Saturday, 25 September 2021

What We Have Left

Some time ago I wrote a series of short stories. Here is one of them. They will be published as a book, once they are edited. That should be some time before 2030.

If you would prefer to listen to the story (and I recommend that you do) you can hear me reading a slightly older version of it on my Soundcloud.

Here is What We Have Left:

Thursday, 23 September 2021


* Fuck The Fucking Acronyms**
** Yes pedants, <whiny voice>it's an intialism not an acronym</whiny voice>. That's not how English works. My spell checker doesn't even recognise the word "initialism" and neither does 99% of the population

TL;DR - Old Man Shouts at Clouds

Ever since I rediscovered gaming and the OSR (which I always assume stands for Old School Rules, except it doesn't, but I can't grok*** what it does stand for because it seems folks can't agree on the R) there has been one aspect of the scene that pisses me off more than anything else: the ubiquity of acronyms. If you read through just about any gaming blog post you will find them scattered liberally throughout. When I discovered this community, everybody was talking about something called LotfP. In the last few days I've started stumbling on a new one: PbtA (apparently it's a game which is quite popular). I keep seeing references to PVP and PBP which sound like they ought to be related but they're not. 

This is, of course, not a problem unique to our community. When I worked at the BBC I drowned in acronyms, some of them BBC-wide, some broadcasting-related, some specific to the technologies we were using, and some specific to the iPlayer team that I worked on. I reckon it took me 18 months before I knew what they all meant. When I worked at Autodesk they even had an intranet page where you could look up the acronyms used in the company. It was called TAD****. Yes, the solution to the problem of acronyms was apparently to throw in another acronym that you would never know existed until it had been unpacked for you. There exists something similar for the gaming community, although it's doomed to be incomplete due to the number of niche games and new releases bubbling under the wider community's consciousness.

I'm also aware that I came to this community through a practice called RPG and a specific game called D&D (then AD&D, only now it's called 5e). I'm willing to make the odd exception for very popular acronyms that have been around for decades, though even then I'm at pains to say "Dungeons and Dragons" when I'm talking to somebody who is not a gamer. But I also think that the reduction of the ur-game to its constituent initials is a major reason why every game that achieves a certain level of traction within the community needs to be condensed into jargon.

Every time a reader encounters one of these abominations for the first time, they have to somehow figure out what it means. Thank god we have Google, although if you try googling any of our communities acronyms you will was almost certainly find that there are others which share the same letters and are far more common. To discover what it means in a gaming context, you'll find yourself having to throw in additional search terms such as "RPG" to narrow down the results.

The reason this makes me so angry is that it's a fucking imposition on your readers. It's tantamount to saying "my time is important; yours, less so". To save yourself less than a second you're forcing them to spend orders of magnitude longer figuring out what the fuck it is you're talking about. They'll also have break the flow of whatever they're reading in order to do so, and the cognitive load of having to do such an apparently simple task can be punishingly high.

The solution to this is quite simple: introduce on first use. Nobody expects you to write out something long and daft like Lamentations of the Flame Princess (or is it Legends of the Flame Princess; or Lots of this Fucking Practice) every time you want to mention it. The first time you do so, write "LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)" and spare your readers a round trip to Google. If it takes you more than a couple of seconds to do that then you probably need to learn to type faster.

It's a minor gripe and I'm some sub-minor Canute trying to hold back a tide of this shit. But I beg you: have some consideration for the fuckers whom you (presumably) want to read your stuff. Spend that extra couple of seconds. Somebody somewhere will thank you for it. Perhaps many bodies manywhere.

I don't always agree with Elon Musk (no, an interest in cave diving and saving lives does not make you a paedophile), but I'm totally with him on this:

There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication… No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees.

That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action – I have given enough warning over the years… If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past.


*** In this post I shall use words which may perhaps not be common parlance. Fucking google it you twat. Without inconsistency I am nothing.
**** The Autodesk Dictionary
***** A little bit too long; didn't read: just reading the fucking post. It's a lot easier than reading the first letter of every word.******
****** Also, I've edited the post since condensing it to initials. Don't @ me.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

When is a Coin not a Coin?


