Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Session Zero: Liminal Characters

Last time I talked about Prodigal Son and the changes I made to it. This time I’m talking about Session Zero and getting ready to play. I recruited my players Liam, Thomas, Alex, and Daniel from GoPlayLeeds (which hasn’t met this year due to lockdown).

Although I was using the four pre-generated characters from the Liminal rulebook, we spent 45 minutes in Session Zero getting to know them.

For me, the most important bit of an RPG character isn’t their statistics, skills or attributes—it’s the relationships with the other characters and the world. Like most RPGs, Liminal doesn’t cover this well so this is what I did.

Crew questions

The “Crew” is one of the most important parts of Liminal. The Crew is Liminal’s equivalent of the adventure party. It’s the group that ties the PCs together. 

Liminal is a game of solving cases (at least, that’s what the published scenarios so far would have you believe). And so the PCs need a good reason to be motivated to investigate and solve those cases, and that’s where the Crew comes in. The Crew’s reason for existence is to allow the PCs to solve cases.

A Crew can be many things—such as an investigation business, a group with a powerful enemy who have banded together for protection, or group allied to a faction who provides support in exchange for services. (I do think Liminal’s section on creating a Crew could be stronger, but that’s a subject for another day.)

I wanted the players to have some ownership in the crew, so I use this to frame a discussion:

Crew Concept: Who you are and your reason for taking on cases and engaging with the world.

  • An investigation business.
  • A group with a powerful enemy who have banded together for protection.
  • A group allied to a faction or powerful individual who provides support in exchange for services.

Crew questions: Why does the Crew investigate cases? How do clients get in touch? Who formed the Crew? Is it an established Crew, or formed with the PCs? Is being part of the Crew full-time? Does the Crew have a reputation?

We had an interesting discussion about the Crew. Was it the day job, or is it on top of the day job? We decided that each player could decide. We liked the idea that the Crew could provide deniable services, and that it would have a patron.

The group chose several assets, including a base below the Impact! Art Brigade art collective in Leeds.

Character questions

We then moved to the character questions:

  • How did you join the Crew?
  • Which faction to you admire, and why?
  • Which faction worries you, and why?
  • With which faction do you have a positive relationship, and why?
  • With which faction do you have a negative relationship, and why?

The question about admiring and fearing factions revealed interesting views that the PCs had—and a common admiration of the Queen of Hyde Park. I’m sure she’ll be pleased.


Finally, I asked each to choose a contact from the list below (or they could invent their own) and determine their relationship and how trustworthy they are. I almost always do this in my games as I find it so useful as a GM: it gives me a ready supply of NPCs linked to the players that I can use to create drama and provide information.

  • Michael Fraser, young magician being groomed for greatness by the Council of Merlin. (Academic Wizard)
  • Mina Cotton, not the frail old lady she appears, but a formidable fae knight loyal to the Queen of Hyde Park. (Knight)
  • The Deacon, leader of a fae criminal game, loyal to the Winter King. (Clued-up criminal)
  • Meera Stone, untrained wizard who married into the Jaeger family. (Gutter mage)
  • Lynden Grant, bodyguard to the Order of St Bede (Bodyguard)
  • John Cooper, P-Division liaison officer (Investigator)
  • Jet, pavement artist and street urchin with links to The Mercury Collegium (Changeling)

What is your relationship to them?

  • Childhood friend
  • Lover
  • Immediate family - spouse, parent, sibling or child
  • Distant family - uncle or aunt, grandparent
  • Flatmate
  • Colleague
  • Team player
  • Schoolmate / university friend
  • Mentor or teacher
  • Rescuer
  • You share an interest
  • You shared an experience

How strong is your relationship? 

  • I trust them with my life
  • I can rely on them in a time of trouble
  • I owe them a favour
  • I find them unreliable at best

We ended up with a friend, a couple of mentors and an unreliable lover. One of them already appeared in our opening session, and I’m looking forward to working the rest into the story.

Session Zero Feedback

Player feedback was that they appreciated the chance to explore their characters before diving straight into the case. The challenge I have is to make sure I keep drawing on the Session Zero material we go along—I know I have to work at that.

