My sci-fi roleplaying game is available now! It can be purchased from most outlets in hardback, e-book, PDF and Kindle.
What will you find in the deep dark?
A bit of self-promotion - a brief look at my RPG 'Those Dark Places' out on November 26th 2020!
It's taken the better part of 3 years to get to this moment, but I've finally got the printed book in my hands. In three weeks it'll be on general release. I'm so happy with this. So very, very happy.
A bit of self-promotion - a brief look at my RPG 'Those Dark Places' out on November 26th 2020!
So, why did I decide to design a story-driven game?
When I first started to put Those Dark Places together I thought about what kind of system I would like to use and I wondered how much detail I would need. I looked at crunchy systems with plenty of detail and thought about all kinds of ways to roll all kinds of dice. However, the more I planned the more I realised that I didn't want to create a simulation; I wanted to create a story.
I love my crunchy games but the older I get the less I want to have to remember things from a hefty rulebook as I'm more about keeping the story flowing. There's one major thing I dislike in some games and that's when the story gets to a tense, dramatic moment and suddenly... a ruling has to be made and the GM/player spends time on sorting modifiers, perhaps flipping pages to get a reminder, perhaps consulting tables to get a result, and any tension that has been built to that point is suddenly lost in the rush to figure out 'how this plays out'. Instead of a flowing, action-packed moment there's a sudden lull, and the story falters in favour of the mechanics.
There's a time and a place for crunch in a game but it's something I wanted to remove from Those Dark Places so that I could focus on the story. It's also why the die used changed over time, from a D20 to a D12 (my favourite die!) and finally to the humble D6. The other dice were great but they were giving me results that didn't suit the kind of game I was trying to design, but the D6 gave me everything I needed, and the three levels of success - Yes/No/Yes, but... - were adding tension to the sessions.
At this point I decided to drop a whole slew of rules I had written for starships in the game. Vessels are huge lumbering things built for labour and as I wrote the game I realised that rules for them were superfluous at this stage of the game's development. They are simply a means to an end, and A to B plot device, and stats for them would simply be another set of rules that would detract from what I was trying to do with the game. That's not to say there won't be rules for them in the future...
I also chose a story-focused game because I really enjoy that sense of collaborative and spontaneous storytelling. The idea that the players can make some dicey decisions (considering how the levels of success can really turn things upside down) and roleplay out situations is great, but the sudden changes in the flow of the story thanks to certain die rolls or player input forces creativity from the GM and the players alike; how the GM handles the die results to really make the players sweat and how the players handle the pressure and react to the uncertain situations the mechanics provide can really create memorable and fun sessions as the group stumbles in the dark.
Take my recent session with Garblag Games for example; one of the players mentioned his PC's father as a drunken loser who he didn't care for and that immediately gave me an idea. Instead of a random corpse screaming in the PC's face - you'll have to watch the video to understand what I'm talking about (just watch out for the profanity) - I decided it was going to be an image of the PC's father, and we even ended the one-shot on that note. The players making comments like this immediately sparked ideas as to how I could adapt and adjust the situation to make it more personal to their PCs, and I didn't have to worry about mechanics or how it affected the rules. I decided on a change and just went for it.
Could you do this with any other RPG? Most likely, but Those Dark Places pushes the mechanics to the rear and focuses on the drama unfolding at the table, the rules are so simple that they fade into the background and the GM and the players don't have to give them a second thought as they plough through the story. The drama takes centre stage and the die is simply there to help.
Of course, that's how I play it. Once the book is in your hands, how the game unfolds is completely up to you...
So, Tere Swordsong. He's my favourite ever player character
I created Tere as a Scout for MERP, the original ICE boxset. He was good with a sword and bow but quite useless at everything else. He had average stats and not much else; I didn't know him as a character and didn't bother with a detailed background. In fact, he never has had any background and his life basically starts as he enters the Inn of the Last Bridge, the location in the Trollshaws for the first adventure in the original boxset. As a treat, the GM allowed me to have two mountain lions as pets and, as unpredictable as they were, they were great companions.
Tere had quite a life - he ran through the adventures in the Trollshaws, then rescued captured elves, searched a run-down keep and uncovered a plot to raise an army and sweep across the land (this was pre-War of the Ring). Hr helped raise army, defended a castle, explored ruins for magical aide, set up a treaty with some elves and won the day, losing a mountain lion and an eye in the process.
