What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?

I can’t get over the fact that superhero stuff is, basically, silly. But I’ve never really liked superhero comics, so it’s not really my thing.

And I don’t really do the murder-hobo thing. I like my actions to have consequences (so be warned if you end up playing in one of my games). But that does mean that as a player I tend to be looking for the “realistic” option when perhaps I should be thinking of the murder hobo option.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

#RPG12: Q5 Historical Games

You’re running a historical or alt-historical game. What place and time in history do you choose? Are you including fantastical elements of any sort, and if so, what?

The Ring of Brodgar
I always prefer to run modern day games because I’m mostly lazy, and the modern day sorts out most of the background for me.

But having said that, I want to develop a game set in Neolithic Orkney. It will be set around the time that Maes Howe, the Ring of Brogdar, Ness of Brogdar and so on were occupied. It probably would have fantastical elements, simply because I don’t think I’d enjoy doing something without fantastical elements.

If I didn’t have the odd ghost or monster then I’d probably have to obey my impulse to make it more “authentic”, which means doing way more research than I can really be bothered with. But fantastical elements would be low key and rare.

The other problem with being too realistic is dealing with slavery and the role of women. (Okay, that’s two problems.) There’s no clear evidence of neolithic slavery, but as an armchair observer of human nature it seems likely to me that neolithic man probably took slaves. After all, someone had to construct all those stone monuments… So I’d need to treat that carefully.
Ness of Brodgar, 2016

As the role of women, I think I’d have to just ignore the fact that women would most likely be spending all their time at home being pregnant and raising kids. (Again, the view from my armchair suggests to me that it is very unlikely that neolithic times were a period of great equality.) I don’t think making the game “realistic” would be that much fun, so my neolithic tribe would be a paragon of equality.

Skara Brae
My current thoughts are that the PCs are vying to become apprentices to the tribal shaman, but that’s pretty much as far as I’ve got.

(Orkney is amazing though. You really should go.)

Bonus answer: English Heritage

I love visiting English Heritage properties - castles, earthworks, Roman fortifications, stone circles (and a cold war bunker, in York). Their guidebooks are full of useful information - and maps.

I’ve often thought that it would be cool to set a simple RPG scenario at such a site. My idea would be a lightweight RPG containing pregens and simple rules, plus a scenario set at the location. If you wanted to make it educational you would make it historical - but if you just wanted to use the location then it could be fantasy.

I often use such locations in my games. The Crasta Demon’s climax uses Dunstanburgh Castle, I used Lindisfarne Castle in The Bone Swallower, and I'm currently weaving the York Cold War Bunker into another scenario.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

#RPG12 Q4: A character

Tell me about your character in an RPG you’re currently playing, or have played this year.

I’m currently playing Kozlov Artemovich, a sniper in Jon Freeman’s flintlock fantasy Shardland game. We are “wolves”, which makes us like elite guards, or something.

I’ve included a DramaAspects in my character: I want Neshka to teach me the words of command (but she won’t because she doesn’t know if I’m yet worthy). So far, my experience of DramaAspects with my players has been a bit hit and miss, so I figure it’s time to try them out myself. I’ve tried to pick one with potential - and as Kozlov has just been attacked with magic I’m going to take this up with Neshka and see what happens.

Jon isn’t aware of this right now, but I’ve also created three NPCs (because this) that Kozlov knows: a gunsmith, a trapper (who taught him to shoot), and a street urchin. I’ll try and bring them into the game at some point.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

#RPG12: Q3 Fantasy settings

You’re building a fantasy setting for the RPG of your choice. Which ingredients do you put in? Which “standard fantasy” elements would you choose to leave out?

The fantasy work that The Craster Demon is set in (I’ve never come up with a name for it that I’m completely happy with) is inspired by a Rodney Matthews painting (The Granite Curtain - in Last Ship Home). It’s also a moebius strip, and has some other oddities. There’s a kind of twisted logic in that I know what’s going on (I guess in a way the whole world is almost a giant puzzle.)

