Friday, 27 January 2017

The Hive Mind 3: copying combat

So, having carefully stolen the the skill spheres system and the serious injury model how can I steal Necromunda's combat system and make it my own?

To recap, the melée combat system works like this:

  • You each have a Weapon Skill stat
  • You each have an Attacks stat
  • You roll dice equal to your Attacks and pick the highest
  • Opponents with a parry (mostly due to a sword) can make you reroll one die
  • You subtract 1s
  • You add +1 for any additional 6s
  • You add your WS to this number
  • You compare totals
  • On a tie, the highest Initiative stat wins
  • You can roll to wound once for each point of difference (minimum 1)

I'm actually wondering whether you couldn't extrapolate this to other resolution mechanics, given a different statline. And there will definitely be a different statline.

Off the top of my head, for purposes of experimenting, I'm going to propose something like this:

  • Might - governs physical brawn and toughness
  • Agility - governs nimbleness, dexterity and reaction
  • Intellect - governs memory, logic, reason and knowledge
  • Charisma - governs social graces, plausibility, charm, leadership
  • Weaponry - weapon use
  • Stealth - sneaking, disguise, camouflage and sleight-of-hand
  • Persuasion - influencing others
  • Athletics - physical feats
  • Lore - all learning

Lore could be broken down further, but I'm not convinced it needs to be. There's certainly some characters (and real-life people) who are experts in science but not history, or history but not politics, or whatever. But given there's one skill for using all weapons, and one skill for all interpersonal interactions, I'm not sure we need more. Obviously this will depend on the kind of game - in a magical system you might not want learning and magic to be all tied up together, even though that's the most common model.

The first four are stats, the remainder are skills (and I'm going to use the "skill" term here even though that means something different in Necromunda). Basically, all opposed tasks would be resolving using a Stat Dicepool + Skill Modifier roll. The stat determines how many dice you roll, both making a higher stat more reliable and slightly increasing its maximum potential, but you're all human and there aren't vast differences in your raw potential. That difference comes from skills, which represent actual experience and training in a particular task. Someone with a lot of training in weapon use can still get reliable results, even if they're physically outclassed. On the other hand, that burly thug might just overwhelm you with brute force and luck, because the range possible on a die is similar to the range of possible skill levels.

These will usually be combined in particular ways, but occasionally something different crops up. For example, you might easily use Intellect + W for forensics on a murder scene, or Charisma + W when regaling people with exploits of derring-do. Persuasion can be readily used with Might (physical intimidation or showing off), Agility (ditto), Intellect (reasoned discourse and argumentation, whether true or not) or Charisma (charming, beguiling and befuddling). Intellect + Stealth would help plan ways to disguise or hide an object, as well as tracking down what's hidden already. Stealth + Charisma is used for impersonation.

Having an argument? Roll Intellect + Persuasion if you're debating, or Charisma + Persuasion if you're relying on force of personality. The low-Persuasion mook might just flummox you with a killer question you just can't quite formulate the answer to by rolling a 6. Or you might land a series of lethal QEDs that shut her down completely, because you roll 3, 4, 5=best and you're adding a 4 and she only rolled a 3+2.

Parries could be generalised to a set of equipment or abilities that let you gain a similar benefit. A particular debating trick might allow you to "parry" a Charisma roll by undermining the other party or throwing them off balance with unexpected gambits. In a high-tech setting, a piece of cyberware might allow hackers to parry intrusion attempts and the efforts of security systems. Wizards might "parry" in a magical duel by expending a specific spell component, while specific charms might allow anyone to parry magical attacks.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Hive Mind 2: playing with ability pools

So I was looting Necromunda for ideas. Let's see what else could be done with the skill pools system.

As a reminder, the original ability pools are: Agility, Combat, Ferocity, Muscle, Shooting, Stealth, Techno.

Although the ideal option is probably to flesh this out into a vaguely similar gritty sci-fi setting that isn't focused purely on combat, I think I'll actually try to replicate D&D instead. That's because moving from wargame to combat-heavy game is easier than directly to lowish-combat game.

Sword and Sorcery

So here I'm going to try and throw together a set of special abilities that broadly cover the sorts of things you might expect from a fantasy adventure game, substituting for classes.

The first thing I note is that of the seven Necromunda pools, two are directly tied to raw physical ability mostly as it applies to melée combat, one is a mixture of combat and dexterity, one is a sort of willpower thing that includes toughness and scariness and more melée combat, and one is shooting. That seems excessive in an RPG.

I suggest the following seven pools to begin with, assuming a pretty straightforward dungeoneering approach to the game:

  • Agility skills are about grace and reflexes
  • Might skills are about physical power
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Smite skills unleash destructive magic
  • Conjure skills summon helpful spirits
  • Enchant skills beguile and influence minds


  • Catfall - you can easily maintain balance, halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative and are never taken Off-Guard by traps or ambushes
  • Light Fingers - you can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, lockpicking, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Spring Up - you can stand from prone without using an action
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash an item without spending an action


  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Hurl - if you win a combat, you can trade all your hits to shove your opponent 1d6+hits in feet and knock them prone. Larger enemies halve the distance once per size category, rounding down; if it reaches 0 this ability cannot be used
  • Tireless - you treat armour and baggage as one step lighter when determining movement and fatigue
  • Steel Jaw - you gain a +2 bonus to resist stunning and knockdowns
  • Iron Thews - you treat weapons and shields as one category lighter when determining wielding rules
  • Demolition - you deal +1 additional damage to objects and constructs, and can reroll a failed Bend Bars Lift Gates attempt.

