Introducing the Fictoplasm Typecast

Hi there — owing to recent concerns with the mp3 format I’m switching to the more open and accessible A4 format. My hope is to make the ‘cast more accessible to all with this move. The downside is it may need a little more screen real estate and production time, so please bear with me. I’ll probably release the ‘cast a page at a time over a few weeks. Let me know what you think


Music is by Chris Zabriskie: // bandcamp // instagram // youtube

Ancients, Daggers and Demons

Synchronicity. I started the year formulating some very specific ideas about Sword and Sorcery whilst reading John Higgs’ book on the KLF. 3/4 of the way through, having read the first part entitled “rabbit ears” including the discordian overtones and the spectral image of a rabbit figure called Echo leering out at Bill Drummond from the cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s first album Crocodiles, I realized that this year, the 23rd year of this century, is also the Year of the Rabbit.

Higgs notes that we use models to identify synchronicities and exclude the things that don’t fit the models. That outlines the position of the magical thinker, and the counterpoint of the skeptic. I think it ignores the third possibility, that engagement with the magical process awakens unexpected pathways; Higgs kind of confused actual magical thinking with conspiracist dogma and obsession. So here’s my counterpoint. I didn’t set out to read The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds as a Sword and Sorcery text, but it awakened a very important idea about S&S, which is the hidden third actor in the triumvirate, that of the Ancients, the Society, the Cusp. Let me explain:

The Daggers

This is the “Sword” of Sword and Sorcery. I have a longer discussion planned on why this is specifically a dagger (or other short blade) as opposed to a sword, but the TL;DR version is this: we fetishise the sword. This goes for role-players, western martial artists, and fantasy fiction readers.

(Swords aren’t even that good. Read George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defense)

So I’m using Dagger as more than a cute synonym for Sword. S&S attracts notions of a particular kind of violence and the more I think about it, the less the ideaspace concepts of sword fit with Sword and Sorcery. I’ll discuss this further as The Short Blade Aesthetic. BUT for now, just equate Dagger with violence and physical contests.

The Demons

Obviously synonymous with the Sorcery component. This is the part I think I’ve expressed the most completely in StormHack, which is (TL;DR)

  • protagonists evoke Demons which are expressions of their exceptionalism and are, as far as human society goes, “magic”, “witchcraft”, etc.
  • Demons grow with use, and their growth unlocks powers but also impinges on the PC’s connection with society; consider this “corruption”
  • It’s totally the PC’s choice how much they draw on their demons, and therefore how corrupt they become.

The Ancients

Ancients are the protagonists, but also the society in the setting. They are the people from a time before history:

  • separate from any notions of or connections with our world
  • part of a wholly separate cycle in the life of our continent or planet
  • without baggage that would encumber the player or reader to imagine this age as either responsible for ours, or arising from an earlier civilisation and therefore needing specialised knowledge about that civilisation

On this final point: there certainly has been a previous civilisation, but that civilisation is gone and only exists within plundered tombs, on hoarded scrolls, and (unreliably) as the dogma of cults. There is no influence of this failed civilisation, apart from the void it left behind. There certainly aren’t any preternatural backstories for characters.

There is nothing of this world which could be identified in our own later history. Players are playing in the Now, and now is explicitly a Cusp where several alternative worlds might emerge.

Personal bias: it’s this way because I don’t want players to be distracted by any world other than the Now. It’s not a world to be put into a chronology other than the recent events that lead to this point. It is not part of a manufactured history or fandom to be curated.

(more to come)

Why you can’t copyright game mechanics

You can’t have missed the OGL drama but here are some Gizmodo articles about Hasbro, and also Paizo’s response which involves rallying the rest of the industry around ORC. This is all meat for the YT content creators but the one that interested me was the Legal Eagle take (from 8:15 approx):

Well, that takes us to the fundamental flaw of this whole controversy… you can’t copyright the rules to a game

This is most interesting because for more than a decade the mantra that “you can’t copyright mechanics” has been used by the indie crowd, especially fans of Apocalypse World / PbtA. But previously where this was just generally something some dude says on the internet and therefore unqualified opinion, the Legal Eagle take provides the actual legal precedent, at least under US law. The two points cited are:

  1. Baker vs. Selden, 1880
  2. The Copyright Act of 1976, which states (according to Legal Eagle)

in no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

So there we are. I’m a scientist, not a lawyer, but all the same I get comfort from going back to first principles and primary sources, so this was useful for me at least.

The meat of the video is also worth noting though: Legal Eagle considers the original OGL and the new OGL 1.1, and argues that neither are strictly needed for 3rd parties to create original works that are compatible with the rules of 5E (and by extension, any game system I suppose). This is of course legal opinion and would be an argument if it got tested in court.

I’m a fan of this channel. Side note — that this isn’t what he usually covers, and normally he’d expect another YouTuber Richard Hoeg of HoegLaw to cover this and other aspects of the law as it applies to games. Sadly Richard apparently suffered a stroke at the end of last year (and there’s a GoFundMe for his recovery).

Fictoplasm and social media, 2023

I recommend Jaron Lanier’s book 10 Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Not because you should delete your social media accounts per se, but because it’s worth thinking about the transaction that’s going on. If social media is free, what is the motivation for service providers? (For big platforms the answer is because it’s not free, because they’re slurping your data and using it to make advertising more effective.)

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has not changed anything I didn’t already know, it’s just brought it into sharper focus. It’s nothing to do with what’s happening on Twitter and everything about what jumping to Mastodon feels like. There are no trending topics to suck my attention into the doom-scroll, nor increasingly vapid advertising. There’s just the invitation to engage with the content.

Going back to Twitter after that experience makes the signal to noise ratio all the more apparent. Remember, these companies rely on keeping the users angry and divisive. Quitting makes me think a lot about my decision to stop going to Reading festival, when the musical content was no longer interesting me enough to offset camping in a field and shitting into a tin bath for 3 nights. And this is how I’ve come to feel about Twitter; I am constantly camped out in the middle of a field hoping for something glittering in an endless tide of turds. It was this feeling that made me quit G+ and FaceBook, and I don’t miss those.

I know some people have jumped to Mastodon with the intention of curating the same feeds from other Twitter exiles, which is fair enough. Although I’ve done the same, it’s reminded me how well and truly exhausted I am with social media. The problem is I don’t want to cut ties with the real people on the various platforms. I think this is my compromise:

  1. Fictoplasm will continue to be a podcast, with a Patreon page. You can follow me there, and I should get alerts for any comments.
  2. At some point I need to work out how the podcast and blog is being syndicated… but that’s for later.
  3. I’m minimizing my Twitter interactions. I’ll probably just auto-post the Patreon entry. I should still get email alerts if you DM me on Twitter though.
  4. I’m going to be minimally active on Mastodon, but maybe a bit more than other social media. I’m probably cutting Instagram out. Discord continues to confuse me.
  5. I’m going to focus more on long-form blogging, and maybe pushing stuff to

TL;DR Fictoplasm will continue to appear on social media, but I’m cutting it back to mostly blogging and podcasting going forward. However I’ve hopefully set things up so if you want to contact me I’ll get an email alert.

Happy new year, and thanks for your continued interest.

Small Keebs

Recently I built 2 small keyboards: a CFTKB Romeo, and a Rainkeebs Manta with a nice!nano v2 controller and a LiPo battery

(they came as FR4 sandwich kits. I built both with the last of my cerulean switches filmed with C3 films & lubed with Krytox 205g0, avoiding the stem legs)

The Romeo and Manta are 40% and 30% keyboards respectively. There are plenty of size comparisons on the web but this video does it pretty well. TL;DR the main reasons you’d want to do this are:

  1. Aesthetics
  2. Portability
  3. Minimise finger travel.

There’s also this video which “demystifies” the 40% layout but the main argument is that you don’t need to lose functionality vs. a big keyboard because you put things on layers. You could flip this around and say the smaller you go the more you have to use layers to get all the functions you need. I had to make 2 big decisions:

  1. Can I just cut out some keys because I’m not going to use them?
  2. Once I’ve decided which keys to keep, what’s the best layout?


The Romeo is the smallest of CFTKB’s offerings (the others being the Discipline and the Mysterium). I love the aesthetic of all three but I was surprised how much more solid the Romeo feels and sounds (I guess because its so much smaller, so less flex / resonant). All 3 are plateless.

I thought building it with a split spacebar would be a good idea because (a) it’s better to have more keys, (b) function keys activated by thumbs are efficient and (c) the position of the keys are shifted 0.5u to the left, meaning I’d hit the right space more reliably with my right thumb. It looks like this:

(DCS Nightfall and CannonCaps 407)

I didn’t like it and I think it was actually worse than the normal 2.25/1.25/2.75 owing to where my left thumb lands and the tiny-ness of the middle key. So I desoldered it and went for the standard spacebar and I think it looks better (pictured here next to the Manta):

I also managed to get away with just one layer, with fn key mapped to caps lock. I kept the arrows on the base layer in the bottom left corner which meant I didn’t need to cram them onto a layer. Apart from the numbers, most of the punctuation falls under my right hand.

I left out the number pad keys (I never use them) and the function keys (because I’ll mostly be using this on a Mac).

Overall it’s just the right balance between minimalism and functionality… and I really like the one less row, it’s surprisingly easy to reach the number keys under row 2.


(battery placement)

The manta is compromised compared even to the Romeo having only 3 rows, meaning you have to put your thumbs in weird positions if you want to use the middle keys as thumb keys. Compare where my thumb falls on the Manta compared with a more typical posit:

The Manta works much better as a one-handed keyboard (in fact I used it like this for one-handed typing when I had really bad RSI):

I’ve been using it to play some FPS games and it works nicely 🙂

Here are my layers. I decided on a sticky layer key (aka One Shot) on the base layer and then accessing the second and third layers via mo keys on layer 1 (I know Ben Vallack likes layer toggles but I prefer the keyboard to return to the same state when my hands are off). Hope the color coding makes sense:

Hit the Sticky Layer key to get to layer 1. From there you can hit mod keys for layers 2 and 3.

You may have noticed that there’s no arrow keys, backspace or delete, and there is a dedicated CTRL key on the base layer. This is because MacOS (and by extension iOS) has built in Control-based shortcuts for navigating text:

Control-A: Move to the beginning of the line or paragraph.
Control-E: Move to the end of a line or paragraph.
Control-F: Move one character forwards.
Control-B: Move one character backwards.
Control-L: Centre the cursor or selection in the visible area.
Control-P: Move up one line.
Control-N: Move down one line.
Control-H: Delete the character to the left of the insertion point (i.e. Backspace 1 char)
Control-D: Delete the character to the right of the insertion point (i.e. Delete 1 char)
Control-K: Delete the text between the insertion point and the end of the line or paragraph.
Control-O: Insert a new line after the insertion point.
Control-T: Swap the character behind the insertion point with the character in front of the insertion point.

From this list. It takes some getting used to but I’ve tried it out and I like it. I can do an awful lot just with the base layer thanks to auto-capitalization, double-tapping space for a full stop, etc.

The complete repo is here, and I’m using the 4layer branch.

Atom as Markdown Editor

There are a few blog posts you can find about using the Atom code editor as a Markdown writing program. Just recently I put Atom on a new machine — and since each time I have to re-learn how to set it up, so this time I’m making some notes.

Installing plugins with APM

I had trouble installing the plugins sometimes due to a Self Signed certificate error. You can get around this by using an unsecured connection to the Atom servers, by using this command:

apm config set strict-ssl false

Once this is set up plugins can be installed. I use the command

apm install <package-name>

(note that on OSX to get the apm command on the command line you just need to go to the menu Atom > Install Shell Commands; then you can use the apm command in the terminal)

Packages for Markdown in Atom

Here is my list of packages I added to Atom and why:

Package What it does
markdown-writer generally handy markdown writing tools
markdown-table-editor really useful tool for automatically generating markdown tables
atom-folding (needed for markdown-folding)
folding-markdown allows you to fold markdown headings (toggle in the gutter next to headings)
center-editor centers the text. I don’t like this package as much as typewriter but this may work better for you
typewriter very good for full screen editing; puts text in the centre of the screen, toggle gutter and scroll bar on/off
typewriter-scroll fixes the insert point in the middle of the screen for writing
highlight-line highlights the line you’re editing
pandoc needed for pandoc-convert
pandoc-convert package for converting from markdown to other file formats. I’ve used this outside Atom, not yet tried it as the package
project-manager tool for marking folders as projects. I’ve only used it a bit.
dracula-ui nice set of colours for UI based on Dracula
dracula-syntax syntax highlighting in Dracula colours


Here’s an example of folding. Text:

Folded at heading:

Other setup

In the Atom settings (access by ctrl+,) I do the following:

  1. Disable the wrap-guide package. This removes the vertical bar at the preferred line length (probably useful for code but not for writing).
  2. Set the soft wrap and soft wrap at preferred line length option checkboxes.
  3. I also disabled the autocompletion-plus package to stop the editor suggesting spellings as a type.

Hope this is useful to someone. There are a few other posts on users’ setups around the internet (e.g. this one).

Podcast Monday 20th, Road Edition

Two podcasts I caught on the road yesterday while doing errands for my dad, thematically tied together by Hawkwind…

Breakfast in the Ruins: Days of the Underground with Joe Banks

Really fantastic episode interviewing Joe Banks, author of Days of the Underground which covers (IIRC) the early years of Hawkwind to 1975. So much to love in the conversation including the cultural significance of the Ladbroke Grove scene (and the despised art forms of both SF and rock). I don’t know how much the British New Wave SF overlapped with that scene, and I guess that Moorcock is the common element

I loved the description of Hawkwind as psychedelic barbarians, not progressive (I got into Yes a lot when I was younger). They mention lots of other great stuff like early Floyd, Amon Duul II etc. as well as Krautrock. The explanation of “metronomic” music makes so much sense. Lots of other useful details, what to listen to today (e.g. Concretism) mentions of Delia Derbyshire’s band appearances, and more. Also liked the conversation around New World’s Fair. I like my copy but to be honest Dodgem Dudes and Time Centre on The Best of Friends and Relations are enough for me (one of my favourite compilations ever). Strongly agree that New Worlds Fair is the soundtrack to a musical.

Towards the end they mention the Hugo Weaving film with steampunk walking cities. This is Mortal Engines and the film isn’t nearly as good as the book which was covered in the Fictoplasm episode way back when, but more on-point I felt that not only the Revenge of the Rose, but the earlier Dragon in the Sword are reflected by the traction cities in that fiction

BitR: Days of the Underground

ACFM 19: Space

A new listen for me. ACFM is a Novara Media production (who I admire a lot for providing alternative political commentary on their main YT channel) and this episode covers “space”, both outer space and terrestrial space. The podcast describes itself as the “Home of the Weird Left” and although this is a political commentary there is a lot to digest for roleplaying regarding who owns space and has a right to be there, how territories work, common and public and private spaces, etc. Obviously this is a political podcast that talks about left vs. right policy to spaces, but I still got a lot of value out of it for gaming stuff (which makes sense if your goal is to model social structures)

They mention Reclaim the Night and that me think of Laurie Anderson’s account of The Hollywood Strangler as well:

“Now for all you women, listen: don’t go outside without a man. Don’t walk out to your car, don’t even take the garbage out by yourself, always go with a man.”
Then, one of the eyewitnesses identified a policeman as one of the suspects. The next night, the chief of the police was on the panel, and he said:
“Now for all you women, whatever happens, do not stop for a police officer. Stay in your car. If a police officer tries to stop you, do not stop. Keep driving, and under no circumstances should you get out of your car
For a few weeks, half the traffic in LA was doing twice the speed limit

Two very different but equally unpredictable responses by the women involved (also to compare based on two different serial killers of women would be crass and give attention to the wrong side. Although useful to highlight the general cluelessness of the patriarchy). Mostly it makes me think about defying the expectations of hierarchies, i.e. in a game with a hierarchy, how could the dramatic situation come out of the hierarchy’s misreading of a situation or the emergence of a faction that’s previously been out of focus.

Towards the end they make the point that capitalism needs to destroy or liquidate capital periodically and the new space race may be doing just that, although it’s maybe better than war. They mention Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon (1970) and I was a bit surprised given Jem Gilbert had snuck in a reference to Hawkwind they didn’t pick up on Hawkwind’s Uncle Sam’s On Mars from 1979’s PXR5 — whatever Wikipedia says the similarity is more than just the title:

Shoals of dead fish float on the lakes
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars
And science is making the same mistakes
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars
And no one down here knows how to work the brakes
But Uncle Sam’s on Mars

What I didn’t know about that song is it was originally performed by Calvert as Vikings of Mars in 1978. Anyway I’m sure the omission was intentional so I could have something to feel smug about.

Space is something I need to tackle with respect to the Metacity framework. I already built in some ideas about how territory may be tagged with certain factions to distinguish insider/outsider status, but there’s probably a time-phased component there (i.e. times of day or night the “ownership” changes; or at times of year the streets may be claimed by certain groups in a day of misrule, etc.) and also how it changes dynamically by reacting to sudden changes.

ACFM 19: Space

Podcast Sunday 12th September 2021

It’s our 17th wedding anniversary, I have made beef carbonnade and wrangled cat diarrhoea and managed to avoid mixing the two up, let’s talk about podcasts

The Loremen: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight/The Penryn Tragedy

Two great episodes here. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight complements the Monster Man episode on the same subject but in the alternative Loremen style that I dig. Good attention to detail re: pronunciation, nonce words, and a nice rendering in a miscellaneous regional accent. The Penryn Tragedy episode is more of the same, with the surprise inclusion of Gary Rhodes. If you like an irreverent take on British folklore with top banter and unnecessary scoring at the end, this is highly recommended

The Loremen Podcast

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Sword and Sorcery

I’ve been looking forward to this episode for a while after Paul Fricker mentioned it on a Mitchester Arms night. I think they mostly nail the genre, including the detail that Fritz Leiber coined the term in conversation with Moorcock.

Certainly the way that magic comes at a cost seems to fit well with the energetic weird tales template, and it’s what I’m aiming for with GitHack. I think some of the other conclusions like the tendency to the picaresque adventure (with no overarching plot) deserve challenge, but I do feel that sword and sorcery avoids the Great Clomping Foot that dogs epic fantasy (see here).

One thing that I raised during the pub chat was the argument for Sabriel as a sword and sorcery novel. It has a well defined otherworld, clearly dangerous magic, and amazing momentum in the storyline as Sabriel plunges deeper and deeper into the enemy’s territory, with a very sudden and violent climax. There’s possibly an argument for the same in Throne of the Crescent Moon (which features in D&D 5e’s Appendix E).

Things I would expect in sword and sorcery:

  1. Non-prescriptive, uncertain and unreliable worldbuilding.
  2. Capable and cunning characters with agency.
  3. Thumbing the nose to supernatural powers and authority.
  4. Skill with sword does not preclude sorcery, and vice versa.
  5. Sorcery has context, mystery, cost.
  6. An otherworld, underworld, or liminal space.

These are things where I think epic fantasy often fails. Anyway

Sword and sorcery, part 1

Love is the Message

So I’ve yet to listen to another episode but I wanted to mention this two part article in resistor mag on Beauty and the Beat, the London dance party, which has a glorious photo of Jeremy Gilbert spinning vinyl with his daughters. And that kind of sets the tone for me re: engaging kids with music, although the articles of course go beyond that into the actual organising of dance parties and the geeky part about actual equipment selection for decent sound that also fills a large space.

Our son is going to be his own person of course, but at least exposing him to a lot of different music (and food, books etc.) will help him make a decision. It did make my day when he started demanding “daddy music” although the first two bands that fell under that category were the Fuck Buttons and the New Pornographers. That’s going to make school show and tell interesting some time in the future

Beauty and the Beat // Building an Audiophile Sound System to Move People

A Tale of Two Keyboards

Further noodling with keyboards this week. If you’re here for the RPGs or fiction you may be disappointed… but it’s still 100% geek.

I’m mostly documenting this because I had to fix several issues with my BT60 PCB in the firmware, so the details and link to my GitHub are below.

Filco TKL

I decided to desolder my Filco a second time because the Glorious Panda switches really weren’t working for me with the Filco’s steel plate, and instead I soldered in the lavender linear switches I’d bought some time ago.

Before I soldered them I lubed them (with g lube, because it was what I had) and filmed them (with deskeys switch films) and mutilated them (because the filco only takes 3 pin switches)

The switch films were so fiddly to put on that I would seriously think twice before doing it again… but on the other hand if you’re opening up the switches anyway, why not film them? It does make the housing a lot tighter.

The finished keyboard does look very handsome with the Filco SA keycaps (R2/R3):

And even better with the SA Dreameater fully sculpted set:

Unfortunately I don’t really care for linear switches compared to the alternatives, so this will be the first and last time I use them (probably). The keyboard is still nice enough to type on and I’m happy to let this be the final state for my 10+ year old Filco. It’s been a lot of fun repurposing something that I thought I’d have to abandon because of the infuriating key chatter.


The other thing I built is much more exciting although maybe it doesn’t look like it:

This has my lubed Glorious Panda switches, a carbon fibre plate, and a BT60 PCB which means it’s wireless. It’s not been entirely smooth sailing though.

Problem 1: short shorts

I was using GMK stabilisers which screw into the PCB with metal screws. I guess these multi-layout PCBs have so many pads and traces that if you’re not careful you can short the thing, which is what happened to me. The short basically meant that no key on Column 13 (backspace, backslash, enter, right ctrl) functioned.

Fixed it by putting electrical tape between the screw and PCB.

Problem 2: firmware errors

The second thing that happened was that the vendor had cocked up the key matrix for the default firmware, referencing Right Shift to RC(3,13) which doesn’t exist (meaning that the board treats it as the Escape key). That was an easy fix, just correct the BT60.dts file in the repo (which I did, details of my fork on GitHub below).

I guess if I were a consumer of a single packaged thing I would be annoyed that the thing didn’t work out of the box. But in this case the customer support generally relies on channels like Discord to support and explain the problem, and I already managed to diagnose the problem thanks to the great documentation, and that actually gives me more confidence in buying again than, say, from a large corporation.

Actually writing the firmware was dead easy, foolproof almost (it compiles in the cloud and if it doesn’t work, you get a warning and it won’t build the firmware). I forked the repository and then added a couple of my own branches. The workflows mean that all the compiling happens in the cloud, and flashing the firmware was even simpler than doing the same on the Discipline65 board.

Problem 3: default layer

I messed with the raised layer in my alternative firmware. This was because some of the modifier keys had alternative functions on the raised layer, which meant that you had to be sure you were pressing those keys (shift, ctrl, alt) before you pressed the function key to access the arrow keys. Why is this a problem? Well, if you use arrow keys a lot you probably also use them in combination with other modifiers and remembering to press them in order is a massive pain. So, I just remapped the functions (like the commands to change BT device) to other keys. Once this was done I could press function, shift, ctrl etc. in any order and it would behave as it should.


This is my GitHub fork of the zmk firmware for BT60 with the corrected key matrix. There are two new branches, one called ANSI_hhkb and the other called ANSI_alt which have alternative raised layers (one for a HHKB style function layer and the other for the more standard 60% ANSI keyboard). I prefer the latter, the HHKB style just doesn’t work on this board for some reason.


