Month: August 2015

Three Different Decks


I like cards — art cards, index cards, tarot cards. Cards are good because you can focus on a card without being distracted by other things (text, other art). And of course you can carry them around and pass them around the table if they’re a play aid. These are some not-roleplaying but definitely creative card sets.

Oblique Strategies

Very cool because Brian Eno, etc. Subtitled “One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas”. Developed in 1975 as a means for artists (and specifically musicians?) to overcome blocks. Several sets, project ended with the death of Peter Schmidt in 1980. My version is the 5th printing.

oblique 1

Each card has a terse sentence. Sometimes that sentence is telling you to do something like “Be dirty” or “Use an old idea”. Other times it’s asking you to be critical with advice like “What to increase? What to reduce?”.

oblique 2

oblique 3

No suits or groupings or context or instructions.

Uses in games? Certainly in the prep stage of a game; probably also for low-prep games where you’re responding to a miss in Apocalypse World or similar (especially when there isn’t an obvious hard move to take).

Salad’s Ericksonian Hypnosis Cards

Pete Kautz wrote Five Conversational Hypnosis Tools for MCs. He also recommended these to me as ways to insert hypnotic language into GMing.

salad 1

salad 2

Based on Ericksonian Hypnotherapy. These come as a deck of 52 playing cards, so you can learn the hypnotic language while playing patience. The language is roughly grouped by the four suits. Clubs tend to be about stimulating thought and curiosity, Hearts are often about thinking about what other people are capable of, and so forth.

Uses in games? I guess if you want to train yourself in suggestive language and then use that to encourage certain sensations or lines of thought in the players.

Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack

This is a deck of inspiration cards for management types, with an endorsement from Fortune on the back. If you can stomach the corporate overtones they’re pretty interesting: four 16-card suits for a 64 card deck. Blue Explorer cards are about gathering resources (finding patterns, asking questions), orange Artist cards are about transformation (exaggerating, changing perspectives, etc.), green Judge cards are about viewing your ideas critically (“what can I take less seriously?”, “what’s lacking/doesn’t fit in?”) and red Warrior cards are about implementation (what support systems can I create, what surprising tactics can I use to reach the objective, etc.).

whack 1

These form a deliberate create-expand-critique-implement cycle. They’re like a more focused and goal-oriented Oblique Strategies.

whack 3

whack 2

Uses in games? Definitely for whole-process design from start to finish of a whole game or adventure. Possibly also for specific stages of the game where you’re blocked at a particular step or feel what you’ve got is a bit boring or obvious.

Hand To Hand With The Blue Bastard

I planned a creative update a couple of weeks ago after finishing the Death Comes To Wyverley playbooks, but Nine Worlds got in the way (and jolly good it was too). This is what I said I was working on back in November:

  • Death Comes To Wyverley (for Beyond the Wall)
  • Transuranic World (Sapphire and Steel, powered by the Apocalypse)
  • Our City”, a game about… cities. With an uninspiring title.

So these are the updates.

Death Comes To Wyverley

Is a thing. Not done, but a functional thing, functional enough for me to use and maybe for other people too. I will use it, maybe after cementing some of the rules tweaks. There may be a version 0.2 release (around the time I run it next), but not for a bit.

Transuranic World

I play tested this a couple of times, it went OK, but I’m not quite feeling it. For three reasons:

  1. I liked Apocalypse World to play, less so to ref. My AW campaign has picked up in the last few sessions and the mechanics have started to shine for me, but still… it’s unfamiliar territory.
  2. I’ve realised how much effort it’s going to take to turn this into a decent game (something I suspected from reading on the hacking process). Not sure I love it enough to do that much work, but definitely not going to do it half-arsed.
  3. Also there’s the doing an AW hack for the sake of it.

I’m putting this on the regret list, which means indefinite hiatus. But, you never know.

“Our City”

Yeah, I hate that title, but the problem was I could never think of a better one. And the reason for that is this game has always been a set of mechanical principles, but the actual game in all of it has been elusive.

The good news is, I now have a functional game premise and core activity for the PCs to actually do. The working title is Black Mantle and I’ll be playtesting in the Autumn. It’s a dystopian future city, with mecha. Sort of like The Hunger Games meets Knights of Sidonia.

The funny thing about this one is for the longest time I vacillated about what system to use for the character parts (that the city part plugs into). I went around in circles for a bit, going between variants of WaRP (which are still viable for another project) through my own version of Everway, before finally settling on the d20 OGL for a portion of the system. Not something I would have expected a couple of years ago, but working on DCtW involved coming up with a few system tweaks that just seem to work very well and evoke the right level of survivability, so that’s a good basis.

And that’s the adventure portion. Last year I went on at length about heroic cycles and mono-myths and how they relate to Beyond the Wall — and while that was probably more interesting to me than anyone else the principle remains the same: outside and inside the village are two different environments, and should be two different roleplaying experiences. So the external stuff will basically be OSR mecha as werewolves, nothing heavy or too crunchy — I’d like GMs to be able to plunder their monster manual and apply a genre-appropriate reskinning. And the internal stuff will be… something else. And the two have to fit together, which is the design challenge.

