vsca catalogue

diaspora cover lulu 441 thumbnailDiaspora

Me, Toph Marshall, Tim Dyke, and Byron Kerr wrote this together over a couple of years in an attempt to bring a Traveller aesthetic to Fate back when it was FATE. Derived from Spirit of the Century but with efforts to deconstruct and modularize. Gold ENnie winner for best rules. It’s about keeping your spaceship running while dealing with the political and trade frictions between a small number of very different star systems. Collaborative world design. You may have first experienced it as Spirit of the Far Future. Print and PDF.

This is a game we still play, though I think that the character and system generation stuff is better by far than the rest of the game. I mean it’s a good game, but the collaborative stuff really sings.

Deluge - Brad MurrayDeluge

I had a bug in my head about post-apocalyptic play and so wrote this little system-agnostic adventure generator that starts from the submergence of your home town. Lots of table-based oracles for creating desperate communities. Simple, fun, and crazy cheap (PWYW). PDF only.

I haven’t played with this in a while. Have you? I keep coming back to the idea of releasing a new edition with better tools and art.

hollowpoint cover frontHollowpoint

Written together with Toph Marshall before my move to Toronto and then laid out and finished amongst the boxes of my move. This is a custom designed system built up from a deconstruction of ORE and built to make face-paced action movie games. It probably first percolated up into my head after reading the graphic novel series 100 Bullets. It’s about being super competent at being bad. Your only options are different flavours of violence. An ENnie nominee for best game. Print and PDF.

This game is huge fun and always has been but suffers from a fatal flaw for my own use: the whole iteration-over-a-dice-pool concept just isn’t fun for online play. It kicks ass at a table with real dice, but the tactile allocation and manipulation of dice is necessary.


Now living in Toronto and isolated from my gaming groups, I built a game designed to be played by email. While the provided scenario is a sort of fantasy 17th century Europe and Africa, it’s been easily ported to space stations, colonies, and other settings. The idea is simple: you play a personality by writing letters to other personalities you know using email. The ref gets a CC: of all these and periodically publishes a newspaper that synthesizes these letters as current events. I think this game is a gas and it doesn’t require constant attention. I think there’s more to do with this concept. First time I’d use a cover from Juan Ochoa and he’s awesome to work with. PWYW in PDF form.

Haven’t played in a while but I see a game crop up online every now and again.

coverElysium Flare

It took a while to get this one out of my head. I’ve never much liked space opera as a genre but felt like one way to get an understanding of what’s to love would be to write one. This is another Fate rebuild, with a lot of simplifications and an amusing first-person space combat system. This gave me a chance to exercise some suddenly improving artistic skills as well as hire Juan again for some work. It plays lighthearted and galaxy-spanning with adventure cues ranging from stopping a galactic Horror to dealing with a paperwork nightmare on a world dedicated entirely to galactic bureaucracy. Huge fun to make and to run. First time I would use DriveThruRPG for both print and PDF.

I don’t play this as much as I should, but I can’t get into Fate that much any more, especially for online play. The mechanical back and forth places more burden than I want on my time and resources when I’m limited (as I am) to a couple hours a week and entirely playing by text chat. Still, I wish I could play more. The playtesting was great fun and very funny.

Soft Horizon cover minaretSoft Horizon

The Soft Horizon had been brewing in my head since shortly after we released Diaspora. The idea was to build a plane-hopping game that would weave bizarre characters through Heavy Metal style psychedelia, evoking Moebius and Bilal and Voss and all those great artists who were clearly out of their heads. It didn’t turn out to be one game. Instead I’ve been reconstructing the playtest sessions as individual games using the same simple Powered by the Apocalypse inspired engine. Fast and failure driven, the games reliably take the narrative places no one intended. Each game is self-contained, having the setting and the complete system (tuned for the setting) all in less than a hundred pages.

king-machine-cover-alternateThe King Machine

This probably shouldn’t have been the first Soft Horizon game. It doesn’t derive from a known property but instead from an early playtest session brought into being by some random oracles and our own brains. It was initially conceived as a warning about democracy but took so long to make that now it’s just thinly veiled allegory for today’s world. You play intelligent non-human primates in a world of Roger Dean album covers coping with a utopia that suddenly lost its utopic engine: the machine that makes perfect kings. Print and PDF at DTRPG. I think this is one of the best games I’ve ever made.

I’d be playing this now if I wasn’t playtesting…

cover.pngSand Dogs

Coming soon! A dieselpunk tale in a world that’s all desert and studded with tombs full of sleeping gods. A mash-up of Indiana Jones, Roadside Picnic, and the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. You can’t buy this yet. I’m playing it. If you’re a patron you can get a laid out playtest package sometime in December.


And of course our Patreon is what keeps this stuff coming. It’s been an enormous influence on my productivity — we’ve never had a three-title year ever. We’ve never had a two-title year before. Even just a buck is awesome: it’s one more person I feel beholden to and therefore one more little push to get some more work out the door.


In software development a regression happens when you add a new function and in doing so accidentally break an old function. You protect against this with regression testing: you test all your old functions to make sure they still work as intended. One of the ways this can happen is when you import legacy code into a new project, code that was never designed to work in the new environment, and it has side effects that violate your modern requirements.

When we choose to look back to old games for inspiration for new games, we want to be wary of this too. One of the things we want to do is improve those games (otherwise why bother), to bring newer technology to bear where possible and desirable to make these old game concepts better. This typically focuses on the functional: what did these old games do, how did they do it, and then of course, do we still want to do exactly that and is there a better technology now that preserves the feel but improves the play?


I’ve been told not to use “however” but “however” is a pacing element a pause and an opportunity for you to anticipate where the text is going. So, however. Big pause.

George C. Scott, doodled instead of listening to a lessons learned review. My bad.

When we look back to art made forty years ago for inspiration we aren’t just looking back forty years in the history of the technology. We’re also looking back through forty years  of context, of culture. And we are necessarily looking back down forty years worth of change in sexism, racism, homophobia, and a host of other social changes. When we mine ancient artifacts we are also necessarily going to be dredging up side effects of that older culture, that context.

