Tuesday 28 April 2020

Philosophies of Bastionland

Alignment in D&D is pretty dumb. Planescape is the one good thing that has risen out of that mess.

So Bastionland doesn't have Alignment as a thing you write down on your character sheet. It certainly doesn't have mechanics for how your character should respond to ethical dilemmas. That's on you.

The closest thing you'll find are Philosophies, which bump up against the old idea of aligning yourself to one side of the great cosmic conflict, but here the conflict spans from the distant stars to the depths of the Underground and runs through the very gutters of Bastion.

So you might meet somebody that's acting in a very particular way, and find out that it's down to their particular Philosophy on life. Sometimes this takes a religious appearance, sometimes it's part of their cultural upbringing, and sometimes it's something new they've latched onto after reading a very persuasive magazine article. Generally it's not about faith, though. Having a Philosophy isn't about claiming to know the truth, it's about what sort of questions you ask yourself.

The key thing is that nobody is really defined by their Philosophy. They're more than that. It doesn't make them utterly predictable AIs to manipulate, and they still have other stuff going on in their life. Use it like a condiment rather than the main ingredient. Throw it onto that character you created that would benefit from a little extra going on beneath the surface.

Generally there are the "big three" Philosophy groups: Humanists, Alienists, and Machinists, then a bunch of others. As you might have guessed, people with very similar Philosophies are often much more hostile to each other than those with wildly different worldviews.

Naturally, their tenets can be broken down into three bullet points each, usually a declarative statement, a question, and then a call to action that arose from this line of thinking.

Any similarity to real Philosophies, even those that share the same name, is unintentional.

Generally these look at the human condition and often put humanity up on something of a pedestal, but ask "why are we so special?".

  • We are living in the cultural and technological peak of humanity. 
  • Will the future really be better than this?
  • Embrace everything about this modern age and try to keep things this way!

  • Baztiurds

  • Bastion is the greatest city to ever exist, and great things can only be built on great foundations.
  • Are perhaps the foundations better than the actual city?
  • Embrace our city's past, even the bits we can't verify!
  • Chewing a piece of gum can help you focus on a task, or think something over.
  • How can we use this to make the whole world a happier place?
  • Give everything your full focus and make sure you keep plenty of gum!

  • Alienists
    The stars might be the most obvious place to look for answers, and it all escalated when we started seeing Aliens setting up shop in Bastion.

  • We spent centuries staring at the stars, asking questions, and then the Aliens came.
  • Where else could we look for answers?
  • Ask questions in unlikely places, look for patterns, and let yourself gaze!

  • Hosts
  • Aliens are not necessarily better than us, but they're more advanced in specific ways.
  • What could we learn from them if we offer ourselves in return?
  • Make Bastion a haven for Aliens of all types, that we might learn their secrets!

  • Utopians
  • Aliens come to Bastion from the Living Stars, but they often return after a short time.
  • Can we assume their homes are superior to ours?
  • Find a way to the stars to find a better life for humanity!

  • Machinists
    The Underground seems to break all the rules, and Machines are innately tied to it. There must be something that can be exploited there, especially if you've gotten accustomed to making and controlling machinery.

  • Machinery has made our lives better, and now Machines are making more Machines.
  • With the Machines having surpassed us, why bother trying to understand anything ourselves?
  • Obey anything that comes out of a Machine!

  • Underminers
  • The machines appear to have the secrets to how the Underground works.
  • We can break down normal machinery, so why not the capital-M Machines?
  • Break down anything necessary to try and better understand the world!

  • Pilgrimists
  • Machines seem to challenge those that travel the Underground and observe the results.
  • They must be doing this for a reason. Doesn't every Machine have a purpose?
  • Undertake every challenge with glee, and bring challenge to others' lives!

  • Others
    Outside the big three there are plenty of other people asking the big questions.

  • Mockeries seem to be enjoying their fake life a lot more than true living beings.
  • Would we all be happier if we lived a more theatrical life?
  • Make the whole world a stage and resist any sort of authenticity!

  • Fallacists
  • Mockeries and Fallacies are convincing imitations of life.
  • How can we be sure that anything is real?
  • Sow as much uncertainty and misinformation as you can, so that we might hit critical-mass and loop around to true enlightenment!

  • Bestiarists
  • Practically every type of animal has found a way to live in Bastion.
  • If animals are taking over our world, should we not look to their world for conquest?
  • Take everything you can from animals, from their servitude to lifestyle tips!

  • Friday 24 April 2020

    Collaborative Bastionland

    Getting a group in the same room isn't as easy as it used to be.

    There's nothing stopping you playing Electric Bastionland one-on-one, but how about an alternative for if you want to play with two people sat on the same side of the table?

    Traditional one-on-one gaming. 

    Ohh yeah, now we're talking. Let's do this!

    Collaborative Bastionland

    This game uses the same rules as Electric Bastionland with the following additions.

    The Companion

    Both players create their own character as normal. A third character is created: the Companion. They are part of the group, but are controlled by whichever player currently holds the Baton.

    The Baton

    Pick an object that is otherwise useless at the table to be the Baton, ideally some sort of stick. If you have a real Conductor's Baton then you're playing at maximum effectiveness.

    Whichever player has the Baton acts as the Conductor. They describe the world, answer questions, call for rolls, and act on behalf of any non-player characters, including the Companion.

