Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Cow sighted

Been quiet here and on the podcast for various reasons; the main one is I’ve been pouring my creative energies into getting ready for Concrete Cow 18.5 on the 15th September. I’m offering 2 games: in the morning I’ll be running StormHack (that’s Stormbringer meets Whitehack) with the classic Chaosium scenario “Stolen Moments” from the 4th edition Perils of the Young Kingdoms.

Getting ready for that has been relatively straightforward to the afternoon offering, where I’m hoping to run Grand Tableau (aka hipster Everway). I made a fortune deck using Lenormand cards (Pixie’s Astounding Lenormand, to be precise). I’m quite pleased at how it turned out…

First, slip the card into a standard MtG style card sleeve (I do this to protect the original Lenormand cards in case I want them back in the future). Then get some backing card, approximately tarot-sized. We mount the sleeved card onto the larger card with the card meaning below it, like this:

Then slip that whole thing inside a second card sleeve that’s sized for larger cards (I think the sleeves are made by FFG and designed for games like Dixit).

There we go… and the final touch, put the 36 cards inside a nice wooden box.

Quite pleased with this effort, and not a bad way to spend an evening while watching Iron Fist season 2 with one eye. Hopefully I’ll get takers on Saturday.

(the scenario is The Death Hand Of Saint No-One, which is actually a Continuum scenario — we’ll see how it turns out exchanging time travellers for urban magicians)

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Creative Update: Fictoplasm, Black Mantle, Deep Season

This is a bit of self affirmation to say yes, I really am making things and making progress. Here is what I am doing right now:


fictoplasm itunes 2

We just released our eighth episode of Fictoplasm, our podcast about pieces of fiction and the games they inspire us to run (if we ever get time). Episode 08 featured Becky Annison and Elizabeth Lovegrove talking about Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld, and Becky’s game-in-development Bite Me! which she will be running at Revelation next February. Good stuff!

The plan with Fictoplasm is to do around 12 full episodes and then take a break. In addition to Liz and Becky, I’ve had contributions from Mo Holkar and Josh Fox.

But, setting a full episode up is a scheduling challenge because it requires at least two people who have both read the book and have game ideas to be available at the same time. So we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the near future and see how that works out. Fictoplasm “The Pitch” will basically just be short pitches of books one of us has read and thinks that (a) it’s worth recommending to others and (b) it has legs, gaming-wise. We’ll string them together or maybe even just release very short episodes. We’ll see.

I’m thinking of opening The Pitch out to other contributors — and the great thing is, you don’t need to fix a time for the recording, just record what you have any time and send it over at your convenience. If you think you might be interested, drop me a line.

Black Mantle


The game is steadily taking shape. I’ve sketched out twelve Citizen playbooks, the outline for the playtest document and had some ideas for the mecha side.

This is the pitch for Black Mantle, by the way. It’s a hybrid OSR and Drama-type game — in the explorations outside the City it’s all OSR style (which doesn’t really mean anything except it’s like a traditional adventure RPG), but when you get back to the City it’s all about reaffirming your relationships and making new ones, as well as recovering physically and psychologically.

I ran the first game at Concrete Cow this year — it seemed to be well received, even though I know it was very rough around the edges. It gave me a lot of ideas about what the players were expecting from this kind of game. So, progress.

Deep Season


I have mad love for James Wallis’ Fugue system even though I don’t think the CC document tells all the story — which is why I wrote some hacking notes.

Deep Season is a Fugue content set that should obey all of the system constraints of the original — amnesia, a rotating Dealer role with isolated knowledge of each Act, etc.

Alas Vegas is described as

Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’sInferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner.

Deep Season’s influences are a little more… British. Mainly it’s children’s 6-part serials from the late 70s to early 90s like Children of the Stones, The Moondial or Century Falls, plus the Doctor Who of the 3rd Doctor (and anything else set in an isolated rural setting). Other influences are Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, The Prisoner, The Wicker Man, Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and the landscape around Dungeness in Kent including the Denge sound mirrors.


The setting is a small coastal farming town, a little like Avebury but with a shoreline to the west and sound mirrors in the place of standing stones.

