Friday, 30 May 2014

New Favourite Things

Three blogs I am digging right now:

Gin Journey is a quest for the perfect G&T, with lots of tasting notes for more gins than I thought possible. Currently I’m enjoying one of these with Sainsbury’s full fat tonic and it’s jolly nice. Other gins I’ve enjoyed recently are Plymouth, Whitley Neill and of course Hendricks. More to life than Gordons and Bombay Sapphire, eh?

The League of Moveable Type is something I discovered via this blog post. The post also links to this site which covers some revival fonts. Anyway, the League also has a blog.

Finally there’s Macdrifter which I found while looking for Markdown and stayed for this latest post. Cool 404 page.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Old and New Favourites

Weaveworld cover

Nothing like a bit of food poisoning to give you new perspective. For me it was the chance to re-read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

This is a book from my late teens, and like most teens I liked my flavours strong and not subtle.  It’s too long, the characters are mostly one-trick ponies, the prose is unnecessary, and the plot swings from being pedestrian to incomprehensible. Still, it resonates very strongly, mainly for Barker’s description of magic.

I prefer The Great and Secret Show (and Imajica, although I read that much later) for magical imagery, but Weaveworld has coloured my perception of what magic should appear to be in both fiction and games. I say appear, because I don’t think there’s any system behind the magic, it’s all texture and the effect it has on the environment. The closest we get to philosophy is probably the concept of Cosm / Metacosm / Quiddity in the books of the Art.

Compared to Immacolata’s  Menstruum and Gentle’s Pneuma, magic in D&D looks a bit agricultural. Barker’s mages usually either know innately how to do magic (the Seerkind), or they’ve seized it through hard work and sacrifice (the Jaffe, Swann), or have been gifted it (Shadwell). Mostly Barker writes about people using magic, rather than the magic itself.

This is probably why Mage: the Ascension appealed to me so strongly (and it cites Imajica in the bibliography). Unfortunately it’s mired in an awful system and an awful political structure, the same clans-and-tribes nonsense inherited from the earlier oWoD games. When I ran Mage the best fun came from mostly ignoring the rules and using the spheres as a rough guide, and pushing all the Traditions nonsense to the background (the characters were mostly Hollow).

I have no idea how magic works in a modern FATE driven game like Dresden Files. My preference is for something completely freeform; a bit like the Everway approach, if that weren’t so light and twee and goody-goody. And looking at FATE (which I have been recently) I’m not sure an Aspect driven game would work either. Of course being my new favourite thing WaRP has a lot of promise, with magic being described in the same loose sense as other Traits. The only downside is there’s not enough to lose; no sanity, no acquiring deformities through paradox, etc. I’ll work on that.

New Favourite: The Anachroneironaut

Now for a new favourite. My new favourite blog is the Anachroneironaut. Amazing gothic illustrations, lovecraftian houseplants, and ink. Check out this amazing piece of art inspired by Perdido Street Station.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Happy Halloween!

The nice people who pay my salary have kept my busy of late, so October has been a lean month for posting. Still, it’s been chock full of actual stuff happening, so in no particular order:

The End

I finished Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor, after a 6 month hiatus between that and the penultimate session (whoops). I think the players liked it. There was way more mayhem than expected, several people died or nearly died, and the players forgot they were playing children and played the monsters I’d hoped they were going to become. I call that a result.

We came to the conclusion that ORE, or at least the way I ran it, has a bias in favour of hits to the face and head — so the top tip for MaoCT powergamers is to go for a PC with a really big forehead. I could analyse further but I’m unlikely to run an ORE game again, much as I respect the effort that’s gone into some of the titles.

(I do still like the simultaneous rolling and sets counting — but whereas Hollowpoint gets it right, I think ORE is a bit flawed).

Bundle of Holding

Check out the latest Bundle of Holding! I donated and got a whole lot of Cthulhu goodness for it. I really wanted the Trail of Cthulhu and Eldrich Skies titles, but I’m looking forward to reading the Cublicle 7 offerings as well, and the Kenneth Hite Tarot of Cthulhu is proper fun. Recommended, and it’s for two great charities — the Alzheimer’s Association and Cancer Research UK.

