Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Past Is Prologue

A lot of blogs are in a reflective mode, this time of year, and I thought New Years Eve was as good a time at any to share this particular look back on ten years of gaming.

A few weeks ago, a friend at our gaming table mentioned in an online post that he was having difficulty remembering all of the games we'd played over the past few years, and nudged me toward the idea of making a comprehensive list. I did, and it was both a humbling and invigorating experience looking back at all the games we'd played at our table over the past decade in London, Ontario. I sometimes say that as an adult gamer, I've played the best games of my life in the last few years, and here was actual proof.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

How Gamers Can Help Save the World from Donald Trump

Last weekend, my wife and I travelled to Kingston to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. We were able to surprise my mother by having my brother and his family show up at the restaurant where we took them for dinner, and it was lovely having everyone together for that special occasion. We also got to visit and play games with some of our old friends, who we miss dearly and wish we could see more often. We also were in a bit of a celebratory mood because my wife had just secured an ongoing job (with benefits) that will make us financially secure for the next few years. For once, everything in our lives seemed stable, happy, and good.

And then we drove home, Tuesday night, to the Trumpocalypse. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Son of Clickbait! Or, Ten Games I Think Are Great (And Maybe You Will, Too)

I was recently lucky enough to travel back to my hometown, Kingston, Ontario, to spend a lovely evening with friends around the game table. My wife ran a game of Urban Shadows, which I think went pretty well, though we had a larger than usual group of players. I miss playing with those people, and the chances to do so just seem to get rarer every year. Anyway, one of my best friends, Dave, suggested that I do a blog on my top ten games. Since ideas are scarce enough in these parts that I would never cast one aside, I'll give it a go. 

I wrestled a bit with this, wondering whether I should do several lists that gave a top ten based on different criteria (Personal Favourites, Most Innovative, Most Applicable to HTHD Play etc.), but I think I'm just going to talk a bit about ten games I think are straight-up great for various reasons and people can make of it what they wish. In no particular order, then...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Hello Greyhawk, My Old Friend...

My 2016 reincarnation drama NOT FADE AWAY is wrapped up, at last, and that means I'm thinking about the next campaign I want to run. I generally have a lot of games in my back pocket as possibilities for "the next thing", but at the moment there's one idea that's taking up a lot of mental real estate. I've been wanting to run an old-school fantasy game for a while, using CASTLES & CRUSADES as my rules engine. It's modern, but with enough of the flavour of ADVANCED D&D, the formative game of my generation, that it captures something special in my imagination.

I want to use it to run Greyhawk.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Into The Great Beyond: NOT FADE AWAY

This past Saturday night, we wrapped up NOT FADE AWAY, a game I'd been running at my table since February of last year. As with all games that have any longevity at all, I have complicated feelings about it, but I'll try to talk about our experience here with as much objectivity as I can.

Friday, 16 September 2016


It's not that uncommon that I'm not here on a regular, three-time-a-week basis, which sometimes is down to schedule and sometimes is down to sloth. I am pleased to report that this month, the reason I haven't blogged in a while is actually productivity. I have been writing a new project, and so far I've written over 20,000 words on it. I am very, very happy about this, and more happy that I've been able to make writing a part of my daily routine - I sit down and write in the afternoons every day, six days a week. (Saturday is game day, and usually involves too many jobs around the house, errands, and prep issues to allow a regular writing time. But six days a week is good.) I set very modest goals for myself, and so far I have achieved them. For someone like myself who sometimes struggles with applying his creative instincts, this is terrific.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


Last weekend we played MONSTER OF THE WEEK for the second week running. Various things have kept us from returning to NOT FADE AWAY, my Fate immortals game, but I had been feeling the itch to roll some dice and wanting to get back into it with something lighter in tone. We had a lot of fun playing MotW, which falls toward the crunchier, more traditional end of the Powered By The Apocalypse games, like DUNGEON WORLD. It also reminded me of something that was an issue when I ran DW for my online group last year. It's not a game-breaker, exactly, but something that I think bears consideration.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen Goodbye

30. Describe the ideal gaming room if the budget were unlimited. 

My fantasy gaming room is about the size of a large meeting room, with a long table and 6-10 comfortable chairs around it. One of those expensive custom-made gaming tables would be lovely, of course, especially with all of the built-in drawers for storage, but a straight-forward utilitarian table would be fine.

Monday, 29 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: Tahiti is A Magical Place

26. What hobbies go well with roleplaying games?

I guess the traditional answers to this question are crafty things, like painting minis and scenery. Those don't have much of a presence at my table, though.