For inspiration I used the Thoth tarot to brainstorm the plot of each act. I designed a custom 12-card spread:


On the left there’s a three card hierarchy of key personalities — a subordinate at the bottom, a deity or higher consciousness at the top, and a political mover in the middle. Next, the four cards at compass points are the significators of the four factions during that Act; and finally on the right there are five cards that indicate the arc of the Act.

It’s worked surprisingly well — and the Thoth tarot has been a lot more effective than others (e.g. the tarot of Marseilles). Maybe Thoth is fine for me imagining other people’s futures, just not suitable for my own. I wonder what that means.

Anyway, I want to run Deep Season this year before Christmas, but I can’t guarantee the first draft will be done by then — we’ll see.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The City Shared

Here is a collaborative World-Building mini-game thing I’m contributing to the #3nano16 hashtag. Suitable for one GM, a traditional gaming group of GM and players (writing assumes this arrangement), or as a GMless collaborative exercise.

You will need writing materials — I recommend index cards, and a large sheet of paper. I recommend a different colour card or ink for the nominal GM’s answers.

One: Survey Points

There are four Survey Points in the city:

  • Outside the City
  • The Boundary between Outside and Inside
  • The Inside (contains Districts and Locations)
  • The Heart at the (physical or spiritual) centre of the city

Get your big sheet of paper and draw this:

City Building

When you generate your index cards, put them in stacks in different parts of the city.

Two: The Outside

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does everyone think is Outside the City’s Boundary? e.g. other cities (allied or enemies), low-tech settlements, radioactive waste, a sworn enemy, predatory creatures, farmland, storms
  • What can you see from the Boundary looking Outside? e.g. miles of farmland, swamp, impenetrable fog, other cities in the distance, a starlit icy plain, a void. This assumes it’s permitted to look at the Outside from the Boundary.

Write these on index cards (of chosen GM colour) and put them Outside the city.

Three: View from the Outside

Each player, answer this question:

  • What feature of the City would an arriving traveller see from the Outside when looking upon the City? e.g. a large wall or gate, a jagged skyline, a large harbour, zeppelin moorings, parabolic reflectors on the top of buildings, guard towers with flower-shaped cannon facing outward or inward, crumbling walls almost overwhelmed by jungle vines

Go around the table more than once, if you like. Write these on index cards and put them Outside the city.

Four: the Boundary

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does the Boundary look like? e.g. a high wall, an area of no man’s land, a gate, outlying suburbs, shanty towns, abandoned buildings
  • Who is allowed to cross the Boundary? e.g. anyone with papers, a government sanctioned expedition force, a secret fraternity, no-one

Write these on index cards and put them at the Boundary.

Five: Interior Views

Take the cards each player generated in the View from the Outside, and pass them around. For each card, look at the detail and answer this question:

  • From this point in the City, what does my view look like? e.g. are you high up? Is the area industrial, commercial, military, political?

Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Six: Interior Details

Each player, answer this question:

  • What else can you see from the Boundary looking Inside? e.g. tall buildings, low buildings, horse-drawn carriages, gargoyles, manufacturing industry, food industry, art, police or military presence, propaganda, commerce, transport

Go around the table one to three times. Build on what has been previously revealed. Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Seven: the Heart

GM, answer these questions:

  • Who rules the City? e.g. a monarch, an autarch, a government, a council, a hidden force
  • What is the central feature that represents their strength? e.g. a tower, a church, a city hall, a palace, a fane

Write these on index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Eight: Balance

Players, each answer these questions:

  • What previous feature you uncovered is reflected in the Heart of the City? e.g. military, propaganda, transport, trade
  • What previous feature you uncovered is different or inverted in the Heart of the City? e.g. wealth, fashion, art, colours, size of buildings

Write these on new index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Nine: Next

Admire what you have done, and plan your game in your new City, or go and play something else, or have some gin.


Some “City Fiction”

  • Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • Embassytown and The City and the City, both by China Mieville

Some nonfiction

  • The City Shaped and The City Assembled by Spiro Kostof
  • City by P. D. Smith

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Five Analog Brainstorming Tools

Following on from Messy Designs and prompted by the Design Games Podcast (around 19 min in this episode) I would like to talk about five brainstorming tools I like for creating things.

