Sunday, 2 April 2017

Cow Report part 1: Playtesting

Here’s what happened when I went to Concrete Cow a couple of weeks ago. I ran StormHack in the morning slot, then played in Matt Sanderson’s Kult 4e game (I believe the KS playtest version, only partially translated into English) followed by Scott Dorward’s Cthulhu Dark session in the evening.

This first part is a sort of designer diary, mostly about things that went wrong. I’ll talk about the other games I played in part 2.


I did a playtest for StormHack. To save time I didn’t write a new scenario but instead grabbed the short and classic See Hwamgaarl and Die from the Sorcerers of Pan Tang supplement from Stormbringer 4th Edition.

I think the scenario went OK (it’s railroady as hell, but works for a fixed-time slot), but on the other hand 75% of the session involved hardly any dice rolling at all. Normally I’m fine with that but it’s hardly a stress test of the system.

The Walkover

The session was too easy. That’s partly a matter of system tuning and scaling but it was mainly caused by three design decisions:

  • Players roll to hit against the threat of damage if they fail (Apocalypse-world style). Keep successfully hitting and you don’t take damage.
  • Rolling was under attribute with a d20, Whitehack style (mostly).
  • Skills allow you to roll with advantage, i.e. roll two dice and pick the result you want.

I checked the probabilities of rolling with advantage; it works out that an advantage is the equivalent of a whopping +5 on your attribute. No wonder everyone was winning.

More importantly this asymmetry just didn’t work with the players. It isn’t “trad”, and it certainly isn’t “OSR”. It wasn’t relatable. And that’s the biggest take-away I had: I wanted an OSR game that didn’t deviate too far from the framework, and I’d added these bits that did not do what I set out to do.

Dice Clocks and Carcosa Hit Dice

See here. These worked OK but for two issues. On the GM side they count down the enemy’s hit points nicely but some players found it difficult to imagine the whole mass of dice as representing several antagonists at once. The idea is that the mass of dice represents the whole threat, and once you’ve knocked out the dice all the antagonists are either dead or fleeing.

But some players need to know how many people they’re fighting, which means how many hit dice per person. This made for a weird kind of double accounting: I had the dice clock down on the table but I still had to translate that into actual numbers of people that they could count down in their heads.

I think this is just a small cognitive hump that needs to be overcome. The other issue was much harder: some players didn’t get the idea of rolling their hit dice on the table, Carcosa style. Whenever dice are rolled the instinct is immediately to snatch them up again (I believe Sorcerer has this problem) rather than let them sit. And the players can be bad at keeping their Hit Dice in play separate from all the other little puddles of dice that are just standing by. And last, when they took hits they looked to the character sheet for a hit point track instead of sacrificing the Hit Dice on the table.

I still think having the GM roll a pool of hit dice for the threat in the middle of the table works as something to focus on. There are things you can do with that (different colours for morale dice, using d8 for demon dice, etc.). But this is a tool to present a heterogeneous body of monsters as a single threat to chew on. You don’t need to do that the other way; each PC is an individual and their character sheet will do fine.

Funny Names

I had some new properties like Heartstrings (after J. Gregory Keyes’ The Waterborn) and Quick. Heartstrings were just Hit Dice and calling them a funny name just confused everyone. As for Quick (a sort of combination of luck/fate points, insight and reflexes) it could work but there was just too much of it as a burnable resource. Besides that stuff normally comes from Ability scores and saving throws. Again, I’d deviated from the OSR plan.

The Demons

This was the biggest issue. The idea of what demons are wasn’t communicated adequately, for example one player treated their demon as an autonymous NPC whereas it’s really a thrall. The main problem was not enough focus on the relationship between owner and demon (see here) so not enough hard bargaining. In the back of my mind Demons are supposed to work like the Shadow in Wraith the Oblivion, and can be played by others at the table within very tight guidelines. The scenario didn’t test that at all.

Demons were supposedly powered by Quick, i.e. spend a point of Quick to get the demon’s Service. Fine in theory but in practice Quick never ran out (one of the players suggested bidding Ability Score points instead, which would have a lot more bite).

So in summary a lot that didn’t go the way I planned but the upside is, I think it’s all fixable; mostly by going back to the original premise, i.e. remixing the OSR portion to add the demon relationships without too much much clever clever changes to combat etc. that aren’t really needed.

