Friday, 25 May 2018

Guilty Pleasures: Alien Sea of Sorrows

One of my guilty pleasures right now is the Alien audiobooks produced by Dirk Maggs and available on Audible. I've just finished Alien: Sea of Sorrows, which is very enjoyable listen, even if I was a bit confused at times with all the interchangeable mercenaries.


I've got a soft spot for Alien. I wasn't old enough to see Alien at the cinema first time around, but I read everything I could about it. I had books and magazines. I loved everything about it - the graphic design (both Rob Cobb's Nostromo and HR Geiger's alien and derelict), the story - and especially the alien itself.

When I did finally see it, it was on TV in the middle of a thunderstorm. I've watched it many times since.


I thought Aliens was a brilliant follow up. I liked the fact that James Cameron didn't simply make a second Alien - he made an exciting action film instead.

It wasn't perfect though. The aliens themselves (I've never liked calling them xenomorphs) were subtly different. The eggs didn't look the same. The chest-burster had arms. And the queen was impressive, but felt like it had gone slightly off script. (The facehuggers, though, they were great.)

While I loved the film, my slight disappointment with how the aliens were treated stems from the fact that I had come to my own conclusion about them. I'd been reading Greg Bear's The Forge of God and I had decided that the aliens were a mega-weapon, a virus on a planetary scale - with the derelict a syringe (that had gone wrong).

So the introduction of a queen (and the idea that the creatures might be natural) didn't really fit into my worldview at the time.

Don't get me wrong - I love Aliens as well. But it's not Alien. It's fanfic.


What I hadn't realised then (but I realise now) is that everything after Alien is basically fanfic. Everything. Even Aliens.

There hasn't been a guiding mind behind the Alien franchise - just some people with their own ideas. That's fine, but it doesn't make it canon.

(I even tried my own hand at fanfic, but the less said about that the better.)

Alien 3 and Alien 4

I was really disappointed by Alien 3, and I don't remember too much about Alien 4.

One of the things I didn't like was that the series became all about Ripley. For me, I wanted to explore other things - the aliens themselves, the derelict, the space jockey. I wasn't that bothered about Ripley's story.

The alien part of the story also seemed to be a bit repetitive - they hatch, they kill.

Aliens vs Predator

I really liked Aliens vs Predator. I liked the Dark Horse comic book, and I liked the movie. I liked that it didn't take itself too seriously, and I liked that it was written by Dan O'Bannon (one of the original Alien screenwriters).

I also liked that this did something slightly different. While the humans are (mostly) helpless victims, the aliens and predators are equally matched.

(I haven't seen AvP: Requiem though. I started watching, but got bored very quickly.)


Even though it was directed by Sir Ridley Scott, Prometheus is still fanfic.

My favourite scene is the autodoc scene, which I thought was genuinely tense and gruesome.

I thought the engineers were a bit of a disappointment. I loved the enigmatic space jockey - sometimes questions are best left unanswered.


I love the look of Covenant - it feels closer to Alien in visual tone than any of the others. I don't really hold with David creating the aliens though.

My favourite bit of Covenant is the line "Perfect organism" that (I think) David says. It's a repeat of the line that Ash says in Alien, and it added some depth that I'd not thought about before: Ash admires the alien because he's an android and is unaffected by it. (That also makes me wonder if there's some kind of android-slave underground revolt going on - the alien would be an awesome weapon for androids seeking to overthrow their human masters. There we go, fanfic again.)

Alien: Out of the Shadows

Audible's Alien dramatizations are produced by Dirk Maggs, who has also produced Neverwhere, Anansi Boys and the recent The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy shows. So he knows what he's doing, and they are all a very pleasant listen.

Alien: Out of the Shadows is, amazingly, set between Alien and Aliens and involves Ripley battling the aliens once more. The actress who plays Ripley does a great Sigourney Weaver impression, but the best thing about it is Rutger Hauer playing the Ash personality (now downloaded into a computer).

Alien: River of Pain dramatises the fall of Hadley's Hope (on LV-426) immediately prior to the marines and Ripley arriving. There's the usual mix of colonial marines, evil company guys, and aliens (but it isn't really bringing anything new to the table).