However the aim is not to talk about how to brainstorm (because the reader knows this) or how to use each tool (because there are plenty of online articles for that), but to talk about how each tool affects the process

Assumption 1: Brainstorming is a process of

  1. Meditating on a concept or heading
  2. Writing isolated nodes of information representing single ideas
  3. Connecting these nodes together
  4. Reorganising these for an holistic view of your overall concept
  5. Repeat

The above process is true for all five techniques below; they are different ways of doing exactly the same thing, namely mapping out the ways that single ideas branch out into smaller headings.

Assumption 2: How Each Technique Could Influence Thinking

First, working with each method has two modes:

  1. Authoring of new ideas
  2. Reading and revising

Second, when writing new ideas, the nodes are not created in isolation but are influenced by the visibility & spatial representation of neighbour nodes.

And third, when you’re looking at the whole thing, your ability to get value from the design comes from

  • context around each node, i.e. what is the thought process connecting one node to the next (is it implied, or explicit?), and
  • ability to reorder into a coherent view.

The Techniques

Considering 5 techniques:

  • Index Cards
  • Mind Mapping
  • Concept Mapping
  • Mandala Charts
  • Outlining

Note: I really prefer a physical piece of paper to interact with (“analog note taking”) but I’ve mentioned software options as well. I like the physical thing because

  1. less temptation to delete
  2. less distraction by screen elements
  3. more fresh air and natural light

Index Cards

Get a stack of index cards and write thoughts on them, then reorder, sort into piles, etc. Cheap, very portable, very tactile.

  • Writing: cards created in isolation, no visual influence from other nodes. No shape, no implied hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: sort and stack. May be harder to get an holistic view of the project, simply due to the size of each card. You can get an holistic view of the stacks as headings though.
  • Chaos: very messy

Software options: Scrivener (cross platform), SuperNoteCard (cross platform), IndexCard (iOS)

Mind Maps

Tony Buzan’s technique has the user start with a central topic and branch out in all directions, creating a hierarchy of nodes.

  • Writing: nodes created as subordinates and peers of other nodes. Central concept will always impose itself on the process. Radial hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: drag and drop (for software) and colour coding. Pretty good for holistic view, but focused on one central concept or question.
  • Chaos: moderately messy in that order isn’t imposed in the writing process and the map grows organically

Software options: FreeMind, XMind

Concept Maps

Joseph Novak’s technique involves a branching map much like Buzan’s Mind Mapping, but crucially differs as there’s no central node and nodes are connected by contextual statements.

  • Writing: nodes have peers but no subordinates. No hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: draw connections and colour code. Gives a fairly good holistic view although its main strength is being able to follow a thought process jumping from node to node
  • Chaos: messy, although it requires discipline to apply the contextual information around each node at the time of writing that node

Software options: C-Map Tools

Mandala Charts

This is a 3 by 3 grid with a concept at the central box; each other box in the grid then becomes the central box in one of eight secondry grids. There is some interesting method around creating the opposites as flexible pairs. Look here.

  • Writing: nodes have peers and subordinates.
  • Reviewing: highly ordered and focused on the headings you have chosen. 2-level hierarchy, and rigid shape. Good holistic view of the grid.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software option: MandalaChart for iOS

Document Outlines

Document outlines are a series of headings and sub-headings, and you can move them about, promote and demote headings, etc.

  • Writing: nodes are subordinates of headings. Strongly hierarchical. Furthermore, because this is written vertically, higher priority implied for the top of the sheet vs. the bottom.
  • Reviewing: again highly ordered and focused on the headings. Promote/demote headings in the outline. Holistic view is good but priority of headings is implied due to the vertical listing.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software options: Scrivener, MS Word, OmniOutliner


Preference will dictate what each technique does for you, but in summary I feel that

  • Index Cards maximise the “blank sheet” and minimise influences of other nodes on thinking during the writing stage. Plus they’re very portable
  • Mind Maps work well to promote one central concept and allow ideas to grow organically
  • C-Maps do the same, but they’re more about meandering cognitive pathways than a central concept
  • Mandala Charts are about top-down order and starting with an holistic view of your concept (or life). But they can do interesting things by pairing up headings on opposite sides of the charts
  • Outlines are about preparing a structure for consumption by someone else (e.g. a document). I know people like making lists so they have that advantage, although I don’t care for them for brainstorming


Monday, 9 November 2015

Dorian Aquila: An Introduction

Today has been a good day. Taking my dad to the hospital has been… OK. I made a really good spag bol afterwards.