This set may be a little opaque in the absence of rules. The idea is that our Muscly hero can use these rules to dual-wield full-sized weaponry, or carry oversized weapons, or run around with a tower shield and so on. Tireless is supposed to let them avoid speed penalties, swimming and climbing penalties, or penalties for sleeping in armour.


  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, including Fear and Retreat tests you inflict, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Iron Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.


  • Ambush - you can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice you or pick you out in a crowd
  • Act Natural - you have advantage on rolls to maintain a disguise if you're blending into a group or have recently observed the type of person you're disguised as, unless you do something drastically out of character
  • Backstab - you strike with advantage if you attack when hidden
  • Soft Footed - you can move at full speed while sneaking
  • Slink - you can move through small spaces at full speed and without stealth penalties


  • Havoc - you gesture and the ground erupts violently, blasting everyone nearby
  • Dragonsbreath - flames gush from your palms in a blazing arc
  • Lance - blazing light sears a single target
  • Fellblade - a glowing weapon manifests in your hand
  • Banestorm - mystical energies wrack your chosen spot until you bid them cease
  • Whirlwind - a spiral of air moves at your command, hurling foes and obstacles aside


  • Guardian - the spirit intervenes to protect its ward from danger
  • Veil - the spirit cloaks its ward to conceal it from sight
  • Steed - the spirit carries its ward swiftly along
  • Healer - the spirit tends the wounds of its ward
  • Servant - the spirit fetches, carries, labours and cleans as requested
  • Mantle - the spirit infuses its ward with power


  • Beguile - you charm and manipulate the target into doing as you wish
  • Pacify - you lull a target into distraction, slumber or a deep trance
  • Mesmerize - you transfix a target with your gaze, and attempt to command them
  • Hallucination - you confuse the target with misleading illusions
  • Disguise - you warp perceptions with a magical veil that disguises reality
  • Bewitch - you reach deep into the target's mind, sensing or influencing their memories and feelings

So, let's see. Our classic brute hero would gain access to the Muscle and Zeal pools. A thief would have Agility and Stealth. A hardy cleric might have Conjure and Muscle, while a demagogue might have Enchant and Zeal. A wizard or wrathful priest would have Smite and Conjure. This is only a very basic attempt at the model, but I think it kind of works.

Politomunda: the city-world

So we've got massive grimdark cities, and you're a bunch of, let us say, questionably-moralled individuals who are trying to get by. Each of the Houses has its own particular philosophies, genetic lineages, education systems and resources that leave their members tending towards similar abilities.

I'm going to suggest Reflex, Combat, Zeal, Stealth, Tech, Face, Instinct, Wits. Remember that these skills are not the basic mechanics for interacting with the world; they are pools of special abilities that replace things like class powers.

  • Speed skills are about reactions and movement.
  • Combat skills provide benefits and options when attacking or defending.
  • Zeal skills cover willpower, drive and encouragement
  • Stealth skills are about secrecy and concealment
  • Tech skills cover interaction with technology
  • Face skills apply to social interactions
  • Connections skills cover society and street smarts
  • Wits skills involve knowledge, understanding and perception

The specific bonuses and penalties below are arbitrary, since there's no system here!


  • Catfall - you halve the distance fallen when determining affects of a fall, and don't land prone unless you want to
  • Dodge - you can burn your next action to make a save against an attack or hazard you've detected, 6+ on 1d6, moving up to 2m if you succeed
  • Sprint - you triple your speed when you run, rather than doubling it
  • Quick Draw - once per round, you can draw or stash a handheld item without spending an action
  • Reflexes - you double your initiative in any standoff and can't be surprised
  • Ease of Practice - when performing Extended Actions for which you are trained, you reduce the time required by one-quarter


  • Interference - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against you
  • Pinpoint Strike - you can reroll an attack's hit location once per round, accepting the second result
  • Turn Aside Blow - you can parry without a parrying weapon, or take the best of two results with a parrying weapon
  • Snap Attack - you can treat your movement as one category less when determining attack penalties, but suffer a -1 penalty and cannot use sights
  • Duck and Dive - instead of taking a Pinning test, you can fall prone if this would give you cover from the attacker
  • Suppressing Attack - roll no damage on a hit, but inflict two Pinning rolls (ranged) or Retreat rolls (melée)


  • Vicious Reputation - you gain a +1 bonus to intimidate or overawe, but suffer a -2 penalty to befriend or win over NPCs.
  • Nerves of Steel - you may reroll failed Pinning and Retreat tests.
  • True Grit - you can make a Will test to subtract 1 from a wounding roll against you, to a minimum of 1.
  • Laser Focus - you may reroll failed tests to avoid distraction, and exhaustion tests when concentrating for long periods, including overwatch and standoffs.
  • Rallying Cry - you can spend your action calling reassurance to nearby comrades or silently reassuring an adjacent ally. All affected allies can immediately roll to escape one morale effect, such as Pinning or Fear.
  • All Out - you can throw yourself wholeheartedly into your actions, increasing your potential, but leaving you vulnerable to error. When you do so, increase your margin of success or failure by 1.


