Monday, 29 July 2019

Inglenook's Lesser-Used Spells: for the worried waiter

Your irregular extract from that invaluable compilation of the overlooked arcane.

For those who cater to the tastes of others, the fickleness - nay, the mendacity! - of the customer is an eternal poltergeist: bursting forth unpredictably, often in the midst of what was otherwise a pleasant conversation; impossible to pinpoint, and extremely difficult to prove; unwelcome, noisy, frustratingly stubborn once roused; and of course, liable to begin hurling crockery at one's head. The chief distinction is that the application of a simple Persuivant's poltergeist parlay can compel such spirits to honestly set forth their complaints and how they might be remedied. For customers, alas, the host has no such convenient method.

A particular burden for many establishments, be they public house or the marble halls of an elven palace, comes in the form of over-demanding diners. No sooner is their bespoken dish set before them than they are overcome with dissatisfaction, envy, curmudgeonliness or base self-importance. Scorning the cook's sweated labours over a hot stove, the delicate ministrations of the pâtissier, the hours that may go into preparation of the dish specifically ordered by the customer, they instantly demand a change.

The dish is inadequately cooked, they proclaim. The sauce is too thick; the vegetables too cold; they did not expect fish in the Seafood Supreme. In the most flagrant cases, they resort even to the bare-faced "No, I ordered the venison". Deaf are they to the evidence, thrice-confirmed, of the waiter's little notebook, or even their more shamefaced relatives across the table.

The genesis of the following spell was undoubtedly in such a case. Nothing more can be ascertained; indeed, mages of the culinary inclination generally refuse even to discuss its existence, fearing rightly that publicity might only make customers more suspicious. I present it, however, to the discreet and discerning scholarly eye of the subscribers of this little publication.

Waiter’s Weal

School transmuation; Level bard 1, lackey 1; Servitude 1

CASTING

Casting Time 1 minute
Components S, M (a drop of saliva)

EFFECT

Rangetouch
Target one touched serving of food
Duration instantaneous
Saving Throw none Spell Resistance no

DESCRIPTION

This spell proves its value in restaurants and great houses, where diners insist that they actually ordered the veal flechettes. You invoke a meal that might have been, gradually transforming the chosen meal into another of the same or lesser cost. The meal must be one that could have been prepared by the chef with the ingredients available.

As part of the spell, you can choose the arrangement of the dish (though highly complex arrangements require a Craft [cuisine] check) as well as determining its temperature and freshness. Common condiments of negligible cost can be applied. The form of the dish’s container changes to suit the chosen meal.

It’s generally considered polite to go around the corner before casting this spell, giving the patrons at least the illusion of having been pandered to.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Inglenook's Lesser-Used Spells: for the humanoid-about-town

Your irregular extract from that invaluable compilation of the overlooked arcane.

Fionnuala Magwhite, a promising scholar, suffered the triple misfortunes of a large family, a position firmly in the middle tier of the country aristocracy, and a timid demeanour.

As a result, her studies and travels were constantly hampered by the obligation to attend tedious social events, and the determination of inebriated half-uncles, maiden aunts, waggish tradesmen, wagon drivers, acolytes of Ghreld the Librarian, evangelical clerics of Lord Sol, and adventurers who thoroughly overrated their personal attractiveness (and indeed, personal hygiene) to engage her in conversation.

Frustrated by this, she turned to magecraft, studying the intricacies of illusion and experimenting at length until she devised a spell to defend her from aural inconvenience. Magwhite's bore baffle has become an invaluable gambit in the back pocket of those who can't face small talk.

Magwhite’s Bore Baffle

School illusion [phantasm]; Level socialite 0, wizard 0

CASTING

Casting Time 1 full-round action
Components V ("No, please, go ahead, I'm sure we're all ears")

EFFECT

Range 15’ radius
Target creatures of your choice in range
Duration 10 min./level
Saving Throw Will disbelieves; Spell Resistance no

DESCRIPTION

You cloak yourself in a comforting illusion, giving those who observe the impression that you are listening attentively to their words and making appropriate responses. A successful Will saving throw allows them to perceive the situation normally (for example, that you are in fact completing a crossword while loudly humming the latest lute hits). If a creature fails their saving throw, conversation is not considered interaction for the purpose of granting an additional saving throw.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Rusty Mick's Off-Brand Specials

“It's really gear”
“Sometimes you just need that 'what the hell!?' edge”

Look, you don't go to Mick's for chips and irons and that workaday crap. The reason I trot down to that poky rat-hole every once in a while is for an edge. Mick's genius, if you wanna call it that, is laying his servo-hands on kit that no scummer nor rent-a-cop nor Mister Johnson ever considered you might have.

"Sure, any Corp surplus hut can flog you a cheap flakjack or some bonded armour. Maybe even a knockoff force bubble. Nobody's going to overlook that, are they? People come prepared.

Or you can spread some cred, book yourself in at an all-night chop-shop and get subdermals, if you don't mind never taking another jab of stimms. Subtle, maybe, but when Mister Johnson puts two barrels of las in your back from half a metre it's not making much difference.

This little chap may not look much, but it might just save your life. Just so long as you can turn the situation round in three seconds or less. Now, about that speedchip you didn't want..?"

DuttonTech Mk II 'Oops' Flashfield

This discreet device is a simple circular disc ten centimetres across, with a web of flexible filaments that stretch along the spine, easily covered by a simple shirt. It's wired to a hefty powerpack that can be worn as a belt, slipped under a chestplate or concealed in bulky shoulder pads. Though the pack wouldn't disgrace a lascannon, it's burned out with a single use, and that's barely enough for the needs of this power-hungry contingency plan.

The filament mesh serves as an antenna to detect incoming energy signals above a certain threshold, including lasweapons, plasma beams and most projectile fire. When triggered, the Flashfield discharges its powerpack to generate a dense energy field that protects the back, neck and back of the head. Though the field burns out in seconds, it buys the wearer enough time to react to a betrayal - or, more charitably, an enemy getting the drop on you.

Specs

(system-neutral and therefore vague)

The Mk II senses concentrated energy with enough velocity to cause serious harm - it would detect a bullet, energy blast, shrapnel or blade, but is typically set so a fall or punch wouldn't trigger it. Large objects that injure through sheer mass, rather than concentration of force, are usually ignored.

When triggered, the field is strong enough to resist small-arms fire and reduce the effect of typical longarms by 80%. Vibration alarms silently alert the wearer to the danger, and are strong enough to wake them. It lasts long enough for the wearer to:

  1. notice the attack
  2. move a few steps; or, drop and roll
  3. draw and ready a weapon and take a shot; or, strike at an attacker; or, dive into cover

The device is good for a single use before burning out. Supplies are highly erratic.


Inspired by Whartson Hall's excellent Cyberpunk game. The old "politely invite them to go first and shoot them in the back" trick is established enough that I got to wondering why nobody seemed to have invented a countermeasure.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Inglenook's Lesser-Used Spells

A while ago I began compiling a list of, uh, alternative spells for Pathfinder, so basically for D&D.

Having been prompted by Big Jack Brass' recent tweets, I hereby present an extract from that inexplicably-unpublished manuscript, "Inglenook's Lesser-Used Spells"

  • Flares
  • Speak to Dead
  • Burning Hams
  • Disguise Elf
  • Ear-Piercing Cream
  • Enlarge Parson
  • Really Obscure Poison
  • Cockling Skull
  • Reign of Frogs
  • Enter Poe Singh-Han's Big Bees

(yes, I actually have rules for these, but I don't feel like editing them for the blog at 1am and I might try to make them into something publishable)

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Cheap and Nasty 1: Meatgrinder

Cheap and Nasty 1

“Low-cost, effective tricks to keep your lair hero-free!”

Baffle Adventurers with this One Weird Trick Discovered by a Mum(my)

Have you a lair that is plagued with bothersome heroes? Can't take a nap without a howling barbarian trying to bisect your torso? Treasury depleted by the depredations of ravening rogues, money-grubbing mages, and tediously commercial Lawful Evil clerics capable of casting Resurrection for you? This irregular column aims to help you find affordable solutions to your PC Problems.

