A Word for Death

I can’t say I have a lot of experience dealing with death of close people. My grandparents died either before I was born, or just after. The people who came close to matching those were my god-mother and grand-aunt, both of whom I didn’t attend their funerals (so only processed it much later). I had a few friends over the years, but always avoided the funeral ceremonies.

My daughter had a 4-year old goldfish die two weeks ago. While her friends visited, we held a little burial ceremony, and she wept while her friends held her close. It reminded me about having ceremony, even if it’s one you create yourself.

My friend Paul died. We never met in “meat” space, but we gamed a few times online in the Gauntlet, including quite recently where he ran some thoroughly enjoyable games of Inspectres.

One of the scenes that I hold very close to my heart was in a game of Dialect I played in, about a year ago. Paul led that scene, where we were exploring our tribe’s word for “death”, incidentally. Paul’s thoughtfulness about the word, sounds, and etymology was really quite profound, and I remember being sort of entranced by the whole process we were going through.

Because our games are often recorded, I actually used that scene yesterday as a sort of ceremony to myself, re-watching that segment, and taking the ceremony we created in-game, and performing it as I said good-bye to this beautiful man that I knew so little.

Love you, Paul.

Small Game Hunter Ep03: For The Queen

Did I forget to mention that I’m a co-host on a new podcast? Probably. Jim Sandoval and I are co-hosting Small Game Hunter, a new podcast on the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast network. (Thanks Stu and crew!)

For the third episode, we decided to cover For The Queen, the soon-to-be-released story game by Alex Roberts (produced by Evil Hat Productions). I have blathered on about this wonderful game for about a year now, and you can read my earlier thoughts over on the blog here.

At the time of this writing, the Small Game Hunter podcast is not yet available in audio / podcast form factor, although it should be soon, in theory. In the meantime, you can watch it over on The Happy Jacks RPG Twitch channel, or view the sucker on YouTube, where Aabria, Jason, Gina and I ramble about our love for the game:

For The Queen and Moonhaven Witch Academy at Orccon 2019 Games on Demand - Kids Edition

Games on Demand: Kids Edition

One of my favorite parts of the Strategicon weekend (and also one of the most exhausting) is running Games on Demand for KIDS ONLY on Sundays. I’ve been doing it now for almost 2 years, and it’s definitely built up a bit of hype. We had over 17 kids show up.

I had three GMs total: Andy, Rob, and myself. Andy was originally going to run Legend of the Elements (the unofficial Avatar the Last Airbender RPG), but pivoted and ran Rob’s own in-playtest Moonhaven Witch’s Academy. The two ran tables for 5 kids a-piece. I took the remainder, and ran For The Queen.

(I’ll note that in the background, I had a small crew of parents sit down and play For The Queen on a separate table with a spare deck!)

For The Queen with kids

I’ve played and run this game over 50 times, and a very few of those times involved some kids. But I’ve never run it exclusively for kids, and never with some of them this young. Ages ranged from about 8 to 11 years old. We also had a fairly large table with 7 players (not including myself).

The game itself worked well, which is as I expected. The kids needed some help interpreting some of the cards, as the wording can be a little tough for the younger crowd. The biggest issue I had was just a discrepancy in maturity levels and attention spans. A very few of the younger kids needed quite a bit of attention and lacked patience, whereas the older crew mostly consisted of kids who’ve gamed a bit before and knew how to take turns and play off of each other, narratively. This is partly due to not having quite as many GMs as I would like, and definitely not enough GMs to handle the variety of age ranges. All that said, the game worked, and it was certainly fun seeing how all the kids already decided whether the queen was evil or worth saving before we even started the game!

In either case, this game can definitely work for the younger bracket.

My little For The Queenlets.

My little For The Queenlets.

Moonhaven Witch Academy

I talked to a few of the kids after the game, and they all seemed to have quite a good time playing this. The touchstone of Harry Potter resonated with so many of them prior to game tie. Rob ran this for a crew one of the last cons, and here he got to see his game being run by a new GM as well! Andy just asked a bunch of questions and looked at the available playtest material, and went ahead and just ran the thing. Great stuff!

Rob running Moonhaven on a table.

Rob running Moonhaven on a table.

Andy running a second Moonhaven session.

Andy running a second Moonhaven session.

Bonus beats

One of the kids in the For The Queen game is apparently very into D&D, and volunteered to run a game a little later on. Sophia definitely took him up on it, and they tried to schedule a game; the kid even made a sign-up sheet on one of the tables! Unfortunately not enough people showed up, and instead they ended up playing some board game with the parents, but it was a valiant effort, and one which I’d like to encourage the next time around.

Xas Irkalla at Orccon 2019 Saturday 2pm

Xaz Irkalla is a game with evocative art about some dark-ass world, that is apparently based on the Strain survival-horror system (I don’t know what that is). I did back a copy on their Kickstarter way back in the day, but haven’t looked at or played it yet. It came up as an option at Games on Demand, and it was also an opportunity to play with some new friends.

Brendan, Adam, and Heather were out from Arizona, and part of the Full Metal RPG crew. Adam was our GM and had pitched the game. There was also Alejandro, and one other who’s name I didn’t catch.

Starting up

The setup for this game did not have us come in as a band of adventurers prior to this scenario. Instead we all find ourselves torn away from our respective worlds unwillingly, and thrown into a strange crypt-horror world.

We each started with a partially filled pre-generated character sheet, but all it lists are a few traits and skills. Mine said that - other than owning a Rotten Club - I had the Aberrant trait of Wings (I can glide and take no falling damage), and I had the Specialties (aka skills) of Justice, Wasteland, Privileged, Industrious, and Merchant.

That settled it… I was going to play a Star Frontiers Yazirian, torn from her spaceship. Urbane and well spoken, educated, cautious but not intimidated, her cleverness and survival instincts would hopefully see her through.

Ahjo the Yazirian

Ahjo the Yazirian

The scenario we ran through sounded like it may have come either out of the game book itself, or something that Adam had whipped up prior… a horrible underworld of coffins and creatures, mazes and lost beings and the horrors that have put them there to torture them.

We started individually in coffins, and had to struggle out (which provided us with some very basic training in the dice mechanics of the system). Adam was evocatively painting the scenes, and I think the expectation was to dive into the puzzle and dungeon crawl of the place.

But, that’s not my primary motivation, if you’ve played story games with me. I had to put pause on the game, because, I mean, I just remember crashing in my space ship, and like, who the hell are these other creatures? There was strange barbarian viking creature, a little hobbit, a weird stone golem being, and a nautilus-like creature from an underworld landscape. From what I could tell, I was the only space-faring creature among these simple beings!

So yah, I felt like I did hijack the scene maybe a few times, so we could do a little character building and bonds. I mean, it may have happened without me, but sure as hell I wouldn’t let it not happen if I was there.

Game play

As we continued through the adventure, I found the system had some things I thought I might like: an escalating stress-type track, and Specialties that were similar to Fate aspects in that they were very fill-in-the-blank and creatively worded.

As the game continued, however, I found that I didn’t really connect with the mechanics, and most of it didn’t get realized to any great degree in our play. I know Alejandro had a few poor rolls and suddenly found out how difficult life gets when that stress (“Doom”) track gets filled, but as the session wore on, we did work relatively well as a party to get some things done.

Adam had one situation occur where we each had our loved ones (from our other worlds) being held captive in some torturous way. Because we could see each others’ loved ones, I could not let this go by, and we probably spent at least 5-10 minutes talking about what they looked like, and who they were. Every time a strange scene occurred - even if it was a hallucination, such as a room that tried to evoke our feelings of lust or desire - I reached out to all the players to find out what their characters scenes looked like. To me that was the core of my enjoyment in the session, which again speaks more toward my style and interest of play, I suppose.

