Sunday, 13 August 2017

Man, Play and RPGs

This is a post about Man, Play and Games by Roger Callois.

I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but Callois mentions his work directly in the first chapter and also challenges his fixation on the competitive nature of games (and I believe the exclusion of gambling. Callois’ theory on play is summarised here).

Note that I haven’t really touched on chapters 3 or 5, which are both good reads but relate more generally to the cultural need for and the sociology of games. I’ve also very much glossed over the second part concerning the interplay of simulation and vertigo (chapter 7) and competition and chance (chapter 8) because the main area I want to consider is the conditional relationship between AGON and MIMICRY.

The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games

Note: the first two chapters are reproduced in the Game Design Reader):

  • The Definition of Play includes the six core characteristics (free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe)
  • The Classification of Games covers the four categories (Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx) and the progression from chaos to order (paidia to ludus)

Mimicry is directly (and obviously) applicable to role-playing:

Mimicry. All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one’s fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving.

The “closed, conventional, imaginary universe” is I guess the magic circle.

The interesting part of these first two chapters is the interplay between the four categories. One, Agon and Alea represent two ends of a spectrum; at one end is complete mastery and the other is complete surrender to chance.

Agon and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes, but they both obey the same law — the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life.

The notion of equality is has always been the subject of hand-wringing with role-players; here it’s not game balance that matters but the ability to engage with the game on equal terms. Also game options may not be balanced, but if the freedom to make choices is there then equality is preserved. This is true if the game is largely random or has some strategic (i.e. skilful, competitive) element.

Two, there’s the interplay of Agon and Mimicry as pageantry accompanying sport:

In fact, bicycle races, boxing or wrestling matches, football, tennis, or polo games are intrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others. The nature of these spectacles remains that of an agon, but their outward aspect is that of an exhibition.

This raises a question: where agon is present in the game, is mimicry always subordinate to it? I am not sure of the answer. But, let’s say you have two schools of RPG thought; one is based on boundaries and the consequences of action/reaction, and the other is based on narrative threads and the need to progress through a narrative arc, at any cost. If mimicry must be subordinate to anon, then the latter must by definition avoid all manner of competitive or strategic play. This leads us to…

Three, going from informal paidia to formal ludus, these four categories start becoming exclusive:

as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate.

So, to unpack this in terms of our simulationist vs. narrativist argument, any game which purports to “maturity” (ludus) must choose one approach and not the others. It’s easy therefore to see how ideas like exclusionary Gamist (alea) / Narrativist (mimicry) / Simulationist (agon) emerge; and the need for conventions and techniques to steer the players in one direction or another becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note that paidia and ludus are not exclusionary notations but form a continuum of unstructured/informal to structured/formal, and there are examples of both in the four categories, which Callois lays out like this:

AGON (competition) ALEA (chance) MIMICRY (simulation) ILINX (vertigo)
PAIDIA Unregulated contests (wrestling, running, etc.) Dice rolls and coin flips Initiation, hazing, “games of illusion” Dancing, horseback riding, “children whirling”
LUDUS Regulated competitions/sports Betting and lotteries Theatre and spectacle Skiing, skydiving, mountain climbing

Callois places “games of illusion” which might be our immersive, emotional roleplaying towards the unstructured and informal end of the spectrum.

In such an instance MIMICRY coexists perfectly well with AGON. The need to switch between roleplaying and competitive/rules based play is unspoken and in the mode of play I’m familiar with, the timing for the switch is tacitly appreciated by all players. There is no need for fundamentalist declarations of play towards one category or another; rather this mode switching is done on the fly by unspoken agreement.

Thus far from being an immature vs. mature relationship the relationship between PAIDIA and LUDUS is one of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. And with my knowledge management hat on, this leads to a pretty important idea, which is that attempts to formalise roleplaying games into different categories may be doomed to fail, due to the prevalence of the tacit in all learned activity — learned activity being a social construct.

