Wednesday, 21 March 2018

On The Way Up

Inspired by this article by Elina Gouliou, and drawing on my own recent positive experiences which I would like to thank all my friends & family for, this game is a short exercise for 3 to 6 players in playing to support each other and lift your characters.

Once upon a time, you all swore a pact together: now the time has come to make good on it. It is your duty, as a group, to make your way through the rough country to the very crest of the old hill and light the beacon as you promised you would. The way is not easy and the reward is little, but something inside you drives you onward.

Image result for hillStart by naming your character and describing them in loose terms: something as simple as "John, a chartered accountant" will do, but you could provide something like,"Lady Miranda du Pré, divorced neurosurgeon with a gambling addiction," if you want to. Everyone takes a a sheet of paper and folds it in half to make a tent, then writes their character name big & bold so that, when the tent stands on the table, your character name can easily be seen by everyone else.

You also need to pick two traits for your character, one that is praiseworthy and one that is unworthy; in the case of Lady Miranda, above, her steady hands may be her praiseworthy trait, while her tendency to avoid risky odds may be her unworthy trait. Don't choose niche traits that will be hard to fit into an outdoor survival narrative, demonstrate what you want to see in the story by choosing traits that reflect that, e.g. human compass, night vision, climbs like a monkey, first aider, etc, all make good praiseworthy traits. Unworthy traits are your fears or failings, e.g. afraid of the dark, scared of wild animals, allergic to insect bites, nervous eater and so on. Write your traits on your tent under your character's name, then place it on the table for all to see.

The final act of preparation is for everyone to place a coin on the table in front of their tent, heads or tails up doesn't matter, and then hold hands with the players to either side of them.

The basic rules that guide the progress of the game are as follows:

  • Players take turns framing very short scenes; the player to the left or right responds by supporting one of the acting players traits.
  • Whenever your unworthy trait is supported by the player to your left or right, you may let go of their hand; you both now have a free hand to use.
  • When you frame a scene with your unworthy trait, you may pick up one coin from in front of you with a free hand; you must invoke your unworthy trait before you can pick up a coin from the table. Once it has been picked up, it can only be passed from hand to hand; if it lands on the table again at any time, just pick it back up.
  • Your praiseworthy trait can only be supported by a player to your left or right if they have a free hand; when they support your praiseworthy trait, hold hands with that player again and, if you have any coins in that hand, pass them to that player.
  • You may only pass coins to a free hand, including your own, i.e. you must have both hands free in order to pass a coin from one to the other.
The game begins with any player framing a scene where their unworthy trait comes to the fore.

For example, I am playing Victor Atherton, a part-time model and limousine driver/bodyguard; his praiseworthy trait is 'always finds a shortcut', while his unworthy one is 'doesn't want to get muddy.' I quickly frame a scene by saying, "We hop over a dry-stone wall marking the edge of the rough country, only to find a deep, muddy furrow on the other side of it."

All scene framing in the game should be short and to the point, as in the above example; once you are done framing, a player to your left or right responds by supporting one of your traits, in this case the unworthy trait. You support a trait by narrating how it impacts the scene that has been framed, e.g. in the above case, the player to the left (or right) might add how Victor sinks up to his knees in the mud and then spends 10 minutes fastidiously wiping the dirt off with some of their limited supply of bottled water, much to the amusement and frustration of his friends.

The rules for bringing a praiseworthy trait into play are slightly different; you may only do so while you have a free hand and, once you have framed the scene, you must toss all the coins in that hand, if any. You successfully navigate the issue or obstacle you created if any of the coins come up heads; if there are no heads, or you had no coins to toss, then the obstacle is far greater or tougher than anticipated. You never exactly fail when you make use of a praiseworthy trait, but sometimes circumstances are against you and that is how the player who supports your trait should frame their response.

Image result for fire beaconFor example, I am playing Victor Atherton and I have a coin in my left hand, so I frame this scene: "We come to a crossroads in the woods, where the path divides into three; I consult my map to see where we should go." I toss the coin; if it comes up heads, the player to my left might say,"You spot a hidden, overgrown trail and guide us onto it, cutting a good 30 minutes off our journey; we will reach the old hill well before dusk now." If it comes up tails though, the player to my left should not narrate how I get us all lost, but instead say something like, "It suddenly starts to rain heavily, rapidly becoming too dark and damp to read the map; we hurry down the most sheltered looking path, hoping it is the right one." The response to using a praiseworthy trait should never downplay the character's abilities, it can at worst show how the challenge was greater than what they were prepared for.

Whatever the outcome of the coin toss, any coins in that hand are passed to the player who supported the praiseworthy trait when the two players hold hands again. The game continues in this manner, with players taking turns to frame scenes, until one player is holding all the coins in their hands and everyone is holding hands with each other again, so that there are no free hands remaining; finish the game by narrating how you all discharge your duty and light the beacon at the top of the hill.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Spaghetti and Ice-Cream

The title above isn't the name of my newest short game (though it is evocative; a no-prize to whoever comes up with the best suggestion!) but a reference to my Saturday, most of which I spent at Spaghetti ConJunction, the one-day RPG convention my name has somehow ended up attached to, along with the far-more actively involved Pookie and Simon Burley, who do most of the work (and must therefore take most of the blame.)

This isn't just going to be a con report: it's also me trying to honestly confront my own current relationship to the hobby, so if that kind of introspection isn't for you, then may I recommend this blog post about the day instead? It's a good read!

