Friday, 30 September 2016

Eat Well for Less

I am fascinated by Eat Well For Less, an undemanding BBC1 television programme in which Gregg Wallace (him from Masterchef) and Chris Bavin (who I’ve not seen before) show how a family can save money from their weekly shop. Usually the advice works along the lines of buy own-brand labels, and don’t buy prepared food, and the results can often be a saving of 60-70 each week.

I’m not always sure how much they really save. Sometimes in order to make the savings as shown, the families need to shop at four different supermarkets - clearly that’s unlikely to happen (you’d spend more on petrol than you would save).

But I’m mainly interested in the taste tests. Most of the time, it turns out that the families cannot tell the difference between branded food and own-brand food. And it turns out that they can save a significant amount of money by swapping from Coke to a supermarket’s own brand.


Studies have shown that there’s more to our perception (including taste) than just the taste sensation. Pepsi beats Coke in a blind taste test, but Coke beats Pepsi when people know what they are drinking.

From what I can tell, nobody is exactly sure why. I’ve seen a couple of theories. One theory suggests that Pepsi is slightly sweeter than Coke, which helps it in the taste tests. But that extra sweetness is its undoing in the long run as most people don’t want to guzzle litres of something very sweet.

However, I think my preferred theory is more about identity (and marketing). When you drink a Coke, you are buying into the Coke ideal, as promoted in all those sun-kissed adverts filled with beautiful people. Drinking a Coke makes you feel good, more so than drinking a Pepsi.

(Other research shows that branded painkillers are more effective than unbranded pain-killers, so there’s clearly some cognitive dissonance going on somewhere. This seems to be related to the placebo effect that puzzled me recently.)

Which is why I think that it’s harder to give up something like Coke, if that’s what you drink. It would be like giving up on your identity.

I suspect the link is less strong for something like canned tomatoes.

I’d be really interested to see Eat Well For Less revisit the families to see what the long-term changes are, but I’ve a feeling that’s outside the scope of the programme.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Current projects

These are my current games projects.

Death on the Gambia for Freeform Games

We changed our layout for our murder mystery games a few years back, introducing 8-page character booklets. Some of our older games are still in the old format, and as Death on the Gambia is one of those, I'm bringing it back into format.

I may also add a couple of characters. I want to add Aggie Marbles, a detective character who originally appeared in The Night Before Christmas and Dazzled to Death, but whom we have since added to Murder at Sea and others. And because she's a good guy, I probably need to balance that by adding a scoundrel as well.

I'm currently targeting early October (for the re-format - adding extra characters will take longer).

Sword Day for Peaky Games

Sword Day is one of my favourite games from Peaky, and I've been nagging the writers to publish it for ages. As I was becoming impatient, I asked them to give me access to the files and I would take it as far as I could. so that's what they've done.

Mostly I'm formatting the character sheets, and noting gaps (I have a list of questions).

The GM notes remain outstanding - things like the game timetable, instructions for preparing, and notes about the plots. The authors didn't need those (as it is all in their heads), but for everyone else they are essential. I will put a structure together, and leave gaps that then shouldn't take too much time to fill.

I should have that done by the end of October (at which point I'll need to go back to the authors).

Bubbling under

You could say that these projects have stalled, but it's truer to say that as I don't have unlimited time to work on this stuff. Typically I can only handle two projects (one of which is for Freeform Games) at any one time.

So these are simmering away in the background and will get their time in the sun when I have space.

Peaky Games Vol 1: Tornadoes, Swords and Pebbly Island

This is the next book of Peaky Freeforms. A few years ago I put together three books, each containing one game. The idea was that we'd sell them at conventions to support the Peaky Writing Weekend, but for various reasons that hasn't happened.

Following Larps from the Factory, I thought about creating a collection of Peaky freeforms, and this is the first one. So far I've got Small Town Folks and An Ecumenical Matter (both of which are already available for sale), and when Sword Day is read I'll drop that in.

So that's waiting for Sword Day.