So after it all works, it’s connected reliably with a Mac Mini and a Windows laptop, and I’ve typed this post on the keyboard. The good thing about a standard ANSI layout is that I have a lot of different keycaps to use. I liked the Dolch look for the Knight Rider vibes

SA sounded nice as well, but the all white looked a bit bland

Other thoughts

  1. I like tactile switches, and the Glorious Pandas are a high bar to clear. I may try ergo clears at some point but otherwise the pandas are pretty amazing. But it seems that the keyboard hobby is obsessed with linear switches in pretty colours.
  2. I like non-metallic switch plates. The best I’ve used so far are my HHKB (plastic) and the carbon fibre plate. I’m not keen on steel or aluminium plates, though I haven’t tried brass yet. I fancy trying a polycarbonate or POM plate.
  3. I thought I wasn’t going to play around with another 60% build because I needed the arrow keys but I’m finding the arrow key placement on the left (WASD) and the function on the right pretty ergonomic compared to the Tsangan/HHKB layout (I think the HHKB works better thanks to the lighter switches and sculpt, but when I tried the Tsangan style with this Tofu case it wasn’t so good). You hit the function button with your thumb and the other modifiers are right there. Overall this board feels very nice and snappy and it sounds good, and I like the reclaimed desk space.

Podcast Sunday! 5th September

Man, what a month. I’m behind on everything — episodes, writing, blog posts — but for good reasons. Went glamping, and to Lyme Regis:

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been listening to:

Love Is The Message: Huh! Here Comes The Funk

New listen for me. This is a history lesson about music and counterculture and this in particular covers funk and the early 70s and its place in the social landscape. Loved the attention to detail on the way funky music was constructed, how classical jazz instruments would be integrated into a funk band, etc. and also the way the hosts have paced the episode to match the various social developments to the evolving genre. Will listen again

Huh! Here Comes The Funk

Common Descent 120: Tyrannosaurs

Awesome episode on tyrannosaurs including the T Rex growth cycle, fused nasal bones, feathers, T Rex eyesight, speed vs. efficiency, and the variations across the whole family of theropods. This is nearly three hours long but it saw me through a tricky soldering job.

Let’s see if it’s enough to impress a 5 year old

Common Descent 120: Tyrannosaurs

Frankenstein’s RPG Podcast 9: Setting and GM Advice

I was in this episode. I kind of set a fairly severe tone early on by quoting the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and M John Harrison’s infamous Great Clomping Foot passage. I get the sense that some listeners have taken the sleights against Tolkien personally, just as I understand they did when Harrison authored his comments:

Responses to the original posts, mostly negative & some more anxious than others, are numerous & can be found by Googling “M John Harrison +Worldbuilding” or anything similar.

(from the additional and extensive notes appended to Harrison’s original post, via the wayback machine).

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, early on in the episode I quoted two sources: the first was from the SFE on the definition of Fantasy and “the novum”. The Novum is used by Darko Suvin as a name for the hypothetical “new thing” (space travel, robots, social upheval, etc.) in SFF literature that can be plausibly imagined to exist based on our current science.

Darko Suvin situated sf as a literary form as marked by two unusual devices: COGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT and the Novum. The former is distinctive in creating and understanding the imagined world as different from our own, by means of scientific observation, theorizing and empirical experiment. Such new textual worlds are set off from ours chiefly by means of a drastic disruption, an anomalous breach in accepted verities; in short, an intrusive novelty so strange, and at first inexplicable, that it deserves a category of its own: the novum.


But then the SFE uses this term to distinguish Fantasy from SF as having a Novum that is supernatural in origin.

In this encyclopedia we do not use the word “fantasy” in the sense suggested in the previous three paragraphs: that is, as a supergenre which includes sf. This is because we have practical problems to contend with: the hardest part in determining which authors should and should not be given entries in this encyclopedia was deciding which fantasy authors were sufficiently sf-like to be included (see Introduction to the Second Book Edition for further discussion, and see also The Encyclopedia of Fantasy). To make any sort of distinction at all, we had to regard “fantasy” as the contents of the middle circle excluding the sf circle, in which the novum is supernatural; in other words, “fantasy”, as we use the word throughout this book, is fiction about the impossible. Even then, the distinction is quite extraordinarily difficult; again and again the sf fruit has roots of fantasy; even Hard SF regularly uses fantastic or Imaginary Science.


Of course the literal definition of supernatural is a force that appears to not be subject to the laws of nature (because it isn’t, or because those laws are not yet understood by humans).

BUT ANYWAY my argument for an emergent setting is born out of these factors:

  1. Time is precious.
  2. It’s better to spend time inventing together than reading background and then trying to agree on it.
  3. It’s better to say little and let the players assume and riff off the seeds, rather than dogmatically say too much and suck all the oxygen out of the room.

If you read Harrison’s Very Afraid post and the responses, it’s clear that the people who responded negatively (and anxiously) are “arguing” from a totally different position, e.g.

Bullshit. Lord of the Rings is widely hailed as the best, most readable fantasy ever written. Why? Precisely because its author spent over thirty years building the world it is set in. He developed fully-functional languages and a multi-millenial history for Middle-Earth. Most of it isn’t even touched on in the trilogy, but you just know IT’S THERE. LotR would be out of print today if it weren’t for Tolkien’s worldbuilding.

This is an economic argument for worldbuilding, not a literary one. It’s predicated on the basis of effort and hours spent, not actual talent or appeal to the reader.

I’ve seen some of the twitter response to the episode. Some of the “outrage” (not really) is obviously secondhand. To paraphrase Ron Edwards, people can’t talk about D&D or Tolkien without losing their shit. The irony is that this is also the fruitful void at work; in the absence of primary sources, fans will base their response on what they assume was said.

But anyway. Tolkien may have been the “OG worldbuilder”. But The Hobbit is predated by Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros (1922) and Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), and The Lord of the Rings comes after Vance’s The Dying Earth (1950). So the question is, what does Tolkien’s fretful worldbuilding actually offer to us in terms of describing a fantasy world, that was so lacking in its forebears? Answers on an angry postcard.

Frankenstein’s RPG ep 9: Setting and GM advice


Announcing GitHack, the update to StormHack.

GitHack is a setting-agnostic OSR sword-and-sorcery game system. This is the introduction:

This is my OSR game. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It’s a remix of familiar OSR system objects and names from the Worlds Favourite Fantasy Game (such as Ability Scores, monster stat blocks, etc.).

Things that are like a “typical OSR game”:

  • Six ability scores (STR/CON/DEX/INT/WIS/CHA)
  • Ability checks involve roll-under with a d20
  • Saving throws are a kind of ability check
  • Monsters have hit dice, armour class, and damage (typical stat blocks can be used with little or no conversion)

Things which are a bit different compared to a typical OSR game:

  • freeform Backgrounds for the character’s life events
  • characters have “demons” (an actual dark side, supernatural patron, etc.)
  • demons are what provides the character’s magical powers, and grow as those powers are used, corrupting the character in turn
  • There are no levels, and the human side of the character doesn’t gain experience
  • On the other hand, all characters start off with a high level of competence and toughness

This should be the opposite of the “zero to hero” ethos in that the characters start strong and capable of taking risks, and all characters should be playable alongside each other whether they’re powerful sorcerers or the roguish hero who eschews magical aid. But otherwise it should play like any other fantasy RPG.

GitHack is hosted on GitHub.

Even though you can freely collaborate on some indie games the static pdf format isn’t optimal. This is a different approach to make it easier to collaborate by presenting it like a software project. The text is in markdown making it highly portable whilst supporting basic formatting and tables in a human readable way. You can then take the markdown text and convert it with pandoc or view it with your chosen markdown viewer.

Since this is a GitHub project you can clone or fork the repo and submit your own commits for the main branch. You can use Git from the command line and make edits with any text editor, see where your content differs from the main branch, and so on. However there are also graphical tools and plugins available. I recommend which integrates with GitHub nicely and has a lot of useful packages for writing and rendering markdown, and it’s cross-platform.

Of course, if you just want to read the content, it’s right there on GitHub and you can download it and even read it online. I’m adding chapters continuously. In addition there will be an Extras folder for alternative rules, settings (including StormHack) and more.

Any questions or comments, reach out here or on Twitter (@fictoplasm).

Podcast Sunday: 8th August

It’s school holidays so over the last 2 weeks I hardly listened to anything so I’m just going to talk about one show, the By the Sword podcast and the episode on Elitism in HEMA.

Found this podcast after a retweet from someone in my twitter feed. I think the host is Fran Lacuata (hope I’ve spelled that right) and they lead the Godalming chapter of the School of the Sword (but I’m so far out of the scene these days that I’m not sure). They’re also a veteran event organiser specifically focused on providing a space for female-lead / female-only fencing (and LGBTQ+, NB, etc.). See here:

This episode is about Elitism in HEMA but as the hosts say “it’s not what you think”. It starts off with the discussion on validity of martial study from primary texts vs. wider practice (including I guess living history, SCA, etc.) but then switches to the more important topic of how women (and NB, PoC, etc.) are treated in HEMA.

I’m sure most of the people reading this are going to be from the TTRPG sphere with some general SF geeks etc, so for those people, TL;DR all the misogyny and lack of representation and general cluelessness in the TTRPG and SF circles is also alive and well in HEMA. I mean, who knew that participating in a white male dominated space would make people who aren’t big strong white men (and worse, doing “performative masculinity” things) uncomfortable just to be there?

Sad to say a lot of the content was what I expected, from “that guy” who corrects a woman’s technique in a class but wouldn’t dare do it to a man, to the way men might fence a woman either too roughly because they have something to prove (yeah, really) or “too soft” because they’re coddling their female partner. Sorry to say that I’ve witnessed both of these.

There were then the general comments about micro-aggressions, race- and class-based assumptions, e.g.

  • assuming a Filipino fencer will be grounded in their national martial art first (when actually they just want to swing a longsword)
  • dismissing a white female fencing instructor as “eccentric”
  • how white women can choose how they engage with the culture more than PoC who have to deal with these micro-aggressions by default

Then there were the comments about height disparity and the fixation on certain technique, which means techniques simply don’t work for some women/other shorter people.

But I think the remarks that I connected with most were the ones about martial arts being consensual violence, and intimate. This really articulated the emotional damage that can be done in this setting; when we’re expecting to be training collaboratively and the opponent (or instructor) injures us, dismisses our injuries, or is simply interested in domination with no regard for learning and no respect for their partner. This is what turns people off martial arts.

And actually if I can rant a bit… this emotionally negligent attitude is what I see as wrong with a fair amount of geek culture (and other aspects of my professional life), and I think it comes down to the “old school” which is a phrase an awful lot of role-players like to pass around. I hate the old school. The old school is throwing novice chemical engineers in at the deep end rather than mentoring them to do well. It’s being hazed to be accepted by a gang. It’s being expected to take a punch. It’s saying “I’ve been working here 40 years and I never needed safety goggles”. It’s feeling like codes of conduct are a slight on you personally. It’s shrugging off a chemical burn instead of getting under a safety shower. It’s crass jokes or pranks and if you don’t laugh, you’re the one with the “sense of humour failure”. It’s dumb alpha-male bravado. And it would be tolerable if the consequences were just on the individual, but nearly always this attitude just makes everyone feel bad, on edge, or just less happy than they should be. It’s a missing stair. The old school is tribal bullshit, and it probably votes conservative.

I know I have no real business holding forth my feelings here when I’m a big white man and I can choose to engage or not and no-one will dare correct my technique or make me feel like I don’t belong. And I have to say some of the episode was an uncomfortable listen just because I am sure that at times, I have made someone else feel less than welcome because I was clueless and trying to fit in. And I want to do better. And call me on my bullshit, please.

(I’m happy to say there are niches of the culture that I love, like the Smallsword Symposium and our own group.)

Yeah, anyway. I’ve seen this conversation repeat itself through all kinds of geek culture. Maybe the HEMA lens is especially resolving because the activities are both physical and mental and they’re more intimate than other hobbies, so the feelings around them are easier to articulate.

I just want to say two more things. The first is that I’d be really interested in the Elitism in HEMA conversation, i.e. primary sources vs. other stuff. Back in the day it was about legitimacy as an instructor based on whether you’d learned from a living master, or just a treatise. (and curiously I think that’s something Milo can’t claim, but I can claim from Milo… which should indicate how daft a proposition it is)

The second thing is the weird way men have tried to tackle the need for non-male spaces. There’s the side that denies it’s a problem of course; but then there’s the chaps who, meaning well, set up sessions (RPGs, fencing classes, etc.) for women. The problem is they’re still run by men so the man is still at the top of the hierarchy. If the long game is to make our geek spaces fully inclusive then you don’t just need diversity of membership but you need diversity of leadership, right?

Or to put it simpler, in the shared space men need to step aside and do the jobs that don’t get the spotlight or recognition (at least, some of the time). Instead, do organisational work behind the scenes. Do emotional labour (like, maybe, looking after the kids whilst your partner runs the class?).

It was right there in the podcast episode, when one group did a presentation with a non-male instructor, the engagement (from non-male observers I assume?) was higher. Anecdotal, but totally credible. You want to change a culture, change the leadership. In the meantime the need for non-male spaces is kind of obvious.

Elitism in HEMA

Podcast Sunday! 25th July

Man, where did the time go this week?

Frankenstein’s RPG Episode 8, Monsters and Luck

Episode 8 covers Monsters and Luck, and the Angel RPG gets some love. I’m personally a fan of Unisystem books (AFMBE, Terra Primate, Witchcraft) but it’s the Cinematic Unisystem subset that deserves a lot of praise IMHO. The team rightly point out the very well developed Drama Point system, which gives the characters lots of points (so less chance of hoarding) and lots of things to do with them as well.

Classic Unisystem also deserves some praise for the monsters too. There isn’t quite the variety you’d need for a fantasy game but the monsters themselves are mainly described with three attributes (Muscle, Combat and Brains) which are what the players have to beat in attack and defence rolls (it’s an asymmetric system). I like systems where the monsters are easy to write down.

Other positives include the small number of skills, the combat manoeuvres, etc. Occasionally I don’t care for the author’s tone but overall it’s a great system.

Angel RPG came out in 2003 and only covers the first 3 seasons. But the original Unisystem RPGs like Witchcraft and All Flesh Must Be Eaten only came out in 1999, and this made me think about what was going on at that time: nearly a decade into World of Darkness (so Witchcraft invites obvious comparisons), right into the start of 3e (with 3.5 happening in 2003), and also the Forge (the first articles appeared around 1999).

So Cinematic Unisystem happened at an interesting turning point in RPGs with emergence of both the indie scene and the OGL.

In 2008 Eden released Ghosts of Albion which is probably the last iteration of the urban fantasy Cinematic Unisystem (John Snead’s Eldritch Skies was kickstarted in 2012). Eden was supposed to release Beyond Human which sounds like a sort of apocalyptic occult supers game but it looks like this will never emerge (“15 years late” according to this 2020 post). Without Beyond Human, Ghosts of Albion will probably be the pinnacle of this system, but it is very good. It has all the accessibility of Angel with an evolved magic system (and Victoriana, if that’s your bag).

Anyway, this has made me revisit a very old game sketch for a game set in a remote UK boarding school using the Angel rules, based on the 2004-5 series Hex, which I immediately impulse bought following this episode:

Ep 8: Monsters and Luck

System Mastery 203, Engel RPG

What a disappointment the English language Engel RPG sounds:

The original German version uses a rule system in which the gamemaster and players draw associative, tarot-like cards instead of rolling dice to determine the outcome of an event (this system is called the Arcana system in the original German version). The English version of Engel does not include the Arcana system at all; it is based on the d20 System instead.

I remember passing on this book 20 years ago and then regretting it. I also remember hearing that one of the problems of this book was there’s a big secret reveal in the GM section that isn’t visible in the premise and it totally changes the feel of the game. Which is a shame because I like the post-apocalyptic descent into a medieval society, it gives me a distinct feeling of Keith Roberts’ Pavane. I also like the flooded future Earth even if the floods don’t quite work with established terrain contour maps.

Overall I don’t know if the game is quite as daft as the hosts make it out to be, but this quote:

You don’t even need to try and make fun of it. He is the Pontifex Maximus Secundus, he’s the most second

Still, top entertainment.

I actually have the album Engel by In The Nursery which was commissioned for the RPG, and it’s good. Before this album In The Nursery did alternative scores for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Man with a Movie Camera (and after, The Passion of St Joan). I can’t think of many games that have commissioned their own music (Shadows of Esteren springs to mind, and I think some Pelgrane titles?).

System Mastery 204: Engel

Podcast Sunday! 18th July 2021

What I’ve been listening to this week is pretty much more of the same. I’ll make an effort to listen to something different in the coming weeks. The stuff I listened to is still well worth your time though

Breakfast in the Ruins episodes 28-30

Caught up on these thanks to some long car journeys this week.

They got to the core of my complaints about Stormbringer (and other RPGs) in that you can’t inspire heroic action and emulate heroic (or antiheroic) fiction if your characters are incompetent. Also nice to hear some love of Hawkwind being shared. When I ran early playtests for StormHack I made pre-gens of versions of the Eternal Champion based on Hawkwind songs. I was quite pleased with the Sonic Attack (veteran of the sonic wars with acoustically isolated armour) and Infinity (a child lured to a magical grove and transformed into an adult warrior to serve a witch) champions.

Really enjoyed the episode on SONUS and Imrryr. Imrryr seems slightly more my speed but they’re both great and it’s really good to be able to support the artists directly via Bandcamp.

The standout episode was probably Wizardry and Wild Romance with Dirk the Dice. Very thoughtful and detailed, with a lot of background stuff I didn’t previously know. And whilst I don’t want to dump on Tolkien this really isn’t the fantasy for me, and this quote from the Wit and Humour chapter nails it for me:

I think my own dislike of Tolkien lies primarily in the fact that in all those hundreds of pages full of high ideals, sinister evils and noble deeds, there is scarcely a hint of irony anywhere. Its tone is one of relentless nursery-room sobriety

Good stuff.

Breakfast in the Ruins

Writing Excuses 16.26: Working with Teams

The last in the series on game writing has some really great advice on working with other people that’s transferrable to pretty much every job I can think of, such as don’t do other people’s jobs for them, they hate that (or it will become your job) and if you’re going to sell your ideas to someone expect other people to mess with them.

Working with teams

Mean by Scene bonus minisode #1

A fine placeholder episode with Tom whilst his co-host Sharanya is doing academic things in which he’s reached out to Mean Girls cast for their favourite pasta shapes. What we learn is that the Mean Girls metaverse has either three or four kinds of pasta in it, and the resulting factional schism hinges on whether fusilli and rotini are the same or different. I suppose I do see the difference, but I would always say twisting is a poor substitute for extrusion in most walks of life

minisode #1

Fear of a Black Dragon: Hard Light

The Hard Light episode complements the other SF offerings like Leviathan and Orbital Blues, but what made it for me was the recommendations at the end for Ladytron’s 604 album, and Tangerine Dream’s Zeit.

Naturally I went looking for Hard Light only to remember I already had it in my Bundle of Holding purgatory folder. I have a lot of love for Sine Nomine’s stuff, particularly Silent Legions, and Starvation Cheap for SWN.

FoaBD: Hard Light

Podcast Sunday! 11th July 2021

This week’s listening synergises with yesterday’s post on the Dishonored RPG with the comments on video games. This is kind of obvious territory for RPG discussion and yet there’s not enough conversation about what video games can offer TTRPG design.

Oh yeah can I say how tired I am of my writing program pointing out that I’m using the wrong spelling of Dishonoured?


It Happened To Me: Statue

Best episode yet! Features Keith Norcross who tried to erect a statue of local slave trader Sir John Pockley in his home town of Chopple.

It Happened To Me

Revolution comes to the podcast: Game Makers Toolkit

This episode of RCTTK’s own Appendix N covers the Game Maker’s Toolkit, and what particularly grabbed me was the recommendation for the Stealth Game Design. This is about video games but Tom advocates for taking some of the advice for RPG design. This is right up my street given Thief: the Dark Project is probably my favourite game of all time.

Looking back I can’t remember if it was this episode, or the Mike Shea Smart Party episode (next) which advocated another videogame technique, which is the tutorial level to teach how to play the game. Then there’s also the way videogames do have an emergent setting to the player in a way that

Anyway it’s a great recommendation and I’m going to absorb some more of the video series

RCTTP: Game Maker’s Toolkit

What would the Smart Party Do: Mike Shea Interview

Really great interview with Mike Shea, author of the Lazy DM book (now updated to Return of the Lazy DM). Lots of great questions and some creative and sensible tips for new and experienced refs alike.

One of the lines I really appreciated was about giving players magic items, saying that it costs the GM nothing to give the PC something special, and they really value it. This gets a strong nod from me.

I mean, reward mechanisms are there to provide rewards. They’re part of the game. Also, I’d rather let the players have too much and see what they do with it, than let them have too little.

Return of the Lazy DM

Thocc Podcast 14: Tom

Nice to hear Vogon putting out another podcast, totally agree that you should put what content you have out there without worrying if it’s perfect, or you’ll never do it. Also this features Tom, split keyboard enthusiast and builder for Mechboards (and Discord mod I think). Makes me want to build my first Corne KB. Also, good quality solder FTW

The standout bit for me was the mention of Artsey, a one-handed chording keyboard. I’ve been interested in one handed typing since I developed some pain in my right forearm and wrist (mainly ulnar nerve; I suspect that trying to use the fn key on a tsangan layout aggravates it). This looks like an amazing thing to learn, and maybe better since support for e.g. 1h Dvorak is not great across all platforms

This is going to be of limited interest to the RPG crowd but there’s going to be crossover there somewhere. I wonder if I can draw a Venn diagram that includes fiction, RPGs, keyboards, goths, HEMA, reenactment costume, Industrial S&M nightclubs and Morris dancing


Thocc: Tom’s Interview

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Scenario Design

I thought this episode did a great job of enumerating the different kinds of scenarios (dungeon, sandbox, web of intrigue etc.). I would have liked to have more focus on actual document structure, because readability, and all 3 of the hosts are veteran CoC scenario authors so I’m sure they have something to say there.

But I did like the remark about how a relationship map is pretty much like a dungeon map (I guess in terms of navigating the scenario). Going forward I’d like a discussion on what makes a good scenario for (a) GM-facing tools and (b) player-facing materials. I think this whole discussion links back to the Smart Party’s interview with Mike Shea on what you actually gain from using a published scenario vs. writing your own.

Good Friends: Scenario Structures

+1FWD: FitD Summer with John Harper

Obvious tie in with the conversation about Dishono(u)red, usual quality episode from +1FWD team, and well worth a listen.

I don’t have much in the way about comments about the episode but I’ll say something about Blades in the Dark that goes back to the comments I made yesterday. Whilst Blades isn’t really my thing (for reasons), it’s absolutely a masterclass in how to present a game for play for the way it puts the system in front of the players with playbooks, crew books, etc. Of course it’s standing on the shoulders of PbtA but it’s this quality that makes it something every RPG enthusiast should pay attention to. Frankly it’s baffling that the RPG industry hasn’t paid more attention to this aspect of indie gaming, the focus on player-facing materials. As I said yesterday Dishonored squanders its indie-derived capital by making it hard to get to the core of the game, so it’s just another monolithic mainstream RPG book.

