Wednesday 29 July 2020

External Engagement in RPGs

Last week I wrote about how I found External Engagement was hindering my enjoyment of videogames.

Again this is just my own experience. Some enjoy it as a part of their game experience, and for others it's their main way of engaging with the hobby.

Now with Tabletop RPGs the divide between External/Internal Engagement isn't quite as simple.

At its most obvious it's the classic player/GM divide. The GM spends all week preparing for the game and the players roll up, play for a few hours, then go home and don't think about the game until next week.

But there's a lot of space between those two extremes, and some nuance in the way that people engage externally with the game.

Prepping Content: This lies closest to the actual playing of the game, whether it's a GM crafting a setting or a player planning out their character. 

Training: I guess this is a sort of prep, but instead of making content you're brushing up on your skills. That could be learning tips to running the game or reading up on how to be a better player in terms of tactical decisions or portraying an interesting character.

Spectating: Essays have been written about the growing appeal of actual play streams and podcasts. I don't really have much experience of them but fair to say it's a form of external engagement.

Discoursing: Talking about RPGs. Not necessarily to get ideas for content for your game, or even necessarily to understand the game itself, but almost for the enjoyment of the discussion. I describe this slightly pejoratively because I'm clearly a sucker for this myself, and I'm in an ongoing process of reviewing how much I actually enjoy it

Designing for External Engagement

Some games do this pretty clearly. Forgive the dated reference, but in the 3rd Edition days the official D&D "Character Optimisation" forum was pretty popular. This was a whole lot of people crunching away at the numbers to make powerful characters, completely away from the realities of at-table play. A fun process in its own right for some, I'm sure, but if you're not somebody that enjoys that side of things its very presence can affect how you view the game. Should I be like the people on that forum when I sit down to play 3e? Is this what the other players are expecting of me? Will they be mad if I just make a weird character that isn't super effective mechanically?

Games that are designed to support this sort of External Engagement might see the positives being reaped ("everybody is talking about our game!") without necessarily seeing theses hidden negatives. From the inside I've always felt like the barrier to entry for RPGs is super-low, but dig a bit deeper and it's easy to see how they might appear more daunting to a newcomer.

"Oh I always liked the look of the 40k RPGs but I don't want to have to learn a bunch of setting stuff"

"D&D looks cool but I don't want to have to buy a load of miniatures"

"I want to run Mothership but I heard on Twitter that it doesn't support campaign play, so probably not worth starting it"

So External Engagement is Bad, Right?

No! Again, this is about working out what your own preferences are. 

The activities listed above can all be enjoyable, and I enjoy them myself, but I feel like going too deep into them hinders my enjoyment of the actual game when I sit down to play. 

Will it be the same for you? Depends entirely on the person, but I think it's interesting to consider whether these engagements are laying too much pressure on your weekly game, or setting unrealistic expectations. 

We all remember that session where we were excited all week, spent a tonne of time doing prep, and then it was a big flop. On the other side sometimes those unplanned games turn out to be the most enjoyable for me, where you have nothing planned and have to run on pure improvisation.

Everybody has seen that person posting a hot take on twitter presenting a purely theoretical argument or describing a bizarre situation completely alien to your experience at the table. Sometimes you sit back and think "has this person actually played this game or do they just talk about it online?"

Do you ever feel like you're that person? Might be worth considering whether External Engagement is improving or hindering your enjoyment of the hobby.

Designing for Internal Engagement

So you'd expect Electric Bastionland to be designed purely for Internal Engagement, right? Well, no, because this is only really a recent concept for me. Even if I were to re-write the game today I don't think it's useful to see this as such a clear dichotomy.

There are loads of ways you can engage externally with EB. There's regular discourse on how best to run the game, and the Oddendum is basically a huge chapter where I engage in that discussion. There are procedures for creating maps and stocking your locations, both of which you'd usually sit down to do between your games. I even made an Actual Play video so that people can watch before they play.

But it's missing some of the key points of External Engagement.

Character optimisation? Don't make me laugh. Roll up a character and see what you get.

Sure, there are a bunch of procedures in the book for prep, but you're encouraged to leave lots open to discovery at the table. I try to lead by example here, where the entire setting of Bastionland is only really presented through the lens of an RPG. There's no delusion that this world deserves a nine-book fiction saga, this is a world built for the table.

There's certainly no giant wiki of setting to digest. You only get to discover Bastionland by playing it.