    The Baton is passed between the players at intervals that feel right. As a rough guide pass the Baton when you think "hm, should I pass the Baton?" and in general don't refuse the Baton being passed to you.

    You can still have your character act while you hold the Baton, but if you're taking the lead on an action then it's a good idea to pass the Baton.

    I won't make hard rules for this, just do what feels right and discuss it between yourselves if it feels wrong.


    In addition to normal character creation, each player has two Agendas. It's important that these are secret, and that both players have different Agendas, so write them out on cards or scraps of paper before randomly assigning two to each player.

    1. Laugh at Danger.
    2. Get Answers.
    3. Build a Reputation. 
    4. Indulge your Senses. 
    5. Change the World.
    6. Establish Order.

    The player keeps one Agenda next to their character and places the other next to the Companion's sheet. The player will be aiming to fulfil these Agendas for their character or the Companion respectively.

    Remember these must both be kept secret and players should resist asking the other player about their Agenda or talking about their own. If you just tell each other then you're robbing yourselves of the fun.

    At the end of the session each player reveals their agendas. Argue over who achieved theirs the best, that player gets MVP. If it feels like a tie then surely you can agree that one of the Companion's Agendas was more fully achieved, right? Think of that like the tie breaker. That player gets MVP. 

    So yeah, you can kinda win at this. It's cooperative, but there's a silly little competition happening alongside the game to give things a little edge.

    Laying the Foundations

    Go to the Mapping Bastion (p252) section of the book (or Deep Country or the Underground if you prefer) and work through the process together to create a Borough on a big sheet of paper. Pass the Baton between each of the steps.

    Keep it broad here, just names and loose ideas to be fleshed out once you start proper play. Make good use of the Spark Tables and don't go above two words for any single element of the world.

    Go to "Random Game Inspiration" (p241) and roll on the Spark Tables. Use this as inspiration for a piece of Treasure and its current location/holder and the time-pressure that applies.

    Put the Treasure at one end of the map and yourselves at the furthest possible point.

    Describing the World

    The world is discovered as the player with the Baton answers questions or makes new declarations. Make good use of the content in the "Understanding Bastion" and "Conducting Bastion" sections, especially the Spark Tables and Touchstones.

    Add details to your map as they are discovered.

    Combat and Danger

    This should all work fine as normal. Remember the principles in the Conducting the Game section (p242). Be honest, fair, and confident. If your character is the only one in mortal danger then it's a good idea to pass the Baton.

    So this replaces the Conductor right? Why not use this all the time?

    The type of game this method produces is definitely going to be different than a traditional game with a full table and single Conductor. The challenge element is probably going to feel lower, as you don't have a fully neutral arbiter, or even a neutral uncaring world to go up against. It's pushing up more against those collaborative worldbuilding games, and I think it's only going to work if you play with somebody you trust.

    Think of it as a different way to explore the same Bastionland.

    Wednesday 22 April 2020

    d6 Bastionane Beverage Establishments

    While there are bits of Bastion that are what you'd imagine as industrial, residential, commercial, or civic districts, it's important to remember Bastion's Triple Rule.

    And as everything has multiple purposes, one of them is most likely to feel out of place. Even in the quietest bits of the city there's something going on if you stop and take a look around.

    A common theme is finding that a seemingly unrelated establishment is also operating as a bar.

    When the players stop and look around to find a bar, roll d6 for a Bastionane Beverage Establishment

    1: Soggy Little Sparks
    • Crumbly sandstone building patched up with colourfully painted wooden boards.
    • Destitute children use shoddy tools to fix electrical equipment in between shaking sweet cocktails over ice.
    • They work for a pittance, have alarming street-smarts, but occasionally splash water onto the electronics with disastrous results.
    2: No-Frock-Alley Theatre
    • Radical art collective that allow anybody to join in their improvised theatre as long as they strip and burn their clothes right there and then.
    • Cast members are entitled to use any of the props piled up this alley for their act.
    • This includes a well-stocked bar, so most people are just using it as a booze-buffet.
    3: New Textual Cafe
    • An exclusive new service where visitors can sit at a television and view electronic text, calling in to the Bastion Broadcast Office to add their own messages, all while sipping overpriced coffee.
    • It's mostly crude poetry, dirty jokes, and bad fantasy literature.
    • There's a hidden code that lets you order discretely-served but devastatingly-potent drinks from the cafe staff. 
    4: Leviathan Milk Thumper

    • A huge pumping station connects to pipes deep in the underground, connected to a Deep Leviathan to extract its milk.
    • The milk is three ways:
      • Raw (£2, ultra-nourishing, but pretty foul)
      • Thumped (£4, sent back through the pipes, where ferments into a sour, cloudy beverage)
      • Double-Thumped (£12, sent back into the "long pipes" where it returns as a clear spirit, which grants visions of the Underground to those that drink it and doubles as a powerful catalyst for many chemical processes)
    • There are rumours of the mystical effects of "Triple Thumped" leviathan milk, but the staff assure you that they do not serve this version.

