2016 Year-End Blog

There were plenty of successes this year - Dracula Dossier being the big one – but overall the mood is bleak and the world is slip-sliding towards badness. All my aspirations for 2016 get transplanted into 2017 pretty much word for word, with the addition of “fight for a better world.”

Aspirations count for nothing without action.

2015 Year-End

2015 was building blocks scattered all over the floor, metaphorically and actually. The first few months were dominated with recovering from my back injury; I couldn’t walk at Christmas, but made it to Warpcon (helped by a lot of painkillers) and was back to something close to normality by the summer. It’s not entirely healed, and will probably never be 100% better, but as long as I’m careful and sensible, I should be fine. There’ve also been some family medical issues that took up time and mental space.

Dracula Dossier and its spin-offs took up an astounding amount of effort. It’s easily the most complex and ambitious project I’ve been a part of, with half-a-dozen or more interlocking components. It came out beautifully, and I’m immensely proud of it. It did, however, take a lot longer than planned, so I didn’t get quite as much other stuff out through Pelgrane as I’d hoped. I finished off the Pirates of Drinax project for Mongoose, and did several smaller pieces for Cubicle 7 on the Laundry and One Ring lines.

The Mandate went from a minor side project to taking up as much time as I could give it, practically overnight. Financially, it’s been a welcome boost, and it’s a very different creative challenge.

I did a night course in Indesign (photoshop module is next year). I finished the first draft of a novel. Pushed forward on some game designs. Nothing complete yet, but progress made.

I have, however, overloaded myself – I’m racing to catch up, and stressing myself out. So, goals for next year:

  • Read more. Game more.
  • Be more ruthless about saying no to projects.
  • Finish novel, draft another one.
  • Finish one game design.
  • Get better at demarcating time. Use work time for work, and then put it away.

All the parts are there to build an excellent 2016. Here’s hoping.

The backbreaking labours of 2014

Once, we had blogs.

Now, we have end-of-year summations and reviews.

The last three months of 2014 have been literally painful, but I’m trying to avoid letting that overshadow the rest. I hit a nice stride in the first half of the year – mind the boys during the day, write solidly for four hours or more at night. The Eyes of the Stone Thief grew into something of an epic, but the end result was, I hope, worth it. Between that and Darkening of Mirkwood, I’m very proud of my game writing this year.

House renovations meant the summer was disjointed, but I still wrote north of 90,000 words of fiction (meaningless, I know, until I actually finish something), while staying on top of other work – including the other magnum opus of the year, my half of the Dracula Dossier.

Gencon was immense fun. More of that sort of thing. So was the Dracula Dosser kickstarter, in a very different way. What began as a throwaway idea was refined by Ken’s brilliant outline into a very playable campaign, and the kickstarter blew it up into a little product line of its own. Getting the Dossier out on time is going to be the big priority for the first third of next year.

I’ve joked in the past about the curse of kickstarter – it seems like a successful kickstarter brings karmic retribution in the form of illness, upheaval or other disruption, so that previously reliable writers suddenly fall months or years behind. This time, I got hit by the curse in advance. I thought I pulled a muscle in my back in October, and had a very painful time at Gaelcon. (The con itself was fun, and it was wonderful to be able to bring the boys with us – but the drive up and down was tortuous). As the pain got worse, though, writing became harder and harder, as my all-important ass-in-chair time tended towards zero. I went for an MRI, and discovered that I’d managed to rupture a disc in my spine.

I shall spare you the gory details, but I’ve had two nerve blocks to reduce the pain to a manageable level, and I still can’t sit down or stand for very long without considerable discomfort. Driving is hard; socialising is very tricky for more than a few minutes.  I’m on effective bedrest for the next month or so at the least.

Fortunately, I can type from bed, so I’m going to hit the ground runn… wait, that metaphor really doesn’t worth.

I’m going to write a lot at the start of next year. Much better. Dracula Dossier for Pelgrane, getting the Laundry line rolling properly again for C7, more contracting for the Mandate computer game (which will, I hope, let me work with another writer I greatly respect, just like the Dossier let me live inside Ken’s head for months), and a bunch of smaller side projects, like finishing up the Pirates of Drinax and some fiction pieces. I didn’t hit all my goals for 2014, but I hit enough of them that I’m not discouraged – and maybe I’d have hit more of them if I hadn’t been stabbed in the back by my spine, so to speak.

Gaming really suffered this year – between the disruption of the kitchen odyssey, one of my regular players swanning off to Australia (if one can swan in a wheelchair, and if anyone can swan in a wheelchair, it’s Baron K von K), and back pain, I haven’t been able to maintain a regular game in months, which is maddening. I may resort to a short online game while I’m bed bound.

2014 was a good year, overall, despite the exploding disc of doom. I’m lying down, but I’m looking up.


Drone Mechanics

In my copious spare time – by which I mean, “when I neglect the children” – I’m working on Drone, a cyberpunk-ish game about disposable cyborg assassins. Elevator pitch – one player is the reactivated Drone. The others are the remote Operators, guiding the Drone through the collaboratively-designed mission and pulling the strings. They’ve got to balance the Drone’s growing sense of self against the needs of the mission.

The core of the game is the Action Pool. Each round, the Drone rolls a pile of d6s. The number of d6s depends on the Drone’s health – damage takes away from its ability to act. The colour of the d6s – Black or Red – depends on how dangerous the situation is, and how alert the bad guys are to the Drone’s presence.

Each turn, a player takes one of the dice from the pool and uses it to fuel an ability. The Drone’s abilities are pretty conventional – move, attack, interact with people, hide and the like – but the Operators each have their own specialised abilities (and everyone has their own Apocalypse-World style play sheet). So, the Director can order another player to act twice in a row, or override someone else’s action. The Tactician can give the Drone a firing solution to take down multiple targets, or scan the surrounding area for threats, or co-ordinate the actions of other assets. The Medic can pump the Drone full of painkillers, download skills, or activate cybernetic devices implanted in the drone.

If a player takes a Red dice, then the bad guys also get to act that turn. There are various ways to raise or lower the number of Red Dice in the pool like disrupting enemy communications, or hiding and waiting for the alarm to die down.

I designed the system to emphasise the idea that there’s only a single ‘conventional’ player character – there’s only one character actually present in the action – even though there are three other characters backing him up. The pool mechanic, though, has the unexpected but wholly welcome side effect of engaging all the players in every action. I was worried that Operators might feel left out as they’re less involved in the action, but as everything the other players do affects your own ability to act and plan, and as there’s a clear visual/tactile focus in the form of a diminishing pile of dice in the middle of the table, it actually fosters a lovely claustrophobic ‘we’re all in the same virtual foxhole’ feeling.


13 Princes

This just jumped into my head, so I’m frantically writing it down in gaps between feeding twins. Excuse unseemly brevity and enthusiasm.

A setting where the PCs are the Icons. Each PC is the ruler/champion/symbol/figurehead/chosen one of a particular race/culture/faction. Instead of Icons, you take TWO qualities of your faction that might or might not show up in a given session. So, if you’re the Werewolf Prince, you might take Savage Nature  (positive) and the Moon (conflicted). Each game session, you roll for Icon benefits as normal; on a 5, you OR your faction can do something awesome with that “quality”, but at a cost. 6 means it comes without strings.

The twist – you then take a third quality from one of the other players, but you have to have a different relationship with it (or stay conflicted). So, if you’re the Shepherd of Worlds, you might take my Savage Nature quality as a negative – you want to tame nature, I want it to remain red in tooth and claw. (Maybe each player should only define one icon, and take two more from other players, to bind everything together.)

This concept would probably work best starting at 5th level, where the PCs have some real power under their belts, and I’m not quite sure what sort of adventures the PCs actually go on. Presumably, battling against shared external threats to their cultures would be a big part of it.

Now that I write it down, I realise that I’m channelling bits of the primordial setup of D&D (back when it was closer to Fantasy Diplomacy in Blackmoor) and Callisto. Good antecedents to have.

Fellowship Phases & The One Ring

Paul Baldowski asked

Is there any guidance or room for a blog post or two from you on the matter of Fellowship Phases in TOR? It’s a common grey area. I’m not sure I (or many other players) grok the concept of just how much roleplaying is involved in the Fellowship phase

Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘it depends’.

For those unfamiliar with the mechanic, the One Ring RPG has two ‘phases’ of play. During the Adventuring Phase, the player characters go adventuring – they journey across Middle-Earth, encounter strange people and explore strange places, fight off the corrupting touch of the Shadow, get lost in Mirkwood, fight Orcs/Spiders/Wolves/Trolls/More Orcs and do all the things that adventurers do. Then there’s a Fellowship Phase, where each player character gets to perform a Fellowship Action. On the face of it, these look like downtime activities – actions include stuff like Raise Standard of Living, Heal Corruption, Gain a New Distinctive Feature and so on. Other supplements have introduces new actions, like Gather Herbs or Visit the Market, as well as one-off or special Actions like Receive Title, Visit the Kingstone, Consult with Saruman and the like.

