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.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

March of 5, 10, and 15 years ago

This blog is now old enough that I can look back 15 years. I'll also dip into what was happening 10 and 5 years ago.

Self-indulgent? How dare you! I'll do my best to find something useful in there.

15 years ago, I wrote about a new method for rolling attributes, generally suited to D&D. I'd forgotten all about it until I started a Traveller game earlier this year and gave the players the option to use this method (they boldly opted to just roll down the line individually instead). 

I think it's still a tool to keep in the bag. 

10 years ago, Into the Odd was taking shape. I wrote about starter packages, a focus on mundane disposable items, and the final version of the game's damage system (now with the familiar Save vs Critical Damage when you take STR loss). It's around this time that Into the Odd really resembles the game it is today. 

The example of play in the damage post really shows the power of strength-of-numbers in Into the Odd, something I would temper in Electric and Mythic Bastionland.

5 years ago is interesting to revisit on a personal level, because there aren't any posts for March.

Looking back at my old calendar I can see this was a month when my day-job was swallowing a great deal of time and energy, leaving me with no fuel for writing or games. 

If you've ever supported me on Patreon, bought one of my games, or even just followed this blog, I want to give a heartfelt thank you for helping to change my life in such a huge way since that month of silence. 


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 20 March 2024

Fancy Shooting for Electric Bastionland

This is not errata. It’s a little module I’m messing with that might appeal to those who want more combat options for gunplay in Electric Bastionland.

Guns are back! Let's go get'em.

  • Concealment partially obscures vision of the target, Impairing the attack unless it is a Blast attack.
  • Cover also offers physical protection against projectiles, granting +1 Armour unless the attack is powerful enough to penetrate straight through it.
  • Barrier completely protects the target from fire. If they peek out to fire then they count as being in Cover or Concealment as appropriate instead until their next turn.

Suppression: Weapons that can provide continuous fire can lay down Suppression, attempting to pin the enemy in place or drive them away. This takes the place of a normal attack or action.

Note the dice that would be rolled for the attack and assign them to the Suppression Pool for the target. If this is a Blast Attack then do this for every target in the blast.

The attack causes no immediate damage, but if the target takes any action that exposes themselves, including moving or attacking, they immediately roll their Suppression Pool and take damage as normal, losing the benefit of their cover/concealment. This occurs before they can perform their action.

If the target withdraws directly away from the source of Suppression then their Suppression Pool is emptied and they do not take any damage.

If the attacker is damaged or takes any action other than continuing the suppressive fire then the Suppression Pool is emptied.

Who needs aiming?

Aimed Shots: Weapons that can fire with some accuracy can attempt to land a single devastating shot in place of normal fire. This involves two actions: Aiming and Striking. Each of these takes the place of a normal attack or action.

Aim: Focus on a visible target, or a piece of terrain that you expect them to emerge from. This cannot be performed on the same turn you moved. Note that you are aiming at the target. Aim is lost if you take Damage, Move, Attack another target, or are otherwise distracted.

Strike: Combatants that are Aiming can interrupt their target’s turn to Strike them. This occurs before the target’s action is resolved.

Roll the attack as normal, ignoring Cover and Concealment.

If this would cause a Wound (STR loss) then they lose an additional d6 points of STR.

If the attack would be evaded (causing only HP loss) then the entire attack is ignored, and no HP is lost.

Indirect Fire: For Mortars and similar the attack is performed as normal if the attacker can see the target, or has communication with a spotter who can.

If the attacker is predicting the location of the target then attack as normal, but dice showing an odd value are discarded.

This all sounds a bit much. Let's stick to the old ways.


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 13 March 2024

Mongoose Traveller Mid-Campaign Thoughts

I'm three sessions into my Mongoose Traveller campaign. That's one session of lifepath character creation and two of regular play. So far we've had a lot of fun, and the players have all brought their A-game, but how has it been to run?


I wanted to run this by-the-book as much as possible, hoping to tap into some of the great things I'd heard about Classic Traveller in play. My gut feel was that Mongoose is close enough to Classic to make this work.

Now some of the difficulty might be down to the fact that I normally run my own systems, and when I'm not doing that I gravitate toward the very light side of things. Mongoose Traveller is far from the crunchiest system ever (assuming you aren't using every optional part of the toolbox), so I haven't run into many mechanical issues, but I feel like the system hasn't done a great deal to inspire my prep and improvisation. In some places it even feels like ballast that I have to work against.

I'm using the Spinward Extents sourcebook, which uses 368 pages to cover two whole sectors of space in great detail.

At least, in great detail overall, but I find myself constantly wanting different types of detail to what is being presented.

Of course Traveller is famous for its spartan Universal World Profiles that summarise a planet in 8 numbers and letters, expecting you to translate that into something table-ready. I'm on board with that. 

Each sector has 16 subsectors, each of which has around 24 worlds described via their universal profiles, and 4-5 that get an actual writeup, anywhere from two to ten paragraphs of description. 

Here's the very first world described in the book:

This is actually one of the better entries! You get a broad physical description, and the present-day situation is somewhat interesting, but it's still sorely lacking in hooks. I've ranted about settings with millennia-spanning timelines before, but this book does a lot of "here's an interesting event... that happened 500 years ago". 

Each subsector gets its own description, but it's similar to the above, not all that much to the ground-level (or I guess deck-level) stuff that's happening in my game. Here's the subsector that Barba Amarilla sits within.

Now the opening description of the sector as a whole details some of its history and polities, but the vast majority of that has been too zoomed-out to be much use for my game. What does it tell us about the Duchy of Mapepire, which controls the world and (most of the) subsector we've already looked at?

For context, the most common year for a traveller game is 1105, so even the most recent event (the Duchess taking the throne after the botched coup) happened over 30 years ago. All the cool stuff about a pirate captain carving out his own domain happened over 400 years ago.

There's some juice in the idea that the Duchy is running, or at least enabling, pirate activity. Imagine if the book had described this as a dynamic situation, perhaps detailing a related incident that happened in the last year or so to make the place feel a little more dynamic. 

It describes their fleet organisation, and mentioned their starport presence, but I get no idea of how to actually represent this. What makes their starports feel different to those of the Corellan League? Do their fleets have unusual protocols that would make one of their ships an interesting encounter?

I did enjoy reading through all of this and learning about the sector, but so little of it translated into gameable ideas for me. If you're prepping or improvising, and you're just looking for a nugget of inspiration, it can be very difficult to find any!

Characters are mentioned, but often some long-dead founder of a world, never an interesting character that the players might actually meet. 

Events are detailed, but usually historical, instead of some flashpoint that's ready to explode when the characters arrive. 

There are rumours, a d66 table for each of the two Sectors, but as each page covers an entire sector it's often not relevant to where the players actually are. 

There are rare exceptions to the above, but far too few. 

The Core Rulebook has some tools to help with this, including encounter tables and a method for generating characters, but it feels like a missed opportunity to not have bespoke content for the part of space I'm reading about. 

This isn't a negative review of Mongoose Traveller or of The Spinward Extents, but an insight into some of the difficulties I've had combining these resources with my particular style of GMing. 

And perhaps a warning that running something by the book can be so much more challenging than winging it. 


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. 

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Now THIS is Peg Racing!

Want to go PEG-RACING?

Okay, get yourself some clothes pegs, ideally a few different sizes. 

Break them open and glue them together till they look like something from WipEout (or F-Zero if you're less cool).

Prime them. I also added some little sticky dots before this. 


I'm told it would apply more easily if I gave them a coat of PVA or sealant spray before painting but WE GOTTA GO FAST HERE.

Set up a track with checkpoints. 


Shoot at each other. 

Keep hitting those checkpoints till somebody wins. 

F-MAC: Formula MAC is a one-sheet grav-racing miniature game based loosely on the MAC ATTACK system.

It's barely tested, and certain builds are probably broken. Go and find out for yourself.


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.