Hurry, you have a few days left!


My birthday was low key on account of being jet-lagged (though that didn’t stop me taking part in a fun quarterstaff class with Paul Wagner). This is what my lovely wife had waiting for me when I arrived back in the UK:

Traveller 2

It’s an Olympia Traveller de Luxe S, approximately as old as I am. It’s not too much bigger (or heavier) than either of my laptops:


I expected that (a) I wouldn’t hit the keys hard enough, (b) I’d injure my fingers and (c) I wouldn’t be able to touch type but actually I’m doing fine on all 3 counts. Words are coming out mostly with the letters in the right order, and fast. The pages even scan OK for an electronic copy, though OCR is a bit hit and miss.

Traveller 1

(typing my impressions of Lacuna, for another post — soon!)

And that’s about it. I’ve been travelling for 2 weeks out of four, and you’ll be pleased to hear it’s nice and warm and sunny if you’re not in the UK. Well, based on my sample set of two.

More in November!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Cut Up Sunday


The Cronenberg Project opens on November 1st of this year, celebrating “all things Cronenberg”. Unfortunately it’s in Toronto, but there’s a virtual exhibition.

Cronenberg donated several props to the Toronto Film Festival — including the Clark Nova from Naked Lunch, which opened the press conference.



The iconic Clark Nova writing on its own and then in full BugWriter mode. In real life it’s a Smith Corona Sterling. For yet more typewriter porn check this page on for some pics of authors and typewriters — including Burroughs with the Clark Nova.

Re-watching Naked Lunch I noticed Optimum’s little promotional booklet of their other films — and was surprised to find Malcolm Tucker:


Welcome to Annexia, Malcolm.

Like all Cronenberg films Naked Lunch was scored by Howard Shore — and I’m torn between it and his score for Crash as my all-time favourite.

I could talk about Burrough’s own recordings, which include Dead City Radio, his readings for  Giorno Poetry Systems and the fantastic Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). But I just found this recording of Frank Zappa reading “The Talking Asshole”:

Since I’m on youtube and in a Burroughs mood, here’s Bomb the Bass’s Bug Power Dust:

Did you get all of it? The lyrics are easier to hear on the downtempo mix from the K&D Sessions.

Anyway. I also found this fantastic Beastiemix of Root Down. It’s something like mix number 3728:

And talking about the Beastie Boys:

…yeah. These must be the symptoms of withdrawal from a substance that doesn’t really exist.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

I’ve Seen A Version Of Bladerunner You People Wouldn’t Believe

I watched the Bladerunner Workprint last weekend. I was expecting something pretty rough and forgettable which I could have on in the background while I did other stuff, but it turned out to be engrossing.


p>Of course, it helps if you think Blade Runner is one of the greatest films ever made. The Workprint has

  • no happy ending
  • no Harrison Ford voiceover (except during the Tears in Rain scene)
  • no unicorn dream (which I have mixed feelings about)
  • the length of cuts differs
  • more violent
  • the language differs (fun fact: Batty calls Tyrell “father” in this version, but the word was changed to “fucker” for all releases until it was changed back in the Final Cut)
  • no end credits
  • the music is different — the final scenes with the extended Deckard/Batty chase don’t use Vangelis’ score, presumably because it hadn’t been finished. Instead there’s stock dramatic music. It changes the tone quite a bit:


(Theatrical release)

Clearly for enthusiasts only, but I felt this version captures Scott’s original intent and the replicant’s emotions very well, and without the unicorn or the happy ending it’s the most ambiguous, and I like that. The workprint appears in the 5-disc “ultimate collectors edition”.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Playtest Metrics

There doesn’t seem to be much advice — that’s discoverable advice from a few Google searches — on how to run a playtest of your shiny new RPG. As an outsider1 to this process, the prevailing attitudes seem to be

  • play it until it breaks, and
  • if you’re having fun, you’re not playtesting. Playtesting should feel like work, not fun.

