Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.


James Spahn moans about being respected as a GM here. It boils down to

  • People didn’t turn up on time
  • People didn’t bother to learn the rules, after I put effort into making it easier for them to do so
  • People came with their preconceived notions about the game that weren’t aligned with everyone else’s
  • People didn’t say thanks

We don’t know whether “people” is more than one person, a repeat offender, or just a generic “that bloke” indicating a type of ingrate who turns up from time to time at your table. And I think we can all sympathise with (a) how awful these people are and (b) the need to vent. The question is, what comes after the venting?

If it’s nothing, if you just want to let off steam but otherwise have no desire to effect change well, that’s your prerogative — but this shit will happen again, guaranteed. Whatever the social circumstances that led up to this point it boils down to one fact: the person you’re cross with does not value the thing you value as much as you do. Above all it’s a failure to empathise, which may be benign or malicious. It’s 100% repeatable, because most people you meet will fail to share your values in some way or another.

You may want to do something about it. What you do can be either passive or active. Passive actions might include writing a blog post and hoping your offender reads it and has enough (a) intelligence to realise you mean them and (b) enough empathy to care. Active steps are confrontational, and could be empathetic appeals (“when you do this, I feel…”) or transactional (“if you don’t stop/start your behaviour, I will…”). The active steps are an ultimatum, setting down the stakes for change vs no change. For empathetic appeals these are around bad feelings and loss of integrity of relationships (with the DM, or with the other group) and for transactional ones, it’s about loss of service (i.e. get the fuck out of my game).

All of these actions, passive or active, have a cost. And the cost of taking action vs. no action is what being a leader is all about (and I don’t know exactly what James means by “a DM worth their dice bag” but I’d say leadership comes into it).

Every hobby will have unpaid or underpaid leaders — from organising charity cake sales to book groups to RPGs to martial arts. And leaders will generally do their unpaid work for two reasons:

  1. They desperately want something to exist (an event, a game session, a project), and are prepared to pay their own time to make it happen, or
  2. They want fame or recognition for being a leader and/or expert.

These two are complementary and most folk will sit on a binary axis between two extremes. And all leaders have to decide whether some combination of 1 plus 2 are equal to the effort they put in. If it’s not, they should stop what they’re doing (bitching and moaning to sympathetic ears isn’t payment, it just offsets the cost in the short term).

Back in 2002 when I became a HEMA instructor, what did I want? If I’m honest, it was the second one. I wanted recognition from a sub-culture I was invested in. 14 years later, has that changed? Yes, sort of. I haven’t been to a gathering of groups for a few years, nor participated in online forums — and those are the places I need to go to if I want peer recognition. Instead I’m happy just to train weekly, and while recognition still strokes my ego I get more from just being part of our school — so when I’m called upon to stand in for our head instructor the benefit to me is the continuation of the school and having students walk in.

I have been thinking about respect in HEMA, though. We have our share of problem students. There are some who just turn up to a few classes and then leave for whatever reason — and while some masters will complain, the fact is these students have done a cost-benefit analysis of their continued attendance vs. whatever personal development they get out of it. And just as leaders should be honest about whether or not they want recognition, students should be honest about whether learning is worth their time and money.

An honest decision to stay or leave is respectful. The real problem students are the ones who come with their own pre-conceived notions about what the school does or behaviours it tolerates, and proceed to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Talented students who deviate from the lesson plan because they want to “win” all the time are the biggest problem — they tend to be self-serving and not interested in training cooperatively with their partner, only defeating them. There’s a lot you can train out of someone but being an arsehole is one of the hardest things to correct. Usually these students will respect the master as authoritarian, but not their peers, and honestly I’d prefer it the other way around — not least because not respecting your training partner by deviating from the lesson plan is a recipe for accidents. As the leader in that situation I’m not invested in winning that individual’s respect, I’m far more concerned with the damage (physical or emotional) they may cause to the rest of the student body. But at least it’s fairly clear when they’ve crossed a line and I can just dump them outside on their arse.


Let’s do this:

fictoplasm itunes 2

Fictoplasm is a podcast about fiction and roleplaying games. Each episode we talk about a book we like, then we talk about the games we’d like to run based on the ideas in the book — maybe picking up the setting wholesale, maybe just cherry-picking tropes and world-building bits.

The first episode discusses Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Coming up is Garth Nix’ Sabriel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, followed by some Le Guin, Moorcock, Zelazny, Christopher Priest, J. G. Ballard, Mary Gentle, Octavia Butler and more.

Baby wrangling means that our recording schedule will likely be erratic, and the first episodes will likely sound a bit ropey as we get the hang of room acoustics and Audacity. But, it’s a thing.

RSS feed:


RPGaDay2016: Formats

Day 8:

Hardcover, softcover, digital, what’s your preference?

I’m a huge fan of electronic books — portable, carry on multiple devices, searchable, easy to store. But sadly electronic RPGs have not always kept up with modern technology — large format RPGs with multiple columns are very poor for iPads and useless for my Kindle. I’m not at all satisfied with my Feng Shui 2 pdf since it’s not printer-friendly and not tablet friendly either. Some publishers are getting it — Kevin Crawford’s recent releases of Sine Nomine titles have included epub, and a lot of small press publishing is in digest format which is well suited to the tablet (e.g. LotFP).

The main value of electronic books are getting hold of OOP copies. These days I’m going back to hard copies, a lot of PoD. Right now I’m waiting for a softcover copy of Courtney Campbell’s Perdition (with illustrations by Russ Nicholson, woo!).


