Monday, 1 April 2013

Chorizo and Cannellini Soup

Every so often we roast a chicken or duck. The bones get made into stock, the leftover meat goes in a cassoulet or risotto or jambalaya, stock gets used as and when needed.

One thing we don’t make often is soup–probably because chicken stock lends itself to vichyssoise, which I don’t really like. We never get the consistency right.

But since I failed to remember to portion and freeze the stock so ended up with a lot of stock to use in one go, I decided to try soup again. It’s a twist on the cassoulet recipe, and it worked out well enough that I’m writing it down. Not vegetarian obviously, but it is gluten free.1

Rough proportions:

2 onions, some shallots and garlic cloves

About 6 potatoes that are sprouty and frightening to behold, but scrub up nicely when peeled

About a litre of chicken stock

A chorizo sausage

2 packets / tins cannellini beans

1 packet / tin chopped tomatoes

Mixed herbs (or whatever needs using up)

Dash of balsamic vinegar if you want

Dash of sherry, ditto

Bit of cream if you have it


p>I chopped the onions and fried them in the pot (nice big Le Creuset casserole pot), then processed the shallots, garlic and chorizo in a little food processor until it had the consistency of homemade burger meat. I then fried that for a bit, so the paprika in the meat turned the cooking oil orange.

While that was going on I chopped up the potatoes nice and small. Then in went the stock, potatoes, beans (drained), tomato, herbs, vinegar and sherry. Vinegar and sherry probably not needed, but both usually work well with chorizo.

The pot was then simmered until the potatoes were tender (about 1.5 episodes of NCIS). I like soup smooth-ish so it went in the blender.2 Most of the soup stayed in the blender, and when done I had about 8 big bowlfuls. Finish with a little swirl of cream but it doesn’t really need it.

  1. Unlike some lentiles vertes I bought recently, which went in a cassoulet and gave me awful heartburn. I guess they use flour to lubricate the flow of the lentils in the factory. Usually pretty good at reading packets for allergy advice, but beans? Come on.

  2. If you’re using up fresh woody herbs, take the twigs out first!

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Saturday, 9 March 2013

City Accelerator part 9: Sunder

Previous examples of the City Accelerator were just made up for demonstration purposes. Here I’m going to try to use a real game I am running as a worked example.

The game is called Sunder’s Children.

Sunder is a village at the edge of a Kingdom at war. Every year the Army comes to recruit the brave, the adventurous, and the ambitious to cross the Valley and do battle with the Foe. Glory and riches are promised to the returning heroes; horror and death to everyone else. The Children of Sunder compete for the Recruiter’s attention as a means to escape the drudgery of a farmer’s life.This year you were not picked, and watched your friends and family go off to war. Were you too weak? Too young? A coward?

The game will be about… farming.

Step One: Start Writing, Stupid

I got a stack of index cards, and started writing a heading on each card for the location. I wrote each location down as it came to mind. I didn’t worry about whether the location was out of place. I didn’t try to flesh the location out. I didn’t consider it in geographic space, although some of the cards include compass points in the description. I just tried to keep writing locations until I ran out of ideas.

The Mill

Here’s the thing about brainstorming: at some point, you will run out of ideas. This is a natural part of the process. You can then do one of two things–push through the mental block and continue to write crap until you write something decent, or take a pause for an overview and identify gaps or areas that deserve more detail.

I did a combination of both. First, it took me about 5 minutes to make around 30 cards–locations ranging from the scary woods at the edge of the village, to those key locations at the centre of the village.

Once I’d ran out of steam, I gathered them into Districts.


Step Two: Assemble Into Districts

To make more progress I needed to have an overview. The second stage was to gather my cards into Districts. That terminology doesn’t quite work outside of a city, but I’ll keep it for now.

I decided the first District would be the village centre; the second would be the area to the West of the village that included the mysterious territory of the Enemy; then eight more, one for each farmstead. Lastly I grouped Everything Outside The Village as one District–this included everything from the nearby lakes and mountains to the closest large town and the Capital itself. Yes, they’re all in completely different locations–but from a villager’s point of view, they’re all equally distant and therefore can be lumped together.

