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.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Ghostly Tradition

I found myself spooked by a ghost story last night. It was about 6pm and I was walking back from the garage in the dark, listening to M.R. James’ Lost Hearts - and found myself genuinely unsettled.

Audible has quite a few M.R. James stories available, and it’s about this time of year, in the run up to Christmas, when I start listening to them again.

My favourites are those narrated by David Suchet - A Warning to the Curious, The Tractate Middoth, Casting the Runes, The Ash Tree, and Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.

Derek Jacobi has also narrated two volumes, Ghost Stories Volume 1 (A Warning to the Curious, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Mezzotint, and A Neighbour's Landmark) and Ghost Stories Volume 2 (A view from a Hill, Rats, A School Story, The Ash Tree, and The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance). Both are from the BBC.

As you can see, there’s a bit of overlap - but not Lost Hearts.

I do have a collection of M.R. James’ ghost stories, which I read many years ago. I don’t find them particularly easy to read - but they are a delight to listen to. They're not very scary either, but then they are around 100 years old.

So what happened with Lost Hearts?

Well Audible recently released The Conception of Terror: Tales Inspired by M. R. James. These are dramatisations rather than a simple narrative, and they've brought the stories into the modern day. While they follow the basic structure of the original tales, they are updated for the modern day and include extra characters to help the narrative. Plus there are some very effective sound effects - and the occasional twist.

Casting the Runes was great - but I listened to it in daylight to and from work, and I knew the story.

I didn’t know Lost Hearts, and I was listening to it in the dark, on lonely streets...

It quite creeped me out - which was wonderful!

Sunday, 20 October 2019

The Aurors: A Fate Accelerated scenario set in the Wizarding World

A couple of years ago we finished listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks (and watching the movies and visiting The Making of Harry Potter) and ever since I've wanted to run a game where the PCs are Aurors hunting dark wizards. This summer I got my act together and prepared a one-shot which I ran for my daughter and her cousins, and then at Furnace.

Me (right) and five Aurors
While I'm sure there's a space for an improvised game where you come up with a dark wizard with a sinister plan, I don't really work like that so I wrote a more traditional investigative scenario. I based it around a dark wizard’s wand, added some classic Harry Potter locations, monsters and characters, and there you have it.

Much of it is canon - and some of it isn't. According to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Harry really is head of the Aurors, and Hermione is the Minister of Magic. The villain isn't canon though, and I made up the bit about the dementors' origin.

I used Fate Accelerated for my game system partly because it seems eminently suitable (one of the sample characters is from a wizard school) but mostly because it's the system I am most familiar with.


My initial plan was for the players to create their own Aurors. I prepared blank character sheets and a simple worksheet that took them through character creation.

While this was fine for the first run, some of the characters were a bit random and didn't really work as a group. So for the second run (at Furnace) I prepared a set of pre-generated characters that were more coherent and in the event worked really well.

I also answered the question one of my nephews asked - "Why do we need so many Aurors for this?" So I turned it into a training mission - with two experienced Aurors accompanying three trainees (although in terms of "power" they were all equally competent).

The real reason I had five Aurors is because that's how many players I had . But I'm pleased to have a more "realistic" reason - and in the second game the players really ran with the whole trainees idea.

Setting Grid
Death Eater masks

I created a setting grid (used for Backstory Cards) with some pre-defined questions so that I didn't need to bring the cards with me. I seeded the grid with people and places that were relevant to the scenario, which I think is the right way to use a grid for a one-shot.

Unfortunately my original questions were based too much on the Backstory Card questions, and they didn't do the job that I wanted them to: to tie the characters together and into the setting.

So after the first adventure I adjusted the questions so that all of them involve another character in some way. (I ran it for five players at Furnace - I got them to answer one question each, creating a bond between them and the player on their left. That way everyone had bonds to two other players. You can read how that went here.)

One thing that helped is that I seeded the setting grid with places and people that would appear in the story later on, and so for a one-shot it worked really well to bring in characters or places that had already been established.

Game files

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Furnace 2019

I’m writing this in the middle of October and that means that it was Furnace last weekend. This is I think the fifth Furnace I’ve attended, and the third time I’ve run a game. It’s always a friendly convention, although that’s partly because I now know so many of the regulars.

The Garrison hotel from a previous Furnace
And this year the quality of games seemed particularly good…

Although Furnace officially starts on Saturday morning, many players arrive Friday night and hang out in the bar or play boardgames. However, I missed all this as I’m only a 50 minute drive away it seemed a bit extravagant to stay overnight. One day I’m sure I will, as I know I don’t get the full Furnace effect without staying at the Garrison.