The Value of Velocity

Some spells are priced with the assumption that adversaries will, generally speaking, have time to regroup and change tactics after the effects first kick in. But what if we could compress those spells' effects into a few devastating seconds? More bang for your buck! Well, let us introduce you to our little friend, velocity.

Ensure that your impregnable fortress of doom features a large chimney, from which faint smoke occasionally rises at predictable intervals. Consider also providing a sizeable aqueduct and/or well with a strong current within. Each of these should be 10x10 feet squares and coated inside with slick oils, mossy weeds or other low-maintenance lubricants (permanent Grease is nice, as are a layer of bricks actually made of very sedentary oozes, or illusory bricks that stop existing once the climber realises they're illusory).

Have your untiring deathless spies watch constantly for intruders, pretending at all times not to notice them. For safety's sake invest in a few high-DC, low-profile detection spells as well.

As soon as heroic adventurers venture towards your fortress, send your psychic minions to the aforementioned chimney, aqueduct and well. Have them each cast Etheric Shards along the length of these convenient tubes. A 9th-level caster (minimum) will produce 90 feet of shards, or 18 x 5-foot cubes, lasting 9 hours.

Shortly after an adventurer has begun their journey along the enshardened tube, they should discover it is no longer possible to stop it due to the aforementioned lubricants. In addition, they should begin taking 1d8 damage per square of movement and making Reflex saves to avoid 1 stacking bleed damage (with a -4 penalty on those saves for forced movement, like... falling).

Even assuming a slowish fall or moderate current, the poor fool should pass through at least half the tube in the round when they begin taking damage, suffering 9d8 slashing damage and hopefully substantial bleed damage in a matter of seconds. The resulting sensation is, test subjects tell us, rather like sudenly finding oneself attacked by unseen piranhas.

Moreover, our hapless intruder should find they are now separated from the party healer by a considerable distance filled with invisible knives, and that the chorus of agonised shrieks they unleashed has somewhat deterred the healer from following. Should the healer nobly rush after, of course, we can admire their selfless devotion to duty, their disregard for personal danger, and the undoubtedly excellent Reflex saves for which divine casters are so widely renowned.

Of course, a mere 40 (average) slashing damage isn't enough to fell most mid-level adventurers - a full 80 may not do the trick - and it's always possible they will find a way to heal during their frantically-propelled journey of evisceration. This demonstrates the importance of a good follow-up; a simple trap is not enough. When our ragged, blood-soaked adversaries tumble from the mouth of the bladegullet and sprawl out into apparent safety, they must be allowed no repose.

Well, speaking of unseen piranhas, what lair is complete without a water-feature for visitors to admire, employees to contemplate, and passing adventurers to find themselves falling into out of chutes? With their keen sense of smell, our fishy friends will waste no time in hurrying to greet the new, delicious arrivals.

Now, it would not be sporting* to simply dump invaders into a deep pool of deadly carnivorous fish and watch them die. Quite unreasonable! One must give them a chance; and what better chance than a large, steel hatch set into the side of the pool and marked with the words "Emergency Exit"? Our hypothetical heroes need only keep their wits about them, spot the exit, evade the fish long enough to reach the door, and drag themselves into the all-steel chamber beyond.

*Efficient? Yes. Thigh-slappingly hilarious? Also yes. Aesthetically delightful? Certainly. But sporting? Not unless you have subscribed as a member of the Piranha Feast-Racing League, and an authorised referee is present to provide a detailed match report of your piscine proteges' prowess to the League for inclusion in the season's rankings. Further details below for interested readers. The PFRL is a member of the League In Favour of Cruel Sports.

As a reward for their impressive display of skill, they will find there a rack marked "Emergency: In case of injury" and filled with a number of bottles of coloured liquid. The labels are written rather small, and so any heroes wishing to peruse them will need to pick one up and peer in order to make out the words "Didn't your mother teach you not to take explosive runes from strangers?".

While there is admittedly a small setup cost in the construction of the steel detonation chamber, we feel this is an affordable addition to any up-and-coming lair. Factor in the stress-reduction benefits for your henchmen of a soothing fishtank to watch, and it will pay for itself many times over in the coming centuries.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Bedrolls and Backpacks

This post is the fault of Rich at Swordnut Radio.

Okay, I like a challenge. And I have a mind like a weasel.

Bedrolls

Roll up the bedroll. Place it in your actual bed, giving the impression that you are sound asleep. This is useful both when an assassin's quarrel pins it to the bedframe through what would, in other circumstances, have been your heart, and when a servant peers through the secret peephole to reassure the king that yes, you are respectably abed, and definitely not treasonously committing hanky-panky with his husband.

Use the bedroll to guard against sharp points: place it over a wall to protect you from spikes or glass shards, or hold it in front of you while leaping through a window without opening it first.

Use the bedroll as emergency quick-release padding when falling onto abrasive surfaces, such as when hurling yourself from a third-floor window to escape an enraged monarch.

Wrap it around your arms while facing down a wolf or training a warhound. Many smallish animals will struggle to get through that. Especially useful for low-level mages in cat-dense areas.

While travelling through the desert, saturate the bedroll when you find an oasis. Drape the soaking bedroll over you to help cool you by evaporation. Before departing, roll it and place in your waxed canvas backpack, so it can serve as an improvised water-carrier.

With just a bit of rope, transform it into an inadequate camel-saddle, still superior to trying to sit directly on the accursed creature.

Flick your wrist to unfurl the bedroll over a smallish mass of vipers, scorpions or similar unpleasantness, buying yourself a moment to rush across unmolested.

Place the rolled-up bedroll on your head and wrap it in bright fabric. Tell the people of the next town that you are a Tzeetvolf, one of the great nobles of the distant land of Gnasht, on an important diplomatic mission to the king, but temporarily impecunious after your caravan was caught in a storm. Point to your improbable headgear as confirmation that you must be some kind of foreigner, because everyone knows foreigners dress funny.

Fold the bedroll the other way to form a draught excluder in the cheap tavern room where you are hiding from the royal guard, or the cramped cabin of the ship you were forced to seek passage on in your attempts to flee the country. Bonus: also keeps out many kinds of vermin, especially if treated with camphor.

Practice slipping the bedroll from atop your backpack and unrolling it in a single smooth movement. This can serve to impede and temporarily blind attackers, deflect light weaponry or capture small animals.

Soak the bedroll in oil and place it in a bottleneck, or amongst a large stretch of dry vegetation. When the troll conjured by the king's archwizard steps unwittingly onto it, simply toss your flaming torch to engulf the creature in fire.

Soak the bedroll in holy water before sleeping in a location you believe to be frequented by the undead, or when harried by pesky minor demons summoned by the king's deputy archwizard.

Wedge a corner of the bedroll under a door to prevent interruption during important diplomatic meetings, such as a highly personal rendezvous with the king's husband.

Wrap fragile items, such as expensive china, magical potions or stolen crowns, to protect them from the shock of rough journeys.

Form a haybox by wrapping your hot food tightly, allowing you to cook meals while you hasten cross-country in search of a haven from royal wrath.

Keep hot items hot by using it as insulation.

Keep cold items cold (because that's also what insulation does).

Dip the bedroll in delicious beef dripping and use it to distract wild dogs; leave it behind as a decoy for bloodhounds.

Dip the bedroll in delicious chocolate and use it to distract elves.

Dip the bedroll in soup and chew it in a desperate attempt to stave off the agonising pangs of hunger.

Cut a hole in the centre of the bedroll and transform it into a useful poncho, keeping off the rain as you trudge through the backwoods to avoid detection by the king's bounty hunters.

Use the bedroll as an improvised sledge to speed down the snowy slopes of the Heavenclutch Mountains, evading the howling ice-ogres that pursue you.

Look, we know how it is. Adventuring can be a lonely occupation. Six months in the wilds, constantly pursued by a variety of slavering beasts and amoral humanoids, plus the occasional diabolical monstrosity; never knowing the touch of a lover, inebriated colleague, courtesan, sailor, love golem, Margrek's Illusory Bedmate, affectionate sheep, doppelganger, siren, thinly-disguised bilefiend, really persuasive enchanted staff, on-again-off-again nemesis or Blanket of Really Good Massages. Your bedroll doesn't judge.