Tales of Terror

Earlier in the year I tried to resurrect Tales of Terror, but as often happens with Tales of Terror, things stalled. I've got two things planned for Tales of Terror. The first is to get all the old tales from the website onto the blog, and the other is to turn my Tales in to a book.

Neither of these are high on my to-do list.

Other London

Other London is an urban fantasy setting that my good friend Jon created back in the 90s. It was a bit of this and a bit of that, and I've always thought we should turn it into a setting of some sort. As we're both fans of Fate (and Fate Accelerated in particular), and we like the worldbooks that Evil Hat have been putting out, we're starting to explore what an Other London worldbook would look like.

I'm very aware that the world is awash with urban fantasy games and settings, but maybe we've all got a fantasy heartbreaker inside us somewhere.

A Neolithic Fate Accelerated scenario

I spent a happy week on Orkney this summer with the family, visiting Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Stones of Stennes, the Ring of Brodgar (right), Ness of Brodgar and lots of other ancient monuments.

I hadn't realised until I visited Orkney quite how close these sites are to one another, and that got me thinking about running a scenario of some sort set in Neolithic times.

If I can get this to work I may run it at GoPlayLeeds or Furnace next year.

Other Freeform Games work

I also need to reformat Snow Business and Happy Birthday RJ, so these will follow Death on the Gambia. Or I might resurrect The Reality is Murder, a game that I'm supposed to be editing (but haven't worked on in years).

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Do placebos work if you don't believe in them?

Yesterday I watched the glucosamine trial on BBC's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (which I saw on iPlayer) with interest as I am currently taking glucosamine for a bit of joint pain in my knees.
The detailed trial results are here, but the essence is that 50% of the trial group did a simple strengthening exercise (with 80% success rate), the other half of the trial took a supplement (with 55% success rate).

55% is still pretty good, but at the end of the trial it was revealed that the supplement was in fact a sugar pill - a placebo. They weren't taking glucosamine at all.

So I then wondered about the supplement half of the trial. Did their joint pain immediately come back, now that they knew that they had been taking a placebo? Or did it stay away?

The programme didn't answer that, but a quick Google search revealed this article in the Guardian, which talks about research that placebos seem to work even when patients know they're taking a placebo.

(I also found this article criticising the study on the grounds that because the subjects were told that placebos have a powerful effect, they were lied to and effectively manipulated into believing that they would - and as a result the placebo effect kicked in.)

Which makes me wonder what's going on. It seems clear to me that there's something psychological going on, but is a case of "This nice man in a position of authority is telling me that this sugar pill works, therefore it will."? Or maybe "Because I am doing something about my pain I am therefore getting better."

Or is it something else?

One thing I haven't seen is whether placebos work if you don't believe in them. So for that 45% of the trial, why didn't it work for them? Was it because the pain was too intense, or was there something else going on?

(As for me, I'm trying the exercises as I'd rather not take a supplement if I don't need to. We'll see how that goes.)

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Six linked Amber Zones

I've been enjoying a bit of nostalgia following the recent Bundle of Holdings for Traveller and GURPS Traveller.

I've never had so much Traveller goodness as I do now!

Anyway, it made me go back into my files and dig out six linked Amber Zones that I wrote for a little fanzine called Cerebreton, way back in the late 1980s.

I've updated them with links to the Traveller Map and the Traveller wiki, but apart from that they're pretty much unchanged. Here they are:

AZ1: Search for the Stardrive

AZ2: The Skywhale

AZ3: The God Monster

AZ4: Where Eagles Dare

AZ5: The Derelict

AZ6: The Poseidon Adventure

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Kindle gamebooks

Over the summer I turned the free version of our Way out West murder mystery game into a book, using Amazon’s Createspace. You can read more about that on the Freeform Games blog.

Way out West's cover
One thing that Amazon made it pretty easy to do was to turn your Createspace files into a Kindle file as well. And while I made a couple of changes to the layout (largely to remove some tables, which the Kindle software didn’t really like), the Kindle version of Way out West and the book version of Way out West are the same.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about creating a Kindle version. Just because I could doesn’t mean that I should have.