    5: Ghost Bombers Spritz Bar
    • When it comes to ghosts in Bastion, it isn't that there's no proof, it's more that nobody agrees on what constitutes proof of ghosts when there are so many weird holographic machines, immaterial aliens, and even Mock Ghosts creating confusion.
    • This office serves clients that want to get rid of whatever ghost-like being is intruding on their property. They get the client to sign an extensive waiver and then deploy "Ghost Bombs" (actually just bombs) on the property. When only rubble remains the being has usually left as well.
    • Their Customer Complaints department also serves as a bar serving ghost-themed spritzes, and is popular enough that drinkers will often just fabricate a complaint so that they can go and drink there.
    6: The Geologitastic Roadshow

    • A sprawling road-train that operates as a mobile museum, nay, carnival of geology.
    • Visitors are admitted to the front of the train and must enjoy each exhibit-carriage in full before moving to the next. After around two hours they will reach the Caboose Bar, which has an extensive range of beers from across the city, all served in Stone Steins which the bartender will go to great lengths to educate you on.
    • You can stay in the bar as long as you like, but the roadshow is always moving on, so when you leave you'll be in a completely different Borough. 

    Sunday 19 April 2020

    Bastionland Broadcasting

    I'm making a tentative dip into Twitch this week with a deep dive into Electric Bastionland. I'll go through the book one spread at a time to discuss the decisions behind the design, how things changed over the course of development, and the lessons that were learned.

    The stream will be live at 9pm BST, Tuesday 21st April over at twitch.tv/bastionland

    Friday 17 April 2020

    d50 Birds of Bastion

    You all liked d100 Horses?

    Roll d50 to find which weird bird is around here.

    Arnold, this is a challenge. Make this up to d100. Our Horses need avian companionship.