Let's begin at the beginning: just about a year and a half ago, on the day of Concrete Cow '16b, Simon and Pookie came up to me and told me about the great idea they'd had on the train down from Birmingham to Milton Keynes: why not have a one-day role-playing convention in Birmingham? Being the three designers/editors/reviewers of RPGs we knew in Birmingham, and having enjoyed Concrete Cow for many years, it was one of those "Why didn't we do this sooner?" moments.

To cut a long story short (and a lot of unreturned phone calls to venues we could have used), the first

Upstairs at the Geek Retreat
(please wear the safety goggles provided)
Spaghetti Conjunction was held at the recently opened Geek Retreat gaming cafe in central Birmingham on February 11th 2017. It was a satisfactory success, with minimal teething troubles and very little needing to be tweaked for the repeat performance we quickly planned to take place on October 21st of the same year.

So now, an important aside: as some of you know, my partner passed away suddenly on September 11th 2017 after a short illness. This was after years of health problems, but nothing we thought of as life-threatening. It still hurts to remember those last few days at his side and I can only console myself that I made that time as peaceful and happy for him as I could.

In the wake of this, I moved from Birmingham to stay with family in Milton Keynes for a time, until I could find my feet once more, but also to give me time to deal with my emotions. It's amazing how much undirected anger you can feel when the person you love is taken from you by forces beyond your control, so I'll take this space to thank my family for putting up with my irritability and mood swings for the past few months.

Pay no attention to Simon's subliminal advertising...
After much thought about it, I did attend the second Spaghetti ConJunction, but solely in an administrative capacity, taking money at the desk, giving out tickets, answering questions and making announcements. Much as I love games, whether running or playing them, I didn't trust my own emotional state enough to take on the role of someone else or take part in a story that could suddenly go in an unwelcome direction.

All of that finally brings us to Spaghetti ConJunction 2a, the one that has just taken place: I almost didn't attend this at all, with the possibility of  a short sea-side break dangling in front of me, but plans changed and I found myself free that weekend, so I changed my mind again! Therefore, it was still Pookie and Simon who did the real work of organising this convention, I just kind of stood at the back going "Yeah."

What a convention it was though! A great turnout that seemed to form some sort of paradox as it queued up the stairs to get in: for every one person Simon sold a ticket to, two more people joined the line! I don't know how this conundrum was solved, but it may have involved an infinite number of games.

I only ran two games out of that potential infinity though, both of which were new pitches that I hadn't tried before and both of which were composed of about 50% players I hadn't sat down at a table with before. In the morning, I ran The Real Housewives of Atlantis, using PrimeTime Adventures to create a sassy, heightened reality TV series: one of the stars was the very appropriately named 'Bubbles', which was the trigger for some Flintstones-esque puns about "Things going swimmingly", "Making a splash," and "Being at the front of the next wave."

Some tosh, but everyone agrees to smile for the camera
We made a buzzsheet at the start of the game, which is just a short list of words and phrases we thought of in relation to the subject & theme: among such obvious contributions as 'tridents, seahorses and crystals', someone added 'Impending doom', which guided a lot of the tone of the game that followed... but it turned out it was only impending doom, not doom itself, so Atlantis survived, but will no doubt be doomed again in a different way in every other episode. This also suggested a sequel series for the next season: The Real Housewives of Pompei!

During the afternoon break, I had one of the excellent cookies & chocolate ice-cream sundaes available at the venue, a real throat saver after all the talking in the morning. I had managed to keep the silly voices to a minimum, as almost all the action was in the hands of the PCs and the NPCs were more active in the background, doing things like turning on experimental bubble machines or being dated by at least three of the main cast. Suitably fortified by ice-cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and crumbled Oreos & Malteesers, I readied myself for the afternoon session...

The first part of the afternoon is the charity raffle, which given the incredible generosity of sponsors like )deep breath) Grim & Perilous, Modiphius Entertainment, Monkey Blood Design, Pelgrane Press, Psychic Cactus, Sentinel Hill Press, Sixtystone Press, and Stygian Fox Publishing... (and breathe)... had the potential for taking a big chunk out of the schedule, but this is not so in the capable hands of Simon Burley! In what seemed like mere moments, a dozen or so happy gamers stood with their phat lewt in their hands, not quite sure how it had got there!

My afternoon game was an intensely paranoid scenario concerning a private enterprise, three woman exploration team being sent to an alien planet to assess it for exploitation opportunities, but There's Somebody At the Door... and I can say no more about it than that, because I will certainly be using this scenario again to see what a different group of players do with it. A slightly stripped down version of the Hot War rules served this game perfectly and this time there were no NPCs for me to portray at all; well, not live ones, anyway...

Pookie, shortly before the sheer weight of prizes collapses in on itself,
creating a miniature black hole; don't worry, we have 5 years...
Simon, Pookie and I have already begun talking about Spaghetti ConJunction 2b (or not 2b) but long before then, Concrete Cow '18a looms on the horizon on March 17th. I think I will probably be there: I am a long way from being over my grieving period though, so if you do see me sitting somewhere quietly reading, it may because I need the break from people for a moment. That said... wow, I really enjoyed my games at Spaghetti ConJunction! I was somewhat afraid that I'd lost my touch and the games would fall flat, but other than a few ideas for scenes and plot points I could use next time, both games went swimmingly and most of all, I had fun. Now I need more gaming... Hangouts anyone? Discord? Very long conference calls? Tic Tac Toe by post...? Bunnies & Burrows via public graffitti...? [Fades out]

All Photos courtesy of Pookie

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Say Something Nice

Another short game created in the space of one morning, inspired by a friend's recent experience with booking a restaurant and by the trend for some businesses to complain about their negative reviews.

