Friday, 21 February 2020

Levelling up?

I was listening to an old episode of the excellent Grognard Files recently (episode #3, all about Traveller) and Blythy, I think, criticised Traveller for its lack of an experience system. I think he said (I was driving at the time so my memory might be wrong) that for many players character advancement and levelling up was really important.


As I've said before, I cut my roleplaying teeth on Traveller. I was a science fiction fan, so I bought a science fiction RPG. I wasn't inspired by fantasy and so D&D passed me by. (I do remember buying the Monster Manual and enjoyed reading that - but I don't think I used it.)

From Traveller I went pretty much straight into Call of Cthulhu, and from there to GURPS.

None of those games have "levels". Yes, there's a little bit of skills improvement in Call of Cthulhu and I imagine there is some in GURPS (but I can't remember it now). But there's none in Traveller (well, there's a tiny bit, but the basic premise is that you don't improve).

The reason for this is that your characters in Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS start out competent. They don't start out at "level 1" - they already know what they're doing.

So I never got into the whole "levelling up" thing.

One-shots not campaigns

There's another reason I never really got into levelling-up: I mostly played one-shots.

I can't ever remember playing in a long campaign, where levelling up was critical. I think the longest I've ever run a single game was for about 8-10 weeks when I ran Call of Cthulhu that ended up being several scenarios mashed together.

Even when we were starting out and I was at school, we still didn't play campaigns. I can't remember much about my games back then, but I'm pretty sure that we liked to mix things up. We all took turns GM-ing and we never settled down into a long campaign. Character advancement wasn't on our radar, and it wasn't something we missed.

So my experience of roleplaying has been playing and running one-shots. (And even a scenario that may take a few sessions to play though is still a one-shot. But in my head, Masks of Nyarlathotep is a very lengthy one-shot, so I might not be the best to judge.)


So for me, the play was (and is) the important thing.

And when I hear people like Blythy say that players like to level up and that character advancement is important to them, I have to wonder if that's really true.

Or is that just me?

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Monster of the Week again

After a bit of a hiatus since last year, my occasional online RPG group started up again this month, with me running my Monster of the Week one-shot The Seeds of Doom (which I’ve talked about previously here and you can download here).

The game went really well. Neither of my regular players were familiar with MotW (or any PbtA games for that matter), but they took to the playbooks like ducks to water. They chose a Flake and an Initiate. They decided their previous case involved the giant toad of Wigan, which sounded appropriately weird.

Last time I ran MotW I had some problems with the rules in that I wanted to roll for attack - this time I seemed to have overcome that block and was much more comfortable with describing what was going to happen and asking “What do you do?”

The players ran around and investigated the mystery and generally had a good time.

Feedback is good

I did note that the players were a bit too keen to shut down NPCs. I would throw helpful NPCs at them, but more than once they blocked them. That was a bit tricky, as it meant that information I had planned to give them via NPCs I had to manage in a different way.

I did wonder if that’s because players like to think that they’re in control, and aren’t keen on receiving help, but it was a shame as I like to run games with lots of NPCs.

Anyway, I shared my concerns with one of the players between sessions. I don’t know if that helped or whether I adjusted my play accordingly, but the problem seemed to go away in the final session.

Some other thoughts

  • Once or twice I suggested that the players imagine that they were in a tv show, and it was okay if not everything was gritty and realistic. Normally when I run a modern-day game (even my Other London games) I try for a more realistic actions-have-consequences style of game - and my players know that. This time, I encouraged my players to be more proactive by making them imagine they were in a tv show and that seemed to work.
  • I was a bit worried about them meeting the monster early, but I realised that they were unprepared and it was tougher than they were expecting, so it was fine.
  • I still really like the way MotW handles NPC motivations - that worked really well as a simple shorthand for what they would do (often be a victim and need rescuing). MotW does the same thing with locations, but I didn’t find that to be as successful, except where I used the woods as a maze to hide the monster.
  • I included a cut scene! Possibly my first. As our heroes were driving their gully sucker up to the lighthouse I cut to a scene showing the monster at the lighthouse menacing some teenagers. I should do that more.
  • I bought a new gaming headset that’s much clearer than the old one I was using. However, the over-the-ear cups are so good that I can’t actually hear myself talk through my ears. I can hear myself through bone conduction, but I sound really muffled. That took some getting used to.

More MotW

Happily, both my players enjoyed MotW and would like to play more. So I’ve promised to run another adventure. I need to read up on the in-between moves first though.

But before that I’m running Achtung! Cthulhu which I’m looking forward to.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Patient Zero

As far as roleplaying games go, in my group I was patient zero. None of us had heard of roleplaying before I saw an advert in Starburst #22 and #23 (the ones featuring The Empire Strikes Back in 1980).