Alien: Sea of Sorrows is set a few hundred years after Out of the Shadows and is more of the same. As enjoyable as listening to it is, it's more of the same: marines (well, mercenaries), a derelict spaceship, malevolent company-guys, and aliens.

It would be nice if they mixed it up a bit. What would a story look like if the protagonists knew how the aliens worked, instead of having to go through the old "what's with the spider-crab thing clinging to your face" routine?

Unanswered questions

Despite all these movies and audioplays (and comics and games), there are still some unanswered questions:

  • Who issued Special Order 937, and how much did they know? And what do they do when the Nostromo was destroyed?
  • Why divert the Nostromo to LV-426 instead of a proper investigation team?
  • Who switched off the derelict's warning beacon?
  • What happened to the derelict after the end of Aliens?

And yes, I have my own theories...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

#1H1S Fail

I’ve been inspired by Guy Milner’s One Hour One Shot (#1H1S) posts on his Burn After Running blog, and I thought I’d give it a try.

Tl;dr: I failed

Inspired by Bite of the Crocodile God, Guy’s three-scene adventure for D101 Games (and available for free), I thought I’d create a short, three-scene adventure for Other London, my Fate Accelerated occasional Urban Fantasy game. So I created The Fallen, where the players first identify a suspect, then follow him back to his home (where they find further clues), and then deal with the nest.

Easy, right?

Well, I ran it for my regular gaming group and it took us a little over four hours. It really didn’t matter that it took four hours - everyone had a great time. But as far as #1H1S goes, it was a dismal failure.

Here’s where I think I went wrong.

Campaign group

So my first mistake was to have the players use characters from a previous game. That was great in that the players knew their characters and what was going on, but was bad in that they already had a pile of existing background baggage that they brought with them.

So I think a #1H1S needs to be completely standalone to get it done in an hour.

Fiddly pre-gens

I created pre-gens with a standard 4 hour convention slot in mind, so there are choices to be made. I think for #1H1S the pre-gens need to have fewer choices so we can simply start playing.

(While two of the players were reusing old characters, we had a new player who needed a character.)

Modern day

I love games set in the modern day. I don’t have to think about background detail, I don’t have to worry about explaining what technology is or what people wear. I can just concentrate on the game.

But it has its downsides, particularly if you are pushed for time.

The granularity of a modern day setting means that the detail is never-ending. Players can go into something simple (such as a surveillance job) in ridiculous detail - much more than the scene really needed.

Online distractions

I would much rather play face-to-face, but I usually play online (with players that I first started gaming with thirty years ago!). Online is fine - we use Googledocs and Hangouts, but the main problem is that it’s too easy to get distracted.

So the scenario opened with a surveillance job at the Burger King at Victoria Station - and we were able to find a recent photo of the exact location online. That was nice, but meant that everyone wanted to study the photo to figure out how where their characters were going to be, and that took time.

And later, I had originally set the third scene under a multistory car park in Lambourne End (because I thought that the name sounded appropriately sinister). However, when we checked Google Maps we found that Lambourne End was in the country, so we spent fifteen minutes or so relocating the car park to somewhere more suitable.

Scene 2b

I messed up when I prepared the scenario and I didn’t think about how the PCs could get into the bunker itself for the finale. We worked out how to do that during the game, but it resulted in a small scene between scenes 2 and 3 where they made contact with the 24 hour caretakers.

It didn’t matter in the context of what we were doing, but it obviously wouldn’t have helped me keep to a strict timetable. (But that’s one of the benefits of playtesting.)


Player characters in Fate Accelerated are tough, so I made the Fallen themselves a bit tougher than I normally would to give the PCs a bit of a challenge. I think I over did that - with the result the fights ran on a bit long.

Despite increasing their toughness, the PCs were never in any real danger - although one of them did end the scenario in a very bad way.

Too much fighting

I probably had too many combats - there were two combat scenes, and I suspect that’s one too many.

Thinking about it, my perfect #1H1S probably involves:

  • one scene with an investigation
  • one scene roleplaying with an NPC
  • one scene with a fight (a climactic battle).

(And if I could avoid the battle I would. But a battle is an easy way to round off a scenario in an exciting way.)

