Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Bedrolls and Backpacks

This post is the fault of Rich at Swordnut Radio.

Okay, I like a challenge. And I have a mind like a weasel.


Roll up the bedroll. Place it in your actual bed, giving the impression that you are sound asleep. This is useful both when an assassin's quarrel pins it to the bedframe through what would, in other circumstances, have been your heart, and when a servant peers through the secret peephole to reassure the king that yes, you are respectably abed, and definitely not treasonously committing hanky-panky with his husband.

Use the bedroll to guard against sharp points: place it over a wall to protect you from spikes or glass shards, or hold it in front of you while leaping through a window without opening it first.

Use the bedroll as emergency quick-release padding when falling onto abrasive surfaces, such as when hurling yourself from a third-floor window to escape an enraged monarch.

Wrap it around your arms while facing down a wolf or training a warhound. Many smallish animals will struggle to get through that. Especially useful for low-level mages in cat-dense areas.

While travelling through the desert, saturate the bedroll when you find an oasis. Drape the soaking bedroll over you to help cool you by evaporation. Before departing, roll it and place in your waxed canvas backpack, so it can serve as an improvised water-carrier.

With just a bit of rope, transform it into an inadequate camel-saddle, still superior to trying to sit directly on the accursed creature.

Flick your wrist to unfurl the bedroll over a smallish mass of vipers, scorpions or similar unpleasantness, buying yourself a moment to rush across unmolested.

Place the rolled-up bedroll on your head and wrap it in bright fabric. Tell the people of the next town that you are a Tzeetvolf, one of the great nobles of the distant land of Gnasht, on an important diplomatic mission to the king, but temporarily impecunious after your caravan was caught in a storm. Point to your improbable headgear as confirmation that you must be some kind of foreigner, because everyone knows foreigners dress funny.

Fold the bedroll the other way to form a draught excluder in the cheap tavern room where you are hiding from the royal guard, or the cramped cabin of the ship you were forced to seek passage on in your attempts to flee the country. Bonus: also keeps out many kinds of vermin, especially if treated with camphor.

Practice slipping the bedroll from atop your backpack and unrolling it in a single smooth movement. This can serve to impede and temporarily blind attackers, deflect light weaponry or capture small animals.

Soak the bedroll in oil and place it in a bottleneck, or amongst a large stretch of dry vegetation. When the troll conjured by the king's archwizard steps unwittingly onto it, simply toss your flaming torch to engulf the creature in fire.

Soak the bedroll in holy water before sleeping in a location you believe to be frequented by the undead, or when harried by pesky minor demons summoned by the king's deputy archwizard.

Wedge a corner of the bedroll under a door to prevent interruption during important diplomatic meetings, such as a highly personal rendezvous with the king's husband.

Wrap fragile items, such as expensive china, magical potions or stolen crowns, to protect them from the shock of rough journeys.

Form a haybox by wrapping your hot food tightly, allowing you to cook meals while you hasten cross-country in search of a haven from royal wrath.

Keep hot items hot by using it as insulation.

Keep cold items cold (because that's also what insulation does).

Dip the bedroll in delicious beef dripping and use it to distract wild dogs; leave it behind as a decoy for bloodhounds.

Dip the bedroll in delicious chocolate and use it to distract elves.

Dip the bedroll in soup and chew it in a desperate attempt to stave off the agonising pangs of hunger.

Cut a hole in the centre of the bedroll and transform it into a useful poncho, keeping off the rain as you trudge through the backwoods to avoid detection by the king's bounty hunters.

Use the bedroll as an improvised sledge to speed down the snowy slopes of the Heavenclutch Mountains, evading the howling ice-ogres that pursue you.

Look, we know how it is. Adventuring can be a lonely occupation. Six months in the wilds, constantly pursued by a variety of slavering beasts and amoral humanoids, plus the occasional diabolical monstrosity; never knowing the touch of a lover, inebriated colleague, courtesan, sailor, love golem, Margrek's Illusory Bedmate, affectionate sheep, doppelganger, siren, thinly-disguised bilefiend, really persuasive enchanted staff, on-again-off-again nemesis or Blanket of Really Good Massages. Your bedroll doesn't judge.

Slice the bedroll into thin strips to use as improvised bonds for captives, reins for the horse you stole from a pursuing bounty hunter, or rope to escape your top-floor room when you hear the stealthy, padding footsteps of a royal assassin approaching.

Conceal an assortment of bladed objects from unenthusiastic guards.

Inscribe important messages on the bedroll before rolling it up.

Cover one side of the bedroll with silver foil. This will serve as a useful sunscreen against the baking heat of the Dying Sands, where only the foolish and desperate venture.

Also, when the mischievous winds and cunning pathways of the Dying Sands lead you inevitably to the Tower of Many Bones, you can whip the bedroll in front of you as you turn round at the sound of skittering claws, slaying the foul gorgon with its own baleful image.

Clasping the bedroll in one hand at your waist, allow it to discreetly unroll as you step back from your onrushing adversary; then, as her foot lands upon it, seize it with both hands and yank sharply upwards, tipping her backward and buying a moment's respite. Use that moment to hurl the bedroll over your adversary's face while applying blade repeatedly to kidneys.

Before inserting your hand into suspiciously-sized openings in a ruin, temple or vault, roll up a bit of the bedroll and insert that instead.

Use a pitchfork to hold up the bedroll a short distance from your body before racing through the Hall of Slaughter. The padded fabric will catch and entangle the barrage of poison-tipped darts that shower you, allowing you to move far faster than the members of the palace household trying to weave their way between pressure plates.

Wrap your bedroll around the tip of a pole and soak it with oil. Use it as a durable torch, anti-troll countermeasure or festive outdoor lighting.

Eke out meagre provisions with small, chewy chunks of bedroll. Few companions will ask too many questions about the precise origin of the ingredients in their stew, for fear you will tell them.

Tie and soak the bedroll, the excess weight giving you a functional improvised club. Insert a walking stick or other pole for easier wielding. Not much cop in most situations, but useful against small foes and wild animals that can be readily scared off.

Use a small measure of ice magic to freeze the sodden bedroll into a substantial club. When you are later captured by the watch, feign outrage and point out that you could not possibly have bludgeoned anyone to death; all you have is a bedroll and a backpack.


Carry your familiar, pet, or a small mystical child you have rescued from a peculiar imprisonment but whose beatific smile and cherubic features are frankly too nauseating to keep on display.

Fill the backpack with stones to use as a counterweight on a pulley or lift mechanism, such as when assisting the king's husband to lower himself safely from a high tower.

Fill the backpack with sand and swap it with a valuable archaeological artefact you plan to steal, hoping to prevent the triggering of a weight-sensitive trap mechanism. Tip: ensure the item you plan to steal weighs about as much as a backpack full of sand.

Fill the backpack with feathers and put it on backwards, forming surprisingly-effective armour against light weaponry and animal attacks. Works particularly well if you have a waist-high wall or window to defend.

Put the backpack over your head to conceal your hideous features, you repulsive cretin.

Store large and thoroughly dull books in the backpack. This assists your disguise as a travelling bore - not only does it add verisimilitude, but few people will wish to question you closely. Moreover, the books will provide a layer of protection against the arrows and poisoned knives of the royal assassins.

Put a helmet on top of the backpack and place it by a window or wall, lit from behind, to give the impression of a sentry.

Put many scorpions inside the backpack, and drop it out of the window to create a distraction.

Transport other, smaller backpacks.

Write important notes on the inside of the backpack, which few people will bother to check for paperwork.

Leave the backpack prominently in your room, secured with a shiny padlock which is not in fact closed. Fill it with rubbish, on top of which you place an envelope sealed with an important official's name. Inside the envelope, place a hastily-scrawled letter with an explosive runes or horrific curse amongst its lines.

Put heavy objects inside the backpack and practice wielding it as an improvised weapon.

Completely waterproof the backpack, and use it to transport water. When travelling to the sea-realms to seek aid against the murderous vengeance of the king, use it to transport air instead.

Place the backpack over a slain gorgon's head before opening your eyes, allowing you to look about you without fear. If you tie the strings tightly before severing its neck, on inverting the backpack the head should fall neatly inside.

Pretend the backpack contains incredibly valuable items you are secretly transporting on behalf of the Wizards' Guild, and not the head of a gorgon. When the ruffians who have been watching you ambush you and demand you hand it over, do so while screwing your eyes shut in apparent fear. Bandits often carry valuable items stolen from previous victims. Protip: Practice locating a swede, pumpkin or leather football by sound alone and replacing it in a backpack!

