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Thursday, 30 April 2020

A little touch of the apocalypse


Still searching for the perfect online roleplaying game? The lighter the better, I say. You can roll dice and move figurines on Roll20, but a conversational style of game is a lot easier and for my money more fun. That's one of the reasons I enjoyed running Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders, which quite honestly is a work of genius. If you've read the sagas you'll know how perfectly it captures the spirit of them, and right now it's Pay What You Want on DriveThruRPG. Oh, and Gregor is giving half of the profits to the Red Cross while the pandemic continues.


Two other games with a similarly light touch when it comes to rules mechanics are, unsurprisingly, both Powered by the Apocalypse. First up I give you Tremulus, which spins Lovecraftian horror in an improv storytelling style. I have a conflicted relationship with HPL-based games in that, if you play them true to the spirit of the Cthulhu Mythos, the heroes can't win. Having said that, going mad, giving in to despair, and suffering inevitable defeat can also make for a cathartic experience.

Then there's Alas For The Awful Sea, which appears to be inspired by Melville, Conrad, Poe, and probably HPL again. You play a ship’s crew navigating the remote British Isles in the 19th century. There they face a world consumed with suspicion, sadness, and desperation. Hard to sum it up, but the designers Vee Hendro and Hayley Gordon say this:

"Struggles for power have deadly consequences; mysterious disappearances plague the region; and those who seem human may not all be so. Amidst all this, the sea sends forth strange messages. Will you be the one to listen?"

If you liked The Lighthouse, that one's definitely for you.

I've been making some discoveries about playing online. Simple rules work best, but that was pretty obvious from the git-go. I'm also finding games run better when they're audio only. We have one game on Discord with eight players, and one on Zoom with five players. There's much more cross-chat in the latter, because any appearance in any player's room of a child, spouse, pet, pizza or whatever risks distracting several of the players into launching off on a separate conversation where they talk over everyone else. Lacking video, the Discord game is much more focussed. Players stay in character more and wait for each other to speak, so it's less of a hubbub as well as encouraging a more vivid mental picture of the adventure. There's a good reason they call this improvised radio theatre with dice.

Pop back tomorrow when we'll be jumping on the magic carpet for a trip back to the land of the Arabian Nights. Not just an adventure, oh no. Open sesame indeed, this is a full campaign complete with detailed maps of 8th century Baghdad. And whatever you're playing in these difficult days, and whether it's with voices only or facetime too -- stay safe.

Friday, 24 April 2020

The shinpu hits the fan


Back in the 20th century, the grimdark fantasy tradition had its beginnings in Michael Moorcock's Von Bek novels (The Warhound and the World's Pain, etc) which surely inspired Games Workshop's Warhammer RPG. In the early '90s, Jamie and I signed with GW to write a pseudo-Japanese supplement for Warhammer, which made sense given that the Sengoku period makes the Thirty Years' War look like a tussle between two drunks outside a kebab shop. But enough of me and Jamie...

Tetsubo had been commissioned by Paul Cockburn. Unfortunately he left GW the same week we delivered the manuscript. The new people in charge of roleplaying games there didn't have much enthusiasm for an Oriental take on the game -- and possibly not for roleplaying in general, as soon after that I think GW passed the Warhammer licence on elsewhere.

So that left Tetsubo in limbo -- or rather in Yomi -- until 2018, when Daniel Fox of Grim & Perilous Studios asked to adapt it as a supplement to his Warhammer heartbreaker, Zweihänder. The good news was the renewed spark of interest drove me to dig out the Tetsubo manuscript and scan it all, most of the book never having even been saved to disk and only existing in a faded dot-matrix-printed box of papers. The bad news: after a burst of activity it sank back into the land of mists, and after a year the contract lapsed.


Daniel Fox got back in touch last month to talk about renewing the contract, but his thinking had moved on. He wanted to bring in elements of 1960s chambara movies. That wasn't in itself a problem. Jamie and I are Kurosawa fans, even though we harbour no illusions about his movies being in any way authentically Japanese. But Daniel wanted to square the circle by meshing that with a real Sengoku vibe, and he had the problem that the book as written was more of a fit with the Bakumatsu -- because, of course, GW had wanted players to be able to bring their Old World characters in.

