All the Stuff I Didn’t Write in 2018

It’s time for my semi-annual “imma write more this year i promise” post. Last year was terrible on so many levels, and though my inability to stick to any kind of posting schedule is kinda eclipsed by the President’s office of Chechnya whining about RPGs, this is at least the kind of thing I can affect personally.

Hey Mr President Ramzan Kadyrov, is this your cat?

Well, in any substantial fashion, at least.

Truth be told, there were a lot of posts that I started and then never finished, or that never made it past the outline stage, or that I promised but never even began to write. It’s been an exhausting year and news, gaming and otherwise, make the entire genre of horror fiction feel redundant. Writing about anything of substance – and a lot of perfectly inconsequential things – feels like it carries with it an invitation for abuse from a myriad of online cesspits.

But hey, illegitimi non carborundum. So here’s a turn-of-the-year listing of the ten most interesting posts that never made it off the drawing board but actually really should have, cut down into a couple of paragraphs instead of the nuanced 2,000 words most of them would deserve.

Delta Green Has Aged… Poorly

First of all, let it be known that I love Delta Green. The first edition and Delta Green: Countdown are some of the finest gaming books ever written, and especially Countdown keeps getting named as the best ever. It’s not entirely undeserved. The idea of a conspiracy of agents within the American law enforcement, intelligence, and military organizations fighting against the gribbly things of the Cthulhu Mythos was a really great idea. In the 90s.

The problem with this is, of course, that we’re no longer in the 90’s. The cultural touchstones for FBI agents and American special forces is no longer The X-Files and Hollywood action films. Nowadays it’s Guantanamo Bay, and Seal Team 6’s war crimes, Black Lives Matter, NSA Director Keith Alexander’s megalomania, and a drone strike after drone strike. While as a game DG2E is very good, where it falls down for me is in its lack of acknowledgement that as a member of these organizations the PCs themselves or their superiors at the very latest are very likely complicit or directly guilty of some pretty terrible crimes. JSOC isn’t a heroic background, it’s what you should be fighting against. And it really doesn’t help that Tcho-Tchos are nowadays a legitimate and recognized ethnic minority in the United States with their own anti-racism initiative.

This post actually did make it out into the world, in the surface-scratch form of a review I wrote for PlayLab!

I Was a Magic Newspaperman

Professor Rabasse. Photo by Przemysław Jendroska.

I played at College of Wizardry again, bringing back my character from College of Wizardry: The Challenge. This time around, Étienne Rabasse was a hotshot young journalist attached to a visiting lecturer position at Czocha College, which meant that I did the school paper again.

This post, if it ever sees the light of day, would be a practical look at churning out several issues of a fake broadsheet during a larp, what the benefits are for the game, how to make the on-site production as painless as possible, and perhaps a different alternatives to how it could be made. I will not even attempt a summary, and to be honest, it’s more likely to be in a future KP book than here, because it’s also going to be rather more rigorous work than my usual word-noodling here and possibly even deserves the dead-tree treatment.

As an entirely tangential side note, I will be playing Professor Rabasse for the third time at College of Wizardry 20 in April. I will not do the newspaper.

Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition – Twelve Hangry Men

I bought and played the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. I liked it, especially the Hunger Dice and how they drive the game onwards. I also like the recommendation that combats are played for three rounds and the ended the way things were going. Fighting was always the least interesting bit of Vampire for me. I like the graphic design, though admittedly a part of that is because some of the images are from the 2016 run of the larp End of the Line, which I played.

I also like the Anarch and Camarilla books, except for the Chechnya chapter which really is badly written, though in my opinion if it offends Ramzan Kadyrov that he’s depicted as a bloody-handed tyrant in thrall to a greater power he really should stop oppressing his own people and donate his collection of Vladimir Putin t-shirts to Goodwill or something.

I think the ruleset in general is superior to the older version, and the advances in metaplot and slight rewriting of things make for a more playable setting. Tremere are allowed to do cool shit without being immediately dusted by their superiors. The major sectarian conflict being now Camarilla vs. Anarchs feels like both sides are playable much more than the former Camarilla vs. Sabbat. I’m kinda on the fence about the Second Inquisition, but it’s very versatile in how it can be played.

I backed the Chicago by Night kickstarter. I’m looking forward to future releases, though if Modiphius is really not going to make Camarilla and Anarch available after the preorders are done, that is a shame.

And though the current incarnation of White Wolf made some definite missteps in PR and marketing, their stewardship also saw the production of a Vampire larp in the European Parliament.

Living Greyhawk Ten Years Later

The Living Greyhawk organized play campaign ended ten years ago. The campaign saw the release of over 2,000 adventure modules in its eight years of existence, and it was magnificent. Sometimes it was terrible, sometimes weird, often clunky, but always fun. It was a baroque creation that ran away from its creators as the regional triads started creating their own regional identities and the players took plotlines in unexpected directions. It was simultaneously a marketing scheme and an enormous, unique co-creative work of art. Nothing has approached it since – Pathfinder Society and Adventurers’ League are both too firmly in the leash.

We shall never see its like again, and it should not be forgotten.

I did write a post about Living Greyhawk for Loki, but of course, the language barrier applies.

Fairweather Manor Revisited

I also played at Fairweather Manor. Again. Whereas my last game was mostly serious except when it a scene out of P.G. Wodehouse intruded, somewhat political, and somewhat removed from the scheming of the aristocracy, this time was the complete opposite.

My character was Patrick “Jack” Hennessy, the firstborn son of the Duke’s black sheep brother. He was born in Hong Kong, lived there for most of his life and was stuck in England because of the war along with his younger sister Ginny. He was essentially an entitled brat with no sense of consequence but all the privilege. He was also Buddhist, and Orientalist in a somewhat insipid culturally-appropriative way, and wrote letters to his Chinese mistress in Hong Kong. I folded them all text-side outwards and gave them to servants with the instructions to mail them to Hennessy House in Hong Kong, they’ll know what to do with them. They were signed “Your Monkey, Jack.”

It’s a testament to the robustness of design that what for me in one run was a serious and emotional experience, in another run was transformed into an upstairs-downstairs comedy while still allowing other people to play the experiences they sought. Partly this is due to the sheer size of the game, partly because having a fully realized character also allows you to step into more – or less – serious play when someone else’s game requires it.

This is another game I will be revisiting in 2019. Having played two of the three male pacifist characters in the game, I thought I’d go for an officer.

We did some fencing. Photo by Kamil Wędzicha.

War of Agaptus: Fate of Ashes Review

This is actually something I was supposed to do over a year ago, but a computer malfunction ate around a thousand words of text, and I was too pissed off to continue, and then it was just one distraction after another in real life, around the same time as my output here generally petered out. I’ve returned to the review now and then to noodle around with it, but I’d really need to re-read the book to do it with the proper depth. So here’s the short version.

War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus is a new [okay, was new] fantasy role-playing game from Evil Hat. Like most of the company’s games, it’s got FATE System purring gently under the bonnet.

The lead designer on the project is Sophie Lagacé. Fate of Agaptus is actually based on a pair of miniature wargames from ZombieSmith, called Shieldwall and Shieldbash. To capitalize on an existing miniatures range, Fate of Agaptus contains a more detailed combat system, involving the use of those miniatures. The book itself is 370 pages long.

The setting is an early Medieval fantasy that eschews the D&D cast of fantasy races and instead presents the four factions: Elvorix, Vidaar, Jarl, and Kuld. The Elvorix are a formerly great civilization now in decline, the Vidaar are an aggressive offshoot of the same race that are raiders and pirates, the Jarl are militarist expansionists, and the Kuld are beastly creatures that are coming down from the north to eat everyone. The sun is growing dim and the inhabitable area of the world is growing smaller, driving everyone to fight for resources. The game calls its aesthetic grimsical. It’s The Muppets in the ranks of The Black Company.

The setting is designed for a wargame and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of combat rules. Some of the stuff adds on to the standard FATE set, such as the froth phase in combat, a cultural feature of the world, where the warriors psych themselves up and try to intimidate their enemies before the bloody business starts. There are occasional asides where the writer highlights this or that thing and explains why it works the way it does, which I like.

Overall, it’s a cool game and executed well, but the setting has a very specific aesthetic that will inevitably divide opinion. Definitely worth a look.

Just a Little Lovin’: A Larp About AIDS and the 80s

In June, I played in the Finnish run of Just a Little Lovin’. It is a larp about the AIDS crisis in the USA, and is set over three consecutive 4th of July parties from 1982 to 1984.

It was one hell of a larp. I have never had my emotions manipulated with such deftness and elegance. It is a larp about friendship, love, and death. It’s regularly described as a life-changing experience. I can likely never hear Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” or Dolly Parton’s version of “Star-Spangled Banner” without a part of me returning to the yard outside Mr T’s summer retreat, saluting a flag as Dennis, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of a free love commune. It’s weird to miss people who are not real. It was a deeply emotional, sad, sometimes sexy game with the warmest, kindest, most supporting player community around it that I have been a part of. 

I’ve had several abortive attempts to write about it but trying to unpack the staggering complexity of the larp and my personal experience feels like a daunting task. There’s a book about the 2013 Danish run of the game available as a free download, and I feel like explaining everything I have to say would probably take another. And then I always have to answer the question of who the hell am I even to tell this story? I belong to none of the communities hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. It is emphatically a story that I have no ownership of. It’s a question that occupied me even about the game itself, and throwing up a wall of text about it on my blog is something I’ve yet to find the confidence to do. 

Just a Little Lovin’ will be run in the UK in the summer of 2019. Signup is now open. The photos on that site are all from the Finland run, incidentally, if you want to see what it looked like.

In Memoriam – Greg Stafford

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the passing of one of the greats of the field. Greg Stafford was the father of Glorantha and creator of King Arthur Pendragon. It’s one of my favourite games even though I’ve only managed to play it a couple of times. Stafford’s grasp of mythology was tremendous, and the influence of his work runs through the DNA of many modern role-playing games.

I never met him, though I did see him in passing when he was at Ropecon many years ago. Unfortunately, I had yet to discover Pendragon at the time.


Hell of a year. I have plans for 2019, but they warrant their own post.

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College of Wizardry: The Challenge

Last month, a couple of weeks before embarking on my trip to play Cabaret, I was at a very different larp, in Poland. Some of you may remember my exploits at College of Wizardry 10 last year. This was more of the same, with a twist. Whereas most College of Wizardry games are about the beginning of the term at the magic college – or in some cases, the midterm exams – The Challenge lifted its concept from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Three colleges of wizardry had been invited to test their mettle against one another, to foster cross-cultural cooperation, and engage in hijinks, shenanigans, and skulduggery.

One of the photosets for The Challenge was released the evening before Cabaret. Talk about tonal whiplash.

The Red Trio, being totally serious. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

The three colleges were the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the setting of the main College of Wizardry games, Nibelungen Universität für Magische Bildung und Studien (or NIMBUS among friends), the school for the German-language spinoff, and New World Magischola, the North American college from the larp series of the same name. NIMBUS was the host school and the game was played at the Kliczków Castle in Poland. NIMBUS itself is located in an indeterminate place but probably somewhere in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The colleges all have five different Houses for students, but there is variation in the paths of the students and the subjects taught.

This was the first run of The Challenge. While my CoW experience was the tenth run of the series and there was a certain routine to the proceedings, this one hadn’t been tested out yet. I see myself as a fairly ideal player for a first run of something like this, because I will let a lot of stuff slide before allowing it to impact my game, and it takes a lot to stress me out. Not that a lot of the design issues were even visible to me until after the game. The Challenge was a good game and a great experience, but there’s work to be done yet.

Voodoo and Top Hats

This is where I talk about my character. I’m still not gonna buy you a drink.

My character this time around was Étienne Rabasse, a third-year artificier from Lakay Laveau, one of the houses of New World Magischola. I figured that this was pretty much my only chance for a very long time to get to play a NWM student, so I went for it.

Étienne Rabasse and distant cousin Dárjá Rosenrot, played by my mother. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

I’d originally signed up for an organizer-written character, but especially the NWM writing team took their time, the majority of players had chosen to write their own characters, and the fairly recognizable popcultural touchstones of Lakay Laveau had started working in my mind, so I finally mailed the lead writer that I’d be creating my own character.

Lakay Laveau is named after its founder Marie Laveau, an actual historical person, who was known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. So I did some reading on New Orleans and the relevant history. Learning from my experience at CoW10, I went for something more outgoing, vocal, and outspoken than Charles Duke had been. I decided Étienne would be more or less a nice person and entirely unconcerned with anyone’s blood status, partly because I knew I’d get enough of that particular theme at Cabaret. He ended up rather what I imagine to be the archetypical Lakay Laveau.

Among my prep, I also put in a lot of hours working on an accent for Étienne, using YouTube videos. I have a knack for accents, but they’re hard. I usually affect a British Received Pronunciation, sometimes Standard American English. Étienne, though, was from the South, and not only the South, from New Orleans, which has a very specific local accent.

It’s also hideously difficult. I don’t know what the specific process for learning an accent is for actors, but at least they get to practice their lines beforehand. To pull off an accent at a larp, you need to be able to dress it on whatever topics emerge in conversation. Dialects are even harder, because you need to be able to use words outside your own active vocabulary spontaneously. Étienne, in the end, spoke with a generic Southern accent that I’m pretty sure hit most states south of the Mason-Dixon at one point or another. No “y’alls”, some French but less than I had planned.

Meet the Press

The regular College of Wizardry has its student clubs – the A.R.M., the W.A.N.D., the Basement Beer Brigade, the Dueling Club, and whatnot. The Challenge had just three: Marconi’s Mumbling Masters, the Devil’s Dealers, and the Snifflers. The first was the radio and the announcers, the second was the bookies and black marketers, and the last one was the staff of The Challenge Chronicle newspaper. Every student was sorted into one of these.

We originally agreed on an editorial triumvirate, with one editor from each school. Étienne was the NWM editor, and I ended up doing most of the work on the paper. If the concept was to produce a newspaper during the Challenge, well, isn’t that the same as a conzine? The execution was simple. I brought in my laptop that I’d prepared with a user account for the Snifflers that would keep anyone away from basically anything that wasn’t the Chronicle’s files. It was always on with the layout file for the next issue open, so anyone on staff – or hell, outside of it but that never happened – could wander in and type up a story at their leisure. At certain times I’d have the accumulated stuff printed out at the GM room – one page, sometimes two.

Spectating the duels. Photo by Ewan Munro.

I ended up doing most of the work. This is not an indictment of anyone else. It’s a big game, there’s lots of stuff going on, challenges and personal plotlines and everything, and it takes a certain mentality to go in the middle of the game to a quiet room and make up a column’s worth of stuff. Especially if English is not one’s first language. Me, I think this is fun, and it also served as character content when Étienne ceased to be a neutral and objective observer and took a political position after a public execution.

We did have a selection of filler material created before the game, but in the end none of it was used and everything that got printed was written during play. There was no shortage of interesting stuff to report on.

As a side note, the issue criticizing the execution was out within the hour. I’m a bit proud of that. Also, “I need to get the morning issue printed” was an excellent justification for getting a hall pass and wandering around after curfew. And if I mentioned in my CoW10 writeup that I wrote more stuff than during actual college courses, I’m pretty sure I outdid my output here.

The issues of The Challenge Chronicle, which are probably not interesting to anyone who wasn’t at the game, are available for download.

The Game Itself

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of everything. The game had something like 140 players, so there was a lot going on pretty much at all times. There were the obligatory rituals at night (we did one at the gazebo! it was awesome!), and werewolves, and vampires, and there was a lot of duelling, and drama, and the most mind-boggling wedding. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t have the time to cover it for The Challenge Chronicle.

And then there was the core of the thing, the actual challenges, the tasks we were given. The game of it. The winning.

In classic CoW, there is of course the House Cup and the race for House Points, but it’s not the main goal of the game, or at least doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly legitimate not to give a damn about points and do your thing, deductions be damned. You can play to lose. In The Challenge, there’s less alibi for that since the characters are there as the school team, the students picked for their skill, talent, motivation or mystical and hard-to-define protagonistiness to represent their alma mater. When you’re there for the tournament, it’s hard to not care about the tournament.

So, playing to lose gets harder to justify to the character, and to the game. You play to win. This is something I feel should be reflected in the design of the challenges.

For the record, I have no knowledge of how the challenges were designed. Some of them were created by the organizers and most by the staff players. Most of the challenges worked well for me and I had great fun.

The duellist Daniel Fabel. Étienne was a fan. Photo by Ewan Munro.

There were a couple of places, though, where I felt that the rule that the target or recipient of a spell gets to decide its effect intersected badly with the goal to win, and the situation looked like the player of an opposing school had the opportunity to screw you over for points. I am merely commenting on the optics of the situation, not that anyone would have consciously done so. It was especially troublesome when the spell isn’t simple, like an attack spell – reacting to breakaleggio in the appropriate manner is easy. The duelling challenge worked fine and was a great show besides. However, dropping into a complex emotional situation is really hard, and while I do have trust in the judge players, it was not obvious or transparent how the challenge was scored.

Mostly, though? Great fun. There were ball games, in and out of the swimming pool! There was a scavenger hunt! There were riddles (which I sucked at)! There were a number of ethical challenges, and one about wandmaking, and one about potion mixing.

Incidentally, the House Cup also made an appearance at The Challenge. Since there were a total of fifteen Houses present and giving each one a common room of their own would have been silly, they were lumped up into five Trios, with one House from each school, who then acted as one to score points in the Collaboration Cup.

Conclusions

Yeah, I had fun. Now at my second CoW, I had a far better idea of how to play to catch plotlines and get into cool things. Yeah, I would go again, especially since of all the castles Dziobak Larp Studios uses, this is by far the shortest trip for me. There were some design issues, but nothing game-ruining and nothing that wasn’t fixable. The food was good, from the point of view of someone with no dietary limitations. I would also like to see how The Challenge would work with the over 200 players it was designed for.

Doing the newspaper was interesting. It’s something I would be interested in revisiting in larp, either at a CoW game or somewhere else entirely. I may pitch an article on the topic for next year’s Knutebook.

Oh, and I also discovered how to get the photographer’s attention: wear a cool hat.

Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.