UK Games Expo Links Roundup Part II

As I expected since publishing my first links roundup more UK Games Expo 2019 recaps and reviews have come to my attention. So without further ado here’s the second roundup:

Attendees

UK Games Expo 2019 by Old Scouser Roleplaying
UK Games Expo 2019 by Just Another Old School Gaming Blog
UKGE 2019 – A Round-up of the Good Things! by GeekGirlBookWorm
Expo 2019 – The Niggles by The Giant Brain
UK Games Expo Review by True Mister Six
EXPOsing Oneself by Autocratik
UKGE Debriefing by Darker Days Radio

Stallholders/publishers

UKGE Recap! by Goodman Games
Victorious UK Games Expo Machinations by Mottokrosh Machinations

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State of the Conspiracy: Cheat-sheet, updated characters and going forward

While I may not have run it in the end the day before UK Games Expo I made a decision to bring along a set of character sheets for Project Cassandra in the off chance there was a chance of testing it out / showing it off / running it. Given the full text is still in pieces I knew I wouldn’t have that to fall back on so I also put together a one page cheat-sheet. Doing so really highlighted what I have known for a while – that while the current draft still needs further playtesting I have a game there. I could sit down and run it and it would be a fun game. The core mechanics are fun (but need stress testing) as is the setup (Cold War psychics saving the world). I’m even proud of the more novel elements such as Knowledges and the way the starting Vision allows for the players to both have an input in the entire adventure but in a way that means their characters are just as knowledgable about the challenges to come.

The new character sheets (albeit rather blurry)

So what’s holding me back? Me. Writing is not something that comes easy to me, editing even less so. The thought of picking up the manuscript again after so long away from it is daunting. Large chunks need rewritten, a numer of areas need significant expansion and then I need to go over it all again with a fine tooth comb. But I can do it, I wrote a 70,000 word doctoral thesis so I know I can handle a 20-30 page long game.

With that in mind what’s my next step? Ironically, not writing as I have a few other projects to finish first. Ghosts of Iron, Demon Hunters Slice of Life starter, The Sprawl Synth trilogy I’ve been working on.

What I can do now is run it and start some of that stress testing. Make notes and check that I’ve resolved the issues from that informative (yet so frustrating) Dragonmeet playtest. One of the big things I can do is to start sharing material again. After the Dragonmeet game I took my drafts down, partially because I expected to quickly replace them with updates but also becuase my excitement had turned to disappointment in seemingly jumping the gun.

So this time, material up piecemeal and as it develops, starting with the current character sheets and the system cheat sheet. All subject to change but also all out there for feedback and comments.

UK Games Expo 2019 – Links roundup

Having attended this years UK Games Expo for only a single day (see my report on it here) I ‘ve been reading over convention reports from other people to obtain a wider appreciation of the event. As I imagine others might be in the same position I wanted to share some links for everybody to enjoy.

The below selection focuses almost exclusively on blog posts and is neither an exhaustive roundup nor endorsement of the listed blogs in general. If you have a post that you would like included just leave a message in the comments, if I get enough I’ll put together an additional post to highlight them.

Attendees

Another Day in Paradise by the TableTop Games Blog
Expos and Pirates and Castles, Oh My! by First Take Some Dice
Hope’s Last Stand – UK Games Expo Preview of Alien: The Roleplaying Game by AvP Galaxy
UK Games Expo 2019: Games…  Lots of games by Geek Pride
1D6 UK Games Expo ’19 Exposed by The Grognard Files with a followup photo scrapbook
UKGE 2019 Roundup by Big Red Barrel
The Game Shelf @ The UK Games Expo 2019 Day 1 and Day 2
A full series of posts from The Giant Brain individually covering Day 0, Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3
UK Games Expo 2019 by The Crooked Staff
UK Games Expo 2019 by What Luke Did Next…and What Lottie Loves
UK Games Expo 2019 report by In 2 The Review
UK Games Expo in Pictures by The Real Jobby
Event Report: UKGE 2019 by Story Makers Games

Stall holders / publishers

Thoughts from UK Games Expo 2019 by Owen Duffy, publisher of The Board Game Book.
Fun and Book Signing on the Author Stand at the UK Games Expo 2019 by SC Skillman
UK Games Expo Report by Scott Gaeta of Renegade Game Studios
UKGE Recap! by Goodman Games (New! Added post-publication on the 7th June)

Some top games lists

Our Games of UK Games Expo 2019 by Coaching for Geeks
Top 10 Games UK Games Expo 2019 by Creaking Shelves
Top 5 Games of the UK Games Expo 2019 by Geek Pride

And last but not least, a seminar recording

How to GM – Live From UK Games Expo 2019 by What would the smart party do?