One last comment on Blades; I was a backer on Kickstarter and I received several versions of the play materials and every one of them was a quality product that would have probably been a final release in any mainstream game. Plus Harper really embraced a digital native approach for the draft versions that made it very usable. Blades really deserves its success.

Summer series FitD: Blades in the Dark

Foldercast: TSRv3

I’ll round things off here with a late entry, Lee Williams’ Foldercast. He talks about the TSRv3 debacle, which I vaguely took notice of when James M. Ward claimed that Giantlands was “the first fantasy/apocalyptic RPG on the market”

despite being the designer of Gamma World which is the “first post-apocalyptic RPG in the subgenre” and includes mutant badgers

and apparently Dark Sun doesn’t count


Anyway my main comment though is about his return to podcasting after 6 months which is always a good thing — from Vogon on the Thocc podcast, if you have the urge to put some content out you should do so, and not worry about polishing it. I hope Lee does either do more solo stuff (it can be done! See Monster Man, Roleplay Rescue, etc.) or partners with someone else to make content

TSRv3 and all that

RPG first look: Dishonored

The Dishonored RPG from Modiphius is pretty much everything I don’t care for: a mainstream system, an established secondary world setting, and a commercial tie in. And yet this has captured my imagination sufficiently that I’m inclined to blog about a RPG for the first time in years…

This was an impulse purchase as I’ve been mainlining the Dishonored series of murder sims on the PC (I mentioned how I think Flesh and Steel is the best way to play here). One of the reasons the series shines is the consistency and continuity through the series, but I’ve only really gotten to that after several play-throughs (which is testament to its replay value). Over several plays the originally lacklustre Death of the Outsider has become one of my favourite episodes largely for the metaplot.

So… I don’t like other people’s secondary worlds in RPGs mostly because I like to write my own, but also because it takes some effort to absorb the world that I would rather spend thinking about the game. I also like emergent settings, i.e. players learn more about the world through play.

HOWEVER videogames are emergent stories. And maybe one of the reasons I’m happy to give the Dishonored RPG a go is because I’ve already gone through the background in play, so I don’t have the overhead of having to absorb the background. I can tell you if I had not played Dishonored I would not have the patience to go through the historical timeline or the descriptions of the different islands which is predictably dry.

Also I stress about trying to present a secondary world to the rest of the players might know. What if I get some detail wrong? All silly anxiety really, we’re all friends enjoying a game after all. But setting from a videogame franchise has a big advantage: all the players will have experienced the world in exactly the same way, so we probably already have pretty close agreement on what is canon.

The other advantage in a videogame setting is repetition, as discussed in one of the recent episodes of Writing Excuses (link). Dishonored doesn’t just repeat, it repeats a small number of very strong setting images (whales, Outsider, the factions, etc.). Add to that the way some players (ahem) just play the game over and over again and you have a really effective way of embedding the setting.


Let’s say Modiphius are leveraging not only the IP but the embedded nature of the world. There are going to be two kinds of audience:

  1. Non-roleplayers coming from the videogame
  2. Roleplayers who love Dishonored and/or 2d20 (and don’t get on with Blades in the Dark)

Both of these positions have problems. For the first this really isn’t a good introductory RPG, and no amount of “how do you roleplay” preamble will fix that. I have the same issue with this offering as I do with Trail of Cthulhu, which IMHO is not speaking to the beginner on how to run an investigation, it’s speaking to the CoC veteran on how to run an investigation “better”.

The second has the tackle the elephant in the room that is Blades, which has a couple of years’ head start and is, frankly, a much better written and presented game. I have my own misgivings about the actual system and I actually think 2d20 as presented in Dishonored is really exciting. Fair play, all I know about the other 2d20 games are anecdotes from other players and reading quickstart guides from other 2d20 games, but my quick take is a looser and less complex than other iterations like Conan, more FATE-like feel with “styles” rather than attributes (although this is functionally the same), and pretty faithful to the canon. It also focuses pretty well on the different ages to run a Dunwall or Karnaca game, although there are mentions of the other islands as well.

Combat is surprisingly de-emphasised, which is a good thing. I think other 2d20 games have a lot more to combat rounds but here there’s barely more than a single digest-sized page here. I like that the different tracks between combat, stealth and intrigue are given fairly equal weight. I also really like the concept of Truths as descriptors of locations and people, which can then be manipulated in play with the system currency (these feel a lot like Monsterhearts’ conditions).

Both Stress and Tracks have obvious PbtA and FitD roots. Dishonored kinds of rips off Blades here, but then Blades rips off Dishonored anyway so it’s sauce for goose and gander. Unfortunately you have to dig in the Dishonored rulebook to understand how long tracks are meant to be, as well as the rule about Momentum decreasing at the end of a scene. The index is poor. The lack of visual aids for tracks is just a missed opportunity and sloppy.

As for the protagonists, there are 13 “classes” which are all interesting, but would it have killed the layout artist to put a bit of art next to each one? The art for the Assassin, the Inventor and others is readily available from the source and they re-use the game art all over the place in the book, so I really don’t understand the logic here. They could have made each archetype a double page spread and it would really have popped, instead it’s a continuous scroll of text. Also I found that the different archetypes really don’t vary mechanically much, although I guess there’s the special talents which are so obviously influenced by PbtA/FitD playbook specials. Frankly if I were going to offer this game, I’d mock up a playbook style double spread for each one just to make it easier for the players to choose.

I think that’s the most annoying thing about this game. The system is competent and looks great, the description of the world is good, it leans on the existing canon which is what it should be doing, but then it kinda fails at being ready to go with at-the-table aids in the way Blades is. Almost like it’s embarrassed about how much it’s ripped off indie designs that it has to hide the actual useful stuff that should be front and centre in the game. Failing to visualise the game at the table is the original sin of mainstream RPGs, and experienced gamers give them a free pass because we leverage our past experience with other games. Think about it, doesn’t this make a mockery of any kind of “roleplaying 101” preamble?

Sigh. This is a good game, it gives me a strong feel of this particular fantasy world, and I do plan to bring it to the table. I even like the introductory adventure in the back. And the actual layout is lovely, even if the placement of art around the Protagonists chapter is a missed opportunity. But what annoys me is that this demands being read sequentially (at least for the rules part) when this should be a functional reference book to be dipped into as needed. It’s also not particularly strong on what the PCs should actually be doing, although to be fair it does have a lot of different hooks for bringing in factions and events… it’s just these are mostly GM facing rather than player facing.

Some other perspectives:

Podcast Sunday! 4th July 2021

I’ve been time-poor this week but I managed to listen to both parts of The Grognard Files episode 48 on Call of Cthulhu, with Lynn Hardy.

The interview was fantastic and I really identified with the university experience of finding other roleplayers and getting into LARP (both rubber swords and chamber LARP). Really interesting to hear the remarks about gaming with Robin Laws including the Dying Earth which I’ve still yet to play (it’s in the Bundle of Holding purgatory on my hard drive).

But the comment I was most interested in was (I think) linked into the Children of Fear campaign about being truly isolated and losing all support networks and normal resources that Cthulhu investigators might expect to have.

Later there’s the conversation between Dirk and Blythy regarding CoC in different contexts, and how it just doesn’t work with Cthulhu in space (and how the Alien franchise already nailed space horror). I agree and I submit exhibit A, which is Hellraiser 4: Bloodline with its Lament Configuration In Space. You’ll note from the wiki page that this concludes with science providing a final solution to the cenobites with space lasers. This is kind of an inevitable escalation for any Cosmic Horror In Space which is that mankind will find the tools to analyse the threat and usually find a way to blow it up. Event Horizon and Hellboy and even Grant Morrison’s Zenith are examples of cosmic horrors turning up and rather than being horrifying and all-consuming, being repelled by human ingenuity, science, and cunning tricks.

This is the problem when humans explore space; they’re obviously comfortable with the idea of a vast and uncaring vacuum of space, so the fact that there are monsters in space, whilst frightening, they’re no more frightening than big sea monsters. They have defined limits and therefore they can be defeated. They become a science fictional, physical problem rather than a horror problem.

I don’t know if Dirk and Blythy are aware of John Snead’s Eldrich Skies (Cinematic Unisystem, later Savage Worlds I think) but this makes the sensible transition for the Mythos from horror to SF (though I’ve only read it, another BoH purchase I’ve yet to play). We’ve been comfortable with organic space ships since Babylon 5 so it makes sense.

Anyway my point here, with reference to Lynn Hardy’s comments on normal support mechanisms is… the monsters don’t make the horror, it’s the context and situation that makes the horror. Just like you don’t make a game funny by calling it humorous (looking at you, Toon and Paranoia). The Mythos is a hard SF setting (and the Dreamlands is fantasy). The horror emerges as part of the realities of that setting. But that setting is full of people trying to explain the world and that’s what I really go for — get the evidence and then draw conclusions from it. That’s at the heart of games like Cthulhu Dark and Lovecraftesque. Also it’s a reason I’ll give CoC a free pass on the massive number of academic skills.

I had a similar holiday experience as a student where we stayed in a cottage in the middle of wales that belonged to one of our friends. Looking back it was very much a Withnail & I situation, only with 20-something goths. The whole place was cold and falling down, and we played CoC and Fury of Dracula by the fire. I discovered Devil Doll’s Sacreligium album, and Diamanda Galas, but our driver insisted on playing the Pet Shop Boys’ Introspective album over and over

But anyway horror is subjective and I can’t imagine a better horror setup than holiday in a caravan park, particularly with random encounters in the communal areas. The UK’s answer to an isolated motel in the middle of nowhere I guess

Part 1
Part 2

Podcast Sunday! 27th June 2021

That time again

Parody Boris Johnson Podcast: Plebs PMQs feat. Lindsay Hoyle

Lindsay Hoyle is a welcome addition to the gallery of personalities. Still good but they’ve started to advertise (Now TV I think, and some Times podcasts). Nothing against that, although they’re also getting support from Patreon, and the ads can’t be skipped easily unlike, say, a blog.

Plebs PMQs 10

Writing Excuses 16.25: Breaking into Games Writing

Great episode in the series about the realities of getting a job in the industry including the portfolio (and a really great point that the weakest thing in your portfolio is the thing potential employers will look at). Not that I know anything about the industry since I’m a hobbyist, but the remarks about being persistent and also about developing a whole load of communication skills are not only great, they’re also highly transferrable.

They also spotlight Dread for this episode, which as they point out is a single mechanic at the core of a game so “anyone can write it”. The main point I think they were making is that you can easily write this kind of game as an example of what you can do for your portfolio, although I’d have a different POV that people find value in small, creator-owned pieces of writing as well as large traditional lines (look at ARC: Doom which is the product of one person). That also leads into the other important point, which is if you’re writing for someone else what you write is theirs to take and manipulate how they will. Great episode

Writing Excuses 16.25

+1 FWD: Briar and Bramble

The thing I liked particularly about this episode was the Open Your Brain section talking about trends, in this case the eminently hackable nature of PbtA and the Class Warfare supplement for Dungeon World. (although I do feel that whilst the moves make the game straightforward to hack, writing quality moves is another matter)

Worth noting that Briar and Bramble is a PWYW ashcan about playing woodland animals, inspired by the Animals of Farthing Wood and the non-James Corden Watership Down, etc.

Briar and Bramble

Frankenstein’s RPG part 7: skills and careers

Good episode as always, and rightfully WFRP won the careers pick. I made my case for careers on the Grognard Files discord, basically you have “career before” systems like Traveller where your career is mapped out before play, and “career in play” systems like WFRP, where it’s part of the character’s growth. Since diagrams are de rigueur for this podcast:

This elicited a pleasing amount of nit-picking amongst pedantic grognards, natch

(and I’ve got some comments on PbtA which I’ll tag on the end of this post)

Episode 7: Skills and Careers

Daydreaming about Dragons S2e78: Too many or too few players, Gideon the Ninth

Last one for this post, I’ve been picking up this podcast occasionally and it has some good talking points about play organisation and culture. Mostly though I listened for Gideon the Ninth, subject of the latest Fictoplasm. Good comments on emergent humour as well. I usually reject the premise that games are inherently funny (or horrific), I think that humour or horror emerges in play.

Daydreaming about dragons s2e78

Side note: ref prep style

One comment from the Frankenstein’s RPG Podcast talked about the suitability of PbtA for campaigns vs. one shots.

I reckon the sweet spot is a mini-campaign or short season, which I did for the Apocalypse World: Burned Over campaign (based on Damnation Alley) and I’m currently playing in Becky’s Last Fleet game. Sessions are all 2h or 2h30 long, so a far cry from a 4 hour con session (let alone anything longer). This alone makes the burden on the ref a bit easier

But also I don’t think PbtA is as “make it up on the spot” as the team imply, in fact it’s a lot like the way I’ve always played — set up the situation and then nudge the PCs to action, and react when they take action which is all that Fronts and MC Moves really do.

We talk a lot about “play style” but we don’t often mention “GM prep style” and I think that the style of prep in PbtA is absolutely nothing new; back in the day I knew GMs who used to brag about how little prep they would do (as well as running D&D with a bottle of red inside them). I reckon this had a 50:50 success rate, and I think that those GMs who could pull it off were using other techniques to limit the amount of mental overhead they had to deal with (choose a suitable system, pay close attention to the scope of setting, etc.). These coping mechanisms were informal and self-taught over years of experience I reckon, and if you asked them to write them down they wouldn’t be able to (“tacit knowledge”).

So here’s my thesis: PbtA is teaching the MC to do exactly this kind of low prep, reactive kind of reffing. It doesn’t do a great job to be frank, but it builds in these coping mechanisms to enable the MC to do this without being overwhelmed.

I think the biggest problem with with this reactive style is that it looks like a low effort strategy and therefore some people try it and don’t put any effort in and the results are not good. Actually the effort goes in, just not in any obvious place. If you’re playing a “low prep” game that works, it’s probably because the designer put a lot of effort in to make it work in that way with quick start references, mechanics, artifacts at the table, etc.

So tl;dr I think PbtA should be regarded as a method for the MC and group to organise their resources first, and that’s probably the most interesting thing about PbtA design. Aside from that it’s trying to get to exactly the same place as every other RPG

Podcast Sunday! 20th June

Pick of what I listened to this week:

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: the Endless

The Endless divided the panel but it sounds like exactly my kind of film… I’d had my eye on it on various streaming services and unfortunately it’s not free right now, but Spring is so I watched that instead. Spring also features Shitty Carl by name only, so it must be part of the same continuum.

In general I really like the Good Friends’ film reviews. (I think) they used to divide it into two parts for non-spoilers and then spoiler content; this is probably hard to do and I kind of feel that if I’m listening to commentary on something I haven’t read then I consent to some spoilers already. I also really enjoyed A Dark Song when they covered it.

GFoJE: The Endless

Vintage RPG Podcast: ARC Doom

Interview with Momatoes about ARC Doom (Kickstarter, 11 days to go). The premise sounds great and the quickstart is very good (DTRPG) with a gorgeous digital native layout. I liked a lot of what the author says about striking a balance between existing poles of OSR and storygaming, and overall this is a great looking product

ARC: Doom

Cabinet of Curiosities: Pick a Card

From Aaron Mahnke of Lore fame this is a kind of bite-sized more-of-the-same with the usual great delivery, good for 11 mins or so. This one features stage magic and the gold rush

Cabinet of Curiosities

The Partial Historians: the Tale of Verginia

Really like the premise of two historians looking at one historical event from two different accounts. Also the show notes are really good. The podcast is specifically focused on Roman history and this one carries a few trigger warnings.

Partial Historians: Verginia

Podcast Sunday! 13th June

Another week, etc.

Vintage RPG Podcast 119: OSRIC

Short and punchy episode on the apparent origins of the OSR via OSRIC. OSR conversations can fall into very subjective discussions about definitions and play styles, and I liked how this was a bit more objective and factual, with nods to Castles and Crusades as well as OSRIC and the whole question about whether you can copyright mechanics. Not sure I agree with them about how big a misstep WotC made with the 3eSRD; maybe it seemed like that at the time, creating their biggest competitor in Pathfinder. Frankly 5e looks way more approachable to me that 3e, something that I would consider a marketing plus. Anyway I’d almost say this episode is essential listening purely for the way it puts the various initiatives in time and place. Recommended

Vintage RPG Podcast: OSRIC

Writing Excuses 16:23 (Rules and Mechanics)

This episode doesn’t really cover much in the way of rules and mechanics apart from the inference that CRPG developers will have a separate department for that… but it’s actually much more interesting, talking about the need for the established proper nouns to be repeated over and over in in-game dialogue, and some science behind that (apparently we’ve evolved to mistrust and therefore pay attention to patterns). I am a big fan of applying knowledge management and learning theory to writing and design (rules of 7 and 4 etc.). Anyway this is a really strong episode and the whole course is worth your time

16:23 Rules and Mechanics

GMS Podcast 179: RPG publishing 15, to POD or not

Good but brief discussion on whether you should offer POD or not.

My own feeling on modern RPG products as a consumer is:

  1. they should be digital native for 16:9 screens.
  2. POD is a poor economic choice but (surely) a sensible choice for convenience, reduced waste, etc.
  3. A lower quality print product that’s low cost is actually a good thing, it means we’re less precious about our books. They should be functional things that get annotated. (more margins please)

GMS 179: Piracy and POD

Common Descent Podcast 114: Polar Life

I think I got this recommendation from the Grognard Files Discord. Part of it is hardcore biological sciences which goes well beyond my comfort zone (being a chemist). Still thanks to watching Blue Planet over and over again I already know what a crinoid is. Plus our 5yo is going through a prehistoric marine life phase (see the Dunkleosteus in this post’s featured image).

The polar life episode is particularly on brand since I’ve just finished Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner (and others) for the latest episode (yeah, I know, it’s not set in a polar region, it’s an ice-age Brazil). I very much enjoyed the discussion about the nuances of where the poles start and the ways this is measured, as well as the diversity of life in the north vs south poles, the polar tilt, and so on. I’ve run a couple of campaigns in ice-age/polar settings and now I want to run another one.

Common Descent 114: Polar Life

(PS. the north pole is a lie)

Podcast Sunday, er, Monday 7th June

Whoops, half term and patron rewards ate the week and the weekend. But this is what I listened to last week:

System Mastery 201: Terror Network

Another great episode covering another game I’ve never heard of. It’s as good a starting point as any, although I kind of miss the Donkey Talk era

System Mastery 201: Terror Network

Parody BoJo Podcast: Dom Dishes the Dirt/Look! A Wedding!

I previously said that the political content would date this material but there’s a counterpoint, that this is providing a much more enduring record of the lunacy of our current PM’s regime than the Twitter account, which is transient. I also think that it’s really getting into its stride now. Excellent impression of Laura Kuenssberg as well

Parody Boris Johnson Podcast eps 7 and 8

It Happened To Me: Cult

“I joined a cult and accidentally killed its leader”

More of the same from Michael Spicer. I don’t think anything’s been quite as funny as the first episode but still great stuff

It Happened To Me

Write Now with Scrivener

So this is a new podcast from the creators of Scrivener about how authors use the program and their writing process generally, and it’s the second part that’s interesting to me. I like Scrivener, it’s great for binding up a lot of documents into one project but it still conflates formatting with writing, and I’m a hardcore markdown fan anyway so I use Ulysses for convenience and something like Atom to reach the bits that Ulysses doesn’t. But anyway this one features Peter Robinson, crime fiction author, and It’s still interesting to hear about the process.

Write Now

Writing Excuses

This is a killer podcast with short and very well focused writing advice for a range of topics, recommended to me during the Fictoplasm patron’s round table. The most recent series (and my jumping-on point) is their sequence on RPGs.

It may set my RPG audience’s teeth on edge, particularly the comments about the illusion of choice, branching narratives and in particular the tacit assumption of GM-as-entertainer which annoyed some of the group in the Grognard Files book club on Robin’s Laws of Good Gamesmastering. Frankly a lot of the comments, especially the “pet peeves” sound 20 years out of date (which doesn’t invalidate the comment about chainmail bikinis, natch). But in their defence they’re talking from the point of view of writing an adventure and the scope includes both computer and PnP RPGs, and the comments about intentionally limiting the number potential events are actually good — I think we don’t talk about the scope of games enough (what’s in, and what’s out). I also really liked the comment about how deviations from your “adventure path” happen (because there’s something off-camera more interesting than what’s in focus), although I would probably deal with it differently.

This is a multi-part series and so far I’ve listened to the first four or so, and it’s definitely worth your time. I think the best thing it does for RPG designers is make the link between genre fiction writing, CRPGs and our own hobby, and the remarks about how editors respond to submissions are good (e.g. “remember that roleplayers like to roll dice”). Good job pointing the audience to Choose Your Own Adventure resources as well.

I do have one peeve of my own, on the word “homebrew”. This irritates me because it normalises the idea that independently designed games that originate out of a player group do not have the commercial viability of established properties, i.e. they’re for a hobbyist audience only. I’m sure that’s not what the presenters meant by that, but… see my earlier comment about 20-year old notions of RPGs.

The series starts at episode 16:19. Note that there are earlier episodes tagged with RPG, including episodes on world building, etc. (although I’m just going to sift through the whole back catalogue)

Writing Excuses

Podcast Sunday 30th May


Fear of a Black Dragon: Leviathan

Please deconstruct my premise… now

The conversation starts discussing Leviathan for Traveller and then goes into how random tables should be used in play; specifically the role in prep and whether you roll in the moment to determine what happens next, or prep in advance. I liked the comment that it’s not entirely freeform because someone at some point designed those tables to form the parameters of the sandbox. I also liked the notion that the party engage in the dungeon when there’s a reason to do so, which should be a core tenet of all sandbox play, right?

My top pick for random tables is Beyond the Wall which uses them in character playbooks, adventures and more, but the scope is still dictated by the playbook which means by choice of playbook you still have a good idea of the general direction. As for Leviathan itself, it sounds like a tolerable departure from the basic activity of paying off your space mortgage, and that alone might be why it was reviewed favourably back in the day.

Top marks for joining Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Brian Eno in the same thought too

Fear of a Black Dragon: Leviathan

Fucking Cancelled 13

Heard about Fucking Cancelled from the 301: Permanently Moved podcast. I strongly agree with the points about not following the script that subverts your own thoughts to the groupthink, left or right.

But then part of me feels that the context around this discussion is rooted in social media which is not designed to support the individual thought or nuance with likes and retweets. This brings me to two conclusions:

  • If you choose to play by social media’s rules, you accept that you may be “cancelled”. Twitter is a game.
  • I am not the core audience for this content

I don’t think I will be listening to more of this, but then I’m probably not the person who should be listening. But if you’re 20 years younger than me, maybe you should.

Africa Brooke: Leaving the Cult of Wokeness

Parody BoJo Podcast: 7

Predictable episode in the wake of the Dominic Cummings testimony. Great fun although probably needs the current political context, etc.

I mentioned this in the latest episode of Fictoplasm when mentioning Jean-Claude Van Damme’s TimeCop… can’t remember where I heard it but the general gist is that all the extreme satirical right-wing corporate stuff coming out of 80s and 90s SFF movies like Robocop and TimeCop is being eclipsed by the real world. Consequently I expect to see BoJo clinging onto the bonnet of a police car being driven into a tank of caustic soda and then briefly existing as a shambling, moaning, melting mess before he’s run over a second time and explodes like a water balloon filled with raw sewage.