Next time: running Prodigal Son.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Running other people’s adventures: Prodigal Son (Liminal)

This is the first in what may be a series of my thoughts in running other people’s adventures. As I've mentioned, it’s not something I normally do as I prefer to run my own. So this is a departure for me, and I’m probably overthinking it.

(As this has ended up being three posts long, I'm definitely overthinking it...)

This time it’s Liminal’s Prodigal Son, written by Sheffield’s own Dr Mitch (and Liminal author).

Spoilers ahead!

Making it my own

Prodigal Son is a short, three or four scene case for Liminal. The Crew are given a case, fight vampires, and enter a ghost realm. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the broad outline.

In terms of running the adventure, I need to make it my own. So I printed it out and went through it, making notes as I did. And as I did, I realised that I had a handful of questions I needed to resolve so the case made sense.

I am sure I could have asked the good Dr Mitch for his thoughts on these, but I’m sure he’s got better things to do than answer my pedantic questions. More important, answering the questions myself gives me some ownership. It means I will internalise it more, making it easier for me to run.

So, I have questions…

Why doesn’t Sir Tatton realise who took his books?

Sir Tatton has noticed that some books have gone missing from his library—but his guardian spirit didn’t react to the thief and it would react to anyone other than a family member. As the players will immediately put two and two together (because they’re playing an RPG if for no other reason) and work out that Mark Northcott took them, it makes sense for Sir Tatton to know that as well.

So when I ran it, Sir Tatton knows that his son took books from his library (he doesn’t know how many). Prodigal’s Son doesn’t name the books, but the players will probably ask, so I made them up: A History of Sheffield Castle, Wolf Legends, and Bronze Age Myths.

The books aren’t mentioned again, but I dropped them in the ruined farmhouse that the Heirs of Osbehrt use for their base. If the vampires wipe everyone out, then they’ll take the books back to Ariadne (but if that happens then it means the investigation is already over). If they don’t then they’ll end up in the hands of the players—which is as it should be.

What was the deal between the Mark and Ariadne?

Before the case begins, werewolf Mark Northcott has made a deal with vampire Ariadne. His gang (the Heirs of Osbehrt) are being pressured by the Jaeger family to join them, and they want to remain independent. So Mark makes a deal with Ariadne to put the Jaeger family “in their place”. (I imagine this is done by Ariadne killing the Jaeger Face that has been negotiating with the Heirs—that saves me inventing a character…)

But what does Ariadne get from the deal? The case notes don’t say, so here’s what I decided:

  • In return for protection, Northcott offered Ariadne a powerful ancient knife he knew he could get.
  • Northcott had no intention of giving Ariadne the knife (the Knife of Lethe). Instead he intends to use to raise the Wolf’s Head, which he can use to see off both Ariadne and the Jaeger family.
  • When Ariadne realises that she has been tricked (she has access to Diviners), she attacks the Heirs, trying to find Northcott and the knife.

What are the watchers doing and do the watchers know about the ghost realm?

Jaeger watchers

Prodigal Son isn’t clear what the two Jaeger watchers are doing in Sheffield. They’re watching… but how? Are they in a car, just hanging around, or do they have some kind of cover? Do they run a nearby newsagent? I made them security guards for the derelict site, which adds to their nerves (they are nervous because they know Ariadne and her gang are around) because they can’t just leave.

And do they know about the ghost realm? While the adventure suggests no, I decided that one of them does.

(And I renamed one of them—Sean Daley is also the name of Sir Tatton’s butler in The Haunting and if all goes well I’ll run that next.)

What happens if Mark Northcott raises the Wolf’s Head?

And what of the Wolf’s Head, the mythical werewolf outlaw gang that Mark Northcott is trying to raise? What happens if he succeeds? What does that look like? Prodigal Son is silent, but it feels like an own goal not to summon the Wolf’s Head, so…

Knife of Lethe: If the wielder of the knife kills another being, then they draw the spirit of the Wolf’s Head into them. This costs 2 Will and happens automatically unless they don’t have enough Will. 