    Unless noted, assume 3hp, STR 5 and a peck too small to do any real harm.
    1. Medician Crane: Waist-high black crane with a scalpel-sharp bill (d4) and adhesive spit. Cultivated by the rich and sent into poor areas to administer ineffective surgery. 
    2. Protobird: Knee-high dinosaur-thing with yapping jaws (d6). Forced to live on rooftops among its feathered cousins. Hates what it has become. 
    3. Legal Eagle: Fat grey eagle. Enforces only unwritten rules, mostly through squawking but can use its Talons (d6) if ignored.
    4. Coalman's Parrot: Dull yellow, with a taste for spicy and picante foods. Traditionally taken as pets by miners and fed mustard in exchange for limited conversation.
    5. Steam Penguin: Incredibly tough little things that hang around steam-vents before hunting down large fish as part of a ruthlessly effective pack. 
    6. Major Falcon: Huge red bird of prey that seems utterly ineffective at hunting anything living in Bastion. A few environmental organisations work tirelessly to set up fake prey for the few surviving specimens to hunt, as they will not accept charity food.
    7. Unnamed Goose: A breed of goose known for malicious behaviour, leading to it being stripped of its former name, which is now stricken from all archives. 
    8. Cog Crow: Clever golden-eyed blackbirds, bred to collect any loose machine-parts and take them to a single pile in Bastion. Nobody knows who bred them for this purpose, but nobody is laying claim to the scrap heap.
    9. Hangman's Flamingo: Dark grey and silent, they hang from their feet in condemned buildings and covered alleyways, picking off spiders and rats, and giving trespassers a nasty fright.
    10. Kestrellion: Small, white cloaked bird of prey that seems to have limited control over inferior birds. Will often sit at a vantage point and cause pigeons and gulls to fly straight into a dog or pony, before swooping in and delivering the killing blow to the weakened prey.
    11. Sire of the Spires: Dove-like bird with distinctive grey/white triangle markings. No being can bring themselves to willingly harm these birds, and their growing population seems to favour temple roofs for their nests. 
    12. Steward's Condor: Especially large, muscular breed of this already huge bird. Can glide, but not really able to take-off anymore. Bred as intimidating guard pets, they actually have a very gentle manner.
    13. Mammoth Mynah: Horse-sized bird-of-burden known for imitating its owner in the most unflattering light. 
    14. Mortar Pecker: Quick little red birds with a steely beak. Can be seen swarming over old buildings, gathering mortar from the brickwork to use in their sturdy nests. Can cause a building to collapse if left undeterred. 
    15. Clubber Kite: Graceful, hovering bird of prey that has mastered the art of dropping rocks onto their prey. In Bastion they have adapted to dropping rocks on the heads of unaware street-food enthusiasts and scooping up the fallen kebabs and rice-balls. 
    16. Limb Vulture: Stooped, flightless, and barely able to hold the weight of its huge, chomping beak. Will approach an already weakened victim before attempting to tear off a single limb to feed on. 
    17. Bleeding Dove: Deep red with black eyes and beak. Bred for releasing at funerals as a more sombre alternative to white doves.
    18. Reid's Heron: Unkempt black feathers and distinctive blue eyes. To attract mates, the males gather rough cuts of metal and scrape them together to create an atonal cacophony. The loudest and most unpleasant is the most successful at attracting a female.
    19. Parallelican: A clumsy sea-bird that simultaneously exists above and below the surface. The airborn version scouts for fish while the underwater version scoops them up in its gaping maw. 
    20. Patched Bucket-Head: A great crested sea-duck occasionally seen in Bastion's harbours. Stories tell of these ducks helping sailors to bail out water from sinking ships with their deep, broad bills. There's no record of this actually happening, but crews will often throw some scraps to them if they're seen at sea.
    21. Green Owl: Always covered in a thick layer of moss, which they have adapted to cultivate as a means of camouflage. Always seen in pairs, tending to each others coats, which doubles as a secondary source of nutrition.
    22. Immortal Canary: An unremarkable-looking variety of small yellow bird. They are completely immune to toxins and diseases, require no food or water, and don't even seem to age. If they do not suffer a violet death at the claws of a cat they could theoretically live forever. Nobody has yet managed to harness this ability, but they still fetch a vast price for those interested in such things.
    23. Widow's Hoser: Fat, blue, trumpet-billed thing with a mournful cry. Often seen in cemeteries rummaging for grubs in the fresh earth. 
    24. Trap Weaver: Bright yellow birds that craft elaborate nests out of twisted vegetation. This specific variety have adapted their nests to function as traps, springing shut when an intruder enters and suffocating them under the pressure.
    25. Pink Egret: Long-legged beach-bird that each guard their own rock-pool aggressively. They cultivate their own food supply in their pool, even heading out to sea to bring in specific prey to breed. 
    26. Hossbird: Cheery little blue bird with a distinctive, syncopated song. Horses in particular seem amused by them, so they often form a sort of symbiotic relationship where the bird cleans mites from the horse's main in return for a song.
    27. Electro Grackle: Glistening indigo bird that seems attracted to large buildups of electromagnetism, often building their nests around pylons or generators. 
    28. Coualing: Tiny beige birds, barely thumb-length, with black mask-like markings around their eyes. Descend on other bird's nests in packs to feed on their eggs and young and even tear apart the nest for materials. 
    29. Linton's Partridge: Tragic-looking game bird. Formerly the official emblem of a luxurious boroughs. After one of these birds accidentally killed the mayor during a civil ceremony they were banished, but now these formerly pampered birds are usually seen begging for scraps.
    30. Fairy-Rat: Resembles a colourful feathered rat, barely capable of frantic flight. Children believe that feeding it sweets will yield wishes, but all they have is a bacteria-ridden bite that tends to cause fevered delusions. 
    31. Gutter Gull: Dirty white gulls that waddle through the gutters of Bastion, getting fat on spilled gravy and drunk on discarded beer, after which they usually become aggressive.
    32. Creeper Finch: A wingless, four-legged little bird that excels at climbing walls and sneaking into open windows, raiding homes for scraps of bred or fruit.
    33. Cowbird: Stubborn little owl that fights off any attackers with its deceptively sharp horns (d6). Always seems to build its nest in warm, cosy locations, where they annoy the existing residents with a low, constant, mooing hoot.
    34. Lone Starling: Small black bird with a sharp bill. Instinct seems to draw them together, but they do nothing but squabble loudly, making them a real pest to be around. 
    35. Caw Hen: Bright red chicken with strong talons allowing it to haul its flightless body up to perch on branches. Their eggs are delicious, with large buttery yolks, but the hen seems content to lay them straight from the branch to smash on the floor, so they are often carefully stalked, with a net ready to catch. 
    36. Lobster Pigeon: Your standard grey vermin-bird, but this variety hides a grey-blue carapace under its feathers. It can't fly for long, but birds of prey hoping for an easy meal are usually deterred by its toughness.
    37. Death Quail: Pale little flightless birds kept as pets by the fashionable. In day they enter a sleep so deep that they appear completely dead, but at night they are full of life, eagerly hopping about and gathering loose seeds, fruit, or carrion. 
    38. Catterrail: Secretive little brown bird, flightless but with a keen beak it uses to catch mice and small rats. Rarely seen but appear to swarm out of the woodwork to deter any cats from entering their territory.
    39. Gobbling Hawk: A ridiculous wattled head on a majestic golden body. This bird of prey casts a broad shadow, descending on dogs and even small donkeys to tear them apart in a gobbling frenzy.
    40. Under-Turkey: A rare breed that makes its home primarily in the Underground. Smaller than a traditional turkey, but sporting a peacock-like spectrum of colours. They always know the way to the surface, and scurry towards there in case of danger. 
    41. Robber's Duck: Black-headed duck with an iridescent body and golden bill. If placed in an unfamiliar location (such as a bank) they start to repeat a quacking snore noise, which causes other creatures (including humans) to get a sudden urge to sleep. 
    42. Billy-Burra: Crooked little grey bird that bounds after large snails, spiders, and small lizards with its crunching beak. They all respond to their name (Billy) if called, so are often kept as pets and called out to deal with unpleasant creepy-crawlies in the house.
    43. Sparroc: Fat, football-sized sparrow that seems to have eaten its way out of the food chain. Gorges on bread and especially pastry if it can find some discarded in the street. Predators look at them like somebody might look, over-faced, at a mountainous plate of mashed potato, before suddenly losing their appetite.
    44. Toucawary: Huge blue sabre-billed birds known for their dramatic fights, which are part flyby-joust and part treetop-swordfight. Certain aristocratic families would keep a single Toucawary as their champion to fight against those of other families to settle minor disputes.
    45. Faux Raven: Appears to be a normal raven at first, but these green-feathered birds have taken to dying their plumage in industrial waste to mimic a raven's appearance. Real ravens are too smart to fall for this, but let them stay nearby as a more tempting target to would-be predators.
    46. Flighted Emu: They said it couldn't be done, but this gangly-legged bird has been bred with wings broad enough to fly, and a barrel-like chest to power them. Unfortunately, they only live a matter of months before their lungs give out.  
    47. Oilbird: Tiny, needle-nosed hovering bird known for carefully lifting oil-caps from vehicles and machinery to feed on the engine oil within, which they eat exclusively to feed their ultra-high metabolisms. 
    48. Wagging Warbler: Plump little gold and grey birds that have a thumping, rhythmic song. If startled they can combine their bassy thumps to produce a noise loud enough to shatter nearby glass and cause temporary deafness.
    49. Pipebird: Slender kingfisher-like bird that wedges itself snugly into a pipe or a gutter, waiting for bugs to pass by before snatching them up. Considered one of the greatest causes of flooding and leaks in Bastion. 
    50. Magnificent Bustard: Nobody has ever agreed on an emblematic animal for Bastion, but this strutting white fowl, with its golden moustache-like protrusion and bright red eyes was a good candidate. Unfortunately it was also delicious, so was hunted to extinction, or at least you thought so until you saw this one...