Determine which pocket of your backpack is the most accessible to someone else when worn. Encourage hornets to construct a nest in that pocket.

Tie a stout, camouflaged rope to your backpack and hurl it onto the parapet of your enemy's castle. When a bemused guard picks it up, heave with all your might; most will reflexively tighten their grip, allowing you to yank them bodily from the parapet.

Balance your adventuring backpack atop a door, so that the guard passing through on a routine patrol is struck atop the head and stunned by the weight of copper coins and damaged goblin armour within.

Cut a hole in the back of your backpack and wear it at all times, concealing the leathery wings you have sprouted through unwise negotiations with the Order of Damnation.

For a quick disguise, throw on an oversized coat on top of your backpack, and claim to be a hunchback. Works best if nobody sees you do it.

Balance a waxed backpack atop your head to keep off the rain.

After a regrettable encounter with Hesidian Rage-Moths, use your bush knife and backpack to construct rudimentary clothing in order to enter the city without summary arrest for public indecency.

Insist on publicly and fairly dividing up the loot from your latest immoral escapades. Patiently pour the shares, one handful at a time, into an appropriate number of backpacks. Do not inform your colleagues that you have employed hobbits to crouch beneath the table, reaching into the backpacks through cunning holes to extract the gems and replace them with lumps of worthless glass.

Place a cannonball inside a backpack, enchanting it with a spell of weightlessness, and pour a variety of more ordinary goods atop it. Encourage thieves or enemies to make off with it, then dismiss the enchantment. Dispose of them at your leisure.

Conceal an extradimensional space within a backpack, and place low-level contraband in the bag itself. Arrange for it to be confiscated by the guard. After a prearranged interval, have the thief emerge from the aforementioned extradimensional space, steal everything valuable within the guard's vaults, and put them inside the extradimensional space, before breaking out. Have the bard turn up disguised as an embarrassed noble and pay a bribe to retrieve the barely-illegal backpack.

Hire a small warehouse. Fill it with backpacks. Leave a clipboard on a shelf, with a purchase order for 10,000 mimic eggs. Leave a single boot and a broken dagger in a pile of chicken blood near a shelf, spattering that also with blood. Cast magic mouth on a large but random selection of bags, each time enchanting them with a very occasional snore, each one different. Capture the PCs, and have them wake up tied together near the clipboard.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Call of Cthulhu: Rigid Air actual play

A while ago I ran a scenario from the Fearful Passages book for my gaming group. I'd initially been a bit hesitant about the scenario as written, for reasons you'll find here.

After much thought, I'd made some changes to the scenario and run it for some friends during a weekend visit. The session went pretty well, much fun was had by all, and the players made a few suggestions. I incorporated them as best I could for this second attempt.

This second attempt I recorded and have finally got around to editing down. I'll discuss the changes I made in a future post; for now I just want to get these episodes up at last.

You can find the episodes at this Archive.org page.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Trail of Cthulhu: The Fallen World from YSDC Games Day 2017

The annual Yog-Sothoth.com (YSDC) Games Day took place in October, and I was lucky enough to make it for the third time. As always, it was a great, relaxing weekend full of regrettably short conversations, delicious food, and of course, games!

I managed to get a couple of recordings, and one partial recording, and will put them up here as I finish editing them. This does mean that, for the first time, these are not my own gaming group!

Librarians & Leviathans Presents: Steve Dempsey's The Fallen World

So for clarity's sake, I'm going to try to remember to use "Librarians & Leviathans Presents" when flagging up situations like this, just to avoid confusion.

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

Fearful Symmetries is a campaign for Trail of Cthulhu inspired by William Blake. The characters are caught up in an occult war and must use the double edged sword of magical power to reunite Albion, split asunder by time and the Mythos. The campaign will soon be published by Pelgrane Press, along with The Book of the New Jerusalem, a gazatteer of English folklore locations and people that takes up where The Book of the Smoke left off.

Steve Dempsey, the keeper for this scenario, has been running his Fearful Symmetries campaign since May 2016, achieving 61 sessions so far. This scenario, The Fallen World, was improvised by Steve at the convention. The characters are members of the Ordnance Geology Survey (Section D). Their job is to contain and clean up suspected supernatural events, and provide a suitable mundane explanation. They have been brought in to clear up in Upper and Lower Quinton in Southern Warwickshire where a number of people have suddenly died - possibly something to do with aforementioned Fearful Symmetries campaign.

Episode 1 is now available on my usual spot in the Internet Archive*. More to follow.

*okay, yes, there's a typo in the URL. That's actually there. Due to technical problems at Archive.org, I made four attempts over several days to get this uploaded, and apparently lost the second L in LnL during repeatedly typing in all the same metadata T_T I don't think it's possible to do anything about it though. I may at some point beg an admin to move it for consistency.

Links here for quick and easy access to mp4 files, others available on Archive.org. EDIT: All episodes now up!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Upon their backs to bite 'em: scenario playtest 2

When I said "limited blogging" I didn't realise it was going to be quite this limited...

Work, writing projects (far, far too many of them, it's a really bad habit of mine), being in quite a few games, and repeatedly but not very seriously being ill did not give many opportunities for thinking about games recently. Also, I haven't had as many opportunities to catch up with podcasts that give me ideas, or talk to the people who traditionally cause me to blog.

This latest post happens because I am finally ill enough to take a week off work, and have sporadically managed to do a spot of audio editing. Here, then, I present... well, not exactly new content, because this scenario appeared before; but it's a very, very different playthrough.

This is the second playtest of my modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario Upon their backs to bite 'em.

Picture is actually of Coleford as I can't find any good ones of the right location, but never mind. You get the idea.

If you want a general link to choose a filetype of your choice, you can head on over to the Archive.org project page to comb through the options.

If you're happy to just grab an .m4a, here are the episodes:

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Bradford Comic Con and Kate Ashwin

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she was going to be participating in Bradford Literature Festival Comic Con, which was the first time I'd heard that such a thing existed. But I'd been planning to meet up with her for about ten years, so the chance to do it so conveniently wasn't something I wanted to pass up. And, to my surprise, I actually managed it!

The festival stretches over a couple of weeks, but I could only make it down for one day, which was the 1st of July. I hopped on the train, which was completely chocker, making my inability to obtain a cuppa for the journey less of an issue because there's no way I'd have been able to drink one. Never mind, I was alright sat on the floor with my ebook.

I disembarked in Bradford and, thanks to Google Maps, managed to get to the event with minimal hassle. It's my first trip as far as I can remember. I didn't have time to get a great look around, but I quite liked the bits of the city I saw. It wasn't far to walk to the University, where the Comic Con was taking place, along with some of the discussions. Outside the University were handy signs and quite a few volunteers in distinctive shirts who quickly pointed me where I needed to be.

I wandered inside and soon managed to find the hall where the exhibitors were. It's the first year for the Comic Con part of the Festival, so there were only around ten hardy souls, most of them from fairly nearby.

I went round all of the stalls, chatting to most of the artists and finding out a bit about their work. They were very nice and approachable, even the very nervous ones. I grabbed some flyers and things with their information. Primarily, though, I was there to meet Kate, the author of the delightful Widdershins.

Unfortunately my own photos didn't come out very well for some reason; a few of the more acceptable ones are below.

Kate's own stand; Kate not featured.

The comics were in what seems to be the canteen; there was plenty of space, although it was warm even in British weather and I suspect it would get pretty noisy with a better crowd.

Two members of Madius Comics, a group based around Leeds. They have an impressive array of short, varied comics by various artists. They are also super enthusiastic and friendly.

View down the aisles.

This stall was I think run by Highgreen Dawn, whose work includes Slug Cafe. The author on the stand was lovely, but very shy, so didn't want to be in this picture.

I realise some people may take issue with the amount of comics I bought at this event, but in my defence, there were very few others available and my bags were pretty full.

I also attended a couple of very interesting panels themed around the Thousand and One Nights, which I'll discuss later.

Kate was kind enough to give a short interview about her work, which you can now find on Archive.org - it's raw, unedited audio because honestly there didn't seem much wrong with it. Sorry about the background noise, but we were recording in the hall itself and my recorder isn't particularly discriminating. I was hoping to perhaps do some more interviews, but the timing didn't work out.

Friendship aside, Kate is an honestly lovely person, an entertaining and compelling storyteller, and an evocative artist who now draws for The Phoenix amongst an array of other projects, including editing the highly popular Cautionary Fables and Fairytales series with Kel McDonald.

For anyone interested in adventure stories and non-cringeworthy Victorian-era magic that isn't set in London for a change, I highly recommend you check out Widdershins. I definitely plan to take a stab at an RPG version one day.