This gives them +2 Melee, +2 damage and +4 Endurance. However, it also drains 2 Will.

A wielder may do this multiple times, providing they have enough Will. Each time they kill, the spirit of the Wolf’s Head gets stronger and they get more powerful. The effect lasts until the following sunset—at which point the wielder drops unconscious for 48 hours. (And given this may fall into the players’ hands, there’s probably some awful long-term effect if the knife is used often.)

What is Ariadne’s plan

I decided I needed a countdown clock for Prodigal’s Son—events that will take place whether the players are present or not. It all hinges around Ariadne…

  1. Ariadne’s vampires attack the Heirs, but Mark is no longer there. (At this point the PCs enter and thwart their final attack.)
  2. Ariadne tracks Mark to Castle Market in Sheffield.
  3. Ariadne kills one of the Jaeger watchers and tortures the other to learn about the ghost realm.
  4. Ariadne and her gang enter the ghost realm.
  5. Ariadne and Mark fight—Mark wins, using the knife to kill one of Ariadne’s vampires and summons the Wolf’s Head into himself. He becomes the legendary Wolf’s Head and destroys Ariadne. As he continues to kill the vampires he becomes more and more powerful—but loses more and more Will. By the end of the fight he has no Will left, and eventually passes out.
  6. With no Will remaining, Mark fades and becomes a ghost in the ghost realm himself...

Why are Mark’s stats so high?

Finally, for someone who has been in a ghost realm, Mark’s stats need adjusting so I dropped his Will to 6 (from 12). I also found his drive, vengeance at all costs, confusing as I wasn’t sure who he wanted vengeance on. The Jaegers? Ariadne? So I changed it to Summon the Wolf's Head and make the Heirs of Osbehrt great which is clearer in terms of gameplay and his objective for the scene.

Can I make fights more interesting?

Recently I talked about using scenario design to make the fights better. As Prodigal Son has several potential fights, I considered how I might make those more interesting.

The vampiresProdigal Son’s first battle is with some vampires picking on a young werewolf. That’s their objective—if outmatched they will flee and report back to their boss, Ariadne. (And if they can’t flee, they will surrender.)

Ariadne and her brood: Ariadne plans to be a player in the Hidden World, and will not risk her life foolishly. Her brood isn’t indispensable either—so she will retreat and regroup if things don’t go her way. (She may not even attack if the odds aren’t in her favour.)

Mark Northcott: Sadly, Mark has gone crazy and is driven by his lust for power. He wants to summon the Wolf’s Head. He will fight to the death.

Next: Session Zero

Even for a one-shot I like to do some Session Zero stuff, and I’ll cover that next time.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Fighting in RPG scenario design

I regularly listen to two podcasts on RPGs, The Grognard Files and What Would the Smart Party Do. Both are interesting and thought provoking, and sometimes they both cause me to want to respond in more detail.

Smart Party Episode 128 was all about fights, and it got me thinking about how scenario design can help make fights more interesting. I’m not going to cover whether I think fights are a good or bad thing, but instead think about what scenario designers can do to make their fights more interesting.

A few things caught my eye.

Not to the death

In my experience, many RPG fights consist of a long slog of dice rolls to slowly whittle away a creature's hitpoints. I know I've been guilty of doing that—but I am also aware that in a fight I’m often too busy thinking about the rules and mechanics that the foes don’t always act in an intelligent manner. (The fun combats are when players act intelligently and set things up to succeed—which is one of the things I really like about Fate's use of create advantage.)

So not all fights should be to the death, and sensible foes should surrender or flee when outmatched.

This has (at least) two advantages.

First, fights should become shorter and more memorable.

Second, your foes will seem more intelligent. No longer will they continue to fight even when clearly outmatched.

Third, dealing with prisoners gives the PCs some interesting decisions and roleplaying opportunities.


In real life, fights usually happen when two sides have conflicting objectives. If you're playing a wargame you normally have a missions to achieve--take that hill, knock out those 88s. You are rarely expected to kill absolutely everything in your path.

Similarly the opposition has their objectives.

So when you have NPCs that the PCs are likely to fight, it's worth clearly stating what their objectives are.