It’s more Westeros than Middle Earth. Mainly humans - no elves, orcs, dragons or hobbits. (I threw some goblins into The Craster Demon as an easy first encounter that I didn’t have to explain, but I’ve never been happy with that decision.) Magic tends to be rare. The world is magical, but there aren’t many magic users.

Anyway, that scratches my fantasy itch; I can’t imagine creating another fantasy world.

(And if you're wondering what happened to Q2, I skipped it because I didn't have anything to say.)

Saturday, 2 December 2017

#RPG12: Q1 New Players

In the spirit of RPGaDay in August, Paul Mitchener has started an alternative set of daily RPG questions - the Christmas dozen, one every two days. His argument is that 31 questions is too many (and for me, August is holiday month so it's doubly bad).

Even so, I've found 12 questions fairly challenging. I think I'd prefer one a month...

You’re running an RPG to introduce new players to the RPG hobby this month. Which game and genre do you choose, and why?

Although I don't do it often, I love introducing new players to the hobby. But, I find that I do put myself under a lot of pressure to make sure that they have a good experience. The last thing I want the game to be is a disappointment. (It’s a bit like running a convention game in that sense.)

And I’d always run a one-shot to show off roleplaying, rather than drop a new player into a campaign. (Not that I run campaigns these days…)

So while the system is easy (Fate Accelerated - it’s my current go-to system, it’s simple, and character sheets are easy to parse) the genre depends on who they are.

If I felt that the players were up for fantasy, I’d run something like The Craster Demon. If I thought they would be more likely to enjoy urban fantasy, then I’d run an Other London adventure for them. Both of these are my own settings, and both are things I’m comfortable running.

I have a feeling that Ben Robbins’ Follow would be a good introduction to roleplaying, but I’ve yet to play it.

Looking back

And having said that, I thought I’d look back at what I’ve done when I’ve run games for new players in the past.

In the dim distant past, I have used Call of Cthulhu as in introductory game. Call of Cthulhu has lots of bonuses - it’s set in the “real world”, so that removes a lot of the learning and geekiness (which was more of an issue back in the day). And everyone understands horror. These days I’d be more likely to run Cthulhu Dark than Call of Cthulhu, simply because Cthulhu Dark is simpler (although I need to get a few games of Cthulhu Dark under my belt first).

Megan's first character sheet
The first game I ran for Megan, my daughter, was Faery’s Tale. But she was only five - and I was targeting the game to my audience. (I ran a rescue scenario. Megan played a fairy who had to rescue Jack from the giant in the clouds, and she invented a "mechanical Jack" that would replace Jack so that they could escape. I was so proud.)

On the other hand, I ran the D&D starter set for my two nephews Ben and James and their father, Simon. This must have been about the time of D&D v3, and  we were in Travelling Man in Leeds and, out of the blue, Simon decided to buy the boys the D&D starter set for Christmas. I quickly read up on it overnight, and the following day we played through the introductory adventure.

As an introduction to D&D it was really good, although it wasn’t really what I think of as roleplaying (too much combat).

Shameless self promotion

Way out West
Looking slightly beyond the table, I set up Freeform Games with Mo Holkar to bring freeform style roleplaying games to normal people. We don’t tell people that they’re playing a roleplaying game, because we don’t want to scare them off.

But I estimate that most of our customers are new to roleplaying, so I think that counts.

If you'd like to find out more, you can get a free murder mystery game (Way out West) by signing up to our newsletter.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Over the Edge: too many words

My formative RPGs were Traveller and Call of Cthulhu. While Traveller now has a vast background, at the time when I first started playing (in 1981) it didn't.

Both games are mainly character creation and rules, and in Traveller's case I learned about the Third Imperium from snippets here and there from the adventures, supplements and the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society.

So it never really felt like learning lots of background. It was just stuff that I learned as I was going along, and it was never hard work.

(Call of Cthulhu obviously uses real history, mixed with the monstrous. There's a small amount of backstory regarding the war with the elder things and shoggoths, but that's in Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness rather than the rulebook.)

And the other contemporary games of the time (the early 1980s) were mostly the same. AD&D was just rules. Tunnels and Trolls, and GURPS, likewise. I never played RuneQuest or Empire of the Petal Throne, the two background-heavy RPGs of the time. 

