Wednesday, 30 March 2022

The Bogey Beasts of Sidney Sime

Woods and Dark Animals by Sidney H Sime

Inasmuch as there is a Peakrill Press house style, it is that of fin-de-siecle fantasy-inspired illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th century (largely nicked from; images by Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley and, especially, Sidney Herbert Sime.

I love this style of drawing, and the worlds it depicts; lands of fairies & strangeness from a time when fantasy was not yet smothered in Tolkienesque tropes. I associate it with the purple prose of writers like Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany (Sidney H Sime had a close association with Dunsany, producing illustrations for many of his books).

[Incidentally, the short story collection Appendix N, The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons & Dragons, edited by Peter Bebergal, is a great starting place for exploring this type of fantasy-without-orcs: it's what got me back into reading fantasy prose after shunning it for about 30 years]

The success of the Kickstarter for Rackham Vale, a game based on the works of Arthur Rackham, got me thinking about Syme again. Would it be possible to do something similar with the his work? Where would you even start? I would start with Bogey Beasts.

Bogey Beasts is a 1923 book of illustrations with accompanying poems, both by Syme. I've had a copy since I was a kid - it is perhaps my favourite book ever. I was a bit gobsmacked to see that the book now sells for around £1,000, though my heavily-loved copy would fetch a lot less and is, anyway, priceless.

[I'm not sure where my copy came from, but I suspect it was a choice pick from "jumbling", our annual January ritual, long nights spent ringing at doorbells and collecting people's unwanted clothes, books and junk, to be sold at the Woodcraft Folk jumble sale. It seems a strange idea now: sending kids out solo to call at strangers' houses, begging. But collecting and then sorting jumble was a highlight of my year, though I could have done without the dust mites]

The book also contains music for each beast, composed by Josef Holbrooke. I spent many hours trying to code this music into my BBC Micro, but the polyphony of the pieces defeated the computer's primitive synthesiser. It wasn't until a few years ago that I first heard the music, in this video:

The bogeyest of all the beasts, the dark lord of the deeps, nightmare-giver and dream-inhabitor, was The Snide:

Of course, childhood me converted the Snide into a D&D monster:

I've been revisiting Bogey Beasts recently. Dark wells of childhood dreams. I'm finally old enough to appreciate the poetry, not just the pictures, and it stands up pretty well - pisses all over the poems of Clark Ashton Smith, IMO.

I am tentatively working on a ghost-forest setting, and Syme's dark landscapes, punctuated with flowers that are almost absences, is how this forest looks inside my mind: 

I won't be writing up a Rackham Vale-style game world any time soon but, who knows, if you find yourself deep, deep, deep in an undersea cave, somewhere in my game world, you may find yourself running into a Snide.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Running Troika! with family

it's also legal to buy and sell drugs if you do it through a mandrill
A while back I bought Daniel Sell's Troika! RPG. It's... strange. The Troika! game universe reminds me more than anything else of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but with rather more fantasy elements. It's very whimsical, very British, very surreal, and very silly. As for the rules, after playing Into the Odd with its very, very pared-down ruleset, I found Troika! a bit long-winded (even though its rules are pretty minimal compared with many games). But I absolutely love the rule for determining who goes next in combat, which can produce really interesting results. It allows participants to carry out one, multiple, or no actions during a round, depending on the order in which a bunch of cards or tokens are drawn.

The game book includes a truly great introductory adventure, one of the best (certainly the silliest) things I've ever read, called the Blancmange & Thistle. I played through it with 2 relative RPG newbies: my wife (who'd previously played 1 session of Into the Odd and 2 of I'm Sorry Did You Say Street Magic) was playing a Chaos Champion called Minx, while my 26 year-old daughter (who'd only ever played a session of Honey Heist) played a Thaumaturge called Thora Turd. A report of their play is given below - contains some spoilers (although, given how far they got in the adventure, not many).

Bundle for Ukraine

Just a quick post to say that the Bundle for Ukraine sale ends in under 24 hours. It contains an amazing 998 games, for both tabletop and computer, covering every genre imaginable, and worth over $6,500 at their normal price. You can bag the lot for a minimum donation of a ridiculously low $10. Funds go to two carefully vetted charities who already have experience of working in Ukraine, International Medical Corps and Voices of Children.

