14 August, 2019

The roleplaying game Ironsworn, written by Shawn Tomkin, was celebrating its first birthday in July this year. The game is a one-man self-published project, and it looks like it’s at least somewhat a succes among the roleplaying community, thanks to a couple of features in particular. Which I will get back to. But first, Ironsworn’s succes, despite being a self-published (and free, if you only need the pdf!) fantasy roleplaying game in a crowd of thousands of other games, is not something I made up. The game was nominated for two Ennies awards this year, Best Free Game and Best Electronic Book, and it won Best Free Game.

What is Ironsworn?

Ironsworn is roleplaying game set in a very loosely described ironage setting. A big part of playing the game is making stuff up about the world its set in, and it’s a design feature that every group’s play of Ironsworn wil result in a different world with different flavour. All the fictional dials, like what magic is and how powerful it is, monsters, etc. are there to be tweaked by the players.
So far, none so revolutionary.
The game mechanics are “Powered by the Apocalypse”, ie. based on Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World framework, but it’s far from—very far—simply a re-skinning of AW. We have moves, yes, and progress clocks, which in Ironsworn are progress bars and hardwired into the mechanics. We also still “play to find out” and “fiction first”. The dice mechanics from AW have been tweaked slightly, so instead of the standard roll 2d6 and add your stat, we are now rolling both a single d6 “action die” and adding a stat and two d10 “challenge dice”. If your action die+stat is higher that both the challenge dice, it’s a strong hit, if you only beat one challenge die, it’s a weak hit, and if both challenge dice are higher than your roll, it’s a miss. PCs have a stat called Momentum, that builds up during the game and can be used to manipulate a roll in a tight situation.
Characters in Ironsworn are also different, as in there are no “playbooks” as we know it from most PbtA games. Instead you build a character from a few stats and each character gets their own special flavour via three “assets” the player chooses. Assets are special moves, abilities, allies or stuff, all to be integrated into the fictional world you are creating. During the game, it’s possible to earn more Assets.

What makes Ironsworn special?

Ironsworn is geared towards solo play – yes, roleplaying all on your own. It’s a thing and a lot of people enjoy it, but there are very few dedicated soly systems out there. The game does it by incorporating “oracles”. Where in a normal game with someone handling some or all GM duties you would ask the GM, here you ask the oracle – this is not special to Ironsworn, a lot of solo RPGs rely on oracles in some form or other – and the oracle gives you an answer that you can interpret in your game’s narrative. Let’s say my PC is roaming the forest and meets someone – I ask the oracle who it is and what they are like. The oracle tells me it’s a scout and they are violent towards me. How do I react?

If you are “HUH?” in regard to this, there’s an active solo RPG Reddit group as well a Discord group called Lone Wolf Roleplaying. Check it out, people are playing anything solo, from Pendragon to D&D to Star Wars.

Another thing that sets Ironsworn apart from most other games also lies in its title, specifically in terms of “sworn”. The game’s fiction is fuelled by vows that your PC swear and the quests you go on to fulfil these vows. It’s an oath that guides and drives the character’s actions from the outset. Perhaps you decide that your settlement was raided by people in long boats and you decide to swear an oath, an “Iron Vow”, to track these people down and get revenge.

Other than solo

If playing solo is not your thing, then Ironsworn can also be played as a completely normal RPG with a GM and players. But it is also possible to play without a GM in co-op mode, because the game’s oracles (or other oracles you may find out there on the internet) can handle most GM stuff.

Like I said at the beginning, Ironsworn won the Ennie this year for best free game. Because it’s free. You can download it and start using it right now. No catch, no “in-game purchases” or shite like that. If you absolutely want a hardcopy version like me, then you will have to pay for the print, but there’s nothing keeping you from taking the PDF to your print shop or printing it out at home. Or you can buy a printed book from Drivethrurpg.


En Garde! Avantgarde Retro…Something

16 July, 2019

Via the wonderful Slack community for Paul Beakly’s Indie Game Reading Club my interest was peaked by the mention of an ancient (in roleplaying archeological terms) game by Darryl Hany and Frank Chadwick called En Garde!
Yes, with an exclamation point.
Hard to believe that En Garde! is nearly as old as the original D&D, with the first edition published by GDW in 1975. The game, subtitled “Being in the Main a Game of the Life and Times of a Gentleman Adventurer and his Several Companions”, is a strange mix of roleplaying and strategy game set in the 1600s Paris. Think The Three Musketeers and you’ve got it. But, like D&D, it seems that it’s an oldie that just won’t go away. It’s still being sold these days in its 4th edition by a British publisher—you can read more about the game’s history on the publisher’s site, it’s fascinating stuff.