I just bought Luke Gearing's Wolves Upon The Coast campaign which includes a draft of his forthcoming supplement &&&&& Treasure. This is a series of tables for generating treasure hordes, and alongside the expected entries for potions, wands, artefacts, etc, there is a "coins" table. I've written before about my dissatisfaction with the way money is conceived of in RPGs. So Luke's table brought a smile to my face, as it presents coinage as something much more than just some ubiquitous anonymous token used for earning experience, resurrecting old buddies, and building mansions.

Included in the table are aspirational coins, foldable coins, dogs full of coins, coins that can be worn as armour, and several forms of currency that are not quite coins.

The "special coins" listed in the table are intended to supplement, rather than replace, "modern" types of currency - your common or garden pieces of gold, silver, copper, electrum, platinum, whatever - although it's acknowledged that even modern coins will not be of a standard type:
Coins taken from pockets with grubby fingers will be of mixed modern types, and usable as tender unless a polity is actively enforcing its own coinage. Coins discovered in hoards will tie to the time of their origin ...  accumulative hoards as gathered by certain types of inhuman monsters (ogres, bankers etc) will mostly be of local, modern types (as dictated by geography)  but may (20% chance) have one of the below Special Coins. Special Coins can be used as normal coinage or sold to historians, scholars and collectors. 

So "special" coins may be used as a stand-in for modern coins. But most have other uses too, and will be far more valuable if sold to a collector rather than used as a "modern" coin (see noisms post about finding suitable collectors who buy rare artefacts).

Another interesting aspect of the coins table is that it lists the type of things you're likely to find on the obverse & reverse ("heads & tails") of each coin type, whether these be heads in profile, animals, trees, lighthouses, internal organs or, in one case, parts of a larger picture which can only be made out when 500 unique coins are arranged into a specific pattern. The pictures which appear on coins are one of the most prominent things about them, and yet I can remember very few examples of these pictures described in RPGs (here's a nice table, again from noisms, for generating coin descriptions).

A few currency ideas:
  1. Monster parts as coinage (e.g. dragon scales: one dragon = HP x 500 coins equivalent)
  2. Coins tainted with magic
  3. Rubber coins that squeak when you're hit in combat, fall down a trap, etc
  4. Coins made from radioactive substances which decay and damage the carrier if not spent rapidly
  5. Coins which change their design according to, e.g., the weather, or the mood of the region's ruler 
  6. Propaganda coins (for inspiration, see the  early 20th Century German medals designed by Karl Goetz - this one being the most notorious - content warning: explicit racism; naked woman; unfeasibly large penis; doubled-up exclamation marks!!)
  7. Coinlings
  8. Interlocking coins. What do they make? And where can you find the missing piece of the jigsaw? Don't say that bloody dragon's got it!
  9. Translucent coins which show looped footage of glories from long ago
  10. Coins which weigh so much as to be effectively worthless
  11. Coins which weigh so little as to float away if uncontained
  12. Cowrie shells et al
  13. Ectoplasmic currency

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Interview with Patrick Stuart of False Machine

 I interviewed Patrick Stuart of False Machine.

Patrick has a Kickstarter for his new project with Scrap PrincessDemon Bone Sarcophagus (ends Saturday 11th September - be quick)

I also mentioned the Gelatinous Cube podcast.

If you're a masochist, read The Psychoanalysis of Fire by Gaston Bachelard

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Running Lasers & Feelings

I ran my first game of Lasers & Feelings last week. The scenario I rolled up was: zombie cyborgs seek to bond with an alien artifact which will bring about a war/invasion. I was scared of having to improvise the entire scenario beyond that sentence, but actually it went great - the players' actions prompted me to come up with ideas I'd never have done otherwise, and the desire to have a complete story by the end of the (90 minute) session kept things moving forward, and kept me finding new ways to allow the players to save the world. The hardest part was probably combat: it's hard to get away from thinking in terms of rolls to hit. Actually, combat should be played out quickly, with single rolls covering large chunks of the action rather than individual attacks.

