Wednesday 24 April 2024

A World in a Magazine

Four years ago, I wrote about my history with miniature games and getting back into them during the lockdown. Summer 1995 saw me seduced by the world of miniatures during show-and-tell, but I needed to endure the long wait till Christmas before I could get a boxed game into my hands.

Save up my pocket money? As a ten year old?? Impossible.

During this extended period of anticipation I poured over every detail of White Dwarf each month, and that very first issue I bought is still burned into my brain.

White Dwarf 187, July 1995, bought from the newsagent on the walk back from school.

(Sadly not my long-departed original copy, but rebought during my ongoing midlife crisis)

Let's take a look inside.

Actually, let's not. Before opening it you'd always flip to the back cover. 

It's hard to overstate the impact that these battle scenes had on my young mind. Much more than any mere illustration. A tantalising vision of what your dinner table could look like if you and a friend got real good at painting and modelling. 

A key factor in the impact of these early magazines was the lack of context. Sure, now I can look at that photo and pick out every unit type, but I was going in blind. What's that horse-and-cart with a load of guns sticking out? Is that a tank in front of it? Who are those guys flying in from above?

It sets the mind racing in a way that's lost once you can just tick off "war wagon, steam tank, Karl Franz".

Naturally you try to predict who would win, too. "Well, the crossbows would shoot the Knights, meaning the harpies can rush forward to get the dwarfs". 

More fantastic scenes. Epic always held a special place in my imagination.

But enough gushing over pictures. Let's actually ready something. 

See how each article is credited to a specific writer? That will be important later...

I guess there's a new tank released this month. Without a rulebook none of these numbers made sense, but that didn't stop me straining to discern the difference between a heavy bolter and a lascannon.  

Oh shit, distracted by another cool battle scene. This is one of only two appearances of the Eldar in this issue, so from this image alone I didn't make the space-elves connection. I just thought they were another bunch of guys with cool helmets. They'd later go on to become my 40k army of choice. 

The other Eldar appearance, showing the level of painting that won you a Golden Demon back in 95. 

I'm not sure anything I write could add to this image. I can feel it with every sense. 

Older folks than me will lament the decline of White Dwarf. The once proud magazine that covered every RPG and wargame under the sun, reduced to a gaudy pamphlet of adverts designed to brainwash children.

But what a joyous brainwashing it was! I wanted to play an Imperial Noble fencing with hordes of enemies and blasting them with my pistol, and I wanted to roll a Chimera across the battlefield, cutting a bloody swathe with its multilaser.

Yeah, it's marketing, and it's shallow, but it sucked me in completely. 

Ooh, here's the big one. Where do I start with this?

So Warhammer 40k was in its 2nd Edition at this point. It had a good amount of crunch, still showing its skirmish/RPG roots from Rogue Trader, but it was clearly designed for battles with a few squads and maybe a couple of vehicles. 

In this battle report the facing armies looked like this.

Each controlled by a team of four players, with special rules for communication. 

This would not be considered normal at the time, but I didn't really know that. It set the benchmark at a pretty daunting level. 

In many ways this battle report wasn't a good introduction to 40k. In reality, this battle has stuck with my for nearly thirty years. 

Not so much for what happens. Sure, it has a memorable finale, but the real appeal for me is how it felt as an observer.

It wasn't some hyper-competitive tournament event. It wasn't a game of chess. Instead, it looked like a bunch of friends bringing all their toys to the table and playing just to find out what happens when you throw together such an audacious scenario.

Growing up in a small town, this whole miniatures thing often felt like some weird hobby that consisted entirely of me and my best friend. These battle reports were plastered with images of the White Dwarf team. The articles were credited and written in their own distinct voices. With each issue I felt like I got to know them more. Those faces and names let me feel like we were part of a bigger club. 

Look, this shows just how desperate times these were. We'd drool over black and white images of miniatures, sometimes not even fully assembled! Ask an elder and they'll even tell you stories of when they had to squint at hand drawn images of miniatures. They'd have killed to have black and white photos to look at. Luxury!

So that's it. Quite possibly the thing that represents my entry into this weird hobby. 

I promise I won't throw you away again. 


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Wednesday 17 April 2024

Making the Game Happen

My favourite RPG books do their work in three distinct stages:

GRAB: Get the reader excited to play the game and make it an easy sell to players.

PREP: Give the GM what they need to get ready to play.

PLAY: Make it easy to play the game once you get it to the table.

In short, they help the person who bought the book to make the game happen.


I've got plenty of books on my shelf that fall down at one of these stages.

GRAB: Books that just don't get me excited. These don't last long. Sometimes a game has neat parts but is a tough sell to players, often lacking an easy hook to use in the pitch.

PREP: The classic is the book that reads fantastically, but you can't quite see how it actually translates to a session, or the amount of work required to prep feels overwhelming.

PLAY: Books you get to the table, with a group of excited players, but there's either something lacking or, more commonly, the rules themselves get in the way of the fun.

I'm not all that interested in the eternal "what is a game?" debate. I'd rather identify the RPGs that seem most effective at making the game happen, enabling actual play instead of sitting on a bookshelf.


GRAB: Anything with evocative artwork. I say this as a writer who cannot draw at all. A thousand times I've seen people get excited for a game before they've even read a word. This power shouldn't be underestimated.

Mothership, MÖRK BORG, Ultraviolet Grasslands. Anything that just leaps off the page and demands your attention while laying down a very clear vibe of what to expect from the game. Mothership isn't just an Alien inspired game, but it's useful to have that first hook to draw players in.

PREP: FIST is a great at this. When reading through it the prep just sort of... happens. Of course it has all those random tables, but the advice for how to run the game is so clear that just from skimming it I felt confident I could give it a shot. Cthulhu Dark has a tiny rules section, then goes into detail explaining how to use each of those rules, then how to structure your game, and includes a selection of settings to use.

Out of the three sections I think this is the one that gets overlooked most often. Sometimes it gets offloaded onto supplements assumes you're using an existing adventure module, but I'd always rather see this area covered by the core book right there alongside the rules of play.

PLAY: 24XX hits both halves of this. Firstly the rules are so light that they don't get in the way, but secondly the game gives you a bunch of tables and guidance that can help in those moments of GMing when you need a prompt or a spark. Oh, you thought we handled all that in prep? Prep never complete! Tables to help improvise NPCs and locations are downright essential for the way I run games.

I'll never stop saying FIST is great.


Well, no... but I think these things significantly increase the chance of the game actually being enjoyed at the table.

That's certainly what I look for in a game, whether I'm buying it or designing it myself.


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

April of 5, 10, and 15 years ago

Okay, let's do this again!

15 years ago

I was still deep into working on The Adventurer's Tale, preparing an all-dwarf sandbox campaign. I drew up a cool hex map, did some prep but... it never really got past a one-shot. I feel very lucky that with the last few years working on Mythic Bastionland I've been able to dive so deeply into the world of hexcrawling.

The Adventurer's Tale is a standard fantasy game. Some scraps of ideas that I like, but nothing that I haven't improved on elsewhere. Perhaps I'll do a quick readthrough stream of it some day and see if there's anything to be learned.

A post on monster design shows that I have a little affection for 4e D&D here, focusing very much on monster-as-encounter. I think most of this advice still holds up.

10 years ago

DIE BONEHEAD DIE is something I still think about from time to time. Seems like I keep coming back to ideas for a sci-fi game, but I keep burning them to the ground and starting again. I still love the focus on random tables in (what's left of) DBH, but the document itself is a mess of a half-abandoned, half-repurposed game.

Guess I'll just have to do space properly another time.

5 years ago

Not just one, but two posts about running mechs in Into the Odd (kinda)!

This would lead to Fighting Machines getting officially added in to Electric Bastionland, and this is all waaay before I got hooked into Battletech and wrote MAC Attack, so it's interesting to see a different take.

I feel like I get my mech-fix from miniature gaming more than RPGs, so not sure if this is something I'd plan on revisiting.


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paranoia's Iceberg of Secrecy

I've always been aware of Paranoia, but I only played it for the first time at Grogmeet in December.

Its reputation as a silly game of backstabbing and betrayal sounded perfect for a convention one-shot.

This was true! I had a lot of fun playing it, but it stuck with me more than I expected. I've been hoovering up what I can from the new Mongoose edition, the older XP-edition, and any other scraps I can find around, with one eye on running a one-shot when my Traveller campaign wraps up. I'll probably use the core system of the latest edition with bits and pieces pulled from XP. For those in the know, I'm leaning somewhere between straight and classic styles.

Players-conflict is all good fun, but I think it works best when the objectives are carefully designed. It reminds me of Matrix Games, and the importance of setting clear objectives that drive conflict with the rest of the group, but still allow opportunities for cooperation... or at least conspiring.

This is al turned up to eleven with Paranoia because you're likely to start the game with... well, up to six objectives each depending on how you look at it!

Let's see them one-by-one, working our way down the Iceberg of Secrecy. They differ by edition, but here's the configuration I'm working with.

Troubleshooter Job
The only objective that's shared by the whole group. It could be as simple as "deliver a sandwich to this address" or something bigger like "scout out this lost sector and deliver a full report". At first you might think this is the most important objective, but I really see it as a way to shove the group together and kick off the game. There's so much going on beneath the surface that I think this one can be anything that pushes the group into interesting locations.

Mandatory Bonus Duty
Everybody in the team gets a special role, from equipment officer to hygiene officer. The member least qualified for any of them is declared Team Leader instead. The group know each other's MBDs, so it gives some immediate surface-level tension. They're all-responsibility, zero-power, but the Computer will assess your performance during the debrief.

Experimental Gear
R&D are always looking for opportunities to test their creations, so everybody gets one experimental device that they should put through a proper field-test when the opportunity arises. Potentially useful, likely disappointing, often devastating.

Service Group Mandate
The other players know which Service Group (essentially government department) you belong to, but not necessarily the special Mandate you've been handed as their representative. A member of the Power Service might need to recall all batteries from unused devices to recycle their energy, while an Internal Security member might be tipped off to Communist activity in the area you're headed to. These are generally legal, so can be shared with the group, but you never know if one of them is working against you. Maybe it's best to keep it to yourself.

Secret Society Mission
Every character also belongs to a secret society. These are completely illegal, so you definitely don't want the other players to know! In addition to offering the chance to call in favours, you'll be given a secret mission. If you're a member of Haxxors you might need to copy a virus from a rampaging bot you've been advised to avoid, or if you're a Free Enterprise spiv you might have a case of stolen pharmaceuticals to sell-on. Yeah, selling stuff is illegal, so be careful. These missions are especially fun when designed to conflict with each other.

Mutant Power
As if that wasn't enough, you each get a mutant power. Being an unregistered mutant is treasonous in Alpha Complex, but registered mutants often have it even worse, so keep it to yourself. You can just ignore this power and never use it, but I like the powers that tempt you into using them just this once.

Winning the Game
Most RPGs say there's no such thing as "winning the game" but I absolutely plan to count up how many of these objectives each player has achieved and declare a winner.

No reward beyond the victory, but what a victory it could be!


This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.