There is a lot of resistance to addressing this because cultural problems are messy and even today not everyone is going to agree what was “worse” and what was “better”. Even “genocide is bad” seems to be up for debate in some circles. Nor even which mechanical elements in that game ore are reflective of what’s worse. But also because some of the nostalgia for that earlier time, the reason for mining that old material, might just be a desire for a whiter, maler, more heterosexual context. And the idea that that might be true is rightly uncomfortable as hell. And one thing we nerds know about discomfort: we do not want to talk about it.

But when we make a game that incorporates or emulates material from that past we risk racist, sexist, homophobic regressions. And we don’t have a good way to test for it, especially if we want to ignore it even as a possibility: if you want to ignore an error your first step is certainly to avoid testing for it. Or rather, we do have good ways to test but we do not deploy them. So let’s look up from the dungeon map and take a step and acknowledge that this is a risk. That material with a forty year old context may have side effects (and possibly direct effects) that reflect that context. And that in some if not many cases that would be a bad thing. That would be regressive.

I am old and white and male. I wish I could get glasses for my brain that correct for this.

And if it’s a risk and if it’s undesirable (you decide for yourself but your decision will be telling) then we really ought to be testing for it. In fact it should probably be a priority in testing since it’s an awful thing to wind up shipping, it’s probably hard to spot, and it’s a genuine risk. The impact of a mechanically bad rule is usually that refs have to house rule around it, which they love doing. The impact of a socially, culturally bad rule is the propagation of bullshit that we as a culture have been trying to work past and through. Something we’ve made forty years of progress on, however small the actual progress may or may not be, and so something we should no more ignore than the changes in technology over that period.

Technology and society and culture are all equally “things we’ve learned”. They deserve at least equal weight as problems other, smarter people have confronted and solved or at least tried to solve. All this material needs some attention in order to make a great game out of old material.

The only way to make looking back progressive is to adapt it to lessons learned since then. Ignoring the progress is regressive. It’s just looking back and re-implementing old mistakes. As I write that I realise that people read both regressive and progressive as different kinds of criticism. Let’s also reclaim “progressive” then. Looking forward. Making things better. Building on technology to make even better technology. Let’s not be ashamed of being progressive. Progressive nostalgia sounds like a great goal.

Regressive nostalgia, even if it’s just because we’re not looking at our work hard enough, sucks. Forty years is a lot of learning to throw away. A lot of mistakes to ignore and re-make.

So, in the interest of offering solutions, here’s a way to find a sensitivity reader for your project.

thinks we dislike

I don’t care what you dislike.

I mean, sure, if we’re trying to figure out together what to eat or what to play or how to fuck, then yes, I care.

But if you’re crafting a post on the internet, a broadcast to everyone, about how much you dislike something…well, I don’t care. But moreover I don’t understand why anyone would. And I don’t think they really do. I think posts about what we dislike are mostly attempts to get someone to argue about it — picking an already contentious position (and artificially so because really, just how much negative energy can we really work up about a game aside from straight-up offensiveness) in order to get some fire happening.

In other words, it’s just trolling. Usually low grade and sometimes even not self-examined. It does generate “discussion” but rarely useful discussion.

This should be read as distinct from criticism. Criticism is awesome. But “I hate GURPS” or “I despise rules-light” topics are just self-congratulatory nonsense. Hurray you have a nuanced and emotional negative response to a role-playing game or even a category of role-playing games. Now seriously, think hard about that and wonder if you really want anyone else to know it, let alone engage you on the topic.

Tell me instead what you love.

I love this fucking robot toy.

Revel instead in what you like to play, like to make, like to run, like to draw for, whatever. Because that enthusiasm, even (maybe especially) when it’s also critical is contagious and productive. It lets other people admit their enjoyment. It lets people know not just what but sometimes how to craft something that certainly gives someone joy. I get far more from knowing a single example of what you love than a single example of what you hate because I am compassionate and want to make you happy — but one negative example is just the start of a list. Do you like ham? Hate it. Do you like turkey? No. When do we get to dinner.

I like blackened chicken. One assertion and we’re off for dinner. No enumeration required.

I totally love this fish rug.

And honestly I dislike so very few things and like so many things that if you say you love something then there is a pretty good chance I am going to get in on that conversation. Help celebrate it, understand the bits the irk and the bits that work, and maybe even get around to joining you sometime to enjoy it. If you dislike something it’s almost certainly going to fail to affect me at all. Even if you hate (such a strong word to apply to a role-playing game, especially when it’s the funny dice or roll-under that you HATE) something, I’m probably not going to engage. First, having that strong a negative reaction to something so lightweight is a pretty good indicator that no interaction is going to go well. Second, it’s unlikely you hate something I care strongly about, and even if you do, well, see “first”.

Enjoying things and celebrating things, and criticizing those things, from a position of love, is productive. It builds up, it repairs, it extends, it expands.

Hating things just tears something down and makes someone, somewhere, feel bad. There’s enough feeling bad to go around these days, and it’s mostly about vastly more important things.

So tell me what you love.

actual play

Here’s some actual play from my Sunday playstorming gang! First, here’s what I learned:
  1. KNOW needs some text to dissuade using it as a universal skill for assistance. I think it just needs to be clarified that using it must be active — research, reading, that sort of thing. You don’t just get facts to add dice to a situation.
  2. I see myself navigating around hints at rolls. I can see hat constitutes a situation worth a roll and what doesn’t but can I codify it so that you can? Have to re-read the text and see if it’s sufficient.
  3. I winged the weird tomb stuff but we need oracles for it to mechanize the process if someone isn’t up to that.
  4. Everything interesting twist was driven by the system. Forced to escape? System. Got lost and wound up at a tomb? System. Free city houses slavers? System.

sand dogs session November 18, 2018

Brad: I’d like to roll back our last session slightly. I loved the montage, but the positive wrap up was wrong.

JB:  Oh shit. I forgot. Sorry about always rolling goddamn 1s everyone

Brad:  So you’re in a defensive position with locals near a Tomb and are attacked by aircraft, armoured cars and infantry. Jesus shoots down an airplane and the other flees, ruining the attackers’ air cover. Hoberman gets himself shot trying to direct fire on enemy commanders — he’s lying in the dust gouting blood and shouting for a medic.

