Archive for the ‘Actual Play’ Category

Yesterday, we played The Clay That Woke for the first time (Paul Czege, Half Meme Press, 2014).  I’ll do a separate post overviewing the game, later.  For now, my impressions of play:

Overall: Fun.  Emergent story in a weird exotic world, with moments of character awesomeness, interspersed with first-night rules confusion.

There were a lot of breaks to debate rules and meanings, maybe no more than any other first night with a new game, but they weren’t things we could really look up in the text.  So we proceeded with uncertainty, and were carried along by our enthusiasm.  I think the second session will go a lot smoother, and we’re all looking forward to seeing where things go for our minotaurs.


  • We had an awkward start, with 3 minotaurs in 3 different places — I don’t do well with separate scenes for every player — but we eventually got going in a rhythm of round-robin scenes.  I can see that we’re moving towards getting all the PC minotaurs together eventually.
  • Some scenes that I had planned (movings) didn’t come to a clear inflection, and I realized that I had included them as exposition.
  • We paused often to debate how the Silence applied in certain situations.  When a minotaur speaks out against an injustice, is that following the Silence or breaking Silence?  If he keeps quiet, isn’t that also breaking silence?  So, as a GM, am I setting up no-win situations?  Is debating this part of the intended play experience, or are we just misunderstanding something that’s meant to be clear?
  • Unfortunately, the minotaurs’ initial lack for names means I’m calling the players by their own names during play, something I normally  try not to do.  I guess I could call them by their archetype instead: “leader, advocate,” etc.
  • At first, priming the Krater represented a big break from the fiction, but we got good at it quickly, and by the end of the night, we could do it wordlessly.  The few dozen seconds it took, and the players’ resource decisions, really built tension.  Drawing the oracle inspired nervousness.  After the draw, everyone dove for their menus of Krater outcomes to interpret it for themselves.
  • As the GM, playing Intrinsics with weird ideas is FUN, really fun.  So is playing Voices.


  • The perwiiga tree jungle encounter went well.  Tense moral argument.  Ry drew from the krater (earned a Name token, I think), and decided to keep 3 of the seeds.  He later used 1 to save a man crushed by a scourge, and used Regard to ensure that another seed would get planted deep in the jungle where a new perwiiga tree would grow to maturity unmolested.
  • The situation at the gladiatorial games changed quickly.  Mike lead a worker’s revolt, and now the Games will determine ownership of the arena and the workers!  Unexpected, and awesome.
  • The gladiator minotaur was grievously injured.  Two players then decided that their minotaurs were twin brothers, and they have now secretly switched places so that the “gladiator” can remain in the games.  The advocate must fight, and the soldier must treat the wounded.  This should be interesting!
  • I burned through about 3/4 of the movings that I had prepared – which is the perfect amount, I think.  Some things resolved quickly, and some really dug in hard.

A few further thoughts from Ry:

I was fucking awesome. I killed two scourges and dealt with the Bright. Then I got cocky and I got tricked out of Silence really fast. My herd needs to be a big part of next chapter.

The game was asking a lot of you as the GM. There’s a certain possibility or going with the flow that the game rewards for a player character. So the GM has to do a lot of work even just getting the players to be in the same place at the same time.  We were quite disconnected.

We wondered about want versus need and speaking up about injustice.

I got the sense that thinking like an intrinsic is really crazy crazy crazy hard.

I came away with the thought that the game needs more color visuals during play.

– – – – –

There’s still a lot more of this game to see.  We are just getting to the point where PC minotaurs are going to run out of tokens for the first time.  No one has gone frantic yet, we haven’t seen Truths or Gifts yet, and no PC minotaur has earned a name.  Looking forward to exploring it further.


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2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.


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But unlike Ol’ Blue Eyes, I think mine are worth mentioning.  And pondering, and learning from.  My regrets are the big “Dead End” signs on the road to improving as a GM and a player.  I want to remember where they are so I can steer clear of them in future.