I’ve read three gamebooks to date on my Kindle Paperwhite (FATE Core, The Esoterrorists and DungeonWorld), and none of them have been completely satisfactory.

In episode 172 of Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff Ken Hite puts his finger on the problem. He suggests that there hasn't been a good graphic design that overcomes the difference between the schizophrenia of a RPG manual needing to both teach the game AND be a technical reference manual.

And that problem is compounded when you read a game on a Kindle. Kindles are great for long-form reading (like a novel), but lousy for anything where you have to flip between sections (like a gamebook).

I don’t think anyone expects someone to run a game on a Kindle - instead a Kindle edition should be about teaching the game. That’s certainly my reason for reading RPG games on my Kindle. But instead I’ve had to wade through pages of skills...

So I was in two minds about turning Way out West into a Kindle Edition.

My reasoning for doing it ended up as follows:

  • I wanted to see what was involved in the process, in case I ended up doing it again. I know that’s not a particularly customer-focused reason, but it was still a reason.
  • I had already spent some time thinking about how the book would be laid out compared to the downloadable pdf files. The Way out West book is ordered in such a way that it hopefully makes sense to anyone wanting to read it from start to finish. It’s actually ordered differently to the downloadable pdfs, which are arranged according to how they needed to be printed out.
  • We really don’t expect anyone to run Way out West from the Kindle Edition. No, really. But they can download the free version for that from our website. So the Kindle edition is a taster, a marketing hook rather than the main product itself.

Having done it once, if we were to turn another of our murder mystery games into a book, I doubt I would bother creating a Kindle edition - not unless demand was unexpectedly high.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

DramaAspects for Fate

The last time I ran Fate I used Hillfolk to create “drama-aspects” for all of the characters. Well, I didn’t create them - the players did.

This is what I did and what happened.

The Crasta Demon

I’ve written a short three hour convention game for Fate Accelerated, which I ran for my regular bunch of players. The game involves members of the city guard investigating a demon.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to me to be invested in my character when I’m playing a one-shot, so I had the players do the following:

  • I asked them to describe their most recent exploit together, and I asked them what impressed them about one of their colleagues - and they could use that as an aspect if they wanted.
  • I let them choose their last stunt (I’d carefully chosen the other two stunts for them - based on what I knew was coming up).
  • And I got all Hillfolk on them.

In terms of Hillfolk, what I did was ask them what they wanted from one of the other characters (love, respect, forgiveness, power, etc), and then asked that player why they couldn’t have it. (I made sure that these relationships were evenly spread - we could have done more but I only wanted a hint of Hillfolk.)

Here’s what they came up with:

  • Captain Wickham: ‘I want Librarian Helsing’s subservience (but he thinks I’m an idiot).’
  • Librarian Helsing: ‘I want power over Private Loxley (but she won’t grant it as I’m outside the chain of command).’
  • Private Loxley: ‘I want Captain Wickham’s love (but he won’t fraternise with his troops).’

These then became one of their aspects.

Two sessions

We played the scenario over two sessions (which means I may need to trim the scenario a bit for when I run it at a con).

I let the players decide how to run with these aspects - I didn’t push them at all, except that the start of the second session I asked the players to remind me what their aspects were.

As it turned out, these aspects lead to some lovely roleplaying at times, particularly in the second session. (It’s possible that in the first one they got lost in amongst the rest of the team-building.)

Although I set them up as aspects, we didn’t invoke or compel them. They influenced play, but we could have been more mischievous; Helsing could have offered a fate token to Wickham to get him into trouble ‘because you want my subservience and you don’t want me to think that you’re an idiot.’ We didn’t do that, but it’s something I shall try and remember for the future.

(Being a short game, we didn’t have to worry about resolving any of these drama-aspects. In a longer game Loxley might have decided to leave the Watch, which would overcome the obstacle to Wickham’s love. That might then result in a new drama-aspect - depending on how events played.)

Player feedback

After the game the players told me that they really enjoyed the drama-aspects, and that they influenced how they played their characters. Certainly there were some lovely moments that only occurred because we’d set up the drama-aspects.

I’ll definitely do it again.