Quiet as the comics side was, I had a good time browsing (and buying) the offerings, chatting with a lot of lovely artists, and attending sessions.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

FYI: limited blogging

This has never been a very reliable blog, so I don't have a schedule to break. Just wanted to mention that posts and responses are likely to be patchy for a while, as I'm adjusting to new medication and it's a constant battle to stay awake. Writing about games is therefore taking a back seat to keeping my job and consuming organic matter. Oh, and actually playing games.

If you're missing my blog, first off thanks!, secondly please let me know what it was you liked and maybe I can write more of it in future. Thirdly, go and check out Refereeing and Reflection, Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice, Reviews from R'lyeh, and feel free to post further suggestions for gaming-relevant blogs and sites in the comments.

(I say that with some trepidation - will attempt to whack any spam-moles ASAP)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Upon their backs to bite 'em: scenario playtest 1

About a year ago I was inspired by a Twitter post (coupled with a convenient fever that left me both off work and mildly delirious) to whip up a rather silly scenario for Call of Cthulhu, or at least something approximating Call of Cthulhu (claims to Lovecraftianness are somewhat tenuous, I'll admit).

Last weekend my usual gaming session was cancelled, so I threw out an offer to run a one-shot for any remaining gamers. As it happened only one other person showed up, which is normally death to RPGs, but as it happens my scenario is fairly amenable to solo play. So, we decided to give it a spin.

The scenario was a success in the end, with Nathan heroically resolving the mystery, putting an end to supernatural shenanigans, and laying the groundwork for the destruction of the cult. Somehow he achieved this without a scratch nor a single point of SAN loss. Since when were players sensible?

Anyway, the recording of the playtest session is now up on Archive.org for anyone who cares to listen - though obviously spoilers abound. I hope to do further playtests soon; the scenario worked out better than I'd expected.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Per Plunum: a game of making do

The premises of the Great Enchanter occupy a prominent, yet not fashionable, location in a moderately well-trafficked part of the town. The Great Enchanter's name is not bandied about on the lips of the vulgar, but thanks, in no small part, to the aid of certain mnemonic incantations, a general awareness of their presence and location permeates the populace, so that anyone in need of magical aid might find themselves wandering uncertaintly in that direction. The large brass plaque prominently fixed on the ancient, stout oaken door displays the name of the Great Enchanter in letters that are just large enough to bespeak confidence, yet not so large as to appear desperate; fancy enough to convey a hint of wonder, yet not so gaudy as to seem frivolous.

The Great Enchanter's door opens upon a modest reception room, with fine claw-footed wooden chairs where a customer may await attention. Reassuringly respectable landscapes hang upon the neat wallpaper; reassuringly mystical books and orbs line shelves behind the heavy wooden counter; a fine balance is struck between allaying the qualms of the hesitant first-time visitor, and delicately suggesting the proprietor's bona fides.

The customer is politely ushered into a consultation room.

For this client, a modest and businesslike office with little sign of arcane learning but the names of the gold-lettered tomes that line the shelves, a faint scent of incense and the ornate carvings on several locked cupboards. A plain blue rug keeps their feet from echoing on the wooden floorboards of the office. Sunlight streams through the windows, supported by the steady light of several lamps to give the atmosphere of any pleasant morning call. They take a seat in a comfortable armchair by the fire, and enjoy light refreshments while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, clad in the garb of any respectable professional, delicately elicits from them the nature of their difficulty and - even more delicately - the depth of their purse.

For that client, a dim chamber redolent of magical learning, lit by the multicoloured flickering of myriad fat, dribbling candles. Shelves of gold-lettered tomes fill one wall; elsewhere heaps of mysterious paraphernalia threaten to flood from several open cupboards. Feet echo on the rune-etched floorboards of the chamber, and scrolls of strange Boreal writing hang from the walls. The heady scent of incense and less identifiable things waft through the air. Two chairs, swathed in cloths woven with mysterious symbols, are huddled by a fire over which a bronze cauldron bubbles with sweet-smelling liquid. A tray of exotic sweetmeats and spiced wine are placed in the outstretched claws of a gargoyle, while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, garbed in outlandish outfits, interrogates them on the nature of their difficulty and - somewhat indirectly - the depth of their purse.

On the rare occasions that two clients visit in quick succession, they are often kept waiting. This is not, as they are informed, because the Great Enchanter must update their records, or meditate to clear their mind of distractions, or realign the lunar resonances of the chamber, but because locking or unlocking the cupboards, moving the rug, dispersing the scent of incense or dragging that wretched gargoyle in and out of the corner cupboard - to say nothing of changing outfits - are quite time-consuming. You'd know. It's your job.

It's a tough life being an apprentice. And the magical business isn't exactly booming.

Now, for the first time in weeks, someone has come to seek the aid of the Great Enchanter whose name is prominently displayed upon the brass plate outside your office! Fortune, or at least the ability to pay off the more pressing of your debts, beckons!

But the Great Enchanter is not there.

Incapacitated in a magical mishap? Drunk? Struck down with Dancing Fever? Engaged in a scandalous liaison at a weekend villa which you are strongly and sorcerously abdjured from interrupting? Dead? Just plain feckless?

But you really, really need the money.

And so you, the stout-hearted apprentices of the mage, must spring to the task for which your studies have in no way prepared you.

Don't panic!

It's not all bad. After all, you have spent months, perhaps years in the service of the Great Enchanter, who selected you for your undeniable arcane potential, and certainly not because you were cheap, found sleeping rough in the outhouse after running away from home, nearby and in need of a shilling when an old school rival showed up with a new apprentice, the child of a particularly persistent yet remote relative, hired as a bootboy but insist on calling yourself an apprentice, or you just wouldn't stop pestering them.

You know:

  1. How to pack a very heavy rucksack really efficiently so you can carry all the mage's stuff as well as your own
  2. Basic self-defence
  3. How to evade a variety of adversaries
  4. The fundamentals of business, as filtered through the idiosyncrasies of your mage
  5. A little bit about theoretical magic
  6. An assortment of minor incantations, mostly used for domestic chores and tiresome tasks the mage refuses to undertake.

You also know two genuine spells, which fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The mage taught you this in a rare moment of determination, due to an urgent need to get something done, reluctance to risk taking part in a particular ritual, a brief flash of pedagogical responsibility, a drunken haze or an attempt to show up a rival. It is useful, perhaps impressive, though difficult to perform.
  2. You learned this spell without the mage's sanction; perhaps you stole down to peruse a heavy tome of ancient wisdom, or accidentally broke a precious globe containing an imp who taught you the spell in thanks for its freedom, or peered through a crack in the floorboards and watched the mage conjuring. It is a potent, illicit spell which you had best not perform openly. You're pretty sure the chances of horrible death are quite low.

And of course, you have your own personal merits, (in)competencies and capabilities.

But more importantly, you really, really need the money.

Yes sir, madam, the Great Enchanter will take care of that right away.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Ogham II: Ogham Strikes Back

A little while ago, I happened to get involved with the creation of a sinister Lovecraftian artefact.

I had a few candidate stones gathered at the same time, and Shannon carelessly left a comment which includes the words "Man, I want one now. :)"

Well, I'd already got the Ogham and the design pretty much down. I didn't have any inspiration for a particularly different carving, so I stuck with the original. I vaguely like the idea of doing some others at some point though. I actually did this project last summer, but with one thing and many others, I haven't got round to writing it up before.

As you can see, I felt this artefact really called for a suspicious dark organic stain. Well, that's easy enough.

I actually used a hyper-strong solution of coffee for this. I dissolved a full spoon of coffee powder in a small amount of water, and carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact.

Note to self: "carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact" is ideal material for sinister handouts

The staining was applied in dozens of individual doses, left to dry in the summer sun inbetweentimes. It slowly built up into something that's at least vaguely reminiscent of ichorous stainings over decades of sacrifice, I like to think. Although it does still smell faintly of coffee. I also carefully dripped tiny amounts into the rivulets of the carving, which firstly looked authentic, and secondly helps them stand out starkly against the stone.

The odd shape of this stone made it a more challenging carve. The Ogham is oddly broken up.


Of course, having composed two scruffy letters for the first carving, I could hardly let Shannon down with the second, now could I?

I thought it over for a while, and decided to just go with it being something she purchased from an eBay seller. Which of course needed an origin story. And some historical ephemera. And she was doing a certain campaign at the time, and why not after all take the time to offer a mysterious tie-in to a certain NPC...

Okay, I may have gone slightly over the top this time.

The backstory

So to begin with, obviously I needed a fictitious eBay page. Luckily this is relatively easy.

