Friday, 25 May 2018

A dicey friendship

Say hello to two guys who have been my best friends for more than 35 years.

Way back in 1983, when I first started in the roleplaying hobby with my first Fighting Fantasy gamebook 'The Citadel of Chaos', I used two six-sided dice from whatever boardgame that was lying around. Inevitably, as I took the book with me wherever I went and played it avidly I lost the dice and the number of six-siders we had in the house dwindled until the ones we were left with were like gold dust, and protected in a such a way that even Indiana Jones would have found it difficult to get hold of them.

So, if a board game was in full swing the chances were that I had no dice to play my gamebook with. If I was desperate I used to cut out hexagonal shapes and number the sides, stick a matchstick through it and spin it, but this was a pain the backside. The feel and the clatter of dice was what I wanted and I hated it when I couldn't get hold of them.

Seeing this rather silly dilemma, my mother decided to aid her youngest son by buying him his first pair of dedicated gaming dice as one of his Christmas presents. These are the dice you see in the picture. I have no idea where they came from or who made them but even after thirty years they're still in great shape, there's no chips or scrapes and the white of the dots is immaculate, so well done die manufacturer.

They're retired now. They sit in a small chest, safe and snug and six-side up. I have a lot of affection for these dice, and they helped set me on my path to adventure.

Monday, 21 May 2018

WFRP 4th Edition - System Preview

Cubicle 7 have released a nice preview of their upcoming WFRP system changes. There's not a lot of detail but there's enough to give us something to mull over until the release.

They say the new system is '"..a new implementation of the familiar d100 dice system, that you’ll be able to modify it to suit your play style, and that it will offer resolution options with a variety of levels of detail."

I thought I'd go over the preview and I've put my thoughts under each of the points below. Bear in mind that 99% of my WFRP gaming has been done with 1st Edition so that is what I'll be comparing it to.

"When a test is called for – generally a situation where a character is attempting an action, or reacting to an action affecting them – the GM has three choices:

1 – GM decision based on the characters’ abilities

Keeping the game flowing smoothly and quickly is important to keep everyone actively engaged in the adventure. Sometimes, especially when the outcome doesn’t really matter all that much, or the most likely outcome is pretty obvious, the GM is better off eyeballing the relevant character(s) abilities and making a call as to whether or not the action succeeds.

When situations are resolved this way, players will need to show trust and respect to the GM – the decision will need to be accepted as logical and impartial and not signal the start of a discussion!"

This leaves a lot to the GM and may not work in every situation, but this is something that I've done before, usually after taking a look at the character's stats and deciding that after modifiers the skill roll is as good as successful, and especially if the progress of the plot depends on success. If it's a high tension situation or a combat and there's still a chance of failure, I'll still ask for the roll to make sure that everything is fair, even if the chances of failure are one or two percent, and if it does go south then I'll make the most of the tension; this is a grim game, after all.

"2 – A simple pass/fail test

This is the one most players are familiar with! You decide which characteristic or skill to test, adjust for the difficulty of the test (for example, a hard difficulty subtracts 20 from your ability) and then roll equal to or under that total to succeed. It’s simple (hence the name), quick, straightforward, and tells you if you succeed or fail.

The downside of the quick pass/fail test is that the action stops dead if you fail. It’s fine in many situations, but that hard ‘No’ can be unsatisfying. And if you have grim and gritty, low-skilled characters, they can fail a lot, and that can get frustrating."

This is the norm for me, and to be honest the failure is just as good as the success as it can really create some interesting situations and can also be really challenging for me as the GM to deal with the fallout. Either roll, success or failure, can really throw the story into chaos and it's up to me to get it back on track or make sure that the resulting story is as entertaining as my original design. Some of the best adventures came off the back of unexpected roll results, but there is a negative effect to this, too, when a bad roll throws the game into disarray or derails it altogether. The nature of roleplaying has changed somewhat since 1st Edition came out and I'm much more focused on creating a great story with my group.

"3 – A more nuanced dramatic test giving a range of outcomes and success levels

Sometimes you need to know what happens next, rather than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. The Dramatic Test helps you generate an outcome instead. Using Success Levels to show just how well or poorly you’ve done, these tests give you a result that keeps the story moving.

Rather than just failing to jump across the ravine and plunging to your death, maybe you almost made it and are left hanging onto a root at the other side of the gorge. The negative success levels of a Dramatic Test can help to keep the game interesting and help guard against arbitrary and disproportionate dice-based punishment.

Similarly, the positive success levels mean you can succeed beyond your wildest dreams, with unanticipated consequences piling good fortune at your feet, or scrape past by the skin of your teeth, achieving most of what you wanted, but with some complications.

The Dramatic Test is a tool for the GM to make tests meaningful and… well… dramatic!"

This is the part that interests me, and excites me, the most. If the rules are able to give degrees of success, or give an 'out' to those situations that arise when a bad roll occurs, then that will make for a much more malleable game that forgives any derailing issues. This may seem a little opposite to the spirit of WFRP I love so much - if you fail and die, that's just because the world's grim and it sucks but that's that - but it helps those situations when a bad roll really messes things up. There have been a few times when the players have gotten to a key moment and it's all gone wrong or they've played for weeks only to die at the hands of the big bad or one of his minions. Levels of success can make for some great story options and if done right can make events much more exciting. Let's hope that it sits well with the grim, hopeless atmosphere of WFRP, but these three  options are just that; options. By the sounds of things if you don't like the roll interpretation you can go back to what you know.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Interview - Paul Mitchener

RPG Writer Paul Mitchener joins me to have a chat about epic myths, countries torn apart by civil war, and games. All nice and casual.

Welcome to Farsight Blogger! Please tell us about yourself and how you got started in the tabletop roleplaying hobby. 

Thank-you Jonathan. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm Paul Mitchener. I'm 43 years old and live in Sheffield with my partner and two cats. By day I'm a mathematics university lecturer, and by night I'm an RPG writer.

I first started with tabletop roleplaying games when I was around the age of 12, and a friend at school sold me second-hand copies of the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets. I devoured them, and gathered some people together to game. And I was DM - I ran a game before I played! For some reason, my adventure was a long journey across a desert, featuring a river which paralysed anyone who touched the water. The player characters weaponised it and used the water to rob a magic shop in the middle of nowhere, since that was the state of my first piece of world building. The session ended when the wizard shop owner of the store they had robbed came after them, and caught the entire group in a magical web. Before the next session, I remember notes being passed at school all week with plans and plots and schemes to get out of the mess. And I was hooked.

You’ve got a list of games under your belt; ‘Age of Arthur’, work for ‘OpenQuest’, ‘Crypts & Things’ and ‘Mindjammer’, as well as a few projects for different systems such as FATE. What’s your preferred genre and system? 

You want me to choose my favourite child? Okay, to pick just one genre, I'll have to pick history, maybe played straight, maybe with a dose of fantasy. That gives me huge amounts to play with, from the ancient world through to the Cold War, though I'm still going to count it as one genre! I'll still mourn for the loss of science fiction.

In terms of system, I've done quite a bit with Fate - Age of Arthur, some supplement work for Mindjammer, Hunters of Alexandria, and more on the horizon. So that's one of my favoured systems. Again, there are other things I like - I'm fond of Gumshoe, the One Roll Engine, and some of the d100 games for instance. In terms of less generic systems, I'm still absolutely in love with The One Ring, for roleplaying in Middle Earth.

You’ve got a game on the way called ‘Age of Anarchy’, about the civil war in England and Normandy in the 12th century. What was the attraction to this era and this particular historical event?

The Anarchy is cool. There are two contestants for the monarchy, both are creating earldoms and gathering support, and everything is up for grabs. The conflict drags on for years, with long periods of near peace, and it's remarkably swingy from one side to the other. In a way this isn't so unusual- none of the early Norman monarchs gained the throne without a fight- but the extent of it is. The Normans are also fascinating people - so worthy and so vile at the same time. And the Anarchy's full of interesting characters - not just Stephen and Matilda, but some of the bishops and earls from what we know from history. It's a rich and very gameable period, with lots of colour and lots to do.

It’s a historical game, so what can players expect to be able to do? What’s the drive of the characters in the game?

The player characters support a noble, their patron, and help them both deal with issues and rise in status in this turbulent time. They could end up landless and in disgrace, or an earl who is close to the monarch. And as they rise in status, the player characters, their most loyal vassals, rise with them. So there's always something to do, in terms of dealing with the patron's problems as well as the characters' own issues, and each scenario drives the next. There's a really clear objective for the player characters.

Can you tell us something more about the mechanics, the Perpetual Motion Engine?

Sure. There's two parts I'd like to talk about here. The first part is the patron engine. The patron of the player characters faces a number of issues at any one time, and the players decide which they need to be dealt with. Dealing with an issue promptly helps the patron rise in status, but issues which are neglected or ignored get worse, or can even explode, and deal the patron a blow. As the patron rises in status, they might receive greater feudal titles, rising to the status of a baron or earl. And when a patron rises in status, the player characters grow in influence, gaining more assets they can use.