In the game you create a character—by rolling dice on several tables, obviously—which you then try to progress in Parisian social and military life. All characters have a social level and the game is about raising this level over months, and possibly years (in game time), by accumulating status points. You may start out as a piss-poor peasant son with no money, no inheritance and possibly no future. Or you may be lucky to be born into a noble rich family and start the game with a boat load of cash and a social level to match.
In the game I’m playing in, a play-by-post game, which the game is perfectly suited to, I rolled a peasant’s son. The best I can say is that he happens to be the first son in his family, which raises his social level a tiny bit and provides him with an eeny-weeny more funding from the outset. But not much.
You get status points by doing a lot of stuff—basically you describe what your character is doing week by week over a four-week period and at the end of the month the score is calculated, also sometimes based on dice rolls to see how well, for example, the character’s attempt at joining a military regiment or courting a lady goes. At the same time, you are also trying to earn an income so you can pay your monthly expenses—believe me, living in Paris in 1610, even in a shitty room in the worst area, is expensive.
Money does get you a long way. You can join a regiment and immediately pay a lump sum to get an officer’s rank, like Captain, Major or even higher. Being in a regiment earns you a monthly income.
If you are skint, you can try and suck up to one of the wealthier characters, called to “toady”, and perhaps they will invite you to their club and hoopla, your social level is already improving. Or you can visit a money lender and borrow some money, although I would advise against it. The interest payment are killing.
You can visit a brothel or court a lady companion. That also will cost you.

It’s pretty neat.


Alien RPG: Chariot of the Gods Actual Play

7 July, 2019

I am running the intro scenario Chariot of the Gods for the coming Alien RPG, mostly because I wanted to play it and nobody else was right there to run it. And we are playing it the slowest possible way imaginable, which is asynchronous play-by-forum. Not ideal, granted, but the game’s cinematic rules structure is actually not that bad. I don’t know any other Fria Ligan games with similar rules, but thankfully a couple of the players are well versed in the rules system generally, and we are kind of learning the Alien flavour of the rules together. One of the players is Matt, who runs a very active RPG blog and podcast.
It’s good fun.

No Spoilers

If you intend to play this scenario as a player only, then you don’t have to worry for now. I am not going to spoil any surprises in this post.
The scenario comes ready to play with five player characters—we are four players and one GM, so I am running one of the starting characters as an NPC.
Now, while I cannot say much about what’s going on in the fiction, I can tell you a bit about the game’s structure. It’s a very traditional RPG with attributes and skills—thankfully only 12 broadly defined skills, where fx. HEAVY MACHINERY covers everything mechanical, whether it’s repairing it, rigging it or taking it apart. Each skill is based off its attribute—STRENGTH in this case—and the numbers together are the number of dice you roll to do a task. One six is a succes, extra sixes can be spent as “stunts” to get a mechanical or fictional advantage, such as doing it faster or better.
As long as your character doesn’t have stress, it doesn’t matter what the other dice show—only sixes count.
Oh, yeah. Stress.

Dice, Dice, Baby. Stress Dice.

The cinematic rules are built to emulate your typical Alien film and most of the characters are not expected to live through the scenario—or even be alive that long into the scenario. While the game is a traditional task resolution, mechanics-first system, it comes with a very nice push mechanic to mitigate the toughness of the system. When ever you roll your attribute plus skill to achieve something and you’re not satisfied with your roll, you may “push”, ie. reroll all the dice that didn’t show a six. The price for doing that is called Stress, and a push add one to your Stress. You roll you Stress as dice in another colour—the official dice are a warning yellow—along with your normal dice and they work as normal dice, giving you a success on a six. The big but here is if any of the Stress dice come up as a one. Then your character might be in trouble, based on how many Stress point they have accumulated so far.
So, the more Stress your character has, the more dice they roll for a given task and the better their chances for a succes. But at the same time also increasing the chance for rolling a one on one of those yellow suckers and making the outcome even worse.
If a character rolls a one—or a facehugger symbol on the official dice—on a Stress die, it trigger panic. Which may start a whole avalanche of panic, because panic may trigger panic in other characters as well. Mechanically you roll a die and add your level of Stress and read the result on a table. Anything on 6 and below is not too bad, but roll higher and you may be in deep shit, from dropping whatever you are carrying to all out screaming and fleeing—and worse.
There are other ways to get Stress that pushing your roll—your character gets Stress if they fire full auto fire on a gun, get scared by something in the fiction, get hurts a.o.