And then there was the question of who would tackle the redesign and conversion to the new system. Daniel proposed hiring Graeme Davis, who would have been ideal, but he was too busy to take it on. Now, at this point I should probably address the notion of "cultural appropriation", whose proponents (I think; I don't actually know any) might say the game could only be done properly if it had a Japanese designer. But would "a Japanese designer" have to mean somebody born and raised in Japan? Or could it be a Japanese citizen (wherever he or she was born) with a deep knowledge of medieval Japanese culture? Or simply somebody who happens to be ethnically Japanese -- Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, who went to school down the road from me in Surrey? You might have guessed by now that I don't subscribe to the woke obsession with ethnicity, an obsession which is supposedly progressive but in fact quite the opposite; we are all human, nobody owns culture or history, and there's no reason why the world's leading authority on, say, Classical Greece shouldn't be Maori.

But those are all just distractions. The bottom line is, a year on, Jamie and I could see that Tetsubo just wasn't going to happen. At least, it will only happen if we do it ourselves.

Currently we're mulling over whether this is worth doing as a Kickstarter. We'd need to rebuild it around a different game system, of course, and our first thought was Powered By The Apocalypse, which we enjoyed for its simplicity when we played our Sagas of the Icelanders campaign, but the appeal of Tetsubo will surely be to traditional roleplayers whereas PbtA would take it in a whole other narrativist direction. So not that.

One option is to use a variant of my Tirikelu RPG, but I'm not sure that would make best use of the skills and career paths in the Tetsubo book. I intend using Tirikelu for my Abraxas RPG (a good fit, hopefully, being science fantasy) and also Tirikelu isn't GURPS; we can't just tack it onto everything. Jamie suggested using a variant of my currently-in-development Jewelspider rules, on the principle that OSR players and Warhammer fans might have at least a nodding acquaintance with Dragon Warriors.

But then we had a brainwave. Paul Mason is an Anglo-Japanese academic who has lived in Japan for over twenty-five years. He's not only an authority on Japanese culture and history, he's also an editor, author and RPG designer with his own (as yet unpublished) game Outlaws, based on the stories of Liang Shan Po. What if we used the Outlaws system for Tetsubo? Not only would the gaming world get a taste of a brilliant and authentic Eastern-influenced RPG, but we'd get an extremely erudite Japanese scholar on board to consult on the final manuscript.

We asked Paul, he said yes, and that's the plan right now -- unless somebody throws an even better suggestion into the comments below.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Kicking and screaming into the 21st century


Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress, which is used by a third of all websites worldwide - and a very good job it does too, as you can see from this one I made earlier. Recently Matt was talking to Sam Harris about how the future of work is going to be telecommuting. (Though strangely enough he seems to think that tele- prefix must be something to do with telephones... Neither a Greek scholar nor a fantasy/SF fan, obviously.)

You can listen to that discussion here. Matt should know what he's talking about -- his company has over a thousand employees worldwide but they don't bother with an office. The future has been a long time coming, though. When my last office job ended in the credit crunch, I resolved to go back to working mostly from home. The energy and time wasted in being squeezed onto trains for hours each day is just crazy. "The commute has had its day," I told business colleagues, little dreaming it would take eleven years and a global pan(ic)demic for companies to drag themselves out of the 20th century mindset.

It's never that simple, though, is it? Matt and Sam talk about the five phases of online working, which start off with companies trying to replicate the habits and work culture of bygone decades using modern tech, and then gradually evolves as they realize that distributed working is not a poor substitute for an office, it's a whole new and better way of doing things.

The podcast's subject is work not play, but there are lessons there for gaming too. We already talked about how asynchronous roleplaying could lead to richer stories than forcing everything into the format of a regular sit-down around the table with all the players. Here's another trend: the last decade or so has seen a movement to strip away the clunky mechanics of roleplaying's wargames origins and replace them with simpler rules that favour character-driven stories. Online play can only accelerate that. Tim Harford, who contributes the annual Legend Christmas special to this blog, has lately been prepping a new campaign for our group. The rules he's written are two pages long, and most of that is the magic system.

Even when the coronavirus lockdown ends (or the current lockdown, I should say) we ought to hold onto the lessons we're learning from online gaming. Don't get stuck in Phase I, like the characters in Forster's SF story "The Machine Stops". Instead embrace the growth that disruption brings, something that Tim Harford talked about eloquently in his book Messy.