Somewhere along the way (I guess in the mid 1980s with the arrival of Skyrealms of Jorune and MERP) increasingly detailed backgrounds became vogue. I remember in the 1990s remarking that I didn't like reading RPGs because they had too many words.

On reflection, it wasn't that they had too many words. After all, I still read novels.

But I really didn't want to have to learn another set of complex rules that didn't really change how the games are played. As far as I could see, there really wasn't that much difference in terms of the Chaosium system, the Traveller system or the AD&D system. They were all rules that just governed whether you succeeded at doing something, and one was pretty much like another.

At the time, I was also heading towards simpler systems. I realised that most dice rolls in RPGs were just answering a yes/no question, and I ended up running my games with players rolling two dice to see what happens. At the time, this was a bit weird. Now I run Fate Accelerated, which has a little more structure, but not much.

I also didn't want to have to learn a complicated new background - not when I could have just as satisfying games set in worlds I already knew.

I guess I don't have the temperament for system or background mastery.

Twenty years later

Twenty years later, my views on RPGs haven't changed.

I know this because I recently bought Over the Edge (OtE) and various supplements from Bundle of Holding. I had high expectations because OtE has a great reputation, but I'm afraid I found it full of words.

OtE rules: surprisingly complicated

Character generation was okay, although more fiddly than I was expecting. The simplicity that I recall from the reviews at the time (3 traits and a secret) is complicated with fiddly rules for hit points and optional rules for experience dice.

The rules were also more complex than I expected. The rules for most things are fairly simple - roll some dice to beat a target number, where both the target number and the dice you roll vary (but not by much). But combat, inevitably, takes up several pages and contains range tables and special cases that, for me, do not appeal at all.

Background: blah blah blah

Then we hit the background, and goodness that's a pile of text I will never, ever read. There are descriptions of people, factions, places and more. There are maps, and room-by-room descriptions of some key locations. Some of these are annoying - such as the room-by-room description of a hotel. I know what a hotel looks like - what I really need to know is why this one is different.

(It's this kind of thinking that lead me to create Tales of Terror, which is nothing but story ideas.)

I know a lot of people like this sort of stuff - and it leads to system/setting mastery which is a draw for some. But for me, mastery is in simplicity - what is the least I have to do to run a compelling game session. I'm all for being prepared, I can improvise most things as long as I know the key points. But that's all I really want - the key points. Unfortunately I found the key points buried in OtE.

To be clear, I don't mind learning background. But I want to do it as I'm doing something else (enjoying a novel, watching a movie, reading or playing a scenario), not as an infodump.


For me, OtE also suffers for not being clear as to what the PCs are up to. I suspect it's a product of it's time (and was also a problem with Traveller and, to a degree, Call of Cthulhu) so I think this is only something I'm noticing from 2017. I suspect that most of my games these days are convention one-shots means that I'm looking for more direction here than OtE was ever going to provide.

To be fair, OtE does have a go, by encouraging players to give their characters reasons for being on Al Amarja (OtE's fictional Mediterranean island). But that's something that needs to be done as a group, and for me I'd rather the game was narrower in scope and gave player characters a defined role.

So overall

So there we go. Over the Edge has too many words for me, but I accept that I'm a bit unusual in that department.

Maybe one day I will play it, but I'm unlikely ever to run it.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Addicted to World of Tanks Blitz

I have just uninstalled World of Tanks Blitz (WoTB). Again.

My brother introduced me to WoTB a couple of years ago and I’ve been playing it on and off ever since. I find it ever so addictive, and what happens is that I install it, play it a lot (and become quite grumpy when I do), and then uninstall it to break the habit.

And then, a couple of months later, I reinstall it again...

So I was extremely interested to listen to Adam Alter's Irresistible, which talks about behavioural addiction of various forms, including computer games.

Alter defines addiction as something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term — but that you do compulsively anyway. (It seems that most of us have a behavioural addition of some sort.)

Six ingredients

Alter says that: "Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections."

I know I find computer games addictive. I always have. (For example, last time I uninstalled WoTB I found myself playing Star Realms over and over on my tablet.) But WoTB seems particularly insidious - and that may be because it includes all of Alter’s six ingredients..