Other Things

These are the projects I have sort of on the back burners for when I feel like a break or when I’m travelling on business and need something to do in the evenings.

  • [We Are] is a game about werewolves/mutants/supers, using WaRP with a few tweaks here and there. Half finished. I’m really pleased I found my copy of Darker Than You Think, because I thought I’d sent it to Oxfam.
  • The Last Days Of Dorian Aquila is a GMless storygame, which (after I described it to my partner) is sort of like a cross between Fiasco and Alienor, apparently. It’s about a gender-neutral scoundrel who is about to fight a duel to the death, and the people they make peace with as they put their affairs in order.
  • Lag is a storygame about travellers in a sterile and impersonal luxury hotel in the wrong time zone. Local encounters and calls home will be strained by the difference in personal time zone; so as the characters become acclimatised to their surroundings they should become estranged from their contacts at home.

No idea when I’ll finish these. Black Mantle is the game I want to work on right now, because it’s the game I want to run right now. There may be updates. TTFN.


I Tried Your Setting, It Was Awful

On Saturday night at Nine Worlds I plodded off to the Gaming Across The Streams panel, thinking about heckling James Wallis over Alas Vegas. As it happened James himself beat everyone to it in the pre-session banter:

James is the Stephen Fry of gaming.
Well, I’ve not had my nose broken yet… but maybe I should get on with the Paranoia kickstarter


This was a cross-gaming panel with the rough brief of unpicking what was the same and different across gaming media. TT RPGs got short shrift in favour of LARP; Grant Howitt made clear his contempt for tabletop RPGs as “a puzzle that only exists in your friends head” which is just a teensy bit reductive (yeah, we get that you’re keen on Huizinga, what about Rousseau?)

Anyway… two equally interesting points were (1) Huizinga’s magic circle and (2) the game as written vs. the game everyone thinks they’re playing. In the latter case you have house rules, misunderstood rules, etc.

This made me think about group decision making as it applies to games. Everyone thinks they have a perfect appreciation of the rules/fiction/imagined space, but that setting is coloured by bias:

  • being asleep when the rules were read out
  • having read LotR assuming that Merry and Pippin are female
  • having read more of the setting material or rules than the rest of the players or GM
  • preference based on genre, premise, high concept, etc.

Which brings me to

Day 21 of #RPGaDay2015.

Today’s question is “Your Favourite Setting”. For sake of argument, let’s say a setting provides these things:

  • a High Concept
  • related to Genre
  • Premise or Core Behaviour of protagonists
  • static Furniture such as history, back plot, geography, social customs, technology and magic, etc.
  • dynamic Events
  • …which give rise to Adventures
  • Boundaries

You may think that’s a bit much to ask, but I say that these are the things you need for a functional setting. And if your commercial setting isn’t providing all of these, you will have to make up the shortfall. And the furniture — all the details that hang around like hairstyles and pointy ears and who-killed-who-back-then — tend to make up a lot of the setting content in commercial lines. But they’re also the bits I find easy to do for myself. A dynamic relationship structure where you know who the factions will push back if poked is harder to write, but more useful.

“Woah!” you’re probably thinking. “Those NPCs you glossed over there, they weren’t just window dressing. There were some juicy plot hooks in there.” Right. This is what I got from Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor; love that atmosphere and premise, but most of the juicy ideas for dynamic action are buried in the NPC descriptions, everything is static, waiting for the GM to poke it to life.

Bear in mind that these books are manuals for dipping into. Scattering plot hooks throughout a book supposes an author-reader mode, not a GM-player mode. If the GM has to go through an interpretive step of extracting the details, that’s almost as bad as them not being in there in the first place. And don’t get me started at game authors who subtly hint at things. That is not what this book is for. Leave that shit to Gene Wolfe.

Now, concerning boundaries. Your high-concept may be Glorantha, but your bounded play area is Griffin Island. The areas where we play and do not play are as much of the setting as the overall world. Who cares of ducks are marching on Pavis? They are outside your world. Those slarges on the other hand…

Going back to game as written vs. game in people’s heads, the less a setting caters for the above elements — and especially adventure, premise, core activity — the greater the divergence between the game in our heads and the one in the text. Characters playing as a group requires group decision making and a social mechanism to fix that, and that mechanism has always been the GM; and a setting should be facilitating that with words and examples (and art, natch).

This is why I find fault with every setting I’ve come across. How much fault depends on the effort to understand someone else’s setting and make the intuitive connections they’ve already made, against the effort in writing something from scratch. Maybe my audit is a bit harsh. Settings make great closet drama, but they should be challenged on functionality.

Nine Worlds 2015

Whew! Back from 9 Worlds, and it was much fun. I learned a lot about podcasts, listened to skeptics talk about fairies (Deborah Hyde), spent a lot of time on the history and academia track, listened to panels on death, gothic literature and a cage fight between SF and Fantasy, enjoyed the panel on diversity in LARP, and many other things.