Come back tomorrow when we'll be turning Japanese. Hence the video.

Friday, 17 April 2020

"The Only Way is Narnia" (scenario)


In this standalone and not wholly serious scenario (see Postscript) the characters are loyal vassals of the young King Allandar who is trying to unite the dozen provinces of Meropis. The provinces were previously held together under a yoke of tyranny, and now that the tyrants have been defeated after a long war of liberation there is a risk of fragmentation.

The characters are the King’s paladins. Pre-generated characters are provided (links below) using GURPS. Each paladin is famous for his or her archetypal talent and from these talents are derived their nicknames:
Tell the players a few of the legends that are told of the paladins. When Silvertongue once dropped his sword in the middle of a fight, he convinced his opponent to give him his. The Hunter once read a message brought by a pigeon before the bird had alighted. The Anvil once held up a bridge while the King’s army crossed. And so on. It is up to you how much these stories are exaggerations.

Tell the players the nicknames and let them decide among themselves who will play which paladin. Once they have their character sheets (you can get those as PDFs from the links above) they can name their character -- eg Merivus the Cunning. Whatever they like. Then randomly hand to all paladins but the Anvil one of the four magic swords that are twins to Auric, the Sword of Light, wielded by the King:
The Sword of Justice
None can avoid justice. Finds weak points; half usual penalty when targeting chinks in armour (p400).

The Sword of Fire
Swift and deadly is this blade. You can make Whirlwind Attacks (p232) at -3 instead of -5.

The Sword of Lightning
No weapon strikes more swiftly; you can make Rapid Strikes at -4 instead of -6 (p370).

The Sword of Darkness
Strikes in a blur; your opponent is at an extra 50% penalty defending against Deceptive Attacks (p370).

HISTORY

After a three-year military campaign, King Allandar of Durdania has freed the dozen provinces of the Meropis Isles, driving out the Seven Necromancers of Nephid who have ruled (via their puppets, the Syndics of Tasuun) for a hundred years.

Nephid is a long reef of black granite crags in the sea to the west of Meropis. It is said at high tide to be entirely submerged. Nothing lives there apart from sea-birds and barnacles, but the few who have returned to tell of it speak of the lingering presence of the Necromancers who are said to lie submerged in the kelp-choked caves.

Durdania is an island province to the east of the main continent of Meropis. Its people are accomplished sailors and were (with Novaria) the most unruly of the Syndics’ subjects. It is ruled by the young King Allandar who is accompanied by his Paladins, childhood friends of heroic courage and ability. (The player-characters are the Paladins.)

Novaria is a rich province in the north-west of the Meropis empire. The Novarians are proud and see themselves as a distinct culture. Now that the Necromancers have been overthrown they don’t want anything to do with King Allandar’s plans to forge a united kingdom. But King Allandar needs Novaria’s wealth to rebuild the poorer parts of the empire which were always bled dry under the old regime and have suffered even more hardship during the war of liberation.

Novaria is ruled by Queen Aphra, who should really be a duchess but King Allandar has granted that concession in hopes they will stay in the empire. Queen Aphra has spent her life opposing the worst excesses of the Syndics, and now seems to regard their defeat as the opportunity to free her kingdom from the empire.

Tarascon is the lion deity of Novaria, a sort of Old Testament righteous type with a sprinkling of Jesus-like teaching as it might be understood by a High Tory of the 19th century. The Novariaians resent being told they are no longer allowed to preach their faith, as they regard all other religions as heathen.

(Maps? As long as players have a rough idea of where they're going, I don't know that you really need maps for a one-shot game. I swiped from Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique, but you could use anything, even Cretaceous Europe, or Bernard Sleigh's "mappe" of Fairyland, or Narnia itself. Or pick something from a book like 100 Fantasy Kingdoms.)

Deep background (not generally known, even to Dr Kestrel)
Aphra Luttrell is the children’s great-aunt and came through into this world from Leofold Manor in 1870s Dorset when she was 14; she’s now in her late 70s. She imposed a version of her faith (a combination of Sunday school lessons and patriotism) complete with lion emblem.

