Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Troll and Hollowpoint Probs

A brief nod to the fantastically useful Troll, a dice roller and probability calculator. I used it to estimate the probabilities of rolling matches in Hollowpoint or a similar D6 mechanic. Brief summary in a not-very-pretty table:

  2d 3d 4d 5d 6d 7d 8d 9d 10d
Nothing 83 56 28 9 2 0 0 0 0
Anything 17 44 72 91 98 100 100 100 100
One Set 17 44 65 64 43 20 7 2 1
Two Sets 0 0 7 27 52 62 51 33 18
Three Sets 0 0 0 0 4 18 40 54 54
Four Sets 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 11 26
Five Sets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
At least triple 0 3 10 21 37 54 71 84 93
At least two sets 0 0 7 27 56 80 93 98 99
At least double+triple 0 0 0 4 17 40 64 82 93
At least three sets 0 0 0 0 4 18 42 65 81
At least quad 0 0 0 2 5 11 18 28 40


p>Interesting outcomes there. If you want to have a system where PCs get more than 1 set per round the sweet spot is a pool of around 6 dice. If triples are significant then they start to appear around the same time; and if quads are significant, you get one about 1 time in 20 for a 6d pool, but they stay relatively unlikely up to 10d.

The thing about Hollowpoint is that burning a trait automatically bumps up the threshold by 2 dice, but the probabilities just shift 2 columns to the right. Also for info, Hollowpoint base dice pools are 1 to 6. To be continued. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Field Notes

Hipsters yearn for a simpler time. A time when hi-fi meant turntable, stylus and vinyl1. A time when bicyles had only one gear. A time when trousers cut off the circulation to your ankles.

Now the hipsters are abandoning their phablets and turning to paper notebooks. The wifi is a bit rubbish but the battery life is excellent. Don’t use anything other than a pencil, however–fountain pens are so 2011.

Field Notes

Field Notes are an american brand of premium paper disguised as a cheap supermarket staple-bound notebook. The genius of Field Notes’ products is the mixture of utility and collectability, with limited editions every few months.

They’re not cheap at $10 or £8 for a pack of 3. Shop around (I did) and you might find them for around 5 quid a pack, which isn’t so bad–but there are still cheaper alternatives like Rhodia’s stapled notebooks which can be had for a pound each in bulk (though they are slightly smaller than Field Notes).

I own a lot of different notebooks–hardbacked, wire-bound, A5, A4, etc. Until I used my first Field Notes book I hadn’t realised what the others were lacking: the ability to bend the previous page behind the current one. I own bigger staplebound notebooks but they get used on a table, and my smaller pocket notebooks have chunky spines that make bending them back impossible. That’s not a reason to use this particular brand of notebook, but it fits a pattern of use–in my case, making notes on my first aid refresher.

Field Notes 5


p style=”font-size: 11px; text-align: center;”>(Red Blooded unlimited edition on the right–real colour is proper red, not orange in the photo)

So that’s what this kind of notebook is good for–whipping out to write something down while standing up, then putting back in your back pocket and tucking your pencil behind your ear. Also, although fountain pen compatibility seems hit and miss, I had no problems with using a medium point pen with my new notebook (other than legibility of my handwriting).

This isn’t a journaling notebook–it’s designed for writing over a short term and then retiring. At the end of its brief life it will probably look pretty battered.

The Field Notes monicker comes from american agriculture, and here’s where the branding is slightly dishonest–it’s not really suitable for all weather writing. Not that they make claims otherwise, but still.

As it is, the books are great for my purposes. Overall I’m really taken with the format – the feel of each notebook, the notes inside the back cover, the embossed lettering on the Red Blooded edition, the limited editions–which beg to be written in, battered and made unique. 

Field Notes 2Field Notes 4Field Notes 1Field Notes 6

  1. Although frankly you haven’t heard Mozart if it’s not on the original 10″ shellac at 78 rpm.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

CIty Accelerator pt 8: Area Knowledge

I’ve always had trouble with Area Knowledge and Streetwise skills. What do they represent? What is the benefit of a successful roll? What’s the consequence of failure?

For GURPS I guess they’re supposed to work like this. In Storyteller games, goodness knows. Streetwise is a weird hybrid of savoir faire, larceny, situational awareness and familiarity with the locale. Ah, well. We know that the five-dots-fits-all of the WW games is just for show; no-one takes it seriously, do they?

The problem with all of these nebulous skills (like Contacts, Allies, Influence, Area Knowledge) is that they rarely require any stake, have no underlying mechanism, and rely on GM judgement calls. They’re a lottery; their value is subjective and reliant on GM-player relationship and are entirely at the mercy of the GM’s sense of fair play. 

