Stealing settings for fun (and possibly profit)

Rather than trying to invent some wholly original game setting (and then trying to explain it to the players), often it's easier and more immediately fun to take an existing adventurous setting and modify it to your needs.

Love Star Wars and Spaghetti Westerns? Do both at once! Just watched Jason and the Argonauts and Pirates of the Carribean? Merge them!

How do you do that? Break it down into essential parts of the setting you want to emulate, and think about how to translate those into your planned setting.

So - what are the essential parts of the setting? Let's look at a couple of examples.


Cowboys in Space
(or wherever)

- making a Wild West themed setting in any genre

You will need:
  • The Old World
    • The planet (or planets) from which our Colonial settlers' ancestors hailed - representing Europe (and Asia and Africa) in our real world history.
    • The Old World has its problems, which may still influence what happens in the New World, but usually only at arms' reach: a war in the Old World might send more emigrants to the New World
    • Example: Earth-that-Was in Firefly. We assume this was our Earth, and Firefly is set in our future. Earth-that-Was is gone, and has no further influence over the setting.
    • Example: Mundia in the Helios system is the Old World. It is home to the human race, and is thought to be the orignal planet on which humans evolved and developed all civilisation. Its continental superpowers fluctuate between cold and hot war.
  • The New World 
    • The region that has been settled by the colonials.
    • The New World is largely virgin and unspoiled; rich in resources, but hard and wild.
    • Including:
      • The Established Colonies
        • The early colonies which have had a hundred years or more to settle down and expand - the equivalent of the 13 colonies of the US.
        • Example: The Sapiens Cluster. The initial colonisation of the Cluster was acheived through the creation of an artificial wormhole, allowing vast insterstellar distances to be travelled in a single short hop. The Cluster's several adjacent star systems were swiftly colonised by sub-light expeditions, and are now teeming hubs of industry and commerce.
      • The Wild Frontier
        • The regions of expansion, where the established colonies are pushing into the hinterland - the Wild West of the mid-19th Century.
        • Example: Since the colonisation of the Cluster, the invention of the FTL jump drive has allowed for interstellar expansion beyond the Old Colonies. The dozens of new frontier systems see explorers pushing back the edges of the known systems, prospectors following mineral rushes seeking fast riches, terraformers trying to create new farm lands, emigrants looking for a new chance - and the inevitable opportunists who support and prey on those waves of migrants: gamblers, grocers, doxies, doctors, engineers, bandits and marshalls.

Optional content: 
Some of the elements that go to make up the Wild West genre may be contentious and delicate, touching on real-world issues that are distasteful and perhaps out of place in an adventurous game setting - treat these with care.
  • The Recent Civil War
    • The Established Colonies and certain of the New Frontier regions have engaged in a bloody and devastating war over slavery or some similarly divisive ethical issue. The slump experienced by the losing faction causes resentment and division for decades to come. 
  • Various Natives - oppressed, belligerent, friendly, etc
    • Attempts to civilise the natives
    • Annexation of native land and resources

Pirates of the Mediterranean
(other seas are available)

- a Greco-Roman themed take on swashbuckling piratical adventures

You will need:
  • Civilised trading nations
    • The sophisticated empire and other regions between which expensive and exclusive goods are traded - so that the pirates can steal them
    • These will be your stand-ins for England, Spain and the "exotic" regions they traded spice with.
    • Example: Greece and Carthage trade around the Mediterranean and beyond, clashing with each other, but more usually coexisting as rivals - up to a point.
  • Naval authority
    •  The civilised nations have their navies who protect their trade ships.
  • Unexplored regions full of native riches
    • Standing in for the Meso-American civilisaitons plundered by the European colonials
    • Example: The African and European hinterlands are largely unknown lands to the Mediterraneans - so we can have hot and cold lands to explore and exploit, and all the alien cultures to go with them. With our mythic theme in mind, we can add legendary monsters and dangerous wizards into the mix.
  • Lots of uncharted islands and coasts
    •  Standing in for the islands of the Carribean, the Mexican Gulf, etc.
    • Example: The Greek Islands themselves, as well as invented myriad islands for adventures among hidden coves, smugglers' stashes, pirate havens and isolated cultures. In this mythic setting, these islands can be plucked straight from the Odyssey, with cyclopes, harpies and all.


Playing roles - revisited

In my first "Playing Roles" post, I talked about the different forms of role playing that I've noticed people tend to do. Here, I'll talk about overcoming embarrassment - the idea that by acting up a role, you're making a fool of yourself.
Recently, I was chatting online with a mate who has trouble getting into character at the game table.
At the end of it all, he suggested it'd make a good topic for a blog - so here's an editted transcript of our chat, and a few comments to expand on it.

Via messenger

Me: As far as RPing goes, you seem to me to be a bit embarrassed about actually playing "in character".

Jack:Yeah. I get too shy doing it.
I always try to make a character based on someone from TV so I have a rough idea.

Me: Nicking other people's characters is fine - we all do it a bit. The point is to put yourself in their shoes.

Jack: I know we are all nerds together but I hated drama and stuff at school.
I can do the whole loud, blunt Jack act quite well, but that's it.

Me: Sure - make characters who are easy for you to play before you try hard stuff. You know - play Jesse from Breaking Bad. He'd be right up your street.

Jack: See, Vin [Jack's rogue character] was always Mike from Breaking Bad in my head. Sutrin [Jack's warrior character] was always going to be the Hound [from Game of Thrones] - but I never really got the ball rolling with him.

Me: Okay  - but you aren't a grim tough guy, yourself. You're more of a gobby youth, innit blood! That's what made me think of Jesse.
Me, I like to play clever, slightly posh chaps who want to do the right thing, but get out of their depth and have to bluff and blag their way through.

Jack: Is that why you are always a mental wizard? ;)
I was thinking gruff type dude would be easy as I can just be blunt.

Me: You may be blunt, but you're not gruff.

Jack: Sure. Right then - that's my plan. I will make a Rogue for [the next] game, and he can be a street urchin type - BITCH! Totally works, yo!


Play yourself

The short version is this: play yourself - or a version of yourself. 
It's usually within your comfort zone, you don't have to stop to think about character motivations so much - it reduces the strain and lets you enjoy the game.

Acting like yourself is far less out there than acting like a large ham, booming all your statements and trying to sound like Brian Blessed or Laurence Olivier.

I've seen the same sort of embarrasssment in LARPing - it's far easier to get people to come and play contemporary or near future LARP where they get to wear their own clothes than it is to get them to dress up like Robin Hood.

Once you've got the hang of playing a version of yourself, you might want to try assembling a character out of part of yourself, rather than just slotting your whole personality into the setting. 
Maybe you're a bit of a science nut, who finds social niceties difficult - then you might find it easiest to play a bookish wizard with little time for social skills.

Myself, my day job is working in product safety compliance, applying laws and safety standards rigidly: so aside from clever-but-naive idealists, sometimes I like to play strong enforcers of some code of ethics - cops or paladins or whatever the setting has - who have to learn to moderate their black-and-white morality.

Great actors talk about finding a connection with their character from their own experience, so that they can channel their own real emotions into the performance. 

You'll need to know yourself to play like this - but I've found that playing various versions of myself over the years has given me a better understanding of those parts of my own personality, which in turn makes me better at playing other roles.

If you start by making an alter-ego of yourself who shares much of your own personality, then their behaviour in the face of the game's scenarios starts out as easy - and in time, that behaviour and expeience will change the person that the character is, as their life moves away from your own. 
Then you'll find you're playing a well-rounded character, with just a hint of you buried under the wealth of experience they've gone through.


Snowdonia Marathon - earning XP

I knew Snowdonia was going to be tough, but I didn't think it'd be that bad.

I trained at running up and down hills, because I live a relatively flat part of the world. The nearest steep hill I've got is a couple of miles long, with a maximum gradient of 20% - whereas the three Snowdonia ascents get up to nearly 30%. So I trained with ankle weights on.