Brad: Duarte helps set up a defensive IED rig and winds up blowing open the barbed wire barrier and flipping the half-track, crushing your fuel and water supplies.

Dune (Duarte):  I did it.

Brad: SO! The enemy continues in, the armoured cars almost overrunning your position. The infantry is behind them, using them as cover. Your allies are steadfastly crewing their positions but it looks bad. What do you do?

mechanism: second half of a large scale conflict montage: interpretation and framing as a new problem to solve

JB (Hoberman):  _gurgle_ “It’s only a flesh wound!”

Dune:  I can rush to aid Hoberman.

Toph (Jesus):  As Jesus sees the plane go down, he releases his finger from the trigger, and looks for his brother. As he scans around he hears the explosion, and sees Hobermann go down, shot.

Toph:  “Get him in here quick!” he shouts, leaping back to the front.

Dune:  I’m just not very good in combat it seems. I do have a bond with Hobs.

Brad: Duarte runs to help Hoberman. It’s not too bad, but you need to get him somewhere safer and cleaner.

Toph: The half-track spins around, and heads towards Hobermann and Duarte.

Brad:  The half track is flipped but you can steal a motorcycle.

Dune:  “Get up, ya dolt.” As I help him to his feet and put his arm over my shoulders so we can walk together and I can bear the weight.

JB:  I’ll do my best to be the lightest burden possible

Dune:Maybe may I use Locate to find a good spot or a good path?

Brad: Jesus arrives in a cloud of sand with a hefty Ural motorcycle with sidecar. You pile Hoberman in and I guess Duarte perches on the back.

Dune:  or is that not what Locate’s for?

Brad: I think this is Chase to escape the scene, rolled by Toph.

Toph: Motorbike it is.  Look, there’s one with a sidecar!

Brad: Anyone got a way to help?

Dune:  Oh Chase is cool. We’re just going to abandon the outpost? Is it overtaken? I feel like we owe these folks.

The inevitable Ural with sidecar. What would dieselpunk be without the Ural?

Dune: Well, I’d help like I said. Lookout.

Brad:  Locate is good to find a path through the chaos!  d6 and d8

Dune: Hooray d8

Brad:  Toph you might have a Flashback you can make relevant?

JB:  Ooh! Flashbacks! I was just thinking we should use ’em. Hm, “none of it mattered in the face of the War”. What does that even help with? Moping?

Toph:  Flashback:  I was bused for smuggling antiquities. I remember when duarte saw me standing in the customs line at the border, he shouted my name, whcih wasn’t the one on my passport. Jerk.

Brad: I think the risk is either DELAY (you get captured) or CONFUSION (you get lost). Of the two I’ve had less luck with capture as being interesting.

mechanism: clarify the risk for any roll

Toph: I stole a motorbike then, too. Capture makes better sense to me. I’d like that on the table. (don’t know how a 4-6 would read then, though) maybe it’s two levels of delay? 1-3 = capture, 4-6 = lost?

Brad: haha good enough — I have one problem though. I haven’t written a way for flashbacks to help you. I guess just an extra die but it’s a one-time thing? If so it should be a d10 or something.

Dune:  Capture is Failure? I was just wondering about that. How Flashbacks come into play mechanically ( if they do)

Brad: DELAY is the risk. I guess fail would be capture, success+risk is lost!

Toph: (d10 is a lot — obviously useful. Is it being “burned”?

Brad: Yeah you can only use a flashback once I think. Don’t need to hear the story twice.

Toph: Then, I think I escaped on foot that time.  People don’t just leave keys in motorcycles.

Brad:  haha

Dune: Flashbacks are defined on the spot or these are the ones from our career? So save it for another roll?

Toph: go with d6+d8? (yes)

Brad: From the career — elaborated on the spot.

Brad: Yup d6 and d8

Dune:  If they’re from our career, then maybe there should be some uncertainty baked in, so you _learn something_ when you visit it.

Brad: We’ll set it aside to think about. To the dice!

Toph: rolls d6 and gets 5.

Toph: rolls d8 and gets 6.

Toph: Success (escape) with delay (we’re lost)

Brad: Jesus’s driving is insane and effective. He tries not to let slip that half the insanity is just him not finding the right gear. Damn these foreign transmissions.

Brad: But Duarte points the way through the mess, out the razor wire hole and through a blind spot in the oncoming enemy using a ditch gouged out by the fucked up explosives.

Brad: It’s dirty and dusty and you can’t see shit and by the time the gunfire slackens or becomes so distant you can’t hear it, you’re lost. You’re in the desert, a friend (brother) injured, on a motorcycle with what must be terribly limited supplies. What do you do?

JB: ow ow ow ow ow

Brad: Oh yeah it’s very bumpy.

Dune: lol

Toph: The smoke rises behind us, and a secondary explosion goes off. “That was the fuel,” Jesus notes, as he looks over his shoulder. 

Brad: (JB you’re not disabled but all your MUSCLE methods are down one die step)

Toph: “Can you stop the bleeding, Duarte?”

Dune:  “How you doing, Hobs? Hang in there.” I apply pressure to the wound.

Brad: Hoberman is stable, just in pain.

JB:  I guess I can help since my medical knowledge is not MUSCLE-based. Oh. OK, so it’s pretty well down to time now

Brad: Not roll-worthy. The mechanical effect is sufficient. You have no direction to travel, unknown supplies.

Toph: Jesus flicks the fuel guage with his finger. It’s not registering, and though he knos he filled it, he does see a hole in the tank. Near the top, but clearly some fuel has been lost.  “We had a landmark?”

Dune: I look around. “We need to figure out how to get to [dirt-town].”

Brad:  You can’t see the city towers any more. But there’s a lot of dust over some of the horizon

Dune: I’ll take stock of what we have. Any storage on this sidecar/bike?

JB: “That could be dirt-town, or it could be that opfor.”

Brad: “dirt town” is Morganstern, btw

Brad: There are some cans and luggage strapped to the sidecar. Whatever was in it you threw out. Some nice clothes, a day’s worth of hard tack, a few liters of water, and one can of gasoline. What do you do?

Dune: I toss Hobs a pack of cigarettes. “We got a bit of water and fuel. Should take us somewhere, but which way to head?”