I remember the time…

…when Ryan was in a duel to the death with Yrkoon over the Runeswords, Stormbringer and Mourneblade. Ryan was about to be defeated, which would have meant the annihilation of his character’s soul. The stakes were absolutely clear. We all looked at each other in horror – it should have been a great moment – and I fudged a rule to allow him one more round. He won the duel. I think we all felt dirty after that moment, like we’d cheated ourselves.

My mistake was not being willing to let the PCs fail, not trusting in our ability to make failure interesting – even though defeat in that duel would have meant the end of Ry’s character. That kind of curveball is what drives emergent story at the table! I should have been willing to let it happen. Ry would have re-entered the story as another character, we would have turned it into something interesting.  Instead, we went for the hollow happy ending.

I remember the time…

…when, in the first session of a new campaign, the PCs captured and disarmed the guy whom I was going to turn into the master villain! I panicked, I was seeing all my carefully laid plans spiraling down the toilet – and I engineered the villain’s immediate escape.

My mistake was that I took away the players’ agency. They were driving the story by taking bold and provocative action, and I shut them down. I made them adjuncts to MY vision, instead of partners in storytelling. I strongly regret it now.

My other mistake was that I was too attached to my own plans. I didn’t have faith in my ability to still build a cool (but different) story around an unexpected outcome. It would have been simple: this would-be villain was the head of a family of powerful politicians and sorcerers. Kidnapping him as the PCs did would have instantly set off a war between noble houses! And the patriarch’s nephew would have made a fine arch enemy in his place. But I couldn’t see any of that, I had panicked.  I should have rolled with it.

I have more regrets, but those are the biggest that rattle around in my head.  If I can take the lessons from these, then I’ll make big strides towards becoming the kind of GM that I want to be.


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This is a retrospective and lessons-learned post.  I’m just coming to the end of running a Trail Of Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group.  It was my first Cthulhu game, my first investigative game, and my first time using the GUMSHOE system, so the learning curve was quite steep for me; fortunately, I had almost a year to prepare, as everyone in the four-person group rotates through the GM’s chair.

The game was set in 1933, and centred on an imaginary neighbourhood of New York City called Arkham.  The fishing community on the southern tip of Manhattan was all Deep One hybrids.  The employees of a rare book shop were Mythos-seeking Nazi operatives.  And the corrupt mayor and the mobsters were members of a coven of Yog-Sothoth wizards a-la Charles Dexter Ward.  I created all of the above in secret based on “creepy events and loose ends” in the PCs’ backstories as developed on char-gen night.

The game has gone well, over-all.  The sessions have been fun, the prep has played well, the players are enjoying it I think.  We’ve had six sessions plus the char-gen night, and it looks like we’ll have one more before the PCs’ arcs have largely run their courses (I was going to say “are solved,” but the protagonists don’t really solve anything in a Cthulhu game!).


Investigative games require the most work to prepare, especially if you are writing the scenario yourself.  I didn’t know this, going in.  I must have spent literally ten hours in preparation for every hour we have spent in play.  My notes comprise hundreds of pages.  Some of that was because I was learning to write and run an investigative game on the fly, but still: this kind of game requires a lot of prep.  I can see why published adventures are so popular in this genre.

I didn’t really tie clue discovery to the PCs’ skills; I just revealed clues based on the actions of the PCs.  In other words, I missed out on some system/fiction interaction.

First I went too slow, then too fast.  In the initial sessions, the PCs did a lot of investigating and interacting, but little else.  It was fun for me, watching them follow clues and uncover the mysteries that I had buried, but after a few sessions I realized that we’d barely touched the dice, and wondered if the players were really enjoying things as much as I was.  So, in later sessions, I pushed the action forward by triggering events (e.g. the Salfmores summon the Xothian) that I had been planning on saving until the players had gotten more involved in underlying intrigues.  This spiced up the action, but may have seemed arbitrary or confusing.