I'd heard that for marathons, it's better to run three days of 10 mile runs than to do marathon length runs as training - so I did that.

I'd been told that the Snowdonia marathon was mainly road, with a little bit of track and path - so I mainly trained for road, with a little off road.

On the day, I slogged up the first ascent and down again without much trouble. The long down hill and flat section was steady, then the second ascent went reasonably well.

Some loon who thinks he can run
More loons
It was about 20 miles that I started to really tire out. My feet ached from pounding down the hills as well as the long distance. I had to stop for a moment and massage my legs and rest my feet - just for a moment. I spent the rest of the flat section shuffling slower and slower.

The last mountain was where I picked up the pace again - going up hill puts less pressure on your feet. I'd trained and trained at the uphill running. From mile 23 or so, I climbed about 200 metres in single run, then as the ground was just levelling out, I had to slow to walk. The road turned into a rocky path, all uneven footing and sharp edges. My knees and all the fine-control muscles hurt like hell, and my feet ached.

When I'd made it to mile 23, I'd been on track for a personal best marathon. If I'd had that bit more stamina to manage the flats and the hard terrain at the top, I'd have managed it.
As it was, I still made a respectable time for my first Snowdonia - just under 5 hours. I'd been hoping for under 5.5 hours. I'd have been happy with under 6 hours.

My brother, the rugby-playing runner, by contrast - he passed me at the top of the last climb, and bounded down the rocky descent.

So - the lessons:

  1. Train the long distances till they're routine.
    I want to run marathons fortnightly, so I'm prepared for those last six miles.
  2. End on bigger hills, including the descents.
    Going downhill when you're tired is hard. I need to condition myself to run down hills after a long tiring run.
  3. More off-road.
    The surprisingly tough surface at the end ofthe run threw me. I do a fair bit of off road running, but I should have done more long distance off-road for this one.
The subtext here, of course, is that I'll be back - Snowdonia is an amazing marathon.

They print your name on your number sheet, so everyone calls it out as you go past - "Come on, Alastair! You can do it, Alastair!" That's still with me - but my knees don't hurt anymore.


A Fistful of Aces - playing card RPG

Playing cards have been used for RPG randomisation before. I've read none of those other systems - so any toe-treading is entirely coincidental - but the idea seemed sort of cool, so I thought I'd make my own card-based RPG.
After a bit of toying around, it seems that such a system lends itself very well to relatively rules-light but flavourful gaming. Jolly good - I mean: Yee-haw! Saddle up!

A Fistful of Aces

This is a story-telling role-playing game, played with an ordinary deck of playing card. Leave the Jokers in. Shuffle them well.

The Lowdown

Here's how the game is played. There'll be more nitty gritty below - this is just the jist.

One player is the Dealer, who sets the scene. Other players portray characters in the story.
We're telling a story together. The Dealer sets the scene, and the players tell the story of their characters. The Dealer may seem like he's the narrator most of the time, but each player gets to narrate their character's successes and failures.
When the player tells a tale of an outrageous success based on just a little win of the cards, she's raising the stakes - we all now know just how far that player will go, and we can go there too.
Careful how you boast.

The Dealer deals out 7 cards per player, including a hand for himself, which he sets aside until he needs it. The remaining cards are placed on the table face down - this is the draw deck.

When the Dealer describes a task that the players want to resolve - shooting down a bandit, jumping onto a train, bluffing the local deputy, or whatever - the player plays a card from their hand.

If the task is to beat an inanimate object - like jumping onto a train - then the Dealer declares the value of the card that will beat the task.
If the task that the Dealer has described is against another person - a non-player-character like the deputy - then the Dealer usually draws a card from the deck. If the player's card beats the Dealer's, then the player has succeeded. But if the Dealer's card beats the player's, then the Dealer wins, and the task has failed.
On the other hand, if the Dealer's character is a serious adversary - the sherrif, or the bandit chief, or some other key person - then he takes up the hand of cards he dealt himself, and chooses which cards to play.

If a player finds they have a good hand of five cards among their seven - a poker hand - she can play her hand to try to win the scene outright.
The Dealer plays the best hand he's got. The other players may choose to play their hands - for example, if the first player is beaten by the Dealer.
If the player wins, she gets to narrate the outcome of the scene. If the Dealer wins, he tells the tragic tale of the loser.

Each time a player plays a card, they pick up one to replace it. When the Dealer plays a card from his hand, he picks up to replace it.
When poker hands are played, each player and the Dealer picks up to replace the played cards.


The four suits represent four broad aspects of a person's character: Black suits are physical, Red are mental.

  • Spades represent strength, power, toughness and all aspects of prowess
  • Clubs are speed, maniual dexterity, agility and all aspects of skill
  • Hearts are persuasion, charisma, appeal and all aspects of social
  • Diamonds are cleverness, knowledge, learning and all aspects of smarts

Rank the suits in order of your character's aptitude. You get to have three specialities for your top ranked suit, two for the next, one for the next, and no speciality for the lowest ranked.

Specialities can be anything you like: brawling, shooting, science, doctoring, intimidation.


If you play the right suit for the task, you get to add +2 to the face value of the card.
If you play the right colour for the task (but not the right suit) you get to add +1 to the face value.
If a task involves one of your specialites, you get to add +2 to the face value of the card you're playing.
All the picture cards - Jack (J), Queen (Q), King (K) - are worth 10: but in a tie, K beats Q which beats J. Aces are 11.
Jokers are wild - they can be played for the value of any other card.

The targets for an uncontested task - like jumping a gap, or climbing a wall - are ranked Easy to Amazing
  • Easy: 5
  • Average: 7
  • Difficult: 9
  • Very difficult: 10
  • Amazing: 12
Once cards are played, they are left in the discard pile. When the draw deck is finished, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the draw deck.

If a player wants to assist another palyer, they offer their hand for the first player a to draw two cards. If the assisting player has a specialism that is applicable to the task, the first player may draw three cards.
The first player then selects one of the cards to keep (and play if they wish) and returns the other to the assisting player. The assisting player then draws enough cards to make their hand back up to seven cards.

Poker Hands

In order of value, from the least to the best, poker hands are as follows:
  • 1 pair: two cards of the same face value
  • 2 pairs
  • 3 of kind: three cards of the same face value
  • Straight: five cards in sequence order
  • Flush: five cards of the same suit
  • Full house: a pair and three of a kind
  • Four of a kind: four cards of the same face value
  • Straight flush: five cards of the same suit in sequence order
  • Royal flush: 10, J, Q, K, A of the same suit

If two hands are of the same type (two hands of three of kind, for instance), then the higher value cards win. If a task involves one of your specialites, you get to add +2 to the face values of the cards you're playing.

If all the significant cards of that hand are the right suit, then your hand trumps the next better type of hand. If all your significant cards are the right colour, then your hand trumps any hand of the same type.
So for a Social task (Hearts), a flush of Hearts beats four of a kind (which will be a mixed suit hand), and a straight of all red cards beats a flush of black cards.

When you play a poker hand, you must put up a stake of at least 1 chip, which the Dealer matches from the Bank.

Gambling with your Life

Player characters start with 5 chips. Players can give their chips to each other if they're feeling generous.

When you play a poker hand, you must bet at least 1 chip. The Dealer matches your bet from the Bank. You can up your stake by adding another chip, until you run out. You can fold before you run out, but you lose the stake you've bet so far.
Each adversary the Dealer controls will have a limited of a number of chips they can bet before any further increase forces them to fold - to back down and lose their stake.
If the Dealer runs out before you, they must fold (back down) or play their hand. If the Dealer folds, you gain back your stake plus one chip. If the Dealer plays their hand, the winner takes all the pot. You choose whether you want the Dealer to fold or play.

You can also gamble chips to avoid failing a task - you put a chip in the pot before you attempt the task, and if you fail, then instead of your character failing the task, the chip is lost and your character completes the task.

