In 1979 Robert Altman made a bomb of a film, Quintet, starring Paul Newman (that’s an edit — for some reason I originally wrote “Robert Redford”, probably because they both remind me of my father somehow) and a number of good (even great) European actors like Vittorio Gassman (The Nude Bomb not, maybe, his best) and Brigitte Fossey.

quintet essex
Is this guy ever not beautiful? He looks so much like my father did.

Like anything by Altman it’s at least interesting. The cinematography is weirdly voyeuristic with every frame vignetted with a blur like looking through a window rimed with ice. The sets were all highly refrigerated, so there’s a constant fog from the actors’ breath. This suits the setting — we’re in a post-apocalyptic world now deep in a nuclear winter and the ice and snow are constants. Technology is gone, we’re down to knives and spears and, well, explosives. Wood is expensive and don’t get the stuff that’s been pulled from the poisoned buildings — it’s been “treated” and creates a toxic fume.

The film has a strange Logan’s Run vibe, but more serious and more complex. But not more fun — it’s convoluted and medieval and cold and weird and slow. And gory (it got 18+ classifications all over the place for the violence and severed limbs). Lots of dogs eating people. It’s not clear why no one eats the dogs.

Anyway, the reason this film is especially interesting given the context of this blog — games — is that it centers around a board game called Quintet. And Altman and the crew developed the rules for this game and it works. If you were lucky enough (or unlucky given what a bomb the film was) to see an early screening, you got a pamphlet with the rules. Yup now you have a copy too.

Quintet is interesting because there’s a sort of referee — there are five players and the so-called “sixth man” who determines the allowed killing order of the players. You can only kill the person clockwise from you on the killing circle which the sixth player arranges. The objective of this “sixth man” is to arrange the killing order such that the weakest player is left to play in the endgame. Only then do their pieces come out.

quintet board
Beautiful wooden Quintet board with actual play going on courtesy of Smout Allen (@SmoutAllen on Twitter)

Play happens on a pentagonal board with a center space, a limbo space in each “sector” of the pentagon, and five “rooms” at the edge of each sector. In the initial move you throw two dice and move each piece to a room in your sector, six being limbo, as called for by the dice.

Thereafter you move a piece the sum of both your dice or use each die separately, moving clockwise or counter as you choose. Your objective is to share a room with your victim, killing that piece. If you kill both their pieces they are out of the game and the killing circle closes up: you have a new victim.

If you share a room with someone who isn’t your victim you are allied — no one can enter the room and kill either of you. But the killing order could change….

Now there are a couple of rules missing from the pamphlet. I’ll try to derive them from the film or make up a good guess.

If you roll a six you may enter the Limbo section of the sector you’re in. That’s in the rules. You have to leave on your next roll. But there are two ways this could work: you could use any die to enter any room in the sector and count starting there or you could enter the appropriately numbered room. The first makes a move out of limbo very powerful. The second presents the possibility that you could wind up back in limbo. Maybe in the next sector? Both are interesting.

EDIT: the film does indeed give a clue how to resolve this when Fernando Rey’s character says “it’s like spending the whole game in limbo, throwing an infinite series of sixes”. So it seems you enter the numbered room from limbo, staying there if you roll a six. Or maybe you enter anywhere and count off unless you roll a six. Clues but no real evidence.

The pamphlet doesn’t say how the sixth player enters the board in the endgame but there is a scene (when Essex plays Ambrosia for the first time) where this happens: the sixth player enters into the survivor’s home sector. We know this because Ambrosia calls Essex foolish for making his last kill in his home sector, giving Ambrosia a possible first-roll kill.

Are there other rules missing? I find this document poorly structured to teach the game but after multiple readings I think I have a handle on it. Has anyone out there played?


When I was young — say between 15 and 21 — I pretty much exclusively ran sandbox games. Hex crawls, really. I’d make a map, usually a huge map, with some named locations on it and a lot of different terrain and then set off the adventure with some very basic kicker, like a rites-of-passage quest to get 12 Amusing Things. And then the game would essentially be driven by random encounters and me ad libbing Story off of randomly generated magic items and my colourful place names. This was very satisfying gaming.