The first is good advice but rather broad, and the second stems to the same school-of-hard-knocks mentality that pervades some professions — that you do not learn your job from a book, you learn from doing, being knocked back a few times, and getting stronger. And I’ve been there and done that with a lot of things, both work-wise and hobby-wise, so I’m sympathetic to this view.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to organise my thoughts — and in doing so, maybe I can avoid at least some iterative navel-gazing that arises from the “just see what works” approach. So this post is about me thinking about what I want from the game in a fairly high-level conceptual sense, and how to gauge the response of the players.

I’ve picked four (fairly obvious) axes for the performance metrics. These are

  1. Character
  2. World
  3. System
  4. Change

The axes are approximately in order of presentation — players will see character first, then world (at least, the bits they influence), then system and finally longer-term change.

To measure along these axes I’m going to ask different questions of the players, and try to get a sense of their satisfaction in the different areas. It’s not going to be easy and will probably be even harder if I try to turn those responses into measures on an objective scale. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Let’s just ask the questions and see what happens.

Character Questions

Is your character’s Origin (childhood, motivations, skills and experience) expressed?

Are the character’s Power Levels expressed? These include

  • Explicit powers (i.e. written down)
  • Implicit powers (i.e. inferred by writing, character, mannerism)

Is there anything which is implied about your character that should be explicit?

Is there a direct path from what the character can do as written, to what the character wants to achieve in the world?

Is the character adequately tied to the game in play?

World Questions

Do the players understand where the game is?

Do they get the Scope2 of play?

Is it clear to them what will happen if they go Outside the Boundary?2

System Questions

Do the players know what is a pass, and what is a fail?

Do they have a sense of relative ability and relative success?

Rate the system for

  • Seek time (that is how long it takes to read the dice)
  • Transparency of Results (how easy it is to translate the reading to a success or failure)
  • Malleability or Agency (how easy it is for the players to make tactical dice rolling decisions)

Change Questions

Do the players get a sense of change in the game world?

Do they feel able to affect the world and achieve change themselves? Perhaps not immediately, but could they make a change through executing a longer term plan?


Cross posted to the UK RolePlayers Design Collective blog.



p>1. I say “outsider” in the terms of designing something experimental, then trying to turn it into something actually functional long-term rather than just mucking about for a session and discarding it. Done plenty of the latter.

  1. The terms Scope, Boundary and Outside are specific to my game, but I guess they could apply to any game.

Scope is the field of operations for the game to be played — for example the PC are occult investigators looking into a bizarre murder, or pirates after plunder, or modern magicians fleeing an oppressive regime.

Outside is the stuff outside the game “world”, which in my case is a city. It’s the place people don’t go, or there will be consequences. The Boundary is simply the line someone would cross to go to the Outside — it may be just a line in the dirt or it could be an obstacle.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Surly Cross Check


Excuse the fuzz-tastic phone pic. This is my Surly Cross-Check, 58cm in robin’s egg blue (a 2011 colour I think) which I took for a ride early this morning.

This is kind of the bike I wish I’d bought more than 10 years ago when I started riding to work. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s designed for multiple duties on or off road, fixed or single speed, mudguards or naked, loaded or unloaded. Unlike a hybrid though it’s not designed to be boring, and it isn’t. It does look a bit goofy the way I’ve set it up, thanks to the short head tube and massive stack of spacers. For an alloy steerer that probably wouldn’t be wise but since this is steel, and the steerer is particularly heavy steel, it can take it. It seems a lot of people run their Cross Checks that way if you look on flickr.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with all the bikes I’ve owned in that time, but I would like to reflect on a few lessons I’ve learned over the years:

  • A hybrid is OK as a general purpose bike, but it’s a jack of all trades and a master of none — and boring to boot. Lesson from Bike #1.
  • Modern alloy and carbon fibre race bikes are stupidly designed. The saddles are too far forward, the angles are steep, the bars are too low and can’t be raised, the clearances for tyres and mudguards aren’t there. Fine if you race, but commuting in all weathers doesn’t work. Lesson from Bike #2.
  • Alloy and carbon fibre bikes only look cool if you keep them clean, otherwise they just look uncared for. Another lesson from Bike #2.
  • Get yourself measured for bike fit. You can pay someone or you can do it online. Yet another lesson from Bike #2.
  • Try riding fixed gear, it’s great! But don’t pay over the odds for a vintage steel frame where you’ll have to throw away and replace most of the bits. Lesson from Bike #3.
  • Instead, buy a proper fixed gear frame, because they’re usually cheap — like my beloved On-One Il Pompino. Or buy a complete package from a bike shop (now that the hipsters have stopped riding fixed, you could get a bargain). Lesson from Bike #4.1
  • The one component where you should never, ever choose form over function is your brakes. A really important lesson from Bike #4 (now there’s a funny, but not really funny story).
  • No, really, buy quality brakes. Also, don’t be put off a type of brake because you had a bad experience. My bad experience was with Empella Frogglegs.
    • To cut a story short, cantilever brakes have a certain geometry which means you can adjust the power and lever travel you need just by raising and lowering the yoke.
    • Now, Frogglegs are designed for actual racing in the mud — so they have a wide profile and need relatively little pull of the brake lever to travel a long way when set up like that — but if you set them up that way, you sacrifice power. Not a good thing to find out on your first road ride, and especially if you only set up the front brake because you’re riding fixed. 
    • Froggleg brakes can probably be set up just fine, but it’s a problem if you’re a numpty new to that braking system. There were a few other things I didn’t like about those brakes (like the need for a spanner and the traditional brake block posts) but the Cross Check is wearing Shimano BR-550 brakes and they “just work” as well as having a lot of modern conveniences like straddle wires and easy pad adjustment. The episode with the frogglegs nearly put me off cantis but now they’re my favourite — they don’t foul the mudguards and they look cool, and work with STI levers.
  • You don’t really need disc brakes on a road bike. Also disc brakes are even more of a pain to set up than the frogglegs because they can rub easily. The advantage of a disc brake is it’s not affected by mud or water the way a rim brake is (and I guess it won’t overheat your rim and blow a tyre either). But they’re heavy and they need a new fork which is also heavy and a new wheel too. Instead, buy Kool Stop Salmon pads for your rim brakes, and you’re sorted for wet weather performance (as long as you don’t ride like a fool in foul weather). Lesson from Bike #4.5.2
  • I really do like steel over aluminium. A lot of people wax lyrical about how Steel is Real, steel is springy and aluminium is harsh, etc. I retired the ONCE frame and bought a Ridley Triton on sale — caliper brakes so no problems setting up, and clearance for mudguards and/or fatter tyres. It’s a nice frame, but it’s obsolete. I can’t see me taking the wheelset off the Surly and putting it on the Ridley, they basically do the same thing. It’s a spare frame in case the unthinkable happens, I guess. Lesson from Bike #5.
  • Also, a dirty aluminium frame just looks neglected, but a dirty Cross Check or Pompino frame looks loved.
  • 10 speed is garbage. There is no need for 10 speed drivetrains, much less eleven speed, unless you’re desperate to empty your wallet. The only advantage of 10 speed is it’s current. The disadvantage is more expensive and harder to fit chains. 9 speed Campag is good for me and I even have a spare pair of shifters from ebay if these ones ever wear out beyond fixing (they probably won’t). I can still get aftermarket parts, and campy hubs are 9/10 speed compatible. However if I didn’t have the campy stuff I’d look at 8 speed shimano — cheap, cheap, cheap! Lesson from all the geared bikes.
  • And that brings me to the Cross Check. The things it does for me are:
    • fat tyres and mudguards, on or off road
    • cantilever brakes, which I’ve grown to love
    • fixed or gears (STI, bar end or even downtube if you fancy, for that retro look3)
    • steel
    • more relaxed geometry than the Pomp or the Ridley (or similar modern road bikes) but not too laid-back
    • sort of classic styling but with modern gear
    • No weird sizes for seatposts
    • Still a proper road bike, looks good with drops.