Chips are also lost when failing a task causes injury, such as in a fight.

You gain a chip when you defeat an adversary, and you gain all the chips in the pot when you win at a poker hand. You don't gain chips for defeating extras, only for significant adversaries.

When you've run out of chips, you cannot play any poker hands. Any task failure that would cause you to lose a chip ends with you knocked out, in jail, or dead.
You and the Dealer can thrash out the details - remember we said to be careful how you boast?

High Stakes Games

As you win chips, you can take on tougher challenges, because you can bet higher and force the Dealer to fold more often.

You can also spend chip to gain new specialities. It costs 1 chip for every speciality you already have in that suit - but it always costs at least 1.

Dealer's rules

Who goes first?
Usually, contested tasks are simultaneous. Even in a duel, the quick draw and shot of the duelists is resolved by the opposed plays, not by taking turns.
But if you need to decide who goes first, it's a Skill task. Have the players play a card from their hand, and turn over the top of the draw deck for their opponent (or play from their hand). If a player chooses not to play from their hand for this Skill task, they go last (they might not want to spoil a powerful hand).

More than one adversary
When there is more than one named adversary against the players, then they may assist each other, just like the players.
Pick one adversary to take the lead. For each other adversary assisting her, draw two more cards, and pick one to put in her hand.

Central Casting

Extras in a scene are usually handled without much need for rules. If you need to, pick a suit to rank high, and a speciality to go with it. The extra gets +2 to tasks of that suit, and another +2 to that speciality, just like a player character.
Extras don't have chips to bet. When a player plays a poker hand to defeat multiple extras at once, the number of extras in the scene dictates the number of "virtual chips" the Dealer can stake against the palyer. For these virtual chips, use a distinctly different token. 

Named adversaries are made just like a player character. The Dealer sets their difficulty by giving them a number of chips from 1 to 8 (or even higher for High Stakes Games).

Example extras
  • Brawler: Spades high - fistfighter
  • Saloon drunk: Hearts high - carousing
  • Bartender: Hearts high - rumourmill
  • Deputy: Clubs high - arresting
  • Bandit: Spades high - robbery
  • Cowpoke: Clubs high - ranching
  • And many more...

Example adversaries and named allies
  • Doctor: 
    • Diamonds high - doctoring, medicines, one other book learning; 
    • Hearts - polite society, gossip; 
    • Clubs - pick one
  • Marshall: 
    • Clubs high - shooting, horse skills, tracking;
    • Hearts - streetwise, gossip;
    • Diamonds - law
  • Gang boss:
    • Spades high - brawling, toughness, maiming;
    • Hearts - streetwise, gossip 
    • Clubs - shooting


Game Settings I Have Pondered

I think about melieu to run games in now and then, and I don't necessarily get to do anything with them - so I thought it might help (me, or anyone peeking at this who wants to run their own) to lay out a few of them on the blog.

A Fascist Potterverse

A mash-up of Harry Potter, Neverwhere, Misfits and others.

Secretly, all manner of supernaturals lurk in our world. Wizards are top of the heap, using their magic to enforce domination and keep the ordinary folk in line - the most benign of the wizarding community believe the mundanes must be magically lobotomised, controlled and kept quiet. The Magocracy is a priviledged elite, using the lesser supernaturals and mundanes as pawns to maintain their luxurious lives.
The player characters are low-lifes of one sort or another - petty criminals who meet through community service, perhaps - who discover they have supernatural abilities. They discover the lies of the Magocracy and decide where they stand.

Cowboys - in space!

Tales From the Star Wars Cantina / Firefly-esque Planet-of-the-week, western-style antics with Galactica-style FTL allowing for a bigger scope than a few planets and moons - all grungy tech and frontier attitude.
A fairly casual game of episodes, with an emerging overall plot drawn from players' goals.

War of Gods

The world shakes under the angry feet of the gods themselves!

These "gods" reflect the beliefs of the people - and reinforce those beliefs with superpower actions. They are in fact powerful extra-planar entities - demons, devils, archons, etc. - and unique monsters.
Their temples function as gateways to the outer plane where the god of the temple resides. Generally, each tribe or clan has its own god, but some allied clans and tribes have co-operating gods.
Tribes and clans have political priesthood and gods (generally settled), or shaman (more often in nomadic people).
Magic is a power of the gods - mortal and player character magic will be very limited.

Demikind races live in walled/fenced or hidden settlements, warring against the dangerous monsters of the wilds. There are few "civilisations" - just cities in key points, supported by agriculture, thriving due to geographic isolation.
A few nomadic peoples outside the civilisations are living in barbaric conditions, constantly struggling against monsters.

As the people of the settings have expanded and populations have grown, their lands have come into contact with each other - and their beliefs have clashed! The gods with brook no rivals! Holy war with the added terror of nuclear-war-level deities.

The player characters will be a disparate band of adventurers / outcasts who see the coming anihilation, and can try to stop it, or aid one side or another.


Rules and the Game

Why do we use rules to play games? What are rules?

I'm an inquisitive engineer, with a background in sciences, and a love of games. I've been finding that when I talk to people about game rules, there's quite a different reaction even among those who love to play the same games as me. What's that all about?

The Game / Narrative / Simulation theory suggests players can be split into three camps - those who play the game as a challenge, those who play to create stories, and those who play to simulate an alternate reality - and that real gamers can be placed on a three axis graph that reflect their love of each.

[dons pretentious beret and roll-neck]
But like Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I've found there seems to be a split among gamers between what he called Classical thinking (dissect in-game situations to create simulation rules) and Romantic thinking (just do whatever feels right for the enjoyment of the game).

And like Pirsig, I think there's a way to create harmony between these two camps.
[stashes pretentious garb - for now]

I'm going to start with two questions, and see where those lead me: What are rules (in RPGs)? and What are rules for (in RPGs)?

What are rules?

In the context of RPGs, what do we mean by rules? Is everything in the AD&D Players' Handbook (for example) a rule? I think possibly not.

RPG books tend to present a few different types of material, so let's look at each in turn.

Character rules
Character abilities - how strong and smart the character is, skills and so on: these are obviously rules. Without these, the character you play isn't defined.

Mechanics of a game - what dice to roll, numbers to add, targets to beat, etc - especially where these are the mechanics for conflict resolution (can you hit the monster with your sword? can you climb over the wall and escape? can you argue your way past the palace guard?): clearly these are rules.

Species (human, vampire, elf, vulcan, etc) - the playable species (specieses?) of the game also forms part of the rules. Some games may present rules for creating new species, so that playable species are all of a similar power.
Similarly monsters and other adversaries - examples and / or rules for creation form part of the rules.

Are spells, equipment and gadgets rules? Probably, yes - they establish the power of players' characters and their tools. Again, like species, maybe the underlying systems should be put forward along with the spells, equipment etc, to explicitly show the system from which the examples are derived.

Tools, species, and adversaries are benchmarks for the power of the games elements. While most games will give examples, some will also provide rules for creation - what bonuses are appropriate for tools to provide, what are appropriate damages for weapons to deal, how tough adversaries should be, and so on.

Tables of options - like settlement population, random encounters, treasure and the like - are these rules? Maybe not...
Is it a rule of the game that settlements have certain population sizes and demographics, or is this a guide on setting, rather than a game play rule? Would you bother to ask the question about a list of random character or pub names?

Although lots of elements may appear in the rule book to help with play, not all of them are really rules - there's a lot of guidance and flavour in RPG books.

What are rules for?

As well as having my own opinions, I asked around on some RPG forums to get a sense of what other people think. It's always worth it - some people confirmed what I was thinking, but there were some gems of insight I'd never have thought of for myself.

So, in no special order, here's what rules do for us:

Fair play - rules make the game fair.

They create a system for fair interaction, including by randomisation (by Jenga tower, dice, cards or whatever) - rather than the players directly deciding the outcome of their characters' actions (GM included), there is a random element. This avoids bias, or the suspicion of bias.