The adventures got bigger and bigger, so big that the GM moved the action from Middle-Earth and created a fantasy version of Europe for Tere to adventure in, so that his deeds could grow, his renown increase and his legend become known across the land. This also freed the GM from the constraints of Middle-Earth; now he could create any kind of adventure he wanted and surprise me at his pleasure.
Tere had plenty of friends he fought alongside; Minastir the swordsman (he made bad decisions but was a good friend), the golden-haired brothers Eoner and Errone (steadfast and reliable), the elf-maiden Minwe (she could not talk but fought well, and they ended up married with children), and Minwe's brother who helped seal the treaty between Tere and the Elves.
Tere ended up with a family and, with his riches and fame, he bought the Inn of the Last Bridge to retire in, and he hung up trophies on the wall to commemorate his life and the lives of those he lost; the collars of his mountain lions, Minastir's two swords, the spears of the brothers, and various trophies and mementos. And that's where he's been since 1990.
The GM ran the games with such intensity that the sessions got incredibly melodramatic, driven and emotionally engaging. It was the first time I'd played a game where the characters drove the story, not the adventure design or a dungeon layout or a railroaded sequence of events. I truly found the campaign engaging because I made a difference, and it was where my love for story-focused narrative gaming began.
Now, MERP was great fun but could be cumbersome and there was no real way to communicate a character's motivation. The rules were mainly just numbers on a sheet of paper. I created Tere with a simple aim; he was going to do good, and help people as best as he could. And he did so, and that was all I needed for him. A sword, a bow, and a desire to be a hero. Since he retired, I never intended to play him again.
However, a new game has entered the fold. 'Against the Darkmaster' from Open Ended Games is a revamp of old MERP and Rolemaster, but it has been streamlined and modified to make it easier to create a character and the resolution system is much more refined. Bear in mind that I have only seen the Quickstart Rules for the game - I'm waiting for the POD before I purchase the full game as I want the physical book, but the PDF is available now - but what I've seen makes me very, very excited. It captures what I loved about the MERP, drops a few things I wasn't fond of and adds a few extras I'm sure will make a difference. I dropped crunchy games in favour of rules-lite systems a long time ago, but Against the Darkmaster is making me break that, and now I want to create a detailed character again.
And that brings me back to Tere Swordsong. For the first time in 30 years I want to play him again - or perhaps a descendant of his - because there is a new part of the rules which covers Background, Passions and Drive. Backgrounds give a little history to the character, Passions give the character a purpose and help explain why they're adventuring (in Tere's case, it was a desire to do good and be a hero) and Drive is a mechanic that can help the PC during the game. It's something I wish I had had access to when I created Tere way back when, and I think it's a great addition to a game that could get lost in crunch but seems to have a desire to give the PCs impetus and agency, and allow them to tell a story of their own. Once I get the rulebook I'll know more, but I'm excited to see what I can do with the game and how it may be able to emulate the epic MERP game I was a part of.
Tere Swordsong is my favourite PC of all time and I have had no desire to revisit him until I read the Quickstart of Against The Darkmaster. I read about this game and saw it growing into the Kickstarter but I never thought I'd get caught up in it, no matter what nostalgic feelings it stirred in me. But I've seen how they've made the game and the system their own, and now I'm on board and I'm excited about going back to a set of rules I really enjoyed.
The peeps at Garblag Games gave me the chance to run amok on their channel with my first full public playthrough of the game. It'll be on their YouTube channel soon, but if you can't wait then you can check out the stream on their Twitch channel.
Many thanks to the guys for their time and enthusiasm, and if you like these videos they are a fantastic channel to subscribe to as they've got some amazing game sessions under their belt!
In this blog I'd like to talk about the effects of Pressure on the characters, groups and the game overall.
Pressure is a game mechanic that tries to emulate the effects of mental stress and emotional hardships that the PCs may have to face. Depending on your stat choices some characters are more susceptible to the rigours of space exloration than others, but it's not the immediate effects that may cause problems...
Characters have a Pressure Bonus which is added to a roll, and the higher the better. Failed rolls result in your Pressure Level going up and this can lead to Episodes; you may be tremendously shocked or terrified and that will negatively affect your rolls, or you'll be rooted to the spot, or you'll go into a violent frenzy as you try to get away from the horror. However, this Pressure Level goes up and it might not trigger an Episode right away, so the higher it goes the more chance you'll have of triggering a response and the worse it'll be. It's like you've been bottling up your fear and at some pont the pressure will be so great you'll explode in a far worse way than if you'd reacted to it sooner. This can not only affect the individual player it can create problems for the group as they have to deal with a weakened colleague, a catatonic crewmember or a terrified violent friend.