For example, in the Liminal game I am running in a couple of days, the PCs encounter vampires intent on taking out a werewolf gang. So the vampires want to kill the werewolves. But they shouldn't be suicidal, and the scenario isn't clear either way.

So if I were writing this adventure up, I would describe their objectives as:

Vampire Objectives:

    • Kill all the werewolves
    • If outmatched, try to flee and return when stronger
    • Failing that, surrender.

Now I've never done that before. I like to think my foes have had a modicum of intelligence, but I'm probably flattering myself. For example, when I think back to The Crasta Demon, the first battle is a razorlin raid on a caravan that the PCs interrupt. It's a straight fight to the death, the razorlins don't act sensibly and simply try to attack the players. 

Razorlin warband objective:

    • Attack the caravan and raid it for booty
    • If outmatched, retreat to den, using archers and spear-throwers to cover the retreat.

That's much better! I even have time to think of some simple tactics for the razorlins—something I probably would have time to do when I'm running combat.

I've got plans to revisit The Crasta Demon, so maybe I need to include the razorlin camp in it. (It's possible I've already done this by the time that you read this.)

(Monster of the Week has a similar approach and gives its NPCs, monsters and locations motivations, which is the story-purpose for that NPC, monster or location. I've talked about Monster of the Week previously.)

Dialogue and Clues

My final takeaway is to remember that even though combat is a highly mechanical part of the game, we’re still playing a roleplaying game. While fighting, what information can the bad guys blurt out while trading blows? This might be clues as to who they’re working for (Ariadne sends her regards!), what their motivations are (Give us the books now!) or a clue to the next scene (Fall back, fall back! We’ll get them at Skull Rock!).

But as I can never remember that sort of thing in the heat of the battle, it’s worth thinking of them in advance. And if you’re designing a scenario you can clues for the monsters to say in battle.

Next steps

And now to put it into practice—first by revisiting some of my old scenarios…

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Using Trello as a virtual tabletop for RPGs

Inspired by this post  I thought I’d try using Trello as a virtual tabletop. 

I’ve played a few games on Roll20, but I find that while it suits combat-oriented systems (like D&D) well, it’s not so good for something more abstract like Fate. Perhaps my three biggest criticisms of Roll20 are:

  • The players can’t collaborate as much as I would like to.
  • I can’t easily go back and see previous scenes and maps—only the GM can move me.
  • I can’t easily see other players character sheets—at least not without having a zillion pop-ups.

So I thought I’d give Trello a spin.

What the heck is Trello?

Trello is a “a web-based Kanban-style list-making application”. It’s a productivity app, used to organise work. Essentially you create lists (categories) into which you put cards (your tasks).

You can click on the cards to see more detail (such as more text, checklists and so on).

And you can use it for RPGs.

The player's Trello board for Achtung! Cthulhu

Setting up Trello

I’ve just used Trello for my Fate Accelerated game of Achtung! Cthulhu. (I've discussed Achtung! Cthulhu before.) Here’s how I used it: 

  • First, I created a GM board. This had everything on it that I needed – the background, locations, foes, NPCs and any pregens. (I normally run one-shots, and I’ve usually prepared pregens.)
  • For my Achtung! Cthulhu game, I created these lists: Game admin; Current scene/clues; A list for each PC; NPCs; Locations; Clues; Foes
  • I populated each list with individual cards. So the locations list had the various locations that I think will be needed, along with a photograph and a short description. NPCs included a photograph and their stats.
  • For Fate Accelerated characters, I broke down the various parts of the character sheet into different cards – each aspect was its own card, approaches are a card, stunts are on another card, fate points are on another. That way all the character info can be seen by everyone.

But that board was just for me.

I then created a duplicate of that board for the players. I deleted the cards I didn’t want them to see (yet), leaving them with the opening situation and the characters. (And blank lists for locations, clues and foes.)

A Trello card - a Liminal foe
How did it work in practice?

I made the player board public, so the players could all see it without needing a Trello account. Unfortunately, without an account the players couldn’t edit the cards and make their own changes. It wasn’t a problem for a one-shot, but for an ongoing campaign I would encourage my players to create a free Trello account.