I didn’t make my NPCs sticky enough.  I think this is one reason that the PCs didn’t get involved in the half-buried intrigues as quickly or as deeply as I’d hoped they would.  Private Jones (Frank’s old army buddy, now a Shub-Niggurath acolyte and hanger-on of the Nazis), for example, should have been more insistent on dragging Frank into his schemes and obsessions.  The Brookhaven Trust (the Yog-Sothoth wizards) should have taken direct action against Rodney sooner.  Both Brookhaven and the Nazis should have taken more overt action to secure the treasures hidden in Jane’s gallery.

I had too many intrigues going on at once.  I have read only recently (in Hite’s Night’s Black Agents) that players can become confused and frustrated as the number of intrigues rises beyond one.  I had three.  In retrospect, I didn’t really need the Brookhaven Trust arc at all.  I think I just included it because I really wanted to play out the Charles Dexter Ward story.  Or maybe I was thinking: three PCs, three backstories, therefore three secret factions.  Anyway, just the Deep Ones and the Shub-Niggurath-worshipping Nazis would have been enough to engage with all three backstories.

I ended up writing out all the clues that the players had found, after each session, so that they would have a list to look at, next week.  Otherwise, I think they would have forgotten half of them before they could have followed up.  Extra work for me.  Not sure if this was strictly necessary.  I should have gotten them to do it.  With fewer intrigues, there would have been fewer outstanding clues at any one time, as well.

The clues I gave Jane (regarding her personal arc) didn’t lead anywhere.  She could do nothing to follow up on them; could only wait for me to drop the next one in her lap.  I should have designed her clues to point towards investigative opportunities, not just to be pieces of a puzzle to be eventually pieced together.

Action scenes should be a mix of things to fight and things to flee from.  The real conflict scenes are ones in which something horrifying is discovered, and the PCs must roll Stability or Sanity checks.

It’s great when a Horrible Truth targets a PC’s Drive, Pillar or Source, directly.   When Rodney realized that his father is transforming into a Deep One (fish man), and that he himself has Deep-One blood too and will one day transform, and failed that Stability roll and went all to pieces, that was a fantastic scene!  That was what Trail Of Cthulhu is all about.  I can’t wait to reveal the other two Horrible Truths, and see how the other two PCs handle it.

That’s all that comes to mind right now.  It has been a monumental game, with a huge R-map and a very complex 3-part intrigue.  The horrible revelations have been lots of fun to play out: a Stability or Sanity check is always an event; they are the moments about which this game turns.

I would play Trail Of Cthulhu again; maybe with a published module next time.

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Following an epiphany, I’m playing RPGs with the kids again, and enjoying it like never before.

It all started with a podcast.  I have listened to several explanations for the resurgent popularity of “Original D&D” (or “OD&D”) in its various incarnations from the 1974 pamphlet to the ’83 Basic Set (the “Red Box Set” that was this author’s first experience with RPGs and which lends its name to this blog), but have never really seen the point beyond basic nostalgia.  The original systems’ oft credited “simplicity,” in my view, was marred by the clunky inconsistency of rules which seemed to have “grown in the telling” (much like the game’s central source material).  And don’t many, many modern indy games offer a cleaner simplicity?

Then I listened to Canon Puncture’s Game Advocates episode in which Tavis Allison advocates for OD&D (Canon Puncture episode 99).  And finally, my penny dropped.  Tavis explained (and I’m probably going to mangle his reasoning here) that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Original D&D was fundamentally different from the editions that followed in one important respect: in OD&D, the adventure is meant to be improvised.  All later editions, in contrast, encouraged DMs to either use published adventure modules or to plan out the adventure ahead of play.

The charm of OD&D, then, is to embrace the random, sometimes nonsensical results of the random encounter rolls (and the equally-important reaction rolls) as keys for improvising the story in play.