I prefer Area Knowledge to be a consequence of a chosen lifepath (“Back when I was picking beans in Guatemala, we used to make fresh coffee, right off the trees I mean.”). It should be colour used to illustrate aquired skills, rather than skill in its own right. I’m going to discuss how to use the City Accelerator to generate interesting personal histories. But before that, let’s consider:

The View from the Outside

If you’re beginning a game outside a city and bringing the PCs to it, all you need to know is what Locations they can see from the outside. You don’t need to worry about grouping anything into Districts yet (although if you want to, go ahead).

What you need to consider is – what can they actually see? – what have they heard about? – what do they actually know is there?

If someone were looking at my city from the outside, they might see airships, a couple of prominent towers, a large wall surrounding the city with a gate, armed guards outside the city, a palace, gun emplacements, several canals passing into the city carrying commercial barges, and so on.

Of course, that’s what they can see. They can infer the presence of an airfield, and they can assume houses, taverns, sewers and so on. But one of the aims of this tool is to avoid the distracting ephemera that crops up with city design–so unless you plan to do something exciting with the sewer (and who doesn’t love a sewer) don’t bother writing a card for it. Let them assume.

Those are the features they can see. On the next tier are the places they’ve heard of, but (as first-time visitors) have never seen. If something is important enough to be in a guide book (“see the moon-pool at N’dregh, where the milk-fed boys dance and are devoured by captive sheep-dragons!”) then it might deserve a card. Again, no need to group that detail into a District.

I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe

Let’s say your game starts in a city that’s home to the PCs. They are not external observers; they’ve lived there, and know all the places that aren’t in the guide book.

The obvious problem is getting your players to agree on what the city looks like, which will vary based on their PCs’ respective experience growing up (or passing through).

Well, no problem. Firstly, PCs should have different perspectives, and secondly this tool is here to help. Start from the perspective of an outsider: what are the features and landmarks that everyone knows? Lay the cards out on the table so all your players can see. Draw a map if it helps everyone get a sense of scale and relative position. Let the players look through the stacks.

At the start of the game, or when the party are visiting a new city (or town, or other environment), do this:

  1. The GM lays down the cards for The View From Outside in front of the players. This includes everything they could see as an external observer, and all the landmarks inside they may have heard of. It does not need to include all the Districts (or even any of them).
  2. Each player mentions a place in the city that their PC knows. If it’s in a stack, great. If not, they write it down on a new card. That card goes in front of them.
  3. Go around the table three or four times until each player has that many cards in front of them.
  4. You’re relying on your players to be honest. If their PC has never been here before, they can knock on the table and pass.
  5. You’ll have a new stack of cards; at some point you’ll file them into the stacks of your city. For now you might want to mark them on the front with each PC’s name. Also for a final check, you could ask around the table if anyone else in the party also has experienced that Location.

There–that wasn’t hard, eh? Some parties are full of players who love to write screeds of background, and then expect you to build it into your game. Well, you should, if they’re going to that sort of trouble. However managing all of that creative work alone as a series of GM to player relationships is hard. Much better to get everyone to talk about it at the same time, and manage it GM to party. Also you get a nice little metagame where the thesps in the group get to do some character exposition.

Of course, some background is secret knowledge to be kept from the other players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to conspire with one player against the rest of the group. That’s not how I roll. There’s a great bit of advice in the Burning Wheel Gold book on p.99:

“If you have a secret about your character, make a Belief about it. It seems counter-intuitive, but in order to make a secret work in this game, you have to tell everyone about it!”


p>And we’re not really asking them to give up secrets, per se. We’re asking them to be candid about the places they’ve been. If the other players infer something about that character as a result, well that’s great!

And the best part of this exercise–you’ve taken your player’s creative energies and embedded them into your world in a very tangiable fashion that the other players can touch. And they’ve done the work, not you. Hurrah!

There are plenty of variants on this exercise. At character generation, you could give each player a stack of 10 cards and ask them to write down 10 interesting locations their PC has seen. If you’re playing Burning Wheel, make it a rule that each player owes you 5 locations for every Lifepath stage their PC has.

This shouldn’t be hard. We’re not asking the players to come up with back plot involving people, events and outcomes, just all of the interesting, marvelous places they’ve seen. They can be broad like a mercenary who’s seen a dozen campaigns in as many countries, or deep like a mage who knows every book and brick in the Great Library that’s been her home for four decades.


City Accelerator pt 7: Sustained Creation

Say you’ve got a bunch of cards, stacked into Districts as the product of an afternoon’s planning (and possibly drinking). What next?

OK, back up a second. Let’s define a District:

A District is a discrete collection of Locations, with defined Entry and Exit Points.

(On that nomenclature: if you don’t like the word District, feel free to use a synonym like Sector, Quarter, Cluster and so on.)

Taking that a bit further, a District has its own mood, current affairs, events, themes and so on. Yes, many of those may spill out into other parts of the city, kingdom, continent, whatever… but the District is where it begins, and where the PCs will come into contact with that mood, those people, those catalytic events.

Therefore, a transition between Districts must be accompanied by a change in mood and tone that the players notice. You may laugh that the players could be so oblivious (“we’re in the sewers? What happened to the Cathedral?”) but I have both been that player and GMd that party.

(If you haven’t guessed already, this tool is all about stating the obvious. Never underestimate the power of stating the obvious.)

A District has defined Entry and Exit Points because even when it’s easy to travel between Districts, it should not be trivial. At the very least time passes, money is spent, Travel Fatigue rolls are made, etc.


Those Entry and Exit Points are where the Portal attributes come in. 

Portals are either barriers or signposts. Either way they mark a threshold between one District and another.

In Part 6 I ranked the 6 locations in the City Centre. Three of the location cards were ranked 3 or 4 for Portal:

  • Rooftops
  • Zeppelin Mooring
  • The Senate

I ignore the locations ranked 1 and 2–they probably go somewhere, but it’s unlikely to be important to the game or the players, or particularly visible. It is important that the players know that the three top-ranked locations go somewhere.

I already decided that the Rooftops go to the Lorms district. It’s not a stretch to define the other two:

  1. The airfield links to other parts of the empire, via The City Airspace.
  2. The Senate links to its Interior.

Both of these are considered their own District, with their own Mood, Tensions and so on. Neither needs to be more than one location, although I could expand the City Airspace according to compass points, to help map the air with the surrounding terrain. This might matter in the future if the PCs choose to leave the city via zeppelin, but for now it doesn’t need further exposition.

(another interesting point; it may be necessary to consider Districts within Districts for, say, the interior of a large zeppelin travelling in a particular direction. Something for another time.)

I’ll set aside those two locations and focus on Lorms for now. But before I go on, there’s something very obvious missing in the City Centre–the Streets.

Whoops, I should have spotted that.

Well, GMs are human after all. Sooner or later–and probably during play, helpfully pointed out by your players–you’ll realise a gaping hole in your city. Don’t worry. The whole point of this tool is to focus on what’s important for the world and the game and not worry about details that may never come up. But now we’ve decided the Streets are important, it’s trivial to add a card for them.

The Streets are a location like any other–if you’re in that District, you can enter and exit that Location freely. I give them a Portal 4, Domain 2, Tension 3 and Catalyst 1; Tension is ranked highly due to a strong civillian crowd anticipating a state execution.

Clearly the Streets need to lead somewhere. In fact they form the foundation of the city’s infrastructure, and will have equivalents in all Districts. I’ll discuss that later.


Locations in Lorms (from Part 5):

  1. Abbatoir
  2. Slums
  3. Graveyard
  4. Police Station
  5. Barracks and Prison
  6. Catacombs
  7. Rooftops (Lorms)
  8. Streets (Lorms)
I went through each location and assigned axes as I saw fit, then put the lot in a table:

Lorms  Catalyst  Tension  Domain  Portal 
Abbatoir 2 4 3
Slums 3 4
Graveyard  1 4 3 2
Police Station 3 4
Barracks and Prison 3 4
Catacombs 2 3 4
Rooftops (Lorms) 1 4 2 3
Streets (Lorms) 1 4 3

It’s a bit heavy on the Domain side, but that probably only represents two or three power groups at best–the Law will be concentrated in the Police Station and Prison, and organised crime will be found in the Abbatoir and Slums. As for the Graveyard… that’s something else.

The defined Entry and Exit points for Lorms (locations we have ranked 3 or 4 in Portal) are:

  1. Abbatoir
  2. Catacombs
  3. Rooftops (Lorms)
  4. Streets (Lorms)

According to the earlier scheme, a ranking of 4 indicates something the PCs must react to if they enter the location, and a ranking of 3 indicates something if they go looking for it. With that in mind the Catacombs must be something big and obvious. A big under-city populated by the undead is a massive cliche, but I like it anyway. I decide to rip off Thief: The Dark Project and have the Catacombs lead to the haunted Old Quarter of the city. In my original shotgun list I had a card called “Hall of Shadows”. Until now I didn’t have a clear idea of what this location is or does, but if it fits anywhere in the City it fits here. I add the Hall of Shadows to a new stack called “Old Quarter” and call it done for now.

With the high incidence of organised crime in this District, the Abbatoir makes a good front for a criminal gang. However while Lorms is a haven for violent opportunistic crime, organised crime is something different. If the PCs look they’ll find the true criminals hidden away, but they’ll also be entering a different District where the rules and the mood are different. I call this “Lorms Underworld” and create a new stack. This is the place that the Police don’t go.

Here’s where it gets slightly complicated. Lorms Underworld effectively overlaps Lorms in space; however the locations in Lorms Underworld aren’t normally visible in Lorms because they’re nondescript areas used to hide criminal activities. PCs enter the Underworld by aquiring membership or familiarity with the criminal element; at that point the Underworld locations are revealed. If you’re running a police procedural game in this city then at some point you’re going to amalgamate the Lorms Underworld with the rest of Lorms. But early in the plot, you will want to keep them separate.

Now we need to consider the Streets and Rooftops. It looks like this city does have a rooftop “Thieves’ Highway” in addition to the streets; availabiliy of Rooftop locations will depend on how closely spaced buildings are. It also begs another question–what new Districts can be linked to the Rooftops and not to the Streets? Just for the hell of it, I think of a new District location called “Sky Shanty” and write a card for it; this will be a community of scavengers living in dwellings suspended above the forbidden Old Quarter.

Filling in Blanks

At some point the Shotgun creativity phase will no longer be enough to hold the City together. So far I’ve been thinking of cool locations in isolation, but gradually I’ve moved to thinking about whole Districts. This is expected for the creative process–after you’ve created a few Districts you start to think not about the City as a whole, and what it lacks. Commerce. Rich People. Poor People. Transport. Entertainment.

I know instinctively that my City needs a Merchant quarter and a Noble quarter. Maybe it has an Industrial quarter as well. That’s fine; I’ll start off stacks for each of them. However, I will resist the temptation to populate them for the sake of it. This tool is all about economy of effort. If the PCs are never going to the Docks then you don’t need locations for the Docks; it’s enough to tell them that yes, there is a Merchant Quarter in the city and the bustling docks are visible on the south side. Until the plot requires it, don’t put too much effort in.


“Make maps like crazy” is good advice. At some point you need to make sense of your new creation in 3d space. Maps help with a lot of things–from identifying blanks to drawing attention to dominant forces.

Here’s my map. It took all of five minutes (don’t get your hopes up).

Rough Map

And here’s my stacks:


OK, it’s not exactly pretty, but I’m getting a feel for this place. Lorms is a big sprawling mess on the east side of the city, embarassingly close to the centre, a hive of scum and villainy built on the haunted ruins of the Old Quarter. On the other side are the nice shiny houses of the Noble quarter. Jolly good.

More City Growth


p>Cities will grow according to the needs of the players as their PCs explore. The reasons for that exploration are usually plot driven (and by this I assume there are catalysts that the players have noticed and are following, rather than just railroading) but could be curiosity, conquest and so on.

The examples above are of pre-session prep, focusing on the geography of the city; as a result, they make use of the Portal attribute for growth and development. But that isn’t necessarily the only approach.

You could grow your city according to plot drive. For example, the PCs find a clue (catalyst) on the rooftops near the Senate building points to the Opera House. The development of the Opera House’s District is a consequence of the needs of the plot. You don’t need much more to run a scene in the Opera House itself, but it will probably help to at least name the District it sits in, and add a Streets location as an Entry/Exit point. But that’s all you need to do.

Similarly the players may focus on Domains (where are the powerful people) or even Tensions (where is the action) for exploration. They aren’t concerned with geography so much. But to help you to visualise your city and to make it real to the players it will help to name the District and to provide at least one Entry/Exit point.

If there is one certainty it’s that no matter how much prep you do, your players will find a way to ignore your carefully prepared world and explore the uncharted territory. That’s why obsessing over minutae of a District when you don’t really care or plan to run a game in that District is a waste of time. Until the players care, it’s not worth bothering about too much. And since you’re going to be on the defensive at some point regarding your city design, it’s good to get some practice. Next time I’ll talk about reacting to player creativity and exploration.

Saturday, 5 January 2013


January is miserable enough without making resolutions based on guilt and self-denial. But it is a fresh start, and a chance to make plans.

First of all, I shall play and run games, rather than just buying games, filing them on the shelf and stroking them occasionally.

Here’s my wish list of games to play/run this year:

  1. Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor (campaign in progress)
  2. Lamentations of the Flame Princess (one-shot planned with date and everything!)
  3. Don’t Rest Your Head (another one-shot, date planned, substance needs work)
  4. Ghosts of Albion / Angel / other Cinematic Unisystem (potential campaign, no set date or party)
  5. Apocalypse World hacks (design in progress for Eternal Champion and Sapphire & Steel)
  6. De Profundis (starting this weekend, hopefully!)

Candlewick is on the home stretch (I think); with a bit of effort it may become one of the campaigns I actually finish. Haelmouth (Buffy/Morning Glories Cinematic Unisystem) is partially planned but without players or a gaming slot. The two one-shots (DRYH/LotFP) are in good shape. The AW hacks are nebulous entities–I’ve been devouring the Sapphire & Steel TV and audio plays as research, and I think it has potential.