That’s all for now. Part 2 will cover the games I played.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

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

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Concrete Cow and Dicey Tales (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Yesterday I took a trip over to Milton Keynes to attend the morning slot of Concrete Cow in glorious Wolverton. It was pretty much what I expected — a bunch of ageing goths and rockers in a town hall fighting over the sign-up sheets and playing a mixture of traditional and indie games. Leisure Games had a stall (where I picked up a hard copy of A|State, woo!) and I was surprised to see all the traditional titles (Star Wars, Cthulhu) stacked in plastic crates while the main display was devoted to the indie darlings of the rpg world (Dogs in the Vineyard, Lacuna, etc). I don’t know whether there was a conscious push for indie published games (a good thing!) or if those are what con attendees want to buy these days. It makes sense that the indie scene would benefit from the RPG Con circuit as a distribution channel.

I could only play one game, and missed the free slots for Ribbon Drive — so I settled on Barbarians of Lemuria1, specifically its Dicey Tales (1930’s pulp) incarnation.


BoL occupies the same territory as Savage Worlds, and not only for the pulp connotations2. BoL has relatively few very broad skills for both combat and non-combat, and tuning character generally comes by way of Boons (and Flaws) — much in the way that SW uses Special Abilities. I feel BoL is easier to learn, however. It operates much more like a true light RPG than a skirmish wargame.

Task resolution is the ubiquitous Stat + Skill + Dice Roll, a disease the RPG world caught from Storyteller and hasn’t really shaken yet. Still, it’s intuitive and at least the dice roll is easy to grok — 2d6, with crits on double six and fumbles on snake eyes. The system is designed for pulp action with a critical success taking out a number of “rabble” (i.e. mooks) equal to the damage roll. There are Hero Points providing re-rolls and “twists of fate” (a la Cinematic Unisystem).

The target number in BoL is 9, which means you need a +2 advantage to break the 50% barrier for success.3 I made the mistake of running a balanced character instead of min/maxing, and failed quite a few routine tasks. In fact this is a game that benefits from both min/maxing and stat and boon synergy — and woe betide anyone who gets it wrong. Boons and Flaws don’t always give linear bonuses or penalties, they may also invoke an additional rolled die — for a Boon you get to keep the highest two of the three dice, for a Flaw you must discard the highest die rolled. Owing to the pass threshold of 9 a flaw will more often than not cripple an attempt to use a skill, even if the user is otherwise very capable. Boons and Flaws that work this way will tend to trump all but the most aggressively munchkin’d builds.

The other notable thing about BoL is the Careers system — unlike WFRP’s careers which are just a permissions system for skill acquisition, BoL’s Careers are broad-based skills in themselves, to be applied in non-combat situations — and the applicability of the career comes down to negotiation with the GM.

However a lot of basic tasks (e.g. sneaking) are so generic that they fall under a wide range of careers anyway. The careers system is more about giving the player an in-character perspective to hang their negotiation on than the usual description of permissions we’re used to from GURPS and the like. This obviates the need to have a list of skills, though — which is a good thing.

Careers also don’t apply to combat — no matter how good a gladiator you are, you don’t get a bonus to actual fighting based on your career. I have no issue with this as a game rule, but it’s not intuitive and tripped the players up a couple of times. Generally

  • where every skill roll involves looking up and summing two different attributes with a die roll, that’s a speed bump
  • if the players have to negotiate with the GM, that’s another speed bump
  • and if the GM has to explain again why your Gladiator career has no bearing on your ability to swing a sword, that’s another speed bump.

Still, it’s the summing two attributes that I object to most and if I’m going to complain about BoL it can get in line behind Storyteller, ORE, Unisystem and the others.

Would I buy BoL? Maybe, when the Mythic version appears. It would probably do a better job of one-shot fantasy than D&D, or BRP, or any of the other heavyweights like GURPS. It probably even has an edge over Cinematic Unisystem with the relatively small number of stats, careers and boons while retaining the former’s Drama Points. Combat was extremely quick to run. Still if I were playing long term and wanted something with hero/drama/poker chips and negotiated skills, I might choose something a little more abstract like FATE Core. As it is BoL fills its niche nicely.

  1. I keep getting BoL mixed up Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The latter is yet another OSR clone of the “worlds most popular roleplaying game”.

  2. I remember reading a forum post that posited Savage Worlds could be run gritty or pulpy; the number of bennies you let the players have set the position on the grit/pulp axis. Certainly not all SW games are pulp — Interface Zero is (I believe) notoriously gritty.

3. I had the same problem I sometimes have with Apocalypse World — due to the 2d6 probability curve to reliably succeed you need a high investment in your stat. OTOH the AW credo is it’s good to fail, because the GM then makes his or her own move. In BoL a failure is usually you just don’t get what you want, and the GM needs to interpret the consequences.