Fair play also includes fair and equal access to an enjoyable experience. The player's abilities should not hold them back from having fun playing the role they want - the game rules should allow everyone to play equally.

A superspy yesterday
Just as the game rules allow weak students and office workers to play strapping tough warriors and action heroes, I think that the same attitude needs to be applied to social skills. So I may want to play a suave and seductive superspy, but I have the flirting skills of a celebate monk - and the game rules can allow me to do just that. As a player, I should be free to spout cheesy flirting and pick up lines, but my inept skill with them shouldn't override the character's skill.

Gaming the rules - we can play with the mechanics to achive our goals.

The combat rules of the d20 systems have various manoeuvres that can knock down or reposition your opponent, steal or destroy their equipment, and so on. Using these rules imaginatively can be very satisfying.
Rules must serve the style of the game, and enable players (see Fair play, above). Rules should focus attention on the important bits of the game (arguably, d20 games aim to make combat a focus of game play) - they certainly shouldn't get in the way.

Challenges - without rules, what limits you?

If we don't have any rules, can't we just declare the actions of our characters? What stops us being invincible? Can't we claim to have special armour and ignore the attacks of enemies? Can't we call on powers at will and without precedent?

Where do I stand?

Yes, I like rules - but if you come to my game, will you find me invoking the rule book? No, not really.
I prefer to run games by eyeballing the situation - using freeform instincts, within a rules set that I'm largely familiar with.

In my day job, I have a bunch of several-hundred-page safety standards that I have to refer to to test products for safety - but each of these boils down to a set of prescribed tests, built around a small set of safety principles.
Now, I know those principles very well. When I'm testing, I only need to look up the specifics of the test standard when the result is hard to call - most of the time, it's obvious whether the product meets the principles or not.

Of course, knowing the core rule concepts is vital.
Years ago, a gang of us used to do Live Action Role-Playing at the weekends, and we'd sometimes co-opt our non-RPing mates to come and make up the numbers too. One of these non-RPing guys - Jon - clouted a player character - Mike - across the legs with his sponge axe during a fight. Mike asked how much damage the axe dealt - and Jon said "Dunno - ten?"
Now 10 points of damage was a vast amount. Mike's character had 2 hit points on his legs - so Jon's hit had supposedly chopped them off completely. Basically, if the game's Ref had briefed Jon properly, he'd have known not to say "10" - Jon needed to know the ball-park area in which to make an educated guess.

So the rules are important, if only to act as a frame on which to improvise sensibly.
Like jazz [puts on the beret and roll-neck again] - an incompetent random honking on a bunch of trumpets sounds terrible, but a skilled player with an understanding of the rules can break those rules in an entertaining and exciting way.

The rules I've been palying around with inventing recently have been largely about the game setting. You see, I feel like I need to understand what is normal - long before I go deviating from it.
In storytelling, normality must be established / understood before the fantastic events take place - this creates base from which to operate, and avoids players' awkward questions.

I personally really don't like those questions - you know: "Why is XYZ not like ABC, as is normal?"

"Why is there such a long distance between towns? In Medieval Europe, there was generally less than a day's walk between villages - so why is it different here?"

"How can the Dark Lord muster an army of a million, when that'd require a support staff of double that amount? There surely aren't that many people on the continent."

"Why would anyone build a castle here? That makes no sense."

I hate being caught out like that - so I like to explore what is normal first, so I can make sure my games reflect something like reality - or so that when I chose to step away from the normal, I know that I've done so!

Then I can say: "Yes, that is odd, isn't it?"

Playing with rules

Last word from me on this topic - and the pretentiousness really piles up with this bit, I'm afraid.

Listening to Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage, when presenters Brian Cox and Robin Ince were talking with maths author Alex Bellos and number theorist Vicky Neale, the love of discovering new mathematics was brought up - and it rang a big lovely bell with me. Let me paraphrase...

Making up rules is to play with quantifying the world in tables.
I'm finding the patterns, which I then use to provide a simulation.
Rules aren't made, they're waiting to be discovered and expressed.

[adjusts beret, strokes goatee]


Table NSG1.0 & 1.1 - the Nemesis Speech Generator

Like many GMs, I like to make up tables for silly things. I found one of them today - my Nemesis Speech Generator.

This is for use when the Big Bad Evil Guy is monologuing.

NSG 1.0



Gods - what are they for?

In the game-settings we play with - worlds, universes, multiverses - there is almost always some reference to gods, religion, mystic forces and the like: often these are the driving forces behind the story.

Gods and religion serve many roles in games and stories. It's important that in gaming - collaborative story-telling - we all know what we can expect from the gods and their followers.

Although I'm a non-religious person, I'm quite happy to entertain myself and fellow players with religious themes, mystic visions and other tropes - but I think that the delicate topic of religion and gods in fiction (and gaming in particular) could do with some analysis.

Otherwise, how will we all end up on the same hymn sheet?

In-game reality

What is the truth of the gods? Are they proven to be real, or is their presence ambiguous? If Zeus regularly abducts lovers and begets heroes, who would doubt his existence?

Let's split the camps into two: proven and unproven. I'll deal with unproven first, as it covers the more familiar ground (for me, at least).


The gods - if there are any - are unproven. Their existence cannot be unquestionably and concretely demonstrated.

This situation is, of course, most like our every day real world. No matter how strong the faith of any individual or group of people, no deities' existence is empirically proven. 

  • Traditions & superstition
  • The intelligensia don't consider the gods to literally be true, but their traditions and superstitions are powerful tools. No-one believes that the priest in the god-mask is actually the god incarnate, but tradition dictates that all treat him as such.
    • Manipulative priesthood: The gods are known to be false, but the priests lie. The population is deceived.
    • Symbolic priesthood: The gods are metaphors for right behaviour. The worship of the gods does not rely on their stories being actually historically true, but more that the parable of their acts teaches the population how to behave.
(As an aside, it ocurred to me that - SPOILERS AHEAD, KIDS! - Father Christmas is a prime example of benign manipulation. Most of the population is well aware that they are the ones buying presents for the children, but we all go along with the manipulation that there is a magical present-giving entity, who rewards the good and punishes the bad. Consider a church that works like that... Interesting, yes?)

  • Absent & subtle
  • Belief in the gods is widespread and accepted at all levels. The intelligensia have complex and often philosophical ideas about the gods, while the layfolk have straightforward faith.
    • Faith through teaching:  The priests have faith, and they preach this and enforce the will of their god or gods. No-one can show that the gods are real, but it serves the priesthood to indoctrinate people into belief. This may be benign, as with Santa, or it may be purely to perpetuate the power of the church.
    • Faith through observance: The reality of the gods is socially given, but not readily apparent. No-one questions the gods - their existence is self-evident from casual observation.
Faith through teaching is what is required when people question the power of the church, whereas faith through observance is the state enjoyed when the reported acts of the gods are not in conflict with observable reality - either because we can't observe as closely as required to notice the discrepencies, or because those acts are in accord with reality.


The gods are a fact of life, with verifiable evidence to back them up.

This situation is not like our real world. The gods are known to act in the mortal realm, to intervene on behalf of pious worshippers. Even the most cynical would respect the invocation of the gods - there will be no atheists here.

  • The "myths" are all true
  • The fantastic stories about the gods' exploits - from their creation of the multiverse, to their appearance, to their powers - are all literally true. Still the gods may have powers and interests beyond mortal ken, but as a minimum, we can trust what their scripture says to be 100% fact.
    • Gods are all-powerful, unlimited beings. Omniscient and omnipotent beings, the gods are literally able to achieve anything they desire.
    • Gods are beyond mortal power, but limited. The gods are constrained by limits of some sort - perhaps according to their station in a heirarchy, or their patron sphere

  • Gods are powerful outsiders 
  • The gods are extra dimensional beings of some sort. They are worshipped, but they may not even claim to be gods - or if they do, it is in order to exploit those who worship them. Scripture about these gods may be an imperfect record of the actual events.
    • Hero-gods and saints. Hercules, the Caesars and so on were elevated to godhood - larger than life heroes. Saints take their place in the afterlife as intercessionary being on mortals' behalf with the ruling deitiy.
    • Meddlers in mortal affairs. Ultrapowerful being seeking to interfere with the lives and development of lesser entities - Star Trek's Apollo, Q, (and others), or Star Gate's Ra.
    • Alien, unknowable entities. Incomprehensible beings whose motives are unclear. They act without explanation - Lovecraft's Cthulhu et al, 2001's monolith builders.