Cooking is much more important for our group. We try to have dinner together every time we gather, or at least dessert and a nice cup of tea. That makes a difference; social groups bond over meals, and they create a space for those catch-up conversations that have to happen when people gather. If you're not friends with your fellow players, your game group is going to have a hard time achieving "High Trust, High Drama".

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: Can We Talk About Something Else?

22. Supposedly random game events that keep occurring?
23. Share one of your best "worst luck" stories.

These don't really apply so much to the games we play at my table, so I'm just gonna move on rather than wrack my brain for something that happened in a game ten or more years ago.

24. What is the game you are most likely to give to others?

I assume we're talking about a game given as a gift. That depends who it's for.

Monday, 22 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: 50 Mission Cap

17. What fictional character would best fit in your game?

Assuming that we're talking about NOT FADE AWAY, my game about reincarnated genderfluid warriors battling shapeshifting enemies (and themselves) across the centuries, Connor MacLeod from Highlander would probably have some stories to swap with them.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Here Comes the (Invisible) Sun

The big thing in roleplaying this week -- at least, in terms of people talking about it -- is the Kickstarter for the new Monte Cook Presents game, INVISIBLE SUN.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: The Questioning

13. What makes a successful campaign?

Any collaborative art form -- I'm thinking of theatre and film here, especially, but there are others -- is unpredictable. I've seen lots of terrible movies that had a great cast, crew, and director behind them. Some things just don't gel the way they should, and not by anyone involved not doing their job. So it's hard to say exactly what makes good things come together. It feels like magic.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: Potpourri for $600, Alex

8. Hardcover, softcover, digital? Which is your preference?

All of the above. It's hard to beat the advantages that a PDF version of a rulebook give you -- portability, the ability to easily add annotations and bookmarks, the ability to port text into your own handouts, and that lower price point don't hurt -- but some things will always be better as a physical copy. You can pass a physical copy to someone else and let them leaf through it, when you're trying to get them hyped to play a new game. And I'm also a big fan of books as a sensual object. Books have a weight and a smell to them. Books age like a fine wine, and a well-loved rulebook has a lived-in feeling that PDFs do not. How many old-timey gamers like myself remember knowing where to find things in the original DMG based on the different illustrations and tables?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Very, Very Late to the Party RPGaDay 2016

Huh, well this August has been a nightmare so far, putting me waaaaay behind on RPGaDay. I'm not going to try and catch up in one post, but this will get me closer.

3. Character Moment You are Proudest Of

There are lots of ways I could go with this question, but the first answer that jumped to mind was a scene I played with my wife a few years ago. This was in my friend's super-villains fighting The Man game, and our characters had been attracted to each other throughout the story without actually getting together. We planned to have a scene together in the finale, and totally expected that the scene would head in a romantic direction.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

RPGaDay 2016: Dice

Yep, we're doing this again this year. I will probably fall behind and do posts that cover several days' worth of RPGaDay 2016, but you'll see all my answers here eventually.

1. Real dice, dice app, diceless - how do you prefer to 'roll'?

I've written in these pages before about my love affair with dice.

I think a lot of gamers of my generation have always loved them, and that is partly down to them starting out as an obscure and secret thing that no one outside the nerdy confines of D&D knew about. To begin with, they were brown and poorly-formed things that you needed to colour in the numbers with a crayon to understand. Those were the fabled "mud dice" that came with early iterations of D&D box sets.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Can Anything Fill the Portable Hole In Your Heart?

Here's a random idea I had the other day that I will probably never use, but maybe you can get some mileage out of it.

Not a big fan of dungeon adventures at this stage of my life. Why? Because dungeon adventures tend to spend a lot of time on the things I like least about the hobby. Long combats. Managing supplies. Traps. Players trying to make accurate maps. Players spending all their spells then calling the action to a halt until they get them back. Keeping track of arrows and how far you can see with torchlight and how much treasure you can carry and...

It's just exhausting. And it seldom has any emphasis on character development and drama, the things that I come back to the table week after week to enjoy and explore.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Spelunky and Roleplaying, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Always Get The Jetpack

Last week, after a year and a half and many thousands of games, I finally beat Spelunky.

Just in case you've never played it, Spelunky is a video game that combines old-school, brutally unforgiving platforming with modern procedurally-generated design. If you grew up in the 1980s, just imagine one of those old timey games where you jump on monsters and try not to fall in pits, except that this game never has the same exact level layout.