But like I said before, this isn't about purity of design. It's about... wait... what is it about again?

What's the Point of All This?

As I said at the start of this post, this whole process has been a bit of self-reflection, and I'm sure there are people that feel similar to me. My hope is that somebody might read this and consider whether they're enjoying tabletop RPGs as much as they possibly can, and whether there's another way for them.

It's extra rough if you don't have a group to play with in-person, a situation a lot of us are in at the moment. I spent years in this wilderness before online-play became so straightforward and local groups more commonplace, so I sympathise with those who feel like they only have External Engagement to enjoy, but I'd encourage them to look at all options to get themselves involved in the actual playing of the game.

And maybe think about stepping away from RPG twitter for a week. Limit yourself to an hour of prep for your game and accept that you're going to be filling in blanks on the night. Rather than listening to actual plays, dive into a history podcast or audiobook that might give you some cool ideas to draw on.

Don't deny yourself the type of fun that comes with that low-pressure, no-expectation game.

Friday 24 July 2020

GRIMLITE Weapons and Factions

GRIMLITE was written to be generic enough to be used with a wide range of sci-fi miniatures. But as I tinker with kitbashing miniatures into free-form monstrosities I noticed they were slipping into three distinct factions, albeit with some blurry lines between.

  • Humans
  • Mutants
  • Robots
The tyranny of the blank page has ruined many creative endeavours, so I've slipped the free-form Warband creation of GRIMLITE into the background to focus on these three factions (well, four, but that's one for another day).

So forget generic. Let's bake a little setting into this without going down the dark path of timelines, maps and prose.


The last remnants of humanity as it was. They range from grim survivalists clinging to an old way of life to active crusaders seeking to dominate what remains of the land.

Some believe that humanity cannot survive in its current state, tinkering with the essence of their being. Some draw on the stock of long dead aliens, others directly manipulating their genetics in search of perfection.

Living flesh has so many flaws that mechanical augmentation is the only logical future for humanity.

As with the RPG stuff I write I want them to be flavourful enough to inspire, but open enough to allow multiple interpretations. There's no rigorous codex here, just some templates to use as inspiration for warband creation and kitbashing miniatures for.

A forgotten moon of a broken planet. Only the doomed and the lost remain, fighting over the dust.

Another change since the last post is the addition of Weapon Mods. I always wanted weapons to be ultra simple, and modifiers were just an extension of that. You paid some points to get more shots or damage. Easy, right? 

Actually, no. It allowed more weapon variation but it was all very cold and clinical. It didn't capture what makes more interesting weapons actually fun to use at the table.

So now weapon mods generally give you a very specific effect, or a general effect with a specific drawback. Even if a mod generally makes a weapon better it also makes it more specialised, so you're going to have to think carefully to get the best use out of it.

Simple ones like this:
Impact (x2 Damage if you have not Moved this Turn)

To slightly trickier ones to capitalise on:
Blaze (x2 Attacks, Max 1 Damage per Target)

This works nicely with factions, where I can use the weapon mods to give each a more unique set of tools at their disposal.

Are they balanced? No. I want to make sure they're fun to use first, then I can balance afterwards, but even then this is never going to be a tournament style wargame. Simplicity and drama are the twin priorities, so if I have a choice between keeping something fun or axing it for the case of balance I'd probably go with the former.

So let's see some Warbands in their disgusting, warped, mechanical flesh.


Pastor Vox - Judge (Grim 3+) [free+4pts]
Carrying the authority to declare judgement on the enemies of humanity.
Cruel Fist (T1x3, x2 Damage vs Downed targets)
Thundergun (S1x5)
Tactic - Capture: Target a Downed enemy one of your units is touching. They are seized and treated as Dead. 

Skol - Champion (4+) [5pts]
A favoured follower granted the blessing of their leader and best equipment.
Relic Blade (T2x1, Roll twice for Shock and choose the result)
Charm: Ignore negative Shock effects.

Urlas - Hunter (Elusive 5+) [3pts]
Self-made vigilantes tracking down the enemies of humanity.
Rifle (L1x3)

2x Rat Heads - Vermin (5+) [6pts]
Subhuman scum that can at least die for the cause.
Flail (T2x1, If a 6 is rolled x2 Damage)


Red Slayer - Alpha (Tough 3+) [free+3pts]
Ruling through strength alone.
Jaws (1x3)
Impaler (S2x6, One use only)
Tactic - Brutality: Your Leader makes a Move, Fire or Fight action.