However, it doesn't end there. These Episodes can have ongoing effects. Once the player has had an Episode they write down what triggered it, and if they are ever in a situation similar then the memories of the initial shock can come flooding back and have a negative effect on their rolls. In Those Dark Places, players don’t just make the rolls and suffer the consequences; they're encouraged to role-play it! If the situation means your character has to face their fear, then make sure it becomes part of the story you’re telling.
If characters do face their fears they can slowly overcome them, and successful rolls means reduced negative modifiers. The memory of the shock will never go away, but they will learn to perhaps accept it and with support from their colleagues they can get through it. This means that incidents such as these are not limited to a single session or adventure; perhaps a few weeks of play down the line the situation arises again. In every case the players are encouraged to roleplay it out and not just state that they have modifiers that may affect their performance.
About to be sent into a narrow air duct? “No way, man! You ain’t getting me in there!”
Being told to get into a leaky spacesuit and go outside the ship? “You’re kidding, right? I don’t care that I’m the only one here that can fix it, get someone else!”
Have to dive underwater? “Do you not remember what happened at the refinery? I’ll wait here, thank you very much!”
Pressure Levels can be reduced between adventures with R&R and time in a LongSleep chamber, but during the game the players will have to suffer the possible effects of Episodes and the repercussions of pushing too hard and too far against the terrors in the darkness.
|Art By Nathan Anderson|
A quick video of me opening boxes with Alien RPG stuff in them and trying really hard not to get too overexcited about it.
Subscribe for some reason! Share the vid! Smash that like button! I have no idea what any of that means! Why would you smash the like button, you might break it! Just press it carefully! A tap will do, just calm down!
In this episode I have something of a rant about my love for Dune, and what I would expect from roleplaying game session (most of it unrealistic and really selfish).
Thank you to Ryan Hicks for the awesome intro music!
In this designer's blog I'd like to talk about my influences and what it was that helped inspire the idea that became 'Those Dark Places', as well as what kind of adventures the group can have out there.
My initial inspiration came from such movies such as 'Alien', 'Outland', 'Dark Star', 'Silent Running' and even the Disney classic 'The Black Hole'. These movies dealt with a theme I found fascinating; space is big, vast, and when you're out there you are - quite literally - on your own.
These movies dealt with different ideas and each one of them really helped me form my setting. 'Alien' gave me some stunning visuals and the aesthetic and overall design I longed for, as well as the horror of the unknown. 'Outland' gave me the fear of an indifferent company, much like 'Alien' did, and what a person must do to fight against it, as well as deal with the claustophobic place they work in where hard-pressed workers could go off at any time. 'Dark Star' gave me the awkward silliness of it all, the depressing idea that not only would you lose your way you'd lose your identity way out there in the deep black where sheer boredom and errant technology could do you in. 'Silent Running' gave me desperation and hopelesness, where a mind might crack under the pressure of indifference and ignorance. Finally, 'The Black Hole' gave me that sense of what a person might do to realise their ideals and their twisted dreams out where they feel there is no consequence, as well as what - and who - they'd sacrifice to get there.
I was also inspired by computer games such as (obviously) 'Alien Isolation', 'Dead Space' and 'Alien Breed Trilogy'. While these games deal with monsters and body horror they, too, capture the feel I was looking for; starships and stations in the middle of nowhere where no help is coming, as well as twists and turns and the need for brains as well as brawn to get you through it.
All of these things helped create the setting of 'Those Dark Places' and, while there is no definitive timeline or history to the backgrond, there is a definitive design idea behind it all - that the darkest reaches of space, where travellers are alone and surrounded by death, can be a physical and mental minefield, where old technology can be just as dangerous as vacuum and radiation because the machines that keep people alive are thousands of cheap, easily produced and replaceable parts built by the lowest bidder in a marketplace that puts profit ahead of everything else.
So, what kind adventures can a group have? Well, that's up to the group and what kind of mood they're in. There are plenty of adventure hooks in the game - 'Those Dark Places' calls adventures 'Reports' - ranging from espionage to exploration to investigation. Although science fiction horror and thrillers influenced the game there are no direct stats and rules for the horrors in the dark - aliens, eldritch horrors, genetic monstrosities and the like - but there is absolutely nothing stopping GMs from including this kind of thing if they feel that the experience would suit their group. The system is so simple that statting such creatures would be easy.