Yes. You are right to shudder.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Pokemon Go Home (Part Two)

Just in case you didn't already read the first part, that was a rant about how loud, judgemental, and awful nerd culture has become lately. You don't need to read it to understand this bit, but there was some fairly awesome swearing in it, if you like that kind of thing, and a message I wish more people were willing to hear. TLDR: Other people are allowed to like things that aren't for you. Let them.

So, what can roleplaying gamers learn from the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go?

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Pokemon Go Home (Part One)

I will say this for nerds: they're consistent. 

Every so often, something new will come along that will cause a real sensation. In the 90s, it was Magic cards and vampire LARPs. As soon as that New Thing finds its audience and they're enjoying it, the assholes crawl out of their caves and go to work. This New Thing sucks, is stupid, is lame, and anyone who enjoys it (god forbid someone enjoy something that is not approved by the overcouncil of the Nerd Orthodoxy) is sucky, stupid, and lame too. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Bring the Thunder

A recent session at my table made me realize that a lot of players need to up their game, myself included. 

We talk a lot in roleplaying circles about having "proactive" players who drive play, helping to move us away from a more traditional model where the players were reacting to stimuli introduced by the GM, or worse, where the players were looking to the GM to provide the evening's entertainment while they passively follow along. 

At our table, play is focused on the player characters and what they decide to do, and often, what their interactions with each other look like. This is a fine model for dramatic play, and I often think of myself as GM as providing more of a "moving scrim" for those elements -- a colourful backdrop, but ultimately just set dressing for the really important moments. Sometimes I apply a little pressure here and there, creating situations where player character conflicts can be brought into sharp focus. Since players at our table often call for their own scenes, this is a responsibility that is shared by everyone who plays in our games. 

Thursday, 23 June 2016


I mentioned the other day that I'd just wrapped up a SHADOWRUN campaign that had been running for about ten months, The Forks. This is actually the second long-term SR game I've run in the past five years, and the second I've run with FATE. The first game, Disavowed, ran for longer and went a little deeper, and it ran long enough that I actually switched rules systems part way through. I started that game using SAVAGE WORLDS for the rules, and eventually ported it to FATE -- although it was based on the SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY incarnation of the rules, not the sleek modern iterations we have in 2016. I thought I'd talk a little bit about running SR using Fate and how it worked at the table, for those of you interested in such things.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016


Last night we wrapped up THE FORKS, a Shadowrun campaign (powered by Fate) that I've been running about once a month since last fall. The last session was entirely satisfactory, with lots of heart-wrenching moments, although I felt that I wasn't able to push the players as hard as I would have liked in the climactic battle. Part of that was down to a truly spooky run of bad dice rolls (I don't think I got a roll that was higher than 0 all night long), although I felt like as a Fate veteran I should have this stuff figured out by now.

THE FORKS was a gritty crime drama take on Shadowrun, stripped of its usual excesses of glittering tech, heaps of cash, and action movie assaults on corporate strongholds. This was set on the mean streets of The Barrio, a desperate slum in the dustbowl sprawl that London, Ontario has turned into in 2050. Since there seemed to be no canonical drama in the region, according to the Shadowrun wiki, I decided that turning Ontario's agricultural heartland into a dusty wasteland ruined by agricorps gave it a nice Mad Max/Dirty Thirties vibe that would feel different than the Seattle Sprawl game I ran a few years ago. A lot of it focused on two of the three main characters fighting for the affections of Morning Glory, an exotic dancer who was also the obsession of a local Mob boss. As expected, with three female lead characters, it also became a story about the place of women in the Shadowrun universe, and I made sure to include as many female supporting characters as allies and enemies as possible.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016


We had a really great session last weekend, and we've been talking about it all week. Let me gush a little.

I've written here about NOT FADE AWAY, our ongoing saga of reincarnated heroes played out against the vast canvas of thousands of years of history. It's a game that we went into rebuilding the group, rebuilding trust and creating a new social contract, and also taking on a project that was crazily big and ambitious. Of all the games I pitched, this was the biggest and most difficult, and that's usually a good thing - you break new ground by being ambitious and doing hard things - but it's also been challenging. We're about at the 2/3 mark of the game now, and we're just beginning to hit our stride as a group. I've been happy enough with the game as it stands, and I think the players are too, but until you have a really breakout session where you see how good a game can really get, it feels hard. It feels like you're working toward something, and you can almost see it, but you're still struggling to get there.

We finally had that breakout moment.

