Con Report: Tabletop Gaming Live 2022

The last couple of years have, understandably, been hard on the convention scene. While many shifted to an online format that continued to bring people together for seminars and virtual games the trader hall proved nearly impossible to replicate. People tried but ultimately a discord channel will never be able to replace browsing a row of stalls.

With face-to-face events returning here in the UK last weekend I attended Tabletop Gaming Live for the first time. Organised by Tabletop Gaming Magazine it had moved from its previous home in the Alexandra Palace in London to the Victoria Warehouse in Manchester.

So how was it?

Well to answer that question I need to go over a rather long list of caveats, which should immediately give you an idea of where this might be going.

Caveat 1: A dead monarch. The event took place only days before the burial of the Queen, which will have definitely affected attendance.

Caveat 2: Train strikes. I went on Saturday but until the death of the Queen that wouldn’t have been possible as there were meant to be train strikes that day. While I lived close enough that I could rearrange my plans for many it wouldn’t have been an option at short notice.

Caveat 3: New venue. This was the first year that the event had taken place in Manchester and it always takes a while to settle in. I suspect many Londoners will have chosen against attending because it was no longer local and Londoners are loathe to travel outside the M25. I know that’s a massive generalisation but I worked in London long enough to know that it’s also true.

Caveat 4: Pandemic recovery. It’s still ongoing and will have put some people off, especially if they would have had to use public transport to attend.

Caveat 5: Me. I attended the event on my own and what I’ve noticed over the years is that as a lone attendee it’s harder to get attention from demo teams. I get it – most board games need at least two people to do a proper demo but even a quick rundown of the game is appreciated.

So, back to that question of how was it. Honestly? A little underwhelming.

Now before I dive into why I want to focus on the positives. First, the traders – there was a really good selection, spanning small indies to a few (but far from all) of the larger players in the board gaming world. With the size of the event, indie traders were able to shine and get the attention they deserve, rather than being hidden away at the back like can happen at Expo. There were also a pleasant number of stalls selling RPGs, some for the first time and others more established, though again with the focus on indie publishers rather than the big names that can dominate the attention at Expo or Dragonmeet.

In terms of purchases, I was trying to keep to a fairly strict budget. On the RPG front, I picked up Bucket of Bolts from Sealed Library, Regicide from Loot the Room and Kaiju Caltrops from Button Kin Games. Expect to hear more about those in the newsletter. I supplemented those games with a Sci-Fi character concept deck from Artemis Games (which will be very useful for the development of the Dyson Eclipse setting) and a single board game, Trails (part of the Parks series of games). For a smallish event that’s not a bad haul and I could have easily spent more (I did register my interest in a few upcoming Kickstarters after demoing the games).

With all that said why did I call the convention underwhelming? First off it was a lot quieter than I expected, which wasn’t helped by security performing pointless bag checks on the way in. I queued for 45 minutes only for them to check the main compartment, ask me to open my dice bag but then ignore all of the side pockets on my bag. Not a great start. There was a flow of people but the convention never felt busy or alive in the way that you really want, see the photo below which was about as busy as it got. 

It’s a tricky balance for any convention and partially this may be down to my own expectations – the event is organised by Tabletop Gaming Magazine and the promotion for it gives the impression that it will be a big event. Not Expo-sized but definitely a major convention for the UK. It felt like they were aiming too high, too soon rather than growing the event over time which may partially explain the shift out of London this year after reportedly disappointing number pre-covid.

Tied to this was the price – £16 for a day ticket, which is only £2 less than Expo (which is an order of magnitude bigger) charge for a day ticket.

Finally, there was just a lack of things to do. With it being quiet I managed to demo the games I was interested in relatively quickly and then… well that was that. I went round the entirety of the trade hall five or six times and had a good chat with a number of traders. There were only a couple of seminars and no tournaments or clear organised drop-in game spaces unless I somehow missed them. Tables had been set aside for open gaming which is always a plus but as I mentioned in the caveats I was attending alone and those spaces are more suited to groups wanting to play the games they’ve just bought. It made me realise how much I appreciate Games on Demand, where you show up at a set time and there is someone that will try to find you a game to play. I’ve only really done it for RPGs but there’s no reason it couldn’t be run for board games as well.