  • Ambush - the character can use a single action to attempt a Hide roll and ready an action
  • Blend In - when the character is hiding, sneaking or disguised, double the effective distance when testing whether other characters notice them. When hacking, systems and sysadmins treat their activities as one rank less suspicious than normal
  • Method Actor - when disguised, the character treats their cover identity and cover story as true for the purposes of psychology and lie-detection
  • Light Fingers - the character can reroll a failed Prestidigitation roll (pickpocketing, manipulating small objects, planting, palming, card tricks)
  • Trackless - when attempting to track, trace or identify the character, treat time elapsed as one step higher (minute, hour, day, week, month, year)
  • Uniform - providing the character is dressed appropriately, their presence in a location is considered one rank less suspicious than normal.

This section assumes the existence of a set of infiltration mechanics, rather more elaborate than the classic single-roll Stealth/Disguise-type mechanics, which feature:

  • Ranks of suspicion for presence and activities in an area
  • Ranks of security for particular zones
  • A general system for determining whether people notice you and what they notice about you

I might try to rough this out at some point, it seems useful.


  • Percussive Maintenance - the character can attempt a short-term fix as a single action, but the results are unreliable
  • Changelog - the character always has a chance to notice hacks and modifications without actively searching, and rolls twice when searching.

Tech is hard to do without actually building the systems for doing tech stuff, because it needs to interact usefully with those.


  • Read Intention - the character can roll [stat] to gauge what a partner hopes to get out of a social interaction
  • No Hard Feelings - when the character bargains, strikes a deal, persuades or influences an NPC, they can reduce any negative change in attitude by one rank with a successful [stat] roll. If they used Intimidation, the roll is at a penalty
  • One of the Guys - the character can use an extended action to roll [stat] with a non-hostile group. If successful, they're treated as a Peer for social rolls until they fail a roll or do anything that antagonises them
  • Afterthought - when the character amicably gets information from a source, within 1 week they can think of one additional question. They roll as normal; if successful, the source contacts them spontaneously to provide related information. The GM decides how and when the information arrives.
  • My Pleasure - when the character strikes a bargain or seeks a favour from an NPC, if they roll [very good] the NPC feels as though the character has done them a favour.
  • Between These Four Walls - when the character seeks information or antagonises an NPC, as long as the outcome is amicable, their sources are reluctant to report the incident. The chances of raising suspicion are reduced, and it is one step more difficult than usual for others to find out that the character was making enquiries.


  • Find the Core - when observing a conversation or interaction, the character can roll [some stat] to understand the social dynamics between the parties
  • Know a Guy - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with a necessary skill at [level] or higher. The result determines the time it will take (minutes, hours or days) and/or the level of the contact's skill.
  • Social Butterfly - the character can roll [stat] once per day to tap a contact with connections to an organisation or public figure. The result determines the degree of separation and/or the time it will take (minutes, hours or days).
  • Name Dropper - the character can attempt to sway an NPC by mentioning their contacts. This requires a [stat] roll, but grants a bonus on subsequent rolls. On a botched roll, the NPC is antagonised and subsequent rolls are penalised. In either case, it is one step easier for others to learn about the interaction.
  • Middleman - the character can play two NPCs off against each other, either immediately (with a penalty) or as an extended action. The NPCs must be Amiable or worse in their mutual relationship. Roll [stat] against each NPC's [discernment stat]; the character can repeat this, but each subsequent set of rolls must gain [better result] or the attempt fails as the NPCs realise what is happening. The accumulated bonus can be applied to one interaction with each NPC, and overrides their limiters for Common Sense and Professionalism.

I envision that this game would have mechanics for organisations and social connections. Perhaps there are degrees of separation, which determine your influence over NPCs and ability to interact with (or infiltrate) their organisations.

It will be much easier to interact with large, public organisations and much harder to interact with small, private and illegal organisations. Similarly, it's easy to tap a contact who slightly knows a media personality, and hard to tap anyone who's close to a criminal, let alone anyone whose real identity is unknown.

The reason for this complexity is basically that I think it makes the Face character both deeper and more distinctive. If anyone can do social magic then being the Face is a matter of quantity rather than quality, which is somewhat less interesting than other roles which have distinct and unique capabilities. Secondly, it makes it less powerful: it's easy for social systems to end up being a sort of binary, where a low roll means you achieve nothing and a high roll lets you win over a paranoid criminal you've never met before. I'm not claiming I can write a game that fixes social skills, I'm just saying this imaginary game could attempt this kind of mechanic. It's less social combat and more a framework for establishing and tracking the difficulty and scope of social interactions.