Monday, 30 May 2016


I was thinking about this topic because it's a foundation issue for good GMing, and for good roleplaying in general. Agency is one of those bits that gets tangled up with a lot of other things. It's small when you give it a passing glance, but the more you look at it, the more important it becomes. If you're really rocking a game, you can weaponize agency into a powerful tool - and indeed, a lot of modern games do exactly this.

Agency is, put simply, the power that is shared amongst players at the table to create the ongoing narrative of the game. In the traditional gaming world, much of this lives at the level of the player character and how it interacts with the rules. The more accomplished the character becomes, the more mechanical advantages it has to affect the world of the game, mostly in the realm of combat, but often in less obvious or flashy ways. Agency also lives at the level of social contract in a game - unless the rules explicitly define what power players have (assuming a model where there's a GM at all), the GM decides where the players can make contributions. This may include players inventing world details as part of character building, such as important NPCs, or including backstory that is explicitly designed to be part of play.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

After-Action Report: NOT FADE AWAY

We just finished the 7th session of NOT FADE AWAY, the Fate Accelerated campaign I've been running since February. The game is about immortals, or rather about beings called Pilgrims who are serially reincarnated with the same memories to carry on an eternal battle against their shape-changing enemies, the Rakshasa. It's what Highlander would look like if the immortals were genderfluid beings who spent as much time bickering as they did swordfighting.

So far, no anthropomorphic tigers in smoking jackets. Alas.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Long and the Short

There are undercurrents swirling below the surface of the roleplaying hobby, invisible to the eye, but powerful enough that they affect just about everything we do. These are the mostly unspoken core assumptions about what our hobby is and how it is pursued at tables around the world. Roleplayers gather in small groups, negotiating acceptable conduct and proper play style, and rarely question the idea that their particular orthodoxy is one of many.

Once in a while that you get two gamers together talking, sharing stories, and realize that this is not the case at all. What is this other person talking about, we wonder? 'Cause it's sure not gaming. We have A Way Of Doing Things, and that's the only right and proper way. This guy's weird.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Raise a Glass to the Revolution!

Rebellion is the theme of a lot of great fiction, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones. Whether you're looking for a game of simple goals (plucky rebels fighting against an evil, monolithic enemy) or complex political machinations and reversals (and possibly lots of characters dying or having tragic or horrifying fates), the rebellion is a story frame that provides a lot of interesting gaming potential. A dramatic game is probably going to concentrate on the GoT side of the equation, exploring the conflict of powerful opposed personalities and possibly on the ideas they stand for. But I'm here today to write about a particular kind of rebellion narrative that I'm eager to weaponize for the game table.

Monday, 9 May 2016


When I was just getting into the roleplaying hobby, Dungeons & Dragons was a bit of a sensation. It wasn't unusual to find a copy of the Basic and Expert D&D box sets at toy shops and hobby stores (in those days that mostly meant shops catering to model-building, something I was never very patient with) alongside the stuff normal kids liked. For a few years, the essential tools of the hobby could be found practically everywhere, before the craze passed and it returned to the dim depths of specialty stores. In those days, you could find two adventures practically everywhere: The Keep on the Borderlands, and The Village of Homlett. Back in the day, the latter irritated me more than anything, because it was only the first part of the Temple of Elemental Evil series, something that took many years to actually be released. Where was the storied dungeon? This stupid Homlett adventure was just about a village, for cryin' out loud.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Darkness and Light

Frank Miller's iconic cover for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1
People remember the Eighties for Miami Vice pastel colours, Madonna in her "giant hair bow" incarnation, and Michael Jackson in a red leather suit dancing with a horde of zombies. Ronnie Reagan was the President of the United States, smiling that harmless smile that said nothing bad could possibly happen on his watch (and if it did, well, he didn't recall it). It was a decade of silly pop energy and shoulder pads.

But around the mid-point of the 1980s, there was a darkness gathering in the comic book world.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016


Every once in a while I read a game book that straight-up makes me happy. Every page is a delight, filled with ideas and energy and the kind of heedless pleasures that drew me to gaming in the first place, those many years ago. Let me tell you about a game book like that called MASTERS OF UMDAAR.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Can't Get Enough of Your "Special" Moves, Babe

Mr. White, a little mood music if you would?

Aww yeah.

Now, where were we? Oh yes. APOCALYPSE WORLD.