In the near future, a conglomeration of businesses have made it virtually illegal to post a negative review about any commercial service: in this game, for 2 or 3 players, you’ll have to create a glowingly positive review for a business that has provided shockingly bad service.

Image result for dirty restaurant tableFirst up, choose who will be the Customer and who will be the Business: in a 3 player game, you also have a Commenter, who will provide their own spin on what the Customer & Business say.

The Customer starts by describing their visit to the Business, effectively outlining what sort of service they received; as the Customer, you might start by saying “On Tuesday, I went to La Belle Noire for lunch,” thus establishing that the Business in question is a restaurant or café that provides lunch and which has a slightly pretentious name.

From there, the Business starts to describe the actual experience the customer had and the Customer responds by putting that experience in the best possible terms as part of their review. The Business should make the experience as plausibly awful as possible, though it should be comically awful, not merely depressingly awful, such as:
“The waiter sneezed on you as they took you to your table.”
“The menus were in a language you didn’t recognise and no-one could translate, so you had to guess.”
“Your soup was served in an eggcup.”
“The fire alarm went off, but the waiter just took the battery out and carried on.”

For each experience the Business states, the customer must spin that into the most positive version they can come up with, such as:
“The waiter was very approachable, almost intimate.”
“There were a lot of exciting surprises on the menu and we didn’t know what to expect!”
“The delicate starter really whetted our appetites for the main course!”
“The wait staff went out of their way to cultivate a calming & relaxed atmosphere.”

If you have a Commenter, they may ask a question to modify or seek more information about what the Business or Customer says about any experience, but only once per experience, i.e. they may not ask both the Business and the Customer about the same experience. The Commenter’s questions should be about their own version of that experience when they made use of the Business, such as:
“Business: is that the waiter who had the nose bleed when I was there?”
“Customer: did you order the Cabbage Bread & Boiled Rump?”
“Business: do you still serve the soup with a knife?”
“Customer: did you sit at the table in front of the fire exit?”

No matter what the Commenter asks, the answer must always begin either “Yes, and…” or “No, but…”; the answer must always build on and relate to the question, but the Business should take this as their cue to make the experience worse, whilst the Customer is challenged to make it sound better.

When the Business describes the last experience of the Customer and everyone has responded to it, the game is over; the last experience will usually be paying the bill or leaving the premises (possibly to seek medical attention.)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

We Only Want What's Best For You

I ventured out into role-playing again last night for the first time in months; among other things, we found time for a game of The Vicar is Coming for Tea, which made me think about Game Poems once again, so here's a new one I've had a go at this morning.

This short game takes place in a Multi-Agency Meeting, where those present will decide what’s best for a troubled young person with a challenging life. Imagine the kind of issues that might lead to a meeting like this, but don’t specify them: given the subject matter that is likely to come up, be prepared to tackle sensitive issues.
Image result for multi agency meeting 
Each player takes it in turn to state their role and their proposal for the young person in question: roles that may be present at the meeting are Teacher, Social Worker, Youth Offending Team Worker, Grandparent/Aunt/Uncle, Health Worker and Police Officer. Everyone present knows the young person and has had contact with them.

Once everyone has introduced themselves and outlined their proposal, prepare a set of paper tokens equal to the number of players: draw a smiley face on half of them and a frown on the other half. Place them in the centre of the table, within easy reach or all players, but move them about so that no-one knows which tokens are which.

Now you debate which proposal to accept for the young person’s future: everyone present will still interact with the young person in some capacity, no matter which proposal is accepted. During this debate, you may share something you know about the young person, adding a fact about them to the discussion: this might be as general as their age, gender or culture, but it may also be something specific to them or their history. You may use these details to add weight to a proposal or to argue against it, but when you add a detail, you must take a token from those remaining on the table. Look at it, then place it face down in front of you; you may only have one token, so you only get one chance to add a detail during the game.

Once the last token is taken, the game ends and all the players must reach a majority consensus on which proposal to implement: once this is decided, the player whose proposal is accepted flips their token over and reveals it. If a smiley face is revealed, they end the game by narrating how the course of action taken improves the young person’s life; if a frown is revealed, they end the game with a coda about the young person’s descent into a lifetime of trouble as a result of this.

Note #1: Tactically, once you know whether your proposal will have a good or bad outcome, it’s up to you how strongly you argue for or against it; this is just a game, so feel free to advocate for the type of ending to the story that you would like to see. You can’t withdraw your proposal, but you can throw your weight behind someone else’s.

Note #2: Multi-Agency Meetings are a familiar tool to anyone who has worked closely with young people in the UK, with the idea being to look at all aspects of the subject’s life and come up with a plan that benefits them the most. This game represents a vastly oversimplified version of the process.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


An Exploration Game for One Player

You have left the world behind on an almost-fully automated, one-person spacecraft, with the mission to scout the galaxy and see what's out there. Your craft will navigate you to places of interest and record everything it can via its sensors: your job is to provide the human touch by means of a commentary on how each discovery makes you feel.

Image result for starYou can play this game as a daily blog, via text, audio or video: each day represents a different discovery as your spacecraft takes you to another remote part of the galaxy and invites you to record your own feelings about what you are experiencing. The game rules below exist to support you in creating that content, not to proscribe you from doing what you want with the game.