JB: lights up because it’s tough and cool and will certainly not kill me slowly

JB: “I know a lot of things but I’m pretty useless for orienteering.Like if you want to prove the earth is round, I could show you that.”

Dune: I can make a smoke signal maybe? A signal that might be picked up and understood by [secret society]?

Toph: Can we get a north? Tying sun’s position to the approx time of day?

Dune: (I imagine a hazy sky like where I am in California right now, where the sun is ambiguously positioned)

Brad: Yeah there should be some basic trickery with the sun and a watch that can point you at Morganstern. A LOCATE check.

JB: Ha ha not touching that.

Toph: (risk?)

Dune: I look up and wipe my sweaty brow.

Brad: Risk for a locate check is now HARM. You are exposed to the elements. Duarte is the one with the skills; anyone helping?

mechanism: set the risk

JB: I could maybe help with KNOW?

Toph: d6 in Rescue —

JB: I know the trick, I just am less good at the execution

Dune: I will accept any help that applies. LOCATE first…

Dune: rolls 1d8 and gets 1.

JB: aaahahahahahahhaaaaaa

JB: rolls 1d10 and gets 1. SWEET FUCK

Toph: this is the best game ever

Dune: I scratch my head. The blurry sun looks like it’s in two places at once…

JB: and so their desiccated corpses were found, mere meters from food, water, and shelter

Dune: Quietly to myself “Did I hit my head? Why is this so difficult.”

Toph: Jesus follows Duarte’s directions, guided by Hobermann and speeds off into the desert. It’s a smooth ride, and they make brilliant time, until, three hours later, it’s clear that they have no idea where they were.

Dune: “I know what I’m doing, Hobs! Stick to your books.”

JB: So I guess we’re DEHYDRATED now? Or something?

Dune: “I swear Morganstern should be right here…”

Brad: Duarte determines that you should head straight for the sun. At this time of day, it’s in the direction that Morgenstern is in. It’s not.

mechanism: execute the risk

ref move: bring in a tomb

Brad: Or rather it is, but that’s not the sun. After several hours of travel in which you use up all the water and most of the fuel, the “sun” resolves out of the haze as some kind of massive reflecting sphere hovering above the apex of a pyramid-shaped Tomb.

Dune: tosses Hobs a shovel

Brad: You each have the WOUND: Sunstroke

Dune: “What the fuck is that?!”

JB: urk

Toph: Does the sphere offer any shade?

Brad: The tomb has signs of being an active site. There is a wire fence around it out to a few hundred meters. There’s a supply hut made of corrugated iron. And there’s a vehicle with no tires up on blocks. The only thing that DOESN’T seem like it’s active is the fact that there are no people.

Brad: What do you do? You are dizzy, nauseated, and very very unhappy.

Toph: “Start at the supply hut, says Jesus through cracked lips. “They might have water.”

Dune:  Any chance to approach undetected?

JB: “Let’s head over there. Maybe if someone is there they will kill us and end this misery”

Toph: Jesus doesn’t like Hobermann’s negative talk in the back. “If that’s what you want, we can arrange it.”

Brad:  The motorcycle stalls and dies and you’re forced to walk the last few hundred meters to the supply shed. There’s no risk of being detected — no one is here. You DO know that Tombs are very dangerous places close in and you should watch what you touch.

Dune: “It’s quiet…” We’re looking for water. Carefully 😀

Brad:  The supply shed is locked with a heavy chain. Of course. The vehicle on blocks looks like it has a full set of luggage still strapped to it. What do you do?

JB: Raid luggage

Dune: Dismantle the locking mechanism.

Brad: Duarte; picking the lock sounds like mischief.

Dune: …sounds like a job for Jesus.

Brad: Hoberman: you make your way to the vehicle and tear open the luggage. A lot of mining equipment. And big weird goggles. No water

Dune: “Jesus, think this thing’ll break if we just, I don’t know… shoot it?” I aim my pistol…

Brad: Jesus, you have some explosives from the motorcycle luggage you could use to blow the lock.

Toph: “Wait”

JB: Mining equipment . . . pickaxe to leverage the chain? EXPLOSIVES YES GOOD IDEA

Dune: waits…

Toph: “We can try that as a backup.”

Dune: looks at Jesus…

Brad:  Certainly there are heavy tools that could maybe crack the lock or the door.

Dune: maybe unhinge it? maybe dig into the shed? up to Jesus.

Toph: Jesus is going for the lock. Mischief.

Dune: RISK?

Brad: How are you tackling the lock? (I’ll decide risk based on that)

Toph: SLide the pin-kit out of my belt. It’s nothing fancy, but I can take it through customs. Normally art is kept behind locked doors

JB: Oooh, pro

Brad: Excellent. Risk is REVELATION. Anyone helping this MISCHIEF? (d10 on the table but remember these are flat distributions)

mechanism: set the risk — note that revelation has a potentially delayed effect: i know what it will be but it needs the right break in the narrative

Toph: (adding a d8 is worhtwhile; a d6 doesn’t change much.)

Brad: Nothing actively hurts; any die helps.

Dune: “Where’d you learn to do that?” Just continuing to develop my new(ish)found relationship with my brother. Don’t expect it to help really.

JB: What can’t KNOW do?

Brad: KNOW can’t DO anything. Just know things.

JB: Well do I know things about locks? I’m just concerned I can be like “I know about this” for anything. That don’t seem right

Brad: I think if we were studying how to pick this lock, KNOW would factor in. Not in this case. But I will write a note.

Brad: I think this is just Toph’s d10. Let;s roll. Risk is REVELATION

Toph rolls d10 and gets 5.

JB: YAY-ish

Brad: A few minutes and the heavy lock pops open. Turns out it’s not an uncommon brand, frequently used in bank vaults and art museums.

JB: “Those Abus guys know how to make a lock.”

Dune: expects zombies to start spilling out from the shed

Brad: The inside of the shed is hot hot hot — corrugated iron — but there are a couple tons of water in a huge bladder and what looks like … a payroll strongbox, unlocked. What do you do?

Toph: Water from the bladder. We want to find a clean way into it, and a way to reseal it.

Brad: There’s a big valve. It’s intended to attach to a hose, but jury rigging access to it is no problem. You get tin cups from the motorcycle.

Toph: We might not drink it, but putting some on our lips and tongue will help with the feeling of swelling. Rubbing it on my scalp will help cool things down, even a bit.

Dune: I’ll go build a quick filter for the water… with sand or cloth… whatever we’ve got.

Brad: The water seems pure and clean, maybe a hint of quinine.

Toph: “now we just need some gin”

Dune: “It’s so hot, it’s almost like it’s been boiled. But still won’t hurt to filter it.”

JB:  “I always need some gin”

Dune: We fill our canteens, then the jug that we had on the bike.

Brad: You slap some water on yourselves. It’s wonderfully cool. The sun is starting to go down and that’s pretty nice too. You fill your supplies.

Toph: No sign of the jeep’s wheels?

Brad: The payroll box beckons. It looks like it has some military hardware in it, desert tan and industrial strength.

Brad: No tires on the jeep.

Dune: (Do we know how the risk from lockpicking manifested?)

Brad: Not yet Dune but I’m working on it. 🙂

Dune: (Are we all criminals?)

Brad: Sort of, You free slaves.

Dune: I know what I’ll do. I’ll search for any indication whose site this is…any signature evidence would be good.

Brad: There’s plenty. In the payroll box is a radio and a stack of certificates of ownership signed by Morganstern city officials. Certificates of ownership for people. What do you do?

mechanism: execute the risk — that was the revelation

JB: Uh . . . wasn’t Morganstern supposed to be a free city?

Toph: “Slavers. Fuck.” says Jesus.

JB: “Goddamnnit.”

Brad:  Yes, JB.

JB: “Well that’s an unwelcome revelation.”

Dune: Taking them certificates… (burn them?)

Brad: In fact you have relocated freed slaves here.

Toph: “We burn nothing.”

JB:  “Yeah, this is evidence. Also these tell us just who to free. Among others.”

Dune: There’s no overarching law here. We are the law. (right?) “Good. We really need to find Morganstern now, to liberate these folks.”

Brad: Well generally the most organized armed force is the law, which is mostly each city states and whatever it can exert military power over.

Toph: “I’m always wary of someone who says ‘I am the law.'”

Toph: “Okay. we’ve got a pyramid out there with an orb on it, and we’ve got. evidence that Morganstern isn’t what we thought. I suggest we take some of these documents, and bury then.  Bury them here, near part of the fence we can find, so that we have a backup. Some we take with us.”

Brad: What now? You might have enough supplies to gear up the bike and get to Morganstern. The truck might be repairable. The radio looks like it’s in good shape. But man you are tired and the sun is going down.

Toph: “we can then either go into the pyramid, or , my suggestion, is to call whoever the fuck is on the other end of the radio.

Brad: Ah cool, you carefully hide some of the certs. Toph add that as LOOT so we remember it and give it 2d6 — it might be useful but as like as not carries risks.

Dune: Interesting. We can tune in and listen for any calls/signals. I wouldn’t know what to say if we called out. (though, Duarte likely would)

Brad: Anyone want to narrate the radio call? Your side anyway

JB: “Yeah, let’s just listen in before we give away our position”

Toph: Jesus turns it on. It’ll be on a channel that gets used. If there’s any traffic we hear it, but if there’s nothing in the first 10 seconds, well Jesus is not patient.

Brad: You turn on the radio and it hums and glows a little between the seams in the housing. Battery seems to be almost full but you know these things drain fast. There is immediate but sporadic traffic. Someone reciting numbers.

JB: I’ll write them down for later (crypt)analysis

Toph: coordinates? anything repeating?

Brad: It’s very faint and on a short wave channel — could be from halfway around the world or 10 meter away. There is a string of 32 numbers each between zero and 256 and they repeat continuously. At first glance they seem random.

Toph: Jesus copies them down on the back of a certificate.

Brad: You record the sequence and the frequency.

Dune: (I’m definitely curious about the tomb/pyramid, but I don’t know if we have any good reason to go tomb-raiding…) We ought to camp.

Brad: (It doesn’t feel like the focus right now but rest assured it’s not there for decoration 🙂

Dune:  Do we have fuel? I’ll check the raised car to see if it’s functioning… if yes, we may take it. If no, we will siphon fuel (if it has).

Toph: “Guys? Has the water helped? Are we bugging out or bringing them to us?”

Brad: I think I’m cool with saying that water and rest is good enough for sunstroke. I’ll let you struggle with imagining a scar to replace the wound. You have zero fuel.

JB: “I say lie low overnight. I think we all need some rest.”

Brad: And you’ll need a nights rest to clear the sunstroke.

Dune: I feel like I would want to be a infiltrate and liberate, rather than a smash and grab or a bait and trap.

Brad: The raised car has no tires and no gas. It might run, though.

Dune: But happy with any plan. Surely we need to rest. “Maybe you can figure out this code. What does it mean, Brainiac?” to Hobs.

Toph: Jesus heads out into the desert, and finds a place to sleep about 500m away.

JB: “Let’s have a look-see here . . . ”

Brad: It looks like it might have been jury rigged to operate a pump of some kind — there’s a canvas belt around one wheel but not attached to anything any more.

Brad: Jesus sleeps while Duarte and Hoberman play with the new reading material under the covers with a flashlight. In the morning you are rested but no wiser. You wake up early. The numbers have no meaning you can discern. It’s still dark but that will change fast in the desert. What do you do?

JB: First rule of cryptanalysis club is you do not use plaintext about cryptanalysis club I’m going to stare at that big disco ball for a bit

Dune: Yeah! I’ll search the perimeter for traps or obvious entrances… (in the natural light before dawn)

Toph: Jesus walks back in towards the shed, where he finds his companions. He’s got sand in his clothes, but he knows it was right to keep distance.

Brad: The sphere hovering over the top of the pyramid is about 10m in diameter and not perfectly smooth. Sort of a hammered look, many coarse facets.

JB: I’m also going to graph those numbers on a coordinate plane

Toph: He looks up at the sphere.  How high above the pyramid is it?

Brad: About a meter. Nothing appears to be holding it up.

Toph: “I’m climbing a pyramid. See if I can knock that thing down.” He picks up the most club-like sledge he can find.