The Corruption of Games

“Corruption of play” has a couple antecedents in roleplaying; the first is the need for immersion or verisimilitude:

Where the problem is to enumerate the characteristics that define the nature of play, it appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive, it being understood that the last two characteristics tend to exclude one another. These six purely formal qualities are not clearly related to the various psychological attitudes that govern play. In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.

Second is the need to remove “cheating”. From this we get all manner of GM advice, contingent rules to stop certain behaviours, etc.

The principle of play has become corrupted. It is now necessary to take precautions against cheats and professional players, a unique product of the contagion of reality. Basically, it is not a perversion of play, but a sidetracking derived from one of the four primary impulses governing play. The situation is not unique. It occurs whenever the specified instinct does not encounter, in an appropriate game, the discipline and refuge that anchor it, or whenever it does not find gratification in the game.

The dilemma is that the player is still playing within the rules as written, but not in the “spirit of the game”.

The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact.

The third is bleed which is a buzz-word du jour in narrative circles.

Superstition therefore seems to be a perversion, i.e. the application to reality of one of the principles of play, alea, which causes one to expect nothing of himself and leaves all to chance. The corruption of mimicry follows a parallel course. It is produced when simulation is no longer accepted as such, when the one who is disguised believes that his role, travesty, or mask is real. He no longer plays another. Persuaded that he is the other, he behaves as if he were, forgetting his own self. The loss of his real identity is a punishment for his inability to be content with merely playing a strange personality. It is properly called alienation.

There’s not much else to be said about corruption except that it is and will continue to be endemic. But the table at the end of the chapter is interesting:

Cultural forms Institutional forms Corruption
AGON (competition) sports economic competition, competitive examinations violence, will to power, trickery
ALEA (chance) lotteries, casinos, etc. speculation on the stock market superstition, astrology, etc.
MIMICRY (simulation) carnival, theatre, cinema, hero-worship uniforms, ceremonial etiquette alienation, split personality
ILINX (vertigo) mountain climbing, tightrope walking, skiing, sky-diving professions requiring control of vertigo alcoholism and drugs

I wonder if (given its susceptibility for bleed and its otherwise tacit nature) roleplaying is unusually vulnerable to corruption, which is why we get so much contingency built into games.

Conditional, Fundamental and Forbidden Relationships

Chapter 6 covers an expanded theory of games, and starts with six relationships:

  • competition-chance
  • competition-mimicry
  • competition-vertigo
  • chance-mimicry
  • chance-vertigo
  • mimicry-vertigo

Competition-Chance and Mimicry-Vertigo are Fundamental Relationships; they are “parallel and complementary”. Competition-Chance relies on equality, and in games are regulated. Mimicry-Vertigo lies at the opposite extreme and “equally presume a world in which the player constantly improvises”.

Competition-Vertigo and Chance-Mimicry and Forbidden Relationships. This is self-evident — you can’t have a strategic game which at the same time destroys judgement and distorts truth; and you can’t have a game where reality is simulated based on internal logic, but at the same time random. BUT in the latter case you could design a game where one is subordinate to the other, e.g. the randomness creates a set of conditions in the illusion that the players respond to (which is a cornerstone of RPGs).

Last, and most interesting IMHO, are the Contingent Relationships of AGON-MIMICRY and ALEA-ILINX which “may be associated harmlessly.” Callois again goes back to the spectacle:

I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. It unfolds according to identical rules, and with the same anticipation of the outcome. It requires the presence of an audience which crowds about the ticket windows of the stadium or velodrome just as at those of the theater and cinema.

On the Narrativist vs. Challenge (“OSR”) modes of design: logically if you characterise the aim of Narrativist games to induce sensation or vertigo, then this is incompatible with strategic, “challenge based” or “boundary based” design. Of course if we’re using these terms then the use of MIMICRY to denote simulation is going to cause some confusion.

Modern Revivals

I’ll finish this with a couple of quotes — which are interesting although not specific to roleplaying.