This is Dr Simon Trafford who presented Why Sing Pop In Dead Languages and explained how Dead Can Dance has transformed Christian period songs into vaguely spiritual-sounding neoclassical gothic mush (yeah, but I like that stuff).


This is Jensen’s gin. I tried both their Bermondsey (London dry) and Old Tom (pre 1830’s style) gins, and both are really great.


more gin

Now I have to get something off my chest. Dystopian fiction featured heavily this year — from the Arcadia or Armageddon and I Predict A Riot panels to Vanessa Thompsett’s excellent Dystopian London In Fiction (which was absolutely spot on, discussing how Huxley, Orwell and Moore change the psychogeography of the London we know to create their dystopias). I say this:

Dystopia is not the same as post-Apocalypse.

The panelists repeatedly conflated these two terms, and although there is overlap they are not the same thing. Apocalypse is nearly always about scarcity and community. Dystopia is about social control, unfair living conditions, arbitrary laws and non-transparent hierarchy structures, etc.

Of course dystopia can arise in a post-apocalypse world (e.g. H. M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow). But it was a bit annoying to hear The Road being referred to with some regularity in the Utopia/Dystopia conversation.

Props to the awesome Geoff Ryman for (a) calling out the lack of utopian vision in modern fiction (and pointing out that ISIS is at least someone’s utopian vision) and (b) plugging Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland which is an example of a progressive yet utopian novel (when a lot of utopian concepts are regressive and pastoral — compare that to dystopias which are post-industrial and feature travel, advances in science, etc.).

For a proper post-apocalyptic vision I did enjoy Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge — so much I bought the book:


knowledge 2

Yes, it’s popular science but all good fun and very level headed — a laundry list of different things you would need to get society running again after a collapse, from food and water to fuel, transport, communication (the printing press!) and very interestingly time and place, i.e. how to make an accurate calendar for agriculture, and how to navigate to places. If you want a shortcut for game research, this is pretty good.

All in all another fine convention, thoroughly recommended.


going well

Death Comes To Wyverley v0.1

OK, here is version 0.1 of the Death Comes To Wyverley playset for Beyond the Wall. It collects all of the essays on this blog and some other stuff, ten playbooks, some waffle on how to run and some rules, some tested and some not.

It’s not finished finished — it never will be. There may be scenario packs, rules refinements and other stuff to better explain exactly what you’re supposed to do with this. But I need to call this a milestone and then get away from it for a bit.

For now, if you don’t know Garth Nix then (you should and) this is the pitch:

It’s like Malory Towers and Buffy and Harry Potter and 1920s Call of Cthulhu. Characters are sixth-formers in Wyverley College for Young Ladies Of Distinction, about to strike off into adulthood. The surroundings are northern Ancelstierre, close to the Wall and the border with the magical Old Kingdom, where the Army try to stop the Dead and Free Magic things and Necromancers from crossing over and threatening the civilians.

Should be fun.

Lady Manvers

Farewell, Lady Manvers. We fenced, we fought, we danced and sang, we brawled, we drank, we gambled, blackmailed, smuggled, spied for the French, wore absurdly tight breeches, gave each other the pox, started fist-fights in stately homes, hunted for Black Dick, had affairs, trysts, married and divorced, bled, were poisoned, garrotted, pushed off battlements, died of consumption, collapsed in a heap, jumped on the bed, pretended to be swans, shot, stabbed, slapped, punched, posed, ponced, reposed, fainted, farted and belched, used and abused and were thoroughly rotten scoundrels, miscreants and bad sorts all round, very likely dicked in the nob.

It was a glorious time, and none of it would have happened if not for you. Thinking of you behaving badly, forever.

Yours with love,

Captain Richard Brown.



I’ve never been to GenCon, and I certainly haven’t followed the Ennies, it’s not really where I intersect with the hobby. However I am aware thanks to social media that Red and Pleasant Land has just won a bunch of awards (gold for best writing and silver for best adventure and product of the year, I think) in spite of having a fanbase supposedly in the minority compared to the total number of voters, and therefore “no chance of winning”.

This means a decidedly not mainstream-common-denomenator-product, produced by a not mainstream publisher, won several awards. It means that it is possible for a niche, independent product to win a mainstream popularity contest on quality of writing and vision. Much more interesting than yet another award going to a mainstream game line that I have no interest or investment in. (At this point I confess that I don’t own a copy of RPL yet, though I’ve got Vornheim and Death Frost Doom and I like those, they’re quality.)

And yeah, Zak S has his fans, there was still a hype machine, but… as far as I’m concerned that’s fair play, that’s politics. So congrats to Zak, James Raggi and whoever else worked on RPL! Jolly good. But while we’re at it, two other awards I care about:

Congrats to Stacy Dellorfano for the Contessa Blog award!

…and to Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws for the award for Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff!

At least, I think I’ve got that right.

(I know some people might be annoyed by this owing to the personalities involved… well, whatever. I don’t have a dog in that fight. Also personally this weekend is shaping up to be shit on a stick without the stick. Let’s just try to get along and be happy for each other, eh?)

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