And then I added the SAS

We normally play in two hour sessions, and at the end of the second session (our fourth hour) we were in the middle of the climactic fight when we had to stop.

So that meant starting a new session knowing that we only had another few minutes of gaming time. So what do to?

So I did what everyone does - I added the SAS. So our version of the scenario ended up with the SAS storming the bunker and taking possession of it for the military. That ended on a slightly ominous cliffhanger (which is just ideal for the setting), but it made the made the scenario even longer.


I guess the biggest obstacle to completing the adventure in one hour was me. I wasn’t in a rush, so I didn’t push the pacing at all. I could have pushed harder, but I didn’t. I was happy to let the players pontificate and play with the detail.

So it’s my own fault.

Be Slicker #1H1S

So none of this actually matters. We had fun with the adventure, and it didn’t matter that I magnificently failed to run a one hour one shot.

But I like the #1H1S concept, so at some point I’ll give it another go. But maybe not with The Fallen.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Crime and punishment in freeforms

Policemen, detectives, and investigators are arguably are the least fun characters to play in a freeform - particularly a weekend long game. While the bad guys are generally getting up to mischief, the good guys have to follow due process. And while the good guys will probably win (because the bad guys know they are the bad guys and are destined to lose), it’s actually not much fun for the good guys.

The problem is that some crimes are unsolvable unless you happen to get just the right clue, or talk to just the right person. And in a 70 player weekend freeform, it’s highly likely you won’t manage that.

Crimes in Edo City

Here are examples from Shogun, where I played the mostly-honest moneylender Kinyu.

Before the start of the game, my offices had been burnt down. I never found out why, and I never found out who did it. (At least, not during the game.) I reported it to the authorities, but nothing happened.

Similarly, my brother's corpse went missing just before the game. Nobody seemed to know much about it, and again, I didn't conclusively find out what happened.

In both cases it seemed to be virtually impossible to find out what had happened, and who had done it - and that seems a shame because finding out would have added to my game as I would have confronted the guilty parties and who knows where that would have led.

In a third instance at Shogun, I was questioned by the authorities and I didn’t want to tell them what I knew. As a result the trail went dead (for them, at least). I was questioned again when I think the GMs had given the police detective a “detect lies” skill, but unfortunately they failed their skill roll. I would like to think that my game would have become more interesting had my mendacity been found out, but I didn’t know that: my worry was that it would become a lot worse...

Investigation Skill

In 2013 I posted some investigation rules on the uk-freeforms wiki. I don’t think they’ve been tried out yet. The original rules were aimed at solving the problem of pickpockets - the problem being that it is really annoying to spend quite some time getting an important item, only to have it stolen putting you back at square one. So I developed a system where in-game crimes could be solved (requiring a small bit of admin on the part of the GMs).

My thinking has evolved a little since then, but the fundamental idea remains: give some characters an Investigation skill.
Detectives, amateur sleuths, private eyes and reporters might have this as a skill.

Investigation slips look like this:
This goes in the GM Research Request box and is dealt with by a GM who finds the investigator and goes through the crime with them.

Some rules on how this works:

  • GM has absolute authority on the amount of information provided.
  • The investigation skill may be used both for events set up pre-game, and for those taking place during the game.
  • Resolution mechanics will depend on the system being used. But the results are likely to be:
  • A clue or hint.
  • The identity of the perpetrator.
  • The identity of the perpetrator and evidence. (Evidence would be an item card that the GM would complete that the investigator could take to whatever court system is used.)
  • On Friday evening only clues will be given out (no “solutions”).
  • The older the crime, the less likely that evidence will be available (and may require a higher skill roll, or whatever is being used).
  • Pickpockets may only be investigated within the same game period. (See below for more on pickpocketing.)

GM’s have authority on what clues they give out, to avoid players abusing this to shortcut the big crimes. So for example, if I used this in one of our murder mystery games, you couldn’t use it to shortcut the main murder investigation.

Arrest and justice

Note that this keeps the investigation separate from any arrests or justice system. The idea is not necessarily to punish the wrongdoer, but to create more plot for the players by exposing secrets and shining light on dark deeds. Even if the culprit is known, the investigation doesn’t necessarily result in hard evidence that you can take to a judge.