Slot 1 (Saturday morning)

Assault on Irondelve (D&D5e), run by Neil Gow. I played Kromm, a 4th level dwarf fighter in D&D 5e. We were dwarves and our under-mountain realm was under assault from an enormous army of goblins and orcs. Defend the city!

I don’t play much D&D, and I think this was the highest level character I’ve ever played. Unfortunately I think the fact that I don’t play much D&D hindered me a little bit - I obviously lack system mastery which might have made playing Kromm a bit more satisfying.

Afterwards I realised that my lack of mastery also spreads to the background. I don’t play many fantasy games, and strangely enough I had a hard time grokking the world. What’s a dwarven city like? How many entrances are there? Where are the weak points? Neil gave us permission to invent the details that we needed, but that didn’t help. As an example, it took me a while to think that what we really needed to do was send help to the dwarf king and just hold out long enough for the cavalry to arrive. Obvious in hindsight, but looking back it took ages to realise that.

I liked how Neil used magnetic disks instead of miniatures - much more portable and I can imagine doing that if I used miniatures in games. (But I don't and I’m not sure that’s what I want from my RPGs - everything always becomes a bit boardgame-y when the miniatures come out. I like boardgames, but not while I’m roleplaying.) Neil explains how to create his disks here.

I also struggle with a very rules-based system like D&D. At one point I wanted to cut an Ogre’s arm off in combat, but because D&D’s combat system doesn’t obviously give you permission to do that, when it was my turn I just rolled to attack. (Which is stupid - I just needed to ask Neil!)

Slot 2 (Saturday afternoon)

Beneath the Stones (Liminal) by Paul Mitchener. I was really pleased to play in this - I backed the Liminal Kickstarter but hadn’t played or run it. And this was my first Liminal game.

I played Eve, a fae illusionist. I imagined her very young, just out of school. Liminal is a modern-day British urban fantasy setting (and very similar to the Other London games I’ve been running and talking about), and I felt very comfortable with the setting.

The game itself involved the disappearance of Haltwhistle, which we was reported on the news and we went to check it out. When we found it we found a circle of mist (impenetrable to ordinary folk I think) and we found dark goings on involving a stone circle and a Fae realm.

Some nice moments I enjoyed: some good banter amongst the players; getting to drive the werewolf’s van even though I hadn’t passed my test; facing down the Hunter (and getting speared for my efforts).

There were a couple of oddities - I would have expected some encounters with BBC film crews or other reporters on the outskirts of the mist. I think the main issue for me was Liminal’s concept of the “crew” (or the adventuring party) and our reasoning for investigating. It felt a bit like we were investigating because we were playing Liminal, not something that arose out of our characters. That’s a fault of many other games as well, of course.

As for the rules system, it was fine. Roll 2d6 and add your skill level - try to beat 8  (normally). It was very reminiscent of the old GDW Traveller rules, with a few tweaks here and there.

But more on Liminal later.

Slot 3 (Saturday evening)

I skipped slot 3 because the slot finishes at midnight and I don’t fancy driving home at that point. Another reason to one day stay overnight.

Slot 4 (Sunday morning)

I ran The Aurors, a game set in the Harry Potter Wizarding World using Fate Accelerated. The players were Aurors and had a dark wizard to chase.

I wasn’t sure how a Harry Potter game would be received, but in the end I had three pre-bookings and a full game. Everyone knew Harry Potter and seemed to enjoy being Aurors chasing a nasty dark wizard.
The game in full flow - is that an acromantula I can see?

I structured the group with two senior Aurors shepherding three trainee Aurors (although in Fate Accelerated terms there was no difference between them) and that worked really well, with the senior Aurors marking the others and taking notes.

I started with a setting grid and some questions from Backstory Cards. I seeded the setting grid with locations and people from the scenario, and I liked how that gave some scenes a bit more resonance when they appeared in the game.

My players were great. They really got into the game and seemed to enjoy being experienced or trainee Aurors. Due to time constraints I did have to skip a couple of scenes as I wanted to make sure we ended up with a climactic battle against a powerful dark wizard. One of the things I really like about Fate is when the players get the opportunity to set an ambush and they can create aspects in advance. So in preparation for the final battle we ended up with:

  • Dark shadows
  • Where’s my box?
  • Not where I put it!
  • Giant spider hiding in the ceiling
  • Look at me, I’m a white crow!
  • Not where I put it.