On each day of playing the game, you discover something new: you can play every day or as infrequently as you wish, but each time you play, use a random word generator like this or this to create some seeds for your imagination. Use the randomly generated words to suggest the details of the discovery you have made; you can use the last digit of the day of the month to suggest a category of discovery from this list:
  1. A star with unusual properties.
  2. A remarkable planet.
  3. A unique anomaly in space-time.
  4. A spectacular gas or dust cloud.
  5. A planetary system with a peculiar arrangement.
  6. An interstellar but non-sentient life-form.
  7. A rare event involving two or more bodies.
  8. An asteroid belt with notable features.
  9. A comet hurtling through deep space.
On days ending in '0', you discover the remains of a mega-structure of unknown purpose, the last remnants of a vanished civilization. Your discovery should never involve contact with other sentient beings in any form: the game is about your own personal experiences and reflections, undiluted by the influence of others.

For example, today ends in '7', so my discovery will be some sort of rare astronomical event: the random word generator gives me 'script, sink, harmony, shortage, impress.' I can use any of those words (or none of them) to suggest my discovery: 'sink' and 'harmony' appeals to me and makes me think of two co-orbiting miniature black holes which are finally about to merge.


Image result for gas giantYour blog should take the form of your personal log, recording your own impressions of the discovery you have made but most important, how it makes you feel. Your ship's sensors can provide you with as much detail about the discovery as you wish, extending your information about it right the way across the spectrum of all possible data, so don't feel confined to only describing what you can see out of a window. Other sensations to think about include:
  • The sensation of gravity affecting different parts of your body as you pass close to a very massive object: think of how tidal stress can make your ship creak and groan.
  • A build of up static electricity from passing through charged dust or gas might make your hair stand on end or create a St. Elmo's Fire effect inside your ship.
  • By converting low frequency radio waves into an audio signal, sounds like this are produced, that echo throughout your ship.
  • Even when describing a discovery in terms of what you can see, imagine how it changes over time: light & shade vary as your ship moves past the phenomenon, different colours rise & fall in a gas giant's atmosphere and even the very shape of an object just passing through our set of dimensions can alter from moment to moment.


Image result for asteroid beltEach discovery should elicit a different emotional response from you as the observer, but that response should in some way connect back to your own personal experiences: imagine each discovery making you recall something from your past. You don't have to state what that memory is or refer directly to it at all and you can choose whether to use a real memory from your own past or an invented one for the story you are creating. Below is a list of suggested emotional responses with questions that you may use to connect that response to a memory:
  • Anger: as you are witnessing a destructive or wasteful event, you might ask yourself what did I destroy when I was back on Earth? What made me angriest and how did I act upon that anger?
  • Delight: something is created or you discover something of surpassing beauty and you think when was I last this happy? What were my favourite things and what gave me pleasure about them?
  • Fear: a close encounter with something truly terrifying might leave you thinking what was my greatest fear back on Earth? Who was afraid of me and what did I do to scare them so much?
  • Melancholy: something empty or abandoned brings upon feelings of your own loss and regret, such as who do I miss the most from my life on Earth? What do I wish I had done differently and how could I go about making amends now?
  • Wonder: an encounter with the incomprehensible and enigmatic only leaves you with questions, such as why did I choose to come out here? Who did I lose contact with before I even left Earth and how did things end with them?


Image result for EarthThe game ends whenever you like, but I would recommend limiting yourself to a short time scale, such as five days if making a blog per day or one month if making your blogs infrequently. On your last blog entry for the game, after reporting your discovery as usual, you must make an additional entry that reflects on your whole experience so far and in particular your decision whether to carry on exploring the galaxy or to return to Earth. If the former, end your final blog with, "This is [name], journeying onwards"; if the latter, end your final blog with, "This is [name], coming home." Do not make any further log entries after this: the game is over.

For Philip, with all my love.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Continent Adrift

Over the past four weeks, I've been sharing a sci-fi supplement for Dungeon World in twice-weekly installments to Google+ communities: this is the full story of that supplement.

Chainsaw Dungeon

Image result for sf pulp magazine coverI have a soft spot for fantasy adventuring: like many other people, I can while away a happy hour or two pretending that I'm cleaving goblins in two with my axe, setting them alight with fireballs or sneaking up behind them to stab them in the back. It's pure, simple fun, with maybe a little bit of wish-fulfillment, where I can kick back and enjoy the fantasy without worrying about real-world issues. When it comes to literature though, I prefer sci-fi to fantasy: I like my stories with wormholes & time-warps rather than myths & spells for the most part. This inevitably lead me to consider blending the two together, which caused the image of a hero chainsawing alien monsters in a techno-dungeon to spring into my head.

There has been a setting idea floating around in my head for a while, about a world used as an experimental site by aliens who dumped a lot of different sentient-but-lesser species there one or two thousand years ago and then vanished. The central conceit of this setting is that, before they disappeared, some of the aliens taught their captives how to access their advanced technology, including the master computer that manages all aspects of the experiment. Fast forward a few centuries and these access protocols have been passed down as 'miracles' by those who venerate the aliens as gods and 'spells' by those who figured out how to hack the system. It's a fantasy-campaign world that doesn't know it's actually a pulp sci-fi setting!