UK Games Expo 2019 – Thoughts from a one day visit

After many years of not quite making it 2019 was the year that I finally attended UK Games Expo, the largest gaming convention here in the UK. Having made the decision at the last minute I attended for only the Saturday, with a focus on surveying the trade halls and demoing games.

The scale of that task was quickly apparent, my casual stroll to get my bearings and see what was on offer took over an hour and a half! Rather than ramble on I thought I’d do a quick hots and nots but first my haul:

A rather modest one given everything that was on offer. A physical copy of The Cthulhu Hack is something that I have been wanting to pick up since acquiring the PDFs while the dry erase character sheets are a perfect idea for quick games or the innevitable character death. Villagers was a game I’d never heard of before but was able to demo and I knew pretty quickly I wanted to pick it up. We’ve played a few games since I got it home and while it is a little complicated to explain it plays quickly is a lot of fun once you know what you are doing. Finally the Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition Starter Set. As a big fan of the 4th Edition this new, wildly different take on the samurai staple has been on my radar ever since the beta test. While I’ve not had a chance to fully read over it my intial impressions are decidedly mixed, expect a full post soon once I’ve had a chance to do a thorough read through.

Hots

So many games. To say the expo is big is an understatement, it’s massive and it was great to see the games hobby in such a vibrant state. There was a healthy mix of big and small publishers, independents and even component manufacturers present. While RPGs comprised only a small portion of this all of the stalls were doing a healthy trade and I heard a few publishers say that they’d quickly sold out of some lines.

Catching up with people. Like much of the community I find that most of my gaming interactions these days are online rather than in person so Expo offered a rare chance to catch up with people and put some faces to the various people that I have met through twitter, podcasts and other communities. There were some that I didn’t get a chance to see, hopefully next year I’ll be around for longer and able to arrange for a post game pint somewhere.

Games On Demand. Having only decided to attend at the last minute and wanting to focus on the trade hall I made the decision to pop down to Games on Demand for a quick two hour game. I should have spent more time there, as in retrospect, I enjoy the actual gaming experience far more than I do looking at games. The GMs were great, running a complete game in a 2 hour time slot is not easy and each of them appeared to have multiple systems on offer! The ultimate credit though must go to the organiser Lloyd for putting it together and running one of the most organised spaces I’ve seen at a convention.

Food options. Expecting limited options and long queues I’d brought food with me but realistically I needn’t have worried as the NEC had numerous vendors and there was even a collection of food trucks setup outside the Hilton.

Nots

Lack of water fountains. With thousands of people crammed into what is essentially a giant warehouse it was always going to be hot, compounded by the fact that outside it was a hot day building towards thunderstorm weather. That combination made the atmosphere inside rather oppressive, with little airflow and more than once I found myself having to step outside to get some fresh air. While those factors are out of the control of Expo something that they could have done with was more water fountains. As I was carrying a water bottle I was keeping an eye out for them but only found one during the course of the day (I suspect there were more, but if there were they weren’t obvious). Given the conditions and number of visitors I was both surprised and disappointed by that.

Me. If I’m honest I wasn’t 100% in the right headspace for the Expo. I was tired and found myself a little overwhelmed by the crowds. That led to me not engaging with stalls as much as I wanted to (something I find difficult at the best of times) and avoiding a few particularly busy demo areas because I couldn’t really face waiting around in a crowded area until a space became available.

