2014 in review. Early.

It’s been a bit of a patchy old year. My twenty year running weekly games night has really suffered from real life, with families, jobs and holidays taking precedence over pretend elf games all too often. Did get a few sessions in with Ragr which is always a result, but his gaming life has been as all over the place as mine. One new face joined our group though, the redoubtable Mat. Turns out he’s produced some AAA video games in the past and is even now finishing up a Kickstarter call Guild Ball (which made a big bunch of cash). On the side he’s a roleplayer, but no slouch either. He has been an invigorating presence.

Games wise, we’ve started loads of things this year, but regrettably haven’t finished many of them. D&D Next got a bit of a work out when it was still in playtest. I had to keep updating our Serpents Skull campaign with each new packet, which ultimately got a little tiresome. Eventually after a bit of a pitching session, we decided to swap adventures and systems, going with 13th Age and Curse of the Crimson Throne. Some excellent sessions ensued, thought the ever rotating players and the stop/start nature eventually put that to bed about halfway through part one of six. Shame.

Instead, our stand by filler game of Pathfinder Cards became our primary game by chance. We played all of the Rise of the Runelords campaign, and we are now well underway with Skulls & Shackles. It’s a great co-op deck building game, full of narrative, zero prep and runs at two scenarios a night. Being honest, we would never have played through the tabletop APs, so this is a more than decent way to get the highlights in a fun way.

Along the way we stuttered through a Fate version of the new Secrets of the Ancients scenarios for Traveller (highly reskinned). Fate was a big learning curve for all of us, and we actually fell off it a couple of times. I’m still a fan, but it won’t get any table time with my group in the future. Not their bag.

Over G+ I tried out a few things. Least successful was a single Mindjammer session which went ‘fring!’ Like a dying lightbulb for reasons unknown to me. I ran about half a dozen sessions of 5e which I loved, and made some great new gaming friends with. Have just started some new Delta Green with Gaz of this parish. Early days, but promising.

What else? Lots of writing in the early part of the year with the bulk of a WW2 game written (now stalled) as well as a few columns and a big old piece called Conventional Wisdom (available around here somewhere…) which were really well received. Took a writing break in the summer while other things took priority in real life. Coming back to it now with more columns, and a tiny indie game called Retainer that I might turn into something more polished yet.

No cons so far. But! the year ain’t over yet and DragonMeet is mere weeks away. Really looking forward to that, and running my Fatejammerscape game.

Games accumulated but so far unplayed? Millions, including Torchbearer, Corporia, Achtung Cthulhu, World War Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Timewatch, Kerberos Club and Callisto.

All in all, I’ll take it. Would have liked something with more legs to it, but there’s been some notable highlights in among all the scrabbling around.

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Gumshoe hack, thoughts?

Take all the investigation skills and put them on a central team sheet for everyone to draw from.

Pros? Cons?

I’ve been thinking about shared player resources an awful lot recently. The idea of a ‘party’ has been knocking around since day one, but for non fantasy gaming, it gets a bit strained at times. Even in games with squads or teams that the setting supports, the individual character sheet seems inviolate. There are exceptions of course. I was really impressed with the ‘party’ card that WFRP3 used, which gave out abilities for everyone to draw from. I also like the Marvel Heroic mechanic where heroes become more or less effective if they’re in teams, buddied or solo.

So for Gumshoe, which is really two games welded together by the use of a d6, why not really separate them out? That way everyone gets buy in on the investigation parts, no one feels like they can’t contribute and the resources are shared. General abilities stay under the purview of the individual player.

Am I mad?

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Things What I Wrote This Week

Had a week’s vacation so got a chance to really get behind my keyboard. Finished a couple of things that have been glowering at me from the rear hob, and started another couple by getting the chopping board and knife out. And that’s enough strained kitchen metaphors.

Knocked out three new columns for UK Roleplayers after too long a lay off. One about the golden years of UK gaming magazines and my minor involvement in the oft-mourned Valkyrie. The other two were hazy reminiscences of the Con scene when there was such a thing as a UK GenCon. Great fun looking back.

In the finished pile is my game offering for this years DragonMeet. Ostensibly a D&D game, set in the afterlife, using Fate as a rules engine. It was slightly jarring for me to have to stop prepping beyond some basic notes (on index cards naturally), but Fate needs player juice to move forward. Don’t want to overcook it.

And moving firmly into the Pending category is a brand new game. After banging my head against a wall trying to finish a trad opus, I’ve taken inspiration from another commentator and started putting together a brief story game. It’s well Indie. It’s called Retainer and it’s about flashbacks of fantasy encounters as told by henchmen and hirelings. Cross D&D with The Office and Extras and you’re there. It’s fun putting it together and not trying to write another generic adventure game. It’s more like a Sudoku with just a few moving parts that absolutely have to work together in a single way. Just hoping I see it through now.

Still bubbling? A few more columns. Couple of Let’s Reads, with Nights Black Agents and a Trail of Cthulhu campaign at the front of that particular queue.

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Investigating new dark avenues

I’ve set out upon a new mission, to better myself as a gamer. I’m trying to learn a different way to play and run games. Investigative horror (IH). Course, it’s not completely new to me! Cthulhu has been a constant presence in the hobby ever since I began in the Thatcher era. And there’s been large elements of both the I and the H in most gaming in the intervening years. For example, pretty much every Warhammer Fantasy session ever.