I’ve run plenty of unsandboxy games too. What would a good word for that be anyway? Mission-driven gaming was my favourite — spies with an objective, that kind of thing. Episodic. Still plenty of ad lib since all I’d write down was the mission brief and then wing everything else. Sometimes the mission brief was crazy simple, a phone call perhaps, with someone hysterically wailing about carnage at the Michael Jackson concert.

Turns out it was werewolves.

So sandboxery isn’t ad lib. I can ad lib at least two ways.

So what is it? Am I sandboxerizing now with the Soft Horizon games? Let me tell you how they run and you can tell me.

A Soft Horizon game starts with characters, an organization they belong to and a kicker. The kicker is a problem the organization has that needs solving. It’s vague. Something like “a client got de-certified here; find out what’s up”. And then there’s a place that’s randomly created with just a couple of phrases. And then there’s the over-arching conflict of the plane. In The King Machine it’s the fact that the King is bad and the King’s bad actions are ruining a Good Thing here. There’s some advice about what that might entail. In Sand Dogs it’s the fact that there are tombs full of sleeping gods and improbable goods and people are literally dying to turn that into wealth.

And then as the players address their central conflict they screw up and the system generates new problems. As ref I pretty much just ad lib descriptive text around that problem and then go with the flow. All I have for plans is a sheet that has one or two ideas for “starting some shit” should things slow down.

So is that sandboxery? There’s no map (well there’s a relationship map). There are no encounter tables (though the game twists around a die roll that performs the same twist-the-plot function as an encounter table). It feels pretty sandboxish to me.

But then I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world? I never did that. Maybe I never sandboxed.

What the hell have I been playing all these years? Does it lack a category? Or are categories mostly bullshit? Or somewhere in between — maybe no category can really embrace anything but rather has some idealized play and then almost everything is clustered around the tails of that bell curve.

Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?

Is that useful? Where are your actual favourite games rather than my straw man? Are they sandboxes?

So where would we put an optimal sandbox game? From some of the things I’ve read we’re looking at:

graph 2

Is that right? Doesn’t seem to cover all the talk about sandboxing but certainly some of it. Maybe the whole left hand side is sandboxish.

Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.

Most importantly though, if I tell you my game is a sandbox and you buy it and then disagree, are you going to be upset?

graph all

oh those bundles

Yay a space ship! Hurray!

So you’re probably aware that the Bundle of Fate 4 contains Elysium Flare. Hurray! These bundles are always good sellers and they give 10% of proceeds to a charity. Hurray! They don’t make a ton of money but they do generate a lot of units sold, and I always hope that some percentage of those will result in play, reviews, and on a really great day, investigation of other VSCA products. Hurray!

This Bundle’s charity is the EFF. Hurray!

You probably guessed from all those hurrays that there’s a dark cloud behind all that silver lining. Well not really, but sorta. There’s a cloud of drama. So I want to clarify what happened as far as I care (that is, I know things that are not interesting to my decisions and are private to individuals and I think they should sort that shit out, but it is not my place to do so) since you maybe got a whiff of it.

When I got notification that the Bundle was ready to roll with Elysium Flare in it I was told that the charity would be ConTessa, which I was stoked for. ConTessa is a well organized con-within-a-con that floats to various conventions and prioritizes games by women about women for women. At least that used to be the case. Now they have become move diverse, embracing LGBTQ and people of colour as part of their mandate. Awesome before, awesomer now. ConTessa is a whole bunch of people organizing well for a good reason and getting shit done. I am onside.

When I got notification that the Bundle was live, the charity was the EFF. All cool, I thought, something fell through, and now it’s EFF and not ConTessa. Honestly I was not interested in why that happened — there are a lot of people involved in organizing these things and I am just not going to stick my head in a bee hive any more. I’ve been there, been stung, got no honey. Both good charities, so whatever.

After that I got word that there were some screw ups. Someone objected to ConTessa, ConTessa got informed before the thing was finalized, and the Bundlerizer was in the unenviable position of having to either lose an important contributor or back out on a deal with ConTessa. And then they maybe could have handled that better. All in all there was a lot of poor communication resulting in a lot of unhappy people and some old grudges re-stoked at second and third hand since the first hands don’t talk. I was very disappointed. I feel like we should be past this sort of thing now. We’re not.

Anyway, I’m not going to point fingers. I think it was a clusterfuck and as with any clusterfuck, there’s plenty of blame to go around. I wish all would just own up to the disaster, apologize, find a way to repair relationships and move on. I am not holding my breath. Not my problem, though.

What is my problem is that ConTessa got screwed out of a decent donation. So if you buy the Bundle of Fate 4, you should at least know that half of the VSCA profits will got to ConTessa. If you have already chosen a side in this, I would beg you to reconsider. There are no teams here with clean hands. Declaring a side would mostly be in the same category as wearing your football team’s shirt: good for your cheering section and choosing who to beat up after, but of no particular value for solving actual problems. This problem does not need anyone cheering it on from the sidelines.

So please, buy the Bundle. Buy it even if you disagree with the charity change. Buy it even if you agree. You could choose to notice that if you have chosen a side then now, with my action, buying it benefits the other side. You could also choose to notice that now it benefits everyone.

It’s on you now.


a novel way to fly through space

space sperm.png
A typical space sperm retro-fit for a small crew. The lack of weapons indicates that tis is likely a scout vessel of some kind, perhaps seeking the source of these enigmatic an now essential alien cells.

For a long time it was taken as fact that it would forever be impossible to travel faster than light. Sure, there were a million research projects looking into promising warp fields, transfer beams, pi-muon flux destabilizers, and what-not but none of it bore fruit. And so the first starship was not so much invention as discovery: a backwards flash of negative light recorded by astronomers, a chance collision with the magNet of a Jovian research facility, and humanity caught its first starship.

The problem was, what they caught in the net wasn’t a starship. It was an enormous generative cell — a sperm cell — of unknown origin. Something deep in the chaotic complexities of its biology facilitated travel faster than light. Much, much faster than light. And so two projects began in earnest.

The first and most obvious was to expand the magNet project to catch more sperm.

The second was an engineering effort to modify the captured sperm so that humans could ride in it, guide it, and live in it. And, as it turns out, be sustained by it.

And so, now we have the FTL spermship.

Artificial vacuoles provide control spaces, and airlock, sleeping quarters and so on as needed, all without killing the host cell. Indeed, it seems to thrive, especially if its organelles are wired into a galley, allowing the humans to milk them for their strange and sustaining fluids. Giant alien ribosomes for lunch, juice from the mitochondrion (more powerful than the blackest cup of coffee), and constantly regenerated strips of dried monstrous lymphocite are available for any occasion. And the use seems to spur the health and even growth of the ship.

Questions remain, of course. How long will the sperm ship live? Anything organic likely has a finite lifespan but now the oldest spermships are a dozen years old and show no signs of wearing down.

What exactly is the origin of these cells? The radiant is somewhere out in Sagittarius but that’s a big piece of galactic real estate. And who says it’s even in this galaxy? But what sort of mammalian monstrosity (and genetic analysis of these cells does indicate that they are, improbably, mammalian) ejaculates these faster-than-light cells into the void? And where and what exactly is the recipient?

But maybe most importantly, how does life aboard ship change a human crewmember, with the constant proximity, contact, and even ingestion of alien cellular material? What will we become now that we can travel the stars? And what will we find, whatever we are when we get there?

Certainly we know now that the universe is vastly stranger than we previously thought.

from the academic archives…how can being swallowed whole by a purple worm get worse? intestinal goblins.

The chief objective of the intestinal goblin is to increase the size of the worm to allow them to expand their family and the comfort of their surroundings. In order to do this, they have developed the skill of “ganglial manipulation”. It’s not clear whether this is technological, strictly manual, or magical, but intestinal goblins have at least one specialized member that can control what the purple worm senses. — Liam Albarus, “Intestinal Parasites of the Purple Worm”, undated submission to Diseases and Disorders In Fantasy Monsters

The Setup

You and your friends got swallowed whole by a Purple Worm. It happens. However, before you get started hacking your way out you notice signs of…life? Well of course. But maybe signs of…civilization? How could that be?! The gullet is littered with bones and candy wrappers and is covered in callouses as though many feet had trod this path before you.