The Luttrell children 
  • Freddy 10 years 
  • Mel (Amelia) 11 years 
  • Justin 12 years
The Luttrell siblings are from Cheyne Walk in London and left Earth in January 1941, during the Blitz. They came through to this world using a fakir’s rope that their father brought back from India. Freddy played a tune on an Indian pipe and the rope stood up straight. They climbed it, then found themselves climbing down into this world. The rope went limp and Freddy had left the flute behind so there was no going back. They have a healing salve which they can offer to wounded characters. It’s standard WW2 first aid ointment, but superior to anything non-magical this world has to offer.

STRUCTURE OF THE ADVENTURE

This is a very highly structured adventure that is designed to be run in three hours. These are the story beats you’ll be aiming to hit:
  • Arrive at the palace. Get the mission briefing: stop the rebels destroying signal towers.
  • Go to Lord Garious. See pigs. Meet signal officer: told that the rebel leaders are children.
  • Go to woods. Meet the children: told that Vitrine the Glass Witch is alive and in the area, waiting for her casque (armour) which has been reforged in Mount Holovar. (The rebels disabled the signal towers partly because they think the empire is in league with her.)
  • Find Gall: told that Vitrine’s casque is being brought by the Bear of Drear via the Old Road that runs parallel to the main highway through the scrubland. Fight Vitrine’s emissaries. Discover the armour is fake – they’ve been duped. Real casque being brought by a flock of ravens direct to Garious’s keep. Back to Garious’s keep. Fight Vitrine herself.
  • Discover the real mastermind was Gall. Try and recapture him.

1. THE PALACE

The capital city of Meropis. As the characters approach the palace they see the signs of the long bitter siege: damaged buildings and people queuing for food.

Prisoners await judgement in the hastily-assembled courts. They hear grumbles that the soldiers of the Syndics have largely been allowed to integrate into the army (albeit on probation) and the only ones likely to be punished are the most senior officials.

The town crier is making some proclamations in the main square:
  • Proselytising is now outlawed. The King wants to prevent religious schisms breaking up the empire.
  • Users of magic must obtain a licence for any conjuration higher than the third decile of power.
These have no direct bearing on the adventure. They just serve to show the players how much remains to be done in winning the peace.

THE THRONE ROOM

Also damaged by the fighting. The High Throne is covered, the Eye of Nephid on the wall now effaced.

After a three-year war, the young and idealistic King Allandar of Durdania has freed the dozen provinces of Meropis, driving out the Necromancers of Nephid who have ruled (via their puppets, the Syndics of Tasuun) for a hundred years.

As they arrive, the King is explaining the reconciliation policy to his councillors. They would rather round up and punish all collaborators, but he says that the infrastructure of the realm is fragile and they cannot afford to replace every lord who made an accommodation with the Syndics’ rule.


The King’s advisor is Doctor Kestrel (Merlin type) who explains the background to their mission:

“To ward against any possibility of counterattack from beyond the Black River we have been erecting signal towers across the empire. However, the rebels of Novaria have been attacking the work gangs and burning the towers. Their short-sightedness threatens the continued stability of the whole realm.”

The King: “Now we must unify and rebuild. The empire is on a knife edge, weak and battered after years of war. Novaria was sheltered from the worst excesses of the Syndics’ rule, and did not suffer from the desperate fighting that ravaged the eastern states. We need the grain and resources that Novaria can provide to build a better life for all our subjects.”



2. THE KEEP IN THE MARCHES

New signal towers being attacked suggests the enemy camp is in the fringes of the Tinarath Woods, close to the border with Novaria.

The characters arrive at the keep of Lord Garious, warden of the marches, formerly a lukewarm sympathizer with the deposed Syndics of Tasuun, who were Nephid’s puppet rulers. Can the characters trust him?

Garious keeps a stable of fine pigs who snuff out truffles for him – the source of his wealth. The characters are treated to truffles at dinner.

The keep is by the town of Periton. They ride into stone stables. A reek of pigsties (this is where you can mention the truffle pigs) is swiftly masked by the many barrels of apples that line the upper halls; Periton Keep is also famed for its cider.

Lord Garious greets them in a drawing room with a crackling fire and gable windows looking out north across the moors.

They meet Captain Terfin, who was in charge of one of the sacked signal towers. He says that the rebel leaders were children.


(I based Periton town and castle on Dunster, especially the stables.)