While I was waiting I wrote some of The Last Days Of Dorian Aquila, a storygame about a faux 17th century duellist. Including this relationship map:

Dorian_Relationship Map

And some fluff:

“The Last Days of Dorian Aquila: A Tragedy”

Dorian Aquila is a rake and a scoundrel. She is about to fight a duel and will likely not survive. These are her last days, where she settles her affairs. Who will she make amends with?

This is not an historically accurate game. Style-wise it looks a lot like the late 17th to early 18th century; but really that’s just a bunch of social conventions. You could transplant the setting to a fantasy setting, a space-opera setting, etc. I visualise it as being this period because I like frock coats and outrageous wigs.

These are the important conventions:

  • There is a mania for duelling, and people die every day over matters of honour.
  • Duelling is also formalised, with seconds to observe that everything is “fair”. This is used to mitigate against a charge of murder and hanging in the event of a fatality.
  • People are obsessed with honour.
  • People are also obsessed with social class. One can ascend through merit alone, but that is very rare; far more likely that one comes from money already. The latter will always consider themselves superior to the former.

Also, about female pronouns. I want to use female pronouns throughout. (If this bothers you as being a bit too politically correct I will just say this — it’s not intended to be politically correct, just political.)

You could take this world at face value where everyone is literally female — similar to the feminist utopia of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Or you could take it as a statement that gender identification doesn’t really matter, such as in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, or where gender roles are fluid as in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness. Or you could just do what (I guess) a female audience usually does with male-pronoun fiction — imagine that at any point he may be substituted for she. Except the other way around. Obviously.

(Not politically correct. Just political.)

Saturday, 22 November 2014


It’s 4am UK time but midday in Singapore, so you could call that a lie-in. I’ve been agressively trying to rebalance the time-zones; arguably easier travelling East-West since all I need to do is stay awake, which I mostly did — managing a respectable 9.30pm (with naps) but we still have a half-eaten episode of Gotham for today.

We’re celebrating a combined 80th birthday this weekend. Our social circle pretty much wrote October off as a bad lot, and the usual celebrations didn’t happen for all the Librans.

So we went to the pretentious supermarket and I snagged three different bags of threesixty coffee and a couple of bottles of bourbon. This one’s Guatamalan, it’s lovely and fresh although my favourite is still the Tanzanian.


I haven’t written here for a month. I forced myself to put something down about Kate, and then a few sporadic thoughts came as a distraction from the mid-October stresses, but otherwise it’s been a dry patch. After looking deep into the past I’ve been contemplating the future, both professionally and creatively, deciding whether I should adjust my expectations to the world, or whether the world should adjust to mine. As usual the answer is messy and confused, and ultimately “a bit of both”.

I’m not sure what the end state will look like, but part of my deliberation has brought me back to the reason I started this blog as a creative outlet and a means to practice writing. With that in mind, I’m going to try to focus on actual projects and write more frequently again. The coffee is brewed, let’s talk about the future.


I have three creative projects on the go. All of them are around games, and two have deadlines around next April when I’ve committed to running them. The third has no deadline, which is less good; I’m trying to work out how to hold myself accountable, and holding myself accountable is one of the boring things I do in my day job, and I don’t care for it.

Anyway, games.

Death Comes To Wyverley

This is a Beyond the Wall playset inspired by and set in the world of Garth Nix’ Sabriel and sequels. It’s probably the project which will be easiest to execute, just by following the templates in BtW and the ideas I’ve expressed earlier regarding separation of internal village from the external adventure.


The game will be set in Wyverley college, meaning all PCs will be female. This is the “village” of BtW and character playbooks will focus on developing the PCs relationships with the college and the staff, as well as their reason for being at school there. The external adventures should take place in the surrounding areas which, being close to the capital-W Wall (map) could lead to all kinds of encounters with the Dead and Free Magic users.

I’ve already drawn up a character sheet for the game. Other features should include:

  • the diamond of protection as a ritual;
  • adapting the Scarlet Heroes damage system to this game (see the character sheet);
  • a discussion on what it means to have gone into negative hit points and therefore Death;
  • at least six playbooks rooted in the families of the Old Kingdom, who have sent their daughters to the other country for education.