It’s not as acidic as you’d been led to believe. And there’s a faint light from further down the throat.

Darest thou explore further? Of course thou darestses.


The Dungeon

Whenever you are moving between rooms, roll 1d6 on the Intestinal Event table immediately and then move to the next room. Whenever you enter a room, apply the contents immediately!

Intestinal Events

1. Peristalsis! Immediately move into the next room and land out of control. Everyone is surprised! Things might get dropped. Peristalsis is always towards the Rectum. In the case of the Appendix there is only one direction to go.

2. Wild Dire Lymphocytes! A whole pack of them. I bet you wish you knew why they never attack the Intestinal Goblins.

3. Wild Dire E.Coli! A swarm of the disease-laden giant microbes.

4. Intestinal Goblin patrol. 1d4 Intestinal Goblin Soldiers about their business.

5. An amusing thing swallowed by the purple worm.

6. Acid reflux! Immediately move to the previous room and take acid damage. If you’re in the mouth already you don’t get to escape: you swirl around in the mouth and take double damage. Purple worms hate throwing up. Acid reflux is always towards the mouth. In the case of the Appendix there is only one direction to go.

1. The Stomach

This is where the Intestinal Goblin family lives. Here you find the Goblin Matriarch, 3 of her husbands (Goblin Soldiers), and 12 of her Goblin Children and their 2 pet Dire Mitochondria. All of the goblins are painted head to toe with a blue paste which is obviously some tribal thing. There are pots of the blue paste near the exit from the stomach.

The Intestinal Goblin family has a hoard of things that purple worms swallow. They have thrown away all the cash but other shiny objects have been retained.

The blue paste is an extract of Dire E.Coli. Covering oneself in it makes you invisible to Dire Lymphocytes.

2. The Appendix

In the Appendix hang dozens of nerve ganglia that attach ultimately to the gut-brain of the purple worm. From here the Goblin Navigator can make the worm do what it needs: move, fight, eat, poop. Anything.

You encounter the Goblin Navigator and his 3 pet Trained Dire Lymphocytes here, and he can use his attack action to cause one item from the Intestinal Events table to occur. His choice. If he chooses Peristalsis, he is not affected since he holds on tight. If he chooses Acid Reflux he does not move but does take acid damage. His pets have to deal with all the effects.

3. The Rectum

Here we find the rear-guard of the goblin tribe. In fact, from their perspective this is the front since this is the route that enemy tribes of Intestinal Goblins will take to enter the worm and steal it or plunder it. No one would enter from the mouth. That would be stupid.

There are 4 Goblin Soldiers here and each has a pet Trained Dire E.Coli. They are facing towards the anus and easily surprised if approached from the large intestine.


There are many strange things inside a purple worm, but the most deadly are the Intestinal Goblins and their pets.

Goblin matriarch

A powerful witch who leads this goblin tribe. She is fierce and ruthless and will do anything to keep her children safe.

Goblin soldiers

A tough but stupid veteran of The Wars, soldiers fight with found weapons and armour.

Goblin children

Weak, innocent, and friendly but willing to risk it all to save mom if it comes to that. Or their pets.

Goblin navigator

A canny shaman.

Wild Dire Lymphocytes

Dire lymphocytes protect the purple worm from invaders and the wild ones do so aggressively. Anything that doesn’t belong in the worm will get attacked and they will fight to the death. You can treat them like some kind of ooze or jelly. They dissolve you and move surprisingly fast.

They can’t see E.Coli or anything covered in essence of E.Coli.

Wild Dire E.Coli

Smaller than the Dire Lymphocyte, Dire E.Coli are not terribly aggressive in the wild. They will fight back if attacked.

Trained Dire Lymphoctyes

These are just like wild ones except they obey goblin commands.

Trained Dire E.Coli

These are just like wild ones except they obey goblin commands.

Trained Dire Mitochondria

Not much bigger than your forearm, these are just cute. Like greasy little wiggly sausages!

(this material was previously published in zines and other places)