In the end, while I’d planned on a full day I left earlier than I’d intended and headed for home, glad I’d only bought a one-day ticket. Would I go again next year? I’m not sure. If I could go, play a 2-4 hour RPG and then browse the trade hall I definitely would but I don’t know if the current venue has the space for loads of RPG tables (or organised play board games). Without it, I think I would need a group to go with, one where we could meet up at a set time and settle in to play what we’d bought. It’s a shame as I think having this sort of event outside of London is important for the convention scene and Manchester is a great city to hold it in. I also think the convention has a lot of potential, it just needs to find its feet and be given time to grow.

I’ll wait and see what the future holds but come next year it will be an “if I feel like it” rather than a “must attend” event.

Signal to Noise retrospective 2: Post fulfilment

Back in March, I did an initial retrospective on my ZiMo campaign for Signal to Noise but now that I’ve completed the fulfilment of the game I wanted to revisit those thoughts and look at my options for the future. I’m also going to pull together final spending for a subsequent post as I like to be open about these sorts of things.

First up, the game – which is a delight to hold and looks beautiful thanks to Val’s fantastic art. It was such a pleasure to work with her and I hope I can do so again in the future. I can highly recommend commissioning her if you’re looking for detailed and realistic art.

Seriously, look at that art! If you somehow missed out on buying Signal to Noise before now then it’s available in digital from itch and drivethruRPG while physical copies are available via Etsy (with distribution via Peregrine Coast and IPR coming very soon).

Fulfilment itself was, I’m happy to say, a relatively straightforward process. That came down to a few factors – Mixam printing everything correctly the first time, the scale of the project (<50 shipments), most packages being a single zine and having help filling envelopes while I focused on the postage. At the moment I know the game has reached backers in the UK, US and even Australia but thanks to good old Brexit copies heading to the EU may still be in customs limbo.

So now that I have two successful campaigns under my belt how do I feel? Pretty good. I have no doubts that I’ll run another campaign next year and I’ve already started initial planning in terms of what to focus on. Starting planning six months out from Zine Quest might look a little premature but I need to ensure that I have a solid concept in place so I can advertise it at Dragonmeet (where I will be running a stall for the very first time).

The big question that hangs over any future crowdfunding I do is what platform I will use. I genuinely think that Game on Tabletop offers a robust ecosystem and the level of support I received from their team was outstanding. As you might suspect though there is a but hanging on to the end of that statement, in the form of “but I am certain Signal to Noise would have done far better on Kickstarter.”

And that is a frustrating situation to be in. I switched to Game on Tabletop because of Kickstarter screwing with Zine Quest and proposing that they enter the tech bro crypto market. While the community did try and support those of us that moved off of the platform many people stuck to Kickstarter and had wildly successful campaigns. I could say that I’m not into game design to make money (which is true) but on the other hand, making money allows me to make better games. I can’t afford to hire an editor or artist for games that don’t sell or fail to gather any attention, which is sadly true of much of my work.

On the selfish level, I also want people to play my games. It’s a fantastic feeling when someone says they’ve played something you wrote and that’s not going to happen if I only run campaigns that barely garner any attention. Signal to Noise is, I believe, a special game and I think it would have done significantly better on Kickstarter just by being tied into the ecosystem. Just comparing these two campaigns Project Cassandra was backed by 175 people, 107 more than Signal to Noise and every single one of them will receive an email if I launch a new campaign. Even if most of them ignore that email it’s such a big and effort-free marketing boost that I would be foolish to ignore it. That was true going into the Signal to Noise campaign but I had hoped the anti-Kickstarter feelings at the time would compensate for it and the truth is it didn’t. Or at least not as much as I’d have liked. I’ve always been upfront about the fact that Project Cassandra only did as well as it did because of the Zine Quest force multiplier effect and much of that is, frustratingly, baked into the Kickstarter site.

All of the above is really avoiding the big question – what am I going to do going forward? Honestly, probably go back to Kickstarter. I would like to pretend otherwise but the disparity in terms of the English-speaking market share between them and Game on Tabletop is so significant that I would be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t. It sucks but as a tiny fish in the big pond of crowdfunding I just don’t have the influence to pull backers to a new platform when I’m struggling to even build an audience. I wish I was ending this post on a more upbeat note but, well I’m not, because like it or not Kickstarter remains the site to beat.

Quick Review: Umbra

What is it? A solo mapping game that sees you create a new colony on a remote planet. Building the colony one room at a time you will explore the strange new world and survive relentless attacks as you attempt to unearth the fabled Reapers Gambit.