Even if it does lead to a formal conviction, the punishments need to fit the crime. Some suggestions:

  • A warning.
  • A small fine.
  • Community service (however that might work).
  • Repaying the victim.
  • A large fine.
  • A short time in jail.
  • A long time in jail (very rare).
  • Execution (exceedingly rare).
All punishments should, if possible, improve a player's game rather than detract from it.

Pickpocket skill

Many people don’t like the pickpocket skill. On one hand it’s a useful mechanic for replicating a real-life skill (one that is thankfully rare); on the other hand it can be particularly demoralising to have spent all game trying to get hold of something only to have it stolen by someone unknown. (I’ve written more about this here.)

But with a bit of thought, the main downside of pickpocketing (it has no repercussions for the thief - and no way for the victim to find out who has pickpocket them.

First, pickpocket needs to be changed to be a one-use ability:
The Investigation skill above can then be used to solve pickpocketing crimes like any other. And the only record keeping the GMs need to do is to write on the pickpocket form what was actually stolen.

(In terms of punishment, I recommend returning the stolen goods combined with either a warning or a fine.)

Investigation in freeforms

So that’s my thoughts on investigation in freeforms. They might work, they might not - but let’s try them and see if they work.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Crasta Demon at Airecon

Airecon last year
Last weekend was Airecon in Harrogate, and I ran The Crasta Demon. I would have liked to have run at least one other game over the weekend, but I could only attend Airecon on the Saturday during the day as I had other commitments.

The Craster Demon went really well.

I turned up to discover that six people had signed up to my five-player game, so I quickly created a 6th character: Apprentice Pike. Juggling six players is always a bit of a challenge, so I had to keep everything brief and didn't let anyone avoid the spotlight.

Some Crasta Demon highlights:
Apprentice Pike

  • Only one of the players was familiar with Fate Accelerated, but they all picked up the system really quickly. Nobody had a problem with approaches, or a lack of skills. Five of the players already knew each other, which helped the dynamic around the table.
  • This time I tried using Bonds (inspired by Dungeon World) instead of DramaAspects, and they worked really well. Simple, and I think more effective than DramaAspects, so I shall carry on using them for one-shot games.
  • The first time I ran the game, I didn’t roll for the opposition (I assumed everyone rolled zero). This time I did roll - and my first roll for the goblin attack (my first roll of the game) was +4 - so the goblins were attacking at +8 for that round. That resulted in quite a bit of damage - but it was nothing the players couldn’t handle.
  • As his trouble, Wickham chose I have family obligations. He played on that a couple of times, and used it to bring in a family member in the lynchmob scene. So while the rest of the team was all for a rescue (as expected), I tempted him with a fate point by compelling him and his family obligations. He refused…
  • After a good first round against the goblins, Loxley had a miserable set of dice rolls and really struggled to inflict damage against his enemies. Yet he was the one who finally killed the Crasta demon. (During the battle, I suggested that they start creating advantages, and his final shot was at +17 or something like that).
  • Apprentice Pike ended up being played by the youngest player (well, he looked youngest to me), and I really liked how he fitted into the game (given that it was a handwritten, last-minute character sheet).
  • Wickham invented a secret passage into the castle that he would have known about, which was an interesting twist. I love it when the players come up with things that I hadn't planned.

Overall it went really well. It took a little over two hours and the players seemed to enjoy themselves (as did I).

I did spot a couple of minor glitches to the scenario, which I’ve now updated (along with Apprentice Pike).

The rest of Airecon

I enjoyed the rest of Airecon as well. I played Thunderbirds and Swords and Bagpipes, and I taught someone D-Day Dice. The food was good - better than last year. Next time hopefully I’ll get there for both days.
Saving disasters with Thunderbirds

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Contingency Envelopes

Contingency envelopes have been a staple of freeforms ever since I started playing them.

If you're unfamiliar with them, they consist of an envelope (or folded sheet of paper) with an instruction for when to open the envelope. It will typically be something like "Open this if you see item 56". If you see item 56, then you open the envelope and hopefully learn something that will help your game.

And I usually like contingency envelopes - particularly when I learn something new, or something that's timed. But poorly designed contingency envelopes offer nothing new, and there's an argument that you don't even need them.