From Chapter 8, concerning Competition and Chance:

The reign of mimicry and ilinx as recognised, honoured, and dominant cultural trends is indeed condemned as soon as the mind arrives at the concept of cosmos, i.e. a stable and orderly universe without miracles or transformations. Such a universe seems the domain of regularity, necessity, and proportion—in a word, a world of number.

From Chapter 9, concerning “The Mask and the Uniform”:

modern society is scarcely aware of the two survivals of the sorcerer’s mask: the black mask and the grotesque carnival mask. The black mask, the mask reduced to its essentials, elegant and abstract, has long been associated with erotic fetes and with conspiracies. It characterises equivocally sensual intrigues and mysterious plots against the powers that be.

Further Reading

Unsurprisingly other gamers have already done this analysis: this article cleans up the table and covers the six pairs of categories very neatly.

Going further I found this article by Jesper Juul from 2003, which goes beyond Callois’ classifications and argues that RPGs are a borderline case between GAMES-NOT GAMES. This is outside the scope of what I’ve written here but worth reading.

Finally this appears to be someone’s entire thesis which is a bit much for a casual read-through but it includes a nice pictogram of the relationships (which I reproduced above).

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Eight Drunken Gods

In Drunken Master Beggar So’s art manifests through the Eight Drunken Gods (derived from the Eight Immortals).

These eight avatars are the expression of mastery not through principle but rather allegory and imitation. In the climactic final battle against Thunderleg, Freddie Wong (Chan) performs a variety of special moves, “spending” each god in turn during the battle, with varying success. This gives a couple of RPG ideas:

Gaining Levels

  1. During character creation, ascribe one or more gods (avatars) to your expert skill. These represent your signature actions when using that skill.
  2. As you gain levels, new powers, or more things to do with your skill, add a new god.

Using the Gods

  1. Use these in the narrative by describing your skill’s action allegorically using your avatar/god.
  2. Designers: use the gods as resources, such that each god can only be expended once per scene/session/adventure.


Write your gods on index cards, and put them on the table. Have the other players and GM use them to build their characters using their own reflections of the gods. Have the GM represent the world and its pantheons using the same aspects. Share the pantheon of many gods, or many reflections of the same eight gods.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

5 Alternatives to Vampire 5e

Bothered by the new Vampire 5th Edition Alpha? Here are five games you can play instead:

Don’t Rest Your Head

If you want to really focus on Hunger Dice-like mechanics — which are a really good idea — try Don’t Rest Your Head which is just waiting to be hacked into a Vampire-like game. For example, just rename Exhaustion dice Hunger and use Madness dice for Disciplines. There’s some conceptual massaging to be done (when Madness dominates it’s clearly Frenzy, but Frenzy should come about from Hunger, etc.) but iron those out and you’ve probably got a very tidy system.


If you want to play a supernatural arsehole who basically hijacks a mortal body and rides it like they stole it, play Nephilim. Use it for long-lived vamps who’ve endured periods of torpor between their “past lives”. There are secret societies galore. Granted, the system and setting need some full-on reupholstering but it goes back to a VtM 1e conceit — that basically all mythical things have their roots in Vampires (you know, Baba Yaga is a Nosferatu, etc.). Use the Transformations for revealing the vamp’s monstrous nature (a bit like the woge in Grimm, maybe).

Silent Legions

If you want to play in a vast, world-spanning conspiracy of vampire society, maybe built it from the ground up with Silent Legions. For “Elder Gods” read “Antediluvians”. Then build all of the descendants and followers as magical secret societies etc, and have them play a sort of “great game” of politics and nonsense. Use the Kelipot rules for special areas like Elysium and vampiric domains. Yeah, I know they’re like magical other dimensions — re-imagine them as areas outside normal human space, the underbelly where the natural order is reversed and the vamps have control, etc. And sure, you need to do something to make vampire PCs — my best bet so far is to do something with sanity rules and make the pursuit of sanity the same as the pursuit of blood, or something.