Who is it by? Anna Blackwell, a Glasgow based designer and author of hit games such as Delve and Apothecaria.

Why should you play it? Umbra, like the fantasy orientated Delve before it, builds on the Dwarf Fortress base building approach to gameplay. While there is no inherent narrative you can’t help but wonder about the lives of your colonists and their (hopefully) growing settlement. You could easily play it without even pausing to consider the story that emerges naturally during play but that, I think, would be missing the point.

The game has a deceptive complexity, driven by the growing size of your colony, and it’s all too easy to get drawn into the lives of your colonists before chaos breaks loose and your careful plans for exploration come crashing down around you. As I progress forwards with the Dyson Eclipse I plan to use the game (and its Stations expansion in particular) to develop some of the Arrays and the lives of the inhabitants as humanity spreads across Tau Ceti and begins to uncover its secrets.

Where can you get it? Umbra is available directly from Anna’s store in print and PDF. It’s also available in digital format from itch.io.

Rambling: Thoughts on crowdfunding and putting together your first campaign

Like it or not crowdfunding is now a central component of producing an RPG, especially if you are aiming to produce a physical product. When Matthew from the Effekt Podcast interviewed me at the start of 2022 to promote Signal to Noise we talked about sitting down after the game was out to discuss what goes into running a small crowdfunding campaign. While the game isn’t out just yet Kickstarter has decided to push on with an August Zine Quest so I thought it would be worth discussing some of those details now here on my blog.

You might be wondering why you should be listening to the advice of someone that has only run two small campaigns that raised less than £3k. To that, I would say because I’ve only run two relatively small campaigns. The vast majority of RPG crowdfunding is at the smaller end of the scale and unless you have an established presence or a lot of luck that is probably what you should be aiming at as a first-time crowdfunder. So my experience at the smallest end of the scale is reflective of the challenges new designers are likely to face.

So what do you need to think about going into your campaign? Obviously, there’s the game itself but I’m going to leave that to you and focus on logistics. The most important aspect to me is the budget, which I break down into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic. You should, ideally, be thinking about this well ahead of launch to ensure you have everything covered and that running your campaign won’t cost you in the long run. There are plenty of horror stories out there of disappearing products or people having to shell out from their personal finances because they failed to create a proper budget.

As I said I break my budget into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic – so lets take a closer look at each of them.

Fixed Costs

Your fixed costs are exactly that – one-off payments that will not change regardless of the success of your campaign. If an artist quotes you a price of £200 then that cost is fixed, regardless of whether you sell 10 or 1000 copies of the game. The majority of your fixed costs will usually be associated with contractors such as artists and writers but licences for software, fonts or stock art can also fall into this category. When it comes to hiring people get quotes early and make sure to pay them fairly. The standard rate across the industry for writing is often quoted as 5 cents but that is too low and we should be aiming significantly higher. Try to aim for 10 cents per word as a minimum and work from there. The cost of editing, another essential component, will vary more depending on whether it is copy-editing or proofing. Art is even harder to price as individual pieces may range from small embellishments at the corner of the page to complex full-page pieces so reach out to artists early, discuss rates and make sure to mention that you want to use it commercially as this will increase the price further. Then put it all in writing, make plans for when and how you will pay for the work and be prompt with payment.

You might be thinking but I can’t raise that much or how do I make any money off of this. If you’re thinking your campaign won’t raise that much then you need to scale back your plans (but well done on being realistic on how much you can raise). Look at your budget and scale it back. Do you really need 10 full-page spreads or could you use stock art and include stretch goals to upgrade each piece? Could you do any of the work yourself?

For Project Cassandra, I relied almost exclusively on stock art. My total spend on art? Less than $50 if you exclude the time I then spent tweaking it in photoshop. My art budget for Signal to Noise on the other hand was closer to £500 and was the single largest cost of the campaign. My original budget was for only a single piece but I designed the campaign (and budget!) in such a way that as we pushed past certain goals I would be able to afford additional pieces, a fact I’d already discussed with the artist.

Which brings us to the question of how do I make any money for myself? The short answer is you probably don’t, at least not nearly the amount you deserve relative to the amount of work that goes into producing a game. A small 5,000-word game has a writing cost alone of $500 if we use the 10 cents per word we’ve established as a minimal fair rate. That’s before we consider all of the other work you will have put into the game, from design and testing to promotion and running the campaign. A realistic budget that pays you fairly for the amount of time you have put in will come into the thousands. Some campaigns will raise that but you need to be realistic with what you think you can raise and be prepared to fail if you include those costs upfront.