Slice the bedroll into thin strips to use as improvised bonds for captives, reins for the horse you stole from a pursuing bounty hunter, or rope to escape your top-floor room when you hear the stealthy, padding footsteps of a royal assassin approaching.

Conceal an assortment of bladed objects from unenthusiastic guards.

Inscribe important messages on the bedroll before rolling it up.

Cover one side of the bedroll with silver foil. This will serve as a useful sunscreen against the baking heat of the Dying Sands, where only the foolish and desperate venture.

Also, when the mischievous winds and cunning pathways of the Dying Sands lead you inevitably to the Tower of Many Bones, you can whip the bedroll in front of you as you turn round at the sound of skittering claws, slaying the foul gorgon with its own baleful image.

Clasping the bedroll in one hand at your waist, allow it to discreetly unroll as you step back from your onrushing adversary; then, as her foot lands upon it, seize it with both hands and yank sharply upwards, tipping her backward and buying a moment's respite. Use that moment to hurl the bedroll over your adversary's face while applying blade repeatedly to kidneys.

Before inserting your hand into suspiciously-sized openings in a ruin, temple or vault, roll up a bit of the bedroll and insert that instead.

Use a pitchfork to hold up the bedroll a short distance from your body before racing through the Hall of Slaughter. The padded fabric will catch and entangle the barrage of poison-tipped darts that shower you, allowing you to move far faster than the members of the palace household trying to weave their way between pressure plates.

Wrap your bedroll around the tip of a pole and soak it with oil. Use it as a durable torch, anti-troll countermeasure or festive outdoor lighting.

Eke out meagre provisions with small, chewy chunks of bedroll. Few companions will ask too many questions about the precise origin of the ingredients in their stew, for fear you will tell them.

Tie and soak the bedroll, the excess weight giving you a functional improvised club. Insert a walking stick or other pole for easier wielding. Not much cop in most situations, but useful against small foes and wild animals that can be readily scared off.

Use a small measure of ice magic to freeze the sodden bedroll into a substantial club. When you are later captured by the watch, feign outrage and point out that you could not possibly have bludgeoned anyone to death; all you have is a bedroll and a backpack.

Backpacks

Carry your familiar, pet, or a small mystical child you have rescued from a peculiar imprisonment but whose beatific smile and cherubic features are frankly too nauseating to keep on display.

Fill the backpack with stones to use as a counterweight on a pulley or lift mechanism, such as when assisting the king's husband to lower himself safely from a high tower.

Fill the backpack with sand and swap it with a valuable archaeological artefact you plan to steal, hoping to prevent the triggering of a weight-sensitive trap mechanism. Tip: ensure the item you plan to steal weighs about as much as a backpack full of sand.

Fill the backpack with feathers and put it on backwards, forming surprisingly-effective armour against light weaponry and animal attacks. Works particularly well if you have a waist-high wall or window to defend.

Put the backpack over your head to conceal your hideous features, you repulsive cretin.

Store large and thoroughly dull books in the backpack. This assists your disguise as a travelling bore - not only does it add verisimilitude, but few people will wish to question you closely. Moreover, the books will provide a layer of protection against the arrows and poisoned knives of the royal assassins.

Put a helmet on top of the backpack and place it by a window or wall, lit from behind, to give the impression of a sentry.

Put many scorpions inside the backpack, and drop it out of the window to create a distraction.

Transport other, smaller backpacks.

Write important notes on the inside of the backpack, which few people will bother to check for paperwork.

Leave the backpack prominently in your room, secured with a shiny padlock which is not in fact closed. Fill it with rubbish, on top of which you place an envelope sealed with an important official's name. Inside the envelope, place a hastily-scrawled letter with an explosive runes or horrific curse amongst its lines.

Put heavy objects inside the backpack and practice wielding it as an improvised weapon.

Completely waterproof the backpack, and use it to transport water. When travelling to the sea-realms to seek aid against the murderous vengeance of the king, use it to transport air instead.

Place the backpack over a slain gorgon's head before opening your eyes, allowing you to look about you without fear. If you tie the strings tightly before severing its neck, on inverting the backpack the head should fall neatly inside.

Pretend the backpack contains incredibly valuable items you are secretly transporting on behalf of the Wizards' Guild, and not the head of a gorgon. When the ruffians who have been watching you ambush you and demand you hand it over, do so while screwing your eyes shut in apparent fear. Bandits often carry valuable items stolen from previous victims. Protip: Practice locating a swede, pumpkin or leather football by sound alone and replacing it in a backpack!

Determine which pocket of your backpack is the most accessible to someone else when worn. Encourage hornets to construct a nest in that pocket.

Tie a stout, camouflaged rope to your backpack and hurl it onto the parapet of your enemy's castle. When a bemused guard picks it up, heave with all your might; most will reflexively tighten their grip, allowing you to yank them bodily from the parapet.

Balance your adventuring backpack atop a door, so that the guard passing through on a routine patrol is struck atop the head and stunned by the weight of copper coins and damaged goblin armour within.

Cut a hole in the back of your backpack and wear it at all times, concealing the leathery wings you have sprouted through unwise negotiations with the Order of Damnation.

For a quick disguise, throw on an oversized coat on top of your backpack, and claim to be a hunchback. Works best if nobody sees you do it.

Balance a waxed backpack atop your head to keep off the rain.

After a regrettable encounter with Hesidian Rage-Moths, use your bush knife and backpack to construct rudimentary clothing in order to enter the city without summary arrest for public indecency.

Insist on publicly and fairly dividing up the loot from your latest immoral escapades. Patiently pour the shares, one handful at a time, into an appropriate number of backpacks. Do not inform your colleagues that you have employed hobbits to crouch beneath the table, reaching into the backpacks through cunning holes to extract the gems and replace them with lumps of worthless glass.

Place a cannonball inside a backpack, enchanting it with a spell of weightlessness, and pour a variety of more ordinary goods atop it. Encourage thieves or enemies to make off with it, then dismiss the enchantment. Dispose of them at your leisure.

Conceal an extradimensional space within a backpack, and place low-level contraband in the bag itself. Arrange for it to be confiscated by the guard. After a prearranged interval, have the thief emerge from the aforementioned extradimensional space, steal everything valuable within the guard's vaults, and put them inside the extradimensional space, before breaking out. Have the bard turn up disguised as an embarrassed noble and pay a bribe to retrieve the barely-illegal backpack.

Hire a small warehouse. Fill it with backpacks. Leave a clipboard on a shelf, with a purchase order for 10,000 mimic eggs. Leave a single boot and a broken dagger in a pile of chicken blood near a shelf, spattering that also with blood. Cast magic mouth on a large but random selection of bags, each time enchanting them with a very occasional snore, each one different. Capture the PCs, and have them wake up tied together near the clipboard.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Call of Cthulhu: Rigid Air actual play

A while ago I ran a scenario from the Fearful Passages book for my gaming group. I'd initially been a bit hesitant about the scenario as written, for reasons you'll find here.

After much thought, I'd made some changes to the scenario and run it for some friends during a weekend visit. The session went pretty well, much fun was had by all, and the players made a few suggestions. I incorporated them as best I could for this second attempt.

This second attempt I recorded and have finally got around to editing down. I'll discuss the changes I made in a future post; for now I just want to get these episodes up at last.

You can find the episodes at this Archive.org page.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Trail of Cthulhu: The Fallen World from YSDC Games Day 2017

The annual Yog-Sothoth.com (YSDC) Games Day took place in October, and I was lucky enough to make it for the third time. As always, it was a great, relaxing weekend full of regrettably short conversations, delicious food, and of course, games!

I managed to get a couple of recordings, and one partial recording, and will put them up here as I finish editing them. This does mean that, for the first time, these are not my own gaming group!

Librarians & Leviathans Presents: Steve Dempsey's The Fallen World

So for clarity's sake, I'm going to try to remember to use "Librarians & Leviathans Presents" when flagging up situations like this, just to avoid confusion.

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

Fearful Symmetries is a campaign for Trail of Cthulhu inspired by William Blake. The characters are caught up in an occult war and must use the double edged sword of magical power to reunite Albion, split asunder by time and the Mythos. The campaign will soon be published by Pelgrane Press, along with The Book of the New Jerusalem, a gazatteer of English folklore locations and people that takes up where The Book of the Smoke left off.

