10 Non-Gaming, Gaming Influences

1. Dougal Dixon
You can keep your Arthur C Clarke and your other hard-science SF writers, Dougal Dixon brought the visualisation of alien worlds to life for me in his two, brilliant, books Life After Ma and Man After Man. He’s also done some wonderful books about dinosaurs and has consulted on TV series about possible alien or far-future life but it’s these books that had such a great influence upon me. Everything is based on sound science, he makes evolution and its possibilities come alive for you and while his creations are all based upon existing life they’re alien and wondrous, while still being plausible. He’s also a top bloke who wrote back to me after I embarrassed myself sending some gushing fan mail.
2. Harlan Ellison
Harlan – fucking – Ellison man. Here’s a guy who just doesn’t give a shit and is always willing to go with his own, personal sense of justice, of right and wrong and to live all out. Prodigious, involved and as grumpy and idealistic a cuss as Alan Moore (who should really be on this list as well) he can be a bit of a dick but, sometimes, that’s OK.

Dangerous Visions lived up to its name and I’ve read those collections to pieces over the years. ‘Repent Harlequin said the Ticktock Man’ is a work of absolute genius.

Harlan’s imagination would not be bounded and he enabled many others to follow in his wake, a trailblazer challenging taboos and expectations and not giving a flying monkey-wank what anyone thought about it.


3. John Willie
Probably obscure to a lot of people but John Willie essentially invented the ‘Fetish’ magazine and was punk rock about forty years before punk rock even existed. He helped establish the whole scene in which Bettie Page would later emerge, published Bizarre (not the modern Bizarre) under the radar and pioneered niche interest publishing and networking in a way that – in many ways – presaged the modern internet. There’s a lot to admire in a chap who manages all of that in the face of the sometimes oppressive social atmosphere of the first half of the 20th century.
4. HG Wells
Visionary science fiction author, socialist, reformer, campaigner, Fabian and futurist. As important, in his own way, to social reform as Dickens was Wells was a supreme ideas-man whose thoughts are still being reinterpreted today.

Unlike Verne who was a bit of a prig and a stickler, Wells didn’t care so much about absolute realism but, rather, plausibility. Willing to bend the science – without necessarily breaking it completely – in order to ensure that he had a better story. This, to me, is why his stories are continually reinvented and reinterpreted while Verne’s stories are brilliant – but still very much of their time.

Wells was ahead of his time in practically every regard and I can sympathise with what he wished to be his epitaph:

“I told you so you damned fools!”

5. Tim White
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but, if you’re going to, you could do worse than judging it by the artwork of Tim White. A hyper-realist in his personal artwork and training, Tim brings that sensibility and massive attention to detail to his fantasy work. His visions brought so many SF paperback novels to life for me and his organic/animalistic approach to robots and plants, his SF and fantasy landscapes are an inexorable part of my own imaginings ever since.

Inspirational and encouraging of your own imagination in a way a lot of art isn’t, I’m not sure how he does it, but I’m glad he does.

6. Alan Dean Foster
What Tim White’s done for my visual imagination, Alan does for my literary imagination. Not so keen on his novelisations but his own work I love. Somehow he manages, simply and quickly, to create understandable images of alien worlds and societies without getting too overblown in his prose, an efficiency of language that I admire and aspire to. In particular his ability to create sympathy for non-human characters, that can be truly alien, makes me love his writing.

Nor Crystal Tears is, in my opinion, his best novel and it always punches me in the guts emotionally which, considering it’s about alien space-bees, is pretty damn good.

7. Living in Britain
I don’t think there are many places in the world with as rich an historical and mythological pedigree as Britain. We’ve got Roman, Pictish, Nordic and Celtic influences along with more recent ones from India, the Americas, the Middle East and Australia, not to mention our own unique mythology. Growing up surrounded by ancient forests, rolling fields and medieval architecture – the landscapes that inspired Lewis and Tolkien – you can’t help but be affected.

You can’t go two steps in Britain without treading on history or myth and a big black book of British Myths has been a constant companion to me as a writer and gamer.

I sat in the woods when I was younger, with an FM radio, listening to the BBC radio play of The Lord of the Rings while the sun beat down through the trees and it tried to decide if it could muster enough moisture for a shower.

Doesn’t get much more British than that.

8. Being an Asthmatic
I had childhood asthma, partially allergy based but also brought on by any number of other factors.

If you can’t participate in sports – and don’t want to – and if the PE teachers finally believe you after you nearly die during a cross country run, what do you do instead?

