Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The Elephant in the Room

This is a short game originating from a throwaway comment about killer whales and Agatha Christie mysteries... yes, the mind is a mysterious thing indeed.

The Room

Image result for victorian parlourYou'll need 4 or more players for this game: the more of you there are, the longer the game will take though, so 6 is probably the optimum number, but as many as 8 could work. If there are more of you, split into two groups to keep things manageable.

As with many other short games on this blog, the first thing you need is a situation, but pick something unusual rather than mundane, such as:

  • A board meeting for a company in dire straits.
  • A parlour where the detective has gathered all the suspects in a murder.
  • A team changing room at half-time.
  • A family therapy session.
  • A dorm in a prisoner-of-war camp.
  • A political leader's office at a time of crisis.
It's best to pitch one of these examples when you suggest playing this game, along with suggested characters that the players might want to portray, e.g. in the last example, you would want a President or Prime Minister, Head of the Armed Forces, Chief Treasurer, a spin doctor, leader's spouse, etc. Get everyone to choose roles and make themselves comfortable.

The Elephant

Image result for elephantThere's one catch to the above situation, an absurdist element that simply wouldn't happen in real life and which the characters in the Room are mostly ignoring: we'll call this the Elephant. After choosing the situation and the characters who are present, introduce the Elephant, which could be one of the following or something of your own devising:
  • The Room is flooded and the water level is rising.
  • There is another character in the Room, who is actually an elephant (or other creature, monster, etc)
  • The Room has terrible, cheap movie continuity and details about it keep changing.
  • The apocalypse is taking place in some form just outside the Room.
  • There's a dead body lying across a table in the centre of the Room.
  • Everyone in the room is wearing a fancy Easter bonnet.
For example, it is the parlour of an English country house and all the suspects are gathered to hear the great detective unravel a most perplexing murder; various suspects are seated or standing in the room, including one who is really a killer whale in a suit, with a false mustache.

The Conversation

To begin playing, deal out two rows of cards onto the table: one row should be face up and the other face down, with the number of cards in each row the same as the number of players, e.g. if you have 5 players, then there should be a row of 5 face up cards and a row of 5 face down cards, for 10 cards in total.

There is no set turn order to the game and anyone can take a turn at any time, but each turn must take one of these three distinct forms:
  • Dialogue: say something in character, addressing it to another character or the entire room, but do not mention the Elephant. When you use Dialogue, turn a face down card over, so that it is face up.
  • Action: describe what is happening in the room, whether as an aspect of the environment or what an NPC is doing, but you must include the Elephant. When you use Action, turn a face up card over, so that it is face down.
  • Panic: say something in character and/or take direct action in character, but you must include the Elephant. When you use Panic, remove a face up card from the table and return it to the pack.
Continuing the above example, we might see a series of turns as follows:
Image result for hercule poirot mitchell webbGreat Detective: "In actual fact, Madame Crozier was really... Monsiuer Crozier!" (Turns a face down card over)
Brash Suitor: "Great Scott! That explains these adoption papers!" (Turns a face down card over)
Ambitious Priest: The killer whale also acts surprised and knocks over the tea things while flapping its tail. (Turns a face up card over)
Brash Suitor: I turn to the killer whale and say "Steady on old chap, you splashed cream on my best trousers!" (Removes a face up card from the table)

The Finale

Continue as above until, after any turn, all the cards on the table are either face up or face down: the game ends the instant this happens and no further turns may be taken. The situation is then resolved according to the final state of the cards on the table:
  • All Face Up: the characters resolve the situation in their collective best interests, or at that very least survive it, but the Elephant may not be mentioned in the conclusion.
  • All Face Down: the Elephant is the biggest influence on the situation in the end, overturning or destroying the situation in the process.
Agree on an appropriate ending under those constraints and narrate it as a group to end the game.

In the finale of the previous example, the two possible outcomes might be:
  • All cards face up: the Great Detective unmasks the murderer, who is arrested, while the other characters express their astonishment.
  • All cards face down: the killer whale attacks the Great Detective before they can reveal the murderer's identity, then swims out to sea to be rid of its human disguise.
 I could say much more about the mechanics of the game, but then I'd have to remove a face up card from the table and return it to the deck.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Oil & Water

This is another reskin of Blood & Water, taking inspiration from sources as disparate as the 50th Anniversary of the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the TV series Humans and the musical performances of Steam Powered Giraffe; enjoy.

Service Manual

Image result for steam powered giraffe
The fabulous Steam Powered Giraffe crew
In this version of the game, the residents are all mechanical lifeforms who have found their way to each other with the common cause of hiding the truth of their existence from the human race in general and learning what it truly means to be alive. Choose a house as usual, but keep in mind the specific needs of androids & robots over supernatural creatures: they must have access to some kind of technology to maintain themselves, as well as to be viable creations in the first place.

The service manual for each character is quite different from the resident's book: not only are there different questions to answer, there are also different assumptions made about the characters throughout. On the first page, replace the normal introductory statements with the following:

I am... a brief statement about the resident's assumed human identity, e.g. "I am Petra, a bank clerk."
But I was made... a short history of their origins, indicating when they were originally built and for what purpose, e.g. "But I was made in 1951 as part of a project for the Festival of Britain."
I gained freedom when... the circumstances that separated the character from their original creator and purpose, e.g. "I gained freedom when I was scrapped due to a clerical error made by an obtuse civil servant."

The front page questions are more directed in nature than for other hacks, but you should only answer two out of three of them, leaving the other one blank. Choose whichever two you like, but consult with the other players while doing this to avoid excessive overlap of themes and stories.

I am hunted by... because... name the person or organisation that is seeking you out and state what they want from you; it could be your creator trying to reclaim their greatest work, a shadowy government agency determined to end your existence or another artificial life-form trying to secure your co-operation in their great plan to upgrade themselves. Pick something you don't want to be involved in though, so you have an incentive to hide yourself and assume a cover identity.

