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).


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! 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

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 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

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 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

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 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.


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

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. 

StormHack Beta v3

This is the third draft of my OSR game StormHack. 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.


Whitehack by Christian Mehrstam
The Black Hack by David Black
Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games
The Stormbringer RPG (1st edition) by Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin

The Google Slides version is here. Or you can get the pdf here.

I plan to run this with the classic Stormbringer campaign The Madcap Laughs from White Dwarf issues 95-98.

Two books to follow:

  • The Book of Decans will be a bunch of random tables for both generating characters, and game situations based on the almanac of the 36 stations of the night sky. Inspired in part by Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle.
  • Knights of the Husk will be a city and campaign tool of the city above and the Husk below. Inspired by Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip, and of course Viriconium by M. John Harrison, and taking cues from the RPG equivalent In Corpathium from the Last Gasp Grimoire.

Comments welcome, watch this space.

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.


Fictoplasm has concluded its first run of 14 shows, and we’re pleased with the results (even if they’re a bit rough and ready). Right now we’re taking a short break and lining up shows for the second season in early 2017. We’re going to refine the current formula, invite some guest speakers and try a few new things.

In the meantime, a couple of things to share. First, positive messages mean a lot to us so thanks to anyone who’s commented, reshared or liked our stuff on social media. It’s only been three months so we don’t have high expectations, but getting a thumbs up here and there is really nice and encouraging.

Second, we’re always open to suggestions for books and other content, as well as comments. If you want to get in touch our details are on the Contact page here, and we’ll gladly accept your suggestions/comments/abuse in the comment feeds here, on G+ and Facebook, Twitter (@fictoplasm) or you can email me at ralph-at-fictoplasm-dot-net. Let us know what you think, what you’d like to hear more or less of.