Brad: As the sun rises you get your bearings. It’s nice and clear now. You’re pretty sure Morganstern is about 20km in THAT direction, which according to your notes would make this tomb G-415.

mechanism: city generation rules and relationship maps

Toph: I presume we’ve never seen a sphere like this I want to climb up.  Is it stepped? smooth planes?

JB: “What the heck are you doing, Jesus?”

Dune: Seems we’re inquisitive siblings. Curious family. 😀

The group and geography relationship map.


Toph: “Someone was guarding this place, now there’s no one. That sphere there is what makes this place different. Whoever it is, I want to ruin what they’ve got.”

Brad: The pyramid is not stepped but the facade has long since worn away and so the building stones are exposed. It’s possible to climb up but not easy.

Dune: Any tubes or equipment that looks like the truck pump was taking from the tomb itself?

Toph: Doing it.  “YOu guys coming or you playing with your numbers still?”

Brad:  Whatever equipment was here has been removed but there’s a shallow trench that suggests at one time they may have been pumping water into the sand to make it excavatable.

Dune: I’m still perimeter-ing… scouting the entrance and ground level of the pyramid exterior

Brad: The pyramid itself has no apparent entrances. It’s exhausting to climb but it’s not all that hard. The stones are about a half meter high each.

JB: Fine I’ll go up after him. Idiot

Brad: After a few steps up, you’re about 3 meters above the ground, you see that the next row is undamaged, unworn. Very smooth. The same kind of stone but like new. What do you do? (And it seems that every 7th row is like that.)

JB: “Huh.”

Toph:  See if Hobermann will give me a boost. If not, then take the sledge and make me some footholds.

JB: Wait wait. you mean smooth as in not stair-stepped? Or just that the angled blocks are like new?

Brad: Stair stepped but the step is smooth. No wear.

JB: No need for sledgery. “I don’t have a great feeling about these unworn stones” I’ll drop something expendable on one, cigarette butt or whatever

Brad:  You flick a butt on the next step and it skitters around like a bead of water on a hot griddle.

JB:  “Yeah don’t touch that. Frictionless? But then the next layer of stone wouldn’t stay . . . OK, that’s weird. No less than I’d expect of a tomb, but weird.” Is it possible to get to the next row up without touching that?

Brad: Duarte finishes his circuit of the structure. There are no entrances anywhere and nothing really to differentiate one face from another. JB: Half meter up and a half meter over, then a half meter up. It’s tricky but it won’t be a lethal fall.

Toph: “Push me up, Tactician. Let’s try t make this work.” Jesus pulls his gloves on, nd hovers his hand above the surface.  Is it radiating heat? More than it should from the morning sun?

Brad: No, less. It’s sucking heat from you.

JB: “OK, I’ll give you a boost. If we don’t find a way in, if we can harvest these ‘stones’ they probably have like a million uses.”

Brad: The brothers do their gymnastic trick. I think I’ll call that just ENDURE — it’s not hard but involves a weird angle and some time in that position, then a lot of arm strength. The risk will be HARM — if you blow it, you fall 3m down the stairs.

mechanism: set the risk — this is an obvious one

Toph: (HOb isn’t a brother, right? It’s Duarte, back there on the ground)

Brad: My mistake

Dune: I look up at my brother and old friend.

Brad: You’re all brothers now, born anew in combat together

Toph: WOn’t help when I need a new kidney, though.

Brad: Well surgical technology is such that it will help just as well. Executing this acrobatic? ENDURE + any help. Might need that new kidney sooner than later!

JB: (Trivia: they just stick the new kidney in there, so you have three, when you get a “transplant.”)

Toph: Yep. I’m going up. d8 in Endure.

Brad: Any help?

JB: I also have Endure d8, though d6 with my wound

Brad: Can’t hurt — your muscle is in this too.

Dune: I’m too far

Brad: d8 + d6

JB rolls 1d6 and gets 6.


Toph rolls d8 and gets 8.

Brad: haha

Dune:  WOW!

JB:  Can’t survive a pitched battle but we beat the shit out of these here stairs

Brad: Risk averted and Toph has an advancement — Endure to d10 or add a d6 specialization.

mechanism: advancement

Toph:  take the d10

Brad: Regardless, both hardy adventurers execute a flawless maneuver to lever Jesus up to the next stair. That problem solved, he pulls up Hoberman and they execute the maneuver 4 more times to reach the top.

Toph: Is this spehre sucking heat as well?

JB: Hm, I guess you can’t advance when wounded?

Brad: At the top (thankfully the top three rows are normal)…

Brad: You can’t advance if you didn’t get the high die. But that’s an interesting question anyway.

JB: Right. But I just spotted a perverse incentive

Brad:  Yeah if you’re wounded it’s easier to advance

Toph: But harder to succeed.

Brad: Right

Brad:  Hmm, anyway. Sitting atop the pyramid the sphere is right in front of your face. It’s big and not smooth, with rough facets like it was beaten into shape with a ball peen hammer. But shiny and brilliantly so. And nothing seems to be holding it up.

JB: Big round marimba. I mean steel drum

Dune:  golf ball 😀

Brad: Dune, you getting bored down there?

Toph: Hairs on my arm sticking up bcause of electricity? Bel buckle drwn to it because of magnetism?

Brad: Because you see dust on the horizon.

Brad: No it seems to have no affect on its surroundings at all other than the optical.

Dune:  I’m not bored.

JB: “Try hitting it with your wrench.”

Dune: Just watching from below.

Toph: “My brother wants a golf ball. Let’s send it down to him.” WHam.

Dune: If I can see them. Maybe I can just see that they disappeared at the peak.

Toph: “Oy!  look up.”

Brad: The wrench makes an unsatisfying click. You were expecting a bong or at least a ping but no. This thing is dense and does not resonate.

JB: Can we spin it?

Toph: DOes it budge

Brad: Dune, you can now see there are vehicles approaching. They are a few km away still.

Brad: It does not move.

JB: (Related, book recommendation: Revenger, Alistair Reynolds. Great tombs. Like, literally just like this.)

Dune: I whistle up to my brothers, and go tidy the camp (aka conceal our presence)

JB: I’ll toss some water on it

Dune: If they look down and seem me, they’ll see I’m hurriedly tidying.