And then there’s De Profundis, which I think I will save for another post. If all goes well that should last the year. We’ll see.

Games that didn’t make the list are Everway, Over The Edge, and a fantasy homebrew game. The latter is tied to the City Accelerator tool; we’ll see if it ever gets played.

Telly and Books

We watched a lot of crappy TV last year. The magic box sits under the telly and inhales all the third-rate fantasy, sci-fi and crime drama we tell it to. Once it’s on the box we have to watch it to “free up space” so it can record more and more.

2012’s viewing included such seminal masterpieces as Game of Thrones, Teen Wolf and Falling Skies. I don’t think I’d have bothered with half the stuff we saw if it hadn’t been free with the cable box.

We’re gradually learning the discipline to cull series that are under-performing. Once that starts you lose the habit of scouring the listings for new dross to record. Eventually the list of recorded shows is confined to one page, and since none of it looks appealing the default option is now “let’s go to bed and read” instead.

After finishing Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell (which I think I started reading at Reading Festival in 2007) I’m not going to commit to one book a week, but it could happen.


I have a big music collection and I do listen every day, but it’s frequently the same stuff. I don’t know if I can commit to listening to every single album I own in a year, but one thing I fancy doing is creating a new playlist every week. The rules are:

  • no repeats of tracks
  • artists only appear once on each playlist
  • an artist that appeared last week can’t appear in the following week


p>I’ll publish the lists here. For obvious reasons I won’t be posting download links, though if it’s something difficult to find I may provide some links for legitimate copies, or at least some Youtube downloads.

That’s enough resolutions for now. Happy new year!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The City Accelerator, part five: Beginning Workflow

The point of the City Accelerator is workflow: how do you construct a really cool space to set your game in the shortest possible time?


For a city, where do you start? Well, you probably consider people first–as in “who lives here?”

Alternatively, you could first ask “what can I see?” This is the approach I’m going to consider. It’s not that factions and characters aren’t important; however when I started thinking about this tool I wanted something to aid the GM in their visual description and presentation of locations. I especially wanted to capture the ambience of CRPGs like [Morrowind] and [Oblivion] (I don’t really care for the gameplay, but they look great).

You could “grow” your city organically, beginning from one corner and then adding logically connected locations. I don’t recommend this, because it will probably lead to a lot of irrelevant bulk and won’t achieve the tool’s aims–namely to build a city quickly and get to the exciting stuff.

I favour a shotgun approach. Here’s how to start:

    1. Forget about people, plot, monsters, factions, challenge. Forget about utilities, services, plumbing, heat, power, and so on.
    2. Get a stack of 5×3 index cards. This is your “blank” stack. You will also have an “in progress” stack and a “finished” stack.
    3. Start writing locations, one per card. Don’t overwork each location.
      • The bare minimum you should include is a title of one or more words. If the title suggests people, activities, conflict, treasure or other aspects that’s fine. If you absolutely must have extra definition that’s fine–add keywords, a short sentence, or other description on the same side of the card where you wrote the title. When you’re satisfied, put that card on the “in progress” stack and move on to the next one.
    4. Don’t worry if they locations don’t logically connect. Keep writing the locations until you have no more ideas or just want to take a break.
    5. Now you have a big stack of “in progress” cards (let’s say you’ve been very productive and written 100 cards). They have no markers, codes or other descriptors, they might not even have anything more than a title, and you haven’t begun to decide how they fit together. But crucially you’ve thought of these locations, which means you probably can visualise running a game in most of those locations.

The bare minimum you should include is a title of one or more words. If the title suggests people, activities, conflict, treasure or other aspects that’s fine. If you absolutely must have extra definition that’s fine–add keywords, a short sentence, or other description on the same side of the card where you wrote the title. When you’re satisfied, put that card on the “in progress” stack and move on to the next one.


What Next?

You’ve got a stack of cards that have some writing on them, but aren’t finished. Each one represents a location, with or without context. What next?

  1. You could Recycle and annotate: you can go through your card lists and annotate the ones that deserve clarification or expansion. This may be a useful exercise, particularly if you’ve set them aside for a few days and are now returning to your design.

  2. Pick and choose: grab your favourite cards that would fit into your game right now, and work on those.

  3. Shuffle and deal: if you prefer to draw cards at random–especially if you like Tarot or other divination tools–then you could do worse than deal a few of your cards and see what sort of environment comes up.

  4. Organise into districts: if you like to logically organise your city into a 2D plan, you could begin by grouping your cards into districts. You can do this for the whole deck of In Progress cards, or for the subset you’ve picked out already (i.e. step 2 or 3).

This is what I did. I kept writing until I ran out of cards, and I came up with two dozen locations.