3. THE WOODS

The Luttrell children are here with an airship (the Blighty). They expect to intercept Vitrine’s casque (suit of power armour) on the road.

On the ground: Freddy and Justin are with the troops. If attacked, they and their men (with a cry of “Scramble, chaps!”) ascend to the airship on individual balloons whose tethers they can cut quickly. To catch them you’d need to climb an adjacent tree really fast (as Surefoot could).

The airship Blighty nestles in a hollowed-out “crater” amid the treetops, so is not obvious till you’re up close.

Six soldiers rush forward to hold off the paladins while their comrades escape. A Tactics roll spots they are fighting defensively to buy time.


If they ascend to the airship, Mel Luttrell appears from the cabin and points an old WW1 Webley revolver at them. “If I pull this trigger, the stick will deal a sure death. But it contains only three such deaths, and I would sooner mete those deaths out to truly wicked foes who deserve them, so I’ll give you a chance to unhand my brother.”


THE CHILDREN

The children accuse the empire (they call it the Meropi Empire) of trying to assassinate Queen Aphra. They are highly prejudiced against the empire, regarding the new king as barely an improvement on the Syndics. Of course, their thinking is coloured by the world they come from, where radical visionary politicians are distrusted with good reason. As evidence of the assassination plot they present a dagger with the royal crest. “This was coated in poison!” (It was stolen from the throne room a few weeks ago by Lord Garious.)

Assuming the characters can calm things down and a truce is agreed, the Luttrells explain a little of how they came here and, more importantly, their mission:

“Vitrine the Glass Witch yet lives. She is the last of the Necromancers. It was thought she had fled, since her condition makes her wary of battle, but now we know that her casque – the impervious body armour that protects her, which was believed destroyed – has been reforged in the fires of Mount Holovar. According to our portents, the casque is to be delivered to her here in the Marches. And soon.”


If any characters are injured, remember that the children have a healing salve (see earlier).

GALL THE SPRITE

While they talk they have a chance of noticing a soft slithering or rustling (check Danger Sense too):


“The Glass Witch is said to be served by a woodland sprite!” gasps Mel.


Gall acts like a snivelling wretch and claims he serves Vitrine out of fear. “I’d like her dead too. One tap would shatter her – unless she gets her casque back. That’s what she calls her armour. It isn’t being brought on the highway, but on the Old Road that lies through the woods. But beware, for it is guarded by the Bear of Drear and Minister Midwinter.”

4. THE OLD ROAD

Snow starts to fall. This is the sorcery of Minister Midwinter, a demon that owes a service to Vitrine.

The characters need a tracking roll to find the Old Road (Gall will ingratiate himself by pointing them vaguely in the right direction) and it’s magical. If you step off the road, what is on it appears only as an intangible blur. Because of the snow, roll IQ to remain on it during a fight, or IQ+5 at other times.

The Bear of Drear is a huge mound of a monster that stinks of decay. Its fur is clumped and grimy with grave-mold, its skin slimy and pitted. It approaches accompanied by a thin blue figure and, behind them, a carriage like a hearse bearing an ornate mahogany casket.


Minister Midwinter, the aforementioned thin blue figure, stands to one side surrounded by a whirlwind of ice. To reach him: HT roll to endure biting cold, ST roll to push through the wind, then any hit will drive him off and you can see the Old Road clearly.

But when they have won, they find the carriage contains only an empty box.


High up in the sky they see a huge flock of ravens.




5. BACK TO PERITON

The ravens take their burden to the tower of the castle. As they arrive, Vitrine is already armouring up (you know, like this).


She first telekinetically lifts the cobbles from the main street (or courtyard) and these hang in the air, shooting in volleys at the characters: 2d6 each round, subtract armour and shield.

Then she starts a storm gathering, which after six rounds allows her to cast lightning bolts in addition to other actions.

Then she conjures a sickle (2d+2 cut) and whip (1d+5 cr, and HT or double damage) made of coruscating silver-green energy with which she fights (both weapons each round, skill 15).

She has 20-point armour but, in effect, a single Hit Point.

6. FINAL TWIST 

After defeating Vitrine, they find a shoot and gall lodged inside her shattered glass skull. The true mastermind was Gall, who took control of the witch after the other Necromancers fell. But Gall has got away. In fact he’s burrowed underground and the only chance of finding him now is to use one of the truffle pigs (though a Perception roll beating a critical of 6 on 17 will at least confirm he can’t have got outside a perimeter).