 Of course when I bought my first bike I did’t have a grand to drop on a new bike, so the hybrid was wallet-friendly. Still I spent too much on Bike #2. From then on I just built up my own frames.

So, yeah. The Surly Cross Check. Great frame, popular, versatile, recommended unless you’re doing proper mountain biking or proper racing. Only thing I would say is that while the frames are great the parts usually break for me (seat clamp, dropout adjusters, and an old Surly Tugnut broke in record time).

Just for fun, these are some of the bits I have on the bike that are worth mentioning:

  • Stronglight Impact triple cranks (cheap, uses 110 mm bottom bracket which is also cheap, massive choice of chainrings)
  • Hope headset (not cheap but fit-and-forget — used to live on the pompino)
  • Surly Constrictor Seat Clamp (replaced the stainless one that came with the frame and broke. Ugly but works)
  • Velo Orange seat post (important — the layback on this seat post is a lot more than most. This is good, because a Brooks Saddle will have short rails and won’t allow you to get it very far back)
  • Velo Orange stem and Randonneur Bars (great bars, very comfy on the tops and in the drops, slightly longer than other drop bars so I have a relatively short stem to compensate. Not all drop bars are the same!)
  • Shimano BR-550 Canti brakes
  • Time ATAC clipless pedals
  • Shimano QR Skewers. These are the enclosed cam type, which is not a common design these days. This is why they’re better.
The geared bits aren’t worth mentioning since they’re hard to find.



  1. The Il Pompino just inherited all the fixed bits from Bike #3, so it wasn’t a completely new bike.

  2. This was also the Pompino, with a Road Hog fork and a new wheelset. This is probably the bike purchase I regret the most — the disc was a pain to set up, the fork looked weird and the steerer was too short, and the whole thing was heavy and robbed the Pomp of its agility, which is one of the benefits of simplifying to a road fixed in the first place. Ah well, you live and learn.

  3. I tried downtube shifters, and I don’t recommend them. You get used to staying in a straight line as you move your hand from the bar to the downtube, but there’s a huge advantage to being able to drop several gears and brake at the same time for the lights. I don’t like bar ends much better though because I kept hitting them with my knees when stopping, inadvertently changing gear. I suppose both methods promote a different style of cycling, just like riding with no gears at all.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Rolling Back to Snow Leopard

This brief post is coming from a freshly minted Snow Leopard install on my Macbook Pro.

I wrote about issues with OS X Mountain Lion recently, and repeated disk and permissions repairs have not fixed the problem after all. Format and reinstall was the only option, with all of the anxieties of backing up and hunting for software keys.

I did consider doing a clean install of Mountain Lion (complicated by lack of physical install media, but it can be done) but I decided to roll back to 10.6. There are a few things I’ll miss from 10.8 like multi-touch and full screen, but I won’t miss the beach ball of death every time I try to access a network share or open a web browser.

As for the differences in Mail and Finder, I can mostly take or leave them–but it is nice to have the old “outlook” style column layout for mail instead of the iOS format. The coloured icons in the Finder are a nice bonus.

For the benefit of anyone coming here from a google search, here were a couple of issues I had to deal with:

  • Applications software from the supplied disk (bundled iLife apps) wouldn’t install because of an “unknown error”. This turned out to be an expired certificate. Rolling the system clock back two years fixed that issue.
  • Trying to delete the sparsebundle in the Time Capsule from OSX kept hanging; I eventually resorted to connecting with a Windows machine (TC as SMB share) and deleting all 700Gb of previous Time Machine images.
  • I couldn’t back up my main iPhoto library–the database was corrupt so it wouldn’t copy, and the machine was too unstable to rebuild it. I resorted to View Contents on the library and extracted the Master images. OK, so I’ll have lost any cropping or thumbnails generated, but that only applied to a few of them (most of which have been published her anyway).


p>And that was about it–hopefully beach balls will be fewer from now on.

Maybe it was the in-place upgrade of Mountain Lion that screwed up my hard disk, and a fresh install would have fixed things… but right now I have a working computer with versions of Mail and iTunes I prefer. Jolly good.