With the above framework loosely in mind, I sat down and seriously started to work out the premises I'd need to stick to in order to bend pulp sci-fi into something resembling an archetypal fantasy-gaming world. This is what I came up with:
  1. Civilization Is Fractured: there need to be frontiers and wild, unexplored places, not a known, safe, urbanized world.
  2. Technology Is Limited: the day-to-day tech used by the inhabitants needs to be at a medieval or pre-industrial level, so no trains, cars, radios, mass-production and so on.
  3. The Amazing Is Possible: while the day-to-day tech is of a low-level, there still has to be access to much higher technologies so that the heroes can pull off magical-seeming stunts.
  4. Monsters Are Real: it's not just about the intelligent beings here working together, there has to be conflict with other races, sentient or not.
Contemplating this, the next idea that sprang to mind was having alien abductions but on a massive scale: I wanted intelligent species of different races to mingle in this setting, but if they'd arrived at this world under their own power, that would undermine the first two premises. What would stop them from simply colonizing the whole world and getting support from their home-worlds to do so?

The Petri Dish

The world I was building had to be one that the inhabitants didn't have full control of, because they had been snatched and dumped there rather than arriving in their own spaceships: if they were being snatched and dumped, then there had to be a more advanced civilization doing that for their own reasons. This fit nicely with the older setting idea of the alien experiment world, but making it a whole world didn't feel right: why wouldn't the abductees just colonize it completely within a few generations? What would be holding them back? Well, what if it wasn't a planet but an artificial world? Something like an asteroid colony or Dyson sphere or some other constructed habitat? A non-natural world wouldn't have natural resources, so the inhabitants would find it very hard to expand beyond a limited area without fuel sources, metal ores and so on.

GatewayNovel.JPGAt this point, I was thinking of a loose cloud of artificial habitats orbiting a star: the larger ones would be cities acting as entry points for abductees, while the smaller ones would be the dungeons, consisting of exotic, strange and dangerous places that abductees could visit for their own gain. I didn't want the inhabitants to have spaceships flying them from place to place though, as that raised too many questions about their level of knowledge, so I went with a teleport-network connecting all the habitats in the cloud together. There was a little bit of the idea of Gateway by Frederik Pohl in the back of my mind here, with the abductees not really understanding the system they were using and just going to random destinations to find out what was there.

I really liked the teleportation idea, as that also neatly explained how the abductees suddenly found themselves in the cloud: I expanded this concept so that the abductions occurred at regular intervals, with the most recent wave being significantly larger than previous ones. This gave me a 'best of both worlds' set-up, where there was an established abductee civilization of sorts but it could be stirred up by new arrivals with a better idea of where they were and what might have happened to them. In all forms of this setting, the superior aliens behind it all were long gone, otherwise the story would have turned into captives rebelling against their captors, which wasn't the sort of story I was trying to tell.

The logistics of this setting still troubled me and if they troubled me, it was reasonable to assume they would trouble others as well, who would then ask questions I wouldn't be able to answer. With the size of the habitats I had in mind, how did the inhabitants support themselves? How could a city-sized ecology support a city-sized population? Where would their food and water come from? The basic foundation of the setting needed to be larger, at least the size of a country to be really plausible, but then what did it look like? How did it get day & night? Discs and rings and asteroids all seemed a bit impractical and limiting, all requiring compromises to the vision of the setting to get them to work. I asked my partner what shape he would make an artificial world in orbit around a star and his suggestion became the framework for The Continent Adrift: a series of domed habitats attached around a rotating axis! I didn't even need the local teleport network, as the inhabitants could walk to other habitats through the superstructure connecting them all, which added a whole new dimension of adventure to the setting!

Dungeons In Spaaaaace!

Now, I'm making it sound like all these ideas occurred in series, like 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, but the truth is that the creative process is a lot more muddled than that and a lot of this thinking took place in parallel, with different parts of my imagination working away at many different ideas at the same time. For example, I like making PbtA games a lot: it's good to build a game from that foundation, as it's simple enough to hack easily, familiar to a lot of people by now and also happens to produce really great stories. So, all the time I was thinking about the details of the setting for this game, I was also thinking about how to implement the rules and naturally gravitating towards the Apocalypse World Engine to save myself from re-inventing the wheel.

There's already an outstanding fantasy adventuring PbtA game in the form of Dungeon World, so I chose to hack that rather than build a game from the ground up using the Apocalypse World Engine, only to arrive at the same destination anyway. In fact, I didn't even want to hack Dungeon World, merely to supplement it: it was already a quintessential dungeon-exploring game, so the more of it I changed, the further from that ideal my game would be. The fundamental form of supplementing an existing PbtA game is the playbook, which adds a new character archetype to an existing setting, and I was already thinking of three or four playable character-classes for my game, so playbooks were definitely the way to go. I couldn't just create playbooks though, as that wouldn't really explain the setting, so I needed to include more information but I also didn't want to write up a complete setting book as that would restrict what players could create and ran counter to Dungeon World's philosophy of drawing your own maps as you explore.

With a handful of playbooks sketched out in my notes and ideas for a few more, I started roughing out the first one, the Pioneer, and realised they would also make the perfect voice for introducing the game to others. I added a datasheet as a prologue to the playbook, giving the basic outline of the setting and it's history, and decided to do the same for all the other playbooks, using each one to provide the necessary details, rules and content for the game. These voices got a lot stronger the more I wrote and insinuated themselves into my thinking about the game: the original concept of the Warden drifted away from a knight errant into a wild-west sheriff just because I enjoyed writing in that voice so much!