Here's the session report written by one of the players, Tom Baker:

From the personal log of Science Officer T J Turing23:

As our Captain is currently in a coma, and in the absence of a sufficiently qualified Fist Officer, I am preparing to take over command of The Raptor. The only Officers on board currently are Stan Frenk, our emotional Engineer, and Dr Lovebeam, who is a competent physician, but somewhat dangerous. I have activated my swearing subroutines in order to more effectively integrate with these oddballs.

We spotted a ship falling out of orbit towards an unexplored planet, and decided to persue, bringing the Raptor into orbit, to be close enough to transport across to the vessel, which we have identified as an older Consortium cruiser. Scans revealed movement throughout the ship, but no actual life signs.

On arrival at the ship’s Transporter Room, we were assailed by several entities, who seemed to be some kind of hybrid cyborgs (still wearing out of date Consortium Uniforms). Our phasers were enough to deal with them quickly, and we headed for the bridge (deciding that this was more important, given the rapid descent of the ship, than trying to harvest energy crystals for the Raptor’s energy guzzling Warp Drive).

We passed the Med Bay, where we found another unconscious Cyborg, and an unconscious Human who had evidence of interrupted surgery. ~I attempted to interface with the cyborg’s tech to find out what was wrong, but was immediately attacked by malware in the bot, and only saved myself from infection by quickly unjacking.

We managed to revive the human, but only for long enough for her to say “ Don’t let them get there” before expiring.

At the bridge, we found more cyborgs piloting the ship towards a crash landing on the planet’s surface. Incapacitating the monstrous hybrids, I took the Helm, and managed to avoid a total wipe out, and we managed to crash land the ship. While the Cyborgs on the bridge were dealt with by now, we soon realised that two parties of six cyborgs had left the ship and were now making their way towards a large alien building.

Following them, I determined that this was an abandoned alien spaceport, and the cyborgs were heading towards a large military ship, armed with a massive bomb. Hoping to find a ship to destroy the bomb-ship, we entered a cruise liner, whose crew and passengers were in suspended animation, but swiftly left when we realised it would have no weapons.

As the bomb ship launched, we beamed up to the Raptor, and considered our options. We had barely enough fuel to apprehend the ship, which we now realised was on a course for Earth. Beaming back to the spaceport, we commandeered a military freighter and leapt to pursue the bomb ship. We approached close enough to beam on board, and found our way to the alien bridge, where we managed to jettison the bomb, and destroy it safely.

We will perhaps never know exactly what alien virus infected the crew of that ancient Consortium ship and turned them into cyborgs, but they’re all dead now, so problem solved. I believe.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

The Jacobin Calendar as inspiration for RPGs

I'm a big fan of the Jacobin Calendar/French Revolutionary Calendar ever since I discovered the Jacobin Calendar bot on Twitter. It's a decimal calendar with 12 months of 30 days each, split into 10-day weeks, plus an additional 5 festival days (6 in a leap year). Every day of the year has its own name, mostly associated with plants, animals, minerals, or tools, relevant to the time of year (this replaced the tradition of associating each day with a saint). I've given a version of the calendar at the end of this post.

I've started using this calendar as a basis for time in my games. I've made some small adjustments (the French year starts in mid-September; mine starts in mid-March, as the world re-awakens after winter). The day names are great for adding flavour, and for determining events or theming adventures at that time of year. There is no reason why you couldn't rename some of the days (or all of them, if you can be bothered) after something specific to your campaign. How about a calendar of monsters?

The ten days of the week are simply named according to their number - so first day (primidi), second day (duodi), third day (tridi), etc. Again, these could easily be renamed.

All of the festival days take place in late September - harvest time. Again there's no reason why you couldn't move these, perhaps spreading them throughout the year. And you'll no doubt want to rename "Celebration of Revolution" if playing in a feudal or monarchist setting!

Here's the calendar...