RPGaDay2016: Games and Learning

Day 7:

What aspect of RPGs has had the biggest effect on you?

Aside from all the friends I’ve made — more numerous and diverse and for longer than any other hobby — the thing RPGs have helped with is social confidence. This in turn has helped leadership and facilitation skills. There’s a reason why role-playing is used in business and leadership training. It puts you in a challenging situation, with identifiable win or lose conditions, but without the risk. I’ve used it as facilitator, interviewer, and trainee.

Being a player helps you learn active listening, lateral thinking, and social skills that you otherwise wouldn’t try out because the stakes are too high. Being a GM encourages you to think about the stakes of a situation, the consequences of success or failure, and even long-term scenario planning.

Of course you can get those skills elsewhere, but if you think about it roleplaying exercises a huge range of creative muscles. In fact that’s true of games generally. Games make great martial arts warm-ups, teaching a whole lot of complementary skills whilst making you sweat.

Role-playing is good for you, and games are good for you.


RPGaDay2016: Amazing

Day 6:

Most amazing thing a game group did for their community?

We lost one friend to cancer back when we were all in our mid-20s. So my friends organised the Gold Team games, which were a set of semi-competitive rpgs (a tournament I suppose) where we paid for entry, and the proceeds were donated to the charity.

We lost another friend much more recently. She’d been at the heart of our wider gaming family since the start. In her memory one of my friends ran a total of 100k over several races to raise money for mental health charities.

The activities for charity are very nice, but it’s my friends that are amazing.


RPGaday2016: Tall Tales


Day 5:

what story does your group tell about your character?

We were playing fairly high-level D&D in a homebrew setting of the GM’s, generally travelling between neighbouring kingdoms. When we settled in one place — let’s call it Fielfland — my PC decided he liked the look of the King’s daughter after blagging his way into a state ball. But she was promised to a royal from a neighbouring country called Gullivier, and she had every intention of going through it for the sake of the economic union. So what my PC did was go around the Fielfland countryside stirring up anti-Gullivierian sentiments while also claiming that fair Fielfland would be better to break away from its neighbours, who wrought terrible taxes and behaved just as they liked to Fielfland’s dismay (not really true, but it worked).

What I wanted to do was position my PC as an advisor at court, but instead the King, seeing the will of the people, chose to abdicate. Then the people immediately suggested I should marry the Princess. I also discovered that the kingdom was nearly bankrupt. It was a pretty masterful move by the GM.

So instead the whole party fled. But for months after my character was pursued through the kingdoms with posters from one Sir Ewan, one of Fielfland’s younger nobles. The best thing was that the players mocked up one of the posters for me:


Yeah, you couldn’t make it up

RPGaDay: First Impressions

Day 4:

Most impressive thing another’s character did?

I’m not impressed by other people’s characters, I’m impressed by the players.

There’s one story I heard about a guy playing a 24 hour zombie outbreak LARP who got attacked in the shower. The GM timed out and gave him the option to get dressed a bit before resuming as a zombie; he said no thanks, and just shambled about in a shower curtain with his bum out. That’s commitment.


RPGaDay2016: Pride


Day 3:

Character moment you’re most proud of?

I struggled to imagine what achievement of a fictional character I would feel proud about. I think maybe the only thing you can be proud about, is being true to the character and the situation you’re in, even if it’s at some other cost. Being a hero when it means certain death is obvious. Being a coward when it fits the plot? Maybe that’s something to be proud about, as a player. That has long-term consequences for character self-image and social fallout.

Some of my favourite moments have been playing dwarves. It was juvenile but satisfying to roleplay going outside and taking a piss in an alley. The GM said he’d never had a player do that, and describe it in such detail. It was like getting a gold star.

Another dwarf was a cross between Tyrion Lannister and Dr Frank N. Furter; a merchant captain ferrying the rest of the PCs (every one of whom was a member of a royal family travelling incognito). I was allowed a magical item, and I invented a potion that I kept in a heart-shaped bottle around my neck. One drop for love, two drops for truth, three drops for death. The best thing about it was the way the GM gave me opportunities to use it and I took them. Each time it was like a dare. I did some terrible, terrible things.

It was tremendous fun, but maybe not something to be proud of.


RPGaDay2016: Introductions

Day 2:

Best game session since Aug 2015?

There hasn’t been that much time for playing over the last year, but I did run Blades in the Dark quickstart for some local friends who are generally very traditional in their RPG consumption. More importantly we had one person who’d never played at all.

Everyone got on with it. They liked the playbooks, they got the stress economies, they understood downtime. The biggest hitch was getting the idea that no, you don’t need to plan the heist in advance, you use the flashback mechanics.

This raises the question about the need for introductory games. Certainly some games are complex enough that they’re hard on new players, but generally new players aren’t viewing a system critically — they’re looking for a way to participate with another group of people, so learning the system is a cost they’re willing to play to be part of the culture.

Blades isn’t the easiest game — it tripped up some of the experienced players too — but it is a game, and it is consistent, and our newbie learned fast.

I had exactly the same outcome with a new player playing Penny For My Thoughts. They had no trouble at all. What seems to matter is

  • the rest of the players want them to participate, so the reward for participating is greater than the cost of learning
  • the game is consistent, with outcomes they can predict and an order of play they can follow
  • the game has good handout material on the table that reinforces consistency