Form & Function

I shared the Pioneer playbook with some communities on G+ to see what feedback it got, but I already had the next playbook almost complete, had started work on the third and had made notes on three others. Very early on, I knew that I wanted to keep as much of the Dungeon World design as I could and to deviate it from it as little as possible, so all the stats and Basic Moves remained untouched, but I wanted alien races rather than fantasy ones and I just couldn't justify alignments to myself at all. The alien races were pretty easy, arbitrary choices: I wanted to avoid 'bumpy headed humans' and with the unlimited budget of the imagination, I could make my aliens look like anything at all.

Image result for crane birdAeriths were my first idea because I thought the bird-like image made a good contrast with humans, which also brought with it cultural ideas of nesting, flocking and so forth. I built on that whilst trying not to get too stereotypical and made them suspicious and insular, with a low-tech level compared to humans, putting them somewhere in the bronze or iron age. Their look is something of a cross between a crane and a kingfisher or hummingbird: elongated and elegant but with a show of colour. Across the eight playbooks I eventually wrote, I used the voice of an aerith three times to showcase their different personalities and also drop in a few suggestive turns of phrase: they're the Apothecary, Scrapper and Warden, in case you were wondering.

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I wanted a real contrast for my other sentient aliens and just decided to use pangolins as the basic shape of them, hence the name 'gola' calling that to mind, but in my subconscious, a little bit of tardigrade got into the mix, so they aren't all sweet and cute. They got an intermediate level of technology, industrial but not electronic yet, bringing to mind the Victorian era, which then informed their culture and personality types. I like the idea of them being seen as bossy and over-confident by the other sentient races, as that can manifest in a variety of different ways: the Pioneer was a classic gola right from the start, but the Augment and the Chorister showed how that trait could display itself as faith or piety as well.

The classic Dungeons & Dragons tropes of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos had to go: it was fine for a fantasy setting with magic, gods, heavens and hells, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sci-fi framework. I wanted to keep some equivalent of that though, so I thought of some political or social questions that characters could stand on different sides of: the one I liked most was what do we do here? All the abductees are trapped, but some of them want to go home, some of them want to take control of their prison and others don't care either way, they're just happy to be alive and well with all these opportunities in front of them.

Condensing all the necessary information for the playbooks into that limited space lead directly to another creative decision and I stole from myself for this one. Taking the idea of upgraded moves from Just Heroes, my superhero PbtA game in limbo, I was able to offer moves at both the 2-10 and 6-10 levels just as in Dungeon World, but without having to take up space with two separate lists.

I used a quote as a title for the first datasheet and that became a feature of all of them: some sprang to mind, such as the Arthur C. Clarke quote about technology and magic, but others I had to search for, which lead to a mix of classic and contemporary quotes. The first two are probably the best summation of the game's overall philosophy though, that the world is wonderful & strange and that the things that seem most wondrous of all can be explained with science if you just look for long enough and ask the right questions.

Now & Next

You can download all eight datasheet & playbook combinations at this link, though this is still an alpha draft and therefore subject to change, but I would like to share my reflections on the experience of writing this supplement. First and foremost, it didn't go where I expected it to: my initial idea had that cloud of small, separated habitats as a centrepiece, but I just couldn't make that into a living, breathing world without sacrificing some of my fantasy-adventure premises. I changed the setting in order to preserve the tone I was aiming for, something I must keep in mind for the future, but I still think that 'cloud of habitats' setting might find a place in a game I create one day.

The process of writing the installments also changed my plans for them, as I initially wanted to present the datasheets in a detached, authorial tone, but that last paragraph at the end of the Pioneer's datasheet inspired me to give each installment a distinct voice. Some of them were stronger than others purely because of my past role-playing history and reading preferences, with a sheriff from Deadlands and a witch from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series pushing their way in.

I like condensed writing and see it as a challenge to see how much game I can fit into a limited space: the two cheats used to do that here were first, assuming knowledge and familiarity with an existing game, and second, splitting the supplement up over eight installments, so that each one could be read separately even though you'd need all eight to really play the game. This struck me as a versatile and useful technique: I've dabbled with it before, but this was my most successful effort in that direction, inspiring me to use it for a different game. One thing I really like about Dungeon World is the design of it's playbooks, such as making the choice of Race & Alignment an integral part, rather than requiring a separate chapter to explain it all: an Elf Ranger gets a different benefit from a Human Ranger and that's all you need to be told, the rest is left up to your own creativity and shared understanding with your play group. About half-way through writing The Continent Adrift, I had an idea for using analogies for Race & Alignment in a different context but still in this installment-based, playbook-&-datasheet model. I've begun my next short-term writing project already, another PbtA game tentatively entitled Worlds in Motion...

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Situation: Comedy!

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then you should probably read this later, but if you will insist on reading it right now, then here are some rules for a light and simple comedy story game for around four players.


Related imageFirst things first: what is your story going to be about? You can pretty much pick any premise you like, as long as everyone who is going to play feels confident they know enough about the subject matter to participate in telling a story about it. You could skip over that confident amount of knowledge requirement if you prefer, but recognise that what you are playing is a pastiche or absurdist take on the premise, not a realistic portrayal. For example, a story taking place on an oil rig might be cool, but what do I know about oil rigs except what I've seen in films and TV series? Nothing really, so any story I set on an oil rig is going to be divorced from reality, which is fine so long as I don't fool myself into thinking I've understood oil rigs by telling that story.