Steve Dempsey, the keeper for this scenario, has been running his Fearful Symmetries campaign since May 2016, achieving 61 sessions so far. This scenario, The Fallen World, was improvised by Steve at the convention. The characters are members of the Ordnance Geology Survey (Section D). Their job is to contain and clean up suspected supernatural events, and provide a suitable mundane explanation. They have been brought in to clear up in Upper and Lower Quinton in Southern Warwickshire where a number of people have suddenly died - possibly something to do with aforementioned Fearful Symmetries campaign.

Episode 1 is now available on my usual spot in the Internet Archive*. More to follow.

*okay, yes, there's a typo in the URL. That's actually there. Due to technical problems at Archive.org, I made four attempts over several days to get this uploaded, and apparently lost the second L in LnL during repeatedly typing in all the same metadata T_T I don't think it's possible to do anything about it though. I may at some point beg an admin to move it for consistency.

Links here for quick and easy access to mp4 files, others available on Archive.org. EDIT: All episodes now up!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Upon their backs to bite 'em: scenario playtest 2

When I said "limited blogging" I didn't realise it was going to be quite this limited...

Work, writing projects (far, far too many of them, it's a really bad habit of mine), being in quite a few games, and repeatedly but not very seriously being ill did not give many opportunities for thinking about games recently. Also, I haven't had as many opportunities to catch up with podcasts that give me ideas, or talk to the people who traditionally cause me to blog.

This latest post happens because I am finally ill enough to take a week off work, and have sporadically managed to do a spot of audio editing. Here, then, I present... well, not exactly new content, because this scenario appeared before; but it's a very, very different playthrough.

This is the second playtest of my modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario Upon their backs to bite 'em.

Picture is actually of Coleford as I can't find any good ones of the right location, but never mind. You get the idea.

If you want a general link to choose a filetype of your choice, you can head on over to the Archive.org project page to comb through the options.

If you're happy to just grab an .m4a, here are the episodes:

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Bradford Comic Con and Kate Ashwin

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she was going to be participating in Bradford Literature Festival Comic Con, which was the first time I'd heard that such a thing existed. But I'd been planning to meet up with her for about ten years, so the chance to do it so conveniently wasn't something I wanted to pass up. And, to my surprise, I actually managed it!

The festival stretches over a couple of weeks, but I could only make it down for one day, which was the 1st of July. I hopped on the train, which was completely chocker, making my inability to obtain a cuppa for the journey less of an issue because there's no way I'd have been able to drink one. Never mind, I was alright sat on the floor with my ebook.

I disembarked in Bradford and, thanks to Google Maps, managed to get to the event with minimal hassle. It's my first trip as far as I can remember. I didn't have time to get a great look around, but I quite liked the bits of the city I saw. It wasn't far to walk to the University, where the Comic Con was taking place, along with some of the discussions. Outside the University were handy signs and quite a few volunteers in distinctive shirts who quickly pointed me where I needed to be.

I wandered inside and soon managed to find the hall where the exhibitors were. It's the first year for the Comic Con part of the Festival, so there were only around ten hardy souls, most of them from fairly nearby.

I went round all of the stalls, chatting to most of the artists and finding out a bit about their work. They were very nice and approachable, even the very nervous ones. I grabbed some flyers and things with their information. Primarily, though, I was there to meet Kate, the author of the delightful Widdershins.

Unfortunately my own photos didn't come out very well for some reason; a few of the more acceptable ones are below.

Kate's own stand; Kate not featured.

The comics were in what seems to be the canteen; there was plenty of space, although it was warm even in British weather and I suspect it would get pretty noisy with a better crowd.

Two members of Madius Comics, a group based around Leeds. They have an impressive array of short, varied comics by various artists. They are also super enthusiastic and friendly.

View down the aisles.

This stall was I think run by Highgreen Dawn, whose work includes Slug Cafe. The author on the stand was lovely, but very shy, so didn't want to be in this picture.

I realise some people may take issue with the amount of comics I bought at this event, but in my defence, there were very few others available and my bags were pretty full.

I also attended a couple of very interesting panels themed around the Thousand and One Nights, which I'll discuss later.

Kate was kind enough to give a short interview about her work, which you can now find on Archive.org - it's raw, unedited audio because honestly there didn't seem much wrong with it. Sorry about the background noise, but we were recording in the hall itself and my recorder isn't particularly discriminating. I was hoping to perhaps do some more interviews, but the timing didn't work out.

Friendship aside, Kate is an honestly lovely person, an entertaining and compelling storyteller, and an evocative artist who now draws for The Phoenix amongst an array of other projects, including editing the highly popular Cautionary Fables and Fairytales series with Kel McDonald.

For anyone interested in adventure stories and non-cringeworthy Victorian-era magic that isn't set in London for a change, I highly recommend you check out Widdershins. I definitely plan to take a stab at an RPG version one day.

Quiet as the comics side was, I had a good time browsing (and buying) the offerings, chatting with a lot of lovely artists, and attending sessions.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

FYI: limited blogging

This has never been a very reliable blog, so I don't have a schedule to break. Just wanted to mention that posts and responses are likely to be patchy for a while, as I'm adjusting to new medication and it's a constant battle to stay awake. Writing about games is therefore taking a back seat to keeping my job and consuming organic matter. Oh, and actually playing games.

If you're missing my blog, first off thanks!, secondly please let me know what it was you liked and maybe I can write more of it in future. Thirdly, go and check out Refereeing and Reflection, Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice, Reviews from R'lyeh, and feel free to post further suggestions for gaming-relevant blogs and sites in the comments.

(I say that with some trepidation - will attempt to whack any spam-moles ASAP)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Upon their backs to bite 'em: scenario playtest 1

About a year ago I was inspired by a Twitter post (coupled with a convenient fever that left me both off work and mildly delirious) to whip up a rather silly scenario for Call of Cthulhu, or at least something approximating Call of Cthulhu (claims to Lovecraftianness are somewhat tenuous, I'll admit).

Last weekend my usual gaming session was cancelled, so I threw out an offer to run a one-shot for any remaining gamers. As it happened only one other person showed up, which is normally death to RPGs, but as it happens my scenario is fairly amenable to solo play. So, we decided to give it a spin.

The scenario was a success in the end, with Nathan heroically resolving the mystery, putting an end to supernatural shenanigans, and laying the groundwork for the destruction of the cult. Somehow he achieved this without a scratch nor a single point of SAN loss. Since when were players sensible?

Anyway, the recording of the playtest session is now up on Archive.org for anyone who cares to listen - though obviously spoilers abound. I hope to do further playtests soon; the scenario worked out better than I'd expected.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Per Plunum: a game of making do

The premises of the Great Enchanter occupy a prominent, yet not fashionable, location in a moderately well-trafficked part of the town. The Great Enchanter's name is not bandied about on the lips of the vulgar, but thanks, in no small part, to the aid of certain mnemonic incantations, a general awareness of their presence and location permeates the populace, so that anyone in need of magical aid might find themselves wandering uncertaintly in that direction. The large brass plaque prominently fixed on the ancient, stout oaken door displays the name of the Great Enchanter in letters that are just large enough to bespeak confidence, yet not so large as to appear desperate; fancy enough to convey a hint of wonder, yet not so gaudy as to seem frivolous.

The Great Enchanter's door opens upon a modest reception room, with fine claw-footed wooden chairs where a customer may await attention. Reassuringly respectable landscapes hang upon the neat wallpaper; reassuringly mystical books and orbs line shelves behind the heavy wooden counter; a fine balance is struck between allaying the qualms of the hesitant first-time visitor, and delicately suggesting the proprietor's bona fides.

The customer is politely ushered into a consultation room.

For this client, a modest and businesslike office with little sign of arcane learning but the names of the gold-lettered tomes that line the shelves, a faint scent of incense and the ornate carvings on several locked cupboards. A plain blue rug keeps their feet from echoing on the wooden floorboards of the office. Sunlight streams through the windows, supported by the steady light of several lamps to give the atmosphere of any pleasant morning call. They take a seat in a comfortable armchair by the fire, and enjoy light refreshments while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, clad in the garb of any respectable professional, delicately elicits from them the nature of their difficulty and - even more delicately - the depth of their purse.

