Tales from the Floodplain

Dave’s kind words in our #RPGaDay podcast on the 22nd about the card based game I ran a few years ago, made me go to the the darkest depths of my hard drive to see if I could find the files. I’d remembered I had laid them out in Pages, back when it was good. I thought that might be able to convert them to PDF and put them online here.

I found them, and more than that I found I had already made a PDF file that put the system, the adventure and all the cards together. Dave insisted I had made it ten years ago. I said five, and it turns out to have been seven, the file is dated 2011. And therein lies my shame…

I remembered the circumstances of the games creation. On a whim, I decided to participate in a thing called GameChef. Turns out it’s happening again right now, you have a week (two weekends, so actually, nine days) to write and submit a game with a limited word count. Well, YOU don’t because it’s almost finished for this year. But I did, back in 2011. I wrote it, Dave, Andy and I played it, and finding it worked well enough (with me GMing at least), I made it look vaguely pretty and submitted it.

And then went off for a holiday, without properly reading how the judging happens. I came home to find and inbox full of messages chasing my options on the (five?) games I should have judged. It was over. I had missed the deadline. I felt really bad. And put the whole thing out of my mind, until Dave reminded me.

Yeah, thanks Dave.

But there was the PDF, sitting on my hard drive. So I might as well share it, here.

#RPGaDay 31: The end, and the future

“What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?”

The last RPGaDay post for 2017. My fellow The Coriolis Effect presenter, Dave, and I have a plan to respond differently if it runs again next year, which I only thought of about a week into this event. So that’s one thing we are looking forward to.

I think next year will be a year of consolidation. Having launched the podcast this year to great reviews and positivity, we’ll continue with that, we originally planned to do at least 12 episodes. Once those are all on-line we’ll take stock, and decide if we have enough material (and demand) to carry on as a Coriolis ‘cast, or whether it should transform and widen its remit. And after finishing my Fate campaign in November, I’m looking forward to running planned Coriolis sessions, rather than the two at-the-last-minute fill-in sessions that I’ve run so far.

I hope too, that this blog will keep some of the readers that participating in #RPGaDay has attracted. I started it last year in a very lackadaisical manner over a year ago. More recently I’ve been trying to do at least one post a week. And after the discipline of doing one a day this last month, going back to that will feel like a holiday.

Quite apart from games I’ve already mentioned wanting to play: Unknown Armies; more Legend of the Five Rings; Nights Black Agents; and perhaps even Firefly; I hope I get to play, or maybe run, some Star Trek Adventures next year too.

I’ve also got an inkling to go to a go to a foreign convention next year. Or the Kraken.

And towards the end of the year, I’m looking forward to getting Western, yet another translation of a Swedish game. Perhaps the Coriolis Effect should become a Swedish RPG fan-cast?

#RPGaDay 30: are RPG genre mash-ups really necessary?

“What is an RPG genre mash-up that you would like to see?”

Really, I don’t need this. I have’t gamed enough yet, in any one genre*, to be out looking to mash two genres together into something else. I doubt I ever will.

That’s not to say I’m adverse to mash-ups arising naturally through play. But I’m not looking for any publisher to say “Arthurian Myth! Giant Robots! Cool! Buy this! It’s different!” No, it’s not.

I guess the “first world war pilots vs. Alien invaders” campaign I’m running might be described as a “genre mashup” but I’d call it “horror”.

So instead, is there a genre missing from the world of published RPGs? Obviously not, because you can play some RPG in pretty much any genre. But if I were to identify one genre I haven’t ever gamed in, and that I’d like to, I think I would say “Magical Realism” in the tone of 100 Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. (“Magic! Realism! Together! Cool! It’s different!”)

But I don’t need anyone to publish a ruleset for it. I could play it in Fate or Cortex Prime both of which are toolkits for creating the game you want. I probably wouldn’t choose to play it in GURPS, which is too “simulationist” to emulate the narrative magic of the genre. There is a rule system I bought and haven’t yet tried though, which I think might be perfect for the personal and social, occasionally generational narratives of Magical Realism. And that’s DramaSystem, sold in your local store or on-line as Hillfolk. I did toy with running a short campaign based on Sons of Anarchy (“Shakespearean tragedy! Biker gangs! Cool! Different!”). I only tinkered with the idea and it didn’t go anywhere, but reading the system, I know it would work for that show, and thinking back on it, I’m sure it would work for Magical Realism too.