I say relatively easy; it's one of those things where I've completely lost the ability to judge that. I mean, I just saved a local copy of a plausible-looking eBay page to my local computer, then used the element editing menu on the browser to change individual sections without having to plough through the database-based code (straight-up HTML is so much easier to reskin). I have no idea where that actually falls on the mean or median scales of easiness.

I enclosed a PDF copy of the eBay page with my message, since sending people whole webpages is hard.

Then I composed a message from the seller, which was supposed to be straightforward, and naturally grew increasingly intricate as I went along. Naturally, I edited this in my email program to actually be from collectorkeith, and sent this email to Shannon for her own use if desired.

Dear Shannon,

thanks for your purchase of the Celtic engraving. I'll ship it over as soon as possible; it should take 5-7 working days to arrive.

Just to confirm, the package includes the artefact itself, plus its original label from Dr Richardson's collection, and two letters that have been associated with it for nearly 100 years.

This is a really interesting piece and honestly one of my favourite curiosities. It was found buried in fenland in the 1850s near Norfolk - unfortunately I was never able to find records of the exact date. It was referred to in a couple of minor journals (Norfolk Anthropology mostly, but also Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie) in the late C19th and early C20th, as mentioned in one of the enclosed letters. The researchers seem to have lost interest around 1913 when Beidecker (ZfcP) published arguments that the markings are simply ornamental rather than fragments of Pictish. It's a reasonably convincing case but I still wonder!

I was interested to see you purchase it as this piece has actually been to Australia before! It seems the piece was purchased in the late 1920s (I can't quite make out the date) when the collection was being sold off after Richardson's murder, and shipped to an antiquarian named Jackson Elias who was staying in Australia at the time. I believe this may have been an American anthropologist of that name who published some articles on lesser-known religions and folk practices, but it's not really my area.

The two enclosed letters date from that occasion, and include some intriguing biographical notes. It made me curious what sort of trouble Elias had been getting himself into. Knowing archaeology of the time I wonder whether he'd been involved in some less-than-legal excavations and removal of antiquities, which some countries were starting to crack down on.

The piece and its letters found their way back to London sometime after the second world war. According to my notes, it was retrieved from a cache of stolen goods in 1952, and its owner at the time, a Mr Neil Wharfdale, ended up in a mental institution suffering from severe paranoia following a series of unexplained burglary and assault attempts. It ended up in an auction run by the House of Ausberg in the 1970s where they were purchased by Professor Giles Moreton of Lincoln as part of a substantial lot. He didn't have much interest in Celtic material (I believe most of the lot was Egyptian) and I bought them in 1997.

Unfortunately I've had no more luck in deciphering the mystery than the old archaeologists did. The Celtic scholars I consulted agreed that it is an authentic C1-5th piece, but one suggestion is that it's actually a non-Celtic copy (possibly Romano-British or just plain Roman) made as a curiosity or just for practice by someone without a grasp of Ogham. It could even be an example of Ogham used to transcribe another language, although I couldn't make sense of it in Latin either. Perhaps the carver used a different transliteration?

The staining doesn't appear to be blood, which was the obvious (and more romantic) thought. I suspect it's some kind of oil, possibly an oily resin or perfume used in a burial, although if it's a ritual piece it could be from the ceremony. Or, of course, it could simply be that oil has leaked into the ground where it was buried - much less satisfying but perhaps more likely.

I hope you find it as intriguing as I did, and if you do learn any more about it, I'd be fascinated to hear from you.

Best wishes, Keith

The label

Letter to Jackson Elias

The 'typed' letter - worth reading as it has Edie's annotations as well as the text below!

Adelaide, Australia

Tuesday 15th 192~

My dear Elias,

I ran across the enclosed at a pretty dull auction of a country house in the quaint little town where I've been staying. Some ancestor had a collecting mania but frankly the rest was tedious books, pots, arrowheads and stuffed birds. I thought this repulsive little enigma might tickle your fancy. The little charms were long sold by the time I arrived, alas.

Tiresomely they refused to give me the collector's catalogue, so you will be delighted to see that I have lovingly transcribed their entries for you and now type it up for your delectation. I hope I have it right, but peculiar dead languages are rather more your area than mine, dear boy.

As you predicted, a foreigner of some sort has been loitering in the neighbourhood where you were staying. I had Norris approach him (with the utmost discretion, I do assure you) and with a little tact elicited the information that he was on the lookout for 'an old friend' with a predictable resemblance to your good self. I do trust you have not been agitating?

Norris was, with his usual skill, able to convey the impression that he might be willing to assist in this matter, and report that the foreigner showed a disposition to accept the offer. Tell me how you'd like to proceed, and don't go out without your revolver.

I ordered the books you requested from Blackwell's, and will send them on to your hotel. It will cost a pretty penny but if you say air mail, so it is. In the circumstances I say you ought to keep them well out of sight; I believe the staff at Blackwell's are beginning to look askance at me. I did call at the Bodleian, but even they drew a blank at this 'Sand Bat' of yours. I suppose the Antipodes aren't exactly their focus.

Yours and all that jazz,


The catalogue record

These copies of the catalogue are also annotated by a grumpy Edie

Carved stone of Celtic design found in bogs near Norwich. Originally buried in a bark container, which also held eight charms or amulets (holdings R-83N/hap1 to R-83N/hap8). Appears to depict a bearded figure, originally identified as the Dagda, but questionable due to lack of the distinctive club. Possibly a tribal chieftain or priest. Gordon (1896, Norfolk Archaeology) suggested the 'beard' is a symbolic representation of breath or speech, and the projections to the left are a harp, making this a bardic figure or possibly Áillen.

Carved with 36 ogham glyphs around perimeter. Left perimeter damaged at some point and the glyphs crudely repaired, leaving bifurcating set of glyphs. Lower part of stone and parts of carving stained with dark substance.

Transcription below from Winstable (1857).

Fngluimglupnazctulurle q u g ahnaglzta g n g

Inability to identify clear Old Irish words led Kleinhoff (1903) to suggest a druidic code and Rhys (1906) to argue for a Pictish origin.

Billings (1911) suggests an abbreviated or shorthand message to fit the available space, and identifies possible Primitive Irish words within the passage:


finn-gl[as/an/é] ... ma[c/g] lu[gh] [b]námae c[a]thu rí ... leth-... ná-glé-se [do]gní

great brightness ... mac? lug was.enemy battle king ... half... not-bright.emph he-make

Finn-Glé (name)... Son of Lugh the Enemy? [perished in] battle with the King... half... no longer bright (emphasised; a play on death and his name?)... he did.


finn-gl[as/an/é] ... im-gal[af] .... c[a]thu rí lé[g]- guth-gáeth...

great brightness ... was-valorous ... battle king with/reads voice-wind

Finn... showed courage... the king (with/who could read) voice of the wind (epithet for a chieftain?)...

Billings argues that, like most early Ogham stones, this was a grave marker or tribute, and is simply a more compact form of language used due to the limited space. A similar phenomenon is common in Latin engravings.

This is another one of those areas where I had a lot of fun. Well, frustration and fun. Coming up with plausibly bad interpretions of the Ogham, without spending as much time on it as the actual fictional Celticists would over the years, and without actually learning Old Irish (I'm fine with just the modern Celtic languages, thanks) was a tricky one.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Skills as described vs. skills as used

So I was visiting Dan and Arthur over the holidays, and we had many conversations about roleplaying, of course. One of them eventually pottered around to musing on skill interpretation. Or, to be a little uncharitable, skill misinterpretation.

Here, as usual, "skill" means an aspect of an RPG's mechanics which determine your competence in a specific field of activity. In some cases things we would normally consider to be Attributes or Statistics or something work in a way similar enough that we can also consider them here. White Wolf's dots, for example, are basically the same whether they're in an Attribute or a... whatever you call the other things, I forget.

Let's take as read for this article that a skill has four components: a Name, an optional Fluff, a Description, and an Application. The Name is literally the name of the skill ("Ignite Fish"). The Fluff is a bit of flavour text which some games include. The Description is the section of the rules which explains what the skill is, and may give specific mechanical subsystems, special uses, examples and so on; descriptions may be very mechanical or largely narrative.

Finally, the Application is simply the way a given set of players actually uses the skill in their games. This does not necessarily correspond to any of the above.

Gamer Nostalgia and Game Choices

This post was prompted by an old Adventuring Party episode, which seems fitting (although less old than I thought it was when I first wrote this).