Using the system

The stress/panic system is very much at the forefront when playing the game. Already on the first rolls in the scenario, players start pushing their luck—and who wouldn’t, especially with no or few Stress dice? So far, we are only nearly done with Act 1 of the scenario, but player characters have already had plenty of tense situations with stress and panic without even meeting any opposition yet. From here, it can only get worse. In a good way.


Alien RPG Preview

27 June, 2019

I took a couple of years off roleplaying, mainly because it was hard finding other like-minded roleplayers in my area. The hiatus was well spent playing a lot of boardgames, preferably long, complex, multi-player games. But my dormant roleplaying interest has slowly crawled back to life. It might have been the announcement by Swedish publisher Fria Ligan that the licensed Alien RPG was landing in 2019. That got my attention.

Now, I saw—nay, witnessed—Alien in the cinema in 1979 with a good friend of mine. We were both teenagers and at the time we gobbled up anything that smelled of sci-fi, including Star Wars two years earlier, of course. But this one left a lasting mark on us both. I still remember us walking back from the cinema at night, not saying a word to each other, just gobsmacked from the experience. I remember enjoying the very slow beginning of the film, with all its nice spaceship details and the characters coming to life. I also remember the shock when something jumped from a rubbery egg onto one of the characters face. From that moment on, I was pretty much scared shitless—good times!

Fria Ligan has opened up for preorders for the new Alien RPG, and if you preorder, you get a quickstart-PDF with with the basic rules and an intro scenario. I did, and I am playing the scenario play-by-post, just because I couldn’t wait.
The quickstart is focused on one of the game’s two modes, called cinematic. The other one is campaign mode, which we don’t know a lot about so far. In cinematic mode you emulate the movies, which means the feel and storyline closely follow either Alien, Aliens or Alien 3, and to some degree also the later movies. In cinematic mode the player characters are very expendable indeed, not the least since the opposition is very deadly, and the emotions among the crew—some of which may not be what you thought they were at the beginning—are very tense from the outset.
The game system is a simple traditional machine with some nice features that stress the feel of the movies. To overcome obstacles, you roll a number of six-sided dice according to your skill plus attribute—game only comes with 12 skills, so everything is boiled down to give you that Alien experience. Any six rolled indicates a success, more sixes let you add effects to whatever you’re doing, something the game calls “stunts”. If you don’t roll any sixes, you can press yourself by getting stress, which is signified as an extra die in another colour, effectively giving you a chance of trying again with an extra die. But if the stress die comes up with a 1, then your character panics and all sorts of bad things can happen, especially if you have many stress points. And you will.

All in all the Alien RPG is very functional and streamlined and a lot of good fun to play.


Big Boom-Boom: Twilight Imperium Objectives Playtest.

4 June, 2019


Go to “Start Your Engines” for the actual playtest report. Keep reading for some background information about the game – nay, experience – called Twilight Imperium.
Twilight Imperium 4th edition was published in 2017, 20 years after the first handmade version was published. The game’s history is almost as exiting as the game itself, since a young Danish wannabee comics publisher left Denmark to try his luck in the US of A. Christian Petersen managed to publish his game and created a small publisher, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), which since grew to become one of the biggest players in the boardgaming publishing world. Google it.

I met Twilight Imperium (TI) in its 3rd edition, which at the time had been blown out of all sensible proportions – in a good way! – by two giant expansions adding numerous, sometimes ridiculous, optional rules, factions, units, systems, strategies and more. It was a joke at the time that if you swung the game box including expansions, it would create a rift in the space-time continuum, which was actually true. Thankfully no-one ever did it.
FFG decided to do a major overhaul of the game in time for its 20th anniversary, incorporating some of the good stuff from the 3rd edition and its expansions, plus tweaking some stuff to make it a more streamlined game experience and perhaps easier to get into. To say the least, TI4 did exactly that and more. Nothing wrong with TI3, it’s a sensational boardgame if you don’t mind playing 6-8 hours with heavy negotiations and politics. TI4 is the best version of the game so far – if fact, it’s nearly perfect, but hasn’t changed the 6-8 hours playing time or the politicking and negotiating.

Start Your Engines

If there’s one teeny tiny thing you could criticise TI4 for it would be the public objectives you score to actually win the game. They are solid and work, but not that exiting, especially not compared to thematic richness to everything else in the package. That’s why I decided to give a fan-made set of thematic objectives a go – on paper they all looked really good and only an actual play-through could find out if they were.
Before we started I had the set printed to look like proper objective card. My expectation was that given the sheer amount of cards available during play, the game would be quicker. Well, that was not the case. At all. The playtest lasted from around 10:30am to 8pm, without breaks.
First things first: I played the Mentak Coalition and came last.

Turn 1

The factions were, besides my Mentak, The Barony of Letnev (played by a newbie), The Federation of Sol (one game under their belt), The Emirates of Hacan (newbie), The Naalu Collective and The L1X1X Mindnet (experienced players).
We played the option where one of each (political, economic, military) objective was revealed each turn. First turn objectives:
Parliamentary Maneuvering (Control Mecatol Rex. Spend 6 influence. The Speaker may look at the top 4 cards of the agenda deck and rearrange them in any order.)
Distribute Bribes (Give one player 3 of your trade goods, then give a different player 3 of your trade goods.)
Seize the Throne (Win a ground combat against a player who controls Mecatol Rex. Spend 6 influence: Gain the defeated player’s Support for the Throne, if they have it.)
No-one scored anything in Turn 1, which isn’t surprising.

Turn 2-3

New objectives:
Hyper-admin (Spend 12 influence: Gain the Hypermetabolism technology.)
Economic Miracle (Exhaust 3 industrial planets. Another player gains 3 trade goods: Gain 3 trade goods.)
Politicise Conflict (Spend 3 influence. The attacker must have fewer victory points than you: No units may be moved during this tactical action. Gain a command token.)
The Naalu rushed to take Mercatol Rex, and later was able to score both Parliamentary Maneuvering and with the Imperial Strategy card for an early lead.
The first agenda phase saw voting on the Ixthian Artifact (The speaker rolls a die. 1-5: Destroy all units on Mecatol Rex & 3 units in each system adjacent to Mecatol Rex. 6-10: Each player researches 2 technologies). I think three Riders were announced for this vote predicting a for, and eventually it was me, as the Speaker, who decided against it.
Second vote was the fateful Shard of the Throne, which the Naalu managed to secure.
L1Z1X managed to score a secret objective.
New objectives for turn 3:
Restore the Custodians (Exhaust 4 cultural planets. Spend 4 influence: Remove all ground forces from Mecatol Rex and return the Custodian Token to Mecatol Rex.)
Open Source Technology (Spend 4 trade goods. All players gain a colored, non-faction technology that you have.)
HAZMAT Barrages (Exhaust a hazardous planet that you control. Destroy 2 destroyers in that system. Spend 4 resources: Gain Destroyer II.)
Turn 3 saw Barony score their first VP with Support for the Throne, I didn’t note from whom, but it was L1Z1X or Naalu. In the status phase Naalu scored Open Source Tech and the Barony HAZMAT Barrages. Naalu 5, Barony 2, L1Z1X 1.
My neighbour Sol decided to try and wipe me out because I refused to pay to get access to a planet near me, and it nearly succeeded, but I never recovered, and didn’t score any VPs until turn 4.