Gasper - Offspring (Fierce 4+) [5pts]
The product of a successful splicing.
Hardened Blades (T3x1)

Neutron - Engineer (Precise 4+) [6pts]
Holders of the science of splicing and access to experimental weaponry.
Grav Warper (L1x5. Instead of Shock, Move the target d6”)

Lucida - Seer (4+) [4pts]
Those given mildly telepathic powers by their splicing.
Shotgun (S2x1)
Sensor: You and all Allies within 3” ignore penalties for Firing at targets in Cover. 


Argastes - Sage (3+) [Free+3pts]
Spiritual leaders and repositories of knowledge.
Corrosion Pistol (S1x5)
Shock-Pick (T1x3)
Assistant: Once per battle ignore one Wound.
Tactic - Arise: All of your units attempt a Free Recover. 

Brother Calcum - Besieger (4+) [5pts]
A splinter faction of cybernetic knights that serve the technological cause.
Electro Blade (T1x5)
Shield: Reroll a single Resist die once per Turn.

Brother Auris - Besieger (4+) [5pts]
Corrosion Pistol (1x5)
Shield: Reroll a single Resist die once per Turn.

2x Rust Scavengers - Acolytes (5+) [5pts]
Mostly untouched humans seeking to earn their first cybernetic augmentations.
Jackguns (S1x3)
1 Sword (T2x1)

As always you can see the constantly evolving game doc here.

Thursday 23 July 2020

Demo Videos

The Bastionland Broadcast is taking a short break, but this week saw the finale of the Electric Bastionland Demonstrations, where I run through the procedures included in the book such as creating a borough of Bastion and making memorable NPCs.

Luckily they're all immortalised on YouTube, so go and check them out!

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Killing your Fun with External Engagement

Way back, videogame designer Soren Johnson wrote

"Given the opportunity, players will optimise the fun out of the game"

I've noticed a similar effect in myself where, given the opportunity, I will externally engage the fun out of the game.

That's a clunky way of phrasing it, but here I'm talking about engaging with the game outside of the game. Everything you do outside of actually playing the game that you're captivated by. Most commonly these are reading and talking about the game.

We'll get to tabletop RPGs, but for now the context is videogames.

Now this isn't to say I'll deliberately go and find plot spoilers for games. If I'm interested in a game I'll do my best to avoid those, but there are certain elements of a game that can actively be ruined by externally engaging with the game too much before you've fully played it.

Finding a hidden location or detail in the game world that you weren't led to.
The Outer Wilds is basically entirely this. You're thrown into into a solar system and each planet you could choose to visit has little secrets to find and piece together to form the big picture. Actual play videos are probably the most common way to ruin these for yourself.

Learning which tool is best for each obstacle.
In Dark Souls certain weapon types are better/worse against certain types of enemy. In Forza Motorsport certain cars respond better to certain upgrades and tuning changes. You can discover these for yourself or just go on a wiki and find the best tool for the job.

Making an unexpected connection.
This is especially satisfying when it makes perfect sense in hindsight. In Breath of the Wild there are puzzles that require you to connect two electrical points to complete a circuit. There's a solution involving moving metal blocks around but if you have a few metal weapons you can just lay them down instead to carry the current. With Breath of the Wild I heard about a number of these connections in reviews before I even bought the game. It's a conundrum, because hearing about these connections existing contributed to getting me excited for the game and deciding to buy it, but I would have loved to discover them on my own.

False expectations
Whether you're watching a pro-player and feeling like your own gameplay is sloppy, or watching a carefully edited and scripted playthrough of a game, you can sometimes set yourself false expectations by watching a gameplay video rather than actually playing the game.

My specific context here is that I recently dipped into Elite: Dangerous on PC. 

In 1993 I was 8 years old, and I got Frontier: Elite 2 for my Amiga The sheer scale and freedom of the game was unlike anything I'd experienced before. I didn't progress very far in terms of improving my ship or getting a galactic reputation, I mostly just loved the immersion of jumping between systems, docking at stations, and keeping one eye on the giant map poster that came with the game.

It was pretty much a pure sandbox. The intro was the most impressive thing I'd ever seen on a home computer and the music still gives me tingles today.

The map, manual, and gazetteer were all I had, and the latter really just had a small paragraph of background information for the most important systems rather than anything useful in the game itself.

But I was out there exploring it. Frankly there wasn't even that much actual content to see, but I felt like I was out doing it on my own in a huge galaxy.