I appreciate that this isn’t to everyone’s taste, but with the dark wizard, a couple of dementors and some henchmen to deal with, the Aurors needed all the bonuses they could get and the scenario ended with the dark wizard vanquished and our heroes triumphant.

I finished the session by asking everyone to describe what we see their Auror doing as the credits roll, which is always a good way to finish off a one-shot.

I’ll post the files up here before too long, along with some more thoughts about the game.

Slot 5 (Sunday afternoon)

Oh, before I get to the game, I won The Mouse Guard RPG in the raffle. I haven’t looked at it in detail yet, but it looks interesting.

Five for Silver, Six for Gold (Liminal) by Matt Nixon. My second Liminal game, this time we were all members of P-Division (the supernatural section of the police), and I was an ex-marine Detective Inspector in charge of the group. I was non-magical this time, which was a change.

Our team was more focused than Saturday’s, which I felt helped the scenario (although, for whatever reason, the banter between the players was better in the previous game). For me, I think giving the “crew” more of a focus definitely helps - particularly for one-shots.

We battled motorcycle ghost-zombies, explored lost underground stations and ended up battling more zombies. We discovered that Liminal can be brutal - we nearly died in the final encounter (against four zombies). Partly that was due to a lack of system mastery on our part as there were things we could have done (magically warded weapons to do more damage, for example) that we didn’t do. Even though we had used warded weapons in a previous battle, we didn’t think to use them this time. As it was, we just scraped through.

And then we found out that we’d trodden on toes that we shouldn’t have, which was a really nice twist and would have lead neatly into further adventures. As the “leader” of the group I found myself getting very cross with our bosses and the NPC from MI6/MI5 or wherever, which seemed about right for the game.

Back next year

And that was Furnace. I thoroughly recommend it - friendly weekend convention in Sheffield. I’m already thinking about what to run next year.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

One-shot RPG GM checklists

So this is my RPG one-shot GM checklist.


  • The scenario
  • Rules (and summaries)
  • Dice
  • Pens and paper
  • Cards for name tents and aspects
  • Food and drink


  • Names
  • X Card
  • Set the scene
  • Rules check
  • Ground rules (taking breaks)
  • Tents

Building the team

  • Characters - pregens or character generation
  • Teambuilding

The scenario

  • Equal spotlight time


  • Epilogues
  • Thank everyone
  • Tidy up

So that’s the raw checklist. Here’s a bit more detail.


This is to remind me what to bring. Most of it is self evident, and my dice, index cards and pens are in my All Rolled Up. Paper is usually a notebook.

My All Rolled Up
If the game has a one-page rules summary (for example, Fate Core here) then I’ll bring a couple for players to refer to refer to.

Depending on the venue, I’ll bring water to drink and some snacks to share. (I play a lot of one shots at GoPlayLeeds, which is held at the Geek Retreat gaming cafe and they’d rather I didn’t bring my own food and drink.)


I like it when everyone knows each other around the table, but I also find that I forget to do it (which is why it’s on the checklist).

This is when I’ll introduce the X card (if I’m using one), and also set the scene and any ground rules (such as when we are taking breaks) so that everyone is on the same page.

At this point I will find out who knows the system I am running. If they’ve already played it, then great. If not, then I give them the key points (and a rules summary if I have one). If they’re completely new to roleplaying, I’ll explain that all they need to do is describe what they’re doing and I’ll figure out what dice to roll.

Building the team

This is the point where the players meet their characters - they either build them from scratch (if the system is simple) or I hand out pre-generated characters.

To me, this is one of the most important sections - it’s when I try to turn a bunch of players sitting around a table into a team. It doesn’t always work, but that’s what I’m aiming for. All the great one-shots that I can remember playing in have some form of team building in them, and I really miss it when the GM just dives straight into the adventure.

Some games (notably DungeonWorld and other PbTA games) include team building as part of character generation, but you can add it to any game.

Some ideas:

  • Ask each player to describe a scene from their last adventure - ask the player on their left what impressed them in that scene.
  • Use backstory cards and a setting grid.
  • Take an idea from DramaSystem - what does your character want from another character (respect, love, trust, etc) - and why can't they get it?

(I've experimented with adding "drama aspects" to Fate, with mixed success.)

The Scenario

This section only has one point, which is to remind me to give everyone equal spotlight time. As GM I try and monitor this, but I’m probably not the best person to say how successful I am.