    Electric Bastionland Pledge Manager Closing Date

    The Pledge Manager for Electric Bastionland will close on Thursday 23rd April, 5pm GMT, so if you want to get on the first batch of shipped books then go and get your order in before then.

    Tuesday 14 April 2020

    Prison of the Worm Queen

    Into the Odd came with a dungeon (the Iron Coral), wilderness area (The Fallen Marsh) and town (Hopesend) so that you can leap straight into a game.

    With Electric Bastionland I wanted to encourage the reader to create their own scenarios, and realise how easy it is to convert existing material on the fly.

    But I appreciate that sometimes you just want to grab something ready-to-go.

    So, here's a mini adventure about rescuing a (worm) Queen being held captive beneath Bastion's filthiest borough. I've found it works well for one-shot introduction games, and generally lasts around 2-3 hours if they take a relatively direct route. Naturally, there's lots of room for going off on tangents.

    The adventure is described in broad strokes, leaving lots of room for interpretation and improvisation. Because of this I've managed to fit each surface location on a single page and each Underground level on a single spread, but it does mean you're going to have to get creative.

    Thursday 9 April 2020

    Cheap Tricks

    There's a lot of good GM advice out there at the high end. How to ensure the players are engaged, that they have agency, that your world feels alive. Really lofty stuff.

    These are the cheap little tricks down in the lower decks, the little things that can grease the wheels of your game if things start to stall. The salt of the RPG earth. They aren't going to win any awards as groundbreaking RPG theory, but I find it useful to keep some of them on-hand when running a game.

    Cheap is not used here to mean unfair. Rather quick and easy things you can use without any forward planning.

    Cheap Feelgood Tricks
    Sometimes you just want to revel in the good times. Maybe you need a touch of relief after a tough situation or just want to reward the players for doing something really well.

    • Amplify their competence: When they do something well in an area the character should be competent in, make sure you really show well they do it.
    • Show how their planning paid off: If they put a careful plan in place and don't leave any loose threads, you don't always have to throw a spanner in the works. Let them revel in their master-plan going off without a hitch. Of course there will be a challenge to follow this, but reward them for their planning and put them in a strong position to move forward.
    • Shine a spotlight on a past good-deed: If they did something good a while back, show how it's paying off for them now. Think of strong relationships they've built and let them rep the benefits, or show how somebody they've previously helped is now flourishing.
    • Have the NPCs remember them: Everybody wants to be remembered. Have NPCs ask about something from their last conversation. You might know the answer, but the NPC doesn't, and it gives the players an opportunity to relive a positive moment in brief.

    Cheap Failure Tricks
    On the other hand, sometimes the players willingly put themselves in a situation ripe for consequences. These aren't things you should throw in without warning, but negative outcomes that should feel like the natural consequence of the players taking a risk and failing.

    • Show the collateral damage: Maybe they do what they wanted to do, but at the cost of hurting somebody else or damaging a valuable resource.
    • Start a ticking time-bomb: Immediate consequences are fine, but I like to set up for worse consequences and start a ticking clock (something literally). 
    • Exploit a flaw of a person or gear: Put the blame for the failure squarely on a piece of gear or an allied NPC, pinning it down on a weakness that the players knew about. 
    • Put somebody inconvenient in their way: Think of the person that the players would least like to see in the present situation and put them right there. This could be an old adversary, an inconvenient witness, or a friend that's now in the line of fire.
    • Cut a connection: You might avoid consequences yourself, but one of your allies or resources is now completely cut off. It won't be permanent, but you're going to have to operate without them for a while.
    • Leave a loose thread hanging: One of my favourites. Have things stay fine for now, but maybe you owe somebody bad a favour, or you left behind a trail that leads an enemy back to you. Do you risk leaving it, or waste valuable time going back to clean up after yourself?

    Cheap Humour Tricks
    Not every game benefits from humour. For more traditional D&D I like the idea that the game acts as the straight-man to the players, who will inevitably find certain situations funny. But for Bastionland I have some dark and absurd humour baked into the setting, so sometimes it's fun to lean into that. Humour is one of the hardest areas to apply universal cheap tricks to, but these have worked for me in the past.