We were all science fiction fans though. I discovered science fiction mainly through 2000AD. That introduced me to Star Wars (I remember seeing photos from Star Wars in what I’m guessing now was the 1977 Summer Special and thinking “wow - that looks incredible”.) Then I read the novelisation that same summer, and I didn’t look back. I must have read the Star Wars novelisation three or four times before I finally saw the film.

(I didn’t realise at the time that the novelization was written by Alan Dean Foster, but I’d started enjoying his novels as well. I remember seeing the NEL edition of Bloodhype, with the great Tim White cover in the school book fair. I bought that and that led to The Tar-Aiym Krang, Orphan Star, The End of the Matter and Foster’s many other Humanx books. I’ve re-read some recently and they’re a bit uneven, but back then I wasn’t as critical and I loved the sense of wonder.)

So I was a science fiction fan, and so Starburst was what I read.

Then I saw this advert….

(I tracked this down online - you can find old issues of Starburst here. This is from Starburst #22)

This is the advert that led me into roleplaying. I can’t remember if I bought Traveller directly, or if I first ordered a catalogue from Games Workshop, but in the summer of 1981 (so a year after I first saw the advert) I spent £5.95 of my pocket money and ordered the Traveller’s iconic little black box.

Now what?

We weren’t quite sure what to make of the Traveller basic set, but I invited my friend Rob over to try it out. We rolled up characters and tried out the combat system.

Rob then bought Double Adventure #1: Shadows & Annic Nova. He ran Shadows for us, while I ran Annic Nova. Annic Nova is just an empty spaceship and not at all exciting. So I invented a bunch of rival adventurers to create some conflict and had a running battle through the corridors of the Annic Nova.

And that is how, for me at least, it all started...

Saturday, 18 January 2020

2019 in games

How is it already mid-January? Perhaps I should have started this a bit earlier...

Never mind the politics, how was 2019 in terms of games?

Freeform Games

2019 was another good year for Freeform Games. Sales were up 13% on 2018 which was great. Amazingly, we’ve doubled our sales since 2014, but I’m taking that with a pinch of salt as 2013 and 2014 were low points: we’re only 38% up on 2011.

(The difference is down to Google. If I remember correctly, there was an algorithm change in 2013 that hurt us badly compared to the previous years. A reminder of how vulnerable we are to factors outside of our control.)

We only had one new game this year - and that was simply a Christmas version of one of our older games. It was a bit too late to have much of an impact in 2019. I’ve written more about our year on the FFG blog, here.


2019 started well with Death on the Gambia (which I ran and wrote about here) followed by The Torch of Freedom (in which I played the Russian ambassador and wrote about here).
Death on the Gambia

Torch was followed by Peaky in April, where I co-wrote Tea at Longbourne and played in The Circus of Wonders and Shadows and Seeds of Humanity (more on Peaky 2019 here).

Tea at Longbourne was a delight to write and seemed to go down well with the players. It has been played again since and I look forward to taking it out for another spin.

Unfortunately Peaky was my last freeform of 2019. I had hoped to get a Leeds freeform group going, but I’m really bad at that kind of organising. And I had hoped to meet with the Liminal Dreams crew in Huddersfield, but I’ve not managed to do that either. Maybe in 2020 I can get my act together, but judging by my past performance, that seems unlikely.

Tabletop RPG

I ran four tabletop roleplaying games this year:

I played D&D, Liminal, Fate Accelerated, Dragon Age and a homebrew fantasy heartbreaker that I can’t remember much about. These were all at Airecon, Furnace or GoPlayLeeds.

Fate - my tools of the trade
Unfortunately my semi-regular online group fell away due to scheduling conflicts, but hopefully we’ll pick it up again.

In 2020 I’m hoping to run The Aurors at GPL, and maybe something a bit different such as Hillfolk. I’ve also got an Achtung! Cthulhu! one-shot brewing, so maybe I’ll get that done for 2020. I’m also hoping to do more tabletop with Megan and the family.