For example:

  • Compelling goals that are just out of reach: Grinding to get the next tank, playing in events, trying to complete missions.
  • Irresistable and unpredictable positive feedback: the various medals, achieving mastery in a tank (which compares your performance against everyone else’s).
  • A sense of incremental progress and improvement: the slow rise in win rate, learning maps and player behaviour, learning each tank’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time: Climbing levels is easy to begin with, but takes longer and longer as you climb the tiers.
  • Unresolved tensions that demand resolution: I must complete that last mission, I've lost three games in a row, just one more before I quit.
  • Strong social connections: Platoons, clans, team chat, in-game friends.

A rare mastery for me
So WoTB is designed to be completely compelling, and I’ve been suckered. (My wife is less enthralled, to say the least.)

I think there’s an additional factor to addiction - and that’s appeal. For example, despite being highly addictive, I’ve never smoked. It’s never appealed. WoTB, on the other hand, is all about something that’s fascinated me since childhood: tanks, and WW2 tanks at that.

Undermining my long-term wellbeing

I’ve already mentioned that WoTB can make me grumpy, but there are other things it does to undermine my long-term wellbeing.

Playing WoTB means I spend even longer on the computer than usual and can interfere with my sleep (especially when I was playing it on the tablet - I now won’t play it after 9pm). It also stops me from doing more positive things, such as writing or playing boardgames.

At least I’ve stopped playing it on my tablet - that gave me headaches and tense shoulders as well...

Making it harder

Alter’s advice to overcome a compulsion is to make it harder to get to the thing that’s addictive. I thought that by moving it from the tablet to the PC would help that, but it turns out that I just spend more time on the PC instead. (Worse, I find the PC controls much easier than the tablet…)

I’ve tried using a kitchen timer (or my phone) to limit my games and avoid the "just one more game!" syndrome. That only works occasionally, and the best solution is to completely uninstall WoTB, but that means not playing it at all - and I like playing WoTB.

So I haven’t figured out a good way of managing my time while it’s installed. The best thing is to uninstall it, which is what I’ve done.

But I have no doubt I will install it again at some point...

Further reading

Click here to read a New York Times article on Irresistible.

And here’s an extract from Wired.

And relatedly, a piece by Google’s “design ethicist”.

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.


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.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Peaky 2017

After a slightly shaky start, Peaky 2017 was the easiest Peaky for me for a long time. Here’s what happened.

Upper Rectory Farm Cottages, home of Peaky

Six games

Six games were written and tested. Here’s what we wrote.

  • Second Watch SF horror on a space tug,. For 10 players.
  • It's Everybody's War 1940s English village, war propoganda. For 13 players.
  • The Apocalypse Agenda Torchwood meets Laundry Files meets Warehouse 13. For 12 players.
  • Luck be a Lady 1950s Las Vegas "Come for the show, stay for the mushroom cloud". For 12 players
  • The Root of all Evil Pressures of money and blood. For 12 players.
  • Mean Street Inspired by Dollhouse and set in the future. Come and play in the mean streets of 1920s New York. For 12 players.

I’m sure most of these will be developed further and will get a second or third runs.

A shaky start

The shaky start I mentioned happened on Friday night, when it seemed to take an eternity to sort out the games we wanted to play. We started off with over 30 ideas - more ideas than we had players.

Inevitably, it took a while to work all that out, but by 9pm we were done (quite a bit later than usual).

Second Watch: the writing

I co-wrote Second Watch, along with James Bloodworth, Alli and Ric Mawhinney, and Laura Wood. I’ve not written with any of them before, and James and Laura were both newcomers to Peaky (and this was only Ric’s second Peaky).

Laura had pitched an SF horror game, so we kicked around ideas involving Alien, Prometheus, Event Horizon, Sunshine, and similar movies. We ended up with Second Watch, where the relief crew awakens from cryosleep to discover that the First Watch is missing, and things aren’t quite right…

Writing Second Watch was a delight. It seemed really easy - I think that was because from the very start we had a strong idea of what we wanted to do. Sometimes at Peaky the writing groups take a while to form behind an idea, but this seemed to just fly.