*No, not even European based fantasy

#RPGaDay 29: Top three Kickstarter publishers

Kickstarter is a marvellous thing, which I seriously believe has brought about a Golden Age in gaming. Not everyone agrees that you should pay in advance for games, and neither should you have to. But, because some people do, everybody else gets to buy the game later, on line or in their Friendly Local Games Shop.

And the games! Kickstarter lets publishers reach a small but widely distributed audience to: reissue old classics, like 7th Sea, Feng Shui or Unknown Armies; share novel and “small press” games much more widely, like Sol and Microscope; and, break out beyond domestic markets like Symbaroum, Coriolis, and Western.

It can be habit forming though, so visit the Kickstarter website with some trepidation. I have so far managed to avoid losing money – I stayed well clear of Far West for example, even though it seemed attractively designed. A well-run campaign should be relatively modest. Watching the Call of Cthulhu 7 car crash from a safe distance was morbidly fascinating. (An honourable mention must go to Moon Design for stepping in like first-responder fire-fighters as the new management of Chaosium, to save the game, and the company.)

Today’s question is “What has been the best run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?” The obvious one might be “the one that made the most money, and delivered” which would be 7th Sea. But I don’t actually like the new edition of that game, so that’s not my nomination. I only backed for PDFs, and my reward included every PDF of the first edition that exists so I hold no grudges. I also have to mention Evil Hat’s Fate Campaign, which I didn’t back, so I can’t include here. 

I can’t choose just campaign though. Well, as you’ll see, I can, but I want to shout out to some others along the way. So here are my top three KS publishers:

3. Atlas Games: I bought Feng Shui 2 and Unknown Armies from these guys. Between the two shipping costs rose astronomically. Feng Shui 2 was shipped (beautifully hand-packed I recall) from the states. But I couldn’t afford the shipping on Unknown Armies. They listened to their non-US backers though and came up with a solution late in the day. The products are beautiful. If they had planned better distribution from the outset, they might be higher up the list.

2. Bully Pulpit: for Night Witches and The Warren. I only got PDFs from these guys, but they were beautiful PDFs. And on-time, early even. No fuss. If I’d experienced the print product they might top this list.

And the winner is:

1. Fria Ligan: for Coriolis. Working in partnership with Modiphius for worldwide distribution. They communicated well throughout the campaign and production and made some damn fine products to boot. I admire their KS tactics. Not too many stretch goals, nor too many backer levels, and neither too many nor too diverse rewards. They are Keeping It Simple, Stupid. Doing what they are good at, designing games, not wasting time on all the “Kickstarter Exclusive” ephemera like Mugs, Tee-Shirts, or even custom dice. The antithesis of Call of Cthulhu or Invisible Sun. /rant mode: Invisible bloody Sun, riddle me this Monte Cooke – you design a game for the modern time-poor adult player, who can’t get round a table as often as s/he’d like, and you end up with a hundreds of dollars basic set, that comes with all sorts of shit that you can only use round a table? /rant over. 

Positivity restored – Fria Ligan followed up Coriolis with Tales from the Loop, five time Ennie Award winner, so they must be doing something right. Interestingly, this Swedish publisher only offered a Swedish language version of the game as a stretch goal (which, of course they easily attained).

#RPGaDay 28: A quiz

“What film/series is the biggest source of quotes for your group?”

I’m fifty, most of the people I game with are around my age. I’m not saying we’ve grown out of quoting TV and film, but rather that we’ve seen so many films and TV that the quotes have almost detached themselves from their original source, and become part of our language. And there are a lot of quotes from many many different sources, so though a lot of us like Firefly, for example, not of us could confidently say that it’s a big, let alone the biggest, source of quotes. Not only that, some of the things we say are quotes from previous games.  

So, instead a quiz, ten things that may have been said more than once at out table, a genuine unlicensed reproduction M*rvel No-prize for the first person that can name all the sources for eight of these, and identify which ones have no source (other than our previous games):

“I know him! He’s a friend from work!”

“When three or more are gathered together, then they shall perform the parrot sketch ‘It is a dead parrot'” all “‘It has ceased to be'”

“Stay out of trouble”

“And the answer is, none, none more black”

“Let’s do this the Cornish way”

“If wishes were horses, we’d all be eaten’ steak”
“I have the higher ground!”