New RPGs for my collection in 2020:

  • Liminal: Created by Paul Mitchener and featuring some stunning artwork by Jason Behnke, Liminal is a British urban fantasy (think Neverwhere, Rivers of London, Ultraviolet and the like) game that ought to be right up my street. The only reason I don’t like it more is that it’s a little too close to the Other London games I’ve been running recently. (I’m also not a huge fan of the system, but that’s my reaction to learning something new than anything being particularly bad about the system.) I backed this in pdf form on Kickstarter, and I probably need to get my hands on a hard copy so that I can read it properly. (I find most RPG pdfs very tiresome to read on my tablet.)
  • Mouse Guard: I won this in the Furnace raffle and read it on holiday. The system looks intriguing. It’s based on Burning Wheel, and the games are split into GM Turns (much like normal RPGs) and Player Turns (which are similar, yet different). I can’t quite see how it works, so I feel I need to play it before running it. Not sure how it works in a one-shot though. I’m indifferent to the background - I’ve read a couple of the comics but I’m not inspired by them.
  • Fate of Cthulhu: I Kickstarted the pdf of this. The setting appealed - in the future Cthulhu has arisen and you are sent back in time to prevent it happening. So Terminator v Cthulhu. Not sure when I will get to run it, but never mind, it’s not taking up any shelf space. (Unlike Liminal, I was okay reading the pdf of this - the Fate books are formatted such that they’re pretty easy to read on a tablet.)

New RPGs for 2020 will include Fiasco and Trilemma Adventures, both of which I Kickstarted and haven’t arrived yet.


I played 187 boardgames in 2019, so one every other day on average. A lot of these were solo games as the rest of the family isn’t quite as excited about boardgames as I am… My top three most-played games were Villagers, D-Day Dice and Pandemic Legacy Season 2.

Villagers is my game of the year, I think. I Kickstarted it in 2018, and it turned up in May, just in time for me to take on holiday. We all enjoyed it, which means we’ve played it a lot. We have barely dipped into the expansions yet.

D-Day Dice is another Kickstarter, which took two years to arrive. I may have over-invested in it, as I already had the first edition (which I have now given to a good home). DDD is a push-your-luck resource management game, and plays really well solo. I usually win, but I enjoy the thought and strategy involved.

I played through Pandemic Legacy Season 1 in 2018, and I almost completed Season 2 in 2020. I have just the last game to play. I think I prefer Season 2 because of the way the board so drastically changes (and I found Season 1 to be a bit of a drag in the 6-9 month section). However, I haven’t quite been motivated to complete Season 2, which probably speaks volumes. It’s possible I’ve had enough of Pandemic for a while.

Games new to the Hatherley games library (all of them Kickstarters this time) include:

  • Villagers and D-Day Dice, as mentioned above.
  • Rival Restaurants arrived just before Christmas, and has a nicely chaotic trading system. Seems good with at least four people, although some of the abilities seem a bit unbalanced. I’m not sure how much I like this, but Megan likes it which is good. It’s maybe a bit light, but I probably need to play it more.
  • I haven't played Brexit: The Real Deal yet. I backed it in impulse. I ought to play it at some point.
New game to the collection in 2019
I’m not planning to buy any more boardgames in 2020, I think I have enough. I am expecting Oceans (another Kickstarter) to arrive at some point soon, and I may get rid of some to make some space. And maybe there will be gifts…

Other games

As usual I played a bit too much World of Tanks Blitz in 2019, and I created two treasure hunts.


So that was 2019. 2020 will be more of the same. At this point in the year I am not expecting to buy more games, but we’ll see.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

2019 Treasure Hunts

When we grew up we always had treasure hunts at Christmas - and in time my parents handed to me the baton of coming up with an annual treasure hunt.

These days I only tend to do them when we are at home for Christmas, as I usually base the clues on things that are around the house. So this year we were at home, and this was our treasure hunt...

The key to the treasure hunt this year was This website has split the earth into 3x3m sectors, each with a unique identifying address. It’s great for places that don’t have a proper address (some parts of the developing world) or if you need to be rescued from somewhere remote (on a mountain, say). Everyone should have the app.

Our garden is big enough that it is split into numerous sectors, so it’s great for a treasure hunt as well.

The first clue

The first clue was in an envelope that I put under the Christmas tree along with all the other presents. Inside was the following:

Honeybee door handles
Key cupboard
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Gnomeo and Juliet
Window seat cupboard
Guarded by a wooden redcap
Elves Lego

These are all clues to locations around the house. So the first clue refers to a cupboard which has honeybees on the handles. In each of the locations was a further clue, in one of four groups.

Clue Group A

This consisted of two clues: a series of empty boxes that need to be completed like a crossword, and a QR code to what3words. (It turns out you can create your own QR code really easily.)

The other three groups of clues filled in the words.

Clue Group B - solution to word #1

This consisted of two clues - another set of empty boxes and a set of clues along the lines of:

1 - How many birds flying over Dunstanburgh Castle?
2 - Port of Ness artist
3 - Number of windows on Megan’s study door
4 - How many copies of the Road to Huisinis are there?

And so on.

The answer to the first clue is in a picture we have of Dunstanburgh Castle that hangs in our kitchen - there are eight birds, and “eight” is the word needed. The second letter is highlighted in the grid, and that's the first letter of the word needed for Clue Group A, above.