Spotlight time becomes more important as player numbers increase. I don’t like playing in games with more than four players as I find it hard to remain fully engaged when I’m in a big group. As a result, I don’t like running games with more than four players.

That’s a bit of a problem at conventions where five or six players is standard, mainly due to the player-GM ratio. I’ve run both five and six player games, but I’d rather have no more than four.

Hillfolk’s scene-calling system automatically ensures that everyone gets at least some time in the spotlight. I wish there were other systems that were as easy to use.


Once the scenario is over it’s time to tidy up and thank everyone for playing.

But before you do that, finish the scenario with an epilogue - get the players to describe what their character is doing or thinking as the final credits roll.


As you can see, the checklist is weighted towards the start of play, because those are the points where I am most likely to forget something. If I’ve set everything up properly in advance, then that makes the game run that much smoother.

And a checklist for players?

Preparing a GM checklist does make me wonder what a player checklist would look like - but I think that’s a topic for another day.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Peaky 2019

Peaky 2019 was a really good Peaky for me - I don’t think it could have gone much better.

(If you’re new here, Peaky is a freeform writing weekend. About 30 freeform writers meet on Friday evening and form groups of 5-6 writers. The rest of Friday evening and all of Saturday is spent writing the freeform, and the freeforms are then all run on Sunday.)

I co-wrote Tea at Longbourne and played two other freeforms and several boardgames.

Writing Tea at Longbourne (Friday)

I ended up in a writing  group with Tony, Heidi, AJ and Phil. It felt a bit like getting the band back together - Tony, Heidi, AJ and I were part of the writing team for Once Upon A Time in Tombstone. So it was easy for us to write together, and we’ve all each written games with Phil.

Unfortunately, we struggled to come up with an idea. Peaky starts with a session where everyone pitches ideas for freeforms (that may or may not be written). In our case, I was getting a bit fed up with the process (nothing really grabbed me) when Heidi half-flippantly said that she didn’t care what she wrote provided she wrote it in the room next door. I agreed, as did Phil, AJ and Tony - and at which point we had formed a group. But we didn’t have an idea.

AJ had pitched an idea that involved meaningful decisions, so we kicked that around for a while. I’ve had an idea about a first contact situation where the players are members of the United Nations. They have to react to events (one of Jupiter’s moons goes missing, that sort of thing). We also talked about the old BBC tv show Crisis Command, which was like a Cobra emergency committee larp.

But someone wondered if we could do a different genre, and completely randomly I suggested Pride and Prejudice. And that stuck… We came up with an idea where the characters would make key decisions that would affect events further down the line. And because we’re all nerds and geeks, some of those decisions were a bit gonzo. (We really were taking the most appalling liberties with Pride and Prejudice!)

But we really couldn’t figure out how to do it. We kicked ideas around all Friday night. We thought about making it very Nordic and getting the players to do all the hard work. (That was appealing - we figured we could finish before lunch and spend the rest of Saturday playing games.)

We decided to sleep on it, and hope for inspiration.

Writing Tea at Longbourne (Saturday)

And inspiration didn’t come. We had some ideas, but they weren’t that much better and we couldn’t agree what to do. To me, the ideas felt a bit nebulous and I had a feeling that we had something, but we needed a bit more detail.

So I suggested that everyone spends 30-45 minutes writing their idea up - how they envisaged the game would work. (Tony reported to another group that at this point we were all writing our own game…) We then printed out everyone’s ideas and reviewed them all. We picked the best ideas from each and suddenly we had a structure we could use.

Once we had decided what to write, Tea at Longbourne turned out to be ridiculously easy to write. It helped that the characters are extremely well known, and we could take great chunks from Wikipedia. (In fact, the cast list was almost entirely taken from Wikipedia.)

Another thing that made it easy is that we had structured the game so that we had pairs of characters acting as a team. So once we’d written one, we just had to change the names and we’d written the other. That sped everything up and we ended up finishing by 6pm. (Another writing group finished before us, mind you.)

We spent the rest of the evening playing boardgames - and I organised the Sunday running order, as usual. (I have a system now and it works smoothly).

Sunday - playing the games

On Sunday we played the games. The running order was:

0930 The Circus of Wonders and Shadows and Here’s Dreaming of You Kid
1230 Tea at Longbourne and Berlin Station
1500 Seeds of Humanity and Imaginary Friends

In The Circus of Wonders and Shadows I played an insecure stage magician who had come into possession of a fabulous artefact - but unfortunately had terrible consequences. I had a lovely time agonising whether to continue using it in my show or not.