    • Establish a genre trope before subverting it: Set up an expectation and then subvert it. This is a building-block of comedy. Maybe you're waiting to meet with a private detective in a smoky bar, soft jazz music is playing, the lights are dim and then... think of the least likely person to stroll to the table and announce themselves as a detective. Or maybe they've got the classic look, but their behaviour is utterly against type. Rather than hard-boiled they're more soft-poached. 
    • Have somebody treat a situation with a totally inappropriate tone: Somebody treating a trivial matter with the utmost gravitas, or somebody being jovially unconcerned about their house burning to the ground. 
    • Indulge in a silly amount of detail: In Bastion this is often done through Bureaucracy. I don't want to sit my players down and actually make them complete paperwork, but I like to show a window into that side of the city. This is a tricky balance, and if you mess it up you might bore your players, but sincerely describing every detail of the meticulously prepared afternoon-tea spread can also double as the perfect setup to having the ceiling collapse in and smash it to pieces.
    • Have the world drag the players down to its level: Put them in a position where they need to impress somebody that they wouldn't normally give the time of day to. Your only hope of chasing a new lead on the lost treasure of the narrow-boat-graveyard is to attend a meeting of the Fellows for the Discussion of Tug, Barge, and Other Civic Waterway Vessels and put up with the personalities within. 

    Cheap Horror Tricks
    Humour and horror are a often more similar than it might seem. Hear these are tricks mainly focused on building tension and creeping players out rather than causing sudden shocks.

    • Keep things in shadow: Use vague descriptions of your horrific elements and let their fear fill in the blanks. The bucket is filled with wet meat. The face beneath the robe looks like gnarled wood. Then before they can ask too many questions...
    • Cut off mid-sentence: The wardrobe is covered in cobwebs. You slowly crack it open and you feel the air get cold around you. You smell rotten wood and see...
    • Don’t give them time to look properly: Somebody is approaching from the other direction. Are you going to stick around to examine this wardrobe or find somewhere to hide? Maybe you'll just throw the doors open?
    • Have an NPC massively overreact or under-react: A widow that seems somewhat chirpy about the recent death of her husband in a mine collapse. The shopkeeper yelling till they're hoarse at the pigeon that won't stop perching on his sign, tears streaking down their face. 
    • Place something unusual next to something very mundane: The classic severed hand in the toy-box or untouched flute of sparkling wine in the middle of a pub levelled by an artillery barrage.
    • Equipment glitching out: More of a sci-fi thing, but we have electric devices in Bastion now. From the basic flickering lamps to record-players stuck on a looped phrase or radio static that sounds like screaming.
    • Give them the opportunity to escape at a cost: Put the doorway right there, the light becoming them back to safety, but they can only take it if they leave something behind.

    Tuesday 7 April 2020

    Mash-Up Character Method

    People worry a lot about worldbuilding and creating an evocative setting for their games. Locations are great, but in my experience a setting is best delivered through its Characters.

    Its a philosophy I've taken to the extreme in Electric Bastionland, where a large amount of setting is delivered through the Failed Careers section that makes up two-thirds of the book. Understanding these people is the way to understand the world that they live in, and it doesn't exist without them.

    So I wanted to talk in a longer form about how I create characters for my own games, and how they generate the tone of my own games.

    Start with what you know.

    First, I create a short list (let's do three of each for this example) of concepts that I could use for characters. These aren't interesting on their own, but we're going to combine them to make something that's easy to conceptualise but has a little depth.

    I'll start with the most obvious, which is that of played-out character archetypes like you've seen used a thousand times before.

    1. Thief with a heart of gold
    2. Wise woman of the village
    3. Used-car salesman

    These ideas are easy to run with, but they aren't interesting on their own, so let's do two more. Another easy one is animals. It's easy to project animal characteristics onto a person, imagining the equivalent human behaviour.

    1. Snake
    2. Terrier
    3. Thoroughbred Horse

    Your lists might look different, but you're looking for any concepts that can be projected onto a person. You might be able to imagine the personality of a certain type of car, genre of music, or a typeface if those are your areas of expertise. You can dive into straight-up character traits if you wish (cowardice, anxiety, envy) and I find the negative traits work well here. Better still if you dare to draw on your own negative traits. 

    If you want a real challenge just grab completely random nouns, but that's very much hard-mode for this.

    Mash them Up

    Now we combine our lists to get:

    1. Snakelike thief with a heart of gold
    2. Terrier wise-woman
    3. Thoroughbred used-car salesman
    This, but backwards.
    The ideal here is that you get two ideas that juxtapose each other. I'd argue that the snake-like thief is a bit too redundant, as we're probably already imagining the thief to have some of the same characteristics as the snake. Similarly I think the sort of preening behaviour I'd expert from a thoroughbred horse are redundant with the overly confident used-car salesman cliche. Let's mix them around a bit.
    1. Thoroughbred thief with a heart of gold
    2. Snakelike wise-woman
    3. Terrier used-car salesman

    I'm happier with these combinations as they move the initial archetype away from its cliche. You've got a thief that might have a heart of gold, but perhaps their vanity and showmanship creates some conflict. The wise-woman isn't going to be the helpful, maternal figure I was expecting, and instead can be cold and downright threatening with her snakelike elements. Finally the used-car salesman can be sleazy like we'd expect, but also persistent, excitable, and even a bit adorable.

    Describing the Look

    I don't like descriptions like this.