I cannot refuse to... describe a hard-wired instruction, some standing order you must obey when the circumstances require; it might be that you cannot refuse to fight when ordered or perhaps you cannot stand by and allow accidents to happen. It might even be something relatively trivial, like you can't refuse to do housework or drive a vehicle, but there should be plenty of opportunities for this programming to mess up your  artificial life.

I need... in order to... choose some substance, maintenance or other activity that you require in order to operate at full efficiency; maybe you need to recharge every hour for your sensors to be fully functional, or you have to be regularly oiled in order to stay mobile; perhaps you have to be fed printed words in order to retain the power of speech, or you lose directional control if you are not electromagnetically shielded. Pick some awkward design drawback that you have to continually compensate for in order to function optimally.

Image result for humans channel 4
Channel 4's Humans
On the second page, in place of the usual Strengths & Weaknesses, there are Functions & Flaws: these work in very much the same way, but you should think mechanically when choosing them. Functions represent abilities your robotic-resident possesses that human beings don't, whereas Flaws are things that humans can do easily which your resident struggles to do. Sample Functions might include superior strength, toughness or enhanced senses, along with being able to interface with and control other machines; sample Flaws are an inability to pick up small items without breaking them, being magnetic, overheating and slow, ponderous movement.

For the third page, the questions change entirely from the norm, like so:

What don't I know that I want to learn? This could be the secret of the resident's origin, the location of their creator, a way to change their programming or something more mundane, like how to reciprocate love or develop a sense of humour.
             What's stopping me? Pick an obstacle to this goal, something that complicates the matter beyond just "I don't know how." Perhaps someone is deliberately standing in their way or they lack a vital module that will enable them to learn what they want and put it into practice; they might even be wary of the truth, for fear that it will prove too much for them and they will revert to a previous, non-free willed state.

What do I know that I want to forget? Something the resident  has learned that they wish they hadn't, like a knowledge of their own life-span, the secret of a dangerous technology or a dark secret from their past; on the mundane side, perhaps they want to forget the truth they have learned about a human's lies or some intimately embarrassing confession that has been made to them.
             What's stopping me? Choose a reason why the resident can't just forget: is there some pressing action they need to take with this knowledge? Are they the only one who knows this secret, so they must guard it? Could it be of use in the future, so they must carry the knowledge until then? Or are they just learning a lesson about responsibility and accepting the consequences of their actions?

The optional question on this page are also slightly changed:
What do I like to do? A hobby or activity the resident enjoys.
What don't I like to do? A task or chore they loathe.
Who is my human role model? A real person or fictional character they aspire to be like.
What do I fear most? An event or contingency they wish to avoid and have made plans for.

The gist of the game is a little bit different: none of the characters have a human past (though they might have human memories that have been downloaded into them...) so they are all trying to create a space for themselves within modern society. The humans around them generally have no clue that the residents are robots, but if the secret were to leak out, it's likely that the residents' pretence would be shattered and they would have to move on, obtaining new identities... unless they can plug the leak somehow, by discrediting or erasing the witness, perhaps?

The game is more likely to have a humourous tone too, as the residents learn obvious lessons about being human, but this can change to tragedy in an instant, with the residents causing enormous harm to the people around them through their ignorance of the human condition and human frailty. It's worth having a more in-depth talk than usual about the type of game you want to play and where you draw the lines: how much collateral damage is it allowable for the residents to be responsible for? And how far can they go in protecting their secrets?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Flotsam & Jetsam

I opened my house to some players on the Saturday before the Bank Holiday for a game of Blood & Water using the first ever printed copy! Such excitement! I pitched a game set around being students in their first year, but once we sat around the table, this loose concept evolved into students at Berkeley in California during the 1960s, continuing the theme of supernatural equality that has crept into many of my games of late. The players and their characters were:

Image result for berkeley california 1960sElaine as Alyssa, a Witch: she gained her powers when she read a forbidden book she found in the library and gained a unique understanding of all things, plus the ability to practice ritual magick.
Daniel as David, a transformed dog: an escaped lab animal who had become human during an experiment that went wrong and felt caught between the human & canine worlds.
Jane as Yukiko, a Japanese umbrella: after 100 years, the umbrella spontaneously generated a soul, which manifested as a young Japanese woman, who sadly was immaterial and could only interact with the world via the umbrella she could not be separated from.
Lloyd as James, a Deep One: sent to dry land to study the human race in depth, he yearned to return to his family and the sea he felt outcast from.

There was also me playing Spencer, their beach house: as Yukiko had the power to speak to all things, it only made sense to give their home a voice of it's own, which turned out to be that of an ageing stoner who treated the furnace in the basement as his personal bong.

We opened on the last day of the winter break before college recommenced in early January, in an unspecified year taking place in an alternative 1960s (you'll see why later...) when the housemates discovered a beach full of dead fish, attracting protesters and the somewhat over-bearing local news journalist/anchorman Brad Rock. He wormed his way into the house by making friends with David the Dog but was immediately taken with Alyssa the Witch, pressuring her into an interview that did not end well, leaving Brad with an axe to grind against the housemates. Also around this time, James the Deep One was pulled into the sea by Dagon, who instructed his servant that the Prophet was coming; meanwhile, Yukiko the Umbrella saved some driftwood from the furnace, determined to restore it into whatever it once was... and also finding out from Spencer that the last owner of the house had "exploded."

The evening news did not put the housemates in a good light, implying that they might be some type of free-loving Communist coven; also, some further probing of Spencer revealed that exploding residents was "a thing", but only ever on the full moon after the winter solstice (the next night) and even then, only to humans, so David, Yukiko and James relaxed, at least until Alyssa marshaled them with a plan of action best labelled "Operation Don't Explode." James also tried to use his contacts with the Cult of Dagon to try to get Brad bumped off, but Lloyd was unable to convince them to expose themselves for him without getting something big from him in return.