It went so smoothly that we were done by 9pm on Saturday evening, which left me plenty of time to finalise Sunday’s running order (more on that below) while the others played games. I went to bed at 11pm, relatively early by Peaky standards. (I had had a dreadful night’s sleep the night before, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.)
Second Watch, all printed out and envelopes stuffed

Playing the games

Second Watch was the first game on Sunday (up against It’s Everybody’s War) and seemed to go really well. Despite a few of the inevitable glitches, the game seemed to go really well and we got some good feedback. We’ll take that on board and improve it for the next time (possibly Consequences).

The main things items we need to address are:

  • The queue for the GMs, we need to get the players to self-manage more of the investigation.
  • More and stronger links between characters. (I could say that we didn’t have time to write that - but hey, we finished at 9pm instead. It wasn’t a critical loss, but more links would have been better.)
  • The ending. Personally, I was hoping for a very downbeat ending where surviving players have to decide between several miserable options - but the players confounded us. Must do better next time!

The Apocalypse Agenda was written by Emory Cunnington, Ann De Vries, Max De Vries, Martin Jones and Tony Mitton and was a mash-up of Torchwood, the Laundry Files and Warehouse 13. I played a military chaplain from Section 13, clearly based on the Laundry Files. During the game we met two other teams and were forced to work with them, which led to some nice tension (as we all came from very different organisational cultures).

The Apocalypse Agenda went really well. It was split into several scenes, with short intermissions between. It seemed quite action packed and intense - it would clearly benefit from longer than the two hours that we had at Peaky. (The writing team did admit that at the start, so we were warned.)

A couple of things need a bit of looking at. The team-building workshop didn’t quite work, which made me wonder why. It was fun to do, but I don’t think it had the intended effect. (It has made me think about workshops and how to make them work in a freeform context. I’d like to see a good example.) And I think a bit more could have been made of the differences between the groups when we were supposed to be bonding.

Sunday’s final game (for me) was Mean Street, written by Nickey Barnard, Nick Curd, Philippa Dall, Clare Gardner, Megan Jones, Max Powell. Inspired by Dollhouse, Mean Street included strong themes and involved some abused characters.

I played Joey, a cigarette seller and I don’t want to say too much. Mean Street was intense, and the time seemed to fly by. My main concern is that towards the end of the game, I didn’t have any story left - once my character had worked out what was going on (and as a player I had worked it out sooner - but I had a good time playing being confused), then there was little I could do to influence things. It wasn’t a problem in a two hour Peaky game, but might have been a problem if the game was longer.

I didn’t experience It's Everybody's War, Luck be a Lady, or The Root of all Evil but it sounded like they went well.

The gender agenda

The gender agenda was more prominent this time at Peaky, notably with the presence of three members of the LGBT community. Emory produced a very useful Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity Cheat Sheet, which clearly explained how diverse diversity really is.

That had an interesting effect on the writing:

  • In Second Watch, we decided to make all our characters genderless. In keeping with the genre, we just used last names throughout.
  • My character in The Armageddon Agenda, if I remember right, didn’t feel sexual attraction to anyone (I can’t remember the technical term). Along with all the other characters, I had a gender neutral name.
  • All but one of the characters in Mean Street were gender neutral, but they had a nice touch of putting “he/she/they” underneath the character names on the name badge. As a player I got to chose my pronoun.
  • I didn’t play the other games and I don’t know what the impact was, but from a distance they appeared to have the more usual freeform gender split.

I found the gender agenda quite thought provoking and I’ll write more when my thoughts are a bit more coherent.

Game wrangling

Game wrangling was a huge improvement compared to last year. I think that’s because of three things:

  • I checked with everyone early to find out when they were due to leave. (And we didn’t have any last-minute drop-outs, thankfully.)
  • I worked out in advance that on average each group could expect 11 or 12 players, and I made sure that everyone knew that. (Everyone took note, happily.)
  • After last year I put together a spreadsheet that let me work out the options, and that worked really well.

So that was Peaky 2017. Still my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

Approaching Peaky