The premise was, basically, "are gamers too nostalgic? where is all the new stuff?" and based on a listener question. The group discussed this at length and with enthusiasm, and eventually settled mostly on "no" and "everywhere, on Kickstarter and stuff". While an interesting discussion, I felt like it didn't quite get to grips with things. I spent a lot of it on the tangent of thinking about why people tend to substantially gravitate towards the same handful of older games - D&D, World of Darkness, Traveller and Star Wars. Why isn't there a large market share for new shiny games?

(and yes, one of the answers is "it's questionable how much those should be considered old")

Most of my discussion will focus on D&D because I've played that.


I think a large part of this can be attributed to general inertia. Humans are, for the most part, inclined to stick with what they're already doing, and some of the social issues around gaming specifically interact with that.

Conservatism is the basic point. Once you've got a game that does X, why learn another one? This tendency is intensified by the group-based nature of gaming. To play, you need to get a group of 3-6 people to agree on a game; it's not something you can just do yourself. For many people this means persuading their existing group (or one of just a couple of groups) to try the new system. In some groups, people are all willing to experiment with new games - it depends a lot on what the group is for, I suppose. There are game groups which are (explicitly or tacitly) about relaxing and socialising, and an old familiar system fits the bill well.

There are other factors which play in here. A group of laid-back players with an evangelical GM may be perfectly happy to have their choice of game driven by the GM's enthusiasms. Some groups are pretty stable, others are highly changeable depending on what game is currently being played; the latter are perhaps easier to crack into with a new game.

The social contract, or rather a social contract, reinforces this conservatism. When you do persuade them, if some people are reluctant in the first place because they don't see the point of changing from [game that does something similar], this tends to weigh against them changing their mind. If they've given it something approaching a fair chance, and still don't really buy into it, the social contract pushes towards going back to Old Game. That's down to the dynamics of things like how we approach favours and agreements - there's generally an unspoken sense that if Jane agrees to try MegaSpaceWhizz and doesn't care for it, you'll go back to Traveller.

Worse, if you've tried something and it wasn't a great success, there's a fairly strong pressure to never try it again.

This is particularly significant when you think that Old Game is probably played with the ease of long practice; people are comfortable with the rules and expectations and the kind of characters they can be. A first session of New Game, or even first few sessions, will be full of explanations and rules checking and mistakes, and people finding out they can't do something they want to.

It's also common for there to be a long and painful chargen process, not least because you normally have 1 copy of the rules and nobody knows them so you have to share. It's a very straightforward system, but I can make a Call of Cthulhu character without consulting the rules at all (okay, yes, I don't remember the exact list of skills or their base percentages, but I can remember many and I can certainly allocate all my points to stack above base). New Game will almost always seem painful, clumsy and slow in comparison.

Of course, New Game may also have cool and exciting aspects, like new character concepts and new powers and finding out you can do something very cool, but these tend to occur after you've already bought into it. How much this applies depends a lot on how much people already know about the game, the type of game, and how the GM presents it. A tie-in game or one that draws very strongly on specific tropes known to the players may strongly spark their imagination. On the downside, if players are not familiar with those tropes, it's a much harder sell.

To make things personal for a minute, I am really quite bad at pop culture. Luckily I'm pretty easygoing about this stuff, because I usually don't really know the tropes for games people want to run. My mates are also very good at quickly giving me the basic tools I need to pretend I know what I'm doing.* I am, however, quite familiar with a lot of D&D content because before I even got near it, I'd read plenty of generic fantasy, I played some D&D games and absorbed a lot of the setting and tropes. If you want me to play a new game inspired by Popular Zeitgeist Thing, I can almost guarantee I know nothing about it.

* Although I do have a tendency to interpret all settings as basically Call of Cthulhu

I don't want to paint this as a negative thing. People stick with old games they enjoy because they already enjoy them. Most gamers I know have a stack of ideas saved up for next time they get to run something - they're already excited with possibilities for doing more of the games they're already running. There isn't necessarily any need for something new.

First gamer advantage

The old games that people come back to get that for a reason. They normally do something well. There are other old games which are obscure or forgotten.

This is actually much more complicated than the standard "first mover advantage". It's not just about economics, though I'm sure that's an issue.

Old games had the huge advantage of an untapped well of sources to draw on. This is no longer true for any but the most specific of games. This may be a factor unique to games, as RPGs are a relatively derivative genre.

This meant D&D was able to draw on a huge range of fantasy, including swords and sorcery, weird, technofantasy, gothic, fairy tales and mythology, when establishing its setting and tone. This allowed it the great benefit of being flexible and adaptable; even if a GM chooses to run in an existing setting, individual elements can be highlighted, muted, subverted or ignored altogether, flavouring the in-game reality accordingly. Something as simple as tweaking the amount of background politics and treachery can shift a setting from "bickering city-states full of backstabbing nobles heedless of the evils around them" to "loose alliance of city-states keeping the torch of human civilisation lit in the face of darkness". It does tend towards a high-magic interpretation of the swords and sorcery end, but it hits enough notes from many of the others that it feels right. It covers Generic Fantastical well enough that it's a perfectly viable game to use for it. Anyone else coming into the scene now has to do something more specific, and thus more limited.

Well, they don't have to. They can try to create another Generic Fantastical game. It's an astonishingly difficult challenge, though, because there is already a game for that and it's very, very well-established, well-known, well-supported and widely-played. Trying to persuade people to swap out their well-worn-in game for one that seems mostly quite similar is a massive undertaking, because people have a lot of traction with their existing one and need a very strong reason to change. A vast mechanical improvement might do it, and this is what game publishers try to offer with new editions. The problem for a rival publisher is that in most cases you won't be able to offer anything too similar - copyrighted monsters, magic, setting details and so on. So you're asking people to change to either a game that's a bit like what they already do perfectly well, or a (hopefully) polished ripoff of the game they already play. And for the latter, even if it's better, people do tend to instinctively dislike ripoffs.

The cases I think you can sort of count as successes here are things like GURPS versions of particular genres, and this generally seems to work because people are fans of the system and want to run their favourite genres in it. But GURPS is, in its own way, one of the Elder Games. You can't make the new GURPS, although FATE is a similar beast.

The older, vaguely generic games are generally broad enough that they support a wide range of playstyles, preferences, tones and subgenres. This means you can use the same system, and much of the same content, to do different things. Part of the reason people don't seek out a new game to do XYZ based on newish sources is that they don't need to: they can often adapt an Elder Game that's in the right area, adding new content or throwing some out to produce the game they want. You can put content from The Witcher straight into a D&D game. You can grab ideas from modern sci-fi and insert them into Traveller.

D&D (and Vampire, and Traveller) also got to grab a lot of ideas from around the cultural sphere and be the first game that incorporates them. They've had a lot of time both to raid literature and film, and to evolve their own ideas. This just leaves slightly less breathing space for newer games. There's already a beholder, a mind flayer, a mimic, a gibbering mouther... a clan of occult vampires, a sect of highly religious vampires, vampires who want to tear down the secretive vampire social order. A lot of the cool ideas have already been used. You need new ones.

And, to be honest - older games got away with more. They were there first, and they got away with throwing together rag-tag bundles of whatever different people thought was cool with minimal explanation. Supplements and expansions threw in even more stuff that might count as part of D&D or Vampire or Star Wars. Over time, edges have been smoothed, weirdness has been explained away in various ways, and this stuff has taken on the mantle of making sense because That's Just How It Is. Your exciting new game doesn't get that leeway. It's competing with other games that seem to have coherent settings. If people decide it's a random set of what you thought was cool and makes no real sense, it's unlikely to succeed.


One of the challenges facing newer games is that because old games are often so broad, they have to define themselves substantially by exclusion. It's very hard to create a broader game, or a substantially different mix of game elements that can't already be homebrewed by a GM, if everything conceivable is already part of the setting.

To take a D&D example, if you want to create a fantasy game that's postapocalyptic (maybe based on Shannara or something), you can just play D&D: there's the refuse of previous civilisations everywhere, there's a fair amount of technological elements. If you want to create a Gothic fantasy game, that's Ravenloft, but you can also do a Gothic-skinned pulp fantasy game by running D&D with lots of ghosts, skeletons, curses, hags, witches, shadows and vampires. If you want to create a folklore-based fantasy game, you can run D&D with a lot of fey and constructs and less in the way of dungeons.

Probably none of those are quite what you meant, but for a lot of players they'll scratch the flavour itch. Basically, the difficulty is you can't say "it's like Dungeons and Dragons, but with fey/post-apocalypticism/vampires" because those things are already in Dungeons and Dragons. And similarly, Vampire already incorporates almost any conceivable type of vampire and can be tweaked to run a wide variety of vampire subgenres.