My system-neutral supplement Mostly Harmless Meetings is in there as a PDF. To demonstrate the amazing quality of some of the other stuff in there, this tweet highlighting my contribution also contains works by two of the greatest names in TTRPG: Nate Treme, whose Haunted Almanac I recently purchased; and Isaac Williams, whose Kickstarter for Mausritter I recently backed. There are many, many other games of similar high quality in the bundle.

And if you find yourself really liking Mostly Harmless Meetings... I still have a few physical copies left for sale, grab one before they're all gone! 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Play-by-post and the written word

Encourage the Beautiful by Louis Rhead

In my last post, I gave an example of play in my vapourware play-by-post game (which, incidentally, has the working title "Out of Hope", due to the fact that player characters will start off in Hope and at some point, presumably, will travel out of Hope)

One of the most obvious things about my example is that it's "wordy"; it is (I hope) decently written; it's a story. It has fine details, but also forward momentum. 

This, for me, is one of the most wonderful features of play-by-post (PBP) games. Freed from the constraint of having to improvise suitable responses in real-time, the referee (and player) can really take their time to spin out a story. Of course, doing that improvisation in real-time brings its own particular excitement, but what asynchronous play loses in immediate thrill, it makes up for in texture.

(NB by asynchronous, I mean that replies are not immediate: the various players of the game choose their own time in which to play. More typical, synchronous gameplay means that everyone has to be available at the exact same time. Email, text messages, WhatsApp etc are asynchronous; voice and video calls are synchronous) 

This time-to-think is the main reason why I have been considering running a play-by-post game myself. While I do run synchronous games (i.e. in-person or via voice/video chat), their need for spontaneity makes me hella nervous, and I often feel with hindsight that I have gabbled though interactions with the bare minimum of creativity, too focused on not breaking the flow. 

I have always felt that my brain works much better at writing speed than at speaking speed (I still remember my BSc dissertation supervisor Professor Norman Freeman expressing surprise on reading my paper: "normally people who can't talk about their work can't write about it either, but this is actually very good!") The additional time that the gaps between moves allows me with PBP lets me relax a little and do what I feel I do best.

It also, obviously, leaves a written record. Those play-reports which, if you're anything like me, you always plan to write but somehow never get around to: they're already there!

A corollary of this is that those written reports can be repurposed. This might just mean copy-pasting the description of a place or a person from the response to one player's orders into the response to another player, to save the referee a little time. But I would like, ultimately, to go further: to repurpose all of those play reports into something bigger, perhaps a novelisation of the game world where the player characters get to star.

Again, none of this takes away from the wonder of playing together with people synchronously. I just want to emphasise that play-by-post is not an inferior version of standard TTRPG play, for people who can't find a shared time to play together; it is its own thing, and brings some real benefits that just don't exist with synchronous play. I'll be exploring this further in future posts.

Friday, 11 March 2022

An example of play-by-post in Peakrill

A Light in the Pavilion by Gordon Browne
This is the first of a few posts I'll be writing about play-by-post RPGs (formerly known as play-by-mail  - PBM - and then play-by-email - PBeM). I played in quite a few PBM games in the 80s, and have been thinking about running one myself for quite some time now (using rules loosely based on Monte Cook's Cypher system). But first, an example of how such play might go...  