“But, I get a re-try”

“Why don’t you all just, fuck off?”

#RPGaDay 27: Essential tools for good gaming

I could get all high-falutin’ here, and talk about the essential qualities players (and GMs, who are players doing a different thing) should possess, but I’m going to take a more prosaic approach. What do I put in a my bag when I go to a game?

The book(s) of course, though as I write “of course” I doubt myself. Ideally I’d know the system so well I could leave the book at home. Even when I don’t crack open a book during play, it sits there on the table, conferring some sort of “authority” through its presence. Is it essential though?

And actually apart from D&D 5th ed, all my games come with PDFs. I used to prefer paper books for actually learning the rules, flicking back and forth between sections seemed tiresome on an iPad, but I notice, more and more recently, that I’m happy with the PDF, so can see a time when the books might stay on my shelves, to peruse at leisure or … maybe just stay in the stores and warehouses. Maybe not though, the iconic power of the core book on the table, like a bible in a church, might be too important to lose. 

More and more though, I use my iPad, as a character sheet store, rules reference and notpad, all in one. I was constantly losing notebooks, and staring another. Now everything I write in OneNote is backed up in the cloud and on every other machine. I use dice rollers too, if I forget my dice, or I’m playing Star Wars games. With the split screen ability (pictured above) of my new Pro, it’s all becoming even easier.  FengShui2 has a combat tracker for the iPad as well, which is very useful when I run that game. So my iPad is perhaps fast becoming the only essential tool. 

It’s not the only thing I take to games though. I carry an All Rolled Up dice roll, with dice, a couple of pens/pencils and a fab thing I’ve forgotten the name of: like a laminated pack of Index Cards that folds out into a whiteboard. Plain on one side, or Fate/Cortex aspects and gridded/hexed on the reverse for maps. 

Tokens of course for the games that use them. I used Chinese coins and black glass beads, but are they essential? Probably not. 

#RPGaDay 26: The Dracula Dossier

“Which RPG provides the most useful resources?”

Is it the core sets that provide the most useful resources? Or is it on-line services, supplements, campaigns etc? After-sales as it were? There are all sorts of ways I could answer this question, but I’m going to talk about published campaigns. And my current favourites are the excellent publications coming out of Pelgrane Press. 

You might think that my definition of “resources” is hand-outs, and indeed the handouts for The Dracula Dossier are splendid. Take, for example, Dracula Unredacted, this hardback edition of Bram Stoker’s novel isn’t like any you can find in your local library. Passages from earlier drafts are reinstated, and indeed new passages are inserted, purporting to be bits that British Military Intelligence redacted from an after-action report of actual events before publication as a “novel” as part of a mis-information campaign. This particular copy though has marginalia written in three different hands, made as agents used this original proof as a source in their own investigations.  

You can also get The Hawkins Papers, a variety of handouts in PDF form, including the letter demanding the redactions of Stoker’s novel. A particular favourite of mine (one page of which is illustrated above) is the letter detailing experiments upon children which keen readers with recognise as the Walkers and Blacketts from Swallows and Amazons, and the Pevenseys from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The PDF document is great, and some lucky (and high spending) Kickstarter backers got hand-made movie quality prop versions. But actually, hand-outs? Schmand-outs! 

These are not the resources I am talking about. 

Rather, the resource that I really value in Pelgrane’s supplements is research, knowledge and thus the appearance of being a shit-hot GM. The Dracula Dossier, and the first published scenario pack I bought, The Zalozhny Quartet are so well researched, by Gareth Rider-Hannrahan and the god-like Ken Hite that there are chock-full of real history and real facts about the real world that GMs can constantly amaze their players. Just throw-away an aside and it will turn out to be, not just important to the story being created but also, when they back up their in-game research with Google on the mobile, it seems the real world has changed to fit the story they are experiencing. 

Case in point: one of my players is a University Professor of Music, to be fair, one who concentrates on 20th century musical theatre. I mentioned that the opera house in Vienna was running “Heinrich Marschner’s Romantic Opera Der Vampyre (1828)” and he went “Marschner didn’t write a Vampire opera, did he?” –goes away and consults whatever university lecturers consult (I assume Google, like the rest of us)– He DID!” My musicologist credentials were assured! 