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Ship of Theseus - part 1

A viking longship in a storm, people are hanging off it in the sea

Wolves of water
Might of blind force 
Living movement of sunlight 
Currents churning 
The reflecting edges of the shale 
Soft rains pierce hard marble 
Heat seeps through the silver 
There is only mixing and dissociation 
Nothing remains 
What is the life that I have chosen? 
The wave-shattered hull 
Theseus in the labyrinth 
Hunched in a cave of broken myths

Ship of Theseus - Jute Gyre

Dragged off the street for some fictitious crime, you are led, in chains, to the dock. A longship is there. It is made of vicious thorns, from violet-grey daggers a metre long down to equally deadly hair-thin needles. Lashed to the barnacle-covered tiller is the Captain: two arms, one eye, and no legs. One of his ears has been chewed off. Gurning as though in agony, he peers at you with his remaining eye, and utters something sounding like "PARP!"

You’re led onto the boat, and chained to the oars, along with 2D6 others.

The sail fills and the whip cracks, and the boat veers hesitantly towards the Endless Sea.

D6 things the crew may tell you:

  1. No ship has ever returned from the Endless Sea.
  2. The Captain has been hired to recover valuable naval artifacts.
  3. The ship is alive, and malevolent.
  4. The captain left the rudder once and immediately started coughing up blood.
  5. The Captain has done this journey before. That’s where he lost his legs
  6. The ship has a true name, used to control it. Only the Captain knows what it is.
Giant Depair by Luis Rhead - A viking oarsman looks pissed off

I am writing an adventure for Mörk Borg. This is the beginning.

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Coin Magic Taint

I wrote here recently about coinage and treasure hoards in RPGs. Well here's something a little more lighthearted about money...

Magic leakage is a subject that has been long known about, but little discussed as it only happens very slowly, weakly, and only affects very small objects. Its effects are rarely even observable. However when large piles of coins and magic items are placed together for centuries at a time, as in, for example, a dragon's hoard, this leakage may result in coin magic taint.

Coin magic taint, the enchantment of coins through long contact with magic items, can exhibit in many ways. The most common is an attraction between affected coins and sources of magic (most commonly the same magic items that affected the coins, but if these cannot be found then any magical source will suffice). This can get players into a lot of trouble if they pay for goods using tainted coins - the coins will often creep out at night-time and attempt to roll themselves back to the players so they can once more bask in the magical aura of the players' possessions.

The opposite is also the case: in the unlikely event that players get hold of magically tainted coins, perhaps in payment for selling their treasures, they may find these coins gradually escaping from their possession and making their way back to their preferred location.

Other magical properties can be absorbed by coins: perhaps if they have been in contact with a cloak of invisibility, they will be observed to fade in and out of visibility. If tainted by a magical weapon, they may conceivably used as irregular but deadly ammunition for a sling.

What other weird behaviour have people observed from these magically tainted coins?

Thursday, 12 August 2021

I'm Sorry Did You Say Street Magic?

Illustration by Shannon Kao for ISDYSSM

 In the last few days I've discovered and played 3 games of I'm Sorry Did You Say Street Magic (I'll call it ISDYSSM from now on) by Caro Asercion. I've also introduced a number of people to the game, including several who'd never played RPGs before. All have fallen in love with its beautiful, simple system of playing, and the genuinely magical creations that result from playing it. One RPG-newbie I played with, a counsellor for autistic young adults, thought that the game would be an ideal tool for playing with her clients, helping them to come out of themselves and express their hopes and fears through directed creativity. 

ISDYSSM is a GM-less game - all players take an equal role in determining what is possible. This is a concept which, when I first encountered it, I couldn't envisage how it would work. But it does. It is, more than anything else, a loose structure within which people can explore the extremes of their imaginations to collaboratively build a story.

The rules, as I said, are simple and lightweight. After loosely describing a city by choosing three adjectives and then discussing the setting and what kind of beings might live there, players take it in turn to add either a Neighbourhood, a Landmark or a Resident to the city. Each of these involves a slightly different process, but all require the creation of true names, words or phrases that make that Neighbourhood, Landmark or Resident unique. These are a lot of fun to come up with, and can be as weird as you like: examples might be "slow-moving tourists", "big stain underneath", "oxidisation" or "braised tofu smell".