You can avoid the whole question of verisimilitude by making up a fictional setting, such as vampire hunters in a nameless Gothic nation or the crew of a space-cruise liner ferrying passengers around the galaxy. Don't go too far in this direction though or you'll lose contact with the character's motivations and end up with meaningless gonzo fare, e.g. if your setting is an art gallery after dark when all the exhibits come to life, it's hard to connect that to average human experiences so the plots will eschew that in favour of randomness and surrealism.

Make sure to pick a setting that will give all the player characters equal spotlight time: avoid making one character the centre around which everybody else's life revolves, who gets the lion's share of the scenes and story as a result. Of course, you can try to create a story with a central character and supporting cast, if you talk about this and everyone agrees to it, but spontaneous narratives have a life of their own and once you begin playing, you might find that your 'central' character isn't as important to the narrative as you thought they would be.


Next, create the main characters who will feature in your comedy: a good hook to use is a family or work relationship, so Mother, Father, Elder Child and Younger Child or Boss, Secretary, Designer and Labourer. Find something that describes the relationships between all the leads before creating each one as a unique individual. Some other types of relationship group are education (Head Teacher, Math Teacher, English Teacher and Gym Teacher), retail (Floor Manager, Cashier, Display Assistant and Trainee), fantasy (Warrior, Wizard, Thief and Cleric), space opera (Captain, Science Officer, Chief Engineer and Security Officer) and so on.

Image result for father tedOnce the core relationship that binds all the leads together has been selected, everyone can start creating their own character, but just stick to their personality and history for now, don't try to define their abilities or skills. Begin with a simple description of their personality or outlook that can be summed up in a couple of words, e.g. "On the verge of total panic", "Blind optimism that everything will be fine", "Condescending cynicism & world-weariness", "Spaced-out New Age hippy", "Ultra-trendy, tech-savvy hipster", etc. Don't forget a physical description, but maybe keep it to three things: three words, three distinctive features, whatever, e.g. "Long, blonde hair; tall; always wears a raincoat" or "Elderly; petite; wears glasses with huge sparkly frames."

Talk to the other players about that concept and how your character relates to theirs: give each relationship a unique but short description like "Adores them and hangs on their every word", "Want's their job", "Tries to impress them", "Constantly feels intimidated by them" and so on. Relationships don't have to be reciprocated, so your character might adore someone who despises or ignores them, but that's good for more laughs!

Round off your character description by giving them a Focus and an Issue: the Focus is what they are most interested in, what they spend the majority of their time pursuing and devoting their energy to. The Issue is an external challenge they face, something they are trying to overcome, fight against or put behind them. The Focus and the Issue might overlap or interact with each other but they shouldn't be two sides of the same coin; for example, Joey Tribbiani of Friends has a Focus of "Get hot dates" but an Issue of "Become a successful actor." Detective Amy Santiago of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a Focus of "Get everything neatly organised" and an Issue of "Be respected as a detective."


Each lead character will be described by a set of three stats: these are Physical, Mental and Social, which we'll call the 'PMSL' stats for short, because why not? Now, before you even think of doing anything else, you all need to have a talk about the tone and style of the comedy you want to have, because you're going to pick one of those stats that all the leads are really bad at. This universal flaw is the weak stat and it will influence the comedy flavour of your story.
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  • Physical: this covers strength, dexterity, nimbleness, endurance and speed; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of slapstick comedy, with prat falls, zany stunts and so on.
  • Mental: this covers knowledge, intelligence, observation, wisdom and education; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of bloopers, mistakes and stupid jokes.
  • Social: this covers romance, etiquette, staff relations, lying and persuasion; choose this as the weak stat if you want a lot of misunderstandings, misapprehensions and comically awkward social situations.
Whatever the weak stat, all the lead characters are universally bad at it, even if they are meant to be quite good at that thing: the comedy comes from them thinking they are good when they're not or having to do things which the rest of the world expects them to excel at but they know it's much harder than it looks and they normally screw up.

Within each stat there are three sub-stats and each lead will have one outstanding sub-stat under each stat:
  • Under Physical there is Strength, Dexterity and Quickness: everything to do with lifting, pushing, carrying, breaking and general endurance is covered by Strength; all acts of manual dexterity, from changing a fuse to firing a gun at a target, are covered by Dexterity; finally, anything relying on speed, agility and fast reflexes uses Quickness.
  • The Mental sub-stats are Intelligence, Observation and Knowledge: use Intelligence to make deductions and solve problems; Observation covers all your senses but mainly sight and hearing; test your Knowledge to see if you recall the things you have been taught.
  • The sub-stats for Social are Diplomacy, Willpower and Subterfuge: use your Diplomacy to smooth over matters with charm and persuasion; an exercise of authority or intimidation uses Willpower, as does trying to resist temptation; finally, Subterfuge comes into play when you bluff, lie, deceive and conceal the truth.
Just write down the name of each stat in it's own column on a piece of paper, big and bold, then list the three sub-stats under each stat. Mark the weak stat with a cross, then either mark both the other stats with question marks or mark one with a cross and one with a tick.
  • A cross indicates what you are bad at: you will pretty much always fail at this.
  • A question mark indicates what you are average at: you have a chance of succeeding.
  • A tick indicates what you are good at: you'll often do well with this.
You get to choose one sub-stat under each stat that is outstanding, but nothing can be worse than a cross or better than a tick, therefore:
  • If your stat is marked with a cross, you get to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
  • If your stat is marked with a question mark, you get to mark one sub-stat with a cross or a tick, but only once for each, e.g. if you tick a sub-stat under one question marked stat, you would have to cross a sub-stat under your other question marked stat.
  • If your stat is ticked, you have to mark one sub-stat with a question mark.
Mark the other sub-stats appropriately for completeness, so cross the other two sub-stats under a crossed stat once you have marked one sub-stat with a question mark and so on.