Dynamic Costs

Simply put these are the costs that increase as you get more backers. The three main areas you will need to be aware of are production, shipping and fees.

Production is the cost of producing each copy of your game – most of the time this means printing by your chosen supplier. As with contractors you need to get quotes early and then add a margin. Paper costs have risen sharply due to the pandemic and continue to do so. So if you think each copy will cost you £1 to print then budget for £1.50 or even higher. This gives you a buffer if costs rise, the game ends up being larger than expected or you decide to switch from black and white to full colour. If it doesn’t then hey, it can go towards other costs.

Shipping – This is the cost of getting copies into the hands of your backers and just like printing costs postage rates have shot up, especially if you’re in the US. It’s fairly standard to charge for postage after the campaign but you should get an initial estimate early if only so you can let the backers know what to expect. You also need to think about how you are going to handle import fees such as VAT if you are shipping into the EU – for a small creator the reality is either finding a shipping partner or leaving backers to pay those fees when the product ships.

Talking of fees don’t forget to include them in your budget. Regardless of which site you run your campaign on each pledge will incur fees, so if a backer pledges £10 you might only receive £8. Sites such as Kickstarter typically take around a 5% cut of every pledge while payment processing will take another 3-5% so expect to lose around 10% of your total straight out of the door. After shipping, this is a common reason for campaigns costing their creators money.

Finally, we add a contingency, which I like to set at 10%. This is there as a just in case, if it’s not needed that’s great but if it is it can be the difference between a project making or losing money overall.

Stress testing the budget

So now that you’ve got all of those numbers what do you do with them?

Maths. Sorry, but it’s time to break out excel. You need to put all those numbers into a spreadsheet and work out a goal for your campaign that, at a minimum, ensures you break even. This is also the point at which you must start thinking about what each pledge tier will offer. Why? Because different products have different dynamic costs. PDFs might be as low as nothing while a physical tier will need to cover printing and shipping.

When running these calculations I start with the total fixed costs as my initial goal and use the cost of the print tier to work out how many backers I would need to reach that target. I then calculate whether that would break even once I add the dynamic costs for that number of backers. Then I incrementally increase the goal and rerun the numbers, repeating the process until I break even. Then I add a buffer, just in case. So lets break that down into an example. Say my fixed costs total £500, my print pledge tier costs £10 and my dynamic costs for that tier are £2 per backer. If I set my initial goal to £500 I will need 50 backers at that level to reach the goal. However, the dynamic costs for those backers come to a total of £100 so my final expenditure is £500 fixed plus £100 dynamic for a total of £600. I’ll therefore lose £100 if I hit that goal but don’t exceed it.

Incrementing the goal I find that to break even I need to set the goal to £630. This requires 63 backers to reach, and their total dynamic costs are £126. Added to my fixed cost of £500 I’d make a profit of £4. After finding that break-even point for my print tier I then check my numbers with other rewards. If a third of my backers choose the print tier and the rest go for PDF only (which will have a much lower dynamic cost per pledge) will I still break even? What if it’s 50/50? If all of those tests return a profit then I’ve found the minimum viable goal for the campaign.

So that’s the budget. Much of it may seem obvious but I’ve spent a lot of time on it because it’s important and because so many creators still seem to trip up at this point. Even big names in the hobby can screw up – just look at the mess that was the 7th Sea 2nd edition Kickstarter.

Before I move on to what else you need to consider I want to come back to paying yourself. This is an issue that gets a lot of discussion. Creating games, for many of us, is a hobby but we also need to ensure that people are paid fairly when they want to make money off of them. There are two things to consider here. The first is not to undersell your work, something I have been guilty of in the past and which is depressingly endemic across the hobby. For my campaigns, I have priced PDFs at £5 and print copies at £10 plus shipping, which I think is the bare minimum you should aim for when producing a zine-sized game. Many creators are starting to raise their prices but it’s a difficult market and the vast majority of small press games will never earn enough to pay their creator fairly. You need to be aware of that going in.

The second factor to consider is the time and effort you have already put into the game. If you have already written 5,000 words then you could be tempted to add £500 to the goal to pay yourself for that work. I would argue against doing that though. Why? Because it’s a sunk cost – you have already done the work regardless of whether the campaign succeeds or not. If you end up being able to pay yourself back £200 then you’re £300 in the red but if you had set the goal £500 higher you’d still be £500 in the red.

I’m aware that this approach requires a level of time, money and privilege that not everyone can afford – if you’re not in a position to afford those upfront costs then add them into your budget but make sure to avoid the temptation to spend on the campaign before it succeeds. For Signal to Noise I was fortunate that I could afford the time to have a complete version of the game before the campaign launched. I then set the initial campaign goal so that it would cover printing and a small amount of art. Stretch goals paid for additional art, maximising the chance of success. Have I paid myself for the work I put in? No, but it hasn’t personally cost me money either, only time and that is something I can afford. Any future sales of the game will slowly pay me back but I doubt it will ever earn me what could be considered a fair wage for the work that went into it.

Creating your campaign page

Right, enough about the budget. What about the campaign itself. My biggest piece of advice here is once again to plan ahead as much as possible, starting with which platform to use. As much as I hate to admit it Kickstarter still rules the crowdfunding space and projects there have a much higher chance of success than if you use one of the alternatives such as Game on Tabletop or Game Found. That may change over time but right now it’s an important factor to take into account. You also need to decide whether you have enough of an audience to go it alone or whether you should join an event such as Zine Quest. If you’re a new creator I would highly recommend this.

Why?

Because they are force multipliers that will bring more eyes to your project, especially if you put in the effort to be active in the community. I’m under no illusion about the fact that my own projects would have struggled or even failed if not for the fact that other creators drove cross-promotion from their own projects. It’s tempting to consider running a project outside of those events but for that, you’ll need to seriously consider your reach and whether you will succeed because building an audience is hard. You cannot just launch a Kickstarter and expect it to gain backers without spending time and effort on promotion. There’s a lot that goes into building an audience but the biggest piece of advice I can offer (which I regularly fail at myself) is to be active. You need to be part of the community, talking about your game but also engaging with others on a regular basis. It’s easy to spot someone that is only interested in talking about their own work and that tends to put people off. A podcast interview or actual play is a fantastic way to bring attention to your project (Thanks again Matthew and Dave from Effekt and Marx from Yes Indie’d!) but as with everything else give yourself time. Most podcasts will schedule interviews a month or more in advance so launching your campaign and then reaching out to people at the last moment is a big no.

Going back to the campaign page itself once you’ve decided on the site and launch window give yourself the time to put your campaign page together and make changes. Many of the sites have rather unintuitive campaign creation tools that can take a while to get used to so don’t expect to be able to throw together a perfect page in a weekend. You need time to work out how to create a page, write and edit the text, to create banners and promo images. At the same time check what the process is to get your campaign approved – it may take a week or two and I’ve heard of more than one project launching late because the creator assumed the process would be relatively quick. For Project Cassandra, I started this process in November ahead of a February launch. I know many fellow Zine Questers that only started mid-January but I wanted to avoid going into the campaign already stressed by creating the page at the last minute. For Signal to Noise I gave myself a month but as the game had already been released on itch I was able to reuse text and art assets, significantly cutting down the amount of work required.

Ultimately what you include on your page is up to you but you need to showcase your work in a clear and concise manner. The text of the campaign is arguably the most important section – it needs to hook the backers and tell them what the game is about. But that’s not enough. The best pages will also use graphics and preview material to support the text. Graphical section headers can help break up the text while art and layout previews give the backers an idea of what to expect from the final product. This upsell is why so many creators invest in the sunk cost that I mentioned earlier – a rules preview or example artwork grabs the attention of supporters in a way that plain text never will.

If you’re unsure of what to include on your page the best idea is to look at successful projects by both small and large creators (These are the links to the Project Cassandra and Signal to Noise pages). What did they write, how did they order the page, did they include any preview material etc. Section banners are an easy and effective way to improve the visual design of your campaign page. You can quickly and easily create eye-catching banners using a combination of stock art and photoshop (or one of the many cheap/free alternatives). My ability to draw is pretty close to zero but over the years I’ve learned the basics of image manipulation and can produce effective banners for my own campaigns that cost me nothing but time. Art previews are another great way to sell your game on the campaign page so if you’ve been able to commission material in advance of the campaign make sure to highlight it. A lot of the time that won’t be possible for the simple reason that the aim of the campaign is to raise funds for art (amongst other things). In that case, ask your artist if they have any existing portfolio pieces that you can share. It lets you show off their abilities and costs absolutely nothing.

Alongside the main page, you will obviously need to set up your reward tiers, which you should have already decided on when creating your budget. For your first campaign, keep these as simple as possible – PDF, Print+PDF and maybe one or two special high-value tiers such as an annotated print copy or private game session. It’s tempting to offer extras such as custom dice or limited edition art prints but these come with a lot of risks due to the added complexity of budgeting for them. That goes double if you were thinking of including them as stretch goals – it’s all too easy to promise extras that you can’t afford in the long run – just look at the disaster that was the 7th Sea 2nd Edition Kickstarter if you want an example of a campaign by a big name in the industry that promised too much and failed to budget properly.

So that’s my rambling thoughts on what you should be thinking about in advance of running a campaign. It’s by no means comprehensive despite its length and there are so many caveats that you shouldn’t take any of it as gospel. I just want people to be aware of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into just setting up a campaign and of the many things you should be thinking about when you do.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about what happens after your campaign has been funded and all the wonderful pitfalls such as customs forms and printing errors that you might run into.

Review: Flare Audio Calmer earbuds

Looking back it’s quite easy to see how poorly I have dealt with auditory processing throughout my life, whether it be my tendancy to hyperfocus on particular sources or general dislike of crowds. At one extreme there are times where if I’m focused on the audio from a TV I won’t process the words of someone else in the room. My brain will hear the noise but it just registers as background, not a voice or words I need to listen to.

Experiences like that mean I sometimes joke that I’m hard of listening as opposed to being hard of hearing.

At the other end of the extreme though comes overstimulation, times where my brain tries to process every voice in a crowd and is unable to push any into the background. It’s an exhausting, overwhelming and anxiety inducing experience that I can only really mitigate by getting out of the situation. It’s also entirely out of my control, sometimes a crowd of hundreds is fine while other times a dozen people in a relatively small space is too much.

What’s that got to do with gaming though?

Well most of the time RPGs involve people and conversations and with the return of in person conventions larger crowds, all speaking at once. After a particularly bad (but not gaming related) experience last year I decided to try out Flare Audio Calmer earbuds to see if they could help. Partially this was because of my plan to attend Dragonmeet and I wanted to have the additional option if needed. As it turned out I wore them the full day, only taking them out once I got to the confines of my hotel room.

What are they?

Flare Audio are one of a number of companies that offer soft silicone ear buds designed to filter out a portion of the audio landscape. The company claims that they remove distortion in the 2-8kHz range (middle to high frequencies) that can trigger the fight or flight response while leaving the wearer able to hear most sounds.

What are they like to wear?

Surprisingly comfortable, though they do require some getting used to. The silicone is soft and the buds easy to fit – if you are ok with standard in-ear earbuds then you should be fine with them. They’re available in three sizes, standard, mini and kids plus a range of colours while a pro version offers a more fine tuned filtering (though at twice the price). It took me a few days to get used to wearing them for more than a couple of hours but after that I got into the habit of just putting them in whenever I was out and about (though it’s worth noting on occasion I do find they get a little uncomfortable).

Do they work?

That’s the important question, to which the answer is yes, but. There’s always a but. They definitely take the edge off of noises, especially high frequency ones such as machinery or the screeching of train brakes (yay, commuting!). They also succeed in taking the edge off of voices, especially from background conversations. However, this is where that but comes in.

By filtering out some vocal frequencies there have been occasions where I’ve found them that little harder to follow. Not by much, but just a little, to the point that they may sound a little flat. It’s a trade off I’m generally willing to accept as voices tend to be the major source of troublesome noise for me the earbuds would be pointless if they didn’t filter them out.

So are they worth it?

For me, yes. If you struggle with auditory over stimulation then I would recommend giving them a try. There are a number of companies selling similar products and the basic models (such as the Flare Audio Calmer I use) only cost £20. That’s low enough that they’re worth just giving a try if you think they might help, just be aware that the effect might be subtler than you first expect. As they fit into the ear canal it’s also possible to stack them with over the ear headphones. This can not only help smooth out the audio range of whatever you’re listening to but also means they can be combined with active noise cancellation to enhance the effect.

Quick Review: Love & Barbed Wire

Who is it by? Alex White of Plane Sailing Games

What’s it about? World War 1 has engulfed Europe. As it takes its toll on those involved letters fly back and forth between the soldiers and their loved ones. Over the course of the game, relationships are built and broken while the soldier faces the constant threat of death on the front lines.

What system does it use? The game is built around a simple card draw mechanic focused on the individual suits. Should either player draw two spades the relationship dies, either through a breakup or the death of the soldier during one of the many pushes to gain the smallest of advantages over the enemy.

Why should you try it? While the mechanics of the game are lightweight the tone and impact are not. The Great War devastated Europe and games of Love & Barbed Wire have the potential to be heavy-hitting, emotional rollercoasters. Contained within the pages of the book is a wide range of detailed historical information, including examples of real letters sent to and from the front. This is as much an educational tool as it is a game and one that would be as suited for use in the classroom as it is on the shelves of gamers with an interest in the era.

Where can you get it? You can purchase Love & Barbed Wire in PDF and Print on Demand formats from drivethruRPG or in PDF from itch.io.

Quick Review: The Wretched

Who is it by? Chris Bisette of Loot the Room

What’s it about? Dying alone in space. Heavily inspired by Alien and similar horror movies The Wretched positions you as the lone survivor of an attack by an alien entity you have, temporarily, managed to blast into space. With the clock ticking can you survive long enough to repair your ship or be rescued before the alien once again gains access? Or will the Jenga tower tumble and send you to a doom you always knew was coming.

What system does it use? The core mechanic, available for general use via the Wretched & Alone SRD, combines narrative prompts with the tension of a Jenga tower. Pull a card, resolve the associated prompt and if directed make a pull from the tower. While some cards will aid you in your quest for survival the vast majority will push you closer to calamity, represented by either the collapse of the tower or pulling all four aces from the deck.

Why should you try it? Solo gaming has exploded over the past couple of years and The Wretched has been one of the core foundations of that explosion. Games such as Dread had already demonstrated the ability of block towers to impart tension into games so The Wretched, with its tale of doomed survival, was a natural next step. The Jenga tower builds a tremendous amount of tension and combined with the extremely tight writing works to put you in the mindset of the survivor. Subsequent games from other creators (such as my own in-development game: Rock Hoppers) have built on its foundations but for me this remains a go-to example of how to mesh genre and mechanics into a flawless whole.

Where can you get it? You can purchase the game in print directly from the Loot the Room store while PDF copies are available from both itch.io and drivethruRPG.

Quick Review: Sonja & Conan vs the Ninja’s

What is it? A storytelling game of action and adventure that flips the traditional one GM, many PCs to one PC, many GMs. The multiple GMs collaboratively build scenes and frame the actions of the antagonists but aren’t allowed to confer with one another, instead, they must rely on building on details others have already introduced.

Who is it by? Guillaume Jentey

What’s it about? The game is built to tell one-shot traditional sword and sorcery tales focused on a single protagonist who must battle alone against the forces of darkness and either save the day or meet a glorious death in battle. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in a loincloth swatting aside countless minions and you’ll know what I mean.

Where can you get it? It’s available in print on demand format from Lulu or digitally from itch.io. Those links are for the English language versions but it was originally published in French, which you can also find on itch and lulu.

Why should you try it? The collaborative narrative structure, with the ninjas (GMs) creating challenges without being able to discuss them in advance makes for a really interesting way to build an adventure. I also love that when it comes to narrative scenes or inglorious actions not befitting a barbarian the character must roll a d6 and can only use that many words to describe their speech or action. It keeps things terse and to the genre and I can easily see this becoming a go to pickup game for those nights when one or two of your players can’t make it.

Set phasers to boring: Starship combat and RPGs

During the most recent edition of the newsletter I ruminated on the issue of starship combat and why most systems fail. I’m currently preparing for a mini-campaign using the Tachyon Squadron system, one of the few which I think works but for this post, I want to take a deeper look at the most common approach to starship combat, which I’m going to call bridge combat.

The best example of bridge combat is on Star Trek. Each character has a specific and narrow role to play – Worf at tactical, Sulu at the helm or Janeway in the Captain’s chair. With the exception of those episodes when a character is forced to work at a different station for the sake of the narrative (such as Picard taking the helm), they have a single, clearly defined role.

In a TV show this makes sense but in a tabletop game it leads to boring combats. Why? Because each character is static.

Let’s take a hypothetical scene from TNG and break it down into the standard turns of an RPG. Worf, standing at tactical because Starfleet doesn’t believe in providing seatbelts, fires the phasers. Next turn he… fires the phasers. There may be some minor variation to the roll when he switches to photon torpedoes but ultimately his choice of actions are limited. This plays out for each and every character – they make the same type of roll turn after turn. In some situations they may not even be able to make a roll, for example if there isn’t a ship for Worf to shoot at.

And that’s boring.

Worf did not sign up for boring

It works for a TV show for a few reasons. The tension and dynamic nature of a scene is built into it as a whole and that’s where the audience’s attention is. It’s rarely focused solely on an individual character and all the time they spend standing around waiting.

The second reason is that it plays out in real-time – we don’t have to wait for Worf to remember which button to press or to pause as we calculate the damage. We can even have overlapping actions, with Worf taking his shot at the same time that Picard is giving orders or Geordi is falling in love with a hologram. That adds to the drama and the tension.

And all of that is absent from bridge combat in an RPG.

In a game, we focus on one character at a time and a second long action may take a number of minutes to resolve. The passage of time drags out so by the time it gets around to a player’s turn they want to be able to contribute and to have a choice in how they contribute.

To use a personal example a number of years ago I played in a high-level campaign of the Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader RPG from FFG. We had a group of six players and each of us had a specific role during bridge combat. As the Missionary, mine was to minimise the crew losses when the ship took damage. One action, rolling the same skill every turn of the combat… except on turns where we hadn’t taken damage and I did nothing. Because of how the system was designed that was almost the only way I could contribute to the combat. Many of the fights took multiple hours and I’d often leave a session having rolled only two or three times. Not the best of ways to maintain player engagement.

Yet mediocre (at best) bridge combat seems to be the default for sci-fi games and I don’t know why we’ve come to accept it as the norm. Tachyon Squadron gets around the issue by shifting the focus to starfighters and I’m going to do a deep dive of it once the upcoming campaign is underway.

But how to improve bridge combat?

Personally, I think the solution is to shift the focus back a little, away from individuals and onto the ship as a whole. A player should be able to take any action, regardless of which character it is technically associated with. Get round to the person playing the medic when the ship is on the tail of their target? Well, they might end up as the one to take the shot.

The trick though will be to design the system in a way that they are balancing resources/harm. Sure they could take the shot but should they be trying to repair the shields or perform first aid on the crew instead? They might be better at the first aid roll but is the shot a more urgent action? Are the shields at 20%, 10% or out entirely? It requires the sort of balancing act more often seen in board games than RPGs but I think it would make for more dynamic bridge combats that would keep players engaged. It’s certainly one I’ll be looking to explore when I get around to introducing bridge combat to the Dyson Eclipse.

Quick Review: Paris Gondo – The Life Saving Magic of Inventorying

What is it: A story game about getting to the end of your adventures and having to decide the age-old question: does the loot I have acquired spark joy?

Who is it by: Kalum of the Rolistes podcast (the game also has its own twitter account)

What’s it about? Paris Gondo tongue in cheek take on decluttering your life, inspired by Marie Kondo and her approach of asking ‘does this spark joy?’ During the course of the game, you will create adventurers and the loot that they have acquired during the course of battling the big bad. You’ll then have to ask yourself – does this loot spark joy, will it aid me in escaping the dungeon or is it merely an encumbrance I can live without?

By the end of the game, you’ll have made your decision, escaped the crumbling lair of your defeated foe and determined whether your adventurer lives a fulfilled, happy life or whether they chose poorly and are destined to forever question the choices they made.

Why should you try it? On it’s own Paris Gondo is a fun, light-hearted game that can easily fill a couple of hours. The rules are easy to learn and include a variety of both digital and physical play aids. Kalum has also been inspired by the Japanese TTRPG scene to include a ‘replay’ that walks the reader through an entire session of play!

While I’ve yet to use it this way the game would also be a fantastic add on to a regular campaign, providing a lighter session of play following the intensity of a big fight against a boss and their minions. Imagine getting back to your favourite watering hole to find that the bard has not only started the round without you but is waving the great axe you discarded and telling tales of how they used it to vanquish foes left and right, conveniently omitting your own contributions.

Where can you get it? Paris Gondo is available digitally from itch.io and drivethruRPG. Print copies are available direct from The Rolistes store (UK) and Ratti Incantati (US).