    They're around 5"9 with hazel eyes and medium-brown hair worn in a rough bun. Their overalls are typical of an engineer, and they carry a selection of tools on their belt. They have a confident gait with...

    Yeah you've lost me. Just give me two things.

    Give me the overview of their appearance in two or three words. I do the same with locations. If I describe an "abandoned warehouse" then your imagination can fill the gaps as well as any description I give of dusty crates and faded paint. Not everybody will imagine the exact same picture, but it gives you a foundation.

    Obviously at the table you've got room to expand on this description, but I'd save that for if you need it. Certainly for your notes you should be able to summarise it to two or three words.

    Most importantly, draw on the two elements you used for this character for this description.

    1. Slender, handsome man. (thoroughbred/thief)
    2. Oily old woman. (snake/wise-woman)
    3. Scruffy little man (terrier/salesman)

    But wait! I don't even know what colour this scruffy little man's hair is?

    Wait and see if anybody asks. You've already pictured somebody in your head, and your players are quite capable of doing the same.

    Now just as I liked having a juxtaposition in the elements, point out one element of their appearance that stands out against the broad strokes you just painted.
    1. Slender, handsome man wearing scruffy patched-up clothes. (thoroughbred/thief)
    2. Oily, elderly woman with a mechanical arm. (snake/wise-woman)
    3. Scruffy little man wearing gold-rimmed glasses (terrier/salesman)
    What would cause you to notice them in a crowd?

    The Voice

    Voices become difficult if you overthink them. Maybe you have a range of flawless dialects and voice-actor-worthy performances, but I tend to stick to more earthy limits and go into any character's voice with the goals that it be:

    • Easy for me to maintain and repeat
    • Easy for the players to recognise as a particular character
    So with that in mind I stick pretty close to the original elements, but make sure they're both being represented. Even if you don't nail what you were going for the key is that you can easily repeat it. 

    1. Slender, handsome man. (thoroughbred/thief) - Here I'd mash up the high-society aspirations from the thoroughbred with the fact that this man is clearly just a lowly thief. Think of the most down-to-earth person you know and imagine how they'd sound trying to fit in at a fancy day-at-the-races.
    2. Oily elderly woman. (snake/wise-woman) - Sssslow with a predatory precision, but keep that old-lady warmth and overly familiar side. Lean hard into the "oh I could just eat you up" side of the grandmother stereotype for something veering between creepy and comforting.
    3. Scruffy little man (terrier/salesman) - Fast and excitable of course! Yappy even! They're so glad you're here and maybe their attention span isn't great so hey, come and look at this. But throw in all the lingo you'd expect from somebody trying to bombard you with car specifications.
    Remember to include physical behaviours as part of their voice. Our thoroughbred is always trying to stand taller and prouder. Our snake is licking her lips and almost gliding across the room. Our terrier is bounding from one thing to the next and snarling at bigger rivals like he's trying to prove something.

    Their Place in the World

    This is how we tie them into the world. You might be creating these characters for specific gaps in the game you're planning. Maybe you need somebody to serve the characters at the shop they just wandered into.

    This is where things get really interesting! You might think that our thief is obviously a professional burglar in Bastion. Our wise-woman clearly occupies some hut out in Deep Country dishing out potions. Our used-car salesman is trying to convince a tram company to upgrade to a new model on behalf of his bosses.

    Yeah, this works, but why not put them into the gaps you already have? Gaps you wouldn't expect to see them in?

    Our thoroughbred-thief might be working in the dive-bar the characters just went into.
    Our snake-woman might be a professor at the university.
    Our salesman might actually be the mayor of a borough, surrounded by people he can boss around.

    Think about how they can bring their existing personality to a role you wouldn't expect to see them in. You'll be surprised how readily the players accept characters that might initially seem like a bad fit for their role in the world. It even makes both the person and place more memorable.

    Their Goal

    Now you know the character, and you know their current situation, think about how they would want it to change. Nobody is ever completely happy, after all. Consider all the ways that they are an ill-fit for the role you put them in, or ways in which their initial potential appears to be unfulfilled. Lean into those and give them each one really clear goal that they want to achieve. This doesn't have to be some grand scheme, in fact the basest desires often work best of all.
    1. Slender, handsome dive-bar waiter (thoroughbred/thief). Wants to work at a much finer establishment.
    2. Oily, elderly biology professor (snake/wise-woman). Wants to taste all sorts of taboo meats.
    3. Scruffy little mayor (terrier/salesman). Wants to embarrass the mayor of a neighbouring district that he feels talks down to him. 
    Finally, I give them a silly memorable name (just one name) that nods to their original concepts. It might feel on-the-nose but remember the goal here is to make something memorable. 
    1. Derby the dive-bar waiter
    2. Professor Piver
    3. Mayor Ratter
    As with other methods I use, it might take you a little while the first time, but it's easy enough to do on the fly if you just think of a few core elements ahead of time. 

    Friday 3 April 2020

    Electric Bastionland Free Edition

    There's now a 42-page free version of Electric Bastionland that you can download from the sidebar.

    It has the rules for playing, equipment lists, and ten of the hundred-plus Failed Careers from the full book.

    Grab it from Itch or Google Drive and share it with your friends that you're dying to convert.

    Have fun!