You read a lot, you find indoor pursuits, you play boardgames and you roleplay. Things that don’t make you cough, wheeze and collapse like a limbed water balloon at the first sight of a rugby ball.

9. 2000AD
I’ve read 2000AD since I was about three years old (no, really) more on than off. Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Slaine all of these – and more obscure characters – are absolutely integral to who I am. The twisted visions and ideas of Kev O’Neill, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Pat Mills and many others who got their start in 2000AD are fundamentally ingrained into my brain.
10. Robin of Sherwood
For all it’s 80’s-tastic hair and UK TV budget issues, I don’t think there’s been a better interpretation of Robin Hood made. A perfect combination of the Robin Hood popular myth with a pagan sensibility that gave it a much greater depth than other versions of it.

The ensemble cast and the way that they all got attention and their own stories was also inspiring for running adventure games, bringing together lots of different characters from different backgrounds and making it all work together. I must have ripped off half the episodes for Dragon Warriors adventures.

Coming Soon: 6-Pack Adventures

6-Pack adventures are ‘takeaway’ adventures that will contain everything you need for an evening’s gaming or to run a game at a convention. Designed to fit into 2-4 hours of play with pre-generated characters, counter sheets and a short adventure the idea is that they’re like a six-pack of beers, something that you can just pick up for an evening’s entertainment.

To give them a little more worth the pre-gens, monsters etc will all be re-usable and if you buy the print copy the cover will form a battle-map, or pair of battle-maps, cheaper than many similar products that can be torn free of the interior and used again and again.

6-Pack adventures will be initially produced for Pathfinder, with D&D 4E material coming later.

Top 5 RPG Deaths

1. Cyberpunk – The Explosion
Escorting a tanker of fuel across the ravaged states it took a rocket in the back and exploded. Miraculously the character driving survived the main explosion, despite having all his limbs blown off. Hurtled into the air we randomly determined where he would land using scatter. He landed in the town well and, reduced to a limbless sack of organs he plummeted into the watery depths surviving just long enough… to drown.

2. Red Box D&D – Stabbing the Dragon in the Eye
My first and, for a long time only, experience with D&D having been used to other games and more… creative Games Masters. Playing a thief I sneak up to a sleeping dragon and – thinking this would sensibly kill it outright – stab it through the eye to its living brain. Apparently not as I was swiftly flambed and eate, putting me off D&D for around 15 years.

3. Camarilla LARP – The Plummeting Justicar
An NPC death, but still a good one. The daytime sky-yoyoing of a Malkavian Justicar who fell afoul of a crossover Mage character with correspondence will remain one of my favourite LARP deaths of all time.

4. Fantasy Blood! – Hard to Digest
Playing a fantasy game with hardcore horror rules and lots of opportunities for maiming? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately the guard captain who got blinded by being stabbed in each eye in his first combat doesn’t apply, as he lived, but fortunately there’s the dwarf who was reduced to a wheezing mass of crippled scar tissue by the acid breath of a hydra but managed to survive long enough to climb INSIDE a giant and kill it before finally succumbing to his wounds.

5. Blood! – Fray Bentos Pies
There’s so many we could go with, but being smacked in the face and killed by a pre-packaged pie tin, hurled by a crazy old woman. Top class.

Gamma World: Watercrass

Found growing wild throughout the south of what was once the British Isles and where it was once cultivated in its pre ‘oops’ form, watercrass is particularly found in Harshire along the contaminated waterways and rivulets of that (glowing) green and pleasant land. Watercrass is noted for its spicy flavour, it’s lush, tangled leaves and its strange mutated defence of saying the most foul, disgusting and inappropriate things to anyone who treads on it or tries to pick it.

Watercrass (Difficult, lightly obscured, improper) The tangled leaves of watercrass provide good cover, though they hinder movement. The constantly whispered innuendos, insults and aspersions to perversity muttered by the crass impose a -2 penalty to any actions while occupying the same space as the crass. Weaker minds my snap under the unrelenting assault to their psyche.

Other forms of more aggressive crass, such as the toxic-gas producing Mustard Crass are also known.

Gamma World: Dollies

Level 2 Brute
Large Mutant Animal (sheep)
XP: 125
HP: 46; Bloodied: 23
Initiative: +1
AC: 16, Fortitude: 15, Reflex: 12, Will: 15
Perception: +8, Dollys can only be flanked from the rear, not from the side.
Speed: 8
Mob Defence: +1 bonus to AC per Dolly adjacent to it.
Standard Attacks
Kick: (physical, at will): Attack, melee (one creature) +5 Vs AC. Hit: 1d6+3 damage.
Trample: (physical, recharge 6): Attack, melee (all creatures in range) +5 Vs AC. The dolly charges its full movement and attacks anyone and anything that it overlaps during that move. Hit: 2d10+3.
Perception +8
Str: 14 (+3)    Dex: 10 (+1)    Wis: 16 (+4)
Con: 16 (+4)    Int: 2 (-3)    Cha: 10 (+1)

Before everything went pear-shaped there were many attempts to produce genetically engineered animals and plants to deal with the food problems across the world. While most of these were concentrated upon vegetable engineering, cloning and other manipulations were done upon farm animals. The idea was that the ‘perfect’ farm specimen could be engineered, then cloned so that every animal in a herd could be perfect.

Goats and sheep can make use of land that isn’t arable for crops and as a result were the target for most of these manipulations which, in one dimension or other at least, topped out with the ‘Dolly’. A genetically engineered, giant, parthenogenetic sheep that not only produces delicious meat and milk, but which exudes metals that it eats into its wool, cleaning areas of toxic metals and simultaneously producing a really tough fleece.

Every year, reliably, in lambing season, dollies give birth to an exact genetic copy of themselves, or, at least, that’s the plan. This means you can start even with a herd of one and year on year, provided none die, you’ll double what you have. Unfortunately, the nature of Gamma Terra being what it is, mutations do creep in and are replicated in the various different lines from different clone mothers, resulting in many different sub-species of dolly from the Venemous Vampire Sheep of the rocky wilds of Tornaway to the giant-horned monsters of Ramsgait. Many species, including the baseline, are also used as mounts.

(Subspecies should substitute their trample ability with something else).

The tough wool produced by dollies can be knitted into armour, providing +2 protection and many farming communities rely on this, even though the armour is often laced with radioactive isotopes and heavy metals. Some dollies are even, deliberately, grazed upon particularly mutagenic land to produce special wool or to try and create new, useful, mutant lines from the base species.

Review: Famine in Far-Go

Famine in Far-Go is the first expansion for the new 4e based Gamma World RPG. It’s primarily an adventure with secondary considerations being a – limited – sourcebook for the Far-Go area, a plethora of additional character origins and more tokens and maps.Background
Far-Go was the ‘promised land’ some while back and an exodus of people and things (the things are also people) was lead there by the prophet, eventually setting up their town in the ruins of the old and raising farm crops. Of course, this being Gamma World nothing is quite what it seems and the very fecundity of the land turned out to be the problem with it, turning many of the crops into dangerous antagonists. That’s not even the worst of it, gangs of mutated chickens walk the land, armed to the teeth and out for blood. Combine the crop problems with the chicken problems and you have a major problem for the otherwise progressive and enlightened people of Far-Go.

The mini-book provided with the box provides additional origins, old-world junk, secret society information and new opponents. These are all welcome additions to the game – particularly the origins – though I would have thought they would have added some more common origins, rather than some of the esoteric ones hat they do. Some of the origins seem a bit out of whack with the zany sci-fi setting of the game as well, ghosts and divine scions, I’d rather have seen a canid or ursinoid option added than those.

Famine in Far-Go actually gives you more of a handle on the world of Gamma Terra than the original does, providing you with a – sparse – setting in which to base your games and going into more details about the surroundings of Far-Go. This is by no means a game atlas or an incredible amount of detail, but it’s something, which is a damn sight more than you get in the original box. Being adventure and mechanics the rest is fairly dry and the adventure presentation doesn’t do a lot to engage you in any atmosphere of the place, but it is – nonetheless – an improvement.

The artwork in the book is a bit more sparse than in the first book and in the same cartoonish style. Some variety would be nice. I’d love to see Dave Allsop unleashed upon some of these monsters and mutants, for example. That would be nice to see. The extra maps and tokens are welcome, the book layout is functional and my only real annoyance is with the box it came in. Not as sturdy as the main game box and opening at the top, rather than sliding off. It was a pain in the arse to open and to get the contents out and not a terribly good design – in my opinion.

An adequete supplement to the main release. The adventure really#updatedoliverwendellholmes isn’t that great but it is a big advance on the one in the base set with some opportunities for actual RP. The main value comes in the extra origins and the secret societies, which manage to add some genuine meat to the game.