Districts Assembled

Many of the locations are farming locations–I simply stacked those into different farmsteads. Now, the emphasis of the tool is identify the important bits. If I mention the onion patch of one farm, it doesn’t mean none of the other farms have onion patches–it just means that this particular onion patch is important. This is important in the next step…

Step Three: Fill In Blanks

My village isn’t done yet. There are an awful lot of farmhouses an no actual farms. I go back to Step One and Start Writing again.

The difference is this time, I know what framework I’m working to. This focuses my attention. I write more Farm locations. Then the village centre looks a bit sparse, so I think of other locations there. Then I think about the surrounding area some more. Gradually I produce more cards and fatten up those District stacks.


At some point I think I have enough. I might add a card here or there later, but for now it’s starting to feel like a community. I could run a game here. What I need now is…

Step Four: Make Maps (Like Crazy)

Optional, but probably useful. I considered Everything Outside The Village beyond the boundary of the paper. This at least gives me an idea of where different farms are.


Step Five: Numbers

I have several stacks of cards. I now need to decide on their Priorities. My approach was a lot like Step One–I didn’t think too long about the numbers I applied, simply went with my gut feeling on what the numbers should be.


This was the most time consuming part, because it involved drawing a lot of straight lines:


Very satisfying.

Step Six: Summary Table

Once I’d rated each card, I summarised them by District.

Table Blurred

I’ve blurred out the names of the locations in case any future players read this (unlikely, but hey). The table lets me see at a glance which aspects are dominant in which district.

Last Words

This is the first time I’ve used the tool in anger. What do I have to show for my efforts?

  1. I have a framework in which to base my game. If players move to a location, I have a stack of cards at hand for the areas they can explore. Naturally some areas will be more complex than others–fields will occupy a much greater area than houses, and houses will have more individual parts compared to fields. I don’t feel the need to map out my houses. What matters is that players know the house is there, and the field is there.
  2. For each location I have a priority. This means I know that when a player enters the area, they will be immediately affected by either Tension, Domain, Catalyst or Portal.
  3. By tabulating the priorities by District, I know the tone of each District. Some are highly controlling, while others are chaotic. Some are laden with clues while others are just a gauntlet for the PCs to run.

There are still a few unknowns, however. Foremost in my mind: I don’t know if the four criteria I picked are going to remain equally useful. Already in the numbers I can see a bias against the Portal axis. Is this just a consequence of this game, or a general indication that it’s not so useful?

A final comment. Although I have a general plot/scenario worked out, I have no specific encounter-by-location established yet. That’s for this tool to help me fill out. I have a general idea of the game’s direction, and what I want to achieve with this tool is a decent fleshing out of detail, establishing side plots, and so forth. That’s what the numbers should do–tell me where the clues are, where the fights are, where the powerful people are, where the mystery is.

About People


p>Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World is all about the people. He also says you should make maps like crazy. I totally agree.

In AW the structure is the people; the maps that are drawn are a consequence of the emergent story, but what matters is how the PCs relate to the NPCs.

My approach has been location-centric rather than people centric. There’s no-one living in my village yet (aside from family names). That’s OK. In this case, people are a consequence of locations. This is not denying NPC agency, but it is a reality of a fictional world: people are found in the areas where the action is, and become part of the story. You can start with the people, or you can start with the world. The two are intrinsically linked.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

His Nibs

“You’re about due for something new to geek over” said the other half recently.


We’ve just started playing De Profundis and although I planned to type all my 1920’s style letters (with the Travelling Typewriter font) handwriting them is a lot more fun.

Some time ago I decided to buy one fountain pen. Then I kept it in a desk for ages and never used it. Then I aquired a second fountain pen from my late grandmother, which prompted me to start using the first. Since then I’ve carried a fountain pen to work every day. 



Top to bottom, the four pens are a clear TWSBI mini with a steel italic nib, a Pelikan M200 with a fine gold-plated steel nib, a Parker 51 with a broad-ish nib which is probably gold but I don’t know, and my boring Sheaffer 300  with medium steel nib.