Turn 4

New objectives:
Regional Capitals (ALLIANCE: Choose 1-2 other players. Collectively Spend 20 influence: Alliance members each place a regional capital token on a planet they control. Control of each of these planets is now worth 1 VP.)
Development Assistance (Spend 5 trade goods. A neighbour with fewer VPs than you gains 3 trade goods.)
Premeditation (Spend 6 resources: When you score a victory point during the action phase, move your faction token from this card to that card and score an additional victory point on that card.)
Things started to heat up for real – Barony picked Imperial and made a big move and invaded Mecatol Rex (where Naalu had moved away and left only four infantry and a PDS), taking Shard of the Throne. They also scored Politicise Conflict in the status phase and jumped into the lead.
Mentak’s first VP was a Support for the Throne from the Barony, and then scored Hyper-Admin, while Sol got a support from the Naalu and also scored both Hyper-Admin and Spy Network. Hacan and L1Z1X both laid in wait by scoring Premeditation. Letnev 6, Naalu 4, Sol 3, Mentak 2, L1Z1X 1.

Turn 5-6

Objectives turn 5:
Uneasy Lies the Head (Spend 8 influence. If any player controls Mecatol Rex, remove a command counter from their strategy or tactics pool.)
Galactic Circuses (Spend 5 trade goods. A player with fewer victory points than you gains a command token.)
Rally Around the Flag (Lose a ground combat. Spend 8 resources: Produce 4 resources worth of units in your home system.)
Hacan attacks Mecatol and takes Shard from Letnev, scores Seize the Throne (and triggers the dormant point from Premeditation), which again let’s Letnev score Rally Around the Flag. Sol and L1Z1X also score Seize – this is Sol’s big turn, also scoring Politicise Conflict and Open Source Technology. Naalu, Mentak and Hacan all score Distribute Bribes.

Objectives turn 6 – all 2 points:
True Coup (Mecatol Rex must be controlled by another player. Spend 20 influence: Place 4 infantry units on Mecatol Rex.)
Hostile Takeover (Give 8 trade goods to a neighbour. Give 8 trade goods to another neighbour: Place a command token from each of those players on systems you control.)
Amass at the Border (Control 16 resources of units neighbouring another player. Spend 12 resources: If the neighbour has your Ceasefire, take back your Ceasefire.)
This the last turn was mostly everyone trying to avoid a win by either Sol, Naalu or Letnev, with Shard of the Throne flying round once again. Letnev almost managed to get the last word by attacking Hacan last. Four factions scored Amass at the Border, a very easy 2 points, one of them the winner Naalu.
End score: Naalu 10, Letnev 9, Sol, Hacan, L1Z1X 7, Mentak 5.


Main thing the players said afterwards was that this variant removes the need for technology in terms of scoring objectives. All the objectives we saw were based on resources/influence or trade goods. We missed the tech objectives a bit, even though they are a bit bland (have 2 tech in 2 colours, fx.).
While it would seem easier to score since there are so many objectives to choose from, it wasn’t in practice. I cannot remember a game if TI4 where at least one player hasn’t scored in turn 1. The many – and often complex – objectives open makes it hard to keep an overview of what you may be able to score as the game state changes.
All in all the game felt slower and longer, and the thematic objectives didn’t in fact bring more thematic goodness, almost on the contrary.


Is This the Real Life?

29 May, 2019

Is this just fantasy?

I uncovered a thing left to die in a corner, covered in dust and dead flies. It was this blog. I abandoned it some six years ago and wasn’t planning to return to it. Who knows, perhaps it’s not dead yet.

We’ll see. My tabletop roleplaying activity hasn’t been dormant for quite that long – perhaps two years – but to make up for that I have been playing a lot of boardgames.

1830Last year I re-discovered an old sweetheart of mine, namely the 18xx game genre. I bought the “original”* 1830 back when it was published by Avalon Hill in 1986, but stupidly got rid of it when we moved in 2002. It was great returning to the old train/economics games to see that there are more than 100 18xx games out there now, and that major publishers – most notably GMT Games with 1846 and recently 1862 – have begun to publish them as well. I have begun infecting my local gaming community with the 18xx bug and so far it’s going great.

*Strictly speaking, there was a game before 1830: 1829, also by the honourable Francis Thresham, but 1830 was the first published by a large (in 1986 boardgaming scale) company. Thresham is a legend and  a hero, AND a former bus engineer – besides 1830, he also designed Civilization. Edward Uhler from Heavy Cardboard interviewed him last year.


Giddy as a schoolboy

12 November, 2013

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boyo! Via the wonderful medium they call Facebook, I’ve found a small group of people who want to try this roleplaying thing. How could I refuse?