#AprilTTRPGmaker Roundup

I’m quite fond of attempting the daily post challenges that pop up on Twitter, they provide a quick way to engage with the RPG industry outside of my own little corner of it and more often than not get me thinking about aspects of it that I may not have spent as long on as I should. The April TTRPG maker challenge has been no exception, particularly with its inclusion of questions that have asked me to think about the status quo and my place within it. Below, my daily answers, which turned out to be far longer than I had originally expected. Thanks go to @kiranansi for putting it together – check their profile for more of their work including More Seats at the Table, an email newsletter designed to highlight games by creators from marganalised communities.

aprilTTRPGmaker

1) I’m Craig – geek, gamer, geneticist based in Liverpool, UK and I publish under the umbrella of LunarShadow Designs

2) My published material so far has been adventure starters for @DG_DemonHunters Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG. Later in the year will also see releases of adventures for @Upto4Players Crystal Heart and @TheSprawl_RPG (in collaboration with @HyveMynd)

3) Commuting. Most of my time to and from work is spent thinking about RPGs or jotting down ideas (notebook/one note). My old London commute was even long enough to do bursts of writing or layout.

4) Not entirely sure, I like variety. I guess the closest answer I have is ones with clear conclusions. I much prefer a single clear and central arc for a campaign and would rather a fixed duration than open ended games. Is that a scenario though? I don’t know.

5) At the table – Characters. While I enjoy worldbuilding in my experience it rarely gets seen. It’s a valuable prep aid for GMs but ultimately the characters have greater impact based on their choices at the table.

6) While there are games where I’d happily spend the evening reading then just for the enjoyment I get out of their world building (L5R, Corporation, Demon Hunters) for actually running games I am slowly shifting towards shorter texts. It helps that these days my system preferences tend towards games that avoid pages of virtually identical weapons or hundreds of creatures each with a full page of stats etc

7) The first of probably many difficult questions. In terms of cost I can see the arguments for lower entry price points but many professionals seem to struggle to make a living and actually, I think RPGs are often incredible value for money per hour of play. Regards disabilities first and foremost speak to those who are affected. One relatively easy thing I think we can do is release plain text files alongside regular PDFs. Fancy layout and backgrounds look nice but aren’t accessible for a lot of people.

8) I’ve only had the pleasure of working with a small number of people, all of whom are amazing. @emzyesque on my @DG_DemonHunters material, @HyveMynd with our missions for @TheSprawl_RPG and @Upto4Players who offered me my first commissioned writing credit. There are plenty of others I would love to work with in the future but before I get to that point I need to clear the backlog of my own personal projects.

9) They largely follow a traditional asymmetric setup with a GM taking on a lot of the perceived ‘power’ of defining elements. Overall I don’t have any issues with that so long as everybody, GM included, understands and respects the different roles.

That said with Project Cassandra one of the things I have tried to do is shift some of the ‘power’ to the players (which I’m defining here as anybody who isn’t the GM) in a way that explicitly fits with the setup – individuals with psychic powers. The PCs all possess precognitive abilities so it makes thematic sense for them to occasionally control & define significant narrative details. The rest of the time it is out of their control, thematically in line with the emergence of the conspiracy.

This isn’t to say that every game should be that way. I want to experiment more with shared narrative control and mechanisms where the ‘power’ at the table shifts during play. But that’s in the future, once I’ve finished my existing projects.

10) This is one of the questions where I am going to hold my hand up and say I don’t know if they do and that I need to do more work to learn about the issues, especially the subtler aspects that are ingrained into large parts of Western culture.

11) I’m going to cheat and shoutout to @GauntletRPG and @MoreSeatsRPG who both work towards promoting creators that have historically been (and often still are) marginalised within the community. I could highlight one person, they regularly highlight dozens.

12) I’ve got multiple answers to this based on the angle that I look at from. First and foremost – listen and learn when people tell you that something is a problem or preventing/restricting their inclusion. Secondly support and promote. This is something I can do better on, I try and back interesting games where I can but monetarily there is a limit to what I can spend. Spreading the word about them? That’s free and is something I need to do more.