Dom Dishes the Dirt

It Happened To Me: Magic

Love this. No special comments. Listen now.

(can’t seem to find the specific episode. Maybe I’m listening from the future, which means these Airpods are a great investment)

It Happened to Me

System Mastery 200: Marvel Superheroes RPG Redux

A late entry in this week’s listening but I thoroughly recommend this podcast, it got me through many long trips visiting my dad in hospital and it’s fantastically funny. Having “run out of D&D” for their milestone episodes they’re returning to the FASERIP system. I only played this briefly when I was 17, and I remember being fascinated by the progression (Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Monstrous etc.) but I take their point that it’s really impractical. Otherwise this is like learning a new language for me.

Today I just had my round-table with some of the Fictoplasm patrons (thanks everyone) and I remember an aside about how complex superhero games often are (e.g. Champions, Wild Talents). I assume this is because they need to scale from ground-level to cosmic level. I think that this is doomed to failure because in order to take in the entire range of power you will miss the nuance of the individual levels. I can’t speak from direct experience with a ground-up supers game but I have played GURPS and a 500 point character (which should be supers territory) can be focussed on one thing or many, but the character with a more diverse spread of points will always feel inferior.

You might say in defence of such systems that the more general character has more scope for nuanced play. I say if the game focus falls to the strongest, then you’re cheating the more moderate players out of a game; and if it doesn’t, why the hell play a bean-counting game anyway? Just hack WaRP and call it done.

Still this is pretty timely because we’ve been re-watching the MCU (and I speak as a Marvel ignorant prior to the movies, with the exception of Power Pack)


System Mastery 200

Podcast Sunday 23rd May 2021

Another week, another bunch of quality podcasts

Appendix N Book Club 92: the Hand of Oberon

Love a bit of Zelazny, naturally, but this is a great episode with a real high point for me being the discussion about how this fits into the D&D oeuvre, and the way Zelazny’s narrative is tactical and wargame-like. Probably going to be most interesting for people already familiar with the book so you can nod along to the commentary

Hand of Oberon

+1 FWD: Stonetop

Two things about Stonetop stood out, one being a much more focused and visceral Dungeon World (at least, that was my impression) and a really nice play example. Of course it’s hard to say how much that was the GM and how much it was the system, but it really sold the tone for me.

The KS is over but it did very well it seems 🙂


Revolution Comes to The Podcast: Far Cry 4

I’ve only played the first Far Cry which is more of a point-to-point shooter and less of a sandbox (as I understand the sequels to be). Interesting to hear Tom talking about Far Cry 4 as influencing RCTTK from multiple positions (narrative, setting, texture/colour, etc.). This resonated with me as Thief: the Dark Project has its place in the inspirational material for Metacity (along with Viriconium etc.). And I too have spent an unreasonable amount of time lurking in shadows waiting for guards to turn their backs.

RCTTP: Far Cry 4

Grognard Files: Dr Who

Great as always, I liked this episode for the interview with Dave Chapman and the discussion on Unisystem as well as the more Dr Who focused bits. Grogglebox session on Pyramids of Mars was great.

Big fan of Unisystem, me. The good thing about Terra Primate, AFMBE and others is the way the designers provided not only the system but then multiple takes for possible settings (“Simians and Sorcerers”, “The Island of Dr Monroe” etc.) which are pretty well fleshed out with what the humans are doing in this setting plus some actual story ideas. Big chunky section in the book, you get your money’s worth. Also I love the smaller format of the Classic Unisystem books. But Cinematic Unisystem deserves the love for a workable action-based urban fantasy. I reckon it peaked at Ghosts of Albion.

Grognard Files Dr Who

It Happened To Me: Vinyl

Michael Spicer’s new podcast with interviews of ordinary people who have had extraordinary experiences. This one is about someone who rescued their vinyl collection from a house fire before their wife and daughter. Learned a lot about the Blazer Rock sub-genre. If they’re all this informative I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

It Happened To Me: Vinyl

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Transgressive Horror interview

Not the usual format for the GFoJE but a great interview with Christopher McGloglin who is curating essays on horror in film for the book Transgressive Horror, now on Kickstarter (a few days left if you’re reading this on Sunday). Look at the list of films and contributors!

Just a great conversation rich with remarks on “cinema that broke the rules”.

Transgressive Horror

Podcast Sunday 16th May

What I listened to this week!

RPG Design Panelcast: English as our vehicular language

Great panel discussion from designers from several continents whose first language isn’t English. Eye-opening comments about the asian RPG community, on RPGs being a hobby of the wealthy who are more likely to speak English (and the disadvantages of having to learn in a different language), and some backstory for the Elephant and Macaw Banner (which I’m only aware of thanks to Porcupine Publishing doing the English translation).

RPG Design Panelcast

Frankenstein’s RPG: Art

Loved the comments on graphic design, use of fonts, the design practices in the early 2000s, etc. Also that Jamie Hewlett gets a mention by Kaye. This also features John Hodgson (who did this for Beyond the Wall) and Paul (@spookshow71 on twitter, check his stuff out).

There was some suggestion that mainstream large format RPGs are better laid out these days with more freedom to breathe, as opposed to indie games which have to crowd everything in. My counterpoint: mainstream RPGs are more often than not overwritten (e.g. Shadows of Esteren), whilst indie games are more sparsely written, more direct in declaring the mechanics, and better laid out with decent use of white space. Some of the PBTA games are particularly good for this (Night Witches, Monsterhearts).

Oh, and here’s my candidate for a great looking indie game: Troika! (numinous edition)

The best pages are the individual character pages (d66 of them).

And here’s a terrible mainstream one: Elric of Melnibone 1st edition

Black on textured grey with Celtic knots all around the margins, no numbered chapters, chapter headings printed along the vertical edge of the right page in a near-illegible font, white on black narrow font boxed text. It’s horrific and does Lawrence Whitaker’s work no favours. Probably a great example of the DTP-for-the-masses era where (to paraphrase the hosts) just because you can, should you?

Frankenstein’s RPG

What Would The Smart Party Do? Shawn Tomkin interview

Great interview with the author of Ironsworn and Starforged (KS link). I thought Gaz and Baz asked some great questions, and the one that really resonated with me was the comment on why SF RPGs don’t capture the imagination in the way, say, Fantasy does. Furthermore Shawn’s comments on a sense of wonder really resonated with me. As it happens I had these talking points in my notes for The Sparrow (released yesterday), about how SF is a broad church and the difference between hard and soft SF, and how IMHO we’re really bad at celebrating exploration and discoveries in RPGs. Think about it: our investigation games and genres punish curiosity (thanks, Alien) and mechanise what we might lose (HP, SAN) rather than what we might gain, which are usually just stepping stones on the path to the end of the adventure.

Also, I’ve only just started to look at Ironsworn after looking at PBTA combat, and it’s going on my list of the few games that actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to martial exchanges, thanks to its approach to Initiative. This is a lot like the best combat system ever I mentioned back in the Princess Bride ep. Going to give it some more attention.

What would the Smart Party Do? Shawn Tomkin interview

The Thocc ep. 13: Iammeuru’s interview

Rounding off Sunday morning I’m listening to the latest episode of The Thocc podcast whilst preparing the roast, so I’m just dipping in and out of it. For reference I typed this on my first DIY effort, a 60% Tsangan layout with a CF plate, SA keycaps and lavender linear switches. It really does sound so much better than my other keyboards with alu or steel plates.

(also, I fell out of love with hotswap pretty quickly but at least I learned to fix a socket after I lifted one of the pads)

I did look into some of Iammeuru’s streams, and I’m going to take notes on SMD soldering (but for now my next project is a Discipline through-hole kit, bring the flux). If you’re interested in the hobby, there’s so much great advice on soldering on Youtube. It’s kind of an immersive experience with multiple hour long build streams. Kind of like Critical Role but for building keyboards I guess

I suspect the readers of this post aren’t really the core demographic for this podcast but I’m glad it exists. Very relaxing and the host has a nice voice

The Thocc: Iammeuru

Metacity + Pocket Dimensions

The Melisonian Arts Council produced these really cool Pocket Dimension booklets. They’re sold out but I got mine from All Rolled Up (with my Dee Sanction reward plus a lovely purple koi facemask). I hope more are printed because they’re awesome.

I found a way to combine these booklets with the Metacity Primer, which is free on

OK, so in Metacity you design a city with freeform boundary drawing. You can use the template provided or create your own.

BUT since the mini hex grid in the Pocket Dimension is 37 hexes, you can place the Heart of the City in the middle and then assign the other 36 to the remaining hexes. Use one page to give the city overview, like this:

I used this to brainstorm Carchar-Lygaid, the City of Eyeless Princes with its temporal-sighted monarchy (the King) and propagandist Vizier (the Queen). I laid out five districts and left the other hexes blank.

Then use other pages to zoom into a district, e.g.

That’s the district of Shant, the Wyrmfelds where the dragon farmers cultivate dragons for scales, meat and venom. The whole place is a marsh with wooden walkways, lit by lanterns to penetrate the perpetual mist (District level tags). Then I made a few locations using the hex grid, like the Fane of Lupulold, the Decan of Shant, and Curlidge’s Gaff (the local Bishop).

So yeah, it looks like a great match of the notebooks with the tool. It works a bit like a Mandala Chart but with hexes. Also the regular hex pattern is a lot easier to scan than the random shapes I did for the graphic in the Metacity Primer, and a lot easier to visualise as a city map whilst still being basically topological.

Podcast Sunday 9th May

Happy Podcast Sunday! Here are some things I listened to and what I liked about them:

The Allusionist 134: Lacuna

Very good episode covering censorship during the era of the Brazilian military dictatorship, and the way the newspapers responded with nonsense articles and the difficulty of knowing both the truth and what they were allowed to report on. Whilst a lot of it is funny and non-weird I did get a strong sense of Over the Edge in the RPG opportunities


What Would The Smart Party Do? Mattias Lilja interview

This interview coincides with the Free League’s KS for Ruins of Symbaroum for D&D 5e which is honestly not really my thing, even though it looks gorgeous. BUT there’s a lot of good stuff in the interview when they get into the adjacent stuff like the approach to investment and business, comparisons with the videogame industry, etc. Also I liked the bit at the end discussion Black Swan events, common perception of probabilities and so on.

WWTSPD: Mattias Lilja

Monster Man Special: The Green Knight

This is a really fantastic episode of Monster Man covering the 14c poem The Green Knight that touches on the myth, the variations in translation from middle english, and how to communicate etiquette and conventions to the players through the behaviour of NPCs and monsters.

The Green Knight

Daydreaming about Dragons: ep 75

Always have a B Game for when the A Game falls through, says Judd Karlman on episode 75 of Daydreaming about Dragons. Also some thoughtful stuff about getting back together with people and having triggering content at the table as a consequence of the pandemic.

Daydreaming about Dragons

Dissecting Worlds: Gor

From 2017, controversial games designer James Desborough is interviewed on the controversial subject of his RPG for John Norman’s Gor, and covers controversial topics like Gamergate and the X card…

It’s actually a polite, nuanced discussion and points are well made on both sides. This is a risky conversation to be involved in and the hosts manage to tackle it with the right amount of challenge and objectivity.

Starting at the end:

Gor has a bad reputation far in excess of what it actually is

Totally fair. Gor is a fandom and we don’t shame fandom (or kink). Also, fandoms deserve to be heard for their positive points and advocates shouldn’t be shouted down by a mob that perceives the content without having actually consumed it. I totally take Grim Jim on his word that the world-building is great. At the same time I’m from the M John Harrison school of emergent setting. So the fact that Gor has a great setting holds no more value to me than Tolkien’s or any other expansive, exhaustively mapped fandom. It’s not for me.

(also I’ve got plenty of D6 system material, but props for choosing a good chassis)

I have to pick up on this from the hosts:

If more people knew about Notes from a Darkening Island… which has racial themes in it, they’d be up in arms about that

I guess they mean Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest. It’s hardly equivalent. The content is mainly political; a civil war is sparked in the name of white, British nationalism opposing an influx of African immigrants fleeing nuclear war. I think it’s fair to say that the protagonist is actually confronted by his own prejudice.

Since I haven’t read Gor I can’t directly comment but one of the remarks about the female slave culture is IIRC “there are male slaves too! More male slaves than female slaves! They’re just off camera”. This is the equivalent of J K Rowling claiming that Dumbledore was gay. If it’s not represented, it’s not there for the audience. And it sounds like Gor is being presented as the patriarchy is the natural order of society, with a disproportionate focus on female slaves.

Some of the other remarks are great though. I particularly liked the comments about Conan being anti-Civilisation and the conversation around that.

As for the Gamergate stuff… well I take Grim Jim on his word that what’s been reported in the media is not what’s going on. But OTOH the whole GG movement did itself no favours. I looked for a single coherent source of their objections and what I saw was a confused mess that included attacks on women, claims of victimhood on both sides, and the vague suggestion that there was some legitimacy in there but also the truth was known, even prized, by some inner cabal and you had to dig to get it. Just like birtherism or Jewish orbital lasers.

I don’t question the truth here. What I’m saying is this: you do not win hearts and minds of external observers by claiming that in order to get to the truth they have to dive further down a rabbit hole. That’s not only the opposite of a coherent message, it’s treating people who might be on your side with contempt because no matter how widely they read the situation and how open minded they are, you’re telling them they’re not being open minded enough.

Yeah, uh, anyway I learned a lot about Gor. It’s probably a great setting; if the mode of play is really a kind of Sword and Planet Spy-vs-Spy with humans being the pawns of two alien races, that sounds like a pretty good USP. Should have lead with that, TBH.

Dissecting Worlds: Gor

Extra: Breakfast in the Ruins and Nand

A quick mention following the episode of Breakfast in the Ruins where I appeared talking about StormHack!: Nand Soundtrax who did the music “Fleeing the Ornithopters” at the end of that episode are getting their Bandcamp page together.

Big fan of Bandcamp for obscure electronica and lossless downloads and supporting artists more directly (my profile). If you want to find out more about Nand I suggest you follow their page to get an alert when their stuff goes live:

Nand on Bandcamp

Podcast Sunday 2nd May

Not sure where the time has gone but I’ll be focusing on quality over quantity this week. They’re all very good

Weekly Typographic: Fonts with personality, letters as colours, demystifying Git

Really enjoy this podcast, and if you subscribe to the newsletter you get a whole lot of interesting links to the articles mentioned in your inbox. Of the topics in this one the fonts with personality tool at Fontbrief is really useful and the letters as colours synesthaesia simulator is fun, but the thing that got my attention is Git and Github.

I’m terrible at version control, normally I just clone an entire folder for my next draft of whatever I’m writing. This makes no real sense because I’m never going to go back to previous versions and compare what I did. But since I write in markdown I could probably usefully use Git for my writing projects, as long as I actually write decent change notes. I’ve now installed Git (via Homebrew) and I might try it out.

More interestingly something like GitHub could be really useful for a shared RPG writing project with control over contributors but freedom to download. Of course in the podcast it’s about font design, and I’ve seen other uses for GitHub like sharing open-source keyboard PCB designs (like the Sesame, which I’ve got my eye on). I’m considering it for a living version of StormHack.

Weekly Typographic

Fear of a Black Dragon: An Unchained Melody (Orbital Blues)

This is a particularly good episode that goes beyond the subject matter of the quickstart for the Orbital Blues game which I have only just looked at an OMFG custom cassettes but also features the Expert Delve into How to GM like Elmore Leonard.

(I didn’t realise quite how big a fan Tom was of Elmore Leonard when he mentioned Get Shorty on the podcast)

There’s a good chunk of Companion Adventures as well. I think this episode in particular is worth shouting about because I expect some listeners will look no further than the “Old School” strap-line and pass it over, when it’s got a lot more depth. If you like the kind of stuff Fictoplasm is about then I’m sure you’ll find this one worth your time. For the more RPG focused listener the Orbital Blues stuff still looks wonderful; who could resist a game of Sad Traveller?

FoaBD Unchained Melody

Grognard Files Extra: interview with Tim Harford

This is a great interview but then I knew it would be as he’s been a guest on Fictoplasm (Lyonesse episode with Dave and Tim here) but also since I’ve played in Tim’s Legend games once or twice I’m familiar with his preferences. Always nice to hear discussion on Dragon Warriors and Robin of Sherwood. I particularly liked the discussion about how an adventuring party would affect the local economy on returning from a dungeon loaded with gold pieces. Also I identify with the early experiences of RPGs, playing T&T solo, and not really getting into red box D&D (and my off-the-shelf early experience was Fighting Fantasy rather than Dragon Warriors but I have a similar nostalgia for getting my first RPG experiences from WH Smiths rather than a specific games shop).

I feel I should say something about the Cthulhu Dark session… I’ve heard separately from Tim, Paul and Dave that they got the impression that they weren’t engaging with the game the way I expected. This is sort of true, but there’s some important context.

First, the scenario wasn’t mine, it came from Mansions of Madness for 4th edition Call of Cthulhu, so it’s a 90s piece of writing with some very 90s assumptions. The scenario is set up that the characters are sitting down to dinner with a friend and notice weird behaviour by the neighbour across the street. The assumption is that the PCs will henceforth investigate said neighbour, discover the weird greenhouse and the thing held captive in the house. But knowing that no scenario survives first contact with the players, the fact the group diverged a bit wasn’t a surprise.

Second, we were using Cthulhu Dark and I wanted to use all of it, including character generation. It’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary in that it doesn’t do anything that a typical freeform RPG wouldn’t do, but it does recommend you develop the characters as a group. As Keeper/Director my input was to frame the scenario which was “dinner with an acquaintance in a wealthy part of town”. From there the group decided that they were the campaign committee for a candidate for the New York Mayoral election, planning to hold the the launch party in the house of the rich acquaintance (and presumably political donor). From then on the scenario pretty much ran itself, with the players organising the launch at the Waldorf Astoria before cramming donors onto boats to take them to the house. From there they fielded various issues with guests, broken fuse boxes, strange noises from across the street, and so on.

Really there was so much going on at the party that there was zero chance they were going to break away from it to investigate the creepy house across the way. So instead I had the scenario come to them, with power cuts and the monster wandering through the honeycomb of tunnels beneath all the houses, having excavated its way through the cellars and under the lawns of the surrounding neighbourhood. The evening ended in disaster with guests fleeing the house on foot and in cars, in some cases being chased by the nameless horror.

So after the session I jokingly said “no scenario survives first contact with the players, but you guys basically distracted the scenario then shanked it in the back, shook it down for loose change and rolled it into the Hudson”. I guess this sounded like I was complaining that the players failed to engage. Actually I was fine with how the players had run with the game and made it theirs, and I really believe that you run the game where the players are at, not where you think they should be, because it’s not the GM’s game, it’s the group’s game. And Cthulhu Dark should work like this; the party make up should make sense, both in the setting and how they relate to each other, and it’s the PCs choice to be curious (or not).

That comment was really a remark on how the assumptions of some scenarios are completely mismatched with how many scenarios play out. When I ran The Madcap Laughs for Grogmeet, I didn’t just have to hack the original scenario to fit two short sessions; I also had to edit some of the content because the hooks were not there, nor were the logical transitions between scenes.

I’m writing this on the day of the Grognard Files May book club, where we talked about Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. There was a certain amount of deserved praise tempered with a fair chunk of criticism, and the most critical point being the entirely asymmetric nature of the GM as entertainment provider with no support or feedback from the play group; the information flow is one-way and they have to take full responsibility for how the game goes. But one very good comment was that this book was written in a completely different era. It was written for a less information-rich age, where the choices of both players and games were lower; therefore you had to adapt what was available to the preferences of the players you could find. And for all the flawed thinking of that approach, it’s not a bad leadership exercise.

I keep this context in mind when thinking about old scenarios, which have undoubtably been written to a deadline and based on assumptions that are fair and consistent within the community at the time of writing; it’s only that today we have a much more diverse view of what a RPG is that we can also interrogate past content with this kind of critical eye. It also shows that one of the key roles of any “facilitator” in using an old document is adapting and translating it to the RPG zeitgeist.

FLE with Tim Harford

Podcast Sunday Apr 25

I’m in the odd space of having finished two bits of refereeing — one for the Grogmeet online convention (where I ran StormHack!) and the other rounding off my This Damned Nation campaign using Apocalypse World: Burned Over. This means I’m kind of in the space where I have just finished some things and I know I have more to do but I just want to eat porchetta and drink IPA and prosecco all weekend. Anyway

Appendix N Podcast 83: The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

It’s some time since I listened to this podcast and I picked a Jack Williamson episode because of enjoyment of Darker Than You Think. This episode features Misha B as a guest, who I’m mostly aware of as co-editor of the #Feminism anthology of nano-games.

A couple of bits stand out like the comparison of ideologies between Williamson and Frederick Pohl, musing on what might have become of Robert E Howard if he hadn’t died young and been regarded as a single-genre author. Good discussion on personal freedoms and how they intersect with society with obvious comparisons to the various political responses to the pandemic. Also a discussion around the meta-structure of games around how you actually approach and frame sensitive topics and consent to play (in reference to some drug that causes temporary oblivion (?) and the opportunities for PCs to be “steered” by the GM for periods of time).

There was also a bit at the end that I would have liked to hear more of, which is the way that the protagonist was unable to access their psychic powers by thinking rationally. This makes me wonder if there’s a right brain/left brain opportunity to create a psionic system. Sounds like I need to read this one (cheap anthology available on Kindle)

(Oh and if the podcast authors ever read this, Paranoia is indeed a satirical game but also it’s a game with a single, authoritarian and homogeneous hierarchy in which the individual players represent both one of many secret societies, and mutations, both which the Computer sees as inimical to Alpha Complex. Whilst there are powers, these were always way in the background when we played, because it was all about accusing others of treason for being a mutant dirty commie whilst hiding the fact that you were also a mutant dirty commie. I think I would also pick something much looser to play a game with actual powers, like Amber, Everway, etc.)

Episode 83: The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

The Parody Boris Johnson Podcast

A lot like the I See News podcast I mentioned on a previous Sunday this one grew out of the Parody Boris Johnson Twitter account and is only going to make sense if you follow the antics of the fungoid blancmange that passes for our current Prime Minister, and probably won’t age well. Still, props to the creator for staying in character. I do recommend the twitter account if you’re on that platform

Parody Boris Johnson Podcast

Rolled Spine ep 2: Alien

So I only half listened to this because I was making pizza dough. It starts confusingly talking about Evil Dead and Dark Horse Comics but don’t worry, you do have the right episode. Lots and lots of comic book facts come thick and fast re: handling of licenses, that DH couldn’t use likenesses of the actors, and more. Probably the most interesting bit I found was the discussion of technique in the drawing/inking, some terms I’ve never heard of, general trends and available techniques of the time, etc. I do remember reading Dark Horse in the 80s, particularly the Terminator and Predator franchise and this took me back

Rolled Spine: Dark Horse Presents Alien

+1 FWD: Take An Advance on Apocalypse World

This is a new thing for +1FWD with a round table chat with experts to talk about what’s good about a specific game (and AW is naturally going to be the first). As usual there’s a discussion about favourite moves and I really liked the comment on how Seize by Force vs. Go Aggro clarifies the violent intent of the characters. Good dynamic conversation; hopefully it sells some newcomers on PbtA although obviously they’re preaching to the perverted here. Looking forward to the hosts doing more episodes like this


Podcast Sunday

Phew! Busy week, with the Patreon launch and a double session game for Grogmeet. Still, I managed to listen to some quality episodes:

Lore 165: On The Line

This episode of Lore covers the Channel Islands, and it feels a bit odd hearing this being narrated by an American accent but the content is really great, capturing the feel of island folk horror and making me think more about the relationship the islands have had with both the UK and France.

I love a good archipelago. I’ve taken Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago (also The Affirmation, The Adjacent, The Islanders) as my baseline for years for a modern-seeming setting on the edge of magic. Islands are plausible as their own micro-culture that exists within a broader culture across a whole archipelago, but cut off from the mainland. This means that individual islands make for one level of the sandbox and the wider island network as the extended boundary; but the mainland is still a world apart, for folk on both sides.

I thought up an archipelago bound game called Beyond the Waves based on Beyond the Wall (several posts on, this is the last). One day I’ll finish the setting called Haunted Empire… anyway, top episode of Lore.

Listened whilst tidying the kitchen. Jolly good

Lore 165

Allusionist 131: Podlingual

This episode concerns two other multi-lingual podcasters:

In their podcasts Mija and Moonface, Lory Martinez and James Kim create autobiographical fiction in multiple languages.

Really loved the slice of life fiction in two languages for consumption by an English language listener, so your perspective on the conversation is entirely one-sided. Also non-English language media is (embarrassingly) something I think of even less than, say, racial and sexual diversity. I mean I know it’s out there, I’m a fan of French RPGs and graphic novels and I invited Tom to talk about Brazilian fantasy on the podcast but still, big blind spot for me. So hearing the sentence “podcasts are really big in Korea” should not be at all surprising but it’s just not something that I think about.

Listened to this one in the bath, really lovely.

Allusionist 131: Podlingual

301 Permanently Moved: The Kraken in the Social Seas

Great title that alludes to the pervasive and pernicious nature of social media and how it is always lurking, ready to drag you under. The author is using an app to block Twitter for their own good. Personally I’m deleting Facebook this week, and I’ve muted everyone on Twitter so I can be contacted but I’m not tempted to doom scroll (it’s not you, it’s me).

The Kraken in the Social Seas

Frankenstein’s RPG 4: Combat and Failing Forward

I’m ambivalent about RPG combat systems. I’m fine with abstractive hit points or real wounds or one roll representing a single sword swing or many, as long as the combat isn’t drawn out and painful to play. Which is why I feel that any Rolemaster derivative is welcome to feed itself ring-first into a threshing machine. Of the choices they came up with I think both D&D4e and in particular The One Ring are better games. I only played The One Ring once but I was really impressed about how the party chose different roles in the combat (front rank, rear rank IIRC). I liked this so much I’m sort of borrowing it for my own games.

(that said, there’s a cognitive overhead in all RPG systems and if a group has paid that cost in absorbing a game system like MERP and can make it flow, fair enough. But also, you’re wrong)

IMHO the more interesting part of the discussion is around failing forward; interesting because it really sounds like the group are not only coming from a different position than I would, I’m not even sure they were in agreement amongst themselves about what fail forward means. This isn’t a criticism of the points made — I agreed with pretty much everything everyone said. But the issue really illustrates one of the greatest barriers to game design, namely what the player think a term means vs. what the designer thinks it means.

This is my an alternative perspective:

“Failing forward” is a management term about learning from your current setback and ensuring that it doesn’t totally halt your progress. See the examples here and here. You can see there are various strategies for coping with failure, learning from it, and maintaining self-esteem. As one person said (Jim?) heroes fail on their journey when they need to learn something.

The problem with the premise of failing forward, as presented in the episode, is around excusing a failure, and transforming it into a success by an exchange for something else. The problem with excusing failure in this way is that suddenly the referee, and probably the rest of the group has to do some mental gymnastics to work out exactly how this failure is now not a failure. The comment about Scum and Villainy (and other BitD) was well made.

As I said on Twitter I think the problem comes from thinking that the “fail” and the “forward” happens in the same narrative beat and to the same PC, which is absurd. Failure is failure. What matters is that it doesn’t kill the game.

And here’s where you draw the true comparison with the leadership conversation: the referee can have any number of individual failures in the game, as long as it doesn’t completely exhaust options and demotivate the players. I’d go so far as to say the referee should actually coach the players, give them a nudge to try something else, make other opportunities visible. You can do that without just reversing a result or messing around with devils bargains, etc. You don’t need any game scaffolding to make this happen, you just need an open-minded referee.

Apocalypse World is the poster child for the indie movement in general and I guess where some of the concept of “failing forward” was born. But AW doesn’t excuse failures. Quite the reverse, “if you do it, you do it” and you own your failures, and the MC makes a hard move in return. But what happens is that there’s still an interesting outcome that drives the game on. Honestly I don’t think there’s anything special about this, it’s the way pretty much all groups I’ve played with approach this issue regardless of system.

TL;DR “failing forward” is a management and leadership problem, not a rules problem.

Frankenstein’s RPG episode 4

Podcast Sunday 11 April

Just a few episodes this week as it’s been birthday week with volcano cakes, Lego and a Super Colossal Indominous Rex.

Roleplay Rescue episode 815: Return to Mystamyr

This show came on my radar for the episode on The Elusive Shift, and here the author is talking about going back to their personal game world via Mythras Classic Fantasy which I didn’t even know existed (to be fair I’ve mostly not payed attention post RQ6, with the exception of Lyonesse). One thing they talk about is the need to fully understand the system and setting before play, which I partially agree with. But here are some counterpoints:

  1. For game system, good players will always back up the GM with rules clarifications and accept that everyone’s human, rather than look down on them (though I sympathise with the GM’s anxiety)
  2. For game setting this is a little trickier. If you’ve committed to running in an established world here’s how you might manage it:
    • intentionally limit the scope of the sandbox. Things happening in other continents, other countries, even other cities are irrelevant.
    • this is your vision, not theirs. Other people, no matter how vast their encyclopaedic knowledge, can be wrong. Fresh eyes on a franchise is why we have multiple Batman movies worth watching.

On that second point, I had a player ask if it was still OK to play Stormhack! if their Moorcock reading was thin. I said no problem, as long as they came in the spirit of playing a sword and sorcery game. Of course if the opposite is true and they’re a Moorcock fan then their enthusiasm is very welcome — but it’s secondary to the players getting stuck in and enjoying the scenario. Also I have no experience of Legend outside of Tim’s games (using GURPS — it works well for low powered, low fantasy IMHO) and it’s not been much of a barrier, it’s much more important that the players are on the same page re: tone.

But other people’s settings are a bit of a chore, and I very much favour emergent setting like the approach taken in Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures (and the supplement Further Afield) which means you’re not only limiting the amount of information to absorb, you’re also exploring the world together.

Anyway, interesting episode if not quite in my preference re: system. And the comment about mailing dog poo took me right back to my French Exchange

Ep 815

Revolution comes to the Podcast ep 1

So obviously I’m now Tom McGrenery’s biggest fan given my enthusiasm for Mean by Scene as well as Fear of a Black Dragon and his guest appearances on Fictoplasm so there’s maybe a little bias on my part here. This podcast is about the literary influences on Revolution Comes To The Kingdom (which was featured on the last FoaBD) and features two pieces of fiction that influenced Tom, neither of which I’d heard of before. It’s fairly low-key stuff with Tom just talking (unscripted?) about the fiction. I think it would be good to hear more of this kind of thing from more people, where the monologue is about specific and personal influences without hype or being reductive about the plots, just covering the subjective impressions about the fiction that go on to inspire creators.

RCttP ep 1

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Cadaver

The Good Friends look at the 2020 Norwegian film Kadaver which sounds absolutely shite — but to be fair I think my tastes and therefore biases are much more towards Scott’s end of the spectrum. Good that Delicatessen gets a mention (also The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). The Road would also have been a good reference point.

A few remarks. First, one of the things that makes this episode good is the way the hosts disagree and debate with each other. This would not be as good a listen without the difference of opinion and criticism. Second, no matter your subjective enjoyment of this as passive entertainment, this kind of sloppy plotting and nonsense premise probably wouldn’t fly with players at the table.

And last I’ve been wondering how you could play this. It sounds like Matias is Apocalypse World’s Hardholder or Maestro d’ and would make a credible player character in an indie game where all players are in on the plot from the outset, even though some PCs aren’t.

Episode 204: Cadaver

Daydreaming about Dragons 57: When not to game

First time listening to this podcast, and I happened to dive into the 1st July 2020 episode when BLM protests were kicking off. Judd Karlman is the author of The Dictionary of Mu, whose name I forgot during the Breakfast In The Ruins episode. Here he talks about two things, the first being when not to game, and instead do real life things. This is something that sometimes happens in our extended game group, and it’s good to be open about the times when we’re just not feeling it for this session and we need to do something else. It’s also good generally to connect socially with people we share a hobby with, outside the hobby itself. I’m looking forward to going to the pub with the fencers one day…

And the other part of this episode is about creating your own covers for whatever game projects you’re doing, exploring graphic design as part of the creative process, gets a strong nod from me. Obligatory mention of the League of Moveable Type and their Blackout typeface.

DaD 57

Right, that’s all folks, we have a (socially distanced, COVID bubble) birthday party to go to. TTFN

The Duelling Elves of Valon

In the recent The Princess Bride episode I talked at some length about RPG combat systems with reference to three systems: Paul Kidd’s Lace & Steel, Jacob Norwood’s The Riddle of Steel, and Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel. Since then I discovered something else in my RPG collection: The Duel, published by Alternative Armies in 1992.

Alternative Armies is still alive with a complete line around the “Empire of Valon”. The Duel has been renamed En Garde, clearly the same properly as The Duel since the cover with a female officer (a lancer?) in red disarming her opponent (a dragoon?) in blue is an identical scene.

(I have to say in both versions I don’t quite see how she got the disarm to work and I prefer the poses in the original)

This is of course not the same as GDW’s En Garde! from 1975 (see below). It’s a one-on-one wargame and I guess the intention was for players to paint their minis of their champions and then use the duelling rules to advance their duellist’s honour, which goes up for participating in duels, duelling to the death, decent strikes, etc.

The world is a faux Napoleonic empire before the “Elvish Civil War” just before “Flintloque” which I think is a more traditional wargame. In this particular game you align yourself with either the Empress or the Crown Prince, but all of the moving parts are dedicated to duelling, which works like this:

  • In each round you roll a load of d6 secretly and then play them out during the round as slashes, feints, ripostes and other moves
  • There’s an initiative roll for who goes first each round
  • Skills and weapons adjust the starting number of dice you get
  • Wounds are taken directly off the pool of dice, meaning that there’s a pretty acute death spiral here

I said in the podcast that one of the things Lace & Steel does is to frame the duel without taking the players away from the fiction too much; but at the same time the card game does require player skill as much as character ability. It’s the same here, I think. This book is about 48 pages long including ads, but it does make reference to a forthcoming RPG called Empire although that’s absent from the modern site.

Finally the book’s notable for crediting “the Welsh posse, the Frimley posse, hordes of convention goers” which, coupled with the use of Optima in layout makes this feel like an indie effort.

Anyway, here are some pics of grumpy elves in 19c uniforms (illustrator is Peter Knifton):

Given the name similarity I went back to my copy of En Garde!, although it’s early 17c historical rather than pseudo early 19c fantasy. This is a “semi historical game simulation” set in the 17th or 18th centuries, first published in 1975. It’s annoyingly patriarchal and heteronormative but that’s to be expected of the era of game design and the fiction it’s based on; the only problem with that is how some people might react to it today, and therefore overlook the actual game underneath which can be easily brought up to date with setting.

Structurally it has a surprising amount in common with The Duel with a focus on duelling etiquette, military rank and honour and even some of the furious terms used in the later publication. Where it deviates is the actual fence game; in this version, instead of playing moment to moment with combatants adapting, instead you write down a sequence of twelve steps in tempo, and then both reveal them. So just like Lace & Steel and The Duel and Burning Wheel it’s a mini game in itself that takes some learning to apply smoothly. But unlike the first two it expects you to plan many moves in advance. The simplicity of each individual beat means this is not too hard to keep track of (unlike Burning Wheel) and there are optional moves that happen as the sequence is executed, which means characters will respond. So I’m torn on whether this is a good, interesting mini game that parodies a certain kind of fencing, or a hot mess.

Anyway, if you haven’t listened to the episode yet this is something else to bear in mind. Thoughts and comments always welcome.

Podcast Sunday

Frankenstein’s RPG eps 2 and 3

I’m loving this podcast with arguments for using elements from different RPGs to make the one true game. Excellent guests including familiar voices from UK podcasters and gamers (often found frequenting the Mitchester Arms). Episode 2 covered Magic and Initiative. I strongly agree that magic needs to be aware of the setting, and was delighted that Maelstrom got some love. As for Initiative, strong nod to Feng Shui which is a model for pacing combat, and the comment that “roll for initiative” can really take you out of the narrative if you’re not careful. Although I have some really strong feelings about initiative in that it’s not what most people think it is, and it doesn’t exist outside measure (I’m going to expand on this the next episode of Fictoplasm).

Episode 3 was about characteristics and investigation. For characteristics I would argue for four, because above that you can’t view the character holistically without subitizing which I don’t care for. But to give Storyteller credit, the attributes do lie in a 3×3 matrix so it is at least aware of this. Still, I’d prefer a smaller number.

For investigation, the comment that “everything is an investigation” is spot on, best remark in the episode. But also see my earlier post on Mystery vs. Investigation and my remarks on Cthulhu Dark in The Grognard Files. TL;DR Gumshoe is a solution to a cultural problem in investigation scenarios rather than a mechanical one, and Cthulhu Dark fixes the problem with fewer rules.

Frankenstein’s RPG

Shut Up and Sit Down 135: Solo RPGs

Great podcast normally for boardgames but this one covers the explosion in solo RPGs including Delve, Field Guide to Memory, and Alone Among The Stars.

SUSD 135

I See News

Satirical current affairs comedy podcast from the Sam Gore, author of the I See You facebook account. Probably won’t age well given the timing but great for a laugh if you’re a dirty cynical woke lefty.

I See News

Dissecting Dragons 265

Hosted by authors M. E. Vaughan and J. A. Ironside this podcast dissects (fantasy?) fiction, and in this episode they talk about some fiction that purports to be feminist but isn’t for a number of reasons, e.g. when powerful female characters are only powerful because a patriarch has granted them power vs. them taking power through their own achievements. I’m not familiar with a lot of the fiction they mention, it sounds like some of it is fantasy trilogies which aren’t really my thing — but I did appreciate the comments e.g. about how studio execs allegedly said Korra couldn’t be female because it would turn off young boys only to have this disproven by focus groups; also the remarks about how Black Widow is reduced to Hulk’s minder in Avengers 2 (relevant to our MCU re-watch).

I do think that anyone reading this is either going to be converted already or will have switched off by now but there’s a very good laundry list of what is and isn’t feminist in the early part of the show, so this is worth a listen.

Episode 265

Sword Breaker episode 47: Low Fantasy

I listened to this short podcast whilst deflating a dinosaur this morning. The author broadcasts a weekly episode with call-ins from their community. This one features 8 ideas for low fantasy, which are all good and distinctive and represent different versions of the genre (I confess I didn’t like the initial premise but the examples captured the nuance and made the argument). Note that this is what is commonly called low fantasy i.e. secondary world, Fritz Leiber stuff rather than primary world Jonathan Carroll which is the alternative definition.

Sword Breaker 47

What would the Smart Party do? Influential Games

Good episode about influential games (personally influential, and influential to designers). I liked the remarks about Lady Blackbird, why there aren’t more games like it and perceived vs actual effort in making stuff. Great episode, lots to agree with even if they’re wrong about Blades in the Dark.


What would the Smart Party Do? Influential Games

Podcast Sunday 28-Mar

My weekly podcast listening! All worth your attention:

It’s good except it sucks: MCU Phase 1

I chained through these as we’re re-watching the MCU right now (just coming to the end with Avengers Assemble). Can’t really imagine listening if we weren’t also doing a re-watch but I’m finding it really enhances the second watch. Good call on the Hulk’s dialogue in Avengers Assemble.

(tangent: some remarkable things about Avengers Assemble include the initial distrust of SHIELD which is what really underscores the Avengers as a PC party)

It’s Good Except It Sucks

The Loremen ep 58: Black Annis

This is a recording of a live show at the Leicester Comedy Festival, and hilarious as always. I have a special fondness for Black Annis as I used her as a villain in an old Vampire 1e game.

Ep 58: Black Annis

Fear of a Black Dragon: Revolution Comes to the Kingdom

Tom mentioned his game Revolution Comes to the Kingdom at the end of the most recent Fictoplasm episode. This is a really interesting project — an OSR-ish (it sounds like Fighting Fantasy ajacent) game set in a fictional country (a Ruritania) in the 1950s-60s with magical realism elements.

Fear of a Black Dragon: Revolution Comes to the Kingdom

Breakfast in the Ruins: Moorcock in RPGs part 2

This is a cheat because I’m in it, but we still get to talk about a wide variety of Moorcock related stuff including the fiction, RPGs, Appendix N, and my own game StormHack!

Breakfast in the Ruins: StormHack!

Podcast Sunday

I’ve resolved to update the blog weekly with new listens, rather than the ad-hoc “when I get to five”. Here’s this week’s worthy listening.

Stop, Hack and Roll: Advancing Playbooks

PbtA discussion and design. This episode discussed a kind of piecemeal assembly process to not only characters but the whole game (settings, situations) using playbooks that focus on a given trope or genre rather than representing a character. I think they ask the question “why just characters? Why not locations or scenarios as playbooks?” to which I draw your attention to Beyond the Wall. OSR not PbtA, and perhaps a different idea of “playbook” but still a self-contained genre delivery system for players and GM.

Anyway, one other bit of discussion was around what it means if your game has no move for the situation. Does it mean you default to a generic or “backstop” move (Defy Danger/Act Under Fire), or does it mean you automatically succeed or fail? Not an obvious answer. I’ve had exactly this kind of discussion with other people, and I fell down on the “you just don’t do that because it’s not relevant to the game” side (which isn’t exactly the argument here, but relatable). Anyway both hosts make a compelling case for their side. Good stuff.

Advancing Playbooks

Frankenstein’s RPG ep 1

This is the first episode in a new podcast about mashing together bits of system that do the best job for chosen duties, and in this episode they tackle character generation and social interaction, and by sheer coincidence I listened to this one after I wrote the copy for the Stop Hack Roll episode above and I was delighted to hear Beyond the Wall getting some love since I’m a long time fan (interview with John Cocking and Peter Williams; also StormHack! was influenced by BtW’s playbooks, and I’ve got some fan stuff around here somewhere for a BtW game set in Garth Nix’s Sabriel setting).

Anyway, this is a great high concept and the host and guests have a nice rapport, and it touches on a really useful bit of game design namely learning from past examples, rather than abstract musing. Good guests too, with familiar names coming up in subsequent episodes.

Frankenstein’s RPG ep 1

Mega City Book Club ep 139: The Invisibles

One of my all time favourite comic book series this episode really nails it with the commentary: on how King Mob is a fiction suit for Morrison, on how this is kind of transitional for Morrison but similar to his more introspective stuff like the later The Filth, and how Dead Man Fall is possibly the greatest episode in the series and perhaps of anything Morrison has written, ever. Plus there’s the comments on how The Matrix ripped off The Invisibles, remarks on the artists for the first and second arcs and how the second arc was particularly brave/challenging for the audience (which subsequently declined). I too love Steve Yeowell’s art in the first arc and I can’t imagine what it would have looked like if it had been illustrated by Jill Thompson. Other interesting remarks are about how in the 90s there was no internet and therefore no readily available info on conspiracy theories, meaning such fringe knowledge gained a kind of currency; and how this is to Morrison what the Sandman is to Gaiman. I’m really looking forward to the podcast revisiting the subsequent series.

Ep 139: The Invisibles

Orlanth Rex’s Gaming Vexes ep 12: Complexity

Some familiar voices (in common with the Frankenstein’s RPG episodes) discuss Complexity in games, what it means for system and setting, and how this affects play and decision making. Really worthwhile (and well moderated) discussion.

Ep 12: Complexity

The Loremen S3ep59: Edinburgh Castle

What’s a reliquary?

It’s a bit of a saint… they’re usually elaborate in the shape of the part that’s inside… the resting place of… Christ’s foreskin or whatever it is. There’s about nine of those

What? Was he a cat?

S3EP59 Edinburgh Castle

Fear of a Black Dragon: Death Ziggurat

Always good value, Tom and Jason dissect The Death Ziggurat for Mork Borg. This episode shines for the discussion on life in a cold climate, how people speak, dress, move, help one another, get resources, and cross frozen rivers.

Death Ziggurat

What Would The Smart Party Do? 90s Magazines

The Smart Party’s latest episode has been rightly praised by UK gamers of a certain age. This episode features Gaz, Baz and Dirk the Dice from the Grognard Files talking about the 90s PageMaker aesthetic for DTP, hand-drawn adverts with fax numbers on them and other oddities about transient roleplaying print media.

This episode is a thematic pairing with The Invisibles episode (see above) in that it talks about a very different, pre-internet era of games and communication between gamers. In the 90s I ran The Invisibles as both a Mage campaign and then as Department V which ripped off Grant Morrison’s Division X from issue 25 (which ripped off Department S and The Sweeny). As the chaps aluded to, so many games went “a bit David Lynch” in the 90s with Vampire and clones, Kult, The Whispering Vault, even AD&D with Dark Sun (which I always wanted to play), and past me is certainly guilty as charged.

Strong nod to the notion that if you want to play a WW game, you get the core book, end of. VtM 1e forever. Although I kind of take issue with the remarks about Vampire LARP. I didn’t like it for the way that the game became all about a club of fanged supers rather than Near Dark style outsiders (which is why the first edition is superior to the second) but as for the social awkwardness if anything it did the opposite, it was our goth club where we could connect with likeminded people and swap eyeliner and issues of Sandman. Functionally we’d already been doing this kind of game for a few years though (a sort of cross between a weekly in-room LARP and PBM turnsheeted game) so it felt natural.

While I was listening I was having my first COVID 19 jab. Thanks to the age-based tranches and local demographic I was treated to Soundgarden and Dead Can Dance T-shirts and a burgundy velvet jacket. At least I knew I was in the right place.

90s Magazines

Podcast listening March 16

I guess I should turn this into a weekly thing with a more defined release cycle. Anyway, here are 5 podcasts I consumed and enjoyed in recent days:

Plundergrounds 163 and 164

This is Ray Otus’ podcast. I like the schtick of taking listener questions and then randomly addressing them with a d20 roll. Both interesting as off-the-cuff takes on the various questions. I liked the concept of looking at fantasy logic. Hope the series continues.


It’s Good Except It Sucks ep 1: Iron Man

I really like Tim Worthington’s Looks Unfamiliar. This is apparently based on his live tweets of watching the MCU back to back, something which we’ve also started doing. I’ll be listening to these in sequence as we watch. Lots of references to Iron Man comic plotlines as well.

Ep 1: Iron Man

301 Permanently Moved eps 2107-2109

The weekly “personal podcast” of the The Jaymo. I listened to 3 episodes back to back and I really liked the Solarpunk, Stacktivism and Cold Texas episode 2107. The follow up 2108 was also relevant to recent listening however, comparing the amount of time it takes to consume the whole MCU suite of films vs. how much time is spent playing Call of Duty by consumers.

Solarpunk, Stacktivism and Cold Texas

+1 FWD: Wolfspell

Very nice to listen to another podcast mentioning Wolfspell. TBH I’m completely out of the loop with indie releases and I hadn’t even thought of this game since I heard about it in another podcast (may have been Another Question) interviewing Vincent Baker.

Wolfspell on +1FWD

Design Doc: Everything Old is New Again

I admit to only half listening to this podcast as I was frantically tidying the living room at the time in anticipation of two rampaging 4 year olds. But the bits I took away included how the authors are revisiting their original game and how new games sometime overshadow past achievements and how to celebrate and keep the momentum and interest in your previously published games.

Everything Old is New Again

Podcast Listening: March 10th 2021

Thanks to a marathon desoldering session I’ve churned through another five really good podcast episodes.

The Midnight Library: S3 e8 “Very Superstitious”

Subtitled “factual tales from a fictional location” this is my first listen to this podcast but I really enjoyed the episode which was about luck and superstition, anecdotes narrated by Miranda Merrick, the show’s Literary Oracle. Top stuff.

Very Superstitious

The Thocc: Episode 10 with NathanAlphaMan

After the Xmas episode I listened to the following episode featuring NathanAlphaMan. This features a discussion that will be familiar to the RPG crowd, namely what is a designer? That discussion includes nuance around the community, how creatives see themselves, and the actual language. Something new I learned is that other languages have a lot more variety in the different terms for what we would call a “designer” in English.

Episode 10: NathanAlphaMan

Roleplay Rescue: The Elusive Shift

Part of the new wave of podcasts I’m seeing on Anchor which encourage and incorporate audio feedback from listeners, which is a great new thing. This one covers Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift and nicely distils down some key lessons, in particular the fact that RPG theory from the 90s is predated by Alarums and Excursions zine content from the 80s.

The Elusive Shift

Not Alone: the Windigo

Haven’t listened to this podcast for ages. There’s a long preamble where the hosts talk about life stuff but then it gets to the legends about the Windigo and the evidence from historical records. What makes it especially good is the scientific and critical thinking, the framing of legends in cultural context, and the research and citations. Warning: it’s a long podcast and the content includes cannibalism, which may upset some people. If that bothers you I recommend some of the other episodes including the Toynbee Tiles (which I pointed to in this earlier post).

“Think about bringing people to your dinner table, not on your dinner table.”

Not Alone: Windigo

Nocturne: Welcome to the Night

I found this last podcast browsing at random so I listened to the introductory episode (from 2014). From first listen it seems to be about people’s relationships with the night. The background soundscape is brilliant, and I’ll definitely be listening more. The introduction is only 15 mins long and worth a listen. Also the accompanying art is gorgeous (see the site here).

Welcome to the Night

Podcast listening March 6th 2021

Here’s what I’ve been listening to recently. Warning, contains some politics.

The Giant Brain episode 65: Stormy Weather

This podcast is slanted towards boardgames but it has a RPG corner as well. The episode is notable for tackling recent controversies in the boardgame space with racist, COVID skeptic and otherwise tone-deaf nonsense. Two remarks about how cancel culture is a confection of the right, and how if a company drops you because you’re toxic to their brand is exactly how free market economics should work, are spot on. I’m saying this really as a warning though because not everyone likes politics with their RPGs. But the GB has a lot to recommend it, really nicely produced and a great chemistry between presenters.

Giant Brain ep 65

Monster Man special: Dinosaurs

I’ve not listened to Monster Man for ages. This special backer-inspired episode starts a bit stream-of-consciousness a bit like Paul Merton on Just a Minute but it’s full of brilliant commentary about our relationship to dinosaurs, how dinosaurs are a “modern monster” because they’ve only been (relatively) recently revealed to popular culture. Some great comments on how dinosaurs could mesh with a medieval society (both for the dangerous predators outside the community, and for the feudal notions of hunting on estates etc.).

TL;DR it’s a great listen for a parent of a dinosaur-aware 4 year old who is now working therapods into a sword-and-planet game.

Monster Man Special: Dinosaurs

James O’Brien: Rachel Clarke (Dr. Oxford)

Powerful interview from the POV of a UK NHS professional which talks about the reality not only about the NHS but the propaganda from the RW media around the pandemic which is directed at the NHS staff, especially those who dare to speak out:

You have… first hand experience of how awful this pandemic is… [and] they’ll do everything in their power to shut you down

This is difficult listening and not your usual RPG content. UK politics, calling out gaslighting, testimonials about hospice care.

Full Disclosure: Rachel Clarke

GMS 171: Zinequest

This episode started with the most recent Zinequest and then progressed into KS as a platform, the way it’s being used today vs. the original intentions, whether or not you should crowdsource if you don’t need to, limiting risk for new publishers etc. Great listen

GMS 171

The Thocc: Xmas special

This is a mechanical keyboard podcast which I heard about via the Theramin Goat blog (I assume the author is one of the presenters?). They’ve only done a few episodes so far but this one features youtuber Chyrosran22, a Dutch keyboard collector with a fantastic voice and range of swear words to describe any inferior keyboards deserving of his ire.

(this is probably at the very far end of the interest spectrum for most readers here but I’ve recently dipped both feet into the hobby with my first custom project and it ticks the same boxes for me as other geek obsessions like fixed-gear bikes and fountain pens and RPG systems)

The Thocc ep. 9

Vile Tofu

And now for something completely different: I built my first mechanical keyboard and I’m typing this post on it right now. This is what I did and what I learned.

  1. I went with a 60% tray mount because those bits are readily available (e.g. from Mechboards)
  2. I chose to solder instead of hotswap; soldering gives more options (I wanted the stepped Caps Lock), has fewer points of failure, and means I have to learn how to solder again after 25 years. Also, I already owned a hotswap board.
  3. I went with a Tsangan layout with split backspace and split right shift. I already have a HHKB so the layout is very similar. I wanted to try a 7u spacebar and this let me do that.
  4. DZ60 off-the-shelf PCB with usb-C and underglow, so I also got an acrylic Tofu case. I specifically wanted usb-C rather than mini-USB because the latter are more fragile.
  5. At every step I tested that the PCB was working by bridging the contacts for each switch and checking they registered against a keyboard tester (the one I used the most was built into the Via software).
  6. I bought a fancy soldering iron. I could have gone way cheaper but the Hakko heats up quickly meaning I don’t have to leave a soldering iron unattended.
  7. I was impatient and first soldered the board with some Gateron Blue switches I had spare. I didn’t bother to treat the stabilizers beforehand. The whole board sounded crap. But that was OK, I intended to desolder as a learning exercise.
  8. So I desoldered using an Engineer SS-02 solder sucker and it’s a really great tool. But also it took me two sessions to desolder because I let the tip of the soldering iron oxidise meaning it couldn’t heat the joints up properly, leaving small strands of solder sticking to switch pins. Then I tried to brute force the pins out. This just meant I broke the switches (which were cheap and rubbish). The correct technique is if the switch doesn’t come out, re-make the joint and then desolder again. This was usually successful in letting me get all the solder out.
  9. Having learned my mistake with letting the iron tip oxidise I bought some tip tinner which was cheap and worked great for cleaning and re-tinning the tip so the iron could transfer heat properly. I also bought desoldering braid, which I couldn’t get to work for anything other than small solder bridges between pads but it was also cheap and may come in handy.
  10. So before I soldered a second time I checked the PCB hadn’t been fried (hurrah!) then I took my time. I clipped, lubed and band-aid modded the stabilizers which made a massive difference to the sound. The youtubers who call this the most important mod are not overstating. And it’s easy to do! I used Permatex dielectric grease.
  11. Then I took my time seating the nice switches (Durock Lavender switches), and soldering, testing along the way. I made a couple of mistakes with switches which were slightly tilted. This didn’t affect the keyboard working but once you saw a switch was not seated right you can’t unsee. But fixing that was a 2 minute job.

Here’s some Instagram posts:

If you don’t want to click through, here are some pics:

So the build used a 60% carbon fibre ANSI plate, DZ60 PCB, Tofu case in acrylic, Durock lavender switches and modified GMK screw-in stabilizers with a Tsangan layout (split r shift, split backspace, 7u spacebar, stepped caps lock). The linear switches are a bit new for me having previously used clicky and topre switches, but it’s still very pleasant to type on partly because it sounds so good. Keycaps are DSA profile Vilebloom, hence the name. However I expect to be putting some nice tall SA profile keycaps on it in the near future.

My next keyboard project is to an old Filco keyboard which will live at work if I ever return to the office. It’s actually functional today… it had a problem with chattering switches which drove me mad, but that was very easily fixed by just desoldering and then resoldering spare switches. But I will probably desolder the whole board and then solder in some much nicer switches.

Mystery vs Investigation

In the latest episode I talked about the difference between an investigation and a mystery game.

One: Investigation vs Mystery games

By “mystery game” I think of a very specific kind of minimal system game we played in the 90s (for example Over the Edge).

The basic argument (which I’m not sure I conveyed so well in the episode):

  1. an investigation is concerned with a group effort to uncover some truth that applies to everyone. It’s much more mission focused (which makes it better suited to one-shots).
  2. A mystery on the other hand is about a situation that a group of people find themselves in, and the single, unifying truth is secondary to (or at least not more important than) the individual personal goals.

This is totally artificial and real-world games exist somewhere on that spectrum. But there are a few general distinctions. First, the focus on getting to a single Truth in investigation game is underscored by the mechanics of investigation games, which often punish the investigators (through SAN or insight mechanics) for getting closer to the Truth. Mystery games don’t punish in this way, despite being just as weird and horrific.

Second, the investigation, being focused on getting to a fundamental truth, is often active in how it engages with PCs (e.g. it prompts their action and attention with narrative beats). Compare to the ambient weirdness of the mystery which is more passive, in that it comes to the front if the PCs want to engage with it.

So investigation games are really good for pacing whereas mystery games can be really unreliable for pacing and one-shots and hit their stride only after a number of sessions. Also (something I didn’t consider in the episode) they can be more at the mercy of the dynamic in the play group (great if you’re all on the same page; possibly disastrous if you’re not).

But… why?

Two: Sorcerer

I looked into Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer, where he discusses four ways to organise play (in Chapter 4, under Organising a Game).

  1. the “dungeon” way, where a bunch of characters come together to overcome evil, find treasure, etc.
    • the characters are all there for their own reasons
    • after the initial success, for some reason they stay together
  2. the “squad” way, where a bunch of characters are bound together by an organisation (like the FBI) and do the kinds of
    • Edwards says this format is boring, and I sort of see why if your players choose to limit the PCs’ curiosity and proactiveness to whatever the organisation does and otherwise says “not my circus, not my monkeys”
    • OTOH I would be inclined to treat this as a sandbox, and I’ve played plenty of games (like Department V, the Men in Brown corduroy) where diversity wasn’t a problem. I think this is only an issue if you view the game as exclusively a mission and nothing else
  3. the “dumb” way
    • a game where the characters have nothing in common, no shared backstory and their interactions with the plot and with each other are coincidental; for this reason they fall apart
    • Edwards called it dumb back in the original Sorcerer, but in the annotations he’s changed his position and he acknowledges that many games that look like this are actually way more subtle and not as unfocused as they seem. In fact he says that Sorcerer actually works fine like this
    • this is my template for the mystery game. Follow the PCs around and go where they take you. This is how we played OtE, and Mage and other WoD games
    • it’s also a standard of session zero PbtA (the Forge-made-good poster child) to follow the PCs around.
  4. the “hard” way
    • this is a way of linking the characters together with no shared background
    • the GM subtly includes everyone in the overarching plot and draws them together through manipulation of individual plots and backstories
    • Edwards’ annotations make it clear that what was written isn’t what he really meant, which was that backstory is all well and good but expecting everyone to come together isn’t.

I recommend reading Sorcerer if you can get a copy. Everything is worthy of criticism but this section on why players play and how they’re organised is not something you see in many RPGs at all… in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s slightly risky for an author to write down because it goes beyond options and into the realm of opinion. But it’s much more concise than the essays I used to wade through in the early Vampire supplements (well meant as they were).

Anyway… I put these four ways into a diagram

  • On the East-West axis you have Mode, which is either Pack or Solitary1
    • Pack means everyone focused on the same goal; usually these are tackled sequentially as missions. This is typical of Dungeon and Squad games.
    • Solitary means parallel individual/personal arcs, that may or may not be tied into the Threat. The Dumb and Hard games are focused on individuals rather than the pack.
  • For North-South you have Threat which runs from Explicit to Absent
    • Explicit = there is a problem, an enemy, something to expose or investigate
    • Absent = there is no obvious over-arching problem (although there may be session-to-session trials)
    • This variable passes through “implied” which sits between no Threat and a known Threat.

So in this context, I’d say the ur-Investigation game is North-West; it’s about Pack organisation and explicit Threat. The Mystery game is South-East, concerned with individual arcs with no obvious Threat. The North-East and South-West quadrants are variations on those two poles (the Squad is more about an organisation investigating a thing, and the Hard Way is about the GM doing all the hard work in bringing disparate characters together to a single narrative).

All of these modes are fine, preference, and games will probably drift around the diagram during play over sessions (like alignment). This is not really how Ron Edwards writes in Sorcerer; he’s implying some kind of exclusive choice. But mostly the point I’m making is that the structure in the OA is mystery rather than investigation, and it’s a play style I have a lot of love for.

  1. I took these terms from Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now 

Podcast listening Sat 13th Feb 2021

Wow, I am burning through episodes — at this rate this is going to be a weekly post:

Mean by Scene ep 11 “In the Projection Room”

Sharanya and Tom discuss and break down Mean Girls, scene by scene. So fetch.

(but I have to say, Tom, how can you mention Parallel Lines and forget Heart of Glass?)

Episode 11

Orlanth Rex’s Gaming Vexes ep 11: interview with Paul Mitchener

I liked Paul’s interview (and he sounds much better than in the episodes we recorded together) and also I don’t much care for actual play but the editing of this episode to focus on the hilights really works.

Episode 11

Weekly Typographic 48

Inevitably I’ll go back to some favourite shows. This one from the League of Moveable Type is great both for uniwidth fonts, and for the legibility vs. readibility discussion.

Episode 48

Weekly Typographic

Welcome to Night Vale 181: C****s

Love Night Vale. This episode has a fantastic world’s first audio crossword.

Ep 181 (and uncommon for a podcast, a transcript)

+1 FWD: Moonpunk

+1 FWD the PbtA Podcast discusses Moonpunk with its creators Wannabe Games. The game is apparently inspired by Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

BUT the most interesting part is the discusson on the use of PbtA in the classroom, including moves and playbooks.

Moonpunk on +1 FWD

Podcast Listening Mon 8th February 2021

It’s early Feb 2021, here are some podcast episodes I’ve enjoyed recently.

The Gauntlet Podcast Production

Great technical episode on how to manage podcast recordings including the environment, double-ended recordings, managing the mic, baffles, multiple takes, and Audacity tricks for noise reduction, compression, etc.

The Gauntlet Podcast Production Process

The Loremen: Hang me low, the Mary Blandy story

A podcast about “local legends and obscure curiosities from days of yore” where the hosts and guests interrogate local British ghost myths and other legends. Really nice style and good subject matter plus legitimate complaints about Christopher Nolan. Found by chance after seeing tweets and following Alasdair Beckett-King (now following James Shakeshaft as well).

S3 Ep 56: the Mary Blandy story

Breakfast in the Ruins: Moorcockian Music

My love for Moorcock is intrinsically linked to the associated music of the time including Hawkwind, New World’s Fair, etc. Great listen for modern Moorcock-inspired artists.

BitR Moorcockian Music (plus see the first and second addenda)

Fear of a Black Dragon: The Bruja, the Beast and the Barrow

Long time fan of FoaBD, this just happens to be the latest. Always liked the pace and format of this show, including the chain lightning round, companion adventures, etc. Very interested in this particular scenario as well, although they didn’t link it in the show notes, so I will here.

Podcast episode link

The Allusionist: Sorry

Brilliant podcast about language. This latest episode is all about apologies: the four things that make an apology and apology, fauxpologies, the difference between interpersonal and corporate apology, etc.


WaRP Dark Masquerade

Some time ago I ran Cthulhu Dark Annihilation, and I mashed up the WaRP system with Cthulhu Dark for just a little more granularity in the game. That turned out not to be needed for that system or the scenario; but at the same time I thought about using it for a completely different game, revisiting Vampire: the Masquerade. It struck me that Cthulhu Dark’s ultra-minimalist approach to using Insight for madness could be turned to the rising hunger of the Beast in Vampire.

WaRP Dark Masquerade mashes up Cthulhu Dark with a bit of WaRP (Over the Edge) and applies it to Vampire. This is very much on the 1st edition side of Vampire. At the risk of being really pretentious quoting my own damn self:

something changed between VtM 1st and 2nd editions that the game transitioned from being a game about outsiders to humanity (Near Dark, The Hunger) to one about insiders to a secret society (Underworld, Blade). From there it degenerated to fanged superheroes. This was inevitable given the live action scene being focused around conclaves.

This is a fan project written by a fan of the very first Vampire, before the whole thing got homogenised into one World of Darkness, before the distinctions between games dissolved, before what was known about the World of Darkness exceeded what was not known thanks to the splatbooks.

Here it is on itch.

Podcast Listening: Jan 31st 2021

Here’s five podcasts I enjoyed since the last post

Lore episode 161: Shell Game

I dip in and out of Lore. This one is (more or less) about battlefield visitations of the divine and supernatural. Gameable.


The Grognard Files ep 45 (year end with Dave Morris)

Really great episode with Dave Morris’s feet up on Ian Livingstone’s desk and Dirk and Judge B leaning into the awards phenomenon that is the Groggies.


Shut Up Sit Down 128 (Vampire the Masquerade: Vendetta, Bohnanza)

This is probably the first time I’ve listened to the SUSD podcast, having previously only read the blog. Very tight production and great discussion on VtM: Vendetta (that prompted me to finish a game hack I’ve been working on) plus the bean trading game Bohnanza, including racist peanuts or something


What would the Smart Party Do: Role+Play+Game

Good chat between Gaz and Guy Milner (Burn After Running) about engaging with game mechanics and rolling dice. The interesting part is the discussion on how players shortcut and short-change characters, the interference between different social skills, and spotlighting some worthwhile mechanics.


Plus One Forward: Lessons Learned in 2020

Always liked the format of this podcast but to be honest, there are more PbtA games than my surplus attention can accomodate. BUT I did like this discussion about learnings about the genre and future plans. I liked how Rach’s game of the year was AW although to be honest, I can’t remember if this was in this episode or the Gauntlet’s similar 2020 retrospective. Worth a listen if you’re PbtA inclined anyway


Podcast Listening: Jan 12th 2021

New Year’s resolution: to actually talk about other people’s podcasts again. After I accumulate five episodes of stuff I liked, I’ll post them here in irregular digests.

Today’s delights:

Looks Unfamiliar Extra: The Box of Delights

Fantastic analysis of the BBC serial The Box of Delights, including mentions of the soundtrack, the habits for the BBC to do a fantasy serials in the run up to Christmas and how these skirted the edges of fiction for children.

Looks Unfamiliar Extra: The Box of Delights

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Top 3 Mythos Media

For their 199th episode the Good Friends (+ Mike Mason) look into their favourite Lovecraftian (or Lovecraft-adjacent) media with some familiar choices and some new ones.

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Top 3 Mythos Media

301 Permanently Moved: In the Archipelago (S04E01)

A new podcast for me, episodes are 301 seconds long and this one looks forward by looking back at some earlier words of wisdom. From the author of and

301 Permanently Moved: In the Archipelago

System Mastery: Itras By

Big fan of System Mastery but this one in particular was great, giving Itras By some deserved praise, generally lots of affection.

System Mastery: Itras By

League of Moveable Type: Favourite Share-Worthy Reads

Last item is the League of Moveable Type’s podcast. In Ep 45 they talk about font design links of interest including the very cool NaN Glyph Filters.

League of Moveable Type: Favourite Share-Worthy Reads (via their Weekly Typographic).

StormHack Public Beta v1

Well… it’s taken long enough, but here is the first, final version of StormHack!. I’ve written several posts and gone through a number of iterations.

From the Introduction:

This is my OSR game. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It’s supposed to emulate a classic 1980s RPG based on the multiversal fantasy of a British fantasy author.

It’s also a remix of familiar OSR system objects and names from the Worlds Favourite Fantasy Game (such as Ability Scores, monster stat blocks, etc.). That should make it easy to use other OSR resources while repurposing some game elements.

The project as a whole is more generic but this version is specifically intented to be run with old Stormbringer scenarios.

Grab the pdf here. The current document was produced for screen reading rather than print (the font sizes may be a bit large), using iA Writer and the in-built GitHub template. I’ll look into printable versions in the future.

This Damned Nation: Player Notes

see this post

Apocalypse World: Burned Over (like most PbtA) has its own lexicon regarding playbooks which may affect impressions of what that character does.

This is further complicated by this scenario, which is very prescriptive in what the PCs do.

Players are expected to pick playbooks and work to fit them into the scenario and potential situations. Some playbooks will be a drop in, but others will take a bit of creative thinking to make work. There are some comments below on how to make the different playbooks work.

Managing Expectations

This game is slightly different from (my experience of) typical AW games, which are usually centred around a stronghold or other central location. In Burned Over this would be the game’s Hard Zone.

This scenario uses the variant play of Burned Over with two Hard Zones, which are North and South of the Road that the players will be travelling on. Furthermore the characters will be constantly in motion, travelling from location to location and not returning to static locations. The characters are also on a mission to deliver serum to Boston; this means that they are against the clock, and every stop and diversion means lives lost.

I can see these consequences:

  1. Less opportunity for pursuing social interactions.
  2. A character with a big following will be difficult to make work, unless they’re travelling with them. An entourage that slows the convoy down could be disastrous.
  3. Similarly resources or wealth concentrated in a place won’t work, unless that place is mobile.

That leaves three ways of managing characters with people and other resources on their playbook.

The first is to have those resources in a vehicle.

The second option is to have the resources in caches along the road. If they’re people, they’re settlements that display some kind of affiliation to the character. If they’re resources, they’re dead drops, strongboxes, bunkers or other caches that the character can gain access to. In that case the character should use those to expand on their own affiliations and how these resources illustrate them — are they part of a secret society, federation, pre-collapse nation?

The third is to make use of the two Hard Zones. This is trickier but these may still be accessed along the Road via Off-Ramps. They represent different states of reality, two opposing forces, competing timelines and ethereal states; it’s effectively a ghost or spirit world, a representation of the psychic maelstrom. Specific characters are more likely to interact with them briefly (e.g. the Gearcutter) but they could serve as static places “owned” by those characters with such resources, to be visited on occasion. However this may still present a logistical problem because the time any character can spend in these places will still be limited owing to the mission constraints. If the playgroup and player can make this work then go for it; otherwise I’d limit the concept to the other two options above.

Vehicles and Driving

The Nation of California provides a vehicle suitable for transporting the serum called a Landmaster. This is an eight-wheeled all terrain vehicle with radiation cladding, armour and various armaments. It’s assumed all characters can drive the vehicle, especially if there are no environmental challenges (and they will need to share the burden of driving).

Some playbooks own vehicles, or have abilities that could be interpreted as a vehicle. If the players agree, the Landmaster could be “owned” by one character. If the Medic is in play for example, the Landmaster could be their Refuge. If there’s a Weaponized, they could be the Landmaster.

Otherwise, the other vehicles can be outriders or support vehicles doing duty to protect the Landmaster, which is carrying the vital serum to Boston.

The Hard Zones

AW: Burned Over assumes 1 or at most 2 Hard Zones. If there’s a single Zone it’s where the PCs are; if there are 2, the PCs walk the border between the two.

By default The Road is the game’s Hard Zone. It’s the physical landscape the characters are going to cross on their journey between the Nation of California and Boston. Locations include:

  • Wells, places that can provide resources essential to the journey
  • Off-ramps, deviations from the Road into the Other places
  • Storm ranges, natural threats that will affect progress

There are some notes below on how each Playbook fits into the setting, but in general interactions with a Hard Zone will be spots along the Road, and the party will only visit these spaces once.

If you want to run with 2 Hard Zones instead, make the Road the border between the two. This could be a physical border (for example between warring groups North and South of the Road) or a metaphysical one (the Road connects the Now with the Past, other timelines or dimensions).

Fitting the Playbooks

Brain Picker

This character tends to be a loner and can probably slot in as-is.

Note that this character is potentially very disruptive to both communities and the environment; also they need time up close to use their powers, even if that time is short, which will be limited to when people are outside their vehicles. But otherwise no real restrictions and no tweaking needed for play.


A great playbook for a mechanic type, and really good fit for the game. Does some interesting psychic stuff.

Note their Salvage Grounds. Assume that they have a collection of stuff in the Landmaster or their personal vehicle.

When they’re going into dangerous territory to salvage, they’re probably going Off Ramp into one of the Hard Zones, which are weird alternate spaces where they can find things not normally found in the primary world.


This is probably the hardest playbook to integrate as it often revolves around a Holding which is by default static and has NPCs coming to it.

One way to make the Lawmaker fit is to make them an extension of either the Nation of California, or the old pre-collapse USA. In this case their law is synonymous with THE law. This would make them more like a Judge crossing the Cursed Earth, but it could work. This would still allow them to proclaim their Laws. Their 20-strong Gang might be other lawmakers roving the wilds and similarly dispensing justice, and their Holding could be stations along the way that still uphold the Old Laws.

An alternative way to play could be to make this character an antagonist pursuing the convoy with bikes and other vehicles, for whatever reason. This is the role of the biker gang lead by Big Brother in the final pages of Damnation Alley. Managing this would mean you have to cut between the Convoy and their stronghold, but in this case it could work. One of their Laws should be something that directly opposes the Mission. Their Holding might be a roving gang, or it could be one of the two Hard Zones accessed by Off-Ramps.


If the Medic is in play, suggest that their Refuge is the Landmaster.


Like the Lawmaker, this playbook implies some kind of static group of people, but it’s a bit more flexible. If the Monarch’s People are choppers it’s easy to make them a support group riding with the Landmaster.

Another interpretation could focus on the affiliation the character has, rather than assuming an entourage that’s always there. Like the Lawmaker variant, their people might be found in pockets of civilisation along the way, connected to this character by fame, a shared ideal, a national identity, etc. In this way the Monarch may be some kind of navigator or official that facilitates the convoy’s journey. Perhaps there are numerous checkpoints, tolls, or ports along the way and the Monarch is not just useful, but essential in getting safe passage through or resources. That would make them a kind of “fixer”.

If you’re taking this alternate option, be careful that you don’t overlap too strongly with the Operator and make one or the other redundant.


A pretty good fit with the scenario as-is. The Operator’s Ports of Call will be places along the Road, and their Ear to the Ground move should similarly be focused on places they’re going to travel through on the Road. They have their own vehicle.


Really interesting character focused on Aggro, with links to the Maelstrom.

The Children should be encountered along the Road. Some of them are created as Threats (I guess either antagonists or causing trouble).

Rather than have these turn up as recurring characters (not really possible) consider foreshadowing these characters with some inevitable meeting happeing somewhere down the Road.


This is actually a pretty good fit already as the character isn’t tied down to a location. The exception is the Bolthole move. This could be a vehicle, or it could be a network of bunkers that the character somehow has access to, or other safe locations. Perhaps they have a secret map of the Old Nation. Hiding out for any length of time won’t work with the setting, so it may be simpler to prohibit this move.


Not a particularly subtle character, but should be no problem to integrate into the setting with no ties to any location.


Similar to the Volatile, a no-nonsense character that should be straightforward to integrate.

One option for this character could be to make them one of the vehicles, possibly the Landmaster itself. This could be tricky to build into the narrative with constraints on where the character can go, but it could be a fun option.

This Damned Nation

a play idea for Apocalypse World: Burned Over inspired by Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, Roadmarks, and the Amber series.

By Ralph Lovegrove

The Mission and the Convoy

The play group is the Convoy of vehicles.

PCs have been seconded by the Nation of California to take the serum to Boston, which is in dire need combatting the Plague. The PCs are all miscreants with past lives that are at odds with civilised society. They all have reasons they are prepared to take the deal offered by the Constable of California, a pardon in exchange for escorting the serum to the East Coast.

At character generation, each character will have a past that forms part of their reason for being on the mission. Answer some of these questions:

  • what did you do that means you can’t be part of society any more?
  • what do you miss about being part of society?
  • what will you do with your freedom?

The Road

The Road is a straight line between the Nation of California and Boston. This forms the basis for the journey. West is the Past, East is the Future, North and South are two alternate timelines. Branches from the Road move to other timelines in which characters may exist for a time and then rejoin the Road.


Branches off the Road, sometimes called Off-Ramps or Junctions, lead to other timelines. There are two competing realities: North and South.

North and South are the Hard Zones in this setting. They are static and eternal. They exist in many different times. The group (or MC) need to decide how the portals between the Road and the Hard Zones appear.

If you like, have individual characters or even the whole party deviate off the Road via a Branch and then rejoin later. This can be a mechanism for managing player absence.


Wells along the Road are the places that the Convoy needs to stop to replenish resources. They are the potential for the characters to meet settlements along the way, with associated Threats. Wells are (must be) resources that the Convoy needs.

A Well may have

  • a resource that the Convoy needs to acquire
  • a crisis/conflict that needs to be resolved in order to get that resource
  • opportunities for interaction with locals
  • a Landscape Threat


The Terrain (including weather) is a significant Threat, and a legacy from the Event. Threaten the party with the Terrain at least once per session.

The Nation

The Nation matters. Even though boundaries have been erased by the disaster, there are people who are still old enough to have lived through the event, or direct descendants whose family have clung to the old divisions and borders.

Everyone has a relationship with the Nation, from zero (the former nation means nothing) to some positive value (geography, geopolitics, pre-Event history are significant).

The Nation has a language. The ancient cipher can be used to unlock deep held sentiments, forgotten truths, and painful truths depending on who you talk to.

In play the Nation is a Threat (Institution).

All characters start with Hx for The Nation, used in the moves Charm Someone, Read Someone, Read a Situation, Augury. This works if you can work in some element of the Nation into the conversation or the situation. In this case, replace the current stat with Hx.

At the MC’s option, use negative Hx in these situations to represent a person’s bias.

Some MC moves

Threaten with weather
Expose resentment
Spoil resources
Create off-ramp
Poison a Well

The End

Up to the play group when things end. It may end after a few sessions with a defined arc. Or the game may end before ever reaching the destination, even after season after season. As MC you may choose to cancel the campaign before anything is really resolved, after many sessions of endless roads, diversions into other dimensions, returning PCs who may be imposters, clones, or alternate timeline versions of themselves. Prepare for backlash.

What I really think about D&D (and Dishonoured 2)

When Dirk the Dice asked me for my First, Last and Everything on episode 43 of the Grognard Files I had no idea it was going to be about D&D. D&D isn’t my First, Last, or Everything but I nonetheless expressed opinions about it, one of which is

I don’t think any game treats starting characters with as much contempt as D&D

by which I mean it normalises low level characters being weak and dying frequently (so normalised that Dungeon Crawl Classics parodies this with the Funnel).

The advocates of “zero to hero” tend to fall into two camps:

  1. Those who think that characters should always be weak, and dungeoneering should be frightening and fraught with danger
  2. Those who think high levels should be earned, not granted.

OSR style play is often portrayed as the first example (although that’s an argument in itself). I’m fine with this in principle, I just wonder if you are going to play a game with such fragile characters, why even bother including levels? (I think James Raggi planned to revise the LotFP system to exclude levels in both PCs and spells, which is a fine idea; obviously it hasn’t emerged yet).

This ethos was adopted in Sage Latorra’s 1 HP game jam and you can listen about that on the Another Question podcast.

As for the second… this is more of an impression I get from reading Dragon magazine in the 80s. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it from a real person (outside hyperbolic flame wars on the worst RPG forums)1.

Hyperbole or not, this position still makes the argument that levels are there to be suffered, not enjoyed. No-one actually likes levels. Levelling up, sure; but no-one likes to be reminded in such an artificial way that your PC is weak, that you’re part of a hierarchy whose upper eschelons you’re unlikely to see. We play RPGs to get away from that.

And as I said in the podcast the problem with levels is they make characters who are supposed to be risk-takers and heroes into conservative bean-counters, focusing on the future and not on the now2. More to the point, WotC knows the low level lethality is at odds with the aspirational nature of videogame-like mainstream D&D. This is why generation after generation of this game has made lower levels more survivable.

OK, what does this have to do with Dishonoured, you may ask?

So… the franchise has DNA in the original Thief and sequel3, probably my all-time favourite games. The first Dishonoured game didn’t have a no-powers option, but Dishonoured 2 has the option to refuse the mark of the Outsider entirely and play without powers. This is far and away the most satisfying way I’ve found of playing the game; it harks back to those original Thief games with the same kind of sandboxed levels and exploration in three dimensions rather than just teleporting around the city hunting the objective markers.

To make this work the designers had to make the maps almost completely accessible to a character with no powers. Playing this way feels a lot like you’re back playing Garrett mantling his way around the City’s rooftops. It also means you don’t need powers to complete the game (OK, there is still a bit of levelling up as you upgrade equipment with coin, but levelling powers with runes is gone). Emily is no less competent for her lack of supernatural ability; in fact you might argue that since she’s rejected the help of the Outsider and chosen to resolve things her own way, she has more agency and is more interesting.

In this situation powers are an aesthetic choice. They offer new ways to complete the game (including some spectacular ways to kill people) but they don’t define the character in the way that D&D’s class/levelling does (in particular 3e4).

Although to be clear I’m not against exotic powers — and if you want to make your PC’s powers the one special thing that defines them, go for it. But I think Dishonoured 2 has a useful lesson: build your character independent of the supernatural and they will be more interesting. This has sort of been my credo for StormHack; character is independent of demon. Character’s don’t level up, demons do. Of course that game does have levels after a fashion; but ascending levels isn’t a boon, it’s a trade off.

Of course any sensible play group will treat the characters equally, and levels and powers will be irrelevant to spotlight time. But that implied hierarchy is there, deep down in the lizard brain. Better to engineer out those biases entirely. Take the example of my “everything” game from the grogpod. Everway has no levelling up, no experience mechanism. You are the characters you start as. What you get instead are boons which come directly from the adventure and are therefore truly experiential (as opposed to artificial experience tiers).

Incidentally that’s why 1st edition Vampire was such a revelation. People point to the personal horror and the edgy gothic-ness but the thing that struck me the most was the complete de-emphasis of anything resembling levels and classes. Probably not remarkable to most people given how much choice we have today with better, lighter game designs, but it was pretty cool at the time, before they ruined it with the second edition.

  1. martial arts on the other hand… but that’s another story 

  2. I’m not knocking people who want to plan a trajectory for their PC and then see it through over months or years. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Diablo II myself 

  3. pre Deadly Shadows. And don’t even start me on the 2014 reboot 

  4. to be fair, I played 3e once, and I enjoyed it for what it was. Well, I say enjoyed it, I tolerated it. Well, I say I tolerated it, I stayed awake between rounds by grasping my lower lip and pulling it over the top of my head. Then I smeared my body with chilli jam and bovril before skiing through a cactus forest into a pit of starved honey badgers. Whilst listening to the unabridged audiobook of Fifty Shades of Grey read by Nigel Farage. That said, the gelatinous cube encounter was quite emotional. 

Combat Stances for StormHack

This is an optional combat system for my game StormHack. This system should bolt onto the dead simple OSR-style combat in StormHack, (or compatible games). With a bit of careful thought, it can probably be used for any combat system1.

The Stances

Stances are basically statements of intent and ongoing mindset rolled into one. They’re a bunch of assumptions about what your PC will do in the combat, like a mini program of if/then statements. They draw a box around what you are doing and what you’re not doing.

There are six Stances, in line with the six Ability Scores (and Demon Realms in StormHack).

Attacking/Other Engage Wait Avoid
Attacking Pursuit (Str) Defend (Con) Flank (Dex)
Other Talk (Cha) Observe (Wis) Device (Int)

The Stances are simple enough to be put on an index card and picked up during combat by players (assuming we ever get to play F2F again).

There are three Attacking Stances, and three Other Stances. Attacking Stances are about making physical attacks on things. Other Stances are about doing other things in combat that aren’t directly attacking.

Then there are three kinds of Stance, which are

  • Engage where the PC directly confronts the enemy
  • Wait where the PC observes and waits for the enemy to do something
  • Avoid where the PC tries to avoid interference whilst doing their actions

This is also the order in which monsters will pay attention to (target) the PC; if you’re charging towards (or standing up and shouting at) the monster you’re more likely to attract fire than if you’re hanging back. Choosing a particular Stance doesn’t make you any better or worse able to defend however, it just makes it more likely that the monsters go after you.

All the Stances assume that if attacked, a person will defend themselves (or to put it differently, none of the options mean you’re not defending yourself).

Here are the six “Stance cards”:

Pursuit (STR)

If you’re pursuing the enemy, assume

  1. Attacking is prioritised over all other actions. No matter what happens, you get to make an attack roll.
  2. You attack as soon as you’re in range. If for some reason you’re out of range, move to get into distance.
  3. You’re not hiding or staying in a fixed location. You’ll probably split off from any party members who aren’t attacking with you.
  4. You’ll definitely attract the attention of the enemy.

For agressive fighters. You’re not protecting anyone, but you’re haring off after the first target you can see

Defend (CON)

If you’re defending a person or place, assume

  1. You will always move to put yourself between the enemy and who/whatever you’re protecting. Enemy will have to attack you before they can attack your charge.
  2. If someone comes close enough to threaten, you automatically get to strike at them. If they’re not close enough, you can’t hit them.
  3. You’re out in the open so you attract attention, although less than if you charge towards the enemy.

For bodyguards

Flank (DEX)

If you’re flanking the enemy, assume

  1. Your first priority is to get into a superior position where you can attack, but the enemy can’t see you. You could start the combat from this position already. If you try to do this in combat it will probably be a harder roll than if you were outside combat; the ref should base the difficulty on whether the enemy was looking at you at the time you tried get away.
  2. If you’re in this position, you get to attack. This may or may not attract attention.
  3. If the enemy spots you, you can’t attack. Either try to hide again next round, or change your Stance to another attack and give up hiding.

For snipers and backstabbers

Device (INT)

If you’re trying to use a device, cast a spell, pick up an object or do something else with the environment, assume

  1. You’re not attacking.
  2. You’re doing your best to avoid the enemy’s attention. How successful this is will depend on whether there’s someone else more attention-grabbing in the fight.
  3. If you’re attacked, it may delay or spoil whatever you’re trying to do.

This is a catch-all category for doing something in combat, but includes casting spells

Observe (WIS)

If you’re observing what’s going on, assume

  1. You’re not attacking.
  2. You’re not making yourself obvious, but you’re not actively hiding either. You’re less of a threat/target than attacking party members.
  3. You’re watching out for what’s going on. If you see something you can alert others to it, and you can also act on it yourself the next round.
    • if you alert someone else (e.g. to an ambush) the ref might credit that player with an advantage (or a roll if they would otherwise not get one)
    • if you act yourself, you automatically gain the initiative next round, picking the Stance you want.

This is a catch-all for “wait and see” in combat. It can be used by anyone, and even non-combat types can use it to get involved in combat

Talk (CHA)

If you’re talking to the enemy in combat, assume

  1. You’re not attacking.
  2. If the enemy can understand you, they’ll hear your message, unless they’re being attacked at that moment
  3. The ref will work out their response, e.g.
    • if you’re intimidating, they may pause or even flee
    • if you’re charming, they may stop fighting and engage in talks
    • if you’re taunting, they may make you their next target
  4. You’re definitely sticking your neck out, so there’s a high probability of drawing fire.

This is obviously for attempting social interaction in combat

In Play

After the ref has introduced the scene and established that there is going to be a combat, the order of combat should go like this:

  1. Roll for initiative.
  2. On your PC’s turn, pick a Stance, and do what actions are prompted by that Stance (e.g. attack, get into cover, use a device, etc.)
  3. On the monster’s turn, the ref will manage whatever is natural for the monsters (usually close with the PCs and attack)
  4. At the end of the round, PCs hang onto their Stance cards.

At the next round if the player already holds a Stance card they can hand it in for a different card on their Initiative, or they can keep hold of it.


In play the ref might limit the number of Stance cards on the table. Sample limitations and reasons:

  • only allowing 2 Pursuit cards because the environment is too close, so only a couple of people can push to the front
  • denying Observe cards because it’s impossible to see further than a few feet in thick fog
  • denying Talk cards because the environment is too loud, or magically silenced

Postscript: hierarchy of fighting

Getting into fights is about this, in order2:

  1. Mindset
  2. Tactics
  3. Techniques
  4. Kit

To keep things simple assume that everyone is on the same page re: Mindset (i.e. whether or not they’re up for a fight). This makes sense for most RPGs where fighting is commonplace.

Often fight-heavy RPGs prioritise Techniques (sword swings, bull rushes, etc.) and don’t give the game a language to easily talk about Tactics, which are bound into statements of intent. The problem is that the statements of intent then get confused with the descriptive roleplaying of how the character is doing what they’re doing (e.g. Feng Shui).

Tactics are just a set of prepared responses that support a basic goal. They include both how and when the character attacks, and how they move to support that. The goal might be to overcome the enemy; it might be to escape; it might be to protect something or someone.

Tactics also change with the fight. In a RPG it can be difficult for a player to convey to the ref that what they want to achieve in the fight has changed. They can easily communicate a change in actions, but sometimes the reason isn’t obvious to the rest of the table. This matters because the ref is supposed to be the fan of the PC and helping the player realise their desires; it also matters if you want your party to feel like they can work as a unit.

  1. It’s worth noting that StormHack isn’t a typical OSR game Combat is designed to be survivable and heroic, encouraging risk. 

  2. Modern combatives gets this in the right order. Most martial arts don’t because they teach technique first; but there’s a good reason for this, because techniques are small building blocks with instant reward in the salle or dojo. Encourage students with these and then teach them the principles as they advance. 

StormHack: Knights of the Husk

The supplement for StormHack, entitled Knights of the Husk, is here. Additionally an updated/corrected StormHack is here.

Knights of the Husk is a city building framework that describes a City Above and the Husk (history, remmants, dreams) Below. It’s a work in progress. There are few examples.

Random tables can be expected in the 3rd volume the Book of Decans.

anyway, thought you might be interested.

Back to the beginning.

My two influential authors are Clive Barker, and Michael Moorcock. Of those, Barker had a bigger effect on roleplaying, first with Call of Cthulhu and then with the World of Darkness.

I didn’t think of applying Moorcock to fantasy gaming until later, but I was influenced in more subtle ways; the idea of an eternal champion, of avatars adopting the same roles in multiple realities, and of bloodlines that fed into significant cosmic events throughout time and space… that was always my jam.

The first Moorcock I read was Hawkmoon, in the gorgeous oversize Millennium edition from the early 90s. I took that as my reading list — I was cash poor at the time so where I couldn’t buy the new imprint heavily discounted I found previous editions in libraries and remaindered bookshops. I read Corum in the Grafton editions from the mid 1980s, including this omnibus edition of the first trilogy:

So by frugal purchasing and borrowing I read pretty much all of the 14 volumes; but never in the order in which they were published. Which is where this series comes in.

This podcast has become a little serious. It’s always worked around themes, based on the games I fancy running or designing at the time, or the topics I need to discuss. But I feel the need to step back a bit and reflect.

This is what I’m going to do. Having now closed the remaining gaps in my Millenium Moorcock editions (thanks to certain online 2nd hand sellers) I’m going to read them in sequence, and do a ‘cast about each one.

This won’t follow the usual format… with 14 volumes, each with at least 3 novels this would take too long and no doubt I would run out of steam. So this is the proposed format for this occasional series:

  • in the first part, I’ll summarise each novel on an index card to encourage brevity. This will form an overview, rather than a detailed synopsis
  • in the second part, I’ll pick out key scenes or chapters that are worthy of note
  • and finally in the third part, I’ll discuss how each book in the sequence contributes to the overall arc of the Eternal Champion, starting with Von Bek and concluding with Count Brass.

There will be other episodes. But I wanted to write this as a way to commit to the project. Do these novels still capture my imagination nearly 30 years on?

This won’t be the only thing I read — I intend to pace myself and read other books in between each volume. All told this is going to take a year at least, quite probably two.

Let me know what you think, and if you have a similar relationship with Moorcock.

OK, that’s it. Speak soon.

PSA: Audacity on MacOS

I do editing with Audacity on a mac (and sometimes on linux).

With MacOS Mojave editing was a real pain. The program would only run sensibly when windowed. Through various investigations it seemed that the smooth running was dependent on resolution (we’re using a high res monitor). Don’t ask me why.

There’s a simple fix that worked for me: run the program in low resolution mode. Go to Get Info (command-I) on the application (in application folder) and check the box in the window that pops up

This seems to have fixed things. No idea why it’s an issue in the first place, but I can now do editing full screen again.

Perfidious Albion on Speed

If you’re British, or even if you aren’t, a good chunk of your news feed will have been swallowed by the Brexit pantomime, including hilarious exchanges like the one between Will Self and Mark Francois:

WS: Your problem… is since 2016 you don’t need to be a racist or anti-semite to vote for Brexit, it’s just that every racist and anti-semite in the country did. MF: I think that’s a slur on 17.4 million people and I think you should apologise on national television. I think that’s an outrageous thing to say WS: Well, you seem to find a lot of things outrageous MF: Are you saying that 17.4 million people are racist and bigots… WS: No, that’s not what I said MF: That’s pretty close to what you said WS: It’s not remotely close to what I said. You seem to be a bit exorcised, sir MF: Well, I’m offended WS: The politics of offence, eh? What I said was that every racist and anti-semite in the country, pretty much, probably voted for Brexit. MF: How can you know that? WS: I suspect it. MF: Well, I think you should apologise. WS: To who? Racists and anti-semites?