7. EPILOGUE

Can they reconcile the King and the rebels?

Can they help the Luttrell children go home? (One way to get them home would be if Silvertongue plays a tune to animate the rope again.)

It's not expected they'll necessarily do this within the three-hour gaming session, but if not then they'll have something to think about afterwards.

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote the adventure as a birthday surprise for the 13-year-old son of a gaming buddy. The concept was simply: what if you experienced Narnia from the other side? Knowing I'd only have three hours to run it in, I abandoned my usual freeform approach and scripted it like a story -- not something I'd do often, but this time it worked. If Narnia isn't your bedknobs, here are some alternative sources for inspiration.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Mi amore chicka ferdy


The hot news today (well, it's been a bit quiet) is that Britain's prime minister, Bojo the Clown, has been watching his favourite movie. Take a guess. Darkest Hour? Churchill? No, it's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It reminded me of a prophetic scene in Can You Brexit? where PM is relaxing with a spot of high fantasy escapism:



Johnson's choice of viewing comes as no surprise when you realize that his childhood ambition (ie just before he was made leader of the Nasti Party) was to be world king. And he made it, almost, because whenever he's on TV the name Cnut springs to mind. But let's not be too hard on him; there are far less qualified wannabe world kings out there.

There's little point in trying to flog Can You Brexit? now, I guess. People think that the pandemic has made the whole question of Brexit irrelevant. So I'll just say that Spanish Flu didn't negate the consequences of World War 1, and point out that if you want to give a non-fantasy, halfling-free gamebook a go, it's still on sale and you can also play it for free here using the character sheet here. Bonus points if you can salvage Britain's national health service from the current crisis. Come to that, bonus points if you can salvage Britain.



Anyway, enough of Lord of the Rings and of UK politics. Be here on Friday when we're off on a one-shot roleplaying adventure set in a whole other fantasy land. You won't want to miss "The Only Way Is Narnia".

Friday, 10 April 2020

Keep your distance



My gaming group have been looking at ways to play online using options like Skype or Discord. I'm even tempted to do some play-by-mail. Why? Well, if you've been in the Negative Zone for the last few months, this will help explain it.

What do you do about dice-rolling in a virtual setting? Becky Annison had a good thread on Twitter about online gaming and her view on that was: "Trust your players not to cheat on dice rolls - it doesn't matter if you can't see their roll. What on earth are you doing playing with people you don't trust?"
Fair enough, although I'm sorry to say that in the past we had such trouble with one player cheating that I had to institute "the shield of truth", a ghastly blue plastic tray in which all dice had to be rolled. Thankfully that's a thing of the past, but if you're unsure then take a look at Rolz.

Playing online will probably reduce the amount of dice-rolling in your game anyway, which in my book is no bad thing, but if you really want the full rules-heavy dungeon-bash experience there's always Roll20, of which one of our group says:
"Roll20 does seem quite good for creating a virtual space in which we can visualize our characters. It would be enough, I think, for us to hear one another, see the rolls, and pass secret notes to the GM. We could add tactical map battles fairly easily when a particular situation calls for it. Roll20 doesn't have full integration to other systems like GURPS or Dragon Warriors so it would be simplest if we keep the rules in our heads and use the platform mainly as a communication device. We might even use Roll20 for the map and dice, while using Discord for the voice communication. The advice on GURPS forums suggests that most people use Roll20 that way, as a lite service for rolls and maps, keeping the rules, characters, and so forth offline."
Other options worth considering include: Astral TabletopFantasy Grounds, Dungeonfog, and Streamyard. (And for board games try Vassal.) Some of those are full-on VTTs that include maps and dice rolling, others are just for chat. Have a look around to find the best fit for you. After all, you've got plenty of time for research.