They arrived at college the next day intent on hitting the library, but their path was strewn with thorns, or at least one thorn: Brad Rock was on campus, attempting a serial exposé of the un-American practices taking place among the students. Fortunately David was able to renew his friendship with Brad, providing a distraction the rest of them used to hit the books, looking into "Causes of Spontaneous Human Explosion"; when David & James had to go to a philosophy lecture, Alyssa & Yukiko carried on looking for information in the books, finding out that James' "Prophet" would need "Eyes to see far, a Heart to hold the truth and a Tongue to share it with all."

Image result for beach houseThe lecture turned out to be a bad experience for James, who got into an argument with Charlie, another student who kept on making counter-points to everything the professor said: when James tried to cow him into silence, it was he who got a brow-beating from the professor for trying to stifle the free exchange of ideas! This spilled over into the cafeteria at lunchtime: when the housemates got back together to compare notes, they were interrupted by an intense debate between Brad and Charlie about the state of the American People and Yukiko & Alyssa suggested that either of the debaters could be the Prophet! Campus security cracked down on the debate, fearing unrest taking hold on the campus, and somehow David managed to invite Brad and Charlie back to the beach house that night to record their debate for TV!

Then we had a montage: Yukiko recycling flotsam & jetsam in her room, David setting out bowls for everyone to drink from, Alyssa starting her 'don't explode' ritual as she felt the house throb and pulse around her, while outside, as night fell, some locals prepared for a party on the beach by building a huge bonfire out of everything they found (a traumatic time for Yukiko!) Finally, the big moment arrived, with Charlie arriving with his girlfriend Sharon, while Brad came with his PA and cameraman and they settled down on bean bags in the front room. As the mystic energies of the Full Moon arose and Alyssa tried to harness them to work her will upon the world, instead of exploding, Brad turned out to be intelligent, compassionate and persuasive: James decided he couldn't stand the thought of Brad being the Prophet, so he tipped the scales in Charlie's favour during the debate. Charlie responded by saying that he admired Brad for his vision, his compassion and his commitment to telling the truth and, as that was just what he needed, he gave Sharon the order to slit Brad's throat so that he could begin harvesting his organs for the ritual that would make him Prophet!

At this moment, the cosmic energies peaked and Alyssa attempted to seize control of them: engaging in a struggle for mystic dominance against Charlie, (also knows as Charles, of course, or Mr. Manson) she was victorious and asserted her will through three increasingly hard wishes. First, she restored Brad to life (Charlie dissipated into atoms at this point); second, she made Yukiko a real human being; third, she gave James all of Dagon's power! With much of what they wanted achieved, they wiped their brows, before there was a knock at the door... the revellers from the beach were there, this time wearing their ceremonial robes and, with the bonfire ablaze behind them, declared "We want the witch."


Thanks to all who played and ate my veggie chilli; apologies to Lloyd for continually bumping into him, I'll have to find a better position for him the next times he comes.

Monday, 22 August 2016

A Quiet Night In

File this under 'Playsets That Never Were': it's one of two rough ideas for playsets that I toyed around with as additional content for Blood & Water but just couldn't quite make the concept gel. I think Nick Reynolds had the right idea in pitching a strong, distinctive setting for the game and going from there as usual, which is the approach I use myself at conventions now and I recommend to anyone else wanting to give a taster of the game to others.

Still, there's this...

The Best Laid Plans

Morgan, Tara, Walter and Jean share a house in an unassuming part of town: they keep themselves to themselves and have undemanding jobs that pay the bills. Also, they are not human: Morgan is a banshee, who is drawn towards the dying; Tara is a succubus, who feeds upon male lust; Walter is a djinn, who just can't stop himself from granting wishes; and finally, Jeanette is host to a legion of disembodied spirits who need to be contained lest they inflict great harm upon the world.

It's best for all of them if they have as little contact with the human race as possible, but's what best is not always what's done and compromises must sometimes be made. Tonight, they are all going to get very compromised.

This playset provides the complete resident's book for each of the above four characters, plus suggestions for the mediator to weave this into an appropriate narrative for a one-shot.

Better Off Dead

Colin Morgan as Morgan O'Neill
I am...   Morgan O'Neill, a banshee.
But I was... a paramedic with stress problems.
I crossed over when... I was taking an emergency case back to the hospital when the ambulance I was in crashed and something crossed over from the patient to me.

I cannot be with mortals because... the more intimate I become with them, the more aware I become of how long they have left to live.
but I'm held back by... my old mates from the Aston Villa supporters club; I keep trying to encourage them to live a healthier lifestyle.
I cannot be with my own kind because... they operate in total secrecy and I don't know anything about them or how I came to be like this.
but I'm drawn in by... the Whisperer, a strange entity I have seen watching me from the shadows but have never been able to catch.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I become invisible in shadows & darkness; nothing escapes my hearing; I can tip the scales of life & death.
Weaknesses are... I get disturbing impressions of how people will die; the sight & smell of raw or cooked meat makes me sick; whenever I try to smile, it looks forced & unnatural.

What do I want that I don't have? An intimate relationship.
What's stopping me from getting it? I just can't stop trying to 'fix' the life of anyone I date.
What do I have that I don't want? A chest freezer full of steaks, burgers, chicken wings & sausages.
What's stopping me from losing it? I'm holding it all for the AVFC fan club, as they have nowhere else to put it.

To do... prepare the house for guests, as the AVFC are coming around to watch a European league match tonight.

The Centre of Attention

Antonia Thomas as Tara Effe
I am...   Tara Effe, a succubus.
But I was... a sex worker.
I crossed over when... I was stabbed by a client, but the pendant left to me by my grandmother saved my life, at a price.