Over The Edge

If frankly you’re not bothered about actual rules, which let’s face it we never really bothered with them back in the 90s, you just want to free-form through the game and you need the bare minimum of a framework to support it — why not use the WaRP system? I’ve been thinking about this on and off for some time. And honestly it’s got most of what you need — the Fringe Powers work, and the Psychic Pool and/or Experience Dice work for a temporary resource you can spend when you really need it. Maybe just make a Blood Pool of dice to power your Fringe Powers and otherwise use for Blood Buffs, and replenish it by roleplaying the hunt. Job done.

Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Edition

Back in the 90s before all the splatbooks, before Werewolf and the others, before being collared in goth clubs having your ear bent about metaplot, there was only one rulebook with messy layout and inconsistent rules and a pretentious goth bibliography/soundtrack. If you’re not so bothered about Rules as Written (we weren’t) Vampire the Masquerade First Edition is as worthwhile as any version. For me it’s the best; VtM 1e left a lot of blank space to fill in (lupines, cities, etc.). I also liked the non-glossy pages and the understated fonts and understated clans and the many ideas for chronicles. Yeah, OK, we’ll never get that back, but at least we were free to create our own incongruous scenarios and sophomoric characters

Saturday, 27 May 2017

StormHack SRD Lite: Drama and Adventure Games

An update to the SRD mini-document for StormHack. What this includes:

  1. the “Drama game” which is how you play in downtime or flashbacks, for dramatic scenes/origin stories etc.
  2. the “Adventure game” which is basically an OSR game.

What it doesn’t contain are details on the Demon Ladders which just wouldn’t fit, but those will come shortly in the complete SRD. But it should give you sort of an idea on how to play.

Here’s the two sides. Print them on one sheet of paper, and make the little booklet as previously shown; when you open it up you should have the two modes of play in there.

Here’s the thing in PDF, which may be useful if you’ve got a printer that does double-sided printing.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

StormHack SRD Lite

Working on the SRD for StormHack. I’ve changed the system a bit since the playtest at Concrete Cow. The revised version has an “interior game” and an “exterior game”, something I’ve been noodling with the idea for nearly 3 years in Beyond the Wall (character sheets here). Basic idea:

  1. The Adventure game happens outside the “village” (the settlement, city, etc.). Play this like an OSR game (e.g. WhiteHack or Beyond the Wall).
  2. The Drama game happens either in Downtime (i.e. “back in the village”) or as Flashbacks between the adventure scenes. Run these as you would Dramasystem by playing out the character’s relationships (“Bonds”) and possibly with another player roleplaying the other end of the relationship. The outcome generates tokens that can be spent in the Adventure game.
  3. It’s up to the players and GM how much you play flashbacks vs. the adventure portion.
  4. (Yes, similar to Night Witches although note that I had this idea back in August 2014…)

Anyway, I went from writing a monolithic document to trying the SRD on a single page and from there a little 8 page A6 pamphlet (made like this).

Here’s the image file:

The margins are screwed up at the moment. The reverse side will be instructions for the Drama and Adventure games but I haven’t written that yet. The plan is to use this for both an Eternal Champion type game, and Black Mantle.

More to come.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Pale Assassins

This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

The General Idea

First, influences, a bit of this and that:

  • Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
  • Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
  • Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
  • RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost

In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.

Second, the pitch.

The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.

Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.

What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.

But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.

The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.

System Approach

The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.

Dramasystem should work very well for setting up the web of relationships. Where Dramasystem fails for procedural bits, consider the procedural approach in Malandros.

Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.

Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.

Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:

  • 0 for “real world”
  • 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
  • 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
  • 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.

Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.

During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.

Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.

What is Ruritania?

“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.

Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.

But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.

What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?

Drawing Boundaries

  1. Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
  2. Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
  3. Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.

See the example for Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks as an example:

  • “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
  • The Assassin is Windom Earle
  • Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
  • The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness

The Map

Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:

The Game

If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.

The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.

But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.

Ruritania, Magic and Unreality

Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Cow Report part 1: Playtesting

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

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


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

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

The Walkover

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

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

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

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

Dice Clocks and Carcosa Hit Dice

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

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

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

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

Funny Names

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

The Demons

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

StormHack: Character Sheet 2

Thanks to insomnia brought on by various things, here’s the revised character sheet for StormHack.

