Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Peaky 2016

Peaky is the annual freeform (larp) writing weekend held in April in Derbyshire. It is organised by Peaky Games. Games are written on Friday evening and Saturday, and then played on the Sunday. It's been going since 2001 and is my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

From what I saw, and judging from the very subjective measures of "energy in the room" and "post-game frothing,” ReGenesis looked to me as if it would be heading the pack if we had a "Best Peaky Game of 2016" award. (We don't.)

Obviously I'm biased as I was on the writing team for ReGenesis. (And two of the games I only heard about, so I could be doing them a huge disservice.)

AIs learning who they are in ReGenesis

But, for me, Peaky 2016 was also very disatisfying, and for at least two reasons.

But before I get to those, here are some thoughts on the games I played.

Trenches was written by Ben Allen, Alli Mawhinney, Ric Mawhinney, Rich Perry and is set in a trench in the grim universe of Warhammer 40K, on the eve of "the big push", a probably suicidal charge to capture an enemy stronghold. It mashes Blackadder Goes Forth with Warhammer 40K.

I played Corporal Booker, one of the unfortunate squaddies. We had a clueless commander, a scary psyker, a political officer and a whole bunch of grunts. It was dark and intense, and we filled it with gallows humour. Unsurprisingly, it didn't have a happy ending. Some died, and those who lived had an uncertain future.

Personally, I don't think it needs much more than a light edit (to make sure those unfamiliar with the background aren't left floundering). It will never appeal to everyone, but as a dark antidote to all those other cheerier freeforms, it's ideal.

Miss Maypole and the Case of the Wretched Admiral was written by Graham Arnold, Nickey Barnard, Natalie Curd, Clare Gardner, Abi Kirby, Sue Lee. Set in the same world as the 2010 Peaky game (Miss Maypole and the Christmas Pudding Affair), this game involved a 1934 Scottish country house, a dead body, mysterious rituals, a nearby Naval base and other mysteries.

I played a school physical exercise teacher who is coaching an ex-pupil to become an Olympian. I ran out of plot relevant to my character fairly quickly and gravitated to whatever interested me. I had a nice enough time though and with a bit of development it will be a fine ‘traditional’ freeform.

My biggest issue with the game came in the debrief, when the main plot that I thought was going on, the murder, turned out not to be a murder at all. (I felt not having a murder was a bit of an omission when the whole game is set up to feel like a Miss Marple murder mystery.) But it's only the first draft, and maybe they'll put a murder in. I would.


So, ReGenesis. ReGenesis was written by Theo Clarke, Tony Mitton, Tym Norris, Mike Snowden, Karolina Soltys, and me.

It concerns four scientists working on developing six humanoid AIs in an isolated Finnish complex. The four scientists have slightly different agendas, while the AIs are discovering their place in the world and learning emotions and skills... What could go wrong?

A combination of me being very tired on Friday evening (by about 9pm most of my energy was spent) and organising the Sunday game timetable (plenty of that below) meant that I didn't always fully understand where we were going with the game, and drifted in and out. (The game was inspired by Ex Machina, which I've not seen, so that didn't help either.)

Hard at work writing ReGenesis

I think my input was some proofreading of the scientist characters, a few paragraphs of text about what the scientists knew about each other, and I wrote the mechanics for the AIs learning new skills.

So although ReGenesis appeared to be a resounding success, I didn't contribute as much as I would have liked.

And it certainly wasn't perfect: our biggest problem was that the poor scientists had a multi-page character booklet to absorb and didn't have anywhere near long enough to absorb it. In an ideal world they would have had a 20 minute head start on the AIs, but that's not something we were able to give them. (We hadn't recognised beforehand that it would be necessary.)

We also have a naming issue. ReGenesis is also the name of another larp. We'll change the name of ours if we ever do anything with it. (And I’ve just learned that it’s the title of a tv series. Welrd.)

The Sunday Game Timetable

My other challenge was Sunday's game timetable.

At one point, it looked as if everything was going to be just perfect for Sunday. We appeared to have games of the right size, and enough players that everything would just slot together nicely.

Oh, how I was wrong...

Peaky had 29 attendees this year. Experience has told us to keep writing groups to no more than five or six writers (in general), and with 29 that results in five groups of five, and a group of four. (We don't always stick with this, but it's a good rule of thumb.)

Assuming that all the writers are available to play (and also want to see the game they've written being run), then that means that they will typically have about nine or ten players from the other groups available to them. If they need more players, it's up to them to source them (we usually do this by having the writers play characters).

Organising the game timetable means juggling the needs of the writers (in terms of needing players for their games) and the available players. The two don't always match.