But you could be missing a trick if you're simply looking for a way to replicate your usual tabletop experience online. Maybe there are benefits here that are unique to virtual play. For example, our group meets every other Thursday and that means at least half a dozen people travelling across London in order to grab about three and a half hours of gaming. (It'd be longer, but I can't get them to follow the Earl of Sandwich's advice and forgo a cooked meal beforehand.) Because we have such limited time for gaming, we've drifted towards a planned adventure-of-the-week style of play that's really not a patch on proper seat-of-the-pants roleplaying. The improv style of gaming is a luxury it's hard to make time for when everybody has jobs and family. It's a far cry from playing at school or college or in your early 20s, when it's possible to set up side sessions with one or two players on the spur of the moment, and the events in those sessions feed into the main weekly game.


If you're gaming online, though, it's pretty easy to recapture the sandbox, open-world approach. Each player is only a phone call away, and it's no problem finding a half hour for a Skype session involving just one or two players. That opens up a much more freewheeling kind of campaign, where one player might, for example, be sent as ambassador to a foreign court, and he or she plays that out separately, creating world events that will impact on the events of the main weekly game -- if "the main game" even means anything any more.

There is no substitute for hanging out with friends in person, but while the Sword of Damocles hangs over us, let's look for the ways that playing online could provide something different and just as entertaining.

Monday, 6 April 2020

The one-eyed god wants YOU


Just going to put this out there. I'd love to join in myself, but I wrote the adventure in the first place.



If you want the "Previously on Dragon Warriors" bit, it's right here. And, by Hárr the High One, the latest installment is now online here.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Quick -- before they make it a crime


"At home" used to be what people wrote on a card if they were inviting you round for drinks. Now it means the very opposite of conviviality, and politicians have been using it as a mantra to ward away the plague du jour.

There is no law of reason, though, that demands you stay locked up in your room. SARS-Cov-2 is a droplet-borne infection, like its cousin the common cold, not an airborne pathogen like chickenpox or measles. As long as you stay at a reasonable distance from other people (at least two metres) and wash your hands frequently, the virus has no chance.

So if you're out for a walk or a run or a drive and there's nobody to talk to -- or the only people to talk to are the ones you've been cooped up with for weeks on end already -- here are some podcasts to ensure your imagination can soar even if the authorities think you ought to be under house arrest.


Top of my must-tune-in list is Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice, in which Michael Cule and Roger Bell-West discuss all things game-nerdy. To dip in a toe, try this episode, "Unmutated, More or Less", about Powered by the Apocalypse games.

Talking of things apocalyptic, and with an added pinch of matters macabre & eldritch and a smidgen of the generally unnameable, spin the dial to The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which our genial hosts describe as "a podcast about Call of Cthulhu, horror films, weird fiction, and roleplaying in general." There are over a hundred and fifty episodes just waiting to slither into your ears and decorticate your brain. Here's a good one on "Folk Horror" that I'm sure will give me some ideas for Legend games.

Meanwhile there's wall-to-wall HPL at the H P Lovecraft Historical Society, run by Sean Branney, Andrew Leman, and Kevin Stidham. You can wander their virtual halls in a state of aporetic ecstasy, discovering treasure upon treasure until time has no meaning, but if you're disturbed by the encroaching shadows and the things that scuttle just beyond the range of vision, grab a few of the Voluminous Podcasts in which your hosts read and discuss one of Lovecraft's many, many, many letters. Here's a good one: "A Comedy of Vain Desire", addressed to his lifelong friend Rheinhart Kleiner.


Jeff and Hoi host the Appendix N Book Club to discuss the literary roots of Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the novels that Gary Gygax recommended in the eponymous appendix. I don't play D&D, but I like hanging out with these guys and they always have plenty to say that you'll find inspiring. Frequently I'll start out an episode thinking, okay, I read this book years ago, or I started it and gave up, but I'll hear their thoughts on it anyhow -- and then by the end I'm raring to read it again. You could start anywhere. How about this one on Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows?

If literary is your thing, you'll already know about Ralph Lovegrove's Fictoplasm podcast, in which he takes a novel and talks about both the story itself and the potential for mining roleplaying ideas from it. In this Lyonesse episode, Ralph is joined by me and Tim Harford.

Oh, and mentioning Tim brings me to his Cautionary Tales, which blend storytelling and drama to draw vital lessons from some of the great calamities of history, from shipping disasters to a mix-up at the Academy Awards. Why not start where I did, with the story of the ill-fated R101, in "The Deadly Airship Race"? (And for added insights listen to Slide Rule, Nevil Shute Norway's account of the building and test flights of R101's sister ship.)