What’s StormHack? Well:

  • It’s an OSR fusion of Stormbringer and WhiteHack (plus Everway and Over the Edge)
  • It’s what I used to call “OSR demons” or “Demonbringer”
  • The PCs don’t really advance. There are no classes for PCs, and no levels. It’s pretty freeform.
  • Demons have levels. Demons get experience. Demons do specific, limited but powerful things. The higher level your demons go, the more power they give you in the form of Services, and the more they take from you in the form of Taxes.
  • Demons give Taint, which affects interactions with others. That’s the stigma of consorting with demons.
  • You can not have a demon and be a perfectly functional character.

Hopefully I’ll be running it at Concrete Cow in March.

PDF version

Monday, 30 January 2017

Grand Tableau: Guide to the Fortune Deck

Everway’s original Guide to the Fortune Deck gives upright and reversed meanings as well as correspondences for the 36 cards in the Fortune Deck. The PDF document linked below is inspired by the original guide, using the Petit Lenormand in place of the original deck.

Guide to the Fortune Deck (PDF)

The document is 17 pages long (thus too long for one blog post), and includes photographs of all 36 cards from two Lenormand decks: Pixie’s Astounding Lenormand, and the Under the Roses Lenormand.

Sample readings:

1. The Rider

Other names: the Knight, the Agent, the Visitor, the Harbinger

Meaning: Rebirth

The Rider is an agent of change, bringing news, new perspective, clues or resources. There arrival on the scene signifies the beginning of a new cycle, a rearrangement of social order, a change in roles in the Tableau, and new purpose for the individual.

Reversed reading: Destruction

The Rider is the harbinger of destruction, the spearhead of an invader, the agent of evil intent. The cycle they initiate is one of suffering, evil and darkness.

Correspondence: the Nine of Hearts, Water, Intuition, Personality. Mercury/Hermes. Everway card(s): the Phoenix

19. The Tower

Other names: The Lighthouse, The Bell-Tower, The Clock Tower

Meaning: Authority

The Tower oversees the nation, and represents the principle of law. It brings order and authority, unites the nation through government.

Reversed reading: Tyranny

The baleful eye surveys its domain, ruling absolutely and without mercy.

Correspondence: Six of Spades, Air, Intelligence, Principle, Rules. Everway card(s): The King

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Neverway: the Grand Tableau is an homage to Jonathan Tweet’s Everway with the aim of updating the system, plugging some gaps and making it easier to obtain play materials (e.g. by basing the fortune deck on the Lenormand). This post is an introduction, and in later posts I’ll write down the functional system including Lenormand cards and how they’re drawn, duelling, etc.


Here is a summary of features:

  • A 36 card fortune deck (based on the Petit Lenormand card decks)
  • Resolution using Karma, Drama and Fortune
  • Characters have four main attributes (after card suits/elements), and a three-card divination spread (after Everway’s Virtue-Fault-Fate)
  • A point-buy approach to attributes and powers
  • Attributes can go down in the game as a fatigue mechanism (“damage” as an in-game currency is mostly absent in Everway)
  • Powers are tied to specific cards or Suits
  • A duelling system that makes use of Lenormand card suits and values (can be simulated using a reduced deck of playing cards)

Similar to Everway, Grand Tableau’s world is a series of connected worlds or realities — specifically the Grand Tableau of 36 houses. Characters are able to pass between worlds using their own decks (not unlike Amber’s Trumps). Those decks represent the cosmic structure of the world, and will vary in design between realms and cultures.

Just as in Everway the Realms can be defined/brainstormed using a three-card reading (similar to the spread for each character). Individual antagonists and obstacles can be given ratings in one or more of the four Suits to determine the level of challenge they offer.

Similar to Everway, characters in Grand Tableau are “walkers” (with varying prefixes like sphere-, mirror-, deck-, etc.) and the core activity should be traversing the different realms and having adventures. Long-term adversaries come in the form of enemy walkers with their own secret societies (and direct encounters with these antagonists should involve the duelling game).