And again: one of my players serves in the Royal Signals. When they featured in an adventure, all the details were correct to his satisfaction (apart from the fact that he doesn’t get to work in a vampire related listening station). When the characters found a store of guns and ammo in the same place, he was about to complain that they would never be stored that way in the real military, just as I recounted the justification for the basic error that the authors had already supplied me. Boom! I’m a military expert!

One adventure (from The Edom Files) used pre-gens that, we later realised, where real people from the period. Shazam! I appear to be a contributor to the Dictionary of National Biography!

Not only that, they manage to arrange all these elements in a way that makes the adventure the most sandbox-y published adeventures I’ve ever used. The NPCs in The Dracula Dossier all have three description, for example, so you can decide whether being an innocent, and agent of Edom, or a vassal of Dracula on the fly. 

These are what I call “useful resources”. 

#RPGaDay 25: Fun

“What is the best way to thank your GM?”

Have fun.

We’re all here to have fun. A GM is playing the game as much as his or her players. So have fun and show it, let yourself go in role-play. Afterwards tell your GM about your favourite moment. Tell them how it made you feel.

What upsets a GM is bored players, so if you are not having fun feed that back too. But think about what you are feeding back on – it’s about whether or not you were having fun. So don’t criticise their interpretation of a rule just because you know the rules better, or tell them how you would have done something because you are a more experienced GM, rather tell them how whatever the problem was made you feel, and let them work out how to help you enjoy it more the next time.

Be a fan of your fellow players too, enjoy their company and watch them play when you character is out of the spotlight. I don’t mean 100% of the time – RPG sessions are long and everybody needs to switch off for a while, but keep your phone browsing to a minimum.

Above all, have fun.

(Though, if I’m your GM, cash gifts will be accepted)

#RPGaDay 24: Pay what you want

“Share a PWYW RPG publisher who should be charging more”*

I’m not going to presume to advise any publisher upon their business model. But if a mate came an asked me how to go about pricing their first RPG thing, I don’t think I’d suggest Pay What You Want.

One publisher that uses the model, and apparently with some success, is Evil Hat. They have been pretty open about their results in the past, blogging quarterly sales reports until the middle of last year. Looking at the one I linked to, they made almost $200 dollars that quarter out of PWYW sales of Secrets of Cats, a game which I downloaded, paying what I wanted (nothing). I chose to pay nothing because I wanted to preview the game. I thought it might be something my daughter wanted to play. It turned out is wasn’t, or rather, though she expressed an interest in it, we never found the time to play until her interest waned. So I paid the right price, it seems. We never made use of the game.

Conversely, I paid a little over the odds on PWYW for Fate Accelerated. I did that because I’d previously downloaded Fate Core for free, and like it enough that I subsequently bought a print version. I knew though that I’d be happy with the PDF of Accelerated, so I paid something like £5 for it. Which is more than the print version might have cost me.

I can’t speak to Evil Hat’s PWYW strategy, but it must be informed by a few things like:

  • They made more than they expected on the Fate Core Kickstarter (over $400,000, against a $3000 target)
  • Their plan was surely to get Fate into enough hands to make it “mainstream” (with in the RPG niche)
  • Most of the development had already been done during Fate’s time as an online System Reference Document.
  • They would also be selling printed versions through traditional channels.

In short, they offer PWYW because they could afford it. So, if I had worked on an RPG product of some sort and wanted to release it. I’d do one of two things:

  • give a PDF away for free, because I work on it in my spare time, it’s fun and I have a salaried job to support my family. Also I’ll take (limited, I admit) game and glory over cash.
  • sell a PDF for what I think my time was worth via DriveThru, because I want to test the market enough to see if I can give up my day-job eventually. If I discover I’ve priced it too high I can always discount it or lower the price more permanently.

In reality, I like my job well enough, and I like eating every day, so I’d be more likely to go for the first option. In the unlikely event that what I gave away made me famous enough that loads of people wanted to pay me for things, I’d look to platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter to put food on my table.

*edit – the more I reflect on this question, the more annoyed I get. I think that it’s wrong-headed and perpetuates a dangerous misconception: it presumes that publishers offering PWYW are not confident in the value of what they are offering. I don’t think Evil Hat would agree.

#RPGaDay 23: In which I rant (again) about graphic design

Please, please, please, graphic designers and layout artists (or rather, I suspect, commissioning editors), will you just STOP faffing about with overly fussy layout?

