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