I didn’t play in Here’s Dreaming of You Kid, which was a four-player game about relationships. (The GMs ran two games simultaneously, otherwise we would have had spare players with nothing to do.) It sounded really interesting though.

Berlin Station was a cold-war spy game that I didn’t play because I was running Tea at Longbourne.

Tea at Longbourne went really well - apart from a few logic errors towards the end, the players seemed to have a great time and even held an impromptu dance. There are a couple of changes that I want to make - the main one to allow for an ending that makes everyone happy. In the current version of the game it’s not possible for everyone to get what they want, and I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do in a Pride and Prejudice game.

A dance in Tea at Longbourne
In Seeds of Humanity I played a Botanist on a colony ship leaving a doomed earth. Unfortunately I struggled a bit with this game - it mixed a murder mystery with a bunch of angst, and while that worked for some, my character was a bit too peripheral to be fully involved.

Imaginary Friends was the last game - which was about childhood imaginary friends (I think). It sounded good.

Six out of six

So six freeforms written at Peaky, most of which I’m sure will be played again at some point. (I know I’m going to work on Tea at Longbourne.)

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Freeform ability strips

Ability Strips are a way to quickly add abilities to a freeform. They consist of a strip of card with three abilities for each character. There is also space for the character’s secret (something that they don’t want other people to know) and information (something that they know but don’t mind sharing).

You can download the file here.

I wrote them with Peaky in mind. There’s rarely a lot of spare time at Peaky, and so there are almost never any abilities at the game written there. While they’re not always necessary, sometimes I miss them so I designed these ability strips that do not require much effort to use. I imagine it wouldn’t take more than an extra 30 minutes to drop these into a typical Peaky game.

The abilities refer to goals and an “Other People” section, so you’ll need to make sure that your character sheets include those - but many already do.

If you’re familiar with our murder mystery games at Freeform Games then you may recognise much of this. In our games, characters all have three abilities, a secret and a clue. Our current format for our games has abilities within the character booklet, but at one time we had ability strips just like these (some of our older games still do).

Abilities don’t suit all games, but I can imagine them working well for games such as Best of the Wurst, An Ecumenical Matter, and Carry on at Camp David. I wouldn’t use them for games like Second Watch or Burning Orchid.

Some tips for using the strips

Knowing that I was going to include abilities wouldn’t change how I write a freeform - the abilities simply make it easy for information to be shared within the freeform.

Some of the abilities refer to a characters first goal. So it’s nice if the top goal is fairly interesting. (I like to think of using abilities as rolling a critical in a tabletop RPG - so it’s nice if you always get something worth having.) But on the other hand make sure that that top goal doesn’t give too much away.

There’s no reason why two (or more) characters can’t have the same abilities.

I generally don’t include many of the abilities that expose secrets, and I am careful about who I give those to.

In Freeform Games, the murder can’t be solved purely by using abilities (so the murderer doesn’t have “I’m the murderer” as their secret). So be circumspect when thinking about what to use as secrets and information.

Adding Ability Strips to The Highgate Club

Before posting this here I’ve taken the Ability Strips out for a spin and added them to The Highgate Club. I’d already prepped this as I had hoped to run it in January, but I didn’t get enough players and ran Death on the Gambia instead. So The Highgate Club is all printed out and ready to run...

So all I did was use the ability strips as given and created one for each character. I re-read their character sheet to identify an appropriate secret and piece of information, and that was it. The Highgate Club has 14 characters so I needed to create four more ability strips - and all I did was duplicate two of the pages. (So some characters have duplicate ability strips - not that it matters.)

I did check through the characters and make sure that they had an interesting first goal and that they knew at least two or three other people - that did mean a little bit of rewriting, which probably wasn’t a bad thing.

I haven’t run The Highgate Club again yet - and I’m looking forward to seeing if the strips make a difference.

Expanding further

The abilities I’ve used are all fairly straightforward information-sharing abilities that suit pretty much any freeform. Please feel free to replace with other abilities that suit your game.

A simple way to make the abilities suited to the character is to add a bit of flavour text, explaining why they have that ability.

Freeform Games have some standard rules for combat, arrests, capturing, poisoning and pickpocketing that all contain further examples of abilities. You’re welcome to use them!

Here’s the link to the Ability Strips again.