I cannot be with mortals because... heterosexual men are drawn to me and keep trying to win my attention.
but I'm held back by... needing to work; at least the call centre I work in now is nearly all-women and I have a female boss.
I cannot be with my own kind because... they keep encouraging me to punish all mortals harshly for their transgressions.
but I'm drawn in by... the Goddess Isis; she protects me and keeps my heart beating.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I can remove a mortal's inhibitions for a time; my kiss makes people lose their short term memory; I can make any adult male who is attracted to me do exactly what I say.
Weaknesses are... I can't help attracting the attention of men who like women; my body temperature far exceeds the human norm and I always feel too hot; I am indebted to Isis for giving me my life.

What do I want that I don't have? A way to avenge myself on the man who tried to kill me.
What's stopping me from getting it? His father is a powerful local figure, with connections to the police and politicians; the whole thing has been brushed under the carpet.
What do I have that I don't want? I have been commanded by Isis to seduce a holy man, as part of her plan to regain her worshippers.
What's stopping me from losing it? When I disobey Isis, she punishes me by with-holding my life essence.

To do... prepare the house for guests, as the girls from work (including your boss Vivian) are coming around for a product party, where you can all get make-overs and try out different looks.

What You Wish For

James McAvoy as Walter Allen
I am...   Walter Allen, a painter & decorator.
But I was... a powerful djiin.
I crossed over when... A mortal tried to steal my powers for himself, but it didn't have the result he expected and I ended up possessing the empty shell of his body.

I cannot be with mortals because... I don't really understand their idiom and keep taking what they say too literally.
but I'm held back by... my fascination with their lives; this is much more liberating than being a djinn and the mortals don't know the fun they're missing out on!
I cannot be with my own kind because... they have rejected me since I was bested by a mortal sorcerer and imprisoned in this form.
but I'm drawn in by... my desire to reconnect with my great love Azrael; now that I am unbound by my djinni oaths, I can dream of us being free together.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  I can summon forth any material or object that I can picture clearly; I can hold time still for a few moments; I can change my shape into that of anyone I have a picture of; I can create fires hot enough to burn absolutely anything.
Weaknesses are... Fires tend to get out of control when I'm around; I can't resist giving people exactly what they ask for; I can be bound or repelled by simple rituals or tokens; water burns me like acid.

What do I want that I don't have? Freedom for all my people.
What's stopping me from getting it? They're so set in their ways, they all see 'freedom' as chaos & anarchy.
What do I have that I don't want? I've taken on two clients at once, who both want a rush job on their new interior designs.
What's stopping me from losing it? If I break the contract with either of them, or let them down, my professional reputation will be in tatters.

To do... finish the two design proposals you have on your plate, with both clients e-mailing changes and revisions at every step.
Also, someone is coming around to fix a blocked pipe: everyone else in the household keeps leaving the organisation of these little jobs in your hands, as you work from home a lot anyway (and no-one ever knows which personality will be in control of Jean at any time.)

We're In This Together

Christina Ricci as Jean Bailey
I am...   Jean Bailey, a host to dispossessed spirits.
But I was... the rebellious daughter of rich parents.
I crossed over when... I got into a crowd of disaffected youth like myself; an experiment with drugs & occult rituals brought me to death's door but I came back with unwelcome guests.

I cannot be with mortals because... I never really know when one of the spirits will take control of my body and make me do something awful or embarrassing.
but I'm held back by... needing to find a way to get rid of my guests, maybe by helping them to complete their unfinished business.
I cannot be with my own kind because... there is no-one like me, but there are other ghosts who keep trying to join the crowd in my body.
but I'm drawn in by... needing to know more about the afterlife and the otherworld; maybe I can find an escape clause somehow.

My supernatural...
Strengths are...  When 'Simon' possesses me, I have x-ray vision; when 'Laughing Bag' possesses me, I can move objects with the power of my mind; when 'Baby' possesses me, I become completely insubstantial; when 'Mr. Pelt' possesses me, I am inhumanly strong & fast.
Weaknesses are... When 'Simon' possesses me, I get the urge to correct what everyone says; when 'Laughing Bag' possesses me, I get the urge to play nasty tricks; when 'Baby' possesses me, I become completely insubstantial; when 'Mr.Pelt' possesses me, I must spill blood.

What do I want that I don't have? A good night's sleep, free of nightmares.
What's stopping me from getting it? The other spirits possessing me get up to all kinds of things when I sleep.
What do I have that I don't want? Ms. Paley, a 'fixer' who works for my parents and keeps interfering in my life.
What's stopping me from losing it? The only way they'll call her off is if I go home and face the music, which could mean one of my 'guests' hurting them.

To do... have a spiritual consultation with Paul Grace, a self-proclaimed exorcist & occultist with a degree in divinity; he's coming around tonight.

Let's Get This Party Started!

Take a good look over those residents with a mediator's eye: you should already see some potentially troublesome issues cropping between them, e.g. Tara makes people lose their inhibitions and say whatever is on their minds, but Walter keeps trying to give people whatever he thinks they want; Jean has a problem with the spirits possessing her but Morgan can tips the scales of life & death. That's just the tip of the iceberg though, we haven't even got to the clash of guests coming around to the house tonight:
  • The AVFC fan club: four mates of Morgan's, all men, here to wish their team the best in the match tonight whilst necking a load of food & booze that Morgan stores here for them.
  • The girls from the call-centre: five of the women Tara works with, including Vivian her boss and Suzanne, a girl who is getting married soon.
  • The plumber: he's coming around to clear a blockage, which means finding exactly where it is for one thing. As Walter was stuck with calling for him, Walter is also stuck with showing him around the house, but Walter has work he'd rather be getting on with.
  • The exorcist: found by Jean on the internet, he's here to consult with her, but she's hoping to get an exorcism out of it too, they just need some peace & quiet.
Not enough? Here are more problems:
  • When Morgan's mates get a look at Tara, they will hardly be able to think of anything else and will keep finding excuses to bust in on the product party in the other room. Morgan will barely be able to stay in the room with them once they start tucking into their bacon butties and chicken burgers, so another housemate might have to police this.
  • The woman providing the products for the product party is actually Ms. Paley: though introduced as a friend of one of the girls, she has deliberately inserted herself here to find out more about the type of people that Jean is living with and report back to her parents.
  • The plumber and the exorcist are about to arrive at the same time, quite possibly describing why they are here in roughly the same terms to whoever opens the door, i.e. "I was called about the problem; you wanted something clearing?" Hilarious confusion may ensue.
Honestly, there are more potential threads here than you could hope to resolve in an entire day of playing and you will likely find your own story from the elements contained within the residents' books, without needing anything extra. The key aspect of play is keeping everything within the house: if any housemate tries to run out to do an errand, then complicate it by having one of the guests from the two parties accompany them, e.g. any member of the AVFC could follow Tara or attempt to find out more about her from one of the housemates, or Suzanne could come out for a breath of fresh air, looking for someone to confide her wedding nerves to, or have a last fling with!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Nightmare Housemates from Hell!