The main advantage that contingency envelopes bring is that they drip feed information into a game without requiring significant GM involvement (which can be a scarce resource). But they also have their downsides.


Recently I played in Shogun, a weekend long freeform (larp) for 70 or so players organised by uk-freeforms. Shogun was epic, expansive and filled with all the glorious goodness we hope for in a weekend larp and I wrote about it recently.

I played Kinyu, the cold moneylender. I wasn't evil, but I only had my own interests at heart.

And, along with pretty much everyone else, I had some contingency envelopes.


One was a timed envelope, for me to open during a particular event. This revealed the identity of a particular character who was important to me but who was in disguise at the start of the game. It was a failsafe to make sure that I actually met this character. (It's entirely possible in a game the size of Shogun for characters to never interact - there were lots of people I never spoke to in game.)

I have no problem with that kind of envelope, although unfortunately the way the contingency was labelled (linking it to a theatrical event) telegraphed who that character actually was.

In hindsight I think it would have been better if it had simply said "If you do not know who Yamamoto is by 11am Saturday, open this envelope."

Item (or person) 79

My other contingency said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79"

Inside, was a detailed description of an item, and what was special about it that my character would know but others wouldn't.

A quick aside: in freeforms it is usual to have an item card representing items (which could be a ship, a sextant, a gun, some wood, a tattoo - pretty much anything you can imagine really) rather than a prop. This helps distinguishes those items that are key to plots from costume props or scenery.

By the end of the game I hadn't seen item 79, so I opened the envelope - at which point I realised that I HAD seen it. At least, I'd seen the prop - but because its item card had been mislaid, I didn't know that it was the item that would have triggered that knowledge. (And that's a shame, because it would have created some plot for me.)

If the envelope had said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79 (a sextant)" then I would have kept my eye out for a sextant and if I'd seen one I'd have thought to have find out exactly what Item number it was. It's much easier for me to remember a thing than a number. (It wasn't a sextant, by the way.)

Similarly, some characters had contingencies that said "Open this envelope if you see person 237". Again, I suspect it would have helped to know if person 237 was a merchant, or a samurai, or a foreigner.

High Trust Option

A high-trust option would be to eliminate contingency envelopes completely. I could imagine my character sheet saying:

"Yamamoto starts the game as Akira. If Yamamoto has not introduced himself to you, we trust you to find a dramatically appropriate time to recognise him after 11am Saturday morning."

In fact, because I had worked out who was playing this character before the game started, this is exactly what happened (although Akira approached me first). In hindsight, though, I would rather have had the surprise.

"If you see an old battered sextant (item 33), you recognise it as originally belonging to Blackbeard."

This would have worked out just fine for me - I have no problem ignoring knowledge that I know but my character doesn't, and it means that I would have been drawn to check out any sextants just in case.

(Interestingly, I made a similar point in my reflection of Once Upon A Time in Tombstone.)

Being a high trust player

While I think we can improve the design of contingency envelopes, perhaps we don't have to go that far. Perhaps I just need to be a high-trust player.

After all, I could just open all my contingency envelopes before the game starts. Nobody can stop me, and I know I wouldn't abuse that information. It might even improve my game - I'd probably try and steer things and put myself in plot's way (much easier to do when you can see it coming).

In hindsight, I wish I'd done that in Shogun: I had guessed one envelope, and not opening the other meant I missed out on something that might have dragged me into a new plot.

Key takeaways

So my key takeaways from all this are:

  • Think about whether you really need a contingency at all. Can you trust the player not to abuse that information instead?
  • Be careful not to telegraph the envelope’s contents in advance.
  • When looking for an item/person number, give players a clue as to what they are looking for.

Second Watch

If I sound like I'm going into this in a bit more detail than it really warrants, you might be right. But part of that is that I'm currently working on Second Watch, a game I co-wrote last year at Peaky that we're preparing for publication.

Second Watch is a suspense-horror game set on a spaceship - inspired by movies such as Alien and Event Horizon. Figuring out what's going on is part of the game.

In an ideal world you'd play Second Watch in a completely immersive environment and a team of GMs. But it's not an ideal world and so we need Second Watch to be runnable with just two GMs (possibly just one - although that might be asking a bit much).