I’ve been trying to gauge their preferences and interests, and it seems they are hooked on the fantasy thing, so your standard run-of-the-mill off-the-shelf stuff.

I was torn between Dungeon World and Burning Wheel. But I managed to get them hooked on story now gaming, then I’d like to give them some Apocalypse World in another skin than fantasy. Plus I haven’t actually run DW before.

So, Burning Wheel it is. That grand old lady with the huge handbag laden with bricks. She looks like your standard fantasy RPG fare. She’s far from it.

I’m going to run a demo scenario to highlight the core of BW, and hopefully they’ll like and ask for more.


A Kicker in the teeth

2 September, 2013

I’m still re-reading the annotated Sorcerer book, and it makes me go “Ah!” and “Oh!” here and there. I read the PDF when I got my hands on it, but it’s much easier and satisfying to read the paper version. This time I’m only reading the annotations on the right-hand pages, without reading the original text.

The Kicker

The Kicker in Sorcerer is a player-authored “fictional crux point” of a player character in the game. That’s the description in the annotations, not the original text, which was a bit more opague. To help Sorcerer players/GMs to understand what this actually means, Ron has a nice three-level dissection of a Sorcerer player character:

  • A person
  • A person who is a sorcerer (ie. who actively summoned a demon)
  • A sorcerer who faces a Kicker

In the context of the game, these three are entirely separate. The classic thing to do as a Sorcerer player (I’ve done it) is to come up with a Kicker that can then be approached by the “person who is a sorcerer”-part of the character. Which means merely continuing the character backstory from character generation.

Ron’s game is much more clever than that, and his notes about Kickers made me realise that. See, a fresh Sorcerer player character has made do with the damned demon he/she has summoned (on purpose!) recently or long ago. The Kicker is a punch to the character’s  life as a Sorcerer, and that’s why it’s interesting. So, paraphrasing Ron, a Kicker is not merely more of the same. It’s a new situation, and it’s unavoidable. Bang. In your face.

Spiking the Kicker

A Kicker can and may be spiked by the GM. I think this is a lesson learnt from many years of Sorcerer practice, and Ron is making it clear in his annotations that’s it’s better to spike a weak Kicker than to ask the player to rewrite it.

The example in the annotations is great. The Kicker is “just released from prison”. Which works perfectly fine, fx. for a Sorcerer who has managed his/her prison life being a Sorcerer.

The spike comes when this character discovers the books in his new workplace are cooked. How will he/she react?


Just play the NPCs

31 August, 2013

My my, it’s been a while, quite a while, since I posted on this blog. I apologise, and will try not to let it happen again, but a lot of stuff has been happening in my life. Mainly, I have moved country, quit my day job, and I am now working as a full-time freelancer in a.o.  translation, copywriting, corporate communications and content marketing. Do get in touch if you need those services.

NPC Court by Reebok

I’m reading the Annotated Sorcerer book by Ron Edwards, and it’s great, just great. There are a few things that really surprised me, or should I say: made me understand the game better. I might come back to some of them in later posts, but for now I’ll delve on what Ron writes about NPCs in the section about Bangs (pp. 78-78ii), because it’s important. And it’s one of my pet peeves, so hold on to your horses.

Ron’s very straightforward advice sounds: “Just play the NPCs,” but for some reason the average gamer brain doesn’t compute that. At all. And what the game brain doesn’t compute, it misinterprets.

The funny thing is that’s it’s very simple, and I think Ron makes it very clear in the Sorcerer annotations. Basically, you play an NPC as you would any character – don’t adjust the character’s actions to accommodate “the story” or whatever.

PLAY. THE NPC. AS A CHARACTER. What does he/she want? Forget the fuck about “the story” (if you have a prepared story/’scenario’ in mind, you’re REALLY fucked), and just focus on the NPC. I have no idea why that would be hard to comprehend.


Emerging Writers guest post

17 February, 2013

Thriller writer Laurence O’Bryan has kindly given emerging writers the opportunity to write in his blog. My guest post is about my research for a crime novel, which I’ve mentioned here on this blog as well.

Now I’m just waiting for publishers to get in touch.

Laurence O’Bryan is the Irish writer behind the thrillers The Jerusalem Puzzle and The Istanbul Puzzle, and he is very active on social media.

Emerging Writers: Guest Post #10 A Danish writer on his research process