JB: Maybe that’s what the pumping was about

Brad: The whistle from below draws your attention. There are vehicles heading your way. A halftrack, a couple of motorcycles. And three buses.

ref move: start some shit

JB: Oh, and I’ll look down since Duarte whistled. Yikes.

JB: “I think we better leave”

Brad: The water runs off the sphere like water off a sphere.

JB: Very funny, Infocom parser

Brad: How about we break there? A little early but the newcomers threaten a relatively complex response.

getting more arts

You liked a post! That’s awesome!

I want to make clear that I’m not going to be talking just about me here. I am talking about me but I don’t want you to take away a guilt trip for inadequately supporting me. You are not obligated to do anything and you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing nothing. However, the established spaces for creatives to work have been steadily making it harder to make a buck creating things like comics, essays, games, and artwork. There are, however, things you can do to help claw back what we once had! And many of them are totally free. The only reason you’re not doing them is that you probably don’t realize the positive impact they can have.

So first, like the thing. Give it a heart, a thumbs up, whatever. That’s a minimum and it helps up front — a pat on the back is always nice — and it helps later. On it’s own it’s not much, it’s not a sale, it’s not even really a potential sale, but it’s nice. And it reinforces and amplifies later actions.

So like the thing.

Now re-share it. That’s usually one click. Painless. This is important because re-sharing is how the whole internet amplification thing works: the artist’s individual reach, the number of people their initial post gets to, is supposed to be the tip of the iceberg. The re-share, boost, whatever button is there to multiply the effect: if you really liked it and liked it enough to want more, you tell your friends (many of whom the artist has not reached yet). If they do the same, we have an exponentially growing awareness of the material. So if you like it, ask yourself if you’d like to see more. If you want to see more, re-share it.

And here’s the knock-on effect I hinted at: when people see a lot of likes on a re-share, they are predisposed to follow through on the link. So the like is not worthless, it’s just that its best effect is indirect.

So re-share the thing.

I got nothing. I just like this picture. And pictures boost posts.

Re-share buttons only operate in the context of the medium you saw the material in. Another thing you can do that’s more effort but amazingly powerful is to pull the link out and post about it in another medium! See that thing on Twitter? Tell your friends on G+. Or wherever you post. Forums are great — they are little islands that the artist has likely never heard of let alone visited. Offer the material to a new context and you amplify the artist’s voice even further. A little more work to demonstrate your enthusiasm and it pays huge dividends.

So re-post the thing.

So far these things you can do are pretty cheap and have an enormous impact. The next thing you can do at a little more effort is to talk about the material or the artist or both in your own posts, tweets, whatever instagrams are. When you post original material about someone elses work you give it credibility as well as exposure. And their work becomes linked with yours. You start to share those eyeballs.

So if you have your own platform to shout at the internet from, acknowledge, discuss, review other peoples’ material. You get a content topic for the day and they get a boost and a little more credibility as something that’s demonstrably worth talking about.

Finally, of course, there is always financial support. Buy the book, put a buck in the Patreon. These are all great and they are really the final impact the artist hopes for: we are looking to pay the bills! However, we’re playing a numbers game — payments are from a percentage of people that see the original material. If you get more eyeballs, at some point you’re guaranteeing a sale even if it’s not your buck. So by all means by the thing but don’t feel you have to. Your re-share or review might reach enough people to make ten sales! It counts. It’s important. It’s appreciated.

And let’s talk a little about reciprocity, since artists help other artists as well. You’re not going to see all the re-shares that happen but when you do see one and it’s by a fellow artist ask yourself what you’ve done to help them. They spent some effort there to promote, engage, enthuse about your art. Give them a leg up too. You don’t have to want to buy something in order to be enthusiastic about it in public. Artists boosting other artists is a genuine statement of community: we are going to help each other. But that “each other” is super important — if one doesn’t see any reciprocity eventually the re-shares will stop.

So if you like a thing, rather if you like it enough that you want to see more tomorrow, please consider taking one extra step past the like button. Consider becoming a fan by aligning yourself with the artist and speaking about your enthusiasm. Did you have fun? Did you smile? Did you feel an emotion? Want more?

Now you know how to get more.


I was recently re-reading Eisenstein’s Film Form: Essays in Film Theory because this is one of the first times anyone thought really hard about what makes cinema distinct. There are a lot of obvious things (pictures that move) but what Eisenstein dug into was how you use this medium to tell stories, and how that’s unique.

Central to his discussion is the idea of montage, but not in the sense that we mean it today. Rather the idea that film storytelling is best (and now pretty much exclusively) accomplished by cutting together short (often very short) scenes. You’re probably thinking that all media does that.


In film these scenes can be tremendously short. We watch so much film (even though it’s not film any more) that we don’t generally notice how short scenes are. In the theatre we might run one continuous scene on stage for minutes or even hours. The story unfolds in real time. Count the cuts in your favourite movie sometime: they last seconds. Parts of it we perceive as one scene, but in fact the camera cuts from face to face to two-shot to establishing shot (yes that sometimes happens in the middle) to flashback to closeup. Very quickly. This whole idea, or at least the formalization of it, is Eisenstein’s. Since writing down the idea, this is pretty much the only way we make movies. The film-maker shoots hours and hours of footage related to the story and then someone — arguably the real genius — grabs fragments from the pile and edits them together to tell a story.

The only things remotely like a sequential story are the script, the storyboard, and the final product. Everything in the middle is chaos and miles and miles of film.

We sometimes use montage in role-playing games in order to collapse a sequence of events into a flashback or to fast-forward through an important, but not important in detail, scene. Like a training montage, which we stole from film.

So in our play theatre, because role-playing games are more like theatre than film, montage has a special effect: it collapses time. It also does something else: it expands experience. That is, it expands “we train for a week” into a set of short mechanical elements you can engage with systematically. This makes the training downtime bigger in our heads. The more often you engage the system the bigger that period of play is. There’s probably a better word for it, but to me it is embiggened.

This last realization, that montage expands, is what led me to the large scale conflict system in Sand Dogs. We want a large scale conflict to be big! One roll is not going to be enough because there’s just not enough narration around a single roll to give the impression of size, of time, and of the complexity of unfolding events. But we (or me anyway) also don’t want to turn the session into a tactical wargame because the details of how the whole conflict unfolds and resolves are just not part of the scope of this game.