What is truth?

What constitutes proof of the gods in the game? You need to consider what absolute evidence is available, and what is questionable - so that you can decide how people outside the faithful circles react to that evidence.

Do you have priests who gain their magic from divine energy (and how is that demonstrably different from wizardly magic)?
Would it matter if Apollo turned out to be some errant super-being, rather than a "real" god? What is the difference?
I'll consider these questions along with Function, below.


So - what is the point of gods in your setting? What story purpose do they serve? How important are religion and / or deities to your setting?

I can break this down into three functions:
  • Background flavour
  • Political groups
  • Active characters

Background flavour

The gods and their religions are simply a background flavour - something to increase verisimilitude. Throughout real human history there have been cults and churches, and it would seem unreasonable for these to be absent from a fantasy setting.

These gods and religions are not especially important, except as role-playing and story-telling props.

Political groups

Massive congregations, infalible heirarchies and divine power can make a church an absolute ruler of its culture, even above secular leaders. Historically this has been the case for real world faiths for certain periods.
On the other hand, a religion can rule along side the secular throne. Wise advisers to the emperor hold enormous political influence.
In polytheistic socieities, the various deities' priests might jocky for supremacy with the mortal rulers - who may in turn elevate the status of the deity.

These gods and religions are important because they are the motivators of political groups - orthodox or revolutionary - but it is the people who act, rather than the gods themselves.

Active characters

The gods are present in the real world in some way, like the Greek Olympian gods, living on a holy mountain top, or like the Norse gods, living in some otherworld. In either case, they are real entities who will act on the game setting in some way.

Perhaps the gods manifest themselves through influencings nature - through storms, lightning, earthquakes, sickness and other events. Rather than manifesting in some physical form, the gods manipulate the world to do their will.
This sort of god is subtle and doesn't seem to directly influence the world, moving in mysterious ways. You can use this in games to set up divine coincidences to move the story - random fate becomes divine favour.

Maybe the gods do take on physical form, as perfect immortals, or divine animals - and perhaps these forms influence their bahviours, so that they are as petty and capricious as mortal culture. Just look at the Greek gods - stealing sexy women, starting wars out of jealousy, fighting amongst themselves, cursing mortals on a whim.

Such interfering gods can be the driving force behind adventures.

Divine magic

A common trope in fantasy games is that worship of gods gains the followers magical power.

If priests gain magic from the gods, is this the only form of magic? Are there also wizards? Is there a functional difference between wizardly and priestly magic? Or is the difference only political?

You might have priestly magic concentrate on life and death, fear and morale, and so on - whereas wizardly magic might be concerned with manipulating the elements.

Or if only politics separates divine from arcane, perhaps there would be jealousy between the two styles, so that wizards are outlawed, and the church investigates any magical practice by the layity.

The presence of divine magic in a fantasy game allows for magical differences between followers of different religions - followers of the Death god gain different sapells to the followers of the Creator god, and so on.

False gods

What is the functional difference between an ultrapowerful entity claiming to be a god, and a "true" god?
Leaving aside real-world current religious answers, let's think about why Zeus (who is a god, acording to the Greek mythos) is more qualified as a god than say, Manwe (who is not a god, according to JRR Tolkien's legendarium).
Neither are all-powerful. Neither is the creator of the world. Neither is infallible.

Functionally, then, there is no difference between "true" and "false" gods, except the political implications of the claims.


There are lots of ways gods can appear in fantasy fiction. Depending on the preferences of your player group, you can use any god or gods you like - but it's usually a good idea to think about whether you'll offend anyone before you use real-world religions, or churches with similar traits to real-world organisations. If in doubt, ask.

Me, I like to have multiple religions in multiple cultures in my game settings, and I tend to have deities fit into the "Powerful outsiders" and "Unproven" categories - I'm interested in the political interaction of faiths.

Whatever sort of deities you want to have in your game, understanding their role and being consistent in their portrayal is key to making the world seem real.

Circuit ultra-running

There's an interesting article on the BBC News site about the circuit ultra-run this weekend in Gloucester.

Circuit ultra-running is daunting - rather than running a long course, it's just laps of a standard 400m track.

The changing scenery and sense of achievement I get from running long distances? Nope, none of that for circuit ultra-runners, just endless laps.
There's much bigger mental challenge in circuits. When I get tired 10 miles from home, I know that the only way to finish is to keep going.
On a circuit, rest is never more than 100m away. The grit to keep going is far more abstract, far more about personal discipline than about necessity.


Wildlife woes

When I go running, I particularly like to run in the countryside, either on country lanes, or footpaths and bridleways.
I get to see the picturesque landscape, the rabbits, butterflies, sometimes a fox. I hear the birds singing, and sheep in the fields.
Preston Capes
Badby Woods

All very pleasant.

But there are some creatures out there that seem to have other ideas...

Near where I work, some of the local farmers keep bees. Almost any footpath I care to run along has a nearby beehive, with the resultant traffic of bees to and from the hive and plants around about it.

So I've been stung three times now by bees.

Each time it has been on the top of my head, when a bee has been caught in my hair. I have fine fluffy hair, easy for an insect to get tangled in. The second time it happened, I cut my hair really short to try to stop it happening again - it didn't help.
When I get stung on the head, there's nowhere for the venom to go (scalps are thin), so the swelling looks worse. I end up looking sort of like this:

 Or like this:

Now, I wear a bandana when I run, to keep the bees from getting trapped.

As well as bees, I've been stung a few times by a wasp. Just the one, over and over again, on my top lip. That was nasty, but not nearly as bad as the bee stings.

Moving on to vertebrates - but not exactly a wild animal: farm dogs.

There's a good 10 mile route through the countryside around my home, but it goes through a farm. This is a public road, which passes through a farm - its building are on either side of the road.
The farm appears to be run by a trio of dogs: I've never seen any people there. The first time I ran through there was with some mates - the dogs looked at us, but paid little attention.
Just before I ran through on my own, some weeks later, I met some cyclist going the other way, who warned me "There are some excited dogs up ahead."


For "excited", read "angry". These three farm dogs were pissed off with their territory being invaded once by whizzing sweaty men, and weren't going to let another sweaty man jog through. They herded me along - and the border collie bit me on the ankle.
(I'm told this is normal - if over-enthusiastic - herding behaviour for sheep dogs: to nip sheep on the ankles.)
Suffice to say, my personal best kilometer pace was set after passing through that farm.

Since then, I've learned that apparently dogs wag their tails differently when they're stressed and when they're happy - to the left when stressed, and to the right when happy.
Dogs know this, and they react with dominant / aggressive behaviour to dogs who appear stressed.
I theorise that being left-handed, when I instinctively wave left-handed to greet dogs - and being naturally nervous of them since I was bitten quite badly on the face by a dog as a child - I am encouraging dogs to be aggressive to me.

These days, I wave right-handed.
I also don't run through that farm.

On to avians - while running round a pond, I saw a lovely sight: some goslings being led along by their parents on the path ahead.
Of course, although I tried to give them plenty of room and go around, the parents had decided I was going to eat their offspring, and gave chase. Geese are quite big and scary when they're angry.

Worse than an angry goose waddling after me, was the buzzard attack this week.
Running along a normal stretch of road through a woodland, there was whoosh of something passing fast just above my head - a buzzard. As I ran on, I watched it fly over the road and into the trees on the other side, assuming I'd just been on its flight path by coincidence.
A few seconds later - BAM! I felt like someone had smacked me round the top of the head - a good cuffing blow that knocked my head forward and made me stagger. As I looked up and around to what had hit me, I saw my bandana flying to the ground on the verge in front of me, and the damn buzzard swooping up into the branches over my head.
A buzzard yesterday
It perched there, and keened at me: "Peeaw! Peeaw!" - I grabbed my hat and ran on, covering my head with my arms and muttering "All right, I'm going, I'm going!"
When I got back to work, one of my colleagues told me I was bleeding. Not too badly, on examination - as though I'd been badly scratched by a cat. The cuts didn't hurt so much as the impact. Still, I washed the cuts with alcohol from the solvents cupboard, to avoid bird flu or whatever nasties were on the hawk's talons.

As the attack had happened during my lunch break, I had to fill in the accident book and report it to the health and safety manager. "Wear a hat," he suggested.

I suspect the buzzard is nesting, or otherwise considers that patch of woods to its territory, and really just wanted me gone.
Suffice to say, that route is struck off my list of runs, too.

Incidently, when I was looking online for a picture of a British buzzard, it appears that my attack isn't especially uncommon:
Notice the first picture, top left...

Running is a great way to get out and about and see the countryside and wildlife. I just worry that the wildlife doesn't want to see me.
It'll be badger attacks, next...


Fantasy settlements - part 2.5: Location, location, location!

People don't just throw a stick in the air and build a town where it lands - at least, those who do don't meet with enough long term success for your player party to encounter such a shambolic shanty.

What makes a good location?

A good location is one where the settlement can thrive. At its base level, the location provides something that other locations do not. That may be some physical resource, like water, or it might be a geographic resource, like a meeting of transport routes, or a social resource, like a holy site.

Here's a page where the topic is summarised nicely for high school level studies.

What can I add to that? Not a lot really - except some fantasy specific examples and possibilities.

Bridge point
The Twins - A Song of Ice and Fire
Osgiliath - The Lord of the Rings
Osgiliath by AbePapakhian (Deviantart)

Thandol Span / Dun Modr - Wetlands / Arathi Highlands, World of Warcraft

Nodal point
The Crossroads - Northern Barrens, World of Warcraft
Inter-dimensional and inter-planar portals - a town around the entrance to the Underworld

Dry point
Swamp Castle - Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Thousand Needles (post-Cataclysm) - mesas as islands in a now flooded valley, World of Warcraft

Atlantis (post sinking) - often depicted as an air bubble under the sea

Wet point
Ramkahen - Uldum, World of Warcraft

Ramkahen - Surrounded by desert


Stormwind - fortified prominence, World of Warcraft
Minas Tirith - The Lord of the Rings
Minas Tirith guarding the narrow point between the mountains - Encyclopdeia of Arda

Winterfell - hotsprings protect against the worst of winter, A Song of Ice and Fire

Blackrock Mountain - a safe solid haven in a land of fire, Burning Steppes, World of Warcraft 
Light's Hope - a holy haven in a diseased land, Eastern Plaguelands, World of Warcraft

Nordrassil - magical resource - The World Tree of Mount Hyjal, World of Warcraft
Keep on the Borderlands, OD&D - a town supporting adventurers flocking to newly discovered dungeons or crypts

The growth point of a settlement will tend to set the form of that settlement: Aspect and Resource based settlements will often have dispersed buildings; Bridge and Nodal point settlements are frequently linear (clustered along one of the strips), and other settlement types tend toward the nuclear (closely gathered around  the central point).

As successful small settlements expand, their original purpose may be lost - they'll begin to attract people for the protection that comes from large numbers and the opportunities of towns and cities. These larger settlements become nuclear around the original centre.

EDIT - some additional examples:
From the various forums where I trawled for comments, a wealth of additional suggestions have popped up.
  • To launch an offense - campaign headquarters may become permanent given a long enough conflict
  • Military base - town supporting a military base, perhaps a training ground rather than a strategic point. This becomes significant with standing armies, rather than the predominant medieval muster of knights and militia.
  • Religious - loads of examples. Probably fits the resource categor, under tourism. Pilgrims making devotional journeys to religiously significant sites were common in medieval times.
  • Accidental / catastrophe survivors - refugee camps become permanent over time
  • Victory / battle site - in the Excalibur movie, Camelot is founded on the site of a great victory
  • Slave city for massive monument - the pyramids' construction was supported by a massive city of workers
  • temples around the site of fissures that give off psychoactive fumes
  • mage schools around areas where the boundaries between the planes grow thin
  • mountaintop laboratories to catch the lighting
  • village of vassals to a nearby dragon
  • small settlements of people trying their luck at removing the sword from the stone
  • summer/wintering grounds in the path of prey migratory paths
  • boom towns/ghost towns - some enormously valuable resource has been discovered, and people are flocking to exploit it (boom), and the aftermath of the drying up of that resource (ghost town)
  • outcast/leper colonies
  • campsites for academic expeditions


We run

A suppodedly inspirational facebook post about how a "fatty" runner is inspirational has been rebuffed by the runner in question.

It makes good reading - both of the posts. Here they are with some commentary.

When I see another runner, all I think is "Go on!" - maybe a little "Can I catch them up?"

Both these posts talk about the journey - like self improvement is the only possible motivation to run.

Me, I run because it's fun - but when I think back, I remember it didn't start as fun. It started as self-improvement, to work on my asthma, and shift some weight.

It's taken me three years to get to be a mediocre runner - the London Marathon elite come in with times faster than my half-marathon times - but I was even worse when I started. I was half walking, half running for the whole 2.5 miles of the flat track near where I work.

You have to start to get better, and then you have to stick at it.

UPDATE: The Self-consciousness Barrier

Talking about this post with some friendly people, I was reminded of the need to overcome self-consciousness.

No-one looks their best when they run: your clothes are sweaty, your face is red, bits of you wobble, you're probably pulling a strained face.
Some people find being in public view hard enough without all that.

The thing is, no-one is really going to be paying much attention to a runner who jogs or lumbers or glides past. Even if you're in some way especially remarkable, you'll only be noticed for a second.

Runners are just part of the landscape. No-one expects you to stick around - you are moving past by default.

And anyway, the more you run, the more natural you'll look - less sweat, less red in the face, less wobbly.


d02: Unlimited Power

Here's a fast and slightly silly role-playing game system I cobbled together this afternoon, for use in beer and pizza gaming sessions - or maybe even more serious, but less simulationist gaming than my usual d20 stuff.

It's based loosely on d02: Know No Limit, and its derived game REAL Ultimate Power d02.

I may expand on it sometime...

d02: Unlimited Power

  • Bad guys have captured the Queen! Are you badass enough to defeat them and rescue Her Majesty?
  • A zombie wizard has turned your brother into a monster! Are you brainy enough to save him and stop the wizard?
  • Evil terrorists have kidnapped your family and are trying to make you kill the President! You get the picture.

These are just three amazing examples of the amazing episodes of d02: Unlimited Power that you can play. There are no limits - only your imagination! Anything can happen.

An episode of d02: Unlimited Power is played out by a group of one or more players, and a Games Master (GM).
During each episode, your character (we'll just call the character "you", most of the time) will take on bad guys and their mook hench-folk to win.

Character creation

What sort of hero do you want to play? Make up your character's focus, select skills, and play!

Your character's focus can be anything - from debating to wrestling, from kung-fu to wizardry. This will be the focus of your winning.


There are 5 skills, which range from 1 to 10.

  • Brains (Bra)
  • Chasing (Cha)
  • Hotness (Hot)
  • Winning (Win)
  • Luck (Luk)

When you create a character, you have 20 points to spread around these skills.
A skill of zero means you can't use the skill at all. Zero brains means you can't have ideas. Zero chasing means you can't move. Zero Hotness means nobody fancies you in the slightest. Zero Winning means you lose every contest. Zero luck means bad things will always happen to you.

Winning focus
You must state what sort of winning your character is best at - for example: shooting, fighting, gadgets, magic. This is your Winning focus.

Winning tools
A Winning tool is some sort of thing that you use to be better at winning. It must be something to do with your Winning focus - so if you have a Winning focus of Magic, it might be "Spells", or if you have a Winning focus of "kung-fu" it might be "Kung-fu weapons".
For every point of Awesomeness you have, when you use your Winning tools to win at your Winning focus, you add that number of successes to your Winning roll.
When your Awesomeness is more than 1, your benefit for using Winning tools increases. This may be because you're better at using it, or because you get to use more Winning tools at once - you decide.


As well as skills, you have Awesomeness. Your Awesomeness starts at 1, and may be increased as you get better.
You add your Awesomeness to all rolls. No matter how many penalties you get, you will always have at least as many dice as your Awesomeness.


You start out with your Winning tool (unless the episode is all about getting it for the first time - your origin story!). You may have your Winning tool taken away if you are captured - be careful! But don't worry, getting it back will be awesome.
Other equipment you have is determined by your skills. When you want something, tell the GM you have it. The GM will either agree, or ask you to make a skill check to have brought it along.
You should also keep track of things you pick up during an episode.

Using skills

Describe your action. The GM will give you a bonus for how interesting, cool and amazing your action is - and a penalty for any dull actions. Remember, no matter how many penalties you get, you will always have at least as many dice as your Awesomeness.
Roll as many dice as you have skill points, plus your Awesomeness, plus any bonus or penalty your GM gave you. This fistful of dice is called a "dice pool". Sometimes you add dice to it, sometimes you take dice away.
For every die that comes up high (that is, more than half the biggest number on that die), you score one success.
Sometimes you only need one success - like when you want to break a door down.
Sometimes you'll need more than one - like when you want to defuse a bomb, and there are booby traps on it: you'll need one success per booby trap, and one for the bomb fuse itself.

The Luck skill is a bit different.
You use Luck in two ways: to avoid bad things (explosions, poisons, stay conscious, resist spells, and so on); and to add to other rolls.
When your GM asks you to "Test your Luck", you roll your current Luck skill. Each success you get reduces the bad thing that you're trying to avoid.
When you use Luck to add to other rolls, you reduce your Luck skill by one, and get one extra die for that skill roll only.


Each time you get into a fight, argument, dance-off or rap-battle, or any other kind of contest, you need to win. No matter what kind of battle your trying to win, we call it a contest.

Roll your winning skill, just like described in Using skill above. Remember, describing cool moves will get you bonuses, being dull will get you penalties.

Winning against mooks
When your in a contest with mooks (that is, anyone who doesn't have proper skills), you defeat as many mooks as you have successes. You can decide whether they are killed, unconscious, running away, or whatever you like.
If you get less successes than the number of mooks fighting you, that means that while you were taking out their mates, one of them got a hit in! Your Winning skill is damaged by one - you lose one die from that dice pool.

Winning against Bad guys
When in a contest with a Bad guy (that is, anyone who has proper skills, like you), you make your Winning rolls against each other - whoever got the most successes wins that round.
you check who has the highest Winning skill. If yours is equal or higher, then each success you get counts as damage to the Bad guy's Winning skill. If theirs is higher, then you only damage their Winning skill by 1 point, no matter how many successes you got.

Running out of Win
When you have no more points left in Winning, you must Test your Luck.
If you succeed, you can carry on fighting, using your Awesomeness, or you can use this chance to escape.
If you fail, then you have lost the contest! You are knocked out, captured, or paralysed - or whatever else is right for the scene.

Using your Winning focus
If the contest is the kind of thing you've written down as your Winning focus, then you use the whole dice pool. If it's anything else, you use one less die.
Example: Brad Sex's Winning focus is Wrestling. A Bad guy is shooting at him. Brad has to use his Winning skill at -1 if he tries to shoot back, so Brad decides it'd be better to climb up on the ropes and double-drop kick the Bad guy instead - he gets all his Winning skill dice (and probably a bonus for being cool).

Winning together
You can help your allies out by acting together. One of you gets to be the main contestant, and the others make Winning skill checks. The main contestant gets to add one die for each success that the other get.


All skills recover one point per your level of Awesomeness, each scene.
So after a big fight, it might be a good idea to have a scene or two of planning and training, or something, to get everyone back up to strength.
You can also use the Brains skill to do first aid, and revive a knocked out ally.


When a Chase happens, the GM decides how many successes you need to catch up. The GM may give you bonuses or penalties depending on what kind of transport you want to use: a push bike is not as fast a rocket plane.
Every success you get that is more than the Bad guy you're chasing means you are gaining on him. Each success above yours that the bad guy gets means that he is getting away.

Getting better

Improving skills

Your skills increase as you defeat bad guys and mooks. Defeating bad guys give you Improvement Points (IP), which you use to get better - but it gets harder to improve skills as you get better.
To improve a skill by one point, it costs the same IP as the current skill. To improve it by more than one, add up all the steps.
Example: Brad Sex has 4 points in Hotness. If he wants to improve his Hotness, he has to spend 4 IP - this will get him to 5 Hotness. If he wants to improve it to 6 Hotness, it'll cost him 4 + 5: 9 IP.

Improving Awesomeness

Like Skills, it gets harder to improve Awesomeness as you get more awesome. To improve Awesomeness by one point, it cost 10 times your current Awesomeness level.

Bad guy gallery

Bad guy Skills & Awesomeness
Bad guys have skills and awesomeness just like the players' characters.
The skills given here are typical - as GM, you can change them.
Set the Bad guy's Awesomeness to whatever level seems challenging to the players for the episode you're planning.

Winning tools and bad guys
A Bad guy's winning tool should nearly always be an actual thing, so that the players can take it away - or try.

Zombie wizard
Bra 7; Cha 1; Hot 0; Win (magic) 7; Luck 5
Awesomeness ??
Winning tool - Skull staff

Terrorist boss
Bra 4; Cha 4; Hot 4; Win (bombs) 6; Luck 2
Awesomeness ??
Winning tool - Detonator

Mega monster
Bra 2; Cha 6; Hot 0; Win (biting) 10; Luck 2
Awesomeness ?? (at least 5)
Winning tool - Hugeness

Alien queen
Bra 3; Cha 6; Hot 0; Win (fighting) 8; Luck 3
Awesomeness ??
Winning tool - Laser claws 


Ankle weights

There aren't many big hills round here in the Midlands - at least, there are few long steep hills, like I'll have to cope with in Wales in May - so I do repetitions of the tallest steep hill round here, and makes sure I include a few steep gradients in my runs in general.

But I've been looking at those Welsh hills, and realising that no matter how many reps I do, I just don't have access to the gradients that Wales has.

So I've been running with ankle weights on. The ones I've been using at just under half a kilo each and have been getting lighter as they leak the iron sand that gives them their weight - they're old, see.

Now I've decided that the combination of those weights being light, and shedding their load gradually, means that I should use some new, heavier ones - and today was my first run with the new 2 kilo weights.

Bloody hell, that was hard going!

For the first time in ages, I came home exhausted - both out of breath and with tired legs. It was just a 7 km run, over the local big hill and back. Usually, that gets me a little out of breath, but it hardly fatigues me.

But when I started out, that hill used to be the most daunting thing on my routine. It's taken a lot of running to make it a relatively casual event.
By adding an extra kilo to each leg, and dragging that up and down and up and down that hill, I'm forcing myself to recondition my legs.

In time, it'll be easy.


In praise of one-off sessions

Throwing together a one-off game for an evening is something that the group I used play with used to do a lot.
Or rather, Tim used to do it a lot. I used to do it a bit. Other players used to do it sometimes. Tim was our hero GM, really. Hail Tim!

But I digress - making up a one-off game, that would last just one night, is what I want to blog about here.

I've got an ulterior motive here - I've become Tim. I'd like to get to play now and then, but I seem to be the only person in my gaming group who runs games.
Just like with Tim, I suspect that's because I volunteer to do so, and other GMs don't feel the need to step up.

Low investment

If your one-off game goes a bit wrong, who cares? You only spent an evening on it, and you still got to muck about with your mates.

You only have one evening, so the game needs to be quite simple, too. Don't try to have a complex plot, cause it'll be harder to show it in just a few hours of play. Keep the number of encounters to a minimum. Have just one villain, and a few minions. Don't have too many puzzles.

Cut to the chase

Get the game into the action as soon as you can. I've already blogged on where I got it wrong with one of my own one-off sessions. Here's what I learned

  • Maybe start in media res
  • Don't get bogged down in details - move on quickly, jump to the end of the journey
  • Don't use challenging encounters as a warm up

  • Also, my desire to start with the action has led me to a way of doing things that works quite well if you have a day or so of notice: tell the players up front what the adventure set up is going to be, and ask them why their character is going to be there.
    For example: The adventure will be taking place in the castle of Baron Vileness, who is hated by the locals for his harsh taxes and bad behaviour. He often abducts pretty young folk and abuses them. He is said to have vast reserves of treasure and magical artefacts.
    Why does your character want to break into the castle, and what are they planning to do there?

    This lets the players think up their own characters' motives, which may only overlap with the other characters' motives in that they're both trying to get into Castle Vileness and get something from it.
    Armed with the players input, I then tweak the adventure to give them what they want.
    You get to steer the players into your adventure, but they control their characters' motivations.

    Why is this good for one-session games? Because we start the session at Castle Vileness, with everyone already knowing why they want to be there and what they have to do.

    Building on short games

    One-off adventures are the best start. When you've never GMed before, or if you don't GM very often (hint, hint), it's far less daunting to run a game for a few hours, than it is to think about how a game will last weeks of multiple sessions and need an interlocking story and game-world and so on.
    A short story is far easier to write than a novel - and a novel is easier to write than a whole game multiverse.

    The setting that I use for my games is actually the result of a couple of decades idle thought, and collaberation from the other GMs.
    What I actually have written down is tiny compared to the time it's taken. I'm actually very lazy - it just looks like I've done loads of work.

    I've been watching Star Trek's original series - and it's really clear that each episode is adding to a galaxy that was rather sketchy to start off with. Ideas change and mutate over the course of the first season - but it doesn't matter! Each episode is self-contained.

    So if you feel the urge to make up a whole complex multiverse, then don't try to do that before you start playing - the short games will build that game world as you go along.


    Making and breaking the game

    This blog about free-to-play computer games got me thinking about the business of pen'n'paper RPGs.

    Usually, with a role-playing game, you buy the rules, maybe some dice, and then you play. You need not ever buy another thing to continue playing that game forever.
    When I joined the hobby, in the 80s, the rules of the most popular role-playing game explicitly told you how to make your own content, and repeatedly to you that the whole game was up to you.
    They also provided some standard content, scenarios, campaign setting and so on - but that first instruction to invent my own material stuck, and I never bought into the whole "buy our published content" behaviour.

    The trouble with that as a business is that your customers never need to come back.

    Marketing "must-have" accessories

    Commonly, major games manufacturers will look to sell accessories after the main rule set.
    Here are some common ways to eek more money out of a game after the rule book:
    • miniatures, branded to the game - several manufacturers have produced lines of minis that are modelled after the rule-book art. If the rules are written with an assumption that minis are going to be used (talking about distances and areas in terms of squares, for exmaple), then you encourage the purchase of your miniatures;
    • adventure modules - in the 80s, it was common for publishers to churn out lots of adventures of varying quality, but individually, these aren't great moneyspinners. Of a group of players, only one needs to buy the adventure for all to play it (the GM). More common now is for adventures to be larger books, packed with new rules, new monsters, new spells and technology and so on;
    • campaign settings - whole countries, continents, worlds, and planes of existence can be detailed in tomes, maps, and so on. Again, nowadays, these often come with their own new monsters, playable species, player classes and other material - partly to set them apart, but partly to pull the gamer in: if you don't have the setting book, then you can't play a Baal-n'groth Toothsome Axe Totem Barbarian Lord;
    • new rulebooks - an honest and straight up new set of rules, often for a particular element of play that isn't covered by the core rule books, like sea-going adventures, or extraplanar sci-fi/fantasy heroics. The line between rule books and campaing settings can be blurry, but a campaign setting is usually specific to one setting, whereas a rule book will be more generic.
    You'll see that three out of four of those are products that add rules and features to games. New rulebooks are the most obvious examples, but they all do it. Some game manufacturers even add new rules in with their minis...

    A quick glance around the RPG forums of the world will tell you that picking and chosing from these many different rules within a game will allow you to make some extremely high powered characters and monsters and spell combinations. Often a cunning selection of powers allows the canny player to bring a legal character to the game that is far beyond the power levels of those made without access to the same rules. That Toothsome Axe-Totem Barbarian Lord that Jack has brought to the game is far better than the basic Barbarian that Jill wants to play.
    When this is permitted in games, it clearly drives people to buy the source books for those powerful new rules. Jill is going to rush out to buy Secrets of Baal-N'Groth as soon as she's seen what Jack's Barbarian Lord can do.
    The d20 rules published for Dungeons and Dragons are probably the clearest example, but you'll also find it in other games where there are many rule books for one core game.

    Of course, the producers have to make money, otherwise they'd stop producing. We don't want our games' inventors to go bust - but it'd be nice if they kept a tight rein on new product.

    Poor quality control as a design goal

    Here's where I'm going to go out on a limb. I used to work in the toy industry, and I met many people who worked in the hobby industry - some of whom worked for major producers of RPGs and other hobby games.

    In conversation with one senior manager of the marketing of such a major RPG producer - who I will not name as I believe they are still associated with the industry - I discussed the proliferation of new rules and broken combinations.
    I worked in quality control, so I was railing against the fact that the quality control (checking that new rules were properly compatible with the old) appeared to be poor - hence all those threads on forums about "broken" combinations.
    They pointed out that there was no attempt to control new rules as a whole - just some base guidelines on how to format the rules, and the core set of rules to use as a reference.
    They told me that it was a deliberate ploy to make rules in which someone would spot an amazing exploitable hole, in order to sell the associated books.

    Okay - that's not too controversial. System mastery is a part of some rule-heavy hobbies. For the reasons I outlined above, it's obvious that producers want us to buy new rule books - and power creep is one way to do that.
    What my industry colleague told me next, though, was at the time, shocking.

    Game producers like the one they worked for deliberately avoid tight quality control so that over time, with the introduction of ever more powerful combinations, the game becomes unplayable.

    Once the game is clearly broken by the weight of new rules, a new edition is designed.

    ...And each time, the new edition will be swamped with new rules until it, in turn, breaks - and a new edition is required.

    What to do?

    As I've played over the years, and seen new editions of my favourite games appear and get surplanted, I've found out a few things.

    I used to buy into new rules because I was happily plundering the most amazing things, looking for new exciting shiny spells and technology and characters.
    Then I found that there was little need to do so - you can standardise the rules while supporting the variety of imagination: there's no need to have a rules difference between two kinds of sword or blaster pistol, anymore than there's a need to have a rules difference between men and women.
    All those different types of elf don't need special rules - just notes on their different cultures. We don't need dozens of different goblinish monsters - just a few, and a bit of an imagination.

    Of course, sometimes it's nice to see what a professional designer has done to make rules for a situation, culture, environment or whatever that you want to use in your game. Not all rules expansions are bad - and with sensible selection, almost any RPG supplement will contain something useful.

    But as those first D&D rule books told me: it's your game!
    You don't need to buy into this proliferation of brokenness. Make your own content, hack your own rules.