Podcast Monday 20th, Road Edition

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

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

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

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

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

BitR: Days of the Underground

ACFM 19: Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACFM 19: Space

Podcast Sunday 12th September 2021

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

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

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

The Loremen Podcast

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Sword and Sorcery

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

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

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

Things I would expect in sword and sorcery:

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

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

Sword and sorcery, part 1

Love is the Message

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

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

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

Podcast Sunday! 5th September

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

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

Love Is The Message: Huh! Here Comes The Funk

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

Huh! Here Comes The Funk

Common Descent 120: Tyrannosaurs

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

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

Common Descent 120: Tyrannosaurs

Frankenstein’s RPG Podcast 9: Setting and GM Advice

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein’s RPG ep 9: Setting and GM advice

Podcast Sunday: 8th August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elitism in HEMA

Podcast Sunday! 25th July

Man, where did the time go this week?

Frankenstein’s RPG Episode 8, Monsters and Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ep 8: Monsters and Luck

System Mastery 203, Engel RPG

What a disappointment the English language Engel RPG sounds:

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

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

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

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

Still, top entertainment.

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

System Mastery 204: Engel

Podcast Sunday! 18th July 2021

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

Breakfast in the Ruins episodes 28-30

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

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

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

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

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

Good stuff.

Breakfast in the Ruins

Writing Excuses 16.26: Working with Teams

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

Working with teams

Mean by Scene bonus minisode #1

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

minisode #1

Fear of a Black Dragon: Hard Light

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

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

FoaBD: Hard Light

Podcast Sunday! 11th July 2021

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

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


It Happened To Me: Statue

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

It Happened To Me

Revolution comes to the podcast: Game Makers Toolkit

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

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

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

RCTTP: Game Maker’s Toolkit

What would the Smart Party Do: Mike Shea Interview

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

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

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

Return of the Lazy DM

Thocc Podcast 14: Tom

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

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

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


Thocc: Tom’s Interview

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Scenario Design

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

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

Good Friends: Scenario Structures

+1FWD: FitD Summer with John Harper

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

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

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

Summer series FitD: Blades in the Dark

Foldercast: TSRv3

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

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

and apparently Dark Sun doesn’t count


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

TSRv3 and all that

Podcast Sunday! 27th June 2021

That time again

Parody Boris Johnson Podcast: Plebs PMQs feat. Lindsay Hoyle

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

Plebs PMQs 10

Writing Excuses 16.25: Breaking into Games Writing

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

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

Writing Excuses 16.25

+1 FWD: Briar and Bramble

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

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

Briar and Bramble

Frankenstein’s RPG part 7: skills and careers

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

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

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

Episode 7: Skills and Careers

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

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

Daydreaming about dragons s2e78

Side note: ref prep style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast Sunday! 20th June

Pick of what I listened to this week:

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: the Endless

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

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

GFoJE: The Endless

Vintage RPG Podcast: ARC Doom

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

ARC: Doom

Cabinet of Curiosities: Pick a Card

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

Cabinet of Curiosities

The Partial Historians: the Tale of Verginia

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

Partial Historians: Verginia

Podcast Sunday! 13th June

Another week, etc.

Vintage RPG Podcast 119: OSRIC

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

Vintage RPG Podcast: OSRIC

Writing Excuses 16:23 (Rules and Mechanics)

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

16:23 Rules and Mechanics

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

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

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

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

GMS 179: Piracy and POD

Common Descent Podcast 114: Polar Life

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

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

Common Descent 114: Polar Life

(PS. the north pole is a lie)

Podcast Sunday, er, Monday 7th June

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

System Mastery 201: Terror Network

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

System Mastery 201: Terror Network

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

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

Parody Boris Johnson Podcast eps 7 and 8

It Happened To Me: Cult

“I joined a cult and accidentally killed its leader”

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

It Happened To Me

Write Now with Scrivener

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

Write Now

Writing Excuses

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Excuses

Podcast Sunday 30th May


Fear of a Black Dragon: Leviathan

Please deconstruct my premise… now

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

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

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

Fear of a Black Dragon: Leviathan

Fucking Cancelled 13

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

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

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

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

Africa Brooke: Leaving the Cult of Wokeness

Parody BoJo Podcast: 7

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

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

Dom Dishes the Dirt

It Happened To Me: Magic

Love this. No special comments. Listen now.

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

It Happened to Me

System Mastery 200: Marvel Superheroes RPG Redux

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

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

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

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


System Mastery 200

Podcast Sunday 16th May

What I listened to this week!

RPG Design Panelcast: English as our vehicular language

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

RPG Design Panelcast

Frankenstein’s RPG: Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein’s RPG

What Would The Smart Party Do? Shawn Tomkin interview

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

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

What would the Smart Party Do? Shawn Tomkin interview

The Thocc ep. 13: Iammeuru’s interview

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

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

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

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

The Thocc: Iammeuru

Podcast Sunday 9th May

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

The Allusionist 134: Lacuna

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


What Would The Smart Party Do? Mattias Lilja interview

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

WWTSPD: Mattias Lilja

Monster Man Special: The Green Knight

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

The Green Knight

Daydreaming about Dragons: ep 75

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

Daydreaming about Dragons

Dissecting Worlds: Gor

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

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

Starting at the end:

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

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

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

I have to pick up on this from the hosts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissecting Worlds: Gor

Extra: Breakfast in the Ruins and Nand

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

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

Nand on Bandcamp

Podcast Sunday 2nd May

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Typographic

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

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

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

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

FoaBD Unchained Melody

Grognard Files Extra: interview with Tim Harford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLE with Tim Harford

Podcast Sunday

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

Lore 165: On The Line

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

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

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

Listened whilst tidying the kitchen. Jolly good

Lore 165

Allusionist 131: Podlingual

This episode concerns two other multi-lingual podcasters:

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

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

Listened to this one in the bath, really lovely.

Allusionist 131: Podlingual

301 Permanently Moved: The Kraken in the Social Seas

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

The Kraken in the Social Seas

Frankenstein’s RPG 4: Combat and Failing Forward

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

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

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

This is my an alternative perspective:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein’s RPG episode 4

Podcast Sunday 11 April

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

Roleplay Rescue episode 815: Return to Mystamyr

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

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

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

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

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

Ep 815

Revolution comes to the Podcast ep 1

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

RCttP ep 1

Good Friends of Jackson Elias: Cadaver

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

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

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

Episode 204: Cadaver

Daydreaming about Dragons 57: When not to game

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

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

DaD 57

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