I've written before about the provocative nature of Vincent Baker's great roleplaying game, which recently ran a successful Kickstarter to fund a second edition and return to print. It's the kind of game that was designed to shake people up, change the way they do and think about things inside the parochial little world of roleplaying. As a long time GM, the way the game framed the role of the "MC" initially scared the living shit out of me. Or, more accurately, made me deny its usefulness, then angry, then depressed (because it felt like an attack on GMs), then eventually a cautious return to grapple with its ideas and eventually accept them. The five stages of APOCALYPSE WORLD.

Friday, 19 February 2016


Ready, Freddie?  The eternal question.

No matter what style of game you play, figuring out the proper amount of preparation required to run a session is not a trivial matter. Some modern games make it easier on you, providing you with tools to create a session on the fly or else making preparation unnecessary / verboten. The "powered by the Apocalypse" games require a certain amount of preparation early on, but for the most part GMing those games is about reacting dynamically to events as they unfold. That's a fine thing, and a good philosophical perspective on the GM role (that is, the GM's job is not to plan a story, it is to respond to the decisions the PCs make); it can be unnerving if you're not on the ball, though, because you don't have the security blanket of pages of notes to fall back on.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Pros and Cons of Reincarnation: NOT FADE AWAY (Part Two)

If you're like us, you probably read the description of the game -- a game about immortals that frames the story in the present and fills in the backstory via flashbacks -- you're probably thinking that this is a very large undertaking. With four characters in the main cast, and a "signature era" for each one in various time periods of the past, that makes the story a sprawling affair, stretched from the ancient past to the fall of Rome to the Crusades to the Salem Witch Trials, not including glimpses we get of the "Gotterdammerung" events that took place in 1945. Or brief glimpses we get of the characters meeting in other time periods.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Pros and Cons of Reincarnation: NOT FADE AWAY (Part One)

After a long dry spell, we have finally started a new game this past Saturday night. Let me tell you about it.

But first, a little theme music. In deference to my friend Amanda, the version you'll be hearing is not the sublime original by Queen, but the cover by the Protomen. It should still get you in the mood for a story about sword-wielding immortals.

Monday, 25 January 2016

"The Horror! The Horror!"

John Wick is one of those gaming industry personalities that always seems to be lighting fires wherever he goes. Recently, he wrote an article about one of the most infamous AD&D modules of the early days of roleplaying, THE TOMB OF HORRORS. Predictably, the gaming Internet imploded, or at least certain segments of it did. Here's one of the rebuttals. Make of it what you will.

Friday, 22 January 2016

American Gaming Story

I'm late to the party that is American Horror Story, but I'm a fan. I love a good horror movie, and anyone who has any affection for the genre knows that really good stuff is few and far between. Although the first season starts out a little rough, AHS has grown into one of the most provocative and entertaining shows on television. That said, it's definitely not for everyone. If the presence of the word "horror" in a title makes you uneasy, this is not for you, because they really mean it. AHS, unlike a lot of horror films and television shows, consistently goes after material that is truly difficult and frightening, daring to explore truly dark territory. So again, not for everyone, but it's awesome that someone is pushing boundaries like this in ways most horror films are frankly too lazy to bother with.

So what can we learn from American Horror Story as gamers?

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


CALL OF CTHULHU is an outlier in the gaming industry, a game that has been around in the industry since the early 1980's in very much the same form. The 7th Edition of CoC will apparently change things up from the venerable Basic Roleplaying rules that have powered it from its beginnings, and time will tell how well it will be received. If I sound a little skeptical, it's because CoC is pretty much the perfect case point in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I have been running games from my battered old copy of the 5th edition rules for twenty years now, and (notwithstanding a flirtation with the excellent but short-lived d20 incarnation of the game) never felt like it needed an update. Oh, I've played other games that take on Lovecraftian horror, like Graham Walmsley's rules-so-light-they're-hardly-there CTHULHU DARK, but the grandfather of horror gaming is still the best, in my book.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Thomas Wolfe May Have Been On To Something

Fair warning: I’m going to say some things about The Force Awakens here that you might not care for. If it would spoil your enjoyment of that movie to hear criticism of it, do yourself a favour and skip this. I have my problems with it, but I also have no interest in shitting on anyone else’s fun.

I also have no interest in discussing the merits and problems of The Force Awakens in the comment section below. Feel like arguing about it? Take it somewhere else.

Nostalgia is the will-o-the-wisp lurking on the moors of nerd culture. Unapologetic affection for the things we like is a fine thing, but too often that leads you into the noxious bogs of sentimentality. It’s easy to get lost there, losing sight of problematic content, giving things a free pass just because we enjoyed them when we were young.