As the game involves visiting different parts of the spaceship, and doing tasks that have set results, we're using contingency envelopes to drip feed the information (and to free up the GMs for their other duties).

Here's the sort of contingency envelopes we’re using:

  • Medical tests: the crew start the game coming out of cryosleep, and one of the tasks the ship’s doctor has to do is undertake a medical examination of everyone to make sure they’re okay. It’s a bit of roleplaying for them, and there may be clues (and red herrings) in the test results. The subject of the examination starts with the contingency, and then gives it to the doctor during the examination.
  • Systems checks: The crew has some systems checks to do to make sure the ship is still working fine. Rather than create a queue at the GM desk for resolving this, we’re doing it with contingency envelopes.
  • Experiments: While the crew are checking systems, the scientists are checking their experiments. There may be clues there…

Some of the contingencies are purely down to pacing. If we just put the information on the character sheet, the game is likely to move faster than we would like - we’re aiming for a slow build up of suspense, and hopefully the contingency envelopes will help us do that.

And while we’ll review them in light of the takeaways above, I suspect we’ll keep most of them.

Open this if you’ve reached the bottom of this post

So while for most freeforms I would advocate sticking to my three key takeaways, obviously there are times when you should ignore them.

Like all good rules, the trick is to know when to break them.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018


Kabuki actor or moneylender?
So last weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Retford for a weekend freeform larp. Last year it was Across the Universe, the year before that I helped run Once Upon A Time in Tombstone, and this year it was Shogun.

Shogun is a 72 player freeform that conceived and written by Nathan Richards, Richard Salmon & Richard Perry, with additional material by Chad Brinkley, A.J. Smith and Carol Johnson.

I played Kinyu, a lowly moneylender whose heart had been hardened by a previous romance and who was now only interested in making money.


Moneylending: I enjoyed being a moneylender, and collected all of my debts - bar a tiny debt to an actor that I never managed to track down. One of the nice things about moneylending was that I got to work with some of the criminal types who I used to enforce my debts. Sadly, most people paid up on time so I didn’t get to use them much.

(And sorry Brian for inflicting them on you before asking you first myself!)

During the game itself I only lent money once - 6 Oban (quite a lot) to the Shogun’s heir. That cleared me out at the time, and although I asked for 10 (a princely sum) in return (on Sunday morning), I really didn’t expect to be repaid. I was delighted to be proved wrong.

Kabuki: I done acting! I don’t ever do acting in freeforms - I just don’t. But in Shogun, I did.

I asked the actor Shoji if he knew the actor that owed me money. Shoji didn’t, but suggested that I attend the auditions for the Kabuki theatre as it was the sort of place an actor might go to.

So I turned up to the auditions and joined in. Auditioning turned out to be a bit of fun, and before I know it Chen (the leader of the troupe) had selected me as one of the three villains. Happily, it was a non-speaking part - we merely acted out the story while a narrator read the script.

Showtime came and I decided it was in for a penny, in for a pound and I let Malk paint my face. That’s another first. (I thought I would wash it off straight away - but to my surprise I kept it on.)

So yes, I have now done acting in a show in a freeform. Maybe I’ll do it again.

The Tattooed Men: One of my plots involved solving a puzzle that took the form of a tattoo on my back. I don’t mind puzzles in freeforms, although if they’re too hard they can be very frustrating. This one was about right - once we had all the pieces it was fairly easy to solve. We did spend some time heading in the wrong direction (consulting the astrologer for inspiration, for example), but that was before we found the final piece of the puzzle.

Doomed Romance: Shogun used the romance tasks system that I first saw in The King’s Musketeers (and I think was most successful in Into the Woods). However, I didn’t really engage with the romance rules - because my character had already fallen in love.

Before Shogun started, I had fallen in love with a woman who broke my heart by disappearing without trace. As a result, my heart was scarred and I was bitter.

Of course, this being a freeform, she turned up during the course of the game and we had an emotional reunion. Unfortunately, she then found her husband (who she had thought was dead but still loved) and chose him over me.

So I ended up with my heart even more broken, and I spent the rest of the game telling everyone that love was nothing but pain and heartache and misery…

(We didn’t use the romance rules for any of that - they didn’t seem necessary.)