The Sheaffer is my going-to-work pen, including going abroad–it’s the only one that takes cartridges and I’m not about to walk onto a plane with a full ink reservoir. Its body is brass and it has a really strong articulated clip that can even go into my leather jacket.

The Parker is a vintage pen. No idea what age; I inherited it from my late grandmother. It’s my “Sunday Best” pen, for obvious reasons.

I didn’t need a third pen, but the Pelikan was a birthday present. I certainly didn’t need a fourth pen, the TWSBI–that was a recent present to myself, and is pretty impractical with its 1.1 italic nib.

They all write differently. The Pelikan is probably the most fun, being slightly springy and giving my handwriting the most slant. The Parker and the Sheaffer are both lovely and smooth, although different due to weight, thickness, etc.

The TWSBI needs a bit of care because of the italic nib, but it’s very nice and smooth. Nice enough that I fancy a broader italic to practice some blackletter and other styles.




My hands-down favourite pad paper right now is Rhodia’s DotPad. It’s special for 2 reasons:

  • it’s spaced like 5mm squared paper, but because it’s dots instead of squares its much less obtrusive;
  • it’s a pretty robust pad, and is great to work on in landscape for drawing diagrams etc.


It’s nice white shiny paper that takes ink very well.

The runner up is Pukka Vellum. It’s a bit yellow which is a feature, although blue looks slightly peculiar on it. It’s only available ruled, and it’s slightly rougher – but it’s spiral bound, punched and perforated making it easy to bind up the useful notes.

Due to De Profundis I’m also experimenting with nice letter paper. Since the stamp is more than 50% of the cost of sending a letter, spending a bit more on nice paper makes sense–writing on laid paper is a lot more interesting and (I hope) makes the letters nicer to receive.

I would fancy some Old Crown Mill paper, however it only seems to come in A4 (too large for a handwritten letter) and A5 (too small). In between there’s the Post Quarto size which is just right, and supplied by Basildon Bond.




Diamine inks are UK-made, cheaper than than fancy inks and come in a hundred colours. The Edelstein Onyx comes in a nice bottle and flows well on all sorts of paper–but it’s rather boring.

It’s worth noting that pen luminary Richard Binder rates Diamine as highly reliable and low maintenance, which is good to know. Also I love the bottle my WES Blue came in.

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.

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.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The City Accelerator, part one: Introduction

This is the first instalment of a series that considers a new tool: the City Accelerator.

At some point there may be a game that uses this tool directly. But for now, the intention is to have a tool that can be applied to any and every game. Well, any game I care to run anyway.

The executive summary:

The City Accelerator frees the GM of distractions when designing a city or other cluster of locations. The tool enables her to maximise impact of her locations in terms of plot, and enables the players to properly visualise the locations they visit. Where applicable the tool also assists in exposing locations to the players at the correct time–such as when they have achieved certain goals or attained sufficient power.


p>Who needs this tool? No one. We’ve been getting along fine for decades with our maps, topological diagrams, or bullet points scribbled on the backs of envelopes.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though. The Dreadful Secrets game contains so many locations and people that both GM and players can be overwhelmed. If I were to run it again, what process would I use to make the setting presentable? After some thought, the answer is the workflow I’m going to discuss shortly.

This approach is designed to work for both new content, and existing modules. For generating new content the idea is to free the GM of distractions such as mapping or irrelevant locations. For parsing existing material (i.e. a commercial product) it should help the GM lay out the arena so it’s presentable to both them and to the players. In both cases the operative word is accelerate: the tool should make preparation faster and easier, as well as boost play.

City Accellerator card single 1

As I’ve written before, I’m keen on cognitive maps and visualisation tools, and how they can be applied to the hobby. For this tool I’ve chosen index cards as a medium to work from–they’re cheap, flexible, and tactile. Post-its and scraps of paper will also work.

That’s it for now. When the series is complete I may bind it up into a pdf, or something. The next instalment will focus on what makes a viable location.