In the last example, assume that an NPC has some kind of basic behaviour limiters. There's a point where common sense kicks in, and a point where professionalism kicks in (and probably at least one for self-preservation) so that it's very hard to push NPCs into unrealistic behaviour with simple social interaction. Maybe it's something approaching a Wisdom save, and the more inappropriate or self-destructive the action, the easier it is to resist. In the case of Middeman, the PC can try to work up antagonism between NPCs so that they forget themselves and act rashly.


  • Rapid Recollection - the character can make a Knowledge test to recall or recognise omething without spending an action
  • Spider Sense - the character halves distances when testing to detect hidden or sneaking characters, tails and anyone watching them
  • Weakness in Numbers - enemies don't benefit from strength of numbers against the character
  • Skim - if the character succeed on a roll to research or analyse information, they halve the time required
  • Erudition - they character's ability to grasp new information means they never count as untrained in intellectual tasks, including conversation
  • Expertise - when the character draws on their training, knowledge and education they can use [stat] in place of [stat] for a social roll

Okay, I'm not going to claim this is an amazing new revolutionary game or anything, but I feel like I can see the shape of an acceptable game emerging here. Everyone gets the basic game mechanics for Doing Stuff, then they choose an archetype that draws on a subset of the talent pools; these pools let them select specific special abilities that let them do things the other characters can't.

You could push these up to more impressive effects, depending on the style of game you want. This is generally easiest with combat, which we're used to having be quite mechanical, and hardest with social/magic/technology skills where you kind of need a robust subsystem in place for your special abilities to work with. It's hard to devise special social mechanics if everything's basically left for the GM to interpret anyway, because the whole point is that the Face (for example) lets you do things the other characters cannot. I could have made these more mind-controlly, but that's a specific genre. And then you start getting into issues of "what if the character uses these on a powerful NPC" issue, because the ability to influence any NPC is extremely potent in a way that combat mechanics aren't usually allowed to be.

In general, though, you could easily use this structure to build in things like:

  • Attacking multiple enemies at once
  • Charming an NPC so well that they spontaneously act in your favour later (like a one-use aftereffect)
  • Becoming practically invisible when you hide

I'm going to stop there for now, I feel like this bit is done, and I'm not up for actually writing (another) game right now...

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Magic Scales

So at some point I had an idea for a different kind of magic/power system, and basically just wanted to scribble it down while I remembered. I'm certain that someone has already thought of this for an existing game; I just haven't come across it yet so I don't know where.

The immediate inspiration was reading some White Wolf stuff, which to my mind has a real problem with powers. Basically, they want you to have supernatural powers that sound really cool (and which, in game fiction, are really cool). Unfortunately, they also want to make those same powers very specific in their mechanical capabilities.

There are different possible interpretations of this. A generous reading is that, although White Wolf want to enthuse readers and fill their mind with possibilities, they're concerned that vague rules would leave the Storyteller to create mechanics each time a power was used; the narrow capabilities are designed to lighten the load for STs and avoid balance issues. A harsher reading is that White Wolf aren't very good at matching mechanics to fluff, and are violently averse to giving players access to tools that might derail the Storyteller's beautiful plot; giving them very very specific tools ensures the Storyteller knows exactly what their capabilities are and can overrule requests for a broader interpretation.

Given that utterly broken powers have been a mainstay of the White Wolf experience from its inception, through its history, to the present day, and many of the powers are so oddly-written that the Storyteller still has to make arbitrary rulings on what's allowed, I'm going to have to plump for the latter.

There are a couple of downsides to this mixture. One is that players can be confused and disappointed when (for example) the power that they think allows them to overwhelm enemies with raw terror can be used exclusively to make them run away from you. The other is that you have to pay attention to what's possible, and some things that seem equivalent may be impossible because the designer didn't think about it, and there may be odd gaps in your supernatural arsenal.

My idea is basically the complete opposite of this ("complete opposite" is not a helpful description, and probably straight-up wrong) a very different approach to this.

So the White Wolf tack can basically be seen as permissive mechanics: You Can Do This. I've seen (somewhere) a more quantitative mechanics: You Can Do X Amount of This. I've seen narrative-quantitative approaches: You Can Roll Dice and Fluff the Result as This.

Insofar as I can classify it at all, I think this approach is more like narrative-dramatic. Essentially it's based on You Can Overcome These Challenges. Powers don't have any mechanical specifics at all; you simply choose a type of thing you can do, and decide how useful that ability is. Does it occasionally save you from mild inconvenience, or regularly allow you to achieve goals that would otherwise be beyond you?

  • Trivial. The magic is nominal, or cosmetic, and of virtually no practical use (although it may be cool). Maybe you can change the colour of small items, create tiny illusions in your palm, create sparks,
  • Convenient. The magic allows you to achieve something you could have done anyway, but sometimes saves you effort or time. For example, copying a document, flipping a light switch from a few feet away, reheating meals, making noises, cleaning objects, or giving someone an electric jolt instead of a pinch.
  • Useful. The magic is a significant and regular asset that makes your life easier. For example, keeping your devices powered without charging (or even without batteries), locating an object you want within a room, protecting you from mild injury, telekinetically preparing meals while you watch TV, helping you win on the races, distracting an annoying person, providing a weapon, opening doors without the key, getting favours, or completing a task much faster than normal.
  • Impressive. The magic provides major benefits or allows you to overcome substantial problems. For example, summoning a lost item, surviving dangerous situations, finding a person, learning hidden truths, getting into a secure area, providing a potent weapon, travelling great distances quickly, speaking new languages, removing physical barriers, or altering a person's opinion.