My second full game is now available on DrivethruRPG: Blood & Water is an original, stand-alone game, not a PbtA hack or indeed a hack of or supplement for any other existing system. Here's the back cover blurb:

There’s this werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who share a house... but this is no joke. As it turns out, death is not the end for everybody, though it usually puts an end to your social life. Somewhere between being human and being a monster you’ll find the characters in this game: people who cannot return to the family they knew but aren’t ready to embrace the thing they have become. They say that blood is thicker than water, but when your own blood turns against you, you have to find a new kind of family, one who will accept you for what you are.

The inspiration for the game come from two sources, which fused in my head several years ago and dropped the idea on me from out of the blue. Firstly, I was a huge fan of the BBC TV series Being Human, as no doubt many of you can tell from the references in the blurb above: it was a skillful blend of the supernatural and the mundane, positing that undeath did not mean the end of your life. Over five seasons, they peeled back the layers of the everyday world to expose the things that creep underneath, with our viewpoint characters being a trio of once-human-now-supernatural beings who had to find their own ways through the strange new world they had been plunged into. The focus was on how they could balance their desire to live a normal life with the demands & vulnerabilities of their new forms, plus those who shared it with them: Mitchell the vampire was seen as a potential new leader by his own kind to begin with, while George the werewolf desperately tried to ignore his wild side and rejected others like himself. Even Annie the ghost struggled to come to terms with her mortality as she uncovered some terrible truths about her ultimately shallow & selfish ex-boyfriend. Watching the show really put me in the mood to play a game like that, but I didn't know where to begin.

Then along came Monsterhearts, which tore apart some of the traditions of RPGs: dark, messy, conflicted relationships were right at the heart of the drama and sexual attraction ran rife among these young, hot, inhuman heroes & anti-heroes. As with all my favourite games, you built the situation from the characters chosen by the players, instead of getting the players to make characters to fit the situation you had created. Everything stemmed from the characters' decisions and actions, snowballing forward in a clusterfuck of hormones, angst and rebellion against the norm.

I toyed with the idea of using Monsterhearts to pitch a Being Human-style game, but like most PbtA games, Monsterhearts set up histories, small nuggets of backstory that loosely bound the PCs together, but these were often adversarial: it pre-loaded the game with PvP conflict, which was great for that style of game but didn't entirely suit the themes of Being Human. To me, the latter adopted an 'Us vs. The World' mentality, with the main characters bonded together in their shared desire to live as human a life as possible and not succumb to the temptations offered by their inhuman nature: they were recovering, co-dependent addicts in a world of triggers just tempting them to relapse.

Being Human (BBC)
This idea crystallised in my head as I reached the end of the first Monsterhearts campaign I played in and I recalled the wise words of a fictional character: you have to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back. All of a sudden, the bare bones for the basic mechanics of the game I wanted to play clicked into my head, taking a little inspiration by way of the trust mechanics in many excellent games like The Mountain Witch and Cold City. Rather than play around with bonuses accrued by placing trust in the other characters, what if you literally got another player to roll the dice for you? Any victory was yours, but their character had to foot whatever bill you ran up in the process.

That was the seed of the idea I took to Indiecon that year: a page of A4 with the rules in annotated bullet point form and some hand written character questionnaires to be filled in. Luckily, I got some players: even more luckily, the game worked, with only one minor tweak needed to how dice-roll modifiers were applied. I went home from the convention with nearly as many notes about the game as rules for it and began to write things out properly, putting in suggestions for how to create characters and their situation. One of the interesting things that developed was the emphasis on getting the players to draw a house-plan of the home their characters shared: I'd picked up this mapping technique from other story games and was using something similar in The 'Hood, the urban crime game I was also developing at this time.

The real mark of success for Blood & Water came when I realised that not only were some of the people I had run the game for now running it for their friends, but some of  those people were now running it for their friends. This is also about the time I started getting asked "When are you publishing it?" on a regular basis, so this went to the top of my list for rigourous playtesting and expanded content to support potential GMs and players. Along the way, another source of inspiration popped up by way of the excellent dark comedy mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows: though very different in tone to the other sources, it fit well within the parameters the game design allowed for and it was nice to see other people who had played the game pointing out how well it would work with this.

The final and by far the trickiest part of writing Blood & Water was the section on guidance & advice for the GM: analysing how I ran the game for others and then codifying that in some way seemed like an impossible task, much like trying to see the back of your own head. As part of this, I was determined to create a quick-start playset, intended for conventions and other one-shot situations, but the harder I tried, the less enthused I became with that prospect: the real joy of the game comes from the collaborative creation of characters and their situation. In the end, I decided it was better to commit to that vision entirely, rather than drop a bunch of oven ready PCs onto new players and tell them "Here's the scenario you have to play through."