Player characters are defined through a number of professions and associated skills, any assets they have from their patron, and special abilities which refine a profession. A player character also has a passion and an issue. The system is simple enough in that it's a case of rolling 2d6 and adding a relevant skill, but parts are abstracted. The system is designed so that adventures can be quickly put together or improvised entirely, with non-player characters defined by their ability level and a few strengths and weaknesses. In play it's very fluid.

What kind of support will the game receive? Supplements, adventures, sourcebooks?

The game is self-contained, and covers England and Normandy. One thing I'd love to put together would be a sourcebook covering Scotland in more detail, including the business going on in the highlands and islands such as the last real push to invasion by the Vikings. Another thing which is definitely on the cards are further games of a similar scope covering different periods of history and conflict adapting the same mechanics. An Age of Sail game could be on the distant horizon.

What else can we expect to see from you in the future?

At the moment, my biggest thing is Liminal, a modern day British fantasy game based on the country's history and folklore. The Kickstarter funded well above expectations, the beta draft is out there to backers, and it's going to be absolutely gorgeous. The Kickstarter also funded a line of supplements, which is going to keep me rather busy, but I've drafted in a team of other RPG writers to help me out. The book will be out there by the end of the year.

I'm also working with Chris Gilmore on a historical sourcebook for Mythras, with the title of Mythic Babylon: Gateway to the Gods. That should be out in the wilds in 2019.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Gaming in a science fiction setting vs. a fantasy setting

Danger In Deep Space 14 by ArtFavor
You know, I love my science fiction gaming but, in my experience, it's always fantasy that makes for an easier game to play as far as RPGs are concerned. Why is this?

The only sci-fi game I played for any length of time was D6 Star Wars, but I think this is mainly because we all knew Star Wars and the fact that it has a basic grounding in fantasy. It's not hard to imagine what the GM is talking about in Star Wars; lightsabres, star destroyers, stormtroopers, ewoks, it's all very familiar and instantly recognisable. It didn't matter that we were all huge Star Wars fans at the time; the setting is so ingrained in pop culture it's easy to reference.

The same as fantasy games. As most fantasy settings are basically medieval-inspired settings it's easy to imagine what things look like. In fact, any historical period and location can be invoked so that the players have a mental image of what is around them.

The same can't be said for other realms of science fiction. There are so many design ethics and possible levels of technological advancement that influence the situations the PCs find themselves in that it's incredibly difficult to simply say 'this is where you are' without being inundated with questions about details. Unless the players are as educated about the setting as the GM then making them feel comfortable in the game, to make sure that they know what they can and can't do and what kind of tech is available to them, is going to be difficult.

This is all in my own experience, of course. In fantasy you can picture yourself on a horse in armour riding to a castle tower in the rain. That's easy. In science fiction you need a little more detail than that to set a scene.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Keeping it all in-game

#I've addressed the matter of taking in-game arguments into the real world before, so I thought I'd share another.

This guy I’ll call Bob. Bob liked to roleplay. He liked to get right into character. The thing is, no matter what kind of character he played he also liked to argue. And when I say argue I mean shout, loudly, and also let the in-game argument spill into the real world and then beyond the game.

Let me give you an example. After a particularly long and boring session of Shadowrun (I wasn’t running it!) he decided his character was going to take umbrage at the fact that another PC was spending quite a long time deciding on what equipment he wanted to take on a job. He started by calling him out, in character, and when the PC answered him back he took it personally – that’s when the shouting started. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? We’ve been here for ages! We’ve got a damn job to do and you’re just pussyfooting around buying junk! What the hell’s the matter with you?

At first you think, ‘Good roleplaying, Bob!’ But when Bob then starts to refer to the player by name and not the character, making comments about laziness, tardiness and general personal observations you begin to realise that there’s no roleplaying going on here. Upon being challenged on the fact that he was taking the argument outside the game his volume went up. And up, And then up a little bit more. It got so bad that anyone trying to say anything at all, even if it had nothing to do with the initial argument, was shouted down. After the game he declared that he was just playing ‘in-character’, but in my experience whenever anyone says ‘it’s what my PC would have done’ they’re usually just trying to justify why it was they were acting like a moron.

But it had nothing to do with character though, did it? Bob had gone off on one because he was bored and frustrated and, whether he realised it or not, decided to take his frustrations out on another player. When that player tried to answer him back – in character, I might add – he took actual offence that his demands had been questioned and let the fact that he wasn’t enjoying the game get the better of him, and the result was his personal comments and remarks aimed at the player and not the player character. He let real-world emotions influence his in-game emotions. The rising volume was simply a defence mechanism, as far as I could tell, in an attempt to ‘win’ the situation with decibels rather than reasoning. It was obvious that he knew what he had done wrong and, instead of admitting to it or letting it go, exacerbated the situation by winding himself up and raising his voice.

As a GM I’d have called a time-out straight away and asked Bob to calm down. Any attempts at using the ‘I was just roleplaying’ defence will still be met with a five minute break and a request that the voices are lowered. Rising volume in response to that request will then result in an immediate stop to the game. This is simply one of the things I don’t put up with in my games anymore. Any arguments that I feel are spilling out of character – and it is glaringly obvious when that happens – are halted with a curt warning and a reminder that we’re playing a game and any continuation of the climbing volume and attitude stops the game completely. And that’s it. I don’t have any words of wisdom about emotional states and handling people with kid gloves. This is simple bloody-minded rudeness and it’s not something that I, my players or my neighbours should have to put up with.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

RPG Review - Star Trek Adventures

Star Trek Adventures: Core RulebookPublished by Modiphius Entertainment

'Star Trek Adventures takes you to the Final Frontier of the Galaxy, where new discoveries await keen explorers of Starfleet. Your duties may take you to the edges of known space, or to Federation colonies in need, to the borders of neighbouring galactic powers or into the eye of interstellar phenomena. Your ship and your crew epitomise the best Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets has to offer, and you are needed more than ever.’

I've not got hold of my own copy of this nor had time to properly play it, so in the interests of full disclosure please bear in mind that even though I've thoroughly read the book this will be more of a capsule review rather than a full delve into the game and what it did for me.

Now, I’ve had a long relationship with Star Trek; I used to watch it every now and then as a kid but I didn’t really pay attention until ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ came out. Then, when ‘The Next Generation’ hit I watched it as often as I could, and when ‘Deep Space 9’ came along I watched it religiously. I enjoyed ‘Voyager’ for the most part but then started to drift away when ‘Enterprise’ came out, and I could take the last two series or leave them. I realized that I loved Star Trek but I wasn’t in love with it, but ‘Deep Space 9’ would remain my favourite Trek show, as well as one of my favourite ever TV shows. I watched the entire DS9 series in a single week, on old-school video cassettes. That’s probably why I’m so attached to it.

I played the roleplaying games but they were never a constant in my hobby. I started with the FASA game and we enjoyed it for a while as we adventured in ‘The Original Series’ period, the movies and the fledgling ‘The Next Generation’ show. It was a good system and we had fun with it. Then I moved on to the Task Force Games ‘Prime Directive’; I wasn’t enamoured with the game system so I used the character sheet and incorporated the WEG D6 system. The adventures were a little more action adventure, but fun nonetheless. I let the LUG game pass me by but then got hold of the Decipher game, but sadly never used it.

So, I’ve been in a state of Star Trek RPG limbo for the better part of a decade and, to be honest, I never felt the draw, not even after the J.J. Abrams movies or the new ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ show. However, I did follow Modiphius Entertainment’s development of this new roleplaying game, and as it progressed I revisited my old Star Trek games and began to think about how I’d run a new campaign. Since the release of the game I heard many great things about it but I still wouldn’t commit, so I have borrowed a friend’s copy to look through to see if I would consider taking the plunge and finally purchase the game.

The book, a 368 page hardcover, is gorgeous. The layout – like the LCARS screens seen on the TV show – is crisp and clean, the artwork is excellent and the images are really evocative. Already the book is getting my heart racing and I’ve not even read any of the text yet. It’s a great looking tome and if I was going to award it just on looks it’d get full marks.

The book covers the Federation, characters, conflict, starships, running the game and the foes and friends that you’ll come across. In fact, the contents cover everything you’ll need to run a game of Star Trek, and I feel that there’s plenty of material in here to keep you in games for a long time. The big draw for me is that the game is set in 2371, when the USS Voyager is heading into the Badlands, the Dominion War is gathering pace and great change is about to hit the Alpha Quadrant. That’s my era, but there’s nothing stopping you from playing the game in any Star Trek eras, even the Kelvin timeline. Although it’s the TNG era that’s catered for, the game is perfectly suited for any period.