As a creator I have a few approaches that I use. I try and keep my text non-gendered unless I am specifically talking about somebody whose gender has been defined. When creating characters I define stats and then randomly assign aspects such as gender/race. Then I go back and check if there is a significant imbalance – do I have a broad mix. I’m a straight, cis, white guy, it would be mentally easy to fall back on cultural defaults. Having a process prevents that and also works to redefine those mental defaults.

13) Not at present and I have no plans to do so any time soon.

14) This is another difficult one to answer. As a creator in a position of privilege, I could not tell these stories without appropriating them. That’s not for me to do, so largely I again fall back on trying to support and promoting those that do. The big thing I can do though is to try and not reinforce the issues that intersectionality deals with. I actively try and diversify characters and concepts, to go against negative stereotypes or expectations.

15) In general I aim to avoid negative ones but they’re not something I think I have actively gone out of my way to subvert.

16) Shape may be a better word here but I do most of my design thinking in bursts during my commute, so I tend a lot towards short notes, scribbled down or stuck into OneNote. That’s reflected in my material – short adventure starters rather than long texts

17) Again, I don’t have a good answer for this because, for the most part, I’ve been in a position of privilege where I haven’t had to consciously define my identity.

18) Loosely that good needs to triumph over evil/darkness but that’s very much because the adventures and games I’ve made to date tend to follow very typical storytelling conventions. There’s a situation, heroes vanquish it, the day is saved. I want to branch out more in the future. The missions I’m putting together for The Sprawl are a start because they’re ambiguous. Teams may be in conflict with monolithic amoral Corps but they’re rarely heroes, they’re professionals seeking a profit.

19) More catch up after the long weekend and once again a bit of a non-answer in that I don’t know if I have any. I’m still at that point as a creator where I’m figuring out what I enjoy exploring the most.

20) I’ve still no idea if anybody that has downloaded TowerFall, the expanded version of my @200WordRPG entry has actually played it or wants to.

21) Time management, procrastination, dedicating my spare time to just sitting and writing when I have so many other that I could be doing. You know, the usual.

22) Broadly I’m trying to listen and being open to other ideas/perspectives. I’m getting better at trying to boost other voices but still trying to find the balance between supporting and constantly spamming RTs (which I personally dislike when others do)

23) Nothing formal or direct but I feel like indirectly all the podcasts I listen to have been a massive help in driving me to reflect on my gaming and GMing.

24) Scenes. A lot of my adventures originate with a single scene. There’s the saying that ‘everybody has a book in them’ but honestly I don’t think I do. I love setting up scenes and seeing how they play out but I’m terrible at linking everything together. It’s why I write what I call adventure starters/outlines. They’re literally that, the frameworks to set up an adventure with the outlines just having more detail than the starters. How they link up? That’s down to the players & GM. Channel Surfing, my first Demon Hunters adventure outline started off with what if questions for 2 scenes – “What if the zombies started dancing to thriller mid fight” and “What if the PCs met Count von Count as he struggled with his darker self?”

25) Again, bit of a non-answer as I’ve primarily been a solo creator. There are plenty of amazing people on #rpg twitter doing a lot to discuss diversity and inclusivity and companies are starting to actively include consultants. Without having worked with any though I can’t really say who is rad or not. It’s something I’d like to change in the future but that requires the funds to do so, which I don’t have at present.

26) An easy one for once – @happyjacksrpg

27) Mostly Twitter and a couple of specific discords but it’s not something I have put a lot of effort in to date. Until I start regularly releasing material it is difficult to consistently market it.

28) My most valuable tool – my notebook. Seriously, as much as I use onenote for writing up first drafts across various devices I’d be lost without a physical notebook. I scribble down ideas, stats, concepts etc with lots of interlinking and colour coding.

29) It’s difficult to tell whether it is a new trend or down to me widening my awareness but small form games, especially in the zine format seem to be on the up. Licensed settings also seem to be on the up, primarily in the traditional games sphere.

30) If I could change one thing about the industry serious answer – Clear out the bad actors that keep bringing it down. Historically and currently there are too many within it (and in society in general). Lighthearted answer – Reduce the dominance of #DnD, there are so many other games out there and while I understand why D&D is so big I want all those new players to experience and enjoy the diverse range of games that are out there.

My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.

Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.