Yes, this example is from actual play and also triggered the creation of this image, which I talked about before.

So, montage. Here’s the rule and an example:

Large scale conflict

Sometimes a conflict is bigger than one player solving something, like a battle. In this case each character should supply their own scene–entirely local to them–in the larger conflict and roll for that. This establishes scenes in a montage for the larger scale conflict.

Once the montage is done you’ll have a set of events that have succeeded or failed, with and without risks being realized. From that, stage a resolving scene taking into account what happened in the montage. If things went badly, stage a desperate escape scene perhaps. If things went well, maybe the conflict is how to mop up or who to save. In any case, the resolving scene is a normal scene with one player as primary and it completes the conflict. Set the risk accordingly.


A group of plucky defenders entrenched with help from the players is under attack by aircraft, armoured cars, and infantry. Montage!

Jesus crews the machinegun and tries to shoot down the aircraft. Risk is cost (planning to destroy the players’ vehicle) but a roll of 8 on their Violence and one of the aircraft goes down trailing smoke. The other breaks off.

Hoberman stands up shouting orders leveraging their tactical knowledge — they have Know at d10 and a specialization of Violence. They know their stuff! Risk is harm and they roll a pair of 1s and get wounded. Also that fail indicates that this montage will fail!

Duarte triggers the explosives they set up while preparing defenses using Mischief with risk waste. They roll a fail as well and the explosives go off too close and too early. Many are wounded and the players’ half-track is flipped over destroying all their stores of fuel and water.

Now things are bad so the ref stages the resolution scene: the enemy overruns the outer position at great cost and the fighting is now hand to hand. Hoberman needs assistance and the half-track is not accessible. What do you do?

Jesus takes the lead, stealing a friendly motorcycle and sidecar to escape the battlefield, rolling Chase. Duarte helps with their Locate skill, identifying a vehicle with the keys still in it. The ref chooses the risk to be delay: if they fail then they are captured. If they succeed but realize the risk then they are forced to flee in the direction of open desert without any supplies. If they succeed without realizing the risk then they escape and find their way to town.

What we find is that expanding the one roll to three individual rolls, focused on individual experience and each with its own resolution, is sufficient to expand the action in scale. And then an interpretation on the part of the ref (what do those rolls mean happens next) leads to one roll that wraps up the conflict. That’s a montage in both the folk sense and the film theory sense. We make a bigger thing seem big enough by stitching together some short things. And we engage those short things mechanically which expands their time-on-screen in play because mechanism takes more time to operate for the amount of narration it generates. And we somewhere in our brains decode time in play as a satisfying amount of time in scene.

being inside the machine

There was a time when what interested me about games was the detail of the simulation. This was mostly a time before inexpensive computers, and so we played games where we, the players, basically pushed the bits and found solutions. Now of course there were layers of abstraction to make this practical, but in some cases this abstraction was pretty thin. Take, for example, Avalon Hill’s (thanks, Ian) SPI’s Air War.air war

Hurray, a jet fight wargame, right? Okay, in this game you track your total energy. You track your wing loading, I think I recall. You basically have a dashboard of sliders and dials covered in chit that you manipulate to determine the new vector of your aircraft based on your control inputs and the environment. Including air pressure.

Heaven forbid you launch a missile, because now you need to track that in almost the same detail! I recall trying to fly straight with this game. Then after a few weeks I felt comfortable making a turn. I think we may have played a dogfight once but not finished it because everyone was too afraid to fire a missile and deal with that whole set of rules and there was no way in the world we were going to navigate these planes into gun range.

But we had a gas!

So clearly the top level game, the part that’s about dogfighting and winning or losing, that was a complete bust. We never ever actually played that game to completion. But the game of being inside the simulation machine and being exposed to all the cogs and springs and seeing exactly how our inputs changed the machine state, well that was enormous fun. And it was a great lesson in game design, in how interacting components work. And in how to abstract complexity: I mean, we didn’t have to solve any differential equations but the abstraction, the dials and sliders, were actually doing that albeit in a simplified form. I learned a lot from this and similar games.

Then there was a computer revolution and I could get a flight simulator where I could concentrate on the top level game and not worry so much about what happened inside the machine. This was astounding. I don’t want to paint the inside-the-machine days as being utopic. It was its own kind of fun but it wasn’t this. And so I took up computer programming.

One thing I learned from computer programming and actually building simulations (though not games) was that in many ways the computer version is less authentic than the games were. When you make the mechanism invisible to the user you can get away with outrageous shortcuts. Shortcuts that are fine within the limitations of the scope of the simulation: your user can never tell the difference. In fact a scientist would be hard put to tell the difference in many cases. Because you can take some mind-blowing shortcuts that leave your simulation perfectly intact as long as the bits you cut off are not part of the scope of your output. Anyway, I was disillusioned. I saw through my flight simulators. They were a shame!

So I got back into the machine.

Ad Astra Games makes boardgames for space combat that are hyper-realistic. And you are unabashedly placed within the machine. You have a reticle that represents everything around you in 3D-space so you can figure out what direction missiles are coming from. You have ships that orient on all three axes. You have accurate representation of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Railguns. Energy weapons. Heat loading. And man are you inside that machine with thousands of things to poke.

And there are elegant abstractions to guide you, clever dials and templates and rules of thumb to simplify what is genuine math. The number of shortcuts are very limited indeed.

Ao I bought Attack Vector: Tactical and gave it a spin. It was everything I remembered

attack vector
That’s not me playing — you can tell because someone has launched a missile I think — but check out how ship orientation is indicated! That ship is on angles!!

about Air War. It took me ages to figure out how to move. I fired a railgun and spent three hours learning how much I missed by. I launched a missile but we had to break for dinner before it could leave the ship.

We never played the game. But we did get inside the machine for a while. I’ve had my fill now. This is not something that engages me fore more than a couple of sessions. I’ll gleefully read the rules. I’ll buy more of this kind of game and read those rules too! But I don’t think it will ever hit the table again. I just don’t have it in me to sit inside that machine any more.