Star Trek Adventures: Core Rulebook

The game system is the 2D20 system, as used in Mutant Chronicles, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, John Carter of Mars and the Infinity RPG. It's a system I have some experience with but one I haven’t delved into in any great depth. Each character has six Attributes scored between 7 to 12, and these are Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence and Reason. Then they have six Disciplines ranging from 1 to 5 and these are Command, Conn, Engineering, Security, Science and Medicine. To complete an action, a character rolls a number of D20s and they have to roll below a target number that is the character’s Attribute score plus their Discipline score, plus or minus any other modifiers. Each roll that scores under the target number is a success, and these number of successes have to beat a difficulty number set by the GM, the number being between 0 and 5, with 1 being a standard action and the higher the number, the more difficult the action.

At first, I felt the mechanic was strange as not only did you have to score under, but the results also determined if you beat another difficulty level, almost like two systems rolled into one. Once you get used to it, it’s a very good system and serves the game well.

A clever thing about this game is that players will be expected to control more than one character. It would be easy to play a bridge crew character and, when something needs to be done, order a subordinate to do it. In this, you can play the characters that are sent on away missions, or into the bowels of the ship to do the dangerous work. This expands the scope of the game and allows the players to increase their involvement.

The starship section is also a great addition, and this enables the game to recreate amazing starship battles and helps give starships a character of their own, which is a huge part of Star Trek. In the book we are given several classes of ships to use; the Akira, Constellation, Constitution, Defiant, Excelsior, Galaxy, Intrepid, Miranda and Nova. It’s a great selection and gives you a lot of scope to create your own ships, but there’s obviously more to come in further supplements.

Now, at this point in a review I usually go into a lot of details about how the game played, and what we as a group got out of it. After playing the game, I get a much better insight into the game and how it works as a Star Trek RPG, what it does for me and how it plays.

I can’t do that here. After reading the book it pains me that I’ve not yet had the chance to play the game and that this has to be a capsule review. However, from what I’ve read - and the atmosphere the book creates – it’s convinced me that I really, really need to get hold of a copy of this book. It feels like Star Trek, it reads like Star Trek and I feel that I have found a game that not only reflects the setting it generates a sense of excitement I rarely get with a licensed roleplaying game. It works for me as it’s set in my favourite era and the layout is the period of Star Trek that I love the most. That in itself was a selling point for me, but in reality the system works and it evokes the show exceptionally well.

Star Trek Adventures is an excellent game and has stoked my excitement for Star Trek once again. It’s a great system that serves the setting incredibly well and Modiphius have done a great job of capturing Star Trek - no matter what era or reality you want to game in - between the pages.

Highly recommended.

• Create your own Star Trek stories of discovery and adventure on the Final Frontier with 368 pages of content (check out the sample spreads in the images). Full colour hardback, features a matt laminate cover with reading ribbon. 

• Complete 2d20 game system from Modiphius Entertainment adapted for Star Trek Adventures, used in Mutant Chronicles, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, John Carter of Mars and the Infinity RPG.

• An extensive exploration of the United Federation of Planets and its galactic neighbours in the Alpha, Beta and Gamma Quadrants.

• Guidelines for Gamemasters old and new, on how to run an adventure of exploration and discovery for the crew of a Federation starship.

• A full catalogue of aliens and antagonists including Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, the Borg and the Dominion.

• Brought to you by a team of expert Star Trek writers including writers from previous editions of Star Trek roleplaying games and other gaming talent.

• Personal logs and intercepted communications by Starfleet Intelligence provide a new perspective on Star Trek and its events.

Star Trek Adventures: Core Rulebook

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Interview - David Donachie

David Donachie is a gamer and writer, creator of the RPG Solipsist, and has contributed to such games as Mindjammer and Legends of Anglerre.

With the release of his book ‘The Night Alphabet’, I caught up with David to find out more about his gaming and what else is on his horizon…

Hello David! Please introduce yourself and tell us something about how you fell into the world of tabletop gaming.

Hi, Jonathan. I'm David (Morvryn, Sylvanus, Keith) Donachie. I'm 44, from Edinburgh in Scotland, and I write, draw, program, and design games.

I first encountered tabletop gaming when I was a little boy. My parents had French friends, and their son was a good deal older than me, but not so much that we couldn't relate (I guess he was a teenager, but at the age of nine or ten that was infinitely old). One time he brought over a French copy of Call of Cthulhu, so this must have been in the early 80s, perhaps '83 when 2nd Edition came out, and showed it to me. I couldn't read the book, and I certainly didn't get to play, but something about the whole concept of Roleplaying set my mind on fire. From that moment on I wanted to play Roleplaying games.

My first actual experience was at a summer camp, probably a couple of years later. Some older kids were playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to take part. They weren't keen, but the DM was a camp counsellor, so I was allowed to take control of their retainer, a kid with no skills or character sheet. I was so excited! The other players handed me the lantern to carry ... and then abandoned me in a wood where I was eaten by wolves. Oddly enough that didn't put me off.

You’ve got a decent list of game writing credits; Starblazer Adventures, Mindjammer, Legends of Anglerre… how did you get into game writing?

When I came across the fifth book of Dragon Warriors in a bookshop near my school (so this would be a couple of years later than the D&D anecdote), I had a gaming system to examine close up for the first time, and right away my first instinct was to write my own — so you could say that I've been into game writing as long as I've been into gaming. That first game was called Termite, and featured talking ants, termites, and squirrels, as player characters. I made my Dad play that one, and then went on to run it for others, both at school, and at University.

Over the years I wrote and ran a bunch of other games, before eventually sliding over into a more typical pattern of creating campaign worlds instead of game systems, but I always stayed interested in the world of game design. I had lots of friends who were involved in the Indie games movement, and kept an eye on games forums, so I heard about the idea of a game based on the Starblazer comic well before it got going.

Now Starblazer was another childhood love. I used to take my pocket money all the way to Waverley Station bookshop, on the other side of town, to buy my copies — two a month — since that was the only place that sold them. The SF and Fantasy stories in Starblazer were a big influence on my writing, and also on my development as an artist. My first big art hero was Enrique Alcatena, the Argentinian comic artist, who I knew only from the pages of Starblazer. I actually wrote him a massive fan letter when I was young, not realising that he lived on the other side of the world (Starblazer didn't publish artist names, so I didn't know who I was writing too, let alone where he lived), and then was blown away when a 20 page reply full of art tips came back from Argentina many months later. So when I heard that there might be a game featuring the Starblazer art and IP, I wanted in. I'd met Chris Birch at Gaelcon, so I got in touch offering my services as an artist, a writer, whatever it took to get involved. In the end I did a few art pieces, and a chapter on the various possible game settings that the SciFi issues of Starblazer offered.

That work led naturally into the followup game Legends of Anglerre, which — if anything — I was even more excited to work with, as it featured Mike Chinn, who had written my favourite (Alcatena illustrated) issues of all. In the end I didn't actually do anything in conjunction with Mike, but I did do some major art pieces, and again a big settings chapter, which led to even more work on the follow-up Legends of Anglerre Companion. It also led me to work with Sarah Newton, the incredibly prolific (and competent) creator of Mindjammer. As a result when she was putting together a writing team to work on her Kickstarter products a few years later she tapped me to do some of the work — Mindjammer : Children of Orion being the most significant result.

What did you bring to these games?

Words? Drawings?

Seriously, I think a better question is what did working on these games bring to me; the answer being a degree of professionally my game work didn't have before, a wealth of contacts in the gaming industry, and the inevitable improvement in writing that comes of having a professional editor giving your prose a good kicking. I'd like to think that I also brought something of my own fervid imagination to these games, something that you can see best in the ghost worlds of the Orion nebula, or the coherent theology I constructed to match the scattered glimpses that Mike Chinn created for Starblazer, but it's hard to let my imagination truly rip when I'm working in someone else's universe, who knows what I might do to it!

Your diceless role-playing game ‘Solipsist’ has been out for ten years now, and it’s still available on drivethrurpg. What were your inspirations for creating this game?

Now there's a game where my imagination wasn't pulling punches!

Solipsist began life as a 24-minute 'design an RPG contest' entry at Conpulsion back in 2006. The contest gave you a selection of random words to work with, and mine were (I think) Reality and Paramecium. From them was born the idea of a world where reality itself was just an illusion created by microscopic life-forms and the subconscious desires of the people who lived inside it. It was inspired by University philosophy courses, 2000ADs Indigo Prime, the Heretics RPG, my own impressions of Mage: The Ascension. More than that, it was a game about the concept of roleplaying and telling stories in general, a sort of meta-rpg, if you like. The characters in Solipsist consciously create their own stories, and their own rules. In fact that is Solipsist's only rule — If you don't like the rules of the game, change them until you do. In that way a game of Solipsist moves from genre to genre, or even from physical law to physical law, as play progresses. Of course the GM gets equal powers to cheat out the sort of game they are running too. It can be a wild ride.

Solipsist also owes a huge debt to my friend Gregor Hutton (of "Best Friends" and "3:16" fame). Gregor encouraged me to write the game, and helped me playtest, layout, and publish the thing. The first edition was produced through his imprint, Box Ninja.

You’re currently working on a new game ‘InBetween’, about the ‘tiny Hylin mice that live unseen in the Between — their name for the spaces between the walls of our houses’. How did this game come about?

