There’s a perception that a blog is a long-lived, ongoing thing. That it lives with and alongside its author.1
But that doesn’t have to be true, and I think a lot of people could benefit from “short-term” blogging. Consider:
Photoblogging your holiday, rather than posting snaps to social media
You gain the ability to add context, crosslinking, and have permanent addresses (rather than losing eveything to the depths of a feed). You can crosspost/syndicate to your favourite
socials if that’s your poison..
Blogging your studies, rather than keeping your notes to yourself
Writing what you learn helps you remember it; writing what you learn in a public space helps others learn too and makes it easy to search for your discoveries later.2
Recording your roleplaying, rather than just summarising each session to your fellow players
My D&D group does this at levellers.blog! That site won’t continue to be updated forever – the party will someday retire or, more-likely, come to a glorious but horrific end – but
it’ll always live on as a reminder of what we achieved.
One of my favourite examples of such a blog was 52 Reflect3 (now integrated into its successor The Improbable Blog). For 52 consecutive weeks my partner‘s brother Robin
blogged about adventures that took him out of his home in London and it was amazing. The project’s finished, but a blog was absolutely the right medium for it because now it’s got a
“forever home” on the Web (imagine if he’d posted instead to Twitter, only for that platform to turn into a flaming turd).
I don’t often shill for my employer, but I genuinely believe that the free tier on WordPress.com is an excellent
way to give a forever home to your short-term blog4.
Did you know that you can type new.blog (or blog.new; both work!) into your browser to start one?
What are you going to write about?
1This blog is, of course, an example of a long-term blog. It’s been going in
some form or another for over half my life, and I don’t see that changing. But it’s not the only kind of blog.
2 Personally, I really love the serendipity of asking a web search engine for the solution
to a problem and finding a result that turns out to be something that I myself wrote, long ago!
4 One of my favourite features of WordPress.com is the fact that it’s built atop the
world’s most-popular blogging software and you can export all your data at any time, so there’s absolutely no lock-in: if you want to migrate to a competitor or even host your own
blog, it’s really easy to do so!
Last night I had a nightmare about Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, about the group I DM for on alternate Fridays.
In their last session the
party – somewhat uncharacteristically – latched onto a new primary plot hook rightaway. Instead of rushing off onto some random side quest threw themselves directly into this new
This effectively kicked off a new chapter of their story, so I’ve been doing some prep-work this last week or so. Y’know: making battlemaps, stocking treasure chests with mysterious and
powerful magical artefacts, and inventing a plethora of characters for the party to either befriend or kill (or, knowing this party: both).
Anyway: in the dream, I sat down to complete the prep-work I want to get done before this week’s play session. I re-checked my notes about what the adventurers had gotten up to
last time around, and… panicked! I was wrong, they hadn’t thrown themselves off the side of a city floating above the first layer of Hell at all! I’d mis-remembered completely
and they’d actually just ventured into a haunted dungeon. I’d been preparing all the wrong things and now there wasn’t time to correct my mistakes!
This is, of course, an example of the “didn’t prepare for the test” trope of dreams. Clearly I’m still feeling underprepared for this week’s game! But probably a bigger reason for the
dream, and remembering it, was that I’ve had a cold and kept waking up to cough.
I really love Dungeondraft, an RPG battle map generator. It’s got great compatibility with
online platforms like Foundry VTT and Roll20, but if you’re looking to make maps for tabletop play,
there’s a few tips I can share:
Planning and designing
Dungeondraft has (or can be extended with) features to support light levels and shadow-casting obstructions, openable doors and windows, line-of sight etc… great to have when you’re
building for Internet-enabled tabletops, but pointless when you’re planning to print out your map! Instead:
Think about scale: I’m printing to A4 sheets and using inch-size squares, so every 11 x 8 squares equates to one sheet of paper. Knowing this, I can multiply-up to a
whole number of sheets of paper and this informs my decisions about how to best make use of the maps (and what will and won’t fit on my dining table!).
Focus on legibility: Your printer probably won’t have the same kind of resolution as your screen, and your players can’t “zoom in” to get details. Play with the grid
styles (under Map Settings) to find what works best for you, and try not to clash with your floor patterns. If you’re printing in monochrome, use the “Printer-Friendly” camera filter
(also under Map Settings, or in the Export Options dialog) to convert to gorgeous line-art. Make sure critical elements have sufficient contrast that they’ll stand out when printed or
your players might walk right over that chest, campfire, or bookshelf.
Think about exposure: You don’t get digital “fog of war” on the tabletop! Think about how you’re going to reveal the map to your players: plan to print in multiple
sections to put together, jigsaw style, or have card to “cover” bits of the map. Think about how the tool can help you here: e.g. if you’ve got multiple buildings the players can
explore, use a higher “level” or roof layer to put roofs on your buildings, then print the relevant parts of that level separately: now you’ve got a thematic cover-up that you can
remove to show the insides of the building. Go the other way around for secret doors: print the empty wall on your main map (so players can’t infer the location of the secret door by
the inclusion of a cover-up) and the secret door/passage on the overlay, so you can stick it onto the map when they find it.
Printing it out
There’s no “print” option in Dungeondraft, so – especially if your map spans multiple “pages” – you’ll need a multi-step process to printing it out. With a little practice, it’s not too
hard or time-consuming, though:
Export your map (level by level) from Dungeondraft as PNG files. The default settings are fine, but pay attention to the
“Overlay level” setting if you’re using smart or complex cover-ups as described above.
To easily spread your map across multiple pages, you’ll need to convert it to a PDF. I’m using Gimp to do this. Simply open the PNG in Gimp, make any post-processing/last minute changes that you couldn’t manage in Dungeondraft, then click File >
Export As… and change the filename to have a .pdf extension. You could print directly from Gimp, but in my experience PDF reader software does a much better job at multi-page printing.
Open your PDF in an appropriate reader application with good print management. I’m using Foxit, which is… okay? Print it, selecting “tile large pages” to tell it to print across multiple sheets. Assuming you’ve produced a map an appropriate size
for your printer’s margins, your preview should be perfect. If not, you can get away with reducing the zoom level by up to a percent or two without causing trouble for your miniatures.
If you’d like the page breaks to occur at specific places (for exposure/reveal reasons), go back to Gimp and pad one side of the image by increasing the canvas size.
Check the level of “overlap” specified: I like to keep mine low and use the print margins as the overlapping part of my maps when I tape them together, but you’ll want to see how your
printer behaves and adapt accordingly.
If you’re sticking together multiple pages to make a single large map, trim off the bottom and right margins of each page: if you printed with cut marks, this is easy enough even
without a guillotine. Then tape them together on the underside, taking care to line-up the features on the map (it’s not just your players who’ll appreciate a good, visible grid: it’s
useful when lining-up your printouts to stick, too!).
I keep my maps rolled-up in a box. If you do this too, just be ready with some paperweights to keep the edges from curling when you unfurl them across your gaming table. Or cut into
separate rooms and mount to stiff card for that “jigsaw” effect! Whatever works best for you!
But you know what hasn’t been seen before today? A Wordle clone where you have to guess a creature from the Dungeons & Dragons (5e) Monster Manual by putting numeric values into a
character sheet (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA):
What are you waiting for: go give DNDle a try (I pronounce it “dindle”, but you can pronounce it however you like). A new monster
appears at 10:00 UTC each day.
And because it’s me, of course it’s open source and works offline.
The boring techy bit
Like Wordle, everything happens in your browser: this is a “backendless” web application.
I’ve used ReefJS for state management, because I wanted something I could throw together quickly but I didn’t want to drown myself (or my players)
in a heavyweight monster library. If you’ve not used Reef before, you should give it a go: it’s basically like React but a tenth of the footprint.
A cache-first/background-updating service worker means that it can run completely offline: you can install it to your homescreen in the
same way as Wordle, but once you’ve visited it once it can work indefinitely even if you never go online again.
I don’t like to use a buildchain that’s any more-complicated than is absolutely necessary, so the only development dependency is rollup. It
resolves my import statements and bundles a single JS file for the browser.
Following the success of our last game of Dialect the previous month and once again in a one-week hiatus of our usual Friday
Dungeons & Dragons game, I hosted a second remote game of this strange “soft” RPG with linguistics and improv drama elements.
Our backdrop to this story was Portsmouth in 1834, where we were part of a group – the Gunwharf Ants – who worked as stevedores and made our living (on top of the abysmal wages for
manual handling) through the criminal pursuit of “skimming a little off the top” of the bulk-break cargo we moved between ships and onto and off the canal. These stolen goods would be
hidden in the basement of nearby pub The Duke of Wellington until they could be safely fenced, and this often-lucrative enterprise made us the envy of many of the docklands’ other
I played Katie – “Kegs” to her friends – the proprietor of the Duke (since her husband’s death) and matriarch of the group. I was joined by Nuek (Alec), a Scandinavian friend with a wealth of criminal experience, John “Tuck” Crawford (Matt), adoptee of the gang and our aspiring quartermaster, and
“Yellow” Mathias Hammond (Simon), a navy deserter who consistently delivers better than he expects to.
While each of us had our stories and some beautiful and hilarious moments, I felt that we all quickly converged on the idea that the principal storyline in our isolation was that of
young Tuck. The first act was dominated by his efforts to proof himself to the gang, and – with a little snuff – shake off his reputation as the “kid” of the group and
gain acceptance amongst his peers. His chance to prove himself with a caper aboard the Queen Anne went proper merry though after she turned up tin-ful and he found
himself kept in a second-place position for years longer. Tuck – and Yellow – got proofed eventually, but the extra time spent living hand-to-mouth might have been what first
planted the seed of charity in the young man’s head, and kept most of his numbers out of his pocket and into those of the families he supported in the St. Stevens area.
The second act turned political, as Spiky Dave, leader of the competing gang The Barbados Boys, based over Gosport way, offered a truce between the two rivals in exchange for sharing
the manpower – and profits – of a big job against a ship from South Africa… with a case of diamonds aboard. Disagreements over the deal undermined Kegs’ authority over the Ants, but
despite their March it went ahead anyway and the job was a success. Except… Spiky Dave kept more than his share of the loot, and agreed to share what was promised only in
exchange for the surrender of the Ants and their territory to his gang’s rulership.
We returned to interpersonal drama in the third act as Katie – tired of the gang wars and feeling her age – took perhaps more than her fair share of the barrel (the gang’s
shared social care fund) and bought herself clearance to leave aboard a ship to a beachside retirement in Jamaica. She gave up her stake in the future of the gang and
shrugged off their challenges in exchange for a quiet life, leaving Nuek as the senior remaining leader of the group… but Tuck the owner of the Duke of Wellington. The gang split into
those that integrated with their rivals and those that went their separate ways… and their curious pidgin dissolved with them. Well, except for a few terms which hung on in dockside
gang chatter, screeched amongst the gulls of Portsmouth without knowing their significance, for years to come.
Despite being fundamentally the same game and a similar setting to when we played The Outpost the previous month, this game felt very different. Dialect is
versatile enough that it can be used to write… adventures, coming-of-age tales, rags-to-riches stories, a comedies, horror, romance… and unless the tone is explicitly set out at the
start then it’ll (hopefully) settle somewhere mutually-acceptable to all of the players. But with a new game, new setting, and new players, it’s inevitable that a different kind of
story will be told.
But more than that, the backdrop itself impacted on the tale we wove. On Mars, we were physically isolated from the rest of humankind and living in an environment in which the
necessities of a new lifestyle and society necessitates new language. But the isolation of criminal gangs in Portsmouth docklands in the late Georgian era is a very different
kind: it’s a partial isolation, imposed (where it is) by its members and to a lesser extent by the society around them. Which meant that while their language was still a defining aspect
of their isolation, it also felt more-artificial; deliberately so, because those who developed it did so specifically in order to communicate surreptitiously… and, we
discovered, to encode their group’s identity into their pidgin.
While our first game of Dialect felt like the language lead the story, this second game felt more like the language and the story co-evolved but were mostly unrelated. That’s
not necessarily a problem, and I think we all had fun, but it wasn’t what we expected. I’m glad this wasn’t our first experience of Dialect, because if it were I think
it might have tainted our understanding of what the game can be.
As with The Outpost, we found that some of the concepts we came up with didn’t see much use: on Mars, the concept of fibs was rooted in a history of of how our medical
records were linked to one another (for e.g. transplant compatibility), but aside from our shared understanding of the background of the word this storyline didn’t really come up.
Similarly, in Thieves Cant’ we developed a background about the (vegan!) roots of our gang’s ethics, but it barely got used as more than conversational flavour. In both cases
I’ve wondered, after the fact, whether a “flashback” scene framed from one of our prompts might have helped solidify the concept. But I’m also not sure whether or not such a thing would
be necessary. We seemed to collectively latch onto a story hook – this time around, centred around Matt’s character John Crawford’s life and our influences on it – and it played out
And hey; nobody died before the epilogue, this time!
I’m looking forward to another game next time we’re on a D&D break, or perhaps some other time.
Dialect could be described as a rules-light, GM-less (it has a “facilitator” role, but they have no more authority than any player on
anything), narrative-driven/storytelling roleplaying game based on the concept of isolated groups developing their own unique dialect and using the words they develop as a vehicle to
tell their stories.
This might not be the kind of RPG that everybody likes to play – if you like your rules more-structured, for example, or
you’re not a fan of “one-shot”/”beer and pretzels” gaming – but I was able to grab a subset of our usual roleplayers – Alec, Matt R, Penny, and
I – and have a game (with thanks to Google Meet for videoconferencing and Roll20 for the virtual tabletop: I’d have used Foundry but its card support is still pretty terrible!).
A game of Dialect begins with a backdrop – what other games might call a scenario or adventure – to set the scene. We opted for The Outpost, which put the four of us
among the first two thousand humans to colonise Mars, landing in 2045. With help from some prompts provided by the backdrop we expanded our situation in order to declare the “aspects”
that would underpin our story, and then expand on these to gain a shared understanding of our world and society:
Refugees from plague: Our expedition left Earth to escape from a series of devastating plagues that were ravaging the planet, to try to get a fresh start on another
Hostile environment: Life on Mars is dominated by the ongoing struggle for sufficient food and water; we get by, but only thanks to ongoing effort and discipline and
we lack some industries that we haven’t been able to bootstrap in the five years we’ve been here (we had originally thought that others would follow).
Functionalist, duty-driven society: The combination of these two factors led us to form a society based on supporting its own needs; somewhat short of a caste system,
our culture is one of utilitarianism and unity.
It soon became apparent that communication with Earth had been severed, at least initially, from our end: radicals, seeing the successes of our new social and economic systems,
wanted to cement our differences by severing ties with the old world. And so our society lives in a hub-and-spoke cave system beneath the Martian desert, self-sustaining except for the
need to send rovers patrolling the surface to scout for and collect valuable surface minerals.
In this world, and prompted by our cards, we each developed a character. I was Jeramiah, the self-appointed “father” of the expedition and of this unusual new social order, who
remembers the last disasters and wars of old Earth and has revolutionary plans for a better world here on Mars, based on controlled growth and a planned economy. Alec played Sandy –
“Tyres” to their friends – a rover-driving explorer with one eye always on the horizon and fresh stories for the colony brought back from behind every new crater and mountain. Penny
played Susie, acting not only as the senior medic to the expedition but something more: sort-of the “mechanic” of our people-driven underground machine, working to keep alive the
genetic records we’d brought from Earth and keep them up-to-date as our society eventually grew, in order to prevent the same kinds of catastrophe happening here. “Picker” Ben was our
artist, for even a functionalist society needs somebody to record its stories, celebrate its accomplishments, and inspire its people. It’s possible that the existence of his position
was Jeramiah’s doing: the two share a respect for the stark, barren, undeveloped beauty of the Martian surface.
We developed our language using prompt cards, improvised dialogue, and the needs of our society. But the decades that followed brought great change. More probes began to land from
Earth, more sophisticated than the ones that had delivered us here. They brought automated terraforming equipment, great machines that began to transform Mars from a barren wasteland
into a place for humans to thrive. These changes fractured our society: there were those that saw opportunity in this change – a chance to go above ground and live in the sun, to expand
across the planet, to make easier the struggle of our day-to-day lives. But others saw it as a threat: to our way of life, which had been shaped by our challenging environment; to our
great social experiment, which could be ruined by the promise of an excessive lifestyle; to our independence, as these probes were clearly the harbingers of the long-promised second
wave from Earth.
Even as new colonies were founded, the Martians of the Hub (the true Martians, who’d been here for yams time, lived and defibed here, not these tanning desert-dwelers that
followed) resisted the change, but it was always going to be a losing battle. Jeramiah took his last breath in an environment suit atop a dusty Martian mountain a day’s drive from the
Hub, watching the last of the nearby deserts that was still untouched by the new green plants that had begun to spread across the surface. He was with his friend Sandy, for despite all
of the culture’s efforts to paint them as diametrically opposed leaders with different ideas of the future, they remained friends until the end. As the years went by and more and more
colonists arrived, Sandy left for Phobos, always looking for a new horizon to explore. Sick of the growing number of people who couldn’t understand his language or his art, Ben
pioneered an expedition to the far side of the planet where he lived alone, running a self-sustaining agri-home and exploring the hills until his dying day. We were never sure where
Susie ended up, but it wasn’t Mars: she’d talked about joining humanity’s next big jump, to the moons of Jupiter, so perhaps she’s out there on one of the colonies of Titan or Europa.
Maybe, low clicks, she’s even keeping our language alive out there.
The whole event was a lot of fun and I’m keen to repeat it, perhaps with a different group and a different backdrop. The usual folks know who they are, but if you’re not one of
those and you want in next time we play, drop me a message of some kind.
I’ve been watching the output that people machines around the Internet have been producing using GPT-3 (and its cousins), an AI model that can produce long-form “human-like”
text. Here’s some things I’ve enjoyed recently:
I played for a bit with AI Dungeon‘s (premium) Dragon engine, which came up with Dan and the
Spider’s Curse when used as a virtual DM/GM. I pitched an idea to Robin lately that one could run a vlog series based on AI Dungeon-generated adventures: coming up with a “scene”, performing it, publishing it, and taking
suggestions via the comments for the direction in which the adventure might go next (but leaving the AI to do the real
Language contains the map to a better world. Those that are most skilled at removing obstacles, misdirection, and lies from language, that reveal the maps that are hidden within, are
the guides that will lead us to happiness.
Yesterday, The Guardian published the op-ed piece A robot wrote this entire article.
Are you scared yet, human? It’s edited together from half a dozen or so essays produced by the AI from the same
starting prompt, but the editor insists that this took less time than the editing process on most human-authored op-eds. It’s good stuff. I found myself reminded of Nobody Knows You’re A Machine, a short story I wrote about eight years ago and was never entirely happy with but which I’ve put online in
order to allow you to see for yourself what I mean.
As effective conversational AI becomes increasingly accessible, I become increasingly convinced what we might eventually see
a sandwichware future, where it’s cheaper for an appliance developer to install an AI
into the device (to allow it to learn how to communicate with your other appliances, in a human language, just like you will) rather than rely on a static and universal underlying
computer protocol as an API. Time will tell.
Meanwhile: I promise that this post was written by a human!
The BEST THING I’ve seen on Twitter this week (month?) is Justin Alexander’s thread documenting “The Dungeon of Drezzar,” Peter Heeringa and Troy Wilhelmson’s spectacular multilevel
dungeon built into a series of dresser drawers.
Well now I feel like my DM isn’t trying hard enough. Move aside, Roll20!
One way I’ve found to enhance my nights as Dungeon Master is to call on experiences as an amateur musician and fan, to ramp up the intensity and sense of fantasy with playlists of
tunes from the history of composed and recorded music.
I realised that this might be something I was OK at when I saw our party’s rogue lost in imagination and stabbing to the beat of a bit of Shostakovich.
Over the months some of the collections I’ve curated have picked up a few followers on Spotify and upvotes on Reddit but I thought it was time to put more effort in and start
writing about it.
The opening post from Lute the Bodies, a new blog by my friend Alec. It promises an exploration of enhancing tabletop roleplaying with
music, which is awesome: I’ve occasionally been known to spend longer picking out the music for a given roleplaying event than I have on planning the roleplaying activities themselves!
Looking forward to see where this goes…
The 5 year-old and the 2 year-old are playing at running a veterinary surgery (the 5 year-old’s department) and animal shelter (the 2 year-old’s department).
The 5 year-old’s filled me in on the tragic backstory of this particular establishment: she and the 2 year-old are twins but were orphaned soon after birth. They were adopted by
different families but then those families all died, too, and because everybody else in the world already had children there was nobody to adopt them and so they had
to look after themselves. 67 years of schooling later, at age 15 (maths might need some work…), the pair of them decided, at the end of secondary school, that their shared love of
animals meant that they should open a vet/shelter, and so they did.
When they’re not busy fitting collars for unicorns or treating yet-another-outbreak of canine chickenpox, they’re often found patrolling the streets and shouting “does anybody have
any sick or injured animals?”. Except during naptime. Their work has a naptime, of course. (I wish my work had a naptime.)
It’s a tough job. Sometimes animals need quarantining in the safe. Sometimes you’ve got to fit an elderly crocodile with false teeth. Sometimes you’ve got a hippo whose owner says
that it thinks it’s a duck, but thanks to your years of training you’re able to diagnose as actually thinking it’s a goose. Sometimes it’s a swan that won’t stop vomiting, or
a snail that lost it’s shell and now has diarrhoea. It’s hard work, but the twins find it rewarding.
Goats are the main characters. You are the supporting cast.
This game is about running mind-blowing live action experiences for goats. You will act as director and storyteller, transporting the goats to an unforgettable dream world of
mystery and magic, etc etc.
Goat Larp is one part larp, one part hangout-with-animals-and-take-silly-pictures. In some ways, we are roleplaying that this is a larp.
The Goat Larp Rulebook
Rule number 1 through 100 is BE NICE TO THE GOATS.
Show up at the farm dressed as any character you want. You could be an elf, a steampunk, the mayor of space, Hulk Hogan, Darth Vader, whatever.
Your character has no knowledge of how you got to this mystical goat farm, but you can sense that these goats are IMPORTANT. They need to be entertained. You need to run a larp
Goat Activity Cards
There will be a stack of Goat Activity Cards. They are suggestions for activities you can do with the goats. For example:
One goat plays as Frodo, another will be Sauron. Use lawn posts to mark off an area representing Mount Doom. If Frodo visits Mount Doom before Sauron touches him, the world is
saved. If Sauron touches Frodo, all is lost.
President Goat’s cabinet must advise them on an important decision. The fate of the world is in this goat’s hands. One post is labeled “World Peace”, another post is labeled “Nuke
Everything”. If President Goat bumps into a post, their decision is made.
Both teams may try to persuade the goats using any (safe) means they can come up. You are encouraged to ham it up, over-act, and monologue about what’s going on. This gives the
goats a nice, immersive experience.
You may also come up with your own quests. In fact, you should, because most of the stuff we’re writing is garbage.
Oh, I thought: it’s LARPing but with goats. You know, like Goat Yoga is yoga but with goats. Okay, fair enough: whatever floats your goat…
…but no, I was wrong. This isn’t so much LARPing with goats as LARPing for goats. As in: the goats are the player chatacters; any humans that happen to come along are
mobs there for the entertainment of the goats.
The Internet remains a strange and wonderful window into a strange and wonderful world.
For the last few months, I’ve been GMing a GURPS campaign (that was originally a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st-edition campaign, in turn built upon a mixture of commercially published and homegrown
modules, including, in turn, an AD&D module…) for a few friends.
But mostly I wanted to make this post so that I had a point of context in case I ever get around to open-sourcing some of the digital tools I’ve been developing to help streamline our
play sessions. For example, most of our battle maps and exploration are presented on a ‘board’ comprised of a flat screen monitor stripped of its stand and laid on its back, connected
via the web to a tool that allows me to show, hide, or adapt parts of it from my laptop or mobile phone. Player stats, health, and cash, as well as the date, time, position of the sun
as well as the phases of the moons are similarly tracked and are available via any player’s mobile phone at any time.
These kinds of tools have been popular for ‘long-distance’/Internet roleplaying for years, but I think there’s a lot of potential in locally-linked, tabletop-enhancing
(rather than replacing) tools that deliver some of the same benefit to the (superior, in my opinion) experience of ‘proper’ face-to-face adventure gaming. Now, at least,
when I tell you for example about some software I wrote to help calculate the position of the sun in the sky of a fictional world, you’ll have a clue why I would do such a thing in the
On Tuesday last week, Ruth and I went to Etiquette, an unusual (and at least a little experimental) theatrical experience at the Oxford Playhouse. I say “theatrical experience”, because while there were certainly elements to the evening that could be considered to
be reminiscent of more-conventional theatre, it was far more like not going to see a play than it was like doing so.
The event takes place in a café. And I mean that literally… I’m not just setting the scene; although many of the scenes also take place in a café. This is actually a cafe, with a
handful of other participants, sat in pairs at their respective tables, and a majority of people who are just everyday folks out for a drink or a sandwich.
We were shown to our table and invited to sit. On the table were a collection of objects – glasses of water, a pipette, stage blood, two plastic figurines (one man, one woman), a ball
of white tack, some chalk, a book, some notepaper, some blank cards… and a pair of MP3 players with headphones. We were instructed to put on the headphones. Simultaneously, the MP3
players were started.
From there on, we followed the instructions given over the earpieces. My role was that of an older man, a self-described philosopher. Ruth played a prostitute, which lead to at least a
little embarrassment on her part when she was required to say, “I am a prostitute,” in a crowded café. It’s easy to feel acutely self-conscious when you’re relaying what
you’re told in a pair of headphones out loud. You know that feeling that you get when you realise that you’re singing along to the music you’re listening to, in public? It’s a little
bit like that, but instead of music, you’re spouting out-of-context nonsense.
It’s not just dialogue, though; it’s also stage direction, motivation, and prompts to inspire emotion. Some of the story is told in a very abstract way: early on, Ruth’s and my
characters had agreed to meet in a house on a hill, near a tree. Ruth laid her hand out on the table, on which she had, under previous instruction, drawn a square and a dot on the heel
of her palm. I was told to examine the shape of the “landscape” of her hand, and try drip water from my pipette, from as high as I could reach, onto it. Simultaneously, her
character – already in the house (the square) – was told that it had begun to rain, and she heard the sound of a storm beginning through her headphones.
Throughout the course of the event, we each took on a variety of roles: as characters in our own play, as directors of a “play” performed on our table using the props we had to hand, as
the audience to both of the above, and even as parts of the scenery.
The story itself… was okay. It felt like it was lacking something. It wasn’t bad, and it certainly took advantage of the space and technology it required, but it was perhaps trying to
say a little bit too much in a little bit too short a time. But the medium? That whole “scripted, but you don’t get to read ahead”, headphones-acting? That’s kind-of cool and exciting.
I’ve got the urge to try to write something similar myself (perhaps for a cast of five or six). Although first, I’ve got a murder mystery to finish writing!
A couple of weeks ago, the other Earthlings and I played our very first
game of Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century is a
tabletop roleplaying game based on the FATE system (which in turn
draws elements from the FUDGE system, and in particular,
the FUDGE dice). Are you following me so far?
Spirit of the Century is set in the “pulp novel” era of the 1920s, in the optimistic period between the two world wars. The player characters play pulp-style heroes: the learned
professor, the adventurous archaeologist, the daring pilot, all of those tropes of the era. Science, or – as it should be put – Science! is king, and there’s no telling
what fantastic and terrifying secrets are about to be unleashed upon the world. Tell you what… let me just show you the cover for the sourcebook:
Everything you need to know about the game is right in that picture, right there.
The character generation mechanism is different from most RPGs; even other fluffy, anti-min/max-ey ones. All player characters (for reasons relevant to the mythos) were born on
1st January 1901, so the first part of character creation is explaining what they did during their childhood. The second part is about explaining what they did during the Great War.
During each of these (and every subsequent step), the character will gain two “aspects”, which they’ll later use for or against their feats in a way not-too-dissimilar from the
PDQ System (which may be familiar to those of you who’ve
played Ninja Burger 2nd Edition).
The third chapter of character generation involves telling your character’s own story – their first adventure – in the style of a pulp novel. The back of the character sheet will
actually end up with a “blurb” on it, summarising the plot of their novel. Then things get complicated. In the fourth and fifth chapters, each character will co-star in the novels of
randomly-selected other player characters. This can involve a little bit of re-writing, as stories are bent in order to fit around the ideas of the players, but it serves
an important purpose: it gives groups of player characters a collaborative backstory. “Remember the time that we fought off Professor Mechk’s evil robot
That’s exactly what Johnny Sparks did in “Johnny Sparks and the Robot Army”. When Professor Mechk released his evil robot army on the streets of New York City, Johnny Sparks –
government-sponsored whizkid – knew he had to act. With his old friend Jack Brewood (and Jack’s network of black market contacts), he acquired the parts to build a weapon powered by
lightning itself. Then, alongside Mafia child and expert pugilist Michael Leone, he fought his way up the Empire State Building to Mechk’s control centre. While Michael duelled
with Mechk, Johnny channeled the powers of the heavens into the gigantic robot brainwave transmitter at the top of the tower, sending it into overload. As the tower-top base melted down
and exploded, Michael and Johnny abseiled rapidly down the side to safety.
And so they have a history, you see! And some “aspects” for it: Johnny got “Master of Storms” from his lightning-based research and “With thanks to Jack” for his friend’s support.
Meanwhile Jack got “On Johnny’s wavelength” to represent the fact that he’s one of the few people who can follow Johnny’s strange and aspie-ish thought patterns.
In our first play session, Michael Leone (Paul), Jack Brewood (JTA), and Anna Midnight (Ruth) found themselves in a race to
rescue aviator Charles Lindbergh from the evil Captain Hookshot and his
blimp-riding pirates. Hookshot hoped to use the kidnap of Lindbergh as leverage to get his hands on some of Thomas Edison‘s secret research, which he hoped would allow him to gain a stranglehold on the world’s aluminium supply, which was only
just beginning to be produced in meaningful quantities. So began an epic boat (and seaplane) chase across the Atlantic to mysterious Barnett Island, a fight through the pirates’ slave camp and bauxite mines, a
Mexican-stand-off aboard a zeppelin full of explosives, and a high-speed escape from an erupting volcanic island.
Jack’s afraid of flying, so while the others arrived for the first scenes of the adventure by seaplane, Jack trundled well behind in a cruiser. As a result, he completely missed
When Hookshot was first kidnapping Edison, his attempt was foiled when Ana threw a cutlass at him, severing the grapple he had tied to the scientist.
Michael’s a badass at barehand combat. When he wasn’t flinging wild dogs into trees, he was generally found crushing the skulls of pirates into one another.
Spirit of the Century encourages a particular mechanism for “player-generated content”. This was exemplified wonderfully by Jack’s observation that he “read once that there was
a tribal whaling camp on an island near here, called Ingleshtat.” He paid a FATE point and made an Academics roll, but because I wouldn’t tell him the target of the roll he only knew
that he’d “done well”, and not that he’d “done well enough.” He and the other player characters weren’t sure that his knowledge was accurate until they reached the
island (and thankfully found that he was right). Similarly, the motivation for the kidnapping wasn’t about aluminium until one of the players speculated that it might be.
Ana Midnight’s spectacularly failed attempt at stealth, as she crept via a creaky door into a building full of armed guards. Also, Jack’s fabulous rescue attempt, as he dived
and rolled into the building, firing his pistol as he went, while Michael climbed up the zeppelin’s boarding tower, leading to…
The tense (and, surprisingly, combat-free… barely!) stand-off and negotiation aboard Hookshot’s zeppelin, towards the end of the story.
There’s a lot of potential for a lot of fun in this game, and we’ll be sure to play it again sometime soon.