The Lenormand Deck

(“Under the Roses” Lenormand deck)

The Lenormand deck is a fairly convenient replacement for Everway’s Fortune Deck having 36 cards with no minor arcana (i.e. all the cards have pictures and meanings). There is no Usurper, of course.

Using the Petit Lenormand does require some concessions. First, there are normally no reversed meanings in the Lenormand, so either we abandon inverse meanings or invent them — I’m doing the latter.

Second, Lenormand cards are usually read in groups (pairs up to the 36 card Grand Tableau); to make it function like Everway’s Fortune Deck the cards need also to be read on their own.

Third, it’s not possible to map all of Everway’s cards onto the Lenormand, though some fit quite well (Death = Coffin, Trickery = The Fox, etc.). Still the Fortune Deck is a nice starting point giving a range of responses, so where possible I’ve tried to import upright and reversed meanings from the Fortune Deck, though not always to the same card (for example The Bear takes “Simple Strength” from the Peasant card and “Blind Fury” from the Dragon card).

Some of the Fortune Deck cards are an activity (e.g. Sowing Stones, Striking The Dragon’s Tail, Drowning In Armour) which should be taken as a metaphor for the actual thing the PC is doing. None of these are represented very well in the Lenormand deck. Other cards are metaphors for states of being (the Eagle, the Fish, the Cockatrice etc.) and work better. But in all cases we need to reduce the variety of meanings for Lenormand cards into one clear meaning which the GM and players can interpret into the situation. Most of the time the Fortune Deck isn’t used for divining a situation so much as suggesting an outcome to a current risky situation.

Building the Deck

Ideally your Lenormand cards should have the upright and reversed meanings written on them. You have these choices:

  • get a commercial deck and write on it (probably not popular)
  • create your own deck by drawing or pasting images on a deck of playing cards
  • use a companion sheet for the interpretations of the cards (i.e. the above document)


One benefit of the Lenormand cards is much clearer alignment to both numbers and suits. While the Fortune Deck’s cards do have alignments (to the zodiac, elements etc.) they’re not as obvious as the four suits of traditional playing cards or Tarot. In Grand Tableau the suits apply not only to the houses but are reflected on the character sheet.

Hearts Water. Emotions, love, relationships, sense of self. For characters this measures a person’s ability to connect with others and network, and also their intuition.

Diamonds Fire. Change, fortune and misfortune, enterprise. For the PC this represents the PC’s drive and ability to effect change, take risks and so forth.

Spades Air. Government, authority, territory, society. In PCs this represents intellectual capacity, understanding of law, and personal authority.

Clubs Earth. Survival, hardship and trouble. For characters this is about ability to endure harm and hardship.

Character Creation

The rough draft character creation process is more or less taken from Everway:

  1. Think of a character concept.
  2. It may help to do the 3-card reading here. Draw or choose 3 cards to represent your Virtue, Fault and Fate.
  3. You get 20 points to spend among your four Suits and any Powers or Magic you want.
  4. For points in Suits an average human level is 3, and each point invested doubles the power in a given suit.
  5. Each Suit has a speciality; when that speciality applies to the situation the value of the Suit is counted as 1 higher.
  6. You get one minor power for free.
  7. Magic costs 1 point per level, and is aligned to a suit. You can’t have a magic level higher than your suit’s rating. Magic schools to be defined.
  8. Powers cost 1 point if they can be used frequently, 1 point if they can be used in many circumstances, and 1 point if their use is major, i.e. disrupts or dominates a scene. Need to define these further.

In Play

Most of the time play is exactly the same freeform process as Everway, using Karma, Drama and Fortune to resolve actions.

The additional bits of the system include a duelling minigame (inspired by both Lace and Steel and, perversely, time combat from [Continuum]]5) and some way to do fatigue which I felt was lacking in the original.

The next post will examine the Lenormand cards in detail.