1. Abbatoir
2. Botanical Gardens
3. Solar Collector (with the keyword “executions”, not sure why right now)
4. Coffee House Absolute
5. Graveyard (with the keyword “Zombies!” because, well, zombies)
6. Snake-headed statue
7. Artillery Battery
8. Zeppelin Mooring
9. Police Station
10. Slums
11. Amphetheatre
12. University
13. Rooftops
14. The Three Fingers Inn
15. Barracks and Prison
16. The Streets
17. Opera House
18. The Catacombs
19. The Church of the Wheel
20. The Senate
21. Guarnam’s Laboratory
22. The Court of the Crystal King
23. Trading Post
24. Hall of Shadows

First I’ll say that half of these locations do nothing for me. I wrote them down automatically and now I’ve come back to them they fail to resonate. The cards will go into a recycle pile for whatever (e.g. monster record cards for Buffy or LOTFP).

City Centre

Next, I think of my first district. I started to think about the civic centre. What happens there? Probably transport, government, displays of affluence and power.

1. Snake-headed statue
2. Zeppelin Mooring
3. Solar Collector
4. Artillery Battery
5. The Senate
6. Rooftops

While I was thinking of the location I picked up [The Adventures of Luther Arkwright] and looked at the scene in St Peterberg (para 00.72.87).

I chose the Snake Headed Statue as a display of affluence, and the Solar Collector and Artillery Battery as displays of power. The Zeppelin Mooring obviously represents commerce and transport, and the Senate building is the seat of government. Finally the Rooftops are interesting. I want to give the players a sense of looking up as well as around them.

All of these locations are what the PCs will see if they go to this location; furthermore they’re places that they can interact with. I’ve omitted the other buildings around the airfield. I haven’t mentioned the people.

While I think of it now I add other details that the PCs will either see, or they will know. I note that the Senate building has guards in dark brown long leather coats with lots of buckles that cover the lower part of their faces, leaving their shaven heads exposed. I add keywords to the Snake Headed Statue such as “affluence”, “gift” and “mad king”, denoting that the statue has a plaque that commemorates it being gifted to an ancestor of the current monarchy by some alien race. All of this is colour so far, with one exception–I was inspired to write “assassin” on the Rooftops card. I’ll decide why later.

So, that’s my centre of the city, where exciting things will happen at some point. I stack them together as my “City Centre” stack for now.


Second District

I look at what’s left, and quickly think of a rough neighbourhood of slums and mean streets, where the police have trouble keeping order.

1. Abbatoir
2. Slums
3. Graveyard
4. Police Station
5. Barracks and Prison
6. Catacombs

I randomly call this district “Lorms”. It’s a violent, spooky place. However, something’s missing. The Rooftops I used in the Centre would also be good here. No problem: I create another card:

7. Rooftops (Lorms)

Now, do the Catacombs really belong in this run-down area? Maybe not; I assumed they’d be the tombs of long-dead royalty. But perhaps there’s a vast catacomb that spans the city, and the location in Lorms is just a local entry point. I annotate the Catacombs location and change the name to

6. Catacombs (Lorms)

OK. I now have my second district. I briefly add a few keywords to each location:

1. Abbatoir – Stench, Animals
2. Slums – Poverty, Gin, Thieves
3. Graveyard – Zombies
4. Police Station – Constables, Science, Ichabod Crane
5. Barracks and Prison – Army, Madness
6. Catacombs (Lorms) – Linked, Horrors
7. Rooftops (Lorms)


Not all of the locations can be grouped into Districts just yet, but they’re still places I want to set events in. At the moment I really want to use the Opera House. I could go to the trouble of creating a whole new District full of nobles, with beautiful houses and quiet streets.

But I won’t do that. What matters is what the PCs can see and what they will interact with. If the Opera House is the only thing of interest in that location, then it’s the only location worth recording. Instead I’ll bring the colour to the Opera House, noting that it has rich patrons and is a cultural centre for the city:

1. Opera House – Rich Patrons, Tradition, Culture, Opulence

There’s nothing stopping me from adding to this district of one later (perhaps the Catacombs connect to the Opera House basement).

That’s it for now. Next time, working in the hooks.


Post Script: Ch-ch-changes


p>Don’t bin all of the lame cards just yet. They may be a name change away from being a useful location. But also, don’t force it. Don’t be tempted to make a location work if you don’t believe in it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

A Most Non-Non-Non-Heinous Excursion

The PCs are characters from history, expressed with three simple descriptors: a skill, a physical appearance, and a state of mind.