Note that the scale of your ability is absolute, even if you use it in different circumstances. If you have Convenient Electrokinesis and use it to turn on lights with your mind and therefore look cool, you cannot use this to turn off the forcefield using the switch on the other side of your prison barrier. Why? because that would be Impressive. It's up to you and the GM to establish why it isn't possible, if you care. In this case, clearly the barrier interferes with your mental powers.

Friday, 13 January 2017

A fleeting insight

As I was deliberately not trying to write anything for the blog tonight, I glanced at my site, and then thought someone somewhere might appreciate a tiny glimpse behind the scenes (I know, I am terribly enigmatic)

For certain parsings of "terribly"...

Right now there are 72 draft posts in my profile. Some of these are not really drafts at all, just a few lines of something I wanted to remember. Some of them will never go anywhere. Quite a few are something I'd vaguely like to develop further but keep getting distracted.

Mostly what happens is one of the following:

  • I read, listen to or discuss something that provokes thought, leading me to start writing a new post rather than finish an old one
  • I begin working on a post, have a tangential thought and explore that instead
  • I begin working on a post, go to do a little research, and end up writing a completely different post
  • In extreme cases, I start writing a post, go to get the link for a post where I previously said something relevant, and either remember that I meant to write a follow-up post or have a new idea inspired by the thing I wrote before

And to be fair, several of the posts there are things like entire campaign settings that are not necessarily well-served by being a blogpost.

Alarmingly, I recently embarked on a concerted effort to cut back that pile, by either finishing posts or discarding them. That's where seven of the last ten posts came from. Unfortunately I have rather a butterfly brain, so my drafts folders tend to replenish themselves just as fast as my scenario seeds list and my reading pile.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fractal Mythos Knowledge

I had some thoughts about the Call of Cthulhu Cthulhu Mythos skill while listening to some podcast or other - I can't remember which one now. Possibly RPPR. You can read a tome about Hastur and suddenly know about Ithaqqua. Or you can sometimes know about byakhees, and sometimes not. It's weird.

An idea came to me that you could introduce a fractal approach to Mythos skills (and indeed others, but let's stick with Mythos for now). This would be a tweak specifically for games where there's quite a lot of Mythos going on, and particularly suitable for long-term campaigns focused on a subset of the Mythos but including elements from other factions.

As it's Call of Cthulhu specific I've posted it on my Call of Cthulhu blog. But feel free to comment there or here as suits you.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

On the elusiveness of upbeat actual play

I have a massive heap of downloaded podcasts, but somehow I wanted something different. Perhaps it's because nearly 300 of the nearly 1000 podcasts in my folder are by the RPPR crowd, whose games are often entertaining but also tend to be grim and downbeat (yes, in most cases the group are clearly enjoying themselves hugely, but the actual events are rarely cheerful). And a lot of the rest are non-fiction from the BBC, quite a lot of which is also not very cheerful.

I decided to head out and look again for podcasts that might suit me. The criteria this time:

  • Not Call of Cthulhu. I have plenty of that, and it's rare to find a single episode that's not grim, however lightly it's presented. I enjoy it enough to both listen and play, but I'm depressive - I very much don't need a diet of all bad things happening all the time.
  • Still going. I've no wish to get into the archives of a podcast that only hit nine episodes. Been there, done that.
  • Not stuff that is as or even more depressing than Call of Cthulhu. I found some recommendation threads, and found myself staring at lists of sessions about Apocalypse World (no, never, under any circumstances*) or Monsterhearts (also no**), or You Are A Horrible Person And Bad Things Happen To You Which You Can't Control***.
  • Lucid. There's quite a few podcasts that received praise, but which are also described as people getting increasingly drunk and silly. People getting drunk are boring. If I'm listening to a gaming podcast, it's because I want to hear the game. There's a few podcasts I listen to where people do sometimes drink, and whenever it's noticeable it always detracts from the experience of that episode.

* It's technically possible to do post-apocalyptic narratives that aren't about how horrible human beings are, but from everything I can tell this game is designed to do exactly the opposite. And given most proudly-labelled "Post-Apocalyptic!" stuff I've encountered is about selfishness, human failings, pointless violence, manly manhood and rape, I will give that a flying pass.

** So from what I can tell, this is a game about being horrible teenagers, except you're also actually monsters I think? You lost me at "being horrible". That does not seem an enjoyable premise for an, well, for anything at all actually.

*** I know this isn't a real game, but I've seen quite a few games described which seem like they could neatly be summed up in this basket. I do not understand the fascination of indie gamers with this premise.

I found a few leads. It's striking just how many of them are actually "3-6 improv comedians play some games" rather than "some people play some games". I am somewhat wary of these, because I'm suspicious that either a) the podcast is part of a marketing exercise rather than just a hobby; or b) people whose main hobby is theatricals will make the podcast about them and their performance rather than the game - but I'm willing to give it a shot.