On the plus side

  • Useful rules expansions.
  • More tokens and maps.
  • The beginning inklings of an atual gameworld.
On the minus side
  • Crappy box.
  • Adventures are still, really, just a string of fights.
  • Some more conventional origins aren’t covered while esoteric ones are. Seems wrong.
Style: 4
Substance: 3
Overall: 3.5

Review: Gamma World

There’s a lot of buzz about the new incarnation of Gamma World, more so even than there has been for the D&D Essentials series and they seem to have learned a few things from that – and unfortunately vice versa. It’s definitely a weird mix, old box-set ideas, a few Indie RPG ideas, CCG ideas and Old School ideas all blended into a mutant that is, perhaps, more strange than the characters in the game itself, but that doesn’t stop it being good.

In this version of Gamma World the large hadron collider was performing some sort of experiment in 2012 when something went pear-shaped and hundreds of different realities came clashing together, annihilating the world as we know it, flooding it with strange radiation and mixing all the different dimensions together. Some weirder than others. Now it’s over a hundred years later and the world is a very strange place. The characters take the role of mutated wanderers and potential heroes, scouring the wastes for lost technology, troubleshooting for isolated communities and taking on the manifold conspiracies, monsters, gangs and other hazards of the changed world. Basically this entails a lot of comedic mutations, bad puns and mutant animals kicking the crap out of each other while things explode for no readily apparent reason.

Gamma World is built on the same mechanics as 4th Edition D&D and, interestingly, has been branded as such rather than another Wizards product. Whereas there are issues, many believe, in the 4th Ed rules used for D&D, the over-the-top power/stunt basis of the system is a much better fit for the crazy-arse nature of Gamma World. It’s also a bit simplified and stripped down – perhaps too much in the case of skills. There are only ten levels and some of the more layered, complex systems of 4e are missing.

The BIG difference to practically any game made in the last ten years or so is that character creation is mostly random. Characters are made by fusing together two character templates and trying to make sense of them. For example, you might roll an altered human/plant which might be interpreted to be a human crossbred with Japanese knotweed genes to make a supersoldier of exceeding toughness and survivability. Your powers and abilities are a combination chosen from those available to each type, mixed and matched as you want.

The controversial part isn’t so much this as the inclusion of cards that determine temporary mutant powers and represent high tech ‘treasures’, omegatech weapons. The randomised nature of the cards means you don’t get a full set and the idea is that players and the Games Master will build their own decks, paying out more money for them. I can see the impulse to make money but this feels like a bit of a gyp. Worse still the idea seems to be crossing over into normal D&D with similar card ideas coming into that game.

The temporary mutant powers are a bit of a killer for me, but you could use them to randomly determine permanent mutations, which might be a better way of handling it for people who – like me – don’t like that aspect too much and prefer a little character consistency.

There isn’t a great deal of background information and the book is mostly illustrated with character types and monsters, so it’s hard to get a real handle on the vision for the ‘look’ of the game and its world. The maps that you get with the game help out a little bit with that but it still makes it hard to get a grasp on how the world is really meant to operate. On the other hand that leaves it fairly open for you to put your own spin on it.

The adventure – traditionally a ‘this is how you play it’ example giver – is disappointing, little more than a string of fights with very little plotting. Not really an example of roleplaying but, rather, much more of a skirmish game. If you’re trying to introduce people to roleplaying a bit more of it might have been a good idea.

What artwork there is is fairly good, but more cartoonish than similar products for D&D. In one sense that’s a good thing because it fits the background and darkly humorous tone of the game. However, for some of the nasty creatures that are presented in the book I’d rather have seen a darker, nastier spin.

The game is sold in a box with a half-size book, maps, cards and tokens. It’s a good, tough, presentable box with plenty of room to carry additional supplements, maps and tokens to other games. Oddly though, for what feels like an intro product there’s no dice in there and that feels l‪ike something of a glaring omission given the way everything else seems to be aimed.

The tokens are a nice thing to include, but there’s a hell of a lot of wasted space on the card sheets that could have been used to have more tokens on there, which shouldn’t have cost that much more to produce… surely?

A great entry product with a few niggling irritations that prevent it being a truly perfect product. It needs some roleplay encouragement and some good supplements to be something really great but it definitely fulfils the role of a great RPG entry product better than anything else that’s been around since the original red box D&D, even better than the new one. Here’s hoping it can get into non-specialist hobby and toy shops.

On the plus side

  • Great introductory product
  • Takes some risks and experiments more than usual for a ‘mainstream’ product
  • Lots of room in the box to carry supplemental products

On the minus side

  • No dice? Seriously?
  • The cards feel like a gouging product and aren’t well presented
  • The intro adventure isn’t remotely inspiring

Style: 5
Substance: 3
Overall: 4

Agents of SWING Dev Diary

I’ve finished everything up to skills and stunts in their final form. There’ll be another edit and there’s been some knock-on implications into other parts of the rules but all things considered, it’s done. I still have to do the ‘supernatural’ stunts, but those are a bit of a questionable area anyway. There’s no question that there are odd powers, psychics, even magic in a lot of the adventure series of the 60s and 70s – The Champions being one example – but they’re normally not that massively powerful and they’re usually pretty rare – so for the main book at least I want to keep them fairly low key. More powerful powers and so on may be introduced when I go into detail on Section Eight, the department of SWING that deals with the weirder parts of the world.

Sorting out the stunts I got rid of the prerequisites so there are now no multilayered stunts and they’re not dependent on skills. The only thing constricting you is your theme and the approval of Control (the Games Master). This means some entry stunts had to be powered up, others powered down and many eliminated altogether, though there’s a few extras to help make up for that. A lot of stunts were replicated across different skills in other versions of FATE so more were lost there and the whole effort – along with text consolidation and shortening – has massively reduced what was otherwise a very clumpy section of any FATE book.

I haven’t gone as far in reducing things as ICONS does, but this is definitely going to be a less intimidating lump of a book than many FATE based games are and I hope the streamlining and looser rules interpretations are going to make it an even more accessible and fun game to play.

Fingers crossed!

Courtesans – Ian Warner

A Response To the Controversy From Ian Warner
I have been reading the discussion on the “I like breasts” article and I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring.
Usually I can’t be bothered to respond to criticism. As far as I’m concerned the time you spend whining and nit-picking can be better spent reading the actual book and working out ways to make it work for you. RPGs aren’t passive media. Unlike a bad movie or a bad TV show you can take a bad RPG and make it something better with a little effort.
Having said this, this particular argument about perceived ‘sexism’ really made me chuckle so I thought I’d make up a response.
And what a response.
A whole damn game.
As soon as Tough Justice is finished I will be embarking on a new project. Courtesans: A seductive role-playing game of sex and society. Well to be fair the row wasn’t the only inspiration. I was also influenced by Katie Hickman’s biographies of the most infamous of these remarkable women and by a regular player at my games who loves playing sluts.
Still the timing is perfect. You think we’re tasteless and sexist? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Having said that personally I consider Courtesans a very pro feminist game. These were intelligent, independent women who rose from the lowest orders to command greater influence than any other women in their extremely sexist time. We maybe having a laugh with them but we are not laughing at them. They are truly remarkable historical figures and this game will be a celebration of their incredible success.
There is a development blog under construction at http://courtesanstherpg.blog.co.uk
Comments and flames most welcome.

Pre-Review thoughts on Gamma World

Nostalgia covers FTW.

OK, I got my copies of Gamma World and Famine in Far-Go today. Much like the game-setting itself, Gamma World is a bizarre cross-dimensional smashing together of ideas from all over the gaming spectrum into a single, unified product. Again, like the game itself, this makes it a bizarre, gonzo mash-up. In the case of the game production we end up with an alien-hybrid with some sensibilities coming from indie games, some from board games, some from CCGs, some from the Old School Renaissance and probably some other stuff that I’ve missed.

As an introductory product this is a good way to go I think. The box, the cards, the counters, all very tactile and graspable. The book is ‘indie size’ and so isn’t as intimidating as RPG books can be sometimes. This does mean that there’s sacrifices and omissions but all things considered I reckon this is a great entry-level product for people. Better than any incarnation of D&D at the moment, including Essentials, which it’s clearly come from at least a little.

What else is interesting is something I haven’t seen so much in previous companies with multiple game lines, it brands itself with ‘D&D’ more prominently than it does with being a Wizards’ product.

Random, quick character generation along with other random nonsense, along with kiboshing that to make you good at what you need to be good at, also helps the accessibility I think but is a definite nod to the OSR.

For such a good attempt at an intro product I’m left with a few questions as to why they didn’t go the whole hog… why aren’t there dice in this box? Why so few character sheets? Why not a cheap-arse pen? Why are the cards so bloody bland looking?

It’s 90% of the way to being spot on but, of course, to work, the thing needs to get to the kind of stores where it’ll be picked up. With book shops going ‘foom’ I guess that means toy shops these days. What are the chances of that?

I can see myself doing a lot of fan stuff for this, maybe some stuff for a British campaign setting/organisations/baddies. We’ll see…