The setup: the characters have been abducted by two mischievous young gods of time, and transported to the future. There they have been dumped in a city full of wondrous magic and told to amuse themselves for a few hours while their hosts go on some unspecified errand. With no companion from their own time they band together out of mutual terror. What will these travellers do? Will they hold onto their last shreds of sanity long enough for their mysterious and youthful benefactors to return them to their own time?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The City Accelerator, part four: Qualifiers

Qualifiers are really just metadata for your four axes; like absolute rankings they’re optional. Their role is mainly visual cues when you present your whole city as a single overview–then they can be used to hilight points of clue, attack, barriers and so forth.

Most of these qualifiers are binary; they are either Active or Passive. Passive qualifiers suit exploration, whereas Active qualifiers are better for motivation.

Catalyst Qualifiers

Attacks are the Active qualifiers in this case, whereas Keys and Clues are passive.

Keys are Catalysts that unlock other places. They are always linked to other locations–and usually to Portals. Keys are a kind of Catalyst that the players expect to find if they go to a certain location. It’s always possible that they will stumble over a key at some point–but if they don’t know it’s a Key at that point, it’s more of a Clue.

Attacks are Catalysts that force the PCs to be reactive. They may happen to the PCs as they explore the location, or they may have happened earlier. Attacks are directed at a resource that matters to the PCs.

Clues are a subset of Keys that the PCs are not expecting to find; they ask questions rather than unlock other locations. A Clue is probably unlikely to be found in isolation–it will be accompanied by an Attack or another Active qualifier.

Catalyst Q

Tension Qualifiers

Whirlpools are Active, Balances are Passive.

Whirlpools will suck the characters in as soon as they set foot in the location. A riot or a bar-room brawl are physical examples; a heated debate at the King’s court where the PCs are forced to take a side is a political example.

Balances are tensions that the PCs may upset or even exploit, should they choose to do so. In time, Balances may become Whirlpools.

Tension Q

Portal Qualifiers

Barriers are Active and Signposts are Passive.

The most important qualifier for a Portal is a Barrier. This is an indication of a hard stop that prevents PCs moving on until they have achieved something (finding a key, resolving a tension, etc).

Signposts are almost not worth mentioning; the point here is that if your Portal is high priority, anything that isn’t a Barrier must be a signpost. The location must telegraph the transition between locations, otherwise the significance will be lost on the PCs. There is the option of cryptic signposts (e.g. the PCs suspect they have entered the land of the dead, but can’t be certain). 

Portal q

Domain Qualifiers

Territory is an Active property, and Stronghold is Passive.

Territory is actively policed; if Domain is high priority and Territorial, the PCs should be actively resisted or coerced upon entry. Hostile animals or human gangs may be considered Territorial.

Stronghold is the passive version of Territory. Strongholds may represent relatively hostile environments if the PCs put a foot wrong, but they can also represent safe havens. Generally the PCs can expect to enter and leave a Stronghold safely if they behave well. The same can’t be said for a Territory.

Domain Q



p>Qualifiers should be used sparingly. There’s no point in giving them at all to low priority axes. There’s also no value if they are over-used. If every location is a Whirlpool of politics then the game will be tiring and not at all credible.

I’d recommend using one or two symbols on a card at the most. I’ve annotated my example below with a Key (the Catalyst will give the PCs evidence and therefore permission to pursue Lo-lin) and a Signpost (because it’s obvious where their next destination is). I wouldn’t bother with the other two; if they fail their stealth rolls they might cause tension when the alarm is raised, but otherwise it doesn’t affect the function of this location.

Accelerator qualified

Next time, workflow. TTFN.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The City Accelerator, part three: Relative and Absolute Ranking, Threshold

The simple version of ranking each axis is entirely relative; that is to say, all that matters is one axis is prioritised over another.

You could also interpret the rankings as absolute numbers, if that’s useful. A sample scale might be:

Rank 1 – either no consequence from the property, or a complete absence of the property.

  • Catalyst – there are no clues present
  • Tension – there is no conflict for the PCs to become involved in
  • Portal – this is (physically) a dead end
  • Domain – no territory or important people to speak of

Rank 2 – item is present but very low priority. Mostly the fallout from interaction is of low value, or low threat level. Interaction is optional and the yields from that interaction may be low.

  • Catalyst – the clue is a side-quest or minor detail; an irrelevance
  • Tension – there is a conflict here, but it can be ignored and will have little effect on the PCs
  • Portal – connections with other places are routine and uninteresting
  • Domain – there are people of power here, but their ability to affect the PCs is limited.

Rank 3 – item is medium priority. It’s a significant feature, but not the dominating feature. It could be a real hindrance/distraction to the PCs if it’s a sideline. This feature isn’t automatically uncovered but is likely to be with some persistence/curiosity.

  • Catalyst – the clue is important and will lead the PCs in a particular direction; it isn’t essential, but it is interesting.
  • Tension – there is a significant conflict going on that can involve the PCs.
  • Portal – there are some interesting connections to other locations.
  • Domain – there are powerful people here, and they will make their presence felt if the PCs look at them funny.