I'm also trying to find podcasts that aren't American. I mean, nothing against Americans, but I have plenty of American gaming podcasts. It's hard though, because that's never an available search term.

I am struggling to come up with a useful way to explain "upbeat" versus "downbeat". Downer endings are obviously downbeat. But I also don't want traumatic and grim things happening to the PCs. I don't want choices with no option that isn't horrible. I don't really the backstory to be framed around lots of bad stuff that happened to people.

I appreciate this is relatively difficult, because RPGs are generally built around challenge, and because a lot of the types of challenge you can offer a group of 3-6 players are extrinsic and based on open conflict. And most RPGs are quite reactive, usually reacting to bad things that have happened. And of course, quite a lot of roleplayers (like quite a lot of people in general) genuinely like dark grittiness and murders and gratuitous violence and so on.

Stuff I noticed

So, some exasperations of this time!

Archives. People are going to come to your podcast and want to listen to your archives. Why do you make it so difficult? Quite a few sites just have, for example, a "podcast" tag which they put on all those episodes. But - what with half of them being improv groups - the same sites also often host two (or, in extreme cases, fifteen) other podcasts of no relevance whatsoever to me. Or the group plays six rotating campaigns, four of which I don't want to listen to. Or they play a hundred different mini-campaigns. It's really, really useful to tag and mark and group podcast episodes in useful ways, so that people can find the stuff they're actually looking for.

Fun fact: if it's a pain to trawl through your archive, people stop, like I did.

I would like to draw your attention to the massive tag cloud to my right to help people sort through my stuff.

Filenames, yet again

Also, I know I've talked about podcast file names a lot, but why stop now? Normally I don't call people out for this bullshit but hello Rusty Quill! You seemed so promising, being British and everything (although improv, so...) but your website is a pain and so is your naming convention. The webpage has an unnecessarily large banner and puts the "older posts" option in an unusual place, so I didn't spot it until late in the day. Now, you get kudos for having your entire podcast archive in the RSS feed - and extra kudos for having different feeds for each podcast! Good on yous.

But what sort of person looks at a file they're saving for public release and concludes that "207829424-rustyquill-1-rqg-0-metacast-character.mp3" is a good name?

Okay, first off, breathing room. If you're going to number things (and you should) do not start with single digits, because this means computers will sort things called 1 next to things called 10. This is basic, basic stuff, guys. I'm going to venture a guess that if you do improv you probably have arts degrees and didn't study much computing (nothing wrong with that!) but sort order isn't complicated so I feel you should have thought of this.

But secondly, what is this 207829424 about? What does that mean? Is it relevant to the audience, at all? No? Then don't include it! Because, and I appreciate this may not happen to everyone, when I scroll through files on my player, all I will see on the screen for several seconds is a string of numbers. I don't know what that is. If I listen to your podcast a lot I might realise it's yours, but it could also be a random podcast from somewhere else (the BBC inexplicably does this sometimes). Just begin the filename with something identifiable so I know what I'm looking at.

In fact, for particular exasperation, my phone will only show the first twenty-odd characters of a filename in music player, which means I won't be able to tell your episodes apart. They'll all be "STRINGOFNUMBERS-rustyqui". Does that seem helpful?

To be fair, I've checked again and they change their filenames partway through the archive. You know, you could go back and change the older ones too.

Here's a list of stuff I am currently planning to try out, and will try to comment on later:

  • Rusty Quill
  • She's a Super Geek
  • Shark Bone
  • In Sanity We Trust
  • One Shot Podcast

Why so Cthulhu?

So here's something Dan said to me over the extended gaming weekend that was my New Year:

"I'm surprised just how into Call of Cthulhu you are."

And that got me thinking. Why am I so keen on Call of Cthulhu? Or, to take a step back, am I especially keen on Call of Cthulhu? And if so, why and in what way?

A suuuper quick precis of my gaming history. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks aside, I first encountered the concept around the age of 12 when I was on holiday in the states and bought a copy of Dragon magazine. Over ten years later I started running D&D 4th edition for some librarians, and a few months later was finally invited to try out a tabletop RPG. Since then I've played a few White Wolf one-shots, quite a bit of D&D, various random one-shots and playtests, some Warhammer 40K, and a moderate amount of Call of Cthulhu. I've also listened to podcasts of and read the rulebooks for a few other systems, like Traveller.

I've run one short campaign, which was D&D 4th edition and based around adapting existing scenarios. I've written a scenario for 40K that I haven't yet run, as well as a game about lizards. When I have ideas for future games, they are generally for Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu is what I tend to default to, and I'm working this out as I go along. Broadly speaking, there are factors which tend to make me actively gravitate towards it, and there's also more passive reasons why I just find it a comfortable fit.


One of the things that I think Call of Cthulhu genuinely has going for it is the system. It is simple, reasonably robust, reasonably genre-appropriate, and broad. It takes almost no effort to understand the mechanics well enough to play ("this is a percentage, roll under it"), and not much more to memorise most of the rules. Character generation is quicker than most other games and choosing names frequently seems to be the bottleneck.