Declaring a resident involves an additional step of roleplaying a vignette, wherein the current player acts as the resident, and other players play roles of those interacting with them - perhaps customers, employees, or more abstract elements such as the weather or the nearby buildings. This aspect of the game was a lot of fun!

Finally, compasses - a word or phrase to inspire the round - and events - during which the city may be changed, and questions asked - help to make each round of the game unique, and determine the story of the city's growth and progress. The end of the game can happen whenever the players want - or you could keep on playing forever over multiple sessions if you prefer.

As well as being a lot of fun, it's a great tool for generating unique and characterful city environments for inserting into other RPGs or as a location for works of fiction.

In our first game, we invented the "Walking City of Lig⤦" (we think it may have once been called the Walking City of Light, but some of the letters have clearly fallen off the sign). It's a "sprawling, ornate, kinetic" city with something approaching a faded steampunk feel, where the buildings walk around on legs and the districts rearrange themselves over time. Quite unexpectedly, around halfway through the game, the city exploded into a battle between humans and robots, instigated by an android dishcloth-selling magnate in a tiki bar. You can read the summary of our gameplay here

In our next game we created an alpine city of cable-cars, where the building of a tunnel led to intrigue and death.

ISDYSSM is enormous fun, easy to play on the tabletop or online with only minimal resources (pen and paper), and a great introduction to RPGs for newbies. The rules are simple enough to learn that by my second play I didn't need to refer to them once. I can thoroughly recommend it, and will definitely be playing it again.

Monday, 9 August 2021

Old Maps & Ordnance Survey


I love real-world maps. There's just so much you can do with them.

In the mid-80s, I was part of a very short-lived play-by-mail game set in a a post-apocalyptic future. Each player controlled a tribe in a future Britain. On joining the game, you were sent a tiny square of 1:25,000 OS map. Mine was on a moor somewhere in the north of England, crossed by a line of electricity pylons.

The idea that everywhere on the Ordnance Survey map had a parallel in this game world blew my mind. It had that feeling of endlessness that was part of so many of my childhood fantasies. And anyone could get hold of the maps, but until you'd explored them in the game world you could only imagine what part of that future territory they represented.

When I started writing my Peakrill campaign last year, I stole this idea. My campaign is set in a fictional Peak District, and so the OS maps of the Peak District form part of my source material. I'm redrawing the maps, partly to simplify them, partly for the pure pleasure of drawing maps. But I could just as well have used the originals. Old maps are even nicer than the modern ones, and there are some great out-of-copyright OS maps available on Open Street Map

Maps can also be a great source of inspiration for naming things. One of my favourite writers, M John Harrison, does this often, especially in his Viriconium books (I have written before about how much the naming of things in Viriconium has affected me). I only recently realised that Canna Moidart, some time Queen of the city, is a place in Scotland.

Almost all of my D&D characters have been named after places in the Peak District - notably Bleaklow and more recently Bolsterstone. Harrison himself had a character called The Youlgrave in, I think, Viriconium Nights - named for the Derbyshire Peak town.  

The map may not be the territory, but nor is it merely a single-function object. What other uses do you put real-world maps to in your RPGs?

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

In my end is my beginning

I've written a role-playing game. It's not the one I had expected to write. There are no fairies. Unless you want there to be.

Short and sweet, it's my entry for the The One-Page RPG Jam 2021. You play a person who is about to die. It's funny, most RPGs contain death, often lots of it, but they only treat it as a technical issue and something for players to avoid (unless they're inflicting it on someone else). There's never much space to consider what death really means. In the last few years, I have made friends with an undertaker, have lost my father suddenly, and have seen one of my closest friends publish an astounding novel about death.

Oddly, I felt the need to add "content warning: death" to this game, and it struck me as really quite peculiar that no other game I'm aware of does this, despite the trauma that death can cause.

Anyway, enough of the lecture, here's the game: