Who Dares Roles: Zinequest Zine-Fest

It’s Zinequest 3! Zinequ3st? Either way, it’s the start of a month of fascinating, weird projects on Kickstarter. I’ve recorded a video about two projects I’ve backed, several active ones I’m interested in and some which have since come out. I also talk a little about This Person Should Not Exist, a game about strange anomalies and drawing on a copy of Where’s Wally.

My video is here and the show notes have links to every project:

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Who Dares Roles: Cyberpunks and Missing Teens

My second video for Who Dares Roles ran a little long, but covered a good amount of RPG content. My copy of Alice is Missing (which I’ve now had a chance to virtually play and will review after another playthrough) arrived.

In addition, my preorder for Cyberpunk Red showed up and I’m still in the process of reading it. There are some potential issues, but I’ll have to cover those in some future content, either written or in video.

Before picking up Cyberpunk I actually bought a micro-RPG called CBR+PNK which is a micro-system Forged in the Dark, where cyberpunks go on one last heist together. It’s trifold booklet-size so I did print out a copy to show off.

There’s a bit more news and a little more to show off, too, so if you’re interested, check out my video here:

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Who Dares Roles: I make videos now!

Hey, I’ve started doing something new for Who Dares Rolls. Yes, I’ve pivoted to video. I write reviews and general chatter about indie RPGS as well as the occasional board game. Until recently we had a podcast, but busy schedules and other issues led to it going on hiatus.

I still wanted to talk about RPGs and as Mike’s been having a lot of success waffling about games (as well as old man popular culture) , I thought I would try my hand at it. When Mike gave a list of comics which would make board games I disagreed with, I decided to test the video waters by making a response. It was an excuse to talk about comics and about hypothetical board games and hopefully it went alright:

I also appeared on the “What’s Hot in Indie RPGs” 2020 video conference. I had a prerecorded bit saying about the game which most wowed me in 2020 (Trophy Gold) and the game I was most looking forward to in 2021 (World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game Pasión de las Pasiones). I was really pleased and surprised to be invited on by Epistolary Richard who hosts the panel each year and ran the first ever game of Monsterhearts I played.

All of this has led to me starting a regular feature for Who Dares Rolls. Every couple of weeks I’ll be posting up a video which will be edited by Mike B. The general format is a bit about what I’ve played, any interesting new RPG acquisitions and any news.

In addition to this style of video, I’ve got plans for some deep dives into individual games I’ve run or played, and the bibliography of some indie publishers who I’m a fan of. I know this first video’s got a slight sound difference thing going on, but I’m working on things like sound and lighting (as is Mike). If there’s anything people want to see or hear about in the world of indie RPGs, let me know!

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Coming Soon: Explosion High!

Our lovely cast of Explosion High! They’re all a total mess!

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m working on a comic called Explosion High. Well, it’s looking a lot more real now. The first issue’s script was written last year in a couple of sittings, the main one of which felt like I’d been struck by a manic energy lightning bolt. Hopefully that energy if visible here.

The project’s almost all done and I’m gearing up for the Kickstarter project which I’m aiming to get launched at the end of March. I’ll be sharing some more information about that as soon as I’ve nailed more details down. The good news is that the provisional details are all verified, which makes it feel worryingly real.

Mike Armstrong’s been on this comic with me since the early days. I think I came up with the concept and sat on it for a while before speaking to him, but Mike’s been pivotal to the designs of the cast. We were friends in sixth form when we were trying to be a comic company called Awesome Comics. We have similar foundational influences and while I’m sure our tastes have diverged over the years, we get each other with this kind of concept. I’ll be pulling down the old Explosion High site at some point, but we tried making this a webcomic back in the webcomic days. This is a quite different beast, but the core concept is still there. Mike’s drawing the third story in the book, and helped with the core cast designs.

Debora Lancianese is an Italian comic artist who I saw after most of a year of hunting for artists for projects. Her work was perfect for this kind of an energetic story, and her colouring was amazing. She both incredibly fast at drawing and incredibly good. There were a few changes which had to be made during the process which she took on board as she went. She also coloured Mike’s pages which added a real sense of continuity to the two stories.

After talking to Matt Hardy of Mad Robot Comics, he suggested something I never thought possible; hiring Norrie Millar and Faye Stacey of Vehi-Kill fame. I’m in the privileged position of being part of the Mad Robot Comics writer’s brain trust. I get to see some of the works in progress from the other writers and the art for Vehi-Kill always looked sumptuous. The bombastic art and gorgeous colours were perfect for Vehi-Kill’s chaos and actually also for Explosion High. Fortunately as Norrie and Faye were almost done with issue three of Vehi-Kill, I was able to get them on board for the first story in the issue. It’s bigger and madder than the others, so getting some folks like these is great. Norrie’s also made the cover which I’ve now seen and looks gorgeous.

For the first time, the Explosion High logo, against a suitable backdrop

In addition to the artists, Mad Robot Comics alum Rob Jones created the logo and has agreed to letter the comic, as well as handling the layout of the interior. I’ve dealt with Rob on my previous projects and he’s a real star. I admit I even wrote some of the sound effects in the script specifically wondering how Rob would handle them.

Then there’s Matt Hardy. He’s the brain behind Mad Robot Comics and the person who’s helped me actually focus enough on one project long enough to get it finished. Okay… two, but the other one’s still needing an artist. Alright, four, but one’s benched and the other’s still on the bubble. Either way, he’s pushed me onwards, given me encouragement when I’ve needed it and a poke with a stick when I’ve needed that, too.

If you check out the #explosionhigh hashtag on the social media platform of your choice (as long as it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or an alternate universe where Google Plus still exists) then you’ll be able to see glimpses of preview art for the project.

I’ll be posting a bit more over here about it, especially when we get closer to the launch date!

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The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part Four (Nice Marines to The Yellow King)

Okay, home stretch now. Here are the final games I played this year, covering us pretty much to the present moment. There might be one more session of play before the year’s end, in order to finish Warmer in the Winter, but that’s it for me for 2021.

Nice Marines

A couple of things from our page of session notes.

My knowledge of Warhammer peaked around ages 12-14, which I feel are the optimal ages to be a Warhammer nerd. When my friends in their thirties were all getting back into it, I didn’t really follow. I barely painted my units but I did name them. My brother came up with backstories for minions in Heroquest. I moved from Warhammer type games to RPGs as that helped me get what I wanted from that world, not miniature combat.

What I mean when I say all this is that I knew I was going into a losing battle with Nice Marines. My players would inevitably know far more than I did, but I’d be open with them about this and plough on through.

Nice Marines is the sole Grant Howitt game I ran this year, about space marines who saved a planet from alien forces and then the people who are there to help the recovery efforts don’t show up. With inspectors on the way, the space marines have to help rebuild, despite being made only for killing.

I only had two players, but they went in with gusto, helping and often breaking everything apart as they went. Whole buildings were toppled during the rebuilding efforts, one of the group put a hand through a diplomat while trying to reassure everyone and they will never get stains out of the Rhino the brought along.

Night’s Black Agents

Photo of Split’s convention setup by Graham Wilkes.

I’ve never played or run a Gumshoe RPG before, but I had Yellow King on my 2020 Bucket List. A friend, Split, was going to run Night’s Black Agents at AireCon and realised I could learn the system at the hands of a friend.

NBA felt a little like going back to my Spycraft days, with a lot of planning and scouting out places. The character sheets were all nicely designed and presented so we knew how to make use of everything. It started out light enough with some basic investigations, a bit of light breaking and entering, then a fight against a terrifying vampire in a graveyard. For a one slot convention session, it felt like we got a lot done.

I mainly know of the system from Trail of Cthulhu as an alternative to systems where the group might get stalled by the system. Players have Investigative Abilities which automatically give a character any relevant clues when they see or unlock them. There are also General Abilities which are for anything non-clue-based. Unlike Yellow King this has abilities called ‘Cherries’ (I admit I’m not 100% sure why they’re called that) which are extra abilities.

Later in the year when the Bundle of Holding came out for The Dracula Dossier, I ended up buying it because of my experiences here and a love of the concept of a sandbox game using Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a player resource to find clues.

World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game Pasión de las Pasiones

My attempt to unpack what the players created, along with a really awesome pen a couple of players gave me as apparently it suited my GM style.

Like Last Fleet, this used a QuickStart version of the game as it was only just done through Kickstarter when I ran it.

Pasión is Powered by the Apocalypse, but it does some fantastic things with it. You don’t have stats, but you have questions you ask. Each ‘yes’ you say is a +1 to your roll. Two questions are from the move you’re doing and one from your playbook. El Caballero has, “are you handling things without guile and head on?” This means that whatever you do, that question is valid. You also get props, such as an eyepatch or a horse.

I don’t know anything about telenovelas and a decade of watching Eastenders when I was younger didn’t really match up. Still, the mechanics and the writing of the preview rules really helped set the tone and allow me to do the same for my players.

The story we told involved an illicit dog-breeding operation and the trial for the murder of El Caballero’s police horse. There were strained reunions, evil twins who swapped eyepatches and a really tense date at El Jefe’s apartment where both players were constantly lying to each other and trying to coordinate their own schemes. Our group turned it into a bit of a Fiasco at times, but there were some spectacular moments of love, rivalry and revelation which had the whole group shouting in excitement. I feel sorry for the tables near us, but also proud of what we achieved.

Quest

Summersea, from my Exodus campaign setting and the adventure, “Dude, Where’s my Wizard?”

This was an interesting one. When D&D was going through yet more controversies and even the co-author of Dungeon World was acting objectionably enough that I didn’t want to run that anymore, I started looking at alternatives which weren’t as heavily descended from D&D. This meant no OSRs as they were in dialogue with D&D as much as Dungeon World. No Pathfinder as that’s basically still D&D. I remembered a Dicebreaker video about Quest.

Quest is a very simple RPG which uses a lot of fiction-first techniques as well as a very simple unmodified d20 roll for resolution. Characters have role-based abilities which help keep everyone unique and give them interesting rules to add into the fiction. The book looks lovely, has nice art and intends to not be the only RPG a person ever plays. As some streamers moved from D&D to Quest, the company involved got a bit more attention. They had made a couple of tonal choices with abilities which didn’t gel with the look the company and the game book were going for. The Adventure Guild put up things like free copies for teachers and a discount on the physical version if you buy the PDF. There was a little criticism about how people were treating Quest like it was to be the new D&D and that leaving D&D on racial grounds to then go to another RPG by wealthy white men was a bit odd. These are valid criticisms and it’s been reassuring to see Quest answer with their open source system that anyone can take part in and they’re helping promote, as well as stated in their book mentioning that there are other RPGs for people to move onto after Quest. It’s all a start, which is something.

I ran a couple of one-shots and a two-parter with my regular group. As a first role-playing game to teach people, it’s wonderful. It moves smoothly along, gives GMs the right kind of resources and stays out of the way until the rules need to be engaged with. I can see it also being perfect for streamers in the same way.

For someone coming from D&D there’s a little learning (and un-learning) to do. For someone coming in with no knowledge it holds your hand nicely and if you’re used to indie RPGs, this will feel a little bit basic without any third party resource to help with adding a bit more complexity.

The first games I ran were connected one-shots, with the group having to chase down a flying castle. The first session had skeletons raining from the sky and building catapults to try and get back up there. The second session had the group break into a lord’s grounds and his magical beast hunt in order to use a shortcut to the flying castle. They fought off some terrifying swanbears and made their way to the castle. It turned out a storm elemental had been caught up in a lightning rod and was shaking the castle, knocking the skeleton guards down to the cities below.

The two-parter was a hunt through a mage’s festival to find a brick wizard who’d been on a bender there. The group made some fun characters and stormed through the tourist traps, revelries and the elusive brick wizard who had been up to no good.

I found both sessions of Quest really allowed me to engage my imagination and let everything go wild. I don’t know how it’d fare for a campaign, but it’s definitely what I’d want to use for my Exodus campaign setting in the future.

Squamous

I love this screenshot of the group’s immediate reactions to seeing a monster and the horrendous failures that followed. This is when it got a bit messy.

I mainly know Scott Malthouse from his solo games Quill and English Eerie. When I saw he had written a super-light cosmic horror investigation game, I was curious. I love Cthulhu Dark which is a similar creature, but where that focuses on the nihilistic horror, Squamous focuses on investigations. It’s no slouch when it comes to horror, either.

I ran a one-off session using the adventure in the back of the book and we managed to have some atmospheric fun with some terrifying moments near the end. I’ve got a review mostly written which I’ll be publishing soon, and my next experiment with the system will be running a premade Call of Cthulhu adventure using this system.

Trophy Gold

I’m not going to post any spoilers, so here’s the cover for Hester’s Mill, which fucking slaps. Go, get Trophy Gold and run or play this.

This was a game I really wanted to run all year. I loved Trophy Dark and went all in on the Kickstarter, but I was a little uncertain how Trophy Gold worked. I bit the bullet, ran the game and it was one of those experiences where the mechanics all fall together and spell out, “This is the good shit”. It was one thing reading them, but seeing them in play was fantastic.

Trophy Gold is a narrative take on desperate adventurers looting dungeons for gold. It adds a fantastically dark tone and ‘push your luck’ mechanics which encourage adventurers turning over every rock, knowing that trouble will lie under a lot of them. I’ve only run one incursion for the game, but it was the kind of situation where my players kept asking for another go at it, sure they’d be able to uncover the secrets of the place and leave with profit.

In Trophy Gold, you have debts and you need to pay them every time you go back home or your character’s out of the game (dead, in debtor’s prison, it doesn’t really matter). So you need some money automatically, but the more you stay, the more likely you are to find some kind of unspeakable horror that will harm you, the dark forces of the dungeon may murder you, or worse. Trophy Dark was a sublime system and this is a worthy companion. I have a review mostly written of Trophy Gold which I’ll post up soon, and I want to try a campaign of it next, to see how people survive a few incursions.

Warmer in the Winter

Our main cast for Warmer in the Winter.

This is another game from my 2021 bucket list. I’m not much of a Christmas romcom person, but I love the idea of trying to mechanise the tropes and beats of a romantic comedy into a roleplaying game. This is a beta, so it’s not finished and a little barebones, really helped by knowledge of Monsterhearts and Kids on Bikes.

Players take on roles like, “The Beloved” and “The Rival”, then play through a story, gaining and losing Heartstrings on each other, even Wishing on a Star in order to find out details about a person or a situation.

I’ve only played the first half of a story, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that off before the year’s done. We have a stressed journalist having to return to her hometown in order to write a puff-piece about small town Christmases. The hometown hero and her ex, is trying to save the local ice rink. The rival is a factory owner looking to expand his domain and the youngster is his daughter who has been all-but-adopted by the hero. We had a supernatural character filled with festive cheer; in this case a haunted snowman. It transpired as we prepared everything, that the snowman’s ghost was actually the rival’s dead wife. She’s been trying to direct the journalist and the hero to work together to save the rink and possibly, remind the rival about the meaning of Christmas.

It’s light fluff, in a good way. Once the story’s done I’ve promised the designer I’ll report back, and I might turn it into a preview of the game for WDR.

Weave

This is literally part of the character sheet. How goddamn adorable is this?

This might be the first RPG I ran this year. Weave is a diceless RPG which involves colouring in patterns. You play a band of young magicians on a pilgrimage to find out about magic, which is all cast through weaving. Communities have items of clothes or accessories which are culturally relevant to them and by interacting with people, even solving problems, the group are able to learn about the item, then create a kind of representation which will gift them a spell.

I ran a few sessions and it felt relaxing, even with the problem the group had to face of wolves threatening any of the local farmers and the young mayor being too much of a drunk coward to fend them off as local customs dictated. One of the group spent most of his time working with a blacksmith, another one helped out the tanner, and they soaked everything in before moving on. Tonally it felt like if Avatar: The Last Airbender was about clothes, and a bit Studio Ghibli-ish. Admittedly discussions between myself and another player about Flying Circus had us tagging that whole aesthetic into this game.

I was certain I’d reviewed Weave, but apparently I didn’t. I’ll have to remedy that.

Wreck This Deck

A water demon, going in the freezer. Once it’s slowed down, I can deal with it.

The second journaling game I’ve got, and I need to do more with it. Rather than typing it out and transcribing, I’m trying to write straight to a notepad and keeping things sparse, keeping them sketchy.

Wreck This Deck is a game about people who trap demons in playing cards. You need a deck you’re fine ruining, a journal and a pen. There are different actions you can do to prompt entries, cast spells and capture demons. Some involve shuffling and drawing from the deck, others involve picking specific cards and doing things to them.

I made Kind, who I’ve not specified much about at the moment. They hang out at The Level, a patch of square grass including a skate park. They look after the skaters, the people passing through, the dog walkers and most importantly, the dogs.

So far, Kind’s been keeping an eye on a pair of community support officers who have been bothering some of the locals in the park. By cutting an eye shape into a card, Kind could see a strange influence over them. Kind followed the officers to a building site on Market Street, only to find them talking to a demon who got stuck in a hole. When the underground river down Lewes Road flooded, it washed in.

I wasn’t sure what to do for the capture and after a bit of thought, I decided to chuck the card in the freezer. I warned my partner what I’d done and subsequently lost the card. After a bit of a search it had been stuck between shelves; the demon probably didn’t want to be caught. Still, I recovered it, then steamed the card and the demon was left inside.

I need to carry out another draw to see what adventures Kind can get up to. I like how this game gets you to think creatively with not only the tarot-style interpretations of the cards, but also what physical actions to carry out. It reminds me of the weird transgressive joy felt when I first played Pandemic Legacy. You’re not supposed to rip up a card in a board game, but we did. That was exciting, and there’s something kind of fun about ripping, burning and cutting cards in this deck.

The Yellow King

A collage from my Yellow King presentation to my players.

Finally we have one of my roleplaying white whales. The Yellow King isn’t just one game, it’s four. Also it’s a system I’d never run or played at the start of the year. I’ve no idea why, but the three-column layout that Pelgrane Press use on their big books is something I can never get used to in PDF. Fortunately this game had a one column layout on four smaller books in a slipcase which also doubled as a fold-out GM screen.

The Yellow King is based on Robert W Chambers’ short stories and specifically not HP Lovecraft’s interpretations (and especially not August Derleth’s). It’s a game of weird, existential horror, starting out in Belle Époque Paris. This sent me down a lot of research holes both in art and weird art horror.

I learnt a bit about Yellow King and Gumshoe by watching some Actual Plays on Pelgrane’s YouTube channel and playing Night’s Black Agents at Airecon. I used Kanka to start setting up a space with all the locations and NPCs which I might use, including having AI Gahaku change the photos of actors into weird painted versions.

As an example of the ‘painted’ faceclaims, here is Jason Mantzoukas as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

I’ve only had a couple of sessions, which was an extended session zero. We made characters and a bit of the world, then ran through a short investigation as the group had to rescue Henri Toulouse-Lautrec from a debt collector who was going to give him a sound beating. They went from Le Veau Gras, a student haunt, to Moulin Rouge and then the Olympia Music Hall where they saw Henri in a private booth where he’d locked himself in while the gangster’s goons clambered up some shaky scaffolding to get to him.

My extremely intricate and complex scene layout.

The fight mechanics had looked weird and potentially clunky, but was actually really nice and simple. I feel like I’ll need to remind the group how it works, but so far I’ve been enjoying the system and look forward to seeing how the rest of the campaign goes. I’m kind of hoping that we’ll get to play all four campaigns over time, but we might need to have a gap between each of them to play something else.

And that’s it for 2020. A lot, as it turns out. I’ve no idea how many more or less I played last year, but in an overall stressful and weird world, roleplaying games have been a wonderful refuge.

There are three games from my 2020 bucket list which I wasn’t able to get round to:

DIE: I read this on the way to AireCon and it looks fascinating. I’ve loved the comic it’s based on and meta-fiction in general. I know it can be run online, but it feels like it’d do a lot better in the real world, at least for the first time trying it. It probably won’t be on my 2021 bucket list, but I still want to try it.

Good Society – I love a good period drama and this looks like an incredible game. I can’t help but feel it’ll be a really hard sell on my main weekly group. Hopefully I can pressure my writing group into a few sessions of it, as they like Regency era fiction.

Quietus – This one’s on me. It’s a melancholy horror game for 1-2 players. I should have had it in my back pocket for times when I only had one or two players as that happened more often than not this year. I’ll try and get it ready to go in 2021 in case I get a chance to try it.

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The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part Three (Green Dawn Mall to Masks: A New Generation)

My list of RPGs I played or ran this year continues, with a few I’ve reviewed, a few I haven’t and some general fun experiences to share.

Green Dawn Mall

Our Jamboard map of the mall.

This was part of Zinequest, and I regret not backing a physical copy now. Green Dawn Mall is a crawl through an increasingly weird shopping mall that might connect to all malls and might even be self-aware. I ran a game which lasted a couple of sessions (two and a bit thanks to cursed technology), starting with a friend of the players who had apparently gone into the mall to find an ointment which would help her become a dinosaur as she really loved dinosaurs.

The gang started out cautiously, despite my initial reading of the player agendas which encourage being proactive. After quickly fleeing Sammy Skates and the roller disco, they made their way to an aquatic-themed section of the mall and met a life-sized starfish. Things escalated from there as the group reached ‘The Dad Zone’ where a mannequin family hunted them, ‘The Fun Zone’ where one of them saw the giant rats who were running the lost and found, as well as some creepy toys trapped inside a plastic mountain trying to get out. There was a brief car chase, fleeing one of the courts in the mall and eventually they found their friend trapped in a hole under the chemists. It was surreal and weird, without being scary. As an alternative to dungeon-crawling, I heartily recommend it.

My full review of Green Dawn Mall is here.

History Dig Live!

Our dig site, picked from a selection we had on Jamboard.

When I was a student, I spent my wild evenings prepping RPG sessions with a dog by my side and Time Team on the television. It was a nice, gentle watching experience originally on because it might help me map out dungeons and then for its own sake.

History Dig Live! is an RPG which uses that sort of energy. Players are either archaeologists with a light quirk or two, and a lovable television personality who’s presenting the show. The active player presents their ‘find’ and then everyone comes up with their theories on what it means. You follow this up with a flashback to a secondary character set in the past, living their daily life. This adds context to the find and answers some of the theories even though the people in the present may not know. It also provides ammunition for the next players’ find.

Our show was an attempt to see if the area we were digging in had any religious significance. It looked for the most part like a market, although there was a bit of an eccentric nearby who was both a bit of a rabble rouser and a helpful community leader. Some local re-enactors got to make their own version of what the old market would have been and my character narrowly avoided falling in some mud, so all in all a good time.

I haven’t reviewed History Dig Live, but it is able to be watched on whatever Channel 4’s calling their app this week. I recommend it.

#iHunt

Our zone map for Jellyfish Bay.

I loved Hunter back in the day, and this felt instantly like a modernisation of that sort of play. You are millennials (and the book very generously stretches back to 1980 for that definition) and you are one of the first generations to earn less than your predecessors. Rent is a nightmare, as are medical costs (the default setting for this is in California) and you have to supplement your income with a side-gig hunting monsters. The iHunt app allows hunters to take on monsters for money, although sometimes the reasoning behind it can be a bit shady. The game uses a modified version of Fate with a few differences here and there, and the book is designed gorgeously. I read through it in a sitting when I first got it, and subscribed to the iHunt Patreon in order to get the regular zines they put out.

I ran one session and sadly didn’t get to finish off the story. I used Jellyfish Bay from one of the zines and quickly made from pregenerated characters. I only had a couple of players, but they had fun trying to work out what was going on, what the job really entailed and making connections. There were some ghosts of shitty teens in a closed down mall, some snooty yacht owners keeping an eye on them and some family drama going on. This is definitely a game I want to return to, at least to see how the progression mechanics feel in play, and for more monster-hunting fun. I’ve not reviewed it, but I live-tweeted my read through and might turn that into a thing if I don’t get a chance to run enough to review soon.

Lasers and Feelings

I didn’t have a picture, so here’s the logo.

This is a rare game that I’ve played but never run. Gareth, who started out part of the fortnightly one-shot gang and ended up one of my weekly players ran a game. We were trying to deal with a weird anomaly and used some of our shakiest Star Trek style logic to work our way out of the problem. Some people from the future were messing with it to try and get a message to us to stop a species in our equivalent of the Federation to stop mucking about with time or they’ll break it. Due to session length, we pretty much fixed the problem and resolved to stop any playing god with time.

Last Fleet

The fleet, on index cards.

This was a game of Last Fleet using the beta rules provided by Black Armada during their Kickstarter campaign. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse version of Battlestar Galactica and the adaptation worked perfectly in having the mechanics reflect the themes of the show. The playbooks used star signs and my group decided to use their own ones to decide which to take.

The game was a fairly short one, with our Scorpio (the Baltar playbook) waking up in an unfamiliar crew quarters with components to make a bomb, just before one went off. The panic grew as the rest of the crew found out there were multiple stolen explosives and had to do shipwide searches through the fleet. Our traitor escalated things in trying to cover up their involvement, but did manage to help save the day and cover their tracks (the playbook does a good line in you sabotaging things before the start of the session and dealing with the outcome in play). The command characters never actually met any of the other characters face to face, but their impact was still felt.

One highlight was when someone used a move where they simply watch a situation unfold and are unable to help. Our captain simply watched out of their window while pouring a glass of wine from one of the few remaining bottles. This gave the person they were watching a bonus, but acted as a nice cut in the action to where the others were and what they were doing, even if it was nothing.

I wrote a preview for Who Dares Rolls found here. I also accidentally forgot and wrote a review of the final book, which I’ll check through and post online if it doesn’t cover too much of the same ground as the preview.

Legacy of Dragonholt

Legacy of Dragonholt, enjoyed with a Jura… possibly?

I was torn about whether this counted as an RPG or not and I think that even with the light touch it had, it kind of does.

My board game group loved doing a campaign of Charterstone and had done a few one-off games while trying to figure out what to play. A Dice Saloon Bring & Buy provided the answer in Legacy of Dragonholt. Set in the aggressively bland world of Terrinoth, this is the closest I’ve come to caring about it.

The story works somewhere between a Choose Your Own Adventure and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Each character has skills and takes turns making decisions in game, flipping their action marker over until everyone’s had a go. It’s a bit of a clumsy way of managing multiple players, but after the tutorial it was easy enough to get into character. I was a surly dwarf who moved to the seaside, only to have the waves claim his home. He hated the water with a passion and excelled at archeology, even underground. The game uses a big book for the main village and you unlock adventures to go on as you play.

This game has stalled due to lockdown, but hopefully we’ll be able to pick it up when my board game group can meet again.

The Machine

I forgot about The Prestige when I made my character, but he totally would be a character from The Prestige.

This is one of the solo RPGs I played this year. I saw a review on Dicebreaker which made it sound really interesting.

I played Morvo the Magnificent, a magician who found a strange box in the home of a rival magician who seemed to have simply vanished. The more my character tinkered with the machine he’d found, the more it helped with his tricks, but there seemed to be problems with it.

The Machine is a game of ambition and hubris, ending inevitably with the downfall of the character writing in the journal. I typed up my encounters with The Machine, so all I need to do now is transcribe it and send it to a friend to continue the story with a new character to find The Machine. There are quite a few entries to transcribe and writing legibly is something I take incredible difficulty in with my abysmal coordination. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish this, send it off and let the story unfold before eventually returning for me where I can report back to Who Dares Rolls.

Masks: A New Generation

I scattered a ton of comics about young superheroes on the game table as inspiration for my players.

I keep forgetting that I got to run Masks this year! It’s one of my favourite RPGs and my weekly group didn’t have the third season of our campaign in 2020 (probably in 2021, depending on which games we decide are in the roster).

There were more people who took up the offer of a Masks game than I expected, so I was able to enlist a friend to run a second table for me. My scenario involved some quick character creation, then world building of what an alternate near-future Brighton would entail. The story began on West Pier II: The Sequel, for a fresher’s fair the group had to attend as security for. A gigantic seagull attacked the pier, along with some goons with rat, squirrel, pigeon and seagull masks (the Verminions). The crew fought off the giant seagull and chased the Verminions through the city until they reached the underground lair of a criminal seagull who had size-changing powers. His name was X-Carded by a player, which was I think the second time I’ve ever seen it used. Still, no questions asked I quickly renamed the enemy to Steven Seagull.

The story ended with the seagull defeated and the Verminions gainfully employed by one of the heroes. It was short, sweet, a little violent and as ludicrous as I’ve come to expect from Masks games.

I reviewed Masks here.

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The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part Two (Conan to Fuck! It’s Dracula!)

I’ve managed to play a healthy amount of different RPGs this year, and here’s a continuation of my list of experiences I’ve had. Some of these games I’ve reviewed already and some either will get one later or might not.

Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

Remi the GM to the left and Split, a friend I attended with, to the right.

This was a game I played at Airecon, mainly as I didn’t see anything that appealed, but this had two of my friends in it so when they went along, so did I. I’ve only read a bit of Conan, mainly to pitch Mongoose, back in the day. I didn’t get the job and I think my ambivalence to the license probably didn’t help.

Imhotep, a Petty Noble or a petty noble.

Conan was my first experience of the 2d20 system which is… fine. You roll 2d20’s and try to get equal to or under a skill rating. The GM, Remi, was incredibly well-versed in the world and while my friends spent a lot of time hyping up their ability to derail things, he kept the story moving and adapting to our decisions. The combat had some satisfying mechanics to play with, which I assume were specific to Conan to fit the pulp violence and bombast. Even as a vain noble, I was able to hold my own.

Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit

The players on my extremely scrappy character keeper.

A last-minute addition to this list, I figured I’d run at least one game of Cyberpunk in 2020. It also wouldn’t be beset by as many of the problems as the video game version.

With about an hour to prep, I quickly went through the rules, made a character keeper and a rough idea for an adventure.

The group needed to sabotage a caravan park of indentured programmers out of Night City. They had to go to The Disc Hole, a Windows ‘95-themed nightclub, lift a tracker from the corporate failson Neonhoof, then find the convoy and deliver the people there ‘fireworks’. Things didn’t go entirely as planned, but fun was had, along with some violence. My main issues were a couple of things relating to fights which sound like they’ve been ironed out just a little for the main release, going from the Jumpstart’s “Thursday Night Throwdown” to “Friday Night Firefight”. Cyberpunk Red is due out soon in the UK, but preorders are sold out almost everywhere. At some point I’ll probably still get it, even though for the time being I’ll be wanting to use Hack the Planet or Hard Wired Island when that gets released.

Deadlands: The Weird West

The posse all up to no good.

My Adventures in Middle Earth group finished their campaign and started to discuss what to play next. I admit a certain amount of intent to make sure it wasn’t D&D again, otherwise I’d just bow out. As part of this cunning plan, just as National Novel Writing Month started, I talked myself into running the new edition of Deadlands. This meant a lot of distracting myself from novel preparation by reading Savage Worlds Adventure Edition and the new Deadlands, as well as the awesome-looking sandbox campaign: Horror in Headstone Hill.

The last time I’d run Deadlands was the first edition and I was a massive fan of Doomtown. When it was announced that Pinnacle were retconning the problematic element of the continued existence of the Confederates (who lest we forget were a bunch of losers who lasted about as long as the Wii U). They literally pulled the old ‘a wizard did it’ to have someone affect time in their continuity and change things up.

I’m a few sessions in and my group have made some fantastic characters. I’ve got a blind gunfighter, a mad scientist with secret tentacle legs who travels by wheelchair, a half-deaf and all-insane miner, a shaman who wears the noose he used to hang see his father hung and a smooth-talking huckster with a bad reputation.

Sometimes you need a serious gang name, and sometimes you come up with ‘Benny Bones’ Boner Boys’.

A highlight for me was the first session where Rusty had his character, the aforementioned insane miner, threw dynamite at a bone fiend on the train the group were travelling on. He’d literally derailed the group in the first session as the locomotive moved on, leaving the passenger carriages behind. It would be a sign of things to come.

A couple of sessions in and they’re almost at the plot, having had a detour and a fatality. I’m compiling notes and will hopefully have a session report I can write up from this series.

Dishonored

My group were not this cool, but were still pretty cool.

This is a rare game I received a review copy of, and just as lockdown was starting. I tested the water for my group’s online play using Fuck! It’s Dracula!, but this was our first campaign. I put together a quick character keeper [>>>GAUNTLET KEEPERS] and ran the demo campaign for the group. It was supposed to last four sessions and ended up hitting about eleven.

Like Conan, it was a 2d20 game, but a slightly simpler version which did get a few revisions while I was running the game. Unlike Conan, it used a mix of a players’ approach and skill. This was a fun change and helped people frame their actions, although there were a few points where players were a little stumped.

Our campaign ended in a really grisly, brutal way, after helping to fight against the people who put them in prison and exploit the labour of their people. It ended with a chase, a toppled carriage and shooting their target point blank in the face. Most of the characters retired after that, not having the stomach for what they did. Still, it may have been gruesome but they managed to do what they set out to.

I think for me, the high point was that when the group asked to do all the side quests instead of just the minimum to advance the story, I had prompts of maybe a sentence to build heists around. Overall I enjoyed my time with the game, but if I ran a Dishonored game, I’d use Blades in the Dark. If you want something a bit more traditional, this may still be a bit fluffy for you (despite being mechanically less intricate than Blades), but is closer to what you want.

My review can be found here.

Fate of Cthulhu

The Roll20 setup for Fate of Cthulhu, plus a map of the station we were at.

The Fate RPG is one I feel is often unjustly-maligned. It often feels like indie players treat it like it was too crunchy and trad players think it’s too woolly. It does some interesting things and is a fantastic toolbox. Fate of Cthulhu is one of two Fate games I had on my RPG bucket list for 2020.

This version of Fate is a streamlining which ended up in the Fate Condensed which was released this year.

The premise is simple. An elder god has been summoned, ruining the world. That’s where it all begins. The group travelled back in time to stop the apocalypse. There are several premade campaigns with missions which the players need to go through, removing the components which will lead to the rise of the elder god in the question. Compared to normal Fate, you have Corrupted Aspects and Stunts which might help you in the short term, but lead to your eventual downfall. The hope is, of course, that you can fix the timestream before becoming a monster.

The game book is slickly written and acknowledges how terrible a human Lovecraft was early on. Like Fate Core and the rest of the books, it gets everything across simply. The Roll20 interface is similarly simple, as I bought one of the packages in order to run it online.

I only ran a one-shot, but the group adapted to Fate pretty quickly. The operation started as a quick surveillance of a train station and a little reminiscence of life with things like coffee shops and crowds. One of the group accidentally faked his way into being part of a group of skinheads looking to jump the person they were surveilling. In the end the person they were targeting tried to run away there was a massive chase through the underground and some strange magic called on by one of the group in order to save the day.

I want to run a campaign of FoC at some point, and after that I’ll write up my findings.

Fiasco in a Box

The game post-tilt.

I love Fiasco. It’s one of the first story games which really hooked me, although in story game terms it was a bit long in the tooth and from a time before safety tools. The new version of Fiasco came in a box and used a card-based engine to make the game’s setup easier, along with some of the trickier to teach elements of the gameplay.

Despite the lovely physicality of the new edition, I ran this digitally due to the lockdown. It came with a Roll20 version, so I ended up using that to tell a tale of suburban security and a desperate attempt to move a seedy windowless van from a public park. There was nakedness, an energy drink baptism and an ill-fated attempt to start an affair. I had one of my best friends and one of my most chaotic players joining me, which made for a perfect setup.

The game was shorter than a classic Fiasco, even with learning the rules and how to make the Roll20 version work. I’m already trying to work out how to use the blank Fiasco decks I’ve got to make a Eurovision-themed Fiasco.

You can read my review of the game here.

Final Girl: Game of Love

The cast of the Game of Love.

Final Girl is a slasher horror RPG where players make a selection of characters, a murderer and take turns playing the murderer or victims until there’s one person left; a Final Girl. In the Codex ‘zine, there was a hack of Final Girl called, ‘A Game of Love’, which repositioned it as a dating game show like The Bachelor. It worked perfectly, although it was difficult for my group to resist injuring the contestants.

The game was all safari-themed which meant a lot of animals to end up being part of the contests and the threats to everyone. As the game went on, there were some brutal group eliminations, some storm-offs and eventually the ‘Final Girl’ was actually someone who the bachelor had been in love with years ago and the pair eloped.

I’ve reviewed Final Girl here, so just imagine that but with dating.

For the Queen

A few of the cards from the game.

This was my first actual purchase on Roll20 for one shot play during lockdown. I hosted one game and joined another.

For the Queen is a fantastic tarot-style game where you draw a card, interpret the question and come up with an answer. You don’t make a character before play begins in For the Queen, instead your character (and the queen) come to life through the questions you’re answering. The ritual of it all is really interesting to see in action, and it was the first time I encountered the problem with digital play. My group all play through audio and the group I joined only had two of us with cameras on. In For the Queen there’s a kind of nonverbal moment you can see in a person who’s turn it is to answer questions. They’re done with people asking follow-up questions and you simply move on. Without that, people seemed to struggle, trying to keep asking questions and often either repeating themselves, asking things which were already answered or going off piste simply as they felt that they needed to fill that space. I ended up saying, “I think that’s it for me,” signalling that I was done unless there was something incredibly pertinent for people to answer with, which I might have to suggest when other people try the game.

I’ve reviewed For the Queen here.

Fuck! It’s Dracula!

The Bovine Bride of Dracula

Ah, my first lockdown game. This was my ‘proof of concept’ that using Google Drive and Discord would work. The group made characters in a science fiction backwater, investigating a coffin which appeared to fall from the sky. This was a one-page game which sprawled all over the place. The group rode the space coffin a couple of times and had to deal with vampire cows, one of whom was actually the wife of Dracula. He’d come here to pick her up and leave, so the group ended up reaching a fairly amicable agreement before leaving his spaceship and returning to their world.

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The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part One (Adventures in Middle Earth to Comrades)

I started the year with a weekly roleplaying group and a fortnightly community night I ran for the Dice Saloon in Brighton. I was doing pretty good as far as opportunities to try out roleplaying games and attended AireCon, possibly the last of the UK cons we had this year before having to resort to digital spaces.

Then 2020 happened. My RPG community nights stopped right away, understandably, and it was a couple of months before I started to work out ways of running the sessions online. I was invited to a one-shot of Blades in the Dark and finally got to experience it as a player. The monthly group I had a year or so back started fortnightly sessions and a Blades one-shot I ran turned into a campaign. So I’ve got a weekly game, two fortnightly ones and a monthly game as well. That’s more than I had in the Before Times.

Running online’s not without its problems, especially as one of the perpetual victims of Virgin Media. So far only one game’s had to be bailed on from tech issues, although some came close. Most of my games were run with Discord for audio & dice rolls, then a Google Sheet ‘character keeper’ to keep character information. Sometimes I’ve used Jamboard for scrappy maps, and I’m finally getting used to Roll20 for my Blades & Deadlands campaigns as they have great character sheets to help automate things for players.

Adventures in Middle Earth

Our big fight and a LOT of fire.

Let’s get the D&D spin-off over with. My old London-based monthly group got together early in lockdown to play through Adventures in Middle Earth. The GM, Dom, is a big Lord of the Rings fan and brought a lot of knowledge and energy to the campaign. The rest of us had extremely variable knowledge of the subject, but it didn’t matter as the GM made it all accessible as a setting.

I played a surly elf survivor who I realised I’d made worryingly similar to Cloud Strife once I started playing FFVII Remake. He was eager to be brooding in a corner, but also pretty vain with it, especially when he won a gladiatorial fight. He grew close to and supportive of the group despite wanting so hard to be a dark loner. There was a great (if long) fight against an army and a troll which my character managed to almost solo-fight, which was good to have done, even though the fight itself was a bit slow.

The system was D&D 5E and even with the Lord of the Rings trappings still ends up having the same behaviours as a D&D game. There were some moments where I wasn’t quite sure what the original adventure writer wanted and that it was hammering us into fighting several endless battles which would get finished by a dues ex machina on one side or another. I went along to this as I loved the company more than I did the system, which is pretty much the only time I end up doing D&D these days.

After Hours

This was a playtest of a Powered by the Apocalypse game about supernatural creatures leading very mundane lives. Characters are made from two playbooks, reflecting the monster side and the mundane side. I was a hound of tindalos who’d decided to enter linear time and became a messenger. He was well-meaning and able to travel through angles in things. The other players were a vampire who worked in an off license, a dragon lawyer who channelled a bit of Eternal Law when he was pondering things from a rooftop with his wings out, and a witch doctor who was also a doctor to witches. We made an Under-London which had supernatural communities living there and a worrying growth of traditionalist vampires who didn’t want non-Euclidean horrors like my character lurking around in there.

The world-building for this game was stunning, with so many interesting ideas being thrown around. We only had a couple of stories with the characters as the GM was running multiple playtests and it sounded like it was getting a bit much. My character managed to consume a great many things and accidentally went full Cronenberg at one point in a nightclub when things went awry. I really look forward to seeing how the design of this game goes.

Alien

If you see this Alex, I’m so sorry about showing your hair yet again but this was the best photo I had of the game.

This was an impulse buy at Dragonmeet 2019 and for once I resolved to run the introductory game as soon as possible. It’s a trad-style RPG from Free League who make gorgeous RPGs I own and haven’t ever run or played.

This was a community night game, specifically using the scenario in the core book which was supposed to last for an hour. It didn’t. The scenario also came with pregens and a couple of backup NPCs… which turned out to be needed.

The game had some of my community night veterans and a player who was new to roleplaying and took to it like a duck to water.

My GM-facing map, far scrappier than the one I gave to the players and also one with the actual truth written on it.

Alien uses a dice-rolling engine where you full a pool of d6’s and aim to get even one result of a six. As play goes on you add Stress dice to reflect hyper vigilance and growing tensions. They can add successes, but a result of a one on a Stress dice makes you panic. The fallout from panicking characters added some great tension, had people spend all their ammunition firing wildly and even attack each other at one point. I only had a couple of xenomorphs in the demo and they were terrifying, unpredictable and deadly. Looking at the numbers, I was concerned the players would walk over the xenomorphs but in one round of combat my fears were assuaged and a character was dead. It was taken in good humour, especially with back up characters for the group to play.

I’ll be putting up my full review soon.

Band of Blades

Band of Blades was fantastic, albeit a little paper-intensive. Here’s some of my kit for it.

A band of disgraced mercenaries were brought in to help with a war against The Cinder King and arrived in time to see the empire fall. Now, they flee east to Skydagger Keep with a horde of the undead at their back.

Band of Blades is a fantastic grim fantasy RPG which sees players controlling a military unit like they’re playing a game of XCOM or Fire Emblem. They make command decisions and then select characters from a shared pool as they make their way across the map to a grand finale. This is the second Forged in the Dark game and a fantastic experience.

One of my players, Wade, is my chaos engine. Normally he can’t keep characters alive, but the moment he realised that losing people makes the whole army worse, he started trying to look after the rookie he was trusted with. Then as the quartermaster of the group he started working out how to make a mobile cannon unit.

We made it about a quarter of the way through the campaign before lockdown began and hopefully we’ll return to it one day, as the mission structure was very fun to follow and I wanted to see how the group would cope.

The initial mission was incredibly tense with the group having to bomb a bridge while waiting for refugees to cross and stopping their supernatural pursuers. They fled and made camp in old, long-abandoned trenches from before the front line moved. From there, the group moved quickly on to a road up to mountains. They recovered supplies from an old monastery which had been sacked and scouted a fort taken over by the Cinder King’s forces (based extremely vaguely on Cardiff Castle). They had to gather intel and resist doing too much to draw attention to their forces, using more rookies than anything else as the specialists were too injured and resting. The group rested at a mountain town and that’s sadly where things were left.

I need to go through my notes, but I’d love to make a session report for the campaign so far.

Blades in the Dark

A Jamboard zone map I put together for Blades, which feels like the easiest way to run it at the moment. I put it on Roll20 with tokens from a generator my friend Graham showed me. A lot of unconscious gang members, some ghosts and more question marks than the players would like.

This is one of my favourite RPGs and the first Forged in the Dark game. It’s about carrying out heists in a grimy, haunted city. I took part as a player in a one-shot, making a whisper who was too friendly with ghosts had some rough times trying to grip onto the side of a boat while summoning the drowned dead to cause a distraction.

My old GM, Graham, wanted to try Blades and I summoned some players to take part in a one-shot. They had enough of a fun time that we reconvened a month later for a second heist, then another. The group are using the premade characters I’ve put together for demos and we’re using a Roll20 environment I’ve built.

The themes of the campaign are beginning to take place with the Bluecoats up to something involving framing some of their own people, the Imperial Military moving in on their patch and Skovvish refugees fighting back against them. They’ve turned into a bit of a family unit and are beginning to see how the heists and the agendas of the gangs are changing Duskvol as the story continues.

The game has had the group start out trying to steal back a ghost-charming artefact a gambler was using to cheat at cards. There were some curious plans, but the group managed to steal the item and flee when a bit of a panic was caused. My next session had them planting evidence in a priest’s office in order to ruin the Imperial Military’s trust in him. The priest had been taking in Skovvish refugees and was far too chummy with the Imperial Military who were closing in on policing areas of the city which belonged to the Bluecoats. The mission went far better than the escape, which took a bit of cunning and some noise to gain the group some time to get out. The priest hung for the evidence which was found in the end, but that was after the job. Finally, the group had to break into some old Bluecoats docks being used by the former Bluecoats gang, the Grey Cloaks. They’d stolen evidence which would get an old Bluecoat convicted for his brutal actions at a protest and you KNOW they’re brutal if the Bluecoats are actually prosecuting someone. Some spooky mist summoned by the whisper, some distractions up top and drilling through into the basement meant the group were able to get in and out nicely. While the group weren’t badly wounded, I was pleased to note that most of the group had used up a lot of their supplies. I’m slowly increasing difficulty as there are six players and they’re doing far too well. We’ll see what the next year will bring.

I started a session report and need to see if I’ve ever just reviewed the game. If not, I’ll be adding it to my list.

Brindlewood Bay

The Murder Mavens. I think my favourite item one of them had was a VHS boxed set of their old television program, which even managed to see play.

This is one of two Gauntlet games I’ve run this year and both have really impressed me with the mechanics involved.

Brindlewood Bay is a kind of eldritch spin on Murder She Wrote. The players are part of a book group who meet to discuss the mystery novels of Robin Masterson. They also solve murders and as time goes on, will uncover a strange conspiracy in the charming coastal town of Brindlewood Bay.

The game has mysteries which have a setup, murder and some leading questions to help the players frame things. Then the Keeper has a list of clues and locations, but not the answer to whodunnit. Instead, you seed clues based on the ‘Meddling Move’ the murder mavens perform, fitting them into the scene. The players then work out how to link the clues together and make a Theorize move which will, more often than not, be the correct answer.

I ran a one-shot of this and three mysteries with my weekly group. It ended sooner than I’d have liked and one of the players had a little difficulty being proactive with the clues, but overall I really loved running this game. I’d love to see a full campaign of Brindlewood Bay and to play with the increasing level of strangeness which happens as the game goes on.

The one-shot was The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soulless, with the group making their way through a B&B to find their friend’s murderer. Time passed and a few revelations at night meant a mad dash to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The campaign started with Dad Overboard, where the patriarch of a family has died ‘accidentally’ while on the family yacht. That took a couple of sessions for the group to finally resolve after a failed Theorize. We then did Lies & Dolls, which the group investigated one specific direction of and didn’t touch the rest of it. This mystery, about an academic found dead in a doll museum, didn’t ever finish, although I seeded the characters into the next scenario. Finally, we did Dead Man’s Hand which went down the best with the group. A bit more of a ‘bottle’ episode, with everything taking place around one small area, the group really dug into the mystery. I love my current group, but I feel this needed a bit more of a ‘leap before you look’ attitude and I wonder if the group might fare better returning to it, knowing that there’s mechanically no wrong answer to what you do.

Carolina Death Crawl

My printed deck of Carolina Death Crawl, paper for notes and you’d better believe we had an X Card to hand for the game with this kind of brutal subject matter.

This was the first game I ever reviewed for Who Dares Rolls back in the day. I was stuck working out what to run for a community night and found my cards for this game. It’s a tale of desperate Union soldiers who are native to Carolina, making their way through their home, destroyed by war and occupied by the Confederacy. The group are generated with a couple of cards and run through scenes as they flee back to headquarters after committing atrocities. As the game goes on, characters die one by one, then haunt the rest.

The group started out fairly light-hearted, but there were some painful reconciliations with family members and a strange encounter with a travelling circus who had got lost. The last time I hosted the game I wasn’t sure whether I had the emotional stamina to revisit it. I did this time and would be interested to return to it again in the future, but aim to die early as I ‘won’ my first game and came very close to being the last survivor this time.

My original review can be found here and my in-character account of the events here.

City of Mist

My group, The In-Fighters, at the Dice Saloon.

This was the roleplaying game whose book kicked my arse again and again. I was given a review copy which is a nice, rare occasion. It promised a kind of mystical version of the Marvel Netflix type stories. After an initial skim, it looked like it would be more like Fables meets Marvel Netflix shows, as the group are all powered by fairytale and mythological concepts.

I powered through reading the massive tome (I had the original combined edition rather than the split one, and bought two of their starters as this has had a few re-released and new starter kits). It felt like it wanted to merge Powered by the Apocalypse style indie RPGs with some elements of traditional games. It had some good elements, but a lot of bloat.

I ran one of the premade mysteries for my weekly group, taking a couple of sessions to get through. It was good, but for the amount of work, I know there are better games out there for this sort of thing.

Some of my players’ notes, a tag card and underneath it, the playbook.

The mystery started off quite nice and simply with the group in their terrible dive bar, summoned into helping a couple of friends in a scenario which saw them sneaking in an empty school at night, getting embarrassed by shitty teens in a coffee shop and uncovering a giant horrible flesh ball made out of people. It went bizarre and a little horrific near the end, but was all round a fun investigative game.

I wrote a series of articles on the game, on reading it, running it and the selection of alternatives and expansions to it.

Comrades

In the glamdark future there are only extraneous facial tattoos and scowls.

This game was on my ‘2020 bucket list’ before 2020 became all… 2020. I was tempted to scrap it from the list as it felt like it might be a bit of a bummer for folks. I had a revelation and ran a game set in the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse event. This was when Legion went back in time to kill Magneto, accidentally killed Professor X and Apocalypse used this advantage to take over America. The group played humans who were stuck on Cortez Island (formerly Staten Island) and planning to disrupt Fabian Cortez’s parade in honour of a statue of himself. I only had two players, as Jessica Jones and a depowered Loki. Together with J Jonah Jameson, they managed to secure some explosives and blow the statue up right at a pivotal point of the parade.

The system doesn’t do anything incredibly different from other PbtA games, although there are some fun campaign elements based on the actions of the group. Still, thematically it was really fun to do and a game I’d be curious to try out again. If I get a bit more time with the game, I might review it.

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Cosy Horror and Explosions

This year’s been a bit of a weird one, hasn’t it? I feel like I’ve been incredibly productive and nowhere near productive enough, which will hopefully even out to make an averagely productive time as far as my writing goes. Here’s a brief update on some of my projects.

My proofreading copy of Mistbirch Mythos

Mistbirch Mythos

My prose output this year has mostly been in relation to a series of cosy eldritch murder mysteries. It’s set in a small village filled with lovely people and weird horrors. I drafted Mistbirch Mythos last year and have been proofreading it, reading it out to my writing group and then making changes since.

At the time of writing, I’ve got 24 scenes left to edit out of 43. My aim is to get this completely done by the end of the year, then I can send copies out to readers. If I can edit one a day then I should be able to get this done, or even better, editing more than one a day means I’m finished earlier and can focus on the next big thing.

This isn’t the cover of Lightning, otherwise I’d totally have kept it. This is the very glamorous notepad for the changes, proofing and edits of Lightning Season One.

Lightning. Again.

My KDP exclusivity for Lightning’s first novella went away this year and I decided it was a good idea to pull it.

Lightning’s a series of novellas covering families of superpowered aliens living on Earth and the hijinks that ensue. It’s my baby, but it also needs work. I have the season written and I love a lot of it, but it needs some heavy changes as it was written and then benched a few years ago. The world has changed a lot since then. I’ll get into more of that next year, though as 2021 will be my Year of Lightning, prose-wise.

I’ve tweaked Episode One and have a nice new cover as I wasn’t really feeling the last one. When Episode Two is ready, I’ll launch Episode One on Amazon, Itch and several other platforms.

This year I’ve seen a couple of friends have issues with their writing. One of them has been polishing the same thing over and over again, which I recognise I can fall into the habit of, especially with Lightning. The other, WH Arthur, has actually been releasing a ton of indie RPGs on Itch and even has a Kickstarter for one of them. I’m going to use him as a good inspiration to get Lightning Season One out of the door. Done. So next year I want to see if I can blitz through rewrites, edits and get at least a few episodes out of the door.

This is not Explosion High art, but I’ll be sharing it nearer to the end of the year. Just you wait…

Explosion High!

Artist Hunt 2020 has been a major factor this year. Matt Hardy of Mad Robot Comics fame saw my seven or so pitches and asked me to focus on two. I’ve done that and then spent most of the year fretting about trying to find artists. I’ve not had to do that since secondary school and the comic company my friends and I tried to create. This meant a lot of staring at different sites looking for artists who might work, overthinking things and then calling up Matt to help get me back on track with the mission.

One of the projects, Amnesiac City, is still an ongoing issue and I’m still looking for a suitable horror/mystery artist. I got to issue three of scripts and I’m paused until I find an artist.

The other project is Explosion High! and that’s gone amazingly quickly. For the project which didn’t have a script at the start of the year, it suddenly shot ahead. It was the first thing I wrote in the ‘rona times, in a kind of manic burst.

Since then I managed to get not one but several artists who will be joining me on this adventure. I’ll say more over the coming months, and showing off some fabulous art from the Explosion High crew.

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RPG a Day 2020, Part Thirty-One – Alternatives to Experience Points

When I ran Dungeons & Dragons, experience points were often a pain. Third Edition had too much maths in working out encounters, as you’d have to calculate challenge ratings, you were recommended a set amount of encounters and were encouraged to play with balance. It was a whole faff and to be honest I gave up within my first year. I kind of made up how much the group earned, as it wasn’t as up front as it was in AD&D or as simple as the later D&D 4th Edition.

D&D 5E suggested ‘milestone XP’ as an alternative and I immediately jumped on board with that instead of measuring XP the classic way. You worked out when the group should level up and did exactly that. For Hoard of the Dragon Queen I levelled them up seven times in eight chapters, totalling I think about 11 or 12 sessions. The pace felt fine and gave the players more to have fun with at the end of each session.

Actual XP tends to work better in point-buy games like World of Darkness and Legend of the Five Rings, but there are even more fun ways of handling advancement.

PbtA Games – Failure

I first learnt about Powered by the Apocalypse games by listening to Actual Play podcasts and it seemed perfect for that style of play. I picked up bits and pieces just by listening to it, but buying Monsterhearts and Dungeon World really helped. One of the things which I really liked was that failing a roll gave you experience points. A few XP would earn you an advancement and the better you got, the rarer XP would become to match it. Not every PbtA game has it as a mechanic as it’s a design philosophy rather than a strict ruleset to design games with. Still, it’s common enough that you’ll still see it appear in games.

Lady Blackbird – Keys

Keys are a lovely mechanic. They give you two different ways of advancing. Normally a key will give you something minor to do for one XP, or you can do something to completely invalidate the key in order to advance immediately. This encourages more than one type of play, and actually having things pay off narratively in the session. Here’s an example:

Cake Arkham’s Keys

Blades in the Dark – Desperate Actions

Blades in the Dark uses a pool of d6’s for actions, with the highest being your result. The consequences differ on your ‘position’ between Controlled, Risky (the default) and Desperate. Each position has a different set of consequences for your roll. A Controlled situation means even a failure could simply mean you need to regroup. Desperate positions are the worst you can get, but there’s an incentive to go through with the action. Whether you succeed or fail, as long as you survive, you get an experience point.

A desperate leap!

7th Sea Second Edition – DRAMA!

I’m a fan of 7th Sea Second Edition, although its half-tempted to replace the advancement system with Lady Blackbird’s Keys. I actually did do that with the 7th Sea demo I run for the sake of letting players advance quickly and give a little character motivation.

Anyway, the system. The player comes up with a story they want their character to go through, a reward for completing it and the first step on the journey. This can be a lot to ask of players, but it can help the players inform the GM the kind of story they want and weave things in.

A short arc could be that you want to become a better swordsman, which will end with you getting an extra dot in your Weaponry skill. The only thing left to do is to the first step. That could be, ‘find a mentor’. There, a nice, quick storyline to be seeded throughout the group’s story.

A longer arc might be, ‘avenge my mentor’s death’, which will end with you getting the mentor’s unique blade back from her murderer. The first step could be, ‘find out who killed my mentor’ or ‘steal the documents detailing my mentor’s last days’. When you complete it, you and the GM come up with the next step, which might be, ‘find the location of the man who killed my mentor’, and so on.

7th Sea Second Edition

I love the idea of this system. I get that not every player can come up with these arcs as easily and would love a supplement with more examples people could use for their characters on the Explorer’s Society, in order to provide hooks for players to use.

Heart – Beats

This is a late entry as I’m literally using the Heart book as a surface to write on and only just realised its another perfect example of alternative XP triggers.

Heart has Callings as part of character creation. These are your reasons for delving in the horrendous abstract horror dungeons which lurk under Spire. A Calling could be, ‘Adventure’ where you’re a fool who wants songs written about them or ‘Heartsong’ where you’ve had weird, prophetic dreams about the Heart itself which are calling you.

Each calling has a checklist of Beats, which you pick a couple of at the start of each session. These could involve getting incredibly drunk, slaying a monster far larger than you or even taking some minor Blood fallout when you get hit a lot. If you trigger that Beat in play, you get an advancement. You can switch some of the Beats as you go and there are a large number to choose from.

A Penitent Calling
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