Just because the costs of full colour production have come down to meet the price that RPG geeks seem willing to pay for books, it doesn’t mean we need to have colour splashed across every page! Something started going wrong with RPG layout design in the nineties, but I’m not going to look back on the past – rather I’ve going to survey some of the books I’m using now to make my point. Which is, I’ve spent forty years imagining fantasy worlds, I don’t bloomin’ need the page to look like parchment or vellum to evoke the spirit of the game.

RPG books are technical manuals. and you don’t see Haynes setting their text and diagrams against a background of vinyl upholstery to “evoke the spirit” of a Mark II Ford Escort. I want to understand the rules. I want to be able to flick back and forth while I’m learning the game. I want to look stuff up quickly. I might well want to print some pages out to share with players at the table. I want CLEAR, CONSISTENT, INTUITIVE DESIGN. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. I have a lot of love for Coriolis, but why oh why is it all so black?!

Yes, I get “Darkness Between the Stars” and all that but even the main body text is printed on blue. And what’s with all those frames around the body columns? What an extravagant waste of space. The book would be a hundred pages shorter if it was printed black on white.

It seems to be a particular problem for science fiction RPGs. Traveller in its very first edition was the epitome of elegant simplicity. The latest version from Mongoose, while edited so much better than their first version, is full of fussy design.

Well at least its not black, but we’re not going to be using those pages to mapping out the galaxy so why are the covered in hexes? And that the hell is that metallic-edged starfield at the top and bottom of the page meant to be anyway? An extremely thin window in your spaceship?

Firefly, laid out by the brilliant Daniel Solis, at least pushes the graphic fluff to the edges of the page. And also takes its inspiration from some of the interfaces seen on that short-lived TV show.

The “telephone directory”* tabs on the edge of the page help you navigate the book, and some of the graphic elements are actually there to explain the rules, in this case how the dice pools work.

I like those graphic tabs on the edges of pages, so I get particularly annoyed when some sort of graphic element used there has no point at all. Will the current offender, Symbaroum, please take the stand:

This and the entirely unnecessary “parchment” effect spoil an otherwise nice, understated design that lets evocative art take centre stage. There’s even a little design element that I really like on this page. See that little notch in the illustration, up near the top of the page? That appears only where the title in the text is the thing being illustrated, taking the place of a caption.

Readers can do without most of these other useless graphic elements. And the Warren proves it.

Simple, one-column text, using colour to differentiate examples. Full page illustrations on opposite pages, only rarely is their an illustration on the same page as text, and where it happens, frankly it spoils the design. Far better are the quotes from rabbit related literature.

The Warren though, is a short game, and longer texts can make navigation easier with graphics. Fate is, I think, one of the best designed examples.

Telephone style tabs on the page edges work better in this book than in Firefly or any other book they’ve appeared in. I think that’s because of the simple black and white design, which makes for very clear blocks on the closed book. Pelgrane uses a similar feature for Night’s Black Agents, but its less useful there because its impossible to remember which chapter a rule might be in. Another thing I like about Fate is the marginalia, pointing making it really easy to find definitions or related rules. In the PDF of course, these are all hotlinks.

All in all I think Fate is the best designed RPG ever. But that doesn’t stop me giving credit to the clean design of Unknown Armies third edition.

This from a scan of the book, because the PDF is subtly different, with hot links to all the different chapters down the edge of the page. But you can see this uses the margins to point to related rules too. An honourable mention goes to small presser Phil Day’s Sol, which was an attempt to push RPG deign in a different direction, a 21cm tall 9cm wide  pocket sized handbook is all you need to play, with a character sheet on a fold-out back cover. Stark two colour design, showcased some effective black and white illustration. Here’s one double page spread:

But… but the closest I ever came to a jaw dropping RPG layout, I admit, commits most of the sins I rail against above. Not only that, the typeface is a couple of points too small for comfortable reading. I saw this PDF on special offer for just £5, a LOT cheaper than usual. I had no intention of playing it. But I fell in love with it, as I’ve recounted elsewhere. It’s Legend of the Five rings, in all its full colour “lets print a ‘paper’ texture onto our paper” glory.

Now, I run it, I play it, and I’ve spent too much on buying it. Its not the best RPG design, but I think its my favourite.

*A note for younger readers. Once upon a time people had to write down the addresses and telephone numbers of the people they wanted to stay in touch with, in a little book.