Let's say that at the end of your last turn, you decided to leave town and head for a distant pass over the top of the moors. here is how the GM might describe what happens next:
You follow the cobbled road out of the village, passing farms and other buildings on either side. After about a mile you pass an inn, and a goods yard. The farms continue for another a mile or two, although this far out they are smaller and further apart. After this, the road starts to rise, and the valley closes in on either side. The sides of the road become increasingly wooded, with sessile oak, silver birch, rowan, and holly. There are fewer signs of other travellers up here: the cobbles are less worn, and there is very little mud and hay left by passing vehicles. The weather becomes noticeably colder, and there is a musty, mossy smell from the woods. 
You continue up the valley. Along the way, you find a pleasing pebble, about 3 inches by 1 inch, made of a material you’ve never seen before. You play with it in your hand while walking; it is smooth and lovely. Eventually you pocket it. 
After a couple of hours you reach a small hamlet inside a high wooden stockade. The road goes through the settlement, turning sharply to the left, but before this is a steep pony track that climbs the far side of the valley, through the woods, in the direction that you were already walking. You avoid the hamlet and take this track. The cobbles are replaced with mud and rocks, it’s a much steeper and slower climb than the road, and the woodland smells are augmented with notes of peat and heather. 
Ten minutes in, there is a tree trunk blocking the path. You go to climb over it… 
Climbing over the tree trunk is fairly, but not entirely, straightforward. It’s a Difficulty 1 task, so you need to roll a 3 or higher to succeed. You roll… 16! You leap over the trunk in a single bound. 
In just under an hour, the path reaches the plateau of the moor where the woods thin out, with just scattered individual birch and hawthorn trees in front of you. There is a bracing wind, flattening the cotton-grass. You look behind you and see the stockaded village and the valley, stretching out way below you. Ahead and to either side you see undulating moorland, with peaks in the distance in all directions. 
After another mile of slow going, weaving through marshes and heather beds, as the sky is darkening you see the lit windows of a small stone house in a hollow in the distance. This is the first dwelling that you have seen since leaving the main road, and it appears totally isolated. There is smoke coming from the chimney. 
You gain 1XP this turn for exploring the area up the valley and onto the moorland..
What do you do next?
Having read that, you send in the instructions for your next turn:
I will pick a sprig of lucky heather, wear it in my buttonhole, and cautiously but very openly approach the house. When I’m near, I will shout “hello? Is there anybody there”. If anyone comes out then I will greet them and try to speak to them about local affairs, the weather, and what to expect on the path ahead. I’ll use 1 Level of Effort to try and make them like me. If they’re really friendly I would like to stop off for a meal and perhaps to stay the night. I’ll also ask politely whether they have any rations I could take with me for my next day’s hike, offering to do a little work for them in return.

If they are hostile, I will firstly try to calm the situation: “I’m just a simple traveller, visiting my cousins on the far side of the moor, I mean you no harm and will be on my way now”. If that doesn’t placate them, I won’t attack first but I will be prepared to defend myself, and will expend 1 Level of Effort both defending and attacking, as I’m all alone up here and they probably know the terrain better than me. If things get really bad, I will use up the invisibility Cypher on my cloak to hide, and then sneak away from here.

When I’m done here, I’ll carry along the path, as described in my last set of instructions. Hopefully I can still make it to another house or a hamlet on the other side of the moor, but if not then I will find somewhere sheltered, wrap myself in furs, and catch 4 or 5 hours’ Rest. I won’t light a fire for fear of attracting any creatures up here.
The GM reads your instructions, and tells you what happens next:
You walk cautiously over the half a mile to the house. Your movements are slower and more exaggerated than usual, and you keep a close eye on the house all the time for signs of movement.

When you're about 50 feet from the house you call cautiously "hello? Is there anyone there?". There is no reply. You walk a few feet further, and in a louder voice call “hello? I'm just passing through, I was wondering whether I could do some work for you in exchange for food?”

You hear a banging sound of wood on wood, coming from inside the house. The door swings open and an elderly man dressed in in worn, brown felt clothing steps out. He has a white beard and a bald head, but looks tanned and healthy from his moorland life.

Normally, convincing a person like this that you are friendly would be a Difficulty 3 task. However, he is lonely, which reduces the difficulty to 2. Your training in conversation reduces it further to 1. And the Effort you expended reduces it by one further, to zero. You don’t have to roll to succeed, but I’ll do it anyway to see how well you get on with him - a 19! He welcomes you like a long-lost child. But the Effort you expended means you must take 3 off your Intellect score until you next rest.

“Hello” he says heartily, “I’m Norhelm. Food, did you say? Well I'm sure I could rustle something up for you, it’s not often that I see visitors up here. Come on inside!”

You accept the invitation and go into the house. Inside, it appears even smaller than it did from the outside. Just one room, cluttered up with peat-cutting and farming tools, plus various junk and chunks of uncut stone. There is a string hammock strung over the lot of them, grey furs heaped inside it. There’s only one seat and Norhelm offers it to you. He fills a pan with water and puts it on the stove, then turns to talk to you. "So, you'll have just come up from the valley? That’s quite a climb.” You tell him that actually you've come all the way from Hope, at the far end of the Valley. “Oh, ho ho, very cosmopolitan then!”

You begin to describe your journey to him, then remember the pebble that you found and, feeling that the old hermit is trustworthy, show it to him. He accepts it from you, turns it over in his hands, and says "yes, I've seen ones like these before. They’re more common over to the west, on the far side of the Peaks.” Inspecting this one further, he points out that it has a Cypher on it which, when used, will give you protection equivalent to heavy armour that lasts for one minute. He hands the pebble back to you.