What your new game needs to do is be more restrictive: it only has fey and fairy tales, or it only has Gothic elements; it specifically excludes orcs and elves and flesh golems and half the D&D PC archetypes and so on. This allows it to have a strong and distinctive flavour, but it's a harder sell, I think. Not least because quite a few players will think "sure, or I could run that by eliding a bunch of stuff from D&D".

Often what distinguishes fantasy, say, is not just the setting details, but the tone and the flavour of the world. But this tends to melt away in the face of a fairly generic setting, because D&D doesn't rely on any particular tone or flavour. Traveller can be a hard-boiled mercantile game, or a swashbuckling pirate game, or a heroic saving-the-Imperium game. Vampire can probably be a game of personal horror if you're determined, but it's more likely to be either Vampires Investigate or Vampire Buffy, let's be honest.

Common knowledge

What's more, this breadth is very welcoming to new players. A new player won't grasp the vast details of any D&D setting, but they don't have to - having some knowledge of some fantasy is a very good start. Almost everyone knows that elves are graceful and noble, orcs are monsters that you fight, and mysterious people in robes send you on quests. Of course, there's a lot of room for confusion if you've seen Lord of the Rings and you're supposed to be playing Fafrd and the Grey Mouser, but you can work that out in play based on what everyone else does - and importantly, deciding which of those stories you're playing is more down to the GM than to the game itself, which has room for both.

In other words, even if you aren't quite right in your assumptions about the game, it's likely that you can make some in the first place. This is not necessarily the case in newer games, which try to contrast by having novel content which prospective players aren't familiar with. If a player needs to do homework before they can meaningfully join a game, the barrier to entry is high. I know some games, like White Wolf, got a lot of buy-in while expecting players to embrace a lot of their very convoluted ideas, but it's rooted in popular conceptions, and it's notable that the weirder and more experimental games have been much less successful.

I own several newer games with their own unique settings and worlds. I haven't played any of them. I haven't had the energy to read through it all. The sole exception here are the Warhammer 40,000 line, and they are Elder Games by dint of their huge existing fanbase and canon.


The Elder Games tend to be quite robust: they have been played a great deal, and thus through weight of numbers and through market share they tend to have rigorous playtesting. They tend to be good at what they're doing. Their systems don't suit everyone, but they tend to work well at what they're trying to do. They have rules for everything they need. They have a broad array of tools for GMs, from antagonists to hazards to setting details. There are lots of people playing them who talk about them at length on the internet, as well as critics, which makes it relatively easy to check up on possible weirdness (how does this interact with that?) or gauge which elements will work well in your campaign. For example, if you want to know which D&D classes or GURPS advantages might end up causing problems for your specific game concept, it's likely someone somewhere has talked about it already.


The Elder Games have been around for a long time, and there are certainly very old-established aspects to them. D&D isn't going to stop having classes or levels, for example, because there's a point at which it wouldn't feel like the same game any more. However, Elder Games have been able to reinvent themselves to suit changes in the market. Editions of D&D are quite different from each other. You can do quite a few different things without ever leaving D&D.

If you want a quick, brutal and gritty dungeon-bashing temple-raiding experience, you can play the earlier editions. If you want a fairly tactical experience focused on combat choices with powerful PCs, you can play 4th edition. If you want a much looser adventuring experience with powerful and often bizarre PCs, with a lot of player control, you can play 3rd edition. If you want something fairly smooth and simple but with survivability that supports long-term play, you can play 5th edition.

More generally, this means they have responded to changing tastes and preferences from the player base, and that means they haven't been left behind as you might expect from an older product. Sure, younger players may not be enthused for AD&D, but that's okay because they can play the new edition instead. Because there's an awful lot of continuity between editions (in terms of expectations, setting, monsters, magic and so on) it's relatively easy for players to transition between them both permanently and temporarily. Older players can shift to a new edition to join a group of younger players; younger players who started on 5th edition can get a rough handle on a 3rd edition campaign. For the most part it's still much easier to switching to a completely different game.

To a reasonable extent, some of those Elder Games are also New Shiny Games. They have the easy comfort of familiarity, together with the exciting promise of nicer rulesets, new cool stuff, and maybe even That Thing You Always Wanted.

New Game Blues

So having thrown out all that in explanation of the strengths of older games, what about the challenges for newer games?


For the most part, as I said, RPGs are a quite derivative medium. They are an opportunity to participate in a story that's like that story you enjoyed. That means they usually draw on other sources - perhaps heavily mixed up and chopped about, but still.

The Adventuring Party mentioned games based on newer stories. I think one of the chief difficulties here is probably licensing. If you really want to publish a game that's very much like Space Captain Smith or Winds of Khalakovo, and that players will know is based on them, you probably need to license the property so as to reuse names (and preferably stick a big "The Space Captain Smith Roleplaying Game!" on the front). This was not true of many older games, since they were able to draw on stories that were both out of copyright (especially as it was much less absurb in those days) and widely known. The works of many pulp authors that inspired D&D were no longer in copyright, and many vampire stories had the same benefit. Of course, the games were substantially influenced by much newer works (we all know White Wolf's ideas of vampires draws heavily on Anne Rice, though not always directly) but the game could lean on the out-of-copyright stuff explicitly for familiarity value.

Licensing is expensive, especially for the kind of popular new hits that are likely to have a large potential audience. A good designer may be able to take an obscure subgenre and see the potential for a brilliant RPG, but Harry Potter is frankly going to get more copies sold. Not only is this a problem in an industry with poor margins, and a particular problem for a small underfunded company trying to create the next hit, but there's the permanent risk of losing the license. With that, you lose all your hard work and the future sales potential. After all, if you can create a game people are playing decades later, there's the potential for a substantial trickle-in income, further supplements (hopefully with a lower baseline cost now that the initial work is done), growing the playerbase and so on. All that helps to fund more work, improve the game and create a virtuous cycle.


I think sheer numbers are a non-trivial part of the problem for new games. A high proportion of potential players are already playing Old Game that is at least superficially similar. As a GM, you have an idea for a campaign. It's probably easier to pitch your campaign as one run using Old Game which some people play, than New Game which nobody plays yet.

If I want to run something that's roughly a fantasy game, I'll probably run it in D&D. Investigative and low-combat? Call of Cthulhu. Turned up to 11 and fairly gritty? Warhammer 40,000. Modernish and not particularly gritty? World of Darkness. Not because those are the absolute best games to run those things in, but because they work, people are familiar with them and it requires minimal extra effort beyond convincing people the campaign would be fun at all.


I think there's genuinely also an extent to which Elder Games are good at providing long-term entertainment, through a mixture of factors including the same flexibility and breadth I mentioned earlier.

Will your game provide long-term entertainment, or exhaust its possibilities quickly? Mission-style games or "thing of the week" can feel more like the latter. Long-term games tend to have some inbuilt progression, often a mechanical one of growing power that ties into escalating challenges. D&D isn't just fun because you can get XP and become more powerful, but because that progression allows you to move onto newer and greater challenges. Moreover, long-term play with the same groups of characters allows for greater investment and depth as characters develop over the course of play through choices, new bits of backstory and characterisation.

To take another example here, my current Planescape character has been fleshed out a lot over two years of play. Beginning as the simple concept of "Gap Yah student, but an elf" he's developed specific relationships with the rest of the party, long-term goals which clash with those of some party members, a homeland that has grown from a simple name to a relatively detailed society, actually grown up a bit, and seen his throwaway National Service background (as a ranger, he has favoured enemies) manifest in radical changes of persona when faced with abberations. In a game with much shorter arcs, this just wouldn't have happened.

In the Pathfinder campaign I was recently playing, there's a huge difference between punching an orc at low levels, and at high levels watching the frontline fighter get battered to a near-pulp by an abyssal monstrosity before striding over and using a single high-level spell to restore him to full hit points. Retreating from arrows, versus clearing a whole chamber with a storm of fire. Summoning a triceratops to trample enemies into the ground. Transforming into a gigantic elemental to breach the castle walls.

I'm honestly not very sure what the newer games are like that might be trying to do a similar thing. The new games I've tried are mostly indie things that expect one-off play. FATE supports gradual changes of character through tweaks to their Aspects, which I could see working. However, it also felt to me (in my very, very limited experience) as though the game would get samey over time.

As I said, people I know tend to have ideas for the campaigns they'd like to run next. But this is much easier in a broad game where you can do a lot of different things. If a game is designed for quite a narrow pool of experiences, it may well serve them very well, but it's also less likely that you'll want to keep playing it. And if you don't, you're no longer part of the current audience, which makes it that much less likely that this game is a Big New Thing Everyone is Playing.