What We Do in the Shadows
The thing I like the most about Blood & Water is that I haven't grown tired of it: it's a situation creator with endless possibilities that copes with a range of tones from slapstick comedy to appalling tragedy, often at the same time. Every time I've sat down with it, I've had no idea what's going to happen, even with players I've know for years, and each time it's created a bunch of unforgettable moments that people still talk about away from the table months or years later.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016


This is a short freeform ideally suited for 3 or 4 players in a comfortable location: some prep is required, but this can also serve as an excuse to bust out the art & craft skills of your group. If you use this as a lunchtime or teatime game, you can add culinary skills to the mix too.

Meet & Greet

Before you can play, you need to agree upon a situation the game will explore: something simple and domestic works best, but you can add genre elements to this in order to spice things up.
  • Meeting the significant other's parents... and you're all vampires.
  • A neighbourhood watch meeting... in a post-apocalyptic world.
  • Tea after the weekly church service... for the Cult of Dagon.
  • A baby shower... for the mother of The Foretold One.
  • A monthly book group meeting... for superheroes and their sidekicks.
Additional genre elements don't change any of the rules that follow and you get no additional mechanical benefit or penalty from them, no matter how much you think you should, e.g. if you are
playing a telepath, you get to add that as colour to your narration but you can't actually use that ability as leverage against the other players to find out what their characters are thinking.

 Try to pick a situation that accords with your play setting, not something that jars with it strongly: convincing yourself that you are sitting on the bridge of a starship is a lot harder with a coffee table, bookcase and chintzy wall-paper looking back at you. If you're playing in your front room, then set your game in a location that resembles that as far as possible.

As part of selecting the situation, everyone must also select the characters they will play, e.g. if going through the classic 'meet the parents' set-up, then you need a parent or two, their child and their child's new partner. It's almost inevitable here that characters will diverge from players and some of you will end up playing a role that is much younger or older than your own, or that is at the very least dressed differently from you... but if you can go the whole hog, prepare the game in advance and get into costume, go for it!

The last bit of prep requires some printing or drawing, as well as cutting and sticking: try doing this as a group activity too! What you want is a series of cartoon mouths each depicting a different emotional state, including at least one of  each to represent happy, sad, angry and shocked, but add more to taste. Glue each of these onto a lolly stick or use Blu-Tack to affix them to a ruler or the handle of a paint brush, then place them so that everyone can reach them easily. You will also need some small paper hearts, also with Blu-Tack on them: give two of these to each player at the start of the game and place the rest with the mouth-pieces.

Speak for Yourself

You play Mouthpiece as a series of dialogues, with two characters taking centre stage while they discuss a topic, but you don't always get to speak for your own character: each of you takes a turn to be the Interlocutor, who frames a dialogue that they want any two characters to have, including their own. You can pick a topic and suggest it, or you can just say which two characters you want to hear from and leave it to them what topic they discuss.

Every player always gets to portray what their own character is doing, acting this out if possible, but narrating their actions otherwise; this is the case whether your character is part of a dialogue at the time or not, so even when you have not been selected to speak, you may still act your role, you just can't contribute to the conversation.

When you are the Interlocutor, you speak for all the characters taking part in it, whether your own or someone else's: the only time you can speak for your character is when you are speaking in your own framed dialogue. When you are in a dialogue framed by another player, they always speak for your character.

When the Interlocutor frames a dialogue for your character, you can discuss their motivation openly before the dialogue begins, as well as establishing any history between the two characters concerned. Before the dialogue can begin, you must decide whether to wear your heart on your sleeve or to hide your heart away (unless you are the Interlocutor, in which case you just speak freely for your character without these rules):
  • Wear your heart on your sleeve: take one of your paper hearts and stick it to your sleeve; the Interlocutor then chooses a mouth-piece for you, which you must hold up so that it covers your own mouth.
  • Hide your heart away: keep whatever hearts you have hidden; choose any mouth-piece you would like and hold it up so that it covers your own mouth.
The Interlocutor speaks for your character during the dialogue, having both sides of the conversation, but they stay faithful to your choice for your character: if you wear your heart on your sleeve, then what they say is how your character truly feels, but if you hide your heart away, then your half of the dialogue must be a lie or pretence that hides your true feelings. The Interlocutor must also stay true to the emotion depicted by your mouth-piece throughout the dialogue, e.g. if you choose a smile, then the speech the Interlocutor provides for you must be happy, not sad, angry, etc.

A Change of Heart

During a dialogue, you may change your mouth-piece once in order to change the speech provided for your character by the Interlocutor, but you may only do so by changing your heart.
  • If you are hiding your heart away, you need to wear your heart on your sleeve in order to change your mouth-piece.
  • If you are wearing your heart on your sleeve, you need to tear your heart in two in order to change your mouth-piece.
Once you have changed your mouth-piece, the Interlocutor must change the speech they provide for your character accordingly, matching the mood the new mouth-piece represents; once you are wearing your heart on your sleeve, your speech must become an honest representation of your character's feelings, not a pretence.

When you tear your heart in two, do it: take the paper heart from your sleeve and tear it into two pieces. You now have one heart less to play with, but you are granted some freedom in return: whenever you tear your heart in two, you may drop your mouth-piece for a moment and speak one line for your own character, saying whatever you like. In this way, you may change the dialogue radically, disagreeing with whatever the Interlocutor has spoken on behalf of your character, breaking any promise you have just made, denying or altering your prior statements, etc.

If you reach the end of any dialogue with your heart on your sleeve, you get to take another heart from the supply; if you tear your heart in two, you lose it for good. If you have no hearts left, then all you can do during dialogues is hide your heart away, except for when you are the Interlocutor and may speak freely for your own character if you choose.

The game ends when everyone has had one, two, or three turns as the Interlocutor and everyone has been in a dialogue at least once or twice, depending on the time you allocate for the game: count up the hearts you each have and compare them. Anyone with no hearts left must break off their relationships with all the other characters and leave that social circle for good; whoever has the most hearts at the end gets to dictate the future for all the other characters who have any hearts left, though they may each tear their heart in two to disagree with or change any statement made about their character in the summary.

Thanks to Nina Conti for the inspiration, and to Lloyd, Elina and Nick for permission to use their images.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Saving Throw Down

Explicit Content Warning! This post is NSFW and contains explicit sexual references and profanities; it is not suitable for anyone under the legal age of consent and probably not anyone over the legal age either. Do not attempt to play this game with strangers or friends, or at all, really.


I think it might work with someone you were fucking, though.

Whores on the Orient Express

This game does for published scenarios what the porn industry does for Hollywood: it turns them into porn. That's the whole premise of the game, which is intended to satirize... something or other, I don't know; look, they can't all be deep, socially relevant metaphors because sometimes all you want is a good shag.

So, first off , get some players who are prepared to actually do this, but choose very carefully: this isn't just about being sensitive to other peoples triggers and limits, but to your own too. I've had the misfortune to become the vector for someone else's sexual fantasies in what was otherwise a perfectly innocent role-playing session and it left me feeling dirty & used (and not in the good way; you know what I'm talking about.) Yeah, we're all British here and get really uncomfortable talking about sex, but this is a comedy game, you see, so that makes it all fine and we can laugh uncomfortably and pretend we don't occasionally want to jump some of the other players.

You're reading this so you're going to be the GM; yeah, you try telling someone else about this game and asking them to run it for you, see where that gets you (in court, possibly; still, maybe this would work as a pick-up line in the right gaming circles.) First thing out of the gate, you need a published scenario... no, wait, don't go away, this isn't a trad game, it just uses trad games as a tool, like a sort of oracle. Take your scenario (or "module": I'd forgotten that was even a thing until I started doing some research for this game) and give it a porn name. Oh yes you do know what I mean, don't look so innocent, it's the way Saving Private Ryan became Shaving Ryan's Privates or Brokeback Mountain became Bareback Mountain. I've given you an example in the header for this section and I'm sure you can think of more; you can even make it part of the game setup, asking the other players to brainstorm a name and that's actually a much better idea, I should go back and re-edit this paragraph to make myself look cleverer, but I can't be arsed. Some other examples are Keeping It Up on the Borderlands, Pale Ass of the Silver Princess and of course Journey to the Cock; I would suggest that modules like Slave Pits of the Undercity and The Secret of Bone Hill might not need any alteration.

Character Procreation

Instead of creating characters as you normally would for that scenario, just don't do that; yeah, just skip that shit and tell everyone who you're playing. Use your imagination, really go to town, Mary Sue the arse off your character and don't really worry about it; I mean, this is a goddamn story game, who needs any of that stats and shit? Don't forget to give them some porn potential though, because they are mostly going to be having sex with a variety of other characters.

Some of you are going to want to have 'comedy' characters with silly names... yeah, ok, if you must; personally I think it works best if you play the characters seriously (or as seriously as they can be played in a porn movie) and just emphasize their sexual characteristics. Yes madam, your Paladin can have an enormous codpiece! And I can't recall the last time I saw a Barbarian who didn't look like they were in a stripper costume.

The same rules apply for non-fantasy adventure scenarios and in fact it's probably a bit easier to take investigators of cosmic horror as porn stars seriously, but please don't mention the tentacles. Oh, OK then, if you must.

Live Action

The first rule of Saving Throw Down is that you do not talk about-, wait, that's something else. The first rule of Saving Throw Down is that you don't need rules for Saving Throw Down: you're only using the scenario for its plot, so ignore anything it says about rolling dice, tracking scores and so on. You don't need combat rules; you don't need to hold back clues until the characters ask the right question of the right person at the right time in the right way and roll the right result; forget that shit, just play the game. If you're a thief, then you're going to sneak past shit unless there's a good reason not to; if you're a pugilist, then you're going to win a fist-fight 90% of the time. When you're GMing, obey Wheaton's Law and don't be a dick: let the PCs be good at the stuff they're supposed to be good at.

The mechanics for Saving Throw Down kick in for that other 10% of the time, when the PCs are up against a difficult obstacle that they don't have the right skill-set to overcome or when they confront NPCs and have to find a way to deal with them. There are three techniques that a PC can use to overcome such obstacles, these being Innuendo, Filth and Sweet Talk
  • Innuendo: suggestive, subtle and euphemistic, Innuendo is about expressing yourself obliquely, so you can always pretend you meant something else if challenged.
  • Filth: raw, upfront and direct, Filth occurs when you express your lustful desires in a crude way to the object of that lust.
  • Sweet Talk: charming, seductive and persuasive, Sweet Talk is a way to express your admiration or affection for another... and get them into bed.
All three techniques have their place in the game and are triggered under different circumstances, with their own unique resolution systems: find the one that suits your character the best and push your luck with it as far as you can.


This is self-triggered when the GM presents you with an obstacle outside your skill set that you wish to overcome or when you meet a friendly or neutral NPC you must negotiate with; it doesn't work on hostile NPCs, but it does work on other PCs as a means of negotiating with them. Yeah, it brings a whole new meaning to PvP, baby!

Innuendo is resolved with verbal sparring, between you and the NPC/PC or between you and the GM for inert obstacles such as locks, traps, rickety bridges and so on. The PC who triggered the Innuendo Duel always goes first, by coming up with some witty, original and apt innuendo:
For example, a non-thief PC tries to pick a lock  and triggers an Innuendo Duel by saying "I'm not sure my big tool will fit in there..." or tries to sneak up to a guard to knock them out and says, "One blow is all it takes for any man..."

If the target doesn't respond with an innuendo of their own, then the PC succeeds; if they do respond, then the ball is back in the PCs court;  the duel continues back and forth until one side fails to respond.
With our second example, the GM responds by saying, "Well, this guard is harder than most..."; the PC says "I can finish him with a couple of strokes..."; the GM is left speechless, therefore the PC succeeds.

A response is only legitimate if it is an innuendo, if it is original and if it is apt to the situation; it's not an innuendo if no-one gets what you mean or you speak too directly ("Well, I'll just fuck him then!"); it's not original if it's already been said in this duel or the same dialogue has been used during this session; it's not apt if it doesn't refer to the current situation. Anyone at the table can object to the use of an innuendo on any of these grounds; if the consensus agrees with that objection, then the innuendo is disallowed and the player loses the duel.


This is self-triggered when any PC uses crude, sexual language, including but not limited to (look away now!): boobs, cock, cum, dick, fuck, prick, pussy, shag, tits, wank, etc. Also arse or ass, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on; intent counts as much as the word itself, so referring to a well-fed pair of parus majors by saying "Look at those Great Tits!" doesn't count. I won't censor your language, use whatever terms your group is comfortable with, but don't complain to me when you get thrown out of the hotel.

Filth is an attack move, so you use it on NPCs whom you want to best in combat or some other physical challenge; you can also assault inert obstacles this way, overcoming them by brute force. When you use Filth, you must immediately engage in a Filth Challenge with whoever or whatever you directed your words at. A Filth Challenge is resolved by both parties playing Rock-Paper-Scissors, or in this case Fist-Spank-Finger: I'm sure by now you appreciate the theme I'm working up here.

If you're not familiar with Rock-Paper-Scissors, this is called the internet, so just fucking Google it, ok? For the purposes of Saving Throw Down, the three hand gestures are rebranded, therefore Rock=Fist, Paper=Spank and Scissors=Finger; Finger beats Spank, Spank beats Fist and Fist beats Finger, Jesus Christ what have I become? I hope my mother never sees this. Anyway, the winner of the challenge also wins the fight or conflict and gets what they wanted from it; when an inert obstacle loses a Filth Challenge, it is also broken as a result.

Sweet Talk

This is triggered by either the GM or a PC when, in character, they express their admiration for someone else and what they would be prepared to do for them, such as "I would not stand in the way of that perfect body, you may proceed as you wish, but first, a kiss perhaps?" When you Sweet Talk, you don't have to be all lovey-dovey with the hearts & flowers, you can express yourself how you wish, as long as you are direct without being crude, so another acceptable form would be "By Crom, never have I seen such mastery of the sword! I will fight at your side, if you will fight at mine!" The conditions for Sweet Talk are that it must include both sincere flattery or admiration and the offer of an explicit deal, which triggers a Sweet Talk Negotiation.

Sweet Talk Negotiations are just that: both sides talk about what they want from this deal and come to an arrangement that suits them both; the one thing you cannot do is turn down an offer flat: once the negotiations have been opened, you must conclude them to the satisfaction of both parties, even if what they get out of it is merely a token of what they requested or offered.
For example, Melinda congratulates Jennifer on the excellent quality of her fruit scones and asks for the recipe; Jennifer demurely suggests that she might part with the secret, in return for Melinda promising to play the harpsichord at the next music recital that Jennifer is organising. They engage in some genteel discourse, at the end of which it is agreed that Melinda will star in the music recital, in return for both the recipe and some of Jennifer's home-made blackcurrant preserve. They then get down and nasty with each other on the parlour floor.

Ménage à trois

Duels, challenges and negotiations are separate entities, so keep them apart: it can be hard to avoid Innuendo when making Sweet Talk or to avoid descending into Filth when you're meant to be engaging in Innuendo, but whichever form was first is also last. If a conflict starts as Innuendo, then it also ends as it and any deviation into Filth or Sweet Talk by either party is seen as a failure for them; the same applies to Filth and Sweet Talk. In the latter case, if you deviate from your Sweet Talk Negotiation into Filth or Innuendo, then the other party instantly succeeds and closes the deal on the terms they last offered.

Wait, What About the Sex?

I was just coming to that: the porn aspect of the game comes about at the end of any and every conflict involving two or more characters, since every such scene always, without fail, ends in sex between the parties concerned. All sex that takes place is consensual; there is an implicit pact between the GM and PCs that they will never portray their characters as being sexually unavailable, all characters are open to sexual escapades with all other characters. If that doesn't float your boat and you want more say in who your character gets off with, you're perfectly within your rights to exercise that option, but do it in another game, otherwise you're choosing to play in a wargame as a conscientious objector.

At the end of every conflict (a Duel, a Challenge or a Negotiation), the winner of the conflict closes it by framing a sexual encounter with the loser; this should never be represented as the loser being forced into sex with the winner, though there may be some element of coercion, such as in closing a deal. The winner gets to frame a single aspect of that encounter, whereupon the loser can build upon that in a standard back-and-forth dialogue. Start small, if you like, with unbuttoning a shirt or sharing a kiss; on the other hand, you can cut straight into the action, with the two characters stepping under a waterfall together, naked.


I'm not trying to squick out anyone playing this game and neither should you be (though you have to question anyone who signs-up to play and then gets squicked out by the mere mention of sex), so there is a safety net rule that should be employed often and without hesitation. The moment anyone at the table feels that a sexual encounter has gone on long enough or has become too graphic, they can curtail it immediately by saying "Boom-chick-a-wah-wah!" The scene closes and the game moves on.
For example, Kristana of the Blue Veil has emerged victorious from a Filth Challenge with her arch-foe, Nekrothor the Enshrouded, so they now move on to a sexual encouner; Kristana banishes all of Nekrothor's artifacts to another dimension, which happens to include his robes, leaving him naked; he responds by snatching her blue veil to cover his member, only to discover she too is naked underneath; with a mystical gesture, she commands her veil to weave itself around his wrists, forcing him to reveal his aroused for the love of God, won't someone say "Boom-chick-a-wah-wah!"?

Continue playing in this manner until you reach the end of the scenario; as there are few encounters that need extensive implementation of game mechanics to resolve them, with combats being decided on a combination of the PC's skills and a quick game of Fist-Spank-Finger, plus the GM giving away clues and information as opposed to hiding them, you may well get the whole scenario resolved in a short space of time.