Fast-forward to 2020. I get the Elite bug and dive into the long awaited sequel, now years after its launch. Can't wait to feel that freedom of space.

Okay, I don't know how to fly. That's fine, I remember the same feeling back with Frontier. 

There's an in-game training thing, but I'd be better off just watching a YouTube video tutorial, they might have some extra tips.

Okay, there are a million tutorials. Oh, this one is specifically for Exploration, which sounds like what I want to do.

Right, I can fly between systems now. Sounds like Exploration can be pretty lucrative if I do it right. 

This is where I really should have stopped. I jumped into the game and had some fun hopping between systems, selling exploration data and trading goods, even getting myself stranded without fuel as I try to roam too far without proper preparation.

Okay, it sucks that I died. I really want to get to Ross 154 so that I can see how it looks now compared to the old game. 

I'll just look at Ross 154 on this wiki to make sure it's still there. Oh cool, there it is. Huh, Aster doesn't have rings like in Frontier. That's disappointing.

Hey, if I want to explore the galaxy I wonder which ship I should be aiming for. Let me watch some videos talking about the best ships for exploration.

Woah, you can customise your ship a lot here. This wiki has recommended builds for the best exploration ship. I should make a note.

I should join the subreddit and see if there's a Discord server I can join. 

Wonder what the review are like for the most recent updates, I should have a look to see what's new and how the community are responding. What's coming in the next update?

Oh, this page has some interesting systems to visit and cool points of interest. Ah, which I hadn't looked, I'd have loved to discover those for myself.

Wait, what I am doing here?

I was externally engaging the fun out of the game. Part of it comes from the fact I don't often have long stretches of time to sit and get immersed in a game, so if I start wondering about an element of the game on my lunch break or in a queue at the post office I can stare at my phone and absorb the game second hand. 

It's compelling, and not necessarily in a good way. I wanted to immerse myself in the experience of being a lone pilot carving a path through space but I've done nothing but surround myself with the achievements and knowledge of others while they tell me which bits of the game they love or hate.

As confessed previously I can be guilty of getting fixated on things.

Luckily I really didn't spoil all that much for myself. I've turned off the tap and committed to playing the game solo from now on. Disconnected. Like I'm 8 years old playing a game that nobody else at my school had ever heard of. No wikis, no discords. 

And that actually feels pretty exciting to me.

I don't think this is a phenomena limited to just me. The fact that so many game wikis and let's plays and discussion platforms exist suggests it's a pretty common urge. The urge to learn from the experience of others makes total sense, but I think it can be a detriment when it comes to our recreation activities. 

As another example, I'm really bad at Chess. Every now and then I feel like I should give it another try. Here's what happens.
  • Research the best Chess app to use, one that all the best players use with the best features and most active community.
  • Jump into some games and get beaten. I'm still at the stage where my games will go fine until I blunder a piece away. After that I get frustrated and tend to snowball into defeat.
  • Watch some good players commentating over their games. I know some of the terms but don't fully understand what they're doing.
  • Try to learn some chess theory. Openings, tactics, key lines to look out for.
  • Feel like I'm basically trying to learn a solved game. I'll never get to the point where I'm actually good at this. Forget it, I quit.
Repeat every year or so.

And yet sometimes I get to play chess on a board with somebody that isn't a pro player. My partner, Sarah, played chess a lot at school so she'll usually beat me, but I occasionally win and get to hold my own at least most of the time. Maybe she's going easy on me.

This is where I actually enjoy the game. Disconnected from the sprawling community. Outside of wikis and theories. If I wanted to become a tournament chess player I'd probably be better off learning some theory alongside playing the game, but for sheer recreation it can be nice to just let it go.  

What's this got to do with tabletop RPGs?

Now tabletop RPGs are weird and don't follow the same rules as videogames or chess. For example, it's actually much harder to ruin moments of discovery because there isn't a wiki I can read for whatever adventure location you've homebrewed in the week leading up to our game.

So as a player I think you're pretty safe, but I think the pitfalls of External Engagement still exist for a GM.

And that's a topic for the next post.

Friday 17 July 2020

Journeying the Living Stars

The Living Stars above Bastionland are starting to take shape, but nothing stays the same up there. They're living in every sense of the word.

Don't get too attached to any one place, any one person. You're not going to find a home out here. Nobody really has one forever anyway.