Transuranic World

I’ve had a mind to write a Sapphire and Steel themed game for a couple of years, since we discovered the Big Finish audio plays. I’ve also had the urge to write a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse.

This one is mechanically the most challenging. So far the features I’ve settled on are:

  • a complete list of human moves, which all humans will have access to — but the non-human Agents will only have partial access to, because they have big gaps in their comprehension of humans and human history
  • a list of moves that Time can take against Agents
  • Time and various Transient Beings as Fronts
  • something to do with clocks as the countdown.

If you don’t know PbtA games then the jargon above won’t mean much. One thing I’ve realised however is that I must also run some Apocalypse World (or Monsterhearts, or something) as I’ve only played so far. More later.

Our City

This is the biggest project, and the one without a deadline.

This is a game about building and then playing in a City. A couple of years ago I had an idea for the City Accelerator, and this is an attempt to make something coherent and useful of that idea. Along with the use of cards, the system should make use of the WaRP OGL system.

It’s a game for presenting the City as a character, inspired by “city fiction” from the likes of China Mieville, John Brunner, some J G Ballard, Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, and Peake’s Gormenghast. Urban Fantasy is a thing now, and while this isn’t an urban fantasy game per se it is all about people living in close proximity and relative anonymity, about finite resources but infinite complexity, about boundaries between inside and outside and about how cities look different from different perspectives.

Now, I’m conscious of a large number of city products in the RPG market:

I’m aware of all of these products, and keeping in mind the fact that my idea is different from those is a challenge in itself. After all, if someone else has already done such a game, what’s the point in re-writing it? It would just be another “city heartbreaker”.

Actually I do think it’s sufficiently different, but I need to work on an elevator pitch that explains that to other people. It’s different from OTE, Itras By and A|State by virtue of not being a complete packaged city setting, but more of a toolkit and visualisation tool. It’s different from Kingdom because it’s consciously a traditional, GM-led RPG in the spirit of what I call “90s minimalism” design a la Everway and the aforementioned WaRP system (though the use of the latter doesn’t help comparisons with OTE). Perhaps Vornheim is the closest in terms of intent, but I’m happy that my execution should be completely different.

That’s about as much as I can say at this point.


As well as design, I need to play more. The current list of must-play (and run/facilitate) includes

Most of these are indie games for which I’ve bought actual physical copies, so I better get along and play them, right? It’s the right time of year, now the days are shorter and one wants to be inside and telling stories.

Comments Off

I’m considering turning the comments off here. Since I now push posts to social media there are enough places where people can reply if they feel the need.

Comments are not really been what this blog is about anyway. I started writing here because I wanted to shape the format away from Livejournal. The capacity for comment, likes and plus-one moderation must shape the relationship with the audience. And make no mistake, it’s great to have feedback (and affirmation) but it really doesn’t happen that often. If I ever had expectations of getting comments or replies, they’ve gone down as I’ve participated in social media more.

If someone doesn’t comment or like what I write, what does that mean? I assume I’m more likely to be overlooked than actually disliked. But more importantly if someone feels strongly enough to write about something I write, I’d like to encourage people to write their own articles as counterpoints. We exist in a culture of threaded conversations and the signal to noise is low. In the old days if you didn’t like something in the newspaper you wrote a letter to the editor, and that meant for the most part you thought a bit longer about the message in the reply (Daily Mail being an exception, I suppose).

I won’t turn the comments off just yet; and I’d be interested to read if anyone actually values the comments facility here. It doesn’t help that I moderate the comments of course, but I do draw the attention of spammers on occasion, so that’s the way it will be for the time being.

Monday, 12 May 2014

New Scenery

So, I’m trying something out with the scenery… the images come from some random ink drawings I did when using up the last few drops in the ink converter before flushing the pens out.

Inkscape2 z

The Sea

Inkscape4 z

 Tower Between Realms

Inkscape5 z

Degrees of Infection

A bit hit-and-miss. Unfortunately the scanner doesn’t pick up the lovely red sheen in the first one, but it’s there. Images copyright me, whatever.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Thursday, 31 October 2013

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.