During play, as the players met a new NPC, or encountered a foe, I copied cards from my GM board (which I had open as a separate tab) over to the player board. That worked fine, and all the players had all the information in front of them.

I would have liked to see them create their own cards to make notes with, but as they didn’t have accounts that didn’t happen. Maybe another time.

But what about maps?

One thing that I don’t like about Roll20 that I didn’t mention above, is its assumption that you will use a map.

Now, when I run a tabletop game, I use maps sparingly. I don’t use miniatures and so Roll20 is overkill. In fact, Roll20 encourages the kind of games I don’t enjoy playing (ie, a miniatures boardgame).

An aside: I’ve noticed that I’ve used Roll20 so much lately—usually as a player, once as a GM—that I’ve started to become brainwashed into thinking that when I run an RPG online I must have maps. And that’s not true. Before I used Roll20 so much, I was perfectly happy running a game using nothing more than a Googledoc.

So in my Achtung! Cthulhu game, I set up a Google Jamboard (their virtual whiteboard) that we could use for a map. We used it a bit, but I found it awkward swapping between Trello and the Jamboard. Next time I’ll see if I can run the game without a map. I’ll keep the Jamboard as a backup if I need it, but I’ll try not to use it. 


As with any VTT, you can spend longer prettifying Trello (and Roll20) than you will actually spend playing the game. We spent about four hours playing through my Achtung! Cthulhu mission, and I’m sure I spent at least as long as that populating the boards ready for play.

(And that doesn’t count the time spent writing the mission in the first place—although this was its second time through, so I don’t count that.)

I justify this by telling myself that I’ll run the game again. And I will—it’s the game I’m running for Furnace this year. But I also enjoyed prettifying Trello and adding bling, which is odd because I don’t do that when I’m running at the table. 

My next Trello game

I’m not 100% sold on Trello yet. I like it a lot, but I suspect I won’t get full value out of it until the players can also contribute. But I’ve only tried it the once, and I’m going to use it for my next game: Liminal.

Liminal on Trello

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Liminal stat blocks

Recently I wrote that I don’t run published adventures, and I promised myself I would run some before the year is out. I backed Paul Mitchener’s Liminal on Kickstarter in 2018, and I now have a small handful of scenarios to run with it.

I’ve started with Prodigal Son, and follow on with The Haunting (featuring some of the same characters) if that’s a success. However, I’m finding Liminal’s stat blocks a bit frustrating.

Vampire stat blocks

The first encounter is a battle with two vampires, and their stat block looks like this:

So first off, there are two vampires. So we should have Vamp #1 and Vamp #2. At the very least, the stat block for Endurance should be repeated (as that’s the only bit that’s going to count).

Second, how tough are these vampires? What’s the unmodified Challenge Roll to hit a vampire in melee? Or shoot one? Or dodge their attack? And is the Brawny damage bonus already included (I assume yes, but it’s not clear).

I appreciate that once you’ve mastered the system then it’s obvious, but for anyone learning the game (and this is an introductory scenario) then it’s a nightmare. So here’s what I’ve added to make the stat blocks easier to use:

  • Initiative modifier: +4 (Awareness and Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to beat vampires in melee: 13 (Base 8 + Melee 3 + Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to beat vampires in ranged combat: 13 (Base 8 + Athletics 3 + Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to avoid taking melee damage from vampires: 11 (Base 8 + Melee)

These two vampires are tough! Unless the PCs have a powerful werewolf with them (such as Stephen Dunstan, one of the pregenerated characters) I can see a lot of Will being spent in that encounter to take the two vampires out.

My revised this stat block looks like:

Two Vampires

  • Drive: Thirst for blood
  • Physical Skills: Athletics 3, Awareness 2, Melee Combat 3
  • Mental Skills: Education 2
  • Social Skills: Rhetoric 1, Taunt 3
  • Traits
    • Brawny (+2 damage, +2 athletics for feats of strength)
    • Night Sight
    • Rapid Healing (Weakness: Silver)
    • Quick Reflexes (+2 initiative, +2 to any defence, spend 1 Will to make an extra action before anyone else)
  • Limitations:
    • Weakened by Sunlight (-1 to all rolls)
    • Vulnerability (Garlic, Mirrors—extra 2 damage, requires 2 Will to face)
    • Obliged (to Ariadne, see below)
  • Endurance
    • Vampire #1: 11
    • Vampire #2: 11
  • Will:
    • Vampire #1: 8
    • Vampire #2: 8
  • Damage (inc all bonuses): d6+3 (natural weapons or silver knife)
  • Initiative modifier: +4 (Awareness and Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to beat vampires in melee: 13 (Base 8 + Melee 3 + Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to beat vampires in ranged combat: 13 (Base 8 + Athletics 3 + Quick Reflexes)
  • CL to avoid taking melee damage from vampires: 11 (Base 8 + Melee)

As well as adding the extra sections, I’ve also provided brief mechanical effects of the traits and limitations so I don’t have to look everything up in the heat of the moment.

PC stat blocks

Similarly, PC stat blocks look like this:

This is Stephen Dunstan, Liminal’s pregen werewolf.

It’s not clear from this (unless you’re an expert) how tough Stephen really is. He’s a werewolf, but is he tough enough to take on the two vampires above?

So I’ve added this:

  • Initiative modifier: +2
  • Attack modifiers: +3 (+2 if in Rage, +2 if in wolf form) Melee / +0 Ranged
  • Defence modifiers: +3 (+2 if in Rage, +2 if in wolf form) Melee / +2 Ranged
  • Damage modifier: +2 (+2 Rage)

I’ve not expanded on the mechanical impacts of traits and limitations, but that’s because I will include their full description on the character sheets.

(Stephen will need to go into wolf form (and Rage) to have any chance against the two vampires. If he does that then he will only need to roll 6+ to hit them and 4+ to block their attacks.)


So those two changes make the vampire NPCs much easier for me to run, and hopefully will make the PC easier for the character to run.

Update: Following a successful run of Prodigal Son I changed the stat blocks as I found providing the different challenge levels slightly less intuitive than simply turning them into a modifier. That changes the vampires to:
  • Attack modifier (melee only): +3 (Melee 3)
  • Defence modifier (melee): +5 (Melee 3 + Quick Reflexes)
  • Defence modifier (ranged): +5 (Athletics 3 + Quick Reflexes)
This is also simpler when you have NPCs or monsters attacking each other—it’s easier to see who has the advantage.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Why I roleplay

I’ve recently played in a few very average tabletop roleplaying games, sessions where if I was completely honest, I wasn’t enjoying myself. That has led me to think about what I like about roleplaying, and how I can make sure I get more of it.
Roleplaying games
RPGs - some better than others

The bad games

So here’s a quick description of some of those games.
  • The one that was a string of battles: A Marvel Heroic Roleplaying one-shot which was basically three interconnected battles.  No miniatures, but not enough table banter either.
  • The one that was a miniatures game: A mini-campaign using D&D5e, where we had to clear out three caverns of baddies. Basically, a series of fights. (I’ve noted before that when combat starts D&D 5e basically becomes a boardgame. I like boardgames, but not when I’m roleplaying.)
  • The one that was a sandbox: A Lamentations of the Flame Princess one-shot where we (the players) poked the scenery with sticks to find the adventure.
  • The one that was a simulation: A mini-campaign which was brilliantly internally logical, but was actually rather boring, had little plot and created no interesting decisions.
  • The one where I played the wrong character: My only experience of Symbaroum, and the GM put lots of characters on the table for us to choose from. I chose unwisely—as my character’s skills did not suit the planned adventure.
So I clearly don’t like combat. And I’m not that keen on sandboxes—especially in one shots. I like to see a plot.

The good games

And to balance it, some of the good games:
  • The one where I felt I was in a movie: Set in the world of Werewolf: the Apocalpyse, but using Fate Accelerated, this one-shot really felt like we were in a movie – complete with cut scenes, montage and a spectacular climax.
  • The one where we talked to each other: One of the striking things about my only experience of Hillfolk is how often the players conversed with each other rather than the GM. I like games with lots of in-character chit-chat and banter.
  • The one-shot that became a mini-campaign: An unpromising Shadow of the Demon Lord one-shot that became a short mini-campaign filled with memorable player characters.
  • The one-shot with the clues in plain sight: An investigative one-shot set in the near future with an alien invasion – and a key plot point was on the table in front of us from the very start but we didn’t realise until part way through.
(And if you think it’s all GM related, there are two GMs on both of these lists …)

So in summary

I like dramatic plots that mean something to the characters, interlinked characters with backstory, characters that suit the scenario, and interesting decisions.

I don’t like pointless combat, playing a boardgame instead of roleplaying, boring sandboxes, and characters who don’t fit the scenario.

I don’t mind combat in my roleplaying games, but as long as it’s combat with a purpose.

An aside: It frequently amazes me that roleplaying caters for such a wide range of tastes. I don’t enjoy the system mastery that comes with dedicating yourself to something like D&D 5e—but some do. I have little time for character advancement or levels. I don’t like getting the miniatures out. I don’t particularly enjoy fantasy settings. But others do, and that’s great. But it’s probably best if I don’t join their games (and maybe they wouldn’t enjoy mine).

What do I like when I roleplay? #1: A Plot

So I like a good plot in my roleplaying – and frankly much of the time that can be summarised as: “a bad guy with a goal” (as Fate Accelerated puts it). That need not mean simple stories - even plots as complex as Masks of Nyarlathotep or The Lord of the Rings can be summarised as a bad guy with a goal.

Inevitably I’m less keen on sandboxes where it’s up to me to decide what’s important. I’m sure there’s a point where the sandbox absolutely rocks – but I don’t have the patience to get there.

What do I like when I roleplay? #2: Characters must be important

This may seem like an obvious thing to say – but the characters need to be key to the story. If the characters don’t care about the plot, why should they engage? They also need to have skills relevant to the upcoming session.

Unfortunately it’s all too common to sit down at a one-shot and be presented with a bunch of pre-generated characters that look like they’ve been taken from the rulebook, with little or no attempt to tie them into the story.

What do I like when I roleplay? #3: Players that talk to each other as characters

I can often tell how good a one-shot will be within 10 minutes of starting. That’s because the best one-shots always spend at least 20 minutes creating good bonds between the characters. If you dive in without creating that, then you just have a bunch of strangers at the table.

That’s why I like the bonds/strings/history in the PtbA games, Hillfolk character creation, and why I spent time trying to create DramaAspects. (I now use a combination of PbtA’s bonds and Galileo Games’ Backstory Cards.)

When the player characters have strong backstories and bonds, then they start with a shared history which makes it easier for them to talk in character.

Is that really it?

And that’s it. I don’t mind which system I play—I have my favourites but I’ll play anything if someone can tell me which dice to roll. In fact, I don’t mind if we don’t roll dice—I find that often happens in my games.

As long as I’m playing someone that matters in a story with a plot with plenty of in-character chat, then I’m happy.  I’m not sure why I don’t get that as often as I do.


It turns out that what I am looking for in a tabletop roleplaying session, I get in a freeform. Plot—check. Characters tie to plot—check. Players talking to each other—check.

When I started thinking about what I like (and dislike) in tabletop roleplaying I didn’t imagine that I’d end up comparing them to freeforms. But maybe that was inevitable. 

Although I had a fifteen-year hiatus from tabletop roleplaying, I never fully left the hobby as I was playing (and running, writing and publishing) freeforms instead.

I don’t know whether my love of freeforms influenced what I like in my tabletop games, or whether I love freeforms because they feature all the things I like—I suspect it’s somewhere in between.

What next?

Now that I have worked this out, I wonder if I can use it to my advantage and use it to improve my enjoyment of the games I am playing in. 

In particular, I shall try to I talk more often to other characters rather than to the GM. I’m sure I’ll still have to put up with boardgame like combat and sandbox games – but hopefully I’ll enjoy them more.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Revisiting some old friends

I’ve been spending some of this time in lockdown taking the opportunity to re-read some of the books that have been on my bookshelves for a long, long time. Some of these I bought when I was at school - the newest here was published in 1992.

The Bug Wars, Robert Asprin
The Bug Wars

I originally bought this at school, but I’m not sure why I kept it. This is the NEL edition published in 1980, with a great Rodney Matthews cover. (I have no doubt that it was the cover that caught my eye.) 

I was 15 when I first read it. Amazingly, it isn’t awful. It’s a not too demanding tale of a race of giant lizards waging war on giant insects. But that’s about it.

Lunar Descent, Allen Steele
Lunar Descent

Originally published in 1991 and set in 2024 in a lunar mining base. This is proper hard science fiction with proper hard NASA-ish technology and science. 

But being published in 1991 it misses the internet and what’s going on with computers. So key documents are faxed, the moonbase sound system uses a wobbly cassette (not even a CD!) and there’s no sign of tablets, ebooks, email, social media or anything that would actually be present if actually set in 2024.  But the overall story is still great - blue-collar workers on the moon. 

Of the five books here, this is the most recent and also the thickest (probably because it almost certainly wasn’t written on a typewriter).

The Goblin Reservation, Clifford D Simak
The Goblin Reservation

Simak was once one of my favourite SF authors, and I remember this tale fondly - it has teleportation, sinister wheeled aliens, trolls, goblins, a sabre-toothed tiger, a neanderthal, Shakespeare, a ghost, time travel, and a crystal planet. Some nice ideas - wheeled hive-insect aliens, a crystal planet that (somehow) came from the universe before ours (this is a big-bang > big-crunch > big bang universe). But it hasn’t aged well and I won’t be keeping it.

This copy is 1987 (originally published in 1968), so I may well have been at university when I read it.

Interestingly, the characterisation feels very different to more modern fiction. Everyone is pretty much decent - the only true villains are the alien Wheelers. There is only one murder, and that happens before the book starts (and is committed by the Wheelers). I’ve noticed this with other early SF books in this list - characters seem to be more decent than in modern fiction. That may just be the changing tastes - I’m not sure.

Monument, Lloyd Biggle Jr

Monument is one of my favourite novels from my youth. I remember being drawn to the striking Tim White cover in Woolworths, but I didn’t buy it then. I eventually picked a copy up in Exeter’s Read & Return bookshop for 60p (I know this because of the stamp in the front of the book).

Monument is the story of Cerne Obrien’s plan to save the paradise world of Langri from greedy developers, and ends with a striking court case. It’s still very readable, and while the style has dated the overall concepts haven’t.

The characters are stronger in Monument than they are in The Goblin Reservation, but the same general decency of the characters remains. While there is corporate corruption in Monument, the government bodies (typically scout and naval captains) are decent men (mostly men!) and abide by the law.

A Wreath of Stars, Bob Shaw
A Wreath of Stars
70p of 1976 SF goodness, A Wreath of Stars is set in the far future - 1993! Set in an unstable African state of Barandi, it involves an anti-neutrino planet detected using the newly developed magniluct lenses. The planet misses Earth, but disturbs the orbit of an anti-neutrino planet hiding inside the Earth.

This is classic Bob Shaw - he takes an idea (magniluct lenses and anti-neutrinos) and then runs with it. He does the same in Orbitsville (a Dyson sphere), Other Days, Other Eyes (slow glass) and others. It’s a bit dated now (inevitably), and has a slightly odd, wistful ending that always leaves me feeling a bit melancholy.

In terms of technology, A Wreath of Stars has a moon colony (briefly mentioned), the magniluct lenses that drive the plot. But it’s 1993 and so the lack of laptops, tablets and mobile phones isn’t an issue.

My edition was published in 1978, but I think I read it in the early 80s. I saw Bob Shaw at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton. He was giving one of his “serious scientific” talks, and I can’t remember laughing so much in a long time.

To keep or not?

I’m keeping Lunar Descent, Monument and A Wreath of Stars. Maybe I’ll read them again in the future. 

The Bug Wars and The Goblin Reservation haven’t aged so well and are off to the charity shop.