He cooks up a simple meal of beans and onions. The warm, humid smell of the food fills the hut, putting you at your ease and making you very hungry after all your exertion. You both sit down to eat. It's hard for you to get a word in edgeways, it seems like he hasn't talked to anyone for a long time, and now he's making up for it. He tells you about life up here on the moor, about the seasons and the few scrawny crops he grows in his garden, the sheep he used to let roam the surrounding moor. He tells you that he's been bothered lately by some "inhumans" (this is a term you've heard before: it’s used to refer to the early hominid races who survive in small numbers in this area. They live only in secluded places. It seems from what you’ve heard that there are various different races of inhumans, some living on the moors, some in the woods, and some underground).

Your time in the house counts as a Rest. You regain the 3 Intellect points that you used to befriend the man.

You ask him what these creatures have been doing to him, and he replies “destroying my crops, stealing sheep from me—I have to keep them penned in now, and it’s causing them stress. Twice those monsters even came close to the house and seemed to threaten me, I don’t know what language they speak but I’m sure they weren’t inviting me over for a meal.”

GM Intrusion - the following event is something thrown in by the GM to spice things up. You can Refuse a GM Intrusion, but doing so costs you 1XP. If you accept the GM Intrusion, you immediately gain 1XP (and if you are journeying together with other characters, you also get 1XP to give to one of them).
At this point you hear a banging at the door. Norhelm suddenly looks alert. "Them!" he says. He moves swiftly to the side of the door, grabbing a kitchen knife on the way, and indicates that you should move to the other side of the door.

You gain 1XP for your conversation with Norhelm. If you accept the GM Intrusion, you gain another XP. If you reject it, you lose the 1XP that you gained this turn.

Do you accept the GM Intrusion? Either way, what do you do next? 
And your instructions...
Firstly, I accept the GM Intrusion. But if there’s a fight, and I’m guessing there will be, I’ll spend that 1XP to re-roll any failed Defence attempt once my Might drops below 3.

I’ll move to the door as Norhelm suggested. I’ll follow his lead, but be prepared to attack with my dagger. If there are three or more things out there, I’ll try to knock one over first. I’ll apply Effort to that, and to all my attack rolls until my Might drops below 6. And the invisibility Cypher might still come in handy if the going gets really bad...
As you can see, the replies are quite long, and the GM has quite a lot of leeway in them to interpret the player's instructions, and make decisions on their behalf. This is something I'll be coming to in future posts. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts... would you be interested in playing something like this?

Friday, 4 March 2022

Mostly Harmless Meetings - now available to buy

Mostly Harmless Meetings has been sent out to Kickstarter backers, so I am selling both printed zines and PDF copies via the eye-catching buttons at the top of the page 

My physical products shop on Bigcartel also contains a number of non-gaming related titles I've produced in the past, including the last few packs of the Pilgrims' Tarot produced to accompany the Cerne2CERN pilgrimage. These will one day be treasured as magical artifacts of the highest order (fun fact: Alan Moore did a tarot reading for the pilgrimage in which he pulled nine major arcana, from The Magician to The Hermit, in deck order. Sure, that can happen at random, although the chances  area less than one in a universe; what are the chances of it happening when England's greatest living magus is divining what will happen when 69 happy fools decide to immanentise the Eschaton?)

The PDF can be purchase via my account, where you'll also find my pay-as-you-feel contribution to the One-Page RPG Jam 2021, In My End Is My Beginning.

As a special treat for anyone who has read this far, you can get a whopping 23% off the PDF by following this link, and an even more whopping off 23% off all physical products (and free postage to the UK) by entering the code BLOG23 at the checkout on my Bigcartel store (also: free postage to the UK). Both discounts run until the end of March 2022.

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Into Into The Odd

Into the Iron Coral
This weekend I ran my first game of Into The Odd. I was also my first in-person TTRPG since the pandemic started, my first in about 30 years in fact. And it was also also the first time I've talked my wife into playing an RPG. But not the last! (Actually, I had previously persuaded her to play I'm Sorry Did You Say Street Magic, but that was verrrry different from playing an old-school dungeoneering type game)

Interview with Write Radio

Write Radio

I was interviewed recently for Write Radio on Sheffield Live. I talked to host Jane Armstrong about writing for roleplaying games, and how it differs from the sort of short story writing I'd been doing before. We also talk about the differences between TTRPGs now vs. those I grew up with in the 80s, and about my various current projects: Mostly Harmless Meetings, King Arthur vs. Devil Kitteh, and Learning to Draw Trees.

Here is the interview. I've added comments at various points to indicate which topics we talk about: