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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.


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…”

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.

2013 Review of the Year

The changes this year were seismic ones. Obviously, the far bigger and more challenging development was the arrival of the twins. deli went back to work shortly after the posting of the previous entry in this blog, so my previously quite random writing schedule is no longer workable. I’m on childcare duties every weekday from 8 to 5 on average, and between dinner, bedtime, handovers and actually trying to retain some semblance of human contact, that means my writing day is down to three or four hours in the evenings.

Deadlines concentrate the mind. So do constraints. I am so concentrated right now that I can taste the words.

The other big change was the move from Cubicle 7 to Pelgrane Press. By late August, I knew that something had to change. Previously, I was able to juggle writing and line development duties relatively easily, but then I got hit by a quadruple whammy of Twin 1, Twin 2, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and a bunch of extra writing work. Nothing got dropped, but it became increasingly clear to me that things had to change. The post-GenCon shakeup, coupled with Pelgrane’s sudden soaring and resulting expansion proved to be the optimum time to switch companies. I’m still Line Developer for the Laundry Files, but stepped back from my involvement in DWAITAS, The One Ring and Primeval. I’m happy with the work I did on all three lines, but DWAITAS and The One Ring both deserve their own dedicated line manager.

Over at Pelgrane, I’m working on a dungeon campaign for 13th Age entitled Eyes of the Stone Thief, and after that I’ll be working on the long-awaited Dracula Dossier. Pelgrane assignments always push me to work harder – there, I’m at the receiving end of the editorial feedback and line developer comments – and improve my craft. The first few months were challenging, as I joined just as the boys started teething in earnest, but I think I’ve found my feet now and I’m looking forward to the new year.

The other unexpected change was getting back into writing for computer games. I helped the Mandate kickstart itself to more than $700,000, and got to write scripts for David Bradley.

Warpcon’s coming up on the radar. I realised that at Warpcon 2017, it’ll be the twenty year anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu scenario for the con – I’ve written a Cthulhu game for the con every year since 1997 (and thinking about, that means that next year is the 20th anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu game. Whoa.)

So, as I look towards 2014, I see

  • lots of work that I’m enthused about
  • a healthier financial situation
  • (leading to the possibility of carving out time for my own stuff in the summer without worrying about bills)
  • Living Dungeons, Vampires, more vampires, and Tsarist space adventures
  • a triumphant return to GenCon


  • two happy boys growing up in a secure and loving home

2013 –  when you’re not sleeping, one year can contain an awful lot of changes.


The Twin Dilemma & Other Stories

The lack of updates over the last few months can largely be attributed to the birth and subsequent all-consuming tyranny of T & E (born Feb. 7th, and as I type, they’re having angry conversations with a toy dragon and lurid green toy dog, respectively). Their existence hasn’t overly impacted on my freelance writing, although life has been stripped down to the bone and all extra commitments – like blogging, or sleep – have been pared away.

So, highlights of the last few months:

  • For Cubicle 7, I’m editing, developing and wrangling the Doctor sourcebooks for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. The First and Second Doctors are done, the Third’s waiting for approval from the BBC, and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth are in various stages of production.
  • DWAITAS got nominated for a bunch of Ennie awards, mostly for the Time Traveller’s Companion.
  • For The Laundry, GOD GAME BLACK came out at the start of the year, and I’m jugging bits of another three supplements. The Mythos Dossiers got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • Over in Middle-Earth, The Heart of the Wild is out to moderately great acclaim, and The Darkening of Mirkwood will follow soon.
  • The Primeval rpg also got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • I wrote a chunk of the recently-released World War Cthulhu, and have a pitch in for an interesting take on the Cold War.
  • Over at Pelgrane Press, The Zalozhniy Quartet is also up for an Ennie, and I wrote small parts of Hillfolk: Blood on the Snow, Double Tap: The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book and  (through Stoneskin Press) stories in The Lion and the Aardvark and Schemers.
  • I’m also working on three other Pelgrane projects, one of which (The Dracula Dossier) has been announced.
  • Through Mongoose Publishing, the ongoing free epic The Pirates of Drinax continues to trickle out.
  • Development work on Rakehell continues, along with with on a cyberpunk game entitled Drone.
  • I think that’s everything.
  • No, wait. I was a stretch goal on James’ Alas Vegas, and wrote Yet Already, a game of warring timelines, for that. That all happened in the crazy twilight of March, so no wonder it slipped my mind.
  • Actually, that’s quite a lot.
  • Not quite half a Forbeck, but close.

2012 Review of the Year

M’colleague Jon did a review of the year over at his blog, so I thought I’d follow suit.

That was a busy year. A very, very, busy year.

At Cubicle 7, I added line management of The One Ring to my portfolio. Releases in that line were lighter than we hoped, but we got Tales from Wilderland and the Laketown Screen out the door, and I wrote the double-headed epic of Heart of the Wild/Darkening of Mirkwood which will be out early next year, all going well. Two Doctor Who supplements came out in 2012, and I’ve another half-dozen in the pipeline. The Primeval rulebook came out, and has a devoted if modest fanbase. And the Laundry continued to hum along; the Mythos Dossiers supplement is one I’m particularly proud of.

For Pelgrane, I worked on the Zalozhniy Quartet, and Cthulhu Apocalypse – Slaves of the Mother. The reader may judge how effectively I channeled Ken or Graham. Over at Mongoose, three of the ten segments of the Pirates of Drinax campaign came out in PDF, I worked on a few minor bits and pieces for Paizo… oh, that little bit of SLA Industries freelancing I did also came out. Overall, though, staying on top of the four lines at Cubicle 7 is close to a full-time job.

May brought the Week of Gigs Unlooked-For, where three brand-new clients contacted me out of the blue (along with an email from Pelgrane). One of them has yet to pan out, but I took the other three. One of them was Cthulhu Apocalypse, one of them was a (now regrettably late) Bulldogs! campaign, and the third was some website content writing for Riverkey Creative. I can, it seems, still work in the real world when I have to, and the pay is good, but you can’t talk about Cthulhu when writing medical advice for a dental practise website.

Last year, my first novel Reality Optional was published by Ultraviolet Books. I wrote more short fiction this year – a Cthulhu story for a charity anthology, a short piece for The Lion and the Aardvark from Stoneskin Press, and a longer horror story for the Dark Harvest setting. My guide to Tolkien for kids also came out from Carlton Books; it’s a mass-market release, and I’ve found copies in book stores. That was a fantastic thrill.

I made to GenCon for the first time as a professional.

I helped run Dragonmeet.

I got nominated for a few awards, mostly for adventure design, and won an Ennie for best rules (for Lorefinder).

Woot on all counts.

Oh, and raised four puppies.

There were mistakes to learn from, too. Rakehell remains unfinished – and if I had pushed harder on that, I could possibly have grabbed some of the wave of enthusiasm for FATE. One Laundry book still languishes in limbo because of a poor outline on my part. Dragon Warriors needs more time too, although there was some progress on that front. My communication took a hit too – apologises if you’re waiting on a email from me!

The teams at C7 & Pelgrane have been wonderful to work with – thanks especially to CEODMT, Jon, Paul, Stuart, Walt, Andy, otherGareth, Simon, Beth, Graham, and the increasingly ampersanded Kenandrobin. Here at Milkyfish, though, my chief collaborator remain my beloved deli. Preparations for our planned release dominated a large chunk of this year, but we made it this far and the finish line/starting point/life-shattering twingeddon is in sight.

But hey – if I can get all that done in 2012, how hard can twins be?

Don’t answer that. I cherish my illusions.

Happy Christmas, good gaming and here’s to next year.


Thief’s Luck – some system noodling

I’ve always wanted to do a Thief-style game, and a potential mechanic for it popped into my head while playing Mansions of Madness.

It’s based around a standard deck of playing cards. The four suits correspond to situations: Hearts are emotional/social, Clubs are violence/force, Spades are the environment, and Diamonds are intellect/puzzles. A character has four stats, ranging from 3 to 7, and a number of skills -things like Lockpicking, Archery, Hiding… or whatever the player comes up with (player-defined skills).

Here’s the gimmick: when you try to do something, the GM sets a difficulty number to beat. Say you’re trying to pick a lock – that’s a Spades challenge. Your running total starts equal to your matching stat. Each round, you flip the top card of the deck. If it’s a Spade, you add its value to your total.

Depending on the circumstances, the GM may nominate one, two or even three of the other suits as hazards*. If the card matches one of those suits, you’re hindered by some new problem, and the card’s value is subtracted from your total**. For example, flip a Club (violence), and a guard comes around the corner. Flip a Heart (emotion), and you might suddenly doubt your skills, or be distracted by greedily looting a nearby jewelled candlestick. Flip a Diamond, and you discover the lock’s trapped. If your total drops to 0 or less, you fail the challenge and bad stuff happens***.

If you’ve got a skill that fits the current challenge, then you can use it to add non-matching cards to your total, but doing so spends a point from the appropriate stat. Say you’re in the middle of a sword fight (so you need Clubs), and you flip a big Heart. Normally, that would be deducted from your running total – maybe your foe goes into a battle frenzy, maybe you panic, maybe you can’t bring yourself to murder someone, maybe you recognise your lover behind your foe’s mask – but if you’ve got the Swordfighting skill, you can reduce your Hearts skill by 1 to add that Heart to your total.

The nice thing about the mechanic is that it throws in lots of complications and unexpected twists. You don’t just miss an attack if you don’t draw a Club – a flock of startled pigeons flies in front of you, you sudden realise that your target’s a member of a rival crime family and you’ll be targeted for retribution if you kill him, he spots your sniper’s nest in the cathedral tower and ducks into cover.

It feels intuitively like a nice little system, assuming I can get the numbers right. I’m not normally a fan of playing cards as a mechanic, but it suits this setup. Your thoughts?

*: Flipped cards in a suit that’s neither hazardous nor beneficial still do something, I’m just not sure what. Probably hang around as a complication that doesn’t currently impede your task.

**: What about Ace/Jack/Queen/King? I’m tempted to tie them to factions and groups within the game. So, drawing a Jack means the Thieves’ Guild are involved. An Ace represents the city watch, and it’s high or low depending on whether or not they’re on alert or not. Queen and King…not sure yet.

***: Drawing from Hamlet’s Hit Points, I’m thinking of giving a bonus card to a character who loses a contest that can be used in the next struggle.