I would say that I probably wouldn’t run to play this if given other options, but if you are into OSR or trad style play, and like horror and dark settings, you may get some enjoyment out of this.

MR-KR-GR on HJRPG live stream at Orccon 2019 Saturday 9am

A new experiment this con! Happy Jacks RPG normally streams their live show at the convention at Saturday 8pm. This time, they also decided to experiment and stream actual convention games as well, and I was honored to be part of that lineup.

I ran MR-KR-GR on Saturday morning. MR-KR-GR is a crocodile-ruled kingdom, and one of a thousand thousand islands, a South East Asian inspired fantasy setting by Zedeck Siew and Munkao. (You can find Munkao’s Patreon for this project here.) The game I run uses the setting, but with a system I put together with elements borrowed from Fall of Magic, World of Dungeons, and Apocalypse World. (If you want more details on my perspective and history with MR-KR-GR, go see my prior blog posts here and here, or alternatively on the Gauntlet Blog here and here for more design-specific considerations.)

Character generation consists of a name, a title, and a choice of trait. We started with Diya the Princess of Tohey with trait +Clever (played by Joey), Mahi the Witch of Merating with trait +Witch (played by Chris), Loren the Owl of Kandis with trait +Scout (played by Jason), Sutten the Barber of Afar with trait +Sneaky (played by Rob).

We went through initial scenes with our characters, seeing Loren the Owl person wearing a cowl, bristling in the new found heat of this journey, taking the -Distracted trait. Mahi surrounded by death flies, a slow rot, suffering under a curse (-Cursed), withdrawn. Diya the Princess, also afflicted by this same illness, but early in its effects, being told (in a flashback) by the vizier to go find hope and a cure, as her father is succumbing to the same sickness. Diya has traveled for a while, and is showing the wear of the journey (-Destitute). Sutten, dealing with a wasting poisin (-Poisoned), from stealing honey cakes from a prior, sorcerer master. Sunken cheaks, desparate, food tasting like ash, he gets a lesson in the spirit mango scam trade from Jaji the boat owner. (This was around the 20 minute to 47 minute mark.)

Next we play a few scenes near the gates, announcing the border to the Death-Rolled kingdom. (This starts around the 48 minutes mark.) And onward… we started with some scenes promising good, but then ending in misery and disappointment. We saw them all meet at The Giant’s Tears, a prominent tea shopon Trader’s Island. It was a lovely little scene where the group comes together.

And then on to AR-YM-SR the archaeologist, and on to face a Demon Idol, and redemption… living or dead.

It was a fantastic tale, and I truly thank the player’s for bringing such great characters and painful and lovely stories.

You can download or listen to the audio on the Happy Jacks RPG site. The beginning consist of pleasantries, discussion of the X-card and safety mechanics, and very initial character generation, but we really launch into it around the 20 minutes mark.

Part of the crew… Joey, Chris, Ron. Engineer Jason is just to the left out of frame!

Part of the crew… Joey, Chris, Ron. Engineer Jason is just to the left out of frame!

The video for this was made available a little after con, and now you can watch!

A Thousand and One Nights at Orccon 2019 Friday 8pm

For Games on Demand’s Friday at 8pm, there were enough folks pitching games that I didn’t have to run… sweet! And Christian brought 1001 Nights, a game by Meguey Baker where you play members of the Sultan’s Court, whiling away the sultry nights by telling pointed stories to advance your own ambitions. In other words: playing a story bullshit RPG about people telling bullshit stories… fantastic!

1001 Nights

We started by creating some characters. Our court consisted of Sarkoush, the astronomer (played by Christian), Ibrahim the cartographer (played by Cal), Hajar the guild master (played by Ron), Augustine the visiting prince (played by Rob), and Tartush the royal matchmaker (played by me).

Character generation has an interesting twist, where in addition to your name, and role (per above), you also describe your character in relation to the five senses. For example, for me:

  • I look like I was once a beauty.

  • I smell like too much roses.

  • My hands feel like sandpaper.

  • I am the taste of bitterness.

  • The sound of clicking of my pen against my teeth.

Beyond that, you simply need a goal (mine: To Get Married - aka Retire), and then distribute a few boxes in categories around making that goal happen, in various categories: Ready, Willing, and Able. These boxes tell us how much work is required to prepare yourself, others, or other necessities to make that goal occur for your character.

From there, we took turns. When you’re the active player, you set the scene at the palace. We then take turns showing where are various court characters are in that scene, and finally the active player shows us where the Sultan is among us. After that, the active player starts to tell a tale.

The basic premise of telling a tale is, put simply: to throw shade. You are telling a tale that denigrates the other characters. In game, you also sign players the role of portraying various in-story characters in a way that parallels disagreeable traits of those same player’s character in the Sultan’s court. A story within a story, and all very meta.

As you are telling the story, you can have the other players at the table assist in portraying these in-story characters. All the while, you - as the active player - can continue to narrate the story to your own designs. As the other players, who are playing these in-story characters, it’s encouraged to lean into your character’s negative traits within the story being told.

Because this was our first time playing the game, including Christian, it was a little difficult to feel like we were bringing it all together every time. In some cases, each of us told a tale as a narrator, and had the other players role play their in-story characters. In some cases, we sort of just told a fable, without much - or any - input from the other players. It was also a little difficult to come up with a tale on-the-fly while also keeping track of our court characters, and also keeping track of these new in-story characters simultaneously. A lot of data!

We ended up telling about 3 or 4 stories, and wrapped up with some nice little epilogues for our surviving characters. One of my favorite parts was how the last story was being told during the beheading ceremony of our foreign prince, who had insulted the Sultan one too many times.

Mechanics in game

Mechanically, the game is interesting… as the story is being told, you, as the player and court character, think of questions you want answered by the narrator. When you do, you pick up a die. When you find the answer to that question, you roll the die, and depending on if the result is odd or even, you either get to keep it, or you must give it to the narrator. An example might be a story about the Sun looking for someone to share their palace. As a listener, you may ask “Who will the Sun ask?” and grab a die. If the story continues with “The Sun went to the hawk, to see if she was interested”, then your question was answered… roll the die and assign it to yourself or the narrator, depending on the result.

The story comes to a conclusion when the narrator desires. This could be when you’ve reached your maximum number of dice you can gather as the narrator (which I believe was 8), or whenever you have found a nice conclusion, or maybe some other metagame reasons. Regardless, the story either resolves, or perhaps you have some court intrigue or other thing interrupt the story.

When it does end, any players with dice in hand from unanswered questions, get to ask those questions of the narrator (and then roll and assign those dice). If you can no longer remember the question for that die, then you must return it to the center, unrolled.

At this point, everyone may have some set of dice they’ve won during the story (perhaps zero, perhaps more), and they assign them to their goals… however, you must then roll these dice, and only get to check those boxes if you get a successful result (even vs odd). Similarly, you need to decide whether to place any of these dice (assuming you have any!) into a special area called “Safety”, which determines whether or not the you have insulted the Sultan. Too many insults, and off with your head!

All up, I could see how the game progresses, and roughly how it works. It does some interesting mechanical things, and can have some really magical moments. Honestly, I worry about playing with non-story gamers. It feels like the imaginative load is high, and the scene framing and fable telling feels like it takes some finesse to really sing. All that said, I haven’t personally read the rules at all, so will reserve judgement for another play through, which I’d be more than happy to do.

Where can I get 1001 Nights?

You can get 1001 Nights directly from Night Sky Games. (It’s also available on DriveThurRPG.)


Learn and Play: For The Queen at Orccon 2019 Friday 2pm

For The Queen?

I’ve written about my favorite RPG of the year before, Alex Roberts’ lovely For The Queen. You can see my prior super-blog about it under Do You Even For The Queen? You can also listen to me rave about it on The Gauntlet’s Favorite Games of 2018 podcast (I start rambling around the 9:30 mark). I won’t repeat myself on that score… if you haven’t checked those out, feel free to do so now.

Learn and Play?

About a month back, my lovely friend Andi, who runs a bit over at PAX Unplugged, borrowed their Learn and Play format. Apparently these are sessions where they teach you how to play a board game by going over the basic rules, and then have you play the game. She adapted it for story games, using For The Queen as the game in question. Brilliant idea, and one that I stole for Games on Demand at Orccon. I advertised it a few weeks earlier on the blog, and Sean and Evil Hat and others helped promote it out in the Twitter-sphere.

28 Players

Honestly, I was a little concerned about turn out. I spent the morning setting up the Games on Demand venue, and fortunately had some great assistance from close friends. Had never set up the pipe-and-drape before, which we used to partition off some of the venue. Additionally, set up a fun dice-trade area for people to drop off their old crappy dice, in exchange for someone else’s old crappy dice. My partner J made a dope design for the “Give a die, Take a die” table!

2pm rolled around, and holy crap… we had the venue packed. 5 tables running full of excited players. Some had played before, and in fact I recruited many of those to serve as facilitators. Thanks Gene, Candace, Unique, Kurt, and Andy!

I decided not to play, and just to wander around, checking it out, taking some pictures, and just basking in the glow. Some tables played quicker, one hour games. Others took much longer. Two of the tables finished their shorter game, and decided to dive right in and play again! I joined one of these tables, and we played a space-themed game, which felt quite satisfying.

I love seeing the different ways people decide to play, and one table (run by Candace) did something I hadn’t seen before. Instead of choosing a specific Queen image card, they laid out all the images in the center of the table. As the game progressed, they slowly removed images… “that’s not our queen”… until finally at the end they had a single queen card left. At a certain point, Morgan drew the "This queen is not your queen. Why do you serve her?” card, and he apparently grabbed one of the other, discarded queen images and placed that in front of him to show his queen. All this was a cool little twist on the game I hadn’t seen before.


All-in-all, we had a bunch of folks exposed to the games, and it was a beautiful success. I’m definitely going to try to have more of these “event” style games in future Strategicon Games on Demand sessions. Next up might be Space Station Fobolex, the full-room Star Crossed space station adventure that Alex Roberts’ and others pulled off at Big Bad Con 2018 (and which they recently released to Star Crossed Kickstarter backers).

A panoramic of the For The Queen tables

A panoramic of the For The Queen tables

Give a die, Take a die. It’s a concept I stole from Big Bad Con 2018. My partner J made the wonderful card design!

Give a die, Take a die. It’s a concept I stole from Big Bad Con 2018. My partner J made the wonderful card design!

Thematically sporting my Star Crossed merch

Thematically sporting my Star Crossed merch

Forest Mother at Orccon 2019 Thursday

Los Angeles has Strategicon 3 times a year, and that’s amazing. The 6 months between Gateway (early September) and Orccon (mid-February) is the big gap… and we just crossed it. Officially the con starts Friday at noon, but my out-of-towner Andy and I headed there a day early. We met up with Morgan for a lovely lunch at Metro Cafe, one of my pre-con traditions. We followed that up with a bit of outdoor adventure and romantic walking at the overcast and chilly beach, with delicious matcha and Spanish lattes in hand. After than the very small critical mass of friendly peoples were arriving at the LAX Hilton, so we went to join it.

Our friend CaDave let Andy and I crash his room, and soon after we met up with Kurt, Katie, and Kurt Jr. It wasn’t long before we moved on from the talking, and moved on to the gaming.

Playing Forest Mother

We pitched a few things, and Kurt pitched both Guns N’ Sharks and Forest Mother, and we settled on the latter. It is Kurt’s story game-in-development, a weird-o story game, and I’m 100% here for it.

The game is about forest spirits trying to reclaim their forest from invaders. The story is GM-less, and beautifully collaborative. To start, everyone creates their place in the forest, as well as a forest mother, and a initial minion. These are all places on index cards, and are very loose, story game-style characters and locations. Everyone then creates an invader of the forest. In a normal game there’d also be a pinnacle invader that must be dealt with after all the initial invaders, but we didn’t play with that.

As an example, my location was “The Pine Spires: A forest heavily populated by fungoids, friends to all the dead flesh”. My forest mother was “Atura: The veins in the earth”, a mushroom creature that links thousands of trees as one large organism. My minion was Blorp Thorman, a fungus blob creature that rides in a huge flesh golem composed of hundreds of dead bodies (similar to piloting a mech). For my contribution to the invaders of the forest, I chose “Human Farmers: persistent, and using ingenuity.”

The invaders are shuffled and placed, face down, in random places in the forest. They get revealed later when minions go exploring, and seek to cleanse the land. Also, the longer you avoid dealing with the issue, the stronger those invaders get.

Apparently the mechanics used to involve dice, but Kurt has tweaked the game to use playing cards, which was simpler and effective, and felt like the right touch.

The game itself was lovely, and strange. There is quite a bit of flexibility as far as tone, based around what the players bring in. We had a range of evocative darkness, weirdness, and silliness, in roughly equal parts. And it all worked together to tell a story that it felt like we were all happy with.

Where can I get this thing?

Eventually, I’m assuming you can get it on Kurt Potts’ itch.io site. Check back there for updates.

The game was originally written as a 200 Word RPG: Forest Mother: Motherhood in a dangerous wood. However, Kurt has updated this as Forest Mother Redux, which looks roughly like the version we played, except that version still uses the dice rules. So… stay tuned!

Forest Mother in action

Forest Mother in action

Andy looking very noir at Venice Beach.

Andy looking very noir at Venice Beach.

Icarus on ShadowCon

Once again Gina invited me on to Shadowcon (part of the Happy Jacks RPG network), this time with friend Spenser running his game Icarus. In addition to Gina and myself we also had Gina’s amazing partner JiB joining us.

The game involved our characters Abacus (the priest of reason who protects the infinite truth), Channa Patel (the biotech engineer), Titas Stackpool (transcendence from flesh and decadence), and Hive 49B, also known as Doctor Jan (a series of scientists in an pseudo-AI hivemind).

Icarus was a space station in relatively static orbit around our Earth, pulling energy from a magnetic solar vortex, building a great monument to our transcendence of humans and machine… which also had the purpose of harnessing the vortex energy in more magnificent ways.

In addition to factions such as humanists and darwinists, we had an opposing station of the Daedalus, and some Europans (from Jupiter) intercede, as well as some strange god-like creatures, and destructive solar flares.

The game itself was great, but even above the play and narrative, it was the first time I’d played Icarus noticing the interesting cadence that the game had. Cycles of build-up and then tear-down destruction (and eminent collapse of the dice tower). It was, so far, my favorite session of this game, and made me excited for more.

The Kickstarter was still going at the time of the recording, but has successfully funded by the time I’ve written this post (and thankfully so… it’s definitely a game that needs to be in wider circulation).

Interested in the AP? You can find it on YouTube below (or in the Happy Jacks RPG podcast streams):

Trophy: Tomb of 10,000 Dreams at Story Games Glendale

Trophy is a game by Jesse Ross that appears in the Gauntlet Codex - Dark 2 zine. It’s a collaborative storytelling game about a group of treasure-hunters on a doomed expedition into a forest that doesn’t want them there. It requires one game master (GM) and one or more players to portray the treasure-hunters. The premise is that we’ll explore the the physical and mental descent of the treasure hunters as they move deeper and deeper into the dangerous forest, and their goal: the treasure they seek. It seeks a tragic ending, possibly in death, or very likely worse.


I’ve been excited by the hype around this game in the Gauntlet RPG community, where there’s been a bit of buzz. It’s been prominent on the Gauntlet Hangouts online calendar, first in sessions by Jesse himself, but currently being run by more and more people, as there has been a renaissance of those folks who want to run games from Codex... and this one seems both evocative and easy to pickup.

I’ve given myself a goal of reading new games and trying them out, which is helped by the availability of our Story Games Glendale meetup, as well as a renewed interest in story gaming from my partner J, and some of our friends who are both experienced and new to story games. This was one of my first forays into that this year.

OK, so what is this “Trophy”?

The game itself is only a few pages, and easy to read. If you’ve played Cthulhu Dark, you already know half of the simple mechanics, as Trophy borrows the basic “one stat” (in this case called Ruin), and six-sided die (d6) mechanic. Jesse threw in a few more mechanics, which really take the tension and push-your-luck mechanics up a few notches. You can roll a die if you have an appropriate skill. You can roll an EXTRA die to take a Devil’s Bargain, which is a variety of bad stuff in the vein of PbtA mixed success and hard move results. And then, the pièce de résistance, you can add a Ruin die to “risk mind and body”. Don’t get the result you want? Easy, just add another Ruin die to re-roll! Again? Add another die! Keep adding Ruin dice, until of course one of your Ruin die rolls highest, in which case bad things start to add up.

Your Ruin stat is the slowly creeping mechanical horror in this game. Starting at 1, if it ever gets to 6 you will lose yourself to the forest. (This could be character death, or being turned to an NPC for the GM to play with, or could be left to your player to cause trouble for the rest of the party, as you see fit).

But one of the truly fantastic pieces is that you can choose to have Rituals (essentially: spells) during character generation, for the cheap cost of +1 Ruin per Ritual. Want to have with 3 fantastic powers? Easy, just start with a Ruin of 4!

Another fantastic element is that when you get to a Ruin of 5, and you are on the cusp of losing it to the Forest, you can take some steps to reducing that number. Simply destroy some treasure, or sabotage the rituals or escape of your fellow treasure hunters, and you have a Reduction Roll which can reduce your own Ruin (at the risk of that others hold dear). Lovely player versus player action can ensue, encouraged by these mechanics…

Only thing I’d like is a cheat sheet (cue: me), and so I did scratch something together so I didn’t have to flip around the pages of the book, but I have yet to put it in computerized form. That said, run it 2 or 3 times and you’ll have it memorized.

Trophy session at SGG

After we split up into various groups, I had three players: Unique, Matt and Asher. We had characters that included a witch, a noble hunter, and a rogue of sorts.

Codex - Dark 2 includes the base game, but also includes an Incursion (i.e. a scenario) called Tomb of 10,000 Dreams. Incursions consist of “rings” (numbered 1 through 5) which are scenes that take the characters deeper in the forest. (This also evokes the rings of a tree, not coincidentally.)

I have to be honest I was a little nervous going in a for a few reasons. 1. I didn’t really have all the rules down, despite their relative simplicity. I took some notes prior to the game so I’d have them all on one piece of paper (a cheat sheet for this game would be great and simple!), but there was a lot of page virtual page flipping, which was a little annoying (I don’t like to slow down the game with that when I can help it). 2. One of the players, Matt, I’ve played with a few times, and he’s a solid role player, very entertaining, and plays flagrantly interesting characters. However, I wasn’t sure how that’d fit with the tone I was expecting. I have played in other pseudo-horror games with him before, although Bedlam Hall definitely aims for gonzo horror. That said, he knew what he was going into as far as the story type and tone, and mentioned he actively wanted to explore that character and their fall, and he did play into that really well. It is a thing to watch for though… this game sings when the players understand the tone well and are bought into it.

I didn’t do Ring 1 as written, but instead had a scene which was the characters boat sinking and leaving them on the shore of this large island which contained the forest they were travelling to. This included one sad crew member, who mostly was bossed around, and became fodder later for chasing pirate treasure hunters. The mechanics immediately started doing their work, and before long our crew was delving into the deep, dark path.

As the journey continued I quickly started playing with time and perceptions. We saw that the party was being chased by a pirate boat, but almost immediately we find those same pirates, all of which oddly mirror some aspect of our intrepid adventurers, meeting them on the road. However the pirates appeared to have already achieved the goal and are carrying their hoard of trinkets back towards the boat. Gaslighting becomes thicker as you go, as a big part of the game is adding those elements of horror, uncertainty, and questioning one’s reality.

We had a brutal fight, and then did some flash cuts to a few other horrors, and finally to a large tower in a clearing (as foreshadowed by a map they had that only one character could effectively read). Our witch saw a vision of a key, and this is when the party decided to go in 3 different directions into the tower, ditching each other. This set for some good, subtle (and not so subtle) player versus player scenes. We were running a little short on time, so we didn’t get to fully explore falling to a Ruin of 6 for most characters, but did get to see some backstabbing, and all the characters fall into their various tragic and desperate states with some great epilogues.

Where do I get Trophy?

Interested in picking up Trophy? The original game is found in the Gauntlet Codex - Dark 2 zine, which you can get on DriveThruRPG. Here's a Tweet with a lot of great information about the game from @GauntletRPG on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GauntletRPG/status/1069641802855124993.

You can also keep up to date with other locations, changes, and download character sheets from http://trophyrpg.com/.

Strategicon Orccon 2019 Learn and Play: Intro to Indie RPGs (For The Queen)

Learn and Play: Intro to Indie RPGs with For The Queen

at Strategicon Orccon 2019

Interested in trying a tabletop role-playing game? Or have you played many role-playing games such as Dungeon & Dragons, and are you curious about how collaborative story games work? Come play For the Queen, at the LAX Hilton during Strategicon Orccon 2019. The game is mechanically very light, and new-player friendly, and has been played by hundreds of people, with great acclaim.


Details of the When and What

At Strategicon Orccon (at the LAX Hilton, in Southern California) on Friday, February 15 at 2pm, we will be running a large room session at RPG Games on Demand, where you can learn how to play this wonderful game in about 15 minutes. We will then break up into separate tables of 3-6 players each to play. The game generally lasts between 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the table and players.

The session will include experienced gamers that will help facilitate play, including Gene Astadan, Candace Dovie, Tomer Gurantz, Kurt Potts, and Gina Ricker, among others.

For the Queen is a card-based storytelling game where you play as the members of a Queen’s retinue. The game features prompt cards that help guide the story as you escort her through the peril of interpersonal conflict and a war-torn land. The game was designed by Alex Roberts (the same brilliant mind that brought you Star Crossed, a two player game of forbidden love, inspired by the Dread RPG).

No experience is necessary to play For The Queen. You will be provided support as needed.

There is no pre-registration required for this session, however those who’ve signed up ahead of time will receive priority if space is limited. We should be able to easily accommodate up to 36 players.

Interested players should gather up at the RPG Games on Demand area, located at the bottom of the escalators that lead from the Lobby to the Lower Lobby, on the way to Open Gaming.

This session is modeled after a very successful and similar session of Learn and Play at PAX Unplugged 2019.

To pre-register, find the event on the Strategicon Events page, listed as Learn and Play: Intro to Indie RPGs (For The Queen).

What if I miss the Friday 2pm session

Do not fear, as the For The Queen cards may be available to play with during the weekend at RPG Games on Demand. Come talk to us if you are interested in playing.

Small Game Hunter Ep02: Companions' Tale

The second episode of Small Game Hunter consisted of Jim, Kimi, and I talking about Companions’ Tale, a game written by Laura Simpson from Sweet Potato Press.

Companions’ Tale is a map-making storytelling game where you tell the tale of an epic hero, righting wrongs and saving kingdoms. The hero acts, and leaves others to tell the tale. You are those others: the hero's closest companions. Whose version of the heroic tale will become canon, and whose will be a footnote to history?

It is inspired by games such as The Quiet Year, but has elements that make it quite distinct. As a Kickstarter backer, I recently received the shipped copy, and got to playtest it at the Story Games Glendale meetup, and then shortly after with Jim, Kimi, and Gina.

It appears that the game had quite an impact on Kimi, in that it has since inspired her to go down the path of writing her own little story game. That alone was worth the price of admission!

Until it is available in podcast form, you can watch the recording of this episode on YouTube, here:

Small Game Hunter Ep01: Ten Candles

It took a few weeks, from concept to execution. I think this says something about how mature the Happy Jacks RPG (HJRPG) Podcast network is. (This may also be referred to Stu’s Angry Folk Media Empire?)

I’ve been a constant listener to HJRPG for 8 or so years, and during that time, I’ve also been a heavy participant in their forums, live show chat rooms, and the fan-sponsored Jackercon online convention. HJRPG turned me on to Savage Worlds, and our local Los Angeles Strategicon game conventions (where I now run the RPG Games on Demand department!)

It was Jim Sandoval, the Strategicon RPG generalissimo, who contacted me about starting a podcast under their banner. Something to showcase smaller indie RPGs to the trad-based fans, exposing them to new games, different play styles, and lessons and tools they could incorporate into other games. He called it: Small Game Hunter!

Kimi’s husband Sam’s beautiful work!

Kimi’s husband Sam’s beautiful work!

The idea behind the game would be for us to sit down and play small press indie RPGs, off-stream and off-camera, and then have a round table discussion about the game.

Within those few weeks, we got a crew of HJRPG players together for a game of Ten Candles (Stephen Dewey’s lovely tragic horror game), and we sat down and recorded an episode. Don’t worry, we learned a few lessons… like maybe I can be a little less enthusiastic and share the microphone more with my co-hosts, for instance! (This does improve in the next episodes.)

It should be available at some point in podcast-land, but until then, if you are interested, here is our first episode, covering Ten Candles, with hosts Jim, Lori, Aabria, Mac, and myself. (Got thoughts? Let me know here or over in the YouTube comments!)

Girl Underground, Chapter 1: Wherein a girl falls into a carrot hole

Girl Underground is a game in development by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross. It’s a game about a girl who goes to a strange world, meets some fantastic companions, and learns about herself and her place in the world. Media touchstones include Alice and Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

Jesse and Lauren have been playtesting the game with various folks, mostly in and around The Gauntlet community. I mentioned the game to my partner J, and she had only recently started getting into a subset of RPGs, and was excited by the premise. A few conversations later, and we’d organized a game with Lauren and Sabine, and we were all ready to enter wonderland…


Chapter 1: Wherein a girl falls into a carrot hole.

Our first session was abbreviated due to scheduling issues, which meant we had less than 2 hours. We did the world-building that the game desires, and that started with Lauren taking us through the add/ban list procedure that those familiar with Microscope may be used to. (See this Gauntlet blog article for an idea of how that works.)

Our Add list consisted of clouds, air and wind, bicycles, flowers, colours, shared songs, impossible environments, worms (creature giving life to things we don't want to waste), chinese-style dragons (without wings), and writing in a strange language that for some reason we understand. Our Ban list consisted of talking food (or things we eat), talking/walking cards or playing card suits of things, and importantly: people: This world would be filled with other creatures. The list not only helped us generate a collaborative, rough sketch of our story world, but was also great to refer to later when we needed an idea of what to do next, in a way similar to the list of principles in some RPGs (such as Apocalypse World).

The first character that we build is not our individual characters, but that of the girl, who is the main protagonist of the story, and which will be shared by the players. Creating the character consisted of us taking turns answering questions about her, what she’s missing from her home life, the sound of her voice, and so on. Because she is a curious girl, her name becomes Kat. (All the names match in this whimsical way; if her home life is rushed and missing “time”, the girls name becomes Patience.)

Our story had Kat, a young girl in a working town, with parents and large extended family all busy making ends meet, while she attends school and dreams of exploration and learning about the wider world.

After creating the girl, we also created our characters using the playbooks provided: The Runaway, The Beastie, The Construct. We had the noble Owl, caged, and looking for a new life (played by J). We had the metal Tick-Tock, constantly ticking, stuck in a place, but looking for a new family (played by Sabine). And finally Dagger, a strange insect creature from another world, not exactly lost - just misplaced, and looking for a place to call home (played by me).

We were running very short on game time, but were able to fit a whirlwind of scenes that showed our girl on what looked like a normal day, heading to school. We played with echoes, showing hints at our characters that she had yet to meet: an owl on a book, a clock on a wall, a little insect in a garden.

We also had time to to introduction this strange world and our characters. The girl heads home, and is asked by her mom to grab some carrots from the garden. She goes out and does so, only to find that strange orange and green worms are attached to the carrots, and then a hole in the ground that grows bigger and bigger, and swallows her up.

She falls on someone… a strange insect creature which makes chittering sounds that she can soon understand. This is Dagger - a creature perhaps named after its sharp stinger which it uses to point at any threats, often. But it’s relatively friendly, and after hearing the girl remark at wonder, excitedly takes her to see a really dangerous trapped creature that is nearby.

That creature turns out to be Owl, in a strange natural cage of branches, which Kat quickly frees by using Dagger’s dagger (in protest from the insect creature). Owl is thankful, and quickly guides them through the sky. They follow using one of the many strange floating bicycles, and glide through a window in strange upside down houses.

That’s where they find the sullen Tick-Tock, who had been locked away in a barrel by a “giant”, or what the construct assumed was a giant.

At this point we ran out of time and had to wait until the following week.

Thoughts on the first session.

I loved this first session, and was happy about what we were able to squeeze in in under 2 hours. The game is built around a collaborative setup that I also thoroughly enjoyed. The Add/Ban list isn’t part of the game itself as written, but I could see myself definitely using this protocol for this game in the future.

Many aspects of the protagonist are created through a distribution of questions among the players, which reminded me a little of the generation of the bride and Bluebeard, in the Bluebeard’s Bride RPG. One manner in which this game is different is that the answers are chosen from a limited list (a drop-down list when playing online with the Google sheets), and this ensures that the answers are focused in a way that adheres to the story’s tone. That said, the choices are variable enough to also provide a pretty wide flexibility in the types of stories told. You can also see how additional answers could be plugged in with a savvy group.

The creation of individual companion characters is also similarly simple and based around answering a short list of questions with limited, but thematic selections. This made the structure of your character extremely easy and quick to get into.

The companion playbooks are built to perfectly accommodate various levels of players. There are no “basic moves” that you’ll find in many PbtA games. Instead, each playbook has its own moves specific to that character - about 5 or so - and that’s it. This makes for a very curated set of actions that . However, unlike many PbtA games where you must look at the moves to help you determine how this archetype should be played, on these sheets they’ve provided a simple sentence that gives you some player principles to play by. For example, my playbook stated: “When playing the Runaway you should let danger excite you, provides expertise in a crisis, and fear what you run from.” Just by playing to what’s outlined in that sentence works perfectly in hitting most of the moves that are written for that playbook. As a facilitator this is great, because players who are newer to RPGs or unfamiliar with PbtA games can simple play to those player principles.

Because the first session was very abbreviated, we did have to rush many of the scenes. This isn’t really something I had a problem with, and actually had the advantage of getting us quickly into the premise and narrative, but it did give me a desire for some slower paced scenes, and especially ones where we could see some character interactions and development. That would happen in our next session.

For The Revolutionary Queen (2 player variant)

Another Story Games Glendale meetup, and there a few hours early. Asher got there early as well, and after some initial chatting, I mentioned how I’d talked to friend Noella the prior night about trying to test For The Queen with two players. Asher was in for a test session. Additionally, they brought a massive Magic the Gathering art book, and so we used that to flavor our session by choosing an iconic image from that to inspire our queen!

Image from Magic the Gathering (TM)

Image from Magic the Gathering (TM)

The story

Given that most of the time you don’t end up with actual character names in this game, I’ll refer to Asher as “the artificer”, and my character as “the streetwise”.

We played in an entirely urban setting, also inspired in some way by the Magic art from the book, which had a very science fantasy vibe you find in settings such as Eberron. Recent touchstones are the canon from Blades in the Dark, and we wanted our urban setting to feel similar to that: a sprawling city that goes on as far as the eye could see, and maybe a fear of the dangerous unknown that’s beyond the city walls.

As we navigated the game, we found that my character was the daughter of one of this queen’s hardcore followers. That she started an uprising against the government, but it’s slowly been put down piece by piece. That now it’s just the smallest core of us still alive, making a run for a contact at the far reaches of the city, maybe one that is rumored to give us a way our, or an alliance with someone who can change the tide of the revolution. The artificer had skills important to our movements, but the streetwise had been mostly raised an orphan, and knew how to navigate the urban environment.

In the end we made it to our contact, only to be betrayed, and the queen shot down. But the two of us escaped, last minute, in a balloon device of the artificer’s making, floating up above the city walls, to who knows where.

Thoughts on For The Queen with 2 players

Although the game is advertised as 3-6 player, it worked very well for two, which wasn’t surprising to me. I’ve played For The Queen with much more than 6 and its still worked very well. However, there were a couple of small things I noticed in the 2 player version.

More questions than usual would come up that didn’t match or work for the story we were telling, and we X-ed six questions during the game based on this. Again, normalizing the use of the X-card here is key, especially around tone and such, and so it really wasn’t an issue at all. Also, because it’s a two player game and we have probably about 25 cards to go through in a half-deck game, it didn’t feel like this affected the game in any negative way.

One interesting side-effect of two players is that, as the non-active player, you can ask whatever clarifying or side questions you want, and you actually don’t have to wait for anyone else. As soon as you’re done with questioning or interrogating the other player, you just pick up the next prompt card! It has an interesting effect on the pace, which just felt a bit faster and more… fluid?

I would say that because there are only two players, it’s probably as important, maybe more so, to get the players on the same page. I mean, this is important regardless in this game, but with a larger table there is maybe more of an expected amount of disconnect - even if it’s minor - between players. But with a good two player game, which is more intimate, I think it’s critical to get both people on the same page for tone and goal. This was done with our game by choosing a queen together, as well as some tone discussion of what sort of exploration we wanted to do (in this case a discussion of the urban setting, and level of sci-fi / magic and other game elements).

I have to admit that the flexibility of having another 2-player game, combined with the smooth and fast pace feel of this game, makes me want to play it again.

The end result of our table.

The end result of our table.

The rest of the meetup

There were other games as well, of course. I ended up pitching and running For The Queen for a table that included regular Todd, who hadn’t played yet and had wanted to try it, and three new friends who were very new to RPGs. The setup was somewhat standard as far as tone and fantasy tropes, but again there was good drama, and always new things.

On a second table, Spenser pitched and ran his game which is a mashup of Dungeon World and Masks, which has a ‘young adventurers’ vibe. Sounds like the play itself was successful, and importantly, the feedback session after the fact looked useful to Spenser, and to the players for getting to debrief and express desires. Another successful playtest at SGG!

For The Queen table

For The Queen table

Spencer running Dungeon Masks, or whatever its working title is…

Spencer running Dungeon Masks, or whatever its working title is…

For The Queen on Shadowcon

For The Queen on Shadowcon

Gina has been running Shadowcon - a part of the Happy Jacks RPG network that specialized in lesser known and sometimes older or independent RPGs - for many months now. I was invited to come on the show and run For The Queen, a game which I have blogged about previously.

It was the five of us: Gina, JiB, Morgan, Gene, and myself. Although I took on the role of “facilitator”, anyone who’s played the game knows it needs little to facilitate. Sure, I’d chime in here and there about my “pro-tips” or what has worked well for me in prior games, but you wouldn’t need that to play or have a great time with it.

I won’t go into the game again and what I find so great about it, as I’ve done so before, but I will say that this particular actual play (AP) was a pretty solid one. All the characters ended up feeling very balanced, and vital to the narrative. The queen was somewhat fleshed out, but unlike some games where she becomes a focal point, I felt like the inter-party relationships were somewhat more interesting to see develop. This was also the second time I’ve used these draft final version of the cards. We placed the end-card about 2/3 of the way in the deck, and the game ran about 2.5 hours.

To watch the AP itself, just check it out here:

Additional thoughts on facilitating the game and the influence it has

I’m curious how much of the game play-style is due to my influence as a moderator. In early games, some close friends gave feedback that they wanted more about the inter-personal relationships of the player characters, and I even made a special deck to explore that, however as time has gone on I’ve come to the realization that by posing more questions to the active player that have to do with inter-party relationships (vs those of the queen), you are able to actively change the focus of the game to be much more about the PCs. I’ve had a few people say that the way I was showing off the game impacted their play, as they felt like it gave them permission to do things more explicitly (whether that was role playing, or scene framing, or the types of questions asked).

Similarly Morgan had played twice before, and Gene had played many times (including facilitating it himself at Big Bad Con lobby-style), and its becoming increasingly interesting to see how the game is influenced by players who have played it before and know what it roughly does, and how they want to influence that.

I’m certainly not alone in watching this shift in how the game is played, as I’ve discussed some of this with some of the other folks who’ve had the opportunity to play this game, either a few times, or a lot. But really it’s just an interesting realization that the game just has so much opportunity to morph, despite its very simple and elegant premise.


If you are interested in just the debrief of the above Shadowcon game, we do that at 2:26:00 mark, and carry on for about 25-30 minutes about it. There’s some interesting conversations there about what the game does, various peoples experiences with it, how the safety tools are integrated into the game, and more.

You can see that here: https://youtu.be/1jH5N8dX0PE?t=8731. Note that this is the same video as above, but this link takes you to the debrief starting point.

For more info on the game

Check out the For The Queen page on the Evil Hat Productions website. As of this writing, they recently sent out a tweet that the game is being sent to production, so it looks like it’s on schedule to be released by mid-2019!

Swords Without Master at SGG

Another Story Games Glendale Indie RPG Night. Decent showing of about a dozen, and we split into a few tables, which included Steven running an adventure he wrote for Trail of Cthulhu and Spencer running his game Icarus.

Gene, Rob and I broke off to run a two-shot. I wanted to try running Swords Without Master (and thanks Gene for pushing me), and Rob would run his tarot-based game, in alpha playtesting.

Swords Without Master is… tricky

I got to play Swords back in September when Pat ran it on The Gauntlet calendar, and since then I had taken a stab at making a Swords Without Master cheatsheet, which has mostly been untested (except for you, thanks Vee!) So, with that tool in hand, I tried running a session.

(Note: Swords Without Master was released in, and can be purchased through, Epidiah Ravachol’s zine Worlds Without Master, issue #3.)

A sampling of the cheat sheet… the first page is the basics of how the game runs.

A sampling of the cheat sheet… the first page is the basics of how the game runs.

A sampling of side two of the cheat sheet… a summary of the three phases and how they play out.

A sampling of side two of the cheat sheet… a summary of the three phases and how they play out.

We didn’t really run a full session, but went through character creation, and then played out a Perilous Phase for almost an hour.

There was Vex (played by Gene) with long lost sister Kend, carrying a lantern called Neverender, which contained the “demon” Xonn, and was embedded with “Forge”, some sort of spell. Glum mode? Possessed. Jovial mode? Drunk. Trick? Omen.

We also had Byrus (played by Rob), with vampiric sword Mosrael, and lost love Menora. Glum mode? Gather Shadows. Jovial mode? Ravenous. Trick? Unparalleled (which makes for another mode: Brooding).

I loved how weirdly evocative both characters were, and kudos to Gene and Rob for always bringing the awesome.

We started with some scene framing, and had a depressing landscape of muddy roads and small villages with an Eastern Europe vibe. I provided a small hut that stood out as the stand-in for this tiny village’s tavern or inn. And within: a strange witch brewing stuff in a cauldron.

The exchange quickly became odd, and heated, and involved the revelation of tiny figurines and echos of “lost little children” (which became a game Motif). The scene turned into an arcane fight that corrupted Vex’s flame color through interaction with the witch’s flame, and in the end, involved the sword Mosrael feeding on the witch, with a leftover Mystery of “what connects the lamps”. There was also a learned Moral by Byrus: Never underestimate the strange.

Impressions of running SWM

Damn, it’s a weird game. Swords Without Master definitely feels different to run than many other games I’ve played recently. It feels like there will be a strong GM role from my reading and impressions, however the term “overplayer” for GM is maybe a very large hint that authority is not traditional here. Now, I had some of those impressions from my prior play of it, but this was the first time running, and it was pretty strong how hard this shift hits you in the face.

In practice it’s a lot more like Ten Candles, where the players will often have full narrative authority. However that narrative authority leaves a lot open as far as success versus failure (as opposed to Ten Candles where player narrative authority is somewhat synonymous with “success” - in most cases), and how the baton of narration is passed to other players (including the overplayer). The game is somewhat evenly distributed as far as story control, but in a way that’s a little difficult to exactly put your finger on. I think it has to do with the holding and passing of dice at just that moment where you want authority to change, and the way in which holding on to the dice long enough is a sort of game like chicken, where pushing the overplayer to attack too long can have some brutal consequences.

Overall I’m a big fan of how it feels and the story that develops, but it did make me feel like a novice overplayer, with a lot to learn. I’m glad I got to experience the session with two avid story gamers, at least one of which has had some minor experience with the game, but it just feels like so much more play is needed to really grok it, and be able to run the game without my massive cheat sheet.

All said, we only got to experience some of the game, as we just played out that one phase, and decided to end the adventure there, and took a turn to play Rob Hebert’s tarot-based story game he’s been working on as part of NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month). More on that another day, I hope, as the game was pretty rad.

Strange Birds of the Vasyugan Swamp

I’m lucky to have some very motivated and lovely friends in The Gauntlet who want to play all sorts of strange games. Noella was motivated to play Strange Birds, and fortunately they reached out to me and the timing just worked!

What is Strange Birds?

Strange Birds (currently in beta form) is a short story game written by Gauntleteers Lauren McManamon and Kyle Thompson. It’s a duet game about weird birds honoured through the lens of a nature documentary. I had heard Lauren talk about it in relation to some of the endearing extinct and near-extinct birds - such as the Kakapo - a species of large, flightless, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrot, from New Zealand.



Noella definitely gave the game some thought, and I just want to give a shout out to the organized nature of the session. As someone who is normally a facilitator, and I daresay I’m a good one, I am often times not the most organized. I was thoroughly impressed and felt supported as a player in this session. They’d thought of everything in regards to order of play and had done the research on the game play (and meta-game play) so I just didn’t have to! It was lovely.

We had met online the day prior to do character generation, which first involved a few steps that included an exploration and decision on biomes, doing some online image searches and making collages, and writing down some setting traits; we settled on the Vasyugan Swamp which is mostly in Siberia, after seeing some stunning scenes.

Our biome and setting images

Our biome and setting images

After that was creation of two strange birds. We were chatting as we looked at some swamp birds, and although ours may not have come directly from that same swamp, we borrowed some birds, tweaked some traits and weaknesses and eccentricities, and settled on the Black Grouse and Spoonbill. The character keeper made it easy to dump the images and keep track of all the various details.

Our strange birds: The Black Grouse and Spoonbill (used with story game bullshit liberties)

Our strange birds: The Black Grouse and Spoonbill (used with story game bullshit liberties)

That’s where we ended, spending about 30 minutes just doing some setting and bird creation in preparation for game play the next day.

Game play

We first had a conversation about safety, and Lines and Veils, and although we didn’t have any explicit lines, we decided that due to the brutal nature of the animal kingdom, we’d use veils for: sexual violence, violence against children, and explicit visera and gore. We wouldn’t explore any of these gratuitously, and if they came up, it would be in the background.

In the Introduction Scene, we settled on the narrator being Noella and the cinematographer being me. Noella started with “We bring ourselves now to the frigid waters of the Vasyugan swamp, located in the southwestern part of Siberia, Russian. The swamp is located in the Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Tomsk regions of Russia along the west bank of the Ob River.” From there we went back and forth, me describing various scenes, including those with hints of our strange birds, and Noella giving more National Geographic inspired verbiage.

We continued through rounds of play, where in each round we took turns playing out scenes. During the scene an individual player was responsible for, they’d do the setting of the scene. The instructions allow you to choose that round to be solo scenes (where each bird is scene separately) or duet scenes (where we see the birds interacting in some way). There is also this guidance:

  • Solo scene (active player plays the bird, the other player plays the environment)

  • Duet scene (active player plays their bird, the second player plays the second bird)

Although we started by trying to follow these instructions, we ended up just going back and forth, each playing aspects of the bird and environment as felt appropriate, and really just taking turns with story beats.

One of the clever things about these scenes is that you choose a trait (or weakness or eccentricity) to highlight during each scene, so it really helps guide what you see in the story. Additionally there are a number of great nature-show type scene prompts to help spur ideas.

How our story played out

If you are interested in the minutia of the game, here is a bit of a summary. You actually are made to write up little summaries as you play, which personally I love, as it makes it easy to review and relive later! (If you are more interested in the actual play video, just scroll down below.) This is what we wrote:

Round 1: Starts with foggy (mysterious) weather; solo scenes. Scene 1 (Tomes): The Spoonbills are feeding, when a Golden Eagle watches and takes flight to attack a smaller male. The female uses her intimidation defense mechanism and scares it off, but it circles and takes a Black Grouse instead. Scene 2 (Noella): The black grouse flies up to a branch in a tree. Two female grouses fly up to a branch above him, but he is afraid of heights and is nervous. He works up the courage to go up there, but does not stick the landing and gets his feathers in a bunch trying to land. The two females are not impressed and end up leaving for a different tree.

Round 2: The weather turns clear and slightly warm; focus on birds interacting; duet scenes. Scene 1 (Noella): The grouse is grooming himself by the water, when he sees the spoonbill. He puffs himself up to look good, and they seem to be chummy with each other. He slips and falls into the water. The spoonbill swims away, not looking very impressed. Scene 2 (Tomes): A spoonbill is seen approaching its nest and babies. An injured grouse falls from the tree nearby, and the spoonbill adopts it temporarily, bringing it into the nest for feeding. During this time all are fed, but a turtle that has unwillingly been adopted strikes the spoonbill’s beak, and leaves the nest, upset.

Round 3: A stranger enters and a chase; solo scenes (but tied together with a shared stranger); The weather becomes a storm. Scene 1 (Tomes): A young wolf pup, curious about the spoonbill. The bird makes some sounds and an initial display, but then tries to take flight. She crashes through a smaller branch, and ungracefully lands on a larger one. Flying is not her strong suit. Scene 2 (Noella): The grouse is sitting under a tree, taking shelter from the rain. The pup, “the great predator” approaches. As the pup gets closer, the grouse notices his presence. The grouse bolts into the rain, and while the little wolf gives chase, the grouse has speed on its side. Our last shot is of the puppy sitting in the rain, looking dejected.

Round 4: The weather changes yet again hinting at spring and sunshine; A moment of confusion, and shared traits: raised in same nest, weird parents. Scene 1 (Noella): We see the spoonbill chick and grouse chick snuggling in the nest. Baby grouse hops out of the nest and goes towards the water, and attempts to start feeding like a spoonbill. However, she can’t swim and starts to drown. The narrator comments “unfortunately, despite their closeness, some things can’t be learned.” Mama spoonbill lifts her up back onto land. Mama grouse ushers her over, while pushing baby spoonbill towards the water. Scene 2 (Tomes): What we learn from each other. Times are tough as the weather becomes dry and the swamp bed thing. The spoonbill learns to eat insects by imitating the grouse. Although times are lean, they make it through together. We see both birds emulating each other, with the grouse pecking the ground, but in the back-and-forth manner learned from the spoonbill.

The end scene

The end of the game has us asking questions, first about the greater world and humanity, then some self-reflection questions, such as how we see ourselves in these birds. It’s a great little ending which gives us some of those same feelings we get at the end of a great nature documentary.

And the game ends. Back to our human lives.

Actual Play

If you are interested in the actual play of the session, you can view it below.

SpindleWheel Microgame, Zombie Cinema and For the Zombie Queen at Story Games Glendale

It was time for Indie RPG Game at Story Games Glendale, and David had themed this one set appropriately as “Horror Themed”, updating our verbiage to reflect those types of games.

Pre-game of Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

My friend Sasha is writing a game called Spindlewheel (another game I haven’t finished a blog post about damnit! This will be fixed soon.) Spindlewheel is described as a tarot-like storytelling rpg where you use cards as anchors to weave together a story with your friends, with the objective being to tell a satisfying story. The deck is a marvel, with intricate story prompts that allow you to weave storytelling magic. I have played once before, and we told an intriguing sci-fi story about a prisoner ship with desperate crew, flustered AI, and a small stow-away.

Prior to the general meetup, my friend Unique showed up early and joined me to test-run one of the Spindlewheel Microgames, a recent development that allows for much shorter and simpler games played with this same inspirational tarot-style deck. In this case we played Detective, where you are summoned to a crime scene to investigate a freshly discovered dead body. It plays for 1-5 players, and supposedly in 5-15 minutes! Armed with the beautiful preliminary deck (with individually thematically art-filled cards) that Sasha had bestowed on me, we dove in.

The game has you place cards in tarot-like positions (which fortunately Unique is more familiar with then myself, although the instructions are easy enough to follow), and within minutes we had a story forming. A body found in a bathtub with an electric appliance, in run-down building in a run-down part of town, the skin almost falling off. But wait: that was a rouse… the person was killed with a slash to the inner thigh artery. An owner of a pawn shop, who as we found out, was a bit of a pillar in the community, prioritizing the community itself above even his family, and trying to rid the community of the drug violence that current infested it. And then fighting against gentrification and external financial interests. And then distraught family members. And external pressures from the gangs that are trying to consolidate their power again. And a hidden cache of riches in a vault under the store, slowly laundered to provide for those less fortunate in the community… until some family members decided enough was enough.

It was pretty amazing how brilliantly and quickly the game ran. We probably were closer to the 20-30 minute mark as far as game time, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and as always the cards did a stand up job of providing just enough structure and direction, without ever seeming off. We only really played through Step 1: Investigate, however perused the other parts of the Microgame such as Step 2: Deliberate (which we partially fulfilled during the play of the game), and Step 3: Convict (which we epilogued through a card draw), and finally Second Thoughts. This was definitely something I’d explore again as a mini-game to fill a short slot, and maybe even to use as world-building prior to an investigative or Urban Shadows-type game.

It also gave me a feel for running the full Spindlewheel game, which I have been unreasonably intimidated by.

Note: You can find the Spindlewheel Microgames on itch.io as pay-what-you-want!

Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

Meetup time

We had a pretty good showing of about dozen folks, and everyone had been to our meetup at least once in the past. We finally did a quick round of introductions (a phase I usually skip or forget) and did name and pronoun introductions. In that excitement I forgot to have our normal safety tools conversation, but hopefully that wasn’t needed as desperately because everyone was used to our use of them in the past. I’m making mental notes not to forget for next time! Incremental improvements. We quickly separated into 3 tables which included Asher running Monster Hearts, Spencer running Kids on Bikes (Halloween edition), and me running this particular two-shot.

Game One: Zombie Cinema

You can find information on Zombie Cinema up on Boardgamegeek, as it’s listed there as a board game of sorts! There’s a pretty good review of the game (although dated 9 years ago) in the forums as well, which includes much of the game mechanics as well.

I purchased this up at Endgame in Oakland when I was there earlier this month for Big Bad Con. It comes in an old VHS cassette tape box, and contains a few low-fi components: various matching colored dice and pawns, a little game board with squares, and a few decks of cards. The premise is that you will be playing a standard Zombie-style movie, and the pawns represent your various characters (which you create based on a few card draws for inspiration).

There was only three of us playing (the game claims it supports 3-6), and we decided to set it roughly where we were: A few people at a board game meetup at a board game cafe, not really friends, and just hanging out while the zombie apocalypse starts to happen before Halloween. Even the first scene was sort of great because we started to establish a full-on zombie attach in from of the window of the store, then realized that the board was telling us that we should only see zombies in passing on news and rumors (not in front of our faces), so Christian suggested we just make it a few friends playing a Halloween prank on the street.

So, I’ll say this: The rules are not easy to parse and follow, even though they aren’t really that complicated. Small font with poorly contrasting colors, and a flow which unfortunately hid from us certain game details which were vital in running it correctly. The basics is that you will initially have lots of player vs player issues, which drives contested dice rolls, and that results in one player metaphorically getting ahead while another gets behind and closer to being zombie chow. When you roll ties, the zombies move up. Unfortunately, the fact that the zombies are supposed to slowly work their way up the board (separately from when you roll ties) was unknown to us, and even reading the rules now I’m not 100% sure I understand when that is supposed to happen. The game requires a lot of inter-character drama, and we didn’t exactly plan for that either. The review on boardgamegeek above does a lot to illustrate some of what you should expect going in.

One of the cool factors is that as soon as a player’s character either is killed by the zombies, or escapes off the top of the board, that player then gets to act for non-player characters and the zombies, and it appears the game can become a little more collaborative between players. But we didn’t exactly get to explore all that.

After realizing that we probably didn’t do it right, we decided that maybe a future game was in order to give a proper review, but before that I’m reckoning I’ll have to make a cheat sheet or something.

After the fact, I was happy to find that there are free Zombie Cinema variants, which include those for a heist movie, one about the mythos and cults, and more. Something worth exploring.

Zombie Cinema… board game-esque, but story game-full.

Zombie Cinema… board game-esque, but story game-full.

Myself, Christian, and Thomas

Myself, Christian, and Thomas

Game Two: For the Zombie Queen

I’ve written about For the Queen recently, so will let that stand for the game itself. What I did next is something I’ve done a few times before, but best explained in a prior game night where we played Icarus and For the Queen as a two-shot.

We decided to play a fairly short game of For the Queen where we explored what story would roughly follow from our Zombie Cinema game. In this case we didn’t really use any cannon from that game, but we did play in a zombie-themed world. We decided we’d be zombies following a zombie queen, whatever that meant, and just see where that leads.

Well, it led to some zombie drama, favorites and eaten arms and zombie bait, and a journey to find another zombie queen, perhaps. As always, I’m impressed with the breadth of themes this game can handle. There were a few cards we X’d out simply because they didn’t thematically make sense (like questions about the “royal court”, which we just weren’t feeling), but that’s one of the things I love about this game: The simplicity and ubiquity of using the X card.

I was happy to be able to show Christian the game, as he’d expressed prior interest, and was similarly blown away with all the cool things it does. And to play it with Thomas, who is a complete RPG newbie, but was able to keep up in the session.

For the Zombie Queen

For the Zombie Queen