    Thursday 2 April 2020

    Question-Focused Artwork

    For Electric Bastionland I gave Alec a brief that was both specific and broad. I had a few key things that I wanted to feature in there, and gave an overview of the mood of Bastion, Deep Country, and the Underground, but wanted to give him lots of room to throw in any weird ideas he had.

    He definitely delivered on that.

    As the pieces poured in I was so focused on getting them into the document and looking at the figures in the foreground that I missed a heap of details in the background. Only now the book has gone to print have I had the time to go back and indulge in the fine detail.

    I wanted artwork that raised questions, but just throwing every idea against the wall isn't enough. Bastionland doesn't have much canon, but those that exist are deliberately left broad enough to cover a wide range of elements.

    For locations you've got four: Bastion, Deep Country, Underground, Living Stars. If you have a cool idea for a location there's definitely somewhere you can fit it.

    For weird beings you've got three: Mockeries, Aliens, Machines (and Monstrosities are usually derived from one of the three). Some are more focused (Mockeries tend to look like muppet animals, but not always) but others are left wide open (Aliens are barely described at all in terms of appearance, behaviour, and abilities).

    Even mundane people and animals are established to have wildly diverse variety, and some of them have even received augmentation, modification, or mutation.

    So I've pulled out some of the hidden details that I think bring the world to life by asking questions. I refuse to give canonical answers, but I've tried to think of three possibilities that would fit.

    What are these squirrels doing emerging from this weird cave?

    • They're shadow-squirrels, forged out of darkness itself by a Machine to covertly snuff out all light on the surface. 
    • They're trained by a tree-worshipping cult to carry nuts into the Underground, planting trees that have no hope of ever growing.
    • They're native to the overgrown tunnels and are fleeing some Alien monstrosity that's wandered into under-squirrel territory after fleeing their dead star. 

    Who keeps a lion on their roof?

    • The lion performs a call to prayer from a different roof each morning, causing the unfortunate building to be overrun by members of The Feline Church.
    • The lion actually owns the building and is keeping the woman as a pet.
    • It's just a statue, but the tenant believes it to be alive and replenishes its food and water bowls every morning.

    What the hell is happening with all the vermin?

    • The swarm is being cultivated by the Verminator company to keep them in business.
    • The building sits on an underground connection to a star where all varieties of vermin have overrun every liveable space, and now they're spilling over. 
    • Genuine rats and bugs are mixed in with Mock Spiders and Mock Possums that are hiding from their debts. The Verminator can't take care of business until these sapient beings are removed from the swarm.

    Did somebody draw the constellations in the sky?

    • Aliens are trying to send us a warning.
    • A ridiculously wealthy star cult managed to fit giant beam-projectors to the stars themselves to make their stargazing easier.
    • They're the light-trails of a cosmic crusade currently occurring between the Living Stars. 

    What's up with this person?

    • It's just fashion, you know?
    • An Alien that's struggling with the Bastionate Climate
    • They're a remote terminal for a gigantic Underground Machine, living on the surface an an ambassador for their interests. 

    Also some questions I'll outright refuse to answer.

    Is this cat following fish-tank-head with the intention to eat the fish should they fall over?

    What exactly is going on in here?

    Is that a Mock Koala watching the Amateur Dramatist perform?? No substantial questions here, I just love him.

    What's making this frog so happy? Is he a permanent fixture on her head?

    Who would settle on this as their staircase decor?

    Why is there just a regular old squid sat on a bench waiting for a train?

    What's going on with box-head here? Is there a special place he could get a better fitting hat?

    Uhh, what?

    Basically every poster in the background is packed with ideas.

    Are these people doomed to run away from this train in an endless loop?

    Next time you're stuck for inspiration, consider looking in the background of your favourite pieces of artwork as a nice alternative to a random table.

    Wednesday 1 April 2020

    The Bastionland Manifesto


    Break the barriers between your imagination and your game.

    When you learn about a new game your mind races with what could be possible. The reality is often a compromise. I want to remove everything that stands in the way between how you imagine a game could be and how it plays at the table.


    Design for Tables
    The games are meant to be played, not read like a novel. Books should be useful for having on the table during your game.

    Break Barriers
    The games ask for as little as possible from the players. Learning is easy, you don’t have to wait for the good stuff, and everybody is welcome.

    See Rules as False Idols
    Use dice mechanics and technical terminology as little as possible. Numbers are not the answer, and wherever possible plain speech is preferred.


    • Replace multiple rolls with one roll
    • Replace boring rolls with interesting decisions
    • Replace modifiers with dice variation
    • Replace mechanical effects with diegetic effects
    • Replace rules requiring referencing with principles to internalise
    • Somebody reading the book should be hit with flavour even if they aren't going to play
    • Flavour should be infused directly into the rules wherever possible
    • Anything that could be forgettable can be infused with extra flavour
    • If everything you need to use at once doesn't fit on a two-page spread then it's too complicated.
    • If a concept can't be expressed as a short set of bullet points then it's too unfocused.
    • If an idea would exclude people from the game then it can be replaced with something that doesn't.

    What is this For?

    This is meant to keep me on track. It is not a universal treatise on game design. The games I write aren't meant to replace D&D, Call of Cthulhu, or Traveller. They occupy a specific place on the spectrum of game design, and this manifesto is written to keep my focus there and let you know what to expect from me.