I enjoy games with much crunchier rules too - both Warhammer 40K and D&D are much more complex. But if I want to throw someone into a situation and just get on with it, or to start playing myself, Call of Cthulhu is the most straightforward option.

It's also flexible enough that you can use it as a rough approximation for a very wide range of settings. It doesn't handle all genres well (in particular, anything heroic tends to fall down on the combat, and it's not crunchy enough to be tactical) but you can use almost any setting. Modern day? Historical? Ancient world? Future? Traditional fantasy? Gothic? Cyberpunk? You just need to tweak the skill list to get something that's useable. I'm not saying it will be great - I'm saying it will do.


Call of Cthulhu is often used as an investigative game, and I find that tends to suit me. I am an inveterate prodder at game realities, and as a player I frequently find myself having to bite my tongue to avoid roleplaying a detective. I always want more information, to try out theories, to see what happens.

Call of Cthulhu has several advantages here. Firstly, it's often played explicitly as an investigative game where you are trying to puzzle out what happened, which makes it a great fit. Secondly, because it's usually quite an ambient experience rather than one where you're in constant peril, there is usually a lot of room for asking questions, testing out theories, and going to gather more information; while there are situations where "let's just try my idea" will get you killed, they're relatively few compared to a combat-focused game.

For what it's worth, my limited experience of White Wolf games was that they also offered a satisfying amount of room to play around with ideas and with in-game abilities in creative ways.

A third aspect is that the setting lends itself to quite thorough investigation, because the mysteries you're solving tend to be weird enough that eliminating the impossible isn't always a good idea... while fellow-gamers don't necessarily want to indulge quite as much as I often do, Call of Cthulhu tends to get them more onboard than many other games.

Source material

Obviously, Call of Cthulhu is broadly based on the work of HP Lovecraft and associated folks. I quite like these. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an actual fan, honestly. There's plenty of problems with both Lovecraft's stories and those of other people. Lovecraft had a whole bunch of prejudices, and in a way his taste for short stories made it difficult to get into the work as deeply as novel authors allow. The related works are a very mixed bunch, divergent in genre (Clark Ashton Smith is a different beast from Howard, Derleth or Lumley, for example) and in focus. Some authors are keen to write genuine horror, which I flee from with alacrity.

Still, there's something in it which appeals to me. There are mysteries, and slow unfurling writing full of description (keen readers may have noticed my own verbose tendencies) and fantastical events. I like the old places, and the ancient tomes, and the peculiar people, which appeal to me far more than, say, reading about men with guns being manly.

Genre knowledge

Tying into the last point, I think one of the reasons Call of Cthulhu does genuinely appeal to me more than many other games is that I have a much better grasp of it. It's one of the few games where I actually know the source material, in many cases better than everyone else I'm playing with, and feel I have a good grasp of what I'm doing. This is because Call of Cthulhu is based on books.

To cut a long story uncharacteristically short, my family were never great TV watchers and we didn't even have a TV for most of my childhood. Between that and other factors, I just never got into TV. I could say that I was reading instead, or doing school clubs, both of which are true, but honestly I've just never developed the habit or skill of watching TV. In the pre-iPlayer days I was rarely organised enough to reliably watch a particular show. Nowadays I'm too skittish and sitting down to watch something for an hour feels like a huge investment of precious time - I prefer something that feels less passive.

The end result of all this is that I am, for a nerd as big as I am, spectacularly unversed in most of the mainstays of pop culture. I never watched Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Xena, Ally McBeal, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, Frasier, Law and Order, Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills, The Fresh Prince, Byker Grove, Dawson's Creek, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield, The West Wing, any police procedural whatsoever, any soap whatsoever - I can't even compile this list without reference to Google because I don't even know what the shows are that I didn't see. I saw a handful of Futurama episodes at university, caught up with Firefly on DVD years later, and somehow managed to watch a good proportion of the episodes of mid-run Buffy. I did see quite a bit of Dr Who on video, and found the resurrection of the show disappointing enough that I lost interest years ago.

Similarly, I never really watched that many films, and the ones I did see tended to be fairly light-hearted and family-friendly. I did, however, read ferociously, mostly in the areas of nonfiction, fantasy and sci-fi.

And all this means I am equally spectacularly at sea in terms of the tropes of most of these things, which is a real problem because most role-playing games seem to either be specifically based on film and TV, or at the very least to be heavily influenced by them.

The RPGs I find easiest to grasp are Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer 40,000. I really don't think that's an accident. All three are primarily based on books (yes, even 40K - the game itself consists of books, which have fluff in them, and there's lots of tie-in books too). I am familiar with a lot of the stuff behind all three. Traveller I've still never played, but it feels like it could fit with the fairly dry and hard-but-not-annoyingly-philosophical tone of a lot of the books I read in my younger days.


In terms of actually playing in or running a game, Call of Cthulhu has another big advantage in that it's a real-world game. This it shares with World of Darkness, though that gameline massively dilutes its advantage with an incredibly complex layer of supernatural stuff.