Market Share

Market share for all media has splintered over the past decades. There is more of everything available, it's easier to find out about, and easier to find other people with similar interests.

When I was at school, people talked about The Programme that was on TV last night. This was easy. There were a handful of channels, very few programmes people our age might watch (between parents, mealtimes, homework etc.), and live broadcast only. If you had any interest in that sort of thing, you watched the show that was roughly the sort of thing you wanted. So everyone watched Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and, to a lesser extent, Buffy. To a lesser extent because by that point, media was already shifting so there was much more choice of what to watch. You didn't have to watch Buffy because you could watch... some other programme instead, that did something similar but in a way you enjoyed more.

There are more books published every year. While finding a book that's exactly what you want isn't necessarily easy, it's more likely now that that book exists at all. People are spread more thinly, even people with quite similar tastes. They read different books, and so Jane A isn't particularly interested in Cyber-Regency Black Ops: the RPG because she's been reading a grittier set of books about Regency spies with more violence and less kissing. This doesn't mean she wouldn't like the game, it's just less likely she'll immediately find it appealing or even hear about it.

I suspect the similar interest thing also helps to create self-reinforcing bubbles. If you can readily seek out other people who want to play Old Games I Like, because you live in a large city or similar, you may just not really encounter newer games.

So there we go, usual unfiltered ramblings about why it's hard for new games to take over the world, hope it was interesting.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Hive Mind 3: copying combat

So, having carefully stolen the the skill spheres system and the serious injury model how can I steal Necromunda's combat system and make it my own?

To recap, the melée combat system works like this:

  • You each have a Weapon Skill stat
  • You each have an Attacks stat
  • You roll dice equal to your Attacks and pick the highest
  • Opponents with a parry (mostly due to a sword) can make you reroll one die
  • You subtract 1s
  • You add +1 for any additional 6s
  • You add your WS to this number
  • You compare totals
  • On a tie, the highest Initiative stat wins
  • You can roll to wound once for each point of difference (minimum 1)

I'm actually wondering whether you couldn't extrapolate this to other resolution mechanics, given a different statline. And there will definitely be a different statline.

Off the top of my head, for purposes of experimenting, I'm going to propose something like this:

  • Might - governs physical brawn and toughness
  • Agility - governs nimbleness, dexterity and reaction
  • Intellect - governs memory, logic, reason and knowledge
  • Charisma - governs social graces, plausibility, charm, leadership
  • Weaponry - weapon use
  • Stealth - sneaking, disguise, camouflage and sleight-of-hand
  • Persuasion - influencing others
  • Athletics - physical feats
  • Lore - all learning

Lore could be broken down further, but I'm not convinced it needs to be. There's certainly some characters (and real-life people) who are experts in science but not history, or history but not politics, or whatever. But given there's one skill for using all weapons, and one skill for all interpersonal interactions, I'm not sure we need more. Obviously this will depend on the kind of game - in a magical system you might not want learning and magic to be all tied up together, even though that's the most common model.

The first four are stats, the remainder are skills (and I'm going to use the "skill" term here even though that means something different in Necromunda). Basically, all opposed tasks would be resolving using a Stat Dicepool + Skill Modifier roll. The stat determines how many dice you roll, both making a higher stat more reliable and slightly increasing its maximum potential, but you're all human and there aren't vast differences in your raw potential. That difference comes from skills, which represent actual experience and training in a particular task. Someone with a lot of training in weapon use can still get reliable results, even if they're physically outclassed. On the other hand, that burly thug might just overwhelm you with brute force and luck, because the range possible on a die is similar to the range of possible skill levels.

These will usually be combined in particular ways, but occasionally something different crops up. For example, you might easily use Intellect + W for forensics on a murder scene, or Charisma + W when regaling people with exploits of derring-do. Persuasion can be readily used with Might (physical intimidation or showing off), Agility (ditto), Intellect (reasoned discourse and argumentation, whether true or not) or Charisma (charming, beguiling and befuddling). Intellect + Stealth would help plan ways to disguise or hide an object, as well as tracking down what's hidden already. Stealth + Charisma is used for impersonation.

Having an argument? Roll Intellect + Persuasion if you're debating, or Charisma + Persuasion if you're relying on force of personality. The low-Persuasion mook might just flummox you with a killer question you just can't quite formulate the answer to by rolling a 6. Or you might land a series of lethal QEDs that shut her down completely, because you roll 3, 4, 5=best and you're adding a 4 and she only rolled a 3+2.

Parries could be generalised to a set of equipment or abilities that let you gain a similar benefit. A particular debating trick might allow you to "parry" a Charisma roll by undermining the other party or throwing them off balance with unexpected gambits. In a high-tech setting, a piece of cyberware might allow hackers to parry intrusion attempts and the efforts of security systems. Wizards might "parry" in a magical duel by expending a specific spell component, while specific charms might allow anyone to parry magical attacks.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Hive Mind 2: playing with ability pools

So I was looting Necromunda for ideas. Let's see what else could be done with the skill pools system.

As a reminder, the original ability pools are: Agility, Combat, Ferocity, Muscle, Shooting, Stealth, Techno.

Although the ideal option is probably to flesh this out into a vaguely similar gritty sci-fi setting that isn't focused purely on combat, I think I'll actually try to replicate D&D instead. That's because moving from wargame to combat-heavy game is easier than directly to lowish-combat game.

Sword and Sorcery

So here I'm going to try and throw together a set of special abilities that broadly cover the sorts of things you might expect from a fantasy adventure game, substituting for classes.

The first thing I note is that of the seven Necromunda pools, two are directly tied to raw physical ability mostly as it applies to melée combat, one is a mixture of combat and dexterity, one is a sort of willpower thing that includes toughness and scariness and more melée combat, and one is shooting. That seems excessive in an RPG.

I suggest the following seven pools to begin with, assuming a pretty straightforward dungeoneering approach to the game:

  • Agility skills are about grace and reflexes
  • Might skills are about physical power
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Smite skills unleash destructive magic
  • Conjure skills summon helpful spirits
  • Enchant skills beguile and influence minds


  • Catfall - you can easily maintain balance, halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative and are never taken Off-Guard by traps or ambushes
  • Light Fingers - you can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, lockpicking, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Spring Up - you can stand from prone without using an action
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash an item without spending an action


  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Hurl - if you win a combat, you can trade all your hits to shove your opponent 1d6+hits in feet and knock them prone. Larger enemies halve the distance once per size category, rounding down; if it reaches 0 this ability cannot be used
  • Tireless - you treat armour and baggage as one step lighter when determining movement and fatigue
  • Steel Jaw - you gain a +2 bonus to resist stunning and knockdowns
  • Iron Thews - you treat weapons and shields as one category lighter when determining wielding rules
  • Demolition - you deal +1 additional damage to objects and constructs, and can reroll a failed Bend Bars Lift Gates attempt.

This set may be a little opaque in the absence of rules. The idea is that our Muscly hero can use these rules to dual-wield full-sized weaponry, or carry oversized weapons, or run around with a tower shield and so on. Tireless is supposed to let them avoid speed penalties, swimming and climbing penalties, or penalties for sleeping in armour.


  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, including Fear and Retreat tests you inflict, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Iron Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.


  • Ambush - you can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice you or pick you out in a crowd
  • Act Natural - you have advantage on rolls to maintain a disguise if you're blending into a group or have recently observed the type of person you're disguised as, unless you do something drastically out of character
  • Backstab - you strike with advantage if you attack when hidden
  • Soft Footed - you can move at full speed while sneaking
  • Slink - you can move through small spaces at full speed and without stealth penalties


  • Havoc - you gesture and the ground erupts violently, blasting everyone nearby
  • Dragonsbreath - flames gush from your palms in a blazing arc
  • Lance - blazing light sears a single target
  • Fellblade - a glowing weapon manifests in your hand
  • Banestorm - mystical energies wrack your chosen spot until you bid them cease
  • Whirlwind - a spiral of air moves at your command, hurling foes and obstacles aside


  • Guardian - the spirit intervenes to protect its ward from danger
  • Veil - the spirit cloaks its ward to conceal it from sight
  • Steed - the spirit carries its ward swiftly along
  • Healer - the spirit tends the wounds of its ward
  • Servant - the spirit fetches, carries, labours and cleans as requested
  • Mantle - the spirit infuses its ward with power


  • Beguile - you charm and manipulate the target into doing as you wish
  • Pacify - you lull a target into distraction, slumber or a deep trance
  • Mesmerize - you transfix a target with your gaze, and attempt to command them
  • Hallucination - you confuse the target with misleading illusions
  • Disguise - you warp perceptions with a magical veil that disguises reality
  • Bewitch - you reach deep into the target's mind, sensing or influencing their memories and feelings

So, let's see. Our classic brute hero would gain access to the Muscle and Zeal pools. A thief would have Agility and Stealth. A hardy cleric might have Conjure and Muscle, while a demagogue might have Enchant and Zeal. A wizard or wrathful priest would have Smite and Conjure. This is only a very basic attempt at the model, but I think it kind of works.