Clue Group 3 - solution to word #2

This consisted of three clues:

Harry Potter and the...

A QR code which read “page-letter”

And this:


The idea is to find the first letter on page 764 of a certain Harry Potter book (the letter “t”), and so on. I made it a little harder by not specifying which Harry Potter book - but only one of them has 764 pages (The Order of the Phoenix) so it wasn’t that hard.

(And I should say that these are the versions that we have - the clues may not work for all copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

Clue Group D - solution to word #3

This was just a picture of a bar of soap.

Putting it all together

Typing the three words into what3words identified that the treasure was in our garden shed.

It took about 20 minutes to solve, and as usual took much longer than that for me to prepare. The technology was a bit tricky, and didn't work first time (neither Megan nor Mrs H had used either QR codes or what3words before, so there was a bit of a learning curve there).

But that didn’t matter, I had a lot of fun doing it and I had fun watching the hunt being solved.

Recycling on New Year's Eve

My brother was due to join us for New Year's Eve, and a couple of days before he asked if I could prepare a treasure hunt. He was providing the treasure (thankfully), and I thought I would use the same structure of hunt. I changed the location of the treasure, but used the same basic approach.

I changed the picture clue to an Enigma code (created using the splendid Enigma Simulator App), with the following four clues:

Enigma Simulator App 

K Railway, 5 printing groups

Rotors: EFGH


Wednesday, 18 December 2019

More things I'm enjoying

Three more great things!


I’ve been getting back in touch with my inner seven year old, and have been learning about dinosaurs. I started with Audible’s A Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs and then followed that with The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte (who appears in the Audible series). We then followed that with a trip to Lyme Regis in Dorset where we visited the dinosaur museum.

Dinosaur "Man" from the Lyme Regis Dinosaur Museum.
Want more dinosaurs? Here's a dinosaur blog, and here’s a site full of dinosaur pictures.

(My favourite dinosaur is Triceratops.)

The Expanse

Series 4 has just started on Amazon and I’m half way through it, and it’s just brilliant.
So far. And while it’s broadly similar to the book, there are enough differences to make it worth watching. It’s interesting seeing the TV series introduce characters who will be pivotal later on. So Series 4 is a combination of Book 4 (Cibola Burn), one of the novellas (Gods of Risk) and some new stuff.

A word of warning - the first few episodes of season 1 are a bit heavy going - so do persevere with it.

The books are also excellent - consistently scoring 4s and 5s when I read them. I haven’t read the most recent (Tiamat’s Wrath) as it’s still in hardback, but as soon as the price drops I will pick it up. Auberon, the recent novella, was a pleasant surprise.

And it turns out that there’s an Expanse fan wiki (full of spoilers, so be warned).

D-Day Dice

D-Day Dice is a cooperative world war two boardgame where you play a unit of Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy. The game involves rolling lots of dice to build up your forces (troops, courage (needed to move up the map), stars (needed for officers), and tools (needed for equipment) as you work your way up to a bunker that you must conquer to win.

It’s a cooperative game, and is really enjoyable solo. Many cooperative games seem like puzzles, and D-Day Dice is perhaps more puzzle-y than most. But I enjoy it, and I Kickstarted the 2nd edition, which landed recently. Expansions add more variety (most of it good, some of it not so good) and I’m enjoying working my way through the different maps.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Things I'm enjoying

A few things that I’ve enjoyed reading/playing/listening to/watching.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Following on from The Conception of Terror which I talked about last time, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a 10 part BBC podcast dramatization HP Lovecraft’s story of the same name. This time the story is told from the perspective of two investigators from the ‘Mystery Machine’ podcast looking into Charles Ward’s disappearance. You don't need to know the story as it's quite different from the the original. Anyway, it’s great fun and sounds exactly like a Call of Cthulhu investigation. All 10 episodes are currently available to download from the BBC - along with the start of the next one: The Whisperer in the Darkness...


Villagers is a really nice card game for 1-5 players (although there is a solo option, it’s much better played against others). Following the black death, you must re-populate your village with blacksmiths, carpenters, swineherds, miners and so on. It takes less than an hour to play, and is often a very tight game, with just a few points between first and second place. We’ve played it loads - one of my new favourites.

The Laundry Files

I’m re-reading Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, starting with The Atrocity Archives and working my way through to the latest, The Labyrinth Index. I’ve finished fifth book (The Rhesus Chart) and am about to start The Annihilation Score, the one with the superpowers. It’s a delight and I’m really enjoying the series. I feel that I'm getting more from them now - I don't know if that's because I know what the future stories bring, or whether I'd simply forgotten so much. Anyway, highly recommended if you like your Lovecraftian horror mixed with workplace humour.