But I still got married! But I still ended up married. Towards the end of Saturday night I was discussing love and romance with Satomi, the pawnbroker. She was recently divorced, and we knew each other of old. We were both friends, both of us were scarred from romance and we weren’t trying to win each other’s heart.

But it made economic sense for us to pool our interests and get married. We shook on it, sought a blessing from a priest, and told anyone who would listen.

Geisha: I spent a very pleasant twenty minutes enjoying Chie-Chie’s hospitality in the geisha house, along with fellow actors Chen and Otomo. We drank jasmine tea and talked of this and that. Very restful.

What didn’t work quite so well

Apart from a couple of minor technical issues, my main problem in Shogun was that I sped through some of my plots - mainly because I got lucky. For example, I picked up an infection from somewhere, and the first person I approached afterwards was talking to a priest about malaria. Moments later, I was cured. And late on Friday night the first person I spoke to about my tattoo also had a similar tattoo.

I also had a couple of plots that didn’t really fire - but I’m not sure if that’s my fault or whether the plot was never likely to kick off. For example, I had a goal to be promoted into the samurai class. I pursued this only half-heartedly (and by the end of the game decided that I was glad to be a merchant), but it would have been hard work to persuade anyone because of the drop in honour that a clan would suffer by adopting a merchant.

That meant that I didn’t have too much to do on Sunday morning except relax and enjoy the dramatic final scenes of sumo wrestling, ninja battles, numerous showdowns, and several acts of seppuku. So maybe that was a good thing!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War

I didn’t know much about the Achtung! Cthulhu line, but the artwork made me think that it was a pulp game of fighting the Cthulhu Mythos during WW2 in the spirit of Hellboy. So when the Fate book was recently on sale, I picked it up as Fate (or at least Fate Accelerated) is currently my system of choice.

So these are my thoughts on Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War (or A!C:FGSW from now on).

TL;DR: Too much background, not enough game.

It turns out that A!C: FGSW isn’t very pulpy at all. Instead it’s a hugely detailed look at what the world (or at least the Western Front) was like during WW2. There are, for example, four pages describing the German military organisation, and another four pages detailing the different German units. And similar detail covering Allied units. There are pages and pages of detail about the different weapons and vehicles used in WW2.

A!C: FGSW also contains a wealth of information about life on the home front. For example, there’s half a page on music and songs of the era, and a section listing American/British/French/German movies.

(And there are four different timelines. Four! A general chronology of events from 1918 to 1945, plus a Britain specific chronology, plus a USA specific chronology, PLUS one for the Secret War.)

And I have to be honest, none of this was very useful for me. I already have a pretty good familiarity with most of this stuff - and if there was stuff I didn’t know I’d rather look it up in a “proper” reference book rather than a gamebook.

More importantly, I’ve never found this information particularly relevant to running a game. It’s just not necessary. And if that means that occasionally when I’m GM-ing and I don't know something, I would rather make something up and keep the game going rather than interrupt play to look something up.

Not enough game

By “game”, here I mean material to inspire me to run a game. I don’t mean character generation stuff and new rules and statistics for monsters. Those don't actually explain to me how the designer of the game is expecting Achtung! Cthulhu to be played.

All we have are some evocative captions to some of the pictures, and seven pages of (very brief) scenario seeds. Now I know I created Tales of Terror, but they were always meant to supplement the existing game materials, and not be the only inspiration.

So for me, there isn’t enough game material. The scenario seeds are fine, but I would also have liked to see two or three fully fleshed out scenarios as well.

(I think the answer to my question of “How does the designer expect me to play Achtung! Cthulhu?” is that the designer doesn’t have any intention of telling me how to play. A!C: FGSW contains advice for different modes (pulp action, military narrative, Lovecraftian bleakness, etc) and different USA and British organisations to employ the PCs. So it’s clearly there to support whatever style of game I want. But I’d still like to see some scenarios and adventures.)

Physically, what do you get?

Physically, A!C: FGSW is a 376 page softback book. The cover is colour, but the interiors are all black and white (although the pdf is full colour throughout). The art is lovely, although it’s a bit dark in the paperback (it’s much better in the pdf, where it is in full colour). The font, however, is tiny; for my eyes, I need to read it in good light.

This is a colour photo - honest!
The internal design is okay. Most modern RPGs are over-designed to my eyes, but this is relatively subdued with good contrast between font and background (if only the font were bigger!). The tables, illustrations and illustrations are held in place with tape or paperclips, giving it the feel of a briefing dossier, which I Iike.

The book is heavy - it’s heavier than the hardback Cthulhu Dark.

A!C: FGSW is split into two books. The first is the investigators’ guide, and the second is for the Keeper. So there’s a bit of duplication (and that’s why it contains more than one timetable).

Overall, with it’s teeny font, significant heft, and huge page count, A!C: FGSW feels intimidating to me.

The mythos and the war

Achtung! Cthulhu, in an essay by Ken Hite, cautions against using the Cthulhu Mythos to excuse the Nazi atrocities. Instead, several mythos-aware organisations are presented: Section M, the American Majestic (American), Cult of the Black Sun (Nazi) and Nachtwolfe (Nazi - a spinoff from the Black Sun). These are presented in the same detail as the rest of the history, including their founding and the different personalities (with statistics) involved.

Unfortunately there’s one sidebar detailing Codename: Starfish which involves using a colour out of space for British night-time aerial defence. Unfortunately this turns a creature of the Cthulhu Mythos into being horrific into just being a tool. It’s very pulpy, and is quite different to the tone in the rest of the book.

A!C: FGSW also includes 22 pages of mythos creatures, all with Fate statistics, stunts and other abilities. To be honest, that’s more crunch than I can manage - one of the reasons I prefer simpler, more free-form systems is that I can’t remember the crunch.

And what about the Fate stuff?

A!C: FGSW contains good rules for kicking off an adventure, including advice on modes (as mentioned above) and character creation. Fate Core’s phase trio is amended to include a reason why the PC has come to the attention of either Section M or Majestic, life before the war, and crossing paths with the other PCs.

There are plenty of NPCs presented - either key figures from history (Barnes Wallis’ aspects are brilliant all-around engineer, willing to get my hands dirty, highly sought after for my mind), example characters, or villains. I don’t always find it easy to come up with new aspects, so I liked having lots of examples to choose from.

The chapter on sanity tries to fit Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules into Fate. I’m not sure how successful this is - my personal feeling is that if you want to model Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, you’d be better off playing Call of Cthulhu. If I were running a pulp game I’d just use mental stress and consequences as per Fate.

(As an aside, I have never been a fan of the sanity system - to me it always felt like another set of hit points to keep track of. And personally I’d rather my investigators make it through the scenario rather than go insane part way through. But that’s a topic for another time.)

There are some new crunchy rules to reflect the nature of warfare in WW2. The most interesting of these is Scale - which one side gets when it has an overwhelming advantage (say a tank against an infantryman). Scale gives the side that has it a +4 shift bonus. There are also rules for armour, artillery and other crunchy stuff that I will probably forget (for the reasons mentioned above).

I’ve mentioned creatures above, but it’s worth mentioning that as well as having +6 “Rend and destroy all around”, shoggoths also have Scale… Best run away then.

There is also the obligatory list of tomes and spells (17 pages of spells!), all set up for use in Fate. A!C: FGSW introduces a magic point system for spells, a bit like Call of Cthulhu’s POW. Despite running and writing several Call of Cthulhu adventures, I’ve never actually let my players use magic and cast spells.

So who is Achtung! Cthulhu for?

As far as I can tell, the best use for Achtung! Cthulhu would be a great reference if you wanted to run a Call of Cthulhu game during WW2. There’s loads of detail, and a couple of mythos organisations to use either as employers or opponents.

But you don’t actually need Achtung! Cthulhu to do that. You could just use Call of Cthulhu and a couple of history books of your choice.

So who is A!C: FGSW for?

I have no idea. I've not tried using Fate for horror, but I'm not convinced it would work. Instead, I would use Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Dark. (I do wonder if part of the problem is that A!C: FGSW started life as a stretch goal for the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter. It was therefore always an add on.)

I can imagine running a Hellboy-esque game of pulp horror set in WW2, but there’s very little in A!C: FGSW that I would need for that.

Which is a bit of a shame, as clearly so much effort has gone into it.