OK, pretty funny although the best comment on the showdown was by Sara Pascoe on Frankie Boyle’s New World Order saying (IIRC) “What you’re seeing there is a clash between two different kinds of alpha male”. Everyone should wind their neck in.

But this is Fictoplasm, so there’s going to be a fiction element — and that’s this piece by Will Self in the aftermath of his face-off, where he name-checks J G Ballard:

Perhaps the pivotal years were around middle of the noughties – at any rate, that’s when I went to speak to my friend and mentor JG Ballard about what would prove to be his final novel, Kingdom Come. Jim was as bluff and strange as ever – he had the manner of the RAF pilot he might have become if he’d completed his training, combined with the thousand-yard stare at what’s immediately to hand, which is the sure sign of a surrealist. He pointed out to me the flags flying in the front gardens along Old Charlton Road, the utterly bland suburban road in Shepperton (an utterly bland Surrey dormitory town), where he’d lived for 40 extremely odd years. For him, the flying of the Cross of St George was undoubtedly minatory: it had come about through a synergy between football fandom and the rise of ethnic nationalism; these were the years of the British National Party’s ascent to the giddy heights of the 2010 general election, when their candidates won over half a million votes. Reviewing Kingdom Come in the Guardian, Phil Baker succinctly noted “Ballard’s central idea is that consumerism slides into fascism when politics simply gives the punters what they want”. Well, Jim was always prescient – this was the writer who conceived of the celebrity car crash as a catalyst of collective hysteria a quarter-century before Diana Spencer was killed in the Pont de l’Alma underpass, and who also anticipated the baleful impacts of global warming as early as the late 1950s. Jim got that English nationalism was on the rise – and that under neo-liberal conditions favouring consumption over production, it was likely to become a vector for the most troubling aspects of the famously ‘tolerant’ English psyche.

Meanwhile, Mark Francois is providing meme-tastic soundbites like Perfidious Albion on Speed.

Perfidious Albion on Speed is too fussy a title to be Ballardian. In fact, Perfidious Albion is already the title of Sam Byers’ second novel, which didn’t start out as a Brexit novel but perhaps it evolved that way:

The honest truth is that it began in a much more speculative fashion. I did the bulk of the work on this book in 2015 and 2016, and while it’s true I continually adjusted for events such as Brexit, I think what really happened is that the world just caught up with me in surprising and disturbing ways, and so I accepted the idea that rather than continually reinventing things in order to be out in front of the phenomena I was depicting, I should anchor myself and play more with the ways in which the context of the book was evolving.

Here’s a video of the author:

Blog post: Bite Me!

+1 Forward did a great interview with Becky Annison on her game Bite Me! which is currently mid-Kickstarter.

I recommend checking out the podcast first because Becky goes into a lot of depth regarding the pack setup, different playbooks and how the play group creates their dynamic. If that sounds like your cup of tea, think about backing the KS.

During the podcast they mention Kelly Armstrong’s Bitten (TV series and book). If you want to hear more about that, and indeed some of the early ideas Becky had for her game, you can hear her and Liz talk about the Women of the Otherworld way back in Fictoplasm episode 08.

Pick of podcasts in June 2018

Real life has been interfering with my episode schedule again. New recordings will be coming out shortly, but for now here’s five podcasts I listened to in June 2018.

The Pen Addict 305

Episode 305 covers “standards”. You’d think I’d listen to more of these being the stationery obsessive, but a fifteen minute discussion on “A5-ish” paper sizing (dimensions, as opposed to applying filler or glaze) approaches even my limit. Still, it’s a nice podcast and I really enjoy their blog.

Hardcore Histories 61: Painfotainment

I heard about Dan Carlin’s Hardcore Histories while researching the solo podcast format. This episode is more than four and a half hours long, and it’s all about the spectacle of, and attitudes to, public execution From the late medieval period through early modern to the 20th and (extrapolating into) the 21st centuries. Carlin is both unflinching and sensitive with the subject matter. I thought it was brilliant but also horrible, so listener discretion is advised, obv.

Not Alone 63 and 64: The Toynbee Tiles

Not Alone is a podcast about the unexplained and supernatural. Episodes 63 and 64 discuss the Toynbee Tiles, strange linoleum tiles imprinted onto bricks with the message “Toynbee idea from movie 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter”.

There’s a bonus episode sandwiched between these two that’s also worth checking out as it lists a whole lot of other podcasts.

Original picture taken from Wikipedia, shared under CC BY-SA 2.5 by user Spike Brennan.

Mega City Book Club 68: A Game Of You

The Mega City Book Club podcast normally covers 2000AD titles, but here they diverge with a really great episode covering A Game Of You, the fifth Sandman book. A lot of discussion about trans identity and Wanda being the first decently rounded trans character for many readers in the early 90s, and also how impressions of Dream change with repeated readings.

Blogs on Tape 54: Dice Clocks

Blogs on Tape is a great idea — the best blog posts from the OSR curated and read aloud in a 10-20 min podcast. Episode 54 is actually one of my own blog posts, which have always been a bit stream-of-consciousness and it’s a bit strange to hear my own words read back to me with the attendant figurative ums and ahs.

What we’re listening to in May 2018

Plot Points 98: 5 Generations of D&D Design

Plot Points 98 wasn’t as interesting as I hoped it would be but there’s some interesting stuff there, for example the way that Basic D&D is a great teaching resource and a crappy reference book, whilst the opposite is true of AD&D.

Myoclonic Jerk 11: The Long View

Daniel Kaufman’s series Myoclonic Jerk is supposedly 20 episodes long, although to date we’re up to episode 11 which is all about our broader view of the universe. The show notes are comprehensive and the guests are great.

One cool fictional idea: after the death of suns which collapse into neutron stars and black holes, stellar civilisations harness the energies of the singularities to continue their existence.

System Mastery 87: Nephilim

On my trip to NYC I managed to get a copy of Serpent Moon from The Compleat Strategist, thus completing my collection of Nephilim books so the spines sort of line up like this:

Rock and roll. Anyway, System Mastery episode 87 is spot on about Nephilim being a game all about character generation and not much else, and how the eponymous nephilim are monstrous and evil.

Grognard Files 20 part 2 (Golden Heroes)

Thanos is Nigel Farage

The second part of the Golden Heroes episode with more comments from Simon Burley including an interesting perspective on the Comics Code.

Pounded in the butt by my own podcast

Finally, I’ve been enjoying the Night Vale produced podcast where guests read Chuck Tingle’s fiction and try to keep a straight face. I particularly liked I’m Gay For My Living Billionaire Jet Plane.

What we’re listening to, April 2018

I listen to a fair number of podcasts on my commute. Here’s a run down of what I’ve been listening to this month.

What Would The Smart Party Do?

episode 68: Roleplaying games of the 90s

What Witchcraft did was it tried to fulfil the need that the World of Darkness players had to do crossovers

Great year by year list of 90s games including Over the Edge, Nephilim, Castle Falkenstein, Amber (but not Everway — come on, chaps).

Fear of a Black Dragon

Operation Unfathomable

This is my favourite show among the Gauntlet’s broad offering of quality podcasts. Their main podcast and +1 Forward are good listens but FotBD raises the bar with its structure, focus on utility and insightful comments. The Operation Unfathomable episode is typical of this high standard. Also Tom uses my favourite word (liminal).

The Grognard Files

Paranoia (episode 19) and Golden Heroes pt. 1 (episode 20)

More gaming nostalgia! The Grognard Files goes from strength to strength. Golden Heroes is the most recent episode but I wanted to mention Paranoia too, for the comment about how that game never really settled on one coherent theme or presentation — I would have loved to run it as a grim Brazil-esque satire, but our games always devolved into backstabbing and grassing each other’s clones to the computer within minutes. Actually I always thought the 1st edition system had some genuine innovations like the damage columns and skill trees, it’s just these were totally out of place when the PCs were so ephemeral.

Also check out the Golden Heroes unboxing:

Welcome to Night Vale

A door ajar pt 3 (episode 126)

Twin Peaks, Pontypool, Al Amarja, Royston Vasey, Night Vale.

Come on down to the pancake house, check if any of your loved ones have been affected by this horrible disaster, and enjoy free hot cakes. One hot cake per missing loved one.

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias

Episode 128: Cats

And finally the perennial favourite returns with a discussion of cats. Which reminds me, I must re-read The Cats Of Seroster.

Runequest’s Appendix N

Following on from this post, a friend pointed out that Runequest also had its own Appendix N. I don’t know which edition (I don’t think it’s in my Games Workshop one) but the text has apparently been copied verbatim (with spelling errors) by peopletobe, including a commentary at the end. A slightly longer post on doug’s devices & desires takes this further with some comments on the content. These posts come from 2010 and 2011 and the latter is “in production”.

Since the web is a transient thing and sometimes posts vanish, I’ve reproduced the bibliography without further comment. Many thanks to the original poster.

APPENDIX N. Bibliography
Bibby, George. 4000 Years Ago – check your library for other titles as well; anything by Bibby is recommended.
Byfield, Barbarbara N. The Book of Weird (formerly The Glass Harmonica) – a delightfully-written and illustrated encyclopedia of things fantastical.
Coles, John. Archeology by Experiment – excellent description of the practical side of archeology, easily relatable to FRP games.
Conally, Peter. The Greek Armies, The Roman Army, and Enemies of Rome – three educational picture books of incredible detail and content.
Draeger, Donn F. and Smith, Robert W. Asian Fighting Arts – an excellent survey of what it really takes to master a weapon.
Foote, Peter(ed.) The Saga of Grettir the Strong – on version of the making of a hero, direct from the Age of Heroes of Iceland.
Funcken, Lillane and Fred. Arms and Uniforms: Ancient Egypt to the 18th Century – first-class illustrated book of historical costumes and weapons.
Howard, Robert E. Conan (and others) – the archetypical noble and savage barbarian written with muscle and guts; his notes have been finished with less gusto by other writers as well.
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle – the descriptions in this book are a must for anyone wanting to know some truth in grisly detail about ancient and medieval warfare.
Leiber, Fritz. Swords in the Mist (and others) – a basic source of modern fantasy; the stories about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are classics.
Magnusson, Magnus (ed.). Njal’s Saga – an excellent look at a Dark Ages culture, and some rousing fighting besides.
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur – more information on heroic actions, though of a limited cult. Useful too for inspiration on possible event for FRP.
Moorcock, Michael. Elric (and others) – a basic source of modern fantasy.
Smith, Clark Ashton. Hyperborea (and others) – more standards of fantasy fiction, which everyone should at least taste.
Stone, George Cameron. A Glossary of the Constuction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor – heavy emphasis on Japanese fighting gear, but worth it anyway.
Sturlasson, Snorri. King Harald’s Saga – a superb epic tale by Iceland’s most famous saga writer, proving you do not need fantasy to create a legend.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Lord of the Rings – a modern fantasy classic. Tolkien is rightfully accorded as the Master of fantasy, and if you have not yet read LotR, please do yourself a favor. Of his other works, see also The Silmarilion – notes of the Master compiled posthumously by his son, Christopher. These are a chronicle of the earlier ages of Middle Earth.
Chivalry & Sorcery; Bunnies & Burrows; Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo; Starships & Spacemen – all from Fantasy Games Unlimited, PO Box 182, Roslyn NY 11576.
Empire of the Petal Throne; Knights of the Round Table; Space Patrol; Superhero 2044 – all from Gamescience (Lou Zocchi & Associates), 1956 Pass Rd., Gulfport MS 39501.
Advanced D&D; Dungeons & Dragons; Gamma World; Metamorphosis Alpha; Star Probe; Star Empires – all from TSR Hobbies, Inc., PO Box 756, Lake Geneva WI 53147.
Bushido; Space Quest – Tyr Gamemakers Ltd., PO Box 414, Arlington VA 22210.
The Fantasy Trip (included Wizard and Melee) – Metagaming, PO Box 15346, Austin TX 78761.
Tunnels & Trolls; Monsters! Monsters!; Starfaring – all from Flying Buffal, Inc., PO Box 1467, Scottsdale AZ 85252.
Traveller; En Garde! – Game Designers’ Workshop, 203 North St., Normal IL 61761.
Legacy – Legacy Press, 217 Harmon Rd., Camden MI 49232.
Arduin Grimoire; Welcome to Skull Tower; Runes of Doom – all from James E. Mathis, 2428 Ellsworth (102), Berkeley CA 94704.
Star Trek – Heritage Models, Inc., 9840 Monroe Dr. (Bldg. 106), Dallas TX 75220.
The Society for Creative Anachronism. Write to Society of Creative Anachronism, Inc., Office of the Registry, PO Box 594, Concord, Calif. 94522
Write for prices to Lou Zocchi & Associates, 1956 Pass Rd. Gulfport MS 39501,or see you local hobby or game store.

For additional comment, googling turns up hits on Black Gate and Grognaridia.

Appendix N and cousins

AD&D grognards and in particular OSR types seem fixated on Appendix N of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, which boiled down to a list of fictional sources that Gygax liked.

Next to Appendix N, the “inspirational reading material” from the Moldvay Basic D&D set gets short shrift, which is both sad and puzzling given how much richer and diverse the content is. At one time, one OSR author I spoke with pretty much waved away its existence, which is frankly absurd given how much closer Basic D&D is to the stripped down ethos of many OSR retroclones than AD&D.

Then there’s D&D5e’s Appendix E which is basically a modernized (and diversified) Appendix N, with some very curious additions (in a really good way).

Appendix N

The original from the DMG. It’s trivial to find this list with a quick google search (e.g. here).

Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: “Pellucidar” series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: “World’s End” series
de Camp & Pratt: “Harold Shea” series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: “The World of the Tiers” series; et al
Fox, Gardner: “Kothar” series; “Kyrik” series; et al
Howard, R. E.: “Conan” series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO’S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: “Fafhrd & Gray Mouser” series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; “Hawkmoon” series (esp. the first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; “Ring trilogy”
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; “Amber” series; et al

Moldvay’s Inspirational Reading

Appearing in the Moldvay Basic D&D set (which predates my Mentzer copy). According to this source, compiled by Barbara Davis. A scan here and what appears to be the complete text here.

Alexander, Lloyd — The Book of Three; Black Cauldron; Castle of Llyr, et al.
Baum, L. Frank — The Wizard of Oz; The Emerald City of Oz; The Land of Oz, et al.
Bellairs, John — The Face In the Frost; The House Without a Clock on Its Walls; The Figure In the Shadows, et al.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars; At the Earth’s Core; Tarzan of the Apes, et al.
Carroll, Lewis — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass
Garner, Alan — Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; The Moon of Gomrath, et al.
Le Guin, Ursula K. — A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore, et al.
Lewis, C. S. — The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, et al.
Barber, Richard — A Companion to World Mythology
Buehr, Walter — Chivalry and the Mailed Knight
Coolidge, Olivia — Greek Myths; The Trojan War; Legends of the North
d’Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar Parin — Norse Gods and Giants; Trolls
Hazeltine, Alice — Hero Tales from Many Lands
Hillyer, Virgil — Young People’s Story of the Ancient World: Prehistory — 500 B.C.
Jacobs, Joseph — English Folk and Fairy Tales
Macauley, David — Castles
McHargue, Georgess — The Beasts of Never: A History Natural and Unnatural of Monsters, Mythical and Magical; The Impossible People
Renault, Mary — The Lion in the Gateway
Sellow, Catherine F. — Adventures with the Giants
Sutcliff, Rosemary — Tristram and Iseult
Williams, Jay — Life in the Middle Ages
Winer, Bart — Life in the Ancient World
Anderson, Poul — Three Hearts and Three Lions; The Broken Sword; The Merman’s Children, et al.
Anthony, Piers — A Spell for Chameleon; The Source of Magic; Castle Roogna
Asprin, Robert — Another Fine Myth
Brackett, Leigh — The Coming of the Terrans; The Secret of Sinharat; People of the Talisman, et al.
Campbell, J. Ramsey —Demons by Daylight
Davidson, Avram — The Island Under the Earth; Ursus of Ultima Thule; The Phoenix in the Mirror, et al.
de Camp, L. Sprague — The Fallible Fiend; The Goblin Tower, et al.
de Camp, L. Sprague and Pratt, Fletcher — The Incomplete Enchanter; Land of Unreason, et al.
Dunsany, Lord — Over the Hills and Far Away; Book of Wonder; The King of Elfland’s Daughter, et al.
Eddison, E. R. — The Worm Ouroboros
Eisenstein, Phyllis — Born to Exile; Sorcerer’s Son
Farmer, Phillip Jose — The Gates of Creation; The Maker of Universes; A Private Cosmos, et al.
Finney, Charles G. — The Unholy City; The Circus of Dr. Lao
Heinlein, Robert A. — Glory Road
Howard, Robert E. — Conan; Red Nails; Pigeons from Hell
Lee, Tanith — Night’s Master; The Storm Lord; The Birthgrave, et al.
Leiber, Fritz — The Swords of Lankhmar; Swords Against Wizardry; Swords Against Death, et al.
Lovecraft, H. P. — The Doom that Came to Sarnath; The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath; The Dunwich Honor
Merritt, A. E. — The Moon Pool; Dwellers in the Mirage; The Ship of Ishtar, et al.
Moorcock, Michael — The Stealer of Souls; The Knight of the Swords; Gloriana, et al.
Mundy, Talbot — Tros of Samothrace
Niven, Larry — The Flight of the Horse; The Magic Goes Away
Norton, Andre — Witch World; The Year of the Unicorn; The Crystal Gryphon, et al.
Offutt, Andrew — The Iron Lords; Shadows Out of Hell
Pratt, Fletcher — The Blue Star; The Well of the Unicorn
Smith, Clark Ashton — Xiccarph; Lost Worlds; Genius Loci
Stewart, Mary — The Crystal Cave; The Hollow Hills; The Last Enchantment
Stoker, Bram — Dracula
Swann, Thomas Burnett — Cry Silver Bells; The Tournament of the Thorns; Moondust, et al.
Tolkien. J. R. R. — The Hobbit; The Lord of the Rings (trilogy)
Vance, Jack — The Eyes of the Overworld; Dying Earth; The Dragon Masters, et al.
Wagner, Karl Edward — Bloodstone; Death Angel’s Shadow; Dark Crusade, et al.
White, Theodore H. — The Once and Future King
Zelazny, Roger — Jack of Shadows; Lord of Light; Nine Princes in Amber, et al.
Some additional authors of fantasy fiction are:
Beagle, Peter S.
Bok, Hannes
Cabell, James Branch
Carter, Lin
Cherryh, C. J.
Delany, Samuel R.
Fox, Gardner
Gaskell, Jane
Green, Roland
Haggard, H. Rider
Jakes, John
Kunz, Katherine
Lanier, Sterling
McCaffrey, Anne
McKillip, Patricia A.
Moore, C. L.
Myers, John Myers
Peake, Mervyn
Saberhagen, Fred
Walton, Evangeline
Wellman, Manly Wade
Williamson, Jack
Carter, Lin (ed.) — The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories (in several volumes); Flashing Swords (also in several volumes)
Offutt, Andrew (ed.) — Swords Against Darkness (in several volumes)
Borges, Jorge Luis — The Book of Imaginary Beings
Bullfinch, Thomas — Bullfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend

Appendix E

5th Edition D&D, supposedly the “most OSR-like” mainstream D&D ever, has its own list which is essentially an updated Appendix N. In 2014 Matt Staggs authored an article on the modern additions which include Lynch, Pratchett, Martin and even Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. I’ve reproduced the additions below.

Ahmed, Saladin: Throne of the Crescent Moon
Alexander, Lloyd: The Book of Three and the rest of the Chronicles of Prydain series.
Anthony, Piers: Split Infinity and the rest of the Apprentice Adept series
Augusta, Lady Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men
Bear, Elizabeth: Range of Ghosts and the rest of the Eternal Sky trilogy
Brooks, Terry: The Sword of Shannara and the rest of the Shannara series
Cook, Glen: The Black Company and the rest of the Black Company series
Froud, Brian & Alan Lee: Faeries
Hickman, Tracy & Margaret Weis, Dragons of Autumn Twilight and the rest of the Chronicles Trilogy
Hodgson, William Hope: The Night Land
Jemisen, N.K.: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the rest of the Inheritance series, The Killing Moon, and The Shadowed Sun
Jordan, Robert: The Eye of the World and the rest of the Wheel of Time series
Kay, Guy Gavriel: Tigana
King, Stephen: The Eyes of the Dragon
LeGuin, Ursula: A Wizard of Earthsea and the rest of the Earthsea series
Lynch, Scott: The Lies of Locke Lamora and the rest of the Gentlemen Bastard series
Martin, George R.R: A Game of Thrones and the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series
McKillip, Patricia: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
Mieville, China: Perdido Street Station and the other Bas-Lag novels
Peake, Mervyn: Titus Groan and the rest of the Gormenghast series
Pratchett, Terry. The Colour of Magic and the rest of the Discworld series
Rothfuss, Patrick: The Name of the Wind and the rest of the Kingkiller series
Salvatore, R.A.: The Crystal Shard and the rest of The Legend of Drizzt
Sanderson, Brandon: Mistborn and the rest of the Mistborn trilogy
Tolstoy, Nikolai: The Coming of the King
Wolfe, Gene: The Shadow of the Torturer and the rest of The Book of the New Sun


Obviously here at Fictoplasm we’re keen on genre representation and conscious appropriation of literary sources. If the goal of your RPG is to capture the essence of Appendix N (to the exclusion of other sources) then great; but that presupposes that Appendix N is a tightly focused body of work. I’ve not read widely enough to say it is or is not, but aside from some lowest common denominator stuff (the weird of HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, the “amoral vigour” of Leiber and Howard, etc.) I’m struggling to see that focal point.

It makes a lot more sense to treat Appendix N as a point of origin or hub from which your sources will deviate, and Appendix E makes total sense in this case: it’s informed by a changing landscape of new fiction as well as divergent tastes and a critical eye on past omissions — so we get Gene Wolfe, Ursula K Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Scott Lynch, Saladin Ahmed and so on.

The really interesting one is the Moldvay list. Unlike Appendices N and E which have and will persist thanks to market penetration and the availability of the books, that list is a casualty of the gradual metamorphosis of B/X into BECMI (and then the Rules Cyclopedia). But what a brilliant list — a mixture of both fiction and non-fiction, Young Adult and Adult fiction which inclues Alan Garner, Lewis Carroll, Frank L. Baum, Jorges Luis Borges, Mary Renault, E.R. Eddission, Tanith Lee and others.

Now, you could argue that such a list is too long and diverse; but I think that argument only holds if you think Appendix N has an actual point, other than being a collection of (mostly) worthwhile fantasy novels.

Naturally, take the “definitions” implied by such lists with a pinch of salt. After all Vance’s Lyonesse is missing — to be expected having been published in 1983 — although the omission of Harrison’s The Pastel City (1971) has no such excuse.

Episode A.1: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In this very special episode we decided the best way to treat Herman Melville’s classic was to go back to our analogue roots. We discuss open seas, confined spaces, love among the sailors, Ahab the Eternal Champion, and more.

To get your copy please send a stamped self-addressed envelope together with a 50p cheque or postal order to the address given at the end of the podcast.