All my answers seem to be about ancient history, so here's another tale from the past.

A long time ago I ran a website called "The GEAS Village". At that time (the early 90s) the Village was one of the foremost RPG websites out there — this was before proper forums and the like — with live RP boards and a wealth of material. One of the features was a grandly titled "Encyclopaedia of Roleplaying", full of articles on game mechanics. Back then I had this cute idea to hide an actual game in the rules examples, and InBetween was that game. The character generation system was given as the examples in the character generation article, the main mechanics were in the dice-rolling article and so forth. I think that's where the idea of having the game be about mice living in human houses came from, because they too were hidden.

Of course the GEAS Village passed away, but the game stuck in my mind, just waiting for its time. This year, after my short story collection was published, I was nosing around in my old files, and there it was, a game full of cute mice waiting to see the world.

Now, I didn't keep a lot of that original game. There was a strong First World War vibe about the original, all barbed wire and trenches, which I discarded, and the system got a complete overhaul. Instead of the vague d12 roll-under system of the original, I took the Dice Pool mechanic out of another game I wrote "Eekamouse in Atlantis" and transplanted it to InBetween, which has also gained a slightly gentler, tribal, vibe, that you can hopefully see coming out in the art.

When can we expect to see InBetween ‘in the wild?

Good question, and the answer is I am not certain yet, but hopefully before the end of the year. I've just had the first proper playtests, and run the game at a convention for the first time (and great fun was had in the process), which threw up lots of things to change, as first playtests usually do. I'm in the process of turning that into something that I can send out to a few trusted people, and then I'll be producing an open playtest packet, so if anyone reading this is interested in doing some playtesting for InBetween drop me a line, and I'll get back in touch when the pack is ready.

You’ve also released a book of short stories and flash fiction, ‘The Night Alphabet’. What was the driving force behind this book?

I've always written fiction as well as designing games. When I was younger I wrote a lot of short stories, but like many fantasy-reading writers with aspirations I transitioned away from those into weighty fantasy novels. Each manuscript would take years, and then go nowhere, either because I failed to find representation for them or, most often, because I lost faith in my own book by the time I was finished. Over the years I wrote less, and drew or gamed more, because somehow those things were easier to be confident about.

A few years back I decided to try another novel. This one (it's called The Drowning Land), took two years of full-on writing and research — it's set in the middle of the mesolithic, 8000 years ago, so I spent a lot of time reading scientific papers, corresponding with re-creationists, and visiting dig sites. Once it was finished I hit the same old roadblocks. I lost faith in the work, I reacted badly to critique, I didn't find an agent, and so on. So for the first time in twenty or more years I went back to short fiction, and found it much easier. Writing short stories (and as you say, some of my work is very short indeed) meant that I didn't loose faith in them, and didn't react badly to critiques, because I was less precious about them. I rediscovered my love of the short form, which had been born out of a childhood of SF anthologies, so I kept on writing.

It was actually my wife who suggested putting some of the stories together in a book; the alphabet style was her idea. After that it was only a matter of finding a theme — dreams and nightmares were already a strong part of my writing so that was easy — and producing enough material that I could throw away the bad stories and still fill the book. Right from the start I knew I'd be self-publishing this one. I have a number of self-published friends (a lot more now that the book is out), and everyone told me that it was the way of the future. What they didn't tell me was that all the real work in the wold of self-publishing came after the book was out, in the relentless drive to promote!

What else can we expect to see from David Donachie in the future?

In the short term you'll be seeing InBetween and, all going well, a companion fiction volume that I am tentatively calling "Mouse Tales from the Between" (or maybe just Tales from the Between). I also think it very likely that there will be another volume of short stories in the not to distant future, probably featuring a smaller number of stories than The Night Alphabet — I've written one longer story already and may continue in that vein.

I'd also like to think that people will see The Drowning Land in book form. Ideally it will get snatched up by some agent and come to you through an established imprint, but I'm not ruling out going down the self-published route with that as well.

Beyond that ... anything could happen!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Interview - Thia & Greebow of Cognitive Merchant

The Cognitive MerchantIt was my great pleasure to interview Thia and Greebow of the fantastic bespoke gamer's products makers Cognitive Merchant. They've been producing hand-crafted individualised tabletop, RPG and LARP products for a while and it's great stuff.

I love this interview because I got a message from them about it saying 'We just pretended you was with us and got somebody to ask your questions', so they quite literally roleplayed their answers. I'm going to have to add a point to their 'awesome' board for that.

Welcome to Farsight Blogger! Please tell us about yourselves and how you got started in the tabletop roleplaying hobby.

(Thia) Hey I'm Thia, I am a leather crafting wood elf! But in real life I run a dance studio, I'm a fire and side show performer along with my amazing girls at Monster Cirque. Plus I create leather gaming goods with my partner at The Cognitive Merchant.

I started playing D&D when I was a kid in Poland. I gamed with my brother and his friends. I was the only girl, but it was never a thing, I was just another geek at the table.

(Greebow) Hi I'm Greebow. I'm a shape shifting Gnome wizard! But unfortunately in the real world I'm just a very flawed human LOL. I used to work running bars and office work until I got diagnosed with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Now I host the odd event but mainly work creating geeky goodness for mine and Thias' business The Cognitive Merchant. I got into TTRPG's just over four years ago after I met the love of my life Thia. She knew I had always been a comic book and fantasy geek but had never real played any table top games apart from a little Warhammer fantasy.

She told me of her love for D&D and that we should find a place to try it. We found the awesomeness that is Fanboy 3 in Manchester (go check them out!), went down for the Sunday Adventure League session of D&D. And I instantly fell in love with that as well! They have both been my world ever since. I love them both so much, maybe Thia a little more.....but only just.

Cognitive Merchant is something pretty special; the bespoke crafted items you create for gamers are unique and quite gorgeous. What made you decide to try your hand at this?

(Greebow) Thank you. Hearing words like that means so much to us, you have no idea. We put a lot of time and love into each one. There all hand crafted by us in our tiny work room or on our front room table. Its a running joke that the only time we are not creating is when we are eating. Projects come everywhere with us!

(Thia) Yeah we really do appreciate the positive feedback.

(Greebow) This all started after we saw the state of a friends players hand book, all falling apart with the cover all messed up. Thia told him she could probably fix it. She was just going to glue it back together.

(Thia) But I wanted to make it look awesome and not fall apart so easy. So I spent a little time working that out.

(Greebow) What she is not telling you is she spent a few days intensively learning how to rebind old books and then learning how to cover them in leather. She added lots of personal touches to his book.

(Thia) He was so happy when he got it. Made it all very worth it.

(Greebow) Other gamers saw it and just started coming to us with there books. Word spread pretty fast.

Then we decided we really wanted to make gaming products that are worthy of the folks using them. Let's face it, the gaming community is one of the very best to be part of. I'm always blown away by the imagination, love, support, and creativity it puts out there. We just want to bring a little of there fantasy to life if we can.

You do custom book covers, dice bags, dice, GM screens, all kinds of things that help to enhance the roleplaying experience. What’s your design and production process?

(Thia) First and most important, we talk to the folks wanting a product. Ask them what they are looking for and what its being used for. Like what game? Or is it something for LARPing! Then we talk to them about themes or colour scheme they like. Maybe they roll play as a Necromancer and a skull motif would be perfect. Maybe there gaming character just slayed an ancient red dragon and wants something made from its hide!

(Greebow) For us its all about keeping their fantasy world going and alive.

(Thia) Then I get to creating the design for it. Some times we have templates we have already made and know work. Sometimes a totally new template needs making.

(Greebow) The practicality and creation of the design is someing I feel Thia really excels at. I'm more about the colour and style. So together we like to think our skills compliment each other.

(Thia) Then we cut out the leather and treat it.

(Greebow) I get working on dying the leather, antiquing or distressing it depending on what's needed. If there is tooling or stamping to be done, we divide that depending on what it is.

(Thia) After that its assembly and adding the extras. This means hours or days of stitching just depending on the product.

Me and Greebow now have perminant tough calluses on our fingers from stitching and lacing LOL.

(Greebow) We then test everything. With the dice cups and bags we make sure they're strong and can open and close fine (leather is always tough and tight at first). With our all in one GM kits we test every part of it from the magnetic initiative board and the dice tray and roller to it actually transforming into the carry case. There expensive to ship out so everything has to be perfect.

(Thia) We always have multiple projects on the go at once as the orders just keep coming in, so its a big juggling act for us. But we have a digital order book as well as a hard copy one that helps us keep on top of things.

What would you say is your most sought-after item?

(Thia) That's an easy one. For sure its our all in one GM kit! There is a 20 week wait on those bad boys at the moment. They are our most complicated and detailed build. They're all custom made for the style and needs of the individual Games Master. There are just so many different aspects to the design, both seen and not seen from the outside.

(Greebow) I think its kinda important to say how that product came about. It was just over a year ago I think.

We had a GM (Jonathan Syson) who is just awesome, we have a lotta love for that guy, but he was always knocking his basic GM screen over.

(Thia) "Oh is that the beholder we must be fighting in the next room? I think we will go the other way!"

(Greebow) So when visiting Thias' family in Poland we decided to try to make some legs for his screen to stop it falling over. We had also been watching a lot of Matt Mercer and Satine Phoenix on their GM tips program. We realised just how hard a GM's job is to bring us all this adventure. How very little room is behind that screen for all they need.

(Thia) So we made the desicion to not just solve the falling over problem but as many problems as we could.

(Greebow) So we contact a big bunch of our local GMs and asked them to give us their top five problems, that are not players! Nothing we can do about them LOL.

Lots of things came up, such as, not enough space, forgetting when a character had a spell on them, dice rolling off the table, keeping initiative order, keeping notes and maps in one place, never having the info they need in view, working out who is in a spell radius, and lots more!

(Thia) They have so much to think about, let alone an entire populated world in their head.

(Greebow) We tackled every problem and listed possible ways to solve it. Brain stormed and brain stormed, and we eventually solved them.

Then we just had to find a way to put it all together so that it became compact. One of the problems that got mentioned was forgetting something vital to the game. Another GM said he kept everything in one big rucksack. THAT WAS IT! A carry case that you could also put your books in and transformed into an all in one GM screen.

(Thia) We made Jonathan and another of our GMs Dave a prototype kit at what turned out to be way less than cost price LOL. With the deal we could borrow them back over time to check them and ask lots of questions.

People saw the kits locally and wanted them. Orders started coming in, with folks wanting all sorts of colours and themes.

(Greebow) Then a friend we had made one for (Oli Wis) posted photos of his on Reddit. Next thing I know I'm getting a message and a screenshot telling me to get on Reddit and answer questions now. The comments and likes had gone through the roof. I was crazy surprised and very humbled at people's response.

(Thia) Lots of people asking how to get one and do we ship to the USA or Austria etc.

(Greebow) It was a really surprising and happy day for us. Big thanks to Oli, cheers mate.

I’ve got to ask; the photo of you two in costume and makeup on the front page is awesome, how did that come about?

(Thia) Haha yeah that was so much fun! We love dressing up as characters. We had an amazing make up artist called Sanita Liepina and one of the best photographers we know, Darren McGinn. Both just amazing creative people.

(Greebow) Basically when we created The Cognitive Merchant we wanted to keep it all in a fantasy world. So we made ourselves characters, Thia & Greebow. The Cognitive Merchant itself is a magical moving workshop that appears and disappears where needed. We create magic items to shape the destinies of adventurer's.

(Thia) For our website and advertising we wanted to bring these characters to life. So we did! You should check out our Patreon video we did at the same time (also created by Darren McGinn). It was so much fun it really was. We often even make stories up of how we adventure to get the materials needed for the magic items. Plus Thia and Greebow are D&D characters we actually play as. So its amazing to become them in real life when working at cons or doing promotion stuff.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting and indoor

What else can we expect to see from Cognitive Merchant in the future?

(Greebow) Ooooh so so much. There is not enough time in the day for all the new things we want to make. But we are currently training up a couple of apprentices to help lighten the load.

One of the main things we are working on and waiting for a special event to launch it is our PLAYERS KITS! We have put a prototype out there and getting feedback, working hard on ways to improve it and patent it. It can be a long process that one. But soon.

I'm gonna be working with Thia to bring out more custom LARPing armour and accessories.

(Thia) We have a range of simple dice trays coming out. The other big project is a set of really cool leather projects for Magic the Gathering and other card games. All custom made and hand crafted as usual.

(Greebow) We are also going to be at some con's soon. First big one for us will be UK Games Expo in Birmingham , then Dragonmeet in London. There will me some con only merch available at our stall there. And if you are in the states we have the most awesome American ambassador, Baylor Banis from the B&B Tavern. He will be selling our magic items at Mechacon this year. He is a really great guy. Our very own happy Hobbit and his little furry face means the world to us.

(Thia) I think another thing that might be worth a mention is that we have just started streaming a fortnightly game with him and some friends. Its called Borovia Bites and you can find it on twitch and YouTube. Its just us playing D&D and making fools of ourselves, so not sure anybody will actually watch it lol. But its fun and a good excuse to play with friends from all over the place.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

WFRP 4th Edition Preorders are now open

I'm at risk of becoming 'Farsight Warhammerblogger' but we are talking about my favourite roleplaying game of all time.

These books and boxsets look great and the more I see the more excited I get.

There's still no word on the system other than the hints Cubicle 7 dropped yesterday, and that's the real meat I'm waiting for. WFRP 1st Edition is my favourite, the 2nd Edition was a better system but I felt it lacked the atmosphere and 3rd Edition I only played a few times and couldn't get on with the game system. So, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has been quite hit and miss for me so will this new edition strike the mark? Will it scratch my Warhammer itch? Will I lay my beloved Warhammer FRP 1st Edition aside to delve into this new edition, which will no doubt be supported with new, exciting material?

That remains to be seen. All I know is that the Collector's Limited Edition sings to me.

'The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Rulebook contains everything you need for grim and perilous roleplaying adventures in the Old World.'

'The Collector’s Limited Edition comes presented in a beautiful, magnet-sealed box. The cover of the rulebook is leather-effect, embossed with a gorgeous Warhammer sigil. The pages are gilt-edged, and the book comes complete with cloth bookmarks. Included in the box is a numbered Certificate of Authenticity. This a must for any Warhammer collector!'

'The perfect introduction to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, this boxed set includes an introductory scenario designed to teach you how to play, beautiful character portfolios, a guide to the town of Ubersreik and two ten-sided dice.'

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition - Pre-orders!

More news on my favourite tabletop roleplaying game. Well, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition is my favourite roleplaying game of all time, but I'm excited for Warhammer FRP 4th Edition.

I'm excited to see what they do with it, and I'm more than excited to see if it'll unseat WFRP 1st Edition as best roleplaying game ever! (Answer - probably not, but we'll see).

The Enemy Within campaign continues with 'Something Rotten in Kislev' and - my personal favourite of the series - 'Empire in Flames', but now that we've hit the end of the cycle it's time to wheel out the big guns, and this means the build-up to 4th Edition's release begins with the chance to pre-order the game.

From their website:

'The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition pre-order opens later this week! To whet your appetite, here are 4 things you can expect from the new edition of this beloved game.

1. Your Warhammer for You!

Something that is really core to our WFRP is that we’ve created tools for you to play your Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. We recognise and support that everyone plays their own version of the rules and the setting, and we fully embrace and encourage that. It’s your game! With 30 years of history under its belt, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay means a lot of things to a huge number of players.

2. Ideal starting point

Not much experience with RPGs? The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is designed to be the ideal introduction, with a structured adventure to help you learn how to play. Also containing a guide to Ubersreik, there’s loads of gaming material for more experienced GMs too!

3. System matters

WFRP4 uses ten-sided dice, and a tuned-up version of the familiar d100 system. You can tailor the rules to your preferences or different in-game situations, choosing from a menu of fast ‘roll under’ Simple Tests, Dramatic Tests giving success levels where you need more than a ‘yes or no’ result, and even barely rolling at all, if that’s your style.

4. Passion for Warhammer

Our creative team are lifelong players of the three previous editions of the game, and between us we’ve worked on all these editions too! We bloomin’ love Warhammer, and we think it shows.

We’ll be bringing you more on WFRP4 regularly, so watch this space! And, very excitingly, pre-orders go live on Thursday…'

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Book Review - The Night Alphabet

By David M. Donachie

Looking for a decent evening’s read? Fancy a quick story without worrying about staying up too late to finish ‘one last page’? Fancy having your mind tweaked by quick, reality-altering stories that require you to get your brain into gear?

David M. Donachie’s ‘The Night Alphabet’ is 26 short stories that range from multi-page stories with startling revelations to simple two-page startlers that grab you by the shoulders, scream in your face and then drop you to wonder what the hell just happened.

Opening with a wonderful, sad tale of refugee angels displaced by a heavenly war, The Night Alphabet starts as it means to go on. In fact, that story, ‘War in Heaven’ is one of my favourites of the book followed by the atmospheric and creepy ‘The Gap’ – I won’t be looking at cracks in the wall the same way again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Night Alphabet, as its title suggests, runs through the 26 letters that refer to the theme of the story. ‘A is for Angels’, ‘B is for Bestiary’ and so on. Each story differs in length, tone and content, from short snappy concepts (‘The Face under my bed’) to darker tales (‘Insomniac’) to comedic, quirky stories (‘Mr Martello and the Cloud Castle’). Each story is well crafted and really captures the mood it is trying to convey, primarily the longer stories as the shorter ones feel like snippets for you to work over in your mind, like sketches before the larger canvas is painted.

The shorter stories did not linger in my mind as much as the longer ones, but they did serve to make me think about where they could have gone, or what the larger world around the tale was like. There was one, ‘The Sandwich Thief’, about an alien, that I would like to have learned more about. The strangeness, the quirkiness of the story – as with most of the stories in the book – was the draw and yes, there were times when I wanted to hear more.

Some of the stories were enjoyable but, as I said before, did not linger in my mind. The incredibly short ones, with perhaps twice as many words as this review, were over in a flash and before I had chance to settle into the tale it was over. They were interesting as they set up a premise and made you think but, without further details or context they slipped to the side to make way for the longer, more enjoyable tales.

But don’t let that put you off; The Night Alphabet is an excellent collection of well-written and enjoyable stories that make sure that you, the reader, engages your imagination. It’s a great bedside table book that you can drift into and out of, and the quirky, otherworldliness of the tales really get the brain working.

Highly recommended.

#AprilTTRPGMaker - all in one go

Throughout April, gamers have been answering daily questions about game design. The idea was introduced by game designer Kira Magrann and has been a huge success.

I can into it a little late, around day 9, so below are all the answers I gave on Twitter.

1 – Who are you? - I’m Jonathan Hicks and I’ve written for the BSFA, a Battlestar Galactica comp game and Fighting Fantasy. I like to design and write TTRPGS of all kinds of genres, and do a bit of illustrating, too.

2 – Where ya at? - I’m in the Northamptonshire area of merry old England. Yes, it is raining as I write this.

3 – How did you start creating ttrpgs? - I used to tinker starting in the 1980s, but I really started when I needed a system for an underwater RPG I had in mind and I felt the D12 wasn’t getting enough love.

4 – Describe your work. – I will design for any genre and the mood of my work tends to shift depending on what I’m writing about, from serious to mystical to casual.

5 – Favourite game you’ve worked on. – Up to yet, Fighting Fantasy ‘Stellar Adventures’ and two adventures I’ve written for the fantasy game, too.

6 – Favourite game mechanic? The original WEG D6 System used in 1st Ed Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. It was easy, quick and malleable, and I used that rulebook for all kinds of settings.

7 – Your workspace. It used to be really cluttered, but now it’s streamlined with less distractions and with a few inspirational items.

8 – Describe your routine. – I’ll sit down and make sure that there is non-lyric music playing that suits my theme, and then I’ll skim read what I’ve done already and then read through my recent work. Then create, and edit when my brain is emptied.

9 – Describe your process. – I’ll just write whatever is in my head, whether it’s correct or not, so that I get all my ideas down. Once that’s exhausted, I’ll sift through it and give it a basic edit. As long as I can get 2K words done at a time I’m good.

10 – Favourite game to relax with. – To read, that’ll be Warhammer FRP 1st Edition, for sheer flavor. To play, Fighting Fantasy Introductory because it’s so simple, or a gamebook if I have no group.

11 – What’s yer brand? - Farsight Games; it’s nothing official, just something I put my work to when I’m developing new ideas, and for when I release free stuff.

12 – How do you get your work out there? - However I can; social media is huge, of course, and there are Google+ groups that I target along with dedicated forums.

13 – Biggest influences? - Book writing wise, that’ll be Greg Costikyan’s work on the original WEG Star Wars RPG. Designer-wise, that’ll be Robin Law.

14 – What are yer dreams & plans – Just to write and to continue to enjoy it, no matter what the medium be it games, stories, essays or whatever.

15 – Do you design in public or private? – Private at first so that I get a clear idea of what I want with no distraction, but then I’ll send out snippets or first drafts to the public or selected gamers.

16 – Any design partners? – Not right now. I work alone (throws cape across face).

17 – Favourite form of feedback? – Detailed written feedback. I like constructive criticism I can use and ignore ‘LOLZ U SUK’ comments.

18 – Current inspiration? – William Gibson for a D6 setting I’m working on, and the films Alien, Outland and Moon for a new game I’m envisioning.

19 – Game that’s most essential to your design? – I’m not sure I have one, to be honest. If I had to follow a way of doing things I’d model it on the WEG 1st Ed book; the content of that was amazing.

20 – Favourite design tools? – Just a pad and pen for notes and sketches, a full set of dice and my computer.

21 – How many playtests? – As many as it takes for a new game design as that needs to be as good as it can get, but only one or two for adventures, with different groups if possible.

22 – How do you document ideas? – However I can; I have a Dictaphone, a small notepad and my mobile phone just in case something strikes me. I’ve got files full of stuff, in no particular order.

23 – People who’ve helped you? – Everyone I’ve ever gamed with; I’ve seen and experienced so much that it all helps, and there’s a couple of great groups I’ve joined that are really inspirational.

24 – Most notable achievement? – My Fighting Fantasy work. To be able to contribute to the game that got me into the hobby in 1983 as both writer and artist is something magical.

25 – Being a TTRPG designer means… - Spending a lot of time statting TV shows and movies and getting annoyed that you’re missing the show, or wondering how the same shows would work as RPG settings.

26 – Blogs, streams, podcasts? - Just my blog, www.farsightblogger.blogspot.co.uk , which has been going for a few years. I do follow a lot of blogs but not many podcasts unless it’s gameplay about a game I’m interested in.

27 – Feature a TTRPG designer. – Every single one of them; I know it’s a cop-out answer, but the majority of designers old and new have my respect and thanks.

28 – Favourite interview? – I’ve conducted loads, but my favourite will always Gary Gygax on 60 Minutes back in the eighties. The look of incredulity on their faces when confronted always makes me smile.

29 – Your community. – There’s a healthy one, but I’ve not lived here long and I’ve just started a new group with my wife’s co-workers, a mix of new gamers and experienced ones.

30 – Top tips and advice. – Don’t stop... believing.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

RPG Review - Tales from the Loop

by Nils Hintze and Simon Stålenhag

Published by Free League

‘In 1954, the Swedish government ordered the construction of the world’s largest particle accelerator. The facility was complete in 1969, located deep below the pastoral countryside of Mälaröarna. The local population called this marvel of technology The Loop.

Acclaimed scifi artist Simon Stålenhag’s paintings of Swedish 1980s suburbia, populated by fantastic machines and strange beasts, have spread like wildfire on the Internet. Stålenhag’s portrayal of a childhood against a backdrop of old Volvo cars and coveralls, combined with strange and mystical machines, creates a unique atmosphere that is both instantly recognizable and utterly alien.

Now, for the first time, you will get the chance to step into the amazing world of the Loop.

In this  game, you play teenagers in the late Eighties, solving Mysteries connected to the Loop. Choose between character Types such as the Bookworm, the Troublemaker, the Popular Kid and the Weirdo. Everyday Life is full of nagging parents, never-ending homework and classmates bullying and being bullied.

The Mysteries let the characters encounter the strange machines and weird creatures that have come to haunt the countryside after the Loop was built. The kids get to escape their everyday problems and be part of something meaningful and magical – but also dangerous.’

This game is about me.

I was born in 1971 so my formative years, the age range and era that this game represents, are perfect. My memories and experiences are the things that this game evokes, and I clearly remember the style, fashion, music and games of the 1980s with nostalgia and extreme fondness.

The 1980s were my teenage years so everything that happened in that decade made a huge impression on me, with tabletop games, the emerging computer game market and the amazing adventure movies the era had to offer. Casting a shadow over all of this was the ongoing Cold War, a conflict that I had been born into and knew little about. However, the ever-present threat of nuclear conflagaration and the ongoing troubles in neighbouring countries were always pushed to the side, out of sight and out of mind. I was a teenager, so I had other, more important things to worry about such as the next school disco, or if I could get to the games shop in the next city to get hold of the newest roleplaying book I needed.

The Loop universe is the game form of artist Simon Stålenhag’s paintings of surburban Sweden in the 1980s, fantastic images of a normal landscape inhabited by robots, strange towers and peculiar wrecks. The images themselves are an amazing thing, and they not only create the atmosphere they give the visual style that’s prevalent throught the book. The 192 page hardcover has an excellent cover and the layout throughout is crisp, easy on the eye and easy to follow. One thing Free League always does well is presentation, and this book looks great.

The game is set on Mälaröarna, west of Stockholm, and concerns the ‘The Loop’, a particle accelerator created by the government agency Riksenergi. There’s another facility in America at Boulder City in Nevada, but you can create a Loop pretty much anywhere in the world. I’ve already made notes on one in the Peak District in England, hidden under the rolling hills with the towers rising high over Mam Tor. The book gives plenty of scope for your own adventures in your own part of the world, so no matter where you’re from the townyou’ve created, or even your home town, could have a Loop underneath. With robots working in all civilian sectors, magnetrine vessels floating through the air like cargo ships and liners, and strange creatures and incidents popping into existence because of the Loop, there’s plenty going on.

Players take the roles of Kids aged between ten and fifteen. The templates on offer are Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo, although these are easily adaptable to other types of Kid the player may want to portray. They have normal lives with school and family troubles – elements that the game reflects really well – but they also go on adventures and experience the stranger things the Loop produces. Think 'Stranger Things' meets 'The Goonies' meets 'Super 8' meets 'E.T.' meets 'The Explorers' meets 'Chocky’s Children' meets just about any other child-focused adventure movie or TV show you can think of… kids on hair-raising adventures that grown-ups won’t ever believe, and they can only rely on themselves and each other to get through it.

The game encourages the player to create elements of the character that create something more than just some goofy teenager out of their depth; possible home troubles, their social circle, bullying, teacher trouble, hobbies and their relationships with the other Kids all make for some excellent story elements as well as some amazing roleplaying opportunities.

Players choose a Kid aged between ten and fifteen years, the older they are the more experienced they are but the less luck they have. They divide points between Attributes – Body, Tech, Heart and Mind – and these have relevant Skills. Rolls are dice pools of D6s, adding Attributes and Skills together to create a number of dice, and any that score a six garners a single success. They’re the same mechanics found in Free League’s previous games ‘Coriolis’ and ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ and they work just as well here. Low dice pools can be extremely frustrating with continued failed rolls, but that just makes the single six that sometimes appears all the more exhilirating.

Failing a task can hurt a Kid, but the children will never die. They can be hurt which results in a Condition, which can be emotional as well as a physical injury. To negate these Conditions, a Kid can be helped out by friends but can also turn to a supportive adult – a parent or a teacher or a kind relative – for help. This reduces the Condition and gets the Kid back on track for another adventure.

The Kids themselves get involved in Mysteries that are created by the Loop, Mysteries that the Kids become embroiled in whether it’s their fault or not, adventures that will introduce something that a child would find fantastical and possibly change them forever.

All said, the book is an excellent example of a collaborative storytelling game done right. There’s plenty of scope in here for the GM to create hair-raising adventures and play a traditional RPG where the player’s interact with the story the GM has created, but the game positively pushes for a more group-focused creative approach, where the players have a hand in the setting and the dynamics of the group. The relationships between the Kids and their peers are encouraged to help drive the narative and the roleplaying opportunities, so when the Kids reach their final goal or uncover the mystery the emotional impact is so much more intense.

So, how did we get on with it?

The Loop created under the Peak District is owned by Oxford Age, a government-sponsored firm that has just been privatised. The three towers, as seen on the front cover of the book, dominate the landscape and the small village of Stuttabury (a made up place) sits in their shadow. We created Stuttabury as it was something that we all had in common; we had all spent holidays as Kids in the Peak District or places like it so we knew it well.

One evening during summer holiday, as the Kids are playing in a stream, one of them sees something crawling down the side of the tower. Human-sized but with multiple legs, the shadow creeps down and disappears into the woods. The next day, sheep are found killed but not eaten across several fields…

The mix of Kids gave the game an immediate sense of reality beyond the real-world location we were playing in. A Bookworm, a Computer Geek and a Troublemaker made up the group and to give a sense of a ‘Stranger Things’ mystery (I asked the players to watch at least one of the seasons before we played) I introduced an NPC friend, a Weirdo. Inevitably, this NPC friend who lived on one of the farms that had their sheep killed, the first Kid to see the thing crawl down the tower, goes missing and the Kids, after failing to convince the adults that they saw this thing, have to find him themselves.

Straight away we were not only involved in the game’s plot but we were emotionally connected to it, as well. We had spent an hour creating the characters and deciding their relationships with each other, and we even ran through the last day of school before the holidays, with problems from uninterested teachers, bullies and social awkwardness. It wasn’t played as some kind of ‘this is how I wish I was at school’ angle, but in a more muted, ‘this is why I hated school’ way with no glorification and no ‘defeating the bully to the cheers of classmates’ revenge fantasy. The rules called out for an emotional reflection on not only how the Kid was at school but also gave enough hints to remind you what life, and the world, was like back then. Playing the Kids as normal children just trying to get by was incredibly rewarding and the connection that they had to each other drove the narrative. The players really felt they were involved.

Being a teenager of the 1980s was a huge advantage in the game for sure; the book explains the era but actually living it made it much easier for me as GM to evoke the period. The music, movies, fashion and the gloom of a Britain under Thatcher was easy to recreate, with references to the miner’s strike in the form of radio and television broadcasts, Live Aid, and the Kids getting excited about the new James Bond film ‘A View to a Kill’, which is what they were playing when they saw the thing crawling down the tower. In fact, the missing Kid was playing James Bond, so when they finally faced off with the thing it would not let him go and kept referring to the Kid as ‘my friend Bond’. It added a whole new level of reality to the game and paid off exceptionally well.

In truth, there’s nothing stopping you from setting the game in any other era; with a little tweaking it could be set earlier, or later, in the 1990s or the 2000s. However, the game’s heart is set firmly in the 1980s and the political, cultural and social framework are well represented by the setting. In fact, with the lack of mobile telephones, computers and all the gadgets we rely on these days ot makes for a much more intense world as you can’t rely on a text message or GPS to get you out of the predicament you’re in.

There’s also a cut-off point in the game; when a Kid reaches the age of 16 they retire from the adventuring lark. However, I see no reason why a group couldn’t create older characters and just cap the character creation points at the age of 16, and even go on to create adult characters for more mature stories. After the game we discussed what the Kids would be like all grown up, especially after experiencing the thing on the tower, and what would happen if they found evidence that would prove their stories were true after being disbelieved their whole lives. That’s a great concept, and it’s a story for another time.

But that’s what Tales from the Loop does, it pulls this story out of you. It recreates an age I love and miss dearly, and it takes you back to thinking and acting as a Kid, reckless and ignorant, and it gives you a three dimensional character with heart and drive, which is something that is sometimes sadly lacking in other RPGs.

Tales from the Loop is easily one of the best roleplaying games I’ve come across in many years. It offers a wonderful setting and concept that allows you to be as creative as you please but grounds it in a reality that everyone can identify with, one way or another. The setting of the book is most emotionally resonant with myself, being a child of the 1980s, but it can work as a straight forward adventure game for anyone of any age, and can even be moved to another decade with very few tweaks. I’m already having ideas of a game set in the 1960s.

If you’re looking for a crunchy simulation you’ll not find it here; the rules system is simple and light and focuses more on the story rather than the stats. If, however, you’re looking for a game that is not only rewarding on a storytelling level but an emotional one, too, you can’t go wrong with Tales from the Loop.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Interview - Ken Spencer of Why Not Games

PictureIt was an absolute pleasure to catch up with Ken Spencer of Why Not Games to talk to him about his hobby, his company and the games he produces.

A firm favourite game of mine over the last couple of years has been 'Rocket Age' - my love of the pulp exploits of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers adventures, as well as 1950s Republic Serials, was my initial draw to the game but I was impressed with the rich, detailed world that Ken had created for his high adventure science fiction game.

Welcome to Farsight Blogger! Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I am Ken Spencer, writer and game designer. I am also the co-owner and creative director at Why Not Games. Before embarking on a writing career I have been an archaeologist, GIS technician, and educator.

What got you into the wonderful world of tabletop gaming?

I was a lonely Navy brat tired of being jumped form posting to posting. I had always been interested in sci-fi and fantasy and my father was an avid board gamer (mostly Avalon Hill). We were living in this wonderfully creepy house in the foothills of the Appalachians. The house was a classic Victorian, creepy basement, attic, old oak tree outside my bedroom window. There was a cemetery between the town and us that added to the overall vibe. I was new to the town and not making friends, so I spent a lot of time reading. I discovered Lovecraft and was introduced to Heinlein and Niven there.

I saw an ad in the back of a Conan the Barbarian comic for this Dungeons and Dragons game. It looked like my father's Avalon Hill games: bookshelf box, colorful cover, dice, and tables. I saved up my allowance and bought it at a Kay-Bee toy store at the mall two towns over. I fell in love that first night playing through the solo adventures in the book and just kept going.

You've got quite a writing history, with work for Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Chaosium, Frog God Games, Alephtar Games and Steve Jackson Games. What kind of work did you do, and how did it feel working for such illustrious publishers?

I have worked on a lot of projects in only nine years, mostly as a freelancer. My first paid writing gig was with Alephtar, I wrote two adventures for Veni, Vidi, Vici, a mini-campaign for BRP Rome. I still do some editing work for them. They are a good outfit that is easy to work with and pays on time. For Steve Jackson Games, I wrote several articles for Pyramid, including my first foray into pulp sci-fi with the Europa Universalis series detailing a GURPS setting where Romans go to Mars and Venus. These articles were a headache to write. The system is complex and unforgiving, but they always paid in full and on time.

My first big project was with Chaosium, a BRP pirate setting that ended up being called Blood Tide. I really pulled all the stops out on this one. I love the BRP system and pirates, and being a Navy brat maritime lore was right up my alley. I threw in all manner of things, an Undying Ponce de Léon ruling a decaying kingdom in Bimini, multiple magic systems including a flexible casting voodoo system inspired in part by Ars Magica, killer mermaids, a blend of Old and New World mythologies, clockwork puritans, you name it. I love writing settings and fiddling with rules systems. At the time Chasoium was in chaos. This was before the new management took over and it took years for Blood Tide to be published. The entire process was frustrating. There were delays, confusions over how many books they wanted, months with no response from the publisher, and all manner of trouble. In the end, the book was published and I was paid, so there is that.

About the same time I was finishing up Blood Tide I started work for Frog God on Northlands Saga. What started as a series of adventures grew into a campaign length adventure path and setting guide. Frog God is easy to work with and pays on time, something that cannot always be said about publishers in this industry. In the end we created Northlands Saga Complete. The kickstarter was successful, and the book that resulted was huge. The Pathfinder edition is over 800 pages long, plus there are a hundred pages or so of fiction and adventures that were part of the kickstarter.

Most of my work has been with Cubicle 7. I created Rocket Age and took the idea to them for publication, and worked on their World War Cthulhu, Lone Wolf, and One Ring lines. While I enjoyed the work on Rocket Age, I had less creative control over the other projects, especially working with One Ring. This is to be expected when working full time for a publisher and especially so with a licensed property.

What made you want to start Why Not Games?

I wanted to write what I wanted to write in the manner I wanted to write it. I also wanted a larger share of the profits from my work.  One day I was having coffee with Sam Parish and complaining about all of this when she interrupted by saying, "Why Not?" That was the moment Why Not Games started, the dream of running my own shop. Not too long after that I bought Rocket Age from Cubicle 7, partly to get control over my own IP and partly because they were planning on ending the product line and there was still a story to tell.

A big part of making this decision was that my wife was on board from the start as co-owner. She brings a lot of business, marketing, and graphic design experience to the company. With her, some friends, and even our son pitching in, well, what's better than launching on a Quixotic quest with your friends and family?

Rocket Age is your primary game (I bought it a couple of years ago and really enjoy it), so what was the attraction to pulp-action art-deco sci-fi adventure?

I am glad you like Rocket Age. I have always been a big fan of sci-fi. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galatica and others. The first novel I read that wasn't children's literature was Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Even the fantasy I write tends to be rather sci-fi in approach.

Most of my writing has a very pulpy feel. I like over the top heroics, dastardly villains, and lots of action in my games. The group I have played with the longest pointed out that all the games I run for fun are pulpy. We've done pulp Ancient Rome, pulp fantasy, pulp Noir, pulp Cthulhu, pulp Westerns, and more. I think this style of game builds memories that can last, especially if the players can work in some melodrama. Even Northlands Sage is in part pulp inspired, or at least the sort of theme that 9th Century Scandinavian pulp would take. What is the Saga of the Icelanders or Beowulf if not heroic action and adventure? Aren't the heroes bigger than life and the action epic? Isn't that what most role-playing games are aiming for?

Part of my love for pulp has been a fascination with the world of the 1930s. You have the world at a cusp, the boundary between map and the blank areas is closing just as technology and society are changing. You have huge social upheavals, a restructuring of the economic order, and the looming threat of fascism. Why not add in aliens, rocket ships, and RAY guns? The look and feel of the era, both the gleaming art-deco and the gritty soup kitchens, are easy for the reader to grasp. You have room to tell stories of two-fisted heroes, but also space to talk about the plight of the worker and effects of rampant greed, racism, and sexism. It really is a pivotal and intriguing era in world history.

What else can we expect to see in the future?

More Rocket Age. We just published our first entirely in-house episode, Slaves of the Earthlings that pits our heroes against slavers from Earth who want to kidnap freed Martians and force them back into bondage. The characters must work with an agent of the Tubman Battalion, an arm of the Lincoln Brigade (an Earthling-Martian organization that is seeking to end slavery on Mars and has already sparked one successful slave revolt). Krystal, wife and co-owner, is working on getting all the existing Rocket Age products ready for POD. We started with Heroes of the Solar System since it had been out of print for so long.

Next month we hope to release our first Rocket Age fiction anthology with stories by Ed Greenwood, Andy Peregrine, James Spencer and me. Depending on how well received the first anthology is there will be more, and possibly even a novel or two. A major part of growing out IP is to branch outside of tabletop games. We want everyone to enjoy Rocket Age, tabletop gamer or otherwise.

Currently there are two other Rocket Age products in the works. Imperial Jupiter, the long awaited sourcebook on Jupiter and its moons is finished and waiting for art to be completed. There have been some delays, but we are back on track (and looking for artists by the way).

I am nearly finished writing the adaptation of Rocket Age to the 5e system. This has been eating up most of my time the past few months with writing, editing, and playtesting. We hope to have the first book, Player's Guide to the Rocket Age ready for outside playtesting in a few weeks (contact Ken at ken@whynotgames.com to join the playtest). Tour of the Solar System, a setting and GM's guide, will be done shortly afterwards. You can follow our journey on rpg.net in the Rockets Away! column starting in May. Both will be previewed at GenCon this year with several events and we hope to launch a kickstarter in the fall.

After that, even more Rocket Age. The sourcebook for the outer planets, Edge of the Solar System is being worked on; it is too early to even hint at a release date. We have four more episodes ready when the schedule opens up. There are also going to be adaptations of all the current books and episodes to 5e. Speaking of the episodes, we are looking at getting those into larger print distribution, possibly as a complication. From this fall going forward all Rocket Age products will be published in two versions, one for the Vortex system and one for 5e.

After that, we have some vague plans but nothing more than a few outlines and a stack of butter themed post-it notes (thanks Brian). I would like to do a technology book that gives more Ancient Martian artifacts, rocket ship design rules, and other goodies. There are notes for a book of alien beasts and other foes. I have a little more than an outline for Canal Era, a new core book for Rocket Age that is set on Mars thousands of years ago at the height of the Canal Era. It has a very post-apocalyptic science-fantasy feel to it.

Your other games include 5e compatible supplements…

Right from the start we wanted to do some 5e compatible products. We saw a need for races beyond the usual elf, dwarf, human, and so forth. Weird Races (5e) is an attempt to not just add more race options, but to look at races in an entirely different way. While we have the stat blocks, feats, spells, and other play material you need, we also take a more anthropological perspective. What do they eat? How do they marry? What are their philosophical and religious views? When you begin with these as the questions you develop something more than a set of numbers on a character sheet.

We started with anthropomorphic animals since they give an easy hook for people to imagine. We all know what a cat is, and the Caturday are very cat-like, just as the Surial are based on bears. Going forward, we plan to branch out into some utterly weird territory. Next up is Little Grey Aliens, which takes the grays of popular folklore and turns them into a playable race. This book focuses more on their technology and how to use them in your campaign, which we hope is a fish out of water. Imagine a member of a Grey survey team who wandered off and missed the ship back home. Now, lost on some strange world, they have to find a way to survive with nothing but their wits and a proton blaster.

There are around a dozen weird races in the playtest stack and as we work through them we will polish up and expand the bare bones outline and stats into a full book. Rocket Age is our primary product line, but we plan to put out at least four weird races a year. Just a hint of what we have going on, there are two reptile based races, a set of races inspired by Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu, as well as a set inspired by classic horror monsters.

Tell us more about Weird Planets.

Weird Planets is our planned Starfinder compatible product line. They will be small books, around 25-30 pages, each detailing a solar system, the planets there, and the native intelligent species. A lot of Weird Planets comes out of our experience with Weird Races, particularly how to make a short title of utility to both players and GMs. Each Weird Planet title will feature adventure hooks, new gear, new monsters, one or more new playable species, and other goodies we can fit in.

The first Weird Planet is Catopia Prime and details the Kåtze System, its planets, and the native Caturday. Yes, we are going for cats in space with this one, though not all of the Weird Planets will be Weird Races in space. The Caturday are explorers, traders, and pirates with technology on par with other species in Starfinder. Their home world and the rest of the system provide a fine place to stop over as well as sources of adventure. We detail every planet, from the smallest dwarf planet rock to the biggest gas giant. We are nearly done with the art on this one and are looking at a release early this summer.

What does the future hold for Why Not Games? More RPGs, or perhaps some branching out into other tabletop games?

We want to take Rocket Age to the very heights of geekdom. There are not any solid plans as yet, but we would like to do other types of tabletop games using Rocket Age. I have some notes and a mock up card game I have been working on, and there are notes for a board game but nothing definite. Although they are nothing we are equipped to do in-house, we are open to other media for Rocket Age, such as comic books or miniatures. We just aren't there yet. Keep in mind that my education and work experience is as an archaeologist, I tend to think in rather long time frames. In short, Why Not Games and Rocket Age are not going away, just going up, and who knows what we will find out there among the stars?

With Slaves of the Earthlings we feel we have started to hit our stride, keeping in mind Why Not Games is not even a year old. We have had some success with Caturday (5e) and Surial (5e) and got some of the kinks out of our process. There will be more of these small products, more weird races and some weird planets for Starfinder (I am looking at the art for Catopia Prime and it is going to be a gorgeous book of cats in space) plus some small 5e books. I have to take a break every now and then from Rocket Age to clear the palate. Check our website at www.whynotgames.com for the latest updates.