This year, my first iteration was pretty good. Everybody would be happy - there were players enough for everyone.

And then I went to share the timetable, only to learn that five players were leaving mid-afternoon, which meant that there were only 24 people for the last slot of the day. I reshuffled the timetable and re-ran the casting, and inevitably one of the games now in the last slot did not have enough players. Unfortunately, they couldn't make up numbers from their writers, and they weren't able to drop characters at that stage (about 9pm Saturday).

We ended up with a compromise. By taking 15 minutes from lunch, the previous games, and the comfort breaks between games, we created a fourth slot and only finish an hour later than normal. This wasn't ideal - the day was even more rushed than it usually is and I think all the games could have done with longer, both during them and in the breaks.

So all this took several hours to figure out on Saturday, made me grumpy, and took me away from writing and preparing ReGenesis.

What I've learned

So here’s what I’ve learned.

A more robust process. I'm going to think more about the process of organising Sunday. It will always involve judgement and seat-of-the-pants organisation, but I really suffered this year by not having all the information I needed. So I have set up an Excel file to remind me to capture everything. (And I'm doing it now while it is fresh in my mind!)

I'm not expecting this to solve all the problems, but I want to be able to identify them early so that we can discuss them in good time.

A slicker process should mean that I spend less time firefighting and more time writing.

Visual management: I sorted out the changed running times first thing Sunday morning, and wrote it all up on a flipchart and taped that to the wall. I found it very useful, so I will do that again.

Be popular or be flexible! And when I'm writing a freeform, it needs to either be popular (which means writing a compelling description that appeals to those present) or flexible (to manage variable player numbers). Or ideally, popular and flexible.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


Icerigger by Alan Dean Foster

Nearly 40 years ago, I discovered science fiction. I discovered it through the Star Wars novelization in the summer of 1977, and I must have read it four or five times before I saw the film itself. Shortly after, I came across Alan Dean Foster's Bloodhype in the occasional school bookshop. That was my first entry into the Humanx/Commonwealth universe. Although Bloodhype isn't the easiest of reads, I was hooked.

(It was years later that I discovered that the Star Wars novelization had been ghost written by ADF.)

I guess I read Icerigger a year or so later, and I'm sure I've read it since then, but I'm sure it's been at least 25 years since I last read it. We've been clearing out junk, and I came across Icerigger and thought that before I pass it on I ought to re-read it.

Icerigger follows a half dozen humans castaway on the icy planet of Tran-ky-ky. There they encounter the primitive Tran, fight off a vast horde, encounter enormous whale slugs, build an enormous clipper-style ice ship (the Slanderscree, the icerigger of the title), and eventually make their way back to civilisation.

It's harder to read than I remember. ADF's writing style is slightly archaic, and scattered with obscure terms that I occasionally need to loo up (or more likely, just ignore). These days I wouldn't normally have the time for it - I don't like having to struggle over the writing style. The plot isn't earth-shattering, but I really like ADF's Humanx universe: aliens, mysteries, and larger-than-life characters.

The plot uses a lot of standard ADF tropes:

  • Intriguing aliens, evolved for their environments (in this case the Tran, whose claws evolved into skates and have a wing membrane that allows them to skate across Tran-ky-ky's ice). If I had a criticism of the Tran (and other ADF aliens), its that they aren't very alien - but there are few SF authors that truly manage that.
  • Immense, indestructable creatures (stavanzers, a sort of jet-propelled whale-slug). These are sometimes used as a weapon by our heroes as a weapon against another unstoppable foe (in this case against the Horde, in Midworld, one column of Akadi is used against another).
  • A journey, peppered with encounters (a lot of ADF's novels work like this - it's perhaps most obvious in the Spellsinger series).

As far as gender equality goes, Icerigger is a product of its time. There are three named female characters in the entire book - and none of them are particularly strong or have significant presence. If Icerigger was a movie, it would fail the Bechdel test.

Science fiction often underestimates advances in computing power, but this isn't an obvious flaw with Icerigger. After the first few pages, our heroes are stranded and spend their time with the primitive Tran, so I didn't miss the lack of processing power.

My copy of Icerigger was published by New England Library (NEL) in 1976 and features a cover by Tim White. One thing I really liked about NEL's treatment of the ADF novels was their consistent presentation: they used the same font and general cover design, and most of them had Tim White covers.

I enjoyed reading Icerigger again. I was initially frustrated with the way it was written, but I soon overlooked that as I became caught up in the plot. When I first picked it up, I thought it unlikely that I would enjoy it enough to read the sequels (Mission to Moulokin and The Deluge Drivers), but I'm pretty sure I will be reading them soon.