This design decision was done on purpose; I originally designed the game with monsters and creatures involved but as I wrote I realised that there was no need for this. If I included these things then the unknown would be known and the players would anticipate these horrors, but if the choice of danger or foe was left in the hands of the GM then they would not know what to expect at all.
And that's something about 'Those Dark Places' I wanted to make sure was prevalent - that sense of nervous anticipation, of the players not knowing what was coming and that unknown factor adding to the tension. It was why I added a level of success that was basically 'Yes, but...', so that the players knew that they had barely succeeded but that scrape might come back to bite them at some point... but when?
|Artwork by Nathan Anderson|
The last few weeks have seen me working on a new project, and at last I can reveal what that project is - I'm writing a new full adventure for the Dragon Warriors fantasy roleplaying game from Serpent King Games.
I've been a huge fan if Dragon Warriors for a very long time but my love for the game exploded when the hardback book of the RPG was released. The setting, the system, the atmosphere is everything I love about old-school RPGs and I've played it a lot. I've always wanted to be able to write something for it.
Well, here I am! After finally getting everything published for it - in fact, it's the only RPG I own for which I have all the books and PDF supplements and adventures - I've absorbed the Dragon Warriors game and decided to delve into one specific location; Thuland.
The official press release is below. I'm excited to be adventuring in the Lands of Legend!
“Thuland welcomes you! The town of Oskild is celebrating a prosperous year and the Master of Rings Festival has something for everyone: games, hunts, song and plenty of food and mead. There is much to do here and the rewards are rich for those who are worthu. Oskild also has a myth, that of a cursed king who suffered for his people, a magical artefact used in revenge, and dwarves who retreated deep into the earth in shame…”
The next release for Dragon Warriors will be The Cursed King, by Jonathan Hicks. We are anticipating a February 2021 release date, as a 64-page print and PDF book. As ever we will round out the adventure with source material on the warlike kingdom of Thuland, and its jarls, merchants, farmers, smiths, and raiders, as well as adventure hooks so you can expand the adventure into a short Thuland campaign if desired.
The Cursed King is an adventure for players with characters of Rank 5-6, of any profession and heritage.
We are very much looking forward to exploring the northern waters and crags of Thuland with you!
In this episode I talk about my influences on my gaming hobby, and talk about a couple of ideas as to where to find inspiration for your own TTRPG stories.
Thank you to Ryan Hicks for the awesome intro music!
Welcome to another designer's blog for my upcoming roleplaying game 'Those Dark Places'. Today I wanted to talk about character creation in the game. Trust me, this is going to be a short blog entry.
Character creation can be as detailed or as simple as you want it to be. The majority of the decisions go into deciding what kind of person you want to play, their personalities and attitudes, and there are only three choices you need to make as far as abilities go:
Choose the scores for your four attributes CHARISMA, AGILITY, STRENGTH and EDUCATION. These are the number 1, 2, 3 and 4 - there's no rolling for scores or dividing up points.
Choose a primary Crew Position.
Choose a secondary Crew Position.
I ran a game of Those Dark Places for Gen Con 2020 recently and it lasted two hours. There were six players - who had never played the game before, nor knew anything about it - and they had all created characters within ten minutes, I spent five minutes explaining the rules and then we played. Character creation was incredibly simple because everyone has the same numbers to choose from and decisions to make regarding their position in the crew. Choosing the position not only gives them their abilites but it also gives them impetus, something to give them a purpose and helps define who they are as a character as well as their role in the group.
The Crew Positions (including such positions as Science Officer, Navigation Officer and Security Officer) are linked to certain attributes but there's no need to take any notice of that if you don't want to. Sure, you might want to be an engineer, but that doesn't mean you'll be any good at it, does it?
There are no skill lists, no long descriptions regarding how skills work or how they affect the game. When a roll is made the player/GM chooses the attribute that suits it best and then adds bonuses depending on the Crew Position and any relevant equipment. So, if the player decides to repair an engine they will have a bonus to the roll if they have the Engineer Officer Crew Position and maybe some other bonuses from relevant equipment.
Character creation is quick, easy and simple and this gives the group more time to focus on who their characters are and how they interact with each other rather than how the numbers on the sheet work and perusing over a myriad of scores and bonuses. This also does away with charts and tables, reducing the time it takes to work out a roll and enables quick resolutions. This keeps the action moving and the tension high.
In the next blog I'll talk more about the setting and how exploring the dark can make for exciting adventures.