More than anywhere else it's about the journey. And that isn't some poetic statement, you're literally going to have to keep your mind on travel, routes, rest-stops, ways to pass time on longer stretches, and hopefully you've got an actual destination in mind.

That part can be even more difficult than the others. 


It's pretty tough to actually run out of the essentials here. Crap food is easy to come by, energy can be slowly tapped from the stars themselves, and there's a surprising amount of breathable air floating around. 

The trick is getting hold of the good stuff. Living off cultivated fungus and recycled air is going to leave you Deprived after a while, and travel between the stars is much more bearable when you've got some of the special stuff to juice-up your engine.

Owning a ship is a real pain. Big up-front payment, high maintenance costs, refuelling is time-consuming, and there's always the risk you'll crash it or somebody will steal it. 

In spite of all the stories, it's basically just not the best way to travel the stars.

Better to make use of those committed to ship-ownership and get a ride with them. Some are making a business of it, some just have more money than sense, others believe it's some sort of service to shuttle people around. 

Contrary to what you might think, space really isn't empty. There's always something out there to look at, keep your bearings, know when to turn. Even the Dark isn't like an endless plain of blackness. You just might not like what you see there.

It really depends where you are. Of course if you're in The Dark then you're asking for trouble, but in The Light you're probably fine as long as you follow the rules. Oh, that reminds me, you should probably find out what the actual rules are here as quickly as possible once you start to feel that star-glow on you.

Now it's in The Between where things get a bit more complicated. 

Spark Tables for the Between

As always, roll 2d20 and smash the results together. 


Wood Panels
Cheap Plastic
Lead Bunker


Comfort Food
Spicy Food
Hard Booze
Craft Drinks


Gas Planet
Dust Pillar
Light Stream
Air Pocket
Free Ring

Tuesday 14 July 2020

d6 Visiting Aliens

Aliens are here in Bastionland, some more obvious than others, but they're all here for a reason.

They always have a means of communicating with humans, even if a piece of the barrier remains. They typically adopt a pseudonym while in Bastion.

All images from artbreeder.

1: Red Veil

DEX 5, 7hp, Shifting Body (Armour 2), Reality-Bending-Touch (d8 damage, absorbs a part of any being that it kills)
  • Is here to hunt down another Alien on behalf of a benefactor, claiming they are a monstrous planet-destroyer. 
  • Compelled to work within the laws of Bastion, so has spent the last few months trying to secure legal backing for their assassination. 
  • Secretly enjoys watching the strange wildlife of Basiton.

2: Pale Worldrider

STR 4, 5hp, concealed bone-spike (d6). 
  • Is just riding this world until their destination is close enough to light-jump to. It should be another few months. 
  • Doesn't realise that Bastionland isn't really moving in the same way as other planets in the Living Stars. When their jump inevitable fails they become dedicated to getting Bastionland "moving right" by whatever means technology will allow. 
  • Unrivalled genius of design in all modes of light-travel, aeronautics, and reading stars. 
3: Ego Gazer

CHA 13, 4hp, starry robe (Armour 1, weirdly compelling to watch)
  • Is following a trail through the Living Stars based on the dreams of others. Looking for people she can dive into the dreams of in order to find her next destination. 
  • Can take one other with her on her next dream-dive.
  • Has a pilot she can call in to collect her when she has the next destination.
4: Hound Breeder

DEX 15, 3hp, Collar Gun (Target must pass a DEX Save to avoid being collared. Once collared the Breeder can discharge a d8 shock at will. No regular means can cut the collar). 
  • Collecting strange breeds of dog to take back to his breeding stable.
  • Doesn't really understand the difference between dogs and other animals or even people. 
  • Despite not being a particularly kind Master, will not suffer to see any joyous cruelty towards dogs (or those he thinks are dogs). 
5: Golden Blood Trader

DEX 5, 5hp, Solid Gold Bod (Armour 3), Two Crushing Limbs (d10 each).
  • Often mislabelled as a Machine, which he goes to great lengths to clarify.
  • Deals in the trade of blood. Any sorts, traded for other sorts. Is vague why this benefits him.
  • When he has twelve blood samples from this world he desposits a golden nugget (worth £5k) and blasts off to the stars.
6: Sun Collector

  • Doesn't strictly have a physical form, but various inhabitants of Bastionland claim to be acting on her behalf with huge sums of money at their disposal. 
  • Wants to buy Bastionland's sun so that it can be harvested, destroying all life on the world within a year.
  • So far this has proven to be a tough sell, but her representatives are growing in number.