For that client, a dim chamber redolent of magical learning, lit by the multicoloured flickering of myriad fat, dribbling candles. Shelves of gold-lettered tomes fill one wall; elsewhere heaps of mysterious paraphernalia threaten to flood from several open cupboards. Feet echo on the rune-etched floorboards of the chamber, and scrolls of strange Boreal writing hang from the walls. The heady scent of incense and less identifiable things waft through the air. Two chairs, swathed in cloths woven with mysterious symbols, are huddled by a fire over which a bronze cauldron bubbles with sweet-smelling liquid. A tray of exotic sweetmeats and spiced wine are placed in the outstretched claws of a gargoyle, while the Enchanter, or perhaps one of their assistants, garbed in outlandish outfits, interrogates them on the nature of their difficulty and - somewhat indirectly - the depth of their purse.

On the rare occasions that two clients visit in quick succession, they are often kept waiting. This is not, as they are informed, because the Great Enchanter must update their records, or meditate to clear their mind of distractions, or realign the lunar resonances of the chamber, but because locking or unlocking the cupboards, moving the rug, dispersing the scent of incense or dragging that wretched gargoyle in and out of the corner cupboard - to say nothing of changing outfits - are quite time-consuming. You'd know. It's your job.

It's a tough life being an apprentice. And the magical business isn't exactly booming.

Now, for the first time in weeks, someone has come to seek the aid of the Great Enchanter whose name is prominently displayed upon the brass plate outside your office! Fortune, or at least the ability to pay off the more pressing of your debts, beckons!

But the Great Enchanter is not there.

Incapacitated in a magical mishap? Drunk? Struck down with Dancing Fever? Engaged in a scandalous liaison at a weekend villa which you are strongly and sorcerously abdjured from interrupting? Dead? Just plain feckless?

But you really, really need the money.

And so you, the stout-hearted apprentices of the mage, must spring to the task for which your studies have in no way prepared you.

Don't panic!

It's not all bad. After all, you have spent months, perhaps years in the service of the Great Enchanter, who selected you for your undeniable arcane potential, and certainly not because you were cheap, found sleeping rough in the outhouse after running away from home, nearby and in need of a shilling when an old school rival showed up with a new apprentice, the child of a particularly persistent yet remote relative, hired as a bootboy but insist on calling yourself an apprentice, or you just wouldn't stop pestering them.

You know:

  1. How to pack a very heavy rucksack really efficiently so you can carry all the mage's stuff as well as your own
  2. Basic self-defence
  3. How to evade a variety of adversaries
  4. The fundamentals of business, as filtered through the idiosyncrasies of your mage
  5. A little bit about theoretical magic
  6. An assortment of minor incantations, mostly used for domestic chores and tiresome tasks the mage refuses to undertake.

You also know two genuine spells, which fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The mage taught you this in a rare moment of determination, due to an urgent need to get something done, reluctance to risk taking part in a particular ritual, a brief flash of pedagogical responsibility, a drunken haze or an attempt to show up a rival. It is useful, perhaps impressive, though difficult to perform.
  2. You learned this spell without the mage's sanction; perhaps you stole down to peruse a heavy tome of ancient wisdom, or accidentally broke a precious globe containing an imp who taught you the spell in thanks for its freedom, or peered through a crack in the floorboards and watched the mage conjuring. It is a potent, illicit spell which you had best not perform openly. You're pretty sure the chances of horrible death are quite low.

And of course, you have your own personal merits, (in)competencies and capabilities.

But more importantly, you really, really need the money.

Yes sir, madam, the Great Enchanter will take care of that right away.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Ogham II: Ogham Strikes Back

A little while ago, I happened to get involved with the creation of a sinister Lovecraftian artefact.

I had a few candidate stones gathered at the same time, and Shannon carelessly left a comment which includes the words "Man, I want one now. :)"

Well, I'd already got the Ogham and the design pretty much down. I didn't have any inspiration for a particularly different carving, so I stuck with the original. I vaguely like the idea of doing some others at some point though. I actually did this project last summer, but with one thing and many others, I haven't got round to writing it up before.

As you can see, I felt this artefact really called for a suspicious dark organic stain. Well, that's easy enough.

I actually used a hyper-strong solution of coffee for this. I dissolved a full spoon of coffee powder in a small amount of water, and carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact.

Note to self: "carefully dripped the resulting fluid onto the artefact" is ideal material for sinister handouts

The staining was applied in dozens of individual doses, left to dry in the summer sun inbetweentimes. It slowly built up into something that's at least vaguely reminiscent of ichorous stainings over decades of sacrifice, I like to think. Although it does still smell faintly of coffee. I also carefully dripped tiny amounts into the rivulets of the carving, which firstly looked authentic, and secondly helps them stand out starkly against the stone.

The odd shape of this stone made it a more challenging carve. The Ogham is oddly broken up.

Peripherals

Of course, having composed two scruffy letters for the first carving, I could hardly let Shannon down with the second, now could I?

I thought it over for a while, and decided to just go with it being something she purchased from an eBay seller. Which of course needed an origin story. And some historical ephemera. And she was doing a certain campaign at the time, and why not after all take the time to offer a mysterious tie-in to a certain NPC...

Okay, I may have gone slightly over the top this time.

The backstory

So to begin with, obviously I needed a fictitious eBay page. Luckily this is relatively easy.

I say relatively easy; it's one of those things where I've completely lost the ability to judge that. I mean, I just saved a local copy of a plausible-looking eBay page to my local computer, then used the element editing menu on the browser to change individual sections without having to plough through the database-based code (straight-up HTML is so much easier to reskin). I have no idea where that actually falls on the mean or median scales of easiness.

I enclosed a PDF copy of the eBay page with my message, since sending people whole webpages is hard.

Then I composed a message from the seller, which was supposed to be straightforward, and naturally grew increasingly intricate as I went along. Naturally, I edited this in my email program to actually be from collectorkeith, and sent this email to Shannon for her own use if desired.

Dear Shannon,

thanks for your purchase of the Celtic engraving. I'll ship it over as soon as possible; it should take 5-7 working days to arrive.

Just to confirm, the package includes the artefact itself, plus its original label from Dr Richardson's collection, and two letters that have been associated with it for nearly 100 years.

This is a really interesting piece and honestly one of my favourite curiosities. It was found buried in fenland in the 1850s near Norfolk - unfortunately I was never able to find records of the exact date. It was referred to in a couple of minor journals (Norfolk Anthropology mostly, but also Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie) in the late C19th and early C20th, as mentioned in one of the enclosed letters. The researchers seem to have lost interest around 1913 when Beidecker (ZfcP) published arguments that the markings are simply ornamental rather than fragments of Pictish. It's a reasonably convincing case but I still wonder!

I was interested to see you purchase it as this piece has actually been to Australia before! It seems the piece was purchased in the late 1920s (I can't quite make out the date) when the collection was being sold off after Richardson's murder, and shipped to an antiquarian named Jackson Elias who was staying in Australia at the time. I believe this may have been an American anthropologist of that name who published some articles on lesser-known religions and folk practices, but it's not really my area.

The two enclosed letters date from that occasion, and include some intriguing biographical notes. It made me curious what sort of trouble Elias had been getting himself into. Knowing archaeology of the time I wonder whether he'd been involved in some less-than-legal excavations and removal of antiquities, which some countries were starting to crack down on.

The piece and its letters found their way back to London sometime after the second world war. According to my notes, it was retrieved from a cache of stolen goods in 1952, and its owner at the time, a Mr Neil Wharfdale, ended up in a mental institution suffering from severe paranoia following a series of unexplained burglary and assault attempts. It ended up in an auction run by the House of Ausberg in the 1970s where they were purchased by Professor Giles Moreton of Lincoln as part of a substantial lot. He didn't have much interest in Celtic material (I believe most of the lot was Egyptian) and I bought them in 1997.

Unfortunately I've had no more luck in deciphering the mystery than the old archaeologists did. The Celtic scholars I consulted agreed that it is an authentic C1-5th piece, but one suggestion is that it's actually a non-Celtic copy (possibly Romano-British or just plain Roman) made as a curiosity or just for practice by someone without a grasp of Ogham. It could even be an example of Ogham used to transcribe another language, although I couldn't make sense of it in Latin either. Perhaps the carver used a different transliteration?

The staining doesn't appear to be blood, which was the obvious (and more romantic) thought. I suspect it's some kind of oil, possibly an oily resin or perfume used in a burial, although if it's a ritual piece it could be from the ceremony. Or, of course, it could simply be that oil has leaked into the ground where it was buried - much less satisfying but perhaps more likely.

I hope you find it as intriguing as I did, and if you do learn any more about it, I'd be fascinated to hear from you.

Best wishes, Keith

The label

Letter to Jackson Elias

The 'typed' letter - worth reading as it has Edie's annotations as well as the text below!

Adelaide, Australia

Tuesday 15th 192~

My dear Elias,

I ran across the enclosed at a pretty dull auction of a country house in the quaint little town where I've been staying. Some ancestor had a collecting mania but frankly the rest was tedious books, pots, arrowheads and stuffed birds. I thought this repulsive little enigma might tickle your fancy. The little charms were long sold by the time I arrived, alas.

Tiresomely they refused to give me the collector's catalogue, so you will be delighted to see that I have lovingly transcribed their entries for you and now type it up for your delectation. I hope I have it right, but peculiar dead languages are rather more your area than mine, dear boy.

As you predicted, a foreigner of some sort has been loitering in the neighbourhood where you were staying. I had Norris approach him (with the utmost discretion, I do assure you) and with a little tact elicited the information that he was on the lookout for 'an old friend' with a predictable resemblance to your good self. I do trust you have not been agitating?

Norris was, with his usual skill, able to convey the impression that he might be willing to assist in this matter, and report that the foreigner showed a disposition to accept the offer. Tell me how you'd like to proceed, and don't go out without your revolver.

I ordered the books you requested from Blackwell's, and will send them on to your hotel. It will cost a pretty penny but if you say air mail, so it is. In the circumstances I say you ought to keep them well out of sight; I believe the staff at Blackwell's are beginning to look askance at me. I did call at the Bodleian, but even they drew a blank at this 'Sand Bat' of yours. I suppose the Antipodes aren't exactly their focus.

Yours and all that jazz,

Edie

The catalogue record

These copies of the catalogue are also annotated by a grumpy Edie

Carved stone of Celtic design found in bogs near Norwich. Originally buried in a bark container, which also held eight charms or amulets (holdings R-83N/hap1 to R-83N/hap8). Appears to depict a bearded figure, originally identified as the Dagda, but questionable due to lack of the distinctive club. Possibly a tribal chieftain or priest. Gordon (1896, Norfolk Archaeology) suggested the 'beard' is a symbolic representation of breath or speech, and the projections to the left are a harp, making this a bardic figure or possibly Áillen.

Carved with 36 ogham glyphs around perimeter. Left perimeter damaged at some point and the glyphs crudely repaired, leaving bifurcating set of glyphs. Lower part of stone and parts of carving stained with dark substance.

Transcription below from Winstable (1857).

Fngluimglupnazctulurle q u g ahnaglzta g n g

Inability to identify clear Old Irish words led Kleinhoff (1903) to suggest a druidic code and Rhys (1906) to argue for a Pictish origin.

Billings (1911) suggests an abbreviated or shorthand message to fit the available space, and identifies possible Primitive Irish words within the passage:

1)

finn-gl[as/an/é] ... ma[c/g] lu[gh] [b]námae c[a]thu rí ... leth-... ná-glé-se [do]gní

great brightness ... mac? lug was.enemy battle king ... half... not-bright.emph he-make

Finn-Glé (name)... Son of Lugh the Enemy? [perished in] battle with the King... half... no longer bright (emphasised; a play on death and his name?)... he did.

2)

finn-gl[as/an/é] ... im-gal[af] .... c[a]thu rí lé[g]- guth-gáeth...

great brightness ... was-valorous ... battle king with/reads voice-wind

Finn... showed courage... the king (with/who could read) voice of the wind (epithet for a chieftain?)...

Billings argues that, like most early Ogham stones, this was a grave marker or tribute, and is simply a more compact form of language used due to the limited space. A similar phenomenon is common in Latin engravings.

This is another one of those areas where I had a lot of fun. Well, frustration and fun. Coming up with plausibly bad interpretions of the Ogham, without spending as much time on it as the actual fictional Celticists would over the years, and without actually learning Old Irish (I'm fine with just the modern Celtic languages, thanks) was a tricky one.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Skills as described vs. skills as used

So I was visiting Dan and Arthur over the holidays, and we had many conversations about roleplaying, of course. One of them eventually pottered around to musing on skill interpretation. Or, to be a little uncharitable, skill misinterpretation.

Here, as usual, "skill" means an aspect of an RPG's mechanics which determine your competence in a specific field of activity. In some cases things we would normally consider to be Attributes or Statistics or something work in a way similar enough that we can also consider them here. White Wolf's dots, for example, are basically the same whether they're in an Attribute or a... whatever you call the other things, I forget.

Let's take as read for this article that a skill has four components: a Name, an optional Fluff, a Description, and an Application. The Name is literally the name of the skill ("Ignite Fish"). The Fluff is a bit of flavour text which some games include. The Description is the section of the rules which explains what the skill is, and may give specific mechanical subsystems, special uses, examples and so on; descriptions may be very mechanical or largely narrative.

Finally, the Application is simply the way a given set of players actually uses the skill in their games. This does not necessarily correspond to any of the above.

Gamer Nostalgia and Game Choices

This post was prompted by an old Adventuring Party episode, which seems fitting (although less old than I thought it was when I first wrote this).

The premise was, basically, "are gamers too nostalgic? where is all the new stuff?" and based on a listener question. The group discussed this at length and with enthusiasm, and eventually settled mostly on "no" and "everywhere, on Kickstarter and stuff". While an interesting discussion, I felt like it didn't quite get to grips with things. I spent a lot of it on the tangent of thinking about why people tend to substantially gravitate towards the same handful of older games - D&D, World of Darkness, Traveller and Star Wars. Why isn't there a large market share for new shiny games?

(and yes, one of the answers is "it's questionable how much those should be considered old")

Most of my discussion will focus on D&D because I've played that.

Inertia

I think a large part of this can be attributed to general inertia. Humans are, for the most part, inclined to stick with what they're already doing, and some of the social issues around gaming specifically interact with that.

Conservatism is the basic point. Once you've got a game that does X, why learn another one? This tendency is intensified by the group-based nature of gaming. To play, you need to get a group of 3-6 people to agree on a game; it's not something you can just do yourself. For many people this means persuading their existing group (or one of just a couple of groups) to try the new system. In some groups, people are all willing to experiment with new games - it depends a lot on what the group is for, I suppose. There are game groups which are (explicitly or tacitly) about relaxing and socialising, and an old familiar system fits the bill well.

There are other factors which play in here. A group of laid-back players with an evangelical GM may be perfectly happy to have their choice of game driven by the GM's enthusiasms. Some groups are pretty stable, others are highly changeable depending on what game is currently being played; the latter are perhaps easier to crack into with a new game.

The social contract, or rather a social contract, reinforces this conservatism. When you do persuade them, if some people are reluctant in the first place because they don't see the point of changing from [game that does something similar], this tends to weigh against them changing their mind. If they've given it something approaching a fair chance, and still don't really buy into it, the social contract pushes towards going back to Old Game. That's down to the dynamics of things like how we approach favours and agreements - there's generally an unspoken sense that if Jane agrees to try MegaSpaceWhizz and doesn't care for it, you'll go back to Traveller.

Worse, if you've tried something and it wasn't a great success, there's a fairly strong pressure to never try it again.

This is particularly significant when you think that Old Game is probably played with the ease of long practice; people are comfortable with the rules and expectations and the kind of characters they can be. A first session of New Game, or even first few sessions, will be full of explanations and rules checking and mistakes, and people finding out they can't do something they want to.

It's also common for there to be a long and painful chargen process, not least because you normally have 1 copy of the rules and nobody knows them so you have to share. It's a very straightforward system, but I can make a Call of Cthulhu character without consulting the rules at all (okay, yes, I don't remember the exact list of skills or their base percentages, but I can remember many and I can certainly allocate all my points to stack above base). New Game will almost always seem painful, clumsy and slow in comparison.

Of course, New Game may also have cool and exciting aspects, like new character concepts and new powers and finding out you can do something very cool, but these tend to occur after you've already bought into it. How much this applies depends a lot on how much people already know about the game, the type of game, and how the GM presents it. A tie-in game or one that draws very strongly on specific tropes known to the players may strongly spark their imagination. On the downside, if players are not familiar with those tropes, it's a much harder sell.

To make things personal for a minute, I am really quite bad at pop culture. Luckily I'm pretty easygoing about this stuff, because I usually don't really know the tropes for games people want to run. My mates are also very good at quickly giving me the basic tools I need to pretend I know what I'm doing.* I am, however, quite familiar with a lot of D&D content because before I even got near it, I'd read plenty of generic fantasy, I played some D&D games and absorbed a lot of the setting and tropes. If you want me to play a new game inspired by Popular Zeitgeist Thing, I can almost guarantee I know nothing about it.

* Although I do have a tendency to interpret all settings as basically Call of Cthulhu

I don't want to paint this as a negative thing. People stick with old games they enjoy because they already enjoy them. Most gamers I know have a stack of ideas saved up for next time they get to run something - they're already excited with possibilities for doing more of the games they're already running. There isn't necessarily any need for something new.

First gamer advantage

The old games that people come back to get that for a reason. They normally do something well. There are other old games which are obscure or forgotten.

This is actually much more complicated than the standard "first mover advantage". It's not just about economics, though I'm sure that's an issue.

Old games had the huge advantage of an untapped well of sources to draw on. This is no longer true for any but the most specific of games. This may be a factor unique to games, as RPGs are a relatively derivative genre.

This meant D&D was able to draw on a huge range of fantasy, including swords and sorcery, weird, technofantasy, gothic, fairy tales and mythology, when establishing its setting and tone. This allowed it the great benefit of being flexible and adaptable; even if a GM chooses to run in an existing setting, individual elements can be highlighted, muted, subverted or ignored altogether, flavouring the in-game reality accordingly. Something as simple as tweaking the amount of background politics and treachery can shift a setting from "bickering city-states full of backstabbing nobles heedless of the evils around them" to "loose alliance of city-states keeping the torch of human civilisation lit in the face of darkness". It does tend towards a high-magic interpretation of the swords and sorcery end, but it hits enough notes from many of the others that it feels right. It covers Generic Fantastical well enough that it's a perfectly viable game to use for it. Anyone else coming into the scene now has to do something more specific, and thus more limited.

Well, they don't have to. They can try to create another Generic Fantastical game. It's an astonishingly difficult challenge, though, because there is already a game for that and it's very, very well-established, well-known, well-supported and widely-played. Trying to persuade people to swap out their well-worn-in game for one that seems mostly quite similar is a massive undertaking, because people have a lot of traction with their existing one and need a very strong reason to change. A vast mechanical improvement might do it, and this is what game publishers try to offer with new editions. The problem for a rival publisher is that in most cases you won't be able to offer anything too similar - copyrighted monsters, magic, setting details and so on. So you're asking people to change to either a game that's a bit like what they already do perfectly well, or a (hopefully) polished ripoff of the game they already play. And for the latter, even if it's better, people do tend to instinctively dislike ripoffs.

The cases I think you can sort of count as successes here are things like GURPS versions of particular genres, and this generally seems to work because people are fans of the system and want to run their favourite genres in it. But GURPS is, in its own way, one of the Elder Games. You can't make the new GURPS, although FATE is a similar beast.

The older, vaguely generic games are generally broad enough that they support a wide range of playstyles, preferences, tones and subgenres. This means you can use the same system, and much of the same content, to do different things. Part of the reason people don't seek out a new game to do XYZ based on newish sources is that they don't need to: they can often adapt an Elder Game that's in the right area, adding new content or throwing some out to produce the game they want. You can put content from The Witcher straight into a D&D game. You can grab ideas from modern sci-fi and insert them into Traveller.

D&D (and Vampire, and Traveller) also got to grab a lot of ideas from around the cultural sphere and be the first game that incorporates them. They've had a lot of time both to raid literature and film, and to evolve their own ideas. This just leaves slightly less breathing space for newer games. There's already a beholder, a mind flayer, a mimic, a gibbering mouther... a clan of occult vampires, a sect of highly religious vampires, vampires who want to tear down the secretive vampire social order. A lot of the cool ideas have already been used. You need new ones.

And, to be honest - older games got away with more. They were there first, and they got away with throwing together rag-tag bundles of whatever different people thought was cool with minimal explanation. Supplements and expansions threw in even more stuff that might count as part of D&D or Vampire or Star Wars. Over time, edges have been smoothed, weirdness has been explained away in various ways, and this stuff has taken on the mantle of making sense because That's Just How It Is. Your exciting new game doesn't get that leeway. It's competing with other games that seem to have coherent settings. If people decide it's a random set of what you thought was cool and makes no real sense, it's unlikely to succeed.

Limitations

One of the challenges facing newer games is that because old games are often so broad, they have to define themselves substantially by exclusion. It's very hard to create a broader game, or a substantially different mix of game elements that can't already be homebrewed by a GM, if everything conceivable is already part of the setting.

To take a D&D example, if you want to create a fantasy game that's postapocalyptic (maybe based on Shannara or something), you can just play D&D: there's the refuse of previous civilisations everywhere, there's a fair amount of technological elements. If you want to create a Gothic fantasy game, that's Ravenloft, but you can also do a Gothic-skinned pulp fantasy game by running D&D with lots of ghosts, skeletons, curses, hags, witches, shadows and vampires. If you want to create a folklore-based fantasy game, you can run D&D with a lot of fey and constructs and less in the way of dungeons.

Probably none of those are quite what you meant, but for a lot of players they'll scratch the flavour itch. Basically, the difficulty is you can't say "it's like Dungeons and Dragons, but with fey/post-apocalypticism/vampires" because those things are already in Dungeons and Dragons. And similarly, Vampire already incorporates almost any conceivable type of vampire and can be tweaked to run a wide variety of vampire subgenres.

What your new game needs to do is be more restrictive: it only has fey and fairy tales, or it only has Gothic elements; it specifically excludes orcs and elves and flesh golems and half the D&D PC archetypes and so on. This allows it to have a strong and distinctive flavour, but it's a harder sell, I think. Not least because quite a few players will think "sure, or I could run that by eliding a bunch of stuff from D&D".

Often what distinguishes fantasy, say, is not just the setting details, but the tone and the flavour of the world. But this tends to melt away in the face of a fairly generic setting, because D&D doesn't rely on any particular tone or flavour. Traveller can be a hard-boiled mercantile game, or a swashbuckling pirate game, or a heroic saving-the-Imperium game. Vampire can probably be a game of personal horror if you're determined, but it's more likely to be either Vampires Investigate or Vampire Buffy, let's be honest.

Common knowledge

What's more, this breadth is very welcoming to new players. A new player won't grasp the vast details of any D&D setting, but they don't have to - having some knowledge of some fantasy is a very good start. Almost everyone knows that elves are graceful and noble, orcs are monsters that you fight, and mysterious people in robes send you on quests. Of course, there's a lot of room for confusion if you've seen Lord of the Rings and you're supposed to be playing Fafrd and the Grey Mouser, but you can work that out in play based on what everyone else does - and importantly, deciding which of those stories you're playing is more down to the GM than to the game itself, which has room for both.

In other words, even if you aren't quite right in your assumptions about the game, it's likely that you can make some in the first place. This is not necessarily the case in newer games, which try to contrast by having novel content which prospective players aren't familiar with. If a player needs to do homework before they can meaningfully join a game, the barrier to entry is high. I know some games, like White Wolf, got a lot of buy-in while expecting players to embrace a lot of their very convoluted ideas, but it's rooted in popular conceptions, and it's notable that the weirder and more experimental games have been much less successful.

I own several newer games with their own unique settings and worlds. I haven't played any of them. I haven't had the energy to read through it all. The sole exception here are the Warhammer 40,000 line, and they are Elder Games by dint of their huge existing fanbase and canon.

Mechanics

The Elder Games tend to be quite robust: they have been played a great deal, and thus through weight of numbers and through market share they tend to have rigorous playtesting. They tend to be good at what they're doing. Their systems don't suit everyone, but they tend to work well at what they're trying to do. They have rules for everything they need. They have a broad array of tools for GMs, from antagonists to hazards to setting details. There are lots of people playing them who talk about them at length on the internet, as well as critics, which makes it relatively easy to check up on possible weirdness (how does this interact with that?) or gauge which elements will work well in your campaign. For example, if you want to know which D&D classes or GURPS advantages might end up causing problems for your specific game concept, it's likely someone somewhere has talked about it already.

Evolution

The Elder Games have been around for a long time, and there are certainly very old-established aspects to them. D&D isn't going to stop having classes or levels, for example, because there's a point at which it wouldn't feel like the same game any more. However, Elder Games have been able to reinvent themselves to suit changes in the market. Editions of D&D are quite different from each other. You can do quite a few different things without ever leaving D&D.

If you want a quick, brutal and gritty dungeon-bashing temple-raiding experience, you can play the earlier editions. If you want a fairly tactical experience focused on combat choices with powerful PCs, you can play 4th edition. If you want a much looser adventuring experience with powerful and often bizarre PCs, with a lot of player control, you can play 3rd edition. If you want something fairly smooth and simple but with survivability that supports long-term play, you can play 5th edition.

More generally, this means they have responded to changing tastes and preferences from the player base, and that means they haven't been left behind as you might expect from an older product. Sure, younger players may not be enthused for AD&D, but that's okay because they can play the new edition instead. Because there's an awful lot of continuity between editions (in terms of expectations, setting, monsters, magic and so on) it's relatively easy for players to transition between them both permanently and temporarily. Older players can shift to a new edition to join a group of younger players; younger players who started on 5th edition can get a rough handle on a 3rd edition campaign. For the most part it's still much easier to switching to a completely different game.

To a reasonable extent, some of those Elder Games are also New Shiny Games. They have the easy comfort of familiarity, together with the exciting promise of nicer rulesets, new cool stuff, and maybe even That Thing You Always Wanted.

New Game Blues

So having thrown out all that in explanation of the strengths of older games, what about the challenges for newer games?

Licensing

For the most part, as I said, RPGs are a quite derivative medium. They are an opportunity to participate in a story that's like that story you enjoyed. That means they usually draw on other sources - perhaps heavily mixed up and chopped about, but still.

The Adventuring Party mentioned games based on newer stories. I think one of the chief difficulties here is probably licensing. If you really want to publish a game that's very much like Space Captain Smith or Winds of Khalakovo, and that players will know is based on them, you probably need to license the property so as to reuse names (and preferably stick a big "The Space Captain Smith Roleplaying Game!" on the front). This was not true of many older games, since they were able to draw on stories that were both out of copyright (especially as it was much less absurb in those days) and widely known. The works of many pulp authors that inspired D&D were no longer in copyright, and many vampire stories had the same benefit. Of course, the games were substantially influenced by much newer works (we all know White Wolf's ideas of vampires draws heavily on Anne Rice, though not always directly) but the game could lean on the out-of-copyright stuff explicitly for familiarity value.

Licensing is expensive, especially for the kind of popular new hits that are likely to have a large potential audience. A good designer may be able to take an obscure subgenre and see the potential for a brilliant RPG, but Harry Potter is frankly going to get more copies sold. Not only is this a problem in an industry with poor margins, and a particular problem for a small underfunded company trying to create the next hit, but there's the permanent risk of losing the license. With that, you lose all your hard work and the future sales potential. After all, if you can create a game people are playing decades later, there's the potential for a substantial trickle-in income, further supplements (hopefully with a lower baseline cost now that the initial work is done), growing the playerbase and so on. All that helps to fund more work, improve the game and create a virtuous cycle.

Statistics

I think sheer numbers are a non-trivial part of the problem for new games. A high proportion of potential players are already playing Old Game that is at least superficially similar. As a GM, you have an idea for a campaign. It's probably easier to pitch your campaign as one run using Old Game which some people play, than New Game which nobody plays yet.

If I want to run something that's roughly a fantasy game, I'll probably run it in D&D. Investigative and low-combat? Call of Cthulhu. Turned up to 11 and fairly gritty? Warhammer 40,000. Modernish and not particularly gritty? World of Darkness. Not because those are the absolute best games to run those things in, but because they work, people are familiar with them and it requires minimal extra effort beyond convincing people the campaign would be fun at all.

Longevity

I think there's genuinely also an extent to which Elder Games are good at providing long-term entertainment, through a mixture of factors including the same flexibility and breadth I mentioned earlier.

Will your game provide long-term entertainment, or exhaust its possibilities quickly? Mission-style games or "thing of the week" can feel more like the latter. Long-term games tend to have some inbuilt progression, often a mechanical one of growing power that ties into escalating challenges. D&D isn't just fun because you can get XP and become more powerful, but because that progression allows you to move onto newer and greater challenges. Moreover, long-term play with the same groups of characters allows for greater investment and depth as characters develop over the course of play through choices, new bits of backstory and characterisation.

To take another example here, my current Planescape character has been fleshed out a lot over two years of play. Beginning as the simple concept of "Gap Yah student, but an elf" he's developed specific relationships with the rest of the party, long-term goals which clash with those of some party members, a homeland that has grown from a simple name to a relatively detailed society, actually grown up a bit, and seen his throwaway National Service background (as a ranger, he has favoured enemies) manifest in radical changes of persona when faced with abberations. In a game with much shorter arcs, this just wouldn't have happened.

In the Pathfinder campaign I was recently playing, there's a huge difference between punching an orc at low levels, and at high levels watching the frontline fighter get battered to a near-pulp by an abyssal monstrosity before striding over and using a single high-level spell to restore him to full hit points. Retreating from arrows, versus clearing a whole chamber with a storm of fire. Summoning a triceratops to trample enemies into the ground. Transforming into a gigantic elemental to breach the castle walls.

I'm honestly not very sure what the newer games are like that might be trying to do a similar thing. The new games I've tried are mostly indie things that expect one-off play. FATE supports gradual changes of character through tweaks to their Aspects, which I could see working. However, it also felt to me (in my very, very limited experience) as though the game would get samey over time.

As I said, people I know tend to have ideas for the campaigns they'd like to run next. But this is much easier in a broad game where you can do a lot of different things. If a game is designed for quite a narrow pool of experiences, it may well serve them very well, but it's also less likely that you'll want to keep playing it. And if you don't, you're no longer part of the current audience, which makes it that much less likely that this game is a Big New Thing Everyone is Playing.

Market Share

Market share for all media has splintered over the past decades. There is more of everything available, it's easier to find out about, and easier to find other people with similar interests.

When I was at school, people talked about The Programme that was on TV last night. This was easy. There were a handful of channels, very few programmes people our age might watch (between parents, mealtimes, homework etc.), and live broadcast only. If you had any interest in that sort of thing, you watched the show that was roughly the sort of thing you wanted. So everyone watched Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and, to a lesser extent, Buffy. To a lesser extent because by that point, media was already shifting so there was much more choice of what to watch. You didn't have to watch Buffy because you could watch... some other programme instead, that did something similar but in a way you enjoyed more.

There are more books published every year. While finding a book that's exactly what you want isn't necessarily easy, it's more likely now that that book exists at all. People are spread more thinly, even people with quite similar tastes. They read different books, and so Jane A isn't particularly interested in Cyber-Regency Black Ops: the RPG because she's been reading a grittier set of books about Regency spies with more violence and less kissing. This doesn't mean she wouldn't like the game, it's just less likely she'll immediately find it appealing or even hear about it.

I suspect the similar interest thing also helps to create self-reinforcing bubbles. If you can readily seek out other people who want to play Old Games I Like, because you live in a large city or similar, you may just not really encounter newer games.


So there we go, usual unfiltered ramblings about why it's hard for new games to take over the world, hope it was interesting.