Rank 4 – item is a high priority. It is guaranteed that the PCs will encounted this feature upon entering the location; it’s sufficiently high profile that it may be telegraphed (e.g. everyone knows Armitage rules the Barrens with an iron fist – enter at your peril!).

  • Catalyst – the PCs are guaranteed to find the clue
  • Tension – the PCs are guaranteed to be drawn into a conflict or feud
  • Portal – the location is the gateway to somewhere different, and important
  • Domain – there are powerful people here who can seriously affect the PCs, and will demand some sort of tribute.

Rank 5 and above – these will be automatically encountered as for Rank 4; higher ranks exist only to establish priority above Rank 4. Encountering these events is a certainty, but Rank 5 factors will take precendence over Rank 4.


p>In the simple system axes are definitely prioritised one above another; that’s still my recommended approach. However there may be times when the GM wants to give two axes equal priority. Fine, go for it. My only reservation is that unless both axes are Rank 4 (i.e. they must be encountered) then these features are essentially optional; in which case, what do you gain from giving them equal priority? One will always be encountered before the other, and if it proves more interesting the other will be ignored.

The absolute ratings do serve another purpose. Total the ranks and you get the Threshold of the location. Threshold can be used for campaign planning; in early stage campaigns locations of a certain Threshold are off-limits. Or at least, the PCs can enter, but can’t interact. If the weenie PC party enter a location with an exceptionally high Domain, for example, they’ll be safe–but only because they’re unlikely to be taken seriously. When they return as older and wiser (and more powerful) versions, the place suddenly becomes more threatening.

I’ll discuss the Threshold later, when it comes to considering Scope–the dimensions of your sandbox. TTFN. 

The City Accelerator, part two: Axes

Location Axes

Each location in a game will have parameters that define its usefulness and how it fits into the game or plot.

I’m going to use an elemental model–because I like elemental models, and because they resonate with people generally. We will have four axes of significance for a given location.

1. Catalyst (Fire)

The Catalyst refers to clues, events, or anything else that provokes PC reaction and moves the story along.

2. Tension (Water)

Tension refers to anything that is already happening that the PCs could become involved with. Perhaps their presence will create the tension itself. Feuds, arguments, romantic interest and politics are all Tension; it isn’t necessarily emotive, though the best Tension will have some emotion in there.

3. Portal (Air)

The Portal (or Portals) is where the location leads to. You might question the value of giving this its own axis–since the point of the City Accelerator is to connect locations together anyway. The importance of the Portal is that it connects two different worlds together. It represents a boundary–political, territorial, whatever. For some reason, the PCs need to cross from one boundary into another. Portal will help you decide how easy or difficult that transition is.

4. Domain (Earth)

Domain is simply who is present. Domain is related to, but different from Tension. Like Portal, Domain is a measure of permission. Either you’re allowed in, or you’re not.

Ratings and Priorities


p>The simple approach next is to prioritise the four axes. Which is the most important feature of this location? Is it a clue? That’s Catalyst. Is it the fact that a crime boss frequents the location? That’s Domain. The important question to ask is, what is the number one reason for the PCs to be there, or the first thing they will notice about the location when they are there?

Going one step further, consider Ratings. In the simple system, just rank them one to four, with four being the highest priority (most important).

Here’s an example. The Southern Watchtower of the Crystal City looks out onto the Harzi Wastes. It is rumoured that Lo-lin the assassin escaped through the South Gates, but the Vizier refuses to acknowledge she even exists. The PCs must assemble evidence that Lo-lin did indeed pass through before the government will sanction an expedition that could lead to political tension.

Accelerator ranked

Catalyst is rated highest at 4. In order for the story to happen, the players must be able to prove she was there. Therefore if they go there, they will find a clue without fail.

Portal is prioritised next, simply because the watchtower overlooks the wastes, which is where the players are going. They have the option to simply take the clue and press on if they wish, rather than get official sanction.

Tension is ranked low. There is a slight risk that if the PCs are detected by the City Guard there will be some rebuke or other fallout. The Tension is not high enough to dominate the other factors (it wouldn’t prevent the PCs from either finding their Catalyst or passing through the Portal) but it’s a slight risk.

Domain is ranked last, simply because the people in the watchtower are mooks of little consequence. They might sound the alarm but they’re otherwise unable to obstruct the PCs, and they certainly don’t have anything the PCs want (other than Lo-lin’s hairpin, which was taken as a keepsake by one of the guards that the disguised Lo-lin seduced in order to gain entry to the city).

Accelerator back

The location is represented by an index card, with the front containing the four ranked axes, and the back with any useful descriptive information.

That’s all for now. Next, we’ll talk about additional qualifiers for the axes, and how they relate to each other.