Fellowship Actions give the players a chance to drive the story. TOR adventures tend to be reactive – the Enemy does something, and the PCs respond by thwarting it. The Fellowship Phase, though, is almost entirely Active – the players almost always have a choice of actions, and should be made aware of their options by the Loremaster. As you can only carry out Fellowship Actions as a Sanctuary, the phase also lets the game explore the peaceful, settled parts of Middle-Earth; without them, the game would take place almost entirely in empty wilderness and orc-caves.

Each Fellowship Action has a mechanical effect, and it’s perfectly fine to have that be the entirety of the phase. “You arrive in Rivendell – erase your fatigue, roll to get rid of Corruption, and off we go on the next adventure”. Similarly, when Journeying, you don’t need to play through every single Hazard.

However, The One Ring benefits immensely from taking a slower pace than other games. Describing even comparatively uneventful journeys may seem like a recipe for dullness, but TOR is much more grounded in its setting than other games (compare a long journey in Dungeons and Dragons). There’s no need to describe every tree, but giving a brief bit of description and scope for roleplaying between Travel checks lets the game breathe; it lets miles be miles, so to speak, and lets the players show off traits and features of their characters.

The same applies to Fellowship Actions. There’s no need to role-play through them, and certainly they shouldn’t be turned into mini-adventures or challenges where, say, the PCs need to deal with some snooty Elves before they can Open Rivendell as a Sanctuary. Instead, let each player give as much or as little narration as they wish.

When considering how much time, detail and roleplaying to put into Fellowship Phases, ask yourself if you want your game to feel more like the Fellowship of the Ring (lengthy travel interspersed with short bursts of peril, and lengthy interludes at Sanctuaries) or The Two Towers (mostly hazardous travel and combat, with only brief breaks to rest and refresh that mostly have only mechanical consequences.) The right answer may depend on the appetite for your players for consequence-free colour roleplaying and Hobbitry.


Warpcon 24

If I run a Cthulhu game at the next two Warpcons, I’ll unlock the achievement “Great Old One – run a Cthulhu game at 20 Warpcons in a row.” I’ll have to do something special for that. This year, with two new distractions, I reused a pair of GenCon scenarios instead of writing anything new.

Saturday, I ran The Wind from the South, a One Ring scenario where the PCs have to rescue a princess of Rohan from Tyrant’s Tower. The players went rather spectacularly off-piste for around half the game, but then turned around and completed the quest with some rousing team-work and Hobbitry, culminating in the most improbable ‘use the evil ring’ check ever (3 sixs and two Gandalfs on a Hobbit’s Corruption test).

Sunday morning, I ran a Laundry scenario that’ll be part of an upcoming anthology. It revolves around HP Lovecraft and an attempt to summon a fire god. Half the players were Americans, which lent any Black Chamber jokes an interesting frisson. They all survived, despite one of them being devoured by said fire god (the others worked out a plausible way to bring her back from the dead as a transgender clone of Lovecraft, which the players then put on a Cards against Humanity card.)

After that, I ran a brief seminar on adventure design, which made me want to run another seminar on adventure design that takes advantage of all the things I learned doing the first one, and so doesn’t suck. My thanks to the audience for enduring my learning experience.

The annual Warpcon board game was  Yggdrasil, a co-op “you’re all Norse gods fighting Ragnarok” game. Very pretty, nicely thematic, but possibly a bit shallow. We’ve played it twice so far, but haven’t tried the Asgard expansion yet.

I did comparatively little socialising, and completely missed the guests other than a very brief flyby of Chris Pramas. The boys’ meal-time meant that I had to skip dinner in town, and I’ve never been comfortable in bars. Still, thanks to deli’s help, juggling twins and con proved successful (and I must thank the Warpcon committee for the twin-sized con shirts.)

My first Warpcon was Warpcon 4; twenty years ago, and twenty years before that was the start of D&D. Egad –  I may have already unlocked “run Cthulhu for half the time it’s been in existence…”

Warpcon 24, D&D 40, Boys 1, Infinity

Warpcon is done for another year. I always feel like my year really starts at Warpcon – more than the new year, more than Christmas, more than my birthday, it’s the axis around which the seasons turn. Every con brings with it revelation, or at least the illusion of revelation, some motif for the year to come, and this year I think it must have been continuity. The convention committee were young and inexperienced, but that’s how things should be. It’s in good hands. I remember feeling that things couldn’t possibly continue after my generation left college, that things would fall apart. They didn’t.