When you're starting out as a player, you don't need to know very much specific. It helps if you have a rough idea how the period you're playing in works, but even that can be worked around. You do know how the real world works, and have a broad idea of how things like shopping, social interaction, law and order work - especially given some narrative wiggle-room. The weirdness of the setting is specifically an unexpected and alarming element which is disruptive to the PCs, so you're not actually required to know anything about that ahead of time.

For the GM, it's also a boon, because it's really easy to run. You can use real-world locations and history, and improvise rapidly based on actual facts you know about reality. It's easier and quicker to guess plausibly how a certain NPC might behave, or how a town might respond to some bizarre events, than it is to make a similar judgement about a fantasy world. You can use actual maps to decide where players can go, rather than having to invent new locations on the fly. Plus, the players can use their understanding of real history, science and so on to follow what's going on; they don't need to have read up on the metaphysics or magic laws of your setting, and have everything patiently explained to them "which your character would already know, of course".


I think this ties in to a more general point that I find Call of Cthulhu relatively easy to GM for.

I feel like I wouldn't even know where to start with a D&D campaign, and I'd have to invest a huge amount of effort to create a situation that might be playable in order to dangle it in front of potential players. And I'm sure any of the people I game with could run a better one. Maybe I just lack confidence. I certainly enjoy playing D&D, and I've actually got the broad strokes of a couple of worlds from my 4e campaign, but coming up with all the geographies and combat and faction motivations seems like a lot of hard work. And it must be said, so far everything I've suggested to the usual group has been met with absolute silence, so not a lot of encouragement over there.

Writing a single scenario for Call of Cthulhu is a relatively limited feat. Okay, okay, yes, I admit I personally end up putting preposterous amounts of work into writing really robust investigations over long periods. But the principle stands! You can come up with one idea, play around with it and see if it seems to have any meat on it. If so, you can flesh it out as a standalone scenario and then stop. There isn't the same expectation of presenting a long campaign that some other systems have. I think the absence of an XP system is one of the factors here; because doesn't offer the satisfaction of gradual increase in power and new exciting abilities, there's less expectation of long-term play.

Also, Call of Cthulhu is legendarily fond of prewritten adventures. I've only actually run a couple, but there's a widespread acceptance of them in the gaming community. You can GM by selecting, reading and running prewritten adventures, rather than writing all your own material.

If you do want to write scenarios, though, I think the "real world, but with weird elements" makes it really accessible. All you really need is one weird spin. I've got a huge list of ideas waiting to one day be scenariofied: they're inspired by things ranging from weird stories, to stories in a completely different genre, to purely mechanical challenges ("can you write a scenario where X?", to historical and political events, to slightly odd stuff that's happened to me in real life, to nursery rhymes, to advertising.

I've written an entire scenario based on a photo someone posted on Twitter. I think it's genuinely good.

I just don't have the extensive genre knowledge or game experience to comfortably write scenarios for most other systems. I'd want to play a hell of a lot more White Wolf, for example, before feeling I had even the slightest idea what to do with them.


Finally, it's probably worth accepting that a fair bit of the reason is purely circumstantial.

My friends include several very experienced GMs who can easily run a long and satisfying D&D campaign. Since my own foray collapsed for timetabling reasons, there's been no reason for me to try. Those slots have enough D&D in them already and it's better than I'd do.

Besides the regular online gaming, most of my games consist of irregular weekends of board and roleplaying games. These are of uncertain duration, and it's unpredictable how many people are available - usually three, sometimes four, occasionally two (including me). Experience of trying to run D&D on a roughly similar model was very poor. However, these are good occasions to try a one-shot that lasts four to eight hours. Of the games available, everyone is reasonably keen on Call of Cthulhu so it makes sense to run that. We sometimes experiment with other one-shots, but there's not huge enthusiasm and of course it's a lot of upfront time investment learning a system.

Because I live a long way from my existing gaming groups, I have limited opportunities to play or run games, but plenty of opportunities to think and write about them. Call of Cthulhu lends itself well to this because it's focused on prewritten scenarios, and because most of the game content you need consists of NPCs and clue chains rather than combat. Writing up mysteries is, I think, more satisfying to do than writing up potential combat because you can put together a coherent whole situation, whereas with combat it's all hazy until the sword hits the goblin.

If I write a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu, I'm reasonably confident that at some point I'll be able to find players for it. That isn't the case for campaign pitches, as that requires a lot more investment from everyone and is competing for a very limited amount of weekly gaming space.

I have a suspicion that if I'd come into gaming via a different group of people, I'd be happily running around with White Wolf and a fistful of storygames.* I do like mechanics; I like crunchy games and simulationism and worlds I can poke. At the same time, I like satisfying narrative and tropes and acting and silly voices. I'm a big reader, I've done some acting, that could be me.

And if storygames didn't all seem to be so freaking miserable.

Now it could well be that if I decided to sit down and write up a load of D&D campaign notes, I'd be able to come up with something worthwhile. It's a tough first step though, and one I've never really felt the encouragement to try, because given my current gaming setup I'm not especially optimistic I'd ever get to use it. I mean, I like the idea of running another D&D campaign, but I also like the idea of being toned and muscular or writing a novel. So far, none of these seems likely.