Comedy & Error

Image result for parks and recreationThe engine driving the comedy of this game is the principle of error, i.e. failures and mistakes are funnier than successes and correct answers. Now, I'm not saying you need a GM for this game, but it helps: you can go GMless or GMful if that suits you, but it is useful in a comedy to have a foil who interferes with and complicates the lead characters' lives. In some set-ups, one of the lead characters might be the foil to the others and vice versa, but a common theme of comedy is the perversity of the inanimate and how the world seems to arrange itself to confound the lead characters' best laid plans. So the GM can be that.

Anyway... somehow or other, either through your own comic misadventures or through the machinations of the GM, you'll get to a point where you need to know if your plan succeeds or fails, whether you get what you wanted or make a mess of the whole situation. Resolving tasks or conflicts is quite simple: you toss a coin and check the result against the mark on the sub-stat you are using.
  • If the sub-stat is crossed, you're going to fail regardless: Tails means you make matters even worse, Heads means you only have to deal with the failure, nothing else.
  • If the sub-stat is question marked, you might succeed or fail: Tails means you only have to deal with that failure, nothing else, Heads means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success.
  • If the sub-stat is ticked, you're going to succeed: Tails means you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, Heads means you get a straightforward success without complications but no extras either.
Optional Rule: I like knowing where the comedy should be coming from, so having some stats that you know are going to fail makes it easier to plan for the jokes, but if you're playing with people who want at least a chance to succeed, then here's how to give them one. When you toss Heads for a crossed sub-stat, you can either keep that result or gamble and toss again; if you get Heads again, then you succeeded but with unintended consequences or an unexpected price for success, as for a question marked sub-stat. If you toss Tails though, you fail and make matters even worse, as if you has tossed Tails the first time: you don't get to toss again if the result is Tails, you're stuck with the worst possible result.

Being Funny

Ooh, that's tricky and I can't do it for you but I can help: the twists that occur on some actions, where matters get worse or success has unforeseen complications, are the seam of comedy potential you should be mining for laughs. Here are some of the sort of complications you can bring into play and how they can affect the narrative:


  • Break something: the door, the furniture, an artwork, some technology. Now, are you going to fix it, hide it, repair it, replace it or runaway and pretend you don't know about it?
  • Get on the wrong side of a door: you're locked in or locked out, whether that's your home, a bank vault, a jail cell or your car. How can you get the door open? Does someone else have a key, how long will it take them to get there and what will they want in return?
  • Lose something: you had it, then dropped it, whether its an engagement ring, a dog, a winning lottery ticket or something else not easily replaceable. Now, how are you going to get it back without letting that important someone know you lost it and letting everyone else know just how much it's really worth?
  • Slip, trip and fall: you can make a fool of yourself in public, get stuck and need rescue, make a mess that needs fast cleaning-up and a thousand other clumsy accidents that you'll have to think your way out of.


  • Forget something: you should have remembered your anniversary, your orders, your shopping list, the place you were supposed to go and the name of the person you're talking to. Now, will you bluff your way through until someone else reminds you, cover up your error or just jump to a conclusion and assume you've got it right?
  • Make an irreversible error: you pressed the wrong key, said the wrong name, gave the money to the wrong person or otherwise cocked things up. Are you going to try and undo things, even though the bureaucracy is impossible, or you'll have to make a complicated explanation of what exactly went wrong? Or will you look for a way around your mistake, say by getting more money or trying to palm off your unwanted purchase onto someone else?
  • Get confused: you mixed up the thing that was to be thrown out with the thing to be kept, or the dish with peanuts in it and the dish without, or your boss' wife and his secretary. Somehow, you've got to extricate yourself from the mess with a cunning plan before things get even worse than they are now and the clock is ticking.
  • Act dumb: you don't know which way is up or what anyone is talking about; now you've opend your mouth and shown your ignorance to everyone! You might not have realised it yet, but everyone is laughing at you and now you're going to be the butt of their jokes as they have fun at your expense.


  • Mistake their intentions: you thought they were asking you out, but they were just inviting you to a meeting; you thought they were talking about a terminal disease but they were actually talking about their holiday or promotion. You've got hold of the wrong end of the stick and until someone sets you right, your plans are going to keep snowballing until they lead to an awkward confrontation.
  • Caught in a lie: you thought you'd be helping out, but now you're stuck with keeping up the pretence, so you have think on your feet every time you slip up in order to maintain your cover. How many more questions will they have and how far will you go to confirm the lie before it becomes too much?
  • Causing a distraction: you were just meant to keep them away from the house for an hour, but things have gotten complicated and it's turned into a weird day out. They want to get away from you, so you have to keep inventing ever wilder reasons why they can't leave yet.
  • A dare too far: you're trying to see how far they'll go with their practival joke or elaborate trickery, but they're seeing how far you'll go; now it's blown up to absurd proportions, with neither side willing to back down and admit defeat. What's your next move in this game of wits and nerve? And what will you lose if you give in now?