Dungeons and Dragons is 40 years old today. I can’t begin to quantify how big an influence roleplaying games are on me. Like Warpcon, I’ve always felt a sort of melancholy desperation about gaming; I was unable to shake the feeling that I’d come in at the end of the party, just before everything ended, that the great days were over and gone before I arrived, but that if I kept gaming, I could stave off that end for a little while. Fight the long defeat, as Tolkien put it.

(Tolkien has a lot to answer for.)

Screw all that. Here’s to Warpcon 25, and 35, and 50. Here’s to the next century of D&D. Here’s to making the future out of the best pieces of the past. Here’s to being part of an ongoing campaign, not a story moving inexorably towards an unwanted ending.





Darkening of Mirkwood

The Darkening of Mirkwood is finally out! It’s been in the pipeline for a very long time, and I’m ecstatic to see it released. I took Francesco’s outline and notes from  The One Ring’s Loremaster’s Guide, and expanded them into a thirty-year adventure modelled on the classic Great Pendragon Campaign. It may be the best adventure I’ve written so far; I’m certainly extremely happy with it.

It corrects one unavoidable issue with the GPG – the ending isn’t set. The Arthurian saga demands that Arthur perish fighting at Camlann, and be taken away to Avalon. The fate of the Woodmen of Mirkwood, though, is left unanswered by Tolkien, so I was able to put much more weight on the player characters’ decisions. There are significant NPCs running around the adventure – one adventure has both Saruman and the Nazgul, and another starts off with the PCs being sent to apprehend Gandalf – but they’re never the deciding factor in how the campaign resolves.

There are some sections that I’m very gratified to see in the final product. The melancholic ending, for example – the campaign inevitably ends in a defeat, although the PCs’ actions determine whether it’s a temporary setback for the Free Peoples, or a complete victory for the Enemy. The opportunities for player characters to take on mythical roles, or to retire and take on new character types who arose from previous events in the campaign. The very, very careful references to the earlier Ages of Middle-Earth. The absolutely stunning artwork.

Thirty years have passed since the company first met in Wilderland. Thirty times have the black leaves fallen in the wild wood. A lifetime, as the short-lived Northmen reckon time; a brief spell for the immortal Elves. This final year is an opportunity for the surviving companions, if any, to reflect on their deeds and even lay down their burdens. Characters who helped Prince Bain in earlier adventures can retire to the safety of Dale. Others may prefer to continue adventuring outside Mirkwood.

The forest itself lies under a dark shadow. The Woodmen, if they still endure, are few in number. Radagast remains in his cottage at Rhosgobel, where he has lived for many years, but his absences grow longer and longer as he wanders the forest. Some rumours claim he goes to visit the River-maidens, other stories say he travels through the wood in the shape of a bird or a fox.

In the south, the Messenger of Mordor leaves Dol Guldur. The Ringwraith is recalled to Barad-Dûr, to report to Sauron. What tidings does he bring the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne? Does the Nazgûl tell that the north is weak and divided, or does he speak of heroes that drove back the Shadow from the wood? 

Other minds, other hands, working the same black soil, growing their own cuttings of Tolkien’s great tree.


Cylons of Waterdeep

I’m just back from a board-gaming minicon. It’s become a Christmas tradition, as expat gamers return home for the holidays, then flee the loving embrace of their families to roll dice and move meeples. Two games dominated the day - Lords of Waterdeep and Battlestar Galactica. I’ve admired and adored the BSG board game for years, while Lords is a recent addiction. I don’t have the physical board game, but the iOS version is on the front page of both my phone and my iPad.

Both games hit a sweet intersection in a Venn diagram. Both are abstract enough to take a high-level approach to challenges – you’re not rolling to hit, you’re resolving whole conflicts at a time. Both are strongly themed, and even push a little towards roleplaying, although BSG is obviously much more immersive. Both are co-operative while also being competitive – admittedly, in Lords, that’s more the theme spilling into my impressions of the game. You could so easily push Lords towards the BSG/Arkham Horror model if you introduced penalties for failing to complete quests.

I’ve often said that Arkham Horror isn’t a great game, but it works as a fragmented recollection of a fantastic epic Call of Cthulhu campaign. The thought of a game that produces the high points and dramatic decisions of an entire campaign in a single afternoon, and fits in a box, is a goal worth pursuing.