Politomunda: the city-world

So we've got massive grimdark cities, and you're a bunch of, let us say, questionably-moralled individuals who are trying to get by. Each of the Houses has its own particular philosophies, genetic lineages, education systems and resources that leave their members tending towards similar abilities.

I'm going to suggest Reflex, Combat, Zeal, Stealth, Tech, Face, Instinct, Wits. Remember that these skills are not the basic mechanics for interacting with the world; they are pools of special abilities that replace things like class powers.

  • Speed skills are about reactions and movement.
  • Combat skills provide benefits and options when attacking or defending.
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Tech skills cover interaction with technology
  • Face skills apply to social interactions
  • Connections skills cover society and street smarts
  • Wits skills involve knowledge, understanding and perception

The specific bonuses and penalties below are arbitrary, since there's no system here!


  • Catfall - you halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, 6+ on 1d6, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash a handheld item without spending an action
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative in any standoff and can't be surprised
  • Ease of Practice - when performing Extended Actions for which you are trained, you reduce the time required by one-quarter


  • Interference - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against you
  • Pinpoint Strike - you can reroll an attack's hit location once per round, accepting the second result
  • Turn Aside Blow - you can parry without a parrying weapon, or take the best of two results with a parrying weapon
  • Snap Attack - you can treat your movement as one category less when determining attack penalties, but suffer a -1 penalty and cannot use sights
  • Duck and Dive - instead of taking a Pinning test, you can fall prone if this would give you cover from the attacker
  • Suppressing Attack - roll no damage on a hit, but inflict two Pinning rolls (ranged) or Retreat rolls (melée)


  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Laser Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.


  • Ambush - the character can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when the character is hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice them. When hacking, systems and sysadmins treat their activities as one rank less suspicious than normal
  • Method Actor - when disguised, the character treats their cover identity and cover story as true for the purposes of psychology and lie-detection
  • Light Fingers - the character can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Trackless - when attempting to track, trace or identify the character, treat time elapsed as one step higher (minute, hour, day, week, month, year)
  • Uniform - providing the character is dressed appropriately, their presence in a location is considered one rank less suspicious than normal.

This section assumes the existence of a set of infiltration mechanics, rather more elaborate than the classic single-roll Stealth/Disguise-type mechanics, which feature:

  • Ranks of suspicion for presence and activities in an area
  • Ranks of security for particular zones
  • A general system for determining whether people notice you and what they notice about you

I might try to rough this out at some point, it seems useful.


  • Percussive Maintenance - the character can attempt a short-term fix as a single action, but the results are unreliable
  • Changelog - the character always has a chance to notice hacks and modifications without actively searching, and rolls twice when searching.

Tech is hard to do without actually building the systems for doing tech stuff, because it needs to interact usefully with those.


  • Read Intention - the character can roll [stat] to gauge what a partner hopes to get out of a social interaction
  • No Hard Feelings - when the character bargains, strikes a deal, persuades or influences an NPC, they can reduce any negative change in attitude by one rank with a successful [stat] roll. If they used Intimidation, the roll is at a penalty
  • One of the Guys - the character can use an extended action to roll [stat] with a non-hostile group. If successful, they're treated as a Peer for social rolls until they fail a roll or do anything that antagonises them
  • Afterthought - when the character amicably gets information from a source, within 1 week they can think of one additional question. They roll as normal; if successful, the source contacts them spontaneously to provide related information. The GM decides how and when the information arrives.
  • My Pleasure - when the character strikes a bargain or seeks a favour from an NPC, if they roll [very good] the NPC feels as though the character has done them a favour.
  • Between These Four Walls - when the character seeks information or antagonises an NPC, as long as the outcome is amicable, their sources are reluctant to report the incident. The chances of raising suspicion are reduced, and it is one step more difficult than usual for others to find out that the character was making enquiries.


  • Find the Core - when observing a conversation or interaction, the character can roll [some stat] to understand the social dynamics between the parties
  • Know a Guy - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with a necessary skill at [level] or higher. The result determines the time it will take (minutes, hours or days) and/or the level of the contact's skill.
  • Social Butterfly - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with connections to an organisation or public figure. The result determines the degree of separation and/or the time it will take (minutes, hours or days).
  • Name Dropper - the character can attempt to sway an NPC by mentioning their contacts. This requires a [stat] roll, but grants a bonus on subsequent rolls. On a botched roll, the NPC is antagonised and subsequent rolls are penalised. In either case, it is one step easier for others to learn about the interaction.
  • Middleman - the character can play two NPCs off against each other, either immediately (with a penalty) or as an extended action. The NPCs must be Amiable or worse in their mutual relationship. Roll [stat] against each NPC's [discernment stat]; the character can repeat this, but each subsequent set of rolls must gain [better result] or the attempt fails as the NPCs realise what is happening. The accumulated bonus can be applied to one interaction with each NPC, and overrides their limiters for Common Sense and Professionalism.

I envision that this game would have mechanics for organisations and social connections. Perhaps there are degrees of separation, which determine your influence over NPCs and ability to interact with (or infiltrate) their organisations.

It will be much easier to interact with large, public organisations and much harder to interact with small, private and illegal organisations. Similarly, it's easy to tap a contact who slightly knows a media personality, and hard to tap anyone who's close to a criminal, let alone anyone whose real identity is unknown.

The reason for this complexity is basically that I think it makes the Face character both deeper and more distinctive. If anyone can do social magic then being the Face is a matter of quantity rather than quality, which is somewhat less interesting than other roles which have distinct and unique capabilities. Secondly, it makes it less powerful: it's easy for social systems to end up being a sort of binary, where a low roll means you achieve nothing and a high roll lets you win over a paranoid criminal you've never met before. I'm not claiming I can write a game that fixes social skills, I'm just saying this imaginary game could attempt this kind of mechanic. It's less social combat and more a framework for establishing and tracking the difficulty and scope of social interactions.

In the last example, assume that an NPC has some kind of basic behaviour limiters. There's a point where common sense kicks in, and a point where professionalism kicks in (and probably at least one for self-preservation) so that it's very hard to push NPCs into unrealistic behaviour with simple social interaction. Maybe it's something approaching a Wisdom save, and the more inappropriate or self-destructive the action, the easier it is to resist. In the case of Middeman, the PC can try to work up antagonism between NPCs so that they forget themselves and act rashly.


  • Rapid Recollection - the character can make a Knowledge test to recall or recognise omething without spending an action
  • Spider Sense - the character halves distances when testing to detect hidden or sneaking characters, tails and anyone watching them
  • Weakness in Numbers - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against the character
  • Skim - if the character succeed on a roll to research or analyse information, they halve the time required
  • Erudition - they character's ability to grasp new information means they never count as untrained in intellectual tasks, including conversation
  • Expertise - when the character draws on their training, knowledge and education they can use [stat] in place of [stat] for a social roll

Okay, I'm not going to claim this is an amazing new revolutionary game or anything, but I feel like I can see the shape of an acceptable game emerging here. Everyone gets the basic game mechanics for Doing Stuff, then they choose an archetype that draws on a subset of the talent pools; these pools let them select specific special abilities that let them do things the other characters can't.

You could push these up to more impressive effects, depending on the style of game you want. This is generally easiest with combat, which we're used to having be quite mechanical, and hardest with social/magic/technology skills where you kind of need a robust subsystem in place for your special abilities to work with. It's hard to devise special social mechanics if everything's basically left for the GM to interpret anyway, because the whole point is that the Face (for example) lets you do things the other characters cannot. I could have made these more mind-controlly, but that's a specific genre. And then you start getting into issues of "what if the character uses these on a powerful NPC" issue, because the ability to influence any NPC is extremely potent in a way that combat mechanics aren't usually allowed to be.

In general, though, you could easily use this structure to build in things like:

  • Attacking multiple enemies at once
  • Charming an NPC so well that they spontaneously act in your favour later (like a one-use aftereffect)
  • Becoming practically invisible when you hide

I'm going to stop there for now, I feel like this bit is done, and I'm not up for actually writing (another) game right now...