Yet in recent years I’ve happily wrapped myself up in the cosy blanket of D&D, which I loved every minute of. Some of that was a reaction to the dark and edgy years in the hobby, but mostly it was because it was enormous fun and I had a group that responded to its tropes very well indeed. Now, as my standard group evolves, and I’m (dare I say it) more mature in my gaming outlook, I’d like to see what I’m missing out on. And I must be! It seems that pretty much everyone I know is into supernatural/conspiracy/investigation/gritty/thriller/horror/dystopia/post apocalypse stuff. You can’t move for it across all media.

So I’ve decided to dip a toe back in the (stagnant, amoebic) water. Here’s my plan. I’m rereading a bunch of Gumshoe stuff. Specifically Nights Black Agents (the espionage stuff keeps my cinematic head in the game) and for Trail, I’ve got Eternal Lies to see how adventures might be constructed. I’ve got Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff on heavy rotation on the iPod (and let’s face it, IH is really almost all they talk about). I’ve even signed up for a Delta Green game kicking off this weekend! And I’ve been soliciting advice from pals on the fora.

Point of all this? Well, I might try to get a game going. Which one I don’t know, and with whom I don’t know. I will cross that moonlit bridge with flickering flashlight in trembling hand later.

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Nature as Inspiration

Gaming has taught me a lot. Or, it’s at least pointed me to things that have taught me a lot! Medieval law, town planning, martial arts, ciphers and codes, warfare and conspiracies are just the most obvious of the subjects I now know far too much about. One of the things I like to do is pick up inspiration from less obvious places, like nature documentaries.

What I like about three is that nature tends to extend in time both ways. It’s likely to be similar in the past, even he distant past, and if we’re lucky it might even be recognisable in the future. Which makes it a fantastic backdrop for gaming settings, and one at usually gets short shrift in comparison to wandering monsters and other genre intrusions.

As I type BBC2 is showing a programme about the Monsoon. In the first ten minutes there’s been a couple of excellent pieces. The first, a swarm of 80 000 green budgerigars filling the air and swooping down to drink. In amongst them, some birds of prey picking up their lunch from the stragglers. It was a beautiful sight and would grace any gaming scene.

Second, a wild pig on a beach hunting for food. It comes across a hermit crab, sucks it up its snout, and then spits it out as it can’t get through the shell. Take that scene and scale it up to a massive beast and a lone paladin in plate armour. No initiative rolls or hit points needed, just a colourful little scene that brings some of the setting vividly to life.

Turns out that Earth is the best of all possible sourcebooks. So keep a notebook handy next time you have the tv on in the background.

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How my dungeon lost its zip

I’m running a few good people through a pretty standard published dungeon in my weekly online game. It’s a fantastic game! The guys are brilliant players, and for two hours per week we laugh, we cry, we taste defeat and glory together. There’s nothing wrong with the setting, the system or the people. It’s ace.

And then I listened to received wisdom, gave my npc their own agenda, and played it out.

Previously, the party had been semi stealthy, as parties are, and had managed to kill the evil wizards familiar pretty much by reflex. They didn’t know it was the wizard’s familiar, still don’t in fact, and closed the door and moved off in another direction. A couple of rests later and they decide to track back to the wizard’s part of the dungeon. I decided that the wizard would now know the party were abroad, that they were well armed, albeit clumsy. He knows his guards must have been defeated. He has a potion of invisibility. So I had him make his escape while they were resting.

Which meant that for this week the party spent the entire session exploring hastily vacated chambers with no foes, and little loot. There were occasional clues left behind, but no danger. There was little left to interact with and because of that the session felt much flatter than usual, anti climactic even. I caved in the end and left a dog in a locked cupboard. That gave them something to interact with and have to make decisions about (note: goblins will get disposed of without a second thought. A big shaggy tame dog? Another story)

Now, clearly this won’t be the last they see of the wizard. I’ll continue with his agenda and we should get into a nice revenge scene, possibly with hostages, quite soon. In fact, I can see a much better story unfolding as a result of this in the future. Nevertheless, for today, the dungeon was dull, and that ain’t good. If I’d left everything in place with the bad guys patiently waiting in their numbered chambers, then yes, it would have been unrealistic, but it would have gotten the pulse moving!

Thoughts?

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D&D is dead

I’m writing up an adventure for December’s Dragonmeet, and I’m taking the opportunity to try something a bit out of the norm. I’m running D&D, clearly, but not as I usually would. For starters, I’m likely to use the Fate Accelerated rules for it. Just because, I want to attract a different set of expectations from the player pool, and Fate promotes a more narrative experience.

The big change is in the situation. I’m starting with all the characters being recently deceased. They’ll all be coming to grips with the fact that their previous lives of killing things and taking their stuff is over. To be replaced with… What exactly?

At this point I’m sticking to the notion of the Astral Sea and the Divine Dominions as set out in various pieces of the D&D canon, but with various twists. I’ve got a few ideas for conflicts already, like Devil Soul Reapers, Astral Tourists, and Ghost Hunters. I won’t spoil any more at this point. Suffice to say, I’m looking for the big climax to be a decision on whether or not to return to the material world, via spell or something else, or to go on to the final reward, whatever that may be.

I’m also nicking the idea of death marks from Wraith. You can see the way you met your end physically manifested in your appearance. If you drowned, you’re constantly wet and dripping. If you were beheaded, then yes, you carry your head under your arm. I’ve had a top time dreaming up 101 ways to meet your end in D&D. It’s looking like a fantastic random table too.

As for characters, I’m doing them as 5e characters first, running them up a few levels and then killing them off. Then I’m transferring them across to Fate, in feel at least, leaving a couple of gaps for the players to fill in during play. Great fun.

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