I never liked the random monster encounter tables: at first, because they produced random results with no thematic or narrative connection (and later because random encounters can just slow the game down and frustrate players, but that’s another matter).  But Arneson’s intention was that these random inputs serve as inspiration for generating story on the fly, both the back-story and current events.

Example: The player-characters are travelling through a forest.  Random monster: Unicorn.  Reaction roll: Hostile.  Now, DM and players alike ask themselves: why is there a unicorn here, and why is this intelligent and noble creature feeling hostile towards us?  Maybe… maybe she is searching for her kidnapped offspring, and she suspects the group of being the kidnappers!  Yeah, cool!  Okay so, who did steal her foal, and for what purpose?  Let’s say… there’s an evil baron in a nearby castle, who ordered his huntsmen to bring him a unicorn for some black magic which he intents to perform!  What is the baron’s big plan, and what is this black magic supposed to accomplish for him?  Etc.  There: from two rolls of the dice, the group has brainstormed the framework for an interesting adventure.

What does this have to do with me gaming with my kids?  I always said I want to play RPGs with them more, but always got hung up on the pre-planning: either I didn’t have time, or didn’t think I had any good ideas.  But after having this realization, I just decided to wing it.

“Want to play D&D?”


“Okay, sit down, I’ll get my things!”

We played.  We improvised.  It was awesome.

In fact, it is working out better than any of my pre-planned sessions.  Kids love to have input to the story, and will grab ideas and run with them (in all directions!).  Instead of me worrying about how to steer them towards the next planned scene, I’m saying “Yes! And…”, and running right along with them.  The action is faster-paced, the players are more engaged, and I’m way less stressed.  Three thumbs up!

So, in the end, you don’t need to use the OD&D rules in order to embrace random-table-driven improvisational play.  I’m actually using a 3.5E hack for 6-year-olds that I’ve just developed.  That’ll be the subject of my next post.

Good gaming,



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Maybe this was an obvious one, but… yeah, bad-guys have to be prepared.

When GMing with Sorcerer’s Relationship-Map method, you (the GM) don’t decide who the main villain is; that comes out through play.  You start with lots of NPCs who each have their own motivations and plans, and who will each try to influence, recruit, help or hinder the PCs accordingly.  As the story develops, one (or more) of the NPCs will naturally end up opposing the PCs or trying to harm them.

My problem is: twice now in the current game, an NPC that had the potential to develop into the main villain has ended up dead.  In their very first interaction with the PCs.

I’ve been statting up these NPCs as if they were some-what experienced PCs, which I see now was not the right approach.  These are ambitious and dangerous people who already have a number of enemies.  They should each be walking around with the equivalent of a couple of Glocks, a kevlar vest and six body guards.  With a bullet-proof limo idling out front.

The prepared bad-guy was practically built into the dungeon-crawl model of play.  A whole maze of mooks, lieutenants and guard-dogs stood between the heroes and the villain.  In the new democratic world of R-map play, I will have to be a little smarter.  Or at least, my antagonists will have to be.


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Our first session of play was last night and it was – pretty great!

I was a bit more apprehensive than enthusiastic, because I didn’t feel like I had enough bangs prepared, I hadn’t decided yet why Mike’s character’s son had been kidnapped ten years ago and where he was now (re: Mike’s backstory and kicker), and I hadn’t quite figured out the best way to bring the story from a throne-room intrigue to a world-roaming adventure story.

But despite all that, it was a fun session because I have great players :).  Everyone really got into their roles.  I was especially impressed with how well Pete and Ry embraced the “Melnibonean-ness” of their characters, casually discussing execution and dismemberment of family members while seeking the most appropriate way to respond to infidelity and other betrayals! (not gratuitously, but to highlight the contrast with the characters-of-conscience in the story; this juxtaposition will be an ongoing theme in this particular game).  And Mike more-or-less allowed himself to be captured and labelled a spy, because it would be good for the ensuing story! (more…)

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